Thursday, February 5, 2015

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Latino Art

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Latino Art by literary scholar Ilan Stavans and philosopher Jorge Gracia is a series of dialogues about art, thought, and society, in which Ilan Stavans and Jorge Gracia discuss how words help to create the world, and express the self; and the centrality of conversation in philosophy, with knowledge identified, shared, and refined, endlessly refined.  The artists the two elegant, sensitive thinkers Stavans and Gracia consider in Thirteen Ways of Looking at Latino Art (Duke Univ. Press, 2014) are: Einar and James de la Torre, Maria Brito, Andres Serrano, Francisco Oller, Maria Yampolsky, Carmen Lomas Garza, Bear_Tck, Jose Bedia, Luis Cruz Azaceta, Martin Ramirez, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, and Adal, Latino artists of varying countries.  Gracia sees the Americas, particularly Latin America, as a region giving birth to new peoples.  The art the two men, Gracia and Stavans, look at embody that multiplicity, with a plenitude of styles: complex and simple, original and derivative, traditional and modern, local and international, realist and surreal; and the scholars’ concerns are philosophical.  Considering Socrates, that master of speculative dialogue, Jorge Gracia says, “Socrates is without a doubt the epitome of the philosopher, and his life is the paradigm of the philosophical life.  What did he do?  He was sort of a bum” (page 4).  In discussing Maria Brito’s oil painting “Conversation” (1984), with its spare modern look, featuring three identical persons facing each other, seeming to wear masks, Ilan Stavans speaks of how easily identity can shift.  Francisco Oller’s “El Veloria (The Wake)” (1893) commemorates a child’s death in a provincial island scene, suggesting grief and caste stratification.  Looking at Carmen Garza’s oil and gold leaf painting “Heaven and Hell” (1991), in which the brightly covered top half features dancing couples, and the dark bottom half features workers toiling near several fires, the division between the two seem aesthetic, financial, geographic, and spiritual.  Luis Cruz Azaceta’s acrylic work “Slaughter” (2010) shows war as a landscape of stacked, butchered limbs, an elemental image, cruel and true.  Ilan Stavans and Jorge Gracia bring rich images and all kinds of ideas and perspectives to bear in their stimulating conversation.

Excerpt: Freedom, Knowledge, Power: The State of the Nation and Its Arts, circa 2015 (Jan. 23, 2015), posted by The Compulsive Reader.              

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

On Music Criticism

Writer's Note: I have been reading the new books by Toni Morrison and Henry Louis Gates Jr., enjoying films such as A Dangerous Method and Tree of Life, and diverse music.  However, this internet log, originally intended to focus on visual art, particularly on gallery reviews, is on hiatus...


In March some of the films I screened are: The Art of Getting By, The Contract, Cowboys & Aliens, Dream House, 50/50, The Guard, Harry Potter (Deathly Hallows, 1 & 2), Hell and Back Again, The Hunters, The Ides of March, Melancholia, as well as the first two seasons of Luther, featuring Idris Elba, and Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce, with Kate Winslet.  I know George Clooney’s The Ides of March, based on the play Farragut North, has been called cynical, but I thought it was good at explaining how some of the regrettable compromises occur in politics: that financial, personal, and professional, as well as political, pressures exist and work on politicians, distracting them from high ideals.  Many people do not understand why things are as they are, and this is one of the films that help to explain that. 

Time moves quickly; and it is hard to believe that it is only days away from being April.  The year has had its tumult.  I have been focused on writing some music commentary, and have an idea for writing focused on significant African-American films, as well as a slow-growing fiction project—but have felt frustration regarding the professional reception of a completed work.  The larger world has not been still or serene: the accidental death of singer Whitney Houston, the contentious and mind-dimming Republican primaries, the ongoing violence in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the street murder of a young black man Trayvon Martin are facts in the news, facts that trouble the heart.

I have just read Rick Moody’s On Celestial Music, his collection of rather long-winded, thoughtful, and impressively sensitive and wide-ranging music essays (he discusses Meredith Monk, the Magnetic Fields, Wilco, the Lounge Lizards, and Pete Townsend, as well as experimental music, spirituality, music standards, computers in music, and more).  As well, I have begun reading Blackness in Opera, an essay anthology on classical, folk, and popular music, on opera, racial politics, and public ethics and image, edited by Naomi Andre, Karen Bryan, and Eric Saylor…I had wondered, at different times over a period of years, about the history of black music criticism, and recently passed on a query about this to the Center for Black Music Research, and received a response from a librarian there (Thank you, Ms. Flandreau); a useful list of references:  
Historiography
Dougan, John M. “Two steps from the blues: creating discourse and constructing canons in blues criticism.” (Thesis: College of William and Mary, 2001)

Floyd, Samuel a., Jr. “Black music and writing black music history: American music and narrative strategies.” Black Music Research Journal 28:1 (2008) p. 111-121.

Garabedian, Steven Patrick. “Reds, whites, and blues: blues music, white scholarship, and American cultural politics.” (Thesis: University of Minnesota, 2004).

Maultsby, Portia K., Burnim, Mellonee V., and Oehler, Susan E. “Intellectual history,” In: African American Music: An Introduction. (New York: Routledge, 2006) pp. 7-32.

Radano, Ronald Michael. “Narrating black music’s past.” Radical History Review 84 (2002) p. 115-

Ramsey, Guthrie P., Jr. “Cosmopolitan of provincial? Ideology in early black music historiography, 1867-1940.” Black Music Rsearch Journal 16 (1996) p. 11-42.

Ramsey, Guthrie P., Jr. “The pot liquor principle: developing a black music criticism in American music studies.” American Music 22 (2004) p. 284-295.

Ramsey, Guthrie P. “Secrets, lies and transcriptions: revisions on race, black music and culture.” In: Western music and race, ed. Brown, Julie. (Cambridge: Cambrdge University Press, 2007). Pp. 24-36.

Ramsey, Guthrie P., Jr., and  Angermueller, Rudolph. “Who hears here? Black music, critical bias, and the musicological skin trade.” The Musical Quarterly 85 (2001) p. 1-52.

Strong, Willie F. “Philosophies of African American Music History.” (Thesis: UCLA, 1994).

Wilkinson, Christopher. “A new master narrative of Western musical history: an American perspective.” In: De-canonizing music history. (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2009) p. 37-48.

Anthologies:

Brackett, David, ed. The pop, rock and soul reader. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Clark, Andrew, ed. Riffs and choruses: a new jazz anthology. New York: Continuum, 2001.

Conyers, James L., Jr. ed. African American jazz and rap: social and philosophical examinations of black expressive behavior. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001.

Koenig, Karl, ed. Jazz in print (1856-1929): an anthology of selected early readings. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2002.

Lornell, Kip, ed. From jubilee to hip hop: readings in African American music. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2010.

O’Meally, Robert G., ed. The jazz cadence of American culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Perkins, William Eric, ed. Droppin’ science: critical essays on rap music and hip hop culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

Tracy, Steven C., ed. Write me a few of your lines: a blues reader. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.  

An African-American Film Canon

...If one wants to consider modern life, one can look at Antwone Fisher, Boomerang, Claudine, Eve’s Bayou, One Night Stand, Paris Blues, Sidewalk Stories, To Sleep with Anger, and A Warm December.  If one wants to examine work issues, Blue Collar and Edge of the City and Red Violin and Matewan can be screened.  The arts, including the dangerous temptations surrounding the struggle to survive as an artist, form the tableaux for Basquiat, Bird, The Five Heartbeats, Lady Sings the Blues, and Round Midnight.  Romance and sex are the focus of Love Jones and Jumping the Broom.  Spiritual heritage is a theme of Daughters of the Dust.  It is now an exciting prospect to think about films featuring or by African-Americans, or focused on African-American subjects and themes, and their relation to standards of originality, creativity, depth, insight, formal structure, beauty, elegance, accessibility, durability, use as models, translatability, and entertainment value...Films that have been made by and star African-Americans that are worthy of being in a canon include: Antwone Fisher, Boomerang, Chameleon Street, Daughters of the Dust, Devil in a Blue Dress, Eve’s Bayou, Ganja and Hess, Get on the Bus, The Great Debaters, Jumping the Broom, Losing Ground, Sankofa, and Sidewalk Stories.   

(Excerpt: Notes on an African-American Canon in Cinema
On Sidewalk Stories, Daughters of the Dust, Eve’s Bayou and other films)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Notes on Looking

I think that when I first began to visit galleries and museums regularly, I would spend as much time reading as looking at the art: the art descriptions, whether in sheets of descriptions and lists or wall labels, were read for whatever information or insight they might give.  I could spend three hours or more at a museum, seeing each thing, reading about each thing, and leave exhausted, my eyes red, my legs stiff.  It took time—maybe years—for me to begin to relax, and just look at the art, allowing what was interesting to hold my attention, and what was not as something I could pass quickly and guiltlessly.  If I wanted more information than what was on the canvas—if I had an additional question—then I would read what was available.  What caught my attention during one visit might be the same thing that attracted me during the next visit—or not.  My visits became much shorter, more frequent, more entertaining, more intellectually engaging.  I thought more about what I was seeing, and I felt a greater transmission of energy from the work to me: the work of Rembrandt, Cezanne, Monet, Thomas Eakins, Gaugin, John Singer Sargent, Picasso, Edward Hopper, Wilfredo Lam, Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, Eric Fischl, many others.  I could be held by a small detail or a large vision, a face, a figure, a landscape, a color or a form, an atmosphere or a mood.  Finally, seeing art became as much a spiritual as aesthetic experience.  It can be hard to convey that to people for whom art is an alien enterprise.  When you recommend art, they can respond as if you are advocating education, pretension, or tedium, rather than pleasure.  That is very sad, but understandable.  Looking at art can be a strange experience, whether or not you have taken classes in art.  Each piece is different, each thing may be telling you something unique; and so many of our responses are conditioned by habit.  Being open is key.


There are artists I like but would like to know more about: among others, Jan Van Eyck, Paulo Uccello, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Albrecht Durer, Antonia da Corregio, Paolo Veronese, Annibale Carraci, Diego Velazquez, Claude Lorraine, Canaletto, Joshua Reynolds, Goya, Jacques-Louis David, J.M.W. Turner, John Constable, Theo Gericault, Eugene Delacroix, Adolph Menzel, Gustave Courbet, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Alfred Sisley, Gwen John, Paul Klee, Max Beckmann, Robert Delauney, Max Ernst, Rufino Tamayo, David Smith, Sigmar Polke, Chris Ofili, Jenny Saville, and Shirana Shahbazi.

Green Lantern vs. Captain America

It seems that Ryan Reynolds is directed as Hal, on whom special cosmic duties are thrust, by Martin Campbell, in the movie Green Lantern to hit expected heroic and sentimental notes, one key to the more formulaic aspects of the movie (the early childhood trauma of a pilot father’s death producing obvious, sustained moments of professional and personal paralysis; and the assurances of safety and stability given to a young boy, a nephew).  Reynolds has shown himself able to evade those predictable moments with fresh acting in other movies; among them, Definitely, Maybe and The Proposal and The Change-Up.  Yet, Reynolds remains likable enough for the viewer to tolerate these instances of bland stiffness.  Chris Evans, good in Push and The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond and another hero film franchise, seems to be allowed by Joe Johnston in Captain America both sensitivity and intelligence as well as heroic resources, and that seems the key to a more fluid, satisfying movie (as a physical weakling given a new body to fulfill his desire to serve his country, Evans thinks idiosyncratically and responds emotionally and maintains purpose; for instance, jumping on a grenade to protect others while more muscular men hide).  Both movies are entertaining, and the sensuous Blake Lively as a pilot and manager is vivid in Green Lantern and Peter Sarsgaard as a beleaguered scientist has some good moments (his quietly spoken welcome to the alien may be the sweetest thing in the movie).  Hayley Atwell as a woman military officer and friend and Stanley Tucci as a doctor, and other actors, Tommy Lee Jones, Dominic Cooper, and Derek Luke among them, fill out the effective cast in Captain America.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Francis Coppola's The Godfather


The Godfather, Parts I and II
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Paramount, 1972 and 1974

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, based on Mario Puzo’s novel, is a masterpiece, and its deep engagement is one of both style and content: its story is not only about the induction of one young man into a crime family—there is something more elemental beneath that, something about innocence and experience, idealism and pragmatism.  The Godfather is one story featuring an Italian crime family, told in two parts (two films that can be screened or seen as one), with three main narrative sections; and it is about the inevitable discovery of the deep cruelty and violence of the world, and accepting and mastering those realities.  A young Italian man chooses what is over what could be: he betrays his best self and his love and even members of his family to survive in a cruel, violent world.  He becomes the cruelty, the violence.  Everything is done in the name of family, but it is hard to see or know what private family life is worth—that seems small and mundane in relation to family as a business enterprise, in relation to money and power, with much remaining unspoken (well, not exactly unspoken: spoken and ignored).

In light of the fact that little could be said to be at stake—the son of a major criminal becomes a criminal, and he and other criminals try to kill each other, one would think that the story would have less grasp of the imagination of the viewer, but its grasp is secure thanks to the attitude, atmosphere, and tone of The Godfather.  The film’s language, its style of telling its story, are compelling, satisfying; and the film makes the viewer comfortable in a volatile world.  The locations, whether in New York or Italy, high life or low, seem historically accurate, and vivid, and the acting is confident, earthy, and the often slow pace natural.  A sense of reality is created, and of drama within that reality.  As well, seeing some people outwitting other people remains exciting: often what makes a film intriguing is the strategic use of intelligence, though that is not necessarily what we are thinking about as we watch.  One writer that I admire, Pauline Kael, liked the film; and another, James Baldwin, disdained it, seeing in its violence a betrayal of human nobility.

Part I is focused on an old, powerful criminal, a don, and his granting of favors before his daughter’s wedding, the wedding activities, and the don’s subsequent rejection of a business proposition, a rejection that produces a violent reaction that leads to his war-hero son, for whom there had been high hopes, becoming involved in the criminal world.  Part II is about the childhood and early life of the old criminal, and also about what happens after the old criminal’s promising son becomes part of the criminal world.  Marlon Brando is, of course, impressive as the old don, Vito, Don Corleone, a father of three sons (Santino, Fredo, and Michael), a man who has achieved his own kind of wisdom, though his bit of buffoonery before his final demise is trademark (was Brando’s insistence on humor a way of giving a character more life, or a way of mocking everything—or both?).  James Caan as Santino, called Sonny, is good too, intense, tough, humorous, though his body being torn apart by bullets—the jerky gestures—have become inspiration for both actors and satirists.  It was Al Pacino as Vito’s son, the young then aging, more lethal Michael, and Robert DeNiro as young Vito, the struggling immigrant who becomes the young don, who were most impressive—uniquely attractive men and greatly resourceful actors.  Their intensity and ability to suggest movement from morality to immorality, with its physical and spiritual effects, are remarkable: depth and strength accrue to their intelligence and masculinity, while lights go out in whatever areas in their personality house sensitivity or spontaneity.  However DeNiro as Vito is able to suggest some amusement and sympathy that Pacino’s Michael seems too cold and too shrewd, really too small, for: the new don, Vito’s son Michael, is a more inventive criminal than his father and a smaller man.  The Godfather is a great story, about an Italian family and the creation of American monsters.

The women—Michael’s sister Connie (Talia Shire) and Michael’s wife Kay (Diane Keaton)—who are aware and have some emotional or spiritual life are the ones who suffer: they cannot quite make themselves small or simple enough to fit into the boxes made by others for them.  Individual wants or needs are ignored if they do not fit into family business plans.  The girlish Connie is introduced to a young man by her brother Sonny, and after her marriage she is a mousey wife with a rebellious temper, and following her husband’s death, enacted by the family in vengeance, she is glittering, driven, wild, and then when her mother dies she accepts regret and responsibility.  Diane Keaton as Kay is very pretty, prettier and possibly more traditionally sensuous than usual, and her voice is mostly controlled, not fluttering or flighty, but that voice does not have as much energy as I imagine it should (I wonder if Keaton and Woody Allen, for whom Keaton portrayed an eccentric Annie Hall, had a rapport built on recognized depression).  Kay cannot accept a compromised life, and the constant threat of violence.  When she faces Michael late in the story, Kay’s face is full of awareness and apprehension, and the viewer intuits affection, before Michael closes the door against her.  Family business could be an allegory for business everywhere, only more bloody.  The Godfather was violent for its time, but its violence does not feel as painful or seem as gruesome as some of the excruciating violence we see now in film.  It did raise the level and believability of film violence, and remains echoed in current films (it seems as if the tolerance for violence, as well as vulgarity, is always being broadened). 

The Godfather dramatizes the fact of act and consequence: one family does something, and another family reacts.  It is survival won and lost with amoral intelligence and assaultive force on a brutal level.  One watches the two parts of The Godfather entertained by its story, and feeling as if something more significant is being touched.

Art & Trash

How much reality can art hold?  The late sixteenth-century Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio drew from life and painted that, even included known figures in mythological scenes, with some of his work getting disapproval for its realism.  Gustave Courbet painted peasants at a country funeral, A Burial at Ornans (1849), a scene of surprising and simple dignity.  Marcel Duchamp, in the early twentieth century, signed a readymade urinal R. Mutt, and called it art.  Robert Rauschenberg put pieces together, some of which might have been considered garbage, in what were called “combine” pictures or sculptures.  In the quest for beauty, is what used to be left out of art, the mundane and the trashy, what is real, what is true?  Or is the essence, the ideal, the accomplishment of virtue against ordinary and great odds, the true?  Is the presence of what had been absent in previous times the content that makes modern art real, and true?  Is the garbage now perceptible in art—whether painting and sculpture, film, music, or literature—what makes art more recognizable and relevant, or much less meaningful?  

Serious art, often made for a selected few rather than a large mass, has often struggled with how much fact, or truth, to let in.  It can be interesting to note what happens when revelations reach a popular level.  Watching The Change-Up (2011), a movie with Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds, directed by David Dobkin, I was compelled to think again about comic vulgarity in popular film.  In the movie, two friends, one a businessman married with children, and the other a drug-using most unemployed actor, envy the stability or freedom in the other’s lives, and after a quirk of magic, each man’s personality or spirit wake up in each other’s bodies.  Bateman has mastered the ordinary part of a capable and professional, middle-class man who is not particularly self-assertive, and Reynolds, often an attractive go-getter, is proving himself able to take on an increasing range of roles, as here, as a dopey, flaky man.  The film, which contains some realism about adult responsibility and immature laziness, contains a lot of humor regarding the body, not only in terms of sexual references but with what used to be called toilet humor (there are several toilet scenes in this movie).  Of course, I thought of other films with a similar sensibility, in which what used to be unsayable now seems a great reason for, or strategy in, doing a film: Seth Gordon’s Horrible Bosses (2011), in which Jennifer Aniston plays a dentist that harasses her assistant with graphic sexual language; and the Farrelly Brothers’ Hall Pass (2011), in which wives give their husbands permission for short-term cheating (during the course of the film we are presented with contrasting full-frontal male nudity—showing male genitals used to be taboo).  All three films allow a certain slippage, a certain ambiguity, in how the men relate to each other’s bodies (in Horrible Bosses, there is a brief talk about whom would be the most rape-worthy in prison; and in The Change-Up, after the men change bodies, each notices intimate things about the other’s body, and one says he is tempted to kiss his own male member, and later the other masturbates while inhabiting his friend’s body).  It is the kind of consciousness that would not exist without feminism and the gay liberation movement, but, while absorbing the rewards and mining the humor, pays no significant regard to political consciousness.  The thing is, these movies offer scenarios that many people can relate to: they are situation comedies of work and love focused on attractive people entering middle age and confronting the choices they have made; and they cannot be said to be merely superficial or exploitative—but the vulgar humor in them is a great part of their power and appeal.

While allowing for the use of waste in art and entertainment, what are we giving up?  While applauding or laughing at all this shit, what are we doing without?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Scarlett Johansson and Vermeer

Scarlett Johansson is featured in a recent issue of Vanity Fair magazine (December 2011), wearing haute couture clothes—Givenchy, Armani Prive, Alexander McQueen, Giambattista Valli—and talking about her work in film and theater.  I had forgotten how young she is (26 years old), as it seems as if I have been watching her for years—it says something about the impression she makes, about the solidity and sensual awareness that make her seem mature.  Her performances in Girl with a Pearl Earring (Peter Webber, 2003) and Match Point (Woody Allen, 2004) are strong—and Girl is a favorite of mine: it is about the painter Johannes Vermeer, his work and attempt to get another commission from a calculating patron, and how the painter includes a young housemaid in his work as studio caretaker and subject, to his wife’s intensifying discomfort.  The wife does not understand how an illiterate girl can be so entrancing, but the girl has an instinct for art, for the importance of light and scene-setting, and she helps with making the paint, before becoming a figure in a portrait that would become famous.  Johansson is the young woman and Colin Firth is the painter in a film with well-composed and informative images, a film that is pleasing in its exploration and fulfillment of its theme.

Peter Webber's Girl with a Pearl Earing presents a certain time in the painter's life, rather than a complete biography. Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) lived in the Netherlands, a Protestant married to a Catholic who gave him eleven children.  Vermeer painted historical and domestic scenes and was a respected painter, known for color, detail, and texture, for the quality of his work, but he was not very productive in terms of quantity of paintings, and faced financial difficulties.

Scarlett Johansson’s work in Girl with a Pearl Earring is very attentive and full of subtle responses—and it’s great to observe her character’s humility and self-respect, her practicality and idealism; how she responds instinctively to the rudeness and cruelty of children (with outrage, with hurt), and to the genius and manipulation of a man she respects (with admiration, with a distancing gesture).  Scarlett Johansson is a beautiful woman, a unique film object; and someone I have looked forward to seeing, although I do not see all of her work.  I like as well, in different ways and to different extents, Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, Diahann Carroll, Viola Davis, Kimberly Elise, Jane Fonda, Naomie Harris, Anne Hathaway, Angelina Jolie, Nicole Kidman, Regina King, Jessica Lange, Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Thandie Newton, Natalie Portman, Zoe Saldana, Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep, Charlize Theron, Uma Thurman, Kate Winslet, and Catherine Zeta-Jones.  There are others.  It is sad to think that I do not see most of them frequently enough.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Drawing

I looked at a video from North Light of artist Joy Thomas teaching how to draw the clothed figure a few days ago: she spoke about and demonstrated the importance of selecting a good model with appropriate and diverse changes of dress, and establishing the allowed time for a portrait (three hours?); of preparing the paper with charcoal dust (sprinkling, rubbing it in); of isolating the space on the canvas that the artist wants to use; of sizing the figure and transferring one's measurements to the canvas (a ruler or a pencil can be used to establish a canon--say how many human heads go into the total human figure from top to bottom, left to right: it's about seven or eight, depending on the effect one wants--ordinary or heroic); of identifying the structures in the portrait to be painted (the lines, the circles and squares, the shifts in form); and beginning with a preliminary sketch to warm up (something that can be easily erased with a certain kind of cloth); of trying to capture just enough detail to suggest the figure and allowing the viewer to complete the picture; of the importance of "marking" the positions of the model (with charcoal or with removable tape) before she or he takes a break, etcetera.  It was an illustration of how much thought and work goes into art, even into a simply drawn portrait.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Note on “Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century”

I have been reading Richard J. Powell’s study Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century (Thames and Hudson, 1997), a book I first encountered several years ago: it’s a history of black diaspora visual culture, with a focus on African-American painting, sculpture, photography, and film, though it also comments on culture in Africa, the United Kingdom, and the Caribbean.  It is a remarkably detailed and thoughtful discussion of both aesthetics and politics, but I really appreciate the illustrations of paintings, sculpture, and photographs from films, such as William H. Johnson’s contemplative, handsome self-portrait (page 48); Aaron Douglas’s graphic mural in tribute to Harriet Tubman, a blue and gray communal scene in which a woman holds up a broken chain (page 65); John Robinson’s self-portrait, in which his head and shoulders are surrounded by paintings, his profile and consciousness are inseparable from, and possibly indecipherable without, his work (page 86); Rose Piper’s simultaneous abstract and representational painting, “Slow Down Freight Train,” a stark depiction in which a red-shirted, black-trousered man looks out on a dark landscape (101); Bob Thompson’s jazz celebration, the colorful and idyllic “Garden of Music” (104); Raymond Saunders’ 1972 painting “Jack Johnson,” which features the famous boxer as a figure of near impenetrable blackness, and seems to predict the future work of Jean-Michel Basquiat (123); Sam Gilliam’s large red and black work “Lion’s Rock Arc,” which could be an explosion of roses or blood—or simply paint (126-127); Edward Clark’s abstract, mathematical “Ife Rose” (134); and Barkley Hendricks’ finely controlled, realistic (and witty) nude self-portrait called “Brilliantly Endowed” (153).  I like the talent, intelligence, and imagination in the work—and the same is true of the sculpture and photographs from film.  Edna Manley’s sculpture, a pale solid figure with a raised arm, “Pocomania,” from 1936, again a work that combines the abstract and representative, remains impressive (page 72).  Idealistic is the head of poet George Lamming in Barbadian sculptor Karl Broodhagen’s somewhat rough looking piece (88); and instantly recognizable is Martin Puryear’s work (165).  I love film, so the photographs from Cabin in the Sky (page 93), Black Orpheus (111), Looking for Langston (210), Sugar Cane Alley (217), and Daughters of the Dust (219) are easily seductive.  The man in a tuxedo walking toward a second naked man suggests desire, and possibly compulsion, as well as elegance and power, in the photo from Looking for Langston; and there is family and female strength and cultural pride in the group portrait of three women from Daughters of the Dust.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

Many people spend their lives trying to reconcile their hopes for themselves with the world—indifferent, skeptical—as it is.  Yet, there are times when one feels either most optimistic or most threatened, and then one challenges that complacency, the self-satisfaction of the comfortable and the powerful.  The global economic crisis, rooted in deception, greed, and mismanagement of financial services, and the rise and fall of industries and the vulnerability of workers, has emboldened or frightened people in different parts of the world.  Some want to conserve what they have, refusing to share; and other know they require more, as others do.  Some look with disdain at the poor and suffering, and some look with frustration at the rich and determined.  People have begun to protest; and some have begun to riot.  It is important to remember that a protest is both an affirmation of citizenship and a statement of alienation from formal power; whereas a riot is a movement behind civic purpose.  In the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has been going on for weeks, people have gathered in downtown Manhattan, and other parts of the United States and Europe, to draw attention to the division between financial success and power on one side and, on the other, the rest of the world.  The common charge is that many of the corporations and people who have caused so much damage have been protected and rewarded, while ordinary people have lost jobs, housing, health care, and more.  The protesters have called for a more honest, vital democratic discourse with real world consequences benefitting the disenfranchised.  First, they were judged harshly by some, judged as lazy and resentful and self-indulgent, but the more people have heard of their complaints and demands, the greater the understanding and sympathy they have drawn.  Who are these people?  One early photograph printed in New York magazine showed a slim, slack-bodied shirtless young white man in shorts, holding up a cardboard sign, facing policemen, but when Time magazine filed a report, it presented a group more diverse in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, profession, and fashion taste.  The protesters are people with very different lives but whom have come to see common problems; and they do not want to be alone with their anger or their distress—and in joining with others, they are renewing their own hopes.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, and Liberty: The Conspirator, a film directed by Robert Redford


The Conspirator, directed by Robert Redford
Screenplay by James Solomon
American Film Company, 2010
(Released 2011)



Robert Redford’s film about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the trial of a boardinghouse owner, Mary Surratt, accused as part of the conspiracy, and the young lawyer who represents her, The Conspirator, is one of the most vivid films of history I have seen, and it achieves an independent life.  Mary Surratt and the others charged in the murder of the American president were given a military rather than a civilian trial, and not allowed to speak for themselves.  The situation does call to mind military trials established following the attack on the World Trade Center and the American war against terrorism.  Decision after decision is made against Mary Surratt during the proceedings, despite her lawyer’s best efforts to prove that the conspirators may have met in house but that does not mean she was involved.  The conspirators, of whom her son had been one, were southern patriots and northern traitors, refusing to accept the defeat of the south and appalled by Lincoln’s intention to recognize the rights of blacks.  They intended first to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for the freedom of southern prisoners of war, before John Wilkes Booth advanced a more violent rebellion.  Robin Wright plays a proud southerner and loving mother, Mary Surratt, whose son was a friend of John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, and James McAvoy plays the lawyer, Frederick Aiken, who is repelled by Surratt’s probable guilt, then determined to give her the defense law requires, and then, appalled by the contrivances of the trial, sympathetic to her.  Robin Wright, dressed in black, has eliminated every shallow glimmer, and exudes grave awareness and concern, though the way she handles her black veil in certain acts expresses anxiety, self-protection, or resignation.  It is no surprise that there are rumors that Surratt spits in the faces of Union soldiers or wears human bones around her neck—a southern Catholic woman seen as different, a kind of demon.  James McAvoy, at Redford’s direction, is more still than usual, his face less flooded with emotions; and sometimes the way he is framed—against other men, in doorways, and within large plots of land—accentuates his lack of height; and yet he remains a compelling and likable actor.  The film’s casting and acting are formidable and persuasive in a film that has Kevin Kline, Danny Huston, Tom Wilkinson, and Evan Rachel Wood.  Kevin Kline is forceful as the nation’s secretary of war, Stanton, a man who wants to bury the turmoil of war and assassination with the conspirators, in one of Kline’s best performances.  Danny Huston plays the prosecutor as a cunning peacock, and Wilkinson is a fair-minded but pragmatic Maryland senator and lawyer, and Evan Wood the fragile but prickly Surratt daughter.

The Conspirator is a film of surprisingly fresh beauty.  Its locations are impressive.  Whether scenes were set in a private home or a large but bare prison, they had a visual richness that fed the senses, the imagination.  The contest between the American north and south, and then between justice and vengeance, come to life, though it is very strange that the black presence is so slight in the film, inclining at least one viewer to wonder if old Hollywood, however flawed, was better than contemporary Hollywood at dealing with African-Americans.  The blacks in Gone With the Wind are more interesting and respectable than those seen as perfect and perfectly quiet servants here; but then I do recall Beloved, Glory, Nightjohn, Sankofa, feature films that welcomed the African-American presence—and I was lucky enough around the time that I screened The Conspirator to find a documentary on African-American soldiers during the American civil  war, one that acknowledged the prejudice and brutality directed against Negroes and their struggle for rights and dignity, The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry (2005), a film directed by Jacqueline Shearer and narrated by Morgan Freeman.  In the film, one sees the different kinds of work African-Americans did, some of it quite accomplished, and their willingness to leave work and family to participate in the war; and when they did join the effort, they performed with courage and pride, and earned respect.  (The fundamental importance of the war—to maintain national union, and end slavery—was apparent, but I am not fond of the idea that to earn citizenship one has to volunteer to die.) 

Seeing The Conspirator and The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry, it is clear that information is available, and there are good intentions too, but the struggle continues to achieve a complex and truthful, as well as unified, American history.

Art and Environment: Manufacturing Landscapes, featuring photographer Edward Burtynsky


Manufacturing Landscapes, featuring photographer Edward Burtynsky
Directed by Jennifer Baichwal
Produced by Foundry Films and Mercury Films, 2006
(Distributed by Zeitgeist Films)


John James Audubon may have been a naturalist and a painter, but it does seem all that often that gets to contemplate both art and environmental issues, as with Manufacturing Landscapes, a film that presents the work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, who focuses on nature and how it has been transformed by industrial use, producing a different landscape, often one of devastation, yet one in which an unexpected beauty can be found.  The photographer, who feels implicated in the exploitation of industry for the photographic tools that he uses and for the transportation that allows him to travel, displays talent for color, contrast, form, line, and mood; and with skill and thought, research and preparation, he produces gorgeous pictures of terrible stuff.  His thematic concern has been the extractive industries, the mining for coal and oil, and he has followed also how metals are recycled and the computer industry.  The film director Jennifer Baichwal follows him as he does his work in China and Bangladesh; and we watch Burtynsky take test images then frame the final image he wants, before the director draws back to show us the context for that image, the surrounding land, the moving people—and then we see gallery goers examining the finished photographs, trying to make sense of them.

The film opens with scenes of a modern factory, its yellow-jacketed workers behind machines, their individuality blurred by the work and their clothing.  When they take a break, one of the supervisors reprimands his team for not properly labeling and separating faulty items.  Material comes from around the world, and the products are assembled in the once agricultural and increasingly urban China, which requires great energy for its growing productions.  (The Three Gorges Dam, thus far the world’s largest dam, was created to prevent floods, generate electricity, and facilitate transportation.)  The factory work we observe is, at once, dull, intricate, tedious, and impressive; and we watch trying to identify what exactly is being made—it seems the mass production of irons for pressing clothes.  We see the junkyards from which used metal is retrieved for recycling.  We see the computers taken apart for metal and parts, leaving toxic remains, poisoning the drinking water.  The garbage is disgusting and frightening.  Another company, its workers dressed in blue uniforms, makes electrical products, particularly breakers, that are sold in more than sixty countries; and we hear how the employees are proud of efficiency and sales, though there seems little concern for environmental or health consequences.  In a Bangladesh ship-breaking yard, where parts are salvaged, men chant as they work, some in traditional dress (a kind of sarong), and we are told that the work is hard and dangerous and the workers young.  Some grow too old and sick to do the work.

 
As a photographer Edward Burtynsky has found a way to share his experience and knowledge of environmental change and also to create genuinely aesthetic work.  The film by Jennifer Baichwal tells some of the stories behind that work.  The photographs are worth seeing for themselves, but Burtynsky is a particularly thoughtful artist, and Baichwal an imaginative but restrained filmmaker.  The film increases the viewer’s awareness, and asks us to make choices knowing the consequences.
Fields of growing fruits and vegetables have an orderly beauty that bleached, deforested, filthy, and poisoned industrial sites do not have, but, apparently, for a country like China, agriculture does not produce the wealth that modern industry does.  It may be ironic that food is more necessary than a lot of expensive machinery, but does not produce great wealth.  What is to be done?  It is hard to believe that developing countries, such as China and India, will stall their development for the niceties of protecting the environment: Britain and the United States did not.

Andy Warhol and Elizabeth Taylor

The October 2011 Vanity Fair has a photograph of Andy Warhol and Elizabeth Taylor, actually two photographs of Andy Warhol with his painting(s) of Taylor, one a color photograph, and the other black-and-white.  I find these images comforting.  I know that sounds strange, if not, well, hilarious, but it's true.  I look at these images, look away, and return to them--calm, pleased, reassured.  Why?  It's not simply t hat I like both of them, as there are other famous people I like and I do not attach this kind of comfort to all of them, nor draw it from them.  I think it's that both Warhol and Taylor embody individuality, talent, success, and popularity.  They represent a time when the famous were different, and not expected to be easily accessible or understood: they were freaks; Taylor being a freak of beauty and Warhol a freak of sensibility: special.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Drama of Death: Steven Soderberg’s film Contagion

Contagion, a film directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Ehle, and Sanaa Lathan
(Screenplay by Scott Burns)
Warner Brothers, 2011


There may have been a time in which the arty folk and the money folk were in different casts and crews in film, but that time is not now: some of the best artists are to be found in large-scale entertainments, giving depth and weight to work that might have been easier to dismiss without them.  Contagion is a disaster film at the core of which is infectious disease; and it is genuinely informed by science and politics, and features talented actors such as Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, and Laurence Fishburne, directed by the gifted, idiosyncratic Steven Soderbergh.  The disease occurs at the connection of three different species; it spreads quickly and terribly, inspiring government response and public panic, while plowing through very particular lives.  Human commitment and vulnerability are acknowledged, are part of the story we see, as doctors work to understand the disease and find a treatment, and families are torn apart by sickness and grief.  It often feels very real, but, of course, this is a movie; and so some of the dialogue is obvious—a scientist (Fishburne) tells his wife (Lathan) to come to him but do not reveal the urgency to anyone, and she subsequently tells a friend who tells everyone; another scientist (Ehle) is a good daughter and a selfless doctor, and is told so more than once; a janitor (John Hawkes) reminds the well-placed male scientist that he too has family he is concerned about (disease and fear move across class and ethnicity).  Jude Law plays an internet journalist spreading false information, exploiting the epidemic for fame and money; and, possibly too crudely, is given bad teeth as evidence of his flaw, although he is both appalling and fun to watch.  Some of the resolutions of the story are surprising, such as the death of two well-placed women; but others are not, as in a protective father’s acceptance of a young man in his daughter’s life, and a powerful man’s sacrifice for a poor boy.  The film reminds the viewer that the global reach of industrial and marketing practices is subject to the wildness of nature, and something dangerous can be born; and shows how humanity is likely to respond with reason and science, with greed and hysteria, with compassion and selfishness.  The film is a major effort, and looks good, but I did not think of it as beautiful; and while I can admire all the actors in it, some of whom are among my favorites, I was not surprised that Gwyneth Paltrow, an actress of charm and cool temperament, of intelligence and instinct, was the alpha and omega of the film.  She is a complicated figure; and, here is a figure of both joy and destruction, an emblem of intimacy and danger, a manifestation of the endless human puzzle. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Tragedy and Transcendence

Gertrude Stein, in her plainly declarative, repetitious, elaborating, embracing sentences, said of painter Henri Matisse: “This one was certainly a great man, this one was certainly clearly expressing something.  Some were certain that this one was clearly expressing something being struggling, some were certain that this one was not greatly expressing something being struggling” (“Portraits and Other Short Works,” Library of America's Stein: Writings 1903-1932, page 281).  Stein gives a picture of a man whose work was interpreted by different persons, some of whom understood and appreciated what he was doing and some of whom did not, the traditional story of an artist, especially an experimental one.  It is important to remember that some of the best loved and greatest artists suffered for their difference, for their craft and passion and vision; important to remember as it is part—though not all—of their truth and it may make us a little more tolerant, if not understanding, of the artists we ourselves come to know.  That the general public and sometimes family, friends, and lovers do not understand the commitment, content, and design of an artist’s work intensifies the difficulties of being an artist, of bringing new work into the world while also dealing, badly or well, with the usual demands—of citizenship, of love, of survival—in the world.  The individual artist, reminded of the confinements, pressures, and priorities of society, is often engaged in a struggle to achieve something that is both personal and impersonal, original and inflected with response to established and respected tradition, of the moment and for all time.  The artist, taking materials available to all, materials that do not interest most, is involved in a unique quest, a search of transformation and transcendence.

In reading some of the description of Gertrude Stein’s life, and how she came to be an art patron—a friend to artists, an owner of their work, a facilitator of relationships—I was impressed by how intimate and simple were the lives of now famous artists, how vivid the memory.  One artist spreads news of the work of another artist, Pissarro talking with others about Cezanne; or one gallerist, Vollard, introducing Cezanne, Daumier, Manet, Renoirs, and Gauguin to those who might appreciate them.  We are told of Henri Matisse and his wife that “The Matisses had had a hard time.  Matisse had come to Paris as a young man to study pharmacy,” before becoming interested in painting and influenced by Poussin and Chardin,” in the cultural history and memoir that is “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” (Stein: Writings 1903-1932, page 695).  “Under the influence of the paintings of Poussin and Chardin he had painted still life pictures that had considerable success at the Champ-de-Mars salon, one of the two big spring salons.  And then he fell under the influence of Cezanne, and then under the influence of negro sculpture.  All this developed the Matisse of the period of La Femme au Chapeau” (695).  Description of the cost and effort of a Matisse painting—of fruit that had to be bought and preserved for the time it took to complete a painting of it—and the strain and stress of that is given.  “Matisse worked every day and every day and every day and he worked terribly hard” (696).  It is always significant that how hard an artist works is emphasized, as much of what he does can look like leisure or play to people who do not understand it.  Many people still think work is only of the body, or only what one is forced to do, or paid to do; what begins outside of oneself, for reasons apart from oneself. The artist works with imagination, and insight and intellect; he or she works for and within the inner life, an inner life that can bring hope or despair, clarity or confusion, to the world.  The cruelty and ignorance of the world continue everyday due to the paucity of compassion and knowledge that is found in art; an absurdity or a tragedy, or both.

When Matisse put on exhibit at a salon the painting “La Femme au Chapeau,” it was “derided and attacked and it was sold” (697)—and sold to Gertrude Stein, beginning a friendship.  It was a picture that defied conventional presentation, in which a woman’s face showed different colors and forms.  It was hard for some observers to consider that maybe this painter did not want to see or say the usual thing in the usual way.  It is often hard for people to understand that.  I recall seeing my first Matisse in person at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan many years ago; I think it was a large red painting of pink people dancing in a circle, a strange work, a strangeness I welcomed, as I wanted what was different, free, new, thoughtful, work that separated the individual from the dull and the familiar and brought a new vision, a new world.  I still welcome strangeness.

I have been talking, via electronic mail, with a friend about writing, the kind of conversation in which there is as much misunderstanding as understanding.  I have been focused on fiction and he on memoirs; I on writing, he on teaching.  He is a responsible adult, with a wife and child, regular work and a house; and when he declared that he preferred essays to fiction, and teaching to writing, I told him that I was sorry about that, and thought that there was something deep in that to be explored.  He was disappointed in my response.  I explained that I used to love to write different things as a very young person, but as I got older, it became easier and easier to become alienated from creative writing—from fiction and poetry—as the world has ways to distract and discourage us (for instance, with talk of duty and practicality).  It is easy for a man or woman to be seen as derelict or monstrous for insisting on one’s own creativity and value as an artist—it may be possible, with time, to become a derelict or monster.  However, I did not say that we can be afraid of our own passions, our own imagination, our own will to freedom; and we can betray ourselves.  I said to my friend that I thought fiction allowed more freedom and imagination than essays; a freedom and imagination for which we are sometimes punished in the daily world.  He said that he did not think he had the talent for that kind of work, and did not see the point of it without hope of doing it well.  Later I thought that he had a very precise, possibly too precise, idea of what fiction entailed (work that is easily smooth, moving naturally, highly emotional), rather than an effort involving discipline and thought and a wide range of expressive forms.  Sometimes, rather than following an established idea for art, one has to allow oneself to go where one is inclined, however strange that might be. 

When Gertrude Stein asks Alice Toklas what she thinks of Picasso’s work and Toklas says it is ugly, there is this useful Stein insight about originality and imitation: “Sure, she said, as Pablo once remarked, when you make a thing, it is so complicated making it that it is bound to be ugly, but those that do it after you they don’t have to worry about making it and they can make it pretty, and so everybody can like it when the others make it” (681).  It reminds that me that often the initial reception given to important works—whether books or dance or film or music—is marked by comments about how awkward and contradictory and rhetorical and wild they seem.  One is either lacking in manner, or too mannered.

Sometimes the world gives us a fact more brutal, more strange, more tragic than what we have been inclined to imagine; and, for many people, that happened on September 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked by plane, and another hijacked plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field.  The arts—dance, fiction, film, and music—have been taking aspects of the experience, of the surprise and terror and grief and anger and healing—and expressing and transforming it; and now at the site in downtown Manhattan where stood the twin towers of the World Trade Center there will be a commemoration of the loss in the form of two pools of water that reflect absence, an embodied contradiction.  That is what art does: express the difficult.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Leading African-American Literary Critic of His Generation: Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his book Tradition and the Black Atlantic: Critical Theory in the African Diaspora

(Commentary)

Tradition and the Black Atlantic: Critical Theory in the African Diaspora
by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Civitas/Basic Books, 2010

When I heard about Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s book Tradition and the Black Atlantic, I was excited: it sounded as if it might be a return to the kind of early work Henry Louis Gates did that had impressed me, and made me think of Gates as a significant literary and cultural figure, someone of generational and iconic weight and value: Black Literature and Literary Theory, Figures in Black, and The Signifying Monkey.  In years past I thought his republication series focused on the work of black women writers was rare and important, though I was not inclined to read it, and I had liked some (not all) of the journalism Gates had done for The New Yorker, as well as some of his special projects (a feminist anthology, a global culture dictionary, a web site), but found aspects of his more populist work (defending sexist and violent hip-hop, and doing television programs on genealogy) less interesting, if not dismaying.  Gates’s devotion to the realization of W.E.B. DuBois’s encyclopedia project was more than a feather in his cap; it was the whole damn bird in his hands.  Those are the kinds of accomplishments I associate with him, even as I expect more. 

The short text Tradition and the Black Atlantic comes wrapped in the praise of Gates’s associates, colleagues, and friends: Cornel West, Arnold Rampersad, Paul Gilroy, and Anthony Appiah.  Yet, when I got my hands on the one-hundred-and-sixty-three or so pages of Tradition and the Black Atlantic, padded to be longer with notes and index, a work published through Gates’s imprint, Civitas, with Basic Books (Perseus), and I began to read it—I read the book quickly in little more than an afternoon—I thought that the book did have elegance, intelligence, and wit, and that it touched on subjects that once had interested me very much, and still interested me somewhat.  In his introduction (page xii), Gates admits, “The four chapters of this book in their original form were written between 1989 and 1992 in an attempt to organize my thinking about the British Black Arts Movement of the 1980s and the American ‘culture wars,’ which were raging within and about the academy at roughly the same time…”  Tradition and the Black Atlantic is a book written in much of the language of that era, a language inflected with references to deconstruction, psychoanalysis, and political economy that was considered high cultural theory, though it was not particularly connected to high culture—to classical music, ballet, opera, or painting—except that it was used to describe and explore popular English and European (and some American) fiction and poetry that with time and study had begun to be taken seriously as literature; and it became a language used to examine history and modern social issues, especially regarding class, gender, and ethnicity.  I always thought such a language made more sense for Europeans, with those hundreds of years of cultural history, with a genuine knowledge of and relation to high culture, much more sense than for most Americans (notoriously moving from barbarism to decadence without reaching civilization); and yet it was easy to see how such an analytical tool—looking at the roots, styles, values, and contradictions in the play of poetry and power—would appeal to minorities who wanted to dissect and reconstruct social identities.  Reading Tradition and the Black Atlantic was like listening to old songs, or looking at old photographs; that’s nice, but how directly relevant is it?  

Some of the issues in Tradition and the Black Atlantic—identity, how it is experienced, perceived, discussed, and represented in culture and repressed in politics—remain important to one extent or another, but the figures and topics have changed.  Gender and sexuality no longer have the same subversive or theoretical charge as they did twenty years ago (discussion of them in society now tends to be very practical, having to do with more women seeming to keep their jobs during the recent economic recession than men, and the fact that more men are taking responsibilities for household chores; and with the momentum for same-sex marriage, which seems to be steamrolling conservative opposition).  Ethnicity may be another matter. 

Hip-hop, with its partying and crude sexuality, with its materialism and violence, with its misogyny and homophobia, more than ever dominates the black public image, despite Barack Obama, Colin Powell, Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, Wynton Marsalis, Beyonce Knowles, Alicia Keys and the like: hip-hop’s mix of rapping and music, with its sampling of older musical work, gives it a vibrancy of form that makes attractive its frequently reactionary and retrogressive content; endowing it with international appeal, enlarging the embrace of some of the worst imagery ever associated with blacks.  Why have critiques of such destructive content had little effect?  (Is it that the frivolous and ignorant think of hip-hop as fun and true, and that the educated, like the powerless but aware, receive it as symbolic rebellion?)  That, I would love to know; and also, to offer just a few examples in a different direction, I would love to have more commentary on the work of writers such as Percival Everett, Martha Southgate, David Bradley, Henry Van Dyke, Hal Bennett, Carl Phillips and Reginald Shepherd, and the music of Billy Strayhorn, Betty Carter, Cassandra Wilson, Lizz Wright, Cecil Taylor, Don Byron, Christian McBride, Jessye Norman, Awadagin Pratt, and the films Losing Ground, Sidewalk Stories, Chameleon Street, Eve’s Bayou and, among others, The Great Debaters.  The paintings and sculpture of African-American visual artists could use more attention too, as could the better work of certain folk artists in different fields and genres.  In England, writer Zadie Smith and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and rock singer Kele of Bloc Party have made their own giant splashes, as had the androgynous singer Ephraim Lewis, before he died; and Ejiofor played a cross-dressing designer in Kinky Boots, and Kele is gay and alludes to that experience in his songs.  I do not recall Gates mentioning any of these persons in Tradition and the Black Atlantic.  Each year, each decade, offers new subjects, and ever more human and humane content. 

Has Henry Louis Gates Jr. as a literary critic and scholar, for instance, made the case for new additions to the literary canon (which is different from anthologizing or celebrating already accepted, revered, or historical writers)?  In Tradition and the Black Atlantic Gates writes about Stuart Hall, Isaac Julien, Kobena Mercer, Paul Gilroy, Hazel Carby, as well as Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Raymond Williams, Edmund Burke, Fanon, Derrida, and Lacan, in these dated pages that have been augmented with some contemporary asides, attempting to make current comparisons and connections (the election of Barack Obama, the shifting American political landscape, and the resulting anger and paranoia among some citizens are noted: Tea Party, anyone?).

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is concerned with identity and problematic social position and, like anyone, is to be commended for appreciating complicated identities and the tensions among them, though it would be much more fascinating to explore the many examples of people doing diverse, new, and wonderful things.  The career of Henry Louis Gates Jr. alone is proof of the good that can be done even in an imperfect world.  It could be illuminating to identify the attitudes, ideas, principles, and strategies in successful African-American lives, and to use that as the basis of a progressive social theory (what I see when I look at Barack, Oprah, Jessye, Wynton, Beyonce, and Henry Louis himself is a commitment to craft, cultivation of the self, and thoughtfulness, as well as a sensitive, sensuous response to experience and the finer things in life, much of which translates into adaptability and sociability, with a respectable degree of public responsibility); and the resulting theory could not be any worse that what has been created before, some of which has enlightened us, but none of which has liberated us.  Gates himself notes the insights, kindness, and attention to local phenomenon of professor and writer Stuart Hall, to whom Gates dedicates the book Tradition and the Black Atlantic (I suspect kindness registers with Gates because Gates—Skip, to his many friends—himself is kind; and he may recognize it as something both familiar and rare).  Gates probes the work of film director Isaac Julien, appreciating the multiplicity of black male identity in Julien’s Looking for Langston, his modernist artistry, his critical politics, and the sensuality and softness of his imagery.  Yet, it is impossible for me not to think that Denzel Washington’s career is many times more significant than all the black British film artists Gates writes about, just as James Baldwin—who broke ground in Another Country by simultaneously dealing with art, class, race, gender, sexuality, and the pain, potential, and deceptions of individuality in New York and Paris—is more important than the black British writers Gates salutes.  Has Gates considered dedicating himself to a prolonged study of either, and sharing the results?  Has Gates written about Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters, or Toni Morrison’s Paradise, books that present dynamic black communities, full of connection and conflict?  I respect academic work, but I am ambivalent about it too, as many academics have the habit of ignoring much of the broader world beyond the academy, until elements in that world form a controversy or fashionable trend, as had the work of black British artists and thinkers, work with art-house styles and theoretical references.  Too often popular culture is ignored, unless it has the aura of the downtrodden and low (that nastiness gets called authenticity), such as with hip-hop.  Beauty, when it is popular, is suspect; as are intelligence and eloquence, when they are popular—it can be hilarious to watch an academic demur when a popular cultural figure is cited with respect, the academic’s face averted, and feet moving backward, instinctively achieving distance.  However, I am curious, as well, to know more about how Gates sees the larger world, not merely the African-American or black British world.  Much of the commentary by Gates in Tradition and the Black Atlantic is sophisticated and suave, and somehow both far-reaching and limited in focus (like fumigating an entire house after seeing a few ants—or putting out a few potted plants and being convinced that one has constructed a garden).  I may be guilty of comparable, if less elegant, gestures in these notes, which are not exactly a proper review, page by page, idea by idea.  Although now, months after reading Tradition and the Black Atlantic, I could not bear to read the whole thing again, I did look at a few pages that actually said some things—not especially complex, but certainly true—that I consider interesting:

“If Looking for Langston is a meditation on the Harlem Renaissance, it is equally an impassioned rebuttal to the virulent homophobia associated with the Black Power and Black Aesthetic movements in the sixties” (57).

“To the extent that black British cinema is represented as an act of cultural politics, it then becomes vulnerable to a political reproach as elitist, Europeanized, overly highbrow.  As a black cultural product without a significant black audience, its very blackness becomes suspect” (64).

“For as we know, the history of African Americans is marked by noble demands for political tolerance from the larger society, but also by a paradoxical tendency to censure our own” (67).

“So the very newest generation of black British cultural critics are brave, resourceful, and dialectical when they seek to recuperate everything that was right about the 1960s movements of ethnicist self-affirmation” (68).

“The hermeneutics of the 1970s killed the author; the politics of the 1980s brought the author back” (74).

“The old leftist critiques of the commodity have a usefully confining tendency: The critiques set up a cunning trap that practically guarantees that the marginalized cultures being glorified will remain marginalized.  The authors of these critiques knew just how to keep us in our place.  And the logic was breathtakingly simple: If you win, you lose” (78).