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After the launch of my website at Brooklyn’s annual mermaid parade, I can’t seem to quite escape the theme of mermaids.  Of course, this is arguably the symbolic point of mermaids, which represent the intensity of an impossible longing which can never be escaped.  Most of the mermaid pictures from the 19th century show sailors leaping to their doom in the watery depths, unable to resist the siren song or the beautiful & unreal people who live in a different realm.  The besotted swains die in beautiful pale arms which may not even exist…watery arms which may represent strange ideas, inimical to the patterns of life.  Like the tale of Apollo and Marsyas, it is a theme which artists come back to again and again.  Painters know what it means to embrace self-annihilation following an impossibly gorgeous song which nobody else can seem to hear…

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To illustrate this aspect of the mermaid theme…and of art itself–I am returning to Franz Von Stuck, the cofounder of the Munich Succession.  Stuck’s mythological themed art transcended the chocolate-box aesthetics of turgid 19th century academic art.  It spoke directly to the doom and sadness and impossible dreamlike beauty of life.  The mermaids in his art seem to have a carnal energy & bestial strength which is taken directly from human struggle.  They embody the wild energy of symbolism and the avant garde as art broke from the glacial forms of 19th century realism. Yet, like the mermaid, which is half one thing and half another, Stuck’s art directly partakes of 19th century realism too.  It is superb figurative art and the 20th century would embrace a much different form.  Stuck was a transitional artist, and when he was old, his work was regarded as old-fashioned and irrelevant to a generation of artists who witnessed the horrors of industrial warfare in the trenches of the Somme and Verdun.

Most of the successful artists of the 19th century were disgusted by the raw broken forms of early 20th century art, but Stuck, to his enormous credit, recognized that success means being left behind.  He taught the next generation of artists the forms he knew so that they could break them to pieces.  He used his connections to uplift the careers of his students Hans Purrmann, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, and Paul Klee.  It is ironic that the figurative painter taught a generation of rebels who fractured art and brought it to strange abstruse realms.

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There is a dark shadow cast by Stuck’s art as well.  The art professor who was married to an American divorcee and taught diverse students from across Eastern Europe had a shadow disciple he never knew about. Stuck was Hitler’s favorite artist from childhood onwards.  How different the mermaid’s song sounds in different ears!  Did Hitler look at these same sea maidens and see Teutonic beauty? Was Hitler angry that the nostalgic art of the German Empire was debased by 20th century abstraction? It must have been so.

This brings us to a large question which I wish to address more frequently: what is the point of art?  People who dislike art will say “there is none” and people who love art will be speechless at the temerity of the question. Yet it is a question which must be asked every generation. Indeed the answers vary from generation to generation, just as the art varies (although I suspect the ultimate answers are of a similar transcendent nature).

When I was younger I imagined that art was like homework…perhaps like an essay.  You went home and created the best work which you could in solitude.  If you crafted a sufficiently dense tapestry of artistic, literary, and scientific allusions with appropriate bravura and craftsmanship, the world would take note of your ideas.  It is a Disney princess view of art, where the pure spirit disdains the ghastly politics of the world until a prince swoops in and takes her to the apex of society… but life has taught me otherwise.  Art is like politics…it might BE politics.  It is about finding an effective way to share ideas and meaning with a group of people.  It is about organizing social networks in order to do so.  Perhaps that involves painting mythological allusions from Greco-Roman society or perhaps it involves dance or performance or the internet or even more experimental and unexplored forms.

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Art is the mermaid’s song.  It is where our ideas of beauty and meaning come from.  It is how we conceptualize the world as it is and as it should be.  I am unhappy with the world.  It seems to be drifting along the way Stuck’s world was when he died (in Munich in 1928 amidst a time of political rancor and a hollow economic boom which was followed by a crippling depression).  His true students were busy representing these problems in abstract forms which nobody understood.  His shadow student found a more direct way to move people by standing up in Munich and saying “Germany First!”  So what is the good of art?  How can we stop the would-be-Hitlers.  How can we save the fish of the ocean from going extinct?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I am working on it and thinking about it.  You should be too.

Artists need to stop navel gazing and concentrating on social problems solved back in the sixties. and look at our real global-sized problems of the Anthropocene.  The environmental and economic problems of the world are leaving the corporate and identity art which fills up Chelsea’s galleries far behind. In a hundred years nobody will care about who Tracey Emin slept with, but they might well wonder why the oceans have no fish or how America became a imperial principate.  I don’t know if art can help solve these problems, but maybe talking about them can help.  In the meantime don’t listen to the corporate siren song of infinite growth and absolute greed which says sit at your cubical 15 hours a day and do what you are told and you might have leather bucket seats.  Listen to the artist’s siren song which says “Why? Why? Why?  Oh can’t we do better?  Oh can’t we come up with new things?”

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Loteria is a bingo-style game of Latin America (although it descends from an Italian game of the 15th century).  A designated frontperson pulls cards from a deck and calls the images out to players with boards/cards marked with the same images. The players are trying to get markers on four squares in a row to win a prize.  The card-reader often talks in riddles or humorous rhymes to present the cards–which are appealingly heterogeneous.

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As with many other card games through the ages, loteria cards are also used as a mechanism for divination.  This brings us to today’s subject: “la sirena” the mermaid card in the lottery game. La sirena is represented as a classical mermaid—a beautiful nude woman with a green fish tale in lieu of legs.  As you might imagine, the siren can mean many things when she crops up in divinatory readings—representing all sorts of distaff beauty and beguiling opportunities–but the main message is the one which is read in the boilerplate riddle associated with the cards:

Con los cantos de sirena, no te vayas a marear.

A (bad) translation might be “Don’t let the songs of the siren disorient you.”  In Spanish “sirena” is synonymous with dangerous beguilement: the bewitching song and the sea-maiden are one and the same.  The mermaid’s tempting beauty disguises a dangerous situation or is, at best, an illusion. This is a standard truism of the prediction business: It is indeed wise to look carefully at all aspects of an apparently desirable opportunity.  This is especially true in our mercantile world which has become a rigged marketplace.  Anyone looking at the internet will know that every worm online has a hook in it.

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Yet look at the siren: she is the standout knockout of the loteria cards.  Additionally, she has a mythological gravitas which the flowerpot, the boot, and the saucepan (other loteria cards) sorely lack.  Surely her otherworldly beauty (and the beauty of her ocean habitat) have a worth which transcends a sententious admonition about temptation. It is true that mermaids are fantasy, but that doesn’t mean the longing they represent isn’t a puissant force.

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Such thoughts also bring us to the dangerous misogyny inherent in mermaid concepts.  In classical art and literature, beautiful sea maidens are most often an allegory for the trouble which lust brings men into. This seems unfair to mermaids who should be free to be who they are without being chastened as temptresses.  Perhaps the real message of the mermaid is in her fundamental irreconcilable juxtaposition—she is a being who is one thing above and another thing below—a hybrid entity who lives in two incompatible worlds.  That sounds like most people torn by the conflict of pursuing our own dreams and being forced by wage capital to help other people work on awful alien dreams which mean nothing to us.  Perhaps we should spare some sympathy for the mermaid.  That doesn’t mean we should let pretty flippers blind us to the perils of the ocean.  Maybe when we look into her lovely features we shouldn’t see a trap, we should see a mirror–ourselves in an impossible predicament we have always been in.

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I promised a beautiful painting of Jesus for Easter and here is one of my favorite altarpieces from the Met.  This wonderful painting is “The Crucifixion with Saints and a Donor.”  It was largely painted by Joos Van Cleve (with some assistance from an unknown collaborator) and was finished around 1520.  The painting is very lovely to look at! Joos Van Cleve endowed each of the saints with radiant fashionable beauty and energy.  From left to right, we see John the Baptist with his lamb and coarse robe; Saint Catherine with her sinister wheel (yet looking splendid in silk brocade and perfect makeup); Mary is leftmost on the main panel in royal blue; Saint Paul holds the cross and touches the head of the donor (whose money made all of this possible); and Saint John wears vermilion garb and has a book in a pouch as he gesticulates about theology. On the right panel are two Italian saints, Anthony of Padua and Nicholas of Tolentino.  Probably this altarpiece was an Italian commission or maybe the Flemish donor had business or family connections in Italy.

But van Cleve’s delightful saints are only half of the picture. In the background, the unknown collaborator has painted a magnificently picturesqe landscape of cold blue and lush green.  Fabulous medieval towns come to life amidst prosperous farmlands.  Rivers snake past forboding fortresses and great ports.  The distant mountains become more fantastical and more blue till they almost seem like surreal abstraction in the distance.  You should blow up the picture and let your spirit wander through this landscape (I think WordPress has discontinued that feature in a bid to frustrate users, however you can go the Met’s website and zoom into the painting and step directly back into 16th century northern Europe).

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Somewhat lost in this pageant of visual wonders is, you know, Jesus.   The painting’s lines don’t even really point to him. He suffers on his cross in emaciated, gray-faced anguish, forgotten by the richly robed saints and the wealthy burghers of the low country. Only the Virgin seems particularly anxious. Yet, though Van Cleve has de-emphasized the savior within the composition, he has painted Christ with rare grace and feeling.  The viewer can get lost in the landscape (or looking at Catherine’s lovely face) but then, as we are craning our neck to see around the cross, the presence of a nailed foot reminds us this is a scene of horror and divinity.  I have spent a long time looking at this painting and I found the the juxtaposition of wealth, industry, fashion, and riches, with the overlooked figure of Jesus naked and suffering to be quite striking. It is a reminder to re-examine the story of Jesus again against the context of more familiar surroundings. I am certainly no Christian (not anymore) but it seems like there might even be a lesson here for America’s ever-so-pious evangelicals.  With all of the excitement of wealth and political power and 24 hour Fox news and mean supreme court justices and billionaire golfers and super models and what not, I wonder if there is anyone they are maybe forgetting…

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The ancient Babylonians looked up at the glittering night stars and saw the shapes they knew from nature and from the myths of Mesopotamian civilization: a lion, a maiden, a scale, a scorpion, a centaur archer, a water goat (?),  a water bearer, a pair of fish, twins, a ram, a bull, and a solipsistic crab.  For thousands of years, these ancient emblems fascinated the imagination and represented the changing influence of the heavens upon humankind throughout the year.   Roman astronomers and calendar makers formally enshrined the twelve symbols as a circle of twelve 30° divisions of celestial longitude: a calendar for the whole year.  This zodiac has been with us for a long time. The twelve figures lie at the center of the fun pseudoscience of astrology (which has no rational validity but which is a great way to strike up conversations and analyze the most fascinating subject of our times: the self).

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But what if the Babylonians and the Romans got it wrong?  There was always some awkward wiggle room in their calculations.  Was there a 13th zodiac sign which ancient magi/natural philosophers skipped out of ignorance, fear, or fascination with the number 12?  This is the provocative but largely meaningless question posed by NASA in a spectacular announcement of a newly found thirteenth constellation!  Well actually they have not so much found this constellation Ophiuchus, as reinstated it in the circle of the night sky as illustrated in the stunning graphic below.

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Orpiurchus, “The Snake-bearer” has long been in the heavens—although it is hard to see from northern latitudes–and astrologists and iconographers have flirted with the idea of including him in the classic zodiac (which kind of only works in the northern hemisphere anyway).   The snake bearer does have an emotional resonance with Mesopotamian, Greco-Roman, AND Judaeo-Christian cultures, all of which have intense snake-themed myths about knowledge, hubris, and humankind’s uneasy place in the cosmos.

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ZodiacBooks.com presents us with an overview of the emotional traits of these new snake carriers as, “spirited, magnetic, impulsive, clever, flamboyant, and at times jealous, power-hungry, and temperamental [people born in this sign] want to heal the world of all ills and bring everyone closer together.” Hmm, it sort of sounds like everyone I know except for my crabby Cancer friend.  Obviously shoehorning a whole 13th symbol into the calendar has moved everything around, so here are the new dates, if you are afraid you might actually have some other personality than the one you have always had:

Capricorn: January 20-February 16

Aquarius: February 16-March 11

Pisces: March 11-April 18

Aries: April 18-May 13

Taurus: May 13-June 21

Gemini: June 21-July 20

Cancer: July 20-August 10

Leo: August 10-September 16

Virgo: September 16-October 30

Libra: October 30-November 23

Scorpio: November 23-November 29

Ophiuchus: November 29-December 17

Sagittarius: December 17-January 20

Of course a cynical natural scientist might surmise that random patterns of stars (which lie many many light years from each other) have no influence whatsoever on our little lives.  NASA, which deals in real science and engineering, but which desperately needs ATTENTION to thrive in our chaotic late-stage democracy says as much on their website.  They have essentially slapped a “for novelty purposes only” asterisk on this entire story (AND on astrology). We will see if Orpiurchus becomes a lasting part of the heavens or if he slinks back into dark obscurity like he did in the 1970s (or in this beautiful Rouseeau painting below which has nothing to do with this attention-seeking story). In the meantime, this is a fine opportunity to talk to people about their personalities and their birthdays and about what they want from the world. Whatever his nature, the snake-bearer can thus help us fulfil the true purpose of astrology!

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The oldest known epic is The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was composed during the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100 BC). It is regarded as the first great work of literature–a masterpiece which examines humankind’s quest for transcendent meaning in the face of our mortality.

It is a beautiful work about friendship, sorrow, and heroism. I have always meant to write about it here–for the epic’s two greatest scenes take place in a forest and in outer space. The crushing moral denouement is delivered by a water snake. However I have always hesitated because, although it seems outwardly straightforward, The Epic of Gilgamesh defies easy categorization. Suffice to say, humankind reaches out for godhood, yet, though our fingers tantalizingly brush the numinous, apotheosis slips ineluctably away. We are only what we are. Even the greatest human heroes–kings who found dynasties and pursue mysteries to the ends of the solar system–are still sad and lonely. And everyone must die.

And so it has been for 4 millennia. One does not expect updates to literature written before chickens were domesticated or iron was forged. However this week featured an unexpected gift from the ancient past. Twenty new lines of The Epic of Gilgamesh were discovered!

The story of how scholars in Iraq found the new text is amazing in its own right: the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan region of Iraq has been offering cash compensation for cultural treasures with no strings attached. Since so many antiquities have been displaced by the war and have gone wandering, this Indiana Jones-like scheme is regarded as the best way to protect the ancient heritage of the region. Unknown looters showed up with an cuneiform fragment. The museum director paid them $800.00 for the piece (which would only be chicken scratches to anyone other than a great scholar of Akkadian). As it turns out, the extant version of Gilgamesh comes from an incomplete collection of tablets unearthed at different times and in different places. This clay tabley features 20 entirely new lines from tablet V of the epic.

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The best part of this story is that the new fragment is really good! It is an important and meaningful addition to the story. In tablet V he heroes of the epic Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight and kill Humbaba, the monstrous guardian of the great cedar forest. In the twenty new lines they reflect on the fact that Humbaba was a king, trying to protect his realm. They rue the destruction of the cedar forest (where they encountered monkeys and other exotic creatures) and they realize that they have disturbed the divine order of things and incurred the wrath of Ishtar.

The fragment thus gives the characters a more refined conscience and introduces an environmentalist theme. The idea that humans can injure the planet and permanently destroy irreplaceable life forms is new and alien to many contemporary people. It strikes a powerful chord appearing in the first work of literature. Yet it seems to me that themes of environmental devastation (and consciousness concerning our own destructive nature) are hardly out of place in a story which deals with the creation of civilization and the liminal edges of humanity.

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The Last Judgement (Alex Gross, 2007, oil on canvas)

I failed to write a post for Martin Luther King Junior Day because I was out enjoying the holiday….just off gallivanting around the 19⁰ city (I guess that translates to -7 degrees in Celsius, in case my European readers mistakenly think I moved to Rangoon). To make up for the omission, here is a historically charged contemporary artwork by Alex Gross. Gross is a Los Angeles based artist who is part of the pop-surrealism movement which is based out there (aka “Low Brow” art). This painting is titled “The Last Judgement” and it portrays an anachronistic union between the races occurring in 1930s New York…among other things.

In the painting, Frederick Douglass, the great human rights leader and voice of abolition, weds a Chinese bride…or perhaps he is giving her away (the ceremonial import of his great sword and strawberry ice cream are unclear—although they suggest he has finally obtained power and leisure). The bride has left Chinese tradition behind enough to wear white, the bride’s color of purity in the west but the color of mourning in China. There is an anxious cast to her features which suggest that she may be with Douglass as a symbolic rebuke to the racist and xenophobic immigration acts which bedeviled the United States in the late nineteenth century (reactionary laws which do not show the American democracy or melting pot at its strongest).

Around the two figures ancient WASP ghosts rise from the ground, but they are joyously photographing the moment and releasing butterflies. A coral snake curls at the couple’s feet, for the way forward is always filled with perils. In the background a blimp crashes into the Chrysler building…for the conturbations of the greater world continue, irrespective of the state of relations among our citizenry. I have no idea what the goat means: is she an outcast figure of disunity? A happy pet? An ancient agricultural figure showing up along with the resurrected dead? Who knows?

I am a big fan of pop-surrealism (aka “Low Brow”) art, though I hate both of its names. I like the ambiguous symbolic literary meld of figures from history and natural history. Such paintings must be interpreted, and there is often plenty of room for ambiguity which gives the mind great scope to contemplate aesthetics and the direction of human affairs. Gross’ emphasis on style, technique, and beauty is telling. This is a painting by someone who can paint well. It has beauty and narrative although the absurd anachronism of its cast and its implicit polemic threaten to overwhelm its winsome charms. Contemporary critics, distrustful of beauty and meaning, accuse the style of being intellectually facile. To them the symbols become merely pictorial and lose their meaning. I feel like that may sometimes be true of Mark Ryden, who does indeed seem to have lost sight of what Lincoln and pre-pubescent girls mean. Yet that isn’t true here. This painting is not located in the great morass of “irony” (where today’s art establishment wanders, phony, lost, and alienated). Instead this hearkens back to Puritan symbolic painting—if that had not been lumbered with the problems of the past. It is a vision from the artist’s heart of a more perfect America.

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
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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!

Mastiff Bat Vessel (Moche, 50-200 AD North Coast, Peru, Earthenware)

Mastiff Bat Vessel (Moche, 50-200 AD North Coast, Peru, Earthenware)

Longtime readers will remember that Ferrebeekeeper has a great fondness for the magnificent art and pottery of the Moche, a civilization noted for sophisticated agriculture, ultra-violence, and, um, magnificent art and pottery. The Moche lived in the rich coastal lands of what is now northern Peru. In the past we have written about their art of sea monsters and human sacrifice, and of waterfowl. Today we look at Moche bat-themed art.

Crescent-Shaped Ornament with Bat, C.E. 1 - 300 (from the Brooklyn Museum)

Crescent-Shaped Ornament with Bat, C.E. 1 – 300 (from the Brooklyn Museum)

Double lobed whistling bat sculpture (Ca. 450 - 800 A.D.) the bat makes a chirping/whistling noise when water is poured out and air is blown in

Double lobed whistling bat sculpture (Ca. 450 – 800 A.D.) the bat makes a chirping/whistling noise when water is poured out and air is blown in

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Gold Bat Ornament (Moche)

Gold Bat Ornament (Moche)

Bats were beloved subjects of much pre-Colombian art (I owe everyone a post about the bat in Aztec art and myth). Although they were great artists, the Moche were scary people who were always sacrificing and garroting and flaying (more about that next week) and excarnating and hanging corpses everywhere. Yeesh… Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bats of Moche art are scary creatures with grimacing monster teeth and near-human expressions of malice and grief.

Early Intermediate (Moche IV), Mochica Molded stirrup-spout vessel, A.D. 500–700 Ceramic with red and white slip North coast, Peru

Early Intermediate (Moche IV), Mochica Molded stirrup-spout vessel, A.D. 500–700 Ceramic with red and white slip North coast, Peru

Moche IV ceramic stirrup spout bat form effigy vessel

Moche IV ceramic stirrup spout bat form effigy vessel

Sadly we don’t know precisely what place the bat held in Moche mythology. In fact we don’t know anything about Moche mythology except what we can intuit visually. However there are lots of bats to visually interpret and it seems like a safe bet that they had a chthonic underworld meaning (as they do in Western art and culture). These bats are demons and monsters born of the dark night-side of the human spirit.

Moche Vessel (Early Intermediate period) Bat demon

Moche Vessel (Early Intermediate period) Bat demon

Probably Moche (?) AD 200-500

Probably Moche (?) AD 200-500

All of these grimacing fanged bats with bared claws and anguished eyes make me think of the Moche people themselves—caught up in their centuries-long game of bloody worship and savage status. I wish I could help them, or even understand them, but they are gone. All we have are their skeletons and their beautiful dark art.

Moche - Pair of Gilt Bat Appliques. Loma Negra, Peru.

Moche – Pair of Gilt Bat Appliques. Loma Negra, Peru.

Gold Nasal Ornament with bat (Moche)

Gold Nasal Ornament with bat (Moche)

Study for "The Voyage of Life: Childhood" (Thomas Cole, ca. 1840, oil on canvas)

Study for “The Voyage of Life: Childhood” (Thomas Cole, ca. 1840, oil on canvas)

I have been thinking a great deal about beautiful & meaningful allegorical paintings (indeed, you can go to this gallery of my own art and look at the strange seething world of symbolic paintings I have been creating under “Allegories”).  Here is a very lovely painting from the nineteenth century American master Thomas Cole.  This is a study for “The Voyage of Life: Childhood” the first painting of his magnum opus “The Voyage of Life,” a series of four huge paintings which portray a human life as a river running through the four seasons (I have put the relevant detail from the finished painting at the bottom of this post, but, for reasons unknown, I like the study better)

This is the beginning of life—an angel is launching an infant out of celestial darkness into the world. The little child is frolicking in delight among a fulsome bouquet of spring flowers little aware of the waterfalls, rapids, and sluggish poisonous bends which lie along the great river.  What the painting lacks in symbolic subtly it makes up for with its boundless energy, personality, and immediate glowing exuberance.

Cole was not a pessimist—he viewed life as a dazzling sojourn of pellucid joy.  This is a view which has fallen out of fashion in art (and maybe in larger realms of thought and endeavor), but the jubilant baby in this picture and the tender solicitous angel from suggests that we might want to revisit Cole’s worldview.

Detail from "The Voyage of Life Childhood" (Thomas Cole, 1840, oil on canvas)

Detail from “The Voyage of Life Childhood” (Thomas Cole, 1840, oil on canvas)

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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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