All posts by Josiah Tell

Crème de Menthe and Armor: The Josiah Tell Interview

closeup500I first met Josiah Tell in the Spring of 1999, when he tapped me to ghost write his autobiography Josiah Tells All!: Notes from America’s Answer to Theodore Roosevelt. His erratic behavior—and his frequent absences due to the many arraignments he was required to attend over the years—made progress slow. The book was finally published on Tell’s GeoCities site last month, three days before Yahoo shut down the web hosting service permanently. Tell, who has claimed that backing up data is “for girls,” was left with nothing.

Tell has been known as the bad boy of the art historical world since 1985, when he provoked a fist fight at Pomona College’s annual Renaissance Art Symposium. (He repeatedly interrupted the keynote speaker by shouting from his seat in the audience that Leonardo da Vinci “was a big old Scientologist,” a claim that he stands by.) Since then, he’s traveled from museum to museum, shoplifting from gift stores and subsisting mostly on the free cru d’été served at exhibition openings.

In short, Josiah Tell is an abrasive outcast who only stays relevant by occasionally producing groundbreaking research. ArtForum calls his mode of scholarship the Stopped Clock method: unlike his peers, Tell doesn’t mind having his theories proved completely wrong. And because he’s never shy about sharing his libelous and paranoid theories, the law of averages states that eventually, a few of them will be correct—and fewer still, brilliant.

When he arrived at the Swedish Consulate General in New York, (where he’d demanded we hold this interview, since “The Swedes have never—and I do mean never—successfully prosecuted a submarine robbery”) Tell reeked of gasoline. “It’s Friday,” he shrugged, by way of explanation (It was a Tuesday). Tell grabbed the elbow of a passer-by and ordered “a piping-hot mug of crème de menthe.” Miraculously, the man, who I later learned was a senior diplomat, returned a few short minutes later with a steaming cup of liqueur, and nervously apologized for the wait. Call it the Tell Effect.

Tell wanted to speak about his recent visit to the Arms and Armor Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but, being intensely suspicious of journalists, he refused to answer anything I asked. Instead, he conducted the entire interview himself, posing his own questions and pausing thoughtfully before responding.

Q: Are Arms awesome?

A: They are.

Q: How about Armor?

A: You bet!

Q: I was told you were a liberal elitist, and a socialist besides. Shouldn’t you hate guns?

A: Well, look: you can’t spell “Red State” without “Red.” So there’s something to think about. Plus, these weapons are all from Olden Times, before we had nations to protect us from Visigoths and bears and whatnot. Not to mention the constant threat of defenestration, which my research suggests killed more Europeans in the Premodern period than any other cause except witchcraft. So, sure, if I were living in Olden Times, you can bet I would have had as many muskets as I could fit in my castle. I would have worn a suit of armor, codpiece and all, in my sleep. Would have been crazy not to.

Q: That’s a really good point.

A: Thank you.

Q: Speaking of codpieces, if Prince were alive back in Arms and Armor days, what kind of codpiece would he wear?

A: You wouldn’t believe how often I get asked that question. He’d wear this one:

cock700Q: Rad!

A: I know, right?

Q: It assumes the wearer has an erection at all times!

A: Yeah, it’s pretty hilarious. I had to be escorted from the gallery the first time I went because I was laughing so hard.

Q: So what was your favorite piece there?

A: Definitely the seven-foot-tall suit of German fluted armor (below left). Look at it—the center suit’s a full head taller than the other two! Think how big the guy who wore that must have been. And this was back when everyone else was all atrophied and hunchbacked from gout and a diet of hardtack and dirt, so this two-metre Teuton would have been huge.

giant700Q: Well, the Days of Yore were some rough times, but I’m pretty sure people weren’t literally eating dirt.

A: Lots of people assume that. I actually was joking when I first said it, but apparently it’s a real thing called geophagy.

Q: Weird.

A: Totally weird! Eating dirt! But so anyway, you can imagine how terrifying this brute must have seemed in 1500, what with everyone else so malnourished and withered from eating rocks. If this ogre had started lumbering towards you in battle—

Q: Jesus Christ, I’d have pissed myself!

A: Precisely, you’d have pissed yourself. And suit of armor, remember, is impermeable, so it’s not like it would eventually have evaporated like that time you wet yourself after drinking a pint of ethanol that you stole from the the Rutgers Chem lab that caused you to pass out in a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, and when you woke up your cargo shorts smelled like frat bathroom but at least they were dry.

Q: I beg your pardon—I’m sure I don’t know what you’re referring to. And it was a tollbooth.

A: Yes, that’s right. You know, I haven’t been able to listen to Prairie Home Companion since that night. Who would have guessed that Garrison Keeler was such an adept cage fighter?

Q: He literally bent that guy’s arm backwards! Like with the elbow all going the wrong way! That’s a nice segue, actually, let’s move on to Arms. Were any of the handguns displayed in such a way that they appeared to be floating?

A: Yes. This revolver, manufactured by Samuel Colt, was displayed in exactly that manner:

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Q: Super cool! That’s some nice curatorial work.

A: It is.

Q: Well, this has been a wonderful. Thanks for your time.

A: The pleasure was mine.

At this point, Tell lurched out of his seat and asked to use the phone at the receptionist’s desk. He dialed 411, and after politely requesting the operator’s name and social security number, made his query. “New York City, The Internet. Yes. I need the number for The Internet. You can just put me through directly (pause). It’s some kind of a computer thing, I’m pretty sure it’s like Sega. Have you played Sega? (pause) Well look, I need Paypal to wire some money over to the Swedish embassy. I’ve just now realized I’m short on cash and unable to pay my bar tab, so I need money moved from my Party Poker account in Mauritius to the— (pause) Hello?” Tell’s face fell, and he slowly returned the receiver to the desk attendant. “My deepest regrets, Your Grace. Evidently my bank refuses to do business with Scandinavians. On account of the War—you understand.”

And with that, Josiah Tell bowed deeply from the waist and sprinted out the door, into the night.

Sergio Holl is an arts writer based in New York City.

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My Roommate’s Camera is a Racist

My housemate’s point-and-shoot digital camera, which I borrow to take photos for this blog, has a default setting called face detect. Face detect frames your subjects’ heads in little white boxes that show up in the the camera’s LCD viewfinder, presumably to help you take technically excellent pictures of Brock and Jimbo and Boner and the rest of the bros pounding mad shots of Jäger (Canon describes the setting as a “technology that detects up to nine faces in a frame and automatically optimizes the focus and exposure for great people shots.”)IMG_0779

But when I was taking pictures of the Met’s Beneson gallery today, I noticed that face detect doesn’t work on African art. I took ten pictures of figurative statues and masks, and in only one of them did the unnervingly Orwellian feature kick in. So 90 percent of these portraits of men and women, executed in stone and wood and metal by different artists in different countries, weren’t face-y enough for the camera to recognize them as faces.

I wouldn’t have thought twice about the failure of this unnecessary “feature”, except that on the way out of the Museum, I took a few pictures of some 18th century Italian marble and wood statues. And wouldn’t you know it? The camera recognized the European faces as faces about 3/4 of the time. That creepy little box perfectly framed the head of St. Bartholomew, and worse, in a statue of Perseus holding the disembodied head of Medusa, it even picked up on old hair-snakes. That’s right: this technology recognizes grimacing decapitated mythological monsters, but not idealized portraits of black Africans.

In fairness, this wasn’t a scientific experiment, and it’s possible that low light, or the glare off of the glass display cases, threw the camera for a loop. And I doubt it’d recognize the faces in a Picasso or de Kooning. It’s obviously looking for live human faces, and most of the art in the Beneson Gallery is abstracted–bodies are elongated, features broadened, etc. So is the PowerShot really a bigot? Probably not (although I’m still weirded out by that one time it got really drunk and started talking about how Tom Tancredo’s stance on immigration was “right on”).

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But the face detect thing does show one of the biggest stumbling blocks that non-Africans have with understanding African art. Euros and Americans put this premium on art that looks like “the real world.” People go nuts for Vermeer because the way he uses light and color and perspective make his paintings look like photographs. But–sweeping, semi-informed generalizations to follow–African art has never really been about art-for-art’s sake, it’s meant to be used. These masks and staffs and pipes and statues only make sense in context–if you see a video of Yoruba dancers wearing headdresses, you can ‘get’ African art much more easily than you can if you just see isolated objects in hermetically sealed glass cases. Obviously, a devotional statue of the Virgin Mary was meant to be “used”, too, but since most Americans are more familiar with Christianity than with the Dogon religion, Americans’ knee-jerk reaction is to prefer a European statue of the Madonna over an African sculpture of a fertility goddess.

The Beneson Gallery does have lots of helpful text explaining the objects’ intended use, and that’s something. But unfortunately, the work isn’t really given a chance to breathe the way it wants to. Like most of the stuff in the Met, it’s decontextualized, but for those of us who aren’t already familiar with African art, these statues are at best less interesting, and at worst, less beautiful or compelling than their European counterparts. It’s a shame. Part of the problem is organizational–the Art of Africa, Oceania, and Central and South America are all part of the same department (AAOA), while American Art gets its own goddamn wing of the Museum. I’m not arguing that each country should get should get as much floorspace as American art, but it would be nice if there were more than a couple modest galleries representing the entire continent of Africa.

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In a speech given before the Museum opened in 1869, the Met’s first president said that it’s not enough to have a world-class collection–you need to make the material accessible to visitors. So come on, Museum. Help us understand. Give African art its due–give us more more and better-lit galleries of African Art, more exhibitions of contemporary African artists, and more interactive displays showing the work in context.

And while we love-love the renovated Greek and Roman wing, next time you’ve got $900 million to spare, how about throwing a little of it in the direction of the Beneson Gallery for African art?

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A Reputation for Amorous Predispositions

Nothing gets us going like a blockbuster museum exhibition. The Picasso and Braque show a few years back had us carrying around a stack of books for three months to hide the perpetual boner we’d get thinking about those lovely gray-brown forays into cubism. And don’t even get us started about Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci at the National Gallery.

So you can imagine our excitement when we learned that the good folks at the Rijksmuseum in Merry Old Amsterdam had lent the Met The Milkmaid (1658ish), Vermeer’s best known work with the possible exception of The Girl With the Pearl Earring (and that’s only because of ScarJo).
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There are a total of 30 known Vermeers, and six of those are currently on view in a little warren of rooms tucked just off the Greek and Roman Galleries. The show is excellent and the Milkmaid is fucking ridiculously good, and appears to have been recently cleaned (look at this image search for the painting—half the returns are yellowed with muck and varnish that’s since been removed). The blue and gold of the maid’s dress are lush and vital. It’s a simple mimetic scene—a young woman pours milk near a window. But then you step right up to the thing and you see that the loaf of bread on the table is rendered as minuscule dots, which makes it glow and radiate. It’s an ethereal trick, but the painting is grounded by the nicks and divots on the wall behind the maid. The whitewash is almost translucent, the blueblack of masonry or underpainting just barely shows through. And the . . . the fucking quality of light and shadow is fantastic, so vivid that you can tell it’s overcast outside, even though you can only see a fraction of a windowpane at an angle.

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The show’s well curated, too—also on view are period Delft tiles, nearly identical to the ones seen in the painting, and a tightly edited group of works by Vermeer’s contemporaries. Among our favorites were a pair of canvasses by Van Vilets and De Witte. Each painter shows an the interior of Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk (old church). By 1600, wall text informs, the Netherlands had gone almost totally Protestant, and they converted their Gothic (Catholic) churches into more Romanesque (Protestant) buildings by stripping the “‘popish’ appointments and whitewashing their columns and walls.”  Anyway, the paintings show the Oude Kerk as a weird, wonderful palimpsest—the vaulted arches and stone tracery show the church’s gothic pedigree. It’s in the building’s bones, and no whitewash can cover it.

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In de Witte’s view, a dog, visually emphasized by a square of daylight, lifts its leg to piss on one of the church’s columns.

Show’s up through November. Get over there.

Vermeer’s Masterpiece The Milkmaid

Highlight: The textures in Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (1662ish). You can see the “needlework” on the tablecloth and the creases in the woman’s headdress. Remarkable.

Memorable quote:For at least two centuries before Vermeer’s time, milkmaids and kitchen maids had (or were assigned) a reputation for amorous predispositions.”

Next week: African art, for real this time. We were distracted by Vermeer.

Nudity? In an ART MUSEUM?

kathleen-neill-nudeThis is old news, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the hubub caused last week when a (live! nude! girl!) model posed for photographer Zach Hyman in the Met’s Arms and Armor gallery. Model Kathleen Neill was stopped by museum guards some 30 seconds after disrobing, and was arrested shortly thereafter.

On one hand, the photographer seems like publicity hound, and by posting this we’re playing right along with his plans. The lawyer’s statement: “There are nude sculptures and paintings all over the museum. It’s the height of stupidity accusing a live model of showing the same thing in a house of art” is spot on, except that Hyman has also posed his nude models in subways, so the “but there’s naked ladies EVERYwhere in a museum!” defense loses some credibility.

But look: fuck em if they can’t take a joke.

It’s a truism, but we’ll say it anyway. The history of art includes a long line of radicals challenging conservative tastes, often using sex and bodies. See: Lolita, Last Tango in Paris, Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, Manet’s Olympia, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, and Sargent’s Madame X, which was considered so prurient in its day that the artist painted over an earlier version in which the model’s dress strap dangled from her shoulder. Oh, and Madame X hangs in–you guessed it–the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The fact that Neill is facing charges of public lewdness is disappointing. Will she have to register as a sex offender because of this? Come on, Met. You can do better than this.

A photo of Madam X as she originally appeared (1881)
A photo of Madam X as she originally appeared (1881)

In related news, the Gorilla/Guerrilla Girls’ take on female nudity at the Met:

“In 1995, a “weenie count” done by the Guerrilla Girls at the Metropolitan Museum showed that 85 percent of the pieces that depicted nudes depicted naked women while only five percent of the displayed artworks were created by women. This statistic prompted one of the Guerrilla Girls’ critiques, a poster asking, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”

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Madame X as she appears today, with strap on shoulder (1883-4)

So the question is, do women have to be naked images to get into the Met?

Europeans Can’t Get Enough of That Sweet, Sweet Classicism

Seriously? Edison's inventing movies and you're making this? Writing on wall, let me introduce you to neoclassical artists.
Seriously? While Orville and Wilbur are inventing the airplane, you’re making fluted vases with nautical décor? Hey, writing on wall, let me introduce you to neoclassical artists. (German, 1911)

The Met’s Sculpture and Decorative Arts 1850-1900 gallery shows European art at an exciting crossroads. Conservative Neoclassicism in the 18th and 19th centuries demonstrated that Western visual arts were due for a change. The idea behind neoclassicism was that Greek, Roman, and Italian Renaissance art were empirically superior to anything that came before or since, and so contemporary artists should copy their themes and forms. (To our eye, the Baroque and Rococo styles that preceded neoclassicism look a lot like ancient Greco-Roman art anyway, so a reactionary movement like neoclassicism seems redundant, but what do we know?)

About half of the work in this little room in the Iris and Gerald B. Cantor Galleries gave us the sense that sculptors and designers in 19th century Europe were just itching to get out from the crushing burden of classicism. How many urns depicting Homeric  myth does it take before everyone gets bored of business as usual and just wants to try something new?

To wit: the Cantor Galleries contain a bronze statue of Perseus (1890), a vase (1911) with the same decorative motifs you see in the objects in the Hellenistic Galleries, and commemorative medals with sitters in profile (1880s) that are almost indistinguishable from those that had depicted Caesar or Alexander. It’s crazy. These artists were living in the age of the railroad and phonograph and telephone and automobile, but they kept emulating the art that Athenians and Romans were making before the birth of Christ.

And then something weird happened (in the flow of history, not in the Cantor Gallery). In 1854, under pressure from Commodore Matthew Perry, Japan opened its borders to the West for the first time in more than 200 years. The concisely named “International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine” in Philadelphia in 1876 was America’s first world fair, where pavilions from thirty-odd countries—including Japan—exposed 9 million westerners to the wonders of the “Orient.” European avant-gardes like Toulouse-Latrec and Van Gogh began combining the clarity of line and flatness of picture plane from Japanese woodcuts with European techniques like oil painting.

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Clarity of line and asymmetrical composition recall woodprints from Hiroshige and Hokusai. (French, c. 1870)

The resulting biracial baby was named Japonisme, and it was awesome. No surprise there: when previously isolated cultures cross paths, cultural upheaval and fertility results (The Met’s own website has a concise entry explaining how a similar phenomenon had unfolded due to the silk and spice trade nearly two thousand years before). The Cantor gallery shows objects in both the conservative neoclassical and the radical japoniste modes.

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Take that, classical antiquity. These here dishes are something new. (English, 1880-84)

Other great pieces in the gallery: a Russian cigarette case (1896-1903) designed for Fabregé, a creepy ceramic Infanta, and a terracotta Négresse, which stylistically could have come from quattrocento Florence, but whose inscription (Porquoi! Natre esclave!, or Why born a slave?) and year of commission (1867) make it a piece of political commentary. A bit late, but still, at least it’s not another bust of Ceres or Bacchus.

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La Négresse. (French, 1867-71)

And finally: How often have you found yourself in the unenviable position of having toasted six pieces of bread, but you lack a receptacle to hold them? Regularly? Good news, because Christopher Dresser’s 1881 toast rack solves that exact problem.

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Sorry, the toast rack holds what, now? (English, 1881)

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The Iris and Gerald B. Cantor Galleries: European Sculpture and Decorative Arts 1850-1900

Highlights: Toast holder, duh.

Memorable Quote
Mom: We’re not going to the store.
Kid: (calm but incredulous) What?
Mom: We’re at the museum to learn and to enjoy each other’s company.
Kid: (visibly agitated) WHAT?

Next week: African art. All of it.

Jerk University: The Nicholas Roerich Museum

Say, do you know which group of people is terrible? It’s polymaths. They’re a bunch of assholes. These overachieving Renaissance men and women make the rest of us look like sub-human layabouts by comparison.

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Oh, what’s that, Ghost of Michelangelo? You weren’t content to sculpt a top-notch marble relief at age 16? You had to design the Laurentian Library, where Vasari said, “boldness and grace are equally conspicuous”? And then you spent the next half-century creating the most iconic sculpture and fresco in the Western canon? That’s great, except it makes you an insufferable braggart.

If you want to engineer buildings or paint or sculpt, fine. But doing all three is just tacky. It says, “I think I’m better than you because I made the statue of David and designed St. Peter’s Basilica and you spent 45 minutes yesterday trying to figure out how to play ‘Smooth Criminal’ on the guitar.”

Well, I’m unimpressed by a broad ouvre. As the saying goes, “It doesn’t matter how many extracurricular activities you have on your application to Jerk University. It’s still Jerk University, and it’s still a shitty school.”

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The Russian artist Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) was a notable alum of JU. While wandering through Manhattan’s Roerich Museum recently, I asked a docent what was up with all the religious paintings—was the guy a mystic? The docent half-smiled and shook his head. “No, he was a scientist.”

A note to aspiring artist-scientists: no one likes a showoff. If you try to wear too many hats, your work will suffer and you’ll look like a fool because you’ll be wearing several hats. Besides, people will get jealous of your versatility and they’ll spread rumors about you being a Scientologist, so it’s best to focus on a single discipline and go with that. For instance, I sacrificed a promising career in the sciences (C+ in high school chemistry; physics in summer school) to focus on my Art. And the decision clearly paid dividends:

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Roerich wasn’t content to be a mere scientist. Like Michelangelo and Dion Sanders, he was hell bent on making everyone else seem shiftless by producing a wide and profound body of work. Exhaustive research (the museum brochure and Wikipedia) reveals that Roerich studied at a fine arts academy while simultaneously pursuing a law degree. I mean Jesus Christ, come on. Nobody does that. He was also an accomplished archaeologist and a member of everything from the Mark Twain Society to the Red Cross to the French Ethnographical Society (which he founded). Oh, and Roerich did the set design for the infamous debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Late in his life he drafted a pact—ratified by FDR and 35 other heads of state—establishing the protection of cultural artifacts during times of war.

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But the worst part? The worst part of all of this? Is that his art is killer. Dude published 32 books and he still found time to develop a great painterly technique and earn multiple Nobel nominations. That smug bastard.

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The Roerich Museum’s 200 or so paintings are as gorgeous as they are soulful. Many show religious icons (Milarepa, “Mahomet”) that dominate the picture plane; in others, anonymous figures contrast with muscular landscapes and hallucinogenic skies. Nearly all of the canvases show Roerich to be a skilled draftsman with a powerful understanding of color and light. The Museum itself—an 1890s townhouse with stained glass windows and creaky stairs—is the perfect setting for his work.

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So there you have it. Nicholas Roerich: archeologist, writer, philosopher, lawyer, anthropologist, and painter.

And first-rate dick.

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Modern Self Portraits

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A quickie this time. The Met’s Modern Art Mezzanine has an exhibition called The Lens and the Mirror showing self-portraits from the Museum’s own collection.

We loved the pair of William Roberts drawings, the first from 1911 (when he was sixteen!) and the second from around 1920. In both, the artist’s face is tilted down a bit, giving him a kind of menacing, Alex DeLarge look. There’s also an Egon Schiele watercolor, below, in which the artist appears eroticized and grotesquely emaciated. So, yeah, pretty much like any other portrait he ever did (ProTip: The Neue Galerie, just a few blocks north of the Met’s main entrance, has a fantastic Schiele collection in a weirdly intimate setting).

We enjoyed the Matisse intaglio, an expressive drawing by Umberto Boccioni (who was discussed previously on Suggested Donation) and the wonderfully rigid self-portrait by modernist photographer Edward Steichen (shown below as an unintentional self-portrait of a self-portrait—bad photographers and brightly lit objects behind glass do not mix. Metafictive! Kind of! . . . We’re like an accidental Charlie Kaufman).

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This group of work dates from the1880s through the 1940s; in August, curators will hit the reset button and put up another round  of self-portraits from the collection, this time from the 50s through today.

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Ayo Technology

Lauren’s post on the awesome World Digital Library reminded us of another impressive online art collection, Google Earth’s Masterpieces of the Prado. These images weigh in at 14,000 megapixels, meaning you get closer to works by Dürer, Bosch, and Reubens in Google Earth than you would be able to in person. It’s pretty remarkable—you can see brushtrokes and cracks in the oil paint, but never any pixelation.

Definitely best viewed in full screen Google Earth mode, but you can also check out some of these massive images in Google Maps.

READ THE SUN

Unlike everybody else, we dislike advertisements. We know. We’re taking a controversial position, but bear with us here.

We kind of think that economics is about as much of a science as witch doctoring. The world economy is short-circuiting right now because everyone went along with the sage advice of the financial gurus who thought up mortgage-backed securities and cutting bad debt up into traunches that could be sold as good debt . . . and on and on.
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As we understand it (full disclosure: we don’t understand it) one of the cornerstones of capitalism is that people act rationally and in their own self-interest, and even if capitalism stratifies the classes and ruins the earth with a consumptive ethos, we can at least reap the rewards of the generative engine of the free market. Innovation and production of wealth, blah blah blah. OK, fine, don’t love it, but at the moment, we’re too much of a wimp to rage against this machine.

But here’s the problem. Advertisements. FUCKING LIE. THEY LIE SO HARD. So how are the discrete constituents (consumers) of a capitalist system supposed to make these rational decisions in their own self-interest if they’re bombarded with disingenuous images so often repeated that even the savviest of media consumers aren’t immune to their charms? And don’t give us that dreck arguing against Galbraith’s dependence effect, like this professor CSPU does: “needs, wants, tastes, and demand all originate within the consumer. A sign that says “Lemonade—5¢” cannot create a desire for the product if the consumer is not thirsty or does not like lemonade.”

stearnsWe’re not sure if this guy’s a moron or a liar but this is the Internet so we’re prepared to call him both. An ad can do exactly that fucking thing. It can create want. Absolutely it can. Are you telling us that fashion fetishists really just ‘need’ new clothes? No, they want the clothes that an adjacency in Vanity Fair has advertised. Are you seriously saying that Hammacker Schemmler’s products exist to fulfill needs that people already have prior to reading their catalogue on an airplane?

What we’re trying to argue here is that we really hate how the axiom of capitalism is that people act rationally, but then the organizations trying to sell us product don’t permit us to act rationally. They force us to act emotionally, out of lust or fear or greed. Even the way that TV ads are produced is designed to evoke emotional (as opposed to rational) response—audio in commercials is compressed in such a way that ads sound louder than TV programs. It’s harder to act “rationally” when you’re being sonically bombarded.
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We know, we know, this argument is tired and it’s been argued more coherently with more intellectual rigor by everyone from Naomi Klein to Adbusters, but all we’re trying to say is that misleading advertisements—and that’s almost all of them—aren’t fair, and they undermine a tenet of the system they’re nominally trying to prop up. It’s weird and despicable, like a skinhead on a unicycle. What.

What we hate a lot less are ads that just level with you, and there’s a good’un by Louis Rhead in the Met’s Rockefeller Hall (remember? This blog concerns museums!) It says, in its entirety, “READ THE SUN.” That’s it. Just a straightforward command: no emotional manipulation, no lies-by-omission, no disingenuous viral marketing, no false dichotomies, no lazily pregnant double-entendre. With this ad, we know where we stand, and we’re able to decide whether or not to comply with the all-caps instruction.

The rest of the ads in the hall use the same selling-of-dreams tactic that modern commercials do. But the hell with it. Our screed above doesn’t account for the fact that we’re pushovers Art Nouveau prints. The ham-fisted directive of Edward Penfield’s 1896 “Ride a Stearns and be Content” is pretty fun.  We also like the trompe-l’Å“il tiles on E. Pickert’s February 9, 1895 poster for the  New York Times, the rich colors in Rhead’s lithograph for Le Journal de la Beauté, and the way the lady is frenching a peacock on the cover of Will H. Bradley’s woodcut cover for his typography magazine.

Not much more to say on these guys. As Penfield wrote, “A design that needs study is not a poster no matter how well it is executed.”
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Sidenote: it’s the mark of a phenomenal collection when the hallways taking you from one gallery to the next are themselves packed with terrific art. A recent AP article on museum attendance spiking in this down economy states that, “At any given time, most museums display only 1 percent of [their] collections.” Let’s ramp that up, shall we? Per Andy’s bathroom post, we advocate for putting some of the works currently in storage in the Met’s bowels and annexes on the walls of the restroom.

The Rockefeller Hall

Highlights: All of them. Large-format Art Nouveau lithographs.

Memorable Quote: “READ THE SUN”

Next week: Self-Portraits in the Modern Mezzanine

More Museum Apps, Please

“When you’ve got an elephant by the hind leg, and he’s trying to run away, it’s best to let him run.” So says an actor portraying Abe Lincoln in a new iPhone app commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Great Emancipator’s birth.

abrahamThe actual program itself is . . . well, it’s useless. It’s a kind of a neat portrait of Honest Abe, and when you tap the screen, you get one of six wisdom-filled quotations read in deep stentorian voice. Which we think is a historical inaccuracy, but never mind that now. The program’s one other feature is a button that links you a page on the Rosenbach Museum’s website, called “21st Century Abe” (the Rosenbach has a collection of Lincoln’s papers; this app seems like it’s basically an ad for the museum itself to drive traffic to their website). While this effort is simple, it’s harmless (and free!), we hope the release signals the beginning of a deluge of Museum-produced software designed to give visitors better access to and a more enriching experience from collections.

For instance—why no Met Museum map app, with a Google Earth style interface allowing you to find the room you want? It could have a text search function, so if you wanted to see something particular—“Van der Weyden” or “frieze”— you could find the quickest path to your goal. And it would be easily updatatble: the reason that the Met doesn’t currently have a comprehensive, detailed floor plan map is that the configuration changes often when things get lent out or new shows arrive. It might save some money on printing maps. And if people paid for it, it’d give the museum another source of revenue in what I imagine is a rough time for them financially. Not to mention it could incorporate mp3s of those walking tours that you currently have to rent bulky Walkman-style apparatuses to hear . . . you listening, the Met?

Anyone have a recommendation for a good existing museum application?

‘Pressions

Oh, Impressionism. You’re the least offensive of art movements to our modern eye, with your treatment of light and refusal to delve into the tortured interior life of humanity. Who knew that, at your inception, you were considered shocking and radical? We did, thanks to taking Intro to Art History.

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Impressionism was distinct from earlier Euro painting styles in its focus on moments—how the light hits the facade of a church at a certain hour—but not moments of historical import. Impressionists traded in genre pictures (a term first defined as a negative—not a still life and not a history painting [NSFW if you W for Puritans]. Anyway, genre painting portrays everyday life–people walking around a city, sitting on a bench, or working in a field).

An Impressionist canvas might show light glancing off water, or smoke rising from a chimney, with just a few broad brushstrokes, but the viewer connects with it more intimately than he would with photorealistic representation. Maybe it’s something about omitting details so the audience has to unconsciously participate, supplying their own memories to fill in the broad patches of color.

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Who the fuck knows? Not us. What we do know is that these paintings are pretty as all get-out and seriously, you should be going to this museum all the fucking time. Someday you’ll have kids and you’ll move to Connecticut and it will be boring as shit and you’ll miss the days when one of the world’s great repositories of cultural history was just a subway ride away, but you blew your chance to be a regular there because you got high or spent time with your girlfriend when you’re missing the goddamn point because you don’t seem to realize that you would enjoy being high in the Jaques and Natasha Gelman Collection, or that you could french your sweetheart upstairs while looking at the fucking Rodins which are the most erotic objects in the universe, Legends of the Fall-era Brad Pitt included.

You fucking asshole.

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So anyway, in Impressionism, a premium was put on depicting light. Although paint was often applied impasto—thickly—and the style appears sketchy and imprecise, Impressionists slaved over their compositions as much as their pre-Raphaelite forbearers. A bit of wall text in one of the rooms in the Annenberg Galleries notes, “Despite the seemingly rapid brushwork and the summary treatment of detail, [Manet’s portrait of his wife] was preceded by at least two drawings and an oil sketch.” Which is of course great, because it takes so much mastery and practice to achieve this effortless, spontaneous effect.

Art. Is the best. Except for Damien Hirst.

PS A moment of silence for Leonore Annenberg, who sponsored 9 rooms of European 19th century painting (one of which we were nominally reviewing here) and who, despite serving in the Reagan administration, donated a shitload of art and money to the Met. The Annenberg Foundation has also given away some $3 billion dollars to institutions like PBS and NPR, which makes her A-OK in our book, Gipper or no.

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The Annenberg Galleries (1 of 9)

Highlights: Beardy McBarbarossa (below) (not his real name). He looks kind of sad, but still like he wants to be friends with me.

I accept.

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Memorable Quote: “Monet’s art depends on observation of his environment, and to that extent, it is always autobiographical. In his pictures, one can chart the seasons, the weather, or as here, the look of women’s fashion in 1873.” From the wall text for Camille Monet on a Garden Bench, 1873

Next week: Self-portraits in the Modern mezzanine.