Monday, July 17, 2017

Book Review: Piero's Light

Piero's Light: In Search of Piero della Francesca: A Renaissance Painter and the Revolution in Art, Science, and Religion
Larry Witham
Art, philosophy, biography

The thread that ties Piero's Light together is Plato. Larry Witham--himself clearly a Platonist--makes the argument that the rediscovery of Platonic idealism in Quattrocento Italy is not only crucial to understanding Piero's art, but important for understanding the role of art in general.

Me, I'm pretty much an Aristotelian. I don't discount Piero's Light on those grounds, but I'm doubtful of some of Witham's conclusions. It's one thing to argue that the Platonic search for absolutes informs Piero's art. It's another thing to lose your grounding on those pesky Aristotelian facts and start rhapsodizing about stuff that, arguably, isn't actually there.

Rather than write a long detailed screed, let me just focus on one particular claim: the claim that Piero della Francesca was a particular master of a kind of meaningful stillness, of what the art snob connoisseur Bernard Berenson called the "inarticulate", a serenity that passeth understanding:
Image hosted by Wikimedia
That this painting is beautiful is hard to dispute. That it displays a kind of formal, posed quality in the figures is also fairly evident. That the latter is the cause of the former, and that it represents Piero's astonishing artistic genius, is a much more complex proposition. As a counterexample, consider this snippet of a later work:

(Image from Wikimedia)
This is clearly an attempt to represent action, not stillness. But--and I say this as someone who's done non-trivial quantities of both art and illustration, including for pay*--it's not successful. The rearing horse isn't serene; it's just stiff. Believe me, rendering action is hard. Piero, it seems clear, was pushing both the limits of his own technical skill and the limits of the conventions of his time. It's no discredit to him to point out those limits. It's perfectly reasonable to admire the result on its own terms. Equally, however, it's not right to credit him with an "innovation" that he himself would probably have rejected.

As to the larger claims in Piero's Light, they are for the most part unconvincing. Witham's understanding of science is not a strong point, and his "revolution in Art" is compromised by his unwillingness to call out the art historians he's quoting when they're talking obvious nonsense. (They do this quite a lot.) His writing is clear, but it lacks humor or vividness; "pedestrian" is a little too harsh, but it's heading in the right direction. As a result, Piero's Light is a book for Piero enthusiasts, period. If you're looking for a book that transcends its genre and nominal audience, look elsewhere.

*We're talking "pizza money" pay scale, as opposed to "massively overrated modern art" pay scale.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Book Review: The Ground Beneath Us

The Ground Beneath Us: From the Oldest Cities to the Last Wilderness, What Dirt Tells Us About Who We Are
Paul Bogard
Nature, philosophy

Back in December, as my many regular readers may recall, I read a book called Of Beards and Men. I disagreed with most of the author's conclusions, but I liked the book anyway. With The Ground Beneath Us I had the opposite reaction. There's scarcely a sentiment--scarcely a sentence--I disagreed with. But I didn't like the book.

The basic problem is that The Ground Beneath Us is a purely Romantic exercise in prose styling. It's long on lyricism, it's long on passion, but it's quite devoid of intellect. Bogard is the kind of author who thinks that name-checking famous writers (Thoreau! Muir!) is enough to qualify him as profound. He likes scare quotes. He cites big frightening-looking numbers without giving any context. He believes unquestioningly that "indigenous" is an exact and infallible synonym for "noble". He uncritically parrots false equivalencies.

And he abuses statistics. In my book, this is an unforgivable sin. For example, there's this:
While the percentage of population density increase in the United States since 1940 has been 113 percent, around national parks it has been nearly double that, at 224 percent . . . 210 percent around Glacier and 246 percent around Yellowstone . . . 3,000 percent around Mojave National Preserve . . .
Here's the thing. National Parks, for some strange reason, tend to be located in sparsely populated areas. So a small increase in the absolute number of houses will seem like a large percentage. To take an extreme case, imagine that where there was one house in 1940, there are now six. That's a 500 percent increase! OMG! To the barricades! Or, to use Bogard's own example: one of the towns adjoining Mojave National Preserve is Baker, CA, population 735. For Baker to have grown by 3,000% since 1940, it would have had to have added about 700 houses. If you had added those same 700 houses to, say, Chicago, what percentage growth would that represent?

Finally, even granting the righteousness of Bogard's propaganda, he's absolutely lacking in any concrete intellectual proposals. Agreed: global warming bad, urban sprawl bad, resource depletion bad, habitat loss bad. So what? What should we do about it? Bogard's answer to this appears to be some kind of mystical transcendence involving "knowing the connections that keep us alive". The word "sacred" gets thrown around a lot. (It's probably indigenous.) What this amounts to is a refusal to face up to the plain facts: 

  • People in the developed world are not going to voluntarily go out and move en masse into organic free-range low-impact yurts.
  • People in the developing world are not going to nobly and indigenously turn their backs on the kind of high-energy, high-impact Westernized lifestyle that they see people like me leading.

Failing that, Bogard's only logically consistent position would be to hope for a plague that kills off a good fraction of the human race. I bet he won't own up to that one, though.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Revenge of the Special Guest Reviewer!!

Yet again, by special arrangement, we bring you the book review stylings of Mr. Mike Phipps! These are late, but it's my fault rather than Mike's.