Monday, July 27, 2009

Art Feeds Fashion Feeds War

I'm really not much of a social anthropologist, but I do have some conclusions about - or at least questions stemming from - the ideas I touched on in my last three posts (starting here).

First of all, if fine art influences fashion, design, advertising, film and other forms of expression and communication; and good design is important for the success of an empire, and essential to an empire that seeks to expand, then it follows that there is a thread of influence from art to invasion.

Then again, it may be just coincidence that expansionists, notably those who invade multiple neighbors, do so following important art movements, have the best-designed uniforms and tend to lose their wars (e.g. Germany and the other Axis powers in both world wars).

Whether directly or indirectly linked, or purely coincidental, art movements and a sophisticated military aesthetic may be early indicators of a nation's willingness or desire to go to war.

Furthermore, the importance of an aggressor's pre-war art movements, as well as the quality of their martial designs, may be directly proportional to the likelihood that it will lose said war.

For example, we can apply this formula to the American invasion of Vietnam in the 1960s and the subsequent defeat of the United States and South Vietnamese forces in 1975:

  1. There were indeed several important American art movements, including abstract expressionism and pop art, leading up to the Vietnam War.
  2. There were also significant improvements in the design of US military uniforms and hardware, such as the M16 assault rifle, during the post WWII baby boom that immediately preceded the Vietnam War. (Casual was now very much in.)
  3. The Vietcong, who won the war, did not have particularly well designed uniforms or sophisticated hardware, and they did not have any significant new art movements in the decades leading up to the war.

Question: How does the "art feeds fashion feeds war" (AFFFW) formula apply to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; or the boom in Chinese contemporary art?

Pix of Roy Lichtenstein's "Whaam!," 1963 from PrinceHouse (a good short history of graphic design, including the Bauhaus); and Li Shurui in an interesting NYT article on female Chinese artists.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Nazis Had the Best Uniforms, Part III

Runner up for worst uniforms and military hardware design of WWII, the French.

But wait, there's something of an enigma here, no? A fatally-flawed Maginot Line of an argument, if you will. After all, you may have noticed, if you read the last two posts, that my basic premise is the countries with the best uniforms (who invariably lost) also had kickass art movements shortly before WWII; and the ones that didn't have important new art movements in the two or three decades immediately preceding the war, such as Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, and the rest of the Allies (not including Russia, which I discuss here), had the saddest-looking uniforms, yet won (though the Australian and Gurkha slouch hats were rather dashing).

To recap: Germany had German Expressionism, not to mention the Bauhaus (more of a design movement, but we'll allow it); Italy had Futurism; Russia (not officially naughty until after the war, but easily could have been if they'd felt like it) had Suprematism and Constructivism; and Japan is Asian, invariably cool and über-aesthetic, so we'll forgive them for having no major new art movements in the immediate run-up to WWII, but they were a big influence on the Bauhaus, so they lost anyway (the natty little peaked caps and generally tasteful beigeness of the Japanese uniforms probably didn't help them either).

But back to France. That WWII military fashion enigma. How did they pull it off?

I really don't know what the French excuse was for having unmemorable, baggy - typically war-winning, as I hope I've shown - uniforms, yet still losing earlier on in the war. (Perhaps their "problem" was the exceedingly cool partisans, or the quirky but fashion-forward shorts and kepi ensemble.) They had Jean Prouvé and Art Deco, Cubism and Picasso; and they practically "owned" Neoclassicism (think Arc de Triumph and Chanselise), well before the Germans adopted their own pumped-up, hard-edged redux.

In fact, if you think about it, Napoleon's rigorous redesign of Paris, etc., was the first Third Reich - I mean strictly in terms of aesthetics - and Hitler's was the second Third Reich. So, by rights, shouldn't it have been the Fourth Reich?

The French even had the rather macho, though admittedly elegant, Eiffel Tower. Then why the unglamorous uniforms (ridged Adrian helmets notwithstanding)?

I believe the French simply knew that what it all comes down to is a comfortable life with a beautiful woman, a bit of gently-affirming high culture, some soft cheese and a good bottle of wine with friends.

The jack boots would just stomp on through, leaving the French relatively untouched, as long as they didn't make too much of a fuss. It seems they purposefully made their uniforms a little less snazzy than they might have, so as not to invoke the wrath of the sometimes catty, Schmeisser-wielding Nazi fashionistas.
Pic of exceedingly naughty, but well-dressed, Germans in Paris from

The Nazis Had the Best Uniforms, Part II

And the awards for the saddest (haute couture term) uniforms of WWII go to:

The United States

Unlike the Germans, the Americans had a certain casual elegance (perhaps a little ahead of its time), though much of their equipment was too homely and improvised-looking for my taste. The Euclidean rigor just wasn't there. But, hey, it got the job done, right? Yowza!

Still, while the Nazis were purists with the golden mean and other artfully appropriated elements of the finely-turned ankle of the Greco-Roman aesthetic, the Yanks' earlier take on classicism (during the Gilded Age) was a more sentimental late-Victorian version. I guess because they were homesick for the "old country" or something.

But "home" had moved on. And, to be fair, so did the US, proceeding to do Art Deco rather well. And gangsters. The Thompson submachine gun and Colt automatic pistol are handsome, original, boxy-looking small arms. Guns we can really do.

And Britain

For their part, the Brits had gone a bit soft, aesthetically, since the Neoclassical rigor of the Georgian period. They never quite recovered from the frilly Victorian era and the influence of the lovely but limp-wristed Pre-Raphaelites; they never quite recovered from WWI; and they never quite recovered from having their asses kicked by the Americans ...and, well, everyone other than the Germans.

But, with a bit of help from their friends (all of whom had either kicked their butts or had their butts kicked by them at some point), the efficacious use of chewing gum and rubber bands, and a little man at the bottom of every garden to fix the oil leaks, the Brits did win the war. Such a shame about the baggy, olive drab fatigues and wok-like helmets.

I will say the British sailors looked quite dapper, particularly the submariners and merchant marine in their thick wool sweaters. Come to think of it, the excessive glamor of the Royal Navy may account for Britannia no longer ruling the waves after WWII.

British submariners photograph by "Tubby" Abrahams.

The Nazis Had the Best Uniforms, Part I

There's a prevailing wisdom in art and design circles that the armies with the coolest uniforms generally lose. At the risk of appearing patriotic, I might point out that the Taliban do look pretty cool in their black turbans and eye makeup. Nuff said.

But back to another war, the Second World War, in close proximity to another "Great Recession."

First, the coolest uniforms and best design awards go to:

Germany and Austria

Don't get me wrong, they were evil, and not in a good way, but word is the Nazis had the best logo (with the most powerful color-combination, see pic above), the coolest uniforms and the most handsome equipment, large and small. No doubt. A certain elan, you might say (grey, black and beige go a long way). The Bauhaus had a lot to do with this.

The Soviet Union

I think the Red Army was a close second, thanks to the Russian avant-garde of the teens and twenties, lead by Kasimir Malevich, et al. The Cossack look really made it. And they did end up being the "bad guys" after the war, so it all fits.


The Italians were up there, too, due in large part to the Futurists. But plumed hats are silly (unless you're the Three Musketeers), and tanks the size of Fiats aren't quite as "sexy" as Panthers and Tigers. Clever Apple using those names for their Mac OS. Note: The German Leopard tank wasn't introduced until after the war, in 1965. But still, go Apple!


The Japanese had their own, Asian-influenced, thing going, though the puttees (strips of fabric wrapped around the ankles) were a bit dated. Then again, the swords did add a certain frisson to the whole hi-tech/low-tech dialectic.

Pictured is Odd, 1996, a word painting on wood, from a series of 11-inch square panels I worked on for about six years. Other paintings in the series included "Deluxe God" and "Dirty/Clean" (both diptychs), "Firearm," "Picasso II," "Humility" and "Placebo."

If Your Art Were Music, Whose Music Would it Be?

A friend just asked me this, and it was a fun one to answer. So, if you'll indulge me for a moment (and please don't hold me too it - "Half of what I say is meaningless..."):

My work ranges from hip-hop with sampling (say Tone Lōc borrowing from Wings' Band on the Run, as on his 1988 album Lōced After Dark), to a more minimalist ambient electronica, like Eno's Thursday Afternoon.

However, if I had to pick one artist as an analog for my entire oeuvre, I would (rather self-aggrandizingly, I fear) go with the Beatles, from Rubber Soul on. The humor is there, and the pop sensibility, along with an openness to influences and borrowings; in the Beatles case, from orchestral baroque and Victorian circus, to stripped-down western ballad, to birdsong; always branded with that essential Beatles tunefulness. One album? The white album.

Others might not see my work this way. So perhaps a touch of hubris or wishful thinking on my part. ...Come to think of it, Brian Eno might be closer to the truth.

What about your work? Who's music would it be?

Monday, July 20, 2009

How Big Was the Apollo Spacecraft Inside?

The Command Module was a truncated cone measuring 10 feet 7 inches tall, with a diameter of 12 feet 10 inches across the base, and a volume of 218 cubic feet (the same interior volume as two midsize American cars). Room for three astronauts with their legs stretched out (unlike Soyuz, where your legs stayed bent for the entire mission). The Lunar Module was more spacious. The crew of only two could luxuriate in a cabin volume of 235 cubic feet (the same interior volume as two large American cars). Of course, both space vehicles were also packed with equipment, so the astronauts weren't exactly rattling around in there.

Images of Apollo capsule interior and lander exterior from How Stuff Works and Wikipedia.

The Count of Monte Cristo

Alfred Bester's Tiger! Tiger! is based on the Alexandre Dumas revenge and reward classic, The Count of Monte Cristo. Elements of Alfred Bester's book were also inspired by the true story of a man stranded on a raft in the Pacific for four months during World War II. Allied ships repeatedly passed the man by, because it was feared his raft was a lure set by Japanese submarines.

The longest recorded survival alone on a raft is 133 days (4 1/2 months) by 2nd Steward Poon Lim (born, Hong Kong) of the U.K. Merchant Navy, whose ship, the S.S. Ben Lomond, was torpedoed in the Atlantic 750 mi. off the Azores at 11:45 A.M. on November 23, 1942. He was picked up by a Brazilian fishing boat off Salinas, Brazil, on April 5, 1943, and was able to walk ashore. In July, 1943, he was awarded the British Empire Medal.

From Norris and Ross McWhirter's 10 Best Oddities

And, from The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas, 1844:

There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state with another, nothing more. He who has felt the deepest grief is best able to experience supreme happiness.”


Until the day when God will deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is contained in these two words, "Wait and hope."

Image from As it says on the Cracked site, "Next time you feel like complaining about how small your apartment is, just imagine living for four months on one of these." (Reminds me of the Tehching Hsieh "prison cell" piece, One Year Performance.)

Apollo and Other Gods

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

The Tyger, William Blake, 1794

Image from History for Kids.

Vintage Mushroom Trip

All this talk of Tuk-Tuks reminds me of a psilocybin mushroom experience I had in Thailand twenty years ago. It was, at first, a royally bad trip, full of some of the most horrifying scenes the mind can cook up. Then William Burroughs, standing beside my mosquito-canopied jungle bed, dressed in a white linen suit, told me, "Embrace the horror: Dive into the molten lava, love the boiling babies and swim into the mouths of the giant snakes." When I overcame my fear and did as he suggested, the trip turned around and I attained a Tiger! Tiger! (Alfred Bester) godlike, flying around the world, clarity and power, followed by the subtlest, most blissful and still poise and peace imaginable - my too-small, white-framed, plastic sunglasses balanced on one aura-glowing finger, as if they contained all the wisdom of the universe.

I've been doing my best to embrace the horror ever since. Thanks Bill.

Image is the 1956 Galaxy Magazine cover illustration for the first publication of Tiger! Tiger!, aka The Stars My Destination.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Vespa Ap Commercial Three Wheeler

Just because it's beautiful.

The Holy Grail of Piaggio Ape Campers

At last I've found it:  The perfect tiny camper.  Part accordion, part moped, 100% "wanty."  This is why we should all live in Italy.  

More pix here of Davide Bignami's brilliant Piaggio Ape camper – the aptly-named ApeCamper – installed at the Museum of the Absurd, near Modeno, Italy.

Be sure to also check out Sr. Bignami's making of the ApeCamper movie.

Grazie molto!

PS:  A double decker (room for two) ApeCamper may soon be in the works.  Sponsors wanted.

The Microcar Museum

Next time you're in Atlanta, GA, check it out.  The museum even has a few microcars for sale.  Though they're not for anyone on a micro budget.

Piaggio (Vespa) Ape in the US, Please

The Piaggio Ape (pronounced ah-pay) is available in the UK, so why not here in the US?  I vote for getting them stateside, ASAP.  I love the description on the UK Ape site for the van model, top:

Suitable for big deliveries.
  • Most suitable vehicle for the transportation of big loads within the city
  • Big loading deck
  • Spacious drive cab
  • 2.5 cubic metres of available space for almost 700 Kg of transportable weight

By "big deliveries" they mean 88 cubic feet and 1500 pounds.  Actually, not bad compared to other three-wheelers on the market, including the Chinese-made Wildfire WF650-C four door passenger model, which is available in the US and has a measly 500 lb maximum load capacity (about one-and-a-half average Americans).  Wildfire's WF650-T pickup has the same weight limit, but it is a wee bit cheaper than the 650-C.   

Caution:  Anyone jonesing for a three wheeler should read this very funny Car and Driver review before plunking down their $7731 for the WF650-C.