Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 1998
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JUNE 1998

H U M A N I T I E S    &    T H E   A R T S

Art's descent to "theatricality"... humanities exchange takes shape... a long- awaited poem... pulling no punches

Fried (far right) in the studio of Anthony Caro (far left) and Jan Isherwood.
Photo courtesy Michael Fried
Looking back on "the buzz"

Before he made his mark as an art historian, Michael Fried was an art critic. During the 1960s, Fried, who is the J.R. Herbert Boone Professor of Humanities at Hopkins, was intensely involved in viewing and writing criticism of that period's Modernist art. He published criticism from 1962 to 1977.

Like his mentor Clement Greenberg, Fried wrote what he terms "evaluative criticism." Explains Fried: "There can be great paintings of various types, but some works are better than other works. The crucial thing, always, is, 'What makes it a good painting? What makes it a painting that matters?' That's what criticism like this is trying to articulate. At every point you're asking yourself the question, 'How good is this?'"

Fried, who recently collected his criticism in Art and Objecthood (University of Chicago Press, 1998), contends that evaluative criticism has gone out of fashion in the ensuing decades.

One afternoon in April, he sat down for lunch at the Baltimore Museum of Art to offer a retrospective on the writing he'd done 20 to 30 years ago.

Fried said he was lucky to be among a small handful of critics who "were in a position to champion significant new developments in art"--such as work by Modernists Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, and Frank Stella. His early criticism, he said, was much influenced by Greenberg. "In some ways I was virtually apprenticed to him. I sought him out when I was 19, and was reading him from my teens on. I looked at a lot of art with him. He had a great eye. He's arguably the foremost art critic of the 20th century, and I learned a tremendous amount."

When minimalism began to attract attention in the 1960s with its extreme simplicity of form and literal approach, Fried opposed what he called its "theatricality"--the way in which the event surrounding the exhibition of the work became as important as the work itself.

"When you went into a gallery and saw a show by Donald Judd or Bob Morris, there was a definite buzz that got set up. I would walk in and think, 'There's something wrong with this buzz. I'm suspicious of it,'" said Fried. "It had to do with a total control of the mise-en-scène, and of making that situation the primary thing, as distinct from the work itself. What's happened in the 30 years since is the most massive infusion of theatricality that one could ever imagine."

Fried's title essay, "Art and Objecthood," generated its own buzz when it came out in 1967. "It's the most polemical of all these essays. It champions the art that I admired, but it also comes out against minimalism at a crucial early moment. Some people absolutely hate it. It's an essay that almost no one agrees with."

Fried describes the 1960s as "the last great moment in Modernist art. There's very little patience today for the kind of art I was talking about. I feel that most people aren't interested in art at all, in a demanding sense. I don't care whether it's painting or poetry or music or film. The idea of caring whether something is good, for how it works, the kind of involvement that art characteristically demands and rewards, has really gone out. For me that's a loss." --DK

Widening the humanities circle

Scholarly exchange in the humanities is taking a new shape: a circle. The newly created Hopkins Center for Research on Culture and Literature (CRCL, pronounced "circle") is expected to bring a broader range of scholars to campus to speak about research (in philosophy, history of art, English, and other disciplines) by setting up a selection committee from various departments.

Other goals include creating an undergraduate honors seminar led by a postdoctoral fellow who will be named in a national competition, and setting up an interdisciplinary seminar for advanced graduate students in the early stages of their dissertations. The center is meant to formalize the sorts of exchanges that already have a haphazard, sporadic presence here. "For a long time, Hopkins has had a lot of exchanges and seminars done as an informal, extracurricular thing," says Frances Ferguson, professor of English and the humanities. "We hope that this circle will really highlight that feature of Hopkins and provide more of an impetus for us to talk to one another even when we are in different departments." --JPC

A poem worth waiting for

John Irwin doesn't believe in rushing a work to completion. His last book, The Mystery to a Solution, took 13 years to write. His newest volume, the forthcoming book-length narrative poem Just Let Me Say This About That (Overlook Press, 1998) took 15. "As it went along," Irwin says of his latest effort, "I liked it so much I didn't want it to be over. Two thousand and seventy-six lines later, it came to an end."

Just Let Me Say This About That, in the course of those 2,076 lines, is witty, wrenching, sardonic, and mischievous. Irwin, who is Hopkins's Decker Professor of the Humanities and former chairman of The Writing Seminars, structures the poem as a press conference in which Bird, Fox, and Fish pose questions to Sir. In a one-paragraph foreword, Irwin states that Sir is either "God, the President of the United States, everybody's father, or a combination of the three."

The press conference begins:

Butt ache and backache back up and the great
Rent in the great veil rising at an annual rate
Of ten percent, a short fall in the long term,

A headlock in the third fall from the huge
Shoes of the dead, sharp bursitis and the shopping mall,
Some say, have you stumped. Sir, a comment?

To which Sir responds: "Mr. Bird, isn't it? Let me say this about that."

To summarize all that is discussed in the press conference would give too much away. But Sir has a good time jousting with his questioners, and disturbing them with tales as awful in their details as they are robust in their telling. When Fish asks for a conceivable reality and a plan to reach it, Sir responds that what Fish really wants is hope. Sir has none of that, he says, speaking as if God. But he does have plenty of rules, he announces cheerfully. Bird, Fox, and Fish end up fleeing the conference when Sir announces that nothing gives him that special thrill like going out and killing something.

The poem began with a line in a story by Irwin's Writing Seminars colleague Steven Dixon: "Sameness and simple sleep." Says Irwin, "I thought it was a very good line, that if lengthened to 10 syllables would be the last of the repeating lines in a villanelle." But he couldn't think of a second line. Then, just as he was falling asleep one night, six lines came to him all at once. They bore no relation to the villanelle he'd been imagining, but he liked them. He began to wonder what sort of character might say them, and in what situation? Fifteen years later, he finally had a full answer.

The book will be published under Irwin's nom de plume, John Bricuth, in a press run of 10,000, which is large for a new volume of poetry. It is the first in a new line called the Sewanee Writer's Series.

Irwin has begun to write a new narrative poem, featuring the same characters but in new roles. This one will be about every aspect of marriage. Its setting? Divorce court.

And will it take as long to write? Irwin hopes not. He's completing a volume on the writer Hart Crane and would like to finish the second poem in about five years. He doesn't want to rush it, but as he says, "I don't know how many more 15-year projects I have in me." --DK

Photo by Jay Van Rennselaer
An opera born out of addiction

It takes fingers from both hands to count the number of friends Paul Kopchinski '98 has lost to drug addiction. That grim accounting has found expression in a one-act opera, ...of Metal and Flesh, composed by the Peabody undergraduate. "It was something very personal and close to me," he says. "I am not trying to preach to anybody, but I was trying to pull no punches. It's a tragic love story, but it's also a commentary on a current issue."

Kopchinski (left), a composition major, wrote the opera during the past year, aided by a Provost's Undergraduate Research Award. It follows the characters of struggling writer Kryzstof and his live-in girlfriend, Anastasia, through nine scenes. Both are recreational drug users, but Kryzstof becomes addicted. "The story line is this journey of going from recreational use to addict. The battle that you see on stage is going on in his mind. There are two other characters: I took temptation and addiction and gave them physical presence in the opera," says Kopchinski.

His opera is scored for four voices and a small orchestra of mostly strings and brass. "On the whole it's a very dark opera. I used the highest and lowest register instruments of the orchestra. Not only do you get the extremes, you can have them work against each other." The opera is not set in any specific time; the costumes are meant to resemble Victorian dress, but the sets evoke an Orwellian, 1984 sensation.

Kopchinski brings more than the experiences of his friends to his composition. He brings his own struggle with heroin. He says, "I don't have a problem telling people about my addiction. It's something that I battled, and I've gotten over it and moved on, and learned from the experience. I went through a period of about a year when I had a drug problem. My character in the opera actually dies. That's where the character stops being me."

He hopes to stage the opera, though he questions whether he'll do so at Peabody. "Peabody is sort of a conservative environment, especially when it comes to opera. I'm trying to do a very graphic representation of drug addiction, which includes the main characters shooting drugs. I think my best bet is to look at independent theater." --DK

Written by Joanne P. Cavanaugh and Dale Keiger.