Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Art, Receptivity and Bold Face Names

 The April 24, 2022 issue of "T, The New York Times Stye Magazine," is supposed to be all about creativity, but much of it is little more than a list of Bold Face Names such as one might find in a high school newspaper. Various names one might know from one branch of the arts or another have either been persuaded or paid (I'm not sure which) to offer snippets, or as much as several paragraphs, of advice to young artists, most of whom are probably not readers of "T."

Much of the advice is, well, fairly pedestrian or predictable in nature. Glancing through it, one is tempted to conclude that a person is by nature inclined to the arts, or not. If you are, one way or another -- and it appears there are as many ways as there are artists -- persevere. 

In her introduction, "T's" chief editor, Hanya Yanagihara, made an interesting observation: "art demands a state of receptivity." While it isn't totally clear what she has in mind there -- it seems she's talking about receptivity on the part of the artist herself lest the creative process not work -- I think there is another way of looking at it.

It's a bit like the classic question: does a tree make any noise as it falls in a forest if no one is there to hear it? (I'm sure science would claim to be able to answer that one definitively, but that's not what I have in mind.)  Rather, the question is: if a person creates a work of art and there is no receptivity on the part of the public, is it really art?

All too often, it seems, money is a proxy for validation. If a book, or painting, sells, it's valid. If it doesn't, well perhaps that proves it's "worthless" not just as an article of commerce, but in terms of its aesthetic qualities as well.  Then, of course, there are the storied artists ignored or rejected in their lifetimes, only to be acclaimed after their deaths at which point others manage to reap the monetary rewards. 

"No one's opinion about you or your art should matter more than your own," intones Ms Yanagihara -- a little homily if ever there was one. In one reading, it could be viewed as profound (if commonplace) wisdom. On the other, it could be viewed as another way of believing "it's all about me" -- one of the curses of contemporary life.

Then Ms Yanagihara goes on to assert: "You have to finish at some point. The people who get published aren't necessarily the most brilliant writers. The ones who get published are the ones who complete their work." 

While some clearly recognizable form of completion suitable for an article of commerce is no doubt essential in that context, such isn't the case if commercial success isn't required.

In the case of aesthetics alone, a creative endeavor is finished when the intent of the artist has been realized  -- or if that word calls into question "just who is an artist? -- the intent of the creator. Hopefully the creator will then experience a sense of satisfaction whether "receptivity" rears its head or not.

"Art is created in front of the easel, but it's just as often made while gardening or waiting for the subway or sitting on a park bench," Ms Yanagihara said. If so, there is arguably no need for her issue of Bold Face Names, except, of course, as a vehicle for glossy, expensive ads for Canali suits and Rolex watches. Just the thing for young artists.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Thoughts about the Opera "Blue" You Won't Find Elsewhere

 The most poignant -- and disappointing -- moment for me when attending a recent performance of the contemporary opera "Blue" was near the end when the unnamed Mother gets up out of her seat in what is presumably a church and walks over to stand one last time at the coffin of her son.

"At last, an aria," I thought. This is the moment she is going to actually sing a song -- a musical tour de force through her thoughts and emotions -- highly memorable melodies requiring exemplary vocal technique, in the finest tradition of opera. The sort of thing that leaves one exclaiming in due course:  "wasn't she fabulous!"

But, no, just more of the same bits and pieces of often almost recitative-like vocalization, occasionally soaring with the continuous orchestration into one variety of crescendo or another.

While I'm sure she didn't do it, I can just see Briana Hunter, who sang the role of The Mother, down on her knees, begging librettist and director Tazewell Thompson and composer Jeanine Tesori "please, please, please, let me SING!" My heart goes out to her, as would have those of Handel and Mozart.

But that's where it's at these days in contemporary opera: "Singing? What's that? Some sort of distraction." I can hear Thompson and Tesori dismissing Hunter along those lines.

But what about the rest of "Blue," which I saw in a Seattle Opera production the other day. Widely praised, the almost entirely Black (librettist and performers) piece centers on the story of an angry and idealistic young Black man, the son of a police officer, being killed at what was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration by another officer. He's an only child and beloved by his father despite sociopolitical differences and thus a sometimes tempestuous relationship.

While the race of the officer who kills The Son isn't identified in the program or promotional material, he's identified as white in the lyrics, giving the opera additional currency in the post-George Floyd era. But interestingly, The Father at one point bemoans the fact that his son was killed by one of his "brothers" on the police force. 

Young Black men are not always killed by white officers. Notably, in "Between the World and Me," Ta-Nehisi Coates relates the trauma he experienced when he learned that a man named Prince Jones he had apparently known at Howard University had been killed by a Black police officer in a jurisdiction controlled by Black politicians. And, according to Coates, the officer who supposedly mistook Prince for someone else was sent back to work.

Well, the first half of the opera, which runs for two hours not counting the intermission, is about the risks young men run being born Black in America and the second half opens with news of the death of The Son as a result of police violence, and of course the racial inequities of that in America.

But almost immediately thereafter, the opera changes course in a fashion that none of the reviews that I have read mention. Race relations fall into the background and what comes to the fore is religion -- Christianity in this case. What's at issue in the lengthy segment that follows news of the death is whether the Chruch, and a particular Reverend, can offer the family and eventually their friends any consolation. The message there is at best mixed.

This jumped out at me in part because I had just finished reading "On Consolation," subtitled "finding solace in dark times," by Michael Ignatieff.

His bottom line: "It is not doctrine that consoles us in the end, but people."

Perhaps in that vein, the final scene of the opera takes the form of a flashback to a family dinner at one point during which father, son and mother join hands at the table. Perhaps the audience is led to believe the Mother and Father are consoled more by such memories than by anything else.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

"Jazz" by Toni Morrison

 I just finished the novel "Jazz" by Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning Black American novelist who died in 2019. She viewed the book as one member of a trilogy that began with the much better known "Beloved," which was set in the age of slavery.  In contrast, "Jazz" is set in Harlem in the 1920s, but with flashbacks to very rural Virginia in earlier years.

Briefly, the story is something of a puzzle that, based on reviews and analysis, no one seems to know precisely what Morrison had in mind. In a nutshell, it may be that love based on shared endeavors is stronger than sexual attraction, but not without plenty of trauma along with way. This reminds me of a view expressed explicitly by Thomas Hardy at the end of "Far from the Madding Crowd."

But for students of fiction, the book is interesting in a couple of ways: first for the manner in which Morrison shifts almost stealthily the point of view (POV) around, from individual characters to that of an unnamed and possibly unreliable narrator, and back. Second, there are portions of the writing that are more music to the ear than information to the mind, Jazz-like riffs on the scene, I sometimes thought. These lyrical passages can be rewarding for a patient reader, but not so much for one who isn't. 

Other positives about the book are good character development and a colorful view of life in Harlem when many Blacks were getting along reasonably well one way or the other and enjoying the freedom and excitement of life in a big city. Various atrocities by Whites against Blacks are referenced, but so is color prejudice among Blacks, a theme Morrison touched upon again toward the end of her writing career. 

Sunday, February 27, 2022

A New Yorker Story by Claire Keegan That Needed More

 In the usual author interview, Claire Keegan said she wanted to make "So Late in the Day," her Feb. 21, 2022, New Yorker short story, "an exploration of misogyny," But it's more a description of ships passing in the night and a failure to explore what women want.

In a nutshell, the piece is about a man named Cathal who appears to work as a clerk at a Dublin institution that provides financial support to the arts -- near the famous statue of Oscar Wilde on one corner of Marrion Square. Unmarried, and apparently never married, he lives an unremarkable life in a coastal town called Arklow, a lengthy bus ride south of Dublin. 

A couple years earlier, he had met a well-dressed, rather petite woman named Sabine at a conference in Toulouse, only to discover she worked near his office in Dublin and unmarried, lived in a flat with three younger women. The daughter of a French father and an English mother who divorced early in her life, she had grown up in Normandy and spoke English in a fashion that sometimes grated on Cathal.

Nonetheless, after to getting to know her a bit and discovering she liked the countryside, he invited her down to Arklow. Soon she began showing up most weekends and since they appeared to be getting along quite well, Cathal eventually, and in an almost offhand fashion, suggested marriage.

Simone initially dismissed the notion with "a type of chocked laughter" and questions suggestive of incredulity, but three weeks later, "finally relented."

It's all downhill from there as they discover they don't actually know each other that well and that Cathal, used to living alone, would prefer to have her more as a possession than as a partner.  Keegan's depiction of that is well done, but what's totally missing from this story is any explanation of why Simone would have agreed to marry Cathal in the first place. She's attracted to the town in which he lives more than to the man himself -- clearly a beta-male to everyone who encounters him in the story.

The addition of some exploration of the age-old question "what do women want?" would have made this a far more interesting tale than the version printed in the magazine. As it stands, while it is easy to agree that Cathal got what he richly deserved, it's a mystery as to why the more sophisticated Simone was content with Cathal as little more than weekends in the country and an escape from those other women, paid for with some uncomplicated, consensual sex and very good dinners after which Cathal, the misogynist, would clean up.

This is "a world where women expect more," Keegan said in the New Yorker author interview. What Simone's actions say about her values in that respect is a bigger question than what Cathal's say about him -- based on Keegan's depiction of the man.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

French Jews and Muslims Face Intersectionality Issues

 The New York Times recently reviewed a new play about French Jews that one can see as thematically related to a post I recently wrote about a book called "The Last One." 

The play, "Prayer for the French Republic," by Joshua Harmon, is about a Jewish family agonizing over their identity in the face of what they view as rising antisemitism in France. As the NYT reviewer puts it, "they want to be part of country that may never fully accept them" and after an ugly incident, at least one member of the family wants to move to Israel.  "It's the suitcase or the coffin," he says.

In "The Last One," a young Muslim woman living in a Paris Suburb agonizes over whether she can be fully a French citizen without giving up other parts of what she views as elements of her identity.

Other Muslims living in France are apparently increasingly coming to the conclusion one can't if a Feb. 13, 2022 New York Times Story entitled "The Quiet Flight of Muslims from France" is correct. 

In both the play and the book, the individuals in question are dealing with what is increasingly being called intersectionality. People see themselves as having various strands of identity that insect in certain ways -- sometimes positively, sometimes negatively -- that often fail to comport with a national identity of shared sociopolitical and cultural values. 

There is arguably nothing new about this -- I'm thinking of Leopold Bloom's encounter with "the citizen" -- in James Joyce's "Ulysses" -- but for some reasons these issues seem to be increasingly coming to the fore.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

SFMOMA: "An Unexpected Outcome"

 "Though he is not a woman or a person of color, and I understand how that may be an unexpected outcome, I believe he will materially promote the visibility and best interest of those groups based on his past performance." 

So said Pamela L. Joyner, a black woman who co-headed SFMOMA's search committee, which settled on a white male, Christopher Bedford, to head up the museum, yet another American cultural institution troubled by charges of past racism. 

Well, as a Feb. 10, 2022, New York Times story on this development noted, Bedford not long ago made waves as head of the Baltimore Musem of Art by proposing to sell of works by Brice Marden, Christopher Still and Any Warhol to finance acquisitions of art by people of color and to finance staff salary increases. He also at one point announced a year-long commitment to acquire only works by female artists.

Such is the world of American culture at the moment: just who created something is of far greater importance than what exactly got created. To be fair, however, there are few if any objective standards of what makes for a great work of art.  Generally, someone considered an authority in such matters makes a pronouncement, or perhaps the price for which something sells is viewed as a sufficient proxy for its artistic merit.

In any event, despite the fact that by his gender and the color of his skin, Bedford represents the racist, colonialist, patriarchal past that is said to underpin prevailing U.S. social conditions, he's more or less acceptable for his new post.

I say "more or less" because here's what the NYT reported Ford Foundation president Darren Walker had to say: "While I'm disappointed that a diverse candidate wasn't chosen, no museum leader is more committed to diversity than Chris Bedford." In other words, second choice despite certain merits. 

According to the newspaper report, the museum may well have had to settle on Bedford despite his gender and skin-color shortcomings because the job isn't that attractive, and demand is high for qualified women or those of color.

"A person close to the job search who spoke on the condition of anonymity because that person was not authorized to reveal its details, said that the SFMOMA position was not an easy sell to candidates, given San Francisco's comparatively low-profile contemporary art scene and tepid interest in art patronage among Silicon Valley moguls." So the NYT reported.

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

A Feminist New Yorker Short Story by Lauren Groff

 Lauren Groff's short story "Annunciation" in the Feb 7, 2022 New Yorker is probably about as feminist as it gets, although not so much in terms of third wave "intersectionality." This is a woman-focused story in which men, to the extent they only vaguely appear, are disinterested, ineffectual, distant or in two cases, while no longer present, clearly malevolent. It's a story in which a woman can do a man's work and in which women rely on each other for support. 

Before going further, I need to say that "a clanger" created a hurdle for me at the start.  In her third sentence, Groff describes her unnamed heroine running in the hills above Palo Alto, California, as "the mist falls in starched sheets over the distant hills, the ones that press against the Bay."  I'm very familiar with that region and there are no hills the protagonist can see that "press against the Bay."  The south bay is surrounded by flat lands with big freeways running through them. The hills are well back from the water.  

But most readers probably wouldn't be that familiar with the terrain and I suppose one can write this off to artistic license.  "Annunciation" is a work of fiction after all.

Groff's story begins with a woman graduating from a college in New England. No one in her large family attends and as a result, with little money, she gets into an awkward old car given to her by a grandfather and heads west, ending up in a San Francisco youth hostel.  Although the story ends late in the protagonists' life, that's almost the last readers hear of her original family. At one point, the protagonist's mother does tracks her down, but their reunion is very short-lived. Graff's heroine has no need for her mother.

After the brief stay in San Francisco, the protagonist finds a job down the Peninsula in Redwood City ("Climate best by Government Test," although that isn't mentioned in the story) and takes a low-wage clerical job in a government welfare agency. There she befriends a down-and out co-worker, a victim of domestic violence who lives with a young daughter in a Volkswagen Vanagon -- in one of the wealthiest areas of the U.S. 

Groff's heroine has also found cheap housing close to her job in the compound of a strange, somewhat spooky woman who eventually dies of the law of unintended consequences, sending Groff's heroine on her way. 

The two connections mentioned above -- they seem to fall short of real friendships or relationships -- are described in great detail by Groff, but in the end, neither one goes anywhere. This is not "sisterhood" feminism. 

From here, readers are suddenly taken to a point significantly later in the life of Groff's heroine -- in Italy where readers are told she is now living a life of "grace," fundamentally a Christian concept, but in this case associated with such things as birds singing amid "beauty."

In the interim, readers learn that the woman in question created a family of her own and while it "has become my true north," it is one from which she apparently episodically flees. -- thinking good things about this behavior because she has so far always eventually returned.  No mention of a husband, but she claims to be a mother who "sees her children fully." One wonders if they see it that way, but readers learn nothing of them.

One thing she likes about Italy is that she is surrounded by a thousand Madonnas, with a thousand different faces" (in churches), all unnamed, but wearing "the particular mortal face of a woman the artist loved."  One supposes that's the way she would like to think of herself. 

In the usual New Yorker interview, one learns Groff struggled with versions this story for a decade, apparently because she had no idea where it was supposed to go. Then she made a bet with another writer on who could first write a short story with a happy ending (a rarity readers are told) and voila!

Grace, wherever it came from and for whatever reason Groff's protagonist was worthy of it, is where it's at. And who needs men?

Amen, those of a feminist persuasion might say.