American Graffiti.

Some people call it ugly. Some people call it art. I call it urban enhancement.

We Can Be Heroes.

I have a complicated relationship with comic books. For some reason I never had any when I was a kid. It’s not that my parents had any objections to comic books, but I don’t remember going anywhere they were for sale. When I was, I think, in second grade there was some kind of school contest and I won a single issue of <i>The Fantastic Four</i>. I don’t remember what the contest was exactly–I wasn’t really paying attention, and maybe if I had I could have won more than just a single issue, but that’s another story. And I loved it. I could never figure out where to find more, though. I hear people talk about comic books racks at the drugstore or the grocery store, and eventually, when I was in my teens, the bookstores in the mall had racks with offerings from Marvel and DC, but at that point I’d moved on. I was making regular trips every Thursday–new comic day–to a local comic book store where I spent my money on mostly independent titles. I liked, if I could, to pick up a comic from issue one so I wouldn’t miss any of the backstory. I avoided the old classics because the size and depth of their universes intimidated me. My friends were all big X-Men fans and yet I avoided it because I felt I’d missed so much. I was fascinated by them–and several times seriously considered getting back into Spider-Man, my childhood hero–but kept my distance.

And yet there had been a glorious summer, maybe in between second and third grade–I don’t really remember because I wasn’t paying attention–when every afternoon the local UHF station ran a series of Marvel cartoons from 1966, and, starved for superhero action, I soaked up a good dose of Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, Iron Man, and Namor of Atlantis. The stories were great but at first the animation seemed a little shoddy and goofy to me–characters barely moved, and the design seemed, well, flat. Over time it grew on me, though, and I realized these were faithful interpretations of the originals. The quality of the animation may have been intended to save on costs, but it also captured the spirit of the comic books. I like to think the singular genius behind all of these characters, Stan Lee, had a hand in making the comic books characters he created and helped write the stories for, accessible. And that he got a kick out of the catchy theme songs. They opened me up to the worlds of comic book stories, and those comic books I collected in my teens–that included The Watchmen and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman–probably wouldn’t have existed without him.

Tom over at Tom Being Tom has a great tribute to the comic books of his youth and the profound influence Stan Lee had on him and, reading it, I realized that even before I started collecting comic books regularly Stan Lee had an influence on me too, and even that his influence reached beyond just giving us memorable comic book characters who’ve become part of our collective culture. He made it possible for us all to be part of the world of heroes.

Hail and farewell Stan Lee.

Here are some of the openings to those old cartoons. Enjoy the catchy theme songs.

Out Of The Depths.

Source: National Geographic

The oldest known cave paintings have been discovered in Borneo, or rather rediscovered since somebody knew about them once, when they were being made, and no one knows for how long after that before the knowledge was lost. The art dates back at least 52,000 years. One of the interesting things about this is that previously the oldest cave paintings were thought to be in Europe, dating back 35,000 or 40,000 years. People didn’t arrive in Borneo until 60,000 to 70,000 years ago, steadily progressing across the planet after first migrating out of Africa around two million years ago, give or take a few millenia.
One of the biggest questions about cave paintings is, what do they mean? And if you think modern art is hard to understand try making sense of art from fifty-thousand years ago. In the book The Cave Painters Gregory Curtis examines multiple ideas–that they were markers of clan identity, that they served shamanistic or religious purposes, that pictures of animals or hunters pursuing them may have been meant to increase herds or aid in the hunt–and takes down the weaknesses of all of them. The fact is we just don’t know why people made cave paintings not just thousands of years ago but continued making them for thousands of years.
Researchers have also wondered why it took so long after they arrived in an area for people to start making cave paintings. And I have some thoughts of my own on that. Caves are remarkably good at preserving things but I think humans were creating art long before that. Cave paintings are maybe the most badass forms of early art: many remained unknown for so long because they were so deep in caves, in places that were difficult to reach, that were in total darkness. Cave painters had to work by firelight, often in cramped spaces. Their work wasn’t likely to be seen by most people at the time it was created. And then there’s the fact that cave paintings don’t just span across millenia but also continents, all speaking to two fundamental human needs: the need to move and explore, and the need to create art. And maybe those two needs aren’t unrelated. Travel is a way of exploring the world around us; art translates the explorations of the worlds within us.



Take Away.

Michelangelo said, “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” Probably not in those exact words since he spoke Italian, and I haven’t been able to find the exact source, but even though Michelangelo was known for being a gruff, difficult individual who could do hard manual labor, he also wrote poetry. And even though those who knew him described him sometimes attacking a piece of raw marble, taking hard and fast swings to break away that superfluous material, the features he carved are so detailed and so delicate they seem alive. And sculpture is probably the most unforgiving art there is. Chisel a little too much and you’ve ruined an entire work. It’s not like painting where a mistake can be wiped away or painted over–not that I’m saying painting is easy. What I am getting at is the fundamental contradiction at the heart of art: it’s supposed to be creative but the process of creation is also destructive. It’s an idea that various philosophers began to consider in the 19th century. Nietzsche, in Also Sprach Zarathustra, said the artist, the creator “must first be an annihilator and break values”. It’s an idea that influenced Cubism, which isn’t true abstraction but is always based on breaking down and re-envisioning something. To get back to sculpture, though, it may be the medium that best expresses this principle. To create something–to release the form in the stone–the sculptor must destroy the stone.
All this also suggests that creation and destruction aren’t opposites but rather parts of a single process.
We often talk about what artists put into their art, but what’s just as important is what we take away from it.

Monsters Or Mouthwash?

You know not by what a frail thread we equally hang;
It is said we are images both – twitched by peoples desires;
And that I, as you, fail as a song that men time agone sang!

-Thomas Hardy, Aquae Sulis

When I first heard that gargoyles were added to medieval cathedrals to ward away evil spirits I thought, sounds legit. After all there are plenty of examples of what’s known as apotropaic magical symbols, which are intended to ward away evil. And what better way to keep away demons than to have some demons perched on your building to say, “No need to come here, guys, we got this one covered”? Then I started doing some reading about gargoyles and their history and things got a little more complicated. Why some—but hardly all—gargoyles take demonic shapes isn’t clear, and their original purpose was to serve as decorative water spouts. The word gargoyle probably derives from the Latin word gurgulio which means “throat”, although weirdly enough it also means weevil, maybe because the Romans couldn’t keep the bugs out of their bread and swallowed so many, but that’s another story. And it’s the same root word that gives us gargle and gurgle.

Anyway a lot of gargoyles are also strictly ornamental, so why did workers carve these creatures? Maybe there was some lingering pagan influence, or maybe they were created by artists who were just really into that sort of thing–the Gothic period must have been a pretty good time to be a goth–or maybe they were just expressions of the id, of our deepest fears and desires.

Immortal Remains.

One of the classical ideas about art is that it should outlive its creator. Nothing lasts forever, although there is the saying, “Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids.” And there are cave paintings that look at the pyramids and laugh and say, “Kids,” but that’s another story. Freud wrote about the same idea, saying that art isn’t just creative, it’s procreative. And how many artists speak of their works as their children? Well, I don’t have exact numbers, but it’s pretty common, even among artists who have actual flesh and blood children–and I’m not talking about artists whose medium is flesh and blood.

Another way of looking at it is that every work of art is the remains of an artist. Sometimes that can be taken a little too literally. In 2001 the mystery writer Patricia Cornwell was so convinced the Victorian painter Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper she purchased more than thirty of his paintings, spending more than £2 million, and had forensic scientists cut one up in search of DNA. Sometimes you’ve gotta roll the bones, but in this case it came up snake eyes: no DNA was found. Cornwell may be right but the evidence that Sickert worked in more than just oils is still sketchy.

Cracking the case of one of the most famous serial killers of all time–2018 marks 130 years since the Ripper’s spree–would be something, but maybe some ghosts are best left alone.

Feet, And Everything Else, Of Clay.

Source: Cartoon Brew

When I was a kid I’d spend hours playing with modeling clay, creating miniature worlds and the strange creatures that inhabited them. When I was finished I’d mash them up and start over again, although what I really wanted to do was Claymation. Some magic tricks are even more impressive when you know how they’re done, and after seeing how it was done that’s how I felt about Claymation. It just fascinated me that every motion, every gesture, every change of a clay figure was produced through the slow and patient work of a pair of human hands, and not that different from what I created, then destroyed, at the kitchen table. I even created characters, wrote scripts, plotted out movements, but cameras were expensive then. Well, they still are, but most of us carry cameras around in our pockets all the time.

What I didn’t know until I recently heard about his passing was that the genius behind a lot of the Claymation I loved so much was Will Vinton. Vinton created the term Claymation. He won a 1975 Academy Award for his short Closed Mondays, which I remember seeing bits of but not in its entirety until now—thanks, YouTube—and several other projects. His studio produced, among other advertising campaigns, the California Raisins and Domino’s Noid, which has a weird and dark history. His studio also produced the Claymation Christmas Celebration which I loved even though I’d outgrown playing with clay by the time it first aired.

I never even knew his name but he was one of my childhood heroes.

Hail and farewell Will Vinton.

And All The Devils Are Here.

Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

-John Milton, Paradise Lost

Except for the horns he might have been a nude middle-aged man, shaved, and painted bright red. But if he’d been human you wouldn’t have wanted to know him. He seemed built for all of the Seven Deadly Sins. Avaricious green eyes. Enormous gluttonous tank of a belly. Muscles soft and drooping from sloth. A dissipated face that seemed permanently angry. Lecherous—never mind. His horns were small and sharp and polished to a glow.

-Larry Niven, Convergent Series

Why, this is Hell, nor am I out of it.

-Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus

There was a time when I used to get lots of ideas… I thought up the Seven Deadly Sins in one afternoon. The only thing I’ve come up with recently is advertising.

-George Spiggott (Peter Cook), Bedazzled

People all said beware,

Beware, you’ll scuttle the ship.

And the devil will drag you under

By the fancy tie ’round your wicked throat.

– Frank_Loesser, Guys & Dolls

He was a softly glowing, richly smoldering torch, column, statue of pallid light, faintly tinted with a spiritual green, and out from him a lunar splendor flowed such as one sees glinting from the crinkled waves of tropic seas when the moon rides high in cloudless skies…So I chanced the remark that he was surprisingly different from the traditions, and I wished I knew what it was he was made of. He was not offended, but answered with frank simplicity:


-Mark Twain, Sold To Satan

Therefore Lucifer was perhaps the one who best understood the divine will struggling to create a world and who carried out that will most faithfully.

-Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion: West and East

There had been times, over the past millennium, when he’d felt like sending a message back Below saying, Look we may as well give up right now, we might as well shut down Dis and Pandemonium and everywhere and move up here, there’s nothing we can do to them that they don’t do to themselves and they do things we’ve never even thought of, often involving electrodes. They’ve got what we lack. They’ve got imagination. And electricity, of course. One of them had written it, hadn’t he…”Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.”

-Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens



Is art ever dangerous? Does it ever really threaten the status quo? Is there any value in speaking truth to power, or in using words to try to take down the powerful?

Let me put it another way: when I was in high school my friends on the debate team were given the question, Is the pen mightier than the sword? And those things were defined pretty broadly. “The pen” was any form of communication while “the sword” was any kind of military power. I wasn’t on the debate team my friends liked to bounce ideas off me, even though I don’t think I was ever much help. On that particular question the best I could offer was that without the kind of organizational structure that “the pen” would provide any kind of large scale military operation would fall apart and even though I don’t think violence really can solve anything—unless your goal is more violence—words by themselves aren’t all that effective. And that’s why I was never in the debate club: with an abstract issue I usually took a nuanced view. I couldn’t come down firmly on one side or the other.

It’s a question that’s stayed with me, though. Because words, because art, can prompt action can we say that “the pen” is mightier than “the sword”? Perhaps, although we’ve also seen that words can be robbed of their power to be effective simply by being ignored, or dismissed, even when those words are powerfully delivered and backed up by facts. In the end, it seems, words only really have power if they appeal to those who wield the sword.


Numbers Game.

The phone rang. My friends and I looked at each other and then I picked it up.


“Hi, this is Sheila in Murfreesboro. Did you know Nashville is a local call for us now?”

Let me back up and provide a bit of context. This was 1990 and some friends and I were hanging out at my house. Murfreesboro is about thirty-five miles southwest of Nashville, and even though both cities had the same area code, 615, if you were in Nashville and calling Murfreesboro or vice versa it was a long distance call. Except suddenly it wasn’t. I’m not sure what prompted the change, but it was welcomed by the few people I knew from Murfreesboro who felt their humble ‘Boro was overshadowed by Music City. Also if you think where you live has the world’s worst drivers let me assure you that’s only true if you live in Murfreesboro, but that’s another story.

“Uh, okay,” I said. “Do I know you?”

“Oh no!” Sheila laughed. “I just thought y’all would like to know that the phone company changed it so we can call each other now for free.”

“So you’re with the phone company?”

Sheila laughed again. “No, I’m just callin’ random people in Nashville to tell ‘em about the change. So how’s it going up there?”

At this point I was laughing and I told Sheila what the weather was like, then added, “But you probably already know that.” Then I passed the phone around and each of my friends took a turn chatting with Sheila. She seemed to be a nice person and I wish I could remember if we learned anything about her other than that she lived in Murfreesboro and really, really, really liked talking on the phone. Eventually she said, “Well, it’s been nice talking to y’all, and remember if you ever wanna call me it’s free now.” And then she hung up. I’m pretty sure none of us thought about calling her back and we hadn’t thought to ask for her number—this was also before caller ID—so even if we wanted to we couldn’t. If we could have, though, it was nice to know it wouldn’t be a long distance call.

I’m not sure what the person responsible for this graffiti was thinking but presumably it was the local area code, although the area that used to be exclusively 615 is now also served by 629 and, really, do area codes mean anything anymore now that we can carry our phones anywhere? Perhaps not although every time I get a call from a number I don’t recognize that’s within the 615 area code I always wonder if it will be Sheila.

Below The Surface.

There will be spoilers…

So Netflix has just dropped a new season of Bojack Horseman which surprised me since season 4 ended on an unusually happy note, at least for Bojack and some of his friends. Things had taken a downward turn for Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter, but then no one’s ever permanently happy, not even in the world of Lisa Hanawalt’s cleverly designed anthropomorphic animals. Now that the show is back I’m taking the opportunity to revisit and expand on a previous post I wrote about the role of art and art history plays in the show, usually quietly and in the background.

Or not so quietly.
Source: Daily Art Magazine

History and how it affects us is one of the strongest themes throughout the series but it became even more prominent as season 4 delved deeply into the history of Bojack’s mother. It’s a history that, sadly, he’ll never know, but it affected, and still affects, his relationship with her, including his discovery that he has a half-sister. The works of art that appear in the background are often visual puns, sometimes foreshadowing, sometimes providing insight into a character, but collectively underline the idea of history as jumbled. Rather than the Hegelian view of art history as a series of steps or, in works like Gombrich’s The Story Of Art, a progression from “primitive” to “advanced” history isn’t really linear. It’s cumulative. It’s more like a a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff, but that’s another show.

Interestingly this seems to contradict something Diane says in the final episode of season 1. When Bojack asks her if he’s a good person “deep down,” she replies, “I don’t think I believe in deep down. I kinda think that all you are is just the things that you do.” But maybe that’s the point: if all we are is what we do then there is no hope for redemption, no chance for understanding. Our actions have to be put in context, don’t they? And some moments in the show can be peeled apart to reveal weirdly hilarious meta-contexts, such as when Wallace Shawn agrees to do a movie so he can keep buying Mark Rothko paintings. Early on in My Dinner With Andre he reflects that, “I grew up on the Upper East Side, and when I was 10 years old, I was rich! I was an aristocrat. Riding around in taxis, surrounded by comfort, and all I thought about was art and music. Now I’m 36, and all I think about is money!” Rothko’s work was also the subject of a lawsuit when, after his death, his financial advisor sold a large number of his paintings to a gallery at a greatly reduced price. And never mind that we’re talking about works of art recreated, sometimes re-envisioned, in an animated world.

Why, yes, that is a Klimt.
Source: Daily Art Magazine

To get back to the subject, though, Bojack Horseman reminds us how much we are the sum of not just our choices but the world we live in. There’s more to us than just what’s on the surface because, deep down, the past is always present.

Thanks to Daily Art Magazine which has a pretty comprehensive list of art from the series.

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