On the stories of paintings

"Danaë," by Titian

“Danaë,” by Titian

During the month I spent traveling across Europe in March and April 2007, I visited some of the greatest art galleries in the world, including the Louvre, the Orsay, the Vatican Museum, the Uffizi and the Prado. My love for art, particularly Italian Renaissance pieces and French Impressionism, has been steadfast ever since.

Today I visited the National Gallery, which currently has on loan a painting by the Venetian Renaissance master Titian. The piece is “Danaë,” one of a series of five Titian paintings of the mythological princess and mother of Perseus. This particular piece is housed in Naples, and was originally commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese.

As I read the information about the painting (I must confess that I’m not a particular fan of Titian; I veer more toward the Florentines), I noticed that the backstory included details of the painting’s commission and information about what happened to it later. During World War II, Hermann Göring had it looted from Italy to add to his personal collection. It was recovered in a salt mine in Altaussee, Austria, by the “Monuments Men.”

It struck me that paintings such as this are often at the mercy of what happens to them later, through no fault or intention of their creator. The origin story of the series is fascinating enough (the classical inspiration was a way to skirt obscenity charges because of the nudity, and the Danaë figure reputedly has the face of Farnese’s mistress), all the more so because it gives Titian some level of agency.

But what to make of the World War II connection? You can also sub in any other incident: theft, attempted theft, damage, popular literature. There are numerous ways for the mystique of a painting to transcend the painting itself. How many exemplary pieces of art are sidelined, overlooked or even forgotten simply because they lack a glamorous story to accompany them?

As I seek out works of art that I haven’t yet seen, and revisit old favorites, that’s what I’ll attempt to remind myself. Evaluate the work based on the work, and treat any interesting incidents as just that: external forces that don’t — shouldn’t — elevate or reduce the art. A painting or sculpture is not any more or less valuable because a Nazi wanted it, or because it disappeared in a museum heist, or because someone wrote a fictional book about it.

(In an unrelated now, I find myself wanting to return to Italy.)

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Lose your copy editors, lose yourselves

I’m a copy editor. It’s been my jam since I passed the Dow Jones editing test way back in 2007. That test led me to my first internship, at The Indianapolis Star. And, barring my master’s work, I’ve never looked back.

I am extremely lucky to be able to make a living as an editor, and lucky to work at a place that still sees the value in keeping a dedicated copy desk. I’ve had crash courses in fracking, the Affordable Care Act, patent law, defense contracting and countless other topics. It makes me better-rounded, and every time someone thanks for me improving a story, finding a better word or correcting a potentially embarrassing error, I feel glad to have come in that day, that what I do matters.

As such I — and many other friends and colleagues in this business — was distressed to see that the number of working copy editors has fallen by about 46 percent in the past decade. By comparison, reporting positions fell by 26 percent, according to Poynter. Apparently, when newsrooms need to bust out the scissors, we’re an easy target.

However, I argue that dismissing the copy desk will in the long run exacerbate problems, not solve them — the same problems that trimming the copy desk were supposed to solve in the first place.

This Steve Myers entry on Poynter last spring sums up exactly what I mean. Myers writes about the dismissal of the Denver Post’s copy desk and the assignment of editing duties to other staffers across the newsroom. Rather than comment on this one way or the other, he simply shares a single headline from the Post: “Downward sprial continues.” Oh yes, yes it did.

What do readers think when they see a newspaper (or website, magazine, whatever) riddled with spelling, grammatical and factual errors? Reasonably, they probably assume that this newspaper is bush league, that it doesn’t care enough to get things right and that it isn’t worth the reader’s subscription dollars. Readership falls, advertising follows and before you know it, the relaxation of financial tensions caused by neglecting the copy desk starts to tighten again.

A quality news organization, no matter the medium, is one in which copy is clean, concise, factual, logical and, yes, spelled correctly. And that requires an investment in copy editors. Take care of them and they’ll take care of your product, and the rest will follow.

(A copy editor, for example, could have told Cindy Adams that Georgetown is actually in Washington, D.C., proper, and that it is no longer 1991.)

A Life in Coffee Shops

I currently hold a Level 7 Fresh Brew badge on Foursquare. That’s 30 different coffee shops, 30 different venues for leisurely chats with friends, afternoons reading the paper, quick pit stops before catching a flight or caffeine acquisitions before work. In a probably-not-unrelated note, I reached gold-card status at Starbucks earlier this week.

I frequent the Starbucks in Rosslyn, Va., a few times a week, primarily because it’s close to work, inoffensive and predictable. On my own time, though, I patronize locally owned places. There a few that I love in D.C.:

1. Qualia, a neighborhood gem in Petworth that roasts and grinds its own beans and toasts your croissant for you. Sipping a cold latte out on the back patio on a hot day makes me feel like I could do anything. Earlier this week, when I needed a break from non-stop fiscal cliff updates with work, I went to Qualia.

2. Chinatown Coffee on H Street, a utilitarian oasis of hard floors and spare tables and a long bar. I’ve met friends here, and I’ve simply snagged a table and read the news. The 7th Street pandemonium is only a few minutes’ walk away, but you’d never know it.

3. Peregrine Espresso; I’ve been to its Eastern Market cafe and its Union Market counter. No fuss, quick and efficient and potent. It’s a superb quickie in between shopping stops, owned by a husband-and-wife pair.

Each place serves a different function. I go to Qualia to unwind, Chinatown Coffee to socialize and Peregrine for the pick-me-up-and-go. I vividly remember my first experience with each and I anticipate being a regular at all three for as long as I’m a Washingtonian.

Coffee shops, whether independent ones or chains like Starbucks, seem to be compartmentalized: They’re either homogenous big-box stores, or annoyingly twee. I love these three because they avoid falling into either trap. They offer moments of rest, sanity and, yes, sweet sweet caffeine when I need them the most. And for that, I’ll hold onto them always.

Exploring a new home through social media

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

Two weeks from tomorrow, I’m moving to Washington, D.C. I signed my lease (I’ll be in the Petworth neighborhood of northwest D.C.), I’m reading POLITICO Pro’s articles and briefs as “homework” and I’m wading through my benefits paperwork.

I’m doing homework of another kind, too. Namely, the homework of getting acquainted with the city in which I’ll be living. Even though I’ve been to D.C. twice in the past month, I want to make sure I know what I’m getting into when I move. I’ve done the D.C. tourist thing, so travel guides won’t really help. For this mission, I turned to Twitter.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve added food trucks, restaurants, clubs, media, sports teams and figures to my TweetDeck, with a column reserved just for D.C. stuff. I think it’s working well — I’m getting familiar with the lay of the land and what it offers, even though I’m not even there yet. I’m hoping that once the move is permanent, I can use what I’ve learned about the city so far to make the most of it right from the start.

I recommend this strategy to anyone moving to a new city. Find people and places that interest you, and follow them. See if Foursquare offers a city badge for your area and what venues are listed. Map everything and get a good visual understanding of your area. Download mass transit apps. Check schedules for the local sports teams. Message people already in the city and ask their advice about what’s good. In other words, be proactive. You can get into a city before you actually get into a city.

In the meantime, enjoy this photo of the Lincoln Memorial, one of my last “tourist” shots of the city.

Stewart, Colbert, truthiness and journalists

One of my (few) regrets since moving to England is that I won’t be in the U.S. or anywhere near Washington DC when Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert stage their dueling rallies, the Rally to Restore Sanity and the March to Keep Fear Alive.

Imagine my surprise when I read that NPR was banning its news employees from attending the rally. The New York Times and Washington Post, while allowing their employees to attend, have also given them strict guidelines on how to behave. Don’t wear supportive shirts, don’t give any impression of support, try hard not to laugh (no, really). The Times’ directive in particular makes use of the Royal We (it might as well be) and has the distinct flavor of an Old Testament God hurling down orders from on high. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s Colbert Nation wristband.”

Washington City Paper hilariously lampooned such guidelines in its own tongue-in-cheek staff memo regarding the rallies. My personal favorite guideline is #10: “Feel free to laugh heartily at any jokes that target the terrorists.”

And there, I think, is the rub. It’s OK to laugh at terrorist-targeted jokes because it’s easy and requires little in the way of political or journalistic courage. It comes down to news agencies’ skittishness about their credibility and a mad dash to snuff out anything that might remotely resemble a conflict of interest. Despite Stewart and Colbert frequently mocking both sides of the political spectrum, it’s clear which side has organizations nervous.

Media ethicist and Miami Herald columnist Edward Wasserman summed it up perfectly in his Oct. 25 column. He notes that hand-wringing over whether employees attend a DC celebration of satire (is The Onion next on the chopping block?) dilutes very real conflict-of-interest dilemmas. Conflicts of interest are taken extremely seriously, and at their core, they undermine a reporter’s ability to fairly and objectively report a story. A true conflict of interest, Wasserman notes, is something like “the business reporter who covers a company in which she owns shares.” It is not employees attending a comedic event off the clock.

He goes further and says that it’s actually against news judgment principles — seeking tenets of prominence, conflict, proximity, unusualness, timeliness and impact — not to allow reporters to attend the rallies. Telling a reporter not to attend a well-publicized, controversial, first- and possibly only-time, celebrity-attended, interesting event on their own time is akin to telling an off-duty firefighter to stay away from any burning buildings he sees.

It comes down to courage versus cowardliness. Are news organizations secure enough in their own integrity to allow their employees to attend the Colbert and Stewart rallies off the clock, or are they so afraid of the conflict-of-interest shadow that they think that not allowing their employees to attend will make any difference at all to the people most likely to scream “BIAS”? People out to undermine news organizations will always find something to nitpick. If it wasn’t this event it’d be something else.

Most ominously, Wasserman says, is the question of how news organizations will handle stories and events that actually have legitimate ethical and moral implications when they can’t or won’t face a satirical event head on.