Friday, March 27, 2015

Why a Painting is Now as Costly as a Jet-Plane

Pablo Picasso’s 1955 painting Women of Algiers (Version O), is being auctioned by Christie’s in London for US$140 million. This had me thinking as to why an object consisting of wood, canvas and oil paints, is evaluated – by the free-market – roughly the same as a sizable company or even a 737 jet-plane

It does seem in direct contradiction to the image of artists as activists against convention – especially bourgeois capitalism. It might be a stereotype, but this was Picasso’s own politics

Impassive all the way to the bank.

Moreover, the vast majority of working artists today are politically left-wing. This doesn't prevent the most famous of them from selling their works for millions of dollars, usually to admen or investment bankers: the cream of the crop of modern capitalism. These are the only people who can afford to pay for today’s modern art.  

More basically, though, the artist is legitimized through participation in the marketplace. That is, a “real” artist is someone is able to sell her work – be it a painting, sculpture or mixed-media installation. It is then that she stops being an amateur or a dabbler, and is now legitimately a painter, sculptor or mixed-media artist. 

Aside from the Renaissance development of perspective techniques to simulate reality, a key innovation in Western art was to turn the painting into marketable commodity. 

Prior to the fifteenth century, paintings were created on varnished wood, a very expensive medium due to the lengthy preparation and drying required after application of paints. A byproduct of the voluminous Mediterranean trade of Renaissance times, canvas was readily available to artists in Venice and other seaports, as cheap waste material from the making of sails.  

Even so, wood-panels remained a central medium for painting for a couple of centuries after the introduction of canvas. Only later in the Italian renaissance, and especially when the visual arts blossomed in Holland during the seventeenth century, did the canvas become the standard form for painting. Not coincidentally, the Netherlands had by then assumed economic primacy over the Italian city-states, its commercial and naval fleets controlling most of the world’s shipping-lanes. Demand for sailing canvas only intensified, and with it the availability of rags for use in oil painting. 

Canvas was not only very cheap compared to all other media. It was easy to prepare, and quick to dry. In 100 Ideas That Changed Art, Michael Bird writes (p. 92) that 

In Northern Europe, where the climate made fresco a less suitable medium than in the warmer, drier atmosphere of Italy, artists used canvas for wall-hung paintings, sometimes as a cheaper alternative to tapestry. For the purposes of painting, cloth has to be stretched taut and sealed to prevent oil- or water-based paint from seeping into the fibers and depositing a dry, dull layer of pigment on the surface. It became standard practice to stretch canvases on a wooden frame and to coat them with diluted animal glue, or size, followed by a chalky ground to which paint was applied. Even the very largest paintings constructed in this way are portable and can be removed from their stretchers or frames and rolled for transportation and storage, making it possible for artists to produce work for distant patrons and locations. As Church and aristocratic patronage of wall paintings and altarpieces was superseded from the sixteenth century onward, especially in the Protestant North, by private portrait commissions and a market for smaller paintings, canvas became the favored support. The assertive, often lifesize dynastic portraits that populated European elite residences would have been difficult to produce without canvas… 

Some of the greatest canvas paintings have been quite large. Rembrandt’s Militia Company of Captain Franz Banning Coq, for example, was originally larger than its current dimensions of nearly twelve by fourteen feet. The so-called Night Watch was cropped at each end when, more than a century after its commission, the painting was moved from its original place to the Amsterdam civic hall (obscuring the fact that the “captain and his worthy squad of keepers standing fast”, were assembling for a day-parade, not a night-watch). 

More like "Day Parade" actually

But most canvas paintings have been small enough for a single person to carry. The canvas, too, was ideal for the application the perspective techniques that were more awkward with other media. It thereby took its place in townhouses as just another window. It could also be easily removed from the wall, and sold off or otherwise disposed of as the owner saw fit. 

The canvas painting was, in short, the commodification of art. The cultural ground of the Dutch renaissance was a bourgeoisie class made prosperous through international trade. It was not a mass-market by today’s standards, but certainly a much larger one that had ever existed before. Their relationship toward the painter was that of customer, as opposed to patron. 

The presumed role of the visual artist, during Renaissance and long after, was to create paintings for a market. If this was, to contemporary sensibilities, the surrender of artistic vision to commerce, no one would disagree that it was responsible for the most beautiful images created by a human hand. 

Market forces created the environment in which painters perfected the ultra-realistic approach to art. The arts flourish generally in centres of political and economic power. Canvas painting in particular finds a ready home in centres of modern finance and transport. There was Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, London in the eighteenth and nineteenth (with the Romantic predecessors of modern art), Paris later on in the eighteen-hundreds, as well as New York city following the second world war. 

Even after the perspective painting was gradually made obsolete through the invention of photography, the canvas form has persisted as a medium for artistic expression up to the present day. Its primacy has been lessened by the use of non-traditional media and materials, as well as a resurgence in sculpture (itself a result of government support of the arts). 

But the most common artform traded for commercial purposes, remains the canvass painting, whether its subject is rendered photo-realistically, or more commonly as an “impression”, or even in complete abstraction. No one places a multimedia art installation in their home. These things exist because arts councils, supported by the state or charitable foundations, provide the space and funding to make them happen. 

People do buy canvas paintings to place on their walls, which is why such artworks, cannot escape their status as commodity. Since the Romantics, the painter has developed a stance at least, of contempt for and rejection of traditional forms, and thus the “philistine” demands of the marketplace. 

The portrait of the Artist as outsider, became more clearer with the Impressionist and attendant movements, which sought to use oil and canvas to convey what the new visual media of photo and film, could not. These painters didn’t work to satisfy any particular demand. They instead used the canvas as expression for subjective perceptions and feelings. Yet, in a roundabout way, the modern canvas painting — everything from the Impressionists on — was dependent on the marketplace even more so than previous artforms. 

The naturalistic, perspective canvas was generally painted in response to demand, either on commission or in a particular style (pastoral, portrait, etc.) likely to attract buyers. But how could the idiosyncratic vision of the Impressionists, Cubists and so on, be subject to commission, or to any demand at all? It would somehow violate the spirit of modern art, for a Monet or a Picasso to create according to some specification, or even a vague outline. No, the post-Impressionist painter had to work according to his “vision”, and then subsequently market what is created, placing it on exhibit to the public, in the hope that an anonymous member thereof, will offer money for it. 

Certainly, this art market was already in place by the time post-realist French painting came into existence. Indeed, Paul Gauguin, regarded as a pioneering post-Impressionist artist, made his living originally as an art dealer. Theodorus van Gogh, younger brother to and champion of Vincent, was also an art-seller. Christopher St. John, a young British Marxist who fought and died in the Spanish civil war, wrote (under the pseudonym “Christopher Caudwell”) perceptively in the 1930s about the role of the market in the visual arts: “In later bourgeois culture economic differentiation becomes crippling and coercive instead of being the road to individuation of freedom. There is a reaction against content, which, as long as it remains within the bourgeois categories, appears as "commodity fetishism." The social forms which make the content marketable and give it an exchange value are elevated as ends in themselves. Hence, cubism, futurism, and various forms of so called "abstract" art.” 

If Caudwell was correct in his conclusions, the art world nevertheless no longer views, if it ever did, these works as “crippling” or “corrupt” at all. The modern painter rebels so decisively against capitalism, precisely because it is an inevitable part of the medium — canvas as opposed to large-scale multimedia or metallic and other nontraditional sculpture — in which he works. 

The sort of commerce that is characteristic of the art market, is hardly capitalism of the mass-industrial type. As the name “dealer” implies, the business is more so a throwback to an earlier type of merchantry, a sector dominated by small single-proprietors, engaged in haggling and chicanery to scratch out even a decent living. Certainly, there are larger players, but in general, no one becomes involved in the art business strictly to get rich. 

Unlike most other consumer products, too, a prize canvas painting can be given in lieu of cash, either as bequeathments in a last will and testament, or through direct exchange of goods and services. The canvas painting is, in that sense, precisely like a commodity. Specifically, the canvas can obtain the status of silver and gold, objects universally recognized for their exchange value, but which are valued in themselves. 

In this, works of art are like money (which was originally minted silver and gold) in that they are useless. Whatever pleasing or other effects a painting may have, it is not to be used for an instrumental purpose. Like all other works of art, it simply is. Money’s instrumental value ends with its exchange for other things, and it too is presented as “illustration”. Going back millennia, coinage displayed icons of kings and gods, and artistic sophistication only increased with the invention of the printing press. Banknotes present imagery in abstraction, and the beauty found in specie often has no correlation to its actual exchange value. 

In Making Modernism (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995, p. 4), Michael Fitzgerald writes that Picasso and other avant-garde painters “were deeply immersed in the wide ranging business of the marketplace. Moreover, the market was not peripheral to the development of modernism but central to it. It was the crucible in which individual artists' reputations were forged as critics, collectors, and curators joined with artists and dealers to define and confer artistic standing.” 

Modern art in particular, which objectifies the subjective feelings and thoughts of the artists, must exist in an anonymous marketplace. It is the only through which, that the subjective expression could find a buyer who, according to his own subjective standards, would choose it over others. Fitzgerald writes (p. 7): 

By the middle of the nineteenth century, acclaim in the commercial arena rivaled the importance of institutional honors in making an artist's reputation, and the academy's prestige began to be usurped by artists who built their careers in the open marketplace. Whether one chooses to begin with Courbet's presentation of his own work in his Pavilion of Realism across from the Universal Exposition of 1855 or with the furor surrounding the Salon des Refuses in 1863, it is apparent that artists were searching for ways to establish themselves outside the purview of the academy and official patronage. The growing network of dealers began to respond. It was, of course, the Impressionists who achieved this breakthrough. ... the Impressionists did not simply create an art that repudiated the aesthetic norms of the academy. If they had done only that, they might well have remained as obscure as they were in the 1870s. The success of the Impressionists was based on a more remarkable — and more complex — achievement. By coupling their new aesthetic with the establishment of a commercial and critical system to support their art, they not only created the movement of Impressionism but also laid the foundation for the succession of modern movements that would dominate art through the twentieth century.

There is plentiful irony to all this.  Fitzgerald describes the lengths to which Pablo Picasso went to market his works - including the creation of an appropriate image to go along with it, one that emphasized the artist's disdain for the marketplace.  

Of course, no Picasso work sold for anywhere near 140 million green-backs during the artist's lifetime.  But two paintings did sell for more than a million dollars in 1968 - which is about 10 million dollars U.S. in 2014 currency.

Paintings such as Women of Algiers have achieved such high valuations, though, in large part due to the entrepreneurial spirit of Pablo Picasso, and his predecessors in Modern Art.

It is a lesson learned well by those contemporary artists, who might be called Pablo's Stepchildren.  Eschewing canvas mostly, artists in today's scene use all sorts of media and materials for their works - including a great-white shark placed in a tank of formaldehyde, which sold a few years ago for US$12 million.

Even Jaws cost less.

Hence another irony.  A key part of contemporary conservative philosophy is free-market economics.  At the same time, though, conservatives today and going back decades, are the biggest critics of modern art.  Yet, the art market is, as we've seen, a bastion of free-market capitalism.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Thoughts on Nightlife

The Great Cities are those which, as the saying goes, “never sleep.” 

This is literally untrue, of course. 

Most people who live in New York, Paris, London, Moscow or any of the other world cities, go to bed at the same time as people in Ottawa, Omaha, Bonn or Manchester. 

Man that looks real.

However, the Great City emerges as a community only during the nighttime hours. Towns and smaller cities can remain socially connected during daylight hours, which is why these places are dormant after dark. 

In small towns, life is typically slower, “easier”, because people take the time to acknowledge and speak with one another. 

Rollin' up the streets.

In the metropolis, the frantic pace precludes this sort of intimacy. The Great City is machine-like to the extent that a breakdown in one function leads to breakdown or impairment in all other function: it persists to the extent that people are willing to live at an accelerated pace of life — at least during the daylight hours. In the seven-to-six rush of people and traffic, city-dwellers must relate to another as monads and means to an end. 

When darkness finally comes, after nine o’clock in the evening, Great-City dwellers can relate to one another as human beings. Most residents of the metropolis, perhaps eight-tenths, or even 90%, do not participate in its nightlife much, or at all. 

But when a city is large enough, one person in ten, or one in twenty even, is a population itself large enough to form the population of a small city at least. Then the community of the metropolis is formed. 

Nightlife exists, of course, in all places big and small. But in small towns and backwater cities, nocturnal activities are literally and figuratively relegated to the peripheral, conducted domestically or in covert or half-secretive public locales. 

Nightlife is regarded in the town and small city, even by the participants themselves, as derogative from and opposed to the norms of the community.  This is why, as they say in smaller places, they "roll up the streets after nine."

But the sort of community appropriate to the metropolis, is realized at night. As the Big City goes into slumber, its autonomic processes maintain basic services and amenities. The pulsing lifeblood of the daytime economy has been put to bed, all except for the public (and semi-private) establishments and spaces that cater to the nightlife. 

Geographically, metropolitan nightlife is not coterminous with the entire metro region. Cumulatively, it usually takes up space large enough only to accommodate a town or small city. It is the quality of the society found there, that makes so cosmopolitan. 

The stage, the scene, the audience.

At night, the streets become a stage, illuminated by powerful lamps, with the skyscrapers and billboards serving as a massive background, and the people come out dressed in their finest costumes, attending clubs and shows, eating out, being part of the show, the “scene.” 

This is the society of the nighttime, with its own rules, rituals and formalities. The automobile is, during nighttime hours for urban-dwellers, a means of sociality. During the day, the car is a necessity, an estranging and subdividing vehicle for “getting from A to B.” After dark is when the souped-up or “freaked” cars come out, each one identifiable by its owner, altogether forming a tight community based on a mutual desire both for speed and plumage. 

Though nightlife is referred to as the “fast-lane”, the world of muscle cars and custom compacts, as of the entire of nocturnal metro society, is only possible because of the deceleration of pace of the big city after dark. 

Thus, roads are free and clear to be raced upon, and enough people are free from responsibility to drink, dance and dine through to the early hours. Metro nightlife is so attractive because, with its ambience, spectacle and playfulness (and its discord and danger), it offers relief and respite from the necessities of deliberation, work and stress, so essential to life in the big city.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Idiosyncrasies that Dylan Did Assume

In order for young Bobby Zimmerman to become intimately acquainted with the salt-of-the-earth folk music of America, he had to leave his home in the bustling metropolis of Hibbing, Minnesota (population in 1960, 17,000) for the backwoods town of New York City (population that same year, about 7 million).

Bobby "Che" Dylan
(c) 1972, 2010 Susan Kawalerski

By the time Bob Dylan arrived in the Greenwich Village neighbourhood in south Manhattan, the revival of traditional British and American folk music was already very big business.  This belays its image “grassroots” movement based in coffeehouses and hootenannies. 

In fact, by 1961, four albums by the Kingston Trio had already reached the number 1 position on the Billboard charts.  That year, too, business manager Albert Grossman, after lengthy rehearsals, formed a trio in order to cash in the folk-revival boom: Peter, Paul and Mary were, it turns out, as fabricated as the Monkees.

Bob Dylan ultimately signed on with Grossman (a business relationship that did not end well).  He got a deal with the Columbia records conglomerate, and after an initial slow start, Dylan became much more successful than the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, and even his onetime girlfriend, Joan Baez.

Flushed with success, Dylan would soon turn his back on the purist folk world, who in turn rejected the new folk-rock style that Dylan premiered at the Newport folk festival in 1965, when he was backed by members of the Paul Butterfield  Blues Band.  “Going electric” assured Dylan’s place in the rock pantheon, even while his predecessors and contemporaries in the folk-revival movement – like the Kingston Trio, PP&M and even Baez herself – became increasingly obscure and irrelevant as the decades went on.

His adoption of amplified instruments (especially the electric-bass guitar) inspired many other folkies to “plug-in”: like the members of successful folk-rock groups such as the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Grateful Dead, Buffalo Springfield, and so on.

Of course, John Phillips, Jim McGuinn, Gene Clark, Grace Slick, John Sebastian, Jerry Garcia, Neil Young and Stephen Stills – along with Dylan himself – were themselves greatly influenced by the success of the Beatles. 

Dylan’s real consequence to popular music, however, had less to do with going electric, than with how he changed the focus of songwriting itself.  This started, in turn, even while he was still performing with an acoustic guitar accompanied only by his harmonica.

“Folk” has in recent decades been renamed more accurately as “roots” music.   By whatever name, however, before Dylan the form consisted of largely traditional songs and ballads that may have been decades or even centuries old.  The authorship of the House of the Rising Sun (widely known in the version as performed by the Animals, but made famous originally by Woody Guthrie), is unknown, for example, and the verses themselves may stretch back to the eighteenth century    

Thereby, pre-Dylan folk/roots music was sung by performers in what I call the Assumed-Voice.   That is to say, since the folk-singer didn’t write lyrics that were, however, intended to be a passionate expression of the plight of the little people, he (or she) had to essentially assume a role for the duration of the song.

Thus, when Woody Guthrie sang the original lyrics to House of the Rising Sun, it was understood that he, a grown man, was assuming the voice of a teenage girl who was trapped in a life of prostitution.  (Tellingly, on the Animals’ version, the gender of the song’s first-person narrator was changed to a male – though as Cracked pointed out a couple of years ago, this caused the lyrics to make no sense).

This tradition was so strong in the folk/roots tradition (before Zimmerman) that the many songs written by Guthrie himself maintained the conceit that the singer was assuming the voice of someone else (typically, the Everyman or Everywoman crushed under the foot of the Bosses).  

Bob Dylan was an acolyte of Guthrie, visiting his mentor as the older man slowly succumbed to Huntington’s disease, a progressive neuromuscular disorder – and writing his early music in the Assumed-Voice characteristic of all the old folkies, as well as most of his contemporaries in the roots-revival movement of the late 1950s and early ‘60s.  

Yet, even on these earlier albums, Bob Dylan was pioneering the songwriting approach that would characterize not only his subsequent work, as well as those “folk” singers that came after him.  This is what I call the Individual- or Idiosyncratic-Voice.

In contrast to the Assumed-Voice tradition, Dylan’s Idiosyncratic-Voice was openly about the experiences of the singer himself.  This was evident already on Dylan’s albums while he was still considered a “protest” singer, such as Girl From the North Country on the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), or Boots of Spanish Leather from The Times They are a-Changing (1964).  The Idiosyncratic-Voice approach came to full flower, with the release in ’64 of Another Side of Bob Dylan.  

This was still solo-acoustic Zimmerman, accompanying himself on harmonica only.  Yet, it was qualitatively different from his previous albums, in so far as nearly all the lyrics were of a personal and “confessional” nature that would characterize the music of what came to be known as the Singer-Songwriter tradition.

It was not a move that was welcomed by the folk-music establishment.  Irwin Silber, editor of the folk periodical Sing Out!, wrote an open letter to Dylan in which he lamented that “You seem to be in a different kind of bag now, Bob.”  Silber went on, “Your new songs seem to be all inner-directed now, innerprobing, self-conscious – maybe even a little maudlin or a little cruel on occasion.”

Left-wing boosters of folk as exclusively protest music may not have liked it, but it was the wave of the future.  After Dylan came Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Gordon Lightfoot, Tim Buckley Randy Newman, Nick Drake, Jackson Browne, and countless more by the 1970s.  After the folk-rock groups — the Byrds, Springfield, the Airplane — imploded or went on extended hiatus, their constituent members usually tried or succeeded as singer-songwriters themselves.  

Him and some of His Step-Children.

Some, of course, successfully resisted the trend away from the Assumed-Voice toward the Individual-Voice, at least for a while: Joan Baez, for example, who as late as 1971, had a hit with The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down, a cover of a song by The Band, in which she assumed the role of Virgil Cain, a southern man lamenting the loss of the Confederacy in the American Civil War (which, one can assume, the leftist Baez would view as a great moment in U.S. and human history, for abolishing African-American slavery).

However, by 1975, Baez had shifted into the singer-songwriter mode, releasing Diamonds and Rust, the title track of which narrated her feelings about her old flame, Dylan, and which she wrote herself.  Another Idiosyncratic-Voice track on that album that received substantial radio play was Children and All That Jazz, about the stresses of single-parenthood.  

An even more prominent exception to the dominance of the Idiosyncratic-Voice among singer-songwriters has been Bruce Springsteen.  Like Dylan, Springsteen worshipped Woody Guthrie; but quite unlike Dylan, “the Boss” has never really given up on the Assumed-Voice style that characterized folk music until the mid-1960s (fusing it, as he did, with the 1950s-style r’-n-’b of his E-Street Band).

Though Springsteen came from humble roots, he has been a multimillionaire rock-star celebrity for four decades nearly.  Nevertheless, the persona projected on most of his songs (including his most famous titles) is that of a working-class American man whose dreams and ambitions are frustrated by “the System.”  

The voice of the downtrodden everyman who is ... the Boss?

It is the Assumed-Voice that we hear on Springsteen’s biggest hit, Born in the U.S.A., where he takes on the role of a Vietnam-veteran jailed for involvement in the drug trade; we know that he is not speaking from direct experience when he sings of himself as desperate gambler on the run in Atlantic City (done in the traditional folk style for Nebraska in 1982); and of course, he is not the person who describes himself driving through his new hometown with his son on his lap in My Hometown (at the time of the song’s release in 1984, Springsteen was childless).  

In this respect, then it is Springsteen, and not Dylan, who is the proper heir to the folk-tradition of Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

But in spite of Springsteen's vast success, most other singer-songwriters stick to the Idiosyncratic-Voice style established by Dylan.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

PoliSci lessons in GoodFellas and the Godfather

The Martin Scorsese film GoodFellas, based on the account of a turncoat mafiosi, Henry Hill, contains the most insightful line I’ve ever heard about the nature of organized crime.  Much of the film features voiceover narration by Ray Liotta, who plays Hill.  Early on in the film, Hill speaks about his boss Paulie (based on the New York mafia kingpin Paul Vario, and played in the film by Paul Sorvino):

Your majesty.

“Hundreds of guys depended on Paulie and he got a piece of everything they made.  It was tribute, just like the old country, except they were doing it in America.  All they got from Paulie was protection from other guys looking to rip them off.  That's what it's all about.  That's what the FBI can never understand — that what Paulie and the organization does is offer protection for people who can't go to the cops.  They're like the police department for wiseguys.” (text taken from the shooting draft screenplay for GoodFellas, by Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorcese, January 3, 1989).

Organized crime deals in illicit commodities such as booze (in Prohibition times) and cocaine in the present day.  But the “organized” part of all this crime is the “family”, or the syndicate, that grants protection, in return for “a piece of the action,” to other freelance thieves and contraband peddlers operating within a particular territory.  In the context of mid-twentieth century America, or in Sicily during the last few hundred years, a good part of this tribute was used in turn to subvert the legitimate authorities, through bribery or outright purchase of offices, such that (as in Sicily) the organized crime syndicate becomes the defacto government.  Organized crime exists precisely because certain activities and substances are illicit, and thereby, those involved in their production and distribution cannot turn to legitimate authority to resolve their disputes.  The syndicate becomes the guarantor of order, if necessary through the violent retribution against transgressors of the given. 

The early part of settled existence, must have been accompanied by constant strife between those who aimed to affix territory for farming and herding, and the remainder thereby alienated by settler’s enclosures from traditional gathering and hunting.  Some of those not bound to the soil, must have resorted to the earliest labour-saving device — theft — to survive.  Nomadic bands not willing to take up the hard work of farming, instead used their spears to prey upon fellow-human settlers, provoking retaliation in turn.  A spiral of violence was curtailed only when one or another group became too mighty to be defeated.  Or more realistically perhaps, the initial period of anarchy ended when two or several armed groups appreciated that none could best the others. 

These proto-syndicates decided amongst themselves the territorial spoils.  But each power was left with the difficulty of ensuring the loyalty of those over whom they had been granted sovereignty.  The resolution was the taking of tribute by the overlords, in return for the “protection” of settled populations.          

The exact circumstances under which the earliest Stone-Age polities came to be, will probably never be known for certain.  Yet, we can gauge roughly how political life originated, by observing the formation of states during the historical era.  In particular, the period before the emergence of any nation as sovereign entity is characterized by clannish strife that comes to an end when a single chieftain is powerful enough to declare himself king. 


This is, in essence, the history of Europe from the fifth to the tenth centuries AD – from the collapse of Rome through the so-called “dark ages”, onto the “Viking” or Norse invasions which began around thirteen hundred years ago.  This period of instability concluded when the various provinces and principalities of Europe coalesced into the countries and empires whose names are well known to history – England, France, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Austria, Spain, and so on.  The men who formed these vast polities – like Charlemagne, or William the Conqueror – were in effect the heads of well-organized syndicates — consisting of families almost always — that kept the peace (ideally), in return for a piece of the action. 

Organized crime thrives, too, where there is a vacuum in authority, either because of the prohibition of vice, or the actual collapse of governmental administration.  The mafia was able gain such status in Sicilian society, for example, because no authority was able to assert sovereignty in place of the former Muslim civilization that existed before the island was re-conquered by Crusaders.  A paper published by the Istituto per la Dottrina e l'Informazione Sociale in Italy, quotes historian Paolo Pezzino, who writes: “The mafia is a kind of organized crime being active not only in several illegal fields, but also tending to exercise sovereignty functions – normally belonging to public authorities – over a specific territory.”

By no means was legitimate authority compromised by organized crime only in the Old World.  As historian Stephen Fox writes in Blood and Power: Organized Crime in Twentieth Century America, the “organization” or “syndicate” was closely tied to the political machines that ran the large- and even medium-sized cities of the U.S. during the last century (this reality conveyed, to a greatly exaggerated extent, in the now-completed HBO drama Boardwalk Empire).  Involvement in organized crime was by no means restricted to the so-called mafia, the euphemism for the Sicilian cosa nostra, which means literally “our house”).    

Nevertheless, the Italian-American mob became the overlords of post-World War II organized crime at least, because they had kinship and ethnic solidarity that other groups (primarily Ashkenazim and Irish) did not.  

Fox observes (1989 edition published by William Morrow and Company, p. 62) that la cosa nostra “arose from medieval conditions in Sicily, and in America it succeeded precisely as a medieval anachronism in counterpoint to modern culture, each provoking and irritating the other.  Modernity broke society down into atoms of mobile, free-floating, unaffiliated individuals with ultimate loyalties only to the state and its laws.  The Mafia insisted on the enduring primacy of family, geography, ethnicity and ultimate loyalties to persons and the Mafia itself - the group over the individual.  Instead of contractual, legalistic, or economic ties, the Mafia bounds its men with personalized relations of reciprocal obligations, often paid in services instead of money.  While modernity presented endless choices and the option of periodically reinventing oneself, the Mafia required affective ties, birthrights that could not be chosen or altered.  The essence of modernity was change, or `progress’; the Mafia offered a rock of stability, continuity, and protection from swirling modern tendencies.”

I’ve long been intrigued by the opening scene of the original Godfather.  The first minutes of the film are taken up by a monologue of a completely minor character: Bonasera, an undertaker, who has come to see Don Vito Corleone on the day of his daughter’s wedding.  Supposedly, no Sicilian father can renounce a favour asked of him on such an occasion, and so Bonasera asks the Don to do away with the two men who raped and mutilated his own daughter.  The pair had faced legitimate prosecution, but apparently on account of their privileged background, they were given suspended sentences.

Famously, Don Corleone is not impressed with the undertaker’s pitiable story.  Given how Bonasera spurned the Godfather in the past, why should he extend his hand now? 

“You found paradise in America”, Don Vito says.  “The police protected you.  There were courts of law.  And you didn’t need a friend in me.  But now you come to me and say “Don Corleone give me justice.”  But you don’t come with respect.  You don’t offer friendship.  You don’t even think to call me Godfather.”

"I promise on my faith that I will in the future be faithful to the lord..."
Getty Images, 2006

The Godfather is disgusted by this little man’s attempt to contract him as a murderer for hire.  Throughout the Godfather films, the characters excuse murderous scheming and betrayal by saying, “It’s just business, it’s nothing personal.”  Yet it is clear that the organization portrayed in the Godfather and Goodfellas, subsists on something more than shabby business concerns only.  La cosa nostra and other crime syndicates are structured on personal fealty, the sort of bonds of obligation familiar under feudalism, and in most societies throughout history.

Thus, Don Vito is saying in effect, “I am your sovereign.  You were mistaken for believing that legitimate authority could protect you.  My protection cannot be purchased in cash.  It comes only through respect, and the obligation you will incur from me doing you this favour.”

Bonasera is the embodiment of all the little people over whom the Godfather controls – the hand holding the string, in the film title was realized as an advertising logo.

Once the undertaker gives fealty, his brief moment in the spotlight is completed, the undertaker fades into the background, along with all the other puppets, seen briefly but not heard from again. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Last of the Redhot Pinup Girls

Sometime ago, I read the Stephen King novella, "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," upon which the now-classic film is based.

King's story, and the adaptation, uses the pinup girl as a means of escape as metaphor, (and literally too) from the hellish prison in which the main character, Andy Dufresne, is placed after being wrongly convicted of the murder of his unfaithful wife and her lover.

The movie concludes about ten years sooner than the novella, in the 1960s, and so the last pinup that Andy places upon the wall of his cell is Racquel Welch.  In the story, though, it is "a country-rock singer by the name of Linda Ronstadt."
Million-dollar smile.

I’m surprised, that King didn't specify Farrah Fawcett instead.  She was, after all, the last real pinup girl of the traditional kind.  Fawcett became a sensation in 1976, posing in a one-piece red bathing suit, her body in profile and her face turned seductively toward the camera, a pinup poster selling in the millions.  

Following her death in 2009 at age 62, the swimsuit itself was donated to the Smithsonian museum in Washington, where it is displayed as one of the Popular Culture exhibitions.  No subsequent pinup image has managed to achieve such enduring popularity.  Certainly, there have been models whose images were pinned up on many a wall, after Farrah (who at the time went under the name “Fawcett-Majors” because of her marriage to the Bionic Man).  

But none have been able to achieve the immediate and broad recognition that truly deserves the name “iconic.”  Farrah had been around Hollywood for a number years as a series guest-star and supporting player, and so she was almost thirty when she became photo-famous.  This belies the commonplace male fixation on female sexuality, aged no more than twenty-one.  It suggests that the pinup answered something in male longing in addition to base sexual desire.  

Previous pinup queens were of a similar age to Fawcett: the World War II beauty Betty Grable, was born in 1916, while post-war poster “girl” Rita Hayworth was born in 1918.  The pinup star of the early 1950s was Marilyn Monroe (born 1926).  In the late fifties, it was Jayne Mansfield, who was born in 1933; a decade later, Racquel Welch became the iconic bimbo, having been born in 1940, six years before Farrah.  

A woman twenty-six to thirty years old is still a sex object, obviously.  The pinups’ appearance is, though, strongly redolent of fertility icons.  Models previous to Farrah were basically the same physical type: narrow hips, ample waist, and large breasts.  Fawcett was thinner and less endowed in the chest.  Significantly, though, in her bestselling poster, she was sitting on her bum with her legs up, making her body more similar to the classical pinup style.  With the Farrah pinup again the exception, the most popular cheesecake posters were photographed with the camera positioned close to the ground, so as to accentuate the model’s hips (the bone-rack Fawcett could not have achieved such a thing, no matter what the pose).  

Stone-Age Pinups.

The widespread photo-fetishization of the female body, seems to arise from the same motive as the creation of the "Venus" nude figurines, discovered in the thousands by archaeologists, dating long before the Neolithic revolution ten thousand years ago (when humankind settled down to farm).  

Experts have disagreed as to whether they were created with sacral or sexual intent.  But there was probably then no strict division between things made distinct only after thousands of years of civilization.  The photographic reproduction of women’s bodies in the thousands and millions, couldn’t have other than transfixed the male at a primal level.  

They were about reproduction, in a holistic sense: the sex act itself, but also the wonder that the male has always had in the ability of the female to, in essence, become two (or more).  The images in pinups were “real”, except in so far as they were often as retouched as any Renaissance work.  The pinup continued the modern tradition of presenting a window of beauty into which the viewer could gaze.  

As Andy Dufresne explains to Red, the narrator of the “Shawshank Redemption” (who is Irish-American in King's story): 

“they mean the same thing to me as they do to most cons, I guess," he said.  "Freedom.  You look at those pretty girls what and you feel like you could almost ... not quite but almost ... step right through and be beside them.  Be free.  I guess that's why I always liked Raquel Welch the best.  It wasn't just her; it was that beach she was standing on.  Looked like she was down in Mexico somewhere.  Someplace quiet, where a man would be able to hear himself think.  Didn't you ever feel that way about a picture, Red?  That you could almost step right through it?"”

Pinups were omnipresent precisely where women were absent: in the prison-house, as well as the pre-feminist military, and blue-collar workplaces where female staff are still relatively uncommon.  Their presence became subject to politicalcontroversy, as the workforce shifted toward the pink-collar.  This is part of the reason for the decline in their popularity.  In spite of feminist critiques, there was something literally wholesome about the pinup (or at least, the most popular of pinups), even if it was objectifying of the feminine.  It aroused lust directly, but also yearning, to escape and to embrace Mother once again.  It is interesting in this regard, that with the exception of Monroe, none of the great pinup queens were conventionally beautiful.  Farrah Fawcett, for examaple, was without cosmetics if not exactly homely, than no more beautiful than many other Hollywood actresses — including her Angels co-stars Kate Jackson or (especially) Jacklyn Smith.  However, these two are pop-culture footnotes while Fawcett remained a celebrity (if only because of that famous image) the rest of her life.  After stardom faded, Fawcett ultimately received good acting reviews mostly in tragic roles as the avenging victim of rapists or abusive husbands. 

Aside from feminist disapproval and legal action, the pinup ceased to have such an impact, due to the very success of this advertisement of Farrah for herself. Through it, she got a star turn on a network television series after jobbing in show-business for years: Charlie's Angels.  

Famously, this show was premised on a mysterious, unseen "Charlie", who employs only young female rookie dropouts from the police force at his private-detective agency.  In effect, the millions - tens of millions - of mostly male viewers vicariously assumed the role of Charlie, a perv who enjoys the very sight of young female bodies facing danger and violence (as occurred every episode).  As Charlie (voiced by veteran character actor John Forsyth) frequently says, "I've been watching you Angels..."

Watching you, indeed.

Before Charlie’s Angels, the pinup poster was the only way for men to gaze at a female form, in colour and with lifelike definition, at will.  All the iconic pinups were movie-actresses.  But movies were a public and transient use of the male gaze.  Until well into the 1970s, commercial television forbade immodesty in the display of the female body, as the Hays Code did during the era of black-and-white film.  Nudie magazines were more erotically charged, but also necessarily more sporadically and covertly viewed.  It was considered acceptable to display posters of sexy women, even in workplaces, precisely because they were attired revealingly, but without the exposure of any naughty part.  Charlie’s Angels took advantage of the relaxed sexual mores of its time, to have its stars costumed as revealingly as any pinup.  The smash success of the program assured that all other TV series soon featured at least one scene per week, of a woman in a bathing suit or cutoff shorts. 

Thus commenced the era of "t-and-a."  It's never really come to an end.