Thursday, July 30, 2009

What Do People Do When They Are Free? (Comments On Culture and Politics)

Are the resources of civilization dependable, pervasive—or are they only present in isolated circles, active in the lives of the privileged—or the very humble? What do people choose to do when they have significant resources; when they are free? Shakespeare and Henry James and other writers asked those questions, giving us characters well-placed enough, intelligent and sensitive enough, resourceful enough to ask and answer those questions. We ask those questions of the famous and the fortunate, of the gifted, of the strange. It is why we are curious about and suspicious of them. It is why we some of us do not often respect the fact that private life is one thing and public life another, subjecting the private life of the distinguished to the gossipy and the puritanical, to crude ways of learning and judging.

Established attitudes and philosophies, whether of appreciation or repudiation, liberty or repression, tend to cloud judgment: one can affirm or deny new phenomena, regardless of its fundamental qualities, for reasons having to do with its superficial conformity to established patterns. Consequently, artists and intellectuals consider and practice rebellion, subversion. It seems to me, as well, that what is subversive subtext in the arts of one generation becomes part of the dominant form and content for the next generation—and possibly inconsequently for subsequent generations.

Artists and intellectuals do not follow—they lead: we lead—and sometimes we have so much we want to achieve that our own intensity frightens others. They understand so little of what goes into art or disciplined thought. They do not understand the commitment or the sacrifice (or that artists may require a certain stability but do not require normality). They do not understand the work itself. Writing, for instance, requires discipline and passion, imagination and insight—and it is not trivial. Unfortunately, I used to live in close proximity to someone who thought she was a writer because she kept a diary of her dull life: such incomprehension is enough to inspire laughter so profound one ends in tears. In the last several months, I have been trying to return to a novel I began writing—and I have learned anew how difficult it is to be creative…

The novel Glover’s Mistake by Nick Laird (Viking, 2009) is focused on friendship, love, betrayal, and technology in London, and shows how corrupting loneliness and self-pity can be, and the ways the internet can be used for sabotage and deception. The lead characters are David, an extremely shy man, his flatmate Glover, and David’s former teacher, a famous artist named Ruth, with whom Glover becomes involved with. David presents in himself a destructive view of a critic and blogger, and Ruth, whose work as an artist seems clever but slight, is no model either: David, though quite smart, is narrow in perspective, hateful, and Ruth is work-obsessed in ways that are respectably serious and vainly silly, self-indulgent. (Glover’s religious orientation makes him simple and intolerant.) The novel is intelligent and contains some truth but lacked something—grace? spirit? wisdom?

On Harvard literature professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., after a false claim of burglary and being arrested in his own home. Jan Ramsey, editor of New Orleans’ Offbeat magazine: “I’m afraid I’d have to question why a policeman would arrest a man once he found out he was not an intruder, but was in his own home. Yes, Mr. Gates was angry (rightfully so) and ‘sassed’ the cop. But there are just too many cops out there (speaking from numerous personal experiences) who take it upon themselves to bust innocent people because they (police) are offended by what someone says to them. Smarting off is not necessarily questioning their authority, and it certainly isn't an offense punishable by law. I’m not saying all policemen do this, but I’ve known way too many people who were thrown into jail for asking a simple question, like ‘What’s your badge number?’ I've also known too many African-Americans who have been harassed by cops simply because they are black. I think we might invest in more sensitivity training and less testosterone-driven response from the people who are supposed to be enforcing the law.”

Apparently, singer-songwriter Chico Debarge performed last Sunday in New York’s Central Park; and he has a new album, called Addiction.

…Some of my favorite summer songs are Sly and the Family Stone’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” Ephraim Lewis’s “Summer Lightning,” and Diana Ross’s interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s and Sharon Robinson’s “Summertime.”…

Diana Ross turned 65 earlier this year and is one of the more interesting and valuable women of her era, of our time, though she is not always recognized as such. (How many women are celebrated as they age?) Of course, we have not been living in a heroic age these last few decades: it has been an ignoble time and the Mary Wilson Syndrome has prevailed. The Mary Wilson Syndrome: Mary Wilson is a fool and a mediocrity—but her particular kind of stupidity (her ignorance, prejudices, and resentments) are shared by others, so when she speaks those others experience her as telling the truth. Diana Ross, a woman of genuine accomplishment, has a fine intelligence—but that is rare, and when Ross speaks, though she may be perfectly logical and clear, that articulation can be less resonant. Mary Wilson has built a career on being mediocre, on claiming victimhood, on nothing more than shared resentments. Years ago, many people wanted to be better than they were, more accomplished, more intelligent: but these days, many people prefer to be comfortably stupid.

Louisiana music has been celebrated, though its diversity is not always commented upon: the new fiddle music album by Linzay Young and Joel Savoy, features traditional south Louisiana folk music (and the album cover has a good photograph of the two men, with Savoy looking strikingly handsome, like a young Henry Fonda, with a face that exudes dignity, brooding intelligence, purpose). The women’s group Bonsoir Catin’s new album Vive L’Amour, from Valcour (as is the Young/Savoy music), is also traditional; and has an attractive cover too, as does every Valcour release I’ve seen. Which reminds me of an interview I heard with a young musician in which he discussed the burden of tradition: wondering if he was making the music as it had been made in the past, and how free of that worry he felt when he was doing newer music, which included contemporary rhythms and electronic experimentation. The new Bad Chad and the Good Girls album (from Soul of the Boot Entertainment) features such experimentation and I’m not sure what I think of it. (Although I thought that I was listening to a wide range of music—folk, indie rock, jazz, world music, and some popular music—I realized that I hadn’t been listening to anything like that.) Kenny Cornett and Killin’ Time’s Flat Fleet album (CSP Records), which came up months ago, is of early and famous rock songs (and again, I can see both the appeal and limits of tradition there). Certain forms of music are fine as long as you have an alternative to them—but if they are your only frame and resource, they are too limited to provide a full perspective of the world or of life’s possibilities (that is often true of older forms, such as folk music, and newer forms, such as hip-hop).

It has been reported that Vibe magazine is ceasing publication: and now, something or someone else will have to be at the forefront of marketing music for morons. Is that unfair? Yes, not all the music reported on was dumb, sexist, homophobic, and violent, though much of it was. Vibe was a consumer magazine of popular journalism covering hip-hop and rhythm-and-blues. I hope the music and the journalism covering it will be better in the future—and that the music will be judged by its best forms rather than its worst, the way other forms of music are. (For me, regarding hip-hop, the best would include A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Queen Latifah, P.M. Dawn, mostly artists active in the early to mid 1990s.) [Writer's Note: In August 2009, there was a subsequent report that the magazine would appear online, and then in print quarterly.]

Limiting African-American commentary to “black subjects” demonstrates disrespect for African-American intelligence and subverts the establishment of African-American cultural authority.

Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing has an anniversary this year, having been released in 1989. That was an important film and is still worthy of comment, though it’s not my favorite of his works. Spike Lee is not the best African-American filmmaker of his generation, but he’s the most important—he has asked significant questions about America and the place of people of color in it. He has, like James Baldwin before him, taken on the burden of African-American history, and the weight has both deformed and empowered his work. If more artists took on such questions, it is possible that the art produced would in time be better (as most things do with practice)—we would see a variety of styles and subjects, but with only a few artists doing so, the art produced tends to be overwhelmed by the issues involved.

I admired James Baldwin for many qualities, such as his eloquence and his honesty; however, when it came to film he wrote a piece on Ingmar Bergman that I liked, but he spent the bulk of his film commentary complaining about American films of decades past. I wondered more than once why he didn’t focus on international film and the independent American films that progressively addressed the issues he raised. The mid-1970s book that he did on film, The Devil Finds Work, would have been richer had he dealt with some of the more interesting films being made at the time the book was written and published.

“I was a solipsist and a narcissist and much too arrogant,” he said. “I have a lot more compassion now, but it took a long time” admitted film critic Andrew Sarris, thinking over his early career, in the New York Times (the article by Michael Powell was placed online July 9th; and in print July 12th). That is the same early career that Sarris’s volunteer publicist Kent Jones and others are eager to defend (I used to read Sarris’s Village Voice work and even his later New York Observer work, but it is hard for me to have much regard for someone who feuds with a dead woman, as Sarris has for a long time). Sarris, a dinosaur, will now be writing for Film Comment: that publication and its editor, like Jones, are eager to eat his droppings.

I’m not fond of biographies these days but Shawn Levy has a new biography of Paul Newman and it looks as if it’s not disrespectful of the actor, whom I like very much, and I’m thinking of reading it.

I’m curious about Meryl Streep’s new film, Julie and Julia, focusing on the work of chef Julia Child.

It has been announced that the beautiful, smart, and sometimes tough actress Charlize Theron is planning to make a movie of Christopher Buckley’s novel Florence of Arabia, a satire.

The online Art Daily has announced that in Amsterdam “The Van Gogh Museum is hosting the first retrospective in thirty years of Belgian artist Alfred Stevens (1823-1906) from 18 September 2009 until 24 January 2010. Stevens was one of the most well-known artists in Paris in the second half of the 19th century. He caused a furore with his paintings of elegant, intriguing and distant women.” (The two illustrations used on the site are gorgeous, the kind of images I imagine Henry James would have loved.)

Reverend Ike, who celebrated prosperity as an important part of his ministry has died. (I remember him as being very funny.)

According to The Economist business week e-newsletter (July 30th): Microsoft and Yahoo have formed a business partnership to bring together their internet search and advertising capacities. Housing sales rose in June. Verizon is cutting 8,000 jobs.

Joe Conason has an article on the online Rasmussen Reports arguing that President Obama should ask Bill Clinton for help in defending his health proposals. What nonsense. (Conason should have written article about how sound Obama’s proposals are: instead, he’s merely championing his own desire for the same old white messenger. It’s time for something new and someone new—that’s what the election was about. Change is difficult and we’re in the midst of it now.)

The Economic Policy Institute has produced analysis of the health care debate and the ideas involved, available online; and I’m hoping to get a chance to review that material soon.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Philip Roth's novel Indignation

Indignation by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008

Yesterday I completed reading a review copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, scheduled for September 2009 distribution: the stories are enjoyable, and by using music as a reference in the different stories, the book performs a study of art, appreciation, and celebrity in our time, saying things we might be afraid to say as we do not want to be thought hateful or weak. Last week, I read Philip Roth’s 2008 novel Indignation.

Indignation is the story of a smart Jewish boy whose father’s worries alienate the boy and drive him away from their New Jersey home to an Ohio college. There the young man meets a crazy, sexy blonde and has his first sexual experience. His conflicts with others, including authority figures, leads to moments of self-affirming anger—that are also self-endangering.

Indignation is a coming of age story, a college novel, a Jewish family story, a war story, and a tale of American individuality—the kind of individuality that leads to both brilliance and self-destruction. It is easy to conclude that Roth has an easy mastery of his material—and is able to anticipate and fulfill (or defeat) a reader’s expectations. I found myself having a reservation about the book—thinking the story too small, or too conventional, only to have the story explode that reservation in the next few pages. I thought the students too insular, too self-involved, and then they indulged themselves in a panty raid and the college president offered a scathing analysis on the real context of their lives, on all the important facts and values they were ignoring, addressing and vanquishing my reservations.

Indignation, about learning and sex and life and death, is a good book: it has its value, and its resonance. However, I wonder about the use of a crazed, precociously sexual young woman in fictions depicting the 1950s, as a symbol of both experience and experience repressed. Books tend to represent these women as exceptional—and yet there seem to be so many in books. Is that a male misunderstanding of female sensibility—or a cliché writers cannot let go?

Friday, July 17, 2009

African-American Philosophical Fiction (Suggestions)

Last year, I circulated this notice:

...I am interested in compiling a bibliography primarily focused on African-American short, philosophical fiction stories: short stories in which explored are facts, ideas, issues, myths, questions, and relationships involving or regarding being, existence, knowledge, logic, and, also, aesthetics, ethics, values, and wisdom. I am interested in stories in which characters are conscious or become conscious of the complexity of mind, self, society, and life, and grapple with that complexity or those complexities, whether the forms of the stories in which those characters appear are conventional linear narratives or experimental. How does the individual come to understand life and mind, and then incorporate his or her understanding into his or her actions and relationships with the world, whether those relationships are intellectual, intimate, familial, social, or political? Do you know of such stories, new or old, and would you pass on the titles of the stories and the authors’ names?... I would love it if the information you provided were complete, including publication information and a summary of the story (such as author’s name, story title, magazine/journal/book title, page number, publication issue number, year published, name and location of publisher, and ISBN or ISSN—with the principal theme and/or plot identified); but—if you do not have that detailed publishing information, nor the time and patience to acquire it, that is not necessary: the story title and the author’s name are a good start. (If there are unpublished stories you are aware of, for each please supply me with the author’s name, the story title, and author’s contact information as best you know it.)...

And I received some responses, including these:

Randall Kenan, “Let the Dead Bury their Dead”, in Let the Dead Bury their Dead (San Diego & New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1992), pp. 271-334. ISBN: 0 15 650515 0This is a fabulous story that is based around the oral history of two old African Americans about the history of their town. On each page, beneath their account, Kenan offers lengthy footnotes – an obvious wink to white, dominant discourse, but many of the footnotes are fictional. At various points through the narrative, Kenan also includes diary extracts from the slave holding white family whose runaway slave founded the community that the African Americans are discussing in their oral history. The story raises issues of memories vs facts, modes of discourse etc. When I teach this it is also fascinating to ask students which part of the story they were most drawn too (oral history or footnotes) and about the order in which they read them – oral first then footnotes, or a simultaneous reading. Ultimately, it touches on many, if not all, of the issues that you are interested in – indeed, you may already be fully aware of Kenan’s work.

Best wishes

Sarah Robertson

Dr Sarah Robertson
Senior Lecturer of American Literature
University of the West of England
(August 9, 2008)

You might want to check out John Holman, a wonderful but under-appreciated writer with two books (Luminous Mysteries and Squabble) who directs the creative writing program at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He fits your prescription perfectly. Also look into Sefi Atta at her Web site. She was born in Nigeria, now lives in Meridian, Mississippi.

All best,

Frederick Barthelme
(August 10, 2008)

There are many, many such stories, which I think meet your requirements.
I can, right away, think of 5 to share:

1. Toni Morrison’s short story "Recitatif"
2. Arna W. Bontemps’s “A Summer Tragedy”
3. Alice Walker’s “Advancing Luna and Ida B. Wells”
4. Zora Neale Hurston’s “The Gilded Six Bits”
5. Richard Wright’s “Big Boy Leaves Home”

Good Luck!

All best,
Sandy Alexandre
(August 10, 2008)

I forward your inquiry to Reggie Young of the English Department who specializes in African-American literature. The only material we have in the archives collection which would be relevant are the stories of Ernest J. Gaines. Most of those have been published.

Bruce Turner
Head of Special Collections, Edith Garland Dupré Library,
University of Louisiana at Lafayette
(August 11, 2008)

I don’t have time to give you all the info you request, but look at the first known work of Af. Am. fiction: Douglass' “Heroic Slave.”

Also look at Du Bois' stories, esp. “The Coming of John” in Souls.

All of Ralph Ellison’s short fiction is central to your interests.

Charles Chesnutt short stories are also central.

There’s a lot more, but these are a good start.

John Stauffer
(August 14, 2008)

My suggestions:
“The Coming of John” by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk (a stand-alone short story in the book)
“One Man’s Initiation” by Paul Laurence Dunbar in the modern library Sport of the Gods and Other Essential Writing by Paul laurence Dunbar ed Shelley Fisher Fishkin and David Bradley (Random House)

Sorry that other commitments prevent me from spending any more time responding to your query.

SFF/Shelley Fisher Fishkin
(August 17, 2008)

My top two picks would be:

The chapter entitled “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” from Richard Wright's Black Boy and the story “The Coming of John” from Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois.

Dr. Anna Stubblefield
Chair, Department of Philosophy
Rutgers University-Newark
(January 9, 2009)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Great Novel: The Known World by Edward P. Jones

The Known World by Edward P. Jones
Amistad/HarperCollins, 2003

I had heard very good things about Edward P. Jones’s novel The Known World and I had thought of reading it at different times, though I had a reservation to believing that a novel depicting slavery would be as original or as satisfying as I wanted any novel to be. Jones’s book is, in fact, as near perfect a novel as I have read in quite a while, a book that allows the reader to confront a complex, difficult history (a time of slavery, in which some of the slave-owners are black), and a book in which the writer adds enough beauty and wisdom that one can bear it.

Wisdom cannot exist without the acceptance of the facts of human life, and The Known World seems a wise book. Edward P. Jones makes American history his, illuminating public practices of power and private deceptions of the psyche. Edward P. Jones’s The Known World presents an appreciation of nature, unique economic and social relations, and subtle movements among people: a freshly imagined world. It is a book of small, brilliant enchantments but also horrific reversals of fortune that read like justice delivered. Jones possesses an easy mastery of difficult matters of craft and of human relationships, of style and of content. Jones suggests the diversity of black life even during slavery. Jones presents a world in which an unexpected African-American refinement is achieved and sustained, though achieved with some moral contradictions (these are people whose refinement does not preclude owning other people); and it is a world in which the decencies of people of European descent include ignorance and prejudices that can seem infinite. The Virginia writer captures the cruelty of families broken and separated as property.

Edward Jones tells stories within stories within stories, and has the interesting (and yet gratifying) oddity of naming the destinies of his characters long before the novel’s end. There is extraordinary foreshadowing: a father shakes his young son in angry disappointment, and later when that son is a man the father, again in angry disappointment, hits him and hurts him (the father cannot believe his son would accept and perpetuate slavery). It is a bitter irony that the father, a man who bought his own freedom and that of his family is sold again into slavery by a hateful (white) man who resents the father’s pride. (That is historical fact and also allegory: as with much else in the novel, such things did occur.) The violations of the social order—when “races” mix—can be so unnerving to some that they themselves feel crazy. This is a book full of history, imagination, and life.

Even the incidental characters are interesting: a boy who rules his country family with honesty and rudeness; an exploited woman who becomes a prostitute and who inadvertently brings disease to a great land-owning family. In Moses, a slave separated from a woman he loved, and made an overseer, there is suffering and pride—and a frustrated hope when he becomes involved with someone who could free him if she chooses.

Yet, despite the writer’s significant talent, the book’s ending—which involves nearly cataclysm as well as deliverance and revelation—is a stretch of the imagination that may be a little too much. I am not sure about that ending, and it is worth thinking about, as is so much of this novel, Edward P. Jones’s The Known World.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Politics, Culture

I had not been paying much attention to New York politics, which has been roiling recently: apparently, the New York state senate is in conflict, with the Democrats and Republicans fighting over governance. The Democratic governor has appointed a lieutenant governor, Richard Ravitch, as part of a strategy to break the tie-vote between the parties (as well as have him preside over the senate). There are legal challenges to the appointment being planned or made.

Massachusetts is contesting the federal “defense of marriage” legislation said to discriminate against same-sex partnerships (its attorney general is suing in regard to the denial of federal benefits, according to the New York Times, July 8, 2009).

Sarah Jessica Parker is planning with Bravo a television series on obscure artists competing for a gallery exhibit, cash grant, and museum tour, according to The Art Newspaper. (It is rarely a bad idea to focus on good but obscure artists; and yet I cringe at the possibility that this project will be too much like other reality television programs that emphasize the worst in its participants. Apparently there is a concern for quality content and art experts will participate.)

In the July 7th Rex Roberts Film Journal International review of the movie Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno, about a gay journalist search for fame, the critic stated, “Cohen’s targets are so broad, there’s little sport in skewering them,” and the reviewer asked, “Does Cohen want to have his strudel and eat it, too, in the sense that he promotes the very stereotypes he purports to mock?”

I heard some songs from the music group The Mars Volta’s album Octahedron, and am curious to hear more: the music sounds spacious, and the singing wildly expressive. More on the music beat: The new album by the singer Maxwell, BLACKsummers’night, is apparently doing well in terms of sales (though I have read mixed reviews of the album, though I liked the single I heard). It is Maxwell’s first album in eight years; and Maxwell is one of the few neo-soul artists who seem to have returned (other artists making their mark when he did years ago included Dionne Farris and D’Angelo). Filter magazine has reported online that Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval will release an album, Through the Devil Softly (Nettwerk), in mid-September.

Books Set in the South

Charlaine Harris, Dead and Gone
Berkeley/Penguin, 2009

James Wilcox, Heavenly Days
Viking, 2003

Tim Gautreaux, The Next Step in the Dance
Picador, 1998

I have been reading a book on Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson’s Liberalism, by Neal Dolan, and looking at a second book on classicism and African-American literature, Ulysses in Black, by Patrice Rankine, two very serious books (scholarly and seemingly good) from the University of Wisconsin Press, but the three books that I have completed reading are novels that are set in Louisiana, the most effective of which is The Next Step in the Dance, although the book with the most progressive (socially critical, honest) vision may be Dead and Gone, a fantasy fiction.

Dead and Gone, a novel by the Arkansas-resident Charlaine Harris, focused on the telepathic Louisiana waitress Sookie Stackhouse, is full of action, possibly too much action (a lot of physical confrontations and grisly events). Harris’s earlier Sookie Stackhouse novels carried more detail about character and southern life as well as the gothic entertainment of a narrative featuring vampires and werewolves. This new book is still a page-turner but what is fascinating here is how the supernatural divisions mirror recognizable prejudices: a group of spiritual separatists resorts to brutal violence in the service of social apartheid. That is genuinely scary—the hatred suggested is believable, as a corollary to racism and homophobia.

James Wilcox’s comic novel Heavenly Days is centered on a group of unstable relationships: no marriage fits established patterns and the sexual orientation of several characters remains ambiguous. A southern social world involving elegant properties, university life, women’s concerns, weight watching, religion, and unique businesses is presented. It is a fast-moving novel. The most serious aspect may be its treatment of a conflict involving political correctness in the filling of an academic position, but, for me, the novel is amusing without carrying a correspondent compelling heft. The book is an appealing satire, one that may benefit from reading a second time, and it is an accomplishment (the book achieves an aura of sophistication not typically identified with the south), but I wish that it had more impact when I closed the last page.

The Next Step in the Dance has a lot of believable texture, really creating a sense of a real though unique world: one in which marriage, family, place, and religion are important. The book is full of cousin and cousin that—the kind of thing that pleases many southerners but stresses my nerves. The two central characters Paul and Colette, a mechanic and bright pretty girl, are vivid, as they tug against their limitations and yearn toward their possibilities. This is a genuine novel—it allows the writer to introduce us to people we would not know otherwise, and we see them struggle for love and forgiveness, for money and stability. The writer creates a vision of community that is both redemptive and convincing (I must say, it brought tears to my eyes several times: but thinking of it now, I am a bit wary of that effect). Rather than a comedy of remarriage, it is a drama of remarriage, showing the tests people must go through to know, accept, and love each other. It is a conservative book, in that it affirms staying in the world one is born in.

Michael Jackson Spoke to Our Spirits

Our spirits are frustrated, if not repressed, in different areas of our lives: and art is a realm of freedom and confirmation.

For days after the announcement of Michael Jackson’s death it still seemed like a mean-spirited rumor, or a painful dream, regarding this man, a man of great talent and great conflicts, a man who wanted to be less and less real and more and more art.

I remember being a boy, and with my sister and cousins, listening and dancing to Michael Jackson’s music, enjoying his televised performances, and devouring magazines featuring he and his brothers—we knew their names, likes, and dislikes. When I was 18, I liked French film, modern art, rock music, Chekhov, jazz, John Irving, Toni Morrison, Gore Vidal, African music, Tennessee Williams, Bob Marley, Diana Ross, and Michael Jackson. Now, years later, I no longer read John Irving or listen to much Bob Marley, but I still like the music of Michael Jackson. Two weeks ago, I was lying in bed in my mother’s house, after many years of being away, and looking out the window, trying to think about goals for my future, listening to NPR when the news came on, Thursday at 6pm, that Michael Jackson had suffered cardiac arrest at his rented home, been taken to a hospital, and pronounced dead.

I liked that immediately radio programs hosted by Brian McKnight and Keith Sweat contained tributes to Jackson’s music. Flipping the radio dial, I was amused to hear the song “Pretty Young Thing” played over and over; and I wondered if anyone had a sense of irony about that (I recognized that it was being heard, very obviously, as a heterosexual male affirmation of desire). The Steve Harvey show on Saturday also contained warm tributes. (NPR had good interviews with Ann Powers, Jason King, Lenny Kravitz, Bryan Monroe, and Kelefa Sanneh, who was perceptive enough to note a particularly inventive song on the Invincible album.)

However, some media took it as an opportunity to revisit in detail whatever controversy and scandal had existed in Jackson’s life. Of course, public reputations are developed not only in response to observations and reported facts but by the monotonous repetition of certain attitudes and myths that force human ambiguity and complexity into caricature or demonology. The tabloid trash the public (and journalists) had dined on for years was being vomited up and digested anew.

In an interview Al Sharpton insisted that Michael Jackson was a genius not a freak—a claim that was made with a voice of strength rather than sentimentality, even more touching for that reason, but not entirely convincing. Does anyone know a black man is gifted if he doesn’t turn himself into a spectacle, into some kind of freak? I mean, Little Richard, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and Prince all loudly announce their difference—yielding larger than life images and larger than usual spaces in the dominant culture.

Yet, and yet again, it is Motown that produced black artists who embodied a recognizable humanity, a fullness of personality and potential: Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye. Their work embodies an intelligence, sensitivity, and sensuality—not only significant artistry but a humanity and civility—that is the very best of virtues available in any civilization. That was Michael Jackson’s inheritance. Did he claim enough of it?

Great claims have been made for Michael Jackson’s ability to surmount barriers, but others hurtled across some of those barriers before he did: not only the greats of Motown but also Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole and Lena Horne and Ethel Waters and …. It is not necessary to diminish or disrespect the accomplishments of others in order to praise Michael Jackson, who was great and whose greatness is only beginning to be defined or understood. Michael Jackson was, for instance, both a subtle and a passionate singer, as he was both a subtle and dynamically expressive dancer. He was a maker of new images and a synthesizer of old images. He seems to have sold more recordings than anyone in history. It is humbling, as well, to realize that often, for an artist, the same amount of belief, energy, and time goes into a work that is perceived as a failure as goes into one perceived as a success.

It was startling to hear on the day of Jackson’s memorial service a discussion on NPR featuring rock critic Bill Wyman and music journalist Nelson George in which Wyman claimed that Jackson was less significant than Elvis Presley because Elvis had created rock and roll: such a ridiculous assertion—that dismissed (black) Ike Turner, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino, on behalf of a popular (white) latecomer; and which flies in the face of Presley own declaration that he was doing what the colored people had been doing for years; such a ridiculous assertion should have been enough to disqualify Wyman from any further comment: but when has arrogant stupidity ever disqualified a white man from anything? One can look around and conclude that arrogant stupidity is a job requirement. Speaking of which: the vain and spiteful Robert Christgau, who produces online posts full of dumb self-obsession and uncontrolled self-promotion and makes a habit of complimenting well-placed colleagues and disdaining less successful ones, made a statement in which he suggested that based on the claim that he and his wife did not hear any Jackson music or discussion while on vacation in Vermont, Michael Jackson is less universal and universally acclaimed than has been declared by some. What an idiot! Christgau and Wyman and their ilk should have retired long ago. Luckily no one depends on these people for fundamental insights of any kind. Nelson George spoke of Jackson’s distinctive use of his voice, of his innovative creativity in video, of his cultivation of a global audience.

It is important to critique both the artist and his audience and his critics—as the values brought to art are ideological as much as aesthetic and personal. Some critics use (white) rock music to affirm white male appetite and privilege and they find various claims with which to dismiss black popular music. Black music tends to be valued for its relation to roots (a form of primitivism—a celebration of the noble savage, though this is masked by dubious notions of authenticity) and it is also valued for commercial sales (the ability to make money, rather than the ability to carry a style and content—values and virtues—that appeal to many). Often, Black music is valued in ways that do not support black authority or black intelligence. And, black critics tend to abandon black artists who are embraced by mainstream culture—though this is often when black artists need them most, both for their loyalty and for their critical clarity. How many black artists and black critics have a recognized critical authority—able to define ideas, styles, standards, and projects, as important? Wynton Marsalis insisted on his own critical authority and infuriated many, including arrogant stupid white men and black musicians who wanted to work without thinking of a wide range of concerns. The brilliant, idiosyncratic (and sometimes troubling) Armond White has infuriated many for similar reasons. Few black artists and critics are brave enough to make critical assertions in as direct a manner: rather, they hope that the work they do will speak for them, though that work sometimes goes unread or unheard and is sometimes, not infrequently, misperceived and misrepresented…

Michael Jackson has inspired much attention, emotion, and thought; and he will inspire more. Why? He was unique, he was great. Why? Our spirits are frustrated, if not repressed, in different areas of our lives: and art is a realm of freedom and confirmation.