Madeira and its doors

April 28, 2022 • 10:00 am

We will have two posts on Madeira based on our one-day visit. This one gives a brief overview and then shows the artistic doors of the island’s capital city.

We have landed in Funchal on the southern part of the island of Madeira, which itself is Portuguese. (With a population of about 100,000,, a cute town, a market, and access to a lovely botanical garden, Funchal is the island’s largest city and its biggest tourist destination.)

Click on photos to enlarge them.

The cruise tracker shows us here:

A larger perspective:

Through my cabin window: another gorgeous day:

Here’s Funchal from the Botanical Gardens about 500 m up the mountain (more on the plants in the next post). The Gardens also houses the still-occupied mansion of the Blandy family, which got rich making Madeira wine  (If you’ve drunk Madeira, you’ve undoubtedly had their wine.)

See our ship way below? (Go to next photo)

Our ship (arrow) which is dwarfed by a regular cruise ship:

We were told that when the city was seedier and a haven for sailors, prostitutes, and other such trade, the city fathers decided to encourage people to paint their stores and houses as a way of restoring respectability. Funchal is now plenty respectable and prosperous, and the doors are lovely. Here are a few:

A restaurant with a well fed customer. Can you spot the cat?

Also on a restaurant: a traditional drink for returning sailors made with rum, honey, and sugar. We were told it was served warm, so it would be a hot toddy.

A Berber, presumably from Morocco:

Cats are in many of the door paintings:

A DUCK STORE! I would have gone in, but we were on a tour:

The Duck Store had two duck doors:

A salacious mail slot:

A bookshop with book-y doors:

Can you spot the cat?

These are my two favorites. There were many more doors, but no time to photograph them!

I almost forgot dinner last night. Le menu:

I didn’t feel like eating baby cow, and I’m not much of a piscivore, so I did what one reader suggested the other day: ordered the sirloin steak, which is always available. First, though, a spinach salad:

Sirloin steak ordered rare but cooked medium rare, or even a tad more. It was okay but next time I’m going to order it “mooing”. It’s hard to cook such a thin steak rare on the inside and cooked on the outside.

Sticky date pudding with spun sugar ornamentation. As usual, this was the best course:

Readers’ wildlife photos

February 23, 2022 • 8:30 am

Today we have an unusual combination of biology, art, and the history of science, contributed by Athayde Tonhasca Júnior. His notes are indented and he wrote this: “Some of your readers may be interested in learning about Maria Merian, a remarkable and not widely known scientist.”  So here we go! (Do click the photos to enlarge them.)

Ovid’s poem Metamorphoses (8 AD) is a collection of myths and legends with a central theme of transformation or metamorphosis, from the Greek meta (change) and morphe (form). The poem has had a profound influence on Western literature and art, so classicist-inspired biologists and naturalists had a perfectly fitting word to describe one of the most fascinating and baffling biological phenomena.

Fig 1. Ovid manuscript on parchment, 11th to 13th century. Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli.

Metamorphosis is the process in which some insects and other animals undergo radical change in form and function when growing from immature to adult phases. This transformation requires the complete dissolution of the animal’s internal organs and their reassembly into a new creature entirely: see an example of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. The mechanisms and chemistry of metamorphosis are still not fully understood.

Metamorphosis seems so disconcerting that for centuries nobody would consider that larvae and adult insects were the same animal. That view began to change with the work of Jan Goedart (1617–1688) and Jan Swammerdam (1637–1680), Dutch naturalists and entomologists who demonstrated that larva, pupa and adult insect were phases in the development of a single individual.

Goedart’s and Swammerdam’s drawings and descriptions did not go unnoticed by a young German expat, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), a woman with a remarkable biography. Since her teenage years, Merian painted, collected and studied plants and insects, particularly moths and butterflies. She married and started a family, but never abandoned her art and scientific investigations. She moved to Amsterdam after leaving her husband, supporting her two daughters through her publications, selling hand-mixed paints and linens, and teaching painting and embroidery to young women.

In 1699, at the age of 52, Merian and her youngest daughter left for Surinam, then a Dutch colony. In a venture that would be gutsy today, the Merians travelled alone through the South-American jungle for two years, observing, drawing and collecting plants and animals. Merian was one of the first persons to record parasitic wasps emerging from the cocoon of a moth or butterfly, and the metamorphosis of a tropical butterfly. The two women returned to Amsterdam loaded with preserved animal and plant specimens. Merian published her book about her studies, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, and continued painting, publishing and trading specimens until her death.

Fig. 2. A Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium volume bound with calf leather with the accompanying text in Latin. Merian dedicated her publication ‘to all lovers and investigators of nature’.

Artist-naturalists of the period were predictable and formal: they usually depicted specimens singly against a neutral background. But Merian drew and hand-coloured animals and plants in their surroundings and interacting with each other. Her paintings were descriptive, for example showing a flower reproductive cycle from bud through fruit. Or all the stages of a butterfly, from caterpillar to imago (the adult, mature stage), host plants included. Merian’s plates portrayed ecological communities and species interactions almost two centuries before German zoologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term oecologie, which was the foundation for the field of Ecology.

Fig 3. A butterfly’s life cycle and a pomegranate (Punica granatum). Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, 1726 edition.

Fig 4. Ants and spiders from Suriname. Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, 1705:

Merian’s artistic style become a standard for scientific illustration, still in use in today’s nature guides. Through her beautiful and accurate art and observations, Merian made metamorphosis and other biological phenomena widely known, and helped dismiss the entrenched belief that insects generated spontaneously.

Fig 5. Metamorphosis of a frog, M.S. Merian, 1701.

Fig 6. A spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus) and a false coral snake (Anilius scytale) Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, 1705.

 

Merian was respected and acknowledged by fellow naturalists of her generation. Carl Linnaeus would later classify insects based on her drawings, and Goethe, who was a poet and a naturalist, celebrated Merian for her ability to move ‘between art and science, between nature observation and artistic intention.’ But eventually her work was forgotten until the 1970s, when the Soviet Academy of Sciences republished her paintings. The world rediscovered Merian’s achievements, and she has been celebrated in currency, postage stamps, academic publications, books and museum exhibitions. A plant genus (Meriania), a lizard (Salvator merianae), a toad (Rhinella merianae), a spider (Metellina merianae), among other species, have been named in her honour. These accolades are well deserved. Maria Sibylla Merian was the woman who made science beautiful.

Fig 6. German banknote depicting Maria Sibylla Merian and a parasitic wasp.

 

Heather Mac Donald reviews more art museums

February 19, 2022 • 12:30 pm

Heather Mac Donald is funny and snarky when she goes after the wokeness that is taking over art. In fact no matter what art you mention: music, paintings, novels, plays, and so on—it’s all being Wokeified. That holds not only for older art, but also for newer art, which is minutely scrutinized for ideological purity (think of Spielberg’s new movie version of West Side Story, which, though he tried mightily to filter out the impurity, was still found wanting by Pecksniffs).

Mac Donald’s collection of writings for the City Journal is here, and you may want to read her two-part series on the Wokifying of Music, “Classical Music’s Suicide Pact”, Part I and Part 2.

And as for older art, well you can just forget about it. If your standards are Progressive Leftist purity rather than aesthetics, your art history is going to have to be revised, redacted, or removed, and that’s happening.  The other day I highlighted Mac Donald’s takedowns of two exhibits at the Met, and she’s continuing on with the article below about an exhibit on Hogarth at Tate Britain as well as a new exhibit at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. Click to read:

The circumstances of the Tate exhibit did not bode well:

Tate Britain invited 18 consultants from academic identity studies and the contemporary art world to interpret works by the eighteenth-century social critic and satirist William Hogarth, the subject of its exhibit “Hogarth and Europe.”

What happened is exactly what you might expect: the wall cards are pure insanity: an example of people reading into Hogarth ideological messages that they detest—but aren’t even there. There must be a name for this kind of delusion. Psychosis?

One example:

The wall text by guest curator Sonia E. Barrett, a German–Jamaican installation artist, who, according to her Tate bio, “performs furniture to explore themes of race and gender,” is emblematic of the results. The point of a Hogarth self-portrait, Barrett explains, is the chair in which the artist sits as he works on a cartoon for an oil painting. That chair, in Bennett’s view, represents both Hogarth’s sexism and Western slavery. In a treatise on art, Hogarth had praised the female form as the epitome of beauty. And now here he is sitting on a chair that is as shapely as a woman’s body—just like a male chauvinist! “The curvaceous chair literally supports him,” Barrett notes grimly.

Barrett is not through with the chair. She claims that it is “made from timbers shipped from the colonies, via routes which also shipped enslaved people.” The next connection will jump out to anyone even remotely acquainted with postcolonial studies: “Could the chair also stand-in [sic] for all those unnamed black and brown people enabling the society that supports his vigorous creativity?” Honest answer: No. Hogarth had no intention of representing enslaved people by painting himself in his chair; the chance that he was even aware of the wood’s alleged origins is slight.

Seriously! Here’s the painting. The chair didn’t jump out at me, but apparently Hogarth was well acquainted with postcolonial studies:

Thins didn’t fare much better in Amsterda. (I’m leaving out some of the paintings Mac Donald discusses). Even what many regard as one of Rembrandt’s masterpieces, “The Night Watch”, gets criticized for–surprise!–lack of ethnic diversity

Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum has also entered the revisionism business, rewriting 80 of its wall texts to incorporate anticolonial perspectives. As usual, these texts “read the absences” in a painting (to echo deconstructive rhetoric), rather than the presences. Rembrandt’s monumental canvas, The Night Watch, is the artist’s and the museum’s most famous painting. It is a structural tour de force, assembling 34 individuals associated with Amsterdam’s civil guard in various groupings under contrasting sources of light. To a curator dedicated to racial justice, however, the only noteworthy thing about the massive composition is the pigmentation of the subjects’ skin: “As in most other 17th-century works, only white people are seen in this painting.” Yet a “modest community of African people actually lived nearby,” the curators note, whom Rembrandt should have memorialized in his great civic tableau if he had cared about racial diversity—which of course he should have.

Calling Amsterdam’s African community “modest” is undoubtedly an overstatement. If just one of the 34 individuals in the canvas were black, that would correspond proportionally to a 3 percent black population in Amsterdam. By comparison, California’s current population is 6 percent black. There is no chance that blacks made up 3 percent of Amsterdam’s seventeenth-century population; their presence was likely well below 1 percent.

Well, Mac Donald could have used some statistics here, for you’d need to calculate the probability that there would be no black people in the painting given the proportion of blacks in Amsterdam (not known), coupled with the assumption that the company depicted would have been a random selection of Amsterdam’s inhabitants (ludicrous on the face of it). That none are shown is hardly an indictment of racism.

And of course the Civil Guard would have been all white people. The fact is that Rembrandt was simply painting the identifiable individuals in Captain Banninck Cocq’s company of civil guards, who actually commissioned the painting. Now Cocq may have been bigoted in selecting his men, but we don’t know.

Was Rembrandt, anticipating the critics of four centuries hence, supposed to tell Captain Cocq to “stick in some diversity”? The painting is what it is—i.e., a portrait of its subject—and it’s a masterpiece given the limitations of depicting motion in what’s essentially a vanity painting

There’s one more, and the pivotal feature of this still life turns out to be salt, which isn’t even depicted:

The wall text to Willem Claesz Heda’s Still Life With Gilt Cup faults the artist for not representing events that had not even happened yet. The work is a gorgeous arrangement of creamy linen, jade glass, pewter, a half-eaten roll, oysters, and a peeled lemon, against a velvety taupe background. A useful curatorial gloss might have explained the still life convention of overturned tableware, as seen in this canvas. Instead, the curators focus on only one item: salt. “One year after this picture was painted,” the wall text notes, “the Netherlands conquered Bonaire for its salt pans. The Arawak (the original inhabitants) and enslaved people from West Africa were forced to mine the salt pans. They stood day in and day out barefoot in the stinging salt water and under the blazing sun. In the Netherlands, this salt was used to preserve meat and fish or ended up in luxurious salt cellars, like the one shown here.”

Why did Heda bother to work out the structural relations in his composition? He could have painted a mound of salt and been done with it, had he even anticipated the coming conquest of Bonaire. The resulting loss of beauty that such a switch in subject matter would entail means nothing to the revisionist curator, who is indifferent to everything outside of his political program.

Here’s that lovely painting, and note that NO SALT IS VISIBLE! But that doesn’t stop the Pecksniffs, who just mentally journey into the future from 1635 and lambaste the Dutch conquerers (not Heda) for their odious behavior. But on these grounds, one could criticize virtually any painting a few hundred years old because the nation in which the painter worked happened to do bad stuff. Every nation has done bad stuff.

But what does that have to do with art?

h/t: cesar

Heather Mac Donald on two new exhibits at the Met

February 17, 2022 • 1:15 pm

Of course Heather Mac Donald‘s a right-winger, but don’t ignore her writings. How else would you learn about these two new exhibits at the Met?  And she’s a good writer who has interesting things to say. I’ve read her last two books, The War on Cops and The Diversity DelusionEven if you’re on the opposite side politically, she’s the enemy who has the best arguments that you need to know.

Together with the shenanigans at Chicago’s Art Institute, this gives a good idea of what’s going to happen to art museums (and art instruction) in the near future: all art will be made to fit an ideological narrative.  That reminds me of Soviet-style art, which of course was dreadful and deadly, and takes away one of the values of art: to be “heterodox”.  From now on, there will be only two kinds of art: art that supports the oppressor, and art that supports the oppressed. Even the still-life paintings of the Dutch masters fall into one of these classes (the former, of course).

Plus, you would never read this stuff in the New York Times or Washington Post! Click screenshot for an edifying read:

It’s a long but entertaining piece, and deals with the shows “In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at the Met”, as well “The African Origin of Civlization.”  I’ll just give a few quotes to show what we art lovers will be facing in the next ten or fifty years.

On the Dutch show:

Thus, the commentary accompanying “In Praise of Painting” wearily notes that “of course” there are “blind spots in the story these particular acquisitions tell. Colonialism, slavery, and war—major themes in seventeenth-century Dutch history—are scarcely visible here.” It is hard to know who is more at fault, in the Met’s view: the artists or the art lovers who collected their work. Few seventeenth-century Dutch paintings treat of “colonialism, slavery, and war,” and fewer still approach the technical mastery of the Dutch canon.

This one, about Dutch still-life paintings, really burns my onions, but Mac Donald describes it with the appropriate snark:

“In Praise of Painting” adopts that strategy as well. “Still life paintings pictured the bounty provided by newly established Dutch trade routes and the Republic’s economic success, while omitting the human cost of colonial warfare and slavery,” the accompanying wall text points out. The curators do not reveal how a still life painter should portray the “human cost of colonial warfare and slavery.” As even the curators admit, a still life by definition focuses on “things without people.” The Dutch masters, who brought the nascent genre to peak gorgeousness, may have delighted in the dragon-fly translucence of grapes and the somber radiance of silver and cut glass; they may have taught us to see beauty in a kitchen’s bounty. Not good enough. They should have anticipated twenty-first-century concerns about racial justice and revised their subject matter accordingly.

and

The museum’s benefactors also receive a feminist whack. “Only one picture painted by an early modern Dutch woman has entered the collection over the course of nearly 150 years,” the curators scold. Which Jacob van Ruisdael or Gerard ter Borch would the curators forego for a painting chosen on identity grounds? There simply weren’t as many females as males painting in the seventeenth century. Today, there are; women have unfettered access to art schools and galleries. The Met’s founders bought its female-painted Dutch Baroque canvas—a towering arrangement of peonies, tulips, roses, and marigolds—in 1871. Sexism did not prevent that addition to the museum’s original holdings, but sexism, we are to believe, prevented follow-up purchases.

Doesn’t the painting below reek with colonialism? All that cheese, fruit, and bread purloined from Dutch colonies!

A banquet still life: Nicolaes Gillis, Laid Table, 1611, oil on wood, 59 x 79 cm, Private collection. https://www.wga.hu/html_m/g/gillis/laidtabl.html

On the African Origin of Civilization exhibit:  This one has the theme that our civilization really began in Sub-Saharan Africa, whose denizens went to Egypt—envisioned as a black civilization—and then left Egypt to go South again. Egypt, rather than Greece and Rome, is seen as the origin of many of the founding and sustaining principles of the West. You can read Mac Donald’s take for yourself; suffice it to say that she’s no fan of Afrocentrism.

What bothers me most about the exhibit are two things. First, it appears to rely heavily on the Afrocentric scholarship of Cheikh Anta Diop (1923-1986), a Senegalese historian and writer whose work has largely been rejected, even by black historians. Mac Donald, for instance, reports such a dismissal by Kwame Anthony Appiah, a scholar of African history:

Contrary to the Met’s designation of Diop as “influential,” outside the mainstream is where his scholarship has remained. His oeuvre is a marginal presence in African or Egyptian studies, except in the most fervent bastions of Afrocentrism, such as Temple University’s Department of Africology and African American Studies (which also offers a course on Ebonics). Frank Snowden, a Howard University classicist, showed definitively in 1989 that Diop, in Snowden’s words, “distorts his classical sources,” including Herodotus. Oxford University Press’s African History (2007) notes that Diop’s theories have been “convincingly rejected by archeologists and historians on empirical grounds.” Kwame Anthony Appiah called Diop an example of “romantic racialism.”

And yet Diop’s ideas are the very nucleus of this exhibit!

Worse, the exhibit dishonestly distorts Diop’s own words to buttress its Afrocentric thesis:

The show is based on the writings of Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop (1923–1986). Diop held that ancient Egypt was black, that ancient Egypt and modern Sub-Saharan Africa are part of a unified black civilization, and that this black African civilization, not Greece or Rome, is the source of Western civilization. The exhibit opens with a covertly doctored quote from Diop: “The history of Africa will remain suspended in air and cannot be written correctly until African historians connect it with the history of Egypt” (more on that doctoring below).

. . . The original Diop quote with which the Met opens its “African Origin” show, before the Met doctored it, was more explicit about Diop’s racial agenda. The actual sentence reads: “The history of Black Africa will remain suspended in air and cannot be written correctly until African historians dare to connect it with the history of Egypt” (emphasis added). The Met removed the words in italics, underplaying the Afrocentric angle and smoothing over Diop’s own acknowledgment of how outside the mainstream his scholarship was.

If Mac Donald isn’t making this up, it stands as an example of arrant dishonesty on the part of the Met, for they didn’t even note that the quote had been changed. And of course the change wasn’t accidental: it was made to support the centrality of his Afrocentric thesis.

Yep, this is what we’re in for. I think the only way for us art fans to deal with this trend is, when you go to a museum, do not read the labels. In fact, don’t read anything at all!

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Socialist realism! Lots of paintings at this site:

Maus banned in a Tennessee school distrinct because of eight swear words and a naked rodent

January 27, 2022 • 9:30 am

Today we’ll have two posts on how the “Elect”—et’s use that instead of “woke”, so as to conform to John McWhorter’s supposedly non-pejorative word—are changing or banning art to both confirm virtue and prevent others from enjoying good painting, dance, and writing. One source will be the liberal media; the other the conservative media. This first post deals mainly with literature, but I’ve put some “racialization of art” stuff at the very bottom.

Let’s start with the liberal media, which of course reports Elect shenanigans less often than does the liberal “MSM”. In this case, however, the Guardian is the source. This concerns Art Spiegelman’s “graphic novel” Maus, which won the Pulitzer Prize for literature (the “Special Awards and Letters” category) in 1986.

Before I first read Maus, I was disdainful of “graphic novels,” thinking they were just comic books for adults, made for people who wanted to look at pictures rather than read.

Was I wrong! I first saw Maus at the 57th Street Bookstore soon after I arrived in Chicago, and, knowing the plaudits it got, I pulled it off the shelf.  I started reading, and then couldn’t stop. The artwork, I found, added immensely to the power of the book, especially the depiction of all characters as animals, though one wouldn’t expect that power in a book about the Holocaust. I bought it, which I rarely do with books due to my groaning shelves, and it’s now one of several graphic novels I own. (The other two are volumes of wonderful series The Rabbi’s Cat, given to me by a friend.) It’s not just that the books have moggies in them; the attraction is, as in Animal Farm, that messages can be driven home more deeply using animals as metaphors than by straight depiction of human actions.

At any rate, everyone should read Maus (and I also recommend The Rabbi’s Cat).  But, according to the Guardian the good (?) people on a Tennessee school board have taken it upon themselves to deprive students of this access—for no good reason.

Click on the screenshot below to read the piece. You know it’s gotta be egregious censorship if the woke Guardian reports it!

Why did the school board, which after deciding to redact the book, find it more practical to ban it outright? Because there was a single depiction of nudity OF A MOUSE and a few swear words that kids hear (and use) every day. An excerpt from the article (my emphasis):

Tennessee school board has banned a Pulitzer prize-winning novel from its classrooms over eight curse words and an illustration of a naked cartoon mouse.

The graphic novel, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by New Yorker Art Spiegelman, uses hand-drawn illustrations of mice and cats to depict how the author’s parents survived Auschwitz during the Holocaust.

The graphic memoir elevated a pulp mass medium to high art when it nabbed a slew of literary awards in 1992 but appears not to have impressed educators in Mcminn county.

Ten board members unanimously agreed in favour of removing the novel from the eighth-grade curriculum, citing its use of the phrase “God Damn” and drawings of “naked pictures” of women, according to minutes taken from a board of education meeting earlier this month.

Here’s the only passage about nudity (OF A MOUSE) in the school board minutes (have a look at the link above):

Mike Cochran- I will start. I went to school here thirteen years. I learned math, English, Reading and History. I never had a book with a naked picture in it, never had one with foul language. In third grade I had one of my classmates come up to me and say hey what’s this word? I sounded it out and it was “damn,” and I was real proud of myself because I sounded it out. She ran straight to the teacher and told her I was cussing. Besides that one book which I think she brought from home, now I’ve seen a cuss word in a textbook at school. So, this idea that we have to have this kind of material in the class in order to teach history, I don’t buy it.

. . .We are talking about teaching ethics to our kids, and it starts out with the dad and the son talking about when the dad lost his virginity. It wasn’t explicit but it was in there. You see the naked pictures, you see the razor, the blade where the mom is cutting herself. You see her laying in a pool of her own blood. You have all this stuff in here, again, reading this to myself it was a decent book until the end. I thought the end was stupid to be honest with you. A lot of the cussing had to do with the son cussing out the father, so I don’t really know how that teaches our kids any kind of ethical stuff. It’s just the opposite, instead of treating his father with some kind of respect, he treated his father like he was the victim.

We don’t need this stuff to teach kids history. We can teach them history and we can teach them graphic history. We can tell them exactly what happened, but we don’t need all the nakedness and all the other stuff.

At least Mickey Mouse had the decency to cover his shame with pants!

At first they thought about just redacting the panels with nudity and cussing, but that would lead to copyright violations:

“There is some rough, objectionable language in this book,” director of school, Lee Parkison, is recorded as saying in the session’s opening remarks.

Parkison continued to say he had “consulted with our attorney” and as a result “we decided the best way to fix or handle the language in this book was to redact it … to get rid of the eight curse words and the picture of the woman that was objected to.”

Board member Tony Allman supported the move to remove the “vulgar and inappropriate” content, arguing: “We don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff.”

. . . After much discussion over the redaction of words the members found objectionable, the board eventually decided that alongside copyright concerns, it would be better to ban the graphic novel altogether.

Eventually they voted to entirely remove the book from the eight-grade curriculum. Those kids are about fourteen years old, and you tell me that none of them has seen a drawing or photo of a naked woman before, or heard (much less used) the words “God damn”.

But apparently the use of animals was said to”brutalize the Holocaust”, as if it wasn’t sufficiently brutal. Indeed, to bring home the nature of the Holocaust, pictures (either photos or artwork) are essential; words alone are insufficient:

Board member Tony Allman supported the move to remove the “vulgar and inappropriate” content, arguing: “We don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff.”

“I am not denying it was horrible, brutal, and cruel,” Allman said in reference to the genocide and murder of six million European Jews during the second world war.

“It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy,” he added.

Allman also took aim at Spiegelman himself, alleging: “I may be wrong, but this guy that created the artwork used to do the graphics for Playboy.”

“You can look at his history, and we’re letting him do graphics in books for students in elementary school. If I had a child in the eighth grade, this ain’t happening. If I had to move him out and homeschool him or put him somewhere else, this is not happening.”

Mike Cochran, another school board member, described parts of the book as “completely unnecessary”.

“We are talking about teaching ethics to our kids, and it starts out with the dad and the son talking about when the dad lost his virginity. It wasn’t explicit but it was in there,” Cochran said.

“We don’t need this stuff to teach kids history. We can teach them history and we can teach them graphic history. We can tell them exactly what happened, but we don’t need all the nakedness and all the other stuff.”

Here we have a bunch of Pecksniffian parents making the decision that fourteen-year-olds shouldn’t have access to a famous, powerful, and moving graphic novel.

Spiegelman’s reaction:

Spiegelman said he was “baffled” by the outcome in an interview with CNBC on Wednesday. “It’s leaving me with my jaw open, like, ‘What?’” the 73-year-old author said, adding he thought the school board was “Orwellian” for approving the ban.

Spiegelman’s Jewish parents were both sent to Nazi concentration camps and his mother took her own life when he was just 20.

“I’ve met so many young people who … have learned things from my book,” Spiegelman said. “I also understand that Tennessee is obviously demented. There’s something going on very, very haywire there.”

Well of course not all of Tennessee is demented, but there are some school board members who are acting, well, I won’t give my reaction.  Let’s just say it’s similar to Neil Gaiman’s:

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I don’t know where else to put this item, but it appears that Wokeness Electness has invaded the Metropolitan Museum in New York. I don’t know how far the rot has spread, but readers might check for themselves.  We know, at least, that David and Canova, were racists.  They could at least have depicted Socrates as a person of color!

Rage, rage against the dying of the light!

h/t: Jean

The lies of the Art Institute of Chicago

October 26, 2021 • 11:00 am

If you’ve read this site, you’ll know that the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) recently got rid of 80-odd volunteer docents, peremptorily firing them via email despite the fact that most of them had worked (for free) for many years and knew tons about the art. They were good guides and cost the AIC nothing.

The reason was clear: the docents were mostly older white women of means, who had the time for the rigorous training and heavy schedule of giving tours. But because the docents didn’t “look like” the population of Chicago (i.e., there were few African-Americans or Hispanics among them), they had to go—en masse. They’re being replaced by a much smaller and less well-trained staff of paid volunteers, with promises that someday real volunteers will return. In the meantime, the newly-fired docents have been told they can apply for the paid jobs, but given that these jobs are meant to increase racial diversity, they don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. Their consolation prize is a three-year free membership to the AIC. Big whoop!

I’m all in favor of diversity, but firing a well-trained group of ardent volunteer guides and art-lovers is not the way the AIC should have gone about it. I won’t go into the alternatives, but the readers here suggested many.

In the meantime, I heard from one reader who is a member of the AIC and wrote to them in protest. This reader got a mealy-mouthed generic response that had a list of frequently-asked questions about DocentGate and their answers. I’ll show two. The two documents I mention here, by the way, are available via judicious inquiry.

From the FAQ:

Why is this decision being portrayed in the media as being about socioeconomics and race?

Unfortunately some have tried to portray this positive evolution of a hybrid educator program into a discussion of identity politics, which it is not. We are simply updating an education model to best serve Chicagoland students. During this time when tours have decreased due to the pandemic, we will use paid educators, and as demand for school tours increases with recovery from the pandemic, we will bring in additional paid educators and institute a new hybrid model that incorporates volunteers with updated training.

Note the weaselly first sentence which says it is “not” a discussion of identity politics. But, as I’ll show you in a minute, that’s an arrant lie, for a letter from James Rondeau to AIC members shows it’s all about identity politics. As I said, increasing diversity among guides is a laudable goal. But why does the AIC lie about it here?

One more lying answer:

Why was the program unsustainable? 

The docents went through rigorous training, and the demands of the program were unsustainable in numerous ways. In nearly all recent news articles, the docents themselves acknowledge how difficult the work was to manage—a topic that the docents and museum had long been discussing. Many talented and qualified candidates could not participate because of the time the training required and when the training was offered.

Part of the reason we are taking this time to step back and evaluate is to make it easier for all volunteers—current and potential—to engage and contribute in the future. We‘re committed to creating a new program that does not have so many barriers to entry. We value the docents’ knowledge and experience and look forward to the insights they will bring to the advisory council that will be consulting on the direction of the new hybrid model.

I doubt that the docents would agree with this. After all, the program had done on for 60 years, and even though docents may have kvetched (I’m not aware of any beefs), nobody quit. They canned the program not because there were barriers to entry involving too much training, but because there were not enough docents who were people of color. Why can’t the AIC just admit that this is all about increasing diversity among the docents? They only look worse when they dissimulate and lie about it.

Now about those lies; here are some excerpts to a letter to all AIC members by the President and Director James Rondeau (also available on request). Do you think race isn’t involved? In fact, it’s EVERYTHING. I’ve bolded a paragraph that shows this.

One year after stating our commitment to racial justice and equity, I feel it is critical to do several things, the first of which is to reaffirm this commitment.

Last year, we pledged to renew our ongoing assessment of our organization and its culture, internally and publicly, and prioritize efforts to ensure visitors and staff are welcomed; foster employee engagement and trust; elevate artists and histories that have been marginalized; develop programming that is diverse, challenging, and impactful; continue to evolve educational programming to reflect current social discourse and inspire students from wide-ranging backgrounds; cultivate a visitorship that more accurately reflects the demographics of our city; and honor and embrace our civic role.

This one-year marker offers an opportunity to reflect on the steps we have taken toward addressing these inequities, to acknowledge where progress has been more difficult and slower than desired, and also to look ahead.

We acknowledge that this work—dismantling decades of marginalizing, exclusionary practices and their impact on the present—is continual and ongoing, and we recognize that an anti-racist philosophy must be ingrained into every aspect of our work—every day, in every encounter, in every decision. These ideas are reflected in a new identity, vision, and strategy document. This guiding plan—developed, reviewed, and iterated with colleagues throughout the museum—provides a revised mission as well as new values and equity statements. Moreover, it incorporates equity and inclusion principles into every one of our goals—from increasing the accessibility of our content and ensuring our spaces are welcoming to all to fostering organizational health and honoring our civic role.

. . . Throughout the last year, we have put an enormous focus on staff and internal culture—because to be the museum we want to be for our visitors, we need to create and support a more inclusive environment for our staff. As part of a substantial reorganization, we created a crucial new division of People and Culture, including the department of Inclusion and Belonging, a new team that is integral to both advancing our equity efforts and fostering a supportive anti-racist employee culture. While this team’s work is just beginning, their first priority has been to create opportunities for community and support for employees, especially during moments of institutional, local, and national trauma. Next, they will focus on building actionable working plans to measure progress around hiring and promoting more inclusively, establishing leadership development programs specifically for BIPOC colleagues.

Not about race my tuchas! I’ll send this letter to anyone who asks.

The AIC has apparently already established an “affinity space” (a segregated space) for black staffers, and plans on “launching an Asian/Asian American and Pacific Islander affinity space to offer supportive space for A/AAPI colleagues.”

Finally, two statements in Rondeau’s letter support the hypothesis (see yesterday’s post) that part of the reason for having diversity among the guides is to start interpreting art through an ideologically compatible lens as a way of “disrupting Western culture”. This, of course, is my cynical interpretation of these statements from President Rondeau (emphasis is mine):

We have also focused our attention on our collection—strengthening the representation of works by BIPOC artists in our holdings through important acquisitions and presenting a more diverse representation of artists in our galleries—especially Black artists with connections to Chicago. This work comes to life in a variety of spaces, but particularly in our contemporary galleries. Moving forward, we are evaluating how these works are presented to our audiences with a more critical lens and have instituted a process to reassess label text to provide more diverse perspectives in the galleries. . . 

. . . When we are able to host students on-site again, we are relaunching our in-person school tours with a wholly different program—one developed in collaboration with teachers, artists, volunteers, and school administrators—to prioritize equity and inclusion. This evolving program, virtual and in person, transforms not only the content of our tours but the approach to be one of connection and exchange that uses art as a catalyst for the holistic engagement of students with themselves, each other, and the world around them.

In other words, art appreciation is going to become an ideological tool. Or so I think. But even if I’m wrong here, I don’t understand why the Art Institute had to lie about its motives, and do it so transparently that anyone with two neurons to rub together could see what’s really happening.

USA Today defends firing of Chicago docents, and a new theory on why they were fired

October 25, 2021 • 12:15 pm

The article below at yahoo!news originally appeared USA Today. but I’m linking to the former site because the latter has all sorts of annoying ads, even with Adblock. And the headline made me laugh: of course diversity consultants would recommend that the Art Institute of Chicago should get rid of all its highly-trained volunteer docents, because they were mostly older white women of means, and that creates “inequity.” And, if you adhere to Ibram Kendi, a lack of equity is prima facie evidence of currently operating structural racism. This is what diversity consultants are paid to do. Better ask an ethicist!

The AIC plans to replace the fired docents with a smaller number of less trained paid workers, presumably more diverse. But if the AIC wanted more diversity, which is fine, what they did was go about it in the worst way possible. Click to read.

Now a lot of this article has already been covered on this site, but there are a few new comments which got me thinking, and also got the reader thinking who sent me this link.

Put together these quotes from the piece and see if you can come up with another theory of why the docents were fired—a theory that goes beyond their whiteness and class:

“Sometimes equity requires taking bold steps and actions,” said Monica Williams, executive producer of The Equity Project, a Colorado-based consulting firm whose clients include the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. “You really have to dismantle and disrupt the systems that have been designed to hold some up and others out.”‘

. . .As a result, Williams said she respects the AIC’s decision, saying more diversity among people who work in museums will strengthen the quality of art education.

“The stories that are told are based on a docents’ experience or expertise, which oftentimes comes from a white space and are not reflective of everyone’s experience,” she said. “So we need to really critically think about how stories get told and who tells them.”

Mike Murawski, a museum consultant and author of “Museums as Agents of Change,” said there has long been a tension between equity efforts and volunteer programs.

“Because of who is leading these groups, there are often gaps in the perspectives and experiences they represent in their work in educating the community,” he said. “So I think a lot of the systemic racism and colonialism that museums have always had in their institutions come through these types of programs.”

. . .But museum consultants say sometimes the way forward is not about making changes to programs.

Docent programs often have “long-standing legacies of how things are supposed to be” that can make them difficult to adapt, Murawski said.

That risks continuing “elements of white dominant culture, colonialism and racism that are systemic within museums,” he added.

“There’s just so many legacy structures and barriers baked into a docent program to begin with that it requires more than just a little editing to fix,” he said. “I think that these programs really need to be put on pause and fully rethought, then rebuilt from the ground up.”

The reader who sent me this link put two and two together (it’s not five!) and realized, as I did when I read it, that this is about radically reforming the whole system of presenting art to the public, so that it’s now viewed not from the artists’ perspectives, but through a lens focused on race and ideology. Remember that some critics of “Critical Theory” argue that its motivation is to overthrow the entirety of Western culture based on Enlightenment values and replace it with an authoritarian one. And so, like the Soviets did, they have to create a class of “approved” art that passes ideological muster. Viewing existing art as expressions of impure thought is the beginning of that.

The reader who sent me the link added this:

My suspicion is that the en masse firing is not merely to get rid of a wealthy, white group of ladies due to diversity issues.   Rather, it’s to bring about a reframing of how art is explained: from one based on aesthetics, formal values, and historical context,   to one based on identity, which might contravene actual meaning of a work of art.

And of course, those erudite docents could have challenged and argued with the pedagogy of the shift, given their knowledge of the collection.   So out they went.

You are, of course, free to broach your own theory, which is yours, or to disagree with ours.

The Wall Street Journal on the firing of the Art Institute’s docents; and a personal observation

October 17, 2021 • 10:45 am

A week ago I wrote a piece on the firing of the Art Institute of Chicago’s (AIC’s) 122 volunteer (unpaid) docents, who were let go because they were not sufficiently “diverse”. The Art Institute now plans to hire fewer docents who will be paid $25 per hour, with much less training, to guide people around the museum. They will surely be ethnically more diverse than the jettisoned docents, who were largely older white women—some of them donors to the AIC.

My post on that got the most attention, in terms of views, of any post over the last several years. Have a gander:

I couldn’t figure out why, but one explanation is that the media, including the local media, didn’t cover it, probably because the AIC’s actions, though reprehensible, are not unusual in today’s “racial reckoning”, but didn’t have very good “optics”. The Chicago Tribune didn’t even report it as news until the paper published an editorial damning the AIC for what it did, “Shame on the Art Institute for summarily canning its volunteer docents.” And then the Trib published a lame response from Robert Levy, chairman of the AIC board, followed by a few letters to the editor criticizing the AIC. and a short and inconclusive discussion on WBEZ, the local public radio station, featuring a representative of the AIC and the docents.

That’s pretty much all the reporting from “MSM”. The most comprehensive coverage was in fact an article by Dennis Byrne on his website at ChicagoNow.com, The Barbershop, which reproduced the letter firing the docents and the group’s response to being ditched.  That site is not read by as many people as is the MSM, so I suppose people glommed on to my summary as a news article. Conservative news did pick it up, but you still won’t find boo about it in papers like the NYT or Washington Post. That’s a shame, because the AIC’s action should kindle a debate about the ethics and tactics of how the AIC acted, and about how to achieve “racial reckoning”. (As many readers observed, there are ways to diversity the docents without firing any of them.)

Now the Wall Street Journal, whose readers surely include many potential donors to the AIC, has written an op-ed outlining the story. Though the WSJ is conservative in its op-eds, and criticizing the AIC has been something largely limited to right-wing papers, this editorial gets the facts right and isn’t aren’t nearly as hard on the AIC as was the Chicago Tribune. You can try to read it by clicking below (judicious inquiry might yield you a copy should you fail), but you won’t learn much more than what Byrne and I put in our posts.

However, here are two items from that op-ed that were new to me:

  • The chairman of the AIC, Robert Levy “insisted that the plan had been in the works for 12 years.”  If that’s true, the man is reprehensible, for the docents were given no warning; they were fired by an email from the AIC’s Woman’s Board Executive Director of Learning and Public Engagement Veronica Stein. Seriously, you don’t tell the docents that their termination is being considered? Who does that?
  • A quote from a docent:

“It was nearly a full-time job,” said Dietrich Klevorn, a docent since 2012. (Ms. Klevorn was the only docent who agreed to speak to the Journal, rejecting the institute’s request that they not talk to the media.) “We had to spend a lot of time physically in the museum studying works of art, researching, putting tours together,” she continued. “We had to be very comprehensive about everything as we talked with them, moving through the space.”

As I said, the WSJ isn’t nearly as intemperate about the AIC as was the local paper, but it does have a no-nonsense conclusion that also raises the possibility of a phased-in increase in diversity:

Still, the Art Institute hasn’t explained why they had to be jettisoned en masse and not diversified over time. The museum appears to be in the grips of a self-defeating overcorrection. It has adopted the language of diversity, inclusion and equity so completely that it was willing to fire the same upper-middle class volunteers it relies on for charitable donations.

Changes to the program may mean that the museum connects to younger and more diverse visitors, Ms. Klevorn said, but it will come at a cost. The Art Institute “will offer far less opportunity for people to have human docents taking them through the museum.”

In their public statements, both Ms. Stein and Mr. Levy referenced their understanding of the museum’s civic role. Mr. Levy even condemned critics as “egregiously anti-civic,” as though objecting to diversity quotas meant rejecting the nation’s civic institutions. What they don’t seem to understand is that those civic institutions have always relied on the volunteer work of women with enough public spirit to donate their time and enough money to afford to do so. These wealthy women form the mortar of the nation’s civic institutions, and we’ll miss them when they’re gone.

In the name of what they call civic-minded diversity, the museum has thrown overboard a group of people who actually see it as their duty to help the public understand art. That’s not very civic-minded, is it?

That’s not rabidly right-wing, either, is it?  But the piece, appearing in a widely-read venue, isn’t going to do the AIC any good.

But I want to say a few things. Though for several days my site got six to eight times the normal traffic, all because of that AIC piece, and though there were 157 comments, there would have been a lot more comments had I let all the nasty or racist ones through. Yes, there were white supremacist comments, and a lot of people being strident about “reverse racism”.

I let some of those appear, depending on their civility, but I don’t see diversifying the AIC docents as “reverse racism.” Yes, you can characterize it that way, because you’re discriminating in favor of people of color and against whites, but I see it more as a form of reparations rather than demonization.  If you’re in favor of any kind of affirmative action, you can be accused of reverse racism. I’m willing to bear the epithet because I favor some forms of affirmative action. But I hasten to add that the AIC’s mass firing of docents, rather than a program that increases diversity as docents retire, is cruel and hamhanded. However, their desire to diversify the staff is not. (That diversity, by the way, should include class as well as race, as there are few “regular people” docents. And that means paying all the docents, unless some are willing to work for free while others get a paycheck.)

I’m for a reasoned dialogue on race and equity, but some of the comments I got sound just like things that would come out of the mouths of Proud Boys. My conclusion is that there is a lot of pent-up anger about DEI initiatives. Some of it is justified by actions like the AIC’s firing, but there’s definitely an element of racism in some of the comments you didn’t see. And that makes me sad.

You want an example? Here’s one from someone named “Steve”, who’s apostrophe-deprived:

Wake Up White People.

This is what your future will be if you dont start standing up for yourselves and quit being such stupid pushovers.

Don’t let these SCUM guilt you….
Be PROUD to be White….I AM.
Our ancestors/people accomplished 1000x more than any other race. They hate us out of sheer jealousy. And make NO MISTAKE….They DO hate us….HATE US !!!!

Start speaking up!!!!
There is NO SUCH THING as “White Privilege” Its called HARD WORK.

All the Lefts HATRED and Marxist “key Words” are just meant to divide us.

Just remember…. The Left Project and Deflect…
They call everyone else Fascist or Racist… Because that is what THEY ARE….

-S

There are others like this.

And one more just came in while I was writing this; from one “swimologist”:

The ONLY effort that should be made is hiring competent people, race be damned. Many companies used to have aptitude tests for hiring, but reliably low-I.Q. blacks failed them, and lawsuits were filed claiming “disparate impact,” so NOW we these same companies require degrees for jobs that don’t NEED them. Just another way the black undertow plague drags America down.

Writing this website has a downside you don’t see: all the racists, loons, and rude people that infest America and feel they have to have their say here.

h/t: cesar

The Art Institute of Chicago fires all 122 of its (unpaid and volunteer) docents because they aren’t sufficiently “diverse”

October 9, 2021 • 11:30 am

This is a story that, for obvious reasons, has gotten almost no airplay in Chicago, and none nationally, with no reporting in the major media. So let me tell you about it.

The Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), one of the world’s finest art museums, harbors (or rather, harbored) 122 highly skilled docents, 82 active ones and 40 “school group greeters.” All are volunteers and are all unpaid. Their job is to act as guides to the Museum’s collection of 300,000 works, which they explain to both adults and schoolchildren. I’ve seen them in action at the Museum, and they’re terrific.

Despite the lack of remuneration—they do this to be helpful and because they love art—their training to be docents is extremely rigorous. First, they have to have two training sessions per week for eighteen months, and then “five years of continual research and writing to meet the criteria of 13 museum content areas” (quote from the docents’ letter to the Director of the AIC). On top of that, there’s monthly and biweekly training on new exhibits. Then there are the tours themselves, with a docent giving up to two one-hour tours per day for 18 weeks of the year and a minimum of 24 one-hour tours with adults/families.  Their average length of service: 15 years. There are other requirements listed by the Docents Council in the ChicagoNow column below (first screenshot).

Many of the volunteers—though not all—are older white women, who have the time and resources to devote so much free labor to the Museum. But the demographics of that group weren’t appealing to the AIC, and so, in late September, the AIC fired all of them, saying they’d be replaced by smaller number of hired volunteers  workers who will be paid $25 an hour. That group will surely meet the envisioned diversity goals.

This is entirely a matter of race and “optics,” though you wouldn’t easily discern that by reading the back-and-forth communications between the AIC and the docents. The latter, of course, strenuously object to being let go, and in their letter to the AIC point out their many contributions to the Museum. (The AIC, in a hamhanded gesture, offered them two-year free passes to the AIC as a measly “thank you”.)

The lack of ethnic diversity apparently comes from the fact that this is volunteer work that takes a ton of time, and disadvantaged minorities aren’t often blessed with the time or resources for such work. The AIC says they’ve tried to diversity the docents but have apparently failed (listen to the radio show below).

It’s all a mess, but I know this: it’s grossly unfair and inimical to the education of museum-goers. More than 1200 years of work put in by the current docents, and all that expertise: gone in an instant.  Ask yourself first, do they need to diversity? I don’t know the answer, though surely some minority docents might have different points of view about art, a reason implied by the AIC’s response in the Tribune. (But ask yourself what the reaction would be if all the docents were black or Hispanic and they hired whites to get a “white point of view”? Personally, I’m not sure race is crucial in giving expert talks about the Museum’s exhibits.) But the AIC did try to diversity the docents—and failed. They’re to be commended for that because, after all, surely it would look better to have a diverse group of docents. They just weren’t able, given the demographics, to accomplish that.

What can they do? My own suggestion is to keep the docents, but as they retire replace some of them with members of minority groups. The problem with that, though, is that they tried doing this already, and apparently couldn’t find appropriate docents. I think the solution of replacing the docents with a smaller and more “diverse” group of paid guides, however, is not only insulting to the docents, but a bad move for the Museum’s reputation and especially for the education of those who go to the AIC. There will have to be many fewer tours, and with a much less well-trained group of guides.

If readers have a solution to this problem, assuming it is a problem pressing enough to fire every docent, then please give your suggestions below.

The curious thing about all this is that it wasn’t reported as a primary story by either the Chicago Tribune or WBEZ (the local Public Radio Station), and yet the Trib ran a strong editorial excoriating the AIC for its firings, and WBEZ had a show giving the views of the the President of the Docent Council versus those of of a VP of the AIC. Much of the fallout eventually appeared in the Tribune, but it is likely paywalled for you.

You can read the salient details in the column at ChicagoNow by Dennis Byrne(click on screenshot below). Byrne pulls no punches in his sympathy for the docents and ire at the AIC, but he also includes two documents pivotal in this fracas: the September 3 letter from the AIC’s Woman’s Board Executive Director of Learning and Public Engagement Veronica Stein firing the docents, and the long response of the docent’s council, sent not to Stein but to AIC director James Rondeau. (The AIC didn’t even have the decency to get Rondeau to give the docents their pink slip.)

Read below:

If you want to read the Tribune’s two pieces on the story, they’re here (but probably paywalled): the paper’s long editorial excoriating the AIC for firing the docents (I guess the Trib isn’t all that woke), called “Shame on the Art Institute for summarily canning its volunteer docents,” and a response from Robert Levy, chairman of the AIC board, who argues that the times are a’changing and they need a new demographic, but then dances around the issue of race. He claims that the AIC’s editorial makes serious mistakes, but there’s no smoking gun there.

Finally, there were also several letters to the editor reaming out the AIC for what it did.

The link below will take you to WBEZ’s free 16-minute show in which a moderator interviews both Sarah Guernsey, deputy director and senior vice president for curatorial affairs of the AIC, and Gigi Vaffis, president of Docent Council at Art Institute of Chicago. Again, Guernsey doesn’t have the moxie to explicitly discuss the reason for the firing, and comes off to me as being a weasel.

I could write a lot more about the waste of resources, experience, time, and the dignity of the docents involved in this decision, but you can come to your own conclusion. There are better ways to get diversity than what the AIC did, I’m sure. I can’t say what they are, but I know that this decision not only makes the AIC look really bad, but will in the long run cost it a lot of money in withheld donations. And that’s not to mention the loss in educational potential that goes along with the firing of the docents, thoroughly trained to present and discuss the art.
h/t: Cate

The best of culture (my own view)

July 29, 2021 • 12:45 pm

When I said earlier today that I preferred Van Gogh’s version of “Noonday Rest” to Millet’s original, some wiseass came along and asked me to expound my “theory of aesthetics” that could justify such a decision. Of course I have no theory of art; I know what moves me, and I could give reasons if I’m forced to think about it. But those reasons could simply be post facto justifications for my emotional reaction to a work of art. And of course different theories will lead to different rankings. It’s for that reason that I’m wary of any supposedly “objective” reason why one work of art is better than another.

But that got me thinking about my favorite aspects of culture, which I’d normally label “the best”; but of course saying “the best” automatically means that it’s your own subjective opinion. These are matters of taste, not science.  So I’m going to list off the top of my head the best books, movies, music, and so on—meaning those works I like the most. Regular readers of this site will already know most of my opinions.

I’ll give links to the works, and on another day I might choose different works.

Best painting ancient: The Isenheim Altarpiece, by Matthias Grünewald.  (1512-1516). Yes, it’s religious, and all about Jesus, but the images of the crucified Christ and the “atomic bomb” Resurrection are fabulous.

Best painting, modern: Almost any van Gogh painted during the last two years of his life.

Best movie, American: The Last Picture Show, directed by Peter Bogdanovich (1971)

Best movie, non-American: Ikiru (“To Live”), directed by Akira Kurosawa (1952). (Second place: Tokyo Story, directed by Yasujirō Ozu; 1953).

Best novel: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1878)

Best novella or short story: The Dead, by James Joyce (1914)

Best memoir: Out of Africa by Isak Dinisen (Karen Blixen; 1937). It’s the prose, Jake.

Best biography: This is a tie. The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro (four volumes, one to go); tied with The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill by William Manchester. Two volumes published, but Manchester died before he could complete the third, which would have begun with Churchill becoming Prime Minister and leading Britain during WW!!. The trilogy was finished by someone else, and I haven’t read the third volume. Everybody’s hoping Caro finishes volume 5 before he passes on.  Second place is also by Caro: The Power Broker Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974).

Best rock song: Layla by Eric Clapton and Jim Gordon, as performed by Clapton with Derek and the Dominoes (1970): the electric version, and only before the slow part begins.  Watch here.

Best rock group (best oeuvre): The Beatles, of course.

Best jazz song: This is a hard one. At the moment, I suppose Ellington’s version of Take the A Train, written by Billy Strayhorn. On another day it might be Potato Head Blues by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven (1927), and yet on another day it would be the heartbreaking version of But Beautiful performed by Art Pepper live on the “Friday Night at the Village Vanguard” album.  You won’t find it on YouTube, and the version you’ll hear there is, according to my theory of aural aesthetics, inferior. In fact, I’ve just changed my mind and have moved Pepper into first place. It’s a fabulous song: a musical wail of pain.

Best jazz group (best oeuvre): Duke Ellington between 1940 and 1942.

Best piece of classical music. I don’t know from classical music, and will give no opinion.

Those are my choices and I have no theories to buttress them. You are welcome, nay, encouraged, to list your own choices.