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AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — The mysterious half-smile that has intrigued viewers of the Mona Lisa for centuries isn’t really that difficult to interpret, Dutch researchers said Thursday.
She was smiling because she was happy — 83 percent happy, to be exact, according to scientists from the University of Amsterdam.
In what they viewed as a fun demonstration of technology rather than a serious experiment, the researchers scanned a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece and subjected it to cutting-edge “emotion recognition” software, developed in collaboration with the University of Illinois.
The result showed the painting’s famous subject was 83 percent happy, 9 percent disgusted, 6 percent fearful and 2 percent angry. She was less than 1 percent neutral, and not at all surprised.
Leonardo began work on the painting in 1503, and it now hangs in the Louvre in Paris.
The work, also known as “La Gioconda,” is believed to have portrayed the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. The title is a play on her husband’s name, and also means “the jolly lady” in Italian.
Harro Stokman, a professor at the University of Amsterdam involved in the experiment, said the researchers knew the results would be unscientific — the software isn’t designed to register subtle emotions. So it couldn’t detect the hint of sexual suggestion or disdain many have read into Mona Lisa’s eyes.
In addition, the technology is designed for use with modern digital films and images, and subjects first need to be scanned in a neutral emotionless state to accurately detect their current emotion.
Lead researcher Nicu Sebe took the challenge as seriously as he could, using the faces of 10 women of Mediterranean ancestry to create a composite image of a neutral expression.
He then compared that to the face in the painting, scoring it on the basis of six emotions: happiness, surprise, anger, disgust, fear and sadness.
“Basically, it’s like casting a spider web over the face to break it down into tiny segments,” Stokman said. “Then you look for minute differences in the flare of the nostril or depth of the wrinkles around the eyes.”
Stokman said with a reading of 83 percent, it’s clear happiness was the woman’s main emotion.
Biometrics experts not involved with the experiment said the results were interesting, even if they aren’t the last word on the Mona Lisa.
“Facial recognition technology is advancing rapidly, but emotional recognition is really still in its infancy,” said Larry Hornak, director of the Center for Identification Technology Research at West Virginia University.
“It sounds like they did try to use a data set, even if it was small, and that’s typical of work in an area like this that’s relatively new. It’s an interesting result,” he said.
Stokman said he knew the University of Amsterdam effort won’t prove or disprove controversial theories about the painting. One is that it was actually a self-portrait of Leonardo himself as a woman.
“But who knows, in 30, 40, 50 years, maybe they’ll be able to tell what was on her mind,” Stokman said.
Hornak agreed the idea was entertaining.
“It’s always fun to apply technology to areas of public interest, and sometimes you can come up with results that are very illuminating,” he said.
Jim Wayman, a biometrics researcher at San Jose State University, agreed.
“It’s hocus pocus, not serious science,” Wayman said. “But it’s good for a laugh, and it doesn’t hurt anybody.
by Nathanael Blake
Last week a painting at the Detroit Institute of Arts worth $1.5 million was damaged by a twelve-year old on a school field trip. The piece, by Helen Frankenthaler, is entitled “The Bay” and resembles its namesake – as painted by a nearsighted stalk of broccoli. Unable to appreciate the aesthetic appeal of the work (or maybe just unable to locate a trash can) the lad affixed a piece of gum to the painting.
It’s unlikely, but one idly wonders if he was inspired by Pierre Pinoncelli, a French artist who recently made headlines by slightly damaging Marcel Duchamp’s renowned piece “Fountain.” For those unfamiliar with this masterpiece, it is a factory made urinal signed by Duchamp, one of eight made in 1964 to replace the lost original (circa 1917). Pinoncelli has claimed (correctly) that he was following the true spirit of Duchamp and the Dada movement he led.
This spirit was one of anti-art. The products of the heirs of Duchamp resemble those of a malfunctioning sewage treatment plant – at times literally. Apparently taking comparisons of their work to dung as a suggestion, modern artists have made bodily excretions a popular medium.
So what? Decrying modern art as a farce is hardly a new insight. Conservatives are generally content to leave the liberal intelligentsia to their amusements; what does modern art have to do with anything? However, there are some who take it seriously; Francis Schaeffer thought Duchamp a man “whom every Christian ought to know about. He could be called the high-priest of destruction… He will seek to destroy you from within yourself.”
That may seem to be granting too much importance to a man unknown to the vast majority of the citizenry, but conservatives ought to know better than to think so simplistically. We often lament the vulgarity of popular culture, but why did we expect that to stand when the high culture was utterly debased? For conservatives to be blasé about the obliteration of artistic standards is self-contradictory, for surely one of the great treasures we seek to conserve is the best of our cultural heritage.
Sadly, the barbarians have already sacked the citadel of high art, leaving us not only to conserve what remnants survived the pillaging, but setting before us a laborious process of restoration. But before we begin, we must understand what reduced us to this cultural ruin.
Schaeffer’s friend, H. R. Rookmaaker, Chair of Art History at the Free University of Amsterdam, wrote a masterful book on the subject, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. Modern art did not spring upon us from a void, but came from a philosophical progression spanning centuries.
During medieval times, art was primarily created to represent the transcendental. It was religious and devotional in nature, with each painting a visual sermon. Such art sought to represent universal truths about God and man; it was not always realistic in its physical representations, but it sought to present spiritual truth.
During the Renaissance, the renewal of interest in the classical tradition led to a great increase in technical proficiency, but the rise of Humanism also inspired a rise in what could be called the portrayal of the ideal. These scenes were not necessarily religious or Christian, but they still sought to portray universals, from heroism to love.
The next step was naturalism, which abandoned ideals for “objective” representation of reality. That is, it painted historically, as though the artist were a camera. There were no more halos on the saints – indeed, no more saints – only paintings of events recorded in the Bible, presented as a photograph. Venus was gone, replaced by a myriad of “real” women. The change was momentous, though few Christians today understand why a painting like “Christ in the House of His Parents” by John Everett Millais was considered blasphemous when it first appeared.
Of course, there was a great deal of overlap during these developments, as well as various attempted revolts, such as the Romantic movement. Yet the philosophical inertia would not be denied, and the empirical standards of positivism gave way to subjectivism. Art passed quickly through impressionism to expressionism, and thence to abstraction.
Wrote Rookmaaker, “This deep-felt reaction against the positivism of the nineteenth century…led to a completely new type of art, abstract art, and art that was truly and solely art, and at the same time spiritual, conceptual, and ‘absolute’.” The artist had finally shattered the bonds that portraying physical reality had shackled him with, and was once again able to search for a universal truth. But they did so in a world where God had been declared dead.
The quest for a new absolute proved futile, and it fell to Picasso to take the next step, where he, as Rookmaaker put it, “accepted the failure and took the consequences. There are no universals. The general, the absolute, is non-existent. And if there are no universal principles, if there are no absolutes, then...this world is absurd, nonsensical, and without meaning.” Almost as soon as it was born, modern art slipped into the abyss of nihilism.
And the Dada movement mentioned previously grew quickly from this. Rookmaaker explains that “It used all art forms and tried to break all taboos, all norms for art, all sacred or non-sacred traditions. Dada was a nihilistic creed of disintegration, showing the meaninglessness of all western thought, art, morals, traditions.” And thus, as Theodore Dalrymple notes, “for the new art criticism, ‘disturbing’ is an automatic term of approbation.”
Like many conservatives, I dislike Ayn Rand, but she deserves credit for her insight on this point. In The Fountainhead, the gloating villain explains that to destroy theater, you declare puerile prattle to be a masterpiece; to destroy architecture, you elevate an incompetent to prominence. And, I would add, to abolish art, you declare a manufactured urinal to be a masterpiece.
A vital part of our cultural heritage has been raped, and most of us are unaware and unconcerned. Modern art is indeed a joke, but it is a bitter jest in a black humor, intended to demolish.
“There is no why, and it doesn’t mean anything. It is only a work of art.” So spoke Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the artists who created “The Gates.” For those who haven’t been around New York in the last couple of weeks, “The Gates” is a “public art event” – a series of 7,500 saffron fabric panels arranged along 23 miles of footpaths in Central Park, at the cost of $21 million to the creators.
The New York Times went gaga over the exhibit. “Even at first blush, it was clear that ‘The Gates’ is a work of pure joy, a vast populist spectacle of good will and simple eloquence, the first great public art event of the 21st century,” wrote Michael Kimmelman. “The gates, themselves a cure for psychic hardship, remind us how much those paths vary, in width, and height, like the crowds of people who walk along them. More than that, being so sensitive to nature, they make us more sensitive to its effects.”
I’m not pro-Gates or anti-Gates. I don’t really care, one way or the other, since the artists are footing the bill, as opposed to taxpayers. What does concern me is the ridiculous outpouring of praise on this ambitious but somewhat shabby enterprise. The fact is, “The Gates” doesn’t mean anything. And the fact that it doesn’t mean anything should mean something to us – it should mean that this work doesn’t deserve to be labeled “great art.”
Over the last century, we’ve seen a breakdown in traditional systems of art, literature, and music. In art, we’ve seen the death of the artist striving to put his message before the world, and the rise of the artist creating something to be seen solely in the eye of the beholder. The thrill of art used to be the thrill of discovery – of realizing, at last, what the artist was saying, and identifying with his message. Now, art promotes narcissism – what do you see in this Coke can? Remove the artist from the art, and you have nothing but an endless series of Rorschach tests hung in museums and sold for thousands of dollars.
With the rise of rampant subjectivism in art, it is harder and harder for art to evoke deep emotion in its audience: the audience has to do all the work. As viewer Anna Brook, 22, told me, “Great art needs to evoke a feeling, to connect to the inner being; this was interesting from an engineering stand point but nothing else. There was no connection to the human condition, as there is in the art of a Michelangelo or Renoir. It was well worth seeing, but it wasn’t great art.”
Other forms of art have similarly discarded age-old systems in favor of subjectivism, or at least purposeful inscrutability dictating subjectivism. The “music” of John Cage in 4’33” is literally four minutes and 33 seconds of room noise. The “literature” of James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake is over 700 pages of nonsensical drivel. Here’s part of the first page: “The great fall of the offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan, erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes: and their unturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since devlinsfrist loved livvy.”
The need for subjectivism dictates that rigorous rules be cast aside. Paintings don’t have to look like anything. Music doesn’t have to sound like anything. Literature doesn’t have to say anything. Because, you see, the art, the music, the literature – it’s all within you.
Of course, rampant subjectivism didn’t stop with art. Over the last century, traditional morality has been discarded in favor of personal morality. Subjectivism in art means the death of art; subjectivism in morality means the death of a functioning society.
Amorality – the lack of objective moral standards applicable to everyone – quickly devolves into immorality. Even supposedly private actions have externalities; if everyone has their own set of rules, the externalities become endless. If millions are harming and being harmed, all in the name of personal autonomy without limits, chaos becomes inevitable. The only solution is state control or open anarchy. It is the Hobbesian war of all against all. Only hang-ups about the virtues of democracy prevent such war from becoming open.
So let’s enjoy “The Gates” for what it is, something pretty and new. But let’s not buy into the idea that anything at all can be great art – or great literature, music, or morality. Subjectivism can be fun, but it shouldn’t be the standard.
By Marvin Olasky
Who’s for the gospel-infused best of Western culture? Korean Christians are. The Museum of Biblical Art is.
At the beginning of October’s first week, Korean evangelist Ock Soo Park spoke at Madison Square Garden, where homegrown evangelist Creflo Dollar often tells listeners to grab as much prosperity as they can. Park examined the New Testament’s parable of the son who scorns his dad, squanders his inheritance, comes to his senses amid poverty and heads home.
Park noted that the prodigal son in the pigpen perhaps thought “he could work hard, get money and go back to the father proudly … but that kind of repentance does not bring change to our lives. The heart must come completely crashing down.” Park described the attitude we need: “These ragged clothes, this dirty person, this foolish person, this is me. I’ve tried, I’ve labored, but this is the result.”
Park concluded, “So many people today try to decorate themselves before they come before God.” Then he added another practical application: “Many Americans have left God. They are filled with their own ambition. We hope that the American people will return to God, that they will awaken from a long sleep.”
So the U.S. — perhaps the Western world generally — is a prodigal son. Outside Madison Square Garden that night, I heard the worst of American rap music, with its mantras of murder and misogyny. Inside, framing the sermon, were Korean cellists, violinists and singers communicating to an enthusiastic audience Handel’s gospel message, “Unto us a child is born.”
Later last week came the opening of a new exhibit, “The Art of Forgiveness: Images of the Prodigal Son,” at New York’s Museum of Biblical Art, 30 blocks uptown from Madison Square Garden. (The exhibit continues until Feb. 17.)
The exhibit includes a Rembrandt etching from 1636, “Return of the Prodigal Son.” In it, the father is leaning forward, and the emaciated, almost naked son, with a beastlike face, falls into his father’s arms. Next to the etching is a painting from 1640, with the same title, done by Govaert Flinck, one of Rembrandt’s top students. The father is hurrying to a son who is on his knees and looking away with an expression of shame, unable to make eye contact. Neither Rembrandt nor his pupil prettied up the scene.
Some remarkable works created within the past century are also on display: Christian Rohlfs, Robert Hodgell and Karen Swenholt show sons miserable in sin and fathers yearning in love. A. Malcolm Gimse’s “Prodigal Parent” sculpture powerfully depicts a mother in despair.
Two recent works in the exhibit modernize the story without diminishing it. James Janknegt’s colorful triptych begins with a left panel showing the prodigal in a modern big city sitting next to garbage cans. The middle panel centers on the father in a blue coat rushing to greet the desperate son, while others carry to the prodigal a similar blue coat and a pair of boots. The right panel shows the older son so angry that he’s broken the neck of his guitar.
My favorite recent work at the exhibit is a collage by Texan Mary McCleary, whose materials include painted foil sticks, wire and even lint: “I like the irony of using materials that are often trivial, foolish and temporal to express what is significant, timeless, and transcendent.” (Isn’t that what God does with our short-lived frames?)
Her “Prodigal Son” (1996) displays figures in Western garb, boots and all, on a flat terrain under a big sky. The father and the prodigal are reconciling as they sit on metal folding chairs, surrounded by numerous family members and friends — but almost all of them are eating barbecue and partying, not noticing God’s redemption amid this commonplace scene.
I left the museum and walked south, where New York Leather Weekend, filled with prodigal events such as an outdoor fetish festival, was beginning.
BERLIN (Reuters) - German academics believe they have solved the centuries-old mystery behind the identity of the “Mona Lisa” in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait.
Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a wealthy Florentine merchant, Francesco del Giocondo, has long been seen as the most likely model for the sixteenth-century painting.
But art historians have often wondered whether the smiling woman may actually have been da Vinci’s lover, his mother or the artist himself.
Now experts at the Heidelberg University library say dated notes scribbled in the margins of a book by its owner in October 1503 confirm once and for all that Lisa del Giocondo was indeed the model for one of the most famous portraits in the world.
“All doubts about the identity of the Mona Lisa have been eliminated by a discovery by Dr. Armin Schlechter,” a manuscript expert, the library said in a statement on Monday.
Until then, only “scant evidence” from sixteenth-century documents had been available. “This left lots of room for interpretation and there were many different identities put forward,” the library said.
The notes were made by a Florentine city official Agostino Vespucci, an acquaintance of the artist, in a collection of letters by the Roman orator Cicero.
The comments compare Leonardo to the ancient Greek artist Apelles and say he was working on three paintings at the time, one of them a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo.
Art experts, who have already dated the painting to this time, say the Heidelberg discovery is a breakthrough and the earliest mention linking the merchant’s wife to the portrait.
“There is no reason for any lingering doubts that this is another woman,” Leipzig University art historian Frank Zoellner told German radio. “One could even say that books written about all this in the past few years were unnecessary, had we known.”
The woman was first linked to the painting in around 1550 by Italian official Giorgio Vasari, the library said, but added there had been doubts about Vasari’s reliability and had made the comments five decades after the portrait had been painted.
The Heidelberg notes were actually discovered over two years ago in the library by Schlechter, a spokeswoman said.
Although the findings had been printed in the library’s public catalogue they had not been widely publicized and had received little attention until a German broadcaster decided to do some recording at the library, she said.
The painting, which hangs in the Louvre in Paris, is also known as “La Gioconda” meaning the happy or joyful woman in Italian, a title which also suggests the woman’s married name.