Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sylvia Bokor's Blog

My long-time friend Sylvia Bokor, an artist and writer, has just started a blog. Check it out at
The latest post (as I write this) is on mystery writer John Dunning, and it nails down an aspect of his style that had bothered me enough so that I only read one of his books - but which I hadn't bothered to put into words.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

History as Prozac

I am usually “even tempered and good-natured, whom you never hear complain,” but like Henry Higgins, occasionally I get furiously angry. My trigger at the moment is the upcoming presidential election. As an Objectivist, I don’t think the government should dictate how I run my private life or my business; it ought to confine itself to protecting individual rights, including protecting me from attacks foreign or domestic. (See Ayn Rand’s “The Nature of Government.”) McCain and Obama are both promising more regulations and more government programs that would affect every aspect of my life, and neither one has convinced me that he’ll fight genuine threats such as Iran. So when I see either one talking on TV, I soon find myself shouting at them, and wondering how a nation with such brilliant founding principles can survive, if we're reduced to choices such as this. Pass the Prozac, please.

 My Prozac is history, because history gives me a sense of perspective on passing events. Last summer I started working part-time as a cataloguer for Martayan Lan, a bookseller specializing in works printed before 1800, particularly the history of science, travel and discovery, and art and architecture. I typically skim a book and then write a page-long description of it, setting the book in context as a major contribution to knowledge, a quaint leftover from an earlier age, or something between. Recently I’ve described a 17th-century book on heart defects, a collection of reports submitted by Jesuits around the world in the 1590s, French newspapers promoting the California Gold Rush, and a compilation of women’s legal rights in 16th-c. Portugal.

Not long ago I described a book of medical aphorisms: Latin couplets that purported to help students and physicians remember how to diagnose and/or treat various ailments. The information in the poems was probably centuries old when the book came out, and had mostly likely been distorted by years of unthinking repetition to the point of being useless, if not outright harmful.

Here's the kicker: the book was published in 1589. Forty years earlier (the whole working life of a physician at that time), Andreas Vesalius had dissected cadavers and had published the results of his research in a beautiful multi-volume work. (See the illustrations at ). Others were also finally looking at nature rather than parroting ancient and medieval authors: physicians of this era described the circulation of the blood in the lungs and set the foundation for the systematic study of tropical diseases. Those at the cutting edge in science knew better than to simply memorize and apply medieval solutions in Latin doggerel. Many of them must have howled with rage that any publisher would print works such as Scholtz' Aphorismorum medicinalium.

And yet … eventually books like that were no longer published. Those who were constantly expanding their knowledge and confidently announcing their discoveries did eventually triumph. Reality and reason won out, in the long run - although not without staunch defenders who fought long, difficult battles.

So when I need a pick-me-up from the current depressing presidential election, history is my Prozac. If you need some anti-depressants, try these:

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Three-fer: Wilkinson, Wildhorn, Gill

Last week I visited Michael Wilkinson’s studio in Manhattan, and it raised my spirits for days. One of Michael’s specialties is cast-acrylic sculptures of idealized figures, usually on romantic themes. I had seen photos of many of them on his website ( and expected to like them, but hadn’t anticipated the impact of seeing them in person, in three dimensions. Acrylic can be highly polished or sanded to a frosted finish. The outer planes can be angled in such a way that the images molded into it are reflected back at unexpected angles. Change the angle of the light or rotate the sculpture, and the effect is quite different.

Not all artists can talk coherently about what they do. Michael can. I was fascinated to listen to him discuss his aims for different pieces, and the ways in which he manipulated the material to make his intention a reality.

The piece that sticks in my mind is not an acrylic but a bronze: a small work called Sanctuary, which shows a woman leaning protectively over a man. Michael said the idea in his mind was that in a romantic relationship, there are times when one partner is exhausted by the outside world, and the other provides a sort of haven until the partner recovers.

I immediately heard a song in my mind: “You Are My Home,” from the Broadway musical The Scarlet Pimpernel (music by Frank Wildhorn). The words aren’t exactly the same concept as the sculpture, but they’re close; and I still get goosebumps when I think of the first time I heard that song performed on stage, with a dozen vocalists and an orchestra. So the Sanctuary sculpture gripped me not just visually, but via an auditory memory. (You can hear an excerpt from the song on iTunes by searching “You Are My Home.”)

Thinking of all the times in the past years that I’ve wished I could see the Pimpernel live on stage again reminded me, in turn, of an essay I recently read in A.A. Gill’s Previous Convictions. He pointed out that seeing a play live, on stage, is fundamentally different from seeing the same work on film. (Mind you, I wouldn’t want to live without film, even if I could afford to see a Broadway play every week.)

"Film performance is a vanity, it’s done for a mirror, it’s passed through a hundred hands. The audience is an abstract. There’s no middleman between you and a stage. Every time you see Olivier perform Othello on film it’s the same. You make no difference. What I saw onstage was unique. … You can see the same play again and again and it utterly changes. Every performance leaves a footprint, but it also leaves the text pristine and untouched. As I grow older, plays grow old with me. Their meanings change, the emphasis is different."

The same is true of sculpture: seeing the original work is very different from seeing a reproduction; and seeing it under different circumstances (whether it’s simply a different time of day, or the fact that you’re a year or two older) can make an enormous difference in what the work says to you. So if you’re lucky enough to live in a town with art galleries, museums, or artists’ studios, take an hour or two to drop by for a visit—not as a “chore” to prove you’re cultured, but for the chance it gives you to see something beautiful and, perhaps, to learn something more about yourself.

Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan, which was marketed as a guidebook to New York City sculpture, includes long sections on looking at art and figuring out why you react to a certain piece as you do. For beginners looking at art, see my blog entry on introducing kids to art.

The sculptures are Futurity and Sanctuary; art and photographs  copyright (c) Michael Wilkinson, all rights reserved.