Friday, December 16, 2011

Rest in peace, Mr. Hitchens

"I personally want to ‘do’ death in the active and not the passive and to be there to look it in the eye and be doing something when it comes for me."

- Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens, like G.K. Chesterton, was one of the best polemicists of his day. Given his penchant for stridency, I frequently reacted against the moralistic lengths to which he took his arguments, but I was always impressed by his erudition and craft. He was a joy to read.

Also like Chesterton, Hitchens had unconfronted dragons; his robust ego and his tendency to bully intellectual inferiors (as he too often did when wearing his New Atheist hat) were significant shortcomings, but they didn't stop me from relishing his work.

Hitchens died yesterday of pneumonia, at the age of 62, after a prolonged fight with esophageal cancer. Writers and readers should lower their flags to half mast.

For a nice collection of Hitchens' essays, visit Tablet's roundup, "Just Enough Hitch, For A Day."

Addendum: I opened this brief eulogy by likening Hitchens to Chesterton. Two days ago, when I wrote the above, I didn't realize that one of Hitchens' final deadlines was a review of the new biography of Chesterton by Ian Ker. I learned this fact in the course of reading Ian McEwan's moving tribute to Hitchens in the New York Times. For those who, like me, mourn the loss of a keen, energetic spirit and intellect, I can't recommend the McEwan piece enough.

Image credit: ripped from

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Chesterton's Dragons

Brad Carroway
"Smaug the Magnificent"
“Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

- G.K. Chesteron
I admire the English writer G.K. Chesterton's intellect and curiosity. Today, he's best known for his proverbs, but I appreciate his generalism no less. As his Wikipedia entry details, "[Chesterton's] prolific and diverse output included philosophy, ontology, poetry, plays, journalism, public lectures, and debates, literary and art criticism, biography, Christian apologetics, and fiction, including fantasy and detective fiction." (And I thought I had a catholic disposition!)

Chesterton was independent-minded enough to turn his incisive critique to any subject, including those he held dear, and thoughtful enough to engage in courteous debate with his antagonists (a trait today's intellectual leaders typically lack or deny).

Still, he wasn't perfect; some of his writing is flavored with antisemitism and, by many accounts, his strengthening religious convictions dulled his later criticism. Chesterton was right about the value of fairy tales, but too many brave knights ride off in search of dragons to slay, unmindful of the beasts within.

Image credit: ripped from Fine Art America

Monday, December 12, 2011

I Can See The Whole Emperor!

In a 2006 post titled "Lichtenstein the Ingrate," I bemoaned Roy Lichtenstein's elitism. I explained that I was bothered less by the famous artist's "questionable sampling" of newspaper and comic book artists' work than I was by his disregard for the skill of those he copied. In a 1963 interview, Lichtenstein distinguished between his source material and his paintings.
"What I do is form, whereas the comic strip is not formed in the sense I'm using the word; the comics have shapes but there has been no effort to make them intensely unified...The difference is often not great, but it is crucial."
Throughout my late teens and twenties, Lichtenstein's comic-inspired artworks inflamed my sense of righteous indignation. I don't get especially worked up about Lichtenstein's appropriation anymore, but I still believe the man was a charlatan. Had he acknowledged his indebtedness to the artists he imitated, his comic panel paintings could be interpreted as a cynical project highlighting the role of class and money in the appraisal of culture (i.e., it's not fine art if it's in a newspaper, but if it's in a gallery and the "right" person will pay a lot of money for it, it is). That still wouldn't make it particularly thoughtful artwork, but Lichtenstein could have been remembered as a winking champion of the comic artists that nourished him.

Left: William Overgard original
Right: Lichtenstein's rendition

In 2006, I believed that Lichtenstein was "turning into a cultural blip." I took comfort in that presumption, but it's no longer so clear to me that Lichtenstein will be forgotten. A recent ArtInfo article by Judd Tully compares last month's Christie's auction sales price of Lichtenstein's "I Can See The Whole Room!...And There's Nobody In It!" to the EBay auction sales price, last August, of the William Overgard artwork that was the source of Lichtenstein's painting. The former sold for $43,202,500; the latter, for $431. According to the art market, then, the Lichtenstein version is worth more than 100,000 times what the Overgard original is worth! Sure, Lichtenstein's is a bigger picture, but the enormity of the price difference is testament to the intangibles in play in the art market. I love looking at, writing about, and making art, but contemplation of the art market is a depressing affair.

Image credit: "The Emperor's New Clothes" illustration, ripped from My Fresh Plans site (illustrator uncredited); Overgard and Lichtenstein reproductions "appropriated" from The Daily Cartoonist

Friday, December 09, 2011

Coaching For Critics?

I recently read "My Disappointment Critic," a short essay by Jonathan Lethem in The Los Angeles Review of Books (November 7, 2011). I particularly appreciated the four quotations Letham prefaced his piece with. The first of these was drawn from "The Perils of Pauline," a consideration of celebrated film critic Pauline Kael's career by Renata Adler. In 1980, when Adler published the essay in The New York Review of Books, her dismissal of much of Kael's criticism divided readers. But whatever one makes of Adler's Kael-specific critique, the excerpt Lethem picked out is unassailable.
“The job of the regular daily, weekly, or even monthly critic resembles the work of the serious intermittent critic, who writes only when he is asked to or genuinely moved to, in limited ways and for only a limited period of time … What usually happens is that (the staff critic) writes for some time at his highest level: reporting and characterizing accurately … and producing insights, and allusions, which, if they are not downright brilliant, are apposite … What happens after a longer time is that he settles down. The simple truth — this is okay, this is not okay, this is vile, this resembles that, this is good indeed, this is unspeakable — is not a day’s work for a thinking adult. Some critics go shrill. Others go stale. A lot go simultaneously shrill and stale. A few critics, writing quietly and well, bring something extra into their work … Some staff critics quit and choose to work flat out again, on other interests and in intermittent pieces. By far the most common tendency, however, is to stay put and simply to inflate, to pretend that each day’s text is after all a crisis…”
How does a critic avoid going "shrill and stale"? Art bloggers, who often feel the need to write about the same "crisis" several times over the course of one day, are especially at risk.

A week before I read Adler's diagnosis of critical slump, I'd finished Atul Gawande's most recent New Yorker essay, "Personal Best." (Does anyone else wonder just how Gawande does it? He's a highly regarded surgeon, a professor, a staff writer for the New Yorker, a federal health-policy advisor, and just about 101 other things!) Gawande begins his essay by admitting that, as a surgeon, he'd reached cruising altitude.
"I’ve been a surgeon for eight years. For the past couple of them, my performance in the operating room has reached a plateau. I’d like to think it’s a good thing—I’ve arrived at my professional peak. But mainly it seems as if I’ve just stopped getting better. [...] Over time, you learn how to head off problems, and, when you can’t, you arrive at solutions with less fumbling and more assurance. After eight years, I’ve performed more than two thousand operations. [...] As I went along, I compared my results against national data, and I began beating the averages. My rates of complications moved steadily lower and lower. And then, a couple of years ago, they didn’t. It started to seem that the only direction things could go from here was the wrong one."
Gawande surmises that surgeons, like athletes and singers, could benefit from good coaching. To test the idea, he recruits a coach of his own.
"Since I have taken on a coach, my complication rate has gone down. It’s too soon to know for sure whether that’s not random, but it seems real. I know that I’m learning again. I can’t say that every surgeon needs a coach to do his or her best work, but I’ve discovered that I do. [...] In the past year, I’ve thought nothing of asking my hospital to spend some hundred thousand dollars to upgrade the surgical equipment I use, in the vague hope of giving me finer precision and reducing complications. Avoiding just one major complication saves, on average, fourteen thousand dollars in medical costs—not to mention harm to a human being. So it seems worth it. But the three or four hours I’ve spent with [my coach] each month have almost certainly added more to my capabilities than any of this."
So, I wonder, why not have coaches for critics, too? Certainly, a good editor is a kind of coach, and today every other comment-leaving reader seems to know what the critic could have done better and or how she got it wrong, but I'm thinking of another dynamic, a relationship that is more coaching specific. What if critics coached one another? For example, I could plow Critic X's work for flow, strength of argument, original thinking, and all the other elements we desire of critical writing, then provide X with a thoughtful response. X could do the same for Critic Y. These relationships would surely help the coached writers, but they'd also benefit the coaches. Acting as a bullshit detector and whip-cracker, the coach is likely to carry an invigorated critical capacity into his or her own writing.

Still, as Gawande points out, "the greatest difficulty...may simply be a profession’s willingness to accept the idea. The prospect of coaching forces awkward questions about how we regard failure." True, but our culture is also a invested in results, and good ones will change skeptical minds.

Image credit: Sylvester Stallone and Burgess Meredith as boxer and coach in "Rocky," United Artists, 1976

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Review In Brief: Cordy Ryman at Eli Ridgway Gallery

Cordy Ryman
"Shadow Boxed"
Acrylic, enamel, and graphite on wood
38 x 33 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches

Using staples, tape, crudely cut blocks of wood, and other modest materials, Cordy Ryman creates painting-sculptures that explore the interaction of color, light, and line. The DIY appearance of Ryman's artwork belies the sophistication of his enterprise. He's taken a page from the Light and Space playbook (note Ryman's attentiveness to light refraction), but his primary preoccupation is graphic and compositional.

Kin to the painter Thomas Nozkowski, who last year told the New York Times that “a painting is finished when I finally understand why I wanted to do it in the first place,” Ryman engages his materials as if they were collaborators, allowing compositions and designs to reveal themselves over time. In his words, "the process dictates its own direction and evolution." We can't know if this approach is arduous or easy (it's likely both), but Ryman's works almost always appear playful.

Cordy Ryman
"Tangerine 75"
Acrylic and enamel on wood, screws
11 3/4 x 10 1/2 x 5 3/4 inches

The best of Ryman's creations radiate an electric -- almost manic -- energy. A number of these successes are on view in the artist's current solo show at Eli Ridgway Gallery. "Luca," "Shadow Boxed," "Bumble," and "Rose Meridian" are standout works. No less interesting, however, are the middling pieces included in the exhibition. Consider "Tangerine 75." The artwork isn't, on the whole, a star, but the sum of its parts is intriguing; I returned to it several times during my gallery visit, always finding something new to admire or react against.

Ryman's willingness to fail -- and to share his failures with us -- is refreshing and important. Seen alongside their stronger relatives, apparent missteps like "Can Bottom Redline" and "Sun Staple" inform viewers' understanding and appreciation of Ryman's greater project.

Cordy Ryman's work is on view at Eli Ridgway Gallery (172 Minna Street, San Francisco) through December 22.

Cordy Ryman
Acrylic, enamel, and graphite on wood
40 3/4 x 35 1/2 x 5 inches

Image credits: Cordy Ryman images, courtesy Eli Ridgway Gallery