Saturday, 9 September 2006

I, Locutor

If an artist creates a work of art, and nobody understands it, is it art?

Or, put another way, is communication an essential part of what it means to be art? Far too often, it seems to me that works of modern art are like the proverbial tree in the forest, falling with nobody to hear. Am I being unreasonable here, or should it not be the goal of an artist to communicate, to engage the viewer in some kind of a dialogue? What point is there in shouting into the forest, where there are no ears to hear? Or shouting into a crowd in a language nobody understands? It may make you feel good to express yourself, but is your self-indulgence really deserving of the name "art"?

Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: Premonitions of Civil WarHere is a piece of modern art that does succeed in communicating. It horrified me when I first saw it. It still does. But that is an entirely appropriate response, seeing as this painting is Salvador Dali's Premonitions of Civil War. Not exactly something I'd want to hang in my living room, but there's no denying that he has effectively captured the agony of a country ripping itself to pieces.

But what was I to make of a piece of art (?) I saw some time ago at the National Gallery - a simple red circle hung on the wall? It had companions further on down the wall, equally simple geometric figures in single colours. I have no clue what they were supposed to say to me. There might have been a message, but it was cryptic to the point of being inscrutable. My only consolation was that the circle and its friends had been donated to the Gallery by the artist and not paid for out of taxpayers' money. My question to the artist (whose name I've forgotten) would be, "What's the point?"

In a conversation about art at Ambivablog some time ago, Annie included a link which sent me to the site of a young Japanese artist, Kana Tanaka, who spoke of her attitude toward art.

In the US I have been taught to attempt to break the ‘set,’ historically accepted concept of "art", and to create something new by believing and following self-motivations and inspirations. What is most important is to develop "artistic confidence." I found this inspiring passage in the book, RAW CREATION -- Outsider Art, that encouraged me to create something without thinking too much about the audience, and to follow my own desire and inspiration.

Talk about art in a vacuum! She might just as well be blogging...

In all seriousness, I think she has expressed very clearly the essence of the problem: art as a self-indulgent expression, with indifference or even active contempt of the audience. It does not seem to me to be an ideal to aspire to.

The title of this post is deliberately cryptic, in the spirit of some modern art. I was about to change it, figuring nobody would understand my draft title, but then I thought, "How perfect! Exactly what I'm talking about!" So I left my self-indulgence in place. If you "get" it, let me know.

Friday, 8 September 2006

Gleanings from the blogosphere, Sep. 8

Alan Stewart Carl at Maverick Views is in some despair, as he fears that "9/11 has not changed us enough".

Camassia is arguing that it doesn't really matter if Islam is a good religion or not. The only question that matters is: is it true? She obviously knows on which side of the question of absolute truth she comes down on.

Weekend Fisher continues to impress me with her uncommon moral clarity as she brings her series on ethics and violence to a close with an examination of the concept of "just war". I particularly liked this quote:
Complaints against evil are commonly one-sided. Ironically, they are commonly one-sided against the less dangerous, less evil side, and for very practical reasons, some of them even reasonable ones. At best, we tend to criticize the more peaceable party because they are more likely to be reasonable, to listen, and to value peace. At worst, we are more likely to criticize the more peaceable party because they are less likely to attack or kill us for criticizing them. While no balanced approach to evil would lead us to protest mainly against the party less likely to kill us (i.e. the less dangerous and less evil party), that is still often how it works out. If we have not confronted evil on both sides, despite the risks, then we have not done our part in consistently standing up for what is good and right.

There is no such thing as absolute truth

... and I am absolutely sure of it!

Some of you find that amusing, but that's just because you're being polite. You think I'm joking, and you're flattering me with a faint smile. But I'm not joking. That is essentially the creed of the relativists and they are dead serious about it.

The irony of it, and its fatal flaw, is that the statement "there is no such thing as absolute truth" is a perfect oxymoron, being itself a statement of absolute truth. And try as I might, no matter how much I've poked at it, picked it up and shook it till it rattled, I can't get anything but an oxymoron out of it. It is a self-refuting statement.

And yet this fuzzy thinking is the new orthodoxy. There is hardly a more offensive statement you can make to relativists (and there are a LOT of them out there) than, "I have the truth." They will take issue with you for thinking there is anything like THE truth that can be found. And most especially, for claiming to have found it.

If you don't believe me, try claiming to have the Truth online somewhere. This works better than trying it face-to-face, because residual manners crumble much more easily in an online environment. Unless you make this statement on a religious (and specifically Christian, Jewish or Muslim) site, you will get attacked quite vigorously for daring to think you've found it.

Then they will undermine their own case by finding fault with the truth you have found. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds, but when someone starts with a premise that is fatally flawed and then proceeds to undermine it every chance he gets, he doesn't have much to stand on. You can't have your cake and eat it too.

If there is no such thing as absolute truth, the only answer to anybody's belief is "If it makes you happy." You have surrendered the right to debate its validity. Any protestation is both heresy and hypocrisy.

If absolute truth does indeed exist, then you can argue if you like, based on objective criteria. You can argue that someone else has found lies instead of truth, or that he has misunderstood the truth. But you cannot argue that there is more than one truth. Just as only one physical body can occupy a given space at any one time, so only one absolute truth can exist. Our understanding of it may be relative and mistaken in any number of particulars, but none of that affects it. The earth remained round no matter how many medieval minds were oblivious and even hostile to that fact. Nobody ever fell off the edge, regardless of how fervently they believed in the possibility. Truth is unaltered by our opinions and beliefs.

This is, of course, another great inconsistency of those who say they don't believe in absolute truth. They apply this doctrine in a highly selective manner. I'll bet you won't find a flat-earther among them. Objective criteria for determining truth are fine when it comes to something physical and concrete. But what about magnetism? Or sub-atomic particles? Gravity? The weak force? The vast majority of us take the existence of these things on pure faith. You won't find too many relativists - if any - doubting their existence or even giving you the choice of doubting them.

If we are prepared to believe in the truth of such abstract, invisible things without taxing astrophysicists with arrogance, why do the rules suddenly undergo such a violent shift when it comes to metaphysics? If we believe there is a physical truth to be found, why not a metaphysical truth? And when someone thinks they've found it, why not examine the validity of the criteria used, rather than upbraiding them for looking at all?

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Thursday, 7 September 2006

Guilt-free Schadenfreude

Amba at Ambivablog reports that the new season of Survivor is having difficulty retaining corporate sponsors. Although they refuse to admit it, advertisers are evidently ill at ease with this season's format, which organizes the participants into opposing camps based on race.

I've never cared for Survivor or its many clones. Games that are designed to encourage lying and betrayal don't rate very high on my respectometer. That they actively encourage the viewers to delight in it, drops them even further.

The new season's concept pushed it down into new sub-zero numbers in my estimation. To know that they have been having trouble retaining viewers and now sponsors makes me chuckle in virtuous wicked glee. And I don't feel even the slightest whiff of guilt. I hope the whole show gets voted off the island once and for all.

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Tuesday, 5 September 2006

Gleanings from the blogosphere, Sep. 5

The Anonymous Liberal is questioning recent concerns about Iran, not that he finds them unwarranted, but definitely over-hyped. He cites Fareed Zakaria's recent interesting analysis of the exaggeration of the Iranian threat.


Portraits by the author when a young man (or in this case, the author's son).

Is Jahanbegloo's confession real after all?

Although I have expressed my skepticism regarding Ramin Jahanbegloo's confession, as have the majority of commentators, Hossein Derakhshan has another opinion, and it's not easily dismissed. He's not a shill for the Iranian government, and knows Jahanbegloo personally. He presents his case at Open Democracy.

He argues first of all that Ramin's confession did not follow the standard template that most coerced confessions in Iran do.

Then his next point, that he realized that his research for think tanks was actually serving the interests of those who wanted to overthrow the Iranian government:
Jahanbegloo describes how this research gradually led to a strengthening of his ties with these think-tanks, and how he eventually realised that the main people interested in the research were intelligence officials and those associated with the United States state department, who sought to use it to help form their polices towards Iran.

Derakhshan does not seem to be entirely convinced himself of this point.

He then wraps up his argument with a very interesting analysis of changes within the Iranian security establishment, which alone makes his article worth the read.

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Monday, 4 September 2006

Gleanings from the blogosphere, Sep. 4

Jack at After the Future is deeply concerned about a militaristic culture that is rotting out the American soul, while defending himself from charges of being a left-wing flake.
The enemy that most threatens America is not Islamic terrorism. Terrorism is small apples in comparison to the internal threat of those who are nudging us toward becoming a militarist authoritarian state. This kind of thing doesn't happen over night. It's not something that in a society as complex as ours could happen with a sudden military coup. It's something we are drifting into. It's something for which the foundation is being laid quietly and unobtrusively justified by a rationale that is partially true--the struggles against communism or terror. It's something allowed by a nation's citizens because they are angry or frightened, and they turn to hardliner authoritarian types who present themselves as the protecting father, the strong man who will keep them safe.

Over at Donklephant, Justin proclaims the evangelicals scare him. I'm afraid I got a little provoked and called him on a few points. The whole thing smacked of bigotry to me. People came down on both sides of the issue in the comment section.

The Walrus and the Carpenter, by Lewis Carroll

As a public service to all of you who end up on this blog by virtue of searching for "the Walrus said," here is the entire text of Lewis Carroll's poem, from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Does anybody else get the impression that Carroll would have been a great fan of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?

The Walrus and the Carpenter

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright--
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done--
"It's very rude of him," she said,
"To come and spoil the fun!"

The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead--
There were no birds to fly.

The Walrus and the CarpenterThe Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
"If this were only cleared away,"
They said, "it would be grand!"

"If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year.
Do you suppose," the Walrus said,
"That they could get it clear?"
"I doubt it," said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.

"O Oysters, come and walk with us!"
The Walrus did beseech.
"A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each."

The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head--
Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed.

But four young Oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat--
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn't any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more--
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
Conveniently low:
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."

"But wait a bit," the Oysters cried,
"Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!"
"No hurry!" said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.

"A loaf of bread," the Walrus said,
"Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed--
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed."

"But not on us!" the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
"After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!"
"The night is fine," the Walrus said.
"Do you admire the view?

"It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf--
I've had to ask you twice!"

"It seems a shame," the Walrus said,
"To play them such a trick,
After we've brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"The butter's spread too thick!"

"I weep for you," the Walrus said:
"I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

"O Oysters," said the Carpenter,
"You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?'
But answer came there none--
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.

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