What is art? What is vandalism?

April 8, 2021 • 10:45 am

by Greg Mayer

I think Jerry’s en route now, so here’s something to occupy us while there’s a brief hiatus in posting.

The New York Times reports today that an abstract art work being displayed at a mall in Seoul was “vandalized” by two passerby. As part of the art work, brushes and open cans of paint were displayed in front of it. The couple assumed it was a participatory display, and joined in.

Photo of art work that was “vandalized” in Seoul, by Minwoo Park (NY Times).

The artist, John Andrew Perello, was angered, and said it reminded him of how the graffiti he put up while a youngster in New York was not appreciated. Perello began his career as a tagger in New York.

The questions to be discussed are:

  1. Was this vandalism?
  2. Who is the better artist, Perello or the couple?
  3. Was the vandalism invited by Perello so as to generate publicity (and hence increase the value of his art)?
  4.  Can you spot the vandalism?

The answers are

  1. No. I agree with the South Korean police.
  2. The couple. They have said a lot more with their modest additions than the original did.
  3. Probably not, since being talked about is the next to worst thing that can happen to a person.
  4. No, I couldn’t. (It is visible in the picture above.)

Feel free to disagree!

Readers’ wildlife photos

April 6, 2021 • 8:30 am

by Greg Mayer

For today’s post we return to the New York City Subway 8th Avenue local (B and C trains) station at 81st-Museum of Natural History,this time for the amphibians.

81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

My favorite of the amphibians is this brooding caecilian, curled round its eggs. These legless, short-tailed amphibians are found only in the tropics, and there is no real English vernacular name for them. (You can find a Sicilian in the subway, but I prefer Neapolitan.)

Brooding caecilian. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

What appears to me to be a reed frog (Hyperolius sp.), an African tree frog of sorts, hangs on the wall next to a station identifying sign.

Reed frog. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

This looks like a ranid frog to me– a member of the family Ranidae, perhaps intended to be a Rana proper. Many species in this and related genera look much alike the world over. Note the nicely delineated tympanic membrane.

Frog. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

This generic frog (I won’t even try to name a family for it) is leaping out of the Signal Room. Interestingly, the subway workers here believe in free will, apparently of the libertarian sort. A scratched note on the door reads, “Use other door→ | or this one– up to you”.

Frog. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

These well-rendered salamanders provide detail enabling specific identification. On the left we have a Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum), a species of eastern North America (including the New York area), and on the right we have a Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra), a species widely distributed in Europe. The American Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum; found in the New York area) is also black with yellow markings, but the yellow markings (quite variable in both species) look more like Salamandra to me, and the evident parotoid glands at the back of the head (making it look wide) are conclusive. Ambystoma and Salamandra are similar in size and body shape, and are sort of continental ecological analogues.

Salamanders. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

The Coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) is one of the few surviving lobe-finned fishes, and as such is one of the tetrapods closest living relatives, and so is included here as an honorary amphibian. I don’t know why there is a question mark on its tail; in fact I never noticed it there before till just now.

Coelacanth. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Finally, we have a group of patently Paleozoic fish. The artist has rendered them neither strictly from above (as though we were looking down on them in the ‘water’ of the paving tile) nor from the side, but in a sort of twisted view, allowing us to see various aspects. The bottom four may be intended to be the same type of fish (I’m not sure what kind), but the top one (which seems to be more of an exclusively side view– see the partly opened mouth) looks like one of those strange Paleozoic sharks, with a spiny first dorsal fin, and a heterocercal tail. You can also see more clearly in this photo how the lighter brown granite-like stone is integrated with the darker paving tile.

Fish on the floor. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

There are other taxa represented in the tiles (e.g., ants), and other forms of art, including larger tiled murals, and casts of in-situ fossils projecting from the wall. Many of these works are depicted in a gallery at www.nycsubway.org, a subway fan/history site. Some of those depicted I’ve never seen in person, because I always exit the station at the south (Museum) end, not at the north (81st Street) end.

(Looking at one of the pictures in the gallery now, I see the undersea mosaic mural has  a coelacanth-shaped gray silhouette in the otherwise colorful tiles; could the question mark noted above be related to the coealcanth’s absence here?)

Readers’ wildlife photos

April 5, 2021 • 8:30 am

by Greg Mayer

Today’s post features subterranean wildlife, but not of the fossorial kind. It has wildlife you can see in the New York subway, but it’s not “pizza rat” or his later avatars: it’s the wildlife art of the 8th Avenue local (B and C trains) station at 81st-Museum of Natural History.

81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Elegant tile-work has long been a signature note of the New York subways, and when the station was renovated (reopening in 2000), the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority collaborated in creating extensive artwork for the station, one of whose exits goes directly into the Museum.

We’ll start with my favorite, what is clearly a hatchling Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis; the proportions, especially the large head, show it’s a hatchling). The Museum clearly had significant input on the designs, although it’s not always clear if the artists followed exact specifications for species identification, but in this case I’m confident. Important work on anoles was done by former curators James Oliver and G.K. Noble, and the latter’s anole work was mostly on this species.

Hatchling green anole (Anolis carolinensis). 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

We’ll continue with the rest of the lizards. The next is clearly a monitor lizard, and it’s bulk indicates it’s a Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis).

Monitor lizard. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Next up is a basilisk or Jesus Christ lizard (Basiliscus sp.), famed for their bipedal locomotion, which includes the ability to skitter Christ-like across the surface of bodies of water for short distances. This mosaic introduces an element common to the artwork, the depiction of extinct forms as grayed “ghost” silhouettes, often paired with an extant form. In this case we have two bipedal diapsids: the basilisk and the theropod dinosaur Deinonychus (note the ‘terrible claw’ and short snout); the latter is about life size, but the basilisk is greater than life size. (This is an estimate, but I think the white tiles are either 4″X4″ or 5″X5″; if anyone knows the size–or can measure!–put it in the comments.)

Basilisk with ghost Deinonychus. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

There’s a chameleon (Chamaeleo sp.). I’ve not attempted to determine the species. (It could be intended to be a species in another genus in the family Chamaeleontidae, but Chamaeleo is the type genus, and will do as at least approximately correct.) A nice detail is that the zygodactlous left front foot (‘hand’) can be seen grasping the black tiles, as though the latter constituted a tree branch. (The hind feet are curiously stubby-looking.)

Chameleon. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Snakes are, of course, just glorified lizards. This one’s head and neck, and the fact that it hangs from the ‘branch’ make it look like a vine snake, but I’ll offer no more of a guess than that. Note how, as in the Chamaeleo above, the artwork can ‘overlay’ the regular wall design.

Snake. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Next is a fairly nondescript snake, superimposed on the long tail of a long-necked sauropod dinosaur. The whole dinosaur looked like Diplodocus to me.

Snake with ghost sauropod dinosaur. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Having finished the order Squamata, we move on to the Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus), not a lizard, but the sole living member of the order Rhynchocephalia. This is another of my favorites.

Tuatara. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

This broad-snouted crocodilian looks like an alligatorid, and is nicely paired with a Stegosaurus. Were it black, I would readily identify it as an American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), but the greenish-brown color makes me hesitate. The details of form in this one are not as satisfying as they are in most of the others. Note how the tail tip, which extends on to the dark paving tiles of the floor and trim, is rendered in a different type of tile.

Alligatorid with ghost Stegosaurus. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Next is another favorite, an adult male Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus). The two things I like most about this one are the inclusion of the narial excrescence, a rarely depicted seasonally-present secondary sexual character of male gharials, and that the dark paving tile stones are treated as the ‘water’, from which the Gharial emerges. The dark stone is replaced with a lighter brown granite-like material to indicate the parts ‘underwater’. If you enlarge the image and look carefully, you can see that the outline of the Gharial is also continued into the glossy black enamel tiles. Although not visible in this photo, the body curls through the enamel tiles, and the Gharial’s tail re-enters the paving tiles, to again be represented by the granite-like stone.

Male Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus). 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Finishing up the reptiles we have a giant tortoise. The surviving species of giant tortoise are from Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean and the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific. The somewhat high front opening of the carapace is more characteristic of some of the subspecies of the Galapagos Tortoise (Geochelone elephantopus) than of the Aldabra Tortoise, and so I will go with that as a species identification.

Giant tortoise. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

We’ll finish off our subway tour with the amphibians and a few fish tomorrow.

White translator cancels himself after criticized for translating Amanda Gorman

March 1, 2021 • 9:00 am

We’ll have a series of short takes today, as I’m unable to brain. Bear with me. Several of the items may be about race (I haven’t yet decided what to post), but of course that topic is now foremost in America’s consciousness.

The headline from the Times of London below is deeply misleading, implying that a white translator doesn’t want to translate the poetry of Amanda Gorman. Gorman, of course became famous after reciting her poem “The Hill We Climb” at Biden and Harris’s inaugural. Truth be told, I found her poem superficial and trite (as I’ve said, this kind of verse doesn’t strike me as real poetry), but she’s only 22 or 23.

Regardless, the headline is just wrong. What the title really means is that a well known Dutch writer had already been commissioned to translate Gorman’s Inaugural poem, and had done so, but then they (note below) withdrew from the project after criticism that a white translator shouldn’t deal with the poems of a black woman.

The translator is Dutch author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, who won the International Booker Prize at 29 for their novel (Rijneveld uses plural pronouns) The Discomfort of Evening. Because the Times is paywalled, I’ve put the details below, but if you have access you can see the article in this screenshot.

An excerpt

“We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation,” the 22-year-old American poet Amanda Gorman proclaimed in her celebrated performance at President Biden’s inauguration last month.

Yet this appears to be precisely what has happened to the author chosen to render Gorman’s poem into Dutch. Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, 29, the youngest person to have won the international Booker prize, has pulled out of the project after critics suggested that it was inappropriate for a white person to translate an African-American poet’s works. Rijneveld’s translation of The Hill We Climb was due to be published on March 20 by Meulenhoff, a publisher in the Netherlands.

Janice Deul, a Dutch cultural activist, said an opportunity had been missed by handing the contract to Rijneveld. “She . . . has no experience in this realm but is still, according to Meulenhoff, the ‘dream translator’,” Deul wrote in the newspaper Volkskrant.

Yesterday Rijneveld renounced the deal, saying: “I understand people who feel hurt by Meulenhoff’s choice to ask me.” The publisher said it “hoped to learn from the experience”.

De Telegraaf, a conservative newspaper, said that Rijneveld had “kowtowed to woke activists”.

Well, first note the publisher’s contrition, as if it had done something wrong. Or maybe it just learned to commission only translators of the same gender and ethnicity of the author they’re translating, and if you don’t do that you’ll get into trouble.

But you don’t have to be a critic of Wokeism to question what kind of mentality finds a white person unfit to translate the poems of a black person, or vice versa. Is Gorman’s poem (see link above), somehow so deeply infused with the black experience that only a black translator could do it justice? I don’t think so; read the text and see for yourself. (My German is good enough to translate it into that language, but I wouldn’t risk it.) Moreover, the prose is simple and would seem to be well within the ability of any writer fluent in both Dutch and English and who writes very well (nearly all Dutch people are fluent in English!).

Tell me if my view is off base, because of course Gorman’s poem deals with racism. But I think Deul’s objection is wrongheaded, representing a view that members of a given race are simply the only people who can translate works written by members of that race. This implies, of course, that there is a homogeneity of experience and thought, including artistic thought, within races that makes such a move necessary. Would a black translator, according to these lights, be unfit to translate the poems of Sylvia Plath? Yet reading Ibram Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist (I’m almost done), I see that this view is diametrically opposed to Kendi’s own claim that there is no such thing as “black culture.” (It’s actually hard for me to guess what Kendi would say about this translation, as he sometimes takes contradictory stands in his book.)

At any rate, this event really nothing new, as we know from the use of “sensitivity readers” for young adult literature. Still, I find it sad to think that people of one background can’t empathize with those of another sufficiently to translate a poem. But that seems to be the way the world is going.

World’s oldest representational art: an Indonesian warty pig from 45,000 years ago

January 23, 2021 • 1:45 pm

Here from Science Advances via National Geographic, is the painting of a wild pig from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. AT 45,000 years old, it’s world’s oldest cave art, and in fact the oldest known representational art of any sort.


Here’s the paper reporting it (click on screenshot), and a free pdf is here:

The very oldest art comes not from Europe or Africa, but from Indonesia; but surely there was much earlier representational art. The subject is presumably a Celebes warty pig (Sus celebensis), a species still with us, and the artist presumably an anatomically modern human (H. sapiens sapiens).

Here’s the subject. Not a bad representation, eh?

From Wild Pig, Peccary & Hippo Specialist Groups.

And a few words from the authors (“AMH” means “anatomically modern humans”)

On the basis of the presently available evidence, we are unable to definitively conclude that the dated figurative rock art depiction from Leang Tedongnge is the handiwork of cognitively “modern” members of our species. However, this seems to be the most likely explanation given the sophistication of this early representational artwork and the fact that figurative depiction has so far only been attributed to AMH everywhere else in the world.

If so, the dated pig image from Leang Tedongnge would appear to provide some of the earliest evidence, if not the earliest, for the presence of our species in Wallacea. The minimum age of this artwork is compatible with the earliest established indications of AMH from excavated deposits in the Lesser Sunda islands, which formerly provided the oldest archaeological evidence for H. sapiens in Wallacea (~44.6 ka cal BP). Hence, dating results for the Leang Tedongnge painting underline the view that representational art, including figurative animal art and depictions of narrative scenes, was a key part of the cultural repertoire of the first AMH populations to cross from Sunda into Wallacea—the gateway to the continent of Australia.

Reader’s wildlife paintings

December 25, 2020 • 9:15 am

I wasn’t going to put up a readers’ wildlife feature today, but Jacques Hausser from Switzerland sent me a series of lovely beetle drawings that he did to illustrate Christmas cards. So here’s his Christmas card to us. Jacques’ commentary:

Just before the era of digital photography, I realised that I didn’t know anything about entomology. To begin with insects, I decided to draw (and to try to identify) some coleopterans. This virtuous decision didn’t survive the arrival of my first digital camera, and I turned to photography.  During this cloudy and rainy December, I looked back at these old drawings, and I thought it was a good idea to use them to make some Christmas gifts. Then, as I hadn’t sent any valuable photos to Jerry for a long time, I thought I’d submit the result to “Readers’ wildlife photos” even if they are not photos. I arranged the drawings in three plates without respect for the relative size of the beetles or their systematic position. And a caveat: some names may be old, and I cannot exclude a mistake!
There are three plates (in order), and I’ll put the identifications of the beetles below the fold. Click to enlarge.
Plate 1:

Plate 2:

Plate 3:

Click “read more” for the IDs:

Continue reading “Reader’s wildlife paintings”

Joyce Carol Oates eulogizes her late husband in a science journal

December 11, 2020 • 11:30 am

This is a first, I think: a major literary figure writing a piece in a science journal. The award-winning author Joyce Carol Oates was married to distinguished neurobiologist Charlie Gross for a decade—until Charlie died in 2019. (They both taught at Princeton.) I met them at the Great New Yorker Cat vs. Dog Debate in 2014, where Joyce was on Team Cat, and had dinner with them afterwards at the Union Square Cafe. They were clearly deeply connected, and I remember that dinner fondly.

I’ve kept in touch with Joyce ever since, and know how devastated she was when Charlie passed away. She told me how, like me, Charlie was addicted to travel, especially to Antarctica, and also loved photography. She added that she was more of a homebody, but went with him on some of his trips.

This is recounted in a lovely new memorial that Joyce wrote for Charlie in Progress in Neurobiology—in a special issue devoted to him. Hers is a short piece, highlighting Charlie’s photos from around the world and connecting his vocation with his avocation.

I’ll give an excerpt and show a few of his photos. You can read the piece for free by clicking on the screenshot (if the link doesn’t work, a judicious inquiry will yield a pdf):

An excerpt:

If the world is essentially a mystery, research scientists are investigators, explorers, pilgrims, even at times mystics; “scientific method” is the crucial tool, but the motive underlying the pursuit of intransigent truth in a world of shifting illusions and delusions is likely to be deep-rooted in the personality, as the motives for art are deep-rooted, essentially unknowable. The research scientist, like the writer and artist, is not satisfied with surfaces—the “superficial”; the comprehension of underlying principles and laws are the goal.

Neuroscience dares to address the most basic of all questions involving life: what is the neural basis of behavior? how can it possibly be that out of molecules, ions, and nerve cells somehow there emerges the vast richness of human consciousness and experience? It isn’t an accident that Charlie Gross spent most of his professional life exploring vision in the cerebral cortex. He was never more fiercely concentrated in thought—(if indeed it was “thinking” that so absorbed him)—than when he was taking photographs, and afterward working with the digital images he’d captured. Out of the raw image, what “meaning” can be discovered? The camera lens radically narrows the visual field into an aesthetically satisfying form because it is limited, reduced; “coherence” is created out of a chaos of impressions that without the camera lens lack focus and meaning. Surely there is some fundamental analogy here with the mechanisms of the eye—the visual cortex.

. . . Charlie and I were married in March 2009 and in the decade we spent together traveled widely—to Spain, Italy and the Greek Islands, Capri, Corsica, Dubrovnik, Galapagos and Ecuador, Australia, and Bali as well as, more frequently, to London, Paris, Rome, and (his favorite) Venice. We spent time in the most scenic parts of California—Berkeley, Humboldt State Redwood Park, Big Sur; we visited many National Parks—Death Valley, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Yosemite. To all these places Charlie brought his photography equipment and spent many hours taking pictures, ideally at dawn. He was exacting and patient; he could wait a long time for a perfect combination of landscape, sky, and light. His work is surpassingly beautiful — not a consequence of accident but design. Though Charlie did not “photoshop” his work, he spent much time selecting images he wanted to make permanent. He was a serious artist of beauty but he did not theorize —he followed his intuition.

For the article Joyce selected nine photos “that are most abstract and apolitical—indeed, ahistorical—in their beauty; and those set in the West, which he loved and had visited many times.” Three of them are below— and one of Charlie as well.

Go to the article to read more about Charlie and photography, and to see more of his work.

Bryce Canyon at twilight:

Yosemite. A Magritte-like boulder suggestive of a glacier or a dream image seems to push through the surface of the water in this Yosemite scene:


Charlie in Antarctica, photo by Rowena Gross:

Our auction is still running with three days to go: a multiply autographed and illustrated copy of Faith versus Fact

December 6, 2020 • 9:00 am

As I noted a few days ago, Kelly Houle and I are running an eBay auction for charity, with the object up for bid being a multiply-autographed hardback copy of Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible.  The copy for sale has 28 signatures of famous secularists, including the three surviving “horsemen”: Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, as well as others like Steve Pinker, James Randi, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Dan Barker, and Julia Sweeney. It’s also signed by three Nobel Laureates: Harold Varmus, Adam Riess, and David Gross. See all the signers on my post or the auction site itself. It’s also signed by Kelly and me (I added a crude cat drawing.)

Further, the book has been illuminated with the calligraphy and artwork of our favorite natural-history artist, Kelly Houle, who did a superb title-page drawing and also a few cat drawings. Her artwork on the book can also be seen at the two sites.

Kelly and I did this previously with Why Evolution is True, earning more than $10,300 for a charity, in that case Doctors Without Borders. This year all auction proceeds go to Helen Keller International, an efficient and highly-rated charity that helps alleviate blindness and malnutrition throughout the world. (Peter Singer highlighted it as one of his favorite charities.) As a bonus, the Friends of Helen Keller International have pledged to double any donation, so whoever buys the book will have the satisfaction of contributing twice what they pay to a good humanitarian cause.

The price, with three days left to go, is still lower than I expected, as you can see from the screenshot below (click on it to join the fun). Remember, I schlepped that book around for five years from meeting to meeting, all to collect signatures for this auction. And Kelly labored through long nights doing the artwork. It’s worth more!

Kelly’s illumination of the title page (there are others) and one page of autographs.

One page also has Kelly’s anamorphic mirror drawing of James Randi, one of the signers; the mirror comes with the book:

If you have the dosh and want a unique book with great artwork and a collection of signatures never to be repeated (remember, Randi passed away recently), go over and bid. Or call the auction to the attention of those who might be interested. Remember, neither Kelly nor I make a penny from this, and Helen Keller International uses 82.5% of the donations for its programs—a very high proportion.

How can you overlook a book recommended by The Pinkah? (He also reviewed it favorably in Current Biology.)

A charity eBay auction for a fancy autographed and illuminated copy of “Faith Versus Fact”

November 29, 2020 • 10:15 am

We have a lovely book up for auction, with all the proceeds going to charity! But first, some backstory.

In 2015, artist Kelly Houle and I collaborated to produce a multiply-autographed and wonderfully illustrated and “illuminated” copy of my first trade book, Why Evolution Is True (2009). I’d been collecting signatures of luminaries in the book for five years, and, when there were quite a few, Kelly added some wonderful artwork (see the preceding link) and we auctioned it off on eBay. All the proceeds went to Doctors Without Borders, and charity auctions on eBay are hosted for free, without eBay taking a cut.

Amazingly, we got over $10,300 for the book, and so the charity made out well. Kelly and I were immensely pleased. Here’s the 2015 auction result (click for the link to eBay):

Well, in 2015 I wrote another book, Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, and again I’ve been collecting signatures for five years, schlepping the book from meeting to meeting, and friend to friend, with the plan of auctioning it off again for charity. Kelly again agreed to do the art, and so we were off.

The result is below: we have even more signatories than before, including three Nobel Laureates, and you can see a list and photos of the signatures (many signers wrote messages) below. I’m sure you’ll recognize most of the signers; my intent was to get as many secularists and humanists as possible. We wound up with 28 signatures—not including mine and Kelly’s, which are both in there too.

It’s now time to release the book to the buying public and see what they’ll offer for it.

It’s just gone up for auction now, at this link, and the auction will run for ten days. This time all the proceeds go to Helen Keller International, a wonderful and efficient charity that helps prevent malnutrition, disease, and blindness—largely in children (see below). The organization was founded by Keller herself along with George Kessler, and it’s worth reading a bit of the backstory in the organization’s Wikipedia entry. A bonus this time is that Friends of Helen Keller International will match our donation dollar for dollar, so the buyer will have twice the positive impact as usual.

The auction copy, a hardback:

Here’s the alphabetical list of signers, with Wikipedia links to each one:

Kelly also signed her cover illustration (see below):

Can you find them all?

Inside front cover:

Half title page:

Inside back cover:

Closeup: Annie Laurie Gaylor, James Randi, and Richard Dawkins:

Full title page (signed by JAC with his cat drawing):

Kelly drew a curled-up cat on the dedication page:

From Kelly (henceforth, her words are indented):

I illustrated the title page that falls after the introduction with a quote from Faith vs Fact: and my adaptation of a painting by Maria Sibylla Merian showing the stages of Cocytius antaeus [Giant Sphinx Moth] from her book Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. Merian observed and drew insects at a time when butterflies and moths were thought to appear spontaneously from the ground.

The whole illumination is held up by a pen, an important tool of science for recording observations. The banner has another quote from Faith vs Fact translated into Latin: “fides non virtus in scientia.”

Illustrating this page was a challenge because of the paper. I wasn’t able to use my calligraphy pen, so it’s all done with a regular ball-point pen and colored pencils. I added very dry gold mica paint to the pen nib and holder.

Pupal stage as observed and drawn by Merian:

Pen nib with caterpillar, larvae, and small moth after Merian:

Jerry’s initials “JAC”: in cat calligraphy [and Kelly’s signature]:

Kelly illuminated the chapter headings as well:

Finally, we have lagniappe from Kelly:

I’ve added something special to the book, too. It’s an anamorphic mirror portrait of James Randi. The mirror will come with the book. If you go to the page with James Randi’s signature, turn the page and set the mirror down right behind it, his image appears in the mirror. Like magic, but it’s not.

Again, if you’re interested in this item, know someone who might be, or are willing to advertise the auction on social media, feel free to do so. Again, the link is here.

Further, Kelly has some auction artwork on her own eBay shop for which 10% of the proceeds go to HKI as well.  Those donations, too, will be doubled with a kick-in by the Friends of HKI.


We selected Helen Keller International as the recipient charity because of its good work in preventing blindness and malnutrition, its big bang for the donor’s buck, its sterling reputation, and the fact that the vast majority of its donations go to helping people, not to administration or promotion. Kelly found this charity when it was recommended as one of the best charities to donate to by Peter Singer on his page “The Life You Can Save“. As that site says,

“Our charities have been rigorously evaluated to help you make the biggest impact per dollar. Find an organization you support, or simply split your donation between them all. When you support one of the recommended charities, The Life You Can Save does not charge any fee or receive any monetary benefit from that transaction.”

The low overhead of HKI:

Every penny of the auction funds will go to HKI, and the bang is doubled because of HKI’s current donation-matching protocol.

Their work is international, and in several areas of help (click on all screenshots to go to the sites):

HKI receives the highest rating—four stars—from Charity Navigator:

If you have big bucks, or know someone who does—and who is a humanist or secularist—you might call their attention to this auction. We hope, of course, to raise as much dosh as possible.

Thanks to the signers, and to Melissa Pugh for collecting some of the signatures at the 2016 Reason Rally.

Who’s the best painter of all time?

October 31, 2020 • 11:00 am

In the next-to-latest New Yorker, staff writer Adam Gopnik discusses the history and contents of the Louvre while nominally reviewing James Gardner’s new book, The Louvre: The Many Lives of the World’s Most Famous Museum.  It’s a good piece, and two of Gopnik’s statements intrigued me, inspiring this post. Click on the screenshot to read the piece, which I think is free.

Gopnik points out, rightly, that, if you want to see the best works, the Louvre is a nightmare. When I was last in Paris, in February right before the pandemic struck, I went to the Da Vinci exhibit. A real visit to that show would have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but the crowds were so thick that you could barely move, much less get close enough to the drawings and notebooks to contemplate them. The Mona Lisa, of course, is now unapproachable due to the crowds with their selfie sticks, but I saw it almost by myself many years ago and needn’t contemplate it again. Moreover, right outside the room where La Gioconda is displayed are two fantastic Da Vincis that nobody wants to see.  The Egyptian and Asian galleries are thankfully uncrowded, but the layout of the new design, since the Pyramid was built, is hopelessly confusing. (Try finding an exit when you’re done.)

One intriguing fact is that nobody even knows where the name “Louvre” comes from!

But I digress. Anyway, while discussing the acquisition of paintings by Louis XIV, Gopnik proffers his own opinion:

Still, one great picture after another did come into his personal collection for the benefit of France, including what is, for some people’s money, the single greatest picture in the Louvre, that Raphael portrait of the Italian diplomat and author Castiglione. Raphael, the most talented painter who has ever lived, somehow compressed in a single frame all of the easy painterliness and understated humanity of Titian, while fixing, in Castiglione’s mixture of wisdom, intensity, sobriety, and wry good humor, the permanent form for the ideal author photo.

Well, I’d take issue with the assessment of both Raphael and his paintings, but of course these judgments are subjective, and it’s impossible to settle an argument over, say, whether Da Vinci, Rembrandt, or Raphael is the best painter. But I love making lists, and so will offer my own list of the world’s ten best painters below. (I’ve probably done this at some point in the 11-year history of this website, but I can’t find it, and, if I did once publish such a list, it would probably differ from today’s.)

I’ve come to appreciate Raphael more as I get older; I used to ignore his works, but a friend who loves his paintings turned me onto him. I still don’t rank him among the world’s ten best painters, but he’d certainly be in the top twenty. Here, for example, is the painting singled out by Gopnik as the Louvre’s best, Raphael’s Portrait of Balassare Castiglione. 

Now that is a damn fine painting, and is one of the Louvre’s best. But the best? Well, I’d put another Da Vinci above it a tad: St. John the Baptist. This is all, of course, a matter of taste, but it’s fun to have these differences of opinion. Without Gopnik’s note, I probably would have ignored this painting.

At any rate, I decided to make a list of who I consider the ten best painters of all time. I’ll put a specimen of their work below their names, though not necessarily my favorite painting. But they’re all paintings I’ve stood in front of—save the Michelangelo and the Caravaggio. They’re listed in no particular order:

Leonardo da Vinci. Lady with an Ermine (1489-1490).  I saw this in Kraków.

Michelangelo. The Last Judgment (1546-1531)

Johannes Veermeer. The Milkmaid (1567-1568). 

Rembrandt van Rijn. The Jewish Bride (1665-1669)

Pablo Picasso.  Les Demoiselles d’Avignon  (1907).  My favorite is probably Guernica.

Egon Schiele. Self Portrait with Physalis (1912).

Caravaggio. The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600).

J. M. W. Turner. Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1829).

Claude Monet. Rouen Cathedral (1894).

Vincent van Gogh. Cypresses (1889).


Were the list to be extended, it would contain Raphael, Jackson Pollack, Goya, Kahlo, and—my dark horse—Lyonel Feininger. UPDATE: As I say in the comments, I simply forgot about Dürer. Were I to redo this list now, I’d replace Monet with Dürer. Here’s a lovely Dürer, Self-Portrait at 28, astounding for both his age and the fact that it was painted in 1500. I haven’t seen this one in person, but I think it’s at least as good as Raphael’s portrait above. However, this Dürer is in Munich, not in the Louvre.


You are invited of course, to argue with my choices or put your own in the space below.

Finally, in his article Gopnik proposes a kind of Artistic Determinism::

“The Louvre stands as an implicit reproach, a programmatic rejection of the art and architecture that the West favors today, with its asymmetries, its puerile rebellions, its clamorous proclamation of its own insufficiency,” Gardner insists. Must it? Certainly French modernism is impossible to imagine without the Louvre: Picasso and Matisse’s Orientalism is unimaginable without Delacroix, as de Kooning and Francis Bacon would be unimaginable without Rubens—borrowing his stylized armor of life drawing, the extravagant hooks and curves he puts in place of real human form. Wayne Thiebaud pulls into the twenty-first century Chardin’s mission of bringing a halo to ordinary edibles. Even the wilder shores of avant-gardism that Gardner seems to make reference to are often Louvre-linked, inasmuch as it took the Louvre to give the “Mona Lisa” sufficient renown to make Duchamp’s drawing a mustache on her something more than just an insult. And the Master of the Morbid Manner, Jeff Koons, is in spirit very much self-consciously emulating the deliberately overblown pneumatic grandeur of the kind we find in Rubens’s Marie de Médicis series. The Louvre seems far from finished as a fishing ground of form.

Granted, artists take influence from their predecessors, but a statement that Picasso’s “orientalism” is unimaginable without Delacroix is simply untestable. Who knows if Picasso would have hit on “orientalism” from somewhere else? Yes, of course Duchamp’s mustachioed Mona Lisa could not exist without the original, but Francis Bacon unimaginable without Rubens? It is an untestable assertion made post facto. As a scientist, all I can say is that we can’t redo the experiment without Rubens, and one can always cook up imagined influences. (Now if Bacon said he was influenced by Rubens, that’s another matter.)

Adam may well be right here, but it’s like saying that Nirenberg and Khorana’s unraveling of the genetic code would have been impossible without Watson and Crick. That’s simply not true, as someone else would have hit on the structure of DNA had Watson and Crick not existed. Likewise, had Delacroix not lived, Matisse and Picasso may well have taken their “oriental” influence from someone else.

Those are my musings on a lazy Saturday. Weigh in below; I’d be delighted to hear about other people’s favorite artists.