a short life of trouble: forty years in the new york art world
New Museum founder Marcia Tucker died in 2006, not long before her creation opened its new space, a series of stacked gift boxes overlooking the Bowery. In this autobiography, edited by artist Liza Lou, Tucker chronicles her personal life and professional career, though she notes, “I’ve never had a career; I’ve had work that I wanted to do, which was my motivation for starting the New Museum. My job has been to rattle the institutional cage on a regular basis by asking questions that will make everyone else’s eyes roll up in their heads.” (Tucker’s rattling included championing women artists, conceptual art, and performance art, staging several shows that made the NEA blush.)
Tucker considered herself someone who prefers “art that I don’t understand—the stuff that sticks in my mind but eludes me in every other way.” Apparently, those preferences don’t apply to the literary: Tucker’s book is conventional, accessible, even chatty. But this modest volume, in concert with the shiny playful building on the Bowery, denotes a remarkable legacy.
patty’s got a gun:patricia hearst in 1970s america
In this re-examination of the trial of Patricia Hearst for joining her kidnappers in a bank heist, William Graebner centers his book on the premise that perceptions of Hearst “were shaped by and emerged from American society and culture in the 1970s.” It’s not too challenging a thesis (can you imagine a book contending that perceptions weren’t shaped by the culture of the time?), but it does allow Graebner to revisit a bizarre annal in American jurisprudence.
While Graebner offers an engaging retelling of the case—which included a cavalcade of expert witnesses and much discussion of brainwashing, concluding in Hearst’s conviction—he admits, “there is no clarity to be had, no truth to be revealed.” As a result, his attempts, in the book’s latter half, to view Hearst through the prism of various ’70s ideologies—Patty as hero, Patty as victim, Patty as survivor, Patty as exemplar of “the fragile self”—come off as beside the point. Hearst herself provided a little more insight in a 1988 documentary: “I finally figured out what my crime was. I lived. Big mistake.”
patronizing the arts
In this edifying and artful polemic, Harvard professor Marjorie Garber calls for a new model of arts funding, in which corporate giving, state subsidies, and individual grants are enhanced by contributions and support from universities—resulting in a “sustained, thoughtful, informed, and committed patronage.” She offers an elegant history of arts patronage from the Romans to the present, worrying that today the arts “are condescended to, looked down upon, considered as recreational rather than serious work” by patrons and the public both.
Garber, the author of serious works on Shakespeare, cross-dressing, dogs, and real estate, is a wonderfully lucid writer, able to render complex ideas with enviable grace. It is telling that the department she chairs at Harvard, which offers classes in “painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking, design, film, video, animation, and photography,” has the sobriquet “the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies.” Even at Garber’s place of employment, “art” appears an unwelcome term.
loneliness as a way of life
Amherst College political scientist Thomas Dumm takes a turn toward the philosophic with a work exploring “the emergence of a modern form of loneliness” and “its ongoing presence as a common experience of our time.” It’s a strange text, rigorous and discursive at once, synthesizing Thoreau, Emerson, and Arendt with plenty of personal recollections and literary criticism (including a distinctly loopy take on Moby-Dick in which he attempts to reveal the identity of Ishmael).
Dumm sometimes allows his sorrowful personal biography (he’s the child of an absent mother and the widowed father to two children) to overwhelm his theories, as when he reasons, “Each one of us confronts an interminable ocean, a place untouchable by others, a language that sounds to us like a scream in the night.” But he does conclude on a somewhat soothing note, taking comfort in the idea of loneliness as a universal experience and not an unrelenting one. “Yet as long as we continue to exist,” he writes, “we may come to realize that as alone as we are, we are not only alone.”
the city’s end: two centuries of fantasies, fears, and premonitions of new york’s destruction
Judging from the box-office returns for last summer’s Cloverfield, audiences thrill to images of a despoiled New York. According to Max Page, a professor of architecture and history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, this is nothing new. In The City’s End, Page writes, “At each stage of New York’s advance over the past two centuries, visions of how the city would be demolished, blown up, swallowed by the sea, or toppled by monsters have proliferated.” He credits this trend to anxieties over immigration, technology, and “the tension between celebrating and lamenting the city’s propensity to destroy and rebuild constantly.”
The subtitle is something of a misnomer: Page glances at a couple of doom-saying 19th-century prophecies, but concerns himself largely with the last century. Some of his analyses seem little more than plot summary, as in his descriptions of various Twilight Zone episodes. And it’s a peculiar book that devotes equal consideration to Upton Sinclair and the 1933 film Deluge. But Page does train a fine scholarly eye upon Escape From New York.
obsession: a history
Obsession, claims Lennard J. Davis, a professor of English and a specialist in disability studies, has always been with us, but “there is a moment in the Western world when obsession became so problematic that people began to write about it, study it, turn it into a medical problem, and then try to cure it.” He locates that moment in the mid 18th century and offers a history of how obsession has plagued and stimulated lives since.
Despite rather turgid prose, Lennard’s quite good at showing how obsession is characterized “both as a dreaded disease [obsessive-compulsive disorder] and as a noble and necessary endeavor.” Yet in his desire to provide a comprehensive overview of the “social, cultural, historical, anthropological, and political” perspectives on obsession, he all but ignores the medical one. He resists genetic and chemical explanations and has a strong reaction to imaging studies that may locate the disorder in a particular area of the brain, wondering if we will eventually dismiss murder or religious experience as resulting from a “broken brain.”