The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit

Art, Culture, Poetry

Their peripatetic parents probably
assumed it was an ordinary life:
charming girlhood, and then someone’s wife,
pinafores for evening gowns, lives free
of want, although not literally free;
husbands living on the interest of
what their own fathers socked away, and love
a sickly symptom of maturity.
Adults, poor things, rarely can admit
even to themselves how clearly they remember
that kids don’t learn from parents; children carry
a whole soul as a completed secret,
its wholeness brief as daylight in November.
The daughters in the portrait do not marry.

Life, Satisfaction, Help, Comfort, Refuge, Healing, Redemption, Forgiveness, Atonement, Relief and Salvation

Art, Culture, Media, Movies, Religion

The mind may sort it out and give it names—
When a man dies he dies trying to say without slurring
The abruptly decaying sounds. It is true
That only flesh dies, and spirit flowers without stop
For men, cows, dung, for all dead things; and it is good, yes—

But an incarnation is in particular flesh
And the dust that is swirled into a shape
And crumbles and is swirled again had but one shape
That was this man. When he is dead the grass
Heals what he suffered, but he remains dead,
And the few who loved him know this until they die.

-Galway Kinnell, from “Freedom, New Hampshire”

The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman has been met in equal parts by deservedly effusive praise for the man’s art and the bizarre, prurient, voyeuristic, and pornographic interest in the particulars of his demise by apparent opiate overdose; heroin remains one of the few real taboos left, one of the few almost unspeakable deviancies, and, as such, some people just can’t stop talking about it. The prolific internet presence, General Gandhi, in his Twitter incarnation, noted maybe the most egregiously awful example, published in Esquire and Elle:

The sentence is pretty astonishingly tasteless on its own, but to appreciate the depth of its stupidity, you have to read it in context and realize that its author, Tom Junod, hasn’t just stumbled into a graceless or infelicitous comparison, but has deliberately and knowingly set up a pair of competing schemas: on the one hand, you have George Clooney and Matt Damon, who “have too much to lose,” and are therefore psychically and spiritually immune to the lure of addiction; on the other, you have Hoffman and Gandolfini, “whose work has the element of ritual sacrifice.” This kind of casual, causal linking of transgressive genius to substance abuse has the fetid scent of an adolescent bedroom. Put down your bongs, guys. This shit’s about to get real.

My brother died in 2009 in similar circumstances—not, as the ghoulish, now-standard description goes, “with a needle in his arm”, but alone in a cheap motel room that our parents had rented for him, because, when they’d allowed him into the house, he’d stolen, and yet by that point, he’d have otherwise been living in his car. But, you have to understand, the last six desperate months of his life were sudden and alien to him, and to us. He was far more Matt Damon than Hoffman: a handsome, athletic man with an unaffected smile and uncanny personal charm; old high-school teachers who’d given him nothing but Cs (when he probably deserved to fail) remembered him as one of their favorite students; old girlfriends never seemed to get angry with him. He bounced from job to job (a signal, in retrospect, but at the time, we saw it as an overly gregarious and under-focused twentysomething’s natural fecklessness and indecision; it would eventually correct itself). Mostly he bartended, and he was an excellent bartender. He was never much of a drinker—mostly wine and beer, and rarely in any quantity. Like a lot of bartenders and other such nocturnal creatures, he dabbled in cocaine. If you’d have asked me a year before he died what his biggest problem was, I’d have told you it was that he partied a little too often, although that, too, seemed like nothing more than the kind of mild, youthful vice that we all, mostly, grow out of.

In fact, my brother had been a daily opiate user for the better part of a decade. He never did finish college, but he spent a few years at West Virginia University, and as a freshman, he’d badly broken his leg during a game of pickup soccer. After the surgery, he’d started on pain killers, and when the prescription ran out, he got them elsewhere—codeine, oxy, and eventually, Fentanyl and heroin. I was anything but naïve about drugs myself; I’d at least tried most of them; my best friend struggled with heroin; my boyfriend at the time was a recovering alcoholic and drug addict—and for all this, I never saw it in my brother, never suspected, never knew until it was too late. He was locked in that motel room, and he was dead. Would Nathan Bacharach ever be found dead with a pile of broken pills hidden in the sock drawer?

I don’t suggest that we turn away from the circumstances of death—the opposite of pornography is a prudish sterility that’s equally awful. But if George Clooney died of prostate cancer, would we take the occasion to make it a reflection on the type of roles he chose? It is one thing to learn to gaze without flinching at the cause of a man’s death, another entirely to treat his illness as a mere foible of his eccentric genius. Hoffman had a family. They knew, or they did not know, the extent and late stage of his disease, but what consolation is it to them, or to anyone who knew him, for a stranger to offer his sickness as a slick metaphor for his professional artistry, a cheap window-dressing on his soul? An actor’s art is doubtlessly informed by his person and his inner being, and Hoffman doubtlessly drew on his own sense and memory of darkness in performing it, but he was a great actor not because of his addiction, but in spite of it, and he did not die because he was a genius, but because he was a man—all of us have our end, but none of us deserves it.

A Pound of Music

Art, Books and Literature, Culture, Religion, Science

How do you solve a problem like Stephen Pinker?

Ross Douthat notes the curious convergence: that “the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods,” which were, according to Pinker, “explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable,” lead inexorably to the economoral worldview to which Pinker has–surely a coincidence–already subscribed. Fuck Theory, meanwhile, notices that Pinker seems unfamiliar with the philosophers he name drops to open his essay. (By the way, Pinker also mangles Bergson’s élan vital, elsewhere and otherwise in the essay, if only in passing.) FT might be too kind. He damns our scientician for having failed to read the primary sources, but the real knock is that Pinker could have avoided a lot of these basic errors just by reading Will Durant. He could have read Wikipedia! Is there anything as unforgivably lazy in this great age of the internet as a man incapable of feigning authority over a couple thousand words?

Look, I’m a materialist. I don’t believe in the supernatural. I’m an atheist. I believe that the mind is an emergent phenomena of the brain. You might say that I constitute the natural constituency for Pinker’s argument, which is what makes its obtuseness and inadequacy so annoying. It gets everything backward. He says, for example, that science wipes away “the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces [and] undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics.” No word on what testable hypotheses prohibit second degree murder or which codicil of evolutionary psychology demands that we not remove the mattress tags, but let’s allow the point. It is true, after all, that the sorts of bureaucratic rationalization that led to more modern systems of trial and punishment are kissin’ cousins with Pinker’s over-broadly defined science. Nevertheless, we end up in a bizarre territory wherein morality is defined by utility but the “science” behind it is a transcendent ideology:

Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented.

The implication of this complaint, and the essential thesis of the article, is that science, whatever that is, uniquely among all human disciplines and endeavors, is not subject to utilitarian analysis, is not merely a mathematical function, a delta of positive change to “human flourishing.”

In fact, I agree. I think it would be a shame to look at the advancement of scientific knowledge, the immense growth of our species’ physical insight into the world and the universe, as a merely additive process whose sole measure is the number of new patents, cures, and minutes of extended battery life. Yes, there will surely be some practical outcome of learning that dolphins give each other names, but there is something essentially miraculous in simply knowing it to be true. And this is why I find Pinker’s claim so utterly bizarre, as if science must stake out a monopoly on the extraordinary, all our other transcendent experiences subsumed to its totalitarian scope. Pardon me, but isn’t that just weird? Religion claims to give life meaning, but by proving the Biblical creation myth false, science, gives life meaning. Replacing one false, totalizing claim with another is an odd way to run a debate team, if you know what I’m saying.

But then, this is where Pinker really wanders down a dusty path:

Science has also provided the world with images of sublime beauty: stroboscopically frozen motion, exotic organisms, distant galaxies and outer planets, fluorescing neural circuitry, and a luminous planet Earth rising above the moon’s horizon into the blackness of space. Like great works of art, these are not just pretty pictures but prods to contemplation, which deepen our understanding of what it means to be human and of our place in nature.

Slow down there, Percy Bysshe! Okay, I agree that pictures of the Earth from its own satellite are pretty fucking lovely, but what is, and from whence comes, sublime beauty? What does it mean to “mean” to be human? When you say, “our place in nature,” I presume you mean something more than our position on the food chain and our direct impact on global climatic systems. Cognitive neuroscience may lay claim to the question of how and why our particular subset of upright mammals perceives beauty as it does, but clearly we’re talking about something more than a reducible pleasure response to a Fibonacci-derived golden ration. Why do we find the Hubble deep field beautiful? Why, actually, do we artificially color it to make it beautiful? And what is “beautiful”?

These are lines of inquiry that real scientists (as opposed to commercial popularizers) and scholars of the humanities and artists and authors think about with much greater depth and subtlety than you’d suspect reading this crackpot essay, which prefers to lob vague accusations of disastrous postmodernism at the humanities as if it were an essay in Commentary in 1985. I mean, if Pinker reveals himself as something less than a scholar of philosophy at the beginning, he shows himself as an even worse art critic later on. Cheering for a new, scientific art like a bizarro Soviet, he actually says:

The visual arts could avail themselves of the explosion of knowledge in vision science, including the perception of color, shape, texture, and lighting, and the evolutionary aesthetics of faces and landscapes.

This is the rough equivalent of James Turrell demanding that chemists to avail themselves of the unknown discipline of gas chromatography. Yo, Pinky, it’s Robert Smithson calling from 1970. He’d like to sell you a large, earthwork time machine. Artists have long embraced science and technology in their work and their practice. Has Pinker ever heard of Steve Kurtz? Does he know about collectives like Informationlab? Is he aware that the Oberlin Conservatory established the Technology in Music and Related Arts program in 1967? Does he read science fiction? Shit, I mean, has he heard of a little-known avant-garde filmmaker named James Cameron? Physician, heal thyself.

As I Indicated, Admiral, the Thought Had Not Occurred to Me

Art, Culture, Media, Movies

This review is going to reveal Benedict Cumberbatch’s “secret identity.” The quotation marks are there to indicate that his character is neither secret, nor has an identity, unless hard puncher counts as an identity. I bet you never in your wildest imagination thought that Star Trek would end like this, with Spock karate-chopping a bad guy on top of a flying garbage truck in the middle of a bad CGI Star Wars set? I mean, sure, Star Trek had plenty of punching, but geez, man, it’s like, it’s like as if you hired, oh, I don’t know, Baz Luhrmann to make the Great Gatsby and he made it all about parties and clothes and dancing. Oh. Oh.

Like everything Damon Lindelof gets his hands on, Star Trek Subtitle Using Variation on the Word Dark begins with a MacGuffin, muddles into a non sequitur, and ends in a mess. Who hires this guy? My own editor noticed that a draft of my novel twice used fiancé instead of girlfriend, so presumably there’s someone, somewhere who could have read the script and told Lindelof and Abrams that none of this makes any sense. They could have very easily called back the original “Space Seed” episode, set it along the Klingon neutral zone at a moment of high tension when the Federation was searching for a strategic military advantage and had a fine, intelligent movie that also had punching, Klingons, and space battles. You could have had Khan as an object of fear, reverence, and intrigue. Kirk admires his prowess and poise; McCoy his immunological whatever; Spock his astonishing intellect; Uhura his, uh, substantial Cumberbatch. He would divide them and conquer them, but then, rediscovering their bonds of friendship and duty, the crew would defeat him, because there is no eugenically superior superman in TEAM. And hell, you could even throw in a necessary tactical alliance with the Klingons to set the stage for the Cold War plot that was the backbone of the Klingon storyline in TOS and the original films.

Instead. Now look, I’m going to spare you the “Where are the orbital defenses?” and “How come the Klingons didn’t detect ‘em on the long range scanners?” I’m gonna spare you the “How far away is Kronos even at high warp?” and “What’s the effective range on that communicator again?” You may, after all, think that the main storytelling conceit of Star Trek is faster-than-light travel, but really, the main conceit is that a spacefaring civilization resembles Britain, each planet an island, its Starfleet, literally, and Admiralty. Forget all that. Despite its science fiction trappings, Star Trek is really a procedural drama. Starfleet is just its convenient institution.

Yes, you heard it here first. The man who owes Gene Roddenberry the greatest debt is Dick Wolf. Star Trek is the weekly tale of people working within an institution. This, by the way, is also its principal connection to political liberalism—not its easily-dispensed-with humanism nor its integrated crew; rather, its commitment to a universe run, for the better, by enlightened bureaucrats. The prototypical Star Trek plot is a conundrum—cultural, technological, legal—that must be solved through the application of area expertise within the confines of organizational rules and the occasional call of a higher morality or duty. It’s Law and Order in space. Act 1: unexplained thing. Act 2: investigation and preliminary diagnosis. Act 3: unexpected difficulty, delay, or complication, sometimes compounded by institutional resistance. Act 4: renewed investigation, sometimes unorthodox, leading to unexpected solution. Act 5: resolution, explanation.

People and institutions exist in Abrams’ & Lindelof’s reimagined universe, but they’re just sort of there, clogging the frame until the next face punch. I don’t object to action in Star Trek; but I do object to getting rid of the old two-fister:

As with CGI, advances in fight choreography have proceeded right past the point of more gripping physical realism and into the realm of the unbelievably hyper-real. The action is so fast, the movement so “kinetic,” to borrow the Hollywood usage, that it appears faker than the stagey fisticuffs of the old TV series. These guys are naval officers, right? Not ninjas. They pilot starships; this isn’t The Matrix. Hey, remember this little rebooted show called Battlestar Galactica, how it imagined a really gripping sort of space combat—before, anyway, it got bogged down in crackpot Lindelofian metaphysics? Remember Star Trek: First Contact. Yeah, it sucked, but the opening skirmish with the Borg vessel was pretty damn cool, AMIRIGHT? Well, whatever. Let’s just have these guys run down some hallways with guns and punch each other.

So the camera certainly moves around a lot, but there’s nothing doing. Dialogue is declaimed against a clamoring background of exploding noise, and when it does rise to the level of your noticing, it’s less the sound of voices than the smell of ham. “You are my superior officer. You are also my friend. I have been and always shall be yours,” Spock tells Kirk at the beginning of The Wrath of Khan. It is a quiet moment that comes back at the very end of the movie without a flashing arrow; here, it’s all shouted above the din. “YOU ARE MY FRIEND! WE ARE FAMILY!” It’s a disco inferno. Any pathos is in any event squished beneath the steamroller of incomprehensible plot developments, as Khan is first a terrorist, then a fugitive, then a pawn, then maybe a terrorist again, then fighting Spock on a flying thingamajig. Kirk does nothing of consequence, which is just as well, because Chris Pine, while serviceable, is no match for Benedict’s genetic, uh, endowment. Zach Quinto is a better actor, but because he never convincingly fell in love with Kirk or Khan, his jilted anger is incongruous at best. And once more for the cheap seats, it appears to take place deep within the CPUs of Skywalker Ranch.

It’s all a terrible waste of good production design and some nice costume choices (love that hat, Zach; CALL ME). Meanwhile, I know we are meant to believe that the immense crap funnel of our current cinema to be an undistorted reflection of our culture’s degraded taste, and that may be so, but I yet believe that if we must have junk, it can at least taste sweeter and not smell so awfully past its expiration date.

Hitler? I Coulda Killer Her!

Art, Culture, Media

A recent battle in the art world illustrates the point. The billionaire Ronald Perelman is suing the multimillionaire art dealer Larry Gagosian on the grounds, among others, that Gagosian overvalued an unfinished sculpture of Popeye (yes, the Sailor Man) by Jeff Koons. Perelman purchased this item for $4 million.

In parallel to the David of Michelangelo, I will refer to the disputed work as the Popeye. A judge will eventually decide what the Popeye is really worth. My own view is that it is worth precisely what its component materials are worth, or perhaps a bit less, due to the costs that would be incurred in hauling it away and melting it down or crushing it. If called as an expert witness, I will testify to that effect.

Crispin Sartwell

One of my pleasures over the past couple of months has been the universe confirming my aesthetic choices as a novelist by allowing near-facsimiles of a couple of my book’s more extravagant jokes to pop up in real life. So, for instance, there’s a little bit about legalizing bigfoot hunting in Pittsburgh; lo and behold, my editor sends me a link to a real-life bigfoot season on Long Island. Elsewhere in the narrative, we briefly meet a performance artist who “reenacts the aesthetics of atrocity” by dressing up like a Leni Riefenstahl extra—basically a caricature cribbed shamelessly from the real-life Eastern European collective, NSK. Ladies and gentlemen: Charles Krafft.

If not in the top tier of international art scammers, Krafft nevertheless had a national reputation, got museum shows, sold works for tens of thousands of dollars. His work was never any good; even presumed to be commentary, it was the sort of crap that you can find in any hipster gallery on any First Friday gallery crawl in any gentrifying neighborhood from Bushwick to Bloomfield and back again. Well-regarded shit is the reserve currency of the global art market, and just about anything with a hint of ironic appropriation and meta-artistic commentary will eventually find its way into a well-regarded biennial. The art world is the Sokal Affair diluted to an eighth-grade reading level and repeated ad infinitum, except that the pranksters believe their own essays.

Krafft, it seems, never made much effort to conceal his fetish for Aryanism, but it wasn’t until earlier this month when a reporter for The Stranger published a short investigation that anyone with a well-regarded degree from a decent college bothered to notice:

When I wrote to Krafft back in May, letting him know that a reader had asked whether he was a Holocaust denier, I added, “I suppose you don’t have to answer that, but I guess I’d like to know.” This wasn’t the first time I’d heard the rumor, but I found it impossible to imagine that the swastikas on Krafft’s work might reflect genuine spite toward Jews—i.e., that there might not be so much difference between Krafft’s swastikas and Hitler’s. After all, that could mean this self-taught, former Skagit Valley hippie artist was using the guise of art and irony to smuggle far-right symbols into museums, galleries, collectors’ homes, and upscale decor shops like Far4 on First Avenue.

“I found it impossible to imagine that the swastikas on Krafft’s work might reflect genuine spite toward Jews.” I think this is the fine-arts version of that serial killer story in which the neighbors all recall what a nice boy he was, how polite, although he was, come to think of it, awfully quiet and came and went at really odd hours.

To the credit of both The Stranger’s Jen Graves and The New Yorker’s Rachel Arons, neither takes the easy route of calling Krafft a fraud as a way of exonerating themselves and their colleagues for past plaudits. Unfortunately, they can’t quite disavow any ill-considered praise for this third-rate ceramic hobbyist either. Arons:

Perhaps Krafft’s obsession with Holocaust conspiracy theory is costing him his creativity; that would be karmically interesting. But his work that contains contradictions—a “salad of symbols” too freewheeling to parse. That work is worth continuing to examine, even if we are disgusted by Krafft’s current personal beliefs and unsure exactly to what extent, or for how long, they have been informing his work. It should always be difficult to look at art about Nazis. Now that looking at Krafft’s art is even more difficult, we shouldn’t look away.

Looking at Krafft’s work was never difficult, unless, in an effort to contort your own natural aesthetic reaction (“this guy makes shitty trinkets covered in swastikas; uh, oooookay”) to the received opinions of an art establishment to which you want to belong (“ironically appropriating the symbology of fascism in a metacommentary on the nature of nostalgia in our conceptualizing of past atrocity blah blah blah”), you had to take your own brain to the bar, feed it one too many drinks, and then convince it to do something it wasn’t really comfortable with.

It’s true, we shouldn’t look away from Krafft’s art because it’s “even more difficult”. We should look away because it’s lousy art.