Monday, June 11, 2018

Reading Enlightenment Now

Just when we seem of have needed it most Steven Pinker has written a wonderful book that reminds us that, overall, big picture, things are not anywhere near as bad as they sometimes seem.  Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress dives deep into the available data of civilization to prove that, thanks to the idea of “progress” hatched during the Age of Enlightenment, “…there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.”

Bill Gates calls Enlightenment Now “My new favorite book of all time” and it is easy to see why.  Pinker makes the case for the continued application of human reason to every aspect of our culture, society and individual lives.  He does so without denying the challenges facing humanity such as climate change, nuclear weapons, terrorism, etc.  But Pinker sees every issue facing humanity as an intelligible problem, not a crisis.  Reason solves problems. Pinker says reason is “non-negotiable” and that pretty much serves as the cornerstone of the whole book.

Out of reasoned objective knowledge humanity has thrived like never before.  The list of reason’s accomplishments, when combined with science and humanism, unveils a world improving in almost every progressive measure.  The fundamental optimism here is refreshing and inspiring.  Pinker realizes the word “progress” has become a cliché, but he insists that it still applies.

Pinker smothers the reader with scientific data.  Life expectancy is way up all across the globe, at a now accelerating rate since 1940.  What’s more, most of those added years are productive years, not years as an invalid.  Undernourishment is still high in Sub-Sahara Africa and Southeast Asia, but it is dropping dramatically everywhere. The number of famine deaths worldwide is at an all-time low, minuscule compared to how many died of starvation as recently as the 1960’s.

The wealth generated by capitalism, another aspect of reason and applied science, is now distributed to more people on the planet than ever before.  Pinker acknowledges the issue of income inequality but he generally thinks that is a natural expression given the fact that some people are going to be more motivated and more capable than others.  Beyond that, the wealth of most of Africa and Asia is growing exponentially and in Europe and the Americas vast majorities of the populations live comfortably.

With the generation of wealth, social spending has actually risen everywhere in the world since 1940.  More people are cared for through various welfare programs than ever before in human history, in America as well, addressing issues that arise from inequality.  The poverty level in the United States is at an all-time low. People worldwide living in what is considered “extreme poverty” have been escaping that level of poverty at the rate of 137,000 people per day for the last twenty years.  Read that once again.

The global population growth rate is declining, though the number of humans on the planet continues to increase every day. Since virtually everyone has improved sustenance and we are fed better than ever before, better education and understanding is possible through all societies.  Which is a good thing because humanity can apply that knowledge toward addressing problems such as pollution. Deforestation, the denuding of the planet of its temperate and tropical forests, has been reined in significantly since 1975.  The world as a whole is generating fewer CO2 emissions today than it was ten years ago.  Reason can be applied to problems.

Pinker writes: “Despite a half-century of panic, humanity is not on an irrevocable path to ecological suicide.  The fear of resource shortages is misconceived.  So is the misanthropic environmentalism that sees modern humans as vile despoilers of a pristine planet.  An enlightened environmentalism recognizes that humans need to use energy to lift themselves out of the poverty to which entropy and evolution consigned them.” (page 154)

All this prosperity and education has manifested itself in various ways.  War between great powers, for example, is at an all-time low.  No major nation is at war with any other major nation.  All the wars on the earth are currently taking place inside countries rather than between them.  While battle deaths have risen a bit in recent years, overall, only a small fraction of deaths occur in combat globally compared to as recently as 1985.  Likewise, genocide deaths, so common in the 20th century, have virtually vanished from the face to the earth, measuring in the tens of thousands today as opposed to the millions dying from 1965 to 1975.  There was a recent blip in genocides confined to Africa in the mid-1990’s but nothing like that since.

Homicidal deaths worldwide are at an all-time low, though they have risen recently in Mexico and America.  While deaths from poisoning have been rising since 1995, accidental pedestrian death, deaths from falls, fire, or drowning are all at record lows in America and Europe and are falling elsewhere.  Occupational accident deaths in the US fell from over 60 per 100,000 in 1910 to about 3 per 100,000 in 2016.  Most of this happened through the application of human reason.

Terrorism deaths are not at all-time lows, they are, in fact, about the same as they were in 1995.  These deaths are a recent phenomenon. There were far fewer deaths by terrorism in 1970, but terrorism still only kills about 0.1 per 100,000.  Nevertheless, it seems that this is one area where “progress” isn't happening.  But, Pinker cautions: “Though terrorism poses a miniscule danger compared with other risks, it creates outsize panic and hysteria because that is what it is designed to do.  Modern terrorism is a by-product of the vast reach of the media.” (page 195)  In short, while the threat is real, it is small.  Very small, largely thanks to the progressive influence of human reason.

The flourishing of education and knowledge has led to the emergence of more democracies than autocracies today than any time since 1800.  Human rights protection is steadily increasing throughout the world.  More countries have outlawed the death penalty than ever before.  Executions in general are at record lows and have been since 1970.  The number of racist, sexist, and homophobic web searches is significantly down since 2004.  Hate crimes have been slowly but steadily becoming less frequent since 1996.  Instances of rape and domestic violence in the US are one-fourth of what they were in 1995.  There is a pattern here clearly made possible by human reason.

As I mentioned, education is a huge part of Pinker’s factual optimism.  “Studies of the effects of education confirm that educated people really are more enlightened.  They are less, racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, and authoritarian.  They place a higher value on imagination, independence, and free speech.  They are more likely to vote, volunteer, express political views, and belong to civic associations such as unions, political parties, and religious and community organizations.” (page 235) 

Worldwide, literacy is at an all-time high.  More human beings receive basic education today than ever before.  The years of schooling are extended in most parts of the world, allowing for truly higher education.  Remarkably, IQ is rising thanks to all this exposure to knowledge.  “(IQ) scores have been rising for more than a century, in every part of the world, at a rate of about three IQ points per decade.…we know that intelligence is highly inheritable, and the world is not engaged in a massive eugenics project in which smarter people have had more babies generation after generation.  Nor have people been marrying outside their clan and tribe in great enough numbers for a long enough time to explain the rise.” (page 240)  Reason ultimately feeds on itself within modern human evolution.

Collectively and individually, we are smarter than we have ever been before.  This has led to a variety of quality of life improvements including: fewer hours worked each week, widespread retirement benefits, and a vast array of consumer goods that virtually everyone rich or poor has access to such as stoves, washing machines, and refrigerators.  The cost of lighting indoors has dropped precipitously and spending on necessities requires less of our income than ever before.  Consequently, leisure time has increased throughout the developed world for both men and women.  Air travel is cheaper than ever and the number of tourists worldwide is at a record.  Never before has humanity interacted with itself across the globe the way it does today.

By all these measures and more human reason is leading to the betterment of humankind.  The data seems overwhelming that humanity as a whole is moving in the right direction.  Progress is anything but guaranteed, however.  Reason is threatened, for example, by politics and, ironically, by academia.  Political conservatism has given us Trumpism, a most irrational turn of events.  But the academic Left, too, “…has missed the boat in its contempt for the market and its romance with Marxism.  Industrial capitalism launched the Great Escape from universal poverty in the 19th century and is rescuing the rest of humankind in a Great Convergence in the 21st.” (page 364)

Pinker attacks a host of other threats to the continued benefits of reason, science and humanism including a wide variety of forces, generally resulting from a misapplication of reason:  romanticism, cultural pessimism, seeing progress as a dialectical struggle, authoritarian modernism, postmodernism, relativism, religion and its resulting theistic morality, superstition, romantic heroism (as demonstrated in thinkers such as Nietzsche), nationalism and exceptionalism, the philosophical approaches of objectivism (Rand), existentialism (Sartre), critical theory (Habermas), post-structuralism, and deconstructionism (Derrida).  According to Pinker, there is a long list of ‘isms’ that simply defy scientific knowledge in favor of whimsical and non-objective contentions of truth.  He finds all of these inadequate, misguided, and antiquated compared with how reason, science, and humanism have positively impacted civilization. 

Then there is what Pinker calls ‘progressophobia,’ about which Pinker flatly proclaims: “Intellectuals hate progress.  Intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’ really hate progress.  It’s not that they hate the fruits of progress…It’s the idea that rankles the chattering class – the Enlightenment belief that by understanding the world we can improve the human condition.” (page 39)

Pinker claims that intellectual progressophobia, like many of the other anti-rational forces mentioned above, is fundamentally driven by two cultural mechanics.  First, there is the “Availability heuristic” which drives “people to estimate the probability of an event or frequency of a kind of things with the ease with which instances come to mind….Frequent events leave stringer memory traces….But whenever a memory turns up high in the result of the mind’s search engine for reasons other than frequency – because it is recent, vivid, gory, distinctive, or upsetting – people will overestimate how likely it is in the world.” (page 41)

The damage of the Availability heuristic comes predominantly through social media and the news media.  Access to information (and particularly to disinformation) artificially heightens human awareness of all manner of ills such as terrorism, domestic violence, economic woes, pollution, corruption, to the degree that these things overwhelm all the positive attributes previously mentioned in this post.  

This plays into the second mechanic.  “…the psychological roots of progressophobia run deeper.  The deepest is a bias that has been summarized by the slogan ‘Bad is stronger than good.’” (page 47)  This is the Negativity bias.  “The psychological literature confirms that people dread losses more than they look forward to gains, that they dwell on setbacks more than they savor good fortune, and that they are more stung by criticism than they are heartened by praise.” (page 48)

The end result of the Availability heuristic and the Negativity bias is that intellectualism (as many other things including religion and politics) tends to discount the factual effects of progress in favor of mis-perceived notions of dystopia, decline, disenfranchisement, and general malaise.  Progress is seen as an illusion or as a passé concept.  Every measure of human betterment previously mentioned is trivialized compared with the realm of perceived global threats and personal dissatisfaction.

But, like everything else in the universe, Pinker argues that Availability and Negativity are intelligible problems that can be addressed and solved by sufficient application of reason, science, and humanism.  “Most people would agree that life is better than death.  Health is better than sickness.  Sustenance is better than hunger.  Abundance is better than poverty.  Peace is better than war.  Safety is better than danger.  Freedom is better than tyranny.  Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination.  Knowledge is better than ignorance.  Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness.  Happiness is better than misery.” (page 51)

As the facts show, worldwide every one of these human betterments is occurring right now and virtually all of them are occurring at an accelerated pace.  For Pinker, a more relevant and accurate appraisal of human progress is a matter of recognizing the confusing and destructive consequences of Availability and Negativity as revealed in intelligentsia, social media, and the news media.

Which is all well and good from the perspective of reason.  I have no qualms with Pinker’s data-driven optimism.  As a whole, humanity is flourishing and immensely better off today than in any other time in human history.  But, unfortunately, Pinker tries to make reason the core of human being, which it is not.  He wishes to discard a lot of concepts that are not necessarily completely rational like existentialism and critical theory that I have found useful in my own life.

Of course, like most worldviews, Pinker’s reason project has built-in mechanisms for dealing with facts that are outliers to his concept of progress.  There are additional facts related to progress that he would likely explain away as being the result of Availability and Negativity.  Suicide rates are rising sharply in the United States.  Pollution is getting much worse in many parts of the world, causing a rise in many diseases including asthma.  Anxiety and depression have been steadily worsening among young people in America for over 80 years and there is no reasonable answer as to why.  And it isn’t just in the US where intellectuals and media hold full sway.  Depression is now the top cause of human disability worldwide, regardless of a given society’s level of affluence and education.

This is more than a bias, this is as real as any gains in human rights or peace between nations or the great strides in human health.  Nuclear weapons and climate change, two problems Pinker doesn’t shy away from, are both products of reason.  You can’t seriously argue that capitalism has brought wealth to the many without also acknowledging that it has caused climate change, pollution, and a certain amount of functionalization of humanity.  You can’t have it both ways.  Progress does not come without a price and Pinker wished to dismiss this with an “all glory is real, all evil is a problem to be solved” perspective.  There’s no guarantee reason can solve any of these problems; in fact, it is possible to see how reason is the cause of many of them.

Terrorism is a reaction to reason and science and humanism.  It is a recent phenomena as Karen Armstrong pointed out in The Battle for God.  To a large degree, reason created fundamentalism.  Even more pervasive and affecting than fundamentalism is the force of consumerist marketing.  Marketing is a completely reasonable force in society.  It analyzes data on purchasing habits and demographics and uses creativity to affect buying choice and drive demand for more consumer goods.  This is a wonderful thing compared with extreme poverty but it is also one of the most destructive forces at work on the planet currently in terms of affecting the human psyche and the environment as a whole.  Our absolute submissiveness to marketing as a force in society is the source of untold materialism and its associated ills.  Marketing transposes human meaning on a daily basis and galvanizes our attachment to objects that are essentially empty in and of themselves.  

My bottom line hesitation with Enlightenment Now is that, while reason has accomplished much, it is nevertheless not the whole (nor perhaps even the key) to human experience and understanding. There is no inherent reason why human beings will be, or should be, reasonable.  By nature I am a relativist and multidisciplinary so I grow immediately skeptical of any concept that thinks everything can be distilled down to a few basic universal ideas.  Based upon an avalanche of data, Steven Pinker worships reason and science and humanism as his own intellectual religion.  He makes a strong case and, generally speaking, I find far more about Enlightenment Now that I agree with than I am skeptical about.  But, try as he might, Pinker has not given us the key to human experience.  He has given us the key to progress, to be sure.  But there is a lot of collateral damage to progress which he wishes to minimize, or fails to mention at all, because it doesn’t fit into his expansive but nevertheless limited worldview.

That is more of a qualification than a knock against his achievement.  Enlightenment Now will give every serious reader cause for optimism and it is a powerful antidote to many of problems facing humanity.  Yes, life is intelligible and problems can be solved.  But there is nevertheless much absurdity in the world, reason has created many systems that run themselves outside of direct human control (stock markets, technological development, the decline in human privacy in favor of various forms of surveillance, the emergence of the anthropocene, to name a few).  These forces were founded upon reason but almost always follow influences created by the various systems themselves beyond human control to affect human experience.  This is something Pinker fails to address in the book.  Human reason often develops systems beyond human control.  This doesn’t collapse his splendid logic and factual presentation in this highly recommended book, but it does put feeling good about what he contends into a broader context than he would wish.

If you don't have time to plow through 500 pages of Pinker's book, you can see his 16-minute TED talk covering the book here and a second lecture by Pinker on why the world is getting better here.  

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Richter: January, December, and November

January, December, and November.  Large abstracts by Gerhard Richter.  1989.

The ultimate reason for my recent trip to St. Louis was to see three large abstract paintings by Gerhard Richter.  Long-time readers know I have a great appreciation for Richter's diverse oeuvre.  The St. Louis Art Museum features a trilogy from 1989 entitled January, December, and November.  These enormous paintings were created as the Berlin Wall opened.  Richter was born in East Germany and escaped the communist bloc in the early 1960's, making these paintings representative of a particularly poignant moment for him.

These are my favorite abstract paintings by my favorite living artist. 


Me admiring the paintings; affords a sense of their massive scale.

I spent a long time in the room with the paintings.  Other viewers came and went but sometimes I had the whole room to myself.  The accent pieces to my right are not works by Richter.  Off camera, to my left, was Richter's Gray Mirror and Betty.

January, my favorite of the three.  Followed by details of the painting...








“Measuring 320 x 400 cm each, these paintings all but envelop the viewer.  In January, streaks of lead white and light grey cascade across the canvas, covering all but small amounts of the vivid oranges, yellows, greens and blues underneath.  These are arranged in such a way that, especially in the lower left-hand corner, they evoke distant memories of landscapes and their reflection in water.  December plays on the dynamic of vertical and horizontal movements.  The painting is in a state oh heightened restlessness.  Where there is a calmer blur of greys running across, this is disrupted by lighter smears running the opposite direction.  The colors seem to have dissolved further than in January, rare hints of orange, yellow and blue becoming rapidly absorbed into overall tonality.  The direction of November is decisively horizontal.  As the viewer ‘reads’ the painting from left to right, the stop-and-go motion of Richter’s trademark squeegee gives way to a continuous blur in which solid darks and the clean whites of the left-hand panel fuse into different shades of grey.

“Given the distinct position that this color occupies within Richter’s oeuvre, the leaden grey of November not only appears like an amalgamation of the lighter January and the darker December, but also echoes other parts of the artist’s work, including this mirrors and the grayscale of photography.  In his abstract paintings, Richter has largely avoided the beauty that his subtle use of color produces in figurative works such as Betty….In January, December, and November the neutral surface layers appear to all but smother the discord amongst the colors in previous layers.” (Panorama: A Retrospective, page 170)

December.  Followed by details of the painting...


My attention was drawn, among other places, to this particular patch of blue and yellow.

Closer...

Closer...

Closer...this gives you some idea of how the viewer can spend a great deal of time appreciating the many diverse nuances of each great abstract piece.

Other details of December...




“Conventionally, abstract painting is understood as a process of essentializing.  Richter takes the very opposite approach by adding layer after layer of paint, dragging large quantities of materials across the canvas in a highly physical and energetic process.  Hence, paintings such as January, December, and November do not represent essentialist reductions but, on the contrary, the accumulation of countless visual phenomena.” (page 171)

“Through making the tug and pull between conscious control and its surrender a central part of his approach to image construction, Richter allows ‘chance as theme and as method’ into his painting: ‘A method of allowing something objective to come into being; a theme for creating a simile (picture) of our survival strategy.’ Dogmatic orthodoxy – in painting as in life – is nothing but a cover-up to shield us from that which cannot be known apriori.  Hence, the meaning of Richter’s large abstracts resides in the very manner of their making, their openness and indeterminacy, in ‘a more modern truth: one that we are already living out in our lives (life is not what is said but the saying of it, not the picture but the picturing).

“This sense of openness and indeterminacy is endemic to both the process of making and the process of perceiving paintings such as January, December, and November.  Richter thus establishes a position of empathy between himself and the viewer.  His paintings convey a shared understanding of humanity experienced through the communal act of looking” ‘What counts isn’t being able to do a thing; it’s seeing what it is.  Seeing the decisive act, and ultimately it places the maker and the viewer on the same level.’” (page 173) 

November, the darkest and most minimal of the three.  Followed by details...




Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Watching The Terror: "A horrific, humanist masterpiece"

I recently completed watching the 10-episode run of AMC's The Terror.  It was a well-acted, well-written, surprising take on the horror genre - more of an historically accurate survival adventure than another run-of-the-mill blood and gore fright flick.  In some respects, it felt like something H.P. Lovecraft would have written.  Though slow moving at times (not a bad thing in my book), The Terror was a fascinating, bleak, and psychologically terrifying TV show.  Its metaphorical implications were rich and it was a masterful example of how to build tension without the big reveal.

What caught my eye initially about the program was the involvement of Ridley Scott (as executive producer) and the initial visuals that I saw.  Set the Arctic in 1846, The Terror was largely videoed in CGI.  The actors performed in a digital environment that was visually stunning at times.  The still images I saw on the internet captivated me before the premiere.  The excellent production values, historical accuracy, successful interweaving of literally dozens of characters, and the ever increasing tension and outright fright factor kept me watching through the whole series.

To judge by the viewership, the series was a big flop.  Whereas about 3.3 million viewers tuned in for the opening episode, only about 790,000 watched the finale.  Not very impressive.  And yet those of us who stuck with the relentlessly slow-building anxiety and measured but powerfully unexpected shock effect were richly rewarded.  The critics seemed to agree.  As of this post The Terror received a favorable 92% rating from critical reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and an 87% rating from viewers.  It seemed the few people who watched did so rather enthusiastically.

The series is a take on the ill-fated Franklin Expedition to the Arctic in the 1840's.  We know before we see anything that this expedition was an utter failure, with two specially designed British exploration ships lost along with all of the crew.  The two ships were only found in recent years and virtually nothing is known about the fate of the crew except there were apparently no survivors.  

The Terror is based upon the 2007 novel by the same name which examines the mission, the ships, and the crew with much detail to historical accuracy, hypothesizing about what fate might have befallen the exhibition.  The 10 episodes feature well over 100 speaking parts, crisply written, believable characters with a lot of historical detail.  The show feels real, which is part of what makes it so effective.

There are some spoilers from here on, though knowing what happens and actually seeing it are two completely different experiences.  We already know the fate of the mission before we see anything, but the show is nevertheless captivating for me.  The two ships, the Erebus and the Terror have full crews and a compliment of marines.  Their intent is to find the fabled Northwest Passage.  They have the latest technology from the 1840's available to them including, importantly, food stored in tin cans for longer preservation.  Altogether, the mission carries enough supplies for three years at sea, five years if the food stocks are rationed.

The two ships become stuck in the winter ice before they can push on through the Arctic.  The entire mission is trapped for not one, but two years in the ice as there is no thaw the following spring.  In the meantime the crew must make the most of their time together, fighting boredom, close quarters, and generally getting along (or not).

As if this wasn't trouble enough, a scouting party happens across an Inuit woman and old man, inadvertently shooting and killing the man, who was a shaman.  The woman is apparently his apprentice.  The significance of this event lies in the fact that the shaman controlled a type of spirit or creature that roams around the ships, picking off a crew member or two at a time.  Most effectively, however, we as viewers only see the effects of the creature on mangled bodies to begin with.  We do not see the creature itself.  Over the course of the next several episodes the creature comes and goes, sometimes a terrifying menace, sometimes just an existential threat.  Only later in the series do we catch glimpses of the thing, never getting a good look at it until the very end.

That is a classic Lovecraftian technique.  It is better to address a given threat's effects and the resulting tension and anxiety about the mystery than it is to reveal the nature of the mystery.  This effectively produces a strong sense of atmospheric dread.  The viewer (or reader in Lovecraft's case) can project their own fears onto the narrative with the dual effect of thereby becoming more invested in the story and conjuring up their own interpretation of what the threat might be as opposed to being told.  A projection of one's own fears onto the narrative is more effective than the author dictating the specifics of whatever fear the narrative demands.

The Terror works this angle to perfection.  But it is only an underlying concern throughout most of the show.  The creature is out there, it might reappear at any moment, but in the meantime there is a complex narrative involving multiple well-conceived characters that drives the series.  After two years of being stuck in the ice, the crew is starting to shows natural physical and psychological cracks.

Jared Harris, who does an outstanding job portraying Captain Francis Crozier, is an alcoholic, for example.  As the mission enters its third year, his excessive drinking becomes a huge personal struggle when the supply of scotch runs out.  Meantime, everyone is eating the assortment of food supplies including a large number of tin can goods.  These tins are a new process of storing food stocks, but an imperfect one.  As it turns out they are inadvertently filled with lead.  Symptoms of lead poisoning began to manifest throughout the crew, in most physically, but in others psychologically.

The crew is trapped in more ways than one; in the ice, threatened by a largely unseen monster, and forced to rely on lead-poisoned food stocks or starve.  Finally, after a few more deaths from the creature and from lead poisoning, the decision is made to abandon the ships at the start of the third spring and to attempt to walk in the abundant light of the Arctic summer 800 miles to the nearest known British outpost.

Suffice it to say that things go from bad to worse and the series becomes increasingly bleak, though fascinating in the nature of the crew's predicament, the fantastic CGI landscape they are hiking through, and the various subplots that merge as fewer and fewer men survive.  And, of course, there is the creature - which ends up being sort of a cross between a polar bear and a dinosaur, for lack of a better description.

How it all plays out is, as I said in the beginning, mostly already known, though, this being television, there are some liberties taken with how things finally end upThe Terror struck me all along as the framework for a metaphorical tale of some sort.  It was only after the series was over that I learned the show's producers had toxic masculinity as a theme in mind.  However you wish to interpret it, The Terror received a lot of excellent press during and after its run.

The Atlantic rightly claims that The Terror is "a fascinating step forward in the survival-horror genre on TV."  Newsweek, which covered each episode, hit all the bases when it recently stated: "Whether in the show’s aesthetics, the writing process or the powerful hallucinations punctuating the concluding episode, [the showrunners] tailored The Terror to pull us in, as close as possible, to the lives and thoughts of men at the absolute extremity of human experience.... The result is a horrific, humanist masterpiece, heightening the magnitude of events by placing us in empathic touch with the doomed explorers. And the closer we feel to the characters, the more The Terror can stretch itself into surreal and unexpected new places."

Vox opined that the series "takes TV horror in a new direction - all mood, atmosphere, and waiting for death."  Again, Lovecraft would be proud.  But The Terror surpasses Lovecraft in my judgment to the extent that it gives greater weight to character development and a myriad of believable subplot interactions that both ratchet up the tension, broaden the scope of the overall angst, and, ultimately, make the series more about our humanity than about the mystery, all while remaining rigidly established in the history of the period.

My guess is that this show will attain a cultish hue going forward and that more people will end up seeing it on streaming services and DVD than watched it during its original run.  The Terror will grow on audiences and its critical acclaim might even result in some important award nominations.  It is gripping television with a lot of human depth and breadth.  Its slow pace will turn off many of this ADHD generation but those who stick with it will be affected more deeply than they could possibly imagine. 

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Rain, Beauty, and Art in St. Louis

We arrived in St. Louis during a torrential downpour.  It rained off and on throughout our stay.
It has been awhile since I vacationed somewhere other than the beach or the mountains.  This year, St. Louis called to me, primarily due to paintings by Gerhard Richter displayed in its art museum.  But there are many great attractions in that town.  Jennifer and I set out to explore some of them recently during a long weekend.  

We wanted to do it as a road trip.  See the countryside.  I had never seen the Ohio River, for example.  Nor had either of us driven through beautiful rural southern Illinois.  So it was time to load up the car and discover a new part of our country. 

Departing on Friday, we drove up through Chattanooga and Nashville before stopping in Clarksville, Tennessee for lunch at the Black Horse Pub.  I enjoyed a Cletus, a fancy hamburger topped with a fried green tomato, tomato jam and spectacular onion rings.  Tasted great! 

According to Google Maps the trip was supposed to take 7 and a half hours.  But, due to stops and traffic conditions, it was more like 8 and a half, which is about as far as I care to drive anywhere in one day.  Western Kentucky around Paducah and southern Illinois were beautiful with several interesting features such as the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area and the Shawnee National Forest.  I especially enjoyed seeing the Ohio River and the many miles of lush green farmland.   

Our arrival in St. Louis coincided with heavy rainfall which made for slow going and some disorientation since I didn't know my way around.  Siri navigated me through it.  By the time we reached our quaint AirBnB rental the rain had stopped, however.  That was more or less a theme for the whole trip.  It rained a lot but we never got physically wet due to some good fortune, the timing of the storms coming and going, and being vigilant about the weather.com radar app.   I never had to use an umbrella.

Our B&B was a remodeled garage with a full kitchen, simple dining area, a couch and TV (which we never turned on), a nice, firm queen-sized bed and a bath.  The space was completely open but for the bath.  It was cozy and certainly had everything we needed to rest after our drive and during our visit.  It was located in the wonderful Shaw neighborhood of the city.

Friday evening was spent tracking down beer for the refrigerator (package stores seem scarce in this part of town) and finding some food.  We enjoyed a couple of Thai wraps from Lona's Lil Eats, a nearby dive serving a rather eclectic clientele.  They were yummy.  After a shower, I crashed pretty early and slept more soundly than I have in a long time.

Saturday morning started with coffee and a wonderful omelette at the Benton Park Cafe.  Then it was a short drive over to Forest Park, the largest of St. Louis' many city parks.  Forest Park is far larger than NYC's Central Park and it contains many attractions including the St. Louis Zoo, Science Center, History Museum, a gold course, and our immediate destination, the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM). 

We arrived about 15 minutes before the museum opened.  At that point in the day most of the park traffic was jammed up around the zoo, but parking at the museum was plentiful and easy.  We hung around the entrance and enjoyed the view of the Grand Basin, the most picturesque water feature inside Forest Park.

The next four hours were the highlight of the trip for me.  Longtime readers know how much I appreciate art.  SLAM is on par with, say, the High in Atlanta.  It contains some great art by famous painters, but few of the paintings are famous.  Still, it was wonderful to experience this space and view dozens of artworks by artists I knew (and a few I didn't) and yet I had never seen virtually any of the works themselves either in person or in any of my art book collection.  

The magnificent Emerson Grand Basin in Forest Park just outside the entrance to SLAM.

The entrance to the St. Louis Art Museum.

Seated Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara from 11 century China.  Part of SLAM's excellent ancient art collection.

Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait, 1950.  The museum featured a large collection of Beckmann's works.

Vincent van Gogh, Stairway at Auvers, 1890.

Pierre-Auguste Renior, The Dreamer, 1879.

Edgar Degas, Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, c. 1880.
Jennifer observing one of Claude Monet's many Water Lily paintings.



Detail of Monet's Water Lilies.  So powerful, yet delicate.

Paul Dalvaux, The Fire, 1945.

Franz Kline, Bethlehem, 1959-60. 
A distinctive work by Mark Rothko, Red, Orange, Orange on Red, 1962.


A splendidly sensual sculpture by Auguste Rodin, Despair, 1890.

Lovis Corinth, Nana, Female Nude, 1911.

An example of some poor lighting at SLAM.  Of course, I wasn't allowed to use a flash for my photos, but you can easily see the glare created by how this painting is lit. In some instances a painting's frame would cast a shadow onto the canvas itself.  I found this irritating. I couldn't get a decent photo of the museum's only Rembrandt because it was so washed out with harsh light.  Joachim Anthonicz WtewaelCephalus and Procris (The Death of Procris), c. 1595-1600.

Pieter Claesz, Still Life, 1643.

One of my favorite American artists, Thomas Hart Benton, Politics, Farming, and Law in Missouri, 1935.

Thomas Hart Benton, Cradling Wheat, 1938.

Rembrandt Peale, George Washington, 1845.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Tavern, 1909.

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Charlotte Cram, 1900. A recent addition to the collection. 

Winslow Homer, The Country School, 1871.
I wanted to tour the museum in order, going from room to room based on the numbering system provided in the museum map.  This ensured that I saw everything, starting with the ancient art and textiles, which were more robust than I anticipated and featured many interesting works.
After that I systematically went from room to room, weaving through American and European artworks.  Some rooms were filled with a particular artist, but most were devoted to periods or styles of art featuring various artists.  Of course, the impressionism room and the spaces for contemporary abstract art drew me in more and my pace slowed there to appreciate what the museum had to offer.

Staying on an eastern time schedule in the central time zone meant that we were usually early for whatever meal time it was.  For lunch, we opted for the Panorama restaurant inside SLAM.  This was a fancy dining room but my casual attire was perfectly acceptable.  Reservations were preferred but, since we were early, they had no problem fitting us in.

There I enjoyed a three-course brunch.  For starters, a wonderful crab was served on a bed of arugula.  This was followed by ham, eggs, and potatoes with a decadent croissant with fresh blueberry preserves.  This was followed by cheesecake garnished with chocolate, which I shared with Jennifer.  The exquisite yet casual atmosphere and the food made this a relaxed and refreshing experience.  Perfect for clearing the mind for more art.
Piet Mondrian, Composition of Red and White, 1938-42.

Norman Lewis, Twilight Sound, 1947.

Marc Chagall, Temptation, 1912.

Frank Bowling, Fishes, Wishes, and Star Apple Blue, 1992.

An installation by Donald Judd, Untitled, 1969.

A photo of me with Betty by Gerhard Richter, 1988. One of the most famous portraits of the twentieth century.  

More Gerhard Richter.  Gray Mirror, 1991.

My self-portrait in Gray Mirror.  You can see the large space behind me where three giant Richter abstracts are displayed.
Afterwards, I revisited the Gerhard Richter room, my main purpose for visiting SLAM, spending a long time with the large abstracts January, December, and November dating from 1989.  I also enjoyed Richter's Gray Mirror from 1991 - part of his long-time fascination with gray as a color.  Of course, the most famous painting in the entire SLAM collection was there as well.  Betty is a 1988 photo-realistic portrait that offers an interesting contrast with the abstract works and showing Richter's impressive range as an artist.  He can definitely accomplish more than just sloshing paint around.  I will blog more about the large abstracts in a future post, as they are my favorite abstracts by him and I don't want to interrupt this travelogue with a detailed artistic analysis.
A contemporary sculptural installation in a courtyard type space at SLAM.  Stone Sea by Andy Goldsworthy. 2013.  This view is looking down from a walkway above the space just outside the museum.

Stone Sea as seen from a viewing point inside the museum.
It was mid-afternoon when we exited the museum and spent a bit more time in Forest Park before visiting the Science Center.  This was a disappointment.  Saturday afternoons apparently is a great time for families to take their kids to this museum, which is structured more toward a "this is so cool" and "isn't science fun?" type approach which seemed rather lightweight to me.  Besides the crowd and noise, the exhibits were not especially compelling.  For the most part, all science museums are unfortunately more or less the same.  I didn't last long there, but, like SLAM, at least the science center was free but for a $10 parking fee.

Hours of walking and standing demanded a reprieve.  So we returned to our B&B to relax and enjoy some beer while another thunderstorm passed.  Then we drove over to the famous St. Louis Gateway Arch, the most "touristy" thing we did the whole trip.  I had seen the Arch before back in the early 90's when I was in St. Louis on business.  But it  was still a marvel to behold.  I enjoyed watching riverboats on the Mississippi River as well.


The Science Museum was not that impressive to me.  It seems most science museums feature the same type exhibits.  The most interesting thing for me was this landing tire from the Space Shuttle Columbia on STS-93.  Obviously a one-time use item.  Landing a space shuttle was brutal on tires. 

We worked in an obligatory tourist visit to the Gateway Arch.
That evening we walked to dinner at a local place about a block from the B&B.  Thurman's in Shaw features an assortment of beers, mexican food, and a lot of really good jazz music.  It was a great way to relax after a long day and walking through the Shaw neighborhood felt comfortable and unrushed.

Sunday began with coffee and a delicious smoked salmon crepe at Rooster.  This was followed by a wonderful visit to the Missouri Botanical Garden. This old garden was established in 1859 and it showed in the variety, size and number of large trees located all through the gardens.  Of especial attraction to me were the Chinese and Japanese gardens, although everything was first rate.  I would consider these gardens to be among the best I have ever visited anywhere.  Highly recommended for gardeners and anyone who simply enjoys being with nature.
A fountain area near the entrance of the Missouri Botanical Garden.  You can see the Climatron in the distance.

A magical walking path approaching the Asian garden area at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Another beautiful walking path through the European garden section.  The beautiful white blooming shrubs are Dappled willow.

The Chinese Garden.

The spacious Japanese Garden.

The Blanke Boxwood Garden space.

The Iris Garden.  Very popular.

The Ottoman Garden.

A splendid example of some of the original, older trees at are features throughout the botanical garden.  Since the garden was establish in 1859, there has been plenty of time for the planted trees to grow into full maturity.  This is a magnificent maple.
Our stay was slightly hurried at the very end of our tour due to a thunderstorm passing through the area.  I was back in the car by the time it hit.  We drove out of the storm to the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood for a 2PM tour of a small home designed by the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright.  We stopped beforehand at the Kirkwood Station Brewing Company for lunch where we enjoyed really nice sandwiches and wraps.  

The tour of the house (website devoted to it here) itself was interesting.  There was only a small group of us allowed - less than 20 people total.  Our guide was gracious and highly knowledgeable.  The house designed was based upon a parallelogram in terms of how the lines and angles of the rooms were all laid out.  It seemed much smaller than 1800 square feet, our little group all fit into the various rooms snugly.  

The "master bedroom" was small and featured a parallelogram bed mattress.  The furniture was simple and modular to be re-arranged to accommodate more or less people.  No photos were allowed inside the house but I took a few outside and wandered about the grounds before the tour began.  The house is nested in a small grove of very old persimmon trees.  I learned of the herculean effort it took to save and renovate the house.  Architecture is not really one of my areas of interest but I enjoyed the concepts and the history I learned during this tour.  
Exterior view of the front of the Frank Lloyd Wright designed house.  It is nestled in the the side of a hill with very old persimmon trees. 

The retaining wall in the back of the house.

The front doorway.  The owner of the house, Russell Kraus, was an artist specializing in paintings and stained glass, which Wright incorporated into the design.  No photos were allowed inside but you can see some interior views here.
Like many major US cities, St. Louis has a diverse cultural heritage.  But one major influence comes from its Germanic legacy (think Anheuser-Busch, for example).  So it seemed the trip would be incomplete without enjoy German cuisine, which is what we did our final night there.  I enjoyed an excellent Wiener Schnitzel from The Feasting Fox, originally built in 1913.  They had an extensive beer menu and, quite by accident, I ordered a glass of draft (imported, of course) from the oldest brewery in the world, dating from 1040.  Kind of mind-blowing to have a beer that ultimately came from a 1,000 year-old brewery.  It seemed like a fitting way to end a splendid stay in the city considered the gateway to the American west.  

Afterwards, we walked through another of the city's wonderful parks, this time Tower Grove Park.  I was impressed by the size of the park and the relative absence of people.  There were loners with their dogs and small gatherings here and there but the size of the park made it seem very natural and tranquil, without much human interference except for the beautiful shrubs, flower beds, fountains and sculptures accentuating the grassy, wooded space.

The return trip was long and uneventful, the sense of adventure somewhat diminished by now.  We stayed close to the various interstate routes breakfasting at a Burger King in Illinois and having lunch at a Cracker Barrel in Tennessee.  I was rather satiated with dining by this point and simple convenience trumped any desire for a culinary experience.

St. Louis might not top the list of places to visit for most tourists but I enjoyed my time there.  Anytime I get to explore new art, especially art by my favorite living artist, it is a deeply satisfying and inspiring experience.  But the unexpected added delight of the botanical gardens and most of the dining experiences enhanced my satisfaction with this trip.  Art and nature lovers will appreciate what the city has to offer more than they would perhaps expect.  I know I did.
Me enjoying my salad course and an imported draft beer from the oldest brewery in the world.  A nice way to end the visit to St. Louis.