Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Danger of Self Conscious Art and the Artistic Value of Repetition

         The danger is that it sucks. For the artist, there is no other greater concern.  On the one hand, increasing your technical skill level is vital.  An artist wants to refine the artistic product so that it generates the desired response in the audience.  If you create a work of art, and people look at it and shrug, then the art has failed.  If you want to create art that does not obtain an audience response, then I would suggest you are not a true artist.  The oft claimed artistic response of withdrawing into oneself is belied by the publication of art to the world.  If you didn't want people to pay attention, you wouldn't be sharing it and asking people to involve themselves with it.
      At the same time, a level of self consciousness about the artistic process lends itself to art that is more commerce then inspiration.  Artistic inspiration is often thought to come from the unconscious part of the brain, and self awareness directly impedes the relationship between artistic inspiration and unconsciousness.  This was a conflict that German author Fredrich Schiller made in his essays on Aesthetic Education of Man  but Hegel picked up on the same conflict and incorporated it into his philosophy.
      The exit point for this dilemma lays in a taste choice of taking repetition over novelty.  Those who crave novelty are expressing their own failure as human beings.  The desire for newness, for new things, is a flaw in people who do not adequately value repetition in art and in life.  If you think about what people are, they see the sun rise and set every day, they sleep every day, they eat every day.  Without that routine humanity would not exist.  It defines us as a species, and it is at the very center of the earliest religion.  A person who denies the rightness of periodicity is a person at war with himself.
   Embracing repetition and rejecting novelty is not a simple choice to make, but it does solve the dilemma of artistic self consciousness.  If the purpose is to create meaning through the slow accretion of slight variations in the same theme, then there is no issue with spending ALOT of time thinking about one specific subject and teasing out the variabilities.

  Here is a pictorial example of what I am talking about:

Meenakshiamman Temple, South Gopuram,Madurai

   This is a temple in the southern part of Tamil Nadu, which is itself a southern province of the modern day country of India.  You can see the obsessive accretion of detail and geometrical expansion of the architectural forms clearly hear, but this is a style of temple throughtout India.  It represents one religious/artistic complex that values repetition over novelty.

alhambra interior: detail

  Here's another example of a different religious/artistic approach that values repetition over novelty.  This photograph shows the interior of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.  This building was decorated by Jews working at the behest of Arabs.

  These example demonstrate an essential point, that a culture which craves novelty over repetition is something that was created by capitalism, consumerism and is a choice which has overwhelmed residents of countries most affected by consumerism and capitalism.  Novelty also triumphs over repetition in places where material well being allows ample choice.

   I would suggest that most of the ennui being discussed relative to the explosion of choice in all arenas of life is directly related to a failure to acknowledge the centrality of repetition to human identity.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Book Review: Sweetness and Power *The Place of Sugar in Modern History* by Daniel Mintz

Jamaica Sugar Plantation circa the 17th century: fun place.

Sweetness and Power:
The Place of Sugar in Modern History
by Daniel Mintz
Penguin Press (Non Classics Division)
p. 1986

      I think the central question concerning this blog is, "How does taste change?"  That concern links all the main subjects on this blog.  Until perhaps last week I would have defined "taste" in a cultural sense, but after reading Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, it seems appropriate to include sensory taste as an additional area of inquiry.  It seems to me that sensory taste is extraordinarily elastic.  Sweetness and Power is an interesting departure point for a consideration of the change of sensory taste.  Specifically, this book looks at the history of sugar in western Europe between 1000 AD and about 1800 AD.  Even more specifically, the data on consumption is gathered almost exclusively from within the United Kingdom.

      Although the United States is not discussed, the author makes the fair assumption that analogous trends occurred in the United States during the 19th and 20th century.  Sweetness and Power limits it's definition of "sugar" to sugar derived from sugar cane, mostly grown in slave plantations in the West Indies.

       Mintz places a great deal of emphasis on the growth of slave labor to feed the calorie needs of the urban proletariat in places like Liverpool during the 18th and 19th century.  I would hardly dispute the point, but it seems to me that the emphasis is rather misplaced.  What is there left to say about slavery?  That it was bad?   Mintz also perceptively notes a blind spot in 19th century Marxist economic analysis, for what it's worth (In that they failed to take account of the pre-capitalist Slave/Factory conditions of sugar manufacture in the West Indies.)

    More interesting is Mintz's discussions of the mechanisms for change of taste in the United Kingdom during the 17th and 18th century.  The United Kingdom in the 17th century was becoming "modern" in the sense that we are modern today.  During this period the consumption of sugar quadrupled.  This book is basically trying to explain why that happened.  Mintz notes that the first plantations in the west indies were in the 16th century, and then Great Britain captured some of them, and started growing sugar in different parts of the Caribbean. Sugar was also being planted in Brazil, also using slave labor.

   Sugar was first introduced into Great Britain during the Middle Ages, where it was imported from Venice in a manner similar to valuable spices.  Sugar was used to cure stomach ailments, etc.  In the 16th century, English wealthy were able to buy sugar, but it was first used ceremoniously by kings to make sculptures and between course displays.   In the 17th and 18th century, changes in the economy began to effect the dietary habits of the working class, in that they were eating outside of the house more, and had a greater need for quick energy.  For wealthier people, the simultaneous introduction of hot caffeine drinks (tea, coffee) led to a growth of demand for the product among the middle class.

     Although interesting, the class based analysis of changing tastes for sugar seems overly complex.  It seems to me that you could write a much more interesting book simply chronicling references to sugar in contemporary media, spare all the analysis.  Taste spreads through communication by individuals.  Capitalism is unique in world history because 1) it creates growth and demand 2) it cares about what people want.  You can talk about good and bad effects of this process, but it is how capitalism actually functions.

   An interesting twist on this is Mintz's discussion of the introduction of sugar into products where the consumer is not expecting to find it.  This "industry" sugar amounts to 50 pounds a year for a United States citizen in the 1980s.  My understanding is that soft drinks are the main component of this source of sugar.  Mintz also notes how the sugar industry will (falsely) distinguish sugar can/sucrose for high fructose corn sryup (in other words: they will exclude consumption of high fructose corn sryup in statistics about consumption of cane sugar.)

   It seems fairly obvious that society has to act to lower sugar consumption among the population.  This raises the consequence of the impact of artificial sweeteners on human health, and I suppose the answer to that is "PUT DOWN THE BOX OF CHOCOLATES!!!" and it's also obvious that the use of sugar in stuff like bread and ketchup and those sort of products should be kept to a minimum.

   Sweet and Power was what I call a "consciousness raiser" but it's also pedantic and the 80s Marxist analysis is dated.  Fun to read, but take the theory with more then a grain of salt.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Book Review: The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox

Charlotte Lennox: The Female Quixote

The Female Quixote
by Charlotte Lennox
originally published 1752
this edition Pandora Press 1986

      The fact to note about this book is the date it was originally published: 1752.  That's early.  More then fifty years before Jane Austen picked up a pen, Charlotte Lennox wrote "The Female Quixote or the Adventures of Arabella."  Like Don Quixote, Arabella is a main character who believes everything she reads.  Raised in isolation by her widower father, Arabella has learned the plots of medieval romances by heart, and paired that with complete ignorance about the "modern" world (1750s).

     Let me ensure you, laborious hi-jinks ensue.  As I've commented before here on numerous occasions, the most surprising fact about the history of the novel is how the novel was basically "post modern" in the very beginning- as early as Don Quixote.  Don Quixote, the story of a man who was too wrapped up in chivalric tales for his own good, invented the novel by inventing the reader of the novel.

    The formula of Don Quixote tilting at the windmills is a formula that reveals the strength of the novel itself.  Writing about a protagonist obsessed with reading books is like writing about the reader him or herself, who is also, hopefully, obsessed by books.  Thus the self referential (or "post modern") self aware domain of what we commonly assume to be the 20th and 21st century thought  is pushed back in time, among certain populations, to the 1700s.

    How humbling for those who make a living peddling ironic rebuttals of popular culture products in the present day, to realize that they are traversing in modes of thought that would have been familiar, and probably derided, to writers in the 1700s.  Novels are unique among artistic products in their overt dialog with the audience.  Symphonies, poetry and paintings to not talk back to the audience.  Thus, by reading a novel you can tell more about the corresponding audience then by reading poetry or listening to music from the same era.


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