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Working Title/Artist: Strigilated vase with snake handles and lid Department: Greek & Roman Art Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 05 Working Date: second half of 2nd century A.D. photography by mma, DP146531.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 4_2_08

Here is a marble vase crafted by unknown Roman master artisans in the latter half of the 2nd century A.D.  Two beautiful sinuous snakes coil around the edges of a sumptuous ogee shaped body.  The snakes’ bodies form the handles for the vase which is covered in lovely double “S” curves (as is the lid which is surmounted by a finial).  There are no inscriptions on the vase, so it is unclear if it was a funerary vessel, but the shape was a characteristic one for cremated remains.  Likewise, snakes had a religious significance in classical society. They were regarded as sacred to the gods below the Earth.  These serpents certainly have knowing expressions appropriate for chthonic intermediaries who know the secrets of the underworld.  However snakes have always looked like that to me.  Can you imagine carving this…out of stone…by hand?  I am pretty good with my hands, but the idea of all these perfect matched curves is beyond me.  Whoever this vase was originally meant for, it is now a monument to the master makers who lived nearly two thousand years ago.  It is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art right here in New York–hopefully it will there sit on an elegant plinth while adoring crowds coo at it for another 2,000 years…yet the future has a disturbing way of eluding our hopes.

Ok, I apologize for this week.  A friend of mine generously agreed to teach me 3D computer assisted design on Thursday, and I had a cold last night and just fell asleep after work–so there were only a measly 3 posts this week!  To make up for it, I will put up this week’s sketches tomorrow in a special Sunday post—so tune in then (and bring all of your friends and loved ones too!) but first, here is a rare Saturday post–a weird jeremiad about guilds.

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“Guilds” you are saying,” didn’t those die off in the middle ages? We live in a glistening modern world of opportunities now!”  Actually, guilds didn’t die at all—they have morphed and proliferated in ways both beneficial and detrimental to society.  We should think seriously about this and ask whether the ambiguous benefits of guild outweigh their unfair anti-competitive nature.

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First let’s quickly go back to the Middle Ages when there were two competing ways of learning professional trades.  You could go to a guild, where weird old men made you do sit on a bench and do menial tasks for twenty years while you competed in pointless status games with your cruel peers (and underwent fearsome hazing).  Assuming you survived all of this, you became part of the guild, and participated in its quasi-monopoly on trading fish with the Baltic, making oakum ropes, scrivening, alchemy, accounting, or whatever. Savvy readers will see the roots of the AMA, the Bar Association, and even our great universities and trade schools (and maybe our secondary schools) in this model.

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The other way was the master/apprentice system.  This is now most familiar to us through wizards, kung fu warriors, artists, Jedi, and other fictional characters—which is to say it has not proliferated in the modern world.  A wise master would take a favorite student under his/her wing and teach them the ropes.  This system had the advantage of being better and faster than the guild system—it can truly foster rare genius– but it had all of the Jesus/Peter, Jedi/Sith, father/son problems familiar to us through fiction. Namely the master frequently held on too long, became evil, started giving sermons in the wilderness, or otherwise went bad: or the apprentice decided they did not want to wait but were ready to paint naked ladies instead of mixing paint…or to enchant brooms or to fight the howling serpent gang.

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During the nineteenth century, law and medicine were learned like gunsmithing, coopering, and hat-making: through apprentices.  It worked fine for law but not for medicine (although I am not sure 19th century medicine was worthwhile anyway).   Today we have universities and professional schools controlling all the ways upward in society (provided you have adequate money and have passed through endless mandarin-style standardized tests).  It is making society sclerotic.  Anybody who has spent time in a contemporary office will instantly recognize the parochial narrow-minded professional mindset encountered at every turn.  We have a society made up of narrowly educated reactionaries monopolizing each profession. Time to open things up a bit with a different model.  The apprentice system worked well in the past.  Let’s try it again (and get rid of these smug gate-keeping professional schools in the process).

Nothing could go wrong here!

Nothing could go wrong here!

Frankly I suspect that Doctors alone should have guilds.  It is the only discipline important enough and complicated enough to warrant the stranglehold protectionism of a professional association.  The great medical associations make use of master/apprentice-style relationships later on in a doctor’s training anyway, and they have proven themselves responsible guardians of their sacred trust in numerous other ways.  Lawyers, florists, morticians, artists, clowns, accountants, underwater welders, actuaries and other dodgy modern professionals should compete through the open market. If you want to be a businessman find a businessman and train with him until you know enough to defeat him in open business combat. If you want to be a florist or a computer programmer, find a master florist or a master programmer.  Disciplines like geology and engineering could keep pseudoscientists and frauds out of their ranks with continuing brutal tests.

Nice Digital Serpent!

Nice Digital Serpent!

Of course it is possible that this whole post is merely an angry reaction to troubles in my own extremely subjective profession, art. Contemporary art schools are thoroughly worthless in every way. Back during the 50s and 60s, a bunch of doofy political theorists took over and hijacked art (which has many unpleasant similarities to political theory…but which is not political theory). Art has been a meaningless game of celebrity and identity-politics ever since.  It is sadly devoid of the master craftsman aspect which once made it great. I didn’t learn art at a famous art school.  I learned from a great master painter…who went a bit bonkers and moved off to China to practice veganism and sit on a mountain. That is the way things should be! This business of going to Yale or RISDI needs to be thrown on history’s scrapheap.

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A Young Man in a Fur Cap and a Cuirass (Carel Fabritius, 1654, oil on canvas)

A Young Man in a Fur Cap and a Cuirass (Carel Fabritius, 1654, oil on canvas)

Carel Fabritius (1622 – 12 October 1654) was the most gifted and innovative of Rembrandt’s many pupils. He alone escaped from the master’s shadow by reversing his teacher’s signature style: whereas Rembrandt was known for showing a brightly lit subject against a background of darkness, Fabritius painted dark subjects on a bright background. He certainly had a measure Rembrandt’s masterful humanism (as is evidenced by the soulful self-portrait above). In the early 1650s, Fabritius moved to Delft where a revolution in optics was underway. Based on the below painting “A View of Delft” painted in 1652, Fabritius was an early experimenter with lenses and optics in the visual arts. It is believed he taught Vermeer (who also used lenses to create special effects in his masterworks) and thus was an integral link between the two great 17th century Dutch masters.

A View of Delft (Carel Fabritius, 1652, oil on canvas)

A View of Delft (Carel Fabritius, 1652, oil on canvas)

Indeed Fabritius would likely be one of the most famous luminaries of world art with renown commensurate to Rembrandt & Vermeer except for a tragic and bizarre accident. On October 12, 1654–360 years ago yesterday–Cornelis Soetens opened the door of a gunpowder magazine located in a repurposed Clarissen convent (Soetens was the official keeper of said powder chamber). It is unclear what exactly went wrong but all 66,138 pounds of gunpowder ignited and combusted. The resultant explosion destroyed much of Delft. Fabritius was caught in the explosion and sustained mortal wound. As an added injury, the explosion destroyed Fabritius’ studio along with the majority of his life’s work. Only twelve known paintings remain—but they are very good paintings!

Here is one of my all time favorite paintings by the peerless hand of one of history’s greatest painters.  Guo Xi was a Chinese literati painter from the Northern Song dynasty.  He was born and lived in Henan from (approximately) 1020 AD – 1090 AD.

Not only was Guo Xi a matchless scroll painter, he was also a scholar, a writer, a gentleman, and a philosopher who thought deeply about the world he was painting.  Guo Xi’s paintings look a little bit like all subsequent Chinese paintings because nearly every subsequent painter either copied him or (more flatteringly) deliberately set about attempting not to copy him.  He has a position similar to Giotto in the west, and is famous for perfecting “floating perspective” and writing a treatise on how to paint landscapes.

Early Spring (Guo Xi, 1072, ink and light watercolor on hanging silk scroll)

The painting above, titled “Early Spring” is his magnum opus.  Using successive layers of black ink wash Guo Xi has portrayed the wet forests of Henan in March or April, just before the trees and flowers burst into bloom.  The billowing clouds are mixed up with floating gray boulders and mountains.  The melt water and rain of late winter storms is cascading down the mountains in numerous rivulets and waterfalls–which empty out into mountain pools and lakes.  Even though the trees and gorse are bare, there is an impalpable hint of spring in the painting. Though leafless, the vegetation seems anything but lifeless.  The cold of winter has not passed but the first tiny hints of better weather seem to be on the way.

It is easy to miss the extensive human presence in this painting because the temples and pavilions of humankind are dwarfed by nature, but, as one zooms in (which you really should do by clicking on the image), one sees that people are indeed involved in the painting.  On the right, fishermen ply their trade amidst the cold rising water while a second group of boatmen have landed on the left side and prepare to schlep their goods up the mountain to the sacred buildings in the center.  Part way up the hill, a sage listens to a woman play the flute.  The tiny people seem excited for spring to come.  They look cold but happy as the elements and seasons swirl and change around them.

The heights of the mountain which blend into clouds are free of people. Covered in serene pines, they hint at an esoteric realm we can only aspire too.  But even on the rarefied heights the relentless progression of seasons and the world is evident.  The painting shows the of natural flux—of tao—and it suggests that for all of our hauteur, humankind is subject to nature and its relentless whirling change.

A Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens) which I photographed at the Central Park Zoo

Today we present the lovable red panda (Ailurus fulgens), an endangered mammal which is the only species of the only genus of the family Ailuridae.  Weighing up to 15 pounds red pandas are shaped like cats—indeed their scientific name means “shining cats”—however they are not at all closely related to cats and their nearest cousins are in the superfamily Musteloidea (which includes raccoons, coatis, skunks, as well as mustelids like otters, weasels, and badgers).  These kinship bonds between the red panda and the other Musteloidea are not especially close:  the red panda is a living fossil and taxonomists are still arguing about where to put it.

During the Miocene era (approximately 20 million years ago to 5 million years ago), close relatives of the red panda spread around the temperate forests of earth. Remains of a very similar creature, Pristinailurus bristoli, were found in the magnificent Gray fossil site of Tennessee and fossils of other red panda like creatures have been found throughout Europe, Asia, and North America.  However, today the family consists of one last surviving species which is indigenous only to the high temperate forests of the Himalayan. The animal can be found in India (in Sikkim & Assam), Tibet, Bhutan, in the northern tip of Myanmar, and in southwestern China in the high forests of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Shaanxi. Unfortunately, throughout its range the red panda is endangered from hunting and habitat loss. They are hunted for their glorious red striped coats and bushy tails which help the creatures survive the cold and blend in with lichen-covered trees (but unfortunately attract our primate eyes).

Red pandas predominantly dine on bamboo, but they are omnivores who also consume small mammals, birds, eggs, blossoms, and berries.  In captivity they have been observed to eat the leaves, blossoms, and fruit of maples, beeches, and especially mulberries (perhaps this is what their extinct relatives in Europe and the New World ate).  They are solitary arboreal animals who carefully guard their forest territories and seek each others’ company only during mating season.

…although apparently they do fine together when they are eating pumpkins carved with their faces….

The red panda was not well known during the twentieth century, but because it flourishes in zoos it is becoming ever more famous among new generations of zoo-goers.  To reiterate, the animal flourishes in zoos even as it vanishes in the wild, so some day the red panda might be like that other magnificent orange Asian mammal, the tiger (which are now far more numerous in captivity than in the wild).  Thanks to their success in wildlife centers, red pandas are growing more popular in the media world: in the 2008 film “Kung Fu Panda” an animated red panda was featured as the venerable dojo master Shifu, voiced by Dustin Hoffman (who has admitted to knowing very little about the red panda before taking on the role).  Sikkim has adopted the animal as its official state animal and red pandas are also the mascots for the Darjeeling tea festival.  All of this matters in a ever more human-dominated planet where a species’ charisma to people is what is likely to keep it from going extinct.

Concept Drawings of Master Shifu, the Red Panda Sage from “Kung Fu Panda” by Dreamworks Studios

Speaking of charismatic red pandas, the world’s most famous (real) red panda is a male red panda named Babu who lives at Birmingham Nature Centre, in England. In 2005 Babu escaped into the suburban woods and, like Mia the cobra, attained media stardom before being recaptured. He was subsequently voted Brummie of the year (A Brummie apparently being a resident of Birmingham).  I have often watched Red Pandas at the Bronx, Central Park, and Prospect Park Zoos and I am surprised they do not have a similar designation in New York City.  No animal could be more designed to tickle human tastes or appeal more directly to the “cuteness” short circuit of our brain—at least until the red pandas smile and reveal that their jaws are filled with needle sharp teeth.

A Chinese Painting of a Red Panda (I can’t translate the name of the gifted artist) from auction.artxun.com

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