Journal: Wednesday, August 19

Khaled al-Asaad

Khaled al-Asaad

Frustrated ISIS militants holding the city of Palmyra yesterday beheaded 82-year-old archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad.

When Islamic State fighters first began to move in on the city — a UNESCO World Heritage site which dates back to Roman times — Asaad, the director of antiquities for Palmyra, moved everything portable into hiding. Once the city had fallen into ISIS hands, the militants began looting the site, hoping to sell priceless artifacts to wealthy collectors in the US, Europe and Asia to help fund their activities in the region. They captured al-Asaad and tortured him for a month, before finally beheading him yesterday and leaving his mutilated body hanging from a post.

Khaled al-Asaad never revealed the hiding place of the treasures that he was holding in trust for future generations.

As an artist fascinated by history, places like Palmyra resonate for me on many levels; I can’t help but see its survival into my lifetime as a bridge reaching across two thousand years, connecting me with the Romans who built the city and created many of its treasures. People like me depend on people like al-Asaad to protect that bridge.

I’m not one of those people who believes that all victims are automatically heroes, but I think Khaled al-Asaad deserves to be called a hero.

Journal: Wednesday, July 29

burning computerLike millions of other people sitting in front of their computers yesterday, my reaction to the sad story of Cecil the lion was both visceral and vehement. The impulse to react accordingly was irresistible: it was also wrong.

The fifty-something American from Minnesota whose adventures launched such a firestorm was perfectly cast for the role of villain. He was a dentist, a job that arouses pretty negative feelings in many of us; better yet, he was obviously a wealthy dentist: How many of us can afford to walk away from our jobs for weeks at a stretch to go jaunting off around the globe (especially when we have dental bills to pay)? Most importantly, he was an avid sports hunter, not just of the local turkey and deer but of animals that most of us only dream of ever seeing in the flesh.

Then there were the photographs …

This was that guy. We all knew him in school, or at work, or around the neighborhood, and hated, envied and feared him. The Humvee that takes up three parking spaces. The rottweiler that maims your cat. The BMOC who bullies your kids. Well-fed, self-satisfied, and smug, a kind of Donald Trump of cosmetic dentistry, his shiny white smile, his testosterone playacting, his triumphant poses with the creatures he had killed, all found a nerve, then bared down on it like a dull drill during a root canal.

And we all twitched.

The reactions were, to say the least, intemperate. By the time rumors and memes had graduated to reliable news coverage, the vitriol was already knee-deep and rising. Justifiable indignation escalated to a savage, unthinking fury. We looked into those little round glasses and that “whattya gonna do about it, chump?” grin and we became judge, jury and executioner.

Fortunately, in this case the target really had committed the crime for which we were tying him to the stake: his defense so far has consisted of protesting that when he paid tens of thousands of dollars to an unscrupulous guide to help him slaughter a member of a threatened species by luring the beast from a national park, jacklighting him, wounding him, chasing him for forty hours, and then shooting, skinning and beheading him, he didn’t realize that the animal in question was one that people actually gave a shit about. The jury has not been moved to tears by his protestations.

On the other hand, I worry that what we’re doing to the odious dentist from Minnesota may not be much more defensible. He did a thing that, by any reasonable standards of human behavior, is disgusting. Should he suffer for it? Damn straight he should. Is it up to me to try him, convict him, and light the fire under his feet? No, it isn’t.

This man (and I use the term loosely) will almost certainly end up in court somewhere, whether in the US on bribery charges or in Zimbabwe for “taking” a protected animal illegally; the public scrutiny will, I hope, ensure that he doesn’t have the opportunity to quietly pay a piddling fine and slide right back into his old habits, none the worse for wear. Meanwhile, his dental practice is probably not going to bounce back any time soon, and he won’t be spending much time on Facebook, and life for his family his going to be rough for years to come. When he finally turns up, he’s going to have to face those challenges, legal and otherwise.

Cecil the lion is still dead, and hunts like the one that brought him down will still go on, all over the world, but the dentist from Minnesota is probably not showing off quite as much of those perfect teeth of as he was. In the end, however, it makes things even worse that this man, in displaying the arrogant dark side of human behavior, brought out more of the same in the rest of us. Now we are all going to have to decide what to do about that.


Nothing if not critical …

"The Art Critic", by Normal Rockwell

“The Art Critic”, by Normal Rockwell

The death of writer and television personality Robert Hughes in 2012 was an event that did not exactly shake western civilization to its roots. His television shows “The Shock of the New” (1980) and “American Visions” (1997) had brought him some fame in the rarefied air of the BBC/PBS universe, but despite a long and wide-ranging career – he penned an  overview of the early European colonization of his native Australia, he contributed to an array of newspapers and magazines, and he even hosted (for one week, before being replaced by Hugh Downs) the ABC television news magazine “20/20” – to most people outside the art world he was almost unknown at the time of his death.

With or without fame, in his views on art Robert Hughes was passionate, pompous, often obnoxious, but he was also unfailingly erudite and articulate, and he left us more aware and better-informed than he found us.

. . .

You’re probably asking yourself why I’m eulogizing somebody nobody’s heard of, who’s been dead for years – especially an art critic, not usually an artist’s favorite person. It’s pretty simple, really: I started thinking about Hughes while reading a recent online review of the work of an interesting, if minor, American artist. I won’t identify the artist or the critic, but I will say that had the essay been printed it would have been a criminal waste of ink and paper. Like a sea turtle mistaking a street light for the moon and ending up stranded in a Miami Beach parking lot, this writer had formed a bright and shiny idea of what art criticism should look like, and had then beached himself trying to drag his subject across the sand and up into the glare.

Just as history is more than a mere description of what one thinks should have happened at some time in the past (Texas Board of Education notwithstanding), art criticism is more than just one person’s opinion about what’s worth looking at. Good criticism establishes context, finds the objective value of the art as it exists within that context, and defines that value in clear and accessible terms for the rest of us. Opinion is inevitably a part of the process, but only a part: open eyes and an open mind are essential.

As website user comments have replaced professional criticism, the process of assessing the arts in our society has, indeed, become more egalitarian, but it has perhaps lost as much as it has gained. A rambling, poorly-punctuated diatribe posted to Amazon or the Times (or an art blog) is no substitute for well-informed and well-written analysis; criticism should not just be a “love it/hate it” blast of noise aimed like a cannon at a work of art, but a part of the art itself, as carefully planned and thoughtful as the work it addresses.

The standing joke about critics is that they are just failed artists taking out their frustrations on those more talented, but the best critics are also scholars, able to balance the weight of their own personal opinions with a comprehensive, critical, knowledge of the subject matter — arguably an art form in and of itself.

. . .

When education experts identified critical thinking as a necessary component of the civics curriculum a few years ago many pundits and politicians were outraged, interpreting “critical” as synonymous with “negative”. For the Bill O’Reillys and Sean Hannitys of the 24-hour news cycle, critical thinking about American life and history meant something seditious, unpatriotic, and anti-American.

The word “critic” comes down to us from the Greek kritikos, “able to judge”, which in turn derives from krinein, “to separate, to decide” – tellingly, the word “crisis” comes from the same root. The use of the word “critic” in English to describe someone who analyses and offers judgements on art dates back to about the sixteenth century.

The English language is nothing if not flexible – to the despair of anyone struggling to master its ambiguities – but as a rule, even though words may change, we generally hang on to the fundamental concepts behind them. With terms like critical, critique, critic, and so on, however, that doesn’t seem to have been the case: any positive, constructive connotations have evaporated, leaving behind nothing but a mean-spirited residue.

Why are you being so critical?”

Everybody’s a critic.”

I don’t need your criticism, thank you very much.”

It’s easy to forget sometimes that the work of creating art is not like putting in a new dishwasher, or taking out a diseased appendix – it’s often very difficult to distinguish success from failure over the short term. Everything is subjective, based on a complex interaction between the artist’s technical abilities, emotional commitment, environment, community, ideas, and luck. If the appendectomy is successful, the fever goes down, the pain goes away, and the patient goes home to give himself an ulcer worrying about how to pay the bill; if the operation fails, the patient dies. When an artist completes a work there is no such objective measure by which to distinguish success from failure. That’s where the critic comes in: he or she is a voice from outside the artist’s head who is capable of understanding what the artist was trying to do, but has sufficient emotional distance from the process to make rational and dispassionate assessments of the results.

Robert Studley Forrest Hughes

Born July 28, 1938, in Sydney Australia

Died August 6, 2012, in New York City

That is why the recent shortage of qualified critics is so worrisome to me. Left to our own devices we in the arts are like children stumbling through a shrubbery maze: we see our hands in front of our faces, and perhaps a few other wanderers appearing and disappearing around the corners, but from our place deep inside the maze it’s hard to get any useful overview of the entire layout. We need good critics to help map out the twists and turns, and to shout out a warning when we start down a dead end or begin to wander in circles.

. . .

On this 77th anniversary of the birth of Robert Hughes, I raise my glass to that cranky old blowhard from Sydney, and I hope that for as long as artists keep marching boldly and foolishly into the maze, there will be men and women like Hughes to help us find our way.

An insane pronouncement.

Copernicus_solar_systemLet’s suppose you’re doing last Sunday’s crossword puzzle.

You’re stumped on seven down: a five-letter word for “indistinct”. There are a couple of possibilities here, but the one that pops into your mind first is “fuzzy”, so you drop that in, very faintly, in pencil.

Okay, now what? Fifteen across, a six-letter word for “mystery”, is now coming up “enizma”, which is obviously wrong. A moment’s thought gives us a 99.9% certainty that we should be seeing “enigma” in that slot, but that gives us “fugzy” for seven down, our original problem clue: once again, it’s safe to assume that something’s not clicking.

What to do? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that “fuzzy” isn’t working, so out comes the thesaurus.

Let’s see: “Blurry”? That gives us “enirma”, and we’re not having any of that. “Indefinite”? Too many letters. “Soft”? Too few.

Here we go: “Vague”. Pencil it in, and … yes! It fits. We fill in a few of the blanks around it and we see that everything works.

. . .

The scientific method is like that crossword puzzle. There are some things you’re positive about, some you’re reasonably sure you’ve figured out correctly, and some you just can’t quite pin down, but the important thing is that everything interconnects, so a piece of the puzzle that’s clearly wrong will begin to stand out pretty quickly as the rest of the clues are filled in.

Individual facts, like the words in the crossword, can be tried, rejected, accepted, or replaced, but what matters in the end is the internal consistency of the entire structure, and the way the whole puzzle evolves and solidifies as more and more blanks are filled in. “Fuzzy” was perfectly acceptable until “enizma” came along; then it became clear that there was an error somewhere, because the bigger pattern wasn’t holding together.

Until Nicolaus Copernicus overturned the applecart in the sixteenth century, the generally accepted view of the solar system placed the earth at the center, with the sun, moon and planets orbiting around it. This system worked fine for centuries, but as time passed and the observed data began to fill in more and more blanks, problems appeared. To make the system fit what we could actually see happening in the sky, the orbits of all the heavenly bodies had to be incredibly complex. Mars and Jupiter needed to stop dead and then go backward from time to time; eclipses could only be explained by mysterious invisible objects casting shadows at odd angles; the moons of Jupiter and Saturn had to perform amazing spirals and loop-the-loops.

All the blanks in the crossword had words in them, but the answers weren’t making any sense.

Copernicus looked at the problem and realized that maybe “fuzzy” wasn’t the right word for seven down (figuratively speaking). He made a very simple adjustment in the prevailing system: he moved the sun into the center, and the planets into orbit around it, with their own moons orbiting them in turn. Now, suddenly, all of the orbits were ordinary ellipses, smooth and steady; eclipses were nothing more than shadows cast by one object on another; and the positions of all the bodies could be predicted centuries in advance by calculations any educated person could understand. It was no longer necessary to accept “enizma” as a word.

Those who know that the consensus of many centuries has sanctioned the conception that the earth remains at rest in the middle of the heavens as its center, would, I reflected, regard it as an insane pronouncement if I made the opposite assertion that the earth moves.”   – Nicolaus Copernicus

Even Copernicus didn’t have all the answers. With the passage of time, we’ve developed more sophisticated tools with which to observe our universe, and we’ve found questions that would have crippled the thinkers of the Renaissance. In the sixteenth century no one was equipped to measure the gravitational interactions between and among the planets; we didn’t know anything about how spacetime itself was organized, or the subtle effects of solar cycles and nearby stars on planetary orbits; the very size and shape of the universe could only be guessed at.

But still, even today, we can build on what Copernicus gave us all those years ago: we don’t have to try to come up with some elaborate excuse to allow us to use “enizma” for fifteen across. We can use logic and common sense to resolve the dilemma, and from there we can move on to new questions, and search for better answers to old ones.

In religion, no one questions the unreasonable answer or the wildly complicated explanation. We just accept that “enizma” is correct, even if it doesn’t seem to make the least bit of sense, because that’s what faith is: accepting without the need to understand.

The fundamental truth of science, on the other hand, is that there are no fundamental truths: we observe, we theorize, we experiment, and when we find a model that works, we build from there, knowing that it’s best to use a pencil, because we may still have to go back and change an early answer based on what we’ve learned since.

And that, dear reader, is why I love science. An enigma is a challenge to be met, a question for which each new answer always leads to bigger and more exciting puzzles demanding to be solved — and if we’re willing to stop at “enizma”, we’ll never have the opportunity.


Journal: Monday, April 20

It always amazes and amuses me to see how a whole nest of unconnected obsessions can manage to circle around and overlap when you least expect it.

"Orithyia", 2015, by yours truly.

“Orithyia”, 2015, by yours truly.

I finished a painting a couple of days ago to which I gave the title “Orithyia”. The name refers to an incident in classical Greek myth in which Boreas, the god of the north wind, takes a shine to a woman (or possibly a nymph, depending on your source) named Orithyia. When his courtship — admittedly clumsy, as Boreas is the rough north wind, not the suave west wind — does not win her over, he simply carries her off in a whirlwind and has his way with her anyway.

Orithyia becomes mother to four children over the years, daughters Chione and Cleopatra (no, not that Cleopatra, although probably the source for her name) and sons Calais and Zetes. The boys take after their dad and grow wings; they eventually became Argonauts, members of Jason’s merry band of thieves determined to steal the Golden Fleece from the king of Colchis.

Now let’s skip from ancient Greece to Austria in 1914, where artist Oskar Kokoschka produces what many consider his masterpiece, “The Bride of the Wind”. The painting depicts a pair of lovers cuddled up in the midst of a violent storm, the woman asleep, the man looking harried. “Bride of the Wind” was my first choice for the title for my little painting, but then I decided it sounded a bit too sturm und drang so I opted for the more straighforward title instead. My painting does not refer to the Kokoschka picture in any way, but I knew that my first title had been used before and under what circumstances.

"Bride of the Wind", 1914, by Oskar Kokoschka

“Bride of the Wind”, 1914, by Oskar Kokoschka

While “Orithyia” is based on classical myth, “Bride of the Wind” is autobiographical: it depicts the stormy and destructive relationship between Kokoschka and Alma Mahler, who ultimately dumped the artist, sending him into a decades-long spiral of craziness.

If Alma’s last name looks familiar, that’s because she was by that time the widow of Gustav Mahler, in my opinion one of the greatest composers of symphonic music in the twentieth century. Like magic, we have the inevitable Mahler connection.

Interestingly enough, though, it goes even further: I have always been fascinated by the guiding principles of the Bauhaus, the design school founded in Weimar, Germany, in 1919. After being Gustav Mahler’s bride, but previous to becoming Oskar Kokoschka’s “Bride of the Wind”, Alma Mahler had had another lover: Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.

Greek myth, Gustav Mahler, and the Bauhaus. Whirlwind, indeed.


Tick, tock, tick, tock …

Ames Hazmat

How about a round of badminton while we wait for the burgers to come off the grill?

Yes, it’s that time again. Winter is finally over, Ice Season is melting into slushy, gritty memories, and we’re moving into that other half of the year: Tick season.

Here in the Ozarks, tick season runs from about the first week in April through the end of December, with occasional outbreaks in January, February, and March. By mid-May roving hordes of the little monsters will be moving through the underbrush like piranhas with legs, armored specks of concentrated evil seeking whom they may devour.

We’re all becoming pretty current on the latest tick-borne diseases in humans, and the toll on pets is equally terrifying. Repellants, foggers and sprays fill the air like morning mist; gatherings of the beautiful people are aromatic with eau de permethrin, and the rest of us bathe in Deet as if were Chanel No. 5.

The awful truth, however, is that nothing seems to work: we cover ourselves with “Deep Woods Off” to cross the lawn to the mailbox, and by the time we get back to the front door with the junk mail our shoelaces are seething with activity.

At the risk of betraying an obsession, I will say that I have written on the subject of ticks before, focusing a little more on what they are rather than what they do:

What to do? Well, there are, in fact, two chemicals that are widely used to deal with ticks around the home:  N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET for short), and permethrin.

Like the atom bomb and Agent Orange, DEET was invented by the US military in the latter stages of World War II; jungle warfare had taken a toll on soldiers who were not acclimated to the wide range of insect-borne diseases that they encountered in the Pacific and Asia, and the army wanted a single product that would defend against an assortment of pests. DEET is effective against the worst offender, the mosquito, not just repelling the creatures but killing them on contact. Unfortunately, it is only effective while still wet: once the application has dried completely, the hapless jungle warrior might just as well be slathered up with carrot puree. Furthermore, DEET is a powerful solvent, and will destroy rayon, nail polish, and spandex (“Holy holes in the tights, Batman!”) and is known to have toxic side effects on a very small percentage of humans. Mosquitos also lose their susceptibility to it after the first exposure, so it becomes less effective the longer you use it.

And ticks? Well, they don’t exactly slurp down DEET like it was coconut pie, but it might as well be: unless the tick actually ingests the chemical it has no effect, and the DEET is not recommended for application directly to a person’s skin, which is the only place where the tick would ingest it — in the act of biting, which would seem to defeat the purpose.

Permethrin is somewhat more effective against ticks: it kills on contact, and it continues to work even after it has dried; it will even remain active after repeated washings. In small doses it is not known to be toxic to humans — although, as with any insecticide, infants and breastfeeding mothers should avoid it, just to be safe. Toilet paper tubes stuffed with cotton that has been soaked in permethrin can be placed in locations frequented by mice, who use the cotton for nesting material, killing ticks at one of the early stages in their development without harm to themselves.

The downside? Permethrin is very harmful to cats even in small doses: flea and tick medications containing permethrin that are perfectly safe for dogs will kill cats outright. Permethrin also does not discriminate between “good” and “bad” arthropods: it will kill the mosquitos and ticks, but also the honeybees and spiders. If it gets into water it poisons fish, frogs and other aquatic life, and in large doses it can harm humans and other mammals. It persists in the environment for up to ten weeks, so repeated applications can result in dangerously high concentrations in and around the home.

This flyer from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (in PDF format) provides some pretty detailed information, including preventive measures, comparisons of insecticides and repellents, and treatment for tick bites. (The data used to compile this guide comes originally from the EPA, so if you’re a Republican you won’t want to read it.)

So chemistry still hasn’t provided a magic bullet. The old-fashioned approach is still the best: light-colored clothes covering the entire body so that ticks can be easily seen and brushed off, tightly-woven socks, pants tucked into boots — all those things that we so look forward to when the weather reaches 98 degrees with 85% humidity. Contrary to popular belief, ticks don’t drop out of the trees onto their prey — they can only see a few inches, so you’ve got to be on top of them before they’ll make their move — they simply crawl to the extreme end of leaves and twigs and wait for something to brush against their perch to they can grab on for dinner and a free ride. This means that the worst infestations can be avoided simply by keeping to the open trails, avoiding tall weeds and grass, and staying well away from underbrush. Tough rules to follow when you’re trying to mow the lawn or weed the garden, but every little bit helps. Ticks usually develop in stages on small, medium, and large hosts, so providing permethrin-treated bedding material for mice and packrats (you’ve got them, don’t fool yourself), fencing out deer, and keeping dogs and cats indoors will help break up the life cycle.  Chickens and guinea hens eat ticks, so keeping a few fowl around the back door doesn’t hurt; opossums, although unlovely, are also known to nibble on the little devils.

So pull on your gumboots, tuck in your white jeans, duct-tape your gloves to your shirt cuffs, snuggle that collar up tight — and get out there and enjoy the great outdoors!