Thailand

Of air and lies

November 2011

The invisible visible air of New Delhi

How do you know your plane has started descent towards The New Delhi International Airport? When you begin to smell car exhaust inside the plane’s cockpit. Inside the terminal the smell persists and as you step outside, an acrid, sour, burning smoke assails your eyes and nose. On the way to the guest house you keep the taxi windows closed and try to breathe into your hankie to protect yourself from the nauseating effects of the blue cloud through which your taxi is moving.

At the guest-house you are welcomed by the charming, helpful and efficient hostess who yet manages to surprise you with an oddity: “What’s with the air?” you ask her (meaning: “Has something happened? Was there an explosion? A fire downtown?”) and thinking that, surely, the sheer scale of the disaster would have been first page news. But it hasn’t been: the hostess is nonplussed. “The air? Oh, in the winter it always gets foggy here, and then the dust blows in from the desert.” When you tell her that you have spent several winters in Delhi in the past and that the blue color of the air outside, its acrid smell of combustion, and the huge dust particles that palpably bounce off your face are like nothing you have ever seen before, she is surprised.

You then realize that your hostess is somewhat in the old line of pucca (“proper”) ladies and lives in a kind of purdah (“seclusion”), hardly ever going outside; and that remaining all days indoors has protected her in part from the worst of the pollution outside. Plus, the change in the quality of air must have been to some extent gradual, and therefore people living in Delhi without interruption may have been less aware of it. Still, there must be another cognitive mechanism at work here: the difference between Delhi air in November 2011 and November 2006, the time of my last visit, is so stark that no one with any sense can possibly have failed to notice it – unless they do not want to. And the truth is that most Delhites are trapped in the city and have nowhere to flee to; all they can do is pretend that things aren’t really as bad as they are and hope it will pass.

It will not. In the last decade, the city has moved most public transport to greener liquified natural gas and built a metro to try to ease the traffic congestion; yet the rise in motor vehicles has continued unabated, turning Delhi roads into one huge snarling traffic jam; and the construction of a whole new city of Gurgaon, just south of Delhi, though it has sucked out some old Delhites, has done nothing to abate the relentless population growth as more people move in from everywhere to take advantage of Delhi’s higher wages. Delhi air, never especially good, is far worse today than it was ten or even five years ago and for some, like myself, is simply unbearable.

Although statistics are not easy to come by – government’s annual surveys of Delhi air quality have not been published since 2009 (having been suppressed, some say, for the sake of not scaring off the Commonwealth Games in 2010) – reports circulate that two in five Delhites suffer from respiratory ailments. Certainly all of the city’s professional drivers hack and retch; the pollution has performed a public health miracle: unable to breathe, most seem to have quit smoking.

By miracle of evolution, we’re each a little different, and some of us are better equipped to handle the pollution: I find one of my fellow guests at the guesthouse – a North European – is actually sunning himself on the open-air terrace the next morning. Yet, even he’s not blind: yeah, he admits, the air is bad – better taken in through a cigarette filter, he quips – but at least it is better than last time I came through, a week ago. “Now, that really was bad.” I shudder and thank God I was not in Delhi a week ago; but do recall reading Delhi’s weather forecast at that time: “dry, it said, high 30 degrees centigrade, smokey”. Even Yahoo Weather noticed something was up with the air.

Originally, I had booked my Delhi room for two weeks: the plan was to spend part of the season in the city to catch as much classical music and dance as I could – in quickly “modernizing” India her classical performing arts are progressively more difficult to see; but after just three days, during which I did manage to catch one very good vocal concert (well attended but by an audience of whom none – except myself – was less than fifty), I realized I would have to leave Delhi if I wanted to live: I was choking on the air, feeling physically sick. A friend offered his house in the hills and a spare servant. “Go up there, he said, the air is good, the views are astounding, the walks invigorating.” I had missed the hills almost as much as I had missed India’s classical arts, so instead of rescheduling my flight and advancing my departure from India, I headed for the hills. Ten days is a short time for a Himalayan trip – it takes so long to get there – but that seemed a better idea than to leave India defeated, after mere three days, probably never to come back.

Two days later, about seven in the morning my car came into the full view of the Dhauladar Range. It looked, as always, magnificent; but looking down a bit, around the mountains’ midriff, I suddenly spotted clearly against her snow… clouds of brown smoke meandering in the upper air. Smog!

Around noon, the host took me up to see a property he’s contemplating buying (in order to escape Delhi air). He had selected a beautiful site: within easy access from the State Highway, yet screened from her noise by a low, but steep hill, it sits across the top of a mild hillock, with views in all directions: the Himalayas in the back, the plains in front. On a good day, he says, you can see all the way to Chandigarh; I follow his gesture but all I can make out is milky-white haze of sunlight scattered in the fine dust suspended in the air. “A bit of a fog today”, says my friend, though the temperature is in mid 20s, it has not rained in three months and the air is bone dry; “but look at the mountains, aren’t they magnificent?” They are; though a bit hard to see, veiled as they now are by a purplish-brownish haze. Suddenly I remember: The Asian Brown Cloud. I had never seen it before: and here it was, visible from ground level, with the naked eye.

My friend does not notice. “And the air, he says, ah, the air, isn’t it wonderful? That’s why I want to move here!” Actually, the air is not wonderful. It does not have the acrid smell of smoke which it has in Delhi, but it has none of the bracing freshness of mountain air which I remember from previous visits. I now recognize the phenomenon: I have seen it before.

Pattern recognition

I have of course seen it before – in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which, when I first came to live there in 2001, had mostly manageable air, little traffic, and beautiful views of Doi Suthep, a mountain which towers above it. When I arrived there, the city had a small expatriate population; over the next decade agreeable climate, low prices, favorable tax treatment and a good standard of living have caused the expatriate population to rapidly expand. By 2006 major international magazines declared Chiang Mai to be one of the best places to live in the world, throwing expatriate immigration into overdrive. Ironically, the 2006 positive publicity for the city, and what seemed like a quantum jump in new expat arrivals, coincided with the city’s first environmental disaster. Pro-growth policies of the government of Thaksin Sinawatra in part aimed at decongesting the country’s capital, Bangkok, have caused the city’s population to explode from 250,000 in 2000 to more than 2 million in 2011. Policies designed to capture car assembly business have expanded the number of cars on Thai roads even faster. As has been the case with Delhi, infrastructure development did not keep pace. In February 2006 Chiang Mai experienced its first smokey weather.

Both Chiang Mai and North India lie in the subtropical monsoon zone, at the foot of the Himalayas. The monsoon climate means between four and six months of daily rain which washes the air somewhat and six (or more) months of rainless weather, when dust, once kicked up into the air, does not get washed out from the atmosphere and stays airborn indefinitely – until the rains break again. The solid wall of mountains to the north means that the prevailing Southwest winds concentrate air pollution in the foothills – they effectively sweep garbage from the whole plain south of it and dump it overhead.

I first noticed that something was amiss with Chiang Mai air in December 2006, from my motorcycle, on one of my usual trips into the surrounding hills: a stretch of the road which runs along the top of a ridge used to afford wonderful views over successive mountain ranges fading into the distance towards Burms, each bluer and fainter than the one before. But riding along the same road in now I realized suddenly that one simply could not see the mountains: the view had completely disappeared into a kind of milky haze. Unlike my Delhi friend, I realized immediately that the haze was… no mist.

By late January, Doi Suthep – 1600 m mountain at the edge of the city – traffic-willing the top of the mountain is only 20 minutes away – has disappeared from view; by early February, Chiang Mai experienced its first “blue days” – blue clouds of exhaust hanging over its streets, an acrid burning stink of exhaust, palpable dust in the air, brushing one’s face as one rode through the streets.

Traditionally, the tourist season begins in Chiang Mai with the onset of the dry weather, sometime in late October; this is also when most new expatriate immigrants arrive. In 2006, when the first Blue Days arrived, the largest contingent yet has just bought their properties or signed their leases; people were just settling into their furniture when the pollution struck.

Their reaction to the disaster was much like that of my Delhi hostess: they chose not to notice. They had simply invested too much in their move to Thailand to allow themselves to realize that they have made a mistake.  With time, the expats began to complain about the air (though usually pretending that there are only a couple bad weeks in the winter).  Finally, this year (2012) the penny began to drop (see this discussion) though not before the Thai government began to wonder in public whether it should just evacuate the entire population from the North of the country. And the expats are still blaming it on  Thais burning rice-fields in the winter.  Yet, the truth is that Thais have been burning rice fields for about 700 years, but the smog reached catastrophic proportions only now — a clear sign that something else is at fault.  What?  The Asian Brown Cloud emanating out of India and China. Last year there were reports of Chinese pollution causing smog in Western Japan.  This year — in Hawaii.

How bad is it?  Just look at the photos of Kangra Fort, in Kanga Valley, 550 km north of New Delhi.  What you are seeing is not mist. It is the Brown Cloud visible (and smellable) at ground level.


Alarming trends in Asian cousine


The Old Workhorse — Padthai Kung — now increasingly an endangered species:
flat rice-noodles stir fried with shrimp and crushed peanuts

The aesthetisist in me wants to understand just what is going on with Chiang Mai food. 

It has never been great — traditionally Chiang Mai-ites have been  gourmands (big eaters) rather than gourmets (epicures); but it has always been far better than almost anywhere else in Thailand.  Foreign food in Chiang Mai — including Chinese — has always ranged from bad to indifferent — reflecting perhaps the ignorance of the public — you can sell anything to the ignorant in small quantities;  but Thai food has always been at least adequate.  Yet, in the last two years I have repeatedly had what I have never had here in the preceding eight years:  bad Thai food.  And what is far, far worse:  all my favorite restaurants — all the places I used to eat in daily — are, one by one, going bad.

I really dread the approach of the lunch hour.  Where can I go to eat and not be disappointed?  I delay the decision and sometimes don’t dare make one at all:  skip lunch, eat fruit instead (pomello and mango are still good though prices have risen dramatically), or eat nothing.  More often than ever, if I do go out, I find myself poking at the animal feed I am presented instead of the food I ordered, and, unable to force myself to lift it to my lips, leave hungry and with the feeling of being undeservedly persecuted.

And one has begun to experience the heretofore unheard of:  the — occasional, so far, and mild, so far, but all the same — food poisoning.

One explanation must clearly lie in the ingredients:  there has been a marked decline in the quality and flavor of fruits, vegetables and meat, in a kind of variation of Gresham’s Law:  Chinese imports and new hybrid crops developed for crop yields and long shelf-lives rather than flavor and texture are taking over the market (“Americanization”); the recent run up in food prices (between 50% and 100%) has probably only accelerated the process:  unable to cope with the price hikes, people (and businesses) are going down the quality ladder. 

But this does not explain the sudden prevalence of bad cooking:  food that’s overcooked, or under-cooked, or over-spiced, or over-greasy.  Sometimes the failures are shocking:  how can one explain hard rice in a self-respecting (supposedly) restaurant in a nation of rice-eaters?  Perhaps, in an environment of rapidly rising wages, restaurants are having hard time holding on to their kitchen staff and are forced to replace them with the ever-less skilled; but the consumers share large part of the guilt:  they fail to drive home the market message that bad food is not acceptable:  the quality-wise declining restaurants are as full as they were in their better-cooking days.

How is that possible? 

The only explanation I can think of is that the current customers are not the old customers.  In a city whose population has grown ten fold in ten years, this is not surprising:  90% of the eaters are people raised on the less-good food common in other parts of Thailand.  Indeed, many immigrants are from the country-side where poor ingredients and total absence of fancy foods have been the norm — even in the villages near Mae Rim — a mere 30 minute drive out of town, only low quality ingredients can be had at the market, the farmers habitually selling all their “premium” products into the city.  These immigrants are therefore, literally, food-wise speaking, know-nothings. 

This no doubt accounts for the proliferation of “fancy restaurants”, with glass, black decor, halogen spot lights, pointy logos — and bad food.  Their customers — and they have plenty of them — are not there to enjoy the food:  they want to experience the atmosphere, the decor and the service — feel rich, modern, and fashionable — and could not anyhow tell a good dish (from a bad one) if it hit them in the face.  It explains the rise in tipping, too:  traditionally, one has not tipped in Thailand, as one does not generally throughout the Far East — Asia uses a different economic model for restaurants, one in which the boss pays his workers; but the hommes nouveaux only a few years out of the sticks, have never been served in their lives and, given their low self-esteem, being served makes them feel awkward; the only reason why anyone would ever serve them must surely be — money; and so they tip.

Come to think about it, one can clearly see the same phenomena — poorer ingredients, poorer cooking, less knowledgeable customers, decor-over-flavor, tipping — at work in the restaurant scene of New Delhi.


The raw silks of Thailand

Raw silk” is silk woven from “the first spin”.  Silk cocoons are dumped in boiling water, whereupon the glue holding the string together dissolves and the pot becomes full of mingled, endless thread.  One grabs it anywhere and begins to “spin” — rolling it between his fingers while pulling what emerges from one’s hand onto the spinning wheel — trying to get as thin a thread as one can — i.e. one made up of as few fibers as possible.  The first spin is invariably a little rough and bumpy, thicker in places and thinner in others as it is knotted, mottled, and various bits of flotsam adhere to it.  Later re-spinnings eventually work out the kinks, producing very thin, uniform thread; which is used to weave fine cloth like satin; but the first-spin — in places as thin as the real McCoy, elsewhere as thick as hemp string — can also be used to weave cloth.  This is known as Raw Silk. It produces the texture you see above:  rough to the touch, uneven, with pronounced individual threads, a bit like the bark of a tree.

Shot silk is silk woven with contrasting warp and weft colors, resulting in a cloth which appears to gleam and shift colors as you turn it before your eyes.  These four examples are, top to bottom, red and black, orange and blue, orange and red, and blue and red.  Note how they gleam around the fold:  this effect — the unique property of shot silk — is especially strong when the cloth is worn as clothing and the wearer moves:  she appears to shimmer.

Shot silk is especially effective in satin silk, a type of weave which uses the thinnest, finest thread, and leaves long stretches of individual threads unwoven (“floating” along the surface); this makes the cloth easy to damage, but gives it smooth surface (“smooth as silk”) and brilliant sheen:  it seems like the cloth has been woven from pure sunlight reflected on water.

Weaving raw silk as shot silk, on the other hand (as these examples all are) produces a different — and extraordinary — effect:  the seamless shifting of colors between the colors of the warp and the color of the weft — the shimmering of light reflected on water — is interrupted by the rough feel created by the the uneven thread.  As you bring your face closer to the cloth, the liquid smoothness resolves into dry roughness:  it is a lot like a tender kiss suddenly turning into a bite.

The colors of which these four are made up — red, purple, orange — are the basic colors of the Thai language.  Purple (Si Muang) and orange (Si Seet) are the two most popular colors in Thailand, seen everywhere:  in homes, in clothing, in company colors, on official logos. Not for Thais the dullness of less is more:  nature would not allow it; among the intense colors of South East Asia’s nature, “less” really does look like less.

Ten years ago, Kad Luang (“The Old Market”) in Chiang Mai had at least a dozen shops selling silk, both raw and satin, lined along the walls with a fantastic range of colors, starting with white on the left, going through various shades of white (“Monsoon clouds”, “Moon in August”, “Tiger tooth”) to shades of grey to shades of beige to shades of cream, and so on and so on, to umpteen shades of green, umpteen shades of red, umpteen shades of purple, ending, at last, on the far right, at the far end of the store, in several shades of black.

Today only three shops remain and they have, between them, at most 20 meters of linear shelf-space of colored silk;  you’d be lucky to find four reds to choose from.  The shop owners, there day in and night these twelve years, have not noticed the change, it has been so gradual.  But the truth is that silk retail is dying.

Why?

It isn’t the prices:  it costs in Thai Baht what it cost ten years ago, a modest 25% climb in dollar terms (between $12 and $18 per meter today).  Rather the problem is on the demand side:  the government rule that all government employees are required to wear Thai silk on Fridays has been rescinded; marketers have convinced the feeble-minded that denim and spandex are more chic; but, mainly, tailors have gone and closed.

Why do tailors close? 

Who knows? 

Twenty years ago I tried, in vain, to convince an otherwise intelligent and enterprising Polish man, that clothes made to measure will cost him less and fit him better than an off-the-shelf Ferragamo, but he refused to hear good sense.  Perhaps, like many people, he felt helpless in his inability to visualize what he would like for himself. When asked by the master craftsman “Would sir like a double-breasted jacket or a single-breasted one?”  most people reply “Oh, I don’t mind” meaning not that they do not care, but that they don’t have a clue what they want.  (An apt metaphor for the whole of their life).  The store with ready made clothes offers three choices — which has the virtue of being easy to choose from, even if none is especially good; but the tailor offers endless opportunities; which is, despite Hollywood propaganda to the contrary, not what people want.  Don’t ask me what I want.  I don’t know what I want.  I want everything.  I want nothing.

Tracking down my old tailor last month, after three years’ absence, I discovered he had moved to the suburbs and his waiting time is now not three days but — three months.  This is not a measure of his success but a measure of the profession’s failure:  no one else sews anymore; he is the last tailor shop left in town (not counting the fake, tourist “suit and two shirts” shops which do not actually know how to sew, just how to sell).  His prices aren’t up, just like the flat prices of silk, but his waiting times are.  His customers are old timers who had learned in better times how to have things tailored (i.e. how to visualize what they want and then instruct it) but can’t afford a higher price:  they will rather wait three months than pay more.  The younger generation have the money, just no clue what they could tailor, or even that they could.

And yardage — yardage will only sell if you can sew it.  If you don’t know what to do with it, you’re not going to buy it, are you?

This is how the demise of one profession (tailoring) leads to the demise of another (weaving).  But, hey, no loss without compensation:  you can buy 80-dollar T-shirts from LuLu now, mostly in shades of grey, in machine-spun spandex.

I went out and bought four meters of every length of shot raw silk I liked, figuring that, at this rate, in two years’ time when I return again, there won’t be any left.


Leaving Chiang Mai

There are many reasons to leave this city: air pollution, horrible traffic, noise (there are no rules about intensity or allowed times for karaoke and Thais have discovered they like it late and loud), fast rising prices, slipping food standards, changing climate, the fact that it has finally made it onto the list of the ten best places in the world to retire to; but for me, the biggest reason to leave Chiang Mai after living here ten years are the “citizens” — the normals, the ordinary, usually elderly, white couples — who come here to settle (and die).  For years, one had avoided the expatriate community  because it was a little unsavory, a little… perverse:  a mixture of missionaries, adventurers, and misfits; the usual stories were of run ins with the law, drunk driving, fights, smuggling, quarreling priests and firebombed churches.  Now the dominant element is the lumbering, slow speaking, dull, careful, predictable — and clueless — suburbanite; one flees from them for the opposite reason:  nothing remotely kinky ever will come from this crowd.  In addition to all the symptoms typical of the worst days of an Asian city’s teenage sickness, another threat hangs over Chiang Mai today:  that of becoming Ridgefield Park upon The Ping.  The place the old hands had run from in horror, trading it with relief for a bamboo shack, an easy woman, three cases of beer and, on occasion, a tiger, has come after us.  It has pursued us long and hard; having arrived, it has laid siege to us with big box retailers, a four lane divided highway, and franchise restaurants.  But now it is ready to move on to the next stage:  to bind us hand and foot with visa regulations, drivers licenses, proofs of address, fiscal numbers, and medication no longer issued without legal prescription.  The habitat of the citizens.

The horror, the horror.


Matmee — Thai Silk Ikats, part 7: Some thoughts on the art and — art in general

In my last post wrote:

“From speaking to and watching the weavers at work one can see that their work is a source of happiness to them:  1) it allows them to experience the satisfaction of flow (concentration upon successful execution of a challenging task); 2) it affords them the aesthetic pleasures of a) looking at beautiful colors and surfaces and b) of bringing things into an order (think of the pleasure of reassembling a picture puzzle); and
3) it is perhaps their only activity in which they can earn cash and admiration for something they do: within the silk world, good weavers are famous; outside of it, in the eyes of the world, they’re just ordinary rice farmers.”

In fact, the relationship of matmee weavers to their work is very much typical of the relationship of all traditional artists to their craft.

Likewise, the experience of the end-user of matmee has all the characteristics typical of the way traditional arts are and have been consumed world over: collectors’ appreciation centers around three factors: a) technical evaluation of the quality of the work and b) of its various technical features, both of which require (and display) non-arbitrary expertise (a piece of silk either is a good work or it is not; the dies either are or are not natural; a weave either is or is not typical of Surin, etc.) and c) a kind of experience of rapture when looking at the dazzling patterns and color combinations.

Traditional arts have worked this way universally – from Patancas to Ibaragi, from weaving to fresco painting: the primary concerns are with technique (its development, acquisition, understanding and command); acquisition and display of a large body of lore; and the experience of rapture in appreciation of the end product.

(By rapture I mean a psychological state induced by the way shapes, patterns and colors interact with our cognitive apparatus on a non-verbal, non-theoretical level. A good work confounds and astonishes the consumer, it literally boggles the mind – makes a powerful but incomprehensible impression, providing a kind of out of the mind experience (“je ne se quoi”): a sense of wonder).

*

Current western theories of art, which have evolved over the last century in response the phenomenon of modern (“conceptual”) art – such as that art is a kind of game (Gadamer), whose rules are negotiated as part of its conduct (Danto), etc. – do not really apply to traditional arts. (Perhaps one could say that they are not specific enough to pick out traditional arts, but it also seems that they are not specific enough to pick out anything:  after all, almost any human activity – driving, for instance – consists of negotiating the rules as we go along, etc).

Indeed, traditional arts are best understood in contrast with modern art theory and practice. Main differences lie in two areas, in the area of denotation, and in the area of aesthetic experience.

Denotation

In terms of denotation, discourse in the traditional arts is

1.  specific (type of die-used, say)

(Traditional art does not afford the critic the opportunity to display general erudition or verbal playfulness or intellectual originality.  A critic either knows something specific, or he is a fool).


2. non-arbitrary (x is or is not in y technique)

(It is expressly not true that an unlimited number of mutually contradictory judgments and opinions concerning a single work are possible:  the technique determines unmistakably what is to be judged as good and or bad).

3.  never touches on interpretation

(Artist’s “intention” – “meaning” — if any — is given a priori by the genre:  Madonnas are for worship, kris are for stabbing, etc.  “Traditional arts means nothing”).

Aesthetic Experience

Appreciation of all traditional arts evolves around the work’s ability to spark a mental state which I propose to name rapture – a baffling cognitive response to the work, distinctly non-verbal (“otherwordly”) — indescribable and therefore generally not discussed — but nevertheless essential to any work to be considered of value.

This is not to say that aesthetic rapture is entirely absent from modern art (some pursues it and achieves it) but it does seem that modern art practice is rarely interested in aesthetic rapture; its main interest lies in sparking an altogether different mental state: a kind of intellectual bafflement, i.e. an experience of verbally accessible paradox (e.g. how can there be spiked irons or how can a toilet bowl be an art object, how come 2 + 2 is 4 and not 7, etc.).  Traditional arts take no interest in this kind of experience at all.

Indeed, one could say that traditional arts have almost nothing in common with modern art.


Matmee — Thai Silk Ikats, part 6: current state of affairs

Matmee weaving has been on an accelerating decline: there are ever fewer weavers as old weavers retire but no young people enter the profession. I know several Khon Kaen girls whose mothers’ weave, and who are proud of their mothers’ work, but who themselves have not woven a thread and would not weave one if their life depended on it: to their minds, weaving stinks of old, passe countryside life which they are eager to leave behind. Almost any other menial city job seems better.

More importantly, mothers choose not to teach their daughters:  they prefer for their girls to complete schooling and move to the city.  The city seems to them to promise an easier life — even if the girls should end up, as they usually do, in the ranks of city proletariat.  And even though teaching their daughters to weave in their spare time, after school or on weekends, would not subtract from the child’s education, but on the contrary, enhance her repertoire of skills, somehow, they do not:  weaving does not stand alone in their minds as a valuable skill;  but forms an inalienable a part of the village-woman’s life.  To their minds, one begins to leave the village by first abandoning the weaving.

Economic incentives play their part, too: it takes between 4 and 12 weeks to weave a full-patterned matmee.  This effort is well rewarded for master weavers who turn out the best work, priced in the hundreds-of-dollars-and-up range (remember that the weaving is done in the breaks between other kinds of work!) but in the case of ordinary pieces commanding prices in the under-hundred-dollars range, the financial rewards are not high: a Khon Kaen girl working in a bar in Bangkok makes $30 – $50 a night.

The demand-side economics isn’t good, either: buyers who were reportedly numerous before the Asian Monetary Crisis of 1997, have largely disappeared. Perhaps that crisis had the same effect on Thai middle class that the current global crisis is having on our own middle class today: the middle class itself is coming to an end as we know it.  All traditional artists and dealers whom I meet today – world over – tell the same story: the American and European middle class have dropped out form the market completely, leaving only two market segments: cheap junk at the bottom and super-rich at the top.  It seems that many of the traditional arts which I am studying will probably not survive the forthcoming two decades of economic stagnation.

The owner of the Chonnabot Thai Silk Factory says his firm used to employ about 100 weavers in late 1980s; on a recent Monday, there were two.

*

From speaking to and watching the weavers at work one can see that their work is a source of happiness to them: 1) it allows them to experience the satisfaction of flow (concentration upon successful execution of a challenging task); 2) it affords them the aesthetic pleasures of a) looking at beautiful colors and surfaces and b) of bringing things into an order (think of the pleasure of reassembling a picture puzzle); and
3) it is perhaps their only activity in which they can earn cash and admiration for something they do: within the silk world, good weavers are famous; outside of it, in the eyes of the world, they’re just ordinary rice farmers.

It does not occur to these women that by failing to teach their daughters, they deprive them of an important source of happiness.


Matmee — Thail Silk Ikat, part 5

First prize winner

Winners of the Khon Kaen Silk Weaving Competition

And now we come to the meat of this series of posts, and the reason why it came into existence in the first place:  the Khon Kaen Silk Festival, mainly the usual fair-ground-cum-walking-market, full of people in flip-flops eating food on a stick — the sort of ado which seems to arise at the drop of a hat in Thailand — but with a serious hard core:  two rooms of silk dealers from the whole country, each with the wares from his province (other silk weaving traditions exist in other provinces of Thailand) — and, at its center — the silk weaving awards.  It is pretty much the only place in the world today where a mere mortal can hope to catch even a glimpse of really, really good matmee.

Winners on display

This post proudly features several of the winners of the competition.  Second prize is perhaps my favorite:

Second prize winner

But how do you choose between all these beauties?  The winners aren’t just good technically — indeed, the patterns seen at the competition are rarely seen elsewhere precisely because they are technically so challenging —

Third prize winner

but they are also made with the traditional natural dies — extracted from plants, minerals and animals — which is one of the conditions for entering the competition.  They therefore represent the heart of the tradition and of the Khon Kaen silk aesthetic:  somber, serious, and, for all its gorgeousness, refinedly understated.

Also ran

Also ran, too

Eat your pretty hearts out.



Matmee — Thai Silk Ikat, part 4

I bought these during a previous trip to Khon Kaen, in 2003. All were bought on the loom.  Three out of four have been sewn into clothing, for which — my profuse apologies to humanity. Had I known then just how endangered the art was, or how hard to find these pieces would become, and how soon, I would have never put them to the scissors.


 


Matmee — Thai Silk Ikat, Part 3

But the best pieces – those with prices of over $400 per 4-meter length (highest reported price for a new work in recent years was about $25,000 for a 4-meter length) – do not as a rule make it to stores. When a weaver realizes that the piece she is working on is turning out to be special, she will usually gift it to someone in settlement of an obligation, or reserve it for a dealer or a collector she knows. Such pieces may then be offered for resale, but will generally not be displayed in a store – they will be offered privately, by treaty, and even to be shown such a piece is in itself a piece of extraordinary good luck. This piece (above and below) is a rather good piece I have managed to be shown on this trip. The dealer started out by asking $700, then dropped the price down to $400, but would not budge a penny lower:

And here is another, not half as good good, for about half the price:

You can see that the weaving is not as tight:

Nor did I like the colors as much.

(Incidentally, these two pieces are representative of the two broad design groups — passim (the one on top) — which is a design for a tube skirt — consisting of two parts, a broad main body and a border on one side (which is worn down); passim are woven in very long lengths — 12 meters and more, and then cut and sold in 4 meter lengths; and — the second item — nanang, a fancy design with two borders and two end pieces, usually just under 4 meters, which is meant to be worn elaborately tied — or to be hung on the wall).

Another dealer had one other very good piece, for about $800 – and extraordinarily tightly-patterned na-nang of dark wine red with predominantly ash-grey pattern, but I was not allowed to photograph it.

For brash filibusters like myself, with no contacts, no reputation, no introductions, and no agents, the best chance of finding a high quality piece is to drive through a weaving village mid-morning or early afternoon with the windows down and to listen for the clack-clack of the loom; then dismount, find the loom, see the piece being made and, if the piece is good, buy it right there and then (on a when-finished basis).

See the next post in this series for a few rather good pieces I picked up this way on a road trip back in 2003.


Matmee — Thai Silk Ikat, Part 2

Broadly, there are three kinds of Thai matmee: Khon Kaen (also known as Chonnabot) are flat weaves, often three-ply (obverse and reverse are different color), often in raw-silk (silk that feels almost like sand-paper to the touch) and use very thin thread resulting in small, very tight patterns; Chayaphum which are flat-weaves with thicker thread and coarser patterns usually on raw two-ply silk (as rough to the touch, but less stiff); and Surin where the most famous silks are very fine, soft two-ply silks with an additional (three-dimensional) twill pattern – resulting in subtle interplay between the the three dimensional pattern of the twill and the flat color pattern of the cloth.

Most matmee weavers are housewife-farmers and work at home, usually on a rented loom stored below the house (traditional Thai houses stand on stilts and the loom stands underneath it). They tend to work in spurts, when other work is slack, less during crop planting and gathering, more during December – May, with largest number of pieces available on the market from about March through June. Although there does exist a network of stores, both locally and nationally, which buy up inventory during March-June and offer it for resale year-round, their product offer tends to be relatively low quality, with prices in the range of $40-80 per 4-meter length. This is not to say that these pieces are bad: even ordinary matmee can be very beautiful:


Matmee — Thai Silk Ikat, Part 1

Last week I visited Khon Kaen province to look for matmee.

Matmee, or Ikat as it is known in Indonesia, is a textile-patterning technique in which unwoven thread is tie-died in a series of steps (3-6 steps resulting in 3-6 +1 colors – the yellow of the raw (undied) silk being the additional color) in such a way that a single, continuous thread (sometimes several hundred meters long) will consist of  colored sections of different lengths:  blue, black, red, yellow, pink, green, etc.  Here’s a bunch of threads which have just been died green – the wrapper with which it is tied before dying is still attached to the thread (color only adheres to the untied sections):

And here is tie-died thread ready to be woven:

The various tie-died areas of the thread will then coincide with each other when the thread is woven into cloth and result in a pattern.  Here is a typical pattern (in this photo, the tie-died thread runs vertically):

And this photo (click to enlarge) allows you to follow a single weft thread through a section of the fabric:  the arrow points to the same thread at various points of its length, each section in a different color.  Note that both the thread above the thread we are looking at and the thread below — indeed, all the horizontal threads in this piece of cloth, are in fact one and the same, continuous thread:

Indonesian ikats are “easy” in that they use fewer colors (just two or three) and are (usually) warp-died – meaning that the pattern is in the stationary, lengthwise thread.  It can be carefully set up before weaving and can be clearly seen the moment the loom is set up; the act of weaving consists merely of giving the cloth body.  But Thai matmee are more difficult in that they consist of more colors and are weft-died:  i.e. the weft – the thread that winds left to right and then right to left and then back again as the cloth is woven – is the tie-died thread, and the pattern emerges gradually, one thread at a time, as the weaver weaves and the thread folds back upon itself.

(Patola – a double-ikat technique, Indian in origin, in which both warp and weft are tie-died prior to weaving – and absolutely everything must coincide in order for the pattern to emerge – is now practiced by just one workshop in the world today – the Patolawallas of Pathan, Gujarat).

The normal hand-loom weaving process involves sending the shuttle through the loom (between the warp threads), beating twice, then  repositioning the loom and sending the shuttle through again in the opposite direction.  Here’s a weaver at her loom:

By contrast, the Thai matmee weaver sends the shuttle through the loom, beats once, then adjusts the thread so that colors coincide, then beats again, before laying the next thread. Here’s the weaver adjusting the thread in order to elucidate the pattern:

This technique requires good eye, much practice, and – plenty of time.

The quality of the execution of a pattern depends on the precision of tie-dying (the thread must be tie-died in just the right places or the pattern will not coalesce) and the precision of weaving (the threads must be laid as precisely as possible so that the resulting pattern is as small-featured and crisp as possible).  Not surprisingly, designs involving perfect circles or diagonal lines – the most difficult to produce/ fake and the easiest to evaluate – and therefore allowing most obvious display of skill, are universally preferred.

A good explanation (with photos) of the matmee production process can be found here.


What I said at the conference: or: The universal opera mind, the experience of aesthetic rapture, the leading role of the audience, and how economic advancement can kill a perfectly good art

Thai Khon

[Our current art theories are fundamentally flawed. This is important because art theories both inspire artists’ endeavors and determine official arts policy; and false theories of art lead to failure just like false theory of rocket science leads to crashes and false medical theory leads to the patient’s death: art stagnates, artists are frustrated, grant money is misspent, and the public, unserved, loses interest.

That our art theories are false ought to be apparent to anyone with but a modicum of education and experience – a little modern logic, a little modern economics, a little modern psychology, a little travel, a little business experience in the private sector; the trouble is that those who formulate and teach our art theories, and those who attempt to put them into practice, lack precisely that modicum.

It is worse, in fact: our current art theories have evolved a phalange of special interests: professors who teach it, bureaucrats who administer it, several generations of artists who have been raised on it, and a whole tribe of consultants, managers, dealers, and impresarios who live off the economic systems put in place to implement precisely those theories. Any new theory of art which challenges the economic standing of all these people is therefore resisted. And thus, our false theory of art has become a kind of scholastic Aristotelianism, an unassailable dogma, a powerful group-think, and, generally speaking, no genuine debate of it is possible.

At a recent conference I presented an aspect of a dissident point of view. Below is the text of my presentation with marginal annotations in yellow.]

1. Comparing East and West

The idea that one could learn something useful about one’s own culture by comparing it to other cultures is very old in Europe, but it has never been well implemented, mainly because most attempts to do so set out form the assumption that other cultures are so foreign that we could not begin to understand them, let alone find any similarities. Comparisons, when they are made, are focused on differences rather than similarities. Voltaire gave a perfect expression of this view; he wrote: what is in in Peking, in Paris is right out. In other words, all cultural standards are merely conventional, including our own.

In fact, the truth is precisely the opposite: there are lots of similarities and standards are strikingly alike. That Voltaire did not see this is curious: it’s almost certain that as he wrote those words, he had before his eyes somewhere in his office several pieces of Chinese porcelain: it was at the time, very much in both in Peking and in Paris.

And it was only one of many such things which Voltaire – we – should have noticed.

Balinese Gambuh

2.  Asian dance-drama

Here is another one: my learned predecessor has just expressed the view, quite common, that European opera is a unique art form in the world. I believe it is not. I believe other ancient civilizations have evolved very similar art forms – similar both aesthetically and socioeconomically – and that it is both possible and useful to compare them and their fates. I propose to do just that today and my topic will be one such art form: Asian dance-drama.

I came in contact with it for the first time in my middle age, having been formed intellectually in the European cultural tradition: I was a great fan of baroque opera already; but, though I had by then spent a lot of time in Asia, I was not at all familiar with Asian theater. My reaction was at first that of wonder at the strangeness of the drama I was watching – the people looked different, they wore flowers in their hair, the musicians sat on the floor and played gongs, the singers ornamented their songs in unfamiliar ways, and I have never seen such dance figures before. But as the play went on, I was struck by a powerful sense of recognition: it was like meeting a masked stranger during the carnival in Venice and suddenly recognizing that the stranger behind the mask is in fact our old and familiar friend. This experience is not unique to me: it has happened repeatedly to cultured Westerners: Walter Spies, Beryl de Zoete, Collin McPhee. It continues to happen every year at the Bali Dance Festival. It happens too frequently to be an accident: it happens frequently because there is really is a very strong similarity there.

I will discuss the similarities next, but first I have to tell you what I mean by Asian dance-drama. I mean by it a dramatic form invented as a temple art in South India sometime around the year 0. It tells classical stories, usually taken from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, in the form of dance accompanied by an orchestra and a singing narrator, frequently backed by a choir. As Hinduism, and later Buddhism, spread from South India to South East Asia, the dance drama followed, sometimes – oddly – in opposition to the ruling religion (it is almost as if one imported the religion along with its sins). By the 9th century AD, dance drama became an essential part of royal ceremonial throughout South East Asia. The art form has evolved three distinct styles – South Indian, Indonesian, and Thai-Cambodian. All three are still practiced today.

Cambodian lkhaon kbach boran

3.  Asian dance-drama and European opera:  two branches of the same art?

So, what are the striking similarities between European opera and Asian dance-drama?

I have divided the similarities into three categories.

(1) First, aesthetically speaking, both European opera and Asian dance-drama resort to the same trick for their emotional effect: first, both art forms induce a strong sense of unreality, or otherworldliness, by staging the performances at night, with dim lights, in incomprehensible languages (Venetian dialect in Europe, for instance, or Kawi in Java); by playing music; by singing and dancing rather than acting; by telling well known and often unbelievable stories, frequently in fragmentary form. All these procedures allow the audience to suspend their sense of reality and engage in appreciating the abstract complexities of the performers’ technique: singing or dancing (or both). The complex technique lies at the heart of the art form. It takes years for the performers to master and years for the audience to learn to appreciate. Its appreciation appeals to our visceral, animal nature: we are naturally very sensitive to the sound of the human voice and the movements of the human body. When we are presented with certain aspects of these phenomena, under certain conditions, we can experience rapture. Both art forms seek to induce the experience of rapture through the procedure described.

(2) Although I believe that the central point of both arts is the attainment of aesthetic rapture, there are important similarities between the two art forms as far as their intellectual frame-work is concerned. For instance: the story does not matter in either art form: the stories are told in incomprehensible languages, they are often silly, and they are invariably familiar: there is no sense of suspense of “what happened then?” In both art forms, the libretti are either classical (Greek and Roman gods in opera, Indian epics in dance-drama), or somehow imitate the classics: there is a sense of a loyalty or adherence to the past on the scenario level. Further, on the ideological level, the stories typically concern themselves with the “old virtues” – virtues appropriate to the feudal society: chivalry, courage, loyalty and decorum. Issues of religious observance, ordinary morals, and utilitarian considerations are studiously avoided. The feudal virtues are deemed to be appropriate to, or possessed by, the aristocratic heroes, who are often contrasted with – but not opposed to – the lower classes. The principal concern is with high and low and the contrast is seen as one expressive of quality, or virtue.

(3) Both art forms have played very similar socio-economic function in their respective societies. For instance, both have always been of very narrow social appeal – a minority art form. (Even in the best of times no more than 10% of the population has ever attended opera in France). In both, core users predominate – people who are avid and frequent consumers of the art form and who devote vast amounts of time and money to its consumption, are capable of watching it every night, often the same production several nights in a row, travel long distances to see special performances, and usually sit in the first rows. Both art forms are characterized by repeat consumption: no opera lover would ever say “Oh, I have seen Cosi Fan Tutte already”. Both art forms are very expensive to put on, both in terms of time and money. Both are connected in the popular mind with the national identity: they are thought to be a kind of epitome, or perhaps even, a kind of zenith of their respective cultures. This gives them both the power to legitimize authority: kings and governments have traditionally used them to establish their authority and shore up their prestige. Finally, both art forms stimulate the same kinds of response from non-users: the first, critical, often lampoons the art form because of its unrealistic representation of life (“fat ladies singing”): popular art’s attitude to these art forms is often subversive; the second common attitude of non-users is admiration and aspiration: “I wish I could appreciate it”.

Cambodian lkhaon kbach boran

And now, allow me to engage in a spot of speculation:

4.  Is there such a thing as the opera mind?

Are there enough similarities between opera and Asian dance-drama for us to suggest that they represent a single genre – in fact, the same art form with only minor, cosmetic differences? And if so, can we say that the two art forms have arisen in such similar ways because their particular “trick” fits somehow some aspects of the human mind? If so, it certainly does not fit, as audience participation shows, all human minds: it appeals to a minority of minds in each society where it is present, but, significantly such a minority seems to exist in many different societies. It is possible to take Italian opera to Warsaw in the year 1628 and stage it there without any audience training whatsoever and find that the art form appeals to some of these unprepared minds. Similarly, Indian dance drama can be taken to far away places like Laos and Bali and – be liked by some people there. I am reminded of the Parable of the Sower:

At that time, when a very great crowd was gathering together and men from every town were resorting to Jesus, he said in a parable: “The sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside and was trodden under foot, and the birds of the air ate it up. And other seed fell upon the rock, and as soon as it had sprung up it withered away, because it had no moisture. And other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. And other seed fell upon good ground, and sprang up and yielded fruit a hundredfold.” As he said these things he cried out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”  (St Luke, 8:4-15)

We know from experience that different people have different personalities; and we know from Evolutionary theory that a limited variety of different cognitive skills can be expected to co-exist in any human population. Ergo, perhaps there is such a thing as an Opera Mind: a mind especially suited to this type of art form? (“The good ground”). If so, then the invention of the art form was not so much an invention as it was a discovery: a discovery of a certain kind of mind. The fact that the rules of the Italian opera genre established themselves within just twenty years and have remained largely stable since seems to support the thesis: this is the nature of all discoveries which suit underlying reality: the general outline of the invention comes into being quickly and once it does, it remains remarkably stable: think of automobiles: within two decades, automobiles already looked a lot like today’s cars because that was the form that suited the human body. Similarly, the rules of Asian dance-drama have remained, as far as we can tell, largely constant over the last thousand years — perhaps because they suit the dance-drama/opera mind?

I cannot resist counter-factual speculation: if the dance-drama mind is in fact the opera-mind, would staging Venetian opera during the dance festival in Bali meet with the same sense of recognition among the Balinese which I experienced upon my first viewing of Balinese dance-drama? We don’t know that, but, luckily, it is not too late to perform that experiment. But the reverse experiment has been performed: the Royal Cambodian Theater performed in Paris in 1906 and the performance was a huge success with the Parisian cultivated classes.  (For some reason it was never repeated).

[So here are some unorthodox ideas for you, such as:

a) that there may exist different kids of minds and that different kinds of art may be designed to fit these different kinds of minds;
b) that these arts may therefore not be fungible – i.e. that arts designed for a certain kind of mind will never fit another other kind of mind, and vice versa;
c) that the distinctions between different kinds of minds – and therefore different kinds of art – can cut across different societies and manifest themselves in many different civilizations; and therefore
d) that certain kinds of minds in Europe and in Asia may be more similar to each other than they are to some of their own peers.

These ideas are strongly resisted by the Art Theory Establishment which holds, in direct opposition, that the mind at the time of birth is a blank slate and that any kind of art can be inscribed upon it. (With the necessary corollaries that the task of inscribing upon it should be paid for by the state and entrusted to the guardians of Art Theory who shall then inscribe upon this very blank slate a kind of art which will benefit the whole society, make it happier, richer, more harmonious and more virtuous).

But if true, these ideas would have many far-ranging consequences, one of them being rendering wholly impossible any utilitarian (“greatest good of greatest number”) arguments in favor of public support for opera. This may not necessarily be bad – opera can survive – even thrive – on its own – it did on 17th century Venice, in Warsaw ca. 1800, in Paris between the wars; indeed, it may be good: freed of any further need to broaden its appeal beyond its core users, to educate the broad public and satisfy indifferent bureaucrats, it just might deliver better the one thing that makes it a great art: the experience of aesthetic rapture.

Which, of course, is another unorthodox idea. The established art theory does not recognize the aesthetic experience at all: it is thought to be “just an emotion”, and “socially constructed” (and therefore arbitrary). Establishment art theorists like to credit the importance of opera to its function as civil liturgy (?), its ability to manipulate signs and symbols (??), it’s education value (all those half-baked ideological messages, I suppose, such as “love is most important” and “love your country”), etc.  This makes me often wonder whether the people who write this kind of stuff have in fact ever experienced aesthetic rapture, and if they have not, then, what business do they have to tell us what opera is about?]

Javanese Wayang Orang

5.  The Fate of Asian dance-drama in Bali and in Thailand: the role of the educated audience

Now I would like to devote a few words to the modern fate of Asian dance-drama as I think it contains some important clues to understanding what makes an art thrive. There is a tremendous difference between Bali, where Asian dance-drama thrives, where nearly everyone is involved in its performance and consumption, and where the artistic level is very high, and Thailand where it is, quite literally, on its last legs and the one National Theater cannot be filled even for four performances a year.

Indeed, one of the saddest experiences during my study of Asian dance-drama was to see a performance of Thai dance-drama (khon) in Bangkok in 2005. It took place at the National Theater, a grand building founded by the state, and was performed by the Royal Thai khon troupe, which is fully supported by the state. The audience consisted of perhaps two thousand high school kids herded in by their school who had no interest in the performance and talked and played with their mobile phones throughout. The performance was absolutely terrible: the orchestra played with all the oomph and gusto of ripe Camembert, and the dancers could not be troubled to lift their legs so that it was impossible to say whether they could dance at all. I thought I’d just seen the death of khon.

And then, only two years later, I saw the same troupe perform in Bali. The difference between the two performances was night and day – and the explanation for the difference seemed… the audience. The audience in Bali is knowledgeable and experienced and it gives ready expression to its likes and dislikes. This leads to a special rapport between the audience and performers and motivates the performers to try harder; and they do.  On that night, the Thai khon dancers appeared to be gods come down to earth: they did not move, they floated.

The existence of knowledgeable audience probably explains the excellent condition of dance-drama in Bali where a very large number of amateur troupes (nearly every village has its own theater troupe) performs it throughout the year and where the annual dance festival features several simultaneous performances – to packed audiences – throughout the day for a whole month. The difference in the audience is probably explained by the education: growing up in Bali obliges one to dance and play music since childhood. Dance education begins around the age of 3 and continues till death:  nearly every adult participates in some artistic ensemble in some capacity. By contrast, classical dance drama education, which had once been part of any upper-class child’s curriculum, has ceased in Thailand nearly 40 years ago.

[This, by the way, is another view in direct disagreement with the established theory of art. The notion that a knowledgeable audience motivates artists to a better performance, that it spurs them to greater efforts and guides them in their search for new forms of expression runs wholly against the current and general belief that a true artists is someone who leads and teaches his audience, guides it out of its ignorance – indeed, yanks it out of its ignorance and complacency, often against its will, at the cost of tremendous self-sacrifice and professional failure in his lifetime. (i.e. only future generations can appreciate the work of a genius working today who must, by definition, be “ahead of his time” and therefore misunderstood).]

Keralan Kathakali

6.  Is Europe going Thailand’s way?

Incidentally, this is what is happening in Europe: the generation of our grandparents was taught to sing and play the piano – and not just at a rudimentary level: a reasonable level of expertise was required — enough to perform Beethoven and Schubert piano sonatas. This level of expertise made it easy for that generation to learn to appreciate opera and assured a steady audience for operatic productions. Today hardly anyone receives any musical education, and if they do, it is at best elementary. Appreciation of classical arts requires cultivation:  not hours, but months and years of training the eye and the ear and today we do not devote that kind of time to cultivating ourselves. Is it any surprise that the popularity and commercial viability of European opera is going the way of Thai dance-drama?

7.  The economic decline of the upper-middle class the death of art:  can we even hope to have great opera for long?

And this is a good moment to ask ourselves a philosophical question: given the way our society has changed in the last century, and in particular the way the life of the middle and upper-middle classes has changed, can we even hope to foster a broad, educated audience for our opera? Only a hundred years ago a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer would leave for work at 10 and come back home by 3. Within those short five hours he would have earned (and kept) enough income to support a large household with servants. This allowed him and his family not only the financial resources, but also the time necessary to cultivate themselves, to learn how to play the piano and sing, and to amuse themselves by giving amateur ad hoc opera performances at home (such as took place at my grandparents’ house). In today’s middle and upper-middle households, both spouses work and, being professionals, probably work 60- or 70-hour weeks; then they return home to perform household chores themselves. There is no time to become culturally cultivated today. Perhaps we have to accept that opera is an art of a bygone era: an era when we had time for it.



Arise Sir G, the medium-sized enabler

Paul Bromberg’s article “A Passion for Bencharong” (Arts of Asia May/June 2010) tells the story of a collector’s education:  the initial discovery of an art form, the learning curve (“education pieces” are one’s early purchasing mistakes).  It also provides a little information about this little known, understudied art form (from it I learned that my collection isn’t really Benjarong but rather Lai Nam Thong — “Gold Wash Pattern”). And it features a great deal of photography of his truly superb pieces.  (The journal is glossy, the room in which I read it was bright, my photos of it suck:  let us hope Paul’s promised website — http://www.bencharongcollection.com — offers us good photos).

Paul is a serious collector:  he chose to collect benjarong not only because it is beautiful, but also because it is undervalued.  And it is undervalued not merely on account of its beauty but also because most of it came out of Chinese kilns, much of that out of Chinese imperial kilns.  Thus, historical benjarong is really a subcategory of Chinese porcelain, yet it sells at a fraction of the cost:  decent benjarong, Paul says, can be had for 5-50K, while decent China-proper begins at around 70K.  Furthermore, says Paul, benjarong does not suffer from fakery; but there are so many excellent fakes in mainstream China porcelain that authenticity can be a problem.

This gives me pause for thought: if the modern fake is so good that one cannot tell it from the ancient original except by photo-fluorescence (or some such), can there be any aesthetic benefit of paying many times more for the original?

Hmmmm…

Clearly, I am not a collector in the proper sense of the word; perhaps not even qualified to become one.  I could not care less for either age or authenticity.  If it looks good — as good as the original, or better — I will take it. Doing so gives me the special pleasure of knowing that I am paying a living artist’s wage and thus contributing to the continuation of the art.  I will even gladly purchase new patters as long as they represent — in my view — a successful addition to or variation on the tradition.  Even though much of what I buy is on its last legs — often the work of the last master, the last workshop — it will probably never go up in value — certainly not in my lifetime:  it seems that to be an antique an object must be a hundred years old which means, for my collection, some seventy years after I am gone.  But then — I am not doing this as an investment.  For one thing, the prices I am paying are laughable — two or three digits, for the most part; four in a rare fit — what could I care if a hundred euros “investment” doubled in ten years?  Could that kind of “gain” really be worth the time I am putting into my shopping?

I am really doing this because I want to surround myself with beautiful objects.  It is precisely the ambition which drove my great role-models, the great art sponsors of the past — the Divine Qianlong, His Most Christian Majesty — neither ever made a dime on his art — the desire to make new beautiful objects with which to please oneself and his guests.  It is because they sponsored the art in the first place that men who came a hundred years later — “collectors” — had something to speculate on — for profit.

In my small way, like the great Q and the great L, I am enabling future Paul Brombergs of the world.