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So, over the holidays I gave some coloring books to my friends’ daughter.  It was gratifying to see how the coloring books, by grace of being the last presents of Christmas Day, stole her attention from the electronic doodads and the flying fairy which could actually fly (although, as a toymaker, I am still thinking about that particular toy).  In gift-giving, as in gymnastics, going last is a position of strength!  The little girl, who is four, graciously let me color one of the illustrations–a sacred elephant which was composed of magical spirit beings from Thai mythology–which I colored in fantastical fluorescent hues (while she colored her way through a collection of amazing animals from around the world).  As we were coloring, the adults at the party made various observations about coloring—about who colored inside the lines and what it indicated about their personality and so forth.

From Dover's "Thai Decorative Designs" Coloring Book amazing

From Dover’s “Thai Decorative Designs” Coloring Book amazing

I think my elephant turned out pretty well (although since, I failed to take a picture, you’ll just have to believe me).  Also I think my friend’s daughter was inspired to try some new techniques—like darkening the edges of objects.  It also seemed like she tried to pay more attention to the lines.

The experience took me back to my own childhood when I loved to color coloring books, especially with grandma or mom (both of whom had a real aptitude for precise coloring).  However I was also reminded of being deeply frustrated by the books on several levels as a child.  First of all, I was exasperated by my traitorous hands which would not color with the beautiful precision and depth that the adults could master.  I always saved the best picture in coloring books for later when I was grown up and could color it as beautifully as I wanted it to be colored.  As far as I know, these pictures all remain uncolored—somewhere out there is that 1978 Star Trek coloring book picture with all the crazy aliens, just waiting for me to come back with my Prismacolor pencils and nimble adult fingers and finally make it look good…

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Most importantly, I was frustrated that the most amazing pictures—the ones that were exactly as I wanted them to be–were not in the coloring books at all.  You have to make up the ones you really want and draw them yourself.

Aesthetics have gone wrong—it has been taken over by charlatans who cannot think up good pictures.  Instead today’s marquis artists are obsessed only with provocatively going outside the lines.  Like the kid in first grade who always did what he thought would be shocking, this quickly becomes tiresome.   Additionally, I think we all discovered that the “shock value” kid was easily manipulated.  So too are today’s famous artists who all end up serving Louis Vuitton (I’m looking at you, Takashi Murakami) or other slimy corporate masters who simply want free marketing.  Art and aesthetics should be more than ugly clickbait!  Our conception of beauty shapes are moral conception of society and the world. Therefore my New Year’s resolution is to be a better painter… and to explain myself better.  Next year I promise to write more movingly about beauty, meaning, and humankind’s place in the natural world (which I have finally realized is the theme of my artworks).    Avaricious marketers and art school hacks are not the only people who can take to the internet to explain themselves!

Takashi Murakami 7

Takashi Murakami 7

And of course there will be lots of amazing animals and magnificent trees and exquisite colors and crazy stories from history (and we will always keep one eye on outer space).  The list of categories over there to the left is becoming restrictive!  It’s time to bust out and write about all sorts of new things!  Happy New Year! 2015 is going to be great!  Enjoy your New Year’s celebrations and I’ll see you back here next year!

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Every year when I write obituaries, I look at the Wikipedia list of notable people who died during the year.  Since everyone dies, the list includes all sorts of people: clerics, horse breeders, spree killers, chefs, war heroes, astrologers, conductors, campaigners for suicide rights, and ever so many industrialists and financiers (whom nobody cares about anymore \other than greedy development departments and squabbling heirs).  It always strikes me that the people we all know about—the loud and shiny actors, the celebrity criminals, and the faded sportsmen–are not actually very important in the grand scheme of things.  Here is a very incomplete list of the people whom I thought were important who died this year.

 

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Shirley Temple Black (April 23rd, 1928 – February 10th, 2014) was one of Hollywood’s first child stars.  Later she worked as a public servant and diplomat serving as U.S. ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.  Although she had an extraordinary life by every measure, I am including her here because when I was growing up I watched her Depression-era movies on a West Virginia movie channel that played weird old cinema.  Even though I was a little child (the presumed audience for these films?), the bizarre schmaltzy stories of singing princesses and dancing disinherited heiresses struck me as bizarre and otherworldly—like a relic from ancient Mesopotamia.

Book Cover "One Hundred Years of Solitude"

Book Cover “One Hundred Years of Solitude”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (March 6th, 1927 – April 17th, 2014) was a novelist who popularized magical realism—a literary style in which symbolic supernatural elements represent the deterministic nature of family, politics, and religious indoctrination in human life.  His greatest work, “One Hundred Years of Solitude” follows the rise and fall of a family of Colombian landed gentry.  Yet the book transcended the specifics of its subject to craft a haunting dream about the nature of existence.

Dr. Jacinto Convit (September 11th, 1913 – May 12th, 2014) was a dermatologist and vaccine researcher.  Although he spent most of his life developing vaccines for leprosy and tropical diseases, his work also raised intriguing possibilities for cancer vaccines—ongoing work which may be incredibly important (or may be a complete dead end).  Convit developed a therapy against the fearsome tropical disease leishmaniasis, which once yearly killed some 20,000 to 30,000 people across the world, however his greatest contributions to medicine may not yet be realized.

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Maya Angelou (April 4th, 1928 – May 28th, 2014) was a poet and writer.  She worked as a journalist during the decolonization era in Africa (writing from Egypt and Ghana) and was politically active in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, however she is best known for her moving autobiographical or semi-autobiographical accounts of coming of age in the African-American community during the civil rights era.

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Felix Dennis (May 27th, 1947 – June 22nd, 2014) was a colorful British publishing mogul who monetized counter-culture in the sixties.  He organized this early success (and infamy) into an international media and “lifestyle” empire. Although businessmen might describe him otherwise, he is principally remembered as the patron for many promising sculptors and writers…and as a friend to trees who orchestrated a mass reforestation campaign throughout Great Britain.

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Noel Hinners (December 25th, 1935 – September 5th, 2014) was a geologist and the former chief scientist for NASA.  Hinners was instrumental in planning the scientific exploration of the moon.  After the Apollo era he oversaw other offworld projects such as the Mars Surveyor Program.

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Scott Carpenter (May 1st, 1925 – October 10th, 2013) was an astronaut in the Mercury Program.  He was the second American to orbit the earth in 1962.  During re-entry, the instruments of his single-person space capsule malfunctioned and he had to take manual control of the primitive space ship (which splashed down hundreds of miles off target).  He was the last surviving astronaut from the Mercury program except for John Glenn.

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Donald Stookey (May 23rd, 1915 – November 4th, 2014) invented “Corningware,” the super-strong, heat-resistant ceramic glass used in kitchens everywhere since the 1950s. As a cook and a lasagna-lover I salute his incredible contribution to the human race! His other ceramic and glass innovations have also revolutionized glasses, defense systems, and electronics.

RIP and thanks again for the lasagna dish, the vaccinations, the offworld exploration, and (sigh) “The Good Ship Lollypop.”

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Tomorrow we have a few final thoughts for the year and some ideas about where we’re headed next year!

Artist's conception of Venus Express above Venus (ESA)

Artist’s conception of Venus Express above Venus (ESA)

Tomorrow I will write the obligatory annual post about whom we lost in 2014.  It’s always a solemn occasion which highlights the passing of many eminent figures (as well as the passing of yet another year) and raises troubling questions about what is truly important.  But before we get to the human obituaries, I wanted to write a quick eulogy for an underappreciated figure lost to little fanfare at the end of 2014.  Last month the robot explorer craft “Venus Express” was destroyed by falling into the volatile high-pressure atmosphere of our sister planet Venus (an operatic end which overshadows all but the greatest human deeds).  The Venus Express was a satellite launched by the European Space Agency in November 2005.  It reached polar orbit around Venus in April of 2006 and has been continuously sending back data since then until November 28th of 2014 when the last remaining fuel in the satellite was used to lift it into a high orbit.  Scientists planned on monitoring the space probe during its long drift down to the top of the atmosphere, but something went wrong and the satellite was thrown into a spin (which made it unable to contact Earth).  It is now presumed destroyed.

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Venus Express was the first Venus mission undertaken by the ESA.  Now that the craft is gone, the human race has no functional probes or spacecraft on or around Venus until the Japanese climate orbiter “AKATSUKI” is scheduled to reach there sometime in 2015 (although there have been some problems with that mission and the planned rendezvous may be postponed…or never happen).

This still from a NASA animation of a concept Venus mission shows a probe, one of many, beginning its descent into the Venus atmosphere.

This still from a NASA animation of a concept Venus mission shows a probe, one of many, beginning its descent into the Venus atmosphere.

Venus’ atmosphere is believed to have once been much like that of Earth.  This is certainly not the case now! The data from Venus Express is now being analyzed in order to ascertain what happened to transform Venus into a hellish greenhouse (and strip it of its magnetosphere).  Maybe we can also analyze this data with an eye on future sky colonies as well.  Venus Express discovered hydroxyls in the atmosphere of Venus. It also discovered an ozone layer and a high cold atmospheric layer which is possibly dry ice.  It undertook a series of aerobraking experiments which could prove very relevant to future craft inserted into Venus’ atmosphere.  We need someone to analyze this data and plan those future missions! Speaking of which, why doesn’t NASA have more exploratory missions planned to this nearest planet?  We should try to put a long-term floating probe into the upper atmosphere of Venus itself!  That would be an amazing accomplishment and it would tell us more about whether floating sky colonies above Venus would even be possible. Nothing is more alluring than Venus!  Let’s honor the Venus Express by learning from it and sending some more missions there pronto!

The Birth of Venus (Henry Courtney Selous, 1852, oil on canvas)

The Birth of Venus (Henry Courtney Selous, 1852, oil on canvas)

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We are coming up on the Yule season and that means ornamental conifers!  As I was putting up my traditional tree of many animals, it occurred to me to see if there were any spooky Gothic-themed Christmas trees.  And, oh indeed…there are so many Gothic themed trees and ornaments out there!

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Although at first these dark trees might sit wrongly with traditionally minded revelers, a moment of thought will reveal that Gothic trees are quite appropriate!  Not only is the Christmas tree an ornament for the darkest & hardest time of year (Winter Solstice) it is also an ancient relic of pre-Christian Europe when pagan folk venerated trees.   Furthermore the idea of Christmas trees, like the ancient Goths themselves, originated in Germany and Scandinavia.  For years, pundits have been worrying what happens when marketers put up their Christmas decorations earlier and earlier. Maybe this is what happens: a reversion to druidic darkness.

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Here are some Gothic trees—some are “goth” in the modern punk rock sense, while others are pagan, macabre, ironically twisted, or just winsomely slender.  In case this is making you anxious, it’s all in seasonal fun!  Also I threw in some beautiful Gothic-revival Christmas trees to evoke feelings of Victorian opulence!   Enjoy the gallery and the holiday season (but don’t worry, we’ll have more appropriate seasonal fare next week).

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Eek!  I mean...cool crystal thing!

What a cool crystal thing!

Gothic Revival Christmas!

Gothic Revival Christmas!

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I guess, it's sort of spooky...

I guess, it’s sort of spooky…

This one might be slightly photoshopped--although cats do love Christmas trees!

This one might be slightly photoshopped–although cats do love Christmas trees!

What?

What?

Dammit, there isn't even a tree in this! Is anyone paying attention?

Dammit, there isn’t even a tree in this! Is anyone paying attention?

Traditional Victorian Gothic Revival

Traditional Victorian Gothic Revival

Skinny Christmas Tree

wchristmastree-5tumblr_mxwuwe2NJR1svgz44o3_500And Here’s a really good one for the dramatic conclusion.  It has a touch of the cosmic–and it’s also a shout-out to tree worshipers everywhere).

 

 

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Shanghai, China

Shanghai, China


I don’t usually post about business because I understand it very little and like it even less, but events on the other side of the world merit a brief mention (also I can’t think of anything truly worthwhile to write about today). The SSE Composite Index is a stock market index of all the shares traded on the Shanghai Stock Exchange (well actually all A and B shares).  Since June of 2014 this index has shot up by 40% pushing it to heights not seen for 3 years.  The news is all the more baffling considering that a consortium of experts agree that nothing in the actual Chinese economy supports this rampant bull market. Sophie Yan from CNN Money describes the Chinese economy in somewhat bleak terms: “factory activity is at an eight-month low, the real estate sector is shaky and the economy just saw its worst quarter since the financial crisis.”

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So why are stocks surging upward with no relation to the real news?  Well, America’s economy is doing better than it has for a long while and China sells a lot of goods across the Pacific Ocean.  Also ordinary Chinese small holders seem to finally be digging up jars of coins and investing them in the stock market (the average Chinese householder has been wary of investing savings in institutions or businesses for obvious historical reasons).  But, it seems obvious that the real answer is that this is a speculative bubble.

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Like I said at the top, I do not understand business: perhaps secret unknown market forces are privy to information which nobody else knows about…or maybe the rules of human economics have been eternally suspended.  However barring those potentialities, the SSE is full of froth and is about to pop (in fact, on Tuesday, AKA yesterday, the index shed 5% in a day…and then bounced back).  I wonder how high it will go before it falls and I wonder how far the fallout from a correction will go.  Our own market seems a tad frothy too…but Americans have a proud ability to willfully ignore what everyone else in the world is up to.  Whatever happens, it should be an interesting few months for volatile speculative craziness in Shanghai.

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Drop everything!  Pantone (a private corporation which specializes in standardizing color palettes for different industries and companies) has announced the color of the year for 2015.  The special color for the new year is…Marsala, a deep dark red named after Marsala, the fortified Italian wine which in turn is named after the port of Marsala.  I guess I was really on top of trends when I blogged about burgundy a couple of weeks ago, since burgundy is a similar color with a similar provenance (although burgundy is a purer—and prettier– dark red which lacks the earthy brown notes of Marsala).

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According to Pantone’s fulsome press statement, Marsala is a perfect color for…well everything:  “Much like the fortified wine that gives Marsala its name, this tasteful hue embodies the satisfying richness of a fulfilling meal, while its grounding red-brown roots emanate a sophisticated, natural earthiness…This hearty, yet stylish tone is universally appealing and translates easily to fashion, beauty, industrial design, home furnishings and interiors.”

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Other self-proclaimed culture-makers and arbiters of taste are less satisfied with the hue.  NYmag.com felt the tone evoked Olive Garden (a mid-range restaurant franchise which makes coastal elites shudder and drop their caviar spoons) and…um…feminine sanitary goods.  The Atlantic talked about fraternity bathrooms, 70’s institutional carpet, and mystery meat with plenty of offal mixed in.  Clearly Marsala inspires strong visceral feelings (ha) and synesthesia, even if it does not necessarily make everyone want a new Marsala Maserati.

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I was a big fan of last year’s color “radiant orchid” which was a lovely mid-tone pinkish purple (for the record, tastemakers liked radiant orchid too and thought it betokened “economic recovery”).  I think burgundy is prettier than Marsala (which I would probably call “brick”), but the 2015 color evokes garden paths, bound books, farm equipment, trilliums, and, yes, delicious chicken liver, so I like it well enough.  It seems like my family even had a Marsala-colored Chevy station wagon when I was growing up in the late seventies.  I doubt I will be buying an all Marsala wardrobe or a Marsala blender, but the color is very pretty…for some things.  And, as ever, if you despise Marsala (or if its Olive Garden notes cause the stock market to crash) there will be a completely new corporate-chosen color of the year in 2016.

You would not believe how hot the back seat of this thing could get...

As an aside, you would not believe how hot the back seat of this thing could get…

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Orion, the giant hunter, is one of the oldest figures in Greek mythology.  He is mentioned in the most ancient surviving works of Greek literature (well, aside from linear B tablets).  There are various contradictory myths about his birth and about his death (indeed, he seems almost to be from a pre-Ionic generation of gods and heroes), however out of this mish-mash, there is a rough consensus: Orion was an earth-straddling giant, the son of sea-god Poseidon.  Alone among gods and mortals, he found romantic favor in the eyes of the exquisite virgin goddess Artemis, but, because of this affection, her jealous brother Apollo murdered him by means of a giant supernatural scorpion.  Artemis was bereft, but together with Zeus, and with her contrite brother, they hung the giant in the sky as an eternal memorial and as a challenge to future heroes (and as an unspoken threat).  During winter, Orion is arguably the most recognizable constellation from the Northern hemisphere.

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There is a famous myth about Orion before he met Artemis and his doom.  The king of Chios was attempting to bring agriculture and viniculture to his island people, but the howling of lions, bears, wolves, and other wild animals kept him up all night (this is one of those troubling myths about the distinctions between uncivilized hunters and civilized farmers).  The king promised Orion the hand of his gorgeous daughter, Merope, if the hunter could remedy this problem.  Night and day, the giant huntsman slaughtered wild beasts until the island was free of big (loud) predators, yet, when Orion applied to the king to wed his promised bride, the recalcitrant monarch kept complaining he could hear nonexistent wolves.  Orion was wroth at the broken deal, but the crafty king plied him with flattering words and with wine, wine, wine by the barrel until even the giant was overcome and passed out in a drunken stupor.  The king then had his bondsmen blind Orion, who stumbled off into the ocean (which, by the way, he could easily walk upon because of his paternal heritage).  Orion wondered here and there across the Mediterranean, lost, until at last he heard the hammers of workshop of the great smith Hephaestus.  The kind god took pity upon the blinded giant and lent one of his shop Cyclops to sit on the great hunter’s shoulder and lead him to a cure.  With directions from the Cyclops, Orion strode due east until he came to the place of the dawn, whereupon the radiant light of the morning sun cured his blindness.

Landscape with Blind Orion Seeking the Sun (Nicolas Poussin, 1658, oil on canvas)

Landscape with Blind Orion Seeking the Sun (Nicolas Poussin, 1658, oil on canvas)

There is a reason I am bringing up the godlike giant Orion (whose likeness hangs so magnificently in the winter sky). And there is likewise a reason I am telling this story of perfidy and blindness at the hands of a greedy king.  Tomorrow at 7:05 AM EST, the American space agency NASA will launch its new Orion spacecraft from America’s principal spaceport at Cape Canaveral.  Orion is a crew capsule designed for deep-space missions—to take humans to the moon (or a comparable destination).  After decades, we are again building vessels which can carry humans into beyond near-Earth orbit.

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For tomorrow’s unmanned test flight, Orion will ride a Delta IV heavy rocket into orbit, but for actual manned missions, the capsule will sit atop the planned SLS (space launch system) rocket, a behemoth built for leaving Earth.  The capsule will rise to 14 times the height of the International Space Station (which hangs near the Earth) and then reenter Earth’s atmosphere at a blazing 32,200 kilometers per hour (20,000 miles per hour). Although it is designed to hold 4 astronauts for a 21 day mission, during its test flight, Orion’s crew will consist of symbolic items such as one of Cookie Monster’s cookies, poetry, a rubber duck, and a piece of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Artist's conception of Orion Spacecraft in orbit

Artist’s conception of Orion Spacecraft in orbit

It is high time we return to manned space exploration! The business and political masters of the United States have been busy building monopolies and gaming the financial markets rather than working on science, exploration, and progress.  We have been blundering around blind for too long.  It’s time to start crafting some long term space goals and working diligently towards them.  Orion is a small step, but it is a small step closer to my fondest dream of colonizing the inviting skies of Venus.

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A purple clam pearl discovered by a Virginia woman in her bucket of clam shack clams

A purple clam pearl discovered by a Virginia woman in her bucket of clam shack clams

Ferrebeekeeper has rhapsodized about Atlantic clams (which grow to fabulous old age) and we have written about pearls—the nacreous sort which come from oysters and the big orange ones from Melo gastropods.  However did you know that ordinary clams can also produce pearls?

A collection of quahog (clam) pearls in front of a polished quahog shell

A collection of quahog (clam) pearls in front of a polished quahog shell

This fact has been much in the news this week because a Virginia Beach woman bought a sack of clams from Great Machipongo Clam Shack in Nassawadox and discovered an extra consonant—er, I mean a rare clam pearl.  The clams were farm-raised littleneck clams which were about two years old (before they were harvested and cooked, I mean).  When the unsuspecting woman bit into one, she found a 4.5 carat lavender pearl.  The gem is slightly acorn-shaped and lustrous with alternating horizontal bands of lighter and darker purple.

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National media outlets (which are having a slow week, I guess) are playing up the clam pearl’s value, which could range as high as three thousand American dollars.  The estimation may not be incorrect.  The classic compendium of pearl information The Book of the Pearl: The History, Art, Science, and Industry of the Queen of Gems (Kuntz, 1908) informs us that:

Pearls also occur in the quahog, or hard clam (Venus mercenaria), of the Atlantic coast of the United States. Although these are rare, they are generally of good form, and some weigh upward of eighty grains each. They are commonly of dark color, purplish, ordinarily, but they may be white, pale lilac, brown, and even purplish black or black. Fine dark ones have a high retail value. They are often referred to as “clam pearls.

I kinda like the quahog pearl—like precious Melo pearls, it reminds me of an alien planet or an exquisite elfen turnip. However if they cost $ 3K apiece you all probably should not expect to get any in your stockings from me.

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Professional wrestling is a very peculiar concoction.   It is a volatile mix of extreme athleticism, flamboyant theater, televised hype, steroids, advertising money, and ludicrous costumes. As you can imagine, this blend sometimes goes extraordinarily awry: professional wrestling can give birth to nightmare children. Keeping this in mind, let us journey back to the distant year of 1990. That autumn, during the weeks leading up to the World Wrestling Federation’s Survivor Series of 1990, wrestling producers stumbled upon a very…unusual…gimmick to drum up excitement for their title bout. A huge egg of indeterminate origin was placed in the middle of the arena. As the ripped, oiled, and be-sequined brawlers fought out their melodramatic matches, more and more hype was lavished upon this strange prop. What sort of wrestling sensation would hatch out of it?

Classy...

Classy…

Many animals lay eggs, so the possibilities were multitudinous and potentially thrilling. What if the giant egg turned out to be a horrifying serpent man or some sort of warrior dinosaur? Since professional wrestling has never been troubled by reality, the egg could even have contained a mythological being like a roc, a griffin, or a baby Godzilla. On Thanksgiving of 1990, the egg hatched and the answer was revealed.

When the egg blew open, out of it leapt…the Gobbledy Gooker–a hapless chump clad in an extraordinarily ugly turkey costume. Not only did the Gooker [ed. Can we even write that word on a family-friendly blog?] look horrid–he did not even wrestle. He capered around the ring and then danced with announcer “Mean” Gene Okerlund to the minstrel hit “Turkey in the Straw”. Understandably, the Hartford audience hooted in derision. It is actually painful to hear “Rowdy“ Roddy Piper (the brilliant lead thespian of the dark allegorical sci-fi masterpiece “They Live”) shouting out canned enthusiasm for the bad gimmick. The Gobbledy Gooker appeared in a few more mercifully brief promotional spots and then was canned for good…

Time to retire with dignity...

Time to retire with dignity…

…or was he? Within the hallowed halls of professional wrestling, ethereal voices began to whisper about the Gobbledy Gooker. What terrible decisions led to the egg and the turkey costume? Who was beneath the patchy feathers? It turns out that the Gobbledy Gooker was a wrestling persona of Hector Guerrero, famed scion of Los Guerreros (arguably the world’s greatest multigenerational dynasty of professional wrestlers). Perhaps it is appropriate that a Mexican-American played the sacred turkey figure–since turkeys were first domesticated by the glorious pyramid civilizations of Mesoamerica.

Hector Guerrero as usually attired (thank goodness professional wrestling is able to avoid crude stereotypes)

Hector Guerrero as usually attired (thank goodness professional wrestling is able to avoid crude stereotypes)

Our culture has a raw appetite for spectacle. And the awfulness of the Gobbledy Gooker fulfilled some primal need. Soon the Gobbledy Gooker was back—albeit sometimes spelled as the Gobbly Gooker. In the 2000s the giant turkey (still played by Guerrero) competed in Wrestlemania X-Seven, a contest between over-the-top gimmick characters (sadly he lost in the second round). He also lent his name to the Gooker Award for the worst wrestling gimmicks. In recent years, he has become a sort of campy mascot of World Wrestling (although his already nebulous turkey identity has blurred a bit further). He even starred in a video about wacky office misadventures at WW headquarters!

Work is demeaning

Work is demeaning

Last Thanksgiving (2013), the Gobbledy Gooker stepped out of retirement and “appeared backstage on WWE Smackdown at a ‘post Thanksgiving party’ thrown by Smackdown General Manager Vickie Guerrero.” Will the Gobbledy Gooker reemerge this Thanksgiving as a magnificent and dismaying symbol of our gluttony, our strength, our vainglory? Keep your eyes peeled to find out…

The Gobbledy Gooker

The Gobbledy Gooker

USS Maine Monument designed by Harold Van Buren Magonigle and carved by Attilio Piccirilli

USS Maine Monument (designed by Harold Van Buren Magonigle and carved by Attilio Piccirilli, 1913, marble)

Here is an image of my favorite war memorial sculpture in New York City (which has no lack of amazing memorial sculptures from conflicts throughout American history). This is a memorial to the 260 American sailors who perished in 1898 when the battleship Maine unexpectedly exploded. When the battleship blew up, it was located in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, and the event quickly became a casus belli for the Spanish-American War (a lop-sided conflict which announced the U.S. as a great world power). The events surrounding the destruction of the Maine–and the attendant yellow journalism, which led to war–are complicated and controversial: you can read about them elsewhere (although, frankly, it seems likely the battleship exploded because of an accident rather than due to Spanish perfidy). Today we are concentrating on Attilio Picarelli’s glorious sculpture, which was placed in Central Park at the Columbus Circle entrance in 1913. It is a triumphant celebration of American imperial might, but it is also a poignant evocation of the sodier’s forced estrangement from his family (which sometimes lasts forever–as in the case of the sailors of the Maine).

The Front of the Monument: The Antebellum State of Mind:  Courage Awaiting

The Front of the Monument: “The Antebellum State of Mind: Courage Awaiting”

The monument takes the form of a classical trireme-style warship made of marble with a huge cenotaph in the middle. Atop the cenotaph is a gilded figure of Columbia–a pre Uncle Sam allegorical figure who represents America. All eyes tend to focus on the triumphant Columbia, who is riding in a seashell chariot drawn by three hippocampi (she is reputedly cast from metal from the actual cannons of the Maine, which were raised from the watery depths after the Spanish War was won), however it is the figures near the base which are finer artworks. In the front of the statue, Justice stretches out her arms in a plea for vengeance for the murdered seamen as the nation starts out for war. At her feet, a beautiful mother holds a disconsolate child (left at home by a soldier father or perhaps orphaned outright?). A muscular nude man (who represents the soldier) is forced to turn away from her. At the ships prow a beautiful youth holds a victory wreathe. On the right side of the statue is a half slumbering old sea god which looks like Proteus (and represents the Pacific Ocean). On the left side is an Athenian warrior reclining, whose warlike trappings are at odds with his serene pose and distant expression: he represents the Atlantic Ocean. At the back of the statue is a group of figures titled “The Post-Bellum Idea: Justice Receiving Back the Sword Entrusted to War”. The statue is engraved with the names of the men who died when the Maine sank.

The left side of the Monument: an allegorical figure of the Atlantic Ocean

The left side of the Monument: an allegorical figure of the Atlantic Ocean

The stone figures are carved with unusual skill and grace which is so often absent in American civic statues. Their faces are solemn and beautiful and every line is simultaneously forceful and yet delicate. Although it takes time to tease out the allegorical meanings of the groupings, there is no mistaking the grave solemnity of the figures.

The back of the monument: "The Post-Bellum Idea: Justice Receiving Back the Sword Entrusted to War."

The back of the monument: “The Post-Bellum Idea: Justice Receiving Back the Sword Entrusted to War.”

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