Tag Archives: culture

Comic Book Colors and Western Culture

Contemporary artists and designers often pride themselves on the use of bright colors and bold patterns to attract us, the consumers of their products.  Whether it’s a piece of sculpture or a rug, a pair of socks or a cocktail dress, we like to think of ourselves as living in a world where we are daring if we pick a color that is not a neutral.  Those bright red trousers you’re wearing to work now that Spring and warm weather have finally arrived might make you think that you’re a bold, outspoken sort of fellow.

Except, of course, for the fact that this has all been done before: you were just never told about it.

If your visual experience of Western Civ 101 in high school or college was limited to viewing some grainy slides via a poorly lit projector, or paging through some hazy illustrations in a textbook, you could reasonably be forgiven for thinking that Western culture up until the 20th century was pretty murky and dark.  Yet when we look at a cleaned and restored work of art from our past, brought back as near as possible to its original state, we can appreciate how people who lived centuries ago not only loved to use color, but were just as bold as we are in the use of it, if not more so.  They surrounded themselves with domestic objects, buildings, and works of art that were brightly colored.  And they themselves dressed in those almost garishly bright colors which we associate with things like cartoons and comic books.

A perfect example of this is what I’m using for my wallpaper at present, appropriately for Easter, a painting of the Resurrection by the Florentine Renaissance artist Raffaellino del Garbo (c. 1476-1527).  Most of us today associate the Easter season with very bright colors after the months of dull, late winter grays and browns.  When it comes to public celebrations, ladies’ hats, and decorations such as Easter eggs, Easter grass, baskets full of colorfully wrapped candies, etc., we love to get out the virtual box of crayons and go a bit off the deep end in an explosion of color.  However this particular artist’s image of Easter is about as Easter Parade-y as you can get.

Look at the figures of the Roman soldiers and Temple guards reacting to Christ’s Resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday morning.  It is a bright, sunny day, well past sunrise, and as Jesus rises from the grave dressed in white garments, the soldiers are falling down like dead men and running away, just as Scripture tells us.  One poor fellow in the lower left foreground has even had the stone slab from the tomb land on top of him.

Now take a moment to notice what incredible colors these fellows are wearing.  We see these tough soldiers dressed in salmon pink, coral red, periwinkle blue, spring green, dusty rose, saffron yellow, and midnight blue.  There’s no camouflage here: even the very few gray, brown, and white articles of clothing worn by these fighting men only serve to enhance the bright colors of their other garments.

It’s worthwhile to take a look at what the painting looked like before it was cleaned of its old varnish, and notice how dark and yellowed it was.  I think oftentimes this is the sort of image which misinforms our impression of Western civilization.  We’re taught, whether intentionally or not, to see the past and the people who lived centuries before us as collectively dusty, yellowed, confused, ignorant, and unexciting.  One look at this picture as restored should permanently dispel that badly-learned lesson from your mind, and this is but one example among many.

The truth is that there is always something heroic, fresh, and invigorating about Western culture.  This image neatly sums up that fact, for del Garbo clearly believed that he was living in an exciting, vibrant time when he created this work of art.  He chose to depict the boldness of his own day, in the figures of the soldiers he painted, rather than sticking strictly to an historical interpretation of what 1st century Judea probably looked like.  In doing so he preserves, almost like a snapshot, what people who lived 500 years ago thought of themselves, their faith, their culture, and their world.  Theirs is not some dark and gloomy, scary place, but an attractive, bright and cheerful spot worth a visit.  Who wouldn’t want to picnic beside the Roman ruins in the background of this picture, under the trees on a bright Easter Sunday?

Perhaps it’s time we get out some of the varnish stripper, ourselves.  Let’s try to wipe away some of the jaundiced coloring that has been shading our eyes to the bright, heroic achievements of those who came before us.  We are part of a long tradition in Western culture, if we would but recognize it.

"The Resurrection" by Raffaellino del Garbo (c. 1500-1510) Accademia, Florence

“The Resurrection” by Raffaellino del Garbo (c. 1500-1510)
Accademia, Florence

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Superheroines on the Streets of London

Regular readers know that I like to play the role of a superhero in social media, and sometimes write about the cultural significance of these mythical figures in our society.  Yet however much I enjoy sporting the big red cape, in real life heroes often take a very different form from those of literature, film, and our imaginations.  You’re about to learn about some real-life superheroines in London…who just so happen to wear a religious habit.

At a two-day conference held at the Vatican this week, Pope Francis and other attendees heard reports about an innovative effort to combat human trafficking.  Since January of this year, a group of nuns from the Madrid-based religious order known as the Adoratrices – formally, “The Handmaids of the Blessed Sacrament and of Charity” – have been going out on patrol with police officers in Central London, to help rescue women forced into prostitution through human trafficking.  The project has proven so successful, that it will eventually be expanded throughout London, and other cities are looking to copy it.

Previously, getting these prostitutes to trust the police had proven to be an impossible task.  In many cases, because they anticipated reprisals if they reported having been sold into sex slavery, raped, or abused, they would say nothing.  Others feared being sent back to their countries of origin, to families or acquaintances who had sold them into slavery in the first place.

The nuns who ride along with the police and talk to these women are able to provide a motherly level of care, which many of them respond to in a way that they could not with a police officer.  With the help of the Adoratrices, the police are able to go after the criminals who put the women in these situations, while the nuns take the victims in and shelter them, so that they cannot be “got at”.  Later they can be returned to their home countries, or apply for asylum.  As Detective Inspector Kevin Hyland explained at the conference, “If they go to stay with religious women, they find the peace and tranquillity they need while going through the horrors of testifying in court.”

In effect, these nuns are making themselves targets for the criminals engaged in these activities.  Someone who has no compunction about kidnapping, raping, and selling a 15-year old into prostitution is probably not going to find it difficult to have a nun threatened, beaten, or permanently silenced.  Unlike the police, nuns are neither armed with weapons, nor can they call for backup, if they find themselves in a dangerous situation, but they go out and do this work anyway.

I think there’s a three-fold lesson to take away from this story.  We should support efforts like this when we are asked to help, because most of us, frankly, would not want to be doing what these sisters are doing.  We should also be inspired to take a look at our own lives, and see whether there is something, however small, that we could be doing on behalf of someone else whom we know is in a bad way or having a difficult time.  And finally, we should always remember to adjust our expectations of what a hero really looks like, rather than selling people short.  Because oftentimes, true heroism comes from where you might least expect it.

St. María Micaela of the Blessed Sacrament (1809-1865) Foundress of the Adoratrices

St. María Micaela of the Blessed Sacrament (1809-1865)
Foundress of the Adoratrices

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Nine Inch Nails and the Attraction of Nothingness

This past Saturday evening, as happens from time to time, I returned home from a late night of pub karaoke feeling pretty wired.  I sang three songs that evening, and was still somewhat jittery from the experience.  Those of my readers who have done any performing or public speaking know that there can be a kind of shakiness and high-alert feeling you carry around with you, even an hour or two after you’ve stepped out of the spotlight.

Because I was very much awake, I turned on the television to find something to watch until I felt ready to go to bed. I happened upon “Austin City Limits”, the PBS show featuring live concert performances from Texas’ capital of weird, and a performance by the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails.  Much to my surprise, I sat down and watched the whole thing from start to finish.  I came away strangely impressed by what I heard, but glad that I have been able to choose a different way to confront the deeply human concern we all share over nothingness.

Back in high school, when Nine Inch Nails – or “NIN” – first became popular, I was never attracted to their music.  NIN was a very different sort of group from the metal hair bands and pop-rap acts of that time, even though they went on tour with Guns N’ Roses, of all people.  My musical choices tended to be less on the full-out-sensory-assault end of the spectrum, where acts like NIN tended to congregate, and more on what the British refer to as the “shoe-gazing” end of things.  So when I sat down to watch this concert, I had no clue what to expect.

For starters, I was blown away by how engaging the band was.  NIN frontman Trent Reznor – who looks better now at nearly 50 than I remember him ever looking in his 20′s – is a dynamic, charismatic performer, reminding me of a more techie, introspective version of punk legend Henry Rollins.  His bandmates and back-up singers were, like him, all intense, focused musicians: and they had to be.

The music itself was unbelievably complex.  There was hardly anything melodic about it, even when there were actual choruses.  There were unexpected rhythm/volume/pitch changes, and unusual combinations of harmony and dissonance.  This was combined with a lyricism which, while unfortunately often scarred by profanity, expressed a very deep understanding of very human things: pain, loss, etc.

In a brief interview, Reznor commented that the band’s new album, from which the concert took its material, was probably the closest he had ever come to creating a musical composition based fully on dreams and stream-of-consciousness thinking.  That certainly came across during the show, particularly in its semi-conscious waking and nightmarish moments.  However there was also something else going on.

There is an underlying tension in all of mankind regarding the fundamental question of meaning versus nothingness.  How you choose to answer that question is going to have a significant impact on how you treat yourself, other people, and the world you live in.  And this debate, this exploration of whether there is any meaning out there, is something Reznor and his band tapped into rather powerfully in this performance.

To their credit, if one can move past the regrettable language and imagery in some of their lyrics, NIN do so in an almost contemplative way.  Despite the level of sheer noise they can achieve, particularly when expressing anger and frustration, this is not a toe-tapping kind of music, but rather something demanding that the listener actively engage his brain.  Is it pleasant? Well frankly, no: it’s decidedly unpleasant. But is it real? Oh, very much so.

This kind of creative exploration is in fact as old as mankind itself.  Look at the Book of Job or some of the Psalms, study the black paintings of Goya, or read the work of Virginia Woolf or Charles Baudelaire [N.B. whose birthday is today.]  Throughout human history, you’ll find men and women staring into the abyss, and not finding it easy to avert their eyes from the possibility that there may very well be no meaning to all of “this” around us.

I see and understand what Reznor, et al., are trying to say.  And quite frankly, I respect them for saying it.  Here, there is no papering over the hard things in life with a shallow, feckless sort of veneer, as so often occurs in contemporary culture.

Where we part ways, however, is that I am a Christian, and a Catholic one at that. So even as I witness, and at times experience first-hand, the kind of painful emotions which Reznor describes in his music, I choose to find hope and meaning in such suffering.  Rather than simply pointless, cruel occurrences, these are opportunities for me to come to understand Christ better, and hopefully draw closer to Him.

That doesn’t mean I always succeed, of course.  I can complain and moan and…well yes, swear….about perceived slights, abuses, or injustice, when I give in to such feelings.  However I hope that, over time, I’m getting at least a tiny bit better at accepting these things, even if I am very far indeed from perfection.

That being said, one has to give credit where credit is due.  I wouldn’t recommend picking up the new NIN album to listen to in the car on the way to work, any more than I would recommend you purchase a print of “Saturn Devouring His Children” by Goya to hang over the dining room table.  However the fact that a rock music concert caused me to pause, listen, and reflect, is something which for me, does not happen very often at all. And in the end I’m actually rather grateful I had that opportunity.

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails performing on PBS'  "Austin City Limits"

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails performing on PBS’ “Austin City Limits”

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Detroit’s Art Collection: Under the Hammer?

As if Detroit didn’t have enough problems already…

In the latest chapter on the ongoing woes of the Motor City, the entire collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts (“DIA”) is now being targeted by creditors.  You may recall that late last year, Christie’s auction house was retained to value the roughly 1,700 works in the collection which had been purchased using public funds.  They concluded that these pieces were worth somewhere in the range of $454 to $867 million, depending on the often widely-ranging vagaries of the art market.

Not satisfied with that outcome, two different groups of creditors are now going on what we in the legal profession like to refer to as a “fishing expedition”, on the assumption that assets are being hidden.  One rather ridiculous demand is that the DIA give a full accounting of all of its financial and visitor records, going back to the founding of the museum nearly a century ago – which hardly seems germane to the issue at hand.  Another  is insisting that the DIA and Christie’s provide a valuation of the museum’s entire collection of well over 60,000 items, not simply valuing those objects purchased using taxpayer money.  You can read more about the details of these subpoenas, and why things have reached this point by reading this overview from The Detroit Free Press.

From a legal perspective, the attorneys for the creditors are simply doing their job.  There’s nothing at all strange about requesting thousands of pages of documents in a case, particularly when you are dealing with an unprecedented and enormous municipal bankruptcy such as this.  These are uncharted waters for everyone, not just the parties themselves, even though the bankruptcy rules themselves are quite plain.  Attorneys and courts have an obligation to clients and to the public in any bankruptcy proceeding to make sure that no assets are being hidden or left unvalued.

Yet lost in the shuffle here is the very sad fact that should these efforts lead to a massive sell-off of the DIA’s collection, it is the people of Detroit who are going to lose.  If the DIA is dismembered and sold on the open market, no amount of return will really be enough.  To paraphrase Aristotle, the value of an art museum as a whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.

As an institution, an art museum preserves the past artistic achievements of mankind, while serving to educate and inspire those who want to admire and learn from such achievements both at present and in the future.  The study of art is just as much the study of our own history, as it is the appreciation of beauty.  When we go to a museum and look at a painting or a sculpture, we learn not only who made it, but how, when, where, and why it was made.  We all benefit, general public and scholars alike, from the work that they do to remind us of who we are, and where we come from.

It is a pity that so many decades of incompetent management, corruption, and single-party governance have led Detroit to this point, where the haunting eyes of Constanza da Sommaia, one of the elegant Mannerist painter Bronzino’s favorite muses, may be about to disappear into some collector’s Swiss bank vault.

Detail of "Portrait of Constanza da Sommaia" by Agnolo Bronzino (c. 1540) Detroit Institute of Arts

Detail of “Portrait of Constanza da Sommaia” by Agnolo Bronzino (c. 1540)
Detroit Institute of Arts

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They’re Just Two Little Girls from Little Rock

The other night the classic 1953 film version of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” was on; I’ve seen it many times, as it’s one of my mom’s favorite musicals.  When the movie came out in Spain, she and her friends obtained a recording of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from the soundtrack, and would loudly sing along to it in their schoolgirl English.  This apparently horrified my grandmother, who had a better grasp of the subtleties of English, and therefore of what the gold-digging Lorelei Lee – played by Marilyn Monroe in the film – was singing about.

I mentioned to an elderly neighbor that I had caught the movie on TV, and he recalled being a graduate student in Paris in the 1950′s, and seeing it premiere at a cinema on the Champs-Elysees.  As he recalled, back then Europe was still in poverty and recovering from World War II, even though over here in America, we were filling our homes with the products of the first wave of middle-class consumerism.  So people flocked to see upbeat, colorful American movie musicals like this one, because their own lives were often so harsh, unhappy, and colorless.

It’s funny that back then, people like my grandmother looked at this film and found it scandalous.  True, it’s about two women performing a musical more suited to a so-called “gentleman’s club” than the Broadway stage.  Yet when you watch the movie now, in light of what we see not only on the big screen but the small screen on a regular basis these days, you realize how far we’ve fallen as a culture since that time.

The racy jokes in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” are definitely still racy, but they’re not insulting.  The women are clearly objectified by the men, from their suitors, to the policemen in the courtroom, to the entire U.S. Olympic Team, but at the same time, the women are in complete control of the situation.  They insist on being treated with respect.  They like to look beautiful, go dancing, drink cocktails, and have beautiful things.  They work hard at what they do, and they’re pretty happy with who they are.

For the generation that enjoys soul-sickening programs like “Girls” and other such societal take-downs of women disguised as entertainment, I imagine it’s difficult to”get” movies like this.  Not to mention the fact that I’m sure Lena Dunham would recoil in horror at learning that the film’s other star, Jane Russell, became an outspoken pro-life activist, one of the few in Hollywood.  Yet if you strip away all the cheap basement rumpus room plywood veneer that’s been foisted on us over the past 40 years about what men and women are supposed to be like, you can just enjoy being in the presence of two beautiful women who enjoy having a good time, coming close to the line but never crossing over it.  They’re just two little girls from Little Rock, after all.

Marilyn Monroe ad Jane Russell in a scene from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in a scene from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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