Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Infinite Art Tournament, Round Three: W. Blake v. Bosch

William Blake
1757 - 1827

Defeated Sir Peter Blake in Round 1.
Beat Italian Futurist Umberto Boccioni in Round 2.


Hieronymus Bosch
c.1450 - 1516

Trounced Paris Bordone in Round 1.
Escaped upset by French installation guy Christian Boltanski in Round 2 by a single vote. YOUR VOTE COUNTS!!!


Vote for the artist of your choice in the comments, or any other way that works for you. Commentary and links to additional work are welcome. Polls open for at least one month past posting.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Olympics Per Capita: Opening Ceremony

Hey, it’s a year that is divisible by four, which means it’s time to once again celebrate the great international festival of people living together in harmony, and esoteric sport!  Especially fencing, although that may just be a local thing.


Longtime readers may recall that the 2008 Games were dominated by the Bahamas, whose two medals amounted to every 153,725th citizen being an Olympic medalist, well ahead of the rest of the global field.  Jamaica was impressive in second with a medal for every 254,939 people, and Iceland took the proverbial bronze, taking a medal despite a national population of only 304,367.

Slovenia’s five medals gave it a medal for every 401,542 citizens.  Also very impressive were Australia, with a medal for every 447,839, New Zealand (1/463,718), Norway (1/464,446), and Cuba (1/475,998).

Infinite Art Tournament’s home country of the United States of America finished a discouraging 46th, with each medal having to be shared among 2.7 million people.  The world’s two giants fared even worse, with India at 87th (1/382,700,000) and China at 68th (1/13,000,000) despite a home-field advantage.

Well, it will be a while before the data starts trickling in.  But assuming an even level of athletic prowess among the nations – and why, indeed, would we ever assume otherwise? – here is roughly what we should be looking at for medal counts when the closing ceremonies come around:

China – 175 medals
India – 157 medals
United States – 40 medals
Indonesia – 30 medals
Brazil – 25 medals
Pakistan – 23 medals
Nigeria – 21 medals
Bangladesh – 20 medals
Russia – 18 medals
Japan – 16 medals
Mexico – 15 medals
Philippines – 12 medals
Vietnam, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Germany – 11 medals
Iran and Turkey – 10 medals
D. R. Congo and Thailand – 9 medals
France, the U.K., and Italy – 8 medals
South Africa – 7 medals
Burma – 6 medals

…with another 225 or so medals sprinkled among 200ish other countries.

We’ll be checking in on the progress of this Olympian endeavor over the next few weeks.  Best of luck to the Bahamas as it strives to defend its title as world’s studliest country.   We’ll be keeping a close eye on the Aussies as well, as they attempt once again to dominate the elite club of the 100 largest countries.  Australia’s population should be able to claim three medals, all other things being equal.  In 2008 they snuck off with 48.  Crikey!  And, can Most Favored Nation Estonia improve on 2008’s 13th place finish?  We’ll find out soon! 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Jazz Thing, Round One: The Gerry Mulligan Quartet v. Joe Henderson

The Jazz Thing, Round 1 (40 Word/Album Limit)

#24 The Gerry Mulligan Quartet – "The Original Quartet with Chet Baker."  (1953)  v.  #81 Joe Henderson – "Page One." (1963).

Sharp, energetic, and sophisticated, this music is nevertheless winning for its relentless determination to entertain. Sax, trumpet, and rhythm section – no piano, which may contribute to the crisp sound. Or maybe I’m just naturally drawn to “the West Coast Sound.”


Intelligent, lean, and introspective sax-based small-ensemble jazz. I like it, and assumed it would be a winner when I first heard it. But that was before I heard the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. Well, it’s a tournament of tough choices.

The Original Quartet with Chet Baker defeats Page One

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Infinite Art Tournament, Round 1: Chardin v. Chase!

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin
1699 - 1779


William Merritt Chase
1849 - 1916


Vote for the artist of your choice!  Votes go in the comments.  Commentary and links to additional work are welcome.  Polls open for at least one month past posting.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Reading List: Possession

The cover of Possession features "The Beguiling
of Merlin" by British Romantic Edward Burne-Jones.
Burne-Jones will soon be going up against Jan Bruegel
 the Elder in Left-Bracket First Round Action!

Possession: A Romance
A.S. Byatt, 1990

A.S. Byatt wrote Possession during the full flowering of postmodernism, whatever that was. Her book reflects that –ism’s frightened fascination with genre, and also its unwillingness to indulge in the art of storytelling without running up flags to show that the author is properly distrustful of Narrative, that naïve and reactionary old beast.

The self-referential semaphoring begins (before the beginning, even!) with the epigram, a long passage from Hawthorne: “When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude….” By the denouement, the signal flags are in profusion, flapping briskly in a grand literary storm that manages to be both an conspicuous external symbol of the characters’ interior emotional states and a whimsically blatant deux ex machine. From the last few dozen pages of the main text:

“And all’s well that ends well,” said Euan. “This feels like the ending of a Shakespearean comedy…”
“Or like the unmasking at the end of a detective story.” (524)

Cropper decided to run for it….
“It’s no good,” the figure incredibly said. “You’re surrounded.” (539)

Euan said, “I’ve always wanted to say ‘You are surrounded.”
“You said it very well,” said Cropper. (540)

Maud said, “We need the end of the story.”
“There is no guarantee that that is what we shall find,” said Blackadder.
“But we must look,” said Maud. (541)

No one ever quite exclaims that they feel like a character in a postmodern novel, but I bet that this was a temptation consciously resisted. Byatt realizes that she is writing within the context(s) of literary tradition(s), and she is bound and determined that you will realize that she realizes it. But that was, or is, the post-modern condition for you.

A Plot Summary, Despite What I Was Taught in College

Possession is put together as a collection of texts that cumulatively tell two related tales. The primary and framing story is about a community of literary scholars, some of whom are specialists in the fictional major Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash and some of whom study the equally fictional but less prominent Christabel LaMotte. As the novel proceeds, they uncover increasingly intriguing evidence of a previously unknown personal connection between their subjects. There is an intense rivalry among the scholars for the new-found documents, for access to the knowledge they reveal, and for the right to control interpretation of the new evidence. At the same time, they are all forced to reinterpret not only the lives and work of their literary heroes, but also their own careers and beliefs, in the light of the new evidence.

(And this is an interesting scenario, because it makes manifest the quiet struggles for information and for primacy of knowledge and for the right to impose our own interpretation of events, and the struggle to maintain a sense of continuity amid the chaos of life’s events, that everybody goes through every day. Does Byatt exploit this metaphor to its maximum effect? Probably not. But then, who could?)

The second tale, which is slowly excavated through the progress of the first, is that of the relationship between Ash and LaMotte. This is much the simpler story, but it is not without its surprises.

Structure and the Unwritten Law

The “pastiche” (to use the approved postmodern term) of texts that carry this tale is anchored by straightforward fictional prose that is more or less of the campus comedy genre. Over this narrative bedrock is layered “simulacra” (to use the approved postmodern term) of historical letters, diaries and journals, academic papers (with and without footnotes!), biography, Victorian poetry, and Victorian prose. Byatt is a fine mimic, and constructs a quite believable pair of Victorian intellectuals who might conceivably still be studied today, complete with extensive samples of their work, correspondence, and critical legacy. Of course, this means that considerable lengths of the book are written in forms that are rather challenging to most readers of today – Victorian poetry, anyone? – and this is a significant downside to Possession’s stylistic veracity.

Keeping a story moving forward indirectly by leading the reader through invented primary sources is such a neat trick that it feels curmudgeonly to complain. But there are two problems. The first is a long passage – a chapter, I suppose – found about midway through the book, in which actions of Ash and LaMotte are suddenly and rather jarringly described in direct third-person. I found this lapse into everyday prose unfortunate, because the certainty invoked by direct narrative undermined the sense of mystery and doubt that had been generated by looking at the characters only through indirect documentary evidence. This may have been an authorial blunder. Or, the intention may have been to subvert genre expectations – to deliberately violate an unwritten rule against letting us know more about the object of a quest than the questing characters know themselves (or perhaps the rule is against changing course on this point in mid-novel). In whichever case, I felt the effect was to show why that convention is actually a pretty good idea.

Secondly, the richness of the novel’s interwoven texts is made possible only by a constant stream of new historical material being encountered by the present-day characters. This helps make the novel work structurally, but the sheer volume of new discoveries is eventually a bit over the top. At one point, just as the evidence on hand has proven inadequate to fully unraveling the mysteries of the past, a random graduate student in France happens to find some outrageously relevant material in an old diary, and capriciously decides to send it to one of the central characters, and so the chase continues. Well, when a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude.


In several ways, Possession is a masterpiece. In the mimesis of Victorian forms, and in the creative forgery and sequential arrangement of documents in such a way that they gradually reveal two separate story lines, both at comfortable paces, it is a wonderfully constructed novel. The ending, although I made fun of it earlier, is actually rather satisfying, and there is an epilogue that I found both clever and moving.

And yet. During the course of my reading, I twice talked to people who had read Possession within the last year or so. They asked me what I thought of it, of course, and the answer I found myself giving was “I like everything about it, except it.” I was surprised that in both cases I was immediately understood and agreed with. Possession develops a great idea, and it is beautifully structured and expertly written, but it lacked some mysterious ingredient that would take it from the realm of the technically expert into the top tier of truly excellent novels. It was a slow read for me, not because it was difficult to read but because it did not consistently hold my attention. I could put it down without much regret, and often felt no particular hurry to pick it back up again.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Mrs.5000 and the Adventure of the Flying Moose

A guest post from loyal reader and technical Montana native Mrs.5000.

I happened to be finishing up a visit to the C.M. Russell Museum (cowboy art!) in Great Falls, Montana, just as a crane arrived to transfer a moose sculpture onto its pedestal on the new sculpture garden. It's not every day one gets to see that kind of operation, so I settled under a shade tree to watch events unfold.

The crane operator clearly knew what he was doing--he did a quick mooseless test run (threading two flagpoles between sculpture and pedestal) and harnessed up the moose. Even a bronze moose, if life sized and realistically portrayed, exudes an air of patience when quietly hoisted into the air.

The glitch came as he was lowered onto his pedestal. The anchor bolts at the base of the sculpture did not quite align with the epoxy-filled holes on the concrete base. Several tries were made, but the moose refused to settle into place. Apparently at least one of the bolts was not perpendicular to the base, and this had thrown off the template. The solution was pretty obvious--one or more of the holes would have to be enlarged--but the rapidly setting epoxy and a lack of tools on hand made this an unwelcome complication. I haven't mentioned that this was Friday evening, the public dedication of the sculpture garden was set for 10:00 the next morning, and stormclouds were gathering for what would prove to be an ungodly deluge.

Sometimes it's nice just to to be a bystander on vacation, and know that matters are in someone else's hands.

Five years ago: Michael5000 pulls the plug on public radio (he's never gone back).

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Wednesday Post

The Strange Death and Life of Fred the Cat
A letter from Massachusetts, c.2003.

The biggest news on my side of the county is that [my cat] Fred apparently decided that being dead didn't agree with him.

A friend found Fred as roadkill on the side of the road and brought him back. My mother, my sister, and I all viewed the body and with little lumps in our throats said "Yup, that's Fred."  We gave him a great funeral. Prayers -- a statue of the Buddha on top of the grave -- planted some ivy. I mean, he had a good send-off!

An Enclosed Picture: "Fred -- after
Resurrection, one gets a little tired."
But then about 3 days later the animal welfare officer here in town called and said she'd found him. Well, of course we argued the point, but after about another week I decided to go and see the cat she had. Sure enough, it was Fred, kind of annoyed that he'd had to spend over a week in a cage in a barn but otherwise no worse for the wear. So now the question is: who is in Fred's grave? Although I'm sticking with the resurrection theory.

Epilogue: Fred the Cat lived several more years, dying peacefully and without further supernatural incident at the age of 18, in 2009.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Infinite Art Tournament Round Three: Bellini v. Bernini

Giovanni Bellini
1434 - 1516

Defeated Hans Bellmer in Round 1 by a single vote.   YOUR VOTE COUNTS!!! 
Took down American George Bellows in a fair fight in Round 2.


Gianlorenzo Bernini
1598 - 1680

Trounced German conceptual installation artist Josef Beuys in Round 1
Won a hard-fought match against American landscape artist Albert Bierstadt in Round 2.


Vote for the artist of your choice in the comments, or any other way that works for you. Commentary and links to additional work are welcome. Polls open for at least one month past posting.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Welcome to Marshastan!

I have this friend named Marsha, who is one of my favorite people despite her inexplicable failure to follow this online periodical.  It was recently one of her birthdays that involved round numbers, and I was commissioned to put together a map of her travels.

The complete map of Marshastan was quite large, with lots of islands and continents and with a text overlay laden with biographical in-jokes.  But you probably don't know Marsha, so you don't get to see all that.  I was especially proud of the heart of Marshastan, though, which consisted of the states of Michigan, Indiana, Oregon, and -- in two segments -- California.

I am particularly proud of the Eastern Oregon coastline.

Fifteen quatloos to anyone who can identify the reference to Jonathan Swift.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Jazz Thing, Round 1: Christian v. Ayler

The Jazz Thing, Round 1 (40 Word/Album Limit)

#87 "Charlie Christian: The Genius of the Electric Guitar" (1939-41) v. #39 the Albert Ayler Trio: "Spiritual Unity" (1964).

Conceivably a tough match. Charlie Christian is apparently a very early pioneer of the electric guitar. So, these tracks are early: close to jazz’s honky-tonk, Dixieland, and blues roots. That’s to say, not very interesting to listen to.


This is “free jazz” ie., racket. But it grows on me. It starts with a theme like a high school fight song, and then Ayler takes it to the moon via the underworld. Crazy, noisy, passionate stuff. Not for everyone.

Spiritual Unity defeats The Genius of the Electric Guitar

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Play-In Artist SubTournament: Phase 1, Flight 1

The Infinite Art Tournament interrupts the usual steady entrance of First-Round Contestants to bring you the first flight of phase one of the Play-In Artist SubTournament!!!

Phase One Rules:
  1. You may cast votes for up to four artists.  
    • One vote per artist per person.
  2. Since play-in artists were nominated by your peers in the IAT community, including myself, courteous and affirmative voting is in order
    • Which is to say, no baggin' on the aesthetic sensibilities of the nominators.
  3. Full rules, procedures, and anticipated timeline for the Play-In SubTournament are available on the Play-In SubTournament page.
  4. Additional Play-In artists may still be nominated on this post, on the Play-In SubTournament page, by email to InfiniteArtTournament at gmail, or by postcard.  There is space remaining for around a dozen more artists.

Bill Viola
1951 -

Anselme Boix-Vives
1899 - 1969
Spanish; worked in France

Kris Kuksi
1973 -

1947 -

Ernst Haeckel
1834 - 1919

17th Century
Rajasthani / Indian

Charles A. A. Dellschau
1830 - 1923
Prussian-born American

Dale Chihuly
1941 -

Vote for up to fours artists! Votes go in the comments. Commentary and links to additional work are welcome. This poll will be open for approximately two months past posting.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Saint of the Month: Saint Barhadbesciabas!

If you go looking for images relating to St. Barhadbesciabas, you
mostly find images from recent posts in this blog.

St. Barhadbesciabas

AKA: Barhadbesaba
Feast Day: Almost certainly July 20th, although also given as July 21st and July 15th by prominent online saint lists.

Really Existed? Maybe, in some form or other.
Timeframe: Died July 20, 355, or 354.
Place: Persia.

Credentials: Recognized by Tradition in the Catholic Church.
Martyrdom: Racking and clumsy beheading.

Patron Saint of: No known tradition of patronage.
Symbolism: May lack symbolic tradition.

Obviously St. Barhadbesciabas is not one of the big-name saints, and only the most comprehensive online sources have anything to say about him beyond his name. Catholic Online offers the typical thumbnail: he was a deacon in Arbele, who was caught up in the persecutions of Sassanid King Shapur II, and was tortured when he failed to convert.

Which is to say, the typical thumbnail tells us nothing. A deacon in where? Caught up in what? Tortured why? Since the gory details (see below) are offered without context, all that this kind of thing tells us is that there was a saint somewhere who fit the template of a saint: he suffered and stayed true to his faith under pressure. But geez, we could have guessed that much from the “St.” in front of his name. The problem is, most popular saint-summaries are clumsily digested from enormously learned Victorian and pre-Victorian sources that assume their reader has a classical education and an inclination to consult a history of the Persian Empire to fill in any gaps in their existing knowledge. Eighteenth and nineteenth century scholarship, often quite awesome on its own terms, does not generally water down very well.

Fortunately, you’ve got me, and I’ve got the internet, eclectic interests, and considerable training and experience in the evaluation and interpretation of textual sources! Or at the very least, I’ve got enough get-up-and-go to track down the mysterious “Arbele,” which is more familiar nowadays the largely Kurdish city of Erbil in Northern Iraq. It’s an old town – one of the oldest in the human community, in fact! And in Barhadbesciabas’ time, it was a city in the western reaches of the Persian Empire.

You might remember that the Persians were, broadly speaking, those perennial eastern competitors of the Greco-Roman world. They were also, before the advent of Islam, Zoroastrian. I don’t know a ton about Zoroastrianism, but in general it conceptualizes the universe as locked in struggle between a purely good creator and a competing, purely evil destructive force of nearly equal power – it is, I think, not entirely unlike the branches of Christianity that yield a starring role to “the devil.”

OK, but what’s a “Sassanid King Shapur II?” Well, “Sassanid” is the specific embodiment of Persian empire that was around from the third to the seventh centuries. Shapur II was one of its most effective kings, reigning from 309 to 379 (although during the first several years he wasn’t making a lot of key decisions, since he was crowned before birth for reasons of dynastic expediency).

Now then, what else is happening in the fourth century?  Over to the west, Emperor Constantine spends the first third of the Century converting the Roman Empire to Christianity and moving its center of power eastward from Italy to modern Turkey. We can speculate that, for Sassanid King Shapur II, having a revitalized Rome that was undergoing a new and aggressively monotheistic religious revival suddenly challenging his sphere of influence was probably seen as troubling! And while this doesn’t make religious persecution inevitable, nor morally defensible by anything like modern standards, it certainly gives us a little bit of context to understand why Barhadbesciabas might have raised the ire of the local political establishment, and why it was a brave thing for him to continue a mission of Christian leadership in the climate of the day.  A contemporary Greek source -- albeit one who might have been tempted to err on the side of making the Persians look bad -- estimated that 16,000 Christians were killed for their beliefs during Shapur's reign.

The Rev. Alban Butler, an 18th century scholar, tells us that Barhadbesciabas was tortured at the rack:
Whilst he was tormented, the officers continually cried out to him: “Worship water and fire, and eat the blood of beasts, and you shall be immediately set at liberty.” But the blessed deacon Barhadbesciabas showed by the cheerfulness of his countenance, that the interior joy of his happy soul overcame the torments he felt in his body.
…which, if true, is certainly a impressive display of sang-froid. After a certain point, the authorities ordered a guy named Aghaeus, or Aghæus, or Aggai, to finish him off. This guy is always called an “apostate Christian,” but it isn’t clear if that means he had renounced Christianity and embraced Zoroastrianism or vice versa. Reverend Butler, and the sources that have cribbed from him, report that Aghaeus was unable to behead Barhadbesciabas, and after seven chops just gave up and stabbed him to death with a sword. This would have been another big test for Barhadbesciabas’ cheerfulness, of course, but it shouldn’t be construed as something miraculous. Even professional headsmen often took quite a few whacks to finish a beheading – if a neck was such a fragile thing all as that, after all, human anatomy as we know it wouldn’t have panned out. An amateur like you or me, handed an axe and a victim, would be unlikely to do any better than Aghaeus.

St. Barhadbesciabas is remembered today for being on the list of saints, and that’s pretty much it. I have come across no evidence that he is commemorated by anything or anyone, anywhere, and if he were a practical joke cooked up by the good Rev. Butler the world would be none the wiser. A Google search yields the three sources I looked at in preparing this write-up and a brief Wiki article, and then quickly degenerates into my teaser posts from earlier this week and competing websites all asserting that they are the best place at which to find St. Barhadbesciabas’ address, phone number, and email address. These latter seemed suspect to me.