1. Brutal policy,
    like inferior art, knows
    whose fault it all is.
    Les Murray, “Politics and Art”
  2. A knack is embodied singing
    in the brain’s right wing:
    to twirl a frail fire
    out of a stick
    gives measure to warm breath
    from the first snow evening
    and human history
    reignites from the trick.

    It’s only the left mind
    says before you die
    you and all you love
    will be obsolete —
    our right mind, that shaped
    this poem, paper, type-face,
    has powerful if wordless
    arguments against it.
    Les Murray, “From the Other Hemisphere”
  3. …the insidious cultural tendency of students to think of themselves as customers…

    Steve Almond

    People keep saying this, but it won’t change the simple fact that students are customers.  (And their teachers, by the way, are employees.)  Perhaps the more insidious cultural problem is the ubiquitous dissimulation of market relations as non-market relations.  For instance, Mr. Almond goes on to refer to my favorite term, “literary citizenship”—what is this but the salesman’s cant moralized?: “Subscribe to my magazine or else you’re a bad citizen!”  

    Much of what Almond discusses in his essay is true enough—our culture is rotten with a cheap, carping, spectatorial negativity.  We’ve forgotten that the spectator’s genuinely broader perspective—furnished by the contingency of distance—comes at the high cost of not acting, not creating.  Or rather, we haven’t forgotten it, but tried to repress it, and the resentful whine in our tone is the evidence of our guilty conscience: we piss and moan out of powerlessness, corralled in our media pens, and we know it.  I was an early adopter of this mode: you should have seen my blog in 2005, it was a pre-Twitter festival of unremitting outrage toward this or that.  And then I realized that not only was such a mode useless—worse than useless, in fact, because it was a stealth mode of advertising for what I supposedly thought pernicious, as all censorious discourse ultimately is—it was a waste of energy that could be put into creation of work I judged beautiful, interesting, and insightful.  Because making such work would put me into action, I would lose the spectator’s privilege of absolute judgment, but the rewards (the inner rewards, I mean) would be greater, and they have been.*

    But…college students—including those in non-funded MFA programs—are still customers, quite literally.   None of the foregoing changes that.  As a teacher, I handle this ineluctable fact in the following ways: 1. I transparently explain how what I teach will be useful and necessary to them; 2. I try to teach material of broad necessity and usefulness, scorning the tendency to use the courses I am assigned as mere platforms for my own niche interests (yes, professors, we may be aged and weary of Plato, Shakespeare, and Toni Morrison, but there are 18-year-olds who have not read them yet!); 3. I try to avoid making excessive and unnecessary moral judgments (“entitled!”) on students who, if their behavior is impolite, have simply not yet been taught any better.  When my students are wrong, I tell them—nothing in the exchange of services for money prevents that.  They may not accept my judgment, but that was the bargain made when we went from feudalism to capitalism.  Marx and Engels, after all, praised capitalism extravagantly in the beginning of the Manifesto, precisely because it put an end to the cultural coercions of power relations disguised as ethical relations (i.e., master and man as one happy family).  

    Art is a different matter, in that—unlike education, which may be formalized—it is always an ethical relation between the artist and the world.  I believe that art must be shielded from the hasty judgments of the market, at least for a time, usually by the mediation of public or private institutions willing to pay artists for “whatever,” trusting that the “whatever” will eventually prove itself valuable in ways not immediately visible to the money people. To that extent, art must be protected from its customers insofar as they have a consumer mentality.  This is because, among other things, mystery is essential to art, the unfathomable is the core of it, transparency is fatal to it.  Art, therefore, is anti-capitalist (also anti-socialist, as socialism too is the quantification of the spirit). Education’s rigors lie elsewhere, and while I won’t say there’s no mystery involved in it, the elements of contract, which have no place in literature itself because literature does not deal in fixed quantities, can be respected if one only makes the effort on either side.  

    * I’m not for a minute coming out against negative reviews; I write them myself—all the time!  I’m against ambient negativity, atmospheric sarcasm, a cultural tone in which nothing serious can be discussed.  Negative critical judgments are important and essential, as long as they are made with reference to and in service of higher values.    

  4. I remember my introduction to conceptual art. We were in the tenth grade, and our art class had a student teacher, a feminist raver (this was 1997 or so) from Penn State named Ms. Ziggler or something similar. One day she showed us a slide of Duchamp’s readymade, In Advance of the Broken Arm…

    An extended rumination on Knausgaard (also featuring Duchamp, Hegel, and almost every literary modernist you can think of), mainly about why I won’t be finishing his book…

  5. …one certainly does best to separate an artist from his work to the extent of not taking him as seriously as his work. He is the end only the precondition of his work, the womb, the ground, the fertilizer and manure on which, out of which, it grows,—and thus in most cases something one must forget if one wants to enjoy the work itself. Looking into the origins of a work is the business of physiologists and vivisectors of the spirit: never ever of the aesthetic human being, the artist!
    Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality (trans. Clark and Swensen)
  6. I am very much struck in literature by the appearance, that one person wrote all the books; as if the editor of a journal planted his body of reporters in different parts of the field of action, and relieved some by others from time to time; but there is such equality and identity both of judgment and point of view in the narrative, that it is plainly the work of one all-seeing, all-hearing gentleman. I looked into Pope’s Odyssey yesterday: it is as correct and elegant after our canon of today, as if it were newly written. The modernness of all good books seems to give me an existence as wide as man. What is well done, I feel as if I did; what is ill-done, I reck not of. Shakspeare’s passages of passion (for example, in Lear and Hamlet) are in the very dialect of the present year. I am faithful again to the whole over the members in my use of books. I find the most pleasure in reading a book in a manner least flattering to the author. I read Proclus, and sometimes Plato, as I might read a dictionary, for a mechanical help to the fancy and the imagination. I read for the lustres, as if one should use a fine picture in a chromatic experiment, for its rich colors. ‘Tis not Proclus, but a piece of nature and fate that I explore. It is a greater joy to see the author’s author, than himself. A higher pleasure of the same kind I found lately at a concert, where I went to hear Handel’s Messiah. As the master overpowered the littleness and incapableness of the performers, and made them conductors of his electricity, so it was easy to observe what efforts nature was making through so many hoarse, wooden, and imperfect persons, to produce beautiful voices, fluid and soul-guided men and women. The genius of nature was paramount at the oratorio.

    This preference of the genius to the parts is the secret of that deification of art, which is found in all superior minds. Art, in the artist, is proportion, or, a habitual respect to the whole by an eye loving beauty in details. And the wonder and charm of it is the sanity in insanity which it denotes. Proportion is almost impossible to human beings. There is no one who does not exaggerate. In conversation, men are encumbered with personality, and talk too much. In modern sculpture, picture, and poetry, the beauty is miscellaneous; the artist works here and there, and at all points, adding and adding, instead of unfolding the unit of his thought. Beautiful details we must have, or no artist: but they must be means and never other. The eye must not lose sight for a moment of the purpose. Lively boys write to their ear and eye, and the cool reader finds nothing but sweet jingles in it. When they grow older, they respect the argument.
    Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Nominalist and Realist"
  7. Pistelli/Paglia

    My review of Glittering Images is live at Rain Taxi.  I see I got the name of a Star Wars film wrong at least once; shows what I think of Paglia’s thesis that George Lucas is the greatest artist of our time.  Nevertheless it is—and I hope this won’t annoy anyone too much—a laudatory review.

  8. image: Download

    As promised, my brief commentary on Ryan Spahr's art show, Post-Paranoia, debuting tonight at Little Amps Coffee Roasters in Harrisburg, PA. The painting series is based on the opening credit sequence of The X-Files.  For a look at the paintings, go here.  For a text version of my essay, go here.

    As promised, my brief commentary on Ryan Spahr's art show, Post-Paranoia, debuting tonight at Little Amps Coffee Roasters in Harrisburg, PA. The painting series is based on the opening credit sequence of The X-Files.  For a look at the paintings, go here.  For a text version of my essay, go here.

  9. Is this [Cézanne’s ‘canonicity’] “enough”? Not for Danchev, who claims both at the start of his biography and at its conclusion that Cézanne’s “impact on our world, and our conception of our world, is comparable to that of Marx or Freud”. This seems more an enthusiastic, loving flourish than a sustainable argument. Alex Danchev quotes Bresson saying that Cézanne “went to the brink of what could not be done”. This may be true, but painting has continued, and art has changed, sometimes building on Cézanne’s discoveries, sometimes not. Has our daily vision really become Cézannified? Is it as full of his visual tropes as our mental lives are of Marxian or Freudian tropes? At this point the reader might, like one of the painter’s card players allowed to unfreeze for a moment, rap the table quietly and murmur, “Pass”.

    Julian Barnes

    (Fair enough.  But if our daily vision and mental lives were more Cézannified, then surely at least a few of the problems Marx and Freud rightly set out and sadly failed to correct would take care of themselves.)

  10. Anti-art movements are vital when there is actually an art establishment that has cultural weight and power. But when society is ruled by popular culture, as it is now, anti-art gestures serve no purpose whatever and are positively destructive.
  11. Warhol has become his own ism. Warholism is the dominant ism of our day, grounded as it is in the assumption that popular culture trumps all other culture, and that all culture must become popular culture in order to succeed, and that this new high-plus-pop synergy relieves everybody of the responsibility to experience works of art one on one.


    The argument is that we are all soulless in the Warhol way, all victims of cultural anesthesia. And if you question these assumptions or attempt to change the conversation, you will be told that you have done nothing of the kind. If we are all Warholians, then even our distaste for Warhol is a Warholian act.

  12. Modern Marsyas

    The 10 Best Scary Paintings

    by Laura Cumming

    6. The Flaying of Marsyas: Titian, c1570-75

    10 best ... Flaying

    Photograph: National Gallery, London

    This frightening picture shows the satyr Marsyas receiving his punishment for losing a musical contest with Apollo: strung upside down, his skin flayed inch by inch, while a spaniel laps the blood and another musician – excruciatingly – accompanies on the violin. The surface of the canvas itself appears flayed, an incoherent mass, almost monochrome except for bloody streaks of crimson. Close up, every stroke blurs softly into the next, as if Titian couldn’t paint such a vision of horror without lending it a sorrowful grace. He puts himself into the painting, too (seated on the right) pondering the torture with sadness.


    Art never expresses anything but itself. This is the principle of my new aesthetics; and it is this, more than that vital connection between form and substance, on which Mr. Pater dwells, that makes music the type of all the arts. Of course, nations and individuals, with that healthy natural vanity which is the secret of existence, are always under the impression that it is of them that the Muses are talking, always trying to find in the calm dignity of imaginative art some mirror of their own turbid passions, always forgetting that the singer of life is not Apollo but Marsyas. Remote from reality, and with her eyes turned away from the shadows of the cave, Art reveals her own perfection, and the wondering crowd that watches the opening of the marvellous, many-petalled rose fancies that it is its own history that is being told to it, its own spirit that is finding expression in a new form. But it is not so. The highest art rejects the burden of the human spirit, and gains more from a new medium or a fresh material than she does fromany enthusiasm for art, or from any lofty passion, or from any great awakening of the human consciousness. She develops purely on her own lines. She is not symbolic of any age. It is the ages that are her symbols.

    Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying

    When Marsyas was ‘torn from the scabbard of his limbs’ - DELLA VAGINA DELLA MEMBRE SUE, to use one of Dante’s most terrible Tacitean phrases - he had no more song, the Greek said. Apollo had been victor. The lyre had vanquished the reed. But perhaps the Greeks were mistaken. I hear in much modern Art the cry of Marsyas. It is bitter in Baudelaire, sweet and plaintive in Lamartine, mystic in Verlaine. It is in the deferred resolutions of Chopin’s music. It is in the discontent that haunts Burne- Jones’s women. Even Matthew Arnold, whose song of Callicles tells of ‘the triumph of the sweet persuasive lyre,’ and the ‘famous final victory,’ in such a clear note of lyrical beauty, has not a little of it; in the troubled undertone of doubt and distress that haunts his verses, neither Goethe nor Wordsworth could help him, though he followed each in turn, and when he seeks to mourn for THYRSIS or to sing of the SCHOLAR GIPSY, it is the reed that he has to take for the rendering of his strain. But whether or not the Phrygian Faun was silent, I cannot be. Expression is as necessary to me as leaf and blossoms are to the black branches of the trees that show themselves above the prison walls and are so restless in the wind. Between my art and the world there is now a wide gulf, but between art and myself there is none. I hope at least that there is none.

    —Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

  13. The arts have often flourished in regimes we’d call despotic. This isn’t because artists and writers do their best work when they’re being persecuted - a Romantic cliche that doesn’t stand up to any careful inquiry.

    It’s because traditional tyrants left a good deal of freedom in society. Ancient China wasn’t anything like a modern democracy, but it produced some of the greatest art there’s ever been, while Mao’s China produced nothing. Tsarist Russia contained many kinds of discrimination and injustice, but in the late 19th and early 20th Century it was in the vanguard of literature, painting, music and dance. The Soviet Union produced little that was even remotely comparable. The arts flourished in the empire of the Habsburgs, while Nazism produced Leni Riefenstahl’s repugnant and much over-rated Triumph of the Will. Whereas authoritarian regimes leave much of society alone, totalitarianism aims to control everything. Invariably, the result is a cultural desert.

    Culture may not need democracy or peace, but it can’t develop without some measure of freedom - and that requires a diversity of centres of influence, working openly and at times in opposition to one another.