in b&w

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 goes "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 like it" criteria.

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 Event" 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, of course).

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 involved?

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