Thursday, April 21, 2016


Learning is the supreme joy in life.  Of course, our whole life is a continuous process of learning from the time we learn to walk, to talk, to sing, then to count, to write, and to play, in our childhood, as well as to detect dangers, control anger, behave politely, and exercise compassion, through our schooling, and then living and working as a member of the society.  Year by year, we learn and continue to learn.  As an adult, we had to learn to find ways of earning a living, to associate, negotiate, and resist temptations. I am thinking, however, of learning what is hard to learn, of learning anything with a challenge.  In my old age, after retirement, the special pleasure has been to concentrate on learning anything without regard to necessity, merely to enjoy the effort spent in learning and the reward of having mastered something even if less well than aspired.

What we have learned we may forget.  But after years or even decades, what we have once learned and forgotten may be lost from memory but never completely. Remembering and reclaiming what we have forgotten is different from learning for the first time. What we have once learned can never be unlearned. 

Diversity into Integration

Diversity and integration, much discussed on university and colleges campuses today, are certainly a worthy effort.  But, thinking about it, I was perplexed.  For one, the two terms, too often paired as near synonyms, fail to see them as two stages of development, in which the former may prepare for but does not promise the latter. and then the terms seem to be understood racially more than culturally.

Bringing in students of a wide range of ethnic, social, and cultural background creates diversity.  But unless they interact actively, there is no integration.  There is no stew until all the ingredients are mixed in one pot. In this light, Black Cultural Center is an unfortunate institution, because, however laudable its intention, it isolates a particular group of the community from the rest and thus promotes self-segregation despite itself.  This, I believe, is true of GLBT Center and Asian Students Association as well. Intercultural Center may seem less segregating; but it, too, suggests that the interaction among students of different backgrounds are mixed together separate from rather than among the rest of the community.  

I am reminded of the International House; as a student at UC Berkeley I shied away from it, feeling as though students from abroad are corralled together for the presumed commonality of being non-American.  In my first years in the US, at Santa Rosa Junior College, there were some fifteen foreign students (as we were called) — Hungarian, Swedish, Korean, Peruvian, Nigerian, Iranian, German and Japanese, one of each, and several Canadians — a nice global representation.  But being treated as a distinct group, what we shared among ourselves was being foreign.  We were friends, certainly, I was fond of them all.  But I recall how its conceptual artifice made me uncomfortable.  

I am, of course, being idealist.  Cosmopolitan cities like New York continue to maintain ethnic enclaves; and it is probably natural that campuses reflect this pattern.  No complete integration will ever be achieved so long we keep perpetuating such designations as “non-American and “non-white”, terms which by definition are prejudicial for excluding a particular group as existing outside the norm.  The racial designation like Black and White that stubbornly persists in American society, also support the prejudicial distinction between the normative and the exceptional.  

There are on the other hand voluntary groups , defined culturally, formed on the basis of common interest, belief, and/or profession, in urban centers as well as in society at large — garden clubs, choral groups, churches, and specific trade unions. So, on campuses, we may have a film society, badminton club, German table, and conservative society.  These are clearly ethnically neutral.  Even though Jazz may be black in origin, a jazz club today is bound to be racially mixed.  Black Cultural Center, albeit labeled Cultural, seems to operate on the presumption that all blacks represent black culture.  

In my color-blindness in matters of ethnicity, I don’t deny that I am naively idealistic.  But I’d like to see any culture associated with the black race (or Latino, or Asian) integrated in the community at large, instead of being carried out in a designated corner, as it would be realized when we have the advanced stage of integration.  College and university campus, I hope understands this true state of integration and spearhead the efforts toward it.   

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

My Apple

I live in the Big Apple, compute, compose, and communicate on an Apple, and, most importantly, eat an apple a day to keep the doctors away — HoneyCrisp when it is in season or else Fuji or Cameo, but no Granny Smith, and look how my cheeks are cheerfully red like red apples.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Winter in April - 冬卯月

Winter in April, 
The bus is never arriving.
Street trees are dying.


Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Finishing Unfinishing

I have been to the preview of the inaugural exhibition at the Met Breuer entitled .  It left me with thoughts left unresolved. 

Appropriating the former Whitney Museum building, the Met stated its mission as follows:  “The Met Breuer provides additional space for the public to explore the art of the 20th and 21st centuries through the global breadth and historical reach of The Met's unparalleled collection (Italics mine).”  If this is the case, the exhibition was a misrepresentation. As critics have rightly observed, a half of the works displayed dated from before 1900, and many of them, as well as those after 1900, were on loan rather than from the Met’s own collection. Furthermore, the exhibition, predominantly European rather than global, contradicted the Met’s vastly multicultural holding.  

More crucially, The title of the exhibition is a misnomer.  The term “unfinished” is itself problematic because it is understood much too broadly to judge by the works selected for exhibition. For one, works that look unfinished are not necessarily left unfinished, often obviously finished.  Moreover, the subtitle “Thoughts Left Visible” contradicts the central concept of the main title.  A sketch or a series of sketches, drawn or painted (as in oil sketches), or modeled (like bozzetti of clay or terra cotta, for example), done in preparation toward the projected final work, records the working process and truly reveals the artist’s “thoughts left visible.”  Works abandoned before completion may give us a glimpse of the artist’s thinking but not necessarily.

Whether a particular work is finished or unfinished is the decision of the artist or, else, the consequence of unforeseen circumstances that interrupted its completion, most obviously by the death of the artist.  Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pieta, which the artist was still hacking out a few days before his death, was truly left “unfinished.”  A work interrupted by another more pressing work, say, the commissioning patron’s demand, and left in the unfinished state, may best be described as “interrupted.”  This could be the case of this Netherlandish painting at the Met (not included in this exhibit; actually, the 15th century painting was overpainted in the 17th century with the Marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, which in turn was removed in modern restoration bringing to light the underdrawing.  This is, therefore an exceptional case of  "un-finished" meaning “undoing” accidentally exposing the artist’s thought and process. 

The artist may stop work, unable to proceed further and never to return to finish it; such a work, left “unfinished,” considered “unfinishable” by the artist, was “abandoned.”  Leonardo da Vinci’s many “unfinished” works are of this nature.  On the other hand, the artist might deliberately leave the work “unfinished,” considering it “completed as is”.  The superb example of this case is Michelangelo’s Giorno/Day, one of the reclining figures in the Medici Tomb with the face of the Day left in the rough which, as is said, realized the effect of the blazing sundial.  Some artists left parts of the work in the rough — “finished loose” as often seen in the portraits by Velazquez, who finished the face more precisely and the rest of the body in loose style.  Rembrandt after the Night Watch painted this way.  

In more modern works, artists preferred the “unfinished” look with the idea of simulating the optical experience, as among the Impressionist, or the emotional urge, as among the Expressionists.  The ‘unfinished’ in these works is best categorized as “sketchy”, a deliberate stylistic choice.  Alternatively, there were artists interested in the process of making, as in Pollock and other Abstract Expressionists.  Loose or sketchy, the ‘unfinished” in these examples is basically “unfinishing” considered finished, the artist’s “thoughts made visible.”  We find the related style in the tsao shu or the running script in Chinese and Japanese calligraphy; but, rather than “unfinishing” to reveal the process of making, tsao shu indicated the artist’s higher level of mastery, the freedom achieved after mastering the correct or tight style.  Vasari, following Castiglione, adopted the term sprezzatura for this style, as seen in Late Titians — free but consummate; the term is usually translated as a “nonchalant” style.  

There are other ramifications of the loose term “unfinished.”  This brief survey suffices to show that not all works that look “unfinished” are unfinished; most of them, I dare say, are actually finished, even those that are deliberately left in the state of unfinishing.  


I’m limping.  I took a fall Saturday night, 2 April, carrying a carton of recycle paper with a pile of flattened cartons on top down the elevator to the street level and the few steps to the basement of my apartment building. The cardboard stack was light and wobbly and high, in poor balance with the heavy carton full of paper, and I could not see where I was going, or rather, where my feet were going. Accidents occur from carelessness and lack of foresight; I graphically lacked foresight.  I should have made two separate trips as was obvious only in hindsight. 

By fortune, I didn’t break any bone; I hurt neither my hip nor my knees.  I got a scrape on my right arm (under a sweater sleeve), a blow on a left rib, and a twist in in my left ankle.  All evening, it was excruciating to take steps, even to put my injured foot down on the floor.  Recovery was visible overnight, however; I could walk, though painfully, with a limp the next day.

I see on the streets people of my age or older (and younger, too) limping along or else treading wearily with a cane or a walker, and, seeing them, I ruminate that eventually I will be like them while at the same time they always make me feel sprightly and happy to be able to move nimbly.  My injury was light and I expect to be bouncy again soon. 

It so happened that I had a reserved ticket Sunday to a concert across the town at Alice Tully Hall.  I was at my computer in the afternoon and when I realized and looked at the clock, it was 4:50, and the concert was to start at 5:00.  There was no way I could make it, but paradoxically I had no regret.  With the uncertain ankle, one is prone to turn it easily, certainly going down the subway stairs, and it made good sense to stay home.  I thought I made a wise decision after a laughably foolish act.  Actually, it wasn’t that; it wasn’t by design. I had forgotten about the concert until it was too late — another carelessness. Still, I felt a higher being guiding me away from still another foolishness of going out limping and taking another fall.

PS.  Limping makes one look old, easily older by ten years. 

Short Life Long Career

Life span unnumbered is a single unit.  A creative life, consummate, may be short or long. 

Anthony Van Dyck, whose exhibit is currently running at Frick, died at the age of 42.  Felix Mendelssohn died at 38; Franz Schubert at 31; Mozart at 35.  They all died of failing health. Among literary figures, Stephen Crane and Arthur Rimbaud come to mind; they died at 29 and 37, respectively.  Artists who died young include Raphael (37),  Giorgione (32), Parmigianino (37), Adriaen Brouwer (33), Watteau (37), Seurat (32), and Modigliani (35), among many, leaving out those who willfully terminated their own life. On the other hand, there are artists of known longevity: Michelangelo (89), Titian (99), Hokusai (89), G. B. Shaw (94), Matisse (85), and Picasso (92).  Most recent continuously creative centenarians dear to me include George Abbot (107), Mieczysław Horszowski (100), Will Barnet (101), Elliott Carter, (104), and Carl Schorski (100). 

We often talk of short-lived creative people as having had a short life and died an untimely death.  This is true if we rely on the numerical years by which one’s life is defined.  A 100-year old has lived twice as long as a 50-year old.  But this is odd. 
When we examine a person’s life in terms of accomplishment and ignored the number of years lived, we might see that she or he had accomplished a life’s work in a shorter time span but the career was full.  It is as though some of us walk faster with larger strides and others saunter more slowly toward the same goal.  It is pointless to ask what Mozart might have composed had he lived till 90, or what kind of art Giorgione might have painted had he lived till 1550 when he would have been 72, painting side by side with Titian who was then 62.  

A life freed of numbered years is the true life of an individual.  She or he may accomplish a lot fast or very little within the same timespan; she or he may accomplish little or a lot in great many years.  A creative career, I believe, is independent of the years lived.