Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Peter Beinart, Tom Service and Dana Spiotta.

The Crisis of Zionism by Peter Beinart

 
The leading article in this week’s New Statesman warns that opportunities for a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are increasingly endangered. Geoffrey Wheatcroft, writing in the New Statesman, considers Peter Beinart’s book The Crisis of Zionism, in which the former New Republic editor charts his increasing disenchantment with Israel. It is a typical narrative of the problematic relationship held between American Jews and Israel. Wheatcroft observes that Beinart remains a Zionist, sends his children to an Orthodox school and believes that “the Jewish people deserve a state dedicated to their protection in their historic land”. All of which “makes him an unlikely dissident”. But Beinart’s book is indicative of the gulf that has opened “between the broadly liberal Jewish-American mainstream and the ferociously, uncritically pro-Israeli official 'Jewish establishment'”. Wheatcroft does examine what he believes is a major flaw in Beinart’s line of thinking, “that there was a decent Zionism and a decent Israel in the state’s early decades when it was ruled by Labour” – a view that Wheatcroft is keen to dispel.
 
Jonathan Rosen, writing in the New York Times, considers how The Crisis of Zionism, in a spirit of evangelical zeal, “sets out to save the country by labelling many of its leaders racist, denouncing many of its American supporters as Holocaust-obsessed enablers and advocating a boycott of people and products from beyond Israel’s 1967 eastern border”. Beinart compresses complexity, writes Rosen: “he minimises the cataclysmic impact of the second Intafada; describes Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza not as a gut-wrenching act of desperation but as a cynical ploy to continue the occupation by other means; belittles those who harp on a Hamas charter that calls for the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews the world over”. In doing so he runs the risk of rendering his book politically impractical, playing down the “magnitude of the Palestinian demand for a right of return – not to a future Palestine but to Israel itself, which would destroy the Jewish state”.
 
Alana Newhouse, writing in the Washington Post, observes that The Crisis of Zionism “is most interesting when seen for what it is, at least in part: a political stump speech for an attractive young candidate who is seeking the job of spokesman for liberal American Jews”. Newhouse cannot subscribe to an argument that is “largely a restatement of Zionist dovishness”. “From this book”, Newhouse writes, “you would think that Palestinians are just the passive and helpless victims of Israeli sadism, with no historical agency; no politics, diplomacy or violence of their own; and no responsibility for the miserable impasse of the conflict”.
 

Music as Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and Their Orchestras by Tom Service

 
The qualities of the practice of conducting, and the musical magic it continues to wield, are examined in this first book from classical music journalist Tom Service. It is an account “brimming with enthusiasm”, writes Suzy Klein in the New Statesman.  “Service’s passion is evident from the opening page” - moving from his first orchestral experience aged six to exploring several contemporary conductor-orchestra pairings. Service examines how orchestras can serve as “barometers of social and political change” – the ruthless maestro brand exemplified by Herbert von Karajan was nothing less than a product of the Nazi era. Since then, “a maestro must earn respect, not demand it”. Despite Service’s efforts, none of his subjects “elucidates the fundamental question of what makes an exceptional, alchemical conductor”, but otherwise the blend of analysis and VIP rehearsal access makes for an excellent exploration of “why orchestral music has such power and how a group of musicians can harness it”.
 
Sameer Rahim, writing in the Telegraph, has similar praise for Service’s exploration of the relationship between conductors and the musicians they lead. Conducting delivers technical information, but for the best, “there is no strict line between technique and feeling”. A prime example is Valery Gergiev, the risk-taking principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, whose explosive, batonless gestures “allows his powerful instinct to trump the technicalities”. The maestro as dictator may be in the past, but “no matter how brilliant each individual musician, you need a conductor to shape a performance”.
 
The Economist's reviewer highlights Service’s insights gained by the many hours spent “not just in concerts given by the six conductor-orchestra pairs taken as his subject, but in observing them in the rehearsals beforehand and quizzing members of the orchestra about their side of the experience”. Interviews with the conductors themselves may not be inherently revealing, but rather it is Music as Alchemy’s blend of perspectives which convey something of “the murky process by which orchestras and conductors build a bond of mutual trust”. This kind of trust relies above all on listening, and the reviewer finds that “one of the most interesting pictures to emerge from the book is that of the conductor as a kind of chief listener”.
 

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

 
Dana Spiotta’s third novel, a finalist at the National Book Critics Circle awards in the United States, has as its central theme the relationship between authenticity and fabrication. The portrayal of the relationship between Denise, an office manager in her late forties, with her older brother Nik, a reclusive post-punk musician, uses "conventional strategies of selection and emphasis, with a period of crux taking place against a backdrop of events both recent and long past,” writes Leo Robson in the New Statesman. The novel is potentially Denise’s reply to her brother’s “Chronicles” – Nik’s fantasy project in which he has recorded an alternate version of his life, “the reviews, positive and negative, that his barely distributed experimental music will never receive”. Denise’s memoir confronts her mother’s mortality, her own ageing and reflections on history and memory. “Postmodern anxiety about such humanist illusions as origins and endings and epiphanies, though no more than cursory, does the novel a fair amount of damage”, Robson writes. “Spiotta wants to incorporate scepticism about the stories we tell ourselves but doesn’t go as far as insisting that we give them up and the novel is incapable of offering cleverness without a sense of shame, candour without an air of apology”.
 
Jenny Turner, writing in the Guardian, finds in Stone Arabia a “”rancid America” story of beauty and talent, failure and disappointment”. Stone Arabia makes for a hazy combination – “the random-looking title, a cathartic road-trip, the brilliant brother who seems to have gone wrong” – elements that are similar in structure to Spiotta’s 2001 novel Lightning Field. There may be artistic reasoning behind this. “Does artistic work have to meet an audience, the marketplace, before it can be said to have punched its ticket?” Turner writes, “Can it ever be allowed, in “rancid America”, not to care about the market, but to strive and long for something bigger and beyond?”
 
Michiko Kakutani, writing in the New York Times, considers how Stone Arabia’s thread is “Identity – and the very American belief that individuals can invent or reinvent themselves anew here”. Spiotta “lavishes on Nik all her eclectic, deeply felt knowledge of music and pop culture”, Kakutani writes. “While her sceptical, appraising eye lends a satiric edge to her portrait of this wilful narcicssist, her understanding of his inner life also fuel-injects it with genuine emotion”. But beyond this is something deeper – “not just alienation, but a hard won awareness of mortality and passing time”.
 
Herbert von Karajan: the maestro as dictator (Photo: Getty)
ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK
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"Someone was screwing here": the cryptic art of Robert Rauschenberg

Dense with allusion and synecdoche, Rauschenberg's art work reveals an extraordinary “stream of unconsciousness”.

Before he was established, Robert Rauschenberg had the following jobs. He was a neuropsychiatric technician in the US navy at San Diego. (Unsurprisingly, he preferred the patients when they were insane.) He worked for Ballerina Bathing Suits as a packer and at the Atlas Construction Company in Casablanca, where he conducted inventories of stock for $350 a week. As he made his way in the art world, he was a janitor at the Stable Gallery. He did window displays at Bonwit Teller on Sixth Avenue, as well as Tiffany & Co and Reynolds Metals. (When window-dressing in penurious tandem with Jasper Johns, they used the pseudonym Matson Jones.) Rauschenberg was also stage manager and lighting designer for the Merce Cunningham dance troupe. He was an occasional emergency choreographer (Pelican). You see? Hand-to-mouth, improvised, a “career” made from whatever was ready to hand.

Then, in 1964, he took first prize at the Venice Biennale and arrived. The jobs are, in their way, a perfect emblem of Rauschenberg’s art – unrelated, aleatoric agglomerations of items that happened to stray into the force field of his personality. In Alice Oswald’s long poem Dart, we hear at one point the voice of a stonewaller: “. . . you see I’m a gatherer, an amateur, a scavenger, a comber, my whole style’s a stone wall, just wedging together what happens to be lying about at the time”. This, too, could be Rauschenberg, ransacking the junkyards, with one eye on the gutter, for the found object, the overlooked, the discarded, the down-at-heel detail of daily life. In the Tate catalogue (but not in the exhibition) is a work called Hiccups. One visual burp after another, it consists of separate, one-size, totally heterogeneous items silk-screened and zipped together. Rauschenberg was said by Jasper Johns to have invented more things than anyone except Picasso. A slight exaggeration. Rauschenberg’s central inventive coup was the combine: that notorious stuffed goat with the automobile tyre round its middle will serve as an example.

For the New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins, this was the legacy of the European surrealists – Breton, Duchamp – who took refuge in America during the Second World War. Rauschenberg’s combines are as arbitrary as the unconscious. His scrolls, his late work The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, are a kind of stream of unconsciousness, works of instinct and intuition held together by his assumed authority. (He once forgot to make a portrait of the Paris gallery owner Iris Clert, so sent a last-minute telegram: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so – Robert Rauschenberg.” The French loved it.) The results are a deliberate unconscious chaos, which, like dreams, give off the sensation, but not the substance, of reason.

This important and vibrant show at Tate Modern usefully complicates this accepted narrative – with its implicit emphasis on the artist as magus, performing a kind of magic, of visual hypnosis. To give one example, there is a big billowing work called Glacier (Hoarfrost) (1974). It is an emperor-sized sheet, with solvent transfer of newsprint on satin and chiffon. There is a pillow underneath, more or less invisible, to create the billow. It is a work of straightforward representation, of realism. It is a glacier in which the illegible newsprint serves as shadow, as a great and exact donation of texture. There is an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Varick Street”, which describes a factory at night: “Pale dirty light,/some captured iceberg/being prevented from melting.” All the grime, all the dereliction and detritus of the glacier is captured in the Rauschenberg.

Leo Steinberg, a shrewd but not uncritical supporter of Rauschenberg, rejected the idea, first mooted by Robert Hughes, that Monogram’s stuffed goat forced through a tyre referred to anal sex. Steinberg preferred to think of the work as “funny”. Indeed, just behind it is a brown tennis ball like a (large) goat dropping. I thought of Alexander Calder’s chariot in his Circus: when Calder started to improvise performances around the work, he would scatter then sweep up droppings behind the horses. Here the tennis ball’s appearance is prompted by the representation of the tennis player Earl Buchholz on the hinged platform supporting the goat: providing an alibi. There is also a rubber shoe heel, which has trodden in something – bright-blue lapis lazuli – another ambiguous allusion to excrement, here transfigured and glorified. Here, too, a man is crossing a gorge on a tightrope (signifying danger), and there is a high-ceilinged room with several pillars (easily read as phallic). “EXTRA HEAVY” is stencilled in one corner, a touch not without ­significance, to nudge us away from frivolity. Goats are a traditional byword for lechery. Two more possible indicators: we have to ask why the tyre isn’t whitewall but painted white on the tread of the tyre, a deviation from the norm. Is it prurient to wonder if this represents sperm? The second touch is a man with his arms akimbo, casting a long shadow – a doubling at once different but identical and therefore perhaps a figure for homosexuality.

We are used to the idea that Rauschenberg was interested in eliminating the artist’s presence and personal touch. At the beginning of this show, we have Automobile Tire Print, the black tyre track on 20 sheets of typing paper that was laid down by John Cage driving his Model A Ford; it is an artwork whose execution is twice removed from Rauschenberg by the driver and his automobile. There are, too, the dirt paintings, as arbitrary as Warhol’s later piss paintings – which produce, in Dirt Painting (for John Cage) (1953), very beautiful, random, blue-grey mould. These are works in which the artist cedes agency to natural process. Nevertheless, it is impossible, I think, to look at the Cage dirt painting and not be forcibly reminded of the marginalised artist and his palette with its attractive, accidental accretions of pigment.

Despite this posture of disavowal, Raus­chenberg’s work isn’t devoid of same-sex iconography. For example, he is drawn, time and again, to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus and Rubens’s Venus. Both are quoted several times, reproduced in silk-screen. Why? Partly an act of magisterial appropriation and a demonstration of self-confidence. (An act of felony itself stolen from the Picasso who repainted Velázquez’s Las Meninas, part of a sustained campaign of annexing the overbearing classics. No false modesty in Picasso.) Rauschenberg’s Monogram goat is also an attempt to replace Picasso’s signature goat – said by Picasso to be more like a goat than a goat – by a monogram, a sign of ownership, like a pair of monogrammed slippers or shirts.

The other reason for the quotation of Rubens and Velázquez is that both nude women are contemplating and presumably admiring themselves in mirrors, mirrors that in both cases are held up by cupidons. The perfect topos of self-love – and therefore of same-sex eroticism. Originally, the stuffed goat (stuffed!), with its horny horns, was set against a painting called Rhyme (a not insignificant title, suggestive of sameness and difference). Rhyme (1956) has an actual necktie on the left. On the tie are grazing cows and a four-bar corral fence. In the centre of the picture are dense squiggles and squirts of colour – again like an artist’s palette, but which here represent a pallet or bed. Above the bed is a bit of lace and adjacent to the lace a red ball. What we have here is an aubade, dawn through lace curtains, and the tie as an indication of (male, out-of-towner) undress. Of course, nothing is explicit. Yet the self-censorship, the furtive and necessary concealment, is represented – by some kind of structure that has been removed, leaving behind trace elements. And what are they? Angular outlines and screw-holes, a sexual metaphor you can find in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. Someone was screwing here.

Bed (1955) features the famous stolen (and very beautiful, subtly patterned) quilt. At the point where the sheet turns back and the pillow is on view, both are liberally stained with paint. The paint is both fluids and (deniable) paint – paint as itself and a synecdoche. Leo Steinberg wants to restrict the combine to a self-referential aesthetic statement – the flatbed horizontal as opposed to the vertical hang, which he sees as Rauschenberg’s primary revolutionary innovation. But while Steinberg is right to dismiss ideas of murder and mayhem in Bed, the action painting mimicked here is also surely mimicking action in the sack.

None of this is certain. The illegality of homosexuality in 1955 made explicitness out of the question. But I think it unlikely that something so central to Rauschenberg’s identity – his sexistentialism – should be completely absent from his work. Even aesthetically programmatic work such as the very early 22 The Lily White (1950) has references to homosexuality. It is an off-white painting with outlined sections like a street map, each of them numbered. The numbers are sometimes upside down. Steinberg believes this is a strategy to subvert the accustomed vertical hang, because it is not clear which way up it should go. I think the numbers are upside down because they are inverted, with everything that adjective denotes in the sexual context. And the shapes are revealing, too: it is made up of extended interlocking jigsaw shapes that mirror and fit into each other. The title refers to the lily-white boys of “Green Grow the Rushes-O”.

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) can be dismissed with Harold Rosenberg’s ­famous quip: “The less there is to see, the more there is to say.” Rauschenberg, the junior artist, persuaded Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing that he would then erase. De Kooning chose a drawing that used oil crayon so that Rauschenberg would have a proper task. It took him a long time. And actually, though no one says this – they are too interested in the sacrilege, in the idea of erasure, in destruction, in the concept – the erasure isn’t complete. It  isn’t the promised blank that you don’t need to see to understand. You have to see it to see the Wunderlay.

What does it mean? Partly, obviously, the picture is Oedipal, an act of aggression against a prior master by a junior. Second, the end product is “poetry”, according to Rauschenberg. You can just make out the ghostly marks so that the surface is like a veronica – or like a romantic fragment. It brings to mind Coleridge’s imitation of fragments of antique poetry, creating an aura of irresolvable suggestiveness. On the surface are extra marks, 12 of them, whose provenance is uncertain, but whose presence is as indisputable as the vague but redolent under-image.

Suggestion is the ground note you take away from this show. In Untitled (1955) there is a sock and a parachute – the combine of paint and actuality, somewhere between painting and sculpture – but also to the left, some crumpled paper, overpainted in white, that reveals an eye, nostrils and a retroussé upper lip with phantom teeth. There is painted cloth, taken from pillow-slips or bedlinen, with a decorative milling effect, which makes this Rauschenberg’s bed scene, a long time before Tracey Emin. Similarly, Short Circuit (1955) incorporates work by Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg’s ex-wife, Susan Weil, hidden behind doors. It is a work all about concealment, reveal and suggestion.

There are many, many beautiful things on show here, exemplary energy, and a few empty failures. Don’t miss Untitled (1958) which hangs, from two tarnished safety pins, a khaki handkerchief, treated and soaked, so that you can make out the pattern in the weave. The humble snot-rag transfigured. Its square is a warp of frail rust, a tuille. Above it is a frame of grey-painted cloth, showing a trouser loop and that milling effect again. It is stunning. And so are his majestic cardboard boxes – Nabisco and Alpo for Dogs – makeshift sculptures that read as solid wood, charismatic brand-name Brancusis.

“Robert Rauschenberg” runs until 2 April 2017. For more details visit: tate.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage