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Critiquing the CriticsWho's your favorite critic?


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#16 Michael

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Posted 27 March 2010 - 10:30 AM

I read Macauley's statement about Becket and Balanchine as an extraordinarily emphatic statement about Balanchine and the theatrical/dramatic elements in his work (a side of him that became relatively less evident in his final phase as he de-emphasized production values - just compare the earlier Apollo's, the ones with the birth scene, with the final one, for example) - and reading it that way didn't find the statement too outlandish. More a little ill considered, not off the wall. I would have considered it off the wall if I took it literally as being about every one else in the dramatic arts during the 20th century - it's quite insupportable from that point of view. But if you take it as primarily underscoring a point about Balanchine, it's nothing to get very upset about.

#17 papeetepatrick

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Posted 27 March 2010 - 10:34 AM

Very true, Michael. I've gotten used to some of Macaulay's idiosyncrasies by now, and don't notice things like that as much as I did. One can mature a bit even in middle aged and with 'set ways' :P

#18 Quiggin

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Posted 28 March 2010 - 09:11 PM

The Balanchine Beckett pairing may go back to Edwin Denby in "For a Foreign Tour" -- which I just came across -- where he is talking about Balanchine's "condensed energy of ... a counter-classic classicism." "In his 'Agon' it looks ebullient," Denby says. "In the Webern 'Episodes' ... the lucid abnormality has a wit like Beckett's."

It's always a problem with artists you admire, you want to link them with someone. These days I might link Beckett (who is problematically both loquacious and laconic) with Mies van der Rohe or with the painter Robert Ryman. I no longer can pair up Balancine so easily -- Matisse? Cezanne? Wallace Stevens? Horace? All boundlessly inventive with form.

As far as critics go, Macaulay does see and report on a lot of different dance companies that I am interested in (Acocella less and less), and so once you factor in his mild but consistent biases -- like Roberta Smith's in the art section or Nicolai Oursoussoff's in architecture -- his comparisons are valuable.

#19 Michael

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Posted 29 March 2010 - 10:05 AM

Balanchine and Picasso make an interesting comparison. Protean in styles; persona factors too; very good at staying on top of, capitalizing on, always appearing to be of their times stylistically - and ended up codifying and forming the stylistic elements of their period; pretty much contemporaries; had pre war paris in common, as well as Diaghilev connections (though far more fundamental with Balanchine).

Switching sub-topic: I think you get a statement from Macauley of the Beckett/Balanchine type when a critic is speaking very much from their inner universe of experience. No one has read everything; seen everything; but an interesting critical intellect is always placing things in his or her own context, and cross referencing things they know in that context. Thus if major intellectual events for you personally were Beckett and Balanchine, that's going to be a reference you make. An academic will be trained not to shoot from the hip in this way; but someone writing every day newspaper copy may fire off an impression like this, almost conversationally - a point that someone building a more considered, academic or historical argument would hedge in with qualifications.

Some of the most important things that Victor Hugo wrote critically in his Preface to Cromwell and Preface to Gil Blas proceed from just this kind of intellectual shorthand; undoubtedly Hugo felt licensed to say anything he wanted in a preface to his own work; but really you wouldn't want a fine mind to qualify or self censor themselves too much. The question really is whether the internal universe of the critic who's writing this way is a beautiful one and whether the observations are insightful. In that case I tend to forgive them the intellectual shotgun blasts - that is unless and until one of my own sacred cows gets wounded.

#20 leonid17

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Posted 30 March 2010 - 01:21 AM

Balanchine and Picasso make an interesting comparison. Protean in styles; persona factors too; very good at staying on top of, capitalizing on, always appearing to be of their times stylistically - and ended up codifying and forming the stylistic elements of their period; pretty much contemporaries; had pre war paris in common, as well as Diaghilev connections (though far more fundamental with Balanchine).

Switching sub-topic: I think you get a statement from Macauley of the Beckett/Balanchine type when a critic is speaking very much from their inner universe of experience. No one has read everything; seen everything; but an interesting critical intellect is always placing things in his or her own context, and cross referencing things they know in that context. Thus if major intellectual events for you personally were Beckett and Balanchine, that's going to be a reference you make. An academic will be trained not to shoot from the hip in this way; but someone writing every day newspaper copy may fire off an impression like this, almost conversationally - a point that someone building a more considered, academic or historical argument would hedge in with qualifications.

Some of the most important things that Victor Hugo wrote critically in his Preface to Cromwell and Preface to Gil Blas proceed from just this kind of intellectual shorthand; undoubtedly Hugo felt licensed to say anything he wanted in a preface to his own work; but really you wouldn't want a fine mind to qualify or self censor themselves too much. The question really is whether the internal universe of the critic who's writing this way is a beautiful one and whether the observations are insightful. In that case I tend to forgive them the intellectual shotgun blasts - that is unless and until one of my own sacred cows gets wounded.


Thank you.

#21 toeprints

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Posted 07 April 2010 - 06:13 PM

A huge mea culpa - I just re-read my original posting and realized that I neglected to include two people I greatly admire - Jane Simpson and Robert Greskovic. Both are very thoughtful as well as possessing a great deal of knowledge and perception.

#22 papeetepatrick

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Posted 07 April 2010 - 06:32 PM

Balanchine and Picasso make an interesting comparison. Protean in styles; persona factors too; very good at staying on top of, capitalizing on, always appearing to be of their times stylistically - and ended up codifying and forming the stylistic elements of their period; pretty much contemporaries; had pre war paris in common, as well as Diaghilev connections (though far more fundamental with Balanchine).


I liked the whole post, Michael, but abbreviated it to this, although do want say, of the parts I didn't re-paste, I think this is excellent: "An academic will be trained not to shoot from the hip in this way; but someone writing every day newspaper copy may fire off an impression like this, almost conversationally - a point that someone building a more considered, academic or historical argument would hedge in with qualifications." Exactly.

But back to Picasso and Balanchine. Everything except 'persona factors too' I would agree with. Picasso had an enormous selfishness that was not really excusable, and went into cowardice, as is well pointed out in Mailer's book 'Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man'--his betrayal of Apollinaire is quite appalling, as was his cowardice during wartime, although I'd need to get the book in front of me to be more specific--a good bit of parading of his vanity at quite the wrong time, I remember reading and seeing photographed.

It could be Balanchine never was faced with matters quite so 'testing of character', and certainly was not without flaws in his character, as is obvious enough (who is, of course?), but I never have thought of him as a cowardly man. As an artist, you can, of course, say that Picasso's courage shows in his artistic determination at all costs, but I've ceased to buy that argument--even the most monumental oeuvre does not excuse some things, although it doesn't lessen their greatness necessarily (or it's hard to see where and how it may have). A great artist has to be selfish (I know that may raise some eyebrows, okay, fine, let them be raised, I'm writing to some degree in a shorthand here), but there has to be generosity and kindness too, and perhaps Picasso was generous in certain ways, but there are basic decencies among friends that really went too far with Picasso. It may, of course, be that we all show lack of courage at times, but when you betray a close friend so callously as did Picasso did to Apollinaire, that's a bit different. In all the artistic 'Olympianisms' and the shrewdness as well, that you have enumerated (although I'm sure Picasso was much wealthier), I do agree with you, though, and very precisely you have put it.

Of course, it's possible that some kind of parallel egregiousness existed in Balanchine and was acted on, but I'm not up on all the details of his life to know. I never heard of it, but someone once posted something about Balanchine in Paris and it seemed to be about some rich lady who adored him, but the post gave some impression of slight frivolity, superficiality--but I have no certain memory of it, and it's impossible to search out in the archives here, which is where I am fairly sure I saw it--it might have been a quote Quiggin put up from someone, but that's just a wild guess.

I mean, in that one way, Picasso might even be likened to Fritz Lang, who had grotesque cowardice, and although his career was not quite as stellar as Picasso's, it was still pretty outstanding, and I happen to be one who even admires his Hollywood films as well as his German ones.

#23 Quiggin

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Posted 07 April 2010 - 11:46 PM

Of course, it's possible that some kind of parallel egregiousness existed in Balanchine and was acted on ... it might have been a quote Quiggin put up from someone, but that's just a wild guess.


I think I quoted Christian Berard on Balanchine as related by Lincoln Kirstein, when Kirstein didn’t know if Balanchine was the dance genius he wanted to take back to the States with him or not. Berard was a great artist, but his verbal portrait of Balanchine was a bit of a Berard performance piece though an interesting one -- it cut deep in parts.

I was trying to find a double for Balanchine, someone in the visual arts, who could toss things out quickly and brilliantly. At first I shied away from Michael’s suggestion of Picasso, but then I thought of the late late Picasso Mosqueteros with all the gooey lush paint -- the paintings that were at Gagosian gallery recently and caught Roberta Smith’s eye in the Times (and Holly Solomon’s keener eye 20 years before that).

The Picasso of the sculpture/costumes for Parade and Mercure may also work. Definitely not the interior nightmarish painter/model stuff that led up to Guernica, when real life broke into Picasso's studio -- the subject of T J Clark’s Mellon lectures last year (“let’s play at hurting each other” Clark cites). But then there's Balanchine's no less intense Bugaku and Agon and even the 4Ts ...

... I thought Apollinaire and Picasso were close, at least according to the ongoing and exhaustive John Richardson biography of Picasso. Richardson says Picasso also had the same sort of closeness to Satie and felt his death in the same way that he felt Apollinaire's. It was Cocteau Picasso was ambivalent about.

#24 papeetepatrick

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Posted 08 April 2010 - 08:12 AM

Quiggin--thanks for clarifying about Berard, my memory still halfway decent. Picasso and Apollinaire were close, that's the whole point: He denied even knowing Apollinaire to the police in the matter of that Louvre theft. I'll try to get the Mailer book out of the library again, and tell you the rest. Such acts tend, in most perceptions, to cancel out claims of 'feelings of closeness' that may or may not have been exactly pure and unalloyed, tied up as they are in guilt--and often 'experienced' after all personal culpability has been, if not paid, at least substantially covered up.

#25 Quiggin

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Posted 08 April 2010 - 11:41 AM

He denied even knowing Apollinaire to the police in the matter of that Louvre theft.

Patrick, check out Richardson's v.3 Picasso life (Mailer’s Picasso claimed “no original scholarship”), it's as if the Louvre incident didn't happen, a blip.

I also wanted to add that another protean visual artist Giambattista Tiepolo is the subject of a new study, "Tiepolo Pink" (Odette’s favorite colors in Proust) by Roberto Calasso and reviewed in the TLS by Ferdinand Mount.

The Rescue of Tiepolo


Mount says:

The disdainful ease, the sprezzatura, which had been the glory of high art for so long was now written off as trumpery show.

“And so”, Calasso tells us, not without a touch of sprezzatura himself, “painting took its leave of us – at least in the particular, singular, irretrievable sense it had acquired for roughly five centuries in Europe.” Afterwards, we were left merely with artists, with their personalities and idiosyncrasies. No longer were their names written in water, like those of Keats, Mozart and indeed Tiepolo, but rather in blood and biopics. Caravaggio not Tiepolo was declared the first modern painter ... The nineteenth century, Calasso declares, had “irrevocably lost the knack for dealing with the past”.

&

... We must never forget how much Tiepolo had in reserve as his hand moved with amazing speed over the damp plaster. But the speed caught the vision, rather than smothering or coarsening it.


Getting back to the critics, if Balanchine & Ashton are our Picasso and Tiepolo, where are our Sventlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall and Calasso and T J Clark who can discuss dance in a larger way? Macaulay tries -- but maybe dance by its very nature eludes the new critrical tools of art history.

And at the least, the British critics -- though Ismene Brown was very witty (“arabesques held well past their bedtime”) -- could have done with more depth and perspective in the their reviews of the recent Cuban Ballet Nacional performances at the London Coliseum.

#26 bart

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Posted 08 April 2010 - 02:36 PM

This is a fascinating conversation. It has been a pleasure, especially, to eavesdrop on the most recent posts. I especially appreciate the suggestion of affinities between Balanchine and Picasso on one hand, and possibly Ashton/Tiepolo on the other.

I also appreciate Michael's point, as follows:

No one has read everything; seen everything; but an interesting critical intellect is always placing things in his or her own context, and cross referencing things they know in that context. Thus if major intellectual events for you personally were Beckett and Balanchine, that's going to be a reference you make. An academic will be trained not to shoot from the hip in this way; but someone writing every day newspaper copy may fire off an impression like this, almost conversationally - a point that someone building a more considered, academic or historical argument would hedge in with qualifications.

I find it interesting that Macaulay wrote about ballet frequently for the Times Literary Supplement before coming to the NY Times. Most of the reviewers who appear in TLS are academics and therefore expected to incorporate knowledgeable references to a broad range of writings -- which means background and context -- in their fields. (They do not just "review" a book or performance. They do not just drop names. They do not need to sneak a peak at Wikipedia.) Those who write about the performing arts, current literature, etc., for TLS tend also to be quite aware of current cultural trends in their fields. What's more, they expect their readers to know about the topic and to be interested in wide-ranging issues related to it.

Personally, I like these qualities in a ballet critic. To put it another way: the richest, most rewarding ballet criticism includes an understanding of and willingness to discuss artistic matters that go beyond ballet itself.

Why does this matter? Because ballet is -- or can be -- an important art which deserves thought and writing on the level of the finest literary or drama criticism. Those of us who grew up in NYC with Balanchine know this intuitively. Some reviewers feel this in their bones. They explain (and advocate for) ballet -- though not always for the individual performance or work -- and for its place in the larger family of performing arts.

Unfortunately, there are only a handful of journals with the readership, budget, editorial independence, etc., to devote space, time and money (including travel budgets) to such a venture. Macaulay seems to have been extremely fortunate -- or clever -- in getting serious support, and a large degree of freedom, from this editors at the Times. The New Yorker gives similar resources to its staff reviewers for books, opera, and drama, but no longer to dance. Ballet Review and DanceView have done marvelous work in this style, but their readership is small and specialized.

#27 papeetepatrick

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Posted 08 April 2010 - 02:38 PM

He denied even knowing Apollinaire to the police in the matter of that Louvre theft.

Patrick, check out Richardson's v.3 Picasso life (Mailer’s Picasso claimed “no original scholarship”), it's as if the Louvre incident didn't happen, a blip.


Are you saying that it's not mentioned in the Richardson, or that 'Mailer made it up' or Richardson never mentioned it, or what? Don't know what you mean by 'no original scholarship'. 'A blip' in what sense. Are you suggesting Mailer made up this story about Picasso and Apollinaire?

Here's what wiki for Apollinaire says: "On September 7, 1911, police arrested and jailed him on suspicion of stealing the Mona Lisa, but released him a week later. Apollinaire then implicated his friend Pablo Picasso, who was also brought in for questioning in the art theft, but he was also exonerated.[1] He once called for the Louvre to be burnt down."

So Mailer's rhapsodies may or may not be in question, but it's certainly not that the incident didn't happen.

http://www.nytimes.c...racts-like.html

There's Michiko Kakutani's review of the Mailer, plus mention Picasso's betrayal of Max Jacob as well, that Mailer didn't include. One thing I noticed also in the review is the 'machismo' shared by Mailer and Picasso. This is certainly totally absent in everything Balanchine stood for, of course. She sees Mailer as indulging in 'hero worship', but her review, while calling Mailer's book 'subjective', does seem to try to be objective, I don't know whether that's before or after he called her the 'one-woman kamikaze' or not, either way, it was a pretty good read of a review. She's got a review of Richardson, which she praises as 'magisterial'. I'm going to go back an look at that, which is obviously a lot more scholarly a kind of work, but her review alone clears up the Louvre matter, in that it did exist.

http://www.nytimes.c...6...nted=1&_r=1

Her review of the 3rd Volume of Richardson points out his cruelty. All these great artists have a certain amount of cruelty. The final quote that she makes of Picasso himself, as he says 'I am God' three times still seems very far from the 'persona' of Balanchine. I don't see Picasso as saying 'God creates, man assembles'. So if you want to compare artists in different fields (I really don't see much in it myself, and prefer what Michael pointed out as the more academic kind of carefully thought out thing, instead of this 'conversational fun thing'. I mean, I like 'conversational fun things', but for me, comparing artists doesn't mean much. It's enough that Picasso, Stravinsky and Balanchine worked together, they would therefore have many artistic sympathies, and probably all capable of ruthlessness and cruelty. Martha Graham certainly was. But 'persona' is unclear in what it includes. I was just pointing out differences in manifestations of the character-persona. Obviously, Gelsey Kirkland thought Balanchine was cruel, that's not quite the same thing, even if true, as what Picasso was up to.) In any case, I've often heard Picasso and Martha Graham compared, much more frequently than Balanchine and Picasso. I don't really see Picasso as having much similarity with Fritz Lang, I was just pointing to that particular weakness in character, which did seem to be negligible to both. Of course, one could say that Balanchine's insistence that dancers 'not be political' is not especially admirable in and of itself, but it could also just mean they really haven't time to take getting involved in politics if they're going to realize their potential as dancers, esp. Balanchine dancers.

A couple of arresting quotes from Kakutani's review of the Mailer:

"Even their preoccupation with violence, machismo and the baffling otherness of women have been very much the same. In fact, when Mr. Mailer described himself in "The Armies of the Night" as "warrior, presumptive general, champion of obscenity, embattled aging enfant terrible," he might well have been describing Picasso. "...

"Like Ms. Huffington, Mr. Mailer repeatedly suggests that Picasso had homosexual leanings, that he saw his father as a rival, that he sought to pierce the appearance of people and things and depict their hidden reality. Like Mr. Richardson, he notes that Picasso's use of color was willed, rather than instinctive like Matisse's, that he owed considerable artistic debts to the poets Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire, that he channeled feelings of guilt and shame into his art with astonishing success." ...

"And of Picasso's failings as a human being in general: "If he was a monster, we have no alternative but to accept him. We ought to know that violence and creativity all too often connect themselves inextricably. Indeed, how can they not when some of the most creative moments in early childhood are interrupted by adults -- concern for one's safety, or one's deportment, are always grounds for interruption -- and so in maturity, love is frequently followed by hate, and creation by destruction." "...

"While such rationalizations of genius should not distract attention from Picasso's genuine artistic achievements, they attest to a naive, adolescent -- and ultimately hazardous -- impulse to worship the artist as hero. "

She's a good writer (I never thought her better, and was reading this for the first time), and at least as a person, he doesn't bear much resemblance to Balanchine, to my mind. As an artist, that's something else, of course, but it's hard not to see something of both parts of a man or woman artist.

#28 kfw

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Posted 08 April 2010 - 05:54 PM

The New Republic currently has a piece by Ruth Franklin referencing the Macaulay/Isherwood debate about Come Fly Away that wonders why fights between critics are so tame.

The dueling-opinions phenomenon isn’t limited to the professionals: we’ve all encountered reviews in which the critic seems to have read an entirely different book or seen a different film than the one we loved (or deplored). Is it true, as the proverb goes, that in matters of taste there can be no dispute? Since Kant, at least, judgments of taste have been understood to be primarily subjective, governed less by inherent, empirical attributes of a work than by the personality and intellect of its assessor. But this view overlooks the niggling fact that few of us, when encountering an opinion of a work of art diametrically opposed to our own, are magnanimous enough to declare the merits of both positions and call it a draw. No: we believe that our position is right—otherwise why would we have argued for it in the first place?—and the other side is wrong.

But this is rarely admitted in polite company.

Methinks polite company is on to something here. :) If critical opinion, or even just man-in-the-street opinion, is reduced to de gustibus non est disputandum, then isn't the proper, deepest response to the work itself a great big yawn? If art is important, opinions about it are important. As Graham says

a taste judgment, after all, is a kind of value judgment, even if we can’t always articulate those values exactly. What we like reveals something about the sort of person we are.



#29 Quiggin

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Posted 09 April 2010 - 01:55 AM

Are you saying that it's not mentioned in the Richardson, or that 'Mailer made it up' or Richardson never mentioned it, or what? Don't know what you mean by 'no original scholarship'. 'A blip' in what sense. Are you suggesting Mailer made up this story about Picasso and Apollinaire?


I've enjoyed Norman Mailer in the past, Armies of the Night and earlier Advertisements for Myself were important works, but I wouldn't go to him for art criticism and agree with Michael Kimmelman, the Times art critic when he says,

[Mailer's] Picasso emerges in a familiar guise, as a selfish, superstitious, sometimes cowardly and combative prodigy who moved chameleonlike from one style to another, through one relationship after the next. Mr. Mailer has called his work "an interpretive biography," to distinguish it from a work of original scholarship. This is fair enough, but most of the interpretations are not original.

For instance, Mr. Mailer is not the first to suggest, on the basis of no compelling evidence, that Picasso might have had a homosexual encounter or two as a young man. That dubious honor goes to Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington in her reckless "Picasso: Creator and Destroyer." Who cares one way or another, you might well ask, whether he had such an encounter? But like a dog with a bone, Mr. Mailer takes hold and won't let go.


Michiko Kakutani's Richardson review also says,

Mr. Richardson’s Picasso is not the destructive, misanthropic egomaniac portrayed in the Merchant-Ivory film “Surviving Picasso” or the heroic hipster artist depicted in Norman Mailer’s “Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man.” Rather his Picasso is a mass of contradictions, a savage artist, who was often horribly cruel to his friends like Cocteau but who also “had a very loyal, if sometimes paradoxical heart”


I think a loyal paradoxical heart may be the key term. T J Clark says tenderness and monstrosity co-exist in Picasso. Despite the Louvre incident Richardson cites Braque and Apollinaire as among his closest friends by 1917. A piece of a woman's black veil blows across Picasso's face one afternoon and he knows that Apollinaire is dead and he spends ten years devising a monument to his memory.

Anyway I think we were comparing Picasso and Balanchine for their protean output, not for their personalities which yes are day and night apart.

But the larger point is that dance doesn't have the critics and critical resources -- or critical curiosity -- that the serious art world does. The space that Balanchine uses has complex parallels to Braque and Picasso's cubism through Russian constructivism, to cubist interiority. Elizabeth Cowling says the cubist table top is a stage. And Clement Greenberg uses a charming image that brings painting back to ballet's source,

Cezanne broke up the objects he depicted into multiplicities of planes that were as closely parallel as possible to the canvas surface; and to show recession, the planes were stepped back with comparative abruptness -- even the receding edges of objects keep turning full-face to the spectator like courtiers leaving the presence of royalty.



#30 Mashinka

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Posted 09 April 2010 - 04:44 AM

But the larger point is that dance doesn't have the critics and critical resources -- or critical curiosity -- that the serious art world does.


I totally agree but it used to in the past, certainly in the UK you could find critical essays putting dance works into an artistic/social/historical context but that was many decades ago.

For example I was going through some old magazines just recently and came across a marvellous piece by Beaumont on the provenance of 19th century paintings of the Taglioni family, who bothers with subjects like that today? On the minus side I was reminded just why I am so contemptuous of Alistair Macauley when I read a review he wrote about the Kirov describing a now eminent figure in Russian ballet as merely 'a pretty boy'. Tear into a dancer’s technical abilities by all means - that is what criticism is supposed to be about, cheap insults are beyond the pale though.


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