Thursday, January 13, 2011

High Art in Low Places: Classics on the Discount Rack

What becomes a legend most?

What about the bargain bin?

Cultural artifacts are often held over our heads, beginning in childhood and on through our life spans. These creative touchstones, supposed founts of meaning and common underpinnings of Western civilization, are touted as semi-sacred objects, to be admired, if not worshipped.

Once upon a time, everyone was schooled in them. For better or worse, a monolithic, non-fragmented cultural landscape was laid out before us, dotted with common landmarks, mostly created by dead white guys. We were supposed to fret over ourselves if we didn’t quite see the attraction the rest of society had to them. Conversely, they were there to be lambasted, to be pooh-poohed, lampooned, subverted, attacked or ignored if they were deemed to be old-hat, stodgy or irrelevant.

When something is deemed a classic, it occupies special and sometimes little-visited or -questioned places of sanctity – libraries, museums, galleries, concert halls, and art cinemas. The true believers, and those they drag reluctantly behind them, feast upon the aesthetic ecstasies within.

But what about “great art” that wanders, or falls, or is pushed from its lofty perches and enters the plebian sphere? When “great art” goes slumming, is it a good or bad thing? Does it cheapen it? What does it lose, if anything, when it leaks into the vernacular, like a Bach cantata used as an underlying musical “bed” for an elegant car commercial? Like the Mona Lisa endlessly aped for her gag value? The Venus de Milo tied to the bumper of disdain and dragged around the block a few times, then demoted to tabletop duty with a clock installed in her armless torso?

Or does the stuff that makes it through freefall merit a badge of honor? Does it serve as a strand that weaves an interpenetration of high and low? Does it signify a certain toughness, durability, an ability to reach past the effete gatekeepers of culture and really speak to the hoi polloi? Are these bits of wrack and drift waiting for that one person to touch and gaze upon them, within them, to hear and be affected and changed, to metamorphose into a connoisseur, or into an artist, whatever that is, his- or herself?

Or, is there something inherent in certain artists that’s schlock-worthy, that can just sink down and anchor into the sea-bottom of the trite in an instant and stay fixed there for generations, morphing into an unrecognizable but real bump on the floor of the collective unconscious?

I determined to find out through strict, exacting empirical method.

OK, actually, I was stuck for something to while away the time at the grand opening of a new Goodwill store in our neighborhood. I began to sift through the merchandise to see what lofty creations might have side-slipped into our banal dimension.

Of course, it’s a bit difficult to stay on task when you see things such as REAL HONEST-TO-GOD 8-TRACK TAPES ($0.99 each), and a gen-u-wine antique DuoTone voice-actuated dual two-way record cassette remote-control answering system ($5.99)! There was even a self-basting chicken roaster ($9.99). Tempting.


Ironically, the artist most represented was not who I would have guessed – R.C. Gorman or Thomas Kinkade. It’s our grouchy old schizophrenic friend, Vincent Van Gogh! Yes, the one who was so legendarily despised and/or dismissed during his lifetime is still going strong in the reprint market, making massive amounts of money he’ll never spend.

Here, he is represented by “View of Arles, Flowering Orchards,” from 1889:


There is also “The Artist’s Room, Arles,” also 1889:


Then there is a HUGE print of “Starry Night over the Rhone,” 1888, for $14.99.
 Oddly, all these pictures date from the last two years of the archetypically tortured artist’s life. Is his famously turbulent insanity the reason behind the cachet of owning and displaying these pieces? Or is the manic brushwork and loud colors the equivalent of a scream for attention in your dorm room? And would you really like them over your couch when you are trying to have a quiet evening at home?

The second most popular artist is Van Gogh’s antithesis, Monet. Calm, contemplative, boring old Monet. Goes anywhere, fits with any room. You can pick up his “Beneath the Lilacs Grey Weather” from 1873 for $5.99:
For a dollar more, you can obtain “Branch of the Seine near Giverny,” from about 25 years later. Your eyes slide greasy across the misty surfaces of his work; vague, unchallenging, so . . .  sleepy . . .

Auguste Renoir is here (Impressionism rules in Discount Land) with the terminally winsome “Girl with Watering Can” from 1876. Help!
 For those with big-space needs, there’s a huge Grant Wood “American Gothic” for $19.99, a Remington I can’t quite place for the same price, and a truly mystifying triptych of pre-Raphaelite maidens and knights, twisting and yearning chastely toward each other for $5.99.

THE WINNER: For sheer bad-classic goodness, there is an M.C. Escher perspective-defying lithographic print, “Waterfall.” It was a jigsaw puzzle – it’s been glued down permanently and framed. $1.99. NOW how much would you pay?


Unless you still have a functioning VHS, don’t come knocking. The DVDs were few and far between, and seemed to consist primarily of Christian children’s animated specials, which are not that entertaining unless you are an extremely ironic atheist.

What cinematic treasures lurk on the old analog playback shelf? (All items $1.99 unless otherwise marked.) There’s the 1945 hit “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (which Michael and Kay watch right before learning that Don Corleone has been shot in “The Godfather”) with Bing Crosby as the lovable priest and Ingrid Bergman packing a wallop in her wimple. Comedy expert Leo McCarey directs; it’s a good example of his schmaltzy later period.

 For those who need who get acquainted with Shirley Temple, you can check out the 1939 version of “The Little Princess,” the last critical and financial success for the child star.
 (Strangely, you can get “The Wizard of Oz” for $0.99!) The only other Golden Age Hollywood selection is Hitchcock’s interesting experiment in a one-set, real-time, faux-continuous-shot murder mystery, 1948’s “Rope.”

Moving into more contemporary territory, there’s Altman’s only-for-completists 2000 romantic comedy, “Dr. T & the Women,” Kenneth Branagh’s spunky 1989 adaptation of “Henry V,” M. Night Shamalayan’s “The Sixth Sense” from 1999, the 1989 black comedy “Heathers” and Jonathan Demme’s 1993 award-winning weeper “Philadelphia.”

THE WINNER: The unjustly overlooked “Trespass,” a great update of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” penned in part by Bob Zemeckis and handled beautifully by Walter Hill. (Why William Sadler is not more honored as an actor is beyond me.)


Paperbacks, $0.99, hardbacks $2.49. Aside from the ubiquitous Bibles and “Da Vinci Code”s, there are a surprising number of intriguing choices here.

Philip Roth will be happy to hear that he shows up in spades. “The Dying Animal,” “Sabbath's Theater” and “The Plot against America” are all present
 Margaret Atwood’s excellent examination of the writer’s life, “Negotiating with the Dead” is here, as is Le Carre’s decent spy novel “The Looking Glass War.” Other simply decent reads include two Conan Doyle Holmes compendiums.

Then there are the “classics” that so many have attempted and then obviously flung across the room halfway through the assignment. Someone struggled with, and abandoned, Jack London’s artsy-tough “The Sea-Wolf” and Toole’s “Confederacy of Dunces”; here’s Garcia Marquez’s “100 Years of Solitude” and D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love.” If you haven’t had a love for Robert Frost beaten out of you by English class analysis, here’s “Three Books” by him, all smushed together, and Twain’s UNEXPURGATED “Huckleberry Finn.”

As a Shakespeare nut, I can’t help but be happy there are a few scattered copies of the Bard to be found pretty much everywhere you go. Here are “The Tempest,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Hamlet” and “Macbeth.” A good start.

The oddest finds – Hobbes’ “Leviathan”; this vital, indigestible piece of 17th-century political thought, seems to have been well-read. I salute you, resolute reader!

THE WINNER: Goethe’s “Faust” (trans. Kaufmann, Part One only). The translation is problematic, but the text is still mind-blowing.


The richest vein to be mined is on the music shelves. There is usual slew of soft-classical compilations – “Best of Beethoven,” “Best of Handel,” “Best of Tchaikovsky,” “Chill with Tchaikovsky,” “Relaxing Classical.” These kinds of anthologies can’t be legislated against; I checked.

More acceptable are titles such as “Strauss Waltzes,” an honest sampling, and “Instruments of Classical Music: The Piano” ($1.99). Working our way forward in time, you can get an absolutely great introduction to the classical a cappella group Anonymous 4, the excerpt compilation “A Portrait of . . .” and Hilary Hahn’s quite fine Bach Violin Concerti with Jeffrey Kahane and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
Out of left field, there is something called “La Scuola Piedmontese Nel XVIII Secolo – Gotti, Mosca, Tabacco” – should have snatched it up, as I can’t even track it on line. Baroque?

Mozart is heavily represented, as I suspect he would have wanted – his String Quartets are here, as are the Sinfonia Concertante (K364) and Concertone (K190). A cut-rate Beethoven Concerti 1-5 can be found, as well as the Tchaikovsky (meh) Symphony #6 with Rostropovich at the podium (un-meh).
Here are a couple of gems – Bernstein’s leading of Ives’ Symphonies 2 and 3 ($2.99 – someone with taste is marking up the good stuff!) and Guilini’s handling of the Mahler 9 with the Chicago Symphony (priced likewise).

Those seeking a reasonably priced musical education of quality can build up their mental muscles here.


So, did I buy anything? Yes, I succumbed. Charles Mackay’s odd 1841 “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” a thorough and entertaining chronicle of mob psychology down the ages. This hilarious and harrowing 768-page historical survey of folly includes, willy-nilly, economic bubbles, prophecies, witch hunts, urban slang, alchemy and much, much more. If nothing else, there are hundred of story ideas here.
 Music – I took a chance and grabbed two discs by composer Erik Bergman. This composer, completely unknown to me, was a 20th-century Finnish avant-garde figure who worked primarily with the human voice. The discs, “Mieskuorolauluja” and “Works for Mixed Choir” are tough on anyone not raised on atonal music – the harsh, dissonant sound is off-putting. However, as a stubborn investigator of marginal music, I dug in, listened all the way through . . . and learned a lot, finding some dark beauty on the way.
I also picked up one of Mieczys┼éaw Horszowski’s last recordings. The Polish pianist, who had the longest known career in the history of the performing arts (1901-1991), escaped Europe in World War II and settled in the U.S., teaching for decades at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. 

His disc was recorded in early January, 1991, and consists of Bach’s French Suite No. 6, Schumann’s Papillons, and a couple of preludes and a mazurka by Chopin. This is really is treasure. Despite his supposedly small hands, his 90 (!) years of playing distill themselves into sharp, clear interpretation – no frills, no gestural groans or sighs – just the ongoing, never-finished task of one artist trying to understand and illuminate the work of another. Nice.
And, OK, I found one DVD. Call me crazy, but I’ve always loved “SLC Punk,” James Merendino’s 1999 cult classic about, what else, punks – trapped in 1985 Salt Lake City, the ne plus ultra of un-hip urban American conformity. Matthew Lillard does a great job as the protagonist Stevo, who manages an extremely funny existential crisis.

What the hell. I have to fully endorse the discount-store cultural experience. I encountered new delights, and met up with some old cultural friends. And for newbies -- getting introduced to Haydn or Michelangelo or John Ford in some crazy, second-hand back-alley context is better than never running into them at all.

Plus, few real classics have gone the distance without rolling around in the dirt. Subjection to the vagaries of taste and time, getting knocked down and getting back up again, is as essential for the character of a creative work as it is for a human being. So, if your creation manages to percolate down into the groundwater of the zeitgeist, be grateful. In the business of selling things I craft out of my own head myself, I count almost any sale as a positive thing.

I think the dead white guys I ran into would agree. As Stevo’s lawyer dad says so memorably in “SLC Punk,” “I didn’t sell out, son. I bought in.” Yeah.

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