To historians, the world has always imagined its own demise; to critics, the end of the world is imminent. Meanwhile, my generation demands to read both apocalypses instantly and for free—or in return for our own opinions, which we offer on similar terms. To us, Bosch’s Last Judgment is a screen saver; Terminator 2: Judgment Day is conveniently and illicitly downloaded from a server obscured within that shadow domain, .ph (the Philippines). It’s understandable, then, when professional critics nostalgize not just the culture of the past but also its technologies: the black and white of celluloid and newspapers, magazines as glossy as a Flemish gloriole. These critics go to heaven when the culture goes to hell; their only consolation is to write history even as it is still happening.
Magicians and Charlatans (Eakins Press Foundation, $45) collects Jed Perl’s art writing of the past sixteen years. These are disabused but playful essays, most of which originally appeared in The New Republic, where Perl has been the art critic since 1994. They deal with real objects—Robert Gober’s X Playpen, Christian Marclay’s “The Clock,” Chardin’s Saying Grace, Édouard Vuillard’s The Salle La Caze—and real subjects—the 2004 opening of the new MoMA building (“The more people there are in Yoshio Taniguchi’s spaces, the less poetic those spaces feel, which is just about the most devastating thing that you can say about a work of public architecture”); the 2008 opening of Los Angeles’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum and New York’s New Museum (“places to dump expensive stuff”); the dealer Leo Castelli; Cézanne, Picasso, Chagall, Georges Rouault, Edmund Wilson, Meyer Schapiro, and, most tendentiously, Gerhard Richter (“For Richter, gray is just a logo”).
But this miscellany’s greatest recommending stretches are its critiques of what is increasingly unreal: the art market. Shock, that old weapon of Dada and Surrealism, concussing sensibilities since World War I, has become a marketing manifesto licensing a Christ soaked in human urine (Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ) and a Mary slathered in elephant dung (Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary) not as expressions of rage but as provocations of PR. In an apocryphal anecdote, students of the impoverished Rembrandt painted guilders on the floor of his studio. When the master bent to pluck one up, the apprentices laughed, becoming masters themselves. Nowadays not only is a painted coin worth many more real coins, but the painted iteration can be lent to a museum for a limited time simply to increase its resale value. The museum is converted into its architectural double, the bank, as art and its market become incorporated—that, mon frère, is mixed-media performance.
With the recession, prices haven’t been preserved, like a Damien Hirst in formaldehyde, but desperately inflated, like a Jeff Koons balloon. In May, Edvard Munch’s The Scream became the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction: $119.9 million. Conscientious critics must decide whether to ignore these phenomena or defend a naïveté that the liberalism of the art world regards as the authenticating mark of conservatism. Perl attempts a third way: he addresses this agon directly. In the sublime essay “Laissez-Faire Aesthetics,” he accuses the art world of seeking to mimic “the reach of popular culture, although without the democratic idealism.” Acknowledging that the unification of high and low is nearly as old as Lascaux, Perl notes:
There are, however, essential differences between garbage then and garbage now. They are distinctions that would have been perfectly clear to Sontag and Kael, who had always taken for granted the significance of traditional artistic values, and who both, late in life, pointed out that they had never meant for camp or trash to trump old-fashioned quality. Pop Art and “Bad” Painting, in any event, were self-consciously ironic; they depended on the existence of a standard that was being mocked or from which one was registering a dissent. Irony, even in the whatever-the-market-will-bear forms that it often assumed in the 1980s and 1990s, was generally accompanied by at least the afterglow of a moral viewpoint. The artists were mocking something. They had a target. This is what has now changed. Laissez-faire aesthetics makes a mockery of nothing. Even irony is too much of an idea.
Pay admission at a starchitect museum like MoMA and cut frenetically among the queues to obtain your audio guide (1888 was a definitive year for Van Gogh . . . 1888 fut une année décisive pour Van Gogh . . . 1888 war ein entscheidendes Jahr für Van Gogh) before powering past the individual frames so fast they seem to splice together and send you reeling. This is an intimation of cinema. It’s the quickening and subsequent sounding of pictures that has occupied the British critic David Thomson. His new book about the rise and fall of film, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies—and What They Have Done to Us (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35) is, if not the fin of the medium he intends it to be, then at least the denouement of a major career (one that has included biographies of Orson Welles and David O. Selznick, as well as the capacious Biographical Dictionary of Film). Film, which started as technology and flourished as entertainment, came to be regarded as art when the television entered the home, just as television came to be regarded as art when the computer became the primary domestic screen. The rest of film history mirrors the history of workshop art, especially the art fabricated for that most archaic of theaters, the church—the collaborative nature of both milieux constantly shifting the power balance between studio system (or patron) and auteur.
Auteurism—Gauloise smoke and champagne fizz aside—is fundamentally the ability of a lone artist to survive production interference, which is also an apt description of the hopes of modern man. The Big Screen seems to ascribe auteurism to the medium itself, which has always been threatened by politics and competing machines: Here is Eadweard Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope and Edison and Dickson’s kinetoscope; “Fatty” Arbuckle’s debacle at the St. Francis Hotel; Eisenstein and the dark montage that was Soviet cinema; the Hays Office and the House Un-American Activities Committee; Georges Méliès in penury; Leni Riefenstahl in Nazi glory; Warhol and video; David Lynch and the twin peaks of art house and TV; Woody Allen’s “whimsical anhedonia”; Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns, which “now seem an early sign of the Esperanto of action films: very noisy, but like silent films in that so little of interest was said.”
Thomson, like Perl, is a man who has spent his life evaluating the art of others, producing subsidiary work whose quality approaches the quality of the works being evaluated. He, too, is a would-be practitioner, not a theorist, a fanboy disappointed by machinations of distribution and hype. But while Perl believes that the soul of his medium is dying, Thomson is ready to roll the credits on his medium’s mens and corpus too. Smaller screens, loading shorter thrills, have attracted our attention, miring every multiplex in spectral repetitions of former success: franchises with recurring casts acting out recursive plots; sequels becoming threequels; do-overs; reenactments promising immortality even while offering cameos to the aging original stars. Burt Reynolds, who played the quarterback in The Longest Yard (1974), plays the coach in The Longest Yard (2005). Charlton Heston, in the remake of Planet of the Apes, is an ape. Thomson doesn’t boo these developments so much as cry fire:
So many people, from Lenin and Chaplin to Zuckerberg and Jobs, have believed that moving imagery on screens might unify and enlighten the world. Isn’t it pretty to think so? The screen has also distanced us; it has made us feel powerless, helpless, and not there. The array of watching devices that have swept over “cinema” in the last thirty years will accelerate and spread, and of course they are helpful and profitable—just look at the economy they have produced. Might they also be the lineaments of a coming fascism? Don’t be alarmed, it will be so much more polite or user-friendly than the clumsy version of the 1930s, but as deadening as the shopping malls of Americana, the nullity of so many of its schools, the unending madness of its advertising, and the stony indifference of technology.
To which Kurt Vonnegut might respond: “So it goes.”
So goes the sentence pronounced at the death of each character in Vonnegut’s most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.
Until his own death in 2007, Vonnegut was the American adolescent’s foremost critic of art’s original—life. He hated phoniness, like Holden Caulfield. He loved freedom, like Huck Finn—while also mistrusting it, like Mark Twain, a tutelary muse. Vonnegut was the anti-Salinger, popular because prolific. In 2011, a biography appeared, And So It Goes, by Charles J. Shields, and this fall the author’s corpse must be cackling at the packaging of two new books of winsome ephemera.
kurt vonnegut: Letters (ed. Dan Wakefield, Random House, $35) spans six decades of chatty, depressive missives from the author to his father, his wife Jane, his many children, biological and adopted (especially his daughter Nanny, who married Geraldo Rivera), Norman Mailer, Vance Bourjaily, José Donoso, Jack Nicholson, Noël Sturgeon (daughter of sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon, model for Vonnegut’s antihero Kilgore Trout), and William G. Kennedy of Fenelon Falls Secondary School, which attempted to ban Welcome to the Monkey House.
Mood-swinging between companionable and cantankerous, one letter in particular encapsulates the author’s personality—a mix of wild hippie and dutiful dad, Ivy League hick and Hoosier snob. Dated 1967, between the Summer of Love and the Tet Offensive, and addressed to Draft Board #1, Selective Service, Hyannis, Mass., it requests conscientious-objector status for his son Mark:
I was a volunteer in the Second World War. I was an infantry scout, saw plenty of action, was finally captured and served about six months as a prisoner of war in Germany. I have a Purple Heart. I was honorably discharged. I am entitled, it seems to me, to pass on to my son my opinion of killing. I don’t even hunt or fish any more. I have some guns which I inherited, but they are covered with rust.
The shitty folly of militarism is the reveille of Vonnegut’s first novella, Basic Training, written in the late ’40s under the pseudonym Mark Harvey. Rejected at the time, it has been published now, alongside Vonnegut’s final, unfinished novel, If God Were Alive Today, under a title taken from the author’s favorite wishful dictum: We Are What We Pretend to Be: the first and last works (Vanguard Press, $19.99). Basic Training presents the unsentimental education of Haley Brandon, shipped off to a farm that is run, in army fashion, by The General, replete with chores organized according to A, B, and C squads, and “D-Days.” Per Ken Kesey and Joseph Heller two decades later, the only way to maintain sanity is to go either AWOL or insane.
If God Were Alive Today is the dubious setup to a joke whose punch line is “He’d be an atheist.” The novel’s headliner is Gil Berman, a comedian recently discharged from a “laughing academy,” or mental institution. Berman riffs on Bush v. Gore (“FUBAR”), planetary destruction by the burning of fossil fuels (“the farts of our internal combustion engines”), drugs (“life-enhancing, like Kleenex or toilet paper”), and political correctness (“Please, must American eloquence be so emasculated that no one, no matter what color, and I include yellows, can use that most sublime metaphor for confusion and hysteria in stressful situations, which is ‘Chinese Fire Drill’?”). Berman performs at casinos and on the college circuit: “One day I hope to march in a parade on a Neuter Pride Day. If you don’t like that about me, why don’t you take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut? Take a flying fuck at the moooooon.”
Vonnegut’s outstanding contribution to the visual arts wasn’t Slaughterhouse-Five, the 1972 film, which omits the book’s most vital character, Vonnegut himself. Rather, it was the illustrations of his novels: self-portraits, tombstones, and, most notably, a glyph with which he also signed correspondence—a doodle of his asshole.*