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What I'm Reading

The books that I'm reading at the moment include:

¶ Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment. It's a nonpareil meditation on photography that's loosely organized around the different ways in which famous photographers have shot the same sort of subject. The first subject is blindness, with its corollary, begging, and its sub-corollary, accordion-playing. I'm learning to read the book as if it were a novel (see preceding entry): avoiding judgment until Mr Dyer has more or less finished. I wish that there were more reprints, as I'm sure the author did as well.

Is photography an art? I'm asking this question against the background of steeping my brain in Barry Gewen's essay, "State of the Art" (see "Book Review," below). I have made a decision about art: it must be long-lasting. Shakespeare's Hamlet is art, and perhaps Laurence Olivier's 1948 film of the play is art (if it's not camp), but no actual stage performance of Hamlet is art, because it can never be experienced a second time, neither by a member of the audience nor by the actors. A work of art must be experienced by several generations, and survive the reversals of taste that temper the patina of art.

Performance art and the occurrence art that M/Mme Christo produce belong in a pigeonhole with the pageants, tableaux, marriage festivities and World's Fairs. We read about these things in history books, but we can never know what they were like. Admiring a painting by Titian puts us on quite a different footing vis-à-vis the past.

I do not mean to be conservative. What's I'm suggesting is not that stuff has to be old to be good. It simply has to be old to be art. Until then, it's cool stuff. It's on probation.

Photography certainly passes the long-term test. But what the question really asks is this: can there be art without skill? Most of us have taken at least one photograph that would rank with the finest and most famous, and some amateurs seem to take nothing but revelatory, first rate pictures. (Vous vous reconnaissez, monsieur!) I am not saying that complete idiots can take great pictures. As a rule, I doubt very much that that is the case. But good pictures can be taken by people who have never studied photography. Good pictures are good pictures. If they survive in the ordinary way of cool stuff becoming art, then they're "art."

So craft is an accident of art, not an essential.

That's quite enough theory for one entry.


¶ Robert Traver's Anatomy of a Murder. I've read this before. I can still recall seeing it on my father's dresser. But I'm re-reading it not for sentimental reasons but to gauge as concisely as I can the changes that Otto Preminger wrought in adapting the novel for his great film of the same name. The most interesting discoveries, so far, are that Lieutenant Manion (the defendant) has a "Hitler mustache," and that Maida, Polly Biegler's secretary, really does talk a lot like Eve Arden. Oh, and there's a rival defense attorney in the neighborhood, completely excised from the film.

Interesting reading - but it's work. I'm really reading between the lines. It's not quite as bleak as comparing the two texts of Lear, but it tires me out at bedtime without making me sleepy. So I've slipped another film source into the pile: Raise the Red Lantern: Three Novellas, by Su Tong and translated by Michael S Duke. Zhang Yimou's 1991 adaptation, starring Gong Li, is one of my favorite films, and I can't wait for it to appear on DVD (I've got it now on laser disk, of all things). I wish I could read the novella in Chinese. (I wish I would make some progress with the two French novels that are in my basket at the moment!)


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