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August 2009


Architects as Heroes
The article entitled "As Heroes Disappear, the City Needs More," on the front page of the New York Times arts section on August 23rd, is not about New York City's fire fighters or police, as one might think, but about its architects. Noting the death of architect Charles Gwathmey, the paper's resident critic Nicolai Ouroussoff writes that the "New York Five," to which Gwathmey belonged,

came to represent the idea that architecture could still express and advance our values as a culture. To some, the group embodies the last heroic period in New York architecture.

We don't know what Ouroussoff means by "our values as a culture," but the house Gwathmey designed for his parents--said by some to be "one of the most influential buildings of the modern era"--certainly doesn't reflect anything we hold dear (would you want to live there?). Nor does this design proposal for the World Trade Center Site (which, mercifully, was rejected).

The public buildings by Gwathmey and his peers may be "heroic," in the sense of "impressive in size or scope," but that doesn't make their designers "heroes." What the five purportedly had in common was "a desire to reassert the importance of architecture as [an] art form." According to Ouroussoff, they "saw themselves as artists and thinkers." (On the fallacy of their view, see John Silber's "Architecture of the Absurd: How 'Genius' Disfigured a Practical Art," reviewed in our July issue.)

Viva Vivaldi!
Asked to sum up the appeal of the baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi in a single sentence, musicologist and performer Susan Orlando at first responded, "I have to put it all in words? I can't [just] play the music?" but then swiftly added: "Vivaldi wrote music that people listen to and it makes them glad to be alive." So true.

As director of the complete Vivaldi Edition on the Naïve record label--which is scheduled to comprise some 100 CDs by 2015--Orlando knows the work as well as anyone, and is engaged in bringing to life works that have languished unplayed in Italian repositories for centuries. And musical snobs who have tended to dismiss Vivaldi as having "written not hundreds of concertos but the same concerto hundreds of times" are beginning to change their tune.

(See "For Vivaldi, Many More Seasons," New York Times, August 19, 2009, which includes audio samples of the music: an oratorio, a concerto, and an opera, as well as images of three album covers. As for the grossly inappropriate cover "portraits" by the trendy French photographer Denis Rouvre--see twenty more at andante.com--I suggest personalizing the albums by pasting something related to the composer, or to the music, or to the baroque, over them.)

In preparing this note, I discovered a complete recording of Vivaldi's much-loved Four Seasons online--must listening for readers new to his work, though I hasten to add that the piece is not necessarily everyone's cup of tea. If you do listen, however, just enjoy the music. Don't bother searching for clues to Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. They aren't there. (A narrator names the title of each movement at its end, but this is a small price to pay if you don't own a recording of the piece.) --L.T.

Early Music (Very Early)
"At least 35,000 years ago, in the depths of the last ice age, the sound of music filled a cave in what is now southwestern Germany, the same place and time early Homo sapiens were also carving the oldest known examples of figurative art in the world. / Music and sculpture . . . were emerging in tandem among some of the first modern humans when they began spreading through Europe or soon thereafter." --"Flutes Offer Clues to Stone-Age Music," New York Times, June 24, 2009. (Image alone of bird-bone flute, the oldest hand-crafted musical instrument yet discovered.)

Early Sculpture (Very Early)
"From a cave in southwestern Germany, archaeologists have unearthed the oldest known piece of figurative art. More than an ancient artistic impulse, it may signify a profound change in modern human brains. / Carved from ivory and depicting a woman with exaggerated sexual features, the pinkie-sized sculpture [other views] is 36,000 years old, or about 5,000 years older than the next-earliest piece of figurative art." Not the Venus de Milo [more], perhaps, but it was a noteworthy start.--"Oldest Known Sculpture Is Busty Clue to Brain Boom," Wired Science, May 13, 2009. (See also "Ivory 'Venus' Is First Depiction of a Woman," NewScientist, May 13, 2009.)

"Archaeologists at the University of Tübingen have recovered the first entirely intact woolly mammoth figurine from the Swabian Jura, a plateau in the state of Baden-Württemberg, thought to have been made by the first modern humans some 35,000 years ago. It is believed to be the oldest ivory carving ever found."-- "35,000-Year-Old Mammoth Sculpture Found in Germany," Spiegel Online International, June 20, 2007.

EXHIBITION: Wish We Had Been There
Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2008). A treat: click on numbers 1-20 of slide show.

EXHIBITION: Wyeth in Seattle
Andrew Wyeth: Remembrance (Seattle Art Museum, through October 18, 2009). A modest tribute to this American master.

Venice and the Avant-Garde: Then and Now
The biannual spectacle of "contemporary art" in Venice, Italy, is on again, demonstrating once more the extent to which avant-garde extremism dominates the international artworld. Founded in 1895 simply as an exposition of Italian art, the Venice Biennale (which has spawned numerous imitators) soon became identified with "the avant-garde, promoting new artistic trends and organising international events in contemporary arts," to quote its official website.

In the Biennale's early years, however, the implied "avant-garde" included genuine artists. Work by Klimt, Courbet, and Renoir was featured in the 1910 exhibition, for example, while in that same year the more radical avant-gardist Marinetti protested by staging a drop of anti-Biennale leaflets in St. Mark's Square one day (and a work by Picasso was removed from the Spanish pavilion because it was feared to be too shocking to public sensibilities!). The first officially acknowledged presence of the "avant-garde," a decade later, featured work by Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and the German expressionists known as Die Brücke--all of which qualify as art, in our view, if not all equally to our taste.

Fast forward to today, when acts roughly comparable to Marinetti's anti-art leaflet-dropping are universally deemed to be art by the cultural establishment--art so mainstream in the artworld that the term "avant-garde" scarcely applies. Symptomatic of the now-dominant view, the 2009 Biennale has awarded its prestigious Golden Lion Award for lifetime achievement to the "conceptual artists" John Baldessari and Yoko Ono. Baldessari's fame is based in part on canvases containing nothing more than mechanically lettered pronouncements such as "a two-dimensional surface without any articulation is a dead experience." For an idea of Ono's body of work, see Grapefruit, a book of instructions such as "Hide and seek Piece: Hide until everybody goes home. Hide until everybody forgets about you. Hide until everybody dies."

To top that, the Golden Lion for the best national pavilion has gone to the U. S. for its exhibition devoted to work by Bruce Nauman (for a dissenting view on Nauman, see fourth and fifth paragraphs of "Kandinsky and His Progeny"). The capstone of Nauman's lifetime achievement is his new work entitled Days/Giorni, a two-part sound installation in which various male and female voices intone the days of the week in English and Italian. Thanks for such a contribution to global culture must ultimately go to curators Carlos Basualdo and Michael R. Taylor from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who organized this show by "an artist's artist," to quote Basualdo.

More on Ono
On her website Yoko Ono refers to Grapefruit as a book of "instruction paintings," which invite reader participation. It's all very complicated, so you will have to read Ono's explanation for yourself. Then see . . . no, read, these examples of the instruction "paintings," or "pieces" (it hardly matters which), from the 1960s. Ono hasn't changed much since then. She is still a bit strange (to put it kindly). As keynote speaker and "Artist of the Year" at the 2008 conference of the New York City Art Teachers Association, she engaged the appreciative audience in a "performance art" piece that consisted of clicking on small flashlights (dubbed "Onochords") distributed beforehand, flashing once while saying I; twice, saying love; and three times, saying you.

Touring the World of Music with a Knowing Guide
Whether you know a lot or a little about classical music, you are likely to be captivated by the syndicated radio show Exploring Music with Bill McLaughlin. This hour-long daily program pursues a different theme each week, presenting choice musical selections illuminated by expert yet engaging commentary about the works, the composers, and the historical and cultural background. The show's affable host has a c.v. a mile long, as composer, conductor, performer, and Peabody-award-winning broadcaster. Originating with WFMT in Chicago, the program airs in New York City on WQXR, Monday through Friday, 7:00-8:00 p.m., and is also heard on stations as far afield as KNOM in Nome, Alaska, KHPR in Honolulu, WXXI in Rochester, New York, and KPRG in Guam.

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