Don’t Sell Guns to Idolators (Maimonides)

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Apropos to the gun-murders in Florida, holding gun makers liable, and repealing the Second Amendment, this week in shul Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky at Ansche Chesed worked off this little piece of halakhah from the Mishne Torah, the code of law by Maimonides:
Hilkhot Avodat Kochavim (Laws of Idol Worship)

9:8 

Just as it is forbidden to sell idolaters articles that assist them in idol worship, it is forbidden to sell them articles that can cause harm to many people – for example, bears, lions, weapons, fetters, and chains. [Similarly,] it is forbidden to sharpen their weapons.

Everything that is forbidden to be sold to idolaters is also forbidden to be sold to a Jew who is suspect that he will sell to idolaters. Similarly, it is forbidden to sell dangerous objects to a Jewish thief.

חכשם שאין מוכרין לעובד כוכבים דברים שמחזיקין בהן ידיהן לעבודת כוכבים כך אין מוכרין להם דבר שיש בו נזק לרבים כגון דובים ואריות וכלי זיין וכבלים ושלשלאות ואין משחיזין להם את הזיין וכל שאסור למוכרו לעובד כוכבים אסור למוכרו לישראל החשוד למכור לעובד כוכבים וכן אסור למכור כלי נזק לישראל ליסטם:

The Maimonides is more concisely and sharply framed than it is in its original location in the mishnah and gemara of tractate b.Avodah Zarah.

With nary a concept of individual liberty, the emphasis is on the primary good of public safety.

As for reading past the question of inter-group bias in the original locution, “idolator” would have to stand for the general public at large.
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Caryatid (Modigliani)

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Metaphysical maybe, these were probably the most surprising and even revealing works on view at the recent Modigliani Unmasked at the Jewish Museum. I would not have known that these were by the artist. But the elegantly straining caryatid figures and the “unseen weight” they bear up fit into the larger body of work by this painter of women.

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(Emotional Intelligence) Nudes & Primitives (Modigliani Not Picasso)

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Mostly drawings, Modigliani Unmasked at the Jewish Museum has come and gone. I was not entirely persuaded by curator Mason Klein’s emphasis on identity, both the artist’s own hybrid Jewish identity (Italian-French, Sephardi), race, with the idea of “primitivism” hovering right there, not in the background, but directly in front of you. None of the critics seem to have bought this line either. The Jewish identity component was and remains poorly established, and the argument about primitivism was relatively uninteresting, but there might be more to both than that, after all.

Avoiding the wall texts, I was primarily drawn to the visual quality of the drawings while struggling with a language with which to understand them and the impressions they make.  If I were to try to find that language, it would be to note the lively and gentle character of the female nude. Unlike the artist’s more famous painted portraits, the drawn figures do not look out to meet the gaze of the viewer. If anything, they are what the art critic Michael Fried might have called non-theatrical. At once erotic and non-sexual, they are self-absorbed, inhabiting a world of quiet contemplation and “emotional intelligence,” which I now begin to think might be the key term for understanding Modigliani’s entire oeuvre.

Still looking for a better set of words, I found an excellent review by Thomas Micchelli at the always excellent Hyperallergic. I’m citing below what for me are the highpoints from the whole thing which you can read here.  Micchelli gets at the purity of the figures and draws a fine distinction between Modigliani’s fascination with first Egyptian and then African and other forms of indigenous art with the more famous example of Picasso. It’s in the comparison to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, that Micchelli makes better sense of Mason Klein’s

What follows is Micchelli:

It is with these drawings, some from 1908 but the majority done around 1911, that Modigliani began to integrate the lessons of Cubism into his work, sublimating the erotic into slices of curved and straight lines, ennobling the languid poses of his models (including the nude Akhmatova, in several images) with hieroglyphic grandeur.  

[…]

These limestone sculptures, roughly hewn from blocks stolen from construction sites, are miracles of formal variety within strict, symmetrical constraints. Pitted, unpolished, and gleaming, with their elongated noses sharpened into scythes, they are African, Cycladic, Romanesque, and otherworldly all at once, relics from another dimension and caricatures of the gods.

 […]

The dozens of drawings surrounding the limestone sculptures offer object lessons in the peaks and valleys of stylization: some of the heads, in their obsessive repetition of forms — the arched eyebrows sheltering blank, almond eyes; the impossibly long noses and puckered, button mouths — seem simultaneously analytical and spiritual, a platonic ideal rendered in pan-cultural terms, while others, less deeply considered and more quickly rendered, descend almost into doodles.

 […]

To my mind, this could explain the sense of purity running through Modigliani’s art, which stands in direct contradiction to the heterogeneity of his influences. It can be seen not as an abstract, formal distillation (as pursued by his friend Constantin Brancusi, which would belie Klein’s thesis), but rather, for lack of a better term, as the purity of thought — an almost visceral perception of emotional and intellectual purpose, a counterintuitive perspective that transforms formal devices into tools for self-disclosure, curiosity, and compassion.

 […]

To again quote [Mason] Klein, the difference between Modigliani’s worldview and Picasso’s adaption of Baule masks in his groundbreaking work, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), is that the latter’s sources led him to render the women in the brothel as African and, thus, in the prevailing view, as primitively sexual. Modigliani’s treatment of “primitive” art speaks to a different purpose, one bound up in his status as a Sephardic Jew. Indeed, among artists appropriating African art, it was Modigliani’s identification with his subject’s “otherness,” rather than a fascination with the exotic, that set him apart.

Modigliani never went the Cubist route of splitting his subjects into shards and facets; they were always whole and wholly human. He was an outsider who inhabited their interiors, who sought a common thread and found it.

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Arabic Movie (Eyal Sagui-Bizawe)

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The Jewish Studies Program at Syracuse was delighted to host last night a screening of Arabic Movie (2015) and conversation with filmmaker Eyal Saguui-Bizawe. The movie explores the institution of the Friday afternoon “ceremony” of watching what was called “Arabic film,” i.e. Arabic language movies, primarily Egyptian cinema, shown on Israel’s state television during the 1970s and 1980s. The movie addresses the porous cultural borders, a special place of Arabic culture in Israel, and perhaps the place of Israel in the Middle East. Arabic Movie is steeped in multiple layers of affect and nostalgia –[1] the richly saturated and pining musical emotionalism, the facial and gestural expression in classical Egyptian cinema, [2] the deep feeling that registers on the part of the older Israeli viewers who appear in the film, particularly those who came to Israel from Egypt and other Arab speaking countries; there is a deep emotion that registers on the face, on the faces that tear up watching these movies and listening with their beautiful soundtracks, and [3] then finally upon our feelings as viewers of the film watching the on-screen viewers watching “Arabic movies” and thinking of possibilities of contact that break down or get past toxic cultural stereotypes that determine the barrier set up by the friend/enemy distinction. Arabic Movie is itself an “Arabic movie,” i.e. a primarily Hebrew-language Egyptian Israeli movie that is itself steeped in the warm ambience of the original films as they are remembered in the imagination and then carried forward in their re-watching.

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Eco Toilet (New York Visitor Center)

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I’m being childish, to be sure, but the toilets at the New York State Southern Tier Visitor Center on rt. 81 just south of Binghamton are a technological wonder. The first time I was startled. Where’s the water? It’s a latrine with a foam cleaning system.

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Opera & Landscape (David Hockney)

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A musical painter or a painter of music, David Hockney painted landscapes and operatic sets –and they are glorious. The first painting that I have posted above is a view on a drive on the hilly Pacific Highway with Los Angeles in the close distance. The second is one of the so-called V.N. paintings, which relate to the artist’s interest in opera. Exhibited in the same gallery at the Hockney retrospective at the Met, they convey at different scale the same spatial dynamism of giddy, colorful motion and the intensification of speed and sound. These are very different from the geometric angularity that shape the swimming pools, municipal buildings, and social relations in the paintings meant to capture Beverley Hill. In particular, the landscape that I’m posting here depicts drives that Hockney carefully organized for friends through the hills, synchronized with works by Wagner. With the city grid there in the back, each swerve up close on the hilly road, surrounded by saturated color, was timed deliberately to coincide with just that dramatic operatic hight point. The carefully arranged bright segments of the landscape undulate. The N.V. paintings suggest that the scenes out in the country are mental landscapes.  What unites them all is what, a sense of home?

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(Water on Skin) Sensation (David Hockney)

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Invested in the anti-aesthetic, people committed to modern and contemporary art, including art critics, often struggle with optimism, pleasure, and beauty. In the case of David Hockney, that is to miss the point and overlook what the aritst shares with more pessimistic painters from his same milieu of postwar British figurative painters like Kitaj and Francis Bacon, another gay artist who stands out as polar opposite to Hockney. As for Hockney’s work, you can see now a large collection of it at a major retrospective at the Met.

About this ambivalence regarding Hockney, here is the great Roberta Smith at the NYT, taking with one hand only to give with the other.

“No, Mr. Hockney, at 80, is not Jasper Johns or Gerhard Richter. But he has his own greatness, which flows from openly following his own desires — including his attraction to other men — while rigorously exploring the ways art and life feed each other, visually and emotionally. Full disclosure, forthright joy and forward motion are the dynamos of his art, which in my book at least, gives him an edge over Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.”

Note here the comparison between Hockney and Bacon, which is the difference between pleasure and pain.

At the same time, this review here by Andrea Scott at the New Yorker reminded me of Deleuze writing about sensation in Bacon’s art:

“How acrylic can be thinned to soak into canvas and mimic the blue translucence of water, or how it can be brushed onto a surface in undulating cream-and-gray strokes to convey the plushness of a shag rug underfoot. Sensations—visual, tactile, emotional—are the heart of his project.”

I don’t know terribly much about the scholarship on Hockney apart from general impressions, much of which remain under-interpreted and under-theorized. There has to be more to it than “Americans take showers all the time,” as Hockney once said in the mid 1970s.

I am sure that Deleuze could be of some help here in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, and also Levinas writing in Totality and Infinity about enjoyment and Kant of course, writing in the Critique of Judgment about beauty There is no social conscience here, no moral or political edge. With Hockney, art starts and stops with a more or less stable corporeal sensation. Pleasure and pain are different kinds of sensation, but they are sensation nonetheless. In this body of work, like water on skin in a warm space, the materiality of thin acrylic soaks into a physical surface, creating effects and affects that are translucent.

But what is one supposed to make of the black plant, whose location is central in the bright and aqueous scene, Man Taking Shower in Beverly Hills (1964)?

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