Yale University Press

Some years ago, Robert Hughes bemoaned the capitulation of art museums and galleries to ‘the whole masterpiece-and-treasure syndrome’. Although made in the 1980s, Hughes’s point may still be valid, especially if the number of recent exhibitions with the word ‘master’ in their titles is anything to go by. A quick check reveals that, in Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria is particularly fond of the word. In Melbourne last year, we had ‘Dutch Masters from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam’ and ‘Albrecht Dürer: Master of the Renaissance’. In 2004 the NGV put on ‘The Impressionists: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay’.

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It is a great pity that Efraim Karsh could not have read Raimond Gaita’s new collection of essays before completing his own. The essays might have prompted him to reflect that the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is not nearly as straightforward as he would have us believe.

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that pride comes before a fall, and ‘Anyone with a historical sense would have realised that the hubristic attempt to make the world into a frontier and culture-free single market would end in tears.’ This opening salvo in Professor Robert Skidelsky’s new book is part of his answer to what is wrong with economics. Besides arrogance, this includes amorality, ahistoricism, sociopathy, over-formalisation, and unscientific dogmatism.

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James Ley reviews 'On Evil' by Terry Eagleton

James Ley
Monday, 06 July 2020

One of the more robust responses to what has come to be called the New Atheism has been that of the influential literary critic Terry Eagleton. He weighed into the argument early with an aggressive and widely cited critique of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006) in the London Review of Books, in which he charged Dawkins with theological ignorance. He extended his argument in a series of lectures, published as Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God debate (2009), which condemned the atheist movement for its allegiance to an outdated form of nineteenth-century positivism and for its optimistic belief in the virtues of progressive liberal humanism. His latest book, On Evil, is a kind of supplement to the debate, in which he attempts to drive home what he considers the naïveté of such a view.

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I must admit to being intrigued by any self-proclaimed ‘Histories of Everything’, so I leapt at the prospect of a dense history of my favourite creative art and how it flourished in our past centuries, right down to a couple of writers who died in 2019. And occidental only: that is, apart from a sidelong glance at Hafez, Tagore, and Li Po’s fellow poets. Unless you regard the Russians, that is – bridging East and West.

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At the end of 1910, Irving Berlin took a winter holiday in Florida. James Kaplan writes, ‘Here we must pause for a moment to consider the miracle of a twenty-two-year-old who in recent memory had sung for pennies in dives and slept in flophouses becoming a prosperous-enough business man to vacation in Palm Beach.’

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Sometime in the early 1970s – his health poor, his country’s no better – the English composer Benjamin Britten asked his good friend and publisher Donald Mitchell to write his biography, imploring him to tell the truth about his long-term relationship with the tenor Peter Pears. In the ten years that followed Britten’s death in 1976, Mitchell amassed thoughts and notes, all the while deflecting the common query among friends and those outside the hallowed circle, ‘How’s the biography going?’

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In his long poem The Bridge (1930), Hart Crane balances the breadth of his epic vision against a compressive energy, a ballistic sort of expression: ‘So the 20th Century – so / whizzed the Limited – roared by and left.’ Since Crane worked in an American tradition of poet–prophets that includes Walt Whitman and the undersung H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), it is tempting to grant him that. The twentieth century did roar by and go. And the 20th Century Limited, the luxurious passenger train connecting New York to Chicago, furnished it (and him) with an expression of the century’s quarrelsome momentum, its loud, emblematic modernity.

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In Future Proof, Jon Coaffee, professor in urban geography at the University of Warwick, asks readers to imagine ‘a typical day’: radio reports of an impending cyclone; public-transport posters encouraging the reporting of ‘suspicious activity’; the path to an office (especially in a CBD) protected by hostile-vehicle-mitigation bollards. At work, computer systems will be tested for security from cyber attacks. The train home will be delayed due to a network complication, and the evening’s television will show the cyclone’s impact, discussing the relative ineffectiveness of hazard mitigation.

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Charles Osborne, who was born in Brisbane in 1927 and moved to London in 1953, is a prolific writer, broadcaster and opera critic. His latest offering, The Opera Lover’s Companion, sets out to guide its reader through 175 of the world’s most popular operas. Osborne correctly states that ‘the staples of the operatic diet today are the major works of five great composers – Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, and Strauss’ – and certain works by other luminaries. The operas of sixty-seven composers are included, but that core quintet gives us almost a third of the operas in this volume. Interestingly, in opera’s four hundred-year history, the vast majority of the most frequently performed works fall within the period between Mozart’s first featured opera, Mitridate, rè di Ponto (1770) and Strauss’s last, Capriccio (1942).

As with The New Kobbé’s Opera Book (1997), the list reveals a re-evaluation of many previously neglected operas, in particular some lesser-known works of Handel, Rossini, Donizetti, Massenet, and Strauss, which have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. Doubtless this also reflects the dearth of modern operas and the scarcity of contemporary composers who know what their audiences want. Any opera company ignoring box office appeal does so at its peril, and a book such as this should be mandatory reading.

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