Roving thoughts and provocations

China: Five Pounds of Facts

Jonathan Mirsky

Ian Berry/Magnum Photos

No one seems to have measured how old Chinese civilization is, but Endymion Wilkinson can give a better 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 everything that has happened since.

No Harm to the Kimbell

Martin Filler

Kimbell Art Museum

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.

Trapped in Vienna

Andrew Butterfield

Eisenberger Collection, Vienna

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. You can almost watch the apocalypse unfold.

A Way Out for Ukraine?

Timothy Snyder

Ivan Sekretarev/AP/Corbis

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. No elections are on the horizon, and Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych has no interest in calling them—unless a deal can be struck. But the Ukrainian constitution may offer a way out.

Afghanistan: Risking a Collapse

Anatol Lieven

Omar Sobhani/Reuters/Corbis

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 for as much influence as he can over his successor. Now he has threatened not to sign a military basing agreement with the US until after the election—thereby putting at risk the willingness of the US and the West to remain engaged in Afghanistan at all.

Literature and Bureaucracy

Tim Parks


Literature is implacably opposed to bureaucracy. Isn’t it? But what about Balzac’s ambition to “compete with the civil registry”? Or Dante’s need to find a pigeonhole in hell for every sinner of every category? Or Flaubert’s two incompetents, who become obsessive copiers of literary snippets? In each case, we revel in the mind’s ability to possess the world in language, rather than to change it.

High Culture Laid Low: A New York Requiem

Martin Filler

Stephanie Berger/Brooklyn Academy of Music

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.  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.

Obama: The First Term Did It

Elizabeth Drew

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Images

Despite all the lamentations about Barack Obama having second-term blues and bad luck, it’s what happened during the first term that matters most. The enormous difficultyObama is having with his signature issue, the health care law, is the shining example of how this can work. Almost everything that has gone wrong with the program was set in motion in the early years of his presidency.

David Cronenberg’s Visual Shock

J. Hoberman

Dimension Films

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.

The Last Night in Camelot

Martin Filler

Ferd Kaufman/AP Images

Early on the morning of November 22, 1963, at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, Mrs. John F. Kennedy made “an astounding discovery”:

In the fatigue of last night and the haste of this morning neither Kennedy had noticed that they were surrounded by a priceless art exhibition…. A catalogue, which had also been overlooked, disclosed that the exhibit was in their honor. “Isn’t this sweet, Jack?” she said…. “They’ve just stripped their whole museum of all their treasures to brighten up this dingy hotel suite.” He knew it had been done for her, and taking the catalog he said, “Let’s see who did it.” There were several names at the end. The first was Mrs. J. Lee Johnson III. “Why don’t we call her?” he suggested. Thus Johnson…became the surprised recipient of John Kennedy’s last telephone call.