Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sicily Journal IV: Scicli's Chiafura

Photo: Hallie Cohen
Pasolini’s Il vangelo secondo Matteo used the smoke emanating from the famous caves of Scicli to evoke Dante’s purgatory. The caves were used as tombs by the original Sicilian inhabitants. It was only with waves of Arab and Byzantine invasion that the remains of the dead (who were buried in fetal positions in mother earth) were removed so that the caves could be turned into dwellings. In 1693 the town was struck by an earthquake and the well-to-do inhabitants, who had employed the caves for storage moved their nearby dwellings to a lower elevation where the Bourbons replaced the devastation of the earthquake with the ornate Sicilian Baroque which characterizes both the churches and palazzos which still exist today. The impoverished lower classes occupied the caves until l959 when the Chiafura, as they are called, became a source of shame to the post war government—interested in eradicating the association between Sicilians or Italians in general with cavemen. Today they have become a designated archeological site that is near becoming a source of pride and prices for the former caves, which are undergoing some degree of gentrification, are climbing with a growing market of vacationers who use them as summer homes. Whether some Milanese developer turns the Chiafura into condominiums with time shares remains to be seen.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Sicily Journal III: Stairway to Heaven

Photo: Hallie Cohen
You’ve heard about the perched villages of Southern France, the hill towns of Tuscany like the famous Montepulciano. Welcome to Sicily’s mountainous village of Caltagirone. If Tuscany and the South of France exude a certain ethereal quality, a repose in which the fine things of life are to be found, Caltagirone looks like something between a beehive and a extraterrestrial orbiter in which spacecraft are continually docking. Take the overcrowded tenements of Manhattan’s Little Italy and spread them over the surface of an enormous sphere and you will have an idea of what Caltagirone seems like at first sight. As if the climb to the top were not enough the city fathers have contrived to underline the verticality of their environment with a ceramic and botanic decoration of an ancient staircase by the village’s center, right down from Via Luigi Sturzo. the “Scala di Maria del Monte.” The scala, which has 142 steps, itself dates from the 17th Century, but the ceramics were inlaid in l954, and are a testament to traditions of regional artisanry that date back to the Middle Ages. Few visitors who have made the climb to the top of Caltagirone will have the energy to ascend this magnificent staircase--essentially a stairway to heaven.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sicily Journal II: Catania After Dark

Watercolor by Hallie Cohen
Terme Achilliano, the Roman baths, still exist under the magnificent Baroque Church in Catania’s Piazza Duomo with its famous elephant fountain. The contradiction between religiosity and sensuality (and a religiosity  that is often sensual) is epitomized in the fact that the foundation of the famous Sicilian church is a monument to sensuality. Only a few steps away from the Duomo is the Palazzo di Cultura where the show of provocative nudes by an artist named Maria Tripoli recently catalyzed a panel discussion on stalking, as church bells chimed in the distance. It should be mentioned the contradictions inherent in the Catanian sensibility, rooted as it is in paganism and Christianity are further underlined by the fact that the Palazzo formerly housed a convent and still retains arches and other elements associated with the structure's previous occupants. A retrospective of the work of an Italian painter named Alberto Abate, who died this past spring, “Dialoguo con la Testa,” (dealing with questions of sexual identity in works like “Il Monte de Venus”) was also on view and not far away on the Piazza Universita, members of the Teatro Stabile were raising a banner which read “Noi non siamo primi o secondo ad altro teatros siamo una teatro da cuore Siciliano.” We are not first or second to other theaters, we are a theater of the Sicilian heart. Though the renowned Sicilian playwright Luigi Pirandello is not the inspiration for the Teatro’s work, the great Sicilian dramatist  Giovanni Verga apparently is according to one of the participants preparing for an outdoor performance. Like religion and sensuality, antique beauty and squalor are also at war in this port city where there are streets named after Etna and the volcano itself is visible like a mirage from hotel windows. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Sicily Journal I: Palazzo Corsini

Photo: Hallie Cohen
Descending down the Via Garibaldi from the American Academy in Rome, the Museo della Repubblica Romana e della memoria garibaldina and the Mausoleo Ossorio Gianicolense in back of which is the tomb of Goffredo Mameli the poet and adjustant to Garibaldi who died at 21 and composed “Fratelli d’Italia,” you come to the Palazzo Corsini on the Via della Lungara. The palazzo houses the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica and faces the Accademia Nationale Dei Lincei, a government supported institute that fosters the relationship between science and art. Galileo studied in the Biblioteca of the Accademia, whose ideas infuse the Palazzo and whose Caravaggio, Poussin and Fra Angelico’s now compete with an exhibit on minerals which also includes some exquisite antique texts. “I pigmenti nell’arte come nascono I colori” is an exhibit at the Palazzo which demonstrates the interweaving of science and art. The ghost of Garibaldi hangs over the ancient streets, leading to the Palazzo which is a kind of backwater to European culture filled as it is with lesser known works by artists like Rubens and Caracci. There’s even a painting by the father of Artemesia Gentilesci. The Palazzo is the kind of place where Guiseppe di Lampedusa the Sicilian writer of The Leopard, who died in Rome in l957, and wrote so artistically about the Risorgimento might have found solace.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Future of U.S.-Chinese Relations

Earlier this month, the blind human rights activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest and sought asylum in the US Embassy "Chinese Dissident is Released From Embassy, Causing Turmoil for U.S.", NYT, 5/2/12). In a previous incident in February, Wang Lijun, the police official, who was once an ally of the now deposed Bo Xilai sought refuge in the American consulate in Chengdu ("Frenzied Hours for U.S. on Fate of a Chinese Insider," NYT, 4/17/12). Both of these incidents were politically embarrassing to the United States and China, at a time when both were seeking to work out conflicts. Hillary Clinton had been in Peking ("Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng seeks meeting with Hillary Clinton," The Guardian 5/4/12) for bilateral talks when the whole Chen Guangcheng incident broke out. Henry Kissinger the quondam realpolitician (who oxymoronically also received the Nobel Peace Prize ) and former Secretary of State in the Nixon and Ford administrations has written a piece in the March/April Foreign Affairs, “The Future of U.S.-Chinese Relations” which is a handbook for future conflict resolution with the world’s second largest economy. In the section titled “The Risks of Rhetoric,” Kissinger thus writes, “The American debate, on both sides of the political divide, often describes China as a ‘rising power’ that will need to ‘mature’ and learn how to exercise responsibility on the world stage. China, however, sees itself not as a rising power but as a returning one, predominant in its region for two millennia and temporarily displaced by colonial exploiters taking advantage of Chinese domestic strife and decay. It views the prospect of a strong China exercising influence in economic, cultural, political and military affairs not as an unnatural challenge to the world order but rather as a return to normality. Americans need not agree with every aspect of the Chinese analysis to understand that lecturing a country with a history of millennia about its need to ‘grow up’ and behave ‘responsibly’ can be needlessly grating.” Earlier in the piece Kissinger talked about US “apprehensions” about a Sinocentric Asian bloc.” He also pointed out that some American analysts fear the “inherently brittle” nature of authoritarian regimes. On the other side of the fence, the Chinese might see, according to Kissinger, “the United States as a wounded super power determined to thwart the rise of any challenger, of which China is the most credible.” You marriage counselors have seen this before, two head strong clients, carrying historical baggage, and conflicting narratives about the ensuing conflicts that developed between them.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Dawkins vs God

We all know the great rivalries in boxing Louis and Schmeling, LaMotta and Robinson,Ali and Frazier, Ali and Foreman (which culminated in the Rumble in the Jungle), Hagler and Hearns, Ward and Gatti. But the realm of art and ideas also’s had its great bouts. Christopher Marlowe was killed in a fight at the tender age of 29, though not by the rival Shakespeare. Popper vs. Wittgenstein gained notoriety for the poker.   Llosa and Marquez came to blows over women and McCarthy vs Hellman was famous for Mary McCarthy’s quip about her opponent, “every word she writes is a lie including 'and' and 'the.'" William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow paired off in the Scopes Trial or Monkey Trial, as it was known. Shakespeare wasn’t around to defend himself when Tolstoy said to Chekhov that his plays were almost as bad as the bard’s. The recently deceased Carlos Fuentes got involved in a mud slinging contest with his old pal Octavio (Labyrinth of Solitude) Paz over politics that went right on to Paz’s death in l998. Gore Vidal and William Buckley similarly paired off over politics. Then of course there’s Jung and Freud whose contest over the metaphysical was recently dramatized in A Dangerous Method. Perhaps the greatest intellectual rivalry of all time is still drawing big crowds with Richard Dawkins coming close to knocking out God.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Lives of Our Leaders: Low Self-Esteem

Jim R Bounds/Associated Press
JFK got it on with Marilyn Monroe (and who the hell knows else). Not Bad. Bill Clinton gets himself impeached for having fellatio with an overweight intern who doesn’t bother to remove the incriminating evidence from her dress, but it’s nothing compared to John Edwards who ends up facing a stiff jail sentence ("Waiting for an Edwards Verdict, and Getting Acquainted With Greensboro," NYT, 5/22/12) for misuse of campaign funds to support Rielle Hunter who turned out to be better at making babies than videos (the job for which she was originally hired) as a Kim Severson pointed out in the Times ("Candidate, Philanderer, and Juggler, Too: Edwards Trial Shows Deception's Strains," NYT 5/20/12) On the other hand there does seem to be a double standard here. Americans are forgiving of the Aristocratic JFK who is merely exercising the droit du seigneur, but they are far less tolerant of their own good 'ole boys who spill the beans or knock up chicks and get them pregnant. Teddy Kennedy’s political career survived Chappaquidick and when you look at it the offense, which involved the loss of life, was a lot more egregious than misuse of campaign funds. While America doesn’t have a hereditary aristocracy, we make exceptions. We apologize for the randy Camelot inhabitant when he’s out on the hunt. Come on. Bill and John could have done better than Monica and Rielle. Both were attractive men with good credentials who would definitely have gotten almost any girl they wanted were they working the East Side Bar scene, but they apparently were insecure enough to end up with the kind of troubled personalities who, at least in Rielle’s case, like to take hostages. Neither the would-be president’s now deceased wife, nor the former president’s wife (and our current secretary of state), were too happy when they found out about their respective husbands’ shortcomings— though there are some who might argue that neither Clinton nor Edwards should be held accountable and that the kind of low self-esteem and compulsivity that both exhibited were symptoms of a disease.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Rembrandt at Work

Long Day’s Journey Into Night is unquestionably the greatest autobiographical play of all time. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and David Copperfield are two of the great autobiographical novels and Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait from l663-63 recently on view in the Rembrandt at Work: the Great Self-Portrait from Kenwood House show at the Met is, one could argue, one of the great works of painterly self-scrutiny. We know in the case of the O’Neill, for example, that the Aristotelian unities of space, time and action were essential to the playwright’s ability to turn the raw matter of life experience into a masterpiece. But what accounts for Rembrandt’s virtuosity in the painting under discussion? The casual viewer is first engaged by painter’s piercing eyes. The curators comment that while the earlier portraits and etchings (some of which are on display in another recent Met exhibit, Rembrandt and Degas: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), enabled Rembrandt to display his  “inventiveness and emulation” of huge talents like Durer, Raphael and Titian, “in contrast the later self-portraits (ca. 1650-69) seem more straightforward: the aging artist is seen in work clothes, in everyday attire with a beret or linen studio cap, and in some cases, as here, a palette, brushes, and maulstick.” It’s disconcerting to compare Rembrandt’s early etchings from the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man show to the almost impressionistic nature of the Kenwood House painting. It’s almost as if Rembrandt were turning the radical realism for which he was known on its head, but age both diminishes the vision and provides a totally new level of insight. Could the author of a screed called A Doll’s House have really composed the surrealistic When We Dead Awaken in his old age? The Aristotelian unities don’t explain what was going on in the Kenwood House portrait, but Aristotle did contemplate the bust of Homer in another Rembrandt on view in the same gallery.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Grand Illusion

Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion currently being revived at Film Forum is an essay on identity politics of the most loving and global kind, which is to say a kind of identity politics that doesn’t exist today. All the elements of race, class and religious background that separate men are fully at work in the film and yet are ultimately assertions of the humanistic or liberal premise that there can be an empathy and unity of purpose amidst difference. Still differences are literally what makes horse races. The two aristocrats de Boldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) are denizens of the same Parisian restaurants, Maxim’s and Fouquets, and also share a code of honor. “Je vous demand pardon,” von Rauffenstein says, after shooting his counterpart. De Boldieu sloughs off the apology. It will be all over for the Frenchman, but it’s von Rauffenstein who will have to carry on. However the grand illusion itself is ambiguous. On the simplest level, it’s an illusion that men are separated, but the term is also ironically employed to the extent that the notion of conflict and war ending is also a grand illusion. The film has a picaresque quality that’s almost reminiscent of Candide, particularly when the working class Marechal (Jean Gabin) and the Jewish Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) find an idyllic respite in the middle of their grueling escape to Switzerland. It’s reminiscent of Voltaire’s ironic reiterations of Leibnitz’s reality defying optimism, “all’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” When Gabin says goodbye to the saintly German widow, Elsa (Dita Parlo), who has taken him in (and has become his lover), we know that despite all the protestations, these two will never see each other again. The gap between the worlds they inhabit is too great.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Caretaker at BAM

photo: Shane Reid
If we forget chronology than the first line of Waiting For Godot, (l949) “Nothing to be done,” is proleptic in that it anticipates the question which constitutes one of the last lines of The Caretaker (1960), “What am I going to do?” Rain is hitting the skylight or dripping in to a pail from a leak in the roof or there is the Doppler effect as trains depart the current phenomenology themed production of Pinter’s play at BAM. There are also menacing sounding footsteps coming up to or descending the stairs from the disheveled room in which the action takes place. Actually that room as conceived by Christopher Morahan with set design by Eileen Diss is less an example of the absurdism with which Pinter is sometimes associated than pure naturalism. Architectural Digest could do a piece on the décor with its piles of tied up newspapers, its Buddha,which is eventually shattered, and its two cots. It’s also Empire of the Sun’s warehouse of plundered colonial antiques on a more personal scale. You are familiar with this room even though it’s supposed to be the end of the world. “The name I’m going under now is not my real name,” Davies, Pinter's prime mover, says at one point. “It’s assumed.” Nothing is authentic and that’s the point made by Jonathan Pryce in his arch and urgent interpretation of the role. Davies aka Jenkins is hired to be the caretaker. He only knows that caretaking requires implements. He is also hired to be an interior and exterior designer, but when confronted with the job description he pleads ignorance and then admits to being an imposter. Heidegger said that human beings live an inauthentic existence to the extent that they are not aware of death. Can we assume that this absence may explain the disarray? Is this the absence explains the faulty connections: the fact that there is no time in the room, that brown shoelaces are offered for black shoes, that the elder of two brothers Aston (Alan Cox), who inhabits the room, renders a whole soliloquy about a stay in a mental institution that's supposedly not listened to though it’s reiterated practically verbatim by Davies--a character who also groans in the night, but doesn’t dream, a character who is given somebody else’s piece of luggage when his is taken by accident?

Thursday, May 17, 2012


“Why must I support your son’s family. I live with you not your relatives,” says Vladimir (Andrei Smirnov) the wealthy husband of Elena (Nadezhda Markina) the character after whom Andrei Zvyagintsev’s latest film is named. The plot like everything else in Zvyagintsev’s film, which just opened at Film Forum, is simple. A one time nurse marries the man she’s cared for. He then has to put up with her ne’er do well son Sergey (Alexey Rozin). She, in turn, had do deal with his hedonistic daughter, Katerina (Yelena Lyadova), who’s confined her alcohol and drug taking to the weekends, though she’s still not able to control her food and sex addiction. Vladimir is miserly, but he can also be gentle and make sense and therein lies the seed for the naturalistic approach to a story that could have had melodramatic overtones. When Vladimir has a heart attack while swimming in the pool in his health club, the lifeguard simply dives in and the next moment we are in the hospital room. “So it’s not that bad,” Elena comments soon after she arrives. “Or the other way around,” is Vladimir’s laconic reply. Even the murder that finally takes place is understated. Nothing amounts to much and one is almost reminded of MC Hammer’s iconic lines, “it’s all good,” as one watches Zvyagintsev’s characters squirm for something less than meaning in a numbing world where flat screen televisions pipe out the missives of reality food show contestants and urgent sounding sportscasters—in other words the familiar world of contemporary affluence. The most heroic moment in the movie is the beginning where the camera focuses on the branches in front of an apartment house window and nothing at all happens. With the exception of birds chirping and geese honking, Zvyagintsev chances to continue the silence as he introduces his subjects rising from the separate beds in which they sleep. These same characters are either looking out or being studied. There is a scene where Vladimir gets in his Audi. We follow him as he leaves his garage, trying to find the right radio station as he negotiates Moscow streets. Then we are looking in on him. The branches from the film’s first shot are now reflected on his windshield. Zvyagintsev offers connections, but no conclusions.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Patience (After Sebald)

It’s fitting that a post about Grant Gee’s Patience (After Sebald) is written on the last day in which the movie is screened--alas, will Film Forum ever bring this treasure back? Thus the reader of the blog is able to feel the sense of something which both exists and doesn’t exist, which is just one of the many themes of the film. Patience is an attempt to retrace the steps of W.G. Sebald’s now iconic The Rings of Saturn, his l992 recollection of a walk he took around Suffolk. The notion of the uncanny is a recurring theme in the film, which introduces us to Rick Moody, Andrew Motion, Barbara Hui (a scholar who  uses satellite photos to create a sense of connection between all the places that Sebald cites in the book and who introduces the l7th century physicianThomas Browne’s Quincunx Board into the discussion), Adam Phillips, the psychoanalyst, and a number of other scholars, publishers and artists who share a fixation on Sebald’s work. The uncanny, or Unheimlichkeit was a word used by both Freud and Heidegger and it literally means not feeling at home. Sebald is quoted as saying the one place he ever felt at home was the I'isle de St. Pierre on Lake Biel in Switzerland, where Rousseau also lived, which was a little like the Ark (or really half the Ark) to the extent that there was one of everything: one farmhouse, one field, one fence. One of the commentators remarks that the concept of home is really non-existent. It’s a children’s idea. Certainly a place where there is only one or even two of everything is. The grainy black and white photos of the places Sebald passes through (recalling the grainy photos from the original book) are intermixed with color inlays which give a sense of the film’s present act of retracing. Sebald was born in Germany in l944 and lived his adult life in England (before dying in a car crash in 2001). The memory of both psychic and physical devastation of the Second World War and its horrific antecedents never left him. Obviously there are other Germans who immigrated to England after the war and who do not walk the countryside experiencing a world of haunted associations in which the shell of recognition is peeled away from familiar objects. But then again these other Germans or their English counterparts, who have moved to Berlin or Munich or the Bavarian countryside, are not W.G. Sebald.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Lives of Our Leaders: Bill Clinton on LBJ

Bill Clinton wrote the front page review for the fourth volume of The Passage of Power, Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ in The New York Times Book Review. In the review, which appeared last week (NYT, "Seat of Power," 5/6/12), Clinton points out that while he split with LBJ over Vietnam, he admired him for his ability “to pass the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the open housing law, the antipoverty legislation, Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start and much more.” Power was the lingua franca of the Johnson years. “He knew how to get to you,” Clinton says, “and he was relentless in doing it.” The decision to assign the Caro book to Clinton might be one of the most brilliant in TNYTBR’s history. Like LBJ, Clinton was a big brash Southerner, who carried the legacy of Roosevelt’s progressive populist politics to another generation. From what you read, Johnson far outdid Clinton in his wanderings, but the difference between the two men was that Johnson never got caught, and if he had, he might very well have wrangled his way out of an impeachment proceedings through his sheer ability to intimidate. But here’s the real difference between Clinton and Johnson. Clinton could write about power, but Johnson knew how to employ it. He knew how to arm twist and be impolitic when he had to. Though they came from wildly different backgrounds, Roosevelt and Johnson were cut from the same mold. They both understood politics, in the sense that Machiavelli, the ur-realpolitician, did and in the sense that Clausewitz understood diplomacy. For all his vision and good will, the difference between Obama, Clinton and Johnson is that power is not even a word in our incumbent president’s vocabulary.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Durer and Beyond

One of the presuppositions of Durer and Beyond, Central European Drawings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1400-1700 at the Met is that despite great artist’s preeminence, he didn’t stand alone. Hans Suss von Kulmbach, and Hans Schonfelein were only a few of the artists who worked in Durer’s studio in Nuremberg and whose work is part of the exhibit, along with that of the monogramist AW, creator of “Male Nude on a Table, “ which recalls Mantegna’s “Dead Christ” in its garish sensuality. But ironically the Durers do upstage the work of the others. “Salvador Mundi” (“Savior of the World”) is an unfinished painting that Durer left behind when he fled Nuremberg for Venice, to escape the plague in l505. The drawn lines of the face have not yet been painted in and you can see the scaffolding of a great painting that was never finished. Durer’s “Self Portrait and Studies of the Artist’s Hand and a Pillow” presents the artist’s head alongside an oversized hand underneath which is a pillow, an image which is drawn again six times on the other side of the paper. It’s an astonishingly timeless work that almost defeats categorization. When you look at a work like “Self Portrait and Studies of the Artist’s Hand,” a drawing which the curators describe as “one of the museum’s most iconic works on paper,” you confront the advent of self-reflexive consciousness itself. How revolutionary was it for the artist to wink at the viewer in this way? The ability of the artist to cite his own consciousness as a subject--that characterizes the genius of both Durer and later Rembrandt--is what is on display in this masterpiece which was conceived when Durer was only 22. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Death of the Cyberflaneur

“The advent of street traffic made contemplative strolling dangerous. The arcades were soon replaced by larger, utilitarian department stores. Such rationalization of city life drove flaneurs underground, forcing some of them into a sort of ‘internal flanerie’ that reached its apogee in Marcel Proust’s self-imposed exile in his cork-lined room (situated, ironically, on Boulevard Haussmann),” wrote Evgeny Morozov, in a Times Op Ed piece called “The Death of the Cyberflaneur" (NYT, 2/4/12). Morozov points out the concept of the flaneur was a product of the sensibilities of a wide swath of l9th and 20th century intellects from Baudelaire to Benjamin and presupposed a kind of urbanity that wasn’t so structured as to mitigate against the solitary intellect, the wanderer, the seeker who didn't know what he was looking for. Morozov goes onto compare the world of l9th century Paris with its arcades to the Internet of the ‘90’s whose early search engines like Internet Explorer were conduciveness to browsing. Carrying Morozov’s point further, can we say that Google and later Facebook did to the Internet what Robert Moses did to the New York Metropolitan area and before that Haussmann to Paris and that the modernity both bring is purchased at the cost of the indigenous life? Traffic speeds forward but many neighborhoods are marginalized along the way. “If today’s internet has a Baron Haussmann, it is Facebook,” Morozov remarks, “Everything that makes cyberflanerie possible—solitude and individuality, anonymity and opacity, mystery and ambivalence, curiosity and risk-taking—is under assault by that company.” Advances are always met with a nostalgia for an idealized past, but if the slower pace is so much preferred, why is the walker still urged to get a horse?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Naked Before the Camera

"Hermaphrodite" (Nadar) from the Met's Naked Before the Camera
“Controversies are often aroused even more intensely when the artist’s chosen medium is photography, with its accuracy and specificity—where a real person stood naked before the camera—rather than traditional media in which more generalized and idealized forms prevail.” This is part of the introduction to Naked Before the Camera, at the Met. To the right of the commentary is a Brassai from l931 of a nude model on a pedestal who is the subject of “L’Academie Julien.” The word “Naked” is spelled out in light bulbs like a peep show and this is one show you want to see for the multivalent nudity. There is a postmortem of a murder victim by the chief of criminal identification of Paris and the naked body of patient suffering from disfiguring sarcomas. Two Eakins photographs of nude males are offered up along with another Brassai, “Introduction to Suzy’s,” showing the nude prostitutes in a famous Paris brothel. There’s a Diane Arbus from l968, of a naked man with his penis hidden between his legs, “A Naked Man Being a Woman,” which is the perfect complement another photo in the exhibit called “Hermaphrodite” depicting a man/woman with a heterodox genitalia. Larry Clark, the director of Kids, is represented by a shot of a teenaged coupled making love which was used as the cover of his book Teenaged Lust. Jim Jager photographed black nude males in self-published magazines with names like Black Thunder, Black Fever, Black Knight and Black Gold and his well-endowed male, “Sharkey” from l980 according to the curator “set the stage for Mapplethorpe and others to push boundaries and rules, gender and sexuality.” Hannah Wilke’s “Snatch Shot With Ray Gun, from the series So Help Me Hannah offer the naked self portrait as a form of performance art.  In Regarding the Pain of Others (2002) Susan Sontag repudiated her earlier On Photography (1977) in which argued that repeated exposure to images dulled consciousness. Naked Before the Camera continues a discussion which began with the museum’s 2006 love letter to Sontag, On Photography: A Tribute to Susan Sontag. Think back to Stieglitz’s unapologetically sensuous nude photographs of Georgia O’Keefe, which had been shown at the museum, in the Stieglitz and his Artists Show last year. They’re the perfect complement to this exhibit.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


In the routines of everyday life we often take things for granted. We are blinded to the eccentricities and oddities of the familiar simply because of the preconception of so-called reality that is created in our mind’s eye—an image that, by the way, it’s often hard to shake. In her review of Mark Kurlansky’s Birdseye, The Adventures of a Curious Man, Janet Maslin comments about the author’s subject, “The oxymoron ‘fresh frozen’ would  be nowhere without him.” (“The Inventor Who Put Frozen Peas on Our Tables,” NYT 4/25/2012). There are other wonderful locutions that Maslin quotes from Kurlansky’s book or that the book inspires in the reviewer. Here's a graph that combines both. “His philosophy of vegetable consumption, promoting agribusiness over local farming, is at least a talking point for being so unfashionable. Birdseye, Mr. Kurlansky writes, thought like ‘a foodie in reverse.’” Later Maslin quotes Kurlansky saying, “when Birdseye found something in nature, he always wondered what it would taste like and what would be the best way to cook it.” If Birdseye were alive now, he would be considered politically incorrect. One could imagine him as a right wing radio shock jock, but in his time he was an inventor and entrepreneur who embodied the essence of American innovativeness and ingenuity. One wonders what a character like Birdseye would have thought about the inhumane conditions under which animals today are raised and slaughtered that Miyan Park and Peter Singer describe in their essay “The Globalization of Animal Welfare,” in the March/April edition of Foreign Affairs.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

North Korean Diplomacy and ED

                                                           David Guttenfelder/Associated Press
Who ever thought that ED would ever become a factor in North Korean diplomacy or that Dr. Ruth might be suggested as a special envoy to the newly chosen successor to Kim Jong-il, his son Kim Jong-un? This was the substance of New York Times science reporter William Broad’s recent piece in the Sunday Review section of the paper (“North Korea’s Performance Anxiety,” NYT, 5/5/12). “Today, the psychosexual lens helps explain why North Korea, in addition to dire poverty and other crippling woes, faces international giggles over it inability to ‘get it up,’” Broad comments about North Korea’s recent failed missile launch. Later he writes, “A psychoanalyst might see the shift from a blast off to a blast as weird kind of substitute gratification.” Plainly the North Koreans are not practicing the kind of sensate focus techniques that Masters and Johnson proposed in response to impotence problems. Under the theory that the naked will is useless in sexual matters, the Masters and Johnson approach involves taking the focus off the erection. Then there are the drugs like Viagra and Cialis which are used to take care of the physiological aspect of ED. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that psychology alone may not explain the problems the North Korean’s have been experiencing. “A move to highly enriched uranium—or a mixture of the two bomb fuels known as a composite core—would let North Korea expand its ways of shaking the earth and perhaps, one day, of mounting warheads atop missiles to intimidate neighbors.” Kinsey was the Clausewitz of sexology and were he still alive today Harvard professor Samuel Huntington could easily have been called the Masters and Johnson of international affairs. But it’s unclear if either Clausewitz or Masters and Johnson, more or less Brezezinski or Shere Hite could find a solution to North Korea’s particular brand of dysfunction.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Ian McEwan's Unified Theory

If Einstein never succeeded in creating a unified theory, we can take solace that we at least have Ian McEwan. His latest New Yorker story, “Hand on the Shoulder,” (4/30/12) accomplishes just that. The tale told from the vantage point of the present by his protagonist Serena Frome describes how she as a gorgeous young Cambridge student was recruited into British intelligence in her final year. All this information is communicated in one pithy sentence. We then move on to the anatomy of the sexuality of her lover Jeremy Mott. McEwan writes about sexuality like a pathologist doing an autopsy. And right away the MI5 connection and the sex are established. Jeremy is wonderful lover, but never has orgasms. “Did he want to to smack my backside, or have me smack his? Did he want to try on my underwear? This mystery aroused me when I was away from him, and made it al l the harder to stop thinking about him when I was supposed to be concentrating on maths.” Serena eventually takes up with Jeremy’s 54 year old history tutor, Tony Canning, whose age group she generalizes about thusly, “The body’s largest organ, the skin, bears the brunt—it no longer fits the old. It hangs off them, off us, like a room-for-growth school blazer. Or pajamas…Tony had a yellowish look like an old paperback, one in which you could read of various misfortunes—knee and appendicitis operations, a dog bite, a rock climbing accident, and a childhood disaster with a frying pan, which had left him bereft of a patch of pubic hair.” And it’s not only sex, Tony cooks porcini with olive oil and pancetta and they “...ate them with polenta…This was exotic food in England in the seventies.” Later, the reader is introduced to "akrasia  “which was, Tony reminded me, the Greek word for acting against one’s better judgement. (Had I not read Plato’s Protagoras?)” McEwan’s prose is painterly when it isn't emblematic, shifting between the micro and macro worlds. The realism of his bodies recalls Eakins’ "The Gross Clinic" and "The Swimming Hole" and the looming menace of history that hangs over the agglomeration of minutiae brings to mind great apocalyptic drawings and paintngs like Goya’s "Disasters or War" and Picasso’s "Guernica."

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Disgusting Sublime

There are artists who everyone loves to hate. They seem to get an undeserved bang for their buck, garnering maximum attention for little effort which is usually performed by fleets of assistants who execute the works in question. Julian Schnabel was the nominee for most hated of the commercially successful fine artists back in the 80’s but he became a filmmaker whose successes though not as great are also reviled by those who feel that both his commercial and artistic renown is unmerited. In today’s art world Damien Hirst is the most vilified amongst the cognoscenti who sneer at the huge sums commanded, for instance, by his recent spot paintings. Who are the conspicuous consumers who pay top dollar for his work at Larry Gagosian’s international network of galleries which do for the marketing of paintings what Brown Harris Stevens was able to do when they commanded 88 million dollars for the sale of Sandy Weill’s penthouse at 15 Central Park West to Ekaternina Rybolovlev the daughter of the Russian potash billionaire? Surely Brown Harris is one provider of the excessively priced apartments on which high priced art can be shown. But wait a minute? Are we being too hasty? In a review of Hirst’s current show at the Tate, in the April 20th edition of the TLS, running under the title “The Disgusting Sublime,” Gerard Woodward brilliantly takes up Hirst’s defense. ("The Physical Impossibility of the Idea of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” was the title of Hirst’s famed l991 shark sculpture. And come to think of it, isn’t that title alone worth millions?) “In an essay in the catalogue accompanying this exhibition, Brian Dillon directs us towards Kant’s Critique of Judgement to help us deal with a particular property of the work of Damien Hirst, namely disgust,” Woodward begins. And later talking about Hirst’s sometimes horrifying palette (“corpses of thousands of flies preserved in resin,” for example) he remarks, “the ideational notion of disgust is useful as a way of thinking about the critical recepton of Hirst’s work in recent years, for it is often obscured or even contaminated by associations with a cynical art plutocracy and its excessive interest in wealth, and a perception of Hirst himself as someone tainted with such unsavoury qualities as arrogance, laddishness, exploitativeness and cruelty.” Another million dollar idea, which will undoubtedly fatten both Hirst and Larry Gogosian’s pockets, but which also makes us think. Whoever said art or life were fair?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Whores' Glory

Fantasy and idealization provide the lubrication which makes sexuality possible for humans amidst the Scylla and Charybdis of an overdeveloped cerebral cortex—that produces the quality we know as consciousness. At one point in Michael Glawogger’s documentary Whores' Glory, currently playing at the Lincoln Plaza, dogs stationed in front of a Bangkok brothel mount each other with an abandon that is absent in either the clients or sex workers who engage in interactions within. Whores' Glory is unique for a film about prostitution in that it totally lacks any vestige of eroticism or on the other hand indignant  commentary. While less lurid than say Nicholas D. Kristof’s horrifying accounts of sexual slavery in the Times, Whores' Glory presents its own form of mordancy in the joylessness of the encounters. Besides the Bangkok venue, the Fish Tank, Glowagger journeys to the City of Joy in the Faridpur district of Bangladesh and finally to the red-light district of Reynosa, a city across the border from McAllen, Texas. In one encounter a prostitute charges two hundred pesos for twenty minutes of sex with her customer. Those who get annoyed with their therapists for ending sessions at the moment of  climax will identify with the feckless fellow who is sent on his way punctually, with little sympathy for the interruptus part of his coitus. The scene, denuded as it is of any iota of sexuality, conveys a unique brutality and hopelessness. The johns in Whores' Glory are always bargaining for discounts with whores who have no hearts of gold.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

"No mas, no mas"

We’ve heard a great deal about Nietzsche’s Ubermensch and about how a debased form of the concept was used to justify both fascist ideology and the turgid romanticism of literary characters like Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark from The Fountainhead. But does the notion of the Ubermensch, Over Man or Superman also suggest it’s opposite the Untermensch or Under Man. Aren't Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and Kafka’s Joseph K and Gregor Samsa prime examples of the Untermensch? The Nazis used Untermensch to refer to inferior races. But they were simply employing an inferior use of a profound antinomy.What better way to epitomize the concept of the Untermensch then in the creation of a man who wakes up to find himself turned into an insect? Such a creation is depersonalization personified. What better mockery of Nietzsche’s will to power than in Joseph K, who is constantly at the mercy of unseen forces, over which he has no control? And what is K dying of, but life itself? Hamlet says, “conscience does make cowards of us all.” It’s not so much a conscience, which is a moral and ethical faculty, as consciousness that’s K’s undoing. The Untermensch suffers from a surfeit of consciousness in an animal’s body. “Like a dog,” he said, “As if the shame of it would outlast him.” In this last line of The Trial, K loses the fight. Kafka’s everyman is not triumphant. Once we are born we begin to die. The great fighter Roberto Duran, an Ubermensch who became an Untermensch, said it best, as he finally admitted defeat in the return bout with Sugar Ray Leonard, “No mas, no mas.”

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Thomas Demand's "Junior Suite"

photomontage: Gothamist
Carol Vogel’s Inside Art column from Friday’s Times reported on a Thomas Demand photo called “Junior Suite” that will be part of an upcoming show of the photographer's work at Matthew Marks ("A Remade Tabloid Image of Houston's Last Meal," NYT, 4/26/12) In the photograph Demand reprises a shot of Whitney Houston’s final meal first posted on a site called TMZ. According to the Times Demand checked into a similar room to the one Houston occupied at the Beverly Hilton on the evening of her death and ordered the same foods: a hamburger and fries, a beer, a flute of champagne. The flowers that decorated the original room service setting added a particular note of tristesse to both the original photo and Demand’s version of the event. What to call Demand’s work? A reproduction is literally what it is, but in photographic terms a reproduction is a duplication of the original and what Demand has created is clearly a separate work of art based upon a photo of the crime scene. “I don’t have anything to say about Whitney Houston,” Mr. Demand told Vogel who went on to explain. “Rather, it was the way the shot itself had the quality of a l7th-century Dutch still life that intrigued him.” What Demand has done is the equivalent of journalists using the techniques of fiction to enter their subject’s minds. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer's The Executioner’s Song provide the literary antecedent for Demand’s gothic “last supper.”