Tagged: Art

Women Painting Caves

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No, it's not the latest design show on HGTV|DIY. It's what passes for news in some circles:

Women made most of the oldest-known cave art paintings, suggests a new analysis of ancient handprints. Most scholars had assumed these ancient artists were predominantly men, so the finding overturns decades of archaeological dogma.

Well, if you hang around these parts, that's olds, not news!

Bring Me The Red Pages

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This and other pics of Codex Rossanensis courtesy of calabriaonline.com

This and other pics of Codex Rossanensis courtesy of calabriaonline.com

One of the cable channels is showing the whole run of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in order, and so we're dipping in from time to time. I'm glad to report that it holds up quite well, as sitcoms go. At a certain juncture in tonight's episode, Murray ripped the breast pocket off Ted Baxter's jacket, and I turned to my wife and said, "Watch. Later he pulls off all three." Sho nuff, it came to pass as I had said.

Now, normally I wouldn't spoil in that way, but we had been discussing just how strange memory is, and this incident presented a good example. I haven't seen that episode since it first ran in 1972. It was not deeply meaningful to me then. There was no particular reason that this detail should have lodged itself in my cortex. But there it was. Something about the visual of Eventual Captain Stubing's sartorial assault was odd enough to stick with me involuntarily, for no particular reason, all these years… alongside who knows how much other pop-cultural clutter and high-minded ephemera.

Brains are strange. Minds are mysterious. Strangely hangs the Loop that wears the Moebius strip. But here's the lesson of the moment: not only is a picture worth a thousand words, but it's also an agent of Mnemosyne. And Mnemosyne likes codices. (And polkas, waltzes, and schottisches.)

I was thinking about Lady Mnemosyne on the way home from Chipotle with the kid this evening, when suddenly the passenger in the next car up jettisoned a cigarette butt. I mumbled to the kid (now home from college for the summer) that if we had been at a stoplight, I might've been tempted to get out, retrieve the butt, fling it into her open window, and explain with a Wodehousian demeanor that it appeared as if she had dropped something. He mumbled back that he'd set it on fire first, which didn't make much sense and seemed a tad violent but nicely captured the spirit of repugnance I was trying to convey and inculcate.

Litter is a pet peeve of mine, and littering from cars is the one and only thing that ever tips me toward road rage. "Haven't these people seen the cartoon owl?" I screech. "Didn't they see the tear on that fake Indian guy?" I lament. "How can they do this?!"  The Humane Society, or someone, wants you to know that Kant thinks our treatment of animals is the measure of humanity, and maybe it is, but for my money there's no clearer sign of character than whether or not one treats the landscape– however suburbanized and inviting it may seem– as his personal ashtray.

Manage your freakin' trash, loser.

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That poster

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In case you were wondering, that poster on the wall in the background at the end of this season's premier when Levitt was talking to Houston was an 1899 production by Strobridge Lithographic featuring the minor magician Zan Zig:

Zan Zig, courtesy of trialsanderrors

Zan Zig, courtesy of trialsanderrors

Dogged determination

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I once heard Phil Leider say of Francisco Goya that he had only ever truly longed for two things: the career of Diego Velázquez and the love of the Duchess of Alba.

The Duchess of Alba in Mourning, 1797, collection of the The New York Hispanic Society (The Hispanic Society of America)

Maybe that's so.

His last duchess Goya depicted several times, most memorably in an enigmatic painting in which her defiant stance seems to contradict the connotations of her mourning apparel. She points down toward the dust at her feet, where some finger — his? hers? — has inscribed "solo Goya".

Seems like something's going on there. He kept this painting among his possessions from the time of its creation until his death in 1828.

However that may have gone, Leider was surely right about Velázquez, the greatest Spanish painter of the 17th-century, and maybe the greatest of them all — the painter of whom Ruskin supposedly said that everything he does "may be regarded as absolutely right" and to whom Ruskin ascribed "the highest reach of technical perfection yet attained in art."

Why wouldn't Goya want to be Velázquez redux? The earlier artist had lived a charmed life as court painter to Philip IV, under whose auspices he cranked out not only a seemingly endless supply of stock portraiture, but also some of the most psychologically and intellectually compelling images in western art.

It didn't matter what Goya wanted, though. It was not to be. Living through the French Revolution and the Peninsular War, Goya was surrounded by destruction, corruption, incompetence, and folly. Sure, he became court painter — nominally the same position Velázquez had held. But Goya's monarch was an imbecile surrounded by monsters. Recognizing the sad irony of his plight, Goya pulled no punches when it came time to speak truth to power.

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656, Museo del Prado, Madrid

In the 1650s, Velázquez had created an unprecedented and beloved portrait of his king's young daughter surrounded by her ladies in waiting and some courtiers on the entertainment staff: Las Meninas, as it has come to be called. There she stands, head turned charmingly to one side, while the universe plays out in orbit around her. Off to the side, the painter himself stands facing us, brush and palette in hand, and applies his wizardry to an enormous canvas– one identical in size to Las Meninas itself, the only painting of such a size in his oeuvre.

In the background, a silvery mirror reflects the King and Queen, implying that they're standing just about where we stand when we behold this picture. Is Velázquez painting a double-portrait of them? Is he painting Las Meninas? The puzzle, typically Baroque, dissolves into play as the small fellow in the corner kicks the resting dog. His foot has made contact, but the dog has not yet responded; we're trapped in hang time between the moment of order and the predictable chaos about to ensue. The painter waves his laden brush and weighs his options.

How could Goya, a deeply gifted critic of his world and times, not want the liberty to play such games, and in such style? Called upon in 1800 to portray the extended family of Charles IV, he creates this:

 

Carlos IV of Spain and His Family, 1800, Museo del Prado

In a knowing and telling play on the earlier artist's work, Goya presents a travesty of Las Meninas. In place of that gloriously wonderful child, the Infanta Margarita, Goya installs the doltish King's draconian wife, Maria Luisa; the turn of her head is the same, but hardly charming. The ignoble royals mill about unharmoniously, a senseless cluster. The woman who failed to show up for her sitting? Goya includes her anyhow, but turns her head away toward the darkness! The King, all decked out in regalia, medals, lace, and velvet? Nothing but periwig and prattle. That child nestled between the king and his bride? People say he looks a lot like the Prime Minister, Godoy.

In the shadows off to the side, behind an enormous canvas, stands Goya himself, just like Velázquez. He seems to sigh.

Like Beethoven, Goya went stone deaf; he lived another 40 years or so in silence as he watched the world tear itself apart. In his 70s, he holed up in a little two story house near Madrid, pondered his failures of nerve and will and fate, and nursed his unsurprising depression. For his eyes only, he filled the plaster walls of this house with oil paintings– dark, brooding, sinister paintings. Saturn (Time) Devouring His Children. The Fight With Cudgels. The Fates.

Quinta del Sordo, diagram, Wikimedia

Perhaps they speak of a heart unfulfilled, these paintings. Perhaps of a Goya who only ever wanted two things. Goya was able to project virtual worlds of his own design, to paint anything his imagination might offer. Looking back on a life that didn't go as he had planned and considering a broken world teeming with corruption, why did Goya surround himself with vivid, symbolic depictions of that same chaos, that old night?

It's something to ponder. It's something to pity.

Francisco Goya, The Dog, one of The Black Paintings. Wikimedia.

Unable to flip the bird

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Robert Rauschenberg, _Canyon_, 1959

Robert Rauschenberg, Canyon, 1959. Oil, acrylic, pencil, paper, fabric, metal, buttons, nails, cardboard, printed paper, photographs, wood, paint tubes, mirror string, pillow, & bald eagle on canvas. National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.). (C) Rauschenberg Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, via Wikipedia

2007 saw the demise of Ileana Sonnabend, a legendary purveyor of art created after 1945. Among the famous works in her considerable estate was Robert Rauschenberg's Canyon, a canonical, influential mid-century work well known from survey texts and studies of formal and thematic innovation in contemporary art. The work is neither a painting nor a sculpture, though it includes attributes of both. The artist called it a "combine", and it brings together a variety of media, art supplies, scraps, miscellaneous material, and things.

One of these things is a stuffed bald eagle.

Sonnabend's heirs tasked three appraisers, including one from Christie's, to put a value on the work. Since the bald eagle, dead or alive, is under federal protection, it would be a felony to sell the work and a felony to buy it. For this reason, the appraisers reasoned that its fair market value is $0. Price, after all, is not inherent; it is a function of market behavior. In this case, that behavior is prohibited by law.

It is perhaps no surprise that the IRS, tasked with celebrating the deceased by scrupulously taxing her legacy, disagrees with that appraisal. Stephanie Barron of LACMA, an expert adviser to the I.R.S.’s Art Appraisal Services, parses the economic data differently:

The ruling about the eagle is not something the Art Advisory Panel considered…. It’s a stunning work of art and we all just cringed at the idea of saying that this had zero value. It just didn’t make any sense. (NYTimes)

Au contraire, Ms. Barron, it cannot make any cents! Nonetheless, the IRS appraised it at $65M. (This is after having assessed a tax of $471M on the estate, for which Sonnabend's heirs had to sell off much of the collection in the largest private art sale ever.)

The federal government forbids the owner of Canyon to sell it, and forbids anyone to buy it. But the tax for inheriting it? Plus a penalty for daring to declare it worthless? $29,200,000.

This Is My Body

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The Roettgen Pietà

The Roettgen Pietà (Vesperbild), polychromed willow or poplar, 89cm, ca. 1360, Landesmuseum, Bonn

 

The Roettgen Pietà, a painted wooden sculpture about three feet high, tells us a couple of important things about Christian devotion in 14th-century Germany.

In German, this subject is called a Vesperbild, an image for use during ritual devotions at sundown. More broadly, it's an example of an Andachtsbild, an image intended to stimulate meditation. For this reason, the holy figures are isolated from their narrative context and presented in a pose and a moment that amplify the statue's emotional import.

The body of Jesus has been removed from the cross, and Mary now holds her dead son on her lap and laments his passing. The poignancy of the statue resides in a cluster of double meanings. Just as Mary once held the baby on her lap, she now holds the man. Before, he was brimming with new life; now he is beyond life's end. Once he was beautiful; now he is ugly. Once perfect and intact, now distorted and destroyed.

The anonymous sculptor captures these antinomies in visual and tactile form. Mary is straight and rectangular: her knees and hips bend at ninety degrees so that her lower legs and torso form a visual rectangle that establishes the basic order of the artwork. In contrast to her rigid, vertical, rectilinear form, the body of Jesus spreads in a zig-zagging diagonal from upper left to lower right. He bends at the ankles, the knees, and the hips, while his arms extend limply, one dangling straight down and the other resting on his mother's forearm. His enormous, heavy head falls back, bending his neck at an impossible angle and casting the thorns of his crown in sharp profile against the negative space. In macabre harmony, Mary's oversized head tilts slightly off center, toward his, as she stares blankly at the space before them and contemplates the horror of the moment.

The weight and angle of his head, his gaping mouth, his dangling arm, and his broken pose emphasize that Jesus is dead. Amplifying this point, the artist presents the wounds in his feet, hands, and side as plump blossoms of gushing blood held constant. Red paint describes the course of blood that once dripped down his arms, and rivulets of red make a maze of his forehead where thorns have harmed him. His near nudity and the gore of his wounds stand in contrast to the splendor of his mother's blue garment, once partly gilt.
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Five Rings for the Electoral Kings

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Miyamoto Musashi, The Shrike

Politics.

Since ideologies amount to differing ways of defining the world — different accounts of what counts as a fact, as evidence, and as a sufficient definition — ideologies necessarily come into conflict not only in principle but especially in human behavior and interaction. Where ideologies are in accord, disagreement may be worked out in terms of commonly accepted and acknowledged principles of conflict resolution.

Two people committed, for example, to the guidance of formal logic, to empirical data (confirmed to a high degree of probability), and to a foundational set of axiomatic principles have a prospect of settling any disagreements that may arise between them. All such disagreements would be, by definition, a consequence of the incorrect application of logic, incorrect evaluation of data, or misapprehension of axioms. Likewise, two adherents to a particular subset of a particular religion would have greater chances of successful conflict resolution than members of two mutually exclusive faiths would have.

People whose most fundamental interpretive commitments are defined by conflicting assumptions about the nature of experience cannot, in principle, resolve the differences in a way that comports with the conflicting worldviews in question. Thus, pragmatism inclines people to deviate from consistency with their assumptions at least insofar as doing so makes coexistence and a degree of toleration possible. The negotiation of this compromise we call "politics".

Note that while practical matters force a negotiation of conflicting perspectives in terms of compromise, practical matters are not the only cause of compromise. Thus political compromise is interwoven with compromise that occurs for other reasons. For this reason, political thought and action are not reducible to an algorithm.

Politics always involves not merely negotiation but also discord. The discord provides impetus to the protection of ideological and presuppositional interests so that compromise does not lead to self-obliteration. The self-protective impetus of ideological aggression is captured well in remarks made by the seventeenth-century kensei Miyamoto Musashi:

When we are fighting with the enemy, even when it can be seen that we can win on the surface with the benefit of the Way, if his spirit is not extinguished, he may be beaten superficially yet undefeated in spirit deep inside. With this principle of 'penetrating the depths' we can destroy the enemy's spirit in its depths, demoralising him by quickly changing our spirit. This often occurs.

~ Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings, trans. Victor Harris, (Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 1974), p. 81. (at Amazon)

Musashi here calls attention to the notion that winning the battle and winning the war are two different and not necessarily concomitant things. Redrawing the geographic and political boundaries which define the dominion of ideologically opposed bodies of people is a compromise which is provisional at best. The impetus for self-definition provides also for other-negation, not necessarily in a violent mode, but always in a mode that removes the threat of self-negation. Miyamoto Musashi's comment is directed toward this idea. If one protagonist in a conflict successfully eradicates the ideological underpinnings of the opponent, the impetus for self-definition is sated, and the threat to self is abated.

It is perhaps most characteristic of politics that, although the goal of self-preservation motivates every negotiation, the rhetoric and intercourse of political participants is not necessarily a rhetoric of violence or conflict. Approchement, appeasement, aggiornamento, détente, sympathy, aggression — all of these terms can characterize political interactions which at their core have the goal not of compromise but of dominion. Says Musashi,

When you decide to attack, keep calm and dash in quickly, forestalling the enemy. Or you can advance seemingly strongly but with a reserved spirit, forestalling him with the reserve. Alternatively, advance with as strong a spirit as possible, and when you reach the enemy move with your feet a little quicker than normal, unsettling him and overwhelming him sharply. Or, with your spirit calm, attach with a feeling of constantly crushing the enemy, from first to last. The spirit is to win in the depths of the enemy. These are all ken no sen (to set him up).

~ same, p. 71.

For good or ill, commitment to a perception of truth always entails hegemony, and denial of truth is itself a commitment that entails hegemony. So, politics is always Kendo, the way of the sword, and ideology determines whether and in what way that sword is metaphorical.

 

(Note: this piece is from spring of 1994, when the intarwebs consisted of Usenet and Scott Yanoff's list, which was incredibly useful in tandem with Lynx in a world of gophers and Archie.)

Steve Jobs and Machine Beauty

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With the Facebook Timeline just around the corner, and with Steve Jobs shuffling off this mortal coil, I'd like to consider what makes some technologies so different, so appealing.

Last night I asked my art history students what was distinctive about the contribution of Steve Jobs. A few compared him to inventors such as Edison or Tesla. A few looked for an answer in his emphasis on design. I joined the second group and challenged the first by pointing out (as The Economist had already done with great clarity) that Jobs had invented none of the technologies or devices for which he's best known: the mouse-driven computer, the digital audio player, the smart phone, and the tablet. But I also pressed that second group with a follow-up question: if his contribution had to do with design, not invention, then just what was the nature of his contribution to design?

The ensuing discussion was brief and stimulating. After the students had shared their views, I shared mine: I think Steve Jobs emphasized machine beauty with such focus and force that he made the artificiality of devices disappear. Calling him "The Magician", The Economist ascribes to him the ability to connect emotion to technology:

"His great achievement was to combine an emotional spark with computer technology, and make the resulting product feel personal."

Almost. It is the relationship we have with ourselves and our own capabilities that is emotional and personal; Jobs introduced into this already extant feedback loop a device which amplifies our self-signal without getting in our way. Rather than wallow in the narcissism of self-admiration as we see our latent powers amplified, we call the device itself cool. But whenever we call a device cool, what we mean is that it can easily make us more powerful in a way we desire. And that's cool.

What is machine beauty? The clearest and most useful answer to this question comes from David Gelernter (innovator and former patent-holder of the Lifestream technology, which has been at the center of consequential litigation involving Apple). Many stakeholders have by now laid claim to this concept, and perhaps we'll have a post here someday on the idiocy of many software patents, the Peter/Paul problems in patent granting, and the incoherence of the very idea of a software patent. For now, though, I want to bracket out the question of Apple's possible employment of Microsoftian market practices. Gelernter is noteworthy here not just because of his technological innovation, but also because he thinks deeply about the usability of machines, about art, and about beauty.

In his terse, punchy book Machine Beauty, Gelernter proposes a simple definition of the factor that distinguishes great technologies: machine beauty is the well-balanced integration of simplicity and power. Consider technologies that consists of devices. A device may be powerful but not simple; it requires the user to learn, study, and practice. A device may be simple but not powerful; it's hardly worthy of attention, so weak is the signal it delivers. And a device may be neither. But the device that manages to empower the user with virtually no learning curve is machine-beautiful.

The iPhone exemplifies this delicate balance. One day there was no iPhone; the next day there was an iPhone. And on that next day, children and elders, techies and Luddites, the deft and the daft— these were all standing around Apple Store displays and using the iPhone, with no instruction, to do things they wanted to do that they had previously been unable to do so efficiently, transparently, and enjoyably. Machine beauty.

Here, then, is a third question: why do we value technologies that are machine-beautiful?

I think it's easier to frame an answer to this question if we think about technologies in the way I recommended in my earlier post on Rodin's The Burghers of Calais:

I prefer to emphasize that technology always stands in a certain relation to the people who use it: technology is anything that amplifies what the human body can already do. A club amplifies the ability to punch. A gun amplifies the ability to throw. A telephone amplifies the ability to shout. A motor vehicle amplifies the ability to run. Clothing amplifies the protective and insulating qualities of skin. Architecture, oddly enough, is large, static, communal clothing. Telecast media amplify vision or audition. The hard drive and RAM of a computer amplify the ability to remember and to calculate. And so on.

Any technology may be understood this way, and therefore anything that acts as a force multiplier on what humans in general can already do may be construed as a technology.

If we take technology in general as any means of converting our existing capabilities into superpowers, then the appeal of a machine-beautiful device is immediately apparent: the power of the device makes us harder, better, faster, stronger, and the simplicity of the device spares us from having to think too much about the device itself. The technology is a nearly transparent biomodification that empowers us to do with facility from now on what we could do only at great pains before.

The distinctive contribution of Steve Jobs, as I see it, is that he created a post-now class of consumer citizens: the Cybourgeoisie.

Where the Hell Is That Painter of Light Guy?

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Visit the Museum of Bad Art and be amazed, appalled, and (possibly) angered.

If we're lucky David will favor us with some comments. My only comment is this: though I grasp intuitively that much of this is bad, I lack the language to explain why, and am suspicious that there is someone, somewhere, who using the terminology of art analysis could argue at great length that it is all FANTASTIC.

Miss Piggy, Miss Piggy, Why Have You Forsaken Me?

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An Italian museum has defied the Vatican's request that it take down the art shown above.

Maybe my Googe-fu is weak, but I'm not sure why you can even leap to the conclusion that the frog is a Christ figure. Jesus is certainly the most commonly represented crucified figure, and the crucifixion is a central symbol — THE central symbol — of Christianity. But lots of folks got crucified. The frog could be one of the thieves. Or just an undistinguished amphibian who fell afoul of the Romans.

Texas GOP: What's Wrong With this Country? Iron Boobies.

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More deep thinking deep in the heart of Texas: via Nobody's Business, an article that in a more normal country would be parody, but in this country is not:

HOUSTON – Robert Hurt went to Washington and didn't like what he saw – nudity in the nation's capital.

"Nude women, sculptured women," he told the state Republican platform committee, which sat in rapt attention.

Of all the evils in Washington that the Texas GOP took aim at this week, removing art with naked people from public view was high on the list for Mr. Hurt, a delegate from Kerrville.

"You don't have nude art on your front porch," he explained. "You possibly don't have nude art in your living rooms. So why is it important to have that in the common places of Washington, D.C.?"

Mr. Hurt offered statistics: He'd heard that 20 percent of the art in the National Gallery of Art is of nudes.

He offered detail: On Arlington Memorial Bridge overlooking the famed national cemetery, "there are two Lady Godivas, two women on horses with no shirt on and long hair."

Actually, they are classical sculptures about war – one called Valor, depicting a male equestrian and a female with a shield, and Sacrifice, a female accompanying the rider Mars.

I'm glad that the Texas Republican Party has what it takes to address this burning issue, which has to date languished for the simple and inadequate reason that no one else was shallow, insufferably prudish, and fucking moronic enough to take it up.

It's not clear whether the policy scouring the National Gallery of Art of Botticellis until a more respectable 98% of art is boob-free will make it into the platform, which is currently full of other issues burning and not so burning:

In this, a presidential year, it advocates prayer in school, getting out of the United Nations, teaching intelligent design with evolution in science classes, repealing of the minimum wage, declaring illegal immigrants criminals and outlawing abortion with no exceptions.

Maybe in the intelligent design classes they could ask why God made us with dirty sculptor-enticing parts in the first place, and then pray for all the naughty art to be magically transformed into Thomas Kincaide paintings of glowy red-state hunting lodges or something. That would be awesome.

Now I Know Why Albert Speer Hated The Damned Dirty Apes

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Ayn Rand was a bad writer but an interesting thinker, especially when she wrote on matters unrelated to her political passions. In her fiction, this is most prominent in The Fountainhead (the only Rand you should read), where Rand writes at length on the artistic value of well-designed yet functional buildings through the viewpoint of her protagonist, architect Howard Roark. Roark doesn't design temples or monuments. He designs quotidian structures such as department stores and apartments. Rand expresses an appreciation for the "art" that can reside in a really well made gas station, designed to fulfill its function efficently, or a high-rise apartment shorn of the columns, gargoyles, and other useless adornments found in the neo-classical and socialist realist architecture she loathed. Reading The Fountainhead, for one who hasn't studied art, architecture, or archaeology, teaches one to at least look at workaday buildings from the standpoint of design efficiency, and to see an aesthetic grace in something as commonplace as a bank.

By the way this post isn't about Ayn Rand.

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