May 12, 2010

The Art of the Matter


"Art" by Yasmina Reza first appeared in Paris in 1995.  Shortly afterwards it was translated into English for the British stage and turned up at the Royale Theatre (now the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre) on Broadway on March 1, 1998.  The cast was stellar for this three-person play, performed without intermission.  The six-month Broadway run included Alan Alda, Victor Garber, and Alfred Molina, all well known film and theatre performers.

 The recent weekend performances of the play at the Kehler-Liddell Gallery in Westville this April were perhaps a little less glamorous but were easily just as powerful as its Broadway version—in some ways even more so. Where the Royale Theatre seats 1,100, Kehler-Liddell's impromptu bleachers and 60 some chairs transformed what on Broadway can only have been an all-too-impersonal experience into an intimate tete-a-tete between audience and performers. Placing the play within a gallery reflected, if anything, the mutual trust exhibited by gallery staff and the Elm Shakespeare Company, which was responsible for this production.

This element of trust is no small matter in a play as powerful as Reza's. The setting is simple enough: the living rooms of the three characters—Marc (James Andreassi), Serge (Tom Zingarelli), and Yvan (Raphael Massie)—which remains unchanged throughout the hour and twenty minute performance. The key conflict is unsettling, one that should worry any gallery owner in the business of selling art. In brief, Serge, a dermatologist and divorcee, has purchased for 200,000 francs a five-by-four-foot painting of white lines on a white background. This decision immediately upsets Marc, an engineer who condemns the work as trash, to the dismay and disdain of Serge. Their seeming arbiter is the hapless and "chaotic," soon-to-be-married Yvan.

 While hardly a tale of war or woe, Reza's play disturbs the universe of art and, as becomes shortly evident, human relations. The opening gambit in Reza's backhanded criticism of postmodern art—and possibly of poststructuralism, a distinctly French phenomenon that Reza undoubtedly had to live through—is the all-white painting that is the object of Serge's veneration, Marc's rage, and Yvan's confusion. But "Art" goes beyond the obvious conundrums formerly presented by Marcel Duchamp's institutionalized snow shovels and urinals. (Does something become 'art' by virtue of hanging in a museum? What if you pay 200,000 francs for it?) It goes after the relationships among the characters, since it's on the blank whiteness of the canvas that their relationships are ultimately inscribed, evoking a range of emotion that drives them through the convolutions of feeling that by play's end leaves the audience near breathless with the verbal pyrotechnics of it all.

This is where mastery of the material makes all the difference, and the ensemble put together for this production really does have firm control of that material. The snugness of the venue and the simplicity of the set demand a conciseness of body language that is belied by the explosiveness of the characters' pent-up feeling. The contrast of so much energy to be conveyed in so contained a setting ultimately creates a bond between players and spectators that only a great performance in the right environment can convey.

This simpatico between audience and ensemble seems exactly the intended goal of this experiment by Elm Shakespeare Company and Kehler Liddell Gallery to bring high art of high quality to New Haven's neighborhoods. "Westville is something of an arts district already strong in the visual arts with its many galleries," noted Elm Shakespeare founder and director James Andreassi. "Elm Shakespeare's goal was not only to find an indoor space for performing smaller plays but also to take advantage of the artistic energy in Westville and deepen it by bringing the theatrical arts to the neighborhood." In that regard, Elm Shakespeare both follows in the wake and leads along with works that have been aired by New Haven Theater Company, Broken Umbrella Theatre, and Theatre 4.

This article is cross-posted at the New Haven Independent.

October 13, 2009

LIbraries of the Future No More?

I attended the conference described in this article at Inside Higher Ed. It is absolutely worth reading the comments for those interested in the hard choices confronting academic libraries in today's Google era. I couldn't help but offer some thoughts in a lengthy comment that I reproduce here for those who care about the future of libraries to consider.

I attended the Ithaka conference and witnessed Vice Provost Greenstein's presentation firsthand. A few thoughts...

His presentation was provocative and frankly, I enjoy bomb throwers. It was perhaps more disturbing for that bomb throwing to come from an individual with the power to actually detonate what he throws.

With that said, libraries are changing and there are legitimate issues raised regarding the preservation of books (or other library "artifacts"), ownership of digital content, outsourcing of library-based tasks, etc. The biggest change quite simply is that unitized objects--books, CDs, etc.--have become free-floating disseminable objects that not only can float at far lower cost within the digital ether, but can potentially carry all of its metadata with it. That fundamentally changes the kinds of work librarians used to do, from cataloging and shelving to binding and ordering.

The result has been, naturally enough, a shift in what librarian staffs (from shelvers to university librarians) actually now do for a living.

The more disturbing point Greenstein raises is that of depriving libraries of dollars rather than focusing on their reallocation within library systems. This goes to the heart of the metrics universities use for measuring success and meeting the demands of both students (whose tuitions and per-head subsidizations pay many of the bills) and accreditation agencies. (Greenstein raised this point about accreditation quite explicitly.)

And this goes to the heart of what librarians would have to do to combat the trends and pressures Greenstein outlined on university budgets. In brief, librarians need to organize their efforts around the measurable value they supply to library users--specifically students and faculty--as well as the significance of that value to accreditors.

Imagine accreditors who looked not only at university department course listing and faculty CVs, but available institutional resources--both intellectual and human--within the library as part of their accreditation process. (Perhaps they already do!) Rest assured a different tune would be sung by administrators.

Greenstein was emphatic about that, implying that libraries need to do more than lobby adminstrators to maintain funding, they must lobby (yes, lobby!) students, faculty, alumni, and accreditors. What libraries will look like a decade from now is irrelevant: library jobs, resources, modes of delivery, etc., are always changing. hat matters is your ability to demonstrate your value to the funding sources of your university, no small measure for libraries that have not paid sufficient attention to this beyond usage statistics and circulation numbers.

July 1, 2009

Literary Impressions: Puzzle Me This...

This is cross-posted at New Haven Review here.

When I was a child, I was absolutely stupefied by my father’s ability to complete the New York Times Sunday crossword. Mind you, he was not a competitive puzzler, one of those types today who now bundle themselves off every end of February to the , which, after 30 years at the Marriott Stamford in Connecticut, was held for the first time ever at the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott.

Puzzling as a sport was not a feature of my father’s love of the crossword. He enjoyed them thoroughly, but there was no fanaticism in his play, and thus neither stopwatches nor blasts of indignation at seemingly disingenuous clues or specious puns. He was a cruciverbalist—the technical moniker for the habitual crossword solver—in the most traditional of senses, at his leisure or on a lunch break. Moreover, he liked doing them in ink and all caps—both no-no’s according to Stanley Newman in his , a lovely little hardcover I picked up while combing the shelves of the Goodwill on Dixwell Avenue in Hamden.

Stanley Newman is the puzzle editor for New York Newsday and this short paean to the crossword, co-authored with Mark Lasswell, is a fascinating little contribution to puzzle lore that at an easily perused 160 pages is entirely worth reading by anyone who enjoys crosswords. Take me, for example. I like crossword puzzles, and even though I’m not nearly as capable as my father, I relish the qualities of its particular type of challenge: the puns and the trivia, the small victories and epiphanies in lateral thinking that spring from that part of your unconscious where facts you thought lost still roost .

Newman covers several topics in his little tome: how he went from bond businessman to crossword puzzle guru; the history of the crossword (which is how publishing giant Simon & Schuster made its first real money); the ways in which puzzle editors and constructors go about the daily grind of producing their wares; some general principles for solving puzzles; and sundry other matters. But what caught my interest were the very first pages, where he holds forth on his outright distaste for New York Times puzzle editor Eugene T. Maleska and reviews the war he started with him and the New York Times over the state of the crossword.

This is no doubt where his co-author came in, suggesting, “Look, if we’re going to hook general readers first and fans second, let’s begin with a pie fight, because everyone loves a pie fight.” And I must admit, I do like pie fights, especially when they take on bathetic proportions, making mountains of molehills, the truest sign of passion.

When Newman was a bond trader, he started a newsletter about the crossword business in which, among other things, he regularly took to task Maleska’s penchant for publishing puzzles that depended on overly obscure geographical locations, an unhealthy interest in opera, an utter distaste for popular culture, and a schoolmarmish predilection for Latin phrases (Maleska had been a Latin teacher before replacing the much-beloved Will Weng as the crossword puzzle editor for the New York Times). Newman was convinced that Maleska’s role doubly damaged the state of the crossword: for puzzle solvers, his stiffness dampened the interest of the next generation, while for constructors his perch at the Gray Lady overshadowed the innovativeness of their work at other papers. In brief, Maleska was giving cruciverbalism a bad name.

And yet whatever pleasures pie fights may present, what most endeared this reader to Newman’s tale is his belief—and demonstration by personal example—that old dogs can learn new tricks. Unlike many crossword enthusiasts, who tend to start young, either around high school or college, Newman himself became a crossword champion in his 30s! Before then he was not much better than your occasional cruciverbalist. But, as he suggests, with a little dedication and some zeal, it is possible for anyone—and he is emphatic about that anyone!—to become good at doing crosswords, regardless of age. And, that, in itself, sheds some light on the beauty of a book that illustrates how the ability to excel at some cerebral or artistic passion does not necessarily diminish with time. Think Grandma Moses with a paintbrush or Immanuel Kant publishing his first book at the age of 50!

Homeward Stay: Why I Love Westville, New Haven

Donald Brown, writing at New Haven Review, asked the following at the end of his post here:

So, a question to any long-standing or native New Haveners reading this: what do
you consider to be definitive aspects of New Haven … the kinds of things one
shouldn’t miss while living here? Or: what’s a change you’ve seen in your time
here that had some effect on you?

How could I not answer about the neighborhood I've come to love as follows...

I grew up in Brooklyn. There I attended all my life public schools to which I walked nearly every day of the thirteen years I had to go. At the age of 17, I left my family home and never came back, which is not the same as saying that I didn’t return to New York or even Brooklyn. I did. But I didn’t return “home” in that most traditional of senses: taking up residence, as my brother did till age 35, in my parents’ five-bedroom home on Glenwood Road.

When I left New York for the last time, after a two-year stint as an editor, to return to New Haven (yes, I lived here twice), my wife and I were not only overjoyed, we even returned to the neighborhood in which we had rented the first time around: that part of Westville between Whalley & Derby on the north and south respectively; and Yale Avenue and Forest Road as far as east and west go. We have had no regrets since in the last 10 years that we have resided here, and we both chalk that up not to New Haven itself, but the neighborhood in which we reside.

I could write electronic ream after ream on the wonderfulness of this neighborhood. My children walk two blocks to school (Edgewood School); my wife walks two blocks to work (Mitchell Library); we walk two blocks to synagogue (Beth-El Keser Israel); we have farmer’s market directly across the street in the summers; access to tennis courts in Edgewood Park (across the street) and Yale fields (three blocks) respectively; sledding at the Yale golf course in the winter five blocks away we can walk less than a block to five art galleries, four bars, five restaurants.

It’s the neighborhood thus that has made New Haven home for us (and our children) and not “New Haven” itself. The spatial proximity of creature comforts, leisure activities, the necessities of food and culture have created a latitude and lassitude in time: it moves more slowly, more relaxedly, more satisfactorily, with fewer alienating effects as I wave hello to friends going north along my block to synagogue or walking their children south along it to school or heading in either direction with dogs in tow or on bikes or in jogging suits.

Were I to leave New Haven, what I would miss is not its individual places or events--this restaurant or its much celebrated Festival of Arts and Ideas or remarkably Long Wharf Theatre--but the entire gestalt of the community that occupies its small corner of this small city.

June 7, 2009

Literary Impressions: MFA Programming

One of my co-group bloggers, poet and teacher, Alison Moncrief has offered a very thoughtful response to Louis Menand's New Yorker review of Mark McGurl's The Program Era, in which Menand offers, among other things, his understanding--apparently limited--of what students who enter writing MFA programs are expected to have accomplished.

I won't rehash Alison's response, except to note that she focuses rightly on the fact that criticism of MFA writing programs ought be leavened by the recognition that they are essentially apprenticeship programs. There is no more reason to disparage these than those that instruct painters how to paint, cooks to cook, lawyers to lawyer, and doctors to doctor.

Interestingly, McGurl's book itself bypasses jaundiced criticisms about the poverty of what is produced from these programs, as noted here:

However, McGurl doesn’t back away from the question of the aesthetic consequences of the rise of the program; in fact, he uses the two main charges against creative writing, “that it is self-involved, that it is unoriginal,” as his main analytical categories—in what ways, he asks, are the works produced by writers associated with programs not so much self-involved as reflexive—interested in expressing ideas about the nature and grounds of their creation—and in what ways are they systematic—that is, how do they bear the traces of a common (but changing) set of ideas about what counts as good writing?

According to Alison, however, Menand still manages to slip one of those sly questionings of the MFA program's purpose. As I pointed out in my comment on her piece, which I reproduce here, what often irks about this species of criticism is not its rightness--I'm agnostic on the matter actually--but the motivations that underlie it. Here is an abridged version of that comment:

The problem with most criticisms of MFA programs is the insistence on mystifying the writing process and a general beholden-ness to "great" writers--Melville, Dickinson, et. al.--who did not reap the benefits of any such organized program of instruction. The irony, of course, is that there are today many, many more writers of quality today than there were then. This is in part the result of sheer numbers--more people, greater literacy, more time to write, more venues to have one's writing distributed (publishers, websites, etc.), and, yes, more instructional programs focused on the art of writing.

Images of MFA degree programs as group therapy sessions or a mistaken byway for those seeking to be the next Philip Roth or Margaret Atwood completely misapprehend them for what they are: structured attempts to refine the practice of a craft, which may or may not become one's vocation. Too often criticism of MFA programs feels like academics looking from the outside in with little respect (and a touch of envy) for the motivating force of the participants, who simply want to write finer essays, better stories, stronger poems--and not more literary criticism!

I could go on and on in this vein, noting, among other things, that there really are many fine writers today, any number of whom graduated from an MFA program; that during any "great" period in American writing--the American Renaissance, the American naturalist period--there were swarms of utterly crappy writers who would have benefited from the training an MFA program would have delivered, even a bad one.

In fact, the problems afflicting most MFA programs stem not from the programs themselves, but the publishing industry, where works of literary merit have enormous difficulty finding a purchase outside the world of the small press, a world I have come to respect more as I dive further into it. Thus the biggest problem affecting MFA graduates is not the quality of their work but how much they must modify it for the purpose of commercialization, something some of their professors, with their professor salaries, do not have to sweat as hard. The best example of this are the well-known challenges facing poets, who must depend on the constellation of university-subsidized literary journals as well as chapbook and self-publishing operations for their works to see light of day. Any publisher in the business for the money is not their best friend. With brute realities of this nature confronting would-be writers, is it any surprise that the "best" work of MFA graduates must often be buried or abandoned altogether? It's enough to suggest that if not for the MFA program--and the support it indirectly provides to literary journals and small presses, our literary culture might actually be in worse shape.

June 3, 2009

Digital Libraries: Googles and Our Discontents

Readers here will find a very nice summary of an April 4, 2009, "Library 2.0" conference at Yale University. There my New Haven Review colleague and Yale instructor, Donald Brown nicely summarizes points made by the conference attendees. However, it is not surprising to see some of the issues glossed over by those who spoke (or perhaps simply not recorded by Don).

Don also offers his own points regarding the threats posed by Google and its ilk to libraries, per se, all worth the reading. However, I thought a few points ought also be made regarding the seemingly onerous burden placed upon us by Library 2.0.

Let me take on some of the issues Don mentions in the spirit of Plato...

Don: "Michael Zimmer of Univ of Wisconsin-Milwaukee…offered a few caveats to the collective zeitgeist of online ├╝ber alles with the notion, picked up from Neil Postman, of technology as always offering a Faustian bargain….Zimmer had reason to wonder if ‘Library 2.0’—the library as modeled on Google, essentially—will continue to provide a ‘safe harbor for anonymous inquiry.’ Not simply ‘who owns the content’ of what we post—but who owns the documentation, who gets to data-mine, and so forth."

Bennett: "Agreed, this problem of privacy of our inquiries is a serious problem. On the other hand, "datamining" is, in a very real sense, what every scholar already does. The question is not the activity but the nature of the data and the purposes of the mining. I’m actually grateful when Amazon recommends books to me of related interest based on the buying habits of previous customers. In a pre-Internet world, there was no way to have gotten that type of information."

Don: "Frank Pasquale, Visiting Professor at Yale Law School, spoke of the possible consequences of putting all our searches for information in the hands of ‘proprietary black box algorithms subject to manipulation.’ Wikipedia is always the first or second entry in any Google search. The first ten are apparently all anyone looks at. Everything that gets buried by the algorithm is as good as not there. This is not how research is conducted."

Bennett: "Actually, in some ways, this is how research is conducted. Before there was Google, there were—and still are—all sorts of 'shortcuts' in the research process: encyclopedias, reference guides, anthologies, textbooks, library catalogs (once card, now digital). I'm not certain what 'subject to manipulation' refers to here since there is always some form of sorting and re-sorting of data that occurs in secondary tools. Google—indeed, any search engine, is just one of these. The fault lies less in Google than in ourselves and our research habits."

Don: "[T]he notion of open access to all information, via the internet, of complete ‘transparency’ of provider and user, was more or less the mantra of the day. But what the Faustian bargain came to seem finally was not with the technology itself, but with giants such as Google and Amazon as the Big Brothers playing Mephistopheles, offering us the interconnected, easy access world of our dreams, but a world where we sacrifice something of our own intellectual curiosity, restlessness, and desire to see outside or beyond that black box algorithm that makes things so easily manageable for us."

Bennett: "Kind of covered that already, Brutus."

Don: " Wolpert pointed out that what made the MIT professors move for Open Access was their realization that, in the world of electronic text, libraries only ‘lease’ access to online work, rather than owning it like all those printed copies they store in perpetuity. If something happens to the provider or to the lease, all that material is no longer available. And now the publishing world seems poised to turn over all electronic control of out-of-print materials to Google to broker for us, and to disseminate to us according to its lights."

Bennett: "Wolpert has probably overstated the case. Libraries don’t lease all of their online content. Some of it is in fact purchased through “digital archive” arrangements, where libraries own digital copies of their books in perpetuity. These typically affect collections of historical books (not from Google but other major library vendors) and certain journal collections. The fundamental problem is not lack of ownership; it’s the ability of libraries to host the data on their own. And while I'm not one defend Google, on this front, again, I think the case is overstated since I believe Google turns over digital copies of books from any library to that library. (E.g., Harvard gets digital copies of its books alone; Stanford gets theirs, etc.) The problem is not ownership of that data: it's what happens when the current distributor of it goes bust or ceases offering that service. Now all the libraries, whom hopefully did get digital copies of their books, have to figure out a new way to get all that content up on the Web and strung together."

Review: Fledgling by Octavia Butler

For years I’ve known of the achievements of Octavia Butler who carries the distinction of being one of the few, if not only, African-American, female writers in the otherwise all-too-white and once upon a time all-too-male genre of science fiction. Butler’s reputation, moreover, is stellar. She cleaned up in science fiction awards for her novella BloodChild landed a Nebula for Parable of the Talents and even had the rare distinction for a science fiction writer of receiving a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant. She died from a stroke at the relatively young age of 58 after authoring some thirteen books in a writing career that spanned nearly 30 years.

Her last work before she died was a science fiction vampire novel, Fledgling described by her as a “lark.” At a minimum, let us say that it is any number of cuts above such fare as Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series, which I only know from DVD since I refuse to plow through the many thousands of pages of teen vampire angst run amok in the halls of our nation’s high schools. Indeed, one wonders if Butler was not responding in part to this one of many in a genre that I have lovingly dubbed for my teenage daughter as the “hickeys with holes” brand of fiction.

Fledgling is compelling. A child awakens in a cave, badly injured, in terrible pain, with no memory of her past and struggling to survive. Ravenously hungry, operating only on instinct, Shori discovers that she is a 53-year-old vampire in the body of an 11-year-old child, a member of an ancient, anthropogenetic race known as the “Ina,” who live alongside human beings. Shori’s amnesia is a literary device that just borders on the trite for pumping up readers’ feelings of suspense. But it’s also an opportunity, in Butler’s deft hands, to reimagine the human-vampire relationship as one of mutual symbiosis instead of formal parasitism. What we get is Butler’s latent utopianism in which the idea of the family is reconfigured into a mixture of physical addiction and mutual dependence, open sexual relations and Western ideations of the village family unit.

But there’s an added wrinkle: Shori, unlike all of her vampire relations, is black, purposely so, the result of experiments in skin pigmentation and Ina-human gene mixing. Presumably this should raise Fledgling to the level of social novel a genre I generally favor when done right. But the material seems to get away from Butler, and what appeared so promising at its opening simply doesn’t deliver on the possibilities suggested, an unfortunate result for a work that—as vampire novels today go—still surpasses its peers in depth and invention.