Sunday, June 26, 2022

Michelangelo’s Contribution to the Sistine Chapel

I have been fascinated with the Sistene Chapel since I was 11 years old. I had been sent to camp in Villars, Switzerland and I was desperate to escape. When my parents came to visit on a several city tour in Europe with my grandmother I decided to “run away” so I walked to their hotel declaring that I would not go back. Many parents would have said “tough, you are going back”. But my parents said I could come with them. Don’t know whether that was the right thing for a parent to say, but it turned out to be great for me. Traveling with them I got to visit places it might have taken me another decade or two to see.

One of the most impressive of those sites was the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, in Rome. I still remember being told to lie on my back in one of the pews and take in Michelangelo’s awe-inspiring ceiling. When I did get back as an adult the chapel was much more crowded and not at all peaceful as a chapel should be. While it was still inspiring, I had to concentrate to block out all the voices. Today, 20,000 people visit the Chapel everyday!

The Sistine Chapel was named after Pope Sixtus IV, born Francesco della Rovere (1414-1484). He built the Chapel, on the foundation of the Capella Magna, between 1473 and 1481. It remains the private chapel of the Pope and the place where Papal conclaves choose a new Pope.

Today it is best known for its art with its frescos covering 11,840 square feet. The famous artists of the time including Sandro Botticelli, Pierrot Perugino and Domenico Ghirlandaio worked on the paintings on the side walls but the cieiling remained blue with scattered stars until Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo (1475-1564) to paint it in 1508. Believing his forte was as a sculptor and occupied with the tomb of Pope Julius II, Michelangelo turned down the offer. At the Pope’s insistence, however, he agreed, but it took him 4 years to complete the program of episodes from the Old Testament.

Though we always think that Michelangelo painted on his own, he did have assistants. There were those who worked on preparing plaster or mixing pigments and those that painted the architectural elements, a subspecialty of painters at the time. But the main subjects on the ceiling were his alone.

In an online entry for “Private Guides to Rome” I was reminded that Michelangelo built his own scaffold and did not lie on it as has often been said but stood as he painted. Until this time God was usually represented with a hand pointing down through the clouds but in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam one finds the first representation of God as a muscular body and face with a long white beard like the Greek god Jupiter.

In the same entry, I found this paragraph which I take with a grain of salt. But I do like the concept, “In 1990, Dr. Frank Lynn Meshberger wrote in the journal of the North American Medical Association that the figures and shadows depicted behind the garments of God and the angels appeared as a fair representation of the human brain. In his view, this would have been Michelangelo's way of symbolizing the passage of the intelligence from God to a human being.”

At the behest of Pope Clement VII Michelangelo returned in 1535 to paint the Last Judgemnt. He covered the entire wall behind the altar with the Second Coming of Christ and the final and eternal judgment of all humanity completing it in 1541. Just like today, no good deed goes unpunished, after Michelangelo accomplished this major feat, they started to go after him. Cardinal Gian Pietro Carafa said the naked figures were immoral and obscene. He and others launched the “Fig Leaf Campaign” to remove the fresco. Later in the century the artist Daniele da Volterra covered up the genitals.

Photo by Francisco Anzola

It can take a lifetime to read everything about the Sistine Chapel and the various interpretations of its contents. Many books, both fiction and non-fiction, have been written about it, and its restoration 1984-1994 was the subject of heated international controversy. If you are curious there is much to be learned but it all starts with being there, at least it did for an 11 year-old boy.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

The Art of Healing

Over last weekend I had a great idea for a Missive and in the process of working on it I found an idea which excited me even more. It is about the research and the results of arts therapy and its benefit to health.

I have discussed before how art therapy in the form of creating artwork has helped in prisons, giving aid to the mind. An article in “Verywell Health” by Lynne Eldridge, MD, medically reviewed by Doru Paul, MD, gives evidence that art actually changes one’s brain wave patterns. It may also alter hormones and neurotransmitters which can change one’s outlook on the world.

In 2018 Canadian doctors started prescribing visits to the Montreal Museum of Arts for some patients.

Quoting from a section of the article on benefits during radiation therapy for breast cancer: “Those who participated (in art therapy) had improvements in total heath, total quality of life, physical health and psychological health. Positive benefits were seen in body image, coping with systemic (whole body) side effects of treatment, and in “future perspectives” or a sense of hope”.

A 2017 article in a Michigan State University publication by Holy Tiret states recent research shows art therapy helps in reducing pain by decreasing symptom of stress in adult cancer patients, giving them a better quality of life. This is true for children with cancer and asthma as well, improving their ability to deal with pain and other frightening symptoms.

I found an article by Devorah Lauter on Art Net about a French Neuroscientist, Pierre Lemarquis, whose recently published a book says it all in its title, “L’art Qui GuĂ©rit” (Art that Heals). He belongs to a subcategory of Neuroscience called Neuroastehtics. I think that the fact that Dr. Lemarquis is a musician might have started him off on this track, but that is just my diagnosis!

Lemarquis takes readers on an art tour through the centuries from the Paleolithic period through the 20th century looking at works through the lens of their healing powers for the viewer as well as the maker. A 2019 Health Organization report charts research on the role of the arts in the prevention of illness.

Lemarquis asserts that when we see art, we “participate” in its creation and it can lead to the feeling of rebirth. What made this clear to me was his citing a visit to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel which is so awe-inspiring. I believe that it would also be possible in the Rothko chapel in Houston, if one could be alone there. In writing that Art Heals he points out that the effect of art has been scientifically demonstrated by measuring how it acts on the brain. As it stimulates neural networks art “sculpts” and “caresses” the brain.

We have heard, and probably said ourselves, that a work of art moves us. Neuroscience has shown that this is in fact, physically, the case.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Understanding the Opposition

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave? Are we free when others can tell us what we may read, interfere with our sex lives and worst of all rule women’s lives through reproduction legislation. No, wait, worst of all allowing our children to be murdered.

I have always wanted to understand the opposite point of view because, even if I may not agree, I want to know where the opposition is coming from. The best example is our system of government and the legislature. I have been a life-long Democrat, starting when I was a little boy going with my father into the voting booth. Wow, was that special! There were long lists of names in columns on a board. Each column had the name of a political party at the top with the candidates below. My father showed me the top lever on the Democratic column, pulled it and all the Democrats were voted for at once.

I eventually learned the fundamentals of each party and from my upbringing I wanted to take care of everybody. From the other side I learned that the country could not afford to take care of everyone and that was one of the tenets of the Republican party. This made sense. Small government made sense as well since it could accomplish more than the huge bureaucracies we have today. But today, nothing makes sense to me anymore. Maybe someone can explain it to me.

My first question is about “stop the steal”. I do not understand how those who were stealing the election were just doing it for the presidency and not the House and Senate. Why didn’t those manipulators on the left arrange for more Democrats to win so that they could dominate in congress?

How come that politicians get vaccinated and then imply to their constituents that they do not need to? Why is there a red and blue divide on vaccination? Who does this help, certainly not those who have so advised? They are only harming their own constituency.

Speaking of having it both ways, why do some politicians take advantage of the Supreme Court decision saying that corporations are people too, and can contribute as much as they wish to a politician’s campaign but then criticize or even punish a corporation for expressing an opinion?

We also learned that Supreme Court clerks are being asked for their phone records because of the Alito leak but not a word about the conflicts of interest that Clarence Thomas has.

This one just seems so basic to me. Why do we want to dictate what our children read, are we hiding something? Of course, any child with a computer or access to a library can find the information, but those who fear the facts want to block them not only from school libraries but from the public libraries as well.

I have read that parents want to control what their children are exposed to in terms of what they are taught, sexual orientation, and their psychiatric health. That limits the children to only what their parents know which might be out of date, and what child wants to ask their parents questions about their feelings. They feel much freer speaking with a neutral individual especially if they are professionals, teachers or counselors.

Instead of being free to take care of ourselves and our neighbors and our country, the right wing today seems to wish to dictate how we should think, how we teach and learn and what is allowable in our private lives. They wish as well to impose their religious views on everyone else.

How does it follow that owning guns is a sacred symbol of freedom but reading can be restricted? Further does it make sense that giving up on AK-15 type assault weapons would lead to further restrictions on guns but, as Alito wrote, banning abortion would not lead to further incursions on privacy. As one commentator said they care about their fetuses but not our children!

We can no longer take for granted that our society will continue to be more open and free than any in history. Spanish philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Winston Churchill said it a little differently, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Art from Prison

At any one time, there are about 2 million individuals incarcerated in this country and 95% are eventually released but 60% find themselves right back again.

As you know or can imagine prison is a rather bleak place.

You may be aware of art therapy for prisoners and therapists who specialize in this area of psychology. According to one of the books on the subject these programs not only promote creativity but also focus and discipline the mind whether by finding the right word in poetry or prose, or the notes on a musical instrument or memorizing lines in a play or working out a composition in painting and drawing. At completion these projects result in satisfaction and self-esteem. It gives an individual the knowledge that they can contribute to the general population, whether they become artists, or start on further education, or whatever they would like to achieve.

There are not-for-profit organizations like the Justice Arts Coalition (JAC) that aim to “unite teaching artists, arts advocates, and artists who are, or have been, incarcerated harnessing the transformative power of the arts to “reimagine justice.”

A 2016 publication, “Therapy Essential“ states “Art breaches the walls, providing a message to those outside. Specifically, art therapy allows the inmate to express him or herself in a manner acceptable to both inside the prison and the outside culture. Art, we hope, seems to evoke humanity in most people.”

If not otherwise identified the photos of paintings by inmates that I are in this Missive come from “Incarceration and the Law, Cases and Materials” which informs that prisoners are not allowed to sell from prison so sometimes, but not always, funds are raised by curators or the receiving institution to give the artists a small stipend. These can be used in the commissary to even buy their own work back!

In an article In The Nation Zachary Small writes about the “commodification of prison art” and criticizes curators and exhibitions that “often trivialize the brutality of the corrections system by framing artists in the very same social hierarchies they seek to undo.”. He reports that San Quentin has even opened a gift shop with art by the prisoners on Death Row which you too can buy. Here is an image from “Boing Boing”.

An article I found on “Artnet” titled “I Organized My First Art Show from Behind Bars” by Rahsaan Thomas intrigued me. What I found equally amazing was that Thomas was incarcerated in San Quentin, the prison used in every book and film as the place where the worst of criminals reside. He was serving a life sentence as were a number of these artists when he became interested in what his fellow prisoners created. He tells us that his first show was “Meet us Quickly: Painting for Justice From Prison” at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAd) in San Francisco in 2020. Rahsaan Thomas photo by Antwan Williams. Courtesy of "Ear Hustle."

He writes, “My honorary title of curator came about because a Jewish lady was determined to work with a system-impacted Black person on decarceration. Jo Kreiter, an aerial dance choreographer, experienced the prison industrial complex through visiting her husband in federal custody. His mistreatment inspired her to use dance for activism…..

She came up with the concept, ‘The Decarceration Trilogy: Dismantling the Prison Industrial Complex One Dance at a Time’”.

Thomas and Kreiter corresponded under difficult circumstances considering prison rules which became even more restricted during Covid. Eventually the pair decided that the idea was “Jewish People and Black people working together to end a plague that infects us all.”

Emily Kuhlman, curator at MoAd, asked Thomas to write a statement for the show, what the title should be and whether he wanted individual artists statements etc. He had thought that he was just doing a favor for his favorite San Quentin artists but he came to learn what was involved in being a curator. In the end the money was raised to give a small amount to each of the artists.

In the process of putting this blog together I realized that although most would agree that our criminal justice system needs a serious overhaul, art can offer a way to make it slightly more tolerable.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Artists During Covid

We all have our stories about what we did during the pandemic when so many businesses and schools were shut down. Suddenly people were working at home with the blessing of their employers, and some kept working as usual for one reason or another.

What about artists, don’t they always work in their homes or studios. Did they change what they were doing?

What prompted this line of thought was reading a short article announcing David Hockney’s largest painting to date. A 314-foot Frieze inspired during lockdown.

He had spent the year in his house in Normandy where he recorded the changing seasons on his iPad. He printed, painted and stitched 220 images into one continuous frieze. He says he was inspired by a Chinese scroll unrolled for him at the Metropolitan Museum and the Bayeux Tapestry not far away from his home which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest in England in 1066 and made shortly thereafter. Here is an image of the frieze and Hockney in his studio with some of the individual images on the wall.

In March of 2021 the New York Times asked 75 artists in all media what the past year had been like for them, Sheila Hicks, a textile artist, replied: “I have never gotten so much work done! There are so few distractions or interruptions. Even if you choose to do nothing, you can do it with intensity.” While Anicka Yi, a conceptual artist, disputed this saying, “Maintaining my studio is a lot like making an ongoing meta work of art. There is a myth about the redistribution of time during the pandemic, that we have fewer interruptions. I’ve experienced the opposite.”

Jenny Holzer replied, “I used my electric-sign fixation in service of the vote. I practiced applied art, maybe agitprop, for the elections. Also, I indulged in ugly watercolors on formerly secret documents, that I littered with filthy words. Women should swear more.” This image from Madison, Wisconsin’s Wort News photographed by Chali Pittman of Holzer’s “Art Comes to Madison”...

Sean Scully, who has been twice mentioned as a Turner Prize nominee, said “Lately, I have fallen in love with yellow. At the moment, I seem to be using it in every painting. I’m not sure I understand why, though maybe it offers a kind of protection against the cold, or against the sorrows of Covid. One of my new paintings is called “Yellow Yellow.” Another is called “Wall Orange” and has blurs of yellow and orange seeping into each other. Yellow is complicated.” Here is his 2021 painting Wall Yellow (Myanmar).

Ending with my favorite story: In 2020 Alison Elizabeth Taylor created “Anthony Cuts Under the Williamsburg Bridge”. The artist used a blend of paints, inkjet prints and wood veneers to create the work. It received first prize in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait competition that occurs every three years. As a result, she received a $25,000 cash award and a commission to paint a portrait of a living person for the NPG’s permanent collection.

The subject of Taylor’s winning portrait is an actual barber, Anthony Payne, who set up his business under the bridge offering haircuts in exchange for contributions to the Black Lives Matter movement. In making their choice the competition jurors, who had sifted through 2,700 entries, stated they felt Taylor’s work spoke to all the themes of the past three years from the time of the pandemic when people could no longer assemble indoors to the fight against racism.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Graduation – Miami Style

We flew for the first time in many months for a long weekend with family. It was in celebration of a grandson’s graduation from the University of Miami. I don’t know how many students graduated that day, but the business school consisted of 720 students. Though they had a large indoor stadium we could not all get tickets, so we watched with my two sons on a laptop in our hotel room. This is the image our son Hunter took of the big moment of grandson, Matthew, with President of the University when the diploma was passed.

Our family clearly travels on its stomach and the graduate’s mother, my daughter Cathy, planned this weekend with plenty of great eating opportunities. When our family was together, we were at least 16 and there were friends of the graduate’s too, so our tables in restaurants were rather long.

The first dinner was at Grazianos in Coral Gables, where just walking in you were glad to be there as you were greeted by the sight and smell of amazing chunks of meat cooking on a huge open wood-burning grill. Every once in a while, a desert set on fire would pass by. There were clearly lots of celebrations going on. Another reason I am sure people come is for the incredible wine list which goes to over 20 pages. Every wall was covered with full wine bottles. Here is a tiny section.

The next night we went to a restaurant in the Little Havana neighborhood where every “boite” (night spot) has a very loud band and sometimes a singer as well and lots of dancing. The open-top party busses with a bar at one end cruise the streets and the young people aboard dance and sing loudly to be heard over the music. It is definitely a young person’s scene.

The most incredible meal I have ever experienced was at the Japanese restaurant Zuma. A headline of the Miami New Times stated “Zuma Offers Bottomless Asian-Inspired Brunch All Weekend”. This experience alone is worth a trip! First you are invited to go to a bar which must be 15 feet long of hot hors d’oeuvres. Then there is another 10 feet of sushi bar.

Not only are the numerous cooks making food but there are waiters who are continuously replacing dishes for the long lines of customers. Of course, nobody can just take one small plate, so we all went back two or even three times. You think that’s enough? Not by a long shot. This was the full menu as well as a sample plate.

They then announced to our table, in a private room, that the meal was being served and plates to share arrived down the center of the table. These consisted of vegetable tempura, cooked salmon, chicken and filet mignon cut in small thin slices. Those of us who were uninitiated thought that this was the end of the meal, but we sat down again as trays of small, delicious pastries and frozen delicacies arrived. Throughout the meal beverages both alcoholic and not were served by the incredible disciplined staff.

Some of us took a break from eating on the balcony outside our dining room. It overlooked the Miami river where we had a view of pleasure boats and yachts of all sizes as they came through with sun bathers and crew. One boat was so large that I wondered if it belonged to a junior oligarch.

Our last unusual experience, other than our flights all being on time, was the drive back to Miami International Airport. Even though there had been plenty of taxis at the airport, we did not see them anywhere else. Some in our group had cars, but often we took Ubers which were very efficient and plentiful. Our Uber to the airport was particularly interesting. First of all, I was surprised when I saw that our driver, David, was picking us up in a black Tesla. Never had an Uber driver with a Tesla before! This sleek car with a tinted glass roof looked like it had come right out of the movies. It was new to us to the point where David had to show us how to open the doors. This, however, was not the most remarkable thing: David turned out to be an individual innovative enough to start a business and invest in it. He told us that he owned two long haul trucks, hired drivers, and had just about saved enough to buy a third truck. First, I asked, so why are you driving for Uber? He said he did it partime to make some money, to be able to stay near his family and not have to be away trucking across the country all the time. Prying some more, but trying to do it politely, I asked him if he had a business degree. His reply really surprised me: he said he learned by watching a year of YouTube. He thought this was more efficient (and probably less expensive) than spending his time in classes. I had so many more questions, but it only took 15 minutes to get to the airport. Someday, I believe I will see David’s Trucking Company … or maybe he is just going to write a great novel!

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Banned Book Clubs

I am writing this just before we are heading to Miami for the university graduation of a grandson. I have had this fantasy of Governor DeSantis greeting us at the airport and at first, I thought I would spit in his face for his autocratic rule. Then I thought that may not be the most diplomatic thing to do!

Why not thank him for his banning books in his state’s schools. Why, you might ask. Simple answer: if you have ever had or interacted with children you know that there is no better way to motivate a child to do something than telling them not to.

I am sure you have read the HEADLINES:

The New York Times:
Book Ban Efforts Spread Across the U.S.

The Wall Street Journal:
More Than 1,000 Books Banned from Schools Since July 2021, Study Finds

Newsweek Magazine: 
Recent Surge in Banned Books Targets Titles, With Focus on Race, Sexuality

From the Miami Herald:
Banning Books in America is a Sorry Vote for Ignorance

Credit: The Sydney Morning Herald

I could go on and on. Thank goodness it has made so many headlines. People say to me that is not as extreme as burning books. True, but all the books could not be burned: a few always survived. There are so many issues regarding autocratic censorship but at this point, the backlash has resulted in ameliorations of the problem.

Did you know there has been a Banned Books Week since 1982? In 2022 the dates of the event will be September 18-24. By focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books, Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship.

Banned Book Clubs are nothing new, they have just had impetus from recent actions of state governments and parents who want to decide what students and the general population should read and learn. If you think about it there are so many people who want to tell you what is good and bad for you. But I won’t go down that rabbit hole.

Bookstores have started Banned Book Clubs. You might think that banned book clubs in bookstores have commercial motives but do not believe it. If you start a book store it is not to make a fortune but because you enjoy books and think it is an important contribution to the community and society in general. King's Books in Tacoma, Washington started a Banned Book Club a decade ago that has been meeting monthly ever since. Needless to say, it has garnered a lot more interest lately.

It is not just bookstores that have Banned Book Clubs. The American Library Association keeps lists of challenged and banned books in order to inform the public about censorship efforts that affect libraries and schools. In 2021 there were 729 books on their list which a person or a group was trying to suppress and eliminate from public libraries. I am sure that list has grown since then and governments are one step away from that mostly addressing l libraries in schools.

Happily, individual libraries and librarians are at the forefront of keeping freedom to read what you wish alive and encouraging young people to learn history and societies priorities through reading. The Brooklyn Public Library is offering free digital library cards to young people ages 13 to 21 across in the U.S.

To my delight I now know that teens themselves are starting these clubs, not just to read the banned books but most importantly to discuss them. What better way to learn than by hearing what others think about what has been read? In-school clubs, however, need to be run by the students themselves without teacher involvement as teachers could be in danger of losing their jobs or worse. If you think I am exaggerating Governor Glenn Youngkin has set up a tip line for people in Virginia to report educators who are teaching critical race theory.

An encouraging example of a youngster taking things into her own hands is the story of a 14-year-old 8th grader, Joslyn Diffenbaugh. Learning about the efforts in Texas to remove some books from school libraries. She got together with her local bookstore the Firefly Bookstore in Kutztown, Pennsylvania and started their Banned Book Club which now meets every other week to discuss books that have been contested.

Progress depends on young people being curious and reading opens the world to them.