Controversial portrait painter

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The Four Justices (2013) by Nelson Shanks

Nelson Shanks, acclaimed American realist painter of celebrities and officials ranging from Pope John Paul II and Princess Diana to Bill Clinton and the first four female U.S. Supreme Court justices, died late last week. Shanks studied art and architecture throughout the country and world, before eventually founding Studio Incamminati School for Contemporary Realist Art in Philadelphia. Most recently, his controversial claims about his portrait of Bill Clinton and a mysterious shadow resurrected the Lewinsky scandal, to the chagrin of his wife’s presidential campaign.

More… “Nelson Shanks (1937-2015)”

A proposal for the new university

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The mascot for New University: the science/humanities Pushmi-Pullyu

In my old age, I hope to found a new university, called rather unimaginatively the New University, with funding from one or another imprudent billionaire (a prudent billionaire would turn me down). In contemporary universities and colleges there is often a division among the natural sciences, social science and humanities. In my New University, there would be only two faculties: natural sciences and the humanities. The social sciences would be abolished.

Social science was — it is best to speak in the past tense — a mistake. The dream of a comprehensive science of society, which would elucidate “laws of history” or “social laws” comparable to the physical determinants or “laws” of nature, was one of the great delusions of the 19th century. Auguste Comte formulated a Religion of Humanity based on “the positive philosophy” or Positivism. Karl Marx went to his grave convinced that his discovery of laws of history had made him the Darwin or Newton of social science.
More… “Let’s Abolish Social Science”

Musician Grant Hart on Hüsker Dü, Sputnik, and his Paradise Lost concept album The Argument

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Grant Hart is a songwriter and musician best known as a former member of the 80s hardcore punk band Hüsker Dü. Hart’s most recent album The Argument is an extended musical reworking of John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost.

This interview was conducted by students in the Honors course “Writing About Rock Music” at Drexel University with guidance from Smart Set editor Richard Abowitz. The conversation was constantly interrupted with laughter spurred by Hart’s infectious humor and sharp wit.

TSS: So I read that when you were growing up, you liked more of the 50s and 60s music…

GH: Well I considered what my peers were listening to and I thought, “God if these people are listening to this stuff, this stuff has to be stupid.” I was making an association that was false and there was a lot of stuff I had to go back and learn to appreciate, things that I skipped over before. Early 50s, the people that came from, let’s say poverty, and were exploited as songwriters but could make a hit record without any instrumentation short of their vocal sounds — that was really intriguing to me.
More… “Change of Hart”

Black Vodka by Deborah Levy

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Deborah Levy’s short book of short stories is pitched at a relatively high key but a deeper note of sadness underpins it. Her characters are splendidly individual but share a sense of having strayed from home, or of not having a home, or of wondering what it might be like to have a home. In “Black Vodka,” the first and title story, a writer of advertisements at “a leading agency” refers to himself as “the crippled poet,” but that does not stop him from sleeping with a colleague’s girlfriend. Or maybe he feels being “crippled” entitles him? Sleeping with friends’ girlfriends might be how he takes revenge on men whose spines are not misaligned, men whose backs lack humps. It is he who gives the name “black vodka” to a flavored drink to be marketed in formerly Communist countries where noir is trending.

Levy, an English author who was shortlisted for the Man Booker for her novel Swimming Home, is equally perceptive about men and women. There are ten stories here, and each is something like — well, not a bon-bon. More like a sip of whisky or a quick slam of Black Vodka to the back of the throat. As “the crippled poet” says, Black Vodka is “the edgy choice for the cultured and discerning.”
More… ““Only Some of This is True””

The legacy of Babe Ruth, pitcher

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Baseball has almost always centered on one thing, which sounds reductionist, but isn’t terribly uncommon for a sport. Hockey, for instance, is all about time and space. If you are an offensive player, you wish to create time and space; if you are a defensive player, your goal is to limit both. Baseball has long been about pitching. Even the most successful batsman records an out 70% of the time. Everything is slanted towards the pitcher. Pitching is what wins games in October, and even offensive postseason heroics are often more a matter of timing — the clutch hit, that is — rather than sustained excellence.

Pitching has failed to rule the roost exactly twice: during the steroid era, when hitters began putting up numbers you’d never even say you accrued in a summer of Wiffle ball against your younger sister, and when one of the sport’s prospective pitching legends showed everyone he was that much better at hitting, and thus proceeded to overhaul America’s then-pastime. After which, when it was all over, everyone had come to know the value of pitching even more.
More… “Leaving the Mound”

In New American Stories, finding less focus on plot and more on a new rhythm.

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At the turn of the 20th century, a well-made American story was one delivered in a straightforward style. O. Henry and Stephen Crane relied on suspense and tight construction to propel the reader along the story’s length. This method backgrounds the writer, foregrounds the tale.

By the second half of the century all this had changed. There were four causes: the rise of the writing workshop, the sudden preponderance of writing students, the starved market for short fiction (gone was the Saturday Evening Post, gone was Collier’s), and the advent of TV. New thinking, as modeled by Eudora Welty and John Cheever and then apotheosized in the K-Mart realism of the students of Gordon Lish, proposed a different method of keeping the American reader turning pages: you made them feel through the characters, sympathize with characters – you made your characters into someone they might meet on the street, befriend, and gossip about. Incident was less important: what was more important was that you made them see themselves in someone with a very different life. This method backgrounds the writer, foregrounds the character.
More… “Singsong Kidspeak”

The uses, and abuses, of uncertainty

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In How Not to Be Wrong, mathematician Jordan Ellenberg uses a John Ashbery line as a guiding principle for those making claims or predictions based on probabilistic mathematical models (or any models, really): “For this is action, this not being sure.” Ellenberg calls it “the greatest summation I know of the way uncertainty and revelation can mingle, without dissolving together, in the human mind […] It is a sentence I often repeat to myself like a mantra.” He once asked me if, as a poet presumably, I thought he was “reading Ashbery too literally,” but Ashbery can only be read literally out of context, and then why not?

Literature seems to depend on uncertainty to qualify as art: A sculpture or a piece of music just exists, but language is so often used to argue or persuade that writers of literature (I use this term only to avoid the silly, infantilizing “creative writing”) must actively steer away from those tendencies. It’s easy enough in poetry, the most open and least linear of genres; for writers of fiction, less so, but semantics is on their side, since fictive means made up. With essays, it’s much trickier; many essays do attempt to persuade. But what if an essayist just wants to play? How does she signal to readers that the essay is an exploration and not an argument?

Recently, I have noticed an overabundance of uncertainty in literature – across genres, but especially in essays. The tricks we use to appear uncertain – asking questions instead of making definitive, declarative statements, for example – have become tics. Overuse these tricks and the piece assumes a pose of ignorant wonder – What is such & such abstract concept? Who can say? How can we ever know?
More… “Uncertain Terms”

Talking with Frank Bruni about higher ed, journalism careers, and how we get where we're going.

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In April, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni sat down with Paula Marantz Cohen, dean of the Pennoni Honors College, to discuss, among other things, higher education and his most recent book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.

P: I’d like to discuss your life and career a bit before discussing your latest book. You went to journalism school at Columbia, then you worked at the New York Post, then at the Detroit Free Press before coming to the NYT, and that was in 1995. Now what I think is interesting is that seems to me sort of the traditional trajectory for getting into journalism at the highest level at the time.

B: Yes and no. The idea of trading up newspapers or trading up venues is traditional. I don’t think starting out at a tabloid and ending at the NYT, that’s not exactly traditional.

P: Do you think that trading up (the tabloid aside) is totally gone now? What does one do, in your opinion, now to get a career in journalism?
More… ““There is No One Path””

The arbitrary line between “left” and “right” is drawn smack through the middle of the liberal tradition. So, I clarify my own position: the "left-liberal."

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From the cover of Puck magazine, 1894

Our habit of discussing political philosophies in terms of a spectrum from right to left ignores the actual variety of views lumped together under the labels “conservative” or “progressive.” So-called conservatives include free-market libertarians who want total separation of church and state, “theoconservatives” who insist that America is a Judeo-Christian nation that should be governed by Biblical laws and norms, and even a few white supremacists who despise libertarianism and Christianity alike.

Like “the right,” “the left” is a category so inclusive as to be meaningless. Some years ago the editor of a left-wing magazine asked me if I would consider writing a regular column. The editor told me, “We want to move in a more progressive direction.”

I replied, “Progressive, in the sense of Woodrow Wilson and Walter Lippmann and Herbert Croly?”

“No,” the editor answered, “we were thinking of Bukharin.”
More… “Liberal Views”

Why should the look of fashion be the opposite of joy? Against RBF on the runway.

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This  Louis Vuitton ad ran in the print Sunday NYT next to its article on RBF.

Every few months there’s another finger-wagging piece about models in the fashion industry. Generally, the topic is weight: the epidemic of anorexia; the efforts underway to mandate a minimum weight; praise for more robust models (more robust meaning a few pounds above malnourishment).

The other topic that crops up is age. It was recently reported that some runway models are as young as 13. This hardly seems surprising. If you search “Teen Models” online, you’ll find pages of agencies geared to this group.

But what exactly is the problem with very young models? Is the issue one of child labor? Plenty of teenagers work in theater and play sports in front of large audiences. Those activities don’t warrant outrage.
More… “Face Value”