Art. Does it have to be BOLD to be good?

The lengthy corridors of art history over the last five hundred years are decorated with numerous bold and monumental works. Just to name a handful of memorable favorites you’ll see a pattern emerge: Guernica (Pablo Picasso), The Persistence of Memory (Salvador Dali), The Dance (Henri Matisse), The Garden of Earthly Delights (Heironymous Bosch). Yes, these works are bold. They’re bold in the sense that they represented a fundamental shift from the artistic sensibilities and ideas of their times. These works stirred the salons and caused commotion among the “cognosenti” and the chattering classes. They implored (or decried) the establishment to take notice of new forms, new messages, new perspectives.

And, now here we are in the 21st century, floating in a bottomless bowl of a bold media soup; 24-hour opinion and hyperbole; oversized interactive billboards, explosive 3D movies, voyeuristic reality TV, garish commercials, sexually charged headlines and suggestive mainstream magazines. The provocative images, the loudness, the vividness, the anger – it’s all bold and it’s vying for your increasingly fragmented and desensitized attention. But, this contemporary boldness seems more aligned with surface brightness and bigness than it is with depth of meaning. The boldness of works by earlier artists such as Picasso, Dali, Bosch came from depth of meaning rather than use of neon paints or other bold visual noise.

So, what of contemporary art over the last couple of decades? Well, a pseudo-scientific tour of half-a-dozen art galleries featuring the in-the-moment works of art may well tell you the same story – it’s mostly bold as well. What’s been selling at the top art auction houses? Bold. What’s been making headlines in the art world? Bold.

The trend is and has been set for a while: it has to be brighter, louder, bigger. Indeed, a recent feature article in the New York Times on the 25th Paris Biennale seems to confirm this trend in Western art. (Background: The Biennale is home to around a hundred of the world’s most exclusive art galleries, those that purport to set the art world’s trends, make or break emerging artists and most importantly (for them) set “market” prices.) The article’s author, Souren Melikian, states:

Perception is changing. Interest in subtle nuances is receding as our attention span shortens. Awareness of this trend probably accounts for the recent art trade emphasis on clarity and monumentality and the striking progression of 20th-century modernity.

Well, I certainly take no issue with the observation that “commercial” art has become much more monumental and less subtle, especially over the last 40 years. By it’s very nature for most art to be successful in today’s market overflowing with noise, distraction and mediocrity it must draw someone’s fragmented and limited attention, and sadly, it does this by being bold, bright or big! However, I strongly disagree that “clarity” is a direct result of this new trend in boldness. I could recite a list as long as my arm of paintings and other art works that show remarkable clarity even though they are merely subtle.

Perhaps paradoxically, brokers and buyers of bold seem exclusively to associate boldness with a statement of modernity, compositional complexity, and layered meaning. The galleries at the Biennale seem to be confusing subtlety with dullness, simplicity and shallowness. Yet, the world is full of an equal number of works that exhibit just as much richness, depth and emotion as their bolder counterparts despite their surface subtlety. There is room for reflection and nuanced mood; there is room for complexity and depth in meaning from simple composition; there is room for pastels in this over-saturated, bold neon world.

As Bob Duggan eloquently states, at BigThink:

The meek, such as 2009 Turner Prize winner Richard Wright (reviewed recently by me here) may yet inherit the earth, but only in a characteristically quiet way. Hirst’s jewel-encrusted skulls will always grab headlines, but Wright’s simpler, pensive work can engage hearts and minds in a more fulfilling way. And why is it important that the right thing happens and the Wrights win out over the Hirsts? Because art remains one of the few havens for thought in our noise- and light-polluted world.

So, I’m encouraged to see that I am not yet a lost and lone voice in this noisy wilderness of bold brashness. Oh, and in case you’re wondering what a meaningfully complex yet subtle painting looks like, gaze at Half Light by Dana Blanchard above.

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Commonplaces of technology critique

From Eurozine:

What is it good for? A passing fad! It makes you stupid! Today’s technology critique is tomorrow’s embarrassing error of judgement, as Katrin Passig shows. Her suggestion: one should try to avoid repeating the most commonplace critiques, particularly in public.

In a 1969 study on colour designations in different cultures, anthropologist Brent Berlin and linguist Paul Kay described how the sequence of levels of observed progression was always the same. Cultures with only two colour concepts distinguish between “light” and “dark” shades. If the culture recognizes three colours, the third will be red. If the language differentiates further, first come green and/or yellow, then blue. All languages with six colour designations distinguish between black, white, red, green, blue and yellow. The next level is brown, then, in varying sequences, orange, pink, purple and/or grey, with light blue appearing last of all.

The reaction to technical innovations, both in the media and in our private lives, follows similarly preconceived paths. The first, entirely knee-jerk dismissal is the “What the hell is it good for?” (Argument No.1) with which IBM engineer Robert Lloyd greeted the microprocessor in 1968. Even practices and techniques that only constitute a variation on the familiar – the electric typewriter as successor to the mechanical version, for instance – are met with distaste in the cultural criticism sector. Inventions like the telephone or the Internet, which open up a whole new world, have it even tougher. If cultural critics had existed at the dawn of life itself, they would have written grumpily in their magazines: “Life – what is it good for? Things were just fine before.”

Because the new throws into confusion processes that people have got used to, it is often perceived not only as useless but as a downright nuisance. The student Friedrich August Köhler wrote in 1790 after a journey on foot from Tübingen to Ulm: “[Signposts] had been put up everywhere following an edict of the local prince, but their existence proved short-lived, since they tended to be destroyed by a boisterous rabble in most places. This was most often the case in areas where the country folk live scattered about on farms, and when going on business to the next city or village more often than not come home inebriated and, knowing the way as they do, consider signposts unnecessary.”

The Parisians seem to have greeted the introduction of street lighting in 1667 under Louis XIV with a similar lack of enthusiasm. Dietmar Kammerer conjectured in the Süddeutsche Zeitung that the regular destruction of these street lamps represented a protest on the part of the citizens against the loss of their private sphere, since it seemed clear to them that here was “a measure introduced by the king to bring the streets under his control”. A simpler explanation would be that citizens tend in the main to react aggressively to unsupervised innovations in their midst. Recently, Deutsche Bahn explained that the initial vandalism of their “bikes for hire” had died down, now that locals had “grown accustomed to the sight of the bicycles”.

When it turns out that the novelty is not as useless as initially assumed, there follows the brief interregnum of Argument No.2: “Who wants it anyway?” “That’s an amazing invention,” gushed US President Rutherford B. Hayes of the telephone, “but who would ever want to use one of them?” And the film studio boss Harry M. Warner is quoted as asking in 1927, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”.

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MondayPoem: The Chimney Sweeper

By Robert Pinsky for Slate:

Here is a pair of poems more familiar than many I’ve presented here in the monthly “Classic Poem” feature—familiar, maybe, yet with an unsettling quality that seems inexhaustible. As in much of William Blake’s writing, what I may think I know, he manages to make me wonder if I really do know.

“Blake’s poetry has the unpleasantness of great poetry,” says T.S. Eliot (who has a way of parodying himself even while making wise observations). The truth in Eliot’s remark, for me, has to do not simply with Blake’s indictment of conventional churches, governments, artists but with his general, metaphysical defiance toward customary ways of understanding the universe.

The “unpleasantness of great poetry,” as exemplified by Blake, is rooted in a seductively beautiful process of unbalancing and disrupting. Great poetry gives us elaborately attractive constructions of architecture or music or landscape—while preventing us from settling comfortably into this new and engaging structure, cadence, or terrain. In his Songs of Innocence and Experience, Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul, Blake achieves a binary, deceptively simple version of that splendid “unpleasantness.”

In particular, the two poems both titled “The Chimney Sweeper” offer eloquent examples of Blake’s unsettling art. (One “Chimney Sweeper” poem comes from the Songs of Innocence; the other, from the Songs of Experience.) I can think to myself that the poem in Songs of Innocence is more powerful than the one in Songs of Experience, because the Innocence characters—both the “I” who speaks and “little Tom Dacre”—provide, in their heartbreaking extremes of acceptance, the more devastating indictment of social and economic arrangements that sell and buy children, sending them to do crippling, fatal labor.

By that light, the Experience poem entitled “The Chimney Sweeper,” explicit and accusatory, can seem a lesser work of art. The Innocence poem is implicit and ironic. Its delusional or deceptive Angel with a bright key exposes religion as exploiting the credulous children, rather than protecting them or rescuing them. The profoundly, utterly “innocent” speaker provides a subversive drama.

But that judgment is unsettled by second thoughts: Does the irony of the Innocence poem affect me all the more—does it penetrate without seeming heavy?—precisely because I am aware of the Experience poem? Do the explicit lines “They clothed me in the clothes of death,/ And taught me to sing the notes of woe” re-enforce the Innocence poem’s meanings—while pointedly differing from, maybe even criticizing, that counterpart-poem’s ironic method? And doesn’t that, too, bring another, significant note of dramatic outrage?

Or, to put it the question more in terms of subject matter, both poems dramatize the way religion, government, and custom collaborate in social arrangements that impose cruel treatment on some people while enhancing the lives of others (for example, by cleaning their chimneys). Does the naked, declarative quality of the Experience poem sharpen my understanding of the Innocence poem? Does the pairing hold back or forbid my understanding’s tendency to become self-congratulatory or pleasantly resolved? It is in the nature of William Blake’s genius to make such questions not just literary but moral.

“The Chimney Sweeper,” from Songs of Innocence

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ” ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!’ ”
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved: so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.

Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father & never want joy.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

—William Blake

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Google’s Earth

From The New York Times:

“I ACTUALLY think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions,” said the search giant’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, in a recent and controversial interview. “They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.” Do we really desire Google to tell us what we should be doing next? I believe that we do, though with some rather complicated qualifiers.

Science fiction never imagined Google, but it certainly imagined computers that would advise us what to do. HAL 9000, in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” will forever come to mind, his advice, we assume, eminently reliable — before his malfunction. But HAL was a discrete entity, a genie in a bottle, something we imagined owning or being assigned. Google is a distributed entity, a two-way membrane, a game-changing tool on the order of the equally handy flint hand ax, with which we chop our way through the very densest thickets of information. Google is all of those things, and a very large and powerful corporation to boot.

We have yet to take Google’s measure. We’ve seen nothing like it before, and we already perceive much of our world through it. We would all very much like to be sagely and reliably advised by our own private genie; we would like the genie to make the world more transparent, more easily navigable. Google does that for us: it makes everything in the world accessible to everyone, and everyone accessible to the world. But we see everyone looking in, and blame Google.

Google is not ours. Which feels confusing, because we are its unpaid content-providers, in one way or another. We generate product for Google, our every search a minuscule contribution. Google is made of us, a sort of coral reef of human minds and their products. And still we balk at Mr. Schmidt’s claim that we want Google to tell us what to do next. Is he saying that when we search for dinner recommendations, Google might recommend a movie instead? If our genie recommended the movie, I imagine we’d go, intrigued. If Google did that, I imagine, we’d bridle, then begin our next search.

We never imagined that artificial intelligence would be like this. We imagined discrete entities. Genies. We also seldom imagined (in spite of ample evidence) that emergent technologies would leave legislation in the dust, yet they do. In a world characterized by technologically driven change, we necessarily legislate after the fact, perpetually scrambling to catch up, while the core architectures of the future, increasingly, are erected by entities like Google.

William Gibson is the author of the forthcoming novel “Zero History.”

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