Front Table - 10/20/21

October 20th, 2021

On our Front Table this week, explore the relation of art and society with a classic argument for a people's culture to combat the culture industry, a study of the social forces shaping the representation of Black culture in visual art, and a history of popular music focusing on its racialized boundaries. Find the following titles and more at semcoop.com.


Alien Listening: Voyager's Golden Record and Music from Earth
(Princeton University Press)
Daniel K.L. Chua and Alexander Rehding

In 1977 NASA shot a mixtape into outer space. The Golden Record aboard the Voyager spacecrafts contained world music and sounds of Earth to represent humanity to any extraterrestrial civilizations. To date, the Golden Record is the only human-made object to have left the solar system. Around the extreme scenario of the Golden Record, Chua and Rehding develop a thought-provoking, philosophically heterodox, and often humorous Intergalactic Music Theory of Everything, a string theory of communication, an object-oriented ontology of sound, and a Penelopean model woven together from strands of music and media theory. The significance of this exomusicology, like that of the Golden Record, ultimately takes us back to Earth and its denizens. By confronting the vast temporal and spatial distances the Golden Record traverses, the authors take listeners out of their comfort zone and offer new perspectives in which music can be analyzed, listened to, and thought about—by aliens and humans alike.


Art on the Frontline: Mandate for a People's Culture (Walther Konig Verlag)
Angela Davis and Tschabalala Self

In her stirring essay, "Art on the Frontline", scholar and activist Angela Davis asked, ‘How do we collectively acknowledge our popular cultural legacy and communicate it to the masses of people, most of whom have been denied access to the social spaces reserved for arts and culture?' Looking to the cultural forms born of Afro-American struggles, Davis insists that we attempt to understand, reclaim and glean insight from these in preparing a political offensive against the racial oppression inherent to capitalism. Working from a site of racial uprising some thirty-five years later, artist Tschabalala Self responds to Davis's words with a new series of characteristically vibrant, challenging and provocative works on paper. Her series of three individual subjects emerge collectively as something greater than their parts, suggesting in the ebbs and flows in joy and disdain a kind of shared social consciousness. 


Black Art: A Cultural History (Thames & Hudson)
Richard J. Powell

The African diaspora – a direct result of the transatlantic slave trade and Western colonialism – has generated a wide array of artistic achievements, from blues and reggae, to the paintings of the pioneering African American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner and video creations of contemporary hip-hop artists. This book concentrates on how these works, often created during times of major social upheaval and transformation, use black culture both as a subject and as context. From musings on “the souls of black folk” in late nineteenth-century art, to questions of racial and cultural identities in performance, media, and computer-assisted arts in the twenty-first century, this book examines the philosophical and social forces that have shaped a black presence in modern and contemporary visual culture.


Helen Levitt (Thames & Hudson)
Helen Levitt

The classic Photofile series brings together the best work of the world's greatest photographers in an attractive format and at a reasonable price. Handsome and collectible, each book contains a selection of the photographer's most important and representative images in beautiful duotone and/or color, plus an introduction and a bibliography.This new addition to the series features the work of Helen Levitt. Born in Brooklyn in 1913, Helen Levitt is best known for her photographs of New York, which have inspired generations of photographers, collectors, and a general audience entranced by images of daily life in the great city. Helen Levitt's first major museum exhibition was presented at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943, and a second solo show was held there in 1974. Retrospectives of her work have been shown at museums across America and around the world, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the International Center of Photography, and the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris.


Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres (Penguin Press)
Kelefa Sanneh

In Major Labels, Kelefa Sanneh distills a career’s worth of knowledge about music and musicians into a brilliant and omnivorous reckoning with popular music—as an art form (actually, a bunch of art forms), as a cultural and economic force, and as a tool that we use to build our identities. He explains the history of slow jams, the genius of Shania Twain, and why rappers are always getting in trouble. Sanneh shows how these genres have been defined by the tension between mainstream and outsider, between authenticity and phoniness, between good and bad, right and wrong. Throughout, race is a powerful touchstone: just as there have always been Black audiences and white audiences, with more or less overlap depending on the moment, there has been Black music and white music, constantly mixing and separating. This is a book about the music everyone loves, the music everyone hates, and the decades-long argument over which is which. The opposite of a modest proposal, Major Labels pays in full.


One Friday in April: A Story of Survival and Suicide (W.W. Norton & Company)
Donald Antrim

As the sun lowered in the sky one Friday afternoon in April 2006, acclaimed author Donald Antrim found himself on the roof of his Brooklyn apartment building, afraid for his life. In this moving memoir, Antrim vividly recounts what led him to the roof and what happened after he came back down: two hospitalizations, weeks of fruitless clinical trials, the terror of submitting to ECT—and the saving call from David Foster Wallace that convinced him to try it—as well as years of fitful recovery and setback. One Friday in April reframes suicide—whether in thought or action—as an illness in its own right, a unique consequence of trauma and personal isolation, rather than the choice of a depressed person. A necessary companion to William Styron’s classic Darkness Visible, this profound, insightful work sheds light on the tragedy and mystery of suicide, offering solace that may save lives.



Oscar Wilde: A Life (Knopf Publishing Group)
Matthew Sturgis

Drawing on material that has come to light in the past thirty years, including newly discovered letters, documents, first draft notebooks, and the full transcript of the libel trial, Matthew Sturgis meticulously portrays the key events and influences that shaped Oscar Wilde’s life, returning the man “to his times, and to the facts,” giving us Wilde’s own experience as he experienced it. Here, fully and richly portrayed, is Wilde’s Irish childhood; a dreamy, aloof boy; a stellar classicist at boarding school; a born entertainer with a talent for comedy and a need for an audience; his years at Oxford, a brilliant undergraduate punctuated by a reckless disregard for authority . . . his arrival in London, in 1878, his ten-year marriage to Constance Lloyd, the father of two boys. Wilde’s development as a playwright. . . becoming the high priest of the aesthetic movement; his successes . . . his celebrity. . . and in later years, his irresistible pull toward another—double—life, in flagrant defiance and disregard of England’s strict sodomy laws (“the blackmailer’s charter”); the tragic story of his fall that sent him to prison for two years at hard labor, destroying his life and shattering his soul.


The Radical Potter: The Life and Times of Josiah Wedgwood 
(Metropolitan Books)
Tristram Hunt

Wedgwood pottery, such as the celebrated blue of Jasperware, is famous worldwide. Jane Austen bought it, and wrote of it in her novels; Empress Catherine II of Russia ordered hundreds of pieces for her palace; British diplomats hauled it with them on their first-ever mission to Peking, audaciously planning to impress China with their china. But the life of Josiah Wedgwood is far richer than just his accomplishments in ceramics. He was a leader of the Industrial Revolution, a pioneering businessman, a tireless scientific experimenter, a cultural tastemaker, and an ardent abolitionist. And he did it all in the face of chronic disability and relentless pain: a childhood bout with smallpox eventually led to the amputation of his right leg. As acclaimed historian Tristram Hunt puts it in this lively, vivid biography, Wedgwood was the Steve Jobs of the eighteenth century: a difficult, brilliant, creative entrepreneur whose personal drive and extraordinary gifts changed the way we work and live. Drawing on a rich array of letters, journals, and historical documents, The Radical Potter brings us the story of a singular man, his dazzling contributions to design and innovation, and his remarkable global impact.


Say It Loud! (Pantheon Books) 
Randall Kennedy

In a magnum opus that spans two decades, Harvard Law School professor Randall Ken­nedy, one of our preeminent legal scholars and public intellectuals, gives us twenty-nine provocative essays--some previously published, others written for this occasion--that explore key social justice issues of our time. Informed by sharpness of observation and often courting controversy, deep fellow feeling, decency, and wit, Say It Loud! includes: The George Floyd Moment: Promise and Peril - Isabel Wilkerson, the Election of 2020, and Racial Caste - The Princeton Ultimatum: Anti­racism Gone Awry - Frederick Douglass: Everyone's Hero - The Politics of Black Respectability - Policing Ra­cial Solidarity - and more. In each essay, Kennedy is mindful of com­plexity, ambivalence, and paradox, and he is always stirring and enlightening. Say It Loud! is a wide-ranging summa of Randall Kennedy's thoughts on the realities and imaginaries of race in America.


Spinoza's Religion: A New Reading of the Ethics (Princeton University Press)
Clare Carlisle

Spinoza is widely regarded as either a God-forsaking atheist or a God-intoxicated pantheist, but Clare Carlisle says that he was neither. In Spinoza’s Religion, she sets out a bold interpretation of Spinoza through a lucid new reading of his masterpiece, the Ethics. Putting the question of religion centre-stage but refusing to convert Spinozism to Christianity, Carlisle reveals that “being in God” unites Spinoza’s metaphysics and ethics. Spinoza’s Religion unfolds a powerful, inclusive philosophical vision for the modern age—one that is grounded in a profound questioning of how to live a joyful, fully human life. Like Spinoza himself, the Ethics doesn’t fit into any ready-made religious category. But Carlisle shows how it wrestles with the question of religion in strikingly original ways, responding both critically and constructively to the diverse, broadly Christian context in which Spinoza lived and worked. Offering startling new insights into Spinoza’s famously enigmatic ideas about eternal life and the intellectual love of God, Carlisle uncovers a Spinozist religion that integrates self-knowledge, desire, practice, and embodied ethical life to reach toward our “highest happiness”—to rest in God. Seen through Carlisle’s eyes, the Ethics prompts us to rethink not only Spinoza but also religion itself.

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