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March 13, 2007

Without Victorian modesty, even pianos can get carried away!

In a 2000 lecture dealing with (among other things) the mutation of "virtues" into "values," Gertrude Himmelfarb asked whether the covering of piano legs by Victorians really involved sexuality:

This mutation in the word "virtue" has the effect first of narrowing the meaning of the word, reducing it to a matter of sexuality alone; and then of belittling and disparaging the sexual virtues themselves. These virtues, chastity and fidelity, have been further trivialized by the popular conception of Victorians as pathologically inhibited and repressed. Thus "Victorian values" have been associated with piano legs modestly sheathed in pantaloons, human as well as table legs referred to as "limbs," and books by men and women authors dwelling chastely on separate shelves in country-house libraries.

In fact, these were not the normal (or even abnormal) practices of real Victorians. They were often the inventions of contemporary satirists (writers in Punch, for example), which have been perpetuated by gullible historians. "The woman who draped the legs of her piano," one historian solemnly informs us, "so far from concealing her conscious and unconscious exhibitionism, ended by sexualising the piano; no mean feat." In fact, it is this historian who has sexualized the piano and has imposed his own sexual fantasies upon the Victorians.

I have a minor correction. While I must necessarily take no position on the perpetuation of satire by gullible historians (lest I get into a conflict of interest), and I cannot claim to know who is right about sexualizing the Victorian penchant for covering piano legs, I can state with some confidence that the historian Himmelfarb criticizes was not the first to sexualize the piano.

Unless the Victorian satirists were first, I'm afraid the credit must go to Salvador Dali, who did a pretty good job of it back in the 1930s:

Once again, here's "Atmospheric Skull Sodomizing a Grand Piano" (1934):


And from the same year, here's "Skull with its Lyric Appendage Leaning on a Bedside Table which Should Have the Exact Temperature of a Cardinal's Nest":


I don't know whether this means the couple had a child or just merged with each other, but the presence of the bedside table indicates some that some sort of ongoing intimacy occurred.

I scrupulously take no position on whether any of this could have been avoided had the piano been appropriately covered.

And at the risk of being anthropopianomorphic, I have to venture that Dali might have been using the pianos as some sort of substitute for his own libido, or maybe his sex life. Because in the same year he painted the indisputably sexualized pianos, he also painted "Cardinal, Cardinal!":


Note the same bedside table. The man (IMO) is clearly Dali, and he's leaning towards the bedside table at the same angle as the skull does. His shirt even looks like a skull! Not only that, he's holding a pitcher (the breaking of which artistically symbolizes lost virginity), and seems unable to put it back where it belongs. The uncovered woman is of course his wife Gala. (A divorcee who could not be considered virginal by any definition.)

As to what the reference to the "exact temperature of a cardinal's nest" might mean, I'm tempted to speculate that it might involve a failure of the human fertility cycle, and I'd note that by 1934 Gala seems to have left her fertility cycles behind her.

Whether Dali was making any judgment about virtues or values (or what that judgment might have been) I'll leave to others.

Politics is surreal enough as it is.

(I've tried not to politicize art, but the piano meme seems to have legs.)

MORE: While I wasn't thinking about her when I wrote the post, a Hot Air commenter named OBX Pete says that Hillary Clinton looks like a piano:

I've seen her legs and believe me you don't want to see them. If you take a picture of her and crop everything above the waist she could be mistaken for a grand piano. Actually she is doing us all a favor by wearing those pantsuits.

On the other hand, she has to work with what she was born with (as we all do) so she can't help it if she has piano legs. I'm more concerned with that ultra-liberal mind.

I looked into this and discovered that it's worse than I imagined -- to the point where the Urban Dictionary includes Hillary in the very definition of "Piano Legs":
1. piano legs

Disproportionately thick calves and/or ankles on a woman with otherwise normal body weight.

No wonder Hillary Clinton always wears pant suits. She's got a humongous set of piano legs.

Comments (by no means limited to the right wing) about Hillary's alleged "piano legs" abound -- in the blogosphere and on various bulletin boards. And a syndicated columnist actually complained about David Letterman's failure to mention them:
Democrats of the female persuasion, difficult as it is sometimes to tell, are off limits when it comes to insults. Not once has Mr. Letterman joked about Hillary Clinton's piano legs, Donna Brazile's weight, Carol Roberts' (the Palm Beach county balloteer and marionette for team Gore) gravely voice, or those Palm Beach voters who can't punch a chad and look like cross-dressers. Such attacks are cruel. But, John Goodman playing Linda Tripp on Saturday Night Live, now that's funny.
I never thought about this before, but the meme is definitely out there. So I have to ask what if -- just what if -- Senator Clinton's trousers are intended as a sort of piano leg coverup?

If we dovetail this into Ms. Himmelfarb contension that "'Victorian values' have been associated with piano legs modestly sheathed in pantaloons," what are the implications for the sexualization of pianos?

Might the latest campaign represent a desexualization of sorts?

March 12, 2007


Here's Salvador Dali's version of a Dahlia from a 1972 series:


And my photo of a disturbing scene earlier tonight:


Outreach, right?

Yeah, that's a form of growth....

March 1, 2007

sublimating my rationalizations on a nonexistent day

My whole ambition in the pictorial domain is to materialize the images of my concrete irrationality with the most imperialist fury of precision...

-- Salvador Dali

Today is March 1 -- a strange day for several reasons. According to Wikipedia, today is the first day of Spring in Denmark, while in Australia, today is the first day of Fall.

Moreover, today is Day One in the old Roman New Year -- a fact which has left its historical residue depending on how we count days:

If one begins each year on March 1, till the next March 1, then each date will have the same day number in this year, regardless of whether it is a leap year or not (e.g. December 25 is always day 300), unlike counting from January 1. This is due to the fact that the Gregorian and Julian calendars are based on the old Roman Calendar, which had March 1 as the first day of the year. The addition of the leap day of February 29 (which is what causes the days of leap years to fall on different day numbers) is a continuation of the February placement of the old Roman calendar's Mensis Intercalaris (a shortened extra month inserted to bring the 355 day long calendar into rough alignment with the seasons).
That's enough to drive anyone crazy.

What I'm trying to figure out is why the day does not appear on my calendar.

What? You don't believe me?

Check out the photograph I just took:


While the easiest explanation for the disappearance of March 1 is that a simple misprint occurred, I'm not so sure, because this is the official Salvador Dali calendar. Considering the following:

  • Dali was a surrealist who relied on the paranoid critical method (which assumes, among other things, that nothing is coincidental, and that mistakes are important).
  • The theme of the March calendar is the geodesic ceiling of the Dali Museum in Figueres, Spain, which is surrounded by strange figures arranged in a manner evocative of a calendar (albeit 16 of them instead of 12).
  • The blank box in the calendar which ought to belong to March 1 is directly underneath the the figure at the bottom of the calendar which is being pointed to by the index finger of the floating hand.
  • The calendar has an international flavor, as it is translated into five languages and includes more holidays and religious observances than I knew existed.
  • The cosmic significance of the galactic-like dome speaks for itself.
  • I know this doesn't prove that there's any significance to today's missing date, but considering its importance, I suspect cosmic significance of some sort.

    Whether this cosmic significance is accidental or deliberate is beside the point.

    I think Dali would agree. Consider Dali on mistakes:

    Mistakes are almost always of a sacred nature. Never try to correct them. On the contrary: rationalize them, understand them thoroughly. After that, it will be possible for you to sublimate them.
    Far be it from me to correct the sacred.

    What to do on a missing date which will live in mistakenly unmistakable cosmic significance?

    I think I'll try to rationalize the sublime, and sublimate the rational.

    MYSTERY DISAPPEARANCE UNRAVELS AS IT DEEPENS: In another amazing "coincidence," it was on March 1 that Dali's depiction of the crucifixion (which he had done for the Rikers Island jail) disappeared. As it turned out, it was stolen by prison guards and officials.

    Interestingly, Dali intended it for the prisoners' dining room so that prisoners could appreciate it, and dedicated it for that stated purpose in writing. Jail officials moved it to the prison lobby, to which inmates had no access, and from where it was stolen:

    The drawing, a surrealist image of Jesus being crucified, hung in the prison cafeteria for years before being moved to a lobby where officials thought it would be safer.

    Riker's Island's roughly 15,000 prisoners do not have access to the lobby, which is used only by prison personnel.

    "Who knew that it might have been safer left in the cafeteria?" a spokesman for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked.

    Who knew? Dali knew, that's who! That's why he wrote on the dedication -- right on the painting -- that it was for the prisoners' dining room, dummy!

    Here's a picture of the missing work:


    (Link via Wired New York Forum, which has a detailed article on the case.)

    It's tough to read the inscription in that picture, but according to the BBC it read as follows:

    "For the dinning room of the Prisoners Rikers Ysland [sic] - SD".
    That's certainly typical of Dali's mangled way of writing in English, but the sincerity of his message is obvious.

    The crucifixion is still missing, and I think it's appropriate that March 1 is missing from the calendar. It's as if Dali having the last laugh. At disobedient bureaucrats, and malignant prison officials. While there have been a couple of convictions for the theft, according to the testimony, the main culprit seems to have been the assistant deputy warden, who was acquitted:

    A former Rikers Island assistant deputy warden has been acquitted of charges that he masterminded the theft of a $250,000 Salvador Dali sketch from the prison.

    A jury acquitted Benny Nuzzo, 51, on Friday after a monthlong trial in State Supreme Court in the Bronx. Nuzzo had denied any role in the theft of the sketch, which was reported missing on March 1, 2003 when someone noticed that the original had been replaced by a copy. Three other men were charged in the theft, correction officers Timothy Pina and Greg Sokol and former assistant deputy warden Mitchell Hochhauser.

    Hochhauser pleaded guilty in September to one count of attempted grand larceny and was sentenced to one to three years in prison.

    Sokol, who cooperated with prosecutors, testified against Nuzzo at trial. Sokol and Pina still face charges in the case.

    Dali created the ink and pencil sketch, which depicts the crucifixion of Jesus, after he called in sick to a planned visit to the prison in 1965.

    The sketch has not been seen since it was reported missing, and Hochhauser has claimed that Nuzzo destroyed it.

    Nuzzo, who was fired after his arrest, plans to try to get his job back, his lawyer said.

    Former Assistant Deputy Warden Nuzzo did sue to get his job back, but he lost. Here's what the appellate court said in rejecting Nuzzo's appeal:
    Respondent's findings that petitioner took property from its facility at Rikers Island without proper authorization, provided false entries on his work time sheets and then provided misleading testimony during his official interview are supported by substantial evidence
    Hmmmm.... From a legal standpoint, I wonder whether the fact that the findings were supported by substantial evidence means that it's not defamatory to say they're true. (Would it be defamatory to say that OJ killed Nicole, for example, because of a civil jury's findings?)

    I'm more concerned with the destruction of art than with theft. Stolen property can always be returned. Destruction of art might not be a crime against humanity in the legal sense, but I think it's a crime against culture -- something IMO morally worse than theft.