Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Images from the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts (ENSBA)

Ran across this photo on the webpage of the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts and thought it was cool. No other reason for the post, except that I'm long overdue on writing up something informative and witty. (the pressure!) This photo, obviously, is from when the sculptor was at work on the Statue of Liberty in Paris.

This image is cool, too; it's the frontispiece from a book of plates, c. 1770, by one G. Volpato and representing the loggia of Raphael in the Vatican. Notice (how could you not?) the dramatic use of one-point perspective.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Vice Presidency to Nowhere

I have labelled this blog "Journeys in Visual Culture," and my only departures from that theme so far have been book reviews. It was never intended to be a political blog; not Hilary, Barack, or John McCain could tempt me to make an exception. But I can stay out of the fray no longer: McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate is the worst thing to happen in American politics since George W. Bush stole the presidential election in 2000 (though the fact that he really DID win in 2004 is almost as frightening).

McCain's selection is a huge slap in the face to the American people that even the most cynical among us could never have anticipated. He offers us a candidate not only with no experience in national politics, but one whose limited experience in state and local politics have been characterized by large doses of both incompetence and corruption. She is the female George W. Bush, all the way down to her arrogant ignorance and her involvement in Big Oil. Her new campaign has as its two main features deception and nastiness.

I am grossly offended by the tone of her speech at the Republican National Convention. The sneer in her voice was visible even over the radio (my news medium of choice). The edginess of her voice as she mocked Barack Obama for being a community organizer was more suitable for a mud wrestling match than a contest to lead this great nation. Her jeering at the opposition was welcomed by the equally jeering mob who demonstrate the principle of "mob mentality." To sum it all up: YUCK.

[and by the way - does it come as a surprise to anyone that a Replican doesn't know what a community organizer is?]

In another speech, of which I caught only a brief snippet on the radio on Friday afternoon (I don't know whom she was addressing), she railed against Obama's tax plan as hurting the middle class and small businesses -- both blatant lies. But will her adoring Republican fans bother to find out the truth?

I strongly feel that this sort of behavior does not belong in public discourse. I would give anything for some civility right about now. Even George W. Bush didn't behave this way in his campaigns. Her candidacy is appalling and galling. (Is that redundant?) I just hope this national nightmare will go away come November, and Sarah Palin's candidacy will vanish into the realm of Trivial Pursuit questions (there will be a lot of them). God help this country if it doesn't.

According to one of my colleagues, John McCain responded to the charge that Palin has no foreign policy experience by saying something to the effect that "of course she does - Alaska is very close to Russia." This colleague said that either A) McCain really believes this, in which case he's stupid; or B) McCain thinks Americans are dumb enough to believe him. (And this colleague says we should point that out to our students, though of course we would never point that out to our students, because we never talk about politics in the classroom...)

Time magazine reports that McCain's first two choices for vice president - Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge - were "vetoed" by "the Republican party elders," who wanted him to choose Mitt Romney. (Lieberman and Ridge are both pro-choice.) As a result, McCain went with a little-known candidate who had evidently not been properly vetted. What I want to know is, how can McCain continue to be perceived as a maverick when he can't even select the vice presidential candidate he wants? (See "How McCain Makes Obama Conservative" by Joe Klein, Sept. 4.)

McCain's selection of Palin is the only thing that has made me wish Obama had chosen Hilary as his running mate, because I'd give anything to see Hilary debating Sarah Palin.

I often think that Republicans are the most guilty of the kind of political nastiness we are now seeing in Sarah Palin; the kind of nastiness one hears on right-wing talk shows. They blame "the press" (whoever that is) of being liberal, but only because these so-called "liberal" venues don't engage in the vile rhetoric of hateful, propagandistic name-calling. I keep in mind, however, that many Republicans see Democrats as being the ones at fault for the partisanship in American politics, and although I think they're wrong, I recognize that everyone, including myself, has a bias. (I think liberals, at least, are more honest about their own biases...)

The current state of division in American politics is addressed in a new book, which I have not read, but heard about it yesterday on a radio program called "Weekend America." The book is called The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, by Bill Bishop. (It seems that if you want your book to be a best-seller, you have to have the word "WHY" somewhere in the title.) Jim Gates, the reporter in the story "RNC Undercover," is a Democrat, and he attended the Republican convention with his friend Hugh, who's a Republican. Here's an excerpt:

Hugh and I have moved to cities that reflect our lifestyles. And that's typical of what's been going on in America. In the 30 years that Hugh and I have known each other, Americans have become more mobile and Republicans and Democrats have been moving further and further apart. Literally. Democrats have moved to densely packed cities and Republicans have moved to spacious suburban enclaves. Author Bill Bishop calls this mass movement "The Big Sort." It's also the name of his new book.

"By seeking out those places comfortable to them culturally," Bishop explains, "the decision is to avoid those places that are uncomfortable. They really are avoiding different points of view." And as Americans spend less time talking to people with different points of view, it's no surprise that the people they elect are more partisan than ever.

"There are incredible differences from place to place," says Bishop, "But what's missing then is any ability of highly different areas to ever get together and make any kind of policy nationally. So we have great consensus locally but no consensus nationally."

Bishop is probably right. One thing I like about Obama is his sentiment that there are not "two Americas, there's one America." And one of the few things I always liked about McCain was his bipartisanship - until, of course, he won his party's nomination, and now he has chosen a VP candidate who will only deepen the divide.

I was at the bookstore today and noticed a truly bizarre-sounding book on the "politics" new releases table. It's called Makers and Takers, and has this unusually long subtitle: "Why Conservatives Work Harder, Feel Happier, Have Closer Families, Take Fewer Drugs, Give More Generously, Value Honesty More, Are Less Materialistic and Envious, Whine Less...and Even Hug Their Children More Than Liberals." (With a subtitle like that, who needs to read the book?) Funny, it doesn't describe many of the conservatives or liberals I know...and as a liberal, I can assure you I don't know anyone who hugs their child more than I do.

The one political book that I bought today, and have started reading, is The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, by Thomas Frank, author of What's the Matter with Kansas? (which I still haven't read). Stay tuned to this blog for a post on it soon.

Also in the media:
On Thursday, Sept. 4, Amy Goodman (on Democracy Now!) interviewed Shannyn Moore, an Anchorage-based radio talk show host who has closely followed Palin's career and has interviewed Palin numerous times. See "Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin Accepts GOP Nomination."

Gloria Steinem's Op-Ed essay in the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 4, "Palin: wrong woman, wrong message." (Thanks to my aunt for sending me this link.)

Terry Gross' interview about Sarah Palin with journalists Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten, authors of the 2006 One Party Country, Sept. 3. See "'One Party Country' Dissects Why Republicans Win." (Thanks also to my aunt.)

Sarah Palin believes that an Alaskan oil pipeline is "God's will;" she urges folks at her church to pray for the pipeline because "God's will has to be done." Also the Iraq War - that's right, "God's plan." See the Sarah Palin Church Videos on YouTube. (Thanks also to my aunt!)

(Speaking of Sarah Palin's church, I want to know how all these so-called Christians can support the Iraq War? Don't they worship "the prince of peace"? How can these supposedly "pro-life" people have no qualms at all about all the innocent Iraqi lives being destroyed?)

Finally, one of my "Facebook friends" posted a link to this article entitled "An Open Letter to Governor Palin on Women's Rights" from the blog "Alternet." I urge you to read this letter, because it points out that the same reproductive freedom that pro-choice advocates defend is not just access to abortions, but also a woman's right TO give birth - when, where, and how she chooses. As a mother myself who elected to have a home birth (in one of the last states in the Union where midwifery is still illegal!), I do have something in common with the lady.

Friday, September 5, 2008

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (film review)

Readers of this blog know I'm a huge fan of Scarlett Johansson, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona delivers not only Scarlett but also the stunning sexiness of Spanish actors Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. I found the film to be satisfying all around, despite the abrupt ending that some viewers left the theater grumbling about; after all, how can that many gorgeous, young, wealthy characters in a smart Woody Allen screenplay fail to excite and amuse? This is my favorite Woody Allen film in years (despite the presence of one of my least favorite actresses, Patricia Clarkson).

Rather than discussing the obvious aspects of the film, though - a realm thoroughly covered by all the other reviews - I wanted to say something about a theme of the film that has been of special interest to me this semester as I am teaching a film studies & art history class called "Artists' Lives on Film." Vicky Cristina Barcelona has at its Spanish center (as opposed to its American center, represented by the Vicky and Cristina characters) a pair of painters. Juan Antonio and Maria Elena (played by Bardem and Cruz) are a divorced couple embroiled in the, dare I say, stereotypical Latin romance, in which heated passion takes the form of violent fighting more often than of reckless sexual abandon. They are also artists.

Many of the films I have taught in my class treat famous artist couples: Surviving Picasso, about Pablo Picasso and his lover Francoise Gilot; Frida, about Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera; Pollock, about Jackson Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner; and Camille Claudel, about the French sculptress Claudel and her lover, Auguste Rodin. All of these biopics (fictionalized biographies) take as their subject matter actual, historical artists, and therefore have to maintain at least some slight level of historical veracity. Vicky Cristina Barcelona, with its fictional artiststs, is entirely free to invent those characters from scratch. Woody Allen nonetheless adopts and reifies many of the stereotypes that are associated with artists in the popular imagination, but he subtly undermines some of them, especially the negative stereotypes about male artists. (Not surprising given that he is one.)

In all of the above-mentioned biopics, the artistic couple follows a familiar pattern of the male as domineering womanizer, and the female partner as either driven mad or driven away by his cruelty. Those men - Picasso, Rivera, Pollock, and Rodin - are megalomaniacs whose success (based on their artistic genius) overshadows the careers of their partners. The women, meanwhile, struggle for recognition in a male-dominated world. As women they are victimized both by their male partners and by their societies which see women as less creative and less "important" artistically. The men are egotistical, destructive and/or self destructive; the partnerships are destroyed by the partners' competition and their unequal power in their relationships. At the same time, the women are expected to subordinate themselves and to support their men's careers.

This is not to say that those films misrepresent the nature of those relationships, but rather that filmmakers (Hollywood and otherwise) are drawn to that subject matter as the kind of story that audiences want to see, in part because of the implicit moralizing that underlies those narratives.

Three common artist mythologies prevail in these films. Two of these myths are gender-neutral: the artist as crazy (Camille Claudel is eventually committed to an insane asylum), and the artist as self-destructive - a slight variation on the "crazy" theme. Attempts to commit suicide, or at least very high-risk behaviors, characterize artists like Jackson Pollock, who dies as a result of drunk driving (he's a major alcoholic). The third common artist mythology applies specifically to female artists: the woman as victim, driven to desparation by her faithless and cruel husband. Picasso, Rivera, Pollock, and Rodin all are womanizers who subject their partners to emotional cruelty. Frida Kahlo is portrayed as the most victim-like female artist in that her very paintings are read (by art historians as well as filmmakers) as testaments to her pain and victimization.

Woody Allen's male artist, Juan Antonio, is a womanizer, but he's not cruel. He's represented as a generous lover to all the women he sleeps with, guilty only of a libertine lifestyle that flies in the face of bourgeois notions of monogamy, but noble for his honesty and for the great respect he shows to these women (none of whom are bourgeois enough to demand monogamy from him, with the exception of his wife). Woody Allen, whose own relationship history has been the subject of scandal, wants us to believe that a man who sleeps with as many women as he likes (up to 15 years his junior in this film) can be blameless; Juan Antonio is a very sympathetic character.

Surely this is, to some extent, Allen's fantasy (and that of many middle-aged males) projected on the big screen. But what is the alternative? Is the stereotypical artist biopic, in which the men are cruel womanizers, any more desireable as a message? Allen avoids moralizing, which is part of what's so refreshing about his films.

And it's not only a male fantasy we see projected here; the film offers women the fantasy of being swept off their feet by a gorgeous stranger in an exotic land. One of the best scenes in the film is Juan Antonio's first encounter with Vicky and Cristina, in which the two women debate whether to accept his invitation to spend the weekend with him. While Vicky (the voice of reason) has all the dialogue, Cristina (the risk-taker) has all the body language. The conflict between their responses to Juan Antonio could almost be the inner dialogue of any woman in such a situation, trying to decide between safety and adventure.

Penelope Cruz's Maria Elena falls more squarely into both the artist-as-crazy and the artist-as-destructive stereotypes. She enters the film after a failed suicide attempt, and her last scene is one in which she brandishes a gun, trying either to kill herself or Juan Antonio, or both (it's unclear). One of the best essays on artist mythologies in film is Griselda Pollock's “Artists Mythologies and Media Genius, Madness and Art History,” in Screen, vol. 21, no. 3 (1980), pp. 57-96. In discussing this essay in class yesterday, I learned that many of my students do strongly believe that artists ("great" ones, anyway), genuinely are mad, despite Pollock's arguments to the contrary. (For the record let me say that I do not share this opinion.)

Some of my students believe that commitment to one's work (which some call obsession) exhibited by some artists is a sure sign of insanity. I, on the other hand, believe that passionate commitment to one's work (which might also be described as being a workaholic) is the one characteristic shared by all highly successful people in ANY profession. Even the great comedian George Carlin, whose public persona was the slacker and anti-establishment rebel, was a genuine workaholic; noone could rise to his level of accomplishment without such dedication to his art.

Getting back to Vicky Cristina Barcelona, we do see these two artists, Juan Antonio and Maria Elena, at work. Both create abstract painting in the manner of Jackson Pollock. We see Juan Antonio slathering paint on his canvas with enormous brushes and fluid brushstrokes. We see Maria Elena (dressed in a teddy) dripping and drizzling paint onto a canvas that lies flat on the floor (Pollock's famous method). When Juan Antonio performs the same type of art-making ritual outside in his garden it appears to be a deliberate quotation of the famous Hans Namuth documentary of Jackson Pollock at work. Woody Allen has his painters work in this manner, I think, because it is a shorthand for the modern artist. The paintings themselves are unremarkable, but what is remarkable is the fact that the two painters produce stylistically similar works rather than having individualized artistic styles. (I also like the poster for a Paris exhibition of Juan Antonio's work that is discreetly displayed in the artist's kitchen, which serves to confirm his identity as a significant painter.)

It is Juan Antonio and Maria Elena's artistic productivity and creativity that Cristina envies. Together the two encourage and inspire Cristina to develop her own creativity as a photographer, so that in the film she becomes the third artist represented on screen. At the heart of their creativity, for all three artists, is sexuality, and herein lies yet another favorite theme for films about artists. In their menage a trois, uninhibited sexuality provides the creative energy for both work and inspiration.

The close connection between art and sex is the theme of another of my favorite essays on artist biopics: Susan Felleman's “Dirty Pictures, Mud Lust, and Abject Desire: Myths of Origin and the Cinematic Object,” Film Quarterly 55/1 (2001): 27-40. Felleman discusses both Camille Claudel and Artemesia as prime examples in which the sexual relationship between artist couples is the prerequisite for artistic greatness. Woody Allen gives further credence to this notion in his latest film. Art equals sex, and artists are incredibly sexy, despite any emotional imbalances they might suffer from.