Right now, in New York, the big news is the Broadway opening of a musical biography of Alexander Hamilton told in hip-hop. Such a deliberately anachronistic retelling of American history is automatic grounds for deep skepticism. And yet the chorus of raves for Hamilton—which extend from Barack Obama to the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout, and even to Brian Anderson, the brilliant editor of the conservative Manhattan Institute’s City Journal—has generated a kind of cultural excitement that itself seems anachronistic. And that’s making me a little sad.
I haven’t seen Hamilton, and may not get a chance to see it for a year, given its $35 million advance; but it’s not my inability to get a ticket that has brought this sadness upon me. It’s the fact that so little of what’s made these days, or written these days, or filmed these days, or performed these days, seems to provoke the kind of anticipatory thrill that once went hand-in-hand with being a serious customer, consumer, and enthusiast of culture.
This is not just true of the theater, which is certainly a shadow of its former self in this regard; the last Broadway presentation to cause such a commotion was Mel Brooks’s musical version of The Producers, and that debuted 14 years ago. It is true of books as well.
The novelist Jonathan Franzen has published two enormously popular and critically heralded novels in the past 15 years, The Corrections and Freedom. I’m not a fan of either, but if one had to make a list of the most important American writers, he would surely be at, or near, the top. Franzen has a new novel coming out in September. It’s called Purity. It will be out in a few weeks. There is no buzz about it anywhere. In times past, the release of a new Bellow or a new Updike or a new Pynchon would be stimulating gossip and advance discussion and all manner of talk in cultural circles for weeks, if not months, beforehand. That just doesn’t seem to be the case any longer.
Is there a recording artist at present whose new album might elicit the sort of tingling expectancy that a new Paul Simon or Talking Heads record would have in its day? For those with more highbrow tastes, is there a classical artist whose participation in a new recording of Wagner’s Ring cycle, or a new interpretation of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, might be the talk of the town?
I remember when, in the early 1980s, Americans for whom the visual arts were profoundly important could talk of little else than the German monumentalist painter Anselm Kiefer—and this at a time when it was simply taken for granted that a cultured person was familiar with the works of the Abstract Expressionists and the post-modernists that followed them. To put it most plainly: How many living painters are household names the way Jackson Pollock was? The answer, of course, is that there isn’t a one.
This summer, everyone in New York has been lining up to see the insides of the new, $400 million building housing the Whitney Museum of American Art, but it’s doubtful that more than a handful could have identified the painters or sculptors whose work they strolled by. As Michael J. Lewis wrote in “How Art Became Irrelevant,” his magnificent essay in the current issue of Commentary: “For a generation or more, the American public has been thoroughly alienated from the life of the fine arts while, paradoxically, continuing to enjoy museums for the sake of sensation and spectacle, much as it enjoyed circuses a century ago.”
It’s not that today’s painters deserve to be household names, or that a new Franzen novel deserves to have customers lining up at midnight to buy it the way kids lined up to buy each Harry Potter book. But there is something deeply depressing in the fact that, increasingly, the arts seem to be losing their power to capture our attention. And that is because they no longer hold out the hope that, by providing us an intellectual and emotional guide map, they can help sate our aesthetic hunger—the hunger we all have to understand our own experiences and lives by seeing things anew through the eyes of others.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.
Renzo Piano is too good an architect for his new Whitney Museum, in Manhattan’s meatpacking district, to be a total failure. The interior is, in general, quite good and surely a vast improvement over Marcel Breuer’s nuclear bunker on Madison Avenue, which housed the museum for half-a-century. And even aspects of the exterior of Piano’s building, taken piecemeal, are quite dexterously done. But seen from the outside and taken as a whole, the new Whitney is somewhat awful.
It's been a full week since The Scrapbook inveighed against the assault on free speech, so we have a new parade of horribles to shake our head at. The precipitating event this time was the killing of two armed assailants at an event in Garland, Texas, that was displaying Muhammad cartoons. It should go without saying that free speech means supporting the right of people you don’t like to say things you don’t like.
Years after the National Mall was torn up and blocked off to re-grow grass as part of the stimulus package, the bulldozers are back to clear a ten by six acre parcel, located adjacent to the reflection pool, between the Lincoln Memorial and the World War Two Memorial.
The "busiest land port of entry in the Western Hemisphere" is getting an upgrade, and according to the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), about a half a million dollars worth of new artwork will be part of the package.
I live in Connecticut, and I don’t travel much outside of the Northeast corridor. But through a few strokes of luck, and some happy happenstance, I’ve been in Florence five times in the last seven years.
From the moment Detroit filed for bankruptcy last summer, comparisons to the 2009 Chrysler and General Motors bailouts have abounded. Most highlight the differences, noting that the federal government is unlikely to pump billions of dollars into Detroit. But although the differences are real, the restructuring plan that Detroit has recently proposed suggests that the city’s bankruptcy may have more in common with the car bailouts than anyone imagined. Unfortunately, it’s the abuses of the latter that could be replicated—and even extended—if Detroit’s plan is upheld in its current form.
When it became known last year that George W. Bush had taken up painting, The Scrapbook took note of the fact, commenting on a couple of random examples that they were “better than you would expect, show imagination, and are certainly evidence of Bush’s well-developed sense of humor. . . . The paintings—in their awkward simplicity, bright colors, and irregular perspective—strike The Scrapbook as delightful. We would like to see more.”
The Art in Embassies program of the U.S. State Department just turned 50 last year, but its growth in the last decade has been particularly dramatic if the insured value of the artwork is any indication. Although Art in Embassies purchases original works, such as the $1 million sculpture for the new U.S. Embassy in London, much of the artwork on display at various State Department installations throughout the world is in fact borrowed. In 2002, the State Department maintained a $20 million policy for artwork. By 2010, it had grown to $65 million. This year, the agency is looking to renew its current level of coverage, informing interested providers that "[i]nsurance must cover all items in any location in a Department of State facility abroad up to a value of $200,000,000." Last year, the $200 million policy cost the government $86,932.
If this painting isn’t iconic, the term should be banished from the vocabulary of art. Forget, for a moment, Mona Lisa’s smile and the Sistine Creator transmitting the spark of life to Adam. Set aside what was to come, including Picasso’s LesDemoiselles d’Avignon (1907). They, obviously, have their claims.
At the end of September, the federal government's fiscal year was drawing to a close, the threat of a shut down was increasing, and the State Department was shopping for art. Four contracts were awarded in the last two weeks of September, including $1,000,000 for a granite sculpture by Irish-born artist Sean Scully to be installed at the new U.S. Embassy in London. Notice of the awards was posted Sunday afternoon of Thanksgiving weekend on the Federal Business Opportunities website.