Monday, September 30, 2013

Is Balthus the "Crazy Cat Lady" of Modern Art?

When London’s Tate Gallery asked the French painter Balthus for some personal details to include in a 1968 retrospective exhibition, Balthus replied via telegram: “No biographical details. Begin: Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. Now let us look at the pictures. Regards. B.” But how do you look at an exhibition such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations and not ask who this man and artist was? Cats may slink around the paintings, but the real provocation in the show’s title comes from Balthus’ long-controversial portraits of young, pre-teen girls, who pose with a mixture of feline grace and tweenage awkwardness that results in, if not child pornography, at least erotic unease for the viewer. Often cats appear as the only on-canvas observers of these models—wide-eyed voyeurs that might serve as stand-ins for the artist himself, whose life-long fascination with cats remains the one personal detail he freely shared. Is Bathus modern art’s “crazy cat lady”—the eccentric whose harmless obsessions taken to the extreme reveal a darker, psychological truth? Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Is Balthus the 'Crazy Cat Lady' of Modern Art?"

Monday, September 23, 2013

Do We Show Our Real Selves While Sleeping?

“Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed/ The dear repose for limbs with travel tired,” William Shakespeare writes in his Sonnet 27. “But then begins a journey in my head/ To work my mind, when body’s work’s expir’d.” Shakespeare knew well that the mind took a journey when the body’s trek through the day ended, but he was wrong about the “body’s work[] expir[ing]” at bedtime. We spend a third of our lives asleep and we shift about for much of that time, as modern sleep study has proven. Researchers now regularly photograph their slumbering subjects, but photographer Ted Spagna pioneered the practice, even before he began partnering with scientists interested in using his images. In Sleep, Spagna’s photographs of himself, family, and friends reveal the hidden world of sleep to satisfy the scientifically curious, but also to enthrall those who recognize the narrative quality of the series of pictures taken throughout the night as well as the penetrating insights of portraits taken when we are at our most vulnerable and, perhaps, most ourselves. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Do We Show Our Real Selves While Sleeping?"

[Image: Ted Spagna. Wave of Sleep, 1980 (detail). Images courtesy of George Eastman House and © The Ted Spagna Project 2013.]
[Many thanks to Rizzoli USA for providing me with a review copy of Sleep, photographs by Ted Spagna, edited by Delia Bonfilio and Ron Eldridge, text by Allan Hobson, MD, foreword by Mary Ellen Mark. Many thanks also to George Eastman House and The Ted Spagna Project for providing me with the image above.]

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

How Picasso Found Truth in a Closed Room

One of the first words nixed by postgraduate education is “truth.” Amidst all the deconstructing and linguistic acrobatics, “truth” is just too troublesome and old fashioned. So, imagine my surprise to see the title of art historian T.J. Clark’s newest book, Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica. Originally delivered in 2009 as a series of six lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, Picasso and Truth shows how Clark rediscovered Pablo Picasso’s struggles with the concept of “truth” in his painting over the course of first half of the 20th century, starting with 1901’s The Blue Room (shown above) and ending with 1937’s Guernica. Using meticulous close reading of numerous paintings in between those two poles and philosophical assists from Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Clark weaves his way through Picasso’s process, nimbly leaps over the landmines of strict biographical interpretation, and arrives finally at a complex, challenging, but coherent concept of how Picasso found truth in a closed room and spent the rest of his life trying to find it again. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "How Picasso Found Truth in a Closed Room."

[Many thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy of Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica by T.J. Clark.]

Why Does the NSA Control Center Look Like the Bridge From Star Trek?

Growing up, I fell in love with Science Fiction watching reruns of Star Trek, the version now known to fans as “The Original Series.” The storylines and (then state of the art) special effects hooked me early on, but it was the interplay between William Shatner’s Captain James T. Kirk, Leonard Nimoy's Spock, and DeForest Kelley's Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy that kept me watching decades later. So many movies and so many spin-off series later, Gene Roddenberry’s brainchild continues to meld with the minds of those who watched it as youngsters. I thought of all that when I read journalist Glenn Greenwald (he of the Edward Snowden NSA revelations) reveal that National Security Agency chief General Keith B. Alexander hired a Hollywood set designer to make his NSA command center, dubbed the “Information Dominance Center,” look like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, complete with oversized view screen, computer stations, captain’s chair, and sliding doors with the signature Star Trek “whoosh” sound. Aside from the impracticality of the idea (and potential tax dollars wasted), what does it mean that the NSA control center looks like Jean-Luc Picard’s workplace (shown above)? Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Why Does the NSA Control Center Look Like the Bridge From Star Trek?"

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

How (and Why) to Remember 9/11

This year’s incoming class of college students were born in 1995, making them 6 years old when the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001. In a few years, first-year college students will have little to no memory of the “day when everything changed.” For those of us who witnessed those events as adults, the memories feel as close as yesterday: the confusion of initial news reports, the nationwide scramble for some semblance of safety, the seemingly endless television coverage, all capped off by then-President George W. Bush’s address to the nation that evening. On the 12th anniversary of 9/11, the questions of how to remember and why we remember still hold us. The Stories They Tell: Artifacts From the National September 11 Memorial Museum by Clifford Chanin and Alice M. Greenwald helps us consider possible answers to those lingering questions. As Greenwald writes, “The Memorial Museum is defined by four key commitments: preservation, commemoration, education, and inspiration.” Somewhere within those four “commitments” each of us can find our own form of commitment as to how (and why) to remember 9/11. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "How (and Why) to Remember 9/11."

Is This the First “Honest” Bible?

As Penn Jillette said right here on, “Reading the Bible (or the Koran, or the Torah) will make you an atheist.” Of course, just reading the Bible itself—all 66 canonical books (more in some versions)—is something few even attempt. Growing up Catholic, I went with the flow and took it mainly on faith, accepting the portions of revelation portioned out at mass or in school. For those who do take on the challenge of reading the Bible straight through, however, the result can be confusingly mystifying or, as Jillette argues, troublingly demystifying. Written by Mark Russell with illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Shannon Wheeler, God Is Disappointed in You cuts to the heart of the matter, and sometimes down to the funny bone, to translate the Bible into terms that allow a modern reader to understand the wild, weird, and wonderful “essence” of the Good Book. “It is not my intention to mock the Bible with this book,” Russell writes in his introduction, “nor to endorse it, but merely to present it on its own terms in a way that is accessible and which relays the same sense of fascination I had when I truly discovered the Bible.” Russell and Wheeler create—you decide. In a world full of religious dialogue, is it possible that two comics have finally come up with the first “honest” Bible? Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Is This the First “Honest” Bible?"

Do We Learn to Love Bad Art?

Does great art last because it is great or is it great because it lasts? Do works find a place in the canon by familiarity, like a ubiquitous tune you can’t shake, or do they play on through sheer merit? A recent study in the British Journal of Aesthetics by Meskin et al titled “Mere Exposure to Bad Art” examines the effect of “mere exposure” on how people perceive art. After showing students slides of “good” art (landscapes by 19th century British painter John Everett Millais) and “bad” art (works by the trademarked “Painter of Light” himself, Thomas Kinkade) at differing frequencies, the researchers suggest that looking at bad art more often makes us hate it even more (or so they hope). But is it still possible for us to learn to love bad art? Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Do We Learn to Love Bad Art?"

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Julia Margaret Cameron: Pioneer of Modern Glamour Photography?

“It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude,Julia Margaret Cameron’s daughter told her while presenting her with her birthday gift in 1863 while Mr. Cameron and sons were away. Forty-eight-year-old Julia took the clunky box camera in her hands and soon took to her new hobby with more energy than expertise (at least at first). Using her connections to famous friends, Julia Margaret Cameron became the all-seeing eye of Victorian celebrity, recording notable faces for posterity. But, as can be seen in the exhibition Julia Margaret Cameron, which runs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through January 5, 2014, Cameron’s camera created images strikingly similar to modern glamour photography—equal parts documentation and deception. Is Julia Margaret Cameron a pioneer of modern glamour photography? Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Julia Margaret Cameron: Pioneer of Modern Glamour Photography?"

[Image: Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815–1879). Christabel, 1866. Albumen silver print from glass negative. Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1941. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (41.21.26).]
[Many thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, for providing me with the image above and other press materials related to Julia Margaret Cameron, which runs through January 5, 2014.]