December 2012


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The Barzun Compendium
With this issue we have greatly expanded our Jacques Barzun page, now called "A Jacques Barzun Compendium: Select Links to Online References." Browse through it to learn about this formidable public intellectual, who died in October at the age of 104, and whose work and example have long inspired us. (Readers are invited to let us know of any errors or significant omissions.)

EXHIBITION: Master Sculptor
Bernini: Sculpting in Clay, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, through January 6, 2013. This exhibition (which includes 39 terracotta maquettes and 30 drawings that served as sketches for major monumental works) illuminates the working methods and vibrant imagination of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680)--the greatest sculptor of the Baroque era, and one of the greatest of all time.

Dutch Arts "Experts" Hoodwinked by Musical Hoax
Hans Christian Andersen's sagacious fable of "The Emperor's New Clothes" is once again being called to mind, in art as well as reality, in the Netherlands. Thanks to a recent lawsuit there that we were informed of by Lennaart Allan (our "Dutch connection"--see Notes & Comments, December 2003), we have learned of a comic musical counterpart to the invisible cloth that the legendary emperor's wily tailors wove into a new suit for him. To hear the piece of non-music in question and how music "experts" responded to it, read Michelle Kamhi's "Bias and Inanity in Arts Funding: A Tale of Two Composers" in this issue. The incident gains a further ironic twist from the fact that Comitas is now completing an opera entitled The Emperor's New Clothes.

A Truly Remarkable Film
Based with considerable accuracy on an astonishing period in Danish history, A Royal Affair (in Danish, with English subtitles) portrays the dramatic events that ensued from the ill-matched union of Princess Caroline Matilda (sister of Britain's George III) and the mentally imbalanced King Christian VII of Denmark. As one critic has written, the film "deftly blends political intrigue, philosophical idealism [the period is the Enlightenment], and sexual passion. . . . It's a rare film that edifies and entertains in equal parts." For "entertains" we would substitute "engrosses," however. This is not superficial fare.

Finding Genius in Strange Places
What does The New Yorker's art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, think of Andy Warhol? Writing on the exhibition Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years , now at the Metropolitan Museum, Scheldahl declares that its subject was not only a "clairvoyant . . . artist" but a "great" one, too. Not at all troubled by "Warhol's reduction of art's once sacred aura to a cult of the obvious" or by the fact that he "unravelled any received sense of what artists are and do," Scheldahl concludes that he was, moreover, a "genius." ("Going Pop," The New Yorker, September 24, 2012, pp. 94, 95.) For Michelle Kamhi's very different view, see "The Apotheosis of Andy Warhol" in this issue.

Are You On Facebook?
Aristos is! Over the past six months we've posted rich and varied fare to feed the arts appetite of Facebook members. If you like what you read, see, and hear on our page (and in Aristos itself, of course), "Like" us there. And whenever the spirit moves you, "Like," "Comment" on, and "Share" posts with your friends. All such activity increases the number of people who learn of our posts through their news feed.

Things the Times Did Not See "Fit to Print"
Among the items mentioned in the New York Times obituary "Jacques Barzun Dies at 104; Cultural Critic Saw the Sun Setting on the West," by Edward Rothstein (October 25), was Michael Murray's Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind. Ironically (and regrettably), the paper had chosen not to review this authorized and insightful biography of Barzun when it was published a year ago.

Not surprisingly, the Barzun obituary--which appeared in the "Arts" section, rather than on the "Obituaries" page--stressed the avant-garde connections of Barzun's early life in France. On that point we submitted a Letter to the Editor--see next note.

Our Letter to the New York Times
To the Editor:

Though Jacques Barzun grew up in a home outside Paris that was "an avant-garde salon" (and in his own words "a seed-bed of modernism"), in later life he denied the legitimacy of both abstract painting and postmodernism. In 2000, having just read What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand, which we co-authored, he wrote us: "[A]s I see it, you and Rand and I all repudiate art that is not made but found, or simply assembled, or is a mere arrangement of lines and colors. When I look at a Rothko, I may admire the subtle gradation of colors and the shimmering, but I feel 'This isn't enough.'" Six years later he wrote to say: "I agree with you that much put forward as art these days is a product of either charlatanism or invincible ignorance." Regrettably, few if any critics today would concur.

Not surprisingly perhaps--given, among other things, the paper's failure to review the Barzun biography--neither our letter nor any others in response to his obituary (surely there were some) was published.

John Silber, R.I.P.
We were saddened to learn that John Silber--who boldly led Boston University for a tumultuous quarter century, from 1971 to 1996, and then served as its Chancellor until 2003--died on September 26. In 2009 we had had the pleasure of publishing an appreciative review by Louis Torres of Silber's Architecture of the Absurd: How "Genius" Disfigured a Practical Art and of presenting him with an Aristos award for the book--for which he graciously thanked us in a letter we published later that year.

We were therefore doubly saddened to see the book mischaracterized by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Robert D. McFadden in the New York Times obituary "John Silber Dies at 86; Led Boston University" (September 27). Ignoring its subtitle, McFadden refers to Architecture of the Absurd as "a scathing critique of that profession." As our review had emphasized, however, Silber had a keen appreciation for architecture as properly practiced--having learned about it from his architect father, whom he greatly admired. His beef was with the pretentious "starchitects" (such as Frank Gehry) who "disfigure" the profession. Contrary to the view of Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff ("Let the 'Starchitects' Work All the Angles," December 16, 2007), moreover, it was anything but "a glib little book."

Defending Abstract Art by Any Means
In a review of Richard Diebenkorn's abstract paintings earlier this year ("The Seductive Lure of Abstraction," Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2012), Terry Teachout has once more shown himself to be--like many another conservative critic--a die-hard defender of abstract art. Noting Diebenkorn's "lifelong 'battle' with abstraction," Teachout nonetheless seeks to establish analogies between abstraction in diverse art forms. In the last of these analogies, he cites George Balanchine's observation to Jerome Robbins: "We choreographers get our fingertips on that world everyone else is afraid of, where there are no words for things."

Teachout concludes with the claim that--like "a wordless glance across a near-empty stage"--"a splash of color in the right place on a canvas, can sometimes say more than . . . well, a thousand words." His analogy rings hollow, however. Even a "wordless glance across a near-empty stage" has a context that lends it meaning. To begin with, it is performed by a human being. As Balanchine himself once said, and is quoted by Teachout: "Dancer is not a color. Dancer is a person." In addition, a staged glance occurs in a space that has been suggested or defined, however minimally. Finally, in the art of dance the musical context powerfully suggests dramatic or emotional content. In contrast, a splash of color on a canvas lacks such indications of human context--without which it can say very little.

EXHIBITION: Paintings Always Worth Viewing
Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School, New York Historical Society, September 21, 2012 - February 21, 2013. If you can't attend in person, see the online Gallery.

Letters to the Editors
We invite you to comment on items published in this or past issues. Letters may be edited for length or clarity, but you will always be consulted prior to publication. Please include your city and state, as well as any relevant information such as academic affiliation or profession. If you are a student, please indicate your college, major, and year of graduation.

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Best Wishes for the New Year!