Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Politics

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm ambivalent about art and politics served on the same plate, but I'm quite passionate about both. And I'm a red (and this has nothing to do with red states, either).

When I resurrected my poor neglected blog recently, I thought about streamlining it to the extent that I just talked about painting and racing, leaving out my digressions into politics (and jazz, for that matter). But certain stories get me worked up, and I just can't resist comment, so "No Hassle" readers are just going to have to suffer a bit of dilettantism.

One of my closest friends asked me this morning if I was planning to watch tonight's Democratic debate, and I answered with my customary, "no." In past experience, these things quickly devolve into preposterous discussions of "character," and even more frustratingly into discussions of the social issues that have replaced class issues as the distinguishing difference between right and left. Abortion and stem cell research are real-enough issues, important issues, but have absolutely supplanted topics like labor protections, consumer protections, and strategies for lifting people from poverty, providing affordable housing, and providing access to higher education. This process, maddening as is, becomes easy enough to understand when you look at who the Democrats get their campaign funding from: except for the unions (or what's left of them) they get money from the same people that fund the Republicans; they just get less.

All that said, I'm throwing my lot in with Obama this year, even though I'm tempted to put in a protest vote for Nader. I went ahead and promised the afore-mentioned friend that I would tune into the debates tonight (are you reading this, Flo?), because the details of each candidate's health care plans will allegedly be aired out. Also, it seems that John Edwards surprisingly frank discussion of the "Two Americas" forced Clinton and Obama, at least for a while, to address class issues. I think that's probably over now that Edwards is out of the picture, but we'll see.

There were two recent stories in the Times which I can essentially guarantee will not be addressed tonight, even in rhetorical fashion: last week, Brookings issued the findings of a study which linked class mobility to education in fairly concrete terms. A person born in the bottom fifth of the income scale in America has a 19% chance of moving into the top fifth if he or she has a college education, and a 5% chance of doing so without one. Today a story was published about Brown university's rollback of financial aid to poorer students, which followed similar moves from the other Ivy schools. This is a simple recipe for entrenched, generational poverty, which could easily be addressed at the federal level (we're able to find $10, 000, 000, 000 a month for Iraq, no?).

And a couple of parting shots about the effect of political parties on democracy:

Yesterday, Geraldine Ferraro had an opinion piece defending the so-called "Super-Delegates" right to turn the Democratic nomination over to Hillary. Her sophistries about how the primaries did not actually represent the will of the people were chilling enough, but this quote had the distinct aroma of fascism: "But the superdelegates were created to lead, not to follow." Big Sister is watching.

And the litany of voices who blame Ralph Nader for the Bush administration were stirred up by Sunday's announcement of his candidacy. Here's Ralph, responding to the charges (as articulated by Tim Russert) that he is culpable for the last seven disastrous years:

"Not George Bush? Not the democrats in congress? Not the voters who voted for George Bush [though] they were democrats? In Florida; 250,000 of them? You know, I wish you’d have Al Gore on this program someday, Tim, and ask him, why did you not become president in 2000? And I think what he’s going to tell you, is that he did win Florida, but it was taken from him before, during and after the election. In Talahassee: Catherine [Harris], Jeb Bush; all the way to that terribly politicized Supreme Court decision. But the political bigotry that’s involved here is; that we shouldn’t enter the electoral ring, we, all of us who thinks the country needs an infusion of freedom, democracy, choice, dissent, should just sit on the sidelines and watch the two parties own all the voters, and turn the government over to big business."

Monday, February 25, 2008

2008 Risen Star Stakes, Fair Grounds, 2/9/08

The experts are lining up behind Pyro as the early pick for the 2008 Kentucky Derby, and he was also tied for favorite-status with War Pass in the first Derby Future book. When people get this excited about a Derby prospect, my reflexive contrarian response is to bet on another horse, but boy, oh boy, get a load of Pyro's extremely convincing victory in the G3 Risen Star Stakes: last place and pinned to the rail at the top of the stretch, swinging out five-wide into the lane, and taking off like a rocket to win by open lengths. Wow.

In spite of this Herculean performance, it's hard to ignore the fact that Pyro has been beaten three times by the as yet undefeated War Pass (click here for the past performance charts of all the Derby contenders). Trainer Nick Zito is planning to enter War Pass in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Can you guess where Professor Paulie will be on Saturday, April 5?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Paintings I Like, pt. 15

Giovanni Bellini, St. Francis in the Wilderness, 1480. Tempera and oil on panel, 49" x 56."

Oh, those blue rocks. Only a Venetian would paint a penitential cave dwelling robin's-egg blue. Bellini's star student, Titian, would go on to add the hazy, close-value effects that became a hallmark of the Venetian renaissance, but Bellini was the early explorer and exploiter of high-key color.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Paintings I Like, pt. 14

Francisco Goya, The Third of May, 1814. Oil on canvas, 105" x 136."

Goya's The Third of May carries a political theme which is as flat-footed as its characterizations. The beatified figure addresses his murderers with a Christ-like gesture; he is the light source in the picture, and the shooters are faceless, robotic and nearly identical. The helpless clergyman pleads for his own life and the lives of his congregation, who are strewn around him soaked in their own blood. The witnesses look on crying and moaning as they, too, march to their doom. Their ghost-like village stands silent in the background, shrouded in a funereal mist.

Sound corny? It is. But it's a sensational painting, made even more meaningful by the era in which it was created: the tail end of that long void between the slow death of the Baroque and the onset of Romanticism, a full century of not-much in terms of painting. This picture is a high-water mark in Goya's long and somewhat uneven career, in which he combines the misty space and gestural application of paint so common to Venetian painting with the earthy "Spanish Palette" of Velazquez, and presages the Realism of Manet and Courbet.

It's tempting (especially for me) to say that good painting alone makes this picture great; that the subject matter only contributes to the extent that it provides an armature for the formal achievement, which is dazzling. But Goya's political views are well-known, and one would have to cede the point that the emotional pitch of the picture is due in large measure to the artist's feelings about the subject and not simply a product of deft execution (no pun intended). This canvas sits near the top my very short list of political paintings that are unqualified successes. Others include Manet's Execution of the Emperor Maximilian (which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Goya), Courbet's The Stonebreakers, and a number of Richters. But the Goya stands apart from these entries in that the political content is not subtle, oblique, or nuanced in any way.

I'm not going to attempt an in-depth analysis of the reasons that the Goya succeeds in spite of all the good reasons it shouldn't; I mainly want to point to it as the proverbial-exception-that-proves-the-rule. The picture manages to overcome innumerable emotional, political, and theatrical cliches and still be great; a true masterpiece. Most politically-inspired cannot overcome those hurdles.

And here is the point that I really wanted to sneak up on: that it's hard to make a politically motivated artwork without having it be strident and dumb; trivializing the subject instead of sounding an effective call-to-arms. It's also nearly impossible to criticize political artworks without seeming as though you're criticizing the politics - they have a way of becoming inseparable from one another. Hans Haacke's Giuliani-bash at the 2000 Whitney Biennial and Serra's "Stop Bush" picture come to mind immediately as good politics and bad art, but one could hastily assemble a very, very long list of works from the last 40 years that suffer from that same split; works dealing with gender, race, the environment, etc. that espouse urgent issues but fail as works of art.

Art undergoes a transformation when it is pressed into service in this way, and that transformation is usually a kind of disfigurement. When art becomes propaganda or advertising, its aesthetic properties are generally deemphasized or ignored altogether, or reassembled in a chimerical way to serve the subject, which is necessarily non-aesthetic. This latter process is epitomized in the afore-mentioned Serra ("Stop Bush"), in which the artist's highly compelling visual language is changed into something silly and uninspiring by grafting the subject matter on to the style.

I'm passionate about politics and about art, but ambivalent about the two together. Political art almost always becomes political illustration, which can be terrific (Grosz, Daumier), but will generally fall short in providing a primarily aesthetic experience; at its best, it becomes a kind of journalism. Broadly speaking and with glowing exceptions (like the Goya), I think that it's not a great idea to use art to fight the revolution; instead, we should fight the revolution so that we can make art. If we change the content of our work when faced with entrenched, illegitimate power structures, then it seems to me that those powers have already won.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

My, How Time Flies

"No Hassle at the Castle," your one-stop source for witty and informative commentary on painting and horse racing along with occasional digressions into politics, jazz, and other subjects turns one-year-old today. Click here to read the first post, from February 7, 2007.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Aqueduct Results, 2/3/08

I'm happy to report that blogging and winning at the track are not mutually exclusive. Things were looking dicey early, but a Grand Slam in the 8th and a trifecta in the 9th put me on the bright side of the books.

The Kentucky Derby hunt is just starting to come into some kind of focus, and as soon as the "No Hassle at the Castle" staff arrives at a consensus opinion, you'll be able to read it right here, so don't forget to stop in regularly.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Paulie's Picks, Aqueduct, 2/3/08

I made two trips to the track during the "No Hassle at the Castle" blackout for which I did not post my customary editions of "Paulie's Picks." They were my two most successful outings since I started blogging my prognostications, and I return to posting with some trepidation: basic superstition suggests that publishing my numbers is a jinx.

But I'm a 21st century, enlightened college professor who doesn't believe in that type of hooey, so I'm putting them up anyway. If I lose tomorrow, though, this may well be my last post on the subject, so try and enjoy it.

And yes, I'd much rather go to the track than watch the Super Bowl.

1st race:
4 - Ready Enough
1 - Burn One Turn One
2 - That's a Given

2nd race:
2- Bailero
4 - Fire hero
7 - Sir Tyler T

3rd race:
3 - Great Emperor
6 - Mariano
5 - Al the Usher

4th race:
3 - Dadoway
2 - Charity Fight
6 - Running Bowline

5th race:
5 - Irving's Run
3 - Danemei
4 - Gold and Blue Box

6th race:
9 - Let Her Be
2 - Keen Spirit
4 - Devil's Last Dance

7th race:
2 - Majestic Melody
6 - Stolen greeting
7 - Motor West

8th race:
3 - La Porta
5 - Wonderwho'sbest
1 - Love Co

9th race:
8 - Ty's Ridge
3 - Star Humor
2 - Dantastic

Tune in tomorrow night for results.