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).