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Picasso’s Puffery October 25, 2011

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Art and Music, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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Picasso is alleged to have said “Painting is not done to decorate apartments, it is an instrument of war against brutality and darkness.” I suspect that he was referring to his own painting, Guernica, which depicts the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.


I often come across such claims about art—that it has something profound to say about the human condition. But I find them puzzling. What is the point of the commentary of which paintings are capable? How is Guernica an instrument of opposition?

I doubt that anyone learns about the horrors of war from a painting. If you did not already know of the horrors of war you would be unlikely to read the painting as commenting on them. Furthermore, if a gain in knowledge is the point, people who are already acquainted with brutal warfare would receive little benefit from viewing the painting, which seems implausible. And can’t we more effectively learn about historical events from history books or documentaries? Is there some dimension of warfare that is best depicted in paintings? I doubt it.

Perhaps the point is not that we gain knowledge from painting but that  paintings are particularly good at provoking an emotional response from the viewer. Perhaps, then, paintings deepen our sensitivity to the horrors of war via their depictions or inspire us to pursue peace. But I doubt that a cool, abstract depiction elicits a more powerful response than actual war footage, filmic representations, live interviews with victims, or reports on the ground by intrepid journalists, all of which seem to pack an emotional punch that paintings rarely if ever achieve. Paintings, because they are fixed entities, lend themselves to contemplation more readily than film. But museums, especially large one’s in major cities visited by hordes of tourists are not conducive to contemplation. (Guernica is housed in Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum)

Perhaps the viewing of paintings is a reminder that we should care about warfare’s destruction. We clearly need such reminders. But the occasions when such reminders are essential do not correlate well with visits to a museum.

Paintings are valuable, in part, because they give us new ways of organizing and conceptualizing visual space. But that can be accomplished regardless of the content of the painting—such an aim would seem to have little to do with warfare. Paintings—the great ones at any rate—are unique representations of what they depict. But if this is the value of Guernica, it is the uniqueness of its depiction not some fact about the horrors of war that matters most. It is a stretch go call such an aim an instrument in a war against brutality.

So wise and discerning readers. Tell me. What do paintings uniquely say about the human condition? Is Picasso just puffing up his accomplishments.

Culture–It’s Not Just for Humans Anymore October 24, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Animal Intelligence, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.

What a difference a couple of decades make. Back in the Twentieth Century they used to tell us that humans were the only beings who had culture, and whatever traditions nonhuman animals displayed in their groups could be explained as instinct. That concept began to erode already with Jane Goodall’s research, although we still encounter holdout animal behaviorists who maintain that whatever it is that chimpanzees do when they share and transmit inventions and traditions, it isn’t culture (which brings to mind long-range visionary David Hume who not only thought that emotions have primacy over rationality, but also that if nonhuman animals display emotional and intellectual behavior similar to humans, it should be given similar labels). So what would an example of a  chimp culture be like? From a Scientific American blog, “Cultural Transmission in Chimpanzees”:

While nonhuman primates don’t have obvious cultural traditions the same way humans do, such as variation in their clothing or adding extra spice to their food, primatologists have nonetheless identified behavioral practices that vary between communities and which are transmitted through social learning. For a behavior to be considered a cultural practice in nonhuman primates it must meet certain conditions: the behavior must be practiced by multiple members of the community, it must vary between societies, and the potential for that same behavior must exist in other societies.

A good example of such a cultural trait was just discovered last year and published in the journal Current Biology (review here). Kibale Forest chimpanzees were found to use sticks to get at the honey in a fallen log, whereas Budongo Forest chimpanzees used chewed leaves as sponges to collect the same thing. Both societies had the same tools at their disposal, but they each chose a different approach. A single individual first used one of these techniques and other members of the group adopted it through imitation and social learning. This is merely the latest example of cultural traditions in different chimpanzee societies.

So let’s assume that we are convinced that chimps invent and transmit culture; the question now becomes how? In a Swedish study  quoted by the Scientific American blog a new idea has been proposed: that culture is being transmitted by female chimps. Chimp societies are patrilocal (the males stay put, the females move between groups), so whatever traditions the females have learned from growing up within a group they will bring with them to their new home, and teach them to their kids:

Because females express and transmit more culture than males, and because females transfer between communities bringing with them their cultural knowledge, the number of cultural traits present in any given chimpanzee community should depend on the number of females in that community. Thus, we hypothesize that the number of cultural traits in chimpanzee communities should correlate with the average number of females in chimpanzee communities, but not with the average number of males.

This implies that females are critical in chimpanzees for transmitting cultural traits and maintaining cultural diversity. The reported pattern may be explained by the fact that females transfer between communities, bringing with them novel cultural traits and consequently increasing the cultural diversity of the community as a whole.

And that’s not all: from a  group of Swiss anthropologists  we now hear that orangutans also have culture–particularly interesting, because orangutans aren’t perceived (by most of us laypeople) as being as social as chimps:

Researchers from the University of Zurich have now studied whether the geographic variation of behavioral patterns in nine orangutan populations in Sumatra and Borneo can be explained by cultural transmission. They have concluded that it can.

The team analyzed more than 100,000 hours of behavioral data and created genetic profiles of more than 150 wild orangutans. They measured the ecological differences between the habitats of the different populations using satellite imagery and remote sensing techniques.

Co-author of the study, published in Current Biology, Carel van Schaik said: “The novelty of our study is that, thanks to the unprecedented size of our dataset, we were the first to gauge the influence genetics and environmental factors have on the different behavioral patterns among the orangutan populations.”

It seems that the days when researchers would claim that only humans have culture will be over fairly soon. No word on whether orangutan females play the same role as chimp females.




Coming Down Off the Perfect Meal October 18, 2011

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink.
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Food and Wine have not been taken seriously as forms of art in part because of the belief that vision and hearing are the only senses that lend themselves to the intellectual explorations we associate with art. This ideology, called the “sense hierarchy”, and masterfully traced by Carolyn Korsmeyer in Making Sense of Taste, treats taste and smell as thoroughly functional sources of brute pleasure, too primitive and instinctual to be worthy of genuine aesthetic discrimination.

This ideology is ancient. 2500 years ago, Plato argued that vision and sound give us information about the world that engages the intellect, while tastes and smells only encourage the appetite which he likened to a ravenous beast that overcomes our rational faculties. (I suppose Plato can be forgiven for not knowing about the porn industry or trivial pop melodies that suck you in each time you hear them.)

…the gods made what is called the lower belly, to be a receptacle for the superfluous meat and drink and formed the convolution of the bowels, so that the food might be prevented from passing quickly through and compelling the body to require more food, thus producing insatiable gluttony and making the whole race an enemy to philosophy and culture, and rebellious against the divinest element within us.

One wonders what was in Plato’s kitchen that threatened to sap his self-control. But Plato’s assertion rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of how appetite works. Appetite has its own internal control mechanisms.

This point was brought home to me as I read Jay Rayner’s book The Man Who Ate the World. Rayner, a British food critic, often on the judges’ panel for Top Chef, set out on a worldwide quest to discover the perfect meal. With perfection being an impossible standard, his quest involves more disappointments than successes. But the penultimate failures could be attributed to the fact that his ambling about the world was avoiding the one place where such perfection is alleged to be routine—Paris, where he endeavors to eat 7 meals in 7 days at the finest restaurants.

The regrets begin on Day Two, and by Day Six:

Oh, god, I don’t know. Another Parisian three-star. Doormen in peaked caps.Claw-foot chairs. Side tables for the ladies to put their handbags on. The food was standard three-star stuff: langoustines on sticks wrapped in sea-water foam, beetroot meringues, yeast ice cream decorated with silver leaf. You know the score by now.

Rayner’s weary lamentation shows that appetite is not quite a ravenous, insatiable beast. It’s not that the food wasn’t good. Most of it met his expectations. But the adage “too much of a good thing” applies even to the finest cuisine. In the absence of compulsive disorders, pleasures aim at their own extinction. (There is probably an evolutionary explanation for this. Organisms that are never satisfied will ignore everything else to their obvious detriment)

Many philosophers have noticed this tendency of pleasures to be satiated but argue that the desire for pleasure always returns in a never ending cycle of debilitating craving. But, again, Rayner’s experience shows that this is not necessarily the case.

But the wonderful thing about perfection is that it is, of course,unobtainable. That didn’t stop me searching for it. That hasn’t stopped me wondering about it. All I need is the appetite. There is only one problem. I’m no longer sure I have one.

Having experienced the best cuisine in the world, the post-quest prospect of the many failed meals that await the restaurant critic no longer appeals to him. Once one develops aesthetic standards and acquires an ability to discriminate, fewer pleasures seem attractive.  Critical awareness enhances self-control. The motivation to seek pleasure can be tamed by the very intellect that Plato thought would be overwhelmed.

There is no reason to think there is something peculiarly “brute” or instinctual about taste—it can be refined and disciplined just like any other sensation.

Cross-posted at Edible Arts

Philosophy at the Table October 4, 2011

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Food and Drink, Philosophy, Uncategorized.
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Food and wine are among the consummate pleasures of everyday life. But philosophy throughout its history has largely ignored these pervasive satisfactions. Preoccupied with the life of the mind, the activities of the body were presumed to be quite separate from and inferior to thought. After all, we are biologically predisposed to enjoy salt, sugar, and fat and it takes only a little effort and no cognitive skill to reap their rewards. Since, food and drink are tied to our primitive, animal instinct to survive and socialize, philosophy’s conceit has been to remain chastely untouched by passions that stir likewise in pigs at a trough.

Furthermore, our tastes seem to be so irredeemably idiosyncratic, subjective, and immune to standards that philosophers have typically decided food and wine could not be systematically studied.

I think all of this is quite misguided. The study of food and wine is cognitively interesting and enhances our enjoyment. Although subjective up to a point, the appreciation of food and wine is no more subjective than the appreciation of painting or music, all of which are profitably understood as subject to standards of evaluation.

And so I have decided to plunge back into the blogosphere, after an extended hiatus, with Edible Arts, a blog and newsletter devoted to unpacking these dimensions of food and wine that please the palette, the intellect, and the heart. I will cross-post here when the post is related to philosophy and aesthetics, or visit me there for regular posts on the world of food and wine.

And we should not be so disparaging to pigs. There is no part of a pig I dislike—although I must confess never to have tried a pressed sow’s ear. There may be a line to draw here some place.


Cross-posted at Edible Arts.