Friday, August 31, 2012

The Unknown Masterpiece

Photo: Jeff Kubina
The Unknown Masterpiece of Balzac’s title is a painting of a great whore, Catherine Lescault, “whom men called ‘La Belle Noiseuse.” And a young painter named Nicholas Poussin, who would become one of the great masters of the 17th century, is willing to whore his lover, Gillette in order to achieve the greatness that will come from seeing it. The painting is the work of one Frenhofer,  a wealthy student of the great Mabuse who “had sacrificed the greater part of his fortune to enable Mabuse to indulge in riotous extravagance, and in return Mabuse bequeathed to him the secret of relief, the power of giving to his figures the wonderful life, the flower of Nature, the eternal despair of art…” Esthetic versions of the Faustian bargain are everyone in Balzac’s short story along with a dizzying dialectic concerning both the whoring of souls for genius and also art’s rendezvous with reality. “My painting is no  painting,” says Frenhofer. “it is a sentiment, a passion. She was born in my studio; there she must dwell in maiden solitude…Have we Rafael’s model, Ariosto’s Angelica, Dante’s Beatrice? Nay, only their form and semblance. But this picture, locked away above in my studio, is an exception in our art. It’s not a canvas, it is a woman--a woman with whom I talk. I share her thoughts, her feelings, her laughter.” Finally, Frenhofer relents and Poussin is urged to live up to his end of the bargain. “The flower of love soon fades, but the flower of art is immortal,” he is advised. When they finally enter the studio to see the great masterpiece Frenhofer comments, ‘There is such depth in that canvas, the atmosphere is so true that you cannot distinguish it from the air that surrounds us. Where is art? Art has vanished, it is invisible.” Balzac’s story treats the search for greatness as a perversion, with art itself as a kind of paraphilia and the coup de grace is that the sacrifice, by the great and the obscure at the temple of art, is all an illusion. The Unknown Masterpiece, alas, is like the emperor’s new clothes. It doesn’t exist. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Commentariolum Petitionis

In one section of the Commentariolum Petitionis or “Little Handbook on Electioneering,” published in the May/June Foreign Affairs (“Campaign Tips From Cicero," Foreign Affairs, May/June 2012), Quintus Tullius Cicero gives his brother, the great orator Cicero, who was running for consul, the following advice. “If you break a promise, the outcome is uncertain and the number of people affected is small. But if you refuse to make a promise, the result is certain and produces immediate anger in a large number of voters.” Naturally the Commentariolum, emanating from the first century B.C., anticipates Machiavelli’s The Prince which appeared over 1500 years later, but the section in question does for politics what Bergson and Proust did for involuntary memory. It’s the Proustian Madeleine of politics since it nails the fundamental duplicity that’s at the heart of all political behavior. “Promise them anything, but give them Arpege,” was an old advertising slogan. But what Quintus is counseling his brother Marcus on is the need for hope. Hope is the be all and end all of political success and it trumps honesty. Honest Abe is what they called Lincoln. However, the fact is that truth and politics seldom go hand and hand. Politics, as Quintus makes quite clear, is a dirty business. “The most important part of your campaign is to bring hope to people and a feeling of goodwill toward you.” Foreign Affairs was canny in publishing the Cicero piece since as we approach another election, it’s apparent little has changed in politics since Roman times. In fact, an accompanying commentary by the great political tactician and Democratic Party pundit, James Carville, is entitled “Plus Ca Change.” The question is how do the Darwinian verities Quintus suggests translate into human progress and the betterment of the polity? If a politician tells the truth--like those who argue for austerity in the EEC--he or she is unlikely to get elected.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The New Elitists

Jose Ortega y Gasset
In a Times Op-Ed piece back in July (“The New Elitists,” NYT, 7/7/12), Shamus Khan, an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia, makes the argument that today’s elite class is characterized not by the snobbery of the past with its deference to high culture but by a love of hi and lo—the title, in fact, of a show that was curated by The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik at MOMA back in l990. “Today’s elites are not ‘highbrow snobs,'” Khan argues. “They are 'cultural omnivores'…if elites have a culture today, it is a culture of individual self-cultivation…Yet there is something pernicious about this self-presentation. The narrative of openness and talent obscures the bitter truth of the American experience. Talents are costly to develop.” Rather than being a simple reversal of the past, Khan’s argument is more complicated than it seems and is predicated on the notion of sensibility. Ortega Y Gasset wrote two seminal essays on this very subject, The Revolt of the Masses and The Dehumanization of Art back in the l930’s. Esthetic avant gardes protect their integrity through the creation of their own language and in essence are a reaction to populism. Similarly the modern omnivore defies the predictability and order of ideas like the canon. In likelihood he or she admires deconstructionist thinkers like Foucault and Derrida who regard assertions of a hierarchy of taste, of good and bad, as being culture bound. They are believers in the irrational who carry a copy of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil in their back pockets. The creation of their own private languages makes them all the harder to fathom. Another sociologist, Thorstein Veblen, coined the term “conspicuous consumption, in his The Theory of the Leisure Class. Today’s conspicuous consumers are less likely to travel around in the Cadillac Escalade as in a l957 Isetta. They are more likely to be found eating in a diner than in Masa, one of the expensive restaurants that Khan cites, and they would be loathe to buy their partners the big diamonds that Richard Burton once conferred on Liz Taylor.  Their sensibilities are like the appetite in Kafka’s A Hunger Artist, something that's become so rarefied, it's almost invisible.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


The tribes of Nina Raine’s play of the same name are Jews, intellectuals, those who are born deaf, those who are going deaf, those who sign and those who reads lips and for that matter those who do both. Christopher (Jeff Still) is a sixty year old writer who would definitely to quote Woody Allen “never join a club that would have him as a member.” For starters he’s an elitist who’s repudiated his membership in the club of Jews who emanate from the North of England. He’s the resident intellectual shock jock of Raine’s play, who calls the deaf the “muslims of the handicapped world.” His son Billy (Russell Harvard), who was born deaf, meets Sylvia (Susan Pourfar), a young woman who is going deaf, and is an advocate of signing. Christopher is opposed to signing and the self-imposed separation that it creates. Christopher is an assimilationist both in his attitude towards Judaism and to handicaps, self-imposed or otherwise.  He’s wary of the meeting of the minds that occurs when people are united by virtue of their frailties. The fact that Sylvia and Billy eventually become separated by their varying states of deafness seems to be a good argument for his point, though the playwright is constantly adding themes and variations based on the subtleties of the conditions she describes. For instance one of the things Sylvia is afraid of losing is her sense of linguistic irony—something which Billy never shared due to his congenital deafness. Tribes is not about deafness. It’s really about language and communication. Christopher’s other son, Daniel (Will Brill) who is stutterer, is writing his dissertation on language, his sister Ruth (Gayle Rankin) is studying opera (music heard and unheard is another subplot) and Christopher himself is learning Chinese. But the subplot about signing is, in fact, a very controversial issue in the deaf community today, as is evidenced by the conflicts that have plagued Gallaudet University, the world renowned institution geared to the needs of the deaf. As if to underscore the issue Tribes projects sections of dialogue on the walls of the Barrow Street Theater like translations say from a Berliner Ensemble production one might encounter at BAM.  A scene in which the partially deaf Sylvia tries to read the aggressive misanthropy on the lips of the family she’s just been introduced to (which ends with Sylvia playing a piano piece she herself cannot hear) demonstrates the dizzying way in which Raine embellishes the many and often overlapping themes of her play.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Queen of Versailles

Before the crash in 2008 David Siegel was the king of the time share business. “Everyone wants to be rich; the next best thing is to feel rich," was his mantra. He sold glamour to people who were used to staying in motels. You purchased a mortgage not on a house, but on an “as if existence,” comprised of say one week a year in a Westgate resort. Lauren Greenfield’s film The Queen of Versailles recounts the building of the largest house in the United States. In place of their 26,000 foot residence in Orlando, Siegel and his third wife Jackie, a one time model, used the proceeds from Siegel’s fabulously profitable business to build a 90,000 foot structure which would be larger than The White House which would include such toys as a baseball field, a bowling alley and a children’s theatre. Come to think of it, this doesn’t sound all that outrageous considering the ubiquity of home entertainment centers with their oversized flat screened televisions and bazaar of bizarre electronic gadgets. But then the market fell and it was plain that Siegel merely epitomized the condition of his customers, who like him were purchasing their dreams with cheap loans from banks. In one segment from the pre-crash era the pitch is explained. Most of the modest clientele are mooches who visit the properties to get freebees. They’re the kind of people who have to be made to feel they have gotten over on you. So it’s a vicious cycle with the con man and the conned all becoming dupes of something out of their control, an economy in which the cards would turn out to be stocked against them. In his The Theory of the Leisure Class, the  sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term "conspicuous consumption." But what Greenfield documents is something far more extreme than mere materialism. It’s like realpolitik. Nations and individuals tend to be selfish, but then there's real evil, which is fundamentally inexplicable. David and Jackie Siegel are not just conspicuous consumers, their massive fall is fueled by an almost addictive drive to excess, resulting from a “trickle down” economics that was poisoned from the bottom up. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Thank You for the Light

Photograph: Carl van Vechten
The New Yorker recently ran an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story entitled “Thank You For the Light, “ which had originally been rejected in l936. One wonders how many times, if any, The New Yorker has ever run a previously rejected piece. Fitzgerald was a famous writer, albeit on the decline, when he submitted the story. So the rejection wasn’t simply a matter of turning down one of the thousands of submissions by unknown writers that pour into the magazine every year. In a piece about The New Yorker’s publication of the story, The Times' Clyde Haberman quoted the original rejection letter as saying that the story was “altogether out of the question” and “so curious and so unlike the kind of thing we associate with him, and really too fantastic.” (“Dismissed As ’too fantastic,’ a Fitzgerald Short Story Gets Another Chance," NYT, 8/9/12) According to Haberman, the story had come to light when Fitzgerald’s grandchildren were going through papers that were to be auctioned off by Sotheby's. It’s easy to see why the story may have been rejected. It was a bit ahead of its time, dealing with a corset and girdle saleswoman named Mrs. Hanson who we’d now say had a smoking problem. In the story her problem is NOT stopping smoking (by contrast, Zeno Cosini, the hero or anti-hero of Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno is trying to stop), but starting since she meets with censure when she tries to smoke in some of the venues where she goes to sell her goods. In desperation she ducks into a church where she ends up getting “a light” from the Madonna. The ending is a bit cutesy with the double entendre centering around spiritual illumination and lighting up, but obsession and compulsion are definitely the terrain Fitzgerald is dealing with. Fitzgerald would have been even more advanced if he dealt with the subject as something his character sought to free herself from. Despite the modernist elements in the story, Fitzgerald was still of a generation that defended their compulsions.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Studies in Iconology

That the nude photos of Prince Harry cavorting in Las Vegas are causing an international scandal is predictable. The ancillary matter of the British tabloids, who usually gobble up such material about the royal family, showing uncharacteristic restraint, is equally predictable considering the phone hacking scandal. The fact that the 27 year old Harry is a helicopter pilot in the RAF and that the whole event takes place in Las Vegas might also recall yet another scandal, Tailhook. But let’s try to view the  incident out of context. Kierkegaard identifies three stages of life experience: the esthetic, the ethical and the religious. Let’s look at this from the esthetic point of view, as if we were walking through the Greek and Roman wing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In that august institution there are numerous naked statues many of which have their penises lopped off and one of the things that art historians and lovers of art enjoy doing is analyzing the postures, in an attempt to understand them as ideal representations of beauty. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, the German art historian Erwin Panofsky wrote a book called Studies in Iconology: Humanist Themes in the Art of the Renaissance. There is something almost Renaissance about the rosy cheeked Harry and his naked escort tantalizingly hidden behind the shot of the prince, demurely covering his genitalia. It’s an almost Adamic pose. Eve has already eaten her apple as it were and Harry while still brazen enough to pose for a cell phone camera is now undergoing a self inflicted penectomy similar to the ones performed on those ancient Greek statues in the Met.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Slovenia Journal IX: Venice

Watercolor by Hallie Cohen
You take the train from Trieste Centrale to Venezia Santa Lucia. Two Russian girls, one a flaming red head with turquoise eyes, talk in their native tongue right up to the stop before the end of the line, Venezia Mestre. The train is filled with Japanese and an foursome of Indians. Santa Lucia is pandemonium in the sweltering heat of the afternoon and you wonder what has brought you to this mecca of tourism, though as the sun sets you are humbled. You achieve a rare feeling of commonality in the worship of undeniable beauty—the same beauty that attracted Ruskin, Turner, Thomas Mann and later Peggy Guggenheim whose art is now housed in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. There you see Picasso’s “On the Beach" (l937), one of Adolph Gottlieb’s “Floating” pictographs from l945 and Francis Bacon’s “Study for Chimpanzee” together with rooms full of paintings by the likes of Jackson Pollock and Max Ernst. You walk along Zattere overlooking the Canale della Giudecca looking for gelato. You feel you’re on the set of some forthcoming Woody Allen movie, the third of the trilogy beginning with Midnight in Paris. Is this real? Goethe also inhabited Venice, along with a couple from Miami who ask if you know any decent restaurants as you climb on the Vaporetto direction Lido, departing Salute.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Slovenia Journal VIII:No Man Is An Island

Photograph by Hallie Cohen
There is only one island in Slovenia. It sits in the middle of Lake Bled. On the island is a Catholic church, the Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Mary, which is filled with sacrilege. Firstly the gilded altar with its crucifix is surrounded by two acolytes who are not saints, the German Emperor Henry II and his wife. The bishops of Brixen had facilitated a shidduck between Henry and the pope and in 1011, Henry essentially gave the bishops Slovenia as a gesture of gratitude. Then there’s s fresco of the circumcision of Christ, an odd image to find in a Catholic church. Finally there’s the underlying sense that the church is a walking and talking fertility rite with its magic bell that couples ring three times before they’re wed, pointing to the pre-Christian culture that existed on the site of  a house of worship that exhibits images of the Virgin Mary within while displaying a sculpture of Mary Magdalene on the lawn outside. The island is approached by an old flat bottomed Pletna boat.  It requires the skills of an ancien oarsman expertly steering a craft that can easily go out of control and that brings spiritual travelers to a destination filled with sometimes conflicting symbols.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Slovenia Journal VII: Bled

photograph by Hallie Cohen
Bled was the site of one of Marshall Tito’s summer residences. Tito is looked back on with fondness by some Slovenians to the extent that he was the twentieth century iteration of the benevolent despot, a Frederick the Great of the cold war who adhered to the pleasure principle. From a political point of view, he was an irredentist who created a form of nationalism that brought formerly warring Bosnians, Serbs, Croats, Montenegrans and Slovenians together under one banner. It was not jingoism, but an attempt to subsume the parts to the whole for the sake of peace. Unfortunately, his legacy did not live on. The mansion on the enchanting lake, which faces a castle carved into a dramatic rock cliff, is now the Vila Bled and if you are lucky you will be assigned one of the rooms formerly occupied by party apparachniks whose large conference rooms adjacent to living quarters are still decorated in the functional socialist realist interior design--the one thing that Yugoslavian Communists truly had in common with their Soviet bedfellows. Slovenia is a thriving country today. It was immune to most of the conflicts which affected Bosnia and Croatia in the 90’s. Bled is not bleeding by any means. Lake Bled’s beaches are packed with vacationing Slovenians, Italians and even some American tourists in the summer and the onion domes on the churches and the crowds of sun worshippers reflect the rich mixture of  Bavarian, Slavic, and Austro-Hungarian influences that characterize the region.