Friday, February 20, 2009

Silence, Exile, and Cunning; or, Appreciations and Repudiations, Part Two

“The NEA will receive $50 million to distribute to non-profit arts organizations while the Smithsonian gets $25 million to repair its facilities,” reported The Art Newspaper, following President Obama’s signing of the stimulus package legislation, the recovery and reinvestment act (Helen Stoilas, February 19, 2009). There were worries, apparently, that the National Endowment for the Arts and Smithsonian might be cut from the legislation. There have been arguments, too, and elsewhere, for a cabinet post representing the arts, a secretary of the arts, the equivalent of a culture minister, an idea I’m sympathetic to, as culture connects with all aspects of American life, public and private; and having a culture secretary or minister could illuminate and support that: a culture representative and department could connect what is occurring across the country, in different states, and demonstrate how to incorporate culture in terms of education, the economy, and social projects.

“As President Obama begins to put his personal stamp on public debate, I think we can be hopeful that respect for the qualities that liberal education aims to foster — moral and aesthetic sensitivity — will rise. We can also be hopeful that academe, especially as an engine of opportunity and a site of scientific research, will find a friendlier partner in government. The provisional 'stimulus package' includes modest increases in federal support for low-income students and a good deal of money for 'shovel ready' construction projects on our campuses,” writes Andrew Delbanco in “A New Day for Intellectuals” in The Chronicle Review (February 13, 2009). Delbanco, after examining charges of anti-intellectualism in American culture and asserting that Americans are pragmatic regarding education and expertise, affirms the importance of self-criticism and social justice, as well.

The troubled economy continues to affect the world of culture and media: Borders Books is cutting twelve percent of its corporate workforce, according to Judith Rosen of Publishers Weekly, February 19. The New York Times Company will not be paying dividends scheduled for this month, because of lower received newspaper revenues, the paper reports (Richard Perez-Pena, Feb. 19), the first suspension in four decades. Meanwhile Wall Street investors worry that American banks could be nationalized.

The singer and songwriter Santi White (Santogold) has generated interest and high regard among some music listeners, and she is scheduled to perform tonight at 7 p.m., for free, at the Apple Store in Manhattan, 103 Prince Street in Soho. I was disappointed last month to read an article titled “Janelle, Erykah, and Santogold Are the Afro-Techno Revolution, While Beyonce just struggles to keep up,” by Kandia Crazy Horse in New York’s Village Voice, available online (January 20, 2009), a piece in which the writer saw new music in relation to political context and found Beyonce’s work limited in emotional affect (“ice cold”) and complexity (“insufficient innervisions to triumph”). I have my own criticisms of aspects of Beyonce’s work, though I appreciate her beauty, talent, and success; and what worries me is that I suspect—following Village Voice writer Greg Tate’s comparison of Beyonce with Alicia Keys; and his contrasting supposed Eurocentric with Afrocentric artists—is that people are beginning to use Beyonce as a symbol, which may not be fair to her. (I recall how Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross used to be posed in certain arguments; and remember too that when Vanity Fair profiled Aretha Franklin in the 1990s, Ross gave her praise, and that when Ross was celebrated at the Kennedy Center recently, Franklin was there to praise her. Often, rivalries are in the minds of critics and lesser talents, rather than in the lives of major popular artists.) It is also true that the Village Voice has used ideas about "cool" and naked aggression as critical tools for years, under music editor Robert Christgau, and it’s unfortunate to see that tradition continued under editor Rob Harvilla. (Appreciating the serious exploration of culture, especially of literature and film, I have been a longtime reader of the Voice, even though its quality has diminished over the years, but I never liked Christgau's writing work, finding it abrasive, shallow, and desperately, all too desperately, self-promoting, the kind of relentless self-promotion rare for an established writer, suggesting a profound and possibly appropriate insecurity.) In discussing and evaluating artists, sometimes comparisons are useful; and sometimes harsh critiques are earned; however, it would make more sense for a critic to identify the qualities she or he finds of value in an artist, rather than to indulge in the construction of artistic demons to be vanquished. The other thing is that these comparisions sometimes rest, for their own effect, on the resentments that too many people have regarding successful people (so that success itself is seen as a form of wickedness: that is a petty and stupid kind of puritanism).

Sometimes late at night on south Louisiana television, sharing airtime with commercials offering health regimens, household equipment, and dating ads, is something called Jack Van Impe Presents, featuring Jack and his wife, featuring sheer lunacy: they discuss subjects such as whether Christ wanted to be a church leader or a king, whether the world will end in year 2012, when there is so much practical and social stuff that are problems for ordinary people that could be discussed. How does spiritual belief contribute to peace of mind and social well-being? The worst thing is that these concerns—the long-ago ambitions of Christ, and prospects for the end of the world—are only a little more weird than the deliberations that often go on in various religions. On Tuesday in Mardi Gras and soon after is the beginning of Lent; and neither event, one secular, one religious, is of positive interest to me. I am in a world in which so much of the dominant values are alien impositions. I recall now having a conversation with a friend last year in New York in which I said that I thought many of the interests of Americans involved business, family, religion, and sports and that those were not my principal concerns, which were more likely to involve culture, philosophy, or politics.

I have not seen as many of the past year’s films as I would like, but I do have some interest in the awards given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the Oscars: I’m hoping that Sean Penn will win best actor, Kate Winslet best actress, Heath Ledger best supporting actor, and Penelope Cruz for best supporting actress (though I would be pleased as well if Viola Davis or Taraji Henson won for best supporting actress). Greencine Daily will host a live blog of the 81st Academy Awards presentation on Sunday, Feb. 22.