Freud Apple Computer Carl Sagan

“I write this preface to tease and irritate all or most of the Braille Institute of America.

“I write this because I awoke this morning with a vague notion that I was a doppelgänger for Tom Wolfe. Not the Tom Wolfe whose fame was Of Time and The River . But the Tom Wolfe of From Bauhaus to Your House [sic] and The Painted Word.

“That Wolfe who antagonised faux-intellectuals from the walk-up ateliers of drip-dry artists in downside Manhattan to the rooftop studios of derriere-garde France and SoHo. That Tom Wolfe whose radical-chic critics hoped he might hurl himself onto to his own bonfire of vanities and self-immolate.

“Why did I wake up feeling Wolfe at my door?

“Because not so many days ago I visited the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. and the opened the pages of the vivid work you hold before you. The contrast was and is devastating.

“In the Hirshhorn Museum, guards riveted by ennui were paring their nails and staring at their shoes. The walls around them offered no surcease with their non-decorative, non-descriptive, non-metaphorical colored swatches and bleak ribbons of art.

“The walls were, in effect, empty. The canvases were blank fields where no crops grew, no seeds fell to propagate, no ideas waited for reviving rain. Not so much as some corn-or-wheatfield stubble in all that vacuum. The guards had long since fidgeted themselves into suspended animation.

“Not so with Infinite Worlds. I defy you to turn these pages and not sit up straight to feel your eyes pop and your hair stand on end.

“Is this passing grade Great Art, capital G, capital A? Lord no. It is better, far better, than the dog-dos and chicken entrails assembly-lining the Hirshhorn abattoirs? Yep.

“For above all this is provocative stuff.

“It is that forbidden art: illustration. Some of it a superior kind.

“But of course this century’s critics have made sharp distinctions between high falutin’ gallery art and any book, story or myth limned with pen, ink, watercolor or oil.

“I have never seen them separately. Love is love. I can love Seurats pointillistic fireworks even as I scan Harold Foster’s Tarzan of the Apes Sunday pages, or eye Gustave Dore’s amazing portrait of Don Quixote which fixed his image for all time. Then leafing through Grandville’s insect humans and confronting Hogarth’s full-poxed politicians, I might end in my day with Calvin and Hobbs, The Wizard of Id, and The Far Side.

“Tom Wolfe’s enemies would then decide I had no taste at all. Still I claim to be some sort of ramshackle renaissance man, with, as you see, small r, small m.

“I would dare to nail up a flimsy lean-to art gallery in the lot behind the Hirshhorn and ask its docent guards if they had had enough; would they prefer more lively work at half the pay? Coming out to see the Bonestells and Browns and Paull in this book, they would suddenly find they no longer cleaned their fingernails or stared at their shoes. They were actually, why look! God! these walls and the pictures on the walls! The sort of stuff they, once saw late nights as kids when they woke to print their dreams on the ceiling and hyperventilate themselves to sleep.

“This book, then, is the history of most fermenting boys and sonic few tom-girls who evoked wild myths on the air above their beds.

“Above all remember that it was these images, homely, sometimes trite, sometimes ugly, often beautiful, that changed the world.

“More than the vertiginous assaults of wildman Picasso, some of these works caused boys to rise up as men and and those men to rise further to boot-print lunar dusts.

“It was a chemistry of Wells, Verne, and some few late-on writers, plus head-on collisions with Frank R. Paul, Hubert Rogers, and Chesley Bonestell that roused the teenagers’ blood so they signed up as Air Pilots and wound up with Apollo.

“As for me, Frank R. Paul romanced me with future architectures when I was eight, summoning me to cities lost in the Time Ahead until lie landed me in shocks of joy, in the colored facades and high-rises of the Chicago World’s Fair.

“Remember Hamlet: “There are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophies.” Well, the heavens are here, and these flea bitten dreams grew to mammoth size and shipped us all off to Canaveral.

“But if you wish, make the distinction between museum/gallery art and these once-homeless here displayed.

“But in so doing, think.

“In the history of movers and shakers, the greatest, most beautiful artists rarely ran out in the gutters or fell up into Space via the nearest pub. Science Fiction art finally is true people’s art. It shook and moved them. Rembrandt and Turner and Braque and Renoir moved the hearts. But Paul and Wesso and Dold. Rogers and Bonestell moved the bodies. Those bodies circle Earth tonight and will make the grand finale shift to Moon and Mars in just a few years.

“I wandered, no, staggered through the somnambulist Jasper Johns introspective at the Museum of Modern Art last year and left with fewer brains than when I arrived. How an artist can be born to live in one of the great centuries of electrovisual-audio-sensual metaphor and have not even one two-cent stamp of optical surprise stick to his retina flabbers one’s gast. I felt as if I had made a lunatic turn into a time-alley where the graffiti never knew that Freud, Apple Computer, or Carl Sagan were ever born. And when even graffiti has no primal reason for being scrawled on the modern museum’s walls, it’s time to scrub the crayolas and vamoose. Suffering bends from lack of some fresh-air image, I fled MOMA and hurled myself into the nearest poster gallery to refill on rockets, marshmallow-suited astronauts, and Melies’s Moon, com- plexion and all. I even checked the melted Dali watches, knowing they might trap time, trying to forget Jasper Johns and his dry-heaves. My God, I thought, staring around at the postered walls, even the most maudlin and inept lithograph cover re-struck from Amazing Stories 1942, not a good year, focuses our brain and jump-starts the heart.

“How you do go on, you say…”

Text: Ray Bradbury, “Foreword: One Thousand Steps for Mankind”, in Vincent Di Fate, Infinite Worlds: The Fantastic Visions of Science Fiction Art. London: Virgin Books, 1997. 5-6.

Image top: James Turrell, Milk Run, 1996. Light projection of fluorescent tubes and colored gel
dimensions variable. Collection Hirshhorn Museum.

Image bottom: Infinite Worlds.


The Moon As It Should Have Been

“By the mid-1960s, NASA’s Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter spacecraft had provided close-up views of the lunar surface. The photographs revealed a landscape that was far removed from the craggy scenes [Chesley] Bonestell had been painting for decades. The moon was softer, with rolling hills and mountains that appeared more Appalachian than Alpine. ‘The Moon looks for all the world like the Berkeley hills,’ Bonestell grumbled:

“I thought how wrong I was! My mountains were all sharp, and they aren’t on the moon. They’re all round, battered by millions of years of meteorites. I knew an astronomer, I can’t remember his name. He did a model of [the crater] Copernicus about four feet across, and he had the mountains softly rounded. I was just a kid, and I said, ‘Why did you make them so round?’ I expected them to broken and sharp. And he just laughed and walked off. It made me angry, and I never did go near him again. Why wouldn’t he tell me?”

“The matter of the Bonestellian depiction of the Moon raises an interesting issue: why did he paint the moon the way he did? So utterly convincing were his paintings that few if any people – scientists and astronomers included – ever questioned their accuracy, any more than one would question the reality of a photograph. Indeed, so compelling are his lunar landscapes that one feels it is somehow the Moon’s fault that it doesn’t look the way he painted it. Bonestell’s Moon was as it should have been. There is considerable argument in favour of the idea that we would not have been so anxious to land on the Moon had we known it looked as boring as it does – that his romanticized landscapes helped encourage the development of the lunar landing program. Bonestell himself was aware of this, saying that ‘even if they’re wrong, they did influence young people and got them interested in astronomy, so they at least served that purpose…”

Text: Ron Miller and Fredrick C Durant III, The Art of Chesley Bonestell. [London: Paper Tiger, 2001]. p 93.

Images: Top: Chesley Bonestell, Exploring the Moon by Earthlight, from Man on The Moon, 1961. Oil on board, 36x38cms. Bottom: The Apollo 15 lunar module “Falcon” with the moon’s Apennine Mountain Range in the background.

Signs of Magic

“A cover illustration may be illustrative in two different senses, whether it actually refers to a story or not. It may function as one frame of a film or comic book version of a narrative, iconicizing one instant of one episode in the story. (The story may have to be reconstructed from the illustration itself, or it may be present in a separate, literary form.) On the other hand, it may eliminate the traces from which a narrative may be reconstructed, and may instead provide a statement of some general quality of a story, of the magazine, or of SF and/or fantasy in general. In some degree, all cover illustrations may be read as generic statements at all three levels: (1) as representations of stories either actual or potential; (2) as characterizations of the magazines of which they form a part; and (3) as discourses about the nature of the genre(s) to which they belong…”

“The mimetic and ideographic principles organize a large lexicon of visual images into orderly structures. […] An examination of a single image in a number of different textual associations with other images will disclose the outlines of the code’s intertextual semantics. The rocketship, one of the most prominent images of estrangement in the specifically S-F illustration code, provides a good example. It has two easily available abstract significations based on two different aspects of its iconic form. John Huntington has phrased one of them in a distinction between fantasy and SF: “The difference between a spaceship and a flying carpet is not that we really understand one better than the other, but that the spaceship signifies a world of science.” It is, metonymically, by causal contiguity, a sign of technology, which is itself a metonym of science, and it must therefore be differentiated from the signs of magic. The spaceship may, however, take two main forms in the illustration code of the 1950s and 1960s: it may have a round, flying-saucer shape orit may be an elongated rocket. The former is feminine in signification, while the latter is masculine, phallic; and these meanings are established by resemblance…”

Text: J. E. Svilpis, Science-Fiction Magazine Illustration: A Semiotic Analysis (Les illustrations des magazines descience-fiction: analyse sémiotique), Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Nov., 1983), pp. 278-291.

Image: Peter Elson, Fantastic Planet, 1977.