In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

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  1. Pic of the Day
  2. Free Reads Benjamin Campaine on media concentration
  3. Guest posting -- Michael Serafin
  4. Free Reads -- Timewaster
  5. 1000 Words -- Piero's Reputation
  6. Quote for the day
  7. Armchair Critic
  8. Free Reads -- Cluttered Desks
  9. Art Imponderables
  10. Free Reads -- Roger Scruton

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Saturday, January 4, 2003

Pic of the Day
Michael— As I wander about the Internet, I keep coming across JPEGs that just knock me out. Naturally, I want to squirrel them away until I can do loads and loads of research and then say something at least modestly serious about them, but it has begun to dawn on me that between work, family and doing a little painting of my own, I’m never going to get around to writing up all this stuff. So, what the heck, I thought—why hoard ‘em? I’m a Blowhard, I can just post some of these terrific images from time to time, and maybe somebody else will take up the cause of writing a good essay on them. Here’s one: S. Macdonald-Wright, Raigo,1955 In case you're wondering, this is a thumbnail and enlarges quite nicely when clicked on. For anybody who wants to learn more about Stan, this is a good place to start. You can check out some more of his stuff below, from (left to right) 1919, 1920, 1930 and 1950: Cheers, Friedrich P.S. Who knew that Stan was still busily at work in the Fifties! You just can't trust standard art history: too thematic, not sufficiently chronologic.... posted by Friedrich at January 4, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Free Reads Benjamin Campaine on media concentration
Friedrich -- Benjamin Compaine in Foreign Policy (here) bursts a lot of PC bubbles about the supposed evils of what's imagined to be ever-increasing media concentration. Are the News Corps and AOL/Time-Warners just inches from establishing total control over each and every one of our thoughts? Er, no. Sample passage: Media companies have indeed grown over the past 15 years, but this growth should be understood in context. Developed economies have grown, so expanding enterprises are often simply standing still in relative terms. Or their growth looks less weighty. For example, measured by revenue, Gannett was the largest U.S. newspaper publisher in 1986, its sales accounting for 3.4 percent of all media revenue that year. In 1997, it accounted for less than 2 percent of total media revenue. Helped by major acquisitions, Gannett's revenue had actually increased by 69 percent, but the U.S. economy had grown 86 percent. The media industry itself had grown 188 percent, making a "bigger" Gannett smaller in relative terms. Link found thanks to the ever-essential Arts & Letters Daily, here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 4, 2003 | perma-link | (4) comments

Friday, January 3, 2003

Guest posting -- Michael Serafin
Friedrich -- As you know, I've spent some time on this blog wondering out loud about the ways and mores of libertarians. Many of my own political preferences, such as they are, tend in that direction -- so I've been surprised by how dogmatic and utopian some real-life libertarians can be. Michael Serafin, who visits this blog occasionally, wrote in to describe his own experience of dancing on the libertarian side of the ballroom: From 1995 to early 2001, I was a registered, dues-paying, card-carrying member of the Libertarian Party. You may have read that the LP is now on the verge of bankruptcy, due to internal scandals. Being in the LP is a lot like being in a fantasy role-playing group. They are both about as relevant to the real world. A lot of them are Ayn Rand acolytes. I still keep track of their activities. I even co-founded an LP activist group in '95, which is still going. They, like the Green Party, are now just political spoilers, and they are proud of it. They think they are making progress. They declare "moral victory" every election cycle. Now, I'm a registered Unenrolled, who votes Republican, but will vote Libertarian if there is no competent Republican on the ballot. The GOP has their own Libertarian wing, which I'm looking into. Ah: "a fantasy role-playing group." Now I understand things a little better. Many thanks to Michael Serafin. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 3, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments

Free Reads -- Timewaster
Friedrich -- Over at the Velvet Crypt, Polly Frost has put up a hilarious piece about her obsession with computer and video games. Sample passage: The Status Bar has indicators of your overall health and well-being. The Dimple Palette indicates how much your cellulite hangs over the edge of your computer chair, while the Gab-o-meter shows how angry the people in your book club are with you. You can visit the Velvet Crypt here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 3, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments

1000 Words -- Piero's Reputation
Friedrich -- Are you a big fan of Piero della Francesca's paintings? I always have been, if in a fairly casual way. I get fascinated by the tensions in his work -- the eroticism vs. the formality, the design-y qualities vs. the painstaking modeling, the emphasis on placement of mass vs. the emphasis on living-and-breathing flesh. My mind dives into thoughts and memories of artists I know more about -- Ingres, Degas, Puvis -- and swims around that pond very happily. Madonna and Child With Saints, early 1470s What I hadn't been aware of is the ups and downs of his critical reputation. Over the holidays, though, I was leafing around a collection of his work and brought myself up to date. Since the tale makes for a nice example of some of the themes we seem to return to on this blog -- the fluidity of the "canon," the fecundity of art and lit history, the way reputations come and go, the ways artists use other art, etc. -- I thought I'd pass it along. People who are better Renaissance-arts buffs than I am may be fully aware of this story, but for the sake of my fellow amateurs out there, here it is ... These days, Piero is considered one of the established greats, right up there with such giants as Botticelli and Giotto, a humanist pioneer in the development and use of perspective and 3D effects. Yet at the time he worked (the mid-1400s), he was barely noticed. He seems to have had a relatively successful painting career, although he gave it up late in life to devote himself to writing about math and perspective. Vasari did give him a nod in 1568, but after that, notice of Piero simply petered out; when he was thought of at all, it was as a kind of primitive. Then, in the mid-1800s, a guy named James Dennistoun rediscovered Piero -- sorry, I wish I had more information about this -- and promoted him. Even so, Piero's work seems to have bewildered many art fans until the late 1800s. You can sense a bit of this struggle in an otherwise perceptive passage by a writer named G.F. Pighi: Pighi wrote that Piero, through "improving upon the traditional Greco-Roman type of the Sienese school, and, divesting it of a certain nebulosity in which Sienese art had restricted it, made the type more human ..." Even the facts of Piero's biography weren't assembled until 1913. But by then, early modernist art was well underway, cubism was cooking, and Piero's spatial obsessions hit a nerve. Color reproductions began circulating, and after nearly 400 years, Piero finally had himself a name. Through the rest of the 20th century, his reputation did nothing but grow. There have been lengthy debates about his real achievement -- was it in color? Perspective? Characterization? By 1951, Kenneth Clark was writing (convincingly, to my mind) that Piero was "in the full, critical sense of the word, a classic artist,... posted by Michael at January 3, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Quote for the day
Friedrich -- There's a CIA bureau chief in David Ignatius' quite decent espionage novel "Agents of Innocence" who I picture as being played by Sterling Hayden in his grizzled old seen-everything latter days. At one point, he's fed up with the patricians back in the home office who give the orders, and delivers this explanation to a young subordinate: They are stupid in the way only very smart people can be stupid ... They think the world's problems stem mainly from the fact that there aren't enough rules and regulations, and enough well-educated gentlemen to enforce 'em. It's something that happens to people at Yale, I think. Perhaps they should hand this passage out during freshman orientation at our own Lousy Ivy College. What do you think? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 3, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments

Armchair Critic
The Armchair Michael— I don’t know if you’ve caught many movies lately, but if you haven’t seen “Catch Me If You Can” you should. The story of Frank Abagnale Jr., a sympathetic teenage forger and imposter, it is set during the Sixties—but not the Sixties of heroic myth, rather the unheroic, domestic Sixties of homes, apartments, motels and airports. For an aging Baby Boomer, the accuracy of the textures, the furnishings, even the light in these scenes (everything looks a bit orange, like slightly faded Kodachromes in a family photo album) was quite touching—a visit to the half-forgotten world of childhood. While Tom Hanks as the dogged (but goodhearted) policeman is functional--his Boston accent comes and goes--Leo DiCaprio is excellent as the teenaged con man, reminding me of his role in the underrated “This Boy’s Life." Con Man at Work But the standout is Christopher Walken. As Frank’s improvident father, Mr. Walken does the best acting I’ve ever seen him do. Mr. Walken turns his often-cliched reptilian quality into a convincing neurotic subtext as he plays a failing and terrified middle-class man. Reptilian but real The movie is certainly one of the best things Steven Spielberg has ever directed, indeed, possibly his most impressive effort. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at January 3, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Thursday, January 2, 2003

Free Reads -- Cluttered Desks
Friedrich -- Remember all the talk about the coming "paperless office" some years back? And you know those guilty feelings so many of us have when we look at our cluttered desks? Wouldn't it be nice to finally get organized? According to The Economist, we should relax about these anxieties. Much that we deal with and think about is unclassifiable, and thus can't be tidily slipped into a database -- either that, or when we've finally decided what category a bit of information belongs to, we're done working with it, and who cares what happens to it. The stacks and heaps of paper you're surrounded by are, in other words, your mind at work. A paperless office would be an office in which no work is getting done -- a dead office. Sample passage: As well as giving much-needed succour to those attached to the ecology of their desktops, these studies have some serious implications for managers. If they interfere with people's desktops, they may also interfere with their thinking. Trying to force workers to get rid of clutter and scan their papers into a computer system may be an expensive waste of time. Companies which do this may find that they create large, useless databases full of information that nobody ever uses. The article is readable here. Does it make you think -- as it does me -- about earlier discussions on this blog about styles of urban planning? On the one hand, the grandly-aspiring, never-to-be-achieved futuristic masterplanning approach (ie., the dream of the paperless office), and on the other, the let-it-take-its-own-shape approach (ie., stacking and piling). Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 2, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Art Imponderables
Friedrich -- Why is it that the ugliest building on campus is so often the architecture building? Why is it that the most nightmarishly-designed magazines are so often the graphic-design magazines? Why is the writing in literary magazines generally so much worse than the writing on sitcoms? Further contributions to this list appreciated. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 2, 2003 | perma-link | (13) comments

Free Reads -- Roger Scruton
Friedrich -- One of my many rants-in-waiting is how eager I am to see more people get over their fear of the word "conservative." It's not just that it's OK to be conservative, it's that we're all conservative in many respects already. We have to be -- otherwise we'd die. Our bodies conserve heat; we instinctively take steps to protect ourselves, as well as the people and things we care about. Change and dynamism are parts of life, but so are continuity and rootedness. Why cheer one team and diss the other when both are necessary for the game (life, art, both and more) to go on? The British conservative Roger Scruton often makes eye-opening (as well as humane and cultured) arguments in favor of conservatism. The Wall Street Journal online carried a good recent piece by him. Sample passage: At the heart of every conservative endeavor is the effort to conserve a historically given community. In any conflict the conservative is the one who sides with "us" against "them"--not knowing, but trusting. He is the one who looks for the good in the institutions, customs and habits that he has inherited. He is the one who seeks to defend and perpetuate an instinctive sense of loyalty, and who is therefore suspicious of experiments and innovations that put loyalty at risk. So defined, conservatism is less a philosophy than a temperament; but it is, I believe, a temperament that emerges naturally from the experience of society, and which is indeed necessary if societies are to endure. The conservative strives to diminish social entropy. The piece can be read here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 2, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments

More on Digital Movies
Friedrich -- The two magazines published for cinematographers are doing a good job of keeping track of things as movies and television try to incorporate more and more digital technology into their production processes. I especially enjoy the articles and interviews where veteran cinematographers talk about their first experiences using digital cameras and tape; they're often able to put into words what I can sense but struggle to describe. In an article by Andrew Takeuchi in the December issue of ICG magazine (couldn't find it online, sorry), a few cinematographers talk about their first time out shooting HDTV. The biggest plus: being able to see what you're getting as you try to get it. "When you're sitting there looking at the monitor before the director yells action -- that's your dailies right there," says Victor Goss. "That's the finished product ... There's no doubt in your mind whether or not you got what you wanted." The downsides include various physical awkwardnesses. The cameras are physically clunky, and it sounds like the engineers haven't yet incorporated into them much of what camera operators really want. The cameras "are very crude, the viewfinders are black and white ... The cameras are too long and don't fit in places," says Robert Primes. Plus, cinematographers have to spend a lot of time in a "black-tented monitor area," and are thus often cut off from contact with the performers. (As if movies and TV aren't impersonal enough these days.) Goss sums it up: "The engineers that made these cameras don't know what we use them for." I was fascinated to find the pros wrestling with something that confounds me too as I toy ineptly with my Nikon digi-still camera -- which is what digital cameras do to skin and flesh. It's too much, it's too sharp; every little blemish and flaw leaps out as though you're scrutinizing it under flourescent lights. Zoom in on a well-focused digital snapshot and even the prettiest face turns into a case study for the American Dermatological Society. Here's how Goss describes his experience: "Even though the resolution is not as good as film, for some reason the apparent resolution is sort of greater in the sense that it has a real harsh quality on people's faces. It shows microsopic features on people's faces that you never see on film." Goss speculates that flesh shot on film looks so much more luscious because the ever-changing grain pattern of the film itself (as opposed to the rigid grid innate to the digital image) smooths the skin textures out. Yet another problem I'd like to see solved before the whole industry commits itself to changing over to digital! ICG's webiste (here) offers a treasure trove for film buffs -- an archive of long conversations with cinematographers. In a recent talk with Bob Fisher, Jamie Anderson, who has shot (among many other movies) "The Gift" and "Grosse Point Blank," had this to say about the film image vs. the digital image: FISHER: Does... posted by Michael at January 2, 2003 | perma-link | (12) comments

Moran, Turner and "Influence"
Michael— Does it ever strike you that the topic of artistic influence seems to be a touchy one in today’s culture? For an artist to be seen as being “influenced,” especially by a famous predecessor, is a sort of reputation-lowering event, unless he or she either “transcends,” “subverts” or otherwise “overcomes” the predecessor. To use a medical analogy, it’s as if there’s a sort of taint connected with influence that must be disinfected. The oddities of this cultural attitude have been brought home to me over the past few weeks as I have pondered the art and career of landscape painter Thomas Moran (1837-1926) who was profoundly influenced by a famous predecessor, J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851). Moran was originally born in England, but he ended up in America when his father, a hand-loom weaver, was “economically displaced” by industrialization. The family arrived in a small town near Philadelphia when the young boy was seven. After Moran completed grammar school, he immediately—presumably for financial reasons—began an apprenticeship with a local engraver. He didn’t complete his apprenticeship, however. When his older brother, Edward, decided to pursue a career as an artist, Moran abandoned the path of prudence and joined Edward in his studio. Other than his brother’s lessons and what he had learned as an engraver, Moran’s artistic training consisted solely of informal lessons from several Philadelphia painters. However, this didn’t stop the young boy from harboring a mighty ambition—to become a great painter. It was especially mighty for a boy whose family had been squeezed out of England, and who was living in semi-poverty in the culture boondocks of Pennsylvania. His ambition was stoked to a still-higher pitch when Moran fell in love with the work of the recently deceased British artist J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). Lacking access to Turner’s paintings, Moran’s infatuation seems to have been fed with prints, engravings and—most of all—with Ruskin’s Modern Painters, then being published in multiple volumes. In the pages of Modern Painters, Ruskin represented Turner as the high point of artistic evolution. The writer based this claim for Turner’s greatness on the painter’s unsurpassed fidelity to nature, declaring that Turner painted more of nature than any man who ever lived. Throughout the several thousand pages of Modern Painters, Ruskin urges young artists to follow Turner’s example in accurately depicting nature: Every class of rock, every kind of earth, every form of cloud must be studied with equal industry, and rendered with equal precision…It is not detail sought for its own sake…but it is detail referred to a great end, sought for the sake of the inestimable beauty which exists in the slightest and least of God’s works, and treated in a manly, broad and impressive manner. J. Turner, The Upper Falls of the Tees, Yorkshire (engraved by E. Goodall) 1827 (Note--as always, all illustrations are thumbnails and I would urge you to check out the illustrations at a larger size by clicking on them.) In his book, Ruskin illustrated Turner’s supreme truth to nature... posted by Friedrich at January 2, 2003 | perma-link | (4) comments