Cashing in on counterculture

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From social commentary to commodity, Janette Beckman’s career is in many ways a classic model of the popular memory of punk rock. As a young photographer who documented London’s youth cultures in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, she found success and opportunity earning commissions from magazines and record labels. Like Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer, Beckman sold her creative labor, just as thousands of artists and musicians have done for generations. Whether or not punk “sold out” is an oddly recurring but nonetheless pointless question: it was embedded from the beginning in contemporary commercial culture — in the ideas, languages, icons, objects, exchanges, and processes of consumption. It was always about selling, in one way or another. More… “Clash or Credit”

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What would Washington do?

Should the federal government subsidize the arts? I have pondered the question ever since 1989, when, with many other residents of Washington, D.C., I went to see an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s obscene photographs which had been cancelled by the Corcoran Exhibit for fear of having federal funds cut off by enraged congressional conservatives. At the entrance to the exhibit, which was hosted instead by the Washington Project for the Arts, a group was collecting signatures for a petition saying that all American artists had the right to taxpayer subsidies, with no strings attached. I offered my signature, but only on condition that the petition organizers in turn provide me with another petition, attesting that I was an American artist and thus entitled to taxpayer money. My offer was not taken up. More… “Should Taxpayers Subsidize the Arts?”

Béla Bartók’s first string quartet and its unrequited muse

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Béla Bartók: composing genius and love machine

When we think of classical music and love — that is, love of the romantic variety — our thoughts tend to go in one of two directions. The sound of Debussyian strings may be conjured inside the head, all spangled and awash in the excitement of being with the person one most cares about. Or else things can get a touch Beethoven-y. Which is to say, heavy. Minor keys, crashing chords raining down needle-like from on high, like one has been smote through the heart — not by an arrow courtesy of Cupid, but by the pain of loss. Or, worse, the pain of wasted opportunities. More… “Heart Vibrato”

How props anchor story to place

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Every place has a rhythm. You must echo that rhythm in your writing. A character in New York City will not be as mellow as a character on the beach. A character in Wyoming will have a more expansive view than the character in Los Angeles. Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick might have had the grandest and most inclusive vision of all had he not permitted that vision to curdle into one single, obsessive focus. But that is Melville’s character; Melville himself is determined to make his novel as commodious and comprehensive as the ocean. Or consider E. M. Forster’s beautiful and foresighted A Passage to India, in which the English author dissects the tensions between native Indians and their British rulers. More… “A Gun in the First Act”

Learning how to wander as a family

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A pro-surfer friend described Sayulita as a kid-friendly artist hamlet where you can surf in warm water year round, gorge on heaping plates of Mexico’s best fish tacos for two bucks, and have your morning latte. I was on the prowl for an unsanitized destination to get my son, Kai, his first passport stamp (which meant no Club Med within spitting distance). Yet I also craved a reasonably safe vacation spot to relax with my four-month-old baby. As it turned out, Sayulita fit the bill.

Though the community originated as a coconut harvesting and fishing village, after the highway from Puerto Vallarta was completed in the 1960s, surfers — hearing rumors about an epic right and left reef break — sojourned to Sayulita for waves without the masses. Today, Sayulita, located on Mexico’s newly rebranded Riveria Nayarit, is one of those beach towns that travelers whisper about for fear it will wander the road of Mexico’s other former fishing “villages” (locals are adamant about their hamlet not becoming another Cabo or Cancun). Yet even as the town swells with enough American travelers that I scratched my head and wondered how so many people know about this intriguing mix of surfers, funky galleries, local families, gourmet eateries, and rich Mexican culture, Sayulita still feels like a secret. More… “Shifting Expectations in Sayulita”

Reconsidering Malcolm McLaren's opera album

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Everyone has a first time. My initiation into the sublime and absurd world of grand opera came not with my attendance at a legendary performance or under the tutelage of an impassioned connoisseur but through a chance encounter with a bizarre musical experiment conceived by Malcolm McLaren, former manager of the Sex Pistols and craven self-promoter. It happened like this. One day in the mid-‘80’s I was half-listening to an innocuous pop ballad on the radio when there arose from the drum machines and synthesizers a surging female voice unlike any I had ever heard — or at least paid attention to — before. As the aria, which turned out to be “Un bel dì” from Madame Butterfly, floated over me, my only thought was: How can anything be so beautiful?

I wish I could say that from that moment I became a passionate convert to all things operatic, but in fact I went on listening to rock ‘n’ roll and even now have got around to only a dozen or so works in the operatic repertory. Yet one of those works is Madame Butterfly, and if on the radio that day I hadn’t heard Malcolm McLaren’s gleefully debased six-minute version — identified by the disc jockey as the first of six workings of Puccini on an album by McLaren called Fans — I might never have known grand opera at all. Although I no longer need to listen to opera with the electric guitars, drum tracks, and pop vocal choruses so helpfully provided by McLaren, I occasionally go back to Fans to marvel at its audacious and bizarrely sympathetic settings of some of Puccini’s most sumptuous music. More… “A Fan of Fans

The legacy of an American writer

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Recently, while packing for a move, I came across a letter that Gore Vidal sent me from his home in Ravello, Italy, in the late 1990s. Vidal, a slight acquaintance, had provided me with a blurb for my book Up From Conservatism and we corresponded a few times and met once. I had forgotten about this letter, and on deciphering the handwritten scrawl on monogrammed blue paper I found Vidal complaining that a critic who had panned one of his books in the New York Times had been hosted the following weekend at their seaside home in Connecticut by Vidal’s arch-rival William F. Buckley, Jr. and Buckley’s wife Pat. Whether this occurred or was Vidalian paranoia, I cannot say, though given the interlocking circles of that world, anything is possible. After all, at one of Bill and Pat Buckley’s parties I met Tom Selleck, whose career break came in 1970 when he played a young stud propositioned by the elderly Mae West in the X-rated movie version of Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge. More… “The Empire of Gore Vidal”

The Soviet Union through Vasily Grossman’s unfinished novel

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In the Soviet Union, the name of the game was denunciation. One person would denounce another. A third person would denounce the second, i.e., the first denouncer. And so it went, the denunciations resulting in the executions of countless citizens, many — perhaps most — of them innocent. Others were sent to Siberia, which was simply a somewhat slower death. The game was an infinite recursion or regress, and if Boris Yeltsin had not mounted a tank to announce the end of the system, at some point there would have been nobody left to guard the crowded prisons. More… “The Soviet Illusion”

A groundbreaking exhibition in Frankfurt investigates early human-bear interaction.

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The moon was shining on the night in January 1856 when Leopold von Schrenck, a Russian-German zoologist, geographer, and ethnologist, reached Tebach, a village in the barren Amur region in easternmost Siberia. He was traveling in the name of the St. Petersburg Academy of Science, following in the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt, who had made it all the way to the Chinese border. Von Schrenck is among the handful of Westerners who had the opportunity to participate in a bear festival with the Nivkh people (formerly called Gilyak). As he approached the village, the inhabitants were out and about. The women stood in front of the houses carrying babies and watched as the men and the older children held hands and spun rapidly in a circle. Once the dance was over, von Schrenck accompanied the group into a yurt — a kind of oversized tent. Three bears were bound to the two central support poles. Care had been taken to allow the bears room to lie down, stand up, and move from side to side. The visitor also had to take care “not to be struck by a bear’s paw.” More… “Bearing Witness”

The fate of the universe hangs in the balance.

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When I was a teenager I read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Instead of taking this beautiful book as a path to something useful, like a career in theoretical physics, I mainly used it as an excuse not to tidy my room. And I don’t mean I sat there screaming “Mum! Not now, I’m reading a book!”: if I understood it correctly, A Brief History of Time said that tidying my room would (in an absurdly, ridiculously tiny way) hasten the end of the universe. Surely, I argued, a tidy room wasn’t worth that…

That the argument was asinine should go without saying, but an argument can be asinine and still technically correct. More… “Don’t Tidy Your Room”