Thursday, December 31, 2009

6th Day of Xmas

On the sixth day of Christmas, The Arts Muse looks forward to the new year by casting a backward glance at the arts in the old one. Needless to say, it is not a view any of us will be sorry to leave.

This still all-too-present year has proved to be a challenging — OK, let's be brutally honest here — depressing time for the arts as institutions saw their endowments eroded and staffs shrunk while struggling to meet the public's demand for artistic solace and inspiration. By and large, I think the arts responded well to the crisis, the operative words being "by and large".

There was a bit of a tendency to throw the baby out with the bath water — a phenomenon we also experienced after 9/11. I wonder how many of the organizations that cut their staffs to the bone will soon regret the decision not to hold on a little while longer. The market has come back. Markets always come back over time. But when you're poor — or more to the point, you think you're poor — time is a luxury you cannot afford, I guess.

Fear is a funny thing. It can paralyze you, or it can liberate you. Central Park and the Empire State Building were both created in depressed times, the latter, of course, rising in the Great Depression. We saw something of that here. Copland House in Cortlandt Manor has gone ahead with a new music program at the Merestead estate in Mount Kisco. Historic Hudson Valley in Tarrytown has recommitted itself to Montgomery Place — the largest of its properties — with a reinterpretation opening next spring that will plumb man's relationship to nature and the landscape.

When the going gets tough, the creative get going. When you have nothing left to lose, it's time to open your mind and heart to everything.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

5th Day of Xmas

On the Fifth Day of Christmas, The Arts Muse gives you an opportunity to drop by the Pelham Art Center. There you can take in "Photovoice: Questions Answered," an exhibit of works by five students who participated in the Photovoice program over the summer, and then stock up on jewelry, artwork and sculptural objects for next Christmas in the "Home Sweet Home Sale and Exhibit" (both through Jan. 16). 914-738-2525,

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

4th Day of Xmas

On the Fourth Day of Christmas, may we suggest a "Winter Break Workshop" at the John Jay Homestead in Katonah? The workshop (10 a.m.-noon) offers a special tour of the house that belonged to our first chief justice and tips on candlemaking. Can't make it today? Tomorrow's "Winter Break Workshop" offers a tour and butter-making, while Thursday's is all about 18th-century fashion. They're also at the same time. Reservations are required. 914-232-5651, ext. 101,

Monday, December 28, 2009

3rd Day of Xmas

On the third day of Christmas, The Arts Muse spotlights "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind 'Little Woman'," airing at 9 tonight on THIRTEEN as part of PBS' "American Masters."

Like "A Christmas Carol," "Little Women" is a favorite book/film at Christmastide, in part because it opens on a Christmas during the Civil War but also because it's a moving story about the trials and triumphs of the four March sisters — dignified, acquisitive Meg; fiery, literary Jo; shy, loving Beth; and pretentious, artistic Amy. I can remember my aunt giving me an illustrated copy when I was a little girl. (I still have it.) And it seems every year, I run into one film version or another. Indeed, I just saw the one in which June Allyson is Jo and a blond Elizabeth Taylor plays Amy.

It doesn't matter which variation I encounter: "Little Women" always reduces me to tears. It's not just the story, with its trials and triumphs. It's that "Little Women" is about the struggles of a woman writer, the subject of the "American Masters" docudrama, which features Elizabeth Marvel as Alcott and Jane Alexander, a longtime Putnam County resident, as her first biographer, Ednah Dow Cheney.

Because we encounter such figures in history, long after they've become famous and are gone, there is a tendency to think they were always successful. Alcott did indeed achieve the writer's dream of riches and renown. But it did not come cheaply or easily. (Well, nothing worthwhile ever does.)

I've described Alcott as a woman writer, a phrase that many writers who are women would bristle at. But I think the designation is significant. Like male writers, she faced rejection — the artist's nemesis; toiled at menial jobs for menial pay; and turned out lurid potboilers that would hardly qualify as art.

At the same time, she cared for her invalid father and raised her niece after the girl's mother — Alcott's sister May, the model for Amy — died. These are not necessarily responsibilities men undertake, even today.

But they are expected to be breadwinners, and in this Alcott was a feminist role model, raising her family from poverty to wealth.

At a time when the arts and writing are under financial siege, she remains a comfort and an inspiration.

P.S. Alcott's sister May, an artist in her own right, was a friend to Mary Cassatt and a muse to other writers as well. On the subject of art, don't forget that today is a holiday Monday at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a good time to catch up on the shows you might've missed this year. Hours are 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. The Met is on Fifth Avenue at 82nd St. in Manhattan. Advance tickets: 800-965-4827. Information: 212-535-7710,

Sunday, December 27, 2009

2nd Day of Xmas

On the second day of Christmas, The Arts Muse suggests you take in a movie, and an unusual one at that. It's a film of the Monteverdi opera "L'Orfeo" (1 p.m. today, Irvington Town Hall Theater). Even if you don't love this movie interpretation of what is generally acknowledged to be the first real opera, the music is so stunning that you won't be disappointed. Plus, the story is particularly poignant, with Orpheus risking his own life and descending into Hades itself to rescue Eurydice, the wife he loved and lost. (Collective sigh here, please.)

Speaking of movies, I went to the multiplex Christmas night, something I've never done before. But with the relatives all safely tucked in their beds and, I hope, visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads, I decided to give myself the gift of "Sherlock Holmes." Like so many Christmas gifts, it was a mixed blessing.

This "Holmes" is more visceral than cerebral, a notion foreshadowed by the gazillion coming attractions in which, to paraphrase the old SCTV comedy series, "things blowed up real good." Still, I liked some of the dizzying special effects, the grittiness of 1880s London, and especially the relationship of Oscar-y Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Felix-y Watson (Jude Law), who, like an old married couple, can't live with or without each other. (Together and singly, they are superb, with Downey making Holmes' almost-antisocial brilliance entirely believable and Law very much his own man as the nonetheless appropriately exasperated sidekick.)

I know many purists out there will scoff at this version. So being just a tad obsessive — like the ever-preoccupied Holmes — I watched part of "Holmes for the Holidays," Turner Classic Movies' attempt to cash in on the new, oft-soldout film by airing a marathon of movies featuring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson.

Rathbone, who also played Hollywood villains, is considered by many to be the quintessential interpreter of the role. Yet the Holmes films in which he appears are no more faithful to creator Arthur Conan-Doyle than Guy Ritchie's new movie is. For one thing, they are set in the time in which they were made, not the 19th-century. I suppose it's just natural to take liberties with such seminal figures.

In our own time, the trend has been to portray Holmes and Watson as men in the fighting prime of life, even on PBS. (I bet Rathbone and the grandfatherly Bruce were in the prime of their lives when they made their Holmes movies. It's just that as health has improved, middle age looks better.)

Our own youth-obsessed, go-go-go age wouldn't have it any other way. It's elementary.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

12 Days of Xmas

We all know the song (and mangle the verses). But what exactly are the 12 days of Christmas?

Depending on the calendar you follow, they either began yesterday and conclude Jan. 5, or they begin today — which is Boxing Day and the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr — and conclude on Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany, when the Gospels say the Magi presented baby Jesus with their gifts, and thus he was manifested to the Gentiles.

I'm going with the latter interpretation, since I'm already a day behind (according to some). Alas, The Arts Muse has no partridge in a pear tree to offer (though I wouldn't mind shopping for a few lords a-leaping). Instead, I propose a dozen "gifts" — 12 things to do, read, see and contemplate as you enjoy the protracted Christmas feast. And these are (well, you're just going to have check out the blog every day to find out, aren't you?)

The first is a poem that is a kind of perverse Christmas tradition in my house. I read it aloud every year at this time from a graceful book called "Greece in Poetry" (Harry N. Abrams Inc.), because I am a closet classicist and because I've always believed that someone's sunrise is always someone else's sunset.

Herewith is John Milton's "Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity":

The Oracles are dumm,
No voice or hideous humm
Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving.
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving.
No nightly trance, or breathed spell,
Inspire's the pale-ey'd priest from the prophetic cell.

The lonely mountains o'er,
And the resounding shore,
A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament;
From haunted spring, and dale
Edg'd with poplar pale,
The parting Genius is with sighing sent,
With flowre-interwov'n tresses torn
The Nimphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.

Friday, December 25, 2009


This being Christmas Day, The Arts Muse would like to share a special edition of What To Do This Weekend by focusing on one rare exhibit. It's "James Tissot: 'The Life of Christ'," at the Brooklyn Museum through Jan. 17, and it's the perfect show to blog about today not only because of its subject matter but because the story behind it is the kind of redemption tale that crystallizes Christianity and the yuletide spirit.

Tissot — the French John Singer Sargent — was a boulevardier, a flaneur, a connoisseur and painter of stylish women and, in his own words, "a Catholic more by courtesy than conviction." (Ah, the French. Such politesse, not really believing in God but nonetheless afraid to give offense.)

Naturally, a person of such lukewarm religious faith has to undergo a road-to-Damascus moment, right? Tissot's came as he was doing research for the last in a series of paintings about shopping. (Well, what did you expect? This is a story set in Paris, after all.) He stopped by the Church of Saint-Sulplice, and as the priest elevated the Host during Mass, experienced a vision of a bloodied Jesus comforting the poor amid a building's rubble. In the sleepless, fevered aftermath, Tissot turned his vision into the 1885 oil on canvas "Inward Voices (The Ruins)."

This foreshadowed an artistic pilgrimage to the Holy Land (1886-87 and '89), which in turn led him to create "The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ," a series of 350 watercolors that was exhibited successfully, turned into a best seller and ultimately purchased, at the instigation of the aforementioned John Singer Sargent, by the institution we now know as the Brooklyn Museum. (The current exhibit, which features 124 of the watercolors, marks the first time in more than 20 years that any of the works have been on display at the museum.)

Portraying Jesus is — as Robert DeNiro reportedly observed when he turned down the role in Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" — a no-win situation. As universal God to believers and specific historical figure, he is truly, as Simeon describes him in the Gospels, "a sign to be contradicted". And those perpendicular contradictions are the cross on which Jesus artists are hanged. Depict him as universal God — with Asian or African features, for example — and you offend some. Capture him as a Jewish teacher living in Palestine in the early days of the Roman Empire, and you offend others.

Tissot's Jesus was deemed too Catholic, too Jewish, not Jewish enough, not Protestant enough, too masculine, too feminine. What I find most fascinating about him, after poring over the excellent, definitive catalog of reproductions — and what I think will resonate with contemporary Americans, who've been raised on movies — is that Tissot's auburn-haired, blue-eyed, sculpted Jesus would be right at home in Hollywood, say in Nicholas Ray's "King of Kings" (Jeffrey Hunter), Franco Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth" (Robert Powell) or even Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" (Jim Caviezel).

Curiously, for all Jesus' obvious centrality to the Gospel stories, he doesn't dominate Tissot's paintings. The exception is "Jesus Looking Through A Lattice" (1886-94, above), a painting inspired by the "Song of Solomon" that I first fell in love with in Debra N. Mancoff's "Sunflowers" (Thames & Hudson), the lattice being decorated with the flowers. This Jesus compels — half-glimpsed through the diamond-shaped pattern, curious and reaching, interesting because he is interested.

By going to the Holy Land, Tissot wanted to strip away the anachronisms he saw in the religious painting of the Old Masters. But how could he when what he saw were 19th-century people, not the folk of Jesus' day? Anyway, portraits of Jesus tell us more about the artist than they do Jesus. Try as he might, Tissot couldn't erase his artistic heritage. And yet, he brought his own unique approach to the work. His "The Resurrection of Lazarus" (1886-94) owes its chiaroscuro to Rembrandt perhaps. But Tissot's placement of the figures is unusual and dramatic, with Lazarus, swathed in white burial cloths, emerging seemingly from the bowels of the earth.

Similarly, his angel Gabriel in "The Annunciation" (1886-94) is decidedly female, glamorous, a made-up face surrounded by delicate rays of light. Tissot was no monk. He never lost his eye for the ladies. But then long before his Damascus moment, he was interested in Christian themes, having painted a series that was a modern retelling of the Prodigal Son parable.

Tissot was always a Catholic, albeit a sensual one. People don't really change. They become more of themselves.

For more, contact the Brooklyn Museum at 718-638-5000, Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Christmas memory

'Tis the season of "Nutcrackers," which means it's time once again for me to revisit the ghosts of Christmases past and my own complicated history with the ballet.

I don't remember the first time I went to see Balanchine's version of the Tchaikovsky classic at the New York City Ballet. But I do remember that every December for many years my Aunt Mary would take my sisters and me to see "The Nutcracker" at Lincoln Center's New York State Theater.

My sisters, Jana and Gina, would bring a pair of binoculars — not opera glasses, mind you, but the very same field glasses they took to Yankee Stadium — the better to ogle the male dancers. (As children, Jana and Gina always had an unusual take on culture, particularly Jana, who used to hide out in the Egyptian wing of The Metropolitan Museum of Art at closing time to see if the mummies would arise from their sarcophagi and who once threw a gum-wrapper into a Frank Stella sculpture at the Whitney Museum of American Art, mistaking it for a wastepaper basket. Today, she works for the federal government. Parents of the culturally challenged, I say to you: Take heart.)

Anyway, I too, was not above a little admiration of the male form. After "The Nutcracker," we'd all compare notes over hot-fudge sundaes at the old St. Moritz hotel. Those were good times.

The years went by, and so, too, did my sisters, to other cities and other lives. "The Nutcracker" became for my aunt and myself a duet in reverse. Where once she took me, I now took her, often in my capacity as a critic. And where I once blithely passed over the work — in the too-cool manner of teenagers, who find such stuff old-fashioned — I now appraised it with a more appreciative eye.

Far from being essentially a children's entertainment, "The Nutcracker" is a complex adult drama of transformation through love, with Tchaikovsky's richly symphonic score lending itself to all kinds of interpretations.

I can still see Gelsey Kirkland and Anthony Dowell in Mikhail Baryshnikov's Freudian version at The Metropolitan Opera House one May in the late 1970s. I still get a certain frisson from that spring performance.

"The Nutcracker" rightly, of course, belongs to the spare season. I haven't seen it in a number of years. But at Christmastide it still warms my imagination.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Classic 'Tosca'

So The Metropolitan Opera is thinking of reviving the Franco Zeffirelli "Tosca," eh? (It would run concurrently with the less-than-appreciated new Luc Bondy production. Of course.)

You'll recall that the Bondy production, seen recently on PBS, was roundly booed on opening night for obviating the religious rituals integral to the title character and generally employing a cerebral approach antithetical to Tosca's impulsive nature. (I'm sorry but people just don't sit around after they've murdered someone, unless they're nuts or characters in an Edgar Allan Poe story.)

Then there were the sets — more Mussolini than Napoleon — although the costumes retained their Empire period. The whole thing made no sense, whereas the Zeffirelli production had passion and the architectural richness of the opera's neoclassical Roman setting.

This reminds me of one of my favorite stories, the tale of New and Classic Coke. Remember that one? We Coca-Cola lovers were all going to throw over crisp Classic Coke for sweeter, less zippy New Coke, much as we trade in people we love for new people we don't. (I wonder if the marketing genius behind this was ever fired.)

Anyway, it didn't happen. I don't drink much soda — calories, sugar, etc. But on Christmas I'm going to toast Zeffirelli's "Tosca" with a glass of Classic Coke.

You can't improve on a classic.

This reminds

Friday, December 18, 2009


If you're not busy getting your exercise with a shovel this snowy weekend, there's plenty to do artistically (though you might want to check ahead to see if your favorite galleries and performers are taking a snow day).

Through tomorrow, Westchester Community College in Valhalla presents student art in its Fine Arts Gallery. 914-606-7867,

Westchester Ballet Company offers "The Nutcracker at the Westchester County Center" in White Plains today through Sunday. 914-864-8077. (If you can't get to these performances but still want to see "The Nutcracker" locally, Ballet du Monde, the appropriately named international troupe, stages the Tchaikovsky classic Tuesday and Wednesday at Tarrytown Music Hall. 877-840-0457,

Last but certainly not least, the Dutch artist Wineke Gartz is making a name for herself with a sound and light show at the Arts Exchange in White Plains— home of my partner, ArtsWestchester — through Jan. 29. "Morgana, Plains, from silver to gold" is a series of painterly video installations that explores the Hudson Valley while also providing viewers with a portrait of the artist as a playful young woman. 914-428-4220,

Look for more on Gartz and her work in an upcoming post. Be safe in the snow!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Reading Elin

"Late Night" host and Westchester resident David Letterman — who likes to make not-so-subtle fun of women, among other subjects— said the other night that Elin Woods was not wearing a wedding ring in the paparazzi gas-station snap of her was because she's waiting for a much bigger rock.

She may indeed be expecting a "house on a finger," as some cynically refer to the consolation baubles cheating husbands give their wives. But if you have spent any time in the art world, then you that "reading" the photograph yields a very different interpretation.

Elin Woods is, after all, a former model, and all models understand the power of an image. The photograph in which Woods appears to be smiling for the intrusive shutterbug as she pumps gas, sans wedding ring, kids safely ensconced in the back seat of her car, is what the British call "gesture politics". It's meant to send a message to her husband and her supporters. It says, "I'm my own woman, my own person, and I can pump gas and take care of my kids as I journey down the road of life."

Gee, maybe someone should give good ole Dave a copy of Janson's "History of Art".

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

'Tosca' redux

Just a quick reminder that The Metropolitan Opera production of "Tosca" that was seen in October in local movie theaters will open the fourth season of THIRTEEN's "Great Performances at The Met" at 9 tonight.

For those who have the time, I have blogged about this in two previous posts. For the bottom-liners of the world, I thought Swiss director Luc Bondy's cerebral production did the opera's fervent heroine no service, though the singing by Karita Matilla, Marcelo Álvarez and George Gagnidze was marvelous.

There is one aspect of Bondy's production that does work and that's the chilling freeze-frame ending. See what you think.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Floral duet

Herein The Arts Muse institutes a new occasional feature, "Gallery Getaway," which spotlights a commercial or museum gallery that offers a mini-vacation in the mind for our troubled times.

Our first Gallery Getaway is to Madelyn Jordon Fine Art in Scarsdale, whose latest show is a conversation between the imaginations of a well-known painter and the sculptor he inspired.

"David Kimball Anderson & Morris Graves: A Unique Pairing" (through Jan. 9) juxtaposes Graves' floral paintings in various media with Anderson's steel and bronze floral sculptures. This is a marriage of true minds, in large part because Graves' floral works — which he concentrated on later in his career — are just so solid. In "Bouquet (begonia flowers)," a 1975 watercolor with tempera, you're always aware of the three-dimensionality of the cylindrical glass vase and of the begonias. That a sculptor should be enchanted with this is no surprise.

That Anderson should be that sculptor is also no surprise. There is an unusual delicacy to his steely blossoms in "Spring Flowers (strawberry flowers)," which sit in the kind of vase Graves often painted. Both works also have a spare Zen quality typical of these spiritual artists.

Graves (1910-2001), who began his career with a mystical bent, later rejected this in favor of the divinity of nature.

"There is no statement or message other than the presence of the flowers and light," he observed of his work. "That is enough."

Madelyn Jordon Fine Art is open 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. The small white and brick gallery, at 14 Chase Road, also houses colorful paintings by Wosene Worke Kosrof that evoke the masks and rich patterning of his native Ethiopia; vivid landscapes by Lawrence Kelsey; and works in an encaustic medium by Earl Schofield that perfectly suit our wintry season.

David Kimball Anderson's "Winter Bouquet," a 2009 bronze, steel and painted work (top left), appears courtesy of Madelyn Jordon Fine Art. Morris Graves' "Autumn Bouquet," a gouache on paper circa 1949 (top right), appears courtesy of the Spanierman Gallery.

Friday, December 11, 2009


There's an opening reception from 6 to 8:30 p.m. tomorrow for "POP UP 2: A Rotating Show of Selected Works by Don Penny" at the Perfume Shoppe in Briarcliff Manor.
The show runs through Jan. 15 at the shop, 1207 Pleasantville Road. For more, contact the gallery at 646-408-3560 or Penny at

If you can be in two places at once tomorrow night — and if you can, you're far more advanced than this blog — the PGartventure Gallery in Larchmont is opening a show of 28 etchings by master printmaker Horst Janssen (1929-1995). The reception is from 5 to 8 p.m., and the exhibit runs through Jan. 16. You'll find the gallery at 2130A Boston Post Road. 914-834-5100,

Also on tap is that holiday classic "Amahl and the Night Visitors." Purchase Opera, the college's fine student company, will present the Giancarlo Menotti work at 7 tonight in the Conservatory of Music Recital Hall. Tickets at the door are $15; $5 for children under age 16. Purchase College is on Anderson Hill Road between Purchase and King streets. 914-251-5909.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Not-so-private lives

Saw a story last night on WNBC-Channel 4 that really piqued my interest. It was about the artist Yasmine Chatila, who takes photographs of people — viewed without their knowledge through exposed windows — and then distorts them to create her art.

Her "Stolen Moments" are now on display at Edelman Arts in Manhattan. The TV station, of course, was primarily concerned with the privacy issue, raised in a man-on-the-street report with predictably mixed responses.

It's an intriguing question. Since Chatila manipulates the images so as to protect the identities of her subjects (and thus, herself), she is not, in a sense, recording their actual lives without their consent. Then again, there is an element of voyeurism — which is probably inherent in all art based on observation.

Still, there's something particularly creepy about spying on people for entertainment, à la James Stewart's laid-up shutterbug in "Rear Window." I bet the very arts lovers who'll be turning out to see Chatila's work would be horrified to be her unwitting muses.

There is another issue here, raised by one of the interviews in the news segment: What about the tacit cooperation of those who kiss, undress or perform other generally private acts with the shades up? Aren't they in a sense inviting the prying eye?

Well, they are. And I couldn't help but think of Tiger Woods' recent troubles as I saw these blurry photos, so reminiscent of Edward Hopper's poetic paintings of intimate aloneness. If you don't want people to know your business, you have to be very careful not to straddle the line between the private and the public. The minute you stand by a window naked — even if you're on the 50th floor — the minute you speed out of your driveway, or create a squeaky-clean persona for the purpose of making money off consumers, you're no longer in the cocoon of the private realm.

As I wrote about President Clinton at the time of Monica-gate, private acts tend to have very public consequences.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

More than two to tango

With the weather cooling off — brrrr! — it's good that the recital season is heating up at the Music Conservatory of Westchester in White Plains.

The conservatory presents sizzling melodies in the form of a concert exploring the tango in a chamber setting at 7 p.m. tomorrow. Students Kathy Adorney, Zach Berro, Nancy Goodman, Clayton Heydorn, Michael Martinez and Chris Wessman will be performing original works and arrangements by fellow student and Port Chester resident Marco Valentino Quartero (pictured), who'll also play. The concert is free.

Can't make it tomorrow? The conservatory follows up the tango recital with a holiday jazz concert on Friday.

You'll find the conservatory at 216 Central Avenue (in a revamped building that was once the home of the Department of Motor Vehicles). 914-761-3900,

Photo courtesy of the Music Conservatory of Westchester.

Monday, December 7, 2009


Not long ago, I had a conversation with Westchester collagist Nancy Egol Nikkal — home in Hastings-on-Hudson, studio in the Media Loft in New Rochelle — a woman who is as comfortable discussing philosophy and literature as she is art.

She told me she and many of her artists-friends take great pleasure in Twitter — a vehicle for communication that I have never personally explored. Still, that doesn't mean I don't have some opinions on it. (If you're a reader of this blog, you know that lack of information or experience has never been a deterrent to my opining.)

It's not that I don't tweet, because I'm against Twitter. Indeed, I think it's a marvelous tool, particularly when no other means of communication exists. Think of the recent, aborted Iranian uprising. Without Twitter, we wouldn't have had a blow-by-blow account of what was happening. Now imagine if we had had Twitter as Alexander the Great — a great letter-writer, speech-maker, log-keeper and propagandist — conquered the Persian Empire. Or if Twitter had been with the soldiers on Omaha Beach. Heady stuff for historians.

But what may be a boon to one profession — there's even been a Twitter opera — has already proved tricky for another. Recently, The New York Times had a story about a Broadway casting director who got into trouble for her tweets about actors at auditions. You don't have to be an arts critic to know that simply because you're not right for one role doesn't mean you lack talent. By sending out tweets during auditions, she was prejudicing the chances of rejected performers getting other jobs.

My lack of interest in tweeting is both professional and philosophical. For one thing, there is a terrible air of desperation surrounding the media's use of it. "Follow us on Twitter!" now seems to end every newscast. (Why don't the anchormen and women just say, "Ooh, love me, love me, love me." ) Even John McLaughlin of the syndicated "The McLaughlin Group"— the grumpiest of grumpy old men, whom I adore — is on Twitter. Hey, if you're not on Twitter, you're not cool. You're out of the loop.

Yeah, right. Listen, young people — who use Twitter and Facebook for social networking — are not interested in old media. If artists want to use Twitter to exchange ideas and support one another, fine. But you'd have to show me the numbers that prove Twitter advances either network ratings or newspaper subscriptions.

The main reason I don't tweet is that I believe in what Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis once said: "I want to live my life, not record it."

If you're always busy observing what you're doing, you're not actually living in the moment doing it.

Yes, of course, a good deal of writing involves observation and reflection. But Ashton Kutcher letting the world know that he's having a bagel is hardly Emily Brontë. In the words of H.L. Mencken (or Truman Capote, I've seen the remark attributed to both): "That's not writing. It's typing."

In the end, what matters is not whether you tweet or send long missives. It's what you have to say and how you say it.

Friday, December 4, 2009


What to Do This Weekend celebrates the season with some quintessential pleasures and an esteemed local author.
First, it's time once again to go nutty for "The Nutcracker." The Purchase Dance Corps — Purchase College's highly polished student troupe — presents the Tchaikovsky chestnut (at right), based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's tale of love and transformation, tonight through Sunday. 914-251-6200.
Meanwhile, you'll find hundreds of ceramic gift items this weekend at the Clay Art Center in Port Chester as the center offers its "Clay-Holiday: Annual Studio Tour and Sale." 914-937-2047,
Take a break from the hustle and bustle of the holidays with New Rochelle's Cynthia Ozick (right). The short-story writer, novelist and essayist will be reading at the Pelham Art Center Sunday from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. as part of a new collaboration between the center and the Hudson Valley Writers' Center. It's also one of the many free cultural events taking place around Westchester County Sunday as my partner, ArtsWestchester, once again sponsors Free Arts Day.914-738-2525,;

I've had the privilege of interviewing Ozick twice and have always been fascinated by her combination of formidable intellect and girlish charm.

I trust you will be, too.

Photos courtesy of Purchase College and the Pelham Art Center.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Wrath of Kali

New criticism of a Hindu-inspired painting that's part of the Neuberger Museum of Art's show on British self-portraiture illustrates the challenge of using religion in art.

The painting, "Housewives With Steak Knives" (1985) by Sutapa Biswas — herself a Hindu — depicts the artist as Kali, a form of Hinduism's Divine Mother Goddess, Durga. As such, Kali has both a creative and destructive aspect. But her destructiveness is often used in service of mankind. Manuela Dunn Mascetti's book "The Song of Eve: An Illustrated Journey Into the Myths, Symbols and Rituals of the Goddess" (Fireside), for instance, recounts a story in which the many-armed Kali springs forth from Durga's brow to combat demonic forces in the world.

Biswas' painting takes off on the notion of Kali as a potent defender of the innocent to create a metaphor of female empowerment, particularly in the face of domestic violence.

The artist-as-Kali wears a necklace from which hang the heads of some of history's most infamous figures, including Adolf Hitler. In one of her several hands, she holds a flag that reproduces two works by the Italian Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi on the theme of the Israelite heroine Judith beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes. (You'll recall that Gentileschi was raped by her artist-father's apprentice and then tortured to make sure she was telling the truth. The symbolism of her Judith art is lost on no one.)

And it would seem to fit perfectly with Biswas' work: Two artists looking to courageous female figures for inspiration and succor.

But Bhavne Shinde — writing on behalf of, which has requested the removal of "Housewives" — says "Depicting the Deity as a gruesome figure as in this painting amounts to irreverence and trivialization of the sacred deity."

In a statement that was included in a letter that Neuberger director Thom Collins sent to Shinde, Biswas refutes the idea that her painting is offensive to Hindus:

"It falls completely within the paradigms of the imaginative space that exists within the Hindu faith. In other words, there is not one god, but thousands, and a god can take many forms — we are all sacred in our ways, and capable of good and evil....The narrative of Kali within Hindu culture is a complex one."

Collins goes on to write: "In light of this clarification, I hope you will agree that, far from simply casting the goddess Kali in a negative light, 'Housewives With Steak Knives' is a complex and potentially revelatory instance of self-identification and self-fashioning by a very talented Indian artist imagining herself as part of several rich and mutually imbricated histories and cultural traditions."

In a follow-up to an e-mail in which I posed several questions, Shinde tells The Arts Muse that in Hindu depictions, form is crucial, since it determines whether pure or impure vibrations are sent out into the universe. "Housewives," she says, is in essence a kind of spiritual noise.

I can't argue with Shinde here, even though I think "Housewives" is a compelling representation of female courage in the face of male domination. If Shinde as a Hindu believes the painting gives off bad energy, well, she's entitled to her beliefs as well as her artistic opinions, just as I'm not crazy about another work in the exhibit, Angus Fairhurst's "Pietà," a 1996 Cibachrome print in which he casts himself as Jesus (OK) and a model in a gorilla suit as the Virgin Mary (not OK in my book).

Shinde, who writes that no faith should be trivialized, adds that "the artist when depicting religous symbols or concepts should be knowledgeable in that religion (not just born in it) in the sense of being a devoted practitioner of its concepts and a student of that religion."

I don't agree with the latter part of this statement, for it robs art of the bridge that is the imagination. Without that bridge, Marc Chagall, a Jew, would've never accepted a commission to do stained-glass windows at Reims Cathedral. And he would've never created the moving "White Crucifixion," in which the crucified Jesus becomes a symbol of Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis.

You don't have to embrace a religion to create a work about it. But you do have to respect it.

Whether or not "Housewives With Steak Knives" respects Hinduism remains and should remain open to debate.

No doubt, artists will continue to provoke with their treatments of religious figures and stories, as they have always done.

And given the highly personal nature of both art and religion, we will continue to find offense in these works.

"Housewives With Steak Knives" remains part of "British Subjects: Identity and Self-Fashioning 1967-2009," on view through Dec. 13 at Purchase College's Neuberger Museum of Art. 914-251-6100,