A Little Bit of Oscar Wilde

Sometimes, instead of uplifting, life-affirming quotes and stories, instead of depth of thought and greatness of character, there’s nothing quite like a shallow, brilliant mind to make you smile.  At least it’s that way for me…

Well, here’s a bit of Oscar Wilde.  He had lots of brilliant thoughts, and I’ve done my best not to reproduce any of those thoughts here.  I pulled these from Only Dull People Are Brilliant at Breakfast, a thin, little, awesome book.

 

“Men marry because they are tired; women because they are curious.  Both are disappointed.”

“Bad art is a great deal worse than no art at all.”

“Life is much too important a thing to ever talk seriously about”

“The secret of life is never to have an emotion that is unbecoming.”

“Murder is always a mistake.  One should never do anything that one cannot talk about after dinner.”

 

On the Failure of Great Art Reproductions

I walked into a vast basement warehouse in Phuket, Thailand in 2002 and was confronted with literally hundreds of oil paintings.  I didn’t really know what to expect when the man on the street invited me inside to see the hand painted reproductions.  At the time, I had no idea that reproductions were painted by hand, having assumed that all reproductions were prints and that the only hand painted reproductions would have been forgeries intended to deceive.  Yet these were paintings to hang in your home, and the prices were reasonable.  I assume the Thai artists were paid virtually nothing at all for their time.

Beyond my initial fascination with the few dozen artists all painting reproductions at the same time, I was confronted with a dilemma.  I was told that they could hand paint anything, from any book of art you could bring them (even a photograph), or from the many museum art books lying around the pace.

If you could own any piece of artwork (hand painted, but not original) from any time in history, what would you want to have hanging on your wall?

I immediately thought of some of the greatest or most enjoyable works.  The Mona Lisa, the Wall of the Sistine Chapel (I enjoy it more than the ceiling), Starry Night, etc.  Then I thought about it some more and decided that, though I loved to see these pieces, I didn’t want to look at the Mona Lisa everyday.  Sure, if it was THE Mona Lisa, I’d love to have it.  But I guess the reproduction, no matter how accurate to the original, would always be known to me as a reproduction.  Those weren’t Da Vinci’s paint strokes, that Michelangelo painting took 3 days to reproduce, not years, etc.  I would know, and I would always feel I owned a lesser work compared to any original.  As I started poring through the catalogs, I found incredible historic paintings, one after another, that I would never wish to own if they weren’t originals.

Should it matter?  I mean, is the appreciation of art dependent so strongly on who actually painted it instead of what was painted?  Seems pretty superficial to me.

But it did matter.  I wasn’t drawn to any particular piece except one of Warhol’s soup cans, and that was partly because Warhol made tongue-in-cheek art out of the ordinary.

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It turned out that I couldn’t settle on anything at all for myself.  This led to a lot of soul searching on my part.  Sure, the reproductions were not 100% of the originals, but what if they were?  I decided I still didn’t want the Mona Lisa or Pieta, as I would rather support and own the real deal, no matter how unaffordable or impossible to acquire.

 

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The Raft of the Medusa –  awesome!

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Tuna Fishing – Dali never fails to enthrall

 

But I have changed.  Now, over a decade later, I came across a piece in a book that I enjoyed so much, I decided I must have a copy.  It has been 15 years since I bought my last print, but this is not an everyday painting. Titled: Stranczyk during a ball at the court of Queen Bona in the face of the loss of Smolensk.

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The quality of this small digital image is awful.  If you can, please take the time to see a better image.

Painted by Jan Matejko in the 19th century, it is a painting of the court jester Stanczyk in 1514.  In the background is the party as a very depressed Stanczyk considers the terrible Russian capture of Smolensk.  I read in wikipedia that Stanczyk was known to be an intelligent, philosophical, man who used his wit and powers of satire to comment on Poland’s past, present, and future.

The image of the depressed fool, contemplating and concerned by world events while sitting apart from the party, is fantastic.  One could speak of the interplay of colors, the bright chandelier in the background of the party, the portentous comet in the window, intertwined fingers and intense look of the jester, etc.  For whatever reason, this painting spoke to me before I noticed the finer details.  The closer I inspect it, the more those details add to my experience.   I would gladly own a copy and have it framed in it’s full glory on my wall.

 

“The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.”

Michelangelo

 

Thoughts on the Nature of Food Photography

The Act

I have witnessed the growth of the food pic trend over the past few years.  How could I not?  Every time I go out to eat, there are people taking phone pics of their meals.  And like everyone else, I’m annoyed by it. I find the act of taking the pictures in the middle of a meal rude.  The pictures themselves are usually uninspired and they fall flat in their effort to convey the essence of the food.  My most frequent reaction to such a pic in social media is to skip it.  If my eyes accidentally stop on one, I am overcome by the thought, “Who cares?.”

But I am not holier than thou.  I am a sinner as well.  Perhaps the gravest sort, the hypocritical judge.  Have I become the Elliot Spitzer who sees prostitutes on the side while prosecuting and damning them before the courts. The urge to take the pictures is so irresistible at times, I fall from my high horse and muck about in the mud with my phone out and the camera shooting away.  Yes, I confess, I am weak and cannot help myself.  Though I do my best to rise above, some rare courses call out to me and require my hamhanded, amateur, photographic talents.  I convince myself that these are different from the many pics taken around me, that these are special.  In the words of Thorin, from Tolkien’s The Hobbit, “I have never been so wrong.”

 

Nom Nom Nom

We eat to survive.  Eating uses all of our senses and I assume, from an evolutionary standpoint, this is to determine if our food is going to kill us.  Taste and smell are obvious senses with eating.  Without these two, it doesn’t much matter what you pick on a menu. 

With our sight we can tell if we have received what we ordered, or if our nut allergy is going to react to the ice cream sundae we definitely ordered without nuts.  It also helps to see if our lettuce is wilted or if mold has appeared on our delicious loaf of cheese bread.

Consistency (touch) is extremely important.  We don’t want to discover something hard inside our mashed potatoes or for our steak to have the consistency of mush.  Some food should be hot in our mouths and some cold.  If you aren’t sure of the role of touch, just think of a bowl of Cheerios.  There isn’t much difference for taste between one that is just right and another that has sat for too long as we answered the door, but a mushy bowl of Cheerios borders on inedible.  And good luck enjoying your room temperature coffee.

Lastly, hearing.  We probably use this least when we eat, and hearing food eaten is considered bad manners in the West.  Yet foods that are supposed to crunch, like Vlasic pickles or potato chips, advertise it.  Pick a food that shouldn’t crunch, like a hot dog, and if hear a crunch, you know something has gone terribly wrong and your meal is finished.

When a photograph is taken of a beautiful Katz’s Deli pastrami sandwich, it can look good and make me salivate.  But it only includes sight and that misses most of the point.  The pic has no people in it, and unless I’ve eaten such a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s, or requested the pic of their food to satisfy my curiosity, I receive very little of the joy of the soon-to-be-stuffed photographer.

When a moment is captured with people enjoying their vacation, I can vicariously experience their joy and see the happiness on their faces.  But there is nobody in the picture of food except the food itself.  Pictures of food can look good, but are unlikely to take your breath away or force beauty into your day if you have never eaten that particular meal before.  I prefer a painting of the Last Supper over a still life of fruit.  Of course, there is one exception, but it took Salvatore Dali to make it happen.  Add some action or people to the pic and it becomes much more interesting.

 

Food as Art

Most people go through their days without noticing the beauty and wonder surrounding them.  They wake up, blah, blah blah, blah blah, boring, boring tedious boring, and they go to bed.  Maybe they love their jobs, or their significant others, their kids, whatever floats their boats, but they do it without art.  They live each day without really looking around themselves.  They don’t notice the varying color of the sky, the expertise and talent of the builders and architects of their house or the buildings around them.  They don’t look too closely at the lines for traffic that have been drawn a bit wavy on the road or the shoddy service they receive at the drive-through window.

But they all notice their food.  They really look at it, at least when it arrives.  They sit in judgement over it.  They see it, they smell it, they experience it.  This is true even if they are getting a coffee and a donut at the Waffle House instead of La Bernardin.  My father sometimes watched the look on people’s faces when their food arrived, the look of expectation, or disappointment, or even uncertainty as the dishes were brought to the table.  This is one of the rare moments of attention, true attention, in most people’s days.  The food has been made for them.  If they’re not careful, it might taste terrible (watch out for that hot pepper), have an obvious defect (such as an errant staple or bug), or even kill them (if they have a shellfish allergy).

It is a personal, commissioned work of art.  You picked it out of a menu and decided it was your personal choice.  Effort will be put in the manner in which your choice is presented to you.  It has been plated in a certain way, it has been arranged for both ease of eating (not often will you find a steak carefully balanced on end), for looks based on tradition or originality, for a mixture of flavors and colors.  It has been served separately from other dishes based on whether it is to entice the appetite to start a meal or top it off at the end. Some food it plated so beautifully, it seems a shame to take the first bite and mar it’s initial beauty.  Perhaps it’s time to take a picture of this ephemeral experience before its inevitable consumption?

Some things on the dish aren’t to be eaten, but exist only to add to the artistic merit.  A sprig of parsley or an extra small dish for cole slaw was a choice made by the chef or owner.  The big red container of McDonalds french fries, the fries standing tall above the edge of the open container is an intentional choice to make them more accessible and appetizing.  While the McDonalds owner does not know you personally, this container of fries was made for your enjoyment.  You will smell them and taste them.  You will judge if they are too salty, or slightly stale, or hot out of the frier.  You are truly paying attention, at least to that first fry you put in your mouth.  A few grabs later and the art has dissipated.  Even a hour later and your beautiful Mexican food, with its melted cheese and refried beans, has lost its appeal.  It is so easy, so natural to take out your phone, to try to preserve this very personal piece of art forever.  This art that continues to excite your senses even as you make your poor, deficient, two-dimensional rendering of its essence.

Your drink arrives as you sit at the bar.  It comes in a specific glass depending on whether it is a scotch on the rocks, a martini, a bit of brandy, or a Belgian beer.  The beer has a head, the martini has an olive or two, perhaps a twist of lemon peel.  Depending on the wine you ordered you may get a tiny desert wine glass or a mammoth one for a hearty red.  When the drink arrives, it is beautiful.  It has been made just for you, it is what you ordered.  The bubbles float to the top of the champagne flute and you are ready to celebrate an achievement.  Time for a picture?

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This absurd drink has obvious artistic merit, I mean, it sits in grass!

Hat tip to The Aviary in Chicago

 

Curiosity in the Bizarre or Disgusting

Who doesn’t enjoy a freak show?  Who doesn’t steal a glance at the unusual, the bizarre, the obscene, even the disgusting, if only to wrinkle their nose and look quickly away?  Few people watching a horror movie can resist peering through their fingers covering their eyes before closing their fingers again.

When we eat at new restaurants, or in places of different cultures, we are confronted by highly unusual dishes.  TV shows have been made purely on the basis of people being forced to eat food that disgusts them or even eating dishes of their own free will that the viewer finds repulsive.

This is also the basis for an entire genre of food photography that is much more desirable to the viewer of the picture than a picture of a burger.  These are pictures that appeal to the curiosity of the viewer, pictures that are designed to fascinate without the viewer risking the food ever approaching his mouth.  They are pictures that entice, at least in part, because they only require the sense of sight, and never have to sully the other senses.  Some people enjoy eating cheese with maggots or eggs that have been buried in a yard for some time, but I prefer to see these pictures rather than enjoy the meal myself.

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From some excellent place on Avenue B? in Alphabet City, NYC, 2014

Tasty, Disgusting, Satisfying, Interesting.  And absolutely artistic in the presentation.  Far superior for being bizarre and unusual.  It is firefly squid sushi that I ate because I gave my word to JP that would eat anything the chef served me.  But it’s a lot more interesting to me than to anyone who wasn’t present.

 

The Camera (Phone) Comes Out

If any thought at all is given to fellow diners, I assume it travels along these lines:

This’ll only take a moment and I’m sure the other people at the table can appreciate my need to capture this for posterity.  How can it be rude to take a picture with my phone in front of me instead of continuing conversation and discussing our newly arrived dishes?  If I’m rude, it’s only for a moment and I want my friends to see what I’m about to eat.  Anyway, everyone in this place seems to be using their phones and that includes people at my table.  I suck terribly as a person and should be ashamed of myself.

 

But if the desire for a pic stems from the desire to share life experiences with loved ones, is it really that shameful to whip out your phone? We have easier access to cameras than ever before, with the instant knowledge of the quality of each picture coupled with the ability to share it at no cost.

In my family, it was traditional to offer anything on your plate to anyone else at the table.  Often a spoonful of soup, in contradiction to all good manners, was passed over the middle of the table.  In our close family, it was entirely acceptable to request a taste of anyone else’s dish.  Poor manners?  Well, for us it was love.  We loved to eat and we loved to enjoy.  We loved each other and nothing could be better than sharing the joy of a well made or interesting dish.  We wouldn’t stab it off someone’s plate, but a request to try a taste of an unoffered dish was entirely within the realm of acceptable conduct.  At our table, this wasn’t rude.  We were in our own little Rome and we did as we liked.  And no, we didn’t share ice cream cones, that would have been gross(er).

Yet sometimes it is an opportunity to show off one’s sophistication or wealth.  Taking a picture at Masa of a $100 appetizer plate of raw sliced kobe beef with shaved truffles on it says more than just “look at my food.”  It also says, “look what I can afford, look at this luxury, look at the places I go to eat a $1000 meal.”  That may not be the photographer’s intention, but it certainly has that effect.  It is boastful, conceited behavior best left out of the public sphere.  It is gauche to show off your million dollar toilet, even if it is truly the best seat you’ve ever owned.

 

Food As Disappointment

At least a small percentage of the pictures are of the low quality of the presentation.  The pictures of food that don’t match the ads.  The Subway footlong that’s 11 inches, or the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder that is distinctly wilted, with a greasy fingerprint on the top bun from a careless chef.  This is similar to the bizarre food shots in that they do not present food to be experienced, but a show of careless quality in its many forms.  Who wants to experience disappointing food?  But we still look.  I find it easier to commiserate  with the disappointed gourmet than with yet another picture of a standard bologna sandwich.

I never review my pictures of food.  With art, people, landscapes, etc. it is another matter.  I am drawn to pictures of smiling people, fat and happy around a table or dirty plates and demolished goodies.  I love candid shots of serious discussions over drinks, or a smiling couple cutting a wedding cake.  I don’t really need that extra pic of the cake, no matter how delicious or artistic, sitting without human accompaniment.  But taking food pictures can be a joy by itself, even if I rarely look back at the photos.  I must remember that nobody who has seen them, unless they contain some unique curiosity, will ever give them a second glance.

 

I have had many musings on this subject and it was my wish to put them together in one place.  As I failed utterly to examine any literature on the matter, or to consult with more than a handful of close friends and family, I am certain to have omitted many obvious and important points.  Many other points are not original to me, but are the result of my theft of the thoughts I found insightful after long discussions with others.  Please be forgiving for the lack of completeness on this subject, but understand I am only bringing up an array of thoughts rather than a doctoral dissertation.  And, dear reader, take no offense in considering your own food pics or my judgement of them.  All the pictures of food sent by my friends, family, and readers are, without exception, inspirational works of art that excite my senses and bring out the best in me.

H. R. Giger, RIP

H.R. Giger passed away on Monday and the world has lost an artist with amazing vision and quality.  He produced some of the most interesting art I have ever seen.  He was most famous in popular culture for the design of the alien in the movie Alien, for which he won an Academy Award.

I never met the man personally, but I did buy a few of his books of collections over the years and even owned a few that weren’t so overtly sexual that I could put them out in the open.  I found his work to be brilliant in both its distinctive style and originality.  You couldn’t come across one of his pieces and mistake it for the work of another talented artist.

My first introduction to his work was at the Lit Lounge, which was (is) the bar in front of the Fuse Gallery on 2nd Avenue between 5th and 6th in Manhattan.  Downstairs in the grimy and wonderful depths of the bar, all the way in the back, was a table with Giger’s engravings all over it.  I think it was offered for around $12,000 at the time by the owners of the bar, but I can’t remember too well.  I admired it often, but the piece was damaged through use, parts of the metal flattened, the table all scraped up and covered with (removable) bar muck.  It was heavily used, but absolutely beautiful.

I didn’t have the money to buy it at the time or some such excuse, but I made a point to try and see it every time I went to the bar.  It was there that I was corrected and told his name is pronounced “GEE-ger.”  I came back years later to find it gone.  I finally found a poor picture of it online, so here it is:

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Here is a part of the image:

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Bizarre, unusual, amazing.

I will miss his work and the chance to meet him, but I never doubt his legacy will last in its beauty, originality, and ability to evoke interest (and sometimes horror).

May he rest in peace.

 

Noodles and a Crane

As I’m traveling today, I have little time to write, think, or try to entertain.  Rather than leave you with this, I give to you a picture of my lunch (how boorish!) and an origami crane.  Enjoy.

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The crane was slightly mauled by one of the beasts in my house, but the lunch was excellent!  I prefer Maruchan Ramen to Nissin Cup Noodles, but that’s mostly because I have fold memories of the Ramen I used to snack on in my teens and 20s.  The Nissin brand is more flavorful and therefore more authentic.  It’s not bad, but when it comes to Asian food, the less authentic the better.  As far as I can tell, this goes for Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese.  I think Japan may be okay, but I haven’t been there to know for sure.

Don’t think because you enjoy your local Chinese restaurant that you can eat in China.  You likely can’t.  My dainty, bland little American tastes quail when confronted by the real thing.  I remember visiting a food court in Singapore in a very high end mall and seeing a store called “Pig Organ Soup.”  All I wanted was a handful of french fries, but after seeing the pictures below the sign, I decided never to eat again.

Artistic Appreciation with Age

As I get older, I see beauty everywhere.

It wasn’t always this way.  When I was in my teens and 20s, I had no interest in a natural setting.  I found no special enjoyment from a mountain or river scene, unless it was of the extreme Ansel Adams variety.Image

Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, by Ansel Adams for the National Park Service.

 

Now I can look at a lake and feel peaceful.  A waterfall holds my attention and an Olympic athletic performance keeps me riveted as never before. That change alone has added to my enjoyment of life.  I finally appreciate those things my parents and all the people around me have enjoyed for their whole lives.  The change has not stopped there and this is where I find things shifting to the absurd.

 

I now find beauty and interest all around me.  I still find some things much more attractive than others, such as the photo below.

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Tribute to Man Ray by Guy Le Baube (1994)

 

When I look around, I see beauty in the random patterns of wood flooring, in a chaotic pile of driftwood, in a broken down desk.  I take joy in the artistic unattractiveness of an enormously fat person on a scooter,  smoking, with bad skin and stains on their shirt.  It makes me want to take a picture.  I find cheaply made items, broken golf clubs and plastic toys from the 90s and I want to capture the image.  I don’t even want to make a statement about them.  I have no message to send, just the joy in the image.  I want to see them for what they are.  In doing so, I enjoy them.  As my joy in the simple and unimpressive has grown, I fear I am becoming like that kid in the movie American Beauty.  He describes a plastic bag blowing around as the most beautiful thing he has ever seen.  I have ridiculed this for years and I disliked his character intensely.  Now I’m not about to call something like that the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, but I understand what he is saying.  I have to accept this is the one way street my mind has chosen to travel.

 

If this continues, I will find beauty in a plain white light switch on the wall or in the dust bunnies on the floor.  I find if I stare at something long enough it starts to grow on me and I see it as artistic.  I never understood the appeal of distressed wood (why damage something intentionally?), but now I find it may add to a table.  Perhaps I will appreciate the modern art paintings of a red square on a white canvas in another ten years.  Maybe on my deathbed I will appreciate the unpainted canvas alone.  I have always looked upon this sort of art with horror.  As a kid, Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup paintings seemed a waste of time.  Now I love them.  Diane Arbus photographs of everyday people appeal to me now more than ever before.

 

Though my opinions of art have spread far and wide, I find greater beauty in specific wonderful pieces more than in the everyday.  The beauty of the truly stunning has become so great in my eyes I stand transfixed when I see it.  Put a couple of drinks in me a I have to own it, to make it a permanent part of my life.

De gustibus non disputandum est.

(Roughly translated, there’s no accounting for taste.)

 

Here is one of my favorites:

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The Weight of Water, Part 3 by Tara McPherson, 2008