The Burden of White Liberal Intellectuals

The initiative of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to change politically incorrect names of its exhibits is big news now.

NYT: The Rijksmuseum is in the process of removing language that could be considered offensive from digitized titles and descriptions of some 220,000 artworks in its collection. Words that Europeans once routinely used to describe other cultures or peoples, like “negro,” “Indian” or “dwarf” will be replaced with less racially charged terminology.

The museum’s management believes that black people coming to galleries would be offended by portraits of long-dead black people painted by long-dead white artists. I think that this assumption is very contemptuous of black people and is, in fact, racist.  This belief assumes that black people are intellectually inferior: unlike white curators, black visitors are incapable of understanding that, sometimes, a historical artwork needs to be viewed in its historical context to be appreciated.

This theory of black people’s inability to come to terms with historical facts is justified by Martine Gosselink, a high-brow Dutch curator of the museum, through what she believes is a valid parallel with a nickname the Dutch are referred to by other Europeans.

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First, I don’t see a problem here. People of Wisconsin, also called Cheeseheads, be they dark or fair-skinned, seem to have no objections to cheer-cheesing anytime, anywhere. Perhaps, a Wisconsin consultant could enlighten the Dutch on ways to embrace and enjoy it, rather than resist it.

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Yes, the guy in this photo looks like a grumpy cat, but I am sure it's not because he's wearing a silly hat. I bet it was an awkward question about his performance during the football game.

Yes, the guy in this photo looks like a grumpy cat, but I am sure it’s not because he’s wearing a silly hat. I bet it was an awkward question about his performance during the football game.

Second, the curator exaggerates the offense. A cheese tasting room in Amsterdam openly invites visitors to “become a cheesehead” and no one complains that the slogan is cheesy.

Third, “Cheesehead” may represent an ethnic slur for the Dutch, but – come on! – the Dutch are famous for their cheese, and they make a lot of money out of it. It’s ridiculous to equate it with the offense contained in the word “Negro”, which reminds black people of the times when they were slaves and worked for food and not being beaten by their owners, staying destitute after decades of hard labour if they were lucky to survive.

The curator’s artless cheese vs.slavery analogy reminds me of a story a friend told me about her birth-giving experience.

She goes into labour; her hubby is at her bedside, holding her hand. While thrashing about in acute pain, she notices her husband’s suffering expression: he is, obviously, in agony, but is doing his best to hide it. She asks him through clenched teeth, “Darling, what is it? I can see you’re in pain!”. “Yes,” he answers, pointing at the elastic band of his disposable med cap, “it’s killing me. It chafes my forehead terribly!”

She started laughing so hard she pushed the baby out.

Yet, there is a voiceless minority group that might be actually offended by this anti-offense campaign. It is the group of dead artists whose artworks are being renamed.

Simon Maris, “Young Girl Holding a Fan,” circa 1900. Old title: “Young Negro-Girl.”

Simon Maris, “Young Girl Holding a Fan,” circa 1900. Old title: “Young Negro-Girl.”

Simon Maris made his name painting female portraits, and being a friend of Piet Mondrian.

At the time, black women were employed as domestic help or concubines, which was not hugely different from slavery. They were referred to as Negroes. They were being dehumanised by “scientists”, white elites, and common people. A year before the painting, Kipling’s The Burden of the White Man was published. Racism, that justified invasions and atrocities in “less developed countries”, was on the rise.

It was at this point that Maris painted a Negro-girl as a princess, bringing out her humanity for everyone to see.

It is not a young girl holding a fan. It is a brave statement that a Negro-girl is as beautiful, graceful, intelligent, and interesting as the most refined white lady.

I guess, Maris, and the girl he painted, would be deeply offended if they learned the title of the painting was changed to please…no, not “a million people deriving from colonial roots, from Suriname, from the Antilles, from Indonesia, and so on” of whom the curator pretends to care, but the curator herself.

Even though I can’t stop white liberal intellectuals in their pursuit of boasting to the world how liberal they are (no one, actually, can stop them), let me know if you agree or disagree with me on this particular case of liberalism mopping up [art] history. 

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Cucumber up your art

Friends&Family know I love pickled cucumbers. My fav restaurants are aware of this character flaw and bribe me with an extra portion of pickles whenever I order a burger. Pickled cucumbers guarantee my loyalty, shut my eyes to poor service, and double sales of mineral water.

There was a single artist in history who had a similar infatuation with this vegetable, and I am sure he was not into its fresh variety because the colours he used to paint cucumbers appear rather pickled.

It was Carlo Crivelli, a Venetian-born artist of the 15th century.

He was a cheerful descendant of the Renaissance line fathered by Pisanello and Gentile da Fabriano, who, unlike Masaccio, didn’t care about humanistic ideas, focusing instead on truthful depiction of nature, and especially those bits of nature that make today’s hipster Instagrammers so hip with their snapshots of dead leaves, graffiti, and other hipsters taking pictures of graffiti and dead leaves.

Hipsters making hipster photos

Hipsters making hipster photos

It wouldn’t come as a surprise now that pre-Raphaelites, the hipsters of the 19th century, embraced Crivelli as a brother.

Carlo’s love for cucumbers is unique in art history. He understood that the beauty of cucumbers was not in the eye of the beholder, but in the contrast of its rough pimpled skin and irregular shape vs. the smooth and round forms of meaty leaves, apples, and marble floors.

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Madonna and Child — Carlo Crivelli, ca. 1480,

Yes. I know.

The giant fly in the left corner, which scares infant Jesus into bracing himself while protecting his bird, commands your undivided attention now, in the manner of an Italian driver holding you by the scruff of the neck after you’ve backed into his van.

Resist. Leave the fly where it is. It is not going to buzz away, and we are here to talk about cucumbers, OK?

The Metropolitan, which has the Madonna, say the cucumber is a symbol of redemption. Sorry, guys, but redemption is reserved after gourd, which looks like a pear-shaped pumpkin, unless it is molded into Chairman Mao or Buddha by its Chinese grower (it is all the rage in China right now, I am told):

Gourd

German art historians believe Crivelli used cucumber as a symbol of the male side of sin, with its female side contained in an apple.

Really? Hanging a cucumber as a Freudian symbol (long before Freud) off the garland right in front of Madonna’s face and not being burnt at the stake would be, I assume, an impossible achievement in Italy 550 years ago.

The problem is that no one seems to know what symbolic meaning Crivelli attached to cucumbers (or, as I am certain, pickled cucumbers).

Most of Renaissance symbolism is well-researched and widely known. Cherries stand for droplets of Jesus blood; pomegranate is the Church and its flock; buttercup means Christ and his future passions; and massive fruit & veggie garlands hint at agricultural achievements of Paradise gardeners who can do wonders without manure-based fertilisers and pesticides.

What about cucumbers?

Look at this Annunciation by my cucumber friend Carlo:

The_Annunciation,_with_Saint_Emidius_-_Carlo_Crivelli_-_National_Gallery

As we scan this painting, we are awed by its wonderful detail, amazing colours, and perspective perfect for exactly 50% of perspective (its depth is OK, but horizontally it ceases to exist). I love the scene with the Archangel, who is performing his most important duty in all of the New Testament, and is distracted by a saint who hopes to get a blessing for his construction project. Somehow, it is a very familiar situation.

And, as we get to the bottom, we can’t but frown at the cucumber there.

Somehow, the apple is OK. Adam, Eve, the original sin, it all fits the narrative. But a cucumber?

Let me blow it up for you, so that its wonderful detail can be appreciated in all its exquisite glory.

cucumber

What is its meaning?

One bit I am sure of, is that experts who believe it is a dick metaphor are dickheads. The myth of Crivelli’s cucumbers being related to the male end of the original sin appeared because of Crivelli himself. In Venice, he fell in love with a beautiful woman. Take a young Italian artist, add a beautiful woman, sprinkle it with Venetian atmosphere (remove the stench of canals first) and you get love potion you can sell to anyone any time. Carlo fell in love so hard that his Madonnas would have the face of his beloved thereon in. This story could have an ending similar to that of Filippo Lippi’s love affair with a nun if only Carlo’s sweetheart was not already married. That adultery cost Carlo six months in prison, banishment from Venice, and the myth about cucumbers for the next five centuries.

When this painting was exhibited in the Hermitage in St.Petersburg, their curator explained it as a symbol of paradise abundance. Why is then a single apple placed next to it? I doubt paradise menu is limited to these two food items. Instead, I see the Hermitage curator going like, “oh, my god, oh my god, this is a dick metaphor! Those religious fanatics won’t let the gallery show it! What shall I do? What shall I do? I need to invent something entirely different!”

A curator from the National Gallery in London, which is the Annunciation’s home base, asks a food expert about the cucumber meaning. The food expert offhandedly says the cucumber is the symbol of Christ, and apple stands for the Virgin. Yes, my jaw dropped too.

As I and Carlo are both cucumber enthusiasts, I am sure I can propose my own, undoubtedly correct, explanation for his cucumbers.

Five hundred years ago, the cucumber was associated with the image of the Virgin Mary. It implied that the Mother of Christ was never touched by sin. The idea originated from a passage from the prophet Isaiah: “And the daughter of Zion is like a booth in the a vineyard, like a lodge in a cucumber field, like a besieged city”.

A cucumber, populated by numerous seeds residing inside its thick “walls”, may indeed be seen as a metaphor for a besieged city. It’s a bit stretched but who wouldn’t struggle to come up with a symbol for a woman who had a child and stayed a virgin resisting all the temptations that might have been around?

That’s the reason a cucumber appears in the Madonna and Child painting, although the way it sits next to apples creates a very bizarre still life.

apples-cucumber

I don’t think apples here stand for the original sin either. There are three of them there and even though Christ was brought into this world to atone for the original sin (and a lot of other sins tailgating it) putting an apple into triplicate to drive a point seems a bit excessive, especially next to the symbol of the Virgin. Note that the apples are still attached to the branches (disregard the inconvenient fact that the cucumber grows on an apple tree: even Gregor Mendel would struggle to explain it).

It’s more likely and logical that the apples stand for wisdom, which people should respect but leave to Nobel Prize winners to pick. There’s wisdom in it too: I knew guys who hoped they could do six years of pure math and not become decidedly potty in the process. Ha! This kind of wisdom takes no prisoners.

The Annunciation cucumber is more complicated.

cucumber

It slips out of the frame into our world. It is possible that Carlo did it to flaunt his painterly skills, of course, but I don’t think it was his sole intention. He was very careful about symbolism and wouldn’t waste a whole cucumber to boost his vanity.

The Virgin sits behind an iron-barred window. This makes a cucumber, as a besieged city metaphor, quite appropriate here but…placing it on the floor ruins the hypothesis. No one dared to throw symbols of divine entities on the floor. Never.

You only throw sins beneath your feet. And sins indeed are the alternative, and more fitting, interpretation of the cucumber and the apple.

Let’s begin with the cucumber.

When the Israelites were in the desert, they preferred to eat cucumbers rather than manna sent from Heaven. It’s not a figment of my imagination, it’s the Bible:

The Israelites complained (Numbers 11:4-6): “Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now, our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at.” 

Thus, cucumber became associated with perdition, or final and irrevocable spiritual ruin, resulting from rejection of God and His gifts. Was this tiny bit of the Scripture well-known or relevant to Crivelli? And why didn’t he use watermelons, onions, or garlic (it could guard the painting against vampires as well)? My hypothesis is simple. Carlo was a vegetarian. Out of the list of vegetables in the paragraph above only cucumbers represent something that can make you sated. Cucumbers were the only “real food” on that menu. Crivelli awareness of the story might have been additionally supported by the fact that Christian vegetarians have often used manna to justify their claim that God never intended man to eat meat. This made the story top-of-mind for Carlo.

In this context the apple next to the cucumber stands for the original sin (we can’t do much about it because of Eve), and the cucumber, as a symbol of perdition, becomes logically protruding into our world (avoiding irrevocable spiritual ruin is indeed in our own hands).

Crivelli doesn’t just decorate his painting with symbolic stuff, he sends out a coded message, a motivational prep talk that, given the meaning of the cucumber and apple, can be reduced to: “Do not reject God who once came into this world to atone for your sins.”

Bingo!

We all know that love can do miracles. It can heal wounds… save lives… help to explain art history mysteries (if it is love for cucumbers, of course). So, spread the word, love pickles, and tell me if your feelings are changed next time you bite a cucumber!

Disruptive Eruptions

I can understand why painters love sunrises and sunsets. They sell well. Both are visually striking, symbolically linked to new beginnings or twilight romanticism, but above all, it is possible to paint them in a more striking manner than what the reality is offering us within its daily urban diet. People who live in cities don’t see much of either anyway.

Why then do painters miss out on volcano eruptions? I feel there’s demand for them among the adventurous, explosive, and testosterone rich.

Look at Etna, informing Sicily that the planet was feeling a bit flatulent the other day.

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Isn’t it inspiring?

Imagine this photograph to be a painting though.

I bet art critics would write it off as a painter’s reference to a childhood accident with a box of matches, and what the painter’s father said about it afterwards. Critics would scoff at the painter’s implied intent to give the viewer cheap thrills through overdramatisation.

And, you know, I’d be among those critics too. We say “wow” to a photograph like this without questioning it (I hope you think it’s awesome too), because a photograph of an eruption has the documentary quality of a fact in much the same way that a painting doesn’t.

A painter invents and creates conflict in his work, and to avoid copying from a photograph, he would have to make the conflict more…dramatic, because there is no point in making it less dramatic. And, trying to make it “better” the painter would make it false and pretentious.

Indeed, in all the history of art, only a few volcano paintings are worth a second glance.

So, what do the famous painted eruptions have that makes them interesting?


Some of the eruption paintings are pure documentaries of artistic experiences. A modern consumer may not believe it, but before smart phones, artists usually had to be physically present at an eruption scene to sketch and remember it. Alas, these documentary illustrations have lost all their illustrative value once the public got access to colour photos.

It is surprising, really, how few eruption artworks proved to be disruptive enough to stay in art history. The ones that remained are less about volcanos and more about their impact on the surrounding nature and people.

Joseph Wright of Derby, an English painter, more known for his Caravaggio-styled paintings of scientific advancement in 18th-century England and failed attempts to win clients from Gainsborough, set the tone for volcano painting with dozens of works inspired by Mount Vesuvius activity he witnessed in Italy (he missed the big eruption that happened a few years after he left Napoli). 

His set the golden compositional standard for the theme: he would contrast tranquility of the sea and the dead light of the full moon against the startingly alive fire of the volcano, throwing in a few people at the foreground, who watched the eruption apprehensively or were doing their usual stuff while stealing alarmed glances at the mountain going whoopee.

Joseph Wright of Derby, 1778, Vesuvius from Posillipo

Joseph Wright of Derby, 1778, Vesuvius from Posillipo

Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples

Joseph Wright, 1776-80, Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples. The islands he painted can not be actually seen from the vantage point but help to emphasise the stillness of the sea.

At the bottom of the last painting, there’s a group of people carrying the body of a victim along the banks of a lava river. While the scene is intended to be dramatic, somehow, it loses out to the conflict in the skies and becomes an unnecessary sideline plot:

Joseph Wright, 1778, Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples, fragment

Joseph Wright, 1778, Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples, fragment

Wright’s approach to the portrayal of eruptions gave rise to a whole school of painting, appropriately named the Volcano School that existed in the Aloha State in the late 19th century. It consisted of two dozens of non-native artists lured to the islands’ non-stop volcano activity. None of them could take the theme beyond the compositional ideas of Joseph Wright, so I am not showcasing their work.

Some forty years after Wright, Johan Christian Dahl, a Norwegian artist, witnessed a real eruption of Vesuvius, and created one of the most striking images of volcanos, shifting the focus from Man as Victim, to Man as Explorer (though many believe it is about Man as a curious-idiot-who-doesn’t-know-when-to take-cover-until-it’s-too-late).

J.C.Dahl Eruption of Vesuvius, 1826

J.C.Dahl Eruption of Vesuvius, 1826

Unlike Wright, Dahl witnessed the real eruption and was decidedly true to nature (this is a photo of an Aloha volcano):

vulkan-gavai-lava-izverzhenie

Still, just like Wright, Dahl tried to embrace the unembraceable by squeezing a massive eruption scene and two tourists with their guides and mules into a single painting. The human aspect of the story was pushed to the sidelines, again.

I.C.Dahl_Vesuv (2)

Dahl would then rework the painting several times to highlight the travellers, adding more contrast to the figures and reducing their numbers, but that didn’t amount to much:

Dahl fragment

The artist who realised that you don’t have to show the whole eruption to convey its horror and beauty, was a Russian.

Nikolai Yaroshenko painted this Man Vs. Nature statement in 1898. It is unfair that it is virtually unknown.

Н.А. Ярошенко. Извержение вулкана. 1898 год. Холст, масло. Калужский художественный музей.

Nikolai Yaroshenko, Volcano Eruption, 1898

The two tiny figures at the edge of the crater stand firmly in stark contrast against the unfathomable power of the volcano, and the stones that blast out and would start falling any moment make me, the viewer, cringe and awe at the courage of the explorers.

In terms of colour, this is a clever piece too.

Yaroshenko reinforces the conflict by using complimentary colours. He contrasts the green shoulder of the crater against the red of the fire inside it, and the orange lighting of the cloud of smoke in the centre with the blue shading of the mountains at the back.

yaroshenko1

The most famous volcano painting was also done by a Russian artist who lived in Italy at the time. It is the Last Day of Pompeii by Karl Bryullov.

Karl Bryullov, The Last Day of Pompeii, 1830-1833

Karl Bryullov, The Last Day of Pompeii, 1830-1833

When exhibited in Milan for the first time, it brought Bryullov (who was 30 at the time) to such fame that people in theatres would stand up and applause him whenever they’d notice him entering, and admirers would literally lift him up in their hands and carry their hero through Milanese streets if they saw him walking.

This painting is a great example of classicism fused with romanticism, as well as Bryullov’s passion towards a beautiful Russian princess who posed for one of the women in the painting.

But, as it is not, really, about a volcano eruption, I will not talk about it, except for one thing. Everyone is running, stumbling and trying to get away in this painting. And yet, its composition is constructed in such a way that you KNOW they won’t escape from the box of the painting. Take a moment to reflect on how this is achieved, it’s fun.

Surprisingly, volcano art ends here. I’ve got nothing else to show. How tiny is this heritage if compared to millions of sunrises and sunsets you find in galleries and museums!

The irony in this comparison is that without volcanos some of the most famous sunsets would not exist. 

A group of Greek and German scientists studied  red-to-green ratios in sunsets by famous masters and discovered that the more artistically and emotionally sticking sunsets were painted in the years immediately following volcanic eruptions that created a imbalance in the atmosphere resulting in sunsets having more reds and oranges with greens and blues filtered out by ash particles.

This link takes you to their paper, which you will have no problem to understand if you have a Physics PhD in your pocket or a healthy dose of masochism in your character.

PS. Before you click out of this blog, please tell me if you are interested in me talking more about Bryullov or romantic classicism makes you sick. 

And if you missed my previous post on art use in movies, check it out – I’d love to know what you think.

Art and Movies Snuggle up Together

What inspires film directors to make movies? Fat salaries, Oscar dreams, sexy starlets, the need to pass on their “message” to the unenlightened spectator? I don’t know much about cinema, so I can’t be certain of anything beyond what I am told by people who do.

For instance, I read that Lars von Trier filmed Melancholia because he’d wanted to vent out his depression, which he accomplished with double success. He has cured himself and passed it on to millions of his fans. This also makes it a unique case of depression treatment, which is hugely profitable to the sufferer, though not easily accessible to the public at large.

Even though I am not a cinephile (excluding Star Wars, of course), I am curious about ways art of the past inspires modern film directors.

Sometimes, a painting can inspire a scene that becomes iconic and, perhaps, becomes known to more people than the painting that inspired it. I remembered von Trier because he seems to have stolen fame of Ophelia by Everett Millais (1862) in his Melancholia.

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For me, Lars’ cutting his palette down to green and white shows he understands as much about Millais as I understand about his movies. The painting’s concept is in the contrast between the live red flowers and green duckweed. Without it, all you get is an ordinary drowned woman.

Sometimes, film directors are inspired by stuff everyone knows, like Goya’s Saturn devouring his children or Botticelli’s Venus. I don’t know why they do it: It is difficult to make a quote interesting by just quoting it.

Did Guillermo del Toro invent a new monster in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)? No, borrowing ideas from Goya was not enough.

Toro

Toro’s creature is sickeningly ugly, but Goya’s Saturn is way scarier, don’t you think?

Unike Toro, who uses paintings to help him out with images, Terry Gilliam (in The Adventures of Baron Munchausenuses art to build narrative, like in this animation of the Birth of Venus by Botticelli (1486):

I once read that “Gilliam uses Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus as a vehicle to critique overelaboration and the illusory grandeur of illustration. As a figure divorced from her context, Venus appears embarrassed and self-conscious”. I struggle with this logic because, first, I don’t know why would anyone could be concerned with “the illusory grandeur of illustration” to the point that its critique would be appreciated, and second, Botticelli’s Venus is pretty much self-conscious and a lot more embarrassed than the Gilliam’s twin, not to mention that Simonetta Vespucci who inspired Botticelli was indeed a beauty goddess while Uma Thurman is just an A-list celebrity.

Venus

Or take the famous still from Coppola’s Lost in Translation literally quoting the work of John Kacere, a butt-crazy photo-realistic painter whose heritage is 90% female back sides. With all due respect, we know many men are fixated on this part of the female body, but spending a life painting it photo-realistically seems a case for therapy rather than artistic recognition.

lost in translation

What surprises me is the massive applause the film got from critics known for their feminist stance.  A female film director uses Scarlett Johansson’s butt as the main selling point with deafening success. Doesn’t it make all the debate about female objectification sound a bit artificial?

I like it when paintings inspire directors to do more than just quote them.

This portrait of an emancipated journalist and poet by Otto Dix (1926) was briefly quoted in the opening sequence of Cabaret, but it also defined how the German society was portrayed in the movie further on.

cabaret

Otto Dix created a portrait of a generation. It is a great work of art. I can imagine only a single organisation to be reticent about it: the World Health Organisation. Not surprisingly, its idea could roll out into a movie.

I am not sure I know any other example of art being cleverly used in a movie. Help me out, please. Do you remember art in movies being more than just a passing reference, or a primitive quote? As of today, I have a feeling film directors, generally, love talking about great art of the past that inspires them, but fail to create something bigger than the art that allegedly inspired them. I’d love to be proven wrong. 

PS I just remembered this great series of Francis Bacon as the inspiration behind the Joker. Christopher Nolan produced a villain who was, actually, a step ahead of Bacon’s visions:

joker

 

Art Tests Religious Argument

Art has many functions in a society and one of them is being a litmus test of political, religious or social argument or policy. This function is not invoked very often, but when it happens the consequences are usually very dramatic. “Is this art” may seem a hollow and innocuous debate topic for glamorously styled critics with posh neck scarves and pocket kerchiefs, right up to the moment it folds into a dialogue between the hangman and his victim.

A court in Saudi Arabia sentenced Ashraf Fayadh, a Palestinian poet, to death the other day for apostasy, with the conviction based on a poetry book he wrote years ago and a witness who claimed he allegedly heard Fayadh cursing Islam and Saudi Arabia. There was also something about the long hair the poet was wearing at the time of the arrest.

For me, this is a test for all Muslims who say Islam is not a violent religion.

This is my logic:

Lately, ISIS terrorists blew up a Russian passenger plane with 224 people, killed 130 people in Paris, beheaded two hostages, slaughtered 20 people in Mali, and murdered numerous others in Syria and Iraq of whom we would never know anything.

As all of the atrocities have been preceded or accompanied by praise to Allah, non-Muslims inevitably develop Islamophobic feelings. Our brain is built this way. Once we know what a snake looks like, we recoil from it without thinking or rationalising why the hell did we jump away from something that looked like a snake.

Non-Muslims can’t escape fearing Muslims. 

A simple neuro test can prove, beyond any doubt, that even the most tolerant non-Muslims feel this fear even if they don’t admit it. Give me a most liberal Guardian reader, and his palms would start sweating when I show them photographs of Muslims in their traditional garb. There’s no cheating impartial electrodes, folks.

Non-Muslims can be blamed for their fear as much as gravitation can be blamed for not letting us somersault in the clouds instead of running on a treadmill.

But consciously, rationally following this fear with behaviour is a different story.

This is exactly what ISIS wants non-Muslims to do. Convert fear into hate; hate into behaviour; and make non-Muslims push the big red button of European apocalypse by raising the level of intolerance to Muslim communities, which will trigger its own chain reaction of alienation, protest, and more violence.

Hate-crime rate in the UK has reportedly surged 300% already. A few Americans were detained by police for making threatening calls to mosques in the States on the night of Paris attacks. A few mosques have been vandalized and even shot at.

Commenters, intent on preventing the escalation of violence, went online writing that Islam is a religion of peace; that if all Muslims were terrorists we’d all be dead by now; and that ISIS is not about Islam, but about their own version of it, which has nothing to do with true Islam.

Those are valid arguments, all of them.

But.

If we follow this logic, European Muslims need to raise their united voice now in defense of Ashraf Fayadh.

Is Twitter flooded with messages addressed to the Saudi king with the hashtag #FreeAshrafFayadh?

Do we read reports of European squares and streets being blocked by marching protesters?

Do we read embarrassed comments of Saudi officials who can’t get to their embassies around the globe because they are picketed by hijab-wearing true-to-Quran Muslim protesters demanding freedom for the Palestinian poet?

I am afraid the answer is “no” to all these questions.

Even an online petition to free the poet stands at 13,000 and not tens of millions of true Muslim votes.

If murdering people who live and think differently is not true Islam, then Saudi Arabia shall become the focus of European Muslim protest right this minute.

To the best of my knowledge, it doesn’t happen.

And if it doesn’t happen, does it mean that European Muslims, who denounce ISIS methods, approve of morbid brutality when it is prescribed by the Saudi King? If Islam is a religion of peace, beheading a poet for his art is a crime against Islam, just as obvious as any of the terror attacks by ISIS.

So.

I want to understand (not criticize) Muslims who say Islam is a religion of peace but approve or fail to denounce its continued brutality.

It is time for true Muslims, who believe that violence is not an endemic Islamic feature, to start opposing and condemning non-true Muslims, who think beheading is good. Otherwise, the main argument about Islamists being of a different faith than Non-Violent Muslims loses credibility as a punctured hot air balloon.

If you are a Muslim and don’t sign this petition, you are making three errors in the word “PEACE” when you place it next to Islam, because it is, in fact, “DEATH“.

PS Tell me what you think, please, and don’t try to be correct politically or in some other way. Just tell me what’s on your mind. 

Watching boring life can be exciting

If you love Russian literature, you will probably like this realistic painter whose oils give the viewer iconic scenery fit for any of Chekhov’s plays or Turgenev’s novels.

He is a typical Russian artist, whose work rarely shows any conflict, be it the one between colours or shapes, or lines. His palette is soft, pastel, and very predictable. His style is like that of an impressionist painter who’s been warned not to use pure colours unless he wants to end up with all his fingers broken.

Think of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, for instance. Let’s walk inside it.

Reduced whole

The table, set for tea, might welcome you to step into the painting and take one of the chairs if the artist thought of putting tea cups on it. Let’s assume it was a servant’s oversight, so now you can vent out your frustration at Natasha or whatever was the name of that young housemaid, and then complain to your friends about servants being not as good as they were in the old days.

table2

Otherwise, the setting is perfect. The red-backed sofa makes the table the centre of attention via its subtle contrast with the greens outside. The highlights on the table-cloth are the brightest spot in this painting, and the more detailed brushwork, with which it is painted, glue the eyes to the play of light on the pots standing on it (this can be easily seen on the picture with reduced brightness).

Contrast

As your eye roams the table and appreciates the coziness of cushion on the chairs, the painter offers you a few more elements to help you walk through the scene: a carefully arranged bouquet of  flowers on the right side (at least the maid knows how to do that), and a row of potted plants on the left.

plants

It is easy to imagine yourself on this terrace, waiting for your cup to be brought from the family china cabinet, and listening to the rustle of trees.

It is just as easy to imagine yourself bored to death with this life, and, following Chekhov’s sisters, crying passionately, “To Moscow!” meaning, please, get me the hell out of here, and don’t mention the rustling trees ever again.

This painting would probably fetch something like 1.5 or 2 thousand dollars from a buyer who has never had a country estate with a terrace, and won’t be complaining about servants because he has never had one:  a buyer who wants a dream of peaceful rural life to hang on his wall.

Did you want to step into the painting when you saw it first time?

Do you like it? Do you like the style or the colours?

Do you think there is some potential here, if the artist is forcibly taken away from the confines of his Russian context and, say, taken to New York or Paris for a refreshment of themes and ideas?

Young Russian aritsts don’t want to stand out

This weekend I went to Moscow’s Central House of Artists, which is a huge building stuffed with dozens of shows of contemporary painters and sculptors. It was a sad experience, except for one sculptor (not, actually, young) about whom I’ll write next week, after I talk to him this Friday.

I never stop looking for new talent among young (below 35?) Russian artists, but the more the country is descending into a soft multi-religious tyranny, the less interesting its art tends to become. Young artists don’t want to stand out, except for Pavlensky whose work is impossible to collect, because it’s mostly about mutilating his own body, which, for better or worse, is soon going to be tucked away into one of the famously comfy Russian prisons anyway.

I am sure you are aware of Pavlensky’s latest performance when he set the main door of the FSB (former KGB) building on fire and stood in front of it until arrested. With all the media buzz it generated it appears as a powerful political statement, but… It’s a protest against a symptom of a disease, not the disease’s cause. It is a pity the FSB won’t be auctioning the door, even though they could get enough money for it to refit the whole building.

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I had hoped that as the freedom of loud speech was getting restricted (because anyone can still whisper on Twitter or Facebook as much as they want), creativity would boil up to the surface. I expected that as Russia gravitates towards the Chinese level of freedom, a Russian Ai Weiwei will pop up. It doesn’t seem to be happening now, and I ask myself, why?

Quiet dissent is not banned in Russia (it is true that loud critics of the government or its policies risk a lot, including their freedom), and atheists are not branded terrorists like in Saudi Arabia so where are those clever artworks that would be delivering a subtle punch at society’s ills and pains?

Why does no one want to stand out? Come on, it is universally acknowledged that it is good to be a black sheep in a white community (no racial references here), a green apple in basket of red ones, or a urinal among works of classic art.

There are two answers to this question.

Some young artists believe it’s great to stand out, unless you are not crouching in a trench under fire, which is how they see the state of the arts in Russia nowadays, metaphorically.

You may say this is cowardice, but I say it is all about the habit.

Great works of art, rich in metaphor and deep in meaning, do not appear in tightly controlled societies on day one. It takes some time for artists to get used to the trench, so that their initial fear is replaced by a dream to get out of the ditch some day. Living in the trench must become a dull habit first. Then, as the dream grows and becomes stronger than fear, they start being creative.

Other young artists say standing out is great, of course, but obsequious crouching offers immediate benefits like participation in state-sponsored shows, sales to local rich customers, and getting on boards and panels of a variety of art groups, societies or events. They say they know they will not secure a place in art history by playing conformist, but putting bread on the table today is a far more attractive option than having their own bronze statue opened posthumously.

The good thing is that I don’t believe a great artist can remain a conformist for long, because creativity can rarely exist without ambition. Sooner or later creativity either dies out or takes over conformity.

So, my question is, how many more years I have to wait until creativity takes over acquiescence or crouching in the trenches grows into a nasty habit!?