Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds Admit Impediments

Laura Pride

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

—from Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare

All year long, I’ve anxiously and hopefully awaited the Supreme Court’s decision on the question of marriage equality, wondering every day for months whether they would do the just and proper thing by all LGBTQ citizens of the United States at last. This week, as the nation awaited the decision with bated breath, I hoped that the answer would come on Friday, June 26, since that was my late mother’s birthday, and I could think of no greater honor to her memory than to have a landmark civil rights decision giving millions of people financial, emotional, legal and medical protection be announced on her natal day. On Friday, my dream came true.

I’m a straight woman who has already been afforded all the benefits of legal marriage more than once. I have never had to worry that a partner would be excluded from my hospital room, disallowed from taking custody of our child in an emergency, denied inheritance rights or social security or medical benefits, or publicly humiliated, shunned and mocked for calling himself my partner without benefit of marriage. I have lived a privileged life because I happened to be born with the prevailing sexual orientation during a time and in a place in which I could choose my partner of my own volition without being abused, threatened or punished for my orientation or my choices. But while I am heterosexual, I also cherish a number of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans friends and family members, and my life would be pale and hollow without them. Since childhood, many, at times most, of my nearest and dearest have been and continue to be homosexual or bisexual men and women. They always will be. To watch them be denied basic honor, dignity, respect and rights because of their orientation has sickened and disturbed me since I was a girl, and I have been a devoted ally to my darling LGBTQ loved ones (and to all the millions of LGBTQ strangers out there) for decades.

I cried with joy and relief early on Friday morning when I read the news minutes after the decision was announced, and I look forward to shedding more tears of joy at the weddings and anniversaries of my friends for decades to come. The world is so much brighter, fairer and more hopeful each time we extend justice and equality to those who have been denied it. We are so lucky to be alive to witness this beautiful day.

Can An Algorithm Rate Artistic Creativity?

Burghers STanford

Detail from one of Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais”

Wired UK and other media outlets report that computer scientists Ahmed Elgammal and Babak Saleh from Rutgers University have developed a visual algorithm which they believe can accurately rank historical artworks according to their creativity. Elgammal and Saleh define creativity as “the originality of the product and its influential value.” They use this definition to create what has been called an art network based on paintings’ (and some sculptures’) similarity to earlier works. Their experiment evaluated a variety of elements including color, texture and type of scenes depicted. Elgammal and Saleh compiled a database of art works from the 1400s to the present and used their algorithm to draw parallels between creative works.

This study, which purports to use computer science to measure the absolute creative worth of over 62,000 original works of art, is highly subjective and filled with inherent bias despite the programmers’ efforts to tease out evaluative absolutes by setting strict criteria. They seem to have assumed that their criteria covered the most important elements of what makes a work original or creative. Sadly, the whole enterprise and is at best flawed and at worst counterproductive to an accurate appraisal and understanding of what makes great works of art great.

A primary problem with such a test is determining what works to include and by which artists. For example, one artist who fared poorly in this project’s evaluation is August Rodin, an immensely popular French sculptor who has had an extraordinary impact on sculptors who came after him. Rodin is best known by the general public for two works, “The Thinker” and “The Kiss,” which are, to my mind, among his less exciting pieces. Indeed, “The Thinker” was conceived as a small part of his masterwork, “The Gates of Hell,” a monumental sculptural bronze work which depicts scenes from Dante’s Inferno, and versions of “The Thinker” appear in each of the cast bronze versions of the gates on display in museums around the world. Those who study and collect art are generally much more excited about “The Gates of Hell” and Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais,” which are considered his most emotionally powerful works. Each was cast in multiple versions and is  displayed in numerous locations around the globe.

“The Gates of Hell,” a  bronze gate covered in writhing bodies, and the somber collection of chained men dressed in rags that makes up “The Burghers of Calais” are, I would argue, more important to the development of 20th century sculpture than “The Thinker” or “The Kiss.” They are, however, much less well-known among those who only have a cursory interest in art. These more influential works are deeply psychological and disturbing sculptures featuring people in torment, not the placid, pleasing sculptures that those who know little of Rodin’s work may think of when they hear his name. Rodin, who lived a long, passionate and prolific life, created thousands of heads, bodies and body parts of clay and bronze and he created portrait sculptures that sometimes offended those who posed for them with their raw, unfinished, often ugly qualities. For more than a century, serious students of art have studied and copied Rodin’s work and techniques, and his more distorted and disturbing  sculptures have been among the most influential works of the last 150 years among modern artists.

If your specialty is programming and not art, you might not know to include those works among your sample. You might choose only his more generally popular works and assume that because they are more frequently copied, photographed or parodied, they are the more important pieces. And if you do that, you’ll get a skewed result, which is exactly what happened.

This study is getting a great deal of attention because of what was written about it by Daniel Culpan of Wired UK and in careless quotations of his work by other publications. Mr. Culpan is not conversant enough with art history to know basic terminology about the discipline. He did not appear to know enough about the subject to challenge some of the computer scientists’ biases and assumptions, and he apparently did not fully read even the short precis of the paper which he seems to have skimmed. He failed to mention, for example, that the artworks include not only paintings but also sculptures. The republication of and references to his article by Ars Technica and Smithsonian both repeat this error. Also, the art historical term “old masters,” which Mr. Culpan apparently erroneously believes means all important artists of the pre-20th century period, actually has a more specific meaning and commonly refers to works painted from approximately the 13th to the 18th centuries, up to about the year 1800.

Two of the artists Culpan describes as “old masters” who rated poorly in the computer assessment of their creativity actually lived and worked significantly after the “old masters” period: Ingres painted in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; Rodin sculpted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They are artists we consider to be part of the canon, but Ingres predates the modern era by only a few decades, and Rodin worked during what most art historians would consider to be the modern era.

Some wonder whether this study “proves” that some long-lauded artists might have been overvalued by those who lived before computer-aided evaluations were available. In the cases of Ingres and Rodin, their works (and Rodin’s in particular) are so unlike any others by their contemporaries that they are easily recognizable as having been created by those masters. I would argue that Ingres and especially Rodin were powerfully influential and that they saw things with a different eye than those who came before them. However, they worked primarily with traditional subject matter—figurative portraiture—in recognizable ways; i.e., their subjects’ body parts are generally recognizable as such and appear in the name locations as real body parts do, unlike paintings or sculptures by artists like Picasso, say, who moved eyes and limbs around on the bodies of the subjects he painted.

Sometimes Picasso painted multiple views of the same body part from different angles and incorporated them all into one portrait. Artists like Matisse distorted the colors of body parts, painting faces green or red when it suited him. Such altering of basic elements of human anatomy in one’s art could be considered more creative, and showing creativity (according to this definition) could be considered to be a better or more advanced form of art, or more impressive or important than producing images based more closely on figurative norms. Making recognizable portrait paintings of nobility, as Ingres did, could be seen as less “creative” than building most of one’s oeuvre out of stacked boxes and lines, like Mondrian, or collages, like Braque, or simplifying figures to their essential shapes and distorting them, like Munch or Picasso or Dali or Lichtenstein. But reducing creativity to such simplistic, easily measured or described metrics is unfair and damaging if it allows us to discount the importance, beauty, influence and ineffable magic found in historically earlier, more subtle or more “mainstream” works of art.

Taking these works out of their historical settings does them a disservice in determining how influential they were on the art that followed. The creators of this study tried to determine the influence of artists on those who followed them and to determine how different they were from what came before. But such differences were much more subtle during earlier centuries, and changes in style usually came about more slowly in past centuries than they did from the mid-19th century onward. Changes in art sped up throughout the 20th century, and now there are so many competing styles, media, techniques, mindsets, methodologies and concepts that one can no longer describe a prevailing artistic sensibility as being representative of the modern era. Technology and speed of communications changed artists’ ability to influence each other, and that sped up creativity, by one measure of the term. But since we modern types tend to think of “creativity” as an inherently positive term, I fear conflating the idea that something is “different” and therefore more “creative” in some ways with the idea that it is therefore better or more valuable.

In past times, the differences between two styles of art could be seen as monumentally important to earlier artists or to professional art historians, but those differences might be almost imperceptible to modern people without training and context. For example, Early Renaissance master sculptor Donatello and High Renaissance master sculptor Michelangelo each created important statues of the biblical figure David between about 1440 and 1504, and those who study art history see them as vastly different in feeling, symbolism, strength, influence and style. Someone without training, however, might very well see them as two boring, traditional nude dudes. Someone with no training at all can look at paintings by Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Andy Warhol side by side and see that each is different from the other and none is like anything seen before, and by that measure they could be seen as much more original, creative or even valuable than the works of Michelangelo. Each of those artists is hugely important and influential, but to put Magritte into the same category as Michelangelo would be ridiculous and unfair. Michelangelo’s works’ relative similarity to sculptures done by Roman artists 1500 years earlier does not make him a less creative or important or original artist for having copied and appropriated techniques from ancient works so well.

I fear any project that would use loaded terms like “creative” to rank, describe or value artists is likely to mislead those outside of the art world into believing that there are absolutes and discernible metrics that one can use to boil artworks down to their essence and take the guesswork out of determining meaning or value or rank. Such a ranking tool cannot exist because an essential element of art is that it can be valued in multiple ways, and that a work’s value is not solely the price for which it can be sold but is also derived from the meaning it has for the creator and its viewers. One can no more value a work of art than one can a human life. Yes, it can technically be done in a court of law or an auction showroom, but each of us holds a particular person or possession dearer than any court or auction house would, and we would argue that that person’s or thing’s imputed value has nothing to do with the value we sense within our head and heart. That is what makes art great and more complex in meaning than a garden hose or a box of cash. Each of us brings our own meaning to and derives our own value from a work of art in a unique way, and a computer program cannot do that for us.

According to this computerized assessment of relative creativity, Munch’s “The Scream” is on a par with Velazquez’s entire artistic output. In actuality, Munch’s dark, disturbed paintings owe much to the interior moodiness of 17th and 18th century masters like Velazquez and Goya, just as the nihilistic artists and writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries could not exist without the influence of the writers and artists who came before. To take them out of context and rank them in this raw and bloodless way feels, to me, preposterous.

Margaret Keene’s big-eyed portraits of the 1950s and 1960s were distinctive and immediately recognizable and they inspired many copies. These aspects of her work could be considered signs of great creativity according to descriptions of elements considered by this study. Keene’s works are, however, generally considered to be kitschy, shallow and lacking in artistic merit. Rodin, on the other hand, created rough, lumpy, often ugly portraits that many believed looked half-finished or hideous, but this freshness and openness to a reassessment of what constitutes a completed form had huge influence on modern sculpture. However, most people who know little about art history are only familiar with his statues “The Thinker” and “The Kiss,” which are more smooth, finished and conservative in their style than most of his works and are less appropriate examples of the originality and influence of his work on artists themselves. I think his scoring so poorly on this “test” of creativity better shows the weakness of the creators’ understanding of which works of his should be evaluated and included in the test than it does the level of his creativity.

The project is interesting, and it is heartening to see people in tech fields showing an interest in the fine arts. However, the metrics the project uses to measure artistic merit are biased more toward novelty than quality, and they discount many of the key elements of artworks most prized by professional art historians and collectors. Elgammal and Saleh make so many value judgments based on personal opinion that the result is a controversial evaluative tool of very limited use.

 

Happy Bloomsday

Lovers of literature celebrate today as Bloomsday in honor of the life and writings of Irish writer James Joyce. The events of his monumental novel Ulysses occur on June 16, 1904, a date made dear to Joyce’s heart because it was the day upon which he and his eventual wife and long-time love, Nora Barnacle, had their first outing together. The day’s name honors Joyce’s character Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Ulysses.

In the late 1980s, eclectic and influential British singer/songwriter Kate Bush wanted to write a song based on Molly Bloom’s sexy, often censored soliloquy, which ends the novel. However, Joyce’s grandson Stephen Joyce, who has long held decision-making power over his grandfather’s estate, forbade it. He has been famously resistant to granting permission to other artists and writers who have sought to quote or incorporate elements of Joyce’s work into their own. Undaunted, Bush reworked the lyrics and created a beautiful work of art, her song “The Sensual World,” and released it as part of the album of the same name in 1989. The song is about Joyce’s character Molly Bloom stepping down off the pages of the novel into the real world of the senses, and it lifts phrases and ideas from Ulysses without quoting from the novel at great length or too directly.

In 2011, the Joyce estate at last granted Bush license to use her original material, and she rerecorded the song as “Flower of the Mountain,” and released it on the album Director’s Cut. Lovely as it is with Kate’s voice grown earthier with time, I prefer the lighter sound and lyrical flow of The Sensual World.

What Makes a Woman “Feminine”?

Vanity Fair

Caitlyn Jenner‘s photos were published in Vanity Fair earlier this week, as we all know by now. She looks beautiful in them, and I wish her only happiness in her life as the woman she has always felt herself to be.

Since she seems to have taken charge of all aspects of publicizing her transition from Bruce to Caitlyn, we must assume that Ms. Jenner had the final say regarding which of the photos taken by top celebrity portraitist Annie Leibovitz she wanted to have featured on the Vanity Fair cover. Of all the photos from that spread, the one on the cover shows Ms. Jenner in the most vulnerable possible state: sitting in white underwear with arms pinned behind her and her strong, beautiful legs awkwardly pressed together. All the others show her looking more in-charge and comfortable with herself, not to mention in prettier clothes. For example, here she is relaxing:

Sofa

Here she is about to drive her $180,000 sports car:

Red Dress

In each of these images, she shows herself to be in command of the moment and of herself. In one, she looks away from the camera as if unaware and unconcerned about its gaze; in the other she wears sunglasses and a body-conscious red dress, and she exudes power and control. Compare these to the cover image in which her wrists and ankles could be bound for all we know; they’re certainly pulled tightly back and out of the way, and she looks directly at the camera, unsmiling and very aware that she is being appraised by the viewer in her half-naked state.

After a lifetime of being lauded for physical strength and power, which were so often conflated with her appearing to many to be the epitome of manly attractiveness, it is understandable, but I think a bit disturbing, that she and Vanity Fair should see the opposite—a physical position of seeming powerlessness—as the apotheosis of feminine beauty. While it is true that stripping away clothes could also be taken as a symbol of stripping away what she felt were the public lies about her private self, both she and photographer Annie Leibovitz knew full well that by portraying her without clothes or visible hands or feet they were also using visual shorthand to get across the idea of her vulnerability as part and parcel of her newly-public femininity.

She is in fabulous physical condition, as one would expect a disciplined gold-medal-winning Olympic decathlete to be, and one can understand that she might want to show that off—it must feel great to show the world that she can look so conventionally attractive as a woman. And, of course, Vanity Fair wants to sex up the cover as much as possible to sell more issues. But I wonder: did Ms. Jenner or Vanity Fair think that placing her in as vulnerable a state as possible was a necessary part of making her look most feminine?

If people think that what makes Ms. Jenner appear to be “feminine” is the fact that her near nudity and constrained pose leave her looking vulnerable and fragile, that saddens me, since in that case the choice is clearly not about glamour (which can be strong and empowering) per se; it is instead about playing up weakness as a womanly trait. Caitlyn Jenner is plenty glamorous in all the photos, so the choice must have involved what she and Vanity Fair think makes her look most like a woman, and that appears to be weakness, vulnerability and the impression of greater sexual availability (i.e., fewer clothes, direct gaze, body seated rather than standing and legs and arms out of the way). I’m concerned about underlying sexist and disempowering messages about femininity and beauty that could be sent to the world by this photo spread when the most fragile and powerless-looking of all photos taken becomes the image chosen to symbolize feminine beauty out of all the beautiful, powerful images available.

I am not denigrating Caitlyn’s choice to transition from male to female, nor her desire to share her story and her first photos of herself in a beautiful and powerful way. I support and applaud her in this. I am merely questioning what this episode in popular culture tells us about how we may conflate powerlessness and vulnerability with ideals of female beauty.

Nordic Splendor: The Baldishol Tapestry

Baldy

I’m currently traveling in Scandinavia feasting my eyes on Nordic art and design, both ancient and modern. One of the highlights so far was the Baldishol Tapestry, a Medieval masterpiece dating between 1040 and 1190 AD. The tapestry was rescued from the Baldishol Church in Hedmark, Norway, when it came to light after the demolition of the church in the late 1870s. By then it looked like tattered old rags and was covered in dirt acquired from its previous use: protecting the feet of the church sexton from drafts. (Click on the photo below to see a more detailed image of the tapestry in its current setting.)

Baldeshol Tapestry

Now that it’s clean and displayed in a dark room under climate control, this brilliantly colorful tapestry (which is contemporary with the world’s most famous Medieval tapestry work, The Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Conquest of 1066) is in remarkable condition. This wall decoration, once of of a series meant to encircle a room, symbolizes the months of April and May, and is the only surviving early medieval tapestry believed to be of Nordic origin. It is on display in the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo.