Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Degenerate Art


"Essays, like butterflies, jazz (and God), move irregularly, not linearly," wrote Edward Hoagland in his diaries (originally published in Paris Review no. 162). The best experimental essays--those that, like jazz, do not conform, that are in many ways defined by their resistance--seem to vibrate with a hidden knowledge. Or not knowledge perhaps, but perspective.

Michael Heller's free-form essay "Beckmann Variations" on the G
erman painter Max Beckmann (1884-1950) published in the fall 2007 issue of New England Review (vol. 28 no. 3) is a cogent example of Heller's own ruminations on the function of art. Heller writes, "But then, what does any work of art do but intensify perception by limiting it?" The essay is about Heller and his wife seeing a retrospective of Beckmann's paintings at London's Tate Modern museum, and, like the best essays since Montaigne, it is a perceptive look not only at the subject of the paintings, but also into the slippery mind of Heller viewing the work. Heller's piece seems to argue that one of the most intriguing things about essays is that they allow a reader to watch the mind think. In the essay, he quotes Yeats on this issue: "In Per Amica, Yeats cites approvingly a critic who insists that, 'learning to know one's own mind, gradually getting the disorder of one's mind in order, led to the real impulse to create.'" Reading the essay one realizes that this reviewer's comment could as easily be applied to the painter Beckmann as it could to the essayist Heller.

Mostly widely recognized as a poet, Heller is also well-known as an essayist and memoirist; his 2000 memoir Living Root charts connections between Heller's Brooklyn and Miami boyhood with Poland and WW II. It is hard not to think that in his essay on Beckmann Heller's essayist talents are at their peak. Even in the company of this issue of NER's usual powerfully erudite and imaginative writings, "Beckmann Variations" stands out, not only because of Heller's own provocative rhizomatic interweaving of diverse subjects and themes in order to more effectively approach Beckmann's paintings with language, but also because of the essay's architectural ingenuity, an organic hybridity of poetry and prose--each section of the essay pivots around alternating poetic and prose riffs on the larger subject of Beckmann's paintings (or the even larger subject of our responses to works of art).

One major theme of "Beckmann Variations" is the idea of degenerate art. Heller writes, "Beckmann's work, along with that of most of Germany's modernist masters, was included in the Nazi's display of 'degenerate art,' the 'Entartete Kunst' exhibition held in Munich in July of 1937....Hitler made a speech to the nation about this un-German art. Beckmann heard the broadcast, packed his belongings, and with his wife fled Germany the next morning, never to return." And, eventually, they came to America, where in 1950 he would die of a heart attack on his way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see his painting "'Self Portrait in Blue Jacket,' which was hanging there in an exhibition." Would this painting have been considered degenerate by Hitler's standards? One can only hope so. As Heller shows us, much of Beckmann's work was devoted to artistic rebirth, which included a refashioning of modes and genres of painting. As usual, Heller explains in his continually quotable style: "Most serious and important art changes prevailing conceptions in such a way that it only nominally belongs to the species it came from. Beckmann's work was 'entartete,' belonging only to the flora or fauna of pictures then existing; it was already a rebuke to the art culture in which it had been created."

(Pictured above: "Falling Man" (1950) , 141 x 88.9 cm., National Gallery of Art, Washington.)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

On Burnside


Connections between form and content seem to carry more prominence in the art magazine world than in other literary productions. When we shop instead for books, we mostly look for the spine bearing an author's name or an intriguing title. Though books, too, are very often intricately and carefully designed (see Alvin Lustig's gorgeous covers for New Directions books or nearly anything by McSweeney's press). But in the magazine world, design is a greater portion of the product. Not that content relies on form--good writing can and does come in ugly packages--but it is the care and detail taken with the design and production of a literary magazine which carries a great amount of the (at least initial) attraction when perusing the literary newsstand.

The latest issue of Burnside Review (vol. 3 no. 2), a small literary magazine from Portland, Oregon, is approximately the shape of a CD case, with cover artwork resembling a Beatles or Doors record (see image of the magazine's back cover above). The cover has an antique look, faded and sepia-tinted, giving the impression the magazine wasn't found in the new bookstore down the street, but in the dusty bin of a secondhand store, shoved between books without covers and a pair of pleather boots. The production is simply done and beautiful throughout, something both intriguing to look at and easy to handle, satisfyingly combining art for the wall with the literary container of a magazine. And the small size of the issue makes it easy for carrying on the subway or bus, as well as a nice portable shape for the movable readers of the world, those who see bumping into things as hardly an obstacle for the opportunity to read while walking.

And the writing inside this issue is, again like the overall design, a subtle, simple-seeming surprise. Overall, the magazine has a somber tone, like a rock song you listen to alone in the car at two in the morning after dropping all your friends off at their houses, you sitting outside your own dark house, the car running, the song playing on the radio, and it seems you are the only person awake in the world, and though you know the song will end, somehow it seems like it won't, like it'll go on forever. There are powerful new pieces in here by the always fascinating writers Alberto Rios and Ben Lerner, moving work by newer authors such as James Capozzi and Anne Heide, and some alluring prose by young writer-to-keep-an-eye-on Leslie Jamison, who had one of her stories released by Burnside Review as the chapbook The Wintering Barn earlier this year. Though like most literary magazines some of the work in this issue is considerably more powerful than the rest, due to the smallness of Burnside Review's project for this publication--only 74 pages in all, hardly any pieces over two pages long, most of it poetry--there is not really the urge to skip forward. Nothing is rushed.

Instead of quoting at length from many pieces, here is an excerpt of Ben Lerner's stunning prose poem "Ars Poetica" from the issue, a poem strong enough to keep you in the car till the song is over, even in an Oregon January, stuck in the snow in a 1976 VW Rabbit with a busted heater, even then: "A famous novel, difficult to avoid. Its author, now very old, has for many years sequestered himself in a French village, refused all visitors, returned all letters. All my life I have seen people reading this novel. On subways and airplanes, in hotels and hospitals. My wife recently read it in our bed. At first, when people asked what I thought of the novel, I admitted I hadn't read it. Nobody believed me..."

[Click here to see the table of contents and read excerpts of vol. 3 no. 2 on the Burnside Review website.]

Monday, November 12, 2007

A Lion Passes

R.I.P. NORMAN MAILER, 1923-2007

Norman Mailer died early last Saturday November 10, 2007, at 84 years old. With him passed one of the twentieth century's most prolific, important, and controversial writers. Among his many other achievements, Mailer wrote for literary and political magazines from a very early age. Mailer wrote for his high school literary magazine and had a story accepted by Story magazine when he was only 16 years old. As a sophomore at Harvard, Mailer was elected to the board of the Harvard Advocate, the college literary magazine. In 1941 he won Story's annual college writing contest, and the $100 prize money helped convince his family that he had a viable career as a writer. Since then Mailer has published work in (to name a few) Dissent, the inaugural issue of New York Review of Books, The Paris Review, was one of the founders of The Village Voice, and is the subject of The Mailer Review, which printed its first issue in fall 2007. Click here to read two interviews with Mailer from The Paris Review. The world of magazines and writing will certainly be a less diverse and rich place without him.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Begin the Beguine

Though the experiment continues at an astounding rate, we will pause for these several announcements and appreciations:

-The Luna Park launch party this coming January in Brooklyn, NY will feature poetry read by Angela Ball, who will be reading from her newly released AWP award winning book of poetry, Night Clerk at the Hotel of Both Worlds. Other poets and fiction writers will join her in celebrating our launch.

-We are also excited that the party will be co-hosted by Mississippi Review and Stirring literary magazine's Best of the Net series, with possibly more magazines to join the event. There will also be a small gallery of paintings and a jazz quartet. More information on the party in the forms of posters, postcards, and invitations soon to come. We are, as you can see, very excited.

-We are also excited to announce the addition of poet Raymond Wachter to the Luna Park masthead. Ray has been working his tail off soliciting writers for Luna Park and getting the word out about the site. For a day job, Ray teachers at University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. Recently he has been quite ecstatic about his recent nomination for a Pushcart.

-In the next few days we will have a review of the new issue of Virginia Quarterly Review, "South America in the 21st Century.

-Soon to follow will be pieces on recent issues of: Burnside Review, Sentence, Hobart, Oxford American, and many more.

-Yesterday the editors received a copy of Tuesday: An Art Project (pictured at right) in the mailbox. We have been so enraptured by the thing, we nearly forgot to vote in today's elections. We haven't eaten or slept since it arrived, just keep opening it, closing it. If you are a fan of books, magazines, literature, art, or origami (you'll see), pick up a copy of Tuesday.