Wednesday, December 8, 2021

In praise of … Giorgio Vasari

In praise of … Giorgio Vasari

28 July 2011

Michelangelo never wanted to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and did everything he could to avoid it. It was a plot by his rivals to draw him away from sculpture, which they saw he had mastered. When the pope forced his hand, he invented a kind of freestanding scaffolding and let nobody into the chapel. But Raphael sneaked in and, seeing the work-in-progress, immediately changed his own style and repainted his most recent masterpiece. Such are the stories told by Giorgio Vasari, born 500 years ago tomorrow, in Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Nobody did more than this ardent Florentine to establish the idea of the artist. He wrote with the scholar's learning and the courtier's ease, and his book told a story of Italian Renaissance art from which all others derive, and founded the history of art. Vasari did for artists what Plutarch did for politicians, and the two have the same eye for detail. Leonardo da Vinci could bend a horseshoe with one hand and bought birds just to free them from their cages. When the shepherd boy Giotto was brought to a great workshop, he painted a fly on the nose of a portrait so lifelike that the master kept waving it away. Michelangelo made the world's best snowman. He carved his David out of a block of marble so damaged it was thought worthless. Vasari's greatest compliment to his artists was that by brush or chisel their work came to life. Our greatest compliment to him is that he sends us back to art with a new wonder.


In praise of … Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson

In praise of … Jack Nicholson

Monday 9 September 2013

If Jack Nicholson is really retiring, the cinema will have lost one of its great presences. But defining it is no simple task. It has been a while since the most nominated male actor in Hollywood history has made a film that compares to Easy RiderFive Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, Chinatown, Terms of Endearment. Even uncontained or badly directed, Nicholson had the capacity to act everyone else off the screen, and Stephen King, who wrote the original novel, expressed doubts about casting Nicholson as the deranged caretaker in The Shining, because in King's view he simply could not play the ordinary man. There is nothing ordinary about him. At his best, Nicholson taunts. He treads the finest of lines between derangement and all too sane fury, between moral purpose and its exact opposite. Time out of number he has made Mephistopheles easily the most sympathetic character in the cast.


The Arts Are in Crisis / Here’s How Biden Can Help

Invisible Creature

The Arts Are in Crisis. Here’s How Biden Can Help.

The pandemic has decimated the livelihoods of those who work in the arts. How can the new administration intervene and make sure it doesn’t happen again? A critic offers an ambitious plan.

Jason Farago
Published Jan. 13, 2021
Updated Jan. 15, 2021

What is art’s function? What does art do for a person, a country?

Scholars, economists, revolutionaries keep debating, but one very good answer has held now for 2,500 years. The function of art, Aristotle told us, is catharsis. You go to the theater, you listen to a symphony, you look at a painting, you watch a ballet. You laugh, you cry. You feel pity, fear. You see in others’ lives a reflection of your own. And the catharsis comes: a cleansing, a clarity, a feeling of relief and understanding that you carry with you out of the theater or the concert hall. Art, music, drama — here is a point worth recalling in a pandemic — are instruments of psychic and social health.

Not since 1945 has the United States required catharsis like it does in 2021. The coronavirus pandemic is the most universal trauma to befall the nation since World War II, its ravages compounded by a political nightmare that culminated, last week, in an actual assault on democratic rule. The last year’s mortal toll, its social isolation and its civic disintegration have brought this country to the brink. Yet just when Americans need them most, our artists and arts institutions are confronting a crisis that may endure long after infections abate.

Professional creative artists are facing unemployment at rates well above the national average — more than 52 percent of actors and 55 percent of dancers were out of work in the third quarter of the year, at a time when the national unemployment rate was 8.5 percent. In California, the arts and entertainment fields generated a greater percentage of unemployment claims than even the hospitality sector. Several hundred independent music venues have closed; art galleries and dance companies have shuttered. And in my own life, I’ve listened to painters and performers weep over canceled shows and tours, salivate over more generous government support in Europe or Asia, and ask themselves whether 2021 is the year to abandon their careers.

Invisible Creature

“Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people,” said Harry Hopkins, the first supervisor of the Works Progress Administration, when an official in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration queried whether artists merited federal employment. Art, music, dance and theater are social goods, but also individual professions — ones more endangered than at any time since the 1930s, and facing lasting damage even as the pandemic abates.

The effects of this cultural depression will be excruciating, and not only for the symphony not written, the dance not choreographed, the sculpture not cast, the musical not staged. Beyond value in its own right, culture is also an industry sector accounting for more than 4.5 percent of this country’s gross domestic product, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Other leaders have noticed: in their New Year addresses, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, singled out culture as a sector in economic peril, while Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said that “freelancers and artists fear for their livelihood.” But until last month, when the outgoing U.S. president belatedly signed a stimulus package with targeted arts relief bundled within, this government had barely acknowledged the crisis that Covid-19 has posed to culture. Nor have private philanthropists filled the gap; while some large foundations have stepped up their disbursements, total giving to North American arts organizations has slackened by 14 percent on average.


As President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. prepares to take office next week, and begins to flesh out his proposals to help the nation recover, he and his cabinet have the chance — the responsibility — to offer a new settlement for American culture. Mr. Biden had planned an “F.D.R.-size” presidency, and, with the Democrats’ recapture of the Senate, such heft seems more viable than it did after Election Day. What can the new administration do for culture in crisis? What examples should it draw from in American history, and current international practice? How should Washington approach culture policy with state and local authorities, with nonprofits, and with the entertainment industry? Does the U.S. government need a “Dr. Fauci of culture,” as the Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks called for last month — or even a full-bore Department of Culture, with a cabinet-level secretary?

As a senator and as vice president, Mr. Biden repeatedly backed government support for the arts. The country he will now lead, as the pandemic wanes and as the economy recovers, is going to require major social catharsis — and he needs to ensure that the arts are still there to provide it.

The Biden campaign promised that America could “build back better,” and throughout 2020 the president-elect extolled F.D.R.’s New Deal as a blueprint for American renewal. For the administration to show that sort of Rooseveltian resolve — and, with control of the Senate, it just about can — it’s going to have to put millions of Americans on the federal payroll: among them artists, musicians and actors, tasked to restore a battered nation.



Visual art was the largest of the four (later, five) cultural divisions, but other branches were just as vital. Ralph Ellison, John Cheever and Saul Bellow worked for the Federal Writers’ Project, compiling life stories of American workers; the interviews Zora Neale Hurston did for the project would profoundly influence her novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The Federal Theater Project put out-of-work actors and writers on stages far from Broadway, where audiences saw free plays about Dust Bowl farmers or tenement dwellers known as “living newspapers.”

Unlike today, when grantmaking institutions routinely require artists to justify their work before they make it, the W.P.A. programs did not mandate a style; all the government required was an engagement with an American theme, no strident politics, and no nudity. If a few of the program’s murals have stood the test of time, such as Gorky’s bulbous compositions originally at Newark Airport, there’s a reason that Pollock, Krasner and other figures of the postwar avant-garde turned so thoroughly from the socially engaged projects of their youth. More than a fair bit of the art produced under W.P.A. programs was boosterish, conservative, forgettable.

But artistic quality was not the principal point — because these were works programs, not cultural grants, awarded on the basis of need rather than merit. (Another New Deal program, run by the Treasury, had a smaller and more selective roster of artists.) A new W.P.A.-style program, likewise, shouldn’t be thought of as government support for “the arts” — that lightning rod of budget negotiations year after year. Nor should it be treated in the same manner as, say, New York’s Percent for Art, which requires city-funded construction to set aside money for public art works.

A new W.P.A. is, as the name indicates, an emergency work scheme, whose motivation is economic stimulus. Artists shouldn’t have to prove their “social impact,” shouldn’t have to get a dozen stakeholders to sign off on every note or brush stroke. They should demonstrate what their forebears did in the 1930s — that they are professional artists and they need work.


Such a program might be especially valuable in America’s rural areas and in economically imperiled regions: the parts of the country where Mr. Biden did worst electorally, and whose support for President Trump came in part from a legitimate grievance that cultural elites looked down on them. (That Idaho courthouse lies in a county where Mr. Trump beat Mr. Biden by more than four votes to one.) Embedding unemployed artists nationwide, and tasking them to focus on local populations and local circumstances, should likewise animate any Biden administration cultural works program.

The administration should also bring artists on board for infrastructure projects, especially as Mr. Biden’s government pursues an ambitious climate strategy that will require nationwide transformations. Europe already has plans for this. Since the fall Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, has been talking up a “New European Bauhaus,” which will bring artists and designers into the E.U.’s green development program to “give our systemic change its own distinct aesthetic — to match style with sustainability.” Including artists here could help the Biden administration build public support as the country begins, we hope, a decades-long program of green reconstruction.

A final place to boost support for culture is the Department of State. Cultural diplomacy has shrunk considerably since the days of the Cold War, when the department sent Dizzy Gillespie to Yugoslavia, Martha Graham to Southeast Asia, Louis Armstrong to Congo, and the New York Philharmonic to Moscow. (“Music costs so much less and produces so much better a result than any propaganda or weaponry,” said its conductor, Leonard Bernstein.) Antony Blinken, nominated for Secretary of State, could provide the country both a diplomatic and an economic fillip by bolstering the agency’s diminished Bureau for Educational and Cultural Affairs, which the Trump administration tried to eliminate entirely. In Akron or Accra, American artists have work to do.

In the past, unemployment insurance was available only to those “employed” in the first place — and artists rarely were. A violinist furloughed from a full-time orchestra job could get unemployment, but not a gigging saxophonist whose nightclubs were shuttered. A receptionist laid off from a talent agency qualified, but not the actors the agency represents.

That changed in March, when the previous Congress passed the first coronavirus stimulus package. It included a program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which, for the first time expanded unemployment eligibility to independent contractors and freelance workers. In their ranks are millions of actors, writers, artists, musicians and dancers, who are three and a half times more likely than the average American to be self-employed, according to a 2019 report from the National Endowment for the Arts. (Where do you think the name “gig economy” came from, after all? From the music industry, where artists first cobbled together an income from stage to stage.)

A singer who qualified for pandemic assistance didn’t just get unemployment from her home state. She was also eligible for the same $600-a-week federal supplement as others receiving unemployment: a critical lifeline, though one that expired in July. (There have been two smaller supplements since then. The current $300-a-week boost, bundled into the December stimulus package, expires in mid-March, long before stages are expected to reopen.) For all its shortcomings, the program has established a precedent that the Biden administration must build upon: that artists, like other gig workers, are full participants in the national economy — and need to be taken care of as such.

So the most immediate measure the new administration can take to stanch the arts crisis is simply to get money into artists’ pockets — by pushing Congress to expand and improve unemployment benefits for them and other independent contractors and gig workers. Congress also needs to smooth out discrepancies in pandemic assistance, including the way it severely undercompensates jobless aid to artists with a little salaried work on the side, such as an actor with a one-day-a-week desk job.

If the program establishes that actors, musicians and dancers are true workers, how do we keep them working? Janet Yellen, the Treasury secretary nominee, and Marty Walsh, the Boston mayor nominated to lead the Labor Department, can answer this question by supporting changes to the tax code and to unemployment rights, with both economic and cultural benefits.

One model comes from France, where performers, technicians and other workers in theater, dance, movies and television can qualify for a special artists’ unemployment program, known as intermittence, which includes maternity leave, retirement and other benefits.It allows performers to rehearse and train rather than wait tables, which makes a big contribution to the quality of French opera, dance and theater. But more fundamentally, it recognizes that musicians and dancers and the like are not truly self-employed. They are professionals, in a socially necessary industry with an uncommon economic organization. They need to be paid, taxed and insured as such if they are to thrive.

Ms. Yellen and the new Congress also need to disburse additional funds to keep other arts professionals on the payroll. Bundled into the December stimulus package was the Save Our Stages Act, which earmarked $15 billion for small-business grants to music venues, movie theaters and the like. The grants (initially, 45 percent of a theater or club’s 2019 income) are a fantastic start — but it’s a Band-Aid when we need a full-scale tourniquet. Berlin’s nightclubs and other for-profit cultural venues were eligible for 80 percent grants.

And given both the slow rollout of the vaccine and the continued need for social distancing, venues for the performing arts will be among the last public places to reopen. Congress ought therefore to bundle a second round of Save Our Stages emergency funding with a measure also drawn from the German bailout: cash for pandemic-appropriate infrastructural improvements, from new ventilation systems to digital distribution tools. I used to like a dirty disco; now I want gleaming HVAC.

Compared with Canada, Australia and most of Europe, the U.S. has relatively few cultural institutions funded through federal appropriations. The memorials on the National Mall are erected almost entirely with private cash; the Kennedy Center earns most of its income from donations and ticket sales. Even the Smithsonian Institution is a public-private partnership; its most recent Congressional disbursement of $1 billion a year accounts for 62 percent of its annual budget. At the Venice Biennale, where nations mount exhibitions in a kind of Olympics of contemporary art, the United States is one of the few participants whose government doesn’t pay for the show.

Now some emboldened liberals have been dreaming, as they did when Barack Obama took office, that Mr. Biden might establish a cabinet-level Department of Culture — the first new department since George W. Bush established the Department of Homeland Security in 2002. Such a department might absorb the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (all independent federal agencies), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (a nonprofit), as well as parts of the State, Interior, and Education Departments.

I get the impulse! Artsy Americans have long been jealous of Europe’s government-funded theaters and opera houses — and as cultural institutions have shed jobs over the last year, it’s easy to envy public institutions abroad. Our own museums, symphonies and ballet companies are financed principally through philanthropy, while our film, television and music industries are driven by the profit motive. There is, in consequence, hardly a large enough federal culture budget to merit a department. And as I don’t see a strong argument to nationalize the Metropolitan Museum of Art or Carnegie Hall, a federal culture department risks, at least right now, being more bureaucratic than beneficial.

Nor are we so long gone from the (first?) culture wars, of the 1980s and early 1990s, when meager federal support for artists and performers became a flash point in a much larger political battle. Senator Jesse Helms and Republican colleagues fulminated against the photographers Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe, and then against performers known as the N.E.A. Four — and got on the books a decency test for federal arts grants, barring support for art with gay and feminist themes. (Later the N.E.A.’s budget was slashed, and individual artists’ grants were eliminated.) That history is one good reason for the Biden administration to — at least at first — aid artists on economic and infrastructural grounds, rather than as individual grants for “deserving” artists.

And in countries in democratic decline — a category in which, after last week’s siege, I struggle not to include the United States — culture ministries have lately become instruments of political wrath. In Poland, governed by the right-wing Law and Justice party, the culture minister has fired or refused to reappoint numerous museum directors; last year he installed a far-right fellow traveler as the head of Warsaw’s leading contemporary art center. The Hungarian government has used its funding rules to control what appears on theater stages; in Brazil, the last culture minister parroted the rhetoric of Joseph Goebbels.

A Department of Culture, under a future American presidency, could be as antagonistic to culture as the outgoing administration’s Environmental Protection Agency has been to protecting the environment. Honestly, have the Culture Department boosters forgotten that President Trump promulgated a single style of classical architecture for all federal buildings? That sort of directive would have doomed designs like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s federal building in Chicago, or David Adjaye’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.


Credit...Lexey Swall for The New York Times

American arts institutions ought not to give up their independence for crumbs. For now, especially as the pandemic subsides, the more urgent task is to encourage a richer cultural offering at the local level. A nimbler and more practicable solution to do that is with a White House Office for Culture, akin to the National Economic Council or the Domestic Policy Council, that could research and coordinate arts policy across the federal government.

An arts center inside the executive office of the president — led, why not, by a “Dr. Fauci of culture” — could be sharper and swifter than a full department. This team could help Treasury create cultural tax policy, advise the Education Department on music instruction, liaise with Congress on arts stimulus. Importantly, it could ensure that stimulus funds for states and municipalities, whose budgets have been pitted by shutdown-induced tax shortfalls, shore up and eventually strengthen local arts organizations. (“Almost no one has been hurt more by Covid than our artists,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York this week, when he announced a public-private partnership supporting the state’s arts organizations.)

The new administration should also re-establish the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, whose members resigned en masse in 2017 after Mr. Trump’s response to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. (The artists who resigned included the director George C. Wolfe, the author Jhumpa Lahiri, the actor Kal Penn and the architect Thom Mayne.) To use a metaphor I detest but politicians seem to like, this committee should be the sizzle to the steak that is the Office for Culture. Any transformation this large needs a sales pitch; well-known actors, writers and musicians should be the pitchmen, linking Broadway and Hollywood to the town library and the school theater.

During last year’s campaign, Mr. Biden had a phrase he invoked with almost musical regularity: the election, he always said, was a “battle for the soul of America.” As a piece of political rhetoric, it might have been just a platitude. How can I deny, though, that the near-sacking of the Capitol — in a week when, for the first time, the daily death toll from Covid-19 reached an unendurable 4,000 Americans — indicates that the United States has undergone, these last years, a kind of soul-death? And if you were treating a patient whose soul had curdled, what sort of medicine might you prescribe?

I’ve always been wary of arguments about art’s “necessity.” But a soul-sick nation is not likely to recover if it loses fundamental parts of its humanity. Without actors and dancers and musicians and artists, a society will indeed have lost something necessary — for these citizens, these workers, are the technicians of a social catharsis that cannot come soon enough. A respiratory virus and an insurrection have, in their own ways, taken the country’s breath away. Artists, if they are still with us in the years ahead, can teach us to exhale.


Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Dependency / The Copenhagen Trilogy / Book 3


Dependency: The Copenhagen Trilogy: Book 3


The final volume in the renowned Danish poet Tove Ditlevsen's autobiographical Copenhagen Trilogy (A masterpiece --The Guardian).

 Following Childhood and YouthDependency is the searing portrait of a woman's journey through love, friendship, ambition, and addiction, from one of Denmark's most celebrated twentieth century writers

Youth / The Copenhagen Trilogy / Book 2


Youth: The Copenhagen Trilogy: Book 2


The acclaimed Danish poet Tove Ditlevsen's autobiographical Copenhagen Trilogy (A masterpiece --The Guardiancontinues with Youth. Following Childhood, this second volume finds the young author consumed in trials by fire that only fuel her relentless passion for artistic freedom--placing her on a devastating and destructive path recounted in the final volume, Dependency.

Forced to leave school early, Tove embarks on a checkered career in a string of low-paid, menial jobs. But she is hungry: for poetry, for love, for real life to begin. As Europe slides into war, she must navigate exploitative bosses, a Nazi landlady, and unwelcome sexual encounters on the road to hard-won independence. Yet she remains ruthlessly determined in the pursuit of her poetic vocation--until at last the miracle she has always dreamed of appears to be within reach.

Childhood / The Copenhagen Trilogy / Book 1


Childhood: The Copenhagen Trilogy: Book 1


The celebrated Danish poet Tove Ditlevsen begins the Copenhagen Trilogy (A masterpiece --The Guardian) with Childhood, her coming-of-age memoir about pursuing a life and a passion beyond the confines of her upbringing--and into the difficult years described in Youth and Dependency

Tove knows she is a misfit whose childhood is made for a completely different girl. In her working-class neighborhood in Copenhagen, she is enthralled by her wild, red-headed friend Ruth, who initiates her into adult secrets. But Tove cannot reveal her true self to her or to anyone else. For long, mysterious words begin to crawl across her soul, and she comes to realize that she has a vocation, something unknowable within her--and that she must one day, painfully but inevitably, leave the narrow street of her childhood behind.

The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen review / Confessions of a literary outsider


Facing demons … Tove Ditlevsen. Photograph: Per Pejstrup


The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen review – confessions of a literary outsider

The Danish writer reflects on success, addiction and divorces in three volumes of compulsive autofiction: Childhood, Youth and Dependency

Liz Jensen
Wed 16 Oct 2019 09.00 BST


or the four decades after the outbreak of the second world war, Tove Ditlevsen was one of Denmark’s most famous and extravagantly tortured writers, whose many identities – dreamy working-class misfit, ruthlessly focused artist, ambivalent wife and mother, literary outsider and drug addict – were constantly at war. While always the central protagonist in her dispatches from the frontline of her own life, she never pretended to be the heroine. Which makes it unsurprising that in an era with an appetite for autofiction, her mordant, vibrantly confessional autobiographical work should be experiencing a revival.

Tove Ditlevsen / A Danish Genius of Madness


Re-Covered: A Danish 

Genius of Madness

 In her column, Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.

Lucy Scholes
December 9, 2020

It was the Danish writer Dorthe Nors who first introduced me to the work of her countrywoman, the poet, novelist, and memoirist Tove Ditlevsen. This was in spring 2018, when I was commissioning features for the first issue of The Second Shelf: Rare Books and Words by Women, the rare books catalogue–cum–literary magazine of which I’m the managing editor. “She is loved by generations of women and put down by generations of men,” Nors wrote in an email. “She was also nuts and quite extraordinary in her personal life. Many men, drug addictions, often submitted to mental institutions, and LOVED by women readers. I mean: LOVED!”


This was more than enough to intrigue me, but Nors’s finished piece, “The Suicide of Tove Ditlevsen,” only left me all the more fascinated. In it, Nors describes Ditlevsen—who was born in Vesterbro, a working-class district in Copenhagen, in 1917, and killed herself at age fifty-eight in 1976, after many years battling depression and addiction—as “the Billie Holiday of poetry, accessible, complex, and simple all at the same time. There’s a special mournful sweetness in the earlier poems that belongs to the girlish. Later, her prose turned the dreams and disappointments of life as a woman inside out.”

Tove Ditlevsen / New Translation Shares The Voice Of A Poet Who Wrote As Intensely As She Lived


Tove Ditlevsen

New Translation Shares The Voice Of A Poet Who Wrote As Intensely As She Lived

John Powers
February 3, 2021

We're living in a golden age for women's writing. The wheels of literary justice are finally giving due process to great women writers whose work has been forgotten, ignored or insufficiently appreciated.