The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

Jan. 13 2001 12:00 AM

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument


In Slate's "Today's Papers," Scott Shuger writes about the successful genetic alteration of a monkey by a team of scientists at the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center. For further reports, turn to the Times of India, Guardian, Telegraph, and Le Monde. Opponents of genetic modification of anything—crops or mammals—have seized on the announcement as further evidence that science is playing with fire. Scientists, too, have reacted cautiously to the news. In the New Scientist Dave Kerr of Birmingham University's Institute of Cancer Studies, says: "You'd think that in evolutionary terms, because monkeys are so many steps closer to man than mice, they'd be ideal. But mice are surprisingly good for testing new drugs, for example. Also, you can do things such as transplant human tumors into mice, which I couldn't really envisage doing in monkeys. Ethically nobody would like the idea of increasing primate research and the costs would be prohibitively expensive."


Monkeys have lives well beyond the laboratory, of course, as today's Australian reminds us. City officials in Delhi have hired a monkey named Raju (whose nickname is "Rambo") to rid the city's government building of his wild and marauding comrades. As Rahul Bedi writes, wild monkeys "were … terrorizing and even biting people, smashing windows, tearing up files and stealing lunch boxes. Shooting them was ruled out as Hindu religious sentiment associates monkeys with Hanuman, the mythical monkey god who helped Lord Rama defeat Ravana, the evil king. India is dotted with tens of thousands of Hanuman temples and every Tuesday is reserved for his worship. Anyone trying to catch monkeys is frequently beaten up or chased away."


The Naga sadhus, an ascetically-minded Hindu sect, have denied Madonna, Sharon Stone, Demi Moore, and various other famous people special privileges at the Hindu religious festival of repentance, Kumbh Mela, in Allahabad. As the Telegraph reports, the Nagu "began a protest against the 'unholy' presence of luxury tents reserved for Hollywood stars and other foreign celebrities on the banks of the Ganges, where millions of pilgrims are gathering for a sin-cleansing dip." On Wednesday, Luke Harding wrote about what has become the largest worship service in human history. "To cope with the millions expected to arrive daily in Allahabad, the authorities have constructed a giant tent city. It is on a truly epic scale-stretching across 50 square miles of sandy floodplain. Some 8,000 'turd-pickers' have been employed to maintain hygiene, 6,000 public lavatories have been erected, and 12 pontoon bridges built. There are 35 police stations, 12 hospitals, and half a million tents."

Ken Auletta has written so many books and magazine articles about the media and telecommunications that you'd think he might give us all a break and abbreviate his name to Ken AT&T. This week's New Yorker (not online) has an extract from AT&T's new book about Bill Gates and Microsoft. So, too, does the online Guardian. To read all about just how Machiavellian and arrogant and frightfully grouchy the CEO of Microsoft can be, click here, and here.


The latest "reality" TV show to irk columnists and editorial writers alike is Fox's Temptation Island, a program that would probably have been better filmed in a brothel. Four couples are marooned on island with only single men and women for company. In short—and if you still don't get it—the idea is to see who, if anyone, will be tempted to fall into the tropical undergrowth with someone other than their partner? In the New York Times' view, "The most ethically troubling aspect of 'Temptation Island' and its ilk is not the shows themselves. It is the evasions of television executives who try to make these shows sound like the latest installment in an ongoing discussion of modern commitment." In the San Francisco Chronicle, Sandy Grushow, chairman of the Fox Television Entertainment Group, defends Temptation Island. "This is not a show, as you will see, that is about sex. This is a show that is exploring the dynamics of serious relationships." "If this is reality, where are all the ugly people?" asks Julie Salamon. (On The McLaughlin Group, Julie, where else?) "The couples and the predators are in their 20's and they all look great, regardless of occupation. (A female physician has been a Playboy model.) The hardship, if there will be any, is all emotional. No rat-eating, no latrine-building, no contests of physical endurance (unless sex counts, and there wasn't any in the first episode, though there was much giggling about it). … It looks like an ad for a Marriott resort."


Eighteenth-century Australia was no Temptation Island; it was a vast British penal colony. Nor was the journey from London to Sydney particularly tempting. Sian Rees' interesting new book, The Floating Brothel, charts the history of the ship Lady Julian's 1790 voyage to Australia, a journey all the more remarkable because her cargo consisted entirely of female convicts. Reviewing the book in the Telegraph, Hilary Spurling explains: "[The women's] official function was to service the ship's officers and crew. This was each girl's duty and each man's right according to a plan drawn up by civil servants, and outlined in The Times down to the smallest practical detail: 'Government has ordered them baby-clothes for 60.' " Grotesque? Yes. But Spurling says: "In fact, after 11 months at sea, the girls reached Sydney cleaner, healthier, better fed and frequently facing brighter prospects than anything they could have hoped for in the slums they came from, let alone in their filthy, fetid, typhoid-ridden native gaols." To read extracts from Rees' book, click here.


Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns is fond of nostalgia. He's made multipart series on the Civil War and on baseball. Now comes a vast program on jazz. (To view PBS's page about Burns career, click here; for Columbia Records' Burns page, click here, though you'll need a Flash plug-in. The page also takes some time to load.) In the Village Voice, Larry Blumenfeld writes: "For some, Burns's attitude is supported by simple music-industry math: Some 60 years ago, jazz accounted for nearly 70 percent of the American market, whereas today it's more like 2 or 3 percent. The ironic flip side to the notion that jazz is 'America's indigenous music' is the fact that most Americans don't listen to it. All of which has made Burns downright evangelical. His documentary is meant as a curative of sorts. But it also points to curious truths about the relationship between jazz and contemporary American culture, between the music as it's heard today and its underlying, timeless ideals."

One way to waste an entire morning is to watch the traffic in Atlanta. If you dare, click here to view 66 simultaneous traffic cams positioned on the two main highways that pass through Georgia's capital. Such sites are proliferating. So, too, are the number of TV stations broadcasting programs about high-speed auto chases. According to Phil Patton, we're witnessing the birth of traffic porn. "I know this attraction to traffic is a little perverse. But there seem to be many traffic buffs. A few years ago the term 'weather porn' was applied to videos of tornadoes and other natural disasters. Today traffic porn is with us, born the afternoon O. J. Simpson took to the freeway in his Bronco and the nation watched for hours as helicopters fed raw footage to TV sets across the country. There are now TV shows devoted to high-speed police chases shot from helicopters. Think of it as traffic's extreme sport." To view Atlanta's Highway Emergency Response Operators Web site, click here.


Lusting after a little highway action is unlikely to meet Annabel Chong's definition of pornography. If you remember, she is the woman who had sex with 251 men in 10 hours. The event was made into a porn video as well as a documentary film Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, which Robin Askew of Spike magazine describes as "a fascinating and occasionally unsettling film, whose subject comes across as a complicated young woman, alternately assertive and thoughtful, damaged and deluded. The gang-bang itself is one of the least erotic things you'll ever see."


There's no stage actor quite like Steven Berkoff, as Charles Spencer says. "Without [his] insistence on high-definition energy, and his hijacking of mime from poncy, posturing Frenchmen, I doubt whether Theatre de Complicité and a host of other imaginative companies would have flowered so productively over the past 20 years. … But there is a downside to Berkoff—the monstrous ego, the self-indulgence, the childish obscenity, and the gaping hole where his heart ought to be."


Anthony Quinn gave Peter Carey's new novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, high marks in the New York Times Book Review. (Click here to go the Times' special feature on the Australian novelist.) In an interview with Robert McCrum, Carey tells how he came to write about Kelly, the legendary Australian outlaw (who was portrayed in a 1970 movie by Mick Jagger). "I've lived in New York for 10 years now and somewhere in the middle of that period the Metropolitan Museum exhibited Sydney Nolan's paintings of Ned Kelly. I'd seen then several times and had always liked them, but in the cab uptown to the exhibition I felt a sudden rush of nervousness. Would I still like these paintings in New York? What I discovered, in a city where art often seems to be about theory or fashion, were paintings which were beyond fashion, imbued with an apparent awkwardness, artlessness illuminated by enormous grace. I began to take my Manhattan friends to see the show and as I circled the rooms with my victims, telling the story, it struck me what a strange, powerful thing this was." To view a Peter Carey Web site, click here.

Sixty-thousand years before Ned Kelly, Mungo Man strode across southeastern Australia. As the Telegraph explains: "The 60,000-year-old skeleton was discovered in 1974 in Lake Mungo, New South Wales. It was one of 10 indigenous Australians, all ancient yet anatomically modern, to have their DNA analyzed by a team led by Professor Alan Thorne of Australian National University, Canberra." Mungo is considered so ancient that his remains have challenged the theory that human life began in Africa. Yesterday, Thorne published his analysis of the DNA drawn from the mitochondria extracted from Mungo's cells. (Mitochondria, which are found in every human cell, provide most of the body's energy. To visit to the Mitochondria Research Society Web site, click here.) The Telegraph continues, "Earlier studies suggested that our most recent common ancestor lived 200,000 years ago, and traced the root of the gene tree to Africa. But the mitochondrial DNA from Mungo Man does not exist in modern mitochondria. This suggests that the most ancient lineage of the anatomically modern human tree so far found emerged in Australia, then became extinct."


UP WITH CAPITALISM Michael Novak enthusiastically welcomes Hernando de Soto's new book, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else in the Weekly Standard. De Soto, a Peruvian economist and politician, became a darling to conservatives in the United States and Europe after the appearance of The Other Path in the 1980s, a book that argued that the consequences of socialism in Latin America and the Third World generally had been disastrous. Novak is particularly impressed with "de Soto's rejection of culture as an explanation for economic backwardness." As de Soto writes: "I humbly suggest that before any Brahmin who lives in a bell jar tries to convince us that succeeding at capitalism requires certain cultural traits, we should first try to see what happens when developing and former communist countries establish property rights systems that can create capital for everyone." In the New Criterion, Anthony Daniels explains why certain Latin American intellectuals came to loathe capitalism.


Pierre Bourdieu believes that a person's success or failure in life is determined by early adulthood, as Emily Eakin explains in the New York Times. On entering university, a young man or woman already has a "habitus," defined by Eakin as "a set of deeply ingrained experiences that in important ways limit one's performance. … At a social level, habitus describes the way people internalize class distinctions and how that makes movement up the ladder difficult. 'Habitus is not fatal,' said Mr. Bourdieu. 'But unfortunately it can move only within very limited parameters. It's like a little computer program that guides one's choices.' … Admission to France's elite 'grandes ecoles' (the equivalent of Ivy League schools), for example, is determined purely on the basis of performance on a national exam. But when Mr. Bourdieu analyzed several classes of admitted students, he found that the overwhelming majority were children of the upper classes. They were both more likely to take the exam in the first place and to use the kind of cultivated language and analytic reasoning apt to be judged favorably by examiners."


BOOK THEFT In the Guardian, John Sutherland recalls the good old days at Blackwell's, one of the best-known university bookshops in Britain: "Once upon a time, Blackwells accepted that needy Oxford students would plunder their shelves. The shop politely requested that, later in life, they should make a 'conscience' payment for their shoplifting."


WEB FUTURES In the Richmond Review, Jason Gurley writes: "A strange and often frightening place, this weird, wonderful thing known as the Internet—or so it's seemed for years. Now, with the advent of all-too-common home connectivity and the common man's lust for information, the Internet is becoming the equivalent of an office bulletin board swamped with bits of paper and advertisements. Everyone's got something up there; everyone's looking for something else. Businesses pack your mailbox with unwanted advertising; con artists invite you to get swindled; friends and family—and strangers, for that matter—have turned it into a second-hand shop of bad jokes and faked photographs." Caleb Carr is more jaundiced. "It is my belief, for which I offer no apology, that most of [information] technology is making people dumber: It is teaching them how to assemble massive amounts of information, of arcane minutia, without simultaneously teaching them how to assemble those bits of information into integrated bodies of knowledge—such integration being the only function that distinguishes the human brain from a mechanical computer."


"Why exactly are the Beatles cool again," asks Sarah Lyall, "so cool that they've outsold the other big sellers of the moment here [in London], in a famously fickle industry where even last week's band can be considered embarrassingly passé?" In the New York Review of Books Geoffrey O'Brien recalls the impact that the Liverpudlian band had on post-Kennedy-assassination America. "It was all moving too fast even for the so-called professionals. The Beatles were such a fresh product that those looking for ways to exploit it—from Ed Sullivan to the aging news photographers and press agents who seemed holdovers from the Walter Winchell era—stood revealed as anachronisms as they flanked a group who moved and thought too fast for them." To read Slate's "Book Club" on the Beatles, click here.


Yesterday, the owners of George, Hachette Filipacchi, a subsidiary of a vast European munitions and media company named Groupe Lagadère, announced they would cease publication of the political monthly founded by John F. Kennedy Jr. Sad news for many, including myself, as I worked at George for a number of years. The announcement was broken by—click here to read their report. For a Howard Kurtz article on the subject, click here; for Alex Kuczyniski's, click here.


Alan Brinkley, the Columbia history professor, writes about the second volume of David Levering Lewis's biography of W.E.B. Du Bois in the New Republic. In Brinkley's opinion, "Had Du Bois done nothing besides publish his remarkable works of history, sociology, and moral commentary, he would still be a titanic figure in our national memory; but he did a great deal more than that. Many of his greatest published works were, in fact, a product of his temporary frustrations with, and departures from, the world that almost always most attracted him: the world of politics and organization and action."


WEB ART The film director Tim Burton is also the author of The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories. Keen to see some of the characters from the book appear on the Web and in animated form, he turned to Flinch Studio for help. According to Animation World Magazine, "it was a natural fit. Burton came to the studio with watercolor designs of his characters, and [Will] Amato remembers: 'He was really concerned with it not looking like your standard Web cartoon. He emphatically did not want that. He really liked the idea of it being, as Tim put it, 'No big deal.' Meaning—a few artists could do it, on a few computers; … there would be no budgetary committees, no big overhead producer. It would be almost like we were staying up all night making a funny comic book together. He liked that do-it-yourself scale.' " To view the result, called "Stainboy," click here (you'll need a Flash Plug-In).


UNHAPPY READING As Lynn Barber points out, rarely has a book been so cruelly mistitled as Gerald Clarke's biography of Judy Garland, Get Happy. Nor is reading Clarke's book much of a mood lifter. As Barber writes: "[Garland] married her fifth and last husband, Mickey Deans, in London in 1969; a columnist described their empty wedding reception at Quaglino's as 'the saddest and most pathetic party I have ever attended.' A few months later she was dead of barbiturate poisoning, aged 47. Her story is tragic but exhausting …"