To be free in the ordinary sense is, at base, a matter of being able to do what one wants: I am thirsty. I know there is something to drink in the refrigerator, so I open the refrigerator. This is a freely willed act, as opposed to my being forced to do the same by a man with a gun, or to my being unable to do the same because I am tied down to a chair.
A "want", of course, is realized by a state of the brain. The human nervous system has osmoreceptors that detect changes in the osmotic pressure of the blood and other fluids. When they detect decreased volume or increased concentration of salt, they cause us to feel thirsty. The mediators of wants are biophysical. (Or to put it as I've put it before, robots -- at least, robots of sufficient cognitive complexity -- could have wants. And if being free in the ordinary sense is a matter of being able to do what one wants, robots could be just as free as us).
But there is another sense of 'freedom' that comes up, for example, in the famous Ariyapariyesana Sutta of the Buddhist Pali Canon. Here we are told that "wants" or "desires" themselves are bonds! How could this be if freedom is, at base, being able to do what one wants?
Here is the relevant passage from the Sutta:
Monks, there are these five strings of sensuality. Which five? Forms cognizable via the eye — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. Sounds cognizable via the ear — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. Aromas cognizable via the nose — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. Tastes cognizable via the tongue — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. Tactile sensations cognizable via the body — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. These are the five strings of sensuality.
And any brahmans or contemplatives tied to these five strings of sensuality — infatuated with them, having totally fallen for them, consuming them without seeing their drawbacks or discerning the escape from them — should be known as having met with misfortune, having met with ruin; Mara can do with them as he will. Just as if a wild deer were to lie bound on a heap of snares: it should be known as having met with misfortune, having met with ruin; the hunter can do with it as he will. When the hunter comes, it won't get away as it would like. In the same way, any brahmans or contemplatives tied to these five strings of sensuality — infatuated with them, having totally fallen for them, consuming them without seeing their drawbacks or discerning the escape from them — should be known as having met with misfortune, having met with ruin; Mara can do with them as he will.
The pleasures we get from the senses are like strings that bind us; desires based upon them can tie us down like a deer before the hunter.
But what sort of freedom is this? Surely we are free -- at least, free in the ordinary, everyday sense -- just insofar as we can grasp at whatever desires suit our fancy. Far from binding us in a heap of snares, this pursuit of pleasure is what gives our life whatever expansiveness it has.
This is the kind of Enlightenment freedom alluded to in the US Declaration of Independence: that we possess "certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Our freedom comes not only in liberty from interference, but also in liberty to pursue happiness where we find it. If we want to indulge ourselves by looking at drip paintings, playing the violin or eating gourmet meals, then it is in their pursuit that we find freedom.
But then, wherein lies the snare?
Consider this phrase from the Sutta: "... without seeing their drawbacks". Is it really true that every pursuit of happiness leads to its attainment? Don't many lead to unhappiness?
It's not unusual for the pursuit of pleasure to lapse into dull routine or worse, obsession or compulsion. One buys the object, sees the show, climbs the mountain, drinks the wine, kisses the pretty face, not because it is pleasurable but because it ticks some box that says, "Not done yet." It fits into an empty space in the collector's book. And while filling that space may provide some modest frisson, the feeling cannot last.
Nor are such pursuits to one's benefit: being tied to sensual delights without seeing their drawbacks is a route to disappointment. Although all desires aim at pleasure, many misfire along the way, bringing unhappiness. Often we know this to be the case, we know we do ourselves no good by acting upon the desire, yet we indulge nonetheless. This is a kind of fetter.
A desire that brings unhappiness when acted upon is not the kind of desire that brings true freedom. A desire that brings unhappiness is, in that sense, a kind of fetter or bond that reduces one's true freedom even while providing ordinary freedom.
The "pursuit of happiness" is its own freedom just so long as that pursuit is well-aimed. The obsessive collector who drains his account in the purchase of pretty things, the lothario, the thief, not to mention the alcoholic or addict, all to one extent or another do what they do freely, in the ordinary sense of the word. (The addict or true obsessive less so, since mental illness is its own bind). But they rarely get the happiness they seek. To that extent, they are not truly free.
What makes a piece of art worthwhile? What makes it good?
Is this simply a subjective matter of opinion? Or is there anything more we can point to?
If there were alien life forms on other planets, would they find the same things beautiful that we do? Would they find the same things artistically worthwhile? Or would they view our artistic taste as incomprehensible or worthless?
These are some of the questions that come up when we consider aesthetics.
There is little question that there are similarities in the way humans see beauty. Europeans love Japanese prints, Chinese youth pine after the iPhone. Human physical attractiveness follows certain set patterns, such as the 0.7-to-1 waist-to-hip ratio for women, or male facial symmetry. While some of this is doubtless culturally imposed, much of it is due to our ability to ferret out underlying biological characteristics such as fertility and partner suitability. After all, humans are animals, and animals (particularly females, who have the burden of gestating the young) are notoriously picky about mate choice.
Aesthetic sense in the animal kingdom extends from visible and auditory factors such as the peacock's plumage, the bird's song or the lion's roar, the gorilla's size or the seal's ownership of the beach, to the intricate hanging nests made by weaverbirds or the extraordinary collections of bowerbirds.
It also extends to location. Animals have an instinctive sense of the best placement of home: one that is relatively safe and secure from predation, close to sources of food and water, with a good view of the surrounding territory.
The artists Komar & Melamid conducted surveys in countries around the world, asking people what they wanted most to see in a painting. The result was their People's Choice series of "Most Wanted" paintings. While there were local, cultural, discrepancies, the overall results of their polling reveal, in philosopher Denis Dutton's words, "serious empirical evidence for a natural, evolved universal aesthetic preferences." Viz., people tend to like open landscapes with a view out over water, much as non-human animals prefer territory with a view, close to sources of water. Americans like to add a president in there as well, somewhere.
Our aesthetic preferences extend to taste and smell, senses that enable us to find foods that provide sustenance and avoid those that may cause illness. It's practically a truism that people enjoy the taste of fatty, sugary and salty food, and tend to avoid foods that are perceived as bitter. (Bitter is one indication of spoilage).
One "post-modern" response to all this, of course, might be termed expressly anti-aesthetic: what is beautiful is suspect. Studies of universal taste reveal nothing more than narrow cultural brainwashing and therefore a universal lack of sophistication. And who can argue with that, when presented with Komar & Melamid's Most Wanteds? They're awful, looking like Hallmark Cards or cast-offs from any flea market in the country. But that's the point, isn't it? Any artistic subject that is universally appreciated is likely to be the sort of thing one find's everywhere.
Or, perhaps better said, it's the sort of thing one finds everywhere except in the places that have been taught not to appreciate it.
Because ironically it's the anti-aesthetic movement, the movement that views standards of beauty as simply passing cultural constructs, that is the prime example of constructing taste along cultural lines. If we are to give up on universal standards of beauty as our touchstone for artistic excellence, all we have left are passing fads, cooked up for us by today's cultural tastemakers.
Perhaps this is why so much contemporary art mystifies. Perhaps this is why to appreciate it requires detailed knowledge of context and background. It's far from obvious that a pile of detritus on the floor indicates some pungent social reality, or to see why this presentation is more pungent than simply stating the reality outright.
To appreciate such art reveals the extent to which one is culturally in-tune with the moment, the extent to which one has the time, money and interest to teach oneself what it's about, and indeed to teach oneself why it's art.
All art appreciation has an element of status indication, of course. Like the universal aesthetic pointed to above, awareness of status is a part of our evolutionary background. But ironically, by eschewing beauty, much of contemporary art has only managed to privelege status-indication in its place, by making art appreciation more rarified, more élite, more out of touch with anything but art study for its own sake.
And that, I think, is a dead end, at least for art.
The alternative, that all art at least contain some notion of beauty as an essential element, is not itself truly universal at all, of course. It depends upon our vague evolutionary heritage. But that, I am afraid, is the way it must be. For aesthetics apart from evolution is, it seems, no more than numerology.
Thanks to Steven Batchelor's work most of all, space is opening up around the notion of a neo-Buddhist philosophy and practice that rejects the supernatural elements of the traditional religion: principally, reincarnation and karma.
Batchelor's Confession of a Buddhist Atheist is a good place to start with his work, as I think it's some of his most lucid writing. Note that it is a memoir, not a treatise on philosophy. Though it has philosophical aspects, basically it's the story of Batchelor's travels through various forms of Buddhist practice in India, Korea and Europe.
A number of Secular Buddhist organizations have sprung up around Batchelor's ideas, principally the Secular Buddhist Association, the website of which includes a number of interesting links.
After chatting with Ted Meissner from the SBA, it became clear that we were on the same wavelength about notions of science and skepticism informing -- and at times trumping -- notions of Buddhism and Buddhist practice. He suggested doing a podcast together with two denizens of our skeptical, secularist Forum who have similar interests.
The podcast is out now, and can be accessed and downloaded HERE.
I read Dan Nadel's incisive review of the Maurizio Cattelan show at the Guggenheim several days ago, and wasn't sure what to think. Having seen the show now with my own eyes, I am inclined to agree with his somewhat jaundiced view.
But I don't think the problem with the show lies entirely in Cattelan's work. Cattelan is first and foremost a clown: a provocateur by pratfall and sight-gag. "La Nona Ora", the famous sculpture of Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite, is the kind of thing one would expect to see in a ten-second scene out of Monty Python's Flying Circus, or animated in the Simpsons.
Others of his pieces refer to the 'hanging' of artworks, to artworks as taxidermy, and make mild commentary on social themes such as race. It's very much gag art; funny for all that, entertaining as modern, ironic clown should be, but essentially light and ephemeral. Perhaps that's why it works as well as it does, hung before us like a mothballed circus wardrobe.
No, the real problem with the show isn't the work itself; it's the introduction by the curators Spector and Brinson.
So much of what's wrong in the art world nowadays is in the writing: overamped, overwrought prose that either obfuscates or sells. In this case, it sells. "This Work is Very Important!" it tells us. So, the silly piece involving the Pope is described as "incendiary" and "notorious". JFK in a coffin is "eleagic". And his work overall is described as "deadly serious in its scathing critique of authority and the abuse of power". Really? Where? Not in this exhibition, anyway, nor in his prior ones, from the sound of it, such as his decision to make a show out of a locked door with a "be back soon" sign, or his idea to steal another artist's work and pretend it was his own. Silly gags? Yes. Profound statements about authority and the abuse of power? No.
Basically it's a light and humorous show, and light humor is popular. There's nothing wrong with that: we all need a little clowning in our lives. But please, let's not mistake clowning for profundity, nor cloak its essential modesty in marketing bombast.
He will go down in history as one of the greatest technology visionaries and businessmen in history, along with people like Ford and Edison. Perhaps the greatest of all.
Mechanical clocks and watches are some of the most beautiful instruments made by human hands. But it's rare to see behind the scenes.
Here's a neat ten minute piece, filmed in the seething heart of time central in New York City. It hearkens back to the Brilliant Glass/Reggio film Koyaanisquatsi.
Albert Uderzo, co-creator and long-time artist of the Asterix and Obelix series, has decided to retire. The books that he drew with co-author Rene Goscinny are some of the pinnacles of comics. Filled with wordplay and ancient trivia, they are a wonderful introduction to history both Roman and modern.
I consider the series to have ended, for all intents and purposes, with Goscinny's death in 1977. More recent volumes, of which there have been many, seemed stale and lifeless compared to the bright sparks in each of the early stories. Comparing the before and after shows how comic art is first and foremost narrative.
For all that, Uderzo's formidable comic artistry made reading Asterix a joy.
Last Sunday I sat down at the bustling Astor Place Starbucks in Manhattan with my good friend Luis Alfonso Gámez, science journalist extraordinaire, founder of the Spanish Círculo Escéptico, consultant to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and prolific blogger. He posts for CSI a series called ¡Paparruchas! (Stuff and nonsense!) as well as his own, world famous Magonia, the largest skeptic blog in the Spanish language.
We chatted about his new project, which promises to be a blockbuster. It's series for ETB2, Basque public TV in Spain. Called “Escépticos” (Skeptics), it's directed by filmmaker Jose Pérez, and stars Gámez. It consists of thirteen episodes, the pilot of which aired last January. The other twelve were filmed over 34 days last spring, by a team of eleven with another nine in post-production. They will be televised between September 26th and the end of December, one episode per week. Each will be 38 minutes long, aired without commercial interruptions at around 9:45 pm on Monday nights. Gámez told me they were filmed in a high definition format and should be HDTV ready.
The January, 2011 pilot dealt with claims that the Moon-landings were a hoax, a theory that smolders at the edges of reasonable society. The other twelve paint a broader brush:
- Alternative Medicine (Acupuncture, reiki, reflexology)
- Electromagnetism and Health (Cellphones and antennas)
- Genetically Modified Organisms
- The Occult (Tarot, palmistry)
- Miracle Products (Cosmetics, tonics)
- Anti-Aging Treatments
- Religion and Science
- Climate Change
Gámez said their intent is to investigate a range of topics, with some being ‘hard’, such as climate change, religion and GMOs, and others being ‘soft’, such as UFOs, the occult and miracle products. Viewers will easily grasp how science-based critical thinking deals with light topics, which should help clarify how it works with the more profound.
Gámez said he hoped Escépticos would be made available in schools for free. Meanwhile, each episode should be streamable soon after airtime. The internet was a great boon for the pilot: it had more viewers over the internet than on air, the most ever online for ETB, perhaps for all of Spanish TV, with over 80,000 downloads to date.
Making clear their interest, ETB2 won't be running ads during the show, but it is running ads to publicize each episode. It has contracted with an advertising firm which Gámez believes to be pre-eminent in Basque Country. They will run new ads as each comes out, highlighting the issue raised in that episode.
The first ad is already available, on alternative medicine. (In Spanish, but generally understandable since "Placebo" is a word in both English and Spanish):
Escépticos is a show designed for viewing by all ages from ten on up, with rapid pacing. The longest scene is perhaps a minute and a half. Gámez felt the show was livened up by Jose’s brilliant use of footage from old movies and background popular music.
It’s a show first and foremost about science. For interview subjects, Gámez decided to focus on scientists local to the audience, within about a 150km radius of Bilbao, both to make it easier for the team, and to give viewers a sense of local ownership. But this created its own problems. Gámez told me that not all the locals were happy with the show's approach.
There is a significant anti-antenna lobby in Basque Country, one that believes that cellphone antennas cause illness, and that scientists and skeptics such as Gámez have been bought by multinational corporations. Members of the lobby sent messages threatening him and put threatening notes in the home mailboxes of several local university scientists. This made it nearly impossible for Gámez to find an expert willing to talk on camera about the issue: five leading researchers either refused to appear altogether, or refused to answer questions that dealt with cellphone antennas.
Representatives from the anti-antenna lobby themselves also refused to appear on camera. Gámez told me that he had agreement from their lawyer to do an interview, however it fell apart after the lawyer noticed one of Gámez’s skeptical blog posts on the topic.
At one point Gámez felt the program on electromagnetism might not be filmable, but fortunately deep contacts among local scientists eventually bore fruit.
With luck, this thirteen-part series won’t be the end of Gámez's skeptical forays on TV. In future, he said he hoped they could deal with issues such as nuclear energy and life beyond death, as well as investigate more deeply topics that could only be touched upon in the present series. The fountain of skeptical material is nearly bottomless.
“I’ve had the good fortune to participate in this project since its inception. It’s been a privilege because the team is extraordinary, and Basque television hasn’t vetoed a single thing we’ve done. To be able to speak about God, cellphone antennas and miracle products is difficult. Fortunately, Jose and I have complemented each other in the project; we have the same point of view. The program is intended for all the public to watch and learn from, not only skeptics.” -- Luis Alfonso Gámez
The Trailer (in Spanish):
• Escépticos is the first program on Basque public TV to have been unanimously approved by all members of the station’s review board. They felt that it was a program that had to be done. It will be the first skeptical program in the over fifty year history of Spanish TV.