Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Jokes, Memes and the Election

As the father of 23- and 19-year-old sons, I had an up-close look at the importance of jokes in this election. In The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum has a good piece on this phenomenon:
Since November 9th, we’ve heard a lot of talk about unreality, and how what’s normal bends when you’re in a state of incipient autocracy. There’s been a lot written about gaslighting (lies that make you feel crazy) and the rise of fake news (hoaxes that displace facts), and much analysis of Trump as a reality star (an authentic phony). But what killed me last year were the jokes, because I love jokes—dirty jokes, bad jokes, rude jokes, jokes that cut through bullshit and explode pomposity. Growing up a Jewish kid in the nineteen-seventies, in a house full of Holocaust books, giggling at Mel Brooks’s “The Producers,” I had the impression that jokes, like Woody Guthrie’s guitar, were a machine that killed fascists. Comedy might be cruel or stupid, yet, in aggregate, it was the rebel’s stance. Nazis were humorless. The fact that it was mostly men who got to tell the jokes didn’t bother me. Jokes were a superior way to tell the truth—that meant freedom for everyone.

But by 2016 the wheel had spun hard the other way: now it was the neo-fascist strongman who held the microphone and an army of anonymous dirty-joke dispensers who helped put him in office. Online, jokes were powerful accelerants for lies—a tweet was the size of a one-liner, a “dank meme” carried farther than any op-ed, and the distinction between a Nazi and someone pretending to be a Nazi for “lulz” had become a blur. Ads looked like news and so did propaganda and so did actual comedy, on both the right and the left—and every combination of the four was labelled “satire.” In a perverse twist, Trump may even have run for President as payback for a comedy routine: Obama’s lacerating takedown of him at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. By the campaign’s final days, the race felt driven less by policy disputes than by an ugly war of disinformation, one played for laughs. How do you fight an enemy who’s just kidding?
If the defining feature of the current moment is confusion about what is real, edged humor has played a big part in creating this confusion. Trump has again and again introduced serious ideas into the discourse by pretending they are jokes: asking the Russians to find Hillary's missing emails, for example. Trump's supporters made everything into a joke, including the things they believed most strongly. As Nussbaum explains, humor was especially prominent in the struggle over "political correctness," expressing the bitterness of people who hate being told what they can't say. She spends some time on South Park's crude fictionalization of the election, which gave us gangs of angry feminists battling men's rights activists while "Mr. Garrison" tells jokes about Muslims, blacks, women, and anyone else. South Park did not capture everything about the election, she writes, but it did get
how dangerous it could be for voters to feel shamed and censored – and how quickly a liberating joke could corkscrew into a weapon.

Adam de Coster

This wonderful painting was recently sold by Sotheby's for $4,850,000, even though the artist is something of a theoretical construct. It is titled A Young Woman Holding a Distaff before a Candle, but that is an invention of the auctioneers.

The painting is not dated or signed, and it has been assigned over its history to several different artists. These days it is attributed to Adam de Coster (1585-1643), a Flemish painter who never signed any of his works and whose name would have caused head scratching among the most dedicated connoisseurs of sixty years ago. Since that time his hand has been recognized in a handful of paintings that all feature firelit human figures against a dark background.

The modern story of Adam de Coster starts with this engraving by Lucas Vorsterman, Tric-trac Players by Night (1619-1628), which clearly identifies its source as a painting by Adam de Coster. So Adam de Coster was a real artist, and he did paint night scenes of human figures.

In fact de Coster was prominent enough that Anthony van Dyck painted his portrait; the painting is lost but this engraving based on it does survive. It identifies de Coster as a "Painter of Night." Records suggest that de Coster was a member of the circle of Flemish painters of which van Dyck become the most famous. The paintings of those men were valuable objects and have only become more so over time. To be a professional painter for any length of time in those days one had to produce hundreds of works. So where are de Coster's paintings?

Working from that engraving, an art historian named Benedict Nicholson began in the 1960s to reconstruct his oeuvre, arguing that several unsigned works of this period must be by de Coster. This is one of the works singled out by Nicholson, Card Players. This is of the right period, and it certainly looks like that engraving. It is actually one of a group of similar paintings on this theme, all of which may be by de Coster.

The Denial of St. Peter.  Notice that the woman on the left appears to be the same model as the A Young Woman Holding a Distaff, perhaps with the same turban.

An Old Man Holding a Glass and a Candle. Is that St. Peter again? The key influence on this style is Caravaggio (1571-1610). Caravaggio had a big impact on several Flemish painters of this period, and people speak of the "Utrecht Caravaggisti." But of these men de Coster seems to have been the most in the thrall of Caravaggio's dark shadows. So Nicholson suggested that perhaps de Coster had traveled in Italy and met Caravaggio or at least some of his followers. There is no documentary evidence of such a trip, but on the other hand we know that other Flemish painters studied in Italy, including van Dyck. So believe what you like.

The Third Denial of St. Peter. Notice the habit of putting a hand in front of the candle.

Until Young Woman Holding a Distaff came on the market in 1992, this was probably the most famous work attributed to de Coster: A Man Singing by Candlelight, now in the National Museum in Dublin.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, a disputed attribution.

Anyway this is a fascinating detective story, and only one of many: there are hundreds of unsigned paintings of this period, and a thousand disputes about their origin. I think the core paintings in the Adam de Coster group make sense as the work of one man, and de Coster seems a plausible candidate. But whoever painted it, A Young Woman Holding a Distaff is just a glorious painting, and I think it is wonderful that it has been brought out of obscurity and revealed to the people of the world.

Responding to the New Administration

So far I would say that Trump's term in office has gone pretty much as I expected; I mean, he has been feuding with the press for decades and said loud and clear that he would seek a way to ban Muslim immigrants. (Which incidentally is not an unpopular view; if you ask the question right you can get a majority of Americans to endorse such a ban.) Some observers look at what is happening and see four years of incompetent mayhem followed by a landslide loss at the polls and a collective sigh of relief. Others see an alarming trajectory toward either autocracy or national calamity. I thought this from Eliot Cohen came close to what I am thinking:
This is one of those clarifying moments in American history. There is nothing to fear in this fact; rather, patriots should embrace it. The story of the United States is, as Lincoln put it, a perpetual story of “a rebirth of freedom” and not just its inheritance from the founding generation.

Some Americans can fight abuses of power and disastrous policies directly—in courts, in congressional offices, in the press. But all can dedicate themselves to restoring the qualities upon which this republic, like all republics depends: on reverence for the truth; on a sober patriotism grounded in duty, moderation, respect for law, commitment to tradition, knowledge of our history, and open-mindedness. These are all the opposites of the qualities exhibited by this president and his advisers. Trump, in one spectacular week, has already shown himself one of the worst of our presidents, who has no regard for the truth (indeed a contempt for it), whose patriotism is a belligerent nationalism, whose prior public service lay in avoiding both the draft and taxes, who does not know the Constitution, does not read and therefore does not understand our history, and who, at his moment of greatest success, obsesses about approval ratings.

He will do much more damage before he departs the scene, to become a subject of horrified wonder in our grandchildren’s history books. To repair the damage he will have done Americans must give particular care to how they educate their children, not only in love of country but in fair-mindedness; not only in democratic processes but democratic values. Americans, in their own communities, can find common ground with those whom they have been accustomed to think of as political opponents. They can attempt to renew a political culture damaged by their decayed systems of civic education, and by the cynicism of their popular culture. . . .
Trump, says Cohen, will grab for power but not succeed:
In the end, however, he will fail. He will fail because however shrewd his tactics are, his strategy is terrible—The New York Times, the CIA, Mexican Americans, and all the others he has attacked are not going away. With every act he makes new enemies for himself and strengthens their commitment; he has his followers, but he gains no new friends. He will fail because he cannot corrupt the courts, and because even the most timid senator sooner or later will say “enough.” He will fail most of all because at the end of the day most Americans, including most of those who voted for him, are decent people who have no desire to live in an American version of Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, or Viktor Orban’s Hungary, or Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

There was nothing unanticipated in this first disturbing week of the Trump administration. It will not get better. Americans should therefore steel themselves, and hold their representatives to account. Those in a position to take a stand should do so, and those who are not should lay the groundwork for a better day. There is nothing great about the America that Trump thinks he is going to make; but in the end, it is the greatness of America that will stop him.
Trump is going to be Trump. We elected him, and we are stuck with him until either his term ends or he gets caught at such disturbing high crimes and misdemeanors that the whole Congress turns against him. What matters in the long run is how we choose to respond. If we stand up forcefully for freedom and fairness, and against bullying and lies, the Republic will endure and may even grow stronger. If we respond by spewing hatred against each other and latching onto any tactic that seems to help our side no matter how vile, we will only sink deeper in the swamps that spawned this regime in the first place, and recovery will take decades.

Chimpanzee Murder

Male chimpanzees routinely fight against the males of other troops, but only on rare occasions do they use deadly violence against a member of their own troop. It does happen, though, and it happened just recently in a troop in eastern Senegal. An aging male known to researchers as Foudouko, the former alpha male of the troop, was bitten and clubbed to death by a group of five younger males. When Foudouko had fallen from power a few years before, he and his second in command had been driven from the troop, but they had eventually been allowed back in at a lower status level.

When Foudouko was killed, his old number two was driven out of the troop by the same young males. Seems like a takeover by a new generation.

Which sets me wondering. How did they plan the attack? Did they have some goal in mind, like human thugs saying, "We're going to take out one of their guys to show we mean business"? Or were they just enraged?

Champanzees are so much like us, and so different.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Old Master Drawings from Sotheby's

On January 25 Sotheby's had a big auction in New York of Old Master Drawings. Since I love drawings, I offer some highlights. The stars of the show were two watercolor sketches of Swiss lakes by J.M.W. Turner, 1841-1844. This one sold for more than $750,000.

Giovanni Francesco Bezzi, called Il Nosadella, The Virgin and Child with Saints Thomas and Anthony Abbot, c. 1548. This was recently discovered by Sotheby's researchers in a private collection, identified because it is clearly a preliminary study for one of Nosadella's paintings.

Figure study by Niccolò Circignani, called Il Pomarancio c. 1582.

François Boucher, Study of a Man Holding a Hammer, c. 1747. This figure ended up, reversed, in a painting of Vulcan's Forge that is now in the Louvre.

Another Boucher, Two Infants beside a Basin of Water, 1759.

Two by David Roberts, The Artichoke Fountain, Madrid, 1832, and The Interior of Santi Giovanni e Paulo, Venice, 1851.

Detail. Amazing drawing; zoomable original here.

Thomas Gainsborough, Track through Sandy Hills, c, 1748

Thomas Lawrence, Venus after the Bath, c. 1789. Lawrence was 20 years old when he drew this.

William Blake, The Counseller, King, Warrior, Mother and Child in the Tomb, 1808. This was commissioned as an illustration for a poem.

Edward Lear, Cannes and the Esterel Mountains, France, 1865.

Vincenzo Gemito (1852-1929), The Artists Daughter or Granddaughter Sleeping. I suppose there must really be no dating information on this one, since presumably his daughter and granddaughters were this age a few decades apart.

Lelio Orsi, Apollo Driving the Chariot of the Sun, c. 1544. This went for $312,500.The sale catalog includes a little essay by their curators about the many new discoveries that are still being made in old libraries and collections:
In our instant-access age, when it is easy to think that pretty much all human knowledge is immediately available through a couple of judicious clicks, it is both exciting and refreshing that major artistic discoveries continue to be made with some regularity. . . .

In my specialist area, Old Master Drawings, discoveries are sometimes made simply because the work in question has somehow avoided passing before the right eyes: I think here of the incredibly rare and beautiful drawing by Lucas van Leyden, a colossus of early 16th-century Dutch art, which was brought to me a few years ago by a collector with a finely tuned eye, who had picked it up for next to nothing at a small London dealer. It turned out that over the previous couple of years, this spectacular, signed work had gone through the hands of two auctioneers and at least one other dealer, without ever being recognised.

One of the most important previously unknown drawings in the sale is Lelio Orsi’s splendid image of Apollo driving the Chariot of the Sun, drawn around 1544, for the most important commission the artist ever made, his lost fresco decoration on the clock tower of the Piazza del Duomo, in the city of Reggio Emilia. This very free and spontaneous study was entirely unknown until we were asked to look through an album of drawings from the library at Fettercairn House, in Scotland, a collection put together in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

American Soldier Killed in Yemen; Why?

Strange news from Yemen:
One American commando was killed and three others were wounded in a fierce firefight early Sunday with Qaeda militants in central Yemen, the military said on Sunday. It was the first counterterrorism operation authorized by President Trump since he took office, and the commando was the first United States service member to die in the yearslong shadow war against Al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate.

Members of the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 carried out the surprise dawn attack, and the military said that about 14 Qaeda fighters were killed during a nearly hourlong battle. A Qaeda leader — a brother-in-law of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric and top Qaeda leader in Yemen, who died in a drone strike in 2011 — was believed to have been killed. . . .

The military’s Joint Special Operations Command had been planning the mission for months, according to three senior American officials. Obama administration aides had deliberated extensively over the proposed operation, weighing the value of any information that might be recovered against the risk to the Special Operations forces plunging into hostile territory. But administration officials ultimately opted to hand the decision on the mission to their successors.
There is a civil war in Yemen, in which the U.S. has no particular stake. The two sides are the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, which we and most of the world recognized as legitimate, and the Houthi rebels who rose up against him, ousted him from the capital and seized much of the country. The Houthis practice a Shiite-related brand of Islam that the Saudis consider heretical, and they believe (or claim to believe) that the Houthis are Iranian proxies bent on weakening Sunni Islam through a sort of encirclement strategy. Most neutral observers say is nonsense, and that Yemen's war is over entirely Yemeni concerns.

But anyway Saudi Arabia has intervened in the war, and their repeated bombing raids have weakened the Houthi side and kept them from winning the war and establishing order, besides killing hundreds of civilians and generally wrecking the country. The Saudis get their bombs from the U.S., which may also be sharing satellite data with them for targeting purposes; this has drawn the ire of anti-war activists who think the U.S. has no business supporting the Saudis' useless, deadly bombing campaign.

The power vacuum in Yemen has allowed both al Qaeda and the Islamic State to establish footholds in the country, zones where their armed followers are the effective government. This raid reveals that the U.S. is actively fighting those radical factions. I suppose that is natural, since we are fighting them everywhere else, and we have long considered al Qaeda in Yemen one of our bitterest enemies. But the obvious solution to the problem they present is to help the strongest faction in Yemen (the Houthis) win the civil war, which we could probably achieve just by getting the Saudis to step back. So once again we are intervening to put out fires spread by our own habits of arson.

War begets more war. Terrorists thrive on violence and instability, and the best way to combat them is to help create stability. That means accepting de facto governments even when we don't like them very much. We must stop believing we can solve all political problems with more violence.

More Questions about Some People's Future

From a Times story about the new factory work:
When the German engineering company Siemens Energy opened a gas turbine production plant in Charlotte, N.C., some 10,000 people showed up at a job fair for 800 positions. But fewer than 15 percent of the applicants were able to pass a reading, writing and math screening test geared toward a ninth-grade education.

“In our factories, there’s a computer about every 20 or 30 feet,” said Eric Spiegel, who recently retired as president and chief executive of Siemens U.S.A. “People on the plant floor need to be much more skilled than they were in the past. There are no jobs for high school graduates at Siemens today.”

Ditto at John Deere dealerships, which repair million-dollar farming machinery filled with several dozen computers. Fixing tractors and grain harvesters now requires advanced math and comprehension skills and the ability to solve problems on the fly. “The toolbox is now a computer,” said Andy Winnett, who directs the company’s agricultural program at Walla Walla Community College in Washington.
Obviously not every factory job requires such skills, but more and more do. Things are going to get ever rougher for the 85% who can't pass that test.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Roman Portrait Head, 200 to 250 CE

Just sold by Sotheby's for £100,000. The broken bits were restored, and based on the technique used that probably happened in the 18th century.

I think we should go back to putting new noses on old statues. The Romans certainly would have.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Republican Health Care Anguish

The news from the Congressional Republican retreat was a lot of anguish about healthcare. Republicans have only themselves to blame for this. The real reasons they dislike Obama care are 1) it costs too much, 2) it involves too much bureaucracy, and 3) it doesn't make enough use of market forces in holding down costs. But for the past four years they have been going to town hall meetings where people complain about the cost of their insurance plans and the high deductibles, and they have been saying, "we Republicans have solutions for those problems."

But solutions to those problems are very hard, and those solutions mostly involve spending a lot more money.

The Times has a good example of the sort of thing Republicans keep saying that some worry will get them in trouble with voters:
“No one who has coverage because of Obamacare today will lose that coverage,” Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, said on Jan. 10.

A spokeswoman for Ms. McMorris Rodgers later tried to clarify what she had said. The congresswoman “didn’t deliver her remarks exactly as prepared,” the spokeswoman said. In the prepared remarks, Ms. McMorris Rodgers included an important qualification: “No one who has coverage because of Obamacare today will lose that coverage the day it’s repealed” — in the transition to a new market-oriented health care system.
Rodgers isn't the only one; Trump has also said things that seem to promise nobody will lose coverage, and so has John Cornyn, part of the Republican Senate leadership.

The bottom line is that in America we spend about $10,000 per household on healthcare, so without subsidies the cost of the average plan will be on the order of $850 a month. Many people find that outrageous, but that's just what health care costs. Those costs could be brought down but only by measures that many people would hate – death panels, rationing, hard limits on what doctors and hospitals will be paid for procedures, etc.

The generic Republican solution is "market-oriented health care." The basic point of this is that if people had to pay for their own care, they would try harder to spend less: shop around for the cheapest clinic, insist on generic medications, get second opinions before having surgery, etc. But experience shows that people are very bad at this, and furthermore this assumes that they have money to pay for these things in the first place. There are Republican schemes to help with this, but they are uniformly less generous than the Obamacare subsidies and they all require that average people pay more out of pocket. They also require putting lots of effort into getting the details of complex legislation right, and who in the White House is going to help with that?

I won't say that squaring this circle is impossible; after all most people get insurance from either the government (Medicare, Medicaid) or their employers, so the individual market is a minor part of the picture. But it will be very hard to keep the various promises Republicans have made in every direction and save any money at all. Smart Republicans know this, and they are worried.

Félix-Hilaire Buhot

Félix-Hilaire Buhot (1847-1898) was a French engraver and print-maker famous for his originality. He was born in a small town in Normandy but grew up loving art, spending hours pouring over the small collection of art books in his local library. When he turned 18 he went to Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts. (Above, Arrival in England)

Buhot lived the rest of his life in Paris, with regular trips back to his Norman home and occasional journeys farther afield. I was curious what he did during the 1871 Commune, but none of the meager biographical material I have found in English or French says a word about it. Above is a rendering of small-town Normandy, Small Cottages.

Buhot learned to make etchings and prints soon after his arrival in Paris, and by 1873 he had set up on his own as an illustrator and engraver. Many of Buhot's engravings were published in this format, with a carefully made central image surrounded by related sketches. (Bay of St. Malo, and details.)

Buhot was very successful, not just in France but throughout Europe and especially in America. His first solo show was actually staged by a New York print dealer in 1888. I suppose that explains why so many American museums and libraries have extensive collections of his work. (That Same Evening, which seems to have originated as a book illustration)


Gravesend, England.

Demolition of the Butte des Moulins for the Avenue de l'Opéra.

Large Thatched Cottages.

Buhot had a dark side and made many etchings of diabolical and arcane subjects. So I was not surprised to read that he suffered throughout his life from depression. This is Jacques Cazotte and his Succubus (Diable Amoreux). The stamp is one of Buhot's regular signatures; Buhot is Spanish for owl.

The Vision.

Castle of Owls.

I love Buhot's work; the best thing I found online in weeks, and a welcome break from most of what I have been reading.

Posted with no Anthropomorphic Comments

The latest panda mating news:
It’s an unusual search that has captivated animal lovers around Norfolk, Va., for days: Bloodhounds, infrared cameras and even drones have been used — all to try to find Sunny, a female red panda.

Sunny disappeared from her habitat at the Virginia Zoo sometime after 5 p.m. Monday but before Tuesday morning. Extensive searches by workers and volunteers inside the zoo and in surrounding neighborhoods had produced no credible sightings by late Friday.

Sunny, who measures 34 inches long — half of which is her tail — is 19 months old. That makes her a young adult capable of reproducing. It might have been her habitat mate, a red panda named Thomas, who caused her to leave, Greg Bockheim, the executive director of the zoo, said in an interview on Friday.

In preparation for the one day a year that red pandas mate, Thomas may have been pursuing her too closely, and she either left or lost her footing during his aggressive pursuit. Though red pandas are not diggers or jumpers, they are agile climbers. The open exhibit is surrounded by tall oak trees that she could have easily have reached.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Turnspit Dogs

Here's a very strange bit of history:
The Best Kitchen Gadget of the 1600s Was a Small, Short-Legged Dog

In the hot, smoky kitchens of 17th-century Europe, you’d find a lot of things you’d never see in kitchens today; a large open fire, an iron roasting spit, and a giant hamster wheel-like contraption holding a small, live, constantly running dog referred to as a turnspit dog.

For hundreds of years the now-extinct turnspit dog, also called Canis Vertigus (“dizzy dog”), vernepator cur, kitchen dog and turn-tyke, was specially bred just to turn a roasting mechanism for meat. And weirdly, this animal was a high-tech fixture for the professional and home cook from the 16th century until the mid-1800s.
The dogs replaced the servant boys who did this before the dogs were bred for the task, and they were eventually replaced by steam-driven and then electrical devices.

This is said to be a stuffed turnspit dog named Whiskey. Wikipedia has this from John George Wood in The Illustrated Natural History (Mammalia), 1853:
Just as the invention of the spinning jenny abolished the use of distaff and wheel, which were formerly the occupants of every well-ordained English cottage, so the invention of automaton roasting-jacks has destroyed the occupation of the Turnspit Dog, and by degrees has almost annihilated its very existence. Here and there a solitary Turnspit may be seen, just as a spinning-wheel or a distaff may be seen in a few isolated cottages; but both the Dog and the implement are exceptions to the general rule, and are only worthy of notice as being curious relics of a bygone time.