Monday, December 1, 2008

Reading Books

In my last blog I was intending to write about reading--and the pleasure it gives me--but then Virgil unexpectedly intervened and my thoughts got suspended. So now it's back to business. Coincidentally, I happened to read this morning, in the New Yorker, that Hitler was a voracious reader (for whatever that's worth), finishing a book every night (!), either at his desk or in his armchair, always with a cup of tea. Timothy Ryback is the purveyor of these exotic tidbits, to be found in his recently published book called "Hitler's Private Library." Unfortunately the short review of it that I read offers no clues as to the titles on Hitler's list, so I cannot share any actual information about Hitler's reading--only about my own.

In his book, Ryback, it seems, relies heavily on Walter Benjamin's idea of the private library as a map of its owner's character; so make of this (to-be-continued) list of mine whatever you will, knowing in advance that it will in all likelihood need to advance through several more blogs.

The first book I recommend highly is one I recently ordered for a friend as a Christmas present. After unpacking it from its Amazon box, I couldn't resist a tiny sneak-preview, and once I'd stuck my snout inside those pages, I couldn't put the book down. I ended up having to read it from cover to cover. That particular thrill, of utter absorption and abandoned delight, is precisely the aphrodisiac every reader craves, but not all books provide. This one really does deliver the goods.

Entitled "Seven Days in the Art World," it offers a complete, immersive experience into the inner workings of the art world, a universe of ineffable gaudiness and theatrical excitement, which the author, Sarah Thornton, who has a B.A, in art history and a PhD in cultural sociology, manages to probe deeply, in an engaging narrative that is enlivening more than it is sobering. Although there is poison in this chalice, Thornton (whose writing reminds me of Elizabeth Gilbert's, the author of the fabulous "Eat Pray Love," ) manages to capture the soul of this extravagant, ambitious world without the remotest taste of iron in her mouth.

So what, besides glyphic hierarchies of status and reputation, makes the art world the art world? Most certainly, it is it's power to define art. But besides that, the art world is where the professionals hang out.

Hanging out, interacting, socializing around the globe, and interviewing high-profile artists, dealers, curators, critics, collectors, and auction-house experts for several years from 2004-2007, Thornton filled a total of forty-seven blue notebooks during her five years of participatory research. Each of the book's chapters is an iconic study in how the great pinball game of the art world works, the "seven days" being a temporal structure for seven subcultures that she separately enters and examines--as a "participant observer"--and then weaves together: an auction sale at Christie's in Manhattan; an art "crit" class (that lasts all-day and half-the-night at CalArts in Los Angeles, with the crit's straight man, Michael Asher, presiding with quiet precision over his students); the Basel Art Fair; the art prize (a gala awarding of the prestigious Turner Prize in the UK); the magazine (Artforum); a Studio Visit (with Japanese Pop artist Takashi Murakami); and the Venice Biennale. Each of these subcultures is a world in its own right, and Thornton's narrative puts you right there.

Meanwhile, I am now reading another book about art, which I was sent to me for review by Resurgence magazine in England; it's called "Art and Upheaval: Artists on the World's Frontiers," written by William Cleveland. It's the polar opposite of Thornton's, being all about artists responding to scenes of tragedy and challenge in the world's dangerous "hot spots," often in the face of "vicious politics."

Cleveland's focus is on exploring the creative powers called up by extreme crises and trauma--six narratives from six communities on five continents: Northern Ireland, Cambodia, South Africa, Watts, CA, Maralinga, Australia, and the former Yugoslavia. His eight years of journeying have lead him to a very different picture of the human potential of art--its ability to heal human grief and bring people back to life again. This book is not so much a survey of artists working in places in turmoil, but a study in how and why the creative impulse rises up in situations of upheaval and tragedy. At times that can mean poetry readings conducted at the barrel of a gun, artists helping homeless children in Rio's favelas tell their story, or responding to trauma victims in the aftermath of the Columbine school shootings. Cleveland likes to say: "Imagine knowing that your art making could get you killed, but doing it anyway."

In his book, somehow the moral demands of the moment seem more pressing than the pull of that "umbilical cord of gold"--a phrase coined by the critic Clement Greenberg to describe entrepreneurship, affiliated buzz, and meritocracy in the art world. For Cleveland's artists, art has to have a purpose beyond the purely aesthetic, whether political, spiritual, or environmental. Otherwise its risks seem meaningless. On the other hand, you are not likely to compare anything these artists have done with the work of Rembrandt or Picasso, or even Andy Warhol. That I should find myself reading these two books back-to-back seems one of postmodernism's more radical acts: today we no longer aspire to a totalizing view of art. It can arise in different contexts that bear no causal relationship to one another. Art is no longer like some enormous room with a stable and knowable center.


Sylvie Schmid said...

Thank you for your insightful comments about William Cleveland's Art and Upheaval. I'm looking forward to reading your review of the book in Resurgence. Any idea which issue so I can keep an eye out for it? Thanks again.

Sylvie Schmid
New Village Press

Patricia said...

I appreciated your calling attention to William Cleveland's book and look forward to reading it. There is way too much attention afforded the other aspect of art.

Patricia Kessler

still sprouting said...

Hey Suzi - I'm glad to hear that you're reviewing my friend, Bill's book. It was our textbook in the Art in a Time of War class this quarter, and I have to say that it was thrilling to read it with students, all interdisciplinary majors, and hear how moved they were by the stories, and how empowered they were to make art about their own stories (many of the students come from military families and are vets). I don't believe that what the artists in this book have created is less culturally valuable than Rembrandt or Picasso. I think it all has to do with context, and how value is interpreted and shaped. BTW Art and Upheaval's publisher is my publisher as well, and the book will be out next month or the following. Just completed negotiations about the cover - whew! Much love, b