Monday, March 31, 2008

About a man on the move...

I have a little web based widget that tells me the historical importance of each day. This is what it told me today:

Mar 31, 1959: The Dalai Lama, fleeing Chinese repression of an uprising in Tibet, arrived at the Indian border and was granted political asylum.

The timing of this tidbit to the current crackdown of demonstrators in Tibet was jarring. It also makes one think about the fact that The Dalai Lama (almost half a century later) is still in a process of fleeing those same models of repression.

Mandala of Manjuvajra, Painting on cloth, Tibet, 15th Century 19" x 16"

About the painting (From a handout I got from a Sothebys booklet):
The mandala would most probably have been painted as one of a series depicting the cycle of Guhyasamaja, described as the King of Tantras, one of the earliest Buddhist tantras to have emerged from India, and one that is widely practised throughout the various Tibetan religious orders. The lineage depicted in the upper register confirms that the mandala was painted for the Sakya order, and the composition compares closely with paintings commissioned at the Ngor Monastery in the fifteenth century, and known to have been painted by Newar artists, a fifteenth century Tibetan mandala depicting Hevajra Kapaladhara.

The palace surrounded by circles of lotus petals and multi-colored flames set on a brilliant red scrollwork field strewn with auspicious emblems and with lamas and deities within roundels, with Manjushri accompanying Sakya lineage teachers in a gallery above with multi-armed deities and dharmapala in the lower register, the palace set on a dark scrollwork field, with vajra gates in the four directions, and with the six-armed and three-headed saffron-colored Manjuvajra at center seated in union with his four-armed prajna, surrounded by manifestations within the yellow, red, green and white scrollwork quadrants.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Weekender

My Heart at Evening by Georg Trakl (1887 - 1914)

Toward evening you hear the cry of the bats.
Two black horses bound in the pasture,
The red maple rustles,
The walker along the road sees ahead the small
tavern.
Nuts and young wine taste delicious,
Delicious: to stagger drunk into the darkening woods.
Village bells, painful to hear, echo through the black
fir branches,
Dew forms on the face.

Friday, March 28, 2008

On the tragicomedy of investment bank bailouts and distressed homeowners

From 1929 to 1933, during the time of the Great Depression, U.S. gross national product declined 29% and unemployment rate reached 25%. About 9000 banks suspended operations because of the financial distresses. In order to remedy the situation and restore consumer confidence in the banking system, The Banking Act of 1935, was introduced and a separation of bank types according to their business (commercial and investment banking) was developed. This was about the time that the Federal Deposit Insurance Company (FDIC) was created for insuring consumer deposits when a bank falls under. This means that if an individual puts their money (and faith) in a bank that is ‘FDIC’ insured, and in the event of the bank falling under, the Federal Government would step in to cover the shortfall and the consumer can ‘bank’ on the faith that s(he) will be compensated for the banks follies. In order that banks have this extra level of protection and Federal backing, they had to submit to a set of terms and conditions that included laws like minimum fractional reserves held in bank vaults as a hedge to cover shortfalls. The Federal regulatory framework also included a host of additional laws and rules that made the banks more beholden to Federal oversight (as it should - they are holding our monies). All of this extended regulatory frameworks put in place in turn cleared up the muddied reputation that the banks had developed after the Depression years…

Recently, I had written about the Bear Stearns bailout and how in my opinion, Bear should have been allowed to fail thus paving the way for a 'structural (re)adjustment' of the economy. Yes, this is bitter medicine, but much better than to live within the hype of inflated expectations and trigger happy indices that yo-yo on moment’s whim. Well, what happed was just the reverse, the Federal Reserve stepped in, bailed out Bear and helped JPMorgan orchestrate what now seems like a slapdash deal done hastily and a little bit suspiciously... A largely ignored sub-aspect of the flurry of activity that surrounded the Bear brouhaha was fine print news that the Federal Reserve also opened up its money spigots to non-commercial banks (the investment banks on Wall Street) and told them to borrow any amount that they wished from the Reserve sans oversight nor regulation. It was an open call – come by, take Federal monies, shore up your finances – all in the name of ‘preserving financial liquidity’. Recent reports state that the amount of drawing out of monies from this 'fund (called under the complex title of Term Securities Lending Facility)' is estimated to be in the region of 33 billion dollars a day over the last week and the number doubling to about 60 billion dollars a day as recent as yesterday. Can you guess the interest rate? - It was 0.33% (yes, that is correct).

Contrast this situation with news surrounding the deepening crisis that homeowners face as a result of the mortgage mess and the current state where millions of homeowners are either unable to pay their mortgages or are in danger of losing their homes because they are behind on their mortgage payments… Politicians talked about the crisis and proposed broad government rescue plans for homeowners that would each cost about $30 billion. The reply they got from the current administration was a dismissal of such ideas as bailouts and a vow (and threat) to veto even modest bills to help homeowners.

From NY1 news "All we're saying is homeowners need assistance too," said Darren Duarte of the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation. "You can't bail out the investors, bail out the Wall Street firms who created this crisis and leave homeowners at risk. We think that's not fair. And that's not the American way."

It is indeed funny and sad to see that modest bailouts for distressed homeowners screwed over by unscrupulous lenders and investment banks have little chance of success and have to go through a board legislative procedure with the attendant veto threats while broad bailouts where investment banks have easy access to over 50 billion dollars a day with little legislative oversight, zero threats of veto and little or no regulatory network passes muster with little talk or analysis… It is indeed staggering.

Georges Rouault, 1871-1958, 'Clown Tragique', 1911, oil and peinture à l'essence on paper laid down on cradled panel

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Homefront

A bad sprain kept me away from work. After an x-ray proved that all was well with the foot, I decided to drive a couple of towns out of our little one and take some pictures. An abandoned snuff mill, a yellow house, a sign that said that we are proud to be Americans, Canadian geese waiting for the springtime, an old park that has fallen into disrepair and general suburbia in various states of repair and disrepair met my eyes. Every once in a while, I would stop, take a couple of pictures, listen to the rain a bit and drive on. It was good, something different from the familiar yet banal commute that some of us face on a daily basis. I drove by about three towns, twenty miles out and back – refreshed and feeling better. The architectural similarity of most of the towns, the formulaic planning, the colored signs, painted homes and paved sidewalks was distressful in its sameness yet vaguely comforting in its familiarity.












Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Corny moments

On Clouds - Lines composed after photographing a sunrise.

Frugal lives, sans
attendant sorrows,
richness of moment
and unsure morrows.

The trundling forms
silvered at times,
interpretations sway
on the whims of climes.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Of body counts and love letters

The New York Times today produced four full length pages that incorporated black and white photographs of the faces of the latest 1000 soldiers killed in action over in Iraq. I guess it was published to remember two anniversaries coming close to each other around this time: The war entering the sixth year and the 'round number' of four thousand soldiers killed in the conflict.
I tried reading through the names and after a while, I got lost in the mind numbing implications of missed connections behind these black and white closely spaced photographs. Around me, I counted about four people reading the Times and I waited to see their reactions as they got to this page. Two of them registered no recognition - they passed over these four pages of dead faces like one passes over a back page advert for used cars. One had a look of resignation and flipped over to the next page for more news and a fourth person stared at it for a long time, closed the paper, threw it into the trash can and looked out the window across the New York harbor.

I also remember doing a quick mental calculation to see how many pages the Times would need to print the nameless faces of the estimated 600,000 Iraqi citizens slaughtered during the course of this war and it comes out to about 2400 full sheet newsprint sized pages.

From the journal (copy of letter here) of Specialist Daniel Gomez, an Army combat medic writing to Ms Katy Broom, the love of his life.

Hey baby. If you’re reading this, then something has happen to me and I am sorry. I promised you I would come back to you, but I guess it was a promise I could not keep. You know I never believe in writing “death letters.” I knew if I left one for my folks it would scare them. Then I met you. We were supposed to meet, darling. I needed someone to make me smile, someone that was an old romantic like I was. I was going through a very rough time in Iraq and I was startin to doubt my mental state. Then one day after a patrol, I go to my facebook and there you were...

I can’t stop crying while I writing this letter, but I have to talk to you one last time, because maybe the last time I heard your voice I did not know it would be the last time I heard your voice....

I Love You. Go be happy, go raise a family. Teach your kids right from wrong, and have faith, darling. I think I knew I loved you even before I met. I love you, Katy. * Kiss * Goodbye


On July 18, 2007, two months after his leave, Specialist Gomez died in Adhamiya when the Bradley fighting vehicle he was in struck a roadside bomb. The explosion and flames also killed three other soldiers.

Of course, not all is gloom and doom as the following video shows.


Monday, March 24, 2008

Blogs: ID skidding or literature? Another list.

Narrative tones adopted in blog-writing can vary from world changing to dreamy to intensely personal to ‘just-linky’ to downright puerile to outright sexy (and not to speak of pettiness). There are over 90 million of them and that number is increasing every second. Just about everybody finds the need to have one (nothing wrong with that).
To compile a book about the best blogs out there might be akin to indulging in a list-creation exercise that is fated to being called ‘out of date’ the day that exercise is complete. In a new book called 'Ultimate Blogs', author Sarah Boxer aims to cull the best bloggers/blogs and embarks on such an exercise.

The Times review of the book calls it ‘a sifted, vetted sampler of what’s out there in the untamed blogosphere, a primer for the uninitiated’. A selection of 27 blogs whose work is (relatively) timeless and link-free yet somehow still, she says, “bloggy to the core”: “conversational and reckless, composed on the fly for anonymous intimates ... public and private, grand and niggling.”

10 selections from the blogs mentioned in the book (sadly Simplistic does not make the cut - only kidding):

Raining Noodles, a blog whose disclaimer states that it is not safe for children, not safe for work, and not safe for sanity. Written by a young Singaporean who seems to be yearning for her ex.

El Guapo in DC is written by a Latin American no-name blogger (from DC, naturally) who seems to have closed shop last year (good to read up on some of the older posts though – for those of us who have more of that precious commodity - time).

Matthew Yglesias blog at the Atlantic.com (if you have been reading Andrew Sullivan's site, I am sure you know about him). I personally like this one.

The Rest Is Noise, a classical music blog by Alex Ross (good for people who are into niche subjects like that), makes for great reading, a little technical at times though.

I Blame the Patriarchy that calls itself a patriarchy-blaming blog that advances the radical feminist views of Twisty Faster, a gentleman farmer and spinster aunt eating dinner in Austin, Texas. I don’t know much about this one, but has an Edna'esque twist to the rants.

The Becker Posner blog, a shared blogspace between a Nobel-winning economist Gary S. Becker and a federal circuit judge Richard Posner. Very readable and very serious.

AngryBlackBitch who proffers to practice the fine act of 'Bitchitude' is the readable rant of a 34-year-old woman named Pamela Merritt who works in sales and marketing at a St. Louis newspaper. It's funny.

Nina Paley blog dissects the Sanskrit epic poem the “Ramayana,” after the breakdown of her marriage. The story and cartoons told over at the blog is from the perspective of Sita, the subjugated wife of the epic’s hero, Rama. I liked this for its quirkiness, alternate point of view and the artwork.

Language Log, a blog by Benjamin Zimmer, a Research Associate at the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science at UPenn straddles the murky crossroads between linguistics and anthropology. One of my favorites (I have to confess a love for words, inflexions and our current cultural lexicon).

David Byrne's journal, a take on the politico/cultural landscape through the eyes of a former musician. Nice one, I liked this one a lot.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Museum of Natural History - a visit

After watching 'Night at the Museum', a movie that features exhibits at the Museum of Natural History come alive in the nights to the chagrin of a night watchman trying to make ends meet, it was only a logical next step that we visit it in person. We did that with our three year old son over the weekend and I had some pictures from around the museum.






Saturday, March 22, 2008

Unmetered lines

Sometimes, anecdotes that people lived their lives by are often so strong that it sticks with you and would not let go until you try and free incipient emotions using forms of expression. In this case, it was unmetered lines that seemed to be the best and most expedient vehicle.

A story about the 20's I heard on the radio

Her grandmother was strong.
At 95 pounds, one would not say so - looking.
Picking cotton everyday makes one strong,
the hands, as well as the mind.

It was said, she could pick her weight
in cotton,
by the time the sun
was above their sweaty black heads
and the workers had rushed to their frugal lunches.
In the broad, sunny afternoons
of postbellum Alabama.

She did not smile too much,
and, could not wear fingernail polish.
The daily grind – a reason for the former (maybe),
The prevailing mores – explains the latter (for sure).
We are all a product of our circumstance – aren’t we?

She washed and ironed for a certain white lady
who wore perfumes and fingernail polish.
Nothing wrong, just like most white ladies
one finds relaxing indoors,
through those long, sunny afternoons
of postbellum Alabama.

It was said that one day,
the white lady did throw out,
some of her old perfumes and nail polish.
It was her anniversary and her husband
surprised her – with new trinkets.
You know, one has a lot to look out for,
if they were endowed with the right colors.

After a day of ironing (those starched white clothes),
our grandmother chanced
on some castoff perfumes and nail polish.
She dabbed the perfume (the few drops),
She did her fingernails,
Long thin strips of polish
over frayed nails,
long and ivoried, of lineage classic.
(Of course, she did make sure
she left enough
to spoil her another day).
Church that Sunday, she was radiant.

On Monday, she goes to the general store
(finally a day off).
Finding the bare minimums, she is
ready at the check out line,
the white owner asks her,
'What are you doing with your nails painted up?
Like a white woman'!!!
She is a little confused.

He glares, thoughts forming,
- maybe this was a chance to settle this.
He proceeds to pick up a pair of pliers
and slowly, methodically
pulled out the lady’s nails
out of its fleshy bed
one by bloody one.

Her fingertips, now with a strange,
permanent redness,
suffused over (once) long and ivoried nails,
does match the skies that sometimes visit
the broad, sunny afternoons
of postbellum Alabama.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Signs - of the times we live in

Three singular, independent bits of news on health (and hubris), economy (and chicanery) and sex (in public lives) makes one reflect...

- My wife and I take our children to the pediatrician for their vaccinations - whether out of feelings of common good (childhood vaccinations are supposed to prevent societal outbreaks of measles, mumps, smallpox among others) or individual well being (to keep our children healthy and immune to any of the above dire sounding diseases).
News reports suggest a growing tribe of American parents who refuse to vaccinate their children pointing to dubious studies and claims that vaccination has no proven advantages for children in the modern world and reports that link vaccinations with neurological disorders. Twenty states, including California, Ohio and Texas, allow a personal exemption - that is parents can opt out of vaccinating their children. A statement by the mother of a six year old in San Diego summed up the collective hubris succinctly: “I refuse to sacrifice my children for the greater good” while she also agrees that “I cannot deny that my child can put someone else at risk”. More here.

- I still have not got over the bailout of our nations fifth largest investment bank (Bear Sterns) orchestrated by another Wall Street bank backed by a only too eager Fed with the ostensible reason that this single action was done for the greater economic good (while it was revealed a couple of days back that the whole thing started off as a whisper campaign which fed on the news that Bear was illiquid). Today’s editorial in the Times puts it perfectly.
Compared to the cold shoulder given to struggling homeowners, the cash and attention lavished by the government on the nation’s financial titans provides telling insight into the priorities of the Bush administration. It’s not simply a matter of fairness, though. If the objective is to encourage prudent banking and keep Wall Street’s wizards from periodically driving financial markets over the cliff, it is imperative to devise a remuneration system for bankers that put more of their skin in the game. More here.

- We live in oversexed times - take a look of the governorships of New York and New Jersey and you will know what I am referring to... While the brouhaha over Spitzer is reaching the back pages of most newspapers, reports of McGreevey threesomes and Paterson's past affairs keep the prurience on the front pages on a daily basis. An op-ed piece in today's Times has given us some alphabet soup to fortify our slicing and dissection of the psychological underpinnings of carnal needs, casual flings and cavalier lays with the air of an expert:

1. In the parlance of American couples recovering from adultery, “D-Day” is the day you discover your spouse has been cheating on you. And as with the birth of Jesus, time is reset from there.
2. X.O.W. is the “ex-other woman"
3. O.N.S. is a “one-night stand”
4. N.P.D. is the often diagnosed “narcissistic personality disorder”
5. A “cake man” is a husband who wants to have his wife and his mistress, too.
6. ‘Pinching the cat in the dark’ is a phrase employed by the Dutch when they find out that their partners have been shoring up their extra curricular activities in the libido department.

Article here.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Feeling religious? Look within (the neurons)

It looks like the ancient Hindu adage of 'tat twam asi' (roughly translates from Sanskrit to English as ‘you are that’), meaning the key to the collective soul is within an individual - the seat of the almighty might actually reside within the individual - and one only needs to seek it out through sufficient introspection is coming true after all.

Michael Persinger, a neurophysiologist at Canada's Laurentian University in Ontario is trying to prove that the sensation described as "having a religious experience" is merely a side effect of our bicameral brain's feverish activities. About a year back, Simplistic talked about this in relation to Pentecostal adherents speaking in tongues and their altered mental/brain functions as they were going through a religious experience particular to their group. Michael Persinger in his research hopes to take on the neural underpinnings behind an actual manifestation of religious experience one step further...

In an article here, a Wired reporter goes through the motions of being a willing participant of Mr. Persinger's experiments and claims to experience feelings of religiosity himself in response to appropriate prods, pokes and simulation to parts of his brain... That the almighty and feelings thereof might be within us will be a bit hard to take for a lot of us (including me), but it will be interesting to see what comes out of this individuals lab in the coming years.

In his words: The fields are no more intense than what you'd get as by-product from an ordinary blow-dryer, but what's coming is anything but ordinary. My lobes are about to be bathed with precise wavelength patterns that are supposed to affect my mind in a stunning way, artificially inducing the sensation that I am seeing God.
His theory is that the sensation described as "having a religious experience" is merely a side effect of our bicameral brain's feverish activities. Simplified considerably, the idea goes like so: When the right hemisphere of the brain, the seat of emotion, is stimulated in the cerebral region presumed to control notions of self, and then the left hemisphere, the seat of language, is called upon to make sense of this nonexistent entity, the mind generates a "sensed presence.
"

Related links here:
- The God Experiments - More on Michael Persinger's work.
- The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes.
- The Apparitions Of The Blessed Holy Virgin Mary To Millions In The Coptic Orthodox Church In Zeitoun, Cairo, Egypt (1968-1970).


Hendrick Goltzius (1558 - 1617), ‘The Judgment of Midas’, Pen and brown ink, red violet, brown and gray watercolor, green tempera, heightened in white tempera; traced with a stylus. Signed and dated 1590. 15” X 26”. Collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library (From the book In August Company, the Collections of the Pierpont Morgan Library).

About the painting: In the center is the victorious Apollo playing a viol. On his rock hewn seat is Tmolus, king of the mountain, whose judgment of the musical contest in favor of Apollo was accepted by all except by King Midas. Standing to the left are Midas, identified by the asses ears bestowed upon him because of his dissension, and Pan or Marsyas. Toward the right of the scene are nine muses and Athena, one of whose attributes, an owl, hovers above her.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Ron Paul on Eliot Spitzer

Ron Paul speaking on the House floor last week. The last paragraph is especially telling.

"Madam Speaker, it has been said that 'he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.' And in the case of Eliot Spitzer, this couldn't be more true. In his case it's the political sword, as his enemies rejoice in his downfall. Most people, it seems, believe he got exactly what he deserved.
"The illegal tools of the state brought Spitzer down, but think of all the harm done by Spitzer in using the same tools against so many other innocent people. He practiced what could be termed 'economic McCarthyism,' using illegitimate government power to build his political career on the ruined lives of others.

"No matter how morally justified his comeuppance may be, his downfall demonstrates the worst of our society. The possibility of uncovering personal moral wrongdoing is never a justification for the government to spy on our every move and to participate in sting operations.

"For government to entice a citizen to break a law with a sting operation — that is, engaging in activities that a private citizen is prohibited by law from doing — is unconscionable and should clearly be illegal."

On why Bear Stearns should have failed this time

For all the talk about 'government is the problem' and 'too much regulation stifles the free market', the events that unfolded over the weekend saw the government actually financing the purchase of a troubled investment bank (Bear Sterns) through a conduit (JP Morgan Chase) leaving one to believe ardently in the fact that, more, if not an excessive oversight of the financial markets would be the medicine for the boom-bust cycle that we seem to be living through (with a cyclic frequency approaching the 10 year mark - the last one I remember was the dot com bust).

The government yesterday evening, decided to underwrite the take-over of a troubled investment bank on Wall Street in the hopes that rescuing this one might stave off further collapse of the financial system. While, it is well intentioned, this has left me pondering on these open unanswered questions:

- In bailing out some of the key stakeholders of the financial system, isn’t the government also bailing out some of the same people who led us into this mess (people who lived and got their bonuses through promising people easy homes with no money down, interest only payments and adjustable rate mortgages)?

- By bailing out banks and institutional players in the industry, is the government also helping to prop up what might be a house of cards built upon the mortgage bubble? Shouldn’t the government just sit and wait this one out and let the structural readjustment process bring the hype to what the markets can nominally sustain? Isn’t the government just putting off for another day what might have happened today (a normal structural adjustment to prevailing levels)?

- Aren’t we, in effect, playing dice with 'free-market / market-knows-best’ principles that was embraced in better times but thrown to the winds at the first sign of trouble?

As this and other questions swirl in my mind, it is worth reading excerpts from the op-ed column by Paul Krugman in today’s Times

Between 2002 and 2007, false beliefs in the private sector — the belief that home prices only go up, that financial innovation had made risk go away, that a triple-A rating really meant that an investment was safe — led to an epidemic of bad lending. Meanwhile, false beliefs in the political arena — the belief of Alan Greenspan and his friends in the Bush administration that the market is always right and regulation always a bad thing — led Washington to ignore the warning signs.

The result of all that bad lending was an unholy financial mess that will cause trillions of dollars in losses. A large chunk of these losses will fall on financial institutions: commercial banks, investment banks, hedge funds and so on.

Nobody expects an investment bank to be a charitable institution, but Bear has a particularly nasty reputation. As Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times reminds us, Bear “has often operated in the gray areas of Wall Street and with an aggressive, brass-knuckles approach.”

Bear was a major promoter of the most questionable subprime lenders. It lured customers into two of its own hedge funds that were among the first to go bust in the current crisis. And it’s a bad financial citizen: the last time the Fed tried to contain a financial crisis, after the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management in 1998, Bear refused to participate in the rescue operation.

Bear, in other words, deserved to be allowed to fail — both on the merits and to teach Wall Street not to expect someone else to clean up its messes
.

At the time of writing this, the markets and futures are still falling globally, the Federal Reserve further cut the overnight lending rate and the New York Stock Exchange just opened with a 150 point drop in the DOW.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Corruption perceptions and indices

Corruption in public and personal life tradiationally has defied measurement. It is somewhat irksome when Western consultancy companies come out with corruption barometers and indices that purport to show how the Danes (rank 1 in 2007) are the least corrupt and the Somalis (rank 179) the most (Wikipedia entry here). I have always wanted to write a bit about some of the fallacies behind this corruption league table exercise that at best is just another list serving as fodder for lazy op-ed columnists and at worst engenders negative stereotyping of the peoples of a nation (the war torn, poor nations happen to be at the bottom). Fortunately, I did not have to spend time and write that screed because Matthew Engel, a columnist at the Financial Times has written a great opinion here.

A number of thoughts come to mind looking at this index. The first is that it is obviously spurious, because it purports to measure the immeasurable. The second thought is that the compilers are perfectly aware of this, but also aware that dim-witted columnists like this one are far more likely to take notice of a league table than a learned treatise.

The real corruption of the west, though, is incapable of being measured because it lies within each of us. Any half-decent corporation – any half-decent employee – wrestles with this. There is no clear red line that separates straight from bent. It is especially difficult in what you might call the liberal professions. Will a doctor be influenced in his clinical judgment because one drug company has sucked up to him and a rival hasn’t? And it gets even harder in those jobs where the frontier between work and leisure is necessarily vague – a politician, for example, or a newspaper columnist.

For both, socialising is part of the job: you have to meet people. Do I write more kindly about someone who is nice to me than about someone who’s horrid? Of course I do, if only subconsciously. Will my judgment be affected if they offer me a drink? Or dinner? Or a wad of cash? It gets easy to know what’s wrong – it’s not always easy to know what’s right.

I was reminded of advice that I got from bosses at a company I worked at a while back. I would trot out and present to them a fact filled PowerPoint document with Eureka! written on my face and expecting congratulatory whoops in short order; and here is what they would say: "Well, you know, as much as there are facts in this document, it is worthless in and of itself unless you have socialized it, lobbied for its cause and managed to steer the clients judgments appropriately".

I got tired of working there, but then, that is another story.

Rene’ Magritte, ‘La victoire’, oil on canvas, 28” X 21”, 1939 (from an auction book I own)

Friday, March 14, 2008

Sliver of Aesop and a sunset

Marie Ponsot's translation of La Fontaine's "The Frog Who Wanted to Make Herself Big as an Ox"

A frog saw an ox and was stirred
To admiration for his size.
She, no bigger than the egg of a mockingbird,
Began to stretch, and puff up, to hyperbolize
Herself to oxen dimensions, crying,
"Watch, great friend! Shall I keep trying?
Look!" she puffed, "Have I already reached your size?"
"No."
"Now see!" "Still no." "How's this?" "No closer than at first,"
Said the ox. The ambitious diminutive so
Outdid herself then that she burst.
In liking to seem grand, most men are no sages.
Middle-class folk live in imitation chateaux;
Princelings love protocol's punctilios,
And minor knights must have pages.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

On looted art

Every time I step into the Metropolitan Museum and wander through the cavernous halls and rooms, I am struck by a singular thought - how much of the ancient and medieval art on display has gotten to this gilded credenza by legitimate means and how much a result of conquests, shady transfers, hidden booty and plain loot. Maybe the Met has good provenance records behind every piece of art and can back up most of the pieces with suitable documentation, but a recent art review in the Times about an exhibition underway in faraway Stockholm had me thinking about this some more.

“War Booty”, at the Royal Armory, Royal Palace, Stockholm showcases artifacts of great value that the Swedes grabbed illegally 350 years ago in a war with its neighbors. The article mentions that the Swedes filled their public institutions with stolen arms, books, textiles and art looted primarily from Poland, Denmark and Lithuania. Of course, in order to legitimize and legalize the proceedings, the exhibition organizers are helpful in pointing out that this (taking of war booty) was merely the custom of the day and that the best thing now is to simply lay everything on the table for the world to see. Legally, they are in the clear since taking of booty and carting off the spoils of war was not a ‘war crime’ until a treaty was signed between some of the relevant European powers in 1815 (the booty presented in this show predates that year).

In an age where provenance is everything and the art object genealogy is very important to the liquidity of the artwork/market, this show raises a very basic question:

Does it matter whether booty comes from good wars or bad ones, from evil owners or helpless ones, from public places or obscure corners and rich men’s vaults? Does it matter that the booty presented here should be entrusted in the hands of the Swedes just because of a treaty? This is even more relevant as the Swedes seem to brazenly call it war booty and then to add insult to injury, exhibit it for us to see. This is somewhat akin to stealing from your neighbors some years back, settling things with some kind of an agreement from a position of advantage and then years down the line, exhibit the spoils while showing off the stuff one actually stole from ones neighbors some time back. Also, reminds me of the theft of Kohinoor and countless other riches plundered by the English during their 300 year over-lordship in India from the 17th to the 19th centuries…

From the article: Germany in World War II stole art from its victims; the Soviets then looted Germany when their troops overran Berlin. In Germany’s case, it’s considered a war crime. Russians insist their actions were just revenge. One of the treasures of the Swedish armory is a helmet that belonged to Ivan the Terrible, which came from the Poles, who nabbed it from Moscow. The Swedes now claim it as their national heritage, naturally, but so do the Poles, although it’s Russian. Nearby is a sword, taken from Prague in 1648, a celebrated symbol of Czech pride because for a long time it was believed to have belonged to Jan Zizka, the great Czech warrior who died in the 15th century.

Art looted by the Nazi's in Paris, 1941, Picture looted from here.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A quick observation

It indeed is a funny world we live in considering the fact that most of the media are managing to trip over their underwear’s getting the impeachment news of the now disgraced governor of New York for his dalliances with the oldest profession (as inappropriate and reprehensible his actions were) while a deafening silence greets a new Pentagon report on the news that they had checked about 600,000 documents from the erstwhile Saddam's regime and found no references to ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ or al-Qaeda sponsorships. The last time I checked, about 4000 US soldiers and 1 million Iraqis have been slaughtered over these charges.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Artcore stuff

For the more artistically inclined, Tate online features the Spring 2008 issue of the Tate magazine. As always, a mixture of interesting and uninteresting scholarly Tate quality articles online here. The issue pays close attention to Duchamp, Man Ray and Picabia - a triad that gave raise to many art movements and 'isms...

Of course, Duchamp was once believed to have said that eroticism was the only “ism” he believed.

The following excerpt from the autobiography of Lydie Fischer Sarazin-Levassor (Duchamp’s wife) is revealing, punny and insightful.

Marcel was busy flat-hunting. He sometimes took me along to visit domestic premises that turned out to be complete fiascos. They would be charging an inflated price for the furniture and fittings, whereas everything still had to be done, including the bathroom. It did not stop us from discussing our ideas of the perfect flat. No furniture, just cupboards hidden behind walls of plywood. Marcel taught me to appreciate the beauty of raw materials. No need for exotic wood or other rare and costly materials to fit out a flat that would be pleasant to live in. A plaster wall has a splendor and delicacy of its own if an effort is made to keep it matt and immaculate; whitewood has a delicate satiny grain that needs neither a coat of walnut stain to pass it off as oak, nor thick coats of paint to cover it up completely; a lead pipe can glisten with a dull sheen and add a light touch where it was not expected, or a gay band of colour if coated with minium (which is not paint but a natural protective medium).

At first I thought his taste for natural things was a reaction against the “refined” aesthetic propounded by the recent exhibition of les arts decoratifs. I asked him about it: “As far as lizards go, I have only encountered the variety that basks in the sun. What are these lizards décoratifs? Is it a new species?” He added: “If a butcher makes a sculpture out of lard or saindoux, is it culinary or domestic lard? And what about the lard of war? So tell me about the Arts. Art is simply the technical knowledge that goes with a profession. Look it up in the Larousse dictionary. So what are the Fine Arts? All the arts are fine. The knifegrinder’s art is particularly fine, and fascinating with it. But he is an artisan. Artisan, artist, what’s the difference? My hairdresser calls himself an artist, so does the man in the patisserie, but Gaston’s art is manual, so that makes him an artisan
.”

Marcel Duchamp, ‘Bottle dryer’, (image from the National Gallery of Australia website)

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Today

Today, March 8th, is International Women's Day.

Guess the commemoration is still relevant - see here...

Excerpt: An Amnesty International report describing a relatively short civil war in Côte d'Ivoire documents case after case of girls and women, aged "under 12" to 63, assaulted by armed men. The more recent and thoroughgoing report by Human Rights Watch records the rape of children as young as three years-old. During the civil war, women and girls were seized in their village homes or at military roadblocks, or were discovered hiding in the bush. Some were raped in public. Some were raped in front of their husbands and children. Some were forced to witness the murder of husbands or parents. Then they were taken away to soldiers' camps to be held along with many other women. They were forced to cook for the soldiers during the day and every night they were gang-raped, in some cases by 30 to 40 men. They were also beaten and tortured. They saw women who resisted being beaten or killed by a simple slicing of the throat.

Many women were raped so incessantly and so brutally -- with sticks, knives, gun barrels, burning coals -- that they died. Many others were left with injuries and pain that still linger long after the war. Many who had been scarred as girls by "excision" or FMG (female genital mutilation) were literally ripped apart.

The Amnesty report coolly says: "The brutality of rape frequently causes serious physical injuries that require long-term and complex treatment including uterine prolapses (the descent of the uterus into the vagina or beyond)" -- one has to wonder what lies "beyond" the vagina -- "vesico-vaginal or recto-vaginal fistulas and other injuries to the reproductive system or rectum, often accompanied by internal and external bleeding or discharge." It notes that such women usually can't "access the medical care they need." Some still find it hard to sit down, or stand up, or walk. Some still spit up blood. Some have lost their eyesight or their memories. Some miscarried. Many contracted sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. No one knows how many of them died, or are dying, as a result
.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Bearish views

Wall Street blues - a poem

I took a quick afternoon walk
down Wall Street.
Walked past bankers, rapists,
couple of commonplace murderers,
some stray immigrants,
lovers, fruit vendors and students.

Some had just made a killing
off someone else's fortune.
Some had just killed
for someone else's fortune.
Some were learning to kill
over that self same thing.

Some had just made love
furtively in that empty office space
knowing fully well,
they would not confess.
Some forced their love
on unwilling terms, from positions
of advantage and carrots of promise.

Others were making their plans
of working the American dream,
using, of course - the gospel;
Gekko's famous lines as guide.

Others were just busy, buying lunch
and hurrying back to finish that deal
which will foreclose another home
somewhere else far away.

Some were selling fruit juice
in little plastic cups.
Four dollars for that little cup
seems to resonate
with the rest of the space; rapacious.

Yes, I passed them all
while walking
down Wall Street.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Bright ideas for curbing gun violence in our schools

Recently two bright ideas have bubbled up in response to the almost weekly gunshot deaths that we hear from college campuses around the country. While the right solution will involve legislating the use of firearms and slowly purging it from private possession (I know you are rolling your eyes by now), these newly minted solutions seem to compete with each other for originality, flair, cowardice and a singular prevalence of tunnel vision.

From the actual article here.

The classroom building at Northern Illinois University where a gunman killed five students and himself in February will be demolished and replaced, state officials said Wednesday. “Symbolically, the gesture is that we are moving on and we are healing,” said Melanie Magara, a spokeswoman for the university, which is in DeKalb. “And we are doing so in such a way that hopefully adds to the student experience.” Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich said he would ask state lawmakers to approve $40 million to pay for the demolition and rebuilding project.

Instead of asking lawmakers to enact legislation to curb the possession of weapons, they have asked for millions of dollars to pay for tearing down the site and building anew in the hopes that this will bring in 'peace and healing'. I guess when the next shooting happens, they just tear down that building and build another one in its place - hey, we need peace and healing, right... Judging by the rate of fatal shootings per month in our campuses, I suspect that colleges around the country will be going through some kind of a building construction boom.

The second solution goes even further. From article here:

Horrified by recent campus shootings, State Senator Karen S. Johnson of Arizona has come up with a proposal in keeping with the Taurus .22-caliber pistol tucked in her purse: Get more guns on campus. The lawmaker has sponsored a bill, which the Senate Judiciary Committee approved last week that would allow people with a concealed weapons permit — limited to those 21 and older here— to carry their firearms at public colleges and universities.

I guess this statement gets the prize:

She initially wanted her bill to cover all public schools, kindergarten and up, but other lawmakers convinced her it stood a better chance of passing if it were limited to higher education.

If the bill had got through as she had originally planned, kindergarten kids would have seen their backpacks weighed down by their assigned magnums and colts they would have been legally allowed to carry to their nurseries and daycare locations.

If other states follow suit, very soon we will be heading down the slippery slope of making bulletproof vests and battle gear mandatory for school and college attendance all around the country. Not to mention of Wild West type gunfights that we shall see erupting in the dorm, during recess and the cafeteria.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Some shows that went away, but still resonates

All of these Chelsea based gallery shows written about below are closed now, but I could not bear the thought of deleting pictures of them before writing a bit about them.

Laurie Hogin’s paintings engorge the optic nerves with their hyper-realistic attention to detail using an old-master type technique to critique facets of the American culture. At Schroeder Romero, she showed four small works that takes aim at the pharmaceutical industry and their fixation on selling sleep inducing and anti anxiety medications to a public that may not have the greatest need for them - of course, once presented with an easier way to achieve a stated goal, we automatically drift to procure the same (medications that ease the attainment of sleep, sex, food or work fall into the same genre). Sonata, Ambien, Lunesta - all these have become common place names thanks to the heavy dosage of marketing that accompanies the sales of the same. On seeing these pictures again this evening, it did not escape my mind that anti-anxiety medications Xanax, Valium, and Ativan, the sleeping medication Lunesta and the sedative Restoril were found close to the dead body of the Australian actor Heath Ledger (from TMZ.com). A great review of her paintings here on Salon.

On the hundredth anniversary of Cubism, I ran into some endearing wood sculptures/ paintings by Donelle Woolford at the Wallspace gallery. She is a Harlem based artist who weaves wooden chips and cast off wood pieces into a collage-like sequence within the borders of a traditional picture to produce compelling works. On entering the gallery, the works seem like meticulously rendered paintings with their stark contrasts catching the eye. On closer examination, it is clear that the artist has carefully assembled the wood scraps to develop what she calls 'objects from memory'. Thought I did not find any recognizable patterns in the paintings here, it definitely was a visual treat

Autoversion Ltd, a nondescript gallery on 17th street, housed on the second floor of what looks likes a fallout-shelter type building hosted a 'themed-group' show featuring three artists and their interpretations of the human skin (titled, well, appropriately SKIN). From raw urban sexuality to defining identity, this small, one room gallery show was good. Pia Dehne stretches shimmering pantyhose over her oil on canvas paintings giving them a dark, albeit sexy allure. Paul Brainard shows skin in a very Paris Hilton kind of way - flaunting it for all its worth, large sunglasses and all. His drawings were detailed and the single oil painting on the show was fabulous. Sissel Kardel's paintings were the ones that I least understood in relation to the subject matter of the show. The brochure purports that Sissel's paintings of mythical nudes depict them in a state of unbalance on their way to nirvana, but I did not run into any karma here save for the visual pleasure of good work and technique. This show might have been a little better off had there been some kind of accompanying material/handout that viewers could use to glean the historical aspects of appropriating skin in art, but wishes were not horses..

Laurie Hogin, ‘Rozerem’, Oil on panel, 12” X 12”, 2008


Laurie Hogin, ‘Sonata’, Oil on panel, 12” X 12”, 2008

Laurie Hogin, ‘Lunesta’, Oil on panel, 12” X 12”, 2008

Laurie Hogin, ‘Ambien’, Oil on panel, 12” X 12”, 2008

Laurie Hogin's pictures, Installation view

Donelle Woolford’s painting/sculpture

Donelle Woolford’s painting/sculpture

Donelle Woolford’s painting/sculpture

Donelle Woolford’s painting/sculpture

Pia Dehne, 'Untitled', nylon and collage on canvas, 40" X 48", 2007

Pia Dehne, 'Untitled', nylon and collage on canvas, 40" X 48", 2007

Paul Brainard, 'Our lady of Joy', Oil on canvas, 46" X 52", 2004 - 2006

Detail of above

Paul Brainard, 'The sound of violins', Graphite on paper, 13" X 16", 2007

Paul Brainard, 'Sporty tits for summer (Apologies to Sne Ha Raja)', Graphite on paper, 29" X 36", 2004 - 2006

Sissel Kardel, 'Humpty Dumpty', Oil on wood, 12" X 16", 2008

Sissel Kardel, 'Uroborus', Oil on wood, 45" X 66", 2008

Sissel Kardel, 'Prey Not', Oil on wood, 12" X 16", 2008