Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to all you dandelions out there sprouting through the concrete!

Monday, December 30, 2013

My Painting Students 2013

I'll end the year with my painting students from Bronx Community College.  I was very proud of them this year.  None of them had ever painted before.

Amaurys Grullon works on a self portrait using a small mirror.

Here is Amaurys' self portrait

Another portrait from life by Amaurys Grullon of Elba Lopez, a fellow student

Here is a beautiful still life by Elba Lopez

Ruth Luciano made this striking painting for an independent project.

A self portrait by Wendy Moquete

A self portrait by Josefine Bohorquez

Christopher Blake holds up his self portrait.  I had students with a wide variety of skill levels.  Christopher struggled through my class.  This self portrait was a real breakthrough for him and he is obviously proud of it.

A beautifully composed still life by Alberto Arjona

A self portrait by Ivan Ayala Iterian; he made 3 abortive attempts before finally arriving at this one.

A self portrait by Jesus Marte

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Every Artist's Studio Is a Future High End Rental

I'm one of the very last working artists left in Manhattan, and I am there entirely by luck and by chance.  I have no idea how long I will be able to stay in my very affordable work space.  Despite being so affordable,  money is always an issue for me, and the arrangements under which I pay my lease are always provisional.  I've nearly lost the place a dozen times, and yet I'm still there 20 years later.  I doubt that I could find anything similar, certainly not in Manhattan and probably not in Brooklyn anymore; maybe not even in New York.  I know artists who keep studios in small towns upriver on the Hudson (Hudson, NY is fast becoming a town full of artists and galleries driven out by the high costs of New York City).  I know others who live in New York and keep studios in Philadelphia.

This article by Sarah Kendzior is one of many that have come out recently deploring the plight of artists and others like musicians, dancers, actors, etc. in cities like New York and San Francisco where the influx of the very rich drives up rents and leases to such heights as to push them out.  This is definitely something to think about as artists in New York, once a very tough breed that squatted in vacant buildings and made them livable and workable, are reduced to the status of menials and charity cases dependent on the generosity of the plutocracy.  They are still a tough breed, but there are no vacant buildings left anywhere to squat.  The recent end of 5 Pointz, the last artists' commune in New York, spotlights the demise of opportunities for resourceful scroungers.  Resourceful scroungers now must be resourceful spongers to stay afloat, writing grant proposals and cultivating patrons to stay in business.

I don't think this is limited to New York and San Francisco.  They are only the most acute cases.  The same situation is true in large cities across the country.  Even in Sarah Kendzior's own Saint Louis, rents are much higher for artists now than they were even 10 years ago.

People in all of these cities pay pious lip service to The Arts, and yet are making too much money off newly high end real estate to provide any room for the people who make the arts.  Our attitude toward creativity is like our attitude toward childhood.  Just as we sentimentalize childhood and hate kids, so we bang on about "creativity" and "innovation" and yet we despise the misfits who do all the creating and innovating.  In the USA, culture (popular and not) is the creation of the social and economic margins.  The Rich and Beautiful don't make culture.  They buy season tickets to it.  Their need for a pricey pied a terre on each coast is about to marginalize the makers of culture out of existence.

The white-washed shell of 5 Pointz in New York

There are aspects of this problem that are beyond policy fixes.  Artistic and musical subcultures are the creations of middle and lower classes.  Being middle class doesn't count for much anymore, and being lower class counts for less.  The USA is going back to a situation like the late 19th century where a few people owned and ran everything and everyone else was an expendable employee who worked hard for long hours and little pay.  Only today's robber barons are a lot less public-spirited than the ones of the previous Gilded Age.  Ayn Rand didn't exactly encourage philanthropy.  Also, art, like all other professions, is being proletarianized.  Artists are becoming dependent wage earners one way or another, just like engineers, doctors, and lawyers.  I wonder too if this is an unforeseen consequence of over 30 years worth of theoretical criticism that reduces the role of the artist in the cultural-social-economic transaction that is a work of art.  The artist in the end is just a skilled laborer in a predetermined role, according to this school of thought that still dominates academia.
I think that it is striking that so many of the celebrities in contemporary art are not artists, but collectors and curators.  The most famous name in contemporary art is Charles Saatchi who is not an artist, but a billionaire collector.


There is this poster from the Occupy movement a few years back that I think best summarizes the situation of artists (and so many others) these days.  We flourish despite being paved over.

Friday, December 27, 2013

I Hate To Say 'I Told You So,' But ...

Thanks JoeMyGod.

For those of you with short memories, the picture refers to this.

I wonder if California sent Texas a similar note when Enron collapsed.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas to All!

... from New York.

Christmas 2013

We love childhood.  We sentimentalize it and even fetishize it, but let's face it, we hate kids.   The numbers of homeless children in New York City are the highest since the Great Depression.  Sixteen million children, 22% of all children in the USA in 2013 live in poverty.  That's over a fifth of all children in the richest most powerful empire in history.  And numbers for child mortality, child malnutrition rates, child imprisonment, and child deaths from gunfire are about as bad.  And that's in the country that's "Number One!"

In the rest of the world, things are so much worse.

Child soldiers, Syria

Child soldiers, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Child laborers, Bangladesh

Child laborers, Philippines

Child laborers, Uzbekistan

Child prisoners, USA

The gods of gold, power, and death who rule this world and rule our hearts (despite what we say we believe in or don't believe in) demand sacrifice, and kids turn out to be an easy and cheap offering.  We eagerly use them and use them up in our efforts to pile up treasure and force against our inevitable demise.  In our drive to score victory and to dominate our rivals, we forget that we were once small and helpless, entirely dependent upon the care of others.  That some must be kept in misery for the comfort and convenience of others is axiomatic to us. Our drive for success (and even more, our terror of failure) created a world that is every bit as bad, and maybe worse, than the Victorian London Dickens described in his famous A Christmas Carol.

Here is one Austrian economist commenting on Charles Dickens' economic views:

It is this interplay of marketplace forces — which Dickens neither understands nor favors — coupled with Cratchit's passive, sluggish disposition when it comes to improving his marketable skills or opportunities, that accounts for Cratchit's condition in life. My client should no more be expected to pay Cratchit more than his marketable skills merit than would Dickens have paid his stationer a higher than market price for his pen, ink, and paper, simply because the retailer "needed" more money! Dickens's ignorance of basic economics would, if acted upon by Scrooge, have produced adverse consequences for Cratchit himself. Had Ebenezer paid Cratchit a higher salary for his work, he [Scrooge] would very likely have been able to attract a larger number of job applicants from which he could have selected employees whose enhanced marginal productivity might have earned Scrooge even greater profits. At such a point, terminating Cratchit's employment would have been an economically rational act by Scrooge. As matters now stand, Scrooge's employment policies have left him with the kind of groveling, ergophobic, humanoid sponge we have come to know as Bob Cratchit; a man we are expected to take into our hearts as an expression of some warped sense of the "Christmas spirit." Being an astute businessmen, Ebeneezer Scrooge was well aware of the marketplace maxim that "you get what you pay for."

And the numbers of Bob Cratchits with their little tiny Tims out there in the world are in the millions upon millions.  "Groveling, ergophobic, humanoid sponge" ... the folks who own and run the world are proud of their hard-heartedness and make the firm of Scrooge and Marley look like the Red Cross in comparison.

Some of us believe that the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen, came into this world not in some spectacular all powerful theophany, but as one of these children; as the bastard son of an impoverished teenage mother in some back corner colony of the superpower of the day.  And that trashy little tyke would eventually turn the whole cargo cult of power and success upside down.  And in that is our hope.

On Christmas, every child is the Christ child.

Holiday Music For Your Last Minute Shopping Enjoyment

Monday, December 23, 2013

Well, Pardon Me ...

Alan Turing, the gay guy who cracked the Nazi Enigma Code and saved the British bacon in World War II; the same Nancy boy who invented digital technology and the modern computer making this communication possible, was today Royally Pardoned for his conviction 61 years ago of the crime of being homosexual.

This man who is central to the creation of our era, was sent to prison, chemically castrated, and driven to suicide by the nation he helped save from Nazi conquest. Now, that grateful nation rights a terrible and shameful wrong.  Alas, he did not live to see the accolades he so richly deserved.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

You Might As Well Tell Me That There's Marriage Equality In Iran With Ayatollahs Officiating!!!

Marriage equality comes to Utah!  That's right, Utah!

The belly of the Mormon beast now has marriage equality complete with lines of couples at the county clerk's office in Salt Lake City.

Michael Ferguson and Seth Anderson become the first same sex couple legally wed in Utah.  Congratulations to them and to all the happy couples in that state!

It might not last but still ... WOW!



With a marriage equality state (New Mexico) right on its western border, and now very Red State Utah going the way of Iowa with a court order, Texas must be feeling very threatened right now.

I think the DOMA decision in the Supreme Court is bearing fruit.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Taj Mahal: "Enter Thou Among My Servants And Enter My Paradise"

I've posted about the Taj Mahal before, a long time ago, five years.  I posted about it as a kind of Advent meditation, and I'd like to do the same, only a little more expanded now.
I should point out from the beginning that I've never visited the Taj.

This is one of those buildings that I've always loved from afar.  I've never traveled to India, and who knows if I will ever lay eyes on this magnificent building.  It is one of those buildings like the Parthenon that is our unconscious measure for everything "perfect" in architecture.  It is one of those rare buildings where everything works together to create an exhilarating and lasting effect upon our imaginations.

 The Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore called  the Taj Mahal "a teardrop on the cheek of time."  It is indeed a memorial to a lost love, but it is also a religious monument.  When we read the inscriptions on the building, they are not lines from love poetry, but suras or chapters from the Quran; suras mostly about the end of the world and the Day of Reckoning.

The Taj Mahal was the most famous work of the fifth Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan.  He built it as a tomb for his favorite wife (among many), Arjumand Banu Begum, better known to us by the title Shah Jahan gave her, Mumtaz Mahal or The Chosen One of the Palace.  They were married 19 years and she bore him 14 children, 7 of whom survived.  She died giving birth to a daughter who survived.  The Emperor was grief-stricken over her death, and spent 22 years building the tomb that we see today and its surrounding gardens.

Mumtaz Mahal in a portrait that is probably posthumous

Mumtaz Mahal was an indispensable partner in Shah Jahan's reign.  The Emperor was indeed deeply in love with her with an erotic obsession noted in all the contemporary accounts.  She was from a family of Persian nobility and the daughter of the governor of Lahore, Abdul Hasan Asif Khan.  Her grandfather was the powerful treasurer Mirza Ghiyas Beg, given the title of Itimad ad Daulah or "Pillar of the State" by the Fourth Mughal Emperor, Jahangir.  Mumtaz Mahal accompanied her husband on his travels throughout the realm, including on his military campaigns (she died during one such campaign in the Deccan).  She was an accomplished architect designing numerous pleasure gardens around the city of Agra.

Mumtaz Mahal was responsible for the shift in Mughal religious policy away from the tolerant cosmopolitanism of the Third Mughal Emperor Akbar, and toward a purer and more rigid religious orthodoxy.  She was herself devoutly religious with much more orthodox views than those that had previously dominated the imperial court.  She used her influence to expel Christian missionaries and to restore some legal disabilities and special taxes on the Hindu population of India that the Emperor Akbar had removed.  Her sixth child with Shah Jahan would overthrow his bereaved elderly father and reign as the Emperor Aurangzeb; a religious zealot who removed the last vestiges of Akbar's liberalism and actively suppressed Hindu religious practice and Christian expansionism.

According to Muslim tradition on the Indian subcontinent, women who died in childbirth are regarded as saints.  Shah Jahan had all the more reason to revere his beloved wife as a saint when she died giving birth to their fourteenth child.

Shah Jahan, with three of his sons by Mumtaz Mahal, and with his father-in-law Asif Khan in a 17th century book illumination

The design of the Taj Mahal reflects the legacy Shah Jahan wished to create for his deceased wife, not only as deceased royalty, but as a saint.  Our experience of the Taj and its gardens is not only about grief for a beloved wife, but a foretaste of the paradise that awaits the righteous and a premonition of the final Day of Reckoning as it is described in the Quran.  Shah Jahan involved himself personally in the planning and construction of the Taj.  We should probably credit the Emperor at least partially with its design, created by his chief architect, an Afghan by the name of Ustad Ahmed Lahouri ('Ustad' is a title similar to 'Maestro').

But O thou soul at peace,
Return thou unto thy Lord, well pleased, and well pleasing unto Him,
Enter thou among my servants,
And enter My paradise.

Thus reads the inscription around the main gate of the Taj Mahal, the concluding passage from sura 89 of the Quran.  The magnificent South Gate of red sandstone and marble prepares us for the splendor within, and reminds us of its religious significance.  What we are about to enter is not a dream of love, but a glimpse of the paradise of the blessed as understood in Islam.

When we enter the gate, we get our first glimpse of the Taj looming in the distance.  This is one of the world's most spectacular architectural effects, especially in the morning hours when the mists from the Yamuna river still linger.  The great ivory bulk of the mausoleum rises both grand and otherworldly in the changing light of the day.  Some scholars, Wayne Begley (PDF download) in particular, suggest that its unusually large size and dazzling whiteness was meant to suggest the Throne of Allah at the end of time, presiding over the gardens of paradise.

There are numerous passages in the Quran describing Paradise as a garden, as a kind of eternal Garden of Eden watered by four celestial rivers and filled with flowers, fruiting trees, and fragrance that never perishes.  The architects of the Taj Mahal laid out its garden to be an image of Paradise as described in the Quran.
This is a reminder: The righteous have deserved a wonderful destiny. The gardens of Eden will open up their gates for them. Relaxing therein, they will be given many kinds of fruits and drinks. They will have wonderful spouses. This is what you have deserved on the Day of Reckoning. Our provisions are inexhaustible. [from the Quran, sura 38]

The main garden of the Taj Mahal as we have it today is a creation of British restorers in the late 19th century who laid it out in the manner of a European formal garden with an emphasis on vistas, lawns, and trees.

Originally, the gardens were not lawns, but filled with flowering bulbs, bushes, and trees planted in such a way as to bloom in rotation as the seasons changed.

The architects of the Taj Mahal laid out the gardens according to a pattern created in Persia, the four part garden grid known as a char-bagh.  This is a quadrilateral enclosed garden divided into quarters by four water channels to suggest the Rivers of Paradise described in the Quran and in the traditional commentary contained in the Hadith.
Imperial tomb monuments in Mughal India traditionally sat in the center of such gardens.  The tomb monument of the Taj Mahal unusually sits on the north side of its garden on the banks of the Yamuna River.

A 16th century Mughal book illumination showing the Emperor Babur planting a char bagh garden after the Persian model

An unfinished Persian carpet from Isfahan in the 17th century showing the layout of a char-bagh garden.

Some scholars see religious significance in this design decision.  They see it as a deliberate departure from the tradition of locating the deceased in the center of Paradise, and turning the tomb into a metaphor for the throne of God at the Day of Reckoning.
Others take issue with this interpretation, and point out that the tomb monument of the Taj does indeed sit in the center of a vast garden complex divided by the river.

On the river's north shore are the ruins of a garden equal in size to the formal garden on the south side of the Taj, the Mehtab Bagh or Moonlight Garden that appears to be part of the original design.  The Archaeological Survey of India together with the Smithsonian Institution are excavating and restoring this garden, trying to bring back something of the original floral arrangements of the traditional char-bagh gardens.

The Taj and its flanking buildings reflected in the Yamuna river on the north side

The Taj viewed from the north bank of the river, from the Mehtab Bagh in the process of restoration

The restorers of the Mehtab Bagh are attempting to recreate the flower beds that once bloomed in seasonal rotation in all of the Taj's gardens.

The ruins a of a large octagonal reflecting pool just across the river from the Taj in the Mehtab Bagh

The Garden of Paradise on the outside finds its way into the tomb itself.  The perishable flowers of the surrounding gardens become the durable stone flowers that cover the surfaces of the Taj itself.  The Taj Mahal is filled with flowers.

Compared to earlier Mughal buildings, there is far less ornament in the buildings built under Shah Jahan including the Taj.  There is both less of it and less variety.  Ornamental decoration on the Taj Mahal is confined to calligraphic inscriptions and flowers, perhaps reflecting the shift away from the syncretism of earlier Mughal rulers toward a stricter religious orthodoxy.

The beautifully carved marble flowers on the dado that circles the base of the mausoleum

A detail of the splendid carved marble screen that surrounds the cenotaphs in the central chamber of the mausoleum

Pietra dura is a technique of stone inlay created in Florence and imported into India sometime in the 16th century, probably during the reign of the Emperor Akbar.  Indian artisans quickly mastered this technique and made it their own.  They covered the surfaces of the central chamber of the mausoleum with flowers made from varying shades of carnelian, jasper, agate, jade, topaz, etc.  Ebba Koch in her book on Mughal architecture believes that these designs are based on imported European botanical prints.  We also see similar floral ornaments in the margins of Mughal book illuminations.

On the four entrances to the mausoleum are immense calligraphic inscriptions from the Quran.  They are large and meant to be read by literate Muslim believers.  The south entrance facing the garden is the entire 36th sura of the Quran which describes the resurrection of the dead on the Day of Reckoning.

He raises a question to us—while forgetting his initial creation—"Who can resurrect the bones after they had rotted?" 
Say, "The One who initiated them in the first place will resurrect them. He is fully aware of every creation." He is the One who creates for you, from the green trees, fuel which you burn for light. 
Is not the One who created the heavens and the earth able to recreate the same? 
Yes indeed; He is the Creator, the Omniscient. All He needs to do to carry out any command is say to it, "Be," and it is. 
Therefore, glory be to the One in whose hand is the sovereignty over all things, and to Him you will be returned.

The inscription on the west side facing the mosque is an extensive passage from the 82nd sura, the "Cleaving Asunder."  This chapter describes the sudden and catastrophic appearance of the Day of Reckoning.

When the sky breaks apart
And when the stars fall, scattering,
And when the seas are erupted
And when the graves are scattered
A soul will know what it has put forth and kept back

All of the great inscriptions around the four entrances are Quranic chapters about the final Day of Reckoning.  To a certain extent, this is to be expected on a funerary monument, but the prominence of these inscriptions and the very large size of the mausoleum are perhaps intended to cause the faithful to reflect upon their own salvation.

These inscriptions are the most important and prominent ornamentation on the Taj Mahal.  Inscriptions play the role on Islamic religious buildings that imagery plays on churches.  They instruct the faithful and put them in the right frame of mind before entering.  Calligraphers in the Muslim world enjoy a status similar to artists in the Christian West.  These inscriptions are the work of the master calligrapher Amanat Khan.


The Taj Mahal is an unusually large tomb monument by Indian standards.  The dome rises 240 feet (73m).  Most remarkable, it is such a perfectly harmonious design.  The dome is half the height of the whole building.  The building proper is about twice the width of the dome.  There is a clear and gratifying progression of form from the octagonal building to the high slightly bulbous dome with the four large chakris creating a splendid transition.  Compared to the complexity of earlier Indian buildings, the Taj Mahal is remarkably clear and simple.  Like all Mughal buildings, it is a synthesis of Islamic architecture imported from outside India with native Indian -- and even Hindu -- elements such as the small domed pavilions or chakris, and the use of lotus motifs on the tops of the domes.  And yet, the Taj Mahal is a lot less Indian than most earlier Mughal buildings.  It is much more Persian.

The Taj Mahal is the culmination of a long history of  Persian and Central Asian architecture.  Islam brought to India those very Roman building forms of the arch and the dome by way of Sassanian Persia.  The Taj sits at the end of a long history of tomb architecture that stretches from the 10th century tomb of Ismail the Samanid in Bukhara to the 14th century Tomb of the Mongol ruler of Persia Oljeitu to the 15th century Tomb of Tamarlane in Samarkand to the 16th century tomb of Shah Jahan's great grandfather Emperor Humayun in Delhi.

That most Roman of building parts, the dome and the arch, dominate the Taj Mahal by way of their Persian interpretations, the dome and iwan, or great arched entrance whose ultimate ancestor is the Roman triumphal arch.  These dominate the Taj Mahal and reduce the Indian elements to ornamentation.  This was certainly a deliberate decision on the part of Shah Jahan and his architects.   The design calls to mind the Persian ancestry of Mumtaz Mahal as do the very prominent tall tapering round minarets; Persian in inspiration and topped by Indian chakris.  The minarets and the the simplified design announces a return to the religious orthodoxy Mumtaz Mahal and her husband championed.

When we approach the Taj Mahal from the South Gate, we must cross the entire length of the garden.   When we arrive at the mausoleum, we must ascend a series of steps and staircases to arrive at the entrance.  This is similar to certain Hindu and Buddhist religious structures where the approach to the sanctuary becomes a kind of guided meditation.  Here with no imagery and very restrained ornamentation, we seem to be making something like Muhammad's journey heavenward into the presence of God.

The color changes from sandstone red to ivory white marble as we climb the dais of the the Taj Mahal.

The domed central chamber of the Taj Mahal was designed for the ritual of circumambulation, walking around a holy site always keeping it to one's right.  So far as I know, this ritual is an import that began in the Mediterranean world and came into India with the Muslim conquest.

The shallow dome seems to be a disappointment, but the focus of the room is not on the ceiling, but on the cenotaphs below.

The cenotaphs of the Emperor and the queen are empty.  The real tombs lie in a crypt beneath the floor of this room.

Mumtaz Mahal's cenotaph is in the center since she is the focus of the whole building.  The cenotaphs are surrounded by a magnificent carved marble screen.

The cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal;  the most ambitious and finest pietra dura work in the whole buidling is on these cenotaphs.

Calligraphy made of black marble inlaid into white marble on Mumtaz Mahal's cenotaph.  Amanat  Khan was probably the calligrapher responsible for designing this inscription.

Shah Jahan's cenotaph;  despite legends about a planned black marble twin to the Taj Mahal across the Yamuna river, Shah Jahan always planned to be buried in the Taj next to his favorite wife.

There is very fine pietra dura work on Shah Jahan's cenotaph.

Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan are buried in the crypt underneath the cenotaphs according to Muslim tradition; on their right sides facing Mecca.

The Jawab is a building whose only purpose is to be a symmetrical balance to the mosque on the other side.

On the west side of the Taj Mahal is a mosque that still functions.  It is a splendid building of red sandstone inlaid with white marble inside and out.

Indian Muslims still revere the Taj Mahal as a holy site, and they revere Mumtaz Mahal as a saint.  The Taj Mahal was ultimately built for them, to make them mindful of the end that awaits them according to their faith.  They pass through gardens that are intimations of the paradise that awaits the faithful, to a huge otherworldly white monument that reminds them of the terrible Reckoning to come at the end of life and the end of time.  For Shah Jahan, this was indeed a labor of great love, but his legacy was to the devout who came after him to revere the memory of his beloved wife as a champion of their faith.