Harvard Art Museums

This summer when the Beav and I went down to Concord, we took a day to go see the renovated space for the Harvard art museums. The expansion is quite beautiful and we had a nice day wandering through the collections. Since I’d like to show something here to remind me of which trip this was, here are three works that stuck out for me that day.

The Drunken Silenus was a large-scale painting of large-scale bodies of the type we never get to see.

The Drunken Silenus
The Drunken Silenus

This Ammi Phillips portrait is gruesome and gorgeous.

Ammi Phillips
She only has one foot.

And for personal, traumatic (read: foolish) reasons, I will forever be drawn to paintings of Gloucester, Mass.

Fitz Henry Lane
Flashbacks of safe haven after a storm.

Fantastic Four

Fantastic Four

Unless you are Oedipus or David Copperfield, your story should probably jump to the interesting stuff right away rather than starting with your birth.

But then these characters do spend years inside isolated, steel grey research bunkers wearing headphones and typing on keyboards before spending years in isolated, steel grey military bunkers wearing headphones and typing on keyboards. Aside from a couple CGI powered Disney rides in a metal capsule they never really leave, they never go anywhere.

So maybe “I was born” is their story’s sweet fruit and not to be missed.

Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism

I didn’t realize it was possible to have so many orientalist paintings on display without having at least aspects of the collection seem queer. Somehow this show pulled off the trick and felt, well, it felt like something dead, stuffed, and put in a museum.

The best thing on display were a handful of photographs by Lalla Essayed tacked on in the last room that used arabic script and mosaic patterns to flatten the space and merge the figures and ground.

(image from linked museum site)
(image from linked museum site)


UPDATE: I finally found the one photograph that I took walking through the exhibit. (I snap quick photos to help me make sense of my notes. So no photos often means nothing noted.) Here it is:

My one "note to self" from the exhibit.
My one “note to self” from the exhibit.


It really is a beautiful painting and it pairs nicely with Essayed’s photograph.

Free Fall

Free FallI watched this because Max Riemelt was playing gay and after watching him in Sense8 I was a bit crushed out. Shallow? Yes. But alas, the truth.

I expected very little from this film, but I shouldn’t have worried. It was quite good, a quiet drama about a very together gay man (Riemelt) who becomes the lover of the married protagonist.

What I like about how the movie played out is that the protagonist never arrives at an identity. He only arrives at a choice. And when he finally makes it, his decision feels like the wrong one, that it’s not authentic. But worse, he comes to the decision much too late. His wife and his lover have both left him.

That sounds depressing but the final shots suggest that the experience wasn’t lost on him. He’ll get it together.

The Trouble with Normal

The Trouble with Normal CoverI read this book late. Gay marriage is legal in North America. The politics denounced by Warner have won in court. So what’s the value now of his book’s careful but strident denunciation of national lesbian and gay organizations’ efforts to legalize same-sex marriage?

I think when queer people find that the change in their legal situation has changed little in their actual situation (and I think this will happen) and they begin to try to understand why discrimination persists, this book will, in part, point the way.

David Altmejd, Flux

The best show that I saw this past summer was of David Altmejd’s sculptures at the Musée d’art contemporain. Each object felt like a confrontation with a completely new sensibility. The sculptures were complex, mysterious but always beautiful.



As we walked out, I told the Beav I felt like I felt the first time I watched Robert Lepage performed (by Yves Jacques) at the Théâtre du nouveau monde.

Which was my idiosyncratic way of saying “changed.”

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me CoverI’ve been wondering what to say about this book. So much rightful praise has been written elsewhere, and there’s no need to repeat it.

I think what has stuck with me the most is the silence the book has prompted in me. Whatever else it does, this book drives a wedge between “race” and “racism,” forcing me to confront how different these two things are. “Race” is often a polite dodge. It enables talk, usually about black people, but misses the point. “Racism” names a problem to be confronted and makes the conversation about white people and concrete problems, which is a step forward.

Reading Coates’s book after a year spent reading antebellum history and literature situates its indictment of contemporary racism as a coherent piece of a two hundred year (and longer) history of racism in America. I remember of how little I knew about that history when I started reading and how much of what I didn’t know was purposeful—I was a product of my schooling—and I despair because after all this time (or perhaps because of it) I don’t think we know how to have a conversation about racism. I certainly know I struggle to confront or get past or ignore my anxieties and start one. But if we can’t even talk, how do we change things?

…then I read about members of the Supreme Court still wondering aloud if black students are ready for or benefit from a full-speed college experience and think, the bad old days haven’t gone anywhere.

The Scarlet Letter

Scarlet Letter CoverI’ve read and taught this novel many times, and so reading it now is often an exercise in curiosity: what will catch my or my students’ eyes as we work through it together?

Reading it again for class this term, I enjoyed it more than I had in years and was struck by how much the novel explores the contours of an open secret and the damage done by what is not said.

You Are Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

You're Never Weird CoverWhen I first saw The Guild it was a revelation. I was playing World of Warcraft with my family every week, and few of the people around me could understand why I spent any time playing this game at all. And so I constantly felt obliged to explain and to account for the fun I was having. Watching Codex and her crew dramatize my family’s guild travails was a much needed relief and affirmation of the social space we had created.

Felicia Day’s memoire, although it covers other ground, tells her story of playing games, eventually playing WoW and then eventually turning those experiences into The Guild. In a lot of ways, it felt like chatting with someone about our memories of a common experience, and I really enjoyed it.

The Well of Ascension

Well of Ascension CoverThe follow up to The Final Empire offers the best second act I’ve read in a long time. Very dark, disturbingly violent and, by the end, things are bad bad bad.

This series departs from the typical solemnity of a medieval scholar’s three-part epic form, something captured in the big, Manga-style pay off of the final scenes. There Vin, the woman protagonist, drops from the sky and slices the enemy leader (and his horse!) in half with a single blow from a sword that’s bigger than she is. She then proceeds to take out the rest of the army’s leaders one by one.

This scene is spectacular and over the top, but it also feels very much of our Final Fantasy/World of Warcraft moment. This is not just another rehash of timeworn, pre-Christian mythologies, and the form of the spectacle broadcasts that.

Stein on Honesty and Gossip

Oh hell, she said, listen I am fairly well known for saying things about anyone and anything, I say them about people, I say them to people, I say them when I please and how I please but as I mostly say what I think, the least that you or anybody else can do is to rest content with what I say to you.

–Gerrrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas