- “Winter is for House Mice” – Illustration by Amy Jean Porter via The Awl (click for her lovely short accompanying essay)
The Ghost of Christmas Present’s admonishment of Ebenezer Scrooge was eerily prescient this Christmas, as the GOP’s “tax heist” passed to thunderous applause from the rich. (This analysis breaks it down pretty clearly.) I wonder if lawmakers detected the slightest hint of irony as they gathered with their families for Christmas, with healthcare at the middle of it: these newfound gains will be literally forged on the backs of the poor—especially children like everyone’s favorite urchin, Tiny Tim.
SCROOGE: Tell me, spirit, will he live?
GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PRESENT: I see a vacant place at this table…. if these shadows remain unaltered by the future, the child will die.
S: No, say he will be spared.
G: If these shadows remain unaltered by the future, none other of my species will find him here. But if he is to die, then let him die, and decrease the surplus population.
S: You use my own words against me.
G: Yes. So perhaps in the future you will hold your tongue until you have discovered what the surplus population is, and where it is. It may well be that in the sight of heaven you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.
Watch this clip from the 1984 George C. Scott/Edward Woodward version (the best version) for the two most righteous bits of this ghost’s visit, if you want Ignorance and Want to haunt your nightmares:
A lot to do this year.
Art reviews for the second half of 2017:
You Might Not Like Your Reflection in “Windows on Death Row” – A traveling exhibition featuring the art of death row inmates. I struggled with this one.
Character Studies in a Post-Cultural Revolution China: “Chinese Dreams” at MassArt – A bright, sharp-edged show featuring a variety of media that gelled effectively—both as exhibition and history lesson.
Eddie Martinez and Contemporary South African Prints at Wellesley’s Davis Museum – Eddie Martinez’s mandala paintings were the highlight here, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the small hallway of South African prints. I wouldn’t normally go outside the T for an art show, but this one proved to be worth the trip.
Math is Hard, and Beautiful (In Context): The Concinnatas Project at Krakow Witkin Gallery – I was determined to visit a gallery instead of a college, and found this fascinating little show at Krakow Witkin, a fantastic space with a friendly Mr. Witkin present to discuss the art. I mostly love this review because it features Paul waxing poetic about math at the end. Read it, if only for that.
The Half Hour Hold: Subjective Stare-downs with Paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston – Reading Jeanette Winterson’s “Art Objects” (essays, 1996) was one of the more pleasurable experiences of 2017. In my last full week of underemployment, I took her up on her challenge to stare at a painting for an hour, even though it turns out I can only manage 30 minutes at a time. But I did manage to fully fall in love with one painting at the MFA that I would have barely glanced at otherwise.
Almost all of the plays I’ve seen in the second half of this year, with the exception of Houston-bucket-list-item “Tamarie Cooper’s Merry Evening of Mistakes and Regrets” (I guess past years have been better), have also been reviewed by my buddy Josh Garstka for Talkin’ Broadway, so I’ll link to his more comprehensive, eloquent takes.
“Men In Boats”
SpeakEasy Stage Company, September
Written by Jacklyn Backhaus
This play chronicles John Wesley Powell’s expedition of the Grand Canyon—but the playwright mandates that all actors must be women or non-gender-conforming individuals. While the characters face dire circumstances, I found it impossible not to feel jubilantly (dare I say) buoyant during their energetic navigation of the “river” and Jenna McFarland Lord’s cool set. (The creative team are all or mostly female, too, as far as I can tell from their names.)
My main takeaway, though, is that this play would be, with very minor cuts, PERFECT for a Girl Scout troop to perform. The action is straightforward, the props minimal, the language often appealingly anachronistic. Plus, it’s outdoorsy, and a fun way for girls to place themselves in a written history dominated by men. Bump-set-spike, scouts.
“Merrily We Roll Along”
*Huntington Theatre Company
Music by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth
I basically wept throughout the entire show: I could never review it objectively, not after my constant consumption of the soundtrack throughout college and my current quarter-(or is it third)-life-crisis as someone who isn’t quite living her art dreams. This is also the age, it seems, when you start to realize how many friendships you’ve lost over the years. I left the theater insisting we have a homemade performance so I can play Mary.
The only slightly disappointing thing that stands out now, a few months later, was Charlie’s entirely-seated performance of “Franklin Shepard Inc.” I love this song, and the actor was great, but why was he directed to sit in what should have been a high-energy nervous breakdown? It should have been more of a foil to the more low-key songs it’s sandwiched between. Still, I was dancing in my seat.
*(Josh’s colleague actually wrote this one, I forgot because we went together)
“A Guide for the Homesick”
Huntington Theatre Company, October
Written by Ken Urban
Pound for pound the best play I’ve seen this year. Its two actors, McKinley Belcher III and Samuel H. Levine, do a tremendous amount of heavy lifting while managing not to bludgeon us into a stupor. Read Josh’s full review for more on the story and premise.
“Sense and Sensibility”
American Repertory Theatre, December
Written by Kate Hamill, from Jane Austen’s novel
Josh has some great lines in his review about how this production’s staging and light energy sheds the bulk of Austen’s “Masterpiece Theater” trappings, so refer to that, and take the fact that I was incredibly bored by halfway through the second act as an optional footnote. That was probably the point when the “dizzying” conceit of characters hurling each other about on the wheeled scenery stopped meaningfully reflecting their inner turmoil and confusion and became rote. I was reminded of the A.R.T.’s presentation of “The Tempest” a few years ago, which incorporated very cool effects and music while ultimately managing not to elevate the story in a meaningful way.
I am apparently the only one annoyed by this—if Kate Hamill can sell tickets to female-driven dramas by refreshing staid classics (she’s also done “Pride and Prejudice” and “Vanity Fair”), more power to her. And the actors were of course wonderful. I can never deny Nigel Gore, especially if he is wearing purple tights.
Two articles on art, social media, and call-out culture:
While contemporary white authors are allowed to freely write complex, misanthropic characters into their work without incident, writers of color consistently confront culture cops who take issue with the portrayal of those characters in a diverse context. But what is a story without evolution of character anyway? Who is a character, really, without flaws? What’s the point of writing if not to tell some basic truth?
—From “Why Culture Cops Are Bad for Writers of Color” by Daniel Peña on Ploughshares Blog
I thought of Peña’s excellent blog post earlier this week when I read Artsy’s op-ed about the art world’s year of sociopolitical controversy—“Don’t Equate Today’s Culture Wars to those of the 1990s” by Isaac Kaplan—even though they cover different media (visual vs. literary). Here’s Kaplan’s set up:
In 2017, a recurrent call to ‘take it down’ echoed throughout the art world. It was a year in which a handful of artworks provoked outrage for what critics, largely on the political left, deemed to be an exploitation of marginalized peoples’ suffering…. This call to take down work for being offensive (to put it very reductively) elicited quick comparisons to the ‘Culture Wars’ of the 1980s and ’90s, when conservative politicians tried to cut off government funding for exhibitions featuring artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano whose art dealing with queer and Christian subjects irked their religious sensibilities.
The “culture cops” are, though, very different between both of these articles. Peña talks about writers of color facing backlash for creating nuanced, perhaps unlikable/bad-influence/villainous characters, while the visual artists in question are either white or do not belong to the same ethnic group as the one they are “using” in their work. We can’t pretend that context and consequences don’t exist, especially when the artists involved ostensibly bank off marginalized people’s suffering.
Sam Durant realized that after meeting with Dakota elders, and ultimately agreed to remove “Scaffold,” and pledge never to recreate it. His interview with the L.A. Times is well worth the read, and illuminates the controversy in a less nebulous way.
Kaplan’s article doesn’t land on an answer about whether the art should or shouldn’t be removed—it focuses on the facile, unproductive comparison to conservative censorship 20 odd years ago, which is worth examining. So it is disheartening to see Facebook commenters who obviously didn’t read/process the article, parroting that all “censorship” is bad, waving away context and history.
Social media is designed to keep us trapped in the present and devoid of history.
—Clive Thompson in a fascinating, unrelated analysis on This.org.
DEVOID OF HISTORY. How will we learn?
More reads on relationships, feminism, class, and creativity:
Who actually wants to experience trauma? As Weissman writes, “one’s own place in the hierarchy of suffering has much to do with one’s professed ability to ‘feel the horror.’ A person’s intellect and moral fiber are measured by the degree they have come to ‘endure the psychic imprint of the trauma.’”Also known as: moral performativity. Non-witnesses want an authentic relationship with trauma; witnesses wish they never had one.
“Hell is Real” – Leah Finnegan in one of the better Leah Letters of 2017
You say the problem with the phrase “happy wife, happy life” is that “it implies that marriage is not an equal partnership.” But it’s worth bearing in mind that the truth about marriage is that it often isn’t an equal partnership, despite our good intentions. The institution has a long, ugly history of placing women in “a secondary position.” And let’s pause to recognize that it is hard for both men and women to notice this.
“Mixed Feelings: Happy Wife, Happy Life” – Mandy Catron for The Rumpus
Male bumblers are an epidemic. These men are, should you not recognize the type, wide-eyed and perennially confused. What’s the difference, the male bumbler wonders, between a friendly conversation with a coworker and rubbing one’s penis in front of one? Between grooming a 14-year-old at her custody hearing and asking her out?
“The Myth of the Male Bumbler” – Lili Loofbourow for The Week
The lineup of celebrities who appeared in the promotional video for the Democratic Convention struck a weird chord not only with conservatives but also with anyone who was actually hungry for a “fight song” against the entrenchment of a political machine that has left them without access to jobs, health care or education. Why should anyone being buried in student loan debt automatically assume that the stars of Pitch Perfect are fighting for the same things they are?
“A Resistance Led By Celebrities Will Always Be Bullshit” – Anne Orchier for L.A. Weekly
If you went to boarding school and are bankrolled by your parents, own it, and be honest about your privilege: don’t think donning an Adidas tracksuit and tweeting about going to Greggs for lunch is anything other than offensive and embarrassing.
“Privileged Kids Need To Stop Fetishising Working Class Culture” – Dawn Foster for Huck Magazine
A few years back, I spent a summer in Houston acting like I had money. Then I fell in with some white kids who came from money. I guess you could call it a scene. All gallery openings and coffee bars and stage-dives. We’d flit from club to concert to loft to bed, occasionally stopping to take stock of the time. Or at least I did. Because that shit was brand new to me, very nearly alien, a reality so divorced from mine (black, Caribbean, Baptist, middle class), that I couldn’t help feeling threatened by it, and enticed by it, very nearly always wondering exactly how far it could go.
“New Money” – Bryan Washington for The Awl’s year-end holiday series “Fakes.” Read the whole series, it’s fantastic.