Friday, June 21, 2013

Mad Men Season Six

Mad Men: Sixth Season


In advance of its sixth season, beginning Sunday, I’ve recently gorged myself on the fifth season of Mad Men.

At times I was enchanted. There were episodes that seemed dreamlike and subtly, quietly nightmarish, like David Lynch, but more subdued, or as remarked of Obama in his first debate with Romney, Ambienesque. Only invoking dream work could explain the subtle weirdness, the peculiar, off kilter interactions.

Book Review: "The Eichmann Trial", by Deborah Lipstadt

Short Fuse Book Review: "The Eichmann Trial"

Monster & Nonentity

Murderer & Paper Pusher

Author Deborah Lipstadt’s decision to confront a Holocaust denier in court prepared her, as little else might have, to appreciate and convey the vastly greater complexity and historical import of the Eichmann trial.

The Eichmann Trial, by Deborah Lipstadt, Schocken Books, 272 pages, $24.95. by Harvey Blume

Deborah Lipstadt’s new book is three things joined forcefully together. It is, as the title states, a reprise, a half a century after the event, of the trial, conducted in Jerusalem under global spotlights, of Adolf Eichmann, which resulted, in 1963, in his being convicted of and executed for “crimes against the Jewish people [and] crimes against humanity.” Lipstadt’s book is also a welcome, finely balanced critique of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, which has not ceased to arouse controversy or exert influence since publication in 1963. Susan Neiman, for example, calls it (in her Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternate History of Philosophy), “the twentieth-century’s most important philosophical contribution to the problem of evil.” Not least of all, Lipstadt’s book is a warning against Holocaust denial, which, in all its mutations, she maintains, serves to rearm the anti-Semitism that resulted in the genocide itself.

Apocalyptic Orgasm: Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, Peter Kramer, Mao.


Apocalyptic Orgasm: Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, Peter Kramer, Mao.

One of the responses to my review of Russell Jacoby's “Bloodlust,” asked why, given my feeling that Freudianism, at this point, is more a worn out dogma than a plausible source of fresh insight, I "bothered to read an essay/book based on Freudian thinking? Where could it go?"

Fair question. My answer is that over the course of his career Russell Jacoby has proved to be a challenging, independent thinker, worth reckoning with. And it was only in the course of reckoning with "Bloodlust" that it became clear how much in thrall to Freud Jacoby was or had become — how much, for him, Freud was the man who, properly queried and deciphered, could still yield up oracular responses to basic questions, such as the origin of human violence. I don't buy that for second, and don't think Jacoby makes much of a case for it in his book.

Henry Kissinger, "On China"

Book Review: “On China” by Henry Kissinger


 “On China” boasts photos of Henry Kissinger’s numerous visits to China. In many you see him smiling hugely, brandishing chopsticks alongside the likes of Zhou Enlai. He’s enjoying making history — and the food.

The bombardier beetle, aka the stink bug.

It struck me as ironic that Christopher Hitchens and Henry Kissinger were featured in the same (5/15/11) issue of the NYT Book Review. Hitchens was on the front page, reviewing Adam Hochschild’s "To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918". There was nothing particularly enlightening about the Hitchens piece: au contraire, it was just Hitchens being hissy. There is something of the stink bug about Hitchens in this, his practiced default mode.

Let me explain about the stink bug, aka the bombardier beetle. As Natalie Angier put it, that formidable insect comes equipped with “multistage weaponry”. This is because it “sequesters internal reservoirs of hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone, and will mix the ingredients together with the proper enzymes as needed in a reaction chamber, to generate a boiling blast of defensive spray that can be aimed at an attacker through a swiveling nozzle in its anus.”

Kasparov: Jailed for Pussy Riot

Short Fuse: Russian Dissident Garry Kasparov — Going to Jail for Pussy Riot

Unlike the rock star supporters of Pussy Riot, Garry Kasparov lives in Moscow, which means, given how the Putin regime has dealt with critics, he has a lot more to fear than, say, Madonna, who nevertheless should be applauded for speaking out at her Moscow concert.

Russian Chessmaster Garry Kasparov — sees Pussy Riot as Putin’s first true political prisoners.

Garry Kasparov’s arrest in Moscow on August 18 for protesting the sentencing of the three members of Pussy Riot to two years in jail was hardly the first time he has been jailed and beaten for tangling with authorities. His opposition to autocracy goes back to his days as a budding chess champion, when the chess scene was stage managed by Soviet bosses who felt preeminence in the game was essential to the prestige of Communist rule. Nor is Kasparov the only luminary to oppose the farcical trial—The New Times described the court as “complete with barking dogs [and] a judge who feigned deafness”—and harsh sentencing of Pussy Riot. He was joined in this by Madonna, Paul McCartney, and Sting, to name a few. But unlike these rock stars, Kasparov lives in Moscow, which means, given how the Putin regime has dealt with critics, he has a lot more to fear than, say, Madonna, who nevertheless should be applauded for speaking out at her Moscow concert.

Film Review: Martin Scorcese's "Hugo"


"Hugo" by Martin Scorcese

Martin Scorcese's new film Hugo, set in post-World War I Paris, with flashbacks to the birth of French cinema some decades before, is a tale of rebirth and reawaking —  not least of all Scorcese's.

The first reawaking in Hugo is that of the central character, Hugo Cabret, an orphaned, mechanically gifted waif who is forever dodging a policeman and his snarling Doberman at the Paris train station where he survives on snatched bits of bread and purloined bottles of milk. No one, certainly not the cop who sets his pocket watch by it, suspects that Hugo, who beds down among the giant wheels in the station's clock tower, is the wizard who keeps that time piece going. Doing so is child's play for Hugo: his challenge is to reactivate an automaton that is  the one thing left to him by his father. If he can only devise and insert the right spring or  sprocket, then turn the right key, this machine, which had been created with pen in hand, will perhaps write out who he is.

Damien Hirst


By ArtsFuse on Apr 23, 2009 in Featured, Short Fuse, World Books

By Harvey Blume

Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi scheme have become symbols of fraud, greed and dull-witted naiveté, of lax oversight, slobbering credulity, and rank criminality — the whole slew of failings and circumstances that have beggared Wall St. and deflated the global economy. Damien Hirst is less known.

He’s no billionaire swindler, merely a millionaire artist. However, it may be the time has come to talk about art a la Hirst in the same way we discuss finance a la Madoff.

Book Review: Marx’s General


Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels by Tristram Hunt. Henry Holt & Company, Metropolitan Books, 448 pages, $32.

Among the most memorable words Karl Marx ever wrote — up there with “A specter is haunting Europe” and “Workers of the world unite” — are these, on the advantages of the world that communist revolution would bring about: “Communist society,” he predicted, would enable “me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic.”

Film Review: "Man of Steel"


Man of Steel

Will they ever run out of pixels?

Must every other movie these days feature a prolonged sequence that involves New York, or a stand-in city, being demolished, shredded, torn up, its sidewalks ferociously uprooted, its tall buildings molested and concussed, while citizens scream, run and evince other signs of terror but mostly seem — much like we, the viewers, their semblables and freres — stuck and frozen in digital deja vu?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Review: Jaron Lanier's "One-half a Manifesto"

American Prospect


Contra Totalism
By Harvey Blume

We associate manifestos with big ideas, combative theses itching to change the world. While the roar of the manifesto has pretty much faded from the culture at large, it can still be heard loud and clear in the digital world. Digital culture continues to foster grand ambitions; it nurtures not only the ongoing quest for the killer app but also the search for the one idea that will make sense of most everything.

Jaron Lanier's recent "One-half a Manifesto" has this heaven-storming quality. The 9,000 word document (available at flexes the usual manifesto muscles, but with one difference: It is dedicated not to proclaiming a new theory but to deflating one that is already fully formed and primed, in Lanier's view, to wreak havoc on the world. Lanier names that theory cybernetic totalism. It is cybernetic because the computer is at its core; and in a sense, the computer, more than any written document, is its manifesto. It is totalistic because it aspires to an intellectual synthesis loath to let much of anything escape its explanatory grasp.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Film Review: Killing Them Softly


 “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” was simply too good a movie, perfect, in its way, and the director of “Killing Them Softly” wants to avoid comparison.

By Harvey Blume

Midway through Cogan's Trade (1974), the George Higgins novel from which the film Killing Them Softly is too loosely adapted, Jack Cogan, one afternoon, drinks off a "stein of dark in Jake Wirth's". Not too many guys know Cogan, nor, given his area of expertise, would wish to, but Mitch is up from New York at Cogan's invite to talk business. Some drinks, mostly Mitch's, later, Cogan discourses about what his wife, Carol, has said to her mother about the fact that she, Carol, unlike her sisters who have many, will not be having kids: "Ma, Aunt Carol'll have to be the limit, is all. You can't always do the things you'd like to do."

Mitch chimes in: "You can't never do the things you'd like to do. Never. Every time you do, you get inna shit."

Film Review: Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Directed by Werner Herzog.


It was with some foreboding that I went to see Verner Herzog’s latest film, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams". Would he ruin what was likely to be superb cinematography of this most ancient known example of cave art — circa 32,000 years old, which is to say, nearly twice as old as the storied paintings at Lascaux — by concluding with a soliloquy about what a misbegotten species we have turned out to be? That is how he ended — and in my view, all but spoiled — his "Encounters at the End of the World" (2007), an otherwise captivating documentary about Antarctica, its fauna, its geology and its committed coterie of scientists.

Art Review: The Grob, Richard Prince at the Guggenheim

Short Fuse: The Grob

Richard Prince at the Guggenheim

There's a chess opening called the Grob, fully as distasteful as the name might suggest. When white plays the Grob he's showing disrespect, not only to his opponent but to the game. The Grob does nothing to advance white's position on the board. That, in fact, is its strength, the one and only thing the Grob has going for it. The move, short on brains, is long on insult -- a taunt, meant to mock and confuse an opponent.

Film Review: Paul Goodman Changed My Life


Paul Goodman Changed My Life. A documentary directed by Jonathan Lee. Co-presented by the Boston Jewish Film Festival at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, January 4–8.

Unlike some reviewers of this fine documentary (Roger Ebert, for one) and quite a few participants in it (including Living Theatre co-founder Judith Malina, and Susan Sontag, who calls Goodman a role model), I can't say that Paul Goodman changed my life. I grew up absurd without the consolations or counsel reading him might have afforded. Goodman mattered to me indirectly, by affecting people who affected me, notably a high school teacher who went down south in the sixties to join with the civil rights movement. For him, Goodman, who agitated for a radically decentralized school system, was inspiring in a number of ways.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Brooklyn Mosque


Brooklyn Mosque

When I first starting going back to Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn, where I grew up, I couldn't fail to notice that in the playground on Bedford Ave., between Avenue X and Avenue Y, people were playing cricket, along with, as per my adolescence, softball.

Extraordinary as it was to see cricket in those precincts, nobody objected. Softball — touch football, handball, stickball and basketball — all got along quite nicely with cricket. Cricket didn't bother the old men playing dominos under the trees on the other side of the chain link fence from the ball field. It did not disturb the parents of increasingly varied ethnicities — Russian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Burmese, Pakistani and plain old Sheepshead Bay Italian/Jewish — who brought their kids to the swings and slides in the adjacent tot playground.

Review & Interview: Michael Goldfarb, "Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance"


Michael Goldfarb, "Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance", Simon and Schuster, 408 pages, $30.00.

Michael Goldfarb is an American-born, London-based contributor to NPR (as well as to THE BBC and The Guardian), who was inspired to endure "the agony of writing" his engaging book for seemingly disjointed reasons. One was Talmudic. The Talmud, he tells us, enjoins Jews to perform 613 mitzvoth or commandments. Goldfarb, though far from an observant Jew, nevertheless adduced and felt called upon to fulfill yet a 614th mitzvah, one that enjoined him, along with other "Jews born after the Holocaust . . . to reclaim and retell one part of the history of our people."

Book Review: Niall Ferguson, “The Ascent of Money"


Niall Ferguson, “The Ascent of Money,” Penguin Press, 2008

It's way past time to utter the dread G word about the economy, the G word being "Godzilla." The economy as we now experience it, is like the monster in the 1998 American remake: it rises from unfathomable depths before marching through Manhattan kneecapping skyscrapers with casual flicks of its tail. That movie was criticized for making Godzilla too big for the screen. It's true that rarely could the extent of the creature be squeezed into a frame. But that's just what makes American Godzilla such a good image of current crisis, the extent of which continues to defy efforts to frame and contain it.


(written before the 2004 world series, when  the curse on the red sox — the curse of the babe — was the one incontestable proof of the supernatural.)

there is no god
there is no devil
no hell no heaven
     there is the curse

there's no lucifer
nor jehovah
ain't no allah
     just the curse

there's no dracula
no nosferatu
no chthullu
     there is a curse

no mars no venus
no indra brahma
no ramakrishna
     ah yes the curse

delete old wodin
ignore poseidon
bugger buddha
     trust the curse

think not of gandalf
forget skywalker
get over buffy
     bet on the curse

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Book Review: "Suddenly, a Knock on the Door" by Etgar Keret


Suddenly, a Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret. Translated from the Hebrew by Nathan Englander, Miriam Shlesinger, and Sondra Silverston. FSG Originals, 208 pages, $14.

Etgar Keret writes short, sometimes tiny, stories in colloquial, loose-jointed and according to some, vulgar Hebrew. One tale in his new collection —The Story, Victorious II — lasts for but a single sentence, though it serves as a sort of footnote to the lengthier tale that precedes it, The Story, Victorious, which stretches out to two pages. That story in turn, is one of the few in which Keret considers his own place in literature, by reference to places he does not happen to occupy. The Story, Victorious, he tells us, is not like Chekhov or Kafka, for example, because, for one thing, it starts by guaranteeing a happy ending. If you read it correctly you get a Mazda Lantis. Read it wrongly, you get a cheaper car.

Book Review: Hanoi's War

Hanoi's War

Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam by Lien-Hang T. Nguyen. The University of North Carolina Press, 464 pages, $34.95.

Whatever you think you know about the war in Vietnam will be challenged, revised and deepened by this remarkable book. If you are of my generation, for which the war in Vietnam, whether you were for or against it, was a coming of age crucible, Hanoi's War is a must-read.

Film Review: "The Hunger Games"


*What struck me about “The Hunger Games” is that the rules change in Katniss Everdeen’s battle to survive against others like her, including others she likes, might even love. Katniss is the pomo girl. *

By Harvey Blume

I used to amuse myself, when the ideas of postmodernism were new, at least to me, by thinking, between one thing and another—opening the refrigerator, rummaging in the cupboard—about basketball gone pomo. It had to do with rapid, lurching, close to chaotic rule changes. Rules were unstable, volatile, targets for recall and revision. Rule change ruled.

Review & Interview: Joshua Rubenstein, "Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary Life"


Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary Life by Joshua Rubenstein, Yale University Press, 240 pages, $25.

Who was Leon Trotsky?

Today, this is hardly the burning question it was when Joseph Stalin had Trotsky — born Lev Bronstein — imprisoned, exiled, and finally, after one crudely botched attempt, murdered in Mexico City in 1940. Nor can it excite the imagination as it did Isaac Deutscher's when he penned his monumental three part biography cum hagiography — The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1879-1921, The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky, 1921-1929, The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky, 1929-1940 — some fifty years ago.

Today, Trotsky’s name comes up most often in accounts of debates in New York's City College cafeteria in the 1930s, among those, such as Irving Kristol, for whom Trotskyism was a way station out of Marxist dialectic toward neoconservative dogma. Trotsky does still occupy a humble place in popular culture, as evidenced by the sweet, smart Canadian film The Trotsky (2009), in which a Montreal high school student who happens to be named Leon Bronstein believes himself to be a reincarnation of the Bolshevik firebrand, and sets out in search of his soul mate, his very own Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. But for the most part, as Marxism goes so goes its Trotskyite variant, and for most of us Marxism, in all its tortured variants, is increasingly archaic.

Review: "Mad Men", E11, "Favors"


"Mad Men", Episode E11, "Favors".

The Sixties — The Beat Goes On …

It’s ’68.

There is, there really is, a war going on, which neither Madison Ave. nor unlimited alcohol consumption of the most expensive kind can deny.

This war, this atrocious war, punctures and perforates other proceedings.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Steve Jobs: The Digital Acid Trip


Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Simon and Schuster, 656 pages, $35.

Given the attention Walter Isaacson's biography has deservedly received from media — reviews, excerpts, Isaacson appearing on talk shows — you are likely familiar with many of Steve Jobs's quirks, oddities, and peccadilloes. You may know Jobs drove around without license plates and routinely parked in handicapped spaces, that he went on strict fruit and vegetable diets, that he studied Zen, and that, as a youth, he cultivated an intense persona one friend from those days described as "oscillating between charismatic and creepy."

Book Review: "Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels" by Tristram Hunt

Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels by Tristram Hunt. Henry Holt & Company, Metropolitan Books, 448 pages, $32.

Among the most memorable words Karl Marx ever wrote — up there with “A specter is haunting Europe” and “Workers of the world unite” — are these, on the advantages of the world that communist revolution would bring about: “Communist society,” he predicted, would enable “me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic.”

Film Review: Django Unchained, History Dumbed Down

Originally appeared in the

When I left *Django Unchained*, in something approaching fury, I wrote (roughly) this:

Bad movie.
The plantation South, in which cotton was king, becomes a boxing arena.
Leonard Dicaprio, major Mississippi plantation owner, is in effect, Don King. (The guy with the big hair, onceTyson’s manager.)
His fortune rests, so far as you can tell, on “Mandingo fighting” — slave v. slave matches, which spring out of Tarantino's imagination and his addiction to all manner of genre movies.
Spike Lee is right not to have seen it.
It does insult and defame his past.
Not only his, all pasts.

Review: “By Nightfall” by Michael Cunningham

Originally appeared in the

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pages, $25.

To my mind, Michael Cunningham’s novel, “By Nightfall,” has one significant flaw, namely that the New York City he cares and writes so passionately about ends at the borders of Manhattan. He describes Battery Park, for example, where Manhattan abuts New York harbor, as, “the city’s only point of contact with something bigger and more potent than itself.” Has he never heard of or visited Coney Island, that somewhat storied strand along the Atlantic Ocean? Of course, that point of contact between the city and something bigger involves going to Brooklyn, which, like the other boroughs, is, for Cunningham and his characters, only vaguely and remotely New York City. Cunningham’s not even sure those places are certifiably American.

Review: Counterplay: An Anthropologist at the Chessboard by Robert R. Desjarlais

Originally appeared in the

Counterplay: An Anthropologist at the Chessboard by Robert R. Desjarlais. California University Press, 266 pages, $24.95

"Counterplay" is two kinds of books trying to merge into one and failing to do so. It is a sort of chimera in that sense, and if not as grotesque as examples from Greek mythology — e.g. a lioness with a snake's head — the mismatch can still be jarring.

The book is in part — its best part — a chess travelogue. Desjarlais writes that he returned to the game "seriously in the summer of 2002, after a twenty-year break from competitive chess." While growing up in western Massachusetts, he "felt at home at the board, less so anywhere else." When he learned of Bobby Fischer saying: "All I want to do, ever, is play chess," he shared the sentiment fully, both in his teens, and again, when he returned to chess.

Review & Interview: Andrei Codrescu "The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess", Princeton University Press, 2009.

Originally appeared in the

The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess by Andrei Codrescu, Princeton University Press, 248 pages, $16.95.

In 1916, as Europe waged an horrific war that, nearly a century later, makes even less sense, if possible, than it did at the time, refugees, renegades, draft dodgers, opportunists, revolutionaries and artists massed in neutral Switzerland. Two of them, Tristan Tzara, the father of Dada, and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the father of Bolshevism, who arrived in Zurich from opposite poles of the cultural cosmos, collided at the Cafe de La Terrasse in what became legendary games of chess.

Tzara, Codrescu writes, "played for chaos, libido, the creative, and the absurd." Lenin strove "for reason, order [and the] 'new man.'" Tzara with his "ostentatious monocle" would much "rather be the object of violent ridicule than the cause of a yawn." Lenin, on track to be a "mass-murdering ideologue," was, on top of that, insistently boring -- not "just in retrospect [but] boring at the time." Lenin famously demanded that what he deemed the imperialist war raging in Europe be turned into a class war. Tzara, no less furiously, and as Codrescu sees it, no less influentially over the long haul, renounced the very idea of a grand political program by acting as if the only alternative to global carnage was robust, riotous, revelatory carnival.

Review: The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

Originally appeared in the

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. Directed Göran Olsson.

When a friend of mine joined the Occupy Boston protest in Dewey Sq. recently, he introduced himself to a young woman camped out there by saying, you know, I went to lots of protests in the '60s. She replied — with fine anti-boomer scorn — yeah, and what good did you do?

It's true his protests — and mine— did not usher in a world free from the need for further protest —we're as far from utopia now as then — but I would say to her in his defense — and mine — that we did, over quite  a strenuous ten year period, help stop a war, a major war, one that involved tens of thousands of Americans dying and an order of magnitude more Vietnamese, and, excuse me — hey, nice bandana you got there, cool tent —  but what exactly have you accomplished to date in Dewey Sq.?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Review and interview: Karen Armstrong

Originally appeared on the

Short fuse: Karen Armstrong

Ex-Catholic nun Karen Armstrong has, in her long productive second career as scholar, written 21 books, including "A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam," and engaging, balanced biographies of Buddha and Muhammed. I interviewed** her re the Buddha bio when it came out in 2001 and enjoyed talking to her, but what she's saying now vis a vis her new book, "The Bible: A Biography" just isn't so.

In a Guardian piece about her (,,2184460,00.html), Armstrong tries to stake out a position between the fundamentalism she decries in the world's major faiths, and those who decry it most publicly right now, atheists cum secularists like English evolutionist Richard Dawkins and all-purpose English blabbermouth Christopher Hitchens. (If Americans who criticize religion do less stridently it's quite possibly because they live in America, where it's scarier to do so. And besides, they are stuck with the worrisome business of figuring out why so many of their compatriots believe in god and go to church.)

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Arthur Danto Interview: 9/11 - Heroic Sublime

10/6/2005 (WBUR web site)

Arthur Danto: 9/11: Heroic Sublime

"Recall that after Schubert's death, his brother cut some of Schubert's scores into small pieces, and gave each piece, consisting of a few bars, to his favorite pupils. And this act, as a sign of piety, is just as understandable as the different one of keeping the scores untouched, accessible to no one. And if Schubert's brother had burned the scores, that too would be understandable as an act of piety." Ludwig Wittgenstein, as quoted by Arthur Danto in his curator's statement for "The Art of 9/11."

On September 12, I visited Arthur Danto in his apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side to talk about "The Art of 9/11," the exhibit he had curated at the Apex Gallery.

HB: Where were you on September 11, 2001?

AD: Here.

Oddly, Barbara [his wife, the artist Barbara Westman] and I were getting ready to go up to Wellesley to have a conversation with an artist about a show called "Obituary," based on obits in The NY Times.

As we were getting ready, I looked, as I always do, on Yahoo. It said two planes crash into World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack. I ran to [cable outlet] Channel 1, and was locked into television for the rest of the day.

I got one call from a guy writing for The NY Times. He asked: What's the art world going to do about this?

Art Review: "The Art of 9/11", curated by Arthur Danto

Originally appeared in the WBUR Web Site

 "The Art of 9/11,"
curated by Arthur Danto
Apex Art
291 Church Street

This past September 11, New Yorkers marked the fourth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center by reading aloud, at Ground Zero, the names of those killed. Compared to this straightforward approach, art critic Arthur Danto's way of marking the occasion might seem eccentric. The art exhibit he curated at Apex Art could impress a casual viewer as making only marginal reference to 9/11. This was no accident; it was precisely the "obliqueness" of artistic responses to the attack that he wanted to highlight.

Arthur Danto Interview (Art New England)

Originally appeared in Art New England 10/05

Arthur Danto: The Original Endowment

“Contemporary” has come to designate something more than simply the art of the present moment. In my view, moreover, it designates less a period than what happens after there are no more periods in some master narrative of art, and less a style of making art than a style of using styles.  
After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History

HB: In After the End of Art, you write, apropos Duchamp and his followers, that “I must count myself among them.” In what way?

AD: It seems to me that when advanced artists were trying to reopen the question of what painting was, Duchamp realized that there was a deeper point, which was to reopen the question of what art was. In that sense, at least, I am a Duchampian.

Q&A Arthur Danto: Porn, Light, & Mapplethorpe

 Originally appeared in The Boston Book Review

Q&A Arthur Danto: Porn, Light, & Mapplethorpe

 . . . one was in the presence of a set of images that drove one away and drew one to them in some kind of oscillation of will. One wanted to escape and one wanted a further contemplation.
Arthur Danto, Playing with the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe

HB: The crucial moment for you as an art critic, was it not, was the display of Any Warhol’s Brillo Soapbox. If that was art, why? If other, seemingly identical objects, real Brillo Soapboxes, were not art, why weren’t they? Art opened up as a philosophical question for you.

AD: That’s true. The exhibit was in ‘64, at the Stable Gallery, and I was stunned by it. I really did feel for the first time that there was something philosophically interesting in art. I had never known how to think about art philosophically before.

I was interested in what it meant that there were those kinds of objects, objects like Warhol’s Soapbox. I’m still interested, I write all the time about it. But I had no intention of being an art critic in ‘64. My interests remained straight philosophical. I never wrote again about art until I began to write The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. I thought I was writing a five volume system of analytical philosophy, and that was to be volume four.

But I had changed in a lot of ways. The first three volumes were Analytical Philosophy of Knowledge, Analytical Philosophy of Action, and then, Analytical Philosophy of History. But I didn’t want to call this new book the Analytical Philosophy of Art. It wasn’t analytical philosophy of art. It was written in a very different way from any of my other books. I think it had a postmodern feeling. But even then I had no idea I was going to be an art critic. I still thought about myself as a 19th century philosopher engaged in writing a very large system of philosophy.

HB: One of the things we think about in terms of contemporary art, the blurring of genre, is by this point a cliche.

AD: It is a cliche by now, that’s right.

HB: But nevertheless, applicable.

AD: Absolutely applicable.

HB: I think it applies to your work as well. I mean, you’re the analytic philosopher who admires Nietzsche and quotes Heidegger, an analytic philosopher who absolutely cannot resist Hegel.

AD: Hegel knew that he was dealing with the structure of thought, the logic of the structure of thought, and that’s very different from the structure of the physical world.

HB: Your view of Robert Mapplethorpe in “Playing with the Edge” hinges on Hegel.

AD: On Hegel’s notion of the aufheben.

HB: Maybe, with roots in analytical philosophy, you can see Hegel afresh.

AD: My interest in Hegel comes through his philosophy of history, as well, but primarily through his “Philosophy of Art”, which was a stupendous book. It’s a ball of fire.

HB: You allude to it all the time.

AD: It’s the book I always turn to when I’m stuck. And it was basically never taken up by anybody.

The history of nineteenth-century aesthetics is very barren. It’s because Kant was the dominating figure, and is still is in analytical philosophy, and it’s because analytical philosophers have never been comfortable with the problem of history. They never have the sense that history becomes part of the identity of cultural objects or beings, cultural beings like ourselves.

Hegel does have that sense. I don’t think anybody before Hegel did, and after Hegel something happened to thought — it got swamped by the return to Kant, by politics, by Marx, who really had a very mechanical view of history.

HB: So we have a book about Mapplethorpe that is also in a sense a revival of Hegel.

AD: I thought that this funny idea Hegel has of aufheben was one way of thinking about pornography. Hegel has the wonderful idea in aufheben of something that is preserved, negated, and transcended all at once. I thought that fit Mapplethorpe to a tee, at least those great photographs people talked about without communicating to each other, as if they were seeing different objects.

Mapplethorpe’s photographs preserved what he was looking at. They negated it in some way because they were so beautiful you could just see the formal structure. The experts I challenge in the book could have been sincere — “Penis? what penis? I just see a figure composition.” So you have the people in the Congress who only see the penis, and the experts who only see the form. They’re both there and they’re both transcended in some way, and that’s what makes it art. You need all three dimensions of the aufheben in order to account for the structure of the controversy.

You’re not going to get to the people in the Congress who were against his work by giving them lessons in art appreciation, telling them to think only in terms of composition.

HB: Because you’re telling them to deny common sense, which makes them want to fund the arts even less.

AD: The art people, the formalists, that is how they’ve learned to talk about art. But I was thinking about Baroque paintings — I have a great love for paintings like Roman Charity — and Baroque painting were meant to transform the viewer in some way. And that fit Mapplethorpe naturally.

I got immersed in Baroque art. It’s not something that many people think about. I lived in Rome for a while, and was reading the work of Rudolf Wittkower, who’s my great hero, and a great art historian, and that put me in a position to think about work like Mapplethorpe’s in a very different way.

There was a show bracketing Mapplethorpe with Weston — but I don’t think Weston ever rose to Mapplethorpe’s level. Weston sees highly erotic forms in peppers but he never transcends into the domain of deep human meanings you get in Baroque paintings or in Rembrandt and Caraveggio and you get in Mapplethorpe.

HB: “Playing with the Edge” plays with many edges, those between art and life, free expression and artistic quality, participation and voyeurism.

AD: I think a lot’s happened since the book came out, and that discouraged me a little bit. I was reading over the galleys at the time of the Whitney Biennial, and suddenly thought, this is all old hat now. I was struck, at the Biennial, by the tremendous amount of what they call gender sexuality. Maybe fifteen artists were in one way or another involved in cross-dressing or allusions to S & M. And I became aware of all the energies and urgencies of queer politics, I hadn’t known about, hadn’t dealt with.

HB: The edge you are most concerned with is the edge between pornography and art. Some writers about pornography say that the reason it was segregated off from the main body of literature — in France, for example, it was quarantined in the section of the Biblioteque National known as the enfer — is that it had immediate purchase on the reader, a visceral, direct hold that violates what was taken to be the contemplative distance of art.

AD: You’d take it up and masturbate. It was supposed to arouse you that way. But it wasn’t art, and that is the edge — how can we keep both?

That’s where the notion of transcendence comes in. It takes it up into a realm of meanings close to those you get with great religious paintings.

HB: How do you justify comparing Mapplethorpe’s work to religious art?

AD: I would think first of all of how he does it, for example, in the triptych “Jim and Tom, Sausalito,” the way the shadows and the setting work, and the way in which the two figures are engaged. You feel one figure conferring something on the other, as if in answer to a tremendous wish. I thought about the theme of Roman charity so popular in 17th century paintings: a man is in a Roman prison, and his daughter comes in and feeds him her with his breast.

It could be prurient; it could be obscene, this bearded guy suckling a young and luscious woman, and yet it’s very clear that more than that is going on in these works. It is Roman charity; it is an act of love. The paintings are set in the prison cell of a suffering guy, bound and shackled. She comes in and it’s a visitation. These paintings make much of the notion that Andre Serrano tries to make so much of — the sacramental character of bodily fluids.

He had a genius, Mapplethorpe did, for light, and not just the artificial light of the studio. In her biography of Mapplethorpe, Patricia Morrisroe describes Patti Smith getting him a commission to do her first record jacket, and he has this idea of what it’s going to be like. There’s a patch of light on Sam Wagstaff’s terrace, and he wants to photograph her in that patch of light. So they meet, he and Patti Smith, and they go drinking. Suddenly he realizes, my god, we’ve got to hurry; the light will go. They rush to Wagstaff’s and he puts her there, and does a tremendous photograph, I think for “Horses.”.

He must have collected, in his mind, pieces of light around lower Manhattan, and envisioned photographs in those terms. It would have been like a Guide Bleu to light patches of lower Manhattan, to define the geography of possible photographs.

HB: You write that the beauty of his photographs nearly disqualified him from serious consideration in an art world that had marginalized beauty, while the fact that his lifestyle and photographic content were marginal made him central all over again in an art world that was fascinated with marginality.

AD: Absolutely. That’s one of the ironies.

HB: In the essay “Aesthetics and Art Criticism,” you write, that “We aestheticize only when the world is, so to speak, on hold. Where it is my view that if aesthetic considerations are commingled with cognition, and cognition itself harnessed to practice, contemplation is not the defining aesthetic posture at all.”

That opens up all sorts of possibilities.

AD: Because you’re expecting people to be in involved in some way more than the contemplative posture allowed for.

I just gave a talk about Clement Greenberg, and the way in which you were supposed to look at a painting. You cover your eyes, and then you say, are you ready? Then you uncover your eyes, and the eye is flooded. The thing was to see before thought could intervene, so you’d have a purely visual experience, without the contamination of theory, ideas, or anything of the kind. Hoving did the same when he went to buy a Velasquez. He’d say, “Hit me!” and they’d turn on the lights and “Aw!” That was it, he knew it was a great painting. People thought that it was about putting everything out of play except the eye.

But when, in the sixties, you begin to get things like the happening, the performance — what I call disturbatory art — you are asking from art that it do something more than establish distance from a viewer engaged in a purely visual relationship to it. And I think that’s true with Mapplethorpe. With Mapplethorpe, the edge lies somewhere between the contemplative and the engaged. You’re involved both ways at least; you can’t settle on one. Everything is negated and preserved at the same time, that crazy Hegelian idea.

We don’t have very many things that we an use the notion of aufheben with, except something like this. To my knowledge no great artist had ever used sexuality as the provocative force. It’s maybe more central to Fragonard than to any other painter. And there’s the Courbet, “The Origin Of The Universe.”

HB: In “Manhood,” Michel Leiris describes going through the art at the Louvre as if it were his private pornography collection when he was growing up. He saw through the formal qualities, right to the erotic, right to the masturbatory. Mapplethorpe said, here, it’s not hidden; it’s absolutely central. No need to leer.

The discourse has moved on, as you put it, partly because of Mapplethorpe. The discourse on S & M has spread. There is a graduate level seminar at Cornell on sadomasochism. There’s Madonna and MTV.

AD: We were just in Europe, in Cologne. Down these streets lined with fairly opulent looking shops, there were several which sold S & M costumes — mannequins in the window, male and female, handcuffed together wearing black leather and so forth. I looked in and it was like people were shopping for ski apparel.

Even funnier, at the hotel in Amsterdam they hand you a little booklet about what’s happening, the exhibitions, the shows. There was a page of ads for escorts: “S&M mistress, and S&M fitted room.” You could pay with a VISA card. You can’t go much further in the banalization of the marginal. Put it on your credit card. Advertise it in “Hello, Amsterdam.”

HB: You describe yourself as never having interest in this form of sexuality, whether heterosexual or homosexual. Nevertheless it holds you; you find it arresting in some way.

AD: Who knows what it means when you’re arrested by images of that sort? I’d never seen art like that. There are things you see that do hit you very hard. I remember seeing Flemish primitives, scenes of martyrdom, and those images really hit you and you can’t get them out of your mind. That certainly doesn’t mean it’s something you aspire to in your own life or would ever want to be part of.

It wasn’t even a fantasy. Fantasies don’t work like that. I talked to Lynn Davis, who was close to Mapplethorpe at the time when he was actively involved in sadomasochism, and she asked him if this was something he dreamt about doing all his life. He said, I didn’t even know it existed until last night. Fantasies are repetitive, you keep going back and back and back and back. But these guys evolved a form of life that was a kind of creativity if you had the guts to participate in it.

That was never a part of my outlook on life, or on sexuality, or on love, which, after all, Mapplethorpe didn’t have. He was looking for love at the end of his life. He was looking for a different kind of relationship. Of course, he never found it. He was looking for it in a very strange way.

HB: Do you feel that coming at art from philosophy has been a good angle of approach, that you’ve been able to open yourself in a way someone trained more traditionally might not?

AD: Yes, but let me put it this way: I really did begin by thinking I was going to be an artist, and studied philosophy as a collateral thing. And I do think that having had studio experience was very valuable, not something art historians necessarily have.

But I don’t think it would have helped me in dealing with the kind of art I began to find philosophically instructive, with the Pop Art I would never have wanted to make as an artist. I grew up as a romantic. Somebody who came up as an artist in the fifties was still in that world of Abstract Expressionism. That wouldn’t have helped me be sensitive to Pop Art. It would have made me hostile to it. I had given up on art before I was hit with Pop Art and began to see Pop Art as the improbable messenger of a very important thought.

So, yeah, I think philosophy does put you in a way of thinking that’s very valuable for approaching art at this particular moment.

HB: You’ve written, “I happen to take special pains with writing, I think not common in my sprofession.” How so?

AD: I think philosophical writing has gotten worse and worse. The standard paper is modeled on the scientific paper. Quite early on I decided to be a literary writer, which meant that I wanted my pieces to be a pleasure to read. And I tried to make imaginary examples really absorbing and not silly, like so many philosophical examples get to be. Beyond that there an energy which came into my writing in The Nation for which I have no explanation at all.