Not Just For Java

Academic publishers are bringing out coffee table books. Scott McLemee takes a look at some recent titles.

October 25, 2006

Magazines devoted to the finer points of lifestyle have developed a whole vocabulary for suggesting the atmosphere of refinement found in some homes. There are decors bearing names like Country House, for example, or Late Victorian. For a long time (well into our late 30s) my wife and I lived amid surroundings that one visitor dubbed “Late Graduate Student.” Ours was an apartment where old furniture went to die.

At some point, of course, we parted with the last of the cinder blocks and boards, investing in a set of very sturdy modular bookshelves that had the words “Made in Romania” stenciled on the back. It was the early 1990s, so you had this overwhelming sense that they had been manufactured (strictly for export) beneath a giant portrait of Ceausescu. But they were well-made, or so it seemed until late in the second Clinton administration, when they began to sag, a little, under the weight of the books.

Imagine shabby gentility -- then subtract the gentility. I flashed back to that ambience recently while looking over some new volumes from university presses that could be identified as “coffee table books.” Back then, I would have used that term derisively, in the spirit of sour grapes. In the meantime, our fortunes have improved moderately. The furniture matches. Our bookshelves are a marvel of engineering science. Now we even have a coffee table, proper, instead of a wicker chest full of old clothes with a piece of wood on top of it.

And yet years have passed without a coffee table book ever gracing it. This probably reflects a deep prejudice against the merely decorative – a feeling that books are for reading, not for use as objets d’art. (Some elements of the Late Graduate Student sensibility die hard.) But three new academic titles combine impressive graphic design with solid cultural value, and have earned their momentary place on top of the pile of magazines.

You have to wonder what went through the minds of the investors who funded Documents when the first issues of that now-legendary French cultural journal came back from the printers in the late 1920s. It was a deluxe publication, reproducing paintings by Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, and it included photographs of artwork from Africa and the Caribbean. So far so good: The painters were already famous, and “primitive” cultural forms were becoming very fashionable.

But a photograph of a big toe, blown up to gigantic size? Accompanied by a philosophical essay on the significance of that part of the body? This was not a normal art magazine, even by avant garde standards. Copies are now rare. But thanks to Dawn Ades and Simon Baker’s Undercover Surrealism: Georges Bataille and “Documents,” published by the MIT Press, it’s possible to get a feel for the journal in all its undiminished originality.

Hearing “surrealism,” you might think you know what to expect. Certain things seem predictable. (Anyone who has seen a Dali print knows all about the transfiguration of flame-resistant giraffes sodomizing the ukelele, right?) But the editor of Documents, Georges Bataille, was not actually a member of the “official” surrealist movement – he was considered, basically, just too weird. He set the tone for the journal by using it to practice a kind of delirious scholarship that is much drier, but somehow more hallucinatory, than the usual dreamlike juxtapositions of surrealist art and poetry. The first issue contained an essay by Bataille called “The Academic Horse,” which (1) contains several learned footnotes and (2) has something or other to do with horses. It would require several years of study to say more than that about it.

The editors of Undercover Surrealism have included papers by experts on Bataille -– sometimes sharing the same page with translations from the original journal, along with paintings, drawings, ethnographic photos, and reproductions from pulp magazines or Aztec guides to human sacrifice. This is as absorbing and enigmatic a book as you are ever likely to find.

While the writers and artists around Documents were pushing the surrealist insurgency to new limits in Paris, it seems, the Bolsheviks were sketching caricatures of one another in the Kremlin. Piggy Foxy and the Sword of Revolution: Bolshevik Self-Portraits, from Yale University Press, may interest even people who don’t share my fascination with all things Soviet.

The title is awful and easy to forget. Nor is the subtitle accurate, since very few of the drawings are self-portraits. But the editors, Alexander Vatlin and Larisa Malashenko -- researchers working in Moscow -- have prepared excellent short surveys of the history behind these cartoons, which for the most part were sketched on scraps of paper during long Politburo meetings in the 1920s and '30s. They also provide photographs and short biographical accounts of the individuals so caricatured -- which is helpful, since all but a handful of them are now quite obscure.

It’s interesting to see that Nikolai Bukharin -- the original for the character of Rubashov in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and perhaps the single most talented (and humanly appealing) figure in the Bolshevik leadership -- was also a gifted and witty caricaturist. Some of his drawings shape-shift his colleagues into animals. In his own self-portrait, he has a fox’s tail, while fellow “Old Bolshevik” Lev Kamanev appears as an overweight dog, absent-mindedly pooping.

These images, most from the 1920s, are for the most part good-natured. But that changes within a few years. “The revolutionary camaraderie and tradition of collective leadership,” note the editors, “slowly succumbed to suffocating ideological intolerance and personal dictatorship.” The cartoons by one Valery Mezhlauk during the early 1930s tend to be a lot edgier -- and in some cases, they are grotesquely obscene. Very few of the Bolshevik leaders portrayed here survived the decade. Those not arrested in 1937 usually disappeared in 1938. This book is a glimpse inside the world that disappeared with them.

Somewhat more likely to generate a feeling of loss is the recent closing of CBGBs -- the rock club in New York that became the epicenter of the American punk scene. In fact, you can feel nostalgia for the place despite never having actually attended a show there, as a recent segment on the Onion Radio Network satirized very effectively.  

But loud and interesting guitar noises were just part of the do-it-yourself cultural revolution fostered by CBGBs. Up is Up, But So is Down: New York’s Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992 , edited by Brandon Stosuy and published by New York University Press, is a gigantic collection of texts and images from the days of punk, post-punk, and post-everything in the Lower East Side and Soho.

The anthology is a kind of time capsule drawn from fanzines, posters, and small-press books. (Quite a few were probably run off by people at their day jobs, while the boss wasn’t looking.)

The selection is uneven, of course. It would be hard to read around in Up is Up for very long without remembering the line from Truman Capote: “That’s not writing, that’s just typing.” But then that’s to be expected. The nature of cultural experimentation is that some experiments don’t work. What makes the collection work is the feeling you get of looking inside a really messy laboratory while everything is still in progress.

Most of the material is drawn from the holdings of the Downtown Collection at NYU’s Fales Library. The editor, who is a staff writer for Pitchfork, sketches an account of the cultural scenes documented here. But it’s clear that the archive still has plenty of stories to yield up to historians. In the meantime, Up is Up, But So is Down will doubtless be an inspiration to bohemians yet to come. I imagine them keeping it by their bedside, rather than on a coffee table. 


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