Joplin, Ditto, Duchamp, Machu Picchu, more!

A few random events that caught our eye.

images-2.jpg Is writing about visual art just getting worse and worse? That’s what Eric Gibson, the Wall Street Journal’s Leisure and Arts feature editor, contends
in a column today
. Look, I know what he means, and I don’t disagree with his primary charges (actually, he employs several other writers to make his case for him) — that arts writing often takes hundreds, if not thousands, of messy, imprecise words to make the very simplest points. Use fewer words and/or have better thoughts.

But I don’t buy the conclusions he draws from reading impenetrable criticism (the Whitney Biennial catalog is the case study). First, he blames the “unwitting” Marcel Duchamp for the current state of affairs. Come on, was Duchamp ever unwitting about anything? Gibson suggests that Duchamp introduced “philosophy” into “art,” and that gave critics the license to abandon good old-fashioned aesthetics for philosophical riffs. Decay then set it. Then obfuscation. We note that Gibson uses the word riff here as a pejorative, and so Art Scatter must take offense. After all, we are nothing if not a collection of riffs! We’re just trying to make the clear riffs, no matter how half-baked. And we love to read riffing in others, something maybe that applies Lacan, say, to Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Long live Slavoj Zizek!

Admittedly, since the recent discovery of very early human DNA in the Paisley Caves of south-central Oregon, which we, um, riffed on in Cave doings, Art Scatter has had artifacts on its mind. So, we were attracted to the announcement yesterday that Peruvian researchers have counted more than 40,000 objects in the collection of Machu Picchu artifacts taken by Hiram Bingham in the early 1900s (after he “re-discovered” the site) and delivered to his alma mater, Yale University. That would be about 10 times what Yale said it possessed. The university and Peru reached a complex agreement last year that involves repatriation of the objects, the construction of a museum, research rights for Yale, etc., and the first step was this cataloging. So, it’s too bad things that Peru has reason to be immediately distrustful of Yale, still, more than a century later. Just for the record: Our new arts-based foreign policy initiative would have directed the U.S. to help Peru preserve, study, display and otherwise broadcast its Incan art heritage once we learned about it, not colonize the best bits. Here’s hoping, along with Eliane Karp-Toledo (writing in the Times in February), that Yale acts responsibly from here on out.

Beth Ditto continued her conquest of the national media with a cover story in the New York Times art section Thursday. The Portland-based, um, songbird songbird impressed Times critic Nate Chinen, who said her “overheated yowl can suggest a Janis Joplin for the post-punk age.” Sounds about right, though I guess I have a hard time thinking of this as the “post-punk age” (more like the “Eve of Destruction”). Ditto grew up in Arkansas, in the neighborhood at least of Joplin (Port Arthur, Texas), and yes, possesses a similar yowl. Joplin was blues-based, though, while Ditto comes by her onstage demonic possession via a different route. (I’d love to read a good take on the relation of punk to blues — has anyone made a convincing connection?) The primary difference? To me, Joplin was all about personal hunger and loss (until her “middle-aged” last record, Pearl, made before she died at 27), and Ditto is more about service to her listeners and her values (which include the importance of diversity, tolerance, the courage to express yourself — Janice would have approved). But when it comes down to it, I just like to listen to both of them sing…

Note: Machu Picchu photo from Wikipedia