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Shep on the Radio


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Ritualized Literacy (1966)

Date: 09-25-2005
By: lump516

Just listened to this today--and it made me cringe a bit--I have more than a few books sitting around in my house that I always meant to read, know that I should read--and haven't--which made me drag down that discount volume of The Complete Works of Shakespeare and actually start reading Macbeth. His observations of Pop Art are largely on target, at least as far as the American end of the school is concerned. But Pop Art was, in fact, the creation of English artists, whose relationship to popular culture was something akin to Shepherd's; sort of a semi-aghast affection. Coming from the drab and pinched culture of post-WWII England, the liked the color and sputter of American stuff, but also knew that it was mental and cultural junk food; fun, but not to indulged in too heavily. I remember an early bit of Pop Art, a collage called Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Special?, full of half-naked starlets, grinning body-builders, bad contempo furniture, and illustrations of various sorts of canned and frozen food. It's tacky and ridiculous, but also energetic and, well, oddly pretty, the way that brigtly-colored ads were in those days. It was also put together with a great eye for composition and color, so that the various elements of the picture sort of bounced off of each other and contributed to the general sense of absurdity. What happened with Pop Art in The States was that it fell into the hands of people like Andy Warhol, who went into art the way that some people go into accounting--it was a job, it was a way out of a Pennsylvania coal town, and his major ambition was to become rich and famous. This lack of engagement showed in his work, which was chilly and affectless. He was also a very mediocre artist in the technical sense--the pictures he did that were actually paintings, not just photos silk-screened onto canvas and then diddled with a bit, lack strong composition and mastery of the basic techncial tricks of the trade. But Warhol, who was at heart a commercial artist, had a fine sense of playing to transitory trends and tastes and a certain genius for determining which people he should suck up to and how said sucking-up should be accomplished. And so he found a high-end way to play to the American taste for celebrity and cheap melodrama; silk-screen celebrity portraits and a long series of pictures derived from newspaper photos of executions, sucicides, and murders. Present it with a certain sense of smirking irony, and you can give the slobs-with-money audience their cheap thrills without them having to feel guilty about it . . . (by the way, the $4,000 cheeseburger sculpture that Shepherd mentions was done by a fellow named Claes Oldenberg--who later got a much bigger fee for gracing a public square in Philadelphia with a giant clothespin) I also found Shepherd's skepticism about In Cold Blood rather refreshing as well. Mind you, it's a good book, and Capote is a good minor author, but such writers as Harold Schechter and Ann Rule have done stuff that's just as good and didn't take six years to write (Schechter teaches history at CUNY, and Rule is usually working on several projects at once). Indeed, I'm going to stick my neck out and say that Rule's The Stranger Beside Me is actually a better piece of work than ICB; not only does she do a very fine job of reporting the facts of the murders that Ted Bundy committed and the investigations into those killings, but she turns a fine eye on her own relationship with the man and the never-resolved feelings she has for him--she knows that what he is done is deeply evil, but he is also a friend, and she can never really let go of that fact, any more than she can allow the fact of that friendship to somehow whitewash his character or the deeds that grew out of it. It is her ability to see all of the people involved in this story as human beings that allows her to give the reader a sense of the devastation that Bundy wrought, not only to the victims and their families, but to his own family. And finally himself. I get nice turns of phrase in Capote's book, some flashes of wit and pathos. But only once, when he uses direct quotes from the people who found the Clutter family dead, does the book move beyond competent journalism into the realms of literature and the sort of human truths that literature is best at telling. Well, enough blathering for now. 5