Thursday, February 10, 2011

a picture is worth a thousand words

As I was skimming the front page of, I saw the following image (on the left) with the caption "An Egyptian restorer fixes one the pieces that was broken by looters at the Egyptian Museum. AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti".

A few news titles later, I saw the same picture (right) with the caption "Philip Sanderson and Caron Penney, West Dean weavers weaving Tapestry for Tracey Emin. Photo: Steve Speller. © the artist."

Wrong upload or an all-purpose picture?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

bronzino who?

I went to the Met's show of Bronzino drawings the other day (good show, by the way, I was pleasantly surprised - his drawing are better than his paintings, which don't really speak to me). One of the drawings had the words "Angelo Bronzino" at the bottom, which were written at a later date by a collector or cataloguer - clearly not the artist himself!!! This couple was standing in front of the drawing when the woman saw the name and remarked:
- Oh, look. He signed it "Angelo". But here (on the tag describing the work) they wrote "Agnolo" (she pronounced it AG-no-lo).
- It's a typo.
- But why would they do that?
- Because they're retards.
And they walked away.
Right. Because the Met put together a show on an artist and misspelled his first name not only on the tag that the woman saw, but on every label, the 300-page catalog, and every other piece of writing. Think again about who the retard is.

Friday, September 18, 2009

anatomy for artists I

I had my first experience with dissection today. From a scientific and artistic perspective, it was fascinating. From a psychological perspective, it was perplexing.

Seeing dead human bodies, dissected or not, is tough. Being around them forced me to face death and brought me in touch with my own mortality, which is something I have trouble dealing with.

The state of these bodies was quite distressful. The skin was tough like leather and sometimes discolored (some parts were very dark, almost black). Moreover, it had lost its elasticity and was flattened out in areas like the butt or the face, which made it look even more unnatural. The layer of subcutaneous fat was hard and yellow and greasy and in obese people looked gross and was hard to touch, even though I didn't want to admit it. Same goes for the intestines, although other organs like the heart and the liver were neat. The muscles brought to my mind disturbing thoughts of steak. I hope I will be able to have steak some day without thinking of dissected bodies. And the whole body was cut, opened, flesh massacred, bones broken, organs removed in bags, fluids dripping, little bits of human flesh falling off and lying around.

Faces and hands are particularly emotionally charged, I guess because they carry so much of one's personality and are major vehicles of expression. Semi-open lids with blurry eyeballs underneath scream death. So do mouths and skulls with Frankenstein stitches (they had sawn them open to remove the brain and put them back together). Some hands bring out death by contrast, because they look very alive, well shaped and with neat fingernails; then the color and the general context reminds you of what's going on. Feet do the same to a lesser extent.

The smell of formaldehyde for me was intolerable. I could not get used to it, no matter how long I was there for. I kept feeling like I wanted to throw up all the time. There must have been a transference process that made it worse: you smell a very foul smell at the same time that you look at a dead body. Not having smelled this odor before and not knowing what an untreated dead body smells like, in your head you associate the smell of formaldehyde with the smell of rot. Then when you look at a dissected body, your sight gets reinforced by the smell to create an image of a flayed person rotting in front of you. The experience of death becomes so much stronger.

And then you have mixed feelings when you look at them. At any given moment I felt intrigued and disgusted, which in turn made me feel guilty at the same time that I was thankful for these people's generosity with their bodies, which contrasted with pity for them and pity for every human being that dies. And I was shocked and disturbed by the violence that was performed on those bodies, but at the same time rationalized it because it was for a good cause and accepted it because it was what permitted my observations. My emotions were in constant unrest.

For the whole time I was there, I was fascinated by the bodies and was exploring them, but my stomach was in a permanent knot and I was clenching my jaw so hard it hurt. I wouldn't go as far as to say it was a traumatic experience, but it was definitely intense. I am curious to see how my emotions will progress from session to session...

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Thursday, September 03, 2009

calder takes albany

Albany is very close to here, so I went for a short visit of a few hours one day. I walked around downtown and particularly enjoyed the Empire State Plaza. After having spent quite some time in the countryside, surrounded by trees, rivers, and animal life, and painting in a pretty traditional manner, it was very refreshing to be reminded of the coldness and deadness of concrete, perfect verticals and horizontals, rigid symmetry, immense structural masses, and the architecture of the 70s in all its glory.

There were a few sculptures adorning the Plaza and for some reason a lot of them brought Calder to my mind.

I really liked this piece, so light and elegant. It was the only one that I could find a label for, but I don't recall who the artist was. Its needles move with the wind, which of course reminded me of Calder's mobiles.

Here is another one (in the background you can see the lovely Egg). It is clearly not a Calder, but I amused myself by imagining it's something Calder could come up with if asked to do a portrait of Mickey Mouse. Perhaps a rejected commission by Disneyland that found its way to a more appropriate environment.

For this one, actually, I would swear that it is a real Calder! No labels to confirm, unfortunately. Either way, it looked great, right in front of the main building at the end of the Plaza. Note the wonderful reflection in the water!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

combat the bat

One of the downsides of living in the countryside is that you come in contact with all sorts of creatures you would like to stay away from. Last night I had the unpleasant surprise to have an adventure with a bat. (Of course, nature is wisely balanced, so you also come in contact with lovely creatures such as deer and rabbits.)

I was neatly tucked in bed, dead tired, when my friend called from downstairs that there is a bird in the house. Thinking what the big fuss was all about, I started going down the stairs when I saw a black UFO (literally) fluttering all over the dining room. It was actually pretty scary: black, large, fast, and uncontrollable. Immediately the movie "Birds" came into my mind and I concluded once more that it is such a great movie and that birds can be pretty scary indeed. I quickly closed the door to the studio, confining it to the living quarters (great!) and then stood petrified, wondering how we would get rid of it. I took a closer look and saw that it wasn't a bird, but rather a bat. Disgust joined fear...

After many laps around the living room, the bat stopped - somewhere. I was able to run into the studio and check out what to do in such an instance on the internet. There were really only two solutions, both very very unappealing: 1) confine it to a room, open all the windows, and it will eventually fly out on its own; if need be, chase it out the window with a piece of cloth; 2) take a net or jar and trap it inside, then release outside. Both of these required getting pretty close to the bat, which I had no intention of doing, especially after further reading talked of rabies, SARS, and other diseases that bats carry. Unfortunately, the place is set up so that there are no real rooms that close with doors, but rather one big open space. So the bedroom upstairs is essentially a loft above the dining room where the bat was flying, connected to the kitchen by just an opening. Clearly I couldn't hide my head in the sand and go to bed hoping that the bad would eventually disappear. I had to get rid of it if I wanted to get some rest in peace. Eek!

Back in the dining hall, we located the bat hanging from a beam. It was actually camouflaged very well. First, we opened the outside door. Then, we went upstairs to the bedroom and started stomping on the floor right where the bat would be. Notice that the bedroom's floor equals the dining hall's ceiling where it was hanging from. Sure enough, the bat got scared and started its usual frantic laps around the dining hall. At that moment, we stood at the bottom of the stairs and tried to shoo it toward the open door as it was flying in front of us. It didn't work. The bat just kept flying in the dining room and eventually settled somewhere on the ceiling again. Round two. Locate the bat's new hanging spot (it was pretty scary to have to walk right underneath it). Arm ourselves with heavier weapons: a broom for shooing, which has a longer reach than the clothes, and an umbrella as a shield. Stomp, flutter, shoo, again nothing.

Eventually, after several more attempts, the bat wouldn't move when we stomped. We then decided that we were too tired and had to go to go bed. I essentially slept in the same room as the bat, right above it, having nightmares about the bat chasing me around the house, the bat being so close it would almost touch me, the bat looking like a miniature plastic vampire, the bat, the bat, the bat... As if this weren't enough, we left the door open for the bat to leave, which only filled me with fear about all the other creatures that could come in: more bats, raccoons, deer, rapists... In the middle of the night, it started smelling like skunk and we started thinking that a skunk had gotten into the house. Upon examining the premises, I concluded that the skunk was probably outside - yet still close.

Intermittent sleep.

Morning came and the bat was still there. Having had enough of it and not wanting to spend another night in its company, I called the neighbor, a buff, macho, Italian-American who mows his lawn every other day on his manly mowing cart. He came in his manly plaid shirt, no sleeves, chewing his manly cigarillo butt , and assessed the situation. He decided that the solution would be to call his friend who has a small gun to shoot it, despite my pleas for a less violent removal. "It has to be shot". "You girls will stay outside". He is a cool guy and an interesting case study. I wish I had more time to talk to him.

His friend came a couple of hours later. We put a cardboard box right underneath the bat so it would fall in there after getting shot. I didn't go outside. I was filming the whole thing! The process was short, yet disturbing: the gun, the laser pointer, the gunshots, the blood splattering on the dining table, the bat moving a little bit, but still hanging from the beam, with two legs at first, then with one... He shot it 2-3 times to make sure it was dead and when it wouldn't drop in the box, he took the broom and forced it down. Definitely dead. Interesting body, although I was a little spooked out to get too close. We cleaned the blood from the table and window sill, but the stain on the beam was too high to reach. It has by now sunken in as a testimony of what happened. We only dealt with the body hours later. We decided to burn it in what of those big metallic barrels that every good rural American house has. Thank god for the American way!

Below are some pictures illustrating the adventure!

The bat was hanging from the last beam, over the window. Upstairs is the bedroom!

The bat hanging from the beam. It looks kind of cute, actually. I was surprise that its wings weren't falling over its body the way you usually see illustrated.

This is how we did it, fully armed with shield and spear.

This is how a manly man does it! Notice the red dot of the laser pointer on the beam, right above the circle of glare.

The bat lying dead in the cardboard box, with drops of blood around it. Kinda gross...

The bat being cremated.

Friday, July 24, 2009

free-range humans

This summer I am staying at a painter friend's live-in studio in upstate New York. The studio is actually a converted church, with the main church area being the studio and the rest of the spaces the living quarters. I immediately experienced a huge shock at living in such a huge space - a good kind of shock, that is. Even excluding the studio (and the back yard), the place has a bedroom that fits a bed, desk, dresser, big closet, a second bedroom, two bathrooms, a full separate kitchen, a small dining hall that can still fit a table for 6, a hall that has become the kingdom of the dogs and has too much dog hair to use.

And it suddenly hit me that this is our should be the norm, not the shoebox-sized apartments where we live in NYC (those of us who are on a budget). Living in an 8x10 room, often with dim light, sharing a living room with strangers you found on Craig's list until you are 40, if you are unlucky also sharing it with a few roaches or rodents, all these horror stories that we know thousands of variations of, well, they are simply unhealthy. Our heart goes out to cows and chicken packed in barns, hamsters fooled on treadmills, birds trapped in cages, dogs locked in apartments... but we put up with, and even indulge, in the biggest cruelty against animals, namely how we have caged ourselves (biggest when normalized by intelligence). Anyway, that's old news and a good junior high essay topic: la ville ou la campagne? I'm just mentioning it because for me it's a novel feeling; I am a typical city girl and yet for the first time I am actually truly, genuinely bothered by my living situation in the City. Then again, this is the price you have to pay for living in the Big Apple. Take it or leave it. I take it, but feel a little bit like a loser.

Oh god, it just occurred to me: could I be getting old??? AAAAAAARGH!

The other thought that stems from the fact that living in such small spaces is abnormal is that it creates abnormal perceptions about relationships. Living together with people in an environment where you are on top of each other may create a sense of proximity that is artificial. You get to cook together, eat together, work together, watch TV and hang out in the living room together, not so much because you enjoy each other's company so much, but because you have no alternative. I am not denying that physical contact may lead to emotional closeness, but many people mistake it one for the other more often than is true or blow up the degree. Just make sure this doesn't happen with your significant other!

This concept is analogous to what may happen with Facebook and other social networks. A Facebook-friend who is fairly involved and active on Facebook may feel closer to you than he actually is. You may stumble upon (pun intended) his posts, status updates, quizzes he took, messages he wrote, and think that you relate to each other, when in fact there may be no reciprocation and therefore no relationship of the depth or frequency that you perceive. Basically, someone who is around a lot is not necessarily a friend.

I think all this sounded a little too pessimistic or harsh, but that was really not my intention...

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

jaguar eats sparrow

This isn't even a regular jaguar... It's the Iron Man version of a jaguar. And don't even get me started on what Man does to nature... topped off by the fact that it couldn't be a run-of-the-mill car; no, it had to be a Jag!

The only reason not wanting to own this car would be having to clean up the bird.

This is disturbing enough and we're only talking about one bird; can you picture that plane that had to do the emergency landing on the Hudson a few months ago?

Monday, February 11, 2008

penny shortage

If you have been wondering where all the pennies have gone, stop making wild scenarios about melting and exporting and simply pay a visit to the relatively low-profile bar/coffee shop Sip in the UWS. Yup, there's pennies everywhere - even in the bathroom. Given the soaring commodity prices, their quaint little wallpaper is worth a lot more than they think!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

emotional accordion

Sometimes when you watch movies, there are certain moments that captivate you and are bound to stay with you forever so that years later, when you have forgotten even what the movie was about, you may still vividly remember an image or a line or a music score or an edit or anything. I had one of these moments the other day while watching "Goya's Ghosts".

Now I am guessing that critics will love to bash the movie for its historical inaccuracies and other weaknesses (it's no Amadeus or Cuckoo's Nest, after all). However, the part that I am referring to is nothing but the end credits. It went roughly like this: last shot of the movie, a long shot. Cut to a montage of paintings by Goya, consisting of the morbid, nightmarish ones of his later years. Paintings and details of paintings in succession accompanied by an apocalyptic music. Cut to another montage of paintings by Goya, now the prettier, lighter ones, such as those commissioned by royalty and nobility. Also cut to the music, which now is some kind of Spanish folk tune. After a while, cut to the familiar crawl with a yet new musical piece.

Magic is created when what happens on the screen moves what happens inside you. In this instance, you go from a bitter, sad feeling at the end of the movie to an abrupt low of fear and bleakness inside and out during the first montage only to be violently raised to some kind of elation for the second montage and then released to calmness for the crawl. The whole experience is like an emotional roller-coaster with the exact same speed and the exact same thrill: you are taken from a high to a low and back to a high and then to another low in a matter of seconds. You want to cry - no, to scream - no, to laugh - no, to sigh - no, to hide, all the while forgetting (or unable to) breathe.

Of course, none of this would have been so effective if it weren't for Goya's art (his Black Paintings in particular are signs of genius). And surely credit is owed to the big screen and Dolby. But the point to take home is the power of film, which in a very careful, very planned way can take your viscera and do whatever it wants with them, play ping-pong with your senses, make an accordion with your emotions. And you, poor viewer, you will not only enjoy being manipulated like that, you will feel grateful.

(Ha ha, that was a very 1984-ish ending!)

Thursday, August 09, 2007

cultural gap

This Australian woman was visiting my figure painting class and was allowed to paint along with us. During one of the breaks, she came over to where me and another girl were standing and exlaimed: "This is so interesting! I have never painted negroed features before!" (the model was a black male).

My initial shock was quickly followed by a willingness to give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe "negroed" is politically correct in the Australian dialect. However, my hopes quickly dissipated when she proceded to defend her word choice by a poorly supported, old-age racial grouping theory, whereby everyone belongs to one of four races, one of which is the Negro race and another one the Corsican race. Yes, by Corsican she meant Caucasian and she actually had to stop and think hard of the word, even though she was white herself!

Given the above, I am beginning to wonder whether Australia is not only Down Under, but also Back Behind...

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

the lives of others

I just happened to see The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) on the day it won the Oscar. I would like to blog more about the movie later, but for now I just want to include the poem by Brecht that Wiesler is reading when he steals the book. The German title is "Erinnerungen an Marie A.", literally translated as "Remembrances on Marie A.".

Erinnerungen an Marie A.
(Bertolt Brecht)

An jenem Tag im blauen Mond September
Still unter einem jungen Pflaumenbaum
Da hielt ich sie, die stille bleiche Liebe
In meinem Arm wie einen holden Traum.
Und über uns im schönen Sommerhimmel
War eine Wolke, die ich lange sah
Sie war sehr weiß und ungeheuer oben
Und als ich aufsah, war sie nimmer da.

Seit jenem Tag sind viele, viele Monde
Geschwommen still hinunter und vorbei
Die Pflaumenbäume sind wohl abgehauen
Und fragst du mich, was mit der Liebe sei?
So sag ich dir: Ich kann mich nicht erinnern.
Und doch, gewiß, ich weiß schon, was du meinst
Doch ihr Gesicht, das weiß ich wirklich nimmer
Ich weiß nur mehr: Ich küsste es dereinst.

Und auch den Kuss, ich hätt' ihn längst vergessen
Wenn nicht die Wolke da gewesen wär
Die weiß ich noch und werd ich immer wissen
Sie war sehr weiß und kam von oben her.
Die Pflaumenbäume blühn vielleicht noch immer
Und jene Frau hat jetzt vielleicht das siebte Kind
Doch jene Wolke blühte nur Minuten
Und als ich aufsah, schwand sie schon im Wind.

Friday, December 22, 2006

five things you don't know about me

This entry is part of a recent blog chain game in which you post five things that people don't know about you and then you tag five bloggers who have to do the same: post five things people don't know about them and tag five more people and so on and so forth. My friend Shripriya tagged me, so being a good sport I am playing my little part in the game.

Considering myself an open book, I can't really think of a single thing (much less five) that no one knows about me, but I will try to dig deep and reveal less known facts. Here we go:

1) I have the attention span of a six year old. Basically, you have about a minute to get my attention before I start playing music in my head as a soundtrack to your moving lips

2) My favorite fantasy is traveling back in time to ancient Greece and sharing modern knowledge involving calculus, guns (I defeat the entire Persian army with a .45 I have brough with me), airplanes, astronomy etc. I get bonus points for dealing with the communication gap between ancient and modern Greek. Then I travel back to the present and observe the impact of my conversation on world history

3) I used to get a kick out of watching Persian rug infomercials (hmmm, I see a Persian theme developing...)

4) I once dreamed I was having sex with 90210's Brandon Walsh (I still can't explain this one - I hated the character's guts)

5) I am desparately looking for the song "La dansa de l'imbecil" by Dusminguet, so if you have it, please send it my way!

So let me now tag Punky Brewski, Caeruleum, Emma, and Paula. Maybe this will urge them to start writing again :)

Sunday, November 26, 2006

the mathematics of art - intro

There is the perennial question concerning artistic accomplishment and whether it is a matter of talent or hard work. Are great artists born or made?

This question is best not looked in isolation, as it is part of a larger debate regarding nature versus nurture that expands beyond art into science, beyond external issues such as accomplishment into internal issues such as behavior, beyond the observable into the philosophical (aesthetics or ethics) and more or less into anything that has to do with human faculties. For the purposes of this blog, however, I will limit myself to a closer look of just the initial question regarding the roles of talent and labor in the production of high art.

I acknowledge that two of the three major terms involved in the debate are not well defined. While most will agree on what is meant by hard work, labor or practice, talent is much fuzzier and so is the ultimate thing that we are trying to evaluate or measure, aforelabeled artistic accomplishment or hight art. Drafting a very crisp definition of these terms is beyond the scope of my examination. Rather, I think that using generally acceptable laymen's nomenclature serves well enough the purposes of this exercise. I am therefore using the term talent as a convenient signifier for innate aptitude and the term accomplishment for artistic progress or quality.

My general take on the debate is that both talent and work are required to make good art. Both are necessary, but not sufficient conditions. The logical operator connecting the two is AND.

What is more interesting to me, however, is how each of the two factors affects artistic accomplishment and how they interplay. It seems to may that talent kicks in first, giving the artist a head start. But it only affects the initial point of one's artistic development. After that, it is only through hard work that the artist improves the quality of his work.

What naturally follows is a desire to quantify the relationship, to model artistic development in a deterministic way that describes and predicts the real world and dismisses any doubts. In the three blogs that follow (all of this analysis being posted in reverse chronological order to facilitate ease of reading), I will be proposing three mathematical models to describe artistic accomplishment. The models are presented from the simplest to the more complex, the third one representing the one I feel more adequately describes reality. All three are deterministic models that plot artistic accomplishment as a function of time. The general shapes of the curves are predetermined. Talent and work come into play as factors that modify the specifics of the curves.

Before proceeding, I should clarify that my goal is not to do the statistician's job of quantifying everything (it is clearly a big stretch to try to measure things like artistic accomplishment), but rather to find a mathematical expression that translates my thoughts on the interaction of talent and work in the production of good art.

the mathematics of art - model 1


The simplest model is a linear one of the form y = c + a*x where y is an artist's accomplishment and x is time. The longer you work, the better you get, i.e., you become a better artist with time.

The y-intercept c is determined by talent. The greater one's talent or natural inclination, the better his work looks at the onset. Although it can be argued otherwise, let's just assume that c >= 0.

The slope of the curve a is determined by work. The harder one works, the higher the slope. One would only hope that a > 0.

Ensuing observations:
Assume we are comparing two artists, A1 and A2, and that A2's talent is greater than A1's, i.e. c2 > c1. Then
* If a2 >= a1, then A1 will never catch up with A2 and A2 will always be considered a greater artist
* If a2 < a1, then by solving the system of equations Y = c1 + a1*X and Y = c2 + a2*X, we can find the unique point in time X = (c2 - c1) / (a1 - a2) where A1 will reach and surpass A2. After that point, A1 will be a better artist, even though A2 is more talented
* In "real life", the above will happen only if the artists get to live and produce beyond point X. If they don't, A2 still wins
* This finds an interesting application in the case of an artistic genius. In this case and assuming that A2 is the genius and A1 is any other artist around, c2 >> c1, so X would fall outside a reasonable human lifespan even if a2 = 0 and a1 is very high
* The above dictates a possible need to set an upper limit for a

the mathematics of art - model 2


The linear model 1 has some clear shortfallings. The gravest one is that artistic accomplishment can grow indefinitely, whereas in reality it seems to be capped. There seems to be a maximum capacity, an upper limit, that most artists tend to and then make only minor progress. A second shortfalling is that artistic progress has been experienced to not grow proportionately with time. Instead, it is slow at first, then picks up, and then slows down as an artist reaches his artistic maturity, has developed his style and ideas, and is settling at a particular kind of expression. A third one is the last observation of the previous blog entry, namely that the rate of growth a should not have to be restricted.

For the above reasons, a more appropriate model would be one determined by a sigmoid curve.

The simplest version of a sigmoid curve is given by the equation y = 1 / [(1 + exp(-a*x)]. This curve has an asymptotic minimum of zero at -inf, an asymptotic maximum of 1 at +inf, and is centered at x=0 (for which value y=1/2). As the name denotes, it looks like an "s" and a determines how flat or steep the rise is: the higher the value of a, the steeper the curve rises.

What we want is the generalized form of the equation y = c + M / [(1 + exp(-a*(x-t))]. This looks exactly like the curve described above, except that it has a minimum-to-maximum range between c and c+M (i.e. a band width of M) and is centered at x=t.

The interpretation of this curve for our purposes is as follows:
* Obviously, y is artistic accomplishment and x is time
* The vertical displacement c is determined by talent pretty much in the same fasion as it was in the linear model
* The steepness of the rise, denoted by a, is determined by work
* As we can see, the basic concepts until now are the same as before (in the linear model)
* The trickiest part of this model is clearly the determining factors of M because this in turn sets the cap for artistic accomplishment c+M. M could be a constant for all artists, which means that each one's maximum is solely determined by their talent as it affects c. Alternatively, M could be a function of work and possibly related to a: the harder you work, the higher you push your potential. A third option (and the one that I will follow here for reasons of simplicity and controversiality) would be that M is also determined by talent alone: the more talented an artist, the higher his potential. Unlike the linear model, this model tells you that hard labor can only get you this far. Herein lies the major difference with the linear model. In the linear model, the sky was the limit and your labor alone was able to get you there. In this sigmoid model, your beginning and ending points are determined by your talent and your work only determines how fast or how slow you reach your maximum potential
* There is also the question of how soon (as opposed to how fast) you reach your maximum potential, which is determined by t, the horizontal displacement. In this application, t could denote the midpoint of one's artistic studies

Again, all of the above are for a single artist. When it comes to comparing artists, not all hope is lost for those less talented of us. Assuming we have the same two artists as in the linear model, less talented artist A1 and more talented artist A2. Their respective artistic accomplishment equations are y = c1 + M1 / [(1 + exp(-a1*(x-t1))] and y = c2 + M2 / [(1 + exp(-a2*(x-t2))]. Then it follows that c1 < c2 and M1 < M2, so also c1+M1 < c2+M2 (A2 has a higher start, a higher finish, and a wider band).
* If a2 >= a1, then A1 has no nope. A2 is more talented and equally or more hard-working than him, so he will always lag behind
* The first way that A1 can get ahead is by working harder, i.e. when a1 > a2 (assuming t1 = t2). Then A2 will be better at the beginning because of his natural head start (c2 > c1), but at some point around point t, A1 will surpass him. However, this victory is not meant to last, since A2 will eventually move higher, reaching out for his maximum of c2+M2 while A1 will have capped at C1+M1
* The above shows A2 better at first, A1 better in the middle, and A2 better in the end. As before, depending on the length of time, if the artists stop producing before the second intersection point, A1 will appear to be the winner
* The second way that A1 can gain ground is by getting a chronological head start, i.e. by setting t1 < t2. Ceteris paribus (i.e. a1 = a2), the race has the same order as above: A2 ahead at first, then A1 takes the lead, but in the end A2 passes him as he moves toward his higher potential. Again, not having enough time to reach both artists' steady states may show an end result that is quite different, with A1 appearing better
* A combination of both tactics (starting early on and working hard, i.e. setting t1 < t2 and a1 > a2) does not guarantee A1 a final win (again, assuming there is enough lifespan), but it can maximize the amount of time that he is better
* In the extreme case that A2 is a genius, we can have something like c2 > c1+M1. Even if the genius doesn't move a finger and his artistic accomplishment has the form of a flatline, he will always be better than A1 no matter how early on A1 starts or how much he works

P.S. In terms of math, it is worth noting that the suggested equation for a sigmoid curve is related to the hyperbolic tangent function in the following manner: y = 1 / [(1 + exp(-a*x)] = (1/2)*[1 + tanh(x/2)] and therefore y = c + M / [(1 + exp(-a*(x-t))] = c + (M/2)*[1 + tanh(a*(x-t)/2)]. One may find the hyperbolic expression easier.

the mathematics of art - model 3


This is nothing but a generalization of model 2. Instead of an artist starting off slowly, making some rapid progress, and then seeing his development taper off, one can maintain that what seems as a steady state is but a temporary plateau before a second wave of progress kicks in and his art is moved to a higher level.

Mathematically, its equation would be y = c + M1 / [1 + exp(-a1(x-t1))] + M1 / [1 + exp(-a1(x-t1))] + ... = c + sum{M1 / [1 + exp(-a1(x-t1))]}. Note that 1, 2, ..., n do not index different artists, but different stages of development for the same artist. Visually, the graph looks like a rising staircase. The starting point is c, the first plateau is at c+M1 centered at t1, the second plateau is at c+M1+M2 centered at t2 etc. All factors and all determinants have the same properties as in the simple sigmoid model.

I personally like this model the best for three reasons.

First, I like the implied process for an artist's career. I keep thinking of it as analogous to the phase change diagram in thermodynamics. In the heat curve (say, of water), as we constantly add heat to the ice, the ice begins to warm up and its temperature will increase until it reaches the melting point. At that point, the temperature will stop rising, but the ice will start to melt gradually until all the ice has been turned into water. Only when the phase change has been completed does the temperature of the water start rising again. The same mechanism is repeated as water turns into steam: the temperature of the water will keep rising until the first molecule that has enough kinetic energy to break from the liquid mass evaporates as steam. Then the temperature will stop rising while the water boils (i.e. the liquid turns into steam). When all the water has turned into steam, the temperature of the water (in its steam phase now) will start rising again with the addition of heat. It is very similar with an artist. At the beginning, not much is happening. As he starts his artistic training (the equivalent of adding heat), his artistic production improves (the equivalent of rising temperature). After he has reached a phase-change point, he doesn't seem externally to make any more progress (no temperature rise), but in fact he is still absorbing knowledge (heat). The analogy with thermodynamics works beautifully at this stage because the terminology works well for both cases: there is no increase in kinetic energy, but there is an increase in potential energy (the sum of the two equaling heat content, whereas temperature measures kinetic energy only). There is something boiling inside the artist (pun intended) at this seemingly quiet stage. He is trasforming, he is changing into a new phase. When that phase change is complete, then his accomplishment starts increasing again, albeit in a different form.

Second, it combines the linear model's optimism with the the simple sigmoid model's accuracy. While it maintains the simple sigmoid model's realistic description, it allows for the sky to be the limit. The artist is still bound by his talent, but this only translates in shorter steps in his staircase if he is less talented taller steps if he is more talented. There is no absolute, global maximum. It is, therefore, entirely up to the artist to maximize his potential (that is, to reach each plateau and move toward the next one) by packing his t's closer together and working harder and harder to increase his a's. As in the linear model, it is a race against time and death. Comment on this: although this is a neat theoretical model, historically, it is only rarely that you see an artist move beyond the first plateau before time catches up with them. Picasso is clearly one such case. Beethoven is another. Maybe in this model we can define genius as someone with a much higher i (i being the number of steps in the staircase or, formally speaking, the number of simple sigmoid functions comprising the multiple sigmoid curve).

Third, it models better real-world competition among artists. The less talented artist does not only get one window of opportunity to surpass the more talented artist, as was the case in the simple sigmoid model. Instead, there are endless possibilities of a race between two artists with endless turning points (formally, intersection points). In fact, in the extreme underdog supporting scenario, if the less talented artist keeps adding heat, meaning moving fast and working hard, he can do as well as quickly overcome the talented artist's initial head start (this is inevitable since the latter's c will always be higher) and stay ahead of the game for the rest of his life. In this respect, this model allows another similarity with the linear model in that, once the less talented artist catches up with the more talented one, he then consistently exceeds him.

the mathematics of art - conclusion

I realize that everything I have written so far would have been a lot easier if I had used a word editor that shows mathematical functions in a visually friendly way and if I had accompanied my models and analysis by appropriate graphs. I apologize, but doing so would have taken disproportionate time and effort to the seriousness and validity of my theories. If, despite the nasty format, you made it through the previous three blogs, two things should be noted as a form of epilogue:

First, that I am still undecided as to the relationship between talent, labor, and artistic accomplishment. The models that I proposed are by no means conclusive. I am unsure about many things I suggested, some of them fundamental. I don't know, for example, whether artistic accomplishment has a capacity limit, whether this limit is solely determined by talent, how this limit is related to the starting point, whether labor itself and the steepness of the curve is somehow related to talent etc. All I know is that I will keep coming back to this question, perhaps unconsciously tailoring it to my own artistic progress in the good, old, unscientific way :) I also know is that for negative values of a it is possible to get a downward sloping curve representing negative progress, which is exactly where I am heading if I keep spending time on stupid blogs instead of painting.

Second, that the mathematics of art is a very tricky business. It is cumbersome, requires too many assumptions, too many simplifications, leaves too many things unanswered and is, in the end, probably pointless. The whole exercise resembles alchemy more than math. I have been reading some of Kandinsky's writings lately and very often find myself resenting both his idea of creating a science of art and his approach. I feel bad vocalizing this thought because I absolutely love his art work, but I can't help being annoyed by some of his claims verging on BS or by his unscientific method of establishing a science. Nevertheless, here I am doing exactly the same. Double apologies to my readers.

With both of the above, I think I do my signature justice :)

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

greek 101

(Apologies in advance to non Greek speakers. Some of the stuff to follow will be lost in translation)

I met this girl today whose best friend is Greek and she was telling me about how she has been to Greece around ten times, her impressions, the places she liked the best, and all the Greek she has picked up during her travels, mostly from her friend's mother since her friend refuses to talk to her in Greek. In her excitement, she started listing the words she knows:

Spiti - House
Thalassa - Beach (corrected: sea)
Pantofles - Slippers
Karpouzi - Watermelon
Panagia - (pause) Wait, that's something bad. Motherfucker?

Note to non Greek speakers: Panagia actually means Virgin Mary. There is, however, a blasphemous Greek expression that literally translates as "I fuck my Virgin Mary", used to express anger and despair.

It doesn't take a huge stretch of imagination to figure out in what kind of context this girl picked up the word Panagia. Go friend's mother!

Panagia as motherfucker? What a fucking amazing translation!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

innocence lost

I was passing by Lord & Taylor and, seeing they had already decorated for Christmas, decided to check out their windows. Each one showed a family scene from a year going back to the late 1800s and told a little Christmas story full of the expected spirit of warmth and love.

The window for 1930 (or, at any rate, some year a long, long time ago) showed the interior of a house with a table, a Christmas tree, a chimney etc and in the foreground was the letter of one of children to Santa Claus, reading "DEAR SANTA, I HAVE BEEN A VERY GOOD BOY BIG BROTHER THIS YEAR, SO I WANT blah blah blah".

Immediately, I thought of Big Brother the TV show and just couldn't understand the anachronism or what he even meant by that. My only thought was how cool it was to be so progressive as to link a traditional household with the Sodom and Gomorrha house of the TV show. After a few seconds of puzzlement, it clicked to me: it's not about the TV show; it must be a more direct reference to 1984's Big Brother and a metaphor for the current government! Although I still couldn't quite put it in context, I was already commending Lord & Taylor for their courage to make political statements and bold attacks on the government, even in the form of disguised puns in what would ordinarily be a straightforward setting about love and concord. And what a nerve for the little boy to demand presents after admitting to be a good Big Brother!

My little construct fell apart Usual Suspect-like as I was walking away from the store. I hardly see any need to state it here explicitly since most of my readers are not schizophrenic, but clearly what was meant by the letter was that during the year the little boy's parents had been busy and he now had a baby sibling. "Big brother" simply taken literally. The message was supposed to be the appropriate Christmas one of extra love, new life, time passing in a fulfilling way, motivating the progression of years along the store windows. Not of cynicism, suspicion, backstabbing, and conspiracy theory. I don't claim I should have retained the freshness and innocence of a small child. But, come on, to be unable to loosen up or let go of certain modes of thinking or stop imagining that everything is laden with multiple levels of subtext, that's kind of sad. And, of course, related to all this is the question of whether the two words, "big" and "brother", put next to each other have been permanently doomed to allude to the phrase "Big Brother".

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

meta irony

The blog's spell check does not include the word "blog".


Three minds together think better than individually. The total is larger than the sum of the parts. That was definitely my experience after the other night's brainstorming session. Serious brainstorming session. About costumes. No, not Halloween costumes. Male stripper costumes! Here's our list, to be consulted the next time we all get together again (!).

1. Eskimo
2. Indian
3. Bedouin
4. Military man (no cops, but sailors, marines, cadets, parachutists etc are all welcome)
5. Fireman
6. Cowboy
7. Soccer player
8. Coal miner
9. Plumber
10. High school teacher

Monday, November 13, 2006

genius or madness

I have never left halfway through a performance. That is, not until yesterday. A couple of friends were visiting from out of town and we decided to go listen to some live music. This being a somewhat spontaneous thought, we just grabbed an issue of Time Out, browsed through the music section, (put the magazine back on the rack without buying it), and chose a very respected venue hosting a seemingly very promising band (Time Out's listing included both a brief description and a red star).

Well, it was horrible. Cacophony. Noise. Words fail me. I wish I were I better writer so I could describe the experience. Imagine four singers, four sax payers, a trumpet player, a trombonist, two electric guitar players, an acoustic guitar player, an upright bass player, an electric bass player, a drummer, two keyboard players, and a violist playing under the directions of a conductor who was apparently urging them to scream, squeal, blow, bang, pluck with no plan, harmony or relation to each other. Don't take harmony too literally. This was by no means some sort of sophisticated atonal music. I would at best describe it as experimental funk music (whatever that means), but my best attempt at an accurate description would be auricular vomit (pun intended: it was the auricular equivalent of the visual image of vomit, including all its properties, and in addition it carried all the psychological significances).

In fact, the sound (I refuse to call it music) was so bad that we were wildly entertained. It was all too loud. There was not enough room on stage for all the sound-making people (the trombonist was shooting for the stars, the violist was pointing at the ground, the second guitar player was playing from the stairway leading up to the stage). One of the singers (alias Ferris) was so high that he was looking and talking to imaginary audience members that could only have been embedded in the ceiling. At some point, the conductor flipped out, charged at the guitar player and started banging on the strings. Two of the sax players started talking to each other during a song. And my favorite: the trumpet player picked up his cell phone and started talking on it during the performance (we are still trying to figure out how on earth he could hear anything). In the end we left before the performance was over, with no trace of remorse or bad feelings, convinced that we had read Time Out too recklessly and that the praise and star was intended for the previous performers.

Alas! It turns out we had made no mistake. When the tears of laughter dried away, I did some research on the band only to find out that they have gotten good reviews from highbrow papers and magazines, that they have performed at well regarded venues, and that there is ongoing high demand for their output. I have blogged at least twice before about there being something for everyone, but is there no objectivity at all? I will not go into aesthetic theories on beauty and whether it is absolute or not. I just want to reiterate Kandinsky's point that bad musical or visual production that could not be called art is in fact presented as such hidden behind the label of modernism or abstraction. The same way that he denies poorly made decorative patterns deserve to be considered art, musical notes thrown together randomly, with no thought or spirituality (again, condensed term to express Kandinsky's theory, not to be taken too literally), do not deserve to be considered music.

If indeed there is a line to be drawn somewhere, then it is the responsibility of the critical mind to identify it. In this case, the de gustibus et de coloribus argument is nearly moot, serving only as a handy excuse to not make any critical judgments and to avoid taking a stance or voicing an opinion. I personally give all artists the benefit of the doubt and try to be very open toward what they have to express. That's why I researched yesterday's band. I did not want to be similar to the people who condemned Olympia because they were traditionalists who would (could) not welcome something new that challenged the status quo. I want to grant art the right to revolution and to be able to give anything different a fair shot. I am intrigued by the unconventional. I am even willing to accept various sociobiological theories on creativity and am sensitive to a possible distinction between genius and madness. However, despite all these obstacles, the input from my senses can't help but undergo a cognitive process that results in a critical thought.

So, many caveats and excuses later, I still find myself unable to give yesterday's band a break. They were unconventional alright, but this is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for good art. They lacked the qualities of profound creative invention. To put it bluntly, it was madness with no trace of genius.


P.S. I believe that the responsibility to distinguish between good art and bad art (or art and non-art) lies almost exclusively within the artist. The audience's responsibility is mainly to like or dislike. In this blog, I have somewhat merged the two.

Friday, November 10, 2006

i wonder where the clever men are working

(Picture taken by myself in Long Island City)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

russian roulette

There is this guy in my class who has caught my attention (I am usually quite oblivious of my surroundings). Lookswise, that is. Now I am totally a face person, but this guy has a great, *great* body. Don't expect a model or something you would see on the cover of a magazine. He is not particularly tall, not particularly buff, not particularly anything. But he is healthily muscular, lean, well-proportioned and there is something about the way his shirt falls on his body that reveals his broad shoulders and great pecs (again, not too buff, I don't like that). And he is the only person I have seen so far who can pull off the American-style combination of jeans and running sneakers! (yes, I am a nasty European)

Sorry for the lame description, I guess I could never be a Harlequin writer :) My point lies elsewhere anyway: as I was checking him out one day, he happened to lift his arm for just a second and I saw a gun tucked into his jeans! The weird part is that, not only was I *not* surprised, but, in retrospect, it was as though my mind took out a little mental revolver and started playing Russian roulette:

1. Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me? -- Click
2. Is it still Halloween? -- Click
3. Look at that, a thug. -- Click
4. That thing better be locked or he may have a nasty accident. -- Click
5. Model's posing. -- Click

The one thought I *should* have had right away:
6. What if he goes postal? -- BANG

It scares me that I have become so desensitized. It scares me that the sight of the gun did not set off a thousand little alarms in my head and send me running to the administration office to ask about it or take some other action. How do I explain the fact that I did not react and even forgot about it completely once I started drawing? I could laugh it off and claim that I was too tired or that it is all TV's fault that I have developed an immunity to danger. But the problem could run deeper. This incident could signify lack of common sense; or dullness of sensibility; or indifference toward public safety; or a general apathy and disinterest in my environment. Now how can I be an artist if I have lost my sensitivity? How can I strive for personal development if I am not a thinker? And how can I be a useful member of society if I do not look out for the common good? This can only imply a total failure on all three fronts:
BANG -- Down goes the artist
BANG -- Down goes the humanist
BANG -- Down goes the citizen

Monday, November 06, 2006

celebrating life, celebrating death

CELEBRATING LIFE: The New York Marathon

* Nearly 40,000 people running; this could be the entire population of a small town
* I don’t know how many thousands of New Yorkers taking the streets and cheering; it felt like one big party (and bam bams are the best thing since sliced bread)
* Will power triumphing over physical power in the face of the disabled
* A glance at Lance and everything that he symbolizes
* Offside comment on Lance: sexy sexy man… but mixed feelings about the privileged treatment
* My friend’s husband, suffering from a bad stomach ache since about the half point, slowing down midway to give her a kiss and after the race saying he wouldn’t have finished were it not for the crowd supporting him
* A runner sobbing at the finish line in the arms of his wife
* The human touch of people you don't know, who are just crossing your life path for a second; runners asking for human contact by wearing their names on their shirts; spectators happy to cheer, yell, clap, urge, encourage, call a stranger out by their first name as if they are friends

On the very same day...

CELEBRATING DEATH: Saddam Hussein's sentence

* A large Iraqi population happily cheering at the verdict
* Beat a dead horse; demand that Saddam still be tried for the Kurdish genocide and other crimes
* Concerns that Saddam's death sentence will spur violence rather than quiet things down
* Muslim reaction asking for Bush to be equally tried for war crimes
* The end, the means, and the significance of a potential violation of fairness procedures at the trial
* Should death be punished by death? Always questioning the capital punishment
* Justice without closure and a country still in chaos

Sunday, November 05, 2006

de gustibus et de kilo-ribus

Sitting at this restaurant bar with a friend, happily drinking away. Three middle-aged women come in and sit next to us, obviously having just come out of the opera. They look very proper, well dressed, well groomed, serious, self-confident. We are having our conversation and they are having theirs, when all of a sudden there is that moment of synchronized silence and one of them is heard saying with a very straight face "Really, fat people should not be allowed to fly". The funniest part is that, crazy as that may have sounded, she did not flinch; she just went on with her conversation (of which I did not hear another word because I had fallen off my stool). I thought that Marie Antoinette was playing at the theaters, I did not expect to find her at the bar, sitting next to me.

Saturday, November 04, 2006


I had a burning desire to see again this magnificent painting, "The Jungle" by Wilfredo Lam. The last couple of times I went to the MoMA I hadn't seen it, but again I had spent all my time in two galleries only and had only glanced at other paintings on my way out. However, since it is a quite impressive painting, in theme, execution, and size, I was a bit suspicious that I hadn't even caught sight of it. So today, instead of going straight to the galleries to look for it, I first made sure it was there by asking at the information desk. Fourth floor, gallery 15, first painting on your right. I felt so relieved. I started breathing again. I walked up, anticipation and excitement building inside me with every step, entered gallery 15, turned right, and............. nothing. It wasn't there. IT WASN'T THERE!!!!!!!!!!! They took down my painting! MY PAINTING!!! MYYYYY PAIIIIIIIINTIIIIIIIIING!!!!!!!!!! I could hear the wild scream of despair in my head and pigeons at Central Park flying away. I don't even know what painting was hanging there instead, but the wall might as well have been empty...

The gallery guard told me that they took it to storage. He seemed to know more than anyone I had talked to until then and he didn't have any more information. Who knows if and when it will be back again...

To counter my disappointment, to pay tribute to a great artist and an inspired piece of art, and to make up for its disappearance from public display, I am posting a picture of Lam's "Jungle" on my blog. Of course a tiny digital picture does not pay justice to the breathtaking experience of looking at the real thing, but until it is up on view again, this is what we will have to settle for.

(And maybe I can make a more formal inquiry at the MoMA and request that it be brought back if they just took it away for space reasons)

Thursday, November 02, 2006

what goes around comes around

One day back in high school, I was too lazy to show up for some sort of mandatory activity, so I told the teacher in charge that I was stuck home because a bottle of Coke had burst in the refrigerator and I had to clean up the mess. Now I am not a liar, so in the rare occasions that I do lie I am not very good at it and people can usually read right through me. This time, however, since it was impossible for the teacher to confirm the emergency of the situation, I was able to get out of the activity painlessly. I even felt proud at the originality of my excuse. Ha ha, if she were expecting that the dog ate my homework, she was up for a surprise - I'm sure she had never heard this one before! (In retrospect, I think that the only reason she didn't contest what I said was because she was dumbfounded and speechless). To this day, me and a friend laugh about my nerve at uttering such a ludicrous excuse...

... to this day indeed, this day that I got back home only to see that a can of Coke had burst in my fridge and had made the biggest mess ever. It looked like a real explosion. This being a fridge, not a refrigerator, there was Coke *everywhere*, on all walls and shelves, inside the drawers, in all compartments on the inside of the door, and of course on every single item of food I had in there. Yuck :( Inevitably, I had to turn off the fridge, take out everything, all drawers, shelves, and food, and wash everything individually. It took me a long time - long enough to miss my evening going out plans.

I am not a fatalist. I do not believe in destiny, hubris, divine retribution or anything of that sort. Nevertheless, as I found myself doing what I should have been doing nearly ten years ago, as I was working instead of partying the same way that back then I was partying instead of working, as I was being deprived of the fun I was entitled to the same way that in high school I snatched away some fun I wasn't entitled to, I am pretty sure I could hear the Coke fizz whisper "payback time".

P.S. Does Coca-Cola Enterprises use lightweight aluminum or something? Granted, the can must have been touching the back wall, but still, this is a fridge set at the midpoint of the temperature range, not a freaking freezer. I guess you pay back with interest...

Monday, October 30, 2006

filming at the pond

I happened to be at Bryant Park during the opening ceremony of the Pond for the 2006 season. Among others, they had invited a few world-class skaters to skate. So, being the filmmaker that I am, I took out my still camera (!) that also takes mpegs (fooled you!) and started recording the performances. Happy as I was to be filming and to be obtaining a nice souvenir of my experience, I suddenly realized that I was missing the whole point. There was nothing live about the live performance I was watching. Instead of looking at the skaters and savoring their dance, my attention was on the screen. In fact, the more exciting the jump or spin, the more detached I would be, as I would focus on my effort to capture it on tape (disk, for those anal of you). I might as well have been watching the whole thing on TV! I realized that even my memories for future reminiscence wouldn't be of a live event happening before my eyes, of people made of flesh and blood dancing in a real, three-dimensional environment; rather, they would be images of a flat screen replaying someone else's experience in 2-D. All of a sudden, I felt stupid and cheated. It was a little bit like having in front of me an original painting and a reproduction of the same painting and choosing to look at the reproduction.

And then it hit me that we cheat ourselves in this way more often than we know. Metaphorically speaking, how often do we end up filming our lives instead of living them? To quote my friend, how often do we get the "life is elsewhere" feeling? We become passive observers of our own lives instead of being our own actors. We don't have the guts or the energy or the vision to take hold of what is happening to us, to become masters and commanders of ourselves, to live our lives to the fullest, to experience everything first hand and intensely. More often than not, we let time fly as we enter meta-mode and watch ourselves go by, day in, day out, half satisfied, half complaining, essentially shadows of ourselves (or images, to pick up that film metaphor again). We don't just miss the point, we miss our entire life.

The moral of the blog entry: put down your physical and emotional cameras and start experiencing instead of observing, living instead of recording.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

something for everyone

After standing in front of Picasso's "Violin and Grapes" for 20+ minutes, desperately trying to burn its image onto my retina, I was approached by another girl who had been standing in front of it for just as long. She had made a great discovery about the painting and was dying to share it with someone. Unfortunately, most patrons would look at it for a few seconds and move on. The fact that I had been there for so long gave her the courage to speak up.

In her words: She had discovered a back room in the painting, a room that made the painting three-dimensional instead of just flat. The picture with the added lines below may help.

So, according to her, the entire left part is one room, namely the room with the table that has the violin and grapes on it. The blue lines are a corridor that leads to the back room, whose back wall is outlined by the yellow line. The pink line is a window on that wall, with rays of sun coming through.

It turns out she spends a lot of time doing similar analysis of Picasso paintings, looking at them intensely to discover hidden forms, hidden dimensions, and once things "pop out", once you see them, you can't miss them anymore. To me, what she said sounded an awful lot like the Magic Eye, but I didn't want to enter into that discussion. I also thought it was an interesting coincidence that just yesterday I loosely blogged about the Rorschach test and today I met someone who was essentially doing that same thing.

I personally "disagree" with her analysis and don't believe that was Picasso's intention (for one, what she sees as rays of sun are the violin strings). But I was very happy to have talked to her for a couple of reasons. First, I realized that there is something for everyone in that painting (and every painting). While I was going back and forth, taking pictures, caught between mesmerized awe and fervent study of the painting, she was solving puzzles. Same object, vastly different mental activities. Second - and most important - I enjoyed the art lover's bonding. No matter what perspective each of us was looking at the painting from, we were both happy to reach the same conclusion - that it is an amazing masterpiece. Ironically, I felt a closer interpersonal connection in the short time I stood in front of that painting than I did all week in painting class (the second time I passed in front of it and was again captivated for several minutes, another girl started conversation about it).

Friday, October 27, 2006

culinary rorschach

I went to this Indian restaurant the other day and was surprised to see that they served beef. When I asked the waiter how come, he simply shrugged (I have come to hate this word since reading Ayn Rand - it must be her favorite word, she uses it on every other page or so - but what can I do, I refuse to ban if from my vocabulary). Anyway, back to the Indian restaurant serving beef.

My mind started racing. I quickly built a mental image of the owner: selling out, devaluing himself, sacrificing religion in the name of profit and consumerism, a shrewd businessman bending and disrespecting Hindu culture to kiss up to Western taste preferences (I must admit I did order the beef).

Then I thought that I could be dealing with the exact opposite case. I started constructing a completely different profile for the owner. Maybe this isn't a man bound by customs and tradition. Maybe he is an unfettered soul, a true revolutionary, a free man in the fullest sense of the word. A man who has the courage to destroy all barriers and break new ground in the pursuit of the ultimate pleasure of the sense of taste, a philosopher or artist looking for the highest expression of beauty and truth. And who are we to judge or try to hold him back? Down with divisions and restrictions! (Hey, why not expand this ideal to all cuisines? I was already picturing vegetarian baby back ribs).

Admitting that the above scenario was probably too extreme (or unconscious in its magnitude), I settled for its practical application, which in the food business is simply called "fusion". A man is allowed to experiment, to try new things, to see how customers react to them. He can play around with different tastes, be a little alchemist. And if fusion is in, whether it be a sophisticated attempt or a tower of Babel in the kitchen, why not follow the trend? (Although an uninspired menu featuring chicken/lamb/beef masala, chicken/lamb/beef dhal, chicken/lamb/beef mainstreamIndiancookingstyle is hardly a chef's idea of fusing anything).

Which brings me to another idea: could my imaginary owner just not care, throw everything together, any kind of meat or vegetable in the market with the standard ready-made jar spices, a few Indian decorations on the wall, a CD in the background playing synthesized Indian lounge music, low-key lighting of a reddish hue and there! you got yourself an Indian restaurant...? I don't like the je m'en fous attitude - I'd rather have the businessman. At least he has values, even if they are morally wrong. He believes in something, he doesn't blow with the wind.

So how about just a secular Indian? He can still be true to his country and his culture and simply lack religious belief. He doesn't need to be evil or have sold his soul to anyone. That's a nice compromise. I just get a feeling that it wouldn't fly. How secular are secular Indians anyway? Is religion quite separable from the rest of the culture? Or would it be the equivalent of opening a Jewish restaurant (and presented as such) that boasts good franks and pork chops? (Back to those baby back ribs...).

It was only after I got back home that it occurred to me that it could simply be an Indian, but non-Hindu restaurant. Approximately 20% of Indians are not Hindu anyway (at least in India, I don't know about the US). Indeed, there was no pork on the menu, so they could be Muslim. (I will ignore the evidence of the wine list on the table or I will be speculating all night; plus, it would bring me back to the je m'en fous scenario, which is my least favorite one).

By this point I think I have exhausted the issue and can put the matter to sleep.

I know that, if I were going to spend any time blogging today, it should be about breaking news such as gay union in NJ instead of food, but I guess I am *that* shallow... or the combination of the intoxicating symphony in my palate and the lasting effects of the repetitive music on my nervous system affected my judgment... or... or... or... the Rorschach never ends.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

on art dichotomies

I am highly sceptic of life stances that tend to dichotomize. Instead of simplifying things to help make them more clear, they usually end up oversimplifying and misrepresenting them. Most situations are not black or white. To force a grey scale to fit a black or white pattern may work in separating lights from shadows in drawing, but on most other occasions significant information is lost in the reduction process. The result is a bipolar construct that describes the original situation too crudely and is very inefficient. To make things worse, when it acquires a normative dimension, it makes people (sheep) take firm sides, form camps, and adamantly support their chosen side while laying everything else in the dust.

Vague enough?

Two dichotomy cases in art may make matters more concrete.

The one I love to hate the most is the dichotomy between abstract and realistic art. This division is a curse we inherited from the '60s and is still haunting us. Every artist has to take a side, practice that kind of art exclusively, and bash the other side. In fact, artists are more creative in their accusations of the other camp than in their own art. Abstract artists view realists as people who cannot keep pace with our times; or as draftsmen, craftsmen, renderers, copiers, whose work is technically accurate, but lacks life, spirit, passion. Realists, on the other hand, snub abstract artists as monkeys or infants with no skills, who throw paint around and pretend to be sophisticated but are completely incompetent and couldn't draw or paint to save their lives. The dichotomy is getting worse nowadays with the - small but noticeable - revival of realism. Sadly, there is no tolerance for anyone to acknowledge merits in both schools. Such an attitude is met with sarcasm or, at best (in the case of well-respected artists of one school who may admire a member of the opposing school), with puzzled silence. It seems impossible to discern the abstraction in realism or the use of realism for abstract expression. And off course, god forbid anyone try to do both abstract and realistic art, either separately or combined, or even get training in both! He will never be considered serious by either group and will end up a loner in the middle. As artists, supposedly open-minded and progressive members of society, we should be ashamed. I can't help but wonder if we could ever produce great art, either abstract or realistic, when we are so short-sighted or when we are consumed in all this bickering.

Another dichotomy that probably deserves some merit involves artistic creation. It is the age-long question of what lies at the root of artistic expression. Is the underlying drive of an Apollonian or a Dionysiac nature? Does art spring from suffering or joie de vivre? Does the artist want to celebrate and share Beauty or is he channeling his melancholy? Is his art a message about life or about death, an ode to joy or a swan song? Is he manic or depressive? Or both? Can he be Janus? If the main driving force for producing art is necessity, does this necessity feed off happiness or pain? There have been well-argued and historically supported theories for all of the above, for all sides. Going back to what I was saying in the first paragraph, it is counter-productively naive to perscribe what sort of mood one should assume in order to produce great art. What is of greater interest to me is to examine the counter-effects once we have identified a particular stance. I assume that there is no single answer for the root of artistic creation, but that it is case specific depending on the person. Then, if you remove the specific conditions, could the artist continue to create or would he be ripped off his magic? Would a happy artist inflicted with disaster still have a desire to express himself? The need to express himself? Would he even have anything to express? Conversely, should, say, Camille Claudel have been granted the love she was aching for, would she have kept creating? My guess is that in both cases paralysis would ensue. This, in turn, is quite telling as to the nature of art, its subjectivity, its flimsiness, its unstable state as a trait that is highly conditional on the personality and the pathology of each artist.