Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Shape of History

A recent op-ed in the New York Times had drawings illustrating various philosophers' views of the shape of history.  In response, I created the following drawing and explanation of my view of the shape of history.
New technologies give people more power over nature, and there is progress with setbacks along the way. The best graphic representation of this is a series of waves that generally tend upward and jump upward when there are major changes in technology.
  • 100,000 to 50,000 BC: Humans invented more complex tools, such as the spear and needle. Population increased slowly, and humans spread through the world by 10,000 BC. Setbacks were caused by changing natural conditions.
  • 10,000 BC: Agriculture began and gradually spread. Initially population increased rapidly. There were permanent settlements and, thousands of years later, complex civilizations. Setbacks included the collapse of the Roman and Mayan empires.
  • The industrial revolution: New technologies let population and output increase rapidly in the West and, after World War II, in most of the developing nations. Setback occurred because technology became powerfully destructive as well as productive. Aerial bombing and the atomic bomb caused immense destruction during World War II. If we do not control global warming, it could cause even more damage.
  • The future: New technologies will be even more powerful. There could be rapid progress, but there could also be weapons more destructive than nuclear bombs and environmental problems worse than global warming. The graphic shows the waves going up and down more sharply to indicate the potential for huge setbacks, but what will actually happen depends on whether we can control destructive technologies. 
See the New York Times op-ed here.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Why Modern Art Is So Bad

There is a good clue to why most modern art is so bad in the recent review of an exhibit of Sterling Ruby's ceramics in the New York Times, which is a reliable source for the most conventional contemporary views of what art should be. 
The review says that the Museum of Arts and Design began as a museum of crafts and still shows to much work that focuses on craftsmanship and therefore is "technique-obsessed and uncreative." This exhibit is a refreshing contrast because Ruby is "at his most original and disruptive in ceramics." Many of the pieces "resemble giant high-sided ashtrays, filled with the detritus." They "exude signs of the artist’s hands — deep squeezes here, dragged fingers there and entire exteriors punched with thumbprints."
The word "disruptive" shows that the reviewer admires novelty for its own sake. Art is valuable if it breaks with tradition and disrupts our idea of what art is. The talk about "signs of the artist's hands" shows that the reviewer rejects artists who are skilled craftsmen focusing on the object they are creating and admires artists who focus narcissistically on themselves creating the object. 
Compare this critical attitude with the attitude behind a great work of art, Michelangelo's "David."
Michelangelo was not being "disruptive" by doing something totally different from traditional sculpture. On the contrary, he was working in a tradition that goes back to classical Greece. "David" stands out not because of its novelty but because of its excellence. It expresses the humanistic ideal behind classical sculpture more forcefully than it had been expressed before; this meaning is what strikes us when we look at the work. 
Michelangelo did not leave his thumbprints or dragged finger prints on "David." He is famous for the fine finish of his sculptures and for the careful study of anatomy that informed his works. He focused on the object he was creating, not on himself creating it. Could anyone conceivably say that this means Michelangelo was "technique-obsessed and uncreative"? And that Ruby is more creative because his work is sloppier?
The New York Times reviewer is stating the standards that today's art critics use in judging art. They admire disruption rather than excellence. And artists get extra credit for following one of the modern-art trends of the last century, as these ceramics follow in the footsteps of action painting, focusing on the process of creating the work rather on the object. 
We will produce great art again when critics care about excellence, craftsmanship and meaning rather than about disruption.