This is the thirty-first in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXI: Autobiography, Cellini
There are some who argue that Pablo Picasso’s art should not be displayed, not because there is anything wrong with the art itself, but because Picasso was a misogynist. I do not know enough about his personal life to opine on whether the allegations are true (although at least one critic has questioned that account.) Even assuming all of the worst complaints about Picasso are true, could that justify burying his art? Or, to put it in less provocative terms: once the art is produced, can it be evaluated independently of analysis of the artist himself?
Benvenuto Cellini is a much older artist than Picasso and he was almost certainly a worse person. He was a philanderer (with both me and women.) And a prison escapee. And a murderer. And a generally pretty bad dude.
In his autobiography, Cellini recounts how he hired a model in part to revenge himself upon her husband. He writes: “I made her serve my pleasure, out of spite against her husband, jeering at them both the while. Furthermore, I kept her for hours together in position, greatly to her discomfort.” And when she grumbled about this mistreatment and bragged of her husband’s social position, Cellini lost his cool. “Yielding myself up to blind rage, I seized her by the hair, and dragged her up and down my room, beating and kicking her till I was tired. There was no one who could come to her assistance. When I had well pounded her she swore that she would never visit me again. Then for the first time I perceived that I had acted very wrongly; for I was losing a grand model, who brought me honour through my art. Moreover, when I saw her body all torn and bruised and swollen, I reflected that, even if I persuaded her to return, I should have to put her under medical treatment for at least a fortnight before I could make use of her.” Like I said, bad dude.
But like Picasso, Cellini produced some marvelous works of art. Consider his statue of Perseus and the Head of Medusa:
This bronze masterpiece was commissioned to stand alongside Michelangelo’s statue of David, as well as statues by Donatello. Cellini was evidently up to such a daunting assignment.
When I first saw the statue in person, I recognized the subject and was struck by the mastery of the work. I did not know, at the time, anything about Cellini or even that he was the sculptor. Now that I know more about him, I find the statue somewhat more intriguing. But in the end, it clearly stands on its own merits. Perseus is a noteworthy piece of art because of its quality, without regard to the qualities (or vices) of its sculptor.
That’s not to say that context does not matter. Perseus is an excellent example of the importance of context. Medusa’s gaze turned men in to stone, so the Perseus myth was a truly inspired choice for a piazza filled with marble statues. It is as if Cellini’s statue remade all of the other statues in the piazza as part of itself.
The historical and interpersonal contexts of Cellini’s and Picasso’s works are important as well. The patronage of the Medicis, Cellini’s checkered (to put it delicately) personal past, and his relationship with Michelangelo shed additional light upon his work. Likewise, Picasso’s personal relationships and offenses may illuminate how and why he produced the art that he did. The quality of the art does not excuse the acts of the man, but neither do his acts condemn the art; they only serve to help us understand each other.
Beer of the week: Steel Reserve 211 High Gravity Lager – European beer labels often include the beer’s specific gravity. (See, e.g. Šenkovní 10) In broad strokes, higher specific gravity means more sugar (traditionally from malt, but in a beer like this probably from cheeper “adjunct” grains), and more sugar means more alcohol. This “high gravity lager” is purpose-built for more alcohol. It is clear and golden. The aroma is faint but unappealing. The flavor is abrasive, with notes of slightly off apple juice and alcohol. Not a good choice.
This beer is paired with Cellini’s Autobiography because Steel Reserve has a special place in my own autobiography. One evening, at a gas station in Florida, my friend M– and I bought a few of cans Steel Reserve. Our decision was informed primarily by the beer’s 8.1% alcohol content. Anyway, it was Lent, so…
Reading of the week: The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Chapter LXXVIII – This chapter has none of the sex or violence or crime of much of the book. But it does describe how Cellini removed the statue of Perseus and the Head of Medusa from it’s mold, and seeing “in this the hand of God arranging and controlling all.” It is refreshing, in a way, to read about Cellini’s art rather than his vices.
Question for the week: Could Picasso (or any artist) have done anything so vile that one could not stand to look upon his art, no matter how beautiful it seemed before the artists sins were known?
“It must be great to be able to do things—artistic things, I mean, like composing.”
This sentiment, although not in my own words, is one that I’ve expressed time and again. What must it feel like to have some discernible artistic talent? To be able to reach out to others through a medium – be it paint or music or computer code – and communicate something on a level higher (or lower?) than the “merely” rational?
Art, like most things, appears to be cyclical. This blog started five years ago tomorrow, and we are right back to where we started. What is art? To quote Oscar Wilde (again), “art is quite useless.” So this blog might be art after all.
Beer of the week: Gumballhead – The folks over at Three Floyds Brewing are certainly artists, and Gumballhead is their delightful wheat ale. It is a pretty, hazy, golden brew. The smell is dominated by aromatic hops. The body of the beer is very light and smooth. Overall, this is a really delicious beer. Like, really good.
Reading of the week: The Man Upstairs by P.G. Wodehouse – If such an impossible decision had to be made, I might conclude that Wodehouse is my very favorite author. Much of his writing is uproariously funny, and all of it is sharp. And all without being lewd or crude. (Not that I object to scatological or sexual humor, but the fact that Wodehouse can get along so well without it is very impressive.) This short story of a young composer and the painters who have studios in the same building reminds me somewhat of the work of Roald Dahl.
Question of the week: What is art, anyway?
In 2003, a large statue of Saddam Hussain was toppled in Firdos Square, Bagdad. Video of the destruction was something of a media sensation. (Whether the event was staged or spontaneous is still unclear, but it sure seems like a brilliant photo-op.) For the most part, the destruction was met with approbation.
In 2015, members of ISIS destroyed priceless statues and reliefs at the 2,900 year old palace of King Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria. Video of militants destroying similar relics throughout the region resulted in international outrage.
So what is the difference?
The obvious answer is time. The fall of Saddam’s regime was not yet complete when an armored vehicle pulled down his statue, but Ashurnasirpal had been gone nearly three millennia when a bulldozer crashed through his palace. But isn’t the time difference superficial? Had the Saddam statue been allowed to stand, it too could have become an ancient and priceless relic. And, had the statue stood for 3,000 years, wouldn’t it’s destruction have elicited the same sort of outrage as the destruction of Ashurnasirpal’s palace?
Another insufficient answer is the brutality and general badness of the late Dictator of Iraq. Saddam invaded neighboring countries and maintained a repressive regime. One might argue that allowing a statue of such a man stand is an insult to all of the Iraqis, Kurds, and Kuwaitis who were killed, tortured, or otherwise hard done-by. But Ashurnasirpal (like most kings) was no tower of virtue himself. Not only did he invade numerous neighboring lands, he was unthinkably brutal. His own account of an insurrection that he put down brags that “Of some [prisoners] I cut off their feet and hands; of others I cut off the ears noses and lips; of the young men’s ears I made a heap; of the old men’s heads I made a minaret. I exposed their heads as a trophy in front of their city. The male children and the female children I burned in flames; the city I destroyed, and consumed with fire”. Surely this man was every bit as bad as Saddam. So why is the destruction of his monuments so appalling while the destruction of Saddam’s is so lauded?
Neither is the comparative “art value” of the two a good explanation. To compare the artistic merits of the separate monuments is beyond my ability and training, but I would argue that neither Saddam’s nor Ashurnasirpal’s likeness derived much of their scorn or value respectively from the technical ability of the artists who sculpted them. I strongly suspect that even if the Saddam statue were a masterwork, the response would have been the same.
What appears to make the difference is the symbolism of the two acts. The toppling of the Saddam statue was partially a warning to other Middle East leaders. Further, since Saddam himself was not captured until several months later, the statue destruction also served as a psychological strike against him and whatever loyal forces he still had. And, like the destruction of all Hitler era monuments in Germany, the toppling of the statue may have had an element of eliminating a potential future rallying point. The destruction of Ashurnasirpal’s palace, however, sends a different message. ISIS has made clear that they intend to destroy everything that is not part of their version of Islam. Whether priceless art, ancient artifacts, or fellow human beings, ISIS is dedicated to the annihilation of anything and everything that does not fit into their worldview. A very disconcerting position for those of us who are part of that “anything and everything”.
Beer of the week: Magic Hat Snow Roller – After spending Christmas in a t-shirt and the first week of the year in the rain, the last couple weeks have finally provided cold weather sufficient to justify drinking some winter seasonals. This pretty brown ale smells of toasted grain and a bit of hops. Hints of burnt toast also lead the flavor. It is really in the aftertaste that this beer comes together. There is some lingering sweetness, but that is offset by tingling hops and alcoholic sharpness (6.2%). This is a good beer, but a bit more bitter and alcoholic-tasting than I would prefer.
Readings for the week: Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Ozymandias by Horace Smith – The poets (and close personal friends) Shelley and Smith each wrote a sonnet on the same subject: the shattered remains of an ancient statue of the Pharaoh Ozymandias, which had been meant to preserve the glory of its subject for all time.
Question for the week: Is the video footage of Saddam’s statue being pulled down now a sort of “digital monument” to George Bush II?
A reader of this blog, if he were paying close attention, might have observed certain inconsistencies in the photographs. I have moved around quite a bit over the last few years, but the pictures (and the beer reviews that go with them) have lagged behind. For example, I mentioned recently that I was headed for Europe. Yet all of my subsequent posts have clearly included photographs from the same locations as before I left. What, you may wonder, is that all about?
For the most part, the issue is that it takes me much less time to drink a beer than to write something that I think is worth posting. Even more time consuming is finding and reading things worth writing about. As a result, there is almost never any temporal unity in one of these blog posts. The beer is usually consumed and reviewed weeks ahead of time and only later paired with a reading. For this post, however, the stars have aligned; I have just re-read the reading of the week while sipping the beer of the week. As I write, the level of the beer in the glass gets lower and lower.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that I write the beer reviews separately from the rest. These blog posts have a few distinct parts that are largely separable. Somebody told me that she enjoys the body of my blog posts, but doesn’t care about the beer reviews. Other people, if the search engine statistics can be trusted, come here primarily for information about the beers. Rarely, people will engage me in conversation focusing on the question of the week. And judging by the page hits, just about nobody looks at the weekly readings. But there is a certain unity about this blog.
Like all things, this blog is made of practically infinite parts. Each section, each picture, even each word has endless possible interpretations and meanings. I am not claiming that my writing is particularly deep. I mean only that language is so complex and so versatile, and that the mind is so flexible, that reading a sentence is like stepping into a river: it is never the same twice. But language (and this blog and everything else in the world) is at its best when all of the parts come together in such a way that the whole comes into view. A line of a poem is not just a series of individual words, it is a complete phrase. The Bengali author and artist Rabindranath Tagor observed that we don’t see the forces working to keep our planet in orbit, or the chemical bonds that make two hydrogen atoms join one oxygen atom, or the innumerable cells that make up a living being. What we see is “the dancing ring of seasons; the elusive play of lights and shadows, of wind and water; the many-coloured wings of erratic life flitting between birth and death.”
So what do I do? I drink delicious beer; I read amazing works of poetry and prose; I write down my thoughts and post them for the world to see. I think that all of these actions have their own value, but I see real beauty in the unity of them all. This blog is about beer and philosophy and conversation, and I have never felt more sure that those three things make a wonderful whole.
Beer of the week: Yuengling Summer Wheat – I have personally failed in my mission to finish the summer beers before drinking autumn beers. A while ago I had a pumpkin beer from Harpoon Brewing Co. and just recently I had a Sam Adams Oktoberfest. But for the blog, there are still summer beers to be had. There is some dispute about whether Sam Adams (Boston Beer Company) or D. G. Yuengling is the largest American-owned brewery. However, Sam Adams brews sixty or so beers and Yuengling only makes about six. This Summer Wheat is the first seasonal beer I’ve had from Yuengling. It is not as cloudy as most unfiltered wheat beers. The aroma is of yeast and banana. There is a distinct flavor of banana bread in this beer, but it avoids the excessive sweetness that many wheat beers have. This is definitely good enough that I will be sure to try any other seasonals that Yuengling comes out with.
Reading of the week: Creative Unity by Rabindranath Tagore, Chapter One, Part I – Very reminiscent of Plato, Tagore explores the infinite and unity and applies the idea that unity is the only source of beauty. Illness, ugliness, and tragedy are simply what we perceive when unity is disrupted. Simply eating (and presumably drinking beer) is base because it is only filling a solitary need or desire, “but when brought under the ideal of social fellowship, it is regulated and made ornamental; it is changed into a daily festivity of life.”
Question of the week: Tagore claims that a water vessel as a water vessel has to justify its own existence by being well suited to its task. A beautiful water vessel as a work of art, however, doesn’t need to explain itself. Is he saying that utility is not a kind of beauty? Isn’t usefulness proof that the vessel has a place in the unity?
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
– Shakespeare, Sonnet #18
Every day since I heard about the death of Robin Williams, I have typed in the same internet search terms: “TCM Remembers Robin Williams”. I am disappointed every time to find that the video I am looking for has not been posted. (And don’t think that I am not giving TCM enough time to put a video together; the videos for James Garner and Lauren Bacall were each released only two days after their respective deaths.)
If you are not familiar with the video series by Turner Classic Movies “TCM Remembers”, you should probably check it out. Every year, TCM makes a montage of the actors, actresses, directors and so forth who have passed away in that year. Particularly big stars get their own individual videos. I am a little worried that TCM does not consider Robin Williams’ work to be adequately “classic” to merit a personal video. (Heath Ledger and Corey Haim were both included in the respective annual videos for the years that they died, but neither got an individual tribute.) Still, I hope that they make one for Robin.
While waiting for the Williams tribute to be released, I have watched many earlier TCM Remembers videos. One that particularly stood out to me was the video for Shirley Temple. Shirley’s video is so striking because her most famous work was done at such a young age. In the montage of her work, she is mostly a child and never passes her early twenties. This makes quite a stark contrast with the video for Mickey Rooney. Like Shirley, Mickey’s peak popularity was as a child star. However, Mickey never left show business, so his video includes scenes of him as an old man.
Although Shirley’s life on film ended just barely after she reached drinking age, the real-world Shirley Temple Black lived to be 85 years old. Over three quarters of her life was after she retired from making movies. Shirley failed to get elected to Congress, but served as ambassador to Czechoslovakia and to Ghana and held a few other appointed positions. But she will live on now only in her films. No matter how long she lived after the cameras stopped rolling, or what she went on to do with her life, she will always be the cute child singing “The Good Ship Lollypop”. For as long as people watch her films, Shirley Temple will be a precocious little girl. Like the object of Shakespeare’s Sonet 18 her “eternal summer shall not fade.”
Beer of the week: Blue Moon Blackberry Tart Ale – Although I would like for the “eternal summer” of beer to never fade, many brewers have already released their autumn seasonal beers. I am in no rush to end this summer, though, so I am sticking with summer beers for a while. This particular summer ale is a very pretty beer. The head fades quickly, but while it is there, this beautiful reddish beer is quite a sight. There is certainly some tart berry aroma, as well as a hit of vanilla. The rich malt flavor leads, but the berry really shows up in the aftertaste. I almost wish there were more hops to speak of, but I am not sure how the bitter hops would work with the tart blackberry. Overall, I rather like this beer and impressed at the restraint it takes not to go overboard with the sweetness (as so many fruit beers do.)
Reading of the week: Sonnet #18 by William Shakespeare – This poem preserves the beauty of its object particularly well, if only because of who wrote it. So long as there are people to read it, Shakespeare’s work will be read. Could Shakespeare have had any idea how popular his works would be hundreds of years on?
Question for the week: Have you done anything that will last after you are dead and gone? Will your summer fade?
Not so long ago, I took a two month vacation to travel across Russia and explore Europe. Naturally, there were a number of amazing sights and adventures. I spent seven straight days on a train. I was detained at the boarder between Belarus and Poland. I went down the Danube in a high-speed catamaran. I was physically accosted by Spanish protesters. I held a 3,000 year-old Athenian coin in the palm of my hand. (I am still awestruck at the idea that Socrates or Plato or Aristophanes might have held that very coin. And then, presumably, spent it on wine.) And, of course, I drank a lot of beers.
The beers I drank in Europe ranged greatly in quality, even in within each country. In Russia most of the beer was not great, but once I accidentally bought kvass (a beer-like soft drink brewed from rye bread.) It was delicious. In Austria and Belarus I happily drank liters of local beer in small restaurants while noshing on delicacies such as blood sausage and stuffed potato pancakes dripping in oil. In England I drank pint after pint of real cask ale, as well as pint after pint of cheap lager mixed with cider. And Belgium… well, words can’t even describe it.
But my appreciation for beer was well honed before my trip. My appreciation for fine art, however, was severely lacking. Sure, I visited the great churches and cathedrals in every city I visited and was thoroughly stuck by the beauty of the architecture and decor. It wasn’t until Amsterdam, though, that I really started looking at the art. After a night of throwing back Heinekens with an Australian backpacker, I decided that I should see the works of Van Gogh. To my dismay, the Van Gogh Museum was closed for renovations. This was a blessing in disguise, so to speak. Because the museum was closed, most of the paintings were on loan at The Hermitage Amsterdam. So instead of just seeing the works of Van Gogh, I got to see an outstanding exhibition of the Hermitage’s impressionist paintings side-by-side with contemporary works in more traditional styles preferred by the French Academy.
In a single day, I learned more about fine art than I’d ever known. Monet, Laurens, and Renoir were transformed from “painters I’d heard of” into real people expressing deep and meaningful scenes across the ages. Works that I recognized from posters or book covers were suddenly put into their proper context. And by placing the works of the impressionists next to those of their contemporaries, I finally saw how impressionism was more than just a new style, it was a movement.
After that day I was hooked. From Amsterdam I went to Paris then on to Italy, spending hours and hours in their amazing museums. (musea?) Don’t get me wrong; I am still no expert. As much as I loved seeing all of those amazing works, I am still mostly ignorant about fine art. In fact, when I got to the Raphael Rooms in the Vatican, I realized my greatest accomplishment as a student of art: I had seen original works by each of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Beer of the week: Short Straw Farmhouse Red Ale – This beer is part of the “Expressionist Collection” from the Blue Moon Brewing Company. The label is pretty obviously inspired by Van Gogh. If I remember the brochure from the museum, Van Gogh is considered “post-impressionist” rather than “expressionist.” But I don’t really know what that means, so I’ll just review the beer. Blue Moon beers are brewed by MillerCoors, but mass-production does not always mean low quality. Unlike Blue Moon’s signature Belgian White, this beer is reddish-amber in color and very clear. The carbonation level is rather high (as the picture shows.) The aroma is a bit yeasty and floral. The taste is quite good. It is a little on the sweet side, but that is balanced nicely by a tart finish. The bottle mentions that the brewers use hibiscus, coriander, and white pepper. It may just be a trick of psychology, but after reading the label I found that I did taste a hint of pepper, especially on the back of my tongue. Overall, I think this is a pretty good beer.
Paintings of the week: Impressionists and Their Contemporaries: Six-Pack of Paintings – In lieu of a reading this week, I have selected a few of the paintings I was lucky enough to see on my trip. I have followed the Hermitage’s idea of placing impressionist paintings alongside roughly contemporary neoclassical and romantic paintings. Pour yourself a beer and really have a good look at these paintings. Notice how Renoir, Monet, and Pissaro present scenes that are absolutely complete, even without the extreme detail of the paintings by Gérôme, David, and Laurens. Marvel at the mastery Laurens had over light and shadow. Seriously, spend some time looking at each. When the David painting looks as blurry as the Renoir, you’ve had enough to drink.
Question of the week: Aristotle and others have philosophized on aesthetics. Horatio Greenough was both a sculptor and essayist on the subjects of art and architecture. And of course, Leonardo da Vinci did everything. Are there any fine artists who are also well known for their philosophic writings?