Sunday, January 18, 2009

Art is long

" Life is short but Art is long" - as some ancient Greek said once. This has been taken many ways but one way of looking at the meaning is that while a man (or woman- I am not being sexist here) dies, his art (skill, knowledge) can live on beyond him and others build on the work of those before.

The artist Wyeth died the other day:

The son of famed painter and book illustrator N.C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth gained wealth, acclaim and tremendous popularity. But he chafed under criticism from some experts who regarded him as a facile realist, not an artist but merely an illustrator.

He is not the first artist who is looked down upon because a) he is a realist and b) he is popular.

Some critics dismissed Wyeth's art as that of a mere “regionalist.” Art critic Hilton Kramer was even more direct, once saying, “In my opinion, he can't paint.”

The late J. Carter Brown, who was for many years director of the National Gallery, called such talk “a knee-jerk reaction among intellectuals in this country that if it's popular, it can't be good.”

I can think of Canadian instances- Bateman and Danby for example. Colville may have escaped the sneer but there is this bias, especially recently, for more modern, experiential stuff.

Like this Montreal exhibit which I read about in the Globe and Mail yesterday morning, the same day as the article on Wyeth.

It's one of the few times passing gas in a public presentation probably got murmurs and nods of approval from anybody but the most sophomoric.

But Cloaca No. 5, a mechanized sculpture that reproduces the human digestive system in every stomach-churning detail, gave a little hiss and launched a nose-wrinkling sulphuric barrage a few times yesterday as creator Wim Delvoye explained his creative process.

Cloaca, a towering steel, rubber and glass contraption, is fed twice a day with cafeteria leftovers during the exhibit, which opened Thursday and runs until Valentine's Day at the Université du Québec's art gallery in Montreal.

It processes the food - which includes the Quebec favourite, poutine - and then poops once a day.

"Let's make a bet. Which artist's name and works will be remembered 50 years after his death?

Mr. Delvoye described Cloaca as a reflection on human identity and the creative process.

"It's about all of us," the Belgian artist said in an interview.

But is it art?

"I think it's art as long as it's in an art museum," Mr. Delvoye said. "If it's in a garage, it's an interesting machine."

The artist said he wanted to make something that was "absurdly unnecessary" and drew inspiration from Charlie Chaplin, oddball cartoonist Rube Goldberg's elaborate and goofy machines, and Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory. ...

And which one was better value for money? Wyeth's Christina's World apparently was originally bought for $1,800.

Laval resident Clemence Bernard wrote to Montreal La Presse, saying she is "revolted" by the exhibit, which she called a "waste of $35,000 of taxpayer money."

But Louise Dery, the director of the university gallery, said it was $30,000 that came out of a Canada Council fund for exchanges of contemporary art. The money is being used to cover shipping costs.

I'm going to go with Wyeth. How about you?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Globe and Mail's Book Site

A year or so ago the Globe and Mail phoned us up to ask us to renew our subscription which we had let lapse a few years ago. We told them no thank you, there wasn't that much in it that we wanted to read except in the book section, so we only get the Globe and Mail on the weekends. Perhaps we aren't the only ones that have told them that as the G&M have revamped their book section and alleluia, they have put much of it online.

Have just taken a look at it to see if it takes our fancy. First of all we notice it has best seller lists. Handy, but only if you are aware what best seller lists represent. We don't believe for a moment that best seller lists really mean what they pretend. Instead these lists are mainly a measure of publication push - the books the publishers are promoting heavily. And the ploy often works. Still we don't mind looking at the bait with a critical eye.

Joseph Boyden seems very in right now. We see His book Through Black Spruce is on the hard cover fiction list. We read his Three Day Road a while back and although we liked it, we had this nagging feeling he borrowed a lot of his material. I'm afraid that's one of my pet peeves. When authors use material I expect the author to at least make a nod to the source. But that's an aside. On the softcover fiction list we see books by Jodi Picoult and by Khaled Husseini. I wouldn't mind reading Husseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns since The Kite Runner was so good. I've read 3 books from the non-fiction lists which seem to have books that have been around a while. Then there are Canadian lists for those who want to restrict themselves by nationality! The lists by genre are useful too. I see a couple of appealing titles on the mystery list.

But I am less interested in the lists than the reviews and other articles on the site. Having belonged to a book club for several years, I liked the profile of a Montreal Club which has been meeting for 30 years. The Globe says:

This is the first instalment in a new series in which Globe Books will shine a light on Canada's legion of book clubs.

Each month over the course of four Saturdays, we will introduce you to a new club, the book they are reading, their history and traditions, and their verdict about the book.

Gee, maybe they will do a profile of my women's reading group! If I was still in my book group I could write in and tell them which book we were reading. [Mamie take note!] They say there will be an online book club coming and a blog coming too.

Besides the articles and reviews, (they say there will be one every weekday) there are some online "ask the author" sessions lined up. One with Joseph Boyden this week (Didn't I say he was in right now?) but I am more interested in the one with P.D. James, which is scheduled for the week of Jan 24-29th. I'd ask her if it is too late for me to become an author at my age.

There is a video Blurb promoting all the bells and whistles of the site here.
I think I'll be checking in regularly.

Friday, January 02, 2009


In the Christian Science Monitor which I sometimes look into ( not often enough) there is an article by Kathryn Streeter on reading Shakespeare. She made it a 2007 New Year's Resolution to read a drama a month. It got me thinking about making a reading, and writing, resolution. Since I no longer belong to a book group it seems a good idea to put some discipline into my reading myself, or at least try to, by setting a reading goal. I don't think it will be Shakespeare, though. And as for writing, there again, I need to set myself a writing goal, otherwise the pages remain blank.

On my trip west I didn't get to write but I did read. I didn't get as much reading time as I hoped on the train trip as there was more socialising than I thought. But I finished two books both by James Lee Burke. My husband enjoys his books so I thought I would try them out. I had already read one of his books before I left, a collection of short stories, under the title Jesus Out to Sea. I found the writing good and the stories gripping so I packed a couple of his other efforts to take with me.

I finished The Tin Roof Blowdown set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and then polished off another in the Detective David Robicheaux series, written earlier, which is set before Hurricane Katrina, Pegasus Descending. Both were excellent reading, neither too light nor too heavy for reading in airports, planes and trains.

Burke is a deceptive writer, like Stephen King; his work appears to be in the action/crime/mystery genre but I find his work quite profound with a moral sense most of that ilk don't have. His settings in Louisiana are wonderfully described. You can feel the heat and the humidity and the scent of the bayous. His main protagonist David Robicheaux, a Cajun, is a flawed character and much of the action stems from his anger at the lack of justice in the world, and the baggage he carries with him from a troubled past. The plots are twisted and complex but didn't feel artificial. Burke's wide life experience shows in his novels.

I liked the books and I am set to read another in the Robicheaux series, Crusader's Cross, working backwards as it were, as this was written earlier again than the other two I read. It isn't Shakespeare but it is a start.
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.
Dorothy Parker, Not So Deep as a Well (1937)