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.