Both Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs discovered late in life that making works of art is the way to get money. Literature just doesn’t do it. Speaking engagements pay, but eventually they become tiring—or one exhausts the market. Neither of the two had ever been money-mad, but old age requires a bit of a cushion. Burroughs turned to painting. He would set up paint cans in front of blank canvases and then shoot at them; the splatter was the art. Although these paintings are his best-known artworks, they make up only a small part of his output: he did twenty-four shotgun paintings in 1982 and a few more before he died in 1997. According to his friend James Grauerholz, Burroughs turned out more than 1,500 artworks between 1982 and 1996—including stencils and targets, which were almost all brightly colored abstractions—and had his work exhibited in several museums and more than eighty galleries worldwide.
As Ginsberg said:
If you’re famous, you can get away with anything! William Burroughs spent the last ten years painting, and makes a lot more money out of his painting than he does out of his previous writing. If you establish yourself in one field, it’s possible that people then take you seriously in another. Maybe too seriously. I know lots of great photographers who are a lot better than me, who don’t have a big, pretty coffee table book like I have. I’m lucky.
It would be difficult to describe the sheer strangeness, for me, of driving down from Amherst last month to pay tribute to Emily Dickinson in the Bronx. I had been invited, along with the novelist Jerome Charyn, to give a talk at “Emily Dickinson’s Garden: The Poetry of Flowers,” a ravishingly colorful and informative exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden. The exhibition at the garden’s Mertz Library—which includes, along with a selection of Dickinson manuscripts and artifacts, a reproduction of the poet’s famous white dress and a digital version of her teenage collection of more than 400 wildflowers, each of them carefully classified and labeled—remains on view until August 1. (The garden portion of the show closed on June 13.) Wittily etched on the elevator leading to the library are her forbidding lines: “The Soul selects her own Society/ Then—shuts the door.”
This summer, the Neue Galerie in New York is offering the first large-scale American exhibition of the gleefully provocative German painter Otto Dix (1891–1969)—providing a rare opportunity, as New York Review contributor Sanford Schwartz says, “to appreciate an artist who could almost be our contemporary.” Here are a selection of images from the show, together with comments taken from Schwartz’s piece on Dix, which will appear in the Review‘s August 19 issue. The exhibition closes August 30. (Images provided by Neue Galerie New York.)
Now that the World Cup is over and the Spaniards and everyone else who admired their elegant way of playing soccer is happy, and the few nations whose teams either exceeded expectations or did okay in the month-long tournament have returned to their normal lives, the fans in underachieving countries are still fuming, many of them destined to recall for the rest of their days how their side either disgraced themselves, or were the victims of gross injustice. For those of them that have been following their national team for years, they’ve most likely already suffered more than any holy martyr in the history of the church, and yet it’s doubtful that even one of them will go to heaven, because they cursed and swore till they were blue in the face each time their team lost.
The financial reregulation package just passed by Congress is far from a comprehensive reform of American finance. Despite the enormous threat to the world’s financial markets created by the failure of Lehman Brothers and the stunning excesses of insurance giant AIG and banking conglomerate Citigroup, the reforms are in truth modest. Neither the Obama administration nor Congress opted to cut banks down to size, and the bill is only placing mild limits on risky banking activities. The giant financial institutions, meanwhile, are as big—even bigger—than ever and bankers’ compensation is once again at stunning levels.
But the problem with the legislation is not merely its small scale. It is the way it is supposed to be implemented: to avoid controversy and get the bill passed, congressional reformers foisted the responsibility for setting most of the specific, sticky rules on federal regulators at the Fed, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and elsewhere, who are to make them over the next year or two. These are, for the most part, the same regulators who failed to stop the speculative excesses and ensuing credit crisis of 2008. While they now have a few more tools at their disposal, their already substantial tool box was barely touched in the years leading up to the housing and credit crash and severe recession. Will it be different next time?
For any practitioner of Zen who imagines he has achieved a state of detached equanimity, the ultimate test must be to watch his national side play at soccer’s World Cup. That England’s team is dull, I tell myself after the first game, I can handle; that they are truly dire, I reflect after the second and third, is perhaps only par for the course. When, in their first knockout match, England goes 2–0 down to a fluent and attractive Germany, it seems the perfect opportunity for resignation and acceptance.
Then it happens. England scores. 2–1. And scores again! The ball strikes the bar behind the goalkeeper and goes a yard into the goal before bouncing out. We have all seen it, we are delighted. But the referee doesn’t blow his whistle! Neither he nor the linesman has seen it. Not that they have poor eyesight. They see a thousand tiny things. It is extraordinary, watching the replays of complex fouls and tussles, how rarely referees and linesmen are wrong. But in this case they blinked in synchrony precisely as Frank Lampard’s strike went into the goal.
The surprising and speedy crash of General Stanley McCrystal has been seen in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the wider region as just one more sign of the mess that the US and its NATO allies face in what is looking increasingly like an unwinnable conflict.
The Afghan Taliban are describing the general’s sacking as a military victory—coming as it does at the height of their summer offensive; the most hurtful rumor going around Kabul and Islamabad is that McChrystal wanted to be removed because he didn’t want to have to take responsibility for a losing war. The Taliban claimed another victory when Britain announced a week later that its troops would withdraw from Sangin, a remote and ever more deadly region of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan—although they will be replaced by US marines. Out of a deployment of 9,000 troops, Britain has lost 312 soldiers in Helmand since 2005—of which some 100 have been killed in Sangin alone.
All of which has heightened anxieties that the US commitment to Afghanistan is rapidly flagging.
Some years ago I visited Krasnogruda, the restored manor house of Czeslaw Milosz, close by the Polish–Lithuanian frontier. I was the guest of Krzysztof Czyzewski, director of the Borderland Foundation, dedicated to acknowledging the conflicted memory of this region and reconciling the local populations. It was deep midwinter and there were snow-covered fields as far as the eye could see, with just the occasional clump of ice-bound trees and posts marking the national frontiers.
My host waxed lyrical over the cultural exchanges planned for Milosz’s ancestral home. I was absorbed in my own thoughts: some seventy miles north, in Pilviskiai (Lithuania), the Avigail side of my father’s family had lived and died (some at the hands of the Nazis).
The arrest of ten Russian spies in America on June 27, and the exchange of them last week for four Russians accused of spying for the West, has brought inevitable comparisons with the Cold War. But really, it has little to do with war or peace. Russia simply cannot help itself.
For most governments, espionage is a tool, used for gathering intelligence abroad. In post-Cold War Russia it is a passion, even an organizing principle, and it begins at home. The Tsars had the Third Department and the Okhrana as their eyes and ears. The Communists had the KGB.
Russia is generally freer now than it was under communism, but its spy-chiefs are, if anything, even more entrenched. No longer is it the government that is running the spies. The spies are running the government.