Tuesday, March 16, 2004


First Sunday, then Sunday night . . . and now here it is early Tuesday morning and I have a moment to post an entry. More comments on Flemish painting and the NCAA tournament follow.

Last first. I don't wager; I won't fill out a bracket sheet. But I WILL watch as much as my schedule will allow. I understand the Super Bowl's now-iconic status as THE sporting event of the year in this country, creating on that one day and in one place a kind of worship of football and commercials, but March Madness is exact opposite: stadiums across the country, schools from every region, a mix of large and small, public and private, perennials (traditional basketball powers) and annuals ("Cinderellas" and first-timers) ALL pitted against each other for half a month. It's not as definitive a method as pro basketball's and pro (and college) baseball's tournaments for determining a true national champion, and therein lies the madness. The pressure to make EVERY shot, especially in close games, is that much higher. March Madness is also that time when the powers MUST play the mid-majors. They bow to the will of the Eternal Watchmakers known as the Bracket Committee. St. Joseph's, the rap against them being that they "didn't play anybody" in the course of their undefeated regular season, now must play somebody. Thus, there's a kind of democracy at work in the tournament that other playoffs, wars of attrition that they are, don't have. In those, the powerful tend to win out over time--witness ALL those trips to the World Series the Yankees have made.
Hmm--"democracy" in the NCAAs? Maybe more like Survivor, in which the strong--or at least the upper rungs of the seedings--win their games and wait for the inevitable upsets of other of their fellow higher-seedings--those who are not upset then prey on the upsetters, and, by Elite Eight time, few, if any, teams are left who have been seeded lower than, say, 8th (Villanova as an 8 seed back in 197-something [I'm working from memory here] is the lowest seed to reach a championship game). So, then: the illusion of democracy? The masses, Roman Coliseum-like, are kept happy with spectacle and the idea that competition is going on in that they are fed a few upsets in the first weekend, while, AWAY from the upsets, the real tournament, the usual assertions of their strength by college basketball's usual suspects, is getting itself worked out. Boy--THAT's rather Spenserian. But you know something? In this column, Sports Illustrated writer Stewart Mandel argues that the 5/8 scholarship rule (no more than 5 scholarships in a year or 8 in two consecutive years) has begun to manifest itself as parity: the wealth of basketball talent is now more diffuse. There are still the Power Conferences, and they still receive inordinate advantages in terms of ranking, but (as evidenced by the Atlantic 10's and the Western Athletic Conference's three bids each AND the Missouri Valley's 2 bids (compare to the Big 10's and the Pac-10's 3 bids each)), that former center of gravity is shifting. For the better, I say.
And who will win everything? Mandel says the logical choice is Stanford, and I agree that Stanford is the best of the teams I've seen (but note the qualifiers, those last two words). But he also says that anything can happen this year, and I also agree with that--this year more than ever.

On to painting . . .
Susan and I are still engaged in a dialogue about those beautiful Flemish interiors. In a previous entry, I said that she went to the National Gallery to look at their superb collection of Flemish and Dutch paintings from the 16th century; she wrote back to say that what struck her with real force was their physical size: these are small paintings. They are sized for intimate spaces. And that's appropriate: she told me something I hadn't known before: that as part of the fallout from the Reformation, the Dutch at about mid-century greatly restricted the amount of religious art that could appear in churches. Artists turned to private buyers in order to make a living, and so their subject matter reflected the lives of the members of that market (see, as only one example, this painting by de Hooch). So: there's a kind of Marxist reading of the Flemish interiors. But what makes these paintings so extraordinary to Susan and me is how, despite their size, they seem so expansive in their feel (what I called (and she liked) their "psychic spaces"). They accomplish this feel in several ways: the intimate feel of these admittedly ordinary scenes--indeed, as though something spiritual, if not overtly religious, is occurring (Vermeer at his very best--for example, Woman Reading a Letter--is especially good at this); the wonderful detail with which clothing, furniture, walls are rendered--the eye gets lost in its wanderings amongst all that richness, thus heightening the illusion of a physical expansiveness; and finally, the open doors/windows themselves: they not only permit us the illusion of "going out" of the painting, they also appear to invite others in that "outside" space within the world of the painting to peer in, if not enter in. I wrote her yesterday to say that these small paintings actually feel like landscapes, and she seems to agree with that idea.
Hmm--a brainstorm: I had noted to Susan that Vermeer is different, that, even in a room full of similar paintings by his contemporaries in the Vermeer exhibit at the Met in May of 2001, his stand out, not because of his skill but because of the atmosphere: his paintings, with only two exceptions, do not depict doors/windows open to an outside that we can see--and in those instances, being outside is the point of the paintings: A View of Delft and The Little Street. Vermeer is a converted Catholic in a country swept up in Reformation fervor. Maybe, for him, it's better, safer, to keep the doors and windows closed, so to speak. He loves light, though--his figures always turn toward its source, like plants.
I defer to Susan here--the stuff about Vermeer is me pushing at a hunch at an early hour and not something I know (or even believe) definitively. But Vermeer IS different, a Shakespeare in a world of Jonsons and Marlowes. His sensibility is different. Why?
Stay tuned . . .

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