Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Aesthetics of Nakedness

Image may contain: textShrillness is not how I'd describe Mailer's late work, since he abandoned addressing himself in the third person with "The Executioner's Song". From that book onward, Mailer's self-announcing presence has noticeably receded and the narrative itself took priority. For something approaching "shrillness", you have to go back to "Advertisements for Myself" and "Why Are We In Vietnam?", writings filled with exuberance, ego, loud clashing verbs and careening metaphors.

 It was a style that worked for Mailer for a long period, and the author was smart enough to have given it up before it became that rote, breathless template that a more promiscuous writer like Joyce Carol Oates relies on. Regardless of what you think of him as person, Mailer's "The Gospel According to the Son" is not a novel inspired by any hysterical force; it is calm, simply phrased, poetically spare, and effective as in result in it's evocation of Christ's burden of being both of heaven and of earth. Mailer's presence and his ideas are always noticeable in his later work, but there's a mature,yes, mature voice at work here which has served him well. 

The problem with much of the nay saying of Mailer's writing is that some act as if he hasn't changed his style. To think so is not to have read him closely at all it seems.Christ has been a character in novels and in film, so Mailer's brief recasting of the Greatest Story Over Told is hardly an exercise in ego gratification. Mailer has some well known ideas about God that he's written about over the decades, and it was rather a surprise that he could weave them into the Christ story as delicately and successfully as he had. Perhaps you should read the book before condemning it out of hand. A little less tub thumping is called for. If you don't like it, at least you'll be in position to discuss the degrees of it's flaws with authority. You'll be in the position to critique it as a novel, not an audacious act. 

Flaubert's notion for the "impersonal artist" is a fine theory and works well with respect to writers with similar aesthetic values as the author of "Madame Bovary". It's not the only idea in how literature and art ought to made however, and certainly applying it to Mailer's aims as a novelist is a bit besides the point. Impersonality in writing is more a goal than anything achievable, I would say, and it's only in the reaching for the result that one might end with interesting results. Genius enters into the equation, as in not all writers have equal abilities, whatever standard they avow. Nakedness as a value in writing works only as well as the writer who decides to make it an operating concern, and it worked well enough for Mailer in the early and middle points of his career, a projection of the self hardly more assaulting than Whitman's or the cynical rumblings of an older Mark Twain. Mailer, as I said before, left this persona behind in 1979 with the publication of his masterful "Executioner's Song",when he he realized that after a couple of decades of theorizing about violence and killers, he needed to conceal his presence and tell the spectacular and complex story in front of him.
A wise decision, and a method he's wisely maintained with each books. "Harlot's Ghost","Oswald's Tale" are not the aggravated spewings of an egomaniac trying to flummox readers with hyperactive vocabularies; the books, central efforts in his late period, are carefully wrought works of historical narrative, brilliant and flawed. For Mailer's ideas, these are not the rants of a young hothead picking an argument, but of a mature artist Making A Case. To say that there are too many books and novels about Hitler is patent nonsense. Hitler was such a monster and pall over the last century that it's at our peril that artists, writers, scholars, novelists stop trying to comprehend him. Mailer's has an eccentric take on the formations of the amoral Hitler's unblinking willingness to bring carnage , and for all the snipes and snips from naysayers ,he does evoke the mindsets of those who's self-infatuation and indifference to the results of their actions makes the Devil's grooming of the child for future mischief seem plausible in a fictional narrative.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Bruno Mars

To the matter as to whether Bruno Mars, who is not black, is appropriating black music and an aesthetic born of African American experience, created by talented black artists, well…I don’t know the man’s music, let alone his version of Black Style. I will him be and not mention him again in this harangue. Appropriation has been with us forever, although I would suggest that the non-black musicians playing music that is African American in origin have, for the most part, a genuine love of the sounds they've been exposed to. 

Theft is theft and black creators must be located, credited and their families paid for the use of the bodies of work that formed the foundation for a huge amount of American culture and a character, but at the same time it seems reductive and ironically bigoted to suggest that only black musicians have the right, let alone the sole ability to make authentic jazz, blues, or rhythm and blues. Forcing matters of creativity into a any kind of requirements for acceptance is absurd and contrary to what art is supposed to do, the process through which an individual--an artist--experiences the world and, through the use of whatever medium moves him enough to create objects of beauty of contemplation that hadn't existed before. Pretty much going with Marcuse on this one, as in his booked the Aesthetic Dimension, where he argues that Society, The Establishment, the Powers that Be, need to leave the artists and allow them to perform their task with their art making, to produce joy. Otherwise, if held to aesthetic principles that are contrary to inspiration, it ceases to be art. It is Propaganda. 

We do not need an American version of Soviet Realism, no matter where it comes from. It goes to authenticity that one writes in a style that is natural to them; whites writing in idioms that makes sense for Mance Liscomb is clearly insulting to black musicians and black culture in general. It is a not so subtle form of racism: it says "I think you're exotic, not quite human, something wholly "other" than normal. I will take your funny sounds and use them to decorate my cosmology." Absent the absolutist argument that only black musicians have the right to play blues and are the only ones who can have anything authentic expression (its' a powerful argument), the bottom line of the blues is the clear, simple, emotionally honest expression of one's experiences. That would mean that one find their own voice, something they can bring of themselves to the music they desire to perform and make it genuinely personal. There is a difference, a fine one, between having a personal style greatly influenced by black music and singers and one that slavishly tries to impersonate the sound, causing all sorts of suspicious Rich Little-isms. 

Those influenced by black artists but who have their own style, free of affectation: Butterfield, Mose Allison, Van Morrison, Tom Waits. Those who fail: Jagger, when he sings blues, Peter Wolfe, others galore. Wolf is listenable and usually effective as vocalist and frontman, but he never convinced me that his style was cleverly constructed, contrived.

 I won't go as far as to say he's guilty of minstrelsy, but his banter where spews hip argot, rope-a-dope rhymes and other offerings of hep-cat impersonation, comes off as cartoonish, stagy, really stereotypical of black performance; whether Cab Calloway or James Brown or an inspired preacher sermonizing from the pulpit of a black church, Wolf's machine gun is appropriation straight out. I had often wished he'd just keep his mouth shut and just sing. Yes, I realize the irony of the last sentence, but I think you see my point even if you might not agree with it. J.Geils is a band I've enjoyed a great deal over the last few decades, but there are times when Wolf's unreconstructed enthusiasm turns into caricature and stereotype. He reminds me of someone trying to beat his influences at their own game rather than forging something that is really his own.

Friday, March 16, 2018


Novelist Dianna Evans writes a fine essay regarding the late John Updike's decline in reputation as a novelist due, mostly, to his over all failure to create fully-formed women characters. Her response is ambivalent, understandably so, as Updike could be mean to his women characters, and yet he wrote so beautifully, lyrically, ingratiatingly. No surprise the late novelist John Updike isn't a favorite among younger readers in this era of "Me Too" and "Times Up". Indeed, the age of men being held accountable for their conduct has come and it's here to stay. A good thing.

Updike was not especially kind in his depictions of women in his fiction, and for that he needs to read critically, but one needs to admire his stated understanding of what his duty as an artist was,"“My duty as a writer is to make the best record I can of life as I understand it,and that duty takes precedence for me over all these other considerations.” The novelist and short story writer wrote elegantly, lyrically, poetically, he had , perhaps, the most perfect prose style of any American writer of his generation, and he created a fictional world of men, mostly heterosexual , fumbling through the lives full of small stakes ambition and fully licensed libidos that derailed their best natures with compromises of opportunism, affairs, self deception, an inability to see larger contexts beyond their perspectives.

The writer was , like many of his characters, unable to see further than his own vision, an aspect that might be called a great writer's failure of imagination,but what he did know he know--a straight , middle class male's world of materialism and lust rationalized into metaphysical permanence--he understood intimately, knowingly, and was aware of how the limits makes perfect plans, perfect plans, fall apart or produce results contrary to expectations. Updike wasn't, I don't think, quite so oblivious to his renderings of women in his tales, but I think his aim, over all, was to imaginatively construct the many scenarios of how the perfect worlds of his protagonists are at odds with a universe that will not obey good or bad intentions. That he wrote about this world so beautifully--there are those times when I pick up an Updike book, say "Rabbit Run" or "The Centaur" or "The Witches of Eastwick" just to have the language figuratively roll of the page as if the words , the sentences or the fleeting notes of a transcendent Clifford Brown solo-- might be a flaw in his art, one could argue.

He makes it attractive, the prose is a seduction of a kind. Fine, that makes him dangerous for both male and women writers, which makes him artist, a great one. That makes him a pleasure to read and a pleasure worth discussing critically, as a means of understanding our own responses to his increasingly problem-making, if still alluring works,

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


Well, yeah, I'm grumpy some of the time, and I've been accused of being a curmudgeon in regards to National Poetry Month, the annual  dedication to an elusive art with a small audience that itself is divided among several hundred-seeming schools of thought as to what is genuinely worth reading or promoting. The reservations come chiefly from the attitude that poetry is something pathetic in itself, with Special Needs, and that there is a collective delusion in the publishing world that poetry can be made more popular by hyping the form with the cliched hokum that sounds culled from New Age screeds. It's a little infuriating to witness an art that you believe, at it's best, sparks the unusual idea or the unforeseen connection within a reader be reduced as something that  marketers promise to deliver a consumer to an even deeper vat of circumscribed thinking.

I wouldn't say my remarks about National Poetry Month are grumpy, just realistic. On the face of it I welcome a month dedicated to the art , craft and diversity of poets and their work , and even think that the month might well bring new readers to poetry as something they'd read in their leisure time. The problem is that once we give someone or some thing a special day, week, or month for the nominal purpose of increasing awareness, most of the population bothering to observe what the calendar day commemorates will nod their head, bow their head, read a few poems, maybe buy a single volume that will likely wind up half way finished and atop a coffee table, a page bent down to mark a page,not be picked up again, and then be done with it for the year. It certainly gives major publishers significant favorable publicity so they can present themselves as more than bottom-line obsessed subsidiaries of malignant media corporations: look at what we're doing to support the arts, look at our love of poetry!!There are poets who benefit, many of them I count my favorites, but the fact that poetry in general has a month dedicated to it's supposed welfare seems more to me that the rest of the literary world considers the form a poor, sickly relative; April as poetry month is the metaphorical gulag, a ghetto, a hospice, that space where this art, which no publisher seems to know how to market so it contributes usefully to their bottom line, is allowed to make it's noise, indulge their rhetoric for a short period in the spot light before being ushered from the stage and back to the margins.

Poets, the work they do, the theories they develop regarding their art has been the most rarefied and most diffuse of the arts as it developed since the encroachment of Modernism over turned the conventional thinking about poetry's form and purpose. It's been to poetry's advantage, I think, that the audience has been small, very small, compared to the other genres that help publishers make their payrolls and their dividends, since the relative obscurity has allowed poets of many different styles and concerns, politics and agendas to advance their art and arguments , both Quietist and Post-Avant Gard, unconcerned with a commercial aspect that wasn't theirs to begin with. National Poetry Month is something like a zoo the city folk may visit on their days off , and the poets are the exotic creatures who will perform their tricks, do their dances, take their bows for the smattering of applause and loose coin that might come their way. Generally speaking, poets and their work would be better off, and saner as well, if the illusion that a dedicated month will increase the readership and increase book sales as well.It would be better for poets to stop behaving like their in need of rehabilitation and went about their business, doing what we're supposed to do to the best our individual and collective abilities. If the work is good, interesting, of quality on it's own terms, the audience , whatever the size, will come.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Clapton assessment

Image result for eric clapton sleepingI lost interest in Clapton's guitar work quite a while ago. Post-Cream, his solo work was pretty lazy, with outbreaks of inspiration , such as Layla or his wonderful blues disc From the Cradle. Others may feel differently,but he seems to have recycling old riffs for decades; I count from Wikipedia that he has released 16 live albums under his name over the years, a sign of  laziness, as no new material is coming forth, but also of arrogance, a conviction,if unspoken,that each of his long blues solos is a work of art, ready for prime time. 

This works worth Coltrane to large degree, in my view (and tastes) and much less satisfactorily for Keith Jarrett (who noodles as much as me combusts with inspiration). It's not so objectionable for a jazz musician to have numerous live albums over the course of a long career since a tenet of the jazz aesthetic is that no two improvisations on the same song are alike. 

Each performance is a unique work of art, and able jazz players are able to recast,re-imagine, re-brand their signature songs continually. Clapton,though, is not a jazz musician, but a blues player, with a far more limited vocabulary of ideas that simply repeat themselves. There is redundancy in his execution that becomes wearisome with all those elongated solos. These days, where he gets my attention is less the addition of new musical ideas or context, but rather by the quality of fire he brings to the old material, to the signature riffs and phrases. My favorite example is his reunion with fellow Blind Faith member Steve Winwood from 2009. Clapton's guitar work burns hot,fevered, intense, inspired throughout the two discs. This two disc set more than reclaimed Clapton's greatness from drifting, plodding and dispirited money grab that was the 2004 Cream reunion.

What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?

Following allegations by creditable women that horrible albeit talented Hollywood men  have  harassed, molested, fondled , raped them over long periods of time, it merits asking , as The Paris Review does, what we do with the work of artists who are simply monsters . It's not a fashionable thing to suggest, but I go with Trust the tale, not the teller. I am inclined to think that artists, good- natured or foul in personal relationships, make sincere attempts to make art that represents some better version of themselves. Art making, whether writing or making movies, composing poems or painting in realistic or abstract variations, is a process that, at bottom, tries to make sense of a problematic world and the individual's responses to it. Even terrible people, monsters even, can provide creations that provide insight insight, wisdom, a sense of useful irony in the guise of metaphor and other devices. So yes, we should continue to honor the work of monstrous men who've been long praised as great artists. whoever we happen to be talking about, the critical consensus has long been in place, formed over decades of critical review. 

This assume, of course,that the host of critics haven't been shilling for these horrible males. Let us assume, then, the novels, the movies, the poems, the plays, the paintings, the TV shows that have been highly regarded by critics and audiences are indeed good as quality, worthwhile items of art that have met rigorous criteria. criticism, popular criticism, needs to learn again an old lesson, that depth of talent does not indicate quality of character.Art has a tendency to outlive the awful men who created it. Picasso, from all accounts a genuine creep, remains in discussions and continues to be shown in museums because he was a great artist who changed the way we think about art. Pound remains important as poet and theoretician of art and poetics despite his antisemitism penchant for  treason and racism.Sinatra will likely remain the shining example of what a singer-crooner-interpreter needs to be in spite of his horrendous treatment of women and his tie ins with the Mob.We could go on.Art is long, life is short, and the reputations of truly gifted artists who were, as well,monsters in personal behavior lingers much, much longer in the historical memory than do a ignoble acts. I've no problem factoring personal aspects of artists into discussions of their art as a means to understand how specific works achieve their power, but for flushing whole bodies of work because of vetted and not so vetted accusations of being less than wholesome would remove an unbelievable amount of aesthetic benefit from the world. 

Artists , even on their best days, never rise above the status of being human; there is no requirement for them to be saints. There are requirements,namely laws,for them being acceptable citizens, and they must be held accountable for their actions in the world they live in. The work, though, is a different matter. My nose offends me because I think its too large, but I will not cut it off nor spend the time to repair it through surgery.