Category: Art

On Seeing John Waterhouse's My Sweet Rose

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John Waterhouse, My Sweet Rose, 1908

John Waterhouse, My Sweet Rose, 1908. Photo courtesy of

Contemplate in all detail
A scintillating allegory
Integrating to avail
Alated visions of the story
Of a maid's respiratory,
Hortatory adoration
Of a floral territory:
Horticultural elation.

Ruminate this painted tale,
Instilling senses desultory
Till the slated sights regale
Your appetite for gustatory
Stimulation, for the glory
Of this vernal fascination
Inundates one category:
Horticultural elation.

Penetrating import's veil,
Distill the scents explanatory,
Requiring that the maid inhale,
Allowing that her laudatory
Attitude be prefatory,
Topiary recreation
Finishing her repertory:
Horticultural elation.

Devotion to this inventory,
Flights of the imagination,
Are baited by obligatory
Horticultural elation.

~David Byron, ca. 1990, for Cathie

Should We Boycott Art Because of the Politics of the Artists?

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Ender's Golden Tablets

The progress-o-sphere is all a-twitter this week reminding all and sundry that science fiction author Orson Scott Card, a practicing Mormon, believes in – wait for it – Mormonism.

Among the dozens of doctrines this implies is the idea that while Card, deeply involved in stage and drama for all of his adult life, has gay friends, he does not endorse gay marriage.

Therefore, goes the argument, we right thinking people who do endorse gay marriage (including, presumably, the version of Obama who ran for office in 2012, but not the version that ran for office in 2008, were he to time travel a handful of months into his future and join us here), should boycott the movie.

Some versions of the argument are more nuanced, and specify that it's not that we shouldn't watch a movie that has absolutely nothing to say, good or bad, about gays, but that we shouldn't pay to watch such a movie, because some fraction of the funds would end up in OSC's pocket.

I'm not a huge OSC fan myself – I read one or two of the Ender books and found them OK, read one or two of his Tales of Alvin Maker books and found them OK, and read a collection of his short stories which I thought were quite good. I don't think I've bought a book by him in over 15 years.

Which is to say, I post not in defense of OSC the man.

Nor do I post in defense of his anti-gay marriage stance (as an voluntaryist / anarchist, I'm against the state recognizing any marriage, because I'm in favor of the state – if it exists at all – defending the country from invasion and nothing else).

Release the Communist!

I lean culturally conservative, yet many (if not most) of my favorite authors are from the left, if not the far left. I regularly read – and even buy – fiction from self-declared Marxists (the most recent was
Kraken by China Mieville (a member of the International Socialist Organization and Socialist Workers Party) a week or so ago.

By buying Kraken (and then mentioning it here) did I culturally endorse Mieville and his views?

One presumes that of the $20 or so I spent on the book perhaps $2 ended up in Mieville's pocket, and if he donates 10% of his after tax income to political charities, perhaps 10 cents of my money ended up helping socialists print up broadsheets full of propaganda and lies to convince British voters to further infringe the rights of their countrymen.

Am I aiding and abetting evil?

On the one hand, the argument that I should never give a penny to any creator who might then donate a fraction of that penny to authoritarian political groups that seek to squash individual liberty seems airtight. I wouldn't voluntarily write a check to the KKK or Hezbollah or the US Federal Government for even ten cents.

And yet, on the other hand, should I deprive myself of art that might entertain or even enlighten? And then, on the gripping hand, is that not a weak aesthete's argument for enjoying himself in the moment, while ignoring his own contribution to the enslavement of others? Northern abolitionists refused to wear slave state cotton cloth, because the purchase supported a terrible institution.

Or, perhaps, on the one-beyond-the-gripping-hand, we should all be willing to consume art even when a minor fraction of the purchase price ends up in evil hands as an explicit endorsement of a Popperian Open Society.

On the fifth hand, maybe we should actively strive to consume art from those with whom we disagree, so that we are open to new ideas, avoid epistemological closure, and – if the art both has a memetic payload is convincing in its moral and message – perhaps allow ourselves to change and converge on ideas that are foreign to us now but are more correct.

Conclusion Closing Thoughts

I have no firm answers, but I have half baked thoughts and intuitions.

I dislike the idea of Index Librorum Prohibitorum, whether it is run by a Church, a State, or a decentralized Github-of-received-opinion.

I like the idea of actively challenging my preconceptions and tentatively held opinions with new viewpoints.

I dislike the snark, moral posturing, and self-satisfaction that is so deeply entwined with telling other people who is inside the circle of civilization (me, you, him) and who is outside (Orson Scott Card, practicing members of religion X and Y).

I like the inclusiveness that is implied and exercised by demonstrating our own commitments to reading and viewing widely.

I have no good response to the "this puts a nickel in the pocket of bad-group-X" other than, perhaps, donating a quarter to good-group-Y.

I may or may not see Ender's Game in the theater, because it looks like typical Joseph-Campbell-journey-of-the-young-hero-as-he-gathers-$150-million-of-special-effects fare.

Rebuttals? Agreements? Other?

RIP, Hasan Niyazi

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It seems Hasan Niyazi, the tireless blogger, talented amateur art historian, and independent Renaissance scholar behind the popular art history blog Three Pipe Problem and the ambitious Open Raphael project, has died suddenly at 37, the same tender age as his idol, Raphael.

I first interacted with Hasan in 2010, and we discussed things by email now and again over the years. A man of science by training, he harbored endless enthusiasm for evidence-based scholarship in art history, for the importance of the Digital Humanities movement, and for free and open educational content– values we shared.

If you're so inclined, take a moment to look at his websites, which now stand as monuments to his energy, focus, idealism, passion for beauty, and love of learning.

Edit: See also the moving tributes by Prof. Ben Harvey, Prof. Monica Bowen, and Dr. Francis DeStefano. Above all, Hasan promoted community, encouraged cooperation, and took delight in sharing the discoveries and insights of one and all. In some measure, the art historical blogosphere itself is his handiwork.

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!

Bank Shot

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This is lovely:

Yesterday I set up a stall in the park selling 100% authentic original signed Banksy canvases. For $60 each.

The artworks sold to probably-unwitting buyers were worth… well, considerably more than that. Click the pick for details.

Photo via The Guardian

Photo via The Guardian

To learn more about Banksy, stream Exit Through the Gift Shop through your favorite service.

Excellent New Blog About Art, Medical Education, Mental Illness, And Life

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What if a talented artist had a blog? What if that talented artist was also thoughtful and a good writer? What if that talented artist and writer was also a medical student, and used his gifts to talk about the experience of medical education and what it said about us, and about the gulf between science and humanity? What if that talented artist and writer and medical student was also bipolar, and was brave enough to talk about it and what it is like and how it impacts his life and medical education, bringing his talents to bear to do so?

The result would be Sketchbooks and Sutures, a new blog by Sam Scharff.

I thank, and praise, people who are willing to discuss mental illness openly. This is especially true when those people have achieved impressive things, because we are taught falsely that people with mental illness can't or won't achieve such things. It helps people in need feel human. My friends and I have written here for nearly five years and have amassed nearly five thousand posts and have done some cool and fun things, but I've never gotten anywhere near as many private messages of thanks like as did when I wrote this post's discussion of depression. If you suffer, you are not alone — not even close. One of us! One of us!

Bring Me The Red Pages

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This and other pics of Codex Rossanensis courtesy of

This and other pics of Codex Rossanensis courtesy of

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.


prog rock

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There's an old joke about prog rock: "it's the only musical genre where 23:17 could be either the time signature or the track length".

Anyway, I'm a fan of prog rock. A big fan.

In other news, I'm also white, middle aged, male, and have a bigger waist line than I should. All of which should have been pretty well predicted by your priors before beginning this paragraph.

What's not utterly predicted by my demographics is that I'm also a fan of rap and of mashups. So, yes, I'm all over
Girl Talk (Go download the free "All Day" right now, if you haven't already).

So, anyway, when I stumbled into a rap / prog mashup this morning I just had to listen to it a dozen times.

Now it's your turn.

Kickstart: Torment

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Do you remember with fond affection that masterpiece of PC gaming, Planescape: Torment? Have you never heard of Planescape: Torment? Do you wish you could dropstop everything right now and replay Planescape: Torment?

Well, you're not alone. But Big Publishing is too rational or terrified to make that sort of game anymore.

Happily, we can acknowledge the waning importance of what Big Publishing thinks about this or anything else, for we now have tubes full of Kickstarter. (What can change the nature of games publishing?)

Many of the folks who made Planescape: Torment now work at inXile, and they're making a new game: Torment: Tides of Numenera.

Not actually a sequel to the previous game's story, which is self-contained (and recursive), Tides of Numenera will offer the same kind of thematically rich content within the framework of Monte Cook's (already fundedNumenera RPG system.

Anyhow, the studio's Kickstarter campaign began this morning and raised its 30-day target of $900,000 in six hours. That should tell you something about how the fans of Planescape: Torment regard this franchise and these developers and this plan.

There's still plenty of time to buy in, and there are plenty of perqs for berks, so if this is the sort of thing you're likely to like, then you know what to do!

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

Your Art Hurt Some VERY IMPORTANT Feelings

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People rarely get killed or jailed in American over art. But it would be wrong to suggest that Muslims outraged over depictions of Mohammed are the only people getting upset about artistic endeavors.

It's also unfair to focus on modern university administrators being censorious, as if they have an active interest in suppressing dissenting speech. Sometimes they're just cowardly and servile.

In Laramie, Wyoming, the University of Wyoming allowed the installation of a piece called “Carbon Sink: What Goes Around, Comes Around,” by British artist Chris Drury, which uses coal and Wyoming wood to make a point about coal mining, or the environment, or man's inhumanity to man, or something.

Courtesy of the University of Wyoming Art Museum

The piece was removed ahead of schedule. University administrators claimed that it was removed early because of rain damage.

But investigative reporting revealed that the university actually removed it early in response to anger and offense from the coal industry and their friends in Wyoming's state legislature.

Yes, the University lied. It lied in the face of coal industry indignation, and threats of reduced support:

The sculpture felt like a “stab in the back,” said Wyoming Mining Association President Marion Loomis, in an email that day to Don Richards, then the university’s director for governmental and community affairs.

The energy industry pays millions in taxes, royalties and fees, he noted. Left unsaid: Those millions flow through state coffers to the university.

“Don, what kind of crap is this?” Loomis asked.

Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, fired off an email to oil and gas company officials and major university donors slamming the university for the sculpture.

“The next time the University of Wyoming is asking for donations it might be helpful to remind them of this and other things they have done to the industries that feed them before you donate,” Hinchey wrote. “They always hide behind academic freedom but their policies and actions can change if they so choose.”

The university also lied in the face of elected officials who were eager to attack art to please their donors:

State legislators joined the attack. Legislators, primarily from coal-rich Campbell County, wrote university officials. They threatened to restrict the university’s funding, called for a hunt to find out which university officials knew about the sculpture ahead of time and decried the university for not knowing about the piece.

“It never ceases to amaze me how the UW invites folks in that spit in the face of the very system that writes the checks to pay the bills at the university,” wrote Rep. Elaine Harvey, R-Lovell, in an email to Buchanan.

Must the coal industry donate to a university system that features a rather mild piece of abstract art that wounds its tender fee-fees? No. It's free to withhold, and threaten to withhold, its donations for whatever damnfool reason it wants. But citizens should judge the industry and its executives (not to mention their legislative lapdogs) based on their actions, and act — and vote — accordingly. Next time the industry attempts to burnish its image with a donation, citizens and the media should ask: what strings come attached to this gift? Does the industry believe that the gift entitles them to ideological compliance from the recipient, and will their backers in the legislature reward that expectation?

Moreover, when a university reacts to pressure about something as mild as this piece of art, it's fair to ask — on what substantive issues is it caving to pressure? What academic classes are being vetted to comply with the demands of industry donors and their governmental supporters?

Michelle Nijhuis at The Last Word on Nothing contrasts this response to braver responses from administrators at other universities, and considers what might have been. She's also got good links to information about the case.

Hat tip: Alex Wild.

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.

Terms of Art

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For those inclined to art geekery, I have gathered some Greatest Hits under the tag Terms of Art (so the attorneys will think it's somehow relevant). Enjoy.