Elizabeth Taylor at 15 in 1947. Photo by Bob Landry for LIFE
Elizabeth Taylor‘s death last week made me sad, but not for the reasons I expected. I wasn’t sad for her; by all accounts, she lived a long and fulfilling life, brought joy to millions through her movies, and did enormous good through her philanthropy and activism. Rather the sadness came from the sense, as it did when her friend Michael Jackson died, that a more blissful era had passed.
The day Taylor died, I began working on a project for LIFE, captioning photos for an upcoming book commemorating the photojournalism magazine’s 75th anniversary. Poring through LIFE‘s archives, I was reminded again what a repository of our shared cultural memory it has been. So many familiar images — the sailor and nurse kissing in Times Square on V-J Day, Jackie Robinson stealing home, the Beatles frolicking in a swimming pool during their first visit to America, a naked Vietnamese girl running down the road, a student at Kent State screaming over the body of a classmate killed by National Guardsmen, the Zapruder film — all of them encoded in our DNA and burned into our retinas as if they had happened to us, even if we’re too young to have been there.
There were Hollywood pictures, too, of Marilyn Monroe in thoughtful repose, James Dean walking down a rainy street, and many pictures of Taylor, including the one at the top of this post, taken in 1947, when she was just 15 but already impossibly beautiful, already a star, yet with a lifetime of tumult and triumph and endless scrutiny still ahead, about to crash over her like an ocean wave. Who could have imagined it? And yet, she looks prepared and unafraid. Continue reading
Mark Twain (Library of Congress No. LC-USZ62-5513)
Your elites don’t trust you. They don’t trust you to be able to read certain historical or literary documents, listen to TV and radio pundits, or even look at certain billboards and posters without getting the wrong ideas and letting them poison your mind to the extent that you turn to violence.
We’ve seen that a lot this month, with censorship efforts against a broad spectrum of source material, from Huckleberry Finn to the U.S. Constitution to Sarah Palin’s website, in the wake of the Tucson shootings. Continue reading
The future isn’t what it used to be, said Yogi Berra. It’s certainly not, now that I’m its beat reporter. All this week, through June 12, I’m guest editor/blogger at io9, Gawker Media’s sci-fi/pop futurism blog. Whether or not you’re a sci-fi fan, please stop by, geek out, and have fun.
Photo by John McNab at Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons
John Updike’s death yesterday has spawned numerous tributes bemoaning the void he leaves on the literary landscape. I will not add to those, save to note that what I think we are all really mourning is a kind of literary life, of which Updike may have been the last great practitioner. There used to be a time in American letters (or so it seems in retrospect) when a writer could flow easily between novels, short story collections, nonfiction books, and magazine articles. Or maybe only Updike himself could manage that juggling act. For the past half century, Updike’s prodigious output included roughly a book a year and articles and short stories for many magazines, including 800 bylines in the New Yorker. While he’ll be best remembered for his novels of suburban ennui and adultery, he stretched easily to other topics, from baseball to fine art, from witchcraft to third-world politics.
Along the way, he attracted criticism (some deserved) that he had no business, as a WASPy Harvard alumnus, to appropriate the narratives of characters from backgrounds distant from his own. His imagination may occasionally have failed him, but as an artist, he certainly had the right to try. Literature is about empathy, and like Terence, Updike found nothing human was alien to him.
All art is political. To make art is to remake the world, either as you envision the world to be, as you wish it to be, or as you wish it not to be — so making art is always a political act. The artist’s political statement may not be intentional or even conscious, but nonetheless, by making art, he or she is initiating a political conversation. And by interacting with and interpreting the art, the viewer is adding to the political conversation. That’s why the discourse over culture — between artist and viewer, between artist and critic and viewer, or among artists or critics or viewers — is so important to me.
How we talk to each other about culture — which ususally means, how we talk to each other about popular culture — is how we talk to each other about the world we live in, or the world we would like to live in. At this time of hyperpartisanship, we have few other ways of talking about such matters in a way that gives us all common ground. We can barely speak to each other directly about issues of criminal justice or torture or authoritarianism, but we can all talk about The Dark Knight, thereby addressing these issues without throttling each other.
This blog will explore the intersection of politics and popular culture. This crossroads has always fascinated me, but it also seems to be of interest to many at a moment when conservatives gripe about positive portrayal of Barack Obama in a Spider-Man comic book, or when Tina Fey’s lampooning of Sarah Palin may have helped decide the election. I’ll be writing about what our popular culture is really saying about us (however unwittingly), how partisans read (or misread) the culture and try to use it to their own ends, and how, in this age of niche politics and niche pop culture, we may yet find a measure of unity through the movies, TV shows, music, and books that speak to us of the world that is and the world that could be.