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A Paradoxal Nun.

Sister Wendy Beckett is a member of the Notre Dame order, a teaching order of nuns and a celebrity. In 1980 she began the serious study of art, and since has written a number of books on the subject and hosted the popular PBS series "Sister Wendy's Odyssey" and "Sister Wendy's Grand Tour." This week PBS begins airing her newest 10-part series, "Sister Wendy's Story of Painting." There's a companion book (published by DK Publishing)

41:07

Other segments from the episode on September 4, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 4, 1997: Interview with Wendy Beckett; Commentary on the term "paparazzo"; Review of Steve Lacy's album "Five Facings."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: SEPTEMBER 04, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 090401NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Sister Wendy's Odyssey
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Sister Wendy Beckett is a paradox: a nun who lives a life of seclusion and as a quirky British TV star. Sister Wendy has been a member of the Notre Dame teaching order of nuns since she was 16. She's now in her late 60s.

In 1970, she was granted permission to leave teaching and live the contemplative life, devoting herself to prayer and study. She's since lived in a trailer on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery in England, where she spends each day in silence.

I'll let her explain how she ended up hosting BBC art history shows. Her latest series premiers Sunday on PBS stations. In the series, she stands in front of each painting she discusses, sharing a historical perspective as well as her personal response to the work. Here she is in front of Matisse's 1950 colored paper collage "Beasts of the Sea."

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "SISTER WENDY'S STORY OF PAINTING")

SISTER WENDY BECKETT, MEMBER, NOTRE DAME ORDER: As you can see, two great cross sections fill a lagoon, and he's filled them with seaweed and sea snails and fish -- all the fascinating magical things that I'm told are under the sea. The layers of color as one moves up through the sea. He makes one feel that the joy of this -- the wonderful floating sense of freedom as you go up and up and up.

This painting -- this cut-out -- gives out such exquisite pleasure that I hardly dare to say this: I don't think Matisse ever painted anything greater.

GROSS: I asked Sister Wendy if there's a connection between the life of silence she's chosen and her love of painting -- a silent art form.

BECKETT: I think that's one of the things that attracted me to painting: the fact that it is something very compatible with my life of silence. I don't have music in my life. That's a sacrifice. But I do have literature, which is silent, and I have reproductions of paintings and of sculpture and of ceramics.

And I think we can only rarely understand painting if we're prepared to give the time to contemplate it -- to sit silently and look at the work. And so that also is very, very compatible with the kind of life I'm privileged to live.

GROSS: What's your approach to looking at the work? Do you often just like sit in front of a reproduction for a long period of time and just gaze at it?

BECKETT: Well, I always have a postcard up on the little stand, and I have a poster on the wall. And yes, I do spend time looking. Of course, it's that's -- it's that time; it's that space; it's that attention that art needs if it's to unfold. And I've frequently found that when I've looked at something and don't like it, if I look long enough, I will find out within me why this is considered a work of art.

There's always something and only looking will make it clear to one.

GROSS: I think a lot of people would assume that because you are a nun that you connect especially with religious painting. Would that be true?

BECKETT: No. I connect with great painting, and great painting by definition is spiritual. And I think many people confuse spiritual and religious. Religious art uses religious iconography, and it may use it very poorly. There are plenty of fairly dud madonnas from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Spiritual art is something very much deeper and it may use religious images or it may not. But whatever it is, it will take us beyond our own capacity into something visionary, and then return us to ourselves with a deeper sense of who we are and what life demands of us.

GROSS: But, what about art that would be considered blasphemous by some because of its content? I guess one example would be like a "Piss Christ" in which there was a crucifix immersed in urine and then photographed.

BECKETT: Yes, I know -- the Serrano (ph).

GROSS: Yeah, the Andre Serrano piece.

BECKETT: Yeah, I think people were rather quick to condemn that as blasphemous. He could have been making a perfectly valid point, that that's what we actually do to the sacrifice of Christ. We have degraded it. We have not, as a race -- a human race -- accepted with reverence and practical love what Jesus did. And you could say that all poor Serrano is trying to do is to make that point.

Now, I don't like that kind of art. To me, that's very minor art. In an art form, that's what I call "newspaper" art. You get the point and then you pass on. No one would want to contemplate a Serrano very long.

GROSS: So you don't like a lot of more conceptual, contemporary art because once you got the message, there's no reason to go back to it?

BECKETT: I think it has a point, as newspapers have a point. But a newspaper isn't a great novel that one will read and re-read again. And conceptual art is not something one will go back to. It has a brief flowering and then it's over. So no, this doesn't appeal to me very much and I don't know any work of conceptual art that to me comes into the category of great art.

GROSS: But what about the disparity between your cloistered spiritual life and the 30,000 miles of travel to 12 countries that were required of you to shoot the PBS series?

BECKETT: Well, this was something I felt it would be selfish not to do.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BECKETT: Because for some strange reason, I've been given first the opportunity to read a great deal about art and to look at a great many images; and secondly, the kind of mind that can talk about these things with enthusiasm and simplicity.

Now, I think there are millions of people who could do as well, but they haven't come out of the woodwork yet, and I implore people who are listening to this program, if they think that they can do better and I am sure they can, please come and offer yourself to the television people.

GROSS: You use the word "simplicity" -- that you could do this with simplicity. What do you mean by that?

BECKETT: That people can understand me.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BECKETT: I consider it a mark of cloudy thinking to use difficult words or to suggest that anything is beyond the comprehension of your viewers or your listeners. One can explain anything, perhaps not the complexities of science, but when it comes to the arts, they're there for enjoyment. They're there for everybody. They're our birthright.

And they -- this should be made obvious to people. And because it seems that I have the good fortune to be able to do that, I think I would be very selfish if I was to say I don't want to do it. I want just to stay in my silence. I think I have to draw a line and say I can only do so much of it -- you know, two weeks here and then two months back home and then another two weeks et cetera.

But I think that's a sacrifice that I'm called upon to make because any gift any of us have is never just for us. It's for sharing.

GROSS: Do you -- have you seen this as a sacrifice? Or have you welcomed the opportunity to actually be in the world? See the world?

BECKETT: Oh, no, no. It's a sacrifice. I would be delighted if I could, say, hand -- hand over the task to somebody else. No, I would never have wanted to do this and I sometimes look at the Lord with a rather quizzical air. You know, I was so lucky. I had all that wonderful solitude and silence. And then, he asks me to give up parts of it.

Well, if you -- if I really want to love and serve him, then I must try and do this with as big a smile as I can manage, but it would never have been my choice.

GROSS: Now, have you ever watched television?

BECKETT: Well of course, we haven't got a television and I wouldn't want to watch television. But when I'm in the hotel filming, then I have seen some television.

GROSS: But until you were actually shooting the series that we're about to see on PBS -- "The Story of Painting" -- did you see TV before you were -- yeah?

BECKETT: Well, that's not my first -- that's not my first series, you know.

GROSS: OK, true. OK, before you started doing series' for the BBC -- yes.

BECKETT: No, I had not seen television.

GROSS: So the first time you really saw television was when you were making it yourself?

BECKETT: Well, I don't like watching myself either. But this, I suppose, was helpful, in that I didn't really know what I was agreeing to do.

GROSS: To...

LAUGHTER

You didn't know what any of the kind of general wisdom ...

BECKETT: No.

GROSS: ... is about TV or what any of the rules or assumptions are.

BECKETT: No, I didn't know what was involved. No.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BECKETT: I didn't know what was involved, so I just went -- it seemed to me they were suggesting I should do something that was going to be useful for people and I thought: well, why not?

GROSS: Well, let me ask you this -- you don't, I know you don't have a mirror and you don't gaze at yourself in mirrors. What was it like to see yourself on TV? I mean, did you even know what you looked like?

BECKETT: It is deeply humiliating if you look like me. I've seen a picture of you, and for you it might be quite nice to see yourself on television. But when you have a great fat face and protruding teeth and large glasses, it's very good for the soul -- very purifying -- to see how deeply unattractive one is.

GROSS: So you almost see it as penance when you...

LAUGHTER

... see yourself on TV.

BECKETT: Yes, yes, it's hard to take -- bad for my vanity. See, when you don't see yourself, you can think you're -- you're more elegant looking than you actually are, and then you have your nose rubbed into it.

GROSS: Were you self-conscious as a girl? And did self-consciousness have to do with you becoming a nun at all?

BECKETT: No, I don't think I was self-conscious. I've always known I was plain, but it doesn't matter very much; doesn't matter very much for television either. I think it's an encouragement to people to see that I'm plain 'cause this is not some dazzling beauty which makes them special, as beauty always does, telling people about art. This is somebody who looks just like their old Aunt Agatha.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Well, you know you are one of the rare people who is allowed on TV without being beautiful.

LAUGHTER

You know, TV is very kind of exclusive in that respect.

BECKETT: Yes, and it's dangerous, you see, because it makes the ordinary people feel that what happens on television is in this kind of fairy world. It doesn't affect them.

GROSS: Right.

BECKETT: And I want art to come into their lives and affect them. So I think -- I think God did well in not giving me the dangerous gift of beauty.

GROSS: My guest is Sister Wendy Beckett. Her new series on the history of painting begins Sunday on PBS stations. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Sister Wendy Beckett and her series on The Story of Painting is coming to public television. There's also a book of hers just in print called "Sister Wendy's Story of Painting."

When you decided to say "yes" to the BBC offer a few years ago, when you first started working with the network, did you have to justify it to your religious order? Or, did they encourage you to accept the offer of the BBC?

BECKETT: Well, I'm in a rather unusual position as a nun. I'm a consecrated virgin and I live under the protection of the Carmelites, but I am not a Carmelite. But, they act as if they were my order. So of course, I can't do anything without discussing it with the Reverend Mother Rachel, who's a great friend of mine.

And she's always been completely trusting. She says: "Wendy, if you think it's a good thing to do, go ahead." Now, that was how they greeted the idea of the first series. And then the BBC, bless them, came down with a television and the tapes to show the sisters.

And since then, they've been very keen on the idea, because they would see what it was offering to people. So my sisters, to whom I don't talk, but who -- whom I love very much, they are sorry for me, but certain in their own minds that this is something that I'm still called upon to do.

GROSS: They're sorry for you?

BECKETT: Well, yes -- to have to leave silence? They're very sorry for me. Very grateful that God hasn't asked it of them, and of course he couldn't because as Carmelites, they are strictly enclosed. They couldn't do it. And I wish that God had had the forethought for me to become a Carmelite, but I wouldn't be able to do it either.

But I'm in the no-man's land, you see, where I can accept the offer if it seems right to me. And it did seem right.

GROSS: Well, just to explain: you had joined a teaching order, the Order of Notre Dame...

BECKETT: Yes.

GROSS: ... and then asked for a life of seclusion and you're living now on the premises of a Carmelite...

BECKETT: That's right.

GROSS: ... order. So that's why you're in the middle of two worlds...

BECKETT: Yes.

GROSS: ... but really the order that you're a part of is a teaching order not the Carmelite order.

BECKETT: And my first order, my only order, the Sisters of Notre Dame de L'emure (ph) have been also very supportive and enthusiastic. They also know how painful it is for me not to have the total uninterrupted contemplation that I had for 27 years.

But it won't last, you see, this television. And now that I'm aging, I can perhaps see release in sight.

GROSS: Is that how you think of it: "release?"

BECKETT: Yes. It will be a release.

GROSS: You know, I think many people find it hard to understand why someone would opt for a life of seclusion and silence. For example, silence and seclusion -- silence and isolation -- are often methods for punishing people. You know, we think of that as a hardship.

BECKETT: Remember, it means for me: I'm alone with God. And this is something I've longed for from babyhood, to be able to spend my life with God shining on me; to be spread out before him and for God to take possession of me.

So it's -- it's a tremendous joy and privilege for me to be given this. And in fact, I feel I've won one of the very great prizes. I can't think of anybody in the world who is more fortunate than I am.

GROSS: I think in a way it's especially surprising that you would choose a life of silence because you're clearly so verbal -- so articulate.

BECKETT: Yes, but -- I am articulate and talking as you can see comes easy to me. But it's not what I would choose to do. I call it "bouncing the ball" and I can do it for a bit, and then I simply cannot do it anymore, partly because I think when I do talk, I talk with all my energies. If I could only kind of do it half-flow, I might be able to do more of it.

But I'm not a constantly flowing stream. I can -- I can flow with great energy, and then it dries up. I just long passionately, and in a kind of hungry, needy way, to be back in solitude, which I suppose indicates that I'm a rather inadequate sort of person. But that's -- that's true of me and I have to live, as we all have to, within the parameters of what we are.

GROSS: Now, you've said that you've never known doubt. I can't imagine what that feels like, to have never known doubt.

BECKETT: Well, I can't imagine what it feels like to doubt. But I will say this, Terry, that whenever I'm talking to people...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BECKETT: ... about religious things, I'm able to throw myself into what it's like for them. And a lot of the things I say are not things I know for myself, because I don't feel that, but I know other people do. And I make an imaginative leap into what life is like spiritually for most people.

I, for some reason, was not strong enough as a person to be able to bear the burdens and the temptations that most people have and grow closer to God by coping with. I -- I have been exempt from that, obviously, because he could see I wouldn't be able to manage.

So it's not a -- it's not because I'm good. It's because I'm not good that I think I've always had this complete certainty about God -- the only certainty. I could doubt anything else, but that God is and that God is total love. No, no -- that I've never doubted.

GROSS: You once said: "I'm like a singer with perfect pitch, only what I was given was an abiding and constant sense of what God is." I'm wondering if your parents were religious.

BECKETT: They were religious, but not in any sense a kind of pious way. But it was quite clear to me that God mattered to them. They would never have missed Sunday Mass for example.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BECKETT: But there wasn't a lot of Rosary-saying in the house. It was a -- it was a very happy house because my parents were such loving people. And I didn't -- I didn't realize that grownups ever, ever quarreled or raised their voice or said spiteful things. I thought that was just children. Because neither of my parents, I think, knew what malice was.

So, I was very lucky.

GROSS: Were your parents pleased when you told them that you felt that you were called?

BECKETT: Well, I never had to tell them.

GROSS: They just knew?

BECKETT: Well, we -- it was taken for granted in the family because I had been certain since I was a very small child. If I told them when I was three or something, I don't remember it.

But it was taken for granted and I can remember my mother sort of shaking her head one day and saying: "it makes me so cross, Wendy. You're going to be a nun and everyone will think what a saint you are. And only I will know what a difficult child you have been."

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Sister Wendy will be back with us in the second half of our show. Her series Sister Wendy's Story of Painting, begins Sunday on PBS stations. She's also written a companion book.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Sister Wendy Beckett. She's a nun who lives a life of silence, study, and prayer. Her home is a trailer on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery in England. Occasionally, she breaks her silence to host a BBC series on art history. Her latest series, Sister Wendy's Story of Painting, premiers on PBS stations this Sunday. Her companion book has just been published.

The order of nuns that you joined was a teaching order. Was it an ambition of yours to teach?

BECKETT: No, I didn't want to teach. I wanted to pray. But I was a very stupid 16-year-old and I automatically entered with the sisters who were teaching me. And it was only later I suddenly dawned upon me: I don't want to teach, actually. I just want to pray.

And by then it was not literally too late, but too late in the sense that my superiors said: "no, we think you will be a good teacher." And I didn't feel it would be right to insist on having my own way. And in fact, it was very, very good for me to have to teach. Years of doing what you don't want to do is very purifying if you're selfish.

And I am very selfish.

GROSS: Now, I know when you started to live a life of seclusion, you were given a work assignment for the two days -- for the two hours a day that you work. And your assignment for the first few years was to translate sermons from Italian into English. Do I have that right?

BECKETT: No, medieval Latin.

GROSS: Oh, that's what I meant, yes, Latin, right. Thank you. So, these were medieval sermons?

BECKETT: Yes, existing only in one manuscript.

GROSS: Hmm. And then after a few years of that, you got permission to study art?

BECKETT: Yes, I wasn't feeling very well after all that, and I asked Rachel: "could I use my work time to look at art?" And she said: "yes, of course you can."

And then my conscience bothered me, because we have to earn our living and I said -- fatal words -- "with a view to eventually writing a book about it." And then the day came, I thought, well, I'd better write this wretched book. And I wrote it. And then various magazines liked the way I wrote and it all took off, sadly, from there.

GROSS: And that led to the BBC...

BECKETT: Yes.

GROSS: ... asking you to do a show.

BECKETT: Yes.

GROSS: So you had studied...

BECKETT: I've written about -- I've written about 14 or 15 books by now, you know.

GROSS: Right. Right.

BECKETT: Yeah, poor me, 'cause I don't like writing either.

GROSS: Do you have an agent, Sister Wendy?

BECKETT: Yes. I have a dear friend who is a great literary agent called Tovey Edie (ph), and he protects me and says "no" to things.

GROSS: And what do you do with the money that you get?

BECKETT: It all goes straight to the monastery.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

BECKETT: I mean, I -- it's not my business.

GROSS: Right. Right. Do you talk about the money end with your agent? Does he come back to you and say: "well, so and so publisher is offering so many thousand, but we can get more out of them, I think."

BECKETT: No, I say to Tovey: "you do it all, Tovey." And then he'll just say to me -- when he asked me "do I want to write the book" and I usually say "no, but I think I ought to," you know. And then I just sign a contract without even looking to see what he's done. And the money just goes straight to the monastery, which leaves me quite free.

GROSS: Right.

Now, I know that a good deal of the time that you've been studying art, you've -- you know, you've been doing it in seclusion in your trailer, so you've been looking at reproductions and posters and postcards and pictures. When did you actually get to a museum?

BECKETT: When I wrote my first book, which was contemporary women artists, the publishers, which were Fidon (ph), the great art publishers, asked me if I would mind if they took me to look at one work that I'd written about -- just to see if what -- if it would change my opinion. And they did. And I said that's exactly what I thought it was like. And I don't need to look at any of the others.

So I suppose that was the first time. I have been to a few exhibitions when I've been out working for the BBC. I don't go to contemporary exhibitions anymore, but I've been to some of the masters and I'm usually allowed to go in when it's closed to the public.

But you know, when you go into museum, ideal though it is in many ways, you've got to walk around and there are all those other works calling for attention. There's something very pleasant about sitting in your own space with your card up and silence and time.

GROSS: So you feel that you can get everything from a postcard reproduction of a painting that you could get from being in front of the painting itself?

BECKETT: You can get a lot. You have to read up about the artist to make certain you're imagining the texture right. For example, Rembrandt has often very thick, lumpy paint. And you need to know that when you're looking at the work. And you must know what the dimensions are, so that you can imagine it right.

But with all that, yes, you can get very close. And I think this should be a great comfort for all the people who know they can't get to museums. People tend to think: "I can't get to any of the world's great museums or even to a small museum, so art must be a closed book to me."

No, they're wrong. You can get enormously close if you're prepared to take the trouble.

GROSS: What was it like for you to go to the Sistine Chapel? And I'm thinking in part, you know, of the great painting there, but I'm also thinking of what it's like for you to go from this life of denial, living in a trailer, to being in this, you know, just beautiful and ornate...

BECKETT: But it all seems very unreal.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BECKETT: And I enjoy it more when it's over and I'm back home again and I can think back on it, if that makes sense to you.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BECKETT: You know, sight-seeing is terrible, but having sight-seen is wonderful.

GROSS: What I'm wondering -- if you find that approach to a place of prayer beautiful or ostentatious?

BECKETT: Well, it's only technically now a place of prayer. My ideal place of prayer has nothing in it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. As -- in the years that you've been doing television, have you had producers who have tried to nudge you in directions that you've felt were inappropriate or impossible for you to go?

BECKETT: In the early years, there were one or two clashes, mainly when they intruded upon my prerogative, which was I choose the work. Example: when we were in Madrid, they were very keen that I should do Picasso's "Guernica." And I said I didn't want to do it.

GROSS: Why not?

BECKETT: Well, these were 10-minute programs remember, and the Spanish artists I wanted to do were Velasquez and Goya, El Greco, and perhaps Murillo. I didn't want to do Picasso, who I didn't feel would fit in to those old masters. Moreover, I think Guernica's very much overrated. I think it's a marvelous poster. I don't think it's a great painting.

And they were very insistent about this, in a way that I -- they -- my present producer would never push. And in the end, just for peace, I did it and I did it as well as I possibly could, but I knew all the time they wouldn't use it.

GROSS: And did they not use it?

BECKETT: No, they didn't use it.

GROSS: What do you mean when you say that Guernica is more of a terrific poster than it is a great painting?

BECKETT: Well, to me, that's what it is. It's a great anti-war poster -- a big, fine, powerful thing, but it doesn't move me on the -- to the depths as great painting does. But that's just me, you see, and I don't like talking about something for which I don't feel 100 percent enthusiasm. I want to share unalloyed delight and respect and admiration, and I didn't feel that for Guernica.

So I didn't want to do it, but I tried. I tried. I didn't cheat, you know, doing it badly so they wouldn't use it. I tried my best for them, but I knew -- I knew it wouldn't be used.

GROSS: I think some of your viewers over the years have been surprised that you're not prudish around paintings of nudes.

BECKETT: Well, remember I'm a Catholic. I'm a Christian, which means we know that God made the body. I've been baffled by the sense that some people feel the body's a kind of "no no" and certain areas of the body God clearly made a terrible mistake and we should try and hide his ignominy from other people.

GROSS: Well, I think it's also that a lot of people assume that the church is uncomfortable about nude portrayals of the body, and in fact I think parts of the church have been very reactionary about certain art and art exhibitions.

BECKETT: Well, the church isn't -- the church's business is the church, isn't it? It wouldn't be appropriate to have nude females draped all around the interior of a church. And if any church was to say they really would rather not have these paintings, I think they would be absolutely right -- everything in its rightful place.

And the naked body is sometimes the only way an artist can portray his meaning, when it isn't -- it's not artistically right.

GROSS: My guest is Sister Wendy Beckett. Her new series on the history of painting begins Sunday on PBS stations. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Sister Wendy Beckett, a nun who lives a life of silence and prayer, but also hosts BBC and PBS series on art history.

How does your order feel about you becoming famous?

BECKETT: Well, you see this doesn't affect us because we have a -- I'm not actually famous. I have a teeny-weeny little area of, you know, of being known. But since I live in the caravan and they live in the monastery -- I'm sorry, you say the "trailer" -- since I live in the trailer and they live in the monastery, it doesn't affect us.

GROSS: You wear a habit on TV. Do the nuns in your order wear habits? There are so many nuns in the United States now that don't wear habits anymore.

BECKETT: Well, I wear the habit with love, and of course, so do the monastery that looks after me, because of the simplicity of it. I don't have to bother about my hair -- shave it all off; don't have to bother about what I wear. It makes life very much less cluttered for me. And that's the purpose of the habit, as far as I'm concerned.

GROSS: Is it required or optional in your order?

BECKETT: The -- well remember "order" is a dicey word. I live alone. I can -- I could wear what I wished. The Carmelite nuns have a habit and they're certainly not optional. It could be optional for me, but I wouldn't dream of involving myself in the complications of clothing, dresses, shoes, hairstyles -- oh, gracious no.

LAUGHTER

I never have to think about it.

GROSS: I think TV really changes people's egos. I mean, I think it's easier to get a really big ego if you're, you know, doing on a TV and watched by a lot of people and so on. And your life of prayer is about, like, losing ego. I mean, that's in part what it's about.

BECKETT: Yes.

GROSS: Do you ever get a sense of conflict between the way that television builds ego and your desire to lose ego? Or, is that not affecting you at all?

BECKETT: I would say television is a very purifying medium.

LAUGHTER

You're perpetually exposed to your inadequacies. No, I think I've learned a lot about what a poor lover of God I am through working on television. It has certainly made me long much more passionately to be purified than I think if I hadn't had this exposure.

GROSS: Well, let me stop you. You say it's taught you that you're a poor lover of God. I could see you see yourself on TV and it's taught you that you have thick eyeglasses or you have a space between your teeth or something...

BECKETT: No, no -- I didn't mean because I'm ...

GROSS: ... what do you mean by that it's taught you you're a poor lover of God?

BECKETT: Ah, yes, because I'm -- I get impatient with what they do. I get angry, which I never get, of course, in the caravan, you see, so I didn't really know I had a capacity for anger.

GROSS: I see. I see.

BECKETT: But you were thinking about the Guernica -- I was really angry. I had to really struggle to do this with good grace. I did not want to. And that having to cope with an emotion I was quite unused to was very good for me.

GROSS: Let me say before we have to wrap up the interview that I really appreciate your talking, and I feel like it must be -- I don't know what your attitude is towards interviews -- whether you see it as very intrusive to have to not only talk, but have to explain your life of not talking. It's a very strange predicament to be in an interview like this for someone like you.

BECKETT: Well, if it doesn't hurt your feelings, Terry, no one could want to be interviewed, I think.

LAUGHTER

But...

GROSS: I completely understand what you're saying, believe it or not.

LAUGHTER

BECKETT: But it's -- again, if people have spent money making these programs, publishing these books, you owe it to them to try and make the thing a success. Also, I mean, the fact that I've done it means that I think it matters that people should see this art and if this is going to help, well why hold back and say: "well, I've done enough." Press on. One day I'll fall dead at an interview and then I'll feel I've given the whole lot.

GROSS: Well, I thank you very much for talking with us.

BECKETT: Thank you, dear Terry.

GROSS: And I really wish you the best.

BECKETT: Thank you.

GROSS: Sister Wendy Beckett's TV series Sister Wendy's Story of Painting begins Sunday on PBS stations. She's also written a companion book.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Sister Wendy Beckett
High: Sister Wendy Beckett is a member of the Notre Dame order, a teaching order of nuns and a celebrity. In 1980 she began the serious study of art, and since has written a number of books on the subject and hosted the popular PBS series "Sister Wendy's Odyssey" and "Sister Wendy's Grand Tour." This week PBS begins airing her newest 10-part series, "Sister Wendy's Story of Painting." There's a companion book.
Spec: Media; Religion; PBS; Television; Sister Wendy's Odyssey
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Sister Wendy's Odyssey
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: SEPTEMBER 04, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 090402NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Papparozzo
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:50

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Since the death of Princess Diana, the word "papparazi" has been on everyone's lips. Several journalists have pointed out that the word is derived from "Papparozzo" -- the photographer crony of Marcello Mastrioianni's character in Fellini's "La Dolce Vita."

Linguist Geoff Nunberg says although the word comes from Italy, the papparazi aren't a foreign invention.

GEOFF NUNBERG, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: I went out and rented La Dolce Vita the other night, and it was sort of uncanny to watch. There's Papparozzo in a restaurant grabbing a photo of a prince with his mistress; Papparozzo in the backseat of Marcello Mastrioianni's sports car urging him to go faster as they tail Anita Ekberg's limo; Papparozzo and a colleague jumping on a Vespa to chase Mastrioianni and Ekberg as they leave a nightclub.

You can see how the name would come to characterize the type. But it's a curious word for us to have. There are a fair number of English words based on the names of fictional characters: quixotic, narcissism, man friday, Romeo, Mickey Mouse, Uncle Tom.

But "Papparazo" is the only one that comes from the name of a character in a foreign film. It makes the species sound like something recent and exotic, not a home-grown category. And that seems to be an impression that the British and American journalists were eager to foster in the wake of Princess Diana's death.

Listening to some of the British photographers, I had the sense they were relieved that the whole business didn't take place on their watch. "Oh, but that was in another country."

It's true the Papparozzo was a phenomenon of the post-war period and that he emerged first in Italy. He was a creation not just of the liberated mood of the time, but of technological innovations. There were lighter cameras and faster film, and the polychrome rotary presses that had made possible the new photographic tabloids and magazines. For that matter, I suppose he owes something to the motor scooter, too.

And there's no question that all of this made for new levels of press intrusiveness. But there was nothing particularly new or foreign in the sensationalism of the popular press or the public hunger for salacious details about the lives of the famous.

What Leo Brody called "the frenzy of renown" goes back to the 18th century. As far back as 1788, a British writer was complaining that newspapers deal only "in malice or the prattle of the day." And by the 19th century, the culture of celebrity was in full flower and public figures had to be constantly on their guard.

In 1865 when Charles Dickens was in a catastrophic train wreck in the company of his mistress Nellie Turnin (ph), his first thought was to climb out a window to draw attention from his traveling companion. When the first reporters arrived, they found him heroically tending the injured at the other end of the train.

But it was here in America that the techniques of sensational journalism were brought to their modern perfection. By the end of the 19th century, mass circulation newspapers were vying with one another in lurid accounts of grizzly crimes and celebrity scandals, with a heavy pictorial content made possible by the new lithography.

It was all aimed at capturing the attention of a readership that William Randolph Hearst described as "more fond of entertainment than of information."

It was an age associated with another phrase that took its name from a fictional character, and that owed a lot to technological innovation. In 1896, Joseph Pulitzer's New York World introduced the first regular comic strip in the form of "The Yellow Kid" -- a brass, gap-toothed slum kid who wore a bright yellow shift that was tinted by a new color process.

The comics' popularity helped The World to become the first American paper to achieve a circulation of over a million, and other papers quickly got on the bandwagon. Their garish appearance led the journalist Edwin Wardman to label them "the yellow press." The comic pages soon went to full color, but the term "yellow journalism" stuck as a name for that free-wheeling journalistic style.

At the time, the American press led the world in sex and scandal. But the British were quick to catch on, with papers like Northcliff's (ph) Daily Mirror, which was published in the new, smaller format that had been dubbed the "tabloid" when it was first introduced by the New York World in 1900.

For a half century, the press of the two nations ran neck-and-neck in lurid sensationalism. It was only around the time of the Second World War that the American yellow press began to fold or turn staid and suburban. On our side of the Atlantic, that great stream of yellow ink was stanched to the trickle of the checkout counter weeklies.

But fortunately, the British papers weren't left to carry on alone. By then, the French, Italians and others had taken up the torch that was first lit in New York at the end of the last century. Watching La Dolce Vita, it struck me that Hearst and Pulitzer would have instantly recognized Papparozzo as their progeny.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

Dateline: Geoff Nunberg; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest:
High: Linguist Geoff Nunberg on the origins of the word "Papparozzo."
Spec: Language; Media; Italy; Papparazi
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Papparozzo
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: SEPTEMBER 04, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 090403NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Five Facings
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Last year, the pioneering American soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy left Paris after more than 25 years and relocated to Berlin.

Shortly after he arrived, he was guest of honor at an annual festival of improvised music where on successive nights, he was paired up with five diverse piano players. A CD documenting those meetings is out.

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "THE CRUST")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Steve Lacy with pianist Marilyn Crispell, playing Lacy's "The Crust." Lacy appears at lots of festivals and is often thrown together on stage with old friends or new acquaintances like this one.

If there's no pre-agreed-upon program, you can bet that Lacy will try to cajole his partners into playing some of his tunes. Like his idol Thelonious Monk, Lacy writes pieces that sound like the way he plays. They have the same up and down the ladder motion and casual momentum.

This version of The Crust shows how inspiring those tunes can be. In Lacy's pacing and his soaring modern phrases, you can still hear traces of his early Dixieland years.

MUSIC RISES

Pianist Marilyn Crispell feels a bit stereotyped as a fists and elbows disciple of Cecil Taylor (ph). For her, a clear simple tune like The Crust offers a chance to play against expectations.

MUSIC RISES

This music is from the CD "Five Facings" from Berlin's FMP label. The least tractable of Steve Lacy's five partners here is the Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg who, Lacy knew from previous experience, was resistant to playing his tunes. They resorted to their usual standby -- pieces by their mutual hero Monk.

Their take on "Evidence," shows how much Mengelberg learned from Monk about playing the high note solos.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "EVIDENCE")

The Belgian pianist Fred Van Hove is another formidable adversary, but he uses different strategies. His long duet with Lacy is the one totally improvised piece on the CD. Van Hove finds ingenious ways of working with or against Lacy's unhurried phrasing, and they fall into a kind of rhythmic counterpoint.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "FIVE FACINGS")

On Steve Lacy's new CD, pianist Fred Van Hove mediates between the obstinacy of Misha Mengelberg and the cooperative attitude of Marilyn Crispell, Ulrich Gumpert, and Vladimir Miller. I expect none of these musicians would limit themselves to the category "jazz musicians," but the whole program reflects good old jazz values. It's fueled by that volatile mix of cooperation and competition.

It also reminds us that non-cooperation has its uses. One way to survive an encounter with a stubborn musician like Lacy is to be a little bit stubborn yourself.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead reviewed Five Facings with saxophonist Steve Lacy on the German label FMP.

I'm Terry Gross.

Dateline: Kevin Whitehead; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest:
High: Jazz Critic Kevin Whitehead reviews the 1996 German release by pioneering American soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. "Five Facings" is released on the German label FMP. In this series of recordings Lacy is paired with such diverse piano players as Marilyn Crispell, Misha Mengelberg, Ulrich Gumpert, Fred Van Hove, and Vladimir Miller.
Spec: Music Industry; Jazz; Steve Lacy
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Five Facings
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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