Music to My Eyes: Walter Martin Sings Art History
Walter Martin sings about art history in his new album Arts and Leisure and makes music for your eyes.
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” somebody once said. But what about singing about art? Walter Martin, former member of the alternative music group The Walkmen, answers that question in his new album Arts and Leisure. Using quirky, idiosyncratic vocals, lyrics, and instruments, Martin presents not another boring art history lecture, but rather a lesson about how a personal engagement with art as an integrated part of one’s existence can help you, too, make music for your eyes.
As a follow-up to his debut solo album of songs aimed at children, We’re All Young Together, Martin first considered an album of funny songs about art. “I wrote all these funny songs and I got sick of them,” Martin remembers. “Then I wrote all these serious songs and realized they were boring.” Finally, “I broke my back writing a two-minute song about Alexander Calder's miniature circus and I thought it was perfect — it was whimsical and weird, but also had personal ideas about art tucked in there that gave it the depth and warmth I was looking for.”
From that whimsical, weird starting point, Martin went on to write the rest of the album, which varies from direct references to art to subtler, indirect references, but all of which are deeply personal. Martin taps deeply into his memories of seeing Calder’s Miniature Circus (shown above) at the Whitney Museum in New York City, giving you a warm, firsthand account rather than a cold, analytic study.
Calder’s circus got Martin started, but John Singleton Copley’s painting Watson and the Shark (shown above) exemplifies the best of Art and Leisure’s leisurely approach to making music out of visual art. Growing up in Washington, D.C., Martin remembers visiting the National Gallery of Art and being profoundly bored by most 18th century art, especially the portraits of the rich and famous. (Martin inserts this story in the middle of the song “Watson and the Shark” in an almost Woody Guthrie-esque, folksy aside.) Stumbling upon Copley’s Watson and the Shark in the middle of all those boring portraits, however, startled the young Martin.
“John Singleton Copley / you got me hypnotized,” Martin sings in “Watson and the Shark.” “John Singleton Copley / it's music to my eyes, to my eyes.” Copley “hypnotized” Martin with that painting of a shark attack (as well as another Copley work, A Boy with a Flying Squirrel) by sheer surprise, by “attacking” his imagination with art’s power to defy expectations. That sense of surprise and unconventionality appears in Martin’s music in everything from his quirky, sometimes Bob Dylan-esque delivery to his playing “drums, guitar, upright bass, piano, trombone, organ, mandolin, xylophone, slide whistle, glockenspiel and just about every noise-maker and percussion instrument you can imagine.” Just as Copley throws everything but the kitchen sink at you in Watson and the Shark, Martin throws everything he knows at you to make the “music for your eyes” in Arts and Leisure.
If Martin were a painter, he’d be an Impressionist — not a “blurry haystacks at sunset” Impressionist, but someone who conveys the impressions he experiences from art in a clear, evocative way. In “Daniel in the Lions’ Den,” Martin resists describing Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting of the same name (shown above), but describes instead “being moved by it and trying to figure out what it's about.” In this “personal take on a Biblical story that [he] never totally got,” Martin captures the sense of wonder and questioning that fine art can inspire. Looking and singing about Tanner’s “big room filled with lions / so peaceful and quiet / with a young man standing so calmly by,” Martin makes us all take a longer look and think.
And, yet, Martin never gets bogged down in the art, which is, instead, always a springboard for self-discovery. “Down by the Singing Sea,” the song with the most infectious hook on the album, started out as a song about how he spent childhood vacations with his family at the same Florida beach that artist Robert Rauschenberg (shown above) lived at. “This song is about the beach where Robert Rauschenberg spent the last 30 years of his life,” Martin explains. But, “the verse that was about Rauschenberg was cut and it ended up just being a beach song, but to me it’s about Robert Rauschenberg.” Rauschenberg remains in the song in spirit — the inventive, explorative spirit found in his art. Even without dropping names, Martin manages to drop art history into his music.
Martin claims only a “shaky grasp of college art history” supplemented by his travels as a musician and brief, pre-fame employment in museums. Arts and Leisure may not help you earn a degree, but it will give you a greater degree of appreciation of the essence of art beyond knowing the right names, dates, and movements. In the song “Michelangelo,” Martin pictures the sculptor at work:
He'd go down to his studio
and he'd wait 'til the ideas flowed.
Then he'd take out his hammer and spike
and chip at that marble ‘til the marble looked right.
Then he'd say, “Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh
that's why they call me Michelangelo!”
Arts and Leisure helps your feel and understand the necessity of every last “oh” in Michelangelo’s art. If you’ve never gotten art, if every explanation makes as much sense as “dancing about architecture,” then give Martin’s Arts and Leisure a good, long listen and learn to look with your eyes, and ears.
A large new study uses an online game to inoculate people against fake news.
- Researchers from the University of Cambridge use an online game to inoculate people against fake news.
- The study sample included 15,000 players.
- The scientists hope to use such tactics to protect whole societies against disinformation.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
Many governments do not report, or misreport, the numbers of refugees who enter their country.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.