Archive | June, 2012

Does a genius steal, borrow or reinvent?

30 Jun

Whimsy or truth:

Good artists borrow; great artists steal. – attributed to Pablo Picasso.

Art is either plagiarism or revolution – attributed to Paul Gauguin.

I just left the Philadelphia Art Museum and a show entitled “Visions of Arcadia.” It features work by Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse and others. In that show I saw plagiarism, thievery, revolution … and genius.

“Visions of Arcadia” is designed around a theme rather than a style or period. The theme is the classical idyllic life associated with ancient Greece and the region known as Arcadia.

Even though the ancient Greeks seemed to be constantly at war, there is this myth of Arcadia as a land of simplicity, peace, virtue and the sensual pleasures of nature, wine and women.

The Roman poet Virgil, who wrote in the first century B.C., romanticized Arcadia in his work “Eclogues.” European artists became fascinated with his concept of Arcadia and sought to paint it, with some scenes taken directly from Virgil’s words.

These are the paintings in “Visions of Arcadia.”

Most are of either bathers or people in the woods having lots of fun.

Many of the paintings are from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the museum’s commentary, it is suggested that the artists found inspiration in a 17th century work by Nicolas Poussin, which hung in the Louvre. Admiring artists would visit the Louvre to study and copy the Poussin, then  base their own work on it.

Their derivatives inspired other artists, resulting in a whole lot of bathers being put on a whole lot of canvas. Some were sinfully like those that came before.

But is that stealing?

How many great literary works have taken titles from other great works? For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Grapes of Wrath, Song of Solomon, Inherit the Wind, Stranger in a Strange Land. In Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! an entire biblical story is retold.

In all artist efforts, there seems to be this unstoppable tendency for the great to hover around the great, to want to become kin, to show understanding of the legacy, to build on it and improve it.

Which is not really stealing.

It is more like worshiping a god in hope of becoming one.

“Visions of Arcadia” does, however, make one wonder why so many artists insisted on painting and repainting bathers. Touring the show, the viewer learns that many of these artists worked together, socialized together, philosophized together. Although egos often were huge, you can sense that the artists acted like a cultural community, with a single purpose; or that they even were a single entity with a single mission.

That mission started as plagiarism but ended as revolution.

That becomes obvious as you move past the Renaissance style paintings, through Impressionism and Pointillism and on to one of the last – a cubist rendition of bathers.

When you learn that the artists we idolize today were mostly outcasts whose work was considered unacceptable trash (sometimes called “fauve” or savage), you realize they could hardly be considered copyists.

If you are nearby, go see “Visions of Arcadia” at the Philadelphia Art Museum. Perhaps your reaction will be far from mine. I’m betting it will be.

Shakespeare’s time – when the great were modest and didn’t “high five.”

29 Jun

Humility is a lost art.

Polite modesty about one’s self has been replaced by end zone dances and their equivalent.

But once upon a time, humility was deriguer.

Here is an incredible passage to prove it. Below we have the greatest writer in the history of the English language artfully apologizing to the nobleman to whom he has dedicated the poem Venus and Adonis.

Exercising my own modesty, I will reveal that while I read this passage I did not read the poem. My loss.

Written to the Right Honourable Henry Wriothesly

Earl of Southampton and Baron of Tichefield.

Right Honourable,

            I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your lordship, nor how the world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burden: only if your honour seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honoured you with some graver labour ….

Your honour’s in all duty,

William Shakespeare  

Canada – not flashy but likeable, and with an example to follow.

23 Jun

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Gerry always tried to be funny. He’d introduce himself this way: “Hi, I’m Gerry, a Canadian, bland and inoffensive.”

Like his country, Gerry was neither.

It was during the Vietnam War that I first realized Canada was different, hardly bland and willing to offend. Without fear of U.S. retribution, it welcomed Americans dodging the war, coming off like some hippie outlaw country. Later, in another context, I remember people talking disparagingly about “Canadian socialism.” They made Canada sound evil when I think it was just trying to be nice to its people.

More recently, comedian Dave Chappell used a satirical sketch to show at least one difference between Canada and the U.S. In the sketch, he posed as a political candidate with a solution to expensive American health care: Fake Canadian ID.

Canada is the country where people have lots of guns but don’t use them on each other. Canadians seem to be more comfortable with life, more at peace with themselves and each other, and less stressed. Their cordial mantra is the simple: Eh?

Internationally, they have few enemies.

While traveling, Gerry and I once met two young women from Eastern Europe, which then was Communist. President Reagan recently had taken a strong stance against their patron, the Soviet Union, calling it the Evil Empire.

Nothing like that had occurred in Canada.

The two women were strikingly beautiful but cold and dead serious. We tried to start a conversation. It didn’t take long before I noticed they would speak to Gerry but not to me. I asked why and they said they could not understand me because I wasn’t speaking Oxford English. So Gerry, in his inoffensive way, began acted as a translator, taking my English and “translating” it into — English. He did the same for them.

Funny, eh? We had recreated a bit from the film “Bananas,” but the Eastern Europeans didn’t get it.

But back to Canada.

In Montreal this spring, thousands of students took to the streets to protest an 80 percent increase in college tuition.

According to a newspaper report, tuition for higher education in the province of Quebec was to go from $2,611 a year to $4,700. It would be instituted gradually, $254 a year over seven years.

I was sorry to hear this. My sympathies, however, were not with the Canadian students but with American students, who must pay so much more. My concern was not with the Canadian government but with the American government, which clearly doesn’t value education as much as its northern neighbor.

While I haven’t done the math, and don’t want to do the math, I’m guessing one less war a year would provide more than enough funding to make college affordable; or the end of a subsidy to one or two highly profitable industries; or – dare it be said – taxing a bit more, or just cutting a few loopholes or simply being fairer about the whole process.

The goal would be to put money where it pays national dividends, and educating the populace tends to do this.

The U.S., by its own design, finds itself in the precarious and costly position of having to police the world. Meanwhile, nations that benefit from this use their money to build vibrant economies, keeping their infrastructure modern and their industries competitive . And some allow college students to sit in a  classroom for less than it cost to go to the movies.

If this pattern continues, the natural outcome is they will get stronger and we will get weaker. In time, the great American military won’t have much of a country left to protect.

A strong defense is important. What I find of questionable value is a strong offense.

Somehow, by someone, balance will have to be restored. The richest and most powerful country on Earth should be able to educate itself. Only when we have fallen from that top position will it be easier to understand that fending for one self must be the norm.

Then fake Canadian ID will really be important. I hope they don’t put up a fence.

To show or not to show … that should be a choice

15 Jun


Also comfortable

By Lanny Morgnanesi.

In high school I had a recurring nightmare that I’d be in class with my pajamas on. It was a horrifying thought.

Today, students wear pajamas to class by choice.

In the office, a man, unlike some woman, would feel awkward in a sleeveless shirt with a low neckline.

I’m not sure about necklines, but an old girlfriend, quite progressive, refused to wear short dresses at the height of their popularity. She preferred to hide what others preferred to show.

Modesty clearly is a relative thing.  It’s about individual comfort and peace of mind.

Knowing this, I’m willing to accept that many (not all) Muslim women choose and are not forced to wear head scarves and even burkas. I believe they feel comfortable in their modesty.

Yet today, those in the west often see the scarves and burkas as repressive, and the women as victims. I think the women would have been victims if they had been force to wear pajamas to school.

This stuff shouldn’t be so foreign to us because the modesty and decorum exhibited in the Muslim world has great parallels in the world of conservative Christians. Both show reserve and good judgment and a concern about how things might appear, avoiding even the appearance of questionable conduct. Similarly, I believe a single Hasidic Jewish woman cannot be alone with a man after dark. Or should I say “doesn’t want to be”?

Some things just don’t seem right to some people, so they don’t do them — Muslims, Christians, Jews and my atheist girlfriend.

Why is it that people who are strong advocates of freedom often want to cheat those who choose restraint? Is that fair? Is that even logical?

I would love to hear your comments.

Humans have no monopoly on intelligence

9 Jun

By Lanny Morgnanesi.

Animal intelligence is very much underrated.

Even when a creature does something really smart, humans just say it’s instinct – which suggests it does not involve real intelligence.

Human’s cannot grasp the full intelligence of animals because, I think, they don’t know the source of that intelligence. It would seem to me that it is the brain working with senses we don’t have and therefore don’t understand.

It would be like an alien coming to Earth. Suppose we didn’t flat out shoot him. Suppose we allowed him (her or it) to do something. We probably wouldn’t understand why or how it was done because we wouldn’t understand the physiology of the creature – especially if it was not anthropomorphic.

Same with animals.

When you live with them, however, you become very accepting of their intelligence. While they aren’t likely to grab paper and pencil and compose a sonnet, they seem to be aware of all that is going on in the household … when people fight, when they are sick, when there is something to fear and how to protect yourself against it, when someone is gone and when someone returns … the basic elements of life.

I have a cat that is getting old and can’t jump like he used to. So when he wants to get up on the counter, he cries. I, being intelligent, immediately know what he wants. But here is my question, and the reason for writing this post: Can anyone tell me how the cat knows I have the intelligence to understand his cry?

For the animal to know that alone takes a lot of intelligence.


In America, This is Nothing to Worry About.

2 Jun

By Lanny Morgnanesi

The produce store was between a customer rush and a delivery.

It was highly unusual, but the shelves were mostly bare. I walked in disappointed. Then, a slightly eerie feeling descended and there was a momentary panic on my part; a millisecond of fear; an adrenalin rush that ended before it was even noticed.

Quickly sober again, a cranial recess asked: Suppose something happened and the supply lines to food were cut. What would you do? Where would you go?

Then the delivery truck arrived.

Americans are used to seeing food on store shelves. We have a remarkable way of bringing things to market in steady, dependable, bountiful streams; on highways, by rail, air, sea and through pipelines. It just gets there; always; no matter where.

Not so in many countries.

Ipod components aside, are we immune from supply disruption or shortages? Will we always be? A few eccentrics don’t think so and stockpile. Good Mormons do, following biblical warnings about famine. I know I always feel better when the bottled water guy delivers an extra jug by accident.

Overall, however, I have great faith in supply chains because of the profit motive that drives them. Profit is like an all-powerful, invisible force that pushes things along and knocks down barriers with ease. It’s something we should appreciate but don’t. It’s something we should be conscious of but aren’t. It’s the fish’s water we don’t see or feel.

I’ve been in places where food supplies ebb and flow; been in spots where one has to adjust with less. In a jungle stopover in Asia, guests were expected to take care of morning hygiene with only a large pitcher of water and a basin. I did fine.

So I try to see the benefits we have in the states and enjoy them for the delight they bring.

During the Cold War, someone suggested we could defeat Communism simply by dropping thousands of Sears catalogs over Moscow. At home we all loved Sears catalogs but considered it a right rather than a privilege to freely purchase all those things, unlike the Russians back then who were lucky to get a cheap pair of ugly shoes that were either two sizes too big or too small.

I guess that playful panic in the produce store was just my way of remembering how good a fresh salad really is. I’m not sure who deserves credit for that salad, but it must be a cast of thousands. Prosperity, civilization and stocked shelves, after all, are joint efforts, with everyone playing a part. Therefore, everyone should reap the reward.

When we forget that, then we truly will have a problem.

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