Scattered chunks of films littered the theaters this holiday season. Except for The Royal Tenenbaums, which I've told you about, there wasn't a whole movie to be found. Or, to speak more precisely, no movie except The Royal Tenenbaums gave me the impression of wholeness, by which I mean the pleasure that arises when the mind can play back and forth through a picture, discovering how the details enrich one another.
No doubt I value this pleasure so much because I've been trained, as a critic, to look for it. Surrealists, post-structuralists and the average moviegoer do not. Even so, I believe that when artists aspire to wholeness, they put into their work a kind of sustained intelligence that we might call integrity, care or love. When I claim that this quality is missing from most movies nowadays, I of course say almost nothing. Maybe a slightly higher percentage of today's films are hash, compared to the run of productions in the 1930s; but that's for the cliometricians to decide. The critic's challenge is to find some response to the present year-end Oscar contenders, when there's no object of criticism among them.
Should I solve the problem by jumping outside the film world? Then, from a safe distance, I could belabor the politics of Black Hawk Down for being simple-minded, and the politics of Iris for being absent. Many useful comments could be made on these subjects. They just wouldn't be useful to someone who already reads The Nation.
So I suppose I'll have to do what moviegoers have always done: ignore the pictures and watch the stars. I won't talk about The Majestic and Ali, Monster's Ball and A Beautiful Mind. The subjects of this column will be Jim Carrey, Will Smith, Halle Berry and Jennifer Connelly. Let me begin with Connelly, who in A Beautiful Mind has finally achieved recognition as an actress, and in so doing has given the film a large part of its merit.
As you may know, A Beautiful Mind offers a loose approximation of the story of John Nash, a highly gifted mathematician who has struggled all his life against delusions and compulsions. The film, too, suffers from some mental confusion--screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and director Ron Howard somehow got Nash's biography mixed up with Jack and the Beanstalk--but once you get past that problem, you may appreciate the cleverness of this quasi-fairy tale. To begin with, the filmmakers have invented some briskly effective ways to suggest that Nash has a miraculous talent for pattern recognition, and that such a talent can be dangerous. Even when there's no order to be found, his mind keeps searching for one; and since the cold war provides great material for paranoia--the film begins in the late 1940s--Nash has a world of troubling data to sort. In a risk that's bold by Hollywood standards, the film presents its hero's blossoming delusions as if they were real--that is, as he would experience them. You're well into the story before you can sift the facts from the hallucinations, a process that's made compelling by Russell Crowe's performance in the lead. Awkward, shuffling, aggressive, witty, exasperating and vulnerable, he's altogether credible as someone who thinks in abstractions for a living.
But back to Connelly. She plays Alicia Larde, the woman who courts, marries and helps to rescue Nash. The filmmakers turn A Beautiful Mind into her story, almost as much as it is her husband's, and that's as it should be. Alicia is the one who gets scared witless, calls in the shrinks, strives to keep the household together and howls in the bathroom at 2 am. Connelly deserves full credit for carrying off the role.
It's a credit that's long been denied her. Although she's done some good work in smaller productions--Keith Gordon's Waking the Dead, Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream--Connelly has suffered till now from the Elizabeth Taylor syndrome. Like Taylor, she started young in show business and was quickly turned into a physical commodity, cast for her dark hair, blue eyes, smooth face and a buxom figure that she exposed very freely, arousing both sexual interest and condescension in a single gesture. The condescension came all the more quickly because Connelly, like Taylor, seems submerged in her beauty. It tends to separate her from other actors, as a rare fish is held apart in an aquarium, with the result (among other things) that she's a bad choice for comedy. Connelly can play at being amused by someone, but she isn't funny in herself--in contrast, for example, to her near-contemporary Shannon Elizabeth, a wonderfully silly person who shares her looks like a good joke.
Connelly has so far been incapable of such lightness; but she's right at home with the intensity of suffering that's called for in melodrama. Now her reputation is taking an upward turn similar to Taylor's at the time of Suddenly, Last Summer and Butterfield 8. Heaven knows, I don't want to go on to Cleopatra; but as someone who respects the tradition of melodrama, I think American cinema would be stronger if producers created more roles for Jennifer Connelly.
Having just seen Monster's Ball, I will also say the same for Halle Berry. She, too, has based her reputation on being absurdly gorgeous, with this distinction: Berry treats her looks like a loaded gun, which she can and will use. Of course, the danger varies; there was a lot of it in Bulworth but not much, somehow, in The Flintstones. Now, in Monster's Ball, the sense of risk suddenly leaps to a higher order.
Berry plays a wife and mother in a present-day Southern town--wife to a man on death row, mother to a boy who weighs 180 pounds and has not yet reached puberty. Through a series of catastrophes--or perhaps I should say wild coincidences--she eventually finds herself on the sofa late at night with Billy Bob Thornton, the racist white prison guard who led her husband to the electric chair. Grief, fatigue and booze are weighing heavily on her. She needs to wriggle free of them; everything that's still alive in her demands it. And so, in a scene that becomes a tour de force, she laughs in reminiscence about her husband, insists to herself that she's been a good mother, philosophizes starkly about the lives of black men in America and ultimately pours herself into Thornton's lap, demanding, "Make me feel good."
The screenwriters of Monster's Ball, Milo Addica and Will Rokos, might easily have based this scene on an acting-class exercise. A pair of students are assigned random emotions and must then improvise their way through them, making up the transitions as they go. What Berry does with the scene, though, has no whiff of the classroom. She doesn't just bob along on the swells and troughs of her feelings; she remembers at all times that these emotions have welled up because of the stranger next to her, this oddly quiet man to whom she addresses the whole monologue. She seems half-blind when she looks at him, but only half. She pushes against his self-possession, moment by moment; and the steadier he holds, the further she plunges in.
I wish the rest of Monster's Ball could live up to this scene. There are several fine sequences in the movie, which Marc Forster has directed with admirable restraint; but the picture is entirely too eager to flatter the audience. Monster's Ball is a machine, designed to make Billy Bob Thornton think and behave just as you believe he should. By the end, there's nothing to cut the good intentions except the memory of that smoky, greasy, overpowering scene where Halle Berry risks everything. It's almost enough.
The opening fifteen minutes of Ali are so good that they, too, come close to justifying the picture. In a virtuoso montage, which shows director Michael Mann at his very best, this sequence takes young Cassius Clay up to his first fight against Sonny Liston and his declaration of allegiance to the Nation of Islam. After that, you begin to notice that four screenwriters have labored over this production. Plot points are made with the galumphing literal-mindedness of Bob interviewing Ray. What's worse, these same points, from Liston I through the Foreman match in Zaire, were touched on in the 1977 film The Greatest, written by Ring Lardner Jr., directed by Tom Gries and Monte Hellman and starring (in the role of Muhammad Ali) Muhammad Ali.
Condemned in advance to being third best, after the real-life figure and the original movie incarnation, Will Smith can do little more than look good. It's what he specializes in; I've loved him for it. Here his innate cockiness takes him a long way in the role, as does his rapper's enjoyment of Ali's rhymes. So why does he keep getting upstaged by his supporting cast: Jamie Foxx, who makes something glorious of Ali's sidekick Drew "Bundini" Brown, and Jon Voight, who lives and breathes the role of Howard Cosell? The answer, I think, is that Smith does best when he floats along at a slight remove from his scenes, commenting on the action as if he might at any moment call it a day and go home. Ali makes him earnest; and earnestness, even more than the need to mimic a living figure, makes Will Smith disappear.
I wish Jim Carrey would disappear when he becomes earnest; but instead he latches into the movie like a tick, gorging on sentiment and perpetually, monstrously sucking in more. The effect is all the worse in Frank Darabont's The Majestic for the cinematography. It turns Carrey into a pastel-colored tick.
In this insufferable fantasy about good old-fashioned movies and good old-fashioned Americans, Carrey plays a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter who (through a wild coincidence) loses his memory and is welcomed into a small town. It's a wonderful life, except for the FBI. I needn't point out to Nation readers how The Majestic makes a hash out of the blacklist period. (Carrey figures out, in a climactic burst of inspiration, that he can plead the First Amendment before HUAC. Gee!) What really concerns me is the demotion of this anarchic genius to the status of All-American Nothing. Carrey can play comedy like nobody else alive; so why is he pushed into melodrama?
My conclusion: American cinema is taking its actors too seriously, and its actresses not seriously enough. Happy new year.
"Loving Rockwell is shunning complexity," the critic of the Village Voice declares, who goes on to concede that "many of Rockwell's illustrations can turn you into a quivering ball of mush." Of how many painters in the history of art is something like that true? It seems to me the pictorial psychology of paintings that can have that effect transcends present knowledge.
Though it's choked with dead bodies and disappointments, The Royal Tenenbaums comes before you with a smile.
Rosalino "Chalino" Sánchez isn't someone you are likely to know about. Yet his legendary role as the revitalizer of the corrido--as the Mexican border folk song is known--is unquestionable among the 24 million people who inhabit the territories that unite or separate Mexico and the United States.
The Taliban may have met its match: the American Dream Machine.
In 1878, Henry James reported in these pages the outcome of Whistler
v. Ruskin, the buzz of the London art scene that year. Whistler,
Ruskin had written, was "a coxcomb," demanding "200 guineas for
flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." The painter sued for
libel, and was awarded nominal damages consisting of one farthing. The
trial was a Gilbert & Sullivan farce brought to life, since the language
of litigation in its nature is comically unsuited to aesthetic
determination. Ruskin's critical and Whistler's artistic reputation were
left largely unaltered by the verdict, but there is little question that
it was an immense personal defeat for Ruskin. The vehemence of his
critical prose registered the urgency he attributed to aesthetic
matters--so to call his language into question was to call into question
his vision of the world. Whistler probably was a coxcomb, whatever that
Edwardian epithet means. But Ruskin was a figure of tragic stature, and
the episode helped precipitate his final emotional breakdown.
The unhappy confrontation between Whistler and Ruskin is the subject of
a brooding introspective aria in the second act of Modern
Painters, the 1995 opera by David Lang and Manuela Hoelterhoff,
based on Ruskin's life. It was an inspiration to see in Ruskin a subject
suitable for operatic representation, and it recently occurred to me of
how few art critics this might be true. Ruskin's tragedy was internally
connected with his stature as a prophet of aesthetic redemption. If good
art is as integral as he believed to a good society, art criticism is an
instrument of social change. Ruskin could hardly have agreed with James
that it was at most an agreeable luxury--like printed talk. And Ruskin's
assessment of it has continued to inflect the art criticism of writers
who might not fully subscribe to his particular social vision. How are
we to explain the often punitive edge of critical invective if critics
supposed themselves engaged in mere agreeable discourse--like reviewing
restaurants, say, or fashion shows? The lives of art critics may not be
the stuff of grand opera--but face-offs between critics and artists have
at times risen to operatic heights because the art under contest was
viewed by both as possessed of the greatest moral weight.
I am thinking about opera just now because the art I want to discuss
here--Philip Guston's seventy-five caricatures of Richard Nixon, loosely
organized to tell a story--has its subject and something of its tone in
common with the 1987 opera Nixon in China, by John Adams and
Alice Goodman. If someone were inspired to compose an opera Guston in
Woodstock--the upstate New York village to which Guston withdrew
after a critical debacle in 1970--the climactic moment of it would be an
agon between the artist and the Ruskinian critic Hilton Kramer. Kramer
was by no means alone in deploring the turn Guston's art had taken in a
wildly controversial exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery. But the
language of his review in the New York Times, of which he was
then chief art critic, was worthy of Ruskin in acid indignation, and a
librettist would have no difficulty in composing a fierce duet between
the opposed protagonists. The contest, however, was far deeper than that
which pitted Ruskin against Whistler. It was deeper not just because
Guston was deeper as an artist and a man than Whistler ever aspired to
be, but because nothing less than the future of art history was at
stake. Kramer understood that the kind of art Guston was now making--to
which the Nixon drawings belong--was radically inconsistent with the art
to which he as a critic was dedicated in every fiber of his being. The
contest was, in my view, a surface reflection of a deep turn in art
history. Kramer saw in Guston the betrayer of a shared faith. What he
could not acknowledge was that Guston was helping consolidate a new
The review's headline, quoted now whenever Guston is written about, was
"A Mandarin Pretending to be a Stumblebum." Not only are the words
demeaning, but together they condense Guston's career into an unedifying
tale of artistic opportunism. Guston had in fact been regarded as the
most lyrical of the Abstract Expressionists, and in the spirit of full
disclosure I admit to having adored Guston's abstractions at the time. I
adore them still: I cannot look at one of those dense, shimmering works
without feeling the exaltation of pure beauty. In the way in which they
crowd the center of their canvases, they put me in mind of how Morandi's
boxes and bottles endeavor to occupy one another's spaces in the middle
of his compositions. The late critic David Sylvester, who admired them,
wrote in 1963 that Guston is "committed to luxury. His paint is
exceedingly rich, even luscious--in its texture, in its implications of
high virtuosity." Sylvester compared them with Monet's late paintings of
waterlilies, and described the paintings as intensely withdrawn and
private. The 1970 paintings, by total contrast, were huge pictures of Ku
Klux Klan figures in patched hoods, executed in a kind of classical
comic-strip style that was being reinvented at the time by Robert Crumb
in Zap Comix. It owed something to Krazy Kat, something to Mutt
and Jeff, something to Moon Mullins. I greatly admire Guston's raw
Klanscapes, but it would be an aesthetic category mistake to speak of
adoring them. They were not designed to gratify the eye but to injure
the viewer's sensibility. Kramer had no better way of characterizing him
than as pretending to a na vet Guston did not honestly possess. So he
was a false lyricist now masquerading as an artistic lowlife--a mandarin
pretending to be a stumblebum. Kramer probably did not write the
headline, but I'll co-opt whoever did for my libretto. And I'll use
Guston's own words from the time to give me my duet: "I got sick and
tired of all that Purity! I wanted to tell stories."
Artistic purity was much in the air at the beginning of the 1960s. In
his profoundly influential Modernist Painting of 1960, Clement
Greenberg described Modernism as a set of purgations, in which each of
the arts seeks to identify what is essential to its defining medium, and
eliminate everything else. "Thus would each art be rendered 'pure,' and
in its 'purity' find the guarantee of its standards of quality as well
as its independence." For Greenberg, illusion was an impurity in
painting, which properly should be abstract. Using their own words, we
can imagine another duet, early in Guston in Woodstock, between
Greenberg and Guston. For Guston must have had Greenberg's thesis
precisely in mind when, sitting on a panel that took place around that
same time, he said, "There is something ridiculous and miserly in the
myth we inherit from abstract art. That painting is autonomous, pure and
for itself, therefore we habitually analyze its ingredients and define
its limits. But painting is 'impure.' It is the adjustment of
'impurities' which forces its continuity. We are image-makers and
image-ridden." The confrontation could hardly be more stark. But it
sounds as if it refers to the dilemma that defined artistic
consciousness from the onset of abstraction and became acute in America
in the 1940s--whether to paint the figure or go abstract. There was
certainly a dramatic moment in the lives of each of the Abstract
Expressionists, with the exception perhaps of Motherwell, when they left
the figure behind and discovered the style through which each became a
master. Guston himself had gone through the crisis. But his painting of
1970 marked a crisis of an entirely different order. Guston did not
merely do the figure, as de Kooning had done in 1953 with his famous
Women. For de Kooning had discovered a way of having his cake and eating
it too--painting the figure using the same gestures that were so
effective in his great abstractions. But Guston did the figure in a way
that repudiated his entire philosophy of painting. It was, Guston later
wrote, "as though I had left the Church: I was excommunicated for a
while." The shift was precisely as dramatic as that from mandarin to
stumblebum. It really was like leaving the Church. But the decision was
not merely artistic. It was a moral decision that took an artistic form.
The question for Guston was how one could go on painting beautiful
pictures when the world was falling apart. The pursuit of aesthetic
purity was not an acceptable option. For Kramer, to abandon aesthetics
was to forsake art. Obviously this was not Guston's view. He needed to
find an art that was consistent with his moral disquiet. "The Vietnam
War was what was happening in America, the brutality of the world." And
here his language really does take on a lyrical intonation:
What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a
frustrated fury about everything--and then going into my studio to
adjust a red to a blue. I thought there must be some way I could do
something about it. I knew ahead of me a road was waiting. A very crude,
inchoate road. I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid.
I assume this soliloquy refers to the time of his retrospective
exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1966. The abstractions of those
years, one can now see, had a crude, inchoate quality. But that was not
the road Guston was seeking. "There is nothing to do now," he went on,
"but to paint my life.... Keep destroying any attempt to paint pictures,
or think about art. If someone bursts out laughing in front of my
painting, that is exactly what I want and expect."
Guston began to work in two ways in the months ahead. "I remember days
of doing 'pure' drawings immediately followed by days of doing the
other, drawings of objects.... Books, shoes, buildings, hands--feeling a
relief and strong need to cope with tangible things." It is this return
to the commonplace objects of daily life, away from the exalted forms of
Abstract Expressionism, that became the central truth of 1960s art--in
Fluxus particularly, but also in Pop and even in Minimalism. The impulse
came from Zen, which had become so strong a spiritual current in New
York intellectual life. With John Cage, Guston attended Dr. Suzuki's
seminar in Zen at Columbia University, and he often alluded to Zen ideas
in his discourse. On the other hand, he was conflicted about Pop. With
several other Abstract Expressionists, he left the Sidney Janis Gallery
in 1962 in protest because it had organized an exhibition of Pop. But by
1967 he saw, through the work of Warhol and Lichtenstein, the power of
vernacular illustration. Unlike Lichtenstein, who used the vocabulary of
the comics to ironize high art, Guston was able to make it his own. He
was not pretending--he became a Zen stumblebum. The drawings were
and are brilliant. This may have solved his artistic quandaries, but not
his moral ones. For this he made use of the Klan.
The Klansmen, drawn in his new comic-strip style, were depicted in the
Marlborough paintings wearing tattered hoods, with slotted eyeholes,
riding through empty urban streets in stubby roadsters like Mutt and
Jeff, holding smoking cigar stumps between two extended gloved fingers,
or moving hither and thither in desolate symbolic landscapes, filled
with coarsely painted clocks, severed limbs, shoes, boards studded with
bent nails and a sun rising--or setting--behind the horizon. In one,
titled The Studio, a Klansman, holding the omnipresent cigar, is
shown painting a self-portrait under a bare light bulb. In later years,
Guston acknowledged that Studio was a kind of self-portrait--that
the hooded figures were all self-portraits in a way. "I almost tried to
imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be
evil? To plan and plot." He was painting the evil in each of us in a
style every one of us knew. When he was a mandarin in 1957, he did an
exquisite abstraction called The Mirror. When he became a
stumblebum in 1970 he painted the kind of moral mirror in which Hamlet
meant to catch the conscience of the king.
The Nixon drawings belong to the last great phase of Guston's career,
and they constitute a kind of comic intermezzo. All seventy-five of them
were done in Woodstock in the late summer of 1971, and they appear to
have been conceived as frames in a kind of comic-strip book, narrating
the self-mythologizing life of our scariest politician. Guston titled
the book Poor Richard and made unsuccessful efforts to get it
published. The book's version of Nixon's story was in any case overtaken
by history. It was overtaken in the first instance by triumph--Nixon
actually went to China in February 1972, whereas that event is treated
with a fictive indefiniteness in Poor Richard (the drawings
having been completed the previous year). And of course it was overtaken
by Nixon's disgrace--by Watergate and resignation--in the years that
immediately followed. So the drawings remained almost unknown to any but
specialists in Guston's work until now, when, thanks to the initiative
of Debra Bricker Balken, they have been reproduced in their entirety in
the new book Poor Richard (University of Chicago), together with a
spirited explanatory essay by her, telling how they came about.
Moreover, the originals can be seen at the David McKee Gallery, 645
Fifth Avenue, New York City, September 7-October 6, and enjoyed for
their sharp humor and graphic brilliance. I can think of no historical
parallel in which a great artist has shown himself to be a cartoonist of
genius while engaging himself directly in the political reality of his
moment--though Picasso used a comic-strip format in the two etchings of
the Dreams and Lies of Franco.
Who knows what impact they might have had? Caricature has at times
succeeded in putting certain public figures in a light so unflattering
that their power has been damaged and even destroyed. It became almost
impossible for the French to take Louis Philippe seriously once they saw
him through Daumier's drawings as having the form of a pear--the term
connotes stupidity. Thomas Nast found such damaging ways of drawing Boss
Tweed and his corrupt Tammany cohorts that they were graphically and
then politically discredited. Nixon's nose and stubbled jowls were a
ready-made cartoon, with an irresistible resemblance to a cock and
balls, which is the way Guston shows him. Poor Richard is perhaps
too playful--too funny really--to have inflamed public indignation
beyond the point it had already reached at the time. But who can really
say? What would we think had Daumier's lithographs remained hidden until
today, and all we knew were his marvelous paintings of Don Quixote and
peasant women in a railway wagon? Or if Thomas Nast did not have the
outlet of Harper's Weekly, and the fierce caricatures of Boss
Tweed were discovered in an attic years after his death? The powers that
images can release are unpredictable, which is why censorship exists.
Even at their brilliant best, of course, there would have been a moral
disproportion between the ludic preposterousness of Nixon and his
cronies--Spiro Agnew, John Mitchell and Henry Kissinger, as they are
depicted in Poor Richard--and the actual evils of Vietnam and
Cambodia. Still, Nixon's soiled image has been so cleaned and polished
since his fall that the historically unaware might think him a candidate
for Mount Rushmore. So Guston's drawings might after all do some real
good in reminding us of the abject truth of a personage whose unique
character so combined evil and absurdity.
Nixon is first shown as a college football player, with shoulder pads
and a varsity letter. His features had not yet evolved into their
genital configuration, though the nose shows phallic promise. He is
given Little Orphan Annie eyes to emblematize his sham innocence. We
next see the politically obligatory poverty of his childhood home--a
log-cabin-style interior with wood stove and log pile, and a volume
titled LINCOLN prominently displayed on a bare table. In the next frame
Nixon is hitting the books hard, under a bare light bulb (note the
volume titled WILSON). Soon he is standing in his patched and ragged
garments with his faithful dog Checkers (in an inspired touch, Guston
shows the latter with checkerboard markings). Suddenly we are at Key
Biscayne, Nixon's favorite hang-out, soon to be kept company by
Kissinger (always represented as a pair of walking horn-rimmed glasses);
Agnew, in Hawaiian shirt and inseparable from his bag of golf clubs; and
Mitchell, never without his pipe. This is the cast of characters.
Pat--who plays an important role in Nixon in China--is not to be
I'll let the rights to Guston in Woodstock go--well--for a song.
But it has some wonderful theatrical possibilities I have not mentioned,
like a scene at the Marlborough opening, where a chorus of Tenth Street
painters sing "This isn't painting, Phil." Guston and de Kooning throw
their arms around each other, caroling together "It's all about freedom"
(Chorus: "This isn't painting, Bill"). Then a scene back at Woodstock,
where Guston and his neighbor, Philip Roth, entertain each other with
their hilarious Nixon imitations (Roth's satire Our Gang was,
like Poor Richard, an artistic product of those sessions).
History gives us a better ending than Guston dared dream of: Nixon
bidding farewell to his presidency as Kissinger's glasses mist with
tears--and a pilgrim chorus of Neo-Expressionist painters singing
Guston's triumph as the curtain falls.
Courtney Love's plea to fellow recording artists
to join her in the creation of a new musicians' guild, printed below,
is the latest blow to the beleaguered "Big Five
So if you managed to endure CBS's three-plus hours of Grammy cov erage, if you survived the sparsely attended protests from GLAAD and NOW, host Jon Stewart's lame commentary, the lip-synced perfor
Readers of this magazine do not need reminders of the costs of the cold war. The mountains of corpses, the damaged lives, divided families and displaced refugees, the secret police forces and death squads, and the resources wasted on ghastly weapons of unfathomable evil are not only markers of a recent past but still-active landmines buried a few inches beneath the surface of our contemporary lives.
What may be harder to remember is the ways the global struggle with the Soviet Union enabled social and cultural achievements that made the United States a decidedly more decent society. From Harry Truman's integration of the armed forces to the Brown decision and the 1963 March on Washington, the initial phase of the civil rights movement capitalized on the moral embarrassment of segregation for a nation trying to win the hearts and minds of Third World peoples. Likewise, the rapid postwar expansion of state universities, the infusion of government monies into public schools after Sputnik and the creation of the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities in 1965 were all episodes in an ideological cold war meant to demonstrate the cultural superiority of the "free world" to the Soviet bloc. It was a strange era that offered both Martin Luther King Jr. and his persecutor J. Edgar Hoover their big chance to bring the United States closer to their ideals.
Two monuments to the cold war stand catty-corner to one another on Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue: On one side, the brutalist Hoover FBI building; on the other, the restored neo-Romanesque post office that houses the NEA and NEH and bears the name of Nancy Hanks, the liberal Republican chair of the NEA during its glory days in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Care to guess which building will be renamed first?
Michael Brenson's new study of the NEA, Visionaries and Outcasts, emphasizes the cold war origins of the agency in an effort to place the "arts wars" of the past dozen years in historical perspective. Looking beyond the 1995 budget cuts that devastated the endowment, and the earlier battles in 1989-90 over NEA-supported exhibitions by photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, Brenson tracks the unfolding of a tension between "ideology and idealism" inherent in the NEA founders' understanding of the agency's role in American culture. Arts advisers to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson sought federal support for the arts to promote international awareness of the cultural vitality of a society dedicated to free expression and civil liberties. At the same time, cultural policy-makers like August Heckscher and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.--heirs to the upper-middle-class lampoon of middle-class "conformism" that stretched from Sinclair Lewis's Main Street (1920) to William H. Whyte's The Organization Man (1956)--saw in federal arts funding a way to create an American "civilization" equal to Western Europe's, which would inspire their fellow citizens with something more ennobling than the stuff of television and Levittown. Much like Clement Greenberg, the towering figure in postwar art criticism, Camelot culture warriors mounted a two-front campaign against the state-dominated art of the Soviet bloc and the kitsch of a newly affluent society.
Amazing as it now seems, the man (and he was imagined as a man) who was to do such heroic work for the nation was the artist. Kennedy's wooing of celebrity artists and writers--epitomized by his choice of Robert Frost to deliver a poem (he recited "The Gift Outright") at his 1961 inaugural and his subsequent invitation to Pablo Casals to perform at the White House--was not only an attempt to surround himself with glamorous and influential opinion-makers but, according to Brenson, a determined effort to establish the artist-prophet as a symbol of defiant individualism in an other-directed age. Whether it was Frost the aging Yankee reciting from memory at the inaugural or the Abstract Expressionist painters wrenching meaning from existential meaninglessness, the image of modern artists as "visionaries and outcasts" served liberals' war of ideas against Communist adversaries abroad and the benighted middle classes at home. As Kennedy put it in his 1963 speech at the dedication of the Frost Memorial library at Amherst College--the occasion for his most extended comments on the arts--a great artist was the "last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state."
Visionaries and Outcasts sketches the history of liberalism's dream of the visual artist as national hero from the early 1960s to the present. Brenson was originally commissioned to write an internal study of the NEA's visual arts program, but the former New York Times art critic chose to revise and publish his work independently after the dismantling of that program by the Gingrich Congress in 1995. The book he has produced is more than an institutional study of one office in a federal agency, however. Brenson rightly considers the program that gave some 4,000 fellowships to individual artists between 1965 and 1995 as the heart and soul of the Endowment. Although early chapters suffer from the bureaucratic language common to government reports, the book concludes by raising thoughtful and provocative questions about the tragic history of the NEA. As he revised his study, Brenson expanded his vision to include the rise and fall of this heroic image of the modern artist as prophet and redeemer of late-twentieth-century US culture. "The NEA became a lens onto larger issues of the changing identity of the American artist and the enduring problem of...the visual artist in a country that...is still only comfortable with the artist as a maker of high-priced commodities controlled by galleries and museums."
In the story Brenson tells, modern artists were useful to this country's political elites only so long as the cold war was raging. Once that war was won, and the political culture had shifted markedly to the right, the lonely artist was no longer a bearer of universal values but a threat to them. The ideological rationale for the endowment collapsed along with the Berlin wall, and cautious NEA administrators invested their idealism in established art institutions. Better to fund museums than to risk spending money on unruly individuals who might turn out--like Serrano or Mapplethorpe--to be "controversial." Despite the defensive maneuvers of arts administrators and their allies, a vengeful Congress cut the NEA's budget by 40 percent in 1995 and eliminated all grants to individual artists (except writers). The endowment has since limped along into the twenty-first century, but more as an occasion for petition drives and liberal fundraising than as a vital force for artistic creativity. In reality, the NEA of 1965 is dead, and with it the official myth of the artist as critic and savior of American national culture.
During the three decades when it mattered, the NEA's visual arts program gave small grants, no strings attached, to many of this country's major artists, often offering them assistance early in their careers before private money was forthcoming. The mechanism for doling out funds was peer panels composed of artists, curators, scholars and critics, who operated without political oversight from federal officials. In fact, Kennedy liberals organized the peer-panel system precisely because it insulated art-funding decisions from state interference and therefore drew another contrast with the state cultural agencies in place in the Soviet-bloc countries. Artistic freedom, in the view of Camelot arts advisers, required the support of professional panels that would judge art strictly according to nonideological, aesthetic standards. At a time when a Greenbergian theory of aesthetic autonomy reigned supreme in New York-based art circles, the freedom of the NEA's peer panels from politicians' control seemed to most liberals a necessary complement to a Modernist logic that divorced "pure" painting and sculpture from political ideology, representation and traditional subject matter of any kind.
The NEA's panels instantly became objects of criticism from true "outsiders," who interpreted talk of an autonomous aesthetic as a bid for power by art-establishment cronies. Brenson ignores the early history of such attacks, which originally came from the political left, and instead repeats the now-familiar story of the persecution of the NEA by the Christian right and its allies in Congress after 1989. The story is a bit more complicated than that, however. In the context of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the authority of the peer panels and the autonomous aesthetic theory they defended came under attack from other quarters: from advocates of more politically charged, social-realist and feminist art; from African-American and Latino artists who saw little of their work or their traditions acknowledged, let alone supported, by the NEA in its early years; and from folk artists and enthusiasts of regionalist cultural traditions who disputed the place of New York Modernists at the pinnacle of the NEA's cultural hierarchy. Although the Endowment quickly made concessions to its critics on the left, the peer-panel process remained largely unchanged from its original incarnation until 1995, in the aftermath of the Republican sweep in the previous fall's elections, when the conservative polemic against the tyranny of a "cultural elite" hostile to the values of "normal Americans" finally succeeded in killing off the visual arts fellowships.
Brenson devotes almost half his book to an admiring account of the panels' operations, quoting extensively from artists who served as referees or benefited from the program's largesse. He condemns the system's rightist critics as ignorant and presents the panels in the most glowing terms imaginable as models of aesthetic judgment, openness and generosity. "The peer panel system embodied the idealism and nobility of the NEA," he tells us. Those who applied unsuccessfully during these years may have had another view of the matter, but no one can deny that the award of such a grant at an early stage of an artist's career meant far more than the money involved. Installation artist Ann Hamilton recalls that "winning" her fellowship in 1993 "gave me a very important sense of support from my peers, which is and was very important in maintaining the trust and faith necessary to make new work, to change, to make a leap of imagination toward what can't easily be knowable or containable in language." This was the NEA's visual arts program at its best--"a gift," as Brenson calls it, "in the fullest sense of something given especially to one particular person, with a special knowledge of who that person is and what that person needs, by someone or something that cares--in this case a government agency, on the advice of peers."
What went wrong, then? Given its distinguished history, why was the visual arts program so vulnerable in 1995? Visionaries and Outcasts is not altogether helpful in answering that question, though it offers a rudimentary road map for a fuller account in the future. Brenson rounds up the usual suspects--Jesse Helms, fundamentalists, New Criterion editor Hilton Kramer--and, in a more intriguing move, notes how the ground shifted beneath the panel system in the 1980s as the art market and American artists themselves transformed the cultural meaning of the visual arts. The go-go art market of the Reagan era created a private reward system that made the NEA irrelevant to many young artists on the make, while conservatives inside and outside the endowment began assigning to museums the universalistic values that 1960s liberals once invested in the image of the heroic artist. Meanwhile, radical artists gave up the Modernist ideal of the individual prophet-artist standing apart from his or her culture. The adoption by many political artists of the term "community arts movement" to describe their project was an important sign of a new sensibility among artists who came of age in the 1980s and rejected the endowment's original assumptions even as they accepted its subsidies. Brenson himself adopts some of their critique in the closing pages of his book, acknowledging that the NEA "put artists on pedestals" and "ended up sustaining their marginalization" by perpetuating an image that many Americans found "arrogant and disdainful."
Brenson's second thoughts seem not to have influenced the rest of this book, which hardly registers the effect of such searching self-criticism. That is unfortunate, because his valuable questioning of the Modernist myth that originally inspired the NEA, and his closing call for an art of "connectedness"--to other citizens and to the natural world--should be the starting points for any serious reconsideration of the embattled agency's history. Especially when it comes to the arts, liberal and leftist culture-workers are too quick to attribute their current troubles to the malevolence of strangers (what will the so-called People for the American Way do when Jesse Helms dies?); too loath to acknowledge that they have achieved positions of power, wealth and influence in American society; and too devoted to their flattering self-image as, alternately, daring rebels or beleaguered victims. Such poses may absolve cultural administrators of any feeling of responsibility for their institutions' plight, but they will prove useless when it comes time to sort through the wreckage of the NEA and other liberal cultural programs in search of lessons for the future.
At one crucial moment in his book, Brenson inadvertently hints at a more critical history of the endowment that might better explain its terrible predicament. He compares the panel system to "the United States jury system" in its rock-bottom faith in humans' "need to learn, [their] belief in justice, and [their] commitment to the common good." Maybe those were the impulses that motivated the panelists as they watched hundreds of slides flash before their eyes; but in retrospect it's exactly the extent to which the NEA selection process was not like a jury that stands out as its chief political liability. Juries, after all, are not composed solely of lawyers, criminologists, psychologists and forensic experts. Nor are embezzlers, assassins and car thieves invited exclusively to judge their peers. When those people serve on juries, they do so as citizens, not in their capacity as professionals. Whatever their limitations, juries embody the civic ideal that ordinary voters--informed by the law and the testimony of relevant specialists--possess the wisdom to govern themselves and administer justice fairly. Never did the NEA's founders display a comparable faith in the ability of nonexperts to contribute to the common culture. Indeed, one reason they married a formalist aesthetic to bureaucratic proceduralism in the first place was to secure a space for creativity separate from the presumed ignorance and tastelessness of the general public.
Such a system "worked" well enough in the NEA's early years, when a New York-based art elite had an astonishing confidence about which artists deserved support. As the East Coast NEA panel met in 1966, it was easy for a few insiders to chat informally and select names. "Generally there was a consensus" about which artists deserved grants, sculptor George Segal told Brenson. "There was not too much of a discussion because it was assumed that all of us knew them." The founding director of the visual arts program, former Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Henry Geldzahler, was openly contemptuous of a request at a West Coast meeting that the panelists examine slides of work by the artists under consideration. As panelist and fellow museum curator Walter Hopps recalled, "The boxes were pushed into the room. Henry stood up and went over and thumped each box with his hand and said, OK, now we've seen the applications and we've seen all this." The boxes of slides were removed, unopened; the applications sat in a pile unread. "We just talked about who we wanted.... It was all over in a morning."
A small art world with a strong consensus on a Greenbergian narrative of Modernist progress could afford to behave this way, especially when it enjoyed support from a liberal majority in Congress. But even when the peer-panel process was cleaned up and made more professional, the complaints poured in that the selection system was unresponsive to the very public this public agency was meant to serve and indifferent to the growing heterogeneity of art practices that transformed visual culture in the United States after the 1960s. What at first seemed like a means of protecting the independence of cutting-edge "visionaries and outcasts" from bureaucratic interference stood condemned by the late 1970s and early 1980s as an institutionalized patronage network that favored specific aesthetic commitments and excluded the vast majority of Americans as incapable of informed artistic judgment.
Coming to terms with the political shortcomings of the peer-panel system requires that we take a more skeptical view of the idea that artists (and their liberal allies) were "outcasts" in the first place, back in 1965. Despite his trenchant critique of the heroic-individualist model of the artist during the cold war, Brenson himself slips into romantic and avant-gardist rhetoric that is long overdue for critical scrutiny. To what extent can one really speak of the modern artists the NEA supported in the 1960s and 1970s as an avant-garde? Wasn't the original mission of the NEA proof that by mid-century the avant-garde ideal had merged perfectly with the cult of expertise that so captivated elite liberals, with their dream of benevolent rule from above by "the best and the brightest"? The class and ideological biases of the cultural institutions that liberals created in that period seem to have escaped no one except liberals themselves.
A quarter-century after the collapse of the New Deal arts programs, with their organic connection to 1930s labor insurgency, the case for federal arts funding returned in a very different political guise. The NEA's original base was in the (Nelson) Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party and the (John) Kennedy wing of the Democratic Party, two upper-middle-class constituencies that prided themselves on their distance from a seemingly "stodgy" labor movement and a parvenu middle class mired in the "ticky-tacky" vulgarity of the suburbs. It should come as no surprise that Nancy Hanks--once Nelson Rockefeller's personal secretary and then the NEA's chairwoman during the Nixon and Ford administrations--presided over dramatically escalating budgets for the endowment. Republicans still needed to appease the Rockefeller wing of their own party. And it should be no surprise, either, that a new right within the Republican Party succeeded in large part by pursuing a very different brand of cultural politics.
Capitalizing on popular unhappiness with the arrogance of the "New Class" at the helm of the NEA and other official cultural institutions, the Goldwater-Reagan right was able to oust the Rockefeller liberals from its own party and mount a masterful crusade against "cultural elites" in the universities, foundations, mainline Protestant churches, museums and the two endowments. Elite liberalism has not fared well in postliberal America, as conservatives have channeled popular disaffections into a pseudo-populism on cultural matters that they would never tolerate in economic affairs or foreign policy. The result has been an increasing isolation of artists, writers and intellectuals in universities and a delegitimation of the very idea of a common cultural life shared by citizens of different backgrounds.
With its original claims to aesthetic autonomy and professional expertise discredited by years of pounding from the left and the right, the endowment lacks a persuasive language to justify alternatives to the privatization of arts patronage. Its very name, the National Endowment for the Arts, speaks to an era of liberal consensus--on the nation, on the nature and desirability of national cultural standards, on what does and does not constitute art--that has disappeared. With the nation and the arts in dispute, all that remains is the program's pathetic "endowment," mere chump change in the global village overseen by the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Charles Saatchi and the trustees of the Guggenheim Museum chain store.
In an era of market fundamentalism, the panel system that once promised artists protection from political and bureaucratic interference during the cold war deserves careful reconsideration. It is conceivable that panels might again function as "free spaces," this time offering artists a refuge from the commercial imperatives that are ruining publishing, museums and public broadcasting. But to make the case for such spaces today requires a radically different mindset from the sentimental avant-gardism and antidemocratic prejudice still current in elite art circles. It also demands a clear-eyed acknowledgment of the historical complicity of the endowment's defenders in the political logic that threatens our public schools, museums and libraries, as well as our artists.
Starting from ground zero, with the NEA in ruins, advocates of public funding for the arts need a language that recognizes the difference between the authority of collective judgments rooted in shared standards and the exercise of market power, and which assumes, furthermore, that every person has access to varieties of aesthetic experience that may contribute to the formulation of such standards. Opening panels to nonspecialists need not be a Trojan Horse for "Archie Bunkerism" or "authoritarian populism," those bugaboos of elite left-liberalism. Nor is it an affront to the credentials of artists and scholars who benefit from public subsidy (like this reviewer) to insist that they discuss their work with lay audiences in exchange for such support. These are tiny steps, of course, but the suspicion and hostility even such modest suggestions provoke in some quarters are a sign of the bleak cultural pessimism that now poisons all discussion of the civic role of the arts in the United States.
Every few months, I receive a forwarded e-mail message that recounts a reputed NPR story by Nina Totenberg about an upcoming Supreme Court ruling on funding for the NEA, warns that the Court's conservatives are about to kill off the endowment once and for all, and then asks for my name on its long list of petitioners. The petition is a classic Internet hoax, but even if it weren't, the time for forwarding such messages is long gone. The NEA was gutted several years ago, and the rebuilding of public support for publicly funded art is going to take a lot more than e-mail petitions. There are hard, unsettling questions that the people who sign such petitions need to ask about the responsibility they and their institutions bear for the ascendancy of our conservative order and about the blindness that comes with the heady self-image of artists and intellectuals as visionaries, outcasts and perpetual victims. Michael Brenson's book is a valuable starting point for a conversation, barely audible at the moment, that might finally address those questions. Until then, ignore the petition on your computer screen. That delete button is there for a reason.
Here I sit so patiently/Waiting to find out what price/You have to pay to get out of/ Going through all these things twice.
Forward, into the past!
Nothing was delivered, but I can't say I sympathize.
In November 1994, dressed in iconic big-polka-dot shirt and black sunglasses, 53-year-old Bob Dylan appeared on MTV's Unplugged. He sang a handful of his greatest hits, mostly 1960s-vintage, some of his most wondrous and paranoid and surreal creations: "Tombstone Blues," "All Along the Watchtower," "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," "Desolation Row," "Like a Rolling Stone," "With God on Our Side" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'." Not long afterward, he licensed that last tune for use in ads by the Bank of Montreal and Coopers & Lybrand.
Yes, this is the enigmatic legacy of the 1960s, that tar baby of American cultural politics. But the selling of the counterculture was built in to what was, after all, a pop phenomenon. The Grateful Dead started peddling T-shirts during the Winterland days with Bill Graham. By the time we got to Woodstock, "counterculture" was a squishy advertising concept. No one at the time saw this better than the artful enigma now just turning 60.
My first Dylan albums were Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, so for me, Dylan's real value has never been as a political symbol, anyway: He's got everything he needs, he's an artist, he don't look back. As a friend of mine once put it, Dylan opened the toy chest of American popular music so that anyone could play with all of its contents. The remark underscores the breadth of Dylan's catalogue. Only a few musical peers--Ray Charles comes to mind--have done anything as wide-ranging.
Maybe it's not surprising that, like Charles, Dylan seems to have two key qualities: genius and self-protective complexity. From the beginning, the Dance of the Seven Veils between the whirring rumors and the (initially few genuine) facts that surfaced about his private lives has been part of his celebrity allure; it amplified his gyrating lyrics, gave insiders plenty to guess and gossip about, and outsiders a contact high.
The slightly pudgy 19-year-old came to the 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene with a Woody Guthrie playbook on his knee, but he loved Buddy Holly's Stratocaster and Elvis Presley's raw Sun recording sessions and knew he wanted to be a star. The Village folkies, in full creative coffeehouse flight, were generally leftish, middle-class, longing for cultural authenticity and artistic purity, and interested in making something apart from the loathed world of commercial showbiz. That, by contrast, is precisely where Dylan dove headlong as soon as he could. Even before his fabled fiasco at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan drew electric guitars and drums--the evil talismans of showbiz--from his toy chest, where they'd been waiting alongside Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Hank Williams, Little Richard and Elvis Presley. Anti-Dylan folkies are still as hardfaced about it as jazz purists are about post-Bitches Brew Miles Davis.
As he moved from protest singer to surrealistic prophet, from born-again Christian to born-again Jew, Dylan's life and music registered, however unwillingly or elliptically, his times. This is one reason people have interpreted his Mona Lisa-highway blues smile and his amphetamine/Beat attitudes in their own images. They've translated him into hero, antihero, sellout, savior, asshole, religious zealot, burnout, political radical and artist. Unless it was useful to him, Dylan usually resented being reduced in rank from prophet (he has always credited divine inspiration for his work, and his most apocalyptic imagery rages with echoes of Blake and the Bible) to mere mirror-holder, and he has usually managed to translate himself anew--the protean artist. That is part of his genius, the soul linking his tangled life to his web of art--and, for that matter, his art to his audience.
So, like the decade he's a symbol of, Dylan today is many things to many people. He's an aging rock star composer of some of the most powerful and enduring songs of the past century who loves the gypsy life of the road; a multimillionaire with an Elvis-like entourage who has an un-American lack of interest in personal hygiene; a double-talking celebrity with a ferocious sense of privacy who has spent most of his life in studios and on the road with his ears full--to varying degrees, depending on exactly when we're talking about--of the transcendent sounds he hears in his head as well as the roaring sound of the star machinery and its need for lubrication. Such is the dilemma of any commercial artist. Pop culture is full of the tales. But few if any other pop songwriters have been considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
By most accounts (and over the decades there have been plenty) Dylan early on cast himself--first in his mind's eye, then, after he'd established the myths, in fact--as a shadow observer hoboing through life, with his BO and irresistible charm and coldhearted focus and spew of genius. The chorus for this troubadour's life has many members. There are women who sing his praises, care for him, want to protect him. There are ex-acolytes and musicians and business associates wailing the I-been-abused blues. There are core loyalists and friends. There are fawners, often drawn from the same pool as the abused. They all agree, though, that the Bob Dylan they know is an unbelievably private, ironically inarticulate man with nearly unshakable drive and talent.
That was already clear in 1965, when D.A. Pennebaker tagged along for Dylan's last all-acoustic tour of Britain and filmed Don't Look Back. Released in 1967, the movie caused a stir mostly because it unveiled another few sides of Dylan. Now it's been reissued on DVD, with the usual enhanced menu of outtakes (here audio tracks) and commentary (some useful, some silly). The good news is it looks just as murky as ever. With this backstage home movie, Pennebaker was inventing our notions of cinéma vérité: a wash of grimy, grainy images with weirdly impromptu light, in-the-moment vignettes and scenes.
Pennebaker wasn't interested in converting Dylan into a poster boy for activism or peace and love or the Francis Child ballad collection; he grasped the artistic multiplicity that often came out as duplicity. During the movie, Dylan reveals side after side: the manipulative creep; the defensive master of the counterlunge; the insular and sometimes inarticulate star; the smartass provocateur; the hyperintense performer; the chain-smoking, coffee-drinking, spasmic-twitching composer sitting endlessly at typewriters and pianos. And yeah, the nice guy pops up too. It's a portrait of the artist as Zelig.
In Pennebaker's film, this Zelig too has his handler: an owlish, pudgy Svengali, Albert Grossman, who negotiates about money in a couple of revealing scenes. Folk veterans tend to see him as a representative of Moloch: Grossman devised crossover acts like Peter, Paul and Mary and gave them Dylan tunes to sing. He owned a bigger percentage of Dylan's publishing income than Dylan did, though the singer didn't know it then; even people who don't like him agree that Grossman encouraged Dylan to write and experiment. According to Pennebaker, Dylan came up with the movie's famous opening: "Subterranean Homesick Blues" plays while Dylan, wearing a slight sneer, stands on one side of an alley. Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky stand off to the other. Dylan holds placards with bits of lyrics from the tune, dropping each card to the ground when it goes by on the audio track. It's a neat piece of visual business that bridges Buster Keaton and MTV.
Pennebaker's movie takes place in the last quarter of David Hajdu's Positively 4th Street. The author of the well-received Lush Life, a biography of Duke Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn, Hajdu has written an engrossing page-turner that puts early 1960s Dylan into a pas-de-deuxing foursome with the Baez sisters, Joan and Mimi, and Richard Fariña. The narrative's hook is deliciously open-ended. The Baez sisters, performers themselves, were romantically as well as creatively entwined with Fariña and Dylan, two ambitious myth-making weirdos who were womanizers, bastards and, in their different ways, trying to create poetry with a backbeat. Their ever-changing interpersonal dynamics are the intellectual soap opera that is the book's bait.
Hajdu plays out the sexual and creative permutations and combinations in and around this vaguely Shakespearean quartet with narrative panache and just the right tang of gossip and attitude to get it excerpted in Vanity Fair. At its best, his fluent style floats information with deceptive lightness, but he's not lightweight. Hajdu dug through the papers, including unpublished outtakes of Robert Shelton's No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, talked to plenty of witnesses and tapped new sources; the most notable is Thomas Pynchon, Fariña's Cornell roommate and best man, whom Hajdu interviewed by fax. All this lets him conjure a novelistic immediacy. His well-plotted scenes usually ring true and bristle with evocative detail. He uses his narrative's inherent elasticity to open perspective and depth of field naturally, then skillfully dollies around and pans in and out of larger contexts as illuminating backdrop for his two odd couples. Topics from the history of American vernacular music to contemporary politics, art and architecture add resonance to the main plot.
Hajdu's story starts with the young Baez sisters seeing Pete Seeger ("a sociopolitical Johnny Appleseed during the mid-1950s") in concert and getting their own guitars. It follows Joan to the thriving Cambridge folk scene, where she became a star with a recording contract. Hajdu builds a novelistic collage of perspectives: Baez herself, those she'd already left behind in California, those watching her rise in Boston. This technique shapes the book's storytelling. We see Fariña, for instance, through Mimi's eyes as a basically lovable, if hurtful, rogue genius; through Joan's by turns as accomplice, potential seducer and parasite. We watch Joan's Cambridge friends fret and fume at young Bobby Dylan's riding her to the top while Joan loves him blindly, and we meet other Dylan lovers like Suze Rotolo and Sara Lownds, whom Dylan later married. We wonder why Mimi can't see how Fariña is using her to get to Joan, since nearly everybody else, including Joan, does, and we wonder if he'll succeed. And we hear the chorus of disharmony around the charged moment when Dylan abandoned his image as folk singer; we note that Joan idealistically spurns Albert Grossman and a major record label and Bob signs with both.
It's easy to see how this fly-on-the-wall approach could devolve easily into name- and eavesdropping--a pitfall Hajdu generally avoids. He evokes the aura of the relationship between Dylan and Rotolo by noting that by the spring of 1962 they'd known each other for six months; he tested his songs on her and played Elvis records for her, while she lent him books of poetry--they read Byron and Rimbaud together--and took him to CORE meetings. "He knew about Woody and Pete Seeger," says Rotolo, "but I was working for CORE and went on youth marches for civil rights, and all that was new to him. It was in the air, but it was new to him."
So, although characters and narrative strands multiply as they weave in and out, Positively 4th Street usually avoids feeling cluttered or confused. And the pacing, spurred by the frisson of eyewitness memories, insider gossip and the rush of circumstance, carries you over its rough spots until things skid abruptly to a finish in 1966. That April, after a publication party for his seminal book Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, Fariña died in a motorcycle crash. Three months later, Dylan had his own motorcycle crash, which pulled him out of the public eye for three years. Hajdu writes, "Precisely what happened to Bob Dylan on July 29 is impossible to reconstruct with authority."
Until now, that was true. But in Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, Howard Sounes in fact pieces together testimony and circumstantial evidence into a fairly detailed account of Dylan's wreck. (He relies heavily on Sally Grossman, the late Albert's wife.) It's the kind of thing Sounes does well, opening new angles on the enigmatic polyhedron that is Dylan. An indefatigable reporter, Sounes has collected most of the folks in the Dylan orbit and brought into print several, including Dylan family members, who haven't been there before. He has unearthed more detail about Dylan's marriages and divorces and children and lovers and homes, his harassing fans and his tour receipts, even his desperate late 1980s offer to join the Grateful Dead as his popularity ebbed. He has combed the earlier sources and extracted their meat. Exhaustive is the right adjective.
As Sounes sees it, Dylan lives in introverted, near-constant turbulence, buffeted by internal as well as external winds and by his own creativity, which produces constant alienation. We watch obsessive fans stake out his houses, hassle his women and kids, ransack his garbage. We learn more of the grimy legal battles (suit and countersuit) between Dylan and Grossman, who for several years, at least, earned much more from Dylan than Dylan did.
Dylan did know lots of women, and they parade dizzyingly by: sincere Minnesota folkie madonnas, Village political sophisticates like Suze Rotolo, Baez, Suze again, his first wife Sara, Baez again, back to Sara, various side trips, a string of black backup singers like Clydie King and Carolyn Dennis, who, Sounes reveals, had Dylan's child and secretly married him. So do his musical cohorts from over the decades, who retail variations of the same tale: Little contact, little to no rehearsal, vague if any instruction. Even members of The Hawks, later known as The Band, arguably Dylan's closest creative associates in the late 1960s, shed little light on the man and his muse. It's not surprising, then, that in discussing Dylan's visual artwork collected in Drawn Blank, Sounes writes, "Mostly Bob seemed to be alone in empty rooms. He often drew the view from his balcony, a view of empty streets, parking lots, and bleak city skylines."
That's as close as Sounes gets to piercing Dylan's veil. Even in this monumental bio, just as in Hajdu's book, the star of the show flickers like a strobed image through the crosscut glimpses of his intimates. The facts and tales pile up; the figure behind the screen seems to come into clearer focus but never quite emerges. Still, his complexity is elucidated--which may be the best anyone, including Dylan himself, can do.
Sounes's book has its drawbacks. Its workmanlike prose lurches periodically into fanzine or tabloid rambles by the author or his witnesses. (Why open with what reads like a magazine story about the party that followed Dylan's "Thirtieth Anniversary Concert"? Why ask Jakob Dylan, now a pop star in his own right, if he thinks he'll measure up to his dad?) It gropes for the "inner" Dylan and sometimes comes up silly. (It's not at all clear Dylan has "conservative" beliefs, as Sounes asserts, aside from desperately wanting privacy for himself and his families. It does seem that he, like most folks, has a floating mishmash of an ad hoc personal code.) With all those facts pressing on him, Sounes can also warp chronology in a confusing fashion. (Why, when first introducing Dylan's manager Grossman, dwell in such detail on the court battles that broke out between them seven years later?) But the bulky research and reporting make up for relatively minor lapses in style and sensibility.
Inevitably there are spots when Sounes and Hajdu overlap and disagree about what happened. Take Newport 1965. Sounes retails the traditional story of how outraged fans, shocked at Dylan's betrayal of acoustic music and, by implication, folkie principles, booed Dylan's electric set. Early on, Pete Seeger and Dylan himself helped promote the tale. Hajdu suggests, via other witnesses, that people were screaming about the crummy sound system, and he wonders, as others have, how 15,000 fans could have been shocked by an electric Dylan set after hearing "Like a Rolling Stone" on the radio that summer. Look at it this way: The doughnut is being filled in, but the hole in the middle remains. Dylan's lifelong attempts to fog his personal life may have been rolled back more than ever, but blurry patches still linger, subject to interpretation and debate, just as they always will with the decade of which he--for better or worse, rightly or wrongly--is still an emblem.