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IDLE CHATTER
Field notes on arts, culture, and everything else from our critic-at-large.
Age of Loneliness Marguerite Yourcenar's Coup de Grâce is a great World War I book. Except it isn't about World War I.
Cutting Edge A century later, it's harder to see the Panama Canal as fantastical. But it took many more centuries before even the idea of connecting oceans could arise.
Home Again On the 75th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, remembering that there's no place like home – and nothing like leaving it.
Face Off Did the invention of photography kill the painted portrait? Of course not.
Cooling Off At the National Portrait Gallery, exploring the birth, burden, and death of American cool.
Our Apples, Ourselves Cézanne set out to astonish Paris with an apple. In a new exhibition of his still lifes at the Barnes Foundation, we see that he was also grasping for the infinite.
Make It New Pre-Raphaelite art may read as more kitsch than revolution. But sometimes, to move forward, you have to look back.
Guilt Trap Twenty years after Nicole Brown Simpson's murder, thoughts on Socrates, St. Augustine, If I Did It, and the nature of guilt.
Into the Black Until an illness drove him mad, Goya was simply a Spanish court painter. But in his portraits of the Altamira family, had the darkness already begun to stir?
No Regrets Jasper Johns' latest show at MoMA reminds us that sometimes with art, the meaning is found in the making.
When Hitler Was Curator The "Degenerate Art" exhibition at the Neue Galerie is full of easy truths. But let the disquiet emerge.
A Report from the Bayou Thoughts on the Fall and the Flood in Cajun Country.
From the Ashes What plaster casts from Pompeii tell us about death...and life.
The Spirit of Youth What was so new about Futurism? 
A Splash of Cold Water On the appeal of Giacomo Leopardi's Zibaldone.
Vermeer and the Threshold Considering the tension between concentration and self-awareness.
Sweeping Smooth Every kind of movement on ice is delightful. But ice dancing, pure and elegant, is the most wonderful of all.
A Brush with Evil Wondering more about the Coen Brothers’ latest film? Don’t ask them; they’re not talking.
Jerk Reaction It’s always disconcerting to discover a favorite writer was kind of a jerk. How does this realization affect our understanding of Walter Benjamin’s work?
Visits from Christmas Past When we think about Christmas in conjunction with the life of Christ we remember exactly how painful this time of year can be.
Searching for Michelangelo Michelangelo’s most famous work doesn’t show us anything about the life of the artist himself. For those works, he had to understand suffering first.
City Views Forget what Léger can offer the city; what can the city offer the painter?
Don't Trust the Painting Magritte taught us to distrust the painting. In doing so, he taught us something about the world.
Information Overload What did Tom Clancy and David Foster Wallace have in common? Not much… but they were both obsessed with packing in all the facts.
Context and Crucifixes Amidst an international artistic shunning of meaning and symbolism, Marc Chagall stuck to what he loved: villages and Christ.
Writing and Whistle-Blowing What does George Orwell have in common with Edward Snowden? They’ve both been trapped in bad situations.
The Storytellers 150 years after the death of Jacob Grimm, here’s what really happened with that princess and the pesky frog.
An Opportunity for Renewal Selling masterpieces from the DIA won't save Detroit from their enormous debt, but maybe some humility might help.
The Inner Light Meditating from the floor of the Guggenheim with James Turrell's "Aten Reign"
Worship at Tiffany's Color, light, impurity, and devotion in Louis Comfort Tiffany's forgotten chapel.
Of Harmony and Regret Albert Bierstadt captured an Emersonian scene of the Hetch Hetchy Canyon, a scene we can no longer see.
Surrender to Proust 100 years since Swann’s Way was first published, the work still baffles us. Maybe the best way to enjoy it is to relinquish our usual sensibilities.
The Death Instinct Punk is boredom, nihilism, and death. So is fashion.
The First New Atheist 200 years after his birth, Kierkegaard’s philosophies are more relevant than ever.
The Painter in Chief George W. Bush’s leaked paintings may seem out of character, but they remind us that he is first and foremost a realist.
Heart of Lightness The late Chinua Achebe leveled some serious criticisms at Joseph Conrad — but perhaps, the two authors are simply opposites.
Get Your Story Straight Was Fort Lauderdale the site of a Seminole massacre? Or is Florida just confused?
Art at the Altar Piero della Francesca, painter and mathematician, used every trick he had to move his viewers, both literally and figuratively.
Do Not Open Until An exhibit encapsulating 1993 also captures the freedom, and the anxiety, of post-historical art.
Transcending Matter The Ashcan painters may have “lost” most battles during their time, but we should remember them by their goal: to paint the force of life.
Outside the Lines The Abstract painters blurred the boundary between science and spiritual, and aimed to portray the essence of reality through color.
Rage Against the Machine 200 years ago, the Luddites tried to stop technological progress. They didn’t succeed.
The Mystery of Faith In creating a work that portrays real internal struggle and transformation, Caravaggio converted painting.
The Secular Saint In the process of secularization we've confused artists with saints, but saints don't retire.
The Art of Shame Marcel Duchamp moved beyond medium to capture something transcendental.
Camera Obscura The camera never lies, so we’ve been altering photographs to suit our needs since the invention of photography itself.
The Art of the Art Heist Was the Rotterdam museum robbery a smash-and-grab or the work of a rogue Symbolist collector? Consider the de Haan...
20th Century Man Eric Hobsbawm: A communist, but not an idealist; a historian above the fray.
Taking Flight Saint Francis knew it and so does Jonathan Franzen —  to get the most out of life, you've got to live like a bird.
Macho Man We remember critic Robert Hughes’ swagger and boldness, but maybe that was necessary to drag art back to where it belongs.
Final Rap The death of the Beastie Boys.
A Question of Timing On the appeal of Detroit ''ruin porn,'' Anselm Kiefer's concrete cities, and the Rapture.
Oh My God Frans Hals' work is a grand experiment in non-religious art, yet it still pays tribute to God.
Design-speak ''Talk to Me'' at MoMA believes that augmenting communication improves communication. So why the feelings of loss and confusion, then?
Go East Our culture values the personal identity. ''Ostalgia'' at the New Museum explores a time and place that did not.
A Life of "E"s The Abstract Expressionists found meaning in lines and form and color. Cy Twombly looked to letters.
Eleven Steps Forward... With The Pale King, David Foster Wallace came very close to the end of his self-designed treatment. After his death, the novel may help us in ours.
The Naked Truth The subjects of Boris Mikhailov's photographs do not reflect a time of pre-shame in their nakedness, but a condition of shamelessness.
To Whit' The Whitney Museum is getting a new building. So long, Modernism. Hello, uh...
The Smile Some madmen choose to scream and pound fists, but bin Laden stayed calm and smiled. There is a lesson in such a choice.
Poetry: A Defense? How does David Orr explain what poetry is? By describing everything it isn't.
Modern Times Arthur Rimbaud wrote more than a century ago, yet his feeling of being absolutely modern and not knowing what to do about it remains with us today.
The Power of Ruins Humans have always mused on civilization's rubble. Nuclear power plants are particularly captivating: Every one is a ruin in the making.
This Is Your Brain on Art Is a scientific theory for artistic experience possible? Maybe, but such gains in knowledge inevitably entail a loss.
Reading Qaddafi Qaddafi's The Green Book might seem to be a bizarre work, but it rests comfortably in the tradition of 20th-century Modernism.
Hubbard at 100 L. Ron Hubbard's career as a pulp writer seems like funny background material. But there would be no Dianetics without The Carnival of Fear.
The Dictator's Speech Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak does a lot of talking, but he doesn't say much. That's no way to dictate.
Old Man in Winter People often misconstrue the opening lines to Richard III. But they're right — winter is a time of discontent. The trick is finding contentment in discontent.
Review Stand The Times books section has asked what criticism means today. The answer: less authority, more freedom and integrity.
The Hopper Question You see that clown and think, This guy can't be serious. Can he?
Time for a Change The Pre-Raphaelites had a dilemma: How do you both escape modern times and celebrate extreme realism?
A Queer Thing The United States can't take credit for homosexuality. But as ''Hide/Seek'' at the National Portrait Gallery proves, the country deserves credit for gayness.
Hooked on Classics The classical world is still with us, though these days we may need a guide to find it. Enter The Classical Tradition.
Chewing the Fat The people of Antwerp roll their eyes over Rubens. But the rest of the world cares, and I want to know why.
The Cold Truth Despite all our attempts to find big meaning in Titanic, the ship offers just one simple lesson: mistakes happen.
Art vs. the World The art museum can be such a complex place. But then you look out the window...
Death to Belgium! Does the European Union render some nations useless? In other words, what's the point of Belgium?
Art of the Game Anything that consumes hundreds of hours is worthy of critical examination. Even video games. Maybe especially video games.
Photographic Memory We note American photography from Evans on for the subjects it captured. But more important may be the new structure of looking it created.
Greenwashing The Jan Vanriet show at Antwerp's Koninklijk Museum expects more of the visitor than almost any other (I'm looking at you, Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Art³ Working with cubes poses a big question: Do you launch from meaning or meaninglessness?
A Woman of a Certain Age Discoveries are supposed to advance knowledge; the 4,000-year-old Beauty of Xiahoe just confused it.
VW Recall India's Nano is ''the people's car.'' What, did they not like the Nazis' version of the same thing?
Brick Master Lego: Sure, you can make seemingly anything out of it. But can you really create art?
Goo Goo Gaga It's amazing that a music video like ''Telephone'' can still have such an impact. But that's Gaga for you...
Say "Fromage!" The Surrealists wanted to shake things up, but photographs reveal a more conservative side.
Postmodern Man When it comes to Postmodernity, the prose is finally starting to match up with the condition.
Fleshed Out It is hard to know oneself. Which is why Bronzino's ''Standing Nude'' is a lot more compelling than Leonardo's Vitruvian Man.
Revolutionary Roads To say that we are all Haitians seems a bit trite. But let's not forgot how horribly wrong our own revolution could have gone.
Party Like It's 2009 Everyone laments the '00s. But when we trash the last decade, how honest are we?
The Change Gang Zadie Smith changes her mind — not about the need for fiction, but about what fiction can be. As she should.
The Heidegger in All of Us The debate over Heidegger's politics rages every decade or so. But how did the philosopher make it into the curriculum in the first place?
Prose Before...Regine For Kierkegaard, the power of repetition is that you come to know who you are, but never exactly what you will do.
The Problem with Polanski Moral luck shouldn't exist, but it does, and Roman Polanski's may have run out.
Ripple Effect Henry Hudson stumbled upon his eponymous river 400 years ago. Such is the nature of the tricky waterway.
The Reel World Inglourious Basterds reveals the tension between a love of film and the inability to explain why.
Bird Brain A Japanese scientist has taught pigeons to distinguish between 'good' and 'bad' art. Should critics be nervous?
Bauhaus Tour On its 90th anniversary, Bauhaus remains the most imperialistic of all design movements.
Light Fixtures For James Ensor, to honor light was to honor the boundlessness of life.
The Return of the Epigram Sure, there are a lot of things wrong with Twitter. But what else is going to save the epigram?
Meis on Rye Some bemoan Holden Caulfield's fading appeal among young people. But why would metaphors that worked for 'us' work for 'them'?
Say AHHHHHHHH! Critics feel tricked by Francis Bacon. But what's wrong with delighting in the aesthetics of the scream?
A Bloody Mess Americans like their Holocaust characters to be hopeful heroes, which may explain the reception to The Kindly Ones.
No Exhibit for Old Men The artists in 'Younger Than Jesus' work in neither the past nor the future, but in the weirdness of the here and now.
Bootylicious You have to give the Somali pirates this: They explore a universal insecurity few of us are willing to face.
Quiet Ripples Paul Graham's photographs don't romanticize the everyday. There's a more uncomfortable truth at work...
Egg Head Martin Kippenberger's work can feel chaotic in its variety, but notice the eggs...
A Fuzzy Memory Donald Barthelme's critics accuse him of being insincere. He was anything but.
Painting from Memory Bonnard's critics dismissed him as an Impressionist too late to the game, but he just preferred to take his time.
Updike the Synthesizer To understand John Updike's genius, it helps to consider the difference between the liney and the painterly.
A Second Opinion Waltz with Bashir forces the West to confront the image of Palestinians it's constructed for itself.
Success Story Malcolm Gladwell, God bless him, wants to solve the problems he identifies in Outliers. But some problems can't be solved with a good story.
Palate or Palette? The unlikely relationship between modern art and modern cooking.
Put It to a Vote Just in time for the booboisie's vote, a reconsideration of Mencken's Notes on Democracy.
Brownfields Morandi's tins and vases seem innocent enough, but look too long and you're trapped.
Unnatural Selection Apply all the science to novels you want, Literary Darwinists. You'll still never quantify the human experience.
Dear David Everyone appreciated David Foster Wallace, but never in quite the right way.
The "Truth" Hurts With How Fiction Works, James Wood proves he has become a prisoner of what he got right.
Street Life For Ernst Kirchner, the modern world expressed its deepest nature in the strut of the prostitute.
Battle Scars PBS' The War of the World proves we're now ready to look back on the 20th century as we would any other.
Nobody's a Critic So long, Kant! It's the end of days for the distance between critic and that being criticized.
Deathmatch Conservatives will take death before tyranny. Liberals will take some time to negotiate.
You Can't Take It With You For Rauschenberg, creating was about making the world more fascinating, about making art more real.
Flatliner Murakami's Supeflat art celebrates one-dimensionality. What else could come out of Japan after the War?
The Pacifism Quandary True pacifists believe all violence is counterproductive. What to do, then, about World War II?
Light Show Art as theater: With its colors, lights, and mirrors, Olafur Eliasson's art is all about the viewer.
Here Comes the Pope! How the pope's visit to the States is a test of our resolve.
Charlton Heston's Last Act A benefit of getting old, we like to imagine, is the gaining of wisdom. Charlton Heston became a damn fool.
John McCain: Worth the Fighting For What's interesting about John McCain's Worth the Fighting For aren't signs of a maverick, but rather evidence of a sad man.
A Critic at Large Thoughts on art criticism from the 2008 Whitney Biennial.
MoMA Has Designs Design used to take a back seat to art. Then came the messed-up aesthetics of today's world.
Eliot the King How Eliot Spitzer's fall reads a lot like Oedipus Rex.
Hillary Clinton: Living History There are no theoretical disputes in Hillary Clinton's Living History. There are just facts, facts as she saw them.
Stare Master Frida Kahlo has The Look in her paintings. But is The Look a lie?
Barack Obama: The Audacity of Hope If platitudes had weight, Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope would be impossible to lift off the table.
Idoltry Fifteen minutes of fame — American Idol is brilliant because it actually delivers on the promise, then takes it away.
The Car of the Future The automobile wowed both Futurists and fascists, who believed it would remake us or destroy us.
The Ugly Truth On Ugliness is Umberto Eco's attempt at a treatise devoted to the homely and repulsive. It fails, but that's OK.
The Dalí Shtick By the end, Dalí was a parody of the thing he'd created of himself. An exhibition reveals it wasn't all crap.
The Death of Modernism Peter Gay's Modernism: So boring, so necessary.
Art Basel Miami Beach: Day 4 Art Basel Miami Beach, Day 4: I take the plunge and finally make a purchase, once I find something I can afford.
Art Basel Miami Beach: Day 3 Art Basel Miami Beach, Day 3: I relax on a $14 million yacht and return to the fair with a new perspective.
Art Basel Miami Beach: Day 2 Art Basel Miami Beach, Day 2: I become overwhelmed by the fair's scope and focus on what's honest.
Art Basel Miami Beach: Day 1 Art Basel Miami Beach, Day 1: I explore the host city for the country's most important art fair.
Christmas: A Defense Christmas is about the presents. And the tree. And the idea that, for one night, space and time are controllable.
Old Clams, Transparent Frogs, and Wordsworth Neither the world's oldest clam nor a transparent frog can solve the problem of life.
Will You Please Stop Editing, Please? Raymond Carver needed help, like we all do, and his editor provided it. In the end, his stories are brilliant. Should anything else matter?
The Prince The equalizing (and insidious) bad jokes of Richard Prince.
Fear, Trembling, and a Shrug We failed to kill God the first time. Who's to say what might happen the second time around?
Malato Immaginario J.M Coetzee and James Wood agree on the human condition as revealed by literature; but for one it's a tragedy, for the other a comedy.
Rembrandt Is Eyes For Rembrandt, eyes were more for looking at than looking through.
The Meaning and Meanness of Mencken Mencken, in being such a relentless bastard, gave the American voice back a little of its humanity.
Damien Hirst's Memento Mori Would you buy a $100 million diamond-encrusted skull from this man? Thoughts on Hirst (and Warhol).
The Trouble With Farmers Our critic tells gentlemen farmers where they can shove their homespun wisdom and self-righteousness. 
Fragments From Budapest It is nearly impossible to get screws in Budapest. Screws are a dream here, an unfilled fantasy.
Emotional Animals Legislation proposed in Spain would have given monkeys the legal rights of humans. Our columnist agrees.
Was Ryszard Kapuscinski Beyond the Truth? Ryszard Kapuscinski was great, but great in a way that leaves an odd taste in the mouth.
Philosophy Is Dead Richard Rorty thought that philosophy was dead. And now he is, too.
The Summer Jam The summer jam is as real as the summer itself, and the summer jam is a complete mystery.
Heidegger and the Milk in the Pan The world is always telling us about itself. Let us praise all this babble.