The Nation, 1 December 2008

Nick Turse looks into American forces’ conduct of the war in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta in the period from 1 December 1968 to 1 April 1969.  Turse concludes that the facts were much worse than has generally been known in the USA.  Civilians were targeted more systematically than has been acknowledged, more of them were killed than has been acknowledged, and a coverup of the some of the worst atrocities continued for decades.  Turse quotes a contemporary letter signed “Concerned Sergeant.”  The otherwise anonymous soldier denounced the operations to which he was attached and estimated that the rate at which unarmed civilians were being killed amounted to “a My Lai a month.” 

Ever since Studs Terkel died, The Nation has been memorializing him.  In this issue, his editor, Andre Schiffrin, remembers their attempt to put together an oral history on the topic of power.  The project failed because none of their prospective subjects would even admit that he held power, let alone give insight into what it was like to use it.  That’s hardly surprising when Schiffrin describes the key to Terkel’s work.  His subjects talked to him, Schiffrin explains, because “he approached people with utter respect.  Those he talked to immediately felt this and poured their hearts out.”  Powerful people usually seem to expect to be approached with utter respect, if not indeed with abject servility.  That so many people from so many backgrounds found it a shock to be approached with respect is a sad commentary on our society. 

Hoosiers and others marveling at the fact that Indiana voted for Obama will enjoy Mark Hertsgaard’s piece about Luke Lefever, a plumber (a real one!) who volunteered for the Obama campaign in Elkhart. 

Siddhartha Deb reviews several novels by Elias Khoury.  At first, Deb praises the “fragmented” style of Khoury’s work as suitable to his native Lebanon, but at the end he suggests that the time may have come for a smoother style of writing and, apparently, a more settled view of Lebanese identity.

This brings us to Barry Schwabsky’s review of Art Worlds by Howard S. Becker and Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton.   Becker’s newly reprinted 1982 book is a sociological study of various milieux from which products came that could be called “art,” while Thornton, also a sociologist, spent her time in “an art world that claims the right to call itself the art world.”  Schwabsky puts the question:

In the sociologist’s art world, hierarchies, rankings, and orders of distinction proliferate.  Status and reputation are all, and questions about them abound.  Why does the seemingly kitschy work of Jeff Koons hang in great museums around the world while the equally cheesy paintings of Thomas Kinkade would never be considered?… How do conflicting views on the value of different kinds of artworks jell into a rough and shifting consensus about the boundaries of what will be considered art in the first place?

That’s quite a weighty question.  As for the Koons/ Kinkade riddle, my suspicion is that perspective drawing and the rest of the conventional skills of representational art are not really all that difficult to master.  Some years ago I read an essay by Eric Gill called “Art in Education: Abolish Art and Teach Drawing,” in which he argued that given a chance virtually any child could and would learn these techniques.  I haven’t seen any scientific work testing this hypothesis, but it doesn’t seem fantastic to me to think that if all children were introduced to art in the same way that, let’s say, Thomas Kinkade was, that some large percentage of the population would grow up to paint pictures very much like his.  If that is so, then the problem with Kinkade isn’t that he’s cheesy, but just that they are nothing special.  If a collector wants to attain a high rank, s/he can hardly buy paintings that may be very pleasant but that could be equalled by, let’s say, a third of the adult population.