Artists Of The Year

We list the best of the best of 1997.

Ultimately, The Sweet Hereafter may not carry the weight of other cultural artifacts from 1997, but in a year when directors went to all sorts of extremes in terms of length, violence, budget, sex, and promotion, Egoyan made a radical move by stepping quietly into an arena that is, for him, something close to normal.

Julie Caniglia is a New York writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.

JOHN and PATSY RAMSEY
by Greil Marcus

From the start, their brilliant performance piece ("Death of a Princess") rewrote the rules of the form. The combination of vulgarity (a killing on Christmas night? Come on!) and austerity (the cold, steely, statue-like refusal to submit to police interviews until the rules of that form had been rewritten) would by itself be enough to lift the work far beyond such temporarily diverting but ultimately ordinary affairs as Susan Smith's "White Mom/Black Stranger" or the generic, small-market variations on the classic "Man Kills Family, Self." But what really marked the murder of 6-year-old bottle blonde JonBenet Ramsey as a ground-breaking art statement was its commitment to Time as the fundamental element of an exercise that predictably has been more celebrated for its variations on such more or less conventional tropes as Public Grief and Media Manipulation (as the New York Times put it in a hilarious aperçu, "[the Ramseys] mounted a defense team that sounds like a defense lawyer's Christmas carol: eight lawyers, four publicists, three private investigators, two handwriting analysts and one retired F.B.I. profiler").

It is not simply that the Ramseys have managed to command an audience of (for the once-marginalized and mocked field of performance art) unprecedented size and diversity for a year--and with no end to the piece in sight. If one looks closely at the, as it were, "building blocks" or Lincoln Logs of the work, one can conclude that the piece began, in terms of preproduction, with or even before JonBenet Ramsey's birth: that is, with the decision to fashion a name for the conceivably sex-selected offspring out of the first and middle names of her father. The daring is stunning: making the murder victim into a veritable part-object of the father, instantly throwing suspicion on him as a performer acting out his own suicide through murder. And yet, as with so much else in the work, the twist only tangled the viewer into a greater knot.

It's this--the brazen placing of drop-dead clues in plain sight, and then, through silence more than any other aesthetic strategy, making the clues mute in their turn--slapping the audience in the face and then convincing the audience that no such act ever took place--that seals the work.

Certainly, there have been moments when one or the other of the Ramseys (but never both at the same time) have seemed less than certain in their roles. John Ramsey emerging from the basement of his house holding his dead daughter not cradled in his arms (some clichés cannot be altered if a piece is to hold its shape) but held away from his body like the corpse of a wild animal betrayed a squeamishness real artists learn to put behind themselves (as John Ramsey since has); Patsy Ramsey's declaration, after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, that "JonBenet was America's 'people princess'" could only be seen as an unseemly attempt to gain an even bigger audience for a work that was perhaps beginning to lose a certain momentum.

But that is quibbling; again, it is the Ramseys' use of Time that has elevated them above their colleagues, their imitators, and even their extra-genre media representations (the versions of the Ramseys' piece that ran on NYPD Blue and Homicide were prosaic and obvious by comparison). They have insured that they will never be forgotten by means of creating a work that will never end.

Greil Marcus is a Bay Area writer whose most recent book isInvisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes.

WEEGEE
by Brad Zellar

In the 1930s and '40s, Austrian immigrant Arthur Fellig cruised New York City with his Speed Graphic camera and a police-band radio, and the thousands of photos he took of the New York streets left his darkroom bearing the stamp "Weegee the Famous." New York has inspired more than its share of great photographers, but there is perhaps no one who deserves the title of the Big Apple's Atget more than the astonishing Weegee. All the evidence anyone should need of his greatness was available in a major retrospective at the International Center for Photography in New York this year, and in a beautiful and exhaustive new collection of essays and photographs, Weegee's World.

Weegee was equal parts paparazzi and hard-boiled news photographer, but he had the eye of a great writer, and his Naked City (the title of his landmark 1945 collection) was the New York of a million flyover adolescent dreams: a world of bright lights, saloon singers, drunks, car wrecks, circuses, parades, gangsters, dead bodies, and blood as black as motor oil. Naked City includes a photo of one of Weegee's check stubs from Life magazine--$35, it says, for "Two Murders." Yet the man who began his career as a prototypical police-beat photographer for Acme newspapers ("Weegee is a rather portly, cigar-smoking, irregularly shaven man," wrote one of his editors) became in time a chronicler of all the wide and wild diversity of New York, from the Bowery to the Metropolitan Opera and out to Coney Island. For newcomers to the artist, Weegee's World is a book of photo literature to place on the shelf next to the stories of Damon Runyon and Joseph Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel.

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