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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

 

Books

Taking charge of a controversial government agency in 1993 presented the actress Jane Alexander with the toughest role of her career. She tells all—well, almost—in "Command Performance."

Photography
At New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art, a retrospective of Edward Steichen lets us see, once again, the world through his lens.

And Consider This
"Best In Show", a spoof of people and their prize-winning dogs wins the blue ribbon; with a smart essay and 41 plates, the catalogue for the Steichen show at the Whitney Museum is a keeper.

BOOKS
Lady, Take a Bow

Command Performance

by Jane Alexander
Public Affairs; $25; 335 pages 

   When President Clinton asked Jane Alexander to head the National Endowment for the Arts in 1993, she was eminently qualified and at the same time way out of her depth. Let's first look at her qualifications: a disciplined, intelligent and respected actress, she had a distinguished stage, film and TV career that included playing Eleanor Roosevelt. Her passion for the arts was unquestioned, and her considerable charm would certainly prove to be of benefit in dealing with the conservative lions in Congress. To them, the NEA was prey ready to be pounced on and finished off. All this did in the end work in her favor, but like anyone coming to work in Washington as an outsider, she was innocent of the real workings of politics in the Capitol. To use a theater metaphor, the script was always changing and what was happening behind the scenes was much more important than what the audience eventually saw. To her credit, Alexander proved a quick study and by the time she left in 1997 she had delivered a knockout performance and prevented the destruction of her beleaguered agency. On the stage, it would have won her lusty cheers and prolonged applause. Her shrewd and revealing book about the experience is subtitled "An Actress in the Theater of Politics,'' and it is part memoir, part dish, and part eyewitness account of the well-greased wheels and murky deals of government. The parts all add up to an enlightening and engrossing whole that is especially timely in the election year. 
     Before Alexander's watch at the NEA, the agency looked as if it would fall victim to the culture wars. In full cry, the righteous right was denouncing the use of public money to sponsor the work of artists it deemed obscene and unworthy. Alexander's mission: defuse the situation and provide a more sanitized NEA. Warmer, fuzzier. She threw herself into the task, crisscrossing the country to see for herself the impact of NEA grants on organizations and communities and forming grass-roots support. Trying to play nice, she came in for criticism from both sides: some in the art world believed that she went too far with compromising. In her own defense, she writes that it is not possible "to be in politics and not compromise within an inch of your life.'' To some extremists on the religious right, she was a focus of hatred. She relates how, riding to visit an NEA-sponsored exhibit in Topeka's Museum of History, she was greeted along the road by a small group of people, some of them young children, holding signs that read "FAG-JANE-NEA" or "WHORE-JANE-NEA.'' 
    Like a novice actress making the rounds of agents, Alexander dutifully trotted off to make her pitch for the arts to Senators and Representatives. "I often felt like a serf,'' she writes. "When you want something badly enough you grovel.'' Alexander names names, pointing with gratitude to those --Hillary Clinton, Nancy Kassebaum, Ted Kennedy and Louise Slaughter, among them--who offered generous advice and support, and singling out those who demonstrated and arrogance and pride in their own cluelessness. Sonny Bono, newly elected to Congress, declared to her that he had never met anyone who received an NEA grant, thus implying it was worthless. Gathering ammunition, Alexander enlisted celebrity aid to speak up for the NEA on Capitol Hill. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, playwright Wendy Wasserstein and writer Walter Mosley answered the call, as did Melanie Griffith. While Newt Gingrich had not deigned to schedule an appointment with Alexander, the NEA chairman, he was thrilled to meet the Hollywood star, flirting with her and saying there was a part for in the film version of his novel. When Gingrich finally arranged to meet Alexander, she realized that as she had suspected the NEA itself was unimportant to him,  "but it was a pawn in the game and he would use it in any way he needed. If it could be a bone to throw to the rabid young bucks in the House, then so it would be.'' Our tax dollars at work. 
     From the beginning until the end of her tenure, Alexander tried to be faithful to the statement she had made at her confirmation hearings, when she called the arts "part of the solutions to our problems, and not, in any way, part of the problem.'' Her goal achieved for the most part, she left her post in 1997, resuming her acting career and seeking a spiritual and aesthetic solace not easily found in Washington. "The men in power in the Congress of the United States were men of little minds," she sums up. "They dwelt on their fears of obscenity and perversity, diminishing us all with their myopia.''  Though her comment refers to the past, it could just as well apply to the present and, unfortunately, perhaps the future as well. 

Photography

Shadows and Substance
 

Edward Steichen
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City

    This is what happened to 20th century art. The divisions between high and popular that had long existed in the old mediums of painting, sculpture and music crumbled like a cracker. And in contemporary forms--film and photography--the lines were blurred almost from their beginning. The long arc of Edward Steichen's career illustrates how photography mingled aesthetic taste and mass appeal and was given the added spice of commercialism. An exhibit of Steichen's work, on view through February 4 at Manhattan's Whitney Museum of American Art (www.whitney.org), is a superb retrospective--the first since 1961--of this 20th century innovator and master whose influence on modern photography can still be seen. Steichen made some of the most recognized faces of his times into icons and imparted elegance to fashion photography at the same time as he took advantage of the effect of photographs on public conscience and opinion. 
     Steichen (1879-1973) was a painter before he was a photographer, and early works in the 1900s as a leading American artist have a brush-and-canvas quality in their moody, twilight-diffused landscapes and portraits with muted detail and smooth blending of light and shadow. At the Whitney, they are in stark contrast to a signature Steichen style of later years: sharp focus and dramatic interplays between black and white with a subject emerging from the background with total clarity. By the 20s Steichen was turning away from an enclosed, hothouse way of seeing the world and re-making himself into objective observer of nature. The real and the sensual are combined in a black-and white shot of a halved avocado that is a virtuosic display of succulent flesh and in a picture of a lotus blossom's curved and delicately veined petals reaching upward to the sun. Pure design in photography captivates his imagination, and he examines the complexity of simple shapes in an aggregation of empty clay flowerpots of an arrangement of wooden matches and finds a geometric eternity in an assortment of mothballs and sugar cubes. 
     As a longtime photographer for Vogue and celebrity portraitist for Vanity Fair, Steichen became the highest paid photographer in the nation. Carefully deploying studio lighting he imparted an enviable glamour to models and the clothing they inhabited, and gave famous faces--Garbo, Churchill, Dietrich, Gershwin--a compelling authority. They are like gods and goddesses from a now distant past, but we can see them and their vanished world again through his remarkable lens. In 1955, he presided over "The Family of Man'' exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, celebrating brotherhood, democracy and the deep human ties between all people. It was a landmark show that drew record crowds and went on to tour the country and the world. Later it was criticized as a blindly optimistic and sentimental advertisement of middle-class American values that ignored the real pain and poverty of the planet. The "Family of Man" examples at the Whitney are sad reminders that 45 years later, the "family" is still dysfunctional and far from united.
 

And Consider This

Film

Best in Show
Directed by Christopher Guest; Written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy

     Anyone who has ever attended a dog show or trotted around the ring on the human side of the leash will confirm that people who lust after the blue ribbon for their pups are a breed unto themselves. In this hilarious "mockumentary'' by Christopher Guest, the dogs in the fictitious Mayflower Dog Show in Philadelphia are just fine, solid citizens oblivious to the eccentricities of their people and the mayhem going on around them. (Though one dog does protest loudly againstIt is the owners who are nervous or giddy or none-too-bright or overly agitated. 
     By the time the competition gets underway, we have gotten to know the Southern good ol' boy with his bloodhound, the gay duo with the beribboned Shi Tzu, the Weimaraner-owning Yuppie duo, the dim-witted bimbo proud of her extremely coifed white poodle, and the credit-card-challenged married couple with their Norwich terrier. Commenting on the contest is an announcer blithely unaware of his own ignorance about dogs and pleased as punch with his inane observations. 
     Director Guest spoofed rock groups in This Is Spinal Tap, and here he is as patient and friendly toward his characters as the family golden retriever. Best in Show is a gentle, affectionate satire on the follies and foolishness of human relationships--with or without dogs. Oh, to see ourselves as other see us, and Guest does.

Books

Edward Steichen by Barbara Haskell
(Whitney Museum of American Art; $12.95; 128 pages)

The 41 plates in this excellent paperback catalogue for the Whitney's photographic retrospective span Steichen's career, starting with an ephemeral 1901 nude and ending with an intense 1940 color shot of a pink lotus. In between you will find Leslie Howard insouciant in top hat and tails, Gloria Swanson staring out behind a curtain of lace, a fashion model posed on a staircase and reflected in a series of mirrors. Handsomely printed, it's a valuable collection of some of the master's handiwork and is available from the museum's shop. Along with a chronology and bibliography, Whitney curator Haskell has written a smart re-appraisal of Steichen, noting the criticism that has developed over the years but declaring that "the imagery and message changed, but his work always caught the mood of its time.''

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