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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

We are entering the Yule season, the darkest time of year here in the northern world.  Of course we have Christmas and Kwanza and Saturnalia to distract ourselves from the endless cold gloom, but it is still a bit early to write about those topics.  I need something colorful and splendid…perhaps from the other hemisphere where everything is beautiful late spring majesty.  Behold the stupendous color and masterful dance of the peacock…spider.  I feel this jaunty little spider is a perfect spirit animal for artists.

Male Peacock Spider (Maratus volans) via Jurgen Otto / Flickr

Male Peacock Spider (Maratus volans) via Jurgen Otto / Flickr

The peacock spider (Maratus Volans) is a small jumping spider which lives in parts of Queensland, New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, Western Australia and Tasmania. The spider lives like almost all spiders—by capturing and eating tiny invertebrates, while avoiding hungry predators long enough to mate.  However unlike most spiders, the male peacock spider is a mélange of exquisite hues and glistening iridescent color. In the manner of the eponymous peacock, he has a blue, orange, and gold abdominal flap, which he can raise and lower at will. He looks like he fell out of a particularly weird corner of paradise…and, on top of that, he is a great dancer.  The female is rather more drab in appearance, and, ominously, she is much larger….

Big bold color...in a small package

Big bold color…in a small package

Like the Irish elk, the male peacock spider has a sexual selection problem on his (many) hands. If one is a small animal living in the dust-colored scrubland of the outback it is not necessarily an advantage to look like Liberace’s underwear drawer (!).  Yet male spiders who are not sufficiently brilliant and nimble at dancing are liable not to mate…and !

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If the male spider is not colorful enough, or if he fails to dance with heart-stopping terpsichorean majesty, the female spider will become “perturbed” and she is likely to attack him and eat him.  Unsurprisingly, this dynamic seems to have produced a feedback loop wherein spiders are in a kind of arms race to be as colorful and flamboyant as possible.  If they are not vibrant and ridiculous enough, the female eats them.  If they are too brilliant and noticable, everyone else does.

Male Peacock Spider (Maratus volns) illustration by KDS444

Male Peacock Spider (Maratus volns) illustration by KDS444

This jaunty little spider should be the mascot of artists everywhere, for, like him (or like poor Marsyas), we are slaves to the fickle whims of an ever-more jaded audience.  At the same time there is stronger competition than ever from all other quarters to be more practical and more buttoned down. I don’t know what the solution is, but the peacock spider seems to have found it.  Look at him go! (Hint: he really starts dancing at 1:46)

The competition between Marsyas and Apollo on a Roman sarcophagus (290–300) marble

The competition between Marsyas and Apollo on a Roman sarcophagus (290–300) marble

The aulos was a woodwind instrument of classical antiquity.  The word is sometimes mis-translated as “double flute” but the instrument was not a flute, instead it had reeds–like an oboe or a clarinet.  In classical mythology, the aulos was invented by Athena, the glorious goddess of wisdom and favorite child of Zeus.  The first aulos made beautiful music, but it caused the goddess’ cheeks to puff out–which was at odds with her dignified self-image and caused the other gods to laugh.  In disgust she hurled the instrument down into the mortal world where it was found by the satyr Marsyas who picked it up and began to play melodies never heard before.   Marsyas became the first great aulos master.  He wandered through forests and fields on his two hooves playing the pipes in celebration of the pastoral and sylvan beauty he observed.
Apollo and Marsyas (John Melhuish Strudwick, 1879, oil on canvas)

Apollo and Marsyas (John Melhuish Strudwick, 1879, oil on canvas)

One day, Marsyas saw the radiant god Apollo playing his lyre (which, in Greco-Roman society, was the instrument of the aristocracy).  Lord Apollo was clad in the costliest raiment and equipped with the finest gold trappings.  He was inhumanly beautiful…dangerously beautiful.  Marsyas was overwhelmed: he was a crude goat-man, and Apollo was the god of music (and sunshine, and medicine, and prophecy).  At this juncture, Marsyas made a fateful choice–he decided to challenge glorious Apollo to a musical contest. The winner would be able to “do whatever he wanted” with the loser. Marsyas, a satyr (synonymous, in the classical world, with lust) thus imagined that he would “win” or “be won” no matter which way the the competition worked out.

Apollo and Marsyas (Pietro Perugino, late 15th century)

Apollo and Marsyas (Pietro Perugino, late 15th century)

Apollo grew oddly enflamed by the challenge and agreed readily–with one stipulation of his own.  The muses, the goddesesses of art, would judge the event.  Now the muses were daughters of Apollo, both figuratively and literally. To a disinterested observer the arrangement might smack dangerously of favoritism, but Marsyas was blinded by longing and besotted by hist art.

Apollo and Marsyas (Hans Thoma, 1888, oil on canvas)

Apollo and Marsyas (Hans Thoma, 1888, oil on canvas)

The two musicians set up beside a river and began to play.  Apollo played a complicated piece about laws and lords and kings.  It sparkled like sunshine.  It grew oppressively magnificent like the great gods of high Olympus.  It ended like glittering starlight in the cold heavens.  Next Marsyas played and his music was completely different–it spoke to the longing of the weary herdsman coming home at sundown.  It was about the mist rising from furrowed farmlands, about fruit trees budding in the orchard, and about the soft places where the meadows run out into the rivers.

Contest of Apollo and Marsyas, 350-320 BC from Mantineia. Part of the Base of a Sculpture,

Contest of Apollo and Marsyas, 350-320 BC from Mantineia. Part of the Base of a Sculpture,

The muses listened closely to the music and made their choice. “These pieces are played by opposite beings on dissimilar instruments.  The works have completely different subjects, but both pieces are perfect.  Neither is clearly “better” than the other.”  Sublime music had won the contest!

The Contest between Apollo and Marsyas (Tintoretto, About 1545 Oil on canvas)

The Contest between Apollo and Marsyas (Tintoretto, About 1545
Oil on canvas)

But Apollo was not satisfied.  There are two versions of the story: in one he turned his lyre upside down and played it as well as ever (Marsyas, of course, could not do the same with the aulos).  In the other version, Apollo played the lyre and sang (also impossible with the aulos).  “I have two arts, whereas Marsyas has only one!” he proclaimed.   The muses halfheartedly assented: Apollo had officially won the contest.

Apollo flaying Marsyas (Luca Giordano, 17th century, oil on canvas))

Apollo flaying Marsyas (Luca Giordano, 17th century, oil on canvas))

This was the moment Marsyas had planned for.  He was shaking with excitement as Apollo took hold of his unresisting form and shackled him to a tree.   Then Apollo picked up a skinning knife and started flaying the saty’s skin off.  Marsyas screamed and bleated in horror and pain, but Apollo kept cutting and peeling until he had removed the satyr’s entire hide.  Then the lord of music sat and watched while Marsyas bled to death, before hanging up the horrible dripping pelt in the tree and departing.  Vergil avers that the blood of Marsyas stained the river everlastingly red–indeed the waterway was thereafter named the Marsyas.

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Apollo and Marsyas (Bartolomeo Manfredi, ca. 1615-1620, oil on canvas)

The artistic thing to do, would be to leave the story as it stands–to let readers mull the troubling tale on their own. However I have been thinking about it a great deal…Every artist thinks about it a great deal.  Museums are filled with interpretations of the story by history’s greatest painters and sculptors.  There was a version of Apollo and Marsyas painted on the ceiling of the Queen of France (in that version, the skinning is done by underlings as Apollo languidly points out how he wants things done).  Since I have seen plenty of museum-goers blanch when looking at pictures of Marsyas and hastily turn away, I will provide some ready made meta-interpretations to start the conversation.

Apollo and Marsyas from the ceiling of Anne of Austria's summer apartments (Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, ca. mid 17th century, fresco)

Apollo and Marsyas from the ceiling of Anne of Austria’s summer apartments (Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, ca. mid 17th century, fresco)

First, this story is a tale of masters and servants.  The lyre is the instrument of the rich.  It was expensive to own and required tutors to learn.  The aulos was the instrument of shepherds, smallfolk, and slaves.  The tale of exploitation is a very familiar one throughout all of history. It always goes one way: somebody gets fleeced.

The Flaying of Marsyas (Titian, ca.1570-76, oil on canvas)

The Flaying of Marsyas (Titian, ca.1570-76, oil on canvas)

Also this is self-evidently a tale of forbidden sexuality.  It was immensely popular with Renaissance, Baroque, and Victorian artists from the west because of the opressive mores of society.  By presenting this story as a classically varsnished picture, people could represent forbidden ideas about same-gender relationships which society would literally kill them for saying or acting upon.  Indeed the story’s ghastly climax represents exactly that!

Apollo and Marsyas (Giuseppe Cammarano,  19th century, print)

Apollo and Marsyas (Giuseppe Cammarano, 19th century, ink wash)

In a related vein, philosophers and writers interpret the story as “reason chastening lust.”  The former is more powerful than the latter: ultimately the mind subjugates the passions. Perhaps this is why the picture was above the queen’s bed–maybe the king commanded that it be painted there.  Yet the reason of Apollo does not strike me as at all reasonable.  If this is what rationality accomplishes, then reason is monstrous (and it often seems so in the affairs of men). I wish I could sit with Jeremy Bentham and talk about this. Utility and pragmatism oft seem as ruthless as cruel Apollo.

Apollo and Marsyas (Anselmi, 1540, oil on canvas)

Apollo and Marsyas (Anselmi, 1540, oil on canvas)

It is also a tale of artists and their audiences (and their art).  Marsyas does not clearly lose the contest.  His music is as beautiful as that of Apollo–maybe better.  However the game was rigged from the start.  Art is a mountain with infinite facets but the sun of fashion only shines on a few at a time.  The greatest artists are not necessarily appreciated or loved.  I can’t imagine a single artist who painted this story imagined themselves as Apollo. Unless you have personally rigged the game with money and power, it will not benefit you. You must prepare for operatic destruction at the hands of the world.  It is a terrible part of art.  The world’s inability to discern true worth is one of life’s most disappointing aspects.

Marsyas Flayed by the Order of Apollo (Charles André van Loo, 1735, oil on canvas)

Marsyas Flayed by the Order of Apollo (Charles André van Loo, 1735, oil on canvas)

Above all, it is a story of gods and mortals. For daring to step on the field with the divine, mortality is punished with the ultimate penalty–mortality.  I don’t believe in gods or divinity (people who literally believe in such things strike me as dangerous lunatics).  Divinity is a myth–but an important one which informs us concerning humankind’s ultimate purpose and methods.  We have strayed into vasty realms.  I’ll come back to this theme later but for now let’s say that the defeat of Marsyas reveals something.  Would you prefer if he just gave up and groveled before Apollo?  No, there would be no story, no striving, no art. There is a divine seed within his failure–a spark of the celestial fire which animates (or should animate) our lives.

Marsyas Flayed by the Order of Apollo (Charles André van Loo, ca. 1734-1735, oil on canvas)

Marsyas Flayed by the Order of Apollo (Charles André van Loo, ca. 1734-1735, oil on canvas)

Anyway, for putting up with this rather horrible week I have a Halloween treat for you tomorrow.  Remember, I am not just a moral and aesthetic philosopher but a troubled toymaker (and a lost artist) as well.  Happy Halloween!

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It’s movie time here at Ferrebeekeeper! Tonight we are reviewing the DreamWorks animated children’s film “Turbo” which concerns Theo, a humble snail who lives in a garden in the San Fernando Valley. Despite the fact that snails are renowned for being slow and cautious, Theo dreams of blazing speed and obsessively follows Indy Car racing (particularly idolizing the French Canadian champion, Guy Gagné, whose legendary racing prowess is matched by an oversized personality).

 

I like gardening better than car racing so some of this was lost on me

I like gardening better than car racing so some of this was lost on me

The humdrum reality of Theo’s slow-paced life as a lowly “worker” in a vegetable garden seems to preclude him from following his dreams of speedway glory…but after he is cast out of snail society he undergoes a fateful magical (?) transformation and is reborn as Turbo, a supercharged snail capable of blazing speed. Will Turbo be able to find a way into the human world of high speed car racing? Can he make it to Indianapolis and compete in the big race? Could he even maybe win? People who have ever seen a children’s movie may somehow anticipate the answers to these burning questions (and guess that the French Canadian Gagné is less likable than he first seems), but I will try not to spoil the movie for the one person who is somehow both reader of my blog and looking forward to watching a children’s movie which came out last July.

 

(Dreamworks)

(Dreamworks)

In fact devoted readers may be somewhat surprised to find this blog reviewing a children’s movie–or indeed any movie—since the cinematic art has barely been featured here at all; yet Ferrebeekeeper is deeply concerned with mollusks, and Theo/Turbo is unique in being the mollusk hero of a major Hollywood motion picture (and a spinoff television show on Netflix). Additionally, although I found the movie to be a typical work of rags-to-riches whimsy for children, I enjoyed its message about the narrow and chancy ladders to fame and riches which exist for the little guy. Turbo finds a Chicano taco-shop worker who helps the snail find social media fame (which in turn allows him to pursue further ambitions). The crazy world of internet celebrity is the real turbo-boost which elevates the tiny abject creature to the rarified realms of status and importance. It seems significant that when Theo transforms to Turbo he is shown bouncing through the terrifying and incomprehensible labyrinth of a high tech machine he does not understand at all.

Stereotypes? In an animated movie? Nah...

Stereotypes? In an animated movie? Nah…

The movie is most touching when it features the sundry immigrant shopkeepers who inhabit a run down strip mall where they dream simply of having customers. The filmmakers add some colorful urban Angelino snails (tricked out with customized shells) to give the movie some hip-hop “cred”, but it is obviously a movie about trying to compete in a world where the real contenders are playing in a vastly different league. The only aspect of mollusk existence which seemed true to life was the ever-present fear of being crushed or gobbled up (since Turbo and his snail friends are continuously and realistically threatened with being smashed by monopolistic giants and high speed machines).

Aaaaagh!

Aaaaagh!

I love animated movies and so I am giving Turbo a (very generous) rating of 3.5 shells out of a possible 5. Although the movie was colorful, well animated, and fun, it was much less involved with the bizarre and amazing world of mollusks than it might have been. It was almost as though the snail was a whimsical stand-in for omnipresent economic concerns about globalization. Also the 3D stuff did not work at all. Hollywood, stop featuring 3D! It is a horrible horrible feature which everyone hates!

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The 1988 Jamaican Bobsled Team

In high-low poker the person with the best hand of cards splits the cash pot with the person with the very worst hand.  I mention this because, in addition to spotlighting the world’s best athletes, every Olympics seems to feature an athlete or a team who wins the hearts of the fans because they are in way over their head.  The 1988 Olympics in Calgary, which marked the apogee of this trend, featured several different underdogs who became more famous than the actual winners.  The Jamaican bobsled team came from a nation which doesn’t have ice except in tropical drinks.  Their story is actually an inspiring tale of Olympic fraternity: other bobsledders lent them equipment (including bobsleds!) and helped them out with coaching and advice.  Although they did not officially finish in 1988, they showed great improvement and returned in subsequent winter Olympics (and were canonized in a not-entirely-accurate John Candy comedy).  Here’s a video of them zig-zagging down the track and crashing (it isn’t a practice run either).

Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards at Calgary

The 1988 Olympics also featured my favorite Olympic story—Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards, a far-sighted, big-chinned amateur British ski-jumper.  When I say “far-sighted” I don’t mean he looked deep into the future of the sport, I mean his vision was seriously impaired and he had to wear heavy glasses at all time.  These spectacles would fog up during his jumps which caused all sorts of problems (and you really don’t want any problems on a ski jump).  Eddie ran out of funds, so he trained with ski boots many sizes too large and lived rent-free in a Finnish mental hospital (ostensibly as a low rent boarder rather than as a patient).  On each of his jumps Eddie skirted dangerously close to death or contusion, yet he always provided an immensely entertaining spectacle.  The audience was a bit baffled by the flying-squirrel-like physiques and esoteric gliding skills of the winning ski jumpers, but bonded instantly with a lunatic everyman sliding off an immense ice-ramp for reasons of obdurate pride.

1998 Japanese Women’s Hockey Team

In the 1998 winter Olympics, the Japanese women’s hockey team (which was made up of miniscule, hyper-polite athletes) earned an automatic invitation to the tournament because Japan was hosting the Olympics.  I seem to remember watching a match where they were playing against craggy-faced giants from some icebound northern country and every single Japanese player fell down at the same time. Some of them didn’t (or couldn’t) make it upright for a while.

Eric “The Eel” Moussambani

In 2000 Eric Moussambani Malonga (aka “Eric the Eel”), a swimmer from Equatorial Guinea, stunned the world by taking longer to complete the 100 meter freestyle than competitors from other nations took to swim the 200 meter freestyle. “The Eel” who had been training for only eight months in a tiny hotel pool, had qualified for the Olympics when the two other swimmers in his heat were disqualified.  He swam his heat by himself—and won (even though he appeared to be sinking at the end).

Hamadou Djibo Issaka

Of course I would not mention these famously…tenacious…Olympians of yesteryear if the 2012 games did not already feature an athlete notable for his gallant but ineffectual effort.  An optimistic (albeit small-framed) sculler has already made a name for himself by, well, by not rowing as quickly as his competitors.    Hamadou Djibo Issaka was working as a gardener in the landlocked desert nation of Niger until he received a wild card spot (which nbcolympics.com explains are issued “to ensure all 204 National Olympic Committees can take part even if no athletes have qualified.”)  Although Djibo Issaka only practiced rowing a single scull for 3 months prior to the Olympics he demonstrated his spirit and determination by competing against the finest rowers in the world.  Yesterday, he gamely rowed a 2000 meter course in front of 20,000 cheering spectators.  Although he finished 300 meters behind his closest competitor in the heat, he was pleased not to have fallen out of his boat (which is what happened the first time he got in a scull in a two-week camp last November) and he is enthusiastic about Niger’s future rowing opportunities once they actually get sculls to practice with.

Hamadou Djibo Issaka rowing at the 2012 Olympics

Although he is now known as “the sculling sloth” the 35 year old Djibo Issaka was undaunted by his last place finish.  He will be rowing again on Friday and is looking forward to 2016.  I am glad that the Olympics include all sorts of athletes!  It makes the entire spectacle more exciting and unpredictable.   The gold medal champions embody the Olympics motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (“faster, higher, stronger”), but the amateurs who refuse to give up embody the Olympics creed.   To quote Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

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