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a no-go for antonio gattorno

Post #472 • February 8, 2005, 7:27 AM • 46 Comments

A show of work of Antonio Gattorno just went up at the Lowe Museum and the Miami Herald duly regurgitated its press release wrote a lavishly illustrated article about it for the Sunday arts edition. A couple of people have very kindly suggested that I approach the Herald with my services as an art critic, but frankly, I'm afraid they're going to ask me to churn out pablum like this.

"This retrospective exhibition traces the career of Cuban modernist, Antonio Gattorno (1904-1980), whose life is soon to be documented with a major publication and motion picture," sayeth the Lowe website. Actually, only the publication could be said to be major, at least a major cover price: $75 (the Herald says $100). As for the motion picture, the treatment is still being shopped around and as of yet doesn't have a cast.

The movie website has a gallery of images. (I'm doing you a favor by linking around the introduction, which you cannot skip, like the obligatory, tired strains of the Buena Vista Social Club's Chan Chan in the background. It's in the trailer too.) It would be lapsing into stereotype to say that the art of the former Spanish colonies, on its best days, apes its European counterparts on its off days, but this body of work would seem to prove it: a chop suey of Dali, classical- and rose-period Picasso, el Greco, and Gaugin. Moreover, the images indicate that he pulled from some of the worst that these artists had to offer: Dali's insensitivity to paint, Picasso's tendency to load the center of a painting without addressing the edges, el Greco's histrionic rendering of form, and Gaugin's plank-like draftsmanship in the name of primitivism. And while consistency is not necessarily a virtue, Gattorno really did go all over the place, singlehandedly rehashing a wide range of styles that you hope you're not going to run into, but probably will, at Art Miami.

Miami is overdue for a conversation about the implications of publicizing and collecting artists based on their country of origin. I have seen a great number of press releases, typically out of the Coral Gables galleries, in which the artist's nationality gets mentioned before and nearly contiguously with his or her name - see the above excerpt from the Lowe site for an example. Gallerists have explained to me that this happens because the Gables crowd, in particular, tends to buy art from the country from which they emigrated and that of their fellow expats. Real analysis would have to prove it true, but I've heard it confirmed too many times to be merely anecdotal. I understand why people would do this but I can't get behind this kind of collecting, especially in an increasingly globalized art world. For the Lowe to do it seems unbecoming, to say the least, although it looks like the same kind of attempt to flatter a few local collectors as their 2003 show of Cundo Bermudez.

Ernest Hemingway wrote a biography about Gattorno which characterized him as "a painter for the world," a phrase that lent the title for the monograph and the exhibition, albeit demographically repositioned as "A Cuban Painter for the World." I can't pass final judgment on his work without seeing it, but nothing about it in reproduction tempts me to do so. (I've seen the invitation, too, and the image on it looks like an erratic attempt at imitating Paul Delvaux.) I'm more interested to see whether that movie gets picked up by a major studio. Maybe someone will do it up like Before Night Falls, which I think is the best thing in Julian Schnabel's oeuvre, or the Buena Vista Social Club, which despite my weariness of hearing Chan Chan, presented genuinely great, neglected talent and put Cuban son in its rightful place on the world music map. But I don't see a similar level in Gattorno's work, and I think that he, at most, might be a Cuban painter for Miami. Some Miamians, anyway.




February 8, 2005, 5:29 PM

Careful boy, there's a danger in making statements such as those above. Being non-chalant with some fellow painters can make you a target of the same kind of comment you employ. Don't forget you paint too.



February 8, 2005, 5:39 PM

This is a very interesting post because most of the time here we are talking about what is good and not so good about current art, and here we have a rather spectacular and completely fresh (to me, at least) example of truly horrendous painting done by an artist who is an exact contemporary of the Abstract Expressionists, and that eliminates the contemporary factor. Furthermore it is here in Miami being hyped up and tied to Ernest Hemingway, who should have known better. (Hemingway owned Miro's "The Farm" and, unlike many writers, was sensitive to and liked painting).

I think we have more or less decided on this blog that it is not possible to successfully put into words what is "good" or "bad" about any work of art - we have certainly hashed it out at sufficient length - but if I wanted a type specimen for an esthetics seminar session which gave me as much as possible going wrong at once this stuff would do nicely. The drawing, the color, the modelling, the proportions, the narrative surrealist juxtapositions, just about everything is painfully disfunctional in a fairly spectacular way. Go to the "movie website" link and take a look; there are quite a few pictures there.

if we need something to point to which has everything bad painting should have on one neat package we can, from now on, point back to this. And please, all you anti-jpeg people, give it a rest. It will not look better in person. I have seen too much of this type of thing over the years to even think that might be possible.



February 8, 2005, 6:52 PM

Yeah...that's not good painting. Any single one of them could be forgiven as not entirely bad, but as is often the case, the painter's true talent and depth, or lack thereof, are revealed by the collection of works.

Pseudo: I was waiting for someone to say this, since it's an issue that has occassionally come up for me at my own blog. Simply put: being an artist does not obligate one to shut off one's critical faculties when looking at other artists. Quite the contrary, it obligates us to examine other artists with the very set of critical and technical tools that we would hope would be turned toward our own work.

These are not "non-chalant" comments, but thoughtful and considered criticisms based on a deep knowledge of art and art history. As artists we should be talking about how we can raise the level of discussion, not how we can get everyone to shut up and play nice.

Insecure artists flatter other artists out of fear; brave artists tell their own truths and hope that others will do the same.



February 8, 2005, 7:11 PM

Bravo, Cinque. Art does not get better easily. Nothing does.



February 8, 2005, 7:15 PM

An example of oldpro's fine art-logic: "I think we have more or less decided on this blog that it is not possible to successfully put into words what is "good" or "bad" about any work of art." Followed by this self-inflated conclusion: "If we need something to point to which has everything bad painting should have on one neat package we can, from now on, point back to this." I'm impressed, man. Keep on teaching us aesthetics!



February 8, 2005, 7:28 PM

I am fascinated by the influence of Dali, not only on artists closer to his generation, but younger artists coming from Cuba and Latin America today. The obsession with his imagery and "wonder" of his "realistic" technique. I see it quite a bit and find it a personal challenge to "break" students of their adherence to him. It seems to be ingrained into their psyche.



February 8, 2005, 7:41 PM

What's your point, pseudo?



February 8, 2005, 8:33 PM

By the way, Cinque's comment struck me as smarter than most, so I looked at his blog. Intelligent, nicely laid out, no whining or wise-ass hyped-up writing, no jargon; in short: worth a look.

He's from Austin and talked about good stuff & various problems there pretty objectively.



February 8, 2005, 8:43 PM

I can't defend this artist's work either. I'm hoping Papa Hemingway was being more collegial than critical in supporting his buddy.

Given that the "trailer" is copyright 2002 -- interestingly enough the year Frida was released -- I'm not sure anyone should be holding their breath for the movie.

beWare - The funniest part is that according to the story, this artist "hated" Dali (having known him as a young man in Spain). It seems "jealous" is the more accurate term.

Pseudo - Your two oldpro quotes are in fact consistent. The first quote says "we don't know how to explain good and bad," the second quote says, "if we can't explain bad art, we can point to this as an example."

Franklin - The newspaper story is a puff piece about an artist, not about art. After a brief google session, I don't think the Herald wasted the talents of an art critic to write it. I don't know if that reassures you.



February 8, 2005, 9:10 PM

Thanks, Hovig. I thought it was clear, but it worried me when Pseudo didn't get it.

The Herald needs some kind of transfusion. I guess they are just on a holding pattern until Elisa turner gets well, but although I wish her well she has not been much of a critic.



February 8, 2005, 10:45 PM

Thanks, oldpro!



February 8, 2005, 10:50 PM

Pseudo - I can take it. I wouldn't dish it out if I couldn't.

Oldpro - I was waiting for a message not only from the anti-jpeg people, but also the You Can't Write About This Because You Haven't Seen It in Person people. Anybody who wants me to see this is going to have to drive me there themselves. And take me out to lunch. And buy me ice cream afterwards.

Cinque - yep. I recommend to everyone to check out Cinque's blog.

Hovig - good point, but the former critic had to write things like this too. In fact, sometimes her review would appear alongside her journalistic piece about the same show, which was just really weird. I'd like to hear about Elisa's progress if anyone knows anything about it.



February 8, 2005, 11:16 PM

Wow, this stuff has driven you over the edge, Franklin. You are starting to sound like Jack!

I think those jpeg/inperson people are twins, two sides of the same coin, coterminous, whatever. And I do not take issue with them. Certain art has to be seen in person.

But it is obviously possible to say a lot, up to a point, by seeing a picture.

And in this case the possibliity that I would see this art in person and be forced to change my mind (which is, by the way, one of the great pleasures of art) is about the same as my number getting drawin next Wednesday night. (Which, if it happens, I will do all those things you specify and we will go look at the damn show).



February 9, 2005, 2:18 AM

my art history professor suggested this show to my class today. not for the art, but for the free drinks, food, and music.



February 9, 2005, 3:43 AM

Franklin, where have you been? All of this is pretty old hat, in principle if not in actual details. Besides, such outrage deserves a better target.

The Herald's arts coverage is and has been lacking in both quantity and quality. It is clearly not designed by or for serious art people, and it is even more clearly a very low priority for the paper. Among other faults, there is far too much PR involved, as amply shown by the ridiculously positive Herald spin on Art Miami the last couple of years--the stuff could have been written by Ilana Vardy. In other words, the Herald has little if any credibility in this arena. This is nothing new, and it is squarely the responsibility of the Herald organization, who don't know or don't care.

It is both in character and predictable that the Herald would go for this unfortunate (OK, loony-tunes) attempt at hagiography. All they hear is "Hemingway...Dali...Greenwich Village...Cuban Master...Hemingway..." The actual art work in question is the least of it for their purposes. They might even be thinking this could conceivably be a Cuban Frida scenario. It's got very little to do the quality of the guy's paintings. They're much more attuned to human-ethnic interest than art as such. That's why they went for the Purvis Young story you recently noted.

As for this Gattorno Project with its website, book and movie plans, at least some people behind it may be genuinely deluded, which is sad, but one key player is apparently an art dealer, which immediately raises the suspicion of a marketing-publicity campaign, and a rather heavy-handed one at that. The enterprise is certainly over-the-top, as the website makes clear: all one needs to read is the outlandish claim that Gattorno is "the most important artist Cuba has EVER produced" (emphasis theirs). Not even the staunchest supporters and promoters of Cuban art would take that seriously, let alone more objective observers.

Gattorno's best work was that from the late 1920s till about 1940, mostly concerned with Cuban peasants (guajiros) and to a lesser extent the pre-colonial native inhabitants. It was primarily illustration, as what talent he had was mostly for drawing or line, but it was not unsuccessful for what it was and is clearly superior to what came after (which was painfully embarrassing, derivative and pretentious self-indulgence that had no bearing on Cuban art and is quite inconsequential). The earlier work, however, has its place in Cuban art history and should not be summarily dismissed along with the outright dreck that followed it.

Finally, I was amused (this time) by the very prominent and insistent Hemingway angle. Hemingway's taste in art is only important for what it may say about him, at least to those who care. The fact he liked Gattorno is no more relevant than Bill Clinton's supposed liking for Fabian Marcaccio (though I expect Bill is FAR more likely to go for Mel Ramos). I mean, what conceivable difference does it make, really?

P.S. Hey, Oldpro, what about this for a put-down: "If you don't like Gattorno, you must be Zelda Fitzgerald"?



February 9, 2005, 3:56 AM

Dammit, Jack! Didn't you read the rules about "no outing"?



February 9, 2005, 4:22 AM

beware: I have had the same experiance with the Dali fans. There must be a reason for it, but none of them can ever really explain it. I think it has more to do with Dali's persona being marketed as the eccentric "artist". "Look at his weird getup. oohh he MUST be an artist!"

Jack: I would agree completely with you on the Herald as second rate, but after trying to find anything related to art on the Sun Sentinel site... The Herald doesn't look that bad. Which is really sad and makes me mad.



February 9, 2005, 4:43 AM

Otto, the difference is that Miami's pretensions as a major art center are much, much greater than Ft. Lauderdale's, so that, relatively speaking, the state of arts coverage here is completely at odds with the image that's being promoted in certain quarters. The operative word, of course, is image; reality is another matter.



February 9, 2005, 5:12 AM

When I start a 100 level studio class I give a little raise-your-hand "quiz" to see what artists the sutdents have heard of. They usually know Picasso, Leonardo, Michalangelo, Van gogh and Dali (not in that order). Monet, Matisse, Pollock et al get way fewer hands.

I think the reason is something like Otto's "that must be an artist", only it is a bit deeper than Dali's eccentricity. It ges to the type of art also. Kids who know nothing about art but think that if it is any good it has to be "special" will imagine "specialness" in terms of weirdness and distortions of reality before anything else. This is also behind the taste for various monstrosities and standard-issue "extremes", like biker culture, tattoos, gangsta, nutso rock music art and the various comic-book horriblisme kind of self-expression we see in the so-called "youth culture" some of our commentors have derided us for not taking seriously.



February 9, 2005, 5:19 AM

As for the Coral Gables situation, Franklin, yes, it's regrettable, especially given the prime location, which is being wasted. However, as long as those dealers are selling well, they have little incentive to change, let alone take risks. They're not about to alienate well-heeled buyers. Obviously, we're talking business here, not advocacy of the best art, but the same could be said of dealers elsewhere.

Concerning the presumed nationalistic or ethnic bias you mention, I don't recommend it, but the fact is people can buy what art they damn well please for whatever reason(s). They may have tunnel vision; they may be limited or provincial; they may only want the safe and familiar, but it's still their money, and they're the ones who have to live with what they buy. It's sort of like a black collector who only buys work by black artists, or possibly a feminist one who only wants female artists. Again, I think that's the wrong approach, but it's their business.

Besides, if you think only buying "your own kind" is bad, what about paying serious money for Britto or Thomas Kincade? Plenty of people do it, and they're not certifiably insane, as far as I know (of course, I'm not a psychiatrist, so I could be mistaken).



February 9, 2005, 6:15 AM

Jack, let me clarify that I think that people ought to spend their money on whatever they like. It may also bear mentioning that it's certainly possible to specialize within a demographic and still concentrate on the good stuff it has to offer. But to whatever extent the aesthetic impulse is universal, it seems like the exercise of taste ought to be as well in order to function optimally.



February 9, 2005, 6:17 AM

Beth, your teacher is right. That ability to seek out free food and alcohol will serve you well in your art career.


kenneth cohen

February 9, 2005, 6:55 AM

Im very surprised to read yet another blog about painting.keep up the good work.



February 9, 2005, 7:27 AM

I must say, Franklin, that I take issue with your comment as to El Greco's "histrionic rendering of form." I know you were in a bad mood when you wrote it, which may explain it, but it strikes me as a facile and less than ideally perceptive swipe. That he's not to your taste is one thing, but we're definitely not talking ponderous Victorian melodrama. Rarefied, distorted, hypersensitive, feverishly pious, yes, but histrionic is a cheap shot, or sounds like one. It's too crude an assessment; something's biasing you, and I think it's probably more about you than El Greco.



February 9, 2005, 7:47 AM

Rarefied, distorted, hypersensitive, feverishly pious? I dunno, Jack. Sounds like it might be sort of histrionic.

There's another one, Kenneth?



February 9, 2005, 8:35 AM

I have a different view about the Cuba Herald writing about Gattorno. It is listed in Entertainment section, not in Art and Culture. The whole point is about a new movie about Cuba. Art does not matter in the article. It is true that Gattorno was an artist and Cuban. The article was about that but not about art.

We cannot expect ''Cuba Herald'' writers write like Associate Press writers do. As if being a tiny village, Miami has only one major newspaper, making us read very strange things which makes me laugh. There should be several papers considering the size of Miami, but I do not see it happening now. They put the name of the paper completely wrong. It should have been Cuba Herald.

As for the article mentioned above, what they could have done was to put the article into Americas/Cuba category instead of Entertainment. They should split the newspaper into two different issues, Miami Herald and Cuba Herald.

Also, you can keep sending complaints to:

Letters to the Editor
FAX: (305) 376-8950
MAIL: The Readers' Forum
The Herald
One Herald Plaza
Miami, Fl 33132-1693

Raul Lopez
General Manager

Content / Editorial
Suzanne Levinson
Managing Editor

You can send complaints by mail, e-mail, and fax. I have been in a corporation environment, and I know this works (at least it gets read because it is annoying to receive something in this manner). Send the same thing via three different methods. You can add one more method - telephone. If no one answers, leave your complaint in the machine.

I am not enthusiasic about improving the life standard of Miami, but the power of well written letters are tremendous.


that guy in the second to last row

February 9, 2005, 10:52 AM

Momoko, I think the Calle Ocho Digest has a nice ring to it, or maybe the Little Havana Tribune.



February 9, 2005, 3:40 PM

The problem with the Herald isn't its orientation - even my Cuban friends think the content is garbage. The problem is that the Herald has spent the last decade, just about, scrapping bureaus, reducing article length, elminating features, and generally shrinking and dumbing down the paper. Last year they came up with this 5-Minute Herald idea, prompting my mother to sagely remark, "it already was the 5-Minute Herald."

They're in a desperate position, and at this point probably can't afford to offend anyone. New media, and potentially even a new format applied to old media, could blow them out of the water - the failure of Street demonstrates that they can't compete with the entertainment weeklies, and their website shows them to have their heads severely posteriorly inserted when it comes to the internet. Splitting the paper isn't the answer. There may not be an answer for them.



February 9, 2005, 4:35 PM

I meant to add that Otto's right - no matter how bad the Herald gets, it can't seem to underperform the Sun-Sent when it comes to arts coverage, and the latter's website makes look like an experiment in minimalist design.


art historian

February 9, 2005, 4:46 PM

That's the difference between a comment from criticism and a comment from art history. It's a no-brainer that Greco is one of the great painters of the Baroque era. A quick opinion will not change that. More so, Franklin does not make a distinction between early and late Greco, which is an important difference. I suppose that for some on this blog early Greco may be more important than late Greco, but then it would not be him. I can even accept that Greco, like many other masters doing a lot of shit for the church on comission has a mixed ouvre, but he has a solid, very solid body of work. His popes, his Orgaz burial, some of his apostles, his Toledo paintings are simply superb. Criticism can, as a discipline talking from the present fill its mouth to be cocky, but meaningless.



February 9, 2005, 5:25 PM

El greco is a consensus great artist, Historian, but that leaves no one any obligation to like his paintings. "No brainer" describes a passive acceptance of what "art history" tells you without personally confronting the art and honestly making up your mind.

Expressing that opinion need not be "cocky" andf is certainly not "meaningless". The only effective thing to do when you disagree is advise the person to go back and look again.



February 9, 2005, 5:27 PM

Point taken, Art Historian. I don't mean to knock el Greco in his entirety. Most artists have flaws of some kind - if they're lucky, they'll be able to make those flaws work for them. Greco's a case like this - I wouldn't send anyone to look at his figures for the sake of draughtsmanship, but the distortions and elongation create an expressive effect that, when it works, works beautifully. The same thing in the hands of a Gattorno comes apart as freakishness.



February 9, 2005, 6:47 PM

Franklin, that comment your mom made about the Herald was hilarious.



February 9, 2005, 7:24 PM

Oldpro (and Franklin), what I call histrionic, which is different from emotional or dramatic, is not what I see in El Greco. To me histrionic implies putting on an obvious act to get attention; it implies heavy-handed, bombastic, crude theatrics. El Greco's work is much too delicate, vaporous even, much too finely wrought to qualify as histrionic, which to me implies cheap and clumsy.

His work, of course, could easily grate on those who mistrust or are uncomfortable with intense religious or emotional experience and automatically dismiss it as fake or delusional. It could also put off anyone with significant problems with Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular. However, if the work is taken on its own terms, and the focus is kept on what the specific painting is trying to portray and express, and how well it does that as a work of art, it can free the piece from distracting concerns, which only get in the way.



February 9, 2005, 7:40 PM

Can't you have a blog without Herald? I think using Herald articles is only upsetting people, especially me.

Herald is usuless. It cannot even be used as a toilet paper - too coarse and does not flush in a toilet.

This weekend Christo And Jeanne-Claude will unveil the Gates. The 7,500 gates will line 23 miles of pathways in Central Park, from 59th Street to 110th Street. I do not know if I can walk 23 miles, but at least I will get lots of walking this weekend. The Gates will be there till Feb 27. Too bad I cannot fly in the sky to see the Gates from above.

They should come to Miami and wrap the Herald building with a black plastic sheet.


art historian

February 9, 2005, 8:31 PM

Oldpro, at no point I said Franklin's opinion was cocky or meaningless, it's the voice of criticism I referred to. As discipline, criticism describes what's happening in-the-now. Art history does a different job through-time. If only for Greco's strong influence on Goya who considered him amazing he's already relevant. Surely , one can have opinions which are opposed to the general consensus, that's legit. My point was only to establish other shades in the argument. For instance, I can dislike Micheangelo's art because he's too obssessive with the body, but as critic, think twice before declaring his "schizoid rendering of the body." An art historian may have issues with that statement.



February 9, 2005, 9:13 PM

Jack’s comments on religious nature of art made me think a while. El Greco is too cheesy for me to view, and I am not able to overcome what Jack calls distracting concerns. Art conveys artist’s mental and emotional states, and I am not able to cut it off from the image as an art. However, I do not have a problem viewing Georges Rouault who was also very religious. That made me think it was not Christianity that turns me off. To me what matters is how the artist digested his or her own religion.

If Jack says, "histrionic implies putting on an obvious act to get attention," El Greco seems histrionic to me, an obvious act being the dramatic expression of postures, especially hands, of Christ and his groupies.


Bored at work

February 9, 2005, 9:20 PM

Tha best of El Greco is a much better than anything Roualt painted. Roualt is 3rd rate at best



February 9, 2005, 10:11 PM

Sorry, Historian, i guess I misunderstood your last sentence.

Your idea for the Herald bldg is a good one, Momoko.


have to say something

February 9, 2005, 10:32 PM

Jack, you are entitled to your opinion but El Greco's work was anything but delicate. I don't know if I'd call it histrionic, but I would definitely call it crude, heavy handed and clumsy.



February 9, 2005, 11:06 PM

Evidently, there are different perceptions or sensibilities at work here regarding El Greco. Part of the reason may be that beliefs, views and attitudes in our current society are quite different from what they were in Spain in his time, especially concerning religion, but also concerning taste in artistic or aesthetic matters. I suppose we will just have to agree to disagree.



February 10, 2005, 3:25 PM

Bored at work (Comment#38): As a painter El Greco was perhaps better than Rouault. The point I was trying to make, however, was the way religious attitude was shown in art and how it affects my comfort level, assuring that my perception and preference are in effect only within my micro-universe.

With that being said, I have a problem with those fat naked babies with wings in religious paintings. Those babies are floating all over in the air like oversized balloons, and their little wings do not appear to help their aviation. Also, they do not seem to be helping anyone but just floating around.

Some religious people may call this writing a sin.

Yes, Father, I have sinned by calling Angels names.



February 10, 2005, 9:24 PM

Momoko, you could think of the putti as decorative elements, like flowers, only the artist can place them anywhere because they can fly. That way, if the composition needs something in a particular spot, he can just put one or more little angels there.



February 16, 2005, 2:01 AM

Did you even go to the museum and SEE the show??? It is beautiful! The work is stunning and yes, the Herald played up the Hemingway connection and all but that is who the man, Gattorno, was!

I understand the whole movie thing was blown way out of proportion and the people connected with Gattorno were upset that the "movie" was even mentioned. It's a script idea and no more. The "trailer" was set up to promote the idea and see if people would be interested. I talked with them at length.

Gattorno was a Master Cuban painter - there is no doubt - but because he moved and changed his style doesn't mean he was not a Cuban artist. He knew Dali and they were rivals in school because Dali was a clown and Gattorno was a quiet serious student. You need to read the book Poole wrote - it's a thorough analysis of Gattorno and his life.

Are you an art historian? Or an art teacher? Doesn't sound like you are...perhaps a bitter artist.



February 16, 2005, 2:33 AM

Kathi, perhaps you ought to read the guidelines. Address the writing, not the writer.

I personally don't dispute his classification as a Cuban painter, nor do I care much about it. It's just that nothing in the reproductions tempts me to see it in person, especially now that Jack has seen it and confirmed my analysis, more or less. See comment #12, which still stands - you want me to see this, you drive, you buy me lunch, you treat me to ice cream.

"Stunning," eh? What makes it stunning?



February 16, 2005, 4:24 AM

Franklin, next time you visit Books & Books in the Gables, you can check out the Gattorno book in their art section. It may prove of some interest on some level, though it will certainly not change your mind.



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