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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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“Imagine no possessions,” John Lennon asked in a famous song. Then wisely added: “I wonder if you can.” I note that Lennon was driving a 19-feet-long Rolls Royce when he composed the song “Imagine.” In fact, he didn’t really drive it; he had a couple of chauffeurs available for that. The former Beatle spent his time in the back seat, where he had a double bed installed along with a television and refrigerator.

No, I don’t blame Lennon. He’s not the only person to take pride in ownership while imagining a property-free world he didn’t actually want to inhabit. Bernadette Peters summed up the pervasive attitude best in the Steve Martin film The Jerk, when she faces the prospect of going from wealth to poverty. “I don’t care about losing all the money,” she declares bravely. Then after a pause: “It’s losing all the stuff.” More… “Why Music Ownership Matters”

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten books, most recently How to Listen to Jazz
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My first idea was to compile a brief and brisk user’s guide to recent rock memoirs, a sort of Consumer Reports of the best and the worst, perhaps grading them with an A minus or a C plus, the way Robert Christgau used to do with his surveys of pop records in the once-influential Village Voice. So I started with Keith Richards’s Life, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, and John Fogerty’s Fortunate Son before realizing that this whimsical vacation in reading was likely to turn into an unfinishable slog. Even as I read Keith’s (A), Bob’s (A plus), and John’s (C minus) revelatory or not-so-revelatory accounts of the rock ’n’ roll life, more kept issuing from the presses. Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney), Viv Albertine (the Slits), Donald Fagan (Steely Dan), Steve Katz (Blood, Sweat and Tears), Greg Allman (the Allman Brothers Band), Peter Hook (New Order), Bernard Summer (New Order), Brian Wilson (the Beach Boys), Mike Love (the Beach Boys), Nile Rodgers (Chic), Richard Hell (Television, the Voidoids), Kristin Hersh (Throwing Muses), and the drummer from David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars band (Woody Woodmansey): all have had their say, and that’s not even to mention continuing contributions to the genre by such heavy hitters as Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Robertson, Chrissie Hynde, Peter Townshend, Neil Young, Elvis Costello, and Morrissey. Where would I ever find the time to read all of these musicians’ books if I was ever going to read anything else? Or listen to their records? Or vacuum my living room? And then I read Petal Pusher by Laurie Lindeen and decided: the others can wait. More… “It’s the Drummer That Matters”

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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The English folk musician Nick Drake died in November 1974 at age 26, leaving only three albums behind.

The first, Five Leaves Left — the title a reference to a British cigarette papers packet — appeared in 1969, one of those rare albums with little that preceded it and little that could follow from it, so singular was Drake’s musical tapestry, like the rustic verse of John Clare had met with some Mendelssohn-like stirrings and taken a trip to London to walk the streets before returning to the heath. More… “Season’s End, Season’s Start”

Colin Fleming writes on art, literature, film, rock, jazz, classical music, and sports for Rolling Stone, JazzTimes, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and a number of other publications. His fiction has recently appeared in AGNI, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Commentary, and Post Road, and he’s the author of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss (Dzanc), and is writing a memoir, Many Moments More: A Story About the Art of Endurance, and a novel about a reluctant piano genius, age seven or eight, called The Freeze Tag Sessions. He’s a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His tattered, on-the-mend website is colinfleminglit.com, and he highly recommends reading The Smart Set daily, along with ten mile coastal walks and lots of Keats and hockey for the soul.
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We asked our staff to pick their favorite contributions to popular culture that we encountered in 2016. From books, to movies, to a YouTube concert video, we enjoyed a lot of beauty and truth in a year unlikely to be remembered for either. “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” Leonard Cohen famously sang in “Anthem.” Embodying this year, Cohen triumphantly released the gorgeous album You Want it Darker shortly before his voice was suddenly silenced by his passing in November. A less-quoted lyric of Anthem is Cohen’s instruction “Ring the bells that still can ring.” Here is what chimed for us this year. More… “Best of 2016”

Get in touch with The Smart Set at editor@thesmartset.com.
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For the first time ever, the jury has given the Nobel Prize in literature to a writer who cannot be appreciated by the deaf. In their citation, the jury lauded Bob Dylan’s “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” But can song lyrics be rightly esteemed on the page, or do they need a tune and a voice?

Dylan’s lyrics — absent the memory of the chords that fed them life — read like dead fish. But they swim in sounds like nothing else. I remember they do, but deaf, I can’t hear them now. And just as color cannot be helpfully explained to a blind museum patron, so the lilt of a voice cannot be helpfully explained to one who’s deaf. The Nobel Prize in literature has gone to someone I’m no longer able to “read.” More… “Poetry, Approximately”

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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A softly-sung tune signals the beginning of the High Holiday service; the plaintive melody aims to imbue each individual with a feeling that their spiritual presence, rather than the physical surroundings, create the sacred space necessary to pray as a congregation. At this very moment, I am transported to a new dimension, away from the daily and the decanal, into the realm of music at the service of the soul.

More… “Allegro ma non Troppo”

Daniel V. Schidlow, MD was appointed Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Dean and senior vice president, medical affairs, at Drexel University College of Medicine on June 27, 2012. Previously, he was chairman of the Department of Pediatrics and senior associate dean of the pediatric clinical campus. Schidlow continues to be a professor in the Departments of Pediatrics, Pharmacology & Physiology, and Medicine. He has received numerous awards for his contributions to medicine and education, including the 2010 Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching.
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Although I consider myself an atheist, my lack of faith always wavers around the High Holy Days. These are the sacred days of the Jewish calendar that extend from Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During this period of about a week, as the joyous holiday leads into the somber one (“on Rosh Hashana it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed”), I am always visited by a memories of my childhood rabbi, an iconic figure, who embodies, for me, religion at its most beautifully contradictory.
More… “The Rabbi Sang”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
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When I was 13 or 14 I spent a certain amount of time in my local record store in suburban Connecticut contemplating the cover of Projections by the Blues Project: five proto-hippies hanging out on the corner looking slick with their polka dot shirts and sideburns. And that guy with the coolly arrogant stare with his finger hooked in his belt loop – who was that? Kooper, the most famous one, I recognized from his association with Bob Dylan, and Katz I knew from the covers of two Blood, Sweat and Tears albums, a band that had even then achieved far more success than the already defunct Blues Project. But the swaggering hipster who caught my eye – that was Danny.

I met Danny Kalb in 1996 at a party in Park Slope, where he had lived for some years after the breakup of the Blues Project and a spell in California that had not been good for his mental health. Danny had founded the band in 1965, making the progression from Greenwich Village folkie and resident guitar virtuoso to plugged-in rock and roller. For a while the Blues Project, with their progressive blending of blues, rock, pop, and jazz, looked like they might be the Next Big Thing, but it never panned out; as Danny once told me, he had been a minor rock star for a couple of years. Most people agree that neither Projections nor its under produced predecessor Live at the Café Au Go Go really did justice to the band. Like many a cult band, they never quite got down their vibe on wax. I prefer their third and last album, Reunion in Central Park (1972), which comes closest to capturing their almost-as-tight-as-a-jazz-band-but-not-obsessed-about-it essence. The boxed set The Blues Project Anthology (1997), in the grab-bag way of the band, contains a rich miscellany of rockers, pop ballads, jazzy instrumentals, blues standards, and throwaways, but I can’t improve on the superb liner notes by John Platt and anyway what I really want to talk about is Danny, the only rock star, minor or otherwise, I’ve ever known.
More… “A Minor Rock Star”

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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It was right there, a bit of boilerplate I had slugged in, due to be cut in the next draft: “In light of recent events . . .” I was hundreds of words into sifting the issues that arise when white rap fans use the N-word, knowing that whatever I came up with would be read during one of the most publicly race-conscious moments of recent history. But after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot and killed by cops, many of those words I’d written wanted to twist, or invert entirely. By revising the first sentence, I found a twist.
More… “An N of 0”

Sasha Frere-Jones is a musician and writer from Brooklyn. He lives in Los Angeles.
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