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No photographer has had a higher profile in mass culture than Ansel Adams. He was the popular idea of the photographer as artist, and, I’m sure, the only one to have his images printed on beer cans with his name attached. 

His pictures graced not only Coors beer, but books, posters, calendars, aprons, hats and coffee mugs. He was the subject of a Playboy interview, and had his face on the cover of Time magazine.

 He had a mountain was named for him in California’s Sierra Nevada. That honor came to him less for his photographs and more for his constant advocacy for nature and the environment. 

His earliest photographs were made when Adams was still a teenager with a love for back-country hiking in Yosemite National Park, made with a snapshot camera and drugstore prints. Even those early images show a flair for the dramatic and the careful placement of darks and lights to make a balanced photograph.

Ansel Easton Adams was born in 1902 to a well-off family from San Francisco. As a child, he broke his nose when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake threw him against a garden wall. That bent nose became a trademark of sorts: It leaned left, and the man did, too. He joined the Sierra Club at 17 and was a board member from 1934 on. In later life, he railed against the environmental policies of Ronald Reagan.

His family vacationed in Yosemite Valley; he met his wife there and they ran a visitor center and gift shop, now called the Ansel Adams Gallery.

Early in life, he had planned to be a concert pianist, but eventually gave up keyboard for lens. But his ambition was still artistic: He wanted to be more than a recorder of vacation memories. This at a moment in art history when a number of like-minded photographers were arguing for photography as art when museums, galleries and collectors believed photography was a merely mechanical reproduction system. 

You can see that aesthetic vision in Adams’ early art prints, in platinum or other early processes, slightly fuzzy, with the popular Impressionistic love of sunlight and shadow. 

But in the 1930s, he converted to a Modernist vision of photography, with sharply focused images printed on glossy paper. His friends included other leading photographers, including Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, all of whom were proving that a photographic print had earned a place on the gallery wall.

But while these other artists worked in many genres, in the 1940s, Adams turned ever more to the kind of Great American Landscape we know him for: the images of national parks and American wilderness. Publishing books of his photographs has become an industry.

When he ventured beyond his strength, sometimes the results were stiff and uncomfortable, like his portraits, which made their subjects as granitic as the cliffs of Yosemite. The lighting is perfect, the focus is sharp, the detail is precise, and yet, they are completely lifeless. His presidential portrait of Jimmy Carter may be the worst presidential portrait ever. 

On the other hand, when his purpose was to document the injustice to interned Japanese citizens at the Manzanar camp, his people could be warm and human. 

And so, it is the landscapes we remember, and they have become iconic. 

His 1942 image, Moonrise over Hernandez, N.M., sold at Sotheby’s in 2006 for $685,500. 

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“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

– Ansel Adams

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For its first century and a half, photography meant loading light-sensitive film into your camera, calculating focus, f/stop and shutter speed, making an exposure, processing the film in a series of chemical baths to make a negative and then re-exposing that negative onto light-sensitive paper and running it through a series of chemical baths to create a positive image of the subject. It was an intensely physical process, as anyone who remembers the smell of sodium thiosulphate on their fingers will know. 

Now, it means holding up your smart phone and clicking an image and then swiping left or right to go through the results, and maybe sending it out via Instagram or Twitter so others can share it. And the image exists only in virtual form on a screen of pixels, never becoming anything physical — or requiring any specialist knowledge. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it does mean that the subject of a photo has been separated from the object of the photo itself. For most people, looking at their family snapshots, it has never been otherwise, but for professional photographers and those making photos ostensibly as art, the physicality of photographs and their making is central. 

Before digital, a photograph was two things: The image and the substrate on which the image appears. Most of us, looking at the snapshots of our families, see the people in the image, but pay little attention to the paper or the layer of silver that makes up the image. But in photography looked at as art, a good deal of attention is paid to the process and technique. In fact, often so much care is paid to the technique that the subject can become ancillary. Who cares if it’s a still life or a portrait, if the gum bichromate print is gorgeous. The subject was just an excuse for the virtuosity of the technique. 

I remember, in the 1970s, long before digital photography, when the technique was actually fetishized: If you didn’t process archivally and make your mattes of acid-free board, you couldn’t be taken seriously as a photographer. It gave rise to a certain preciosity. 

That was for black-and-white. Color photography hardly counted. It wasn’t accepted, for the most part, because of the impermanence of the image (you’ve all seen old snapshots turned funny colors with age). The only color permitted was the dye-transfer print — an expensive and cumbersome process. In the 1920s, museums were unwilling to collect any photography because, they reasoned, it wasn’t really art; it was mechanical. Before the 1970s, few museums collected color photography. Black and white was for the serious artist. All this has changed. 

The middle years of the 20th century — roughly from World War I till the advent of Pop Art in the 1970s, give or take — were ruled by Modernism, which proclaimed that the medium was the message, that the paint mattered more than the image. Abstract paintings — with no subject matter at all — was king. When someone was confused by the jumble of scribble in one of Jackson Pollock’s works, he naively asked the artist what it was he was supposed to see on the canvass. Pollock answered curtly: “A painting.” 

From the Renaissance to the middle of the 19th century, art was expected to picture reality. Looking at a picture frame mimicked looking through a window. Yes, there might be unreal things seen there: saints and angels. But portraits and landscapes were conventionally realistic, at least until the Impressionist revolution in the 1860s — and the invention and popularization of photography. 

When French painter Paul Delaroche saw his first daguerreotype, he famously proclaimed, “From today, painting is dead!” Of course painting didn’t roll over and expire; it went on to do other, newer things, and gave up the obligation to render visual reality the way a camera can. Because, although it wasn’t historically seen as such — at least by the masses — painting already was something different from simply an image of the world; it was a thing — an object, an artifact, a physical presence made of pigment and canvas. 

With the Impressionists, and later and more thoroughly with abstract painting, the thingness was the point. And when a few amateur photographers thought to elevate their camera imagery to the level of “art,” they at first imitated paintings, and especially Impressionist paintings. A whole movement of artist-photographers geared up with something they called Pictorialism — fuzzy imitations of fuzzy paintings. 

Then, in the 1920s, roughly, a group of exceptional photographers decided that photographs should not imitate paintings, but should look like photographs, and that photography had its own qualities and virtues. When American photographer Edward Weston was about to publish his first book of images, his publisher wanted to title it “Edward Weston: Artist,” but Weston objected and changed it to Edward Weston: Photographer. He was proud of his status as just that. 

In Europe, Modernist photography tended to be more political, but in the U.S., it became more interested in examining the physicality of the the visual world, which meant above all, landscape. The American tradition in painting had long featured landscape, and now, photographers thought they could make landscapes photographic rather than painterly. (They also produced a great number of exceptional portraits, and still lifes, but it is landscape that I’m concerned with here). And the landscapes they chose tended to be either industrial and urban, or the natural unpopulated sections of the American West. 

But while Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Charles Scheeler, Edward Steichen — and Ansel Adams — were well aware of their prints being art objects, framed and hanging on gallery walls, the wider public, with their brownie cameras had a less sophisticated understanding of the medium: For them, the camera captured their reality, preserved their memories and became souvenirs of the past. For them, the photograph froze reality for them and held it still. 

Even today, there are many people who believe photographs pin down the visual truth of their world, not being aware of how a lens can distort things, what different types of film — or now, different microchips — can alter the final image. Lighting, focal length, depth-of-field, contrast, color temperature and a hundred different technical aspects of photography can govern the final image. For a professional photographer, all of these things are brought to bear on the final created image. For ordinary people a camera simply registers what they saw, or at least the part of what they saw that was important to them (not seeing, for instance, the tree in the background visually growing out of someone’s head). 

The person who most attempted to regularize the variables of photography was Ansel Adams. He wrote a series of five books (later recast as three) teaching the finer points of making photographs — how the lighting, focal length, depth of field, contrast, etc. affected the final picture. 

He perfected what he called the “Zone System” of exposure and processing to control the contrast and dynamic range of the final photographic print. Simplified, the problem faced was that black ink on white paper has a limited range: The white, under normal lighting conditions, is usually no more than 30 or, at best, 40 times brighter than the black. But when you look at the sunlit scene you want to photograph, the brightest part may be a thousand times brighter than the shadow. How do you squeeze all that into your 30:1 ratio? 

Most photographers and snapshooters just pick what they want to show up best and let the shadows go to solid black, or the highlights to bleach out in detailless white. Adams, instead, attempted to divide a scene into 10 (or 11, depending how you count) “zones” of brightness, from solid black to solid white, and then control your camera negative’s exposure to match your previsualized zones, knowing that you can alter the contrast in the developing process, to increase or decrease contrast to fit, Procrustes-style, the whole into the available printing surface. 

(A simplified version of this is the old photographers’ dictum: “Expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights.” Adams’ version is more precise.)

For the ordinary amateur, you point a camera and click the shutter to capture the image and you satisfy yourself with what you get. Adams and his fellow artists are hyper-aware of the end product. Adams preached what he called “previsualization,” in which you attempted to imagine what the final print should look like before you ever pressed the shutter button. The scene being photographed is just raw material for the final presentation.

 “In my mind’s eye, I visualize how a particular … sight and feeling will appear on a print. If it excites me, there is a good chance it will make a good photograph. It is an intuitive sense, an ability that comes from a lot of practice,” Adams said.

The result is a photographic negative, used to make the final print. 

“The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.” Anyone who has followed Adams’ career knows that an earlier print may differ considerably from a later one, just as a young pianist’s performance may mellow and change as the pianist ages. In other words, there is not a “single” true print, but, like a musical performance, a range of them. 

The belief in the veracity of photographs is persistent, even in the face of computer-generated imagery, digital manipulation and fakery. Indeed, that faith has often caused trouble for, say, photojournalists, when a literal-minded editor insists that a photo be printed “unmanipulated.” I have known a photostaff that was forbidden even to alter the contrast of a digital photo in the credulous belief that the image first recorded in the camera is more “truthful” than the finished one. (That dictum didn’t last; it couldn’t). The digital file created in a digital camera is like the negative in silver-image photography and is only a first step in the process. To disallow the photographer to finish the process in some mistaken belief that the unmanipulated version is “truer,” is hooey. 

Certainly a photographer in bad faith can use the editing process to distort the end result, but this was true in silver-image photography as well. Digital may make it easier, but no more possible. You depend on the integrity of the photojournalist not to lie, at least not on purpose. 

As for art photography, since the final product is what is sought rather than a record of something else, there can be no lying, just as there is no lying in fiction. You want a journalist to be truthful, but a novelist is allowed to make it all up. 

In the end, you wind up with an artifact, a thing in itself — a photographic print, a range of black and white, or of colors, making a flat version of a three-dimensional world. The unconsidered understanding of a photograph is that it “captures reality,” but a more sophisticated view is that there are conventional distortions we choose to ignore (a photograph doesn’t move, reality does; a photograph is flat, reality is rounded; a photograph doesn’t make sound, reality won’t keep quiet; a person in a photograph is two inches tall, in reality is six feet — and so on, all mere conventions). 

And so, the artist accepts what he has made as a physical object on its own, with its own expectations and reality. Adams may make images of the Tetons or Yosemite, but, in his best work, it is the print itself that engenders awe. 

Click on any image to enlarge 

I was in bed, having trouble getting to sleep, and so making mental lists instead of counting sheep. I made a list of the CDs I would keep, if allowed only one per composer, then if allowed 1 boxed set for each of the dozen major composers, then… well, it went on and I still couldn’t fall asleep. I had made probably half a dozen lists when I began a list of the most beautiful human-made things, one visual, one musical, one verbal, etc. 

Filling in the list was surprisingly easy, considering how many nominees should be considered, but I had no trouble finding single primary answers, which surprised me. 

I’ve written numerous times that the single most beautiful thing I’ve seen, visually, is the north rose window at Chartres Cathedral. I’ve been there four times (five if you count multiple visits to the cathedral over a two-day visit to the town), and I never fail to fall spellbound by that tumbling wheel of light. Its beauty is not found in how pretty the colors are, but in something transcendent — the intent of the Gothic idea of architecture, that if God is light, then a building that celebrates light celebrates God. Even as a non-believer, I can appreciate that glimpse of eternity. The north window is singular in its design, with its set of 12 diamonds turning over and over as they circle the center, giving an illusion of motion — as of angels dancing around divinity. 

I love all the rose windows I’ve seen, but the north rose of Chartres is the dance of the cosmos. 

And if I had only one piece of music to listen to, it would be Der Abschied, the final half-hour song that finishes Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Every time I listen to it, I dissolve into a puddle of helpless emotion, filled to the brim with the sense of eternity and the world. I have heard countless versions of Der Abschied — I own more than a dozen recordings — and I have my favorites, but even the least of them leaves me wrung dry. 

Das Lied von der Erde is a set of six songs, supposedly translated from Chinese into German and published, among other poems, in 1907 in a book titled Die chinesische Flöte (“The Chinese Flute”), by Hans Bethge. Mahler set his selection of six to orchestral music so rich as to be fattening. The final song, as long as the first five together, tells of the departure of a friend. The poet confronts the beauty of nature around him as he waits for the friend so they may make their farewells. Each stanza is alternated with long orchestral interludes of refined delicacy. 

The music ends — if it can be said to end at all — with lines Mahler wrote himself, perhaps sensing his own imminent death: “Die liebe Erde allüberall/ Blüht auf im Lenz und grünt aufs neu!/ Allüberall und ewig blauen licht die Fernen!” And then, repeated and repeated, ever more quietly and hesitantly, “Ewig … Ewig … … Ewig” — “Forever … Forever … … Forever” — until at last you can barely hear the word, and the music dies.

“The dear earth everywhere/ blooms in spring and grows green anew!/ Everywhere and forever blue lightens the horizon!” and “Ewig … Ewig…” 

These choices came to me almost instantly, without having to think. There are other obvious choices that could be made. Other works of art that are profoundly beautiful, other music nearly as affecting. I have stood rapt in front of the Mary Queen of Heaven at the National Gallery in Washington DC, and been knocked silent by the pears and apples of Cezanne. And nearly as gut-slamming as Der Abschied is Richard Strauss’ Im Abendrot, the final of his Four Last Songs. Or a dozen other paintings and musics. 

As I lay there in the dark, unable to sleep, I rifled through my brain trying to remember a poem that moves me the same way, or any piece of literature: words that leave me drained each time. I went through all the major English poets — and there is plenty of poetry that moves me deeply — and even poems in translation. But the one poem that came back and slapped me upside the head isn’t by Yeats or Wordsworth, but by Carole Steele, my late wife. It is the first poem in her book, 42 Poems.

Carole was the genuine article. And that poem brings me to tears every time. Certainly part of my response comes from the 35 years we spent together, and the overwhelming sense of loss at her death five years ago. But I had the same response when she was alive: This is a poem that makes the connection between the inner and outer worlds; it responds to the physicality of the world in words that startle in their aptness, and combines the directness of childhood with a slant acknowledgement of death, and the awareness that others share in the knowledge of beauty. It isn’t the particular example that counts, but the shared awareness of its existence. 

We may all have different ideas of beauty, and you can each make your own list, but what must be common in all of them is the engagement. Beauty does not work as some passive prettiness outside the psyche. Pretty is not Beauty. Pretty is what is conventional. Beauty is the result of engagement and the creation of meaning. It is an awareness between you and the cosmos, each of the other. It is the recognition, sometimes startling in its suddenness, of the wholeness of it all, of its permanence and its evanescence. 

I have thought for more than 70 years about this. The world is many things, and it offers a share of misery, pain and loss, there is war and death, but it also affords moments of epiphany, the breakthrough of beauty, like the red glow in the black ashy cracks of a dying fire. 

This can easily devolve into “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens,” but I mean something more difficult. Yes, I resonate to warm spring rain and the crisp, dry, cold and sunny October afternoon. These things are beautiful and they can fill up our emotions to bursting, but only if we actually pay attention. Just a plain rainy day spent polishing the silverware, or spending a fall Sunday watching football on TV don’t elicit the response. Paying attention does. 

And when the beauty hits, it is not something external or “out there,” and neither is it something merely subjective or “internal,” but rather it is the identification of them together as a single entity. My awareness of the spring rain brings the rain into my psyche, and my awareness also give the rain its actuality. It makes it real. Yes, the tree falling in the forest makes a sound, but it doesn’t have meaning unless it is heard. The spring rain may fall whether or not anyone notices, but its existence has meaning only when my awareness and its existence become a single thing. 

It has been said that human consciousness is the universe’s means of self-awareness, that our senses are the mirror for the cosmos. It is what Andrew Marvell meant in his poem, The Garden: “The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find,/ Yet it creates, transcending these,/ Far other worlds, and other seas…”

Beauty is the amour de soi of the cosmos. Our sense of beauty, in the physical world or in art, its mask and mimic, is our sense of identity with the cosmos. “I am he as you are he as you are me/ And we are all together.” This sense is lost when we act like crabs in a bucket, each out for himself and not recognizing our shared humanity, but also when we fail to recognize ourselves as the conscious portion of the universe. Beauty is the breakthrough. 

What we consider pretty is merely a matter of taste, but beauty is a breaking up of our singularity and an identification, however brief, with totality. 

Surely the most famous piece of Japanese art is The Great Wave off Kanagawa, by Katsushira Hokusai. It has become iconic enough that, like Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, it can be recognized by even those who know nothing about art and can be fodder for countless parodies. 

The Great Wave is part of a book, published in Japan in 1830 called 36 Views of Mount Fuji, one of the most famous books of the Ukiyo-e woodblock print style of popular art in Japan from the 17th century until World War I. They were cheap: A single Ukiyo-e image could be bought for roughly the price of a bowl of noodles.

Hokusai (1760-1849) was about 70 years old when he published 36 Views and had been working as an artist since the age of 14. In his 88-year lifetime, he drew, painted and carved something like 30,000 works. Three years after publishing 36 Views, he began signing his work as “Old Man Mad With Painting.” 

As early as 1805, he had begun making pictures with the theme of fishermen in a boat fighting great waves.

And even after the Great Wave, he kept working the theme, including in his black-and-white sketchbook 100 Views of Mount Fuji.

He seems to have begun making the images for 36 Views somewhere about 1826. And it was in the years after that a new European pigment, Prussian blue, made its way to Japan. And so, some of the 36 Views are in the old style and some with the new blue pigment, which Hokusai seemed to enjoy experimenting with. The Great Wave would not have been possible without Prussian blue. An advertisement for the book emphasized the new color. 

But it is important to pay attention to the other images in the series. It is called 36 Views, but Hokusai couldn’t stop and later added an additional 10 images, bringing the total up to 46. They were published and republished multiple times during Hokusai’s life, and each new printing differs slightly from the first, sometimes with different colors, sometimes with new details carved into the woodblock. 

There is no set order for the images, but the ones below are in one of the published sequences. I wanted to post them all for two reasons. First because they give context to the Great Wave, but also because the whole set is great and should be known to anyone who loves art. I have loved them since I first encountered them more than 50 years ago. 

1. Nihonbashi Bridge in Edo

2. The Mitsui Store in Suruga District

3. Suruga Hill, Sundai, in Edo

4. The Hongan-ji Temple in Asakusa

5. The Timber Yard at Honjo

6. Under Mannen Bridge in Fukagawa

7. The Sazai Hall of the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats

8. The Round-Cushion Pine in Aoyama

9. The Waterwheel at Onden

10. Lower Meguro

11. Snowy Morning in Koishikawa

12. Sunset View of Ryogoku Bridge from Oumaya

13. The Village of Sekiya on the Sumida River

14. Senju in the Musashino Province

15. Distant  View of Fuji from the Gay Quarters in Senju

16. Tsukuda Island in Musashino Province

17. The Kazusa Sea Route

18. The Bay at Nobuto

19. Ushibori in Hitachi Province

20. Fuji from Goten-yama in Shinagawa on the Tokaido

21. Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa

22. The Tama River in Musashino Province

23. Hodogaya on the Tokaido

24. The Beach of Seven-League in Sagami Province

25. Enoshima in Sagami Province

26. Nakahara in Sagami Province

27. To the Left of Umezawa in Sagami Province

28. The Lake at Hakone in Sagami Province

29. Mishima Pass in Kai Province

30. Fuji from a Tea Field in Katakura, Surugama Province

31. Ono Shindon in the Suraga Province

32. Fuji in a Storm

33. The Red Fuji (Fine Wind, Clear Morning)

34. People Climbing the Mountain

35. Ejiri in Suruga Province

36. The Coast of Tago Bay near Ejiri on the Tokaido

37. Fuji from Kanaya on the Tokaido

38. In the Mountains of Totomi Province

39. Yoshida on the Tokaido

40. Fujimigahara in Owari Province

41. Inume Pass in Kai Province

42. Fuji Reflected on Lake Kawaguchi at Misaka in Kai Province

43. Dawn at Isawa in Kai Province

44. Lake Suwa in Shinano Province

45. Kajikazawa in Kai Province

46. The Back of Fuji from Minobu River

Click on any image to enlarge

Buddhism has its Noble Eightfold Path, and I have my list of Seven Noble Violin Concertos.

There are two basic varieties of concerto in the Western tradition. In one, the purpose is to be pleasing, either through beautiful and graceful melody or by entertaining the audience with the soloist’s virtuosity. 

But the other path — what I’m calling the “noble concerto” is more symphonic in conception, where an estimable composer uses the concerto form to express some deep or profound feelings and the solo instrument is just a means to do so. 

This is not to disparage the first type of concerto. Two of the greatest and most popular violin concertos fall into this group: the Mendelssohn concerto (certainly one of the most beautiful ever and perhaps the only one that could be called “perfect.”) and the Tchaikovsky, which, although it is difficult for the performer, cannot be said to plumb the emotional depths. Doesn’t mean it isn’t a great concerto, but its emotional qualities tend to be melodramatic rather than profound. 

The concertos of Paganini are tuneful, also, but mainly exist to show off his digital gymnastics. The concertos of Vieuxtemps, Viotti, and Wieniawski are all adequate but shallow works. Don’t get me started on Ludwig Spohr. Even Mozart’s concertos for violin are more pleasing than profound. It’s all they were ever meant to be, and we shouldn’t ask for them to be more. 

Some of these concertos are among my favorites. Beyond the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky, I adore the Korngold, the Barber, both Prokofievs and the Stravinsky. I even love both Philip Glass goes at the genre (has he written a third while I wasn’t looking?) I listen to all of them over and over, with great pleasure and satisfaction. So I am not writing them off simply because they don’t make my list of noble concertos. 

The noble concerto doesn’t seek to ingratiate itself. It is not written with the audience in mind, but rather to express the thoughts and emotions common to humanity. They bear a seriousness of purpose. They may seem more austere, less immediately appealing, but in the long run, they reward a lifetime of listening, and in multiple interpretations. You learn about yourself by listening to them. 

I am not including concertos earlier than Beethoven, which means, no Bach, no Vivaldi, Tartini, Locatelli or Corelli. In their day, “noble” simply meant a spot in the social hierarchy, a position of privilege unearned but born into. Beethoven changed that, claiming a place for an earned nobility of purpose and ability.

“Prince,” he told his patron, Prince Lichnowsky, “what you are, you are through chance and birth; what I am, I am through my own labor. There are many princes and there will continue to be thousands more, but there is only one Beethoven.” Which would sound like boasting, if he didn’t have the walk to back up the talk. 

Nobility of the kind Beethoven meant was defined in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary as, “a scorn of meanness,” or low intention and an embrace of moral and ethical excellence and personal integrity. 

I call these seven concertos “noble,” but that is a word well out of fashion these days, when anything elevated, whether nobility or heroism or honor, is suspect. The facile use of such words by fascists and totalitarians  have made them stink to the mind. Yet, the truths of them are still there, and can be found in words, actions, art and literature. And in these seven concertos. 

It’s not that I want to listen to these seven to the exclusion of the others. They each have their place, their purpose and their virtues. But these seven are just more, what — serious. They make more demands on the listener, and provide greater rewards for the effort. A seriousness of purpose. 

—Let’s take them in historical order, beginning with the obvious first choice, the Beethoven Violin Concerto in D, op. 61, from 1806. 

At one time, I owned more than 40 recordings of the Beethoven concerto, which I listened to and studied with the score, and so, I am quite familiar with most of these CDs. I got rid of almost all of them when I moved from Arizona to North Carolina, along with three-quarters of all my classical music collection (now, I’m reduced to little more than 2500 CDs. Weep for me.) 

There have been more than a hundred notable recordings of the Beethoven concerto, from the time of acoustic recording to our streaming present. 

I  count five distinct ages of recorded music. The first from the era of the 78 rpm record, where concertos and symphonies had to be spread out onto many discs, with odd breaks in between. This was an age of giants, of Fritz Kreisler, Mischa Elman, of Bronislaw Huberman, Albert Sammons, Efrem Zimbalist, Adolf Busch, and, crossing over eras, Jascha Heifetz. 

The second era was that of the LP, both mono and stereo. This was the golden age of classical music recordings, where established stars of an earlier age got to show off their stuff in hi-fidelity, and newer star performers made their names. 

This was followed by the digital era, beginning in the 1980s, with the introduction of CDs. A few conductors and orchestras dominated the market — Herbert von Karajan re-recorded everything he had previously done in 78s and on LPs, and not always to the better. 

The new century has been marked by an entire new generation of soloists, better trained and technically more perfectly accomplished than most of the great old names, and they have made some astonishing recordings. What I sometimes suspect is that they lack the understanding and commitment to what the music means, intellectually. Facile and beautiful and technically perfect, but not always as deep. 

And now, we live in an age that overlaps that, of historically informed performance, in which everything is played lighter, faster and punchier — and all the nobility is squeezed out as suspect and as fogeyism. 

From the first era, we have two recordings by Kreisler, from 1926 with Leo Blech conducting and a second from 1936 under the baton of John Barbirolli. You might think the later recording was in better sound, but they are pretty equal in that way. Clearly they are old scratchy recordings, but the brilliance of Kreisler shines through anyway. In many ways, these are my favorite recordings of all. Kreisler has a warmth, a beauty of phrasing and a nobility that is exceptional. 

There is also the Bronislaw Huberman with George Szell from 1934 in surprisingly good sound, and by Jascha Heifetz with Arturo Toscanini from 1940 that some prefer over his later LP one with Charles Munch. 

From the second era, there were many great performances. Four I would never do without are my favorite in good sound, Yehudi Menuhin and Wilhelm Furtwangler from 1953; the second Heifetz recording, from 1955 with Munch; the one that is a consensus reference recording, Wolfgang Schneiderhan with Eugen Jochum, from 1962; and for utter beauty of tone, Zino Francescatti with Bruno Walter, from 1961. 

Also, later in the LP era, some big names with some big sounds: Isaac Stern with Leonard Bernstein (1959); Itzhak Perlman with Carlo Maria Giulini (1981); Pinchas Zuckerman with Daniel Barenboim (1977); and Anne-Sophie Mutter with Karajan in her first recording of the work (1979). Any of these is a first rank performance in good sound, and define what the Beethoven Violin Concerto should be.

Among the younger violinists, there is plenty of good playing, but fewer deep dives. You still find the old grandeur with Hilary Hahn and David Zinman; and clean musicianship with Vadim Repin and Riccardo Muti; and Kyung Wha Chung and Simon Rattle; and Leonidas Kavakos conducting and playing. 

All the famous fiddlers of the golden age made multiple recordings of the concerto, the Oistrakhs, the Milsteins, the Sterns, the Perlmans and Grumiauxs and Szeryngs. And mostly, they were consistent across performances, with different orchestras and conductors. But Anne-Sophie Mutter re-recorded the concerto with very different results. In 2002, she played it with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic and gave us a complete re-interpretation of the concerto. Some loved it; some hated it; few were indifferent. I love it. 

It is one of several outliers among interpretations. You can always count on Niklaus Harnoncourt (aka “the Wild Man of Borneo”) to be wayward, and his recording with Gidon Kremer is peculiar by including a piano in the first-movement cadenza. Why? Beethoven didn’t write a cadenza for his violin concerto, but he did write one for his piano transcription of the work, and Kremer used the piano version to reverse-engineer a version for violin, but left in a supporting piano (and tympani part). That still doesn’t answer a “why.” 

Christian Tezlaff recorded a version with Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich that, while on modern instruments, comes highly inflected by the original instrument ethos. It is beautiful in its way, but it is fast and zippy.

I also include a personal favorite with little circulation: A budget-label recording by the Hungarian violinist Miklos Szenthelyi. I saw him live and I’ve never seen anyone with such perfect posture or so fine a tone. I can’t recommend it for everyone (and it probably isn’t available anymore, anyway), but I have a soft spot in my heart for it.

—The next big concerto comes some seven decades later with Brahms Violin Concerto in D, op. 77 from 1878. Brahms was clearly modeling his concerto and its mood on Beethoven’s. He wrote it for his friend, Joseph Joachim, who was also the violinist who popularized Beethoven’s concerto after years of neglect. 

The Brahms concerto is more genial and has always been popular with audiences. There are as many recordings of it as there are of its predecessor, including a version by Fritz Kreisler that is still worth listening to, through the scratches and clicks of a recording made in 1936. 

Of all of them, these are my favorites, that I listen to over and over, and from all the different eras of recording. 

The Heifetz is quick, dead-on, energetic and exciting. He is sometimes thought of as cool and unemotional, but I think instead that it is white-hot. The Szeryng recording is the one I’ve had the longest and listen to the most — it’s my go-to recording, but that may just be that I’m so used to it, it has imprinted on my mind. The polar opposite of Heifetz is Oistrakh, which is rich and warm, with Szell providing the secure setting for the jewel violin. Of more recent recordings, Hilary Hahn is utterly gorgeous. It gives lie to the myth that only “historical” recordings are great.

—Chronologically, the next in line is Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D-minor, op. 47 from 1905. If ever music required the ice of Heifetz, it is Sibelius’ concerto, which sounds like a blast from the Arctic. His recording, from 1959 is riveting. But so is the warmer version with Isaac Stern and Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1969. We may forget what a stunning and brilliant violinist Stern was, if we only knew him from his later years, when his intonation went south. In Sibelius, he is one of the great ones.

Of the modern era, Perlman with Andre Previn, from 1979, has all of Perlman’s grand personality and character, with technical perfection. But the one I listen to most, and with total love, is by Anne-Sophie Mutter, also with Previn, from 1995. 

I need to note, somewhere in this rundown, that the list of dependable fiddle stars are just that — dependable. If Mutter is my favorite here, that doesn’t mean that you aren’t getting the goods from Oistrakh, Vengerov, Hahn, Mullova, Bell, Chang, or Zuckerman. Whether it is Beethoven or Bartok, you will not likely be disappointed. I am here listing just my own favorites. My own taste. 

—And my own taste runs strongly to the Elgar Violin Concerto in B-minor, op. 61 from 1910. This is a testament to my own growth and change. There was a time when I wouldn’t touch Elgar with a 10-foot phonograph stylus. I found him stuffy and boring. But that was because I hadn’t really heard much of his music. Then, I heard Steven Moeckel play it with the Phoenix Symphony and was swept away. I discussed the concerto with Moeckel and he advocated for it with devotion — indeed, it was his insistence that the the Phoenix Symphony tackle it that made the performance happen. (Moeckel also has a CD out with the Elgar violin sonata that makes a case for it, too.)

This is the longest concerto on my list, but also one that I have to listen to with complete attention from beginning to end. It speaks to me with a directness that I recognize. It is rich to overflowing and absolutely tears my heart out. 

My go-to recording is also the oldest, by English violinist Alfred Sammons, made in 1929 with Henry Wood conducting. It has the greatest breadth and depth of any I have heard, in sound that is not as bad as its birth year would imply. A famous early recording was made with Yehudi Menuhin under the baton of the composer, that should show us how the composer meant it to go — if only Elgar were a better conductor. 

The concerto kind of disappeared after that, until the young fiddler Kennedy (he went by only one name back then) came out with a best-selling version in 1984 with Vernon Handley and the London Phil. It is still Kennedy’s best recording (he went pop soon after). 

But my favorite remains Hilary Hahn and the London Symphony with Colin Davis. Rich, warm, and in truly modern sound, it breaks my heart every time. 

—Speaking of broken hearts, there is no more personal utterance than Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto from 1935. Subtitled, “To the memory of an angel,” it commemorates the death of 18-year-old Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius. It is also the most listener-friendly piece of 12-tone music ever written, as Berg managed to cross atonality with tonal music in a way so clever that doctoral dissertations are still being written about it. 

In two movements, it is blood-curdling in parts, and soul-soothing in others. Every emotion in it seems authentic, and not conventional. It is one of those piece of music you cannot ever just put on in the background — you have to listen and you have to invest yourself in it completely.

It was commissioned by violinist Louis Krasner and we have a performance by him conducted by Berg’s colleague Anton Webern, from 1936, which should demonstrate the most bona fides, despite the poor sound quality. 

I first learned the piece listening to Arthur Grumiaux and it is still one of my favorites. Yehudi Menuhin played it with Pierre Boulez, who brings his own authority to Second Vienna School music.

But the one I listen to now, over and over, is Mutter, with James Levine and the Chicago Symphony. This is serious music for the serious listener.

—At roughly the same time, Bela Bartok wrote his Violin Concerto No. 2, from 1938. In three movements, it was commissioned by Zoltan Szekely and first recorded by him with Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. It is a recording of the world premiere and has authority for that reason alone, other than that it’s a great performance, although hampered by horrible sound.

Much better sounding, and one of the great recordings, is by Menuhin and Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Philharmonia, from 1954. It has always been my reference recording. Good sound for the era and great performance. 

Isaac Stern is also great, with Bernstein, and his performance is usually paired with Bartok’s lesser-known and seldom-performed first concerto, which is youthful and unashamedly beautiful. 

And I wouldn’t be without Mutter’s version, with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony. 

—It would be hard to choose which is Dimitri Shostakovich’s best work, but my vote goes for his Violin Concerto No. 1, in A-minor, op. 99 from 1948, coincidentally, the year I was born. As personal as the Berg concerto, but with a powerful overlay of the political, and written under the oppression of Stalin, this is the most monumental violin concerto, probably, since Beethoven. When well-played (and it is difficult), it drains you of all the psychic energy you can muster. 

It is the bottom line on all seven of these concertos that we are meant to listen to them with the same beginning-to-end concentration that we would spend on poetry or defusing a bomb. They are not “put it on while I do the dishes” music, but life-and-death music. 

And that is what you get with David Oistrakh, who was the originator of the concerto and a friend of Shostakovich. He recorded it multiple times, but the first, with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Phil, from 1956 is still the greatest one, the most committed. It is the one I listen to when I want to really dive deeply into what the music means, and come away shattered with the realization of all the horror of the 20th century. 

Performances by Lydia Mordkovitch and Dmitry Sitkovetsky are in modern sound and also brilliant. Hahn is especially well-recorded, with Marek Janowski and the Oslo Philharmonic. 

But the Oistrakh. If the concerto was personal to the composer, it was to the violinist, too. They both had known it all, seen it all, suffered it all. 

And so, these seven concertos — seven sisters — seem a notch above the rest, in terms of seriousness and execution. You should have all of them in performances that express all the humanity that is packed into them. These are my suggestions; you may have your own. 

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“There’s no such thing as bad art.” This was a dictum of the late classical music critic Dimitri Drobatschewsky. He explained: “If it’s bad, it’s not art.” But I have to take exception. There are examples of works that are deeply flawed, yet they stick in our psyches in just the same way as a masterpiece. 

To take an extreme: Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space is often nominated as the “worst movie ever made,” yet, there are piles of other bad movies that have fallen into justified oblivion. Something about Plan 9 wheedles into our brains and lodges there, despite dialog such as, “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future.”

The movie is a peculiar kind of classic and draws viewers every time it is screened. 

And speaking of tin-eared dialog, the 1933 King Kong is full of stuff such as, “It never fails. Some big hard-boiled egg goes goofy over a pretty face, and bingo! He cracks up and gets sappy.” And the acting is often wooden (Bruce Cabot especially; and even Robert Armstrong can’t make this dialog work) and the story line is racist in a way common to its era, but Kong is as much part of our cultural landscape as George Washington’s cherry tree or the Gettysburg Address. 

There is something about these films that buries into our unconscious and lives there like a dream. There is a logic to real life, a cause and effect, but there is an alternate logic to dreams, and that is where Plan 9 or King Kong comes to life. Ordinary rules don’t apply.

There are many better-made movies that are completely forgettable. Shakespeare in Love won an Oscar, but can you remember anything about it? I can’t. But Kong is buried there, in the neurons, permanently, mythically. 

Which brings us to one of the greatest movies ever made, or at least one of the most memorable. in a 2012 Sight & Sound poll of critics, Metropolis was voted as the 35th greatest film of all time, tied with Hitchcocks Psycho and just ahead of Truffaut’s 400 Blows. It also ranked 12th in the film magazine Empire’s “The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema” in 2010 and second in a list of the “100 greatest films of the Silent Era.”

It didn’t achieve such eminence through its plot or acting. The plot is silly and preposterous and the acting is often so over the top as to be laughable. 

All built on a silly and sentimental bromide. 

The film’s director, Fritz Lang, agreed about the moral, telling Peter Bogdanovich in an interview, “You cannot make a social-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart. I mean, that’s a fairy tale — definitely.” 

It looks like science fiction, but there’s no science in it. It could be a dystopian future, but it’s not set in any particular time. It is mostly a fever-dream of capitalism, except there are no economics in it.       

Yet, the film has a power that many arguably better films simply can’t muster. Scene after scene in Metropolis bores deep into the subconscious. 

Right from the opening scene, when the factory shift changes and one phalanx of exhausted workers exit the giant elevators, shuffling at half-speed, while the fresh phalanx marches, in step in the opposite direction at full speed. It is a striking bit of choreography, worthy of Pina Bausch, and a clue to how the rest of the movie will unfold. 

In the next segment, we find our hero, Freder, cavorting with a bevy of nymphs in the “Eternal Gardens,” in a set that is actually unnerving.

Scene after scene is unreal but unforgettable. 

While the plot is tangled and confused, the set-up is simple. The city is divided into an upper part, where the rich live in luxury, and an underground inhabited by the workers and the machines that keep the city running. A Romeo and Juliet story intervenes and so does a mad scientist, who makes a robot in the image of our Juliet. Chaos ensues. 

Don’t look for it to make any sense. It doesn’t. 

The film was conceived by director Lang when visiting New York City in 1924. “I looked into the streets — the glaring lights and the tall buildings — and there I conceived Metropolis,” he told an interviewer.  He said that “the buildings seemed to be a vertical sail, scintillating and very light, a luxurious backdrop, suspended in the dark sky to dazzle, distract and hypnotize.”

At the time, Lang was married to novelist Thea von Harbou (who already had published more than 40 books) and they worked out a story, which she turned into a novel. Later, Lang and Harbou translated the book into a script. 

Thea von Harbou and first edition hardcover (l.) and paperback (r.)

(I’ve just read the original novel and it is terrible, grossly overwritten and both silly and sentimental. And it used enough exclamation points to fill an oil tanker. Here is a sample: “Ah! The intoxication of the lights. Ecstasy of Brightness! — Ah! Thousand-limbed city, built up of blocks of light. Towers of Brilliance! Steep mountains of splendour! From the velvety sky above you showers golden rain, inexhaustibly, as into the open lap of the Danae. Ah — Metropolis! Metropolis!”)

Lang and Harbou working on script

Lang began filming Metropolis in 1926 at the Ufa studios in Berlin. It took 17 months to film, with 310 shooting days and 60 shooting nights and went over budget by 310 percent, costing 5.3 Reichsmarks (something like $23 million in today’s money) and nearly sent the studio into bankruptcy.

Brigitte Helm, who played the lead, and the robot Maria, said “the night shots lasted three weeks, and even if they did lead to the greatest dramatic moments — even if we did follow Fritz Lang’s directions as though in a trance, enthusiastic and enraptured at the same time — I can’t forget the incredible strain that they put us under. The work wasn’t easy, and the authenticity in the portrayal ended up testing our nerves now and then. For instance, it wasn’t fun at all when Grot drags me by the hair, to have me burned at the stake. Once I even fainted: during the transformation scene, Maria, as the android, is clamped in a kind of wooden armament, and because the shot took so long, I didn’t get enough air.”

Lang brought in 500 children from the poorest districts of Berlin to play the Workers’ children and had them in ice-cold water for two weeks, as the Workers’ City was flooded.

The film was a financial failure on its initial release, but has become one of the great classics of all time. Its afterlife, though, was inauspicious. The movie was first released at a length of two and a half hours. The studio then cut it down to about two hours, and in the U.S., it was hacked down further, and in 1936, Nazi objections to its supposed Communist subtext, it was reduced to 90 minutes. Since its rediscovery in the 1960s, there have been many restoration attempts, but even today, with 95 percent of the film rediscovered and re-edited, it is still short of the director’s cut. 

And speaking of Nazis, Lang and Harbou divorced as her Nazi leanings became clear (she became a party member in 1933 and worked for the studio under Nazi rule during the war), and as for Lang, it was his bad luck that Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler both liked the film and offered Lang the job as boss of all Nazi film production. Lang took the hint and fled Germany (by his own account, the very next day). 

(An early scene in the movie shows a race in the Club of Sons in which the stadium architecture is astonishingly prescient of Albert Speer’s fascist architecture.)

So, why is this movie, with all its faults, such a memorable film? Unlike most, it doesn’t count on story to carry us through, and certainly not the acting. Rather, it burrows into our unconscious like a dream, with image after image that cannot be forgotten. One after the other, they pile on, right from that opening bit with the workers’ choreography.

The city is the kind of future the past used to project, with its biplanes circling the buildings and the elevated roadways around skyscrapers so tall, we cannot see their tops. In the center is the giant tower called the “New Babylon

Then, there is the Workers’ City, hidden below ground, with its Soviet-style faceless apartment buildings. The social structure of Lang’s Metropolis is a parody of the rich-poor division manifesting itself in the between-wars Weimar Republic — and echoed today. Between the upper and lower levels is the Machine Level, where the workers put in their toilsome hours. 

Our hero, Freder, wanders into this level, where he sees the great machine overheat and explode, scalding and killing scores of workers. He is horrified and hallucinates the machine turning into “Moloch,” devouring its human sacrifices.

He comes across Worker 11811, working a mysterious machine, who collapses from overwork and Freder takes his place. The scene recalls the famous Leonardo drawing of the “Vitruvian Man.” 

The whole underworld is a purgatory, and below the Workers’ City there are the catacombs, where the virtuous Maria lectures the workers about justice — and the importance of waiting for a “mediator.” 

This is not a movie about people, but about archetypes. There is father, son, city, death, all presented almost naked, with little attempt to disguise them as anything real. 

The world is divided, in Nordic and Wagnerian style into an underworld, a middle world and an upper world. The catacombs are deep caves, and the home of religion and myth.

The Workers’ City and their machines are in the middle.

And the privileged world of the elite rides above it all, and depends on all that resides — like a subconscious — below, normally unseen and unthought of. 

The architecture is a strange mix of the Moderne (Art Deco and German Expressionist); the dull efficiency of a Socialist utilitarian greyness; and relics of the Gothic; and prehistoric caverns. 

The main characters are the father, Joh Fredersen, who is master of the city; his son, Freder; the mad scientist Rotwang; and, most central of all, the woman, Maria. 

Fredersen (looking suitably Napoleonic); Freder; Rotwang; Maria

Maria, played by Brigitte Helm, is the central and most interesting character. She is really two characters, and the embodiment of two archetypes: virgin and whore. Rotwang creates a robot in the form of Maria and programs her to undo everything the good Maria has done. Helm differentiates the two personae in a way that they cannot be confused.

The two Marias separate in the very Frankentsteinian laboratory of Rotwang, in one of the most hypnotic sections of the movie, with rings of light rising and falling around the body of the robot, 

until it takes on the visage of the good Maria.

This Bad Maria, or False Maria, is sent to the workers to foment rebellion (why is never really made clear — it doesn’t make any sense, economically, to destroy the whole city), and she turns up in a nightmare hallucination of Freder as the Whore of Babylon, dancing at the Yoshiwara cabaret, doing a provocative dance.

And morphing into a Medieval vision of Die Grosse Babylon — the Great Babylon, from a verse in the biblical Apocalypse.

Which drives the men at the cabaret crazy with desire.

When the film was released in the U.S., Variety magazine’s reviewer commented: “Some sex stuff here and there, and a cooch dancer! Yes, sir, a coocher, in the revigorated mechanical figure, and a pretty good coocher, too, but not so thick around the hips as German coochers generally are. But then you must remember that this young lady was made to order.”

This False Maria persuades the workers to destroy the machines, which automatically floods the Workers’ City (don’t ask why), threatening all the children, and the workers, horrified, burn the False Maria at the stake, where, of course, she turns back into the robot.

Not to worry, Freder and the Good Maria save the children.  

The film is shot through with biblical references, not for theological reasons — there is no actual religion in the movie — but as cultural markers, symbols that will resonate with an audience familiar with the Bible. 

In the catacombs, the Good Maria teaches a lesson about the Tower of Babel, and how the conceivers of the tower failed to teach the workers who made the tower why they should do so, and a rebellion ensues and the tower is destroyed. 

In Freder’s fever-hallucinations, the figures of the Seven Deadly Sins, from the cathedral, step down from their pedestals and the figure of Death comes to life.

And Death approaches Freder with his scythe.

There’s Freder’s vision of the exploding machine as the biblical Moloch

And the movie comes to its climax when Rotwang abducts the Good Maria and chases her to the top of the cathedral, among the gargoyles.

And drags her to the very rooftop, where he fights it out with Freder.

While his father (remember him?) falls to his knees in fear among the crowds in the parvis.

But Rotwang falls to his death and Freder saves the Good Maria, leading to the point where Maria gets the heart (Freder) to mediate (shake hands) between the hands (the worker) and the head (Joh Fredersen) and therefore satisfying the prediction of the opening epigram of the movie. 

It’s rather a sappy ending for so visionary a movie. But then, the plot has never been the point. 

Which is something novelist H.G. Wells didn’t seem to understand when he reviewed the film on its release in 1927. In his piece for The New York Times, he wrote, “I have recently seen the silliest film. I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier.”

His beef was that the film didn’t realistically portray the future. 

How can it, when Rotwang’s Medieval house in the middle of the city is, like the Tardis, bigger on the inside than on the outside?  

Its economics didn’t make sense, Wells wrote. “The machines make wealth. How, is not stated. … One is asked to believe that these machines are engaged quite furiously in the mass production of nothing that is ever used, and that [Fredersen] grows richer and richer in the process. This is the essential nonsense of it all.”

Where are the suburbs? Wells asks. Why, in the future, do all the cars look like the Model T? Where in the catacombs under the city are all the gas mains, sewer conduits and electrical infrastructure? His literal-mindedness is comic.

How can you be literal when the clocks in the film cannot even agree on how to measure time — Salvador Dali must have been their clocksmith.

Wells goes on and on, completely missing the point. Obviously, Metropolis was never intended to be realistic. It is not even meant to be the future. It exists in no time, according to both Lang and Harbou. It is a fever dream, an oneiric fantasy, and the glories of the film are all to be found in its visuals, not in its story. 

You can watch the film on YouTube in decent resolution, and it is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. It is one of the great films of all times, and one of the most memorable. 

Lang went on to make such great films as Woman in the Moon, also with Helm; M, with Peter Lorre; The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, with Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Rotwang from Metropolis); then, in Hollywood: Fury, with Spencer Tracy; Rancho Notorious, with Marlene Dietrich; and Clash by Night with Barbara Stanwyck. And many other great films. But none burrows into the brain in quite the same way as Metropolis.  

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Over the years, it has amused me no end that Christians believe, in the face of all evidence, that their religion is monotheistic, when in fact, it features as many gods and godlets — divine spiritual beings — as Hinduism or the pantheon of Greek gods. Yes, Yaweh is the boss, but so was Zeus, or Indra, or Odin. Yet, Christians persist in calling the other religions pagan, and their own as monotheistic. It’s a hoot. 

And I am not here referring merely to the ineffable concept of the trinity — one god in three forms — which is no different, really from Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu, who are aspects of the Brahman — the Great Mystery. (The Holy Ghost can be seen as the creator, Christ as the preserver, and vengeful Jehovah as the destroyer making the comparison more apt.) 

No, while that by itself qualifies the Christian religion as polytheistic, what I am really interested in are all the other lesser divinities, the angels, saints and demons. A whole army of Thrones, Archangels, Dominions, Principalities and Seraphim. There are a lot of them. 

In the Bible’s book of Daniel, the prophet describes God and his attendees (Daniel 7:9-10). “His throne was a fiery flame, its wheels burning fire; a fiery stream issued and came forth from before him. A thousand thousands ministered to Him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him.” 

Heaven seems traffic-bound with angels. Getting a parking spot must be like in Los Angeles. 

But it isn’t the crowded heavenly city of angels that I am interested in, but their opponents: the devils. And, more than all that, the one balancing deity in opposition to Yaweh —  Satan, aka Beelzebub, Belial, Samael, Old Nick, Lucifer, Apollyon, Old Scratch, Mephisto. Or a host of other names and circumlocutions. 

No agreement is reached among Christian theologians as to whether these are all just aliases of Satan, or whether Beelzebub, Samael or the others are henchmen — sidekicks to Old Nick. There is considerable ambiguity among the sources. 

Either way, there are enough spirits floating around in the spiritual ether to populate a Cecil B. DeMille movie. But the one that interests me particularly is Satan, or rather, how he, as the Devil, has been depicted over the centuries. This is about art history rather than about theology. 

Neither is there any clear picture of Satan’s role. In one version, he is God’s adversary, seemingly nearly co-equal; 

in another, he is cast into hell and suffers eternal punishment and bound in chains; 

in another, he is the presiding spirit of hell — its CEO, as it were — and rules the demons or the damned, like the Greek Hades or Roman Pluto; 

in another, he is the torturer of the damned and devours them; 

and in yet another, he walks the earth creating temptations and havoc. Is Satan to be found in heaven, in hell, or on the earth? 

Satan, after all, is really just a bit player in the Bible. He barely shows up. Yet, he is a major figure in the mythology and iconography of Christianity. In the Bible, the word “satan” is just the Hebrew word for “adversary,” or “advocate” (Yes, Satan is a lawyer). 

He is one of the bureaucracy of Heaven in the book of Job, where he seems to be the commissar who tests the love of humans for Jehovah, and is allowed by God to test his servant, Job. In other Bible verses, the word “satan” simply refers to a normal human who accuses or admonishes someone else. 

It isn’t until after the Second Temple Period, with its Persian influence, when Judaism was heavily colored by Zoroastrianism and its theology of the good Ahura Mazda, god of light, and the evil Angra Mainyu, the god of darkness, that a similar divine dichotomy becomes prevalent in Judaism. Over time, folklore and theology converge. Satan becomes part of the dramatis personae of the theater of beliefs. 

For Satan, devils — and much of saints and angels along with them — are much more the product of folklore than religion. And the stories, myths and legends vary from source to source, from country to country, and from denomination to denomination. (Very like Greek myth, there is no single canonic version of any of the stories.) 

In the early centuries of Christianity, church fathers faced popular paganism and had to deal with the old gods.  Tertullian states unequivocally that all the old gods were disguised demons (De spectaculis, xix).

Pan became one of the templates for our image of Satan, with goat feet and horns. The Germanic earth-sprites, elves, kobolds, fairies, hairy hobgoblins of the forest, water nymphs of the brookside, and dwarfs of the mountains were transformed by Medieval Christianity into devils, or into hellish imps, a sort of assistant or apprentice devils.

One common story involves the rebellion of Lucifer and his army against the angels siding with Jehovah. There are many folkloric versions of this war. In one, Satan’s ambition attempts a coup d’etat against God, in another, God demands Lucifer bow down to God’s newest creation, Man, and the rebellious angel refuses. 

Either way, in one version, a tenth of all angels rebelled, in another a third. No matter how you count, that’s a lot of them. 

“The number of the angels who participated in this movement of rebellion has never been fully ascertained,” wrote scholar Maximilian Rudwin in his exhaustive 1931 book, The Devil in Legend and Literature. “The belief current among the Catholic Schoolmen, based upon an interpretation of a biblical phrase (Rev. xii. 4), is that a third of the angels ranged themselves under Satan’s standard. The rebel leader’s armed force seems to have comprised nearly 2,400 legions (about 14,400,000), of which each demon of rank commanded a certain number. … Alfred de Vigny thinks that a thousand million followed Satan in his fall (Cinq Mars, 1826).”

Apparently, the population of devils and demons has grown since the rebellious angels were cast out of Heaven. Some Medieval theologians believed that devils can procreate just as humans do, and a population explosion has taken place since the Biblical times. Again, according to Rudwin:

“Johannes Wierus, a pupil of the famous Cornelius Agrippa and author of the learned treatise, De praestigiis daemonium (1563), went to the considerable trouble of counting the devils and found that their number was seven and odd millions. According to this German demonologist, the hierarch of hell commands an army of 1,111 legions, each composed of 6,666 devils, which brings the total of evil spirits to 7,405,926, ‘without any possibility of error in calculation.’ A professor of theology in Basle, Alartinus Barrhaus, is, as far as is known, the last man to take the census of the population of hell. According to this infernal statistician, the devils number exactly 2,665,866,746,664.” That’s more than 300 demons for every person currently alive on the planet. 

There have been several times in history when reformers have tried to free theology from myth, to come to an understanding of divinity in the  abstract. But the impulse to anthropomorphize is seemingly too strong to resist. Stories are easier to understand than exegeses. Islam began as a simple assertion of “one god,” and became layered with spirits, angels and their own version of Satan (“Shaitan” or “Iblis”). In the Upanishads in India there is an attempt to demythologize Hinduism, but the myriad devotional deities persist. Many Christian theologians have attempted to demythologize their religion, but it is the stories on the stained glass windows that persuaded the faithful. 

In the New Testament, Satan tempts Jesus in the desert, and then shows up in parable explanations given by him to his disciples. In the book of Revelations, what was obviously intended as an allegory of Roman hegemony turns Satan into a great red dragon with seven heads, ten horns, seven crowns, and a massive tail. 

In later midrash, commentaries and hadith, the stories multiply, and often diverge. And so, Satan has many forms, many motivations, many magical powers, many henchmen. And it is these later forms that are most familiar in art and literature, whether from Dante or Milton, or Salman Rushdie. And the many forms are what interest me, for they change with fashion, just as art does. There are Romanesque devils, Renaissance versions, Baroque Satans, Romantic Satans and modern ones, too. 

“The visuals of Satan have evolved over centuries to create the stereotypical Devil that has become familiar to modern viewers,” writes historian Genevieve Carlton. “Medieval artists borrowed from both the Greeks and Egyptians to depict Satan as a terrifying beast — he was often shown ruling over Hell, tormenting the souls of the damned. By the 16th century, artists began to depict Satan walking the Earth, harassing the living, and working with witches to wreak havoc on society. Satan has also appeared as a goat or a creature with enormous bat wings. This visual Satanic evolution continued in the 18th and 19th centuries, introducing the concept of Satan as a tragic figure or trickster.”

In the Middle Ages, Satan was mostly pictured as a monstrosity, with horns, misshapen face, cloven hooves, gnarly knuckles, and often extra faces where genitals should be, or perhaps a face on his rump. Several versions have faces for every bone joint. 

These are horrific, completely non-human depictions of the father of lies or lord of the flies. It was an image for an age that actually believed in devils and demons, and a hell for the damned. 

And the fear that Satan or his devils or demons could couple with wives or daughters was prevalent.

These were people who took their devils seriously. And they were everywhere, it seemed.

Later ages don’t take Satan so literally, but either as a metaphor for evil, or, if a “real” thing, then an angel fallen from grace. He becomes more literary. 

In Dante’s Inferno, Satan is prisoned at the very bottom of hell. He is portrayed as a giant demon, frozen mid-breast in ice. Satan has three faces and a pair of bat-like wings affixed under each chin. As Satan beats his wings, he creates a cold wind that continues to freeze the ice surrounding him and the other sinners in the Ninth Circle. The winds he creates are felt throughout the other circles of Hell. In his three mouths, he chews on three famous traitors: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius.

As seen by an anonymous artist of Dante’s time

As seen by John Flaxman in the late 18th century

As seen by poet William Blake

In Dante, as in many other mythographies, Satan was once the brightest and best angel of heaven (often called Lucifer), who either rose in rebellion to God Almighty, or refused to pay obeisance to God’s latest creation, Man. 

And so, in various versions, Satan is a once-noble being, whose external appearance maintains some of its former beauty and glory. 

That is certainly Milton’s version, in Paradise Lost

“ . . his form had yet not lost all her Original brightness, nor appear’d

less then arch angel ruind, and th’ excess Of Glory obscur’d . . . but his face deep scars of thunder had intrencht, and care Sat on his faded cheek . . . cruel his eye, but cast Signs of remorse and passion to behold the fellows of his crime. (book I, 591–94, 600–2, 604–6)”

These illustrations are from an early edition of the book

The heroic or anti-hero Satan became even more common in the 18th and 19th centuries. English artist John Martin illustrated Paradise Lost

And more famously, Gustave Dore illustrated the epic poem and made Satan even more heroic

But they weren’t alone. The heroic Satan was all over the 19th century

It is difficult to read Paradise Lost and not find Satan more interesting on the page than God or his angels — who come across as ideas, not as personalities. The 19th century tended to see Satan as the real hero of Paradise Lost

Poet William Blake famously expressed his opinion on why this should be in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

For Blake Satan was the symbol of creative energy, while God — or “Nobodaddy” — was the enforcer of stultifying rules. 

But Blake, who was also an artist, illustrated scenes from the book of Revelations where the biblical Satan was a “Great Red Dragon.” 

On the Continent, the devil takes on a dandified aspect, as in Goethe’s Faust, where he goes by the name Mephistopheles. In the Prologue in Heaven, Mephistopheles mimics the scene in Job, where he offers to tempt the scholar Faust. God lets him have his way. As he leaves the scene, Mephistopheles gives an aside:

“I like to see the Old Man now and then, And take good care I don’t fall out with him. How very decent of a Lord Celestial To talk man-to-man with the Devil, of all people.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone in the Middle Ages being so jocular about God and the devil. 

Mephistopheles was portrayed on stage often, in plays and operas, and a standard design developed. 

This devil is an urbane con man

And his stage costume is almost always red. It is from this theatrical version that our common red devil derives. 

You find him all over popular culture. 

In comic books

Tattoo designs

Sports mascots

And, of course, in movies, where there has been an evolution in our versions

In early films, the Mephistophelian model survives, as in the Swedish film Häxan (1922) and the Hollywood My Friend the Devil (1922, now lost)

Over the years, a more Medieval version of devil has been popular, too, with horned monsters, still often red

And, also in animated films, from Betty Boop to Disney’s Fantasia

More recently, Satan has become quite dapper, as in Ingmar Bergman’s The Devil’s Eye, or he’s become a hedge fund manager, such as Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate (etymologically redundant) or Tom Ellis as Lucifer Morningstar on TV. 

It isn’t just Western culture or Christianity that populates a spirit world with imps and demons. It seems to be a universal archetype, or part of the Jungian collective unconscious. 

Either that, or leprechauns, fairies, and trolls are real. 

Arabic countries have their djinn, or genies

China has its demons and Tibetan Buddhism has its guardian spirits

Japanese artists have an entire genre of demon paintings 

There are Pre-Columbian scary gods and demons

that survive today with Mexican festival masks — indeed with masks from many cultures 

More masks, just for fun

 Devils predate modern religions and continue to inspire artists and image makers. The Assyrian wind demon Pazuzu in a statuette from the 8th century BC; a sculpture of Satan by Jean-Jacques Feuchère from 1835; and two demons by Fritz Scholder

I could also go into devils in other artforms, such as Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz or the Witches’ Sabbath finale of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Or Stravinsky’s A Soldiers Tale. Or Giuseppe Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata, which the composer said came to him in a dream of the devil playing the violin. (Pictured here by French artist Louis-Léopold Boilly in 1824)

For this blog entry, I have collected hundreds of devil and demon imagery. I could not post all of them. But I will leave you with a detail from Albrecht Dürer’s 1513 engraving, Knight Death and the Devil

Click on any image to enlarge

I want to correct an injustice. Fifty years ago, back when I knew everything (as most of us do in our 20s), I dismissed symphony conductor Eugene Ormandy as a lightweight. He wasn’t one of the “big boys.” Like many others back then, an assumption was made that if you didn’t wow us with some personal vision of a work, it was just bland candy. All those recordings with the Mormon Pumpernickel Choir didn’t help. 

The Philadelphia Orchestra, under Ormandy, was rich and round, with silky string tones and blended winds. But unlike, say, Leonard Bernstein, who led the technically scruffier New York Philharmonic, there didn’t seem to be any distinct personality behind their music making. 

I was hardly alone back then. In 1967, Harold Schonberg wrote, “There was a singular reluctance in musical circles to admit him into the ranks of great conductors.” He was thought superficial; Toscanini dismissed him as “an ideal conductor of Johann Strauss.” In an era of strong podium personalities, Ormandy seemed merely worksmanlike. 

Time has taught some of us otherwise. 

Orchestra conducting has gone through several major fashion changes over the past century or so. After the First World War, the field was dominated by dominating baton wielders. The Furtwanglers, Mengelbergs, Weingartners and, of course, Toscanini. Each had a personal style, and that style was instantly recognizable: Furtwangler’s waywardness, Mengelberg’s rubato, Toscanini’s rhythmic incisiveness. Oh, and there was Stokowski — glamor on the podium personified, married to Gloria Vanderbilt and originator of the famous “Philadelphia sound.” 

After the Second World War, there arose another generation of superstar conductors but with the advantage of high-fidelity recording. This time, it was Bernstein, Karajan and Mravinsky. Bernstein brought passion; Karajan brought a smoothness, almost like pouring Karo syrup over everything. Mravinsky had his own special intensity. Someone once said of Mravinsky that he would be the perfect man to conduct “the end of the world.” 

There were many others, of course. George Szell made perfection a fetish; Fritz Reiner drove his musicians hard and put them up wet; Erich Leinsdorf kept Boston neat and clean. Several pre-war conductors hit their stride in recordings after the war: Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer. Fans bought their recordings based on the names of the bandleaders. 

And there was Ormandy, inheritor of the Philadelphia Sound from Stokie, and, it seemed to us then, a caretaker baton overseeing a first-rate orchestra. Yet, he kept it a first-rate orchestra for all of his 44 years at the helm. That didn’t happen because Ormandy was a second-rate conductor. 

And orchestra fashions continued to change. The increasing power of musicians’ unions made it impossible for a conductor to command the orchestra like a dictator. There was negotiation instead of fiat. The next generation of conductors featured a high proportion of time-beaters, who could keep the music moving along, but without much in the way of anything new to say. These were the Kapellmeisters

Christian Thielemann has define this: ”a Kapellmeister now describes a pale, meek figure beating time. A policeman on duty at the podium directing the musical traffic, no more.”

To be fair, this has always described the vast majority of orchestra leaders, in provincial  and civic orchestras and opera houses. But some high-profile conductors have won praise for their supposedly “non-interventionist” approach to music-making. Just the notes, ma’am. 

More recently, something more sinister has crept in. Under the heading of “historically informed performance practice,” many conductors now use theory to guide their musicmaking, rather than their ears. Among the HIPP conductors, what is important is the “conception” of the music. Fast tempi, barline-beats, clipped phrasing, vibratoless strings, motoric rhythms. They profess to be following the composers’ intentions, so we might hear “how it sounded when the composer first heard it.” All well and good, if you are interested in a museum exhibit rather than music. In fact, we cannot know what it sounded like 200 years ago and the reconstruction seems to have more to do with a generation of conductors who grew up with rock and roll. 

And that esthetic has infected even mainstream conductors, who now play with smaller orchestras in quicker tempi and leaner sound. The vaunted “Philadelphia Sound” now seems a lumbering dinosaur. 

Yet, if you listen without prejudice, Philadelphia under Ormandy is not only beautiful to the ear, it feels as if they all understand the music without having to justify it in manifestos. They understood what the music was saying. 

This is something that divides most current musicians from their forebears. The older conductors and their orchestras knew the music was about something, that it was meant to express something — tell a story, make a metaphor for existence, elevate our spirits. But Igor Stravinsky claimed “Music can express nothing.” And for Toscanini, Beethoven’s Eroica was not about heroism. “For me it is just Allegro con brio.” An arrangement of notes. 

But for the composers, especially of the 19th century, music was meant to express something. And it was assumed to be the conductor’s job to shape the music in such a way as to make the meaning clear. 

Certainly, some conductors made their own intensions clearer than the composer’s. The virtue I now recognize in Ormandy is that he absorbed the meaning of the music and got his musicians to express it. Not to glorify Ormandy and not to play a mere arrangement of notes. 

It first conked me side the head when I came across his Sony recording of the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies, the big ones. They were emotional and direct without being wrought or exaggerated. They flowed with a naturalness that made everything seem inevitable. It was neither metronomic nor taffy-pulled. It breathed. 

If you believe Tchaikovsky’s music has something to say to us (rather than merely entertain us), then coming to Ormandy’s Tchaikovsky again after 50 years will be a revelation. Its directness and naturalness are not the result of Ormandy’s mediocrity, but of a mastery that doesn’t flaunt itself. 

I have since listened to piles of old Ormandy recordings. Many of them are now reissued in cheap box sets. And one comes to recognize that his Shostakovich Fourth Symphony is a reference recording, never been done better. His Sibelius Seventh is one of the best ever. Ormandy and Philadelphia made the world-premiere recording of the Deryck Cooke completion of Mahler’s 10th Symphony. 

One recording alone should prove Ormandy’s virtues. The Rimsky-Korsakoff Capriccio Espagnol has the idiom perfect and the virtuoso soloists give it a fizz and panache that make you stand up and hoot. It has never been done better. 

No, he didn’t do everything equally well. His specialty was the 19th and early 20th centuries. His Bach is vestigial and his Handel is pretty well confined to a holiday performance of Messiah with the gargantuan Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But when you want Rachmaninoff done the way he’s supposed to go, or Tchaikovsky, or Sibelius, or Debussy, Ormandy is my go-to guy. 

Rediscovering him in my old age has been a joy. 

“I’ve been thinking a lot about evil,” said Stuart. Stuart is now 74 and he’s been with Genevieve for a good seven years now. “Lucky seven,” he calls it. We met again on a visit to New York, and were walking down Ninth Avenue on our way to Lincoln Center. Genevieve was playing there in a pick-up orchestra in a program of all new music by Juilliard students. 

“Well, not evil so much as how we personify evil.”

I guessed he was talking about images of Satan and devils. 

“Yes, there’s Satan,” he said. “And how we picture him keeps changing. In the Middle Ages, he was a monster with goat horns and a second face where his genitals should be. 

“To Dante, he was a giant with bat wings. 

“To Milton, he was a glorious angel who had lost little of his heroic luster. In popular culture, he was an opera villain dressed in red. He had tiny pointed horns and a pitchfork. 

“To modern movie audiences, he’s now a slick hedge-fund manager. 

“The less visually imaginative have a non-personal sense of evil as a force in the cosmos something like gravity — pervasive but not individualized. They feel they have escaped the primitive urge to apostrophize nature. 

“But what interests me isn’t just his appearance, but his character. Satan isn’t a single person, but a range of fictional stereotypes — maybe archetypes. There are probably dozens of Satans, hundreds if you want to count the demons and djinn of other cultures. But they all boil down to what I think are five mega-types. I figure there are five possible motivations for Satan. First, he is a sociopath and has no concern for his effects on the world, no empathy, no compassion — hollow and empty. We’ve seen what happens when a malignant narcissist is given power. His only concern is for himself. 

“Then, he is often seen as a trickster, a Loki, who gets his kicks from knocking the hats off of policemen. His role in the universe is the revivifying power of chaos, without which the world would be a stale and boring place, where nothing interesting ever happens. The side-effect of this is necessarily going to impact some people rather badly. William Blake seems to have seen Satan as this sort of being: a creator through destruction.

“More popular is Satan the con man and seducer, the profferer of the Faustian bargain, the little voice that says, ‘give in to the desire,’ the tempter of Jesus, the snake-oil salesman who knows his potion is either useless or poison. His pleasure is in knowing he is more clever than you, and hence, this Satan is motivated, in part, by vanity. 

“A small portion of theologists envision Satan as the right hand of god, without whom god would not be possible. If there is no evil, there is no good to play against it. God and Satan are coeval, co-existent and co-dependent. This is the Gnostic Satan, as important as Jehovah.  

“Finally, there is evil as ignorance. If we knew better, we’d behave better. For this point of view, Satan does not actually exist, but only our own failure to understand. We do evil because we are blind, stumbling about in the moral darkness. 

“Of course, I don’t believe any of this,” Stuart says. “It’s all just mythology. But myth is interesting. We always seem to better understand through story than through logical argument.”

I couldn’t help but notice the irony. But Stuart went on.

“I had a dream the other night, which set me off into a different direction,” he said. “In it, evil was a machine, not a person. I figured that in a Cartesian universe, a mechanistic and scientific world, evil might well follow laws of nature very like something Isaac Newton might have formulated. Such a conception would require a mechanistic mythology. And so, I tried to imagine a Satan-machine. 

“Like all mythologies, it would have to be built on the things of daily life, what we come into contact with. These are the things that color our imaginations. And so the evil machine of the 18th century wold be all gears and pulleys, spritzing steam and clanking along. Blake’s “dark Satanic mills.” 

In the 1950s, the machine would be blinking lights and spinning magnetic-tape reels. 

In 2000, it would be read-out screens and buttons to press.”

“And now?” I asked.

“Now, I think Satan would be a visually inert silicon chip, perhaps the size of George Lucas’ Death Star, working silently and invisibly to our destruction. 

“There is an impersonality to our scientific conception of the cosmos and its creation, and so, my idea of evil should reflect that, and our Satan would be technological. The evil is still there, and it has an origin, but the origin is not shaped in any way like a human being, no arms, no legs, or eyes or tongue stuck out like Gene Simmons’ or the Hindu goddess Kali. No, I am ready for a machine to be the source of all bane and baleful action.”

“OK,” I said. “But machines are manufactured. Who made this Satan-machine? Are we not right back with the proof of god by design? Is there a God in a lab coat who tinkered with silicon until he came up with this machine?”

“Hmm.” Stuart looked thoughtful. “No, it would have to be a writer. I’m imagining Douglas Adams,” he said. 

As a little boy in the 1950s, I remember visiting my great-grandmother in Jersey City. She had a darkened living room, with great stuffy chairs, a mantel clock surrounded by tchotchkes, floor-length curtains over the windows, and the back of every chair featured a lacy antimacassar. There were cut-glass bowls on the animal-claw end-tables, one of which was filled with hard candy, from which we children were offered “one.” 

It was for my tiny little brain, simply what old people lived in, so unlike the split-level suburban home where I grew up. There was the smell of oldness, the wool of oldness, the dark mahogany of oldness. Above all, everything seemed upholstered and dark. Later, when I was an adult, I recognized the style as Victorian. 

As in Norse mythology, there were three separate worlds — the world I knew, with my schoolmates; the world of my parents, with its privileges and authorities; and the distant and rarefied world of the ancients. These were not simply different houses, but completely different universes. 

Each of these reflected the “taste” of its generation. Victorian; Mid-Century Modern; now Postmodern. 

They were three different “tastes.” And taste rules so much of what we like, what we choose, and who we think we are. It is the way we groom our hair, the clothes we wear, the car we drive — we don’t choose a BMW over a Honda because it gets us to our destination any faster, but because it presents to the world the person we think we are — or want to be. The same with a Volvo or a Ford truck. Taste is a powerful driving force in our lives, whether we are aware of it or not. But sometimes, it must be transcended. 

When I made my living as an art critic, I had to put aside my individual tastes and attempt to judge art by more impersonal standards. For instance, I have never responded to what are called the Mexican muralists — the Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, José Orozco paintings and their peasant-proletarian mythologizing. It shared too much with socialist realism and was, to me, rather drab in its muddy earth colors. Nevertheless, I had to acknowledge the importance, art historically, of their work, and to be able to distinguish between the best of Mexican muralism and the lesser, more humdrum examples. To be able to distinguish and understand was more important than my “taste.” 

This problem has cropped up again recently when a friend and former colleague posted a series of videos on YouTube cataloguing the biblical paintings of Marc Chagall, accompanied by ironic and meaningful music by Tori Amos, John Lennon, Mix Master Mike and others. He asked for my opinion. I watched all nine short videos (watch the first one here) and was impressed by his graphic and editing skills, but had a hard time otherwise. I simply don’t much like Chagall’s painting. Never have. 

I recognize his significance in art history, and there are things of his I respond to — a few paintings, such as 

I and the Village (1911); View of Paris from My Window (1913); Cubist Landscape (1919)

his stained glass at Reims Cathedral; 

and the ceiling of the Palais Garnier in Paris. But the general run of Chagall has always struck me not as childlike, but childish. And he produced way too much with too little editing, leaving dozens and dozens of images virtually identical except for their finish — a blue coat here, turned red coat there, or left as a scribble. This was especially true of the biblical images, of which there seemed to be hundreds. 

My friend had collected them all and divided them into the familiar episodes or stories of the Bible, adding the music and sometimes his own commentary to them. I dutifully sat through all nine chapters of the video, but in the end did not come away with any higher opinion of the artist — indeed, the need for editing seemed all the more imperative. 

I don’t fault anyone for their taste. I recognize it as an individual thing. My taste is not better than anyone else’s, it is just mine. If I respond to Mahler more than I do to Max Reger, well, then, that’s me. If I would rather re-read Milton than James Dickey, so be it. Would travel across the country to see a Pollock retrospective but wouldn’t cross the street for Frank Stella, that’s just the way it is. (This may have something to do with a sense that the world is not tidy and organized, but chaotic and spontaneous. I share Pollock’s sense and not Stella’s). 

Yet…

Yet, there is that passage in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria where he makes the distinction between gustibus and gustus. Plural and singular. We all know the Latin phrase, “de gustibus non est desputandum,” but, Coleridge says, “gustibus” is what I have been talking about so far — personal preference. We like some things more than others. Any argument is silly: “I like pickles.” “No, you’re wrong, I don’t like pickles.” 

But “gustus,” he says is different. It is the ability to differentiate between value and trash. Tastes are personal, but taste is about discernment. It is what allows us to know that Marc Chagall — no matter what I personally think about him — has value that, say, Thomas Kinkade does not. That James Dickey wrote poetry and that Rod McKuen wrote whatever you want to call it, but not really poetry. 

Gustibus allows us to enjoy even trash. It is OK to like Kinkade’s brand of nostalgic goo, but it should never confuse it with quality. 

John Waters is the master of bad taste, but he has taste. The interior of Elvis Presley’s Graceland is also in bad taste, but there is no evidence of actual taste involved. Hence the word “tasteless.” 

The distinction to be made is one of awareness. Taste comes from engagement, from paying attention. Lack of taste comes from acceptance of the conventional, of the expression of sentimentality, or the dependence on what someone else says is good. 

Much has been made of taste as a class distinction. But that is not what I am talking about here. Artist Jenny Holzer has famously said that “Money creates taste,” but it doesn’t. Money creates fashion and fashions change. Taste is a way of experiencing the world; it is not a hemline or this year’s color pairing. British aristocracy includes some of the world’s most tasteless people. 

Here in Asheville, N.C., there is a mansion called the Biltmore House, which is one of the most tasteless, garish pieces of architecture I know. Money creates smugness, not taste. Think of all the money Donald Trump has. 

Taste in the sense I mean it is at its foundation an engagement with the world, with all of it. It is the attempt to see things as they are and appreciate them for their worth.  

There is a problem. It is so easy for gustibus to blind us to gustus. We easily take our tastes as taste and assume that things we like are therefore universally good. It takes some doing to divorce one from the other. We assume we like something because it is good and therefore, everyone should agree with us. I like pickles and if you don’t, you must be a Communist. 

It’s a trap we all fall into at times. Myself certainly included. But I’ve seen many things I initially didn’t appreciate later come to be favorites. Did Bruckner suddenly become better than he used to be? I wrote a whole piece about how my mind changed on the paintings of Joseph (not Frank) Stella (here). The acquisition of taste is an ongoing process and requires constant engagement and re-engagement. Make up your mind too soon and you miss a lot. 

In short, our tastes close us off, while fostering your taste opens you up. Tastes are our hidey-hole, where we burrow in and stave off the parts of the world that make us uncomfortable. Tastes are lazy; taste is adventurous. 

The cultivation of taste is a question of experience. The more we become familiar with, the better our choices will be. 

I remember when the film critic at The Arizona Republic was brand new. Bill Muller had been a political reporter, and when the previous critic left the paper, the feeling was he had been too “arty.” And so, they wanted an “ordinary Joe” to speak for the ordinary moviegoer. Muller seemed the perfect choice. He knew nothing about film (which he readily admitted to. Muller was a very smart guy and honest). 

And so, for his first year as a critic, he loved movies where things “blowed up real good.” He was the demotic critic the company hoped for. The problem was, once you’ve seen 20 or 30 movies where “things blowed up real good,” you begin to be able to distinguish between those films done well and those done poorly. And so, Muller began to give negative reviews to sloppy and cliched movies. His taste grew. 

When he was first hired, Muller often shuffled off art and foreign films to me to review. It was a great gift to me. I loved those films. But as Muller’s taste grew, he began to appreciate the finer points of filmmaking and — as I said, he was a hugely intelligent man — he began to keep the art films for himself. He became a cultured critic. He never lost his common touch and became an Andrew Sarris, for instance, but I watched him with great interest as his taste level rose with his exposure. 

I don’t mean that Muller became a stodgy old pedant like me. He still loved popular movies — if they were good — but popular wasn’t enough. It had to be popular and good. His tastes were always different from mine, but his taste became more and more discerning. 

Taste requires exposure and it grows unbidden. There are no rules for it, as Susan Sontag wrote, “Taste has no system and no proofs.” But you miss it when it’s absent.

We were invited to dinner with one of Carole’s fellow art teachers. They lived in a fairly new housing development, where all the houses were cookie cutter matches, up and down the streets, with the streets lined up-and-down the newly developed Arizona desert. Urbanization was filling up the outskirts of Phoenix like water filling up a pot. 

Our hosts were a very nice young couple with two kids; Carole and Margaret were friends over years of teaching in the sprawling Peoria Unified School District and we both knew Margaret and Curt well. But this was the first time we had come to their house. It was a shock. 

Through the whole house, there was not a single picture on the walls. Not a clock, nor children’s painting on the fridge, nor framed Bible verse — not even an Olan Mills family photograph with the stiff smiles and Sunday dress-up clothing. Nothing. An empty room is spooky.

I don’t think I’d ever seen a house so blank. It was as if they had just moved in and packing boxes were stacked in the corner, except there were no boxes and they’d lived in the house for years. There was a full set of furniture and curtains on the windows, but no art. All the more surprising since Margaret was an art teacher. 

Even cheap motels put decorations on the walls. 

This is not to complain about Margaret and Curt. The dinner was fine and we had a great night together. But the house haunted me afterwards. A house with blank walls is a house without a soul. You feel it in the gut. A void, an emptiness. 

Something on the wall seems almost instinctual, from the cave walls of Altamira to the poster of Farrah Fawcett taped up in the dorm room. If nature abhors a vacuum, house cannot abide a blank expanse of plasterboard. Something — please, something. A framed halftone image from Target of a tree or a cliched Parisian street scene. Something.

In Medieval Jewish folklore, a golem is a clay statue that comes to life when a magic incantation is inserted into its mouth. And so a home becomes alive when a painting or photograph is hung above the sofa or piano. 

When I moved into my first rented house, after leaving the college dorm, I hung photographs on the wall and a color-field painting made by Doug Feeney, a fellow collegian. I even put a frame around the wall phone, as if it were a Duchampian ready-made. Wasn’t I clever. 

Later, in another house, I filled the entire dining room wall, from top to bottom, with photos I made of all our friends. There must have been 30 or 40 pictures there. I couldn’t afford matting and frames, so they were all scattered across the wall, held up with masking tape. They kept us company. Because I was a photographer, most of the art in the houses I have lived in were decorated with my own work. But a good deal of the work that hung was traded for with other artists. This is a great thing about having artist friends and about making art. We mix and match. I now have enough art to fill a gallery. 

I most value art made by my brother, who is a working artist, and by my late wife, Carole, who was a visionary. She made a painting of the tree at night that grew outside our Phoenix house; it is surrounded by stars and the bluest dark sky I’ve ever seen. It now resides over our dining table, sharing the wall with an embroidered copy of a detail of the Unicorn Tapestries from the Museum of Medieval Art in Paris. 

The tree painting is not only a fragment of Carole’s soul remaining with me after her death, it is a window into the larger world she had access to. 

And that is one of the functions of art in the home. For many, it is a photograph of the family or of the parents or grandparents. It is a reminder of our unbreakable bond with the past — both our growing up and our ancestors. 

In old British manor houses, the walls are covered with the stiff, starchy paintings of lineage going back centuries. “That was the third Marquis of Snotsbury. He was hanged as a horsethief.” Thieves are hanged; artwork is hung. 

Sometimes the art is a souvenir of someplace that was meaningful to us: that trip to London or the landscape or our childhood. Sometimes, it is just a pretty picture. For my religious grandmother, it was praying hands and scriptural verses. We find meaning and display it. 

Unfortunately, the art in the house is often just a pro forma accessory, something perhaps picked out by an interior designer. Such art usually offers no emotional connection, just the fulfillment of a middle class expectation. The decor in such cases is usually not more than tchotchkes — something merely to fill the vacuum. Very tasteful — but soulless. 

(I remember that time in college when I painted a large abstract canvas in reds and ochers and gave it to my parents to hang over their sofa. It stayed there perhaps a year. But then, my mother asked me if I could do another one to replace it, one in blues and greens that would better match the room’s decor. I did it for them, after all, they were my parents. But I was miffed. I have rebelled against anything “matching” ever since.)

The interior design impulse means that for some, a concatenation of artwork, collected from various sources over years, is simply not unified enough. It really helps such an impulse if you are an artist yourself and can fill the house with your own artwork. Then it all hangs together. 

And, as I said, most of the art in my house is by me, but there is no unity at all. That is not a quality I admire. I love diversity — a kind of Postmodern mix of everything. I have Hopi pottery, African Tsi-Waras, a Ganesh of sandalwood and a bronze Shiva Nataraja. 

There is some Blue Willow crockery and a gorgeous giant etching made by Carole’s childhood friend, Ruth Haggerty. 

A snow scene by Georgia artist James Lyle. A vintage cookie jar in the rotund shape of a G.I., that we named “Urnie.” And a life-size copy of the Venus of Willendorf made by Tempe artist and friend Bill Tonnesen. 

In the bedroom is a gigantic painting of an abstract nude by Virginia painter Steve Wolf. 

And over my computer is a framed drawing of me made by my granddaughter Carol Lily Cloos when she was 8 or 9. 

And next to my computer, at eye level so I can look at it every day, is a pencil drawing that Carole made of a dead starling. It is resonant in ways that make me weep. 

Over the piano is a large painting by my brother, Craig, that is one of his typical flying antelopes, and in the bathroom there is his “portrait” of our late lamented cat, Ruthie, complete with spaying scar on belly. There is also a Japanese Ukiyo-e print of two graceful women in the snow, under an umbrella. So, there is no order or reason, just a collection of things I love. 

I have several dozen of my own photographs that I framed and showed at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, and now I have them stored away, but I retrieve a group and I switch them out occasionally on the walls. Currently, most of them hanging in the hall, office and bedrooms are images of Monet’s gardens at Giverny. 

All of them give character to the house, and more to the point, to life lived in the house. The house isn’t just a group of walls, doors and windows, but a personality.