August 8th, 2011

Summer of China, continued

Sunday, July 24th, we went to the Milwaukee Art Museum to follow up the "Summer of China" exhibits we hadn't seen. The Museum was having a Chinese cultural festival that weekend as well, with vendors, exhibitors, perfomances, and food, so that was an additional incentive to visit again.

The additional smaller exhibits included "Emerald Mountains: Modern Chinese Ink Paintings from the Chu-tsing Li Collection," which contains examples of work by mid-twentieth-century artists adapting centuries-old techniques of ink painting to modern concepts of style. This was a very interesting exhibit with many beautiful pieces done in modern versions of the famously subtle and restrained "mountain painting" style.

"Way of the Dragon: The Chinoiserie Style, 1710–1830" shows pieces created in Great Britain and America during the eighteenth century, during the same time when the Qianlong emperor was incorporating Western influences into his designs of the Qianlong Garden. This was a small exhibit, but fascinating as it shows the evident popularity of the "Chinese" style for all economic levels. In fact, I was most struck by how crudely made some of the pieces were. One of the most popular products was what we would now call "knock-offs" of the "Blue Willow" type of porcelain design. The exhibit includes not only very fine copies of this style, but some that only resemble the originals in the use of the classical blue pigment on white porcelain. A couple of the pieces look as though the designs were drawn by third-graders, surprising since the color process is rather difficult to control. It's also surprising that better artists weren't engaged, but showing that, since this stuff was still saleable even though at low-end it must have been wildly popular.

The last exhibit is an installation by Yue Minjin, "Contemporary Chinese Warriors," which is a pointed parody of the famous terra-cotta tomb warriors. The figures, garbed as modern Chinese working men, have hands over their ears, eyes closed, and mouths gaping in a grinning or laughing grimace. The over message is that "everyone's happy in the workers' paradise," but the distinct real message is "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil"--practical advice for those living under a government with a poor record on human rights in general and free speech in particular--.

We also walked through "The Emperor's Paradise" again, taking a second look at our favorite pieces, and enjoyed the short cultural program which presented Chinese music, dance, martial arts, and juggling, and sampled some very good pot stickers and egg rolls from "House of Confucius".

This has been a very excellent set of exhibitions. Kudos to the Milwaukee Art Museum staff not only for snagging "The Emperor's Paradise," but also for the work put into the supporting exhibits.

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The Bolshoi in HD: "Don Quixote"

There are more and more cultural organizations making use of digital HD technology to project themselves into movie theatres nationally and internationally. Besides the Metropolitan Opera, we seen notices for the Los Angeles Philarmonic, and were interested by, but didn't get to see, the production of "Company" with Neil Patrick Harris. However, when Georgie noticed that the Bolshoi Ballet would be playing via HD in Milwaukee, we had to go.

Emerging Cinemas' HD service is not as seamless as the Met's. We were sitting fairly close to the screen and I could see raster scan lines, and there were a couple of momentary picture glitches. Nevertheless, it was still a very good picture, as though on were sitting on stage, and gave us a clear view of why the Bolshoi remains the standard of the world in Ballet.

"Don Quixote" has a special place in the history of the Bolshoi, having been created for that group by choreographer Marius Petipa, so they tend to pull out all the stops on casting, costuming, and sets. Danced to a luscious score by Ludwig Minkus (an underrated composer, in our opinion), the small dollops of Cervantes' novel that make it onto the stage serve as a framework from which to hang lots and lots of Spanish-themed dance.

The Bolshoi did a full version of the ballet, which, as the announcer promised, preserved the "good parts" of the Petipa choreography, with new parts by Alexei Fadeyechev. The real starring roles are those of the innkeeper's daughter, Kitri, (danced by Natalia Osipova) and her swain Basilio (Ivan Vasiliev). Both this dancers have marvelous stage presence and acting ability--particularly Osipova whose big eyes and big smile in her gamine face project wonderfully. In addition, they are among the most amazing dancers we have ever seen; speed, power, precison, grace--they had it all and more. They were supported by principals in the roles of peasants, flamenco dancers, toreadors, gypsies, and fairies, any one of which could have easily been a star dancer in any other company. We were pretty sure that most of the new choreography went into the first act where there is a lot of absolutely bravura dance that neither of us thought could have been done in Petipa's day.

All in all, just marvelous to see. If you are curious about ballet at all, I would recommend seeking out future Bolshoi shows: they are showing "Coppelia" Aug. 28, and "Swan Lake" Sept. 18th. You will see what ballet is all about.

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Our Badly Broken Budget Process

When I was taking Civics in 8th grade, I was surprised to find that some legislation I had been particularly interested in, (probably part of the space program) although it had been passed as part of the federal budget, was in trouble because the 'appropriations' bill it was part of was in trouble. I was surprised to discover that putting a program in the federal budget was only the first step in a long road toward actually getting anything accomplished. These days, besides being adopted in a budget, money for a program must then be 'appropriated', but then the spending of the money must be approved in a spending authorization bill, and then if necessary, borrowing must be approved. At every step of this process, Congress can change, re-fund, de-fund, or totally kill any program, with all the uncertainty and waste of time, energy and, yes, money, one might expect.

One might well ask, as I did, why we have all this folderol? If you pass a budget, why not make that final? The budget could appropriate, authorize, and if necessary authorize necessary borrowing, all in one fell swoop. in fact, that's pretty much how a lot of state and local budgeting processes work. Once that was done, Congress could pretty much adjourn.

However, it will take a miracle to simplify the burget process, because to do so would reduce the power of individual legislators. Make no mistake, power is the big thing in Washington, and the reason we have all these rules, plus similar abuse-prone rules such as anonymous Senatorial holds, is purely due to the desire for power and influence on the part of legislators.

For example: a bill has been languishing to permit the combining of a couple of acricultural commodity exchanges. While common-sensical and agreed to be a general good thing, most pundits agree it will never pass, solely due to the fact that one exchange comes under the jurisdiction of the Agricultural Committee, and the other is under the Commerce committee, and combining would cause one or the other to lose jurisdiction and therefore power.

When the interest of the individual Senators and Congressmen comes before the best interests of the country, then corruption has become institutionalized. It's long past time for a housecleaning (and a Senate-cleaning) to clear out this ugly buildup of privlege and streamline the doing of the nation's business.

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