That winter we all became activists. We walked around with vinegar and Coke cans and tissues in our bags to minimize the burn of tear gas when it came. We opened Twitter accounts, many of us, and watched as our numbers of followers soared overnight. We learned how to dress for winter nights in Tahrir Square (essential was a final top layer with pockets). I thought, we all thought, that the euphoria, the sense of possibility, of those first few weeks, would carry the country for years. As Jehane Noujaim’s documentary, The Square, vividly depicts, not only did we forget, but the euphoria quickly dissipated.
No one seems to have measured exactly how old Chinese civilization is, but Endymion Wilkinson can probably give a more precise answer than anyone else. “1.6 billion minutes separate us from the Zhou conquest of the Shang,” he informs us at the beginning of his Chinese History: A New Manual. Undaunted, he then sets out to describe just about everything that has happened since.
The good news is that the Renzo Piano Pavilion, its eponymous architect’s long-awaited addition to Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum of 1966–1972 in Fort Worth, is far from the disaster feared by many admirers of the most revered twentieth-century gallery. There is no bad news, only mild regret that the new $135 million building is not very distinguished, especially in light of what I believe to be Piano’s masterpiece, only thirty-two miles away in Dallas, his Nasher Sculpture Center of 1999–2003. More than ever before, the Nasher struck me during a recent visit as its designer’s equivalent of Kahn’s Kimbell, a warm and embracing fusion of art and architecture that seems increasingly remarkable each time I see it.
Vienna was not only a birthplace of modernism; it was also a “laboratory of world destruction,” to quote the legendary Viennese journalist Karl Kraus. The show at the National Gallery in London helps the viewer to see in the clearest terms the suffocating anxiety and oppressive solitude of the artists, writers, and patrons who were responsible for much of Viennese modernism. The Austrian novelist Hermann Broch famously called Vienna the city of “joyful apocalypse.” In this show, you can almost watch the apocalypse unfold.
The hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to the streets in Ukraine have few options. They cannot force their own officials to sign a trade agreement with the EU. A vote of no confidence in the current government has already been called and lost. No elections are on the horizon, and Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych has no interest in calling them—unless some sort of deal can be struck. But the Ukrainian constitution may offer a way out.
Afghan president Hamid Karzai is playing a game for very high stakes. After two five-year terms, he is required to step down and is angling to have as much influence as he can over April’s presidential election and the successor government that emerges from it. When I visited Afghanistan in October, most people with whom I spoke assumed that the Afghan president would resist signing a long-term military basing agreement with the United States until the Loya Jirga (grand national assembly) had approved it. But now Karzai has instead announced he might not sign until after the election—thereby putting at risk the willingness of the US and the West to remain engaged in Afghanistan at all.
Literature is implacably opposed to bureaucracy. Isn’t it? But what about Balzac’s Comedie humaine with his declared ambition to “compete with the civil registry”? Or go back to Dante, if you like, and his need to find a pigeonhole in hell for every sinner of every category from every sphere of society. Or fast forward again to Bouvard and Pécuchet, Flaubert’s two incompetents who react to practical failure by becoming obsessive copiers of literary snippets. This without mentioning the contenders for the Great-American-Novel slot, so eager to give the impression that their minds have encompassed and interrelated everything across that enormous continent. In each case, we revel in the mind’s ability to possess the world in language, rather than to inhabit it or change it.
As the winter season of New York high culture kicks into full swing, one thing seems quite apparent: there is little appetite for the new in the performing arts here, because innovation carries so much financial risk. At the New York Philharmonic, the coming weeks foretell Mozart, Dvořák, Beethoven, and Handel; at the Metropolitan Opera, apart from the sparsely attended and now closed Two Boys, the current repertoire features crowd-pleasing standards like Rigoletto, Tosca, Der Rosenkavalier, and The Magic Flute. In view of such a situation, the demise earlier this fall of the adventurous but profligate New York City Opera—and the particular qualities of its last staging—provide a kind of case study in the predicament of major cultural institutions today.
Despite all the lamentations about Barack Obama having second-term blues and bad luck, and the talk about how a painful second term is not atypical, it’s what happened during the first term that matters most. With the exception of possible exogenous events, a president’s first term defines his second one. The enormous difficulties that Obama is having with his signature issue, the health care law, are the shining example of how that can work. Almost everything that has gone wrong with the program was set in motion in the early years of his presidency.
To the general movie-going public, David Cronenberg is likely best known for The Fly (1986), a luridly operatic remake of a 1950s drive-in horror film, in which a scientist played by Jeff Goldblum inadvertently transforms himself into an insect. But many career-long Cronenberg concerns (body horror, cyberpunk, regendered sex acts) and tropes (viral epidemics, organic glop in institutional settings) have parallels in the work of gallery artists, and he is one of the few filmmakers whom artists regard as a colleague and perhaps a model. This fall, Cronenberg is the subject of three new exhibitions in his native Toronto—the main one devoted to his film work, another curated by him, the third consisting of artworks commissioned in his honor.