I’ve just arrived in sunny (yes sunny!) Seattle, where I’ll be speaking at the Seattle Opera’s Wagner Symposium. The title of the talk is “Mark Twain: A Perfectly Average Wagnerite,” taking Twain’s report on his visit to Bayreuth in 1891 and his comments on Wagner in A Tramp Abroad as my main texts. Here’s a sample of what I’ll be saying:
There is no justification for calling Twain a secret Wagnerite, or a perfect Wagnerite, but he might be called a perfectly average Wagnerite, an intelligent, musically adept man who made a serious effort, over a substantial part of his life, to understand and enjoy Wagner’s music. His doubts reflect a classic paradox in the American character: He knew there are things we must learn to like, yet he found it ridiculous that pleasure should require work of any sort. Affectation and pretension horrified him, especially when it came to opera, which was loaded with class issues. The old Puritan in him respected the work of connoisseurship, but the Mississippi River pragmatist suspected any sin against commonsense, and worshipped simple pleasures like a religious dogma.
“What a poor lot we human beings are, anyway,” he wrote in 1878. “If base music gives me wings, why should I want any other? But I do. I want to like the higher music because the higher & better like it. But you see I want to like it without taking the necessary trouble & giving the whole thing the necessary amount of time & attention.” Twain respected work, above almost all other things, and like many people who love work, he considered himself lazy. He liked to hear his daughter Clara “banging away on the piano,” she remembered in her biography of him. “Work is the darlingest recreation this world and whomsoever Nature has fitted to love it, is armed against care and sorrow.” For a man who probably didn’t believe in any thing supernatural, who found little spiritual consolation during a life filled with personal loss, art was work and work was redemption.
If you’re in Seattle, come down to the symposium. Meanwhile, I’m going out to enjoy the brilliant day.
There’s only a week or so left on the Folger Shakespeare Library’s exhibition, “The Curatorial Eye,” which is billed as “discoveries from the Folger vault.” But it’s worth making an effort to get there. It’s a potpourri show, with various curators and specialists from the Folger highlighting curiosities they’ve uncovered. That might lead to a diffuse show but, as I argue in a review of the exhibition, just the opposite results:
Passion, it turns out, matters in the museum world. And a show that follows the curiosity and passion of the people most knowledgeable about the museum’s holdings turns out to be consistently fascinating. It might even be seen as a show about a question fundamental to the long-term purpose and the daily work of every important library in the world: What is interesting?
To read more about swimming manuals, magic books, censor’s notes and lost-and-found 7th century manuscripts.…
Filed under Culture, Museums
Sorry folks, if you’re visiting to find out more about the Obama as Joker poster, this is the right website but the wrong post. This post is for the opera crowd, who are busy bees on the internet bulletin board circuit. That’s the subject of a short essay I wrote for the September issue of Opera News. Here’s the opening:
If you want to comprehend the dismal spectrum of humanity, compare the user comments on two websites. At Liveleak.com, a portal that posts violent police and war videos, the public forum is filled with racist rants and callous celebrations of death. Now check out DailyPuppy.com, where four-legged puffballs with floppy ears inspire liberal use of the exclamation point and the shorthand acronyms of English run through the texting ringer.
Here’s a sample from DailyPuppy.com, culled from the entry for Shade the baby Weimaraner: “OMG Shade you are soooooooooooo cute. Big hugs and cuddles sweetheart.” Comment boards rack up hundreds of entries, the biscuit-based voting system (which, like the amplifier on Spinal Tap, runs on a scale from one to eleven) rarely registers fewer than 10.75 biscuits per pup, and day after day, puppy after puppy, not one person has anything nasty to say about the daily doggy.
Filed under Culture, Opera
But before leaving, I finished a quick little look at the Town Hall meeting phenomenon, from a historical and semantic point of view. Research for the piece took me to the Library of Congress, where I spent some time with Frank M. Bryan’s “Real Democracy: The New England Town Hall Meeeting and How it Works.” A good look at the present state of the town meeting as an actual form of governance. Worth hunting down in used book stores.
On Sunday at 4:30 p.m., the best selection of the National Gallery’s Carl Theodor Dreyer festival is screened. I wrote about the series a few weeks ago. This is a reminder: For anyone who has equivocated about attending, Sunday is the day to commit. Ordet is a masterpiece and a deeply moving study of God, faith, doubt and decency. I’ve had a few moments when I’ve thought of converting. Once, in a church in Rome, when the organist began playing Frescobaldi. A few times in the Sierra Nevada, at sunset. And, most recently, watching Ordet.
My article on the Obama as Joker posters led to a huge deluge of email, and a short appearance on MSNBC on Thursday. Here’s a clip.
The same clip was posted on YouTube by another entity, the FIN, which has a website devoted to resisting the New World Order. Watch through to the end to see a commercial for South Dakota’s Underground Militia. A fascinating example of how media clips now circulate.
For years I reserved a special animus against the Flipper show, the dolphin drama that had a popular run in the 1960s. It wasn’t the cute cetaceans, it was the show’s title, which is also a nickname anyone named Philip must resist, at home and abroad, until you pass out of the age when adorable diminutives seem to apply. A new film, The Cove, features Ric O’Barry, the dolphin trainer turned activist, whose dolphins we remember from the Flipper show. He now works against the capture of dolphins (for aquariums and live dolphin shows) and the far more disturbing practice of dolphin slaughter in places such as Taiji, Japan. The film follows the efforts of O’Barry and a film production crew (led by National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos) to film the grisly proceedings in Taiji. This is one of those rare documentaries that aims for the pacing and entertainment drive of a feature film, and yet still manages to pack in a lot of basic information and argument. As I say in my review, it’s tendentious and by no means objective, and it may elevate dolphin consciousness a bit higher than science is quite ready to accept (surely someone is smarter than he…). But it makes its arguments openly and honestly.
*Genuine lyric from Flipper theme song.
I think we need to distinguish between those three ideas if we’re to have a meaningful conversation about race. I can tell from the Blackberry (furiously ringing with email alerts) and the statistics page of this blog there are some new comers today, perhaps looking for the author of a Washington Post article about those now infamous posters of President Obama with the Joker’s makeup superimposed on his face. Welcome. I try not to deal with politics here (so read on for more about movies, opera, music, architecture and cartoon ducks). But I offer another link, from the campaign last year, that demonstrates how I think race operates in popular culture under the level of explicit consciousness. So if you have any patience with this kind of reasoning after reading the Obama/Joker article, here’s an analysis of those famous white columns and classical architectural elements that got so much attention before last year’s Democratic National Convention.
Washington is a tough city for art. We are stewards of some of the finest art ever produced. And we are also a smallish city living in the shadow of the country’s cultural capital, New York. How does a newspaper review events at the National Gallery, and then turn around and look at the local gallery scene? Should the same standards apply?
I spent two weekends bicycling the city to look at the results of Art on Call, a public art project created by Cultural Tourism DC and funded (in part) by the city’s Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Local artists and neighborhood activists have decorated 122 (and counting) old police and fire call boxes, cast-iron urban furniture dating back to the 1860s. The goal was a mix of art and history.
Like all art, public art has a very high failure rate. Professional artists, if they are any good, hide or destroy the misfiring and imperfect realization of the creative impulse. But public art is founded on the arguable assumption that art is fundamentally a good thing (and good for you) and that artists should be empowered relatively equally, without too much concern for what is good and bad art. And so projects like Art on Call tend to put the whole iceberg of art on display, not just the tip of excellence.
Which leads to a strange dissonance in the downtown neighborhood known as the Golden Triangle. Mary Grigonis has contributed some moody paintings that capture city life (a street scene outside a Metro stop, a restaurant interior). They aren’t bad paintings — in fact, they are better than much of what Art on Call puts on display — but because they depict city life in the midst of real city life, they invite invidious comparison. And the art seems less lively, less engaging, than the world around it. In this case, the actual form of the call box works to the disadvantage of the artist. These little iron sculptures are reminders of an age of design when things were meant to be beautiful and long-lasting, which makes a strange contrast with art that feels more ephemeral and passing.
At its best, the results are imaginative and surprising, little bursts of oddity in a city that keeps its public image very button-down. But it’s also uneven, and it raises questions about public art. What models produce the best work? Should some kind of uniform standard apply? Which I tried to address in a piece published on Sunday. Folks in Tenleytown are not pleased.
I visited Colombia a few months ago and was intrigued by a building I encountered in the Candelaria neighborhood. The architect was Rogelio Salmona, the country’s premiere architect, and it was one of his last works. And not one of his best. To see those, check out the fine little show at the Art Museum of the Americas. It makes a nice low key contrast to their Niemeyer show last year, and it has something to say to anyone who lives in a brick town. That means you, Washington. For my review….
Image: The National Archives in Bogota, photographed by Enrique Guzman, courtesy of the Art Museum of the Americas