Art & Other Serious Matters

I’ve reached the end of my Rosenberg infatuation, having overdosed on his brand of hypercritical holier-than-thou essays about art. Still, this last volume has some interesting ideas, if you can overlook his pedantic lecturing caught up in the whirlwind of a few great men artists as he tries to make sense of the nonsensical art world of the 1960s & 70s.

  • In this age of reproductions, interpretation takes precedence over direct response. The nature of the image itself–for example, its complexity, awesomeness, evocativeness–becomes less and less important.
  • In addition to television, other electronic media–hi-fi sets, tape recorders, home movies–collaborate with electrified gadgets, from elevators to oven timers, and with mechanized appliances and toys to turn the house into a revel of animation in which art can find a place only if it runs, flies, scoots, climbs, wiggles, shakes, or twinkles.
  • Looking at a painting is an intellectual transaction to which the spectator must contribute.
  • The trend toward motion in art reveals the qualitative difference between human and mechanical energy. The supreme kinetic sculpture is, of course, the hydrogen bomb, by which all humanity has been made smaller. This masterpiece of our culture can never be exhibited in its working state, if for no other reason than that if it is, the audience-participants will be in no condition to appreciate it. The great hidden art object of this era, the Bomb is comparable to the Ship of Cheops, which upon completion was buried “forever” in a mountainside.
  • To deal in masterpieces as if they were diamond-studded shit is more culturally destructive than to exhibit shit as if it were a diamond-studded masterpiece.
  • No-art reflects the mixture of crap and crime with which the mass media floods the mind of our time. It attacks this mixture through reproducing it in concentrated images. It is Pop with venom added.
  • The essential characteristic of Hirschhorn’s mammoth gift is the prevalence of what museum people call “gaps”: for all the eight hundred and fifty items in the inaugural show, it is a porous as a moth-eaten blanket in respect to both art-historical coverage and qualitative texture. It is not only that “names” are missing; it is that at every step the spectator is in danger of falling from a height of modernist creation into a crevasse of dullness or eccentricity.
  • The basic difference between art today (1975) and twenty years ago lies in the increasing amalgamation of painting and sculpture into the United States cultural-educational-entertainment system. Not that the earlier art had revolutionary social ideals; but it did have the advantage of leading a separate existence, if only from neglect… 3. University education of artists. In the past, artists were trained by other artists in art schools and studios. The student artist lived, worked, and learned in an environment of creation. All this was changed with the transformation of art into an aspect of cultural education. At the university, the student artist is surrounded by persons engaged not in conceiving works but in accumulating knowledge.

Art Povera & some rejected books

I’m at the library almost every day now for my infusion of books. Of the books I check out, I post maybe half of them here. Sometimes I struggle to get past the first sentence, sometimes the first fifty pages leaves me on the fence and I abandon it midway through. Never feel like you have to finish a book you’re not enjoying. Life is too short.

This post is an homage to the stack of books I just brought home. I read one (Art Povera), which I think was referenced by Harold Rosenberg, but it wasn’t on my spreadsheet used to track where I get recommendations/book ideas. The book itself is a great physical object– yellow hardcover with pink lines and black flourishes. It’s on loan from the Berkely Public Library through the Link+ system. Pub’d in 1969, it’s a collection of artists’ works and their thoughts, from Eva Hesse to Joseph Beuys and a dozen other men I’d never heard of. The best part of the book is the first page, “STATING THAT,” which outlines various things about the book “The book does not attempt to be objective since the awareness of objectivity is false consciousness” and “The book, when it reproduces the documentation of artistic work, refutes the linguistic mediation of photography,” etc.

Next, on the subject of Harold Rosenberg, I dug up a copy of his privately published poems, Trance Above The Streets. Only 50 copies were made, in 1942, and somehow I got my hands on the copy that the University of Nevada at Reno has. Poor Harold. To be honest, the poems stink. I admit I was kind of hoping for this, since his art criticism is so high and mighty, it’s nice to see how far they can fall when put upon to create in their own right. For a taste, I bring you his “Woman’s Song:”

It is his sound from afar
The music of the man
Bent over the trees
The violin of his name

Dew and rain
And the rhythm of snow
A blue thing of evening
Behind the towers comes

Joined to his sobbing
The wind of his rage
Oh where is the end of
The space of his will

Gross, huh? Other terrible lines like “in my head the/commonplace/disappears like porpoises/among the clouds,/between my lips/a cigar of oxygen.”

Three other books for the return pile:

  • Rebecca West’s Black Lamb & Grey Falcon. This is the second time I’ve checked it out thinking I needed to see what she was all about. Pass.
  • Queechy by Elizabeth Wetherell. Discovered via Louisa May Alcott, but definitely not in the mood. “Come, dear grandpa! –the old mare and the wagon are at the gate–all ready.” First line does not make me want more of this 19th century tale.
  • Ancilla’s Share: an indictment of sex antagonism. Despite the promising subject, the writing is just too dry dry dry.

The De-Definition of Art

This was the book I was originally searching for when I ended up reading Art on the Edge. My initial euphoria w/r/t Rosenberg has dissipated, or perhaps my mood has shifted. Regardless, this book of essays was less enjoyable and somewhat incomprehensible. I felt my attention straying on nearly every page—my own fault, I’m sure.  He’s best when he’s sniping at someone, my favorite in this case was the essay École de New York wherein he takes the Met curator Henry Geldzahler to task for trying to make such a thing as the “New York School.” Here’s his zinger:

Indeed, it was by the frequency with which they had been displayed that the artists in his show presumably met Geldzahler’s criteria: that the works shall have “commanded critical attention or significantly deflected the course of recent art.”… “Critical attention” and historical “deflection” were Gledzahler’s sententious terms for confessing his adherence to the star system. What he was actually saying was: I have been going through museum catalogs and art magazines, and from the artists most talked about I have picked the ones I like best.

Later, “no description could be less relevant to these artists than Geldzahler’s reference to Gorky, Pollock, and Smith as ‘giants.’ Giants do not paint pictures, they roll boulders down hills.” And “it seems evident that for him the significant ideas are those of curators and dealers, and he goes as far as to express the astonishing belief that the fall of the School of Paris was brought about by the absence of enterprising museum personnel: ‘One of the reasons French art weakened so considerably after World War II was that the key paintings and sculptures of the first half of the century were not on view in Paris.’ The decline of Europe could, it seems, have been averted after all if there had been sufficient gallery space. ”

Another essay I enjoyed was Art and Words, dissecting the necessary relationship of current art between materials and words, especially in certain forms like earthworks where the art is inaccessible except through the explanatory text. “Art communicated through documents is a development to the extreme of the Action-painting idea that a painting ought to be considered as a record of the artist’s creative process rather than as a physical object… Logically the work may therefore be invisible—told about but not seen.” Painter Gregoire Müller declares that works are often of “greater intellectual than visual interest.”

Also fun was to read the inscription some previous library patron had added to Rosenberg’s paean to Barnett Newman, accusing Rosenberg of vilifying “Miss” Frankenthaler’s work while building up Newman’s simply because they were in the same social circle. It covers two pages in blue pen.

Peculiar Treasure

Edna Ferber’s autobiography, first pub’d in 1938 then re-released in 1960 with a new introduction by Ferber. The book suffers from one fatal flaw—Ferber didn’t know the ending before she started to write. This is how she constructed all of her fiction, starting at the end and then heading towards it, which makes me suspect this was a critical ingredient to her wildly successful writing. The autobiography drags, she spends too much time in certain areas, namely after she begins to attain success, dallying in her theater rehearsals and rewrites too much for my taste.

The early stuff is good, her journey from Kalamazoo, MI to Ottumwa, IA to Appleton, WI where she spent her teenage years and serendipitously wound up in journalism instead of acting. A walking tour pamphlet in Appleton erroneously states that “her senior essay was so impressive that the editor of the Appleton Daily Crescent offered her a job.” It wasn’t her essay, but the fact that she had won a state speech-making contest. “The winning of the state contest had put me, so far as that small community was concerned, in something of the position of the college athlete who easily gets a job selling bonds in a broker’s office,” writes Ferber.

Several phrases from her books kept popping up, like “just so much velvet.”

She travels, a lot, the benefit of not having saddled herself with husband or children. She gags on Hollywood but gushes over SF: “But San Francisco! There was a city! It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, one of the half-dozen great cities of America; a city of distinction, of flavor, of the quality which excites the visitor.” She goes much further afield, Hawaii, Russia, Europe; when she “settles down” for a few months it’s either in Chicago or NYC. About LA: “I learned that no one walked in Hollywood. This is still true, almost twenty [ed: and 100] years later. Just a few months ago people passing in motorcars stares and pointed at this strange biped walking along the palm-lined avenues of Beverly Hills.”

“Under the influence of the music and a moon and a highball poured from a Prohibition hip flask I became engaged a number of times and hastily wrote to break it off the next morning before I started the day’s grist of writing… I wanted perfection. All old maids are perfectionists. That’s why they’re old maids… I wish I could be tactful enough to say that I regret not having married. I must confess that I know no woman with whom I should want to exchange places.”

On love of writing: “Life really can’t utterly defeat a writer who is in love with writing, for life itself is a writer’s lover until death; fascinating, cruel, lavish, warm, cold, treacherous, constant; the more varied the moods the richer the experience.”

On hearing praise of a work long finished:

A writer doesn’t tire of hearing people say they like his book or play. He loves hearing it. But the difficulty is this: by the time the reader has read it or the playgoer has seen it, the writer has laid it away in lavender. To him it is a ghost. If his response to flattery or appreciation seems absent-minded, forced and even churlish it is because he scarcely knows what you’re talking about. The thing is remote, finished, beyond his reach. His mind, imagination, emotions, creative powers are concentrated on the new thing he is trying to write. Still unconquered, that fresh work is tugging at him, deviling him, eluding him when he tries to pin it down. It grins up at him from his dinner late; it walks with him on the street; it prods and pinches him when he tries to sleep,k it leers at him from the pages of other people’s books; it insinuates itself slyly between him and the person to whom he is talking; it jabbers at him when he himself is talking. Only that interests him, claims all his attention.

She has her shortcomings, partially excusably by the age she was living in, but still sexist, cheap, and racist. She constantly refers to the journalism work she did as “man’s work,” to brag about how hard she worked. When she does research for Show Boat, she spends four days with a traveling troupe and at the end sends the host a copy of her book with a check. He doesn’t cash the check until several years later when his boat sinks. “I wish [the check] had been double in size.” Well send him another one, lady! She also has a cavalier attitude about her cook/maid, Rebecca:

A widow, she has a son, Waters Turpin, by her first marriage, whose first novel got reviews that would have made me jealous if I hadn’t been so pleased, and whose second novel bids fair to rival the first. Novels of American Negro life, they are; but none of this Sambo stuff. Rebecca has taken a quiet pride in this achievement, but she never refers to it, and on the Sunday morning that brought us the New York Times’ superb review of her son’s book, These Low Grounds, my waffles and maple syrup were as crisp, as golden, as toothsome as though no undue excitement marked the day.

Warts and all, I am enjoying her fiction. On the lookout for her collected short stories now.

Hunt the Slipper

Very amusing first foray into the writing of Violet Trefusis. From the first sentence, you knew you were in capable hands, introducing us to Molly Benson and her brother Nigel, 50 and 49 years old respectively, living together companionably. Molly, proud of her brother’s insomnia. “It set him aside as a superior being. Like Nietzsche, he only obtained by violence what was given others freely.” Despite his age, Nigel is quite the ladies’ man, collecting and breaking hearts of twenty-five-year-old women. Molly coerces him into joining her to visit their neighbors and meet the new wife, Caroline, who sulks and is bad mannered during their visit. When the Bensons run into Caroline again in Paris, she is transformed… by love for a Chilean man who is accompanying her and her husband. Nigel is besotted and begins to lose his heart to her.

The Chilean waits for Caroline at a bar in Paris: “He was pleasantly surprised at her unpunctuality: was her technique improving at last? He glanced at his wristwatch. A quarter of an hour late: in another ten minutes he would be in love with her.” She has shed her husband, is free for a few days in Paris without him. They make a date for dinner, which he later breaks when a more fabulous woman insists on him taking her to dinner. Caroline is heartbroken when she later sees the two of them kissing in a cab. Nigel consoles her, and takes care of her when she comes down with the flu, cementing their relationship in friendship with bolts of current under the surface. Nigel heads to Italy with Molly, Caroline back to England. Letters pass, Caroline decides she does love Nigel. When all are back in England, they begin their affair (it helps that Nigel lost a ton of weight due to stressing about the relationship and getting tan in Italy). They sneak around behind her husband’s back, using Molly as a beard. Caroline insists that they have to tell Anthony, but then he gets gravely ill and they keep the lid on about their relationship. In London, Caroline then runs off with another man, calls Anthony to ask for a divorce, sends Nigel a letter that he locks away as he considers suicide. Five days go by, and he decides to read the letter. She says she’s using this other guy as a ruse, that this is the only way Nigel will run away with her, if she’s already set things in motion, but that he’s to come to her within 3 days or she really will run away with the other guy. Brilliant!

***

Violet Trefusis best known now as Vita Sackville-West’s girlfriend (Virginia Woolf also one of those). For some reason I’d never explored her work, but it was on my list after the pushy Alastair Cooke character at Trotsky lecture recommended it.

They Brought Their Women

I raided the shelves of the Main library to greedily devour anything else of Ferber’s after I enjoyed So Big so much. This book of short stories was drolly prefaced by a few pages of Ferber commenting that the American short story was like hot pancakes, “the same deft pouring of the batter, the same expert jerk, the same neat flip of the wrist at the end.” Writing in 1933, she says you just need to look out the window to see the world changing before your eyes. “The writer of fiction finds himself [sic] trying to create in an atmosphere of a three-ring circus, with clowns, equestrians, acrobats whirling in mid-air.” The copy of the collection that I read had fabulous colored title page inserts before each story.

IMG_0057Glamour follows the hectic 24 hour day of a successful Broadway actress as she winds down one play while learning the lines/dress fittings/scenery choices/rehearsing for the next that opens in a few days. Her child is cared for by a nurse, her husband smokes his cigars and drinks and gives her an encouraging word when she needs it, but she is alone and striving for most of the day, except for the four hours of sleep. Truly exhausting to read.

IMG_0058Fräulein has a similar setup for the mother, a rich society matron who entrusts the care of her two children to a German nurse (Fräulein Berta), only having to care for them on Berta’s one afternoon off, during which time the children throw tantrums and are monstrous. Berta sneaks off to avoid the competing attention of the butler and chauffeur, then does some shopping before heading to her husband/beau’s room where she cleans up, washes her hair, bathes, and they have a snack of ham and beer before heading out to dinner and a German Nationalistic meeting (replete with posters of Hitler, “silly-looking man with a Chaplin mustache, no chin, and one mad and one sane eye.”) Then they hit up a movie and she heads back to her employer’s house by midnight to retake control of the children, who are screaming.

IMG_0059

Meadow Lark is a tale of the son of a Kansas farmer who tinkers around in his homemade shed, building himself a car, and then a plane that won’t fly, eventually escaping the farm to work his way up at the local airplane factory, with hopes of someday piloting his own craft. By leaving the farm, he also escaped the plan of his mother and neighboring farm girl to entrap him in marriage, which they liken to leaving feed for a bird (Meadowlark) and then grab him when he’s close. As he soars over the farm at last, the rejected girl says, “Don’t you worry, he won’t come down. He won’t ever come down.”

IMG_0060Hey! Taxi! brings us back to NYC where we follow a Ernie’s hack on a Saturday, the various fares he picks up, his under- and over-tipping, strange parcels he delivers, drunk people who can’t pay schlepped all the way to Brooklyn (the wife threw down exact fare from the window). His stops for coffee and donuts, or dinner at Charley’s (lamb with peas, cauliflower, and potatoes) or a late night snack of hamburger. The attempt to cash in on the post-Broadway crowd, but a war with the traffic cop there. Learned about a 33 1/3 customer– someone the cabbie would take to a club to drink (this during Prohibition), and the cabbie would make sure he was ok, then take him in, park his cab and wait inside with one eye on the 33 1/3 and one eye on the cash register. The cabbie would take 33 1/3 percent of whatever the person spent at the club.

IMG_0064Wall Street — ’28, supposedly written in 1928 (pre- crash), details the life of Cass Condon, an ultra-wealthy stockbroker who spends half of his day simply staring out the huge glass windows of his office, fingering the tickertape machine. He walks a mile then gets into a cab, getting to work by 9:30. “This was the malest street in the world. They poured into it—from the “L” trains and the subways, from ferries and surface lines and taxis—men and men and men, all curiously young and all curiously alike in some indefinable way.” His extremely competent secretary Miss Rosen “could, if necessary, have run the firm single-handedly. She had worked downtown since she was sixteen. There was nothing she did not know about Cass Condon’s business. No letter reached him that she had not first scanned. His telephone calls passed first through her. She separated the gold from the dross, the goats from the lambs; she was the alimentary tract which predigested Cass Condon’s tasks for him.” Condon’s life is quite easy, he leaves to have lunch at the club, taking a leisurely two hours. Then he heads to the gym where he did “a lot of undignified things that resembled the antics of an overturned beetle. He lay on his back and alternately brought his right and left leg up in the air and down slowly within two inches of the floor; he did half-somersaults; he turned over on his face and chinned the ground, his biceps screaming.” Then he goes to check in on his business interests at a motion picture company, falls in love with a girl on the screen and is invited to meet her at the Ambassador Hotel. They go, spend an hour or so chatting and listening to music before he leaves to head home to dress for dinner:

He went into his room. The lamps were lighted there too, and his clothes were laid out. [His wife] was calling from her room. ‘It’s quite a large dinner so there’ll probably be two or three cars. Don’t let that terrible Kassell girl get into ours when we go to the theater. And listen. Tell Jimmy that I don’t want to sit next to George at the show. Will you try to find out from Linda what they paid for the place at Syosset? Remember to speak to Otto..’ He lay down across his bed and even closed his eyes. Miss Rosen would never have asked him to remember all of those things. He breathed deeply. Scented air. Drawn curtains. Soft deferential footsteps. Low-pitched voices. Quiet. Luxurious. Shut in.

A prisoner until nine tomorrow morning.

IMG_0061They Brought Their Women was probably the most frustrating of the bunch, with a woman that you wanted to strangle. An overbearing wife who won’t leave her husband alone, even when he goes on a long business trip to Mexico she insists on accompanying him and not letting him try any of the native food or visit any native festivals. A frustrated artist, he’s trapped in the business world of his father, but at the end he shows a bit of sparkle as if he might chuck it all up and stay in Mexico to paint. His wife accuses him of being crazy. “A little, a little. But not enough.”

IMG_0062No Foolin’ is the tale of a woman with multiple broken engagements who finally falls in love with a man while on a trip to Europe with her parents. She marries him, lives in France, raises a son, becomes thoroughly French. The father dies in a plane crash, the Depression hits, she and son return to the U.S. but hate its constant change and lack of simplicity that Paris had.

IMG_0063Keep it Holy, the final story, follows Linny Mashek, a farm girl from Connecticut who comes to NYC to make hats. Knowing no one, she haunts the streets on Sundays, her day off. She visits the Met, the Natural History Museum, the Aquarium. Sunday mornings, her ritual comes to making coffee, eating a bit of cake and perhaps cooking (illegally!) some eggs in her room at the boarding house before heading out. She has her dinner at Werner’s cafeteria. “It was cheap, bright, good, clean. You got your tray, you selected your food, you served yourself.”

She had selected her food in silence, pointing. She had eaten in silence. She was out again in the February dusk. Suddenly, without warning, panic clutched her. You could live in New York, and go around all day, and have nothing happen. Not one thing. All day long she had talked to no one. From the moment of her awakening this morning until now, standing on the street corner in the early spring dusk, she had talked to no human being. Not one. She was a ghost, unreal, immaterial, drifting like fog through an indifferent city, mingling with the throng but no part of it. She was nothing. She was nobody.

The Elements of Eloquence

I got tipped off about this book from multiple mentions online showcasing this section:

And sadly, this is the best nugget that comes from reading the book, the fact that someone has gone and written down the order of how adjectives must be. Otherwise, you’re facing 39 chapters of an educated man being quite clever and wink winking at you with some casual sexism thrown in as afterthought to spice up the taste. I actually was enjoying it for a few pages, but soon tired of his trick of ending one chapter with an example of whatever the next chapter was going to cover. The author shows he’s a true Renaissance man by quoting not just Shakespeare, Milton, Coleridge, but also Pulp Fiction, Dirty Harry, President Obama.

Ultimately, beautiful and memorable lines boil down to structure and rhythm, repetition and sound. I definitely didn’t need to read a book like this to find that out.

 

The Diaries of Dawn Powell: 1931-1965

Perhaps these would have been better off in another editor’s hands. Tim Page admits to “gently—algebraically—tightening many of the entries… had somebody else edited these diaries, for better or worse, it would have been a different book.” Well, the book is well-nigh unreadable, so Page does Powell a disservice. A more deft knife would have excised the fat and given us the gleaming stuff underneath.

Powell struggles to support herself, a drunk husband, and a disabled child with her writing. She constantly complains about how slow she writes, how tired she is, how worried about money. Frequent mention of getting drunk herself, at speakeasies during Prohibition, including with e.e. cummings (“we went to Sam’s and drank with E.E. Cummings till five in the morning—a simply heavenly spree. Cummings’ conversation (in its drunken fantastic aspects) permits no interchange—it is a dazzling, glittering spectacle, a parade of wonders and fantastic nonsense. His sarcasm is savage but I note that art and humor both vanish when pretty young girls ask him the meaning of his work—his explanations are as pompous and flattened as any Floyd Dells.”)

Youth, A Narrative

Ah, finally a Joseph Conrad story that lives up to the hype. Pure poetry, mostly different from (better than) his other tales in the lack of overwrought dialog, since this tale is told once-removed, a sea yarn spun out over a table in England where four people sit drinking. Marlow is the narrator, relating the story of his first voyage as second mate in a leaky tub that attempts to leave for Bangkok several times but the crew ends up pumping water on the outward voyage and refuses to sail. Word gets around that the boat is unsafe, and they have to get a crew shipped in from Liverpool to man it, even after the ship is completely gutted and fixed up tight.

Gorgeous dreamy words elevate the pumping to a higher plane:

And we pumped. And there was no break in the weather. The sea was white like a sheet of foam, like a caldron of boiling milk; there was not a break in the clouds, no—not the size of a man’s hand—no, not for as much as ten seconds. There was for us no sky, there were for us no stars, no sun, no universe—nothing but angry clouds and an infuriated sea. We pumped watch and watch, for dear life; and it seemed to last for months, for years, for all eternity, as though we had been dead and gone to a hell for sailors. We forgot the day of the week, the name of the month, what year it was, and whether we had ever been ashore… We had forgotten how it felt to be dry.

Eventually, they set off, make it to East Asia, but the coal they are transporting catches fire. They begin dumping water into the hold. “Then we pumped with the feeble head-pump, drew water with buckets, and in this way managed in time to pour lots of Indian Ocean into the main hatch… It was our fate to pump in that ship, to pump out of her, to pump into her; and after keeping water out of her to save ourselves from being drowned, we frantically poured water into her to save ourselves from being burnt.”

The fire is extinguished, everyone takes a breather. Then, coal dust explosion rips the boat apart. They wave down a passing ship, get a tow, but then the boat catches fire so they cut themselves loose, jump in their smaller boats, and watch the ship burn to nothing after salvaging what they could. They row to a harbor, secure passage on an outbound ship.

Marlow brings the tale to a close, having requested them to pass the bottle several times during the story. “Ah! The good old time—the good old time. Youth and the sea. Glamour and the sea! The good, strong sea, the salt, bitter sea that could whisper to you and roar at you and knock your breath out of you.”

So Big

Holy fuck, Edna Ferber. Why is the entire English-speaking world not reading her books and worshiping her for the fantastic fiction she wrote? When I finished reading this minutes ago, I actually held it in the air and shook it. My god.

Tight, perfect prose, descriptive, and the plot achingly magnificent. The worst pages were the beginning, where you think it’s going to be all about Dirk (So Big), but he’s quickly whisked away and the fantastic Selina is revealed, his mother, who when her father the gambler died, headed to the Chicago suburbs to become a teacher to support herself and ended up marrying a luckless farmer within a few months. Selina gives herself up to farming, making that land work so that she can give son Dirk the best things in life, especially when her hubby croaks a few years in. This charming, good-looking loafer (her son) grows further away from her, first studying at “Midwest” (which became U of Chicago), then to Cornell to study architecture, which he gives up in pursuit of riches to please his married girlfriend. But then an ad campaign lands him in the path of Dallas O’Mara and we’re back in the land of real people again. The book ends with him face-down on his satin sheets, realizing what a worthless life he’s pursued.

Ferber’s lines grab you by the throat, no wonder most of her work has been pillaged by Hollywood for scripts (Dinner at Eight – one of my favorite movies, Giant, Show Boat, Ice Palace, Saratoga Trunk, Cimarron, etc.). Biographically, she’s my kind of gal– never married, no kids. Slurping her autobiography onto my to-read list immediately.

The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Essays on Feminist Art

How could a book be this bad? I had high hopes for this work, sitting at the intersection of two of my biggest interests at the moment—art & feminism. Unfortunately, Lucy Lippard is not a good writer, and my current obsession with Harold Rosenberg (lucid, insightful, brainy writing about art) does her no favors by comparison. I was surprised to run into her a few times in one weekend—she natters on pleasantly in the Eva Hesse documentary, and then Eileen Myles mentioned Lippard’s book in Inferno, which I finished a few days after seeing Lippard on screen. Sadly, the best part of this book were the illustrations of works by women artists.

Regarding dislike of her writing style, I’m not alone. She includes in this book details on why she was fired from the Village Voice in 1985: “bad writing… narrow subject matter… fuzzy politics… lack of aesthetic judgement and principle… boring content… predictability.” I could not agree more. Lippard thinks of herself first and foremost, including herself as the s/hero of the story in almost every single essay in here, pounding us over the head with repetitive information about her feminist transformation (congratulations! do you want a cookie?), constantly referencing other books she’s written, even stooping so far as to give us an hour by hour breakdown of her day, then excusing it lamely, “So what does all this have to do with art and feminism? Everything and nothing. The fabric of our lives is where our art comes from…” Lippard, you are no artist.

Turn, Magic Wheel

I am giddy with the knowledge of yet another forgotten woman writer who deserves resurrection. This book was spotted at Malaprops bookstore in Asheville earlier this summer and promptly added to my to-read list. A dazzling, spare, witty writing style that takes down the 1930s New York publishing stereotypes while weaving a complex tale of the author (Dennis Orphen) on the eve of his exposé novel about his older friend/paramour, the ex-wife of a famous literary giant (Mrs. Andrew Callingham, aka Effie Thorne). Dennis also has a married girlfriend, Corrine, whom he has to visit at her home for dinner parties and put up with the piercing eyes of friend Olive, who knows all. So many great characters in this, including the city of New York, always present, pulsating, provoking.

Originally published in 1936. Unceremoniously trashed in the dust bin of history and forgotten, but should be read far and wide. Now I’m on the scent of Powell’s posthumously published journals… onward!

André Gide’s Journals (Volume 4: 1939-1949)

Having closed the book in a rage, I decide to keep a journal (this entry) of my reading André Gide’s Journals. I started with the last volume because someone else has commandeered the first three volumes, and I’m not averse to reading someone’s thoughts from the the wisest, oldest part of their life first. Germany has invaded France, Gide gets whisked to safety by friends with a car. He continues to write his journal as if nothing is happening. He devours books in German, English, French, particularly appreciating Goethe, Mann, Kafka.

As I am reading, I collect bits that I particularly enjoy:

  • I assume the profound and almost prophetic tone (in conversation) solely when I am not at all sure of what I am saying.
  • I am merely beginning really to know how to learn, to take advantage. What joy I find in diligence! Had I shown the same zeal for learning in my childhood, where would I not be today!
  • It is probably a little ridiculous at my age to still try to learn, and all this effort is quite useless; but the moment I am not stretching toward something, I become mortally bored and cease to enjoy life. My mind is not yet sufficiently at peace for [sleep]; still too curious, too greedy.
  • The number of stupidities that an intelligent person can say in a day is not believable. And I should probably say just as many as others if I were not more often silent.
  • Oh, why did I not put forth such an effort in my early youth! But at that time it seemed to me much more important to taste life directly, to push away the screen of books and everything education interposed that might hamper the sincerity and innocence of my vision. Was I wrong? I cannot get myself to believe so. And even if I thought so, what could I do about it? Nothing more useless than regrets.

Then I stumble. Oh no, what’s this? Gide betrays me with his virulent sexism. Another hero fallen from the clouds, tumbled down by his blinders, idiotically writing off half the human population:

There are always certain regards in which the most intelligent of women, in her reasoning, remains below the least intelligent of men. A sort of conventional agreement takes place, involving considerable regard for the sex “to which we owe our mother,” for many a lame argument that we should not accept if it came from a man. I am well aware that, nevertheless, their counsel may be excellent, but on condition that we constantly rectify it and expurgate from it that element of passion and emotivity which almost always, in a woman, sentimentalizes thought.

Godddamn you Gide. I finish 1940 and disgustedly close the book. What other landmines await me that will denigrate my sex unfairly, unnecessarily? Even in the brains of “geniuses” I cannot find refuge, must always watch my step. I’m not sure I’ll continue reading.

***

I decide to plow ahead after coming up empty with a stack of other books that awaited me. As we roll through 1941, 1942, 1943, the war becomes increasingly obvious in the journal, deprivation in food, bombing nearby. A notice is tacked up in Tunis, where Gide has taken refuge, notifying Jews that they will have to pay the sum of TWENTY MILLIONS to aid the victims of the Anglo-American bombings, “for which they are responsible.” Gide continues to read boatloads of books and have “charming lunches” with various friends. He devotes considerable space to describing his secretary, Victor, as a greedy, devious liar who seizes the best pieces of meat whenever he gets to the table. Gide also indulges in some vanity, saying he wished he had the hollow cheeks and prominent cheekbones he admired in a portrait of Delacroix.

***

Finished. The years between 1944-1949 included mere handfuls of entries with Gide neglecting his journal for long stretches of up to a year. I can sympathize. For the most part, the war ends without a mention, Gide happily reads on, mentions his health, finishes writing Theseus.

On journaling:

I have long ceased to keep my Journal. This was in great part because of the unbearable square-ruling of the last notebook (there were no others to be found), which forced me to write my lines too close together. But each time that I resume my Journal after a rather long interruption, I should like it to be in a somewhat different tone, and yet not an unnatural one, as when one changes interlocutors. And furthermore, I should like indeed not to repeat constantly the same things. Now, I long ago looked at myself from all angles; at least it seems to to me; and have inventoried my spiritual furnishings. No further great discoveries to be hoped fro from introspection. (1944)