Wednesday, February 24, 2021

What is Art?

As this pandemic continues to consume us, I look back on the past year, and begin thinking about things I have missed.  One of those things is Art.  I took up photography, partly as a hobby and partly as an art form, although many would debate whether mine is an art form.   Just before leaving for India, on a trip that would finally consume four years, I was advised by my brother-in-law to buy a good camera, and then, after my arrival in India, to photograph everything. Initially, he said, everything would seem exotic, and so you must transform that exotica into 35 mm imagery.  He was not thinking about Art, more perhaps about recording a life experience.  And he was right, of course.  I was a poor kid from Brooklyn, who had hardly traveled at all, and certainly not to an exotic location like India. Everything was startlingly different. And so, I took him at his word and began transforming my life in India into the art form called photography.

Now, as I think back on it, photography was not everyone’s definition of “Art”.  I was not, of course, Ansel Adams. No, I was just an itinerant photographer from Brooklyn. Still, many people differentiate “Art” from “photography”.  Partly, I think it relates to the technical process whereby a final product is finally produced. In “Art”, a visual art that is, one begins with a blank canvas, and then takes up either water colors or oils, and paint brushes, and then one begins to fill the blank canvas with some imagery concocted from within the brain.  In photography, you point a camera at someone or something, and press a button. Then an image appears within the camera, an image which you ask someone to print, and then voila, you have “Art”.  Well, many would say, no, that is photography, not “Art”.  And therein lies my dilemma.

After I returned from India, having taken perhaps 2-3,000 photographic images on slides or negatives transferred to paper, I began fooling around more than I had in India. I acquired a darkroom and began transferring my images to a final paper product by myself. I also acquired an ability to print on larger pieces of paper.

Then, at some stage, my photography transferred from 35 mm into that form known as “Digital”. Yeah, I bought a digital camera, thereby eliminating that darkroom in favor of a computer. I had already bought a desktop computer—we were now in the 1980s—and some software to go along with it. So, I began fooling around.  I still, at that stage, did not think of myself as a “Digital Artist”, or what I was producing as “Art”.

Then time moves on. I gradually expanded my repertoire of digital production equipment, to include different and larger printers. And the technology changed over time, so that I could now print on rolls of paper, or even, rolls of “Canvas”. Yeah, that’s “Canvas”, as in the same kind of thing oil painters use to render their mental images into a final painted product on canvas.

And then, to confuse everything further, the village in which we now live, began sponsoring periodically, things called “Art Walks”.  Now what you might ask, is an “Art Walk”?  Well, it is an artsy event in our downtown, in which a number of commercial establishments on the main street allow artists to display their art work, generally indoors to avoid any weather, and people from the village wander with their families from one shoppe to another looking at and sometimes buying some of the art, after which they all go to dine at one of the local eateries.  And the shoppes range from actual art galleries to other commercial shoppes selling various products, and maybe even the dining establishments towards which the folks would eventually gather.  Each “Art Walk” would last for several hours, and it would provide an opportunity to both show off whatever you had produced, and to chat with the folks wandering by.  And what was the “Art” at these events? Well, there was the usual collection of oil painters, or water colorists, plus ceramicists, jewelers, woodworkers, even musicians.  The events were pleasant, sometimes even profitable for the “Artists”.

Now there was always a sort of competition between the oil/water colorists and the digital “Artists”.  See, one of the things I had acquired over the years was this thing called artistic digital software, Photoshop to be specific.  And with my software, I could produce final images, and then print them on canvas, which looked for all he world like they were oil paintings. That is, the game was no longer to produce digital art that was clearly photographs, but rather to muddy the waters enough so that folks could not easily tell the difference.  Now, my intent was not to confuse the buying public, but rather to produce artistic creations that pleased me, and hopefully the public.  That is, I would fool with an image on the computer until I had an image that I thought was pleasing, and then I would go ahead and print it on canvas.  Then I would frame it and voila, a whole new form of artistic imagery.

And one of the nicer features of these “Art Walks” was just conversing with the public wandering by.  Inevitably, if someone was struck by one of my pieces, they would inquire, “And how did you do that?”, a question never asked of a water colorist, or an oil painter.  And I would always reply to them, “Well,  I bring up the image on my computer screen, and then, using Photoshop, I begin to modify the image until . . .” And as often as not, before I had finished explaining my mental process of digital conversion, someone would respond, “Oh, you Photoshopped it” and then walk away.  See, I hadn’t really done anything. Photoshop had created the image.  So, finally, I began responding to the question differently. I would say, “Oh, I bought a device called the Adobe Magic Wand. And what I do is to bring an image onto my computer screen, wave the Magic Wand at the image and then sit back to await the final artistic creation. The Wand creates the final artistic image and then I just print it.”

And so my art work was transformed into the end product of a technical software process. See, there was no art involved at all.  I suppose you might call it “Fake Art”.

But then, what is “Art”?  I actually looked up the term on my computer, and wound up more confused than enlightened. Seems there is no useful definition of “Art”.  See, it’s pretty clear that the following image is called “Art” by almost everyone. Yeah, it’s that Van Gogh touch that gets them every time.

But then what of the following image? Is this “Art”?

No? Well, then Why Not?  Oh, because it was created on a computer.  So, computer-generated “Art” is not real art? Well, many would argue, “No, the second image is definitely “Art”. Whether you like it enough to buy it is an entirely different question.  Now to be fair, most of us would not buy the first artistic creation either, but that would be because we couldn’t afford to buy it.

That raises the question in my mind, what is “Good Art”?  That is, suppose the first image had not been created by Van Gogh, but by Jimmy Humbert, living in Manhattan, and attending the PS 82 school. And Jimmy, liked to dabble, and had produced that image last week.  Would folks look at it and say, “wow, that is a handsome piece of art”. Or would they say, “Nice job Jimmy, keep it up and you may actually turn into a real artist some time”.

See, I look at many pieces of art, and say, “wow, that is really awful”, or “wow, that is definitely mediocre”. Or maybe, “Hmmm, another landscape that doesn’t even come close to the quality of my landscapes”.  And yet, people, including the cognoscente, might well, look at one of my landscapes and one of the others produced by a local landscape artist, and love his or hers, but dismiss mine.  And because that actually happens, and folks go around proclaiming some artist’s wonderful landscapes, I am drawn back to this question, currently unanswered, which is, “what is good art?” And I think the answer actually has something to do with people’s perception of what it takes to produce “real art”. Photographic art, Ansel Adams aside, I think is simply not viewed through the same “Art” lens as oil paintings, or water colors. And it has something to do with peoples’ perception of the relative effort to produce each piece. I think photographs are seen as the work of the camera and maybe the software, whereas the water colors or oil paintings are the work of a brain, eye and hand coordination, and a more artistic sense by the artist of how to combine color and texture and scenery.  That is, “Effort”.

And now that the pandemic has ended things called “Art Walks” and I have ceased producing pieces of art with my Adobe Magic Wand, I will likely never really discover an answer to the questions, “What is good art”, or even just, “What is art?” I think I shall never see a satisfactory answer to that question, but I do finally understand that apparently my “art” is appreciated by only a few, but a precious few humans on this planet.  If anyone wishes to view what I consider some of my “best” works of art (or pseudo-art?) you might check them out at my artsy blog. Go to

Do have fun. And remember that old Adobe Magic Wand.



Thursday, February 18, 2021

Money is Everything

Do you remember in olden tymes, when we humans used to communicate in a wide variety of methods?  We used to talk of course, between and among ourselves. Yeah, if we were with other humans, we would actually speak with one another, without staring at a little handheld device.  And mail. Remember mail? You would take a piece of paper and a pen, well sometimes a pencil, but mainly a pen. More lasting image. And you would think of things to say to someone you know who was not sitting in the same room, or maybe even the same village. And you would compose a thing called a letter. A letter contained your thoughts about some subject or set of subjects, maybe even the weather. And you would place your “letter” in an envelope, write down the address to which you would like the letter to be delivered, and then place a thing called a stamp on the envelope as a way of paying for someone to hand deliver the letter.  Think of that. Isn’t that amazing? Your handwritten message would be hand carried and delivered personally to a person far away.

And then there was that system called the telephone. Remember telephones? They were devices that had kind of a base with a round thingie on it with numbers from 0 to 9 on it. And then it had another device that fit on top, and that device had a little speaker and a little microphone.  And you would dial a person’s “number” (everyone with a phone was assigned a multidigit number). And on their end, their device would sound a ringing noise repeatedly until they picked up the device with the speaker and microphone. Usually, they would talk into their device and say something like, “Hello”. And then you would say something on the other end, beginning another thing called a conversation.  Yeah, you would actually speak with someone, even though they were not in the same room.  Amazing, huh? And because there were not very many lines open, people would share their phone line, using something called a “party line”. Yeah, you might pick up your hand device and hear someone already talking to someone else. And you were expected to place your device down, or “hang up”, so they could finish their private talk.

Now typically, people only wrote these letters or called someone on a telephone if they actually knew them. Sometimes you might call a stranger, but not often.

So, humans actually used these methods to communicate thoughts from one person to another.

After some time, commercial companies caught onto these communication devices, and they might send you a thing called a “bill”, or a statement claiming that you owed them money for some reason. Now usually, companies did not call someone just to tell them about something they wished to sell them. That would have been stupid, huh?

And then, sometime in the middle of the 20th century, some clever dudes invented things called “computers”.  Now, at the start, only a few people purchased these computer devices.  And the devices included a thing called a keyboard (sort of like a typewriter), a little visual screen that would show you what you were typing, and then a large box that had within it a bunch of electrical thingies that no one understood—well, almost no one.

And what would you do with that computer thing?  Well, for one thing, you could use it as a sort of typewriter. Yeah, you could actually press keys on the keyboard, and letters would appear on the screen. So, you could type a letter, instead of using a pen and paper. Now, when you were done, you still typically had to use a printing device to print your letter, and then use that envelope and stamp to send off your letter.  But then some clever dudes invented a ghostly thing called the World Wide Web. Yeah, the Web was this thing that you would never actually see or touch.  You would plug your computer into a device that somehow connected you into that ghostly thing called “The Web”. And then, they went even farther and invented a shadowy thing called “Compuserve”. And if you typed in some special address like thing on your screen, it would connect you to this Compuserve. Once there, you could actually send a message (not a letter) to someone you knew who was also connected to this Compuserve Web place.  And it would be almost like you had typed a letter and had it hand delivered, except you never left your room.

Now this really revolutionized communications around the world, yeah, even more than within your village.  Gradually, you gained the ability to communicate with people very far away, something you might do with those letters, but most people refrained.  In those olden tymes, my wife and I, before we were married, because we lived 3000 miles apart while I was in college, used to put pen to paper and write and send off actual letters daily—yeah, that’s every day.

But back to Compuserve. At the beginning, people used to communicate with other friends, or business colleagues only.  But then, slowly, companies got wind of this thing called the Web.  And they began placing themselves on this Web. Over time, this Web became itself a “place” you might visit.  And why would you visit, “The Web”? Well, slowly, as companies caught onto it, new places formed on this Web, places you could visit, maybe a newspaper, for example. Yeah, the New York Times placed itself on The Web. And then finally, many, many folks, humans, joined this Web thing.  And everyone began using it as a mode of communications, and as a mode for investigating new Web Places, and companies.  Folks began joining things called “E-Mail” services, where, instead of your home address, you could give friends your “E-Mail” address, and they could send you messages instead of letters.

So, then as the Web systems matured, and more entities joined, we had a pretty amazing ability to communicate with one another. We still had the mail system, where postmen hand delivered actual mail to your house, we still had the telephone, and then we had this Web. Then even more amazing, someone developed a device called a “bagphone”. What was that, you might ask? Well, it was actually a telephone, and it sort of looked like the old fashioned telephones, but you carried it around in a bag, and you could actually make a call while driving your car.  Think about that. A phone you could carry with you.

But did we stop there? No, of course not. Those bagphones were too big and too clumsy looking, so folks invented small things first called flip-phones, cuz they could be folded in half so as to fit into your pocket or your purse.  Not to be outdone, someone else invented portable computers that you could carry around with you. Think of that, a computer you could carry with you.

And then computers became big business, and a battle ranged between IBM (remember IBM?) and a place called “Apple”.  At first, IBM produced its computers aimed at business folks, with typing systems, called "Word Perfect”, and a host of other systems aimed at the business folks—math systems, called “spreadsheets”, and systems to build data bases developed.  And then Apple, not to be outdone, began developing their systems with cute games and pictures built in, so as to capture the Kid Vote.  Remember that first graphics system called “Lisa” (not to be confused with the Mona Lisa).

And then, finally, the worlds merged and telephones became computers, where you could still speak with someone, but you could also join that World Wide Web and communicate with the outer world.  

And then communications changed radically. First, most folks stopped writing things called letters. Oh we still had mail hand delivered, but it was now only rarely a communications between two humans. No, slowly, almost all “letters” became commercial transaction entities. Either a company sent you a bill for their services, or a company sent you a request that you join their services, and almost all “mail” became financially oriented—people trying to sell you something, or bill you.  Tell me, please, when was the last time you received an actual personal message from someone you know via the “Mail”?

But then you still had your “E-Mail” right? Well, no, not really. Soon, too soon for some of us, E-Mail transitioned much like the actual mail system. And instead of people sending messages to one another like in those olden tymes,  companies took over.  Now it was not all bad. At one time, I used to get “E-Mails” from news entities, like the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Guardian, The BBC, the (Australian)BC, the (Canadian)BC, something called the Thai-Indian News. And that was nice, cuz I could check in and read the news from all over.  Slowly but surely, most of these commercial news outlets have begun asking for money, so they could continue sending me their news.

And then, the companies wishing I would buy something from them, or somehow become a member began taking over.

Now, not only do I receive almost no actual “Mail”, I get almost no person-to-person “E-Mail”. Nope, it’s all about the money now.  The days of mail as direct communications seem nearly over.  And you might say, well you still have those telephone things right? Well, yeah, but increasingly folks, especially young folks don’t communicate by phone any longer either. They send “Text-Messages”, or they join “Social Media” things called Facebook, or WhatsApp, or Twitter, or TikTok, or any of a dozen others, and they communicate via those systems.  And we only rarely communicate directly any longer.  Now, communications systems are really all about the money, and that may be what has driven younger folks to abandon them and use these other esoteric systems. And that makes me sad, as I daily go through my direct mail, and toss most of it into the trash, because it is no longer from real people. How sad.

The big question is where do we go next, because commerce will surely engulf all of these social media sites, and they too will become useless as communication devices.  Maybe next is some new form of mental brain transmission systems, after Bill Gates finishes placing electronic chips in all of our brains? 

Won’t that be fun?

Thursday, February 11, 2021

In This Year of 20??

I was reorganizing some of my earliest blog postings way back in 2008. Remember 2008? Those were the days of Shrub, Cheney and Condi Rice, just before we elected Barack Obama. And what struck me was that my state of mind then most resembles my state of mind in, say 2019 or even 2020. And I am talking politics, not the pandemic.  Remember my old standard about Trump: “How do you know he is lying? Well, whenever he opens his mouth and words come tumbling out, he is lying!” Sounds like Trump, huh? Well, turns out I said the exact same thing about Shrub way back in 2008.

And it brings me back to St. Ronald of Reagan. Well, I didn’t have a blog then did I? No, actually, I worked in our government under Reagan for six years. Originally I left the private sector at The Urban Institute and went to work running an evaluation office under Jimmy Carter’s DHEW, before he shipped off Education to its own NeverLand.  Working under Carter was kind of pleasant. He had a pretty good cabinet, and I always had the feeling that President Jimmy actually cared about facts and Truth, and about how America was doing.  Then St. Ronald won the election, and everything changed.  Well, not immediately, but change it did.

The shtick about Reagan was that he made it ok again to be a racist. Remember all those tales he spun about welfare queens driving to the store in their Cadillacs? He was inviting racists to come out of their closets.  I realize that republicans worship at the feet of St. Ronald. But, having worked under his administration, I came to understand that he really did not understand much of anything except maybe, Power. He apparently liked the Power thing, and he also liked the wartime president thing.  I guess all presidents become aware of the wartime president thing.  Remember FDR? Yeah, that wartime president. Everyone loved FDR and supported everything we were doing to defeat the Nazi’s.  Remember that? Yeah, we actually used to despise Nazi’s, instead of inviting them to riotously breaking into the Capitol.

So, Ronnie adopted hard line rhetoric against so many it was difficult to keep track. Remember that old “Evil Empire” formerly known as the USSR? And most famously, remember the Iran-Contra scandal, when St. Ronald sold arms to the terrorist regime in Iran and then used the proceeds to supply arms to the Nicaraguan Contras? Oh he had such fun.

But mainly, I remember how he used lies to cover his tracks every time he adopted some policy.  He seemed to revel in lies. Remember that old “Laffer Curve” that he adopted and sold to the country? The Laffer Curve suggested that as you reduce government taxation of corporations in particular, government tax revenues would increase, or at least not decrease. Instead, as implemented by Reagan, the tax cuts he implemented led to the largest budget deficits in the Nation’s history.

From PoliticoFact: "(President Ronald) Reagan took the deficit from 70 billion to 175 billion." This is more or less accurate. The federal deficit went from about $78.9 billion at the beginning of Reagan’s presidency to $152.6 billion at the end of it. At points between 1983 and 1986, the deficit was actually more than $175 billion.

"(George H.W.) Bush 41 took it to 300 billion." Close, but not exactly. The number was around $255 billion at the end of Bush’s term. The deficit spiked at around $290.3 billion the year before he left office.

"(Bill) Clinton got it to zero." This is true. During his presidency, Clinton managed to zero out the deficit and end his term with a $128.2 billion surplus.

"(George W.) Bush 43 took it from 0 to 1.2 trillion." This is in the ballpark. Ignoring the fact that he actually started his presidency with a surplus, Bush left office in 2009 with a federal deficit of roughly $1.41 trillion.

"(Barack) Obama halved it to 600 billion." This is essentially accurate. Obama left the presidency with a deficit of approximately $584.6 billion, which is more than halving $1.41 trillion. The deficit was even lower in 2015 at around $441.9 billion.

And then President Trump? Well . . .” A Treasury Department statement from June put the federal deficit at about $747.1 billion so far, but the agency also reported that Washington is on track to post a $1.1 trillion deficit.”

So, St. Ronnie did really produce huge deficits via his Laffer Curve economics, but his later republican colleagues even outdid his stupidity.

All this is to say that Trump did not invent lying, or stupidity as a republican president. He has had lots of company (Oh, remember Hoover???).

Well, I think I will have to put aside this infatuation with republican stupidities and focus instead on observing their behavior over the next several days on the Impeachment trial of our former republican president. Remember him? What was his name again? Oh, yeah. The Drumpf, or Stupidhead as he is known among his close associates and BFFs.  So, we shall see what republicans do in the face of the evidence against Trump at his trial.  But don’t hold your breath about a conviction, folks. Republican anarchists like Rand Paul hate anyone being held accountable.