2011: the Year in Review

I decided to take a moment in between Chapters 7 and 8 to look back on the things I’ve posted this year, it being the holidays and all. I’d kind of like Chapter 8 not to fall into the black hole of the holidays, so I’ll be starting it next week. Then again, maybe I should post, as no-one else will be posting anything and people will be starved for stuff to look at on their new iPads. Decisions! Anyway. Unsurprisingly, the cover to Machiavelli (the first page of the comic) is the most visited page overall (not counting the index page obviously). Keep Calm and Carry Machiavelli continues to be the most popular non-comics thing I’ve posted on the site (although it is technically from late 2010 and is thus disqualified.)

So here’s the top five from 2011:

1. Machiavelli and Anthony Weiner: Traffic to this post is largely search driven (as opposed to referrals or readers browsing the site) this was an attempt to apply some lessons from The Prince to a current political scandal.

2. Machiavelli is Not Interested in Overthrowing the Status Quo: One of my favorite posts from this year, as I was able to use detective work to set the record straight and debunk a fake Machiavelli quote. Real author: Newt Gingrich!

3. The Typography of Machiavelli: Some notes on the typefaces I use in Machiavelli (P22 Operina Pro and P22 Morris Golden).

4. Machiavelli and the Economy of Violence: The most recent post on the list, from November. It’s always gratifying when something that involved a bit of research is popular. Here I argue that Machiavelli did not view violence as an end unto itself, but as a necessary evil to be used sparingly and with deliberation.

5. Let’s Not Talk about Content or Its Consumption: I don’t like the worlds “content” or “consumption” w/r/t art. Here I explain why.

So stay tuned for Chapter 8. Things are about to get really rough.

Palazzo Medici

Go Home Paddy

I am working on a linked list of the websites of artists and writers who I fell are worthy of your consideration. Since it’s not quite done yet, I want to draw your attention to John A. Walsh’s excellent Go Home Paddy right now, because he is in the last week of a successful Kickstarter campaign, so time is a factor. (I know, how long does it take to make a list? But cut me some slack, OK?) I’ll let John describe his graphic novel:

Heartbreaking, thought provoking and ultimately uplifting, this unique narrative incorporates historical details such as the Great Hunger, the rise of the Know-Nothings, Victorian prejudices and the Great Boston Fire of 1872. GO HOME PADDY is also timely as it examines the role of immigration, race relations and religion in American society — hot political topics of today. GO HOME PADDY, a graphic novel of approximately 150 pages, is illustrated using the Victorian simian stereotype of the Irish.


John is a fantastic Boston artist doing great historical comics about the Boston Irish. You should read Go Home Paddy, then drop something in the collection plate if you can.

Machiavelli and the Economy of Violence

The New Inquiry has a fascinating dialogue on the role of the reactionary in conservatism, featuring Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, and Daniel Larison, writer and editor at the American Conservative. Corey Robin’s thesis is that a central goal of conservatism is “to defend power and privilege against movements demanding freedom and equality.” Larison objects, and the dialogue goes from there. The entire piece is worth reading. There are a lot of interesting points made about conservatism in a historical context, the relationship between conservatism and nationalism, and conservatism as a counterrevolutionary force. But what really caught my eye was this: Robin writes

I don’t think the right has by any means a monopoly on the discourse of violence; the left has its own long tradition of reflection on violence. But where the left’s discourse is primarily influenced by Machiavelli — that is, an awareness of what Sheldon Wolin calls “the economy of violence,” or the necessity of instrumentalizing violence, of making a very little go a long, long way — the right’s attitude is reflected in Burke’s moral psychology, particularly his theory of the sublime.

Here’s what Robin is referring to when he cites Wolin:

In evaluating Machiavelli’s economy of violence it is easy to criticize it as being the product of a technician’s admiration for efficient means. A century like ours, which has witnessed the unparalleled efficiency displayed by totalitarian regimes in the use of terror and coercion, experiences difficulty in being tolerant on the subject. Yet to see Machiavelli as the philosopher of Himmlerism would be quite misleading; and the basic reason is not alone that Machiavelli regarded the science of violence as the means for reducing the amount of suffering in the political condition, but that he was clearly aware of the dangers of entrusting its use to the morally obtuse. What he hoped to further by his economy of violence was the “pure” use of power, undefiled by pride, ambition, or motives of petty revenge.

A more meaningful contrast to Machiavelli would be the great modern theoretician of violence, Georges Sorel. Here is a true example of the irresponsible political individual, fired by romantic notions of heroism, preaching the use of violence for ends which are deliberately and proudly clothed in the vague outline of the irrational “myth,” contemptuous of the cost, blinded by a vision of virile proletarian barbarians who would revitalize the decadent West. In contrast, there was no hint of child-like delight when Machiavelli contemplated the barbarous and savage destructiveness of the new prince, sweeping away the settled arrangements of society and “leaving nothing intact.” There was, however, the laconic remark that it was better to be a private citizen than to embark on a career which involved the ruin of men. This suggest that the theorist like Machiavelli, who was aware of the limited efficacy of force and who devoted himself to showing how its technique could be used more efficiently, was far more sensitive to the moral dilemmas of politics and far more committed to the preservation of man than those theorists who, saturated with moral indignation and eager for heroic regeneration, preach purification by the holy flame of violence.

—Sheldon S. Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought, Princeton, 1960

Robin continues:

I think that the primary audience for violence on the right is the perpetrator and/or his/her allies. In other words, the right sees violence as primarily a source of rejuvenation among a ruling class that has gone soft. That’s what is so interesting to me, in part because it completely inverts the standard stereotype we have of the conservative being more hard-headed and realistic than the progressive. If anything — and I really assign no normative weight to this; it’s more interesting to me as an intellectual problem — it is the left, as I’ve suggested, that has been more influenced by realist modes of thinking when it comes to violence.

I think it is very important to stress that Machiavelli did not see virtue in violence or in subterfuge, as is commonly believed today (e.g. “Machiavellian”). I especially like using Sorel as a counterpoint to Machiavelli, the differences between the one who sees violence as a necessary evil to preserve the stability and viability of the state and one who views violence as an invigorating instance of the heroic ideal in society, in which the exercise of violence is an end unto itself: a way to get society’s blood flowing again, literally and figuratively.

My Punch Clock Time Card

So. I made this. I find that if I don’t keep track of where my time is going, I tend to find myself wondering at 11:30pm where the evening went. I used to just keep track on a sheet of notebook paper, but I figured I could have some fun with it. I based it on some vintage punch clock time cards I found on the internet, with my own modifications.


“Motivation follows action” is my own little motto, which I may have picked up somewhere else and appropriated, so I make no claims of ownership. The “You are your own timekeeper” admonition is from the original punch card I based my design on and it’s just too awesome not to use.

Basically, I print them out and note the time I start working and when I am taking breaks. I don’t really have a specific goal of how much time I need to work in a day; it’s a system for mindfulness of how I’m spending my my time, not for accountability. If I write down the time before going off to check e-mail, Twitter, or RSS, I’m much more likely to get back to drawing (or researching, or working on the site) in a timely fashion. If I’m not paying attention, my “15 minute” Internet break just turns into an hour or more before I’m aware of it.

I know there are applications and services which do the same thing, but I’m a pencil and paper kind of person. We all have our eccentricities.

note: the “morning afternoon night” headers are elements carried over from the original. Since I do all my artwork at night, it’s really just a way of splitting time between breaks. But the time of day has a nice feel to it and reinforces the punch card idiom, so I kept it.

Eraser Stamp Experiment

The original sketch:


First stamp:


First stamp refined:


Sketch for second stamp, with pencil indicating changes I wanted to make:


Second stamp, which I made by printing the first stamp onto a fresh eraser as a guide. Do you see my error?


Second stamp, finished. There will be another iteration of this, less incompetently executed, I hope.

The actual size of the stamp is about 1″ x 1.5″, the ink is Japanese stamping paste. The fish is a coelacanth, inspired by a set of pen & ink drawings I did a couple of years ago based on the idea of a tutelary genius.

O for a Muse of Fire

It all started with an essay by Elizabeth Bachner on the nature of genius and the mysticism of art. She points out that “Genius is not, etymologically speaking, a trait, like prettiness or stupidity or discretion. Genii, in the Roman tradition, are spirits that enter a man’s body at his birth and leave at his death.” Bachner is dismayed by what she perceives as an anti-genius bias in today’s society. But it was her mention of the Roman genius that got me thinking. Thinking about the nature of inspiration and the realities of turning that inspiration into finished work and not just hopes for the future.

Part of the role of the tutelary genius was to guard, if not actually determine, a person’s character; thus, in the sixteenth century genius came to be used in direct reference to a person’s inclination or bent of mind, as in Sir Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poetry (1595): “A Poet, no industrie can make, if his owne Genius bee not carried vnto it.” In the next century this led to the sense of ‘a strongly marked aptitude.’ This sense of genius was often used of poets and artists, and in England in the eighteenth century the Romantics began to use genius to mean ‘an extraordinary native intellectual power,’ especially as manifested in an unusual capacity for creative activity of any kind.

—from The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories

There’s a misconception that says that in order to do your best work, you should only work when the spirit seizes you. It’s an old Romantic notion, and not really subscribed to by many who do creative work seriously. If we only worked when we really felt like it, we wouldn’t get anything done (I discovered this through hard experience.) Art involves a lot of hard work and unglamorous dedication. To succeed, you need to make (and keep) good working habits and keep at it even when your artwork feels like, well, work. Keeping habits, being productive, it doesn’t exactly sound like Shakespeare’s muse of fire, does it? But it’s critical.

The problem is, the rejection of the Romantic notion leads some too far in the opposite direction: that you need not a muse of fire, but to “fire your muse:” buckle down and Get Things Done. Get productive and start working and forget that mystical happy talk about muses and inspiration and geniuses. But in that case, why make art at all? God knows, it’s a damned impractical thing to be doing in the first place. Without the inspiration, the genius, the muse, well, what’s the point of making art? You’re much better off being a lawyer. Unless, of course, there is something in you that is demanding that you create and just won’t shut up about it, like the Romans’ tutelary genius. The truth of it is that you need both to thrive. Art is a calling and it’s not foolishness to call it that. But it also requires showing up and working every day: your genius will come, but it usually finds you when you’re working.


note: Originally posted in 2009, this essay got lost when I transferred to WordPress and redesigned the site (thank you, Wayback Machine!) It was brought to mind again when I was creating my eraser stamps. I have little to add except that I actually agree with everything Merlin Mann wrote in the essay linked in the final paragraph, except for the firing muses part. I like the idea of muses.