Monday, February 2, 2009

Comments: Appreciations and Repudiations

With his economic stimulus package, rejection of torture and plans to close Guantanamo, setting of government ethics standards, signing of anti-discrimination employment legislation and increased insurance coverage for children, President Obama and his government have made a good start. Yet, Benjamin R. Barber asserts in The Nation (“A Revolution in Spirit,” January 22, 2009) that larger questions and possibilities remain, and specifies some of them: “The crisis in global capitalism demands a revolution in spirit--fundamental change in attitudes and behavior. Reform cannot merely rush parents and kids back into the mall; it must encourage them to shop less, to save rather than spend. If there's to be a federal lottery, the Obama administration should use it as an incentive for saving, a free ticket, say, for every ten bucks banked. Penalize carbon use by taxing gas so that it's $4 a gallon regardless of market price, curbing gas guzzlers and promoting efficient public transportation. And how about policies that give producers incentives to target real needs, even where the needy are short of cash, rather than to manufacture faux needs for the wealthy just because they've got the cash?”

One of the most vicious critics of Barack Obama during the recent presidential election campaign was not a known conservative, but rather someone who styles himself a progressive, even a radical: Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report, a sometimes interesting online publication. Ford’s comments were often hateful, insane—and seemed to reflect a holier-than-thou or blacker-than-thou attitude, establishing the kind of standards that no real, complex person could meet, not to mention a man running for the highest office in the land and needing the public support of diverse constitutencies. (More recently, certain Republican party officials and members seem to have a difficult time wishing President Obama well, even if it means that if he fails many ordinary Americans will suffer; and the lack of empathy is telling.)

There is a book by Ellis Cose on the rage of bourgeois blacks: The Rage of a Privileged Class, which focuses on the opportunities and the prejudices and limits that educated, seemingly successful blacks still face and how they manage their feelings and professional responses (often they attain presence in an organization but not power). I think it's an important subject, one that refutes pretending that all blacks share the exact same experience.

It is impossible not to notice there seem to be a few more African-American journalists on television since President Obama's campaign, election, and inauguration. It will be great if they are able to affect the content of television programming.

The graphic destruction of the human body that television constantly displays is unsettling: and most recently, my stomach has been turned by an anti-smoking commercial that shows fat deposits in dissected human tissue. Disgusting. What can one say about television? More often than not it offers false associations, false memories, and a narcotic ecstasy. It consumes, fills, and trivializes time. It can offer us basic orientation in and to a new or different place, but the string of superficialities it is more likely to offer can convince us that the world is a lot more organized and a lot simpler than it is. Its appeal is too often primitive—a series of shocks.

I used to listen to radio a lot in New York, but there is less good radio in Louisiana, though even here there is a college station that has become a favorite. In the United Kingdom, Libby Purves, for the January 31, 2009 Telegraph (“Why We’re Still Ga-Ga for Radio”), writes: “Using only sound, radio stretches the imagination and makes the listener its partner. A humble plastic box can introduce you to writers, ideas, arguments, facts, music and atmospheres you might not encounter in two lifetimes. Speech radio, in particular, is a curious medium: more vivid than print, bringing ambient noise and atmosphere, conveying tones and breaths and hesitations and tension in the voice. It is indifferent to the artifices of appearance.”

I was introduced to musician Brett Dennen by the south Louisiana college radio station I like. Regarding singer-songwriter Brett Dennen’s album Hope for the Hopeless (Dualtone/Downtown), which Aarik Danielsen reviews for (Feb. 2, 2009), the reviewer Danielsen declares that “Dennen’s music serves a bridge between the hippy-lite jams that pass for folk rock today and old-school folkies of the ‘60s and ‘70s who brought the goods as far as songwriting and social consciousness. It might not be an overstatement to say that Dennen could prove an important figure, hopefully turning younger listeners onto the goodness that can accompany thoughtful words and simple melodies sincerely sung.” Yet, the writer also states, “Let’s put Dennen’s socially-conscious lyrics in perspective here; he’s no Dylan or Lennon. But he does capture the spirit of a generation attracted to the hopeful promise they witnessed in the Obama candidacy. Dennen is a perceptive songwriter who sees injustice in real-world, black-and-white terms, yet also sees opportunities to right those wrongs.” When so much of music criticism fails the highest standards, is to be respected, rising above gossip and hype to produce intelligent examinations of a wide range of music, as with the consideration given to Brett Dennen.

The hype that has welcomed new recordings by musicians such as Animal Collective and Bruce Springsteen reminds me of the investment that music journalists and publications have in the success of musicians—they promote aesthetic pleasure, meaning, and popularity, championing notions of “cool” and “relevance.” The glamour of the success of the moment is always being sold, whether the artist is new or old. We see this with U2 and Radiohead as well as with the Decemberists and Arcade Fire. (Whether one considers the dull respectability--and respectable dullness?--of Jon Pareles in the New York Times at one spectrum's end, or the indulgent trashiness of the web's Idolator at the other end, with the status-and-trend-chasing failures of Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and other publications in between, this time is far from an ideal moment for music commentary: many of these publications a critic or reporter might want to write for because of money and visibility rather than the creative company one would be forced to keep. When I saw the newest article on Springsteen in Rolling Stone, I laughed out loud and thought that if he died, the magazine would exhume and photograph his rotted corpose to commemorate a memorial anthology.) Too many journalists ignore chances to broaden the cultural conversation, the chance to go beyond current market offerings, and beyond merely fleeting topical concerns, to discuss serious ideas and prospects that are both timeless and urgent.

Sound and image can be mere distractions, or much more. There is nothing like standing in a museum contemplating a perspective in which care, color, craft, and thought have been invested. I have found peace doing that....The Art Institute of Chicago has free admission for all of February, 2009.

I have been reading Hamilton College history professor Aram Goudsouzian’s book about Sidney Poitier called Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon, published a few years ago by the University of North Carolina Press. It’s very good in pointing out how social matters can increase and decrease the appreciation for an artist; and explores the complex man Poitier is and dynamic times in which Poitier lived and lives.

Film Journal International (Sarah Sluis, January 29, 2009) reports that Mira Nair’s nonprofit film training project in Uganda, Maisha Film Labs, provides an intensive boot camp with experienced filmmaking instructors covering different roles in film production. Obviously it is a chance to nurture new talent and new stories.

There is a new Gerald Peary documentary, For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, and it is hard to know whether to be excited or whether to cringe: it is sickening that so often when the subject of film criticism is discussed Andrew Sarris and his acolytes make negative comments about Pauline Kael. Whatever Sarris’s value as a film critic (I read him first in The Village Voice and later in the New York Observer), it seems he may be a very pathetic man: he maintained a lifelong grudge against Pauline Kael and has extended that into a beyond-her-death grudge. While he and his minions continue to make questionable comments about Kael, the only ones diminished are they themselves. Admirers of Kael recall her work—books such as I Lost It at The Movies and Reeling and For Keeps…and think…and laugh with appreciation and pleasure.