The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

June 23 2001 12:00 AM

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

Whether you are in Sydney, Paris, Madrid, London, New York, Washington, Los Angeles, or Chicago, whether you watch CNN or listen to the BBC, you would have found it hard to miss the news that the blues singer and guitarist John Lee Hooker died on June 21. (Expect further obituaries and reminiscences over the weekend; Rolling Stone magazine has photographs and recordings.) Many of these stories linked above make use of the same quotations—for example, Hooker's famous observation of himself: " People say I'm a genius but I don't know about that." The New York Times' obituary, written by Jon Pareles, is currently the fullest appreciation of Hooker's life. " 'I don't play a lot of fancy guitar,' he once told an interviewer. 'The kind of guitar I want to play is mean, mean, mean licks.' … Through five decades of recording and countless collaborators, Mr. Hooker maintained the Delta style. 'I just got smarter and added things on to mine,' he once said, 'but I got the same bottom, the same beat that I've always had. I'd never change that, 'cause if I change that, I wouldn't be John Lee Hooker any more.' "

Evolutionary biologists recently made some interesting claims. A study conducted by John McCullough of Cambridge University and researchers at Indiana State University says that English kings of the late medieval period acted according to a rule laid out by the late Bill Hamilton. That's to say, although English monarchs were prepared to destroy some of their relatives to preserve their power, they also protected their genetic interests by ensuring that other relatives lived even if they posed a threat to their political interests. Think of Queen Mary who could have had the future Elizabeth I executed but did not. Elsewhere, two scientists claim that women who are raped are more likely to conceive a child than women who have consensual sex. As the New Scientist reports, the study "focused on 405 women who had suffered a single incidence of … rape at some point between the ages of 12 and 45. Of these, 6.4 per cent became pregnant. But that figure jumped to nearly eight per cent when the researchers allowed for the women who'd been using birth control. … To complete the comparison, the scientists needed to know how many women in that age group get pregnant from one-night stands and other one-off acts of consensual sex. The answer … was a mere 3.1 per cent." The evolutionary significance of the report is not entirely clear, but the findings should support the view that it is a woman's right to decide whether to bear a child or not, and that if she conceives a child against her will then she is entitled to an abortion.

David Garrow's students at Emory University's law school are lucky. They can listen to Professor Garrow's accounts of his conversations with so many well-known people: Stokely Carmichael, Bayard Rustin, Justice Harry Blackmun, Martin Luther King Jr., J. Edgar Hoover, and Earl Warren, and many others—as we now know after reading his contribution to the Joseph Ellis affair. Garrow writes: "No academic whom Mount Holyoke or any other college or university is  'proud' to have on its faculty ought to disagree [that Ellis should be fired], and any college president who fails to understand the importance of the intellectual integrity of the classroom ought to find a different job as quickly as Joe Ellis is barred from ever again teaching history." No one disputes that Joseph Ellis made a catastrophic error of judgment— not even Joseph Ellis—but it's both intemperate and unbecoming of a historian of Professor Garrow's stature to lynch a man without first allowing him to explain the facts of the matter. Moreover, history is not merely a question of who you know—or where you really were in the 1960s. Marjorie Williams' perceptive article about pathological lying and about Ellis appeared in the Washington Post. "It's not that hard to understand," she writes, "the shock of finding that the bare mystery of human character has tenure in your midst."


Of the art critic and curator David Sylvester, who died on Monday, John Russell writes: "In later years he was a regular visitor to New York, where he was prized as a critic, a friend, and a memorable conversationalist. A master of the purposeful pause, during which he sometimes seemed to have left the room, he was also able to proclaim his opinions in a long series of perfectly formed sentences." What was true of Sylvester's table talk was also true of his writing. In an essay about Tate Britain, Sylvester said: "And what is it that occupies the curators' minds? Their territorial rights, it seems. They fashion a mini-essay in indifferent prose and have it printed—with a by-line—on a piece of white card as big as the painting next to which they place it on the wall. It's their text that dominates the eye; the picture—say, a masterpiece by Stubbs—recedes." And of Jackson Pollack: "The aspect of life to which Pollock's art at its best most often returns us is human gesture. Where the paintings seem to allude to life, they can remind us somewhat of landscape, but what they evoke with real acuity and poignancy are gestures of the human body—not at all bodies gesturing, but disembodied gestures, the grin without the cat." Of Picasso: "Picasso is the issue, Picasso is the one to beat, Picasso is the fastest gun in the west, the one every budding gunfighter has to beat to the draw in order to prove himself. … The young critic cuts his teeth on Picasso. He proves his manhood by putting down Picasso, which is quite easy, because he is so flawed an artist, is such a colossal figure that he has several parts that are clay, probably including his feet, but not his balls."

Why did Professor Joseph Ellis, a respected and award-winning historian who teaches at Mount Holyoke College, choose to tell his students that he fought in Vietnam when the closest he actually got to the heart of any battle was the training ground at West Point? And even that much he did as an observer, not a participant. Historians make mistakes, and historical enquiry can often be more of an interim version than a definitive account. But to invent a military career—as well as to inflate one's role in the antiwar movement—well, that's a bit of a surprise. Or is it? It was folly for Ellis to claim he had been to Vietnam in fatigues and to embellish his life as peacenik so as to impress his more jaded students. Yet some part of every good historian's mind always wishes he had been there—whether it was at Valley Forge or the Normandy beaches or the Mekong delta. Moreover, certain academics pine for a place in the political melee, and as much as they want to be respected for their intellectual labors they nevertheless crave a more active role in shaping their nation's politics. Sure, Ellis did himself no good by peddling a fantasy to his students—and he has graciously apologized to everyone—but unlike say, Paul de Man, he was not covering up a past that included associations with Nazi newspapers. He suffered from delusions of grandeur on a considerable scale, though in academia as in politics, success and a desire to seem successful or cool to others can often go to people's head.

In 1986, 1,800 people died of asphyxiation after a vast bubble of carbon dioxide burst through the surface of Lake Nyos in Cameroon and settled over the surrounding area, with catastrophic results. Anyone who says CO2 isn't harmful should think again. No one, not even the most alarmist of environmentalists, suggests that carbon dioxide in the air or in, say, the Atlantic ocean, has reached the levels once found in Lake Nyos. (Thanks to a ingenious program partially funded by the U.S. government, the lake is no longer a threat to those who live on its attractive banks.) Equally, no one disputes that there's more carbon dioxide in the atmo than there was 200 years ago—even if some people, such as Richard S. Lindzen (one of the co-authors of a report on the environment commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences), dispute the consequences of these massive emissions. Bill McKibben offers his thoughts about CO2 in the New York Review of Books; in the London Review, Murray Sayle writes about the Kyoto protocols and argues that there cannot be a comprehensive treaty on the environment until it's clear who benefits from it. "We" is a familiar word in environmental literature, but as Sayle points out, "Who, in this connection, are 'we?' Rich nations, poor nations—or all of us?" He goes on to argue that the person we should turn to is Adam Smith: "The much misrepresented Adam Smith, far from defending a conscienceless capitalism, thought that given enough time, our behavior towards each other could gradually improve. … If global warming has any solution, it can only come from the sense of human solidarity and the individual self-respect that Smith hoped might temper the short-sighted greed of purely commercial society."


As we all know, Bill Clinton has spent the past six months giving speeches, making money, wowing crowds in Europe and Asia, and distracting American tennis players in Paris. Late last month, at the annual literary festival held at the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye—an event Clinton described as the "Woodstock of the mind"—the former president was paid roughly $145,000 to speak about conflict resolution. Last week, Clinton spoke at the annual Yorkshire International Business Convention. But as the Guardian reports, for British taxes purposes, was Clinton an entertainer or statesman? "As an overseas entertainer, Mr Clinton was liable to have 22 percent of his earnings deducted at source. As a politician, he would not have to pay anything up front to the [British] tax man." The accountant responsible for the event in Yorkshire, uncertain of the tax status of the distinguished guest, made some enquiries with Britain's Inland Revenue. As the Guardian continues: "On Friday morning, the day Mr. Clinton was flying in from Paris, a fax from the Inland Revenue's unit dropped from [the accountant's] machine. In the section marked Artiste's Name, it said Clinton, William Jefferson. Under Stage Name, if any, it declared: Bill Clinton. Signed SR Robinson, HM Inspector of Taxes, it also noted: 'Basic rate withholding tax not appropriate.' " It's as well, therefore, that the former president chose not to play his saxophone for the audiences in Wales or Yorkshire. One note from that musical instrument could change his status as statesman to entertainer.


LAUGHING MATTERS Swearing is not always amusing. A recent meeting of rap and hip-hop stars at New York's Hilton Hotel was considered offensive because of all the obscenities hurled about the place. A roast of comedian Richard Belzer, convened by the Friars Club of New York, was considered absolutely hilarious precisely because nothing but obscenities were hurled about the place. As the New York Observer's Frank DiGiacomo reports, the Belzer evening may not have been as amusing, or as obscene, as the roast for Rob Reiner last year, but it was nevertheless an opportunity for well-known comedians such as Bill Maher and Al Franken to polish their profanities. Of the honoree, Jeffrey Ross said: "'When I see Richard Belzer, at least I think of Homicide. When I see Al Franken, I think of suicide. … Actually, all kidding aside, Al Franken gave me a copy of his new book, and I'm grateful because now I have something to give my maid's husband for Kwanzaa." Belzer famously has only one testicle, and many of the evening's speakers would aim their wit at this part of his anatomy. Susie Essman of The Vagina Monologues fame, began her stint at the microphone by remarking on the comic ability of the MC for the night, Paul Shaffer of CBS's "Late Show." "I had no idea you were so funny. And such a sharp tongue! That must really hurt David's ass. … You know, I'm the only woman roasting tonight. And I feel like the belle of the ball, which I think is appropriate, because we're honoring the ball of the Belz."