Wednesday, March 8, 2017

How the Church Tolerated Nudity in Renaissance Art

Ulysses and Penelope, c. 1545. Francesco Primaticcio (1505-1570). Oil on canvas. Toledo Museum of Art.

Through the dark ages the Church preserved the art, books, and ideas of the ancients as the essence of Western civilization. As the Renaissance brought these materials to light for the first time in centuries, the ancient gods and myths weren't viewed as divinities and scripture, which would have been a heresy in strangely monotheistic, triune Christianity, but as allegories imbued with the wisdom of the ancients.

Another element of the Classics, especially the Greeks, was their comfort with nudity. In Greek athletics the physically perfect human bodies were considered evidence of the transcendence of humans toward divinity. So, for example, a Roman bust of Julius Caesar places Caesar's head atop a torso with six-pack abs: the idea isn't so much that Caesar had a great body but that he was a demigod.

When the Renaissance happened, the Church scriptoria's vast collections of texts and art, nipples and all, paved the bridge to the ancients. The idea was to pick up civilization where the Classical civilizations had left off.

The Birth of Venus, c. 1480.
Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510).
Tempera on panel. Uffizi Gallery.
Consequently, a Church and society that were patriarchal, authoritarian, and prone to aversion to nudity tolerated it, beginning with Botticelli's The Birth of Venus (1486). Shortly thereafter, in 1510, Giorgione painted a sleeping Venus, an allusion to the myth of Cupid, Psyche, and Venus. Giorgione died before he finished his painting, so his student, Titian, finished it. Thus began a long history of reclining or sleeping Venus images that culminated with Manet's Olympia (1863).

Everything about Olympia, beginning with her name, mocks the Neoplatonic tradition from which artists had derived their license to paint the world's beauty. The picture openly defied the respect to Classical arts that had provided a rationale for including nudity in art. For most artists, the Neoplatonic movement with its allegories and adoration of ideas and ideals, had been a kind of hypocrisy, a false conversion, or a marriage of convenience all along. Olympia's physical build looks normal to us now, but in the mid-nineteenth century she looked shockingly anorexic though perhaps typical of women in the Red Light district. She looks out of the canvas directly and shamelessly at the viewer as if to say, Yes, I, Olympia, am not a goddess but a whore! Indeed, her maidservant is handing her a bouquet of flowers from a newly arrived gentleman caller.
Olympia, 1863.
Édouard Manet (1832-1883).
Oil on canvas, 130 × 190 cm.
Musée d'Orsay.

Francesco Primaticcio painting of a nude man and woman in bed together, under the guise of Ulysses and Penelope (c. 1563), is no exception to that history. And that history depicts a long conflict between an authoritarian patriarchal ruling class, which equates the feminine with shame, and a matriarchal, life-giving force, which equates femininity with beauty.

--International Women's Day, 2017

Friday, February 17, 2017


The Senate has confirmed Trump's choice of Scott Pruitt as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
What do Trump, Pruitt, and the John Birch Society have in common? A lot, it turns out.

Much of the logic used by climate change deniers follows a pattern also used by Evangelical Christians and "Creation Scientists," and those appear to have originated with the radically right John Birch Society.

You've heard of creation scientists, surely. They are the people who claim to use science to prove a model of an earth that is only five thousand years old, and in those five millennia, for example, humans were contemporaneous with dinosaurs. Some creation scientists also believe that the world is flat, and that the moon landings were cinematic productions staged by NASA in an abandoned warehouse somewhere.

The primary characteristic shared by creation scientists and climate change deniers is a particularly militant form of wishful thinking. That is, my beliefs are cast in bedrock certainty, so any science that contradicts them is not only false but suspect. Oftentimes these falsehoods are explained as conspiracies, which is a methodology that dates all the way back to the John Birch Society, an organization for which KKK members hung up their sheets and put on business suits. The John Birch Society invented many of the techniques for denying inconvenient truths that conflict with beliefs carved in stone. The concept of fake news as a way of dismissing inconvenient truths began with the Birchers, and they were always quick to add that Walter Cronkite's name came from the German krankheit, meaning sickness. Apparently these homonyms served as proof of some conspiracy to hoodwink the public.

Speaking of significant homonyms, the commonly used short name for the Society is (or was) Birchers, and I always found the near homonyms of Birchers and Birthers to be an interesting coincidence if not an outright name tag to say, "We're still here."

A lot of the nonsensical extremism was tamed out of the conservative movement by William F Buckley, who took a very rational, educated, and level-headed view of the issues, which he discussed in his magazine, The National Review, on his PBS talk show, Firing Line, and in numerous books. Buckley, who had a Yale education and a distinctively Yankee accent fired by a blast furnace intellect, was inaccessible to those whose intellect does not and cannot extend far beyond wishful thinking. In the South, where the poorest, least educated, and most openly racist states congregate, wishes rise over reality, and a passion for a tough love Messianic politician who will exorcise America's demons. Tyrants depend upon internal enemies for scapegoats—Hitler's Jews, for example. The great leader will name the enemy responsible for all our problems and circumscribe him. The leader will restore a Great Nation that, rather like a Brigadoon, is hopelessly buried in a mythical past. The South loves the great leader, but they also protest vociferously against his opposition, The irony lies in the opposition's bearing policies from which they would most benefit, but down South they paradoxically support the policies of the rich at the expense of the poor.

Trump's use of many of the tactics that originated with the John Birch Society suggests that, yes, indeed, they're still here. Claims of fake news, a vast Weltanschauung constructed wholly of conspiracy theories, lies contrived from spontaneously manufactured factoids, the ever-present undercurrent of hate and anger, the exclusive white male power enclave, and the ascendancy of belief over truth, all spell out the John Birch Society—or something worse.

Evangelical churches and colleges offering education in creation science form the religious arm of ultra-right culture, and the three branches—fundamentalist churches, their colleges, and ultra-right wing political organizations—serve the same segment of the population. So it's really quite sad that Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma's attorney general and an Evangelical Christian and Creationist has been confirmed by the Senate as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. He will serve as a curator of the agency's assets while the Trump administration dismantles the agency. Industry will soon be free to pollute for profit. Trump has already signed executive orders to begin the dismantling, but Congress will have some say in the matter.

Conservatism is really a populist rhetoric to gain public support for policies that benefit only extremely wealthy people. Even before the world falls apart, most jobs will be automated, so unemployment will be massive, but the rich will enjoy higher profits than ever before because they no longer pay the wages that were once their biggest expense. But behind unemployment and hunger looms the spirit of revolution.

The poverty documented in mid-19th-century novels like Les Miserables, David Copperfield, and Crime and Punishment explains why Marx, who was writing at the same time, believed that a workers' revolution was inevitable. But for liberal reforms like those of the Fabian Society in Britain, Marx may have been right about historical inevitability. The Czar and his wife were so out of touch with the reality outside palace walls that they took no preventive measures except to send brigades of soldiers with bayonets into crowds of hungry protesters, so the revolution was indeed inevitable in Russia. And maybe as automation drives unemployment insufferably high in the US, the rich might throw out a sop of guaranteed basic income lest they suffer similar consequences.

However, once the climate becomes unbearably hot, the rich will still afford their air conditioning. Once food becomes so scarce that we either fight with the gang controlling the local supermarket or starve, they will have larders brimming with food. Once our society at large becomes a post-apocalyptic dog-eat-dog chaos, they will live safely behind unbreachable walls. Governments by, of, and for the rich hasten the day.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Thomas More & Donald Trump

The current situation, with Trump's selective ban on immigration, the courts' overturning the ban, and Trump's subsequent whining and name-calling ("so-called judge") reflects an ignorance of law that is disturbing in a president. What we have seen  recently is an example of the Checks & Balances that the writers of the Constitution provided for presidents like Trump who would overstep their authority. Instead of celebrating the working of the Constitution, Trump has thrown yet another tantrum.

I'm reminded of this scene in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, which as a play won a Tony Award for Best Play in 1962. As a film in 1966 it swept the Academy Awards: Best Screenplay; Best Cinematography; Best Costume Design; Best Actor for Paul Scofield, who played Thomas More; Best Director for Fred Zinneman; and Best Picture.

The scene I'm thinking of features some snappy Socratic dialog between More, who was Henry VIII's chancellor who famously refused to sign the paper that granted Henry's divorce, and William Roper, More's politically ambitious son-in-law. Roper, like Trump, would cast the law aside to suit his own political agenda, but More has a wiser and deeper respect for the law:

MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law!

ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!

MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

MORE (Roused and excited): Oh? (Advances on ROPER) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you-where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? (He leaves him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast-man's laws, not God's-and if you cut them down-and you're just the man to do it-d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.

—Thomas More in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Singer-Songwriter Kat McDowell's Promising Tenth-Year Album

Kat has made thank-you photos for all of her album supporters.

Singer-Songwriter Kat McDowell has started the Kickstarter campaign that will underwrite her fourth full album since her first CD came out ten years ago, in 2007. The New Zealander with Japanese ancestry has settled in Los Angeles, but her linguistic fluency affords her an international audience in both the English- and Japanese-speaking corners of the world. Spiritually her scope reaches out to the entire cosmos.

We live in an age when so much hurt, greed, and pain yield so much anger and conflict—recently the din reaches an intolerable pitch—so it's a delight to find someone who bucks the trend and describes her music as "songs of healing & hope." Instrumentally, Kat's music is upbeat, danceable, and happy, and her lyrics are full of hope, encouragement, and happiness!

Kat's YouTube channel offers up a cornucopia of upbeat original songs in a powerfully uplifting style she calls positive ocean pop, but she also covers songs like this tune from Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli film, Kiki's Delivery Service. Kat sings duets with numerous talented people. She more-or-less improvised this fun song about boba tea (featuring my favorite cooking YouTuber), and, with Megan Lee, even recorded this lovely and reverent Christmas song. Her advice videos and vlogs span themes both musical and general, some European travelogue brimming with wanderlust, and way cool photojournalistic event coverage of things like a costume contest at Santa Monica Beach and the FujiRock Festival.

Kat brings a lot to the table, and her videos make clearly evident the amazing musical and emotional growth she has enjoyed in LA. This next CD will let her fans and followers catch up with all that ongoing evolution. Those of us familiar with her music, whether through her CDs or her YouTube channel, know we have a lot to look forward to a new album from this great and loving musician. I can't wait!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Olé Olé Olé!: A Trip Across Latin America

This combination documentary and concert movie shows the Rolling Stones on their 2016 tour through Latin America. The social and political oppression that has been the lot of Latin America ever since the Monroe Doctrine drove the youth of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s underground, and the Stones ouvre provided a multi-album anthem for this resistance. While matronly Argentinians idolized Evita Perón, the youth of the nation hung on to every scratched, contraband Stones record, every thread of frazzled T-shirt, every move stolen from Jagger's onstage hyperkinetic performance. The Stones provided symbols of resistance in a period when merely being young and autonomous was a crime. So this film fascinates not only with its breadth but with the depth of the fans' love, particularly in Argentina. The Argentine concert footage shows the Stones united in one great celebratory mass with a stadium-full of fans. Sure, the band knows how to rock a stadium, but the unity of band and adoring fans is enough to bring a poor boy to tears.

Olé Olé Olé!: A Trip Across Latin America, after a one-night appearance in theaters across the US, premieres this Sunday, 15 January 2017, at 10pm ET on STARZ.