I’m working on a piece right now for another publication. I’m excited about it and hope to be able to share it soon. Below, you’ll find a section that the editor and I decided didn’t really fit with the rest of the piece. It’s a few recommendations in categories that are traditionally associated with the highbrow– and, as such, are now looked on with suspicion. That’s a shame, because there’s a ton of great stuff out there and it comes in comic books and operas, ballets and video games. So I thought I’d share some recommendations in a few mediums that you might enjoy if you aren’t usually used to getting into this kind of stuff. None of this is particularly out of the ordinary or hard to find; these aren’t meant as recommendations for stuff you’ve never heard of. It’s more about how to jump into mediums or genres that are often seen as forbidding or inaccessible.
As always: the point is not that consuming this art is ennobling. You shouldn’t go looking for this stuff out of a sense of duty, and certainly not to increase your virtue. You should check it out because they all are rich, rewarding, and ready to be enjoyed. If you aren’t interested, that’s fine too. Just remember that there are all kinds of artistic pleasures out there to be discovered. Try stuff out. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. If you do, even better.
Novel: War and Peace
Tolstoy’s masterpiece is frequently invoked as a symbol of a big, intimidating doorstop of a novel. And indeed, when you’re toting it around, you’ll know you’re carrying a big brick of a book, as stuffed with pages as it is with prestige. But if War and Peace is a book with a reputation, it’s also a book with a secret: it’s a remarkably fast-moving, fun, resonant adventure story, an incredible romance set against the backdrop of an immensely influential war that Americans rarely hear about. True, its 1,200+ pages (in conventional formats) are stuffed with philosophical digressions and sweeping considerations of the arc of history, and the ability – or inability – of individuals to shape that arc. But the core narrative of Russian aristocrats, struggling to adapt to the seemingly implacable threat of Napoleon’s military, is as compelling and thoroughly modern a fictionalized history as you’ll ever find. Pierre, the novel’s central character, seems remarkably contemporary, someone who presaged 20th century alienation, at once a privileged aristocrat and a consummate outsider. Perhaps Tolstoy’s greatest strength lies in how he shifts from the personal to the grandly historical; I liken him, in War and Peace, to the director of a television broadcast of an NFL football game, sometimes taking in the action from a vast remove so as to see the whole sweep of the field, sometimes diving in for a close-up to showcase human emotion, always with exquisite control. It’s a model for every great epic movie that effectively balances the personal and world-historic.
Starting a novel of this length and complexity is no small decision, and I understand if the size of the effort scares you off. But the difficulty, or the reputation for boredom, absolutely shouldn’t. This is a novel that begs for more reading, and if you can balance the characters and narrative of Lord of the Rings, you can surely tackle War and Peace. Of course, some people who see you reading it will presume you to be pretentious. You’ll survive. The novel is worth it.
Extra Credit: Jose Saramago, The History of the Siege of Lisbon; Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji.
Visual Arts: Helen Frankenthaler
Unlike the other other works listed here, Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings can’t be fully appreciated in digital form, but if you ever get a chance to check out her work in a museum, I can’t recommend it enough. If you do, you might be forced to live through some version of “my kid could paint that!” or similar art museum cliches. I certainly don’t have the time, energy, or expertise to justify abstract visual art to you all. I’ll just say that there’s an irony in the way that people attack visual artwork that does not represent a specific, real-world subject. Typically people attack abstract art because they think art should be about visuals instead of ideas. The stereotype is of art that lives only in the brain instead of the eyes — that every abstract work is intended to express a message rather than to be absorbed a visual object. But people who come to abstract work in a state of preemptive distrust are guilty of that very thing: they fail to just take in what they see and react to it on a visual level. The best way to get past that mistrust is to think “what do I see, and do I like the way it looks?” Just look at it as an aesthetic object and stop worrying about theories of art and representation.
Frankenthaler was an artist who in fact went out through abstraction and back into something resembling representation. There are no cleanly painted green and rolling hills in her work, but it’s filled with landscapes, with imagery from the natural world. Sometimes you read people talking about the “crisis of representation” that happened in the art world in the late 19th and early 20th century. The idea is that, confronted with the superior power of the photograph to capture the world around them, visual artists began to break from the presumption that their job was to created images of the real world. Self-conscious experimentalists like Piet Mondrian broke from representation entirely, or tried to. I think Frankenthaler, working several generations later, demonstrates the pleasure of abstraction that has let go of those anxieties. Her work is occasionally representational but always evocative. Colors fade and out into her canvases, shapes bleeding into each other, and yet her forms, or impressions of forms, are distinct. There are some great abstract visual artists whose work does lend itself to the critique that “anyone could do that.” Frankenthaler’s does not; her craft is incredible. I value her work in part for showing how abstraction and control can be self-reinforcing phenomena.
Extra Credit: Henry Ossawa Tanner; Francis Picabia
Film: Dr. Mabuse the Gambler
From the outset, Fritz Lang’s first film might seem like a parody of difficult, boring art: it’s a four hour, silent, black and white, German film concerned with the decadence and moral decay of Weimar Germany. You could be forgiven for hearing that and heading for the hills. But that would be a mistake, because the movie is in fact a thrill. The film portrays the reign of a master criminal who rules the underworld through fear and the moneyed through persuasion and hypnosis. Operatic and lush in its imagery, the characteristically exaggerated acting style of the period takes some getting used to. But in time, you’ll catch on to Lang’s rhythms and come to enjoy the profound subtleties hidden within the cinematography, the performances, and the story. The title character is one of the great villains in the history of the movies, and the film deftly pulls off a trick many movies still struggle to get right today: making the villain seem truly capable of defeating the heroes. It’s as suspenseful a movie as I’ve ever seen.
Don’t be intimidated by the subtitles; like many silent film directors, Lang minimizes dialogue and largely allows his visuals to tell the story. And if the four-hour length seems prohibitive, it’s conveniently divided into two parts. If you get hooked, you can follow up with the two sequels, the latter of which was released an incredible 38 years after the original.
Extra Credit: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters; Dogville; Armarcord.
Poetry: Fiona Templeton
In an era of mistrust towards art that breaks towards the experimental, the challenging, or the obscure, poetry might suffer worst of all. This is particularly true given that many (though by no means all) working poets have left behind traditional verse patterns and meters. Some incorporate images and music; some give elaborate stage directions for how they’re to be read. I get why some people would be put off by the whole thing.
Under those conditions, you can tack towards the traditional and the orthodox (and I wouldn’t blame you), or you can steer into the skid, which is what I advise. Fiona Templeton, who’s a director and performing artist and poet and playwright, embodies so many of the things that people hate about “modern art,” which is part of why I love her work so much. She’s still producing today, I think, putting herself out there in a variety of mediums. The above passage is from You–the City, which is perhaps a poem, perhaps a play. Her style, in this mode, is a kind of loping, iterative prose poetry, words that stack into what seem like sentences which then stack into what seem like paragraphs and yet resemble in the end nothing you’ve ever read before. She’ll write a passage hat seems quotidian and obvious until its very last part, when it will veer off in a direction that seems perfectly natural and perfectly unnatural at the same time. She writes the kind of poetry that seems to proceed like DNA, like a mutation, a natural unspooling of preordained structures that proceed by rule and yet still result in wonderfully bizarre complexity. Like one of those forced perspective paintings that look perfect until you try to step around to the side and suddenly you’re disoriented, her work looks perfectly straight until it forces you to look at it slant. I’ve never seen her work performed live, but I would love to very much. She has such a wonderful capacity to surprise.
Extra credit: Angela Weld Grimke; Amiri Baraka
Orchestral Music: Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto no. 1
Note that the term here is orchestral, which denotes a kind of instrumentation and notation, rather than Classical, which denotes a time period. On the one hand, orchestral music has the advantage of most people already liking it, at least casually. There’s nobody alive that hasn’t heard a significant amount of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and others, and very few that haven’t found themselves pulled in by NPR on a long drive. That’s no accident; far from being a sight of willful artistic difficulty, orchestral music has largely been defined by the exact opposite, the pursuit of aesthetic pleasure taken to its highest extreme. So most of us come to the tradition with a level of baked-in interest. On the other hand, there’s a frankly astonishing level of knowledge and information out there to be absorbed. I’ve listened to and read about orchestral music since I was a teenager, and yet to this day I usually don’t talk much about it with people I know to be informed. There just seems to be so much to know that I would inevitably reveal my ignorance. It frequently seems as if you need to study endless amounts of musical theory, history, and mathematics just to keep up.
But as with other mediums in this piece, the way forward is simple: try stuff out and enjoy. There is no wrong way to get acquainted with new art forms. If you find yourself moved by some of the orchestral music you connect with, you will find the energy and focus to learn as much as you need. This is for you. There’s no pop quiz.
One way to avoid the feeling of drowning in history is to listen to the work of a living, contemporary composer. Philip Glass fits the bill. You already know his work: you’ve heard it in movies for years. Like Sonic Youth, who have acknowledged his influence, Glass has long held the sweet spot, standing for both unimpeachable artistic integrity and commercial appeal. His soundtrack for the wordless experimental film Koyaanisqatsi lent the movie its foreboding power; his work on the (fantastic) genre film Candyman, its perfect pop horror. Glass has been so prolific, and his work has spanned such a vast array of contexts, that getting started with him can feel as intimidating as getting started with orchestral music itself.
So start with his Violin Concerto no. 1. It’s a remarkably effective introduction to not only Glass’s work, but to the broader world of minimalism, the school Glass is grudgingly associated with. (Like many great artists, Glass chafes against the genre identity that has been foisted on him.) Minimalism is a late-20th century movement defined by a stripping down of music to its essentials. In contrast with the lush, frequently overpowering layers and complexity of much orchestral music, minimalism works through the power of restriction, often utilizing only a few notes, or a few instruments, or a few patterns repeated with minor variations over and over again. The Estonian composer Arvo Part once said (in conversation with Bjork!) that he was a minimalist because he needed space for himself in his music. Part’s “Spiegel Im Spiegel,” though fast becoming a movie trailer cliché, is a good model, spare and haunting, with its sadly plodding piano and aching violin. In his Violin Concerto no. 1, Glass’s work is faster and more complex than that piece, but no less a product of the minimalist school, its central themes seducing the listener with repetition that the instruments keep seeming to strain to escape. Nowhere is this more powerfully achieved than in the astonishing second movement, where the violin seems to weep. (I know, I know. Listen to it. Tell me I’m wrong.) Below, the low strings and woodwinds churn and churn, spilling out anxious grief. The concerto is exhausting and exhilarating and heartbreaking, and it’s only 30 minutes long.
(And watch Candyman. Seriously. It’s a horror movie about urban planning and Tony Todd is a boss.)
Extra Credit: Arvo Part, Tabula Rasa; Dmitri Shostakovich, Tenth Symphony.
Drama: Samuel Beckett, Endgame
There’s a very dumb way to approach going to a play, and that’s to treat it like watching a movie. Complaining about the production values of a movie relative to a play is like complaining that the lighting is better in porn than it is when you’re actually having sex. If we really want to get picky, movies are never “realistic” anyway, and exactly 0% of the time the purpose of a play is to convince you that it’s real life. The purpose of a play is to be present, to be there with real people who are living fake lives to make you feel real feelings. You don’t have to be a Luddite to appreciate, for a brief period, the experience of looking at something other than a screen. The point is that you could jump on stage and ruin the show, and you don’t.
I should say that I grew up in the amateur theater, literally, my father a professor of theater at Wesleyan University, home to a pack of weirdo art-kid students. (Like Dot Com from 30 Rock.) You are entitled to find the weirdo art-kids of schools like Wesleyan pretentious and annoying, just as you are entitled to find plays like Endgame pretentious and annoying. But I urge you to look a bit beyond that immediate revulsion and look for the deeper commitments to asking probably the most basic questions: what are we doing here, and why do we bother to do it? In its inescapable theme of pointless repetition, Endgame asks us to think about why we get up and go through routines we don’t enjoy and largely don’t know why we do. Don’t be put off by that existential bleakness; revel in it. Dive in.
If you’d like plot summary, I guess I’ll just say that there are four grunting characters with monosyllabic names, living in an uncomfortably small, garbage-strewn place, pecking at each other, during what is simultaneously the end times and a time that will never end. In my mind they live in a nuclear silo, but it occurs to me that this is only an artifact of the first time I saw the play, a brilliant production of my father’s, who was at once a generous and ruthless director. It’s Beckett; the play takes place in the same hazy surroundings as his (overproduced) Waiting for Godot. There are, of course, symbols and resonances for you to draw, but ultimately you’ll benefit from not trying to force what you’re seeing into an allegorical frame. Rather just experience Beckett’s world in its hopeless hopefulness: people do things that don’t much matter, they misunderstand each other, and they die, or don’t, and in the end they perhaps offer some modest comforts for one another, when they think enough outside themselves to bother to. I would not think of these actions as plot, exactly; the Sparknotes for the play are probably more confusing than the text itself. They are actions that strip away the various layers of human pretense that we drape on them to make life seem purposeful. Later, on the drive home, you can start the long chew, and think about what it all really means.
More than anything I’ve recommended, this probably sounds like a hopeless, joyless slog. And indeed you’ll have to let yourself experience it in a different register than you might enjoy an episode of Friends. But it’s like I keep saying: God made chocolate and he made vanilla. The fact of the matter is that all of us live with bleak periods that run in and out of our minds, and frequently they seem impossible to express, on account of that whole “worried about appearing pretentious” thing I keep going on about. At its best, this type of punishing theater of the absurd can reveal, in its relentless darkness, the spaces in our lives where we have room to build a fire. Beckett and creators like him turn up the pain in order to demonstrate the redemptive potential of your own, real life. Once you’ve seen it you can, like the distant boy glimpsed through the window in Endgame, choose to come in or to die outside. If that’s too deep, remember that the unapologetic pleasures of the best pop song you’ve ever heard are just a few clicks away. That’s life; it’s all in there.
Extra Credit: Peter Shaffer, Equus; Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera; Clark Gesner, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.