The excitement over blogs is officially over ladies and gentleman. They are no longer new or sexy to the book industry. I just snuck out of a panel called, oddly, “Blog 2.0”. The idea, I suppose, was to suggest that we are beyond the initial enthusiasm for blogs in the publishing world, but the atmosphere was remedial (and uncomfortably warm, but that might just be the bookish corduroy blazer I’m wearing.) The panel included blog and new media heavyweights like Ana Marie Cox, formerly of Wonkette, Kos of Daily Kos, and Michael Cader of Publishers Marketplace, but they were plodding the same old ground: Use blogs to promote books; blogs aren’t scary, they’re a part of the media landscape; blogging is so easy, anyone can do it. Though the “2.0” moniker suggested new insights in the merging of new media and publishing, the panel was decidedly “1.0”, and the audience in the half-filled room wasn’t exactly brimming with enthusiasm. Still, some of the comments made were worth sharing. Michael Cader suggested that blogs promote “individual voices over institutional voices,” whether the blog lives at Blogspot or the New York Times. Kos decried the notion that books by bloggers have anything more than a tenuous connection to the blog medium. Blogs are not meant to be books, but blogs are a great way to find new voices with built-in audiences. All in all, though, there wasn’t a sense that any new ground is being broken in the marriage of publishing and blogging.
My Shakespeare intake is up sharply this season. So far, I’ve attended about one performance every six weeks. Two comedies (a .333 average), three tragedies (.500), and even one romance (.167). My mother, a high school English teacher, must be pleased with the numbers I’ve been putting up. And I’m prepared to testify before any grand jury that will have me that the only performance-enhancing drugs I’ve touched have been brewed from the choicest hops and barley.Here in New York, it’s possible to indulge in Bardolatry whenever you want. At least two Shakespeare productions are running on any given night. And of course, the plays are meant to be seen, rather than read. Or so say the experts. This week’s Shakespeare-in-the-Park performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream left me wondering, though… are they right?Having read AMND thrice and having seen four previous stage productions, I was surprised at how many great speeches I’d managed to forget. “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / are of imagination all compact,” Duke Theseus theorizes. “Be as thou wast wont to be,” Oberon tells a sleeping Titania, on the verge of reconciliation. “See as thou wast wont to see.” On a more Global level, though, the Shakespeare-in-the-Park production was a mess – part Broadway razzle-dazzle, part Three Stooges routine, part Ibsen. Rather than mining the subterranean connections between the play’s disparate tones and textures, director Daniel Sullivan seemed hellbent on obliterating them.Yes, it was free, on a beautiful night in the Park, and yes, there is fun to be had picking holes in any performance. But the contrast between this Dream and Michael Grief’s Romeo and Juliet (this summer’s other Shakespeare-in-the-Park offering) suggested a crucial lesson for any director of Shakespeare: one must surrender to the imperatives of the material, rather than trying to bend it to one’s will. Such a surrender does not slough off the burden of interpretation; indeed, it requires it. But Grief’s decisions about the nature of love and lust, the relative costs of innocence and experience, and the place of the individual in society, flowed from Shakespearean preoccupations; whereas the current production lacks a point-of-view on love, on imagination, or on anything at all. Sullivan’s rope tricks and glowsticks threaten not just to jazz up but to gloss over A Midsummer Night’s Dream.Grappling with the big questions Shakespeare wrestled into blank verse can yield a refreshlingly classicist take on a play, like Grief’s, or something as riotously new as the Wooster Group Hamlet. In the case of slightly weaker source material, such as The Taming of the Shrew, strong direction may produce something in between, like Propeller’s excellent staging at the Brooklyn Academy of Music… while commenting on our own times.When a director aims to displace the Bard’s magic with its own, however, I’d just as soon save my money, drag out my brokeback Riverside Shakespeare, and stage a play in the round of my own mind. Which doesn’t mean I’d ever pass up tickets to any live performance… provided someone else is buying.
In 2009, when I was a graduate student in Istanbul, I worked full-time in a newspaper, editing the paper’s books supplement. I was a busy man with lots of editorial assignments on my plate. I had little time to concentrate on my doctoral dissertation — a study of Hegel’s influence on late-Victorian authors. Instead of writing in academic Hegelese, I spent my days behind my office desk where I commissioned, edited, fact-checked, and proofread. A week after my 28th birthday in March, while hard at work on the first draft of a book review, I received a call from the university’s student affairs department. The voice on the other end of the line said there had been a “strange problem” with my academic credits some months ago. The mistake had led to the termination of my enrollment: from this moment onwards I would be subject to the draft.
“Ah, Mr Genç, I am so sorry for you,” the student affairs woman said with a genuine feeling in her voice, “but there is nothing I can do.”
There was nothing she could do. In less than two weeks I would be running on the hills of some distant Anatolian town with a military rifle in my hand.
The news was difficult to digest. So difficult, in fact, that when I heard the dial tone I decided to put away the unfinished review and drink a glass of whisky instead.
Come April 10, I had cleared my desk at the office and arrived at an Anatolian city where my six-month-long national service in a gendarme squadron officially began. I was immediately nicknamed “journo” by the commanders. After the initial month of training came to an end my fellow gendarmes were assigned to various positions related to their education. I, the academic-cum-journalist, meanwhile, was given the most intellectual post the commanders could think of.
“I have just made you the squadron’s librarian,” said our lieutenant, a muscular man whose every word was law and from whose super cool sunshades I could see the reflection of my face.
“Here are the keys to the library. Take them! From now on it will be under your responsibility. Clean the place every day! Don’t give books to everyone! Give them only to soldiers you trust! Now get lost!”
I did get lost. And when I hid myself in that room, which was hardly bigger than 100 square feet, I found myself surrounded by a series of dusty books. Although the books were old and deep in hibernation, the people who came to read them were very much alive. So in my small library in a distant Anatolian town I learned an awful lot about what young Turkish men enjoyed reading under the gun. I watched them as they read for relief. I watched them as they read for pleasure. I watched them as they read for keeping sane.
It was during the first days of my librarian career that I found copies of Harlequin books in the drawer of my little metal desk. The previous librarian, who was less than a week away from being discharged, informed me that the dogeared pages of those romantic books would always be hotly sought after by soldiers.
“Be mindful of those Harlequins,” he briefed me. “Never let soldiers bring them to their barracks. Or it will be YOU who gets into trouble.”
I was asked to recommend books so many times that I ended up feeling like Jorge of Burgos, a post-modern recreation of Borges in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The blind librarian wants to decide what his fellow monks read in their spare time, taking drastic measures to impose his scholastic beliefs. Whenever I heard others asking me what they should read, I came up with a recommendation that I expected they might follow, and tried to be less insistent than Burgos.
But my small library was something more than a miniature version of Amazon’s recommendations sidebar. Gradually it became a place where soldiers socialized. Young commanders visited me and talked at length about their dreams, which they then asked (or ordered) me to interpret.
There was much talk about books and films. Politics, too, was discussed: “When I retire come visit me in Ankara and I will give you an interview about my political beliefs,” said one commander. I will need to wait for almost two decades for that but still I am curious about what he has to say. Others had more personal stories to tell, and they told them instantly: a book was always a great beginning point, an unmistakable icebreaker.
As I tried to come up with intelligent-sounding solutions to the problems of the Turkish military, I began to feel like Lucy van Pelt in Peanuts — of course there was no way to charge each commander five cents for my services but if I did I would surely be a rich man now.
So what did they read apart from the Harlequin books? To my surprise it was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s oeuvre that was most popular. I heard from more than one private that the military life resembled the life described in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a book in high demand among the bored and the depressed. Then I discovered two shelves of 19th-century Russian classics; from that point onwards whenever a soldier asked for a trashy novel I handed him one of those tomes. I even attempted to describe the classics’ qualities, in one memorable occasion pontificating about the eternal question of Russian literature, “Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky?” (Tolstoy writes better, but Dostoyevsky’s world is more similar to ours, I said.)
How did all those Russian classics end up there? The answer had more to do with politics than with refined literary taste. Turkey had decades-long ties with NATO; the country had been seen as a frontier of the free world and was an outpost of the struggle against communism during the Cold War. Therefore Turkish military officials had long been well-versed in Russian culture. For the last few decades, the best translations of works by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov were delivered by high-ranking soldiers.
Meanwhile, the rest of the books in the library (all those dusty sermons, military handbooks, and well-bound editions of Turkish state literature) went unread.
Nowadays whenever I visit one of the new fancy libraries in Istanbul, I think of that distant room in Anatolia. I think of my readers, those loyal visitors of the library, who found happiness in the solitude provided by the pages of a book. Even under the gun, they could find reflections of their lives and dreams among words on paper — a discovery that made me an even firmer believer in the strange and limitless charm of books.
Image Courtesy of the Author.
The best part of BEA by a longshot was meeting all the people I’ve been corresponding with for so long and whose blogs I’ve been reading for what seems like forever. The LBC party on Friday night was a blast. Many bloggers were there (Most of these folks have pictures and writeups from BEA up so go check them out as they most likely went to many more parties than I did): Ed, Mark of TEV, Sarah of Confessions, Pinky of her Paperhaus, Kassia of Booksquare, Bud of Chekhov’s Mistress, Wendi of the Happy Booker, Matt of The Mumpsimus, Megan of Bookdwarf, Gwenda of Shaken & Stirred, Scott of SlushPile, Lauren of Lux Lotus, Lizzie of The Old Hag, Written Nerd, Madam Mayo, and, unfortunately, Bat Segundo. (If I forgot anyone or if I mistakenly think I met you but I didn’t – hey, it was dark and I’d had a few drinks – let me know.)Some things I learned about my fellow bloggers: Ed is an intrepid gadfly, but Mr. Segundo is a menace; Megan is not as short as I had been led to believe; Gwenda and Kelly Link are the twin queens of a merry band of sci-fi fanatics; while I can say with some certainty that I will never podcast, all the coolest kids are doing it.I also met cool folks at Melville House, Coffee House, McSweeney’s, and lots of other publishers. I met Jason Bitner who put together the very cool book LaPorte, Indiana (which I wrote about a while back). I also picked up copies of The Long Tail by Chris Anderson and Mark Bowden’s Guests of the Ayatollah along with lots of catalogs, all of which I left at my parents’ house in Maryland because I didn’t want to lug them back on the plane. But all in all it was great to see everybody.
I recently made the pilgrimage to what the French would call one of the hauts lieus de l’art: Marfa, Texas. Like any place of pilgrimage worthy of the name, Marfa is remote and difficult to get to. One makes the journey because the artist Donald Judd, beginning in the 1970s, moved his base of operations to this former cattle trading center, gradually buying up several properties in Marfa, Then, with the help of New York’s Dia Foundation, he purchased an entire disused Army base next to the town, over 300 acres of industrial scale warehouses, barrack and office buildings, and scads of empty space. Out of this Texican cattle barony without the cattle, he created living and working spaces for himself, as well as permanent exhibition space for his work and that of a few colleagues and friends.
Like many born east of the 100th meridian, in the green, humid half of the continent, Judd fell in love with the dry crystalline air and unforgiving light of this part of the country, with its high arid plains, its horizons punctuated with mesas and buttes. For certain artists and intellectuals, the Southwest is America’s Provence, a place where (in the American mode) the configuration of the land itself, with its vast spaces, is a kind of liberation. Marfa was Judd’s Arles, and like Van Gogh, Judd dreamt of an artist’s utopia. He didn’t realize his dream, but he did create a series of ideal settings in which art could be displayed entirely on its own terms, without the misguided interference of dealers and curators. With the creation of the Chinati Foundation, Judd put in place an institutional framework for the preservation of his vision after his death.
Now, years after Judd’s passing in 1994, Chinati is a going concern. For those in the art world, it is an item on the checklist of places to see before you die. I’ve wanted to go there for a long time, but not because I am big fan of Judd’s work or of Minimalism. Judd reached for his Luger whenever he heard the word Minimalism, as well he might, since the term is entirely apt in my view. His work, and that of his brethren, ruthlessly reduced to a set of Platonic essences, provides a minimum of sustenance for the eye. It is a Stoic’s or a Puritan’s bowl of thin porridge. Everything this kind of work has to give you is exhausted by mere moments of looking. Simplification and purification of form, elimination of content and narrative, all this exacts a high price. If, in the end, we look at art for the profound pleasure it gives us, why look at work that has , in an ascetic quest for some ideal, done away with so many of the qualities that make art pleasurable? For me, at least, years of received opinion and the torrents of ink that have been spilled arguing for the far-reaching philosophical significance of Minimalism do nothing to counteract the indifference of my eyes whenever I look at the stuff.
Why then did I want to go to this place at the back of beyond? Simple. All of Judd’s real strengths as an artist—his finely tuned sense of proportion, his sensitivity to the surface facture and weight of materials, his exquisite, but not fussy, craftsmanship—resonate much more fruitfully in his architectural and design work than in his sculpture. Judd’s plans required the renovation and often radical reconfiguration of existing structures. He also designed and built much of the furniture himself. Seeing the results of this impressive effort in photographs, I found it to be both stark and elegant. Functionality brought his forms to life for me: one of his buildings or even a desk seemed to give me much more to look at (and feel) than his artwork ever did. So off I went to Marfa. And, in the back of my mind, I hoped to be won over by the artwork itself. Maybe, seeing it under Judd’s ideal conditions, my eyes would be opened to its virtues. Only a fool closes his mind completely to new sources of pleasure. Such was my thinking before arriving in Marfa itself.
One is allowed to view the art on the former military base only as part of a tour run by Chinati. There are several permanent installations; three of these best exemplify Judd’s intentions. One is by Dan Flavin, an array of light sculptures in six barrack buildings, which is conceived of as a single work. The second is in a warehouse where a display of John Chamberlain’s wadded up automobile sculptures occupies a basilica-like space. Then, there is Judd’s own work. The centerpiece of his project in Marfa is housed in two monumental buildings, the Artillery Sheds. It comprises one hundred aluminum boxes, identical in size, lined up in three evenly spaced rows running the length of these very long buildings. Within this matrix (which includes the building itself) of Euclidean geometry gone apeshit, the boxes themselves are far from being clones of each other. Sometimes sides are open, or half-open and half-closed. The internal space of a box might be bisected by one or more horizontal, vertical or oblique planes. The metal boxes, like Flavin’s piece, are meant to be taken in as a single work on a heroic scale. Judd wanted Chinati to be a place where he, and his friends, could make real their grandest ambitions, giving them permanent form, unfettered by worldly constraints. Clearly, in this, he succeeded.
If one is of a mind to, one can follow up the Chinati tour with a late afternoon peek (also guided) at the Block, Judd’s residential compound in town. Behind high adobe walls sits various structures which contain Judd’s library, workspaces ( home to some of his early sculptures) and living space, all widely separated by a vast flat expanse paved with loose cinder rock. You admire the lovely proportions of this enclosed area and the buildings disposed across it, but the mind quails at the thought of crossing this treeless waste on a hot summer day—La Jornada del Muerto in your own backyard.
So, what does all this add up to in the end? This is the question I’ve been mulling over since the middle of the tour itself. I’m afraid that the admirable open-mindedness I boasted of earlier availed me nothing; my mainlining all this Juddiana did not make a convert of me. (Putting aside both the work of the other artists and the architecture, I will focus on Judd’s 100 Boxes alone as emblematic of the whole enterprise.) Certainly, when I entered the first Artillery Shed, I was more affected than I expected. Judd had removed the solid side walls of both buildings, replacing them with rows of large floor-to-ceiling windows, the illumination from which, reflecting off the mirrored surfaces of the boxes and the shiny polished floor, choreographed a dazzling dance of light and shadow. Some of the boxes lost their hard edges, even seemed to dissolve in this play of silvery grays and chiaroscuro blacks, changing constantly as you shifted your viewpoint. Surprisingly, these cold metal boxes were actually quite sensual.
But, after this initial enthusiasm, I soon began to experience box fatigue. Initially assuming an air of the implacable in their machined perfection, the boxes secretly want you to find them fascinating, to like them. However, Judd’s endlessly clever improvisations on the boxes’ structure actually serve to trivialize them. We look at them and their permutations, as isolated instances, forgetting that they are supposed to be components of something much larger. The variety itself sooner or later becomes tiresome and boring, or simply too much to take in. The variations are really just an empty formal strategy, an arbitrary problem the artist set up for himself. They don’t interact with each other, creating a dynamic movement, a musical counterpoint, that plays out through the piece as a whole. Therefore, the boxes never coalesce into a unified experience. As a collection of individual iterations exploring a single idea, the work in the Artillery Sheds is, up to a point, fascinating, but it very quickly becomes just one damn thing after another. The modular premise underlying the work, with its tension between overall unity and the autonomy of each module, was stretched to the breaking point by Judd’s overreaching ambition. Judd was aiming very, very high here, and didn’t make it. As a coherent work of art, I think we have to count 100 Boxes a failure.
This conclusion raises a disturbing question. Why is a failed artistic endeavor being enshrined like this? Judd is an artist who deserves our attention, but the degree of cultural canonization and institutional validation that has been conferred on his work at Marfa is commensurate with the very highest levels of achievement. Who decided that Judd’s legacy is that important? Well, for one, Judd himself, aided and abetted by a coterie of partisans of Judd’s idealist avant-gardism within the rarefied upper echelons of the American art world. Judd’s really big dreams were realized not in response to a deeply felt need in the society at large, or even because of official recognition on the part of the State, but through the decisions of a very small number of self-appointed people with, crucially, access to capital.
Ultimately, in today’s world, in which society as a whole has no agreed upon use for art, money becomes the sole and final arbiter of value, in art as in everything else. In these circumstances there is tremendous financial incentive to inflate reputations. Nothing new in that observation, but there’s another, mostly unacknowledged, tendency at work here as well. In the post-war decades, for America’s art world taste makers, a driving concern was to demonstrate, to one and all, that this country’s culture had come of age. A great culture requires great artists, but faced with a real paucity in that area, critics, curators and dealers (and artists) worked assiduously to convince themselves and us that many fine second and third-rank artists rightfully deserved to be elevated to the very pinnacles of Mount Parnassus itself. Claims were made for these artists out of all proportion to the work itself. Interesting but limited talents, such as those of Pollack or Johns, were held up as proof that, as an exhausted Europe passed the torch to the New World, America was ready. The money flowed in response to this debasement of the critical coinage, validating it. Because the art world is so insular and small, and the public obliviousness to serious art so nearly complete, there is no external reality check on this process, (which continues to this day, mostly shorn of nationalist content).
Was Judd a beneficiary, and Marfa a direct result, of this process? Is Judd’s work, in other words, worthy of the exalted treatment it receives at Chinati? My answers will be plain enough by now. But, don’t take my word for it. Everyone who cares should decide for themselves. However, relatively few people will ever be in a position to do that; because of its remoteness, few will ever go there. Regardless of what you make of my thesis, agree or disagree, this is the paradox at the core of Judd’s self-willed monument. A monument, or a museum, if we care to look at it as such, implies a public, but Chinati’s public is miniscule, a molecular fraction of a population which mostly remains ignorant of the very existence of the place. Undaunted, Chinati sits on its arid upland, its back sublimely turned on everybody except the initiate, and the mildly curious willing to go way out of their way to scratch an itch.
Despite his success, Judd felt that his work and the thought behind it was never fully understood, either by art world professionals or the informed public. Even during his life, this was probably largely true. How much more so now. In response to this incomprehension, the vision he developed for Chinati was a hermetic one, informed by more than a little despair. For all its scale and ambition, what Judd built at Marfa is a refuge from a cruelly indifferent world. Its elite financial underpinnings and its splendid isolation, physically and culturally, from the lives and concerns of most people in this country, speak volumes about the plight of the arts in a society such as ours.