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New camera, same old clichés

I’ve got a new camera, so I thought I’d celebrate it in the approved internet fashion: catblogging. You can click through to Flickr to see larger versions.

This is Boris:

And this is Posy, who is a difficult cat to photograph, because she’s so black and shiny:

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Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland

The general message of Irrationality is that, if there has ever been a rational decision taken in the history of humankind, it was a fluke.

Sutherland goes through various different kinds of bias and error that are present in the way people think – obedience to authority, conformity to the group, a poor grasp of probability and statistics, being influenced by whatever you heard most recently, placing too much emphasis on unusual cases, looking for evidence that confirms your hypothesis and not evidence that contradicts it, being influenced by the order in which information is provided, placing too much confidence in intuition, being unwilling to cut your losses, and so on and so on – and for each of them he provides examples of psychology experiments that demonstrate that people systematically and repeatedly make the same stupid mistakes.

Rorschach inkblot

It’s a reminder that the scientific method is, in the end, just a whole series of elaborate ways to resist the tendency of the human mind to leap to the wrong conclusion. Not that science always gets it right first time as a result, but least at its best there’s a cultural understanding within science that it’s very easy to be wrong in lots of different ways and that you have to be very careful and methodical to try to avoid error.

It also tends to suggest that anyone who has to make complicated and important decisions – politicians, doctors, judges, engineers – could usefully take similar care to carefully and methodically eliminate systemic biases in the way they decide things, because they’re almost certainly less good at it than they think they are. That’s true of all of us, of course, but most of the decisions most of us make aren’t actually going to have particularly serious consequences.

Anyway, the book. It’s mainly made up of lots and lots of examples – often with several experiments described in a single paragraph – so it’s somewhat dense, and I should probably read it again if I want to take it all in, but it’s well written, which helps. And always interesting.

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Races and races

It’s probably easier and wiser to avoid the awkward subject of the relationship between race and sporting ability. Whatever the truth one way or the other, discussing the possibility of inherent racial advantages in anything is only going to be divisive.

But when you turn on the World Athletics Championships 10000m race, and see that after 3000m the leading group consists of four Kenyans (one running for Qatar), three Ethiopians, an Eritrean, a Ugandan, a Zimbabwean and an American who was born in Somalia, it’s hard to avoid. The men’s distance events are so consistently dominated by Ethiopians and Kenyans in particular; both countries seem to produce new world-class distance runners by the dozen. In the last 10 years, there have been three Olympics and six World Championships, and in the 10000m, 25 of the 27 medals have been won by Kenyans and Ethiopians.

Surely, you have to think, there’s some kind of physiological trait present in some East African populations – probably an adaptation to altitude – which gives them an advantage. And if there is, it would be interesting to know what it is. It would also be interesting to start projects to look for gifted distance runners in other high-altitude countries like Ecuador and Nepal.

I suppose one difficulty is that if you say Ethiopians are naturally gifted distance runners, it tends to devalue their achievement, although they still have to beat each other. The race today, which the awe-inspiring Kenenisa Bekele eventually won after the Eritrean, Zersenay Tadesse, set a gruelling pace for most of the way, certainly didn’t look any easier or less competitive because it was dominated by East Africans.

Of course it’s worth pointing out that the classic simplistic idea of race doesn’t apply here. Distance running isn’t dominated by ‘black’ or African athletes in general; it’s specifically Kenyans and Ethiopians. And perhaps just a specific subset of people from those countries.

I was in Japan during the Sydney Olympics, and the Japanese seemed generally convinced that black people were just ‘stronger’ than Asians, and that was that. So when a Danish TV documentary ran a tiny informal experiment that supposedly demonstrated that people from a particular ethnic group in Kenya had an advantage in distance running, I wasn’t surprised to see the Japan Times report the story with a headline that was something like ‘Blacks proven to be naturally faster’, illustrated with a picture of Michael Johnson. Johnson, of course, is neither Kenyan nor a distance runner. In fact, as a sprinter, any physiological adaptations which favoured endurance racing might well be an active disadvantage.

All of which leads me to… I don’t know, really. I don’t really have a point, except that it’s all quite interesting.

How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties!

I’ve just started a book called ‘Irrationality’, about the irrational behaviour of human beings. So far, much of the general drift has been fairly familiar, but no matter how many times you get told about the untrustworthy tendencies of the human mind, the specific experiments are still startling. Three that happened to jump out at me:

‘In one study, a telephone call was made to a nurse by someone claiming to be a doctor in the hospital whom she had never met. he told her to give a patient a 20 mg dose of a drug called Aspoten (in reality a placebo), adding that she must give it immediately because he wanted the drug to take effect before he saw the patient, when he came to the ward. He added that he would sign the prescription then. Despite the fact that he had ordered twice the maximum dose set out on the label and that there was a rule that no one should administer a drug before the doctor had signed the prescription, 95 per cent of nurses approached complied.’

‘Subjects were encouraged to give (sham) electric shocks to a stooge. When they were dressed like nurses they became less aggressive than those normally dressed, while wearing Ku Klux Klan outfits made them very much more aggressive.’

‘In a simple experiment, four short lines were each labelled ‘A’ and four slightly longer ones ‘B’. People saw a bigger difference in the average length of the two sets of lines when they were labelled in this way than when no labels were attached.’

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The funniest thing on the internet

I was googling around for pictures of Satan the other day for the Satanic Verses post, and found myself at the Art Renewal Center, which, to be fair, is an extremely good source for pictures of fine art. In fact, I think I’ve been there before and assumed that was their entire raison d’être. But no: they have a Higher Mission.

This is how their ‘philosophy‘ section starts:

For over 90 years, there has been a concerted and relentless effort to disparage, denigrate and obliterate the reputations, names, and brilliance of the academic artistic masters of the late 19th Century. Fueled by a cooperative press, the ruling powers have held the global art establishment in an iron grip.

Punchy stuff, isn’t it? Those dastardly ruling powers with their iron grip! But there’s more:

Equally, there was a successful effort to remove from our institutions of higher learning all the methods, techniques and knowledge of how to train skilled artists. Five centuries of critical data was nearly thrown into the trash. It is incredible how close Modernist theory, backed by an enormous network of powerful and influential art dealers, came to acquiring complete control over thousands of museums, university art departments and journalistic art criticism. We at the Art Renewal Center have fully and fairly analyzed their theories and have found them wanting in every respect, devoid of substance and built on a labyrinth of easily disproved fallacies, suppositions and hypotheses. If, dear reader, you are not already one of their propaganda successes, I encourage you to read on.

You see, dear reader, you too can fight the good fight. Are you sufficiently committed to Art to live in fear of that knock on the door in the middle of the night? The one that means the Ruling Powers of Modernist Theory have sent out their goons? You are not alone:

Against all odds, and in the face of the worst kind of ridicule and personal and editorial assault, only a small handful of well-trained artists managed to stay true to their beliefs. Then, like the heroes who protected a few rare manuscripts during inquisitional book-burnings of the past, these 20th Century art world heroes managed to protect and preserve the core technical knowledge of western art. Somehow, they succeeded to train a few dozen determined disciples. Today, many of those former students, have established their own schools or ateliers, and are currently training many hundreds more. This movement is now expanding exponentially. They are regaining the traditions of the past, so that art may once again move forward on a solid footing. We are committed in every way possible to record, preserve and perpetuate this priceless knowledge.

We have painstakingly unraveled an understanding of how and why great traditional art nearly perished. For the sake of our children, our culture, and posterity, the Art Renewal Center is dedicated to traditional humanist art, which is essential to the health and welfare of mankind, and to a critical and truthful analysis of the modernist onslaught by which it was nearly consumed.

For the sake of the children! Will no-one think of the children?

I’m impatient with many aspects of contemporary art myself. But the rhetoric here is priceless. There’s only one possible explanation for the shift in direction of art in the twentieth century: a cabal of tyrannical theorists and their cowardly lackeys maliciously distorting the world art market for their own dubious reasons, and remorselessly stamping out anyone who is found committing thought crimes.

messed-up painting by Bougereau

The general drift of this – that modern art is all Emperor’s New Clothes, that it is imposed from above by an elite consisting of Charles Saatchi, Nicholas Serota and that guy who faked the moon landings, and that it has lost touch with what real people like – is a commonplace of tabloid journalism. But seeing it spelled out so vehemently and explicitly crystallises just how silly it is. After all, at no point in the past century has it been illegal to paint, print, sell, exhibit, write about, or otherwise promote whatever kind of art you want. If non-representational art has become mainstream, it can hardly be put down to a conspiracy. And it genuinely is mainstream; the majority of people may still be sceptical about stuff at the bleeding edge of contemporary art, but artists like Picasso and Matisse are as big a commercial draw as any of the Old Masters.

But to appreciate the full glory of the Art Renewal Center, you have to get to the part where they name names.

As you read, you will be seeing images of masterpieces by some of those artists whose names and art were so ruthlessly maligned: William Bouguereau, John William Waterhouse, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Leon L’hermitte, John William Godward, Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Jules Joseph Tissot, and Frederick Lord Leighton, amongst others. All giants in their lives, they were amongst history’s greatest, yet prior to the last fifth of the twentieth century, virtually no mention or knowledge of their work was being taught, analyzed or exhibited anywhere.

The ARC isn’t a refuge for people who dislike Jake and Dinos Chapman, or Marcel Duchamp, or Jackson Pollock; or even Kandinsky and Picasso. Nothing so obvious. No, it’s for people who think that the great tradition of Western Art was fatally undermined by Corot, Renoir, and Monet. It’s for people who think that the Pre-Raphaelites were better than the Impressionists.

I actually rather admire them for that. The obvious division might be between representational art and abstract art; to draw your line in the sand between the classical/academic tradition and the Impressionists is much more radical and much less crowd-pleasing. They are, however, obviously wrong.

It’s an interesting issue, though. Even if you aren’t willing to reject all art from the Impressionists onwards, there remains the point that, at the same time as the Impressionists were painting their splodgy pictures of haystacks and canals, there were plenty of artists painting in the academic style. They were continuing the tradition that had served pretty well for several centuries; they may not have been at the cutting edge, but there were many talented painters among them. Are we (by which I suppose I really mean: Am I) too quick to write them off as vapid and uninteresting?

Well, it’s always good to examine your prejudices and usually a mistake to write off whole artistic movements wholesale. But the more I browse around the ARC site, looking at the images of ruthlessly maligned masterpieces, the more inclined I am to think I was right to start with.

yet another messed-up Bougereau

Starting with the Pre-Raphaelites; it’s striking how little of the nineteenth century there is in their work. It’s all Greek myth, knights in armour, or harems. Even the paintings that aren’t set in an exotic locale seem to take place in some kind of never-never land where the women drift around gracefully around in culturally non-specific flowing robes. In a century of urbanisation, industrialisation, increasing democracy, non-conformist religion and empire, the paintings seem wilfully disconnected from the broader culture.

So how is that different from Botticelli painting the Birth of Venus? Well, in the Quattrocento, the revival of classical culture was hot. It was one of the core ideas driving the culture forward. I am a great believer that cultures have a sort of pulse; at any given time, there are certain art forms or media or genres which are a focus of creative energy. Then, after a while, for reasons that may or may not be obvious, the pulse moves on to something else. That doesn’t mean people suddenly stop producing work in the old form, but the dynamism and cultural relevance, the snap, crackle and pop, has gone.

You can see this happening in an accelerated form in the last hundred years of popular music. Jazz had a good run of thirty or forty years when it was at the cutting edge of Western culture, but eventually it died. That doesn’t mean people stopped making it, or performing it, or going to concerts, but it became a heritage activity like renovating classic cars. The same thing happened to rock, and to soul; for some time, hip-hop has been the world’s most vibrant popular music form, but it’s been around for thirty years now, and has, perhaps, run out of ideas.

Fashions in popular music are just ripples on the cultural surface, of course. Other shifts are bigger and slower. One of those was the classical revival we call the Renaissance, which reshaped the literary, artistic and architectural vocabulary of Europe for centuries. And, you know, it had a good run. From the late fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries it was the only game in town; by the eighteenth it had reached its most polished, refined, and bloodless form, and it’s starting to feel like a mannerism or a habit. So you get the debate about Ancients v. Moderns, the invention of the Gothick, and people writing poems ‘as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men’.

And like the poets and novelists and architects, the painters had to find new ways of doing things which were more in tune with the times. It’s questionable, of course, how much the tradition had really been based on classical models – there are, after all, very few surviving paintings from ancient Greece or Rome – but still, there were a whole bunch of habits associated with Renaissance art, like history painting, figures in ‘classical’ drapery, personifications of abstract qualities and so on, which had once been fertile sources of ideas but now needed to be thrown aside like a squeezed-out tube of toothpaste.

Indeed, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood obviously understood that on some level, since despite the ARC championing them as the finest products of the academic tradition, they were actually rejecting most of it; they were medieval revivalists. Hence the name. But their solution was no improvement. They adopted some of the qualities of late medieval/early Renaissance painting, but never made any more of it than a decorative style. It’s all petals and no backbone. There was no organic connection to the broader culture. The nineteenth century was dynamic, fast-moving and chaotic; and if there’s one thing Pre-Raphaelite work is not, it’s dynamic.

another messed-up painting by Bougereau

I’m going about this at some length because I find these questions of artistic taste – of changing fashions – fascinating. This is the classic argument:

‘This style was good enough for [famous artist x], so it’s good enough for me; just because it’s not fashionable, that doesn’t mean it has suddenly become worthless.’

And it sounds very plausible. But I just don’t think it’s true. Changes in artistic fashion may seem arbitrary and superficial, but they are indicative of something deeper. You don’t have to slavishly follow fashionable taste, but you need to take it seriously. If your poetry reads like it was written a hundred years ago, that probably means there is something wrong with it.

Of course you might be ahead of the curve. It might be that we’re due a change, that the tide is turning, that the pendulum is going to swing back, that everyone else will catch up with you later. But be warned: it’s probably not going to happen. People, like the Pre-Raphaelites, try to stage revivals all the time. Usually the tide is not turning, and you’ll just end up looking like a bit of a Cnut.

» The sliced and diced pictures above are all by William Bougereau, the favourite artist of the ARC. I particularly like the bit where they say “Considering his consummate level of skill and craft, and the fact that the great preponderance of his works are life-size, it is one of the largest bodies of work ever produced by any artist. Add to that the fact that fully half of these paintings are great masterpieces, and we have the picture of an artist who belongs like Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Carravaggio [sic], in the top ranks of only a handful of masters in the entire history of western art.” Because, of course, greatness is best measured by the square inch.

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Fun with lenses

A couple of weeks ago when it was, briefly, sunny, I was messing around in the garden taking pictures through the magnifying glass that came with the Oxford Ludicrously Small Print Dictionary.

Apart from the optical effects of the lens, I quite like the picture within a picture thing.

Anyway. Just a bit of silliness. If you want to see larger versions, you can click through to Flickr.

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Samurai William by Giles Milton

William Adam was an English sailor working as a pilot on a Dutch expedition of five ships that set out in 1598 to make money in the Orient. In 1600, after a disastrous voyage during which just about everything went wrong, Adam was one of just 24 men surviving on one of the ships – the Liefde – when it reached Japan, the men too weak with starvation and disease to row ashore.

He rose to become the most influential westerner in Japan, with direct access to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the effective ruler, and was granted a court title normally given only to senior samurai. Samurai William: The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan is his story, and the story of the early English attempts to set up a trade with Japan. It’s by the same chap as Big Chief Elizabeth, a book about the English settlement at Jamestown.

A Dutch man and a French woman

As with that book, the emphasis is on telling a good story rather than exploring the finer ethical and semiotic nuances of colonisation. Which isn’t to say that he glosses over the frequently bad behaviour of everyone involved; just that the book is pitched as entertainment.

And the stories from that period of European exploration are really extraordinary; the men in their tiny little ships sailing off optimistically into unknown waters, and ending up either fabulously wealthy or dead. Or enslaved. Or marooned. It’s like Star Trek, if instead of peaceful, multi-cultural, non-interventionist scientists and diplomats, the Enterprise had been crewed by greedy, heavy-drinking, violent, unwashed men who were only really interested in local cultures if they could make money from them or have sex with them.

» The picture is from over 200 years after the period dealt with in Samurai William, but it seemed too good not to use. It’s a detail from a Japanese woodcut of a Dutch man with a French woman, from an exhibition about the Dutch in Nagasaki on the website of the International Institute of Social History, where you can see a larger version as well as lots of other great pictures.

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  • ‘Picking highbush blueberries with the Amish, we discover that, unlike the other pickers scattered around the bog, they don’t like to shout back and forth to each other. My brother tells me they prefer to whistle.’

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

I bought The Satanic Verses in irritation at all the fuckwits who were complaining about Rushdie getting a knighthood. Not surprisingly perhaps, having bought it as a gesture rather than because of an urgent desire to read it, it ended up at the bottom of my to-read pile. It didn’t help that it has a bit of a reputation as being unreadable.

section of ‘Satan in His Original Glory’ by William Blake

You know what, though? It’s actually a really good novel.

It’s full of inventive ideas and images, playful use of language, barbed social comment and, you know, good novelly things generally. It’s magical realism – two men mysteriously survive falling from an exploding plane, only to find themselves transforming, one into the image of the archangel Gabriel and the other into Satan – but the realism part of the equation is strong enough to keep the book grounded in the real world of London and Bombay.

I can understand why quite a few people found it hard to finish, though. It has that rambling quality that quite a lot of Serious Literary Novels have had ever since modernism: lots of characters, lots of narrative threads which are only loosely connected, long digressions which seem a bit irrelevant. I have to admit it’s not a quality I find particularly attractive. It seems like an excellent recipe for a book which is less than the sum of its parts. And a great way of reducing the book’s forward momentum; I don’t demand that everything I read is an un-put-downable page-turner, but I do like to feel it’s going somewhere. There were times, reading The Satanic Verses, when it felt a bit becalmed.

On balance, though, I enjoyed it.

detail of a mosaic of the Archangel Gabriel from the dome of St Sophia Cathedral, Kiev

I suppose I can hardly review the most controversial novel since Lady Chatterley’s Lover without some comment on the controversy. Mohammed is a character in the book – or at least the Gabriel character has dream visions in which Mohammed appears – and he is presented as self-serving, opportunistic and not a real prophet. Which I can understand might irritate Muslims. But actually it wasn’t nearly as inflammatory as I thought it might be. Compared, for example, to the portrayal of Moses in Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted On The Voyage, it’s really very gentle. It just portrays Mohammed as human.

picture credits: the first is a detail from William Blake’s ‘Satan in His Original Glory’ from Tate Britain; the second is a detail of a mosaic of the Archangel Gabriel in the dome of St Sophia Cathedral in Kiev.

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