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Basquiat: Poignant My Ass

19 May 2017*

When the world of art collectors creates a price of $110 million for a Basquiat painting, something he’d just as soon have painted on a broken wall, it deforms the meaning of what a painter does, why he does it, how he does it. (Or she, yes, but not in this case; and indeed are any of the $50+ million painters women?**) In the end the underlying, unconscious impulse is to subdue art, to disempower it, to turn Aphrodite into a gaudy hooker. I’m sure the collectors believe they love art but what they love are themselves owning art, and their money alters everyone’s relationship to art, in the largest sense of that word. Thus you go to the Metropolitan Museum, already something of a robber baron mausoleum, and wander in the modern painting sections, from one room to the next, each named after some thuggish billionaire and his wife, truly awful humans: it poisons you to see their names and to some detectable degree it poisons for you every work in the space. Art has always had rich patrons, yes; and the artists that the rich patrons chose to support delivered not merely artistic talent but social cachet. The ones that didn’t have that cachet to deliver tended to suffer, underfed and under recognized  — in this context I think of Andrea del Sarto, in Browning’s poem of that name, whence comes the line, ‘less is more’. Less is never more for these guys, only more is more. Rich patronage is one thing; one hundred million dollars is something else altogether, enough money that the earnings on it as an investment alone could feed the poor of a small country for years and years, theoretically forever. Basquiat sold the painting in ’84 for $19,000; that’s rich patronage. One hundred million is an assault. Satan comes to a fasting, delirious Jesus, takes him to a mountaintop and shows him the glories and riches of the world, sweetness, comfort and beauty: all this is yours, Satan says, if you but bow down and worship me. Would Basquiat bow? Would Van Gogh? Cezanne? (Picasso, you never know: he might just do it for the laugh.) Of course it doesn’t take long to figure out what Satan does when you bend over. The NY Times reports today that Basquiat’s price “perhaps poignantly” exceeds the highest price paid for an Andy Warhol’s work (only $105 million don’t you know) . Poignant my ass. I think of Basquiat, whose work I loved when I began seeing it on those broken walls downtown, and I think of the kind of angry drive to express, in terms native to the downtown New York City streets of the late 70s and early 80s, expressions that even in their anger frequently evoked certain deep traditions, particularly of classical sub-Saharan African art — the masks, the heads, warding off evil while depicting it. The Japanese billionaire who bragged out his buy, on Instagram, minutes after completing it, plans to house the painting in a museum he’s building for his collection, in Chiba. He should call the place Ozymandias House.**


*The painting shown here is “Dustheads”, 1982. It is not the untitled head that brought $110 million last night. I couldn’t bear to add to its newly-acquired, falsely iconic status by reproducing it here but you can find it all over the ‘net.  Indeed, currently, if you google “Basquiat”, that’s what shows in the images. The photograph of the two figures are from Malawi, this century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. Photo by moi.


**Answer: no. Not by a long shot. As you’d expect.  Since the whole enterprise is about commodity and not art, of course the men are worth ten times more. See . As of 2013, says that  site, it was Berthe Morisot’s Aprés le déjeuner, 1881, which at $10.9 million was top among women painters, followed by Natalia Goncharova (Les fleurs, 1912).  Louise Bourgeois was very close to Morisot, also over $10 million, but for a large iron sculpture. I’d pay a lot more for the huge spider than for the picture of the window and flowerbox and l’ingénue insipide digesting her café au lait et croissant avec confiture de fraise, but that’s just me.


***Just for fun, the Shelly poem, thanks to the Poetry Foundation website:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Bertolucci and a missing sense of wit

This piece is from today’s Guardian — wherein Bernardo Bertolucci responds to outrage over a 2013 interview that has been flying around the social mediascape for the past few days, and in which he describes how he and Marlon Brando worked out the famous anal rape scene with Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris:

Italian men are so funny when they lie: ridiculousness or preposterousness doesn’t even slow them down. I saw this interview and it was clear he was talking about more than just “the butter” — for why would Bertolucci feel he needs Schneider’s most genuine reaction “as a girl rather than as an actress” merely to the butter? It’s an absurd claim and it is so precisely the kind of lie Italian men come up with when frozen in the headlights of accusation that it made me laugh.

Bertolucci’s declaration, which he made in the televised interview, that he wanted Schneider’s “genuine” reaction, demonstrates after a lifetime in film either that he knows nothing of acting or that he thought she was no good and was there mostly for her tits. I’ve never liked Bertolucci as a director — he is a lugubrious filmmaker, and the only picture of his that I experienced sustained pleasure in watching was the one written by Susan Minot, called Stealing Beauty, with Liv Tyler and the wonderful Sinéad Cusack and Jeremy Irons and a bunch of other good actors. I attribute every moment of lightness and grace in that film to Minot, to the actors, and to the Tuscan light, because Bertolucci is incapable of lightness or grace in every other picture of his that I’ve seen. There is a telling set of scenes in THE DREAMER when the three young people hanging out (and acting oddly millennial) in Paris in ’68 together reënact a moment from Godard’s Bande à part. Just after, Bertolucci drops in a couple of quick cuts from the actual Godard movie and in the first nano-second that the Godard film is on screen instead of Bertolucci’s you feel an immediate lift, a relief. What you realize is that in Godard you see a filmmaker of greater intelligence and the intelligence expresses itself most obviously and specifically in his having a sense of humor, which Bertolucci simply does not. It takes only a few seconds to perceive this. 

But I still love Brando. No Matter What.

Alas poor Wallace! Infinite Jest approaches 20th anniversary

Tom Bissell has written for the The New York Times Book Review this weekend [ ] an appreciation of David Wallace’s Infinite Jest — he’s written, in fact, an introduction to the 20th anniversary edition of the novel, to be published soon, from which introduction this appreciation is taken. It’s a nice piece, a joyous piece. It’s an intelligent and non-cringe-worthy hug. I wrote about the book at the time of its publication for Vogue, not with great insight; I don’t remember what I said except some version of ‘this guy is the most important American writer of his generation’ which he unquestionably was, and remains. The most intelligent (by far) contemporary review that I saw was Walter Kirn‘s. [Which I guess in those days would have been in New York Magazine(?)]. The book was monumental, and still is, but it thrived despite a condition that Norman Mailer smartly (okay, exaggeratedly) saw in Burroughs’s Naked Lunch — that you could excise a hundred pages and the author would be hard pressed to know what they were or what parts of the text might now be missing them. Bissell says, admitting he can’t describe how, that Wallace was a spiritual writer; I’d say he was first and foremost a moralist and like all great moralists he had a vast horizon of spirituality he was seeing and hiking toward. Once the moralist achieves this place, he won’t need to moralize anymore; or not nearly so much. Wallace saw the moral implications of everything: most devastating for him, he saw the moral impurities that went into his own work, and he could not forgive them. Following his battle against irony is like watching a great pianist one by one lopping off his fingers — which are, after all, the source of all his mistakes. I don’t think a satisfying (comprehensive, penetrating) critical appraisal of Wallace’s work has yet been written and I don’t think it will be any time soon, for we do not live in a critical age. We live in a celebrity age, and it’s way too soon to wash the celebrity off of Wallace’s story, his work, and his reputation.


Hiroshima, Please Remember

hiroshima child

Seventy years ago on this date in 1945, the United States dropped the first of the two atomic bombs that it deployed against Japan; the second fell on Nagasaki three days later, on Aug.9. Immediate deaths from the bombings exceeded 100,000. Over the months that followed this number approximately doubled due to the after effects of radiation sickness, burns, other injuries and illnesses, and malnutrition. The very large majority of these injuries and deaths were suffered by civilians. It is not a date we take much note of in the United States, but it is and will long be a very important ceremonial date in Japan. I am always touched on this date by a sense of sorrow, horror, and guilt.

The suffering endured in that war (as in all wars) takes us to the limits of our understanding. Current estimates (that is, higher than previous) suggest that as many as 80 million people died as a direct result of the war’s conduct. It was the ugly culmination of a complex, brutal and deluded narrative of nationalism, colonialism and industrialism — a narrative that was purposefully suffused with the toxic chemicals of moral necessity and historical inevitability by the relentless propaganda of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Opium Wars, the Crimean War, the Boxer Rebellion, the Sino-Japanese War, Russo-Japanese War, World War I — all led to this global bloodletting.

Such a convulsion it seems was required to end what might be called Phases I and II of Western colonialism. Phase III began with war’s end and masked itself in bogus terms of national liberation, an idea with significant power for the many human beings who had sacrificed so much to liberate Italy, France, Western Europe, China, the Pacific nations, Southeast Asia, et cetera, from the control of two brutal and deranged tyrannies. The Soviets of course peddled the same story to their own satellites. Rather than concoct a highflown and ludicrous narrative of moral necessity to provide cover for rapacious commercial interests (see Conrad, “Exterminate the brutes!” etc), the West in 1945 and after created a narrative of political necessity to do the same. Nations were granted seeming independence but had to throw in their lot either with the Soviets or the West, who then essentially controlled them politically and economically. (Vietnam is an example of a nation that, able to achieve its independence due to the temporary disempowerment of its traditional overseers, was plucked back into a prolonged anti-colonial war of independence that masqueraded as a Cold War showdown. The Vietnamese had no interest in the West, China, or the Soviets — but in a tri-lateral world, such a position was not permissible. This was true of a number of war-ravaged nations in Africa as well: Angola, Somalia, and others.)

The endurance of this bullshit orthodoxy sees us now in the ludicrous position we occupy in Pakistan, continuing to prop up (and, for our own protection, semi-occupy) a land filled with our obvious enemies, supplying them with weapons and staggering quantities of cash and some kind of meagre and incredible story of alliance, all because once upon a time, when such mattered to us, they happened to oppose, for nakedly ugly reasons, the world’s largest democracy that sits beside them — India — which apparently, given our continuing inability to gain close relations with it, we still fear is going to “go Communist”. The historical rationale for this alliance with Pakistan is on its face insane. yet no reformer in Washington — regardless of his or her seeming mandate or power or righteousness — will ever succeed in rationally changing the policy. It is a genetic fact, a vestigial tail, and it will be removed either by catastrophic injury or the invisible forces of evolution. My money’s on the former.

Just so with the growing hostilities between the US and China and between Western Europe (read: Germany) and Russia. If you fill the world with lies and have to behave as if they were never lies at all, these are the positions you find yourself forced to take. This is what lies do: they have a demonic power subtly to disguise the landscape and make outrageous sins seemingly necessary and inevitable.

Given all that, let’s try this as an exercise: at least on this date, but one hopes for all the days that follow, when you hear this bullshit on the news — our “allies” in Pakistan, the necessity of “countering the influence” of China, big bad Putin and Russia — envision a mushroom cloud, see in your mind ten thousand children burned to hideous deformation, and say these words to yourself: 80 million dead.

The flasher’s raincoat: Germany, Lithuania, Greece, and others

History. I can’t sleep, the Wednesday Guardian arrives in my email. Check it out. The Greeks as usual. Headline: “Greece given days to agree to bailout deal or face banking collapse and euro exit”. They have like 48 hours to show new austerity budget plans to the Europeans or else the troika pulls the plug, no more cash for you (Angela as the Cash Nazi) the banking system collapses and the Greek government will be forced to issue a new currency with which to pay its bills. Of course Angela is not letting two facts stand in her way: first, that austerity hasn’t worked and won’t again; it causes all kinds of suffering, yes, which she likes, yes, yes! — but it shrinks an economy faster than the savings can pay back debts, so that debt in ratio to the GDP keeps growing the more the debtor pays it back, requiring more austerity, etc.; and, second, that the Europeans are again requiring the Greek government to do exactly that which in two elections they’ve been mandated not to do, most recently by 62 percent of their people. So much for European democracy.

OKAY…. so I’m reading this story and I get to this wee tidbit:
“[With] the Greek government it is every time ‘mañana’,” said Lithuania’s president, Dalia Grybauskaitė, one of the Greek government’s harshest critics. “It can always be ‘mañana’ every day.”

Get it? Lazy darkies to the south? Racial enough for you? When I read this, as when I read some days ago that we’re moving major weaponry into these new allies’ (the Baltic three) territories, my stomach turned over.

And history herself can be heard shrieking in the attic.

Let’s dance back in time, to the days when Germany occupied Greece (having saved the hapless Italians from an ass-beating) and were launching an invasion of the good ole’ Soviet Union. The Lithuanians — before the Germans got there but as soon as they knew they were free of Soviet oversight — started murdering Jews in massive riots in the Vilnius ghetto. They started taking Jews out to the woods and slaughtering them and throwing the bodies in open pits. The Germans soon arrived to make everything official — although it’s been written that here, as in Ukraine and Croatia, the Germans were a bit taken aback by the bloodlust of their new subjects. Nevertheless working together with the Germans the Lithuanians made sure that by the time the Soviets liberated the place, of the 220,000 Jews who’d inhabited the country in 1941, only 10,000 were still alive. (Those Jews still alive in the Lithuanian concentration camps, as the Germans retreated, were sent to other camps further west to keep the Soviets from freeing them. Amid that chaos, this they took care of.)

It’s a lot of work, a huge amount of labor and logistics, to murder 200,000 people and dispose of their corpses. Picture it. Go ahead. A simple, muscular job, for simple, muscular people.

Nowadays the Lithuanians are busy repatriating the dusty bones of their beloved leader of the era, a Nazi collaborator (whom the U.S., of course, took in, as we took in so many other war criminals) and having marches in the streets honoring Lithuanian members of the Waffen SS.

So we need to hear ethnic slurs from our new fucking friends the Lithuanians like we need to get shot in the groin. It is sickening.

Angela marches on. Francois scrambles to keep up. (A socialist, he is, you know. Theoretically.) The other history lesson: Greece was run by a vicious clan of oligarchs until the Germans took over. The Greek working classes then produced the largest and most effective resistance movement in Europe. Many of these brave fighters it turned out wanted to be friends with their socialist brothers and Germany’s enemy, the Soviet Union, so the Allies made sure to squash all movement toward real democracy in Greece after the war and brought back the oligarchs and the military to run the country as a right wing dictatorship. Churchill was apparently a key player in forming this policy: Thanks old man. They finally shook this off in 1974 but the oligarchs still frequently ran the country and have never been far off; they are the great friends of the west. And clearly the Germans, the ECB, etc, want them back in power.

And what’s austerity, after all, to an oligarch? A reason to hire more personal security, perhaps.

(The US nightmare is that the Europeans will indeed cut loose these sulky, shiftless darkies and who will come in to lend a helping hand? Hmm? Try Russia. That’s what WE care about.)

Let us keep in mind, too, that in 1992, an exuberantly reunited Germany threw kerosene on a small flame by instantly recognizing their old WWII ally Croatia when it feebly declared independence from the theretofore united Yugoslavia — or, essentially, the Russia-aligned enemy of the WWII years, Serbia. A few weeks later, effectively having started an ethnic war in the Balkans that would last four years and consume tens of thousands of lives, the German foreign minister resigned. His departing words were ‘Oops, my bad’. Now, who has us facing off against WWII enemy Russia because of Ukraine? Germany. Who is driving WWII conquest Greece into a decade of suffering because it wants to punish a recalcitrant old enemy and remove its Socialist government? Germany. Who is the ultimate enemy, the enemy of enemies? Russia. Who will stumble idiotically into the coming conflagration, not knowing our asses from our elbows, historically or strategically? Us.

Germany as the robust new leader of Europe is redrawing all the lines of their Eastern campaign in WWII, this time with France and the US behind them, the French because they’re craven, us because we’re ignorant. Interestingly enough, the British, who actually know history, are hanging fire. In the end chances are few but they still exist, that the British will do that superb British thing and stand up to the whole lot of us. I like to dream.

All the highmindedness of Europe: it’s like a flasher’s raincoat.

Good night and good luck to Jon Stewart

A few words on Jon Stewart: there is at the core of his career on The Daily Show  one governing, for me, fact; This man, during the spiritual and financial destruction of our country, stood for year after year after year as the only mainstream voice of criticism and skepticism and howling grief-stricken opposition available to the nation at large. I don’t mean to denigrate journals and journalists associated with such as Harper’s Magazine​, Mother Jones, The Nation, etc. But they speak to relatively small (albeit sometimes influential) audiences who already, for the most part, agree with them. Stewart had sponsors like Hot Pockets and Coors. He was talking to, among others, frat boy nation. And at this level, he was alone. The entire corporate media complex after 9/11 just caved in like a Pennsylvania glade burning from below. He yanked them up from their smoky cave prisons and shone a light on them for us all to see, every night. He did the same to our government, as best he could. He taught an entire generation not to trust what these people are peddling and how to see through the most obvious of their lies, and the political ramifications of that achievement won’t be  known for some years yet. He spoke truth to power and proved that if you will only display the requisite courage and wit to do it well and forcefully, you can thrive  He was almost flawlessly funny, which was what he always meant to be, and how he always identified himself, in terms of his comedy. The show was in my experience simply never bad. We cannot yet appreciate the scope of his impact and his success; for now I can only say out loud, as it were, how much I admire him, and wish him well, and thank him.