The inauguration & the art of words

ArtsWatch Weekly: A young poet and a steady voice highlight the clarity of ritual and suggest a path for the art of governance

THE WEEK’S BIG NEWS – ITS DOMINATING NEWS – WAS WEDNESDAY’S INAUGURATION of Joseph R. Biden, Jr., as the nation’s 46th president and Kamala Harris as the first woman and the first person of color to be vice president. In this most extraordinary of elections, in which its clear loser refused until the last moment to accept that he had lost, and in which only two weeks ago a mob urged on by the election’s loser stormed and ransacked the Capitol Building, the simple clarity of a ritual carried out in safety and celebration was cause for national reassurance. The presence in the nation’s capital of 25,000 soldiers at the ready to quell  any further violence – five people died as a result of the domestic-terrorist surge on January 6 – might have had a great deal to do with the peaceful passage of the day. Yet there also was a sense that something had truly turned, that in spite of the fierce differences and enmities that remain in a divided nation, rationality, good intentions, and a commitment to fact would be the new starting points for the national conversation. And the art of words, spoken with purpose and logic and a sense of common possibility, lay somewhere near the foundation of it all.  

Amanda Gorman, the nation’s First Youth Poet Laureate, at Wednesday’s Inauguration ceremony.

THE YOUNG POET AMANDA GORMAN, delivering her inauguration poem The Hill We Climb (full text here), laid out an aspirational vision:

When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
… Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken
but simply unfinished
… We will not march back to what was
but move to what shall be
… We will rebuild, reconcile and recover
and every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid …



Things that go bump in the light

On portraits and phrenology: Meet Phil, who's been hanging around the house all through the shutdown and has a lot on his mind


The photographs here are of Phil (no last name). He is, for all his insinuations to the contrary, an inanimate object. A phrenological head made of stone and resin, he is one of those iffy bits of bric-a-bracery that occasionally make it into my office and stay. He is both a piece of comic commentary on pseudoscience and the symbolic embodiment of a portrait photographer’s dream—a subject whose character is literally written on his face.

Phrenology, a crackpot theory of the mind from the early years of the 19th century, was the “brainchild” of a Viennese physician by the name of Franz Joseph Gall. It purported to deduce a person’s character from the size, shape, and location of various bumps on one’s head. Those bumps were read like Tarot cards.

The phrenologists of today are the microexpressionists. These are not diminutive painters of subjective exaggerations, but lab-coated, algorithm-addled analyzers of facial expressions. While phrenologists studied the bumps on one’s head, microexpressionists study the twitches, bunches, and tics of one’s facial muscles. 

(A gaggle of practitioners ran Leonardo’s Mona Lisa through one of their emotion-recognition analyzers. After assessing, among other things, the curvature of the lips and the crinkling around the eyes [variations from something called the average “neutral” expression], they concluded their subject—Mona—was 83% happy, 9% disgusted, 6% fearful, and 2% angry.)

Although on firmer scientific ground than phrenology, microexpressionism as a critical tool is of no greater use to the portrait photographer. Studies suggest it might be helpful in detecting deception—in sorting out who has snatched your yogurt from the refrigerator at work—but it provides only the most cretinish counsel to anyone assessing a work of art. It would be like using a spectrometer to critique a sunset—factually accurate, perhaps, but essentially a desecration.


Phil #1, 2021.