In the past I’ve written about film archives, Google Books, and online galleries. These digital resources are not just entertaining and educational, but they are invaluable tools for contemporary artists. Today, I’d like to share with you three library digital databases that are free and open to anyone. All three of these databases are black holes of time-suckage, so consider yourself forewarned.
Duke University has an impressive digital archive, by any standard. But one of their standout collections is an archive of the work of photographer William Gedney. With more than 5,000 items, you could spend all afternoon in this collection alone. There’s a fantastic pictorial of the 1978 Gay Pride March commemorating the tenth anniversary of Stonewall. Also impressive, though completely unrelated, is Duke’s collection of vintage advertisements called AdViews. Here you will find commercials for your favorite products from the 1950s through the 1980s. Michelob. NyQuill. American Express. Old Spice. Always Maxi-Pads. It’s all there.
The New York Public Library has amassed a stunning array of digital documents and pictures. There are dozens of collections, many you might expect, like photographs of Brooklyn, the Richard Rogers collection, New York Women’s Suffrage. But there are also some surprises that are unbelievably cool, Yiddish Theater Placards, Vintage Holiday Postcards, and the unfreaking believable collection of restaurant menus from 1850s through 1930s. There’s some menus from old time Chicago restaurants as well. In 1854 at the Lake House Restaurant on “the corner of Michigan and Kinzie,” you can get a glass of claret for .75 cents. Not bad.
Perhaps best known for its role in National Treasure 2, the Library of Congress belongs to all of us. It’s America’s library, that’s why the president hides all his secrets there. And you know what is also hidden there? All sorts of national treasures. There’s National Jukebox, a historic collection recordings from the Victor Company between 1920-1925, all of these transferred from 78rpm. There are vintage newspapers, lots of stuff about the legislature, a performing arts digital encyclopedia, and “over one million digital photographs.” Now you can’t beat that.
Check out these excellent resources. They’re fun and they’re free, and in the case of the Library of Congress, paid for with your tax dollar.
At my house there is an unhealthy obsession with forgeries, all kinds of forgeries. I can trace this back to our interest in Han van Meegeren, the famous Vermeer forger. Although there had been much written about van Meegeren, it was in 2008 when two books came out and a long series of articles by Errol Morris appeared in The New York Times that our interest intensified. Concurrent with Morris’s story was a photo quiz where they’d show you an original Vermeer and a van Meegeren and ask you to pick the one you prefer, then an art historian told you why the Vermeer was better. (Sadly, I can’t find the link to this.) Without exception, I picked van Meegeren. This tells me a couple of things. First, I’d better brush up on my art history. Second, maybe I don’t really like Vermeer. Lastly, perhaps I have bad taste. But I still have this question, why are we so interested in forgeries?
Often books and articles about forgeries center on the idea of money, being ripped off, and the dollars lost. Simply put, money is just a signifier of value—a way to apply something tangible (money) to the intangibility of genius and beauty (art). The excellent book, The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace, tells the story of Hardy Rodenstock and a case of “lost” bottles of wine that purportedly belonged to Thomas Jefferson. He fooled everyone. Wine critics. Auction houses. Everyone. One of these “lost Jefferson bottles” sold for $156,000. Why was that? Because this specific wine was just thing to serve with Saturday night’s porterhouse? No, because the purchaser wanted to be close to something grander than himself. In this case Thomas Jefferson. He was filthy rich and wanted to own a piece of history. He wanted to open that bottle and consume Jefferson in a transubstantitive way. And who can blame him?
Back in episode 164 of Bad at Sports, Joanna McKenzie and I reviewed Lee Israel’s memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me?. Israel was a well-respected biographer before booze and a series of bad decisions turned her into a forger of letters. While it was amusing to read about her escapades and how great she was at forging the words Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman, I found it upsetting to discover that her forgeries had made it into academic studies and are cited in authoritative texts. At that point it no longer seemed funny, like she’d pulled one over on snotty memorabilia collectors, she’d pulled one over on researchers and those with an honest desire to know more. She pulled one over on us.
There have been quite a few dust-ups in the last decade when people got so upset at authors who were later discovered to have inflated their memoirs. Remember James Frey’s Million Little Pieces? Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors? Even more recently the This American Life retraction of Mike Daisey’s episode on Foxconn? These events spawned surprisingly smart public discussion on the nature of authenticity and the meaning of truth. Birthed from the whole imbroglio was a new word, “truthiness.” I mean we already had “verisimilitude,” but somehow truthiness was just so much more truthful.
There’s a line in Orson Welles’ film about art forger Elmyr de Hory, F is for Fake (1973), where de Hory says “if you hang them in a museum, in the collection, and they hang long enough, then they become real.” Once we move beyond the financial ramifications of fraud, who is hurt by a forged painting, a counterfeit bottle of wine, a couple fabricated letters, or a memoir made a little more exciting? Perhaps de Hory hit the nail on the head, that the fraudulent will eventually become real. Maybe what is so fascinating and so frightening is that a good forger is a good liar. A good forger can fool even the most educated people in their field. And if we can’t trust what we read, or what we drink, or what we see in the museum, then who can we trust?
I was late to the Action movie genre. Really late. In fact maybe all of the 90s was wasted on me. It was only a few years ago during a particularly stressful time that my partner said, You know what you need? A good action movie. Then we proceeded to watch Die Hard (1988), Die Harder (1990), Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), and Live Free or Die Hard (2005). And guess what? After weekend of watching John McClane vanquish bad guys, both foreign and domestic, I felt a lot better. I mean what did I have to worry about? I didn’t have to run barefoot through broken glass to save my wife and everyone in her office from terrorists—on Christmas Eve, no less. So when I saw Action/Spectacle Cinema by Jose Arroyo on the “new” shelf at the library, I snapped it right up.
Action/Spectacle Cinema: A Sight and Sound Reader, is a collection of writings from The British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound, a smart and not too academic magazine. Instead of being organized chronologically, Arroyo divided the book into thematic sections: Big, Loud Action Movie; A John Woo Interlude; Comics, TV, SFX, and ‘the Ride” at the Movies; Indie Pulp and Neo-noir; Serial Killer in ’90s Hollywood; Critical Perspectives on a Mode; and Action/Spectacle in Review. But my favorite section is Arnold Schwarzenegger as Spectacle in Action.
This section, as you can imagine takes, Schwarzenegger as its subject, or if not the subject, then the vehicle by which the authors discuss their ideas. J. Hoberman’s essay “Nietzsche’s Boy” examines the trajectory of Arnold’s career and the shift from total bloody body count to that of benevolent action savior. This is best demonstrated by the difference between The Terminator and Terminator 2. The thing that struck me so much about these essays were that they were written in the ’90s, at a time when Schwarzenegger’s career as a politician was just beginning. This chapter foreshadows the man we would see as governor of California . This section, like the others, ends with reviews.
Although the essays are for the most part excellent, the real meat is in the reviews. Let’s be honest. Action movies are meant to entertain. There’s a car/train/plane chase. Shit blows up. The good guy wins. He gets the girl. I never thought much past that, and if I do read a review for an action movie, it’s only to see if it’s worth my $10.50. Action/Spectacle Cinema contains dozens of reviews and it was great fun to read them and see these films through a new, much more critical and loving lens than that which I am used to viewing action movies. Reading these sometimes twenty year-old reviews reminded me of films I’d completely forgotten about and loved, like The Long Kiss Goodnight. I also learned a lot about my viewing habits. As someone who somehow missed both Avatar and Titanic, I was surprised to find I am a James Cameron fan. Who knew?
Action/Spectacle Cinema is a good time. It’s not the kind of book most people would read cover-to-cover, nor is it must have for every library. Despite being on the library’s “new” shelf, it turns out that Action/Spectacle Cinema is not so new—it was published in 2000. But because this is an anthology of ’90s film writing, it doesn’t feel dated, but instead like a snapshot of an exciting time in action film history.
I had no intention of reviewing The Guerrilla Girls’ new catalog Not Ready to Make Nice: In the Artworld and Beyond. I mean it’s such a slim volume and I figured I knew everything there was to know about The Guerrilla Girls. Besides, I had practically emptied the library of the art books from the “New” section. Still, when I got home, put those big hardcover art books on the coffee table, it was the little Guerrilla Girls book that I brought to bed with me that night.
Not Ready to Make Nice is a straightforward catalog from the Columbia College A+D Gallery where the Guerrilla Girls were artists in residence this spring. (Bad at Sports is currently in residence, so stop on by.) The body of this 36-page book is a retrospective of the Guerrilla Girls’ last ten years. What I found surprising, sadly surprising, is that it seems the inclusion of women and people of color in our major institutions hasn’t improved much since they started. One of the most illuminating pieces is Chicago Museums: Time for Gender Reassignment! The facts in this work state “even the solo shows at the MCA since 2010 have been 80 percent male.” When I read that, I thought, Wow, that’s way more than I expected. Then my heart sank a little. Really, twenty percent? Remember that line from Rocky Horror where Magenta says to Frank, “I ask for nothing, Master,” and he responds, “and you shall receive it, in abundance.” Yeah, just like that.
The catalog also contains three contextualizing essays and a forward by Jane M. Saks, the executive director of the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media at Columbia College. The first essay by Neysa Page-Lieberman gives a succinct overview of the history of the Guerrilla Girls. The second essay by Joanna Gardner-Huggett considers the Guerrilla Girls through the lens of the feminist movement. Lastly, the catalog closes with an essay by Kymberly N. Pinder that places the Guerrilla Girls within context of ’80s-era culture jamming and street art. Taken together, Not Ready to Make nice is a tidy overview of the Guerrilla Girls’ career and their influence on contemporary arts culture.
This last paragraph is where I usually talk about how much the book costs and where you can buy it. I got mine at the library, which seems like a good place to get a book. But when I started looking for purchase information, I couldn’t find any. It seems the only reasonable way to come by this catalog is to check it out or read it for free online. I love this idea. Catalogs can be crazy expensive and hard to come by, so the idea of posting it for free seems both intellectually and financially respectful. Go ahead, read this book. It’s interesting and it won’t cost you a thing.
At the risk of sounding like a shill for Google, I will dedicate this post to Google Books. Actually, it’s now
called Google Play, but I’m old and find this concept confusing, so I’m going to ignore it. I suggest you do too. It is possible to purchase contemporary titles from Google Books and read them on your device, but so what? Everyone sells digital books. You can even check them out from the library. What I find most compelling about Google Books is the access to periodicals, old ones that I’d never encounter on my own. Admittedly, I’m pretty infatuated with old magazines. I bought 54 years of Gourmet off eBay, co-edited the New Art Examiner anthology, and interviewed Bad at Sportser Meg Onli for Art 21’s Centerfield post. Onli is currently working on a project about Black World/Negro Digest. She’s accessing all of her material through Google Books. I realize people use Google Books all the time, but I want to reframe it from just another place on the interweb trying to part me from my money, to an invaluable tool for artists.
Google calls all text, books, even magazines, even pamphlets, so keep that in mind. A simple search on “art” and restricting the results to free, yields only 47 titles, but what interesting titles they are. The first hit is The Art of the Moving Picture…: Being the 1922 Revision of the Book First Issued in 1915. Well, there’s just so many curious things about this book, I hardly know where to begin. The Art of the Moving Picture makes some excellent assertions, that still ring true. For instance that the pace of the “action photoplay” leaves no room for “full grown personal passion” (12). Think Die Hard or Con Air. Some things have not quite stayed the same. For instance “when a moving picture house is set up, the saloon on the right hand or the left declares bankruptcy” (207). I wonder what the author Vachel Lindsay would think of today’s upscale brew and views?
Because it’s Google, you are able to search within individual titles. Starting with magazines, restricting results to free, and searching “art” brings crazy random articles like this one from Vegetarian Times, called “Vegetarianism in Art.” There are more popular periodicals as well–hundreds of issues of Life. A browse of December 28, 1936, reveals a story about the first panda coming to the US and workers for the WPA’s Chicago theatrical arts project striking at the Merchandise Mart. The American Art Directory Volume IX (1911) has advertisements for art galleries on its forepages, is lousy with statistics, and names of artists and curators of the moment. And in case you didn’t know, back then all the high-end Chicago galleries were on South Michigan and admission to The Art Institute was twenty-five cents.
Besides book and magazines, you can also find other, more sundry reading material. There are many museum and exhibition catalogues, gallery brochures, bulletins from art organizations, but these charmers are a little more shy and require quite a bit of coaxing. Perhaps a bottle of rose and a bouquet of peonies would help.
Obviously, there is little contemporary art represented here, at least not for free. “Modern” in Google Book world lingers somewhere around 1912, which is kind of fun because searching a word like “sculptress” yields dozens of hits. Be warned, there are serious issues with meta data. Clicking on “Magazines” does not bring you to all of their magazines, it brings you to items scanned as individual issues. Most of what I read comes from bound volumes, that although look quite bookish, aren’t. Most of these are classified as books, though they’re still just magazines. Don’t expect the date Google gives you be correct, because it often isn’t. Read the title page. Even with these limitations, I still recommend spending some time on Google Books and exploring what these old magazines and books have to offer.