April 04, 2004
Don't use Flash to display your art
Does anybody else get really annoyed by Flash galleries? Now, I’m not talking about flash intros, which I think we can all safely agree are annoying. Rather, I’m talking about making photo galleries in Flash. For example, the “found type gallery” over at Typophile (which is itself an excellent site). Now, I loved looking through the gallery and there were a couple of pictures in there that I thought were really excellent. Unfortunately, since the gallery is in Flash, I can’t directly link you to the pictures I especially liked; I can only say “you should really check out the pictures from Calgary and from Vandalia, Illinois”. Another example would be the various galleries over at [KUNSTCAMERA], many of which are truly excellent. Again, though, I can only say “check out the third picture in the gallery called ep03.02” (to choose just one example), rather than providing a direct link. In my mind, this is a bad thing.
I know when I’m reading a weblog or some other site and someone says “this picture is really cool” and then provides a link, more often than not I’ll click the link and, if I like what I see, I’ll check out the rest of the content at that site (the same, of course, goes for other types of content). On the other hand, if someone says “this gallery is really cool”, odds are I’m going to see less of the content at the linked site. Why? Well, there are several reasons.
First of all, psychologically, following a link to an entire gallery implies a sort of commitment to view that entire gallery, or at least a significant portion thereof, whereas clicking a link to an image implies a much smaller commitment. All other things being equal, I’m going to follow the link that’s going to require a smaller time commitment.
Second, if I do follow a link to a gallery, there’s a pretty good chance that none of the first 5 pictures in that gallery is the one that the the link was supposed to highlight. In fact, it’s pretty likely that those first 5 pictures are going to be very different than the one the person making the link really wanted me to see. And the simple fact of the matter is this: if I follow a link to a gallery and the first few images don’t grab my attention, I’m probably hitting the back button.
Finally, even if I do click the link and make it through enough of the gallery to see the image in question, I’ve already probably devoted 5 or 10 minutes to that site. Unless I’m really blown away by what I see, I’m probably going to say to myself “okay, that was cool…let’s see what’s going on at mock savvy”.
My point is this: I suspect most of the traffic at sites like Typophile and [KUNSTCAMERA] is driven by links from weblogs and other dynamic sites around the web. So they’re really doing themselves a disservice by making it less likely that people seeing those links will actually view their content. I understand that there are certain advantages to using Flash for galleries: you can’t right-click-Save-Target-As so “stealing” images is harder, Flash allows “pixel-perfect” manipulation of the content, which allows better integration into navigation elements, etc., but I think those benefits are outweighed by the cost of lower traffic and, therefore, lower visibility. And I haven’t even mentioned the number one drawback with Flash: in many cases, all the download time is upfront, so the viewer must wait through, say, a 2.5M download at the beginning rather than waiting for each 100K image to load when the user clicks “Next”, which means right off the bat you’ve excluded all but the most dedicated of dial-up users.
Please don’t get the impression from this that either Typophile or [KUNSTCAMERA] is a bad site; I single them out because both are excellent sites, but the tools they’re using are frustrating and even counter-productive to enhancing the experience of the reader (this reader, anyway). Which I think is a shame.
March 27, 2004
Tsarist Russia, caught on film
More proof that if you’re not hitting up the metablog or feedroll for updates, you’re missing out: John Venlet links to a recent post at Gene Expressions which, in turn, points to this amazing gallery of color photographs from Tsarist Russia (arranged in several categories listed at the top of the linked page, or in this complete list). Everything about these photographs is stunning, not least of which is the fact that they’re almost 100 years old. I think we tend, at least subconsciously, to think of the world before color photography as being fundamentally black-and-white, even though we know, intellectually, that it wasn’t; these photographs shatter that paradigm. Seriously, check them out.
March 24, 2004
Another aesthetic dogma
The usually level-headed “New Yorker” throws out this little paen to Woody Guthrie, and in the course of emphazing the proletarianism and and anti-establishmentarianism of this clearly exceptional musician works itself up to this coda:
“popular music is ripe for something new. Whatever comes will surely be something that challenges the complacency of the mainstream; something from disreputable sources; something critical of the status quo, harsh, simple, seemingly anti-musical, and doable without formal training—that is to say, something much in the vein of what Woody Guthrie did. “
I don’t know if this is really the spirit in which Guthrie composed his music, but it is certainly a fairly dominant dogma in music today, though ironically the “anti-musical” music which seeks to “challenge the complacency of the mainstream,” far from coming from “disreputable sources” generally embodies the establishment itself, as if the Hollywood music industry, indie hipsters and theorists have colluded in an unholy conspiracy to favor anything but tradition-cogniscent, formally structured, beautiful music—in other words, I have little doubt that Herbert von Karajan would be virtually a pariah figure in the musical world today.
An interesting counterpoint to this article is another new article about the increasing legitimacy of film score music as a thriving branch of the classical tradition. The author portrays the film score composers in Hollywood during the 1930’s and ’40s as being almost as much refugees from European conservatories as from the war, because their adherence to tonality and to a certain operatic style of composition had become seen as hopelessly outdated in post-Shönberg Europe. But, the implication is, audiences instinctively responded to this Romantic, tonal music in a way that they did not to the music of Schönberg, Webern, et al., whose actual music is relatively obscure despite their extreme prominence as musical personalities.
My interest in this matter extends beyond music proper, although music is a particularly good art in which to examine the various aesthetic issues and debates in question here. This is because music, as Nietzsche realized, is a particularly pure art form, very little subject to extraneous intellectual considerations or to esoteric analysis. This is to say that while one can possibly explain one’s liking for a book or a painting by various philosophical, sociological, or even religious means, music resists those sorts of explanations. Ultimately, there is nothing articulate about music, nor is it a representative art, so our feelings about it are largely instinctual. For example, try asking even a musicologist why a minor key sounds sadder or more tragic than a major key, and I suspect that the question will prove virtually impossible to answer. It just does. Even tonal relationships themselves are simply founded, ultimately, on the datum that the tones which compose them simply sound harmonious together. But it is indisputable that some sounds evoke certain moods or reactions, and others do not. In that sense, music would seem to be a rather pure aesthetic experience.
I entered a dispute quite recently with the father of a good friend of mine, a Russian expatriate who, I assume, came to jazz fairly late in life but had nonetheless become quite a devotee, particularly of some of the avant-garde luminaries in the last flowering decade before it became fairly obscure, musicians like Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor. I contended that while I could very well appreciate, if not understand, the staggering complexity of, say, Taylor’s music, I frankly did not enjoy it, and certainly not the experience of listening to it for an hour. He asked how it was that I could prefer the more “primitive,” almost reactionary music of contemporary jazzmen like Oscar Peterson and Teddy Wilson. Well, what was I to say? The choice, I think, cannot entirely be justified on intellectual grounds alone. Taylor’s playing is certainly more “revolutionary,” if that word means anything anymore, perhaps more “important” than Peterson’s; it sets out to challenge and eradicate all received musical structural relationships, and largely succeeds in this. However, I think the lack of this element counts as a mark in favor of the listenability of Peterson, and its presence makes Taylor’s music extremely difficult to sustain exposure to.
And so I return to my original point. Certain musical structures, just like components of any art, evoke and correspond to certain emotions or moods, to pleasure, or sadness, or happiness. One can call it the tonal science or whatever else, those correspondences between note and feeling that the opera composers particularly labored so to perfect, but the fact is that they exist. Musicians like Taylor or Schönberg who ignore this or construct emotional correspondences so idiosyncratic that no one else can relate to them are unsuccessful, in my opinion, and certainly unenjoyable, even if their intellectual ideas are brilliant.
By no means do I wish to sound the mandarin note like the deplorable critics, the modern-day Mortimer Adlers, who insist that we return to hide-bound traditions, to Renaissance-style representational paintings and Victorian novels. That is useless, the sort of acontextual nostalgia which ironically, in my opinion, largely characterized the supposedly anti-traditional music of the ’60s, especially the folk and blues revivals, with their attendant ideological baggage, to largely catastrophic consequences. Out went the beautiful, innovative and yet popular music of real jazz giants like Nat King Cole and in came hack blues imitators like the Rolling Stones. No, rather my ideal is something like what someone, it might have been Joel Carmichael, said about Tolstoy: “he wrote as if nothing had ever been written before. Or rather, as if he had read everything, but none of it was important.” This is where the greatest art originates: not forcing oneself to adhere to tradition, but not forcing oneself to rebel from it either. One carries out a duel with life, rather than one’s predecessors. Tolstoy had a transcendent simplicity, and it is this simplicity, not complexity, which in my opinion made him such a vast writer. He did not reject the typical and yet exceptional fare of life like love and death, as an avant-gardist might do, but he did not regard it in a clichéd, received manner either. He simply treated it all with simple, fresh eyes, as if there were only four or five important things in the world, endlessly repeating, always present, and so his writing gets right to the very heart of things, without simmering in complex solipsism or battling the anxiety of influence. This is how art is ultimately measured, I imagine, by us all: not by its complexity, or its novelty, or its technical mastery, but by its resonance, which when deep is pure and simple, as complex as necessary but no more so.
March 23, 2004
February 23, 2004
February 05, 2004
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly? Not Quite
The good: Wales police chief pushes for drug legalization, saying current drug laws do “more harm than good”.
The bad: Former surgeon generals call for tax hike on cigarettes (link via Improved Clinch), apparently believing that, though smokers “lost their free choice when they became addicted as children”, a $2 tax increase will prompt 5 million to quit. Jacob Sullum comments in the linked post:
In other words, people who can’t break tobacco’s tenacious hold suddenly find that they can when the price of cigarettes goes up. Apparently, the free choice that is lost when you start smoking can be restored through taxation. Only the fleeced are truly free.
The beautiful: Buddhabrot
January 25, 2004
I suspect that most adolescents of my age (19) have found themselves, to a greater or lesser degree, in a state of tension with intellectual property regulation, especially probably in the realms of filesharing and academic paper documentation. Likewise, I have found myself annoyed and hindered over the years by these restrictions, but without ever questioning the larger principle of intellectual property. Recently, however, I have come to a position of more and more general criticism of the very concept of intellectual property and its manifestations. At least the injunctions in schools and universities against plaigarism and associated trespasses have justification in the necessity of evaluating the particular knowledge and abilities of students themselves, which hence makes it necessary that the work under evaluation is clearly theirs. However, justification on the grounds of the sanctity of intellectual property seems to me a dubious proposition, in the publishing and recording industries just as much as in academia. The Internet, of course, will bring about a sea-change in this culture in any event, whether we find an intellectual justification for it or not. But I don’t think that a justification is terribly difficult to formulate, for the very notion of intellectual property is counter-intuitive and even somewhat perverse at best.
Nor is such a notion of very long standing. It is probably attributable to the hypertrophic venting of the Romantic poets and their overly-cultivated and overheated mythology of the solitary creator. But it seems to me that the process of creation is almost never effectively sui generis; someone, I think it might have been T.S. Eliot, once said that true originality in writing consists of the combining of a likely and an unlikely source. Perhaps, then, methods of creation like hip-hop sampling are only differences from more traditional modes of artistic creation of degree and obviousness rather than of kind. And in any case, regardless of how creators come about their inspiration, the mere fact of their authorship does not mean eo ipso that their creation remains their own property after its formulation and publication (that is, being made public). Thomas Jefferson, one of the formulators of American law, said that ”If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone.” Clearly Jefferson recognized something in the non-materiality of ideas that made them less amenable to exclusive possession than objects, not only in their greater exchangeability but also in the simple fact that they are not exclusive, i.e. to take an idea from someone is not to deprive that person of the idea or of the use of it.
Of course this is not an entirely ingenuous statement, because many creators rely on the exclusive control of their ideas for their living and their financial well-being, so to take an idea from someone in this situation may not be to divest them of the idea itself, but it does rob them of some of the benefits they derive from it. Even Jefferson ultimately supported a very limited form of intellectual property rights in the knowledge that some people do create with an eye towards the material benefit that will result from it, and so must have this sort of incentive in order to create. However, it should also be noted that Jefferson did not himself accept the legitimacy of this desire, and conceived of intellectual property rights as simply a means to coax out inventions and creations, at which point the needs and desires of their creators become irrelevant.
Part of the problem, and the explanation for this tension of concepts in the modern age, may be that creators today are more dependent for their living on their creations than creators in earlier eras. If (a conditional hypothesis) the majority of poets, scientists, engineers, artists, etc. in past ages served as retainers in aristocratic employ, their salary would not have depended on the sale of the products of their invention. Hence intellectual property would not have been a pregmatic issue but primarily one of principle. And it seems to me that in such a situation, in which the material well-being of the creator is not affected, that the only real defence of intellectual property is an appeal to the well-being of the creator’s ego, which, while understandably of importance to the creator, does not seem to me to be a particularly worthy matter for the concern of anyone else.
It should be clear that I do not regard ideas as objects, and hence that I do not regard possession of one’s ideas as a fundamental right. It can only be justified on utilitarian grounds in my opinion, and even this rings hollow in many cases today. It seems to me that the illegitimate pretensions to ownership of their ideas on the part of creators should only be humored when they encourage innovation. This is why Jefferson tolerated intellectual property law, regarding it as the price of innovation, and the grounds on which opposition to price caps and patent infringement of the pharmaceutical industry are generally justified. But clearly today intellectual property rights very often impede rather than encourage innovation. For it is certain that while taking an idea from someone does not deny them access to the idea, copyright and patent law definitely do.
In short, while innovation clearly depends to a large extent on economic incentive, intellectual property law, in addition to being illegitimate, is today very often manifestly ineffective in this regard, and some new form of creative compensation is necessary. Perhaps the New York Times, in this recent article, is attempting to stir up such a change. However, the NYT goes at it with its usual cause-destroying machinery: profiles of activist, irritatingly named non-profit organizations, interviews with socialist, terminally abstracted professors, and the chilling and deflating revelation that I share an opinion with “a protest movement…made up of lawyers, scholars and activists,” who are made to appear to be the principal supporters of this view, which is almost enough to make me disavow my afore-mentioned opinions. I also resent how these anti-capitalist activists (the name they apply to the movement they claim to represent, “Copy Left,” should give some insight into their political and social philosophy, as well as their taste for precarious puns) tend to portray intellectual property law as yet another evil intrusion of capitalism and money-making into the rarified regions where English majors and Robert Owenists prefer to dwell in peace. But I don’t oppose these laws because money is being made from intellectual productions, but rather because money is being lost, and not only money but works of great value and beauty for the world, on the basis of a stupid and craven deference to spurious moral claims. However, in the midst of drawing a to say the least questionable parallel between the anti-copyrightists and the early environmental movement, one of aforementioned theorizing pedants offers perhaps the most suitable coda to the issue:
”The environmentalists helped us to see the world differently, to see that there was such a thing as ‘the environment’ rather than just my pond, your forest, his canal. We need to do the same thing in the information environment. We have to ‘invent’ the public domain before we can save it.”
October 22, 2003
Gehry old man
I was thinking of writing a post in response about Gehry anyway, so when I was more or less invited to at the end of the column, who could resist? It is true that I have always really enjoyed Gehry's designs (yes, even the one in Prague). I would not say that I find them exactly beautiful in the strict sense, but I think that they do possess an immediate aesthetic appeal that is far more compelling than virtually all the modern buildings I see today, especially that of stilted theorists like Peter Eisenmann, who once designed a house with holes in the floor to create a "new interactional experience" with the living-space, or something like that--presumably breaking one's ankle being a part of that. I have been trying to define what exactly I find so attractive in Gehry's buildings, and I think in the end that it is the sense of exuberant possibility in their design (I know that clichéd phrase sounds about as far removed from what it is trying to describe as possible, but be that as it may). When one sees these vaulting, curving steel sheets soaring into the skies, one feels that all of the banal physical constraints that push us into a dreary grid of straight lines and low horizons have been abolished. Gehry's designs aren't at all like those architects that try to attack our aesthetic intuitions by baffling us with a lack of any order or coherence. Gehry makes us think not that everything we enjoy is a lie and an illusion, but rather that we could create so much more, and so many greater things, if only we followed our child-like intuition. That is also why I love Gaudí and consider him to be the greatest architect of the century: in contrast to virtually all of the modernists, even Wright to some degree, who really seem to have exposed an emptiness at the heart of the perfect symmetries that they created which is disquieting to say the least (I could not imagine living in the house that Wittgenstein designed, for example, though Clay might be interested to know that it now houses the Bulgarian Cultural Center in Vienna), Gaudí enacted these fantastic pseudo-mythologic shapes that many of us, subconsciously or not, abandoned all hope of experiencing in real-life after we left childhood, and on such a dazzling scale that we could almost hope to see fantasy once again in our often dull and flat little world. Most importantly, Gaudí's buildings seem to have personality in the sense that they actually do seem to be semi-organic beings inhabited by living spirits. It is in this sense, that of making life apparent in the lifeless and inanimate, that Gaudí is a reviver of mythology equal to Yeats, Tolkien and Stravinsky. This is why I think it so important that the Sagrada Familia cathedral be finished, for a project of such a scale and requiring such patience has not been seen in many a century, and the wealth of detail in sculpture and painting within and without the cathedral stands in stark contrast to the impatient simplification of modern architecture. However, this judgment in regards to Gaudí creates a rather unfortunate contrast with Gehry. For while what amazes me about Gaudí is how his fantasies grow even more intense in close detail, with pillars that look like elephant legs, windows that seem like insect eyes and sculptures that sometimes seem like hexagonal smoke-plumes, there is something undeniably cheap-looking about Gehry's buildings. At a distance the grandeur of the Guggenheim or the Disney strikes one (or at least me), but up close they actually look pretty drab. Look at the Disney's center's entrance hall--it looks sort of cheery and sunny, but in approximately the same manner as the foyer of an elementary school. Or that view of the concert hall itself which you can see in the post right below this: it really does not look like much of a step up from a college auditorium, let alone the great concert-halls of Europe. The shapes that Gehry designs are stunning, and have a primal power which is worth more than a thousand of the overly-subtle and theoretical-minded designs one sees today, but up close one sees that Gehry just does not have much imagination with the little details that seem relatively insignificant in the glossy photographs of the whole building but become dominant in the viewer's sight at two meter's distance. Close-up detail is obviously more important in the interior spaces than the exterior, which I think explains why in case of the Guggenheim so many raves of the building's façade juxtaposed with tepid review of the galleries, and I would not be surprised if the same proves true of the Disney center. At close range a building, especially a room inside it, has to have interesting and attractive non-structural elements, which is where Gehry seems to usually fail: there may be bizarre off-set windows all over the place, but the walls are bare and boring and constructed from cheap-looking materials. The reason for this characteristic failure, in my opinion, has already been off-handedly mentioned by Clay, though perhaps not with quite the right emphasis: it is not so much that Gehry has pretensions on being a sculptor, but that he really is one. The curious blankness and uninspiring quality of the close-up details of his buildings I think is somewhat similar to the effect if say, a five-foot tall sculpture were blown up to a thousand feet: there would be a lot of blank space with no interesting visual effect simply because it was not meant to be seen in those proportions. I think the spectacular lack of proportion in Gehry's buildings is intrinsic to their effect, as they seem to encourage us to the notion that our little private fantasies and dreams can become giant public realities, but that effect gets a little thin up close and even gives one the unnerving impression that these buildings were not meant to be appreciated by beings of our size and visual perspective. Since the author of the Slate article has already noted that Gehry seems to work with more discipline under constraints, perhaps he would work even better with the additional constraint of collaborative endeavor, perhaps working on projects with an architect whose main strength lies in well-designed interior spaces, so as to combine the limitlessness of Gehry's exterior designs with the greater richness of vision of an architect able to enfold people within an engaging and stimulating interior space. I know that I am babbling like a well-trained architectural-glossy sycophant now, but you get the idea. In any case, given that Gaudí built all his important builidings in Barcelona, I think it may not be entirely coincidental that Gehry first established his reputation in another city, Bilbao, which is also the capital of a formerly oppressed minority culture striving to create/revive an alternative artistic heritage in contrast to the dominant Spanish culture from under whose shadow it is just now emerging, because Gehry's work, like Gaudí's, seems to be about reclaiming our early dreams, in a way which is at the same time wholly new.
New Gehry Building - Slightly Better than the Guggenheim Bilbao
Frank Gehry has a new building opening this week, the Disney Concert Hall. Stylistically, the exterior looks relatively similar to his famous Guggenheim Bilbao, which is far from my favorite building in the world, though I have to admit that I tend to agree with the author of the article that the constraints inherent in building on a city lot had a beneficial effect on Gehry's design. As for the interior, though, I can't say I agree with the author's gushings. Of course, I haven't actually been there, so maybe I'd like it in person, but it just doesn't do it for me. And can you imagine ponying up big bucks for a side seat on opening night, only to get a crick in your neck from having to look over your shoulder at the stage?
Now, why don't I like Gehry? It's not because he was born in Toronto, but rather because he seems to forget half of the time that he's an architect, not a sculptor. He seems to forget that a building, ultimately, has to be lived in or worked in, not just looked at and admired. The forms that he uses don't flow from their function and, in some cases, actually impede their function. The Guggenheim Bilbao is more spectacle than museum.
Now, I admit, my views have been colored by those of my architect father, who's seen Gehry as an attention-seeker looking to shock people since his inside-out California residence and Norton residence from the late 70's/early 80's. The pointlessly offset windows in this offering would also, I suspect, raise my father's ire. "Edgy" though they may be, I think they just look stupid. Ultimately, I think that's my main beef with Gehry's designs, apart from their lack of functionality: I just don't think it looks very good. And before you accuse me of stodgy conservatism, I just want to point out that I'm a big fan of both Frank Lloyd Wright and Antonio Gaudí, so it's not like I can't deal with anything but straight lines and hopeless conformity.
Now, I know Curt doesn't agree with my opinion on Gehry, based on long arguments we've had. So I'm expecting him to respond with a completely different opinion. But keep in mind that he's a fan of this monstrosity (or, if you're really lazy, just look at the picture). I kid, of course. Curt has a good artistic sense; he and I just differ on this particular issue.
October 21, 2003
I had some spare time today, so I made my Beethoven Underground pictures into a photo album. Another descriptive title might have been "College kids bored in Boulder with a digital camera", but that's not quite so snappy. Anyway, it's a pretty funny collection, so check it out.