‘Where there is no struggle there is no progress’ Frederick Douglass

Great BBC Radio 4 repeat of an ‘In our Time’ programme about Frederick Douglass an astonishing man, born a slave in the USA in 1817. Self educated, self made, companion to Abraham Lincoln, what is covered in this programme shows us the historical background to BLM, and thus shows us that when Michelle Obama stated, ‘When they go low, you go high’, this appeal has a long history. Respect due. Entrepreneur, orator, statesman, part of British and US history, how can this man not be a role model to all?


Talking about Art Seems Hard — But it Doesn’t Have to Be.

Charles Hanna

May 11 · 6 min read

Drawing some meaning out of art confounds even the most intelligent people. For many museum-goers, browsing a collection of paintings and sculptures can be interesting, but nothing more. The inner world of the art and what it expresses is lost upon them, because they lack a vocabulary to think about it and discuss it.

Have you had that type of experience? You spend a few hours in a museum, and by the end of it, all the art has blended together. If someone asked you what your favorite piece was, you might be able to pick something, but having a conversation of greater depth than that could be difficult.

Which is a real bummer if you’re dating someone into art, or if you just want to sound classy and educated.

Well, that’s all about to change right here, right now — because I’m going to give you 9 different things to think about when you look at art…especially painting (though it works for sculptures and architecture as well).

9 Things to Think about When Looking at Art:

  • Composition
  • Movement
  • Unity and Balance
  • Color and Lighting
  • Mood
  • History
  • Biography
  • Symbolism

In order to try this out, I’m going to bring in a painting by the French artist Géricault, who painted “The Raft of the Medusa” in 1818. Here it is:

Quite dramatic, right? So let’s take a look at these nine points and come up with something to say about each of them.

Composition: Look carefully and you’ll see two overlapping triangles. One is formed by the ropes of the raft, which meet on top of the sail. The other is formed by the fellows on the right side of the raft, reaching upwards — and at the apex of that triangle is one fellow waving a red flag. The triangle on the left (formed by the ropes) seems to be darker, and the bodies and faces indicative of death and hopelessness. The triangle on the right is lighter, the people seem to see something in the distance (a ship, perhaps), the overall mood is one that is more hopeful.

Movement: The churning waves and billowing clouds create a sense of dramatic movement in this painting. The raft is tilted upwards, and a wave off to the left threatens to swamp it. Our eye is drawn toward the red cloth and the figure who holds it, in part because many of the bodies, faces, and hands on the raft reach in that direction.

Unity and Balance: Though is is obviously a scene of some chaos and despair, and certainly invokes a feeling of tension in the viewer, there is something that seems to be balanced about it, even if you can’t quite put your finger on it. I’ll tell you: those two triangles we mentioned earlier overlap each other. The one on the right is darker and more hopeless, while the one on the right is lighter and more hopeful — but the space where they overlap is mixed with greater variety of light and dark moments; for example. at the bottom of the pyramid of human hopefuls there are a few bodies lying face down. Look carefully and you’ll also notice the two triangles lean away from each other (the mast and the fellow with the flag). This overlapping and mirroring creates an underlying sense of balance.

Color and Lighting: The different skin tones and alternating regions of light and shadow create a mix of hope and hopelessness. The dark sky above the clouds in the upper right corner and the grey waves — interspersed with choppy, white foam — threaten the raft, and both serve to highlight the lightened region of the horizon upon which all hopeful eyes lay, implying that some rescue might be seen there (look carefully and you can see what might be a ship).

Mood: The writing bodies, the waves, the billowing clouds…it’s all very turbulent and anxiety-inducing. We wonder what has happened here, and what will happen. We’re practically waiting on the edge of our proverbial seats to see if these people get rescued. Even though this painting is around 200 years old, it still evokes a sense of excitement punctuated by trepidation.

See how a lot of these really just involve stating what you see? There’s nothing fancy about it. The above five points can yield some tremendous discussion with anyone, even if they’re not an art historian.

These first five points were from an incredibly helpful book by Carol Strickland called The Annotated Mona Lisa. But in looking at art, I like to add a few more that provide a little bit more depth beyond the painting itself.

History: The story of this painting is as dramatic (if not more so) than the painting itself. A ship called the Medusa was sent by the French government to colonize Senegal. the ship sank, and the colonists were piled onto a raft to be towed by the captain and crew. Eventually they cut ties with with raft to save their own skins (presumably) and the raft floated along — turning into an unspeakable zone of starvation, death, and cannibalism, with only 15 survivors. It was this story that Géricault captured in his painting.

Biography: An artist’s personal story will always contribute to their unique and distinctive style. Géricault’s painting is dramatic and full of tension, reflective of his own fiery Romanticism (a movement that championed emotion over reason). Géricault investigated this story like a reporter and scientist, at one point even lashing himself to the mast of a small boat in the middle of storm in order to get a better sense of how to capture the store in painting. Amazingly, Géricault only showcased three paintings in his career, but this was one of them — and it pretty much kicked off Romanticism in French art.

Symbolism: This consideration is my favorite part of analyzing this particular painting. Consider the context in which this painting was created. France was the most centralized monarchy in Europe, with the king wielding absolute power. Then there was the French Revolution, and the king lost his head (literally). Then the revolutionaries turned the country upside down and started killing each other. Then Napoleon took power, and France rose to its greatest power as he swept across Europe and conquered the world. Then he was defeated and exiled. Then he came back. Then he was exiled again and didn’t come back. France had just had a very tumultuous few decades. The French people must have felt like everyone on that raft, wondering — what’s next?

One can even go a little more mythological with the symbolism. This painting reminds me of the Greek Myth of the Minotaur, and how Theseus was supposed to raise up a white sail when he returned home — I don’t know why, but something about the idea of a raft at sea hailing for help with a red piece of cloth reminds me of that myth — perhaps some food for discussion…any folklorists among my readers?

So again, to recap, the 9 things to think about while looking at a painting are:

  • Composition
  • Movement
  • Unity and Balance
  • Color and Lighting
  • Mood
  • History
  • Biography
  • Symbolism

I hope that next time you have the opportunity to visit a museum, look at some art, or impress a friend (or date) you’ll have more food for thought. Please make sure to follow my posts, because I’ll be writing more on these 9 points as applied to different pieces of art throughout art history.

Art as Research

If we engage in artmaking as research we use art to explore and express our experience of the world. It is personal research, not quantitative research. But, like scientific research, it makes knowledge available which can be understood.

This image below is immediately known to us. The art making is the research subject and object, but the meaning of the research varies from person to person. The experience is subjective because art is subjective. Art is good at researching subjective things.

A very good video about art as research. At the beginning, Andrew talks about his research living in the liminal spaces between things, here, between art and science.

Why Science Needs Art

By Raven Capone Benko

smithsonianmag.com 6 min

Art is a powerful tool for telling a scientific story. With many scientific fields dealing with the strangest of the animal kingdom—like creatures with a handful of eyes and bodies so different from our own—art can help us experience these hard-to-imagine parts of the natural world and shed light on new scientific discoveries.

The National Museum of Natural History’s Invertebrate Zoology department relies heavily on artistic imagination to show its often microscopic, sometimes deep ocean-dwelling and always bizarre creatures. From teaching curious museumgoers to adding creativity to the scientific process, art is an essential component of the science in the department and across the museum.

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What Is The Difference Between Quantitative And Qualitative Research?

A short introduction to quantitative and qualitative research. For using art as research the term performative research is used. For qualitative research, a hypothesis or numerical prediction is made about the material world and research tests to see if it is true. Qualitative research looks for patterns, often of behaviours, that may give insight into how these patterns may give generalisations. Performative research assumes that the individual’s actions are part of the research findings.

By Anabelle Bernard Fournier 6 min

In the social sciences, an unresolved question remains whether or not we can measure things like love or racism the same way we can measure temperature or the weight of a star. Social phenomena–things that happen because of and through human behavior–are especially difficult to grasp with typical scientific models.

This is why psychology is often derided as an “almost-science”: aside from brain scanning methods, can we really measure psychological things when we have no direct access to them? Psychologists rely on a few things to measure behavior, attitudes, and feelings: self-reports (like surveys or questionnaires), observation (often used in experiments or field work) and implicit attitude tests (the sort of test that measures your timing in responding to prompts).

Most of these are quantitative methods: the result is a number that can be compared to other numbers to make assessments about differences between groups.

But here’s the problem: most of these methods are static (such as survey instruments), inflexible (you can’t change a question because a participant doesn’t understand it), and provide a “what” rather than a “why”.

But sometimes, researchers are more interested in the “why” and the “how”. That’s where qualitative methods come in. Qualitative methods are about speaking to people directly and hearing their words. They are grounded in the philosophy that the social world is ultimately unmeasurable, that no measure is truly ever “objective”, and that how humans make meaning is just as important as how much they score on a standardized test.

Let’s take a deeper look at each approach.

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Music, place and change. Being somewhere else in lockdown.

I found Charlotte de Witte on YootYoob. She is a DJ from Belgium who has raised the profile of techno when, as one of the earliest forms of dance music, out of Detroit and Berlin, it got sidetracked a bit by superclubs and EDM. Her DJ set that I link to at the foot of the page connected with me. I found it very moving and captivating. It evoked a very clear sense of place, and I got to thinking about why this was.

My first intro to dance music proper was through trance, techno and the TEX CD series Trance Europe Express. Music was experienced as a journey. This track Trust (Suspicious Mindgear Mix) by Microglobe and the subsequent playlist is a perfect example. The title was a play on Kraftwork’s seminal 1977 world-changing album Trans-Europe Express. The title track and original is here.

At the time I lived in Tywyn, Wales, overlooking the sea in an upside down house, so my living room was upstairs overlooking Cardigan Bay, about 5 miles north of the place the header picture was taken.

One of my great joys was to open the big sliding doors onto our balcony and let the day go by outside and listen to TEX. The scene outside was in some ways always the same sea and sky. But over time it changed in an almost infinite number of ways. The changes could occur in seconds when the sun moved behind cloud, or minutes when rain came by, or hours as the weather changed, or over a day through sunrise and sunset, or weeks and months as the seasons changed.

Whatever was going on, somehow the TEX track playing seemed to mirror the change. I explored this more and found Indonesian gamelan music and the work of Phillip Glass, John Cage, Terry Riley, which was influenced by gamelan and other eastern music. All of this music iterates, or repeats simple musical phrases to create a whole. Work by these musicians and composers led to a whole classical musical genre called Minimal in which repetition is a core component.

Víkingur Ólafsson recently played Phillip Glass at the empty Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik and talked on radio 4 about the accusation, by detractors of minimal, that repetition is undesirable and boring. He talked about and demonstrated the ways in which repetition unlocks possibilities for development of music experiences.

Víkingur Ólafsson plays to an empty Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik

John Cage another minimalist is quoted as saying

“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

John Cage

I am unsure how it does it but music which iterates always evokes a sense of place for me. Whether it was my experience of Wales I do not know, but minimalist music in all it’s forms seems to convey the depth of place in it’s being unchanging and repeating, at the same time as being infinitely changeable over a number of timescales, by the second, minute and hour. Minimalism unlocks something in me. I find within it, space and time, and a feeling of being still and moving at the same time. A kind of Moving Space, oddly enough.

This particular set by Charlotte de Witte I found particularly moving. She unlocked something in me from the first moments of the opening track. Like landscape, it repays patience. In the YootYoob comments, I wrote listening to it was “Like being on the edge of sleep then waking up to find yourself on a hilltop in the sun with the wind blowing then some animals arrive and start dancing and you join in and you then turn into an animal and go off with them and never mix with humans again.” I even knew which sunny hilltop, which is above Langholm, where I go to paint and draw.

de Witte is a young woman who is very skilled and passionate about what she does. I liked the idea that, 35 years after I discovered techno, she finds great pleasure in simple iteration and minimal form, like I did and still do. I am glad she took me to a mountain top and allowed me to give up being a human. Turn up the volume and enjoy being in another place in lockdown.

Living bridges and supper from sewage: can ancient fixes save our crisis-torn world?

From underground aqueducts to tree-bridges and fish that love sewage, indigenous customs could save the planet – but are under threat. Landscape architect Julia Watson shares her ‘lo-TEK’ vision

Oliver Wainwright Guardian, Fri 27 Mar 2020 16.40 GMT

On the eastern edge of Kolkata, near the smoking mountain of the city’s garbage dump, the 15 million-strong metropolis dissolves into a watery landscape of channels and lagoons, ribboned by highways. This patchwork of ponds might seem like an unlikely place to find inspiration for the future of sustainable cities, but that’s exactly what Julia Watson sees in the marshy muddle.

The network of pools, she explains, are bheris, shallow, flat-bottomed fish ponds that are fed by 700m litres of raw sewage every day – half the city’s output. The ponds produce 13,000 tonnes of fish each year. But the system, which has been operating for a century, doesn’t just produce a huge amount of fish – it treats the city’s wastewater, fertilises nearby rice fields, and employs 80,000 fishermen within a cooperative.

Watson, a landscape architect, says it saves around $22m (£18m) a year on the cost of a conventional wastewater treatment plant, while cutting down on transport, as the fish are sold in local markets. “It is the perfect symbiotic solution,” she says. “It operates entirely without chemicals, seeing fish, algae and bacteria working together to form a sustainable, ecologically balanced engine for the city.”