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Arts & Architecture

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Photography and the Art of Chance

How does photography deal with, and co-opt, the element of chance that comes with any engagement with the material world around us? In his book ‘Photography and the Art of Chance’, Robin Kelsey brilliantly interweaves the history of photography with a broader history of art and an intellectual history of chance. This interdisciplinary approach helps Kelsey sidestep certain problematic moves in the historiography of art, which often result in a certain exceptionalism about photography as being qualitatively unlike other art forms. As reviewer Lauren Kroiz argues, Kelsey makes a persuasive case for the centrality of chance to the history of photography, starting from its early days and ending with a critique of our current enthusiasm for digital manipulation and posed photography, be it in the works of Cindy Sherman or in the — nowadays ubiquitous — “selfies” of individual consumers.


In ‘The Pale King’ (posthumously published in 2011), David Foster Wallace wrote: ‘This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called “information society” is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.’ Today, this silence more often than not is frequently interrupted by hortatory slogans and demands for participation: ‘Do you participate? If not, why not? You should get involved, make a contribution, let them know what you think. Be part of something! It’ll be collaborative and democratic. And fun, too!’ Taking the recent publication of Claire Bishop’s ‘Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship’ (Verso 2012) as his starting point, reviewer Richard Martin discusses the historical shifts in the participatory dimension of modern art. Whereas in the early decades of the 20th century participation was inextricably linked with political commitment — not always for the better — contemporary participatory art often involves little risk and few dangers.

Poetry and the Brain

When an award-winning novelist-translator and a renowned psychologist join forces to explore their common areas of interests, one can expect a wealth of interesting insights — and perhaps even answers to such questions as: How does poetry affect our thinking? Is poetical experience different from ‘ordinary’ experience? How does the brain make sense of poetical patterns in language? And, last but not least: Why do certain texts arouse aesthetic pleasure and what happens in the brain, when we feel the urge to read a poem again and again? In their recent book ‘Gehirn und Gedicht’ (The Brain and the Poem, Hanser Verlag, Munich 2011), poeta doctus Raoul Schrott and Berlin psychologist Arthur Jacobs explore these and other questions, aiming to offer an synthesis of contemporary neurolinguistic, evolutionary, and aesthetic research. And yet, says reviewer Hans-Dieter Gelfert, the result falls short of the professed goal of making sense of poetic experience from a neuroscientific perspective. For, nearly everything that is being said about the neurological responses to visual, musical or verbal stimuli in poetry applies to such stimuli in general, irrespective of their aesthetic quality. In the end, what fuses the various neuroscientific elements into the kind of poetic unity that gives rise to aesthetic enjoyment is something which the theoretical framework of the two authors cannot explain.

Exchange of Glances: Florence and Baghdad

In his new book, ‘Florence and Baghdad: Renaissance Art and Arab Science’, German art historian Hans Belting re-examines the dual use of perspective, as a transformative device of depiction in Western Art and as a form of geometrical abstraction in Middle Eastern Islamic art. While the theory of perspective was first formulated in eleventh-century Baghdad by Ibn al-Haithan (Alhazen), it was in Florence that its potential as a mirror of the human gaze was fully explored. However, writes reviewer Jerry Brotton, in re-evaluating the origins of perspective in Western art, Belting stays clear of clichéd arguments about how Arab and Islamic thinkers ‘got there first’ in the discovery of perspective. Instead, he asks the more profound question of why Alhazen developed the visual principles of perspective but did not translate them into an artistic theory. Central to his answer is the recognition that, on Alhazen’s account of vision, images were thought to originate in the imagination, not the eye: In other words, they could not be made visible because they did not occur in the external world.

The Aesthetics of Evil

Love and Evil are the driving forces of most, if not all, plots of dramatic and fictional literature. Yet, in discussions of aesthetics, evil has often been given short shrift. In his ‘Ästhetik des Bösen’ (Beck, Munich 2010), Peter-André Alt embarks on an in-depth study of the aesthetics of evil. From the Biblical myths of Lucifer’s and Adam’s Fall, through the 19th-century’s fascination with the social construct of the ‘criminal mind’, to the genocidal horrors of the 20th century, Alt ploughs his way through (mainly literary) material of intimidating scope and completeness. Yet, writes reviewer Hans-Dieter Gelfert, Alt’s attempt to rectify the omission of evil in discussions of European literary history is hindered by a strangely parochial blindness to outside (esp. British) influences on Continental Europe’s fascination with the topic.

Tales From a Dystopic Camelot

In his book ‘Mumbai Fables’ (Princeton 2010), Gyan Prakash unfolds the rich tapestry of the city’s cultural history. From the grand colonial architecture to more recent land reclamation projects, he traces the spatial dimensions of the city and their cultural meanings. Like all great cities, Mumbai has more than one fable in its story. But for all of Mumbai’s historical glamour, the situation of shanty-town dwellers is not overlooked — even though reviewer Katrina Gulliver has some doubts about whether the plotline of a comic book (to which Prakash devotes considerable space) is the right literary device.

Dubai Speed: Inside the Bubble

In the spring of 2007, Michael Schindhelm, the luckless former director of the Berlin Opera Foundation, left the German capital for better shores. As the newly appointed Cultural Director of Dubai’s Culture and Arts Authority, he had high hopes — as well as seemingly unlimited resources. His goal was to construct an exquisite cultural landscape, complete with an opera house and a Museum of World Cultures. Then came the financial crash, and arts and culture were no longer a priority. In his book ‘Dubai Speed’, Schindhelm chronicles his experiences in a city that embodies “not merely a race against time, but an objection to time itself”. While there is much narcissistic navel-gazing in Schindhelm’s book, reviewer Christiane Peitz still finds that, through Schindhelm’s gaze, the scintillating bubble that is Dubai becomes a bizarre reflection of modernity itself.

“Typocalyse Now?” The Legacy of Jan Tschichold

Jan Tschichold is best-known as one of the great typographers of the 20th century. A recent book (“Jan Tschichold, Master Typographer”, Thames and Hudson, New York 2008) traces his personal and artistic development from the ‘New Typography’ of the 1920s to his late (post-war) appreciation of classical typography. First and foremost, however, writes reviewer John Holbo, this “prodigal son of classical typography and design” is a man of paradox, who is forever grappling with the question of how to identify rules in what is essentially an uncodifiable art.