Friday, June 17, 2005

The Gender of Text, the Mess of Art, and Lost Thermidor

1) Writers tend to wonder how they come across in print. Who might you think I am or how might you imagine me if you didn't know? The Gender Genie takes text, preferably at least 500 words, either fiction or non, and algorithmically guesses the author's gender. (HT: Bookslut) The program will display your stats, highlighting words and indicating whether they're associated as male or female. I pasted pages from my new novel and from this blog. It was wrong about me twice since, apparently, I'm literarily canted quite differently from my chromosomes. How did it work for you?

2) This article from the Chronicle of Higher Education recounts with historical and educational meatiness the drift and degradation of art from studio practice to radicality for its own sake and self-expression...The audience for modern art long ago gave up expecting or wanting skills, talent, or beauty from artists and willingly acceded to the idea that an artist is a creative outsider whose usefulness lies mainly in being critical of everything. Think "court jester" without the humor.

But Laurie Fendrich doesn't just critique. She offers interesting and specific suggestions to reintegrate the ideals of art that inspired history's masters into current curriculums. She concludes: In any event, the most crucial job at hand is to steer art students away from the self-congratulatory, self-indulgent deconstructionesque platitudes that increasingly guide their educations. After all, why major in art just to become a half-baked social scientist?

Even when I was in undergrad in Art (lo these many years ago) it was quite common to structure one's curriculum so that by graduation, one had merely a scattershot portfolio of a couple sculptures, prints, drawings, paintings, multimedia projects, and/or videos that represented an uncohesive bunch of teacher-assigned subjects and nothing beyond novice level mastery of any medium. I learned to manage drawing and painting better than I'd expected given my late arrival to art, but even my last semester, I never had more than one painting class at a time and no department-assisted focus on a theme, technique, or topic that would've led to richer development at least within a limited area. I think I would've graduated with better work and capabilities by spending the first two years in technical survey and art history, and digging deeply into critique, individual artistic evolution, and skill mastery as a junior and senior.

I applaud Fendrich's analysis and her efforts, and I don't underestimate how incendiary it is to make such comments from within art school academia. After another recent and disappointing report from my alma mater, I listed my collected rules for modern art at the bottom of a previous post. They're still guaranteed to rocket any current student into the pantheon of overexposure. And I'm still begging to be saved from the ugly and obvious.

3) Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jeffrey Eugenides has relocated to Chicago.
I view it as a Denmark kind of place. Cold, well-run--a clean, beautiful, pristine city where you can have a nice life and bring up kids and not have a lot of stress. After living in Europe, Chicago reminds me of some of those cities. He's right in the nicest sense.

Eugenides has cultivated a passion for the Cape Cod Room at the Drake Hotel, and I approve heartily, except when he discourages the Tribune's reporter from ordering the lobster thermidor. LT is one of the dishes that in my youth was cultural shorthand indicating the acme of style and taste. Others included pheasant under glass and baked Alaska. I not only love the idea of these dishes, but when well-prepared, they're wowser. I order these and other such antiquated entrees whenever I see them, because they wouldn't be on any nice joint's contemporary menu unless someone championed them. That champion is usually the chef. And that means good eatin'.

While in Atlantic City, I was at a restaurant that had flounder a la francais with lump crabmeat on its permanent menu. This unusual entree with a mostly-neglected fish signaled me that it was probably a chef's favorite. I consulted with the waiter to confirm, and I must report it was lip-smackingly delicioso. If you want something great, don't just order the ubiquitous chicken or even the simple lobster tails. Order something from the specials list and enjoy the chef's fresh enthusiasm for seasonal ingredients. Order something distinctive that the chef is proud of and excited about serving. Order the Bookbinder's soup.

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