Monday, January 27, 2014

Art and science meet up, sort of...

Some time ago, I wrote about an empty canvas by Bob Law, entitled Nothing to be Afraid Of, which was to be auctioned for an estimated £60, 000. Law was described by the head of the contemporary art department at the auction house as the "most underestimated and overlooked minimalist artist in Britain...who didn't get the recognition that he deserved". In his painting he had apparently "... applied the seductive idea of nothing to a canvas, and asks the viewer to reflect”.

A somewhat puzzled David Hockney was reported as saying "It seems to me that if you make pictures there should be something on the canvas".

In the end, the empty canvas was never sold, at least not at that auction.

Now, I have just read in Real Clear Science about the shortest paper ever published.

It is entitled "The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of Writer's Block" by one Dennis Upper.
The paper is an empty page. The referee's comments are reproduced below the empty page and read as follows:

"I have studied this manuscript very carefully with lemon juice and X-rays and have not detected a single flaw in either design or writing style. I suggest it be published without revision. Clearly it is the most concise manuscript I have ever seen-yet it contains sufficient detail to allow other investigators to replicate Dr. Upper's failure. In comparison with the other manuscripts I get from you containing all that complicated detail, this one was a pleasure to examine. Surely we can find a place for this paper in the Journal-perhaps on the edge of a blank page."

There is nothing on the page -- and yet "it contains sufficient detail to allow other investigators to replicate..."

Bob Law asked the viewer to reflect by applying "the seductive idea of nothing to a canvas"

Both scientists and artists can now, in the absence of all detail, create their own details.

So science and art do meet, sort of, don't they? After all, who can deny the similarity here?

Maybe someone should ask the auction house to sell a copy of the paper (preferrably signed by Dennis Upper) alongside Bob Law's empty canvas.

That will be a true meeting of art and science - united under money.

The question is: which one will fetch the higher price?

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Wonderful, transient, art in the snow


The British artist, Simon, Beck has created some memorable art over snow at a ski resort in France, some of which can be seen here. The pictures are attractive to look at but they must be more exciting to see for real.

With every new snowfall, the creations will gradually change and then disappear altogether. The art is therefore, of necessity, transient and has, therefore, transience as an added element. I wonder whether these creations, and their transience, will not be even more appealing to those of a Japanese culture, which emphasizes transience (wabi) as a feature of beauty.

Perhaps some contemporary art gallery should buy good quality photographs of these creations, to exhibit permanently what is only transient.

Just a thought!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The great Stephen Hawking

At a recent event to launch the exhibition on the Large Hadron Collider at the Science Museum in London, the great Stephen Hawking made what must seem to many an unusual declaration. He said, “Physics would be far more interesting if [the Higgs boson] had not been found”. Physicists would then have to re-think many of their fundamental ideas about particles and the forces that bind or repel them.

By saying so, Hawking was displaying both the qualities and perhaps the failings of scientists. Scientists, or at least the great ones like him, love the process of solving great and difficult problems. The solution may be quite marvelous and exciting to think about; it may even be very moving. But, once solved, it ceases to be a problem, which the enquiring mind needs.

So, what Hawking was saying, it seems to me, is that if the Higgs boson had not been found, the problem would have persisted and exercised and concentrated minds, which is what scientists like so much.

This of course is very distant from those who wish that a problem should never be solved, because they fear the results. Some have written of their fear of work on the neurobiology of love, because it will “de-mystify” it; others have written, of neuroesthetics, that they would find it unwelcome to learn what happens in their brains when they view a work of art or listen to music. Hawking wants to learn; they don’t. If Hawking prefers that the Higgs boson had not been found, it is simply that he relishes the process of discovery. He is not fearful of the results; they are.

Why, then, should this also be a failing. I think it is because lesser scientists (and let us not under-estimate the degree to which scientific progress also depends upon lesser scientists) can easily be distracted from trying to solve great problems into solving relatively minor ones, precisely because they love the process of solving problems! I have seen it happen many times.

But there are of course many problems that remain in physics and astronomy. And Hawking is hoping that physicists will move on to solving even grander problems about the nature of our universe.

Hawking is not afraid of de-mystification.  Not at all. The mark of a real intellect.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The paradox of Shunga

The quite wonderful exhibition, Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art  at the British Museum in London, carries with it a surprising paradox or contradiction, which no one has so far been able to explain to me adequately.

Japanese culture in general emphasizes the unstated and the understated, leaving much to the imagination. Yet Shunga art, which is basically erotic art, is the exact opposite. Here, almost nothing to do with the genitals is left to the imagination; instead they are given prominence, the size of the organs more often than not exaggerated beyond reasonable dimensions. 

Yet, in spite of this prominence, most of the rest of the body is covered up in many, if not most, depictions of sexual encounters; in many it is the genitalia alone that are exposed. There is of course, also something of the artificial in these works; couples make love with their clothes on; the hair is usually immaculately coiffed, in some a lady is having her hair combed while having intercourse while in others there are spectators, including children, witnessing the scene.

Why would a culture that has traditionally emphasized the understated produce work that is anything but under-stated? Some Japanese friends have told me that Shunga is nothing but pornography. I do not believe it. In spite of the fact that they may have been used as stimulants or as props for sexual pleasure, these are works of art as well. It is the brilliant depiction of interiors, the wonderful colour combinations, and the immaculate detail with which clothes are represented that turns them into visually pleasurable works. Indeed, it may be said that the genitalia are in fact often a distraction from the rest of the work, especially the depiction of the graceful women in the Shunga work of Kitigawa Utamaro. If  “art is fantasy”, as a quote at the exhibition proclaims, then it is those graceful figures that invite the viewer into a world of fantasy, not the prominently exposed genitalia. A critic once wrote that the sexual figure in Boticcelli’s Birth of Venus is not the naked lady but her richly dressed companion to the right, presumably meaning that it is the latter who draws the viewer into a world of fantasy. Maybe the great masters of Shunga art were trying to balance the explicitness of their images with depictions that allow a world of fantasy and imagination to come into play, all in one.

Shunga was apparently not legal in Japan for very long periods, though tolerated throughout and popular with all levels of society. It is, I gather, still frowned on in Japan. Indeed, I am told that, in modern-day Japan, adult movies in hotels often blur the genitalia – in striking contradiction to Shunga art of earlier times. And there is the contradiction: explicit pornographic films that blur the genitalia on the one hand (perhaps in keeping with the understated in Japanese culture), and great art that is implicit in everything but the genitalia (quite unlike the understated characteristic of Japanese culture).

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The shocks of Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon claimed that he wanted to give “a visual shock”, and his paintings over the decades never seem to have departed from that aim. One of his first exhibitions, in New York, was described as a “chamber of horrors” and Margaret Thatcher, perhaps echoing the views of many outside the art world, once described him as “that man who paints those horrible pictures”. As I understand it, most people (even those who admire his painterly style) would prefer not to have his paintings hanging in their living rooms.

Last week, his three-panelled painting, entitled Three Studies of Lucian Freud, produced another shock – a financial one. It fetched a record price in New York, being sold for the sum of $142.4 millions. What is it that attracted buyers to spend so much (the bidding started at $80 million)?

I believe that Bacon subverted the brain’s normal representation of faces and bodies, which is what turned his pictures into shocking displays. The brain, it seems, cannot easily adapt to departures from what constitutes a normal face; it cannot adapt easily to the disfigured faces and bodies that Bacon specialized in, as a means of making images of the violent reality which, according to him, was so prevalent in the world. Hence the enduring shock effect that he produced.

Most of the discussions I heard and articles I read on this sale revolved around the topic of money. It is not that buyers were only speculating. Rather “deep-pocketed” buyers were also ready, it seems, to splash out considerable sums to buy paintings for their national museums or their homes. I am inclined to the view that when it comes to spending such vast sums, the long-term value is naturally important but cannot be the only or even dominant factor. So what, beyond the prestige of Bacon, drove prices so high? How could paintings reviled through the use of phrases like “horrors” or “mutilated corpses” or “extremely repellent”, which so many (including one on the radio last week) declared they would rather not see hanging in their living rooms, be so much sought after.

Perhaps we have a very deep-seated fascination with horror, especially when it is so evocatively depicted. Perhaps those who yearn to view such paintings are an infinitely more sophisticated and refined, indeed artistic, version of those who jam the roads on their way to see a crashed plane. There are, of course, huge artistic qualities to Bacon’s work – they are formally masterful works, with a quite spectacular, and often unusual, combination of colours. But the fact remains that they also depict mutilated and savaged faces and bodies – viewing of which almost certainly stimulates strongly sub-cortical centres such as the amygdala and the insula, which seemingly respond to fear and horror. And let us not forget that Bacon once said that he was not appealing to the intellect: “I make paintings that the intellect cannot make” he once said, which also implies that he was appealing to something more primitive in his work. In his quite wonderful book on Francis Bacon, Michael Peppiat says that Bacon’s aim was to deliver a visual shock before things got spelled out in the brain (or words to that effect). Perhaps, combining the aesthetically pleasing colours with the mutilation that he so consistently depicted makes the latter more palatable – and even pleasing. The more so if one knows that such a combination is a good place to park one’s money.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Academic violence

One is always somewhat surprised when academics who, in the words of HL Mencken, are generally as “harmless as so many convicts in the death house”, turn to violence. In general, academics dislike violence and prefer to pursue their trade peacefully, although there are many examples of verbal violence. I know of an English university department which speakers are reluctant to speak at because of the extreme verbal violence of one member there.

Yet it is surprising when this violence escalates to the level of arms. The BBC reports one such incident in which an argument about the German philosopher Immanuel Kant escalated to such levels that it ended by the use of rubber bullets fired by one protagonist against another. What the bone of contention was is not recorded. It could have been the “a priori synthetic” or the “categorical imperative” or perhaps the “transcendental synthetic”. At any rate, one of the protagonists was charged with causing grievous bodily harm.

Kant himself would probably have been very surprised. His book, Critique of Pure Reason, apparently sold only five copies when first published, of which two were purchased by himself (I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this story, which I read somewhere years ago). He was in general a very peaceful man whose habits were so punctual that housewives apparently set their watches by when he went to work and when he returned. The French critic Rémy de Gourmont marveled that a man like Kant who had neither wife nor mistress, who died a virgin (as Gourmont believed) could have written a book on the metaphysics of morals!

Yet, violence in academic circles has been recorded before (I mean real violence, not the verbal one, which is very common). There is, for example, the story of Pierre Marie, an eminent French neurologist, who accused another eminent French neurologist, Déjerine, of doing science as some play roulette. But, upon being challenged to a duel, Marie wisely chose to retract his accusation.

On one occasion, I was told not to mention 40Hz when giving a seminar if a certain gentleman was in the audience, for fear that he may suffer a heart attack. I wisely obeyed. But I am told that he later died of a heart attack anyway.

Perhaps it is only fear that keeps academics from resorting to real violence. I know of stories of one German physiologist saying of another, “Now that I have shown that he cannot use a slide ruler, I intend to take no further notice of his work”, while another accused a colleague of “auto-plagiarizing”. I can well imagine such incidents boiling over and resulting in - well, the firing of rubber bullets, at least.

It all goes to show that the dispassionate academics, searching for truth in their ivory towers, may not be impervious to these human instincts, just like the rest.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Silence at Götterdämerung

This has been quite a Wagner week at the Proms in London, the first time that the complete Ring cycle was performed there, to celebrate the bi-centenary of Wagner’s birth.

I am sure that many much more qualified than me will write about this historic occasion. All I need to say is that I enjoyed it tremendously, in spite of the oppressive heat in the hall. As one critic wrote somewhere, “it can’t get much better than this”.

My purpose here is really only to record one extraordinary moment where nothing happened…at the end of Götterdämmerung. Maestro Daniel Barenboim held his baton up for a good 18 seconds after the last note, and everyone held their breath, leaving the gigantic hall, filled to capacity, completely hushed. There was a great deal left to the imagination in those few moments, much longer imaginatively than the real time of 18 seconds suggests. 

You can listen to the silence here at 1:21:13 onwards (for the next six days only).

I say nothing happened, but of course a great deal must have gone through the minds of the thousands attending the performance and the millions listening at home.

This was a perfect ending, for there was nothing left to say but much to think about silently in those few moments.

Indeed, one of the more remarkable features about this Ring cycle was the complete silence from the audience at those silent or subdued moments during the performance, a fact that Barenboim commented on, and thanked the audience for, in his speech at the end of the performance of Götterdämmerung.

I have written many times here about the value of the unstated in art and the silence in music. Yesterday, Daniel Barenboim demonstrated it to powerful effect.