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On the history of the selfie

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — on self representation, avatars, and what we may be missing ]
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Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalen, aka The Conversion of the Magdalen

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Where to begin?

The Washington Post doesn’t like selfies much, according to Galen Guengerich in the Religion, yes, the Religion section — in a post titled ‘Selfie’ culture promotes a degraded worldview he writes:

The 2013 word of the year, according to the Oxford Dictionaries, was “selfie,” which Oxford defines as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” The first use of the term, according to Oxford, occurred when a young Australian got drunk at a friend’s 21st birthday party and fell down the stairs. He hit lip-first and his front teeth punched a hole in his bottom lip. His response was to take a photo of himself and post it online for his friends to see. “Sorry about the focus,” he wrote, “It was a selfie.”

Okayyyyy…

As usual, the Kierkegaard / Kardashian combo that tweets as @KimKierkegaard manages to straddle the worlds material (in the Madonna sense) and spiritual (in the sense of the Madonna):

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I wanted to dig deeper — the WashPost Religion section, Kierkegaard, how could I not? I often want to dig deeper, and today I was driven to do so because today — not or the first time — I ran across a terrorism analyst and blogger named Cristina Caravaggio Giancchini, who uses a detail from her namesake Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio‘s Martha and Mary Magdalen (above) as her avatar…

Avatars are a kind of selfie, aren’t they?

In any case, I found myself looking for the particular Caravaggio that contains that detail, discovering it was the Martha and Mary Magdalen, which you see that the top of this post — then kept on digging via Google to learn a little more.

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Here’s what I found in a blog post titled Fingers and Mirrors: Caravaggio and the Conversion of Mary Magdalene in Renaissance Rome:

The inclusion of the mirror asks viewers to enter into a dynamic conversation about their own delight in the rich textures of the picture; alongside a powder puff and comb, it points us to Mary’s vanity, and her concern with the things of this world. Rather than showing Mary to herself, however, the mirror captures a diamond of light — a visual representation of the divine grace that inspires Mary to look beyond her earthly passions. The flower that Mary clutches to her chest is an orange blossom: symbol of purity.

As Debora Shuger realises, in a stimulating essay on early modern mirrors, for Renaissance viewers ‘the object viewed in the mirror is almost never the self’ (22). Such mirrors are, Shuger suggests, if not totally Platonic (reflected an absolute ideal), at least ‘platonically angled, titled upwards in order to reflect paradigms rather than the perceiving eye’ (26). Renaissance mirrors, she concludes, ask us to think differently about the mental worlds and self-awareness of people living in this period: ‘they reflect a selfhood that … is beheld, and beholds itself, in relation to God’ (38).

Pilgrims who travelled to Aachen in the fifteenth-century appear to have purchased small convex mirrors as souvenirs: as relics were carried through the thronging crowds, travellers held up the mirrors to catch a glimpse of them, and then preserved the mirrors as objects which, according to Rayna Kalas, ‘betokened that moment when the pilgrim had a vision of and was visible before the sacred relic. … Every subsequent glance at this mirror memento might serve to remind the believer of that glimpse of sacred divinity’. In Caravaggio’s painting, though, Mary looks away from the mirror which might capture her reflection (the ‘dark glass’ of Corinthians?), and towards her shadowed but persuasive sister.

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We began this post with the idea that our 21st century ‘Selfie’ culture “promotes a degraded worldview” — and here by way of contrast, in the use of hand-held mirrors in 15th century Aachen, we see what we are missing…

… a glimpse of the sacred, in which the sacred glimpses us in transcendent return.

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The virtual museum is not simply a museum in virtual space

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — cross-posted from Sembl — on the infinite possibilities of juxtaposition in gallery & museum, catalog & library — creativity & the Sembl game ]
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Van Gogh's Sunflowers: the Amsterdam and National Gallery Sunflowers side by side, Jan 2014. Photo credit: Julian Simmonds, Telegraph UK

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Please note that what I term here the “virtual museum” is intended to cover both a physical museum or gallery space with available or built in digital affordances and the museum as a completely portable function of the digital network and its devices alone.

I originally wrote this set of notes on February 10, 1997, and have made only tiny changes in the text as presented here — removing one paragraph that was left incomplete, switching the last two bullet points, and placing one “spare” sentence in a suitable context.

As I look back to those days of the Magister Ludi list, and forward to Cath Styles‘s progress with Sembl, I have a sense that this document was prescient, the seed of much that is coming into being now, as we speak. Like all such visions, the manifestation has developed over time, but the idea of the ready, multiple comparison of museum or gallery objects, together with supporting documentation, is still fresh: over time the invisible becomes cutting-edge.

To set the scene, here is a quote from Sven Birkerts that had long inspired me:

There are tremendous opportunities, and we are probably on the brink of the birth of whole new genres of art which will work through electronic systems. These genres will likely be multi-media in ways we can’t imagine. Digitalization, the idea that the same string of digits can bring image, music, or text, is a huge revolution in and of itself. When artists begin to grasp the creative possibilities of works that are neither literary, visual, or musical, but exist using all three forms in a synthetic collage fashion, an enormous artistic boom will occur.

With that insight in mind, here’s a glimpse of my early thoughts about the glass bead game and the museum:

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That’s right — the virtual museum is not simply a museum in virtual space

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What’s going on here is that we’re dealing with a multidimensional space rather than the flat space of a wall or the three dimensional space of a room.

  • Walk-through “real-life” museums necessarily organize their collections in such a way that one work of art is sequentially related to the next. The visitor walks up a corridor, or through a room, and takes in each work in sequence, carrying a little of the previous work trailing in memory — and on occasion stepping back to view two works placed next to one another in a comparative way.
  • In her hand or in his ear, a textual commentary is available: the catalogue. And this is typically consulted in a one-to-one relation, such that picture 63 is viewed and the text for picture 63 heard or read.

The museum is a collection of physical objects with stories which explain them: virtual space is a space of virtual objects with linkages between them.

  • It follows that the virtual museum is a collection of virtual objects and the linkages between them.
  • But what are those objects?
  • We cannot assume the objects in the virtual museum are limited to the objects in the physical museum: if nothing else, the stories which explain those objects will themselves be objects in the virtual museum.
  • Both “collection objects” and “catalogue entries” are represented in the same digital fashion. The catalogue entries, in other words, are objects in the virtual museum.
  • We do not carry a catalog as we browse the virtual museum… “collection” and “catalog” merge.

The virtual museum is its own virtual catalog.

  • And this is because the digital democratization of information which obtains on the web renders the “art object” and the “art-historical text” functionally equal.
  • In fact, “digital democratization” allows for the expansion of presentable content to include not only visual and art historical materials on an equal footing, but also all manner of other texts, the world of literature and drama, architectural renderings, mathematical analogs and explanations, sounds and musical items…
  • Thus the virtual museum need not and should not limit itself to physical objects [eg pictures, sculptures] and associated texts, but can and should contain linkages to other arts and modes of representation [eg musical, literary, historical, scientific and mathematical expressions].
  • Furthermore, the virtual museum need not limit itself to the objects in its sponsor museum’s holdings, but may also contain linkages to the holdings of other museums: indeed — and importantly — web-based “frames” make this possible without the viewer leaving the originating web site.
  • Not just the museum catalogue and reference library, but also the world’s other museums, private collections, text libraries, record libraries and databases are all available as reference points for the items in the collection.
  • Linkage, in other words, is the “new” in our context, while objects and their stories are the given.
  • We do not move from room to room but from link to link as we browse the virtual museum.

The virtual museum can be conceived as an ellipse with one focus in the originating collection and the other in world cultural history…

  • The “virtual proximity” of other bodies of knowledge on the net and web invites the inclusion of multiple reference points outside the collection: effectively, the museum as we know it transforms into a repository of world culture whose special focus is the collection:
  • The virtual museum is thus no longer archeologically or artistically based: it encompasses all forms of expression.
  • The museum becomes an expression of cultural totality.

The floorplan of the virtual museum is an n-dimensional graph of nodes and links.

  • The essence of the difference between the museum and the virtual museum is this: objects in the virtual museum are “next to” a far larger number of other objects than objects in the physical museum.
  • The system of linkages inherent in the structure of the Internet and the World Wide Web expands our concept of the museum by making possible a bewildering variety of new “throughways” between and among the items displayed, and “outside” the museum: thus raising new problems and possibilities in sequencing the experience of the “visitor”.
  • What happens as a result is that linkage itself blossoms from a narrow and largely sequential business into a multiplex affair.
  • The juxtaposition of one artefact with another explodes in an unimaginable freedom, and a system of constraints must therefore be imagined to limit and lead the viewer — through a “garden of forking paths” — to a desired and appropriate outcome.

To understand this is to make a virtue of the virtual … and a cathedral of the museum.

II

The virtual museum is not simply a museum in virtual space, but the virtual presentation of whatever the museum-as-archetype has been or will be in the labyrinth of human vision.

  • The sequencing the visitor’s experience in virtual space will thus inevitably reflect the topology not only of the collection, but also of the catalog and of the web itself.
  • And this topography brings a new feature to the foreground: linkage. The links between items themselves begin to assume considerable esthetic importance.
  • The museum and the library can no longer be separated, since their contents are intermingled: and the result is that the virtual museum, like the cathedral before it, becomes a speculum mundi or”mirror of the world”.

We live in secular times, and the museum is our cathedral.

  • This could mean, minimally, that the museum has replaced the cathedral as the central space where people congregate in a culturally rich environment. Maximally, and thus potentially, it means that whatever the cathedral was for us — master artwork of combined artworks in many media, ritual space, hub of the city, mirror of worlds — the museum can be.
  • The secular does not lack for a sacred dimension, but offers access to it in a manner that does not demand a specific, local belief or practice.
  • The virtual museum as secular cathedral is the place where all the world’s imaginal trasures come together as offerings, and from which all the world departs imaginally enriched.
  • The museum is thus heir to the phenomenology of shamans, saints and mystics, as well as of artists and their patrons, teachers and students — for it is visited by crowds in which each individual carries a different cultural inheritance, now Italian, now Congolese, now Navaho, now Santeria…

The test of the museum is its cathedral-effectiveness: its capacity to invoke wonder.

  • The virtual museum is thus a special case of the “art form” described by Hermann Hesse in his novel The Glass Bead Game:
  • The elevation of the virtual museum is a sacramental elevation.
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In good, really good company

Friday, January 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameronmildly NSFW if your office can’t handle Leonardo, which IMNSHO we should be able to manage now in this 21st century CE — and besides, it’s the weekend ]
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Well, we here at Zenpundit have a particular interest in creative thinking, and this last evening I unexpectedly found myself in excellent creative company…

…in a months-old blog-post by an old friend, an astrophysicist by profession who goes by the name Cygnus on the web — presumably after the constellation that harbors Deneb, and also Kepler-22b, the “first known transiting planet to orbit within the habitable zone of a Sun-like star” (WikiP, since I know no better). Cygnus means “swan” in Greek, and Zeus became a swan for his own imperious purposes when he saw LedaHelen of Troy being one of their offspring (see eggs in Da Vinci‘s image below), with the Trojan War ensuing.


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Here’s then, is the A-Z of creative folk, as Cygnus pulled it together last April as part of an “A-Z- Challenge” — I’m honored and awed to be named in the company of such as Andre Breton, Donald Knuth, George Carlin, Octavia Butler, Samuel R Delany, Dame Frances Yates and the rest:

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For April 2013, my theme for the Blogging from A to Z Challenge was “An A to Z of Masters of the Imagination that You Oughtta Know About.”  In other words, on each day I profiled a person whose brains were just overflowing with weirdness and creativity.  Here’s a list of the posts:

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So that’s Cygnus’ list — quite a dinner party! You’ll recognise some members of your own constellation of creatives here, perhaps — feast on some of those you’re not yet familar with! Cygnus blogs about games and such at Servitor Ludi.

As for me, I’ll simply offer you William Bulter Yeats‘ great poem Leda and the Swan, to celebrate the company I just found myself in, and close out a memorable evening:

Leda and the Swan

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                                 Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

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DoubleQuote in the Wild: Maurits Escher & Juan Cole

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — mainly because I’ll post MC Escher any chance I get ]
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I’m often but by no means always a fan of JR Cole. In this instance, though, I’d say he’s built a fine “wild” DoubleQuote out of his own observation and the Escher print he “quotes” in this tweet:

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Hm — did this make anyone else think of Pakistan?

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Leap Worlds: my 3QD attempt

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — another runup to the glass bead game ]
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Below you can read my submission to the wonderful 3 Quarks Daily “web aggregator” site as a candidate to join their regular Monday blogging team — it didn’t even make their “close but no cigar” list, but I wrote it and I like it, so I’m posting it here.
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They are both fine American authors, stylists of high repute yet little known, Annie Dillard and Haniel Long, but I hadn’t associated the two of them particularly closely until that day. I’d snarfed up a copy of Long’s Letter to Saint Augustine from the dollar box at Pasadena’s magnificent Archives theological bookstore, and on my way home to nearby Eagle Rock, stumbled on a passage that seemed hazily familiar.

My friend Jens Jensen, who is an ornithologist, tells me that when he was a boy in Denmark he caught a big carp embedded in which, across the spinal vertebrae, were the talons of an osprey. Apparently years before, the fish hawk had dived for its prey, but had misjudged its size. The carp was too heavy for it to lift up out of the water, and so after a struggle the bird of prey was pulled under and drowned. The fish then lived as best it could with the great bird clamped to it, till time disintegrated the carcass, and freed it, all but the bony structure of the talon.

By the time I arrived back at my books, I knew it was Annie Dillard I’d been reminded of, and a quick, no, excited but fumbling search turned up this passage from her Teaching a Stone to Talk:

And once, says Ernest Seton Thompson–once, a man shot an eagle out of the sky. He examined the eagle and found the dry skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to his throat. The supposition is that the eagle had pounced on the weasel and the weasel swiveled and bit as instinct taught him, tooth to neck, and nearly won. I would like to have seen that eagle from the air a few weeks or months before he was shot: was the whole weasel still attached to his feathered throat, a fur pendant? Or did the eagle eat what he could reach, gutting the living weasel with his talons before his breast, bending his beak, cleaning the beautiful airborne bones?

They’re emblematic, those two quotes, the way I see them: emblematic in the sense that each could be the basis for a heraldic shield, the eagle stooping to carry off the weasel, air creature triumphant over creature of earth in the one, the fish dragging the bird down in the other — creature of water gathering the air creature into its own fatal realm.

Emblematic too, I see them, of the possibility of a rhyme between thoughts — and I have quoted them as such in previous essays, alongside rhymes of sound and rhymes of meaning, womb and tomb being the classic examples of choice, but also rhymes of image, the fan rotors and helicopter rotors in the opening sequences of Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now, rhymes of melody in counterpoint, in fugue… and rhymes, yes, in history, as when Sir Frederick Stanley Maude told the people of Baghdad in 1917, “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators…” and Donald Rumsfeld chimed in, telling his own troops in that same weary city, almost a century later, “Unlike many armies in the world, you came not to conquer, not to occupy, but to liberate and the Iraqi people know this.”

Oh yeah?

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The world is woven, Jung tells us in one of his most original and illuminating insights, of woof and warp, causaland acausal principles , it is at once at every point synchronic and diachronic.

Moving through time, we have the causal, diachronic principle, one things leads to another: let us sort and analyze the actions of one thing on another until psychology becomes sociology, sociology turns into evolutionary biology, biology into genetics, genetics a form of chemistry that is essentially physics — and physics, at the quark-level at last, a matter of statistics, mathematics unfettered even by the dualism of wave and particle.

Let me be clear about this. I do not begrudge Higgs his boson or his Nobel, nor Chandrasekhar his Nobel or his limit. But both men followed the warp, the causal, time-bound length-wise threads of discovery to their fraying edges. And the causal threading of events, time’s warp in our lived universe, is the mode best suited to quantity, to the determinable, and knows little of mystery unless magnitude alone — the infinities of astronomy, the infinitessimals of subatomics, alone will qualify.

Oh, scale is a marvel, true enough — but it is quality, not quantity, where the mystery and the greater meaning resides.

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And so we come to the mind’s other faculty, the other manner in which the world is woven, the manner of rhyme and repetition, synchronicities and semblances, of patterns recognized within and across disciplines. The cross-weave.

This has been the step-child of cognition for too long — but with the rise of cybernetics, feedback loops, complexity theory, network thinking and multi-causality, we can no longer think only in linear progressions, but must also cultivate associative, lateral, sideways thinking — in short, creative leaps.

Creative leaps occur when we recognize commonalities across conceptual distances — theme and variations, as musicians would say, rhymes in the nature of things, multiple perspectives and voices in counterpoint. So the nature of our current world, in all its complexity and variegation, calls for what I would call a music of ideas.

I’m not the first to have this idea, Glenn Gould was pursuing it in his work for radio, blending the many voices and conversations in a train compartment, or at the different tables in a truck-stop café, to form an interwoven whole that comprehended all of its voices, all of its parts in a greater music. But it is Edward Said — another musicians, when he was not occupied with Israeli-Palestinian politics or literature — who observed in an essay in Power, Politics and Culture, p. 447:

When you think about it, when you think about Jew and Palestinian not separately, but as part of a symphony, there is something magnificently imposing about it. A very rich, also very tragic, also in many ways desperate history of extremes — opposites in the Hegelian sense — that is yet to receive its due. So what you are faced with is a kind of sublime grandeur of a series of tragedies, of losses, of sacrifices, of pain that would take the brain of a Bach to figure out. It would require the imagination of someone like Edmund Burke to fathom.

So that’s the symphonic scope of the thing, seeing the whole with all its fractures and dissonances as a music — a music that calls for harmonization, but remains in complex counterpoint.

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Hermann Hesse was the first great proponent of the music of ideas, at least in modern western times, and his glass bead game — evoked but never defined in his Nobel-winning novel of that name — offers us a glimpse both of the nature of moves and of the possible grandeur of an implicit world-architecture, formed of resonances and semblances, rather than of causes and effects.

Hesse gives us an insight into how the game is played at the level of moves and themes when he says a given game might have explored “the rhythmic structure of Julius Caesar’s Latin and discovered the most striking congruences with the results of well-known studies of the intervals in Byzantine hymns” — but he could hardly have known, back in the 1940s, that in 1978 the University of Wisconsin Press would publish Jane-Marie Luecke OSB’s monograph, Measuring Old English Rhythm: an Application of the Principles of Gregorian Chant Rhythm to the Meter of Beowulf. Intentionally or unintentionally, his game is played by all whose minds play with meanings. And there’s a game move right there, in the conviviality between the fictional move of Hesse himself, and the monograph, years later, of a Benedictine nun.

Tiny, you say, a tiny move — but a move in what Hesse termed the “hundred-gated Cathedral of Mind.”

And the scope of that cathedral, in its gradual entirety, is vast — encompassing all the vast quantities of the sciences, with the qualitative depths and heights of the arts and humanities too:

The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.

We are drawing close, in a humanly possible way and without making any predications of the being or non-being of such a supposed entity, to the very mind of god.

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And with immediate real world application, as when Maxwell sees the commonality between electricity and magnetism, Kekulé the serpent-biting-it’s-tail like form of the benzene ring — or Taniyama‘s 1955 “surmise” as Barry Mazur puts it, that “every elliptic equation is associated with a modular form” — an insight that was to bear rich fruit forty years later, in Andrew Wiles‘ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem.

Hesse’s vision of the game was lucid, elegant, intellectual — but lacked real world application. Viewed as a method of scoring the music of ideas, it offers illuminations from the most abstract and theoretical of mathematics to the most complex of opposed political intrangencies — from Tamiyama to Edward Said, and from Christopher Alexander‘s Pattern Language to John Holland‘s “genetic algorithms“. Alexander and Holland each indicate their debt to Hesse’s fictional game in their own respective works.

How, then, to notate this game, these moves that leap side-wise, pattern-wise, semblance-wise across boundaries and boxes, limitations and disciplines — for it is these leaps, as Arthur Koestler notes in his The Act of Creation, that give us the surprised aha! of discovery, the unexpected ha! of laughter, the gut-wrenching wail aiiyeee! when tragedy strikes.

My own inclinations favor play — solo or with a friend — at a coffee house, with pencil and paper napkin, with a small graph for a board, ideas played at its nodes, connections and resonances represented by its edges. I’m thinking of network mapping on a human scale, between seven and a dozen nodes, each one rich in meaning, anecdote, quote, statistic, image, snatch of song…

But the essence is the single move, the single resemblance. And for this I have a form which I would like to offer you, downloadable, for your own experiments:

Download the image and fill the two spaces with what you will — whatever you can sketch, whistle, count out or scribble —

I think you’ll find the greatest reward comes when the two ideas, visuals, verbals, aurals you juxtapose are closely related yet drawn from distantly separated regions of thought.

At their best, such juxtapositions cross galaxies. My own most cherished example to date compares a night sky by Van Gogh with a von Kármán diagram of turbulent flow…

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And where does this lead us? What becomes of CP Snow‘s famed Two Cultures?

Two great rows of pillars in Hesse’s hundred-gated cathedral, perhaps — best appreciated when one looks up, and sees the great vaulted roof, the magnificence of the arches between them.

In future Monday columns here on 3QD, I hope to bring you some further moves in the great game of correspondences, weaving together topics that have caught my attention in the preceding month — now in poetry, now on the morning news.

The leaps.

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I’m happy to report that friend Bill Benzon made the 3 Quarks Daily cut and will be blogging there, and that friend Omar Ali is already one of their regulars.

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