Is the art world wracked by fraud?

Seems like a dirty little secret of the art world, one that’s probably been whispered about since art became a commodity and collections became investments, is breaking out into the open. Dealers, curators, and those investment-level collectors probably aren’t sanguine about the rest of us being privy to this, but the (startling) word is that more than 50 percent of traded artwork is now said to be faked, forged, or at least misattributed.

Which maybe shouldn’t be as surprising as it so painfully is. After all, the time-honored method of art authentication is expert review—that is, the acknowledged experts of a given artist, period, or style would examine a piece and render an informed opinion as to the accuracy—or dubiousness—of the attribution in question. Leaving aside for a moment the inherent weakness of visual-only analyses, this model also arguably places a bit too much onus on the authority of experts, and leaves too little opportunity to review their methods and conclusions. Add into that the inevitable conflicts of interest—remember that the authenticators are usually being paid by a party with a vested interest in the outcome—and you’ve got a system rife for gaming.

How long this has been going on is anyone’s guess. Art history tells us that practice of signing artwork dates from about the 15th century, and that the art of forging artists’ signatures was perfected almost immediately thereafter. More recent scandalous behavior includes the winked-at custom of wealthy donors offloading suspected fakes (or confirmed ones) from their collections onto museums, and taking a healthy tax deduction in the process. The museums, it’s said, are perfectly aware of the scam but play along so as to not alienate their high-powered patrons. As a result the ratio of forgeries is apparently even higher in museum collections, perhaps approaching 70 or 80 percent, although the bulk of these are in permanent storage, and never displayed.

The backlash against the expert-review paradigm is one of the reasons this story is breaking open, and it has led to more widespread acceptance of the logical alternative: scientific review. Indeed, it’s material analysis (testing paints and canvases to determine if they’re consistent with the attributed period), along with the use of high-tech, multi-spectrum examination tools that has identified many a fake that had long been widely accepted as genuine.

Which might lead one to think that the side of truth might be winning out, but instead what we have here is a classic arms race. Art forgers have long been accustomed to procuring properly aged canvases, and to mixing period-consistent pigments, and you can be sure they’re just as busy learning to defeat whatever new authentication methods that are coming on line. The incentives for doing so are counted in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Art forgery, then, is a simple and very predictable matter of economics. It became all but inevitable in tandem with the commoditization of aesthetics. It’ll continue—and flourish—as long as the collection of artwork remains the playground of the rich.

In that light it’s hard to work up much sympathy, or even undetached interest, in the point-counterpoint of art forgery and art-forgery detection. It almost feels like a game being played out in another world, even for those of us who aren’t rich, but still love art.

But here’s the thing. There’s a lot of wonderful art out there, created contemporaneously by incredibly talented artists…that’s insanely affordable and certainly not being forged. That’s how we regular folk get in the game: by supporting regular artists. By becoming patrons and collectors in our own modest but still very real and very committed way.

And if by some weird quirk of fate you find yourself in the possession of a fake, don’t lose your cool. Just ask yourself the questions you’d ask with any art: Do I like it? Does it speak to me? Or does it at least pull together this room? If the answer is yes, then guess what? It’s art. Hang it, let yourself love it, and let yourself also forget the worries of provenance and attribution. Those are concerns for a different class of collector than you. You’re the better sort—the kind that’s in it, just for the art.

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Tattoo new – culling sound from the ink

Staying with the tattoo theme for just a moment longer, the Deconstruction offers the sincerest of hat tips to Muscovite artist Dmitry Morozov (nom d’arte ::vtol::) for creating something brand new with what we’ve just this past week nominated as a most ancient art form.

The mechanics and technology couldn’t be much simpler: the tattoo is a bar code, and ultimately, a musical score. The reader is a cobbled-together, cyborg-esque instrument. The result (which as both a project and performance piece deserves more examination, so see here) is a weird and compelling sonic assault that the artist quite literally bled for. Forget practicality (which is anathema to most art and most tattooing anyway) and simply accept this as an unexpected progression for both music and body modification.

And give a listen — let ::vtol:: play you the song that’s written on his skin:

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The art, it gets under your skin

Since no one is really painting on cave walls anymore, we have to agree that there’s just one art form that has survived since primordial times, and is practiced just as fervently and reverentially today as it was then, as it has been all along.

And as an art form, there’s a lot about tattooing, that deep dermal variety of cosmetic modification, that stands very much alone. The practitioners, wielders of the needles, are artists of the highest caliber—never doubt that. But they’ve selected a medium that weirdly, almost inexplicably blends permanence and impermanence. That a tattoo is permanent is something that’s drummed into your head as soon as you start to consider receiving the ink. Someone, perhaps many people, and almost certainly the artist, will hit you with nearly these exact words: “Are you sure? It’s going to be on you forever.”

And maybe from your mortal, temporal perspective, that’s true. But take a wider view, the artist’s view, and you’ll see it’s not quite so. Almost every medium is ultimately perishable, naturally enough—even the occasional Van Gogh canvas has been lost to the flames. But all artists must fantasize, don’t you think, about creating something bound to last for the ages. They all must yearn to fill museums and to astound patrons as yet unborn. If they choose to work on canvas, or in marble, or in a thousand other inanimate media, they’ve got the barest shot at that. But the artist who works with skin knows that in less than a lifetime their work disappears forever. Yet they carry on.

How and why that is fascinates me—I’ve explored the question but I’m not quite sure I’ve found any coherent way to answer it. I’ve talked it over recently with David Maynard and Eric Starr, both of Arkham Tattoo. We started with this premise: that today’s tattooer is, and must be, an artist. Are there horrifying exceptions? Oh sure. But a modern convergence of events, namely the invention of the electric tattoo machine, and more importantly, the almost-mainstreaming of tattoo culture, means that market forces have attracted the best to the industry. They’ve been given the tools, and the competitive atmosphere, to create tattoo art unlike anything yet seen.

Watch them in action and you realize something almost at once: these artists could excel in just about any other form. Many of them could make their living as world-class illustrators, commercial artists, what have you. And realizing that makes you wonder about something else: Why aren’t illustrators, graphic artists, and all the rest trying their hand at tattooing?

I asked Dave Maynard about that and he told me something enlightening—”A lot of them do,” he said. “They think it looks easy so they give it a try.” But there’s a temperament, he added, something unique about the tattoo artist’s outlook, that is apparently a non-negotiable job requirement. Lacking it, you simply don’t last.

So what is it? Either Dave couldn’t articulate it, or I couldn’t grasp it. So I tried another tack. What about the customers? What brings them into the shop?

I knew even as I asked that there could be no easy answer. The number of reasons for getting tattooed are just about equal to the totality of tattoos ever given. But whatever the reasons, they must be strong, maybe even overwhelming, to endure the process. Getting a tattoo is, at best, an intensely uncomfortable sensation. Sometimes it’s downright torture.

To go through that, you have to be completely invested. Clearly, you’re invested in the outcome—this goes back to the “on you forever” thing of which we’ve already spoken. But, Dave told me, you need to be a partner in the creative process as well. The art on your skin must be as much your product as it is the artist’s. In fact, Dave told me, that’s one of his few deal-breakers. He said he tends not to tattoo anyone who doesn’t have at least some idea of what kind of art they’re going to wear.

That’s when another lightbulb went on, and I recognized something else unique about the tattooing art. It’s the most intimate collaboration imaginable between artist and patron; not just because of the intimate nature of the medium (although that’s an undeniable factor), but also because the creative process is so equally shared. Yes, you can go into a tattoo shop, pick a piece of flash from the wall and ask to receive it line for line (I’ve done that very thing). But what you should do is have an idea for a custom design, something you can describe, something the artist can understand and expand upon.

Do that, and you’ll receive a lifelong-lasting, deeply meaningful work that you helped create.

By the end of the conversation I had a glimpse, maybe some insights, a partial understanding of why this art form has not just endured but continues to dramatically expand. I still had questions, though, and it bothered me that I couldn’t find my way to the answers.

That’s when I realized what a fool’s errand I was on. The tattoo, like every other visual art, is in the final analysis ineffable—that’s why it’s visual. Try to express it in words, and it transforms into a novel or poem or koan. Try to make it answer questions or articulate a philosophy and it slips away from you like water through your fingers. This is no flaw or failing, it’s the entire point of the thing.

If you’re wearing this kind of collaborative art under your skin, people will still ask you about it. They’ll ask you why, and how, and what. They’ll expect you to be able to answer. Maybe you’re not as tongue-tied about it as me, and maybe you can handle it. Go ahead and try. Or you can embrace ineffability, eschew spoken explanations, and just point at it. You can answer by telling them, “Just look at it.”

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Da Vinci’s drafts

Nearly five hundred years after his death, Leonardo Da Vinci is still celebrated, and widely recognized, as one of the Western world’s most accomplished polymaths, inventors, and above all, artists. Even the most uninitiated can easily see why—a glance through his notebooks reveal an uncommon and deeply penetrating mind at work. The sketches of his inventions demonstrate a grasp of mechanics and dynamics far ahead of his era. And his art? It’s not just the beauty of his work, although that’s evident in abundance. It’s the technical precision, the startling fidelity of his capture of his subjects, almost mystical in the execution. In reality it was simply because he was very, very good at his craft; he understood light, he understood perspective, he understood motion…and he excelled at distilling these things through pigment, onto surfaces.

As to exactly how he did that—well, lacking the opportunity to look over the genius’s shoulder and watch him work, the best we can do is to study his paintings, and ever so gently, deconstruct them. And in that respect, a major discovery has just been made.

Leonardo’s circa-1480s painting Lady with an Ermine, is perhaps his second most famous portrait. Like the Mona Lisa the renown partially arises from embedded mystery: enigmatic elements, and even controversy as to the identity of the subject.

Although the matter is far from settled, the woman in the Ermine painting is widely assumed to be Cecilia Gallerani, mistress to Duke Ludovico Sforza of Milan. Perhaps the most compelling evidence in that regard is that shortly before the portrait is believed to have been commissioned, Sforza was inducted into the heraldic Order of the Ermine by the King of Naples. The prominent inclusion of that strange, sleek animal, then, might have been Leonardo’s less-than-subtle salute to his patron.

It’s long been known that multiple layers of paint—early drafts, essentially—were hidden beneath the Lady with an Ermine. That was revealed by X-ray examination of the portrait decades ago, and similar testing yielded similar results for many Da Vinci paintings. Until now, though, there hasn’t been a noninvasive, non-destructive way of peeling back those layers, and seeing what Leonardo chose to cover up.

Enter, thankfully, LAM (layer amplification method). The technique of exposing surfaces to multiple, sequential wavelengths of intense light, then measuring the reflections, has been employed by engineer Pascal Cotte of Lumiere Technology to unveil not one, but three versions of the Lady with an Ermine portrait. Examining the evolution of the work gives us remarkable insight into how Da Vinci approached his work.

What’s most noticeable is the ermine, and particularly its complete absence in the first, deepest layer. Next came the grey ermine—smaller, more subdued, and much less life-like. If the painting’s subject and provenance are indeed what art historians have concluded, then it’s tempting to suspect that Ludovico Sforza’s insistence might have spurred the inclusion, and finally the refinement, of that haunting little creature.

It’s also interesting to notice the evolution of the Lady’s attire. If she sat for Leonardo (if, in other words, Leonardo didn’t somehow paint this from memory), then we have an almost exact idea of what she wore that day. But why does the small black bow at her neckline disappear between the first version and the second? Why does a blue cloak appear over her left shoulder, concurrent with the arrival of the ermine? These are relatively tiny questions of detail, historically unanswerable, but so very fascinating to ponder when we consider the process of a master painter at work.

Finally, and very tellingly, notice the Lady’s face. Not a brush-stroke changes there. Of all aspects of Da Vinci’s skill, his grasp of the human form was probably his greatest strength. At first pass he captured the Lady’s likeness; he knew it, and he was intelligent and confident enough to never second guess it.

It’d be trite, and maybe not entirely honest to end by proclaiming that “there will never be another Da Vinci.” Yes, he was a resounding, history-shaking genius…but unto every generation is bestowed not just monsters, tyrants, and legions of the mediocre, but also a far share of geniuses. There will be another Da Vinci, or at least someone of comparable talent and depth. That someone might be in art school right now, or in grade school, or on the streets, spraying masterpieces onto concrete-block walls.

With luck we’ll see that genius at work, in real time or close to it, and get some dim idea of how perfect genius expresses itself. With luck a half-millennium won’t pass, and future admirers won’t be left to look back, and only hypothesize.

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Revenge porn and the law of unintended consequences

The fact that revenge porn exists illustrates an entire tragicomic spectrum of unhappy, unintended con-sequences. More aptly, it demonstrates the lowest of the low: infantile exes who aim to shame, and the profit-blinded thugs who give them the platforms for doing so. Both categories are beneath contempt, and I hope we all can agree that they can and should be stamped out.

But back to the consequences unintended—how did we come to a place where such a hurtful phenomenon could be so widespread? I suppose there have been similar instances, probably mostly isolated ones, for as long as there has been sexuality and ways of commemorating it. But it wasn’t until we all began carrying cameras everywhere, all the time; and we all had access to vast and instant sharing networks, that this thing became an epidemic.

I’ve heard it argued also that a more intimate aspect of culture, sneeringly called the ‘hookup culture,’ plays an equally culpable role. I won’t go there, it smells too much like victim-blaming. In whatever way those pictures are generated (ways that are patently not my business) the only thing that the wronged party in one of these scenarios is guilty of is trusting the wrong person. And we’ve all been guilty of that, haven’t we?

When they built cameras into our phones, no one intended for them to be used as weapons of such a cowardly caliber. And whenever trust is granted, certainly no one intends that it can came back at them, later on, in such a life-shattering way. It’s probably true that the only intended things about revenge porn are that which is intended by the guilty parties: to hurt, and to capitalize on hurt.

That’s such a self-obvious injustice that, maybe belatedly, something is being done about it.Thirteen states have now enacted legislation criminalizing revenge porn; fifteen others, along with Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, have bills under debate.

These are positive developments, no? Well…we are dealing with the law of unintended consequences here, and no one triggers that law quite like lawmakers who don’t really understand the issues and the technology under their purview.

So that’s why eleven plaintiffs, including the ACLU and the Association of American Publishers, have filed suit against Arizona House Bill 2515, effective as of July, calling its prohibition on sharing private or intimate images overbroad and unconstitutional.

Why? Here’s the operative text: It is unlawful to intentionally disclose, display, distribute, publish, advertise or offer a photograph, videotape, film or digital recording of another person in a state of nudity or engaged in a sexual act if the person knows or should have known that the depicted person has not consented to the disclosure.

That seems perfectly reasonable—spot on, in fact—until the plaintiffs point out that it would criminalize one of the most iconic images of the last half century. It would also make it a felony to publish the most obvious and relevant photos alongside an article on public breastfeeding. It rises from the level of nobly intended civil protection, to the unwanted heights of censorship and prior restraint.

It is, in other words, a hell of a conundrum, and it’s one that is probably applicable to the anti-revenge-porn laws that have been enacted nationwide. On the one hand, there absolutely should be criminal penalties for jilted exes and sleezy revenge-site operators.

On the other hand, there absolutely shouldn’t be censorship. Ever.

In an age when it’s difficult to get legislators at any level to agree on anything, much less act, it’s something of a miracle that these laws even exist. It’ll take another, trickier kind of miracle to get them fixed to target only the bad, and leave be the good.

So fingers crossed for that miracle. Without it someone will lose, someone who did nothing to deserve that fate. That fate, of course, is the most common unintended consequence of them all.

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Here’s to Scotland

By any objective standard this summer has been just fucking awful. There has been war and disease, barbarism, and more than our usual apportionment of inexplicable and inexcusable slaughter. Mere hours remain now until the equinox, but even the longer nights, the ushering in of a more gentle season, this hopeful, symbolic cyclic passage—it brings no promise. The lingering awfulness shows every sign of hounding us unto autumn, and beyond.

But when hope dies, we die. And I’ve found hope through the example set by a comparatively tiny outpost, a bastion of culture and gravitas, the northernmost reaches of a liberal empire—a place the Romans could never conquer and that the English only barely did.

Thank you, Scotland. You just gave the world something it sorely needed.

The vote that just happened is, first and foremost, Scottish business. London and Westminster are almost as much bystanders as the rest of us. The vote was a necessary and earnest conversation, Scot to Scot.

And although the independence referendum was momentous—hugely historical—from an outsider’s perspective it never really mattered what the result would be. What mattered was the process.

What we’ve just witnessed is either a geopolitical anomaly, or an example of what self-determination can and should be. Declarations of nationhood, or even halfhearted feints at that, are usually bloodbaths. State history and nationalism are chronically synonymous with revolution and civil war…and proud of it. These twisted truths are enshrined in our national anthems and painted into the murals we hang over parliamental assemblies. We thrive on bloody birth-pangs.

But Scotland has shown us it doesn’t have to be that way. In the most thoughtful and deliberative way, they’ve demonstrated something new, something different, something far far better. They’ve shown that a nation can decide, en masse, where their destiny lies, and that they can pursue that course peacefully and with nothing more passionate than speech and conviction.

They’ve elected to remain British, which is something they’ve always been, and to remain part of a United Kingdom, which is comparatively new. We can respect and honor that decision, every bit as much as we’d do if the vote had gone the other way. If Scotland had become our world’s newest country, then I’d expect and hope that most of the planet would greet them as allies and cousins, partners and friends. This is nothing less than the Scottish deserve—have earned—in their declining of independence. The decision itself, again, is no one’s business but theirs.

The fact that a breathtakingly huge percentage of the Scotch electorate deliberated and decided, peacefully, is why, henceforth, we should all look to the north of the River Tweed and the Solway Firth as the example of progressive civilization. The fact that the marshals of Scottish independence have gracefully accepted defeat and are ceding power shows that politics needn’t be messy, and shouldn’t be deadly.

Scotland has set a high bar for humanity. We’ll probably rarely measure up, going forward. The next independence movement, wherever it rises, will likely be serenaded into existence with the song of artillery, and screams. The next politician who fails to exhort an uprising will doubtlessly try again, in a much more unspeakable way.

Be that as it may. It doesn’t mean we can’t strive after the Scottish example. Scotland showed it can be done; it’s up to the rest of us to prove it can be done again.

In the meanwhile, I’ll thank Scotland, and I’ll salute her the best way I know how.

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Bring the Funk

There is music, and then there is funk.

And along with all of funk’s myriad attractions (just try to sit still when George Clinton and P.Funk give it up) there is also this: funk is nothing if not inclusive.

Or didn’t you know that? If not you haven’t yet met Alissia Benveniste. Think funk has room for a 23-year-old Berklee music student, raised in Italy by a German mother and Spanish father, who lately calls London home? Funk doesn’t worry much about the biography; funk just answers the question with a question: Can she bring it?

Funk and me, and the nearly-a-million viewers of Benveniste’s Let It Out have found the answer.

Don’t take our word for it, though. Just press play, and let the funk flow.

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Katie Paterson and Margaret Atwood play the literary long game

Great literature might be timeless, but until now both of those superlatives—greatness and timelessness—have been unintended (and probably too-good-to-be-hoped-for) parts of the writing experience. Writers write, readers judge, and history ultimately decides. That’s how it’s always gone

Leave it to an artist, then, to try to get ahead of that process.

Award-winning, Scottish-born conceptual artist Katie Paterson has conceived, and started executing, a century-long textual experiment called Future Library. It’s just that: a collection of manuscripts curated for posterity. Contemporary authors will contribute, but none of us will read it. Not until 2114.

Paterson and her Future Library Trust will be inviting the participation of one author per year, for the next 100 years, to contribute an unpublished manuscript that will remain unpublished until the Future Library becomes, simply, a library. Meanwhile the forest, 1000 trees, that will supply the library’s physical manifestation will be growing: Paterson planted the seedlings near Oslo, Norway this past May.

A further seed is planted, thanks to celebrated author, poet, and activist Margaret Atwood—she will be the first writer to contribute to Future Library. She’s saying very little about her Future Library manuscript (that’s kind of the point, after all), but she did say this:

“I am very honored, and also happy to be part of this endeavor. This project, at least, believes the human race will still be around in a hundred years! Future Library is bound to attract a lot of attention over the decades, as people follow the progress of the trees, note what takes up residence in and around them, and try to guess what the writers have put into their sealed boxes.”

Make no mistake—this is much more than an art project, much bigger than a literary collaboration. It’s no coincidence that Atwood, a noted and fervent environmentalist, is helping to inaugurate it. The future, after all, is often synonymous with fear—and Future Library addresses those fears head on, with nothing but optimism. Rather than asking if the twenty-second century will see the death of print, of species, of humankind itself, Future Library forges ahead, under the confident assumption that somehow, it won’t. It’s the purest definition of investment.

Pessimism, we all know, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe optimism can be the same? Katie Paterson and Margaret Atwood seem to be urging us to think so. We won’t soon find out how right they are, but—this cliche has never been more apt—time will tell.

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When art was labor, and labor was salvation

Crises have a way of bringing out the best or the worst in people, and in societies, and in cultures. There’s rarely a middle ground, and there’s rarely any ambiguity to it. You might think of them as litmus tests for collective character.

Economic crises, as recent experience has shown, tend to rub rawest. They strike average people the hardest, and leave those people all but powerless while destroying their ability to cope with the present or to strive for the future. Being products of amorphous “market forces” they rarely create a rallying figure, an enemy to fight, a cause to muster for or against. Their effects, usually, are internalized. We’re all left to fight, or more often to founder, alone.

But it hasn’t always been like that.

The worst economic crisis in modern history began, arguably, in 1929—it spread around the world and lasted for more than a decade. Its precise causes are debatable but it is generally agreed that it started with the collapse of American markets (the Black Tuesday stock market crash in October 1929 was a symptom, not a cause), as well as the failure American banks, and was fatally exacerbated by rampant unemployment. At the midway point of what was by then being called the Great Depression, 15 million Americans—representing almost a quarter of the working class—were unemployed, and nearly half of American banks had closed their doors forever.

Politics, as ever, was handmaiden to economics; and political gutter-fighting, then as now, impeded economic policy. A major difference, beginning in 1932, was leadership. The election of Franklin Roosevelt brought fresh perspectives and new ideas. His radical solutions were by no means universally embraced, but they (and more importantly, he) were popular enough to clear the way for unprecedented experimentation: economic stimulus backed by the full force of the federal treasury.

Under the general banner of The New Deal, managed by an array of novel Alphabet Soup agencies, and exemplified by the WPA (Works Progress Administration), America rolled up its sleeves and got back to work.

Recent experience, again, has shown that controversial is the kindest possible term for the idea that federal dollars (and more importantly, federal oversight) can lead to economic recovery. And it would be controversial, or at least impossible to prove, to say that the New Deal overcame the Great Depression.

But what is beyond debate is this: it put people back to work.

If you know where to look, you can still find the legacy of the New Deal in every state, in nearly every city and town. Schools, libraries, roads, bridges—massive infrastructure projects and tiny improvements on the landscape. It was all created by collective effort, in a collective struggle to rebuild a wounded country.

As evidence of the farsightedness of these programs (you might call it progressive, which had not yet become a dirty word), they recognized that it wasn’t just the laborer who was suffering, and it wasn’t only the laborer who could contribute.

The Federal Arts Project, an extension of the WPA, began in 1935 to employ out-of-work painters, sculptors, and art teachers in public works projects and programs. The idea is almost unthinkable now, but it recognized two truths: that art is funded by surplus (and thus, it withers during lean times), and that it is culturally worthy of support.

Nearly a quarter of a million works of art—murals, posters, public sculptures—were created. Among the most iconic were the inspirational murals, often gracing the walls of new WPA-constructed post offices. The style was realist, modern, unceasingly optimistic. Created of necessity—it was essentially the mode of anti-Depression propaganda—it became a fashion unto itself, one that’s still mightily influential today.

Sadly, preservation of these works has never been a national priority. Their neglect almost gives credence to the argument that they were nothing but busy-work for the Jackson Pollocks and Mark Rothkos employed by the WPA; an embarrassing artists’ welfare program, best forgotten. The vast majority of the original artwork is simply gone.

So be it. Public art and public-art funding are, as demonstrated, controversial, and it’d be a long-shot on a good day to get all Americans, or even a respectable plurality, to grow sentimental over what can be reasonably termed ‘artistic socialism.’ Such a movement can probably never happen here again.

But I’m writing these words on an American public holiday, one that for some smells of socialism, and for others represents a grudging nod to the value of the U.S. working class. I can think of no better day than Labor Day to remember that once upon a time, art was labor.

We’ll never see public arts sponsorship on this scale again, and there’s a sad but distinct chance we won’t see its production, its original output, for very much longer. I can’t say if that’s the result of neglect or purposeful design, but either way this legacy is being erased.


Best we can do, I suppose, is remember it. And maybe while we’re doing so we can ponder what that program said about America then, and what its disregard says about us now.

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First Impression

Impressionism is arguably the most influential artistic movement of the last half millennium. It represented a stylistic break with the rigid Realism that preceded it, and inspired in its wake not only the techniques and subject matter embraced by visual artists, but also the writers, musicians, and philosophers who’ve shaped our modern culture. A textbook definition of Impressionist painting might speak of abbreviated brush-strokes and the unblended use of color to capture fleeting conditions of light and atmosphere—and it would be correct in doing so. But in broader, and maybe much more accurate terms, Impressionism is nothing more or less than a worldview. It’s a way of describing what the eye sees and the heart feels, denying the simultaneous tugs of jadedness and exuberance, and opting instead for the middle road of studied attention.

Given that perspective, it’s worthwhile to wonder how such a dramatic movement came into being. There are plenty of answers to that, of course, all of them tackling the question in different ways. We’d be equally factual in saying that Impressionism could only have been created in France in the 1870s, when the availability of rail transport, portable easels, and mass-produced oil paints opened the countryside to previously studio-bound Parisian artists—and that Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and Degas, specifically, created Impressionism with a single, significant exhibition held in 1874—and that Monet, singularly, gave both impetus and a name to the movement with his 1872 painting, Impression, Sunrise (Impression, Soleil Levant), seen above.

On that last account, we’ve now been given fascinating pinpoint accuracy. Working from the not unreasonable assumption that Monet painted what he saw, astrophysicist Don Olsen pored over clues in Monet’s brushwork to identify a moment in time that inspired an artist, who in turn inspired an artistic revolution.

Olsen’s methodology is captivating, and is worth exploring in detail. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: He began by determining Monet’s vantage point: a third-floor balcony at the Hotel d’Amirauté au Havre. The view is easterly, confirming that the sun is on the rise, and by calculating its position (no more than three degrees above the horizon) he knew that the scene must have occurred twenty to thirty minutes after sunrise.

From there he delved into minutia: the tide, the sea level, the condition of fog, even the wind direction as indicated by plumes of smoke in the distance. Each factor, paired with historical weather reports and documented characteristics of La Havre harbor, narrowed the date. Until he had an answer.

Monet saw that sunrise, was impressed by it, at 7:35 am on November 13th, 1872.

Maybe it’s an academic exercise at best, calculating that. Maybe it’s trivial at best knowing it. But knowing also that Impressionism begat Post-Impressionism, then Cubism and Modernism, and made way for giants like Van Gogh and Picasso, Pollock and Lichtenstein, and indeed the universe of contemporary art and artists that serve us today…then maybe we can agree it’s constructive to publish a birth certificate for Impressionism, one that registers the moment of delivery. That’s what Don Olsen has provided.

Or maybe it’s irrelevant. Maybe all we need do with Impressionism is all we need do with all great art: Just experience it, and be awed….

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RIP Robin Williams (July 21, 1951 – August 11, 2014)

First thing I thought, upon hearing that Robin Williams was gone, was that he’d been making me laugh for as long as I can remember.

I realized almost at once that this wasn’t quite true.I was ten or so when Mork first arrived from Ork. But it seemed true—or more accurately, it seemed like it should have been true. Because Robin Williams was so funny, so naturally and organically comical, that it feels like laughter didn’t really properly begin until Robin Williams began to clown for us.

I realized, on the heels of that, that although this was all undeniably true, it was also only part of Robin Williams’s professional story. He was decades into his career, and a huge star, before he showed us his chops as a dramatic actor. With Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, What Dreams May Come and many others, he gave us some inkling of the depth his talent. Hilarious though he was, he was also a multi-layered, accomplished performer, ultimately capable of inhabiting any role.

This inner dialogue of hero-worship took mere seconds, and it all transpired before I learned the “apparent cause” (as it’s being breathlessly called) of Robin Williams’s death. Then the narrative changed.

Similarly, it’s about to change for all of us. It’s already begun, in fact. They who deem themselves the setters of the parameters of our cultural conversation, who decide that Learning Moments abound and who see to it that we’ll damned well learn, aren’t going to want to talk much about the extraordinary life of Robin Williams. They’ll want to talk about suicide and depression.

Maybe I’m dangerously contrarian if I reject that. Maybe some lives and psyches will really be saved over the coming days as we delve into a deep national conversation about suicide prevention. Maybe I should just shut up about it now.

But…no. I’m of the opinion that no matter how noble your campaign, if you’ve ginned up your poster child then you’re perpetrating a fraud.

Suicide has been called a permanent solution to temporary problems. I think that’s true, in quite a lot of cases. But not all. I think there are some cases where a reasonable person makes an informed decision, and acts upon it. And in those cases, I think the decision, and the decision-making process, should be respected.

I draw a clear distinction between those cases and the proverbial cries for help, or suicide gestures. Conveniently—although maybe not so convenient for the people who want to have this conversation—it’s pretty easy to tell the difference. A teenager who swallows half a bottle of aspirin wants help, needs help, and should get it. An adult who for whatever reason opts to slide a shotgun barrel under his or her chin asks for no such help. They’ve definitively made a choice, and have no interest in hearing any of your counter-arguments.

I don’t know why Robin Williams was depressed, and if he killed himself I don’t know why he did that either. I don’t know what led other heroes of mine, Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson, to choose similar ends. I think they found themselves in a place where they could no longer live they way they loved to live, and decided in response to exert a final measure of control. And macabre as it might sound, I’m okay with that.

Robin Williams was unbelievably talented and charitable to a fault. That’s how I choose to remember him. If I should think about how or why he died, I’ll just tell myself, “He was a grown man, and apparently he had his reasons.” That’s going to be good enough for me.

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Nina Paley illuminates the Levant

Artist, activist, filmmaker (and much more) Nina Paley might just have succeeded were corps of cognoscenti and commentators have been left foundering. Their line of inquiry, topical yet perpetual, has been, “Why can’t there be peace in the Middle East?” In her masterful and stunning animated short, This Land is Mine, Nina Paley knocks that question back with a quick regional history recap. In three and half minutes Paley gives us an inkling of how blood-soaked a comparatively tiny spit of land can get, and how easily the blood-letting over that land—above it, on it, for it—becomes a habit of geography.

This Land is Mine is rumored to be part of a longer Paley opus: Seder-Masochism,  much promised and anticipated, and evidently under construction. While we wait for that gem, thanks to Nina Paley’s gracious and farsighted Creative Commons policies, we can enjoy This Land is Mine, a musical idyll on one region’s most venerable tradition…immediately followed by Nina’s own libretto, Who’s Killing Who? A Viewer’s Guide.

Who’s Killing Who? A Viewer’s Guide

Because you can’t tell the players without a pogrom!

Early Man

Early Man
This generic “cave man” represents the first human settlers in Israel/Canaan/the Levant. Whoever they were.


What did ancient Canaanites look like? I don’t know, so this is based on ancient Sumerian art.

Ancient Egyptian

Canaan was located between two huge empires. Egypt controlled it sometimes, and…


….Assyria controlled it other times.


The “Children of Israel” conquered the shit out of the region, according to bloody and violent Old Testament accounts.


Then the Baylonians destroyed their temple and took the Hebrews into exile.


Here comes Alexander the Great, conquering everything!


No sooner did Alexander conquer everything, than his generals divided it up and fought with each other.


Greek descendants of Ptolemy, another of Alexander’s competing generals, ruled Egypt dressed like Egyptian god-kings. (The famous Cleopatra of western mythology and Hollywood was a Ptolemy.)


More Greek-Macedonian legacies of Alexander.

Hebrew Priest

Hebrew Priest
This guy didn’t fight, he just ran the Second Temple re-established by Hebrews in Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile.


Led by Judah “The Hammer” Maccabee, who fought the Seleucids, saved the Temple, and invented Channukah. Until…


….the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and absorbed the region into the Roman Empire…


….which split into Eastern and Western Empires. The eastern part was called the Byzantine Empire. I don’t know if “Romans” ever fought “Byzantines” (Eastern Romans) but this is a cartoon.


Arab Caliph
Speaking of cartoon, what did an Arab Caliph look like? This was my best guess.


After Crusaders went a-killin’ in the name of Jesus Christ, they established Crusader states, most notably the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Egyptian Mamluk

Mamluk of Egypt
Wikipedia sez, “Over time, mamluks became a powerful military caste in various Muslim societies…In places such as Egypt from the Ayyubid dynasty to the time of Muhammad Ali of Egypt, mamluks were considered to be “true lords”, with social status above freeborn Muslims.[7]” And apparently they controlled Palestine for a while.

Ottoman Turk

Ottoman Turk
Did I mention this is a cartoon? Probably no one went to battle looking like this. But big turbans, rich clothing and jewelry seemed to be in vogue among Ottoman Turkish elites, according to paintings I found on the Internet.


A gross generalization of a generic 19-century “Arab”.


The British formed alliances with Arabs, then occupied Palestine. This cartoon is an oversimplification, and uses this British caricature as a stand-in for Europeans in general.


The British occupied this guy’s land, only to leave it to a vast influx of….

European Jew/Zionist

European Jew/Zionist
Desperate and traumatized survivors of European pogroms and death camps, Jewish Zionist settlers were ready to fight to the death for a place to call home, but…


….so were the people that lived there. Various militarized resistance movements arose in response to Israel: The Palestinian Liberation OrganizationHamas, and Hezbollah.

State of Israel

State of Israel

Backed by “the West,” especially the US, they got lots of weapons and the only sanctioned nukes in the region.

Guerrilla/Freedom Fighter/Terrorist

Guerrilla/Freedom Fighter/Terrorist
Sometimes people fight in military uniforms, sometimes they don’t. Creeping up alongside are illicit nukes possibly from Iran or elsewhere in the region. Who’s Next?

Angel of Death

and finally…

The Angel of Death
The real hero of the Old Testament, and right now too.

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I culture you: Take your vacation

You’ve been working very very hard, haven’t you? Poor thing, I know exactly how you feel.

You know what you need? You need a little vacation. Go ahead — take a some time off. Relax.

How you relax is a gorgeous variegated menu, splayed before you. Beach or Basque country, staycation or one-tank-trip motervation, mountain climbing or ego tripping, or all the above, you get to choose how to burn up your precious days off.

May I humbly suggest you shoehorn some culture in there?

Your definition of ‘culture’ is as happily elastic as your ‘vacation.’ Embrace it as ye please, but grab hold of something — art, literature, cinema, fingerpainting — something that’s capable of capturing the imagination of at least two dreamers that you know of — you and the artist — and probably millions and billions of others. Who knows a thousand or hundred thousand or hundred million of them might be simultaneously enjoying their own vacation, or maybe their couple days off, and are opting to spend it, like you are, with a classic novel, a terrifying artist, and a kind of music you didn’t know existed. And who knows what else.

Doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, or what drively job you’re vacationing from, you’ve got a mind and your mind’s like all minds: hungry. Feed it culture and you know good stuff will happen.

No one’s suggesting of course that culture-embrace, however you do it, has to be reserved for two weeks in July or some long weekend in the Fall. Perish that thought, and patron the arts year round. Just know that special heart-felt immersion in the arts is possible only on days you’re not punching some other schmuck’s clock. This holds true for everyone, everywhere, always, amen.

You’re going to take some time off work anyway. (You’re going to have to. Or you’ll explode.) You’re going to spend it how you’re going to spend it.

You could spend some of that time at a gallery or museum, or a book fair or any kind of show, or anywhere the creativity of you and others lead you. That certainly wouldn’t be the worst way to spend a bit of vacation.

Knowing then that in the worst of all possible worlds you’d be spending worthwhile time, and in the best you’d feed your starving brain-maw and open up who the hell knows what kind of literal and metaphorical doors — can you afford not to give it a try?

Seriously. Take your vacation, and swim in some culture.

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Today’s sage words of advice

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What if the sun takes it all away?

It seems we really did dodge an apocalypse, of sorts, back in 2012. In one of those sleeper stories, known but to a few learned insiders (and they might as well keep such things to themselves since no one believes them anyway), an orbiting solar observatory recorded a series of the most powerful coronal mass ejections (CMEs—analogous to solar storms) ever encountered.

CMEs are more or less explosions shot outward from sunspots, which eject first X-rays and other forms of highly energetic radiation that travel at the speed of light, followed swiftly by charged particles, electrons and protons, moving nearly as fast. The sun is of course a sphere, upon which sunspots and CMEs can form pretty much anywhere. This means that the vast majority of such ejections shoot off harmlessly (from our perspective) into deep space. It’s only on those rare occasions that the CMEs line up with Earth’s orbit that we find ourselves in a pickle.

That happened memorably in 1989, when a solar storm damaged satellites, disrupted communications, and knocked out power all across Quebec, Canada. Solar weather-watchers use a complicated formula to gauge the severity of such events, determined in part by magnetometer readings at the equator. The baseline reading of the planet’s magnetic shield (when undisturbed) is zero; solar impacts knock it into negative numbers. The most routine events, the kind that produce the Northern Lights, register at about -50.

The 1989 storm registered -600. And the CME in July 2012 is estimated to have been around -1200. And yes, it was aimed directly at Earth’s orbit. It passed through an area in space that we’d occupied only about a week prior.

It’s only speculation to say what would have happened, or what would happen, if we were to be blasted by a solar storm of that magnitude. In 1859 an astronomer named Carrington witnessed an intense solar flare, that within days brought the Northern Lights as far south as Miami. The Carrington Event also actually triggered arcing, and in some cases even fires, along telegraph lines.

Our harnessing of the electron was of course in its infancy in those days, and is at this quantum level that solar-induced electromagnetic disruption is most keenly felt. We are dependent on the movement of the electron now, and a storm like the one we narrowly missed two years ago could potentially halt those movements, and devastate that dependency.

This scenario is potentially far worse than a simple power outage. To begin with, generating stations and transformers wouldn’t just be knocked offline, they’d be physically damaged. So this wouldn’t just be a matter of flipping the switch back on once the storm had passed. Repairs could take months or years.

In the meanwhile, an economy, a society, and a culture that is in no small part digitally based would simply cease to exist for an undetermined, and indeterminable, period of time. We’d be thrust back into a pre-electrical age, circa 1800, with no frame of reference or collective experience for surviving in such a world.

It almost hurts to wrap your mind around the implications.

As is my wont, I find myself personalizing such things. And amid practical considerations—would I have enough candles? could I protect my family?—I also narrow in on what might be a petty, self-involved issue. Sorry, but I can’t seem to help it.

My body of written work, such as it is, clocks in at I reckon about a half-million words (don’t know why but we writers have become obsessed in recent years in calculating lifetime word-counts). I estimate that nine-tenths of that, up to and including these words you’re reading now, exist in electronic form only, with no durable, CME-proof copies existent.

It’s a shamefully parochial thought, I know. But it’s emblematic of a problem that many of us, if not most of us, share. Financial and health records, much of the documentation of our very existence, are completely virtual—and evidently, completely vulnerable. Modern writers and digital artists personify the cultural side of this risk: our entire portfolios could disappear forever, in an instant.

Short of getting busy with my printer (and believe me, I’m considering that), I’m not sure where to take this new-found fear. I’m not even entirely sure how great the risk is—although one of the physicists who studied the 2012 near-miss extrapolated a 12% probability that we will get hit with a solar storm of this magnitude sometime in the next ten years.

I guess most of all I’ll just take it as prophecy, the kind that you tuck into a back corner of your mind and fret over occasionally, and occasionally take half-hearted measures against. Maybe I’ll buy extra candles from time to time, and take some opportunities to learn more about surviving, and maybe even thriving, in a low-tech world. Maybe I’ll take the initiative of seeing that some of the things I write, if I deem them worthy of preserving, are preserved.

Mostly I’ll just see this digital age of ours, this new era of unconscionably dependent culture, as a little less permanent than I once thought.

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