Txt like an Egyptian

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In a move sure to be cheered by classicists everywhere, the Unicode Consortium group, they who  guard the emoji gates, have proposed adding more than 2,000 Egyptian hieroglyphs to the approved character sets encoded on new smart phones, computers, and other digital devices.

The proposed list roughly corresponds to Egyptian iconography available to scribes during the early Greco-Roman period, roughly 300 BCE. Earlier, in the Old, Middle, and New Kingdom periods (2700 BCE – 1000 BCE) the Egyptian “alphabet” consisted of around 700 characters. This soared to more than 7,000 during the Ptolemaic dynasty, which culminated with the reign of Cleopatra.

Which is no doubt interesting, but the larger point is that we can finally stop dabbling in pictography for our digital blatherings, and start using the original real deal. And although most of us haven’t yet learned to spell “Eggplant” in Ancient Egyptian, something tells me we’ll all soon know how.

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Another “new” Da Vinci

Every few years, it seems, the world is treated to a new Da Vinci attribution—that is, some Renaissance painting that held low-key status in a minor collection suddenly goes stratospheric as it is newly credited to the maestro himself, Leonardo Da Vinci.

It’s happened again: “A Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arezzo,” a wood-panel painting and once part of an altarpiece at the Pistoia Cathedral in Tuscany, has been identified by conservators as an early apprenticeship work of a 23-year-old Leonardo. The painting is on display at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts.

The museum has owned the painting since the 1930s, when it was actually tentatively attributed to Da Vinci. As the work is unsigned, and perhaps out of an abundance of caution, the museum’s catalog revised the attribution to “disputed.” Then in the 1970s, they credited the work to Florentine painter Lorenzo di Credi.

The confusion is perhaps understandable, and not only due to Leonardo’s regrettable habit of not signing his work. During his days as a student in Andrea del Verrocchio’s workshop, he contributed to numerous large-scale commissions, wherein he and other apprentices were expected to fill in scenery, background figures, etc.—this was artisanship, not necessarily artistry (or so it was seen at the time). The school itself was considered to be the creator; individual hands were irrelevant.

Posterity’s saving grace, and the reason for this new attribution, is Leonardo’s unparalleled technical mastery, which was evident in even his earliest work. We’re still uncovering the minutiae of his techniques (which helps explain the errors of attribution in previous decades), but we understand now that Leonardo’s use of perspective and vanishing points, and well-nigh microscopic details such as reflections painted onto the surface of subjects’ eyeballs, were unique enough to be signatures in of themselves. All of these are evident in the Saint Donatus painting, and although it’s more than likely that other students of the Verrocchio school contributed to the work, it’s as clear as it might be that Leonardo da Vinci was the primary artist.

All of which makes one wonder: how many more undiscovered Da Vincis still wait for us out there?

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Earth Day 2018

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A museum’s merry mea culpa

Owning up to one’s mistakes is considered one of the hallmarks of maturity. But the inclination to cover up or gloss over the most egregious boners? That’s how most of us roll. Still, due respect is owed to the insufferably honest among us who fess up even when they don’t have to.

Case in point, the curators and conservators at the Grant Museum of Zoology in London—they inherited a mistake, you might say, in the form of a dusty old bottle found unmarked and uncatalogued in the specimen stores. This itself is far from unusual, especially for natural-history collections. Pre-modern collection methods were haphazard at best, usually resulting from some Victorian gentleman idly gathering objects for his cabinet of curiosities, and these in turn being later donated en mass by heirs or estate agents. Museums tended to accept such largess with weary smiles, before shucking them onto the back shelves for some later docent to suss out.

That was the assumption here—an orbular artifact, preserved in a sweet-smelling solution, long ignored, at long last noticed. Museum manager Jack Ashby recounts the story in an engaging blog post, recounting how curators recently decided to take a closer look. A lot of early assumptions were quickly ruled out: it wasn’t an eyeball or a testicle. It wasn’t biological at all, in fact. It was self-evidently mysterious, though, in that its diameter was more than twice that of the bottle’s neck. How did it get in there?

That was the clue that (probably) broke the case. What do you find in a fancy bottle alongside a pickled, smooth-skinned orb? Souvenir plum brandy. A century or so of infusion likely swells the fruit to this sort of state. A label falls off, the bottle is forgotten, then later found by descendants who assume it must be “museum material.” It winds up in a museum collection, where it’s forgotten and found all over again.

Ashby admits this is speculation—conservators have disposed of the original liquid without testing it (they said it smelled boozy, though)—and have refilled the bottle with a more suitable preservative. They’re opting to hold on to the plum, speculation be damned. They’ve been entrusted with it, after all. It might be someone’s long-lost libation, but hey, curators gonna curate. We just think it’s awfully nice of them to share the unlikely tale.

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A death in Trump Tower

Todd Brassner died on Saturday, a victim of the 50th-floor fire at Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan.

Brassner, 67, was an art dealer and collector, with a particular interest in Pop art, and a long association with Andy Warhol (Warhol painted Brassner’s portrait, seen here, in 1975).

Since the 2016 election, Brassner had been attempting to sell his apartment in the building that served as the headquarters of the Trump Organization, and effectively, of the Trump presidential campaign. He called called life in the building “untenable” but was unable to attract a buyer.

Brassner was found unconscious and unresponsive in his apartment and was transported to Mount Sinai Saint Luke’s Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Four firefighters were also injured in the blaze. The cause of the fire has not yet been determined.

Todd Brassner’s apartment, like others in Trump Tower, lacked emergency sprinklers. A 1999 New York law mandated sprinklers in high-rise residential buildings, however Donald Trump, along with other developers, lobbied to prevent the law from being applied retroactively. Trump Tower was built in 1983.

As of today, Trump has not addressed the sprinklers (or lack thereof) in his tower, or the death of Todd Brassner, or the injured firefighters. His tweet on Saturday was succinct yet self-congratulatory:

According to the New York Daily News, one of the only times Trump is said to have spoken of Brassner, it was to refer to him as a “crazy Jew.”

Slurs and prejudice aside, Donald Trump’s disregard for decency is probably his most telling character trait. He could have made the safety of his Tower residents a priority—that would have been the moral course—but he wasn’t required to. So he didn’t.

Amoral expediency has been his lifelong guiding star. If he could find any way to avoid paying vendors and creditors, they would go unpaid. If he could use bankruptcy as a business tool, he’d go bankrupt. He did it again and again.

These tactics are unsavory on their face, but since they’re not technically illegal, in Trump’s world they’re fair game. His defenders argue that he’s a master of the game, a businessman who makes use of the tools at his disposal. But to them I ask: What about right and wrong?

That question is imperative, not least because so many of Trump’s defenders and supporters count themselves among the religiously faithful. Their parsing of the Stormy Daniels story, and the seemingly unlimited other examples of Trump’s infidelity and immorality, have already demonstrated a shocking level of flexibility where core principles are concerned. You have to wonder how far that goes.

Because the only conclusion I can draw is, Donald Trump doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong. It’s not that such considerations don’t concern him, they’re simply not on his radar. His one and only driving force is What’s In It For Me? Every thought, word, and action is designed to serve him and his agenda. Anything that runs counter to that is to be subdued, circumvented, or crushed—by whatever means necessary.

Is that good business sense? Debatable. I am certain though that it’s symptomatic of sociopathy. That’s a lamentable character trait for the so-called faithful to admire. It’s even worse for the leader of the free world.

Todd Brassner’s death just might demonstrate the danger inherent in power without ethics. Given Trump’s nature and trajectory, Todd Brassner’s death might not be the last.

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Got her covered

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A vicarious thrill and no small amount of pride to see that the real talent in the family, the mother of my spoiled-rotten child, maestra of the molten glass Jennifer L. Worden lands the cover spot and featured artist interview in this month’s issue of Akron’s incomparable arts and culture magazine, The Devil Strip. Do check it out.

And with that, hat’s off and innumerable thanks to the hard-working, unimaginably self-sacrificing management and staff who make our monthly Devil Strip fix possible. For three years Chris & the gang have bled the stones and turnips, squeezed the eagle (choose your miracle-working metaphor)—to keep the presses rolling. It clearly hasn’t been easy, and they could use a hand. If you have the wherewithal to help, please do. If not, please spread the word.

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Lend me your art

The lending library is probably one of humanity’s greatest cultural institutions (stands to reason, then, that the first lending library in the Americas was founded by a veritable cultural institute in the flesh: Benjamin Franklin). It’s an ideal that’s kept pace with technology—modern libraries are technical hubs in of themselves. And although your local library is now a place for internet access, for movies and music, its core mission hasn’t changed. Want a book? Borrow a book. It’s that simple, and that wonderful.

My own local library system is at once both an exemplar and a standout in these regards. I’ve grown up with them—got my first library card at age eight—and have in turn watched them grow. They are and have long been a cornerstone of our community.

So leave it to them to take library lending to the next level: the Art Library. It is precisely what it sounds like. Partnering with our regional art museum and with area artists, it makes available original works—paintings, prints, mixed media—for borrowers to enjoy in their homes.

We’re an art-centric city, happily enough, so even though there’s a fair number of pieces in the library’s collection, all were spoken for (presumably hanging happily on walls throughout the fair city) when I first made inquiries.

Reservations were welcome, however, so I pored over the catalog and spotted the one I wanted: an original Mothersbaugh. Yes, that Mark Mothersbaugh: son of Akron, Devo singer and keyboardist, celebrated visual artist. I chose his 2007 print, Ashtabula Perambulator. It’s a haunting image—a simple manipulation of a fairly mundane photograph, somehow resulting in a jarring, visceral imprint. It’s a Rorschach blot straight from the uncanny valley.

So I had to have it. Or more accurately, I needed to borrow it.

The lending period is four weeks. Renewals and extensions are allowed, so long as other patrons haven’t submitted reservations. Mine was on the books, so whoever was previously enjoying Motherbaugh’s creation was duly put on notice.

Finally, two days ago, I got the call. And do you know, we raced to the library? We did. The younger Deconstructor accompanied me, so most traffic laws were obeyed. But still, we raced.

Even the faux-crating was exciting. Unboxing it was exciting.

It was packed with care, complete with instructions for curation and display, for care and preservation, along with a laminated catalog card introducing the unwary to the Mind of Mothersbaugh.

In an eyeblink, in no time at all, it was on my wall. And then time stopped (the way it must when good art is in the room) because all I could do was stand and stare.

So that’s where it’ll stay, for a short while, at least. Four weeks, in all likelihood.

But that’s okay. Because when my time is up I’ll just go borrow another.

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Down this rabbit hole you must go…

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Sasha Matthews for the copyright win

In theory, American copyright laws are among the most creator-friendly in the world: in a nutshell, if you conceive it, and if you preserve it in a durable format, it belongs to you, under aegis of  U.S. jurisprudence, for as long as you’re alive (what happens after that is a bit murkier).

That doesn’t stop certain scalliwags from pulling every string they can to separate artists from their rightful intellectual property—the more vulnerable the artist, the more at risk they are to manipulation. And, some scalliwags might suppose, the most vulnerable, easy-to-manipulate artists are probably the youngest ones, right?

Not on Sasha Matthews‘s watch.

Sasha is a 13-year-old New York cartoonist, already well established and on her way to super-stardom. She was working on a submission late last year for the Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards—had spent considerable time on her submission package, in fact—when she noticed some troubling verbiage in the contest’s rules:

The student irrevocably grants an assignment transferring…all rights, title, and interest (including all copyrights) in and to the submitted work (‘Work’), such that the Work, and all rights relating to the Work, shall be the exclusive property of the Alliance.

Oh hell no.

Sasha Matthews took a stand. She not only cancelled her submission, she also called out the piratical policy through her medium of choice (as we’re railing about copyrights, it’s bad enough I lifted her photo without due process; I won’t do the same with her cartoon. Click here to see it in all its glory).

At last report, Scholastic Awards says they are considering revising their copyright policy.

Regardless of that outcome, artists, writers, and creators of every stripe owe this cartoonist a debt of gratitude. Thanks for having our back, Sasha.

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RIP Stephen Hawking (Jan. 8 1942 – March 14 2018)

I imagine they felt a little like this in March, 1727. Issac Newton had died, and the world was left to wonder: Who will explain the universe to us now?

Stephen Hawking has left us at the age of 76—roughly a half-century after they said he should have died, having been diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease) while still a young and impossibly brilliant scholar and thinker.

The progression of his ailment, and the ways he coped with it, is an inextricable part of his story. The ‘robot voice’ that most of the world knew him by—cutting edge technology when it was created, viewed as a necessity because here was a man who needed to communicate with us—became his voice; the novelty of it passed and we stopped noticing it, really. Because the things he said (and wrote) were far more fascinating, and immediate, and vital.

His most pioneering work was in the area of black holes—odd, incomprehensible entities that were entirely hypothetical in the Einstein era. Thanks to Stephen Hawking we “see” them (after a fashion), we measure them, and we know they lie at the heart of almost every galaxy, including our own. There’s an old story, possibly apocryphal but somehow I don’t think so, of some unnamed physicist, upon learning of Hawking’s posited method for detecting black holes, tearing through his department and shouting to his colleagues, “Did you hear? Stephen has changed everything!”

And so he did. He found a universe of equations and mystery and occultation, he grasped it, and somehow managed to delineate it to us all. He was perhaps the greatest explorer of our age: sitting quite still, he voyaged to dimensions no one else could have imagined, he mapped them, and brought back for us their proofs and artifacts.

If ever a hero has earned his rest, it’s this one. But still, not without a great deal of unabashed selfishness, I can’t help thinking: Who will explain the universe to us now?

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Creatively satisfying

Springtime salute to the kind of eye candy that’s satisfying not just in its final form, but also throughout the act of its creation.

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No overarching meaning here; no metaphors nor messages. Just some fun some stuff to look at while the world spins on….

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Art$ and economy

We’re not supposed to try to valuate the intangibles of culture. Except, you know, we’re a people who valuate everything.

So let’s do this. According to new research just released by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Bureau of Economic Analysis (nonpartisan and apolitical entities both), the arts and culture segment contributes nearly three quarters of a trillion dollars—$763.6 billion, to be exact—to the U.S. GDP. Every damn year.

That’s almost 5% of our economy. It’s just short of the impact from the food and agriculture industries. It’s more than the entire GDP of Switzerland.

So there’s your proof. Your patronage of the arts, in whatever form and measure that suits you best, is a valuable economic engine for the common good. Buy art!

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Tattoo therapy

My euphemisms vary: sometimes I say I prefer having my art collection with me at all times. Sometimes (when I’m feeling a little more honest) I allow as how I’m wearing my mid-life crisis on my skin.

Either way, once or twice a year I feel inclined to sit still for a couple hours and receive the inky needles…as similarly inclined folk have been doing for ten or twenty thousand years.

Motivations for doing so also vary, well nigh to the gamut stratum. Anthropologists might tell you that traditional tattooing is a rite of passage, and a mark of tribal inclusion. I’m sure they’re right on some level, but human impulse mirrors the human dermis: multi-layered, and more opaque the deeper you go.

So those traditional tattooees surely had a multitude of reasons, like me, for their voluntary body modification. I consider myself well past the sell-by date for rites of passage; and as for my tribe, good people that they are, they’re plenty inclusive without heed of outward appearances.

I’d struggle, then, to tell you exactly why I choose to be tattooed. I’ve on occasion done it to mark some special milestone, but then again I’ve gone through plenty of milestones without ink…and I’ve been inked plenty of times with no milestones associated at all.

Yesterday I met up with the merry artisans at Arkham Tattoo, and was pleased and honored to receive the ministrations of the proprietor, Eric Starr. Eric’s artistic chops are legendary (don’t take my word for it, go see for yourself), but perhaps more importantly from where I was sitting (speaking quite literally here), Eric’s an epic conversationalist.

So over the hour or so it took to implant this most recent masterpiece, Eric and I had a wide-ranging
discussion—much of it tattoo-centric, since as I duly warned him, I was of a mind to write about it. Eric kindly schooled me on the history of tattooing technology (turns out the first patented electric tattoo machine was more or less stolen from Thomas Edison—which if you know your Edison history is some sweet karmic justice).

We talked about the pain of the process. I was surprised to learn it’s rarely an issue, even with first timers. “People know what to expect,” Eric told me. In fact, he said, it usually goes in the other direction: it hurts less than people anticipate. “If it was that heinous we wouldn’t have kept it up for the last five thousand years.”

I asked him what he’d like first timers to know before they come in the shop, and his answer was downright fascinating. “They should know what they want,” he said. I thought I understood what he meant, but it soon became clear that this, too, was deep and stratified.

He explained that a lot of the difficulty has started with the 21st-century effusion of tattoo-shop reality shows. “A true reality show about a tattoo shop would be the most boring thing on TV,” he declared. The broadcast versions are spiced up, it seems, by pairing a story with every tattoo. And it’s all well and good that an ink piece should have personal meaning—that’s ideal, in fact. But it’s incumbent upon the customer, not the artist, to choose what sort of image best marks the fifth anniversary of Papaw’s passing, or whatever.

The upshot has been a cohort of seekers weaned on these shows, with their expectations crafted accordingly. If one of them is a cancer survivor, bless ‘em, they come into the shop expecting to be shown a selection of ‘cancer-survivor tattoos.’

That just ain’t how it works, people.

Whatever your motivation, whatever brought you to that chair, you’re the one who’ll be wearing the art for life. Come with an image in mind, bring a sample or a vivid description, or go ahead and choose a bit of flash off the wall. But in any case, understand that you’ll be owning it, solely and ever and always. The choice is entirely yours. As Eric writes in an insightful essay on this very subject, “I am not a Priest, Reverend, Deacon, Monk, Shaman, Healer, Counselor, Psychiatrist, Psychologist…or a Hairdresser or Bartender.” Pros like Eric want to work with you collaboratively to create something you’ll be overjoyed with, but they can’t carry the load alone.

Just as importantly, though, remember that it is a collaboration. Your tattooer is graced with not just talent, but also experience. They understand how your flat printed image will translate onto the contours of your body, and they know how it’s likely to change over the long years ahead of you. Avail yourself of that experience, and if your artist tells you that what you have in mind is inadvisable, by all means listen. Every tattoo I get starts with pretty much precisely these words: “Here’s what I’m thinking, tell me if this’ll work…”.

Having thought it over, I still can’t tell you exactly what brought me to Eric’s chair yesterday. Maybe I was just ready for another one, but that doesn’t at all diminish the depth of meaning to it. He and I created something, it’s here on me right now, and here it’ll remain even after the last light that is me blinks out. If that’s not meaning, I don’t know what is. The only other thing I’m sure of is that some day, possibly one relatively soon, I’ll get that undefinable itch yet again. And Eric will hear me say, “Tell me if this’ll work…”.

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Neanderthal art!

Fast on the heels of our discussion late last month with esteemed cave-art expert and paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger, we check back in on this fascinating subject, based on ground-breaking revelations. Just published yesterday, new research on cave art in Spain identifies what is now understood to be the world’s oldest cave painting, pictured here. Previous record-holding specimens were thought to date from about 40,000 years before present. A relatively new process (uranium-thorium dating) suggests this red-pigmented design was created at least 65,000 years ago.

What’s particularly notable about that timeline is that modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) are believed to have arrived in Europe only 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. So if the dating is correct, then the earliest cave art was created by some species other than humans.

The primary candidate is H. neanderthalensis, or the Neanderthal, which was dominant in Europe prior to human arrival, and whose use of art and abstract expression in other contexts has been well documented. It’s important to note, though, that researchers are at present relying mainly on U-Th dating to connect these sites with Neanderthals. More study, and recovery of more in situ artifacts are needed for confirmation.

Not at all surprisingly, Genevieve relays all of this much better than I ever could, on her brand-spanking-new Vlog—so go check it out.

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Portraits of Obamas are game changers

Hats off to artists Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley for their ground-breaking portraits of, respectively, Michelle and Barack Obama, unveiled this week and added to the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery. These inspiring works will forever change how we see and remember iconic national figures.

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