For those of you who, like us, have been struck by the remarkably beautiful Aljazeera logo
which is used on the almost too-good-to-be-true new 24/7 cable news channel Aljazeera America and wondered what, if anything, it means or represents, here's the delightfully simple answer: it's an almost literal transformation of the name Aljazeera written in Arabic script which script is itself one of the most beautiful of the world's cursive scripts. To see how this transformation was accomplished, see the following splendid GIF animation by JovanCormac for Wikipedia.
We're duly impressed — both by the beauty of the transformation and the animation by JovanCormac showing how the transformation was accomplished.
John Simon, the often reviled but brilliant literary, theater, music, and film critic whose acerbic, barb-tongued, (too-)often just plain nasty commentary has appeared in such wide-ranging publications as The Hudson Review, The New Leader, The New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, The Weekly Standard, and Bloomberg News and who now writes his own blog Uncensored John Simon has up on that blog a new article titled "Whither Art?" the "art" of the title referring to the fine arts generally but painting in particular.
As we read the article it struck us that were one to substitute classical music along with mutatis mutandis adjustments everywhere painting is referred to, pretty much everything Mr. Simon has to say would read just as on-point. (In fact Mr. Simon himself suggests just that in one brief sentence in one brief paragraph: "The problem for most arts is that so very much has already been done in them, propelling more recent practitioners into horrible distortions, obscure byways, or downright dead ends. This is true also in music, otherwise we would have been spared Stockhausen, Cage, Glass and their likes." See also our August 2004 S&F entry titled "Whither Genuine Art?".)
Writes Mr. Simon:
As I have often said and sometimes written, the history of art extends from Anonymous to Untitled, from when only the work mattered to where only the name in the signature does.
What reminds me of this is a reproduction in The New York Times (10/16/12) of an untitled painting by Franz Kline, which, at the forthcoming auction, “is expected to bring $20 million to $30 million” and make me sick to my stomach. I recall a time, long ago, when Kline yelled at me at a party, “You are full of shit!”, and I replied, “Maybe, but at least I don’t smear it on canvas and peddle it as art.”
Art today is the result of a tacit conspiracy among artists, art historians, art critics, art dealers, nabobs who don’t know what to do with their money, and all the people who don’t know anything about art. And why shouldn’t it fetch that much when the article about the Kline painting notes that one by Clyfford Still, resonantly entitled “1949-A-No. 1” went for $61.7 million? Even Clyfford with a Y should raise a cautionary eyebrow.
If there exists a finer, more compelling argument for the need, necessity, and value of dedicated (i.e., professional), serious, deeply informed and literate critics and criticism in the arts and literature than the one written for The New Yorker titled "A Critic’s Manifesto" by Daniel Mendelsohn we've never encountered it.
By dramatizing their own thinking on the page, by revealing the basis of their judgments and letting you glimpse the mechanisms by which they exercised their (individual, personal, quirky) taste, all these [professional] critics were, necessarily, implying that you could arrive at your own, quite different judgments—that a given work could operate on your own sensibility in a different way. What I was really learning from those critics each week was how to think. How to think (we use the term so often that we barely realize what we’re saying) critically — which is to say, how to think like a critic, how to judge things for myself. To think is to make judgments based on knowledge: period.
And so the fact is that (to invoke the popular saying) everyone is not a critic. This, in the end, may be the crux of the problem, and may help explain the unusual degree of violence in the reaction to the stridently negative reviews that appeared in the Times Book Review earlier this summer, triggering the heated debate about critics. In an essay about phony memoirs that I wrote a few years ago, I argued that great anger expressed against authors and publishers when traditionally published memoirs turn out to be phony was a kind of cultural displacement: what has made us all anxious about truth and accuracy in personal narrative is not so much the published memoirs that turn out to be false or exaggerated, which has often been the case, historically, but rather the unprecedented explosion of personal writing (and inaccuracy and falsehood) online, in Web sites and blogs and anonymous commentary—forums where there are no editors and fact-checkers and publishers to point an accusing finger at.
Similarly, I wonder whether the recent storm of discussion about criticism, the flurry of anxiety and debate about the proper place of positive and negative reviewing in the literary world, isn’t a by-product of the fact that criticism, in a way unimaginable even twenty years ago, has been taken out of the hands of the people who should be practicing it: true critics, people who, on the whole, know precisely how to wield a deadly zinger, and to what uses it is properly put. When, after hearing about them, I first read the reviews of Peck’s and Ohlin’s works, I had to laugh. Even the worst of the disparagements wielded by the reviewers in question paled in comparison to the groundless vituperation and ad hominem abuse you regularly encounter in Amazon.com reviews or the “comments” sections of literary publications. Yes, we’re all a bit sensitive to negative reviewing these days; but if you’re going to sit in judgment on anyone, it shouldn’t be the critics.
In an article for the Metropolitan Opera Guild publication Opera News titled, "Coda: Lost Horizons", senior editor Louise T. Guinther writes:
For many of us who came to love opera before Regietheater took hold, current notions of effective dramaturgy boggle the mind. When did the directors and impresarios decide that an opera was a random collection of notes, independent of its dramatic and visual elements — a mere musical shell, to be filled up with and bent out of shape by whatever modern hang-ups seem most likely to catch the public off guard? When did wild controversy, booing and academic apologias in the press replace straightforward storytelling as signs of theatrical prowess? When did "making people think" become the top priority in an art form once clearly intended to make them feel?
Nothing in the above linked article will come as news to regular readers of S&F (and we thank one of those readers for pointing us to this article as absent that heads-up we would not have known about it as we don't ordinarily read Opera News), but it does contain a key thought we don't recall ever articulating explicitly before; viz., that opera is an artform intended principally to make audiences feel, not think. That, in fact, is what opera — what music — is all about. Prior to our modern age, there's not a composer of opera (or of music generally, for that matter) who ever lived who thought otherwise. Whence, then, this perverse, noxious, and ass-backwards impulse to make opera audiences think first, feel after?
We're not really sure, but that it's in some fundamental way bound intimately to our present-day scientific and technological modes of thought concerning all things — cosmic or terrestrial, sacred or profane, mystical or quotidian — is a certainty.
Is that a step forward for art and for us as a species; a development to be applauded and welcomed rather than savaged and rejected? We confess we don’t really know the answer to that question, either. What we do know, however, is that in matters of art, and in matters of music most particularly, whenever the intellectual trumps the emotional — whenever the emotional is in some fundamental way conditional upon the intellectual — impoverishment is the ineluctable consequence.
That, too, is a certainty.
Our most recent entry which concerned the after-the-fact authority of the original sources consulted by Wagner vis-à-vis his Der Ring des Nibelungen has, in short order, brought to the fore a cognate matter which we here quote in extenso and verbatim:
Your various articles on Wagner and his works convince me that you have a defective understanding of Wagner's music dramas, the intentions that lie behind them and the intellectual context in which they were written. While it's true that works of art take on a life of their own once the artist has delivered them into the world, this does not mean that the art-work can be or should be detached from the ordinary and intellectual life of the artist who created them. I reject the romantic [sic] view that the artist is merely the channel of some sort of divine inspiration. Wagner's works are his works, and those works are inseparable from Wagner the ordinary man and cannot be properly understood without placing them within the context of his ordinary and intellectual life at the time of the works' creation.
The above idea concerning the output of creative artists is neither novel nor atypical and is, in fact, a bedrock assumption of perhaps the majority of arts criticism, both today and in the past. While we have no argument with that assumption when concerned with the output of creative artists of ordinary gift (which ordinary gift can indeed be substantial; Wagner's great contemporary Giuseppe Verdi springs instantly to mind), we take strong exception to it when the output concerned is the product of a creative artist of transcendent gift such as Richard Wagner. As the great T.S. Eliot put it: "[T]he more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates."
In our not-so-humble opinion, the kind of thinking that proclaims that even in the case of a transcendent creative genius the created artworks cannot be separated from the ordinary man and can be understood properly only in the context of the ordinary and intellectual life of their creator serves only to lead one ineluctably into all sorts of false byways and into drawing false if authoritative-sounding conclusions concerning those artworks. Ultimately, such thinking results in producing what are essentially irrelevant intellectual maunderings regarding the artworks themselves, clever as those maunderings may be. As we've asserted here on S&F more than once, all Wagner's music-dramas are entirely self-contained works and require no scholarly biographical commentary of any sort whatsoever for one to comprehend them fully. Where genuine works of art are concerned, the facts of the ordinary and intellectual life of their creator, if he be a creator of transcendent genius, count directly for nothing in the artworks the aesthetic and affective core of each of which is always the product of mostly unconscious transformative processes which processes are as much a mystery to the creator as they are to us. Nor can those transformative processes be "reverse engineered" after the fact to better understand them and the works of art they produced — not even by the creator himself, much less ordinary folk such as us, no matter how deep or probing the scholarship or how convinced one may be that the results of such scholarship lead to a deeper understanding of the artworks in question. Such a conviction can be nothing more or other than a self-serving justification of the research time and labor expended. Which is not to say that such scholarship has no worth or value in itself. It most surely can be both worthwhile and valuable. It simply has no worth or value in gaining a deeper understanding of the artworks themselves in the case of artworks which are the product of transcendent creative genius.
We might add, if somewhat ungenerously, that the products of such scholarly researches in the case of Wagner's music-dramas are too often used by writers, especially if they're critics or academics, to make their discourse on the music-dramas seem wonderfully erudite and objectively verifiable, that last a great (if false) comfort to both the writer and his readers. While we can sympathize with that feeling of comfort, that comfort is always misplaced. As with all genuine works of art, not only ones produced by creators of transcendent genius, once one goes beyond questions of craft and process there's no objectively verifiable anything except, perhaps, place and date of creation. One might even say that's a hallmark and necessary condition of all genuine works of art and a principal source of their affective power and resonant nature.
Pretty much nothing surprises us these days in the world of the visual arts, especially in the world of painting where lunatics regularly pay millions of dollars for the privilege of owning a single painting by [fill in the name of your famous painter of choice], and where galleries mount shows of new artists who happen to be au courant hot for whatever reason but who otherwise display all the talent of a chimpanzee handed a brush and a few buckets of paint and set loose on an innocent stretch of pristine canvas laid on the floor.
And so when we began reading this piece by Noah Horowitz for The New York Times with the headline "Your 4-Year-Old Can’t Do That" about a four-year-old painter who was being given a one-girl show at one of Manhattan's pricey art galleries our thought was, "So, what else is new."
And then we took a look at this four-year-old girl's work. Either she's in reality a fabulously gifted forty-year-old midget posing fraudulently as a four-year-old child, or...or...we don't know what.
Although we've always thought of ourself as a fairly cultured person, there are certain gaps in both our knowledge and understanding of, not to speak of our utter indifference toward, certain domains in the arts which gaps give effective lie to that admiring picture of ourself. We speak here of the domains of art (lowercase "a"; i.e., painting) and the ballet. With regard to the former, we readily recognize the skill involved and appreciate the execution of art of all periods from the truly astonishing cave paintings at Lascaux to the abstract expressionists and even to the pop stuff of the Sixties, but none of it touches us emotionally and we're dismayed and appalled repeatedly and invariably by the absurd, even lunatic, prices paid regularly for paintings at art auctions and galleries worldwide. What makes our native insensitivity to paintings genuinely strange is that we've a quite refined visual sense (we made a very good living for a number of years as a professional photographer of architecture exclusively), but as assiduously as we've tried over the years to get at (or, rather, just get) the emotional power of paintings, our every attempt ended in miserable failure, the reason of that failure maddeningly beyond our ability to comprehend.
Our antipathy for the ballet is perhaps easier to explain. Again, while we readily recognize the skill involved and appreciate the execution, the actual dance leaves us cold emotionally. Worse, the dance, no matter how brilliant the execution, always strikes us as a distraction from the music at best, and at worst, a positive annoyance. Given our background and training, that at least sounds plausible, even in some measure excusable, albeit somewhat benighted. Yes, it's quite true we were captivated entirely by Margot Fonteyn's dancing of Juliet in the video of the Royal Ballet's 1966 Romeo and Juliet with partner Rudolph Nureyev dancing the Romeo (who merely impressed us as opposed to captivating us). But still, for us, it's always the overriding power of Prokofiev's music that's responsible for providing this ballet its emotional and dramatic wallop, never the choreography, the dancing, and/or the dancers; the music the thing responsible for making this ballet worthwhile of our time, the dancing, all of it first-rate in this particular performance to the extent we're competent to judge such things, little more than tolerated, Fonteyn's stellar performance notwithstanding.
If all the above seems to suggest that, at bottom, we're no better than a regulation philistine, this next will leave you in no doubt upon the matter.
Operating under the misguided and ill-informed impression that we were some sort of high-culture maven, we were years ago asked by a would-be connoisseur of the arts what might the very best thing about the ballet be. Our answer: the photographs. If you imagine that answer to be flip, off the wall, and totally over the top, we suggest you go to Google Images, type the single word "ballet" in the search box, and begin scanning through the resulting images at random.
There is a certain kind of art made here in America for a lofty but banal purpose: to enliven the contemporary educated mind.
You know: the mind of you and me, dear 3QD reader -- the NPR listener, the New Yorker reader, the English major, the filmgoer who laps up subtitles, the gallery-goer who can tell a Koons from a Hirst.
This art is superior to the cascading pile of blockbuster kitsch-dreck-crap that passes for pop culture, but only superior by a few pips.
This art sure ain't Picasso, or Joyce, or Rossellini, or the Beatles, or even Sondheim. It's more Woody Allen than Ingmar Bergman, more Joyce Carol Oates than James Joyce, more Jeff Koons than Duchamp, more Arcade Fire than the Beatles.
It does not expand the borders of art or wreck the tyranny of the possible or enlarge our hungry little minds.
It is art of the day to inform the conversation of the day by the people of the day who need to be reassured that their taste is a little more elevated than that of the woman on the subway reading Nora Roberts.
For want of a better label, here's a suggested honorific for this kind of art:
Urban Intellectual Fodder.
We've been following for the past month-and-a-half or so the bizarre case of the purported "lost" Ansel Adams negatives discovered by one, Rick Norsigian, who claims he bought the sixty-five glass plate negatives at a garage sale in Fresno ten years ago from an unsuspecting seller for $45, and which negatives he and his handpicked experts estimate are worth some $200M. Since Norsigian's public announcement of the discovery, the provenance of the negatives has been called into question by other experts, most of whom, unlike Norsigian's handpicked experts, have no ax to grind, and the controversy continues up to the present day.
The question we have is, Of what artwork value are the negatives even were their authenticity not in dispute? Answer: Pretty much zero except to highly skilled photography experts who might derive a satisfying or even thrilling aesthetic experience merely contemplating their technical and compositional excellence if the negatives are indeed the work of Adams himself.
But the core of Adams's aesthetic genius resided not in his creation of the negative, but in his creation of the print from that negative. While it's true that a fundamental element of Adams's working procedure involved what he called the "previsualization" of the finished print while examining the scene to be shot on the ground glass of his camera, and the subsequent necessary adjustments of exposure time and the development of the negative in the darkroom, Adams considered the negative to be no more than a detailed blueprint for the finished work, that finished work being the print. Or as Adams, a gifted pianist, put it metaphorically, the negative is but the [mute] score; the print, the [audible] performance.
Well, Adams is dead and no longer available to "perform" his negatives. Others may do "performances" of those negatives, but those performances can never be an Adams performance, and are therefore worth, aesthetically and monetarily, but a pittance of an original Adams as works of art. So whence the gigantic money valuation of Norsigian's find even if the negatives prove authentic as no museum or gallery, not even the most avid wealthy private collector, would pay anywhere near $200M merely to own the negatives?
Henry Moore (1898-1986) is considered perhaps the 20th century's greatest sculptor; an artist whose artistic influence worldwide is all but inescapable. Here are two examples of his work.
Well, actually the bottom sculpture is Moore's. The top is the work not of the 20th century's greatest sculptor, but of almost certainly the greatest sculptor of the 50th century — B.C., that is — who is nameless (writing was yet to be developed in Old Europe and so we've no record of his name) but is conjectured to have lived in Hamangia, a Middle Neolithic culture in Dobruja (Romania - Old Europe).
Simply breathtaking, and just this side of believable.
(Our thanks to The New York Times for the Old Europe image.)
We were never able to see what so many others saw in Bob Dylan and his "art". The man can play the guitar only competently; he can't be said to be able to sing any more than Johnny Cash can be said to be able to sing, perhaps even less; his music can, at times, be catchy, even a bit poignant in a Sixties-quasi-folk sort of way, but never more than that; and his "poetry" (i.e., lyrics) is largely Sixties-sophomoric or arrant beat-poet gibberish with aspirations to profundity. Witnesseth:
In short, we think little of Mr. Dylan and his "art" — until now, that is. Now we love both.
Because of the following from a piece by The Guardian's Jonathan Jones is why:
[I]f [art] really is reducible to an explicit message, is it actually art at all?
I love the scene in DA Pennebaker's 1967 documentary Don't Look Back, where the young Bob Dylan is interviewed by a journalist who demands to know what his message is. "Walk tall and always carry a light bulb," he replies.
Of course, Dylan didn't have a message — or so he explains in Martin Scorsese's 2005 film No Direction Home — and the reason he changed his music and lyrics so profoundly in the mid-60s, from the agitprop of his early folk songs to the tumbled words of "Desolation Row", was precisely to escape from people who thought they understood him. It was a self-conscious defence of the idea of art.
We get it now, Bobby. Pretty damn smart. Way t'go!
Is it a painting or a photo? We would have sworn it was a painting, perhaps by Edward Hopper, but we're informed that it's indeed a photo — a photo taken using a non-state-of-the-art, 1.3 megapixel Nokia camera phone by actor and published photographer Joel Grey, and included in his recent book, 1.3 – Images from My Phone.
We're suitably impressed.
(Our thanks to WNYC Culturist blogger Benjamen Walker for the image and the link.)
We simply refuse to believe it. The world-famous 1347 BC Egyptian bust of Queen Nefertiti, wife of the notorious 18th-dynasty pharaoh Akhenaton (Amenhotep IV), renowned when she lived for her astonishing beauty, has been declared a 20th-century fake by Swiss art historian Henri Stierlin.
[Stierlin], who has been working on the subject for 25 years, said he based his findings on several facts. "The bust has no left eye and was never crafted to have one. This is an insult for an ancient Egyptian who believed the statue was the person themself [sic]."
He also said the shoulders were cut vertically in the style practised since the 19th century while "Egyptians cut shoulders horizontally" and that the features were accentuated in a manner recalling that of Art Nouveau.
It was impossible to scientifically establish the date of the bust because it was made of stone covered in plaster, he said.
"The pigments, which can be dated, are really ancient," he added.
Stierlin also listed problems he noted during the discovery and shipment to Germany as well as in scientific reports of the time.