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The Whitney Biennial, which was inaugurated in 1932, once again works by promising us what is new, challenging, and — with luck — of lasting interest. The promise involves finding the right frame and purpose, such as scientists find in the use of a cross-section. Slice into contemporary art and lay out what most rivets, without fear or favor, label it, study its energies, and try to bear accurate account of what it’s made of. Then it’s reviewed and talked about and disputed — a cross section of a cross section. A two-year survey of what is an impossibly various assortment of works and practitioners of the visual and plastic arts, from the jackanapes to the genius, from the ravishing object to the puzzling proposal. It can’t be taken in; it will be taken in.

This year’s version runs from mid-March to June 11th. Delayed a year and a half because of the opening of the museum’s downtown building, this biennial starts a new run, lulling us into memories of the previous shows and yet promising a new place where the art is somehow still aborning. Recovering from this small interruption of its run of 73 yearly or bi-yearly shows, the Whitney looks to make the 2017 issue an especially memorable one. As Jason Farago put it in The New York Times:

In a generational shift, the Whitney has chosen two young curators for this always anticipated exhibition: Christopher Y. Lew, 36, and Mia Locks, 34. It’s also the first time that the biennial’s curators are both people of color. After months on the road, they have boiled down the art of the last few years into a survey that, for all its energy, doesn’t overwhelm the museum.

More… “The Whitney Biennial of 2017”

Charles Molesworth has published a number of books on modern literature. His most recent book is The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (U. of Texas).
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Both Jews and Muslims consider the pink, snout-nosed animals we know as pigs to be unclean. The question of why this is so has not been conclusively resolved. Did the Koran follow a Jewish rule? Or does the ban stem from the fact that eating raw or undercooked pork meat can contain roundworm larvae, which cause trichinosis? People may have made a connection between pigs and disease, resulting in a fear-based taboo. For the anthropologist Marvin Harris, the main reasons for prohibiting the eating of pork were ecological and economical. Pigs require lots of water and shady woods with seeds, conditions that are scarce in the Middle East.

But the full story may be even more complicated. Whether pigs are considered “clean” or “unclean” has differed from culture to culture, and no clear dividing line based on climate conditions is evident. As a result, it’s difficult to determine what exactly people in the distant past thought about meat. Could it be that this taboo was chosen more or less randomly to create a sense of community among believers of the same religion? To the Egyptian pharaohs, pork was unclean, to the ancient Greeks it was not. The hoggish Romans had a great deal of sympathy for the genus sus, and one pig in ancient Rome even had its own tomb. The inscription reads “Porcella hic dormit” — here rests a piglet. This particular pig lived for three years, ten months and 13 days. Its modern descendants “enjoy” much shorter lives, as they are usually slaughtered when they are between six and ten months old. Christianity’s Saint Anthony, a monk who was born in Egypt, serves as the patron saint of farmers, swineherds, and butchers. Legend has it that at some point he worked as a swineherd, and Hieronymus Bosch painted him with a pet pig at his side. In the Middle Ages, pigs, like many other animals, were held culpable for criminal acts and could be taken to court and executed. All in all, the pigs do not exactly have the best reputation in the Christian tradition — but people still eat them. More… “Between Porcophilia and Porcophobia”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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It’s hard to know exactly what moment we occupy in regard to the New Atheism and its concomitant backlash. Are we in the backlash of the backlash? Or the backlash of the backlash of the backlash? As Tim Whitmarsh shows in his recent Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, this debate is about two thousand years old; I don’t propose to resolve it today or tomorrow. I do, however, have a modest suggestion: Instead of riling up ourselves and our antagonists any further, we atheists might direct at least some of our righteousness into good-humored mockery of a perfectly harmless figure whose feelings can’t be hurt: God.

Admittedly, it’s almost impossible not to rile up people on this subject, but short of taking a vow of silence, atheists don’t have much choice. While muzzling ourselves in deference to the sensitivities of believers is not a reasonable expectation, expressing full-blown contempt for those same sensitivities isn’t much better. Might there be a middle path between excessive deference on the one hand and hurtful belligerence on the other? Yes, there is, and Friedrich Nietzsche marked it out in his gloriously intemperate polemic The Antichrist. More… “How To Laugh At God”

Stephen Akey is the author of two memoirs, College and Library, and of essays in The New Republic, Open Letters Monthly, and The Millions.
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Like the namesake of his most recent novels, J. M. Coetzee speaks to us in parables. The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus, like Disgrace and Summertime before them, give us politically charged stories seemingly without side. This encourages the Nobel laureate’s reviewers to become Coetzeeologists, attempting to parse out whether the book before them sets opposing tensions in play for art’s sake alone, or whether we can discern a clear moral leaning beneath the tensions. We assume Coetzee came to the story with an open mind but did he leave with one too? What’s he trying to say?

Since about The Master of Petersburg, most of Coetzee’s novels have used oppositional ideas to power their dynamos. The reader’s changing sympathies fall into a sort of dance with the story itself: Each revelation shifts our allegiances, tilting the axis of the book. It’s like watching a courtroom drama where the very ideas by which we live our lives are put on trial, and we’re not yet certain whodunit. In Disgrace, a college professor in Coetzee’s native South Africa takes sexual advantage of a student and then is himself savagely victimized — in what measure has justice been served? In the underrated Elizabeth Costello, the eponymous fictional novelist accuses a fictionalized version of the real novelist Paul West of depicting the horrors of the Holocaust in a way that effectively exploits them; as we watch her argument unfold, we find ourselves first cheering her on, then recoiling. This is fiction at its best. More… “The Dancer Upstairs”

John Cotter’s first novel Under the Small Lights appeared in 2010 from Miami University Press. A founding editor at the review site Open Letters Monthly, John’s published critical work in Sculpture, Bookforum, and The The Poetry Foundation. Say hi at John [at] JohnCotter [dot] net.
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My youth was filled with warnings. “Just Say No,” “This is Your Brain on Drugs,” and “No Means No” pervaded the cultural ether in the early ’90s. The advice came from our teachers, police officers who came to our classrooms, and my parents. My mother was particularly good at training me to recognize and avoid stranger danger. As a kindergartner, I learned adults never ask for help from children (which now as an adult myself, I can confirm; they are useless at directions). If a stranger attempted to pick me up, I was to yell “NOT MY PARENT” as I melted into dead weight, rendering me nearly impossible to transport into a vehicle. And if a family friend came to pick me up from school, my parents and I had a secret code to ensure they were legit messengers vetted and verified (PocahontasDaisy, if I recall correctly). As far as I can tell, no attempts were ever made, but I was (and continue to be) on the lookout for shenanigans. My friends have similar stories regarding the ways in which they were warned against becoming victims — with similar threads — stranger dangers, candy vans, and codes. Our parents clearly survived their youths in order to pass down these lessons, which made it all the stranger that they were so afraid we wouldn’t survive ours.

By my birth in 1985, there had been two world wars that affected generations of our families. Men came home traumatized, women shifted their priorities, children adjusted until they inevitably feared Russians and nuclear war. As if Charles Manson’s destruction of the ’60s had been a battle cry, the 1970s and ’80s saw the proliferation of high-profile serial killers like John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Robert Hansen, Richard Ramirez, and the Zodiac Killer (and that’s just a handful) invading the public’s conscience. They were the “everyman” who lived in any town next to any person. Bundy was a charmer who volunteered at suicide hotlines. Gacy and Hansen were pillars of their community. And the nameless — like Zodiac — were so adept at blending in they were never caught. More… “Girl Afraid”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.
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For his 2007 translation of Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, Robin Buss chooses to render the title as The Lost Estate, followed by Le Grand Meaulnes in parentheses. However, since reading it, I refer to it solely as Le Grand Meaulnes, because Buss’s note on the translation describes the French title as nearly untranslatable: “There are, in fact, more titles of this book in English than there are translations of it”! (Even the author’s name is not consistently “translated.” A pseudonym — he was born Henri-Alban Fournier — it appears on some editions as “Henri Alain-Fournier” and on others simply as “Alain-Fournier.”)

The novel, considered a coming-of-age classic in France on par with our The Catcher in the Rye, tells the story of Augustin Meaulnes, known as grand at school for both his height and his charisma, a dashing boy who escapes one day on an adventure. It’s a few days before Christmas, and one of his classmates has been chosen for the important task of picking up the schoolmaster’s parents at a nearby train station. In a fit of competitive jealousy, Meaulnes steals a horse and carriage and races off to beat him to the station, but he takes a wrong turn and gets lost. He stops to sleep and the horse runs away. Eventually, cold and exhausted, he stumbles upon a secluded estate where some kind of celebration — “a strange fête” — is taking place: There are children in costume, dancing, a great feast. (You can picture it, can’t you? Stone walls? Fairy lights in the trees?) It’s a wedding, and Meaulnes crashes it. He is assumed to be a guest, and when everyone leaves at the end of the weekend, he catches a ride back in the direction of his town. By the time he returns he has been missing several days and, when the horse turned up with an empty trap, feared dead. More… “Impossible Time”

Elisa Gabbert is the author of L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (Black Ocean), The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and The French Exit (Birds LLC). Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.
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In August 2014, Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery was in Ferguson, Missouri covering the protests over the police shootings of Michael Brown. On August 13, his third day on assignment, Lowery was arrested at a McDonalds: a moment captured on a video that quickly went viral. The Missouri protests spread across the country, morphing into Black Lives Matter movement, and Lowery continued to follow the story. His experience and reporting are documented in his first book: “They Can’t Kill Us All.” While on this book tour, Lowery dropped by The Smart Set offices for an interview conducted by Byshera Williams and Richard Abowitz. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

More… “Law & The Reporter”

Get in touch with The Smart Set at editor@thesmartset.com.
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And the Lord God formed man . . . and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.
— Genesis 2:7

The world is beautiful before it is true.
— Gaston Bachelard

The theory of art developed in the Renaissance was intended to aid the artist in coming to terms with reality on an observational basis.
— Erwin Panofsky

Tell me! Is your universe awakening or going to sleep?
— John Hultberg

Cosmologists tell us that the temperature of space is two point seven Celsius above absolute zero. Certainly, many of Hultberg’s works, such as Twilight: Down The Drain and Dark Egypt, have icy light blue or very cold, dark blue skies. Demon Cloud, more demon angel than cloud, is certainly an exception with its infrared emissions glowing with the hot radiance of an unexplained fog of ions, or charged particles, over an accumulation of detritus. At right is a geometric plane with double circles, and at left is an easel-like speaker stand, both linked together by a single, cool, azure color. The demon cloud/angel, with its flurry of elegant brushstrokes that meld into the terrain, hovers over a landscape of tachist openings (and closings?) like dark kinetic energy escaping the gravitational field of earth. With his extraordinarily unique use of perspective, Hultberg expands his art into something more spatial, more astronomical, more cosmic. More… “The Art of John Hultberg”

Martin Ries, emeritus professor of art and art history at Long Island University, is an artist who studied at the Corcoran Art School and American University in Washington, D.C. He has exhibited his artwork in this country and abroad. In New York he studied art history at Hunter College with Leo Steinberg, William Rubin, and Ad Reinhardt.
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Chances are you have rarely seen a movie that draws substantially on the work of a major American poet. But this can change if you find a theater that is showing Paterson. This conditional, however, only doubles the unlikelihood. Even in greater New York, the movie had limited appearances. As Hollywood turns out innumerable examples of stupefying violence, inane plotting, and simplistic characterizations, the unlikelihood of poetry on the big screen outstrips even the remotest possibility. Yet somehow we find ourselves tenderly watching Jim Jarmusch’s subtle masterpiece. One of my fellow viewers remarked how odd that the movie didn’t contain a single car crash or large explosion. Yet what it had in plain sight was something like the spirit of William Carlos Williams, often referred to as WCW, the great modernist poet and doctor who spent most of his life as a general practitioner in the once-industrial town of Paterson, New Jersey.

The movie shows us how the spirit of WCW’s poetry is embodied in a bus driver, played with taste and control by Adam Driver. The low-key plot proceeds with an almost structuralist clarity. As Driver goes through his week from Monday to Sunday, we see him fall into a strict pattern. He awakens without the benefit of an alarm clock, each weekday beginning with a glancing look at his wristwatch; the hour is between 6:15 and 6:30 a.m. He arises, pulling himself out a bed made supremely normal and comfortable by the presence of his beautiful wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). There on a chair next to the bed is his driver’s uniform, washed fresh and ironed each evening by his solicitous helpmate. A short breakfast (some featuring Cheerios), and then, carrying a tin lunch pail, he walks along leafy suburban streets. Walks that is, until he passes through an abandoned run of brick factories and warehouses — until he arrives at the bus depot. There, before he begins his route, which takes him through downtown Paterson, he spares a few moments to jot down poems in a notebook, the words appearing on the bottom of the screen in a clear, evenhanded script. More… “Poets in Paterson

Charles Molesworth has published a number of books on modern literature. His most recent book is The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (U. of Texas).
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In 1817, a former forester by the name of Karl Drais undertook an excursion on the paved road from Mannheim, Germany to Schwetzingen, just west of Heidelberg, and back. These eight miles took him just an hour (a stagecoach would have needed about four). Instead of merely walking, he drove himself or rode on a special vehicle he had constructed for himself: the Draisine, or dandy horse, made from wood. The local newspaper didn’t even take notice. We don’t know if Drais was aware of the importance of his vehicle, which we remember today as the prototype of the first bicycle — in other words, the first mechanical individual means of transportation without a horse.

The revolutionary aspect of the Draisine was the fact that it had two wheels in a line rather than next to each other. Drais acquired something like a patent in his home state of Baden, and later in Prussia and France. However, his invention was not yet a bike in the sense that we know today. It didn’t have pedals yet, and was propelled by the rider pushing on the ground with his or her feet. This direct connection with the ground gave riders the feeling of being somewhat in control, while the bike as we know it today requires more trust in the device. It was something the people back then simply didn’t have. More… “Revolution on Two Wheels”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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