Lapham's Quarterly: Arts & Letters

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My first take on the Lapham's Quarterly staff's decision to devote an issue of their magazine to the subject of Arts & Letters is that it seemed to be an overly broad canvas, even for so substantial a magazine. The literary and poetic arts would seem to be a better fit for this eclectically wordy compendium. This great quip--for which I've been unable to find a solid attribution--came quickly to mind:

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture - it's a really stupid thing to want to do."

Lewis Lapham's introductory essay broadened the field further, with the observation that not all works are of constant appeal even for an audience of one:

On first opening a book that I'm not obliged to read for professional reasons, I'm content to let it pass by unless I can hear some sort of melodic line...after a decent interval of years I return to the book in question in the hope that I've learned to hear what is being said. When I was twenty I didn't know how to read Ford Madox Ford or George Eliot. By the time I was fifty I no longer could read J. D. Salinger or Ernest Hemingway. I've yet to learn how to read Finnegans Wake. (p. 14, Lewis Lapham, "Lady in a Veil")

"The Art of Writing" (p. 25) by Lu Ji is a beautifully poetic piece that has led me to search for Sam Hamill's translation, but its refrains were disrupted by the egoistic pomp of Christian kitsch painter Thomas Kinkade in this passage:

"The No. 1 quote critics give me is, 'Thom, your work is irrelevant.' Now, that's a fascinating, fascinating comment. Yes, irrelevant to the little subculture, this microculture, of modern art. But here's the point: My art is relevant because it's relevant to 10-million people. That makes me the most relevant artist in this culture." (p. 71, Thomas Kinkade)

This quote is sourced to The Guardian, which referred to the San Francisco Chronicle, but it appears to have actually originated in Susan Orlean's article "Art for Everybody: How Thomas Kinkade Turned Painting into Big Business" (15 October 2001) in The New Yorker (p. 130). [Update: Her piece is available here.]

Pianist extraordinaire Glenn Gould provides a contrastingly introspective counterpoint:

"When I was very young, I felt a certain sense of power when I walked onto the stage, especially to play a concerto. I frankly enjoyed that sort of thing when I was thirteen or fourteen. But the enjoyment wore off rather quickly because this mysterious, magical moment of insight that is supposed to be the net result of the coming together of artist and audience never happened for me. That is not to say that there were not occasional moments--perhaps when I was giving a concert with an esteemed conductor or playing a solo work in an especially fine hall--when some special feeling took hold of me. I wouldn't deny that. But it didn't happen because the audience was there; it could just as well have happened at rehearsal or in a practice session. I can honestly say that I do not recall ever feeling better about the quality of a performance because of the presence of an audience." (p. 121, Glenn Gould)

Venturing into the political realm, the following statements from Winston Churchill struck a sour note:

While on a visit to Italy in 1927, Winston Churchill remarked to journalists, "If I were an Italian I would don the fascist black shirt," later declaring on his home soil that Mussolini was "the greatest living legislator." (p. 195, Jamie James, "In the Gloom the Gold")

I initially doubted these statements' veracity, but finding their sources was a simple matter: Christopher Hibbert's Mussolini: The Rise and Fall of Il Duce (p. 74) and Stanley Payne's A History of Fascism: 1914-1945 (p. 218). Interestingly, I've never seen mention of Churchill's pro-fascist sentiments from his many admirers on the Right.

Inconvenient remarks sometimes vanish, but others are manufactured to fill some need. I'm not surprised that an Islamic calligrapher would claim the following,

"The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said, 'The ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of the martyr.'" (p. 219, Sabiha Al Khemir, "The Sacred Word")

but (as I mentioned here) that utterance is of questionable veracity.

Overall, Arts & Letters is another top-notch issue of Lapham's Quarterly--may their magazine continue to resonate with intellectually curious audiences.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on July 10, 2010 8:35 PM.

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