Collecting Thoughts; or, What I Learned About Blogging from Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza

Well, I’m back from my weeklong trip to the center of the Iberian peninsula (that is, a stay in Madrid, with an excursion to Toledo) and am pleased to report how invigorating it can be to go away, come face to face with one’s own ignorance, and return in a confusion of humility and inspiration—souvenirs to be put to better use than dust-gathering bric-a-brac. To be sure, I still cannot tell one Spanish monarch from another—except for the baby-faced Fernando VII and the big-nosed Carlos III, on the representation of whose none too prepossessing visages a fair amount of oil and canvas were expended. I still cannot order a Spanish meal without half-guessing what might end up on my plate—except that the tapas-and-cervezas cuisine is so lacking in variety as to render an extensive culinary lexicon unnecessary. And I still cannot relate to bullfights, flamencos, or devotional art—except that I know better than to reduce arcane passions to patent stereotypes. I did learn something about blogging, though—and it was the Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza who, however unwittingly, conveyed the lesson.

Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, of course, is the wife of Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, the steel magnate-collector who displays his artistic riches at the magnificent Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid, a generous sharing of his increasing wealth for which he gets amply rewarded in contracts throughout the city (you’ll notice the name of Thyssen wherever there’s a construction site—and there were plenty all over town).

Unlike her husband, the Baroness only started collecting in the 1980s. She seems to have a taste for the famous or nominal, but little sense of what is first-rate or exemplary. Her collection is overwhelmingly large and, for the most part, put together without much grace, wit, or discrimination. She bought up third-rate paintings of first-rate artists, apparently at great speed, and caught many a masterful painter on an off day. Her husband had an eye—she’s got the Euros. That, at least, was my impression when I walked through the vast and ultimately stultifying Thyssen-Bornemisza museum. So, what have I learned?

In a sense, a blog is a collection of thoughts. It may be regarded as a museum, a virtual storehouse of words and images that are culled from various sites, commenting, like all art does, on the world of today—be it society, politics or religion.  Many bloggers are savvy name-droppers; quite a few exploit their writing for advertising purposes; some are merely providing the odd caption to the works they borrow. Others, like myself, simply try to share what they care about but disseminate thoughts without quite knowing how to reach either a specific or general audience, without being fully aware of the potentialities of their enterprise.

In other words, not all bloggers are good curators of their thought museums. Their growing collections may lack direction or purpose—rendering all but useless what might be of some small service to the few or many; unless the viewer, aware of the individual pieces in the museum, has the freedom to steer past the profusion to approach directly what matters to her or him. In this respect, a virtual collection, like the online version of the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, is more useful than a traditional one, since visitors can direct their curiosity into the presence of the works they choose to see or care to know about (as some of my readers did, Googling their way to what I wrote about Valentine Vox or The Free Company, for instance).

And yet, a collection falls apart as a result of such selective viewings, becoming as fragmented as the interests of the diverse public to which it is being made available.  How to keep an online journal like this together—and keep it going?

Any smart museum is, to some degree, self-reflexive about the collection it houses. A truly smart museum, like the Museo Lázaro Galdiano, acknowledges its shortcomings rather than trumpeting its ostensible merits. Over the next few weeks, I will try new approaches to collecting my thoughts for subjection to the splintering vision of the public gaze. I am aware, for instance, that broadcastellan is missing a unifying narrative arch, mainly because I do not want to turn this journal into an intimate if public diary.

Some of the connections between what I label “unpopular culture” and our (or my) present everyday seem forced or arbitrary precisely because the personal link between what I experience and choose to discuss has been obscured (why am I watching this or that film; why am I listening to a specific radio play or reading a certain book just now?).

Rather than becoming more personal, I am going to make more of an effort to relate to others by providing a historic connection to the works I choose to discuss without turning my musings into history lessons.

Thoughts can be gathered anywhere; in fact, Madrid’s streets are a veritable gallery of thoughts—to which above lines from Don Quixote, found on the Calle de las Huertas, attest. Words and images are dirt cheap and trivial unless a thoughtful collector tries to render them precious and significant.  Yes, it was the arbitrariness and the flaunting of Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza’s wealth that made me reconsider the acts of collecting, exhibiting, and sharing my humble thoughts.

“A symmetry of unborn generations”: A Guernica for Radio

One of the many attractions of Madrid I will make sure not to miss is Picasso’s Guernica (1937), the most famous 20th-century painting in the Reina Sofía collection. A report from the commonplace-turned-combat zone, Guernica is a piece of anti-totalitarian propaganda commemorating the world’s first civilians-targeting air attack: the 26 April 1937 raid on the busy market town of Gernika-Lumo, masterminded by General Franco and carried out by the Condor Legion of Nazi Germany.

For a long time, the painting was kept out of Spain and was mostly on display at the MoMA in New York City, where, during the Vietnam War, it became a site for vigils held by members of the peace movement, one of whom went so far as to deface it with red spray paint. It was Picasso’s wish that Guernica be returned to his homeland only after the reestablishment of democratic rule. A swiftly executed and brutally manipulative commentary on modern warfare, it invites comparisons to the three best-known American verse plays for radio, Archibald MacLeish’s “Air Raid,” Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Murder of Lidice,” and Norman Corwin’s “They Fly Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease.”

MacLeish’s “Air Raid,” in contrast to Picasso’s painting, overtly implicates the civilian population, including his radio listeners, castigating them for their supposed ignorance and inertia. As in “The Fall of the City,” MacLeish attacks those falling rather than sentimentalizing their plight. His are bold performances, but his cruel warning turns listeners eager for news into silent partners of war who are asked to “stand by” as they tune in while women and children, refusing to heed warnings of an impending blitz, are being attacked and annihilated:

You who fish the fathoms of the night
With poles on roof-tops and long loops of wire
Those of you who driving from some visit
Finger the button on the dashboard dial
Until the metal trembles like a medium in a trance
And tells you what is happening in France
Or China or in Spain or some such country
You have one thought tonight and only one:
Will there be war? Has war come?
Is Europe burning from the Tiber to the Somme?
You think you hear the sudden double thudding of the drum
You don’t though . . .
Not now . . .
But what your ears will hear with in the hour
No one living in this world would try to tell you.
We take you there to wait it for yourselves.
Stand by: we’ll try to take you through. . . .

Millay’s “Murder of Lidice” recalls the innocent lives of those slain by Richard Heydrich, Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, in Lidice. Artistically, the play is indefensible and shockingly inept in its bathos. In Millay’s Grand Guignol of Nazi terror, Heydrich the Hangman, whom the villagers have assassinated, is heard, from the beyond, planning his revenge:

He howls for a bucket of bubbly blood—
It may be man’s or it may be of woman,
But it has to be hot, and it must be human!
Oh, many’s the sweet warm throat he’ll suck.

In “They Fly Through the Air,” Corwin’s narrator goes in search of a language appropriate to the negotiation of art and propaganda. As I point out in Etherized Victorians, the play is a response to the perversion of poetic diction by the fascist cause. Viewed from above, Mussolini reportedly remarked, exploding bombs had the beauty of a “rose unfolding.” Throughout the play, metaphors are at war with plain speech, both in the service of motivating the masses:

What words can compass glories such as we have seen today?
Our language beats against its limitations [. . .].

Our rhythms jangle at the very start.
Our similes concede defeat,
For there is nothing that can be compared to that which lies beyond compare.
You see? We are reduced already to tautologies.
It’s awe does that.
The wonder of it all has set us stammering.

What is the language of war? How does it differ from the idiom of peace? And how shall war—often furious but not always futile—be rendered, recorded, and remembered in words or images? When I look at Guernica this week, I will ask myself these questions. Quite possibly, I will shiver when exposing it to the limitations of my shrinking lexicon.

A Soundscape of Britain?

A few days ago I went to the Tate Gallery in London to see A Picture of Britain. This exhibition of paintings, coinciding with a BBC television series, did not exactly get rave reviews. Critics complained that the real Britain was, for the most part, left out of the picture. The works on display mainly feature idyllic representations of what Britain could be or ought to be, according to followers of the Picturesque or romantically inclined artists. In short, plenty of nature, little naturalism. I wonder how A Soundscape of Britain would turn out, if ever there were such a showcase devoted to national noise. What would be the representative sounds of Britain?

In the US, during radio’s so-called golden age, the Columbia Workshop and the later CBS Radio Workshop offered listeners aural snapshots and panoramas of New York, London, and Paris. “A Portrait of London,” for instance, which aired over CBS on 20 July 1956, took listeners to Big Ben, the city zoo, and Buckingham Palace, with Sarah Churchill (daughter of the former Prime Minister) serving as tour guide.

A few weeks earlier (7 July 1956), the Workshop had taken tuners-in to Paris, while “The Sounds of a Nation” (18 November 1956) sonically evoked the history of the United States. Some twenty years earlier, the Columbia Workshop had presented a “Broadway Evening” (25 July 1936), a noisy report from the bustling Big Apple. Other such programs include “Crosstown Manhattan” (8 December 1938) and Norman Corwin’s “New York: A Tapestry for Radio” (14 May 1944).

While more concerned with the spoken word than with the creation of collages in sound, Corwin conducted frequent experiments in bringing faraway places home to the radio audience with travelogue series like An American in England (1942) and Passport for Adams (1943), as well as the ambitious documentary One World Flight (1947), which consisted of interviews and recorded sounds from actual locations in Italy, India, and Australia.

Corwin’s travelogues did not simply revel in sound qua spectacle; they were propagandistic or didactic in nature, designed to glean messages from or impose meaning on bits and bites of sound. As Alexander Pope once put it, the “sound must seem an echo to the sense.” How, then, could one make sense of Britain through sound? What, besides the tolling of Big Ben, or the water gurgling in the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain (pictured above), or the chirping of robins, or the roaring North sea, or raindrops falling on hedgerows, might be A Soundscape of Britain?

Many years ago, visiting New York City for the first time, I walked through the streets of Manhattan to capture the sounds of the sirens, the pedestrians on the pavement, the honking of cars and the hollering of cabbies during rush hour. It gave me immense pleasure listening to these recordings back in the misery that was my home across the Atlantic. I could drown out the silence and loneliness in ways that a few pictures in my photo album could not accomplish. I have always loved wrapping myself in sound’s cape, escaping in sound . . .