Sideshow Bob

by Chris Bertram on July 7, 2008

I just finished Gregory Gibson’s “Hubert’s Freaks”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0151012334/junius-20 (subtitle “the rare book dealer, the Times Square talker and the lost photos of Diane Arbus”). It was one of those strange books which sounds interesting but then has you thinking you made a mistake in starting, but suddenly hooks you and has you reading to the end. Gibson tells three intertwined stories: first, that of Bob Langmuir, a neurotic Philadelphia-based antiquarian book-and-miscallaneous-stuff; second, more briefly, that of Diane Arbus, her career, her photographs, suicide and posthumous rise to cult status; and, uniting the other two, Hubert’s Museum, a Times Square freak show (complete with bogus African tribespeople, amputees, tattooed men &c.). Arbus had become involved with the people at Hubert’s in the 1960, and especially with the black couple known as Charlie and Woogie who ran the place, and had taken a whole bunch of pictures there. It is these pictures that Langmuir discovers chez another dealer, amid a pile of other paraphenalia. Part of Gibson’s story is Langmuir coming to terms with what he has, and then struggling to get the difficult (to understate the case considerably) Arbus estate to authenticate the material so that he can bring the pictures to market. But Langmuir is also an archivist of African-American history and he is fascinated by the people at Hubert’s and by the comprehensive phonetically-spelled diaries that Charlie kept for most of his life. Gibson does an excellent job of stitching the various narratives together and using them to evoke a strange and marginal side of America. In passing he gives us some interesting insights into how the market for art photography got started (a combination of scarcity of other art objects giving rise to a need for new outlets for the connoiseur’s passion and institutional hype from curators like John Szarkowski at MoMa and critics like Sontag).

(When I bought the book on a recommendation, I hadn’t realised that it had only recently come out. In fact the story is still short of a denoument as Okie, the Nigerian dealer from whom Langmuir bought the trunk, is suing on the grounds that he was somehow illicitly deprived of valuable items. Since _caveat vendor_ would seem to be to relevant principle for trades between dealers, and since Langmuir did the work of recognising the Arbus material and then establishing authenticity, it is hard to believe the Okie has a case. But where (possibly) millions of dollars are at stake, it is probably worth him trying it on. Pending resolution, the Hubert’s archive can’t be sold.)

Thomas Disch is dead

by Henry on July 7, 2008

I didn’t know him, although I did know and love his novels – Patrick Nielsen Hayden knew man and work both, and has “more of substance”:http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/010413.html#010413 to say than I ever could. John Clute “reviewed”:http://www.scifi.com/sfw/books/column/sfw18985.html his most recent book a couple of weeks ago, and quoted a poem that he published in the _Paris Review,_ “The Moon on the Crest of the New-Fallen Snow.” I liked it a lot.

Pain

Has its place—and pity, too—but it is not here.
Here all is calm and cold and luminous.
The snow has smoothed over the tracks of the deer.

Moral panic in Australia

by Chris Bertram on July 7, 2008

On the basis of not paying particularly close attention but listening to what Australian friends had to say, I’d formed a generally positive impression of Australian PM Kevin Rudd. Now I see that Rudd has been stupid enough to “weigh”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/7492579.stm into “a controversy”:http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23979363-601,00.html about the artistic depiction of child nudity with the following comment:

bq. “Frankly, I can’t stand this stuff …. We’re talking about the innocence of little children here. A little child cannot answer for themselves about whether they wish to be depicted in this way.”

I can’t wait for the Australian government’s prosposals for banning the appearance of child actors in soap operas and TV advertising on similar “couldn’t consent to thus being depicted” grounds!

The image in question can be seen “here”:http://www.artmonthly.org.au/ . (Perfectly safe for work in my opinion, but what do I know.) Chillingly, “Officials have said they will review the magazine’s public funding.” Of course there may be questions about whether art magazines should be publicly funded at all, but if they are to be, then this seems an crazy reason to withdraw the case.

(Incidentally, a relative of mine works with someone who was on the front cover of Led Zeppelin’s _Houses of the Holy_, no doubt the Australian Childhood Foundation would have been up in arms about that too on the grounds of possible “psychological effects in later years” — there don’t seem to be any.)