Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


When General Stanley McChrystal was relieved of his command this week, many of us thought of Douglas MacArthur. The distinction was immediately drawn that, whereas MacArthur was dismissed for differing with President Truman about the limits of his Korean War mission, there were no such policy differences between McChrystal and President Obama.

While both generals could be crusty and blunt with their superiors in private, McChrystal's very public indecorousness is in contrast to MacArthur's careful cultivation of his image, with his battered campaign hat and oversized corncob pipe.

Whereas McChrystal is a workaholic who lives on just one meal and four hours of sleep and runs seven miles a day, MacArthur went to war in comfort, bringing along his family and little dog, and dining in style. There was a good deal of the ham in MacArthur, and his sententious farewell address to Congress ("old soldiers never die, they just fade away...Goodbye") is a bit embarrassing by today's standards. McChrystal is a much more prosaic speaker.

MacArthur was lionized by the right when he retired, but he linked himself to Robert Taft who lost the GOP presidential nomination to Eisenhower. McChrystal will probably be similarly feted by critics of Obama today. However, MacArthur was over seventy when he retired; McChrystal is not yet fifty five. I hope he does not try to settle any political scores, but remains in uniform. I don't think he's in danger of fading away.

Chinese Communist propaganda poster from 1950 of MacArthur murdering Korean women and children while American bombers destroy factories. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


It is unseemly to rejoice in the misfortune of others, especially those who have done us no personal harm. Unseemly, but human nevertheless.

Such was my mirth in reading this week that "Painter of Light" Thomas Kinkade had filed for bankruptcy on June 2 and been arrested for drunk driving nine days later.

I have no cause to bear him ill other than his two egregious offences against my sensibilities. First, he exploited his very public Christian faith not just in his art, but to dupe and bully his commercial associates. Second, his paintings are godawful.

What makes an artwork, otherwise technically competent, dreadful? There are many answers and their elucidation is best reserved for late nights with alcohol. But Kinkade's is an obvious case: his art is exactly why the word kitsch was coined. He makes a frontal assault on our senses much the way that movie music of the fifties, played on a hundred violins, dictated to us precisely which emotions we were supposed to feel. No wonder Czech writer Milan Kundera identified kitsch with totalitarianism where "all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions".

CGI parody of a Kinkade painting, from somethingawful.com. Perhaps this was inspired by Joan Didion's critique in which she wrote: "A Kinkade painting was typically rendered in slightly surreal pastels. It typically featured a cottage or a house of such insistent coziness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel. Every window was lit, to lurid effect, as if the interior of the structure might be on fire." Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Troubled Metaphor

Pliny the Elder (23-79 C.E.) was the first to record the practice, which he learned from Roman sailors.

Saint Bede the Venerable, around the year 731, may have been the first to set down the phrase: "Pour oil on troubled water." Bede related the story of Saint Aidan (d. 651), giving a cruse of oil to a young seafaring priest to calm the waves if they got rough.

It actually works. Here is a link to a video in which you can watch a rippled puddle turn glassy smooth. It's also been observed during ocean storms. Commodore Wilkes of the United States Navy saw it happen off the Cape of Good Hope when oil leaked from a whaling ship.

Who first used the phrase as a metaphor? Was it founding father Benjamin Rush? "His presence and advice, like oil upon troubled waters, have composed the contending waves of faction."

Or was it the better known Benjamin, Ambassador Franklin, who both ran experiments on the phenomenon and referred to the effect in letters about matters of state?

It's a nice metaphor, but hopelessly obsolete given the present environmental catastrophe. Oil on the Gulf waters has composed exactly nobody, and to use the phrase now will ever be an invitation to being misunderstood.

The Venerable Bede, woodcut from the Nuremburg Chronicle, 1493--one of the earliest printed books. The artist was either Michael Wohlgemut (1434-1519) or his stepson Wilhelm Pleydenwurff (c. 1450-1494). Possibly Wohlgemut's young apprentice lent a hand: Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Click on the picture for a closer look.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

No posting this week.

Please come back next weekend.