The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

Dec. 15 2000 11:30 PM

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

It is sometimes said that you can make a distinction between mercenary spies, such as CIA officer Aldrich Ames, and spies who act out of conscience, such as the art historian and curator Anthony Blunt, a British double agent who worked for the Soviet Union. According to this argument, ideological espionage, though equally traitorous, is less evil than spying for personal gain. But did Blunt always act from conscience? The National Post   reports that in the 1950s Blunt drew a $1,000 a year stipend from the Canadian National Gallery in exchange for advice on which pictures the gallery should acquire. Nothing wrong with that, but archivists at the gallery now believe that some of the works acquired by Blunt were stolen from Spain during the country's civil war—by fellow spies.


Notting Hill was made famous in the novels of Martin Amis, especially Money and London Fields. Many scenes in these books take place on or close to the once sordid Portobello Road. That President Clinton chose to do some Christmas shopping on Portobello is symbolic of just how far this part of London has changed. When it came to settling his check at a local pub, however, the president couldn't pay. The owner told the BBC: "The total bill has yet to be tallied because a power cut struck the area just before the visit and the electronic till was not working. They bloody well did not pay. I do not know what the total bill is because the computer went down and the electricity was off. But I have got an address of someone in America I can send the bill to."

So that Australian actors Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce might better understand the mood and gestures of 1950s Los Angeles—the setting for his movie L.A. ConfidentialCurtis Hanson took the two men to see Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place. "When I first saw In a Lonely Place as a teenager," Hanson tells the New York Times, "it frightened me and yet attracted me with an almost hypnotic power. Later, I came to understand why. Occasionally, very rarely, a movie feels so heartfelt, so emotional, so revealing that it seems as though both the actor and the director are standing naked before the audience."


Both Bovine Spongiform Encephelopathy and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease destroy brain tissue; the former in cattle, the latter in humans. Both diseases have wreaked havoc across Europe, though since BSE and CJD were originally detected in the United Kingdom they are commonly thought to be "English" diseases. In an examination of the British government's massive anatomy of the origins and course of the BSE-CJD crisis, Hugh Pennington explains how the outbreak of the diseases has highlighted fundamental weaknesses in British institutions. To read the report, click here. Meantime, a British scientist suggests that far more French cattle have been infected with BSE than the French government cares to admit.

Now that the election is close at hand (though calculating AlGoreithms may continue into the distant future—as a helpful reader writes, "n: Al-gore-ith-m: Any method of calculation performed repeatedly until a prior desired result is produced"), perhaps it's time to return to that other great question of 2000: the future of the Internet. In a cautiously optimistic appraisal of the year's proceedings, Saul Hansell says: "If anything is unarguable amid all the dashed hopes and wagging fingers, it is that it takes longer to change the world, or even build a business, than it does to make a pretty Web site. The real effect of the Internet remains to be seen. But the simple truth seen by the Web pioneers remains: this medium can connect more people to information and to one another faster and cheaper than any before it. And amid the prominent failures, there have been remarkable successes. So now it's possible to start asking what has been learned from this experience."'s co-founder Kurt Andersen writes about his year on the Web—"Of course, during the second and third quarters, as I have recently come to call spring and summer, this man's genius reputation evaporated"—and offers some calm advice about how the medium can move forward in 2001. "Is it too much to hope that, after a year of hysterical stampedes in two opposite directions, we have learned some lessons, that we can settle down and begin to walk calmly (OK, trot) in the directions we choose to go?"


In a review of Mark Ford's biography of the Frenchman Raymond Russell, David Bellos writes: "Try this. Your first sentence is 'Time is money' and your last sentence is 'Thyme is funny.' Write the story—long or short—that joins the two. Be imaginative, but please stick to plausible leaps and bounds. And while you're at it, make it a novel, and—why not?—a novel in verse. Use rhyming couplets. Done it? Then you've got the hang of the strange 'procedure' of Raymond Roussel (1877-1933), a millionaire, an outrageous dandy, a homosexual who liked to stay tightly shut up in the closet and a sincere believer in his own genius."

The uneasy truce between competing genome research laboratories has collapsed. As the Los Angeles Times explains, "the move revives one of the fiercest rivalries of modern science, which pits the publicly led Human Genome Project against biotech upstart Celera Genomics." The two teams resumed hostilities after HGP "refused to submit [a] research paper describing their findings to the same scientific journal as their private-sector rivals." Celera's research will appear in Science, while HGP's will appear in Nature, another influential scientific publication. Scientific rivalry is the least of it. As the L.A. Times puts it: "Science's readiness to accept some limits on use of published research results has fueled the latest skirmish in a long-running war for the soul of American science. At stake, according to some scientific leaders, is whether science remains fundamentally an untrammeled search for knowledge or becomes a commercial race for profits."


Frederick Crews, a professor of English and a prominent anti-Freudian, parodied various theoretically-inclined interpretations of literature in The Pooh Perplex. Four contributors to the current issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal probably didn't consult Crews' work while researching their paper, "Pathology in the Hundred Acre Wood: A neurodevelopmental perspective on A.A. Milne.""We have done an exhaustive review of the works of A.A. Milne," the authors write, "and offer our conclusions about the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood in hopes that our observations will help the medical community understand that there is a Dark Underside to this world." According to the National Post, Dr. Sarah Shea, the lead author, explains that the paper was meant to be semi-satirical, though the conclusions are entirely serious: "These characters do have some pretty significant disorder patterns." Thus, Winnie the Pooh is diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and might have Tourette's syndrome; Eeyore has chronic depression; and Christopher Robin is very uncertain about who he really is.


Gabriel García Márquez is not well. "More than a year ago I was put under treatment for three months for a lymphoma, and today I am surprised at the enormous stroke of luck this stumbling block has been in my life," Marquez informed readers of El Tiempo, Colombia's leading newspaper. Not that the cancer has defeated the novelist's desire to write. As AP reports: "For fear of not having time to finish the three volumes of my memoirs and two books of short stories, I reduced to a minimum relations with my friends, disconnected the telephone, canceled my trips ... and locked myself up to write every day without interruption from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon." Marquez also dismisses a poem allegedly written by him as a hoax. "The only thing that worries me is that I'll die with the shame that people believe I wrote something so tasteless. I read it not long ago and what surprises me most is that my readers could believe that it was written by me."


According to Philip Lopate   and many others "the American city has had no greater friend, nor more articulate defender, than William H. Whyte. He … is a very American kind of saint, rooted in material facts and the democratic quotidian, with affinities to Walt Whitman, John Dewey, William James, and Dorothy Day. Whyte, whose 1956 book The Organization Man has become a classic, "clearly was no revolutionary—had no interest in Marxism or any other radical transformations—and seemed drawn temperamentally to conciliating and problem solving. … Looking around him at American society, only city life still held the messiness, friction, brilliance, and randomness that eluded Big Brother's corporate planning." Whyte died in 1999; to read an obituary, click here.


The writing of Hunter S. Thompson is mostly a masculine taste, though gonzo journalism appeals to liberals and conservatives in equal measure. In a review of Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968-1976, the second volume of Thompson's dyspeptic "gonzo" archive, Christopher Buckley explains the appeal. "One of the things that made Thompson an 'outlaw' hero to this reviewer's generation was the demonic zest of his invective and contumely. The DNA of Thompson's adjectival lexicon is made up of the following, often in sequence: 'vicious,' 'rancid,' 'savage,' 'fiendish,' 'filthy,' 'rotten,' 'demented,' 'treacherous,' 'heinous,' 'scurvy,' 'devious,' 'grisly,' 'hamwit,' 'filthy,' 'foetid,' 'cheapjack,' and 'hellish.' " To hear a Paris Review interview with Thompson click here.

Coincidentally, London's Sunday Times and the New York Times address the question of why we laugh. In the former, John Carey writes about the investigations of Robert Provine, whose book Laughter "can be recommended as a shampoo and conditioner for the brains of arts aficionados everywhere." "His findings," Carey continues, "were revolutionary. Whereas previous writers on laughter (Freud, for example) had associated laughter with jokes, he discovered that most laughter is not prompted by jokes or other formal attempts at humor, but is a response to innocent comments such as, 'It was nice seeing you,' or 'We can handle this.' Laughter, Provine deduced, is a mode of pre-linguistic social bonding, and writers who have related it to our higher critical faculties (Plato thought we laughed at evil; Aristotle, at ugliness) have been on the wrong track." In the New York Times, Emily Eakin writes about various other academic studies of laughter. "One prominent venue for specialists is Humor, the academic journal of the International Society for Humor Studies, founded in 1976. A glance at a current issue is sufficient to get a feel for its contributors' general disposition toward their subject matter. Flow charts and regression analysis figure prominently in an article quantifying humorous responses to television ads, while an essay on ethnic humor in the Netherlands features tables quantifying jokes about Turks and Surinamese by unflattering stereotype."


On Dec. 14, 1900, Max Planck, the German physicist, announced the results of his latest research. As Graham Farmelo puts it: "Scientific revolutions happen when scientists change the way they think about the world—when they fashion new tools to do their job. These revolutions don't happen overnight. They take time. … All this is certainly true of quantum theory … [which] gave rise to hundreds of new lines of research and is today the basis of fundamental physics and semiconductor technology." Farmelo cautions against wild celebrations of the anniversary. "I'm willing to bet that we'll be hearing a lot this week about how the revolutionary Max Planck single-handedly founded quantum theory. This is a myth. Planck was no revolutionary, but a profoundly conservative scientist deeply respectful of the classical laws of physics." For more about the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science, Germany's scientific research institute, click here.


Martin Edlund of the New Republic writes about the real impact of the Internet on this year's elections. "A study released yesterday by George Washington University's Democracy Online Project found that e-mailing political jokes tops the list of online political activities this election season. Joke-sharing may seem like an odd addition to traditional political acts like donating money or contacting campaigns, but the phenomenon is serious. The study found that 54 percent of the U.S. Internet population, some 62 million people, sent or received election jokes by e-mail this year. This compares to only 24.7 percent who used the Internet to research campaigns and 1.4 percent who donated to candidates online."

"Where would the History Channel be without the Nazis?" Julie Salamon  asks. Where indeed. What with all the programming devoted to Nazi destruction, you would think that the "H" symbol seen on this channel at all times stands for Hitler. At 8 tonight, ABC will take some of the wind from the History Channel's sails by airing a two-hour documentary about the directors and photographers who captured the ravages of World War II on film. Tom Hanks (who else?) narrates. As Salamon writes, "The images are almost necessarily riveting; how can you not be compelled by the sight of death and destruction? Corpses float in water, others lie disemboweled in fields. We see Mussolini hanging upside down, and then, cut from the gallows, posed, his face contorted in death like a grotesque Halloween mask. We see piles of victims of Nazi camps and piles of dead fascists. We see shadows burned into pavement in Nagasaki, imprints of the annihilated." After the program ends, tune into the History Channel's hourlong appreciation of the tank.


It's not surprising that a contributor to ARTNews' yearly roundup of over- and underrated artists says that Rembrandt's reputation has been exaggerated. Many of the Dutch master's paintings are now considered copies or forgeries. As {{ Gary Schwartz #2:{B1311FD3-FBFB-11D2-B228-00105A9CAF88}&doc={73E761F9-C087-11D4-B99E-009027BA226C}&width=1011&height=741&agt=explorer&ver=4&svr=4}} writes in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: "Rembrandts were first forged in the 17th century and have continued to be copied ever since. [In the early 1980s], a large-scale investigation [was] set up in search of 'The True Rembrandt,' as one Dutch paper put it. The uncertainty this engendered was compounded in 1986 when … the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin announced that the most famous Rembrandt painting in its collection, 'The Man With the Golden Helmet' was not by the master." Schwartz argues that the skepticism about the authenticity of Rembrandt's painting is a "welcome sign of responsibility in the attitude of museums toward their audience[s]. It shows the path away from the bluff and bullying that too often pass for connoisseurship. It does not, however, mean that everything in art history is open to reasonable doubt. Fortunately, there are things we really can know, even about Rembrandt."


Ken Russell has made many movies and been married to three women. Some of his films have been very successful; his marriages have all been failures, though he's on good terms with his former wives. Bored by "the ghosts of [his] three ex-wives for company," the film director turned to a dating agency and in an article published by the Telegraph he relays the result. "One morning, there was an item [on TV] from America about a multi-millionaire who had advertised for a wife on the Internet. Now there's an idea—only I don't have a website. But I know someone who does: a young Scots lad called Iain living in Holland who has a spectacular website, called Savage Messiah, devoted entirely to me and my work. I sought Iain's advice. His reply was guarded: beware of gold diggers. I knew exactly what he meant and spelt out my message cautiously. 'Unbankable film director Ken Russell seeks soulmate—mad about movies, music and Moet et Chandon Champagne.' I sat back and awaited the deluge of replies." Russell would find his happiness in an old acquaintance.


Daniel Patrick Moynihan is about to retire, though some people hope the senator from New York will remain an advocate for architectural improvement—in Manhattan and elsewhere. In Metropolis Benjamin Forgey assesses Moynihan's influence on the appearance of public buildings. "In nearly four decades in Washington, Moynihan, now 73, has instituted guidelines for federal architecture; spearheaded the rebuilding of Pennsylvania Avenue, including the Federal Triangle; pushed the new Penn Station project relentlessly forward; and secured funding and built coalitions for numerous preservation projects. Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy … says she has been closing all her recent letters to the senator with the plaintive query, 'What are we going to do without you?' " In the New York Times, Barbara Stewart wonders what will now happen to Mayor Giuliani and Gov. Pataki's plan to acquire Governor's Island from the U.S. Coast Guard. "Trying to acquire the island after [Moynihan and President Clinton retire—the president was also keen on the plan] will be difficult, said Tony Bullock, an aide to Mr. Moynihan. 'This place [Washington, D.C.] works on favors,' he said. 'A lot of favors are owed to Pat Moynihan, and you won't have the same situation next year. It can still be done, but it's going to take some lifting.'"


In an interview with Ms. magazine, Jean Kilbourne, author of Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel, explains her views about commerce and culture and where these two worlds meet. "I'm not saying that people are brainwashed. I'm not saying that advertisers have absolute control or anything like that. I'm just saying it is a powerful influence and we need to take it seriously. It's a powerful influence that's increasing in the culture. … I had done some modeling after I graduated from college—those were the days when it was very hard for women to get work. … I really hated modeling. At that time, there were no words like objectification and sexual harassment, but I knew that was what was happening to me. That left me with a real interest in the power of beauty." In other ad news—and proof that advertising is indeed encroaching on culture in substantive ways—the Coca-Cola Co. has donated its old TV and film ads to the Library of Congress.


On Oct. 19, Friedrich Merz, leader of the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union in the German Bundestag, spoke of a "Leitkultur von Deutschland," which can be translated as "leading, or hegemonic, culture of Germany." Merz deployed the term to describe "what immigrants coming to Germany might aspire to." Two weeks later, Paul Spiegel, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, addressed a vast anti-Merz demonstration in Berlin. "What's all this talk of Leitkultur? Does German Leitkultur include hunting down foreigners, burning synagogues, and killing the homeless?"