Friday, December 23, 2011

The French Country Cocktail

This concoction doesn't have much recognizably French in it (unless you include the Violette), so it must be that what inspires me to call it French Country has something to do with the spirit of its flavor.

On an aesthetic level, the spirit of France has been a cultural inspiration throughout the world for at least four centuries. French was once the lingua franca--the chosen language of communication and diplomacy--as English has now become--and as Chinese may someday become.

In England and America, French culture has been held in such esteem partly as a result of its Mediterranean aspect--its taste in food, its liberality of indulgence--but also because it shares with the Anglo nations a tradition of revolutionary freedom and refined intellectualism. In the 19th and 20th Centuries, French art led the way, though that torch was passed to America after World War II.

Above all, the spirit of France is the spirit of light--Paris is often called the City of Light. A spectrum is a panoply of the colors of the spectrum, illuminated by the white light of day. We think of our insights and discoveries and inventions as illuminations, exposing dark areas to our view, revealing truth to the curious mind. The various flavors of this cocktail inspire a sense of lucid translucency.

Ingredients by proportion--

2 parts Tanqueray # 10 Gin
1/2 part cocktail grapefruit
1/2 part fresh lemon juice
1/2 part cinnamon liqueur
1/2 part maraschino liqueur
1/2 Créme de Violette liqueur

Shaken lightly and served up.

So, in the spirit of illumination, a toast to enlightenment!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Earthquakes & the Mirage of "Preparedness"

Scientists are as vain as other people, they just tend to hide their vanity inside empirical corroborations and pompous notions of authority. Geologists are among the proudest researchers and theorists in all of science. They can point with confidence and pride to the advances made in their field, beginning with the discoveries and confirmations which begin in the 19th Century, and continue all the way down to our own moment, the era of plate tectonics. We all like plate tectonics, because it explains much of the seismic and volcanic activity which mankind has been experiencing since . . . well, the Beginning.

For those of you who don't know it, the earth is a very hot ball of matter. The interior of our planet is very hot. The crust, the part inhabited by living organic matter, is extremely thin. And it's comparatively fluid. That may seem counter-intuitive. Rocks, after all, we think of as brittle, hard. But the truth is the surface of the earth is more like jelly than granite. And it rests not on "bedrock" but on a bed of very hot stuff which is inherently unstable. Planets are made of star-matter, they're fragments of something very much larger which exploded. These were very hot, very energetic events. The fragments of the Big Bang are still smoldering. That fire, that energy, is comparatively long-lived, in human time. In fact, when we're considering what is referred to as "geologic time" we're generally speaking in terms of tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions, or tens of millions, or hundreds of millions of years. Segments of time of that extent tend to dwarf human time: for instance, the life of a single individual, or the length of a century, or of a millennium. In human terms 1000 years seems like a very long time, many generations. Most people lose track of their ancestors within a generation or two--those cultural memories gets lost in the distractions of the immediate present.

Geologists now know that geological events cause enormous changes on the earth's surface, and sudden, violent events (like large volcanic eruptions, or larger earthquakes) quickly get people's attention. But the intensity and effect of such events tends to be exaggerated in the public imagination. As man has acquired more control over his environment, we've become habituated to the notion that we can mitigate against such occurrences. We can use our fear and apprehension to motivate ourselves to make more concerted efforts to control our environment, or, failing that, to prepare for the predictable consequences of regularly occurring geologic events. It seems sensible to make reasonable mitigations that could save society from needless harm and destruction. But having said that, there are other considerations that complicate and undercut the optimistic slant that scientists put on the value of our knowledge of geology.

For one thing, geological events are so large, so powerful, that it's unreasonable to assume that mankind will ever command the energy and leverage required to have any significant effect upon, or control over, their progress. You can't "stop" a volcano, any more than you can influence the orbit of the moon. You can't hold back an earthquake fault. These are phenomena completely beyond our control. Man stands in awe of such natural forces. They are like gods. They rule our existence, albeit fitfully and unpredictably.

Geologists of course, would like to believe that science can eventually explain everything. That's what drives scientific inquiry. We've gone to the moon. We've figured out natural selection and the DNA code. We can measure the speed of light. We know about Black Holes. We've figured out relativity, partly. We should be able to study plate tectonics, to map the earth's crust, and to deduce from our measurements the frequency and likely times of geological events like eruptions and fault slips. And there's been considerable progress in our increasing knowledge of why earthquakes happen, and what their frequency seems to be, just by collating empirical observations made over time.

It's become fashionable over the last quarter century, for the media to encourage people to "get serious" about our awareness of the impacts of large geologic events. Every few months, they'll have a fear-mongering exposé, filled with dire warnings about the terrific dangers to society of earthquakes. Geology has provided us with reliable maps of all of the earth's fault lines, the margins of the plates which make up the shifting pieces of the earth's crust. We know where the faults lie, and we've begun to make time-lines of the rates of occurrence of slippage along the ones that are the most active. But here is where the contrast between geologic event times, and human event horizons, run parallel.

In human time, whole civilizations can be born, expand into great cultures, thrive and decay, within a couple or three hundred years. Cities can be built, the land brought under cultivation, and the population explode by millions upon millions. This happened in North America after the first European colonizations along the Eastern seaboard. Thirty generations of human time. Buildings and roads and reservoirs. Harbors and canals and power grids.

Volcanic eruptions and big earthquakes are frightening things. Not only because they happen unexpectedly, but because of their evident force. They upset people, and they can be destructive. Earthquakes can cause buildings to collapse, roadways to buckle, and can cause fires, and interruptions in vital services such as water, power, sewage. In developed areas, the amount of damage they cause can be staggering, especially where construction practices, and service systems are rudimentary and fragile. And humankind has shown little regard for the advisability of building in areas known to be at risk for such events.

But the larger question still arises: In what ways do geologic events challenge our ability to work around probable occurrences? Are there practical steps that can and should be taken to minimize or mitigate the dangers and damages associated with them? If, for instance, it is reckoned that a certain earthquake fault is known to slip or slide once every 100-250 years, does it behoove society to go to any lengths to prepare for the "next big one"? The popular view these days, is that we should be getting about preparing for earthquakes.

The comparative study of different kinds of risk is called risk management. There's a whole discipline devoted to calibrating the amount of distress that certain kinds of dangers pose to people or structures. On a scale of intensity, natural disasters--such as hailstorms, tornadoes, tsunamis, hurricanes, mudslides, floods, fires, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions--all are empirically gauged on a curve of known effects. The more frequent such occurrences, the greater the likelihood that someone living in a high risk area will be affected. Degrees of severity also play a part. A small hailstorm in Nebraska may break a few automobile windshields, and penetrate a few cheap roof structures, but by and large it's more frightening, more curious, than devastating. A big hurricane, on the other hand, depending on its intensity, and where it reaches land, will always cause a lot of harm.

Nations and states and counties and towns all have to consider what the best policy should be, to protect their respective citizens from unnecessary risk. But how much preparation is practical, and how much merely speculative? Society tends to become preoccupied, at any given moment, with the death rates from disease, or from wars, or from terrorist acts, or from driving on the highway, or jumping from bridges or high buildings. The events of 9/11, for instance, were probably more destructive, in terms of human life, and in terms of structures, and in terms of ordinary peace of mind, than most earthquakes ever are--certainly in the U.S. Could 9/11 have been prevented? Could it have been mitigated by planning and emergency preparedness?

We're told over and over by "the authorities" these days, that all our building structures, our elevated freeways, our bridges, must be "retrofitted" to make them more stable, more secure against probable shaking in earthquakes. The costs involved in such "retrofits" is considerable. To retrofit a house, or an apartment building. or a city skyscraper--to make it more rigid and stable, to withstand greater degrees of eccentric movement--is very difficult.

Are such retrofits cost effective? In other words, is it in society's interest to expend large amounts of public and private money to prepare for an event that may be as far away from happening as a century or more?

As the world population continues to explode, the value of human life goes down. This may sound cold-bloodedly insane, but as a fact of life it's undeniable. Man's ability to over-run his environment has gotten completely out of hand. We hear of thousands and thousands dying of hunger and disease and civil unrest across the globe, and we hardly blink an eyelid. And as populations expand, more and more people are put "at risk" by inhabiting areas where the conditions exist for large events to claim the lives and work of millions. Global warming threatens to eliminate many of the largest port cities on the planet, as a result of rising sea-levels. And yet the nations of the earth are doing virtually nothing about this.

And yet, cities and counties and states are warned that if they don't retrofit all structures and services against the next big quake, armageddon will sweep thousands away, and wipe whole cities off the face of the map. What if all the money that we spend preparing for the next geologic event were spent instead on more immediate needs and purposes, based on the human time scale, instead of the geologic one? What is the price we're willing to pay for the fear we feel about imponderable geologic events such as earthquakes? Certainly there are sensible things we can do to "get ready" for probable dangers. Houses and buildings can be constructed with lateral bracing and lockdowns. Elevated passages can be built that will not fall down when shaken. Children can be taught to dive under desks. And you can put a jug of water, a few cans of pork and beans, and a good flashlight in the kitchen pantry. But in a practical human time sense, wasting society's resources to prepare for an event they may well not occur within our lifetime, or even that of our grandchildren, seems like a boondoggle for the contracting industry.

Let those geologists prognosticate and wave their hands in the air, presaging doom and gloom and the end of civilization as we know it. Great catastrophes which happen once or twice a century are interesting to contemplate, but common sense tells us that organizing our lives around such unlikely and infrequent events is silly. Some people aren't satisfied unless they've built a moat around themselves, and have a stock of weapons and emergency supplies handy at all times. They imagine a post-apocalyptic world where everyone or every family is on their own, living in a jungle of threat and competition. But this view is a fantasy. If society's history of response to crisis is any guide, disasters tend to bring out the best in people, and civilizations rebuild after great devastations. And what we do to each other in wars and disputes and neglect, far outweighs the harm done by nature. The pain and death and destruction we wrought on Iraq, for instance, is many times greater than any combination of natural disasters that could ever have happened there.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Framing as Meaning

I made the above image in 1988, along the Oregon Coast. It's an 8x10 contact print, taken with a "normal" focal length lens (for this format). It's a shot taken at about early to mid-afternoon, facing West toward the ocean, and this little tide-pool is formed from the run-off rivulet of fresh water flowing from higher ground across the beach.

This is in my view a typical kind of tide-pool study. The attractions of such subject matter are obvious, in that it's easy to set up, and easy to conceptualize a number of different possible versions, no one of which is the correct one, no one of which can be considered final or comprehensive. When photographing in nature, there's always this riddle, of having to rely on some principle exterior to the phenomenon, since nature has no aesthetic boundaries; you have to decide for yourself what they should be, and your choice, though unpredictable, will be derived either from your previous experience or training, or upon some more unique personal view of things.

In terms of my own aesthetic, I see this as a study in circles, impingements, gratuitous structural expression, elaborate material states. Rock, sand, water; light, movement, reflection. What does such an image mean? To a scientist, it may be an expression of natural forces. Gravity, balance, inertia, stasis. Our relation to it is typical and opportunistic. Any slight movement to the left, the right, forward or back will alter the inherent arrangement of light, shadow, and the tensions set up between the contiguous parts. The frame is initially rectangular, but it could as well be circular, oval, or atypically trapezoidal or irregular. We ordinarily regard such departures from traditional framing as being a little gimmicky; though there's nothing visually inevitable about rectangular framing. The fact that it's a cliché actually releases our attention, allowing us to see into the image without being preoccupied with something as methodical as the shape of the frame.

If we can get beyond the initial rectangular frame, and examine the composition as an exercise in framing--a sort of interior framing--we can begin to think about its arrangements as a set of choices which all contribute to its overall effect(s). When discussing such choices, one must admit the limitations. In order to have put the sun's direct reflection on the surface of the water, in a position, say, more towards the center of the composition, would have been practically impossible, since it would have involved having the camera view at a point backwards and up and slightly to the right of the view--requiring having a platform allowing me and the camera to be something like 8 feet up in the air--obviously an impossibility under the circumstances. But would I have wanted the reflection to be in the middle of the pool? Probably not.

What initially attracted me to this was the neat curving edge of sand, the fact that it had not been disturbed by footprints (or paw-prints!), and its pristine purity, the delicacy of the ruffled edges of the sand, the hard dark edge of exposed igneous rock, and its aspect in relation to the sun's angle which lit up the wet margin. Again, in a practical sense, I had to take care not to let the tripod points get too close to the foreground of the picture, since the wet sand would show this as a disturbance--clearly, I wanted no evidence of human agency to impinge on the scene. It had to be natural--that is, it had to seem to have occurred as a consequence of purely physical forces, without any human (or other organic) interference.

The notion of the purity of nature sans any human manipulation is one of the great themes of 19th and 20th century landscape photography. Often an illusion, it nevertheless endures as a guiding principle of our concept of an unspoiled world, pre-human, pre-historical, pre-civilized, and pre-conceptual. But all art is conceptual, insofar as what we make of it involves, at least initially, a given frame. This little freshwater tide-pool is a part of the larger eco-system of which it's one minute element. In a whole (holistic) sense, it can't be considered apart from its surrounding context. And yet it is precisely the delineation of the whole that most often creates the sense of an aesthetic event, of a choosing and a making that derives from the aesthetically undelineated continuity of the natural world.

Photography takes in what comes through the lens. Once an image is saved, it may be manipulated in a number of ways. But initially, the data thus received, can't be refused. We can't prevent light from behaving in the way that it will. It's an adamant power of the universe, and follows laws we can't begin to fathom in their entirety. Working within the context of such a relationship one is apt to be subservient, since most of what we think we know about the world can't be altered.

For me, one of the driving motivations for making an image is a balance between the active and passive tendencies in one's own nature. You want to celebrate and share your vision, but you also want an image to speak for itself, as if it had a separate voice. And there is no question that nature can tell us, or confirm for us, all the things we come to deduce about it. Nature can be self-defining, in that its structure and flux and tactility and unpredictability occur with or without human permission and desire. Art is about making, is making. But in landscape photography, that will to form (or make) is limited first by what there is. A painter or a sculptor or an architect or a move-maker can manipulate their respective media, irrespective of such considerations. But their freedom implies a greater risk, too.

In terms of my act of framing in this photograph, I wanted the circular extent of the pool's edge to be "in" the picture. I could have used a wider lens to allow in more of the surrounding sand and rock and rivulet(s), but I had no desire to do so. I could have moved the camera around towards the right hand of the circle framed by the exigent "center" of the pool where the rock point lies in the water, but that would have put the sun's reflection at a point just above the water's surface--I wanted that white light near the top of the composition. There's the time element, too. If I had happened upon this scene at a point an hour earlier, or an hour later, I wouldn't have had the sun's reflection available to me at this vantage point. Circumstances can dictate what choices you have. Or I might not have had my camera with me--light and angle and shadow can change, from second to second, and the window of opportunity may be open for just a few minutes, or even a few seconds. People who think photography is easy don't always realize this.

This image has a quasi-spiritual quality for me. But I'm not a religious-minded person. Systems of ulterior belief generally bore me. But I am often moved emotionally, even on what is often called a "spiritual" level, by things I see in the world. I don't think, for instance, I've ever seen a designed landscape feature, anywhere in the world, which is as moving as this little pool. Nature wins hands down in contests like these. If you set out to create a pool as beautiful as this one is, by constructing one, it's doubtful the result would be as satisfying. The sense of satisfaction in nature's accidental arrangement is more moving that my sense of a "perfected" nature.

Oriental gardening is based on the proposition that nature in itself isn't perfect, that it requires the hand of man to make it "more perfect"--more, as it were, perfectly natural than nature itself. That, too, is a riddle. Human industry is no less natural than anything that occurs anywhere in the universe. But that's a philosophical fine point. There is a difference between naturally occurring phenomenon, and human design, and that difference is part of what makes taking photographs of nature intriguing. What's out there is itself first, not a second-hand stage-set meant to be seen just in a certain way. And that makes all the difference.

As in some kinds of oriental philosophy, the meaning of the universe can be implied by certain short-hand keys. Brief poems can do the trick. But any kind of art can serve. Photographs can be like koans, touchstones to the meaning of existence, or of the universe. They are everywhere, if you look hard enough. But just wanting to do it isn't enough. You have to let it happen, too. There must be a balance between wanting (desire), and waiting (passive awareness). Wanting and waiting. Dedication, and patience. Devotion, and intuition. Inspiration, and obedience. Determination, and chance.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

End of the Iraq War - Permanent Devastation

As the War in Iraq winds down, after eight and a half years of conflict and occupation, it's an opportune moment to take stock of this military adventure, to ask why we undertook it, and to estimate its cost in lives, materiel, cash, reputation, and future strategic advantage.

It is now well-established that Iraq was not a breeding-ground for Muslim terrorists. Even if it had been, it's doubtful that any direct military action would have resulted in its eradication, since Islamic terrorism knows no borders, and, as has become abundantly clear, Al Quaeda was not territorial--it was an ideological franchise, free-floating and transportable. Arguments made at the time by the Bush Administration that Iraq was linked to the 9/11 bombings were erroneous.

It is now well-established that Iraq did not possess nuclear weapons, and also that it was not secretly conducting research or attempting to construct nuclear devices or delivery systems for them. This was made abundantly clear by the failure to locate any such devices or substances, or other evidence of their existence, after the country had been military subdued and occupied. Arguments made at the time by the Bush Administration that Iraq was threatening to drop a nuclear device in America ("a mushroom cloud" as Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice put it) were proved to be erroneous.

It is now well-established that the Bush Administration had no clear idea about what a post-war Iraq would look like, or how it might go about creating a context in which a so-called Western style democratic government (friendly to the West) might take root there. Once the country had been subdued, and the Saddam government dismantled, the American military was suddenly in the position of attempting to figure out what it was supposed to be doing there, as it became clear that a protracted guerrilla war would develop in the succeeding years, which shows little signs, even now, of simply dying away.

Estimates of the true costs of the Iraq War to the United States are now $845 billions of dollars, with the total cost to the American economy of three trillion dollars, and given the future medical and support costs to wounded soldiers and their families, that figure will undoubtedly rise.

Though accounts differ, a reliable estimate of the number of Iraqi civilian deaths is put at or near 130,000, with an additional 500,000 collateral casualties. Coalition forces deaths 4800.

American money was thrown around with abandon. In one report, neat bundles of six billions in American hundred dollar bills were airlifted into Baghdad in C-130 cargo planes by the Bush Administration; all of the 12 billions of such infusions of "mad money" are now unaccounted for, amounting to what some have called "the largest theft of funds in our national history."

The nation of Iraq is now in a state of flux. Our puppet government, headed by Nouri al-Maliki, seems weak and vacillating in the face of widespread unrest and threats of ethnic, religious and regional factional conflict. Like our departure from South Vietnam, there are expectations of a general collapse of authority once the American military is no longer present to prop up our opportunistic fair-weather friends. There are those who believe the new Iraqi regime's days are strictly numbered. Privately, my own guess is that the nation will descend into general civil war within a matter of weeks, resulting in the reestablishment of a new military ruler (as Saddam had been), or a theocratic establishment, headed by an "Ayatollah" or ruling Muslim priest-class. The Iraqi populace has little or no loyalty to the ideals of America, or its interests in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, our relations with neighboring countries, including Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the Emirates, and Kuwait are all seriously compromised. Military invasions and occupations are messy affairs. Despite all the best efforts of our soldiers and aids-people, we will be remembered as invaders by the Iraqis.

From a purely selfish point of view, the price of oil has quadrupled since 2003. The interruption of Iraqi oil production caused a world wide crisis in supply, which continues to some extent right through to the present. Much of the oil which was once earmarked for the West, will now be routed East to China and India.

Saddam Hussein had been America's ally during the years of Iraq's war with Iran. It suited our purpose to entertain his dictatorial regime when Iran was our enemy. But the Bush Administration had been planning an Iraq invasion even before 9/11; in fact, it was reported that Bush and his cronies met in Texas while his first (fraudulent) election was being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, to firm up plans to mount a campaign for the invasion of Iraq, to "finish the job" his father had left undone in the Kuwait War.

The tidal wave of lies and false justifications perpetrated upon the American Congress and the American people to build support for the invasion was not without precedent in American history. But our preemptive military incursion, on this scale, amounted to a new level of corrupt exploitation of public opinion, and an unimaginable squandering of resource and man-power.

Bush II inherited a booming economy, and in six short years, turned our nation into a sad shadow of its former greatness. The Iraq war wasn't the only cause of this, but it was the centerpiece of Bush's presidency. He made Americans ashamed to be Americans.

President Obama has been doing the usual patriotic thing, welcoming our returning soldiers, and giving speeches about America's honorable service, our departure "with honor" from the distant Middle East battlefields. I remember the same speeches we heard by the Nixon Administration during the disengagement from Vietnam. They have a familiar ring.

The Iraq War was a totally unjustified adventure, expensive beyond measure, with catastrophic consequences which will continue for decades. It was fought in vain, and all of the sacrifices and casualties suffered for it will have been for nothing. Iraq will not become a democracy, and its people will not be better off. I was against the Iraq War from the beginning, and I have seen no reason to change that opinion at any point since.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Old Poodle Dog - Sophisticated New Cocktail

The Old Poodle Dog was once the toast of San Francisco restaurant scene. Among the earliest genuine French restaurants in the city, it opened its doors in 1849. Except for a decade (1922-1933) marking Prohibition, it continued until 1980. It was briefly reopened again inside the Crocker Galleria in 1984 but closed for good a year and a half later.

The name Old Poodle Dog seems to have come about because early customers couldn't pronounce its original name (in French), Le Poulet d'Or (the Golden Cock), and sounded out The Poodle Dog. By the turn of the last century, a white poodle, a rarity in those times, was employed as official mascot.

The place originally was located at the edge of Chinatown, and was constructed in the typical common French country style, with long tables, common serving dishes, salad towards the end of the meal, a house wine. Later the restaurant moved into larger quarters, and upgraded its fair, eventually vying for top spot among local French cuisine establishments.

Old San Francisco's reputation as a den of iniquity was not undeserved. For decades, the Old Poodle Dog maintained special upstairs dining suites complete with beds and private bathrooms, where the city's bigwigs and players could conduct their assignations in discreet privacy. Whether that was proof of the city's tolerance, or of its indulgent mischief, I let you decide.

I only ate at the Old Poodle Dog once, in its last brief incarnation in the Crocker Galleria, taking lunch with my real father, John Calef, whom I didn't meet until I was twenty. We only saw each other perhaps a half dozen times before he died in the mid-1990's. He was already retired then, but wore a suit for the occasion. It had been one of his favorite watering holes over the decades, and he wanted to share it with me. It wasn't the sort of establishment I could have afforded at the time. We had beef shanks, I seem to recall. Though a man in my thirties by then, I felt like a teenager at a prep school being visited by an absentee father-surrogate.

In any case, to commemorate that memory, as well as a once great San Francisco restaurant, I've used the name for a cool new cocktail concoction. I should warn anyone in advance that you'd be unlikely to get any bartenders to mix it for you, as it contains ingredients which are not common to taverns nowadays. For instance, cocktail grapefruit--an hybrid derived from a mixture of the Siamese Sweet pommelo and the Frua mandarin orange--fruits in the winter, and is not commonly sold in grocery stores. Unlike the pulpy, more bitter variety we're all familiar with in America, this one is rich in juice, and has a much sweeter flavor. It's about the size of a medium large Florida orange, and has a yellow tint tinged with green blurs.

St. Germaine liquor has rapidly come into favor as a piquant mixer in the last couple of years.
Though not particularly unusual, you'd be unlikely to find most barmasters with either sweet lime, or vanilla syrup, on the premises. Lillet is an old standby.

The recipe below is for a single cocktail, shaken gently, and served in chilled cocktail glasses, has a surpassing elegance and seductiveness which are miles above your typical festive drink. Women will enjoy it as much as men, even if they've never liked cocktails much. The combination of the two French aperitifs, with the slightly exotic fruits are what make it work.

2 parts Tanqueray #10
1/2 part St. Germaine Liquor
1/2 Part Lillet
1/4 part vanilla syrup
1/2 part sweet lime
1/2 part "cocktail" grapefruit

This one would work in mid-summer, or on a cold, rainy day such as today is in the Bay Area. But don't try asking your local bartender for it. He's likely to squint dismissively and demand to know where in hell you came up with that effete combination. But take my word, this one's worth searching out the ingredients.

Duchamp Dream

In a dream, Duchamp and I are sitting at a café, playing chess--somewhere in the “bohemian” quarter. Duchamp has a familiar expression of secret amusement on his face. When he moves his hand toward a pawn, I see that the skin around his fingers is soft, almost translucent. “You know,” he observes, “it’s important to take what life gives, without struggling . . . how do you say, with futilité . . . against it.” I nod judiciously. I also see that the cashmere sweater he is wearing is worn threadbare at the elbows. I think to myself that this is a sign of sublime cultivation. Duchamp lights up his pipe and takes two slow draws, emitting curling blue exhalations which meander around his face in the still air. My eye wanders to the neighboring table, the café chairs with their slightly curving legs—readymades, I assume. They’re everywhere you look. Just then a tall, beautiful blonde strides by us, totally nude, except for a pearl necklace and trim sandals. Duchamp glances toward her for a second or two, then resumes his attention on the game board. “These gratuitous events are impossible to predict,” he offers, “but once they happen, there is no choice,"--waving his hand dismissively--"one must incorporate them into the flow of one's experience.”

Monday, December 12, 2011

49ers Future - the Horizon Recedes

There is a tendency in America to favor the underdog, and to revel in the phenomenon of redemptive grace.

There is no story that is more heart-warming to Americans than the underachiever playing beyond his/her presumed capacity, and we embrace the unexpected phoenix rising from the ashes of mediocrity to shine with unexpected glory.

That narrative makes great copy, and it's hard not to be inspired by the example.

But reality seldom follows this heroic paradigm. We base our predictions and expectations on obvious qualities, tested and demonstrated skills. Superior past achievement is more likely than not to presage future excellence.

It's not unusual for a college star quarterback to fail in the National Football League. It's one of the stubbornly clear differences between college and professional football, that great success--even over-the-top record-breaking years--by a college quarterback--and even if playing for one of the nation's top schools--does not tend to prove his worth as a potential star quarterback in the NFL. This has been shown over and over again. On the other hand, it's almost as unlikely that a quarterback who didn't show much in college, could ever become a star as a pro. But it does happen. Still, when measuring odds, it's best to stick with past wisdom.

As I said before here, Alex Smith lacks a certain je-ne-sais-quoi which all successful pro quarterbacks possess. It isn't a single quality, but a difficult-to-define ingredient which is made up partly of character, partly of physical ability, partly of how one responds to pressure, and an elusive substance (elusiveness?). In order to rise to prominence as a pro QB, there must be consistency, consistency over a whole season, which is now 16 games. But along with that consistency, which is expressed through classic skills and ability, the secret attributes (or aptitudes) of focus and concentration must be present. It seldom happens that any team simply rolls over the competition a whole season long. And even when it does, there may be lapses in determination. Intensity is a crucial element. Holding to a high level intensity, through large or small contests, is not easy. Wins can make you complacent, can make you believe that your performances were easier than they really were.

With the coming of Harbaugh, the 49ers finally had a football mind which could unite the various components of the team together. Every NFL team has lots of talent. But like any team sport, that isn't nearly enough by itself. Teams need good coaches, and most of all, they need leaders, and the quarterback is the supreme leader-figure on every successful team.

When Smith was drafted--over Aaron Rodgers--it was because he seemed to have the potential to be a very disciplined player, one whose mental application would enhance what seemed to be his great natural ability. Smith is a smart guy, and he does have superior physical skills. And he's not a quitter. But these qualities alone don't make a winner in the NFL.

Thinking back over the last few weekends of play, I've asked myself whether I think Smith, at long last, deserves to be considered alongside the best quarterbacks playing in the league today. Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers. And the conclusion I come to is that he doesn't. All of these quarterbacks have won Super Bowls--but that's less important than how they play the game generally.

The 49ers success in 2011 has been built on a great run defense--a great overall defense, really--and an offense which doesn't make big mistakes. The team leads the league in turnover ratio, and their special teams and kicking units are near the top. What that means in practical terms is that the offense isn't expected to put up big numbers, just put up enough points to win.

But an offense which habitually depends upon its defense to win games can fall into bad habits. Chronic complacency can creep into the play-calling book. As a defining character-trait, reliability is probably overrated in the NFL. Events on the field on game-day are chaotic, to say the least. It's the ability to improvise, to adjust, to adapt, which makes great players great, and great teams successful. A quarterback dropping back to pass has literally to make decisions in fractions of a second. Announcers attempting to define how a great quarterback functions correctly in these situations fall back on words like "athleticism" or "touch" or "magic"--words which don't capture the essence.

What the great quarterbacks possess is the ability to tune out distraction, to stay focused on the fewest necessary, crucial matters-at-hand. They enter a mental "zone" in which crowd noise, the snarling grunts, flailing rushers' limbs, and the rapidly unfolding patterns of men in movement resolve into an apprehensible design. Functioning under these conditions doesn't require great intelligence. It's a different quality. Soldiers sometimes possess it. People who habitually perform under pressure may even become accustomed to it, and yet still be unable to overcome their native weakness under stress.

Smith's ability to improvise, to focus, to tune out distraction simply does not rise to the level of these other contemporary figures. When the game's on the line, and the play is unfolding, Smith doesn't "see" and "execute" at the same level. It may be a kind of desperation which impairs his thinking or perception, it may be a subtle sense of premonition of failure, a sense of inadequacy exacerbated by the reinforcement of repeated shortcomings over the last 7 years, or a breakdown in the belief in his own substance. Whatever it is--and I'm aware I'm confronting the same descriptive failure I mentioned earlier--it's a quality which I saw yesterday in Tony Romo and Eli Manning during the Dallas-New York game. Both players conducted dramatic come-from-behind drives in the last five minutes of play. Watching this, I realized that Smith would never have been able to bring anything like that off. All the intelligence, the discipline, the study and practice, wouldn't have helped him. Neither Romo, nor Manning, nor, for that matter, Brees or Rodgers or Brady, have Smith's keen intelligence.

Which is why, despite whatever season record the 49ers put up between now and the end of week 16, they will not advance in the play-offs. The coach, the team, and the fans all know this, whatever their official position. Given a serious opponent, the 49ers don't have the same driver behind the wheel as the best teams do. With Smith at the helm, the 49ers will never be a first tier competitor. Great teams begin with great quarterbacks.

Between 2008 and 2010, under Peyton Manning, the Indianapolis Colts were 61-19. This year, with Manning out injured, they're 0-13. With a great quarterback, a star performer, the 49ers might well be 13-0 at this point in the season, and their points scored versus points allowed ratio would be astronomical.

The sad truth is that the 49ers will not be truly competitive until they admit that Smith, despite his gifts, lacks the essential ingredients for greatness in the NFL. Every "little victory" which they secure now, postpones the inevitable quest for a better talent at that position. Smith was accorded a sort of stay of execution by the inter-season lock-out, which prevented teams from planning their upcoming seasons. Harbaugh, hired as the new commander, had little choice in his quarterback. He couldn't draft a new one, and there were no impressive names on the free agency list. He had to dance with the guy he had. All of which is small consolation to 49er faithful.

From the moment Mike Nolan drafted Smith, the 49ers--though they couldn't have known it at the time--have been in a rebuilding mode. Smith defeated the efforts of two talented coaches--Nolan, and Singletary. Harbaugh, despite this season's surprise performance, could be next to go. Not that he doesn't realize that in his nightmares. The worst thing is, as the 49ers build up this year's won-lost record (they're presently 10-3) their position in the draft pushes their future further and further away. Every year that a pro NFL team fails to acquire a superior quarterback, makes their immediate future possible success-horizon appear more distant. Great teams come and go, and teams go into funks in the standings. But good teams use those opportunities to remedy problems, and to plan for a better future. Smith's tenure as the 49ers "quarterback of the future" has been a bust. The team is still living on a dead dream. Despite this year's record.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Arthur Szyk - Art as Propaganda

Arthur Szyk (pronounced "shick") was one of the premier illustrator/illuminators of the 20th Century. The name doesn't ring a bell nowadays with the general public, because our cultural memory is about as short as the attention span of most people holding a TV clicker. I.e., about 15 seconds or less. I wouldn't have known about him myself if I hadn't happened upon a book at a library book sale, The New Order [New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1941]. Just a quick glance through the book, which is comprised primarily of color and black and white "cartoon" illustrations, told me it was anti-fascist propaganda, devoted to harsh caricatures of German, Italian, Japanese and Russian political and military figures.

Political newspaper caricature is a dying art, perhaps because our periodical media are dying. Newspapers, magazines, posters--all the paper texts are giving way to electronic media--television, internet and movies. Cartoon art as such appears to be thriving, though in different formats: Manga and graphic narratives have wide appeal, apparently, though those seem to be concentrated within a slim segment of the youth market.

But political cartoons are a dying breed. Once upon a time, they exerted a powerful influence on the public consciousness, and artists could make respectable livings from them, mixed in with their other commercial work. Occasionally, a cartoonist might bridge the gap between commercial illustration, and pure art, or serious art. The former Abstract Expressionist Philip Guston, for instance, turned to crude symbolic cartoon imagery in the latter part of his career, and even was sometimes savagely political.

The cartoon artist/illustrator Arthur Szyk was born a Polish Jew in Lodz, Poland in 1894. An artistic prodigy, he got into trouble in school for his political views (anti-Czarist, pro-Zionist, pro-Polish sketches (my kind of guy!)). He was already studying art in Paris at age 15. As a Pole, Szyk was a Russian subject, and he was conscripted into the Russian Army during WWI, and served on the front lines, but managed to escape in 1915. In the Polish-Soviet war (1919-20), he served as artistic director of the Propaganda Department of the Polish army, and fought as a guerilla to defend Jews in his homeland.

Artistically, Szyk was drawn to Medieval manuscript illumination, a style which influenced much of his later work. Intellectually, he had a rebellious turn of mind, and drew political caricatures while still a child. He was also committed to his Jewish identity, and even visited Palestine in 1914.

Szyk married and moved to Paris in 1921, where he was to live and work for the next 16 years, during which time, aside from his commercial work, he produced illustrations for Jewish Holy Books, and Jewish cultural exposés; and also remained devoted to Polish nationalist causes as well. He was even commissioned to create a series of 38 watercolor pictures about George Washington for the Library of Congress in 1930, for which he received a medal from the U.S. Government. It was during this time, as well, that he produced his magnum opus, an illuminated Haggadah, a familiar Jewish text that sets forth the order of the Passover Seder. It was published in London in 1940. In 1939, a selection of Szyk's paintings, illustrating the contribution of Poles to American history, was shown at the New York World's Fair.

Szyk had produced anti-fascist cartoons and drawings in the 1930's, but these were not particularly well-received, as Britain had an official policy of appeasement at that point. It wasn't until after the outbreak of hostilities in 1939 in Europe that his work began to be used as anti-Axis propaganda in American periodicals. The book I've referenced, The New Order, was published just after Szyk arrived in America, in 1941. Szyk spent the war years in New York, turning out florid--or what some might call inflammatory--political propaganda against the German, Italian and Japanese fascist governments. These caricatures appeared throughout the American media, in magazines, newspapers, postcards, stamps, in religious and military publications, on posters. He also produced commercial illustration for Coca Cola and U.S. Steel, while showing his work in art galleries as well. Szyk was a one-man propaganda machine. Hitler even put a price on his head.

Looking at examples of these highly charged, and very politically incorrect images today, one is reminded of how partisan war propaganda can be. Nations typically build up negative sentiment about a political or military enemy as a prelude or rallying-cry to participation in armed conflict or to create support for hostile actions. It's much more difficult to engage in open warfare with another people or nation, unless you've already decided in your mind beforehand that they somehow "deserve" to suffer and die.

This is one of the ironies of the modern world--that we must summon up the most primitive emotions and sentiments to justify actions or policies which really have rational pretexts, even when it is precisely those emotional caricatures (or characterizations) of feelings about people that drive our pursuit of a better world. It has been expressed in many ways by many thinkers, that hatred and distrust are the obverse of mutual understanding and tolerance, but where hatred becomes institutionalized or hardens into folk myth and tradition, it's nearly impossible to deconstruct. After the war, Americans went to considerable lengths to resuscitate the devastated nations of Europe (the Marshall Plan). Germans and Italians and Austrians, who had once been our bitter enemies, now would be regarded as our partners in a new world of cooperation and reconstruction.

Szyk's style of illustration seems to belong to another time and place. But political cartooning is still a powerful tool, as the controversies in the Dutch media over anti-Muslim and anti-Zionist cartoons have shown. During the late 1940's, he continued his work of book illumination, and religious book illustration, and spent his last years in New Canaan, Connecticut, where he died in 1951. Ironically, Szyk was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, for his supposed left-leaning participation in anti-faschist organizations.

Szyk's reputation fell into decline for 40 years, but has recently been revived with a series of exhibitions in the United States. And there were even shows in Germany and Poland. Goodness knows what citizens of those countries today think of them. The changing tides of ideology and political convenience make strange bedfellows of us all. The world of Szyk's childhood was erased forever by the events of WWI, the suppression not just of Poland, but of all ethnic Jews, the rise of fascism, WWII, and then the early years of the Cold War. Szyk's political work had a political purpose. When that purpose was altered, he moved on. He was loyal to his commitments as he saw them, and gained great success and fame in his time as a result. He is honored today as an avatar of justice and freedom, but the means he employed was a pure skill, applicable to a range of motives. Nazi cartoonists undoubtedly had a field day with Churchill and Roosevelt and de Gaulle, and the images they made, however effective, or biased and bigoted, we don't appreciate today. Art and politics is a queer mixture, the fruits of which may swing both ways.

In my post of May 14th, 2011, I made the point that government has no business in supporting forms of art. "In fascistic, or monarchical, or communistic societies, artistic control is from the top down. In a democracy, in which the arts (and religion, and business) are intended to be separate from governance, there can be no official patronage." The question raised by the art of Arthur Szyk is pertinent to this issue. Can the purpose to which any political art is put be separated from the raw skill and ability of the artist's talent? Szyk apparently felt that art and politics are united in a common thread: "Art is not my aim, it is my means . . . I am but a Jew praying in art." Our tendency now is to regard such assertions as expedient. Certainly Szyk understood that how any artist chooses to employ his skills and abilities is a matter of context, not of pure ideology. If that were not so, then the underlying meaning of all art would dissolve in a hodge-podge of ephemeral distraction. We can look at great religious art of the Middle Ages today and appreciate its beauty and truth without accepting any of the precepts upon which its depiction of subject matter rests. The same criteria must be applied to all art.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Torsion in Marc

Today we tend not to appreciate how powerfully WWI affected the generation of 1917. Gertrude Stein called it The Lost Generation, and the moniker stuck, because it was true. The tragedy of WWI has been overshadowed in our consciousness by the horrors of WWII, and The Holocaust, but for mass killing and suffering on a grand scale, World War I was perhaps the most devastating event, certainly, up to that time, in European history. The means of efficient firepower had overtaken the theory and practice of war--of battles carried out as if the military strategies of the Napoleonic Era still applied--and the young men who surged onto the field of contention in France were mowed down with incredible despatch. Ten millions of soldiers lost their lives.

It was inevitable that "the flower of its [Europe's] youth" would be included in that number, depriving the world of untold resources of knowledge, talent, energy and invention on an unimaginable scale. It would be, in sheer numbers, if there were to be a war today involving the nations of Europe and the United States, as if 40 million young men between the ages of 17 and 40 were to lose their lives. We tend to see casualties in our time as including more civilians, because battles are no longer fought gallantly between armies arrayed against each other in discretely defined precincts; we live in a world of "total war" in which everyone in a "zone" is at risk.

But in World War I, the ultimate "war game" was played out on barren agricultural and forested country, and armies contended over muddy, pock-marked wastes strewn with barbed wire and clouded with poison gas and cordite. Mounted cavalry was still the order of transport, though early tanks and fighter-planes participated. Huge forces faced each other across a "no-man's land" between long crudely constructed trenches. Men died by the bushel. A company might be ordered "over the top" for a charge, and a half or three-quarters of its number be mowed down by machine-gun fire within 45 seconds. That loyal, honorable men did so is a tribute either to their fortitude or their naiveté.

The German painter Franz Marc [1880-1916] was among those who lost their lives in that conflict. Though born in the late Victorian Age, by the end of the first decade of the 20th Century he had already produced an impressive body of work for which he's been remembered and studied. Looking at it now, through the retrospective lens of aesthetic regard, it's easy to see how his work relates to the development of early Cubism and German Expressionism. Comparing and contrasting such trendy aspects, however, may cause one to overlook more original qualities in an artist's work, than those he may share with his contemporaries.

Marc's most famous canvas, the "Fate of the Animals" (above) apparently was a nightmarish vision of the coming conflagration of the war. Its jagged, razor-sharp daggers and fiery projectiles seem to come from all directions at once. Studies of animals were a predominant theme in Marc's canvases, and you can make out horses, dogs (or wolves), and deer in this picture, along with the cannon, exploding fragments and spilled blood. Cubism has been seen traditionally in art history as a means of expressing a novel, ingenious aspect of multiple angles of view, or of creating linear or massed tensions within the confines of a composition. But here, the searing geometric diagonals and vectors have a clearly metaphorical meaning which is at one with their implication.

In Guernica, Picasso used a simplified, pictorial cartoon out of his own late Cubist style, to memorialize the tragic events in Spain (his native country). But he was clearly not the first artist to use abstraction in this way. The absence of human bodies in most of Marc's pictures does not vacate the power of his vision. The idea of evoking pain and suffering through the use of animal casualty seems much more original in Marc, than it does in Picasso's large, somewhat self-consciously pictorial canvas.

But the significance of any artist's work is not limited to how immediately or powerfully he may react to catastrophic events in the real world. Within a five or six year period prior to World War I, Marc created a series of color nature studies which look as revolutionary, to our eyes, as anything being produced anywhere, at that time, in France, England, or Germany. New developments in the use of spatial manipulation, color and form were being proposed and shared rapidly in those years; and Marc's compositions seem to fit right in with our understanding of the developments of that time.

What, then, if anything, makes them different or unique?

What are the significant differences, for instance, between this forest study of Marc, say, and

this pastoral by Braque (from 1908)? What I see in Marc's canvases, generally, is a powerful formal torsion, or con-torsion which binds all of the elements of the scene into a powerful vortical, inertial whole. While the individual objects--trees, sky, shadows, animals, rocks, foliage--may still retain their integrity as objective forms, they're all linked in to an interlocking atypical grid of centripetal force--as straight or curving lines of force--which pass across textures and space, sometimes coincident with the natural edges of separation between things, or cutting right through them.

Marc's festive panorama of spectral variation can seem merely decorative, until you begin to piece together the integral relationships. The geometric torsion of arcs, triangles, spheres, and parallels dominates the elaboration of forms, drawing them into a deliberate fantasy-narrative of meaning, augmented with sharp, pure intensities of color.

This kind of seeing may obliterate the subject matter by insisting upon its conformity to a ruling principle of design, and this may be one of the dangers of abstraction generally, that it manipulates the subject in ways which may ignore, or disrespect its inherent values--either visually or by eccentric association.

Such distortions may be pleasingly playful (as the above landscape is), or amusing, like the syncopated jumble of percolating variations across the graph of space in the picture below. What state of mind, one might wonder, would one be in to see a natural or agricultural landscape populated with animals in this way? And what, other than its dazzling decorative potential, might it suggest?

Is aesthetic space superior to the reality we experience in the ordinary world of our five senses? We know that under no circumstance can we occupy a space in which red and yellow nudes recline in a landscape of charged primary colors and organized wild forms. So the justifications for distortion and augmentation of otherwise "familiar" objects must come from desire and capricious will.

Meaning in Marc's canvases occupies a place about equidistant from reality and playful folly. The world he creates is one where the principles he perceives about things, or things in a space, are allowed to unfold and dominate, interact and bleed into one another, sharing color, line, by mere proximity. A green bird may of course have a scarlet beak (perhaps in Nicaragua or Brazil), and his tail feathers may meld in with the tropical foliage of his native habitat. But the tropical metaphor may only be an expedient pretext for such liberties with simulation. Germany doesn't have tropical jungles.

Any artist must accept the consequences of any extremity of exaggeration. Indulging in distortions for purely artistic purposes (as with extreme degrees of abstraction) may summon up the indignations of impatience.

Marc's famous purple horses are among his most canonical images, and are usually offered as the clearest example of his art. Their sensual rumps, flanks, necks, arched backs offer plentiful ground for the delightful curves and ovals and flexible bends which he sought to express.

As Abstraction--as an approach to the purely decorative arrangements of two-dimensional space--progressed through the 20th Century, many artists dropped the pretense of interlocking object-arrays and treated form and color as if they were neutral principles, without reference to any specific, separate thing.

The canvas below, painted before World War I, seems to me every bit as joyous and unfettered and nonrepresentational as anything done during the 1950's, the 1960's, or the 1970's. Pure forms cavort across a mixed puzzle of disconformity, a kind of unreconstructed animadversion. Had Marc not been rubbed out in 1916, what wondrous forms and arrangements might he have made? Alas, such speculations lead nowhere. We have only what we see and can deduce from the evidence he left.