(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘aesthetics

“The commonplace is miraculous if rightly seen”*…

Eric Oglander

Art without intent…

The Found Object Show captures things that are out of control. Happenstance hijacked their original roles. Time blotted out their former significance. As the decades and centuries passed, these found objects broke from the designs of their creators to emerge today as things transfigured in form and meaning — as art without intent.

Armed with aesthetic and conceptual powers equivalent to conventional art, art without intent has no artistic motive nor objective meaning, but nevertheless lies in wait for someone to discover its latent value. The found object’s inanimate ambush succeeds only upon its chance confrontation with an open mind and perceptive eye.

Art without intent ennobles the random, celebrates the anonymous, and embraces the subjective, empowering individuals to see art where they may least expect to find it…

The inaugural 2022 Found Object Show was a gallery exhibition of art without intent on view from March 24-27 in the Lower East Side of NYC; it returns to New York in the Spring of 2023.

The Found Object Show.” [ToTH to @BoingBoing]

* Charles Simic

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As we celebrate serendipity, we might spare a thought for Wilhelm Freddie (born Christian Frederik Wilhelm Carlsen); he died on this date in 1995, A painter, sculptor, and filmmaker, he moved between abstract and surrealist approaches. Some of Freddie’s works criticized Nazism and fascism; some was considered considered pornographic at their time, resulting in confiscation of the works and his imprisonment– though his artistic merits were later recognized.

Examples of his work can be found here and here.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 26, 2022 at 1:00 am

“I dream. Sometimes I think that’s the only right thing to do”*…

Why do we need art? And what does it have to do with dreaming? Neuroscientist and author Eric Hoel has a very provocative theory…

How will we spend the remaining 700,000 hours of the 21st century? In the metered time of our own discretion, there have never been more options for our personal entertainment, nor have they ever been more freely available. We find ourselves strolling the aisles of a vast sensorium. On the shelves is a trove of experiences: video games, movies, TV shows, virtual reality, books, podcasts, articles, social media posts, all prepackaged for our consumption. What had previously been accomplished for food through the centralized distribution of supermarkets has now been done with experience itself. The recent grand opening of this supersensorium has been mediated through the screen, a panoply of icons, images, links, downloads, and videos auto-playing, which we browse through entirely at our leisure.

Such abundance of choice would have been heralded as miraculous in any other age. What a rousing cry for progress that our lowly living rooms would have stupefied with their luxuries even the God-like pharaohs, even the court of Versailles! Or maybe not—for it all comes with a price. Who hasn’t lost days from binge-watching Netflix, or deep in the dungeons of some video game? Here’s a scary, or maybe heart-wrenching, thing to consider: of our waking leisure hours, what exactly is the amount of time devoted to the consumption of experiences from the supersensorium? In 2018, Nielsen reported that the average American spent eleven hours a day engaged with media. Does anyone believe that this number is going to decrease? For the technology that undergirds the supersensorium will only improve. The algorithms will grow more personalized, the experiences will become more salient, and the platforms will get faster in their delivery of content. And we should all admit that the vast majority of what lines the shelves of the supersensorium is merely entertainment, for otherwise we wouldn’t feel a gnawing guilt so great most of us avoid consciously calculating how our time is actually spent.

The infinite entertainment of the supersensorium is especially problematic if you happen to be someone who likes and maybe even produces art or fictions. E.g., a writer such as myself, who views the tidal wave of middling fictions with a feeling akin to terror. Not that these problems are entirely new. In a letter to a friend, a 31-year-old Tolstoy wrote:

I shall write no more fiction. It is shameful, when you come to think of it. People are weeping, dying, marrying, and I should sit down and write books telling “how she loved him”? It’s shameful!

If that was Tolstoy’s judgment of himself, what might his fiery judgment be of our now endless ways of telling “how she loved him”? The mere scale of the supersensorium pushes to the fore old questions about the purpose of art and fictions. Why do humans desire these petite narratives we gobble up like treats? What’s the origin of this pull toward artifice, a thing so powerful we might even call it an instinct? Is it virtue or vice? And if it can be a vice and technology is making it easier and easier to while away our lives this way, a reasonable person has to ask: why add to the supersensorium? Why take away from the real when the real is already back on its heels, and behind it, a cliff?…

It turns out, Hoel suggests, that the answers have everything to do with dreaming…

To explain the phenomenology of dreams I recently outlined a scientific theory called the Overfitted Brain Hypothesis (OBH). The OBH posits that dreams are an evolved mechanism to avoid a phenomenon called overfitting. Overfitting, a statistical concept, is when a neural network learns overly specifically, and therefore stops being generalizable. It learns too well. For instance, artificial neural networks have a training data set: the data that they learn from. All training sets are finite, and often the data comes from the same source and is highly correlated in some non-obvious way. Because of this, artificial neural networks are in constant danger of becoming overfitted. When a network becomes overfitted, it will be good at dealing with the training data set but will fail at data sets it hasn’t seen before. All learning is basically a tradeoff between specificity and generality in this manner. Real brains, in turn, rely on the training set of lived life. However, that set is limited in many ways, highly correlated in many ways. Life alone is not a sufficient training set for the brain, and relying solely on it likely leads to overfitting…

What the OBH suggests is that dreams represent the biological version of a combination of such techniques, a form of augmentation or regularization that occurs after the day’s learning—but the point is not to enforce the day’s memories, but rather combat the detrimental effects of their memorization. Dreams warp and play with always-ossifying cognitive and perceptual categories, stress-testing and refining. The inner fabulist shakes up the categories of the plastic brain. The fight against overfitting every night creates a cyclical process of annealing: during wake the brain fits to its environment via learning, then, during sleep, the brain “heats up” through dreams that prevent it from clinging to suboptimal solutions and models and incorrect associations.

The OBH fits with the evidence from human sleep research: sleep seems to be associated not so much with assisting pure memorization, as other hypotheses about dreams would posit, but with an increase in abstraction and generalization. There’s also the famous connection between dreams and creativity, which also fits with the OBH. Additionally, if you stay awake too long you will begin to hallucinate (perhaps because your perceptual processes are becoming overfitted). Most importantly, the OBH explains why dreams are so, well, dreamlike.

… and everything to do with the role that it plays in our lives– and in shaping the media and entertainment that we consume…

From an evolutionary perspective, it’s rather amazing humans are willing to spend so much time on fictions… Why are we so fascinated by things that never happened?

If the OBH is true, then it is very possible writers and artists, not to mention the entirety of the entertainment industry, are in the business of producing what are essentially consumable, portable, durable dreams. Literally. Novels, movies, TV shows—it is easy for us to suspend our disbelief because we are biologically programmed to surrender it when we sleep. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a TV episode traditionally lasts about the same ~30 minutes in length as the average REM event, and movies last ~90 minutes, an entire sleep cycle (and remember, we dream sometimes in NREM too). They are dream substitutions.

This hypothesized connection explains why humans find the directed dreams we call “fictions” and “art” so attractive and also reveals their purpose: they are artificial means of accomplishing the same thing naturally occurring dreams do. Just like dreams, fictions and art keep us from overfitting our perception, models, and understanding of the world…

And as you’ll see if you read this piece in full, as I hope you will, the implication is that art– real art, good art– matters…

… as the supersensorium expands over more and more of our waking hours, the idea of an aesthetic spectrum, with art on one end and entertainment on the other, is defunct. In fact, explicitly promoting any difference between entertainment and art is considered a product of a bygone age, even a tool of oppression and elitism. At best, the distinction is an embarrassing form of noblesse oblige. One could give a long historical answer about how exactly we got into this cultural headspace, maybe starting with postmodernism and deconstructionism, then moving on to the problematization of the canon, or the saturation of pop culture in academia to feed the more and more degrees, we could trace the ideas, catalog the opinions of the cultural powerbrokers, we could focus on new media and technologies muscling for attention, or changing demographics and work forces and leisure time, or so many other things—but none of it matters. What matters is, now, as it stands, talking about art as being fundamentally different from entertainment brings charges of classism, snobbishness, elitism—of being proscriptive, boring, and stuffy.

And without a belief in some sort of lowbrow-highbrow spectrum of aesthetics, there is no corresponding justification of a spectrum of media consumption habits. Imagine two alien civilizations, both at roughly our own stage of civilization, both with humanity’s innate drive to consume artificial experiences and narratives. One is a culture that scoffs at the notion of art. The other is aesthetically sensitive and even judgmental. Which weathers the storm of the encroaching supersensorium, with its hyper-addictive superstimuli? When the eleven hours a day becomes thirteen, becomes fifteen? A belief in an aesthetic spectrum may be all that keeps a civilization from disappearing up its own brainstem.

In a world of infinite experience, it is the aesthete who is safest, not the ascetic. Abstinence will not work. The only cure for too much fiction is good fiction. Artful fictions are, by their very nature, rare and difficult to produce. In turn, their rarity justifies their existence and promotion. It’s difficult to overeat on caviar alone. Now, it’s important to note here that I don’t mean that art can’t be entertaining, nor that it’s restricted to a certain medium. But art always refuses to be easily assimilated into the supersensorium.

…only by upholding art can we champion the consumption of art. Which is so desperately needed because only art is the counterforce judo for entertainment’s stranglehold on our stone-age brains. And as the latter force gets stronger, we need the former more and more.

So in your own habits of consumption, hold on to art. It will deliver you through this century…

The neuroscientific case for art in the age of Netflix: “Exit the supersensorium,” from @erikphoel.

* Haruki Murakami

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As we dream on, we might send birthday greetings to Konstantin Yuon; he was born on this date in 1875. A painter and theater designer, he was involved with Mir Iskusstva, the Russian magazine, and with the artistic movement it inspired and embodied, which was a major influence on the Russians who helped revolutionize European art during the first decade of the 20th century. Later, he co-founded the Union of Russian Artists and the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia.

New Planet, 1921

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Self-portrait, 1912

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 24, 2022 at 1:00 am

“People ought to stop saying, ‘Rock is dead.’ It gets old.”*…

Big Star (Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel, Alex Chilton), photographed by William Eggleston

Mo Troper (and here) offers a treatise on the hotly debated subgenre Power Pop…

What is power pop? It is a question many have asked and few have satisfyingly answered. To many, power pop is any modern idealization of mid-‘60s British pop, a sticky and sickly sweet Neapolitan of “chiming guitars,” “heavy drums” and “aching vocal harmonies.” The Raspberries, Big Star, Badfinger, Todd Rundgren — these are just a few of power pop’s pioneering practitioners.

There are entire message boards and stuffy Facebook groups dedicated to debating its origins and musical properties. Power pop fandom is as isolated as it is isolating. Most of the year it’s a pasty shut-in muttering to itself, every now and then it’s an evangelist screaming from the rooftops. To be a power pop “fan” is to be in endless pursuit of the greatest post-Beatles guitar pop single the general public has yet to hear. And once you find it: Should you share it with the world or keep it all to yourself?

To the outside world — and even to nominal double-P fans — the drama and rigorous dialectic associated with this genre is insane, and understandably so.

The gatekeeping makes a little more sense if you relate power pop to a more general aesthetic phenomenon: camp.

Susan Sontag published her essay Notes on “Camp” in 1964, the same year The Beatles conquered America. According to the Wikipedia article on camp, the phrase is “etymologically obscure” — it was once a specific cultural posture associated with working-class gay communities, but it would later be subsumed under (or, co-opted by) the postmodern umbrella. Sontag herself believed camp was fundamentally non-discriminating, although acknowledges it is by and large a sensibility created by gay men. Attempting to distinguish “camp” from other, similar aesthetics is campy. 

“Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world,” Sontag writes. “The whole point of camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to ‘the serious.’ One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.”

Like camp art, the lines between seriousness and frivolity in power pop can be maddeningly obscure. Fountains of Wayne are often considered one of the greatest power pop bands of all time; their most celebrated record, Welcome Interstate Managers, is not power pop in the strict, sonic sense — it covers everything from Oasis and Cars pastiche to acoustic confessionals and quasi-lounge. What makes this record so great — and what makes it so campy — is the level of scholarship, commitment, and straight-faced passion the band brings to their interpretations of old hat musical tropes. Camp, according to Sontag, “reeks of self-love” even when it revels in parody.

Power Pop Is Camp,” from @mo_troper.

(To Moe’s point: “That Thing You Do,” the song performed by the fictional 1960s band The Wonders in Tom Hank’s film of the same name, was written by Adam Schlesinger, co-founder of Fountains of Wayne. It succeeded both in the film as an evocation of the Beatles-inspired melodic pop of 1964-65 and as a power pop success of it own (it charted in 1997 in the U.S. and Australia and was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe.)

* Matthew Sweet

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As we tap our toes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1961 that record store manager Brian Epstein called the Cavern Club in Liverpool to arrange to see a lunchtime performance the following day by a local group, The Beatles. After the show, he went backstage to introduce himself… returned for several subsequent shows… left his retailing career to become the group’s manager… and helped them become… well, the ultimate inspiration for Power Pop.

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“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled”*…

 

Ways of seeing

 

Ways of Seeing is a 1972 BBC television series of four 30-minute films created chiefly by writer John Berger, with producer Mike Dibb.  Berger’s scripts were adapted into a book of the same name.  The series is partially a response to Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series, which offered a traditionalist view of the Western artistic and cultural canon.  Berger criticizes those conventional Western cultural aesthetics by raising questions about hidden ideologies in visual images.

A BAFTA award winner, it rapidly became regarded as one of the most influential art programs ever made.

Episode One is here (others available at the links on that page):

 

For appreciations of the series’ continuing relevance, see “7 reasons why you should watch of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing,” “How John Berger changed our way of seeing art,” and “Lessons We Can Learn From John Berger.”

* John Berger, Ways of Seeing

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As we interrogate images, we might recall that it was on this date in 1863 that an exhibit was created in Paris from the paintings that were rejected by the jurors of the Salon of the French Academy. 

In that year of the Annual Salon more than half of the works of art, over 2,000, were not selected to be part of the exhibit. Therefore the “Salon des Refusés” was held, giving those artists a chance to exhibit their work.  The idea for this alternative Salon was that of Emperor Napolean III who felt the jurors were too harsh, and this would give the public a chance to decide for themselves.

As Robert Rosenblum wrote in the book 19th-Century Art:

“This so-called Salon des Refusés, however, immediately took on the stature of a counterestablishment manifestation, where artists at war with authority could be seen and where the public could go either to jeer or to enlarge their ideas of what a work of art could be.  The counter-Salon opened two weeks after the official one, on May 15, and immediately attracted hordes of Parisians, who numbered as many as four thousand on a Sunday, when admission was free.”

The Salon des Refusés was a turning point in French 19th century art and included works by Manet, Whistler, and Henri Fantin-Latour. [source]

985px-Edouard_Manet_024

Manet, The Luncheon in the Grass, 1863

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 15, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Wherever I found a library, I immediately felt at home”*…

 

Public_Library_p16

The nation’s smallest library (now closed), Hartland Four Corners, Vt., 1994. “At the time I made this photograph, its entire collection of 70 boxes of books had been sold to a local used-book dealer for $125.”

 

In celebration of National Library Week, (Roughly) Daily is revisiting photographer Robert Dawson

There are over 17,000 public libraries in this country. Since I began the project in 1994, I have photographed hundreds of libraries in 48 states. From Alaska to Florida, New England to the West Coast, the photographs reveal a vibrant, essential, yet threatened system.

A public library can mean different things to different people. For me, the library offers our best example of the public commons. For many, the library upholds the 19th-century belief that the future of democracy is contingent upon an educated citizenry. For others, the library simply means free access to the Internet, or a warm place to take shelter, a chance for an education, or the endless possibilities that jump to life in your imagination the moment you open the cover of a book…

Public_Library_p95

Library, Death Valley National Park, Calif., 2009. “This remote library in a trailer is the only library for hundreds of miles.”

See more at American Library, peruse Dawson’s The Public Library: A Photographic Essay, and visit his site.

And while physical libraries are closed for the time being, don’t forget “7 digital libraries you can visit from your couch“– and the mother of all online library resources, the Internet Archive.

* Charles Simic

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As we check it out, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Immanuel Kant; he was born on this date in 1724.  One of the central figures of modern philosophy, Kant is remembered primarily for his efforts to unite reason with experience (e.g., Critique of Pure Reason [Kritik der reinen Vernunft], 1781), and for his work on ethics (e.g., Metaphysics of Morals [Die Metaphysik der Sitten], 1797) and aesthetics (e.g., Critique of Judgment [Kritik der Urteilskraft], 1790).  But he made important contributions to mathematics and astronomy as well; for example: Kant’s argument that mathematical truths are a form of synthetic a priori knowledge was cited by Einstein as an important early influence on his work.  And his description of the Milky Way as a lens-shaped collection of stars that represented only one of many “island universes,” was later shown to be accurate by Herschel.

There is … only a single categorical imperative and it is this: Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

– Chapter 11, Metaphysics of Morals

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

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