Monday, September 23, 2013

Masterpiece: Giorgione, "Three Ages of Man".

Today, in our Masterpiece section we discuss Giorgione's "Three Ages of Man", the third in our series of famous but  mysterious painting of the Renaissance.  Earlier we had discussed Giorgione's "Tempest", the most popular painting in the famed Accademia in Venice; as well as Titian's "Sacred and Profane Love", the most popular work of art in Rome's magnificent Borghese Gallery. Click on the image to enlarge. 

Giorgione is the most mysterious and perhaps the greatest of all Venetian Renaissance painters. The mystery stems partly from the fact that he died at about the early age of 33 and left behind little biographical information. We only have a handful of contemporary references as well as the brief and often unreliable biography in Vasari’s Lives of the Eminent Painters, written decades after Giorgione’s death in 1510.

Moreover, as was the custom, Giorgione never signed any of his paintings and scholars have disagreed for centuries over questions of attribution. Finally, for those few paintings definitely given to Giorgione’s hand, controversy has raged over their subject or meaning.

A good example is the so-called Three Ages of Man, currently in the Pitti Palace in Florence. The name of the painting is pure guesswork stemming only from the obvious disparity in ages of the three men. One appears to be about 60, another in his early thirties, and the last a young man in his teens.

Scholars today object to the popular title. Some think the painting represents a music lesson and that the man on the viewer’s right is pointing to musical notes on the paper held by the young man. Others claim that it represents the education of the young emperor/philosopher Marcus Aurelius.  Others just throw up their hands and claim that it contains, like other Giorgione works, multiple levels of meaning.

However, the most spectacular element of this extraordinary painting has so far received little notice. Venetian painters were known for their coloration. Just look at the garments of the three men. Nothing in a Renaissance painting is there by accident or whim. The colors in this painting provide a major clue to its real subject.

As far as I know no one has suggested that the painting has a sacred subject, but yet, it appears that Giorgione has depicted a scene from the nineteenth chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew. It is the story of the encounter of Jesus with the young man of great wealth.

In Matthew’s account the young man asked Jesus what he could do to attain eternal life.  Jesus told him to keep the Commandments, and specifically named the most important. The man replied that he had done so but still felt that something was wanting. Jesus then uttered the famous words, “If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” The gospel relates that the young man went away sad for he had many possessions.

How has Giorgione depicted this story and who is the third man? The man in the middle is obviously young and the golden lapels of his garment as well as his fashionable hat indicate that he is well to do. He is holding a piece of paper or parchment that contains some indecipherable writing that under magnification hardly looks like Renaissance musical notation.

On the right any Christian, Venetian or otherwise, would immediately recognize the visage of Jesus. There is no halo or nimbus but Giorgione never employed that device. The pointed finger is certainly characteristic of Jesus. Here he points not at a sheet of music but at the Commandments, which the gospel account has just enumerated.

Jesus wears a green garment or vestment, certainly an unusual color for him. In fact, it looks like the robe or chasuble worn by a priest during Mass. At the hand of Jesus we can also see the white sleeve of the “alb,” a long white robe always worn under the chasuble. Green is the color used by the Catholic Church during Ordinary time, that part of the Church year not identified with any of the great feasts.

The third man is St. Peter. He is the only other person identified in Matthew’s account of this incident.  He stands on the left, head turned toward the viewer. Giorgione uses Peter as an interlocutor, a well-known Renaissance artistic device designed to draw the viewer into the painting and encourage emotional participation.  The old man’s face is the traditional iconographical rendering of Peter with his baldhead and short stubby beard. As Anna Jameson noted many years ago, Peter is often portrayed as ”a robust old man, with a broad forehead, and rather coarse features.”

The color of Peter’s robe is also liturgically significant. Peter is rarely shown wearing red, but Giorgione has chosen to show him wearing the color reserved for the feast days of the martyrs. In the gospel account immediately after the young man went away sad, Peter, speaking for the other disciples as well as for the viewer of Giorgione’s painting, had asked, “Behold we have left all and followed thee: what then shall we have?”

In the first decade of the 16th century Venice was at the apex of its glory. It would suffer a great defeat at the end of the decade during the War of the League of Cambrai but until that time it was arguably the wealthiest and most powerful of all the European nations. It was certainly the only one that dared confront the mighty Ottoman Empire.
Nevertheless, some young Venetian patricians were wondering whether the whole life of politics, commercial rivalry, and warfare was worthwhile. One of them, Tommaso Giustiniani, a scion of one of the greatest families, did actually sell all his possessions, including his art collection, in order to live as a hermit in a Camaldolensian monastery. At one point he wrote to a few friends, who were also considering a similar move, about the futility of their daily lives. He argued that Venetian life was agitated, completely outward, and continually dominated by ambition. It was the reason for all their worry. “If, then, a Stoic philosopher appeared to free their minds from all these disturbances, his efforts would be in vain, so completely does agitation dominate and enfetter their whole lives. How can anyone not feel disgust for such an empty existence?”

Peter and the other disciples were shocked when Jesus said that it would be harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. “Who then can be saved,” they asked? The response of Jesus was full of hope: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Green, the liturgical color used throughout the Church year, is also the color of hope.

 “The Rich Young Man,” the name we can now give to the painting in the Pitti Palace, would certainly appear to have an historical context in Giorgione’s time. Five hundred years after the death of this short-lived genius perhaps we can begin to understand that Giorgione was a unique and original painter of sacred subjects.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Income Inequality


Recently, my local newspaper (Connecticut Post) ran an article with a large bold headline that read, “ Top 1 percent takes rising share of 2012 U.S. income.” The article was based on figures from the Census Bureau that compared incomes among various statistical groups from the year 2000 to 2010. The headline and the findings in the article were supported by huge chart that took up most of the front page of the Business section.

The Connecticut Post likes to run stories like these since they seem to provide hard statistical evidence for its pet issue of inequality in Connecticut, whether it be racial, gender or economic. Hearst Connecticut Newspapers, the parent company of the newspaper, even went so far as to commission a study of the census figures by a University of Connecticut economist. Nevertheless, a review of the chart once again illustrates the old adage that “statistics don’t lie, but liars use statistics.”

At the top of the chart was the astonishing figure that the top 1% of the population in Fairfield county showed an increase in income in 2010 that was 14.5% larger than its comparable income in the year 2000. At the same time, income in every single other income bracket decreased during the same period. For example, the bottom 5% of Fairfield county’s population saw a 16.7% drop in income from 2000 to 2010.

What are we to make of these figures? The paper’s own chart belied the obvious conclusion it drew. In the same period the top 5%, which we also include the top 1%) actually saw their income drop by 9.8% in the same period. The Connecticut Post did admit that top earners suffered most in the “Great Recession” of 2007-2009. So what explains the figures?

Let’s look at the top 1% first. Fairfield County has a population of about 900000 so the top 1% would include about 5000 households. You would have had to read very deeply into the article to see that the income figures include not just salaries but also dividends and capital gains. The paper even explained that the more recent figures might be skewed by the fact that stockholders might have been taking capital gains from the sale of real estate and stock in anticipation of federal increases in tax rates. In other words, the wealthy were selling already owned assets and the gains inflated their incomes.

Other social and economic factors might have been at work. I would guess that during the decade that began with the attack on the World Trade Center, some wealthy New Yorkers decided to move our of Manhattan to Connecticut. Also, Greenwich, Connecticut lies just over the border from New York’s posh Westchester County. Not only are New York State’s income taxes higher than Connecticut’s (New York is not called the Empire State for nothing), but also real estate taxes in Westchester are substantially higher than those in Greenwich. Rather than a bad thing, the influx of wealthy people into Connecticut is a good thing for Connecticut. The top income households in the state pay much more than their fair share of taxes, and receive far less than their share of benefits from the state.

Speaking about benefits, what about the low-income households at the bottom of the chart? The bottom 10% had an income drop of 16.7% during the decade while the bottom 5% showed an income drop of 16.7%. Buried inside the paper the last sentence of the article admitted that the income figures did not include “so-called transfer payments from government programs such as unemployment benefits and Social Security.” Since everyone knows that such government benefit programs have increased dramatically in recent years, it is not hard to conclude that the bottom percentiles did not actually show a decrease in actual income.

Of course, benefits like food stamps and Medicaid only come from the taxes paid by those in the higher percentiles. I don’t know what the figures in Connecticut are but in this country the top 1% pay about 40% of all Federal income taxes. It would be better and more accurate if the paper’s chart had shown the actual after tax income of the various groups.

I don't deny the existence of income inequality but I do not believe that the Census figures show that it is growing. Moreover, unlike the Connecticut Post I do not believe that income inequality is necessarily a bad thing. No one ever suggests that athletes or entertainers should all work for the same pay. Even the most liberal Hollywood stars would be shocked at the idea. What then is so bad about an executive making a bonus if he does a great job?


Monday, September 9, 2013

Syrian Warning


After President Obama asked Congress to give its opinion on military intervention in the civil war in Syria, I sent an email to James Himes, my representative to Congress, asking him to consider the possible outcomes that might result. I wrote, “I hope you will ask for intelligence estimates of how many lives will be lost on both sides under the various scenarios.”

I believe that the possibility that we will do more harm than good far outweighs any other question. Even if there is irrefutable proof that the Assad forces used chemical weapons, that would still not justify an intervention that would cost much more destruction and many more lives than were lost during the chemical attacks.

Does anyone seriously think that President Bush or Vice President Cheney would have launched invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan after 911 if someone had been able to present them with the actual consequences that ensued? If President Obama could have looked into a crystal ball and seen how the attack on the Benghazi embassy would from his Libyan intervention, does anyone think he would have gone ahead?

Mine was not the only letter that Congressman Himes has received. He and other Members of Congress have received a torrent of mail on the subject. Himes did  respond and indicated that he had been briefed by the President and others on the contents of highly confidential intelligence reports. His response also included a survey question asking me to choose between four or five different options.

Subsequently, just yesterday he and senior Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut appeared at a local town hall type forum in Darien to sample public opinion. According to the news report Himes admitted that the response to his survey had been overwhelmingly opposed to any military intervention in Syria. In her weekly column in the Wall St. Journal Peggy Noonan indicated that polls showed that 80% opposed an attack on Syria.

Nevertheless, Representative Himes and Senator Blumenthal indicated on Sunday that their minds were still not made up. However, the recently elected junior senator from Connecticut, Chris Murphy, has already seen the handwriting on the wall and decided to vote against intervention in Syria despite a personal call from President Obama.

Speaking of the President it would seem that his strongest supporter on intervention in Syria would be his most outspoken enemy, the Wall St. Journal. The Journal and some of its columnists have been the drums for strong action. One columnist even urged a pinpoint attack to assassinate Assad and his whole family. The Journal believes that the USA is the sole bastion of world order and that we must live up to our role.

Even though I am a great admirer of the WSJ I can’t but feel that they have gone off the rails on this world order business. It seems pretty clear to me that in the last dozen years successive American administrations have done more to create disorder in the world than anyone else. Although President Obama promised a new era in foreign policy on his election in 2008, it is now clear that his Administration has de-stabilized the entire Middle East. In a few short years the so-called Arab Spring has turned into chaos. Disorder reigns all the way from Libya to Afghanistan.

I know that our country is tired of war and we want our soldiers back home. I also know that it is rare for us to consider an attack on a country or regime that poses no threat to us. Assad is no Hitler bent on world domination. Iran and North Korea pose a much greater threat than Syria and North Korea does have weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, the North Korean regime has been starving its people for years. Is that nicer than killing them with chemicals? For that matter, why haven’t we attacked Libya after the terrorist attack on the Benghazi embassy. An attack on an American embassy or consulate is considered an attack on American soil. What has been our response there?

Pope John Paul II urged President Bush not to invade Iraq but he failed to listen. Pope Francis has urged President Obama not to seek a military solution in Syria. People in power should not brush these warnings aside as impractical theological nonsense. In the gospels Jesus was almost Machiavellian when he cautioned rulers to consider all the consequences before going to war. He told the parable of the King who wisely withdrew from the brink when he discovered that his enemy’s force was twice as large as his.

Congressman Himes should not vote for war on the basis of intelligence estimates of chemical weapons. He should consider the cost in human life on all sides of the civil war in Syria, and also the possibility that the results of all our military efforts will only aid and abet our real enemies in the area.



Sunday, September 1, 2013

Blue Jasmine and the Butler

Last week I gave evidence of how American political, intellectual, and cultural elites have been brainwashing themselves through years of reading newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post. Equally effective in promoting an American ideology divorced from reality have been the film and TV industries.

A few weeks ago my wife and I saw “Blue Jasmine”, a critically acclaimed film written and directed by Woody Allen. I always think it dangerous when one person writes and directs a film. The result is often a personal vision that can be narrow and prejudiced. Blue Jasmine is a perfect example.

The film is the story of a formerly wealthy woman who has spent her life almost exclusively in Manhattan albeit with regular stays in the fashionable Hamptons. She has been married to a real estate mogul played very well by Alec Baldwin whose whole enterprise crumbles when he is revealed to be a Madoff like swindler. As the film progresses we also learn that the man has been regularly cheating on his wife. The wife is played brilliantly by Kate Blanchett who plays her as a completely self centered, even self absorbed neurotic. After her husband’s arrest the government confiscates practically all of their possessions and she decides to go to California to live with her sister.

Allen does a great job of depicting the Manhattan couple. Alec Baldwin is really believable and Kate Blanchett will probably win an Oscar for her starring role. However, Woody Allen seems to be totally clueless about the ordinary lives of people in the rest of the country. Jasmine’s sister and boyfriend are painted as crude stereotypes. It’s almost as if Laverne and Shirley and their friends had been resurrected. Maybe they were meant to be funny but their crudity only exposes Allen’s ignorance of and contempt for ordinary hard working human beings outside of Manhattan.

In a way Blue Jasmine reminded me of the old Seinfield show whose main characters seemed totally lost whenever they ventured outside of Manhattan. No matter if they traveled to nearby Long Island or faraway California (is there anything in between?), they seemed to be in a foreign country. Writer Allen draws his non-Manhattan characters not from experience but from TV sitcoms.

In a similar fashion, the recently released film about the long career of a White House butler seems to have made a cruel mockery of the career of an ordinary man and his wife. I must admit that I have not seen the film that has opened to rave reviews and has attracted large box office receipts. But what I have read makes me want to avoid it.

The film stars Oprah Winfrey and is based on the career of a real butler in the White House. Whoever was responsible for the film felt it necessary to take liberties with the real life story. Michael Reagan, the son of President Ronald Reagan, was critical of the film because of its depiction of his father but also because of the way it had to twist the story of this hard working black man. Here is an excerpt from Reagan’s commentary where he contrasts the life of the real butler to the fictional life portrayed in the film.
Guess which one grew up in segregated Virginia, got a job at the White House and rose to become maitre d'hotel, the highest position in White House service? 
Guess which one had a happy, quiet life and was married to the same woman for 65 years? And who had one son who served honorably in Vietnam and never made a peep of protest through the pre- and post civil rights era?

Now guess which butler grew up on a Georgia farm, watched the boss rape his mother, and then, when his father protested the rape, watched the boss put a bullet through his father's head?
Guess which butler feels the pain of America's racial injustices so deeply that he quits his White House job and joins his son in a protest movement? 
And guess which butler has a wife (Oprah Winfrey) who becomes an alcoholic and has a cheap affair with the gut next door?

In other words, the life of an ordinary man and woman who were loyal to each other for 65 years was not of interest to the makers of this film. They could not see the drama and emotion in a faithful marriage. Neither could they see the heroism of a man who did his job well and served his country faithfully for so many years without complaint. The cultural ideologues cannot understand a man like that.

This Labor Day weekend I tried to think of films or TV shows that have depicted the life of ordinary working men and women. It is very difficult. Hollywood doesn’t know them or else only holds them up to contempt and ridicule.

Eugene Allen, the real Butler with President and Mrs. Reagan