Does Information Smell?

Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks

John Constable's drawing of a mouse with a piece of cheese, inscribed

Riccardo Manzotti: We must distinguish between internalism as an approach to the problem of consciousness (the idea that it is entirely produced in the head) and neuroscience as a discipline. The neuroscientists have made huge progress in mapping out the brain and analyzing the nitty-gritty of what goes on there, but the way they describe their experiments by way of a computer analogy—in particular of information processing and memory storage—can give the mistaken impression that they’re getting nearer to understanding what consciousness is.

Carmen Herrera: Art Without Lies

Claire Messud

Carmen Herrera: Black and White, 1952

The current exhibition of Herrera’s work at the Whitney Museum endeavors to rectify the American art world’s long-term neglect: it focuses on Herrera’s work from 1948-1978, from her earliest abstracts through the various stages of her artistic evolution. For audiences, the revelation over the past decade of Herrera’s bold and vital work is a glorious gift.

The Most Powerful Men in the World

Masha Gessen

Vladimir Putin on screen delivering an annual news conference, in Simferopol, Crimea, December 23, 2016

Putin has declared victory in his war on modern culture, which gives him the right to call himself the most powerful man in the world. That description has generally been part of the definition of a different job—the one to which Trump has in fact just been elected. One suspects that having two men who believe themselves to be the most powerful in the world can’t go well. Signs of trouble have already appeared.

Pipilotti’s Pleasure Dome

Robert Storr

Pipilotti Rist: Pixelwald (Pixel Forest), 2016

If you’ve been watching the news as much as I have these past several months you might be forgiven for forgetting that video as a medium can do more than provide a platform for talking—if not ranting—heads. I nearly forgot myself. The large-scale exhibition on Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist at the New Museum reminded me in the most enjoyable way.

Prankster and Daughter

Francine Prose

It’s rare that a film can have one of its characters pose a question that so baldly states its larger philosophical concerns without seeming overly obvious or sanctimonious. But Maren Ade’s deadpan comic masterpiece Toni Erdmann gets away with it, in part because its characters are so complex and precisely drawn, and in part because the film is at once so understated, so broad, and so funny.

Crowding Around the Nativity

Garry Wills

In the earliest crèches, the figures were life-size and the scene centered on the Holy Family. But during the Baroque period, the scale was vastly reduced while gaining complexity with the addition of peasants, merchants, dogs, goats, and even water buffalo. The artistry reached a peak in eighteenth-century Naples, when the largest ensembles would often fill several rooms.

A No-Nonsense Machiavelli

Tim Parks

Translators come to The Prince with prejudices; one is tempted to play to the reader’s expectations, laying on Machiavelli’s supposed cynicism at the expense of the text’s surprising subtlety. When translating The Prince, rightly or wrongly I fell for the challenge of looking for every possible way to make the sentences sharp and direct while delivering exactly the sense of the original and keeping the no-nonsense tone. Rather than a liberty, this seemed right in line with Machiavelli’s desire that the work be free of all “irrelevant flourishes.”

Born to Sing the Gospel

Max Nelson

Washington Phillips, circa 1950

A tone often emerges in Washington Phillips’s songs—a sense of vulnerability that undercuts the confidence his sermons project. The figures in his songs, as in many prewar gospel recordings, tend to be persecuted and burdened, doomed to roam a world of “sin and woe.” Phillips’s 78s would have been distributed specifically among black listeners, and one wonders to what extent the woeful worlds he described would have suggested the pervasively segregated and threatening one in which those listeners lived.

The Limits of Forgiveness

Francine Prose

Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler in Kenneth Longren's Manchester by the Sea, 2016

The friend who urged me to see Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea told me that it was the only film she’d been able to watch since the election, the only work of art that had, even briefly, distracted her from her worry about the future of our democracy. It might seem odd to describe a film about unendurable grief and sadness as a distraction—a word we more often associate with entertainment, escape and fun. But after watching Lonergan’s astonishing film, I understood what my friend meant.

The Iago Problem

Tamsin Shaw

Daniel Craig as Iago in Sam Gold’s Othello at the New York Theatre Workshop, 2016

The concept of evil has fallen out of favor in our disenchanted world. Its religious and superstitious connotations are permissible in horror movies, but otherwise often deemed embarrassing. Without some religious metaphysics it is hard to make sense of the idea that there are people who are intrinsically evil; it no longer seems plausible to many of us that people can be motivated by something that can be described as pure evil.