Ars brevis

by Henry Farrell on August 11, 2003

“Tyler Cowen”: has a nice, short piece on art and Western civilization, which gently takes a forthcoming Charles Murray book to task. The Murray book, by Cowen’s account, concludes that Western civilization has an overwhelming advantage over its non Western equivalents in music and the arts. As Cowen says, it’s hard to sustain this argument with great confidence, because the surviving evidence is grossly skewed. Since many forms of non-Western art haven’t survived, or went unrecorded until very recently, we can’t say with any degree of certainty that, say, John Dowland was any better than his Gabonese equivalents.

But there’s a second issue, which is very nearly as important – a version of what anthropologists refer to as Galton’s problem. The quick and dirty version of Galton’s argument is that there’s something very iffy about the assumption that cultures are self-referential, coherent wholes, which are absolutely isolated from each other. Western art didn’t evolve in isolation from its non-Western equivalents : at crucial points in its history, encounters with non-Western art drove it in new directions. Peter Conrad’s definitive study of 20th century art, _Modern Times, Modern Places_ has an entire chapter on how African art deeply influenced various modern greats. Conrad claims, and I have no reason to doubt him, that it’s simply impossible to understand Picasso without taking account of the influence of African mask art from Congo and the Gabon.

George Molnar

by Brian on August 11, 2003

The Sydney Morning Herald recently ran a long profile on the Hungarian-Australian philosopher George Molnar. Australian philosophers can be a weird lot sometimes, but Molnar stands out quite a bit even by our standards. I met him a few times at conferences after he returned to philosophy, but I never knew how many things he’d done outside philosophy. Somehow I don’t think a life in the academy with some blogging on the side will lead to quite the same kind of newspaper reports about me any time down the track.

Bliss, pure bliss

by Maria on August 11, 2003

It’s a while since I discovered a blog that satisfies so deeply as Transport Blog which I discovered thanks to Natalie Solent on Samizdata.

How can you not jump right into entries that start;

“A new tube torture

Ever since I first saw automatic ticket selling machines, in Germany in the eighties, and then saw them arrive in the London Underground or the “tube” as we call it here, and then saw these machines sporting “OUT OF ORDER” or “EXACT MONEY PLEASE” messages, I know that there is no machine, no matter how Teutonically efficient in its apparently inherent nature, that the tube wouldn’t find a way of mucking up and rendering English.

Yesterday I observed a new version of this syndrome, in the form of a new London Underground torture inflicted by means of automatic train doors.”

[click to continue…]

European Intellectuals

by Maria on August 11, 2003

Helen Szamuely reacts in EU Observer to Jan-Werner Muller’s reaction in European Voice to the Habermas/Derrida manifesto on a European identity. (pause for intake of breath) Muller’s article can’t be got at unless you’re a subscriber to European Voice, which is a shame – he seemed to be saying that Habermas was calling for a kind of historicism that would have Benjamin spinning in his grave. I have a special hatred for articles that end with that hoary old chestnut ‘we need a debate’, but as Muller’s piece is unobtainable by the masses, Szamuely’s is worth checking out.

By the by, I can’t bring myself to fork out for a subscription to EV. It costs almost as much as the Economist but often reads like a provincial gossip sheet. EU Observer is only available online and seems to draw on a wider pool of commentators.