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“The golden ratio is the key”*…

… in any case, to good design. So, how did it come into currency? Western tradition tends to credit the Greeks and Euclid (via Fibonacci), while acknowledging that they may have been inspired by the Egyptians. But recent research has surfaced a a more tantalizing prospect:

Design remains a largely white profession, with Black people still vastly underrepresented – making up just 3% of the design industry, according to a 2019 survey

Part of the lack of representation might have had to do with the fact that prevailing tenets of design seemed to hew closely to Western traditions, with purported origins in Ancient Greece and the schools out of Germany, Russia and the Netherlands deemed paragons of the field. A “Black aesthetic” has seemed to be altogether absent.

But what if a uniquely African aesthetic has been deeply embedded in Western design all along? 

Through my research collaboration with design scholar Ron Eglash, author of “African Fractals,” I discovered that the design style that undergirds much of the graphic design profession today – the Swiss design tradition that uses the golden ratio – may have roots in African culture

The golden ratio refers to the mathematical expression of “1: phi,” where phi is an irrational number, roughly 1.618. 

Visually, this ratio can be represented as the “golden rectangle,” with the ratio of side “a” to side “b” the same as the ratio of the sides “a”-plus-“b” to “a.” 

The golden rectangle. If you divide ‘a’ by ‘b’ and ‘a’-plus-‘b’ by ‘a,’ you get phi, which is roughly 1.618

Create a square on one side of the golden rectangle, and the remaining space will form another golden rectangle. Repeat that process in each new golden rectangle, subdividing in the same direction, and you’ll get a golden spiral [the image at the top of this post], arguably the more popular and recognizable representation of the golden ratio.

This ratio is called “golden” or “divine” because it’s visually pleasing, and some scholars argue that the human eye can more readily interpret images that incorporate it.

For these reasons, you’ll see the golden ratio, rectangle and spiral incorporated into the design of public spaces and emulated in the artwork in museum halls and hanging on gallery walls. It’s also reflected in naturearchitecture, and design – and it forms a key component of modern Swiss design.

The Swiss design style emerged in the 20th century from an amalgamation of Russian, Dutch and German aesthetics. It’s been called one of the most important movements in the history of graphic design and provided the foundation for the rise of modernist graphic design in North America.

The Helvetica font, which originated in Switzerland, and Swiss graphic compositions – from ads to book covers, web pages and posters – are often organized according to the golden rectangle. Swiss architect Le Corbusier famously centered his design philosophy on the golden ratio, which he described as “[resounding] in man by an organic inevitability.”

An ad for Swiss Air by graphic designer Josef Müller-Brockmann incorporates the golden ratio. Grafic Notes

Graphic design scholars – represented particularly by Greek architecture scholar Marcus Vitruvius Pollo – have tended to credit early Greek culture for incorporating the golden rectangle into design. They’ll point to the Parthenon as a notable example of a building that implemented the ratio in its construction.

But empirical measurements don’t support the Parthenon’s purported golden proportions, since its actual ratio is 4:9 – two whole numbers. As I’ve pointed out, the Greeks, notably the mathematician Euclid, were aware of the golden ratio, but it was mentioned only in the context of the relationship between two lines or figures. No Greek sources use the phrase “golden rectangle” or suggest its use in design.

In fact, ancient Greek writings on architecture almost always stress the importance of whole number ratios, not the golden ratio. To the Greeks, whole number ratios represented Platonic concepts of perfection, so it’s far more likely that the Parthenon would have been built in accordance with these ideals.

If not from the ancient Greeks, where, then, did the golden rectangle originate? 

In Africa, design practices tend to focus on bottom-up growth and organic, fractal forms. They are created in a sort of feedback loop, what computer scientists call “recursion.” You start with a basic shape and then divide it into smaller versions of itself, so that the subdivisions are embedded in the original shape. What emerges is called a “self-similar” pattern, because the whole can be found in the parts… 

Robert Bringhurst, author of the canonical work “The Elements of Typographic Style,” subtly hints at the golden ratio’s African origins:

“If we look for a numerical approximation to this ratio, 1: phi, we will find it in something called the Fibonacci series, named for the thirteenth-century mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci. Though he died two centuries before Gutenberg, Fibonacci is important in the history of European typography as well as mathematics. He was born in Pisa but studied in North Africa.”

These scaling patterns can be seen in ancient Egyptian design, and archaeological evidence shows that African cultural influences traveled down the Nile river. For instance, Egyptologist Alexander Badaway found the Fibonacci Series’ use in the layout of the Temple of Karnak. It is arranged in the same way African villages grow: starting with a sacred altar or “seed shape” before accumulating larger spaces that spiral outward.

Given that Fibonacci specifically traveled to North Africa to learn about mathematics, it is not unreasonable to speculate that Fibonacci brought the sequence from North Africa. Its first appearance in Europe is not in ancient Greece, but in “Liber Abaci,” Fibonacci’s book of math published in Italy in 1202. 

Why does all of this matter?

Well, in many ways, it doesn’t. We care about “who was first” only because we live in a system obsessed with proclaiming some people winners – the intellectual property owners that history should remember. That same system declares some people losers, removed from history and, subsequently, their lands, undeserving of any due reparations. 

Yet as many strive to live in a just, equitable and peaceful world, it is important to restore a more multicultural sense of intellectual history, particularly within graphic design’s canon. And once Black graphic design students see the influences of their predecessors, perhaps they will be inspired and motivated anew to recover that history – and continue to build upon its legacy.

The longer-than-we’ve-acknowledged history of the Golden Ratio in design; Audrey Bennett (@audreygbennett) unpacks “The African roots of Swiss design.”

For more on Fibonacci‘s acquisitive habits, see this earlier post.

* Sir Edward Victor Appleton, Nobel Laureate in physics (1947)

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As we ruminate on relationships, we might send careful-calculated birthday greetings to Mary Jackson; she was born on this date in 1921. A mathematician and aerospace engineer, she worked at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia (part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics [NACA], which in 1958 was succeeded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA]) for most of her career. She began as a “computer” at the segregated West Area Computing division in 1951; in 1958, she became NASA’s first black female engineer.

Jackson’s story features in the 2016 non-fiction book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. She is one of the three protagonists in Hidden Figures, the film adaptation released the same year. In 2019, she was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal; in 2020 the Washington, D.C. headquarters of NASA was renamed the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters.

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“What strip mining is to nature, the art market has become to culture”*…

Nyan Cat meme, sold for $590,000 as an NFT (non-fungible token)

Before Christmas, the only uncertain-times-era art world innovations I could think of were online art fairs and anonymous Instagram callout accounts. Now more innovation has arrived, and it’s come from outside, from the spheres of online culture and cryptocurrency speculation. Crypto has its origins in a mistrust of authority in various forms, from government-backed fiat, to the banking system, to the financial industry. Now it’s also challenging art world elites…

Cryptocurrency’s exploding again. NFTs (non-fungible tokens) in particular. The Nyan Cat meme goes for $590,000. The “ape in a fedora” CryptoPunk goes for $1.54 million. An animated gif of Trump’s bloated, naked corpse by someone called “Beeple” goes for $6.6 million, setting a new record for any Millennial artist, dead or alive. Christie’s launches a two-week sale of one of his works. It closes tomorrow and has already broken the record again. Current bid: $9,750,000…

The old gatekeepers have been losing their power for a while now. In his New York Times profile of KAWS (Brian Donnelly), who’s just opened a major retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, Michael H. Miller writes, “One art reporter told me … that certain directors at Gagosian, the largest and most profitable gallery in the world, would automatically move anyone known to own a KAWS down on their waiting list to buy something.” Nevertheless KAWS is unstoppable. He has his career-defining homecoming museum show, his Peter Schjeldahl writeup, his many pages of coverage, his giant sculptures looming over Manhattan’s Park Avenue and Brooklyn’s Greenpoint waterfront, and, a couple years back, in 2019, he shocked the art establishment when his painting The Kaws Album (2005), a remake of The Simpsons’ remake of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for $14.8 million. Images and sculptures are accruing value in new ways: KAWS came up making street art and toy collectibles, and Beeple (Mike Winkelmann) made his name through Instagram and concert visuals. They symbolise the return of populism to the arts. I recently wrote for the Spectator about the trend of bad figurative painting that occupies the bardo between content and art: paintings that are easy to enjoy, and also to post. With NFTs, we’ve made another leap from art that’s easy to post, to art that simply is the post.

The old ways of valuing an object at auction (backdoor dealings, price fixing, and clandestine, corrupt practices) are coming up against the new ways (wild speculative mania and hyperstition) and falling short, for now. Beeple and KAWS, who have dominated the year’s artistic discourse, are outsiders that made it to the top. But it’s a very boring sort of outsider art, made by nerds for other nerds…

So much of today’s culture is a poor-quality remake of something better and more compelling. KAWS bootlegs pop-cultural staples like Mickey Mouse, the Simpsons, Peanuts, and SpongeBob in his own depressive comic style, while Beeple takes Mickey, again, Pokémon and Shrek, plus politicians like Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Kim Jong-un, and composites them into dystopian CGI montages. There are two paths for the golden-age American cartoon star: to be withdrawn, like the lascivious skunk Pepé le Pew, or, worse, to be reimagined as bad art, as childish and nostalgic art for those that don’t like ideas, or beauty…

There’s just too much of everything. There are too many different Oreos. 65 flavours in 8 years is too many. Too many Hot Chicken Wing Oreos, Waffle & Syrup Oreos, Jelly Donut Oreos, Supreme Oreos. There’s too much content that appears different but is the same. Too many identities are available to us. Too many manias. Too many hysterias. Examine nearly any aspect of society and you can see it’s gone too far. The reason so many flavours of Oreos are invented, according to the cookie’s brand director, is that this overabundance of choice reminds us of and drives us back to the original. It reminds us of how much we like the old Oreo, the Platonic ideal of the Oreos of childhood, the Proustian Oreo with the glass of cold milk. When there’s too much of everything however, at some point the original is lost, the memory is lost, and all that remains are faded, flat, hollowed-out derivatives…

The most popular series of NFT collectibles are algorithmically generated. And what they reveal, compared to the rest of culture, is a broader and more prevalent trend of art and entertainment that has the uncanny feeling of having been made by algorithm, even though it wasn’t. A painter and performance artist once told me, in the brutalist basement of the old Met Breuer, that Future had destroyed the future. Trap music has taken over the world, and it all sounds more or less the same now. It might be amazing, but it sounds the same. It’s supposed to sound the same. That’s the idea, what makes it so powerful. A talented producer can make a song in ten minutes on a live stream. A talented producer can make a song in less time than it takes to listen to. It’s never been quicker to write a song than now. Songs keep getting shorter and shorter. Records keep getting shorter and shorter. It’s a numbers game. I can write these columns pretty quickly now. This is an age of great speed and competition. We’re all looking for more popularity, new ways to find an edge; and yet, all this competition only seems to lead to blandness and mediocrity, rather than breakthroughs. Nor does it lead to collapse; even accelerationism doesn’t work. We want too much content, too fast, and it just leads to this endless algorithmic churning, this paint-by-numbers effect. You see it in art. In Netflix documentaries. Spotify playlists. Op-ed pages. The news. The latest manufactured outrage. Well-reviewed first-person novels about nothing. All so dreadfully banal and repetitive. This is what results when everything is forged in economies of dollars, of ether, of attention. Most culture now has the feeling of having been made by algorithm; and the reason for this, is that humans have begun to act like algorithms…

What non-fungible (which is to say, unique) tokens show us, is the absolute fungibility of culture today: its hazy, interchangeable meaninglessness. How it all belongs on a blockchain. How it all belongs on an infinite self-generating playlist ouroboros. It all belongs on a streaming service that slowly steals the hours and the heartbeats from inside you. When you look at the Discover Page Hotties, you look back into your own soul through a clouded mirror. “Online,” a mysterious anonymous cipher writes to you, “so much is dependent on an algorithmic matrix of mined data that the user’s identity is distilled so accurately that you can’t breach the identity that’s fed back to you via the screen. So no chance encounters, just a recurrent overlap of what you already are.” If life was once about chasing after a dream, it’s now about running away from the comfortable, hypnagogic lifestyles prescribed to you by the culture we create together, reflexively and imitatively. You’re living inside other people’s dreams; and these are not good dreams. So much of modern life is algorithmically scripted so as to exclude surprise or chance, and you must try to break free of this script every day. Rejecting all this post-death culture is a good place to begin…

The art world, disrupted by crypto: Dean Kissick (@deankissick) on why that’s a sad thing: “The Downward Spiral: Popular Things.”

See also “NFTs Weren’t Supposed to End Like This,” by Anil Dash, the co-creator of the NFT; further to which, this thread from Jonathan Zittrain.

And finally (as a cap on what’s turned out to be a trio of posts about scarcity, post-scarcity, and what matters in our economy; earlier here and here), “Red Bull, Elon Musk, and Matt Gaetz“… “post-scarcity is just another way of saying decadence.”

* Robert Hughes, writing presciently in 1989

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As we appraise art, we might spare a thought for an artist who, roughly a century ago, played an outsized role in revolutionizing the art world of his time, Pablo Picasso; he died on this date in 1973. Picasso is universally regarded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century; he is known for co-founding the Cubist movement, for the invention of constructed sculpture, for the co-invention of collage, and for the wide variety of styles that he helped develop and explore.

Picasso in 1908

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“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world”*…

Shortly after 335 B.C., within a newly built library tucked just east of Athens’ limestone city walls, a free-thinking Greek polymath by the name of Aristotle gathered up an armful of old theater scripts. As he pored over their delicate papyrus in the amber flicker of a sesame lamp, he was struck by a revolutionary idea: What if literature was an invention for making us happier and healthier? The idea made intuitive sense; when people felt bored, or unhappy, or at a loss for meaning, they frequently turned to plays or poetry. And afterwards, they often reported feeling better. But what could be the secret to literature’s feel-better power? What hidden nuts-and-bolts conveyed its psychological benefits?

After carefully investigating the matter, Aristotle inked a short treatise that became known as the Poetics. In it, he proposed that literature was more than a single invention; it was many inventions, each constructed from an innovative use of story. Story includes the countless varieties of plot and character—and it also includes the equally various narrators that give each literary work its distinct style or voice. Those story elements, Aristotle hypothesized, could plug into our imagination, our emotions, and other parts of our psyche, troubleshooting and even improving our mental function.

Aristotle’s idea was so unusual that, for more than two millennia, his account of literary inventions existed as an intellectual one-off, too intriguing to be forgotten but also too idiosyncratic to be developed further. In the mid-20th century, R. S. Crane and the renegade professors of the Chicago School revived the Poetics’ techno-scientific method, using it to excavate literary inventions from Shakespearean tragedies, 18th-century novels, and other works that Aristotle never knew. Later, in the early 2000s, one of the Chicago School’s students, James Phelan, co-founded Ohio State’s Project Narrative, where I now work as a professor of story science. Project Narrative is the world’s leading academic think tank for the study of stories, and in our research labs, with the help of neuroscientists and psychologists from across the globe, we’ve uncovered dozens more literary inventions in Zhou Dynasty lyrics, Italian operas, West African epics, classic children’s books, great American novels, Agatha Christie crime fictions, Mesoamerican myths, and even Hollywood television scripts.

These literary inventions can alleviate grief, improve your problem-solving skills, dispense the anti-depressant effects of LSD, boost your creativity, provide therapy for trauma (including both kinds of PTSD), spark joy, dole out a better energy kick than caffeine, lower your odds of dying alone, and (as impossible as it sounds) increase the chance that your dreams will come true. They can even make you a more loving spouse and generous friend

Recurring story elements that have proven effects on our imagination and our psyche: “Eight of Literature’s Most Powerful Inventions—and the Neuroscience Behind How They Work.” (Excerpted from Angus Fletcher’s Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature.)

* Philip Pullman

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As we noodle narratives, we might send a combo birthday and St Patrick’s Day greeting to Catherine “Kate” Greenaway; she was born on this date in 1846.  Creator of books for children such as Mother Goose (1881), Little Ann (1883), and The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1889), she was one of the most the most accomplished illustrators of her time– and the inspiration for The Kate Greenaway Medal, awarded annually by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in the U.K. to an illustrator of children’s books.

Greenaway’s illustration of the Pied Piper leading the children out of Hamelin; for Robert Browning’s version of the tale.

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“In the absence of value judgements, value goes up in flames. And it goes up in a sort of ecstasy.”*…

Pablo Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O)”

When Pablo Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O)” sold at Christie’s in New York for $179 million dollars in May 2015, it was only the 36th time in the past 315 years that a world auction record had been set, and the sale raised questions well beyond the art world. How could a single painting be worth so much? Why is art so important to wealthy households? What economic and social factors could lead to enshrining Picasso’s colourful near-abstract portrait as the most valuable picture in the history of the modern world?…

Three economists offer an an explanation based on an analysis of art auctions dating back to 1701: “A History of the Art Market in 35 Record-Breaking Sales.”

* Jean Baudrillard

In this sense, therefore, inasmuch as we have access to neither the beautiful nor the ugly, and are incapable of judging, we are condemned to indifference. Beyond this indifference, however, another kind of fascination emerges, a fascination which replaces aesthetic pleasure. For, once liberated from their respective constraints, the beautiful and the ugly, in a sense, multiply: they become more beautiful than beautiful, more ugly than ugly.

Thus painting currently cultivates, if not ugliness exactly – which remains an aesthetic value – then the uglier-than-ugly (the ‘bad’, the ‘worse’, kitsch), an ugliness raised to the second power because it is liberated from any relationship with its opposite. Once freed from the ‘true’ Mondrian, we are at liberty to ‘out-Mondrian Mondrian’; freed from the true naifs, we can paint in a way that is ‘more naif than naif’, and so on. And once freed from reality, we can produce the ‘realer than real’ – hyperrealism. It was in fact with hyperrealism and pop art that everything began, that everyday life was raised to the ironic power of photographic realism. Today this escalation has caught up every form of art, every style; and all, without discrimination, have entered the transaesthetic world of simulation.

There is a parallel to this escalation in the art market itself. Here too, because an end has been put to any deference to the law of value, to the logic of commodities, everything has become ‘more expensive than expensive’ – expensive, as it were, squared. Prices are exorbitant – the bidding has gone through the roof. Just as the abandonment of all aesthetic ground rules provokes a kind of brush fire of aesthetic values, so the loss of all reference to the laws of exchange means that the market hurtles into unrestrained speculation.

The frenzy, the folly, the sheer excess are the same. The promotional ignition of art is directly linked to the impossibility of all aesthetic evaluation.

In the absence of value judgements, value goes up in flames. And it goes up in a sort of ecstasy.

There are two art markets today. One is still regulated by a hierarchy of values, even if these are already of a speculative kind. The other resembles nothing so much as floating and uncontrollable capital in the financial market: it is pure speculation, movement for movement’s sake, with no apparent purpose other than to defy the law of value. This second art market has much in common with poker or potlatch – it is a kind of space opera in the hyperspace of value. Should we be scandalized? No. There is nothing immoral here. Just as present-day art is beyond beautiful and ugly, the market, for its part, is beyond good and evil.

The Transparency of Evil: Essays in Extreme Phenomena

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As we appreciate appreciating art, we might recall that it was on this date in 1862 that (in order to create liquidity to finance the Civil War) the U.S. government issued its first official paper money. “Demand Notes,” the first federal issues of the Civil War, were immediately exchangeable in gold or silver “on demand” at seven banks spread across the country. They were quickly replaced by very similar-looking “legal tender” notes that could not be readily converted to specie. These issues were notable for the bright, dark green imprints on their backs, and ever since then American paper currency has been familiarly nicknamed “greenbacks.”

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Written by LW

March 10, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Each lovely Grace by certain Marks he taught /And ev’ry Step in lasting Volumes wrote”*

Musical score and dance notation of a portion of the saraband, in Kellom Tomlinson’s The Art of Dancing Explained (1735), book 1, plate 6. Note the mirrored notation for leading with the left foot or the right foot.

The late seventeenth century gave rise to a powerful innovation in Western European social and theatrical dance, the art of dance notation. The new representational technology ofdance notation provided a means to broadcast fashionable dances emerging from the French court as well as new compositions from dancing masters operating in London and elsewhere. In the first three decades of the eighteenth century, dance notation quickly reached faddish heights, with published dance manuals in high demand among upper levels of English society. One publication from the era, Kellom Tomlinson’s The Art of Dancing Explained by Reading and Figures, provides a window onto the descriptive tool of dance notation, its function in society, and its eventual decline. While providing a previously unimagined communicational technology, the completeness and specificity of the dominant form of dance notationultimately spelled its demise…

The fascinating story (with more nifty illustrations and diagrams) of a 1735 attempt to capture the ineffable: “From the Page to the Floor:Baroque Dance Notation and Kellom Tomlinson’s The Art of Dancing Explained.” [TotH to Ben Evans]

* Soame Jenyns in his 1729 poem “The Art of Dancing” (in part an ode to Kellom Tomlinson’s work)

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As we capture choreography, we might recall that it was on this date in 2005 that Halle Berry accepted the Razzie as Worst Actress for her role in Catwoman. Holding the Razzie in one hand and her Oscar (for Monster’s Ball) in the other, she gave a parody of her emotional Oscar acceptance speech, beginning “First of all I want to thank Warner Bros. Thank you for putting me in a piece of s***, god-awful movie!”

Watch her acceptance speech here.

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Written by LW

February 26, 2021 at 1:01 am

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