December 2009


Do You Eat Out or Go to the Movies?
Sure you do, and you gain pleasure from both, which more than repays the cost. If you are a regular reader of Aristos you presumably obtain some pleasure or value from it as well, which we trust will inspire your support. You probably know that our "gutsy little journal" (as Magazines for Libraries once put it) is the go-to periodical for articles and reviews championing oft-neglected traditional artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries--from painters and sculptors to composers, playwrights, and choreographers--as well as battling the avant-garde forces, both modernist and postmodernist, arrayed against them. You are also no doubt aware that Aristos is the only periodical that consistently distinguishes between art and non-art on the basis of a sound theory of art. Most others do not even attempt to do so. These are just some of the reasons you may be reading Aristos right now. There are more.

In addition to thought-provoking longer articles that discuss the arts from our unique perspective, we offer Notes & Comments, the page you are now reading, as a regular feature. Here you can pick and choose what interests you, from equally provocative briefer items to news of the arts. Further, in each issue, our Aristos Awards call attention to objective arts commentary by ordinary people, journalists, critics, or scholars whose concerns and values you are likely to share. Under Worth Reading, we also regularly provide links to articles from other periodicals on topics and from points of view we think you will find of interest. In other words, in every issue there's lots to select from, and enjoy.

To return to those dinners and movies that we mentioned at the start of this note, the national average for restaurant meals this year was $34.62, or $69.24 for two of you, according to a recent Zagat survey. The average regular price of a movie ticket is around $8.00, or $16 for two. How much is a year of Aristos worth to you? About the same as a night out on the town for two--dinner, say, and perhaps a movie?

As 2009 comes to a close and we begin our twenty-eighth year of publication, our goal remains to publish more often and on a more regular basis--to give you, in other words, more of what you have come to expect and value in these pages. And so we ask for your support. A contribution of just $25, which is nearly ten dollars less than you might spend for your next dinner out (and about forty-five dollars less than dinner for two) will help us cover our basic operating expenses, from web hosting and internet services to computer costs and office supplies. It could also help us to hire part-time help to upgrade and maintain our website and in-house mailing list, as well as to assist in the publication of Aristos--an essential step if we are to increase the number of issues in the coming year. Needless to say, higher contributions would have an even greater impact on our efforts, and would be especially appreciated. (Please see the Aristos Foundation page for information on making tax-deductible contributions.) -- Louis Torres

An Enormous Heart: The Private André Watts
There is a purity about private acts of compassion that sets them powerfully apart from public generosity. In "Public Concert, Private Music" John Thomas Dodson recounts a story that will touch your heart, involving renowned pianist André Watts. Dodson, who is Music Director of the Adrian Symphony Orchestra in Michigan, tells it largely through copies of e-letters between his brother and Watts, and text messages from his brother to himself about Watts, the children's program Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, and his brother's severely retarded daughter. For links to videos of Watts performing Chopin's "Revolutionary Etude" and Schubert's "Musical Moments" on Mr. Rogers, see our comments at the end of Dodson's weblog post. Listen to a third sample at Rhapsody (search for: "André Watts" "En Rêve"--retaining quotation marks as shown). See also "André Watts to Perform in Our Neighborhood." But read Dodson's piece first!

Classical Music for the Very Young
If you live in the New York Metropolitan area and know a child you'd like to introduce to the pleasures of classical music, you couldn't do better than subscribe to the Little Orchestra Society's children's concerts (see links that follow for information on upcoming performances). Under the masterly direction of Dino Anagnost, this wonderful little ensemble knows just how to engage children. For the very young, that involves, first and foremost, music that is lively, not too long, and amenable to visualization and vocalization. (In contrast, the New York Philharmonic's Young People's Concerts often include music that is far too subtle or too somber to hold a youngster's attention.) A little silliness helps, too. In the Lolli-Pops Concerts (for children 3-5) the costumed characters Bow the Panda, Toot the Bird, Buzz the Bee, and Bang the Lion regularly prance around the stage, singing simple ditties that remind the audience of the four sections of the orchestra. As my then three-year-old granddaughter enthused aloud at her first concert: "Singing and dancing is good!" Children aged 6-12 can graduate to the Peabody Award-winning Happy Concerts for Young People. Last year's series included a cleverly updated adaptation of Victor Herbert's Babes in Toyland--which was repeated again this year--and a very moving tribute to celebrate the Lincoln Bicentennial: Honest Abe: Four Scores and More. Bravo, Maestro Anagnost! -- M.M.K.

EXHIBITION: Visual Narratives of the Past
American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915, Metropolitan Museum of Art, through January 24, 2010. Given its subject matter and scope, this exhibition has something for virtually everyone, from American history buffs to schoolchildren and ordinary art lovers. The painters active during this period--among them, John Singleton Copley, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, and Mary Cassatt--had a great many interesting stories to tell, and the Met has gathered together 103 of them. Thumbnail details of all the works can be viewed on a page of the Met's website, each identified simply by the painter's name and dates, the title and date of the work, and a few other items of lesser importance. To view each painting--without a curator spoonfeeding what you can see for yourself, and interpreting it for you--just point your cursor at the image. For further information and interpretive remarks, click on the thumbnail once, then twice more for enlargements. See also the links at the top of each page for information on the eras covered by the exhibition, along with images of related paintings. (Order the catalogue.)

This is an excellent exhibition for children, especially of elementary-school age, as many of the paintings depict young children in various settings. I attended with my seven-year-old granddaughter for about an hour, having made a preliminary visit to construct a scavenger-hunt for her. Using a sheet of thumbnail details, I suggested that she "find the painting including this person (or animal)." We also allowed time for her to select a painting to sketch. I largely refrained from discussing the paintings, with the exception of the one she chose--Ring Toss (1896), by William Merritt Chase--and a few others. (If you attend with children, prepare ahead of time, skip the audio tour, and talk about the paintings that interest them, plus a few of your choice. Anyone planning such a visit can contact me at torres[at]aristos[dot]org for further information and suggestions.) --L.T.

THEATER: Scintillating Shaw at the New Pearl
Now well ensconced in its new home at New York City Center Stage II in midtown Manhattan, the Pearl Theatre Company (see my note in the January 2006 issue) is romping its way in high style through Misalliance--George Bernard Shaw's lively take on love, sex, marriage, and more. This is a production not to be missed. The acting, both by members of the resident company and by outsiders, is superb. Director Jeff Steitzer has managed admirably within Stage II's modest space, and his affinity for Shaw is evident in the perfection of this production. No surprise that he confesses little interest in working with "contemporary" plays, which in his view have all too little meat by comparison.

Judging from this Misalliance, and from the solid Playboy of the Western World that preceded it, the Pearl--now under the artistic direction of J. R. Sullivan--is adhering to its founders' aim of presenting classic plays in a spirit true to the playwright's likely intent. For more about the company and a schedule of performances (only through January 24), see the Pearl's website. If you'd like to read Misalliance before or after seeing it, you can download it for free at Project Gutenberg. And if you attend, don't miss picking up a copy of the notes on the play by the Pearl's resident dramaturge, Kate Farrington. --M.M.K.

Epic Literary and Film Romance Lives On
As many admirers of Ayn Rand's fiction will tell you, their favorite novel is not one of the big two--The Fountainhead (1943) or Atlas Shrugged (1957), both of which her detractors love to hate--but her first novel, We the Living (1936). In "Ayn Rand's We the Living: New Life in a Restored Film Version" (reprinted here from Aristos, December 1988), Michelle Kamhi suggests why this is:

Less intellectual than Rand's later novels, with their more intricate plots, more idealized characters, and lengthy philosophical monologues, We the Living vividly dramatizes, through a rather idiosyncratic love story, the inexorably destructive effect of totalitarianism, especially on the best individuals. . . . The story is Rand's simplest, most direct, most passionate statement of her personal philosophy of the supreme value of the individual.

The story of how the film came into being and survived intact (recounted by Kamhi in some detail) almost defies belief. A pirated version made in Italy during World War II, it was a huge box-office success. Though initially regarded as anti-Soviet by the fascist government, however, it soon came to be viewed as an implicit indictment of the Mussolini regime as well. It was apparently banned and ordered to be destroyed, but the original negatives were secretly preserved. Three decades later they were discovered by Rand's lawyers and brought to America, where she supervised the restoration and re-editing of the film. In 1988, the restored version (condensed to 2 hours and 52 minutes)--in Italian, with English subtitles--opened in theaters, playing in 75 cities worldwide to enthusiastic reviews. A video soon followed. Fast forward to October 2009 and the release of the film in DVD (see below).

Ordering Information. The two-disc Special Edition DVD of We the Living--which includes scenes deleted from the original version (including the original ending) and a new 45-minute documentary detailing the original film's history and the story of its restoration--is available for $34.95 (free shipping) from Copies of Ayn Rand's novel may be ordered in paperback or hardcover, or as a CD. (Purchasing through the above links benefits Aristos.)

Official Website. Visit the We the Living website for film clips, still photos, screen credits, reviews, and additional background information.

Rossano Brazzi. The Italian actor playing the film's romantic lead enjoyed a long career in such American films as David Lean's Summertime [more] (1955), opposite Katharine Hepburn, and South Pacific [more], with Mitzi Gaynor (1958).

Richard Lack (1928-2009)
On our home page in August we noted the passing of painter-teacher Richard Lack, founder of the school of painting known as "Classical Realism," a term he coined. Shame on the critics who have willfully ignored Lack and the tradition of painting he represented! Following his death, scores learned about him from a news release we sent out, yet to our knowledge not one bothered to take public note. When we consider that these same critics, like lemmings, trip over each other to eulogize the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, say, we cannot much regret that newspapers throughout the land are laying off their art critics with increasing frequency. History, we trust, will one day record that those critics were wrong on both counts, and that Lack was one of a handful of heroic twentieth-century painter-teachers who, through prodigious effort and at great personal cost, helped to keep the craft of Western classical painting alive in a culture dominated by the avant-garde. (See Obituary, Paintings [Gandy Gallery], "The Legacy of Richard Lack," and Aristos Awards: 1969 and 1985.)

An Avant-Garde Tosca
Writing on the Metropolitan Opera's controversial new production of Puccini's Tosca (directed by Luc Bondy), culture critic Judith H. Dobrzynski aptly observes:

These director-driven productions always seem to hinge their changes on shock value. But must "new" always mean vulgar? If it does, what's new about it? Why is "edginess" usually the sole--or, at least, the main--lure for new audiences? // Not only is this unlikely to be true, it also carries a danger. . . . [P]eople may go to see gore and sex, but that doesn't mean they are becoming opera-lovers. It will take ever more "shocking" versions to keep them coming back; meanwhile, the core audience may flee. // . . . Who says that "innovative" reinterpretations of classic works automatically attract the hip, young people that seem to be the be-all, end-all of cultural organizations? Is it not condescending to suggest that work created before their time is off-putting or uninteresting to young people? ["Bondy's Out-With-The-Old 'Tosca,'", October 14, 2009]

We could not agree more.

Dobrzynski's remarks bring to mind Heather Mac Donald's Aristos Award-winning "The Abduction of Opera," on the Berlin Comic Opera's avant-gardization of Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio. As both commentaries transcend their subject matter, even readers who are not opera fans may find them of interest.

Lovely to Look At
We think so, and you may too: Portrait of Harriet Campbell (1815). For an informative biographical sketch of Ammi Phillips (1788-1865), the folk portraitist who painted Harriet, see the text accompanying an image of another work by him.

Irving Kristol (1920-2009)
Upon learning of the recent death of Irving Kristol, we were moved to recall that when nearly all serious periodicals ignored the publication of What Art Is in 2000, he evidently thought the book important enough to have it reviewed in The Public Interest (see our response), the influential quarterly he co-founded--which ceased publication in 2005 after a run of forty years.

In 2006 we gave Kristol a retroactive Aristos Award for his 1990 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece entitled "It's Obscene but Is It Art?"--which we had cited in What Art Is. Recently we learned of another instance in which Kristol had been critical of the avant-garde. In an encomium published in the Weekly Standard ("A Genius of Temperament"), his friend Joseph Epstein recalls that Kristol, who "liked to play with ideas," once "tried out the idea that Modernism in the arts was the devil's work":

He meant the actual capital-D Devil. Was he serious? I'm not certain even now, but the discussion, in which Irving argued that Modernist art undermined tradition and as such human confidence in institutions, was provocative in the best sense, causing a true believer (that would be me) to defend Modernism by arguing that the best of it was based precisely on tradition.

Kristol was largely right, of course. In its most radically destructive forms in the visual arts, in particular, modernism arrogantly flouted tradition, rejecting it wholesale. And the havoc it wrought is still being played out.

Andrew Wyeth: Two Views on his Farm Road
As we've suggested on other occasions, Wyeth (who died in January at 91) has been egregiously undervalued, even maligned, by the art establishment. Regina Hackett, the former art critic of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, is among the avant-garde enthusiasts who can't stand him. Consider her remarks on his work--in particular, Farm Road, included in the exhibition "Andrew Wyeth: Remembrance," recently at the Seattle Art Museum. For a dissenting viewpoint on the same painting, see Louis Torres's comments, following her remarks.

EXHIBITION: Saint-Gaudens Redux
Saint-Gaudens at the Met, Metropolitan Museum of Art, closed November 15. We briefly noted this fine exhibition in our July issue. Karen Wilkins's more recent appreciative review in the Wall Street Journal (October 3) is especially worth reading, and don't miss the informative slide-show essay by architecture critic and two-time Aristos Award winner Witold Rybczynski. We were a bit dismayed, however, when we read this remark accompanying the first image: "The [Sherman] monument is a reminder of how different Saint-Gaudens was from contemporary artists such as Claes Oldenburg, Richard Serra, and Jeff Koons, who make public sculptures but whose art is essentially private in nature." If by "private" Rybczynski means "impenetrable," we concur. But is the work of these three art? We think not.

EXHIBITION: Rembrandt's People, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, through January 24, 2010. (See review "Real Rembrandts, and the Also-Rans," New York Times, November 6, 2009.)

Rachmaninoff--Music for Teens?
Alfred Brendel, who retired from performing last December at age 78, was asked recently if there were any composers who had not appealed to him. He named only Sergei Rachmaninoff [1873-1943]:

"There were certainly some with whom I felt that I didn't want to get anywhere. . . . Rachmaninov, for instance--for me, it's music for teenagers. He was a composer who knew his craft, who could invent large themes and was a great pianist. But for his time he was a reactionary. His music was not new enough. And for me the criterion of a masterpiece is whether it presents something that wasn't there before." -- "Alfred Brendel on Retiring from the Concert Hall and His Books on Poetry," Times (U.K.), October 3, 2009.

Brendel is said to be an intellectual and may have been a great pianist but that doesn't excuse his foolish remark about Rachmaninoff's music being for teenagers and his brushing off the Russian composer as a mere "reactionary." The following commentary from Classical Net sheds light on his remarks:

Alive during the spawn of twelve-tone music, neoclassicism, and various forms of avant-gardism, Rachmaninoff was modern art's complete antithesis. His compositions and pianism are entrenched in the romantic style of [Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Dvoák]. . . . As a result, views of Rachmaninoff were split into two extremes during his lifetime; anti-romantics such as Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg frowned upon his work, while he was embraced by such names as Gustav Mahler, Eugene Ormandy, and Dimitri Mitropoulos. Even today, listeners can be overwhelmed by the vast, enveloping sound that Rachmaninoff's music generates and performers are hesitant to supply the emotions his works demand.

Overwhelmed? Not me. --L.T.

Titled Untitled
We have frequently noted that when someone calls a painting "Untitled" that is its title. To shun an actual title and call the work "Untitled" is the "in" thing among avant-gardists. Martin Gayford, the chief art critic of Bloomberg News, cites two recent examples:

There is a disquieting element in the works of Roger Hiorns, though it comes not from looking at them but from reading the list of materials. "Untitled" (2008)--all of his works bear the same title--is made of "atomized passenger aircraft engine," while three others [1, 2 , 3] include "brain matter."
Another artist with a good chance of winning [the Turner Prize], I suspect, is Richard Wright, who doesn't paint on canvases but on the walls of buildings. The largest of his two pieces in the show--audaciously titled "no title" rather than the more fashionable "untitled"--looks at first glance like elaborate wallpaper. ["Turner Prize Startles--It's Almost Boring," October 6, 2009]

For further citations of works titled Untitled, see "untitled" in our list of artworld buzzwords.

FILM: (Untitled)
This shrewd little movie is a hilarious send-up of the contemporary artworld, showing it to be as phony as a wooden nickel. Of course, no self-respecting avant-garde apologist could admit to that, which helps to explain movie critic Stephen Holden's clumsy effort to convince his readers otherwise:

Jonathan Parker's acutely witty art-world satire, "(Untitled)," carries off a tricky balancing act. It invites us to view the fictitious avant-garde musicians, visual artists, gallery owners, collectors and critics trooping across the screen as fraudulent, self-deluded buffoons. But at the same time it takes these visionary oddballs--not the art they make, buy and sell--seriously enough to force you to examine your own reflexive skepticism. . . .
If "(Untitled)" hedges its bets about the value of it all, it is ultimately on the side of experimental music and art and their champions, no matter how eccentric. For that alone this brave little movie deserves an audience. ["The Question: Is It Art? The Answer: Ambiguous," New York Times, October 23, 2009]

Note Holden's use of the artworld buzzwords "force" and "examine" (on which, see other examples). His disclaimer notwithstanding, this "brave little movie" in fact depicts the sort of "fraudulent, self-deluded buffoons" who actually inhabit today's artworld--though anyone not already familiar with that strange world would probably assume that the film was a gross exaggeration.

(View scenes from (Untitled): click on "video," which includes the trailer and three other clips. For further information and reviews, see the movie website Rotten Tomatoes [about]. For showtimes try the Internet Data Moviebase--IDMb or local listings in your area. Very limited distribution.)

EXHIBITION: Roxy on the Roof
"Roxy Paine on the Roof: Maelstrom," Metropolitan Museum of Art, closed November 29. Each Spring and Fall, the Met devotes its roof-top exhibition space to showcasing purported sculpture by a "contemporary artist." This year it was Roxy Paine's turn. The exhibition consisted of a single tangled piece, Maelstrom [more], which occupied the entire space and is not easily described. In the likely event you can't figure it all out, the Met explains that in situ, the piece gives you "the sense of being immersed in the midst of a cataclysmic force of nature." Why, of course, just as the title suggests. The "sculpture," one learns, is "one of Paine's "Dendroids" based on systems such as vascular networks, tree roots, industrial piping, and fungal mycelia." So that's it! Why didn't I think of all that up on the roof that day (especially that bit about fungal mycelia)? --L.T.

Tracking the Artworld
Artworld buzzwords (and phrases): new examples, this time of dismantle, explore, and investigate. New forms of art: the list of bogus genres grows ever longer. Non-art at the New York Times: sports, the Holocaust, and other non-arts topics covered on the front page of the Arts section.

Pure Joy, Even if You Don't Like Dance
Is there any dance that better conveys the sheer exuberance of being alive than Paul Taylor's Esplanade? Set to Bach's Violin Concerto in E major and the Largo and Allegro movements from his Concerto for Two Violins, this now-classic modern piece consists entirely of ordinary movement--running, skipping, hopping, rolling over, sliding, and leaping (into the arms of other dancers). It works. Each movement is perfectly integrated with the spirit of Bach's music. An enigmatic crawling sequence during the largo movement serves as a poignant counterpoint to the joyous mood of the rest. Check the company's touring schedule (see "Paul Taylor Dance Company," in blue rectangles) for performances nationwide through May 2010.

In New York City, Esplanade is performed on February 26 and March 11. Our preference is for the latter evening, which includes Sunset, set to music by Edward Elgar (Serenade for Strings and Elegy for Strings). The February 26 program includes Scudorama, described by one critic as "a view of . . . purgatory," set to music by Clarence Jackson that is "jagged and relentless, punctuated by sounds like police whistles."

As good fortune would have it, there is a brief online video excerpt of Esplanade (ignore link at "see more video"). While you are there, don't miss the snippet from Aureole, set to music by Handel. Enjoy!

Letters to the Editors
We invite readers to comment on items published in this or past issues (see this issue and Archives for examples). Letters may be edited for clarity or length, but the writer will always be consulted prior to publication.