Image: Wikimedia Commons

In Vienna’s Judenplatz stands a construction of steel and concrete that takes the shape of a library turned inside out. Its walls are filled with books, but the spines are all turned inward, so the knowledge they contain is inaccessible. It bears two large doors, but these do not open.

It is a memorial to the Austrian victims of the Holocaust. Artist Rachel Whiteread said, “It was clear to me from the outset that my proposal had to be simple, monumental, poetic and non-literal. I am a sculptor: not a person of words but of images and forms.”

At the unveiling, Simon Wiesenthal said, “This monument shouldn’t be beautiful. It must hurt.”


In particular it is what might be called ‘comparative originality’ that is so awful. If a man were to look over the fence on one side of his garden and observe that the neighbor on his left had laid his garden path round a central lawn; and were to look over the fence on the other side of his garden and observe that the neighbor on his right had laid his path down the middle of the lawn, and were then to lay his own garden path diagonally from one corner to the other, that man’s soul would be lost. Originality is only to be praised when not prefaced by the look to right and left.

— Quentin Crisp, “The Genius of Mervyn Peake,” 1946


The trio section of Mozart’s Serenade for Wind Octet in C, K. 388 (audible here at 14:30), is a double mirror canon: The second oboe introduces a line and after two bars the first oboe joins it playing the same line “upside down”; then the first bassoon starts its own line and the second bassoon enters playing that upside down. Now all four parts are exploring the same theme, but they’re offset by two bars apiece and two of them are inverted.

Pianist Erik Smith called this “the visual image of two swans reflected in the still water,” “a perfect example of Mozart’s use of academic means, canon, inverted canon and mirror canon, to a purely musical and emotional end.”

A Missed Train

Is this art? It’s The Railway Station, painted by William Powell Frith in 1862. In his 1914 book Art, critic Clive Bell singled out Frith’s painting to claim that it wasn’t art at all. Why? Bell said it lacks “significant form,” which he defined as “lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms, and relations of forms, that stir our aesthetic emotions.” Frith’s painting, he said, provoked pleasant feelings in him but no aesthetic emotion:

Few pictures are better known or liked than Frith’s Paddington Station: certainly I should be the last to grudge it its popularity. Many a weary forty minutes have I whiled away disentangling its fascinating incidents and forging for each an imaginary past and an improbable future. But certain though it is that Frith’s masterpiece, or engravings of it, have provided thousands with half-hours of curious and fanciful pleasure, it is not less certain that no one has experienced before it one half-second of aesthetic rapture — and this although the picture contains several pretty passages of color, and is by no means badly painted. Paddington Station is not a work of art; it is an interesting and amusing document in which line and color are used to recount anecdotes, suggest ideas and indicate the manners and customs of an age: they are not used to provoke aesthetic emotion.

Was he right? Notably, in a 2012 survey of 105 art professionals, not one agreed with him: 97% of the respondents said they felt Frith’s painting was art, and the remaining 3% were unsure.

“Admittedly, these data do not prove that Bell’s theory is wrong,” the authors note. “The sensibilities required to detect significant form and experience the aesthetic emotion it provokes could be even rarer than Bell claimed.”

(Richard Kamber and Taylor Enoch, “Why Is That Art?”, in Florian Cova and Sébastien Réhault, Advances in Experimental Philosophy of Aesthetics, 2019.)

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Composer Bohuslav Martinu had a remarkably inauspicious start in life: He was born in a church tower in Bohemia, which the town had granted to his father, a sexton. A sickly child, he often had to be carried up the 143 stairs on his father’s back. He was shy, reticent, and physically uncoordinated. “It would be hard to imagine a more unpromising environment for a child composer, for there was no significant musical tradition within the family and for several years he hardly ever ventured from the tower,” writes Barry Cooper in Child Composers and Their Works.

He excelled in violin, but since manuscript paper wasn’t available to him it’s not clear how many of his early compositions have been lost. When he ventured to the Prague Conservatory in 1906, he offered a three-movement string quartet that he’d written at age 10. He hadn’t even learned the alto clef, and used the treble clef instead for the viola part.

His mother said that the director “was so impressed by Bohus’ composition that at first he doubted whether the score was my son’s own work, and asked who had helped him.” But no one in his village would have been skillful enough to do so.

They accepted him, and he went on to a distinguished international career, writing six symphonies, 15 operas, 14 ballet scores, and a wide range of orchestral, chamber, vocal, and instrumental works.


The Hurwitz Singularity, an anamorphic sculpture by artist Jonty Hurwitz, began with a scan of the artist’s own head.

“I wanted to capture my physical being in as much detail as technology allowed,” he writes. “It felt appropriate to be able to analyse myself at the highest resolution that modern science could record spacetime.”

“This sculpture evolved when I was deep in Freudian Therapy. Four days a week on the sofa blazing new trails from the road that Sigmund Freud first mapped. To my analyst I dedicate this piece. Dr Sanchez Bernal this is the Hurwitz Singularity!”

There’s more at the artist’s website.


Anthony Gormley’s 1999 sculpture Quantum Cloud is well named — it both does and doesn’t present the figure of a man. It’s composed of sections of steel 1.5 meters long, arranged by a computer using a random walk algorithm starting from points on the surface of an enlarged version of the sculptor’s own body. The result manages to suggest a man’s image without quite depicting it.

“How can you convey the fact that the presence of somebody is greater or different from their appearance?” Gormley writes. “The DOMAINS allowed me to evoke the internal space of the body as a field, but are still bound by an invisible skin: I want to extend or ignore the skin.”

It stands now next to the O2 in London.

Pointlessness Exalted
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Dodgers outfielder Gary Thomasson was a big disappointment in Japan — in 1980 he was signed to the Yomiuri Giants for a record-breaking sum, then nearly set a record for strikeouts before injuring his knee and retiring.

Artist Akasegawa Genpei took a strange inspiration from this: He defined a “Thomasson” as “an object, part of a building, that was maintained in good condition, but with no purpose, to the point of becoming a work of art.” For example, in Tokyo he’d noticed a well-maintained stairway with a blank wall at its top, and a ticket window that had been boarded up but whose tray had been assiduously permitted still to function.

Akasegawa’s colleague Chikuma Shobo eventually published a whole taxonomy of Thomassons: useless doorways, useless staircases, useless windows, doors to nowhere, senseless signs. Just like art, these items have no purpose in society, but they’re preserved with care, to the point that they seem to be exhibits in themselves. “However, these objects do not appear to have a creator, making them even more art-like than regular art.”

Small World

Artist François Abelanet created this perspective-based illusion outside the city hall in Paris in 2011. Ninety gardeners worked for five days to prepare an area of 1500 square meters.

Abelanet called it Qui croire? (Who to Believe?).

The Green Cathedral
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1987 Marinus Boezem planted 178 Lombardy poplars on a knoll near Almere in the Dutch province of Flevoland.

Now grown to maturity, the trees form a living replica of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Reims, France, 150 meters long, 75 meters wide, and 30 meters tall.

The current “Groene Kathedraal” hosts weddings, funerals, and religious services, but Boezem is already planning for the future — a second clearing is being prepared nearby so that as the poplars decline a cathedral of beeches will take its place, and the two will alternate in an endless cycle thereafter.