Thursday, February 13, 2014

Monuments Men: Why George Clooney Nailed It

Fig. 1 Ghent Altarpiece, by Jan Van Eyck   Image source:

Monuments Men is a historical drama about a select group of scholars-turned-soldiers, who inject themselves into the throes of World War II with a single purpose:  to find and return Europe’s priceless works of art, many of which were being stolen, hidden and eventually destroyed by the Axis powers (e.g., fig. 1, 2).  I went to the theater hoping for an intelligent, emotionally uplifting experience.  This film exceeded my expectations and left me struggling to answer a profound question.  Without revealing much that can’t be gleaned from the trailers, one of its central debates was unveiled in the opening scene:  “Is a piece of art worth a human life?”

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Street Performers as Modern Bards

Spoon Man, by Karen Clawson
Before Western society had plays for actors, concerts for musicians, museums for historians or slam sessions for poets, we used bards to maintain our oral and written traditions.  They juggled multiple roles simultaneously, transitioning from teacher to entertainer, as circumstances dictated.  Their unique ability to recall a seemingly endless string of stories and songs at will led some to believe they possessed supernatural powers; however, most bards simply relied upon a good memory to accurately store and share their vast repertoire.  Many utilized meter, rhyme and other, similar techniques as tools to ease memorization and improve recollection.  Today, the English language still naturally lends itself to iambic pentameter.

If longevity is any indication of success, Homer is arguably the quintessential bard, despite no direct evidence to support or even estimate his formal birth or death dates.  Ancient Greeks and Romans considered his teachings essential to a well-rounded education.  He was an authority on literature and ethics.  While our literary and ethical scope has since expanded, Homer remains the primary educational source for Greek myth and religion.  Knowledge is lost with the rise and fall of civilizations.  Literacy itself has been taken away and regained by populations.  Entire languages and religions have died, taking with them countless tales, as new government brought new cultures.  So how do stories survive?  How is it possible that Latin as a spoken language succumbed to the fall of the Roman Empire, yet Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey endure to the present day?