Monthly Archives: December 2012

Happy Holidays from Back to the World. We will see you in the new year!


edward hicks the peaceable kingdom

Edward Hicks / The Peaceable Kingdom/ 1847



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Margaux’s Friday Pictures – Norval Morrisseu, otherwise called Copper Thunderbird


Norval Morrisseau_Transmigration of the Human Soul into Another Existence








Norval-morrisseau-Merman and child

Merman and Child



Norval_Morrisseau_Figure with Medicine Astride a Spirit Animal

Figure with Medicine Astride a Spirit Animal


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Tea With Chris: So Annihilating That It Annihilated Itself

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Thursday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Carl: Nothing about guns, mental health or who was or is Adam Lanza’s mother. Instead, small moments: a story about children in a faraway place making music out of garbage, which is soon to be a documentary. And a semi-documentary that I’d thought lost (until Mike McGonigal showed the light) about more-privileged children, in a faraway year, apparently making garbage out of music, which turned out instead to be inventing half the music I’d listen to by the time I was their age. It sounds pretty great to listen to the two together.

Awhile ago I wrote a piece about the new biography of Leonard Cohen. James Parker waited a few weeks longer, till Rod Stewart’s new autobiography came out, and had the much funnier idea of writing about both of them. His thesis – essentially that the bouffanted d’ya-think-I’m-sexy prancer and Canada’s own grocer of despair each represent one pole of William Blake’s paradigm that “some are born to sweet delight” and “some to misery are born”- gave me a more bountiful appreciation of Rod Stewart than I’ve ever had in my life. For some it might work the other way around. What does that tell us about ourselves?

Finally, a cup of borrowed tea: I’ve never seen the TV series Happy Endings but if it lives up to this piece by John Swansburg in Slate, part of a series about the best TV moments of the year, I may have to start. The article is accompanied by a video of a minor tour-de-force on the show that manages the very difficult job of making high comedy out of ordinary marital happiness. I think it’s best to read Swansburg’s discussion before you watch it, but either way, it’s a succoring vision I’ll carry with me into the holiday.

MargauxI can’t tell if this book review is hilarious because the writer of the book review is hilarious or because the book being reviewed is hilarious. Since the book is called Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt,  I’m going to go ahead and guess that the book reviewer Sarah Bakewell is hilarious. Or maybe that there’s something a little bit wrong with my head today. But the book sounds good too, containing gems like  “Primal nothingness might have been so annihilating that it annihilated itself, thus producing being”. Totally.

This is very relaxing for some reason: Lesbians who look like Justin Bieber.

Whoa, I must really need some relaxation since this also seems valuable right now: Your LL Bean Boyfriend

If you like to rank living people, especially writers (and you’re not a writer) you might like this: New York’s 100 most important living writers.

If you haven’t read this yet, Bill Murray on Gilda Radner, it’s the prettiest story in the whole world.

And this is the most exciting thing in the world –  the First Nations resurgence brought to you directly by #IdleNoMore.

Chris: Everything is slowing down, including my nervous system (I’m typing this through a nasty cough). But in the past week my e-friend Isabel has fallen with unreal speed into boy-band lust, inspiring some of her best and funniest writing about pop music. You can just go to her Tumblr and scroll down, half the posts concern One Direction at this point, but here’s one I especially liked:

“and it’s like, you think, well of course, but zayn is zayn, everyone knows that, that’s like, you know, grass is green, nickelback sucks, literally that level of uninteresting and obvious, as uninteresting and obvious as cheap shots at nickelback, and you think it can stop there, and then you realize this clear-eyed sharp-cheekboned wind-swept motherfucker has fucking stubble and you’re like, just push me off a cliff already, and hope is lost”

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On the Subject of Artists Talking About Art (By Sheila Heti)

Margaux Williamson: A few days ago, I took a walk with the writer Sheila Heti. We got onto the subject of artists talking about art. She had a lot to say about this and I was curious to hear more. I asked her if she would write about it for Back to the World. I’m really glad I asked – my friend sent me this incredibly smart and dead-on post this morning:


By Sheila Heti

I am not sure how to set down my anger in a way that is coherent – this anger that suddenly hit me a month ago, or maybe a few weeks ago. I spent most of 2012 publicizing my novel, How Should a Person Be? – touring and doing interviews and whatnot. (If you had asked me, a few years ago, what a year spent promoting a book might look like, I would have said it was impossible to do. But I have spent the better part of a year doing just that – and my friends, oy vey.) Anyway, I just looked up a month ago from all this and heard some complaint that I had been deaf to – a common thread of criticism about my book which wasn’t so much about the book (I think) as a proposition the book was making: that a legitimate thing to think and talk about (especially among people who make art) is the making of art. Suddenly, all sorts of words flooded into my mind that had been repeated all year, but which I had not yet put together as the chorus that it was: that this activity is privileged, narcissistic and childish; something permitted to those at university, maybe, but even then, a bit far-fetched as an activity of real importance. Certainly to be put away – along with the other “childish things” – once one becomes a man.

A funny thing is that much of this criticism came from very smart people in populous American cities, where (it is implied) the more mature, less narcissistic, and less privileged thing to talk about is money. Money is a conversation for adults. Art, for undergrads.

I’m pretty sure the majority of people who complained about all the conversations about art in my book are the same people who bemoan the lack of reading in our culture, who bewail the death of the novel, and who wish America was smarter and greater. Yet how can one claim, on the one hand, to wish to protect the cherished art of novel-reading, and on the other, to denounce as childish, privileged and narcissistic a healthy and normal conversation about art’s importance and the best way to make it – especially when that conversation is happening among, of all people, artists!

I think it’s the wholesale infiltration of concerns about money and commerce into art that leads to art’s withering on the vine, not direct and serious conversation about how to make art now. Stop talking about Amazon, for godssakes! For one minute!

I have spent a lot of time among fellow writers in New York, and although I count many of these people as my beloved friends, I rarely have a conversation in that city about art that does not either begin, end, or quickly turn into a conversation about the writing business – about agents and advances and gossip about other peoples’ advances and complaints about not getting reviewed here or there. In Toronto (that childish, infantile place) – or the Toronto that I depict, and that I am and have long been a part of – to turn a conversation in that direction would feel embarrassing. Not because we have so much money or do not need money as much (I don’t know anyone with a trust fund here), but because it would mean taking time away from what is more important and more vital, and which should be at the core of what we’re doing, and which we want to be doing better.

Perhaps this is “uncool.” As Dave Hickey once said of Richard Serra: “He says, ‘Let’s go look at art,’ so that’s what he does. He’s kinda corny because he’s not hip at all. He doesn’t know anybody. He doesn’t know who got AIDS, he doesn’t know who got fired. But he’s a real artist to me anyway.” Richard Serra is one of the artists I was thinking about most intently while I was writing my book – so to learn this from Hickey (a few years later) made sense. Probably that’s why Serra’s art provides so much to think about. What place does cool or hip have in any of this? Looking over my bookshelf at my most beloved writers – Kierkegaard, Franz Kafka, C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Vonnegut – this is not a club of cool people, but a club (if it is a club) of those who could never be considered cool. A person can only be cool about what they do not care about. And these people cared more than anyone.

I am not saying that my New York friends or certain reviewers don’t actually care about art. They must. What I am picking up on is the distaste for bringing that caring into public. Caring about art is almost illicit, something one does in the privacy of one’s home, like masturbation. Well, sex and orgies are much more pleasurable than masturbation, and talking about art with other people is much more pleasurable than thinking about it alone. In any case, one can and should have both.

Artists should think about art, and should talk about it together, the same way people agitating for social change should talk about social change together. Would Occupy Wall Street have happened if people didn’t finally decide to put their collective grievances into a public space and talk about them? Art is not frivolous. Art is not a luxury. It moves the world forward. Like Occupy, it speaks for the pockets of our culture and our hearts that the mainstream, commercialized world does not want to hear about; art elbows its way in. It’s about balancing – about justice. It allows our deepest grievances and sorrows to take centre stage. Art is an example of human freedom and striving. It defines and stretches our humanity, it clears the world of convenient lies, it touches the loneliness that plagues us all and replaces it with fellow-feeling. It creates models of possible worlds in opposition to the worlds we live in, which we cannot imagine our way out of without art.

If my book can be placed among those that create possible worlds, I suppose  it’s a world in which artists can talk about art with dignity, because there is nothing to ridicule there.

If conversations about art are “privileged,” then it is also a privilege to talk about injustice. And maybe it is! Yes, I suppose it is a great privilege to be able to speak about art and justice. It is a great privilege, also, to be alive. And yet we do not all stab knives into our chests. It is a great privilege to be so far advanced in human history that writing and reading exist for so many. Yet that these things don’t exist for all, does not mean that those who read should poke out their eyes with sticks. All these privileges are meant to be taken. And used.

Finally, narcissism is something that begins and ends with itself. The artist is not narcissistic; she looks at her self in order to talk about other selves. She then creates something and gives it to the world. Someone who does this could be considered narcissistic in her personal life; only her friends and family know for sure. Yet people who look at themselves in order to better look at the world – that is not narcissism. It is, and has always been, what people who make art do, and must do. You cannot do it blind. You cannot do it by looking at a toaster. We do not look at ourselves in order to bask in our vanity (do you think anyone writes in furs?) but to understand ourselves as human beings – so as to understand other human beings – the human: fiction’s greatest subject. If we as a culture hate art, and this past year has made me suspect we do, I can only think it is because we are afraid to look at ourselves. And we hate the artist because she can look, and does.


Filed under books, guest post, literature, margaux williamson, visual art

Carl’s Tuesday Musics: “Gabriel’s Message” by Black Walls

by Carl Wilson

This seems like an aptly gothic arrangement of this seasonal hymn for this unusually sombre pre-holiday week. By Toronto’s Ken Reaume aka Black Walls. Love to the loved ones.

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Little Boxes #121: Glitterdammerung!


(from The Invisibles Vol. 3 #1, script by Grant Morrison and art by Frank Quitely, 2000)

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Tea With Chris: Coy Japanese Dog

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Thursday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Chris: The cowboy hat as mythographic class signifier.

If there was a year-end list for righteously aggrieved responses to year-end lists I would nominate Alex Ostroff.

I found this enigmatic photo of a Japanese pup via Pauline and I just kind of need to post it.


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Margaux’s Friday Pictures – Krishna plates from the Bhāgavata Purāṇa & Gita Govinda


krishna stealing butter - bhagavata 1700Krishna stealing the butter / from the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, 1700




Illustration to the Ghagavala Purana Kangra- Punjab Hills-1790Krishna with his Favourite after leaving the Dance / from the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, 1790




krishna-the stealing of the clothesThe Stealing of the Clothes / from the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, 1790




krishna-the closing scene- ill gita govinda -1730The closing Scene / from the Gita Govinda, 1730

The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Loves of Krishna in Indian Painting and Poetry, by W. G. Archer


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Little Boxes #120: A Very Crosshatched Christmas


(by Frank King, 1936)

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Tea With Chris: A Beautiful Turtle

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Thursday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Chris: Thanks to their cagey editorial policies, you can only find Hilton Als’ memoir “I Am Your Conscious, I Am Love: A Paean 2 Prince” online if you’re a Harper’s subscriber, which makes it less than ideal as tea. But, well, go buy a copy of the magazine, or just wait for the next Best Music Writing anthology, because Als has taken the most enigmatic of pop stars to be dearly personal. While reading it, I spent several minutes in wonder at the surreal precision of this sentence: “There was more silence, and as it unfolded, I took in his face, which had the exact shape, and large eyes, of a beautiful turtle.” And that doesn’t even reach the purple-bruised heart of Als’ essay, about blackness and queerness and anxiousness in America, about trying to be somebody’s Dorothy Parker when you can only really be their lover.

Eileen Myles cordially sons (uncles?) the retiring Philip Roth.

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