Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Speak To The Heart

How I came to understand that you have to speak to the heart...

In 1999 I was asked by a producer if I would take part in a History Channel series.  I had worked with him on an A&E Biography and he was really impressed with what I had done, so he thought of me for this series.

I asked him what the series was about.

Everything, he said.  The best, the most, the biggest, the tallest... throughout history.  The series title was The Most and it would cover the biggest disasters and the greatest battles throughout history.  Mike Rowe was to be the emcee host.

I said that maybe he needed a team of experts for this.  You know, I taught at a college and we had these divisions of knowledge...

He laughed and reassuringly said that he thought that I knew everything and that he liked how I said things.  He promised to mail me the scripts and the background info and all that.

That was in August.  Taping was to be in October or November.  I watched the mail every day.  My airline tickets arrived.  Still no packet of scripts.  I kept watching for them.  The night before my flight I received a HUGE -- you might call it ginormous package.  In it were sheaf after sheaf, page upon page of just about everything in history from Alexander the Great to the Second World War and from the Antipodes to the Azores.  I don't recall whether I slept.

On the airplane, I studied and read... How was I supposed to speak on all of this?  It was way too much!  I started thinking that my moments would be brief on air, sound bytes of only a sentence or two.  The narrator would have all of the details and facts.  So, then and there I decided that I would not relate facts, I would explain the heart.  My mantra became "speak to the heart."

For example, when I was asked about Sir Richard Burton and the quest for the Nile, I said, "There had to be some value higher than life itself -- a quest for glory or fame -- that would compel a man to risk certain death, something that made certain death worth doing."

It made it into the program and on the air.

I knew nothing about the explorer Richard Burton, and I still don't, but I got fan mail -- yes, fan mail and congratulations from two authors of books about exploring the Nile congratulating me for what I said.  I have some other stories like that from that series.

So, I learned to speak to the heart.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Art, authenticity and the need for travel...

The picture below is Rogier van der Weyden's painting of St. George and the dragon.  It is in The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and it is one of the smallest paintings there.

Seeing it in print in a book or on a web site might elicit an impression.  It is well painted and detailed, after all, but seeing it in real life hanging on the wall of the art museum is breath taking, and it is smaller than a post card.  As a matter of fact, it is because it is so small that it is so compelling and awe inspiring.  It is yet another proof for the argument of authenticity and works of art.  Proximity in real shared space and examination of the physical reality of the work and its sense of age (it is nearly 500 years old) causes a viewer to pause, examine and be dumbfounded.

The argument of authenticity gets into definition of the word "knowing".  Millions of people would claim to "know" countless works of art from seeing images in books and on television and via the Internet, but it is generally agreed that a person only really knows and understands a work of art when they have seen it in proximity and even more acutely if they have had physical proximity and / or contact with the work of art.  A painter working in oils may understand Leonardo's Mona Lisa, a visitor to the Louvre can claim to see the painting, but a curator, scholar or conservator who has been near the painting and touched it knows it even more fully.

Until I was out of high school our house lacked books.  There were libraries that I could go to and books were expensive.  We had a set of World Book encyclopedias from 1947 and my mother gathered Reader's Digest Condensed and abbreviated books because she had a subscription to the magazine.  The lion of Lucerne seemed to stand out in those World Book books, with only black and white photos, and few of those, it seemed like the lion was in every book.  I can understand why the sculpture would resonant with a post-war audience and editors.  My memories may exaggerate how many times the image appeared in those books.  But, see it as often as I did as a child I did not know it as I do now from having visited it.

Thus we have two works of art that I have a claim of "knowing" enhanced by actually traveling to places and being in close proximity to the works and seeing scale.  In the case of the lion, it exists in its original context, but in the case of van der Weyden's painting that piece of art is no longer in Europe and has a new context within the 20th Century construction of The National Gallery of Art.  The neo-classical setting, the walls of the gallery and the nearness of other comparative works of art give St. George and the dragon a new context, new but still authentic in being an authentic museum in the context of a capitol city.

Reims cathedral is not the only Gothic cathedral that I have visited, but like all cathedrals Reims has its own unique elements.  We could discuss the authenticity of visiting a cathedral as opposed to seeing one in a book or in a motion picture.  Scale, presence, atmosphere, the context of the city itself, all those things and more are aspects of authenticity.  I had first noticed Melchizedek and Abraham in my art history textbook in college.  I might have assumed that they were stone and approximately life size.

But... they are not life size.  The figures are approximately half of human scale and stand in carved niches above eye level.  That, along with the color of the stone and its color and texture within the cathedral all make for a sense of awareness and a profound feeling of having "met" the art.  My thoughts and feelings have been changed after 39 years, my awareness has been changed, by actually seeing the art.

On the outside, at the entrance portals, the sculptures of Reims are larger than life.  Created over centuries by more than one artist, I have taught about those sculptures for years, but being near them is different.  And even in proximity it is difficult to convey the effect of their size.  The marvel of them is that as big as they are they still seem intimate.  It takes a photograph to remind me that the comfortable and inviting herald angel is really a giant of stone.  One also becomes aware of a history of suffering -- the martyrs of Reims and the destruction of World War I, by being there physically and seeing damage and having a sense of awareness and resilience.

I had time at Reims to wander around and look... and on a transept portal I spotted these.  What is going on here?  Well, it takes little analysis to realize that the naked individuals are meant to be the resurrection of the dead on the day of The Last Judgment.  In context, with Christ in the tympanum, the image makes sense.

While traveling and touring, one's eyes can explore more than is captured by a photo on a page.  At Schloss Heidelberg my eye could roam over the facade and find details.

Exploring and examining only by books and via the Internet, I would be dependent on the photographer's eye and the scholar's words, just as you are while you read this.  But in the presence of the architecture and sculptures I can see and select.  Thus I noticed Herakles / Hercules.

He is easy to spot with his lion head and lion skin.  Herakles' Greek physique and the scallop shell above him are visual clues to dating this without the aid of literature or guide.  But would I find this if I wasn't there?  And does my sense of knowing it in the stark brightness under a vivid blue sky on a summer day high above Heidelberg after wandering the alt strasse of the old university make my sense of it different than it would be from a book?

It isn't only artworks that demand authenticity, it is their subjects as well.  Who has studied Sturm und Drang and Romantic landscapes and not seen turbulent waterfalls, floods in the Alps, and sensed the terror and power of the torrent and the Deluge?

Standing near the Rhine Falls, in the noise and spray, one is impressed and awed.  I can see why painters would try to convey its force and terror and calamity as well as its wonder and beauty.  In that case the questions of art and authenticity take on new dimensions, ones about conveyance and expression and an illustration versus a physical experience.  In that case, as perhaps with all art, at least with mimetic and figurative works, one confronts and examines "vision".

This can only be done by travel.  To leave the environment of home or classroom and venture to other places is the only way to really "know" art and scenic wonders.

Friday, March 21, 2014

We Should Be Deliriously Happy All The Time

They got it perfectly in the 1951 Scrooge.  Alastair Sim delivers it.  We should all be deliriously happy all the time.  Why?  Jesus came, paid it all, sets us free, and gives it to us freely.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A great day at the Atlanta Zoo

We ate at the Panda cafe.

The flamingos smelled bad.

The black rhino even cooperated.

The best show was the lion family.

The male got aggravated and jumped at the female.  He leapt over her and then they had "a domestic moment".

The silver back gorillas were being familial.  One male appeared to be in a snit.

The two tigers paced around and seemed to be posing.

The elephants seemed to be enjoying an audience.

One panda was munching, but another seemed to have crashed from a hard night out.

They did not have many people on display, even though they had habitat areas marked Men and Women.  Exit through the gift shop...

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Goodness: ethos and pathos and art

Two topics that have affected artists since the Greeks have been ethos and pathos.

In the great age of Greek philosophy and theater, 600 BC to approximately 300 BC or later, Greek thinkers suggested that pathos, the feeling and transmission of emotion, was integral to human existence and health.  Evidence of this emerges in sculpture near the end of the Archaic period, by 550 BC.  It can be seen in works such as The Dying Warrior from the pediment of the temple of Aphaia at Aegina.

It would not be enough to merely recognize the mimetic or naturalistic qualities of a human figure, we must stop and contemplate the subject's feelings and thoughts.  In such a way, we may be examining our own thoughts and feelings, a process Aristotle called catharsis.

This introduced an ethic for artists.  Is an artist obligated to capture a viewer's attention and excite emotions?

One ethic all artists recognize is craftsmanship.  There should be an integrity to the use of materials and the stylistic approach to creation.

Breugel felt an ethic to preach to his Protestant contemporaries.  Thus he placed the New Testament Bible story of The Massacre of the Innocents into his own village and his own contemporaneous times, thus forcing his viewers to experience empathy and sympathy.

Salvador Dali had attacked the projection of meaning into tropes in Surrealist art, but after a meeting with Sigmund Freud in New York during 1938, Dali painted The Temptation of St. Anthony in which he used his Surrealist painting style to affirm symbolic meaning and reference the religious topics of sin, guilt and temptation.  This resulted in Dali being kicked out of the Surrealist Congress, yet he continued to paint such religious paintings as St. John the Divine and The Dark Night of the Soul and The Last Supper.

Photojournalism probably began in the Crimean War while photographic technology was still in its infancy.  Many photographers tried to communicate pathos by the time LIFE magazine debuted in 1936 and cemented the picture story as a narrative device for news.  Dorothea Lange was a photographer for the U.S. government when she documented the plight of migrant farm workers during The Dust Bowl following The Great Depression.  How do you tell "the heart" of a story in a compelling way when people's hearts have already been wrung dry for a decade?  She did it by finding a Madonna in the dust.

Franco's fascists were impatient to win the Spanish Civil War in 1936, so they escalated the attacks by bombing a historic mountain town symbolic of The Old Republic, Guernica.  Lacking a war machine of their own, the fascists appealed to Mussolini who appealed to his allies the Nazis.  Nazi Stuka dive bombers tested their firepower during the night on the defenseless Guernica.  Pablo Picasso, a Spaniard expatriated as a Cubist in Paris, used the mythic icons of Cubism to convey the horror, heart and history of the event as a monument, a memorial, something art has been used for throughout human history.  In that way primitive means speak to primal emotions.


Plotinus codified Greek philosophy and gave us the basic foundations for a definition of beauty.  What Plotinus said is that we most often acknowledge beauty as a whole.  The harmonious arrangement of agreeable parts, which led to words such as symmetry and composition being definitive words.  Centuries before Plotinus, the Greeks had already defined some rules of proportions as seen in the works of Phidias, and the architecture of Ictinus and Callicrates, using The Golden Section and the math found in nature.  The Parthenon is a prime example of classical beauty.

Other cultures before and since have found beauty in the arrangements of parts and patterns.  Math has been the basis of great beauty as seen in Islamic art and architecture.

Precision as well as choices of shapes and colors and invention then become characteristics of art and beauty, as well as religious devotion, as seen in the cross carpet page of The Lindisfarne Gospels.

Science, observation, precision, and theory were important to the Impressionists of the 19th Century, such as Claude Monet.  He studied the color temperature of light at different times of day as well as color theory for the pleasing arrangement of color.  Thus "composition" became as important to art as it is to music and literature.

Such pleasing and scientific use of color can be elevating to the mind and spirit.  Vincent van Gogh seemed to be communicating his knowledge of color theory just as much as an elevating love of beauty.

Just because a work of art has correct theory does not make it pleasing.  Gyorgy Legeti's polyphonic musical compositions are theoretically correct, what could be called analytical music, but their lack of melody makes them seem like sounds that are not pleasing in the way that melodic or synthetic music would be.  The same can happen visually.  Analytical Cubism may be correct in theory but is practically unreadable to a viewer, especially as it defies mimetic expectations or a sense of "realism".

Thus an Analytical Cubist portrait is unrecognizable, but if a Picasso makes sense as a picture then it is a piece of Synthetic Cubism.

Personally, I find some "analytical" pieces so pleasing and readable that they may as well qualify as "synthetic", like melodic muse, such as the works of Juan Gris.

Kant, writing about classical philosophy and philosophical theory, brought the words transcendence and sublime into our vocabulary.  Some works of art transcend the ordinariness of existence and elevate us to levels of spirituality and thought that can only be described as sublime.

Many Modernists have sought to elevate people's lives and thoughts.  It was a goal of many abstract painters, such as Piet Mondrian, and architects such as The Bauhaus.

Another choice in artistic creation and aesthetic has been to combine art and architecture with nature and to emulate naturalistic forms.  That style is called Organic and can be seen in works by LeCorbusier, Gaudi, Eero Saarinen, Frank Lloyd Wright, and others.

In recognizing humanity as part of the natural world such art and architecture may also be freeing and elevating.