J. M. W. Turner at the Smithsonian

J. M. W. Turner, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps, 1812, oil on canvas, Turner Bequest, Tate Britain, London

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps, 1812, oil on canvas, Turner Bequest, Tate Britain, London

From 1 October 2007 through 6 January 2008 the Smithsonian had a historic exhibition of 164 works of J. M. W. Turner. I first came to know Mr. Turner on a brief visit to London in 2003 — I’m a bit of a philistine — when I saw Ulysses deriding Polyphemus (1829) and The Fighting ‘Temeraire’, tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up, 1838 (1839), and probably a few others that didn’t stick with me, on display at the National Gallery of London. Since that time he has only grown in my esteem. Getting to see Ulysses deriding Polyphemus again was like visiting an old friend. I went to see the exhibit twice in its three months in Washington, D.C., but still our time together was precious and passed altogether too quickly.

I think that a lot of art historians would say that he is not, as many amateur admirers would like to interpret him, some avant guard Twentieth Century painter, a sort of pre-Impressionist, mysteriously displaced in time. Obviously if you take the announced theme of his paintings, they are very much of their age. They aim at the sublime in nature, classical historical stories, moral edification, the contemplative and the visually soothing and pleasing. I just don’t know whether Mr. Turner would actually like us to consider the depicted event, or quickly brush past it as pretext to get to the real matter of painting, which is light, color, material — painting as the primitive actions of composition, application of material, seeing and pleasure in the most basic elements pf perception, prior to the engagement of the higher cognitive faculties.

Look for instance at Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps (pictured above). It’s a massive black swirl pushed up the side of a mountain, against a frothy, creamy snow. Anything that might constitute “the action” or the narrative of the painting is in the lower quarter of the frame, and even then only impressionistic. A lone silhouette of an elephant against an illuminated sky in the far distance is the only obvious sign of what is, at least ostensibly, being portrayed. It is a painting of the cloud, the sky, the light. The rest is pretext. It’s not even really that, I suspect. It’s a painting of the way colors interact and an experiment in what is pleasing to the mind, unbounded by depiction and representation.

From a distance the paintings may be depiction, but take a step closer. They are elaborate exercises in color and the application of paint. Your eye can cover square inch after square inch without coming upon a single recognizable feature — just differing layers of color and paint. I’m thinking here of Snow-storm, Avalanche and Inundation – A Scene in the Upper Part of Val d’Aouste, Piedmont (1837). Clip off the lower right corner and strip the title and it would be a wholly modern painting. Or some of his watercolor studies for the two Burning of the House of Parliament are depictive in title only.

In favor of this interpretation, Mr. Turner follows a trajectory similar to the Impressionists and Surrealist that would come later, in that he starts out making very realist, representational paintings in the 1790s and early Nineteenth Century, only gradually and experimentally becoming more abstract later. In the years 1810 through the 1830s you start to get these mixed representational and abstract paintings. After 1840 he starts to produce paintings that no longer have a narrative slice or corner that allows the field of abstraction to plausibly be interpreted as something — a stormy sea, a particularly tumultuous cloud — but rather entire fields of abstraction with but a shadow of depiction somewhere in the midst. Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhon coming on (1840) approaches this. Snow Storm — Steam-Boat off a Harbor’s Mouth … (1842) or Yacht approaching the Coast (1850) show the full fruition of this development.

There is no substitute for being close to these paintings. The way that Turner depicts the effects of the sun on the layers and layers of cloud and other water vapor is not something that lends itself to flat, twentieth scale ink reproduction. The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire (1817) is a perfect example. You will never see what he does with the sun and the flurry of clouds above, or the way that the same light infuses the entire painting.

It’s worth noting that Mr. Turner was not a one trick pony. Venice: The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore (1834) and Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute (1835) were quite a surprise to come upon late in the exhibit. After so many paintings listing abstract, two of such clarity of line and distinction of color was almost a shock to the senses. Obviously I wasn’t the only one with such a response as I overheard a number of other museum-goers comment to the same effect.

The painting that was missing from the collection was The Fighting ‘Temeraire’, tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up, 1838. It is perhaps his most romantic and nostalgic painting. As a part of the National Gallery collection, it was of a piece with my original acquaintance with Turner. If seeing the exhibit was like visiting old friends, it was like a visit where one of your ranks was not present.

It will be on display again in my neck of the woods at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York from 24 June – 21 September 2008. I may have to get up for one last peek before this once in a lifetime assemblage disbands for good.

Elections as Signal II

I realize that there is a significant debate around whether Bob Kerrey is a cat’s paw for Clinton campaign race bating directed at Barack Obama — and the Clinton campaign has had some perfidious truck with the right-wing sewer. But again, there’s debate about whether what he said was sincere or really a backhanded compliment (see e.g. Kleiman, Mark, “Kerrey and ‘Barack Hussein Obama’,” The Reality-Based Community, 16 December 2007). I think there’s reason to think that he’s sincere, but whatever the case, since he expresses the internationalist potential of Obama qua icon — or as Frank says, as signifier — so well, I’m going to excerpt it at my own risk:

I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim. There’s a billion people on the planet that are Muslims, and I think that experience is a big deal.

Kevin Drum wrote a very well expressed explication of this sentiment at the time (“Fighting Terrorism,” Political Animal, Washington Monthly, 17 December 2007):

Kerrey wasn’t suggesting that electing Obama would have any direct effect on hardcore al-Qaeda jihadists. It wouldn’t. But terrorists can’t function unless they have a critical mass of support or, at a minimum, tolerance from a surrounding population. This is Mao’s sea in which the jihadists swim. Without it, terrorists simply don’t have enough freedom of movement to be effective, and their careers are short. It’s why the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany lasted only a few years, while the IRA in Ireland has lasted decades.

What Kerrey was getting at was simple: in the long run, the only way to defeat the hardcore jihadists is to dry up their support in the surrounding Muslim world. And on that score, a president with black skin, a Muslim father, and a middle name of Hussein, might very well be pretty helpful.

For today’s jihadists, the answer is hard power. There’s no other way to stop them. But for tomorrow’s jihadists, the answer is soft power. As long as a substantial fraction of the Islamic world supports or tolerates jihadism, we’ll never stop the production of new terrorists or seriously reduce their effectiveness. But if that support dries up, we can win. This is where our foreign policy should be focused, and the fact that it hasn’t been for the past six years — that, in fact, we’ve gone backward on this score — is by far the most calamitous aspect of George Bush’s disastrous war on terror.

One of the amazing things about the six years since 11 September 2001 is that the importance of tamping down support for extremists among moderate Moslems is something that George W. Bush, at least in speech, understands. When it comes time to execute policy, it all goes out the window — actually a common feature of the Bush presidency. It’s time to address this central shortfalling.

The Election as Signal to the World

Over the Christmas weekend Frank advanced an argument in favor of Barack Obama that remains to my mind the top-line argument in his favor: that the simple fact of his election president of the United States will have a dramatic effect on the world’s perception of the U.S. Born in one of the middle provinces of the American empire (Hawaii) to a Kenyan father and a white mother, doing part of his growing up in Indonesia, with a name like Barack Hussein Obama, may people of the world may look at the new U.S. president and see something of themselves and of an America beyond the arrogant frat-boy entitlement of the Bush administration.

On the first episode after being strong-armed back from the writers’ strike, Stephen Colbert had Andrew Sullivan on to make the same argument (Colbert Report, Comedy Central, Monday, 7 January 2008):

If you show just that face of Barack Obama on television to some teenager in Lahore, Pakistan who has this vision of America that has been determined by the Bush-Cheney years, suddenly more than any word his opinion and view of this country will change. We have a chance to win those people over and make the world love America again.

With his cover feature in last month’s Atlantic Monthly (“Goodby to All That,” vol. 300, no. 5, December 2007, pp. 40-54), Andrew Sullivan perhaps the Senator’s most outstanding booster in the commentariat. But he is also about the most naïve of the astute political commentators, prone to enthusiasms that in retrospect look premature so I’m going to keep my own counsels.

The campaign for the presidency doesn’t end at the convention and the presidency is not just election night. After convention one has to face the Republican machine and after the inauguration there are another 1,460 days and I just don’t know that Senator Obama has what it takes in either arena.

Considing that the entire world expected a repudiation of George W. Bush on election night in 2004 and that we did not deliver, a more dramatic gesture is now in order. I like John Edwards because he is the most liberal of the top three, but with a woman and an African-American within striking distance, it would be a shame to send another white man to the White House.

Interesting Politicians

Following on K.’s most recent post (“Musical Offering: Introducing France’s Future First Lady,” 13 January 2008), I have been stewing over Matthew Yglesias’s dinging of the prudery and narrow-mindedness of U.S. politics (“A Different World,” TheAtlantic.com, 9 January 2008):

French President Nicholas Sarkozy got divorced early in his term, is dating a supermodel and his son’s writing songs for radical French rappers. Not only does American politics seem remarkably focused on relatively unimportant personal trivia, but our politicians don’t even have interesting trivia.

Polymorphous Personae

The thing that Hillary Clinton doesn’t get about campaigning — and that John Kerry and Al Gore didn’t get either — is that you need to pick a persona early and stick with it. There is an analogue in creating a persona to framing around an issue. Framing works by repetition over a long period of time. This is probably the one thing that Democrats at large don’t get.

All politicians are fake, it’s just that Republicans have a consistency in their fakeness. And when you’re consistent, people don’t catch on. When a politician grabs one persona this week and another the next, it doesn’t take long before voters conclude that such a politician is a fake.

At least with respect to his persona, Barack Obama gets this. He has been positioning himself as a certain sort of person all along so when it came primary time, people had a well cultivated set of beliefs about him that he could easily and naturally play upon. Hence the gentleness of his campaigning style: all the heavy lifting is in the frame. Hillary Clinton was the candidate of experience — until it turned out that that was not what voters wanted. They wanted change, so now she is the candidate of change. I have no doubt that should she dispatch Senator Obama, we will never hear the word “change” from her again in the general election. If she is up against Governor Huckabee then she will be all about compassion rooted in her humble upbringing and her faith. If Senator McCain gets the Republican nomination, she will be boasting about what a maverick she has been all along. If Mitt Romney gets it, well, then she can continue to be the always-yes-saying robot that she has been all along.

The crazy thing about Al Gore is that he had spent years as a Senator cultivating signature issues of the environment, nuclear weapons and high-tech. But when the 2000 campaign came around, the Democratic consultants came in with their everything-to-everybody strategy, told him to pitch his long-standing associations and cycled through a rotating list of Gore personas until everyone in America was left asking who the real Al Gore was. After the beard and paunch growth soul searching and some consultant detox, the real Al Gore is back.

If I could introduce the Democratic party to one concept, it would be opportunity cost. In order to be one thing, you have to foreclose the possibility of being some other thing. You’re going to have to piss someone off. Pick something and come to terms with saying sianora to the rest.

Battle Tested

One of the characters of mythic proportion here in D.C. is that of the hard old pol: that tough political boss, heavily scarred from many a close-fought election battle. Think Tip O’Neal or Edward Kennedy.

Last night Senator Hillary Clinton showed that she has it. It’s not just a good ol’ boys club. Joshua Marshall points out (“Making Sense of It,” Talking Points Memo, 9 January 2008):

And I do not think that any of Clinton’s critics can say that she won this one by overpowering Obama with money or mobilizing a dominating political machine or by expectations of inevitability and certainly not with the help of a friendly press. However you slice it this was a real victory under pressure. And if she’s the nominee she’ll be a much better one for it.

After last night’s win, everyone should take a long, hard look at Senator Clinton. She’s hard to see because we’ve all been made to see her through the filter of tabloid in this modern world, but after last night, she seems more like something of an other, older tradition. The politicians who make something in this world all end up compromised in some way. There is a proper rule for how and when to hold that against a politician. It makes me think of Auda abu Tayi’s boast in Lawrence of Arabia: “I carry twenty-three great wounds, all got in battle.” Damage or disfigurement is not always a mark of shame.

In the bright light of day people will say that what they want is clarity and principle and happy things like hope for the future and positive vision and big think. But the astute know that what politics really calls for is what Senator Clinton has demonstrated. They call it the greasy pole. To climb it, you have to get a little dirty.

Tears of Victory

CNN is currently showing Hillary Clinton ahead of Barack Obama at 40 to 36 with 13 percent of precincts reporting. It is pretty early and this could be one of those urabn districts-rural districts thing, where different types o districts report at different rates. Or maybe younger voters still getting off work versus older voters available to vote all day long. Senator Obama’s lead in Iowa didn’t really start to lengthen until later in the evening. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it swing before the night’s end.

It would be hard to figure out what happened so quickly were Senator Clinton to win. Maybe with yesterday’s little tear Senator Clinton pulled off the same thing that happened with Rick Lazio in New York. The big mean man coming on too strong provoked an outpouring of paternalistic sympathy for the hurt little lady. That would be ironic after all the left-blogosphere angst yesterday over the media reaction if it rebounded to her advantage. I half wouldn’t put it past her to have staged the whole thing. Some people have commented on how she has mastered female dog-whistle politics.

Apparently she was answering a reporter’s question all normal then suddenly veered off track and got somber and serious. That’s when the mist happened. It’s not like Hillary Clinton to get off message, to deviate to any place that she doesn’t want to go. I can just imagine her having hatched the plan with her campaign strategist. “Remember what happened to Rick Lazio in 2000 when he got all physically aggressive, and you seemed vulnerable and it turned the electorate? How could we achieve the same effect with Obama?” And then waiting for the right question. Half way through a normal response it occurring to her, “Oh, this is the one to go with!”