Graphics and editing

One of the results of the economic squeeze on newspapers has been a loss of editorial talent, including copy-editing (has anyone else noticed how rough and sloppy the prose is getting?), and publication of truly terrible stuff that a good editor would have protected us from.  And at top-end outlets, like the New York Times.  Poor Carl Levin and Angus King have a sensible op-ed in today’s paper that a copy-editor could have tightened and sharpened in a single pass, and the art editor, or whatever intern is doing that now, saddled it with a cut so bad as to garble their argument just by sitting there on the page.


If I understand it properly, this picture is constructed around the expression “to throw a monkey wrench into” some sort of machinery, and the American Eagle is about to do it (L & K are warning against Congress ginning up new sanctions against Iran while negotiations seem to be working).  Almost everything that could go wrong does, though. Only partly because the wrench isn’t a monkey wrench, but something miscalled (like Kleenex for tissue) a crescent — a useful thing that fixes stuff and has no association with sabotage.  I had to deconstruct the picture for at least a minute before I got it.  The only eagly thing about the bird, who could almost be a dove with malocclusion especially given its size compared to the wrench (one of my dead-end misreads, actually), is its beak. But in a cartoon, you need to be careful about the things that quickly identify your subject.  If a bird is going to read as “the USA” it has to have white feathers on its head and tail, big strong feet with serious talons, and feathery legs. If it’s a hawk, what do the arrows have to do with it?

Actually, nothing works here.  The bird isn’t flying, nor sitting on anything (one of my wrong tries was that it was hanging on the wrench), and it certainly isn’t about to throw anything, as both its dainty little feet are tangled up with graphic symbols it took off a flowchart. The bird on our national coat of arms has real, physical arrows, and for a reason.

If he threw the wrench into the negotiations as rendered (that is, rendered as an enormous poker game), it would fall on the table and astonish everyone.  But it wouldn’t break anything; the metaphor needs something like a machine with gears and stuff…maybe with the diplomats turning a crank?

A picture that has to be turned into a word paraphrase and then back into a picture isn’t really graphic, or anything really (maybe a Sunday supplement puzzle).  Somebody at the Times decided they couldn’t afford an artist who was ready for prime time, couldn’t afford an art editor who could coach artists, and couldn’t afford a managing editorial staff who could look at a page and say “wait a minute!”  Maybe they were right about what they could afford, but if so, this episode is exhibit 203b.2 that we’re losing Really Important Social Capital.



Curatorial malpractice

Chris Burden put himself on the map a few decades ago with some rather puerile enactments of risk.  He had himself shot in the arm with a .22, and nailed through the hands to the back of a VW beetle while its engine raced for a couple of minutes. A nail between your phalanges, and a small bullet that doesn’t hit your humerus (as it apparently didn’t) are not the same as being crucified or being seriously shot by someone who really means you ill, not at all; painful, but pretty certain to heal properly. This is the stuff of kids playing dare games, dressed up in arty garments for business.  No, we do not learn about real violence, nor Hitler’s ‘people’s car’, nor automobile culture [ideas critics have tried to extract, from, or inject into, them] from this stuff, any more than we learn much about someone from an armful of tattoos acquired in a youthful failure of judgment.  Nor does the medium/style really point anywhere: is the next development having an arm amputated, or an eye put out, or…or…I know, an ear cut off!  If a couple of the people who will commit suicide next year orchestrate it as a work of art, will our culture have advanced?

Burden has not gone in that direction, but moved on to sculpture of the sort that you don’t have to really see to experience; the common theme is to inflate a fairly simple and long-familiar idea into a very large, heavy realization.  The current show that fills the New Museum, where he is billed as one of the most important American contemporary artists,  is nothing like that early stuff, though it has a similar flavor of immaturity, now unleashed by adequate funding.  He is now much into big scale models of bigger things, especially Meccano/Erector set models of bridges, and I should note that unlike (for example) Mark di Suvero, whose enormous pointless assemblages of stuff lack any discernible craft or understanding of the nature of his materials, Burden’s work is competent and craftsmanlike.  I would have been proud of the bridges had I made them at the age of 12 or 13.  I couldn’t have, because they require a lot of custom parts in the style of Meccano elements, nor did I have a big enough set, so I’m envious of his resources for this kind of thing, but that doesn’t feel like a considerable response for large works of art. Continue reading “Curatorial malpractice”

Active engagement in the arts

I deplore the passivization of arts engagement that has replaced people doing amateur theater, or painting and making sculpture, or making music together, with listening to and looking at stuff done for them by professionals.  Nothing wrong with the latter, but we have got the balance wrong. Here are two examples of what we need more of :

My wife has been singing with a really good non-audition community chorus this year.  Every week, they get together and rehearse, and then they put on two or three concerts a year for friends, relatives and neighbors.  They don’t quail at the real stuff; so far this year they’ve done the Vivaldi Gloria and the Mozart Requiem.  Next spring, a program of music by New York composers, including the really ethereal Frost/Thompson Choose something like a star, hoo boy.  Debbie comes home from rehearsals and tells me about all she learned about music and singing that evening; sometimes (not enough) we pull out some sheet music and fire up the piano and sing just for ourselves.

If you think about it, there’s not much nicer you can do for your friends and relations than make music for them: sending everyone a CD of a professional chorus doing the same numbers isn’t even close.

Life for an organization like this is sort of like being an elected official, constantly putting the real work aside for endless fundraising. They charge $10 for concert tickets, but the singers also pay dues.  The fundraising doesn’t do a thing for the music, but the singers put up with it so they can sing together and occasionally have soloists and a small orchestra. It’s both inspiring and saddening to realize what a short financial leash enterprises like this have: the big splurge for the CCC this year was a set of risers so the singers can see and be seen over each others’ heads.

Last week we went to the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra’s  last fall concert .  This was a completely professional-level performance, including A flock descends by Toru Takemitsu (they always program at least one contemporary work);  the Prokofiev 3rd piano concerto; and (part of the celebrations of our new organ, which university organist Davitt Moroney still can’t talk about without a really radiant grin) the Saint-Saëns 3rd Symphony. Continue reading “Active engagement in the arts”

A dome of many-coloured glass

A stained glass solar panel in Canada, and more on the art.

An ad hominem smackdown on solar energy from commenter Philip a few days ago:

You lack the analytic skills to participate in this argument, but unfortunately your partisanship and emotional needs blind you to that.

Ah well. Like most ad hominem attacks, this can be as true as it is fallacious (footnote). As a humble scribbler who knows his proper place, let me indulge myself and offer you a policy-free picture of a new cathedral in Saskatoon with photovoltaic stained glass (via CleanTechnica):


vancouver chapel







As an idea, it’s brilliant. It zaps the modern Cathar doom merchants with the old message of light and the new hope of technology. (See this old riff on the theory of Georges Duby, an eminent French historian, linking stained glass and ant-Catharism). Aesthetically, the glass strikes me as par for the course today, that is mediocre.

[Large image-laden page over the jump.] Continue reading “A dome of many-coloured glass”

Pluripotent creativity

A question sparked by Victor Hugo’s eccentric exile house in Guernsey.

The oddest tourist attraction in Guernsey must be the town house on a hill above St. Peter Port in which Victor Hugo lived from 1856 to 1870, as an exile from Napoleon III’s autocracy, at first forced, and later self-imposed. The exterior is conventional. The interior was remodelled by Hugo to his own designs, with the help of Guernsey craftsmen but no professional interior designer or architect.

theaterraum Continue reading “Pluripotent creativity”

Of interest to Chicagoans (possibly)

As some of you might know, I was one of a pair of “Dueling [theater] Critics” unceremoniously bounced from Chicago Public Media for being too expert.  (I am not making this up.)  However, you can’t keep a good battle down, and my colleague Jonathan Abarbanel and I have resumed our role as the Bickersons of Chicago theater on a podcast of our own design and creation.  You can hear us on soundcloud every Friday morning and/or subscribe to us on iTunes.

See you at the theater!

The name of the saint is called “Haddocks’ Eyes”

A beautiful and strange diptych by Jan van Eyck.

The second picture that caught my eye in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid recently (I discussed the first here) was this small grisaille diptych by Jan Van Eyck, a portable desktop prop for a rich man’s or woman’s devotions.
What is going on here? This is a real bleg not a rhetorical question. It’s not an image of the Annunciation, but an image of statues of the Annunciation. At the time, SFIK real devotional statues were polychrome; so the statues are not only imaginary but deliberately unrealistic. At the same time, they are gem-quality perfect simulacra. Why the layered distancing, almost as complex as the White Knight’s? Continue reading “The name of the saint is called “Haddocks’ Eyes””

Portrait of a dead lady

A famous portrait that also serves as a memorial to women dying in childbirth.

Ghirlandaio’s 1488 portrait of a young Florentine noblewoman has become the signature piece of the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid:

Her name was Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni. Both parts of her surname mattered at the time. The Albizzi were rivals of the Medici, the Tornabuoni the Medicis’ right-hand men. Her marriage two years earlier to Giovanni Tornabuoni was a political one, a burying of the hatchet between powerful clans. The Tornabuonis were clearly proud of the catch and celebrated her beauty and status in this lovely portrait.

The melancholy Grecian-Urn atmosphere created by the rigid pose and sombre background with pious knick-knacks is no accident. Giovanna died in childbirth, aged only eighteen, the year of the portrait. (Was it begun in life? I’ve suggested to the museum an X-ray to see if Ghirlandaio began with a more cheerful background of Tuscan hills or a rich interior. I’ll let you know if they take me up.)

The beautiful Giovanna can therefore represent all the young women who have paid the ultimate price for our dangerously large brain cases. Continue reading “Portrait of a dead lady”

Rachel Shteir versus Chicago: Performance versus Reality

I was in Russia when a tourist from New York turned to me and said, “Whatever happened to Chicago?” To this mysterious question he added, “I kept thinking it was going to break through, but it never did.” Nonplussed, I tried to think of a Chicago breakthrough. Eventually I must have sputtered something about Nobel laureates because he interrupted me dismissively. “Eds and meds,” he said. “Every second-tier city has those.” That concluded conversation between us–-for the rest of the trip.

And that’s the problem with Rachel Shteir’s article on the front page of last week’s New York Times Book Review. Conversation ended the minute she turned a review of books about Chicago into a pan of the city itself. Oh, there were responses aplenty, but most were reflexively protective, the kind you’d expect from a mother charged with having an ugly baby. So we’ve had a week of “So’s your old man” and “I’m rubber, you’re glue” without anybody’s communicating much of anything worthwhile.

Which is a shame, because Shteir’s review was a gigantic missed opportunity to investigate the fact that “Chicago” is a performance. Chicagoans perform the city’s epic nature, its street smarts, its unshockability. Most of all we perform its blue-collar roots even–especially–when we have none of our own. How could a professor of theater miss the fact that she’s in the midst of a production as deft and complicated and self-referential as Brecht? Continue reading “Rachel Shteir versus Chicago: Performance versus Reality”