Quotulatiousness

April 19, 2015

When comics met “pedantic didacticism”

Filed under: Media,Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

I haven’t read comics since I was a young teen, so I really have no idea what the current state of the comic industry might be. I didn’t expect the rise of pedantic didacticism, however:

I would like to expand upon the point that seems to have annoyed her the most: Bitch Planet is really, really dreadful, you guys.

I’ll confess: I only read the first issue. I can’t imagine purchasing another issue, except maybe to see how dumb the series gets. (That might actually be kind of a fun monthly feature, now that I think about it.) Of the recommendations I received at Fantom Comics, this was by far the most disappointing. Unintentionally hilarious, sure. But disappointing nevertheless.

As I noted in the Post, it’s a comic about women who are sent to an intergalactic prison because they’re uppity. One of the women is then murdered while in this prison so her husband can marry a younger, hotter woman. Because patriarchy!

What I didn’t really get into was the essay at the end of the book by Danielle Henderson,* which drives home all of the lessons from the previous 20-or-so pages.

    No matter how many examples of misogyny I provided, no matter how many times we talked about gender being a social construct, or how many times I asked them to question what, precisely, was natural about male leadership other than the fact that they said it was natural, one person always held out, one person refused to believe that women were culturally oppressed. … The striking thing about Bitch Planet is that we’re already on it. We don’t have to get thrown on a shuttle to be judged non-compliant—be a little overweight, talk too loud, have an opinion on the Internet.

This is a bit like following up John Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged with a chapter-long discourse from a Cato fellow about the evils of government handouts. Or like letting Benny Hinn preach over the credits at the end of Heaven Is for Real. Or like including an essay from Chuck Norris on American exceptionalism in the liner notes of Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue.” God we get it.

Frankly, I was being nice by sticking to “pedantic didacticism.” As my friend Jonathan V. Last, a relatively avid collector of comics, said when I emailed him,

    Bitch Planet is so obvious and on the nose I was actually angry at myself for spending money on it. The least artful piece of fiction I’ve read in years.

And that’s the rub: there’s just no art to being a pedantic bore. I’m certainly not arguing that art should be devoid of politics. Just that it should be done interestingly.

April 18, 2015

QotD: The danger of the “deadly genius” in art

Filed under: Media,Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

There are entire genres of art that have self-destructed in the last hundred years — become drained of vitality, driven their audiences away to the point where they become nothing more than museum exhibits or hobby-horses for snobs and antiquarians.

The three most obvious examples are painting, the literary novel and classical music. After about 1910 all three of these art forms determinedly severed the connections with popular culture that had made them relevant over the previous 250 years. Their departure left vacuums to be filled; we got modern genre literature, rock music, and art photography.

Other art forms underwent near-death experiences and survived only in severely compromised forms. Jazz, running away from its roots in honky tonks and dance halls, all but strangled on its own sophistication between 1960 and 1980; it survives today primarily as smoothed-out elevator music. Sculpture, having spent a century losing itself in increasingly meaningless abstraction, is only now feeling its way back towards a figurative vocabulary; the most interesting action there is not yet in the revival of mimetic forms but in artists who speak the vocabulary of mathematics and machine technology.

What makes an art-form self-destruct like this? Many things can contribute — hankerings for bourgeois respectability, corruption by politics, clumsy response to a competing genre. But the one we see over and over again is deadly genius.

A deadly genius is a talent so impressive that he can break and remake all the rules of the form, and seduce others into trying to emulate his disruptive brilliance — even when those followers lack the raw ability or grounding to make art in the new idiom the the genius has defined.

Arnold Schoenberg (classical music). James Joyce (literary novels). John Coltrane (jazz). Pablo Picasso (painting). Konstantin Brancusi (sculpture). These men had the knack of inventing radical new forms that made the preexisting conventions of their arts seem stale and outworn. They produced works of brilliance, taught their followers to value disruptive brillance over tradition, and in doing so all but destroyed their arts.

Eric S. Raymond, “Deadly Genius and the Back-To-Zero Problem”, Armed and Dangerous, 2004-09-24.

April 4, 2015

Canadian schools

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Cancon — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

David Warren is hiding from reality at the moment, so he’s reposting some of his older articles, like this one:

… I was parachuted briefly into a Canadian public school, from my earlier life in Asia (and before returning to Asia again). Canadian school came as a shock; quite unlike what I was used to. I had difficulty at first adapting to the sudden disappearance of anything resembling academic standards. Later, parachuted again, I was better prepared for life in the perpetual kindergarten. I found myself in something called a “high school,” with a curriculum that seemed especially designed for children with learning disabilities. Oddly, it considered itself to be an elite high school, which perhaps it was by Canadian standards. I bid my time until age sixteen, when I could legally drop out. For in my humble but unalterable opinion, these public “schools” are great crushers of the human spirit. No responsible parent will allow a child to be exposed to them. Ditto, no aspiring teacher should work in one, even if the alternative is starvation. The administrators should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity.

[…]

So far as I can see the purpose of the Canadian education system, or modern public education in general, is to suppress curiosity and enterprise in children; to cripple them morally, aesthetically, and intellectually; and make them identical on a bed of Procrustes. Hilda Neatby spelt this out in her remarkable survey, So Little for the Mind, published at Toronto in 1953. One must read it to realize that the demonic ideas of John Dewey, the American “philosopher of democratic education,” had already far advanced in Canadian schools by that year; and that as a result, standards once achieved and maintained through the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth century, had already collapsed. It is a myth they collapsed in the 1960s. Look at the schoolbooks for the Province of Ontario from that earlier period, and compare them with those introduced after the Second World War (we once did this for an article in the Idler magazine). The declination is obvious. The hippie generation was not the cause of this catastrophe. They were instead the effect.

March 24, 2015

Everything’s Awesome and Camille Paglia is Unhappy!

Filed under: Liberty,Media,Politics,USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 19 Mar 2015

Growing up as “a gender nonconforming entity” during Eisenhower’s America wasn’t easy for cultural critic and best-selling author Camille Paglia. Her adolescence in small-town, upstate New York was marked by rejection, rebellion, and cross-dressing—all in reaction to the stultifying social norms of the 1950s and early ’60s.

So what does Paglia think of contemporary culture, with its openness to a wide variety of ever-proliferating gender, racial, and sexual identities?

Not much.

“I do not feel that gender is sufficient to explain all of human life,” Paglia tells Reason TV‘s Nick Gillespie. “This gender myopia, this gender monomania, has become a disease. It’s become a substitute for religion. It is impossible that the feminist agenda can ever be the total explanation of human life.”

Whether the subject is feminism or the fate of Western civilization, Paglia is no Pollyanna. In this wide-ranging discussion, she says higher education is going to hell, the Fourth Estate is an epic FAIL, millennials are myopic, contemporary criticism has croaked, and Hillary Clinton might singlehandedly destroy the universe. Even Madonna, once Paglia’s ideal of sex-positive feminism, seems to have lost her way.

Does the celebrated author of Sexual Personae and Break Blow Burn have any reason to get out of bed in the morning? Does she have any hope for the universe at all? Watch the video to find out.

March 6, 2015

ISIS takes sledgehammers and drills to ancient artifacts

Filed under: History,Middle East,Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

This makes me sick to my stomach:

ISIS destroys archaeological works 1

ISIS destroys archaeological works 2

ISIS destroys archaeological works 3

ISIS destroys archaeological works 4

These images and many more are screencapped from a propaganda video released by ISIS, reported by Conflict Antiquities:

It is notable that the Islamic State released this propaganda, to assert their religious purity through their commitment to cultural destruction, immediately after the were exposed for making a deal with Turkey and not destroying Suleyman Shah’s tomb.

Last June, it was rumoured and mistakenly reported that the Islamic State had ‘destroyed ancient masterpieces, including the rare Assyrian winged bull’ at Nineveh Museum. This time, they’ve done it — at Mosul Museum and the Nergal Gate to Nineveh [the Nergal Gate Museum at Nineveh]. You can stream or download the mp4 (or watch it on YouTube/YouTube archive).

But if, like other sensible people, you don’t want to boost the web traffic to their pornography of violence — which they try to advertise as Islamic although they also preserve “heretical”, “idolatrous” things as long as they profit from them — I’ve taken screenshots from the video for verification and analysis. Christopher Jones, at the Gates of Nineveh, has ongoing, historically-informed coverage of this and other destruction, including Assessing the Damage at the Mosul Museum, Part 1: the Assyrian Artifacts.

February 28, 2015

QotD: Equestrian statues

Filed under: Humour,Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

There is a lot of folklore about equestrian statues, especially the ones with riders on them. There is said to be a code in the number and placement of the horse’s hooves: If one of the horse’s hooves is in the air, the rider was wounded in battle; two legs in the air means that the rider was killed in battle; three legs in the air indicates that the rider got lost on the way to the battle; and four legs in the air means that the sculptor was very, very clever. Five legs in the air means that there’s probably at least one other horse standing behind the horse you’re looking at; and the rider lying on the ground with his horse lying on top of him with all four legs in the air means that the rider was either a very incompetent horseman or owned a very bad-tempered horse.

Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight, 2010.

January 18, 2015

Being an artist requires a fine sense of balance

Filed under: Humour,Randomness — Tags: — Nicholas @ 09:57

January 11, 2015

Images are the “lingua franca of politics”

Filed under: Media,Politics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Virginia Postrel explains why images are so important even in discussions of ordinary, everyday importance:

In an ideal world, political discourse would consist only of logical arguments backed by empirical evidence. Visual persuasion would have no place.

There would be no fireworks on the Fourth of July; no pictures of the president speaking from the Oval Office or grinning at children or greeting soldiers or reaching over the sneeze guard at Chipotle; no “Morning in America” or “Daisy” commercials; no “Hope” or “We Can Do It” posters; no peace signs or Vs for victory or Black Power salutes; no news photos of gay newlyweds kissing or crowds celebrating atop a crumbling Berlin wall or naturalized citizens waving little flags; no shots of napalmed girls running in terror or the Twin Towers aflame; no Migrant Mother or dreamy Che Guevara; no political cartoons, Internet memes, or Guy Fawkes masks; no “shining city on a hill” or “bridge to the future”; no Liberty Leading the People or Guernica or Washington Crossing the Delaware; no Statue of Liberty.

In this deliberative utopia, politics would be entirely rational, with no place for emotion and the propagandistic pictures that carry it. And we would all be better off.

At least that’s what a lot of smart people imagine.

It’s an understandable belief. Persuasive images are dangerous. They can obscure the real ramifications of political actions. Their meanings are imprecise and subject to interpretation. They cannot establish cause and effect or outline a coherent policy. They leave out crucial facts and unseen consequences. They reduce real people to stereotypes and caricatures. They oversimplify complicated situations. They can fuel moral panics, hysteria, and hate. They can lead to rash decisions. Their visceral power threatens to override our reason.

Yet images are so ubiquitous they’ve been called “the lingua franca of politics.”

January 1, 2015

Oh, yeah … Happy New Year (with apologies to Edward Hopper)

Filed under: Humour — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 12:25

New Year - Hopper style

H/T to Ego is a rat on the sinking ship of being.

November 29, 2014

What happens when an artform becomes “too refined” for its audience

Filed under: History,Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:36

Pretty much all forms of artistic expression above the tribal dance/folk art/cave painting level have had to depend on the patronage model to survive — well, not so much the art itself, but the artists. It must have been some kind of artistic revolution when a village was wealthy enough to have an artisan who had enough spare time to produce items of aesthetic value over and above the purely functional: there was now at least one worker who now depended on the taste (or greed) of others for the means of survival. With the development of larger communities, and the rise of a ruling class, the most skilled artisans would eventually drift into a patronage relationship with the rulers, where the artisan (and eventually the true artist) was dependent upon producing their work strictly for the consumption of the wealthy and powerful. Jewellers were probably exceptions to the rule, as they could produce items of interest to many more in the community and at prices that allowed a much wider base of custom (even slaves and freedmen in the Roman empire could own and wear small pieces of jewellery, for example).

This was the basic pattern of art that lasted from the early settled villages down to the late middle ages: artists were unable to produce their work (and survive on the proceeds) without wealthy patrons. There were a few isolated examples of artists with multiple patrons (but still not really customers in the modern sense, as the patron had a lot more control over the artist’s work than a customer would). The idea of a self-supporting artist only became “a thing” around the time that the industrial revolution was also starting to become “a thing”.

The change from the patronage model to the customer model transferred much of the artistic control from Duke Cosmo the Munificent and his ilk to the artists themselves: now rather than being told how to use their skills and talents, they were now able to decide what to make and also to learn what would or would not sell from their customers. Many failed the test — we don’t have the “starving artist” meme for nothing — but enough of them succeeded that it became a viable lifestyle to paint or sculpt or compose for the wider community rather than the aristocracy (who as a group were still very important, but now as customers rather than as patrons in the original sense).

A problem for artists in dealing with wider audiences is that pretty much by definition, the artistic tastes of a larger number of people will not be “as refined” as those of a smaller, somewhat self-selected group. This means rather than doing the kind of cutting-edge work you think you should be doing, you have an economic incentive to produce for those less-refined tastes of the wider group: the most avant-garde stuff gets you the appreciation (or hatred) of fellow artists and critics, but might not be salable to the average prospective client. With rising prosperity in the western world as the industrial revolution took off, so did the absolute number of self-supporting artists. I’m sure the individual artists would say that artistically speaking, things didn’t improve that much, but as a whole both artists and the community at large benefitted from the wider availability of art and related works.

But, as Jonah Goldberg explained in one of his Goldberg File newsletters back in 2011, at some point the various artistic endeavours tended to start catering more or less exclusively to the critics and to fellow artists rather than to the community. That is usually the point that the artform loses its relevance to the wider community:

I once read somewhere that architecture is the best example of an “artistic” school that has completely broken with popular tastes. Architects certainly seem to design buildings to please each other and the critics and not the public. The average intelligent person goes to the Louvre in France and marvels at the beauty of the 17th-century buildings. The average architecture critic yawns at the musty old antiques and gushes over I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid. I don’t hate the glass pyramid (okay, maybe I do a little). But I don’t go to Paris to see a structure that I could see at a relatively upscale suburban mall. The phenomenon is even more pronounced when you look at modern architecture in more conventional businesses and houses. What’s more appealing to the eye, stately Wayne Manor or the Hall of Justice?

Still, I don’t know if architecture is the best example of the phenomenon. Modern art caters to popular tastes just as little as architecture. A great deal of performance and installation art strikes most normal people as a colossal joke or a straight-up con. And please don’t tell me that my failure to appreciate three squares and a triangle or a blob of paint on a canvas is my shortcoming. If something isn’t aesthetically pleasing or interesting, doesn’t require skills I do not have, and makes a stupid point stupidly, I don’t appreciate it as art. That doesn’t make me a philistine. It makes me a non-rube.

Anyway, it seems to me that the more a relatively artistic field of endeavor caters to critics over consumers, the worse it gets. You can see this all over the place, from haute cuisine to music. Some of my best friends in college were music majors, and they would ramble on about how Philip Glass is a genius. Maybe he is. But I’ll take Beethoven or the Beatles over him any day. I don’t follow the literary world too closely these days, but my impression is that the same is true in the world of fiction. If you write for the critics, only the critics will read you.

Academia certainly suffers from this problem. Visit the history section of a bookstore and you’ll find a fascinating disconnect between history books written by popular historians and those written by academic historians. In fact, you won’t find that many histories written by academic historians or for academic audiences. Arguably the most popular form of history is military history, but the academic establishment shuns the field almost entirely, preferring far more relevant topics like lesbian mores in antebellum Delaware 1856-1861.

Now, obviously this is a generalization. There’s good academic history, good modern art, good high-end food, and good modern architecture. But there are some really interesting things to noodle here. Interesting to me, at least.

First, I think people underestimate the importance of mass markets. When you become wholly disconnected from the metric of commercial success, catering wholly to elite micro-markets — like the eccentric rich and unknown critics — you become untethered from your culture and from quality. Iconoclastic shock and newness for their own sake become the standard, because that’s what will please the a-holes bored with the canon.

Of course, there are problems if you go completely in the opposite direction as well. Designers of Happy Meal toys don’t exactly strive for beauty or excellence.

But there’s one area of performance — broadly defined — where the performers are driven by excellence, are hugely popular and successful, and haven’t been captured by either the market or the critics.

A more recent example of an artform that stopped creating for their wider audience and started concentrating only on the tastes and interests of a tiny minority would be Jazz music.

About twenty years ago, I became interested in learning more about Jazz. I picked up a number of Jazz collections and discovered that I really enjoyed the progression from the 1930s and 40s big band sound to the smaller groups of the 1950s and 60s. And then ran into a musical wall that I was unable to penetrate as Jazz went in odd and unusual musical directions in the early to mid 1960s. I would characterize it as the Jazz greats stopped producing music for mainstream fans and started creating music for fellow musicians. I don’t know enough musical terminology to explain why I was unable to enjoy the later compositions and performances except that they stopped being “musical” and became “sound”. The rise of rock music almost exactly coincided with the retreat of Jazz from being literally “popular music” to a niche interest of self-consciously aesthetic listeners.

October 24, 2014

Google Design open sources some icons

Filed under: Media,Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:19

If you have a need for system icons and don’t want to create your own (or, like me, you have no artistic skills), you might want to look at a recent Google Design set that is now open source:

Today, Google Design are open-sourcing 750 glyphs as part of the Material Design system icons pack. The system icons contain icons commonly used across different apps, such as icons used for media playback, communication, content editing, connectivity, and so on. They’re equally useful when building for the web, Android or iOS.

Google Design open source icons

October 21, 2014

A legal warning shot for Manga fans in England

Filed under: Britain,Law,Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:14

A man in Middlesbrough has been convicted of possessing illegal images of children … in his Manga collection. That is, cartoon drawings in the Japanese style called Manga. Gareth Lightfoot reports on the case for the Gazette:

A jobless animation fan has made legal history as he was convicted of having illegal pictures of cartoon children.

Robul Hoque, 39, is believed to be the first in the UK hauled before court over his collection of Japanese Manga or Anime-style images alone.

He admitted 10 counts of possessing prohibited images of children at Teesside Crown Court.

His barrister Richard Bennett said: “These are not what would be termed as paedophilic images. These are cartoons.”

And Mr Bennett revealed that such banned images were freely available on legitimate sites.

He said: “This case should serve as a warning to every Manga and Anime fan to be careful. It seems there are many thousands of people in this country, if they are less then careful, who may find themselves in that position too.”

Police found the images when they seized Hoque’s computer from his home on June 13, 2012, said prosecutor Harry Hadfield. He said officers found 288 still and 99 moving images, but none were of real people.

They were classified as prohibited images as they depicted young girls, some in school uniforms, some exposing themselves or taking part in sexual activity.

For obvious reasons, the newspaper article does not show any examples of the images in question, but Rob Beschizza warns you not to read his post at BoingBoing if you’re in England, as it does show an image that may or may not have been part of the investigation.

October 19, 2014

Sex-toy-shaped installation deflated by Paris vandal (or someone with good taste)

Filed under: Europe,Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 12:49

In the Telegraph, David Chazan tells the tale of the now-deflated artwork:

Vandals deflated a blow-up art installation in an exclusive Paris square on Saturday after outraged conservative groups said it resembled a “giant sex toy”.

The 79-foot-high inflatable green exhibit was called “Tree” because it looked vaguely like a Christmas tree, but the American artist, Paul McCarthy, told Le Monde newspaper that it was inspired by a sex toy known as an anal plug and was meant “as a joke”.

However, conservative politicians and many Parisians failed to appreciate the humour and called for the removal of the “offensive” installation after it was erected in Place Vendôme on Thursday.

Hours later, McCarthy, 69, was slapped in the face by a passer-by who screamed: “You’re not French and this has no place in the square”. The artist was dazed and shocked, but unhurt. “Does this sort of thing happen often in Paris?” he asked as his assailant fled before he could be apprehended.

In the early hours of Saturday, vandals climbed a metal fence around the exhibit, cut the power supply to a pump that kept it filled with air, and severed one of the straps that held it upright, police said.

By the morning, it was a shapeless green mess. McCarthy said he did not want it to be repaired or re-erected.

August 2, 2014

There are “writers” and then there are writers

Filed under: History,Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:12

An old discussion on Slashdot, where Neal Stephenson tries to explain why science fiction works are not considered worthy by the literary world:

First of all, I don’t think that the condescending “quality” press look too kindly on Jackie Collins and Jeffrey Archer. So I disagree with the premise of the last sentence of this question and I’m not going to address it. Instead I’m going to answer what I think MosesJones is really getting at, which is why SF and other genre and popular writers don’t seem to get a lot of respect from the literary world.

To set it up, a brief anecdote: a while back, I went to a writers’ conference. I was making chitchat with another writer, a critically acclaimed literary novelist who taught at a university. She had never heard of me. After we’d exchanged a bit of of small talk, she asked me “And where do you teach?” just as naturally as one Slashdotter would ask another “And which distro do you use?”

I was taken aback. “I don’t teach anywhere,” I said.

Her turn to be taken aback. “Then what do you do?”

“I’m … a writer,” I said. Which admittedly was a stupid thing to say, since she already knew that.

“Yes, but what do you do?”

I couldn’t think of how to answer the question — I’d already answered it!

“You can’t make a living out of being a writer, so how do you make money?” she tried.

“From … being a writer,” I stammered.

At this point she finally got it, and her whole affect changed. She wasn’t snobbish about it. But it was obvious that, in her mind, the sort of writer who actually made a living from it was an entirely different creature from the sort she generally associated with.

And once I got over the excruciating awkwardness of this conversation, I began to think she was right in thinking so. One way to classify artists is by to whom they are accountable.

The great artists of the Italian Renaissance were accountable to wealthy entities who became their patrons or gave them commissions. In many cases there was no other way to arrange it. There is only one Sistine Chapel. Not just anyone could walk in and start daubing paint on the ceiling. Someone had to be the gatekeeper — to hire an artist and give him a set of more or less restrictive limits within which he was allowed to be creative. So the artist was, in the end, accountable to the Church. The Church’s goal was to build a magnificent structure that would stand there forever and provide inspiration to the Christians who walked into it, and they had to make sure that Michelangelo would carry out his work accordingly.

Similar arrangements were made by writers. After Dante was banished from Florence he found a patron in the Prince of Verona, for example. And if you look at many old books of the Baroque period you find the opening pages filled with florid expressions of gratitude from the authors to their patrons. It’s the same as in a modern book when it says “this work was supported by a grant from the XYZ Foundation.”

[…]

Accountability in the writing profession has been bifurcated for many centuries. I already mentioned that Dante and other writers were supported by patrons at least as far back as the Renaissance. But I doubt that Beowulf was written on commission. Probably there was a collection of legends and tales that had been passed along in an oral tradition — which is just a fancy way of saying that lots of people liked those stories and wanted to hear them told. And at some point perhaps there was an especially well-liked storyteller who pulled a few such tales together and fashioned them into the what we now know as Beowulf. Maybe there was a king or other wealthy patron who then caused the tale to be written down by a scribe. But I doubt it was created at the behest of a king. It was created at the behest of lots and lots of intoxicated Frisians sitting around the fire wanting to hear a yarn. And there was no grand purpose behind its creation, as there was with the painting of the Sistine Chapel.

The novel is a very new form of art. It was unthinkable until the invention of printing and impractical until a significant fraction of the population became literate. But when the conditions were right, it suddenly became huge. The great serialized novelists of the 19th Century were like rock stars or movie stars. The printing press and the apparatus of publishing had given these creators a means to bypass traditional arbiters and gatekeepers of culture and connect directly to a mass audience. And the economics worked out such that they didn’t need to land a commission or find a patron in order to put bread on the table. The creators of those novels were therefore able to have a connection with a mass audience and a livelihood fundamentally different from other types of artists.

Nowadays, rock stars and movie stars are making all the money. But the publishing industry still works for some lucky novelists who find a way to establish a connection with a readership sufficiently large to put bread on their tables. It’s conventional to refer to these as “commercial” novelists, but I hate that term, so I’m going to call them Beowulf writers.

But this is not true for a great many other writers who are every bit as talented and worthy of finding readers. And so, in addition, we have got an alternate system that makes it possible for those writers to pursue their careers and make their voices heard. Just as Renaissance princes supported writers like Dante because they felt it was the right thing to do, there are many affluent persons in modern society who, by making donations to cultural institutions like universities, support all sorts of artists, including writers. Usually they are called “literary” as opposed to “commercial” but I hate that term too, so I’m going to call them Dante writers. And this is what I mean when I speak of a bifurcated system.

Like all tricks for dividing people into two groups, this is simplistic, and needs to be taken with a grain of salt. But there is a cultural difference between these two types of writers, rooted in to whom they are accountable, and it explains what MosesJones is complaining about. Beowulf writers and Dante writers appear to have the same job, but in fact there is a quite radical difference between them — hence the odd conversation that I had with my fellow author at the writer’s conference. Because she’d never heard of me, she made the quite reasonable assumption that I was a Dante writer — one so new or obscure that she’d never seen me mentioned in a journal of literary criticism, and never bumped into me at a conference. Therefore, I couldn’t be making any money at it. Therefore, I was most likely teaching somewhere. All perfectly logical. In order to set her straight, I had to let her know that the reason she’d never heard of me was because I was famous.

H/T to Lois McMaster Bujold for the link.

June 23, 2014

Censoring WW1 art

Filed under: Britain,History,Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:29

In BBC News Magazine, Alan Little looks at some early WW1 art that fell afoul of the censors for being too accurate:

Paths of Glory by Christopher Nevinson

What you notice first about the two figures in Christopher Nevinson’s painting Paths of Glory is the banality of their deaths. Their commonplace, mundane fate. They lie face down in the blasted earth, two men in British military fatigues, their helmets and rifles lying in the mud beside them.

They are indistinguishable from each other, stripped of individual identity. Nothing marks them out as the unique human beings they must once have been with names, and families, and remembered childhoods, and desire and love and hope and ambition.

From the bottom left of the composition, where the corpse in the foreground lies with the soles of his boots facing you, your eye moves diagonally upwards and to the right, to the second dead man, who has fallen forwards towards you, and you see the top of his dark head but Nevinson denies you a glimpse of his face. He has no face, no personality, no story of his own. In colour, texture and even contour, the lifeless bodies are almost indistinguishable from the land on which they lie, and which will now swallow them.

In my time as a war reporter for the BBC I have come across scenes like this. You cannot mistake the recently dead for the sleeping, for there is something bloodless, something shockingly, arrestingly lifeless about them. I have found myself transfixed by odd detail — a bootlace tied just a few hours ago, by fingers that will now never move again. What talents lie locked into the muscle memory of those fingers? Could they, as recently as this morning, have picked out a melody on a piano? With the death of each individual, an entire universe vanishes.

[…]

I think of those two young men whose names I never learned when I look at Nevinson’s Paths of Glory. Its title is taken from Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard. “The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, / And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave / Awaits alike th’inevitable hour. / The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

Government censors did not like Paths of Glory. They judged it bad for morale and refused to pay Nevinson for it. But he included it anyway in the first exhibition of his war paintings in London early in 1918, with a brown paper strip across the canvas carrying the word “censored”. He was reprimanded both for exhibiting a censored painting and, bizarrely, for unauthorised use of the word “censored” in a public place. But the painting was bought, during that exhibition, by the Imperial War Museum, where it remains.

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