Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: News

Days ago president-elect Barack Obama met with the current United States president and all still-living former presidents, including Jimmy Carter. It was, apparently, Barack Obama’s idea that this meeting take place. It is, among other things, a way of being welcomed to office and being put in an official context, as well as an opportunity to seek counsel. Yesterday the president who is leaving office gave his last press conference: a sometimes rambling reflection on a wide range of issues, marked with some honesty and humility as well as some puckish humor and unrecognized anger. Many people are looking forward to the inauguration of president-elect Barack Obama, whose cabinet nominations have been impressive and sometimes controversial: and controversial because they are not radical, but are rather centrist figures. Obama has been said to be playing it safe; whereas I think he is shrewdly picking people of knowledge and power who can get things done—who can pursue his policies with success. (I'm not an admirer of all his nominations: I still have reservations about Hillary Clinton.) Barack Obama is not only intelligent, he has good instincts, and is drawing power—and the figures and symbols of power—toward himself.

In the January 12, 2009 Wall Street Journal, in an article called “All the Presidents’ Literature,” Jonathan Raban discusses Barack Obama’s writing in a rather close, dispassionate reading. Raban, in a more complimentary passage, remarks, “Obama is a skillful realist. By day, the I of his book is a vigilant listener and watcher, a hoarder of contingent details, who hugs his observations to himself, then broods on them late into the night. It's in the insomniac small hours when -- alone except for his burning cigarette -- he comes into his own as a restless thinker, figuring out his world in passages of eloquent interior monologue. Three o'clock in the morning is a recurring time in Dreams, the hour at which patterns reveal themselves, resolutions are made and the reader enjoys the illusion of unhindered intimacy with the author.” The article notes how many people are pleased to have an educated, literary president.

“Fiction Reading Increases for Adults” reports the New York Times’ reporter Motoko Rich, January 11, 2009. Rich's article states, “The report, ‘Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy,’ being released Monday, is based on data from ‘The Survey of Public Participation in the Arts’ conducted by the United States Census Bureau in 2008. Among its chief findings is that for the first time since 1982, when the bureau began collecting such data, the proportion of adults 18 and older who said they had read at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the previous 12 months has risen.” That is important news for many of us, especially editors and writers who have worried that the distractions and resources of contemporary life (particularly the internet and television) have made reading much less attractive and even less necessary to the general public.

With the election of the new president, it can be painful to realize how much work has yet to be done in terms of ethnic diversity and acceptance. I watched a Sunday morning television news program in which African-American issues were discussed—but discussed separately from the rest of the national and international news. (I found myself thinking that there should have been an African-American commentator participating in the national discussion and more people who weren’t African-American—say, Hispanics and Asians—participating in the discussion of African-American problems.) Just as African-American problems are segregated, so, still, are some African-American accomplishments, as with a new book of African-American essays: Best African-American Essays: 2009, edited by Debra J. Dickerson, from Bantam Books. The anthology is reviewed in the Asheville Citizen-Times by its books columnist Rob Neufeld, January 11, 2009. Neufeld likes James McBride’s piece on hip-hop music, included in the anthology; and notes Martha Southgate’s remarkable, telling piece there as well: “Martha Southgate, author of the novel The Fall of Rome, was motivated to write this essay by her experiences at writers' conferences, where she encountered far too few African-American literary writers in her middle-age bracket. There's a vicious cycle at work that makes lower promotion of black writers a business decision.”

“Black directors face frustration, hope and elusive success” is a headline in the International Herald Tribune, a headline above an article by Gene Seymour on African-American film directors (Spike Lee and others), January 11, 2009. Seymour reports, “You could now count on one hand (using two fingers) the number of black directors who can get their projects made and distributed at a steady rate. One is Lee, whose 19th theatrical feature, the World War II story Miracle at St. Anna was released last fall, while the other is Tyler Perry, the Atlanta-based, one-man multimedia conglomerate whose latest blend of low comedy and moral uplift, Madea Goes to Jail, is set for release on Feb. 20.”

For the online site NewsBlaze.com the culture reporter Prairie Miller reports in the article “Women Film Critics Circle Member Sparks SLUMDOG Brouhaha in Wall Street Journal.” The film Slumdog Millionaire has been getting a lot of very favorable response, from critics and audiences, but now there is controversy too. (The world loves controversy; insists on it. Don't we?) Prairie Miller states, “Women Film Critics Circle member Jan Lisa Huttner of Films For Two and HotPinkPen.com has been instrumental in a campaign to protest denial of screen credit recognition for major awards this year to Loveleen Tandan, as female co-director of Slumdog Millionaire, January 10, 2009.

It can be frightening to be forced to realize again and again how important money fame and money are: they are sources of freedom and power, necessary resources. Whether or not a person or institution can pursue independently preferred tastes can be, and are, determined by such resources. The current financial crisis in the United States is a wonderful or terrible teacher, depending on one’s own perspective. The more esoteric arts will be affected, as The Art Newspaper reports: “A survey of art museums across the US has found that most institutions have lost at least 20% of the value of their endowments and directors are retrenching amid the worsening economic crisis. The survey of around 40 museums, conducted by The Art Newspaper in early December, revealed that nearly all directors had begun trimming between 5% and 20% of their 2009 budgets and were preparing for deeper cuts in 2010.” (The Art Newspaper, in an article by Jason Edward Kaufman, January 8, 2009, Issue 198.)

Meanwhile, ArtDaily.org reports on “Grey Art Gallery to Show Damaged Romanticism: A Mirror of Modern Emotion,” a new exhibit.
Excerpts: “The first exhibition to be jointly presented by the Grey Art Gallery in New York City and the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, Damaged Romanticism will run concurrently at the two institutions, opening January 13, 2009, at the Grey and February 7, 2009, at the Parrish.”

“According to Terrie Sultan, Director of the Parrish Art Museum and an organizer of the exhibition, ‘The artists in Damaged Romanticism do not belong to a style or school in the traditional sense, but they share an outlook that helps define the spirit of our times. Like the original Romantics, who so powerfully transformed the arts and society two centuries ago, they keenly feel the damage wrought by the forces of modernity and by our divorce from the natural world. But the fantasies of these damaged romantics are tempered by a pragmatic realism. Their sense of disillusionment and loss never stops them from clinging stubbornly to hope.’”

"Artists whose work is included in the exhibition are Richard Billingham (England); Berlinde De Bruyckere (Belgium); Edward Burtynsky (Canada); Sophie Calle (France); Petah Coyne (United States); Angelo Filomeno (Italy/UnitedStates); Jesper Just (Denmark/United States); Mary McCleary (United States); Florian Maier-Aichen (Germany/United States); Wangechi Mutu (Kenya/United States); Anne√® Olofsson (Sweden); Julia Oschatz (Germany); David Schnell (Germany); and Ryan Taber/Cheyenne Weaver (United States).”

The site Qantara.de, which focuses on Middle Eastern culture and its relation to the western world and to Islam, has an article on Edward Said: “The Edward Said's Orientalism in Arab Discourse, Instrumentalised on All Sides” (January 7, 2009). It is by Markus Schmitz, and is translated by Katy Derbyshire—Schmitz is a University of Munster research fellow (School of English, Postcolonial and Media Studies); and Schmitz affirs that “The Palestinian-American intellectual Said overstepped the boundaries of his academic and national origins, his critique thus achieving recognition across the disciplines and around the world. Yet although his significance in bringing together previously separate debates is undisputed, it proves extremely difficult to determine Edward Said's precise cultural, political or theoretical locus.” The site also the covers Afghan director Siddiq Barmak (his film Osama won international awards) and his new film, Opium War, as well as Italian singer Etta Scollo and her engagement of the medieval Arabic poetry of Sicily for her new album Il Fiore Splendente.

Afropop.com's reporter Banning Eyre has conducted an interview with Vampire Weekend band member Ezra Koenig, in which Koenig says, “You know, sometimes it's funny when I see interviews where we get too intellectual about things, because the way we speak about things among ourselves, as probably is true among most bands, we start talking about vibes and all these very weird concepts that maybe only matter to people who listen to music. So to me, and this is fairly distinct from the musical side of it, I have always been very interested in kind of cultural connections. I spent a lot of time when I was in school taking especially literature courses about British India, which is in some ways a horrible time, but also important. To look back at that period helps you to understand why India is the way it is today and the way England is today, and even the way America is today. So in a cultural way, I don't think it's a paradox. This is not the first time in history that people are moving around the planet and meeting each other, and being exposed to new kinds of art.” The year 2008 interview is available now online at the web site of Afropop.com.