The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

Sept. 16 2000 12:00 AM

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

Though he's a lot older than most "cool" writers, J.G. Ballard may be the coolest novelist alive. Known most widely as the author of the Empire of the Sun, a book that Stephen Spielberg made into a movie, the novelist's critical portrayal of modern life is as pungent as anyone's. His new novel, Super-Cannes (click here to buy it), is, he says, about a "consumer society [that] hungers for the deviant and unexpected—psychopathy is the only engine powerful enough to light our imaginations, to drive the arts, sciences and industries of the world." Click here to read a review in the Guardian. John Sutherland explained the "Ballardian law of the universe" in the Sunday Times. "Every idealistic attempt by human society to organize itself into progressive or 'higher' forms will, inevitably, precipitate catastrophe. Interesting catastrophe, of course. The high-rise block degenerates into a jungle; the motorway system (as in Crash) becomes a 70 mph, high-tech killing ground; the leisure city of the future (as in Cocaine Nights) decays into Sodom by the Med." To read an interview with Ballard, click here.


The review of academic life celebrated its 10th anniversary with a new look to its Web site, a beaming red and yellow cover (on the print edition) and, last night, a party in Manhattan's Lower East Side. To mark the occasion, the magazine highlights 10 of its best pieces. A Lingua Franca article that led to a controversy—a 1996 piece by Alan Sokal, which revealed that the physicist had fooled a modish academic journal into publishing a "sham essay"—now appears in a book, The Sokal Hoax (click here to buy it). The volume, which contains much background material as well as reactions to Sokal's article, is a useful anatomy of an important debate: how academics convey their ideas to their pupils and to the public.

A recent report claims that Americans are in danger of losing the ability to write with their hands. All the more reason, therefore, to visit a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that is devoted to the stunning calligraphy of China, where handwriting is an art form as much as it is a form of communication and where a well-expressed idea demands craftsmanship. To view some of the exhibits, click here. To view the 14th-century "Record of the Miaoyan Monastery," click here Writing in the New York Times, Holland Cotter says: "By image-obsessed Western standards, one picture is worth, absolute minimum, a thousand paltry words. But in China, where words are images, writing has traditionally been the highest art form of all, and a source of profound political and emotional power."


A BIRTHDAY PARTY Harold Pinter turns 70 next month. The playwright's Web site—click here to view it—has details on the celebrations, which include a production of Betrayal on Broadway. In his journals (an extract was published by The New Yorker in August—not on the Web, alas), the great theater critic Kenneth Tynan said that Pinter, like Polanski, Olivier, Brando, and Orson Welles, has the capacity to intimidate an audience. "What enables [them] to exercise talent is the ability to impose oneself (s'imposer). … Definition of an imposer: one about whom one worries whether his response to the next remark will be a smile or a snarl. With imposers, there is always danger, even if one isn't employed by them." Pinter recently played Sir Thomas Bertram in a movie adaptation of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. Like two other modernist playwrights, Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard, Pinter adores cricket.

Now that the federal prosecutors have dropped their case against the Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, many officials may wish to recall sunnier times at the government's nuclear laboratory—though some people may dispute whether the events leading up to and including the detonation of the first atomic bomb were especially "sunny." (For the New York Times' coverage of the Lee case, click here.) Steven Shapin writes about two new books on the Manhattan Project (In the Shadow of the Bomb, by S.S. Schweber, and Atomic Fragments, by Mary Palevsky) and an era when scientists, such as Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, were treated as masters of the universe. "All the great men were there," Shapin writes, "all united in an urgent common cause that broke down the artificial disciplinary boundaries that existed in the academy." Though some of the nuclear physicists subsequently denounced the bomb—Oppenheimer most prominently—others "continued to be happily watered by the torrents of dollars that so fundamentally transformed the nature of physics research in the postwar decades."


BEL DU JOUR Michael Wood recalls meeting the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel in Mexico in 1978. "First impressions. He is old, bent, has rather crooked teeth, large intelligent eyes behind heavy glasses. … 'I am a monk,' he says, 'I don't go out.' It's largely true." In his remarkable memoir, My Last Sigh (click here to buy it, and click fast because Barnes & Noble only has a few copies left), Buñuel wrote that his "infancy slipped by in an almost medieval atmosphere. I had the good fortune of spending my childhood in the Middle Ages." Garrett White's translation of the selected writings of Buñuel, An Unspeakable Betrayal (click here to buy it), reinforces the view that though Buñuel despised religion, the church was always an important source for his imagination. The film notes for one of his last films, The Phantom of Liberty, begins: "In a room, with four candles placed around it, is a coffin in which lies a very beautiful woman who might be the bride. As the protagonist draws near her, the corpse opens its eyes and says: 'Would you mind leaving me in peace?' "

ARTnews' Katie Clifford explains how museums such as MoMA and the Met choose paintings for their collections. For example, if a museum wanted to acquire a painting by Jasper Johns, which one would it choose? Nan Rosenthal, a consultant in the Met's Department of Modern Art says: "We went after White Flag, a canonical masterpiece and the first Johns painting to enter our collection. … Much larger than his other paintings of this time, White Flag … [is one of Johns' painting that] set the stage for Pop, Minimal, and, to an extent, Conceptual art."

Painters like to imagine the pictures a rival artist might have executed if only he or she had been different. Less mad, perhaps, or more modest, or perhaps the opposite: madder or brasher. An example of this pursuit can be found in Hilton Kramer's article about an exhibition of John Singer Sargent's watercolors, currently on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To view some of the paintings, click here }. Toward the end of his New York Observer piece, Kramer quotes the painter Fairfield Porter, who said of Sargent: "His painting was full of discarded potentialities. … They are not part of anything—his sophistication made him aware of excellence but gave him no goal, his personality no shape, and his life no helpless mad direction."


Certain books occupy a central place in a bibliomaniac's library. One such volume is Geoffrey Madan's Notebooks, whose fans range from Susan Sontag, a celebrated bibliomaniac (click here to read a description of her library) to Alan Bennett, the playwright best known in America for The Madness of King George. Edited by J.A. Gere and John Sparrow (a formidable head of the elite Oxford college All Souls), the Notebooks are the work of someone who never wrote anything himself, but who had a good eye for the wit and wisdom of others. The German statesman Otto Bismark is described by Camille Dourcet as having a "genius for giving a false impression by telling the naked truth." Disraeli observed that "[t]hose who have known real grief seldom seem sad." The New York Times published a short selection from the Notebooks in 1985: Click here to read it.


Whether it's viewed from the skies or from the ground, London's Millennium Dome resembles a terrible and extremely pregnant boil. (Click here to see a picture.) Many people will now be pleased to learn that the dome—once "hailed by Tony Blair as a symbol of 'British flair and genius,' " as the Guardian reports—may be torn down. The structure, which cost $1.5 billion to build, is on sale for $140 million, though the scrap value is perhaps higher. Critics of the project insist the dome symbolizes the changing fortunes of Tony Blair's government. Others, such as Iain Sinclair, and David Millward say the dome is another example of the chronic lack of public accountability in Britain. For the Guardian's history of the project, click here.


The novelists Armistead Maupin and Jay McInerney are closely associated with the cities where they live—San Francisco and New York, respectively. Both writers tell the Observer about recent upheavals in their lives. Maupin, described as a benevolent plotter by Peter Conrad, was left by his boyfriend. McInerney, who was left by his wife, is a puzzle, according to Lynn Barber. "[Is] he really a good boy pretending to be bad, or is he actually as bad—as callous and brattish—as he can sometimes seem?"

In an article published by the Telegraph, Janet Daley defends Europeans who have taken to the streets to protest the high price of gas—and the high taxes European governments impose on consumers. "Call me old-fashioned, [but] I still accept the moral calculus of my rebellious youth: if the state in its arrogance is behaving unethically … then you are entitled to flout some minor civil ordinances to make your point more forcefully."

Jane Smiley has written two interesting articles on marriage. The latest appears in the New York Times. "Marrying with the overriding goal of being happy for all your adult life with a single other is a new experiment," she writes. "Divorce is its corollary. This is an experiment that our children will engage in, whatever models we give them." Writing in the Guardian in June, Smiley said that when it came to her own divorce, "[t]he choice of staying or leaving presented itself to me as a choice between suicide and mass murder."


SECOND COMING FOR THE SECOND SEX In a long and multilinked article published by, Margaret Simons assesses the influence of Simone de Beauvoir on philosophy and the women's movement. "There are signs," Simons writes, "that we are in the midst of something of a Beauvoir renaissance." To buy The Second Sex, de Beauvoir's most widely read book, click here.


THE RESTAURANT IS THE NEW THEATER Playwright Jonathan Reynolds explains why he writes about food for the New York Times Magazine and why Broadway's dramas are arid compared to the scene at some of the city's restaurants."As entertainment," he says, "restaurants have taken the place of theatre as what you do when you go out at night. All the Broadway musicals that are running now are glorified versions of Las Vegas floor shows." A fine example of Reynolds' theory can be found at Alain Ducasse's madly expensive establishment on Central Park South. Panned by the city's critics, the restaurant, as the Telegraph reports, is a place for people with thick wallets to parade their wealth. To visit Ducasse's Web site, click here.

Tim Hilton
's lively appreciation of the art critic Clement Greenberg appears in the New Criterion. "Like many people who seek purity in art," Hilton writes, "Clem much preferred drinking to eating. In the twenty-five years of our rocky friendship, I do not think I once saw him eat. The last time we met, in New York, we thought for a second or two about going somewhere for dinner, but never got ourselves off the sofas."

Jenny Diski discovers that Kierkegaard has a lot to say about modern life. "[I] understand what [he was] on about at last. The leap of faith is not towards God, but love (for want of a better term) and housing. One leap of faith begets another, it seems. First, I throw myself on the mercy of love and risk betrayal, then on the mercy of the property market and risk penury. Never mind, I can be a mad, old, bag-lady instead of the mad, old hermit I had planned to be."

Rebecca West
is the latest writer to be treated by the New York Times as a featured author. The great merit of this series, which includes just about every author imaginable (click here to begin with authors whose surnames begin with "A"), is its thoroughness. In the case of Rebecca West, you can read the review of her 1918 novel The Return of the Soldier as well as her Times obituary, which appeared in 1983. To read Sarah Kerr's review of the selected letters of Rebecca West, which appeared in this week's Book Review, click here. To read the first chapter of West's letters, click here.