Five Artworks You Don’t Want to Miss at the Getty Museum

There are five wonderful, but under-publicized works of art that you don’t want to miss at the J. Paul Getty Museum near Los Angeles.

  • Luca di Tomme’s Saint John the Baptist (Italian, late 1300):  This painting of John the Baptist is fascinating because it is an important transitional piece between the 2-D art of the Middle Ages and the more 3-D works of the Renaissance.  This can be easily observed in Tomme’s handling of John’s face.  Additionally, John is portrayed as a very interesting and likable character; he is certainly one of the most endearing individuals from the New Testament.  In this painting, he wears a hair shirt that highlights his commitment to an ascetic life of prayer and penance.
Tomme's "Saint John the Baptist" (late 1300s)

Tomme’s “Saint John the Baptist” (late 1300s)

  • El Greco’s Christ on the Cross (Greek/Spanish, circa 1605):  This dark crucifixion scene shows a very isolated Christ atop a hill in a very empty landscape.  The artist’s use of dramatic colors and exaggerated proportions conveys the transcendent moment when Christ sublimated his physical pain and commended his spirit to God.  This relatively small devotional image certainly encourages spiritual reflection.
El Greco's "Christ on the Cross" (circa 1600)

El Greco’s “Christ on the Cross” (circa 1605)

  • Jusepe de Ribera’s Eucid (Spanish, circa 1630):  Ribera’s painting of Eucid, a prominent mathematician from antiquity, depicts an individual exhausted from a life of hardship but imbued with the force of a complex personality.  Portraits of ancient intellectuals were very popular in the 1600s, when there was a revival of interest in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy.  Mathematical diagrams in the illegible book reveal the figure’s identity as Eucid.
Ribera's "Eucid" (circa 1630s)

Ribera’s “Eucid” (circa 1630s)

  • Jacob van Ruisdael’s Two Watermills and an Open Sluice (Dutch, 1653):  This dark landscape successfully captures the tension between nature’s power and human needs.  Ruisdael’s painting frequently have very dramatic (almost ominous) skies.  His clouds are always intense.  Since I’m a water engineer with an interest in art and history, my infatuation with this painting is probably expected. 
Ruisdael's "Two Watermills and an Open Sluice" (1653)

Ruisdael’s “Two Watermills and an Open Sluice” (1653)

  • Jean-Francois Millet‘s Man with a Hoe (French, circa 1860):   In year’s past, Millet’s paintings (like The Gleaners) of peasants were popular illustrations for Sunday School manuals.  As such, for a while, they fell out of favor with art critics.  But more recently there has been justifiable renewed interest in his work, as he was a major influence on a young Vincent Van Gogh.  At the Paris Salon of 1863, Hoe was assumed to be a social protest about the plight of the French peasants.  The man with the hoe is clearly having a bad day and probably a rough life.  One can’t help but feel his pain and wonder about the existential (or absurd) nature of his life.
Millet's "Man with a Hoe" (circa 1860)

Millet’s “Man with a Hoe” (circa 1860)

The Getty Museum has a lot of artworks by fairly minor artists, but also has excellent secondary works by important artists.  It is definitely worth a visit.  The museum and art facility resides on a hillside overlooking L.A.  In some respects, the various structures look more like a giant mausoleum than art facility.  The collection of buildings represents a very definite form of monumental art.  The various gardens in and around the Getty Museum are very beautiful and represent excellent places to relax and contemplate the wonders of the world (and the smog in L.A.).

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Goya: Images from the Dark Side

The Museum of Fine Art in Boston is currently having a much-praised Francisco Goya retrospective titled:  “Goya:  Order and Disorder.”  I need to get to Boston.  I’m a Goya fan.

Time magazine’s art critic Richard Lacayo (27 Oct 2014) asks the question:

Why is Goya so fascinating?

Then proceeds to answer it:

The late Robert Hughes, his best English-language biographer, got to the point when he wrote that Goya was both “the last Old Master” and the “the first Modernist.”  By his 30s, Goya possessed the full toolbox of Old Master capabilities. . . .  But Goya’s bleak imagination went places they would never dream of going, places that hold a key to the wars and atrocities of our own time.  All those leering madmen, giants, the lumpen humans with their stupidity, superstition and cruelty–monsters and idiots infest Goya’s world.  We know all about them from our own.

Perhaps the bleakest of Goya’s images are on display at the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain.  They are aptly called the Black Paintings.  I’ve been to the Prado twice, both time to admire these works by Goya.

In 1793, a mysterious illness left him completely deaf.  In the isolation of the years that followed, he produced most of the works that gave us “our” Goya, the scabrous observer of hopeless humanity, the man who shows us a world where witches gather, bulls fly and Satan presides as a giant he-goat.  [His paintings and] etching are a peerless survey of hypocrisy, vanity and greed.

Goya's "Why?  Disasters of War 32" (1811-12)

Goya’s “Why? Disasters of War 32″ (1811-12)

These works were Goya’s reaction to a terrible war and the awful rule of the Spanish monarch Ferdinand VII.  Ten years after the king came to power, an exasperated Goya left Spain and moved to France, where in died in 1828.

Yet even in the isolation of his French years, Goya produced some of his most important work like the painting Self-Portrait with Doctor Arrieta.  In this oeuvre, he shows himself helpless during another of near fatal illnesses, propped up by the doctor who ministers to him.  The format is very much like a traditional pieta with Goya replacing Christ, and Dr. Arrieta substituting for Mary.

Goya's "Self-Portrait with Doctor Arrieta" (circa 1820)

Goya’s “Self-Portrait with Doctor Arrieta” (circa 1820)

As Lacayo asks:  “Who else could make a painting like this–so wise, so tender, so tough?”

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Second Thoughts About Elders Holland’s “Beggar” Talk

At the 2014 Fall General Conference of the LDS Church, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland gave a challenging and compelling talk concerning our obligations to the poor.  But I’ve wondered about a couple of things.  But they are very minor.

First, what was the point of the following?

Now, lest I be accused of proposing quixotic global social programs or of endorsing panhandling as a growth industry, I reassure you that my reverence for principles of industry, thrift, self-reliance, and ambition is as strong as that of any man or woman alive.  We are always expected to help ourselves before we seek help from others.

This statement is definitely overly defensive.  Like there is some need to pacify those in the audience who feel that the poor have brought poverty on themselves through their slovenly ways.  While this may be true of a small percentage of those in need, it is certainly not the norm.  And what about the children of the “slovenly.”

By the way, I had to look up the meaning of the word “quixotic.”  It means:  1.  possessing or acting with the desire to do noble and romantic deeds, without thought of realism and practicality; exceedingly idealistic; 2.  impulsive;  and 3.  like Don Quixote, romantic to extravagance, absurdly chivalric, apt to be deluded.  Great word, but I don’t like the application here.  We all have an occasional desire to tilt at windmills, and that is not always a bad thing.

Picasso's Don Quixote Preparing to Tilt at Windmills

Picasso’s Don Quixote Preparing to Tilt at Windmills

Second, I wish Elder Holland would have mentioned the situation in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.  The members there must be struggling mightily, not only with poverty but now also with Ebola.

Third, I wish he had made some suggestions about how the LDS Church and its members could do more to get involved in global war on poverty.  The Church does some now, but it could certainly be doing a lot more.

But again, these are only criticism to a wonderful and much appreciated talk.


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Comments About Mormon Missions, Part XIII (Robert Kirby)

By Robert Kirby,

Forty years ago, I dragged a film production around South America while serving an LDS Church mission.  “Man’s Search for Happiness” was originally created for showing in the Mormon Pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, but was subsequently reduced to a film strip for missionary proselytizing purposes.

The film featured the LDS concept of salvation as lived by a “typical” Mormon family.  My senior companions and I probably showed the film strip to 5,000 people.  It was okay at first, but I soon got to the point where it made me uncomfortable.  Eventually I hated it.

“Man’s Search” had a decent enough message–use your time on Earth wisely and you’ll go to heaven and meet your loved ones.  What I found increasingly disturbing wasn’t the message per se, but rather where it was filmed versus where it was shown.  It probably didn’t seem out of place at the New York World’s Fair, but it played a bit differently on a cinder block wall in a South American hovel.

By South American standards, the Mormons portrayed in the film were fabulously wealthy.  It was a little disingenuous to show that film strip in squalid apartments, dirt-floor homes, and places where people weren’t sure they were going to have food next week.  Sometimes we had to show the film strip with a flashlight because they didn’t even have electricity.

One evening, after a showing to a large family living in what would be a storage shed in Utah, the father turned to me and said it all.  “Those people don’t need to worry about going to heaven,” he said.  “They already live there.”

I was made a senior companion a few weeks later.  The day after that, in what would become my first movie review, our film projector fell into the canal.

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Mormon Transhumanists . . . What is Our Responsibility?

In a clarion call, Dr. Miriam Leis calls on transhumanists to get more involved in politics, business management, and perhaps even ecclesiastical hierarchies.  She starts out by describing the “sad” state-of-affairs:

Although many transhumanist ideas may sound disruptive and revolutionary to the average citizen, transhumanists themselves are far less the doers, but rather passive observers and theorists.

And continues:

A considerable majority of transhumanists seem to be “armchair transhumanists,” i.e. observers, theorists, waiting and hoping for the “singularity” to happen.  So where are the transhumanist politicians, multi-billion company executives, high-level consultants and socio-economic elites?

While I think her premise is flawed (there are transhumanists in high-level positions), I think she is missing the point of transhumanism.

She criticizes the movement for being fractured:  “internal differences and quarrels are finally weakening the movement, organization or company.”  And then makes an overly general observation:

If wanting to achieve change and transformation, a focused laser beam with the power to forge a chunk of metal is far more effective than a widely dispersed, incoherent and weak flashlight that only makes somewhat visible the surface of the object being transformed.

And her final recommendation to transhumanists:

If transhumanism is planning to become a force to be reckoned with in–and really as influential as some people are concerned about–it needs people to have the “will to power.”  [quoting Nietzsche]

Okay, I admit that I’m a slacker and have no “will to power,” but I think Dr. Leis misses the point of transhumanism.  So what points is she missing?

  • First, transhumanists are, in large measure, liberitarians, anarchists, individualists, absurdists, existentialists, anti-control freaks, people with a strong belief in leaderless organizations.  They aren’t driven by power hunger.  But that does not mean that they are not doers.  For example, many are active in all levels of society, just not necessarily at the higher rungs.  Just because I personally am anti-structure and a believer in organized chaos (as a management style), does not mean that I’m not engaged.
  • Second, the top-down organizational structure that Dr. Leis seems to be describing in her post is dying out.  (She even quotes Machiavelli.)  Replacing it is a more bottom-up organizational structure.  Change is more and more happening at the lower levels and then filtering up.  With the modern methods of communications, these changes are happening faster than ever.  The top-down organizations that I’m affiliated with are having a difficult time coping with change.  For example, look at the problems the LDS Church leadership is currently having with same-sex marriage, feminism, race, biblical literalism, etc.

While I can understand Dr. Leis frustration with an “incoherent” group like transhumanists, her own organizational model is seriously out of date.  Top-down management is on the way out.  And us peons at the bottom can make a huge difference; transhumanism doesn’t need a focused “laser beam,” it just needs committed individuals . . . which it has.  We transhumanists need to pursue our interests in our own way.  And to hell with Machiavelli.

Posted in @n@rchy, absurdism, existentialism, Internet, Organizational Dynamics, Technology, transhumanism | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland on Poverty and Compassion

During the Saturday session of LDS October 2014 General Conference, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland gave a very inspirational talk titled “Aren’t We Not All Beggars?”  He starts his talk with a very strong statement:

Down through history, poverty has been one of humankind’s greatest and most widespread challenges.  Its obvious toll is usually physical, but the spiritual and emotional damage it can bring may be even more debilitating.

He goes on to discuss the marvelous work of Mother Teresa in Calcutta.  Elder Holland then exhorts everyone to do as much as we can for the poor:

I don’t know exactly how each of you should fulfill your obligation to those who do not or cannot always help themselves.  But I know that God knows, and He will help you and guide you in compassionate acts of discipleship if you are conscientiously wanting and praying and looking for ways to keep a commandment [to help the poor] He has given us again and again.

He goes to point out that all of us may be just a whisper away from poverty:

I have had to worry about finances on occasion, but I have never been poor, nor do I even know how the poor feel.  Furthermore, I do not know all the reasons why the circumstances of birth, health, education, and economic opportunities vary so widely here in mortality, but when I see the want among so many, I do know that “there but by the grace of God go I.”

For me, the essence of worshiping God is loving and helping your neighbor, particularly those in need.  And I’m pretty sure God has a very broad definition of the word “neighbor.”  His talk was well received on the bloggernacle.

An excellent companion piece to Elder Holland’s talk was written by Tracy M and can be read here.

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The Promise of Biotechnology

Sebastian Pereira in a wonderful post on writes about the horrible impacts of malnutrition.  My father was a biochemist and nutritionist, and this is a subject that was very dear to his heart.  He went on several nutritional surveys for the National Institute of Health to various developing countries including:  Ecuador, Burma, and Thailand.  He wanted malnutrition eradicated.  As does Pereira:

From the moment of conception, the future of the individual hinges on the dietary choices of the mother, then the first five years are also crucial, the amount of micro nutrients provided to the new born determine brain development in the time to come.

Thus, we may conclude that malnutrition at an early age creates permanent disadvantages for the adult; this in turn leads to structural inequality and social tension.

Now malnutrition is a daily fact in most of the world.  Millions live with the bare minimum of calories necessary to maintain their lives, but not much else.

The crucial micro nutrients:  iron, zinc, vitamin A, manganese; to name a few, are not considered in food aid, or the millennial goals of the U.N. resulting in a permanent segment of the population suffering from long-term pathologies.

So what can be done to ameliorate the situation?  Pereira has a suggestion:

Plants can, and should be, modified to incorporate more nutrients for humans.

Red meat is the main source of iron for the human body, because iron found in vegetables is more difficult to absorb, but meat production is costly and difficult to implement in poor regions.

Using biotechnology to replace the iron in plants to a more absorbable type could end anemia; this is just one example of many.  DNA splicing is the key to the next food revolution, by controlling the nutrients each vegetable, grain, seed, fruit, etc. has, and ensuring these are distributed properly, a balanced and sustainable food source could be created for the entire globe.

In the future this technology has the potential to end structural inequality caused by malnutrition, and prevent many diseases caused by a weakened immunological system.

Another example of a possible improvement through genetic engineering is Golden Rice.  According to a recent article in National Geographic (Oct 2014, p. 44):

Only a few of the rice varieties at the International Rice Research Institute are genetically modified [GM] crops, in the sense that they contain a gene transferred from a different species, and none of those are publicly available yet.  One is Golden Rice, which contains genes from corn that allow it to produce beta-carotene; its purpose is to combat the global scourge of vitamin A deficiency.  Last summer an IRRI test plot was trampled by anti-GM activists.  IRRI creates GM varieties only as a last resort, says director Robert Zeigler, when it can’t find the desired trait in rice itself.

If the world’s population is going to feed itself, GM crop research needs to proceed apace.


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