The Arts

Art and Tech Part 3: can we know the dancer from the dance…?

The 20th century offered artists – and everyone else – the greatest number of technological advances in human history. But these advances also changed human ecology – and artists and art – in startling ways….

For earlier essays in this series look here and here.)

RCA’s adverdog Nipper and the Victrola (image courtesy Wikimedia)

The turn of the 20th century saw humanity in the midst of an onslaught of technological change that has permanently altered how we communicate, travel, and entertain ourselves. The telephone made it possible to hear the voices of friends and family over remarkable distances and receive news, especially personal news, faster than ever before. The automobile and airplane made visiting those distant loved ones first possible, then feasible, ultimately expected. And the phonograph, motion picture camera/projector and later radio and television (remember, television’s blockbuster effect on home entertainment was delayed at least a decade by World War II) made home entertainment as simple as passively sitting and listening/watching. The culture became both easily mobile and easily sedentary in one fell swoop. Modern photography, already 75 years old by the beginning of the 20th century, had been appropriated for artistic purposes for at least 50 years. However, its documentary function far overshadowed its power as an art form for many decades.

The newer technological innovations of recording and film offered artists opportunities – but unlike other technological innovations such as I mentioned in the previous essay (industrially produced paint for artists, the use of the typewriter by authors, the harpsichord’s replacement by the piano in music), these technological innovations did not necessarily lend themselves to exploitation by artists. In truth, the technological changes that developed in the 20th century changed not simply how art was made but how art was conceived and executed and how art came to be viewed in ways that we have not fully considered. A look at the changes that occurred and what their possible meanings are for us culturally seems apropos.  Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature

Art and Tech, part 2: the uneasy relationship between artist and technology

As technologies have been developed and then evolved, artists have exploited them in the creation of art. But is it possible to reach a point where technology exploits artists – and through them art?

(For previous essays in this series, look here.)

Neil Postman (image courtesy Wikimedia)

The work of the late Neil Postman, especially in the camps of those who sing the praises of our current era of rapid technological innovation and implementation, is treated with, if noted at all, skepticism bordering on disdain. Reactions to his 1993 classic Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology even went so far to to accuse him being a Neo-Luddite.

But Postman raises important questions about society’s relationship to technology and asks that hard question for which none of his critics (this may explain the dismissiveness of some) seem willing to offer an answer: Do we control technology – or does technology control us?

Such a difficult – and profound – question seems important for art and artists for a number of reasons. Continue reading

Book-Review

Book Review: St. Nic, Inc. by S.R. Staley

It’s not Santa Claus vs. the Martians – it’s Santa Claus (sorta) vs. the DEA – which is, come to think of it, almost as nuts…

St. Nic, Inc by S.R. Staley

Sam Staley’s latest book is a Christmas story. It’s not, however, the sort of Christmas story ones hears in homes on Christmas Eve. There are no shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks by night” or flying reindeer jockeyed by a “right jolly old elf.” Staley’s book is a Christmas story with all the 21st century twists: the North Pole is home to NP Enterprises, a slickly run distribution company with billions in revenues and a 26 year old MIT trained computer geek CEO named Nicole who employs large numbers of talented, intelligent people who happen to have the condition known as – you guessed it – dwarfism; its ability to operate is based on economic funding from a 21st century source – a computer operating system superior to others on the market; and its problems within the narrative come from overzealousness on the part of a government official.

NP Enterprises is a family owned business founded by Nicole’s great grandfather, a Dutchman named Nicholas Klaas, who moved to the Far North and began making toys which he sold to trappers and hunters for their children. Continue reading

The Arts

Art and Tech Pt. 1: Known Knowns and Known Unknowns…

We live these days in a weird era where art and tech are linked in ways which I don’t believe we understand very well and don’t think about enough. Maybe we are in some transition to a culture in which tech is believed to be art and art is believed to be -I don’t know – tech…? Whatever the artist says it is…? Obsolete…?

This started out, as sometimes things do, with a conversation:

Claude Monet, technology freak (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Lea, my wife, and I were coming home from one of her art exhibition openings last night and somehow we got on the subject of Claude Monet.  The art opening was part of a series of events in which artists, writers, and craftsmen and women had simultaneously occurring book fest, art exhibition opening, and crafts fair.  This is the sort of event that arts groups hold more and more often in these same days of this our life. Artists hoped that book lovers would stop by the art exhibition, writers that art lovers would stop by the book fest, crafts people – well, people still buy crafts, kinda sorta (more than they buy fine art and books, at least), so the crafts people were likely simply being helpful.

I don’t know how well the whole series of events went off (I didn’t even go to the crafts fair because I – I don’t know – well yes I do: at least half the tables at the “book fest” were selling – crafts – yeah, I know). I hope that the artist and writer friends I ran into at the two events I attended made some sales. But at one point last evening Lea looked at me and noted, “I think everyone at this exhibit is an artist.”

Yeah. I know. This is all too common these days.

And yes, I’m rambling, but I’ll get to something in a minute. Bear with me.  Continue reading

Book-Review

Being There…or we knew the bride when she used to marry rockers….

Pattie Boyd’s autobiography is a fascinating and messy piece of memoir that offers sometimes illuminating, sometimes banal insights into the private lives of two of the rock era’s iconic figures – George Harrison and Eric Clapton...and raises a slew of bigger questions…

Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me by Pattie Boyd (image courtesy Goodreads)

When Tom Snyder asked John Lennon in the famous Tomorrow Show interview why he became a musician and formed a band, Lennon replied slyly, “For the birds, Tom. That’s why every guy does it. To get girls….”

Pattie Boyd was one of the most famous of “the birds….”

A few years ago Boyd published her autobiography which I just re-read as part of my 2014 reading list. It should be a riveting read for anyone interested in rock music, rock history, or rock stars in our popular culture.

But it isn’t.

Before we go into why, exactly, Boyd’s autobiography causes arguments, it might be useful to talk a little bit about reasons why people are famous. Continue reading

CATEGORY: TunesDay

Dave Bidini attacks Joni Mitchell…why…?

Dave Bidini’s critique of Joni Mitchell seems smilingly petulant in a way that is way too familiar…and reminds us that maybe generational differences make us too readily divisible….

Joni Mitchell (image courtesy Wikipedia)

A recent essay reprinted from The National Post at Crooks and Liars by Canadian indie rocker/writer Dave Bidini (most well known for his work with The Rheostatics) takes folk-rock-jazz icon Joni Mitchell to task for being “difficult.” Bidini’s chief complaints seem to be that Mitchell is critical of another icon (John Lennon), is troubled that her fans don’t always “get” her songs, and struggles with having grown old and fragile in health.

What Bidini believes (or at least gives the impression he believes) is that Joni Mitchell doesn’t have the right to be cranky about her struggle to achieve her artistic goals in spite of the bias against her as a woman artist, her numerous and complex health problems, and her sometimes complicated and difficult personal life because – well, it seems because she’s had great commercial/critical success.

Why Bidini feels the need to make this attack is what puzzles one most in all this.  Continue reading

CATEGORY: WordsDay

The mysteries of Michael Chabon’s first novel…

Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh has been lavished with praise – the mystery is…Why…?

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon (image courtesy Goodreads)

As anyone familiar with the literary scene (at least any literary scene not composed solely of adults who read nothing but YA literature or some other highly siloed genre/subgenre) knows, Michael Chabon has been a darling of the litfic scene for about 25 years now. He’s won a Pulitzer Prize and several other awards and been touted as a literary great.  His first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, was called “astonishing” by the New York Times; “remarkable” by the Los Angeles Times; “extraordinary” by the Village Voice.

My own experience with Chabon’s work before reading The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was watching the film version of Wonder Boys. I found it a quirky, charming, somewhat slick little film and thought about getting the book. I supposed the book would be that, too: quirky, charming, a tad slick. Still, I thought to give it a go. Something else shiny beckoned, evidently, because I never got around to it. So when I ran across this book at my favorite used book store a while back, I picked it up expecting to read the early work of a talented and celebrated writer. Given that this was his first book, I expected some flaws. I expected some rough edges… Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Love, art, mystery: Lawrence Durrell’s Justine

Durrell raises a question we are most afraid to answer: whether, as his character Clea asserts, “Lovers are never equally matched….” Is that, he asks, the source of the pain so many experience in love…?

Justine by Lawrence Durrell (image courtesy Goodreads)

We come now to another novelist who, like Paul Bowles, skirts the edge of wide acceptance as a major literary figure. Lawrence Durrell’s reputation rests on a group of novels called The Alexandria Quartet. The first of these is called Justine after the main character, a reluctant siren whose mystique pervades the work. It’s the latest from my 2014 reading list, and it’s a work that offers one the challenge of deciding whether to focus one’s discussion on the quality of the writing, the themes the novel explores, or the complexity of the  story.

To treat Justine fairly, it’s probably best to talk at least a bit about each. This is a novel in which writing, story, and themes are intricately woven. Durrell came under consideration for (and close to winning in 1962) the Nobel Prize on at least two occasions based on this work (and the others in the tetralogy). Justine offers a good example of why. Continue reading

The Elvis “Coverup”: Nothing to See Here, Move Along…

If the excerpt from the new Elvis biography is an indication of the entire work, readers will learn exactly –  nothing new…

Elvis doing that Jailhouse Rock (image courtesy Wikimedia)

I had a professor who once described sound academic writing as learning to “articulate the obvious.” This in itself isn’t bad advice, and I occasionally pass it along to writing students who seem convinced that scholarly writing of any worth must follow “the three C’s” of turgid writing: it should be convoluted, confusing, and contradictory.

Joel Williamson’s new biography of the King, Elvis Presley: A Southern Life, avoids turgidity and, if the excerpt recently published by Salon is any indication, it follows my old professor’s dictum to a degree that readers knowledgeable about the music legend (or about the history of rock and its significant figures) may find downright frustrating. Continue reading

ArtSunday

Pride and Prejudice: The Romance Novel as Literature…

Amid current discussions of how genre fiction and literature are merging in the 21st century, Pride and Prejudice is a reminder that the genre of romance merged with literature a long, long time ago…

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (image courtesy Goodreads)

As I have noted before, my custom of re-reading Austen’s works systematically has shifted from reading all six of the completed novels each year (as I did for more than two decades) to a rotation through the oeuvre of that allows me to read two novels each year. My own background as an Austen scholar has given me cause to give each of the novels “close reading” (the scholarly term for close analytic reading of a text to ferret out meaning) numbers of times. Still, each time I return to any of Jane Austen’s novels, I find myself surprised by what I learn.

Such was the case during this reading of what the general public consider Austen’s masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice. It is certainly her most widely read work, partly because there seems to have long been a belief among educators that it is her most accessible novel (I’d argue for Emma) and partly, I suppose, because it has enjoyed the most attention over the last century or so as the basis for classic Hollywood bowdlerizations, faithful and thoughtful BBC renderings, and hipster revisionist treatments. It says something for the greatness of the book that it has borne all these cinematic renditions without losing any of its charm as entertainment or any of its impressiveness as a literary performance. Continue reading

Popular Culture

Murdering culture, one hipster delusion at a time…

Hipsters being savaged by a former hipster seems – oh, I don’t know, about right…?

Author Will Self (image courtesy Wikimedia)

No one who is a thinking person doubts that our culture is in trouble. Whatever forces have taken us down a road where knowledge of reality television shows is considered social capital are, I think we can all agree, malevolent.

In a recent essay in The New Statesman (and republished in The New Republic), British novelist and intellectual Will Self savages his generation’s acquiescence in failing to overcome being what he calls “the pierced and tattooed, shorts-wearing, skunk-smoking, OxyContin-popping, neurotic dickheads who’ve presided over the commoditization of the counterculture; we’re the ones who took the avant-garde and turned it into a successful rearguard action…of capitalism’s blitzkrieg.” His critique (written in a classic snarky style) continues with an indictment of what he sees as a completely delusional group of “artists” – : Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Karl Ove Knausgaard, Thomas Wolfe, Marcel Proust…Life is – How We Write It…?

While some authors have chosen to follow a literary path called transrealism, Knausgaard has chosen a path one might call hyperrealism. The question always rises rises again, however: is there nothing new under the sun…?

Karl Ove Knausgaard (image courtesy Wikimedia)

A little more than a week ago I examined yet another attempt to claim that a new literary movement has arisen. That new movement, called transrealism, has its promoters, but it also has its doubters (including this guy). In this essay we take a look at what may/may not be a new 21st century literary movement – one I’m denominating hyperrealism. The best way to look at such a movement is, of course, by examining the work of the author who is probably its leading proponent, Norwegian literary star Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Knausgaard’s massive six volume documentation of his own life in excruciating detail is called, in English My Struggle. In Norwegian that title reads Min Kamp – and yep, you’re right that his title echoes a book that gives most sensible people the creeps. Knausgaard’s book has pretty much nothing to do with Der Fuhrer’s opus magnum but a lot to do with some other, weightier, literary figures. Whether he chose the title simply to spark some controversy – well, why would any author want to do that in a culture that is so distracted it can’t pay attention to any damned thing for longer than the time it takes to scroll down a Facebook feed? Hmm? Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Louis Hemon’s Maria Chapdelaine: Il se souvient

Like other classics of of what might be called pioneer literature, Louis Hémon’s classic of Quebecois literature Maria Chapdelaine conveys the love of a people for the land in a way that is beautifully simple and simply beautiful.

Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hemon (image courtesy Goodreads)

Maria Chapdelaine belongs to a noble tradition of what we can call pioneer literature. (It might also be called agrarian literature, but that term has come to be associated with the Fugitive Movement in Southern literature that began at Vanderbilt University in the 1920’s.)  Most readers have some experience with such books, especially in young adult literature – many have read at least one of the Little House books of Laura Ingalls Wilder or Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne Shirley series.

More mature – and sophisticated – readers may be familiar with works such as Sergei Aksakov’s The Family Chronicle or any of several novels by Willa Cather, particularly O Pioneers! or My Antonia. These are works that celebrate the difficult but rewarding lives of settlers, lives that are quietly heroic and which are tied to the rhythms of the land whether that land is on the Russian steppes or the American plains.

Maria Chapdelaine stands slightly apart from these other examples of pioneer literature for a couple of reasons. Continue reading

CATEGORY: MusicPopularCulture

Rod Stewart: Just a Singer in a Rock and Roll Band…

Rod Stewart’s autobiography shows that knowing too much about cultural heroes might be part of what’s wrong with the culture…

Rod: The Autobiography by Rod Stewart (image courtesy Goodreads)

There have been a spate of rock star autobiographies over the last decade or so from classic rock’s legends. One assumes that after having so much written about them that was true/untrue/somewhere in between they wanted to have their say.

Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton – all have written interesting, if at times slightly self-indulgent, biographies of themselves (how self-written these “autobiographies” are is probably arguable from a strictly literary standpoint). From these we learn that Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend had troubled childhoods and that each has been long engaged in the “search for self” because of childhood trauma. We also learn that Bob Dylan and Keith Richards are never, ever, ever, ever going to give anything away that might break the front or dispel any of the mystique they have long worked at building around themselves. If they can do so, they will die in a way so that we will exclaim “That is so cool!”

And then there’s Rod. Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Sir Paul the Evangelist: McCartney gets a bad rap

A Paul McCartney show these days is a music history lesson wrapped in a plea for understanding with a side order of “Remember when they made music and you actually cared about knowing the words…?”

Sir Paul McCartney (image courtesy imdb)

Sir Paul gets a bad rap.

Part of this I attribute to the influence of a certain generation of music critics, those for whom the term “snark” might have been invented, and many of whom resent anything and everything Beatle related. They have long crusaded against all things Beatle and especially against Macca, because he’s not John and because he’s not George, and because – Wings (which had its terrific moments and some damned silly ones, too).

Then, too, Sir Paul made that unforgivable decision, the one either Dave Marsh or Greil Marcus (I forget which – and that says something about the importance of critics vis a vis artists, kids) called “the decision for pop.” He’s focused on writing songs that get denominated pop no matter how hard they rock or how brilliantly they incorporate his many musical influences. The Cute Beatle he is the The Cute Beatle he shall remain. I have a response – and I know I don’t speak for Paul – but I wish I did, because I’d say… Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature

Meet Transrealism – the New Literary Buzz…?

Claims of a new 21st century literary movement called “Transrealism” are, so far, just that – claims….

Why one should not swim in Black Lagoons (image courtesy Xombie News Network)

There have been a number of cross-genre fiction experiments being spun out these days. The most famous (and commercially successful) of these experiments is likely steam punk, a blending of elements of historical and science fiction, though the commercial success crown might belong to cyberpunk, the blending of “high tech and low life” that crosses elements of hard boiled detective fiction with dystopian visions.  Other experiments have crossed science fiction with horror, sometimes with impressive results, sometimes with unintentionally humorous ones.

A recent piece from The Guardian book blog suggests that now authors have crossed into new territory – they’re crossing realism, traditional territory of literary fiction, with some narrative thread that hearkens to science fiction, fantasy, or horror. The writer at The Guardian is sure this is the first new literary movement of the 21st century. Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

In the Shadow of Jack Bruce…

Among bassists of the Classic Rock generation, Jack Bruce casts a long, challenging, inspiring shadow…

Jack Bruce (image courtesy All Music Guide)

Jack Bruce, the bassist for the very first “super group,” Cream, died late last week.

There have been many tributes, including a lovely one from S&R’s own Pat Vecchio. Pat is a bass player himself, who, while he pooh poohs his skills, is capable of some decent licks. As he notes in his essay, he plays a Gibson SG because it looks like the Gibson EB-3 that Bruce played during those brief, glorious years of Cream’s  existence. And he even admits that he got the blues outfit he plays with to do one of Cream’s signature tunes, “Born Under a Bad Sign,” so that he could play, as he modestly puts it, “a simplified version of Bruce’s bass line.”

I know something of how Pat feels. I was a much more serious player in my day (I won’t get into that now; this is about Jack, not me). One of the ways the band I played in warmed up was by playing another Cream signature tune…here’s Cream doing the number – with Jack playing that Gibson EB-3: Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Angry bards and Amazon reviewers…

In which one author tells another, to paraphrase one well known critic, nothing can please many nor please long but representations by the general public…

One hopes book reviewers read the books they review (image courtesy Wikimedia)

In a recent New Republic essay, author Jennifer Weiner takes author Margo Howard to task. Weiner’s reason for castigating Howard? Howard seems to have reacted negatively to some of the reviews she received on Amazon.

Okay, stop laughing at the Weiner’s intentional or unintentional disingenuousness and bear with me as we discuss this. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Maeve Binchy and the well written happy ending…

Maeve Binchy’s fictional world is one where those who try to do good turn out well…as for the others….

Maeve Binchy, Nights of Rain and Stars (image courtesy Goodreads)

As I’ve made clear by now to any who read my essays on the books I read, I have devoted 2014 to trying works outside my normal range of reading interests. As a result I’ve read some popular YA literature (and evoked a storm of controversy), tried a couple of of works by the most and celebrated of the recently anointed and highly admired “genre literati” (and found them interestingif not as arresting as some of my colleagues do), and taken a look at the power that formula fiction seems to have on the reading public.

I suppose it is in that spirit that I picked up a copy of Maeve Binchy‘s Nights of Rain and Stars. The wildly popular Irish author produced numerous bestsellers and proudly proclaimed herself a happy composer of what are commonly called in the parlance of publishing “beach reads” – effortless, entertaining and ultimately forgettable tales.  Nights of Rain and Stars seems to me to be exactly the sort of book well qualified to be a satisfying “beach read.” Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

The final, hopefully completely updated 2014 reading list…

“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” – Oscar Wilde

This is a stack of books. There are lots of these at my house. (image courtesy freedigitalphotos.net)

(For previous posts in this series look here, here, and here.)

After several threats to do so, I finally take a bit of time to update the 2014 reading list. Several elements have played into the list expanding well beyond its original limits: new friendships with publishers who asked me to review books, interesting finds at used book stores, decisions to read books so I’d know a little better what I was talking about when I castigated their authors.

So here we go. This, I hope, will catch up the 2014 reading list. Anything else that swims into view will go on the 2015 reading list. (I offer links for books that I have already written essays about.) Continue reading