Category Archives: in memoriam

RIP, Hasan Niyazi

It seems Hasan Niyazi, the tireless blogger, talented amateur art historian, and independent Renaissance scholar behind the popular art history blog Three Pipe Problem and the ambitious Open Raphael project, has died suddenly at 37, the same tender age as his idol, Raphael.

I first interacted with Hasan in 2010, and we discussed things by email now and again over the years. A man of science by training, he harbored endless enthusiasm for evidence-based scholarship in art history, for the importance of the Digital Humanities movement, and for free and open educational content– values we shared.

If you're so inclined, take a moment to look at his websites, which now stand as monuments to his energy, focus, idealism, passion for beauty, and love of learning.

Edit: See also the moving tributes by Prof. Ben Harvey, Prof. Monica Bowen, and Dr. Francis DeStefano. Above all, Hasan promoted community, encouraged cooperation, and took delight in sharing the discoveries and insights of one and all. In some measure, the art historical blogosphere itself is his handiwork.

Edit edit: See also the interesting remembrances by Jenna Francisco, Alexandra Korey, and David Packwood.

Sidney Hollis Radner, 1919-2011 – A personal remembrance

This article first appeared in The Mandala Magazine, Volume 2, Issue 1 (July/August 2011), pp. 26-27.

Magnificent Obsession

It seems as if I’ve always known his name. No, not Houdini’s—Sid Radner’s.

That Tony Curtis movie is what first sparked my interest in the monarch of manacles. An obscure 1971 BBC documentary is what really kindled the flame. The Truth About Houdini was televised in the greater Los Angeles area around Halloween of 1976, and I vividly recall a photo in that week’s TV Guide of the real Houdini with his striped shirt, his heart-shaped hair, and his ball and chain. It was a photographic still from The Grim Game, and at the time it was one of the few photos of Houdini that I had ever seen. I carefully extracted it from the magazine and packed it away in an Antonio y Cleopatra Cigars box with my other childhood treasures. Now and again, I studied it with care.

From that moment and for many years, I sought out books and information about Houdini. Because I’m the sort who mulls over footnotes, it seemed to me that Sid Radner was popping up everywhere. Randi and Sugar cited him. Henning and Reynolds thanked him. Christopher too, and eventually Brandon and Silverman, Kalush and Sloman, Koval and Culliton. And from the very beginning, the coincidental convergence of Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner and Gilda Radner in my 1970s TV-saturated mind made Sid’s name unforgettable. I was Radner-aware.

Flash forward a couple of decades. Sometime in the middle 1990s, I was on the phone with Bill Brehm concerning the Houdini Historical Center in Appleton, and he realized I was in New England. “You should go visit Sid Radner!” he declared. “I should? I mean yes, yes. I should!” A little while later, the phone rang and Sid was inviting me and my wife to his home in Holyoke. From his perspective, I was a random stranger who happened to share his magnificent obsession. From my perspective, he was one of the last living connections to the Man Behind the Myth. Here was a chance to savor his unique perspective, and to see some of his collection.

I couldn’t wait.
Continue reading Sidney Hollis Radner, 1919-2011 – A personal remembrance

Steve Jobs and Machine Beauty

With the Facebook Timeline just around the corner, and with Steve Jobs shuffling off this mortal coil, I'd like to consider what makes some technologies so different, so appealing.

Last night I asked my art history students what was distinctive about the contribution of Steve Jobs. A few compared him to inventors such as Edison or Tesla. A few looked for an answer in his emphasis on design. I joined the second group and challenged the first by pointing out (as The Economist had already done with great clarity) that Jobs had invented none of the technologies or devices for which he's best known: the mouse-driven computer, the digital audio player, the smart phone, and the tablet. But I also pressed that second group with a follow-up question: if his contribution had to do with design, not invention, then just what was the nature of his contribution to design?

The ensuing discussion was brief and stimulating. After the students had shared their views, I shared mine: I think Steve Jobs emphasized machine beauty with such focus and force that he made the artificiality of devices disappear. Calling him "The Magician", The Economist ascribes to him the ability to connect emotion to technology:

"His great achievement was to combine an emotional spark with computer technology, and make the resulting product feel personal."

Almost. It is the relationship we have with ourselves and our own capabilities that is emotional and personal; Jobs introduced into this already extant feedback loop a device which amplifies our self-signal without getting in our way. Rather than wallow in the narcissism of self-admiration as we see our latent powers amplified, we call the device itself cool. But whenever we call a device cool, what we mean is that it can easily make us more powerful in a way we desire. And that's cool.

What is machine beauty? The clearest and most useful answer to this question comes from David Gelernter (innovator and former patent-holder of the Lifestream technology, which has been at the center of consequential litigation involving Apple). Many stakeholders have by now laid claim to this concept, and perhaps we'll have a post here someday on the idiocy of many software patents, the Peter/Paul problems in patent granting, and the incoherence of the very idea of a software patent. For now, though, I want to bracket out the question of Apple's possible employment of Microsoftian market practices. Gelernter is noteworthy here not just because of his technological innovation, but also because he thinks deeply about the usability of machines, about art, and about beauty.

In his terse, punchy book Machine Beauty, Gelernter proposes a simple definition of the factor that distinguishes great technologies: machine beauty is the well-balanced integration of simplicity and power. Consider technologies that consists of devices. A device may be powerful but not simple; it requires the user to learn, study, and practice. A device may be simple but not powerful; it's hardly worthy of attention, so weak is the signal it delivers. And a device may be neither. But the device that manages to empower the user with virtually no learning curve is machine-beautiful.

The iPhone exemplifies this delicate balance. One day there was no iPhone; the next day there was an iPhone. And on that next day, children and elders, techies and Luddites, the deft and the daft— these were all standing around Apple Store displays and using the iPhone, with no instruction, to do things they wanted to do that they had previously been unable to do so efficiently, transparently, and enjoyably. Machine beauty.

Here, then, is a third question: why do we value technologies that are machine-beautiful?

I think it's easier to frame an answer to this question if we think about technologies in the way I recommended in my earlier post on Rodin's The Burghers of Calais:

I prefer to emphasize that technology always stands in a certain relation to the people who use it: technology is anything that amplifies what the human body can already do. A club amplifies the ability to punch. A gun amplifies the ability to throw. A telephone amplifies the ability to shout. A motor vehicle amplifies the ability to run. Clothing amplifies the protective and insulating qualities of skin. Architecture, oddly enough, is large, static, communal clothing. Telecast media amplify vision or audition. The hard drive and RAM of a computer amplify the ability to remember and to calculate. And so on.

Any technology may be understood this way, and therefore anything that acts as a force multiplier on what humans in general can already do may be construed as a technology.

If we take technology in general as any means of converting our existing capabilities into superpowers, then the appeal of a machine-beautiful device is immediately apparent: the power of the device makes us harder, better, faster, stronger, and the simplicity of the device spares us from having to think too much about the device itself. The technology is a nearly transparent biomodification that empowers us to do with facility from now on what we could do only at great pains before.

The distinctive contribution of Steve Jobs, as I see it, is that he created a post-now class of consumer citizens: the Cybourgeoisie.

Creighton Gilbert (1924-2011)

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Creighton Gilbert, the author of many fascinating works of art history, has died.

I entered Yale's graduate program in art history with the idea of studying under Creighton. Although my evolving interests eventually drew me toward a specialization in Northern Renaissance and Baroque, I enjoyed several seminars and many illuminating conversations with him. I'll leave it to the obituaries to provide a proper overview of his life and works.  This is a personal remembrance.

On the heels of his rich and controversial work Caravaggio and His Two Cardinals, Creighton offered a seminar on the origins of Caravaggio's art.  Northern Italian painting before Caravaggio had long held Creighton's attention; his 1955 dissertation under Friedlaender (who was then working on Caravaggio Studies) was a monograph on Girolamo Savoldo.  Being somewhat taken with Caravaggio and his followers, and being so accustomed to thinking of him as revolutionary, I was quite eager to do the reverse engineering that Prof. Gilbert proposed.  So Creighton guided me into a study of il Moretto da Brescia and helped me to see what was, and what was not, a good argument in relation to questions of influence.

During this time, I went often to Creighton's office hours and pelted him with questions, these often pertaining to the history of art history.  I asked him about his favorite instructors and educational experiences, for example, and with a gleam in his eye he recalled, as if he had felt it that very morning, the excitement and hunger with which he and his fellow students used to travel across town (to a competing institution) to hear Meyer Schapiro. Continue reading Creighton Gilbert (1924-2011)

Leo Steinberg (1920-2011)

Leo Steinberg, author of the classic works Other Criteria and The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion, is dead.