Monday, March 30, 2009

NASA Goes Back to the Future

I know it's very un-Left of me and a bit of a surprise for someone who has no talent for science or technology, but I've been a fan of the space program since early childhood. I had relatives who worked for NASA from its beginnings in the 1950s. What I remember best from the 1960s was not Vietnam and Hippies, but Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. I think I watched every launch from John Glenn's first orbit to the last Apollo moon launch in 1972. That included all the now forgotten Gemini missions. If I saw Alan Shepard's one shot into space, I don't remember because I was too young.

NASA is finally rolling out the Constellation program that it intends to replace the Space Shuttle. It's a design that almost completely scraps the shuttle design and returns to earlier successes. It's a good thing too. I've never been a fan of the Shuttle and I think it should have been scrapped immediately after the Challenger disaster in 1986. So far, it has killed more astronauts than Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the Soviet space program combined. I think the only reason it lingered as long as it did (to kill more astronauts) was because the contractors were so heavily invested in it, and the government contracts were just too sweet.
The proposed redesign has been in the works for almost 10 years with the astronauts themselves playing a crucial role in the design. It is a return to what worked so well for so long, booster rockets with capsules on the top. Leaking O rings and falling foam insulation would no longer be a problem since the crew would be back on top of the rocket instead of riding on the side. The Constellation program will have 2 different rockets for launching crews and large payloads seperately. All the rocket parts will be recyclable, and can be adapted for specific tasks.
We may finally be able to return to the moon and to eventually go to Mars, and look back and see once again just how very small our Earth, our everything, really is.


I'm posting this because it is so beautiful; the Adhan sung at the great Mosque-Madrasah of Sultan Hasan in Cairo.

I've never traveled in Muslim countries. But I've always heard stories of the glorious cacophony of the hour of prayer.

Here is what he is singing.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

As Bad As Things Are in New York, They're Getting Worse in St. Louis.

In Saint Louis, Bi-State Bus service (now called Metro) is being dramatically cut back.  The staff has already been radically reduced.  The cut back in service will almost certainly mean a surge in unemployment since many people will not be able to get to their jobs on time or at all.

I depended on Bi-State buses for awhile when I lived in Saint Louis.  The service sucked even in the best of times.  We used to say that the buses went from nowhere to nowhere through nowhere Tuesdays and Thursdays, and nowhere on Wednesdays and Fridays.   I remember standing and waiting 30 to 45 minutes in the freezing cold, or the pouring rain, or the suffocating heat for buses during rush hour.  I'd usually be the only white face on many routes.  It was a service always identified with poor Black folk, and as a result, was always first on the list for budget cuts and service cuts.  I see nothing has changed.

Those of us who live in New York, or other heavily publicly transited cities, sometimes forget how much racial segregation plays a role in the public transit vs. private car debate, especially in suburbs and in the middle of the country (Long Island is just as bad as St. Louis; Black folk in the buses and White folk in cars).

Ah America!
Cut back vital public services at the very time when they are needed most.  
Punish those poor folk for being poor and learn them some responsibility by making their jobs harder to get to! 

God the Great Exam Proctor in the Sky

Rembrandt's "Hundred Guider Print" illustrating the entire 23rd chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, the ultimate expression of "God with Us" in art.

I don't usually comment directly on religious or church matters on this blog. There are plenty of other blogs out there that do a far better job commenting on such matters than me. My expertise in religious matters is very limited, and I consider myself to be nothing more than a pew-sitter with no ambitions to be anything more. My total experience with seminary is a stroll across the lawn of Concordia in St. Louis, and riding in taxis past Union and General here in New York.
But, there is a lot of discussion and controversy over how to interpret the new Pew Survey of religious life in the United States. This controversy came up unexpectedly over at Mark Harris' blog in the comments section of what should have been a perfectly innocuous and unthreatening post about the youth in Fr. Mark's parish of St. Peter's in Lewes, Delaware, and why they are happy (for the moment) to be Episcopalians.
The comments section for the post included this:
" seems the overwhelming theme is membership of the church because that's where they were baptised and where they live, and it's a warm and welcoming place to be. But are these kids Christians or churchians? Not one of them mentioned anything about Jesus Christ, or having a relationship with him, or trusting in him, or trying to follow him. I seriously wonder if you will continue to see these kids in an Episcopal church in a decade's time, or if you will see their kids at all? Perhaps worse would be if they were still in an Episcopal church in a decade's time and still made the same comments as to why they are."

And this was seconded by this comment:
"I don't think that it is unfair to question the difference between Christian and Episcopalian. We all know people who are part of the club. It is necessary to ask whether the youth are being brought up in the faith or merely part of a church related social group. "

The whole argument got me to think about what people are looking for in religious institutions (I know, I know, the "consumerist" approach to religion, the religious "buffet," yadda yadda yadda, but did you ever stop to think why so many people might be so very unhappy now with their churches?). And it made me think back to a sermon by Paul Tillich I read years ago in which he declared that Christ came into the world, not to found a new religion, but to end religion. The burden which Christ spoke of lifting from the shoulders of humanity was not the burden of hard work and misfortune, but the burden of religion. Christ came to lift the heavy burden of purity codes, ritual requirements, ethical laws, contractual obligations and every kind of trial by fire demanded by religion from our shoulders. It also made me think back to the young Luther complaining how the Gospel was but one more calamity laid on the backs of humanity by a God who hated His creation.

Why should religion, especially the Christian religion, be another test? Lord only knows that the world is already filled with a surplus of tests. Why should it be a club? If Christianity is nothing but an exclusive club of the saved, then I have to ask if God really is love, and if He really meant it when He said that He loved all humanity, or that He meant it when He pronounced His creation good. I suspect that the reason institutional Christianity and formal church affiliation is losing its appeal in the USA is because people see religion as but another fiery hoop they must jump through to enter another winners' circle. The world is already full of trials by ordeal for almost everyone; always and especially now. 
I think these campaigns in the various churches to become ever more clear and strict in their doctrinal confessions are but a short sharp path to disintegration. Pop quizzes for doctrinal knowlege and allegiance, blood tests for credal purity at the altar rail do far more to alienate than to attract. As William Blake once wrote to God, "If you have formed a circle to go into, go into it yourself and see how you would do."

I certainly don't advocate religion devoid of content or religious education. Indeed, religious education should be a lifelong process about both doctrine and history, as well as the necessary task of looking at other religions beyond our own creed. Our creeds must make their way in a world that is far more cosmopolitan than the one in which they were created. We all live together with peoples and beliefs that the authors of our creeds never imagined existed.

Christianity succeeded in the ancient world because it offered hope. The classical culture that dominated the world at the beginnings of Christianity had no hope at all to offer, just the stoic command to be and act heroically.
We live in a world that is in some ways even more brutal and hopeless in its dominant outlook, and where "success" is everything. The last thing that Christianity should be offering to the inhabitants of such a fiercely competitive world is another race, another contest, another test.
The Christian message should be now what it has always been, that death is not the last chapter, that no one is superfluous just as no one is indispensable to God. We have our salvation because God loves us, and only because God loves us and desires us to be with Him. Our salvation is entirely on God's own initiative. There are no tests, none that we could possibly pass. No one is worthy to feast at His table, and yet all are invited. Whatever befalls us in life or in history no matter how catastrophic, our end remains with God, and God bears all with us and for us. Our churches should be places where people find rest and hope. 

I think the kids on Father Mark's blog were right all along.

Spain Preparing Arrest Warrants for Cheney and Company

From the pages of the NY Times. Too bad we can't do this ourselves and try the whole gang in our own courts under our own laws. Our laws are fine, it's just that our spines and our desire to do the right thing are missing.

Once again, sweeping an inconvenient scandal under the rug takes precedence over the rule of law.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

No Relief for the Wicked

It looks like the "cramdown" legislation that would enable borrowers to renegotiate repayment terms on their mortgages is being withdrawn in the face of Republican and moderate Democratic opposition, not to mention plenty of opposition from the financial industry.
I find it very curious that so much of the public wrath over the subprime mortgage meltdown is aimed at the people who took out those mortgages, and not at all at the institutions that knowingly offered them.
When Michael and I went through our brief and unhappy experience with home ownership, we were constantly being pressured to take on additional mortgage debt, to accept an adjustable rate, and we were constantly being offered ridiculously low sweetener rates to get us to say yes to those things. We stood our ground and refused, and barely broke even when we sold the place.
And now people with regular mortgages who've paid them reliably and faithfully for years are facing foreclosure because they lost their jobs or they've been bankrupted by health care costs that their insurance won't cover. They certainly can't renegotiate their mortgage terms now.

A Ducking Stool

It never ceases to amaze me that almost all of our discussion and legislation about poverty and bankruptcy is punitive. Republican thinking about social and economic ills is entirely punitive, and punitive toward the poor. I think that this is the lingering legacy of that punitive misanthropic Calvinism brought over by the Puritans in 17th century Massachusetts, and which has had a disproportionate influence on our culture. Everything comes down to the individual at the fork in the road all the time. Never mind who built the damn road in the first place, for what purpose, in whose interest, and if the signs on it are all honest. It always comes down to "personal" choice no matter what. As a result, the jails are packed with petty thieves while those who committed epic grand larceny wander freely about the legislative halls.

Laws, said Balzac, are like the spider's web; they catch the small flies while letting the big ones go free.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Working Stiff in Art: Seurat's Bathing Factory Workers

Georges Seurat, the prophet of the pixel, painted this 10 foot wide painting of men and boys, factory workers, resting on the bank of the Seine at Asnieres in 1883.   In the background are factories in the industrial suburb of Clichy belching smoke and polluting the summer air. On the bank opposite our bathing workers in the upper right of the picture is the island of La Grande Jatte, the setting of Seurat's most famous painting begun in the following year.

Instead of the usual discussion of Seurat's fascination with optics, with the theories of Chevreul and Ogden Rood about simultaneous contrast of colors, I'd like to say a word about Seurat's approach to his subject.

This is a very unusual subject for an Impressionist painter. There are plenty of paintings by Monet and Renoir of people taking a dip in the river, most famously at the resort spot of La Grenouilliere in the Paris suburbs. But, all the people in those paintings are very middle class at a middle class resort unsullied by factories and only occasionally by a railroad. They are all people on holiday for the weekend or an August break.
Seurat's men and boys are either on lunch break, or off for the day from the factories that employ them in the background. Some of them are wearing summer holiday clothes, white with straw hats and bowlers (the bowler hat is the clue to the class of these bathers; respectable bourgeois men did not wear bowlers in those days). There is a clear contrast between the world of toil in the background and the leisure in the foreground.
Unlike the work of Monet, Renoir, and other Impressionist painters, there is a stillness and distance about Seurat's bathers. Seurat admired the freshness and topicality of Impressionist painting. He admired its ideas about our field of vision composed of nuances of color relationships. He criticized the ephemeral quality of so much Impressionist work, and sought to bring into Impressionism something of the monumentality of the grand French tradition of public classicism. The Impressionist brushstroke is tamed into a regular unit (soon to become the famous color dots in Seurat's later work). There is a splendid architecture of verticals and horizontals with repeating and rhyming motifs throughout. The horizon line extends from the eye level of the seated young man on the left in the straw hat. The curve of the back of the reclining man in the foreground finds its answer in the diagonal of the shoreline. The repeated curves of the men's backs find an opposite rhyme in the curves of the sails on the river. As in a great painting by Poussin or Piero della Francesca, these young men are completely integrated into the satisfying architecture of the painting.

I can't imagine anything more unheroic looking than the central young man in Seurat's painting.  That hunched over slouching  pose is definitely not that of an ancient Greek warrior athlete or of  an action movie hero.  It is the pose of a tired young shlub with a bad over-bite and bad hair off from his job trying to cool off at the water's edge.  Seurat is not out to glorify him or make fun of him.  But, the young man does share in the grandeur of the rest of the picture.

Seurat took the unusually conservative step of making numerous studies for this picture, trying to create a complete structure out of what began as a random glance along the river bank. Monet and other Impressionists almost never worked from studies. They thought of each picture as a spur of the moment record of some passing effect.
By contrast, Seurat's painting has a the calm finality of the Parthenon.

The following century would produce stacks of paintings of heroic workers in the classical mode. But Seurat's workers are not being heroic at all. They are simply being themselves on a day off. Seurat gives these wage earners dignity rather than heroics.

Seurat's political beliefs remain unknown. He died at the age of 31 after a career of less than 10 years. He left behind only 10 major paintings and a tiny body of written material. However, he was close friends with the unusually leftwing Impressionist painter Pissarro (most Impressionists were fairly conservative), and the anarchist journalist Felix Feneon. Critics beginning with JK Huysmans insisted on seeing social satire in the robotic bourgeoisie of the famous La Grande Jatte.

Just Who's Economy Is It Anyway?

Above is the L train at the Lorimer Street station just a stop away from Graham Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where I get off to go home. This could be the train at any hour. It is almost always packed with hipsters and other folk all the time.
The Port Authority Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) which runs the subway system is looking at a huge budget deficit created by the recession at the same time that ridership of the subway, train, and bus systems are at all time highs. The NY State Legislature is deadlocked in a battle between the interests of urban straphangers and suburban commuters over who is going to bear the brunt of paying for the deficit. As could be expected, the legislature punted the whole problem back to the MTA board which said that they will raise fares and cut service if the State Legislature doesn't come up with a plan. So now, a situation which is already hard on so many people is about to get much harder.

There are similar situations in cities across the USA. Vital public services are being cut back at the very time when they are needed most.
And as the financial industry is receiving shiploads of public money that make the Pentagon and its contractors green with envy, I have to ask, who's economy is it?
It certainly doesn't belong to the legions of poor stiffs trying harder and harder to get to their underpaying jobs that make someone else rich. It doesn't belong to the young. It doesn't belong to the old either. It certainly doesn't belong to unskilled labor. But, it doesn't belong to skilled professionals either, who have long endured a transformation into wage earners. It doesn't belong to "independent contractors," many of whom are simply wage earners without any benefits or unemployment insurance. It doesn't really belong to lower and middle management either, who have the rotten job of being enforcers. Does it really belong to the shareholders, who get shut out of corporate decision making as the price for getting fatter dividend checks? I doubt it.
So, as wages across the board have stagnated or declined for the last 30 years creating a consumer economy dependent on individual credit to make up for the shortfalls in pay; as tax codes and government policy for the last 30 years have been rewritten to redistribute wealth -- reverse Robin Hood, robbing from wage earners and giving it to the rich, -- as barely 1% of the population benefitted out of all proportion over the last 30 years while the remaining 99% are still waiting for that "trickle down" (talk about "let 'em eat cake!") I have to ask that awful old socialist question again,

Who's economy is it?

The great Shrill One says in his column today that maybe the Masters of the Universe weren't quite as brilliant as we all thought they were.  The magic of that complex shadow world of of loan securitization that they created turned out to be smoke and mirrors.  He credits the Obama administration with finally coming up with some tough and thorough regulations to police it, but he suggests that what really should be considered is dumping that whole black magic that got us into this mess.
I agree with him and with Kevin Phillips that the financial industry has gotten way too big over the past 30 years, making both political parties and much of government beholden to them.
Maybe it's time to call the Republican's bluff and let some of those "too-big-to-fail" banks fail and go into receivership; ie nationalization.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Gay Boys Party While the Economy Burns?

Perhaps not.

Toujoursdan found this report (PDF) on LGBT poverty from the Williams Institute of the UCLA Law School.  Among its findings are considerably higher levels of poverty for gay families and for lesbians of color.  Those gays who are neither lesbian nor of color are not that much better off either.

I've always felt that "affluent gays" was a big canard, up there with "rich Jews."  The rich Palm Springs circuit party crowd is a very visible, but tiny minority of the LGBT population.  Most  well paid LGBT professionals are in medicine and technology.  High tech companies are usually very gay friendly because that's where a lot of their talent comes from.  Most other gay men, especially the young, are in famously low wage jobs provided by retail, hospitality, restaurants, and arts and entertainment.  And this has always been true.  All those boys out for a night on the town at the clubs and party circuits are probably living 5 to 6 to an apartment in New York, LA, or San Fran; pooling their low wages to make that night possible.
There are a lot more gay men in blue collar jobs in industry and trades than most people  imagine.  They have been hit very directly by the current economic downturn.
Lesbians face a double whammy of the wage discrimination against women built into the economy, and homophobic prejudice.  Also, there are no charming lesbians on teevee like there are charming gay boys to soften up the social resistance in the office (though that creates its own set of problems).
Those who face the worst employment discrimination are transexuals.  So many once turned to prostitution because there was no other work.   Some businesses and professions are beginning to open up very slowly and reluctantly, but it is still incredibly difficult for them. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Working Stiff in Art: Manet's Working Girls

In 1865, Edouard Manet shocked the French public by exhibiting a painting of a whore at the biannual Salon exhibition. That's a remarkable thing to say because European painting was full of whores in those days; Salome, the goddess Venus (who was never above peddling her papayas), and any number of harem girls. This painting is a wicked parody of a famous painting by Titian, the Venus of Urbino. Titian leaves something of an evocative mystery to his nude woman in a bed. She could be a high class Venetian whore. She could also be Venus in the marriage bed. Her bed is set in a large Venetian palace chamber at twilight with a young woman (possibly a new bride) and her maid going through the clothing chests in the background. Venus looks at us boldly and suggestively.
Manet's painting is anything but ambiguous. Manet's ready-for-anything model Victorine Meurent reclines on a bed in a small room in a high class Paris brothel lit up, not by the evocative twilight, but by the hard light of afternoon coming in through a window behind us.  Instead of soft gradations of tone and color, we have screaming high contrasts of black and white throughout the picture.   Her gaze toward us is also bold, but very unambiguous. The extravagant bouquet presented by the chambermaid is from us. Her gaze is hardly one of surprise and gratitude. We are her next customer, and it's clear that's all we mean to her.  The black cat in heat at her feet clears up any lingering doubts about this transaction.
Manet is a darling of the Marxist art critics precisely because of his harsh materialism. Manet believed that the modern world was quite simple in its essence. It was about money, and only money, nothing else. Even so intimate a matter as sex was nothing more than another opportunity for a commercial transaction. His attitude toward this woman is not the least bit censorious. We need only compare her to all the evil corrupt whores in art that came before her, and all the evil whores who would come after her (especially from the brushes of Communists like George Grosz and Otto Dix; as fierce as any Lutheran screed). She's a working girl in the city trying to make a living the best way she knows how.

Great industrial cities like Paris in the late 19th century were magnets for young women who wanted something more than a rich middle aged husband picked for them by their parents. They came into the cities to work in factories, in offices, shops, and in bars and restaurants. Many of them came into town with big dreams of hitting it big in the theater or the cabaret circuit. For the first time, it was possible for a poor farm girl to dream of being a star, and a lot of them did.
Manet was clearly charmed and fascinated by these girls. He painted one of them as though viewed from a nearby table in a cafe late at night. She looks very tired, possibly enjoying a brandied plum and a cigarette before going home from work. She is tired, sad, and hopeful all at the same moment, living a brave new kind of life full of perils and rich with rewards.

Manet takes us out to one of the swankiest places in 1870's Paris, the Folies Bergere, a huge dinner theater for those willing and able to part with large sums of money in a single evening. He ignores the floor show and concentrates on the bar maid, one of scores working there on a Saturday night. She is alone before us. We see the whole spectacle of the Folies reflected in the mirror behind her, including the floor show. The feet of an acrobat hang down from the top left corner. She is surrounded by all sorts of expensive (and beautifully painted) items offered to us for sale; champagne, liqueurs, oranges, and roses for buttonieres. She herself is dressed and displayed to be available to us like the items on the marble bar. We even appear in the mirror chatting with her. However, as we see her directly before us, she is mute and uncommunicative. She is not really available to us after all. Like the whore in the painting at the top, our good time is only her job. Her expression is blank, and she looks just slightly past us. She is lost in a moment of thought which is not available to us.

Manet believed that the world was only about money. However, he saw that its effects on people's lives were very complicated. Manet's sometimes ruthless materialism may make him a Marxist star, but his outlook was too complex, and too nihilistic at times, to be useful to any revolution. Manet's political sympathies were probably quite conservative. He spent the bloody days of the Paris Commune uprising in 1871 in hiding. He greeted the soldiers of the Third Republic entering the city to put down the rebellion with relief.

Why do Texans and New Yorkers hate each other so much?

Because they have so much in common.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

My Government Stimulus Plan

Let's give everyone a free $100,000!
I could pay off all of my debts and have plenty left over to go shopping.  It would be a lot cheaper than unconditionally handing over trillions of dollars in taxpayer money to very people who gambled away the ranch in the first place (Duncan Black calls this policy "setting big piles of money on fire").
I'm becoming more and more convinced that all these people from both parties and the financial industry have been in bed together too long.  It's time to start prosecuting these folks.

As one historian discussing the machinations of the Rockefeller brothers, David and Nelson, in the city and state governments of New York once said, it's only small businesses who resent the government.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Working Stiff in Art: China

Shang Dynasty Chariot Burial, c.1500 - 1050 BC, photographed in the 1930s shortly after excavation.

Human beings counted for very little in ancient China. This chariot, complete with horses and driver, was buried to accompany a dead king in the afterlife. It is likely that the driver counted for about as much as the horses, and less than the chariot itself, in the eyes of his superiors.

During a long period of Chinese history tellingly named "The Warring States," a minor official of the principality of Lu proposed the novel idea that human beings were more important than property, and that perhaps people are what mattered most of all. Rather than argue or proclaim doctrine, the virtuous should persuade through example. Social and political rank should be determined by merit and virtue even more than birthright (a very radical idea in the ancient world). People have certain duties and obligations to each other. The lower ranks have their obligations to their superiors, but the superiors had their obligations to those under them. Children had duties to parents and likewise, parents had duties to children. Everyone had certain obligations to the ancestors and to Heaven. Master Kung (known to us in the West as Confucius) was promptly ignored and died in his 70s still a poorly paid minor government bureaucrat in a small state.

Anonymous artist, Welcoming the Emperor to Wangxian Village, painting on silk, Southern Song Dynasty, late 12th century.

Master Kung, who died in obscurity, laid the foundations for Chinese social ethics illustrated here in this painting of the peculiar relationship between the Emperor and the rural peasantry. The subject is an episode from Tang Dynasty history. The Emperor Xuanzong returns from exile after being deposed by rebels. He is greeted by loyal villagers in a painting that shows the full spectrum of rank in traditional Chinese society. It is a lively painting showing dignified court officials, soldiers, prostrating village elders, and mothers with babes in arms.
It is significant that the emperor makes his first appearance to a peasant village and not to a group of nobles or wealthy merchants. Mao Zedong was certainly not the first Chinese ruler to claim a special relationship to the country's peasantry, to see in them a national virtue rooted in nature and tradition. The peasants likewise saw the Emperor as their champion against unjust and rapacious local lords. They also saw him and the guarantor of the "iron rice bowl," the promise that they should never starve, through government policy and religious rituals; intervening on their behalf with the state and with Heaven.

Above are small sections of an amazing painting by an artist named Zhang Zeduan from the early 12th century, his only known painting. It shows in great detail all the business and activity of a great city by a river in spring. The city may be the Northern Song capital of Bianliang (modern Kaifeng). All kinds of trades from carpenters to fortune tellers are shown in great detail in this painting.

Here is the entire painting.* It is meant to be viewed in sections from right to left. We move from countryside to suburbs to the middle of the city itself, a masterpiece of continuous composition.
We look down on all this activity from above. We may dwell on incidents, like the wonderful drama of the cargo boat with its crew struggling to lower the mast before it passes under the arch shaped bridge, but never on individuals. What matters is all the activity. This painting was probably made for a high government official as testimony to the success of government policies in a busy prosperous city. The river and boats play a prominent role in this picture. It was a Song dynasty project to restore and extend China's waterways to facilitate commerce.
This is a bureaucrat's view of people's work in a prosperous city.

Above are 2 sections of a remarkable painting titled Refugees from 1943 by an artist named Jiang Zhaohe. He was from a short-lived school of Chinese artists who wanted to incorporate Western figurative art with traditional Chinese formats and techniques. This painting was made at the height of the Second World War, which began early in China with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Jiang Zhaohe, with his family, friends, and students, experienced the horrors and hardships of those years directly. Some of his friends and family posed for this picture. He travelled around the country drawing many refugees from the fighting from life before making this picture. Its battered state speaks a lot about its history over the past 60 years. With a restrained eloquence, Jiang Zhaohe looks with great sympathy at people from all classes thrown together by circumstance. Without melodrama or special pleading this painting shows us those who must suffer history.

This kind of sympathetic eloquence would not survive the ideological turmoil of the reign of Mao Zedong. Within less than a decade, ordinary people would become that abstraction called The People. They would always appear smiling as they drove that tractor and fed those chickens, gleefully exceeding their production goals.

*This is a fine reproduction, and it works great as a jpg on Mac Preview, not at all on Safari, and should work on Firefox, but so far doesn't for me. You should be able to use the "zoom" function under the "View" heading on the toolbar to enlarge the image, and then use the navigation bars to move from right to left. If there is anyone who can make this work, please let me know.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Working Stiff in Art

With the global economy in meltdown, I've decided to do a series of postings on the working class in art, the Proletariat (as the Communists used to call them), or "Joe Sixpack" (as Republicans used to call this same class in their palmier days). These are the folks whose work  makes all the wealth and are the most vulnerable to changes in fortune. Let's see how that class of people whose labor feeds and sustains all human life, and who generate all the wealth that the rest of us use, appears in art down through time. Unlike the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I intend to consider farm and non-farm labor together. I may or may not follow this in chronological order.

The working class appears all over the art of some periods and cultures, like Egypt below and especially the 19th century where the Industrial Revolution transforms the nature of work and changes both peasant and tradesman into wage earners. The working class is conspicuously rare to absent in the art of a lot of other periods and cultures from Greece to India, and that itself is an issue to ponder.

So let's begin where most history begins, in Ancient Egypt.

The Egyptians were a conservative and prosaic people living in a wealthy country. Images of labor and production take up a lot of their art. On the walls of non-royal Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom tombs, religious imagery is surprisingly absent. Even on the walls of many non-royal New Kingdom tombs, it is very sparse.
Below is a wall from the tomb of an important bureaucrat -- and the worst kind, a tax collector-- by the name of Menna. Menna was a scribe employed by the Temple of Ammon at ancient Thebes (or Waset for those who like their Egyptian info purged of Greek terminology). His duty was to collect the god's share of every harvest on lands owned by the temple. He lived during the reign of Ammenhotep III in the New Kingdom (1391 - 1353 BC).
The scenes of harvest on this wall are vivid and remarkably candid showing all aspects of the harvesting, threshing, and winnowing of wheat.

Above is a photograph of the entire wall from Menna's tomb showing the harvest and tax collection. Menna is the large figure sitting regally on the left.

Above we see a detail of the wall showing the harvesting and gathering of the wheat on the bottom, threshing and winnowing in the middle, and surveying the crop to measure the temple's share on top. Egyptian farming appears to have been an intensely micromanaged business with scribes and officials supervising and recording every aspect of work. Note the official, presumably Menna himself, appearing twice standing under a canopy. On the left in the middle row are 4 scribes recording measurements taken of the harvest. In the days before currency was invented, this kind of inventory was vitally important.
Some of the scenes are remarkably candid. In the lower right corner is a trio of elderly farmers; 2 of them sit under a tree, while another leans on his staff and watches. They are too old to work, and no doubt are complaining about how much better things were under Thutmose IV. On the top register to the right is a small scene of field supervisor beating a subordinate while another begs for mercy.

Here is a scene of officials measuring the crop for tax collection. The farmer appears with a staff in the center pleading for mercy in a very contrite pose, presenting his youngest son to the indifferent official with the measuring rope. The farmer's oldest son and wife appear on the right ready with the bribes of wheat and offers of lunch. Even at the beginning of history, the tax man came down hardest on the most vulnerable. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

For all the vividness of these scenes, we would be mistaken if we thought there was any sympathy on the part of Menna or the artist for these very hard working and hard pressed people. These figures, like all human figures in Egyptian art, are types, not individuals. What counts is their role in that immense machine known as the Egyptian state. Their needs must be met to keep that machinery running, but their thoughts and desires are a matter of indifference.
Laborers always appear in Egyptian art through the eyes of their lords who virtually owned them, or through the eyes of the bureaucrats who supervised them. Their appearance on the walls of tombs was testimony to the wealth and status of the deceased lord. The laborers themselves when they died were buried in the desert sand with a few meager supplies for their journey Over the Western Horizon, serving their lords in death as they had served them in life.

Sounds of Spring

A mockingbird

Spring peepers

Today, it is overcast with occasional snow flurries in New York.


This is the one time of year when I really miss Texas. When the bluebonnets, paintbrush, Mexican hat, and Indian blankets bloom, the whole state turns into a vast Persian carpet. My father and I used to drive out to the countryside south of Dallas just to look at the whole spectacle. The fragrance and the butterflies filled the air. The Mockingbirds sang, and at sunset, the creeks rang with choruses of spring peepers.

"Sire, the peasants are revolting!"

"You said it! They stink on ice!"

Mel Brooks, what a prophet! Who could have predicted 30 years ago that this would be the outlook of the Masters of the Universe enabled by 25 years of sycophantic Senators and Congressmen, right wing ideologues, and now subsidized with our tax money?
All the new found populist rage erupting from Halls of Congress these days is more than a little bit disingenuous. Who was it who repealed 70 years worth of regulatory legislation intended to prevent just such a disaster as this from happening? Who was it who deregulated banks in the first place, allowing them to gamble with reinsurance schemes, phony mortgages, and create a whole unregulated shadow financial industry of complex and concealed credit swaps? Who was it who cut SEC budgets and made it almost impotent leaving the Attorney General of New York State as almost the sole regulator of Wall Street?
And now, having fired all the cops, everyone is just shocked shocked shocked that the crooks ran riot.
Both political parties share the blame for this.

Perhaps the time has come to storm the Bastille again.

The Masters of the Universe

Here is a quote from former Bear Stearns executive Jim Cayne concerning now Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner:

“The audacity of that p—k in front of the American people announcing he was deciding whether or not a firm of this stature and this whatever was good enough to get a loan,” he said. “Like he was the determining factor, and it’s like a flea on his back, floating down underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, getting a h–d-on, saying, ‘Raise the bridge.’ This guy thinks he’s got a big d–k. He’s got nothing, except maybe a boyfriend. I’m not a good enemy. I’m a very bad enemy. But certain things really—that bothered me plenty. It’s just that for some clerk to make a decision based on what, your own personal feeling about whether or not they’re a good credit? Who the f–k asked you? You’re not an elected officer. You’re a clerk. Believe me, you’re a clerk. I want to open up on this f—-r, that’s all I can tell you.”

What a charmer! I love that sense of outraged entitlement.  Let 'em eat cake indeed!
Perhaps the approach to the crisis in the financial industry should be less regulatory and more prosecutorial. It was greed and corruption that created this disaster; corruption that was so pervasive that now no one knows who's honest and who's a crook anymore, and so credit remains frozen.

What was that Ms. Rand about capitalism being a "moral" system?

Hat tip to Digby at Hullabaloo.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Book of Kells

Iona, where the Book of Kells may have been made.

On St. Patrick's Day, I'm reminded that I'm about as Irish as cassoulet and weisswurst.
And yet, I'm fully aware that, but for the Irish monks who followed St. Columba into Europe, I would still be illiterate and eating raw meat off a sword like my Frankish and Teutonic ancestors.

The Book of Kells is the finest and most famous of the tiny handful of surviving Celtic Gospel books from Ireland and the north of Britain. There were once scores of these, and now I can only think of about 6 that survive. The Book most certainly did not come from the small impoverished monastery at Kells where it was found. It probably came from one of the great centers of Celtic Christianity like Iona or Armagh, and was sent to Kells for safe keeping when Goran's people raided the monasteries and founded Dublin, laying the foundations for the future Guiness Brewery on the Liffey.

I fought my way through a mob (and I mean a mob) of elderly German tourists to see the Book of Kells at the library of Trinity College in Dublin (our very clever young guide reminded us of what Samuel Beckett said about the students of Trinity; the cream of Ireland and like all cream they're rich and thick). I finally fought my way through to get a glimpse of the opening pages of the Gospel of Luke. The Book was much smaller than I expected, about the same dimensions as a National Geographic magazine.

So here are some sample pages from one of the most beautiful books ever made.

The Cross Page

detail of the Cross Page

Opening of the Gospel of Matthew

The Beatitudes from the Gospel of Matthew

Opening of the Gospel of Mark

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Who's the Bloodiest Tyrant of Them All?

"I will make a just world even if I have to kill everybody!"
-- attributed to Robespierre

Speaking of ideology, a friend and I have had a long running discussion on which of the 20th century's ideological god kings was the most homicidal and destructive.
I still hold out for Hitler. Even though the body count of people he killed directly is a little low compared to Stalin and Mao, he started a world war which killed almost 100 million people in the European Theater alone.
My friend makes a persuasive case for Pol Pot of Cambodia to be the Grand Prize Winner. I should point out that he visited Cambodia about 5 years ago and saw such sights as Tuol Sleng Prison and numerous killing fields. They are everywhere. Every town and village has one. And most remain unexcavated. He points out that the actual numbers are low compared to the Big Boys of Genocide (Hitler, Stalin, Mao). However, in terms of proportion of the population of his country destroyed, Pol Pot deserves the prize. He points out that Pol Pot killed a quarter of the population of Cambodia in only 4 years. If Mao, Hitler, or Stalin had done the same thing, their body counts would have been in the hundreds of millions.

So, which of these tyrants -- who ate babies and drank blood for breakfast -- would you award the crown for bloodiest of the last century? Who has the biggest corpse pile in your view? Are there any contenders that I missed? Are they all ideologues, or are some of them just thugs? Are they all thugs? What do you think?

Haile Mariam Mengistu

Mao Zedong

Benito Mussolini

Kim Il Sung

Adolph Hitler

Idi Amin Dada

Francisco Franco

Joseph Stalin

Pol Pot

Hideki Tojo