Saturday, April 30, 2011


I recently heard a conversation on the radio where a visiting author asked the host what measure his success was due to his own efforts and what measure was due to luck. To his credit, the radio show host answered that he was extremely lucky. He had the skill and the insight to take advantage of opportunities, but he was extremely lucky to have opportunity come his way. He credited a lot of people who helped him and gave him his first big breaks into the business.

That got me to thinking about my own modest plateau of success. I've done well in life. I've enjoyed a certain measure of success, and in the teeth of many who told me that I wouldn't and shouldn't. I certainly brought to that success talent, skill, and a lot of hard effort. But, I was very very lucky. I can think back over the course of my life on so many places where that success could have so easily gone off the rails, and it still could. I had the great good fortune to be born white and male in the USA, and yes, those are still tremendous advantages right out of the starting gate. I was born into the middle class, and was lucky enough to be born into a time when that was still an advantage instead of a liability. I had the good luck to have conscientious parents who did their best, and after a lot of initial resistance, agreed to support my ambition to be an artist. I had the very good fortune to have parents who accepted my sexuality (that is still very exceptional unfortunately). I owe my success not only to their support, but to the many people who taught and encouraged me, and who sent opportunities my way. There are a lot of people who get none of those things, including very smart and talented people. I've always had the support of good friends through good times and through some very hard times. I'm extremely lucky to have Michael, about as good, supportive, and loving a partner as anyone could ask. I can go to bed early on Saturday night grateful to have what all those folks up late are looking for. I know the history of my profession well enough to understand that I stand on the shoulders of many giants who came before me. I know history well enough to know how much trial and error, how much courage and sacrifice, how much toil and bloodshed went into creating the society where some one like me could be even modestly successful.

It's that knowledge that keeps my political views to the left of center. I certainly worked very hard and I went through a lot, and for a long long time to get where I am. But, I hardly did it alone, and I started out with a lot advantages that most of the rest of the world doesn't have. No one chooses the circumstances into which they are born, and the playing field for success is not, and never was, level. The game is always rigged to someone's advantage. In some respects (race and gender) that game was rigged to my advantage. In other respects (sexual orientation and class), it was rigged against me. The game always changes according to who is in charge and has the advantage. Justice is our responsibility as people, as citizens. Success without it is meaningless and worthless. The older I get, the more I tend to think that the ancient Greeks were right, there is no real freedom without the polis. The City secures and guarantees liberty. It makes freedom worthwhile through justice and equality. There is no more freedom alone in the wilderness than there is as some insignificant factotum among many in a vast empire. In both there is only isolation and futility. We are neither lone wolves on the prairie nor bees in a hive. We are men and women who live together in communities by consent.

Apocalyptic Assholes

Already in the wake of the storms that devastated the South, these apocalyptic assholes are popping up to declare the disaster to be God's Wrath and God's Judgment. I find it so curious that God always seems to visit the full measure of His wrath on poor people who live in flimsy housing in low lying areas. He hardly touches affluent Sodom-on-the-Hudson here or Gomorrah-by-the-Bay out west. And poor people in flimsy housing in low lying areas usually do not have much opportunity or inclination to sin and blasphemy on a scale to match the wrath visited upon them. I'm still puzzled by what a population of largely elderly and working class Japanese did to so piss off God to deserve that string of major catastrophes. New Zealanders hardly strike me as particularly inimical to all that is good and sacred. Why should they suffer a catastrophe? Why should impoverished sub-Saharan Africa and Bangladesh be regularly singled out for disaster, while here in relatively safe and affluent New York, we can practically moon the Lord without so much as a mild thunderstorm?

And what Christian charity, what compassion these preachers show! Telling people who've just lost family, friends, and homes that they deserved it! These preachers are such friends of humanity! Such paragons of Christian Charity, of God's love and care for His creation! I'm moved to tears ... excuse me a minute.

Small wonder so many people hate Christians these days, with this shit dominating the broadcast bandwidth.

Or, maybe it's what the geologists have told us all along, that we are living on a volatile planet, on the broken crust of molten planet tugged by competing gravitational currents, and created out of continuing cosmic collisions between leftover pieces from the creation of the star we call the Sun. The scientists remind us that today's disasters are mere firecrackers compared to some of the planet-wide geological upheavals that happened long before we appeared. Scientists are not very reassuring when they say that there's every reason to expect those colossal catastrophes to happen again some day. If there's any lesson to be learned in any of this, then it's that we are all mortal and we are all vulnerable.

Remember Elijah's experience in the cave, storm, fire, earthquake and all, and God was not in any of it. Instead, God was in the Still Small Voice. These apocalyptic preachers usually try to quiet that Still Small Voice in the back of their consciences with power and money, and with secret addictions to booze, pills, mistresses, and rent boys. That Voice is always there, always reminding them that they are assholes.

Another tip of the beret to JoeMyGod who appears to have a cast-iron stomach for this kind of toxic nonsense.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Britney Spears Never Looked So Good

The Boys of Boston. Hat tip to JoeMyGod.

Well, that was just silly...

So let's watch it again.

Nice Kids

Down there on the lower left is my favorite comment on the royal wedding so far. I couldn't agree more. Tip of the beret to JoeMyGod.


Counterlight's Peculiars expresses its sympathy and stands in solidarity with the people of Alabama, and with those in other parts of the South affected by the devastating storms yesterday.

Go here to donate to the American Red Cross.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


I know that I'm going to hell for this, but I really enjoy watching these supremacist ideologues get a big dose of their own medicine.

Here's the Boy Wonder himself getting an earful from his constituents.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

It Ain't Easy Being Queer and Christian

All right all you queer kids who follow Jesus, here's something to make you really squirm with ambivalent feelings, this year's Hunky Jesus event in San Fran.

In case you're outraged, Peter LaBarbera, no friend of ours, beat you to it. Read his rant and Sister Zsa Zsa's gracious reply.

It's hard to know what exactly to feel when looking at all of this. Part of me thought this was all very funny (in an "O God, make my enemies ridiculous" sense). Another part of me found this disturbing, not so much in the sense that sacred things are being ridiculed (frequently they richly deserve it) so much as seeing myself and others like me as the objects of the ridicule.

As usual, I have a hard time blaming other gay folk for feeling the way they do about Christianity and the Church. They rightly see the Christian religious establishment as being the primary enabler of the violence that always threatens us. Also, they rightly point out that so much of the Christian establishment wants nothing less than our extermination whether through Christianist versions of Sharia law executions, or through reparative "therapy" to "kill the gay and save the soul."

And yet, I know that this is not the whole story. The right and far right have claimed a copyright on Christianity for more than 30 years, and everyone else very lazily let them keep it without challenge. It has only been very recently that people outside the right noticed that the Bible (and especially the Gospel) does not really endorse right wing supremacist ideology; in fact they've discovered that Scripture says quite the contrary. Nowhere did Jesus take the Widow's Mite and give it to the Rich Young Man. Nowhere did Jesus accuse the poor of being lazy and shiftless and say that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a poor man to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. Isaiah said that the Glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. He didn't say anything about hard-working productive rich white people having front row seats. Nowhere in Scripture does Ben Franklin pop up to tell us that God helps those who help themselves. On the contrary, Jesus tells us quite clearly that no one pulls themselves up into Heaven by their own bootstraps.

Only now are people beginning to notice that the Bible actually says very little about homosexuality, that the very word "homosexuality" is a 19th century anachronism that appears nowhere in Scripture. Christ had nothing at all to say on the subject in all four Gospels. It turns out that He had a lot to say about two other sins, hypocrisy and selfishness. The Teabaggers may well keep the Bible and Atlas Shrugged together on the same shelf, but we know that concordance between those two books is impossible without grotesquely contorting both texts. The very selfishness which Ayn Rand declared to be virtue Jesus said creates its own self-isolating hell and makes life hell for everyone else.

The public face of Gay Liberation was always affluent white male, all the boys who could afford the gym and party circuit. Closer inspection reveals that something much more complicated is true. Even most gay white males are not exactly affluent, and the majority of same sex families raising children are not white and male, but female and minority. The city with the largest concentration of same sex families is not San Francisco or New York, but Jacksonville, Florida.

Gay radicals, with some justice, accuse gay Christians of being quislings of an established "mainstream" culture that is corrupt to the root. Why try to be part of a culture that gave the world the Vietnam War, the Iraq Invasion, imperialism, predatory capitalism, and that thought Elton John was straight for a quarter century; a "mainstream" culture built on greed, sexism, and racism? Queerness, being contrary to all of that sanctimonious steaming pile of toxic crap in all ways politically, culturally, and especially sexually is the only truly decent position to hold. Outsider status should be embraced gladly. The Church so frequently plays the role of spiritual enforcer of that established imperial order, policing our desires and thoughts.

And yet, closer inspection of the original texts of the Christian faith, apart from what the doctrinal gatekeepers tell us, actually endorses that outsider position in regard to all established power. The prophets were all social drop outs who challenged the Conventional Wisdom all the time. Jesus Himself was hardly a Rotary Club success story. He was from a poor background, left behind a humble family trade to wander around as a homeless charismatic preacher dependent upon the charity of other people. He probably alienated about as many people as He attracted. He died the death of a common criminal condemned for blasphemy and sedition. The crowds gathered to watch His death probably felt satisfaction that this damn trouble-maker was finally getting what was coming to Him.

A lot of Queer Christians notice that emphasis in the Scripture. As a result, there are a lot of queer and transgender Evangelical congregations here and there in cities around the country. Gays and Lesbians enter MCC congregations, the Episcopal Church, and gay-affirming congregations among the Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, UCC, Baptists (even a few Southern ones) and the large liberal underground in the officially very gay hostile Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, not for establishment embrace, but to challenge that very establishment, to demand that it change to make room for them and for others left out in the cold, that it abandon its predatory and imperial ways.

America Now

"... as hard and as cracked as the Liberty Bell." -- Eliot Smith

So much politics these days is driven by crazy bitter old white people who would burn their own houses down rather than see anyone who isn't them get anything. A lot of very rich and powerful people are there with the matches to help them do it, and are ready to relieve them of their damaged property and assets, "just sign the deed over to me and your worries will be over."

I notice that there's something of a backlash starting against all of this madness. Some of those very same bitter old white folk discovered that the smooth talking white guy in the suit who promised to keep the brown people out has his hand on their wallets and is about to break into their homes and steal their retirement money. Maybe those black and brown folk that they're so afraid of aren't really their enemies after all. Someone else is.

Open Studios

For all of my readers in the New York area:

Come see where the magic is made.

I will be participating in the Artists Alliance's 15th Annual Open Studios, this year in cooperation with the CSV Center, and with The New Museum's Festival Of Ideas For The New City.

Studios will be open on Saturday, May 7, from 5 to 9PM, and on Sunday, May 8, from 12PM to 6PM.

The CSV Center (pictured below) is at 107 Suffolk, on the corner of Suffolk and Rivington in the middle of Manhattan's Lowah East Side. My studio is #407 on the 4th floor in an old elementary school building whose most famous alum was Edward G. Robinson. The late great tenor Richard Tucker got his start as a cantor a block away down Rivington at the old Romanian Synagogue (lately torn down and replaced with a thousand-dollar-a-night hotel, oy!)

Those of you thinking about driving in, don't. There's no place to park. Take a train or a bus. The nearest subway stop is the Delancey-Essex stop on the F, J, M, and Z trains. From there it is a short walk, barely a block, to the CSV Center.

I hope to meet all of my New York area readership there, both of you!

--Doug Blanchard

Saturday, April 23, 2011

And For All of You Who Are Already Sick of the Royal Wedding ...

Don't blame me, blame my cousin in Austin. "Everybody in the House of Love ..."

Love the dancing ABC. Dancing Harry and William aren't bad either.


Giovanni Bellini, The Resurrection.

And what would Easter be on this blog without a lot of noise from the Florentines? Here is last year's Scoppio del Carro:

And this glimpse of the rocket powered Holy Spirit is always worth and encore:

A Happy and Blessed Easter to All!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Seven Sacraments of Nicholas Poussin

The textbooks usually describe very Protestant Rembrandt as the great Black Sheep of Baroque art, and yet, a case could be made for Nicholas Poussin to claim that title. He was probably the only painter in Europe who had no interest in chasing after the star of Peter Paul Rubens, every other 17th century painter's model of success. He spent most of his working life in Rome, in a city full of Catholic revival, new construction, and artists competing ferociously for big public commissions. Poussin wanted none of it. He shunned big public commissions that other artists would have killed each other for. He greeted news that King Louis XIII wanted him to return to Paris to be painter to the King with dismay, and used his wife's illness as an excuse to escape the royal embrace and hurry back to Rome. I can't imagine any other artist of the 17th century behaving like that. He worked most of his professional life for a small circle of enthusiastic patrons who were also close friends. They were all very learned scholarly men who held administrative posts either with the Papal court, or with the French diplomatic mission to the Holy See. Together, they encouraged Poussin to enjoy a measure of independence allowed to probably no other artist in Europe at the time, including Rembrandt.

Poussin was very much out of step with the art of Baroque Rome. Instead of huge spectacular altarpieces, he painted mostly standard sized easel pictures. Poussin loathed the ingratiating theatricality of Baroque art, the rolling eyes, the swoons, the agony, the ecstasy, the sunbursts, the theatrical shadows, the tears, the blood, etc. Baroque art was about thrilling a huge public with amazing dramatic spectacles intended to dazzle any kind of thoughtful reflection into oblivion. Poussin thought that was the problem with Baroque art, it was all spectacle and no substance (or that substance so frequently was upstaged). Poussin believed that painting should stir thought and engage the moral sense, not dazzle us into thoughtless submission. He went out of his way to purge anything like the ingratiating qualities of Baroque art out of his work. He deliberately avoided the embrace of the broad public. The late Sir Kenneth Clark described Poussin as a "fighting highbrow," and indeed he was. His work was intended for a small sympathetic audience of well read and thoughtful people willing to meet the demands that Poussin's art makes from us. Despite his best efforts, his work became popular, especially in his native France, where he influenced generations of artists from Jacques Louis David to Paul Cezanne.

One of the finest examples of that independence of mind, and the uncompromising intellectualism of Poussin's work is his series of paintings, The Seven Sacraments. He first painted a series of Seven Sacraments for his close friend, the Papal Librarian, Cassiano dal Pozzo from 1637 to 1640. He painted a much finer second series for his other close friend, the French ambassador to the Papal Court, Paul Freart de Chantelou from 1644 to 1648. It is this second series that I reproduce here. These paintings were all made in Rome and shipped to Paris immediately upon completion. Remarkably, Poussin never saw these paintings together, and yet they are so beautifully conceived and designed to be a unified set.

The Seven Sacraments was an invention of North European art. The most famous example prior to Poussin is Rogier Van der Weyden's famous altarpiece. This subject is very unusual in Italian art. I cannot think of any other version of The Seven Sacraments that treats the subject in seven separate panels, and for a private patron rather than for a public church setting. But that is not all that is unusual and original about Poussin's approach to this theme.

Earlier artists. like Rogier Van der Weyden, showed the Sacraments taking place in church among people more or less contemporary with the artist. A priest usually baptized infants and small children at a font. Poussin illustrates five of the seven sacraments with episodes from the New Testament, thus moving them to a more general level of consideration, demanding that we think about their meaning as well as their origins. Christ submits to John's baptism before a crowd of people of widely varying ages and types. On the right, a group of people ranging in age from infants to the elderly await baptism. On the left, those who've already undergone the ritual put their clothes back on. Poussin minimizes the visionary aspects of the event. There are no angels, no rending of the sky, only the dove of the Holy Spirit. Various people throughout the picture seem to note its presence and hear the voice from Heaven. On the left in the back, a small skeptical looking group watches the baptism thoughtfully. They are sometimes identified as Scribes and Pharisees, but they may simply be curious and puzzled.
This is a beautiful example of the formal integration of figures and setting into a single unified composition which Cezanne so admired about Poussin's work. The Baptist's gesture extending his right arm with the cup is repeated formally throughout the painting. It has a counter-echo in the man pulling on his stockings in the lower left. The Baptist's gesture gets a more sweeping echo in the landscape behind where the broad hill slopes downward to the left across the whole picture. A dark hill right above Christ and behind the Dove significantly forms the highest point in the picture. A small ruin with palms of martyrdom stands above the Baptist. Small groves of trees echo the groupings of people.

detail from Baptism

Poussin sets this scene, neither in the New Testament or in a contemporary church, but in the early Christian community of ancient Rome. It takes place in a dark completely enclosed place which some scholars identify as a catacomb. I think Poussin had the Rome of Constantine in mind, setting this scene in a Christian mausoleum. As other scholars have pointed out, Poussin went to great lengths to accurately show these people in the costume of late Imperial Rome.
Poussin sets this scene at night on Holy Saturday during Easter Vigil. A man lights a candle from the Paschal Candle on the altar to the left. A young acolyte sprinkles people with water from a branch of hyssop, a ritual borrowed by early Christians from Judaism. A bishop seated before the altar on the left and attended by a kneeling acolyte anoints a man. In the background, a priest ties a fillet around the head of a newly anointed boy. It is a little hard to see in the darkness of this reproduction, but behind them is a large stone basin between two sarcophagi with lamps burning before them. Poussin and his circle enthusiastically studied early Christian archaeology. They knew that baptism in the days of the early Church was by full immersion, and that Baptism and Confirmation were available to people of all ages, and not just infants. The burning lamps hanging before tombs (presumably of saints) also was an early Christian practice. Almost invisible in this reproduction, through an open door in the center of the picture, right above the basin, another tiny lamp burns above a shrouded corpse. The proximity of Confirmation and Baptism with death is no accident. Both of these initiation rites are about dying to the old life and birth into a new life.

detail from Confirmation showing the large Baptismal basin and the shrouded corpse through the door behind.

detail of Confirmation showing a bishop chrismating a confirmand

Poussin illustrates this sacrament with a familiar story from the Gospels, the feast in the house of Levi. Christ was invited to a feast in the house of the priest Levi, where a penitent woman (once traditionally identified as Mary Magdalen and assumed to be an adulterer or a whore, though nowhere do the Gospel accounts identify her or her sin) washes His feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair, an action that she does freely. Christ contrasts the woman freely washing His feet with her tears out of love with the high priest, whose feet are washed out of obligation by a servant (probably a slave).
In this splendid painting, Poussin, always the scholar, shows the feast accurately as a Roman triclinium. Everyone lies on couches around three sides of a table of food. The figure of Christ recalls any number of early Roman and even Etruscan recumbant figures on ancient sarcophagi, again the theme of death and new life. A large magnificent water basin dominates the center of the picture at the end of the table, together with the servant struggling with large heavy water vessels, recalls Baptism.

detail of Penance showing Christ and the Woman

detail of Penance showing the servant washing Levi's feet, and the magnificent still life of vessels and dishes on the banquet table.

Probably the most magnificent and mysterious painting of the whole series illustrates the most important of all the Sacraments, Eucharist, the Mass. Poussin resisted the dramatic lighting and theatrical tenebrism of artists like Caravaggio and Giovanni Lanfranco, but here it is perfectly appropriate.
He condenses several episodes and aspects of the Last Supper into a single picture. He shows the Last Supper, again as a Roman triclinium, with Christ and the Apostles lying on couches around a food table. The whole magnificent room is lit with a single three flame lamp in the center of the painting. Poussin shows Christ blessing the wine. He has already blessed and broken the bread. The Apostles hold the bread in their hands about to eat it. Poussin and his scholarly friends knew that taking the Sacrament on the tongue was a recent innovation. Originally, it was taken in the hand. Judas has already been singled out and leaves the room to the left. A large basin of water appears in the shadow on the right in the foreground, a reference to the washing of the Apostles' feet, and to Baptism. The close proximity of all the Apostles together with Christ in a small pool of light in the larger darkness may recall the Priestly Prayer in the Gospel of John where Christ prays for all of His followers and for their unity.

detail of Eucharist showing the Apostles eating the Bread while Christ blesses the Wine

Poussin illustrates marriage with the wedding of Mary and Joseph, an episode referred to in the Gospel accounts, but not fully described. Pious legend (collected by Jacobus de Voragine in The Golden Legend) fills out the areas left thin by the Gospel accounts. A seated priest joins the hands of the kneeling couple. The Virgin Mary's traditional parents, Joachim and Anna, appear to the left behind her. Joseph's staff blossoms, as did Aaron's staff, again the theme of life out of death. The brilliant primary and secondary colors and elaborate decoration of the room add to the festive quality of the scene, the most populated of all the Sacrament paintings, and the last one Poussin painted.

detail from Marriage showing Joseph with the flowering staff.

This painting, out of all of the series, most closely recalls prototypes by the great High Renaissance painter Raphael, whose work Poussin studied very closely. Poussin illustrates ordination with that most Roman Catholic of all subjects, Christ giving the Keys of Heaven to Peter. Poussin sets the story, not on the road, but in an urban setting that conflates ancient Rome with Jerusalem. To the right is a pyramid topped structure that recalls a similar structure still to be seen in the Kidron Valley in Jerusalem traditionally identified as the Tomb of Zechariah. Neither Poussin, nor anyone in his circle, traveled to Jerusalem, but they would have been aware of illustrated traveler's accounts of the city. The tomb of Zechariah replaces the Castel Sant' Angelo (the ancient Tomb of the Emperor Hadrian) in its place at one end of the Ponte Sant' Angelo, a bridge that appears frequently in Poussin's work. If that is the Ponte Sant' Angelo, then this story would be taking place on the bank of the Tiber just to the east of the bridge. Where Christ raises His right hand with the Key would be the location of St.Peter's from this view. Not only is this a very clever illustration of Petrine doctrine, but it is also a reflection on the nature of salvation. Pousin, and every literate Roman and visitor of the time, know that the Castel Sant' Angelo was originally Hadrian's tomb. Bernini would eventually transform the Ponte Sant' Angelo in a giant meditation on Christ's Passion and Death with a series of marble angels holding instruments of Christ's Passion. The proximity of tomb and bridge was long used to illustrate the idea of death and salvation in Roman devotional literature. Poussin uses the bridge and tomb frequently in his paintings, even in paintings of Classical mythology such as the myth of Orpheus. It always plays a role suggesting death and salvation.
Strangest of all is the stone monument to the left with a very prominent letter "E" carved on it. Usually, this was interpreted as standing for "Emmanuel" or "Ecclesia." Anthony Blunt in his pioneering work on Poussin pointed out that Poussin and his circle were very much interested in comparative religion. They were especially interested to compare ancient Greek mysteries to Christian sacraments. They all read Plutarch, and would certainly have known a passage in his Moralia where he describes a big letter "E" carved over the entrance of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Plutarch says that the "E" stood for the Greek word "ei" meaning "thou art." Plutarch assumed that was addressed to Apollo. Later Christian commentators said the "E" for "ei" was addressed to Christ. In the context of this painting, the "E" for "ei" would be the first two words of Christ's commandment to Peter, "Thou art Peter, the Rock upon whom I will build My Church."

detail of Ordination showing the bridge based on the Ponte Sant' Angelo together with the structure based on the Tomb of Zechariah in Jerusalem in place of the Castel Sant'Angelo (Hadrian's Tomb)

detail of Ordination showing the monument with the mysterious letter "E"

Extreme Unction

The last painting in this post was the first one of the series that Poussin finished. This is one of two of Sacrament paintings not illustrated by a New Testament episode. Poussin shows a veteran soldier on his deathbed surrounded by his grieving family. A priest anoints his hands as part of the ritual. Hanging above the bed and partially concealed by the curtain are a shield and sword. In the center of the shield is a small Chi Rho. This soldier seems to be a veteran of Constantine's army, perhaps even a veteran of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge where Constantine first fought and won under the Chi Rho.

detail of Unction showing the dying soldier, the priest, and his shield and sword

Scholars have long speculated about Poussin's religious views, and he left us few clues apart from his paintings. Speculation ranges from claims that Poussin was a follower of the Protestant leaning Jansenists to a completely secular libertin. As Blunt points out, all of these speculations assume that Poussin was outside the current mainstream of Roman Catholic thought at the time.
Considering Poussin's remarkable independence as an artist in age that saw any kind of intellectual independence as a threat, those speculations are reasonable. Poussin wrote very little about religious matters, probably deliberately. Committing independent and personal ideas about religion to writing could be very dangerous both in Catholic and Protestant Europe, and few people on both sides of the religious divide did so. Poussin and his circle belonged to a class of academics and intellectuals who were especially vulnerable in this age of competing fanaticisms.
On those few occasions where Poussin writes about religion, it is to express his horror at the religious warfare convulsing his native France, or to comment sarcastically about the hundreds of miracles and visions reported in Rome every year during this period of intensely emotional Catholic revival. The huge celebrations and revivals of the Jubilee Year of 1650 hardly appear in Poussin's letters. The death of Pope Urban VIII, one of the most generous of all papal patrons of art, provokes a few flip offhand comments about how Poussin is glad that he's dead and hopes that the next pope will be better.

Poussin and his circle turned to Stoicism, like a lot of intellectuals of the time who were the unwilling and largely impotent witnesses to the fanaticism and violence of a Europe rent by religious warfare. Rubens was also an enthusiastic reader of Stoic philosophy and counted a number of Neo-Stoic scholars as friends. Poussin and his circle found consolation in the writings of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius probably more so than in the Christian Scriptures. They probably read some 17th century Neo-Stoics who were heretics like Tomaso Campanella and Giordano Bruno. Like Rubens, Poussin and his circle probably considered themselves fully within the Catholic Church. Unlike Rubens, they probably did not support the direction of reform in the Catholic Church and kept quiet about it.

I'm probably alone in my opinion, but I love Poussin's work. Yes, he is an acquired taste, and I was in grad school when I finally acquired that taste. I remember a couple of years ago making three separate visits to a big exhibition of Poussin's landscape paintings at the Met here in New York. The show had major paintings from the Louvre, London, the Prado, and more. It got rave reviews from the critics, and yet was never much of a crowd draw. I remember wandering through galleries hung with magnificent paintings almost empty of people. "Fine," I thought, "let 'em all eat cotton candy with the Impressionists, that just means more for me."
Poussin has long had a tremendous influence on my own work, and yet I notice that this is my first post on this blog about him.

As I get older, I more and more appreciate Paul Cezanne's insights into Poussin's work. In my younger days, I always thought of Poussin's work as cold and rationalizing. Now I understand that nothing could be more unjust than such a description of his work. Poussin's painting is poetic in the best sense, ever attuned to the sometimes discordant complexities of life. As intellectual and demanding as his work can be, it is driven by fires of very strong passion. I remember reading the work of one French art historian (whose name I can't remember) who defined "the monumental " as taking things out of time and remaking them to stand for all time. I can think of no better description of Poussin's work at its best.

What The Frothing Rage of the Right Is All About

A lot of bitter frightened old white people upset because there's a black dude in the White House.

And as they have so often in the past, the plutocracy exploits these fears seeing an opportunity for a coup d'etat. They know from past experience that nothing breaks a union like a busload of black or brown scab workers during a strike. After the race riot is over, there's no more union, and people are left more desperate than before, and willing to work for even lower wages. What worked in West Virginia coal towns, they now reason, might work on a national scale.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Trofim Lysenko Lives!

The spirit of Trofim Lysenko lives, and flourishes at the Heritage Foundation. Who knew that cooking the science and the data to fit the ideology would find a new home in Washington DC?

And when the data just doesn't add up, and you're caught with your calculators down, just go back and edit the press releases and the web site.

Maybe someday when the Corporate Revolution happens and the Tea Baggers storm the Winter Palace, and we're all memorizing phrases from Ayn Rand's Little Red Book, the Heritage Foundation will get Lysenko's powers to arrest and permanently silence critics.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Florence: Some Commentary and Sources

Florence has become a hobby of mine. I once entertained the fantasy that I was writing that fully integrated history of the Florentine Republic that I had always wanted, but these are really just historical blog rants. They are not history. I simply do not have the language skills or the training for serious professional history. It would take me months just to properly footnote what I’ve written already. Far greater minds than mine with much more experience than myself deal with this subject daily. There are whole libraries on Florentine history in English, Italian, French, German, and Spanish.

Right now, I’m preparing to finish the Trecento, the 14th century. Soon, I will begin the Quattrocento. I plan to conclude these historical blog posts with the brutal end of the Florentine Republic in 1530. I have no interest in going any further with the Medici Grand Dukes of Tuscany.

What I hope to do with these blogs is to present Florence as the first truly modern city, the first city to fully experience early capitalism and its boom and bust cycles and social upheavals. The amazing creativity of this one city may well be due to the clash between early capitalism and a still strong medieval culture. Remarkable changes and accomplishments in political thought, in art, in economics, and in science and technology that are still with us today came out of the Florentine Republic. All of those enterprises were intimately bound up together, much more so than our very specialized age imagines. The construction of the Cathedral dome would transform architecture, building technology, and have effects on science and even on the exploration of the New World. Florence was remarkably creative in politics, from the apocalyptic radical egalitarianism of the late Medieval Fraticelli and Joachim del Fiore to the republicanism of Salutati and Bruni, to the pragmatic nationalism of Machiavelli. The Founding Fathers of the United States read the histories of these Italian city-states, especially Florence and Venice, very carefully and learned from the experiences of these republics. As we shall see in the Quattrocento, as art becomes less bound to traditional conventions, it becomes more directly involved in the political and religious controversies of the day from Brunelleschi to Botticelli to Michelangelo. Art itself will become controversial with Brunelleschi finding himself jailed on political charges, and Michelangelo seeing his recently completed David attacked and damaged by rioting Medici partisans.

Before I go any further with these, I should discuss some of the sources I’m using for research. My language skills are limited, so a vast amount of primary sources is unavailable to me, since they are almost all written in Latin or in very old Italian. The Renaissance Florentines wrote a lot about their city and its history. They were not (and are not) a modest or a shy people. They were deeply aware and very proud of the singularity of their city. There are histories of the city and its republic written by Salutati, Bruni, Machiavelli, and Guicciardini among others. Many of these are major landmarks in political thought and historiography. There is a wealth of other first hand sources by those talkative Florentines. Many Florentines kept diaries recording the events of the city. These can be fascinating reading. I used one of the most famous of those surviving diaries, that of Giovanni Villani, to illustrate the string of catastrophes that happened in the early 14th century. These diaries are fascinating first hand accounts, but they can also be unreliable history. Florentine politics were always notoriously factional, and people frequently editorialize in their accounts. And people in the thick of events usually see only one part of things happening. What they hear of events beyond their own location is usually rumor and gossip. Though sometimes what people see and what they think about it, and what they hear about events, can be very enlightening. There are also letters, and that very popular and entertaining form of public commentary from that time, verse scrawled on walls or sung in the street that could be scathing as well as lewd and crude.

I’m mostly limited to secondary sources. The following are some of the ones that I’m using:

Hans Baron,
The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1966.
I will be using this book much more in some future posts. This is a pioneering scholarly work about the rise of a kind of Florentine republican patriotism and self-consciousness in the wake of the wars with Milan at the end of the 14th century and at the beginning of the Quattrocento. Baron was a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, and saw Florence as a pioneer of the idea of republican liberty standing against tyranny. Some scholars criticize his focus, but Baron blazed the trail in this area of Florentine history.

Gene A. Brucker
Renaissance Florence, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1969 with several later editions.
This book is a standard text for Renaissance Florence, mostly concentrating on social history and description of the Renaissance city. It is not very strong on events and history.

J.R. Hale,
Florence and the Medici: The Pattern of Control, Thames & Hudson, New York, 1977.
Unfortunately, this book is out of print, but available in most libraries. Hale describes in detail the long Medici project to establish themselves as princes of Florence and of Tuscany. His book mostly concentrates on the Medici Grand Dukes.

Frederick Hartt,
Italian Renaissance Art, Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York, 1987 with later editions.
This is still the best general survey of the subject in my opinion. It was heavily influenced by Hans Baron’s ideas about a kind of Florentine political consciousness.

Christopher Hibbert,
Florence, Biography of a City, Penguin, London, 2004.
This is a recent and very readable short history of Florence from its Roman beginnings to the present day. This book has some very vivid anecdotal passages in it, but as history, it can be unfocused and especially in later chapters, becomes preoccupied with gossip about goings on among the later Medici Grand Dukes, or about colorful English and American ex-pats in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Ross King,
Brunelleschi’s Dome, Walker & Company, New York, 2000.
This is a very well written short book that tells not only a lot about Brunelleschi and the project to build the dome of Florence Cathedral, but also a lot about the city at the opening of the Quattrocento. For those who are interested (like me), there is a lot of information on pre-modern building technology and working conditions. King presents the great Florentine dome as a brilliant and unlikely accomplishment that transformed building technology and changed architecture from a humble trade into a profession.

Lauro Martines,
Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Soul of Renaissance Florence, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
This is a recent book on Savonarola and a period of profound crisis for the Florentine republic. It is very well written and concentrates on Savonarola’s religious and political influence. The book takes a more sympathetic view of Savonarola than I think the author’s own account would warrant, but it is a very vivid and excellent account of a most exceptional period in Florentine history that I think anticipates a lot of today’s ideological politics.

Michael Rocke
Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996.
This book covers a topic that is still very controversial, but played a larger role in Florentine culture of the Renaissance than is usually acknowledged. Rocke researched in great detail the surviving court transcripts and police records from that time, and presents a very different picture of the city’s social life than most standard histories. He presents a very detailed account of the effects of the city’s periodic crackdowns on vice, especially in the time of Savonarola. I used Rocke’s book extensively in my account of the Florentine preachers, and their frequent campaigns against vice. I plan to use his book again in future posts.

Ferdinand Schevill,
Medieval and Renaissance Florence, Harcourt Brace & Company, New York, 1936.
In 2 volumes, this book is no longer in print, but available in most libraries.
This is a book that I’ve already used extensively in these posts. It is very well written, and so far as I know, remains the most complete account in English of the history of the Florentine Republic from beginning to end. Some aspects of it are very dated, such as Schevill’s claim that the Renaissance in Florence was a pagan revival (Ficino , Poliziano, and Lorenzo de Medici would be very surprised to find themselves described as “pagan;” Machiavelli would have been delighted). Other parts of the book remain remarkably prescient, such as Schevill’s detailed account of the impact of economic transformations and class conflicts on Florentine politics. I’m not sure that there are many writing today who could do as fine a job as Schevill did of showing in detail how the rise of early capitalism clashed with a still very medieval culture in Florence, dramatically transforming the city’s political and cultural life.

A. Richard Turner,
Renaissance Florence: The Invention of a New Art, Harry N. Abrams Inc. New York, 1997.
This is a short book about how the political and social life of Florence affected the revival of classical form in the city. It is mostly cultural and social history like Brucker’s book.

John White
Art and Architecture in Italy 1250 – 1400, Pelican History of Art, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, first published in 1966.
I’m using this book a lot for my accounts of Dugento and Trecento art in Florence. John White was the bete noir of at least one of my old grad school professors. His account of Italian art from this period is deeply rooted in the formalism that dominated art criticism in the 1960s and 1970s. And yet, as I read this book again after so many years, and use it to help me to understand the work from this period, I appreciate all over again how brilliant it is. Yes, it is very formalist, and White writes about form in these works so very well, especially when he writes about Duccio and Giotto. Unlike so much formalism of the 1960s, he does not ignore the historical context. In fact he beautifully integrates changes of form with changes in ideas and circumstances, as do all of the best art historians.

Power versus Authority

Wealth and power do not entitle you to rule, or oblige me to defer.


Poster from Cultural Revolutionary China, late 1960s

If I am revolutionary left in my views at all, then it is only in the context of the United States. If I cross either border to the north or the south, then my views would be considered center left, perhaps even centrist. The threshold for what is considered left and radical in this country is remarkably low and getting lower.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Music For John Galt

(Actually, I think a lot of right-wing aesthetic these days is mostly Leni Riefenstahl set to country-western music)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

That Mysterious Man in the White House ...

... confounds me yet again. Just when I think he is about to surrender abjectly, he turns around and draws a clear moral distinction between that neo-feudal supremacist vision cherished by the right, and a more livable society where everyone pays in and everyone benefits, where anyone and everyone matters, where the people really are sovereign in fact and not just in name.
As always with President Obama, it's less than what I would like, but his speech was a big step in the right direction that I hope brings a much needed shift in the debate away from terms set by the right and swallowed so unthinkingly by the corporate commentariat.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

America, No We Can't!

Alan Simpson

Paul Ryan

John Boehner

Barack Obama

Remember the Space Program? Remember the Interstate Highway System? Remember a national railroad system? Remember being first in science and technology? Remember middle class prosperity? Remember having the world's highest college graduation rate? Remember the commitments to civil rights and ending poverty? Remember conservation of resources and the commitment to clean up the environment? Remember the commitments to wipe out disease and end epidemics? Remember the National Park system?

Hard to believe we ever did anything like that once, or that we ever will again.

How does that catfood taste?

150 Years Ago Today

The Civil War started ... and it never really quite ended.

Flag from Fort Sumter

The First Person Ever in Space

Fifty years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first human being ever to enter space and orbit around the earth. He supposedly was heard whistling this tune by Shostakovich as he orbited.

The Earth and Moon from Mars

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

--TS Eliot, from "Little Gidding

This is a significant event in human history, and yet it seems to me to be going largely unobserved (at least in the USA). Indeed, this significant date almost escaped the notice of our reporters and editors here at Counterlight Plaza on East 57th street in Manhattan.

Fluffy Bunnies

An American Voter

Last week, at the end of down-to-the-wire budget negotiations, the Dems not only gave away the store, they gave the Republicans change, lottery tickets, Green Stamps, and cab fare home.
Today's Democratic Party gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "throw away your vote."
I'm ready to vote for the Greens, the National Vegetarian Party, or even the American branch of the Raving Monster Loony Party. That party's proposal to drain the water out of lakes and fill them with wine so we could have pre-marinated trout isn't nearly as crazy or destructive as what's about to sail through Congress and the White House with the blessing of a thoroughly corrupt Supreme Court where conflicts of interest are just part of business.

We American fluffy bunnies will just roll over meekly for it all with hardly a peep of protest, until it's time to retire and we find that the Medicare and Social Security we've been paying into all of our working lives are gone, replaced by a coupon for 20% off as we confront the tender mercies of the Insurance and Healthcare industries. By that time, it will be too late.

Us fluffy bunny voters will discover that Our Betters expect us to be rabbit stew in the end.

I suppose our Democratic leadership's response to Republican outrages will continue to be "Shine your shoes mister?" Meanwhile, our new aspiring Overlords are holding the Bible and Atlas Shrugged while singing "Tomorrow Belongs to Me."

Chardin, Rabbit with Copper Pot, c.1739

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Jesus So Lowly

Rembrandt, Christ on the Cross

by Harold Friedell

Jesus, so lowly, Child of the earth: Christen me wholly, Bring me new birth.
Jesus, so lonely, weary and sad; Teach me that only Love maketh glad.
Jesus, so broken, Silent and pale; Be this the token Love will not fail.
Jesus, victorious, mighty and free; Teach me how glorious death is to be.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Speaking of Fun House Morality ...

As the Federal Government prepares for a shutdown, and pundits wag their chins and solemnly pontificate about America "losing its way," blaming teachers, firefighters, and trash collectors along with poor brown and black people for our current economic crisis, while ignoring Wall Street's role in the biggest theft in history, this work by that incisive moral critic Cole Porter seems suddenly very relevant.

Himself sings here.

Have fun spotting all the topical references from 1934.

"Am I My Brother's Keeper?"

Cain murders Abel in a woodcut by Albrecht Durer, 1511.

I remember in much younger days how the followers of Ayn Rand would quote that question from Genesis as a kind of challenge meaning "Am I responsible for what my neighbors do or don't do?" The clearly intended answer being "no." Since we all grew up together in Bible-reading Texas, I'm surprised that they never seemed to remember the context of that question, and who asks it, why, and what the answer was. Cain has just murdered his brother, and God confronts him. Cain is trying to dodge responsibility for what he has just done, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Is it really up to him to be always mindful of his brother's whereabouts? Of course this is not a serious question, it's a dodge, an excuse. God answers Cain with another question "Where is you brother Abel?" soon followed by a shocked "What have you done?"

One of my students pointed out to me recently how these very popular game shows that pit people against each other like "Survivor" are such fantasies. A group of people who really were marooned on an island would stand a much better chance of survival if they cooperated instead of trying to undercut and sabotage each other. I've never understood the wild appeal of "American Idol," not just because of the saccharine conventional music it promotes, but because one of the alleged pleasures of the show is watching the brutal and humiliating auditions. I've never understood the pleasure of watching some ordinary person who's never really done much harm in life publicly humiliated. It's one thing watching some high and mighty sort get knocked down a few pegs, but instead it's the spectacle of How the Not Very Mighty At All Have Fallen. The appeal is lost on me.

These days, we find ourselves in a fun house world of morality where a large group of already very wealthy people committed what is probably the largest act of larceny in history, almost wrecking the global economy, and yet it is the rest of us suffering the consequences who are told to feel ashamed for our wanton ways. Our representatives go out of their way to coddle the very people who ruined us all, and meanwhile try to take away our last remaining protections against the predations of the market economy. They tell us solemnly to "take responsibility," while dodging their own responsibility for creating this whole crisis. People who keep overseas tax shelters, even in times of war and crisis, are congratulated on their patriotism. For the last 50 years, war has been left to the servants. The same people who mow our lawns, repair our cars, cook our meals, clean our homes and businesses, serve as our secretaries and care for our children and elderly, also fight our wars. "Consuela, would you please clean up that mess I made in the Middle East? Thank you dear." As in the Spanish American war, so now in our current imperial military adventures; the military who fights them is mostly made up of immigrants and the poor, "disposable people." The very idea that once prevailed in the USA since the beginning that we all pull together and do our part in times of war or crisis is now ridiculed. Soon after the deadliest attack ever on our soil, we are all told to go shopping, and that nothing will be demanded of us. In fact, after invading two countries and starting two major wars, taxes for the top income earners are cut dramatically, creating a major drop in revenue available to the military to fight those wars. Calculating that the public would be unwilling to share the full sacrifice of blood and treasure for such nakedly imperial adventures, our rulers turn to mercenaries to fill out the ranks of our over-stretched and over-worked military.
A corrupt and lazy press averts its eyes from all of this to fix its gaze on the powerful and to fawn on them and upon their willing lackeys.
Our people are sold on the idea that anyone can win the lottery if no one rocks the boat and spoils our chances. We now have the War of All Against All, and instead of finding ourselves the musclebound heroes in our own video game, we find ourselves reduced to the abject and meek servants of a soon to be all powerful over-class. We've discovered that the Lone Wolves are the easiest to pick off and kill.
Now, we have a hostility to all public enterprise and all collective public life that is so extreme that even Adam Smith would be shocked and appalled. People are sold on an adolescent dream that they can have it all and do what they please without any responsibility. No one need feel obliged to maintain the very society that makes their fortunes possible. That is not a vision of adults, that is a fantasy of teenagers.

Just try to find "God helps those who help themselves" anywhere in the Scriptures (even my own mother believes it is there). You'll find it in the Book of Ben Franklin. Instead, in the Scriptures you'll find a Dirty Hippy who wandered around homeless dependent on the charity of others (what a parasite!) having the temerity to tell an aspiring young John Galt to sell all that he has and to give the money to the poor.

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is so socialist.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Mystery of the Mona Lisa Solved ... Maybe

For reasons that have never been clear to me, the identity of the sitter of this painting has been controversial since the mid 20th century. Vasari in his chapter on Leonardo in Lives of the Artists identifies the woman in this painting as Lisa Gherardini Giocondo, the wife of a young Florentine silk merchant by the name of Francesco Giocondo. Vasari says that Leonardo painted it on the occasion of their marriage. Ever since, the painting has been known as Mona Lisa (old Florentine dialect that means "My Lady Lisa"), or La Gioconda, "The Smiler" which is a play on the name Giocondo. Until the 20th century, no one ever thought to question that identity.

Since the mid-20th century, there have been all sorts of proposed alternative identifications such as the Duke of Milan Francesco Sforza's mistress Cecilia Gallerani, or the Duke's long suffering Duchess Caterina Sforza, or Isabella d'Este, or Leonardo's mother (supposedly done from memory), or Leonardo's boyfriend, bodyguard, and assistant Salai, or even Leonardo himself.
In the 1990s, the best scholar on Leonardo in the English language, Martin Kemp, did something no one thought to do, and that was to go looking through the city records in Florence for information on Lisa Gherardini. It turns out that there was a lot about her. She had married young (as did most women of the time). The Gherardini's were very close friends with Leonardo. He lived at their country villa for many years, including the years 1503 and 1504 when the painting was made. It was probably painted at that villa (which still exists). Lisa Gherardini would have been the right age for the woman in the painting. The artist probably knew her very well, and they may have been close friends. Kemp believed that despite all the laser scans and computer analyses of the mysterious face comparing the sitter to this or that person, Vasari may have been right all along, that the sitter was indeed Lisa Gherardini.

In 2005, a scholar in the University of Heidelberg made a discovery that appears to have ended the controversy once and for all. While cataloguing rare books in the university library, Dr. Armin Schlechter discovered a note written in the margin of a 1477 edition of Cicero's Epistulae ad Familiares. It was written by Agostino Vespucci, cousin of the famous explorer and a secretary to Niccolo Machiavelli when he was Chancellor of the Florentine Republic. In that note, Vespucci praises Leonardo as a new Apelles (a celebrated painter from Antiquity) for his work on the portrait of the wife of Francesco Giocondo, Lisa Gherardini, that the painting was made to commemorate the birth of her son Andrea, and writes a date of October 1503. That appears to be the end of the controversy and since then, there have been no more "experts" coming forward to claim that the painting is Leonardo in drag.

Agostino Vespucci's note from October 1503 in the margin of Cicero's Epistulae.

But it's still not over. Now an Italian art historian named Silvano Vinceti wants to exhume the remains of Lisa Gherardini and subject them to detailed technical analysis. To what end is not clear to me. He does not dispute that she is the subject of the painting. Lisa Gherardini died an old woman in 1542, almost 40 years after she sat for Leonardo. I doubt that she died with exactly those same features that we see in the painting. I say let her rest in peace.

Leonardo never really finished the painting. He last worked on it 3 years before his own death in 1519. But then, the impulsive and undisciplined Leonardo left a lot of paintings and other projects unfinished at his death.

The painting was a revolution in portraiture. For the first time, a sitter in a portrait turned to look at and see us the viewers, and to recognize our presence. For the first time, a portrait looks back at us. In its day, the painting was very famous, even if the secretive Leonardo made sure that the painting's fame was mostly by reputation. A handsome young smooth talker named Raphael charmed the old man into letting him take an extended look at the painting. The painting changed the young man's life. Most of Raphael's portraits would be variations in some form of Leonardo's Mona Lisa. By the mid 17th century, the painting sank into obscurity. Its current fame is the creation of the 19th century, of writers like Walter Pater and circles of Symbolist writers and poets who very much admired its mysterious appeal.