The Paradox of Taste

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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?

Three Non-Tunnels

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tunnelvision.jpg

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.”

http://www.flickr.com/photos/isavoch/7354979072/
Image: Flickr

Passing trains clear a three-kilometer “tunnel of love” through the forest near Klevan, Ukraine, each spring. The trains serve a local fiberboard factory.

http://www.hans-peter-reuter.de/raum/ri/rit-2.htm

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.”

Elevation

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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.

(Thanks, Stephenson.)

Drop Quote

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Bidlo

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 —

Sincerely,

Mrs. Helen K. Sellers

Trompe L’Oeil

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Harnett_Munich_Still_Life_detail_DMA.jpg

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.

harnett five-dollar bill

Breakup Music

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.”

World Music

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.”

Love Maps

heine lieder map

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.

http://combiendebises.free.fr/

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.”

Reverse Psychology

From the Flemish painter Cornelius Gijsbrechts, a painting of the back of a painting (1670):

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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.”

Art and Commerce

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.”

(Thanks, Stephenson.)