Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

For us traditionalists, art should never stray too far from beauty, but this does not mean artists must paint beautiful subjects or prettify ugly ones. Ivan Albright was merciless in his depiction of decrepitude and despair. And yet, his macabre images are stunning, heartbreaking, and engrossing. They have an oddly inspiring beauty that touches our souls, albeit with icy fingers.

Happy Halloween.

Portrait of Mary Block, 1957. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Culture Clash

The immensely gifted Columbian artist Fernando Botero created a numbered series of paintings and drawings of the prisoners' sufferings and humiliations at Abu Ghraib, his adipose style evoking Christian iconography. He has donated the collection to the University of California at Berkeley where they are now on display. "Art is a permanent accusation," said Botero, and certainly it will never be possible to consider these works apart from their shameful context.

Across the street from the Berkeley Art Museum is Boalt Hall, the scene of ongoing demonstrations against Professor John Yoo because of his participation in the writing of legal memoranda, during the Bush administration, authorizing enhanced interrogation techniques. Protestors have labeled Yoo a war criminal and demanded that his tenure be revoked. For his part, Yoo has said: "I saw that a small group can now attack us with the violence of a nation…the Geneva Convention never recognized this kind of enemy."

Let's take a step back. On the same campus two eloquent voices are being heard on the subject of torture. Each raises troubling questions for us to deliberate and neither should be silenced. This is what academic freedom is for and why universities exist. Let's all go back to class.

Abu Ghraib #44, 2005. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

First Rain

Only October, and here's our first rain.

It teased a while, showering hard for ten or fifteen seconds and stopping. The clouds turned from pewter to platinum and the air became a tad warmer, as if to say, "I'm done raining; you can come out now."

But soon the platinum turned to lead, a chill set in, and it rained all night.

We're never satisfied. We're in a drought, but our fire scorched hills are liable to erode into mudslides. The grapes aren't all harvested in the wine country, so this early storm may cost us some chardonnay and zinfandel. Nevertheless, seeing the perked up greenery in my yard, smelling at last a freshness in the air, and listening to it fall, are sumptuous pleasures.

Gustave Caillebotte's painting shows the first fat drops rippling the surface of the still placid stream. In a few minutes, we can imagine, the water will flow faster and rise in its banks, and the reflections of the trees will disappear. It's the kind of rain we wish to get caught in.

L'Yerres, pluie (1875). Click on the picture for a closer look.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Necessary and Proper

The last word Michael Moore speaks in his film Capitalism, A Love Story is "democracy" which he advocates as a remedy for the "evil" of capitalism. He invites us to join him in a movement that may well be a socialist revolution--he doesn't quite say. The sound track under the end credits is more revealing: The Internationale.

Our financial system is in a mess, but is it irretrievably evil? And will enhancing democractic involvement cleanse it? Can we vote ourselves prosperous?

Alexander Hamilton, while advocating ratification of the Constitution, said: "It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity."

I suggest that our democratic institutions are at the very source of capitalism's miasma. Our weakened regulatory agencies, and the short term horizons of both politicians and business people, have betrayed voters and investors alike.

However, direct democracy, as exemplified by the initiative process in California, has resulted in unfunded mandates and ineffectual government. Democracy, as sensationalized by the media, has marginalized our most vital concerns and trivialized the decision making process. And lest we forget, democracy, as practiced by communist republics, did nothing to protect people from starvation, oppression, and mass murder.

Our political system is in need of rigorous reform. With a 1.4 trillion dollar deficit, this should be obvious to all. But reform should be intricate and arduous rather than sweeping. Partisanship has thus far stalemated the process. But I'm not willing to give up. I just hope we can undertake it without the distractions of ideologues, demagogues, or (sorry Mr. Moore) populists.

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton by Daniel Huntington, 1865. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Back from Oregon

My greatest pleasure was the morning air. After a summer of heat waves and smoke in Southern California, I awoke each morning in Oregon just to breathe the air with its nip of autumn and taste of dew.

I spent most of my days driving beneath colonnades of alder, cedar, and spruce. On a coastal highway, the moss covered tree trunks graciously leaned over the road as if to canopy the cars.

Oregon is clean. I've car-camped in California from north to south and never seen a picnic table that wasn't heavily etched with grafitti, but from what I saw, this blight has yet to reach Oregon's camping grounds. Furthermore, on the way up to Crater Lake, I drove for miles without seeing any litter at all. It could be, however, that I was merely witnessing the effects of federal infrastructure spending. On every highway there were crews, usually with a sign announcing that their work was paid for by Recovery Funds.

This week, the seasons changed in Oregon, with snow at 5000 feet and rain at lower elevations. The trees were solid green on the way up, but turning colors on my return. I felt privileged to witness it.

Satellite photo of Oregon with borders added. Click on the picture for a closer look.