A Note from New York
Mary Ann Caws
I am writing this on September 11, 2005, on this anniversary of when everything changed here. More recently, the New Orleans disaster swallowed up in its enormous craw anniversaries, rituals, and everydayness – except what the president calls “the blame game.” (You don’t have to say “our president,” says one of my family members, AND you certainly don’t have to say “we” about the acts you so disapprove of committed by the United States. D’accord. And that isn’t just because I also have a UK passport, and am therefore a member of the European community – that is because none of us has to say “we” when it isn’t us. OK I say, thank you, Jonathan.)
So, the recent disaster. The sweetness of New Orleans past, a poignant memory , came back last night, watching A Love Song for Bobby Long. Truth is we watched it because in it is a song by my son Matthew’s group NADA SURF (featured this week in New York Magazine, yes.) “Blonde on Blonde,” sings Matthew, in a four-minute ode to Bob Dylan. How things get personalised, individualised, brought home from what is too big, too terrible to contemplate.
New York in September is crisp and sunny and full. Just today the Shakespeare in the Park festival ended, this time with Two Gentlemen from Verona, made into a terrific musical. To get free tickets, you stand (or sit on the several benches around the park) starting at, say, 10:30 am for the passes that are handed out at 1:00 sharp. When those give out, fifty numbered vouchers are given, which can be used in the standby line at 6:30 p.m., in case anyone cancels. Unlikely in this case. Families and couples sit all around on the grass on Central Park’s Great Lawn with their picnics and their guitars and books, and the informality is exactly the opposite of Glyndbourne’s formal tradition. One complements the other, for many of us. Democratization is important here, so the contributors to the festival (who get tickets in advance) are seated among those who wait for theirs. About two thousand people cram on to the bleachers, applaud vigorously, laugh uproariously, and weep when the occasion calls for it, as it often does. This time, the general gaiety of the performance, rapid and multicolored, won over every observer, it seemed. How not?
The New York City Opera just opened, with Strauss’s Capriccio, and its most eagerly anticipated presentation this year seems to be Paul Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-Bleue. The audiences are lively, enthusiastic, and, in general, younger than those at the much venerated Metropolitan Opera – the tickets are far less expensive, as are the productions (the sets are popularly called “cheapo,” but that means the administration can take many risks. Performances are presented which you can find nowhere else, and year after year their Handel operas are the best around.)
The new MOMA, the essential Museum of Modern Art rethought and reconstructed, in a larger space with great fanfare, has just presented, in association with its exhibition of Cézanne/ Pissarro, a symposium of great excitement and some innovative points of view. It was presented, as Richard Bretell, the keynote speaker, and T.J. Clark, the brilliant author of Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism, pointed out, as a dialogic approach to art history. If the main thrust of the discussion concerned the importance of those two great painters working side by side for a time in Pontoise, then the ways in which their canvasses themselves entered into conversation with those of the artists like Courbet, Gauguin, Seurat, was no less interesting. Of particular fascination to me and several others was the illustration of how their touch and stroke – the famous sign of work or tache – went along with their self-conception as worker-artists (on this, Anthea Cullen was especially illuminating). See them wearing the smock and rough woven-clothes that mark them as workers, not consumers – involved in the culture of work as opposed to that of commodity. The great thing about such symposia is, of course, that you learn to see differently, or at least, more.
Finally speaking of strokes, what a season it has been for the US Open tennis tournament! The gorgeous Maria Sharapova shrieking after every stroke, the Williams sisters batting it out, and – our alltime favorite, André Agassi, at what is for tennis a very old age of 35, competing in the finals against Roger Federer, the world champion. The match had both panache and dignity: as Agassi had said about an earlier five-set match he played, not me, not the other guy, but tennis was the winner here. Among the 24,000 fans in the stands were André’s wife, Steffi Graf, whose tennis game many of us used to follow, and their two children, of 2 and 4, Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, Lance Armstrong, and James Taylor, who opened the match with his son and his guitar, singing “America the Beautiful.” Well, it is, but feels threatened by mismanagement (I am understating the case) from inside as it is, by elements natural and human, from without, and there seems to be pitifully little any of us, vociferous and less so, can do about it.