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Form is Insight: painter’s eye, cinematographer’s segue

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- a follow-up to Form is Insight: parliamentarian scuffle, photographer’s eye -- Breugel's Fight between Carnival and Lent comes to a movie house near you ]
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Jem Cohen‘s film, Museum Hours, is set largely in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, with a particular focus on Pieter Breughel the Elder. Less than 10 minutes into the film, this shot, showing a detail of one of his paintings:

is followed seamlessly — as though nothing had happened — by this one, a “detail” one might say, of the Vienna street, perhaps indeed as the viewer steps into it right outside the museum:

Between the two shots — in the cut — we move from the sixteenth to the twentyfirst century, and from curated museum to careless street. The painter’s eye is echoed by the cinematographer’s segue: litter remains litter.

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The first image is a seemingly insignificant detail taken from the area of Breughel’s painting containing the “figure of Carnival”:

which you can easily spot, low down and slightly left of center, in the painting as a whole, here:

The painting itself, which goes by the title The Fight between Carnival and Lent, presents Breughel’s juxtaposition of festive and fasting seasons which follow one another seamlessly in the calendar of the church, while their respective impulses wrestle constantly for dominance in the hearts of humankind…

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Drew Martin at The Museum of Peripheral Art blog notices the successive “litter” shots from inside and outside the museum in Cohen’s film, too, and writes:

The most brilliant thing about this movie is the use of segue. In one scene, a series of shots focus on details of a Bruegel painting with the guide’s voice listing the objects “.. discarded playing cards, a bone, a broken egg ..”, and then the images switch to nondescript ground shots in Vienna, as he continues “.. a cigarette butt, a folded note, a lost glove, a beer can.”

When I write of the power of juxtapositions and of the eye that perceives pattern, then, I am not speaking of something that is entirely subjective and personal, but of a faculty native to the human, yet woefully under-practiced, under-explored. My intention is to suggest that this faculty is not merely of use to the artist or art-historian, but basic to a rich and full cognizance of the world around us. It is one techne of reading the world, one of many.

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How’s this for another juxtaposition from the same film?

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Form is Insight: parliamentarian scuffle, photographer’s eye

Monday, August 11th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- insight -- from the artistic eye via the ayat of the Qur'an and poetic and scientific "readings" to the craft of intelligence analysis ]
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You might think this was an image taken from some art book by EH GombrichArt and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation? — or John Berger — Ways of Seeing, perhaps? — but it’s not. As you might have guessed from my title, or from seeing it elsewhere recently, on BoingBoing, Twitter or wherever.

It’s a journalist’s photo of a brawl in the Ukrainean parliament, where debate is still as lively as it was on the floor of the US House of Representatives in 1798:

or 1858:

A Parliamentary brawl, it would seem, is one mode of the continuation of politics by other means. Or is it just politics as usual?

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The illustration at the head of this post is indeed “art criticism” in the tradition of Gombrich and Berger, but it’s not an illustration of Old Masterly technique — it’s an artist’s comment on a press photo of a recent brawl, as indicated above, in the Ukrainean parliament. Here’s the photo itself:

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It’s masterful — and indeed Old Masterful enough that Manzil Lajura posted the photo itself with the two attendant images on FaceBook under the title “Pelea en el parlamento Ucraniano convertido en arte renacentista” — roughly, Brawl in the Ukrainian parliament transformed into Renaissance art..

And yes.

Lajura’s post was then picked up and tweeted by James Harvey:

And thence onwards into viral multiplicity.

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So what does this have to do with intelligence — in the analytic sense, or the general sense of intellectual capacity?

Just that it’s a matter of “reading” a surface for more than superficial insight — for “signs” (ayat, the word also used to describe verses in the Qur’an).

What I’m calling “reading” here takes many forms, visual and artistic in this instance, verbal in the case of “closely read” texts — but generalizable as the ways in which we “read” the world. In my post What the Dickens? Symbolic details in Inspire issue 3 exploring the evidence for al-Awlaki’s involvement in the thankfully foiled mail attacks on two Chicago synagogues, I quoted Fazlun Khalid, Islam and the Environment:

The Qur’an refers to creation or the natural world as the signs (ayat) of Allah, the Creator, and this is also the name given to the verses contained in the Qur’an. Ayat means signs, symbols or proofs of the divine. As the Qur’an is proof of Allah so likewise is His creation. The Qur’an also speaks of signs within the self and as Nasr explains, “… when Muslim sages referred to the cosmic or ontological Qur’an … they saw upon the face of every creature letters and words from the cosmic Qur’an … they remained fully aware of the fact that the Qur’an refers to phenomena of nature and events within the soul of man as ayat … for them forms of nature were literally ayat Allah”. As the Qur’an says, “there are certainly signs (ayat) in the earth for people with certainty; and in yourselves. Do you not then see?” (Adh-Dhariat, 51:20, 21).

— and gave some additional details in a more recent update post, Eavesdropping on Twitter — about al-Awlaqi and Dickens.

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For the mystic, such signs are revelatory of the divine within the natural; for artists, hallmarks of true beauty; for a scientist, for a poet, perhaps, letters in the calligraphy with which the world is written, for jihadists and natsec analysts alike, signals in a significant code — a language used by jihadists in communication, a code analysts must surely learn to read. Here’s Galileo, with a scientist’s view:

Philosophy [nature] is written in that great book which ever lies before our eyes. I mean the universe, but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols in which it is written. The book is written in the mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures without whose help it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word of it, and without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth.

Recognizing the Fibonacci series / golden ratio spiral, as in the photo of the Ukrainean brawl, is just one of the ways to “read deeper” whatever sights, sounds, texts and images come our way — one of a thousand. William Benzon, blogging at New Savanna today, mentions another. He quotes J. Hillis Miller on Kenneth Burke:

Burke came to Harvard when I was a graduate student and gave a lecture about indexing. What he was talking about was how you read. I had never heard anybody talk about this. He said what you do is notice things that recur in the text, though perhaps in some unostentatious way. If something appears four or five times in the same text, you think it’s probably important. That leads you on a kind of hermeneutical circle: you ask questions, you come back to the text and get some answers, and you go around, and pretty soon you may have a reading.

Who are these folk? They are the kinds of folk who would have been recruited from Yale’s English department in the glory days of OSS and CIA

But what kind of analysis? Attempting to distinguish “signal” from “noise,” officials at the CIA and Defense Department debate competing methods of data-sifting and weigh the aggressive, “hypotheses-driven” style of interpretation favored by the Pentagon. Probability and risk are continually assessed, and sometimes the talk can sound nearly philosophical. Referring to the search for illegal weapons in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared on Aug. 5 that “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.”

If such matters arose at a university, they would attract the attention of philosophers of science or even theorists of literature, who study how to tease meaning out of texts. And indeed, the academy has profoundly shaped the rough-and-tumble espionage trade since the founding days of the CIA. In his classic 1987 study, “Cloak and Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961,” Yale historian Robin W. Winks showed how professors took a crucial role in creating and manning the agency and its forerunner, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). No university played a greater role than Winks’s own. “From Yale’s class of 1943 alone, at least 42 young men entered intelligence work, largely in the OSS, many to remain on after the war to form the core of the new CIA,” Winks notes.

It wasn’t just globe-trotting historians and social scientists who made the leap. As Winks emphasized, Yale’s literature specialists played a key role in shaping the agency’s thinking.

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The photographer and editor who took and “framed” that image of the Ukrainean parliamentary brawl had an ‘eye” for pattern-recognition — in terms of “form” as much as “content’.

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On ecumenical destruction

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- Kosovo I know little about, Timbuktu I've heard praised, Bamiyan I've visited ]
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Synagogue:

Before the conflict, the synagogue held thousands of religious and cultural treasures, including hundreds-years-old Torah scrolls, historical texts, precious dining ware, and ancient Judaica of all sorts. Some of the items were reportedly looted in the early days of the war. Some were reportedly placed in safekeeping. Many remained in the building until its destruction.

Buddha:

Two large Buddhas were intentionally destroyed with artillery fire and explosives by members of the Taliban militia on March 11-12, 2001.

Mosque:

The UN cultural body Unesco watched in horror on Saturday as Mali extremists ravaged shrines in the fabled city of Timbuktu which it had listed as endangered sites just days before.

Church:

The ongoing de-Christianization of Kosovo continues and unlike the past frenzy of the anti-Serbian mass media in the West, we mainly have a deadly silence about the reality of Kosovo and the continuing Albanianization of this land. However, how is it “just” and “moral” to persecute minorities and to alienate them from mainstream society; and then to illegally recognize this land without the full consensus of the international community?

Historic site:

“There is no authority here. Syria was one of the jewels of the crown of the Middle East,” Landis says. “The most beautiful Crusader castle, Krak des Chevaliers, undisturbed, has been bombed by both sides because rebels took up and made it a stronghold. The government bombed it. It makes you want to cry, but I guess that’s the price of war.”

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No religious animosity is necessary for destruction.

Rock art:

Vandals have destroyed prehistoric rock art in lawless southern Libya, endangering a sprawling tableau of paintings and carvings classified by UNESCO as of “outstanding universal value”.

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Religion in [and wrt] the Crimea — a tad more

Friday, March 7th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- is anyone taking religion seriously yet? ]
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Icon of the Theotokos of Kazan, Moscow


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Amir Taheri isn’t the most reliable source I can think of — but his piece today on Asharq al-Awsat, The Black Madonna and the Russian Problem, certainly began with a whiff of holy smoke — in this case mixed incense and cordite, I suspect:

Last month, when Vladimir Putin ordered that the Black Madonna of Kazan, the holiest icon of the Russian Orthodox Church, be flown over the Black Sea, many believed he wished to secure blessings for the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

It was the first time the icon, or rather a copy of it, since the original was stolen and possibly destroyed in 1904, was deployed to bless a peaceful enterprise. Over the centuries, the “Black Virgin” has been taken to battlefields to bless Russian armies fighting Swedish, Polish, Turkish, Persian, French and German invaders. Stalin sent it to Stalingrad in 1943 to ensure victory over the German invaders under Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus.

With Putin’s troops in control of Crimea and threatening to move further into Ukraine, we now know that the icon was brought in to bless a military operation this time as well.

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A more reliable source, especially when it comes to matters of Christian iconography, would be Peter Berger, whose 2011 article Our Lady of Kazan and American Pluralism adds valuable background to the icon, and to the sinfonia of church and state in Russia which it in some sense embodies:

The icon of Our Lady of Kazan (also known as the Black Virgin of Kazan) is one of the most famous in Russian Orthodoxy. One of the Virgin’s two feast days coincides with the Day of National Unity. This is appropriate. Kazan occupies an important place in Russian history. Its conquest and destruction in 1552 eliminated the last stronghold of Mongol power in what since then has been southern Russia. The Mongols of that region, descended from the mighty Golden Horde, had long before converted to Islam. Thus the conquest of Kazan (which was followed by a massacre of its civilian population) is also a highly symbolic marker of the conflict between Orthodox Christianity and Islam, which still reverberates today along the southern perimeter of the former Soviet Union. The association of the Virgin with national unity is symbolic as well. It evokes the so-called sinfonia—the close unity of church and state—which characterized Russia from the beginning of its national history to the Bolshevik revolution. It would be an exaggeration to say that the Putin regime has once again established Orthodoxy as the state religion, but it has come close to doing so. Thus Our Lady of Kazan again bestows legitimacy on the Russian state, including its foreign policy, which has been supported by the Patriarchate of Moscow. The state in turn has supported the policy of the Patriarchate to re-assert its authority over previously independent Russian Orthodox churches abroad.

Read the whole thing for further background…

I leave the political implications to others better suited than myself.

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Blog-friend Tim Furnish and I both noted this recent piece by Philip Jenkins, The 160-Year Christian History Behind What’s Happening in Ukraine, which as Tim noted “is well-worth factoring into analysis of the Crimean situation”:

Many educated people have at least heard of the great struggle known as the Crimean War (1853-56), although its causes and events remain mysterious to most non-specialists. If the conflict is remembered today, it resonates through the heroic charitable efforts of Florence Nightingale and the foundation of modern nursing. Actually, that earlier war deserves to be far better known as a pivotal moment in European religious affairs. Without knowing that religious element, moreover — without a sense of its Christian background — we will miss major themes in modern global affairs, in the Middle East and beyond.

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But then as Gary Sick — heh, I know, not one of Zen‘s favorite characters — says he was told by a friend in the State Department during the Iran hostage crisis:

You know, whoever took religion seriously?

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On the history of the selfie

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- on self representation, avatars, and what we may be missing ]
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Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalen, aka The Conversion of the Magdalen

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Where to begin?

The Washington Post doesn’t like selfies much, according to Galen Guengerich in the Religion, yes, the Religion section — in a post titled ‘Selfie’ culture promotes a degraded worldview he writes:

The 2013 word of the year, according to the Oxford Dictionaries, was “selfie,” which Oxford defines as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” The first use of the term, according to Oxford, occurred when a young Australian got drunk at a friend’s 21st birthday party and fell down the stairs. He hit lip-first and his front teeth punched a hole in his bottom lip. His response was to take a photo of himself and post it online for his friends to see. “Sorry about the focus,” he wrote, “It was a selfie.”

Okayyyyy…

As usual, the Kierkegaard / Kardashian combo that tweets as @KimKierkegaard manages to straddle the worlds material (in the Madonna sense) and spiritual (in the sense of the Madonna):

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I wanted to dig deeper — the WashPost Religion section, Kierkegaard, how could I not? I often want to dig deeper, and today I was driven to do so because today — not or the first time — I ran across a terrorism analyst and blogger named Cristina Caravaggio Giancchini, who uses a detail from her namesake Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio‘s Martha and Mary Magdalen (above) as her avatar…

Avatars are a kind of selfie, aren’t they?

In any case, I found myself looking for the particular Caravaggio that contains that detail, discovering it was the Martha and Mary Magdalen, which you see that the top of this post — then kept on digging via Google to learn a little more.

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Here’s what I found in a blog post titled Fingers and Mirrors: Caravaggio and the Conversion of Mary Magdalene in Renaissance Rome:

The inclusion of the mirror asks viewers to enter into a dynamic conversation about their own delight in the rich textures of the picture; alongside a powder puff and comb, it points us to Mary’s vanity, and her concern with the things of this world. Rather than showing Mary to herself, however, the mirror captures a diamond of light — a visual representation of the divine grace that inspires Mary to look beyond her earthly passions. The flower that Mary clutches to her chest is an orange blossom: symbol of purity.

As Debora Shuger realises, in a stimulating essay on early modern mirrors, for Renaissance viewers ‘the object viewed in the mirror is almost never the self’ (22). Such mirrors are, Shuger suggests, if not totally Platonic (reflected an absolute ideal), at least ‘platonically angled, titled upwards in order to reflect paradigms rather than the perceiving eye’ (26). Renaissance mirrors, she concludes, ask us to think differently about the mental worlds and self-awareness of people living in this period: ‘they reflect a selfhood that … is beheld, and beholds itself, in relation to God’ (38).

Pilgrims who travelled to Aachen in the fifteenth-century appear to have purchased small convex mirrors as souvenirs: as relics were carried through the thronging crowds, travellers held up the mirrors to catch a glimpse of them, and then preserved the mirrors as objects which, according to Rayna Kalas, ‘betokened that moment when the pilgrim had a vision of and was visible before the sacred relic. … Every subsequent glance at this mirror memento might serve to remind the believer of that glimpse of sacred divinity’. In Caravaggio’s painting, though, Mary looks away from the mirror which might capture her reflection (the ‘dark glass’ of Corinthians?), and towards her shadowed but persuasive sister.

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We began this post with the idea that our 21st century ‘Selfie’ culture “promotes a degraded worldview” — and here by way of contrast, in the use of hand-held mirrors in 15th century Aachen, we see what we are missing…

… a glimpse of the sacred, in which the sacred glimpses us in transcendent return.

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