The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

Feb. 3 2001 12:00 AM

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

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MODERNISM'S MASTERMIND The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has opened the doors to its exhibition "Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries". (Over the course of this year and the next, the gallery will broadcast tours of its Alfred Stieglitz collection on its Web site.) According to Hilton Kramer, the show "not only illuminates a crucial chapter in the history of American modernism on a scale never before attempted, but it also serves as a model of what our museums can still achieve when they remain faithful to the highest traditions of aesthetic connoisseurship and historical scholarship in their most ambitious endeavors." Though impressed by the endeavors of the curators, Michael Kimmelman is skeptical about the overall affect. "It's a serious, straightforward show, which adds much new detail and a phone-book-thick catalog to an important and familiar chapter of history without exactly breaking ground." Meanwhile, Henry Allen seems a bit puzzled at how best to describe his experience on the Mall. He pronounces it "…an elusive and seductive show, full of instruction and beauty. Strange: It's huge and subtle at the same time, both jarring and nostalgic—glorious little fish pulsing along an invisible but powerful reef made of Stieglitz's dreams of a new American art, and of artists who would make a new, true America rise from the mausoleum of 19th century conventions."

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WRITING ON THE LINE
Writing about last year's exhibition of Chinese calligraphy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Holland Cotter wrote: "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." The latest news from China suggests that the nation's handwriting tradition is under considerable strain thanks to the computer, as Jennifer Lee reports. " 'There are some characters that I can't write with a pen, but if you give me a computer I can type it out,' said Mr. Li You, a 23-year-old computer teacher who lives in rural Yangshuo in Guangxi province, in southern China. It has been more than six years since Mr. Li started using a computer for Chinese word processing. It has been just under six years since the characters started slipping away. He estimates that more than 95 percent of his writing is now done by computer. 'I can go for a month without picking up a pen,' Mr. Li said."

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TIME TO UNCORK THE BOTTLE AND LET THE WINE FLOW
Laws governing the shipment of alcohol from one state to another have always seemed overly restrictive. With the advent of the Internet, and of clicking and shopping, they now seem absurdly antiquated. For example, it's illegal for Francis Ford Coppola's Californian vineyard to ship a case of red wine to a customer in Manhattan. Only licensed wholesalers are allowed to transport alcohol. Such laws penalize producers and consumers but benefit wholesale companies and tax authorities, who, as Wine Spectator reported last October, welcomed "legislation sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that puts federal enforcement power behind states' bans on interstate shipments of alcoholic beverages to consumers." There are, however, some encouraging signs of change. As WS explains: "As the 2001 legislative sessions get under way across the United States, five states so far have drafted new bills addressing the issue of whether their residents should be allowed to have wines shipped directly to their homes from out-of-state sellers. The Connecticut, Indiana, Massachusetts and Mississippi houses of representatives are considering legislation that would permit interstate direct-shipments of wine." Meantime in the good state of Montana, "a bill pending in the [state] Senate would make home deliveries a felony for shippers—punishable by fines and up to five years in prison." For Wine Spectator's overview of the laws governing the transportation of wine, click here. For a Slate piece on buying wine on the Internet, click here. To visit the Americans for Responsible Alcohol Access Web site click here; for the American Vintners Association click here; for the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers Association click here, and for the Wine Institute, click here.

HEADING FOR CUBA
Colin Powell has suggested that many American embargoes of foreign countries should be abandoned, though whether the new secretary of state will end the most significant embargo of them—the 38-year-old embargo of Castro's Cuba—is not certain. (If the Hoover Digest  article co-authored by one of Condoleezza Rice's former colleagues is any indication of the new national security adviser's thinking on the matter, then one might be led to believe that the restrictions will, indeed, be lifted.) Not that the embargo has worked well recently: Hordes of Americans travel to Havana each month. Last November Robin Cembalest, executive editor of ARTNews, was one of 3,000 Americans who visited the Havana Bienal, the most important Cuban art show. "There was the sense that the Bienal, which featured mostly installations by artists from more than 90 countries, wasn't what the Americans had come to see (and they certainly didn't come for the only one-person show devoted to an American, 'Jean-Michel Basquiat: Fiction or Reality'). ... The real action was not in the exhibition spaces, but rather in the studios, as air-conditioned buses and vans fanned out to ateliers across the city. ... In Havana, an American can pay for a $5,000 drawing with the wad of bills in his sock, roll it up, and carry it home. It's perfectly legal—art is exempt from the U.S. embargo."

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DRESSED FOR CUBA
Thirty years ago—and thanks to Fidel Castro and Che Guevara—it was fashionable to wear combat jackets and camouflage trousers. Now, in 2001, military chic has returned. Just the thing if you're thinking of traveling to Cuba. As Anne Kingston observes in a column for Canada's National Post: "Once upon a time only little boys played soldier, but now [girls] can, too, what with the proliferation of military-inspired chic out there. Golly, it gives 'dressed to kill' a brand new meaning. Louis Vuitton and Celine are presenting tailored khaki drill jackets. Hermès has plastered gold epaulettes on shirts. Dior is doing flak jackets. Tom Ford has paired a cunning $1,000 black bra with a khaki jacket and shirt with oversized cargo pockets. What's more brilliant than camouflage gear, ladies? It goes with ... gee, it goes with everything."

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REAGAN'S WRITING
It seems that the editors of Reagan In His Own Hand believe that readers of this new book, like its author, suffer from Alzheimer's. In their introduction, the editors say: "When Reagan wrote, he didn't scribble or scrawl, he wrote in a clear script. When he reached the bottom of the legal pad, he carefully flipped the page over, tucked it in on the back side of the pad, and proceeded onto the second page." "Wow," says Andrew Ferguson in an amusing appraisal of the book. "No wonder America loved him. The introduction continues over the next eight paragraphs with comments from other Reagan employees: 'He was constantly writing. … But all the time he was writing. … He'd turn on his reading lamp and would constantly be writing. … Reagan would sit in the backseat with his legal pad, writing. … All the way up, Reagan would be writing. … He would be writing in the backseat when we drove back. … He was always just writing. … When I woke up, he'd still be working, just writing away. …You know, everyone's got things to do. And his thing was writing. …' All right, already! He wrote, he wrote!"

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ANIMAL RIGHTS
In Feed, Jonathan Fasman writes about the use and effect of antibiotics on chickens. "Not surprisingly, such widespread use of antibiotics in livestock has promoted drug-resistant strains of once easily treatable bacteria found in meat and poultry. The Centers for Disease Control reported that resistant strains of bacteria that cause food poisoning have increased for the third consecutive year." It's this sort of industrial farming that has many people turning to the work of Peter Singer, the philosopher and animal-rights advocate. But turn carefully, Alasdair Palmer counsels. "Singer's 'new ethics' is simply an old, crude, and often-refuted form of utilitarianism. One of the biggest problems with utilitarianism is that it does not reflect the values we actually have. In rejecting everything except the alleviation of suffering as 'ethically irrelevant,' utilitarianism rejects most of the thingsâ€"such as family attachments, personal projects and goals, and aesthetic responsesâ€"which make life worth living. Singer thinks this just shows that we care about a lot of things that we shouldn't." To read Ian Hacking's review of Singer's Ethics Into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement, click here. For Charles Moore's defense of fox hunting, "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Charlie," click here. If you want to know why New York City's chief rat catcher enjoys his job, click here.

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A GRAD UNION?
Should graduate students form a union to protect their interests? According to Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell and Tom Juravich, of the University of Massachusetts, yes they should and no, such an endeavor will not have an adverse affect on the academy. Norah Vincent writes about the proposal in the Village Voice, " 'American higher education is in the process of a fundamental transformation,' [Bronfenbrenner and Juravich] wrote. 'Universities are becoming, to varying degrees, commercial institutions.' So, unions won't turn ivory towers into factories because they're factories already. That, in fact, is why they're ripe for unionization. Lamentably, this may be true. Universities have become businesses, and unions are probably more the symptom of this state of affairs than the cause."

SHAKEN TO A FRAGILE CORE
Half and Susanne Zantop were murdered on Saturday afternoon at their home near Hanover, New Hampshire. As the New York Post reports, the crime was discovered "when a dinner guest arrived to find the couple's front door ajar and their crumpled bodies in the first-floor study." The killer is unknown. Unlike all of Saturday's other murders, or unlike murders committed by a lone gunman who goes on a shooting spree at, say, a post office or a tech lab, the deaths of the Zantops have become national and even international news not just because the couple were respected and well-liked teachers at Dartmouth College but because it's assumed that universities, unlike post offices or tech labs, are insulated from everyday life and death. As with all such campus murder cases, the prevailing view at the outset is that the killing is associated with the place itself. The "solution" to the murdersâ€"both the identity of the murderer and his, her, or their motiveâ€"will therefore say something bad about Dartmouth itself. What's surprising about such cases is the extent to which people are prepared to believe the worst. Even a panicked James Wright, president of Dartmouth, feels compelled to abrogate his responsibility to inspire some sense of calm. He tells the New York Times: "An event such as this shatters for many that sense of confidence, of optimism, and of security." For reports in the campus newspaper, The Dartmouth, click here.

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TAINTED HISTORY
Ron Grossman of the Chicago Tribune investigates how a painting once owned by a Jewish family in Holland ended up hanging on a wall in the Art Institute of Chicago. Much of the evidence Grossman draws upon comes from the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the U.S. The painting in question is Edgar Degas' "Landscape with Smokestacks," which Grossman writes, "was sold by [the painter's] estate, passing into the hands of a German, then a French collector, before being bought by [Fritz] Gutmann in 1932. After the war, it was bought by a New York collector, who sold it to Daniel Searle, a pharmaceutical magnate and trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago, in 1987 for $850,000. In 1996, the Gutmanns' heirs sued Searle, claiming the Degas had been looted during the war and that he was the possessor of stolen goods that should be returned to them. The bitter and highly publicized courtroom struggle that followed turned "Landscape with Smokestacks" into a symbol of America's share of an issue left over from World War II."

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PRINTING ERROR?
Last year, Time magazine made Johann Gutenberg their Man of the Millennium. Thanks to Gutenberg's printing press, the Time writers gushed, "established hierarchies began to crumble. Books were the world's first mass-produced items. But most important of all, printing proved to be the greatest extension of human consciousness ever created. It isn't over: the 500-year-old information revolution continues on the Internet. And thanks to a German printer who wanted a more efficient way to do business, you can look that up." Indeed, you can. But you can also read an article in Saturday's New York Times that puts forward the view that Gutenberg's role in the invention of printing has been exaggerated. Dinitia Smith, author of the piece, writes: "A physicist and a scholar of rare books at Princeton University … say he may not have created the seminal process after all, a finding [that] could rewrite the history of printing. [Blaise Agüera y Arcas and Paul Needhamsay] contend that the metal mold method of printing attributed to Gutenberg was probably invented by someone else about 20 years after Gutenberg printed his Bible. The method, which involves punching a letter into a copper matrix that is filled with lead alloy to create hundreds of identical letters, was the principal way of printing until after World War II." Established opinion, as much as hierarchies, keep on crumbling.

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READING ROOM ON THE NILE
The new library Alexandriaâ€"Egypt, not Virginiaâ€"is almost finished. In the Guardian, Jonathan Glancey writes about the efforts of the Egyptians to build a memorial to the ancient library. "The new library was first announced in 1989 when the Oslo-based practice Snohetta won an open international competition for its design. It has been described by the Economist as a white elephant, and has been mocked for lacking booksâ€"and for a collections policy that seems at best random and at worst desperate. Some authors have already been excluded because of Islamic censorship laws. The shelves can hold up to 8 m[illion] books, although the library will open with just 400,000. Saddam Hussein gave generously to the library fund before invading Kuwait. … The building itselfâ€"a giant, angled cylinder set behind a great circular wall of inscribed Aswan granite and seeming to rise from the seaâ€"has been likened to a giant colander clashing with a crashed flying saucer. Yet the design is elegant, imposing and, as far as any architecture can be, quite timeless."

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ARE YOU WHAT YOU EAT?
Last week, Slate's David Plotz wrote an "Assessment" about Mad Cow Diease and its impact on Europe. One consequence of the beef crisis has been a consumer revaluation of what is deemed good and bad meat, as the Los Angeles Times reports. Organic chicken, beef, and pork are all the rageâ€""organic" referring not just to the manner in which the animals are reared but also to what they are fed. (Lidgate's, an upmarket butcher in London's fashionable Holland Park, now offers "homeopathic" beef.) Here in the United States, there are stringent regulations about what animals can and can't be fed, but as Tyson Foods' Web site suggests, regulations certainly don't outlaw turning swine and poultry into carnivores. "At River Valley," the Tyson company writes, "dead birds make up only a small part of the nearly 30 million pounds of chicken and hog residual products a week … that are recycled into feed-grade products for poultry feed, cattle feed, and pet food ingredients. … Tyson recycles what was once considered waste into useful products, while helping to preserve the environment at the same time." It's unclear from this account whether Tyson's cattle, poultry, and hogs are also cannibals.

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FORGET '68
One can easily believe that Germany is in the midst of a national debate about the events of 1968. Recently published photographs of German foreign minister Joschka Fischer battling police 32 years ago have led to much argumentâ€"not just about whether Fischer is fit for office, but about the actions of an entire generation of Germans who took to the streets in the late 1960s in protest over the Cold War. (For Neal Ascherson's column about Fischer, click here.) But well-known poet and journalist {{Hans Magnus Enzensberger#2:http://www.faz.com/IN/INtemplates/eFAZ/docmain.asp?rub={B1311FFE-FBFB-11D2-B228-00105A9CAF88}&doc={D5C73C19-F13A-11D4-B99E-009027BA226C}}} says that the hullabaloo is merely the work of an absurdly fidgety media. In an article published by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Enzensberger writes: "Facts that have been known for 30 years are treated as a sensation and turned into headlines. With the sole exception of the relatives of the victimsâ€"from Benno Ohnesorg who was shot by the police, to Siegfried Buback who was shot by terroristsâ€"it is obvious that no one is really interested in this story, least of all the people who triggered the jabbering in the first placeâ€"not even the millions who stylized themselves into 'members of the class of '68' after the fact, in the delusion that this would confer some sort of distinction. You need only mention that you are a veteran of that era to cause everyone younger than you to roll their eyes in utter apathy."

AYER'S POSITION
Writing in the New Republic, Simon Blackburn appraises the life and thought of A.J. Ayer and corrects a familiar conservative argument against Ayer's views on ethics. "It was the apparent downgrading of ethics that … stung … conservatives…. But in truth Ayer's position is not so very terrible: finding that ethics is a matter of which attitudes to hold does not make it either simple or unimportant. A person who believes this about ethics can still act ethically or unethically. And the positivists' approach to evaluative languageâ€"their view that finally it has no foundation in reality, that it must be used on other groundsâ€"is arguably the principal part of their edifice that still attracts significant philosophical support."

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ANOTHER BUSH
Few would disagree that Will Ferrell's impersonation of George W. Bush on "Saturday Night Live" is pure genius. To visit "SNL"'s site, click here. In an interview with the New York Times, Ferrell says: "I try to get as good as I can, and then I kind of almost throw it out, and then I go on just mannerism and what comes to me comedically in terms of attitude and play it that way. I don't sound that dead-on like him. It's a blending of trying to get his facial stuff down and just kind of like the beady eyes and his mouth kind of droops a little bit."

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WHEN THE WORST IS THE BEST
Malcolm Bull explains the thinking behind Slavoj Zizek's The Fragile Absoluteâ€"or, why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for? in the London Review of Books. "Psychoanalysis traditionally inclines toward suspicionâ€"what we take to be goods are actually the expression, or the repression, of their oppositeâ€"but Zizek takes it further: perhaps the worst is for the best. Zizek has long fuelled this argument by working the rich seam of black humor that developed under Communism, but in The Fragile Absolute he finds a new source in the New Testament. According to Zizek, hate is the new love. Jesus said: 'If anyone come to me and does not hate his father and his mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sistersâ€"yes, even his own lifeâ€"he cannot be my disciple.' Here, hatred does not imply an irrational antagonism, but a self-destructive act of renunciation."

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IN NEED OF CARTHARSIS
The anthropologist Clifford Geertz weighs in on the controversy that preceded and followed the publication of Patrick Tierney's book about the Yanomamö people of southern Venezuela, Darkness in El Dorado. (For an article about the book and the furor, click here. To read a controversial article in Slate by John Tooby about the book, click here.) In Geertz's view, the dissemination of ideas and information in the age of the Internet and 24-hour TV news is merely about "velocity and volume," and this development will have an adverse affect on traditional notions of scholarship. "We are entering, we are told, a weightless, frictionless, speed-of-light age in which we will all be but address nodes in an endless flow of information packets, scurrying message handlers continuously assaulted from all directions. So far as scholarly life is concerned, that is still more specter than reality. ... However, to judge from the on-line blizzard of charge and countercharge that has attended the mere rumor of Patrick Tierney's blistering indictment … it may not do so very much longer. Such established academic customs as looking into books before reviewing them, editing drafts before publishing them, and couching even polemic in consecutive argument may well be on the way out. … In cyberspace, it is velocity that matters." But what, exactly, is wrong about velocity and volume? Is it really speed that Geertz deplores, or is that debates which once took place exclusively in universities are now aired in public?

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THE BIT BETWEEN HER TEETH
Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth, did not win the Whitbread Prize; it was awarded to Matthew Kneale for a novel called English Passengers. In the New York Review of Books, John Lanchester explains the brilliance of Smith's book. In part, as Lanchester says, White Teeth is a response to a speech made by British politician on the subject of immigration in the 1980s. "He imagined Asian and Afro-Caribbean citizens of the United Kingdom watching a cricket match between their former homelands and their adopted country, and posed a question: 'Which side do they cheer for? It's an interesting test. Are you still looking back to where you came from or where you are?' " Lanchester writes: "As Northrop Frye once pointed out, 'To answer a question is to consolidate the mental level on which a question is asked.'White Teeth is not so much an attempt to answer "the cricket test" as to encompass it, to move beyond it, and to show why things are more complicated and more multivalent than it implies."