Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Renaissance Tease

I'm partial to Raphael and therefore much intrigued by the strange story that broke this week about his self-portrait. The painting on the left hangs at the Uffizi Museum in Florence and has long been acknowledged as Raphael by his own hand. But now its authenticity is challenged by the re-emergence from a bank vault of the painting on the right, which art historians deem a better likeness--he apparently did have a chin dimple, lucky guy--and, well, a better painting.

Art authentication is a fascinating subject. The forensics are fairly straightforward: methods and materials, biographical data, historical records, the toll of the years, etc. The aesthetics, however, are beguiling. Raphael was the equal of both Leonardo and Michelangelo, but who's to say that one of Raphael's students, his name lost to history, didn't improve upon the master's work with the second panel?

I can't arbitrate this controversy, but I can tell you a joke. After World War II, a lot of artwork changed hands on the black market. Laws to prevent the illegal exportation of significant or purloined works were inconsistently enforced. Nevertheless, one wealthy visitor to Italy, having purchased a Renaissance masterpiece sub rosa, took the precaution of hiring an artist to paint an innocuous landscape over it, using easily removed tempera colors. He got his painting through customs without incident and took it to an art restorer in New York to be "cleaned."

A few days later, the restorer called him and said: "I cleaned off the first layer of paint, like you said, but guess what--I found another layer of paint underneath it. So I cleaned that off, too. And guess what--under that I found a portrait of Mussolini."

Self portraits of Raphael, ca. 1505, when he was about 22. Click on the pictures for a closer look.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


I asked a friend in Pakistan what he thought of the revolution in Tunisia. His reply: "In Pakistan, people saw that revolution as an augury, as it is also needed here in Pakistan very badly, but the people of Pakistan (are) so enfeebled by our politicians that they actually have no strength to do it... People there have that luxury to protest and revolt...Here, a common man has to fight for his daily bread and butter."

My friend's use of the word "augury" expresses his faith that divinely inspired change is coming to the Middle East, and he is not referring to an Islamist revolt.

Another friend posted some musings about the data Rudolph Elmer handed over to Julian Assange for publication via Wikileaks. We await disclosures of money laundering and tax evasion by prominent leaders, some of whom are American elected officials.

Is it possible that Elmer's whistle blowing had some bearing on Switzerland's immediate decision to freeze the assets of Tunisia's ex-dictator, Ben Ali, and forty of his associates? It seems to me Swiss banks usually drag their feet in such matters.

The events in Tunisia and Switzerland were understandably overshadowed last week by the story in Tucson. But I wonder if their ramifications won't be far more reaching. Recent calls for greater civility in our public discourse will pass, and new gun laws will likely stall in committee. But revolution in an Arabic country is unprecedented; and for all the criticism heaped upon Wikileaks, it seems to be having an effect.

A Night in Tunisia by Grace Hartigan, 2000. To me, this painting is a very western view of the Middle East. Perhaps the same could be said of my sanguinity. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tucson: After and Beyond

I wish I could start a movement to vote against any candidate who uses incendiary language, who denounces the opposition as unpatriotic or ungodly, who makes a virtue out of refusing to listen to those who disagree, or who demonizes those who are willing to meet opponents halfway.

It used to be called the wisdom of Solomon: to see both sides of an argument. But nowadays such wisdom is going out of style. Being able to hold two contradictory ideas in mind at the same time is beyond most people's talents, but that's the ability we have to cultivate, for that is the test of our capacity to love: to care about those we don't agree with.

My, but I sound like a preacher. Sorry. I'm really just a confused middle-of-the-roader who wishes the left or the right had all the answers. But they don't. I suspect the answers have yet to be thought of. I'm not sure we've even asked the right questions.

Solomon by Marcos Zapata, from the Humahuaca Cathedral, Jujuy Province, Argentina; 1764. Although the technique is broad and perhaps hasty, I'm intrigued by the reverent, downcast gazes of the gargoyles whittled on the king's chair, while he looks upward to his inspiration. His pen, which seems more like an arrow than a plume, and his flash of leg, both remind us that Solomon was a lusty and courageous flesh-and-blood man of the world, rather than an ethereal or ascetic saint. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The N-word

A new bowdlerized edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from a publisher named, significantly, NewSouth, was announced this month. In it the word nigger, which appears 219 times, is replaced by slave. Now, they say, English teachers will be able to read it aloud in class without embarrassment.

Some of the arguments in defense of the change, advanced by editor and Mark Twain scholar Allen Gribben of Auburn University, are persuasive: "I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach this novel...but we feel we can't do it anymore. In the new classroom, it's really not acceptable."

Others are not persuasive at all: “Let’s get one thing straight, Mark Twain was a notoriously commercial and populist author. If he was alive today and all he had to do was change one word to get his book into every schoolhouse in America, he couldn’t change it fast enough.” So NewSouth's admittedly commercial motive is justified because Twain was not all that artistically committed to his work? Hmm.

The problem is that when nigger becomes slave, more than just a word is changed. Slavery itself is sanitized, becoming nothing more than a political condition justified over the ages by such eminences as the Old Testament patriarchs and Aristotle. It removes from the Old South's "peculiar institution" slavery's racist underpinnings.

Huck was brought up to believe that black people are an inferior sub-species. Twain's novel achieves greatness in Huck's revelation that his upbringing was wrong. When he sees Jim's eyes well up with tears while telling about how he discovered his little girl was deaf, Huck is confronted with Jim's humanity. Huck sees him not as a nigger but as a man. And therefore he apprehends, even if he can't yet articulate it, that slavery is founded on racism, and racism is founded on a lie.

When students feel uncomfortable with the n-word, the challenge is to teach them as to why it has to be there. Teaching--now there's a novel idea.

Huck and Jim in a detail from the mural A Social History of Missouri in the Missouri House of Representatives, painted by Thomas Hart Benton, 1935. Benton had his own problems with sanitizers when he included scenes of slavery in this work and Ku Klux Klansmen in a major work in Indiana. Click on the picture for a closer look, and notice the name of the riverboat.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Einsteinian Camembert

The relativity of time is beyond our ken; the concept is too vast. But the subjectivity of time is apprehensible to every child who has ever counted down the days till Christmas.

And it only gets worse as we age. The years lose their character and permanence once we've stopped growing. How is it possible that today begins a new year and yet another decade?

Salvador Dali's The Persistence of Memory has evoked much analysis, including some by the artist himself. Freud and Einstein are noted as influences, but so are Bellini, Chirico, Proust, Adler, masturbation, camembert cheese, and the Spanish Civil War. Every part of this small canvas is scrutinized for meaning: the sand and the hourglass shaped ants, the amorphous mass washed upon the beach which may be a self portrait, the dead olive tree, the plinth and the platform, the sea and the rocks of Port Lligat. But most of all, we look at the watches: three are limp like dead fish, and soft but pointed like tongues; one is closed up like a clam.

It is to Dali's credit, however, that this painting needs no analysis at all. Everyone gets it. The title alone tells us all we need to know: time is not fixed and hard, but mutable and soft. Memory conquers it, but death conquers memory.

So why analyze it? And why disagree? I suppose it's because the artist, that rascally showman and tireless self promoter, wanted us to interpret his symbolism. His aim was to create, in his own words, wonder, astonishment, and enigma.

Dali is nothing if not grand entertainment. So, party on and have a happy new year.

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali; 1931. Click on the picture for a closer look.