2/24/2011 1:09:00 PM
In 1610, Caravaggio—at his time an eminent Italian Baroque painter, most recognizable for an uncanny portrait of Medusa—died under mysterious circumstances at the peak of his infamy. Four years previous, two of his paintings were rejected by their commissioners: St. Peter’s Basilica rejected one on account of his voluptuous depiction of the Virgin Mary and morally ambiguous interpretation of Jesus, and Santa Maria della Scala rejected another, Death of the Virgin, for realism bordering on blasphemy. Caravaggio snapped; after murdering a rival artist, he traveled around the Mediterranean region for four years, exiled by his own humiliation and threat of papal vengeance. Details of the fallen artist’s last days are vague, and until very recently, Caravaggio’s death was as inexplicable as his artistic genius.
Silvano Vinceti, an Italian pop-historian and inscrutable provocateur, is dusting off the art world’s most tarnished mysteries, including the unresolved end of Caravaggio. And, armed with advanced forensic science techniques and a deft understanding of mass media, he’s not only trying to liberate history’s secrets, but also his country from cultural decline. “Italy has a hugely rich cultural tradition,” Venceti told The Telegraph’s Alastair Smart, “but in the modern era of video games, our children risk not knowing it. I simply hope to regenerate interest in history, through solving its mysteries. Luckily nowadays the scientific techniques are suddenly available to solve them.”
So what did he discover of Caravaggio? From The Telegraph’s profile:
Convinced he had discovered the painter’s remains in an obscure cemetery crypt in Porto Ercole–the coastal Tuscan town where Caravaggio reportedly died—Vinceti sent them off for lab-testing and, within a few months, carbon-dating and DNA results came back positive (with syphilis given as the cause of death).
Just in time for the 400-year-anniversary of Caravaggio’s death, Venceti had supposedly discovered the painter’s grave and cleared up the circumstances of his demise.
Not everyone thinks Venceti is as genuine or adept as he professes. “You might not remember it, but you’ll definitely have come across Vinceti’s name before,” writes Smart, “And if you take your art history seriously, you’ll have laughed at his madcap discoveries.” For all of his earnestness, Vinceti draws many (arguably good) comparisons to pulp conspiracy theorist and best-selling author Dan Brown. Another of Vinceti’s discoveries, reports Smart, is a clue to the puzzle of the Mona Lisa:
His latest findings are the letters L and V—Leonardo da Vinci’s initials—in Mona Lisa’s right eye, which he spotted after digitally magnifying the canvas. Might art’s great enigma have finally been decoded? The painting must be a self-portrait. A theory first posited... in The Da Vinci Code.
There are other scholarly gripes against the stunt historian; his detractors label him as little more than a narcissistic self-promoter, claim his conclusions are sensationalistic and his forensic examinations are hardly rigorous, and grumble that the timings of his discoveries are too convenient. Regardless, some of Venceti’s intentions are noble, and he’s got enough media-savvy to reenchant Italy with its own cultural legacy.
, licensed under
2/23/2011 9:04:54 PM
The once-strong relationship between art and religion—a relationship that inspired stunning works of art from ancient history through the Renaissance and beyond—has been strained in recent years. Art critic and historian Rosalind Krauss made note of an “absolute rift” between art and religion back in 1979. But one only has to consider the furious reaction of the religious public to the most well-known art-world images that reference religion since then—Andres Serrano’s photograph “Piss Christ” (1987), Chris Ofili’s mixed-media painting “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996), Renee Cox’s “Yo Mama’s Last Supper” (1996), and David Wojnarowicz’s video “A Fire in My Belly” (1987)—to know how great the schism between the two has grown.
At issue between artists and religionists in America is a central conflict. Artists, who since the arrival of modernism have placed concerns about the self at the core of artistic practice, today tend to examine religion through heavily tinted lenses. Instead of expressing a sense of general worship of life’s wonders or a pious appreciation of God and religion, contemporary artists more often explore their own personal doubts about, or qualms with, religion. Or else they look at religion in relation to their own troubled sense of themselves and their place in the world. To religious folk, this sort of inquiry is seen as, at best, a sacrilegious questioning of their faith or, at worst, a deep attack on their personal religious values. And the resulting intractable impasse is made all the more intense because it brings into play several core American values. In modern religious art, our belief in the freedom of expression clashes with our deep national religious roots, and our support for freedom of speech comes into conflict with our belief in freedom of worship.
It would take a brave and visionary artist to successfully traverse the current national divide over religion in art, and this is even more true when the artist in question uses an Islamic text as the basis for his work. Yet, this is exactly what Los Angeles-based artist Sandow Birk has done. For the past five years, Birk has worked to create an updated version of the Qu’ran by creating a series of small gouache and ink images on paper.
The Holy Qu’ran, the chief religious text of Islam, is said to be the direct, verbatim word of God, as communicated to the prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. Unlike much of the Christian Bible, the text of the Qu’ran is not a chronological narrative. Instead, it is comprised of 114 sermon-like chapters called “Suras.” Birk is currently working to make illustrations for each. Birk’s Qu’ran project is notable because it renders the holy text as it was intended—as a universal message to humankind from a divine source. He does not seek to grapple with self-doubt about religion or express his personal view of faith; instead, Birk’s intention is to honor the religion and to elucidate the text for modern audiences by updating the imagery to suit modern tastes. This means, even as Birk hand-transcribes text from each Sura in ways that honor traditional illustrated calligraphic guidelines that artists have followed for centuries in Islamic countries—including the colors of inks, the page format, margin size, and so on—he also employs an American tradition of writing, urban graffiti, to inspire his calligraphy. It also means Birk illuminates each text with appealing and lively (and textually appropriate) scenes from everyday contemporary American life—duffers on a golf course, a family shoveling snow from a winter driveway, people shopping at Wal-mart, stock cars on a NASCAR raceway, a Piggly Wiggly store in the aftermath of a hurricane, and so on.
“If the Qur’an is indeed a divine message to all peoples,” Birk wrote of his intentions for the project, “what does it mean to an individual American in the 21st Century?” In answer to his own question, Birk composes his images in a way similar to illuminated manuscripts or Persian miniature paintings. This means, as a rule, they are almost cartoon-like in their flat, colorful precision, a choice that seems purposefully designed to attract the largest possible audience and to appeal to the widest possible range of American sensibilities. Even though the images in the works cover the gamut of modern American experience, there is nothing threatening about any one of them, nothing that would provoke anyone’s ire or indignation. These images are safe enough that even parents would approve of their children seeing them. And certainly if a work of art is safe enough to show a child, it’s likely safe enough for even the most strident religious people.
The final project will consist of nearly 250 different pages that illustrate all 114 Suras of the Qur’an. At present, a selection of the Suras from Birk’s “American Qu’ran” project will be on view at the Andy Warhol Museum from February 26 through May 1, 2011. In sum, considering the scope of Birk’s efforts, and the bridge across the art-religion divide he’s managed to construct with his work, a special Hajj to Pittsburgh may be what every American—religious or not—needs.
Michael Fallon is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications. Read his previous posts here.
Michael Fallon is a guest blogger at utne.com. The views expressed by this guest blogger belong to him and do not necessarily reflect the mission or editorial voice of utne.com or the Utne Reader.
Image at top by Sandow Birk, “American Qur'an Sura 49 (a),” 2010, Courtesy of P.P.O.W Gallery, NY and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.
Image above right by Sandow Birk, “American Qur'an Sura 67,” 2010, Courtesy of P.P.O.W Gallery, NY and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.
2/18/2011 2:14:15 PM
Around the Utne Reader offices we read some heavy stuff. Really heavy. The kinds of things you take home with you. The kinds of articles that stick with you, that you talk about at the dinner table when surely there is more appropriate dinner conversation to be had. Things like this. And stories that never leave you, like this.
So it’s nice to lighten it up around here every once in a while. Stacy Conradt over at mental_floss has just the right thing: Flash mob videos! “I love flash mobs. Love them,” Conradt writes. “I know they might be a nuisance to some, but something about total strangers banding together to bust out into seemingly random dance and/or song just makes me smile.”
I couldn’t agree more. Hell even the Black Eyed Peas surprising Oprah with a big dance number made me smile, and if I’m smiling at anything with Oprah and the Black Eyed Peas, it must be doing something right. Of course they’re better when they seem to spontaneously take place in a public area, because the reactions of onlookers are almost as good, if not better, than the performances themselves. (Below are a couple of those, and head on over to mental_floss for Conradt’s complete list of videos.)
Flash mob videos put me in such a good mood, in fact, that I want to encourage the use of emoticons on this post (I generally put emoticons in the same category as the Black Eyed Peas and Oprah). If these videos make you feel good and put a smile on your face, put a smile :) in our comments section below. Let’s see if we can have an online smiley face emoticon flash mob (of sorts) of our own.
Go ahead, watch. It’s Friday afternoon and your boss is probably already gone for the day.
Image by Valerio Pirrera, licensed under Creative Commons.
2/16/2011 1:36:38 PM
In this continuing series,
Art Director Stephanie Glaros explains the
process behind an
One of the things I enjoy about art directing for Utne
Reader is that many of the articles we
print are about ideas, rather than concrete things. It’s a challenge that
allows me to stretch my brain a bit and come up with visual solutions that are
less literal and more conceptual. A good example of this is “No Talking in
Class,” an article about how some college campuses are censoringspeech critical of Islam for fear they might
become targets of terrorism. I wanted an artist whose work is smart and somewhat
abstract, and Anthony Russo definitely fits the bill. He provided me with a
number of potential directions (my favorite four are below), but ultimately we
went with the version above.
Since its inception in 1984,
has relied on talented artists to create original
images for stories that express powerful emotions, brilliant new ideas, and
humorous storytelling. Browsing through back issues of
is like a tour of “Who’s Who”
in the illustration world. Artists like Gary Baseman, Brad Holland, Anita Kunz,
Bill Plympton, and Seymour Chwast have graced our pages over the years, to name
just a few.
2/8/2011 12:43:01 PM
Literature, at its pinnacle, strives to reflect the human condition, but it much more often reflects the male condition. At least that’s the conclusion of The New Republic’s Ruth Franklin, who crunched some numbers on whose books are being published, whose tomes are chosen for review, and who’s penning the critiques when they hit the shelves. Franklin found that our litterateurs and cultural arbiters are overwhelmingly male; only about one-quarter of literary books published are written by women. She breaks down her findings:
We looked at fall 2010 catalogs from 13 publishing houses, big and small. Discarding the books that were unlikely to get reviewed—self-help, cooking, art—we tallied up how many were by men and how many were by women. Only one of the houses we investigated—the boutique Penguin imprint Riverhead—came close to parity, with 55 percent of its books by men and 45 percent by women. Random House came in second, with 37 percent by women. It was downhill from there, with three publishers scoring around 30 percent—Norton, Little Brown, and Harper—and the rest 25 percent and below, including the elite literary houses Knopf (23 percent) and FSG (21 percent). Harvard University Press, the sole academic press we considered, came in at just 15 percent.
Unfortunately—and surprisingly—Franklin found that independent and small-run publishers are just as skewed as the bigger publishing houses. “I speculated,” writes Franklin,
that independents—more iconoclastic, publishing more work in translation, and perhaps less focused on the bottom line—would turn out to be more equitable than the big commercial houses. Boy, was I wrong. Granted, these presses publish a smaller number of books in total, so a difference in one or two books has a larger effect on their percentages. Still, their numbers are dismaying. Graywolf, with 25 percent female authors, was our highest-scoring independent. The cutting-edge Brooklyn publisher Melville House came in at 20 percent. The doggedly leftist house Verso was second-to-last at 11 percent. Our lowest scorer? It pains me to say it, because Dalkey Archive Press publishes some great books that are ignored by the mainstream houses. But it would be nice if more than 10 percent of them were by women.
Literary gender disparity, by Franklin’s reckoning, seems to be systemic: the fewer books published with female authors, the fewer books with female authors critically appraised in the press. VIDA, a group that studies gender in contemporary literary arts, charted gender trends in book review sections of magazines and newspapers. Look at Harper’s, Granta, The New York Times Book Review, or even Franklin’s home publication The New Republic, and the stats are depressingly similar. Most that VIDA tabulated from have a similar 2:1 ratio of male to female authors—both as reviewers and as subjects. Franklin even checked her own scorecard and found that only 33 percent of the books she wrote about were written by women.
“As a member of third-wave feminism, growing up in the 1970s and ’80s,” Franklin reflects, “I was brought up to believe we lived in a meritocracy, where the battles had been fought and won, with the spoils left for us to gather. It is sobering to realize that we may live and work in a world still held in the grip of unconscious biases, no less damaging for their invisibility.”
The New Republic
Image courtesy of VIDA.
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