Monthly Archives: August 2011

Seventeenth-Century Snapshots

Jan Steen, The Dissolute Household -- Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

As you wander through an art museum, it becomes apparent that paintings from before the 19th century tend to fall into one of several broad categories. 

There are religious and mythological pictures, in which the superhuman activities of saints, angels, various deities and chubby, winged babies are shown.  There are portraits of kings and queens, as well as other aristocrats who could afford to pay an artist to flatter them.

History paintings are abundant; they commemorate important battles, coronations, voyages and the like.  Sometimes guest stars from religious paintings appear in history paintings, whispering encouragement in the king’s ear. 

Landscapes (or their close relative seascapes) show us how nature looked before the invention of billboards.  Still life paintings are basically portraits of flowers or fruit or books, with the occasional dead rabbit thrown in.

A category I enjoy — especially after having to look at dead rabbits — is what art historians call genre paintings.  These depict scenes from ordinary daily life; their subjects are common folk, not plutocrats or popes.  There were genre painters all over post-Renaissance Europe, but for some reason the Dutch were particularly good at it.

When he wasn’t painting self-portraits Rembrandt did some genre paintings, and Johannes Vermeer gave us exquisite glimpses of everyday life.  Frans Hals showed people smiling and laughing, which in the 17th century was highly unusual (in paintings, but presumably not in real life).

One of the best genre artists was Jan Steen (1626-1679), who brought a sense of humor to his work, often depicting people who were not on their best behavior.  His scenes are full of activity, almost to the point of chaos.  These are not the serene, beautifully lit moments that Vermeer presents; Steen gives us snapshots, in effect, taken of people who aren’t aware they’re being seen.

He painted children trying to teach a cat to dance, and gamblers at a tavern, and houses that looked like the cleaning lady had quit in disgust.  Some of his scenes suggest a frat party of long ago, with a lot of flirting and carousing.  To his eventual detriment, Steen sometimes painted himself into the revelry — he’s the central figure in the image above.

Because he appeared to be a drunk in his paintings — along with the fact that he had an interest in a brewery and was an innkeeper — 19th-century art critics concluded that he really was a drunk, and therefore unworthy of serious consideration as an artist.

It didn’t matter to them that his technical skills were exceptional; as Encyclopædia Britannica says, “he was a master of capturing facial expression.”  Steen’s subject matter made the art establishment of that time a little queasy, too; it was as if they blamed him that everyday life can be untidy at times.

Steen’s work has since undergone a reappraisal by experts, and is now widely admired.  To this day, however, Dutch people refer to a messy home as “a Jan Steen Household.”  I wouldn’t want to live in one, but it’s fun to look at them.

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Edison’s Worst Invention

Suddenly, Thomas Edison had an idea.

When Thomas A. Edison developed an incandescent electric lamp in 1879, cartoonists rejoiced.  They now had a way to depict a character having a good idea — the lightbulb-over-the-head symbol.  Until then,  artists were stuck with gas lamps or candles, which didn’t convey a bright idea nearly as well.

Edison himself had a lot of bright ideas in addition to the lightbulb, including the phonograph, the motion picture projector, alkaline storage batteries and a vote-counting machine.

The term genius gets thrown around rather casually nowadays, applied by proud parents to children who have learned to tie their own shoes by age 12.  There’s no dispute, however, that Edison was an authentic genius; he had a total of 1,093 patents, many of which proved to have practical value.

He also had some terrible ideas.

For instance, he blew a fortune trying to invent mining equipment that could separate iron from lower-grade ore.  It’s also hard to comprehend how someone as smart as Edison could come up with the notion of poured-concrete houses.

In a wonderful book called At Home, author Bill Bryson describes the demented dream behind the formation of the Edison Portland Cement Company in 1899.  “The plan was to make a mold of a complete house into which concrete could be poured in a continuous flow, forming not just walls and floors, but every interior structure…”  Yes, Thomas Edison envisioned a home that had concrete cabinets, concrete toilets — even concrete beds.

Those of us with little or no engineering aptitude still can’t help but see that it would be awkward (at the very least) to construct molds that are the size of… well, a house.  Sooner or later, it might also occur to us that a home made of concrete, filled with concrete furniture, might have a weight problem.  Edison seems to have ignored estimates by engineers that these dwellings would weigh about 225 tons, which would create some serious strains on the structure.  Or, if installed on certain sub-soils, would eventually sink.

Edison forged ahead, amassing cement in vast quantities.  “By 1907,” Bryson notes, “Edison was the fifth-biggest cement producer in the world.”

Once construction began, an even bigger obstacle became apparent. Edison’s engineers had a terrible time getting the liquid concrete to the right consistency; it had to be fluid enough that it would flow into every part of the giant mold, but not so runny that it settled and hardened into a blob.

By 1912, the dream of pouring concrete houses and filling them with concrete pianos was abandoned, but a few of them were actually built, and there are people in New Jersey and Ohio who can still show you the concrete house where great-grandma lived.

The most famous structure made from Edison cement does not bear the inventor’s name, though.  For generations it was referred to as “The House that Ruth Built”, or known by its official name — Yankee Stadium.  For that project the concrete was poured in manageable sections, of course, and none of the furnishings were made of concrete.  Although from time to time, some Yankee fans still insist that the umpires are blockheads.

Me, Myself and I

These rhinos were not particularly interested in Sally and me. (Or is it "I"?)

We all find ourselves fascinating, but many of us don’t know how to choose the pronoun that identifies the subject of our best stories.  Is it “me”?  Is it “I”?

That depends on context, of course, and that’s when we get messed up.  We flash back to some English teacher, the one who took perverse pleasure in shoveling the rules of language onto us.  Unfortunately, all we remember is that there were rules, but we can’t remember what they were.  There was something about subjective case and objective case and gerunds — whatever the heck those are.

If all those rules make your face twitch when you try to remember them, you aren’t alone.  Plenty of intelligent people get tripped up:  “He sent Edwin and I a beautiful basket,” the lady says incorrectly.  (That was obviously a made-up snippet of conversation; no one is named Edwin anymore.)

Some people try to evade the trap of “I” or “me” by using “myself”, as in “The neighbor climbed a ladder to rescue the cats and myself.”  That’s wrong, and it’s the sort of usage that made your old English teacher menacingly slap the palm of her hand with a ruler.

So here’s a simple way to remember the correct personal pronoun.  Don’t think of this as a rule, think of it as a suggestion.  Or, if it makes you feel like you’re getting even with the teacher, think of it as cheating.  OK, what you do is this…

Say it silently to yourself, leaving out everyone but you.

For instance, if the lady mentioned above left out Edwin, she’d realize that it sounds wrong to say, “He sent I a beautiful basket.”  She doesn’t need to recall that “me” is correct because it is the objective case of the personal pronoun.  All she has to know is that if Edwin is temporarily left out of the story, “I” sounds weird.

Let’s consider another example:  “Dave, Tony, a couple of Sig Eps and me accidentally burned off our eyebrows.”  (This sentence was not taken from a standard English textbook.)  If the others are left out for a moment, it’s apparent that one would say, “I accidentally burned off my eyebrows, ” not “Me burned off,” etc.

You can use a version of that rule — I mean, suggestion — for plural pronouns, too.  If we consider the same group of guys, would they say, “Us boys like to make our own fireworks,” or “We boys like to make our own fireworks”?  Hint:  Leave out boys, and it’s clear that “we” is correct, since you wouldn’t say “Us like to make our own fireworks.”  In their specific case, it may not be worth learning correct usage since they probably won’t be around much longer.

One other thing to remember is that whether the correct pronoun is “I” or “me”, it belongs at the end of the list, not the beginning.  It should be “Christine and I held hands,” not “Me and Christine”.  Or, when the occasion arises, you should say, “The lifetime achievement award was presented to Bishop Tutu, Dane Cook and me.”

If you want, you can make up a few sample sentences and practice right there in the privacy of your own home.  Remember — leave out the others momentarily, and listen to how it sounds.

Me hope this little tip helps.

Tom’s Top 25, 2011 Edition

Once again, it’s time for college football experts to predict which team from the Southeastern Conference will win the national championship.  There are other conferences, of course, but for five straight years an SEC team has won the trophy:  Florida in 2006, followed by LSU, Florida again, Alabama, and Auburn last season.  A lot of teams from the conference are capable of winning it in 2011 — not you, Vanderbilt.

The entire Big Ten Conference should be on academic probation since they don’t seem to be able to count past 10.  Guys, with the addition of Nebraska this season (after Penn State years ago), you are now up to 12 teams!  The Big 12 Conference is also math-challenged; it has 10 teams this season, since Colorado joined Nebraska in saying goodbye.  Suggestion to the conference commissioners:  trade names!

None of the football teams in the Big East Conference are very good, but at least they are geographically located in the eastern part of the U.S. — until next year, when Texas Christian joins the league.  The Pac-12 Conference, as it is now known, is right about the number of teams it has, but seems to think that Utah and Colorado are on the west coast.

As several of you have pointed out, I am no expert.  That doesn’t stop me from making my annual preseason Top-25 predictions, though.  In fact, here they are now, along with a few random observations:

1.  Alabama (SEC)   Showdown with LSU on 11/5 is a home game for Tide

2.  Oklahoma (Big XII)

3.  Oregon (Pac-12)   Lost BCS championship by 3 points last year

4.  Boise St. (Mountain West)   QB Kellen Moore and 8 defensive starters return

5.  Louisiana St.  (SEC)  Tough road games at Oregon, Miss. St., Alabama

6.  Florida State (Atlantic Coast Conference)

7.  Stanford (Pac-12)   Cardinal has nation’s best QB, Andrew Luck

8.  Oklahoma St. (Big XII)  Lots of talent returns from 11-2 team

9.  Nebraska (Big 10)

10.  Texas A&M  (Big XII)

11.  Virginia Tech (ACC)

12.  Arkansas (SEC)

13.  TCU (Mountain West)  Defense will hold fort while offense gains experience

14.  Michigan State (Big 10)

15.  South Carolina (SEC)

16.  Wisconsin (Big 10)

17.  Notre Dame (Ind.)    Traditional basketball school shows promise in football

18.  Mississippi St. (SEC)   Another 9-win season isn’t out of the question

19.  Auburn (SEC)

20.  Ohio St.  (Big 10)   Suspended players may have to give back tattoos.

21.  Arizona State (Pac-12)   Nineteen starters return for Sun Devils

22.  West Virginia (Big East)

23.  Penn State (Big 10)   Final year of Joe Paterno’s contract

24.  Central Florida (C-USA)   Won 11 last year; can they do it again?

25.  Florida (SEC)