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The oldest known epic is The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was composed during the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100 BC). It is regarded as the first great work of literature–a masterpiece which examines humankind’s quest for transcendent meaning in the face of our mortality.

It is a beautiful work about friendship, sorrow, and heroism. I have always meant to write about it here–for the epic’s two greatest scenes take place in a forest and in outer space. The crushing moral denouement is delivered by a water snake. However I have always hesitated because, although it seems outwardly straightforward, The Epic of Gilgamesh defies easy categorization. Suffice to say, humankind reaches out for godhood, yet, though our fingers tantalizingly brush the numinous, apotheosis slips ineluctably away. We are only what we are. Even the greatest human heroes–kings who found dynasties and pursue mysteries to the ends of the solar system–are still sad and lonely. And everyone must die.

And so it has been for 4 millennia. One does not expect updates to literature written before chickens were domesticated or iron was forged. However this week featured an unexpected gift from the ancient past. Twenty new lines of The Epic of Gilgamesh were discovered!

The story of how scholars in Iraq found the new text is amazing in its own right: the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan region of Iraq has been offering cash compensation for cultural treasures with no strings attached. Since so many antiquities have been displaced by the war and have gone wandering, this Indiana Jones-like scheme is regarded as the best way to protect the ancient heritage of the region. Unknown looters showed up with an cuneiform fragment. The museum director paid them $800.00 for the piece (which would only be chicken scratches to anyone other than a great scholar of Akkadian). As it turns out, the extant version of Gilgamesh comes from an incomplete collection of tablets unearthed at different times and in different places. This clay tabley features 20 entirely new lines from tablet V of the epic.

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The best part of this story is that the new fragment is really good! It is an important and meaningful addition to the story. In tablet V he heroes of the epic Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight and kill Humbaba, the monstrous guardian of the great cedar forest. In the twenty new lines they reflect on the fact that Humbaba was a king, trying to protect his realm. They rue the destruction of the cedar forest (where they encountered monkeys and other exotic creatures) and they realize that they have disturbed the divine order of things and incurred the wrath of Ishtar.

The fragment thus gives the characters a more refined conscience and introduces an environmentalist theme. The idea that humans can injure the planet and permanently destroy irreplaceable life forms is new and alien to many contemporary people. It strikes a powerful chord appearing in the first work of literature. Yet it seems to me that themes of environmental devastation (and consciousness concerning our own destructive nature) are hardly out of place in a story which deals with the creation of civilization and the liminal edges of humanity.

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Torus-shaped building by Italian architect Joseph di Pasquale in Guangzhou

There is disappointing aesthetic news from the internet today: The People’s Republic of China is trying to reign in weird architecture.  A CNN article provides the basic facts, “A statement from China’s State Council Sunday, says new guidelines on urban planning will forbid the construction of ‘bizarre’ and ‘odd-shaped’ buildings that are devoid of character or cultural heritage. Instead, the directive calls for buildings that are ‘economic, green and beautiful’.”

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The great teapot of Wuxi. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Based on this language, one might hope for a future of soaring super pagodas covered with solar cells and hydroponic forests, however I think it is much more likely that we will see lots of boring giant rectangles designed by committees (like the new World Trade Center…or Freedom Tower…or whatever it ended up being called). Communist China had its own history of creating dull monoliths.  This was interrupted by a spate of crazy fun building projects, but it seems like the party is cracking down on the architectural effervescence (probably as a symptom of the vast market correction now under way).

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The China Central Television building in Beijing, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren.

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Sheraton in Huzhou

During the last quarter century China has seen outrageous economic growth.  Along with this boom, strange giant edifices popped up all along the Chinese coast like weird mushrooms from outer space.  I have put pictures of some of my favorites in this article.  I particularly like the Shanghai World Financial Center (which has always reminded me of a broken off piece of some cool mystery awl) and of course the many torus buildings.  However the Olympic “Bird’s Nest” Stadium and the Shanghai Tower and the “Giant Pants” and the huge teakettle were all good too.  There were some less famous but more charming sculpture buildings at a local level which I have also included here.

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Rendering of the Shanghai World Financial Center with the Jin Mao Building at right

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I did not realize how much I liked these buildings until I read the news today and found out they now belong to the past.  These buildings went hand in hand with eye-popping double digit growth percentages for the Chinese GDP.  I wonder if, now that the buildings are going to stop going up, the stupendous growth will cease too.  Mandarins from all cultures have a way of forgetting that just as art reflects society, society reflects art too.

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The Emperor Hotel in Yanjiao may legitimately be counter-revolutionary

 

It is February, my least favorite month.  Now is when I most keenly envy you lucky readers who dwell in the Southern hemisphere (where February means something like August)–for here, in the temperate parts of the northern hemisphere, it is the coldest and worst part of the year.  The gray frozen waste of February also reminds me acutely of age swiftly sneaking up on me–and of all the terrible decisions I have made which have resulted in me being a worthless broke clerk. Yet February has one virtue–it is short.  So, before it is over (happy day!) we had better get to the Shepheardes Calender, the great 12 part seasonal poem by Edmund Spenser.  In this second section we find the young shepherd Cuddy complaining (like me) about February. He is rebuked by the ancient shepherd Thenot and they get into an argument about the changing seasons and about age versus youth.  Cuddy defends youth by boasting of his own amorous conquests.  Thenot rebukes Cuddy for being callow with an allegorical tale about the oak and the briar. Cuddy finds the (admittedly troubling) story long-winded and empty of meaning and the two fall out.  Ah…February!

Anyway, you came here to read Spenser, not to hear long-winded tirades against the (manifold) miseries of this wintry month.  So, without any more preamble, here are Spenser’s words:

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Shepheardes Calender II: Februarie

CUDDY. THENOT.
Ah for pity, will rank Winter’s Rage
These bitter Blasts never ‘gin t’ asswage?
The keen Cold blows through my beaten Hide,
All as I were through the Body gride.
My ragged Ronts all shiver and shake,
As done high Towers in an Earthquake:
They wont in the Wind wag their wriggle Tails,
Peark as a Peacock; but now it avails.

THENOT.
Leudly complainest, thou lazy Lad,
Of Winter’s wrack for making thee sad?
Must not the World wend in his common Course,
From Good to Bad, and from Bad to Worse,
From Worse, unto that is Worst of all,
And then return to his former Fall?
Who will not suffer the stormy Time,
Where will he live till the lusty Prime?
Self have I worn out thrice thirty Years,
Some in much Joy, many in many Tears:
Yet never complained of Cold nor Heat,
Of Summer’s Flame, nor of Winter’s Threat
Ne never was to Fortune Foe-man,
But gently took, that ungently came.
And ever my Flock was my chief Care,
Winter or Summer they mought well fare.

CUDDY.
No marvel, Thenot, if thou can bear
Chearfully the Winter’s wrathful Chear;
For Age and Winter accord full nigh,
This chill, that cold, this crooked, that wry:
And as the lowring Weather looks down,
So seemest thou like Good-Friday to frown.
But my flowring Youth is Foe to Frost,
My Ship unwont in Storms to be tost.

THENOT.
The Sovereign of Seas he blames in vain,
That once Sea-beat, will to Sea again.
So loytring live you little Heard-Groom,
Keeping your Beasts in the budded Brooms.
And when the shining Sun laugheth once,
You deemen, the Spring is come at once.
Tho gin you, fond Flies, the Cold to scorn,
And crowing in Pipes made of green Corn,
You thinken to be Lords of the Year:
But eft, when ye count you freed from Fear,
Comes the breme Winter with chamfred Brows,
Full of Wrinkles and frosty Furrows,
Drerily shooting his stormy Dart,
Which cruddles the Blood, and pricks the Heart.
Then is your careless Courage accoyed,
Your careful Herds with cold be annoyed.
Then pay you the price of your Surquedry,
With weeping, and wailing, and misery.

CUDDY.
Ah foolish old Man, I scorn thy Skill,
That wouldst me, my springing Youth to spill.
I deem thy Brain emperished be,
Through rusty Eld, that hath rotted thee:
Or siker thy Head very totty is,
So on thy corb Shoulder it leans amiss.
Now thy self hath lost both lop and top,
Als my budding Branch thou wouldest crop:
But were thy Years green, as now been mine
To other Delights they would encline.
Tho wouldest thou learn to carol of Love,
And hery with Hymns thy Lasses Glove:
Tho wouldest thou pipe of Phillis’ Praise;
But Phillis is mine for many Days.
I wone her with a Girdle of Gelt,
Embost with Bugle about the Belt.
Such an one Shepherds would make full fain:
Such an one would make thee young again.

THENOT.
Thou art a Fon, of thy Love to boast:
All that is lent to Love will be lost.

CUDDY.
Seest how brag yond Bullock bears,
So smirk, so smooth, his pricked Ears?
His Horns been as brade, as Rainbow bent,
His Dewlap as lythe, as Lass of Kent.
See how he venteth into the Wind,
Weenest of Love is not his Mind?
Seemeth thy Flock thy Counsel can,
So rustless been they, so weak, so wan.
Cloathed with Cold, and hoary with Frost,
Thy Flock’s Father his Courage hath lost.
Thy Ewes that wont to have blown Blags,
Like wailful Widdows hangen their Crags.
The rather Lambs been starved with cold,
All for their Master is lustless and old.

THENOT.
Cuddy, I wot thou kenst little good,
So vainly to advance thy headless Hood.
For Youth is a Bubble blown up with Breath,
Whose Wit is Weakness, whose Wage is Death,
Whose Way is Wilderness, whose Inn Penaunce,
And stoop gallant Age, the host of Grievaunce.
But shall I tell thee a Tale of Truth,
Which I cond of Tityrus in my Youth,
Keeping his Sheep on the Hills of Kent?

CUDDY.
To nought more, Thenot, my Mind is bent,
Than to hear Novels of his devise;
They been so well thewed, and so wise,
What ever that good old Man bespake.

THENOT.
Many meet Tales of Youth did he make,
And some of Love, and some of Chivalry:
But none fitter than this to apply.
Now listen a while and hearken the end.

There grew an aged Tree on the Green,
A goodly Oak sometime had it been,
With Arms full strong and largely display’d,
But of their Leaves they were disaray’d:
The Body big and mightily pight,
Throughly rooted, and of wondrous height:
Whylom had been the King of the Field,
And mochel Mast to the Husband did yield,
And with his Nuts larded many Swine.
But now the gray Moss marred his Rine,
His bared Boughs were beaten with Storms,
His Top was bald, and wasted with Worms,
His Honour decay’d, his Braunches sere.

Hard by his side grew a bragging Breere,
Which proudly thrust into th’ Element,
And seemed to threat the Firmament.
It was embellisht with Blossoms fair:
And thereto aye wonted to repair
The Shepherd’s Daughters to gather Flowres,
To paint their Garlands with his Colowres;
And in his small Bushes used to shroud
The sweet Nightingale singing so loud;
Which made this foolish Breere wex so bold,
That on a time he cast him to scold,
And sneb the good Oak, for he was old.

Why standst there (quoth he) thou brutish Block?
Nor for Fruit, nor for Shadow serves thy Stock;
Seest how fresh my Flowers been spread,
Died in Lilly white, and Crimson red,
With Leaves engrained in lusty Green,
Colours meet to cloath a maiden Queen?
Thy waste Bigness but cumbers the Ground,
And dirks the beauty of my Blossoms round.
The mouldy Moss, which thee accloyeth,
My Cinamon Smell too much annoyeth.
Wherefore soon I rede thee hence remove,
Lest thou the price of my displeasure prove.
So spake this bald Breere with great disdain:
Little him answer’d the Oak again,
But yielded with Shame and Grief adaw’d,
That of a Weed he was o’er-craw’d.

It chaunced after upon a day,
The Husband-man’s self to come that way,
Of custom to surview his Ground,
And his Trees of State in compass round.
Him when the spightful Breere had espyed,
Causeless complained, and loudly cryed
Unto his Lord, stirring up stern Strife:

O my liege Lord, the God of my Life,
Pleaseth you pond your Suppliant’s Plaint,
Caused of Wrong, and cruel Constraint,
Which I your poor Vassal daily endure;
And but your Goodness the same recure,
Am like for desperate Dole to die,
Through felonous Force of mine Enemy.

Greatly aghast with this piteous Plea,
Him rested the good Man on the Lea,
And bad the Breere in his Plaint proceed.
With painted Words tho ‘gan this proud Weed,
(As most usen ambitious Folk)
His colour’d Crime with Craft to cloke.

Ah my Sovereign, Lord of Creatures all,
Thou Placer of Plants both humble and tall,
Was not I planted of shine own Hand,
To be the Primrose of all thy Land;
With flowring Blossoms, to furnish the Prime,
And scarlet Berries in Sommer-time?
How falls it then that this faded Oak,
Whose Body is sere, whose Branches broke,
Whose naked Arms stretch unto the Fire,
Unto such Tyranny doth aspire?
Hindring with his Shade my lovely Light,
And robbing me of the sweet Sun’s sight?
So beat his old Boughs my tender Side,
That oft the Blood springeth from Woundes wide:
Untimely my Flowers forced to fall,
That been the Honour of your Coronal:
And oft he lets his Canker-worms light
Upon my Branches, to work me more spight;
And oft his hoary Locks down doth cast,
Wherewith my fresh Flowrets been defast.
For this, and many more such Outrage,
Craving your Goodlyhead to assuage
The rancorous Rigour of his Might:
Nought ask I, but only to hold my Right;
Submitting me to your good Sufferaunce,
And praying to be garded from Grievaunce.

To this, this Oak cast him to reply
Well as he couth: But his Enemy
Had kindled such Coles of Displeasure,
That the good Man nould stay his Leasure,
But home him hasted with furious Heat:
Encreasing his wrath with many a threat,
His harmful Hatchet he hent in Hand,
(Alas, that it so ready mould stand!)
And to the Field alone he speedeth,
(Aye little help to harm there needeth)
Anger nould let him speak to the Tree,
Enaunter his Rage mought cooled be:
But to the Root bent his sturdy Stroak,
And made many wounds in the waste Oak.
The Axe’s edg did oft turn again,
As half unwilling to cut the Grain,
Seemed, the senseless Iron did fear,
Or to wrong holy Eld did forbear.
For it had been an antient Tree,
Sacred with many a Mystery,
And often crost with the Priest’s Crew,
And often hallowed with Holy water dew:
But sike Fancies weren Foolery,
And broughten this Oak to this Misery;
For nought mought they quitten him from
Decay, for fiercely the good Man at him did lay.
The Block oft groaned under his Blow,
And sighed to see his near Overthrow.
In fine, the Steel had pierced his Pith,
Tho down to the ground he fell forthwith.
His wondrous Weight made the ground to quake,
Th’ Earth shrunk under him, and seem’d to shake:
There lieth the Oak pitied of none.

Now stands the Breere like a Lord alone,
Puff’d up with Pride and vain Pleasance;
But all this Glee had no continuance;
For eftsoons Winter ‘gan to approach,
The blustering Boreas did encroach,
And beat upon the solitary Breere;
For now no succour was seen him neere.
Now ‘gan he repent his Pride too late,
For naked left and disconsolate,
The biting Frost nipt his Stalk dead,
The watry wet weighed down his Head,
And heaped Snow burdned him so sore,
That now upright he can stand no more;
And being down, is trode in the durt
Of Cattel, and brouzed, and sorely hurt.
Such was th’ End of this ambitious Breere,
For scorning Eld—

CUDDY.
Now I pray thee Shepherd, tell it not forth:
Here is a long Tale, and little worth.
So long have I listened to thy Speech,
That graffed to the Ground is my Breech:
My Heart-blood is well nigh frorn I feel,
And my Galage grown fast to my Heel:
But little ease of thy leud Tale I tasted,
Hie thee home Shepherd, the day is nigh wasted.

THENOT’S EMBLEM.
Iddio, perche e vecchio,
Fa suoi al suo essempio.

CUDDY’S EMBLEM.
Niuno vecchio,
Spaventa Iddio.

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Robin Dunbar is an anthropologist/primatologist who discovered a correlation between the size of a primate’s brain (or really its neocortex) and the size of that animal’s social network. For example, clever chimpanzees tend to live in groups of 60 or so individuals, who maintain complex intimate social relations (yet chimpanzees don’t really care about outsiders without elaborate introductions). Howler monkeys tend to live in groups of 6 or 7. Dunbar studied primate brains until he believed he found the correlation index… then he applied it to human beings based on our own neocortices (is that the right word?). The number he arrived at was around 150. He posited that this is the average number of stable meaningful social relationships we can have at once. Here is a humorous (yet oddly serious) article which explains the concept elegantly (albeit with some fairly salty language and preachy talk).

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When one starts looking for the number 150, it crops up all over the place. Hunter gatherer tribes were (and still are) limited to about that number. Military companies of all sorts of different armies throughout history have been that size. Business consultants say that this is an ideal size for companies (come to think of it there are 150 people at the company where I work) or for departments of companies.

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But of course the 150 people I work with are not the entirety of my social interactions. I have 500 or so Facebook friends and not a one of them is from work….and the people I am closest to are not always on Facebook. And there are people I know about but have never (and will never) meet (like Susanna Hoffs, the emir of Qatar, and…Robin Dunbar). High functioning individuals like Presidents, CEOs, and world famous artists probably know many thousands of people—or at least know the one or two key pieces of information which makes each contact useful.

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So there are lots of troubles and quibbles with Dunbar’s number…yet if you really write out everyone you have a true worthwhile meaningful relationship with you will probably come up with about 150 (if you are a gregarious adult with a full life in a big city—you can have many fewer close relations and there is nothing wrong with that…it doesn’t mean you are a capuchin monkey or something).

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(Not that there is anything wrong with that either)

There is a line we draw around our tribe. Within this line are people we care about and need, outside it are… others—people we may care about in the abstract, or because they share a language, or a characteristic, or a nationality with us…but who are not dear to our heart in the same way as our intimate associates. The writer I linked to in the first paragraph up there asks us to imagine having a beloved pet…or two beloved pets…or six, or 23. How long would it be before our love and our attention were so diluted that we only cared about them in the most general abstract terms (or just outright despised them as a furry horde)? Whether you accept the premise of Dunbar’s number or not, it is a worthwhile question. If our brains are built by evolution in such a way as to make an “us” and a “them” what does it mean for all of us?

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There are four great masterpieces of classical Chinese literature (or possibly five, if you count erotic fiction…but that is a story for another day). The most fantastical and supernatural of these four masterpieces is The Journey to the West…and the indelible hero of The Journey to the West is a monkey, Sun Wukong AKA the Great Sage equal to Heaven AKA Pilgrim Sun AKA the Monkey King (classical Chinese literature has a lot of sobriquets).

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At the beginning of the story a vast round stone boulder sits atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (a paradisiacal mountain island off the coast of China). Warmed by the sun and caressed by the wind since the beginning of time, the granite egg cracks open and Sun Wukong emerges, a fierce clever monkey made of obdurate stone. Immediately after emerging from this egg, golden beams shoot from his eyes which are visible throughout the firmament (a harbinger of the monkey’s future).

Sun devotes himself to mastering Taoist magic (eating sacred fruits, drinking elixers, collecting magical items and learning spells). He becomes king of the monkeys and starts to participate in the wider affairs of the world…but as a demonic monster who eats people and kills for fun. When he learns of the splendors of heaven and the power of the Jade Emperor (the Celestial monarch at the center of a vast spiritual bureaucracy) he decides to make himself into a deity and hilarious, horrifying chaos ensues.

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But all of that is backstory. In the story proper, Sun has grown up. His attempt to overthrow the cosmic order is behind him…mostly…and he has devoted himself to self-mastery. With a bit of (coercive) help from Kuan Yin he has transformed his personality. The chaotic animal demon who killed innumerable people with dark magic has become an ascetic Buddhist monk and he has a difficult assignment: take care of a pathetic weakling (human) monk in a seemingly endless journey across monster-haunted wilds of mythical Asia. Along the way the monk (the spirit) and the monkey (the mind) are joined by a pig god (the appetites) and Sandy, a river monster (???). It’s like a twisted cross between Kung Fu, Pixa, and Homer.

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That is a sort of book-report blurb about an epic which is really an allegory of Buddhist virtues. The monkey king’s Taoist powers mirror the intellect: he has godlike powers of transformation, apprehension, and trickery, but these are of no use without more subtle virtues. The search for these elusive strengths is the real Journey to the West. The story has shaped Chinese cosmology and mythology ever since the book came out in the Ming Dynasty. Since then Monkey has been kind of an actual religious figure…but one who has moments where he is more like Bugs Bunny or Charlie Chaplin than like Jesus or Kuan Yin.

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This all sounds ridiculous—and it is. The juxtaposition of high-minded religious philosophy and low comic hijinks has made the Monkey King universally known in China. There is a deeper reason for this popularity: reality itself is a ridiculous mix of cerebral, noble, and profane elements. The monkey king is a fine mirror for our own madcap primate attempts to reconcile these incompatible impulses.

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Happy Chinese New Year! It is year 4713! The Year of the Fire Monkey. Monkeys are intelligent and clever but mercurial and swift. Our in-house oracle thus prognosticates that this year will be intense and intellectual…yet scattered and jumpy (and, it goes without saying, that it will rush by swiftly). 2016…er….4713 is therefore a good year for fresh starts and running leaps. However scrying is not really this blog’s metier: let’s talk about monkeys!

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One of Ferrebeekeeper’s favorite and best topics is mammals, however I have (largely) avoided writing about primates. This is not because I dislike primates (although some species of monkeys and apes dwell in the uncanny valley where they are simultaneously so human and yet inhuman that the effect is deeply disconcerting), but because primates are very difficult to write about. Not only are they generalists who make their living through a wide range of complex behaviors, they also have elaborate social lives which require attention, sympathy and discernment to understand and present. Even primate taxonomy is complicated. There is a great divide between prosimians and anthropoids (which is now being reconceived as a divide between wet-nosed primates (non-tarsier prosimians) and the dry-nosed primates). There is a great geographic divide between New World and Old World Primates. There are 72 genera and hundreds of species–and that is only the ones that are extant—I am leaving out the extinct fossils.

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Primates have a similarly complex place in society, art, and mythology. Just look at Sun Wukong AKA Monkey King, the trickster god of classical Chinese mythology who is simultaneously Buddhist and animist, wicked and saintly, immense and infinitesimally miniscule. The Indian monkey god Hanuman is similarly protean and complex. And these are only the two monkey gods…the nimble arboreal creatures are found everywhere in religion, literature, and art.

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Finally, and above all, we..the readers and the writer…are primates. When the silverback from marketing comes by and harasses the trapped office women before displaying his dominance by making me move his stupid credenza around, I tell myself it is just the world economy. That may be true, but it is really all stupid monkeyshines. History is an intricate tapestry of primates desperately contending for privileged status. Here in America we are seeing lots of primate behavior—after all, it is an election year, and primates are ferociously hierarchical and tribal. Primates are also stupendously aggressive. Sometimes this trait combines with that big brain to make for horrendous violence. We are going to start unpacking some of this throughout the remainder of this week, which I dub “Primate Week” in honor of the fire monkey.

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Today (February 5th) is “National Wear Red Day” yet another phlegmatic pseudo-holiday in the short-yet-ever-so-long month of February. However there is a great fundamental truth buried in National Wear Red Day. Aside from working out day and night or becoming a multi-millionaire celebrity, wearing red is one of the few things you can do to make yourself more attractive to potential mates (I am just assuming that you are a classical human being–if you are a futuristic cyborg, or an alien lifeform, or a super-intelligent animal of some other sort, please, please, please leave a comment, even if its a thousand years from when I write this).

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I am somewhat foreshadowing next week’s theme, but primates are the most colorful mammals. For monkeys and apes and hominids, colors carry all sorts of highly-charged hierarchical, social, and physiological messages. At a conscious level, we may be only dimly aware of these signifiers, but they apparently come through loud and clear to our endocrine systems. Administrators at dating sites report a 6% boost of positive replies to people wearing red in their profile pictures. Scientists and psychologists have found similar results in experiments which query men and women about the attractiveness of photographs of people of the opposite gender.

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The power of wearing red extends beyond the bedroom to the business and sports realms. Teams that have red uniforms have been demonstrated to have greater likelihood of victory (although I shudder to imagine how statisticians figured that out). The power of the not-very-imaginatively-named “power tie” is well known (at least anecdotally). Even in battle, red seems to have once conferred an advantage. The troops of great empires have had a way of wearing red garb (although, admittedly, advances in gunnery and tactics seem to have greatly negated–or reversed this trend). The Roman legions wore red. The British redcoats uh, wore red. The Chinese super-lucky national color is red. Kelly Lebrock wore red. So ignore how stupid it sounds. Shrug off your inhibitions (and your national reticence to take orders from a day of the month) and wear red.

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Unless You are Steve Seagal

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Springtime On The Farm (Walt Curlee, 2010, oil on artboard]

It’s February 2nd—Groundhog Day—one of the many feeble pseudo-holidays with which the bleak & wintry month of February is filled. Ferrebeekeeper already wrote a comprehensive and somewhat touching post about the eponymous North American marmots which give this day its special name and character. So what do I write about now (other than that Bill Murray movie)? Today as I look around the internet, seeking a new nuance on the topic, I notice that there are a surprising number of articles lambasting groundhogs for being so frequently wrong about how much longer winter will last. This strikes me as abominably wrongheaded—since the Groundhog Day scrying tradition (such as it is) is really about humans looking for shadows rather than actual marmot insight into the wildly fluctuating early Anthropocene weather. Therefore I am posting this fine work of groundhog artwork by contemporary artist Walt Curlee. The pretty painting has many virtues, but chief among them is that it skips over February entirely. The groundhog, the farmer, and the barely visible dairy cows in the background are all enjoying a lovely clement spring day. There are winsome spring flowers and delicious-looking morel mushrooms (which the groundhog seems to have his eye on). The viewer can practically smell the actinomycetes of the freshly tilled earth. Best of all, the farm is located on beautiful rolling foothills which are sloping upwards towards the Appalachian Mountains. It reminds me of the family farm in southeast Ohio.

I spend a lot of time grumbling about the ugliness of contemporary art, but this charming folk painting is a reminder that there are plenty of fine artists out there working away at what they find beautiful irrespective of what the shallow fashions in Chelsea and Bushwick dictate. Thanks, Walt Curlee. I look forward to seeing more of your farm paintings. I suppose we should also thank the groundhogs for putting up with a day of grabby mayors and inane commentary. Most of all, we should keep our eye on the future. Whatever happens, winter will not last forever. [oh, and you can buy a print of Walt’s painting here, or just check out his other works, if you like].

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I write about crowns to highlight the multitudinous absurd stories of history. The bizarre tales of treachery and murder and greed through which these fancy hats change heads (and ultimately wind up melted down or gathering dust in museums) lay bare the machinations of power and reveal the intricate vicissitudes of fate which bind cultures and people together over the long centuries. I, uh, also write about crowns when it has been a long day at work, and I can’t think of anything to write about. Each one is like a little pre-made soap-opera tale from world history…or so it has been for many years. But I have been writing for a long time, and I am now getting down to some real scrub crowns, like today’s specimen: the Karađorđević crown, which was made for the coronation of King Peter of Serbia in 1904.

Serbia lies at the crossroads of the Eastern and Southern Europe (and of the Balkans, Central Europe, and Asia Minor). Many Serbian kingdom states and empires rose and fell. For centuries, Serbia was part of the Ottoman Empire. King Peter had been educated in Western Europe. He came to the throne as a liberal reformer who believed in a parliamentary monarchy. This combination of a ragged history and a humane king, meant that money was not lavished on the crown, which was made of bronze by a Parisian jeweler.

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The most remarkable aspects of the crown are the big melting two-headed eagles (white two-headed eagles have been the heraldic symbol of Serbia since the Byzantine dynasty) interspersed with aqua colored flowers (fleur-de-lis?).  Additionally, this is a crown with smaller crowns on it. Each of the two headed eagles is somehow wearing a single crown—which are jewel-like ornaments on the larger crown. All of this sounds like I am having a Biblical epiphany or a hallucinogenic stroke. Just look at the crown up there at the top.

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Sadly Serbia’s historical turmoil soon reasserted itself after the brief era of Peter. The First and Second World Wars occurred and Serbia wound up on the wrong side of the iron curtain. However, the Karađorđević crown somehow endured and today it is the only historical crown kept in the Serbian Republic (in a museum, gathering dust). It may not be as ancient or valuable as other crowns, but its cool appearance and heavy-metal eagles have ensured its continued low-grade success as an object of interest.

Ferrebeekeeper used to address American politics sometimes, but I got so disgusted by the deadlock and regulatory capture in the current iteration that I stopped. However it’s already 2016 and it’s going to be a looooooong year (it’s already been long, and we are not even out of January). I am going to have to go back to writing about politics, not because I have stopped being disgusted, but because I am now also afraid and angry.

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The big new topic of politics in this cycle, of course, is Trump. Although Donald Trump is a narcissistic plutocrat with fascist tendencies who wishes to steer America (and maybe humanity) towards disaster, he is a godsend for writers, because anything written about him garners views. In the 50s horror film “The Blob” everything that people do to fight the all-consuming blob from outer space just makes it stronger and bigger. So too is the media’s relationship with Trump. When people write polemics against him or describe his appalling views or ridiculous history it just makes him stronger. More people click on it, which means more people must keep writing about it…and so on. Plus, every writer or producer wants the hits associated with Trump articles, even if focusing on him gives him more of the attention he craves.
I have solved this moral quandary by not writing about Trump…so far. I care about views a lot, but, in the end, this site is not about making money or garnering fame. Yet, the Blob has started to cover the horizon for me too. I assumed that the Trump feedback bubble would break before the primaries started in earnest. That has not happened.
It is a real problem, Cruz, while fully as despicable as Trump, is unable to pivot to the middle the same way (Trump has no shame: if he wins the Republican primary, he will just start saying whatever he thinks the greatest number of all voters want to hear). I think it is time to stop thinking of the Donald as a joke and to treat him as the dark manipulative artist he is.

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Behind all of this is a bigger social problem: the idea that shock, bluster, and naked attention-seeking outweigh meaning, hard-work, and thoughtful analysis is not new. The art world fell prey to Trumps decades ago and has never escaped (although we call such men Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons). Once a culture enters a realm where shock and celebrity are the only currency, it becomes perilously difficult to return to meaningful themes. The feedback loop means that only a bigger shock or a more flagrant celebrity will be picked up by the media (they are already half-bankrupt and cannot afford to concentrate on anything else).

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The Celebrity Apprentice

Art and politics are not so very far apart. They are both about manipulating groups of people with symbols. The crowds of people who sniff at the empty ugly game which art has become need to wake up. Contemporary art is not irrelevant: it is still a dark mirror for what is happening in society as a whole…and if the art world is nothing but vast sums of money, and shock-value pieces with no beauty, it should be seen as a warning that the Trumps are coming everywhere else.

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Donald Trump – Pop Art Print (Andy Warhol’s Che Guevara Style) 60 x 50 x 1.8 cm Deep Box Canvas by Paintedicons

Of course, I don’t really think that Trump will actually win anything…not this time. But just being forced to contend with his style is going to usher in a new era unless we stop it. And the only way to prevent this is to ignore him. So don’t read this post—and don’t read any other essays about Trump or his ilk either (stop reading about stupid Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons for that matter). Viewers (and voters) can only win if we stop paying attention to these frauds. Beauty is still in the eye of the beholder, not the hand of the artist. Meaning comes from the crowd’s attention not the mouth of the demagogue. So let’s all just look elsewhere before things get spoiled….although if we fail at that maybe I’ll at least get a bunch of hits for finally writing about goddamned Trump…

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