Shakespeare’s Birthday Bash At The Folger

April 21, 2015 § Leave a comment

Sunday was one of my favorite days of the year: the day when the Folger Shakespeare Library opens up its backrooms to the public and serves up cake and swordfighting in honor of Shakespeare’s birthday.

We brought two boys with us – our friends’ children, age 7 and 10 (perfect ages to appreciate the offerings).

I love sitting in the library, listening to classical quartet (this time, it was two violins, cello, and flute) and then going and looking at some of the paintings. The Folger has a wonderful collection of art about Shakespeare, like paintings of scenes from his plays or portraits of Shakespearean actors, as well as portraits of Shakespeare himself (mostly posthumously painted). Their crowning glory is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth (the ‘Seive’) and one of her one-time favorite, Robert Dudley (which was, sadly, not on display).

The fight director for the Folger gave a couple of presentations on historical fighting techniques, with references to Shakespeare. Of course, the boys were rapt.

A couple of notable things stuck out with me. Firstly, that swashbuckling used to be a sort of insult. A swashbuckler didn’t know how to fight. A ‘swashing’ blow was a reflexive swing which, if it landed on a buckler, made a lot sound and fury, signifying nothing (do you see what I did there?).

Secondly, in Romeo and Juliet, they keep asking Mercutio if he’s hurt, because they cannot tell. Mercutio was stabbed with a continental rapier, which creates a small wound – what would now be called a sucking chest wound. While terrible internal injuries have been suffered, it won’t actually bleed. Romeo literally cannot see a wound, so doesn’t know that Mercutio has been dealt a fatal blow.

Thirdly, he noted a scene in Julius Caesar where Caesar exits the stage to take care of some bureaucratic matter and then the conspirators enter the stage and engage in some silly dialogue about whether some person giving them the eye means that they’ve been uncovered. He said that was not something to build tension – there’s already plenty of tension and, arguably, the scene actually deflates some of the tension. No, it is entirely intended to give the actor playing Caeasar time to attach some Elizabeth special effects – namely a bladder filled with blood – around his chest. And when, having done the deed, the conspirators decide to get their hands bloody and walk the streets to show they are not ashamed or hiding their action, it was actually a stagecrafty way to help mop up the blood on the stage.

Finally, there was a roundabout argument for gun control. Shakespeare lived in the first age when the growing middle class would walk to streets with swords – that they often weren’t trained to use. Fights were more deadly, as a consequence. He argued that Shakespeare was constantly commenting on the culture of weapons and violence. At the end of Romeo and Juliet, an entire younger generation of two families have been killed as a consequence of escalations resulting from a culture of weapons and violence. Literally, it snowballs from anger at Romeo crashing a party held by a rival family and ends with a trail of corpses.

Happy Emancipation Day!

April 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

Emancipation_celebrationIn most of the country, the Emancipation Proclamation, which followed the hard fought American victory at Antietam in 1863, is the big one.

But in Washington, DC, there is a more localized and very important day – a city holiday – called Emancipation Day.

The DC Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862, enacted by President Lincoln, ended slavery in Washington, DC, freed 3,100 individuals, reimbursed those who had legally owned them and offered the newly freed women and men money to emigrate, if they so desired.

Midweek Staff Meeting – Who’s In Charge Here?

April 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

I volunteer to take charge of the Library of Congress, so feel free to contact me anytime. One hundred percent available for the job.

I actually have read Raymond Williams, a Verso Books publication of The Politics of Modernism, a nice little volume of aesthetics. I would recommend him, too, so, by all means, rediscover him.

Bronze age beer. Word.

A person, a democracy, a nation – all are nothing with the liberal arts.

The Value Of Art

April 8, 2015 § 1 Comment

While walking through what I think of as my secret galleries in the American Art Museum, I was arrested by a series of nudes by Kenyon Cox. Something between Manet’s breakfast heresies, classical/traditional nineteenth century nudes, and Pre-Raphaelite romanticism. I couldn’t call them great paintings. They weren’t great paintings – certainly not equal to those predecessors – but inexplicably arresting. And I can’t deny that my interest – my affection – for these nudes was not just aesthetic, but also erotic.

After seeing those paintings, I wandered over to the painting conservation studio where you could watch the conservators work through glass walls. Despite being the painting conservation studio, the only item being worked on was a life sized neo-classical statue of a young woman. A conservator was crouched down, rhythmically brushing below the statue’s right knee with a soft brush. It must be a gift to be able to work in the arts, I thought to myself. I also reflected that it was nice that her co-worker, working on a computer not a painting nor sculpture, flashed me a pretty smile. Less happily, I wondered if they might actually be grad students with little hope for real and decent paying job in the field due to the sequester (recently) and general disinvestment in the arts (long term trend).

The artistic vocation is a bit of unicorn now, isn’t it? Art, including literature, is undervalued and we are no longer taught to appreciate it. Even worse, we are no long taught to engage with it.

I’m going to praise Taylor Swift, here. I know. Crazy, huh? But not for her music. God, no. But for withdrawing from the streaming service Spotify. Services like that teach us that artistic production has no value to the consumer. Swift formally said f–k you, my work has real monetary value and Spotify is not valuing it. That’s worth something.


‘Points And Lines’

March 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

880842I bought Seicho Matsumoto’s Points and Lines for a present for my mother (at the same time, I bought Flashman for my father; these were both bought at Capitol Hill Books and on the shelf where all the Flashman books are kept has an index card that reads: ‘Flash… Oh Oh…; in case you were not familiar with one of the achievements of western civilization, that is a reference to the movie Flash Gordon and the Queen penned and performed theme song).

I don’t know how I saw this particular book. I was looking in the M’s for something, but I don’t remember what it was that I was looking for.

It’s a very direct and unadorned mystery from the fifties and, in case the author’s name didn’t give it away, it takes place in Japan. The mystery itself centers on train timetables (and also other transportation timetables, but mostly trains). While never stated, I don’t think it’s stretch to say that ‘points’ are train stations and the ‘lines’ are the railroad tracks.

The novel opens with one seeming hero: an aging provincial policeman who can’t help but dig deeper into a seeming lovers’ suicide. But about one third of the way in, a younger policeman takes over. Each moves methodically. Even the dead ends are systematically examined.

The conclusion is disappointing. The author didn’t ‘earn’ the character who wound up playing an important role in the resolution. But it’s overall pretty darn satisfying. My mother is the real mystery buff (which is why I’ll eventually send it to her), but I’m capable of appreciating a fine genre exercise like this.

The book is pretty unemotional, except for the that older policeman who, in two startling moments, opens up. Early on, when getting home late, he eats dinner alone while his wife works on some knitting. When he asks her to have some tea with him after dinner and she declines, he barks at her at the next opportunity. Nothing violent or particularly cruel, but startling. Later, he writes a letter to the younger policeman, encouraging him to finish the case, but also admitting his own failures and disappointments.

‘Whiplash,’ Jazz, & Good Luck

March 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

We went to see Whiplash at the next last day before closing forever West End Cinema. Firstly, awesome film. Really awesome. Made jazz drumming incredibly visceral and also, J K Simmons is as awesome as you’ve heard. Awesomer. Awesomererest. Also, the lighting was very good and evocative. Great use of a sort of cinematic chiaroscuro, but without drawing attention to itself.

We were lucky because the three of us (Rockus, one of my oldest friends, and my better half) got the last three tickets to the showing.

Afterwards, I just had to see some jazz. So Rockus and I went to eat at Sala Thai before visiting Twins Jazz (my favorite jazz club in the city). Sala Thai had a decent, but not great jazz trio (guitar, bass, and drums). Then, we got the last two seats at Twins Jazz. The last two. After getting the last three at Whiplash. Karma, dudes. Coming through.

The band have an excellent trumpeter and a very impressive pianist. The sax man was, sadly, uninspiring. You kept waiting for him to really bust out… but he never did.

Anyway. A fine night.

Rae Armantrout At The Phillips Collection

February 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

For the last six years, one of the poetry readings in the Folger’s poetry series is held at the Phillips Collection, a private museum in DC. It bills itself (and I don’t doubt it) as the first modern art museum in America (it was founded in the twenties).

Rae Armantrout read in dialogue with an exhibit of Man Ray’s work entitled, Human Equations.

I got into the museum about twenty minutes early, so did a quick stroll through the Man Rays and also their permanent collection.

My father and I had just been talking about smaller, regional museums and their acquisition struggles. It is often a choice between buying first rate pieces by second rate artists or second rate pieces by first rate artists (the Phillips doesn’t have this problem – it’s got a first rate collection, through and through). Specifically, we talked about the Montgomery Museum of Art in Montgomery, Alabama. They have an excellent Hopper (my father noted) and a very good Rothko (I mentioned; though the Hopper is better).

Well, I’m strolling and what do I see but nearly half a dozen very fine Hoppers (though smaller than the one in Montgomery). A moment later, I walk by a sign for the ‘Rothko Room.’ Inside were four, good sized Rothkos (do you ever see a small Rothko? I don’t think I have). However, save one, they had color or color combinations that I found almost physically repulsive (that yellow!). I usually enjoy his work but… eewww.

Armantrout, it turns out, for me anyway, is better read on the page.

She admitted to not having a massive interest in art and having not had any particular interest in nor experience of Man Ray before being invited. Her comments about the pieces were shallow and the connections between her chosen poems and the art were flimsy and unconvincing. I can understand reservations about Man Ray, but she radiated a palpable disdain for the man and his work. I actually asked a question that came down to: Do you like Man Ray’s work? She said yes, but I am not persuaded.

Guy Raz from NPR moderated the conversation and it’s clear he know little about poetry. His questions were of a high school variety – variations on ‘how do you write a poem?’

Even though, once she’d signed my book, I still have forty-five minutes left to further peruse the museum (they’ve got a great De Kooning), I was so turned off by the event that I just left.

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