Archive: Æsthetics


Æsthetics · Film ·· More from June 2013
[See Mohan Matthen, “Why do movie effects get dated?” at NewAPPS.]
Consider two famous stop-motion sequences by Ray Harryhausen: the Cyclops sequence from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and the skeletons sequence from Jason and the Argonauts.
In the fiction of Sinbad, there is nothing to indicate that the Cyclops moves otherwise than like a large humanoid animal. Its motions should appear smooth like those of humans. But they don’t. The difference is apparent especially when human actors and the Cyclops are presented in the same frame. Harryhausen may have intended that the motions should be realistically depicted, but his technique falls short, especially now that computer animation sets the standard.
The skeletons’ motion as depicted has the slight jerkiness and excessive clarity of stop-motion animation. But skeletons, after all, if they could move, might very well move in an uncanny manner. One can see the sequence as depicting realistically the uncanny motions of skeletons brought to life.
Or one can see it as not-quite-realistically depicting ordinary, smooth, physically correct motions.
Which option predominates will depend on conventions of depiction. The overarching convention that governed the reception of works like Harryhausen’s, at the time of their making was a version of realism (see this 1941 article in Popular Mechanics). In particular, the depicted motions, other than magical, of fictional creatures were to appear as much like those of human or animal actors as possible. Realism, together with an emphasis on technical ingenuity and painstaking labor, has been part of the ideology of special effects from the start.
Also among the cultural norms surrounding special effects is that the spectator is invited to view them with a critical eye. The tagline of Superman, “You will believe a man can fly”, succinctly sums up the challenge taken up by special effects. Conviction will depend not only on the depiction but on the range of instances with which the viewer is familiar. What the critical eye looks for will therefore change as techniques change.
What the critical eye looks for will also change according to the imputed target of depiction. Rotoscoping, a technique in which the figures in a cel animation are traced from a filmed human figure, frame by frame, enables animators to depict human movements much more accurately than traditional freehand animation. Even now the results look more realistic (Snow White, 1937; Gulliver’s Travels, 1939).
Pinocchio, Popular mechanics 1940
Source: Popular Mechanics, 1940.
But compared with what 3D computer animation can now accomplish, it falls short — if you take the target to be the realistic depiction of the human figure in motion. Shading, for example, is absent or minimal. Spectators in 1939 did not expect detailed shading, and still less a physically realistic treatment of reflection, and the absence of those features did not, therefore, tell against the realism of Rotoscoped animation.
When we watch older movies, we tend, I think, to revise our estimate of the target, rather than judge it to fall short by current standards. Viewers of Pinocchio were said to marvel at the “realism of the shadows, the highlights on jewels and on shiny objects, the mists, the dusts, and the water” (Popular Mechanics, January 1940, 21–22). Judge for yourself: look at the liquids, the smoke, the shadows… Pinocchio may have looked more realistic than its predecessors. It may still look more realistic. But does it approach the realism of today’s animation?
Standards change, targets change. Which standards do I apply? What governs my imputation of targets to animations? They aren’t arbitrary, of course. On the other hand, they aren’t determined by features of the medium or of the human perceptual system. Viewers learn which standards to apply and which targets are likely to be aimed at from critics, from peers — the avenues, in other words, by which one picks up collective norms generally. In that respect the realism of animations is a matter of convention.

LinkJune 11, 2013 | Comments (0)

The frozen coachman

Æsthetics · Literature ·· More from May 2013
Catarina Dutilh Novaes’ item on literature and on what, thanks to her and to Helen de Cruz, I now know to call “moral self-licensing” brought to mind some sleuthing I did two months ago. This was in connection with teaching a bit of the “moral uplift through art” literature that Catarina and her commenters discuss. (The review article cited by Catarina, by the way, is available for free here. See also the abstracts at p81 of the program for 2011 meeting of the Association for Consumer Research — one area in which the theory will soon find application…)
The trail begins with William James, who in his Briefer Course on Psychology (1915) writes:
All Goods are disguised by the vulgarity of their concomitants, in this work-a-day world; but woe to him who can only recognize them when he thinks them in their pure and abstract form! The habit of excessive novel-reading and theatre-going will produce true monsters in this line. The weeping of the Russian lady over the fictitious personages in the play, while her coachman is freezing to death on his seat outside, is the sort of thing that everywhere happens on a less glaring scale (148).
For a long time — I don’t remember why — I thought that the unfortunate coachman was to be found somewhere in Tolstoy. Other people did too, including the critic Vincent Sheean, who places the coachman in St. Petersburg, and has the noble lady watching La dame aux camélias. For all I know, he may be right.
But the coachman has turned out to be an elusive character. I tracked him back to around 1700… After which I’ll return to James, and Catarina.
Source: The Idler 11 (1897) 703. Artist: John Schönberg.
The next earlier appearance I could find was not promising. We move back to 1897, to a volume of a periodical called the Idler. In a story by Fred Whishaw, a prolific author of adventure novels, Alexis Bogoliubov [i.e. Godslove], chief coachman to Baron Krilof, has seen his brother condemned to Siberia by the Baron, who is Head of Police; the Baron, moreover, had insisted on calling him twice to duty while his little daughter lay ill with a fever. The second time she died. Persuaded by some “nihilist” friends of his brother to assassinate the Baron, Alexis drives him to the theatre, planning to shoot him when he comes out. The Baron comes out, climbs into the coach, but Alexis does nothing. They ride home. Later, the Baron sends a servant to tell Alexis to take the coach and horses to the stable. But Alexis doesn’t answer: he is frozen stiff, and has been, says the doctor called to see him, for an hour. He was dead already before they left the theatre…
Next, a more light-hearted story from Blackwood’s (1867). In “The Eastern trip of two ochlophobists”, the first-person narrator writes:
When I was in Rome I remember being told that it had not been so cold for forty years, and the fact that Pss—i’s coachman had been frozen to death on the box while waiting at the opera for his mistress was adduced as a proof; on inquiries afterwards, I must own that it was satisfactorily shown that the coachman’s inability to stir proceeded mainly from drunkenness.
The coachman and his mistress (not master) have moved to Rome, and instead of being bent on assassination, the coachman has tied one on, and has gone “stiff” only in metaphor.
You will have noticed that these two tellings of the story are fictional. James’s anecdote is not. Our next stage yields a nonfictional frozen coachman, in Russia like James’s, not Rome.
On the 5th of December, during a cold spell of minus twenty [Celsius], one knew or heard — for it was expressly forbidden to speak of it — that Napoleon had stopped in the outskirts, at the gates of Vilna, had dined in his coach, chatted with the Duke of Bassano, even as his coachman died of the cold, and also that the Duke of Rocca Romana […] was so extravagant as to bring with him, in the same equipment as at Naples […] some delicate and charming horses, only to see them freeze to death at the end of the campaign (129).
This narrative has all the trappings of authenticity. It comes from the Réminiscences sur l’empereur Alexandre 1er et sur l’empereur Napoléon 1er (1862) by Sophie de Tisenhaus, countess of Choiseul-Gouffler, who was in Vilnius at the time (so I gather). The incident would have occurred in 1812.
Perhaps it did. Perhaps we have found the frozen coachman, the prototype of James’s. And yet a bit of doubt persists… In a work from 1842 — before Sophie de Tisenhaus’s, but after the incident she mentions — we find that frozen coachman were commonplace in old Russia.
It is incredible how much the poor coachmen, footmen, and postilions, are expected to endure. People will often go to the theatre or to a party, and leave their equipages in the street the whole evening, that they may be able to command their services at a moment’s notice. The coachman then finds it difficult to resist the inclination to sleep; and the little twelve-year-old postilions, not yet accustomed to watch till midnight, hang slumbering on their horses, or, winding the reins round their arms, slip down and lie cowering on the frozen snow. Many a poor coachman has thus lost his nose, or has had his hands and feet disabled, while his master was feasting his palate or his ears, or indulging a voluptuous sympathy for fictitious sorrow (Köhl, Russia, 1842 but probably published in German earlier).
In the Spectator of 1840 we find coachmen — and their passengers, in this somewhat more egalitarian society — freezing in Paris:
How the wretched coachmen manage to live at all in such weather as I have seen in Paris, is to me inconceivable; for even to the inside passengers the cold becomes to times so severe, that with all the contrivances they can think of—warm furs, hot-water bottles, great-coats, boat-cloaks, and shawls, they can scarcely go from one house to another without being frozen to death; a fate which actually befel two poor sentries, and an unfortunate donkey […] (1235).
Fifty years earlier, the grandfathers of some of those coachmen had already sat freezing at the behest of their masters.
The theatres and all places of public amusement are shut, when the cold is seventeen degrees of Reaumur. A custom of the Russian nobility and gentry makes this regulation absolutely necessary. Asiatic pomp prevails here, as much as at Isphan or Delhi, in defiance of ice and storms. They make their attendants wait with their carriages wherever they go, for one, or for ten hours, as it happens, let the cold be ever so violent. The miserable grins of those half frozen wretches, convince me that it is not their choice: the coachmen are sometimes frozen to death, upon their boxes (Sentimental and Mosaic Magazine (1792) 348).
We seem to be in the presence of a commonplace, a complex of received ideas concerning the cruelty of the nobility, the coldness of Russian (or Parisian) winters, and the love of liquor among the servant class. How nicely it fits together, and how suited to making various points. In Köhl, the topic is the endurance of the people; in the 1792 passage (excerpted from Andrew Swinton’s Travels, published, it seems, that same year), the topic is much the same; but in James the point of the anecdote shifts from the coachman to the lady, from exhibiting features of social class and climate to the indifference of people who have “indulged a voluptuous sympathy for fictitious sorrow” — to moral self-licensing, or experiences of art that enable it.
Our journey ends with a footnote on page 176 of Pierre Moricheau-Beaupré’s Effets et des propriétés du froid, avec un aperçu historique et médical sur la campagne de Russie (1817). The footnote cites (probably) the Commentaries by Gerard van Swieten on the Aphorisms of the celebrated physician Hermann Boerhaave (1668–1738). These were first published in the 1740s. Boerhaave, perhaps already by 1709, had made observations upon the brain of a “cocher mort de froid”…
My efforts to find the original passage in Boerhaave have proved fruitless. But I see no reason to doubt that Boerhaave really did dissect a frozen coachman’s brain. A death from whose telling no morals, it seems, were drawn.
Back to James: the Russian lady (a transposition back to Russia of the lady in Rome, who herself may be a calque of Napoleon or the theatre-loving nobility of Moscow or St. Petersburg) exemplifies, rather oddly, the woe that arises to those who recognize goods only in their “pure and abstract form”. The implication is that when we watch Lear holding Cordelia in his arms and lamenting her death what we behold is more abstract and pure than when we see, on screen, a man amid the wreckage of a tornado-ravaged town in Oklahoma holding his injured daughter in his arms.
I don’t think so. In fact I don’t think whatever differences do obtain between truth and fiction matter much in this context. The psychologists seem unconcerned by them. In the moral-licensing papers I looked at, the experimental setups often had people reading about fictitious or “what-if” cases and anticipating making decisions rather than actually making them. That the situations their subjects are asked to consider were not real seems not to matter.
The moral uplift — or the moral license — that the appreciation of narrative fictions is supposed to provide would not, then, be an effect they have qua fictions, but simply qua stories, and the relevant dimension would be not truth but plausibility. (A similar thought was suggested to me this spring while teaching Catherine Wilson’s “Grief and the poet”, Susan James’s “Fruitful imagining”, and Wilson’s reply, all in Brit. J. Aesthetics 53.1 (Jan 2013), esp. 118–119.) In particular the fable of the frozen coachman, even if it encloses a kernel of truth, owes its persuasive force rather to the complex of received ideas that it calls to mind and marshals on behalf of the various morals drawn from it.
Catarina writes that the “first and foremost commitment” of fiction is to “a ‘good story’, one that is engaging, where the pieces hold well together, where the characters go through interesting events […]” I would amend this by changing “fiction” to “narrative” (see also Nathan’s comment on Catarina’s post). Though the discussion began with the question whether literature is uplifting (or, as I would say, lends itself to uplifting interpretations), literature turns out to be something of a red herring.

LinkJune 4, 2013

Dredge: new frontiers

Some of the largest structures built by humans are invisible or go largely unnoticed. The shorelines around big cities like New York have been almost completely subordinated to the needs and wants of their inhabitants. Dredging plays a large role in the building of artificial boundaries between land and sea. BLDGBLOG, a must-read for anyone interested in architecture, reports on an exhibit by the Dredge Research Collective.
The Dredge Cycle is landscape architecture at a monumental scale, carving the coastlines and waterways of continents according to a mixture of industrial need and unintended consequences. Thus far, dredge has remained the domain of logistics, industry, and engineering, a soft successor to the elevated freeway interchanges and massive dams that captured the infrastructural imagination of the previous century.
For the past year, the Dredge Research Collective have been exploring the choreography of these interconnected sedimentary landscapes, visiting dredged material confinement areas, from Poplar Island in the Chesapeake Bay to Hayden Island in the Columbia River, talking with dredge experts, such as the transnational materials conglomerate TenCate, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Bureau of Land Management, and publishing and lecturing widely on dredge.
manhattan shoreline
Urban Omnibus.
Mammoth, another architecture blog that includes two members of the Collective, defines the Dredge Cycle:
[…] dredging is better understood as a component of a wider network of anthropogenic sedimentary processes which generate a fascinating array of interconnected landscapes. Fluid topographies are restrained by bright orange silt fences; dredging barges continuously empty shipping channels which are promptly re-filled with sediment disturbed by upstream farms and new subdivisions; sensate geotextiles monitor the stability of landscapes they are literally embedded in; hulking geo-tubes lay engorged with dredged sediments in streams on Filipino golf courses and along Mexican beaches and on the coastal dunescape of Virginian spaceports. Silts, sands, and clays flow rapidly between these landscapes in liquid suspension, linking them and re-shaping the earth’s surface. Collectively, the choreography of these landscapes embodies a vastly quickened counterpart to conventionally defined geologic cycles — the Dredge Cycle.
One site, still being planned, where the Dredge Cycle will make itself apparent—in the form of several billion dollars of real estate—is the Lo-Lo Ma project, which could connect Governor’s Island to the southern tip of Manhattan. Core77 explains how it will be done.


LinkFebruary 13, 2012

Musa in the artworld

Æsthetics · Cats ·· More from July 2009
Musa has fans everywhere. This group of young designers named themselves after her. Their website is being renovated, but you can see their work on Flickr.

LinkJuly 5, 2009

The train I’m on

Æsthetics · Travel ·· More from June 2009
In the wee hours one can still hear the sound of a freight train passing through the city, blowing its horn at the several grade crossings within city limits. I begin to think of other trains…
If you live in the US, you have to have been around for a half-century or more to remember when taking the train was a ordinary means of transportation, not just on the East Coast, but between any two places in the country. There’s now some discussion of reviving passenger rail, but the network of 1950 cannot be recovered. The rails themselves have been allowed to decay, rights-of-way have been built over or converted to other uses, stations have been torn down or renovated into malls or restaurants.
In 1900 or 1950, every little town had its station. My grandmother and her sister lived in the northwest corner of Minnesota, a few miles apart in places whose populations never exceeded a thousand or perhaps two; yet they could take the train in the afternoon to visit, having sent—on the morning train—a postcard to announce their plans.
Fifty years ago I travelled with my mother from Cincinnati to Chicago by train, there to meet her parents who would take me home with them. We had a sleeping compartment, with, as I remember, its own toilet, all in wood panelling and stainless steel, everything as efficiently arranged as if it were a ship’s cabin. I seem to remember that a steward showed us how to use the facilities. Our journey must have taken a whole day, but nothing of it remains for me—only an image of that compartment.
The Cincinnati train station, Union Terminal, still stands. It was built by the long-gone Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railway Company, known familiarly as the “Big Four”. It is a striking Art Deco structure, designed by the firm of Fellheimer and Wagner, with the consulting architects Roland A. Wank and Paul Philippe Cret (Cret also designed the Main Building of the University of Texas at Austin). Unlike its counterpart in St. Louis, Cincinnati’s is still a working station, though most of the infrastructure that supported what was once its main function has been removed or turned to other purposes—notably to provide space for the Cincinnati History Museum.
The station was decorated with a set of murals by Winold Reiss. Two large murals in the Rotunda depicted the history of Cincinnati. Those have been preserved in situ. Fourteen murals in the concourse depicted local industries; when the concourse was destroyed they were moved, fittingly enough, to the airport, fourteen miles away across the river in northern Kentucky. The list of industries depicted is an apt summation of this country’s once-mighty capacities. It includes Baldwin Piano, Procter & Gamble, Crosley Broadcasting, Cincinnati Milling Machine, and U. S. Playing Card. Of these only P&G still exists as an independent company. Plus ça change, you might say, or sic transit, but when I was growing up these were the landmarks; Cincinnati’s regional and national identity rested on them more than on any scenic or cultural endowments, and their identity, to some extent, rested on their being based in Cincinnati.
I remember Union Terminal in its heyday just a little. One of my grade school classes visited there on a field trip. Of all the things we must have been shown I remember only the demonstration of the acoustic properties of the central Rotunda: if you whispered at one end of the “rainbow”, that whisper could be heard at the other, but nowhere in between. My only other preserved impression is of the size of the dome, an impression not so much visual as acoustic—the reverberant space.

LinkJune 23, 2009

Union Station

blinkbits blogmarks co.mments feedmelinks LinkaGoGo shadows
Union Station was completed in 1894. It was designed by Theodore Link, who modelled it after the fortifications of Carcassonne, a city in the south of France whose medieval fortifications are well preserved. In its heyday, it was the busiest rail station in the US. Passenger traffic dwindled after 1960, and in the 1980s it was “renovated” into a hotel and shopping mall. The mall has not been a success. The present Amtrak station is a hard-to-find hovel under the freeway about a block away.
Musa, 14 Jun 2007

LinkAugust 12, 2007

Nieuwe Kunst

Æsthetics · Society ·· More from November 2006
At Florida International University: the Wolfsonian-FIU Collection of Dutch decorative arts includes items from the 1880s to 1940, including hundreds of ornamental bound books, mainly in the style of “Nieuwe Kunst” (Art Nouveau). If, like Adolf Loos (lnglabfr.png lnglabdeu.png), you think that “ornament is crime”, you won’t like it. Loos’s Ornament und Verbrechen was published almost a hundred years ago. In that time, I think we have seen that there are worse crimes in architecture than an overabundance of ornament.


LinkNovember 26, 2006

More from Cassandra

I’ve mentioned the Cassandra Pages before. Tonight, catching up, I find two entries that give the lie to all those idiots who hold that blog writing must somehow be inferior to the real writing of journalists and the like. The more recent is on the haves and have-nots of Vermont. The other is on music—on playing music, losing oneself in the adventure of sight-reading a new piece or of tackling once more an old familiar piece.
Blogging isn’t writing: see Karlin Lillington, “Gibson Kicks the Blogging Habit”, Wired News 28 Apr 2003. A quote from Gibson at the Utne Review (7 May 2003): “There’s no risk involved. Unless, if you’re accustomed to playing for higher stakes, it’s the risk of some edge being taken off your game”.
People seem to be confusing a medium with a way of using that medium. Blogging software makes available a structure (entries, typically brief, typically in reverse chronological order) that some people treat as if it were a sketchpad, and others as if it were akin to the feuilleton—written on a short deadline, and thus distinct from the sort of work to which an author devotes years of labor, but written with the same care as its equivalent in print.
I don’t think the journal-keeping of Kafka or Emerson threw them off their game. If I read old entries here or in my journals, I certainly find passages that I think could be improved; but the same is true of work composed more slowly. I tend therefore to agree with Valéry: “Un poèmeA poem is never finished. It is always an accident that puts an end to the writing of it, and makes it public. n’est jamais achevé. C’est toujours un accident qui le termine, c’est-à-dire qui le donne au public”.
Feuilleton: See Signandsight (and the original German version, Perlentaucher).

LinkOctober 28, 2005

Maker’s knowledge and the judgment of taste

An emailed comment on the Average Philosophers pictures got me thinking about the motives or motifs at work behind the scenes as I was making them. The visual starting-point was the “Fifty People See” series at Brevity on Flickr. Brevity mentions Jesse Salavon, so I looked at his work too. Further back, I think, were memories of Saul Steinberg’s vague portraits and landscapes, which manage to be, despite their determinate concreteness, about portraithood or landscapeness rather than being actual portraits or landscapes. Francis Bacon comes to mind too. His images fascinate me because you can’t quite make them fit together; they seem to portray bodies in pain but the parts of those bodies are difficult to distinguish, and so what exactly they are undergoing is unclear.


LinkJuly 16, 2005

Lettrisme (Style réseau mondial)

Æsthetics · Literature ·· More from April 2005
The Web of Letters (via Encyclopedia Hanasiana) is a clever device that pulls letters off the Web via Yahoo’s image search. Type in a word and it produces an image in which the letters are graphics grabbed from who knows where.
Like the Church Sign Generator, it’s the kind of minor amusement that the Web seems to encourage.
These devices give me an excuse to mention Isidore Isou and Lettrisme (↓1). I first came across Lettrisme in the late 70s while browsing through back issues of the Revue musicale (↓2). Like Cioran, Ionescu, and Eliade, Isou (born Isidore Goldstein) emigrated from Romania to France; he arrived after World War II with his new invention and a letter of introduction to Jean Paulhan, the managing editor of Gallimard. Gallimard was unimpressed; Isou was undaunted. In addition to having the looks of a young Elvis Presley(↓3), Isou had a gift for creating events, the first of which was an intervention at the premiere of Tristan Tzara’s La Fuite in 1946. Michel Leiris was to give a talk on Dada before the play. Isou and his friends interrupted it, and eventually, after Leiris had cut his talk short and the play had begun, Isou jumped onstage to expound on Lettrism before a rapidly dwindling audience.
Thus did Lettrism, and Isou, make their first headlines. Isou explicitly patterned his movement on Dada (one of whose founders was Tzara, another Romanian import) and Surrealism. But by this time, the whole apparatus of movements and manifestos, of artistic “isms”, provocative happenings, and a scandalized bourgeoisie, was near the end of its useful life—though the Situationists did extend it into the 60s.


LinkApril 23, 2005 | TrackBack (0)