One of the Finest Books of Art History in 2016

I received an outstanding Christmas book last December from family members who know my interest in art and history. It is Of Arms and Artists by Paul Staiti. The esteemed Joseph J. Ellis points out in his appreciation of the book that Mr. Staiti has achieved a “fusion of art history and political narrative.” Not only are the great artworks of the Revolution discussed and reproduced in color plates and black and white illustrations for our enjoyment. As Mr. Ellis remarks, Staiti’s narrative points out the art’s political significance and what that art says about the values that make this country singularly American. We are experiencing a great fissure in latter-day America over the subject of aliens and what our policy should be toward them. John Adams wrote about the Hessians, who were fighting on Britain’s side, “Is there any Policy on this side of hell, that is inconsistent with Humanity? I have no Idea of it. I know of no policy, God is my witness but this–Piety, Humanity and Honesty are the best Policy. Blasphemy, Cruelty, and Villainy have prevailed and may again.” Both Adams and Washington believed in the American way of showing mercy toward aliens, in this case, the Hessians, says Staiti.

This book reminds us of the great country we were before and after the Revolution, and why we were different from other countries. As the strident online voices quarrel with each other over whether we should shut out all outsiders from our shores, the rest of us can pick up this book and see what the Founders had to say about the matter.

A Golden Opportunity Lost

In the January 13, 2017 issue of USA Today, everyone who loves horses and cares what happens to them was  heartened to see this headline: “USDA Announces Strict Changes to End Soring of Tennessee Walking Horses.” The struggle to end the torture of soring horses has lasted so long. It was hard to believe this horror had gone. Only a few days later, on January 24, 2017, a blog written by Wayne Pacelle started this way: “The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s anti-horse-soring rule–put in motion after a damning 2010 Inspector General’s report identified deficiencies in the execution of the federal law against horse soring —is in peril despite the agency announcing final, favorable action on the  issue just days ago.” (Italics mine.)

Mr. Pacelle, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Humane Society of the United States, whose telling title for his blog entry is “Bureaucratic Bungling, Rules Freeze Endanger Horse Soring Rule,” explains that the bungling happened at the Federal Register. This venerable, historical publication failed in its duty to publish the new USDA rule about soring when it should have been published. The new rule foundered in a move by President Trump to freeze any rule actions still moving forward. Now in line with procedure, the USDA was forced to withdraw this action. As Mr. Pacelle assesses the effect of this move, he concludes that “Horse abusers are getting a ‘get out of jail free card’ because of an ironic and potentially fatal one-two punch by the outgoing and incoming administrations.”

The new law would update the Horse Protection Law to prohibit all soring devices. The Agriculture Department Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service would take on the responsibility of training and licensing horse inspectors. The new trainers would now be only veterinarians and veterinarian educators. This change in the law would also eliminate one of the worst practices of the past: often inspectors would be employees of horse organization with vested interests and also might be exhibitors as well.



“The Six Thatchers” and the Failure of its Special Effects

The new series of Sherlock Holmes, season four, and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the Great Man, started on January 1. The episode was named “The Six Thatchers.” I confess here that I am a Sherlock fan, revering the fourteen films of Conan Doyle’s stories between 1939 and 1946 and Basil Rathbone as the hero, and Jeremy Brett’s portrayal as Holmes between 1984 and 1994. All things considered, I was considerably frustrated by “The Six Thatchers.” I have long felt, with increasing irritation, that the special effects in the Sherlock series and other films are overdone and thus overshadow what should be a strong story and an equally well-made, fascinating plot. There are often too many special effects that dominate these films and spoil them for the part of the audience looking forward to an excellent Holmes adventure. Why, in this particular effort to depict Sherlock Holmes, does the film fail?

For one thing, the characterization of Holmes is so weak on Conan Doyle’s side that the detective is often impossible to impersonate, explain, or analyze. The list of famous actors who have tried to bring Sherlock to life is long. Conan Doyle depicted Holmes as scarcely human. Sherlock says of himself, “I am a brain, Watson. the rest of me is a mere appendix.” The detective lives only for the next case, one that will challenge his great brain, and when he can’t find a puzzle, he escapes consciousness by taking drugs. The only person he really puts up with is Dr. Watson, a buffoon in the early films, and a decent and earnest man in the Brett films. The only thing that can impress viewers in this whole character is his monumental brain and what he does with it. And that is the problem writers and producers have when they try to bring Holmes to public view.

This film fails in large part because the writers, knowing full well the problems of Sherlock as a human character of interest, must depend on the plot to succeed. But the story lacks coherence, making people like me want a fuller story with the obvious gaps filled in. For example, what exactly did Mary Watson do wrong and how exactly did it come about? Now if the main character can’t be developed well because of his great defect of being unrealistic, and the story itself doesn’t work well, what else can writers do but fall back on special effects?

In attempting to make up for these problems with Holmes  as a human being, the writers roll everything into a colossal, bewildering extravaganza of special effects; they make the film so visually exciting but often so bewildering that the audience forgets what is supposed to be happening in the story. Sherlock moves in a world of special effects that are shadows upon shadows. People and things are sometimes murky, as if the effects are drug-related. There are spots of coherence that make sense but then more effects that give the appearance of nightmares. Audiences are starting to see this overuse of CGI. Ebony Bowden writes, “In the early days of CGI, filmmakers could only superimpose a computer-generated component onto a real scene…. Today, they’re able to generate entire sequences using computers….Movies saturated with CGI can become too ‘glossy,’ say some animators, and audiences are seeing right through it.” And in the rush to use more and more CGI which has become tiring and sterile, we have lost Holmes.

Two Horses Die at the 141st Running of the Preakness

The Preakness Stakes is one of three prestigious races that make up the Triple Crown series of races: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. Horses that manage to win all three are famous: you’ve heard of Citation? Whirl-away? Secretariat? This year’s Preakness was held in Baltimore. Writing of the tragic deaths in the Allied News, John Morlino’s article of June 7 illustrates “our conflicted relationship with animals,” by pointing out that people who race horses tacitly accept the fact that horses may die early deaths from what Morlino calls “transgressions,” crimes committed against horses. Here is Morlino’s list of human crimes that contribute to horse injuries and too often, premature death. They are “greed, corruption, performance-enhancing and pain-masking drugs, and breeding practices.” Homeboykris won the first contest of the day but died from what looked like heart failure, said those who performed the necropsy. He collapsed on his way back to the barn and had to be euthanized. Pramedya tried to run in the fourth race but suffered a fractured leg that Morlino describes as “dangling grotesquely in front of her.” She never made it back to the barn, but had to be euthanized on the track.

The reasons for these deaths? When asked why Pramedya died, her owner, Roy Jackson, said “We haven’t fully digested the whole thing,” but “life goes on.” It was found that Homeboykris had an elevated level of dexamethasone in his blood, said the Maryland Racing Commission. The accepted level of pictograms per milliliter is 5, but Homeboykris, nine years old, had 30.

Much more research is needed into the dangers of racing older horses and perhaps rewriting the rules that govern the acceptable age of a race horse to run.