In 1975 Denys Parsons devised a surprisingly simple way for nonmusicians to record melodies — write an asterisk for the first note, then hum the tune and decide whether each subsequent note goes up (U), down (D), or repeats (R). The first two phrases of “Happy Birthday,” for instance, look like this:
(“* repeat up down up down down repeat up down up down”)
This is surprisingly effective — Parsons, who spent five years indexing practically every well-known classical theme from the 16th century onward, wrote, “I continue to be astonished that such a simple test, taken to the sixteenth note (or less), should be adequate to distinguish more than 10,000 classical themes.” Can you identify the eight famous classical melodies below?
Parsons published a Directory of Classical Themes in 1975. It contains surprisingly few “twins”: In reviewing the book for New Scientist, Jon Darius estimated their occurrence at less than 3 percent — though DDUUDDUUDDUUDDU occurs five times.
Pretend that you’ve never seen this before and that it’s an actual living person whose personality you’re trying to read. If you look directly at her face, she seems to hesitate, but if you look near it, say beyond her at the landscape, and try to sense her mood, she smiles at you.
In studying this systematically, Harvard neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone found that “if you look at this painting so that your center of gaze falls on the background or her hands, Mona Lisa’s mouth — which is then seen by your peripheral, low-resolution, vision — appears much more cheerful than when you look directly at it, when it is seen by your fine-detail fovea.
“This explains its elusive quality — you literally can’t catch her smile by looking at it. Every time you look directly at her mouth, her smile disappears because your central vision does not perceive coarse image components very well. People don’t realize this because most of us are not aware of how we move our eyes around or that our peripheral vision is able to see some things better than our central vision. Mona Lisa smiles until you look at her mouth, and then her smile fades, like a dim star that disappears when you look directly at it.”
(From her book Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, 2002.)
In 1959 pianist Tommy Flanagan was living on 101st Street in Manhattan while John Coltrane lived on 103rd Street. “He came by my apartment with this piece, ‘Giant Steps.’ I guess he thought there was something different about it, because he sat down and played the changes. He said, ‘It’s no problem. I know you can do it, Maestro’ — which is what he called me. ‘If I can play this, you can.'”
If that sounds ominous, it was: The piece marked the culmination of the “Coltrane changes,” a sophisticated scheme of chord substitutions in which the root descends by major thirds, creating a much richer and more demanding harmonic landscape.
“There was no problem just looking at the changes,” Flanagan said. “But I didn’t realize he was going to play it at that tempo! There was no time to shed on it, there was no melody; it was just a set of chords, like we usually get. So we ran it down and we had maybe one take, because he played marvelous on everything. He was ready.”
“It still remains a heck of a document,” remembered drummer Arthur Taylor. “People all around the world look to that, and musicians also; that’s the thing. … John was very serious, like a magician too. He was serious and we just got down to the business at hand.”
When stencil artist DS added his “Bad Kitty” to a London wall in 2012, he was dismayed to find a man removing it only eight hours later.
So he took a photo and used that to create a new stencil on the same spot.
He returned the next day, hoping to get a photo of a man removing a stencil of a man removing a stencil. “I thought it would rip a hole in the space-time continuum or something,” he told the Daily Mail.
But “He came when I was across the road having breakfast, after a while, and having his photo taken next to it lots of times, he left it.”
What is this? It’s the American cargo ship West Mahomet in port, circa November 1918. During World War I British and American merchant ships adopted “dazzle camouflage” in hopes that it would help to confuse their type, size, and heading in enemy rangefinders.
It’s hard to say how well it succeeded as camouflage, but it’s a notable episode in art history: The painting style employed ideas from cubism and vorticism, and English artist Edward Wadsworth, who had helped to direct the effort, continued to pursue these themes even after the war — below is his Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool from 1919.
Andy Warhol made a significant statement with Brillo Boxes, first exhibited at New York’s Stable Gallery in 1964. The banal collection of soap boxes seemed indistinguishable from those found at any supermarket. Warhol seemed to be saying that it’s not the visual appeal of an object that determines its status as art; rather, it’s the artist’s intention, his decision to regard an object as art, that confers that status. But this creates some puzzles:
For one, ironically, the original Brillo packaging had itself been designed by an abstract expressionist, James Harvey, who had been driven into commercial art to make a living. Arthur Danto writes, “The question was why Warhol’s boxes should have been worth $200 when that man’s products were not worth a dime.” Does Warhol’s stance mean that concepts entirely trump beauty, that one should properly judge an artwork by what it means rather than how it looks?
If so, is this art?
It’s not Warhol, but “Not Warhol,” by artist Mike Bidlo, displayed in the northeast corner of the lobby at New York’s Lever House in 2010. If Warhol can co-opt Harvey, can Bidlo co-opt Warhol? Why not? “At the time that they were shown, the Brillo Boxes were underappreciated,” Bidlo told the New York Times. “This is a different context and a different audience, but it’s a great opportunity for so many people to see them.”
Where does this end? Museum director Pontus Hultén claimed he’d created more than 100 wooden Brillo boxes in 1968 “according to Andy Warhol’s instructions,” but in 2010 the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board determined that “there is no known documentation that Warhol authorised their production.” What then is the status of these boxes? If art is in the mind of the creator, how do we resolve a dispute as to the contents of the creator’s mind? By committee?
What do you get when you weld together 848 forks, knives, and spoons? That depends on your point of view:
That’s “Lunch With a Helmet On,” by Japanese artist Shigeo Fukuda. As a followup he obtained the rigging plan of the M.S. Shin-Nippon Maru and assembled a shadow sculpture from 2,084 pairs of metal scissors:
Vaslav Nijinsky spent the last years of his life in a Zurich asylum. After returning from an American tour in 1917, he retreated to Switzerland, where his wife began to notice disturbing changes in his behavior. He grew impulsive, took long walks alone, and wrote obsessively in a diary:
I am feeling through the flesh and not through the intellect. I am the flesh. I am the feeling. I am God in flesh and feeling. I am man and not God. I am simple. I need not think. I must make myself felt and understood through feeling. Scientists think about me and break their heads, but their thinking will not give any results. They are stupid. I speak simply without any tricks.
The world was made by God. Man was made by God. It is impossible for man to understand God, but God understands God. Man is part of God and therefore sometimes understands God. I am both God and man. I am good and not a beast. I am an animal with a mind. I am flesh but I do come from flesh. God made flesh. I am God. I am God. I am God. …
Finally psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler pronounced him insane. “I retired into myself,” Nijinsky said. “I retired so far that I could no longer understand people.”