Monthly Recommendations (August 2021)

This month’s theme is art and the artist. I chose this theme because events in my life have reminded me of the value of the abstract and incomprehensible. As places around the world open up under varying levels of restrictions, the contemporary locations and events were art is showcased, namely, cinemas, theaters, live concerts and art museums, are returning to their earlier glory and posing an interesting question to a subset of the population that has the luxury of deciding whether they want to attend: How much risk are you willing to take to see an artist perform live? This month’s list begins with an art critic who argues that our appreciation of art from the times when life expectancy was low is bound to increase, owing to our own deeper experience of mortality through pestilence. The list also includes articles about the perpetual search for the line between art and the artist and about the limits of on-screen fantasy and escape, when the spectator’s real life is in disarray.

  1. Out of Time (Schjeldahl)

    New Yorker (archived), 13th April, 2020

    I like going to museums of all kinds: art, natural history, national artifacts, museums memorializing disasters. A quote that I read in a museum in Taiwan 3 years ago has remained with me: “If we seek to understand the present and predict the future, the past is our only guide.” Schjeldahl, a venerable art critic, writes about what differentiates the experience of seeing art in person and seeing it on a computer screen or on a virtual tour. He also writes about the overwhelming presence of death in ancient art; mortality was experienced an integral part of life in the years when life expectancy was low and the reasons for death included even the most mundane causes such as the common cold, compared to current times when it borders around the periphery during normal times and when one thinks about death only as the consequence of severe disease or disaster.

    He also writes about our return to art museums, a topic that I am particularly interested in. I have been able to go to art museums and live concerts over the past year, during the brief period that the pandemic let up in Japan in September and October 2020. As the relaxation continues and more people return to art museums, I wonder if their tastes have changed and if we end up being more enamored with the art of the “Ancient Masters” from having suffered through daily reminders of the fragility of life in the form of case numbers.

  2. Fearless Pianist (Ross)

    New Yorker (archived), 18th May, 2020

    This is the profile of a German pianist who is also a political activist. It delves into the question of separating the Art that is produced by the artist and the artist themselves. This question has haunted both artists and spectators for a while now. Over the past year, with the accusations that sprung up against comedian Louis CK and the new documentaries about musicians R Kelly and Michael Jackson, the question pushed through into the mainstream and reached a population that had remained insulated. The ultimate decision about whether the connection between art produced by an artist and the artist’s actions and opinions must be (necessarily) left up to each individual. This article poses this question forcefully in the instance where the artist’s political opinions don’t align with your own. It made me think about the artists that I adore and how I would react to similar situations that involved them. I think that questioning and clarifying your beliefs before the situation arises is the only way to stay sane and continue to patronize their art, respect the artist and defend yourself to others. Kendrick Lamar poses the same question more succinctly in his song Mortal Man from the album To Pimp A Butterfly:

    If I’m tried in a court of law, if the industry cut me off

    If the government want me dead, plant cocaine in my car

    Would you judge me a drug-head or see me as K. Lamar?

    When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?

    When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?

    “Mortal Man”, Kendrick Lamar

  3. Hot and Toxic (Goodyear)

    New Yorker (archived), 16th March, 2020

    Following along on the separation between art and artist, this profile of the artist Wolfson focuses on the provocation that he sees his art as a vessel for. In this case, the artist’s personal beliefs are not reflected in their art. In fact, the art is designed specifically to incite the spectator into thinking about … something. Being “edgy” has been an asset for artists like Pollock, who thrived on abstract art with no definite interpretations. Everyone drew on the canvas that Pollock had already drawn on; albeit they started with a slate that was packed with material and guided their thoughts through particular paths, not letting them wander aimlessly. Wolfson’s art is being made in the age of the Internet and career ending mis-steps can come out of the artist’s inherent belief about the role of art in society. Is it safe, then, to step outside the mainstream and create provocative art?

  4. “All the Natalie Portmans” and The Limits of Hollywood Fantasy (Cunningham)

    New Yorker (archived), 16th March, 2020

    I liked this article on two levels. The first level was for the content: It is an amazing review of a play which features a young teenager who dreams of being a screenwriter and idolizes the actors who have made it big in the 2000s. The second level was for the effortless references that the author draws on about Portman and her role in building a fantasy. She mentions several of Portman’s movies and her recent Oscar appearance. Coincidentally, I happen to be reading Dyer’s Heavenly Bodies, an essay about how stars are made and what society really looks for in them.

    P.S. This article introduced me to Dior ad campaign that stars Portman:

  5. Chain Me Up: Harry Houdini and The Art of Escape (Denby)

    New Yorker (archived), 30th March, 2020

    Houdini is a household name today. What was he escaping from? Was there some meaning to his art and work? Or was it meaningless and simply the culmination of Houdini’s personal desires? Houdini’s defiance of authority figures and the police in particular takes center stage in his work. He demonstrated the crass, anti-authority culture of rebellion through an art form that captivated everyone. But what he did was not sleight of hand or magic; his escapes were real acts of strength backed by an endless amount of preparation and presented with a complete lack of showmanship, which has traditionally been the mainstay for magicians.