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I just downloaded this from the net, since I didn't want to take photos of people's kids (and also since the painting is better than what I did)

I just downloaded this from the net, since I didn’t want to take photos of people’s kids (and also since the painting is better than what I did)

So, I worked a five year old’s birthday party this past Saturday as a face painter. As I speculated beforehand, my young patrons asked for rainbows and unicorns (and one flower), which is good because the face paint was not the world’s most versatile medium! I don’t know if I could have painted a truly intricate subject with that goop…and it was more intimidating than you might expect to paint on the beautifully coiffed and perfectly attired little princesses of Park Slope (though in truth I think it would be intimidating to paint any person’s face for the same reason—you have to look directly at them and touch their face). I felt like one of the supporting characters in a Disney movie “’Here now, your highness…Don’t squirm so or it won’t look right!” Thank goodness I didn’t paint any mutant ponies, monster fairies, or melted peonies!

Free-Shipping-Wholesale-Colorful-Girl-TUTU-Little-Girl-Pageant-Flower-Girl-Dresses-Party-Birthday-Kids-Children

Anyway I really love painting & children & parties (and I needed the money) so the afternoon was delightful. Despite my time in the toy industry, I haven’t been to a five year old’s party since I was five. The guests seemed to enjoy the beauty and thrill of life and the event with rare zest! It reminded me of something else too. The children’s party outfits were the most beautiful possible colors—brilliant aqua, radiant pink, magenta, crimson, and glowing lavender. Then I looked at the parents sipping their cocktails and talking about jobs and international trade and real estate. All the adults were wearing sad dull colors like we had been impressed into some glum army of despair. What happened? Why do we shy away from color as we grow older? Color is one of life’s greatest delights. Are we afraid that we’ll rob it of its power if we overuse it (the children had no such qualms)? Or do we think the scintillant beauty of colorful garb will highlight the weaknesses of our own appearances and draw unwanted attention and unflattering comments?

Baby Corn Snake

Baby Corn Snake

I was forcefully reminded of the pretty corn snakes which lived in the fields and forests of the hill farm when I grew up. When they are newly hatched they glisten with bands of scarlet, orange, and luxurious cream, but when they grow into adult snakes their colors become muted and they blend in with the clay and the fallen leaves (the better to evade the attention of predators and to seize on unwary mice, I guess). Is it that way for adults? Unless we are pop stars on stage or master gunnery sergeants on parade, it is better not to draw too much attention or risk looking foolish with a garish combination. That strikes me as a sad way to live (although I guess it has a certain Puritan modesty and no small measure of self-interested cunning).

Adult Corn Snake

Adult Corn Snake

Of course a children’s birthday party is not the right place for grown-ups to get gussied up anyway (unless they are the clown, which I might have been). However as I transition back into office life, I notice everyone wears a lot of gray, taupe, khaki, and navy. I am sure that some of that is protective camouflage—it really is best to blend into the walls on Wall Street. But still, there is something unsatisfactory about our culture that it encourages drabness.

All drab and sad...

All drab and sad…

Sigh, maybe I need to move to India or Thailand. They are certainly calling me louder than my new life in title insurance!

This is more like it!

This is more like it!

Back to a simpler time! (art by treechangedolls)

Back to a simpler time! (art by treechangedolls)

On Facebook, one of my friends linked to an article about an artist who repaints the garishly make-up faces of contemporary dolls back into the innocent countenances of normal children.  The results are quite charming: you can see the dramatic difference here on the Tree Change Dolls Tumblr.  It is a very lovely art project and one almost wishes somebody would grab some of our overexposed overpainted reality TV stars & celebrities in order to do the same thing.

Yasmin from "Bratz Babyz"

Yasmin from “Bratz Babyz”

The post made me think back to my time as a toymaker, and the dark lessons of marketing.  Like little moths to a meretricious flame, children are drawn in by things that they think of as being adult (which is why Barbie has had such a glorious run).  Toymakers (toymakers who make money—so not me!) know this and exploit it.  What ends up happening then is a sort of arms race where manufacturers try to create toys which are shinier, curvier, brighter, and more artfully stylized.   Designers who are lazy and manipulative also try to incorporate adult-seeming things like make-up, coquettish fashion, and cell phones.  This can result in atrocities like the “Bratz” (a line of child figurines which look like they have been turned out by a human trafficker), but it has strange results when applied over time to more conventional toys.

"My Little Pony" (circa 1980s)

“My Little Pony” (circa 1980s)

The same friend who linked to the “Tree Change Dolls” once brought out her old 80s “My Little Pony” toys in order to compare them with the reboots being sold to her daughter.  Naturally the 80s ponies were already heavily stylized with big soulful human eyes, bell-bottom legs, and bright pink bodies, but they at least had pudgy/stocky bodies, equine faces, and a sort of childishness to them. The next generation of “My Little Pony” toys (which you can buy in a big box store right now) had somehow evolved pixie faces which an unknowing viewer would be hard-pressed to think of as horse-like.  They had slender humanized bodies which made it look like they were working out in a Hollywood gym.  The mane–which was already luxurious in the original toy–had grown beyond all measure into an entity bigger than the horse!

"My Little Pony" (circa present)

“My Little Pony” (circa present)

Something about this reminds me of birds of paradise or Irish elk.  These animals compete(d) for attention by means of more and more elaborate display features (for the Irish elk it was gigantic antlers, for the birds it was increasingly gaudy feathers).   It all works as long as the environment stays the same and there are no new predators, but if something changes, the exaggerated and affected appearance of these magnificent lifeforms can spell their doom (just ask the elk).

"How are those gigantic antlers working out for you there, buddy?"

“How are those gigantic antlers working out for you there, buddy?”

I am not Cato the Censor here to say that Irish elk, birds of paradise and showy imp ponies are bad (although I am saying that about Bratz—those things are nightmares).  I am however saying that we are collectively making marketers (and other tastemakers…and even political leaders) act certain ways because of choices we don’t even know we are collectively making.  I am highlighting this in toys because I used to make toys (and because they provide an extremely good example of marketing shenanigans), but the same trends are true across all sorts of disciplines and even in broader political, aesthetic, and philosophical realms.

...or maybe it all really IS a result of Hellenization, just like Cato says...

…or maybe it all really IS a result of Hellenization, just like Cato says…

The Madonna of the Passion (Carlo Crivelli, 1460, tempera on panel)

The Madonna of the Passion (Carlo Crivelli, 1460, tempera on panel)

Just in time for the holidays, here’s another “Madonna and Child” painting by Carlos Crivelli, the enigmatic Quattrocento master.  Ferrebeekeeper has already featured two posts about Crivelli including a short biography (which includes just about everything we know about him) and an exquisite painting of Mary Magdalene.  Today we present another Crivelli tempera masterpiece from 1460 which shows Mary holding a pensive baby Jesus as creepy little foreshadowing figures gather round.   Although Mary is not without a certain supercilious beauty, the two central figures are not nearly as fine as in other Crivelli masterpieces.  Standing on his little black velvet pillow like a demagogue orator, Jesus looks downright horrifying (and he also seems suitably appalled at knowing his own fate). The great strength of the painting lies in the supporting cast of corpulent androgynous children brandishing accoutrements of the crucifixion.  The little beings to the right solemnly proffer a crown of thorns and a cross to infant Jesus.  On the left, one child (wearing tiger skin grieves!) holds a fistful of crucifixion nails while his naked playmate grasps a classical column with spidery hands.  Behind him are children with a lance, a bucket of vinegar, and a ladder.  The little lanceman on the left is staring up at an allegorical rooster standing atop capitol.  In the background, on the right, the death of Christ takes place on a distant hill, while at the top, beyond a garland of peaches, pears, cherries, and songbirds, a final pair of putti play divine music on the harp and lute. The suffusion of tiny black pits or holes in the composition was probably not intended by Crivelli (although he did have a fascination with nail wounds), but it adds an extra dimension of entropy, torment, and decay to an already vexing painting.  Once again Crivelli deftly takes traditional religious elements of the passion and arranges them into an allegory which seems to subtly elude the comprehension of the viewer.  Is that Peter’s rooster or is it some lost symbol of 15th century Italy?  Are the childish beings with the implements of Christ’s death a vision of the anguished Christ child, or are they meant to represent us, the viewer, tormentors and torturers of the world who, like ignorant children, don’t even understand what we are doing?

The Magic Circus is a bizarre contemporary gothic painting created in 2001 by Mark Ryden, the king of the pop surrealist painters.  Ryden was born in the Pacific Northwest and grew up in Southern California.  At the beginning of his career, he was a commercial artist who created magazine illustrations, book covers, and album covers, but due to the outlandish visionary intensity of his work, he has successfully broken into the rarified top echelon of contemporary painters.  His works have sold very successfully for over a decade (although he is regarded as a bizarre outsider by the unofficial “academy” of curators and critics).

The Magic Circus is an eye popping juxtaposition of cartoonlike hybrid animal/toy characters, science book illustrations, and delicate vulnerable children.  The upbeat but sinister pastel circus landscape has been rendered with the precise and exacting realism of the finest illustration.  As with 16th century Flemish art, dark horrors lurk among the details. Looking past the dazzling crown and jewel-like bees and cheery dancing octopus, the viewer notices a striped winged demon with a shrunken head drinking a chalice of blood.   Jesus and Abraham Lincoln are rendered as toys and lifeless sculptures while a plush stuffed animal capers in the foreground with lively malice.

Many of Ryden’s works involve the idea that our icons and consumer goods are springing to malevolent life and taking over.   The Magic Circus has the visceral appeal of a child’s nightmare.  The toys are coming to life and putting on a show, but there is a dark and horrible side to the carnival. Within the interlocking “rings” of childlike delight, scientific materialism, and commercial exploitation, Ryden includes symbols and themes which he reuses again and again in his paintings.

Detail of “The Magic Circus”

Pop Surrealism takes kitsch elements from everyday life and arranges them in a way to maximize the emotional, sentimental, and psychological aspects of everyday symbols.  The narrative focus, realistic technique, and psychological intensity of this diffuse school have all been disparaged by “high-brow” art schools and abstract/conceptual artists for the past few decades.  Yet as the visual language of the internet becomes more pervasive (and as mainstream art languishes in a conceptual rut), Pop Surrealism has been finding broader acceptance

December 6th, was Krampusnacht, a holiday celebrated in Alpine regions of Germany and Austria.  The festival’s roots stretch back into pre-Christian times when Germanic mountain folk paid homage to Krampus the child-stealing demon of winter darkness. Krampus was a hell-sent god with goat’s horns, coarse black fur, and a fanged maw. He would visit disobedient or inattentive children and beat them with a cruel flail before tearing them to bits with his claws (in fact “Krampus” means “claw” in old high German).  The demon would then carry the dismembered bodies back to the underworld and devour the human flesh at his leisure.

This harsh myth imparted crucial lessons about the cruel Alpine environment—which would literally reward inattention and carelessness with a terrible death and a vanished corpse. However there were also merry elements of year-end saturnalia to the celebration: young men dressed up as Krampus and drank and played pranks while unmarried women would dress as Frau Perchta—a nature spirit and fertility goddess who could appear as a hirsute old beast-woman or as a gorgeous scantily clad maiden. Amidst the mummery, feasts were held and presents were given. Unsurprisingly, when Christianity came to Northern Europe, these pagan celebrations were incorporated into Christmastime festivities.  Thus Saint Nicholas–originally a conservative Syrian bishop (who became a protector of unfortunate children after his death) obtained a devil-like alter-ego.  This wasn’t even the end of the pagan metamorphosis of Santa.  The orthodox churchman also acquired a team of flying reindeer, a tribe of subservient elves, and a magical wife as Christmas traditions moved northwards into Scandinavia and combined with the universe of Norse myth!

For a time the Krampus story traveled with Santa and became part of the Christmastime traditions of German immigrants to America.  Christmas cards and holiday stories often featured Krampus and his evil pagan god features were even incorporated into the popular conception of Satan. However, as Christmas became more important to merchants and tradesmen, the darker aspects of the story were toned down.  Additionally fascist regimes in Germany and Austria were hostile to Krampus traditions during the thirties (and the grim imagery was not wanted after the horrors of World War II when those regimes were gone).   Lately though the figure has been making a comeback in Austria and Germany and even America seems to be experiencing a renewed interest in the fiend

I am writing about this because Krampus, the clawed god of winter death, is a perfect addition to this blog’s deities of the underworld category. However, I have a more personal (and twisted) Krampus tale to tell as well. As you may know I am a toymaker who crafts chimerical animal toys and writes how-to books on toy-making. Recently a friend of mine who is an art director asked if I could build some puppets for stop-motion animation.  He asked for a traditional (not-entirely jolly) Santa and for two children with no facial features–the expressions would be digitally added later.

Imagine my surprise when it turned out that the puppets were for a dark Krampus segment on a celebrity chef’s Christmas special. Anthony Bourdain, celebrity personality, adventurer, and bon vivant wanted to do an animated segment about this murderous gothic god who is still a vestigial part of the holiday.  The segment was supposed to go into the nationally broadcast “No Reservations” Christmas special alongside Christopher Walken and Norah Jones, but when network executives took a closer look at Krampus, child-dismembering Alpine demon, it was decided that he should remain a vestige. So much for my showbiz career (of creating an evil Santa puppet and two faceless victims)…. The stand-alone segment can still be seen by itself on Youtube (or below).  Don’t worry though, this dark holiday fable has a happy ending—I still got paid!

A few weeks ago Ferrebeekeeper featured an introductory post concerning the power which population demographics exert over the affairs of people and nations.  I would like to follow up on those ideas with a post concerning demographic cohorts in the United States (and in Western Europe, where history and shared culture have produced similar chronological categories).  A cohort consists of a group of contemporaries, born together in a 15-25 year period, who have shared certain coming-of-age experiences and crises together. According to conventional thinking there are seven age-based cohorts still marching in the great parade of life here in the western democracies:

  1. The Lost Generation (born 1883 to 1900): Honestly only a few last representatives of the World War I generation remain alive, and they are now so old as to seem fabulously unbelievable–like unicorns or manticores. They earned their name in a horrible way.  A whole generation of young men were conscripted to fight in the trenches of France–and they never came back from the mud beneath the big guns. Even in America, which entered the war late, a huge part of this generation was lost to Spanish flu. The last man to fight in the trenches died earlier this year.  Soon everyone who ever lived in the shadow of the monstrous debacle that was World War I will be dead and the generation will truly be lost–but for now a few ancient grandmothers still survive. 
  2. The Greatest Generation (born 1901 to 1924): This generation also came by its name through fighting in a World War.  The abject awfulness of the Nazi and Japanese war machines gave Allied soldiers a moral clarity and purpose which other generations have lacked. Also this generation first mastered the atom, first ventured into space, and then presided over a time of unprecedented plenty and economic success.
  3. The Silent Generation (born 1924-1945): The oldest members of the Silent Generation participated in World War II along with the greatest generation and now pretend to be part of that cohort, but largely this was the generation slightly too young to go to war.  They grew up in the depression–and they carry some of the hardheaded skinflint pragmatism of that time with them always.
  4. The Baby Boom (born 1945-1965): When the Second World War was won, the world lay in smoking ruins–except for America which was at the peak of its productive capacity.  The brave soldiers came home, started businesses, and married the strong capable women working in the hospitals and factories.  Then together they engendered a huge demographic bulge of newborns. The demographic weight of the boomers (combined with a certain self-absorbed focus on their special destiny) has put them much in the center of national affairs. They were the hippy generation who protested during the summer of love.  They were the hard-charging yuppies of the eighties.  They are the bulk of the government now.  However the boomers are beginning to retire and this massive flux is going to upend everything in our nation.
  5. Generation X (born 1965-1981): Also called the thirteenth generation, this is my generation. We were born in the post-sixties hangover, when recession and malaise stalked the nation and then we came of age in the booming eighties and nineties as communication technology underwent unprecedented breakthroughs (and brought an unprecedented boom in productivity). My generation has always seemed a bit lost—a rain shadow cast by the demographic mountain of baby boomers.  The conventional wisdom is that generation x is lackadaisical, cynical, and apathetic. We certainly do not have any moon landings or atomic bombs to our credit but we did have a hand in creating the new information age.  Also our entire generational ethos has not been finalized. Our greatest masterpieces have not yet been painted.
  6. The Millennial Generation (born 1981-2002): This group is also known as the shadow boom or mini-boom because they are the children of baby boomers (and therefor have their own demographic power). The majority of our active duty service members are from this generation.  They grew up surrounded by pagers, faxes, emails, and texts and they have the mentality to make sense of our networked world. When I was visiting my alma-mater a few years ago, I noticed that the students looked a lot happier and better-dressed than they did when I was a student.  The bars and bathrooms were not covered in graffiti and everyone’s hair was neat.  I think this generation really does have a different and more optimistic mentality then the two preceding it.  Coming into the workforce during a crippling recession might jar the polite businesslike smiles of the millennial generation a bit, but based on their battlefield aplomb and their personal rectitude, we can expect great things.
  7. The New As-Yet-Unnamed Generation (2002-present): No golden-tongued wag has yet given a name to the generation who are currently children.  Whenever I see this group featured in the mainstream media, it seems to be a pejorative article about how video games and environmental mercury are making them dull, but on an anecdotal level I have not found this to be true at all.  The children I have met have all the grace, swiftness, brilliance, and innocence of children.  They are bright and shiny as new-struck coins and I think it is appropriate that nobody has given them a name yet.

Of this list, I obviously have a preference for the first two generations and the last two generations. The lost generation and the greatest generation were badasses who came of age killing Germans with bayonets while building superweapons at home.  The two most recent generations are good-looking kids who are polite, hard-working, socially conscious, and still possess nimble minds. Naysayers who complain about the bad pop music and bad attitudes of “kids these days” are out-of-touch curmudgeons who are not paying close attention to reality [well, popular music actually is pretty bad—ed.].  The millennials are alright and the unnamed generation are better than alright—they are adorable kids who could grow up to be anything.

Sadly, the three generations in the middle—the generations who are at their economic peak and are running the country–are a greedy, fumbling mess.  It is popular to blame Chinese manufacturers, world trade, and globalization for the current economic turmoil, but there is a simpler reason for these bad times.  The inability of government to work and the excesses of our financial sector reflect a deeper division in our society. A huge number of Americans are beginning to retire, and, as large swaths of the population change from productive members of society to retired (but politically active and materially successful) seniors, the nation’s economic timbre is sure to be diminished.

A quick look at the halls of congress or the directorship of large companies will reveal that the silent generation and the baby boomers may be retiring, but they have not given up the true reigns of authority. The great political movements of the past few years—the tea party and the “occupy Wall Street” protests snap into a much sharper focus if you look at the age of the respective participants.  Wrestling control of the faltering nation from the hands of hard-bitten silent generation plutocrats and from a huge number of retiring boomers (who have always had things their way) falls to the indolent hands of generation x—people who would rather write blogs or paint weird paintings.  I, for one, am looking forward to when the millennial generation can also rise to the halls of power. I also worry that demographic stalemate might mean we have to wait until then to enjoy a united and prosperous nation.

Melancholy (1532, Lucas Cranach, the Elder: Oil on panel. 51 x 97 cm. Copenhaguen, Statens Museum for Kunst)

 Lucas Cranach the Elder painted this troubling allegorical panel of melancholia in 1532 at the end of the era of gothic painting.  A shrewd but withdrawn angel sits on dark cushion and whittles a long stick into a toy for nude children who are trying to push a large globe through a hoop (the globe may or may not fit).  In the middle ground, a silky white spaniel sits on the window sill above a mated pair of partridges.  Is one of the birds to become the dog’s dinner?

Beyond the window, the painting’s background offers a terrible spectacle: armed opponents kill one another in a craggy Saxon landscape of walled towns and hill castles. In the skies above the battle, wild pagan deities ride the storm.  Astride boars, hounds, and rams, the grim deities relentlessly pursue their hunt with casual indifference to the bloodshed below.  

The painting is symbolic of the collective destiny of humankind. The angel’s mien, the animals, and the dark background all suggest that, even with heavenly assistance, the new generation will not succeed at their serious game but are condemned to a circle of violence.

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