Friday, October 24, 2014

“Here Comes the Judge"

photo of Somerset Maugham by Carl Van Vechten
In an Op-Ed piece entitled  “The Good Order,” (NYT, 9/25/14), David Brooks bridges the gap between international and individual order, in comparing the discipline of creation to that of a superpower’s obligation to keep chaos at bay. Brooks’s primary examples are writers like John Cheever, Maya Angelou, Anthony Trollope and Somerset Maugham who created rigid routines or schedules and he quotes W. H. Auden to the effect that “A modern stoic knows that the surest way to discipline passion is to discipline time: decide what you want or ought to do during the day, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble.” This idea of the artist is a far cry from the ethos many baby boomers grew up with, influenced as they were by the idea of creative people as drop outs and rebels against rigidity and routine. Their role models were the abstract expressionists of the 50’s or rock stars like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix whose lives were like supernovas which blazed forth a blinding light just as they courted oblivion. The kind of writers and artists that Brooks is writing about seem more like businessmen. Brooks remarks, “They think like artists, but work like accountants.” That statement recalls Flaubert’s famous quote that one should, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work." How are these two conflicting views translatable on the world stage? Brooks uses the occasion of his piece to praise President Obama’s speech at the U.N. which he says, “put tough minded realism at the service of a high calling.” But is discipline in the political sphere really translatable into inspiration? Artists are attempting to find something through the maintenance of a practice but what is a politician or leader trying to find? The answer is usually a series of intelligent decisions that lead his country out of a quagmire. “Uh-oh, Here Come the Judge, Here Come the Judge/Everybody know That he is the judge," Pigmeat Markham once intoned. A political leader has no choice but to work in a consistent and disciplined way, but it’s no guarantee that his or her actions will lead to the kind of vision that characterizes the work of the artistic geniuses who Brooks cites.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ivo van Hove’s “Scenes From a Marriage"

At the time of it’s original release in l974 Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage was the perfect antidote to the wave of post-modernism which hovered like a horrible tsunami, threatening to place the iteration of most emotional states in quotes. Ivo van Hove’s stage version at New York Theatre Workshop has the same net effect as the movie, which is to place you right in the line of fire—in this case of an unsettling portrait of human bonding. There have been three recent adaptations of Bergman movies for the theater. Carey Mulligan starred in Jenny Worton’s staging of Through a Glass Darkly.That production seemed like little more than an inspired read through of the script. Van Hove did a Cries and Whispers at BAM, which might have surpassed the movie, playing upon the conceit of our culture’s obsession with self-recording. In his current adaptation of Scenes from a Marriage van Hove plays upon the idea of duplication. The audience is divided up into three separate groups who witness and overhear Bergman’s couple Johan and Marianne played by three different sets of actors. It’s like cubism. The chronology of a relationship is broken by having it portrayed by three couples instead of one. Modern man is both thin skinned and lives behind thin walls in glass high rises where he can see and hear his neighbors(there is a little bit of Rear Window too in van Hove’s choreography). Thus as couple number #1 argues about aborting a child, you hear in the background another iteration of them arguing and Marianne saying, “There’s more to life than sex. If you’re not happy find yourself someone more exciting.” Our experience of these overlays also correlates to the inner life of characters who seem like they are hearing scripts playing over and over again in their heads. A sidelight to this is the constant marital strife and gossip of breakups which is the palette of discourse. This is beautifully orchestrated in one scene where schadenfreude about the vitriol between a visiting couple, Katrina (Carmen Zilles) and Peter (Erin Gann) prefigures Marianne and Johan’s own impending implosion. The theme of inexorable longing is a light motif that runs through van Hove’s production. If his Johans and Mariannes are duplicable and all the more haunting for the ways in which most couples will recognize themselves in them, they constitute a class whose existence is predicated on treating life as a commodity suffering from planned obsolescence and in need of  constant upgrading. The above has been a description of Act I of the production. Act II in which all three couples are on the stage at the same time, is a little like taking the cubist landscape and flattening it out, in this case by turning the action into Greek tragedy. The talented Mariannes (Susannah Flood, Roslyn Ruff, Tina Benko) and Johans (Alex Hurt, Dallas Roberts, Arliss Howard) are turned into the chorus. It’s amusing at first and certainly a change of pace, but the novelty of hearing domestic complaints rendered like Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus wears thin, producing tedium and predictability in place of the powerful and at times bracing cacophony that constituted the first act of the play.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Thinking Retrospectively About the Jeff Koons Retrospective

Jeff Koons has two things in common with the great Renaissance painters like Rembrandt and Titian. He maintained a studio filled with helpers and he produced self-portraits. Where Koons differs from a Renaissance painter is in his use of the assembly line approach to both painting and sculpture in which individual artists are only involved in a small part of the final product. Marx wrote about alienation resulting from this kind of division of labor and it is hard to figure out of if many of Koons readymade sculptures can be classified as commodities of the type that are produced en masse in a factory or artistic works that are reflective of a brooding sensibility characterized by a singular vision of the world. This is, in fact, what separates them from Duchampian readymades which never quite seem to attain the status of commodities. However, just when you're about to dismiss Koons, you begin to realize this very dichotomy between commerce and art poses itself as one of the aims or dialectics of the work and you're somewhat calmed into an acceptance verging on pleasure. It’s easy to say that neither the early vacuum cleaners nor the famous "Play-Doh" sculpture are art, but then you become fascinated by the production of a piece which looks like plastic, but is actually heavy metal. One of the guards manning the recent Whitney retrospective of Koons’s work fenced off with a spectator who insisted on her right to touch and test one of the sculptures to make sure that indeed what she was seeing was not what it seemed to be. Koons elicits this kind of theater. “Made in Heaven” is the pornographic series featuring his former wife the Italian actress and politican La Cicciolina (aka Ilona Staller) and comprising paintings like “Exaltation,” (1991) where Koons comes on her face and another “Ilona’s Asshole,” which is self-explanatory. Koons says about the series, “It’s not porn. Made in Heaven dealt with the shame of masturbation in our society. It was a metaphor for cultural guilt. I wanted to reproduce the Garden of Eden, and sexual penetration like a hummingbird encounters a flower.” The series is introduced by poster for the film that Koons was originally going to make with his former wife. She’s in his arms, but he’s staring out at his audience. Again you are caught up short. Could it be that the artist is saying that he cares more about himself than his lover and that the imminence of a potential product trumps emotion? The answer is undoubtedly yes. Narcissism is a much bandied about word, but can we say that for good or bad Koons is caught in the narcissistic delusion that the world is indeed real?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Paris Journal VII: Le Bon Saint Pourcain

photograph by Hallie Cohen
At the intersection of the Rue Servandoni and the Rue du Canivet in Paris's 6th Arrondissement lies a green painted storefront that once housed a restaurant called Le Bon Saint Pourcain. The white lace curtains still cover the lower half of the windows, as the cursive signage on the exterior continues to identify an establishment offering “cuisine bourgeoise" and operated by "Cyrille and Francois Associes," but a sign on the window says “Ferme Pour Travaillez.” Le Bon Saint Pourcain was the vestige of another era.  It served home cooked meals in the same atmosphere that might have greeted an allied soldier during the liberation of Paris. Francois is a short man with thick black eyebrows which frame his ruddy complexion and give his face a perpetually quizzical expression. On a normal day, he stood out on the street in his white apron and took reservations from regulars who he was more likely to have known more by face than by name. He'd never heard of “OpenTable”. The meals were served by his daughter Fabienne, a large boned woman, whose sullen face was no indication of her feelings toward the customers. She was a little like the Mona Lisa to the extent that you didn’t know what she thought about you, no matter how many times you came. But what the service lacked in warmth was made up by the interior of the place and by the spirit of the crusty and loveable Francois which permeated the atmosphere. Le Bon Saint Pourcain served hearty dishes--beef bourguinon, cassoulet, boudin, chicken chasseur, tarte tatin-- that had no pretentions to greatness, but which made you feel great. You never feared going home hungry or with that empty feeling that sometimes occurs when you wonder if the Paris of yesterday only exists in the photos of Robert Doisneau or Henri Cartier-Bresson. When asked about that sign in the window Francois, who has a house in Brittany, confirmed that he’d sold the place and finally retired.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Paris Journal VI: Raiders of the Lost Generation

Paris was once populated by a Lost Generation of expatriate Americans known for their talent, wit and sometimes genius. Woody Allen humorously addressed this era of the 20’s in Midnight in Paris. Today that Lost Generation has multiplied and their great great great grandchildren—in other words, Americans, are everywhere. Having propagated almost biblically, the descendants of the Lost Generation have become like a plague of locusts. You can’t go anywhere in Paris without seeing Americans and just when you think you’ve located a bona fide Frenchman, who talks the talk and walks the walk, even he or she can turn out to be an American dressed up as Frenchmen. You learn not be fooled by Francophiles in berets, who can rattle off esoteric Metro stops like Michel-Ange- Molitor and have no trouble cherching for the rue du Cherche-Midi. Though the onslaught of Americans is welcomed for the economic bounty they represent, they’re looked at suspiciously and even disdainfully by many Parisians precisely because even those with affectations fundamentally lack the Gallic charm, the holy grail that many Americans come to Paris for in the first place. When a Frenchman comes to New York, he or she is generally treated like royally due to the way they embody what is deemed to be a superior culture. But the achievements of the Lost Generation of Hemingways and Fitzageralds have long been forgotten and it’s the image of the ugly American with his or her profound lack of savoir faire—the tourist loaded down with guide books, time sensitive tickets to the latest blockbuster art show at the Grand Palais and naturally their Zagat’s--that’s prevailed. In a sense it’s unfair. Why should enthusiastic Americans be penalized while the French are rewarded for being what they are?