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Category Archives: culture

“…That there could be art without beauty is preposterous. The artists who imagine that they can accept or reject beauty have obviously never known the power that beauty wields.” -Jed Perl, The Beauty Trap

Beauty is a touchy subject these days. Make something beautiful, and its integrity is questioned. It is only when art shuns beauty and traditional aesthetics that it is hailed as worthy. Let me back off for a moment and admit that, perhaps, I am being too critical. Artists have some appreciation of craft. But it isn’t embraced; it is an option. Craft, for an artist, should not be optional. It should be a necessity. I applaud concepts and am interested in ideas, but I am more interested in beauty. My favorite artists are the ones who move me emotionally, and on a level that is not able to be picked apart and deciphered, at least not completely. There is always something within their pieces that I cannot describe or completely understand. And I get the sense that the artist was wrestling with something within herself, she was making art to discover something about herself, not to communicate something explicit and one-dimensional.

Looking at the variety of other art forms that exist, it appears that visual art is the only form where bad equals good. Within writing, authors are judged by their ability to manipulate words and juggle sentences, where no matter how modern the writing appears, basic craft and beauty is a priority. Nobody wants to read writing that isn’t beautiful, even if it is only beautiful in an ugly way. Music is the same. Talent is defined by a musician’s ability to handle an instrument, to piece together chords and generate something new, exciting, and pleasing.

I am not railing against the usage of ideas and the illustration of concepts. I am simply asking that artists consider utilizing their artistic talent and creating something that is visually stunning to draw in the viewer. Then, by all means, caress the intellect and whisper ideas and philosophies, but do it gently. Prettily. Pleasingly. The result is much more layered and lasting than an artist’s statement could ever convey.

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Generally speaking, the concepts of ‘literature’ and ‘current events’ aren’t very likely to collide. There are exceptions: Harry Potter selling a bajillion copies, Dan Brown getting sued for hack-jobbing someone else’s hack-job, Salman Rushdie pissing off Muslims. But there’s also a new genre of literary news that has proliferated over the last few years, and it’s my least favorite yet.

I came across its most recent iteration in today’s New York Times. The headline reads, New Stage for a Private Family Drama, and the piece is about the revered playwright Arthur Miller’s treatment of his son, Daniel, who was born with Down syndrome. It is a reaction to a recent article in Vanity Fair detailing, and to an extent criticizing, Miller’s having essentially ignored Daniel’s existence after sending him off to a mental institutional. The possible implication that Miller’s work, and his status as a literary titan, should be reevaluated in light of this element of his personal life is teased by the author, and more directly stated by quoted sources.

This is just another outcry in the James Frey vein of literary newsworthiness. Though I do cringe to place Miller’s name so close to that dubious memoirist’s, and there is the added difference that some of the anger over Frey’s case from the fact that the book was marketed as memoir, not fiction. But it’s the same in both cases, really. Readers of a writer’s work feel offended, scandalized, betrayed when it turns out that the author is in some way not what they were supposed to be. It happened with J.T. Leroy, and Günter Grass too. James Frey was publicly scolded by Oprah, a fate I can’t even begin to imagine lameness of. That’s got to be one of those things that makes a guy want to sob and laugh hysterically at the same time.

But the question is, why should anyone care about the life behind the works? Is this just a product of a culture that’s seen too many reruns of VH1’s Behind the Music? Or that wants to make a celebrity out of anybody that does anything noteworthy, and then hold them to some weirdly assumed common moral code? Why the outrage?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I have no idea. To me, a writer or artist’s prime directive is to make art. Preferably, to make good art, but even that’s not essential. Hence the designation, ‘artist’. It’s what they do, and if they’re good at it, I applaud. I experience their work and I learn to see the world in a more nuanced way; I am made better by their toil. I can’t picture a circumstance under which I would feel this experience diminished if it turned out the writer or artist was a dick.

In fact, thinking back on it now, many of the people who I most respect for their work were probably reprehensible in one way or another in their personal lives. Picasso was a douche, Heidegger a Nazi, Wittgenstein a major a-hole, and Faulkner a faithless and prolific philanderer. And even if I got backstage at a Bob Dylan concert, and found him cuisinarting baby otters, I’d still think John Wesley Harding was a damn fine album.

Somewhere, William James has a quote that what we call ‘genius’ is really just an intensity of focus (he used the metaphor of a light focused to a burning point) on something that excludes everything else as irrelevant. This seems pretty right on to me. I found it amply illustrated when I once tried to read a biography of Borges, getting a couple hundred pages in before I realized I was reading a book about the life of a man who pretty much read during every waking moment in which he wasn’t writing. Not exactly material for a John Le Carré novel, I tell you.

Anyway, in the other direction, what makes Arthur Miller a genius, what makes him great, is his writing, is his sheer mastery of his language and human conditions. His greatness does not care about his ability to dance a jig, and it doesn’t care about his child-rearing sensibilities either. In fact, it seems impossible that there wouldn’t be some fairly glaring deficiencies in a life that was given almost wholly to crafting the written word.

This is not to excuse him, or to deny whatever ill effects his attitude might have had on his son (though, by the given accounts, he’s lived a very happy life without his father’s presence). But it is to say, to anyone who thinks that said attitude should be reflected in treatment of Miller’s work, get over yourself. Go stress out over Shakespeare-authorship conspiracy theories, or something.

Anyhow, let me apologize for this half-baked consideration and get back to the issue raised above: I’m still left wondering what makes people so morally outraged when a work’s author doesn’t live up to their expectations. Any ideas?

The Laurence Rassel Show, cover image

The Hurdle

    The first major hurdle one encounters when preparing to write about The Laurence Rassel Show is as follows: How does the author of any reasonable critique appropriately review the work in question while properly maneuvering around the fact that one of the main themes within the work being critiqued is the fetishization of the entire concept of authorship to begin with?

Let me take a step back…

    The Laurence Rassel Show is the newest audio release from Public Record, an internet-based record label founded by the activist art organization, Ultra-red. Specifically, The Laurence Rassel Show is a collaboration between cyberfeminist Laurence Rassel and musician/trans-activist Terre Thaemlitz, both, arguably, well-known and un-known masters of their respective fields.

Let me take another step back…

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