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.