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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!
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Unless You are Steve Seagal
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].
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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…
Today’s post introduces a completely new feature for Ferrebeekeeper. Every month we are going to spend a day traveling back in time to 16th century England. The method we are using to go back half a millennia to the birthplace of modern English is itself the content of these dozen posts: which is to say we are stealing a poem from Edmund Spenser (ca. 1552 –1599). In fact, arguably we are stealing a whole book of poetry! Yet Edmund Spenser, the great fantasy allegorist, is dead. In taking this poem we are not robbing him or his family. Instead we are giving him all he really cared about—an audience for his poetry (although Spenser scholars may argue that he also cared about money and oppressing Ireland).
Spenser’s first major work The Shepheardes Calender was published in 1579. It consisted of 12 allegorical pastoral poems about the year (and about art, politics, the natural world, and the human heart). Each poem is an eclogue—a pastoral soliloquy by the eponymous shepherd, Colin Cloute. Each month is written in a different form—to reflect the differing months and the changing subjects. The first poem, January, is a lament. The land is bare, wasted by winter. The sheep are mangy and dirty. The poet’s beloved does not return his affection. The poor shepherd breaks his pipe (his only remaining source of joy) and gives in to winter darkness.
As we go through the year with Spenser, we can say more about the larger meaning of The Shepheardes Calender (and more about Spenser, the first major literary figure of modern Enlish), but the despair of winter and of loveless life speak for themselves. So, without more preamble, here is…
The Shepheardes Calender: January
Januarie. Ægloga prima. ARGVMENT.
IN this fyrst Æglogue Colin clout a shepheardes boy complaineth him of his vnfortunate loue, being but newly (as semeth) enamoured of a countrie lasse called Rosalinde: with which strong affection being very sore traueled, he compareth his carefull case to the sadde season of the yeare, to the frostie ground, to the frosen trees, and to his owne winterbeaten flocke. And lastlye, fynding himselfe robbed of all former pleasaunce and delights, hee breaketh his Pipe in peeces, and casteth him selfe to the ground.
A Shepeheards boye (no better doe him call)when Winters wastful spight was almost spent,All in a sunneshine day, as did befall,Led forth his flock, that had been long ypent.So faynt they woxe, and feeble in the folde,That now vnnethes their feete could them vphold.
All as the Sheepe, such was the shepeheards looke,For pale and wanne he was, (alas the while,)May seeme he lovd, or els some care he tooke:Well couth he tune his pipe, and frame his stile.Tho to a hill his faynting flocke he ledde,And thus him playnd, the while his shepe there fedde.
Ye gods of loue, that pitie louers payne,(if any gods the paine of louers pitie:)Looke from aboue, where you in ioyes remaine,And bowe your eares vnto my doleful dittie.And Pan thou shepheards God, that once didst loue,Pitie the paines, that thou thy selfe didst proue.
Thou barrein ground, whome winters wrath hath wasted,Art made a myrrhour, to behold my plight:Whilome thy fresh spring flowrd, and after hastedThy sommer prowde with Daffadillies dight.And now is come thy wynters stormy state,Thy mantle mard, wherein thou mas-kedst late.
Such rage as winters, reigneth in my heart,My life bloud friesing wtih vnkindly cold:Such stormy stoures do breede my balefull smarte,As if my yeare were wast, and woxen old.And yet alas, but now my spring begonne,And yet alas, yt is already donne.
You naked trees, whose shady leaves are lost,Wherein the byrds were wont to build their bowre:And now are clothd with mosse and hoary frost,Instede of bloosmes, wherwith your buds did flowre:I see your teares, that from your boughes doe raine,Whose drops in drery ysicles remaine.
All so my lustfull leafe is drye and sere,My timely buds with wayling all are wasted:The blossome, which my braunch of youth did beare,With breathed sighes is blowne away, & blasted,And from mine eyes the drizling teares descend,As on your boughes the ysicles depend.
Thou feeble flocke, whose fleece is rough and rent,Whose knees are weak through fast and evill fare:Mayst witnesse well by thy ill gouernement,Thy maysters mind is ouercome with care.Thou weak, I wanne: thou leabe, I quite forlorne:With mourning pyne I, you with pyning mourne.
A thousand sithes I curse that carefull hower,Wherein I longd the neighbour towne to see:And eke tenne thousand sithes I blesse the stoure,Wherein I sawe so fayre a sight, as shee.Yet all for naught: snch [such] sight hath bred my bane.Ah God, that loue should breede both ioy and payne.
It is not Hobbinol, wherefore I plaine,Albee my loue he seeke with dayly suit:His clownish gifts and curtsies I disdaine,His kiddes, his cracknelles, and his early fruit.Ah foolish Hobbinol, thy gyfts bene vayne:Colin them gives to Rosalind againe.
I loue thilke lasse, (alas why doe I loue?)And am forlorne, (alas why am I lorne?)Shee deignes not my good will, but doth reproue,And of my rurall musick holdeth scorne.Shepheards deuise she hateth as the snake,And laughes the songes, that Colin Clout doth make.
Wherefore my pype, albee rude Pan thou please,Yet for thou pleasest not, where most I would:And thou vnlucky Muse, that wontst to easeMy musing mynd, yet canst not, when thou should:Both pype and Muse, shall sore the while abye.So broke his oaten pype, and downe dyd lye.
By that, the welked Phoebus gan availe,His weary waine, and nowe the frosty NightHer mantle black through heauen gan overhaile.Which seene, the pensife boy halfe in despightArose, and homeward drove his sonned sheepe,Whose hanging heads did seeme his carefull case to weepe.
The Last Judgement (Alex Gross, 2007, oil on canvas)
I failed to write a post for Martin Luther King Junior Day because I was out enjoying the holiday….just off gallivanting around the 19⁰ city (I guess that translates to -7 degrees in Celsius, in case my European readers mistakenly think I moved to Rangoon). To make up for the omission, here is a historically charged contemporary artwork by Alex Gross. Gross is a Los Angeles based artist who is part of the pop-surrealism movement which is based out there (aka “Low Brow” art). This painting is titled “The Last Judgement” and it portrays an anachronistic union between the races occurring in 1930s New York…among other things.
In the painting, Frederick Douglass, the great human rights leader and voice of abolition, weds a Chinese bride…or perhaps he is giving her away (the ceremonial import of his great sword and strawberry ice cream are unclear—although they suggest he has finally obtained power and leisure). The bride has left Chinese tradition behind enough to wear white, the bride’s color of purity in the west but the color of mourning in China. There is an anxious cast to her features which suggest that she may be with Douglass as a symbolic rebuke to the racist and xenophobic immigration acts which bedeviled the United States in the late nineteenth century (reactionary laws which do not show the American democracy or melting pot at its strongest).
Around the two figures ancient WASP ghosts rise from the ground, but they are joyously photographing the moment and releasing butterflies. A coral snake curls at the couple’s feet, for the way forward is always filled with perils. In the background a blimp crashes into the Chrysler building…for the conturbations of the greater world continue, irrespective of the state of relations among our citizenry. I have no idea what the goat means: is she an outcast figure of disunity? A happy pet? An ancient agricultural figure showing up along with the resurrected dead? Who knows?
I am a big fan of pop-surrealism (aka “Low Brow”) art, though I hate both of its names. I like the ambiguous symbolic literary meld of figures from history and natural history. Such paintings must be interpreted, and there is often plenty of room for ambiguity which gives the mind great scope to contemplate aesthetics and the direction of human affairs. Gross’ emphasis on style, technique, and beauty is telling. This is a painting by someone who can paint well. It has beauty and narrative although the absurd anachronism of its cast and its implicit polemic threaten to overwhelm its winsome charms. Contemporary critics, distrustful of beauty and meaning, accuse the style of being intellectually facile. To them the symbols become merely pictorial and lose their meaning. I feel like that may sometimes be true of Mark Ryden, who does indeed seem to have lost sight of what Lincoln and pre-pubescent girls mean. Yet that isn’t true here. This painting is not located in the great morass of “irony” (where today’s art establishment wanders, phony, lost, and alienated). Instead this hearkens back to Puritan symbolic painting—if that had not been lumbered with the problems of the past. It is a vision from the artist’s heart of a more perfect America.
2016 has only just started and already there is shocking news…at least for New Yorkers: Doctor Zizmor is retiring! While the information that a cosmetic dermatologist is finally hanging up his collagen and moving to his down-sized mansion in the suburbs to study Talmud is not necessarily interesting in and of itself, anyone who has lived in New York City in the last quarter century will be instantly galvanized. “Dr. Z” had an oversize reputation in the city because of his omnipresent subway ads. They were as quintessentially a part of New York as egg-creams, the Warriors, and Wall Street.
Although conceptually located in the late eighties (or early nineties), Zizmor ads had a sort of timeless snake-oil feeling to them. To be blunt, the advertising always seemed somewhat dodgy. It featured a “before” picture of an acne scarred woman in bad light and an “after” picture of the same woman looking mostly the same (but wearing makeup and smiling). Also there was a discount rainbow and some scary stuff about “chemical peels” and a suspiciously young picture of Doctor Z himself looking like a big serene glob of tallow that just dripped off a particularly lucrative candle. In our world of computer aesthetics and grim graphic formalism, the old-timey shysterism of the ads was rather refreshing.
I had a friend who always looked up at the ad and said “Hold still while Dr. Z gives you a chemical peel!” It always made me laugh, but, since I suffered from painful eczema, I always looked at the ads with a measure of longing too—an infidel staring at the shrine of Saint Anthony. Even now they engender a sort of bemusement: Should I tag this post as “Invaders” (since the ads certainly invade our collective space) or “Color” (they feature a scaled-down rainbow) or “science” (since apparently somebody gave Dr. Z a real M.D. despite all his grubby grabby talk about chemical peels and payment plans)? Or maybe Dr. Z belongs in “Deities of the Underworld” since he was a (lesser) deity of healing and avarice who drew his believers from the chthonic realm of the subway?
Cover of the New York Observer (Zina Saunders, 2012)
In New York City everything is in constant flux. Neighborhoods come and go overnight. Since I have moved here, the best pizza place has been replaced with a bank branch, the best bar has been replaced by a bank branch, and the best bookstore has been replaced with a bank branch. Yet I always assumed that Dr. Zizmor’s ads would last forever. I guess I assumed Dr. Zizmor had already died back during the Crimean war…or never even existed… and the ads were simply an incomprehensible but immutable part of the cultural landscape. Yet according to the internet, the ads only started in 1991. They marked my youth now lost forever into the hurly-burly of Gotham. Although I am sure another rapacious dermatologist will move into his niche, I can’t imagine he will display the same level of Kanye West style narcissism or Old West advertising flair.
Best wishes for a Merry Christmas! I am featuring my Christmas tree again, just in case anyone hasn’t seen it. Fortunately, I added a lot of new animals like an andrewsarchus, a basilosaurus, an arsinoitherium, and a priapulid worm. Of course my favorite animal, my little housecat Sepia is there too, at lower left, wondering why I am paying attention to a fake tree instead of playing with her. It seems like she might also be interested in a second dinner.
The year is wearing down fast and I am going to take a few days to paint and draw and relax, but there are a few more posts left for 2015 and then there will be a whole new thrilling year for blogging. Having you all as readers is the very best present possible. Let me know if you have any ideas or concerns. Happy holidays! I wish I could get everyone a miniature donkey, or a flying squid, or a walking catfish, but you will have to settle for more wacky eclectic content…and for my happiest and best wishes and warmest regards now and always.
Today Australian scientists announced the discovery of a very interesting exoplanet—a so-called “super-earth” which orbits around the red dwarf star Wolf 1061. The rocky planet (Wolf1061c) is actually only one of three worlds so far found in the solar system of Wolf 1061, but it is of particular note because it lies in an orbit which allows for liquid water to exist upon its surface.
Wolf 1061 is tidally locked to its star, so one side always faces the red ball in the heavens. It has a mass about 4.3 times that of Earth—so the surface gravity is nearly twice that of Earth. Its “years” are 18 Earth days long.
Perhaps most excitingly Wolf 1061c is “only” 14 light years away (about 84,000,000,000,000 miles). It is a neighbor! Perhaps we can use our best telescopes to assay the atmosphere and find out if anything resembling Earth life is there.
This place really exists! Spend a moment imaging what it is like on the surface. In my fantasy, one side of the world is a vast red desert while the other is a desolation of black glaciers…yet in a twilight ring between the sides there are sludgy water oceans filled with big green and violet pillows of fabulous squashed shapes—the analogs of stromatolites. Bubbles of gas pour up from these oddly shaped blobs of bacteria-like cells. Somewhere among the billions of little multiplying alien organisms, a few peptides have changed and the cells begin to exchange genetic material with one another. They are beginning to reproduce sexually instead of merely dividing. Life in the ring oceans of 1061c takes a leap forward. It is all imagination…and yet it may be so. The universe is vast. I wish we could find out more about this entire earthlike planet that we only just found.