What is Painting?

"The answer to the question “What is Painting?” is simple and clear. The answer is “Who cares?” - Morgan Meis, an arts collective in New York.

The Smart Set from Drexel University is an online publication covering culture and ideas, arts and sciences, global and national affairs. A recent article by Morgan Meis entitled “A Dilettante's Guide to Art” reviews the book “1001 Paintings You Should See Before You Die” by Stephen Farthing and poses the question "What is Painting?" The answer: "Who cares?"

Meis writes: Sometime in the middle of the 19th century painting started to get a little screwed up. It began to worry. Painters stopped simply doing what they were doing and started spending more and more time trying to figure out what they were doing and why. They got into the "What Is?" question. "What is Painting?", "What is Art?" "What Is…?"

It’s hard to blame them for it. The "What Is?" question was in the air. Chalk it up to the vast and traumatic transformations that ushered in modern times. Everybody was trying to figure out what was different and what was still the same. In painting, the biggest change was in the abandonment of representation as the central task. Nobody was interested in problems of perspective anymore, in figuring out how best to make the world of three dimensions look vaguely like itself on the canvas of two dimensions. And yet, for some reason, people still felt the desire to paint. Who knows why? Maybe it was just the need to hold on to a little tradition even as so much else was being swept away. Maybe it was the hope that an old practice could remake itself in a new world. Whatever the explanation, painting managed to remake itself and painters rushed into the 20th century with purpose. They had discovered a new subject matter, painting itself, and they were hot to show off its possibilities. Painting took on a double task, not just to do what it was doing, but also to make a claim about what it should be doing. Painters started talking about painting within their own paintings.

Malevich’s famous White on White comes to mind. It was, basically, one white square painted on top of another white square. It is a lovely painting in its own right, but it is also a manifesto in pigment. When Malevich painted those white squares he was also asking what painting could be, what it was about, what it should and shouldn’t be. Malevich was obsessed with the idea that art had to be freed from its relationship to the object. He thought that art should go after something more pure, perhaps touching on the realm of purity itself, wherever that is. His paintings thus asked the “What Is?” question and proposed to answer it simultaneously. His answer was that painting ought to be about truth and that truth is a simple and geometrical thing.

The amazing thing about 1001 Paintings is thus the breeziness of it all. It is a dilettante’s book …… the dilettantes are always right, because paintings are for looking at, and because every claim about what painting “should be” gets shriveled and old and academic even before the canvas does. The dilettante doesn’t care much about what painting “should be,” only about what it is and has been. And the thing that keeps this standpoint from being utterly trivial is the hint of melancholy in it. The dilettante is interested in all things equally because in the long eye of time all things are equally transient. Looking can become delightful again from that perspective, but it is tinged with the mark of death. The dilettante acknowledges this mark, and then goes about the business of living.

The answer that the book thus gives to the question “What is Painting?” is simple and clear. The answer is “Who cares?”

What painting(s) do you care about? Give the name and I will supply the link.

Posted August 29, 2007

Ask The Almighty?

"I am not a theologian, and I have not turned into a religious mystic, but I am a practical problem solver. So I'm looking at religion from the perspective of how knowledge about what people believe in can be useful in terms of trying to resolve the most serious disputes." - Madeline Albright

Mark Lilla, professor of the humanities at Columbia University, wrote an essay in the NY times entitled “The Politics of God" adapted from his book “The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West" in which he suggests that religious passions lie at the heart of world politics and we need to bring religion into their solution.

Lilla writes: Today, we have progressed to the point where our problems again resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty. We in the West are disturbed and confused. Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.

A little more than two centuries ago we began to believe that the West was on a one-way track toward modern secular democracy and that other societies, once placed on that track, would inevitably follow. Though this has not happened, we still maintain our implicit faith in a modernizing process and blame delays on extenuating circumstances like poverty or colonialism. This assumption shapes the way we see political theology, especially in its Islamic form — as an atavism requiring psychological or sociological analysis but not serious intellectual engagement. Islamists, even if they are learned professionals, appear to us primarily as frustrated, irrational representatives of frustrated, irrational societies, nothing more.

We live, so to speak, on the other shore. When we observe those on the opposite bank, we are puzzled, since we have only a distant memory of what it was like to think as they do. We all face the same questions of political existence, yet their way of answering them has become alien to us. On one shore, political institutions are conceived in terms of divine authority and spiritual redemption; on the other they are not. And that, as Robert Frost might have put it, makes all the difference. Understanding this difference is the most urgent intellectual and political task of the present time.

Madeline Albright makes a similar case both in her book "The Mighty and the Almighty" and also in a recent CNN interview. Albright says that we have ignored the importance of faith in the cultures of other countries and she argues that politics and religion must be brought into our search for political solutions in many of the World’s crisis spots.

CNN: In your book, you argue for a better understanding of religion in the U.S. foreign policy arena. Isn't that a revolutionary idea for this generation of diplomats trained more in the realist school of foreign policy?

Albright: As a practitioner of foreign policy, I certainly come from the generation of people who used to say, "X problem is complicated enough. Let's not bring God and religion into it." But through my being in office, and as I explored the subject much further in writing "The Mighty and the Almighty," I really thought that the opposite is true. In order to effectively conduct foreign policy today, you have to understand the role of God and religion. ... My sense is that we don't fully understand, because one, it's pretty complicated, and two, everyone in the U.S. believes in a separation of church and state, so you think, "Well, if we don't believe in the convergence of church and state, then perhaps we shouldn't worry about the role of religion." I think we do that now at our own peril.

Religion is instrumental in shaping ideas and policies. It's an essential part of everyday life in a whole host of countries. And obviously it plays a role in how these countries behave, so we need to know what the religious influence is.

I found the first time I went to Jerusalem, my initial reaction was, people are arguing over all this all the time, it made me think, well, there can't be a God, why would God put up with this? And then I had the total opposite reaction. One that stays with me, which is that there are so many holy places and symbols there, and all anybody talks about is their relationship to those symbols and to God, and therefore the power of God must be so strong there. I just think that it would be much better if people could figure out ... how to agree about it.

CNN: So, therefore, how to figure out the fate Jerusalem is the perfect example of why we need to include religious understanding in our foreign policy.

Albright: Definitely. I am not a theologian, and I have not turned into a religious mystic, but I am a practical problem solver. So I'm looking at religion from the perspective of how knowledge about what people believe in can be useful in terms of trying to resolve the most serious disputes. I think one of the major problems is that here in the United States, particularly, there is very little understanding of Islam. We all act as if Islam is a monolithic religion and that all Muslims live in the Middle East. The bottom line is most Muslims in the world don't live in the Middle East. They live in Indonesia, or Malaysia, or India, um, Pakistan. Second, there are a number of different sects within Islam. Now I think more people understand the difference between Shia and Sunni, but that is just the beginning. We really do not know anything about it

Does the U.S.A need more 'religion' in its foreign policy ?

Posted August 21, 2007

Illness As A Gift?

"How can this make me a better person?" - Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People

In the August 14, 2007 Science section of the NY Times Jane E. Brody writes about “Thriving After Life’s Bum Rap”.

Can getting cancer make you happy? For Betty Rollin, survivor of two breast cancers, there’s no question about it. In her newest book, “Here’s the Bright Side,” Ms. Rollin recounts: “I woke up one morning and realized I was happy. This struck me as weird. Not that I didn’t have all kinds of things to be happy about — love, work, good health, enough money, the usual happy-making stuff. The weird part is, I realized that the source of my happiness was, of all things, cancer — that cancer had everything to do with how good the good parts of my life were.

It turns out there is often — it seems very often — an astonishingly bright side within darkness. People more than survive bum raps: they often thrive on them; they wind up stronger, livelier, happier; they wake up to new insights and new people and do better with the people around them who are not new. In short, they often wind up ahead.”

This is not to suggest that battling cancer is pleasurable. Frustration, anger and grief are natural reactions. Cancer forces people to put their lives on hold. It can cause considerable physical and emotional pain and lasting disfigurement. It may even end in death. But for many people who make it through, and even for some who do not, the experience gives them a new perspective on life and the people in it. It is as if their antennas become more finely tuned by having faced a mortal threat.

As a woman with incurable ovarian cancer recounted this spring in The New York Times: “I treat every day as an adventure, and I refuse to let anything make me sad, angry or worried. I live for the day, which is something I never did before. Believe it or not, I’m happier now than I was before I was diagnosed.”

Michael Feuerstein, a clinical psychologist and author with Patricia Findley of “The Cancer Survivor’s Guide,” was 52 when he was told he had an inoperable brain tumor and was given a year to live. But Dr. Feuerstein didn’t die — he survived extensive debilitating treatment and gained a new outlook. He wrote: “I now realize that I am fortunate. Now, after the cancer, I find I can more easily put life in perspective. I re-evaluated my workload, opting to spend more time at home. I take more time for what matters to me most: my wife and my children and grandchild. I also allocate time to better understand cancer survivorship from a scientific point of view, so I can help others in my situation translate this work into useful answers to the question, ‘now what?’ I am optimistic about the future and excited to leave my unique mark on the world.”

Dr. Harpham is a 16-year survivor of recurrent chronic lymphoma. In her latest book, “Happiness in a Storm: Facing Illness and Embracing Life as a Healthy Survivor,” she states: “Without a doubt, illness is bad, yet survivorship — from the time of diagnosis and for the balance of life — can include times of great joy among the hardships. You can find happiness. Chances are the opportunities for happiness are right in front of you. You might need to explore different ways of seeing yourself and the world around you,” Dr. Harpham writes. “In doing so, you discover new types of happiness waiting to be tapped, such as the happiness of knowing love in a whole new way. Happiness in a storm,” she concludes, “is never about enjoying your illness but embracing your life within the limits of your illness, and figuring out how to feel happy whenever possible.”

Jill Sklar in her book The Five Gifts of Illness’ describes these gifts as Perspective through Adversity, Time and Being, The Purpose in Helping Others, Living Life in Balance, and Resetting the Future. She writes in the introduction to her book:

It was during one of those sleepless nights at the hospital, tossing and turning to try to find a comfortable spot on the plastic covered mattress, that I realized the disease I had wasn’t all bad, that there were wonderful things I had gained because I had suffered. I had known true misery from the illness, but that night I also discovered the proverbial other side of the coin.”

Per aspera ad astra?

Posted August 14, 2007

A Poker for Popper?

"God has arrived. I met him on the 5:15 train" - John Maynard Keynes speaking of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Edmonds and Eidinow described a lifetime squabble between Rousseau and Hume in Rousseau's Dog. In this book they deal with a ten-minute spat between two equally illustrious philosophers, Wittgenstein and Popper.

On October 25, 1946, in a crowded room in Cambridge, England, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper came face to face for the first and only time. The meeting did not go well. Their loud and aggressive confrontation became the stuff of instant legend. But precisely what happened in those ten minutes remains the subject of intense disagreement. Amost immediately, rumors spread around the world that the two great philosophers had come to blows, armed with red-hot pokers.

What really wnet on in that room? And what does the violence of this brief exchange tell us about these two men, modern philosophy, post-war culture, and the difference between global problems and logic puzzles?

Wittgenstein's Poker is an engaging mix of philosophy, history, biography, and literary detection. At the center of the story stand the two philosophers themselves: proud, irascible, larger than life—and spoiling for a fight.

The third man in this story is Bertrand Russell. Wittgenstein was Russell's brilliant pupil whom Russell looked upon as his natural philosophical heir. However, Wittgenstein came to regard Russell as his intellectual inferior and later in life told the American philosopher O.K. Bouwsma that they "passed but did not speak". Russell had given minor assistance to Popper in the furtherance of his career and did not know or respect him to the extent that he did Wittgenstein. Popper's attitude to Russell according to their contemporary Peter Munz was "verging on hero-worship".

In his review of this book Enrique Lerdau wrote: This book takes us back to a peculiar incident at Cambridge, England immediately after World War II, when the mystifying analytic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein met the combative and aggressive Karl Popper, both Viennese expatriots adrift in the aftermath of the century's European convulsions. Both men were accustomed to making waves among their peers, both had reputations for innovative thought which broke new ground, and both had legions of followers and disciples.

Wittgenstein, the older and more established of the two, was on his home turf (though, as always, ill at ease in the milieu he had claimed for his own) whereas Popper was something of an outsider, as he had been all his life. Popper apparently went to this philosophical tryst with the intention of overturning Wittgenstein's claim to being the gris eminence of the philosophical world and in order to replace Wittgenstein's vision with his own as the main philosophical theme around which others might rally or debate. He had, he felt, previously done just this with the so-called Vienna Circle's logical postivism which, as a philosophy, had developed under the spell of the early Wittgenstein. So Popper was looking for a reprise of his earlier success, but on a grander scale, as he matched himself up against the thinker who had been the logical positivists' idol. Wittgenstein, on the other hand, seems to have been distracted by personal issues at the time.

Overall, this is a marvelous book in the background and insights it offers concerning the two combatants, and those who surrounded them. A little light on the philosophical issues, to be sure, and taking some liberties when it purports to get us into the heads of the protagonists in the events immediately leading up to and following the encounter, it also fails to offer any real revelation as to who really did what to whom. But, as others have noted elsewhere, it is fascinating to try to reconstruct the story, based on eyewitness and near-witness accounts in light of the philosophical questions these men were mainly concerned with: what can we know and how can we know it? More, it shows us the very human sides of both men. As with all of us they were not always entirely likable.

What can we know and how can we know it?

Posted August 9, 2007

Rousseau Had A Dog?

"Rousseau was mad but influential, Hume was sane but had no followers " - Bertrand Russell. "Here begins the work of darkness in which I found myself engulfed" - Rousseau, the Confessions. "No character in human society is more dangerous than that of the fanatic" - Hume

Ralph Blumenau, a retired teacher living in London, wrote in his review of this book: The authors have earned fame for a hugely successful earlier book, Wittgenstein's Poker, in which a poker played a symbolical part in the dispute between Wittgenstein and Popper. Rousseau's dog, Sultan, plays no such part in this book about the antagonism that developed between Rousseau and Hume. Only on the penultimate page is there a single paragraph in which the authors comment on the unconditional love between man and dog that was the yardstick by which Rousseau judged all other friendships and to which none of his other friendships could live up.

But the title might also have another explanation: two or three times in the text the authors have invented another "dog". The philosopher Grimm had written about the "companion who will not suffer him [Rousseau] to rest in peace", meaning the paranoid personality which he thought was Rousseau's alter ego. Grimm does not describe this alter ego as a dog, but the authors see it as one, doubtlessly having in mind that Winston Churchill had called his own depression his Black Dog.

When Rousseau was being driven from one place to another on the continent because the authorities there objected to his writings, David Hume, then serving at the British Embassy in Paris, had invited Rousseau to seek asylum in England, had brought him over in 1766, and intended to help him there in any way he could. Unfortunately Rousseau was by that time a florid paranoiac. Both in France and in England woundingly satirical but anonymous writings were circulating about him, and Rousseau suspected that the kindly Hume had had a hand in them and was plotting with his enemies against him. He wrote some bitter letters of accusation to Hume, and also denounced him in letters to his contacts on the continent, some of whom were also friends of Hume's, and this forced Hume into publishing his own defence.

The nature of the dispute between them was not of a philosophical kind at all unlike, say, that of the dispute between Wittgenstein and Popper or that between Leibniz and Spinoza, so brilliantly examined by Matthew Stewart in his recent book The Courtier and the Heretic. Of course it could have been about philosophy: Rousseau was committed to the romantic and emotional approach, Hume to the ultra-rational examination of philosophical issues; Rousseau had come to hate the ‘Philosophes’, Hume had greatly enjoyed their company while he was living in Paris. The dispute was not even overtly about their respective attitudes to society. Hume loved society and was at ease in it; Rousseau hated it and loved the solitary life.

Such differences between them are handsomely set out, but if the two great thinkers were indeed "at war in the Age of Enlightenment" (the subtitle of the book), it is sadly not possible to dignify that war as one caused by differences in philosophy or life-style. Indeed, our authors mention that in all the correspondence between Rousseau and Hume, "there is no dialogue or engagement about ideas", nor, to the best of my knowledge, did either of them take issue in print directly with the philosophical ideas of the other. Their war took the form exclusively of an attack by a paranoiac Rousseau on his benefactor, and then, because the paranoiac was at that time so famous, of Hume feeling forced (against the initial advice of his friends) into defending himself against the charges circulating against him in Europe, and doing so in an uncharacteristically intemperate and less than entirely honest manner. The story of the actual quarrel is well told. The authors give a judicious account of and carefully expose the inconsistencies in the cases of both contenders in this sad and pathetic story. Rousseau was a very sick man, but Hume, too, comes out it all rather worse than is perhaps commonly assumed.

In the end it was not any clash of ideas but merely gossip that excited the intellectuals of Europe about this dispute. It was a great "media story", but not a significant one. And like so many media stories, it was about personalities and not about issues. Although there are some good assessments of Rousseau's and Hume's importance in the history of Europe, the book focuses on what was least important, least stimulating, least edifying and least enduring about them. It is of course the authors' good right to give their book that focus. And it is a good read.

Who was wronged - Rousseau or Hume?

Posted August 4, 2007