A definition of art

22 August, 2011

A work of art is a beautiful, made object.

I arrived at that definition while trying to clear away the Romantic and Modern dross that has accumulated around the concept. In essence, art (deriving from the Latin, roughly meaning skill, craft or technique) is a thing created by a person (so a sunset may be beautiful, but it is not art). It is created to be beautiful, i.e. its function is aesthetic, not practical (hence Wilde’s assertion that art is useless). And its virtues proceed from its being an actual thing that exists in the world, not a concept or ideal.

What do I mean by ‘beautiful’? Obviously there are artworks which we can enjoy which don’t necessarily fit the conventional idea of beauty. But if they stimulate us in a pleasant way, then I would call them beautiful. (And if we find them genuinely unpleasant, we avoid them.) But still, what is beauty?

Recall Pinker’s description of music as “cheesecake for the mind”. I think that fits with my materialist idea of what art actually does. In the case of music, patterns of vibrating air are received through the senses, and stimulate electrochemical activity in the brain which we find rewarding. Proportions and textures and interrelationships are arranged in patterns which we perceive to be “right”, for whatever psychological or biological reason.

As you can see, I don’t believe in a literally spiritual dimension of art. I don’t think that a great artwork exists somehow beyond time, space and conventional morality. I also regard “profundity” as a product of perception, and not as a special mystical insight. I can reach the end of Bruckner’s 9th with a sensation of intellectual and emotional ecstasy, profundity and insight – but what is this ‘insight’? The world has not changed, and neither have I (except perhaps in becoming more sensitive to aesthetic experience).

I don’t think this way of looking at art diminishes it or my experience of it. Art still affects me; it’s just that I don’t proceed from that effect to the notion that I have received mystical (or sociopolitical) insight.
 

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From this site: http://www.pureintimacy.org/piArticles/A000000433.cfm
Bear in mind as you read this that Bundy was executed in 1989, well before the current explosion of porn upon the internet.

JCD: How did it happen? Take me back. What are the antecedents of the behavior that we’ve seen? You were raised in what you consider to be a healthy home. You were not physically, sexually or emotionally abused.

Ted: No. And that’s part of the tragedy of this whole situation. I grew up in a wonderful home with two dedicated and loving parents, as one of 5 brothers and sisters. We, as children, were the focus of my parent’s lives. We regularly attended church. My parents did not drink or smoke or gamble. There was no physical abuse or fighting in the home. I’m not saying it was “Leave it to Beaver”, but it was a fine, solid Christian home. I hope no one will try to take the easy way out of this and accuse my family of contributing to this. I know, and I’m trying to tell you as honestly as I know how, what happened.

As a young boy of 12 or 13, I encountered, outside the home, in the local grocery and drug stores, softcore pornography. Young boys explore the sideways and byways of their neighborhoods, and in our neighborhood, people would dump the garbage. From time to time, we would come across books of a harder nature – more graphic. This also included detective magazines, etc., and I want to emphasize this. The most damaging kind of pornography – and I’m talking from hard, real, personal experience – is that that involves violence and sexual violence. The wedding of those two forces – as I know only too well – brings about behavior that is too terrible to describe.

JCD: Walk me through that. What was going on in your mind at that time?

Ted: Before we go any further, it is important to me that people believe what I’m saying. I’m not blaming pornography. I’m not saying it caused me to go out and do certain things. I take full responsibility for all the things that I’ve done. That’s not the question here. The issue is how this kind of literature contributed and helped mold and shape the kinds of violent behavior.

JCD: It fueled your fantasies.

Ted: In the beginning, it fuels this kind of thought process. Then, at a certain time, it is instrumental in crystallizing it, making it into something that is almost a separate entity inside.

JCD: You had gone about as far as you could go in your own fantasy life, with printed material, photos, videos, etc., and then there was the urge to take that step over to a physical event.

Ted: Once you become addicted to it, and I look at this as a kind of addiction, you look for more potent, more explicit, more graphic kinds of material. Like an addiction, you keep craving something which is harder and gives you a greater sense of excitement, until you reach the point where the pornography only goes so far – that jumping off point where you begin to think maybe actually doing it will give you that which is just beyond reading about it and looking at it.

JCD: How long did you stay at that point before you actually assaulted someone?

Ted: A couple of years. I was dealing with very strong inhibitions against criminal and violent behavior. That had been conditioned and bred into me from my neighborhood, environment, church, and schools.

I knew it was wrong to think about it, and certainly, to do it was wrong. I was on the edge, and the last vestiges of restraint were being tested constantly, and assailed through the kind of fantasy life that was fueled, largely, by pornography.

JCD: Do you remember what pushed you over that edge? Do you remember the decision to “go for it”? Do you remember where you decided to throw caution to the wind?

Ted: It’s a very difficult thing to describe – the sensation of reaching that point where I knew I couldn’t control it anymore. The barriers I had learned as a child were not enough to hold me back from seeking out and harming somebody.

JCD: Would it be accurate to call that a sexual frenzy?

Ted: That’s one way to describe it – a compulsion, a building up of this destructive energy. Another fact I haven’t mentioned is the use of alcohol. In conjunction with my exposure to pornography, alcohol reduced my inhibitions and pornography eroded them further.

JCD: After you committed your first murder, what was the emotional effect? What happened in the days after that?

Ted: Even all these years later, it is difficult to talk about. Reliving it through talking about it is difficult to say the least, but I want you to understand what happened. It was like coming out of some horrible trance or dream. I can only liken it to (and I don’t want to overdramatize it) being possessed by something so awful and alien, and the next morning waking up and remembering what happened and realizing that in the eyes of the law, and certainly in the eyes of God, you’re responsible. To wake up in the morning and realize what I had done with a clear mind, with all my essential moral and ethical feelings intact, absolutely horrified me.

JCD: You hadn’t known you were capable of that before?

Ted: There is no way to describe the brutal urge to do that, and once it has been satisfied, or spent, and that energy level recedes, I became myself again. Basically, I was a normal person. I wasn’t some guy hanging out in bars, or a bum. I wasn’t a pervert in the sense that people look at somebody and say, “I know there’s something wrong with him.” I was a normal person. I had good friends. I led a normal life, except for this one, small but very potent and destructive segment that I kept very secret and close to myself. Those of us who have been so influenced by violence in the media, particularly pornographic violence, are not some kind of inherent monsters. We are your sons and husbands. We grew up in regular families. Pornography can reach in and snatch a kid out of any house today. It snatched me out of my home 20 or 30 years ago. As diligent as my parents were, and they were diligent in protecting their children, and as good a Christian home as we had, there is no protection against the kinds of influences that are loose in a society that tolerates….

JCD: Outside these walls, there are several hundred reporters that wanted to talk to you, and you asked me to come because you had something you wanted to say. You feel that hardcore pornography, and the door to it, softcore pornography, is doing untold damage to other people and causing other women to be abused and killed the way you did.

Ted: I’m no social scientist, and I don’t pretend to believe what John Q. Citizen thinks about this, but I’ve lived in prison for a long time now, and I’ve met a lot of men who were motivated to commit violence. Without exception, every one of them was deeply involved in pornography – deeply consumed by the addiction. The F.B.I.’s own study on serial homicide shows that the most common interest among serial killers is pornography. It’s true.

JCD: What would your life have been like without that influence?

Ted: I know it would have been far better, not just for me, but for a lot of other people – victims and families. There’s no question that it would have been a better life. I’m absolutely certain it would not have involved this kind of violence.

JCD: If I were able to ask the kind of questions that are being asked, one would be, “Are you thinking about all those victims and their families that are so wounded? Years later, their lives aren’t normal. They will never be normal. Is there remorse?”

Ted: I know people will accuse me of being self-serving, but through God’s help, I have been able to come to the point, much too late, where I can feel the hurt and the pain I am responsible for. Yes. Absolutely! During the past few days, myself and a number of investigators have been talking about unsolved cases – murders I was involved in. It’s hard to talk about all these years later, because it revives all the terrible feelings and thoughts that I have steadfastly and diligently dealt with – I think successfully. It has been reopened and I have felt the pain and the horror of that.

I hope that those who I have caused so much grief, even if they don’t believe my expression of sorrow, will believe what I’m saying now; there are those loose in their towns and communities, like me, whose dangerous impulses are being fueled, day in and day out, by violence in the media in its various forms – particularly sexualized violence. What scares me is when I see what’s on cable T.V. Some of the violence in the movies that come into homes today is stuff they wouldn’t show in X-rated adult theatres 30 years ago.

JCD: The slasher movies?

Ted: That is the most graphic violence on screen, especially when children are unattended or unaware that they could be a Ted Bundy; that they could have a predisposition to that kind of behavior.

JCD: One of the final murders you committed was 12-year-old Kimberly Leach. I think the public outcry is greater there because an innocent child was taken from a playground. What did you feel after that? Were they the normal emotions after that?

Ted: I can’t really talk about that right now. It’s too painful. I would like to be able to convey to you what that experience is like, but I won’t be able to talk about that. I can’t begin to understand the pain that the parents of these children and young women that I have harmed feel. And I can’t restore much to them, if anything. I won’t pretend to, and I don’t even expect them to forgive me. I’m not asking for it. That kind of forgiveness is of God; if they have it, they have it, and if they don’t, maybe they’ll find it someday.

JCD: Do you deserve the punishment the state has inflicted upon you?

Ted: That’s a very good question. I don’t want to die; I won’t kid you. I deserve, certainly, the most extreme punishment society has. And I think society deserves to be protected from me and from others like me. That’s for sure. What I hope will come of our discussion is that I think society deserves to be protected from itself. As we have been talking, there are forces at loose in this country, especially this kind of violent pornography, where, on one hand, well-meaning people will condemn the behavior of a Ted Bundy while they’re walking past a magazine rack full of the very kinds of things that send young kids down the road to being Ted Bundys. That’s the irony.

I’m talking about going beyond retribution, which is what people want with me. There is no way in the world that killing me is going to restore those beautiful children to their parents and correct and soothe the pain. But there are lots of other kids playing in streets around the country today who are going to be dead tomorrow, and the next day, because other young people are reading and seeing the kinds of things that are available in the media today.
 

These are just some brief comments after having finished watching the fifth season of Supernatural on DVD.

After the fine season 4 (possibly due to good stories held back from season 3 due to the writers’ strike?), this was definitely a disappointment. Season 5 was supposed to be about the Apocalypse, but the season structure gave no great feeling of this taking place, with many episodes taking on trivial sidestories, and even allowing that these can be done well, the writing was frequently mediocre.

The producers also allowed budget constraints to trivialise their supposedly world-shaking plot, with apocalyptic figures like the Whore of Babylon and the Four Horsemen appearing sporadically to terrorise rural towns with populations of up to two dozen (!), and then be easily defeated. The quality noticably increases towards the end of the season, first with a humourous and dramatic episode about the pagan gods being miffed at the presumption of the Christian Apocalypse, and then with a defined quest to obtain the four magic rings of the Horsemen. But the pagan story was completed in one episode, and there were only a couple of episodes for the ring quest before the final episode.

In the grand finale, they again trivialised the events, with the confrontation between Archangel Michael and Lucifer amounting to nothing more than a scuffle in a field.

There was also the problem of the heroes following the advice and direction of the demon Crowley, when the previous season had emphatically made the point that allying with a demon is a no-win move. This precedent was mentioned once, in the second last episode, and I think they were just hoping no-one would notice the inconsistency.

Apart from the major structural problems, it was also disappointing to see some fine performers and interesting characters given only cursory screen time – in particular the Four Horsemen (perhaps excepting War). Max Headroom fans would have been gladdened to see Matt Frewer appear as a wonderfully disgusting Pestilence, but as I said, the character is treated as a plot device and quickly dismissed from the story.

What they should have done:

After the first few episodes resolving Sam and Dean’s relationship issues (for the most part), the finding and using of the Colt should have been done in a couple of episodes, rather than spread over half the season. At the same time, we should have been made aware that the Apocalypse was definitely happening – lots of stock footage of floods, famines, wars, other natural disasters. Our heroes should have observed that these events were widespread and definitely of supernatural origin. This should have been a constant element through the series.

The Four Horsemen and the Whore of Babylon should have been named sooner, and made active, if unseen, players in the Apocalypse. The heroes could have observed the Horsemen and the Whore’s activities forming a predictable pattern as they created disasters across the globe, this providing sense of scale without expenditure, and giving the heroes a better reason to encounter their enemies than sheer good luck. (It would also have helped to do this with the angel armies too, rather than have them “sit on their hands”.)

The quest for the rings should have started much sooner, at least from the beginning of the last third of the season, and getting the ring from each horseman should have been a mini-arc of 2 to 5 episodes. The above method of predicting the movements of the Horsemen would be used to justify the small scale of the encounters on the basis of minimum collateral damage.

The pagan gods’ opposition to the Christian Apocalypse could also have profitably been spread across the season, providing contrast and humour. Also, after Sam was possessed by Lucifer, there should have been at least 1 to 2 episodes in which Dean is uncertain how strong the possession is, and what effect Sam might have on Lucifer’s actions, as well as trying to figure out the site of the showdown.

Finale, the showdown: it should have been in a more spectacular location. Michael and Lucifer should have fought in some exciting manner (it wouldn’t cost that much to have them blast some energy beams at each other, toss a car or two, or even fly around a bit). They and Dean should at least have moved around a little. The conclusion of the fight, with Lucifer and Michael falling into the hole, should have been more spectacular, with exciting camera angles, flashing lights, crazy sound effects, and screaming. And Cas healing Dean afterwards should have been a bit less easy.
 

As a follow-up to my piece “Bad advice for stupid writers“, here is “Learn the F**king Rules!“, in which an editor laments the degraded state of her profession. This is something I’ve been worrying about, too – my spelling, grammar and word sense are pretty good, and I have a feeling that the efforts of one of the new generation of editors will have only a negative effect. Is this a good enough reason to turn to self-publishing?

And any editor who uses the phrase “between her and I” (without ironic intent) should be sacked immediately!

 

I’ve been thinking about architecture, prompted by watching Grand Designs and reading this thread.

I don’t want to go into a long rant, so I’ll just state some basic principles which underlie my tastes:

Architecture is not sculpture. We’ve been sold a bill of goods as far as “human”, “playful” postmodern architecture is concerned. A provocative sculpture is not the same as a good building. I call these things “gimmick buildings”; they are amusing in the short term but banal and annoying in the long term – and the long term is what architects should be thinking of. In fact, in practical experience, these are generally bad buildings. You can’t make a comfortable home out of a concept, however “visionary” that concept may be. (Nor can you redeem a Modernist box by pasting a sneering caricature of a past style over the facade.)

Modernism was wrong. Critics and defenders alike of Modernist trends usually overlook that Modernism was an intellectual trend imposed across society, not confined to any one area of life. The Modernist impetus to wipe out the “redundant” past, and create superior new forms from nothing except abstract ideology, is visible in Communism (and, disguised, in Fascism), architecture, music, writing, education, etc., etc. A few worthy creations labelled Modernist do not justify the eradication and derision of all the old ways; we see that the best of culture usually arises from organic development, and not by reinventing the wheel.

Flat roofs are stupid. Unless you are building in a place with NO precipitation (and with no massive duststorms), flat roofs are impractical, expensive to keep up, and more liable to fail disastrously. (They also often are eaveless, so that modern “pure” box buildings are streaked with grime from the run-off, and in hot countries the lack of eaves means you use more energy keeping the interior cool.)

Doors are for closing. Sure, you may feel, in some hippyish way, that living without the artificial barriers of doors and walls will lead to some sort of freeing of consciousness, spiritually and politically and environmentally. But do you really want your kids to hear you fucking (or you to hear them) from the other side of your open-plan communal dwelling? Do you want to smell someone frying garlic while you are having a shit (or, God forbid, vice versa)? Do you want to try figuring out the household finances while listening to the kids playing on the X-Box and the spouse watching a movie? The invention of the door was one of the major events of civilisation, because it was a revolutionary machine for keeping bad air (and predators) out, maintaining a comfortable temperature, and getting silence and privacy in which to think for yourself. Don’t throw that gift away.

Windows have consequences. Just in the last year or two, a new building went up at Sydney University which is basically a glass box suspended in the air. It will cost a FORTUNE to keep cool in summer, and warm in winter. The advantage of this design? Well… I suppose it’s cheaper to build a giant greenhouse than to drop a billion dollars worth of gold bricks into the ocean. There is that. Oh, and, of course, it has a flat roof.
The opposite approach is also used – great concrete bunkers (often university libraries) with tiny slits for windows that are practically useless, and make the occupants feel like prisoners.
This is also the place to mention that great hypocrite Mies van der Rohe, who berated his clients for installing curtains or blinds in their windows, which should have been kept pure and bare, and meanwhile, in his own home, Mies was surrounded by bourgeois chintz.
Nowadays, many commissioners of domestic fish tanks architecture have drunk the Kool-aid, and, like self-flagellating monks, willingly expose themselves to the glare of the sun and the gaze of their neighbours, all in the cause of Modernism. As with open-planning (see “Doors are for closing”, above), it seems that Modernists regard the desire for privacy as something shameful. Like Victorians trying to prevent masturbation, Modernists are horrified at the thought of a person going about their business without the constant supervision of their family or co-workers or neighbours or random passers-by. What have you got to hide?!? Take all the doors off their hinges, confiscate all blinds and curtains. Be Healthy and Clean and constantly visible to all. I suspect all this enforced openness has a deleterious effect on the psyche.

Apart from the above approaches to avoid, here are some positive suggestions:

Subtle ornament. All the great buildings of the past use elegant, repeated motifs to make them seem organic and alive. However, please note the word “subtle”. Giant flashing lights installed at one metre intervals across a bare concrete plane are not subtle.

Regularity, but softened. The human eye loves symmetry and regularity, but this should not be overdone. Patterns of regular repeating features should be occasionally broken up with an element that complements, not contrasts, the overall scheme.

Human scale. Low ceilings and narrow corridors are oppressive, because the person feels confined and restricted; towering ceilings and huge doorways are also oppressive, because the person feels dominated and lost. If you are a human being, you will know what the happy medium looks like. Apply that to your buildings. Remember that the ratio of height to width determines scale, but the amount of light in a space is also an important factor.

Sun and shade in 3:2 proportion. This is a rough ratio for designing outdoor spaces, so that people can shelter from the elements (and not feel exposed like ants on a rock) without being mired in gloom. For indoor design, I’d suggest reversing the ratio – certainly not exceeding it, because a degree of shadedness makes people feel safe, and this shouldn’t be sacrificed to an abstract notion of “openness” (see also the above section “Doors are for closing”).

Okay, this is a pretty controversial subject, so you’ll have to bear with me. I’ve noticed that Islamist leaders (e.g. Abu Bakar Bashir, leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, who was convicted for the 2002 Bali bombing) have no trouble lying or misrepresenting themselves when questioned about terrorist activities and fundamentalist aims, and Western journalists tend to let this pass without comment. This is interesting because Westerners, even Christian fundamentalists involved in terrorism, feel compelled to be truthful, even to their disadvantage.

I was finally prompted to Google on this subject by this article (Islamist student group said to terrorize Pakistan campuses), in which an Islamist student leader denied, without shame, using violence and intimidation, even though this had been widely witnessed. It seems strange to a Westerner that a person who regards themself as pious would lie without shame, but this may be a prejudice from Christian and Jewish exortations to truth-telling.

In fact, as I suspected, there are specific verses in various Islamic texts which provide religious justification for lying, and they fall under two recognised categories: Taqiyyah and Kitman. Taqiyyah means saying (or writing) something which isn’t true. Kitman means lying by omission, i.e. leaving important facts unsaid. These justifications were originally developed by the Shi’ites as a defence against Sunni oppression, but now are generally used.

The exact verses used can be read at this page: Permitted to Lie for Islam (Taqiyya and Kitman). The most blatant reference in the Koran is Sura (66:2) – “Allah has already ordained for you, (O men), the dissolution of your oaths.” Also, from Islamic Law: Reliance of the Traveler (p. 746) – “[it is] obligatory to lie if the goal is obligatory… Whether the purpose is war, settling a disagreement, or gaining the sympathy of a victim legally entitled to retaliate… it is not unlawful to lie when any of these aims can only be attained through lying. But is is religiously precautionary in all cases to employ words that give a misleading impression…”

There are also justifying events from the life of the Prophet, e.g. the assassination of the poet Ka’b bin al-Ashraf, the assassination of Usayr ibn Zarim, and the breaking of the treaty with the Meccans, all of which involved the Prophet lying or having others lie on his behalf. It is important to remember, of course, that a number of religious figures from the Old Testament of the Christian Bible also lied to and betrayed people, but most Christians regard these as flawed men who predated the New Testament message of peace, love and spiritual self-examination. It will therefore be helpful to Westerners to understand Islam as an Old Testament religion, that is without the civilising and mitigating qualifications of a later revelation.