Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Not the Louvre

The Louvre has perhaps the finest collection of art in the world … and although that famous collection will never come to Minneapolis, a few pieces have made their way to the second floor gallery of the MIA. It’s a small show—only four rooms in all—and when we consider that the first room is entirely devoted to a bronze statue of a ferocious lion by Antoine-Louis Barye (who?) that leaves even less space for the rest of the exhibit.

The show’s theme—What makes a masterpiece?—necessitates the inclusion of a number of pieces that are fakes (though some of them look pretty good to me) and a few others that were once considered masterworks but have since fallen from favor. The quest for breadth—after all, this is the Louvre—may perhaps underlie the inclusion of unusual artifacts such as a simple urn from Egypt made of basalt, three Turkish bowls, a number of sketches by Pisanello, and a garish illustration of Paradise Lost that anticipates the computer-generated battle scenes of modern film epics. Considered all in all, it’s a terrible hodge-podge, and far too heavily weighted toward statuary and decorative arts. All the same, it makes for a stimulating ramble, and there are plenty of oddities to compensate for the relative dearth of genuine masterpieces.

Typical of the of pieces that were included merely to advance the “masterpiece” theme is Lorenzo Lotto’s painting of "Christ Carrying the Cross" (1526). This work was spotted by a collector gathering dust in the attic of a nunnery in Paris in the mid-twentieth century (if I remember the text correctly) and purchased for a very modest sum. Now it’s considered one of Lotto’s finest works, and valued in the millions.

Yes, but is it any good? I think not. The gestures are exaggerated, the colors are “stock” Mannerist reds and blues, and the tears on Jesus’s face are not that far removed from renderings of Elvis on velvet. The painting may not be a fake, but the nuns were right to relegate it to the attic. It’s utterly contrived and insincere. (Come on, people. Take another look.)

On the other hand, the show contains a few remarkable works that I could gaze at for hours. These include a drapery study by Leonardo circa 1479, Georges de La Tour’s famous "The Card-Sharp with Ace of Diamonds," and the show’s central attraction, Johannes Vermeer’s "The Astronomer" (1668). The extraordinary appeal of Vermeer’s work is obvious to nearly everyone nowadays—the perfect light, the perfect postures, the balance, the sheer thoughtfulness of both the composition and the subject matter. And the Institute has assembled a bunch of astronomical books, maps and globes in a room on the third floor to enhance our appreciation of the painting. This work alone is worth the price of admission.

The surprise of the show, for me, was a painting called “Portrait of a Woman Holding a Book” by Guillaume Voiriot, an artist I’d never heard of. The portrait is a straightforward society affair, with little of the depth or nuance we find in Vermeer’s study, but Voiriot has captured the character of the subject faithfully—her flesh, her beauty, her insecurity. There is nothing coy or vain about the woman, and as we look at the painting, we feel we are getting to know her.

Voiriot is one of those middling painters who have never made much of a splash in the history books. He became an associate member of the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1757 and two years later was elected to full membership, which gained him the right to participate in the biennial Salons. By 1785 he had achieved the rank of 'conseiller' in the Royal Academy. At any rate, that’s what the internet experts tell us.I could not find a digital image of the painting on line. If I had, I’d paste it here. I guess you’ll just have to go see it for yourself.

If you do, you'll also see a number of other curiosities, including some Sumerian seals the size of a candy bar and a statue of a woman dating to 640 B.C.E. that served for many years as a doorstop in the small town of Auxerre. Is it great art? Is it a masterpiece? Perhaps not. But it certainly is different.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park. Snow on the peaks, elk in the meadows. Rustic lodges along the fringe; hiking trails leading off in every direction. Who could ask for more?

There are disadvantages to visiting the park in late October, most notably that Trail Ridge Road, which leads up above the tree line and over to the far side of the park, might be closed (It was.) and that the cold and darkness arrive too early in the evening to make camping appealing. Also, the trails are packed with snow in some places, making it advisable to put “ice stabilizers” on your boots. (We didn’t have any.)

The great advantages are that the crowds have thinned, the elk are bugling, and the peaks are a brilliant white against the evergreens. If anything, it seems too easy to arrive at pristine and staggering vistas. (Not that I’m complaining.)

On our first day in the park we hiked to Mills Lake, a 5.5 mile round trip through the subalpine spruce and Engelmann fir, with mountain chickadees chattering from the forest at every turn. The trail passes Alberta Falls, then passes along the west side of a massive gorge before winding on through the woods to the lake, climbing nearly a thousand feet along the way. Mills Lake stands at 9,950 feet above sea level, and it’s surrounded on three sides by imposing snow-covered peaks that rise much higher, among them McHenry’s Peak (13,327’), The Arrowhead (12,387’), Chiefs Head Peak (13,579’) The Spearhead (12,575’) and a series of prominent spires near the summit of Longs Peak known as the Keyboard of the Winds.

We started off at 9 a.m. and had the trail mostly to ourselves, though a family with two very energetic Asian children chomped at our heals from time to time, and we allowed a group of middle-aged adults to pass us at one point. “I sold my house over the phone in one day, and two days later I had a new job,” one of the men was relating in a very loud voice. “I’m not complaining, I’m very grateful… but there wasn’t much drama or uncertainty to the transition.” Once having passed us, however, this group stopped almost immediately to rest, and we re-passed them and hurried on. (I was happy when they took the fork to Loche Lake and disappeared into the forest forever.)

There was snow on the trail in many places, though only a few of the sections were treacherous. The lake itself was half-covered with clear ice. The sun was bright and the air was fresh as we sat on the rock shelf eating a few slices of cheese. We spotted an ouzel (a gray bird that feeds underwater, also known as a dipper) wandering amid the driftwood at the lake’s outlet. He would occasionally hop down onto the ice, slip around a bit, and then return to better footing.

A chipmunk arrived almost immediately to share our lunch, and three men on a promontory fifty yards away struck up a long and elaborate discussion about where the “keyhole” route to the summit of Longs Peak went. I don’t think they were planning to make the ascent any time soon, but they did march off to Jewel Lake, which lies only a few hundred yards further up the trail. We were content merely to stare up at the icy mountain-tops, shush away the chipmunk from time to time, and listen to the breeze rustling through the forest nearby.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Serious Man

A Serious Man is the Coen brother’s semi-affectionate look at their Jewish childhood in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. It’s also a retelling of the book of Job—sort of. The film’s central character, Larry Gopnik , (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) is a mild-mannered physics professor whose greatest thrill in life is to fill a blackboard with formulas. He is also a man of conscience, however, at least to the extent of offering room and board to his near-do-well brother Arthur, a kindly bumpkin who spends most of the day in the bathroom draining a cyst in his neck. Larry’s son and daughter are moving through their noisy, reckless teenaged years, and the household is given a further twist when his wife Judith announces she wants a divorce. His moral angst is heightened further by a Korean student who surreptitiously offers him a bribe to receive a passing grade, a tenure committee that’s about to rule on his future at the university, and a red-necked neighbor who’s planning to build a shed on his side of the lot line.

A subplot details his son’s half-hearted efforts to prepare for his bar mitzvah when he’d rather be smoking dope, listening to Jefferson Airplane, or watching F-Troop.

A good portion of the film concerns itself with Larry’s attempts to find meaning in his discombobulated life by seeking the counsel of a succession of rabbis. It’s the stuff of cliché and caricature, but the Coens are past masters of assembling a succession of deftly framed scenes, ridiculously frozen expressions, perfectly timed sighs. It’s as if a veil of Buster Keatonesque drollery hangs over every shot, so that although the texture is stylized and rather thin, the effect is strong. In fact, the first half of the film is quite tense, as we watch the hero bear up graciously, if a little timidly, under a long succession of insults, affronts, and genuine misfortunes.

The minor characters are superbly portrayed. Adam Arkin (whom we all miss from his days as Adam on Northern Exposure) plays the comforting lawyer and Richard Kind plays the hapless brother to perfection, but Stuhlbarg seals the success of the film by hanging onto our sympathy from beginning to end—often by a thread.

The vision is bleak and the material is the stuff of farce, but the world the Coens have created is robust and engaging. And it’s a Jewish world through and through, with Yiddish and Hebrew expressions flying left and right, and no need to explain anything to the goys, who are merely goys. Is there spiritual sustenance to be drawn at any point from such tomfoolery? I think there is. Somehow, this seems like the texture of family life, of growing up ... of going off the deep end.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Wabi-Sabi at the Twin Cities Book Festival

It snowed that morning, the air was cold and clear, and the streets were largely empty when I arrived at the Twin Cities Book Festival, fifteen minutes early, not quite sure why I was supposed to be there, other than to look at books, enjoy the displays, and chat with colleagues in the industry. It turns out I was supposed to tend the Nodin Press booth until twelve or one. I took a quick trip over to the free coffee and scones section and then settled into my position behind the table, which Norton had expertly loaded with this year’s new books. North Star Press of St. Cloud was right behind me, the Minnesota Historical Society was down at the other end of the aisle.

Before settling in to my post I made a dash down to the Consortium table, three rows deeper into the middle of the room, to borrow a few books from an old friend, Bill Mockler, who recommended a slim volume about Wabi-Sabi. Consortium had been pleased when one of the authors it distributes, the Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek, won the Nobel prize in 2004, and I teased Bill with the remark, “I suppose you carry all the works of Herta Mueller, too.” ( Mueller was awarded the prize for 2009 just a few days ago.)

“Actually, we do have a few of her titles,” Bill replied with a chuckle. “We have a book of photos by a Romanian, and she wrote the accompanying text. I called the publisher the other day to inquire whether we could list her as the “author” of the book—sometimes the photographer wants it to be solely under his own name—and the publisher hadn’t yet heard that she’d won! It was kind of a thrill for me to be the one to inform him.”

I bumped into Alicia Conroy on the way back. Her book a short-stories, The Lives of Mapmakers, has drifted to the dim recesses of her publisher’s backlist, but she’s hard at work on a novel—when she can block out a chunk of time in the midst of her teaching chores at Normandale.

Back at the Nodin Press table, I proved myself fully worthy of the book on Wabi-Sabi—the Japanese aesthetic of the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete—by spilling coffee on the front cover within ten minutes of having borrowed it.

It was amusing to sit, reading or looking around, as people passed by. Many were strangers, some were aspiring writers with their parents, and a few of them, mistaking me for an expert, asked my advice.(“Listen to your muse… but also listen to your editor,” was the best I could do.) Several people came by with self-published books looking for a genuine publisher who could provide them with wider distribution. Pat Morris stopped by with a flyer announcing an upcoming presentation by “nationally known” book designer Kathi Dunn; a little later Heid Erdrich shared some of her plans to launch a non-profit publishing venture devoted to works in Ojibwe. Steve LeBeau pulled from his very wide pockets a hardcover book of black and white photos of Paris. His client is looking for national exposure—I recommended a local agent. Jill Breckenridge introduced me to her son and recommended a few current films, including a locally-filmed story (the name of which I’ve forgotten) about a priest.

Eric and Kelly Lorberer rushed past from time to time, ear to cell-phone, as various readings and events got underway. I would like to have heard Nicholson Baker and Adam Zagajewski, both of whom spoke that day, but I was chained to the table. By the time my relief arrived, I’d sold ten or twelve books and reaffirmed my belief that the publishing industry is filled with interesting people—though it’s a tough way to make money.

That’s the beauty of this kind of festival. It’s downtown, free, open to the public, and filled with publishers, authors, readers, book crafters, and fringe arts organizations whose dedication to the printed word make all the effort and expense of putting their thoughts and images out there worthwhile.

Back home—the snow had melted, but the air was still very fresh. I opened a book of Zagajewski’s poems and read:

That Force

The force that pulses
in the boughs of trees
and in the sap of plants also inhabits poems
but it’s calm there

The force that hovers
in a kiss and in desire
lies also in poems
though it is hushed

The force that glows
in Napoleon’s dreams
and tells him to conquer Russia and snow
is also in poems
but is very still.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Irony, Relativity, Nostalgia

There is nowhere better than the North Shore, with the sea gulls clamouring on the rocks just below the window, to sink one's teeth into that philosophic tomb that's been glaring down from the shelves for months, saying: if you're not going to read me, why did you bring me home?

On a recent trip to Lake Superior I brought along Richard Rorty's classic collection of essays, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity. In the introduction Rorty observes that there have been several “streams” or traditions in modern philosophy. One emphasizes the importance of self-creation: Nietzsche and Foucault are among its exemplars. A second school, which numbers Dewey and Habermas among its adherents, stresses our common human nature, and seeks to devise precepts that will allow us to strengthen human solidarity and pursue social justice.

Rorty wishes to establish the point, first of all, that these approaches to life—the private and the public, if you will—need not be opposed to one another. They are as little in need of synthesis, he writes, as are “paintbrushes and crowbars.”

In the course of sketching this outline, Rorty makes it clear that there is one approach to such problems with which he has little sympathy—the metaphysical approach. He describes that zone of thinking as one which takes as its point of reference “an order beyond time and change which both determines the point of human existence and establishes a hierarchy of responsibilities.” In a world without such eternal verities, he proposes “liberal irony” as a posture well-suited to balancing, if we cannot fully integrate, public and private values. He defines “liberals” as people who think that “cruelty is the worst thing we do,” and an ironist as someone who accepts the contingent nature of his or her core beliefs and desires. Once again, his distaste for eternal verities rings out loud and clear.

Rorty no doubt fleshes out each of these points in great detail in later chapters. But I find it admirable that he has provided us with an outline of his position, unencumbered by the peccadilloes and digressions that often obscure a thinker’s message. I look forward to examining such essays as “Private Irony and Liberal Hope” and “The Contingency of Selfhood, ” but in these first few pages I have already noted some serious problems, and I thought it would be worthwhile to spell them out.

The first problem is Rorty's suggestion that “self-creation” is an entirely private affair. In fact, the activity to which this expression refers might better be called “creation” pure and simple. We do not create ourselves, we create things—families, whirligigs, poems, essays, experiences and memories of every sort.

As Antonio Porchia once put it, The man who has made one thing and the man who has made a hundred things desire the same thing—to make something.

It might be argued that in the course of making things we make ourselves. Or “realize” ourselves. That may well be true, and it would serve as a subject for a fine essay, perhaps. At present I merely want to point out that “self-creation” is not merely a private or internal process—it takes place in the world, it changes the world—and it actually desires to change the world, or to let the world know who it is. That explains why Nietzsche and Proust and Nabokov and Foucault published books. Rorty argues that such folk tend to be social skeptics “who turn their back on the very idea of a community larger than a tiny circle of initiates.” Yet it doesn’t necessarily follow that such aesthetes are self-absorbed or actually cruel. Their criticisms of mobs, crowds, and the destructive power of propaganda and social coercion are often well-founded, and the fact that their private musings, in time, have gained widespread influence and popularity makes it clear that they were mining a vein of feeling far deeper and broader than that of the “self” narrowly conceived.

A second problem raised by Rorty’s remarks is that his definition of “liberal” is inadequate. To be a liberal, it is not enough merely to be against cruelty. It is not enough merely to value justice. It seems to me that a liberal endorses the idea that each one of us possesses a unique spirit, and ought to be given as free rein as possible in developing that spirit. The institutions of the state serve the purpose of putting those ideals into effect. Thus, they take us far beyond the notion of justice per se, which is always retributive and after the fact. The institutions of liberalism nourish growth though education, health care, public safety, and representation in the policy-making process. They do not demand that we all join the volunteer fire-department, but they rely on the fact that while some individuals pursue self-development through macramé or stamp-collecting, others do so through giving their time to the community—and this is often as true of paid employees of the state as it is of volunteers.

It also seems to me that Rorty’s use of the word “ironist” is out of place. There is absolutely nothing ironic about life itself. Irony is an aesthetic quality, a position of wry or melancholy or wistful detachment we sometimes assume with regard to our lives. Irony is categorically opposed to commitment. This is not entirely a bad thing, however, because where commitment starts, thinking stops. Liberals are susceptible to irony because liberalism requires them to support attitudes that may be potentially inimical to the liberal worldview—in the spirit of individuality and diversity and free thought.

These shortcomings may be attributed, I think, to the aversion that Rorty has developed to metaphysical speculation. The simple truth is that liberalism is rooted in eternal verities. I spelled them out just a minute ago. “…a liberal endorses the idea that each one of us possesses a unique spirit, and ought to be given as free rein as possible in developing that spirit.”

From this simple truth quite a few corollaries might be elaborated if we had the time. (We don't.) But with respect to Rorty’s views, perhaps one idea is central. There is no reason for us to suppose, as he does, that metaphysical inquiry is rooted in a point of reference “beyond time and change.” Is has been a long time since Hegel took up the task of rooting metaphysical inquiry within that domain of time and change we call history. Dialectical development, the concrete universal. These are metaphysical constructs that can have meaning only within time, and other thinkers, now largely forgotten, have refined them since his day. They do not determine the point of human existence, but they help us clarify it for ourselves. They do not establish a hierarchy of responsibilities, but they help us to construct one.

On the forth and final page of his admirably concise introduction, Rorty defines “human solidity” as the goal of his liberal utopia. Yet I’m not at all sure that solidarity is a liberal construct. To me solidarity smacks of clenched fists and toeing the line. For a good cause, perhaps, though the word doesn’t seem to require it. What solidarity requires is commitment to a single objective, obedience above all. Not very liberal.

Such are the dilemmas we face as we commence to read on the shorts of Lake Superior, with the waves rolling in from Wisconsin and the tansy sprouting sportively from between the rocks. Two hours to read and digest and analyze four pages of text! Maybe it’s time for a walk in the woods.