Michael Jackson is inseparable from his astronomical celebrity. It was his making and his tragedy. It glows with a bright, mournful edge from every one of these exhibits, probing the question of what might have been if his enormous success had not in some way required, or at least contributed to, his eventual annihilation. An exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery gathers together the work of forty-eight disparate artists exploring the legacy of perhaps the most frequently depicted cultural figure in history, and his fame is their common palette.
It’s a truism that no one accepts anyone else’s reading of Hamlet. And for at least two hundred years, no generation has been comfortable with its predecessor’s take on the play. It’s hard to think of another work whose interpretations so uncannily identify what the play calls the “form and pressure” of “the time.” Critics and actors usually register cultural shifts a bit belatedly; but on occasion the most astute seem to anticipate them.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross later applied the same five stages she identified in the process of dying—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—to the process of grieving. As with dying, she never meant to imply that grief was contained to just five feelings, or that the stages were linear, like levels in a Nintendo game. “They were never meant to tuck messy emotions into neat packages…. Our grief is as individual as our lives,” she wrote in On Grief and Grieving. Kübler-Ross found it laughable how some doctors had the gall to hold an essential organ in their hand but had no capacity for ambiguity.
How would “Soul of a Nation”—an exhibition of Black Power art made in the 1960s to 1980s—look at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, situated in one of the whiter areas of Arkansas? In a state where 17 percent of the overall population and a third of the African-American population lives in poverty, there could hardly be a more glaring contrast to the values and material objectives of civil rights and Black Power.
The summer of 1998, Philip Roth began his novel The Human Stain, “was the summer when a president’s penis was on everyone’s mind”; 1998 was also the year when Pfizer signed up Bob Dole, who had run for president against Bill Clinton two years earlier, to promote its new drug, Viagra. The barriers to talking explicitly and publicly about sex had been falling for several years. In the early 1990s, the rap group 2 Live Crew had been acquitted of obscenity charges for performing their album As Nasty as They Wanna Be. The Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and its director won a similar victory when they were tried for exhibiting photographs from Robert Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio. By 1999, over two thirds of evening TV shows contained sexual content, an increase of 12 percent over the previous year. If sex had a defining feature in the 1990s, it was ubiquity.
Happy Easter and Passover, from all of us at the Review.
Fifty-five years ago, The New York Review published its first issue. To celebrate the magazine’s emerald anniversary, in 2018 we will be going through the archives year by year, featuring some of the notable, important, and sometimes forgotten pieces that appeared in its pages. That first issue included a short note, addressed To the Reader: “The hope of the editors,” they wrote, “is to suggest, however imperfectly, some of the qualities which a responsible literary journal should have and to discover whether there is, in America, not only the need for such a review but the demand for one.”
Pundits often marvel at how quickly Germany’s far-right AfD has acquired power. But if the party has gained prominence, in some polls even surpassing the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), it is because the anti-immigrant sentiment it represents has, in fact, been present as an undercurrent in German politics for years. Even if the AfD, constantly beset by internal conflicts and scandal, implodes, he says, “there will be another right-wing populist party” to take its place.
Hawa, a Hindi word for wind or air, carries a subtler meaning in Indian politics. A politician’s hawa is the tailwind that propels him to victory; it is the superior momentum that comes with being on a roll. For the past five years in the world’s biggest democracy, one man, one party, and one ideological current have pretty much cornered all the hawa. A puffing guardian spirit tangibly energizes Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister; despite his modest stature, the bearded sixty-seven-year-old can fill a room with a swirling air of quiet purpose or, some would say, menace. All across the country hawa can be felt ruffling the ubiquitous orange flags of his Bharatiya Janata, or Indian People’s Party (BJP), and stirring the long-suppressed ambitions of the Sangh Parivar, the “family” of Hindu nationalist groups that is the party’s ideological home.
All men are created equal—but in what sense equal? Obviously not in the sense of being endowed with the same attributes, abilities, wants, or needs: some people are smarter, kinder, and funnier than others; some want to climb mountains while others want to watch TV; and some require physical or emotional support to do things that others can do on their own. And presumably they are not “equal” in the sense of demanding identical treatment: a father can give aspirin to his sick child and not his healthy one without disrespecting the equality of his children. Rather, all humans are said to be equal in what philosophers call the “basic,” “abstract,” “deep,” or “moral” sense of equality. We are all, in some fundamental sense, and despite our various differences, of equal worth, demanding, in Ronald Dworkin’s famous phrase, “equal concern and respect.”