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Archive for the ‘Arts and Aesthetics’ Category

Hilton Kramer: cover photo for The Revenge of the Philistines

Hilton Kramer, the art critic and founding editor of The New Criterion who died at age 84 earlier this week, rather enjoyed his own reputation for being fearsome and formidable. Take a look at the back cover of his essay collection The Revenge of the Philistines (1985) where Kramer presents himself to the world as a very severe killjoy, almost like a caricature of the critic as hanging judge. “Would it kill him to crack a smile?” a friend asked when he saw that photo. (The photo is pasted above).

Yet as off-putting as he could seem from afar, Kramer enjoyed many close collaborators and admirers, who are already bearing witness to his virtues. Since others writers are making the case on behalf of Kramer,  I want to enter a few dissenting notes about his writing and public presence.

Back in his salad days in the early 1950s, Kramer’s big break came from publishing in Partisan Review and he saw himself as heir to that magazine’s stance of being both politically and aesthetically engaged. Unfortunately, his politics were absurd. He started off as a cold war liberal (with perhaps a few social democratic sympathies). In the early 1960s even served as art critic for The Nation, an alliance that both he and the magazine would later regard with bemused puzzlement.  In reaction to the turmoil of the late 1960s Kramer became a very fierce and unbending neo-conservative, of the sort that prefers ideological purity to any acknowledgement of reality.

In a 1987 essay on Sidney Hook, Kramer with his characteristic obtuse overconfidence argued that Mikhail Gorbachev was a far bigger threat to the free world than Joseph Stalin had ever been. “Under Stalin, both the military power of the Soviet Union and its vast espionage apparatus were seen to constitute a danger to every non-Communist society in the world – yet Gorbachev commands a far greater war machine than any Stalin ever had at his disposal, and if recent revelations are any guide, a no less effective espionage network,” Kramer asserted. “By every significant measure, the Soviet Union is a far more formidable adversary today than it was forty years ago, and one of the things that makes it more formidable is its unbroken record of conquest in the intervening years. It already enjoys an unchallenged hegemony in more parts of the world than it did forty years ago, and the momentum of its drive to seek further conquests shows no sign of abatement.” Equally in keeping with his impervious intellectual manner was the fact that when Kramer reprinted this essay in his 1999 collection The Twilight of the Intellectuals he carefully excised this passage, displaying an appropriately Soviet willingness to re-write history.

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Over at the National Post, I have a review of Modris Eksteins’ Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age, which makes a provocative but not wholly convincing case linking the Van Gogh cult with the failure of Weimar democrcacy. You can read the review here.

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Guy Davenport, 1964, as recorded by Jonathan Williams.

 

In his last letter to his sister Gloria Williamson, written shortly before he succumbed to cancer, Guy Davenport wrote, “”I hope you’re as happy as I am.”

In an essay on Gerard Manly Hopkins, Davenport quoted the poet’s last words: “I am so happy.” Another Davenport essay about Ludwig Wittgenstein gives the philosopher’s last words: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” Elsewhere Davenport quoted the ancient Egyptian adage “A man’s paradise is his own good nature.”

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Denis Dutton

The late Denis Dutton, who created the website Arts and Letters Daily and who died at the end of last year, was a someone who I had fairly complicated feelings towards. In the early years of ALD (especially from 2000 to 2004) he used to link to my articles fairly frequently, and this gave a huge boost to my career, giving me a much larger and more international audience. Still I had issues with Dutton’s worldview and also the impact of some of his intellectual activism. Below is an essay I wrote for the Globe and Mail earlier this year which tries to sort out Dutton’s legacy (I’ll have a follow-up post soon).

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Reading on the Life Raft

Over at the Walrus I have a think-piece about the meaning of the CBC Radio program Canada Reads, which I use as a jumping off point for a larger discussion of the difficulties facing Canadian literature. The article can be found here.
An excerpt:
As an inciter of excitement about our literature, Canada Reads is inarguably a phenomenon. The show’s triumph has come during a difficult decade in which both CBC and the Canadian publishing industry need all the success stories they can find. In a time of rising flood waters, Canada Reads has been a life raft for both public broadcasting and literature. Given how necessary Canada Reads has become to writers and publishers, it seems churlish to question the show. But the very power of Canada Reads, now a national public institution on many levels, demands that we give it greater scrutiny
 

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Art Young, "The Political Circus" from 1921

Art Young (1866-1943) was arguably the greatest radical cartoonist America has ever produced and also one of the very few political cartoonists whose work gives me continuous aesthetic pleasure. Via my friend Warren Bernard,  here is an Art Young cartoon from 1921 which seems surprisingly timely.

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Saul Bellow: Hugh Kenner foe

Saul Bellow’s selected letters have just been published and, at least according to a review by Jeff Simon, they reveal that the Nobel Prize winning novelist really hated the literary critic Hugh Kenner:

There are 708 letters here and none of them seem much like practice, whether nominating Roth for the Nobel Prize in 2000 or cheerfully enlisting Karl Shapiro in a mock club for “haters of Hugh Kenner.” With his old friend Isaac Rosenfeld, he says, “I used to join clubs of this sort” including a “Faerie Queene Club to which nobody could belong who had read The Faerie Queene. When I read the first canto, I was put on probation, and when I read more I was expelled. But no one could ever dislodge me from a Hugh Kenner Society.”

What was the source of Bellow’s animosity? I’d have to read the letters to find out, but I strongly suspect that at the root of it all was a very critical  review Kenner wrote of Delmore Schwartz’s Vaudeville for  a Princess. Writing in the October 1951 issue of Poetry, Kenner dismissed Schwartz’s book as silly and sappy. Bellow and Schwartz were great friends, and the novelist felt particularly protective of the poet because of Schwartz’s mental unstability. Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift (1971) is partially about his friendship with Schwartz.

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A few weeks ago, I wrote  a response to an essay Andre Alexis published in The Walrus about the state of criticism in Canada. Now Alexis has answered my criticism. You can find the parry and thrust of our debate here, but to save time I’ve also pasted our recent discussion  down below. This will be of especial interest to fans of CanLit and John Metcalf.

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An evening out in NYC

Any sans everything readers out and about in Manhattan tomorrow evening may wish to add some artistic spice to their peregrinations by dropping by the fashionable hat shop Selima at 7 Bond Street (betweenish and slightly southish of the Greenwich and East Villages) for DOYOULOVEME?, an installation (and “fashion night out”) by the fabulously original illustrator and artist Marguerita Bornstein.

"Hitler-in-the-box" (Marguerita Bornstein, 1999)

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What are Canada’s best 100 books? This is a question Stephen Patrick Clare and Trevor Adams are hoping to answer by polling Canadian readers. They plan to sift through the results and publish the list of those that receive the most votes as Canada’s 100 Greatest Books, a kind of sequel to their fun 2009 compilation, Atlantic Canada’s 100 Greatest Books. Readers are asked to email in their top ten favourites. “The criterion is simple,” Clare and Adams write on their Web site. “Only works of fiction and non-fiction written by Canadian authors and that involve Canada in some capacity will be accepted.”

I had some important work to do when I came across the best Canadian books project—so naturally I had to compile my own top ten list on the spot. There are different ways to define best, and in my case, I decided to focus on books I not only considered important, but enjoyed reading. That meant I did not include books like George Grant’s Lament for a Nation, an undeniably significant book on historical grounds, but one that has never really spoken to me on a personal level. Rather than rank my top ten I’ve listed them chronologically. Here are the first five, with the rest to follow. (more…)

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