:: Article

Of MacArthur Grants, Regimes of Visibility and Meritocratic Orders

By Steve Light.


Wanda Coleman (1946-2013)

In Memoriam

The fanciest colors weigh what?
The leaves will never say
And all the answers in one day
Will vanish will they not?

Weighs what the colors’ fancy?
Affections of the words I’ve
Half forgot but always undergo, the sea
Tells different stories, or does it simply grieve?

Do colors rhyme?
How do they tell the time?
I’ll find the unused answers
The gods remain bemused
But if we are enthused
Aren’t we the nimbler dancers!?


If one examines the list of those to whom the MacArthur Foundation awards its ‘Genius’ Grants of $625,000 each year one quickly discovers two very evident things. In the first instance, those receiving awards in the humanities and in the sciences are almost without exception professors at leading research universities. In other words, they are already in positions where the work that they do, “the genius” that they enact, are supported in the best ways possible. They teach relatively few hours, receive salaries that enable them to live lives of middle and upper-middle class material comfort and pleasure, and consistently receive grants and other monies and institutional advantages to support their research, their writing, travel to conferences, and book and article publication. And this is especially true in the sciences where in addition to university support there are plentiful governmental and non-governmental grants–usually long-term grants–for research, travel, and publication. In this sense, those who consistently receive MacArthur Grants in the humanities and even more in the sciences do not need MacArthur Grants.

Remarkably enough, a number of years ago I heard an interview on National Public Radio of two physics professors, both in the early stages of their career, who had just received MacArthur Grants. One of them, a professor at Cal Tech, when asked what he would do with the money, surprised me–utterly surprised me (but also thereby won my admiration)–with his answer. He said something I didn’t think any recipient would ever admit or acknowledge or perhaps even have ever thought of in the first place, something, however, which I believe everyone in such a position should say, something I had thought I would say if ever I found myself in such a position.

Although in much briefer form he said much the same thing I have just said in the preceding paragraph. Yes, he said that he didn’t actually need this grant because as a professor at Cal Tech he already had all the institutional and foundational support necessary to carry out his work. He didn’t speak about professors in the humanities but I would add that although the institutional and foundational support for humanities research is much less than in the sciences, the paramount means by which an individual in modern and contemporary times can carry out research and writing in the humanities is precisely by obtaining a tenure track or tenured position at a research university or at a university or college in general. But in certain respects this was already true two centuries ago as the example of the primary exponents of German Classical Philosophy, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, shows. Many humanities recipients who have thus far been recipients of MacArthur Grants haven’t needed the grants either. [Note: When this essay was originally drafted I did not know that Heather McHugh, a superb and renowned poet and translator and also a professor in the English Department at the University of Washington, had received a MacArthur Award and that she had done something absolutely extraordinary with her award and, thereby, demonstrated precisely what the Cal Tech professor had stipulated, i.e. that he already had the infrastructure and support necessary to do his work. Heather McHugh, as a poet, works in a field with absolutely little or no remuneration for the vast majority whether esteemed and renowned or not, but as a professor at a research university she has a salary enabling her to live solidly within the middle class and to have lifetime security financially. What did she do with her award? She used her award money to set up a foundation, Caregifted, which provides caregivers respite and getaways from one of the more difficult of human tasks, respite (in the form of travels or journeys or vacations) from the tribulations, anxieties, exhaustion, and utmost stress that care-giving, particularly for the elderly, entails. What beautiful, truly beautiful and admirable generosity on Heather McHugh’s part! What a beautiful social conscience! Would that others would follow her example!].

But in actuality it is not just the many science and humanities recipients who hitherto have not really needed support for the research and intellectual work that has won them the grants in the first place. An examination year in and year out of the list of MacArthur recipients in literary and fine arts fields shows that the recipients are in a very large majority of cases people who have already obtained the kind of success and support that enables them to write or paint or otherwise carry out their creative work as their primary work as opposed to those whose primary time is allotted to wage labor other than that of their literary or artistic work. The writers who win these awards are those who generally have already achieved commercial literary success and the same is true of those in the fine arts. Furthermore, often these same people also have university or college teaching positions which in and of themselves (aside from their already secured commercial success) provide the money and time not only for carrying out creative work, but also provide a privileged situation in which to carry out creative work. I should add that winning commercial success in the fine arts and in the literary arts is not at all a common occurrence for writers or artists. So the winners of these awards in the literary and fine arts areas have in many cases already obtained privilege.

My aim here is not to contest the worthiness of the grantees who appear on the MacArthur list each and every year, although certainly one can always argue in this or that instance that party X and not party Y should have received the award, etc. My concern is with all those thinkers, scholars, writers, and artists whose talent cannot be fully employed because they do not have tenured academic positions or who have not won the kind of commercial literary or fine arts success that would free them from the constraints of wage labor, “day-jobs”, and the like. And I should add that–and this is the absolutely fundamental fact and circumstance–in every field the regime of visibility does not include all those whose work is of admirable, stellar, preeminent accomplishment, achievement, worth, and value. The regime of visibility in every field is less the outcome of meritocratic processes than is generally and specifically believed, and even sports–a realm that more than most, if not all, comes closer to reflecting a comprehensive meritocratic order in its regime of visibility–is never entirely meritocratic in all instances.

Paul Auster, the commercially and critically successful American novelist, wrote some years ago in a memoir that in the late l970s, prior to his having published his first novel and prior to his having won any kind of literary success, he was in a state of extreme financial crisis, unable even to win a community college teaching position. However, at just this critical existential moment his father died and left him $90,000. Auster was able to live on this for three years and in this period he completed his first novel and it won him commercial success and entry into the regime of visibility, a success and an entry he has been able to maintain and increase ever thereafter.[1]

How many other novelists would we now know about and who would now enjoy a privileged place in the regime of visibility (or might be in the regime of visibility in Auster’s place) if they had had the luck to find themselves suddenly subject to an inheritance (and even just the modest inheritance Auster received)? There would be many and precisely because there are more novelists capable of entering the regime of visibility than the regime of visibility allows. There are more novelists, writers, poets, scholars, who have published a book today than in all the previous history of the world–and more artists and so on and so forth and not just because of the exponential increase in global population but because of the exponential increase of education and leisure time availability, etc. And there are very superb writers today whose books haven’t yet been published and artists whose works are rarely if ever exhibited, etc.

That some are able to gain entry to the regime of visibility–and to the regime of support–and that a larger number are not in many if not in most instances has nothing to do with relative levels of ability or talent and in some cases it is precisely the inverse relation which is true, i.e. those who have gained entry are lesser talents than those who have not gained entry. Such is, of course, the nature if not even the law of the history of aesthetic judgment, of art, culture, and scholarship–and of human hierarchies and processes of selection/visibility in general. For every great artist, thinker, scholar, or writer whom we know about or even for every not very great or absolutely mediocre creator or thinker or artist who has by virtue of this or that concatenation of variables and circumstances gained entry to the regime of visibility, there are many others who because of all the vagaries of selection could not win entry or could not win the kind of material support which would have enabled them the time and scope to fully employ or develop their endowment and “genius”–or in many cases to employ or develop their endowment at all and who, thereby, also could not or did not win entry to the regime of visibility and support. At this very moment there are children in Mozambique or Haiti, etc.–or even in Korea or in the United States, etc.–who if they had access to a violin and to professional training could become our next Sarah Chang or Midori Goto. At this very moment there are painters, writers, etc. who are producing marvelous works, books, ideas but who, absent from the regime of visibility, are thereby precluded from being amongst the field of those who might be nominated for a MacArthur or possess the chance to win a Guggenheim, an NEA or NEH grant, etc.

Of course, everyone, everyone, in one way or another understands this and understands that all sorts of non-meritocratic variables can function and play a role in the constitution of regimes of visibility, regimes of ostensible meritocratic selection, success, hierarchy, and the like. In fact there is widespread and common cynicism, sometimes too much cynicism, about how regimes of visibility and hierarchies of canon, award, and reward are constituted. Yet and despite our grasp of the fact that in every realm commercial and critical success are not always the strict outcome of merit or talent, despite all of our understanding of the non-meritocratic elements–support, money, luck, chance, accident, network, nepotism, prejudice, mediocrity, power, corrupt power, etc.–that can and do lead to commercial and critical success, nonetheless our understanding tends to fade and fall to the wayside when we stand before, experience, absorb, contemplate the appearances of any particular regime of visibility, which regime we tend thereby and inevitably to experientially conflate with an actuality of proper selection.

Despite the fact that we know that in many fields the threshold of ability and skill necessary to have access to participation and success in that field is such that there are far many more with talent enough not simply to be able to enter into the field and into its regime of visibility but to do so at the highest levels of that field–given that every field is constituted by a pyramidal hierarchy–we still too often make the aforementioned conflation of visibility/success and meritocratic order And, of course, the threshold of ability to enter a regime varies widely according to the field in question, sports and theoretical physics having much higher threshold levels and more easily determinable criteria as to entry, ability, and premier ability than film acting or film criticism, for example, the threshold of entry being much lower in these latter. Not every human can sing well, and so an actor without a good singing voice cannot become a successful singer, but the amount of singers who have become successful–and talented–film and in instances stage actors (Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters, Doris Day, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, etc.–Elvis Presley is, doubtless, a counter example, i.e. an abundant film career but wooden acting skills and performance) gives indication as to the divergent threshold levels for entry and success in the two fields.

Nonetheless regimes of visibility (and even in the lower threshold fields) and regimes of award still hold everyone–everyone–in sway to one degree or another, and lead everyone into generally thinking that the populations within the regime of visibility and within the upper reaches of this regime are the sole and properly constituted and hierarchically arrayed populations of ability and talent. The very fact of the presence of the regime of visibility, its sheer facticity, its being-there-in-front-of-us, existent, exigent, unilateral and singular inevitably removes us from an evaluative consciousness of this fact, and gives us to imagine that this regime is an enactment of the meritocratic ideal and that those who are visible are visible because they are preeminent. Everyone, and I emphasize again, everyone–and whether or not they have imbibed Bourdieu’s theses on distinction and socio-culture process and formation–yes, everyone, might “know” that the regime of visibility is also and simultaneously a regime of exclusion of many who ought to be visible, everyone might “know” that in many instances there are those who are invisible who ought to be more visible than some of the most celebrated, but everyone more or less functions, thinks, lives as if the regime of visibility were in the final analysis the outcome of an authentic ladder of ability, talent, etc. Everyone, including all those who imagine that they are never taken in, everyone is to one degree or another taken in or at least too much of the time.

What, then, should be the conclusion vis-a-vis these observations? Do I advocate that the MacArthur Grants should not be given to those who, as the aforementioned physicist and recipient stipulated, do not need them? Doubtless, in the present situation the grants can increase the productivity and in instances the creativity of those who win them even though they do not need them per se. So I will leave this question to the side. What I do advocate is that there should be another set of such grants aimed precisely at those who have demonstrated creative excellence and accomplishment but who do not have both the kind of university and/or commercial support systems that those who win the grants generally have, and do not have the kind of regime visibility that is the primary prerequisite for having any chance at all of winning the grants in the first place. I think of painters who have created marvelous, extraordinary works and who have perhaps exhibited here and there and perhaps have won some critical success in small circles but who do not possess a long list of exhibitions and struggle with day-jobs because they have not won commercial success or have not obtained or sought a teaching position or who disdain self-promotion and all its permutations and who are, thereby, nowhere to be seen in the regime of visibility. I think of poets and writers who have published many superlative and outstanding books but who have not obtained commercial success or obtained tenured positions and I think also of writers who have not published many books or perhaps even a book but who have created extraordinary and absolutely top level work. I think of independent scholars who have published sagacious and important reflections and works but who do not have a tenure-track or tenured position (or even any position at all), etc. etc. And I think of those in other fields whose circumstances are similar.

If all of these talented writers, artists, painters, musicians, and scholars (and among them supremely talented individuals of the equal of–or even better than–those amongst the celebrated and awarded), who truly could use a MacArthur Grant were in fact to receive such a grant the value to them would be far greater than it is to most of the standard recipients. The grants in this sense would be fulfilling their goal in ways much greater than they presently do.

Of course, a foundation like the MacArthur Foundation might reply that they do not have the means to have a second set of such grants. Doubtless, it is not my choice to make but if such a choice were to be made it is obvious that I would advocate that those without already existing institutional support and regime visibility should be the recipients of such grants. But then–and above all–there are several billion people on this planet whose lives would be changed for the better if they were to be the recipient of stipends of but hundreds of dollars or a few thousand. And how many of these people could one fit into the amount dispensed for the misnamed “genius” grants which go to those who do not need them? Certainly in this latter instance one would produce a beneficial outcome far greater than is achieved at present by MacArthur, Guggenheim, NEA, NEH grants, etc. Philanthropy–and in many respects by definition–does not near often enough go where it would count the most. But then as everyone, everyone, knows, in a rich country–and certainly in the richest–you could do all of the above and much more and at much greater levels….


When I first showed the original draft of this essay to friends and other readers invariably they would ask why I had not named some of those poets or painters or scholars or musicians and so on whom I felt justly deserved such an award and who could benefit all the more from such an award. Surely they said this would give more credence, substance, and foundation to the theses I was presenting and the position I was advocating. My reply was that I felt that if I had specifically named some of those whom I had in mind when I was writing the essay that it would seem more a question of an essay of partisanship and that, thereby, my central thesis might not retain its primacy. However, I could not find a place to publish the essay when first it was written and subsequently more readers have also had a similar response. So, I have decided to accede to the consensus.


The fact is that I certainly was thinking of the poet Wanda Coleman when I was writing this essay. She was one of the most substantial and consequential poets of our epoch, a brilliantly versatile talent whose poetry could exude a power and force of affective and ideational intensity like very few others. Alas, she passed away in 2013 before her time. Her last book, The World Falls Away, is as fine a book of poetry as has been produced in our contemporaneity. A poem in it, “Endless Mornings Spent in Endless Rage” is one of the truly magnificent and vital poems of this or any era. It can simultaneously rank as an extraordinary lyrical but also as an extraordinary civic poem. In the unprecedented and wholly encompassing and gravitational fury and immensity of its intelligence and its intelligence and resonance of affectivity, it is absolutely diamantine in all its aspects. One is moved and touched immeasurably and endlessly! And it is true in relation to so many of the poems in this book and in her ever and always splendid previous books. And we should understand that she was also a brilliant essay writer, many of her essays collected in two decisive volumes, Native in a Strange Land: Trials and Tremors and The Riot Inside Me: More Trials and Tremors; a powerful and seizing writer of short stores, many of these collected in two more resounding volumes, A War of Eyes and Other Stories and Jazz and Twelve O’Clock Tales; an author of a superb novel, Mambo Hips and Make Believe; and a marvelous and ever warm and enhancing conversationalist and correspondent, yes! what wonderful letters she wrote!

In her lifetime and after her passing she was invariably referred to as “The Unofficial Poet Laureate of Los Angeles”. Doubtless this nomination and appellation were well-intentioned but always it was a nomination whose function, whether inadvertent or not, was a constricting one. No, Wanda Coleman was not a regional poet (if indeed there ever is such a category…), rather she was one of the supreme poets of our epoch, of our vast modernity. She was the most expansive of poets and talents. Yes, Los Angeles was central in her formation, in her existence, as is the geographic in the formation and existence of any person or any creator, but the nomination in question cannot escape a back-handed quality. It should be abandoned.

Nomination? For her, everything beautiful and marvelous! And certainly she should have been given a tenured position in a major research university and it shall resound as the inexcusable failure of Department chairs and committees that she was not given such a position. MacArthur Grant? Wanda Coleman had to struggle for a long time outside all institutions. None was more deserving by brilliance and talent for the benefits a MacArthur Grant can give. Yes, Wanda Coleman was an extraordinary talent and writer, an incisive thinker, and an extraordinary, wonderful, and magnanimous woman! And now it is too late for her, alas.

Certainly and absolutely I was thinking of Wanda Coleman when I first wrote this essay and passages in her poems, in her essays, and in correspondence and discussion will always remain with me, but there was another poet I had mind too, another extraordinary talent, Will Alexander! A poet, a writer, of the very first order, and absolutely sui generis in his creations and in the magnificent poetic, linguistic, and existential adventures which he opens to his readers, he is also a resounding novelist, philosophical essayist, playwright, and an artist of verve. There is simply no one else like him. And here it is not a question of his uniqueness per se, although it certainly is that too, but of the phenomenal inexhaustibility of his invention and its dazzling and enchanting force and always in a language of poetic and ideational splendor at the highest level of achievement not just in work after work but in line after line and passage after passage. His book of several years ago, The Sri Lankan Loxodrome, is as sustained a tour de force of poetic language and adventure from start to finish as could possibly be achieved. But then so too are his Asia &Haiti, The Brimstone Boat, and Compression and Purity, to just cite other of his recent books of poems. But the endless power of his language and unprecedented invention continues ever and always in this mode of ultimate tour de force in his novels, Sunrise at Armageddon and Diary as Sin, in his volume of four plays, Inside the Earthquake Palace, and in his volumes of essayistic philosophy, Towards the Primeval Lightning Field and Mirach Speaks to his Grammatical Transparents. And Alexander has produced his extraordinarily powerful oeuvre outside all institutional position and support. And that too is a fact that should not have been, that should not be now. A tenured chair, an endowed chair at a major research university, these should have been, should be now, his. And all the awards too, though happily just this year he is the recipient of Poets & Writers magazine’s important Jackson Poetry Prize.


And, then, I was also thinking of the violinist, conductor, and composer Yvette Devereaux who is, perhaps, the most versatile violin virtuoso of our time. Not only is she splendid and sparkling in jazz and classical realms but in other genres as well. Every year at the Los Angeles Central Avenue Jazz Festival it is her solos that energize audiences more than the solos or performances of anyone else. The minute she stands up and strikes the first notes with her wand everyone who is seated jumps up instantly and those already standing jump too (and with vertical leaps they never before could have imagined possible!)
and everyone and all in absolute exultation. These moments are among the most remarkable and thrilling of musical moments. Musical moments?! Even Adorno would leap into the air if he were present! I have seen solos by some of the very best jazz musicians of our era and the encores of among the best classical virtuosos and I have never experienced audiences with quite the kind of entirely joyous bodily and affective reaction and exultation as those of Yvette Devereaux. The sparkling verve and vivacity–and delight–of her playing sets her apart and places her at the pinnacle. A conservatory and classically educated musician, conductor, and composer, she was the first African-American woman to be a guest conductor with the Los Angeles Symphony Philharmonic Orchestra. It is a post she should have on a regular basis. Yes, I was thinking of her and I think the MacArthur Foundation should be thinking of her too.

MacArthur Grants have been bestowed on many jazz musicians and I’m glad for them and I am especially pleased that Cecil Taylor was a recipient although I think it was a grievous oversight not to also pick Andrew Hill (1931-2007) and all the more because Andrew Hill and Cecil Taylor are the exemplary and preeminent representatives and exponents of two of the most constitutive currents in our musical, jazz, and pianistic modernity. But Andrew Hill, who did not record or perform as much as he would have liked in the 70s and 80s (and many of whose recordings were held back by Blue Note), saw his career suffer because, as Amiri Baraka has quite rightly and always pointed out, Hill was blackballed by the industry due to his having been the musical director of the Black Arts Repertory Theater. And in this respect Hill could have truly benefitted from a MacArthur perhaps more than any other of the jazz artists who have received this award. And what is more: Cecil Taylor always says that Eric Dolphy was the kindest and sweetest man in jazz. I don’t doubt that for a moment. But I would say the same of Andrew Hill! What a lovely man he was!

Certainly I am happy that Regina Carter was given a MacArthur grant, but her career already sustained her very well whereas Yvette Devereaux could have and could benefit in significant ways and, thereby, far larger audiences globally would be exulting at her music in the way her Central Avenue Jazz Festival audiences, among others, exult in all happiness and joy. But, again, and as one more prolepsis: it is not a question here of claiming due for those who could benefit the most but who cannot be said to exist at the same level of merit as those who have received the grants, rather it is a question of those who fully possess and demonstrate the same or greater merit but who have not found their proper place in the regime of visibility and who, thereby, have not been visible enough to warrant the attention necessary to receive a grant.

And painters? I think immediately of the abstractionist Naoko Haruta and of the figurative, abstract figurative, and often surrealist, Alan Silver. They are among the supreme talents and creators of our contemporary painterly modernity. Of Naoko Haruta, I have written elsewhere that I consider her to be the most profound lyrical intelligence in contemporary painting. In her extraordinary series of 215 abstract paintings, Life, there is a painting, Life #105: ‘Chopin: Nocturne #20 in C-Sharp Minor’ which is in my judgment the single highest achievement in abstract painting going all the way back to and including Kandinsky, although her paintings Life #16, Life #71, and Life #137: ‘Venice #1’, and a number of paintings in her current series-in-progress which has now reached 96 paintings, Sonzai to Enerugi (Being and Energy), i.e Sonzai to Enerugi #12, Sonzai to Enerugi #17, Sonzai to Enerugi #22, and Sonzai to Enerugi #24, can also and easily be mentioned as companions in this judgment, claim, and valuation, and the two series as a whole all the more and definitively. And her paintings, Trees #60 and Trees #61 in her magnificent series of 103 paintings, Trees, in their symphonic–9th symphonic!–splendor and resounding crescendos can certainly rank among the very finest works in abstract figuration in this or any epoch. Additionally, she is wonderfully versatile, the most versatile abstractionist in the history of the genre I would stipulate, and the variety of modes and variation of works in her series, Light and Matter, Instant and Duration, Africa, Summer Songs, Preludes to the Seasons, and this stunning series of smaller works, Aubades, demonstrate this very clearly. As I have said elsewhere one can draw an analogy here to the realm of music and cite the similar kind of polymathic versatility of those such as Eric Dolphy and Sarah Vaughan.

Naoko Haruta sets in motion like no one else before her the elements of abstraction, sustains their movements, their motions, the traversals of painting, and gives ceaseless vibrato to that line of adventure and substantiality that abstraction can only truly know when it is truly undaunted. Naoko Haruta in the most exhilarating of ways brings realization not only to the very best dreams and desires of abstraction, but also, and thereby, to the somatic and kinetic vitalities, vivacities, and movements of painting’s dance as the fulfillment of the ontologically founded needs and necessities of soma, psyche, and poeisis. Our perception is invigorated to such a degree of delight that it becomes one with the sparkle of perception heaping up in the space-time of abstraction the irreversibility of our happiness.

Yes, Naoko Haruta does not bind her lyricism at all, but rather allows it to emerge as the very coming-to-be of the intentionality–-the seriousness of intention!–-of paint, line, drip, brush stroke, and concatenation. In Naoko Haruta’s lyrical and rhapsodic verve, the future anterior gives way in every instance to the present progressive. Everything in these paintings is always underway. To the Kantian impositions and dictations of time and space so evident in so much of contemporary art and so much contemporary abstraction, Naoko Haruta has responded with the inexhaustible mobility of the Bergsonian–and Schellingian!–intuition and elan. There is in Naoko Haruta’s work a vehemence of painting, a vehemence of paint, a vehemence of color. Promise of happiness?! In Naoko Haruta’s paintings the promise of happiness is a promise always kept! If gratitude always overflows itself, overflows every effort to express itself, then Naoko Haruta’s painting is, precisely and all at once, the gratitude of painting and all its histories, gratitude given to abstract painting’s most quintessential and most developed dream on the one hand and on the other hand the gratitude of this dream given in return in its most profound and affectionate embodiment, realization, and generosity!

Generosity? Magnanimity? Alan Silver also embodies these virtues, these very best among the virtues, in his painting. He does not self-identify with the surrealist painterly legacies in the way that Will Alexander self-identifies with the surrealist literary legacies, but there is a certain kinship, mutatis mutandis, between them. A painting of Silver’s such as Blue Nocturne causes one to literally jump up in exhilaration and exuberance, imbued as one immediately is with its utterly sui generis uncanny–and delight! So many of his paintings are like this, i.e. startling, sparkling, uncanny, and sui generis in the very best sense of the words, indeed, with Alan Silver it is the uncanny-in-multiple that we find, The Shadows Know, Demisemiquavers, Hidden in the Blood Jewels and Miracles, Serendipitous Splendidum, The Divine Comedy, and Goyesca as but several of so many marvelous examples!

And in paintings such as Alan Silver’s Winds from the Abyss of Our Night, The Simulacrum of Living, When Men Love Machines, Out of Nowhere, and The Parasite of Our Memories, to cite only several, we are given the expanse of a painterly consciousness absorbed, engaged, and immersed simultaneously in a poeticosophical imaginary and a socio-existential empathy and consciousness which are the other sides of an emphatic painterly unfolding of our socio-civilizational eddies and precipices, paintings where the audible and lucid cries of the real emerge in concert and in simultaneous concerto.

Furthermore, Alan Silver is one of the preeminent humorists in our painterly
modernity, yes, his humor, all at once wry, mischievous, playful,
and magnanimous, is simultaneously pith and pathos of many of his works, Man Staring Down His Own Irrelevance–a truly unique and marvelous title!–, Portrait of Gerhard Richter with Fowl, Love Potion #8, and the startling and hilarious, Woody Harrelson, as, once again, but several examples.

In another register, in a painting such as Elegy for a Fettered Muse, Alan Silver gives us a seemingly quintessential image of our torn and tangled modernity. Like the butterfly which must warm itself near the flame but which approaching too close will perish, so too in this Elegy Alan Silver has constructed a tableau that derives its power from an optimal proximity to the flame of substantial life and substantial expression and language, but beyond which optimal proximity, in the too-proximate, in the too unadorned, lies the aesthetic and linguistic stasis of the merely-said. The dangers of the flame of substantial life and its truths, Silver did not shy away from this task, a task in which he succeeded (and succeeds in so many of his paintings) in finding the most paramount and rewarding proximity just as did Lorca in his “Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias”, Rexroth in his Lorca-inspired, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” (as well as in his profoundly compelling and moving, “For Eli Jacobson”) , Akhmatova in her Requiem, Pasolini in his “The Ashes of Gramsci”, Cesaire in his Return to My Native Land, and Wanda Coleman in the aforementioned, “Endless Mornings Spent in Nameless Rage”.

And what resonant and, yes, again, sui generis, colors and chromatic textures in Alan Silver’s work! These subtle and often muted colors, in their modulations, tonal shadings, and shimmering, sound the most seductive of chromatic vibratos and charm. Elsewhere I have written that Alan Silver and Naoko Haruta, although using very different palettes and approaches, are the very best colorists painting today. In fact, both are masters, albeit again in quite different registers, in this seemingly impossible task of finding just the right speed for just the right color at just the right time! Last year Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker in a review of a retrospective of Albert Oehlen that Oehlen is the best colorist of our time. But I don’t believe he would sustain this judgment if he were to see the works of Silver and Haruta! Yes, in the chromatic enchantments of Silver and Haruta we realize not only how much we love color but also how much color loves us!

Alexander, Devereaux, Haruta, and Silver, yes, by all means, if I am to provide nominations, they are, among any possible other inter pares, first, primus, the ones whose work is the most substantial, or to use that Plotinian watchword, to timiotaton, taken up with such virtuosity by Lev Shestov and Vladimir Jankelevitch, the most important. Certainly Alexander, Devereaux, Haruta, and Silver should be numbered among the most deserving or if I may put to the side this kind of hierarchy, certainly deserving enough. Of course, it should be understood that in this brief little post-script it can only be a question of the superlatives of aesthetic judgment and not the elaboration of their justification which in any case I do carry out in essays on the works of Alexander, Coleman, Haruta, and Silver–and in liner notes for cds of Yvette Devereaux. And, yes, there are others I could nominate and about whom I could speak, and others could justly speak of others and others of others and so on. The point is, again and always, that regimes of visibility, regimes of canon, and regimes of award do not give us and still less do they contain all among us whose work is splendid and of the highest merit and who could, given their particular circumstances, truly benefit from the award in question and who could, thereby, benefit us as the recipients of their work, all the more and ever the more!


1.Sadly Auster did not have the grace of the aforementioned scientist and MacArthur recipient, because Auster claimed that nonetheless he had “paid his dues”. No. He found commercial literary success, something rare for creative writers. Writers every bit as talented as Mr. Auster who have not won commercial success–and will never win commercial success (or perhaps writers who will win commercial success or regime visibility and canon at a later or advanced or even posthumous age)–are the ones about whom it could be said that they “paid their dues” or in most cases will always be “paying their dues”. But then Julian Schnabel, years ago, outdid Mr. Auster, claiming with a flourish that he had “paid his dues”. No again. In the art world as constituted in the epoch of modern art’s total historico-ontological saturation and, thereby, with the instantiation of the conceptualist-installationinst hypertrophic regime (“contemporary art”) where no meritocratic criteria of any kind are in operation in the constitution of the regimes and hierarchies of visibility and critical and commercial reward, achieving the kind of extremely high-end monetary success, the .01 percent artistic monetary success enjoyed by Mr. Schnabel, puts him in a category of the tiniest group of maximally privileged artists. And achieving this kind of commercial success in the art world at the age of twenty-nine puts him in an even smaller bracket of the immensely fortunate. By definition he could never have paid any dues at all, not only compared to all those artists who will never find themselves within that concatenation of variables which enable someone to enter the regime of visibility and canon and the regime of commercial reward, but simply in and of itself. He and Auster (and Michael Chabon too: on receiving word of having won the National Book Award he indicates to the press that he thinks it took too long, that he should have won the award sooner….) would have done far better if they could have simply acknowledged their happiness at their own good fortune–and luck–rather than having made pronouncements which could only reveal their misunderstandings vis-a-vis the nature of merit, among other things. And had they simply acknowledged their happiness and good fortune we could have admired them, been happy to admire them, for their grace and graciousness.

Steve Light , a basketball point-guard following upon Nate Archibald, Pete Maravich, and Willie Somerset–and akin as well to Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, and Earl Boykins–is also a philosopher and poet.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 1st, 2016.