It’s commonly said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder: In contemplating a work of art, the impressions we form are subjective, so all judgments should be equally valid.
“Beauty is no quality in things themselves,” writes David Hume. “It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them, and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity where another is sensible of beauty, and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment without pretending to regulate those of others.”
Why then do we account some tastes “good” and some “bad”? If I say I prefer John Ogilby to John Milton, “no one pays attention to such a taste; and we pronounce without scruple the sentiment of these pretended critics to be absurd and ridiculous.” But “the principle of the natural equality of tastes is then totally forgot, and while we admit it on some occasions where the objects seem near an equality, it appears an extravagant paradox, or rather a palpable absurdity, where objects so disproportioned are compared together.” Why?
American muralist Blue Sky (formerly Warren Edward Johnson) painted Tunnelvision on the wall of the Federal Land Bank in Columbia, S.C., in 1975. “The idea for ‘Tunnelvision’ came in a dream. I woke up early in the morning and just sketched it out. I’d already seen the wall, I’d sat and studied it for hours, just waiting to see what would come before my eyes, and nothing came. And early one morning, I woke up and it was there. … That’s why I call it ‘Tunnelvision.’ Because it was a vision in a dream.” Wikipedia adds, “Rumors abound that several drunk drivers have attempted to drive into the tunnel.”
Passing trains clear a three-kilometer “tunnel of love” through the forest near Klevan, Ukraine, each spring. The trains serve a local fiberboard factory.
Visitors to the modern art exhibition documenta 6 in Kassel, Germany, in 1977 encountered a blue-tiled tunnel that led to the promise of daylight. They walked 14 meters into the tunnel and climbed four steps before discovering that the rest was an image painted skillfully on canvas by artist Hans Peter Reuter. “The secret of this perfect illusion lies in the combination of a realistic space with a painted surface,” writes Eckhard Hollmann and Jürgen Tesch in A Trick of the Eye (2004). “The picture alone on a white wall could never hope to have the same effect.”
In the 18th century, French architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux conceived an ideal city — perhaps too ideal. It contained no hospitals or theaters but included a “shelter of the poor man,” a “Pacifère” where quarrels could be settled peaceably, and, most notably, an “Oïkéma,” or house of sexual instruction, which Allan Braham calls “one of the most extreme instances of Ledoux’s gift for architectural metaphor.”
While we’re on this subject: In William Wycherley’s 1675 comedy The Country Wife, the word china becomes a bawdy metaphor, which makes the dialogue livelier than it first appears:
Lady Fidget: And I have been toiling and moiling, for the prettiest Piece of China, my Dear.
Mr. Horner: Nay, she has been too hard for me, do what I could.
Mrs. Squeamish: Oh, Lord, I’ll have some China too, good Mr. Horner, don’t think to give other People China, and me none, come in with me too.
Mr. Horner: Upon my Honour I have none left now.
Mrs. Squeamish: Nay, nay, I have known you deny your China before now, but you shan’t put me off so, come —
Mr. Horner: This Lady had the last there.
Lady Fidget: Yes indeed, Madam, to my certain Knowledge he has no more left.
Mrs. Squeamish: O, but it may be he may have some you could not find.
Lady Fidget: What d’ye think if he had had any left, I would not have had it too? for we Women of Quality never think we have China enough.
Mr. Horner: Do not take it ill, I cannot make China for you all, but I will have a Roll-waggon for you too, another time.
Mrs. Squeamish: Thank you, dear Toad.
Lady Fidget: (to Horner, aside) What do you mean by that promise?
Mr. Horner: Alas, she has an innocent, literal Understanding.
This is not a Jackson Pollock painting. It’s a painstaking replica by Chicago artist Mike Bidlo, who titled it, aptly, Not Pollock.
“My work is perhaps an extreme example of this strain of art which references other art because it directly mirrors the image, scale, and materials of the original,” Bidlo told Robert Rosenblum in 2003. “Whatever differences appear in my work are a consequence of my working method and not an attempt at projecting a personal style.”
Is this art? If not, why not?
(Pollock himself had an uphill fight — he received this letter in August 1949:)
Dear Mr. Pollock,
Just a few lines to tell you that my seven year old son Manning couldn’t get over your picture Number Nine. Frankly, it looked like some of his fingerpainting at school to me. However, he insisted that I write you to tell you that he cut it out of the ‘Life’ and put it in his scrap-book — the first painting that he has ever cut out —
He really has quite good taste as you can tell by the Cocker — Snafu — he is holding. He wanted you to have his picture in exchange for his copy of No. 9 — which he loves —
Mrs. Helen K. Sellers
This is not a photograph, it’s an oil painting. Irish-American painter William Harnett (1848–1892) produced works of such startling verisimilitude that his paintings of American currency, like the one below, nearly got him arrested for counterfeiting. In 1886 the Secret Service visited him at his studio:
While one of them was asking my name, the other as suspiciously poking his cane into the corners of my room. ‘Have you got any more of them here?’ he asked, after he had finished a hasty search. ‘More of what?’ I replied. ‘Those counterfeits!’ he answered. Then the other detective, for both were Special Treasury officers, explained their mission. I was suspected of turning out counterfeit bank notes and they had come to arrest me and seize whatever illegal property they could find. They were very polite but extremely firm and I went down-town with them to Chief Drummond’s office. I explained to the chief how I happened to do the work and I showed him the harmless nature of it. Harmless though it was, it was clearly against the law, and I was let go with a warning not to paint any more life-like representations of the national currency — a warning it is almost needless to say that it was conscientiously heeded.
To be fair, Harnett was not representing his work as currency — but the Secret Service was on the trail of an even more ambitious artist.
Erik Satie’s 1893 composition Vexations bears an inscrutable inscription: “In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.” This seems to mean that the piece should be repeated 840 times in performance, which would take 12-24 hours, depending on how you interpret the tempo marking “Très lent.”
“It is perhaps not surprising that few of the performances [Gavin] Bryars lists have been complete,” writes Robert Orledge in Satie the Composer, “for with the bass theme repeated between each 13-beat harmonization, it recurs 3,360 times.”
“It is probable that Satie’s vexations are those expressed in the latter part of his difficult relationship with Suzanne Valadon, that is to say, somewhere between April and early June 1893.”
In 2008 James Plakovic spent six weeks composing this score for 37 instruments — woodwinds, pianos, brass, and strings. “Every land mass has been transformed into musical notation,” he says. “A note, a rest, a slur, some musical expression mark such as forte or pianissimo, so that the end result, when you step back from the image itself, is that you see land. You see a part of the world.”
“The music is very busy,” he admits. “There are some spots that are flowing and harmonious, and there are definitely areas that are a bit brash and discordant. And that reflects how the world is.”
This “geographical love enigma” appeared on a German postcard in the early 20th century. Travel north to south through each successive country (green, red, purple, yellow), naming the geographical features you encounter in each, and you’ll produce the fourth song in Heinrich Heine’s Buch der Lieder:
Wenn ich in deine Augen seh,
So schwindet all mein Leid und Weh;
Doch wenn ich küsse deinen Mund,
So werd ich ganz und gar gesund.
Wenn ich mich lehn an deine Brust,
Kommt’s über mich wie Himmelslust;
Doch wenn du sprichst: “Ich liebe dich!”
So muss ich weinen bitterlich.
When I look into your eyes,
Then vanish all my sorrow and pain!
Ah, but when I kiss your mouth,
Then I will be wholly and completely healthy.
When I lean on your breast,
I am overcome with heavenly delight,
Ah, but when you say, “I love you!”
Then I must weep bitterly.
The French greet one another with kisses on the cheek, but the number of kisses varies with the département. In 2007 Gilles Debunne set up a website, Combien de bises?, on which his countrymen could record their local customs; to date, after more than 87,000 votes, the results range from 1 kiss in Finistère to 4 in Loire Atlantique.
“It’s a lot more subtle than I ever imagined,” Debunne told the Times. “Sometimes the number of kisses changes depending on whether you’re seeing friends or family or what generation you belong to.”
“A Kiss and Its Consequences,” English carte de visite, 1910.
“After many kisses,” said John Lennon, “a miss becomes a misses.”
From the Flemish painter Cornelius Gijsbrechts, a painting of the back of a painting (1670):
“The Reverse of a Framed Painting was not intended to be hung on the wall, but to be placed against it,” writes Olaf Koerster. “The viewer would be deceived into trying to turn the picture around, only to see the reverse of an unframed painting: Gijsbrechts had created the paradoxical painting with two backs.”
In 1896 the U.S. Treasury introduced some beautifully high-minded currency — instead of American presidents, the “educational series” of silver certificates bear neoclassical allegories:
On the $1 note, the Goddess of History instructs a youth, pointing to the U.S. Constitution, a panorama of Washington D.C., and a roster of famous Americans, including Franklin, Longfellow, Hawthorne, and Emerson.
On the $2 note, Science presents Steam and Electricity (as children) to Commerce and Manufacture. The back bears portraits of Robert Fulton and Samuel Morse.
The almost impossibly glorious $5 note depicts Electricity Presenting Light to the World. She is flanked by Strength, Fame, and Peace. The New York Times wrote, “The arrangement of this composition, the grace of pose in each figure, and the idea connected with the designs of this artist entitle it to a place beside the finest allegorical designs in the world.”
Unfortunately, the Treasury got a new secretary the following year, one who favored simple, clear designs, and he canceled more than $54 million in certificates as they came into the Treasury. “It can be said authoritatively … that no more of the so-called ‘new certificates’ will be printed,” the Times reported sadly in May 1897. “Neither will fresco painters be called in to make designs for the substitutes.”
n. a mass execution by drowning
adj. crying out together
adj. dying together or at the same time
J.M.W. Turner’s 1840 painting The Slave Ship recalls a brutal convention in the Atlantic slave trade — an insurance company would reimburse a captain for a slave who was lost at sea, but not for one who died of illness aboard ship. In 1781 Luke Collingwood, captain of the Zong, threw 133 sick and malnourished Africans overboard so that he could claim their value from his insurers. Turner displayed the painting next to lines from his own poem:
Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon’s coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying — ne’er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?
Britain had already outlawed its own slave trade when the painting appeared, but its impact encouraged the empire to oppose the institution everywhere.
In 2002, Russian magnate Vladimir O. Potanin paid $1 million for Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 painting Black Square. “‘All paintings are pictures’ would have been a strong candidate for a necessary truth until Malevich proved it false,” wrote Arthur Danto of the inscrutable black canvas. Malevich himself had said, “It is not painting; it is something else.”
In The Hunting of the Snark, the Bellman guides his party across the Ocean with “a map they could all understand”:
“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!
“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank”
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best —
A perfect and absolute blank!”
While an architecture student at Cornell in the 1920s, practical joker Hugh Troy was given 48 hours to render “a conception of what a brightly floodlighted hydroelectric plant might look like at night.” “Though Hugh was overloaded with other work, he got his drawing in on time,” remembered classmate Don Hershey. He called it Hydroelectric Plant at Night (Fuse Blown):
In 1967 British artists Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin produced a “map of itself,” a “map of an area of dimensions 12″ x 12″ indicating 2,304 1/4″ squares”:
Katharine Harmon, in The Map as Art, writes that this is one of a series of maps “revealing only what they wished to show and jettisoning the rest — drawing attention to what cartographers have always done.”
That’s Rembrandt’s engraving The Three Trees on the left, and its mirror image.
Art historian Heinrich Wölfflin found that reversing the image produces a distinctly different aesthetic effect. In the first image, “the group of trees at the right gives an impression of energy”; in the second, “the trees are devaluated and emphasis now seems to rest on the flat, extended plain.”
But curiously, writes Chris McManus in Right Hand, Left Hand, “although ordinary viewers say [such reversals] look different, they cannot reliably decide which is the original and which the mirror-image, unless they have seen the picture before.” Whom can we credit for the second composition?
Giuseppe Verdi received this letter in May 1872:
Much-honoured Signor Verdi, — The 2nd of this month I went to Parma, drawn there by the sensation made by your opera Aida. So great was my curiosity, that one half-hour before the commencement of the piece, I was already in my place, No. 120. I admired the mise en scène, I heard with pleasure the excellent singers, and I did all in my power to let nothing escape me. At the end of the opera, I asked if I was satisfied, and the answer was ‘No.’ I started back to Reggio, and listened in the railway carriage to the opinions given upon Aida. Nearly all agreed in considering it a work of the first order.
I was then seized with the idea of hearing it again, and on the 4th I returned to Parma; I made unheard-of efforts to get a reserved seat; as the crowd was enormous, I was obliged to throw away five liri to witness the performance in any comfort.
I arrived at this decision about it: it is an opera in which there is absolutely nothing which causes any enthusiasm or excitement, and without the pomp of the spectacle, the public would not stand it to the end. When it has filled the house two or three times, it will be banished to the dust of the archives.
You can now, dear Signor Verdi, picture to yourself my regret at having spent on two occasions thirty-two liri; add to this the aggravating circumstance that I depend on my family, and that this money troubles my rest like a frightful spectre. I therefore frankly address myself to you, in order that you may send me the amount. The account is as follows:–
Hoping that you will deliver me from this embarrassment, I salute you from my heart.
My address: Bertani Prospero, Via San Domenico, No. 5
Verdi asked his publisher to reimburse the man’s expenses, except for his supper (“He might very well take his meals at home”), in return for a written acknowledgment “undertaking to hear my new operas no more, exposing himself no more to the menaces of spectres, and sparing me further traveling expenses.”
In seeking to understand how a person’s ability might vary with his complexion, Havelock Ellis chose an unusual data set: the National Portrait Gallery. Ellis spent two years examining paintings of notable Britons in various fields and established an “index of pigmentation” in each group by multiplying the number of fair people by 100 and dividing by the number of dark people. Results:
An index greater than 100 means that fair people predominate in the group; one less than 100 means that dark people predominate. The list includes both men and women.
In general, Ellis concluded, the fair man tends to be “bold, energetic, restless, and domineering,” while the dark man is “resigned and religious and imitative, yet highly intelligent.” “While the men of action thus tend to be fair, the men of thought, it seems to me, show some tendency to be dark.”
Ellis speculated that the British aristocracy tended to be dark because peers could choose the most beautiful women, and British women with the greatest reputation for beauty tended to be dark: a group of 15 English women of letters had an index of 100, while 13 famous beauties rated 44.
(“The Comparative Abilities of the Fair and the Dark,” Monthly Review, August 1901.)
Written by German composer Peter Cornelius in 1854, “Ein Ton” has a single note for a melody — the note B is repeated 80 times in 42 bars.
I hear a tone so wondrous sweet
In heart and spirit of repeat.
Is it that breath that from thee fled,
The last faint breath e’er thou wert dead?
Nicolas Slonimsky writes, “Of course, there are constant modulations so that harmonic changes make up for monotony.”
In 1832, at age 19, Giuseppe Verdi applied to study at the Milan Conservatory and was rejected.
In 1898, at the end of his career, he learned that the conservatory had decided to rename itself the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatorium.
“My God, this was all that was lacking to plague the soul of a poor devil like me who desires only to be serene and to die serenely!” he wrote to his publisher. “No, sir! Even this isn’t allowed me! What wrong have I done that I should be tormented like this?”
That’s not quite fair. He had been four years over the age limit and a foreigner to the state of Lombardy-Venetia, where the school was located. But he remembered it as “a Conservatorium that (I do not exaggerate) tried to kill me, and whose memory I should try to escape.”
The 10-member Vienna Vegetable Orchestra plays instruments created entirely from fresh vegetables, including the carrot recorder, the pumpkin tympanum, the zucchini trumpet, and the bean maraca. These must be fashioned anew before each concert, because the old instruments are made into soup.
The Thai Elephant Orchestra, created by American expatriate Richard Lair and Columbia neurologist David Sulzer, improvise on drums, gongs, harmonicas, and sawmill blades. To date they’ve released three CDs.
Sulzer referred to one 7-year-old member as “the Fritz Kreisler of elephants.” “I put one bad note in the middle of her xylophone,” he told the New York Times in 2000. “She avoided playing that note — until one day she started playing it and wouldn’t stop. Had she discovered dissonance, and discovered that she liked it?”
“Just as there are a lot things they don’t understand about our music, I am sure there are things we will never understand about theirs.”
In 1933, Harvard mathematician George Birkhoff quantified beauty. The basic idea, he said, is that M = O/C, where M is the “aesthetic measure,” O is order, and C is complexity. By elaborating this principle into specific formulas, he decided that the square is the most pleasing polygon and the major triad the most pleasing diatonic chord. Of eight vases he considered, a Ming jar ranked highest, with M = 0.80, and in poetry the opening of Colerige’s “Kubla Khan” received an M rating of 0.83. The same principles can be applied to painting, sculpture, and architecture.
This kind of use of the formula leads at once to certain well known aesthetic maxims:
- Unify as far as possible without loss of variety (that is, diminish the complexity C without decrease of the order O).
- Achieve variety in so far as possible without loss of unity (that is, increase O without increase of C).
- This ‘unity in variety’ must be found in the several parts as well as in the whole (that is, the order and complexity of the parts enter into the order and complexity of the whole).
“Now it seems to me that the postulation of genius in any mystical sense is unnecessary,” he concluded. “The analytic phase appears as an inevitable part of aesthetic experience. The more extensive this experience is, the more definite becomes the analysis.”
In 1889 Monet was midway through a landscape when a pivotal oak tree sprouted leaves.
He mulled this for a few days and then approached the landowner with an unusual proposition. On May 9 he wrote:
I am overjoyed — permission to remove the leaves of my beautiful oak has been graciously accorded! It was a huge job bringing large enough ladders into this ravine. Enfin, it is done, two men have been busy with it since yesterday. Isn’t it a feat to finish a winter landscape at this time of year?
In The Ultimate Irrelevant Encyclopaedia (1984), Bill Hartston remarks, “Monet makes the leaves go aground.”
Bach’s “crab canon” rendered as a Möbius strip:
Bach and Handel were both blinded by the same oculist, John Taylor, “the poster child for 18th-century quackery,” according to University of Wisconsin ophthalmologist Daniel Albert. Bach probably died of a post-operative infection; Handel wrote the lyrics to Samson (“Total eclipse! No sun, no moon! / All dark amidst the blaze of noon!”) after Taylor’s botched cataract surgery.
Random Möbius anecdote: In 1957, B.F. Goodrich patented a half-twisted conveyor belt for carrying hot material such as cinders and foundry sand, “thereby permitting each face of the belt to cool during one half of the operating period.”
When the last Impression is posted and the tubes are twisted and pinched,
When the youngest Cubist is throttled and the oldest Futurist lynched,
We shall rest, and, gee! we shall need it–come off for a minute or two,
Till the masters of all this rubbish shall set us agog anew.
Then those that were Cubists shall worry; they shall sit on a picket fence
And paint with a vacuum cleaner on the sides of canvas tents.
They shall have real models to draw from–a nude in a crazy quilt,
Or a maudlin, rhomboid Scotchman, descending the stairs in his kilt.
And only Picasso shall praise them, and only Matisse shall blame;
And no one shall care for censure, and no one shall care for shame.
But each in his own straitjacket and each in his separate cell
Shall slather the paint as he sees it, for the glory of Art that won’t jell.
— Carolyn Wells, in Such Nonsense!: An Anthology, 1918
I cannot omit a rather childish story which Vasari tells about the David. After it had been placed upon its pedestal before the palace, and while the scaffolding was still there, Piero Soderini, who loved and admired Michelangelo, told him that he thought the nose too large. The sculptor immediately ran up the ladder till he reached a point upon the level of the giant’s shoulder. He then took his hammer and chisel, and, having concealed some dust of marble in the hollow of his hand, pretended to work off a portion from the surface of the nose. In reality he left it as he found it; but Soderini, seeing the marble dust fall scattering through the air, thought that his hint had been taken. When, therefore, Michelangelo called down to him, ‘Look at it now!’ Soderini shouted up in reply, ‘I am far more pleased with it; you have given life to the statue.’
— John Addington Symonds, The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1893