Friday, March 30, 2018

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Eyes Of Picasso, by JD

[This piece on Picasso and his vision first appeared on Nourishing Obscurity here.]

The picture shown at left was painted in 1895 when the artist was just fourteen, the same age as the young girl. It is one of the first paintings you see when you visit L’hôtel Salé in Paris.

Standing there and seeing this painting for the first time, I was immediately struck by the eyes. Large, round, black eyes with a compelling gaze out onto the world.

The artist was, of course, Pablo Ruiz Picasso; the man who dominated twentieth century art and those eyes became a recurring theme in his work over the next eighty years.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, Picasso seemed to know what power lay in the eyes.

And the eyes do have an unknown power, as Rupert Sheldrake asserts in his book The Sense Of Being Stared At.

Plato imagined light from a ball of fire emanating from the eye and combining with sunlight to hit the object seen and this is then reflected back to the eye.

Sheldrake and Plato are not the only ones to believe in the extramission theory of the eyes.

The eyes of that young girl are like Picasso’s own eyes with their mirada fuerte,nothing escapes those eyes and that gaze of Picasso’s seems to devour everything it lands upon.

Again and again, the eyes are the main point of interest in his paintings regardless of the style he uses (or invents) We see it here in the two central figures in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, one of his most celebrated works.

In a completely different style, executed in charcoal (with collage) the eyes are once more the focus in this picture of his then wife Jacqueline Roque.

In this, lesser known, work we can see the wide-eyed excitement of a child taking its first steps. This is a wonderful painting in other ways; the overarching protectiveness of the mother and the delicacy of her touch as she guides the child without grasping too tightly.

And in his final self-portrait we have an old man, shrunken of skull but still those eyes dominate the picture, staring into the undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn no traveller returns –

When Picasso died in 1973 it was as if a line had been drawn under the visual arts with the implicit message- follow that!

And we have been unable to do so. Over the subsequent four decades the art world has been floundering, looking for the next big thing and finding nothing of substance.

Painting has more or less disappeared and the visual arts have degenerated into infantilism and ineptitude. Words have now replaced images in that every ‘artist’ must now have an Artist’s Statement (full of meaningless platitudes) or, even worse, a manifesto! and the artworks themselves are often covered in writing. Everything now needs to be explained as if we had lost the ability to see or, more likely, artists can no longer make the invisible visible.

It seems appropriate somehow that history’s greatest painter should be the one to bring an end to the visual arts. And for those who cannot accept such an assertion, I say only – open your eyes/mind and look! Or in the words of J. Winston Lennon –

Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see.

The last word must go to Sir Roland Penrose; from his biography of Picasso:

The virtue common to all great painters is that they teach us to see, but few have had a more compelling way of doing so than Picasso. His power has enchanted those who are susceptible and enraged those who resent being disturbed by his brilliance. Art itself should teach us to free ourselves from the rules of art, and this is precisely what the art of Picasso has done.

There is also reason to be grateful for the violence that he has used, for in our time, when signs of apathy and despair are easy to detect, it is only a resounding and decisive passion that can succeed. As he himself has said: “The essential in this time of moral poverty is to create enthusiasm.” Without the awakening of ardent love, no life and therefore no art has any meaning.

JD adds:

After watching Picasso's last Stand on TV the other night  I thought the overall message of the programme was a reinforcement of that last line I quoted from Sir Roland Penrose's biography:

" Without the awakening of ardent love, no life and therefore no art has any meaning."  

I have seen a few of the paintings shown in the programme, the ones in the Picasso Museum in Paris and they are indeed 'passionate' paintings, vibrant and 'full of meaning'.

I have seen a lot of his paintings over the years and always there is the sense that they are somehow alive, their 'presence' can be felt in the galleries. (Rembrandt's paintings have that same quality.) Not all of his work has that vitality. I have always thought that Guernica was a flat and lifeless painting; when he does a 'political' painting it is nothing more than a gesture, his heart is not really in it which reflects that quotation above.

As I wrote in the original post "When Picasso died in 1973 it was as if a line had been drawn under the visual arts with the implicit message- follow that!"  ... and we have not and we cannot follow that!

Friday, March 23, 2018

FRIDAY MUSIC: Friday Fusion, by JD

Popular music is currently in a moribund state with a distinct lack of 'music' and too many 'stars' who cannot sing. Well I would say that as I am ancient, a veritable benign old gentleman in fact.

But I can see that young people are also tired of the dreary and dismal offerings and many are looking over their shoulders for inspiration. The results of this old/new fusion are a delight.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A delectable sense of freedom

It is very agreeable to find yourself alone in a great city which is yet not quite strange to you and in a large empty hotel. It gives you a delectable sense of freedom.

W. Somerset Maugham – The Human Element (1931)

Some years ago Sackerson wrote a very interesting post on freedom - Three levels of freedom. The following post is intended to add another aspect to the debate. Not an alternative view of freedom but a possible way to frame questions of freedom - what it could be, why ideas differ so much and why freedom seems to fade away so easily.

In the above quote Somerset Maugham is clearly referring to freedom as a feeling - a delectable sense of freedom. Equally clearly people differ in how they react to restrictions placed on their freedom. Some appear not to notice many restrictions and may even welcome some of them. Others have a greater tendency to see restrictions as an oppressive burden, an imposition to be resented at every opportunity.

To take a familiar example, some motorists see our vast array of traffic laws as oppressive while others see them as necessary for road safety and not particularly oppressive. These are different reactions to the same situation and perhaps this is the important yet entirely familiar point - it is extremely common for people have different reactions to the same situation. Consequently they interpret the same situation differently – as we all know too well.

In which case neither freedom nor oppression are clearly identifiable situations in the outside world. There is an inescapable human element, an emotional component to do with feelings about oppressive situations and those feelings are far from universal. Maybe we should go further and suggest that freedom is not only a state of affairs in the outside world but also an emotion, a state of affairs in our brains. Hardly a surprising conclusion but worth exploring consequences.

How could freedom be an emotion? Not necessarily a strong emotion such as anger, but something more subtle such as unease, contempt, frustration or dissatisfaction. In her book How Emotions Are Made, Professor Lisa FeldmanBarrett says emotion is our brain’s way of interpreting an amalgam of bodily sensations linked to events in the outside world. An emotion is a concept, a way of making sense of things which affect us or seem to affect us.

This is not to suggest that ideas about freedom are caused by emotions. Ideas about freedom are themselves emotional concepts. They are rationales we use to explain and link our bodily sensations with events and situations in the outside world. Why am I fed up with all the traffic laws? Because sometimes they feel oppressive, life-sapping, frustrating. Not always though - and that is another clue.

Driving on modern roads can be mildly depressing and in some cases the feeling is explained quite well if linked to an objective reality of vastly complex traffic laws. Hence the label ‘oppressive’ applied to modern traffic laws. Yet without a feeling of oppression the laws are not oppressive. Oppression has to feel oppressive or we don’t notice because it isn’t there until we do notice it. We can’t work it out from the bare physical facts of the situation because it isn’t there - it is in our brains.

In other words, people who do not see traffic laws as oppressive are people who have little or no emotional need to interpret them as oppressive. There is no point arguing about it, no point saying that some people fail to see the oppressive nature of traffic laws. In themselves they are not oppressive. We make them so via our emotional concepts or we don’t. These emotional concepts are not our emotional reaction to the laws but our emotional concept of the laws – the laws plus our feelings about them.

To take a much more extreme example, most of us see North Korea as a grotesquely repressive regime, but from the outside this is an emotional concept of a situation we do not actually experience. Stories about North Korean oppression coupled with a sense of unease or outrage that these things can happen are probably conceived by most people in democratic countries as extreme violations of freedom.

However it is possible that many North Koreans have different emotional concepts of freedom and oppression. They may be familiar with heavily regimented lives and their sense of oppression may not be as generally acute as we suppose. In our terms they may not perceive the oppression as strongly as we think they should. Or they may perceive it more strongly than we imagine – it is not something we can simply work out from what little we know of North Korean realities.

The oppression does not cause the emotion because there is no oppression without the emotion. The oppression is an emotional concept we label as ‘oppression’ and we interpret the oppression as happening beyond our own minds, out there in the real world. Some of it is happening out there in the real world, but the concepts, the use of words such as ‘freedom’ or ‘oppression’, these lie within our own minds. Not in every mind though – that’s the point.

This is why familiarity may inhibit concepts of political freedom and oppression. It seems likely that many people do not see their heavily circumscribed modern lives as oppressive or as lacking certain important freedoms. Not because they are obtuse, but because they do not make the same use of emotional concepts others label as ‘freedom’ or ‘oppression’.

However -

In her book Professor Barrett makes a fascinating claim. She suggests that our emotional concepts are our own responsibility. We may choose to react differently to the same situation for a whole range of reasons. That’s something we see regularly too. We see it all the time in politically correct outrage – emotional concepts with a political purpose. The outrage feels artificial because it is – it has to be.

This may imply that people who do not interpret an oppressive government in terms of restricted freedoms are not well informed about what the government is actually doing or failing to do. Freedom may be an emotional concept encompassing the outside world, but people with a limited understanding of the outside world will have a limited ability to interpret their world as oppressive. Possibly no ability at all.

Perhaps a democratic government may become as oppressive as it wishes if it is also conspicuously benign – if it spins benign emotional concepts. If it also manages to avoid generating too many emotional concepts of oppression or lost freedom then there is no real barrier to totalitarian government within a democratic shell. Bare reality won’t expose it.

Freedom simply disappears.

And is finally –


Friday, March 16, 2018

FRIDAY MUSIC: St Patrick's Eve, by JD

It is St Patrick's Day tomorrow, Saturday, so instead of the usual 'to be sure, to be sure' and Leprechaun stereotype blather it is better to dig deeper into the roots of Erin's soul as expressed in Irish music; concentrating on two 'icons' namely Liam Clancy and Finbar Furey. Many years ago they toured together when the Clancy Brothers had the Fureys as their support act. What follows is a random selection of wonderful music:

"Oh all the money that e'er I had
I spent it in good company
And all the harm that e'er I've done
alas, it was to none but me
For all I've done for want of wit
to memory now I can't recall
So fill to me the parting glass
good night and joy be with you all

"Oh all the comrades that e'er I've had
they are sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e'er I've had
they would wish me one more day to stay
But since it falls unto my lot
that I should rise and you should not
I'll gently rise and I'll softly call
good night and joy be with you all"

"No fear,
No envy,
No meanness"

Liam Clancy 1935 - 2009 Slán abhaile, mo chara

Friday, March 09, 2018

FRIDAY MUSIC: Tango - too hot for TV, by JD

Back in the 'good old days' of black and white television the BBC had a show called Come Dancing. It was first broadcast in 1952 and featured, if my memory is not failing me, a sort of competition format with couples dancing things like waltz and foxtrot, an injection of 'glamour' into those grey post war years. The dancing was stiff and formal but stylish in a restrained way. They would also include a 'latin' section with samba and tango but again in a genteel and formal manner.

It was after I went to work in South America that I began to see those 'latin' dance styles in a new light. They were anything but formal and restrained, quite the opposite in fact!

There was a television channel called TangoTV and it was fascinating and informative but also insidious. Music from Carlos Gardel to Mercedes Sosa and old film of dancers in smoky bars revealed the soul of the music and I was drawn into understanding that soul.

A colleague at work filled me in with more information. It was, he said, their equivalent of the Blues in the USA. The music of those at the bottom of the heap, the rural poor and the slaves in the north and the porteños in Buenos Aires. They were down but they were most defiantly not out.

Most alluring of all was the dance form. As with the dancing to the music of the Blues, so with tango; it was the vertical expression of a horizontal desire and no attempt was made in either case to disguise the fact.

What you might have seen on your television screens, as the BBC showed it from the fifties and even now, is not the way tango should be danced. All stiff legged and stylised jerky movement, they resemble clockwork penguins. The real thing is probably too uncomfortably erotic for the BBC. There should be a smooth fluidity in the movements to give it the necessary sensuality.

As far as I know, TangoTV no longer exists but there is this which could be a development of the idea.  And, as with all forms of music, it changes and evolves but the spirit remains. Most recently it has begun to embrace an electronic/techno style, the first of the following videos includes references to many well known melodies of the past and, being Argentina, there is a football reference also!

The Gotan Project began life in 1999 and they were probably the first to marry the tango to electronic/techno beats. Their most famous number is Santa Maria (del Buen Ayre) and has been featured many times in films and TV shows. There are many versions of it on YouTube but this one here is outstanding. It is a live performance, mixed with video clips, running almost nine minutes and features the finest modern jazz piano I have heard in a long time!

"Hay milonga de amor
hay temblor de gotán
este tango es para vos.
Buenos Aires
El Puerto de Santa Maria del Buen Ayre"

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Flight Entertainment, by JD

JD recalls fun aboard a Spanish jet...

Everybody who has travelled will have a tale or two about the weird and wonderful things that happen. Amusing tales, scary tales, strange tales…..

In over thirty years of travelling and probably 1000+ flights I should have kept a log of all the things that have helped make the journeys interesting and entertaining; missed connections, delays, ‘firm’ landings, turbulence, lightning strikes (three so far), scared passengers as well as mad cabin crew.

(If you are wondering how I could reach 1000 it’s because I live nowhere near London which means I have to take two planes to go anywhere and two more to return. And when I have needed to make a day trip to, for example, Zurich or Frankfurt it can mean four flights in one day, two there and two back, So they quickly mount up.)

Almost all of my travelling has been work related. A job in Madrid involved periodic short viits to Cairo. On one of these visits, after boarding and settling down, I then wandered along the cabin to ask the stewardess (am I still allowed to say stewardess?) for an aspirin or something for my hangover and we had a chit chat about nothing in particular, as you do.

Back to my seat and it was seat belt, safety routine and away we go. Then it was drinks, duty free trolley, meal, wine, more wine, coffee, brandy and later it was blinds down, dim the lights and time for the in-flight movie. I am not much of a movie fan so I relax into my usual semi-comatose tranquility with only half an eye on the screen.

And then – Ding!

“Cabin crew; twenty minutes to landing.”

Oh. Shurely shome mishtake. I wasn’t really paying attention but it seemed to me that there was about half an hour left before the end of the film. I must have misheard but then the bustle began. Cabin lights on again, clearing away empty glasses, checking overhead lockers, seat belts fastened etc, the usual. The film was switched off and then we landed.

Well, that was a new one. Iberia always keep you on your toes, you never know what to expect.

Three or four days later, having done whatever it was I was in Cairo for, it was time to return to Madrid. Lo and behold it was the same crew and the stewardess recognised me. “Hola de nuevo, JD, como estas?” and we had a chat and I asked her, “Will we see the end of the in-flight movie this time?” She laughed and said, “Don’t worry, no problem. Now we are better organised.”

So I settled down and as above; take off, drinks, duty free trolley, meal. wine, more wine, coffee, brandy. In flight movie time once more and again I lapse into dozy contentment, half an eye on the screen and mind in neutral.

And then………

The film snapped or the projector broke down or something and we ended up with a blank screen (this was in the olden days before digital video etc). The crew and the other passengers must have been dozing too because I don’t think anybody noticed. And we carried on cruising home, ‘entertainment’ free in blissful quietude, until we landed in Madrid and returned to the hurry-up of normal life.

The in-flight wines were better and more reliable than the in-flight movies. Iberia have got their priorities right, they know what is important to their passengers.

In case you think I am being unfair and critical of Iberia, I am not. They are one of my favourite airlines. Unlike the Barely Average competition, they employ real humans and their First Class really is first class.

Wherever and whenever you are travelling can I wish you all ‘buen viaje’.

The above piece first appeared -with visual supplements - on Nourishing Obscurity here.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Can you have ethics without some form of religion?

I think not. 

Ethics have to have a basis. You can't derive an "ought" from an "is" - unless you have a philosophy that combines both - e.g. God the Creator who is also the Lawgiver. 

Without that, ethics is merely a study of moral attitudes without any hortative or normative force. Or a matter of logical consequences - "if you believe x and wish to be consistent, then you should do y". For example I asked a class whether eating animals was cruel and they all said yes, but balked at the idea of not eating meat at lunch. 

One answer would be simply to change one's principles to make them consistent with one's desires. Although possibly, being consistent could also be seen as an optional principle.

A moral code may be desirable, but that is not enough for it to be independent of human wishes or inclinations. Codes may differ sharply, with no way to determine which is correct or superior: for example, how does one adjudicate between cannibals and vegans?

The Beast From The East, by Wiggia

I had to take the wife shopping yesterday, I have to take the wife shopping anyway as she no longer can drive, and we went to the local Sainsbury's.

All went well until I was requested to fetch a loaf: what I saw as I turned into the bread sales area was a scene from East Germany, when all the shelves were permanently empty in the food stores. Amazingly with only a couple of days left of the effects of the “beast from the east”, shoppers were still plundering the bread and milk sections.

I had taken No1 shopping on Monday morning as usual and it was fairly quiet but by the time we left the car park was full as the public piled in to purchase anything that would stave off death by starvation. The till operator said the weekend had been unbelievable with the public buying multiples of everything from bottled water to fruit and veg and they had run out of most staples.

I have no idea how the public react to a weather warning on the rest of the continent but we have made an art form of the whole thing, from the weather reports in the MSM threatening Armageddon with threats of ten foot snow drifts, ice flooding and gales everywhere, trains stopped running before any snow had fallen in the south, schools shut everywhere on the principal that NO one would be able to get in and health and safety prevailed - prevailed to such an extent that the same schoolkids told to stay at home for safety reasons were then seen on national news jumping off steep hills on unlikely homemade sledges.

The road outside my house had the good fortune to have a snow clearer come through in the night, but I discovered in the morning that the snow clearer in ridding the road of snow had thrown it all on the pavement, meaning pedestrians had to walk in the road !

I can remember a similar cold spell - it was worse - back in the early eighties, when a local firm in Essex cornered the market in moon boots, bringing in on a barge up the river Blackwater in Essex thousands of these boots from Holland; I thought afterwards there must be cupboards everywhere stuffed with these boots that will never see the light of day again. There is no doubt that an impending weather “event” can be a great sales promotion.

A similar thing happened in the Great Storm when trees were down all over the place: my supplier told me he had been inundated with people wanting to buy chainsaws as tree surgeons could not cope with the work offered, and he had sold out twice and Stihl were trying to get extra supplies in from Germany.

Again I thought that there would be thousands of redundant chainsaws on eBay soon after, as those that had purchased them would have no further use, but no it never happened and again there must be thousands of hardly used chainsaws rusting in sheds all over the country. So no doubt now moldy bread and rancid milk is already being dumped along with limp lettuce and off veg, all will be forgotten until the next beast from the east or wherever it may come from.

Is Our Political Class Incompetent?

I watched the first half of BBC's Question Time on catch-up, and there was the old, dangerously avuncular Ken Clarke explaining how those who voted Leave hadn't considered all the - oh, so complicated - implications.

Sadly, no-one there thought to take him up on the question of contractual due diligence. For after Parliament voted to end the UK as a free country - as Tony Benn pointed out - in 1993, Ken Clarke, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, boasted that he hadn't read the Maastricht Treaty.

He was not alone: Douglas Hurd, then Foreign Secretary, said (Maastricht signing, 7 February 1992) "'Now we've signed it – we had better read it!'"

What would any commercial business do with a contracts manager who waved through agreements without even looking at them?

So I'm not inclined to take seriously any waffle from the old Bilderbergian about knowing exactly how everything will pan out before making a decision.

And no - not incompetent, or at least. not merely incompetent: arrogant, antidemocratic and treacherous.

Friday, March 02, 2018

FRIDAY MUSIC: Arvo Pärt, by JD

This evening (Friday) on BBC4 is a programme called "The Magic of Minimalism" about the American composers Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Philip Glass and La Monte Young.

I shall probably watch it, of course, but Charles Hazlewood's description of them as 'great composers' is stretching it a bit. Their music is interesting but eventually becomes monotonous.

It would be a more interesting programme if he were to include the genuinely great 'minimalist' composers of the 20th century, the late Sir John Tavener and especially the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt

“I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements – with one voice, two voices. I build with primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells and that is why I call it tintinnabulation”- Arvo Pärt

Herewith a selection of Tintinnabulation plus a rather quirky interview of Arvo Pärt by Björk.