Episode 447 – Peter Schjeldahl

Virtual Memories Show 447:
Peter Schjeldahl

“My job is to give people something to read that is enjoyable and in some other way perhaps worth reading. It’s almost not about the art; it’s about the concentration, the absorption.”

I traveled up to the Catskills this weekend for a round of Rip Van Winkle-themed putt-putt golf, lunch, and some conversation with New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl. We get into Peter’s 2019 diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer and how he gained & then lost the persona of The Dying Man during his one piece of memoiristic writing about it. We also talk about his accidental transition from poet to art writer in the ’60s, why his two criteria for writing about art are quality & significance, his bias for authenticity over authority and sophistication over education, how HOWL changed his life, why he hates reproductions of paintings, why it took him years to come around on Rembrandt, his experience of revisiting Velazquez’ Las Meninas over the years, the piece of art he’d like to revisit when we can travel again, his love of (& aesthete’s approach to) fireworks, and plenty moreon the art of living! Give it a listen! And go read Hot, Cold Heavy, Light: 100 Art Writings 1988-2018

“There’s no art to dying at all.”

“Having talent is like being put in lifetime charge of a wild animal that you have to feed and nurture and obey. And it doesn’t care about you; if taking a bite out of your ass would help the work, it’ll do that in a second.”

“Bad art is its own punishment.”

“The only thing a reproduction has in common with a painting is the image.”

TUNEIN PLAYER TK

“All of my deep art historical knowledge was learned bit by bit on deadline.”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

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About our Guest

Peter Schjeldahl has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998 and is the magazine’s art critic. He came to the magazine from The Village Voice, where he was the art critic from 1990 to 1998. Previously, he had written frequently for the New York Times’ Arts and Leisure section. His writing has also appeared in Artforum, Art in America, the New York Times Magazine, Vogue, and Vanity Fair. He has received the Clark Prize for Excellence in Arts Writing from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute; the Frank Jewett Mather Award from the College Art Association, for excellence in art criticism; the Howard Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, for “recent prose that merits recognition for the quality of its style”; and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is the author of four books of criticism, including The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings, and Let’s See: Writings on Art from The New Yorker. His latest book is Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light: 100 Art Writings, 1988-2018.

Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded on Peter’s back porch on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photos of Peter by me. It’s on my instagram.

My Books of the Decade: 2010-2019

Alphabetical by author:

I started this on a whim, Christmas Eve, looking over the list of Every Book I’ve Finished Since 1989. These are the books that have stuck with me most over the decade, or continue to rise up in my thoughts. Given recency bias, a bunch of them are reads from the past few years.

Observations:

I thought about ranking them, but they’re so different from one another that it seemed futile. If pressed, I’d put those two Donald Hall essay collections at the top, followed by Daniel Mendelsohn’s memoir on teaching The Odyssey.

It’s only prose, not comics. I don’t keep a list of comics I’ve finished, and I’m not at home while I write this, where I’d be able to refer to my library.

I read a ton for the podcast, but much of it is non-fiction, so I get minimal exposure to contemporary novels & stories. Hence only 3 novels to 10 non-fiction works. Also, I barely read poetry. I’m glad that memoirs didn’t outweigh history/biography, as I fear that’s a bias of mine.

This was the decade in which I finished reading Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts(podcast), and in which I discovered/read Stefan Zweig (esp. Chess Story), The Peregrine by JA Baker, The Leopard by Giuseppe Lampedusa, Bruce Jay Friedman’s short fiction(podcast), Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series, The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins, and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Which is to say, a lot of pre-2010 work made a huge impression on me, which maybe crowded out some of this decade’s work, in terms of stature/relevance.

Yep, all 12 authors are white, and yep, it’s 11 male to 1 female author. I’ll try to do better next decade.

There would be a whole bunch of honorable mentions, but that’s a whole new can of worms to open up. To quote the late Tom Spurgeon, “If I missed your book, it’s because I hate you.”

Go back to the main podcast page

Low-res

In 2017, I read more than 50 books, produced 52 weekly episodes of The Virtual Memories Show, dropped 20 lbs., made major progress on paying off my house, made some actual friends from the podcast, and got a new dog. I didn’t donate enough to charity, but paying off the house 15 years early is making things a little tight.

On the professional side, I helped a major piece of legislation through passage into law, testified in front of a Congressional committee, recruited many more companies into my trade association, solo-organized my first conference, and did a bit part in trying to fix drug shortages that resulted from the catastrophe Puerto Rico.

As usual, the only real resolution I can come up with for 2018 is, “Write more,” and I’ve started working on that. Otherwise, there isn’t a whole lot: Clean the garage? Get around to reading Henry James? Get some more of my Mt. Rushmore-level pod-guests onto the show? Be a better friend? Those all seem pretty marginal to me if I can just sustain 2017 levels, but we’ll see what the year brings.

A memory of yesterday morning

I changed the way I do my weekly Virtual Memories e-mail for the podcast. It’s more like a blog-post, or a rumination or a reverie of something. This one’s about David Hockney. You can read it here and subscribe here.

The Quotable Malcolm Margolin

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This week’s podcast with Malcolm Margolin featured so many great quotes, I don’t want to limit it to the 2 or 3 I put in the show notes for the episode. So here’s a big ol’ compendium of What Malcolm Said:

  • “For years I’d been a slave to the in-box. Being out of the loop was a little disconcerting.”
  • “What got me into publishing was to attract beautiful women.”
  • “On the outside, I can create things I could never create on the inside.”
  • “What I’m passing on to people is . . . the capacity to have fun. To have a life that you can build around. Not branding, and not the demands of the marketplace, but what you really think and what you want.”
  • “Dressing Indians up to be perfect victims does them a disservice. What I’ve tried to do is get beyond the ‘dress code’.”
  • “In some ways I feel regret; the irony is that I was so active in preserving other people’s cultures and languages, but I let mine go.”
  • “As Phil Levine said, ‘Why be yourself when with a little bit of effort you can be interesting?'”
  • “One of the biggest changes in the course of my life is the growing dominance of salesmanship in everything we do.”
  • “Our culture takes knowledge and structures it around the sense of time. We have history. One thing led to another, and that’s causality. . . . We know the history of institutions, of genealogies. The Indians had none of that. Time is flat. Indians structured their knowledge around place.”
  • “Their whole world was filled with stories, and the stories talked to one another.”
  • “I’m an emotion junkie. If I can go more than a few hours without breaking into tears, it’s a wasted day.”
  • “I’m not sure I know anything you couldn’t talk me out of in 5 minutes.”
  • “I think if there’s an inscription on my headstone, it should be, ‘He was easy to please.’”

Now go listen to the podcast!

I forgot

Last Friday was the 12th anniversary of the Virtual Memories blog! Sure, it’s mainly a repository for my podcast now, but it’s still kinda neat that I’ve been keeping this site & blog up all these years. And in 2016, we can plan its Bar Mitzvah!