Saturday, February 22, 2014

Mexico City's Near Invisible Attraction

A Major Mexico City Attraction that is Almost Invisible

   There is a major attraction in Mexico City that is ignored by just about everyone.  Very little can be found on the internet; indeed, not much information about it is available anywhere.  And yet, it is readily visible for those who have eyes to see or, more relevantly, for those who have the wit to look.
   The remarkable sight I am talking about is closely associated with an entity that can hardly be ignored, the Plaza Mexico, more formally, the Plaza De Toros, located in Ciudad de Los Deportes, Benito Juárez in Mexico City.  It is said to be the largest building in the world, designed to seat 42,000 people, though it has actually held as many as 50,000.  So let me now finally introduce you to my topic.
   The building is wholly surrounded by a wall, with marble pedestals spaced irregularly on top of that wall, bringing wall plus pedestals to a height of about four meters above the sidewalk.  Placed on these high surfaces are bronze sculptures depicting different vignettes of bullfights.  The works are superbly realistic, with fine details that are even discernable from the awkward distance of ground to excessive height.  Realistic, yes; but also elegant, exhibiting the kind of flair that bullfight aficionados look for when they attend the actual spectacles inside. 
   The sculptures are somewhat less than life-size, though it is not easy to judge this from the distance and angle enforced by their placement.  There are no repetitions as you circumnavigate the Plaza.  Each piece is unique and presents a different glance of actions to be seen in the ring.
   Specifically, as you walk along the entire outer wall, you will count 19 different works.  Of these, 14 depict both a matador and a bull, 3 portray a matador by himself and 2 sculptures are of a bull alone.  In addition, there are works, quite formidable ones, inside the walls, to be seen by those who have bought a ticket and have entered the vast space.
   The artist who created these remarkable works came to Mexico in 1939 from Valencia where he was born in 1900.  He had fought against Franco and in effect fled after members of his family had been killed.  His name: Alfredo Just Gimeno, who subsequently had a most successful career in Mexico, succumbing to cancer in 1966.
   There is little doubt that his work at the Plaza De Toros is his magnum opus or, better, they are his magna opera since there are so many of them.  They constitute an immense effort of meticulous sculpting, presumably in wax properly supported.  The works were then cast in bronze (again,  presumably) by means of the ancient “lost wax” technique.  I have been unable to find anything about Alfredo Just’s studio and working practices.  He must surely have had assistants, but nothing seems to be known about them.  Nor is there anywhere a hint about the casting of these works.  But just looking at the products requires one to infer that the sculptor had available to him a foundry or foundries in possession of the repertory of techniques and equipment that rivaled those of Italy, where that craft goes back to the Renaissance, indeed to ancient Rome.  Moreover, the casting must have been accomplished by craftsmen with the training and high skills required to do the sophisticated work that was accomplished.
   I have now described a large series of remarkable works of art that are close to being invisible; I have spoken to Mexican friends who have walked along the Plaza on more than one occasion who did not know that there were there.  In effect, these wonderful sculptures are doing nothing for the building nor for the fine art of tauromachia, to use the formal designation for the spectacles that take place inside it.  What to do? 
   A brief examination of the site will convince one that there is no practical way to lower these pieces and bring them into visibility.  There is thus no alternative to taking them down from their lofty perch and exhibit them on ground level to what will surely be an enthusiastic public. 
   Two things must happen when they have been brought within reach: the first is mundane and routine; the second calls for creativity and imagination.
   Even though these works have been kept out of harms way—except for unfriendly birds and polluted air—it can be noted from the ground that some are stained and spotted with grime.  They need to be cleaned.  Happily, as far as one can determine from below, they seem not to have been harmed beyond such surface blemishes.  They are not at all old, given the life expectancy of bronze castings; but above all, their height has protected them from mischief perpetrated by man and beast.  The city’s climate, moreover, is benign.  Cleaning is likely to be enough; deeper—and vastly more expensive—restoration probably won’t be needed.
   Now that we have nearly two dozen wonderful sculptures, on a single theme, how should they presented to the public?  I’ll propose three possibilities, though I am hopeful that others will put forward more imaginative schemes.  The simplest way to go is to put the whole set on the floor of a modest building, well lit, large enough to give the sculptures breathing room and allow the viewers to move around without bumping into the works or each other.  For this example or my other two, we are talking about a small museum, with posted visiting hours, with a guard whenever the public is welcome, and an appropriate fee for being permitted inside.  And since today there is no museum without a gift shop, good photographs should be taken of the works displayed—to be sold singly, in the form of postcards, or collectively as a small picture book.  More elaborate things are possible, such as models, but I leave that to the experts.   In any case, over time, fees and sales will compensate the sculptures’ owners for some of the cost of making them available to the public.
   A second way in which these works might be exhibited is outdoors, in a sculpture garden.  Again, I won’t attempt to prescribe how they might be positioned and how juxtaposed with plantings.   Whoever designs this outdoor way of showing those works must be sure to include some housing for the ticket-seller and guard and for the de rigueur gift shop.
   Finally, I follow a favorite model: the exhibit of a sizeable number of works by David Smith in a Tower Gallery of the East Wing of Washington’s National Gallery.  They were placed irregularly on broad rising steps, with room enough for viewers to walk up and down and around the pieces.  The fact that these Smith works related to each other not in two but in three dimensions somehow permitted a greater intimacy between viewers and works of art.  The same might be achievable with the scenes from bullfights in bronze.
   I hope that this account about how to make almost two dozen wonderful works by Alfredo Just Gimeno available to an admiring public will be a first, if very small, step toward its actually happening.    
Go now to the next post
and see some snapshots of the sculpures here discussed
taken with a zoom lens from some distance,

yielding views of these works that are not possible without a camera.

Scenes from Bullfights--In Bronze

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Eighty-Seven Birthdays
Some Paragraphs About My Favorite Subject

   My last birthday in Heidelberg, the terminus a quo, was on February 12, 1939, my twelfth.  It took place, uncelebrated, in a house denuded of the furnishings that had been stowed into so-called lifts for shipment to New York.  Number 13, in New York, was the overture to my Bar Mitzvah at a rump German-Jewish congregation that assembled every Sabbath in the Audubon Theater where, much later, Malcolm X was murdered.  I was a star performer, chanting much more than required, singing out in a way that foreshadowed my later quasi-career singing in various choruses.  My presents: altogether $13 in cash from various people plus a few fairly useless items.  While I, ignorant of relevant customs, had no expectations, my mother, with European practices in mind, was furious at what she took to be the stinginess of our relatives.  (Inflation has made today’s equivalent sound more generous, since those thirteen dollars would now come to more than two hundred.)
   Some people sensibly stay put for most of their lives, at least after college.  Not me. I hope the following overview will not be too boring.
   While I did not permanently leave New York until almost exactly twenty years after arriving, that stretch of birthdays, to 1959, was twice interrupted—for one of them in the US Navy, aboard ship in the China Sea, while the next birthday away from New York, #24, took place in Paris, a way station during  my close friend Carl Hovde’s and my travels in Europe on fellowships from Columbia College.
   Nor did I go through graduate school—also at Columbia, starting in 1951—without interruption, since I had two birthdays while I was a “fellow” at Mortimer Adler’s Institute for Philosophical Research in San Francisco.  The work we did there left no discernable mark on philosophical or any other scholarship, but living in San Francisco induced a strong desire in Fannia and me to return there if it were at all possible.  
   And possible it turned out to be. After receiving my PhD in 1959, a couple of months after I turned 32, and with the help of friends we had made at San Francisco State, I became an assistant professor there.  The trip that summer, leaving New York and Columbia for the West, was a veritable second Bar Mitzvah.  Since I was a freshman at Columbia until I got my last degree, I saw myself regarded as “good old Rudy,” never knowing what my professors really thought of my work.  “Today I am a man” is the cliché opening of the Bar Mitzvah speech.  You get the idea.
    Our happy San Francisco stint was pleasantly interrupted by a Guggenheim in Florence, the locus of my 38th birthday; but it ended, alas, some months after my 41st.  I will not give an account of the “time of troubles” at SF State; books have been written about those unhappy years.  Suffice it to say that I felt caught on the horns of a dilemma.  I was unable to disengage myself from the College’s stormy politics (as departmental chair, Senate member, part of an ineffectual president’s kitchen cabinet, and, at night, as haranguer of students to stay out of the way of tactical police) and stick to just teaching my classes.  But I was also gloomily pessimistic about the outcome of those ugly clashes.  Getting out from under, we left SF State and, sadly, San Francisco.
   My 42nd through 47th birthdays were spent in Poughkeepsie, teaching at Vassar, one year excepted, when we lived in Oxford on a sabbatical augmented by a fellowship.  But after #48 came a radical change.  In 1974 I became arts and sciences dean at Northwestern, beginning a career as administrator, thirteen years as dean and two further ones as provost at the University of Pittsburgh.  My last birthday as administrator, in 1989, was #62. 
   I stayed on in Pittsburgh, teaching and chairing the philosophy department before retiring around No. 68, finally leaving that city after I had turned 85, making the quarter of a century in Pittsburgh the longest stretch I had lived anywhere.

   The terminus ad quem was Mexico City, where I arrived in plenty of time for Number 86, to live in the home of (daughter) Ellie, her husband, Miguel and teenage children—and my grandchildren—Max and Eva.  So, the locus of Number 87 is a truly splendid haven that, emphatically, is not a retirement place for ancients.  We celebrat with a long lunch at a superb little French restaurant within walking distance of the house, serving meals we could not have afforded were that bistro located in Manhattan.  And in Mexico City I hope to remain for whatever subsequent birthdays there might yet be.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Gladiators Then and Now*

   In the waning years of the Roman Republic—that is in the period before Rome was ruled by a long succession of emperors—gladiator games “provided their sponsors with extravagantly expensive but effective opportunities for self-promotion while offering cheap, exciting entertainment to their clients.[27] Gladiators became big business for trainers and owners.”  “Enrollment in a gladiator school offered a trade, regular food, housing of sorts and a fighting chance of fame and fortune.”
   This was so, because gladiatorial performances were immensely popular and while there was some governmental supervision, the spectacles spread throughout the empire, with amphitheaters built from the north of Europe to Africa, with the Coliseum in Rome is no doubt the most famous.
   Today, football is the closest analogy.  Just as Roman politicians, from emperors on down, gained visibility and adherence by sponsoring gladiatorial events, so cities and universities attain fame and supporters by fielding teams that can draw fans from near and far.  Moreover, just as in today’s stadium, food was then made available to the spectators, music accompanied the gladiators’ clashes, with their skill more prized than brute force.  And just as in contemporary football, fights were then supervised by the equivalent of umpires.
   The fly in the gladiatorial ointment was the fact that many—not all—contests ended in a death.  Gladiators died young, even most of the successful ones.  The ethos seemed to consider it more important how someone died—honorably, bravely—than that one died, a belief accepted not only by the spectators, but, it seems, by the combatants themselves.  Such an ideology makes some sense for a nation that maintained a huge army professional enough to overcome most of the then known world and disciplined enough to extract taxes from the places they had conquered.
   One might be tempted to say, “life, then, was cheap.”  But I think that would be a mistake.  Life expectancy was about half what it is here today, even when not considering infant and early childhood mortality, making quite common an early death from natural causes.  Still, there was mumbling, if apparently not much: objection to people being killed for entertainment.  At the end of the first century CE, however, Tertullian, the early Christian theologian, vehemently condemned the entire murderous gladiatorial practice.
   Today, people live a lot longer, thanks to huge advances in medicine. For most of a person’s lifespan, the goal is not to prolong life, but to maintain a life of high quality.  And playing football is certainly a serious obstacle in the way of that goal.  The hazards of playing football have been written about almost since the beginning of the game.  But even so blunt an instrument as Dr. Richard Schneider’s 1973 book, Head and Neck Injuries in Football—arguing that injuries to the brain cause serious, permanent disability so that players who survive these injuries will never again be able to function normally—had no effect on the profitable football industry, because its consumers also cheerfully kept their heads in the sand.
   And not just the spectators of big time football.  Since 1997, more than 50 youngsters have been killed or sustained serious injury playing football, even before reaching gladiator status.  More recently the professionals took actions of their own and succeeded in getting the NFL to allocate $760 million—widely believed to be an insufficient sum—for medical help and compensation for more than 4000  retired players for brain injuries incurred while they were in harness. 
   Many of those former heroes lead sharply diminished lives.  “I went into the kitchen and could not remember why I went there,” says one.  Here is a fuller description of what happened to a star on the field: Not dead, but not alive either.
       This is not the end of the story and who knows how it will end or whether it will end at all.  The tea leaves are not encouraging.  Even after Constantine converted to Christianity early in the 4th century and forbad gladiatorial spectacles in the Roman empire, it took still another couple of centuries before they disappeared altogether.  Not a good sign for the future of football and its victims.

* The quotes about gladiators and most of what I learned about them comes from a very scholarly Wikipedia article.  What I know about recent events in the world of football comes from The New York Times.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The People Everyone Calls “Conservative” Aren’t Conservative
A Short Discourse on Political Labels

   Everyone I read refers to Tea Party adherents as conservatives and contrasts them with liberals on the “left” and with more traditional Republicans (if any remain) who tend to be called “moderates.”  My strong beef is that the likes of Ted Cruz and fellow tea partiers and Rand Paul and friends are labeled “conservatives,” which they are not.  Let me treat this topic in the context of a brief account of the political labels in current use.
   Start with the easiest one, because least controversial.  A liberal is someone who is prepared to use governmental powers to accomplish social goals, such as helping less fortunate members of society and the elderly to attain or retain a decent standard of living.  More broadly, someone with a liberal outlook is prepared to support actions by some agency of the state that aim at the improvement of the future—e.g., by supporting research, education, the environment by means of governmental actions and will also approve of the taxes that make such moves possible.  But while a liberal does not accord a special status to what now is—to the status quo—and is open to change it, that liberal supports changes aimed at solving particular problems, but does not—and this is important—propose to change the very system within which we live: representative government and a capitalist, if regulated, economy. (Full disclosure: I am such a liberal, with a philosophy rooted in moral convictions that can remain unexplained here.)
   While liberalism as an ideology was essentially born in the Enlightenment—though with roots going back to ancient Greece—conservatism, as a political philosophy, has above all an 18th-century father in Edmund Burke and a 20th century descendant in Russell Kirk.  By oversimplifying somewhat, I will try to express their position by means of two principles.  The first has to do with what is:  History, in its unfathomable complexity, generates institutions, customs, habits, beliefs, and relationships, intertwined in innumerable ways that are not by any means always discernible.  What the processes of history have brought about deserves our greatest respect:  think “tradition, tradition” as celebrated in Fiddler on the Roof.
   The second principle pertains to what we can do.  Conservatism asserts not only that humans beings are quite limited in their ability to understand that complex historical tapestry, but their rationality and knowledge are sharply limited in attempts to bring about desired goals.  Erstens kommt es anders und zweitens als man denkt. The envisaged goals are in fact not brought about, while there may well be unpredicted and undesired effects of those human actions.  The odds are that broad plans will go awry; limit your ambitious to modest and incremental changes.
   If this brief account catches the essence of conservatism, they in Congress who are called that are anything but.  Shut down government, attempt to defund a law created by normal legislative procedures, undermine programs in place since the era of FDR and more—these are not the actions or proposals of conservatives.  They are the ideas of radicals (in that they go to the root); they aim at major changes of the status quo; they are measures of reactionaries, in that they want to return to previous stages of history.  In no way, I repeat, are they conservatives
   Then there are libertarians, as represented by the Paul’s, père et fils, who are also wrongly classified as conservatives.  Their position is to radically reduce governmental action in all spheres from its sway over the economy, as well as in the country’s relation to the rest of the world.  Libertarians are not anarchists, since they hold that the state is needed for defense and to maintain civil order, but they are committed only to what they regard to be minimally necessary governmental action.  Let every individual do what she or he wants and can do when left alone.  Full sway is given to individual enterprise and action, putting Emerson’s self-reliance to shame.  While this  view has 19th century roots—in Herbert Spencer, for example, and is also wrongly attributed to Adam Smith of the century before—the ideology in its present form goes back primarily to Ayn Rand, an unreadable novelist who sanctified laissez faire in ways that has attracted fervent followers.
   How should we classify these libertarians?  Conservative writer William Buckley tried to include them in his tent, though he was fully aware of fundamental incongruities, while Russell Kirk firmly bans them from the fold.  The verdict is surely obvious.  Not cautious about initiating major change, with the status quo in no way privileged, libertarians, in short, are not conservatives.  Indeed, the magnitude of the changes they support makes them analogous to those who advocate a systemic change to socialism, say, or communism.  Accordingly, the libertarian Messrs Paul are  also radicals, since what they advocate, is in no way merely incremental but a transformation to another system.
   With the term “radical” I conclude my short and very American exercise concerning political labels—namely by adcovating calling a spade a spade.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

En Saga, En Pequeña Saga

   Last summer, I bought a 15 inch Retina MacBook Pro in Los Angeles, with the idea of watching DVDs at my desk.  While I was surprised that Mac no longer sported an internal CD/DVD drive and vaguely wondered why not, I took the advice of the experts and for not much money, added an external drive.  It worked, sort of, for a while; but not well and then gave out altogether.  It turned out to be defective and Miguel, who examined it, was worried that it might actually harm the discs it was playing.
   No big deal; I’ll replace it with another one.  In a mall not very far down on the Insurgentes was a store specializing in Macs, without being an official Mac store, so Ellie and I walked there to buy an appropriate drive. I had brought along my computer and a favorite Blu-ray, so I could learn how to work the new player.  The store’s rules however required that I first  buy it before the package could be opened and its celophane wrapping torn.  I made the purchase; let the demonstration begin.  The package was openedand my disc inserted.
   Nothing happened!  I had brought my all-time favorite Le Nozze di Figaro that I had watched successfully before I gave up on the original player.  Nothing happened, thanks to the late Steven Jobs.  My Blu-ray Figaro, was using a technique that Mr. Jobs had condemned as a “bag of hurt.” Mac would have no truck with it.   I don’t know whether that harsh verdict was a technical judgment or a commercial swipe at Sony; I hadn’t followed any part of this story.  But whichever, it seems to have been misguided: Blu-ray is flourishing.  I was mighty lucky to get my money back in spite of the torn wrapping, but I was back at Point Aleph.  
   I got some advice specifically what models of external drives to look for, with the names of half a dozen models.  I checked out some of them with the help of Google and found they mostly got good reviews.  Now to get a hold of one.  Ordering from Amazon, like anything involving the Mexican mail service, takes an unpredictably long stretch of time, is unsure, and, because import duty will be charged, expensive.  So I started drudging.  But even though I’m a pretty prodigious walker, I was mighty tired on the last of several days that I visited the five different outfits that might have sold me one or another version of what I sought.  No such luck.  Just a piece of advice: try La Plaza de la Computación en la ciudad de México.  It was located downtown, emphatically not within walking distance.
  I returned home; that errand was for another day.  Not so.  Ellie, it turned out, was downtown on other errands and had also been told about about that Plaza and phoned me from there.  One external player was to be had, the LaCie d2 Blu-ray XL.  It was bigger and more expensive than any of the others and was above all intended for people who wanted to burn their own discs (of which I was not one).  But it was a bird in the hand, with, so far, no bird to be heard twittering in the bush.

   It turned out to be easy to connect up—even by me!—by following Ikea-like diagrammatic instructions.  In little time I had tried it out with that Figaro Blu-ray, with an “old fashioned” DVD, and with a CD, a species soon to become extinct.  It passed all three tests with flying colors and singing sounds.  End of that Saga.