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Archive for February, 2010

Mickey Rooney: The Father of Hip Hop?

Off and on I’ve been reading National Review for three decades now, which comes as a surprise to friends since I don’t share any of the magazine’s politics. But National Review has published some fine writers, along with the usual assortment of conservative hacks.  First and foremost, the magazine published many reviews by Guy Davenport, one of the greatest essayists of the last century. And of course Hugh Kenner was one of the great literary critics and a master stylist. Below that Olympian level there were many excellent writers: D. Keith Mano, Richard Brookhiser, Garry Wills, Joan Didion, Arlene Croce, Theodore Strugeon, and Jeffrey Hart. Even Joseph Sobran was capable of a fine turn of phrase when he reined in his racism and paranoia about Jewish power.

Having said that, there were always issues on which the magazine could not be trusted. Off the top of my head, I could never believe anything the magazine wrote about black people, the civil rights movement (they once asserted that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a poor public speaker!), intelligence tests, Latin American dictatorships (especially Chile), South Africa (and really the whole continent of Africa), climate change, the Viet Nam war, the theory of evolution, anything to do with the Middle East or Islam, supply side economics, the Shakespeare authorship question (the magazine allowed Sobran to indulge his pet theory that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays). This is only a partial list but gives you an idea of the magazine’s blind spots.

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Detail from James Ensor's "The Tower of Lissewege" (1890)

Detail from James Ensor's "The Tower of Lissewege" (1890)

It is by now old news that blogging has forever changed the nature of how information is generated and consumed, but the full ramifications of this change continue to play themselves out all around us today — and will go on doing so for some time yet. The latest area to be transformed is the global war for public opinion over the issue of climate change. As my co-blogger Jeet Heer argues in a fascinating piece in this weekend’s Globe and Mail (“Climategate’s guerrilla warriors: pesky foes or careful watchdogs?“), climate change skeptics have found their greatest influence to lie not in peer reviewed journals or congressional hearings but in blogs written by passionate amateurs — sometimes highly intelligent ones — who are determined to subject even the smallest component of the international climate change assessment process to scrutiny and, once in a while, disproof.

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A fast heads-up that Alaska-based writer Charles Wohlforth has a new book coming out on June 8 called The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering our Ability to Rescue the Earth (you can read an excerpt here), which focuses on the relationship between the possibilities and limits of human nature, and the scale of the environmental crisis we now face. Wohlforth is a man worth following; his last book, The Whale and the Supercomputer, remains one of the best books I’ve ever read on the environment. I reviewed it for the San Francisco Chronicle back in 2004, using words that seem even more relevant amid today’s artificial tempest over the IPCC’s methodologies:

In [computer-based climate] models, the number of possible variables is near infinite, while our understanding of the natural processes underlying each variable is in its infancy at best. Meanwhile, the unrelenting logic of chaotic systems, which declares that one can’t possibly predict the future state of such a system without being impossibly accurate about its initial starting conditions, leaves science at a loss. […]

This uncertainty, of course, has spawned endless scientific and political debate about the existence and nature of climate change. But Wohlforth wisely points out that though we can’t create models that eliminate (or even reduce) the number of uncertainties, we can at least choose to “rank important certainties above trivial unknowns.” After all, we do understand the dynamics of the mechanism that causes global warming, and we do understand the importance of greenhouse gases as a determinant of our planet’s temperature, an importance second only to the sun. The global climate is like a massive machine with banks of labeled dials. We can’t know for sure what the machine will produce when all the dials are turned in different directions, but we do know that we’re deliberately cranking the second-biggest dial — the one labeled “atmospheric CO2 content” — far beyond any previous setting. And in doing so, we’re performing an irreversible experiment with the only planet we’ve got.

The Fate of Nature can of course be pre-ordered on Amazon. If I end up reviewing it for one of the tree-based papers, I’ll be sure to let you know.

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Concerned woman (Feb 13, 2010), by Ian Garrick Mason

I had a bit of a crisis a couple of weeks back. I’d been working diligently on this whole “learning to draw” project for five and a half months, and had steadily worked my way through ups and downs to a point where I could say that my skills had progressed from “really very bad” to “mediocre”. This was a significant source of personal pride for me, as I hadn’t been sure when I started that I would manage to reach any higher level of artistic competence at all. I was feeling pretty good, frankly.

Then I watched Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary on Valentino.

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There is something about the far north that photography finds deeply compatible — something, perhaps, in its minimalism, its starkness of contrasts between sea and ice, its naked ruggedness. Canadian photographer David Burdeny (I briefly wrote about him here) captures its spirit very effectively in majestic tones of grey and blue, but Kevin Cooley of Brooklyn, New York, has managed to uncover a surprising and beautiful vein of light and colour in the lands between ourselves and the pole. A “photo and video artist” who works with a range of major magazines and book publishers, Cooley’s fine art often focuses on lonely images of people or, more enigmatically, of arcs of light in the midst of forbiddingly indifferent landscapes (see his 2008 collection “light’s edge“). But I’m personally even more attracted to his 2006 “svalbard” series, which capture the unique and subtle interplay of colours seen in the first light of morning — after four months of darkness — in Norway’s Longyearbyen, the northernmost town in the world.

Kevin Cooley, "Longyearbyen Overview" (2006)

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There is a kind of long-term shock that comes with the realization that the landscape around one’s own home is being altered beyond recovery. Psychologically, after all, a landscape is a permanent thing — hills and forests and paths are unchanging things to a child, and even when one moves away in adulthood they are assumed to remain protected, inviolate. Increasingly, of course, this assumption is wrong: the relentless spread of housing developments, roads, and shopping centres means that many people in the industrialized world face a high probability of losing the landscapes they remember as children. To some extent the shock lies in the simple unexpectedness of the change.

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George Luks's Queen Liliokalani cartoon from Verdict, January 16, 1899

Blackface, as we’ve touched on before in this blog, was a pervasive part of American popular culture in the late 19th and early 20th century. I’d go so far as to argue that blackface was the dominant aesthetic prism through which whites saw African Americans (as well as black Africans and other members of the African diaspora).

But blackface didn’t just effect perceptions of African-Americans and Africans. I’d argue that blackface also inflected perceptions of other non-white peoples.

Comics, a representational art which allows for mental free-associations, offer a rich record of how blackface imagery was deployed on a wide variety of ethnic groups. A few examples will illustrate what I mean.

Consider the  1899 George Luks drawing of Hawaii’s Queen Liliokalani, posted above. As Luks biographer Robert Gambone notes, “Although Hawaiian, the queen’s appearance conforms to well-rehearsed cartoon stereotypes of African-Americans.” I’d add that the specific image Luks was conjuring up was the Mammy stereotype. (The image is from Gambone’s book Life on the Press: The Popular Art and Illustration of George Benjamin Luks).

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