Reading Women #6: Joan Acocella’s Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints

28 artists This one’s a re-read for me so, in that spirit, I’ve essentially re-run—with considerable expansion and elision—my notes on the book from May 2007.

Joan Acocella’s marvelous, un-putdownable collection of essays Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints profiles and critically examines (mostly) 19th- and 20th-century artists and thinkers who have radically shaped intellectual and cultural life. Enriched by a colloquial, incisive prose style, Acocella writes with acidic wit but nonetheless carries (and conveys) the ability to be dazzled by beauty. The axis around which her work turns is early 20th-century European culture—Jewish culture in particular—and how that culture traveled across the Atlantic and reshaped America. Given this axis, some of the names covered are obvious inclusions—Susan Sontag, Stefan Zweig, Lincoln Kirstein, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth. Because part of the book’s understated mission is to recover “lost” artists, however, there are welcome surprises—Joseph Roth, Hilary Mantel, M.F.K. Fisher—who are written about with such verve and brio that I made note upon note about who to read next. Acocella concerns herself with how an artist’s life and politics do, and do not, shape her aesthetics and the morals expressed by her art. My pronoun is intentional, by the way. Though Acocella never says so, a clear point of Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints is that women are and have been central to the intellectual and artistic development of Western culture. (Mary Magdalene and Joan of Arc are the two saints, by the way.) The thirty critiques/profiles are split pretty evenly by gender, and her essays on Simone de Beauvoir, Martha Graham, Sontag, and other women reveals the ways in which women’s ideas engaged with men’s in a variety of contexts. Still, Acocella is a consummate critic, and is just as interested in her subjects’ flaws, crippling contradictions, and flashes of sheer nastiness. Her vision is dark, no question. The writers she admires most are those who make themselves at home in bleakness, despair, madness, and the looming specter of war. Given her interest in fin de siècle culture, it’s no surprise. Lots of her subjects lived in, through, and around World Wars I and II, after all. So, Acocella’s second unstated agenda is made even more refreshing as a result: the idea that dance is a central art form in culture, and one that is as influential and risk-taking as, say, painting or cinema. (In fact, I wish Acocella showed more interest in film here. I’d love to read her take on postwar Jewish European filmmakers such as Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch, who share her mordant but beautiful worldview.) Roughly a third of the collection covers dancers and choreographers, and it’s here that her prose becomes quicksilver. Like a dancer, Acocella has the sly ability to move briskly and succinctly in her essays, but also to describe in such rich, luscious terms that her subjects come alive. Her prose is electric, and never more so than when discussing the fragile grace of properly executed choreography or the intense physical rigors of a dancer’s life. Acocella places dance firmly within the spirit of modernism and high culture, to galvanizing effect. With literature, she channels the depths to which humanity can sink; with dance, she conveys the heights.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation,, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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