Dr Tsay’s research has run the globe. Sadly, it doesn’t deliver anything new: musicians have known her results for years; Charles Rosen writes about it in his Piano Notes (2002).
But Dr Tsay’s research is an interesting case of how good science can be polluted by poor interpretation: her interpretation appears to be that “we don’t judge musical performance by the music and therefore no independent judgment of music is possible”, while she should have concluded that “any judgment of music is liable to become polluted by visual clues and therefore special care must be taken to exclude that possibility”. To exclude just this possibility, early Chopin competitions were judged by judges sitting behind a curtain. (To be entirely fair, competitions aren’t set up to judge music but to judge musical performance, which is why Chopin competition does not do the curtain trick anymore).
A more interesting research would be to try to separate those judges who can judge the music independently of the visual clues and those who cannot and see what other differences exist between them. The former is a rare skill – normally a hallmark of inborn trait — a mutation, if you like — but is, at least to some extent, trainable. Judging music, like judging paintings and all art, is like playing the piano: some measure of talent and lots and lots of work.
Perhaps it is a related note to observe that I usually find myself closing my eyes during piano performances. I seem to hear better when my visual cortex is not busy.
I went to see this show. It consisted of about 100 paintings, most from private collections (and therefore unlikely to be shown again anywhere soon, unless… they go auction – private pictures are often put in a show prior to sale, it helps prices). (Well, not quite: from Wroclaw the show goes to Paris, so you still have a chance).
I was not allowed to photograph any of the paintings, but the organizers put a few videos on youtube for you – every video on this page (except the first one) features a good painting in the exhibition – the best among the featured are without doubt this (Bird Trap by Pieter Brueghel, Jr) and this (Mountain Landscape with Travelers by Jan Bueghel Jr with Joost de Momper) with and this (Landscape with Ruins of a Temple, by Jan Brueghel Jr). (Bear with the lady talking in Polish, the camera soon enough switches to the piece at hand).
(Btw, there is a problem with attribution in the videos – they are not the same as in the show and catalog, I refer to them according to the catalog attributions).
The best paintings are, of course, not featured. They were four miniatures by Jan Brueghel Senior (one of them showing the same scene as The Bird Trap, above, but in summer) — all classic Jan Seniors: oil on copper plate (which preserves unusually vivid colors) done in that famous “velvet” or “feather” technique so smooth you could not tell a single brushstroke, even with a magnifying glass. I spent half my day going between these four; and a slightly damaged, beautiful Joost de Momper (not the one featured on the youtube video) which, because of the way it was hung and lit, could be seen up-close. (On the fruits of which momentarily). All of these paintings were features in the exhibition catalog but suffered from the usual reproduction problem: I won’t post photos of them here because they will only give you wrong impression of their absolutely amazing greatness.
Perhaps the biggest deal in the show were the two videos by Haltadefinizione – an Italian imagining outfit – of the two allegories by Jan Brueghel, Sr, in the possession of The Ambrosiana: this and this. Yes, I know, it is ridiculous, Ambrosiana’s pictures, like those of every other Italian museum, are NOT to be seen, NOT to be photographed, and NOT to be approached too closely when you actually go there to see them. (The reason why public collections acquire pictures is to make sure that nobody look at them, right?) Which means that the best place to see these two pictures was, this week, to see them by proxy — via video — in Wroclaw. The video was the view of an up-close camera gradually moving over the painting in an elliptical motion.
While this motion did not cover many of the features that I would love to have seen, it did cover some things I probably would not have looked at too carefully: ordinary “background” elements, such as soil, or the unclear jumble of lines and shadows inside shadowy thicket, or the texture of clouds. And this was a revelation: I realized that the Brueghels (from Pieter Sr to Jan Jr to Mompers, who was a distant relative and therefore also a member of the dynasty) painted this background detail with great attention, varied brush strokes, lots of lines, some in parallel, some intersecting, places where it seemed they used very thick paint and spread it using a wooden pin (perhaps the end of the brush-handle) and others where it seemed they perhaps smeared it with fingers. This texture makes for a fascinating, interesting picture with a profound sensation of depth and is missing from the mass-market production turned out by Jan Junior workshop for lesser/less important/less-well paying clients – which last line made up most of the show.
From the 4 or 5 good Jan Juniors at the show I was able to tell what I had never known before, btw: that he was not a lesser painter than his father, Jan Senior, as everyone seems to think, but that he ran, in parallel to his superb autograph line, a cheaper, mass-market line of products, and that these products are the ones most readily available in the public domain and from which art historians get their silly view of his artistic powers. All these mass market products feature well painted details – ducks, fish, pots, glasses, armor, etc. – but on a dull, workaday background with any depth; and are therefore… boring.
After I made this realization, I went back to look at the paintings and discovered, with my nose about 2 cm from the surface of the painting, that Momper painted in the same manner: vast swathes of what appears to be vaguely hazy sky – or just dull, dirty mud – are in fact immensely complex-textured work and this is perhaps the greatest pleasure one derives from looking at these paintings.
One last comment: art historians are by and large fools. One of the authors of the catalog claimed something along the lines that “the picture above introduces a sense of foreboding: here is a happy village, with everyone disporting themselves on ice and crows flying around happily unaware that they are about to be trapped”. The Polish art historian, closer in time to bad communist days of shortage, understands the painting better: it is winter, it is cold, and people are hungry. The trap is to capture some crow to make broth. “May you eat crow” is a familiar expression in English, but one no one seems to understand anymore. In short, the message (if there is a message at all) is this: winter sucks.
then come the regrets
There are other Breughels in this room, they appear to absorb everyone’s attention: they feature peasant feasts, children’s games and Dutch proverbs. They are Renaissance man’s equivalent of shopping mall people watching. But to me, above all, Breughel is a brilliant landscapist, with a clearly identifiable, unique hand. It is almost as if Breughel served two patrons, one who was a People Person, and one – one a lot more like me.
This takes place in the Mantiq- al-Tayr (Parliament of Birds) byFarid al-Din Attar. The plot of this allegory, made up of some 4,500 couplets, is striking. The distant king of birds, the Simurgh, drops one of his splendid feathers somewhere in the middle of China; on learning of this, the other birds, tired of their present anarchy, decide to seek him. They know that the king’s name means ‘thirty birds’; they know that his castle lies in the Qaf, the mountain, or ring of mountains that ring the earth. At the outset some of the birds lose heart: the nightingale pleads his love of the rose; the parrot pleads his beauty, for which he lives caged; the partridge cannot do without his home in the hills, nor the heron without his marsh, nor the owl without his ruins. But finally, certain of them set out on the perilous venture; they cross seven valleys, or seas, the next to last bearing the name Bewilderment, the last the name Annihilation. Many of the pilgrims desert; the journey takes its toll among the rest. Thirty, made pure by their suffering, reach the great peak of the Simurgh. At last they behold him; they realize that they are the Simurgh, and the Simurgh is each of them and all of them.
In January I spent a week driving through Upper Alentejo – a rich, agricultural province of Portugal, dominated by the dehesa landscape. Dehesa (in Spanish), or Montado (in Portuguese), is a multifunctional agro-sylvo-pastoral system typical of southern Spain and Portugal. It is a five thousand (or more) years-old system of land management which combines tree cultivation (olives, oak, and cork), herding (sheep, cows, and black pigs), and hunting (it leaves enough tall grass and mid-sized bushes for quail, hare, and the occasional wild pig — which last sometimes manages to enrich the herded black pig stock, too) to thrive all side by side, all on the same land. In January, it is green with winter rains and bursting forth with wildly blooming fruit trees. Cows, horses, black pigs, sheep and goats roam the landscape, mooing, lowing, bleating, and ringing their bells. Hare skip between bushes, quail and pheasant shoot up startled from tall grass, hawks circle above and literally thousands of mating storks stalk in tall grass, performing their mating dance.
I cannot begin to describe the intense — no, the overpowering — at times I felt myself faint in the knees with contentment — sensation of pure, unadulterated, thick pleasure which looking at this land gave me. I have never seen this landscape. Except for childhood summer holidays, I have never seen farmland, and I have certainly never looked at it with any degree of farming interest. But here I was responding to it like my genes had determined I would: like all East Europeans, I carry seven thousand years — 210 generations, or more — of agriculture in my genetic make-up. Looking at a piece of land and realizing unconsciously, unawares by the signs that every farmer reads unconsciously and unawares: this is rich, fat land, it is teeming with four-legged food which will breed, it has the right sun exposure and the right amount of rainfall and subcutaneous water it needs to yield abundant crop; I was… in heaven.
And, predisposed as I am, to seek immediate gratification… I have closed the Lisbon operation am moving there, to the dehesa, as soon as my feet will carry me — next Monday.
I’ve been reading a lot lately, and mostly it has been a disappointment — and how can it not be, generally. I won’t mention the books (no point hurting you by showing you my wounds), but how I wish I could read well-written books by intelligent/not-ideologically-minded persons from time to time.
And how about — on these topics:
1. The Haydn-Mozart quartets. Something not musicological. Something about Mozart as a person, Haydn as a person, their professional lives, their aspirations, their friendship, the new art form of the string quarter (Goethe: “Four intelligent people talking together”), and what it was like for Haydn and Mozart to develop this new art-form; how they struggled as men, lovers, husbands, professionals and yet, in another dimension altogether, how their life had another deeper, secret meaning, appreciated only by those in the know: that of a composer who broke new ground, developed new ideas, presented and solved new problems; and how their takes on the string quartet reveal their personalities; and how Mozart’s Nos. 15-19 respond to Haydn’s op. 20 and how Haydn’s op. 33 in turn respond to Mozart’s. I have been listening to them now these 3 years and forever find much surprising depth in them — intelligence, wit, polish, yes, but also so much intricate, innovative thinking; just take op. 20 no. 4 1st movement with the shocking arpeggio and all its false reprises, how very odd, how very special.
(Btw, if you are just beginning in the field, then the recordings to listen to are: Haydn’s op. 20 – by the Lindsays; Mozart’s 15-19 — by Aban Berg; and Haydn’s op. 33 — by The Borodin).
2. The Paris 1900 World Expo. The largest, the most ruinous, and therefore the last of the world expos; ended in a spectacular bankruptcy; featured grand palaces by all major nations of the world built in a kind of Potemkin Village material; a human zoo; Japanese pavillion with geishas; a two-speed moving sidewalk which circum-ambulated the place; and the Balinese dance troupe which Rodin was unable to draw (like he was unable to draw/sculpt everything else) and — what that troupe’s success tells us about high brow art (that it’s does not rise from the folk art, it is not particular to a culture but — to a kind of brain — to some of us, the unlucky few who have drawn it as their birth lottery-ticket; and how for us it is universal, undivided by languages and borders). And the first showcasing of Art Nouveau, too.
If you can suggest titles – could be in other languages, shout. If no one can, perhaps someone could write these books, please?
A recent visit to a dentist put me in a state of shock; not on account of the drilling, which was hardly a pin-prick, but on account of the waiting room. Entering it, I found myself in a hostile space, barren, barf-colored, lined with pseudo-carpet with intentionally woven holes and pseudo-wood painted a clearly artificial color, with square, extremely uncomfortable chairs with sinking seats and back supports which ended just in the place calculated to give no support yet jab the kidneys painfully. In the WC, I discovered a square toilet seat: thank God, I did not have to sit on it because I would not know how to without jabbing my knees. On the wall of the waiting room there was a (flat panel) TV which there was no way to turn off or down. In other words, the waiting room seemed designed on the McDonald’s principle — McDonald’s seats are famously uncomfortable so as not invite guests to linger — (secret motto: “shovel them in and shovel them out”). Except, I wondered, here it made no sense. The amount of time I spent in this waiting room did not depend on me in the least — but on how (in)efficiently the office booked me. To punish me for their delays and to try to drive me away while I waited seemed counterproductive (it would only lose them business).
To distract myself from the colors and surfaces, I picked up a glossy magazine. It happened to be Elle Decor – French edition – an the designs which I saw in it — all of them of a kind with the one in the midst of which I was sitting — opened my eyes. The designer of my waiting room did not consciously aim for discomfort, he just wanted to be with-it/modern/fashionable/trendy and in order to achieve this goal he followed the general principles of modern/with-it/trendy design, which are: 1) shock and surprise with unusual shapes and colors 2) pay no attention to comfort or ease of use or practicality of application 3) use the cheapest materials and cheapest manufacturing methods (inject it or stamp it is best) as long as they are “modern” 4) reject any natural materials 5) use as many sharp edges as possible (get it? “edges” make you “edgy”). My discomfort was merely the price paid for the designer achieving his with-it-ness, it was a kind of… collateral damage. Prices of the items featured in the magazine illustrated the other price paid for the designer’s with-it-ness: money. An aluminum, black and white, zigzaggy lamp by designer X, the magazine informed me, cost EUR1,190. I looked up and saw something equally cheap and ill-proportioned on the ceiling of my waiting room and was no more in doubt: serious money was spent here in order to make me feel uncomfortable.
Only the day before I had bought two old bronze lamps for EUR400. One was late 19th century French, the other early 20th century Dutch. Both were shaped with a miraculously calming sense of proportion, a deeply satisfying fitness to their purpose (e.g. lighting), and executed to perfection by master craftsmen who’d spent years mastering their manual skills. Thus, in paying for my lamps I paid in part for good materials (bronze) and good workmanship (craft). But what do buyers of Lamp X pay for? Not good materials, certainly, as plastic comes in only one grade; nor for good craftsmanship (it’s machine bent). Ergo, it would appear that they paid instead for… well, the designer’s lifestyle – to finance his fast cars and numerous girlfriends. Lamp X, like every single item in my dentist’s waiting room, has that economic structure: uselessness, cheapness of material and process + a high mark-up for the marketer. Economically, these things made a lot less sense from the point of view of the buyer than my lamps – but a lot more sense from the point of view of the seller! (The seller is in fact bilking the buyers).
Of course, in buying my lamps I also acquired something else: pleasure. For years to come, every time I wake up in the morning and look up I will experience the calming pleasure of looking at a beautifully proportioned object. Does the modern buyer buying an edgy product – Lamp X, square toilet, uncomfortable, unstable chair – get pleasure out of it?
This is the crucial point of this post.
I suppose there are three schools of thinking about it:
1) Yes, they like it. It makes them feel comfortable to sit in odd positions, be jabbed in the kidneys, be jerked by ambient TV noise, and look at odd-shaped lamps made out of bent aluminum and plastic.
2) They don’t care either way. They don’t notice the ugliness and discomfort. They can work 16-hour days, sleep standing on the subway, and work undisturbed by the throbbing rhythm of techno. They install in their bedrooms and living rooms whatever comes to hand, whatever is in the shop.
3) Yes, they experience pleasure, but it is qualitatively different from mine: it is not the pleasure of interacting with a well-made, well-proportioned, purpose-fit object; but a pleasure of a different sort: the pleasure of owning something edgy and with-it, perhaps? Meaning, perhaps, of owning something famous and popular, owning something, in other words, because others know it? It is a kind of pleasure by substitution, a vicarious pleasure: enjoying oneself through the eyes of others? (Yes, it is a Gucci bag, you did notice, did you not?)
Whether you accept the former or the latter theory, you are in fact adopting the other mind theory which you have seen here before – that the modern consumer is a genetically different animal from me (us?), evolved over millenia in the nether reaches of the social structure where radically different life meant radically different selection pressures, and only recently come to the fore as a result of the economic revolution of the last 100 years or so. Not enough time for evolution to take place: they bring with them to the affluent decision-making process genetic inclinations unsuited to the task.
At first, the Old Masters collection of Thyssen-Boremisza in Madrid disappoints. It can hardly do otherwise: the expectations set up by the famous pieces they hold — a Claude, two Bronzinos, a Velvet Breughel, a Carpaccio — are so very high. But the collection suffers from the “late-arrival” syndrome: by the time collection-gathering swung into full tilt, the best pieces had already been permanently taken off the market: as a result, with the exception of the handful famous pieces everyone already knows about, T-B is full of minor masters, and very minor works by the great masters, and even minorer ones only attributed to them — usually not very convincingly. (It’s supposed to have an important post 1900-collection, but how on earth would I know anything about that?)
The museum does contain a wonderful surprise, however: a large collection of late 19th century American academic landscapes — which are very good indeed. If it weren’t for the topics, you’d swear these were 17th century Dutch. This is perhaps the greatest pleasure one can experience in a museum: to discover something completely new and unheard of.
Thank you, Miss T.
PS. If, like me, you are new to this world, here are a few names for you: William Bradford , John Frederick Kensett , Frederic Edwin Church , Albert Bierstadt , William Trost Richards.
The Edirne’s Selimiye is Sinan’s most beautiful, most graceful construction. It also sports arguably the finest, best-painted, most beautiful Iznik tiles ever.
The Muradiye complex in Edirne — like the Muradiye complex in Bursa — was built by a pious Sultan (Murad II) for a religious community he always said he intended to join himself (and did — twice, each time abdicating in order to do so).
Both complexes were built well outside city walls – suggesting another calculation behind the foundation: religious communities of single men living together are famously troublesome and the Sultan may have been shipping the dervishes out of his way. Each foundation was a vast project for its time: a large, beautifully decorated mosque (which doubled as the dervish residence). a medresa (school), a soup kitchen.
As the cities grew, both Muradiyes became located downtown; but the dramatic shrinkage of Edirne in modern times (from perhaps 250K in 1600s to 20K today) means that the Edirne Muradiye once again lies outside the city walls. One reaches it via a dusty road with a few low lying buildings, an itinerant vendor selling fresh cheese out of a donkey cart, old men playing backgammon in the shade of a weeping willow. The mosque is locked, but in the summer the hoca gives religion lessons to seven ragged gypsy children; he lets you in and leaves you alone to do all the photographing and sketching you want; and if you speak two words of Turkish, he’ll treat you to the sweets from his lunchbox.
The tiles of the Edirne Muradiye are very special. They were clearly painted by a master painter; not every one is unique – there are several repeats – but most are; no similar Iznik tiles have been found anywhere else.
I take back what I said about Prado in connection with Mr Strobel. Here is a much larger version of it. And here you can view it in detail. Below are a few choice tidbits.
The faculty of aesthetic enjoyment and appreciation resides in very ancient regions of the human brain
Forgive the poor quality of the photo – I’m not posting it for appreciation, but — as a document. What you see are gulls flying at night between the minarets of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul. They do this for hours. They are clearly not hunting or courting, but — enjoying themselves. They find the scene as beautiful as the men down below do, and, like some of the men down below, they, too, just can’t stop admiring it.
In a related phenomenon, the deer of Cape Cod are known to come out on the beach at dawn and at sunset and “nobody knows why”. In fact, why they come out is very clear to anyone who observes them and suspends for the moment the Judeo-Christian belief that animals are “just soul-less machines”: like everyone else, deer come out to the beach to see the colors of the sky.
The faculty of aesthetic enjoyment and appreciation resides in very ancient regions of the human brain, one we share with many lower species – some of them (birds) much more ancient than we.
It’s rare at my age to discover a new, never-heard-of, good, major painter; it is all the more pleasure when the said painter turns out to be one’s countryman. Bartholomäus (in Poland we would say Bartłomiej) Strobel (1591–1647) hailed from Breslau, and worked chiefly for Ladislaus (Władysław) IV; he also did some work for the Hapsburgs, which is how one of his works found its way to El Prado, where it hangs — relegated to the inconsequence of an elevator lobby (while far inferior Rubenses and Zubarans take pride of place elsewhere): the amazing — and gigantic (it must easily be 3m x 10m) — Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. In keeping with the Torquemada tradition, Prado won’t let you photograph it; nor will they photograph it themselves; they do admit it is a good painting, and discuss it (in audio) on their website here (mas sólo en español) while providing you with an image the size of a largish post-stamp (!); the best reproduction of it I have been able to find anywhere is the ridiculously inadequate above. Unless you actually go to Prado you would never know about it; or the amazingly athletic Christ in Purgatory by Del Piombo (one of the best Venetian painters ever unduly forgotten in the shadow of Titian’s mediocrities); or the two portraits by Parmeggianino, radiant like the rest of his portraits. You would think El Greco and Goya is all they have there and, wrongly (though for good reasons) conclude the place isn’t worth a visit.
What have I been saying these last 10 years? Here is evidence at last: someone has finally begun to do the right research:
Neuroscience reveals brain differences between Republicans and Democrats
With the U.S. presidential election just days away, new research from the University of South Carolina provides fresh evidence that choosing a candidate may depend more on our biological make-up than a careful analysis of issues.
That’s because the brains of self-identified Democrats and Republicans are hard-wired differently and may be naturally inclined to hold varying, if not opposing, perceptions and values. The USC study, which analyzed of 24 USC students, builds on existing research in the emerging field of political neuroscience.
“The differences are significant and real,” said lead researcher Roger D. Newman-Norlund, an assistant professor of exercise science in the Arnold School of Public Health and the director of USC’s new Brain Simulation Laboratory.
But please, do not take this as an excuse to talk about politic: this is an art and culture blog and unless Obama starts singing opera and Romney takes to carving Carrara marble, we don’t give a hoot about the race. What we want to know is when will someone finally scan the brains of the classical-arts adherents and compare them to the scans of the brains of modern-art adherents and show us conclusively what we have known instinctively these 200 years: that the two are incompatible?
Some nice interiors, though.
(Of course, an Italian director who fails to show you a good interior must be mentally retarded).
The usual story is Orhan Pamuk: one reads two of his books (Red, Snow), gets excited (wow!), goes out and buys everything the man has ever written only to discover that… nothing beyond the first two (or three — White was OK, too) – books are worth reading. Marco Bellocchio recently delivered the same bait-and-switch: hooked me with Buon Giorno, Notte, and L’Ora di Religione, only to let me seriously down with Il Regista di Matrimoni. Why does this happen?
Partly, the problem is the production system: a novelist is expected to produce a novel a year; a film-maker, a film a year – because “the market expects it: if you do not, you drop out from public view, become forgotten and have to start from scratch”. This is actually not true, but this is the official industry party-line pushed heavily by agents and promoters who live on the stream of new works and artists come to believe it. But this annual procreation adds up to something like 40 works over a lifetime. And no one – not even Michelangelo – can possibly have in him enough material for 40 masterpieces, especially if his life becomes reduced to turning out novels (or films). (To write a novel, just like making a film, takes a lot of time). To make an interesting novel (or film) one has to live, experience, and reflect, i.e. get away from his desk/camera; and there is just no time for any of it if you are “successful”. Truly great film directors (e.g. Kubrick) and great novelists (e.g. di Lampedusa) know it and go slow – that is, they shuddup when they have nothing to say.
I would be prepared to pay serious money to know the truth behind works like Bellocchio’s Il Regista or Pamuk’s Black. Did they get published/released because the author has come to believe in his own infallibility (“yes, it does seem weak when I look at it, but perhaps my eyesight has gone weak, how can I possibly turn out a bad work, surely, if it is by me, it must be great, and perhaps one day I will see it”) or did they get published because the author/director decided that the public was stupid (“not a great film, I know, but they can’t tell anyway, why worry about it too much”).
Why worry about it? A Chinese proverb explains why: a tiger dies and leaves its skin, a man dies and leaves his reputation.
Writes Rebecca Willis:
Back in the days when I wrote about hotels for a living, the man I was eventually to marry sometimes joined me on my travels. And a curious thing would happen as we crossed the latest hip-hotel lobby: a thought would flash across my mind—”what a hideous lamp”, for instance—and a micro-second later he would say: “I love that lamp, I wonder where it’s from?” It could be a sofa, a painting, a fabric, a paint colour: whatever, I soon learnt to wait for the inverse echo of my reaction. It was the first inkling that we might not be totally compatible in the taste department.
Rebecca Willis is no dummy. It takes well demonstrated brains even to write for The Economist; presumably more better brains to reach the associate editorship of The More Intelligent Life (as the title clearly states). Yet, for what is probably the most important decision in her life – the choice of life partner – she was prepared to compromise her tastes: she went ahead and… married him.
It’s not clear from the article how she makes that work. Is her husband allowed to express his tastes at home, forcing Rebecca to live with wall colors she hates, night-lights and bathroom towels which make her go YUCK? Or have the two decided for the functional neutrality in the house, living permanently in some sort of hotel-lcum-trainstation-like off-white/stainless steel dullity which does nothing for the eye? Since neither decision means living in a home which does not provide the comfort of pleasure, can either decision truly be said to be intelligent life, let alone more intelligent?
As Rebecca observes, plenty of people make the same decision – opt for a life with a person whose tastes they do not share, with, presumably the same consequence: in other words, they do violence to their own tastes for the sake of a relationship. Personally, I could never ever do this: I feel too strongly about my tastes; their violation offends me too much and their satisfaction is too rewarding to countenance giving them up. I could never have my living room wall-papered in a way I did not care for: I spend too much time there. The wallpaper I do have gives me a sense of pleasure and contentment, it turns my living room into an oasis of pleasure in an otherwise pretty ugly world.
Yet, it would appear, other people do not think that way: they are perfectly willing to compromise their wallpaper (and aesthetic pleasure in general) for other values (Sex? Companionship? The increased purchasing power of double income?). Perhaps their tastes aren’t especially strong i.e. aesthetic appreciation does not actually give them any meaningful/detectable pleasure. This would explain why they can go on writing the sort of garbage they write about art – because if not entirely aesthetically blind they are, at a minimum, aesthetically dim-sighted. If so, here is the central reason why one cannot discuss art with some/most people. If they do not possess a strong aesthetic sense themselves, I can never explain to them what I mean anymore than a bat could explain to them echolocation.
A chicklit tearjerker calls Lisbon The White City. It’s authors were blind: Lisbon’s traditional colors are pale but extraordinarily varied. They are also of a kind: they share a certain earthy (say the Portuguese), leaden (a Pole would say) quality, a certain note of gentle, retiring understatement. (No – phulease – NOT sadness). What gives the colors of Lisbon their family resemblance? Poets say: light: in Lisbon’s light a gray note gives color depth. There is something to the claim: the light of Lisbon is indeed very special (see Lawrence Weschler’s essay on Light in LA to understand how and why the visible light can have special characteristics at a particular geographical location).
And, certainly, in Lisbon’s light brighter, more lively colors do jerk the eye uncomfortably. Thus, the addition of the dull note may have been an aesthetic decision. A chemist (like me) might suggest the dull note may rather be due to a paint additive (such as an emulsifying agent or a fixer) used in local paint simply because that is what is available locally. Whatever the reason, the colors of Lisbon are instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent any time at all looking at them. And so are the new colors. The economic crisis has meant that imported, German paint is cheaper; anti-crisis measures have meant a lot of repainting; as a result one begins to see in Lisbon buildings painted in wrong colors, bright, chearful, Disneylandesque, candied, plasticky reds, peaches, and oranges. The city begins to look like what the mass tourist wants to see, his vision of happy go lucky South. Before the whole city starts looking like a garish Florida suburb, I wanted to record the colors of Lisbon. For posterity. My bit for the archives of history.
The traditional colors of Lisbon come basically in three groups: blush (NOT pink), straw (NOT yellow) and linen (NOT gray).
A German diver in Palawan told me in 1993 that tourism was like cancer: “it destroys everything in its path”. As we talked, about 50 meters away, workers were installing the empteenth stilted cottage on the seashore that season; like all the others, this cottage, too, lacked any sort of arrangement for sewage disposal.
Tourism certainly destroyed every sea-side location where I have lived in the last two decades, turning each from a quaint little town where humble life rolled on leisurely into an unlivable monstrosity, a shopping mall on the sea, a busy belching traffic nightmare in season, a dead eyesore off. For 15 years, between 1995 and 2010 my life was a cat-and-mouse chase, a dog-fight, a running battle — with me trying to find an unspoiled place to live in and tourism following within a few years; first a cottage at a time, but eventually the full hog, with full blown articles in the press world-over that X was now The Place To Go.
Eventually, I threw in the towel on sea-side towns and decided to duck the wave by going in the opposite direction, into the city.
But if you think that tourism only destroys beaches in third world countries and we in the first world are safe, think again.
My new city — an European Capital — has now been officially made The New Place To Go To, a phenomenon stoked by fake advertisements paid for the by government (the adverts feature doctored photos of Lisbon making it look more Paris). (A former ad executive, I never cease to wonder how effective advertising is, how it works, how people trust it. Don’t they know TV lies? Do they know anything?)
Yesterday I walked down Rua Augusta to appraise the season’s damage. It exceeded my worst fears. What was once a traditional premium shopping street, and, in recent years, due to crisis, became somewhat romantically down-at-heel, has been completely transformed, in a mere three months, into a tourist drag. Gone are jewelers selling Portuguese hand-crafted jewelry, gone are leather-goods shops selling Portuguese shoes and handbags, gone are Portuguese eateries serving stufado and cafetarias serving salgados and afternoon tea. They have all been replaced by ice-cream McParlors and frozen pizza places and outdoor tables serving industrial snacks and canned drinks and playing vaguely ethnic world music: all according to the formula which works world over: familiar (the hell with new and exotic, who ever said tourism was about discovering or learning?), low price but high margin (a 3 euro key-chain offers a 300% markup for the vendor).
Rua Augusta now looks the way the main street of San Giminiano already looked in 2005 – lined up and down both sides of it with tourist-pandering junk-outlets. Back in 2005 I walked up that main drag because I had to — some paintings I had to see were in a church at the top of it; but to my amazement I watched people sit in those sidewalk cafes of that street, taking in “the atmosphere”.
Atmosphere? What atmosphere? You can get the same “atmosphere” at your local mall. Why fly six thousand miles to get the same on another continent?
Given the wild historicist philosophising to which historians of the old school were inclined, it is small wonder modern-day historians eschew theory-making as such. It is also regrettable because it is an act of over-compensation: an exaggeration in the opposite direction. After all, history is supposed to teach us something about the world: trying to draw conclusions about general mechanisms of how things work really should lie at the heart of its inquiry.
C. V. Wedgwood does this rather well. Her way of interpreting some mechanisms of history is ambitious and thought provoking, without being wild — perhaps because it is couched in economic and psychological terms rather then the vague “civilization” or “progress” or “gender construction” or “Orientalism”. The author’s seemingly “sweeping” observations strike us with their profoundly common sense. Such as her observation that the cause of the decline of the Catholic church in the Netherlands in the 15th century was a brain-drain from the church to the professions, a brain-drain caused by… the rapidly improving opportunities in trade and industry. She thus suggests the existence of a fascinating cultural/economic mechanism (also proposed by someone else to explain America’s cultural decline during the Gilded Age): that a society’s economic success can be bad for its art.
One can see the mechanism at work in our own time: the last 50 years in the “first world” have seen fantastic opportunities in banking, finance, technology, real estate and marketing and that’s where all talent went; by contrast, the fields of artistic production (painting, sculpture, literature) and art management (museum directors, theater directors, critics, scholars) have failed to attract the best talent; which has resulted in the sort of production we have seen: uninspired, shallow, derivative, technically poor, gimmicky. In culturally more successful periods (such as the Renaissance) artistic production attracted talent which may equally well have been deployed in science or engineering (and often was: Leonardo was a anatomist, Michelangelo a builder, Cellini an engineer). By contrast, twentieth century art looks like something produced by people whose alternative economic options were on the scale of selling pimple remedies via mail order in small town newspapers.
Perhaps when at last the true (economic) “decline of the West” finally sets in, talent will begin trickling back to art.
Embrace the crisis.
Reading Soseki: a great artist is no more (and no less) than someone in extraordinary control of his craft
Without seeing Glenn Gould’s 37 pages of notes on Kusa Makura (Three-cornered world) — the book became something of an obsession for him — it is hard to guess what it was that he loved about it. Did he like the reflections on the similarities and differences of poetry and painting? (But Lessing’s Laocoon has already made it amply plain that nothing interesting can be said about the matter: the two can not be any more usefully or meaningfully compared than recreational swimming and differential equations can). Did he believe in the existence of moral or artistic truth? (But what on earth is an “artistic truth”?) Or did Gould really think the work accurately represented the process of the creation of a work of art? (I find it unconvincing, probably because Soseki was not a painter and therefore had no clue what he was writing about).
All of Kusa makura‘s hero’s reflections on art are 19th century claptrap and can only bore and exhaust someone like me who knows that a great artist is no more (and no less) than someone in extraordinary control of his craft; that great art has nothing to do with moral truth, or artistic truth, or any otherwise truth, but everything to do with technique; that it need not describe or discuss or reveal human feelings at all only manipulate successfully the human cognitive system; and who, like me, does not believe that a great artist either is or needs to be spiritually different from “most people” (which the novel repeatedly claims, “as an artist I am more sensitive” etc.). GIGO (“garbage in garbage out”) describes the meditations of Kusa makura rather well: starting out from false first principles one can only arrive at nonsense conclusions. It describes our modern art theory, too: what wonder we have the art we do given that we had started out with all that nonsense?
Soseki’s meditations on art aside, several sections of the novel are extraordinarily beautiful, and its last chapter is absolutely breathtaking. In English, this beauty owes as much to the translator (Alan Turney) as it does to the original: much of it is verbal; consider how beautifully this poem is translated:
Your obi worked loose and flutters in the breeze,
But once again ’tis for pretence and not spring’s passion it unwinds.
The maker’s name, though woven into silk,
Is, like your heart, unreadable.
But there is also that special je ne se quoi aspect of it — that it infuses the reader with a profound sadness on the one hand and on the other urges him to out the book down and reflect. (Magic Mountain has the same effect and, not surprisingly, it was Gould’s other most favorite novel). That the chapter portrays a universal archetype — the departure of a soldier — has more to do with its impact than one is at first inclined to believe.
“She had tied the red obi around her waist with a simplicity which suggested a young girl’s indifference as to whether or not it enhanced her charms. Carrying an old fashioned taper in her hand, she had led me to the bathhouse now this way now that, around the bend after bend along what appeared to be passageways, and down flights of stairs. In front of me all the time were that same obi and that same taper, and it seemed as though we were going along the same passage and down the same staircase again and again. Already I had the feeling of being a painted figure moving along on a canvass.”
Natsume Soseki, Kusa Makura (The three-cornered world), III, 40-41
Kusa makura is an introspective novel. The first chapter is indicative of the rest: it starts with the sentence: “Going up a mountain track, I feel to thinking” and the rest are the hero’s thoughts. This is a very attractive structure for someone like me – more interested in the internal life of men than in what actually happened (the action is always the same – she wants him, but she does not want her back, or the other way around).
The thoughts themselves are rather disappointing: they illustrate the disarming lack of training in rigorous thinking rather typical of all exclusively humanist training; and even if the total lack of familiarity with recent advances in psychology and cognitive science are forgivable (after tall the book was written in 1906), the most serious problem with all these introspections is that the novel describes the internal life of a man of around 30. Think about it: when is the last time someone aged 30 has had anything interesting to say to you?
Yet, to me, reading Kusa Makura has been a remarkable experience — and this entirely on the strength of the passage I quote above. The hero arrives at a remote guesthouse in the mountains; it is night-time; and the maid – the sole person in the whole house as far as he can tell – is taking him to the mineral bath somewhere at the bottom of the house. This image – the red obi, the taper, the going down and down endless narrow passages and stairways in the moving globe of flickering light and the altered state of mind of having entered a painting. There is much reflection on painting in the book, but this is the only one that matters: yes, there is that state of mind one enters into when looking at paintings, a moment of endlessly suspended time.
It is almost as if the entire novel – all those pages, all those chapters – were needed only to provide the setting for that single image, like all that twisty metal which holds the one object of any worth, the jewel. Much art is that way: the slow, repetitive, mesmerizing overture is needed to put the audience in the mood, to sensitize them, so that they may be ready to receive what you have to tell them.
Which may well be a matter of a single image, a very few words.