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[99 Problems] Introduction

Originally published 25 May 2010

So, there are about 45 days remaining until my next adventure in the mountains of Massachusetts. I just spent a long, long, long year reading, playing piano, goofing around, and not attending college. Recently, I started thinking about doing something that there is absolutely no possibility that anyone who A) has a job, B) is in school, or C) has any kind of responsibility could pull off. I think it will mix nicely with how I want this blog to work.

History is all about parallel and paradox. There are endless permutations of things to examine in our world. All too often in academia we aren’t encouraged to get creative about history or (dirty word) analysis. After all, those two topics are supposed to be about quantification, right? Let’s kill that association.

Over the next month.5 or so, I will be doing a berzerkily ambitious, cracked-out cultural examination. Drawing from three topics, Art Music Film, I will use 99 case studies (33 of each topic) to search for connection, congruity, harmony, and synchronicity in the most unlikely places. Each morning, one of my parents will pull one case study from each of 3 different hats and put them on the dining room table. (Yes, I live in my parents’ basement.) Once I get out of bed, I’ll check them out and get down to business – watching one film, examining one work of visual art (painting, sculpture, architecture), and studying one work of music daily. I’ve been thinking about what pieces to look at for a while now. Here are my choices. In no particular order:

Art

Allegoria della Primavera, Botticelli; Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?, Gaugin; Death of Sardanapalus, Delacroix; Mary Magdalen, Donatello; Rape of Europa, Titian; Olympia, Manet; The Swimming Pool, Matisse; The Artemision Bronze; The Kandiraya Mahadeva Temple; Sarpedon Vase, Euphronios; Constantine the Great; Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2, Duchamp; Composition in Yellow and Blue, Mondrian; Perseus, Cellini; The Persistence of Memory, Dali; The Last Supper, Nolde; The Garden of Earthly Delights, Bosch; Les Demoisselles d’Avignon, Picasso; The Lion Hunt reliefs; Las Meninas, Velazquez; The Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo; The Ecstasy of St. Theresa, Bernini; The Gates of Hell, Rodin; Arnolfini Marriage, van Eyck; Bird and Branch, Niten; La Grande Jatte, Seurat; Self Portrait, Dürer; Rheims Cathedral; Brillo, Warhol; Glass of Absinth, Degas; Bed, Rauschenberg; The Flagellation, Francesca; The San Rocco Crucifixion, Tintoretto

Film

Vertigo; Singin’ in the Rain; Annie Hall; Raging Bull; The Graduate; Taxi Driver; Schindler’s List; Modern Times; Notorious; City Lights; 8 1/2; Hoop Dreams; Triumph des Willens; The Matrix; Chinatown; Casablanca; The Godfather Part I and The Godfather Part II (combined); North By Northwest; Citizen Kane; 2001: A Space Odyssey; Rear Window; Dr. Strangelove; Some Like it Hot; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Apocalypse Now; WALL-E; Ben Hur; La Regle du Jeu; Tokyo Story; The Battleship Potemkin; Jaws; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; When Harry Met Sally

Music

A Love Supreme, Coltrane; Tristan und Isolde, Wagner; A Tribute to Jack Johnson, Davis; Purple Rain, Prince; The Chronic, Dr. Dre; Led Zeppelin IV, Led Zeppelin; Pet Sounds, The Beach Boys; Remain In Light, Talking Heads; The Velvet Underground and Nico, eponymous; The Fame Monster, Lady Gaga; Rejoice in the Lamb, Britten; Pithecanthropus Erectus, Mingus; Paukenmesse, Haydn; Responsoria: Sabbato Sancto, Gesualdo; Cantata BWV 21, J.S. Bach; Pink Moon, Nick Drake; Missa Papae Marcellae, Palestrina; Revolver, The Beatles; Live at the Apollo, James Brown; Exile on Main St., The Rolling Stones; OK Computer, Radiohead; Ride the Lightning, Metallica; Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison; What’s Going On, Gaye; London Calling, The Clash; Homogenic, Bjork; String Quartet Op. 131, Beethoven; Carmen, Bizet; String Quartet No. 2, Ligeti; Requiem, Berlioz; Les Noces, Stravinsky; Die Zauberflöte, Mozart; Gloria, Poulenc

That was an absurd amount of typing. Clearly, the lists have several problems in regard to congruity. I did this on purpose. First of all, more than 60% of the Art category is drawn from before 1890, the Cubist Decade, while 0% of the Films and only barely 30% of the Music is taken from that 50,000 years of human history. There are no examples of eastern Music, only traces of it in certain works. However, I tried to incorporate non-western sources in the other categories. The Art selections are by far the most broad in scope. They represent almost 30,000 years of history from the Lion Hunt reliefs to the pop rebellion and post-modernism. The wierdness that shocks me the most is how overtly poppy my Music selections are. Anyone who knows me is aware that I would be willing to put every Beethoven symphony, Bach passion, and (only about 4) Mahler work on the list. They all ended up on the cutting room floor. But there is so so so so so so much richness in the rock, R&B, jazz, and (dirty word) alternative domains. My goal is to figure out what is enduring and, really, “Classical” about all of these albums. There is hardly anything less expressive about some of Jagger’s vocals in Exile than the whole of Escamillo’s role in Carmen. Also, I really freaking love the bejesus out of Alfred Hitchcock, so I loaded it for him.

All three lists look sort of like a “Greatest Hits” album of sorts. My motivation in choosing popular and time-tested examples is the same motivation I had for doing this project – the study of history should by no means seem reductionist or deconstructive. While we need to reduce and deconstruct in order to find parallel and paradox, it is in the construction that makes beauty. The lists represent a kind of popular consciousness model. While the medium of Art has been used as a necessity and as expression for thousands and thousands of years, we have just recently discovered Film, and Music has only entered the age of recording in the same era. The revolution in recording in both those genres was a seismic shock on the creative world. Music suddenly became exponentially more accessible, permeating virtually every activity in the 21st Century. Film morphed into the definition of an age. There is hardly a human emotion it has failed to express and its integration of Music created a new breed of cultural participation and masterpiece.

I’m not totally sure what I am going to do if my Mom or Dad draws both Godfather’s, Tristan, and The Garden of Delights, in the same day. Or how the hell I am going to figure out what The Chronic might possibly have in common with When Harry Met Sally or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But that’s the challenge. That’s the goal. Even if it is kind of Julie and Julia-ish. What do we have in common? All of us. Using these ridiculously wonderful examples, I’m going to figure it out. Come along for the ride.

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  1. May 26, 2010 at 10:19 AM

    Before doing this, I would suggest a hearty helping of cultural anthropology.

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