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« Bengalis on foreign shores | Main | The Hermit and the Concubine (Norman Costa) »

June 16, 2012


It could be done as Andrew pointed out a few years ago. There will be a market for those who care more for what is IN the bottle than on it. I would gladly buy a great knock-off vintage wine for $15 - 20 a bottle whereas discussions about rare mummified wine treasures leave me with glazed eyes. BTW, I did once taste a cheap Trader Joe's wine at the behest of a kind limo driver who was driving me around Los Angeles during one of my trips. It was adequate, ie. it didn't give me a headache.

I don't drink (any more...) but I'll take this question, because between 1971 and 1985, I drank many great French and Italian wines of exalted vintage.

The language of wine snobbery, then as now, bores me, but I recognize a great wine of noble vintage as something very special, and will defend drinking it, and accepting no "Tastes-the-same!" substitute liquids, on the same grounds I defend living with and/or being involved with original art over excellent reproductions. It's not whether you can tell the difference at a sip or at a glance, but whether the history, the terroir, the soul of the unique thing are actually present in what you partake of. Whether it matters to you that the maker of it touched it, that it came from his earth, his mind, his hands, and somehow survived to reach yours. If these things don't matter -- or if they matter, but not enough to pay for -- that's a personal decision, not a focus for the snobbery of other people.

For myself, I would say I have a relationship with the painting AND its vast array of meanings, including its deep past. With a mind-bogglingly good reproduction, I have at best a relationship with a copy of the appearance of the painting. I take great pleasure in photography of paintings, by the way -- but I know what it is, and it's not trying to pass for anything else.

Above all I take issue with art, wine, rare books, and great performances being classified among consumer experiences, and being consumed or collected precisely because they make a display of wealth. Wealth confers access, not discernment. Some years back, a shipping magnate bought Gauguin's "Riders on a Pink Beach" for his private yacht. If you ask me, that act was a wound on world culture. Perhaps analogously, the most serious oenophiles are not the richest people, and they must agonize when a person who can, merely, pay for it gets his hands on a wine just about beyond reach. I am not so sure, however, that wine in reproduction any more than art in reproduction helps the rest of us to address plutocratic crimes.

I wasn't getting at the wine snob thing here. I've never had a truly pricey bottle, but I do enjoy a good wine, and would love to know something about what those several thousand dollar bottles taste like. Reproductions are exactly to point - whether or not a perfect reproduction has the essential numinous quality of that Modigliani nude, those reproductions exist, and people do buy them. I don't need the thing to be a perfect substitute, just something I can afford. And quite typically the market manages to furnish a range of inferior facsimiles. Here it should be even easier, since even experts tell fakes not by taste but through forensics. I want to taste those fakes!

These great wines are not being commodified and robbed of soul, they always have been commodities - each of these wineries produces several thousands or hundreds of thousands of bottles a year, neatly stamped with labels and trademark symbols. Also, beyond a point over-stressing history and soul over taste seems to me rather like finding the value of books in the smell and feel of paper. Excepting that they taste great, it's hard to see why the soul matters, and I don't immediately see why after amputating the soul the taste counts for nothing.

Put differently, all the commentary in this Kurniawan case is about how the market in ultra-pricey wines is being affected by an unscrupulous dealer. I expect the great wineries to care a lot about their brand being diluted, but I'm not them. It's not like with paintings (whether in museums or in private collections) because I'm never going to experience the original. What I want to know is why people don't hire someone like him and pay him an large salary, stop him from wasting some of his time on the silly task of faking bottles and paper, and just get him doing great tasting knockoff wine.

@ prasad,

I wonder, as you do, why someone would take the time to counterfeit a labeled wine with an equally good product instead of selling it more cheaply as a high quality, near identical substitution. The only thing that makes sense to me is a sociopath who lives for the game and the successful deception. You know, the confidence artist.

I am disposed toward the personal decision that Elatia describes. "It's not whether you can tell the difference at a sip or at a glance, but whether the history, the terroir, the soul of the unique thing are actually present in what you partake of. Whether it matters to you that the maker of it touched it, that it came from his earth, his mind, his hands, and somehow survived to reach yours."

Twenty-five years ago I bought a Sohmer grand piano from the daughter of Louis Greenwald, the piano accompanist for the great violinist Jasha Heifetz. Louis Greenwald lived in or near Beacon, NY which was little more than an hour from midtown Manhattan. His daughter spoke about the world famous musicians that gathered in her childhood home every Sunday and played for the joy of the music and fellowship.

The piano was made between 1915 and 1919. It had been repaired and rebuilt any number of times. However, the metal frame and case where every bit intact. What knocked me off my feet was the power in the lower register. Anyone who listened to it or tuned or fixed it had the same reaction of Wow! Almost six years ago I had the innards rebuilt, and completely restrung. Lift up the cover and it looks like a new piano. The action needed attention but is decently serviceable. As soon as I find $5,000 and nothing else to do with it, I will have a new action built for me.

The last piano technician who tuned the piano was the first person who knew how to tune properly to allow for the overtones. The piano was as perfect as it could be. In addition to a powerful lower register, I had for the first time an upper register that was exquisite, crystalline. It was true beauty. It is not exaggeration to say that I would have to spend at least $40,000 on a new piano, maybe a lot more, to get the same sound that comes from this beautiful instrument.

There are times when I think it would be easier and cheaper to get an electronic piano. Not only do they sound great, but they can duplicate the feel of the action of a grand piano. But, as Elatia put it, there is "...the history, the terroir, the soul of the unique thing are actually present in what you partake of." Jasha Heifetz, Louis Greenwald, and so many other great musicians of the past were here, next to this piano, and making music together. I am awed by the idea.

P.S. The man who rebuilt my Sohmer was a third generation employee of the Sohmer factory in New York City, before they closed. His father and his grandfather also built Sohmer pianos.

I hope that piano is seeing some action in your house, Norman. Remember the roll-up keyboard with its concert hall tone that beamed down to the Enterprise with Captain Picard's only serious love interest?

Prasad and Norman, there is replicated perfume that is so close to some of the great fragrances that it's dizzying. The makers do a good business, but it is and should be a cheap product. I would personally rather blend an essential oil with perfumers' alcohol than use one of these ersatz fragrances, because perfume comes from flowers and not the lab, and it has a 4000 year history in Europe alone. For people who love it, it is a deep connection with civilization.

Something like that may prevent the "wine-forger" from going legit: not much money in it for him, because people are buying unquantifiables, or if you like, a mystique, when they buy a great wine of noble vintage. If he can pull off that stunt, however, he must have great skill as a wine-maker...or, not? The best art forgers are not good painters, but superb forgers.

Also, unless you live in the back of the beyond, you can have a deep and lasting relationship with a wonderful painting -- an experience that will never desert you. Are you still in Switzerland? Tell me where you are and I will make an art suggestion.

Even if it means living on ramen for a month prior and a month after, anyone who really wants to can have a great bottle of wine, once. I passionately advocate that people who wonder about the experience have a fresh truffle or a great bottle of wine. The truffle will make you know Pan, and you will be forever allied to the wild and the deep in nature. The wine will be epiphanial, one of the redeeming things humans shall have left along the carnage-strewn path. With sacrifices, you can do each once. And then you will know. And it will stay with you, like other forms of esoteric knowledge, forever.

I know zilch about wine, but a little bit about pianos,and as everyone knows, 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing'
I'm not sure about how effectively an electronic piano would replicate the feel of the action of a grand piano, for the simple reason that taking out the mechanics behind the action and replacing it with an electronic sound (to the nth degree that closely approximates what the human ear hears on average) and weighted keys will never come close to the real thing. For one, every time I have played or listened to others playing on electronic pianos, it messes up the audio as well as haptile feedback they get from playing. So we get missed keys, overly fast passages, tinny sounds. Plus, not all human ears are average and happy with the average set of harmonics provided by the electronic keys.
Unless you have severe space constraints or cost constraints, I would stay away from the electronic version.

@ Suhatha,

Ah. You know.

Norman, you have a grand piano at home? That's insane! Do you get to play it often? I'm surprised by what you say about electronic pianos sounding good; my instinct is like Sujatha's that the electronic versions would sound pretty lame by comparison. Of course, maybe I'm swayed by the toys one plays with as a child. No doubt if the best engineers and acousticians get on the job (as I imagine they do) they'd do rather better.

Re spirit, actually, though it's already quite different from wine or food - it would be a rare master chef who wanted the plates he sent out each evening to all be idiosyncratically different, and vineyards try to make all their bottles of a type in a year as similar as possible - even with paintings I don't hear spirit much. With the paintings in museums (as opposed to statues or monuments or colorful locales, which aren't replicable) magnificent as they are to see in person, I'm not often surprised in the sense of finding something unexpected. To be sure, it's nice to see something up close and full scale, but I don't get much out of a painting that I don't get out of a good poster of the same size. Ditto with being in the actual 'presence' of Raphael by walking in a room he stood in etc. I mean, he probably perspired and had bad teeth the same as everyone else. I wouldn't say I don't feel these things at all or anything, but it's fairly mild, and from my park bench it all seems curiously off-point. I've also never cared to have books signed by authors, or to look at celebrities and what have you.

Elatia, I'm still in Geneva yes, and would love to get suggestions. I haven't had any "remarkable" art experiences in Switzerland itself, though I also haven't been looking. I went to the Paul Klee Museum once, but more because I had a free half day than anything else - he's not really my thing, I think. I do get to travel occasionally, so there are many extremely eminent museum experiences to be had. My last blew-my-mind experience was late last year at the Vatican Museums. I think for all the spiffy painting there, I actually was rather more awed by the sculpture - there's something to be said for going up really close to a statue you recognize, and walking all around it, and taking in all the detail. I hope to be back in Rome some day, though I didn't do the Trevi fountain thing. There's plenty of great places left to see first though - what museums and such would you recommend?

I haven't ever been to a truly exceptional restaurant, I mean of the sort that win places in top hundred guides etc. It's definitely one of those things I'd hope to do at some point. As you say, it'd be an experience to remember and treasure. Which reminds me, I've been reading Daniel Gilbert's book. Based on what he says about enjoyment, expectation, memory and so on, I'm thinking the best way to enjoy these things is to set a date for a couple of years in the future, let the anticipation build up, then eat the meal like any other, taking care to let that day be a happy one in general. Of course, planning that course out would make it not work, it must be 'stumbled' into. Ah well.

@ Prasad,

Yes, it's a grand piano. I've played off and on over the years, and am now back into the 'on' designation. My piano is in a living room with 11 foot ceilings and is approximately 16 feet by 16. The floor is hardwood. My apartment is the first floor of a restored 1888 Victorian house. My piano and this room were made for each other.

Around 15-20 years ago a first time piano concert was given at Carnegie Hall in NYC, performed on an electronic piano. I forget whether the brand was Yamaha or Baldwin. As you can imagine, the concert was sponsored by the manufacturer. I don't remember much about the review, but the performance was given by a known concert pianist, and it seemed to be an acceptable musical experience for the audience.

A few months ago I was at an evening meeting held in a school. The school was attached to and associated with a local Lutheran Church, but they allow varied community groups to use their facilities. Once in a while there is a very pleasant distraction coming from the church choral group that is practicing in another part of the school. One evening they were rehearsing Gabriel Faure's Requiem, one of my favorites among sacred choral pieces. I could hear the rehearsal pianist on what sounded like a rather good grand piano. Rehearsal pianos don't usually sound that good, certainly not good enough to get one's attention. Also, rehearsal pianos are never tuned that well nor as frequently as they should be. So I walked upstairs to the school auditorium for a look and listen. The choral director was using an electronic piano.

I've never listened to an electronic piano long enough, or that carefully, to get a feel for how well it stacks up against the real thing. I would elect to play an electronic piano over a spinet or studio piano. The 'baby' grands I've played would lose out to the digital age, as well. But, my Sohmer is a treasure in sound and history and gives me a joy that I will never part with it.

Your reaction to the Vatican sculptures brings me back to the 1964-5 World's Fair in New York City. The Vatican exhibited Michelangelo's Pieta. The Pieta was behind near invisible glass. You could only view it from one of a number of tiered moving walkways passing in front of the display. Obviously, this is not an ideal way to take in this incredible sculpture. All I can say is that it was one of the most incredible experiences in my life. The only artistic experience that compared to it was being face-to-face with a cave painting of a bison that took 3-D form on a bulge of rock in the cave. This was at Font-de-Gaume cave near Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil in the Dordogne départment of south-west France.

Speaking of "stumbling" into a great experience, for me most have been unplanned and unexpected. Too much anticipation of a wonderful encounter (food, place, art, humans) with a few exceptions, usually bring about mild to severe let downs. Outside of India, I don't think I have eaten in any world renowned eating establishments (chefs that have earned Michelin stars) although I have been to some relatively pricey ones. The food has been great to middling. Sometimes a hole-in-the wall offers a truly memorable dining experience.

In 1999, my husband and I visited Barcelona. I eat almost everything and he doesn't much care for anything other than Indian, Chinese or Thai. (In Europe, my husband seems to fill himself up on bread, salad and desserts.) In Barcelona, we were mostly eating Spanish fare which I love and he was getting by on a narrow selection that avoided any kind of pig meat and sea food. One night we were seeking a place to eat on the busy stretch of the Las Ramblas. My husband insisted that we eat something other than Spanish - in fact he wanted to find an Indian or Chinese restaurant. I didn't want to but went along with the search. It was pretty late and we were running out of possibilities. At the end of the street, we stumbled upon a quiet (no tourists) restaurant called Amaya (later I came to know that my husband took it to be a Chinese eatery) and decided to take our chances there. It was an unpretentious place and mostly empty by that time. The owner seated us in a room in the back with colorfully painted walls, low light and candles. He and a waitress patiently described (in Spanish) the offerings of the establishment. With much gesticulation and in English, I explained that my husband didn't eat pig and sea-food and that we both liked our food on the "picante" side. The man asked us to leave the choices to him (the food was Catalan)and disappeared into the kitchen. What he eventually served included a basket of delicious fresh, crusty bread, an amazing salad, a local red wine, shrimp cooked in oil and garlic served on Spanish rice for me and well done lamp chops with grilled veggies for my husband. He also made a side of hot sauce in oil with garlic, red pepper and herbs. The waitress stood around at a discreet distance and kept an eye on our progress, stepping up occasionally to fill the wine glasses. The food was excellent and the wine delicious but more than that, the experience was magical for the charming languid setting, the unhurried kindness of the owner and the quizzical smile of the waitress who later confessed that we were the first Indian guests she had waited upon. My husband still compares all our enjoyable dining experiences to "Amaya." The last one that came close was in the small homestyle dining room of Hotel Dar-e-Salaam in Srinagar where we stayed in the summer of 2011.

Prasad, you didn't care for Klee? Why?

@ Ruchira,

I got hungry just by reading. If I had that same experience, I'd remember, too.

Prasad and others, I generally think anticipation is the better half of pleasure, provided we are talking about food in restaurants that take a lot of "achieving." I have made bold with knife and fork all the way through France, several times, and I know all about la tristesse d'apres. Mainly, one cannot believe one behaved that way. Yet anticipating behaving that way, and doing it, are delightful. That said, the single best meal I ever had in France was a wild mushroom omelette in a pretty but unremarkable restaurant that I had not planned to eat at, in Vezelay -- one of the great pilgrimage towns of Europe. It was a freezing cold Burgundian morning, and the fog lay thick on the cobblestones. The ravishing basilica was very far uphill. I didn't think I could manage the proper attitude for it without lunch. I was overcome with an unusual feeling to have in France -- hunger. Certainly I seldom experienced hunger there. This day, however, I was hungry, and cold. That's why the omelette, which was doubtless excellent, knocked it out of the park.

Prasad, you are very near one of the great painting sites of Europe -- the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in Lugano. It's in a beautiful villa. You would go Italywards from Geneva. If you can make time for this, I'll tell you about some paintings you might really love. Nothin' much like great painting in the Haute Savoie over the French border, but if you can get to the Rhineland, Colmar, in Alsace, you are in the way of seeing what I consider to be the greatest work of art in the world -- the Isenheim Altarpiece, by Matthias Grunewald, who died in 1510. Please let me know when you are feeling footloose and desirous of great painting...

Elatia, you should provide here the link to your article on the Isenheim Altarpiece.

Ruchira, thank you for remembering that article! I am hesitant, because art is always in danger of being photographed in such a way as to disadvantage it, and written about in a way that may be all very well without making an appeal to a particular reader. Understanding that this is one of the world's most unphotographable works of art, and one before which words inevitably fail, here's the link.

Such a pleasure it is to read these lovely comments, about pianos, paintings and perfect meals. Surely blogging is a pleasure too, if a less rarefied one than the ones we're discussing.

Norman, I didn't get to see the Pieta up close either, probably the glass is permanently there...there must have been some nut who tried to break bits off. Isn't there always? I wonder what the principle is on which they decide which works to wall off. Do second that it was an astonishing thing to be near and look at.

Ruchira, funnily enough I got sucked into the opposite experience in Las Ramblas. Wandered into a tourist trap, waited forty minutes for the food, found my 'veggie' paella full of seafood, gah. Nothing against Klee per se, and didn't 'mind' him either. My tastes in the visual arts (minus cinema) are pretty unfashionable, sort of like a child's in food - rarely venture outside comfort zones, which in my case basically means not much after the impressionists. Re anticipation I guess it's a great pleasure in itself, though we aren't necessarily self-aware about that. But it might also ruin the experience. I might actually be going back to Barcelona later this year, and so will try to bring the right level of anticipation to stopping at Amaya :)

Elatia, definitely interested in Lugano, even the train ride takes one to the prettiest parts of the country (imo). I didn't know about the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, please do give painting suggestions! Your 3QD article is a great resource. I recognize the work, I wonder if it was from reading your page earlier? Not sure, I have "done" some art history lectures in the past. Btw, to connect with our recent theme of wikipedia articles, I was thinking it should show as an external link to the wiki page on the Isenheim Altarpiece?

Prasad, I will go over my materials on the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection and find some paintings you might particularly like. I could be entirely wrong, and others there will have a stronger appeal to you -- I hope you will linger with the paintings that speak to you, whichever they are.

The Wikipedia entry on the Isenheim Altarpiece is very mere, considering it is by anyone's definition among the most powerful works of art in the world -- like it or not. Rilke, who wrote so wonderfully about visual art, who saw it so deeply, spent the day with the Isenheim Altarpiece, and recorded only that that was how he spent his day -- he had nothing to add. Walter Benjamin wrote only that it was beyond the reach of language, beyond the expression of others. And those are only two geniuses for whom, before the work, words failed. If I had not had not only my day with it, but the three decades that came after, I would not have tried to write about it -- it is only because I have abided with it that I can write about it, and I am not writing like an art historian. Most of them can ruin the experience of art the way an eighth grade math teacher can dent the experience of Bach. Modestly, I agree with you -- my article might well play up the experiential aspect of that work for some readers. Thank you so much for suggesting it! I cannot say if that's a Wikipedic aim. But I believe a deep connection with a work of art is transformational. If we are seeking only interesting information from art, then of course we trivialize the art, but we trivialize our own potential too.

Here I am re-posting my original comment to Elatia's 3QD article on Matthis and the Isenheim Altar triptych.

Posted by: Norman Costa | Nov 23, 2009 6:21:57 PM


"I’m returning to this article, having read your essay on James Ensor a few months ago. I took your advice, also, to see the James Ensor exhibit at MoMA in NYC earlier this year.

"I couldn’t help but read your essay on Mathis because I visited the Musee d'Unterlinden, in Colmar in April-May 1990. I knew nothing of Mathis or the Musee d'Unterlinden except for the blurbs in my tour companion, “22 Days in France” by Rick Steves, and his strong encouragement not to miss the Isenheim Altarpiece triptych. I have many photos from the Musee, and the albums are still packed away in moving boxes in my garage.

"I never cared for ‘Crucifixion Art’ after the great plagues and famines of the 1300s CE. The emphasis on gore, lashing that neared flaying, long drawn out suffering, projection of guilt upon the faithful for making Jesus suffer by their sins, and an unsubtle reminder of what is in store for those who do not repent – if you think this hurts, wait till you get to hell – were obsessions that bordered on sadomasochism. Christopher Hitchens’ characterization of Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” as a homoerotic spank movie, convinced me not to see it, though I wasn’t likely to do so anyway. Personal reviews and reactions from people I knew confirmed my decision to stay at home.

"My reactions to the paintings at Unterlinden, however, were nothing of the kind. I was awed and moved by the experience on different levels. They were beautiful, strange, incredibly fantastical, captivating, passionate, and FULL OF LIFE. The crucified Christ is as animated as any other figure. I’m not referring to a religious or theological concept of a residual life-on-hold for a Jesus yet to rise from the dead. It’s the face of suffering that had yet to surrender to the inevitable – the ghost will not be given up that easily.

"My experience with Mathis’ work was influenced, to some extent, by the purpose to which his benefactor directed his labor and art. This was a free hospital for the sick and suffering who were going to die. The religious culture of the time sought to help the dying cope with their pain and suffering by finding purpose and benefit in their inescapable misery. Other than despair, there were only three things one could do: accept the suffering as a gift from God so one could offer personal repentance for sins, reduce the afterlife suffering in purgatory in a preparatory cleansing before eternal union with God, and find some consolation in the fact that another, Jesus, had suffered far more. It is not necessary to buy into the theology of sin, suffering, dying and salvation to appreciate the benefit to those who were near the end of their coping with the vicissitudes of the human condition. I have witnessed people who were better able to cope with pain and suffering, by coming face-to-face with the greater pain and suffering of others. Given the nature of the time, we might even look upon Mathis’ art as part of an act of love extended to the sick and suffering.

"In the 1980s, I was traipsing through a couple of small art galleries in La Jolla, CA. Not being a regular denizen of the scene, I was surprised to find that rich folks in California were lavishing a lot of money on paintings that would not have been classified as collectible art, or collectable anything, in the humble environs of my childhood education and socialization in New York. I regarded them as little more than Stan Lee comic book art that was dosed up on steroids. In Colmar I saw the ancestor of such phantasmagoria. I am too ignorant of art and art history to say that modern equivalents of Mathis’ work couldn’t hold a candle to it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that were true. It’s like seeing modern surrealist painting and asking, from the vantage of naiveté, “Has anyone seen Hieronymus Bosch?”

"Eventually, I will have to unpack my moving cartons and pull out the photo albums of my 22 days in France in the spring of 1990. Maybe I’ll do that sooner than later, and try to relive that extraordinary visit to the Musee d'Unterlinden and being in the presence of Mathis’ genius."

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