Thursday, January 27, 2005

Kiss your television


This kind of remark
As someone who uses television in what I consider to be an intelligent manner
is from what passes in this forum as a "reasonable" supporter of TV. One thing lost in most critical discussions of television is the pleasure that watching brings (yeah, I know--you are immune from its allure). Of course most of what's on TV doesn't appeal to you, but how many books on the bestseller lists do? How many films in the cineplex? That it is labor-intensive to sort what works does not suffice to dismiss the medium.

My TV manifesto would insist that folks reserve the right to use the box in a frivolous manner, for starters. Folks read all kinds of crap, in all kinds of situations--not that there's anything wrong with that. Reading well-crafted genre stuff is immensely pleasureable (though not virtuous). From Hugh Kenner,
We forget that most of what people read when everybody read all the time was junk — competent junk," he told U.S. News & World Report. "Now they get it from television. The casual entertainment people get in the evening from the box was what they used to get from the short fiction in The Saturday Evening Post. That magazine and others like it were the situation comedies and cop shows of their era. It is not a cultural loss that this particular use of literacy has been transferred from one medium to another.
I assert that viewing the Lord of the Rings on DVD is a vastly more satisfying and rich experience than slogging through the books, which are little more than a martial account with little feel for the fables and themes that Peter Jackson conveys onscreen (and with none of the turgid prose and bad poetry).

I suppose part of the problem folks have with TV is the pleasure it brings; it's our old puritan heritage coming back to bite us once again. I find McLuhan instructive here, noting that television is a terribly inefficient way to learn, compared to a book. But it's a fantastic emotion box, economically capturing human interaction in a way that a book cannot [see: crying in front of the tube and the eternal allure of good reality television].

It's no mistake that sitcoms and soap operas and "reality" shows have persisted since the beginning of the artform--that was a great revelation of the Treasures from the American Film Archives series (available on DVD): these forms are well-neigh Platonic, they have always been with us and entertained us. They are profoundly human, and not to be feared.

Your dose of Italian pop culture

Other than the fact that everyone in Rome was carrying a copy of Dan Brown's Il codice da Vinci--newly translated into Italian--the funniest thing I saw there was a game show that seemed to play every night of the week, with a "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" theme, replete with inventive props and monkey suits (see image). Even though I could never quite figger out what was going on, I was rapt.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Whither the narrative?


This is a question that died out a little while back, but I wanted to collect a few remarks because Dave's original question--what is the place of the narrative [in visual art]?--sustained me for a good couple of days while I was braving the cold of Reykjavík, en route to other places [which I'll discuss in subsequent posts]. It's a great question, and one that might as well begin at

Works of art that tell a story are called "narratives"; their subject matter may be derived from literature, scripture, mythology, history, or current events. Narratives may be designed to teach, enlighten, or inspire, and often carry moral, social, or patriotic messages.
Most people would make a rough equivalence between the history of representational painting and narrative painting--or at least anti-abstract: surely minimalist, e.g., works are difficult to make narrative*--and I'd argue that this is, more or less, correct. And I have some pretty good company: the first and last word on this topic belongs to Arthur Danto (see Art After the End of Art) and Hans Belting (see Art History After Modernism, among others); Danto makes the connection between the art historical narrative and narrative content. To make a long story short: we're not likely to see the return of any old order that priveleges, e.g., "narrative." Danto and Belting counsel that there can be no re-ordering in the wake of the Brillo boxes (Danto's famous example that one can never tell whether an object is a work of art or not without knowing what was in the creator's noggin at fabrication time).

Which is not to say that narrative won't be important--pomo doesn't rule anything out. And there has been a great deal of narrative art evident at the last two Whitney biennials (not always to good effect, though: 2002 was the biennial of the punchline); but there will always be, er, "non-retinal" art--that ain't gonna change, ever.

Where does that leave us? Subsequent remarks have focused on the presence/lack of, well, soul:

What I see is a willingness to portray and be portrayed, to be
personally visible. I like the work of Erin Fostel and Zach Thornton,

I agree. The search for authenticity in a postmodern era is the central issue of our time, and not just in the art world. It's way problematic, obvs. Funny--or perhaps not--how the era of "anything goes" must necessarily yield to the old standby of Western civ; we are who we are. I was in Rome last week, carrying Roberto Calasso's Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, an unclassifiable book blurbed on the jacket [by Gore Vidal] as perhaps in the Bible's class of importance to our culture, and he's right. I was struck by many familiar things while roaming the ancient city, but--to cite but one inspired by Calasso--I was surprised at the similarity of the Spartans to today's GOP. How cool is that?

To "be personally visible," as individuals and as a culture, is the new black.

* But not impossible!
Modern and contemporary works can also carry narrative content--even nonrepresentational works. Barnett Newman's abstract series, Stations of the Cross (1964), suggests a sequential unfolding of meaning. It is based on the medieval tradition of pilgrimage through episodes of Christ's Passion. In Newman's interpretation of the pilgrimage, these episodes symbolize aspects of universal suffering. In a different vein, the artist Jonathan Borofsky gives detailed narrative instructions to the viewer by actually imbedding a story in the title of his 1983 work

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Nine TV shows and one movie from 2004

  1. Laguna Beach (MTV). Reality verité; the perfect docudrama, required viewing for budding sociologists.
  2. 24 (Fox). Pulp of the highest order.
  3. The Amazing Race (CBS). Eminently watchable.
  4. Lost (ABC). For the sheer pleasure of Evangeline Lilly parading about in her knickers.
  5. Six Feet Under (HBO). The best drama on television, perhaps the best of all time: a brilliant cast and brilliantly written. A melodrama about the family that works, and one that rings true. (Little-noticed: a virtually kid-free family, making it friendly for the childless urbanite.)
  6. Pimp My Ride (MTV). A radical new idea for reality TV: make the contestant unbelievably happy without embarrassing them!
  7. Network design at MTV and VH1. The only corporate branding on the airwaves that's both good and comprehensive.
  8. Hardball with Chris Matthews (MSNBC). I love John Stewart as much as everyone else does, but Matthews was the go-to guy for the 2004 election. Crazy--from going after Zell Miller to hammering Jerry Falwell to slapping down the Swifties--and passionate (marathon convention coverage on everything under the sun).
  9. The Apprentice (NBC). Why did it take so long to put the workplace under the lights? Reality and surreality (Trump's mane, natch).
  10. Napoleon Dynamite (Fox Searchlight). Sweet; ligers and mad skills.

Favorite U.S. places over 2004 cross-country trip

  1. Seattle Public Library, Seattle, Washington. Rem Koolhaas’s best-loved and deepest work, it’s beautiful, breathtaking, and fun to be inside.
  2. Hotel San Jose, Austin, Texas. Modernist makeover of a great old motor lodge; a great vibe, a Congress Avenue address, and wonderful staff.
  3. The Forevertron and the House on the Rock, near Madison, Wisconsin. These two attractions were unexpectedly moving, for surprisingly similar reasons; the former is a sculpture garden working from the raw materials of castoff scrap machinery, the latter a wholly uncurated collection of unimaginable scale. Both are testaments to the Western ethos of the individual.
  4. Lightning Field, near Quemado, New Mexico. An examination of the earth, light, quiet, and the social self.
  5. Lafayette Cemetery, Garden District, New Orleans, Louisiana. A complex matrix of place, addressing the land, architecture, and text. The metal gateway is a treasure.
  6. Asheville, North Carolina. A well-regulated and attractive old industrial town, renewed.
  7. Los Angeles, California. America’s most complex and least-loved city, a place that never fails to soothe me.
  8. The Badlands, South Dakota. Mythic and full of wonder, despite their reputation.
  9. Barbette, Minneapolis, Minnesota. A delicious meal.
  10. Monument Valley and the San Juan Inn, Mexican Hat and environs, southern Utah. Home to the most varied and colorful landscape of the trip. The location of the old motor lodge, perched above the San Juan River, took one back forty years.

A dozen books for 2004

  1. The Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects, Norman A. Klein. An original addition to the literature of wonder and spectacle, examining the world of shocks, surprise twists, grand fakes, and copies. Scholarly and accessible.
  2. Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, Suketu Mehta. Not just a portrait of the modern, labyrinthine city, but a well-written look at a city in transformation from a third-world to a first-world one. A fascinating first look at the century ahead of us.
  3. The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki. An original challenge to the cult of the expert, and one that explains the paradox of—among others—how a wise electorate may be composed of ordinary folks.
  4. The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love, and Liberty in the American Ballad, Sean Wilentz and Griel Marcus, editors. A beautiful examination of Americana through the lens of vernacular music.
  5. Snow, Orhan Pamuk. Quiet and beautiful prose. Pamuk is an accomplished architect of narrative, themes, and poetics; a writer for the ages.
  6. Stand Up and Fight Back, E. J. Dionne, Jr. In an election year that saw Democratic partisans continue to lose their collective head, a veteran pragmatist instructs the faithful and addresses the victors, too.
  7. Alexander the Great, Paul Cartledge. In the year of a return to costume dramas, this book works better than the any of the toga-ed movies.
  8. My Life, Bill Clinton. Our most talented and reflective modern president, Clinton’s book is as one would expect: it is like Clinton, the man—unwieldy, profound, penetrating—well, maybe not that.
  9. The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, Bill James and Rob Neyer. Endlessly distracting, as all of their better works are. Amongst other things, a debunking of the sins of overworking young pitchers, a “census” of all significant pitchers and their repertoire, and (of course) more.
  10. Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner, editors. A collection of short works that form a roadmap to the meaning of modern music in the pomo era—would make a nice textbook for a course on the topic.
  11. McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue Number 13: An Assorted Sampler of North American Comic Drawings, Strips, and Illustrated Stories, &c., Chris Ware, editor. You can read it for the articles, including essays by Updike and a number of fine, shorter ones by the editor himself.
  12. Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life, David Boyle. Not available in the U.S., this British author ably grapples with the most significant question in the postmodern era: how do we sort the world when authenticity has lost its meaning?

Top ten disks of 2004

  1. Sonic Nurse, Sonic Youth. A satisfying return from the over-the-hill gang.
  2. Madvillianry, Madvillian. What do you get when you pair the genre’s greatest DJ and one of its best emcees? Predictably, the best hip-hop record of 2004, that’s what. Great cover image.
  3. The Grey Album, Jay-Z and DJ Danger Mouse. I ditched all of my old Beatles records a long time back, not because I didn’t like them, but that I was fatigued. The beauty of the Grey Album is that the Fab Four have been recontextualized; they sound fresh again.
  4. Funeral, Arcade Fire. The “it” record of 2004, and well-deserved, if not as much as one hears. Rousing.
  5. Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand. Fab—bonus points for the fantastic constructivist video by Jonas Odell.
  6. Talkie Walkie, Air. Once again, some of the most heartachingly beautiful pop tunes put to silicon.
  7. Britney Spears Greatest Hits: My Prerogative, Britney Spears. (If it plays, it goes on the list.) Toxic, y’all.
  8. Radio Morocco, “Various artists.” Sublime Frequencies is perhaps the worst-kept secret of the last twelve months—their disks have been cropping up on many best-of lists. I prefer the “radio” recordings to the field and found cassettes, because you get a sense of the times through pop, vocal stylings, ads, &c. That they come across in French, English, and Berber, makes it twice as nice.
  9. Ta Det Lugnt, Dungen. The Swedish combo has an elusive, authentic sound, one lost in time, the result of spending a good number of years, sitting in their bedrooms, listening to Zeppelin. Indescribable.
  10. Vertigo,” U2. I don’t own the disk; haven’t downloaded it; still may have heard it more than any other single this year, thanks to Apple and MTV. It’s good.