The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


David Caute's doorstop book THE DANCER DEFECTS is one of those books that I have to read for my current scholarly project. Its subtitle is "The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy During the Cold War," and Caute has really done his research. He covers most of the important artistic "struggles" between the Soviets and the Americans/West from 1947 to the 1980s, and is particularly good with his overviews of things like the Soviet film industry (although his synopses of Soviet films do tend to go on a bit), the defection of Nureyev and Barishnikov, the use of Abstract Expressionism as Western propaganda, and the drama scene, especially in East Germany and Russia in the 1950s. It's not an academic book and thus isn't particularly grounded either in a theory of history (which is okay) or in a particularly sophisticated understanding of the competing philosophies of art in the two worlds. But as a collection of research that I would never have been able to conduct, it's invaluable. In one of his only forays into academic debate, Caute strongly takes issue with the lefty critics of the 1970s and 1980s (Cockroft, Kozloff, and Gilbaut in particular) who argued that the CIA "adopted" Abstract Expressionism as its preferred form of cultural propaganda and then made all of the US's cultural propaganda modernistic/abstract. He persuasively shows that that wasn't true, and it was especially untrue in the period (1947-1955) that the lefty critics point to. After 1956, he grants, American art sent abroad by official bodies was dominated by abstraction, but in the period preceding that, he very persuasively argues, there was relatively little avant-garde art, and people such as Andrew Wyeth, not Jackson Pollock or Barnett Newman, were the international face of American art. Rather than the government, Caute says, it was foundations and the wealthy who were sponsoring this art--MoMA and the Rockefellers, for instance. I like this argument that he makes; it's important not to simplify and to understand that there are great variations among those with cultural power in this field. The CIA, the USIA, the State Department, universities, and foundations were all doing similar things but there were very important divergences among them. And while the CIA's small interest in art and culture (which has probably become disproportionately famous because of the Congress for Cultural Freedom scandal) did tend to back modernism and abstraction, we also need to keep in mind that many of the other cultural-diplomacy efforts undertaken by State and USIA and Ford and so on were NOT devoted to modernism.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Several weeks ago--after commencement--we wanted to go out with some friends to a NICE PLACE, someplace new, someplace grown-up, someplace where we didn't have to worry about high chairs or slow service or chicken-fingers-versus-mac-and-cheese. We'd been hoping for something downtown, not only because it was close after the ceremony but also because we all want to THINK that Pittsburgh's downtown is an attraction. I had wanted to go to Seviche for a while, in fact ever since we went to the Sonoma Grille with friends and noticed that their appetizers were superior to their meals and then soon after that noticed that the owners of the Grille were opening a new place, dedicated only to "small plates" (how San Francisco) and to Latin small plates at that.

So it was with both cautious anticipation and also that constant dull proleptic throb of "what precisely is going to suck here tonight?" that we came to Seviche the other night. And fortunately, we left pretty damn satisfied. It's a total pick-up joint, which is funny for those of us married with little kids (how far away is that scene?), and my only real complaint is that they don't take reservations and they don't have a "list" for people arriving: you just wait for someone to leave, and then pounce. This policy of course privileges the obnoxious alpha males in the world, but hell--it's a pick-up joint, so they are already the target audience. We did manage to land a table outside. The food was really quite good, both ambitious and tasty, and fresh as well, which is uncommon around here. The pulled-pork empanada thing (in a deep-fried, butter-soaked pastry) was just great, and although I would have preferred slightly larger portions of the ceviches they were, taken on their own merits, excellent. We had just about everything on the menu between us, and it was all quite good.

As we left, one of our dinner companions noted that as things started to get really hopping there, about 10pm, and as the cars started pulling up and the valets got busy and the past-their-prime barflies started to show up, that this little corner of downtown Pittsburgh started to look "like Baltimore." On one level, it's not a great comment on the city that one is surprised that things are as lively and vibrant as... Baltimore. But on another, I know what he's talking about.


Wednesday, May 07, 2008

terrible idea

Nine Mile Run

I'velived here now five years, and have taken hundreds of runs in Frick Park. I watched the city and the Army Corps of Engineers stabilize the Nine Mile Run creek from where Braddock meets 376 to where Forward passes under the parkway (the so-called Big Bend Wetland area). And I've always wondered whether or not one could follow the Run all the way to where it must inevitably empty into the Mon. Inspired by a friend who followed this route last week, I did it today. It's pretty fascinating, and at some point I'll take a camera. After the Big Bend area at Forward Avenue, the creek plunges between Squirrel Hill and Swissvale. There's a rough trail following the right bank of the creek for most of the distance, but it disappears at times and at other times because of erosion it's almost impassable. After following the creek for about a mile, I ran into a couple of fishermen, harvesting minnows from the creek with a drag net. I was horrified at the very notion of eating something out of Nine Mile Run, but the fishermen assured me that they were going to use the minnows as bait to catch bass and muskies from the Mon (not much better in my mind). A quarter-mile after that the path utterly disappeared, and I had to scramble up a very steep bank about twenty yards and over a chain-link fence, where there was a path, which eventually dumped onto Old Browns Hill Road and down. Very cool. It would be nice if the city or the county would create and maintain a little path along there, but it's also charming in its feral state.

Monday, May 05, 2008

judt and hajdu

Two funny names with J's. Pronounce or not?

Tony Judt's recent article in the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS is one of the best things I've read in a long time. Basically, his argument is that Americans haven't really experienced war, and so for all of our self-righteous pontificating about how we "saved France's ass" (a trope so overdone and Limbaughed that it's become its own metareference on the Jim Rome show, a sort of performance of the angry American) our willingness to go to war or at least rattle sabers comes not from our great experience and success in conflict but from our absolute LACK of the experience of war on the home front. The amazing statistic here: the USSR lost over ten million civilians in WWII; France lost several million noncombatants in the two world wars, as did Germany and Italy; the United States lost 2000. That is unbelievable.

David Hajdu has been making the book-tour rounds for his recent THE TEN CENT PLAGUE, a history of the 1950s-era hysteria about the threats comic books posed to American youth, but he made his fame with POSITIVELY FOURTH STREET, a joint biography of Dylan, Joan Baez, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña, which I just finished. It's a solid book, grounded on a massive number of interviews (including one amazing "get" with Thomas Pynchon, which Hajdu conducted by fax), and Hajdu does a nice job of keeping the stories largely separated and thus making their intersections stand out--Baez and Dylan, of course, had a long-term romance, as did Mimi and Richard. I had no idea that Joan Baez had such success when she was so young, but that she was also so insecure about her relationship with her sister, whom she saw as being much more beautiful than her (an insecurity, of course, much stronger in someone 19, 20, 21 years old). The portrait of Dylan is pretty much what one gets from a portrait of Dylan: "I'm not there." Hajdu cherry-picks some great quotes from Dylan in his 1965-66 strung-out period, quotes where he is just cruel and dismissive of Baez, Fariña, and others such as Phil Ochs. (Hajdu has his own dismissive quote about Donovan, who in my mind deserves the snotty comments.)