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A good day begins with the NYTimes, NPR, Arts & Letters Daily, Sacred Space & good coffee; it ends with a Grand Marnier. A brilliant day would be spent in London, New York or San Francisco -- although Sydney would be right up there. Unwinding in Carmel or Antibbes. Daytime spent in library (the Morgan, LOC or Widener) or museum (the Frick, the Louvre, British) with a healthy walk (around Lake Annecey); evening -- theatre (West End), or music (Carnegie Hall). A nice last meal: Perhaps the French Laundry or Fredy Giardet or Quennelles de Brochet from Taillevent, Cassoulet from Cafe des Artistes, Peking Duck from le Tsé-Fung, Lobster Savannah from Locke-Ober, Sacher Torte from Demel and Café Brulot from Antoine. Sazerac as an apéritif, Le Môntrachet in the beginning, Stag's Leap Cabernet in the middle, Veuve Cliqûot to conclude. Desert Island: Imac, Ipod, (I know, generator and dish necessary) Johnnie Walker Blue Label, wife & Adler's Great Books.


It's all here

Jan 23, 2015 07:01 am

History of the World in 1,000 Objects

History of the World in 1,000 Objects
by DK Publishing
2014, 480 pages, 10.4 x 12.1 x 1.4 inches
$25 Buy a copy on Amazon
Using human-made objects to explain world history is such a fun and interesting way to see how societies around the planet have evolved both culturally and technologically throughout the millennia. History of the World opens up with a simple stone handax for cutting and digging made around 1.65-million years ago and ends, 999 artifacts later, with satellites and smart phones. In between these life-changing inventions are jewelry, clothing, dishware, religious weapons, art, statues, ships, globes, musical instruments, engines, bikes, telephones, and so much more from every time period since the beginning of humanity (as far as we can tell). It’s fascinating to connect the dots, figuring out how one invention lead to another from culture to culture and era to era. As with most DK books, interesting bits of info accompany each photographed object, and each section has an introduction giving us some historical background on what we are about to see. And as if 1,000 photos in chronological order of when they were made weren’t enough to give us a sense of our world’s progression, the back of the book has a 76-page timeline of world history (see example above) which could be a book all on its own. – Carla Sinclair

January 23, 2015

Can art still shock?

Can art still shock? | Books | The Guardian

Olympia by Edouard Manet

Watch 'Bob's Burgers'? Now You Can Eat Them, Too

Watch 'Bob's Burgers'? Now You Can Eat Them, Too : The Salt : NPR

Bob Belcher, titular hero of Bob's Burgers, bites into one of his creations. Each episode features daily burger specials with chuckle-inducing names. The burgers were born in the show writers' imagination and brought to life in Cole Bowden's kitchen.


Curvology: the Origins and Power of Female Body

Curvology: the Origins and Power of Female Body Shape by David Bainbridge, review: 'strange and sometimes worrying' - Telegraph

'Audrey with toes and wrist bent’, 2011, by Nadav Kander, from 'Bodies: 6 Women, 1 Man’ (Hatje Cantz). Kander’s work can be seen at Flowers Gallery in the three-person show Human Nature until 21 Feb and at the London Art Fair (flowersgallery.com, nadavkander.com)

Why Shakespeare loved iambic pentameter

Why Shakespeare loved iambic pentameter - David T. Freeman and Gregory Taylor | TED-Ed


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From Poesy to Carrot Carnations
When arts die, they turn into hobbies.

I had never heard of a carrot carnation. But when, back in the 1980s, several of my fellow staffers at the office of a Texas State Senator in Austin wanted to learn about them, I went along to kill some time. (There are downsides to working in the legislature of a state with an anti-government culture, but it does provide you with a lot of free time). 
We soon found ourselves in the auditorium of the convention center in Austin, surrounded by thousands of middle-aged suburban housewives. On stage, a woman resembling Martha Stewart showed how, with a knife and a little imagination, fruits and vegetables can be turned into ornamental table settings, like carrot carnations.
Many years later, I came to realize that I had witnessed one extreme of the artistic spectrum. At one end of the spectrum are major arts, defined not in terms of cultural superiority but in terms of large audiences. At the other extreme are crafts like making carrot carnations. These are arts that have no audience, other than practitioners of the art itself. Another word for a craft is a hobby. In between the major arts and the crafts or hobbies are minor arts, which have a small audience whose members do not themselves aspire to practice the art.
The assignment of an art to one or another category has nothing to do with its quality. It is merely an assessment of the relationship between artist and audience.
In the 1920s, the cultural critic Gilbert Seddes wrote a book entitled The Seven Lively Arts, defending vernacular art forms despised by the literati like movies, jazz and comic strips. My somewhat similar list of the major arts with mass audiences would include cinema and television, pop music, genre fiction, and punditry or political commentary (the heir to the art of political oratory).
Today’s minor arts, I think, include theater, ballet, opera, symphonic music and literary fiction. These still include small audiences whose members are not also creators, audiences who patronize these arts in part out of an inherited feeling that these are superior to movies or genre fiction.
With the exception of rap, which has a mass audience, poetry has moved from the category of a minor art to a craft. In the course of numerous readings of my own published verse, I gradually came to the conclusion that almost everyone in the audience at a poetry reading is a poet or aspiring poet. My guess is that a majority of people who read poetry also write poetry.
Poetry in the twenty-first century is like pottery, woodworking, or the making of carrot carnations. Sophisticated verse was never a major art, and having lost even a small non-practitioner audience, it has lost its status as a minor art. At hobbyist conventions, celebrated practitioners of a craft address an audience made up of other practitioners of the craft, who will then go home and work at the art themselves. Poetry has more residual cultural prestige than carrot carnation making and other hobbies, but that is only because most of the poet-hobbyists are professors with MFAs, while there are no professors of table-setting.
The short story, like poetry, already may have gone from being a minor art to being a craft. When I worked as an editor at Harper’s magazine in the 1990s, many acquaintances would comment on our essays and features, but I never heard anyone mention one of the short stories we published. The short story writers whom we published were almost exclusively MFAs who made a living by teaching short story and novel writing at liberal arts colleges. I may be mistaken, but I suspect that the same group that writes short stories today makes up the majority of those who read the short stories that are still published out of a sense of cultural responsibility in magazines like The New Yorker and Harper’s.
The literary novel, too, may be on its way to losing its minor art status and becoming a pure hobby of the creative writing professors who produce most of it in their spare time, while teaching writing courses. Some time ago, I was surprised when the editor of a highbrow magazine and of a major book review, respectively, both told me that their favorite contemporary author was Patrick O’Brien, author of “Master and Commander.” You hypocrites, I thought. You don’t even read the literary fiction that you publish or review. You read well-written genre fiction on your own time. Goodbye, Jonathan Franzen, and ahoy, matie!
Architecture includes examples of all three categories. Major art architecture, defined in terms of the number of clients, consists of the vast majority of the buildings that are designed and built today — chiefly residential subdivisions and office buildings.
Minor art architecture consists of architect-designed buildings for a tiny number of wealthy clients and corporations. This is the architecture you find in architecture magazines — the rich guy’s glass shed dangling on the side of a mountain, the multinational company’s trophy skyscraper in New York or London or Shanghai, designed by a “starchitect” whose name is also a brand.
Finally, there is a kind of architecture as a minor art, consisting of the unbuilt — sometimes, deliberately unbuildable — plans of starchitects, plans which are appreciated chiefly by other architects.
Nonfiction, too, spans the spectrum, with popular educational TV shows on history or science at one extreme and academic monographs intended only for other academics at the other. In between is the genre of popular nonfiction, aimed at an audience more sophisticated than the cable TV audience but less scholarly than academics.
This is a horizontal ranking based on audience, not a vertical ranking based on quality or importance. As a political commentator, I write for an audience in the hundreds of thousands, sometimes more. As an author of nonfiction, I can expect an audience of informed readers in the tens of thousands. As a published poet, I have a much smaller audience made up almost entirely of other poets, when, that is, I have an audience at all. The only exceptions have been the times that Garrison Keillor has read my work for an audience of millions on NPR’s “Writer’s Almanac.” Poetry is the original digital art; its audience tends to be in the digits.
It might be nice to live in a world in which poets had the audiences of pundits. And maybe the making of carrot carnations should be an Olympic event. • 20 January 2015

Michael Lind’s most recent book is Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.


Stumbling on the Sublime
In the etchings of Turner and Moran at the New York Public Library, finding transcendence in the small and unexpected.

I ducked into the main branch of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue on a cold January day and found myself in one of its frequent free exhibitions, this one on the halls of the third floor (there are also exhibits on the ground floor). The show was of prints by two nineteenth-century artists: the British J.M.W. Turner and the American Thomas Moran. 

The prints in question were mostly etchings and engravings. These techniques are not widely understood by the general public, but it helps to know a bit about them in order to appreciate the intricacy and finesse of the art on display.
An engraving uses a tool, called a burin, to incise a drawing into a copper plate, which is then covered with ink. The ink is wiped, leaving the grooves inked, and the plate is then printed. An etching uses a needle to draw on a layer of wax that covers a copper plate. The plate is then dipped into an acid solution that bites the lines of the drawing into it; it is then inked, wiped, and printed. Both processes are difficult — the picture must be drawn backward since the printing occurs in reverse. But engraving is more arduous since it means cutting directly into metal. The advantage is that it produces a cleaner, crisper line. Etchings are often turned into engravings, and most of the etchings in the exhibit at the Library had been done by Turner and Moran, but engraved by professional engravers.
The title of the Library exhibit was “Sublime,” referring to an experience that elevates above the ordinary, inspiring wonder and awe. The concept was first introduced in the 1st century by the philosopher Longinus, and popularized in the 18th century by Edmund Burke in his Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. Burke’s work was taken up in the 19th century by the Romantic poets and artists, who situated the sublime experience in nature as an escape from conventional reality and an opportunity for revelatory insight.
When one thinks of the sublime in art one thinks of large paintings in vivid color — the kind of work for which both Turner and Moran are generally known: Turner for his scenes of storms at sea and of busy ports and turbulent cityscapes — most famously, his 1835Burning of the Houses of Parliament; Moran for his great landscapes of the American West.
In the Library exhibit, however, the sublime is made small — reduced to these mostly black and white prints.

Holy Island Cathedral - J.M.W. Turner
For me, the Turner etchings and engravings were a revelation. I have never quite “gotten” Turner from his oil paintings. Although I know how important he is in the history of art, I find the palette of his large works washed out and the brushstroke, muddy. But these prints were another story. He originally produced them as a group called Liber Studiorum between 1807 and 1819. They show, first, a quality of draftsmanship that one would not expect from his paintings, while also relaying a spontaneity that evokes the innovative wildness of those large canvases. If Turner’s oil scapes leave me cold, his rendering of sea and land in these prints is both dramatic and delicate. One, for example, titled “Drawing of the Clyde,” shows a charming scene of a waterfall, infused with light, breaking through into a lake surrounded by cliffs and wild trees; in the foreground, small nude bathers are discernible on the rocky shore. Sublime! — especially when one realizes that the light effects required unusual skill to create in a print.
“Drawing of the Clyde,” like many of the prints on display, were engravings done from etchings under Turner’s direction. You can see on some of them the marks where he noted the need for more highlights, requiring the engraver to deepen the incisions in the plate. In some cases, Turner did the engraving himself, and you can see him struggling with the difficult process.

Little Devil's Bridge over the Russ - J.M.W. Turner
If Turner’s prints charmed me more than his paintings, I had the opposite response to those of Moran. I like Moran’s paintings — his dramatic rendering of Western landscape strikes me as proto-cinematic; no one does the grandeur of Yellowstone like Moran. But I was less taken with the prints on display here, which seemed more conventional. The best of these had borrowed from or copied Turner or took the form of chromolithographs that, through a laborious process, incorporates color. Still, it is interesting to learn that Moran was one of the American popularizers of etching during its revival in the late-nineteenth century, and helped to launch the New York Etching Club in 1877.
An added pleasure in visiting this exhibition is to wander through the great edifice in which it is housed: the Schwartzman Building of the New York Public Library, often overlooked by both natives and tourists, who assume it is just a library. But it happens to be one of the great treasures of the city — worth visiting not only for its regularly changing, free exhibition but also for its Beaux Arts architecture, which takes us back to a time when public spaces made ordinary people feel important. Grand Central Station is another such space — and New York’s old Penn Station, pulled down in the 1960s and precipitating the birth of the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission, was another. The famous line on the loss of that station was written by Yale art historian Vincent Scully: “one [once] entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.” Fortunately, you can still enter the New York Public Library like a god.
Along with its changing exhibitions, the Library has a permanent display of manuscripts, first editions, and portraits, also on the third floor, across from the Rose Main Reading Room. The Reading Room itself is an exceptional space — worth a detour for its carved wood, chandeliered ceilings, massive oak tables, and long elegant windows. The room is currently closed for renovation, and the manuscript room has been retrofitted to temporarily replace it. It does not have the majesty of the Main Reading Room, but you could do worse than browse the prints in the hallway and then spend a few hours reading under the eyes of portraits that gaze down benignly from the walls of this sublime structure.

Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University and host of  The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on more than 300 public television stations across the country. She is author of four nonfiction books and four bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest book isSuzanne Davis Gets a Life.

The Golden State

Idle Chatter 
California Dreamin'
Larry Sultan's photos capture, tenderly, the paradise of Southern California – and the tensions and desires that complicate it.

You can smell the photographs of Larry Sultan. My wife noticed this before I did. She is a Western person (she grew up in Las Vegas). That’s to say, she’s a desert person, as am I (Los Angeles). So it makes sense that she could smell Sultan’s pictures. Most of the photographs of Larry Sultan (currently on display at LACMA’s retrospective Larry Sultan: Here and Home) are thick with the San Fernando Valley in North Los Angeles, where Sultan grew up. 
The San Fernando Valley, otherwise known to Angelinos simply as “The Valley,” is Ground Zero for West Coast suburbia. There are tract homes, model housing developments, vast stretches of concrete highway stretching out into the horizon. But if you look hard enough, or move to the edges of the Valley, there is always the desert, the scrub brush and the dryness. That is, after all, what lies underneath Los Angeles if you could just scrape the city off.
When I look at photographs by Larry Sultan I smell eucalyptus and lavender. Those are the plants I can name. I also smell the gnarled bushes and brown weeds, the nameless desert flowers that grew in the nooks and crannies of Laurel Canyon, in the places that hadn’t been watered and replanted by homeowners. Running around in the behind-spaces of the Hollywood Hills as a youth, I smelled all those smells, got them on my fingers. It is strange that a photograph, something that cannot be smelled or touched or tasted, could recall those sensations. But those dirt-dusted plant smells are in every frame of Sultan’s photographic series Pictures from Home (1982-92), The Valley (1998-2003), and Homeland (2006-9).
Larry Sultan died of cancer in 2009; the Homeland series constitutes his final testimony. The smelliest of the Homeland pictures is, for me, Creek, Santa Rosa (2007). Santa Rosa is actually up in Northern California, but Sultan shot it to look more or less the same as L.A.’s Valley. The picture shows a half-dried creek behind a housing development. A youngish Latino man crouches down with a bucket. Presumably, he is gathering water. Another man is heading up the hill behind, his bucket already full. In terms of content, the picture is not unlike something you might see in a 17th century painting. European villagers drawing water from a nearby river. Something painted, maybe, by Claude Lorrain.
But in a picture by Claude Lorrain, the villagers drawing the water are fully integrated into the landscape. With Claude, people belong to place and place belongs to people. The paintings work because everything holds together in a neo-classical pictorial oneness. It doesn’t work that way in a picture by Larry Sultan. The two men in Creek, Santa Rosaare drawing water from the creek because they don’t have access to the taps in the modern homes just behind them. They don’t live in those homes. They don’t fully belong. They are day laborers living at the margins of the suburbia they both serve (as workers to be hired on the cheap) and aspire to (as immigrants trying to make a better life). Larry Sultan got his models for these photographs by driving to those places (parking lots, bus stops) in California where day laborers stand around waiting to be hired for whatever temporary work is available.
Creek, Santa Rosa is thus saturated with desire and longing only half-fulfilled — and probably, in the end, unfulfillable. How many of California’s day laborers ever come to own a big house in one of those sprawling developments? Of those who do, how many are fully satisfied by the achievement? Sociologically and economically, then, these pictures are made tense by the realities of labor, class, exploitation, and consumerism. But the pictures cannot be reduced to that sociological impulse. Larry Sultan is not a photojournalist.

Canal District, San Rafael. From the series Homeland, 2006. Image © and courtesy the Estate of Larry Sultan.
Here’s what Sultan wrote about the pictures of Homeland:
They are deeply reminiscent of the terrain I sought out as a child: the empty fields behind malls and scruffy borderlands of the LA river that ran behind my house in the San Fernando Valley. These places represented a small and vanishing patch of paradise that existed just outside of the boundaries of property and ownership; a free zone that eased my (adolescent) uncertainty and provided a safe place away from the judgments of others.
So, Larry Sultan had his own desires. In the case of Homeland , this adds a further layer of complication to the pictures. In another photograph from the series, Canal District, San Rafael (2007), a trio of day laborers carries plates of food across one of Sultan’s scruffy borderlands at the edge of a housing development. The immediate thought, on looking at the picture, is that these three men should be allowed inside one of the homes in the background. They want to be inside, eating their food in the dining room, and we want them to be there, too.
But the second thought is that those homes, the over-manicured spaces of the giant housing developments, are not the paradise they claim to be. The day laborers are, actually, the people who get to enjoy Sultan’s “vanishing patch of paradise.” They are the lucky ones, though that luck is tempered with regret, since it is made possible by what they cannot have, what they cannot afford.
In his now-canonical book about Los Angeles, City of Quartz (1990), Mike Davis argued that L.A., throughout its history, has tended to drive people into opposing camps. On the one side are what Davis calls the “boosters.” These are the cheerleaders for Los Angeles, the people who claim that a better life really can be found in the sunshine of the L.A. basin. On the other side are what Davis calls the “noir” set. These are the people who see in Los Angeles a living hell, a dark dystopia of frustrated and improper desires. Davis also identifies a number of groupings that fall somewhere in between those two poles, Exiles, Communards, etc.
Ever since Los Angeles started to grow as a city in the early part of the 20th century, it presented itself as a solution to the problems found everywhere else. You end up in Los Angeles because you are seeking the good life. Your attitude, once you get there, tends to reflect either a defense of L.A.’s inherent utopian quality, or an attack on the very idea that Los Angeles is a solution to anything.

Boxers, Mission Hills. From the series The Valley, 1999. Image © and courtesy the Estate of Larry Sultan.
Los Angeles, then, is a city that has to deal with the problem of its own desire more explicitly than other cities. This is true of California in general, but Los Angeles is the headquarters of the idea. People move to Cleveland all the time. But Cleveland is not a city “about” wanting to be in Cleveland. Los Angeles is a city “about” wanting to be in Los Angeles. Even for the people who hate Los Angeles, the hate is still structured in terms of desire — the desire has just turned into an aggressive rejection.
To have any interest in Los Angeles — in how it looks, how it feels, how it operates – you have to be interested in the wanting and not-wanting that drives the soul of the place. That is something Larry Sultan understood.
Take his series Pictures from Home (1982-92). These are photos taken at his parents’ home in the San Fernando Valley. Many of the photographs are portraits of his mother, his father, or both. One shot, Dad With Raft (1987), shows just that: Sultan’s father is standing on the veranda in his swimming trunks, a towel draped over his shoulder, a blue inflatable raft tucked under his right arm. The photo is shot from inside the house, through a pane glass window that frames Dad as he takes his epic journey to the pool. It is the apotheosis of the Southern California lifestyle: the sunshine, the luxuriant green bushes, the promise of days spent frolicking in warmth and water. All the signs of contentment are captured in the picture. It is also an immensely depressing photograph. I think it is the way that Sultan’s father’s leathery old feet stick out in the bottom section of the pane glass window. Those feet peek out like the loneliness of death itself, mocking the achievement in the top two-thirds of the picture. There’s also an air of empty despondency in the way that Sultan has posed his father. Intentional, of course, but just right.
Interviewed once by Catherine Liu for Bomb MagazineSultan objected when Liu suggested that his pictures are without artifice. “I disagree,” Sultan said.
That ambiguity is interesting to me. I use the suburban house very much as a stage. I’m conscious of what the bedroom signifies and how it’s arranged. I do see it as a theater. Sometimes they’re not posed at all, yet those can look the most posed.
That’s to say, Sultan doesn’t want his photos to look like objective documentation of what’s there. He wants his pictures to look like pictures, to be representations fully aware that they are representations. This is something that a formalist critic like Michael Fried would appreciate in Sultan’s work. These are photographs that present themselves self-consciously as works of art.

Dad with Golf Clubs. From the series The Valley, 1999. Image © and courtesy the Estate of Larry Sultan.
Another photograph from Pictures From Home is titled Practicing Golf Swing (1986). It shows Sultan’s father in the living room, barefoot on a green carpet, golf club raised over his head as he practices a shot. A television in the corner shows what seems to be the news, perhaps a business report. Diaphanous drapes are drawn across the large, sliding glass windows that backdrop the scene. These might be the same panes of glass that frame Sultan’s father in Dad With RaftPracticing Golf Swing shows “the life.” This is why people move to Southern California. The comfort, the ease, the sunny days filled with golf all year round. Part of what Sultan captures in his picture is that living “the life” is about acting a part. Sultan poses his father in that room practicing his golf swing because that is how Sultan imagines his father seeing himself. That’s the life his father wants.
The interesting thing about photography is that, once you’ve posed the scene, once you’ve managed to create the picture you want to create, it begins to fall apart. Photographs, because they visually record everything set before them, always contain more information than the photographer can control. Knowing this, Sultan posed his pictures to record the fantasy of “the life” while realizing that he was also capturing the reality that comes with it. Sultan, in short, was always aware that the image of “the Southern California life” doesn’t hold up. When you try to capture the fantasy, it can’t stand on its own two feet. In this case, the metaphor is literal. Sultan’s father happened to own a pair of chicken legs. His legs are like skinny, fragile sticks. Twisting his body in that golf pose, Sultan’s father looks like he is about to break, to collapse. Like in Dad With Raft, death intrudes into the picture just at the wrong moment. The picture turns melancholy at its moment of triumph.
The net result of the collapse in Practicing Golf Swing neither demeans Sultan’s father’s desire for “the life” nor celebrates it. In the aforementioned interview, Sultan said of hisPictures from Home series:
What is crucial here is that this is my family, these are my parents, and I care deeply for them. I have an enormous argument with their culture (perhaps it’s my culture as well), but I have something else, too, compassion. It’s the depth of love.

Larry Sultan, My Mother Posing for Me, from the series Pictures from Home, 1984, chromogenic print, 40 x 50 in., © Estate of Larry Sultan, photo courtesy the Estate of Larry Sultan
Larry Sultan’s pictures of his parents are beautiful because he identifies with their desires. He understands. Plus, Sultan has his own desires, his own nostalgia about the San Fernando Valley, about his parents’ home, about the family wish to have a good life. Sultan’s pictures attempt to do justice to the authenticity of that wanting. But, being art, the pictures are self-conscious. They reveal the wanting with such remorseless accuracy that the wanting collapses in on itself. We see the desperation too.
That’s something that happens to everyone in Los Angeles. If you chase your desire to the place called Los Angeles, you will eventually have to face the thinness and the arbitrary nature of your desire, of your self. Los Angeles is a cruel mirror that way. There is glamor and there is sun, and life thrives in all its strange variety. But there is a desert underneath, with brown scrub brush and thistles and cracked earth dry as bones. • 22 January 2015

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan's selecte

Mohammed — in pictures

Mohammed — in pictures » The Spectator

An early 14th-century Persian image of Mohammed

Tony Judt

Tony Judt CreditIllustration by Joe Ciardiello
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“The arc is down,” is how Jennifer Homans, the widow of Tony Judt and an eminent dance critic and historian, describes the age of cruel disappointment that followed the end of the Cold War. It was the era in which her husband was condemned to live out his last two decades before his untimely death at age 62 in 2010.
This new and presumably last of Judt’s collections of scintillating journalism runs the gamut of his interests, organized so the reader can relive that downward arc in his company. “When the Facts Change” ranges from the excitement of 1989 through the agonies of post-9/11 foreign policy to our parlous domestic circumstances after the financial crash. It also includes some of the pen portraits for which Judt was deservedly famous. Taken together, these essays also paint his own portrait.
In 1989, Judt was still a little-known chronicler of the French left. Descended from East European Jewry and raised in England before moving to New York, he soon finished “Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956,” which became his most prominent book in his original field. Its blistering outrage toward Jean-Paul Sartre and others who threw in their lot with Cold War Communism made Judt controversial, especially in leftist circles, though he must have known that opposing bad old choices hardly ruled out making brand new mistakes.
Then Judt pivoted. He had flirted with consigning public intellectuals of Sartre’s stripe to the dustbin of history, but now he was turning himself into one. He also met and married Homans, who has artfully curated this collection of his essays.
From his post at The New York Review of Books, where he first wrote in 1993 and ultimately became one of its most frequent contributors, Judt swept aside some of his old assumptions and faced new realities lucidly, transforming himself from a scourge of Communism into a critic of American empire. This collection is a reminder of Judt’s clear mind and prose and, as Homans says in her lovely introduction, his fidelity to hard facts and to honest appraisals of the modern scene.
One reality Judt called out was the post-9/11 shock of perpetual war, rather than perpetual peace. Judt likens America’s aggressive war on terror to the S.U.V. beloved of its citizens — an indulgent “anachronism” in a “crowded world” — and America’s foreign policy to “just an oversized pickup truck with too much power.” (A better means of transportation, Judt thought, were trains, which modern Americans refused to build — or ride — but which he considered the hallmark of European civilization at its best.) Americans had earned praise for their beneficence but foolishly squandered it, Judt concludes, forgetting “a little too quickly that for an empire to be born, a republic has first to die.”
Then there was Israel. Judt’s bombshell essay, “Israel: The Alternative,” published in 2003 in The New York Review of Books and reprinted here, was a turning point in the history of American opinion on a complex topic. Like the S.U.V., Judt concludes, Israel is also an anachronism, though he had been an ardent youthful Zionist and worked as a translator during the Six-Day War of 1967. Diagnosing the limits of the two-state solution that had long monopolized public debate about the Middle East, Judt’s essay brought a storm of fury down on him, changed the boundaries of acceptable discourse and lost him friends.
Yet today even his enemies miss him. “The war of ideas is not what it used to be,” one of them, Leon Wieseltier, lamented when contemplating the debate about the Middle East — and the rather unimpressive row of adversaries left to tangle with after Judt’s passing. At the time he wrote this, in 2013, Wieseltier was the literary editor of The New Republic, which he recently left. Judt, too, had been affiliated with The New Republic — as a contributing editor — but his name was removed from the magazine’s masthead after his Israel article appeared.
For a partisan, Judt was not prickly at all. I knew him slightly; after I charged him in The Nation with contradicting himself over the years, he characteristically befriended me. But first he wrote a letter to the editor addressing my allegation. “When the facts change, I change my mind,” he remarked. “What do you do?” A version of this comment is commonly attributed to one of Judt’s heroes, John Maynard Keynes (though Homans writes that “Tony did not really have heroes”). It now finds itself the title of this collection, thanks to Judt’s elder son, Daniel, Homans reports.
During his frantic, final bout of intellectual activism around the time of his diagnosis with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Judt threw in his lot with social democracy. In his masterpiece “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945,” Judt chronicled how the welfare state had come to its European homeland. And in the face of contemporary market fundamentalism, he protests here that he is a conservative, husbanding the achievements of the Cold War. It is the libertarians who are the radicals. Fear, he insists, the fear of rising insecurity, should motivate us to retain our welfarist birthright.
The redistributive politics of the European welfare state had themselves been based on a fear of the weakness of liberal institutions. “A social democracy of fear is something to fight for,” Judt tells us. But the fear that once inspired justice also involved the internal threat of the working class and the external threat of the Soviets, and the task now is to figure out how to provide a functional equivalent of those fears without incurring their historically stupendous costs. Nostalgia was forgivable in a dying man, but the truth is that the European welfare state as it emerged after World War II cannot be rehabilitated. It was faulty in its time, leading to its own undoing, and cannot now be turned into a global fix. Among other things, it tended to confirm worldwide hierarchies in wealth (though moderating them for a few decades in North Atlantic countries).
Those who miss Judt’s invigorating role, even when they disagree with him, can find a piece here on options in the Middle East that Homans included even though Judt ultimately chose not to publish it. It is inconclusive. “It ought not to be beyond the intelligence of even the most hidebound local politicians to see the benefits of imaginative compromise,” Judt says. Yet so far, it has been. Like Judt’s moving elegy for social democracy, his writings on Israel show he was much better at posing vexing problems, and bringing them early and exigently before a wide public, than he was at finding solutions. But that can be said to be the intellectual’s proper role. And, after all, we are still living in the era Judt so courageously challenged for betraying the promises it might have kept.
Ours remains an era of forever war, one that both American liberals and conservatives agree to go on fighting, while restricting their wrangling to how best to justify it legally. In the Middle East, the “peace process,” itself little more than a euphemism for repetitive violence, is widely considered dead, even by many former supporters, but with no feasible alternative in sight. And a Frenchman Judt would have lauded, Thomas Piketty, has demonstrated that we live in a time of galloping inequality that our leaders choose not to correct. Even Barack Obama, Judt says, is “someone who would concede rather than confront — and that’s a shortcoming in a politician, if not in a man.”
If the arc is down, those who miss Judt cannot take solace in the thought that it will someday bend toward justice. The facts have not changed enough. No wonder this book, and Judt’s assumption of the role of political critic after the Cold War, remain so relevant.


Essays, 1995-2010
By Tony Judt
Edited and introduced by Jennifer Homans

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