The political campaign seasons that seize up our nation’s mindshare every four years have become a gladiator’s spectacle of showmanship and theatrics. The truth, whatever that may be, is not what anybody hears or expects from the political campaign process. And most of us watch with a tacit sense that this is a game, with rules, that is being played out in the public arena.
So encountering genuine candor in any form during the backdrop of a campaign season stands out in stark contrast. Over the last week I had three encounters with unvarnished opinions, and it felt invigorating.
Composer Philip Glass. The New York Times did an interview with Glass about his collaboration with Beck for reinventing pieces from his large body of work. “Rework: Philip Glass Remixed” features tracks by Amon Tobin, Tyondai Braxton, Beck and others.
Glass was self-effacing and wise when he talked about the creative process (far from the incessant self-branding and promotion that has become an artistic norm):
When I talk to young composers, I tell them, I know that you’re all worried about finding your voice. Actually you’re going to find your voice. By the time you’re 30, you’ll find it. But that’s not the problem. The problem is getting rid of it. You have to find an engine for change.
What do you both think about timelessness and your work, and how things in your work feel dated or not dated?
Glass: It all sounds dated. Because I can’t write that music again. I can’t write “Einstein on the Beach” again. I played from it in a concert the other day, and it’s like I never wrote it. My brain’s been rewired. I don’t think I’ve ever said this publicly, but I think that the music we write, it accurately reflects the way our brains work, and our brains are constantly evolving. Our brains are very plastic; they continue to grow.
How do you see the work that you did versus the work that you do?
Glass: I don’t mean to give you a Zen koan, but the work I did is the work I know, and the work I do is the work I don’t know. That’s why I can’t tell you, I don’t know what I’m doing. And it’s the not knowing that makes it interesting.
National Gallery (UK) Director Nicholas Penny. Charlotte Higgins highlighted some of Penny’s comments from a recent interview on her Guardian blog. Penny was ruthlessly honest about topics the taste makers usually steer clear of. It takes stones to speak like this to your colleagues:
On art forms he does not relate to: “The art form I don’t relate to – I’d put it more strongly actually – is video because it seems to me so often merely to be an incompetent form of film, made with the excuse that it is untainted by the professionalism associated with the entertainment industry. I’m not very impressed by conceptual art nor very often by performance art. I’m uneasy with some aspects of the legacy of Marcel Duchamp.”
On museums and the market: “Exhibition in a museum – and, even more so, acquisition – is an endorsement which has become a substitute for critical appraisal. There seems to be a belief that the reputations of artists in museums will never be challenged. This is a valuable myth for the market. It may be that once a certain amount of public money has been invested in art it will be valued forever. But I doubt it.”
On looking at contemporary art: “I try not to think of contemporary art as a separate category. I object to being asked whether I ‘like contemporary art’. The question betrays the assumption that one will look at the art of today without a critical eye.”
On meeting artists: “I think it is a mistake to suppose that meeting an artist would help to understand their art. The intelligence and imagination of many artists really exists only in what they painted or carved or modelled.”
Camille Paglia in Cambridge last night
Author and cultural critic Camille Paglia. Paglia was in town last night to celebrate her latest book, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, a populist approach to art history. (Paglia said she got the idea for a defense of art after listening to AM Talk Radio and hearing art consistently deprecated. “I wrote this book for home schooling moms, for those most alienated by art.”)
In her rapid fire delivery (she used more words in her 60 minutes on stage than any lecture I have ever heard) she waxed rhapsodic about what is so important about art. “Kids today are barraged by fragments. There is a discipline to the art of seeing. You must be alone and in quiet to really engage with a work of art.”
A well known atheist, Paglia was harsh on how secular humanism has been dismissive of spirituality and religion. “Spiritual themes are important, and current art historians do not deal with the spiritual.” Her book keeps that spiritual thread throughout her 29 essays stretching from antiquity through contemporary art. “Most people who deprecate the value of art do not get that Mondrian and Pollock also had deep spiritual longings and addressed those concerns in their work.”
According to Paglia, abstraction has never really been accepted or understood in the U.S. “In Europe art and art history are valued as cultural heritage. There is none of that in this country.” By writing specifically for those who are most alienated by art, she is convinced they can come to understand why art should be taught to children and valued in our lives. “Everything can be brought to bear in understanding a work of art.”
I have had issues with many of Paglia’s positions in the past, and I have read her wild rants about the hypocrisy of the academic world and the “Marxist” meme that still exists in many forms. And as entertainingly polemic as she often is, she also has an exceptional gift for populist advocacy. Her first foray into that advocacy was for poetry, Break, Blow, Burn. Now with Glittering Images she is focused on bringing the power of art to an audience who has written it off as effete, exclusionary and decadent. That is a rising tide that lifts all boats.