Posts filed under “Art”


Or, Mambo Sociology.

In reference to the “On This Day in History” feature a couple of days ago, “von Hindenburg” writes:

In a certain 1990’s Disney movie, the title character exclaims that there’s no way that a pop star who his son wants to go see could ever be as big as Xavier Cugat, the “Mambo King”. That name has been stuck in my head for nearly 30 years and never once did it occur to me that he might be a real person.

This is an interesting sociological phenomenon. Those of us who were of dancing age in the 1930s and 1940s remember that Latin bands were mainstays of the pop-music scene. That scene was divided into roughly four kinds of bands:

1. Swing bands, like the ones headed by Jimmie Lunceford, Glenn Miller, and Benny Goodman. They played all kinds of music, but were best known for their four-beat jazz.

2. Sweet bands, like Guy Lombardo’s, which leaned toward the saccharine and could swing only if a noose was involved.

3. Mickey-Mouse bands, like Kay Kyser’s and Shep Fields’, which relied on silly musical gimmicks. Shep Fields, for example, created his “rippling rhythm” by blowing bubbles through a straw. You young people probably think Dr. Boli is making that up, but look it up on YouTube. [UPDATE: At the earnest request of one reader, we are adding an earworm warning to that link.]

4. Latin bands. There were many—Enric Madriguera and Desi Arnaz (Cugat’s protégé) come to mind—but the king of all Latin bandleaders was Xavier Cugat. He was still a musical force in the middle 1960s, and still discovering new talent; at the age of 65 he married his latest discovery, Charo, who was somewhere between 15 and 25 when they were married (she changes her age with her clothes).

All these categories have disappeared from the popular consciousness except the swing bands. Swing music stands for the 1940s in every movie and television drama.

Arguably the sweet bands and the Mickey-Mouse bands were worth forgetting. But Cugie? How is it possible to forget Xavier Cugat?

This is one of the phenomena sociologists ought to be studying. In the middle of the twentieth century, ordinary middle-class Americans went wild for Latin music. Hollywood studios knew that the surest way to liven up a musical was to bring in the Cugat band. And most of the numbers were sung in Spanish. Cugat’s singers could sing in English, too, but middle-class Americans were perfectly happy to accept his music in his native language.

Even into the 1950s, Latin music was a big thing in American culture. The most famous television comedy of all time was about a zany redhead married to a Cuban bandleader—played by the actual Cuban bandleader (and actual husband) Desi Arnaz, who learned everything from Cugat. Even the show’s theme had a Cuban beat.

The strange sociological phenomenon is that we have almost completely forgotten what a force Latin music was in popular culture—yet we have a much larger Latin American population now. In nightclubs in any of our big cities, there are bands playing music that Cugat would have understood. He would have thought they were amateurs, but he would have understood that they were trying to be Cugats and failing, and he might have given them a few pointers. But all the people in those nightclubs speak Spanish, and the average middle-class American stays away from them.

How did we forget Xavier Cugat so completely?

Well, he does not have to be forgotten. There is a simple cure for this oblivion. Here is a Cugat appearance in Neptune’s Daughter, and once you have watched it you will not forget Cugat.










The enemy.

What will unify our divided nation? On the left and on the right, everyone is asking that question; but of course the only answer they come up with is “This country will be united when everybody agrees with me.” That is not a satisfactory answer.

What is needed is a crusade. Not a war. Dr. Boli is opposed to wars on the deeply personal grounds that they inconvenience him. No, what we need is a moral crusade, a common enemy that we can fight together. Furthermore, it must be an enemy with very unusual properties. It must have the ability to persist indefinitely, so that the crusade can also go on indefinitely; but it must never pose a serious threat to our existence, so that we are never tempted to give up. It must give us victory after victory and yet it must never be defeated. This is the kind of enemy we need. Where shall we find it?

After diligent research and no little cogitation, Dr. Boli has determined that the enemy we need is beauty.

Why beauty? If we look at the extremes of left and right, we see that they are two varieties of the same species. The old puritan virus that has infected Americans since 1620 has mutated into two main variants, but they are still recognizable as variants of the same thing. Now, the thing a puritan hates and fears most is beauty, and particularly beauty in art. Art has no business existing unless it is useful. This is a principle accepted by every American worthy of the name, from fascist to communist and anywhere in between. A hammer is the tool that drives home nails, and art is the tool that drives home moral lessons. Beauty in art is a deviation, a distraction from the mission, and what is worse is that it makes us suspect that beauty alone was the artist’s primary motivation—or, to put it in proper American Puritan terms, that the artist was in league with Satan.

There was a time, at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, when the United States had formed an elite class of artists and architects who were determined that beauty would be forced down the throats of the puritan yokels. (See the illustration, which is part of Giuseppe Moretti’s Welcome group from 1896 at the entrance to Highland Park in Pittsburgh.) This would supposedly turn them into something less yokelish. The yokels fought back; and though they lost many battles, as the monuments in some of our great cities attest, they won the war, assisted by a wave of artistic puritanism from abroad.

But the artistic instinct is hard to suppress entirely, and rebels rise in every generation to raise the flag of Beauty. What Dr. Boli proposes is that the puritans on the right and the puritans on the left should unite in a common crusade to hunt down these rebels and squash them like cockroaches.

You can see the many advantages of this plan at once. There will always be a small number of artistic souls willing to be martyrs for Beauty; in fact the martyrdom, for many of these deluded individuals, is Beauty’s chief attraction. They do not carry weapons, so they pose no danger to our moral crusaders. The most violent thing they ever do is stand in front of a bulldozer, and some states have already made vehicular homicide legal in the case of a demonstrator who is in the way. We can simply apply those ready-made laws nationally. Yet no matter how many of the partisans of beauty we squash, it is a genetic defect of the human species that it is always producing more of them. There is always a minority of individuals tainted with the artistic temperament. We can be confident that we will win every battle, yet the war will never be finished. This is the formula for a permanently successful crusade, and we can look forward to an era of renewed prosperity and good feeling under our crusaders’ motto,

Unity in Mediocrity


After a dinner of elegantly prepared wild mushrooms, Lucretius sees falling atoms.


Readers of Devil King Kun already knew this, but it turns out that René Magritte, far from being a “surrealist” as he is usually described, was a mere documentarian. His Château des Pyrenées, for example, was painted from life with almost photographic accuracy, because in the Iberian peninsula, rocks regularly do that. As proof, here is an unretouched screenshot from Google Street View in Gibraltar:

Reproduced at reduced size for the purpose of comment, criticism, mocking, etc.

It is also true that, in Belgium, people of more traditional tastes do regularly walk around with apples hovering in front of their faces, and some older houses still have troubles with steam locomotives occasionally bursting out of the fireplace.


No. 1.

Here is a very simple guessing game, but we hope to see some very creative responses. These are all details of buildings in and around Pittsburgh, as photographed by Father Pitt, and your job, dear readers, is to guess what kind of building each one comes from. People familiar with Pittsburgh may also amuse themselves by trying to recognize which particular building each detail comes from, but it will not be easy, because many of these buildings are in out-of-the-way neighborhoods. Of course, if you are stumped and want to cheat, you can open an image in a new tab, and the file name will tell you what it is.

We put the rest of the article behind a “read more” tag, because there are quite a few pictures to load, and we don’t want to bog down the front page for a week and a half.





Portrait of a Gentleman.

Portrait of a Gentleman (?).

Portrait of a Young Gentleman.

Portrait of an Old Gentleman.

Portrait of a Young Gentleman with an Old Gentleman.

Portrait of a Gentleman Who Believes He Is Still Young but Is Suffering from a Delusion.

Portrait of a Lady.

Portrait of a Lady of Quality.

Portrait of a Lady of Unusually High Quality.

Portrait of the Sort of Lady You Don’t Bring Home to Mother.

Portrait of a Clergyman Reading the Sporting Times.

Portrait of the Archbishop of Canterbury Dressed as the Archbishop of York for a Masquerade Ball.


Historical Scenes.


The Death of the Earl of Cavendish from a Surfeit of Malted Milk Balls.

Citizens of Liverpool Fleeing the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Institution of the Royal Academy of Hoops.

The French Frigate Moutarde, After an Hour and a Quarter’s Engage­ment, Strikes to His Majesty’s Ship Roast Beef.

King Solomon Counting His Wives and Coming Up One Short.

Cincinnatus Leaving His Plough to Go Back to Accounting.

The Prophet Jeremiah Ordering Falafel from a Street Vendor.


Allegorical and Mythological Scenes.


Britannia, Hibernia, & Scotia Bickering Over a Leg of Mutton.

Nine Tailors Making a Man from Cloth Remnants.

Bacchus Refusing White Zinfandel.

Fate Weighs the Schedule of the No. 91 Omnibus in Her Balance.

Virtue Awarding Herself a Good Conduct Medal.

The Apotheosis of Henry Biggleton, Late Manufacturer of Biggleton’s Famous Imbricated Kidney Pills.

Artemisia Defies the Goddess Athena and Is Turned Into a Harmonium.

Prosperity Rides the Horse of Commerce Across the Bridge of a 20% Excise on Imports.


Water Lilies
Nymphées, by Claude Monet, digitally corrected.

Buried way down in the menus is a new setting in Microsoft Edge, the second-most-popular browser:

Enhance images in Microsoft Edge
Sharpens images and improves color, lighting, and contrast

It turns out that Microsoft has introduced sophisticated artificial intelligence to process all the images you look at even if you don’t ask for them to be processed.

This is amazing! Haven’t you always wished Rembrandt could be a bit brighter? Wouldn’t it be better if Monet weren’t so blurry?

If you are a photographer, chances are pretty good that sharpness, color, lighting, and contrast are the four things you fuss over most when you’re preparing a photograph for publication. Well, you’re just wasting your time. Microsoft will use the awesome power of artificial intelligence to throw out your decisions and substitute much better ones. The setting is on by default, and it takes an inquisitive user or an unlikely coincidence even to discover that it exists.

This must be what the future looks like. In the future, artists will no longer have to worry about whether they have got the colors exactly right or whether the subject stands out from the background well enough. Rough in the composition, and the machine will take it from there. And the artists who do worry about those fussy little details will no longer waste anybody’s time but their own. The rest of us will see their pictures with all the currently fashionable aesthetic decisions made in the most agreeably fashionable way.

But why should we stop at images? Couldn’t deep learning tidy up Shakespeare’s notoriously sloppy blank verse? The pacing of Moby-Dick could be tightened to James Patterson standards. All that frittering about in a Bach fugue could be reduced to a tune you could walk home humming. The frustrating vagueness in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey could be sharpened up until a five-year-old could understand what was going on.

Microsoft has come up with the artificial-intelligence version of this French translator.

Of course the main effect early users noticed was that a lot of images in Edge were blurrier than in other browsers, but Microsoft says, “We're aware of the issue and are looking into it.”