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From my old handwritten journal:

Tuesday afternoon 11 April [1972]

East Setauket [Long Island, N.Y., where I was visiting some friends on my travels between a failed commune and a successful one]

I got up very late this morning.  It is a gloomy day outside, & still cold (when will spring come?).  Across the living room from me, partly obscured by the glare from the window behind me, is a reproduction of a painting of a girl sitting with one hand bridging her chin & her lips.  She looks as if she were made of golden haze.  Renoir, I thought when I first saw it, & got up & walked over & looked at the corner; and so it was.  Where could I have possibly learned that?  I have never been interested in art.  Only, one spring vacation at Caltech (1958?) I read thru an excellent history of painting that I had borrowed from a friend whose name I have forgotten.  It was my dinner reading for a couple of weeks, & it made a strong impression on me, tho all I remember now is the impression, & cutting up slices of pineapple on the lid of an old cookie-box & eating them while I read.

The impression was:  "Art" was once the general name for what we now call engineering or technology (in fact techne = ars).  The particular art of making effective 2-dimensional images of 3-dimensional objects progressed extremely slowly until the Renaissance, when the practitioners assimilated the necessary geometrical insights.  The results were spectacular & became fashionable among wealthy persons as a means of ostentatious amusement & decoration --- one that was capable of considerable refinement & therefore particularly appealing to the intelligent & those who wished to think themselves so.  The guild of painters became rich & its morale became self-sustaining, so that artists became emboldened to put their own & their peers' judgement above their patrons'.  Refinement of technique & appreciation became an end in itself, & painting became one (the chief) of the "fine arts" as opposed to the "useful arts", which (in this century) lost the name of "art" altogether.

In the meantime, mere fidelity succumbed to tedium & increasingly successful automation.  So (with great struggle) the artists gradually relaxed their commitment to mimic the ordinary input to the human retina.  As with the earlier increase in the variety of permissible intervals in music,*
*Indeed, this whole line of thought recalls Thomas Mann's Dr Faustus, which I read with great enjoyment in 1958.  [June 1973]
the effect was at first enrichment; but each successive relaxation produced less enrichment & left a shorter time till boredom, so that for the last 50 yr we have had only fads & solemn self-parody.

Imagine a man with a gigantic checkerboard with 10^6 squares, and no checkers on it.  All he can do is stare at it.  If he has a few checkers, he can make a few patterns on the board & move them around.  With thousands of checkers he can make complicated pictures & even write treatises about them.  Every new checker he is allowed to put on the board multiplies the number of patterns available to him --- until half the squares are filled.  From then on, he can only make "photographic negatives" of patterns that were already accessible.  When the board is nearly filled, all he can do is make little patterns of the unfilled squares & move them around.  When it is all filled, allhe can do is stare at it.  (Remember thy creator in the days of thy youth:  Thy creator is death.)
I am writing this partly because the feelings of a person about a subject he does not take seriously are seldom recorded in detail or with much sensitivity.  There is a lot in print by those who have been offended or enriched by Renoir's accomplishment, & very little by those like me from whom he can barely get a sentimental glance on a dull day.  And yet, it is clear that uninterested people must have quite an influence on art --- less than on politics, say, but a good deal more than on science.  Therefore I am providing this deposition of a philistine.


All the decorations in my apartment are sentimental (pictures & gifts of people who have been kind to me, mementos of scientific subjects, etc.).  I don't have much wall space for big things, tho, so I have a place next to my desk that is rigged to put up a poster from my collection, which I change on the first of the month.  It recently occurred to me that, in view of the above, Renoir's painting would qualify.  I had only a little trouble finding it on the Web.  Its name is "Portrait of a Girl (in Thought)", tho the parenthesis is variously translated.  Weirdly, one of the Amazon vendors offers it for 1 cent (shipping & handling, $4.99; total, $5.00).  I ordered it, and afterward wondered if the weirdness betokened a scam; I actually worried about it to Amazon in email, and received an unresponsive answer.  So far, however, all that has been charged to my credit card is the $5.00, and the article arrived yesterday in a mailing tube.  It is not very big (11x17 in.), so it occurred to me to start a new art location on the wall over my bed, which by chance is already rigged for hanging pictures, on account of the catenary of a disused audio cable.  I have a painting of my father's that will fit in the same queue.

However, the Renoir looks wrong.  It looks stretched in the vertical direction, so that the girl is too thin & not as pretty.  To check that impression, I found three other reproductions on the Web (none of them cropped) & measured them on my screen.  The ratios of height to width were 1.33, 1.40, and 1.26 --- substantially smaller, indeed, than the value 17/11=1.55 for my print, but differing significantly among themselves.  So it seems the poster people stretched the image to fit a standard 11x17-in. sheet; but it also seems that other vendors perform similar operations, and mine merely overdid it, whence the drastic reduction in price.

Back to square 1.

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I put the stretched poster out in the entry, and sure enough somebody took it. Eventually I ordered an undistorted poster, which arrived today. It is bigger, and will go in the regular queue.

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