Wednesday, November 18, 2009

We Need 'Philosophy of Journalism' (by Carlin Romano, the Chronicle of Higher Education)

Note to the Caption:Reporters in the New York Post city room in 1963 (Bettmann, Corbis)
If you examine philosophy-department offerings around America, you'll find staple courses in "Philosophy of Law," "Philosophy of Art," "Philosophy of Science," "Philosophy of Religion," and a fair number of other areas that make up our world.

It makes sense. Philosophy, as the intellectual enterprise that in its noblest form inspects all areas of life and questions each practice's fundamental concepts and presumptions, should regularly look at all human activities broad and persistent enough not to be aberrations or idiosyncrasies. (The latter can be reserved for Independent Studies.)

Why, then, don't you find "Philosophy of Journalism" among those staple courses? Why does philosophy, the academic discipline charged to reflect the noblest intellectual enterprise, avoid the subject while departments teem with abstruse courses mainly of interest to the tenured professors who teach them?

A few related questions come to mind. Why, at a time of breakneck technological and social revolution in news and newsrooms, do deans and presidents permit ossified philosophy departments to abdicate their responsibility to cover the world by not thinking about the media? How can it be that journalism and philosophy, the two humanistic intellectual activities that most boldly (and some think obnoxiously) vaunt their primary devotion to truth, are barely on speaking terms?

The explanations require a sociology of both professional philosophy and journalism, too large a project for this space, but worth thumbnailing anyway.

Unlike politics or art, journalism, as a sophisticated public practice in the West involving more than routine sharing of information, developed mainly in the 18th century, long after the core concerns of philosophy as a taught subject (chiefly cosmological, theological, and epistemological) shaped the curriculum. Unlike science, journalism long carried (and still does for many) the association of superficial intellectual goods. That made linkage with it unappealing to professional philosophers, whose egos and identities are deeply connected to an image of themselves as intellectually superior to other professionals. (Scientists and mathematicians, of course, tend to both scare and attract them.)

Add to this the historic insularity and inflexibility of philosophy—the field remains less diverse and intellectually adventurous than any of the other humanities—and the recipe for philosophical ignoring of journalism and new media was practically complete.

Other factors—highly human ones—also kick in, reflecting mainstream American values. A vast and mutual reservoir of condescension exists between American journalists and philosophers. Many philosophers think of journalists as B or even C students (we're talking pre-grade-inflation here), people who have committed themselves to simplistic narratives of the world shorn of nuance and qualification, fond of every fallacy in the book, all made worse by the pompous, officious, in-your-face personality associated with reporters in the popular imagination (see, most recently, Russell Crowe in State of Play, or Robert Downey Jr. in The Soloist.)

Journalists, in turn, often regard philosophy professors (though not all humanists) as mannered figures, badly informed and out of touch on matters outside their academic competence, insufficiently quick-witted on their feet, irrelevant in their influence on the public, and ludicrously inefficient in their Anglophilic and pedantic diction ("I should now like to make the claim, ceteris paribus …"). This makes philosophers, among other things, impossible guests on talk shows and hopeless sources for quotation. Factor in the root disposition that renders each group what it is—the inclination of philosophers to focus in any situation on the operative ideas and concepts involved, and the imperative of journalists to cling close to concrete facts—and the perfect storm of antipathy between these populations can feel fairly primal.

As someone who has tried to live a life in both fields for 30 years, I find journalists understand this state of affairs better than philosophy professors do. The former note the scorn directed at them by the latter and largely laugh it off. The latter often falsely think they are held in higher regard by fellow professionals than is the case.

Both groups, I think, twist the screws into each other too reflexively. For every philosophy professor with an impressive, tactile understanding of current events and human affairs, there's a journalist whose reading in the great books forms a wise philosophical understanding of the world that surpasses that of most philosophy professors. With intellectuals, it's all case by case.

Still, broadly speaking, we need philosophers who understand how epistemology and the establishment of truth claims function in the real world outside seminars and journals—the role of recognized authorities, of decision, of conscious intersubjective setting of standards. And we need journalists who scrutinize and question not just government officials, PR releases, and leaked documents, but their own preconceptions about every aspect of their business. We need journalists who think about how many examples are required to assert a generalization, what the role of the press ought to be in the state, how the boundaries of words are fixed or indeterminate in Wittgensteinian ways, and how their daily practice does or does not resemble art or science.

When I began teaching my seminar "Philosophical Problems of Journalism" at Yale more than 25 years ago—I've taught it nearly 20 times since at institutions ranging from St. Petersburg State, in Russia, to the University of Pennsylvania—it expressed my own bent as a fanatical reader of newspapers and magazines with (I believed) a fact-based approach to life that naturally steered me to philosophy. It was precisely all that raw journalistic information, often contradictory, that I thought stirred me to reason in a philosophical way, asking further questions, noting counterexamples, seeing the implications of the uncertainty of one concept for the uncertainty of others.

So I constructed a basic course that examines journalism in the light of philosophical thinking in epistemology, political theory, ethics, and aesthetics, mixing philosophical and journalistic materials and vocabularies. In Part 1, we scrutinize "truth," "objectivity," and "fact." In Part 2, we explore how journalism might fit classic modern theories of the state, including that tradition from Locke to Rawls that largely ignores the "Fourth Estate." In Part 3, we ponder how what practitioners call "journalistic ethics" fits with broader moral theories such as utilitarianism. In Part 4, we investigate whether journalism can be art or science without overstepping its conceptual bounds. The guiding principle was a variant of Browning: One's reach should exceed one's grasp, or what's a syllabus for?

Having now seen students in those seminars become journalists or philosophy professors themselves, I feel one of my core beliefs has panned out. I've always insisted to the philosophy students that journalistic thinking enhances philosophical work by connecting it to a less artificial method of establishing truth claims than exists in philosophical literature. I've always stressed to journalism students that a philosophical angle of mind—strictness in relating evidence and argument to claims, respectful skepticism toward tradition and belief, sensitivity to tautology, synoptic judgment—makes one a better reporter. Judging by reports from the field, it appears to be true.

For myself, teaching the seminar never gets stale, because journalism and philosophy never get stale. The news remains new. Tough philosophical problems never go away, and must be confronted again and again. At one time, I imagined "Philosophy of Journalism" would flourish through natural causation, despite my own inability, as full-time literary critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer for 25 years, to act as an academic Johnny Appleseed, planting the course like a senior professor through disciples and former doctoral students. It hasn't happened.

Might it still? I hope so. Some friends tell me the need is obviated by the huge growth in American academe of communications and media studies as a separate discipline, and the boom in journalism schools and programs. I disagree. Without doubt, as the annual meeting of the International Communication Association confirms, that field more than compensates in sheer volume for the lack of attention philosophy gives to journalism, new media, and implications of the Internet. Certainly it has produced thinkers, such as Manuel Castells, whose syncretic aspirations mirror those of philosophers. Yet, for the most part—a spirited subsociety of wonderful philosophy types notwithstanding—the attention remains chiefly empirical and "social sciencey" in style, too often belaboring and endlessly footnoting the obvious rather than challenging conventional wisdom.

We still need our colleges and universities to provide a more classical, full-bloodedly philosophical approach to journalism. If that's to happen, the welcome move by august universities and media-minded foundations to rethink and reshape journalism education must resist its own faddishness and lack of vision. Too many foundations and universities breathlessly fasten on the bells and whistles of new technology, as if tweets shall save us all, rather than attending to longstanding gaps in journalism education.

Every journalism student should be required to take a course in journalism history. It's essential for young journalists to understand how our peculiar institution developed, and that it is not a natural kind—it can be changed and reformed. Every journalism student should also be required to take a course in "Comparative Journalism," a flagrant lacuna in the field, to understand that the American model and its issues, which predominate in all American journalism programs, is not the world.

Most important, every journalism student should be required to take a course in "Philosophy of Journalism," to develop the intellectual instincts and reflexes that will make the approach to truth of both practices a permanent part of his or her intellectual makeup. Imagine a world in which every column about the Obama administration's battle with Fox News came with profound context about the large issues involved. A sweet, rather than tweet, thought.

There's a great history to be written of philosophers' engagement with journalism, from Hegel's citation of the daily newspaper as his morning prayer, to Ortega y Gasset's lessons from newspaper life, to Russell's widespread freelancing and the later Wittgenstein's instantiation of conceptual journalism as a philosophical method.

Universities and foundations could do their part to mine this rich tradition. Before directing more Knight and other grants to further repetitive Twitter and Internet "experiments," they should support a core intellectual curriculum in journalism studies that would make a far greater difference to future excellence in the field.

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle Review, teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Dancing Scruffy Cheek-to-Scruffy Cheek: Gay Tango by Maria Finn (

Tango Evolves as Argentine Dance Floors Mix Gender Roles, But Not Genders


BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- May 1, 2008

In Buenos Aires, the tango starts with a gesture that is almost imperceptible to the untrained eye.

At traditional "milongas," as tango social dances are known, men do not approach women and ask them to dance. Rather, the Argentines sit across the room and make eye contact. If the woman does not avert her eyes, the man nods slightly. If the woman nods back, then he approaches her and they move to the floor.

That initial gesture is known as "el arte de cabeceo," or "the art of the nod." This ritual saves the man's dignity from public rejection, and it respects the vulnerability of a woman, as she can easily refuse and not feel obligated to dance with the man.

This is part four in's 10-part special series on nightlife around the world. Click here every weekday through May 9, 2008 for the latest story.

This is only one ritual among many. Throughout the entire exchange, traditions determine where to place your hands, how many songs you dance together  and strict gender roles are always present. Some dancers claim that the social codes inherent in the tango are necessary because the dance requires strangers to become so intimate with each other.

But there's a new kind of tango taking place. At the gay milonga, known as La Marshall, you'll find several kinds of couples dancing: women with women and a few mixed-gender couples  but mostly men with men. Five o'clock-shadowed cheek to five o'clock-shadowed cheek, they execute their steps with precision and clear intent.

Tango in Buenos Aires is constantly refining and redefining itself. The tango began in the 1800s near the ports on the south side of the city. It evolved from the overlap of slaves brought from Africa, immigrant laborers from Europe, Cuban sailors, and women who arrived or were coerced into working the brothels. During the years the music and dance became less bawdy, as it shifted from whorehouses to high society. Experimental music by masters like Astor Piazzolla, who introduced jazz and classical elements to the tango, opened it up for further experimentation. In the past decade, nuevo tango, in which electronic music is mixed with Belle Epoch classics, has the younger generation in Buenos Aires dancing.

Two of the latest trends, gay and queer tango, are attracting dancers from across the world to Buenos Aires. Many trace gay tango back to one man: Augusto Balinzano, who tours internationally to teach gay tango. When he's in town, he teaches tango at Lugar Gay, a guesthouse exclusively for men in the neighborhood of San Telmo.

A professional tango dancer, he says that gay tango wasn't a deliberate movement; it just happened.

"One night I was dancing with a man," he says. "Then the next time another couple of gay men joined us. And so on. Now we have gay lessons and a gay milonga."

Indicative of major changes in Argentine society, the gay tango is something of a perfect storm that came about from an economic crisis, improved civil rights for homosexuals and a revival in tango's popularity.

The long-standing dictatorship in Argentina that lasted from 1976 to 1983 considered anything different to be subversive. Even following the fall of the dictatorship, though there were no actual laws directly discriminating against homosexuals. But there was an Edict Against Public Dancing, according to a report written by Sociologist Amy Lind and published by the North American Congress of Latin America in 1997. This edict pledged to "punish any proprietor who allows men to dance together."

Lind goes on to explain that individuals were arrested under these edicts, held by police for up to 30 days and fined.

In 2001, Argentina experienced an economic crisis when the peso devalued. To aid their recovery, the government tried to attract more tourists. And because it had become such an affordable trip  prices were down by more than a third  both straight and gay tourists realized they could eat steak, drink Malbec and dance the tango for a third the regular price. Even those who didn't go to Buenos Aires to learn tango would become smitten by the art form.

Civil rights for homosexuals gradually improved, and in 2002 Buenos Aires' City Council passed a measure recognizing same-sex civil unions and extending health insurance and pension rights to same-sex partners. Since then, the city has worked hard to attract gay visitors, creating a gay tourist map and presenting at gay travel symposiums.

As a result, Buenos Aires has become a very popular destination for gay travelers, and according to Hector Aguilar, an architectural historian who gives lectures for Lugar Gay, "It now rivals Rio as the gay destination in South America."

One gay man, who asked to remain anonymous, came to Buenos Aires from his hometown of Montreal for almost three months to escape the Canadian winter. "I heard about it at a gay travel convention, and realized that not only was it inexpensive, but there was a lot to do here," he says. "Mostly, I am working on my tango. There are more gay milongas starting, and even some of the straight ones are becoming open to same-sex couples."

Gay tango is the natural outcome of these social changes in Buenos Aires, and the city hosted the first Queer Tango Festival last year. It drew about 500 people from around the world, organizer Roxana Gargano said. Take note: This festival was not gay tango, but queer tango. Another evolution is occurring.

Ingrid Remmen, who is visiting Buenos Aires from Norway to study queer tango, explained the difference: "Gay tango is about sexuality, and queer tango is about opening up traditional tango so that women can lead men or other women."

A teacher of queer tango, and one of the founders of the Queer Tango Festival, Mariana Falcon decided to learn the man's part when, as she puts it, "I lost my tolerance for bad leaders. And even when the leaders are good, I don't want to wear high heels and short skirts and play that feminine stereotype. It's not who I am."

She found even gay tango a little restrictive, as while some same-gender couples danced together, ideas of the dominant leader and submissive follower were still in play.

Queer tango, as she envisions it, means that it doesn't matter if you're straight or gay; you have the opportunity to be who you are  leader or follower  regardless of your gender or sexual orientation.

Of course, many tango dancers will stick to the traditional way; much of the pleasure of the tango is not just the footwork, but the embrace is important as well and straight dancers tend to be more comfortable in this close proximity with the opposite sex.

Joe Wieder, a straight tango dancer from New York, believes that it's just easier for a man to lead a woman, because, as he put it, "In tango, size and sex do matter."

But queer tango in Buenos Aires is about more than just the dance.

"Tango reflects changes in society," she says. "The growing popularity of queer tango means that as a society we are becoming more open-minded. Straight or gay, when partners learn to interchange roles, both can access different types of power."

They can do this, she says, by shifting their embrace. Or, as queer tango becomes more familiar to people, the negotiating of follower and leader roles could happen by something as simple as a nod.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A Manifesto for Scholarly Publishing (by Peter J. Doughhrty, The Chronicle of Higher Education)

In 1948, the University of Illinois Press published Claude Shannon's brief and profoundly influential book The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Shannon's work, which explained how words, sounds, and images could be converted into blips and sent electronically, presaged the digital revolution in communications.

Anyone not living under a rock knows that Shannon's idea has engulfed all forms of written thought, including every genre of scholarship. Ironically, the very institution that brought Shannon's technological tract to a broad audience, the university press, is now contending with the possible demise of the print book itself. Just as the researchers at Bell Labs helped to develop the very technologies that undermined the old phone company, so the editors and publishers who brought Shannon and his fellow theorists to print have effectively disrupted the traditional technology of books. Joseph Schumpeter had a phrase for it: "creative destruction."

And while university presses grapple with the economic and technological challenges now affecting how we publish our books — the subject of a thousand and one AAUP conference sessions, e-mail-list debates, and news articles — discussion of what we publish seems to have taken a back seat. And understandably so. Why obsess about content if books as we know them are about to become obsolete in favor of some yet-to-evolve form? Has creative destruction spelled the end of books?

I believe quite the opposite. Books — specifically scholarly titles published by university presses and other professional publishers — retain two distinct comparative advantages over other forms of communication in the idea bazaar:

First, books remain the most effective technology for organizing and presenting sustained arguments at a relatively general level of discourse and in familiar rhetorical forms — narrative, thematic, philosophical, and polemical — thereby helping to enrich and unify otherwise disparate intellectual conversations.

Second, university presses specialize in publishing books containing hard ideas. Hard ideas — whether cliometrics, hermeneutics, deconstruction, or symbolic interactionism — when they are also good ideas, carry powerful residual value in their originality and authority. Think of the University of Illinois Press and its Mathematical Theory of Communication, still in print today. Commercial publishers, except for those who produce scientific and technical books, generally don't traffic in hard ideas. They're too difficult to sell in scalable numbers and quickly. More free-form modes of communication (blogs, wikis, etc.) cannot do justice to hard ideas in their fullness. But we university presses luxuriate in hard ideas. We work the Hegel-Heidegger-Heisenberg circuit. As the Harvard University Press editor Lindsay Waters notes, even when university presses succeed in publishing so-called trade books (as in Charles Taylor's recent hit, A Secular Age), we do so because of the intellectual rigor contained in such books, not in spite of it.

Hard ideas define a culture — that of serious reading, an institution vital to democracy itself. In a recent article, Stephen L. Carter, Yale law professor and novelist, underscores "the importance of reading books that are difficult. Long books. Hard books. Books with which we have to struggle. The hard work of serious reading mirrors the hard work of serious governing — and, in a democracy, governing is a responsibility all citizens share." The challenge for university presses is to better turn our penchant for hard ideas to greater purpose.

University presses need to foment a content revival astride the delivery revolution, one that stimulates our connection to new intellectual trends, encompasses a broader conception of scholarship, and renews our commitment to the scholarly mission of the university. Such a revival in content would return us to our roots; roots revealed in Albert Einstein's The Meaning of Relativity, Paul Samuelson's Foundations of Economic Analysis, Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan's Beyond the Melting Pot, John Rawls's A Theory of Justice, Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory, and other classic works. Since our earliest days, our content has been our glory, and it will remain so in the future. But this requires a new and purposive round of brainstorming. We need to match the power of our book-making imaginations with emerging currents of scholarship, some emanating from corners of the university distant from our traditional turf in the humanities and social sciences — new genres, and new readerships.

This content revolution would proceed apace on parallel tracks, which I will touch on briefly, then in greater detail:

First, include on our lists more titles from the burgeoning professional disciplines: engineering, law, medicine, architecture, business, the graphic arts, and the information sciences. Those fields are driving the growth of our host universities while redefining the limits of culture in new and exciting ways.

Second, become much more purposeful and assertive in publishing books that define whole fields, including important advanced textbooks. University-press editors would add depth and ballast to their lists by looking for that next great advanced text in our traditional fields, such as social theory, comparative literature, or art history, as well as in emerging fields. That kind of publishing is often dismissed as cookie cutter, but it's not.

Third, publish more books for worldwide readerships. As the globalization of knowledge continues apace, American university presses are positioned to engage readers in ways unimagined a generation ago. By infusing our lists with titles of international interest, we can better exploit the technologies that bring the world closer to us.

Fourth, work more closely with departments and centers within our host universities to adapt their work — sponsored lecture series, etc. — into books, monograph series, and other such initiatives. We should be planning our future lists strategically within our host universities in order to maximize the relative strengths of press and campus alike.

Let's look more closely at these goals.

As noted above, the first key to a stronger and more vital university press is in the embrace of a broader array of fields, notably the professions, including medicine; engineering; computer, environmental, information, and management sciences; graphic design; and finance. The professions, for all the prestige of graduate institutions like the Wharton School or Harvard Medical School, are often seen as peripheral to the humanities-centered core mission of universities, and to the heavily humanities-oriented program of university presses. That disparity presents an identity problem for the modern university. The diversified research university's great growth areas exist largely outside the dialogue internal to the humanities and social sciences.

But that paradox offers an opportunity for university presses, because books function at least in part to humanize hard ideas, such as those that define professional knowledge. Not only do the professional fields yield important technical books, they provide university presses with the chance to publish broader books that convey important profession-specific knowledge to diverse, cross-disciplinary audiences. In other words, university presses, because of our position within the academic community, are uniquely positioned to help introduce professional knowledge into the larger intellectual discourse by publishing books that engage the historical, literary, and social dimensions of these fields. That effort has, in fact, already begun. For example, think of the influence of works such as Donald Mackenzie's An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets (MIT Press, 2006), John Seeley Brown and Paul Duguid's The Social Life of Information (Harvard Business School Press, 2000), Henry Petroski's Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design (Princeton University Press, 2006), or James R. Beniger's The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (Harvard University Press, 1986). Each of those books introduced into the broader intellectual conversation powerfully important technical subjects to an impressive cross section of readers, removing the technical barbs and burnishing the transcendent human implications.

There are also ethical elements of professional subjects that need to be integrated into broader intellectual conversations. As Harold T. Shapiro, a former president of Princeton, notes in his book A Larger Sense of Purpose (Princeton University Press, 2005), "the most valuable part of education for any learned profession is that aspect that teaches future professionals to think, read, compare, discriminate, analyze, form judgments, and generally enhance their capacity to confront the ambiguities and enigmas of the human condition."

While naysayers may argue that publishing more books on the professions subverts the university press's historical commitment to the humanities and culture, one could counter that those professional fields are themselves coming to define culture. Think of the growing influence on society of fields such as telecommunications, financial engineering, and cognitive science, as well as the increasingly ubiquitous influence of statistics and applied mathematics in everyday communications. In fact, the electronic transition in scholarship itself is the product of applied science. These fields are foreign to most university presses, but the direction of scholarship suggests that they shouldn't be. In fact, they provide a great new opportunity for us to publish works that reflect the reality around us.

I am not suggesting that university presses should abandon or even reduce our commitment to traditional humanities fields. History, literature, art, politics, and philosophy form the core of university-press publishing, and always will. However, by integrating more technical subject matter into our publishing, we can add color and depth to our lists. The mere introduction of new ideas into the culture of university-press publishing would add vigor to our operations while inspiring in editors in the humanities and social sciences new exciting cross-disciplinary books. Books, better than any other literary form, can speak to the ever-widening chasms that define the modern, intellectually diverse research university. We should embrace the challenge.

Second, even as university-press publishers should diversify our disciplinary portfolios, so too should we strive more ambitiously to define entire fields by commissioning important new high-level textbooks and treatises. That kind of publishing used to be the proud purview of textbook publishers, but as a result of the nearly 30-year wave of consolidation that has marked college publishing, only a few such houses remain. Those publishers tend to concentrate their energies on producing mainstream undergraduate textbooks in repetitive shootouts for market share, leaving smaller yet intellectually vibrant fields open to new and innovative texts, treatises, and reference books.

University presses should seize the opportunity. Important advanced texts often turn out to be intellectual game changers, reviving and redirecting knowledge in older fields, synthesizing ideas in newer fields, and unifying scholarship across fields. Thus they serve eminently the mission of the university press. But as the author of a leading book on academic publishing observed in conversation with me, university-press editors tend to dismiss that kind of publishing as cookie cutter. A little history suggests it is anything but.

When I began my career at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in the summer of 1972, I carried in my briefcase sales briefs for titles that would be regarded as excellent by any standard. Harcourt's college department published great works such as Noam Chomsky's Language and Mind, Walter Jackson Bate's Criticism: The Major Texts (1952), Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren's Modern Rhetoric (1949), Lewis A. Coser's Masters of Sociological Thought (1971), and Peter Brown's The World of Late Antiquity (1971). So did other college houses, as did the celebrated "crossover" houses of that day, Basic Books and the Free Press. If that's cookie cutter, please sign me up for some shares of Pepperidge Farm. There are superb and growing opportunities for university presses to engage in that kind of stylish textbook publishing and to do so both proudly and well.

Third, enlarging the globally relevant dimension of our lists not only provides a greater fulcrum for sales, but better connects us to the scholars, writers, and foreign publishers forming the next generation of research networks around the world. At Princeton, the percentage of business that comes from internationally attractive lists such as economics is as high as 40 percent of total sales, or about twice the average of most of our lists. Robust international lists also generate more translations. On a visit to Asia in 2007, I discovered that many of the booksellers there were aware of an important new book from our catalog, Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, even before its official publication dates. That is how immediate and tangible the global market has become. Without global content, university presses risk isolation from a growing community of readers and authors. After all, the numbers suggest the next John Hope Franklin or Joan Robinson is as likely to be sitting in a classroom in Delhi or Beijing as in Cambridge or Los Angeles.

Fourth, university presses should reinforce their strategic positions within their host universities by partnering with departments and committees on developing new books consonant with the scholarly initiatives afoot on campus. A simple example is the lecture series as book.

When I became an economics editor, I learned about the wonderful volumes drawn by Oxford University Press from the Clarendon Lectures delivered annually in Oxford by invited scholars. Those lectures served then — and continue to serve — as vital events drawing scholars and students alike together for several days of lecturing and discussion. They also serve as the basis for a manuscript that eventually gets published by Oxford and, in the case of the Clarendon volumes, read worldwide by economists and scholars in related fields. Those books include now-classic works such as Robert Shiller's Macro Markets: Creating Institutions for Managing Society's Largest Economic Risks (1993). That is the kind of win-win arrangement that facilitates partnership between the university press and its host university.

Another is the university-sponsored book series. For example, think of the Princeton Annals of Mathematics series, supplying the world of math with cutting-edge monographic works for generations, or the Harvard East Asian Monographs series. University administrators should be aware of the enduring recognition that comes from the successful continuing publication of such series, and of the capacity of books to command attention in publications as wide-ranging as blogs, Web journals, newspaper columns, and magazines. If mathematics can emanate throughout the world from Princeton and its press, economics from Oxford and its press, and East Asian studies from Harvard and its press, why not engineering, environmental science, management, or public health from other presses? Such books are reviewed worldwide, providing a continuing stream of recognition for universities and presses alike.

Although we live in an era of disaggregated knowledge, I believe scholarly books will thrive. William Germano notes in his book Getting It Published that "the book is the form in which we scholars tell our stories to one another. ... Even when a publisher offers the choice of a physical or electronic edition of a work, or supplements a physical book with electronic ancillaries, or produces a physical book only on demand, it is the form of the book, that precious thought-skeleton, that holds a project together."

In effect, books remain valuable precisely because they are distinct from the other, more transitory, forms of scholarly communication. But university presses have to grasp the stinging nettle, jump-start a serious discussion about content, get strategic, invent projects. If university presses attempt to be more creative by introducing new subjects into our existing lists, the resultant hybrid vigor, to borrow a phrase from the biologists, will put us on a stronger course and renew the place of books in the world of ideas. For in the future, as in the past, we will be judged by the character of our content.

Peter J. Dougherty directs Princeton University Press.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How to Procrastinate Like Leonardo da Vinci (by By W.A. Pannapacker)

"Dimmi, dimmi se mai fu fatta cosa alcuna."

("Tell me, tell me if anything ever got done.")

— Attributed to Leonardo

On his deathbed, they say, Leonardo da Vinci regretted that he had left so much unfinished.

Leonardo had so many ideas; he was so ahead of his time. His notebooks were crammed with inventions: new kinds of clocks, a double-hulled ship, flying machines, military tanks, an odometer, the parachute, and a machine gun, to name just a few. If you wanted a new high-tech weapon, a gigantic bronze statue, or a method for moving a river, Leonardo could devise something that just might work.

But Leonardo rarely completed any of the great projects that he sketched in his notebooks. His groundbreaking research in human anatomy resulted in no publications — at least not in his lifetime. Not only did Leonardo fail to realize his potential as an engineer and a scientist, but he also spent his career hounded by creditors to whom he owed paintings and sculptures for which he had accepted payment but — for some reason — could not deliver, even when his deadline was extended by years. His surviving paintings amount to no more than 20, and five or six, including the "Mona Lisa," were still in his possession when he died. Apparently, he was still tinkering with them.

Nowadays, Leonardo might have been hired by a top research university, but it seems likely that he would have been denied tenure. He had lots of notes but relatively little to put in his portfolio.

Leonardo was the kind of person we have come to call a "genius." But he had trouble focusing for long periods on a single project. After he solved its conceptual problems, Leonardo lost interest until someone forced his hand. Even then, Leonardo often became a perfectionist about details that no one else could see, and the job just didn't get done.

A friar named Sabba di Castiglione said of Leonardo, "When he ought to have attended to painting in which no doubt he would have proved a new Appelles, he gave himself entirely to geometry, architecture, and anatomy." Leonardo worked on what interested him at the moment, cultivating his energies and insights, even when those activities were not directly related to his current commissions.

Leonardo, it seems, was a hopeless procrastinator. Or that's what we are supposed to believe, following the narrative started by his earliest biographer, Giorgio Vasari, and continued in the sermons of today's anti-procrastination therapists and motivational speakers. Leonardo, you see, was "afraid of success," so he never really gave his best effort. There was no chance of failure that way. Better to "self-sabotage" than to come up short.

Of course, the therapeutic interpretation of Leonardo — and, perhaps, of many of us in academe who emulate his pattern of seemingly nonproductive creativity — has a long history. Leonardo's reputation spread at exactly the right time for someone to become a symbol of this newly invented moral and psychological disorder: procrastination, a word that sounds just a little too much like what Victorian moralists used to call "self-abuse."

The unambiguously negative idea of procrastination seems unique to the Western world; that is, to Europeans and the places they have colonized in the last 500 years or so. It is a reflection of several historical processes in the years after the discovery of the New World: the Protestant Reformation, the spread of capitalist economics, the Industrial Revolution, the rise of the middle classes, and the growth of the nation-state. As any etymologist will tell you, words are battlegrounds for contending historical processes, and dictionaries are among the best chronicles of those struggles.

The magisterial Oxford English Dictionary presents a wide range of connotations for "procrastinate," ranging from the innocuous "to postpone" to the more negative "to postpone irrationally, obstinately, and out of sinful laziness." The earliest instances of procrastination do not carry the moral sting of the later usages. To procrastinate simply meant to delay for one reason or another, as one might reasonably delay eating dinner because it is only 3 in the afternoon. For example, in 1632 someone described "That benefite of the procrastinating of my Life." In other words, sometimes delay is good; it is a good idea — in this case — to delay the arrival of death.

Somehow it is not surprising that the first notable shift in the moral weight of the term is found in relation to business and the building of empires. In his 1624 account, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles, Capt. John Smith — adventurer and founder of Jamestown — wrote of his gang of shiftless cavaliers, "Many such deuices [devices] they fained [feigned] to procrastinate the time." It was, no doubt, owing to this procrastination — not tyrannical leadership and impossible conditions — that Jamestown's early years were so unsuccessful. Eventually, Smith developed the policy of "He that will not worke shall not eate," since eating seems to be one of the few things about which one cannot procrastinate for long. It's a telling moment when procrastination becomes a crime against the state potentially punishable by death.

As time wore on, and the pace of life accelerated, the exhortations against procrastination in the English-speaking world rapidly became stronger. By 1893 we find someone not being accused of procrastination or warned against it, but accusing himself of the shameful vice: "I was too procrastinatingly lazy to expend even that amount of energy." The rhetoric of anti-procrastination — constructed by imperialists, religious zealots, and industrial capitalists — had become internalized. We no longer need to be told that to procrastinate is wrong. We know we are sinners and are ashamed. What can we do but work harder?

Like the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, we live our lives with regret for what we have not done — or have done imperfectly — instead of taking satisfaction with what we have done, such as, in Coleridge's case, founding English Romanticism in his youth and producing, throughout his life, some of the best poetry and literary criticism ever composed, including his unfinished poem "Kubla Khan." But that was not enough; always, there was some magnum opus that Coleridge should have been writing, that made every smaller project seem like failure, and that led him to seek refuge from procrastinator's guilt in opium.

One thing about this dalliance with the OED is reassuring: If words emerge and evolve over time, it is possible to get behind them, to disconnect the relationship between "signifier" and "signified" so to speak. Since procrastination emerged from a specific historical context, it is not a universal and inescapable element of human experience. We can liberate ourselves from its gravitational pull of judgment, shame, and coercion. We can seize the term for ourselves and redefine it for our purposes. We can even make procrastination — like imagination — into something positive and maybe even essential for the productivity we value above all things.

In 1486, when Leonardo was still struggling with the Sforza horse, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola gave his famous "Oration on the Dignity of Man," encouraging artists to become divine creators in their own right. In this vision, God encourages Adam not to embrace human limitation but to lift himself upward into the realm of the angels.

It was this dream of human perfectibility that animated artists like Michelangelo, and, perhaps, forever rendered Leonardo unable to relinquish voluntarily any of his more serious artistic projects. As Vasari writes, "Leonardo, with his profound intelligence of art, commenced various undertakings, many of which he never completed, because it appeared to him that the hand could never give its due perfection to the object or purpose which he had in his thoughts, or beheld in his imagination." Through his many episodes of alleged procrastination, we see an artist who engages with the irresolvable conflict between unlimited aspiration and the acknowledgment of human limitation.

If Leonardo seemed endlessly distracted by his notebooks and experiments — instead of finishing the details of a painting he had already conceptualized — it was because he understood the fleeting quality of imagination: If you do not get an insight down on paper, and possibly develop it while your excitement lasts, then you are squandering the rarest and most unpredictable of your human capabilities, the very moments when one seems touched by the hand of God.

The principal evidence for that is, of course, Leonardo's notebooks. He kept those notebooks for at least 35 years, and more than 5,000 manuscript pages have survived — perhaps a third of the total — scattered in several archives and private collections. Leonardo's known writings would fill at least 20 volumes, but if one includes the lost materials, he probably wrote enough to fill a hundred.

Some of Leonardo's entries are short jottings; others are lengthy and elaborate. The notebooks give the impression of a mind always at work, even in the midst of ordinary affairs. He returned to some pages intermittently over many years, revising his thoughts and adding drawings and textual elaborations. Several compendiums have been compiled from his notebooks, but, like so many of us, Leonardo never used his voluminous private writings to produce a single published work.

For the most part, his notebooks — like the commonplace books that were kept by students in the Renaissance (Shakespeare's Hamlet had one, for example) — were a polymath's workshop: a place to try out ideas, to develop them over time, and to retain them until circumstances made them more immediately useful.

Leonardo's studies of how light strikes a sphere, for example, enable the continuous modeling of the "Mona Lisa" and "St. John the Baptist." His work in optics might have delayed a project, but his final achievements in painting depended on the experiments — physical and intellectual — that he documented in the notebooks. Far from being a distraction — like many of his contemporaries thought — they represent a lifetime of productive brainstorming, a private working out of the ideas on which his more public work depended. To criticize this work is to believe that what we call genius somehow emerges from the mind fully formed — like Athena from the head of Zeus — without considerable advance preparation. Vasari's quotation of Pope Leo X has rung down through the centuries as a classic indictment of Leonardo's procrastinatory behavior: "Alas! This man will do nothing at all, since he is thinking of the end before he has made a beginning."

If creative procrastination, selectively applied, prevented Leonardo from finishing a few commissions — of minor importance when one is struggling with the inner workings of the cosmos — then only someone who is a complete captive of the modern cult of productive mediocrity that pervades the workplace, particularly in academe, could fault him for it.

Productive mediocrity requires discipline of an ordinary kind. It is safe and threatens no one. Nothing will be changed by mediocrity; mediocrity is completely predictable. It doesn't make the powerful and self-satisfied feel insecure. It doesn't require freedom, because it doesn't do anything unexpected. Mediocrity is the opposite of what we call "genius." Mediocrity gets perfectly mundane things done on time. But genius is uncontrolled and uncontrollable. You cannot produce a work of genius according to a schedule or an outline. As Leonardo knew, it happens through random insights resulting from unforeseen combinations. Genius is inherently outside the realm of known disciplines and linear career paths. Mediocrity does exactly what it's told, like the docile factory workers envisioned by Frederick Winslow Taylor.

Like so many of us in academe, Leonardo was endlessly curious; he did not rely on received wisdom but insisted on going back to the sources, most important nature itself. Would he have achieved more if his focus had been narrower and more rigorously professional? Perhaps he might have completed more statues and altarpieces. He might have made more money. His contemporaries, such as Michelangelo, would have had fewer grounds for mocking him as an impractical eccentric. But we might not remember him now any more than we normally recall the more punctual work of dozens of other Florentine artists of his generation.

Perhaps Leonardo's greatest discovery was not the perfectibility of man but its opposite: He found that even the most profound thought combined with the most ferocious application cannot accomplish something absolutely true and beautiful. We cannot touch the face of God. But we can come close, and his work, imperfect as it may be, is one of the major demonstrations of heroic procrastination in Western history: the acceptance of our imperfection — and the refusal to accept anything less than striving for perfection anyway.

Leonardo is just one example of an individual whose meaning has been constructed, in part, to combat the vice of procrastination; namely, the natural desire to pursue what one finds most interesting and enjoyable rather than what one finds boring and repellent, simply because one's life must be at the service of some compelling interest — some established institutional practice — that is never clearly explained, lest it be challenged and rejected.

Academe is full of potential geniuses who have never done a single thing they wanted to do because there were too many things that needed to be done first: the research projects, conference papers, books and articles — not one of them freely chosen: merely means to some practical end, a career rather than a calling. And so we complete research projects that no longer interest us and write books that no one will read; or we teach with indifference, dutifully boring our students, marking our time until retirement, and slowly forgetting why we entered the profession: because something excited us so much that we subordinated every other obligation to follow it.

If there is one conclusion to be drawn from the life of Leonardo, it is that procrastination reveals the things at which we are most gifted — the things we truly want to do. Procrastination is a calling away from something that we do against our desires toward something that we do for pleasure, in that joyful state of self-forgetful inspiration that we call genius.

W.A. Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College.

Monday, June 02, 2008

The Most Lavish Book Debut in History (and almost the book) (By Elisabetta Povoledo, the New York Times)

Image Presentation

Michelangelo for Readers With Deep Pockets

Published: May 31, 2008

BOLOGNA, Italy — The gala presentation of “Michelangelo: La Dotta Mano” (“Michelangelo: The Wise Hand”), a volume of photographs of this Renaissance master’s sculptures, may well have been the most lavish book debut in history.

With Piazza Maggiore, Bologna’s main square, as the backdrop, a short video depiction of the volume, which can be seen on, was followed on Thursday night by an hourlong spectacle that included dozens of costumed dancers, a string quartet playing from a stage suspended in midair, suckling pigs roasted over a pit, a fake snowfall and a foppishly dressed acrobat walking Spiderman-style up the facade of San Petronio, the city’s cathedral.

But then, this is no ordinary book, starting with its retail price of 100,000 euros, or around $155,000, at Friday’s exchange rate.

Included in the price of what its publishers are calling “the most beautiful book in the world” is a sleek black case, its own stand and a 500-year guarantee.

“This isn’t an appliance,” Marilena Ferrari, chairman of the book’s publisher, Gruppo FMR, told Bologna’s mayor and guests at the book’s official presentation in a grand salon in City Hall on Thursday morning. “That’s the amount of time we feel we can guarantee the materials we used to craft it.”

Using the high standards of the privately published books in the 19th century — an ideal known as the “book beautiful” — as a starting point, FMR sought expert artisans from various fields to create something Ms. Ferrari described as “a work of art in itself.”

Aurelio Amendola’s black-and-white photographs were printed on paper made exclusively for the project. There are detachable reproductions of Michelangelo drawings on handmade folios created according to centuries-old traditions. And then there’s the cover: a scale reproduction in marble of the “Madonna della Scala” (“Madonna of the Steps”), a bas-relief of the Virgin and Child sculptured by Michelangelo when he was still in his teens. The original is housed in the Casa Buonarroti in Florence.

It took two white-gloved attendants to lug around the 46.2-pound book at its City Hall debut.

The marble cover was the trickiest aspect of production.

“It was difficult to find the right depth,” said Nanni Tamar, the project’s production manager. Six sculptors of marble are working on the first 33 copies in a limited edition of 99. “We broke a lot of slabs along the way,” Mr. Tamar said.

This isn’t the most expensive book ever made. There are books incorporating precious metals or gemstones that increase the price, like that of the entrepreneur Roger Shashoua, whose memoir, “Dancing With the Bear,” according to its Web site,, comes in a diamond-encrusted “special oligarch” edition that ranges in price from $1 million to $6 million.

Luxury publishing in general seems to be on the upswing. “From my experience, it’s growing,” said Ovais Naqvi, chief executive of Gloria, a new luxury publisher that this year came out with a book about New York City that sells at $2,500 to $15,000.

“There are a certain amount of people who are testing how far the market can be pushed,” Mr. Naqvi said.

Because production of the Michelangelo book is so labor-intensive (Ms. Ferrari likened the process to a Renaissance workshop), aspiring buyers can expect a six-month wait, the same as for a Ferrari (the car), said Pietro Tomassini, FMR’s commercial director.

“We think it will sell out in a very short time,” he said. Customers in the United States, Europe and Russia have already reserved copies, he added, though he declined to say how many.

Cristiano Collari, the book specialist for Christie’s auction house in Milan, was a little taken aback by the price, which he said was comparable to that of good copies of rare ancient texts like the “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” (1499), which he described as the “bibliophile’s prime fetish.” But even contemporary art books can turn out to be good investments, Mr. Collari said, though the market is always hard to predict.

For this first title in its “Book Wonderful” series — apart from a forthcoming book about Catherine de Medici, the rest are top secret — FMR chose to pay homage to Michelangelo and to time its publication to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the first painted stroke on the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Vatican, which took place in May 1508.

The question remains, who would pay so much for such a book?

Franco Negretto, a financial consultant here who was awed by Thursday night’s spectacle — “I’ve seen a lot of shows in this square, but this was one of the best” — said he’d been sold by FMR’s pitch, despite the price tag.

“I’ll do everything I can to buy it,” he said solemnly.

The on-line page designed for the book is one not to miss for sure.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Bertelsmann Appoints Outsider to Head Random House (by Motoko Rich and Mark Landler, the New York Times)

Published: May 21, 2008

On the day that Bertelsmann, the German media conglomerate, quelled weeks of speculation by announcing that Markus Dohle, head of the company’s printing unit, would take over as chief executive of Random House, industry executives were largely reserving judgment on what it would mean to have a relative outsider in charge of the world’s largest publisher of consumer books.

Mr. Dohle, 39, will succeed Peter W. Olson, Random House’s current chief executive, on June 1. Mr. Olson, 58, who led the publishing division for the last decade, is in negotiations for a senior faculty position at Harvard Business School, according to a person knowledgeable about his plans. Mr. Olson declined to comment.

The appointment of Mr. Dohle, one of the youngest people to lead Random House, is the first significant executive shake-up since Hartmut Ostrowski took over as chief executive of Bertelsmann in January. Mr. Ostrowski previously was chief of Arvato, the company’s printing and services division. In Mr. Dohle, head of Arvato’s print unit since 2006, Mr. Ostrowski clearly picked his own man.

Mr. Dohle, who is described as charming by those who know him, speaks fluent English and will move to New York this summer. He takes over a division with an author stable that includes Toni Morrison, Dan Brown, John Grisham and Salman Rushdie. Along with other important players in the industry, Random House has recently suffered a slowdown, despite best sellers like Mr. Grisham’s “Playing for Pizza” and “Women and Money” by Suze Orman.

Mr. Ostrowski acknowledged that Mr. Dohle, who has been with Bertelsmann since he graduated with a degree in economics and industrial engineering in 1994, did not have direct experience running a book publisher, although Arvato Print has many publishing clients.

Mr. Ostrowski said in an interview Tuesday that he could have appointed a traditional publisher to succeed Mr. Olson, but he said he wanted someone to bring a fresh perspective to the book division, which is steeped in tradition. “Markus is a proven entrepreneur within the organization,” Mr. Ostrowski said. He “has shown he has been able to turn a mature business into a growing business.”

Separately, Bertelsmann announced that Richard Sarnoff, the president of the company’s digital media investments group, had been appointed co-chairman of Bertelsmann Inc., where he would play a critical role in directing strategy in the United States.

In a memo to staff Tuesday, Mr. Ostrowski said that Mr. Olson was leaving “of his own initiative.”

Last fall, Mr. Olson was out of the office for two months with double pneumonia, contracted on a business trip to China. Mr. Ostrowski said that Mr. Olson had approached him about leaving in January. “From our perspective, it was not the right time to replace him,” Mr. Ostrowski said. “But we could accept that he wants to pursue other life plans.”

A senior Bertelsmann executive, however, said the factors behind Mr. Olson’s departure were more complex. This executive, speaking on condition of anonymity because it was an internal personnel issue, said that Mr. Olson’s split with the German management began last September, when he proposed dismissing Gail Rebuck, the chief executive of the Random House Group in Britain. This was vetoed by Mr. Ostrowski and Thomas Rabe, Bertelsmann’s chief financial officer.

Ms. Rebuck did not return a call seeking comment. Stuart Applebaum, a Random House spokesman, said: “I wouldn’t dignify it with a comment. I would just label it as gossip.”

With pressure mounting, the Bertelsmann executive said, Mr. Olson began to look for an exit strategy. He hired a lawyer to negotiate a severance package. The company agreed to a deal, but it left some hard feelings, according to this person.

Mr. Olson, a former banker and lawyer and a voracious reader, also had no direct experience in the publishing industry prior to 1992, when he took over as chief financial officer of the Bantam Doubleday Dell Group, a book division owned by Bertelsmann that was merged with Random House in 1998. Mr. Olson took over as chief executive and became the first American to join Bertelsmann's executive board in 2001.

Although Random House produced more than 4,000 best sellers in 19 countries during Mr. Olson’s tenure, he had a mixed reputation because he often showed a zealous focus on the bottom line. Yet last year, sales at Random House fell by 5.6 percent, and operating profits declined 4.9 percent.

Mr. Ostrowski said that one year’s results did not affect his thinking. “If someone has a proven record and he only misses his numbers once, you don’t get fired for that,” he said.

In a letter to employees, Mr. Ostrowski wrote, “Let me state very clearly: we want to see Random House grow.” He said in the interview that he wanted the entire company to achieve 4 percent organic growth in revenue each year.

According to a senior executive at Bertelsmann, the decision to change the leadership of Random House reached the uppermost levels of the company, which is controlled by the family of Reinhard Mohn. Liz Mohn, Mr. Mohn’s wife and a powerful influence, was consulted, according to the executive. She had sometimes tense relations with Mr. Olson, this executive said, and was a champion of Mr. Dohle. Gunter Thielen, chairman of Bertelsmann’s supervisory board, was also involved, the executive said.

The publishers and editors of Random House’s imprints, rarely shy about expressing their opinions, were uncharacteristically reserved about the appointment of Mr. Dohle. Several said they would take Mr. Ostrowski at face value when he said that Mr. Dohle would continue to give publishers independence. “There’s every indication that Markus Dohle is looking forward to doing that with a lot of energy and business experience,” said Irwyn Applebaum, president and publisher of the Bantam Dell Publishing Group, whose authors include Danielle Steel and Dean Koontz.

Some publishers and agents outside Random House said it was not a good sign that someone without intimate knowledge of the book industry was taking over the venerable house.

But others said they were open-minded about Mr. Dohle, especially as he was young and might bring new ideas about digital initiatives and other matters. “I hope that this man will be a very strong competitor,” said Jane Friedman, chairman and chief executive of HarperCollins. “Time will tell.”

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg, American Artist, Dies at 82 (from vaious press sources)

Robert Rauschenberg
October 22, 1925 — May 12, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg, the irrepressibly prolific American artist who time and again reshaped art in the 20th century, died May 12, 2008. He was 82.

Mr. Rauschenberg’s work gave new meaning to sculpture. “Canyon,” for instance, consisted of a stuffed bald eagle attached to a canvas. “Monogram” was a stuffed Angora goat girdled by a tire atop a painted panel. “Bed” entailed a quilt, sheet and pillow, slathered with paint, as if soaked in blood, framed on the wall. They all became icons of postwar modernism.

A painter, photographer, printmaker, choreographer, onstage performer, set designer and, in later years, even a composer, Mr. Rauschenberg defied the traditional idea that an artist stick to one medium or style. He pushed, prodded and sometimes reconceived all the mediums in which he worked.

Building on the legacies of Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Cornell and others, he thereby helped to obscure the lines between painting and sculpture, painting and photography, photography and printmaking, sculpture and photography, sculpture and dance, sculpture and technology, technology and performance art — not to mention between art and life.

Mr. Rauschenberg was also instrumental in pushing American art onward from Abstract Expressionism, the dominant movement when he emerged during the early 1950s. He became a transformative link between artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and those who came next, artists identified with Pop, Conceptualism, Happenings, Process Art and other new kinds of art in which he played a signal role.

No American artist, Jasper Johns once said, invented more than Mr. Rauschenberg. Mr. Johns, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Mr. Rauschenberg, without sharing exactly the same point of view, collectively defined this new era of experimentation in American culture. Apropos of Mr. Rauschenberg, Cage once said, “Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look.”

Note to the Capture: Robert Rauschenberg at his home and studio in Captiva, Fla., in 2005.(Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Rauschenberg Got a Lot From the City and Left a Lot Behind

Robert Rauschenberg, who died Monday at age 82, is part of the cultural mythos of postwar New York. He regularly exhibited new work here for more than 56 years, which must be some kind of record. It extended from his first solo show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1951 to the debut of his 2007 “Runts” series at PaceWildenstein in Chelsea in January. Mr. Rauschenberg was there, amid throngs of admirers, for the opening.

Many of the materials for Mr. Rauschenberg’s found-object wizardry came directly from the sidewalks, gutters and trash bins of New York. Most of the images he used were lifted from its magazines and newspapers and mirrored the look and pulse of urban life. It is fitting that so much of his art made its way into the permanent collections of the city’s museums.

These works number more than 500. True, many are prints, but printmaking, mixed with other mediums, was perhaps the central strategy of his art, with found photographs (or his own) functioning as his signature brushstroke. His penchant for overlapping and clustering transparent images constituted an indelible style.

New York’s Rauschenbergs summarize his most influential innovations as well as his volcanic, sometimes compulsive productivity. There are examples of the multimedia hybrids he called combines and the transfer drawings that used solvent to fuse the mechanically reproduced and the handmade. And there are demonstrations of his distinctive seen-from-above spatial tilt, christened by the art historian Leo Steinberg “the flatbed picture plane.” It redefined pictorial space as radically as one-point perspective.

These works, and their credit lines, also say a thing or two about the collecting habits and histories of the museums themselves. Little-known fact: The Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim are co-owners of an early 1950s gold leaf Rauschenberg, bequeathed to them in 1974. Here’s what’s on view right now, as well as a sense of what’s in the vaults and what will be brought out of storage or rearranged to honor the artist in the coming weeks.

Museum of Modern Art

In New York, MoMA is Rauschenberg Central. It owns nearly 300 works, many of them prints, and usually has at least a dozen major efforts on view. The current ones include several recently acquired masterpieces from the 1950s that subvert the very concept of masterpiece. The homey proto-combine that is “Bed” uses real sheets, pillow and quilt as canvas and defines the flatbed picture plane as something you can sleep in. “Rebus” builds a narrative from seemingly nonsensical sequences of found images and abstract elements. “Factum II,” by being a near-copy of “Factum I” (in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles), challenges the notion of the unique, inspired artistic touch.

Eight drawings from “Thirty-Four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno” (1959-60) are also on display. Mr. Rauschenberg’s first full-on exploration of the transfer technique, they recast Dante’s journey in shadowy contemporary terms. The compositional finesse of these works is writ large in “First Landing Jump,” a majestic 1961 combine painting that has one wheel — a car tire — planted firmly on the ground.

The Modern plans to mark Mr. Rauschenberg’s death by consolidating these and other works into a single gallery sometime next week.

Whitney Museum

of American Art

Like the Modern, the Whitney began collecting Rauschenbergs in the early 1960s; by now it owns nearly 60. Its first acquisition, in 1961, was “Summer Rental + 2,” a collage painting from 1960 and third in a series of four very similar works that loosely extend the conceit of the “Factum” pair. Ten years later Mr. Rauschenberg gave the museum “Yoicks,” from 1953, one of his most irresistibly exuberant works and one of his first to use fabric as a bold visual element. Green polka dots on yellow alternate with or succumb to slathered bands of red and yellow paint, paying irreverent homage to Abstract Expressionism while presaging works by Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Larry Poons and Joan Snyder.

“Yoicks” is often on view; it has been joined by the 1955 “Satellite,” a dense, almost claustrophobic combine painting with a stuffed pheasant patrolling its top edge, and “Blue Eagle,” another combine.

Guggenheim Museum of Art

None of the Guggenheim’s Rauschenbergs are on view right now, but the museum plans to mount a selection soon. Although there are only slightly more than 30, about half of which have been acquired since 1990, they form an idiosyncratic but often choice group.

To one extreme are several examples of the artist’s “Cardbird” multiples, the exacting, editioned trompe l’oeil-like copies of cardboard assemblages that seem antithetical to his interest in the cheap, the found and the improvised. To the other are slight but rare works given by Mr. Rauschenberg’s foundation around the time of his 1997 Guggenheim retrospective.

One is the appropriately titled “Untitled (Hotel Bilbao),” an early “Shirtboard” collage, made from materials gathered in North Africa, where Mr. Rauschenberg traveled with Cy Twombly in 1952. Another is a small untitled transfer drawing from 1952, made six years before Mr. Rauschenberg is thought to have taken up the technique, albeit without solvent. This puts a new chronological wrinkle in his pervasive interest in simple, direct, one-on-one printing processes and in basing his art on things found rather than made.

The Guggenheim also owns half of what must be considered an apotheosis of these interests, Mr. Rauschenberg’s 32-foot-long silkscreen painting “Barge.” Sadly for New Yorkers, it is currently on view at the Guggenheim Bilbao, which owns the other half.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Met is a latecomer to the New York Rauschenberg sweepstakes. Although it owns more than 60 prints, it did not acquire anything bulkier until the combine painting “Winter Pool,” from 1959, entered the collection. This ever-startling work consists of two narrow but rather colorful canvases flanking an old wood ladder, suggestive of a weathered swimming dock. The arrangement warps space in several ways, creating a feeling of submersion while bringing an arctic slice of white wall into the picture.

The museum reeled in this work just in time for its opening of “Robert Rauschenberg Combines” in December 2005. Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, that exhibition was among the greatest devoted to Mr. Rauschenberg’s work during his lifetime.

Robert Rauschenberg, American Artist, Dies at 82

Published: May 16, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg, the irrepressibly prolific American artist who time and again reshaped art in the 20th century, died on Monday night at his home on Captiva Island, Fla. He was 82.

The cause was heart failure, said Arne Glimcher, chairman of PaceWildenstein, the Manhattan gallery that represents Mr. Rauschenberg.

Mr. Rauschenberg’s work gave new meaning to sculpture. “Canyon,” for instance, consisted of a stuffed bald eagle attached to a canvas. “Monogram” was a stuffed goat girdled by a tire atop a painted panel. “Bed” entailed a quilt, sheet and pillow, slathered with paint, as if soaked in blood, framed on the wall. All became icons of postwar modernism.

A painter, photographer, printmaker, choreographer, onstage performer, set designer and, in later years, even a composer, Mr. Rauschenberg defied the traditional idea that an artist stick to one medium or style. He pushed, prodded and sometimes reconceived all the mediums in which he worked.

Building on the legacies of Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Cornell and others, he helped obscure the lines between painting and sculpture, painting and photography, photography and printmaking, sculpture and photography, sculpture and dance, sculpture and technology, technology and performance art — not to mention between art and life.

Mr. Rauschenberg was also instrumental in pushing American art onward from Abstract Expressionism, the dominant movement when he emerged, during the early 1950s. He became a transformative link between artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and those who came next, artists identified with Pop, Conceptualism, Happenings, Process Art and other new kinds of art in which he played a signal role.

No American artist, Jasper Johns once said, invented more than Mr. Rauschenberg. Mr. Johns, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Mr. Rauschenberg, without sharing exactly the same point of view, collectively defined this new era of experimentation in American culture.

Apropos of Mr. Rauschenberg, Cage once said, “Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look.” Cage meant that people had come to see, through Mr. Rauschenberg’s efforts, not just that anything, including junk on the street, could be the stuff of art (this wasn’t itself new), but that it could be the stuff of an art aspiring to be beautiful — that there was a potential poetics even in consumer glut, which Mr. Rauschenberg celebrated.

“I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly,” he once said, “because they’re surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable.”

The remark reflected the optimism and generosity of spirit that Mr. Rauschenberg became known for. His work was likened to a St. Bernard: uninhibited and mostly good-natured. He could be the same way in person. When he became rich, he gave millions of dollars to charities for women, children, medical research, other artists and Democratic politicians.

A brash, garrulous, hard-drinking, open-faced Southerner, he had a charm and peculiar Delphic felicity with language that masked a complex personality and an equally multilayered emotional approach to art, which evolved as his stature did. Having begun by making quirky, small-scale assemblages out of junk he found on the street in downtown Manhattan, he spent increasing time in his later years, after he had become successful and famous, on vast international, ambassadorial-like projects and collaborations.

Conceived in his immense studio on the island of Captiva, off southwest Florida, these projects were of enormous size and ambition; for many years he worked on one that grew literally to exceed the length of its title, “The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece.” They generally did not live up to his earlier achievements. Even so, he maintained an equanimity toward the results. Protean productivity went along with risk, he felt, and risk sometimes meant failure.

The process — an improvisatory, counterintuitive way of doing things — was always what mattered most to him. “Screwing things up is a virtue,” he said when he was 74. “Being correct is never the point. I have an almost fanatically correct assistant, and by the time she re-spells my words and corrects my punctuation, I can’t read what I wrote. Being right can stop all the momentum of a very interesting idea.”

This attitude also inclined him, as the painter Jack Tworkov once said, “to see beyond what others have decided should be the limits of art.”

He “keeps asking the question — and it’s a terrific question philosophically, whether or not the results are great art,” Mr. Tworkov said, “and his asking it has influenced a whole generation of artists.”

A Wry, Respectful Departure

That generation was the one that broke from Pollock and company. Mr. Rauschenberg maintained a deep but mischievous respect for Abstract Expressionist heroes like de Kooning and Barnett Newman. Famously, he once painstakingly erased a drawing by de Kooning, an act both of destruction and devotion. Critics regarded the all-black paintings and all-red paintings he made in the early 1950s as spoofs of de Kooning and Pollock. The paintings had roiling, bubbled surfaces made from scraps of newspapers embedded in paint.

But these were just as much homages as they were parodies. De Kooning, himself a parodist, had incorporated bits of newspapers in pictures, and Pollock stuck cigarette butts to canvases.

Mr. Rauschenberg’s “Automobile Tire Print,” from the early 1950s — resulting from Cage’s driving an inked tire of a Model A Ford over 20 sheets of white paper — poked fun at Newman’s famous “zip” paintings.

At the same time, Mr. Rauschenberg was expanding on Newman’s art. The tire print transformed Newman’s zip — an abstract line against a monochrome backdrop with spiritual pretensions — into an artifact of everyday culture, which for Mr. Rauschenberg had its own transcendent dimension.

Mr. Rauschenberg frequently alluded to cars and spaceships, even incorporating real tires and bicycles into his art. This partly reflected his own restless, peripatetic imagination. The idea of movement was logically extended when he took up dance and performance.

There was, beneath this, a darkness to many of his works, notwithstanding their irreverence. “Bed” (1955) was gothic. The all-black paintings were solemn and shuttered. The red paintings looked charred, with strips of fabric akin to bandages, from which paint dripped like blood. “Interview” (1955), which resembled a cabinet or closet with a door, enclosing photos of bullfighters, a pinup, a Michelangelo nude, a fork and a softball, suggested some black-humored encoded erotic message.

There were many other images of downtrodden and lonely people, rapt in thought; pictures of ancient frescoes, out of focus as if half remembered; photographs of forlorn, neglected sites; bits and pieces of faraway places conveying a kind of nostalgia or remoteness. In bringing these things together, the art implied consolation.

Mr. Rauschenberg, who knew that not everybody found it easy to grasp the open-endedness of his work, once described to the writer Calvin Tomkins an encounter with a woman who had reacted skeptically to “Monogram” (1955-59) and “Bed” in his 1963 retrospective at the Jewish Museum, one of the events that secured Mr. Rauschenberg’s reputation: “To her, all my decisions seemed absolutely arbitrary — as though I could just as well have selected anything at all — and therefore there was no meaning, and that made it ugly.

“So I told her that if I were to describe the way she was dressed, it might sound very much like what she’d been saying. For instance, she had feathers on her head. And she had this enamel brooch with a picture of ‘The Blue Boy’ on it pinned to her breast. And around her neck she had on what she would call mink but what could also be described as the skin of a dead animal. Well, at first she was a little offended by this, I think, but then later she came back and said she was beginning to understand.”

Growing Up With Scraps

Milton Ernest Rauschenberg was born on Oct. 22, 1925, in Port Arthur, Tex., a small refinery town where “it was very easy to grow up without ever seeing a painting,” he said. (In adulthood he renamed himself Robert.) His grandfather, a doctor who emigrated from Germany, had settled in Texas and married a Cherokee. His father, Ernest, worked for a local utility company. The family lived so frugally that his mother, Dora, made him shirts out of scraps of fabric. Once she made herself a skirt out of the back of the suit that her younger brother was buried in. She didn’t want the material to go to waste.

For his high school graduation present, Mr. Rauschenberg wanted a ready-made shirt, his first. All this shaped his art eventually. A decade or so later he made history with his own assemblages of scraps and ready-mades: sculptures and music boxes made of packing crates, rocks and rope; and paintings like “Yoicks,” sewn from fabric strips. He loved making something out of nothing.

Mr. Rauschenberg studied pharmacology briefly at the University of Texas at Austin before he was drafted during World War II. He saw his first paintings at the Huntington Art Gallery in California while he was stationed in San Diego as a medical technician in the Navy Hospital Corps. It occurred to him that it was possible to become a painter.

He attended the Kansas City Art Institute on the G.I. Bill, traveled to Paris and enrolled at the Académie Julian, where he met Susan Weil, a young painter from New York who was to enter Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Having read about and come to admire Josef Albers, then the head of fine arts at Black Mountain, Mr. Rauschenberg saved enough money to join her.

Mr. Albers was a disciplinarian and strict modernist who, shocked by his student, later disavowed ever even knowing Mr. Rauschenberg. He was, on the other hand, recalled by Mr. Rauschenberg as “a beautiful teacher and an impossible person.”

“He wasn’t easy to talk to, and I found his criticism so excruciating and so devastating that I never asked for it,” Mr. Rauschenberg added. “Years later, though, I’m still learning what he taught me.”

Among other things, he learned to maintain an open mind toward materials and new mediums, which Mr. Albers endorsed. Mr. Rauschenberg also gained a respect for the grid as an essential compositional organizing tool.

For a while, he moved between New York, where he studied at the Art Students League with Vaclav Vytlacil and Morris Kantor, and Black Mountain. During the spring of 1950 he and Ms. Weil married. The marriage lasted two years, during which they had a son, Christopher, who survives him, along with Mr. Rauschenberg’s companion, Darryl Pottorf.

Being John Cage’s Guest

Mr. Rauschenberg experimented at the time with blueprint paper to produce silhouette negatives. The pictures were published in Life magazine in 1951; after that Mr. Rauschenberg was given his first solo show, at the influential Betty Parsons Gallery.

“Everyone was trying to give up European aesthetics,” he recalled, meaning Picasso, the Surrealists and Matisse. “That was the struggle, and it was reflected in the fear of collectors and critics. John Cage said that fear in life is the fear of change. If I may add to that: nothing can avoid changing. It’s the only thing you can count on. Because life doesn’t have any other possibility, everyone can be measured by his adaptability to change.”

Cage acquired a painting from the Betty Parsons show. Aside from that, Mr. Rauschenberg sold absolutely nothing. Grateful, he agreed to host Cage at his loft. As Mr. Rauschenberg liked to tell the story, the only place to sit was on a mattress. Cage started to itch. He called Mr. Rauschenberg afterward to tell him that his mattress must have bedbugs and that, since Cage was going away for a while, Mr. Rauschenberg could stay at his place. Mr. Rauschenberg accepted the offer. In return, he decided he would touch up the painting Cage had acquired, as a kind of thank you, painting it all black, being in the midst of his new, all-black period. When Cage returned, he was not amused.

“We both thought, ‘Here was somebody crazier than I am,’  ” Mr. Rauschenberg recalled. In 1952 Mr. Rauschenberg switched to all-white paintings which were, in retrospect, spiritually akin to Cage’s famous silent piece of music, during which a pianist sits for 4 minutes and 33 seconds at the keyboard without making a sound. Mr. Rauschenberg’s paintings, like the music, in a sense became both Rorschachs and backdrops for ambient, random events, like passing shadows.

“I always thought of the white paintings as being not passive but very — well — hypersensitive,” he told an interviewer in 1963. “So that people could look at them and almost see how many people were in the room by the shadows cast, or what time of day it was.”

Kicking around Europe and North Africa with the artist Cy Twombly for a few months after that, Mr. Rauschenberg began to collect and assemble objects — bits of rope, stones, sticks, bones — which he showed to a dealer in Rome who exhibited them under the title “scatole contemplative,” or thought boxes. They were shown in Florence, where an outraged critic suggested that Mr. Rauschenberg toss them in the river. He thought that sounded like a good idea. So, saving a few scatole for himself and friends, he found a secluded spot on the Arno. “‘I took your advice,” he wrote to the critic.

Yet the scatole were crucial to his development, setting the stage for bigger, more elaborate assemblages, like ‘“Monogram.” Back in New York, Mr. Rauschenberg showed his all-black and all-white paintings, then his erased de Kooning, which de Kooning had given to him to erase, a gesture that Mr. Rauschenberg found astonishingly generous, all of which enhanced his reputation as the new enfant terrible of the art world.

Around that time he also met Mr. Johns, then unknown, who had a studio in the same building on Pearl Street where Mr. Rauschenberg had a loft. The intimacy of their relationship over the next years, a consuming subject for later biographers and historians, coincided with the production by the two of them of some of the most groundbreaking works of postwar art.

In Mr. Rauschenberg’s famous words, they gave each other “permission to do what we wanted.” Living together in a series of lofts in Lower Manhattan until the 1960s, they exchanged ideas and supported themselves designing window displays for Tiffany & Company and Bonwit Teller under the collaborative pseudonym Matson Jones.

Along with the combines like “Monogram” and “Canyon” (1959), Mr. Rauschenberg in that period developed a transfer drawing technique, dissolving printed images from newspapers and magazines with a solvent and then rubbing them onto paper with a pencil. The process, used for works like “34 Drawings for Dante’s Inferno,” created the impression of something fugitive, exquisite and secret. Perhaps there was an autobiographical and sensual aspect to this. It let him blend images on a surface to a kind of surreal effect, which became the basis for works he made throughout his later career, when he adapted the transfer method to canvas.

Instrumental in this technical evolution back then was Tatyana Grossman, who encouraged and guided him as he made prints at her workshop, Universal Limited Art Editions, on Long Island; he also began a long relationship with the Gemini G.E.L. workshop in Los Angeles, producing lithographs like the 1970 “Stoned Moon” series, with its references to the moon landing.

His association with theater and dance had already begun by the 1950s, when he began designing sets and costumes for Mr. Cunningham, Paul Taylor and Trisha Brown and for his own productions. In 1963 he choreographed “Pelican,” in which he performed on roller skates while wearing a parachute and helmet of his design to the accompaniment of a taped collage of sound. This fascination with collaboration and with mixing art and technologies dovetailed with yet another endeavor. With Billy Klüver, an engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories, and others, he started Experiments in Art and Technology, a nonprofit foundation to foster joint projects by artists and scientists.

A World of Praise

In 1964 he toured Europe and Asia with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the same year he exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery in London and the Venice Biennale as the United States representative. That sealed his international renown. The Sunday Telegraph in London hailed him as “the most important American artist since Jackson Pollock.” He walked off with the international grand prize in Venice, the first modern American to win it. Mr. Rauschenberg had, almost despite himself, become an institution.

Major exhibitions followed every decade after that, including one at the Pompidou Center in Paris in 1981, another at the Guggenheim in 1997 and yet another at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art that landed at the Metropolitan Museum in 2005.

When he wasn’t traveling in later years, he was on Captiva, living at first in a modest beach house and working out of a small studio. In time he became that Gulf Coast island’s biggest residential landowner while also maintaining a town house in Greenwich Village in New York. He acquired the land in Captiva by buying adjacent properties from elderly neighbors whom he let live rent-free in their houses, which he maintained for them. He accumulated 35 acres, 1,000 feet of beach front and nine houses and studios, including a 17,000-square-foot two-story studio overlooking a swimming pool. He owned almost all that remained of tropical jungle on the island.

After a stroke in 2002 that left his right side paralyzed, Mr. Rauschenberg learned to work more with his left hand and, with a troupe of assistants, remained prolific for several years in his giant studio.

“I usually work in a direction until I know how to do it, then I stop,” he said in an interview there. “At the time that I am bored or understand — I use those words interchangeably — another appetite has formed. A lot of people try to think up ideas. I’m not one. I’d rather accept the irresistible possibilities of what I can’t ignore.”

He added: “Anything you do will be an abuse of somebody else’s aesthetics. I think you’re born an artist or not. I couldn’t have learned it. And I hope I never do because knowing more only encourages your limitations.”

May 14, 2008
Rauschenberg and Dance, Partners for Life


Something inherently theatrical about Robert Rauschenberg’s talent — always evident in his radical feeling for color, light, composition and new ingredients and juxtapositions —prompted him to his boldest and freshest conceptions when he worked onstage. From the early 1950s until 2007 he designed for dance. And in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when he first came to fame, he was recurrently (at times constantly) occupied in dance theater.

When he won the international grand prize at the Venice Biennale in 1964, he said he regarded the Merce Cunningham Dance Company as his biggest canvas. Although the remark offended some in Cunningham circles (primarily the composer John Cage, who seems to have felt it sounded too proprietorial), it was completely justified. At that time there was no better place to see the range of Mr. Rauschenberg’s inventiveness than the Cunningham repertory.

Mr. Rauschenberg wasn’t just the designer of most pieces Mr. Cunningham had choreographed in the previous 10 years; he was also a permanent colleague. He toured America and, in 1964, the world as stage manager to the Cunningham company, adjusting the lighting and costumes, making several of the dancers into his long-term friends, helping turn the itinerary of a dance company into a fulcrum of ideas.

In 1954 Mr. Rauschenberg was the first stage designer to follow the principle of artistic independence already established by Mr. Cunningham and Cage. All he needed to know was which dancer to design costumes for, and if Mr. Cunningham had any further specifications. So when Mr. Cunningham asked (in 1954) for décor around which the dancers could move, Mr. Rauschenberg placed a large red free-standing combine center stage in “Minutiae”; though the choreography has not survived, the décor is still used in some Cunningham Events.

Sometimes Mr. Cunningham gave not specifications but poetic clues. For example, for “Winterbranch” (1964) he said to Mr. Rauschenberg, “Think of the night as if it were day.” Mr. Rauschenberg’s response was to think of images like being caught in the headlights of a car, and he made all-black costumes and lighting that sometimes threw the stage into darkness while viewers were shielding their eyes from the light.

When Mr. Cunningham was experimenting with new definitions of stage space in “Summerspace” (1958), suggesting both that the stage was just a section of a vaster landscape and that the mood was that of a summer idyll, Mr. Rauschenberg responded with impressionistic pointillism. The costumes of the dancers matched the backdrop view in near camouflage, and the work evoked scenes by Monet and Seurat while also suggesting a wildlife documentary.

In “Crises” (1960) the dancers wore single-color all-over tights that glowed fiercely against the surrounding blackness. In such works Mr. Rauschenberg also became one of the all-time masters of theatrical lighting.

Mr. Rauschenberg had come to know the young Paul Taylor in 1953, while Mr. Taylor was a Cunningham dancer. When Mr. Taylor began to choreograph in the succeeding years, Mr. Rauschenberg was his designer; works like “Three Epitaphs” (1956, all-black costumes again) survive in Taylor repertory today. In the 1960s Mr. Rauschenberg was involved in the radical dance-theater experiments at and around Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village and was close to Cunningham-connected experimentalists like Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber and Steve Paxton; he even choreographed himself.

Mr. Rauschenberg’s full-time connection to the Cunningham company ended with its 1964 world tour. Though he and Cage had stimulated each other profoundly and were in many ways like-minded, their egos had clashed; Mr. Rauschenberg’s “my biggest canvas” remark sounded like colonization in a dance theater where the point was independence.

But others led him back to dance theater, nobody more beautifully than Trisha Brown. Her “Set and Reset” (1983) was an instant masterpiece, largely thanks to Mr. Rauschenberg’s astonishingly imaginative designs. Three screens simultaneously broadcast separate video collages in black and white (more than 20 years before a video component became the norm in new choreography), while the dancers rippled around the stage in part-translucent costumes marked with gray and black figures that resembled newsprint.

Mr. Rauschenberg and Mr. Cunningham did collaborate again — though collaboration may have always been too tight a word for the freedom they gave each other — on several pieces over the decades. The last of these was only last October, “XOVER”(pronounced “Crossover”), which had its premiere at the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College. (It has yet to be seen in New York or most other cities.) The white costumes against a largely white backdrop recall the all-white paintings of 50 years before; the nonwhite parts of the backdrop, combining silk-screen photography and painting, connect isolated images (a bicycle, a fence, an industrial view) with beautiful color and details of light.

More glorious yet — the most marvelous Rauschenberg stage designs I have seen, and supremely theatrical — were what he made for Mr. Cunningham’s “Interscape” (2000). This work begins with a black-and-white curtain that is already a classic Rauschenberg collage of eclectic images: it proves translucent, and lighting allows the dancers to be seen warming up onstage.

When that curtain lifts, however, the backdrop is a full-color version of the same collage, so that we seem to have gone from a shadow realm to a new plane of more intense being, in which the main choreography occurs. Each costume was individual (Mr. Cunningham said he knew the dancers were happy from the noises he could hear them making as they returned from their fittings) and demonstrated Mr. Rauschenberg’s extraordinary feeling for color combinations. (One stinging green hangs in the memory.)

Impresarios have occasionally assembled programs that illustrate “Picasso and the Dance,” but Mr. Rauschenberg’s work for dance was far more prolific than Picasso’s, as a whole season could be presented to demonstrate. If only that could happen, its range of designs — from “Three Epitaphs” to “Summerspace,” from “Set and Reset” to “Interscape,” from “Crises” to “Glacial Decoy” (another Trisha Brown collaboration) — would easily establish his place in the forefront of architects of theater.

Robert Rauschenberg
Pop art pioneer whose wide-ranging work evoked the spirit of the old frontier

Michael McNay
Tuesday May 13, 2008

The American artist Robert Rauschenberg, a man of few words, made one famous statement. He said that his ambition was to fill the gap between art and life. Even these few words were not original. His friend John Cage had already said that this should be the aim of the modern artist. Similarly, Rauschenberg's art was not especially original; it could scarcely have existed without cubist collage and the work of Kurt Schwitters. And yet he created a body of unmistakably American work that threw down a challenge to the abstract expressionism of Pollock and de Kooning; work of a similar scale and ease, metropolitan art that evoked the spirit of the old frontier so dear to the late 20th century American public.

Rauschenberg, who has died aged 82, was born of mixed German and Cherokee descent in Port Arthur, Texas. He had a good war, "that is, practically no war at all" as a neuropsychiatric technician in naval hospitals in California. Like many Americans, he had never seen a real painting, and when he did in a California exhibition, he was none too impressed: Reynolds's portrait of Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse was, he remarked, "an enormous brown thing". But it was his first inkling that being an artist might constitute a career, and as he wasn't much good at anything else, when he was demobbed he signed up at the Kansas city art institute under the GI bill of rights.

From there he saved up to go to Paris but learned very little from the Académie Julian ("the criticism was once a week in French, and I didn't understand any French"), painted a few desultory cityscapes, fell in love with Sue Weil, a New York art student whom he was to marry, and joined her at Black Mountain college in North Carolina to study under Joseph Albers.

On the face of it, Albers's Bauhaus aesthetics were not ideal for the scruffy and undirected work that Rauschenberg was producing, but Rauschenberg needed and wanted the discipline, and it is possible to see in the delicate discrimination with which he placed the elements of his collages the influence of Albers's elegant control.

But it was Rauschenberg's fellow student, John Cage, who had the major influence on him. Cage's 4 min 33 sec, the work which starts when the pianist raises the lid of the piano and finishes, without him having played a note, four minutes and 33 seconds later, has its parallel in Rauschenberg's white paintings. Not White On White like Malevich earlier in the century, but white, so that its only surface interest would be the shadows of passers by falling upon it, just as Cage's work was a collage of sounds from outside the concert hall (and, presumably, coughs within).

From Black Mountain he went to New York, where he had his first show in 1951, at the Betty Parsons Gallery, the prime mover and shaker in Manhattan. It attracted withering reviews - "stylish doodles," said the New York Times - and no sales. About now, too, he used an eraser to bring a drawing by de Kooning back to the faint indentations that pencil had made on paper. This was construed as a radical attack by a younger painter on the values of the abstract expressionist, who were by now regarded as world leaders of the avant garde.

It was compared with Duchamp drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa. Leaving aside that de Kooning was hardly Leonardo, Rauschenberg's act was condoned by de Kooning, who, indeed, dug a drawing out of his portfoliofor that express purpose.

Undaunted by unpopularity, though he was never to make much money until he and Jasper Johns began to decorate the windows of Bonwit Teller and Tiffany under a joint pseudonym in the mid 50s, Rauschenberg pressed on with theatre designs for another Black Mountain friend, Merce Cunningham, and for Paul Taylor. Meanwhile, he developed his collages, reaching some kind of summation in 1955 when, apparently short of a surface to work on, he decided to paint the quilt on his own bed, hanging it vertically to do so. The quilt's pattern of orange squares was too dominating, so he added the pillow on top, splashed on some more paint, and, with some logic, called the resulting work Bed.

Simultaneously, he was developing his so-called combines, which were paintings with objects mounted on the surface, and his constructions, which were paintings with bigger objects mounted on the surface. Part of the New York legend is that these caused great consternation. It is hard, after Dada, to see how. When Monogram, his painted construction with an amiable stuffed angora goat encircled by a tyre, was exhibited in the Tate Gallery exhibition, Painting and Sculpture of a Decade 1954-64 (he had a one-man Whitechapel show the same year), it looked absolutely right, the subject of nice judgment, and totally unshocking. As well it might: it had taken Rauschenberg months to hit on the right arrangement. And by now he was regarded as one of the leading lights of New York art.

The contradictions mounted. No great thinker, Rauschenberg had instinctively allied himself with the post-Duchamp vanguard; a slosher of paint without much regard for the colour, he came to be an artist of fine discrimination; not much of a reader, he embarked on a series of illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy (now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York), involving the silkscreened mass media images he was by now deploying in all his work combined with non-representational marks in paint or pencil.

Rauschenberg created the 38 Inferno drawings as a modern counterpoint to Dante and Virgil's journey through hell, replacing Dante's characters with his own heroes, American figures like Pollock and de Kooning. It is clear that non-representational are the key words. Even during his anti-Vietnam war period the serigraphed images did not amount to a political declaration. Their drama was inherent in the image itself, mediated by the other marks on the canvas; if a viewer wished to attribute political intent then that, one feels, was fine by Rauschenberg. He himself refrained from overt comment.

In the 1990s he embarked on a series of collaged images called Anagrams (collages after all amount to visual anagrams). They included political processions, buildings, sculpture, vegetables, table lamps, jetties, beach scenes, flags, posters from all parts of the world, the images recurring in different works and in different combinations. They still rely on a flattened cubist spatial structure but on a much larger scale and with light flooding the canvases and brush marks recalling American art of the heroic post-war days; recalling, in fact, his own heroic days, for despite an increasingly sure technique, these later works are quieter, blander even, than the assertive and clamorous combines of his early maturity.

As Rauschenberg found acclaim (including the grand prize at the Venice Biennale of 1964) and financial security, he never forgot the earlier struggles and in 1970 he helped to found Change, an organisation devoted to providing emergency funds for artists.

· Robert Rauschenberg, artist, born October 22 1925; died May 12 2008

Remembering Rauschenberg
Greatness and golden slippers.
By Jim Lewis
Posted Wednesday, May 14, 2008, at 6:57 PM ET

I once asked Robert Rauschenberg if he was afraid of dying. It was not as rude or unseemly a question as it might at first appear. At the time, he was elderly but in fine health; I had spent the previous three or four days visiting with him at the large but somehow modest compound he owned on Captiva Island, Fla., and in the course of our conversations, he'd spoken about his past and his work with unusual frankness and great wit.

Moreover, it seemed to me that he'd lived something very close to a perfect life. He'd been in on the origin of the great aesthetic movements of his time, and his place in history was pretty much guaranteed; he took enormous pleasure in making art and continued to make it long after many artists retire; he had traveled the world and made a great deal of money, much of which he donated to causes he believed in. To be sure, there were dark patches; for many years he was a ferocious alcoholic—he could put away a fifth of bourbon a day—but by the time I met him, he had put all that behind him, and he seemed to have mastered the eudaemonistic life. I was curious to know how he felt about leaving it, so I asked him.

He wasn't bothered by the question at all. He seemed to find it interesting, he had obviously thought about it before, and he reflected for a while before he answered. "There are moments in the day when I find it terrifying," he said at last. "I don't ever want to go. I don't have a sense of great reality about the next world." Then, referencing an old spiritual, he said, "My feet are too ugly to wear those golden slippers." He paused again. "I'm working on my fear of it," he continued. "And my fear is that after I'm gone, something interesting is going to happen, and I'm going to miss it."

Rauschenberg died Monday, at home in Captiva; I hope the terror left him before the time came. As for missing something interesting, he rarely did while he was alive, in large part because he was something interesting, and the world will miss him as much as he might miss the world. He was, quite simply, as charming and delightful as any man I've ever met. But he'll be remembered as a great artist, certainly one of the greatest of the last half-century.

He was one of those people—quick as a comedian, deft and knowing—who seem to be effortlessly inventive, spinning off ideas and techniques like droplets of water from a lawn sprinkler, and there is hardly an artist working today who doesn't owe him something. To Rauschenberg, almost anything could be art, and art could be almost anything; he crossed media and created new ones as often as other artists clean their brushes. Consider the following gesture, simple, ingenious, daring, and true: One day in 1953, when Rauschenberg was in his late 20s, he stopped by Willem de Kooning's studio with a request. At the time, de Kooning was emerging as one of the giants of Abstract Expressionism, and Rauschenberg admired him enormously. He asked the older artist if he could have a drawing, not to hang it on his wall but to make into another artwork: He intended, he made clear, to erase it. De Kooning, to his great credit, complied, and Rauschenberg spent the next few weeks and, according to legend, went through 15 erasers trying to get the marks off the paper (he never entirely succeeded; some ghost of the image remains).

Erased de Kooning was the first major work of Rauschenberg's career, and it showed many of the qualities for which he would eventually become known: a paradoxical originality (or perhaps an original paradoxicalness), energy, iconoclasm, unerring instinct. There have been a lot of artists who have used art to assault art's own verities, but few of them did so as gracefully and cheerfully as Rauschenberg. He was often joking, in a peculiar Zen-ish way that he shared with his friend John Cage, and he was almost always having fun, but he was never bullshitting.

It would take me another 10 pages to begin to describe everything else that Rauschenberg came up with: the combines (painter-ish, sculpture-ish assemblies of found materials), photo-transfer drawings, sets and costumes for Merce Cunningham's dance company, and the famous "9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering" of 1966, a wildly experimental performance festival that Rauschenberg put together with an engineer from Bell Labs named Billy Kluver, and which, with only a little stretching, can be seen as a precursor of everything from video art to Nintendo's Wii.

Rauschenberg was wildly prolific; the drops from the sprinkler landed where they would. Even he couldn't keep track of them all. At one point I asked him how many artworks he'd made in his lifetime. "Maybe 3,000," he answered. "Maybe 5,000. Maybe many more." But if you were to challenge anyone with a reasonable grasp of 20th-century art history to name some, I doubt they'd be able to come up with more than five or six. He was a very rare thing: the great artist who made few great artworks.

I don't think he would mind the characterization: He always preferred the process to the result, the inventiveness to the invention, the gesture to the meaning. There was a wall in one room of his house in Captiva where he kept his own collection of other people's artworks. It was almost all ephemera—little scraps of paper with passing marks made on them, mostly by his friends. But what friends and what ephemera: There was a small drawing by Cy Twombly, a round cardboard coaster from the Cedar Bar upon which de Kooning had doodled one night, and, loveliest of all, a sheet of lined school notebook paper that Jasper Johns had used to sketch an American flag, an early study for one of the greatest paintings of the 20th century. ("Jasper never could draw a straight line freehand," Rauschenberg told me.) It was clear that he'd rather have had those fugitive pieces than their corresponding masterpieces. He thought of art not as a monument but as the record of a passing moment. I suspect he knew, too, how melancholy an idea that can be. That's the thing about moments: They pass. And now Rauschenberg has as well, and there's that much more to miss.

Jim Lewis is the author of three novels, most recently, The King Is Dead.

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