Sunday, November 29, 2009

Paintings I Like, pt. 40

Raphael Sanzio, "The Transfiguration," 1516-1520. Oil on panel, 159" x 109."

This was by far my favorite painting in the Vatican Pinacoteca, with Caravaggio's deposition a close second - the Vatican frescoes (particularly the Sistine Chapel), sculptures, and architecture tended to leave their oil paintings behind just a bit. The thing that really struck me about this picture was the way Raphael used waving arms and pointing fingers to direct the eye around. If you described it to someone over the phone, it would sound like such a silly, prosaic device, but it works so brilliantly. It was also quite large for a something that wasn't painted on a wall - in those days portable pictures were generally of a much more modest size.

It's been many years since I've stood in front of the picture, but I've just been reading Nietszche's "Birth of Tragedy," his early meditation on art, and he addresses the painting in terms of his central argument in the book: that great art must balance two seemingly opposite poles which he describes as "Apollonian" and "Dionysisan." The Apollonian, in Nietszche's view, is the idealized, platonic, beautiful, rational, and ultimately objective. The Dionysian is the human, particular, frenzied, passionate, subjective view. Nietszche's contention that these two seemingly opposite characteristics must be made to coexist is a strong reference to Hegel's notion of the dialectic.

In the Raphael, Nietszche says that the top half, depicting the floating, transfigured Christ, represents the Apollonian, and the bottom half, in which the apostles try unsuccessfully to exorcise the devil from a young boy, represents the madness of Dionysus:

"In the lower half of his Transfiguration, through the figures of the possessed boy, the despairing bearers, the helpless, terrified disciples, we see a reflection of original pain, the sole ground of being: "illusion" here is a reflection of eternal contradiction, begetter of all things. From this illusion there rises, like the fragrance of ambrosia, a new illusory world, invisible to those enmeshed in the first: a radiant vision of pure delight, a rapt seeing through wide-open eyes. Here we have, in a great symbol of art, both the fair world of Apollo and its substratum, the terrible wisdom of Silenus, and we can comprehend intuitively how they mutually require one another."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

It Was Once Called the Sport of Kings

The decision to rescue Aqueduct racetrack via the installation of video slots was made in Albany in the fall of 2001. Eight years and three governors later, no one has been awarded the contract. Today's story in the Times about the stalled process featured the above photo of the grandstands at the Big "A". Every time I look at it, I weep softly.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Nietzsche on Art

The following is excerpted from Friedrich Nietzsche's first major work, "The Birth of Tragedy," 1872:

An old legend has it that King Midas hunted a long time in the woods for the wise Silenus, companion of Dionysos, without being able to catch him. When he had finally caught him the king asked him what he considered man's greatest good. The daemon remained sullen and uncommunicative until finally, forced by the king, he broke into a shrill laugh and spoke: "ephemeral wretch, begotten by accident and toil, why do you force me to tell you what it would be your greatest boon not to hear? What would be best for you is quite beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best is to die soon."


Understanding kills action, for in order to act we require the veil of illusion; such is Hamlet's doctrine, not to be confounded with the cheap wisdom of John-a-Dreams, who through too much reflection, as it were a surplus of possibilities, never arrives at action. What, both in the case of Hamlet and of Dionysiac man, overbalances any motive leading to action, is not reflection but understanding, the apprehension of truth and its terror. Now no comfort any longer avails, desire reaches beyond the transcendental world, beyond the gods themselves, and existence, together with its gulling reflection in the gods and an immortal Beyond, is denied. The truth once seen, man is aware everywhere of the ghastly absurdity of existence, comprehends the symbolism of Ophelia's fate and the wisdom of the wood sprite Silenus: nausea invades him.

Then, in this supreme jeopardy of the will, art, that sorceress expert in healing, approaches him; only she can turn his fits of nausea into imaginations with which it is possible to live. These are on the one hand the sublime, which subjugates terror by means of art; on the other hand the comic spirit, which releases us, through art, from the tedium of absurdity.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Saturday, November 7, 2009


Thanks, Girlfriend!

What a finish! Video coming soon...

Friday, November 6, 2009

Breeder's Cup Classic Morning Line and Post Positions

Zenyatta's connections have decided to put her undefeated status at risk by entering her in tomorrow's Breeder's Cup Classic instead of the G1 Ladies' Classic, in which she would have been an overwhelming favorite.

The decision to race her against older males was clearly made to try and steal Horse of the Year honors away from the spectacular Rachel Alexandra, who's 2009 season included beating older boys in the Woodward at Saratoga. Rachel will not be showing up in any of the Breeder's Cup races; her connections have announced that she is getting a well deserved rest after her outstanding 2009 campaign.

Also present in the Classic are the sons of Birdstone: 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, and his half-brother Summer Bird, who won the 2009 Belmont Stakes, The Travers Stakes, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup in the same season, a feat not accomplished since the legendary Easy Goer did it in 1989. If Summer Bird steals this race, one would have to consider him for Horse of the Year ahead of the two tough chicks. Much rides on tomorrow's outcome!

Here are the post positions, jockeys, and morning lines for the race; post time is 6:45 EST:

1 - Mine That Bird, Calvin Borel, 12-1
2 - Colonel John, Garrett Gomez, 12-1
3 - Summer Bird, Kent Desormeaux, 9-2
4 - Zenyatta, Mike Smith, 5-2
5 - Twice Over, Thomas Queally, 20-1
6 - Richard's Kid, Alex Solis, 12-1
7 - Gio Ponti, Ramon Dominguez, 12-1
8 - Einstein, Julien Leparoux, 12-1
9 - Girolamo, Alan Garcia, 20-1
10 - Rip Van Winkle, John Murtaugh, 7-2
11 - Regal Ransom, Richard Migliore, 20-1
12 - Quality Road, John Velazquez, 12-1
13 - Awesome Gem, David Flores, 30-1

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Congratulations, Mike!

Dear Mike;

Congratulations on yesterday's victory over Bill Thompson! Even after all of your campaign spending, you still have about $15.7 billion or so of your personal fortune left over. Plus you've got a City Council who has shown little hesitation to change laws if you ask them to. It's all good!

So here is a list of things to do in your third term as Mayor of New York City:

1. Buy a crown, a throne, a scepter, and a ring for visitors to kiss as they enter your chambers. Make sure none of these things are too ostentatious, because you don't want to jeopardize you reputation as a man of the people.

2. Buy a small fleet of guillotines and have them installed in the basement of City Hall.

3. Have the City Council nullify all votes cast for Bill Thompson so it looks like you won by a margin of 100%. To insure that there is no embarrassing public outcry over this, send everyone who voted for Thompson (including Thompson) to the guillotine.

4. Have the City Council change the Mayor's term from four years to however long Michael Bloomberg feels like serving. Dissenting voices should be sent you-know-where.

5. Have all publicly owned property turned over to big developers so they can build sports arenas and luxury high-rises. Cite eminent domain as justification.

6. Make sure developers build one low-income apartment in the basement of each luxury hi-rise and sports arena, to be distributed by lottery. Send all those who do not get the apartments to the guillotine, and then point out that 100% of low-income people now have affordable housing.

7. Send everyone with a rent-regulated apartment to the guillotine. Besides deregulating a tremendous number of apartments, the increased supply should lower rents across the board. Aren't free markets miraculous?

That about all I can think of for now, if I come up with anything else, I'll drop you line. Good luck in your third term! See you in '13?

Best always,

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Paintings I Like, pt. 39

John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, 1778. Oil on canvas, 72" x 91."

Shark attack is not something that I associate with art or popular imagery prior to 1975, which was the year Jaws was released (remember that poster?). While sharks have apparently been around since long before man, their appearance in art was until very recently in our history an infrequent event. And I think that's the thing that makes this picture so striking: it's almost like finding the lead character from a post-1970 horror movie (Jason? Michael Myers?) in an 18th century painting. The knowledge that sharks at that time ate people no more or less frequently than they do today does nothing to diminish this weird disconnect, and makes the painting unceasingly interesting.

And of course, finding a painting interesting means you'll look at it longer, and if you look at it longer you find more things to look at. The picture has some of things that I find so objectionable about much of 18th century painting; particularly those kewpie doll faces and somewhat stiff poses reminiscent of Boucher and Fragonard. But there are other things.

There is some speculation as to whether or not Copley had ever seen a real shark, and the position of its eyes, the handlebar-moustache nostrils, and the strange lips would tend to support this view. Some say he had seen a set of shark jaws and built his imaginary beast out from there, but there is also the possibility he had seen prints or drawings made from life. In spite of this, the shark is probably the most convincing player in the scene, if not in terms of naturalisism, certainly in the visceral sense - this in contrast to the characters on the boat, who look like people from 18th century paintings. I think the reason for this is that there was no tradition for stylizing sharks, either historical or in terms of the painting conventions of the day. It might not have been possible for Copley to paint the fish accurately, but it was equally impossible to make it to a type, as is the case with the figures.

The teenage Watson, who ultimately lost half his right leg in the attack, looks a lot like a girl - his billowing blond hair blending into the waves call to mind the doomed Ophelia. Add to this his blinding white skin, his nudity, and his pin-up girl pose, and the androgyny is a little hard to ignore. The contrast of Watson's youthful nakedness with the merciless glass-eyed sea monster bearing down on him makes for a nautical drama which aspires (but doesn't match) compare to the horrifying splendor of Gericault's Raft of the Medusa.

There's other stuff to like in there as well, like the misty atmosphere and diffused light of Havana harbor in the background, which looks back at Venetian painting and predicts Turner. And the two would-be rescuers straining to reach the boy, clearly at full extension but just out a hair's breadth of reach - the stuff of Hollywood cliff-hangers to come. And the bizarrely comical framing of the rear rower's face in the harpooner's crotch; such a strange compositional choice.

With sincere apologies to Damien Hirst, if I could only have one piece of shark-oriented art in my home, the Copley would win hands down.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Robo-Improvisation Arena at Space on Dobbin

This Friday, Nov. 6, I'm going to be making a rare appearance behind the drum set in a crazy performance at Space on Dobbin Gallery in Brooklyn.

Remote-controlled robots and colored lights will be cueing musicians in a reciprocal improvisation. If this sounds interesting to you, click here for details.

The show starts around 6:30 and I hope to see you there. If you're a reader of No Hassle at the Castle that I haven't met, please introduce yourself - I'll be the guy behind the little black Gretsch drum set.