American Graffiti.

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

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.

Go Big.

Is it possible to convey just how big a really large work of art is or do you have to stand in front of it to really understand its size? One example that comes to my mind is Gericault’s Raft Of The Medusa, a painting I’d seen reproduced dozens of times, always on a small scale. I knew from what I’d read that it was a massive painting, but somehow I couldn’t wrap my head around just how big sixteen feet by twenty-three and a half feet really is until I was standing in front of it, and had to walk back and forth and crane my head way back just to take it all in. It’s not surprising that it took Gericault nine months to paint it–from November 1818 to July 1819. In fact it’s surprising he did it that quickly even though he didn’t leave his studio or work on anything else that entire time.

The only way I can think of to explain the difference between seeing a reproduction and seeing the real thing is with another completely different comparison. My whole life I’ve heard “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” and when people told me about going from Tennessee to a more arid climate they’d always say, “It’s true! The humidity really does make a difference!” And I believed them. I just couldn’t understand how much of a difference it made until I went to Palm Springs, California, in June, where the temperature went up to about 105 degrees Fahrenheit–that’s 40 degrees Celsius but with zero humidity it felt like 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Or at least it didn’t feel that hot. Here in Nashville when it gets that warm going outside is like swimming. Even if you don’t do the breaststroke down the sidewalk you’re still gonna get soaked. In Palm Springs it felt pleasant, even cool, until you dropped from dehydration.

What I’m getting at is that I don’t know if I can convey just how big this graffiti is, and its size is even more impressive considering that most graffiti by its very nature has to be done in a hurry. Maybe this will give a better idea of the scale.

I didn’t plan to wear a shirt that matched the paint. That was just a lucky coincidence.

Granted I’m not that tall–I stand just 5’6″, or about 1.68 meters if you want to get metric about it. I’m short enough that I look up to most people, but still that should give you some idea of how big this work is even if you’re not the one standing in front of it.


Believe In Art.

So the Pope looks up and says, “Uh, Michelangelo, when I asked you to paint the ceiling I meant beige.”

Religion and art have been so deeply entwined throughout history that it’s hard to separate the two. Even religious traditions with a strict prohibition against the worship of idols have incorporated works of art into regular practice–the use of icons in Christian Orthodoxy, for instance.

I’m not a particularly religious person myself but there is a lot of great art inspired by and celebrating religion. And for some the two may not be so separate; there are plenty of artists for whom art is their religion, and arguably all art expresses a belief in something, even if that belief is just that they can make a quick buck off of it. The confluence of art and religion, needless to say, is a really big subject, one that can fill several books, and in fact has. And I just realized while writing this that the proliferation of -isms in early 20th century art was comparable to a set of religious schisms even though Cubists and Orphists didn’t go out and kill each other, but that’s another story.

I also think of being an artist as a calling–not that different from preaching a particular faith. The artist and the priest may have different ways of getting their message out but they both have a message. At its best religious art celebrates whatever belief gets the artist out of bed in the morning and can inspire even those of us who don’t share the artist’s faith. You don’t need religion to be a good person, and, as recent revelations about the Catholic Church remind us, religious people aren’t necessarily good, although I do believe that all well-done art–religious or secular–makes us better people. As Joseph Brodsky said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “On the whole, every new aesthetic reality makes man’s ethical reality more precise. For aesthetics is the mother of ethics.”

Now if you’re wondering why I’m talking about religious art it’s because I assume the graffiti above is religious in nature, representing Buddhism’s red lotus of love and compassion. According to legend wherever the Buddha stepped a lotus blossomed. And there’s something very powerful about an artist who’s trespassing and making their art illicitly asking for love and compassion.

At least that’s what I believe. Maybe there isn’t any religious intent here, but consider the work in context.


Building Up.

When I saw this graffiti decorating the wall along a stairwell I thought, wow, sometimes art and architecture really go hand-in-hand. And then I thought that was a pretty stupid thought because architecture is an art form–even the dullest, plainest building is thoughtfully designed. Any aesthetic enhancement is just icing on the cake. And what is cake without icing? Well, it’s still cake, but really wouldn’t you rather have cake with icing? Or you can have icing without cake, if that’s your thing, although I find that eating just icing gets old really fast. And don’t get me started on the question of whether it’s icing or frosting and what the difference is between the two. Whatever you put on your cake it’s usually served at room temperature so associating it with either ice or frost is kind of ridiculous, but that’s another story.

Anyway considering the confluence of art and architecture reminded me of the saying, “Writing about painting is like dancing about architecture.” There are a lot of variations on that saying which can be traced back at least as far as 1918, although more recently Elvis Costello said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture—it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.” With all due respect to Mr. Costello I’d really like to see some dancing about architecture.

Sometimes, though, I think it’s best to just step back and let a work of art speak for itself. A picture may be worth a thousand words but a thousand words don’t necessarily add up to a picture. That’s frustrating to me as a critic, even an amateur one, but sometimes all I can really do is just say, hey, that’s pretty amazing, ain’t it?

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