When James Thurber tried to improve his drawings, E.B. White told him, “Don’t do that. If you ever got good you’d be mediocre.”
The German comedian known as Loriot (Vicco von Bülow) used to perform a narrative version of Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals with members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, using words to convey music. “His style enters the fairy-tale world the composer has portrayed musically,” writes Siglind Bruhn in Musical Ekphrasis (2000). “He sees and hears the orchestra’s depictions from the inside. Here, the verbal medium happily supplements the little details that might otherwise escape the music listener.” Here’s part of Bruhn’s translation:
A wood-ant, no longer in her prime, taps the giant ant-eater in front of her on the shoulder. ‘Excuse me, I cannot see anything if you keep your hat on,’ Grumpily the ant-eater takes off her headdress, an unwieldy contraption braided from wild asparagus and chicken feathers. ‘Thank you!’ says the ant. Then she lets her eyes wander across the jungle clearing. On the arena seats alone she counts 4791 strangely costumed animals, not to mention the innumerable monkeys and birds that are crowding the overburdened treetops.
Just now there is a stir of anticipation, for the moon is ascending from behind the branches of a mango tree to signal the beginning of the festivity. ‘I think I hear something,’ says a pigeon and she isn’t altogether wrong, for over there near the entrance, in the twigs of a bare oak, sixty-four horned owls take up their instruments. And now the marabou raises his baton, the two squirrels at the pianos lower their paws into the keyboards … and then he enters, with all the members of the royal family: His Majesty, the Lion.
Accompanied by moderate applause the lion has ambled twice around the arena, looking rather bored as he waved to the crowd. Together with his spouse, his three sons, one daughter, five cousins, and an imperfectly colored aunt, he has then taken the seats of honor and closed his eyes. …
Gustav Holst created a unique effect for the conclusion of his orchestral suite The Planets. He stipulated that the women’s chorus was “to be placed in an adjoining room, the door of which is to be left open until the last bar of the piece, when it is to be slowly and silently closed,” and that the final bar, performed by chorus alone, was “to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance.”
Although familiar today, the effect thrilled audiences at the time. In her 1938 biography of her father, Imogen Holst recalls a 1918 performance by the London Symphony Orchestra: “But it was the end of Neptune that was unforgettable, with its hidden chorus of women’s voices growing fainter and fainter in the distance, until the imagination knew no difference between sound and silence.”
In 1961, Robert Rauschenberg was invited to participate in a Paris show in which artists were to exhibit a portrait of gallery owner Iris Clert. Rauschenberg sent a telegram:
THIS IS A PORTRAIT OF IRIS CLERT IF I SAY SO
Was he right? Perhaps so: Three years later, Parisian performance artist Ben Vautier sat down in a street in Nice holding a placard in his lap. The placard read:
Regardez moi cela suffit je suis art.
That means, “Look at me. That’s all it takes; I’m art.”
In 1975 Denys Parsons devised a surprisingly simple way for nonmusicians to record melodies — write an asterisk for the first note, then hum the tune and decide whether each subsequent note goes up (U), down (D), or repeats (R). The first two phrases of “Happy Birthday,” for instance, look like this:
(“* repeat up down up down down repeat up down up down”)
This is surprisingly effective — Parsons, who spent five years indexing practically every well-known classical theme from the 16th century onward, wrote, “I continue to be astonished that such a simple test, taken to the sixteenth note (or less), should be adequate to distinguish more than 10,000 classical themes.” Can you identify the eight famous classical melodies below?
Pretend that you’ve never seen this before and that it’s an actual living person whose personality you’re trying to read. If you look directly at her face, she seems to hesitate, but if you look near it, say beyond her at the landscape, and try to sense her mood, she smiles at you.
In studying this systematically, Harvard neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone found that “if you look at this painting so that your center of gaze falls on the background or her hands, Mona Lisa’s mouth — which is then seen by your peripheral, low-resolution, vision — appears much more cheerful than when you look directly at it, when it is seen by your fine-detail fovea.
“This explains its elusive quality — you literally can’t catch her smile by looking at it. Every time you look directly at her mouth, her smile disappears because your central vision does not perceive coarse image components very well. People don’t realize this because most of us are not aware of how we move our eyes around or that our peripheral vision is able to see some things better than our central vision. Mona Lisa smiles until you look at her mouth, and then her smile fades, like a dim star that disappears when you look directly at it.”
(From her book Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, 2002.)
In 1959 pianist Tommy Flanagan was living on 101st Street in Manhattan while John Coltrane lived on 103rd Street. “He came by my apartment with this piece, ‘Giant Steps.’ I guess he thought there was something different about it, because he sat down and played the changes. He said, ‘It’s no problem. I know you can do it, Maestro’ — which is what he called me. ‘If I can play this, you can.'”
If that sounds ominous, it was: The piece marked the culmination of the “Coltrane changes,” a sophisticated scheme of chord substitutions in which the root descends by major thirds, creating a much richer and more demanding harmonic landscape.
“There was no problem just looking at the changes,” Flanagan said. “But I didn’t realize he was going to play it at that tempo! There was no time to shed on it, there was no melody; it was just a set of chords, like we usually get. So we ran it down and we had maybe one take, because he played marvelous on everything. He was ready.”
“It still remains a heck of a document,” remembered drummer Arthur Taylor. “People all around the world look to that, and musicians also; that’s the thing. … John was very serious, like a magician too. He was serious and we just got down to the business at hand.”
When stencil artist DS added his “Bad Kitty” to a London wall in 2012, he was dismayed to find a man removing it only eight hours later.
So he took a photo and used that to create a new stencil on the same spot.
He returned the next day, hoping to get a photo of a man removing a stencil of a man removing a stencil. “I thought it would rip a hole in the space-time continuum or something,” he told the Daily Mail.
But “He came when I was across the road having breakfast, after a while, and having his photo taken next to it lots of times, he left it.”
What is this? It’s the American cargo ship West Mahomet in port, circa November 1918. During World War I British and American merchant ships adopted “dazzle camouflage” in hopes that it would help to confuse their type, size, and heading in enemy rangefinders.
It’s hard to say how well it succeeded as camouflage, but it’s a notable episode in art history: The painting style employed ideas from cubism and vorticism, and English artist Edward Wadsworth, who had helped to direct the effort, continued to pursue these themes even after the war — below is his Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool from 1919.
Andy Warhol made a significant statement with Brillo Boxes, first exhibited at New York’s Stable Gallery in 1964. The banal collection of soap boxes seemed indistinguishable from those found at any supermarket. Warhol seemed to be saying that it’s not the visual appeal of an object that determines its status as art; rather, it’s the artist’s intention, his decision to regard an object as art, that confers that status. But this creates some puzzles:
For one, ironically, the original Brillo packaging had itself been designed by an abstract expressionist, James Harvey, who had been driven into commercial art to make a living. Arthur Danto writes, “The question was why Warhol’s boxes should have been worth $200 when that man’s products were not worth a dime.” Does Warhol’s stance mean that concepts entirely trump beauty, that one should properly judge an artwork by what it means rather than how it looks?
If so, is this art?
It’s not Warhol, but “Not Warhol,” by artist Mike Bidlo, displayed in the northeast corner of the lobby at New York’s Lever House in 2010. If Warhol can co-opt Harvey, can Bidlo co-opt Warhol? Why not? “At the time that they were shown, the Brillo Boxes were underappreciated,” Bidlo told the New York Times. “This is a different context and a different audience, but it’s a great opportunity for so many people to see them.”
Where does this end? Museum director Pontus Hultén claimed he’d created more than 100 wooden Brillo boxes in 1968 “according to Andy Warhol’s instructions,” but in 2010 the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board determined that “there is no known documentation that Warhol authorised their production.” What then is the status of these boxes? If art is in the mind of the creator, how do we resolve a dispute as to the contents of the creator’s mind? By committee?
What do you get when you weld together 848 forks, knives, and spoons? That depends on your point of view:
That’s “Lunch With a Helmet On,” by Japanese artist Shigeo Fukuda. As a followup he obtained the rigging plan of the M.S. Shin-Nippon Maru and assembled a shadow sculpture from 2,084 pairs of metal scissors:
Unbelievably, he completed this in a single week. More from Fukuda.
On Oct. 27, 1917, violinist Mischa Elman and pianist Leopold Godowsky attended the first U.S. performance of 16-year-old violin prodigy Jascha Heifetz at Carnegie Hall.
At the intermission, Elman wiped his brow and said, “It’s awfully hot in here.” Godowsky said, “Not for pianists!”
Vaslav Nijinsky spent the last years of his life in a Zurich asylum. After returning from an American tour in 1917, he retreated to Switzerland, where his wife began to notice disturbing changes in his behavior. He grew impulsive, took long walks alone, and wrote obsessively in a diary:
I am feeling through the flesh and not through the intellect. I am the flesh. I am the feeling. I am God in flesh and feeling. I am man and not God. I am simple. I need not think. I must make myself felt and understood through feeling. Scientists think about me and break their heads, but their thinking will not give any results. They are stupid. I speak simply without any tricks.
The world was made by God. Man was made by God. It is impossible for man to understand God, but God understands God. Man is part of God and therefore sometimes understands God. I am both God and man. I am good and not a beast. I am an animal with a mind. I am flesh but I do come from flesh. God made flesh. I am God. I am God. I am God. …
Finally psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler pronounced him insane. “I retired into myself,” Nijinsky said. “I retired so far that I could no longer understand people.”
[I]n music, unlike painting, there is no such thing as a forgery of a known work. There are, indeed, compositions falsely purporting to be by Haydn as there are paintings falsely purporting to be by Rembrandt; but of the London Symphony, unlike the Lucretia, there can be no forgeries. Haydn’s manuscript is no more genuine an instance of the score than is a printed copy off the press this morning, and last night’s performance no less genuine than the premiere. Copies of the score may vary in accuracy, but all accurate copies, even if forgeries of Haydn’s manuscript, are equally genuine instances of the score. Performances may vary in correctness and quality and even in ‘authenticity’ of a more esoteric kind; but all correct performances are equally genuine instances of the work. In contrast, even the most exact copies of the Rembrandt paintings are simply imitations or forgeries, not new instances, of the work. Why this difference between the two arts?
— Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art, 1968
It is often very hard to tell a fake from an original, even when you know it must be fake. Think about the opening scenes of the movie version of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Some scenes were shot in the galleries of the Louvre. The museum would not allow actors Tom Hanks or Audrey Tautou to remove Leonardos from the wall, so those scenes were shot in London. One hundred and fifty paintings from the Louvre were reproduced for the London set, using digital photography. Artist James Gemmill overpainted and glazed each, even copying the craquelure and the wormholes in the frames. When Madonna of the Rocks is removed from the wall, the back of the painting shows the correct stretcher placement and Louvre identification codes.
Dealers in Old Masters who saw the movie and were familiar with the originals in the Louvre confess to not being sure which paintings are copies … The answer is that every painting in the movie that is touched by Hanks or Tautou is a copy. Paintings that appear only as background in the Louvre are real. What happened to James Gemmill’s copies after the scenes were shot? No one will say.
— Don Thompson, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, 2009
In the early 20th century, communications between a concert manager and his artists were typically charged to the musicians. Tired of paying for lengthy telegrams and long-distance calls, violinist Mischa Elman sent this wire to his manager, collect:
AM SITTING IN THE DINING ROOM OF MY HOTEL HAVING FRENCH ONION SOUP, WHOLE WHEAT TOAST, FILET MIGNON MEDIUM RARE, MIXED SALAD WITH THOUSAND ISLAND DRESSING, FRENCH APPLE PIE A LA MODE, COFFEE WITHOUT CREAM AND SUGAR. WEATHER MARVELOUS. HAVE SPLENDID ROOM WITH MAGNIFICENT VIEW. NOW HOW DO YOU LIKE COLLECT TELEGRAMS? YOURS CORDIALLY, MISCHA ELMAN
The baby is real; the lobster and the bowl were drawn in chalk on a Hartlepool sidewalk by artist Julian Beever. Beever draws in anamorphic perspective, so his work appears distorted when viewed from most angles (below) but creates an illusion of three dimensions when seen from one privileged viewpoint.
“I expected more complaints when I posted this on my website of drawings,” he writes, “but surprisingly there have been very few. It shouldn’t be taken too seriously.”
In February 1965, Harry W. Brooks of Knoxville, Tenn., wrote to Norman Rockwell asking for the secret of his success. He received this reply:
Dear Mr. Brooks:
In reply to your letter of February 8th, I feel a little presumptive to give a formula for success, but here goes:
‘A little talent, a lot of ambition, some self-confidence and a pile of hard work.’
The second movement of Bruckner’s seventh symphony climaxes in a famous cymbal crash; legend has it that Bruckner added the symbolic note on hearing of Wagner’s death.
This is the only cymbal note in the whole symphony, so the player has plenty of time to worry about it.
“This note becomes the occasion of indescribable anguish to almost every cymbal player responsible for its delivery,” noted Jens Rossel of Denmark’s Århus Symphony. “It must come at precisely the right instant, or it simply ruins everything. A few minutes before, you always see the fellow begin to turn in his chair, start to rub his hands and wipe his palms on his trousers. When he stands up he plants his feet, just so, like a baseball catcher bracing himself for a fast pitch. The moment comes and the cymbals crash. It’s a matter of just a few milliseconds, but what it represents to the music is either life or death.”
But maybe that’s the essence of the job. Someone once asked Sir Malcolm Sargent, “What do you have to know to play the cymbals?” He said, “Nothing — just when.”
(Frank R. Wilson, “Music and the Neurology of Time,” Music Educators Journal 77:5, January 1991.)
Some of your old books may contain hidden artworks: Beginning in the 17th century, a book’s binder would sometimes paint a watercolor scene on the edge of the book’s page stack. If the pages were then gilded, the image might remain hidden for years until the pages were fanned.
Sometimes two different images are hidden in the same book, revealed successively when the pages are fanned “up” and “down.” In rare cases paintings are hidden not just on the book’s fore edge but on the top and bottom as well, offering a panoramic view of the painting’s subject.
John Cage’s 4’33” is commonly described as “four and a half minutes of silence,” but in fact it’s the opposite — Cage hoped to lead the audience to hear the ambient sounds of the concert hall as music, to accept as art sounds that they wouldn’t normally consider in that way.
“What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds,” he said of the piece’s 1952 premiere. “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering on the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”
In a broad sense 4’33” was Cage’s most significant work, but the notion of a dedicated piece of art with no substance does introduce some perplexing puzzles. The work debuted as a piano piece with a specified length, but Cage later said that “the work may be performed by any instrumentalist or combination of instrumentalists and last any length of time,” and indeed he produced varying scores in different notations. Can all of these be said to be the same piece?
The “In Futurum” movement for solo piano from Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff’s 1919 Fünf Pittoresken consists entirely of rests, but directs the performer to play “the entire song with as much expression and feeling as you like, always, right to the end!” (French pianist Philippe Bianconi wondered, “Should I just sit there?”) And Alphonse Allais’s 1897 Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man, below, consists of 24 blank measures. Could an unwitting audience member distinguish either of these from Cage’s work?
A puzzle by philosopher Patricia Werhane of Loyola University of Chicago: Suppose that a pianist were engaged to perform 4’33” but had to withdraw at the last moment, and in desperation the stage manager sat in his place. Would this be a performance of Cage’s work? Would it be a musical performance?
Now more than 60 years old, Cage’s idea may still be too novel for a wide public. When BBC Radio 3 broadcast the first U.K. orchestral performance of 4’33” in 2004, the network had to turn off an emergency backup system that would have interpreted the silence as dead air — and begun playing music.
Swiss artist Markus Raetz created this innovative portrait of Piero della Francesca. Two mobiles are fitted with aluminum plates that are juxtaposed successively as the mobiles rotate. Piero appears between them.
Raetz’s kinetic sculpture of Kiki de Montparnasse, below, uses a similar idea:
Henry Kettle painted this pyramid anamorphosis around 1770. If a mirrored pyramid is placed at the center of the canvas, then each of its sides reflects a portion of one of the four distorted heads … producing a true hidden portrait when viewed from above.
At left is the official White House portrait of John Quincy Adams, painted by George Peter Alexander Healy. At right is a daguerreotype of Adams in 1843, when he became the first president to be photographed.
In a diary entry for Aug. 1, 1843, Adams noted that four daguerreotypes had been taken and pronounced them “all hideous.” Three more were taken the following day, but he found them “no better than those of yesterday. They are all too true to the original.”
That raises an interesting question: Which of these images is the more revealing record of the man? In Puzzles About Art, philosopher Matthew Lipman asks, “Which would we rather have, a portrait of Socrates by Rembrandt or a photograph of Socrates?”