Shelf Life

By Barbara Fisher
October 25, 2009

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By Arthur C. Danto
Yale University, 192 pp., $24

Arthur C. Danto, philosopher and art critic, takes Andy Warhol very seriously as an artist, activist, filmmaker, critic of pop and high culture, and celebrity icon. Neither a memoir of the philosopher nor a biography of his subject, this small and provocative work is “a study of what makes Warhol so fascinating an artist from a philosophical perspective.’’ Danto credits Warhol with raising the question of art in a new form. Warhol’s precise replicas of Brillo boxes ask not “what is art?’’ but “what is the difference between two things, exactly alike, one of which is art and one of which is not?’’

Warhol was a workaholic in whose Factory misfits gathered, superstars were created, and great quantities of important art was made. The art represented Warhol’s obsessions, which mirrored the concerns of daily American life. He “was obsessed with glamour, beauty, parties, shopping and sex.’’ He was fascinated by tabloid tragedy - car wrecks, electric chair executions, and torn bodies - intimate parts, and groping bodies. He celebrated ordinary American life - Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and Heinz Tomato Ketchup. Danto concludes, “Much of modern aesthetics is more or less a response to Warhol’s challenges, so in an important sense he really was doing philosophy by doing the art that made him famous.’’

By Chinua Achebe
Knopf, 192 pp., $24.95

In 1957, when Nigerian-born Chinua Achebe first applied for a passport, he discovered that he was defined as a “British Protected Person.’’ British protection assumed the humiliation and denial of dignity of colonialism but also allowed for the unpredictable in human affairs, “the ability to face adversity down by refusing to be defined by it, refusing to be no more than its agent or its victim.’’ In all of these essays (written between 1988 and 2008), Achebe generously locates and describes this unpredictable area.

His own missionary education, his decision to write in English and his native Igbo, his participation in international panels and ceremonies, his acceptance of literary prizes and fellowships all occupy this area.

Nigeria, which gained its independence in 1960, was a multiethnic, multilingual, mutireligious, chaotic country. Achebe has written his homeland with both love and hate, most famously in his prize-winning novel “Things Fall Apart.’’ He was especially gratified to learn that despite huge cultural differences, audiences in the West identified with African characters and situations in that novel. Derogatory images of Africa have made such identifications difficult. Beginning with Conrad, whose “Heart of Darkness’’ created the most lasting and damning image of Africa, Western writers often have portrayed Africans as less than human. Achebe’s tolerance and generosity, which extends far, does not extend to Conrad and the many others who have portrayed Africa as dark, dangerous, and degraded in order to defend the slave trade and colonization.

ANIMAL MAGNETISM: My Life with Creatures Great and Small
By Rita Mae Brown
Ballantine Books, 256 pp., $25

Sneaky Pie, the cat collaborator on Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy mystery series, signed book contracts with “Fuzzy paw prints, dipped in stamp ink.’’ Brown confides that Sneaky “was a true business partner. Quite tight with her money, too.’’ This cutesy tone dominates Brown’s memoir of animal lore and love.

Growing up on a farm with hounds and horses, Brown was most comfortable and content with animals. Removed at the age of 10 to Florida with her family, she learned to appreciate sea turtles and parrots. Studying at New York University, she adopted cats. Now a best-selling author and successful screenwriter, she owns a horse farm in Virginia, where she breeds thoroughbreds and foxhounds.

The many important lessons she has learned from animals - from manatees, that beauty is only skin deep; from beagles, that love restores; from horses, the power of birth and rebirth; from many breeds, that animals do not know how to compromise - are all recounted here.

Somewhere along the way, she also learned to survive in Hollywood and to invest in real estate, difficult and daunting skills that suggest that behind the cutesy tone lies clever calculation.

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