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Running Down BLog

Running Down Blog


My title betrays already the main point of this blog, which is that I am running down markedly--in eyesight, in hearing, in sheer mental clarity. But the blog is more about how other people and institutions are running down, as seen by one who has lived long enough to watch it happening with dismay.


A recent Sunday NYTimes Arts Section (I didn’t save it, or record the date) offered, on inside pages, two reviews of exhibitions of schools of nineteenth and early twentieth century painting. One was of the Pre-Raphealite painters in England, and the reviewer withheld real approval, writing rather sniffily about how they were not as good as their contemporaries over in France--Cezanne, Degas, and the rest. The other was of an exhibition at the Clark Center in Williamsburg, Virginia, from their large holdings of American paintings, landscapes etc. by Winslow Homer and others. And this, too, was cool--I forget the reviewer’s reasons, but she/he withheld full approval. Behind both reviewers’ coolness was an implicit attitude of: Who wants to look at realistic painting any more? Representation--yuck.


And what was the front-page review, excited and enthusiastic? It was about a young artist, in New York as I remember, maybe Brooklyn, whose work of art was to visit the studios of some sixty other artists, steal one work by each of them, put these pilfered works all together and exhibit them as his own new and exciting creation. And the reviewer was completely uncritical--this is aesthetically rewarding, this is New Art!


Augh--to repeat myself: I have lived too long. (But not yet long enough to stop fussing about Dumb Things like this, and how they dominate the world of art.)


- Similarly, in today’s NYTimes, the news about an “artist” named Richard Prince, whose “work” was copying photographs from a book of them published by the photographer Patrick Cariou and using these to “create a series of collages and paintings” which he exhibited at a commercial gallery and which “generated more than $10 million in sales.” Cariou, very properly, sued him for plagiarism, and won in a lower court. But now a higher court has overturned that verdict and ruled in favor of Prince, who is now home free. We see a photo of him, wearing the self-satisfied toothy grin of the successful plagiarist.


Outrageous, unfair, immoral, illegal, against all one’s cherished beliefs? Indeed, it is. But what else can we expect in a society that rewards successful trickery, in which the stealers grow richer, the stolen-from have, in effect, no legal recourse?


- Conclusion to My Hyakusen Study. When I gave a lecture on the Japanese early Nanga master Sakaki Hyakusen at the Berkeley Art Museum on the fifth of this month, to celebrate the acquisition of two fine landscape screens by him that I acquired (from a dealer in Japan) and presented to the Museum, and to appeal for funds to pay for needed restoration of the screens--at the end of my lecture I read the final paragraphs from the last section, the Conclusion, of the English original to my book-length study of this artist. It was published In Japanese in three issues of the art journal Bijutsu-shi, and later in English as a booklet, now out of print, by our Institute of East Asian Studies. I promised my audience that the entire text of the Conclusion would be put on my website, under “Illustrated Writings,” for those who wanted to read the whole thing. It’s now posted there, illustrated with a few Hyakusen paintings chosen more or less at random. Those in the Bay Area may want to drop by our Berkeley Art Museum while the Hyakusen screens are still on view there, to see them, and (I hope) to make contributions toward their restoration.


Another lesson in Japanese. Recently Turner Classic Movies showed, as its Sunday night foreign feature, a Japanese film (not very good) starring Kyo Machiko (she of Rashomon, with whom I was once infatuated). It was a gangster film based on a novel by the mystery writer Edogawa Rampo. Ben Mankiewicz, introducing the film, did his best with Japanese names (he and Robert Osborne really should be coached--pronouncing Japanese isn’t so hard) including the name of the author of the novel on which the film is based, Edogawa Rampo. He didn’t mention--too esoteric a matter to bring up in a movie introduction--that this is the pseudonym of a 19th century writer whose real name was Hirai Taro. Edogawa Rampo means something like “strolling along the Edo River.” Why should a mystery writer choose that as his pseudonym? A question of Japanese phonetics, and their necessarily odd ways of Japanizing foreign words and names (matters I wrote about in a previous blog, the one about tonkatsu or pork cutlets.) Given the Japanese phonetic limitations--no consonant clusters, no l’s, no final consonants except n--imagine how they would Japanize “Edgar Allen Poe.” Now pronounce it, and--see? Edogawa Rampo. Clever, no?


- More About Words. What is it that babies do in their diapers? Or, when they are blessed with the right kind of enlightened parents, they can do without diapers, just onto the ground or the floor or into the gutter between parked cars? An article in the A Section of the April 21st NYTimes provides us with an entertaining account of the new “elimination communication” movement (would you have understood that as “no diapers”? Neither would I), and along the way provides a rich vocabulary of words for what it is they do. The author, Artemona Hartocollis, writes of the babies’ “offerings,” about how they “urinate” and “defecate” (the old reliable Latinate terms), about the babies’ “intimate functions,” how they “make messes,” have “bowel movements,” or just “do it.” Several times she writes about how babies have to “go to the bathroom.” I have news for you, Ms. Hartocollis: babies don’t go to bathrooms, they “go” (in the other sense) wherever they happen to be, diaper or none. Properly held, she writes, they “go on the ground, or behind a tree.” Diaperless, they can “poop on the sidewalk.”


What babies don’t do, in polite writing, is piss or shit. These are the forbidden four-letter words, of the kind I wrote about in a previous blog: everybody knows them, nobody uses them in polite speech or writing. So we have invented all these evasions and circumlocutions to avoid saying, in simple language, what it is that babies do. In my childhood we talked of “number one” and “number two,” and used those to communicate our needs to parents and other grown-ups. “Pee” was a commonplace, but doesn’t appear in Ms. Hartocollis’s article--presumably another NYTimes no-no. “Doo-doo” was a common term for defecation, “wet your pants” for failing to reach the bathroom in time. No one would have dreamed of an age when all that is avoided by letting the baby wear no pants, no didies, no Pampers, nothing to hold in the--whatever.


- What is Art? Yet again .. .. Returning to a very old subject: The Sunday Review section of the NYTimes for April 14, p. 12, includes an article by a Columbia U. professor about how the brain registers images, and especially those of works of art such as portrait paintings. He capsulizes German art history, naming Riegl and Kris and Gombrich, and goes on to tell us how the image of the face, whether real or painted portrait, is registered on the brain, which responds by recognizing the similarity to faces it’s seen before. He presents this as a great new discovery, combining science and art, and revealing at last how art works!


Sorry, Professor, that’s pretty thin. So we respond to a Beethoven quartet because the brain recognizes familiar sounds in it? You should go back and read something that really analyzes and explains how art works. My own choice for that, as my readers know, lies in the past: the writings of Susanne Langer, especially her Feeling and Form (1953)--for the philosophical underpinnings of that and her other writings, it’s her Philosophy in a New Key 1947). Her concept of “virtual experience” underlying the forms of art and supplying their expressive content has seemed to me most persuasive. But I am woefully unread in art theory, and write only as someone ill-informed on the subject. (If being ill-informed kept people from having strong opinions, of course, we would live in a much better world .. .)


- New GIPs coming


Since my former collaborator on the video lectures Rand Chatterjee in Vancouver has largely dissociated himself from the project since I moved down here, I’ve begun to work with a local filmmaker named Skip Sweeney, of Video Free America. He’s located in San Francisco, but comes over to the East Bay frequently, and he has three assistants who have begun to work on my videos. None of their work is ready to post yet, but a few lectures soon will be, and will be posted with the GIP, “Gazing Into the Past” series, which is made up of videos about later Chinese and Japanese artists and paintings. There will be a long, three-part GIP titled “Sesshu and Chinese Painting” which will introduce important new materials and new ideas about this great Japanese artist and his relationship to the Chinese models that he saw when he spent about two years in China. This is an especially fascinating case of cross-cultural transmission, an area that has always fascinated me, and the lectures will, I promise you, be worth watching. Also, ten or so that I finished or nearly finished in Vancouver will be posted as soon as Rand Chatterjee sends them here in a form that permits us to finish them and post them. So, keep watching, tell your friends, help me to get more viewers for this series.


- Finally: Two letters from J. D. Salinger, written to an admirer in Canada before he published his first successful story, have been revealed by that admirer and have created a splash in the literary world. I mention this--no surprise--just as an excuse to call to your attention once more my own “Thoughts On the Death of Salinger,” posted as Responses and Reminiscences no. 81 on this website, otherwise unpublished. In it I attempted an informed analysis of Salinger’s last published piece of writing, and offered a theory, on the basis of my own reading of that, about why he stopped writing and retired into reclusion--a matter that seems to me central to Salinger studies. Did anyone notice? Not in any way that engaged the mainstream media. My essay somehow wasn’t big news, in the way that the discovery of the early letters was.


But that’s the story of my later life, exemplified also in the response to my video-lectures: The first comprehensive visual history of one of the two greatest and longest-lived traditions of painting in world art, presented in an exciting new medium--is that an art event worthy of notice in the mainstream media? Hasn’t been so far. And if any of you, sympathetic with this old fusser, knows any big-media people who might take this on as a story, you will receive the gratitude of


Your Running-down Blogger, James Cahill






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