Posts filed under “Art”

HOW MUCH NAZI CAN WE TAKE?

Some time ago we devoted a few inches of text to the extraordinary early-modernist architect Titus de Bobula, whose buildings still regularly drop the jaws of architectural historians, and whose pioneering reinforced-concrete constructions had an influence far beyond what we might expect from their small number and budgets.

We also mentioned that he harbored ambitions of becoming Nazi dictator of Hungary.

Our friend Father Pitt is still occasionally poking at the life of the mysterious Titus de Bobula, and he has dug up quite a few more curious facts about the man. For example, a pictorial feature in an architectural magazine documents an astonishing mansion he designed in the Bronx—so far the only post-Pittsburgh construction by de Bobula that has come up in Father Pitt’s extensive research. We are sad to say that it has disappeared from its perch overlooking the junction of the Harlem and the Hudson, but the photographs that remain show a prodigious imagination at work.

Father Pitt has also dug up, in English translation, the exact text of the “treaty” between Adolf Hitler and de Bobula and his partner in Hungary. That document, in fact, was what caused de Bobula’s coup to fail: his courier was on his way to Munich to have it signed by Hitler when police stopped and searched him on the train. But if the plan had gone through, here is what would have happened. First, Hitler would take over Bavaria. Then swastika-wearing Bavarian troops would march into Hungary to help de Bobula and company overthrow the government there. Then they would round up all the Jews.

You can read all about Titus de Bobula’s ever-weirdening life in Father Pitt’s greatly expanded article about him. But the case of Titus de Bobula poses an important question in the starkest possible terms. How much can we separate art from the artist who made it? How much Nazi can we take?

On the one hand, Titus de Bobula the architect was an artist of unignorable talent. As Lu Donnelly says on the Society of Architectural Historians site, “De Bobula is the most original force to have emerged from the many immigrant groups who enriched Pittsburgh with their artistic heritages.” Pretty strong words to speak about the city of famous Slovak Andy Warhol, but she makes a strong case.

On the other hand, Titus de Bobula later became a full-blown Nazi who would have started the Holocaust ahead of schedule if he had had his way. (We may find it a little ironic that, in his earlier Pittsburgh years, he drew plans for the new Tree of Life synagogue as one of the entrants in an invitation-only competition. It would have been even more grimly ironic if he had won.) Nor did he have the excuse of being swept along by the tide of popular mania: Titus de Bobula was an early leader in the movement, or at least he fancied himself one.

Even without the sudden swing to fascism, he seems to have been an awful person generally: his wife’s uncle Charles Schwab called him “dishonest, incompetent, and a blackmailer.”

So do we repudiate the art because the artist was a Nazi?

Well, we could do that. But we run into the problem that most great artists are awful people. The best artists tend to have a streak of self-centeredness in them, coupled with an absolute confidence that they know what is good and correct, and a strong willingness to enforce their ideas given half a chance. Our job as citizens of a representative government is to make sure they do not get half a chance. But it would impoverish our museums if we decreed that the artists represented in them had to be of morally upright character.

Of course, this is not necessarily a binary proposition. We don’t have to accept all the rotten apples or none. We could decide that there are degrees of horribleness, and draw a fuzzy line somewhere in the middle. Unfaithful to his wife: pass. Attempted Holocaust: fail.

But it is at least a decision we should make knowing that we are making a decision. If we unthinkingly reject every artist who offends our moral sense, we are bound to run out of artists before we even notice the shortage. If we plan to reject any artists on any moral grounds at all, we ought to decide in advance what our standards are going to be.

Here Dr. Boli will admit to being an extremist himself. He believes in a complete separation between art and artist. This means that we do not even consider the moral character of the artist. If Adolf Hitler draws us a nice picture of a cow, we say, “That’s a nice picture of a cow. I hate Hitler’s guts, but this is a nice picture of a cow.” It also means, incidentally, that the artist has no control over the meaning of the art once it is launched into the world. The artist has a moral right to tell us that his art means this, but we have an equal right to say that it doesn’t, and that the artist has misunderstood his own work. To say otherwise is to say that critics have no right to exist, which would certainly please plenty of artists.

Dr. Boli will even try to find something nice to say about Nazis, just to demonstrate the principle of separating the work from the worker. How about this? Of all the extremist movements of the twentieth century, the Nazis had incomparably the best graphic design. Put your socialist-realist posters away, Soviet propagandists: you just can’t match the Nazis for style. There. That took some effort, but we found something nice to say about Nazis. We have probably exhausted the entire world’s supply of nice things one can say about Nazis, but we did it.

What Dr. Boli is saying is that the question of whether we can swallow the Nazi when we look at Titus de Bobula’s work should not come up, because the art is a separate thing from the artist as soon as the art is presented to the public. You don’t have to swallow the oyster to wear the pearl. Nor, if it comes to that, do you have to wear the pearl to eat the oyster. The pearl grows from a slimy mollusk, but it is not slimy. The First Hungarian Reformed Church of Pittsburgh comes from a Nazi con man, but it is not a Nazi.

THE FAMOUS STEEN GUARANTEE.

YMCA by James T. Steen

Here, from an 1883 magazine, is a design for a YMCA by the well-known Pittsburgh architect James T. Steen. His version of the Romanesque style allowed him to offer his famous guarantee: Your money back if a Japanese rubber-suited monster ever steps on this building.

YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU WERE LOOKING FOR IT, BUT…

What have we found on the World Wide Web today?

Do you remember fifty years ago, when the trade name “Muzak” stood for all that was soulless and intolerably commercial in music? Do you remember the experience of walking into every commercial establishment and finding yourself awash in violins? Do you remember the strangely jarring sensation of hearing a symphonic rendition of “Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones” followed by a sixty-piece orchestra playing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”?

Do you wish you could relive those days?

Well…

The S. S. Kresge chain, including its superstore offspring Kmart, had its own officially approved background music, which was shipped to Kresge stores on vinyl records (“Note: Only records bearing this label are to be used for background music over PA system”), and to Kmart stores on open-reel tapes. And you can hear hour after hour of it, because of course it still exists in the Internet Archive.

You can have all the fun you had fifty years ago dismissing Muzak as soulless, artless musical wallpaper.

And then you can fall down and weep over what we have lost.

What we have lost is profitable careers for thousands of musicians who made good money keeping up with the demand for symphonic renditions of every popular song of the twentieth century.

What we have lost is a direct connection to the era of big jazz bands, some of whose best arrangers ended up with comfortable careers creating arrangements for improbably huge orchestras—and having fun with it, knowing that no one was going to pay attention to the music, so they could do what they wanted. Ray Noble’s “Cherokee” as a march? Sure! Why not?

Above all, what we have lost is music itself. We have lost the idea that there is such a thing as pure music, music without words, because music is a thing in itself and not just a vehicle for bad lyrics.

You never know how valuable your minor annoyances are until you can’t have them anymore.

But you can have this one, because some enterprising Internet Archive user has gathered dozens of these S. S. Kresge recordings, along with training films and other paraphernalia, in a collection called, perhaps inevitably, “Attention K-Mart Shoppers.”

WORLD’S LARGEST.

In reference to the Andy Warhol Museum, our correspondent GP writes,

It’s not that big of a building. If we started a collection I bet we could buy ourselves a warehouse and make the NEW world’s largest museum dedicated to a single artist (probably Grant Wood, but I’m open to suggestions).

Dr. Boli has a suggestion. It is true that Marcel Duchamp is dead, but he shows us the way, and therefore the new world’s largest museum dedicated to a single artist should be dedicated to a living artist, but one who steals Duchamp’s shtick.

Duchamp’s “readymades” were objects found in the ordinary world, but given a title by Duchamp and exhibited as art. Obviously anybody literate enough to write a title, or articulate enough to dictate one to a secretary, can create this sort of art, though it would be helpful if our artist could have the kind of subtle and delicately ironical sense of humor Duchamp displayed when he exhibited a urinal with the title Fountain. (From Wikipedia: “Fountain was selected in 2004 as ‘the most influential artwork of the 20th century’ by 500 renowned artists and historians.” This explains the twentieth century.)

To do this again would obviously be stealing Duchamp’s shtick, but artists have been stealing each other’s shticks since the days of Phidias. There is an artistic incantation that makes everything all right: you simply say, “I am an artist of the school of Duchamp.

Now, see how easy this makes our project of building the world’s largest single-artist museum. All we have to do is buy some big warehouse at a sheriff’s sale with all the contents in place. Then we send our pet artist in to spend a week labeling everything with whatever titles strike the artist’s fancy. When the last plaque is in place, we open our museum to the public at $25 a head, and we have a unique tourist attraction that bumps the Andy Warhol Museum down to second—and with much less effort than it would take to gather a bunch of stuffy old paintings by Grant Wood.

JOHN CAGE AND ANDY WARHOL.

On the subject of John Cage and his 4′33″, our frequent correspondent John Salmon writes,

The apotheosis of modern art is Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can images.

Perfectly distilled cynicism: Art is Commerce, Commerce is Art. The idea of drawing a distinction between the two is now hopelessly passé. Warhol’s singularity of purpose is almost admirable. Almost.

Though I suppose we need to see who has the publishing rights to 4’ 33”, and whether Cage’s estate is rolling in dough as a result.

Dr. Boli agrees with Mr. Salmon’s assessment of Warhol. We should also remember that Andy Warhol had been a top commercial artist in the 1950s. Every trendy jazz combo had to have an album cover by Andy Warhol. We thus add another layer of cynicism: “So, ‘fine’ artists can get rich and be megacelebrities, while ‘commercial’ artists sweat in third-floor studios at the beck and call of corporate vice presidents. Hmmm…”

Andy Warhol did us an inestimable favor by pointing out that whoever designed the brand identity for Campbell’s Soup was an artist of consummate skill. As his payment for that favor, Warhol took all the money and the fame for himself, and the commercial artist got nothing. Andy had figured out who got the gravy, and he slathered himself in gravy for the rest of his life.

Visitors to Pittsburgh should make a pilgrimage to the Andy Warhol Museum. You should visit even, or perhaps especially, if you do not like Warhol very much. First, it is the world’s largest museum devoted to a single artist, and you can tell your friends you were there. Second, it has room for a whole floor of Warhol’s commercial art, and you can enjoy his distinct style and appreciate why it was so much in demand before he abandoned the field. Third, the curators understand that Andy Warhol’s greatest work was not anything he produced, but the art of being Andy Warhol, and they have done a very good job of conveying what being Andy Warhol was about.

Incidentally, it is Wikimedia’s determination that a sound file of 4′33″, which has no content whatsoever, does not rise to the level of originality required to establish a copyright under American law. The score, however, would contain directions to the performer that would be subject to copyright. It would be interesting to bring a case to court where someone created a different score that, printed, did not resemble the Cage composition at all, but produced the same result down to the duration and the “movement” divisions. A case like that might not set a precedent, but it would give the judge and lawyers involved something to tell stories about for the rest of their lives.

THE IMPORTANCE OF 4′33″.

Two days ago we celebrated the anniversary of John Cage’s 4′33″, a musical work that has often been mocked, but one that Cage considered his most important creation.

Dr. Boli agrees with John Cage in his assessment, and now he will tell you why.

If you asked a dozen art critics to name the dominant trend in art since the beginning of the twentieth century, you would get at least thirteen different answers. That is because at least one passer-by would also render an opinion. But few of them, or none, would correctly identify the dominant trend. From his uniquely long perspective, Dr. Boli is able to see that trend clearly. The dominant trend in art since 1901 has been the gradual but ultimately complete irrelevance of the work of art itself.

Before the twentieth century, what made a work art was the artist’s application of effort to it. It might be bad art or good art, but the artist had tried to make a work that embodied his ideal of what such a work should be. A portrait painter attempted to create an image that was not just a recognizable picture of a person, but also expressed the subject’s character. A composer made use of harmony, melody, polyphony, rhythm, and all the other tools of the trade to evoke a mood, or to create an impression of action, or even just to make a pleasing intellectual exercise. Artists fought vicious battles over what considerations were important in creating a work in their genres, but they were fighting on a common battlefield: namely, the idea that the work itself was the ultimate result and the focus of their efforts.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, some artists began to challenge that idea. Marcel Duchamp, with his “readymades,” threw it out the window. More and more artists in the twentieth century took up the hobby of challenging the idea of art. Andy Warhol, formerly a top commercial artist in New York, painted exact replicas of commercial products to question the distinction between “fine art” and “commercial art.” At about the same time John Cage was working on 4′33″, Robert Rauschenberg used rollers to cover canvases with white house paint. (Cage was quite taken with these works, as you can imagine.)

All these things can be found in any art history. But what few seem to notice is that because of this trend, which has been completely victorious, the work is no longer where artists put their efforts, and therefore is no longer the primary artistic product. Instead, the primary artistic product is now the explanation of why this work is art.

This is why 4′33″ is the most important work John Cage ever produced, and probably the most important one he was capable of producing. In 4′33″, the work is literally nothing. It does not exist. The art lies entirely in Cage’s explanation of why you should consider this music. Even Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings were vestigially works of art: there was a material object made of wood and canvas and paint, and you could look at it. But you cannot hear 4′33″. You can only listen to something else while it is going on. Precisely, says Cage: you are discovering that there is always sound, always music, and there will be until the moment you die. The work does not exist, but the explanation of the work does.

Today orthodox contemporary art is based entirely on the assumption that the explanation of why this work is art, rather than the work itself, is what makes a work art. But 4′33″ refined that assumption to its purest elemental form, and no work can ever go beyond it. It is the εἶδος of art in the current sense, and all other works by living artists are merely imperfect representations or instances of 4′33″.

HEY, WEB DESIGNERS! YOU CAN HELP TRAIN THE NEXT GENERATION OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE.

Have you ever thought to yourself, “I would like to do something to make the world a brighter and more charming place, something that would leave a legacy for which future generations would be grateful, but I wouldn’t like to put a whole lot of effort into it”?

Well, if you have a Web site, or even just contribute to one, you can help train the next generation of artificial intelligence, and in the process you can make our world brighter and more artistic by making it more surreal.

For non-technical readers, a very short explanation. When an image is placed on a Web page, it is supposed to have an alt attribute, which describes what the image is or the information it conveys. The alt attribute is there to be used instead of the image by screen readers or text browsers. But it is also used by self-learning artificial intelligences to train themselves to recognize images.

This is where you, the Web designer, can help! You can make sure your alt attributes train the next generation of artificial intelligence to see the world more artistically, which is to say with a liberal dose of allegory and surrealism. You do this by using imaginative descriptions in your alt attributes, rather than the prosaic just-the-facts text that has hitherto been the fashion.

A few examples:

Komodo dragons

alt=“Komodo dragons”


President James Buchanan

alt=“President James Buchanan”


Couple waiting at a llama station

alt=“Couple waiting at a llama station”


Earl Hines playing the bagpipes

alt=“Earl Hines playing the bagpipes”


Kitten

alt=“Kitten”


The Battle of Camifex Ferry

alt=“The Battle of Camifex Ferry”


Agricultural extension agency

alt=“Agricultural extension agency”


These examples should be enough to demonstrate the principle. Now go and do likewise. Together we, the Web designers of the world, can build a brighter future where artificial intelligence, which has already proved its ability and inclination to be wrong, can be consistently and entertainingly wrong.

LETTER TO THE EDITOR.

Sir: You know what really burns me up? Phosphorus! Ha ha! They tell me it’s always good to set the tone with a little humor. But anyway, I’m really disgusted with this plague that has descended on our city. And from what I hear, other cities are having the same problem. I probably don‘t have to say this, but I’m talking about public sculpture.

Do you have any idea how inconvenient public sculpture is? First of all, it’s just in the way wherever it goes. I mean, I’m walking through the park, and suddenly there’s this statue of some guy who was a general in the Spanish-American War. I don’t even think there was such a war. I think they made it up just so they could put up a statue of some guy in a fancy uniform, who was probably really a bellhop at the William Penn.

And then there’s the vermin question. Public sculpture attracts pigeons. It’s like their number-one host. How can we expect to clean up this city if there are known pigeon attractors scattered around all the most frequented squares and street corners? It’s like an open invitation to aerial rats. And then, of course, there are rat rats. Pigeons on top of the sculptures and rats under them. Especially if it’s one of those modern sculptures with all the tubes and stuff.

And then it’s such a nightmare if you have to get rid of one, like I do all the time when I’m trying to build a new apartment block in a neighborhood that needs a few more half-million-dollar condos. I mean, all the crazies come out of the woodwork and act like they care about this artist whose name nobody has ever heard of, and who didn’t even bother to give his work a title, like he just knocked it out at 4:57 on a Friday afternoon, and they say, “Oh no, you can’t get rid of Untitled Number 24! It’s a masterpiece by that guy, you know, the same one who did Untitled Number 23! He has his own Wikipedia article!” And they write to city council and file for injunctions and make life impossible, and you can’t have it hauled away and get the scrap money out of it, and you just have to back a bulldozer over it when nobody’s looking.

So here’s what I think we should do about public sculpture. I think we should round up all the public sculptures in the city and haul them to McKeesport, which has whole blocks of vacant lots that would probably be improved by a few pigeons pooping in them. Then people who inexplicably like those things can go to McKeesport and go all “Ooh! Look at the sculpture!” and maybe buy gas while they’re there and double the city’s tax revenue. You could make it a tourist attraction. Call it “City of Sculpture” and maybe make it a UNESCO World Heritage Site, if it isn’t already on the list as City of Vacant Lots.

Now, I know this is absurd, but in some cities there are rules that say you have to set aside a certain percentage of the budget in a new construction project for art. This is what leads to a lot of the public-sculpture infestations. See, people think that, if they have to pay for art, it’s going to take up space, and they’re just resigned to it. But I’ve thought about this, and I think I know the way around it. We just take the art money and hand it to an artist and say, “Here’s a bunch of money. This should set you up for the next three years. Now go get a tattoo.” That way the artist has got some money, and there’s art somewhere, but it’s not in the way, unless the artist is actually standing right there, in which case we can have him arrested for loitering, which you can’t do with a statue, because believe me I’ve tried and the police were no use at all.

So, you see, I’ve identified the problem and I’ve come up with workable solutions. I’d even be willing to donate my time to the city to help identify and eliminate public sculptures wherever they’re in the way of progress. I mention that because I called the mayor’s 311 hotline, but they acted like I was some sort of crazy person, so I’m putting my offer down in print where everybody can see it.

Sincerely,
Phyllis Stein,
Stein & Co. Management and Development

THE EDUCATION OF WOMEN.

Over at Father Pitt, Herr von Hindenburg, one of our frequent correspondents here, left a comment that brings up some very interesting questions. Because they are of a literary nature, Father Pitt asked whether Dr. Boli would like to take a try at replying, and then vanished from the room before Dr. Boli could give him a definite answer.

The context was a window by Louis Comfort Tiffany at Chatham University, which was given to Chatham’s ancestor, the Pennsylvania College for Women, in 1888. It is an allegory of women’s education, with a stained-glass version of Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl and the names of great writers, thinkers, and artists in wreaths surrounding the subject. This is Herr von Hindenburg’s comment:

It is a pity that, at a women’s college, they couldn’t find a single female author to include. Dickinson, Hildegard of Bingen, Austen? Are there any better examples who might have been held in more esteem at the time?

The answer is probably not, and yes that is too bad. But it is a fact of the time. Emily Dickinson’s poems had not yet been published in 1888. Jane Austen was a popular novelist, and popular novels were a lower form of art—we do not find Cervantes or Fielding on the window, either. The only female author among the classics and moderns who could possibly have stood with the names in that window was Sappho, whose reputation as the greatest of lyric poets stands out as a striking anomaly in classical culture.

But in context the choices were good ones. When the Pennsylvania Female College was young, its students and alumnae were very conscious that giving women an education equal to traditional male education was a new thing. Women had not been equal to men in the past, but they would be in the future. They would therefore take as their models, not works that were pretty good considering that they were written by women, but the very peaks of human achievement; and in taking those as their models they would force women into an equal ranking with men.

And they did. If today we were donating a memorial window that commemorated the greatest human achievements since 1888, we would, without even trying to be “inclusive,” automatically include a number of female names. This is because those first generations of educated women did not say to themselves, “I will be excellent among women.” They said, “I will be Galileo. I will be Plato. I will be Homer and Virgil and Dante. I will be Shakespeare twice over.” They started with the assumption that their female identity was, to borrow theological language, an accident and not their substance, and that as human beings there was no limit to what they could accomplish. Because they did that—because they went out into the world insisting that they could show Raphael or Moliere a thing or two—today we are forced, merely by the facts of history, to admit women as human beings equal to men. In 1888, that was a debatable assumption, probably contested by most men and even by a majority of women. This window took a stand for the minority opinion.

Dr. Boli has written before about the Balkanization of human achievement. To use a bit of fashionable academic jargon, he believes it is another manifestation of white male privilege. He has spoken with students of various designer colors who are constantly told by their professors (who are often white and male) that they should devote their studies to representatives of their race or culture or gender or sexual orientation, and there is something wrong with them if they happen to be more interested in Thomas Aquinas or Confucius or anyone outside their own designated identity. You should be affirming your identity by learning about the achievements of your kind of people, we tell them. Meanwhile, we white males will enjoy the achievements of our culture and your culture and everybody else’s culture, and we’ll feel smugly enlightened about doing it. It would be hard to imagine a balder assertion of white male privilege: we get the whole world of human achievement, and you get Slovenia.

The alternative we propose is that we should regard human achievement as the achievement of humans, not as belonging to particular subspecies of humans. Duke Ellington was a genius by human standards, not simply by the standards of Black composers from Washington, D.C. Lady Murasaki was a novelist for all the world, not just for Japanese women. Marie Curie’s scientific discoveries do not fall apart if you are not female and Polish.

Whether there is such a thing as moral progress is debatable, but the strongest evidence for it is the twentieth century’s repudiation of the ideas of racial and sexual superiority. It seems to Dr. Boli that much of that progress goes back to institutions like the Pennsylvania College for Women, where students were told by everything around them—even the stained glass—that nothing less than greatness was expected of them. So, yes, it is a pity that they had no female models to aspire to—not yet. But they were doing the right thing. They were preparing themselves to be the models to which all of us, male and female, would look up in the future.