23 July 2013

What Is GOOD Art?

What Is Good Art?

Current mood:artistic 

Over the years, I've addressed the question What Is Art?

I've received many responses (thank you), and just as many opinions on the subject. After I began reading the responses, I realized that some of the responders failed to see the difference between "Art" and "Good Art." Just because you don't like it or appreciate it, doesn't mean that it isn't Art.

I stick by my original definition:

Art is that which is created, and is perceived to be as such by humans.

The point of this blog is to inquire about what you feel is "good art," and why. The term "good" is highly subjective, which is why I am asking what you prefer. You and I may not agree on what constitutes good art.

Some enjoy Pollock, believing that his collage of splatter exhibits freedom from rigid tradition and form.

Others like the raw emotion of outsider art, unfiltered by classical training and tradition.

This art rebels against the limits of coloring within the lines, or even coloring within the canvas. The negative canvas space contrasting with the dark coloration of the wall speaks volumes. Surely this is good art!

There are those who wonder why we even need walls for art, and prefer three dimensions to convey the artistic message.

Head On, 2006, Cai Guoquiang.

Many firmly believe that truly good art should never be limited to the confines of buildings, and needs to be experienced rather than simply viewed.

The Gates (2005), Central Park, NYC

But why stop there? Exceptionally good art must be big, and not restricted to land. Right? 
Surrounded Islands, (1981), Miami, FL

While all of the above is Art, I don't find any of it to be particularly good.

At the end of the day, this is still what I consider to be good art:
Scene from Thanatopsis, 1850, Asher B. Durand

22 July 2013

Experiencing Authenticity:

Authenticity – (n): The quality or condition of being authentic, trustworthy, or genuine.
American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

When I recently visited Baltimore for a conference, I stayed an extra day to roam about by myself.  My wandering brought me to the water along the Inner Harbor, where I encountered the famous masted ship Constellation.  As a ball cannot avoid rolling downhill, I’m unable to avoid historical markers; I learned about Constellation’s 1854 construction, but also read that it dates to the late 1790s – six pieces of wood from the original Constellation were used in the ship currently resting in Baltimore’s harbor (the exact location of these pieces is unknown). 

Historic Ships of Baltimore.
USS Constellation

The sloop is a real ship, and it’s pretty old.  But how old is it?  Is it a mid-19th century ship, or a late 18th century?  I think most would agree that it’s a mid-19th century vessel with older elements.  This sort of reuse of older components is common, particularly to large antiques.  More than once I’ve toured a historic house only to discover that the foundation dates to one year, and the rafters to another, with architectural elements brought in from all over.   
How many mediaeval builders got lazy and took stones from nearby Roman roads to place in their defensive walls?  If Romans originally quarried and shaped the stones, can we say they date to the Roman period?  Not likely, since the intent of the creators was a road, not a wall.   

Restored cars and paintings often contain new pieces intended to mimic the original.  Skilled craftsmen painstakingly recreate the damaged or missing sections to improve the appearance or function of the historic object.  
 Are those restored objects still the genuine article, that is to say – are they authentic? 

Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, before and after restoration.

One of my favorite examples of questionable authenticity is located in my favorite town.  The Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine, Florida, is located near the beautiful intercostal waterway.  A tourist trap for decades, the Fountain of Youth implies Juan Ponce de Leon landed in that location in search of his fable. (He probably didn’t.) 

Moreover, they feature a coquina cross on their tour that they claim was left there in 1513 to mark the spot. (It wasn’t.)  In the context of its own name, it is not the genuine article.  In its favor, however, many in heritage tourism argue that the Fountain is better experienced from the viewpoint of the recent archaeological finds, and as an example of a historic roadside attraction, not unlike the World’s Largest Ball of Twine.  If intent has changed over the years, the struggle for its authenticity has changed too.  

If Authenticity is difficult to pin down in an object- or place-centered discussion, how can we describe an authentic experience for ourselves?  Each of us is comprised of our past experiences, and we encounter external influence daily, from the media telling us how to dress and act, to cultural expectations.  All these seek to crush the person we might otherwise become.  The existentialist Sartre argues that living an authentic life means being true to our nature, whatever that may be.  Rather than aiming to be a specific type of person, one needs to ignore external influence and follow one’s heart, as the cliché goes.   As difficult as it is to ignore external influence, it is not surprising most of us are living an inauthentic life.

That can't be comfortable.

Yet this inauthenticity may not be pervasive.  Scratch the surface!  An antique car is no longer original, and though it looks like it rolled off the showroom floor, the upholstery was resewn in the 1970s, the fender has been re-chromed, the hoses recently replaced.  But it is not an inauthentic vehicle, as it remains what it was designed to be.  Perhaps in occidental culture we act more like these restored buildings and antique automobiles – we appear and behave as society expects on the outside, but upon closer examination, different components, histories, experiences and influences become apparent.  

We may follow society’s imposed norms, but express our individuality and “real-ness” through piercings, a certain style of clothing, or a wild modern art scheme in our apartment.  Sartre would probably roll his eyes at this, but he can’t tell us what our authentic life should be without forcing the paradox of being the external influence describing how we ought to live.  Socrates said it best: The unexamined life is not worth living.  As long as we look at ourselves with a refreshing frankness and truly embrace who we actually are, flaws and all, then we may live authentically.

A building may be constructed from the rubble of other, older structures, but it still exists as a genuine building.  

The ship sitting in Maryland’s harbor carries bits of an older vessel – that doesn’t mean it’s a fake ship.

We carry our own baggage, which means most of us will end up being less than perfect.  This doesn’t bother me a great deal.  If I endeavor to live my life as a good person, I won’t have a good excuse to drink.

15 December 2012

A Dangerous, Growing Problem in Our Country:

Friends, we've got to do something.  
Too many heartbreaking mass incidents in this nation have left us all less safe.  There are too many of them out there, and several are in the hands of those who have no business owning one.  Some of us acquire them legally, but far too many are stolen and traded, or disassembled and their parts traded/sold on a black market.

The main problem is that people think they've got some kind of right to own one, forgetting that it's first a responsibility.  I understand they're "tools," but unlike other tools such as hammers or saws, these seem to keep harming people.  The worst part is that some people feel the bigger it is, the safer they are.  We all know they've gotten safer in the last 100 years, but they will never be 100% safe.  Yes, there are deaths due to accidents, but some deaths happen when an unlicensed person got a hold of one illegally, or misused one, or used one while angry. Innocent kids have died simply because a parent forgot about the potential threat.

Another problem is that it's glorified by video games and by the media.  Children are desensitized from a very young age, and many times aren't taught about the dangers of misuse.  They can even buy them as toys!  What does this teach children about something that can so easily become a deadly weapon?  Sure, there's age requirements, but how many of you know someone who messed around with one while under the legal age?  Sometimes irresponsible parents even encourage the behavior!

Yes, there are laws in every state limiting who can and can't get one.  Yes, there are regulations on their sale and licensing.  But what has that accomplished?  Every single day there are more deaths, and unfortunately it is sometimes on a massive scale.  Innocent people are hurt or killed.  

Friends, we've got to do something, anything!  We've got to get these cars off the roads.

Note: I do not own a gun.  I have no intention of ever owning a gun. I don't like them. Some of the arguments out there both for and against guns have left me dumbfounded.  The problem is when the wrong person gets his hands on them, as with cars, or explosives, or Sudafed (used to create Meth).  I seriously wonder what we can/will do about that in our country, and am of course extremely angry about the senseless loss of young life at the school in Connecticut. 

13 November 2012

Secession is nothing but revolution. - Robert E. Lee

Secession is nothing but revolution.... It is idle to talk of secession: anarchy would have been established, and not a government, by Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and all the other patriots of the Revolution.  
-Robert E. Lee, Letter to his son, 23 January 1861. 

There has been a lot of excitement recently about petitions from angry people who are displeased about the President's election to a second term. While I understand that others are less-than-thrilled about this event, I am curious as to why they believe that their state's secession would fix their problems. If anything, seceding from the United States and forming a group of sovereign states is a disaster for all but a few states.* 

I mean, did they ever take a history class? 

No, I'm not talking about the failure of the seceded states during the Civil War. Go back a little further. No, not the threatened secession of New England due to the War of 1812. Further back. 

The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union didn't go well for us. Sure, there were some good points, such as each state setting their own laws based on cultural values, and the great loyalty each person felt for his or her home state. Ultimately, the weaknesses became too much for our fledgling nation, and led to the creation of our stronger government. 

Yes, according to some of our Founders, states have the right to secede. We have the right to do many other things too, such as drop out of high school, drink ourselves to death and destroy our own property. Most of us would agree that those actions aren't good ideas. 

Secession today is also not a good idea. Most states struggle with their budgets, and that's with federal assistance. What will states do when they suddenly have international borders to protect? Where will they draw the secession line? Can counties secede (as when West Virginia left Virginia)? What about townships? 

  •  Economy: 
Will the newly seceded state mint its own money? Will other states recognize that currency? What about trade between other states? Tariffs? What are they producing inside the state already that will be valuable for international trade?

  • Defense: 
Militias are great, but where will struggling states get the money for all those weapons needed to compete on an international level? How will they fund their military? Is this a volunteer militia only? Conscription? How will service be enforced if Michigan invades Ohio? What if Iran invades Tennessee? Will Arkansas come to its rescue, or will Arkansas be too busy worrying about incursions from Texas?

I strongly suggest not going the other way. 

  • Infrastructure: 
Those Federal Highways aren't going to maintain themselves. Many of Oklahoma's state roads are pretty bad. I'd hate to have to drive on the roads after the federal dollars are lost. 

"A man must be far gone in Utopian speculations who can seriously doubt that, if these States should either be wholly disunited, or only united in partial confederacies, the subdivisions into which they might be thrown would have frequent and violent contests with each other....To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent, unconnected sovereignties in the same neighborhood, would be to disregard the uniform course of human events, and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages." 

-Hamilton, Federalist Papers


* TX and FL might be able to do it, due to their population, location and resources already in place.

21 September 2012

When The Victorious Write History

We've all heard the saying, "history is written by the victors," and it has held true for as long as the winning team has recorded history. 

Richard III was a conniving, murdering hunchback of a king.  The English people were better off after he was killed in battle, and the benevolent Tudors took over.  Historians writing after his death recorded this, so it must be true.  Shakespeare penned it as well, so it must be true.  Right?

Actor Anthony Sher's 1984 performance of Shakespeares's Richard III.

Remember that all authors will have a bias; in particular, the writings of those who stand to profit from a certain viewpoint must always be viewed as suspect.  Shakespeare wrote for an audience living under Queen Elizabeth from the House of Tudor.  The Tudors had every reason to wish their ascendency to the throne be viewed as legitimate.  However, they needed to avoid turning the overthrown king into a martyr.  By altering the image of King Richard III into a twisted, wicked man, they secured their place in the hearts and minds of the English people.  Just as it's common for shooter video games today to paint Nazis or zombies as the great common enemy, Shakespeare created a monster in Richard III.  

Tony Rust and Kate Preston in a 1987 performance of Richard III.
Shakespeare did not act alone, though. Prior to the Tudors' win in the Bosworth battlefield, Richard was considered a "good Lord" (Rous Roll). He was a young king who funded the construction of churches, as well as gave money to charity and schools. Once Henry won the battle and throne, though, historians under the Tudors recorded the dead Yorkist king as a "bloody tyrant" (Vergil's Anglica Historia, 1534). 

After the King was killed, there was no great funeral.  Most records indicate he was buried in a church yard, but the church was eventually demolished.  Later accounts mention a stone in a garden marking the location of his remains, and his coffin being used as a horse trough at a local tavern, but even these are now lost and forgotten. How the mighty had fallen, thanks to History.
Picture from Corbis depicting Richard III rushing into the midst of his enemies.
Recently, though, archaeologists uncovered what are probably Richard III's remains (DNA tests pending).  The last King of England to die gloriously in battle for his country rests in an unmarked grave under a parking lot.

Parking lot in Leicester where the King is probably buried.

Perhaps soon history will be corrected, and Richard III will be given a state funeral befitting a fallen warrior.  This may be the impetus for new research and a more accurate representation of the King, instead of reliance upon biased sources.

Reenactors in Leicester at archaeological dig
Truly, to find truth in History, we must dig deeper.

Location where archaeologists found remains wrapped in a shroud.   

18 April 2012

NAGPRA and Why You Should Care:

It is most unpleasant work to steal bones from a grave, but what is the use, someone has to do it.
Franz Boas, (1858 - 1942) Anthropologist

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is a controversial piece of legislation.  Commonly held is the belief that Amerindians were overjoyed when this act passed; however, several natives felt that the government still was not doing enough to repair the damages that years of theft and science had dealt to the tribes.  The museum curators and archaeologists felt that the passage of NAGPRA was a free pass to angry Amerindians to spitefully take back valuable museum collections and "destroy" them. 
Some uninformed people out there are reading this thinking, "but why should I care about this stupid act?"  Do you visit museums?  Did you know that Amerindians can legally take objects from museums so that you cant see them, and did you know they can dictate how they can be displayed to you?  Do you talk on the cell phone?  Did you know that NAGPRA regulates where cell towers can be located?  Okay, now that you're 40 percent less stupid, you may read on:

The Facts:

President George H. W. Bush signed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) into being in 1990.  Many consider this piece of legislation to be landmark, meant to ameliorate the animosity between Amerindians and the scientific community; however, several preservation acts and ordinances came into being before NAGPRA.  What sets NAGPRA apart from all previous acts of related legislation in the United States, such as the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, is that NAGPRA is the first act to deal specifically with Amerindian graves, sacred objects and funerary objects.
Americans encounter NAGPRA in many different fields, from archaeology to urban developing, and the act even affects where cellular monopoles may be constructed.  While all applications of the legislation are important, the museum community is at the forefront of this sometimes controversial piece of legislation as it is the main point of contact between sacred native artifacts and the public. 
Museums were specifically mentioned as being repositories of human remains, and were ordered to make a complete inventory of all remains, funerary objects and objects of cultural significance within five years.  This may at first appear to be a fair time line, but the law does not take into account the vast collections, the objects that have been on loan to other museums or learning institutions for decades, or the fact that many museums do not have the financial resources to hire project managers for this daunting task.  Even sixteen years later, well after the five year deadline, approximately 118,000 sets of Amerindian remains have yet to be returned to tribes.
Many problems may be encountered in just the first stage of repatriation.  In addition to inventorying collections, museum personnel have to decide to which tribes the bones, or other remains, belong.  Several culturally related tribes may attempt to claim the same remains.  In some instances, an osteologist or forensic anthropologist is required to determine probable tribal affiliation.  Because human remains have been collected in the United States for over one hundred years, there are cases where bones belong to a tribe that no longer exists.  

Kennewick Man
But should some bones, particularly the very ancient, be repatriated at all?
The NAGPRA, while conceived in good intentions, is somewhat problematic and at times ambiguous.  In its own words, it is an act to provide for the protection of Native American graves, and for other purposes.  The phrases other purposes is at best vague, and at worst a point of contention between some scientists and some tribes.  Joe Watkins, of the Department of Anthropology of the University of New Mexico, points out other problems with NAGPRA, such as how it "does not extend to protect human remains on private land," and its "inability to protect culturally unidentifiable human remains."  Many times, during the course of construction, when unmarked native graves are uncovered, they are unceremoniously removed from the location and re-interned elsewhere.  The tribes, if the tribe is still extant, may have no say in whether or not their ancestors can remain in the ground which has held them for so long.

The term cultural affiliation is the main difficulty that scientists and museums are having with NAGPRA.  In the words of the legislation, cultural affiliation means that there is a relationship of "shared group identity which can be reasonably traced historically or prehistorically between a present day Indian tribe and an identifiable earlier group."  A certain time period is never mentioned, nor how the earlier group can be identified; i.e., is the earlier group identified by scientists or by tribal oral history?  This language seemed acceptable to lawmakers, who may have mistakenly thought that Amerindian tribes were the first and only peoples in the Americas before Europeans, and that they never migrated from place to place.  To assume that the tribes in an area have not moved, modified their religion or morays, or changed at all in nearly 10,000 years is to assume that Amerindian culture is stagnant, thus doing a disservice to all tribes.  Plus, there may have been other peoples here along side or before Amerindians. 
Discussing the dilemma of proving affiliation in extremely old remains, Pat Barker, an archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada says, "The evidence collapses as you go back in time.  The first 500 years is pretty solid, by 1,000 its getting dicey, and by 10,000 most of that stuff you just can’t get at."  Court cases have already arisen from this lack of specificity, most notably the case involving Kennewick Man titled Bonnichsen et al. v. United States of America

Kennewick Man, from the Seattle Times.

Are scientific study, museum display, and repatriation mutually exclusive?  Amerindians would argue that the objects and remains were taken without their permission, and naturally they want them back.  The museum community feels that the heritage has not been stolen; rather, it has been preserved for the present and future. However, not all tribes are adamantly against museums and the scientists.   Some tribes do not want remains or cultural objects repatriated without first letting a scientist study them.  In this way, there is no doubt that the collections are going back to the correct tribe.  

In 2000, the Bureau of Land Management declared that "Spirit Cave Man" (above) can not be culturally linked to the Fallon-Paiute Shoshone tribe.  Bones are over 8,000 yrs old.

The Eastern Shoshone in Wyoming do not want human remains returned because they question the accuracy of museum records.  Other tribes, such as the Zuni, have turned down repatriation, feeling that the museum is a safe location for their history.  The Hopi tribe of the American Southwest is highly involved with projects involving ground disturbance in their region. The Hopi consider all ancestors in their area to be the Hisatsinom, and always requests respectful handling of the remains.  Currently the tribe is discussing repatriation and reburial of approximately six hundred sets of remains from the Arizona State Museum and the University of Arizona.  Some scientists would view this as destruction of a resource, but the Hopi are amenable to scientific testing before re-internment.  Such information about genetic affinity and prehistoric migration patterns is interesting to the Hopi.  More importantly though, the scientists can tell whether or not the remains belong to the tribe or to enemies of the tribe. 
Too often, tribes want the remains back because they feel that their ideas and beliefs are ignored during exhibition planning and the storage of certain sacred objects.  The tribes should be consulted regarding preferred display practices.  Archaeologists and curators should publish pertinent findings not only academically, but also publish them in a way that is user-friendly, and applicable to the tribe. 

My Opinion:

An experience of the Pawnee tribe summarizes what many institutions have done wrong, and why many native groups remain wary of museums despite legislation:  After decades of watching researchers plunder its burial grounds for bodies and artifacts, the [Pawnee] tribe finally forced Nebraska researchers and museums to return the items in 1989.  Once the treasures were back in hand, the Pawnees asked the scientists what they had learned.  "You ate corn," they answered.

NAGPRA is necessary.  Some museum curators may not like their collections being taken away from them, but they were taken from someone else in the first place.  The items belonging to the Amerindians are not always so removed as Kennewick Man.  Sometimes it hits as close to home as someones grandma residing in a forgotten drawer in a dusty basement.  If the remains haven't been studied in 50 or more years, is science really being hurt by taking the bones back?    But if the recent remains were so important, they would have been studied years ago.  However, extremely old skeletons/mummies such as Kennewick Man and Spirit Cave Man are so old, they do not fall under NAGPRA.  Scientists should get to study them.  

When human remains are displayed in museums or historical societies, it is never the bones of white soldiers or the first European settlers that came to this continent that are lying in glass cases.  It is Indian remains.  The message that this sends to the rest of the world is that Indians are culturally and physically different and inferior to non-Indians.  By any definition, this is racism.
Daniel K. Inouye, United States Senator

Since we commonly proclaim that archaeological collections are unique and irreplaceable, how can we ever justify the conscious and acquiescent destruction of our data?
Clement Meighan, Archaeologist, University of California, Los Angeles

Jeff Benedict, No Bone Unturned:  The Adventures of a Top Smithsonian Forensic Scientist and the Legal Battle for Americans Oldest Skeletons, (Harper Collins Publishers:  NYC, NY), 2003.

Robson Bonnichsen and Alan L. Schneider, Battle of the Bones, Annual Editions:  Anthropology, 2003, 2004, Elvio Angeloni, Ed., (McGraw-Hill/Dushkin: Guilford, CN), 2003, 35-39.

Magistrate John Jelderks, Opinion, Bonnichsen V. United States, USDC CV No. 96-1481-JE, 1997. 

Jeffrey Kulger, Who Should Own the Bones? Time Magazine, 5 March 2006.

Charles C. Mann, 1491:  New Revelations of the Americans Before Columbus, (Alfred A Knopf:  NY), 2005.

Delbert J. McBride, The Ethics of Ethnic Collections, Western Museums Quarterly, 8 (1), 1971, 10 12.

Devon A Mihesuah, ed., Repatriation Reader:  Who Owns American Indian Remains?, (University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, NE), 2000.

Joseph Powell and Jerome Rose, Chapter 2:  Report on the Osteological Assessment of the Kennewick Man Skeleton (CENWW.97.Kennewick), Report on the Nondestructive Examination, Description and Analysis of the Human Remains from Columbia Park, Kennewick, Washington, (Washington, DC: U.S.Department of the Interior), http://www.cr.nps.gov/aad/Kennewick/powell_rose.htm, Viewed 29 April 2006.

David Hurst Thomas, Archaeology, 3rd Edition, (Thomson Learning: United States), 1998.

Joe Watkins, Becoming American or Becoming Indian? Journal of Social Archaeology, (SAGE Publications) 2004, 60-77.

Joe Watkins, Indigenous Archaeology:  American Indian Values and Scientific Practice, (AltaMira Press: Walnut Creek, CA), 2000.