By Beppe Colli
Feb. 20, 2008
It was about two weeks ago that a friend of mine who's a Prof of art-related
matters at an Italian (University-type) Academia told me this story (which
I'm going to tell the way I understood it). What happened was that during
one of his lessons, it gradually became apparent that there was something
of a strange communication problem going on. He became aware of the fact
that, while the discussion was about some colour images (paintings or something
the like), what some students were looking at were pictures in b&w.
Here, of course, we could discuss whether it's indeed legal to use photocopies
of a book as a substitute of it; but in the age of Napster, when even grandmothers
illegally download movies...? Let's pretend for a moment that the book
in question was one of those "impossible-to-find" books; but
what about those b&w copies of colour images? Sure, "If we had
to make colour copies of a book like that, it would cost just like the
book!". (Like I said, we live in a post-Napster era.)
I thought about this story many times -
it sounds a bit funny, but also with a decidedly sad aftertaste. We can
assume that - anticipating a future when their main occupation will be
to pick cigarette-butts (this as a consequence of the well-known pact which
"Pretend to study, and we'll pretend to give you a useful degree")
- those students had rightly chosen to minimize their financial investment.
It's a problem that, in really serious
terms, is a big worry for all the Western World. A recent (January 21,
2008) cover story in US weekly BusinessWeek (which I'm happy I can say
after one year's absence is back on sale at European newsstands) was titled
The Economics Driving The Youth Vote; the piece, by Michelle Conlin, was
mostly about the attitude towards political candidates - among them, of
course, Barack Obama - by those 43 million young people in the age bracket
18-29 called Millennials or Gen Yers, who are more than a bit anxious about
their future. More or less at the same time, a recent article which appeared
on UK newspaper The Guardian (Tuition Fees Favour The Rich - New Study,
by Polly Curtis, February 14, 2008) rang an alarm bell about the possible
distortion deriving from the rising costs of higher education.
But here I think that the little tale which
my friend told me, with is farcical taste so typical of so many things
Italian, sheds some light on a different side of the problem. A side that's
really, really serious, and whose consequences are impossible to underestimate.
Let's try to have a pocket-sized investigation.
In its "18k pure case" clarity, the fact of having faith
that a b&w image can be said to adequately represent a colour image
- maybe its "essence", caught with a big dose of acumen? - looks
as a perfect example of the indifference towards content so common nowadays.
When in the place of content we have something built using "as you
Far from being a condition deriving from
an evil potion somebody put in the water we all drink, this fact (which
sometimes gets to be filed under "superficiality") can be seen
as correlated with the minimum quantity of different kind of experiences
that's nowadays considered as being the most desirable: a quantity that
tips towards the absolute maximum available under the present conditions.
But if the number of experiences has to be the largest, it goes without
saying they have to be of a
"superficial" kind, with a degree of difficulty going towards zero.
An example will be of help: Think of those
museum exhibitions where the quality of it being an "Event" is
the real content of the exhibition, its only reason for it being chosen,
its only reason for calling one's experience "successful". A
museum which offers nice works which don't possess the quality of being "an
will attract almost no visitors; while an exhibition that can be called
"an Event", with a large crowd attending, long queues, uncomfortable
visiting conditions, an even-less-than-superficial understanding of what
one has seen, will be considered as a success. And since the only things
that one can demonstrate as true are those of a quantitative kind, any City
Hall investing money into Culture will show those long queues as a tangible
demonstration of the fact that Culture is spreading - and that those who
attended are very glad indeed.
It goes without saying that the only logical
step beyond this is to make the Museum itself what visitors will go to
see; with obvious advantages, since the Museum is "predictable",
while collections come and go. The most famous example of this trend obviously
being the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, by Frank Gehry.
People's interest for the Olympic Games in China is on the rise. A
very fine article I read appeared in the New York Times Magazine: titled
The China Syndrome, by Arthur Lubow, it was published on May 21, 2006.
It tells the tale of the complex story of the National Stadium in Bejing
being built, by famous Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. It's a
very long, detailed piece: about eight thousand words, or about fifty thousand
characters. It's nice to see that in the era of "pointillist time" somebody
bothered to write and publish a piece like that, taking for granted the
fact that somebody will want to read it. It's an article that cost money
to write, with field interviews, quite in-depth.
If we talk of architecture and commerce
it's quite easy to think about Rem Koolhaas: not too many have thought
as he did about the various possible mixes of art and commerce. In an interview
by Jennifer Sigler which appeared in 2000 on Index Magazine, being questioned
about art and fashion, Koolhass quickly goes to the heart of the matter: "I don't think it's simply about art and fashion. That's not
the essential part. There is such a complete, across-the-board commodification
today that expectations have shifted from a didactic experience to an entertainment".
Which can be linked to the fact that "There is, in current culture, a relentless demand for newness".
It goes without saying that there are many
ways to articulate the whole matter. And of course this is an interview
that has to be read as a whole (it's easily available on the Web), in order
to examine in detail Koolhaas's position.
But it's only logical that: if audiences
want to be entertained; if City Hall wants to show those long queues; if
architecture has to share this scenario; then, it's the duty of a free
press to make evaluations of the way things really go, including real effects
on culture beyond the "queues factor".
Here we have a good for instance: the construction
of the Central Library in Seattle, by Rem Koolhaas. At the time, opinions
from those in the know were for the most part very favourable (and here
we're taking the queues for granted). But what about the building's performance
over time? (Which is a different matter from the fact that - as I've recently
read - quite a few famous buildings by "starchitects"
suffer from rain infiltrations.) As he reported on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
(On Architecture: How The Central Library Really Stacks Up - March 27, 2007),
three years after inauguration, Lawrence Cheek, a critic that at the time
had spoken quite favourably about it, totally reversed his opinion. But right
at the time (July 2004), in an article titled Mixing With The Kool Crowd
which appeared on Projects For Public Spaces, Benjamin Fried had expressed
some serious doubts, which went well beyond the building in question. (Both
articles are easily available on the Net.)
But how our means of information beheave when it comes to accurate
reporting? We have to be careful here: as we've seen, the presumed
"superficiality" on the part of the subjects could be said to be
referred to the fact that a proliferation of one's experiences potentially
without end is considered as a desirable condition; it would be too easy
to call our press "superficial" (we are not talking about infotaintment,
But how is money spent nowadays when it
comes to information? In a recent article (Our Media Have Become Mass Producers
Of Distortion, which appeared on The Guardian on February 4, 2008) Nick
Davis tells of the results of a research he commissioned from some specialists
from the Cardiff University. It's an interesting article that deserves
to be read as a whole, but here I'll say this: that today an editor fills
triple the space s/he filled twenty years ago. Whether, under these conditions,
newspapers can easily check their facts, and look for independent stories,
it's quite easy to see.
Quite recently, I happened to read an interview with (the very famous)
double bass player Charlie Haden. A very fine interview, which I thought
to be quite unusual: the Charlie Haden interviews I've read have been for
the most part quite... generic, quite... vague, so my expectations get
invariably frustrated. So when I saw that I was already on page three of
the interview (by the way: it appears on the US monthly Down Beat, issue
dated February 2008) I asked myself: who's this guy who made this fine
interview? Ethan Iverson. Who's Ethan Iverson? Then it occurred to me that
Ethan Iverson is the piano player in The Bad Plus. Hence, I got discouraged:
so, in order to read a nice interview (I mean: serious, well done, when
people talk about real stuff, not empty words) a piano player has to be
I had a look at the most recent issue of
UK monthly Mojo magazine (issue #172, March 2008), and I happened to see
a pan of a tiny book from the quite famous 33 1/3 series from Continuum.
The review, by Andrew Perry (two stars, but after reading the text I'd
say it could have been just one star), was about Nick Drake's Pink Moon
book by the unknown (to me) Amanda Petrusich. Reviews I found on the Web
were even harsher. But who's Amanda Petrusich? Since none of my USA colleagues
I consulted on the matter seemed to know her beyond a vague "Well...",
I decided to do a search.
The first thing I found was an interview
with PJ Harvey which appeared in Pitchfork on 11-05-07. Harvey comes out
really well, but the conversation has more than a few surreal moments.
When the musician laments the proliferation of reality tv shows in England,
Petrusich says this: "Right, well it requires
so much effort to shut it out. It's so ubiquitous, it's constant chatter...".
Well, I think you only need to avoid tv of a certain kind, and people who
go crazy for this kind of stuff.
Then we have this:
Petrusich: As I get
older, I've found - and this is a little depressing...
Harvey: How old are
you? You can't be more than 15!
Petrusich: I'm 27,
and I think this is endemic of my generation, in a way, but I don't require
music in the same desperate ways that I did when I was 15.
Well, I find that
"in a way" bit absolutely not to be missed.
And this is the other side of reality.
© Beppe Colli 2008
| Feb. 20, 2008