Russian Modernism and Byzantine Iconography – another false dichotomy


A recurrent pattern in the history of ideas is a dominant narrative creating dichotomies that, at the time, did not exist. I have blogged about these before – false tension between the Christian and classical worlds in the time of Boethius Victor Watts debunked , or dichotomies between religion and science, much trumpeted by some commentators but which can often be contrasted with the beliefs of working scientists.

From the evergreen Eastern Christian Books blog of Adam deVille, news of a book which looks at another false dichotomy of a dominant historical narrative:

In The Icon and the Square, Maria Taroutina examines how the traditional interests of institutions such as the crown, the church, and the Imperial Academy of Arts temporarily aligned with the radical, leftist, and revolutionary avant-garde at the turn of the twentieth century through a shared interest in the Byzantine past, offering a counter-narrative to prevailing notions of Russian modernism.

Focusing on the works of four different artists—Mikhail Vrubel, Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Vladimir Tatlin — Taroutina shows how engagement with medieval pictorial traditions drove each artist to transform his own practice, pushing beyond the established boundaries of his respective artistic and intellectual milieu. She also contextualizes and complements her study of the work of these artists with an examination of the activities of a number of important cultural associations and institutions over the course of several decades. As a result, The Icon and the Square gives a more complete picture of Russian modernism: one that attends to the dialogue between generations of artists, curators, collectors, critics, and theorists.

The Icon and the Square retrieves a neglected but vital history that was deliberately suppressed by the atheist Soviet regime and subsequently ignored in favor of the secular formalism of mainstream modernist criticism. Taroutina’s timely study, which coincides with the centennial reassessments of Russian and Soviet modernism, is sure to invigorate conversation among scholars of art history, modernism, and Russian culture.

Adam deVille is good at pointing out the falseness of many oppositions conjured up by ignorance of history. He is especially strong on the pernicious influence of Christians failing to understand, or even try to understand, Marx and Freud.


Blossom Dearie, “Somebody New”

I have long admired the singing of the late Blossom Dearie, who effortlessly conjured up a world of rueful sophistication with immaculate phrasing. “Blossom Dearie” was he real name. This New York Times obituary captures her very well:

Blossom Dearie, the jazz pixie with a little-girl voice and pageboy haircut who was a fixture in New York and London nightclubs for decades, died on Saturday at her apartment in Greenwich Village. She was 84.

She died in her sleep of natural causes, said her manager and representative, Donald Schaffer. Her last public appearances, in 2006, were at her regular Midtown Manhattan stomping ground, the now defunct Danny’s Skylight Room.

A singer, pianist and songwriter with an independent spirit who zealously guarded her privacy, Ms. Dearie pursued a singular career that blurred the line between jazz and cabaret. An interpretive minimalist with caviar taste in songs and musicians, she was a genre unto herself. Rarely raising her sly, kittenish voice, Ms. Dearie confided song lyrics in a playful style below whose surface layers of insinuation lurked. Her cheery style influenced many younger jazz and cabaret singers, most notably Stacey Kent and the singer and pianist Daryl Sherman.

But just under her fey camouflage lay a needling wit. If you listened closely, you could hear the scathing contempt she brought to one of her signature songs, “I’m Hip,” the Dave Frishberg-Bob Dorough demolition of a namedropping bohemian poseur. Ms. Dearie was for years closely associated with Mr. Frishberg and Mr. Dorough. It was Mr. Frishberg who wrote another of her perennials, “Peel Me a Grape.”

Ms. Dearie didn’t suffer fools gladly and was unafraid to voice her disdain for music she didn’t like; the songs of Andrew Lloyd Webber were a particular pet peeve.

The other side of her sensibility was a wistful romanticism most discernible in her interpretations of Brazilian bossa nova songs, material ideally suited to her delicate approach. Her final album, “Blossom’s Planet” (Daffodil), released in 2000, includes what may be the definitive interpretation of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave” Her dreamy attenuated rendition finds her voice floating away as though to sea, or to heaven, on lapping waves of tastefully synthesized strings.

“Blossom Dearie Sings” was the first album on her own label, Daffodil Records. It blends an early-seventies sensibility with a more timeless, jazz-tinged approach. The whole album has the cool, witty yet yearning vibe captured in the NYT obituary. “Somebody New” encapsulates this very well:

“Compassion can never coexist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other.” – Henri Nouwen on solitude and compassion

From Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers

Here we reach the point where ministry and spirituality touch each other. It is compassion. Compassion is the fruit of solitude and the basis of all ministry. The purification and transformation that take place in solitude manifest themselves in compassion.

Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it. As busy, active, relevant ministers, we want to earn our bread by making a real contribution. This means first and foremost doing something to show that our presence makes a difference. And so we ignore our greatest gift, which is our ability to enter into solidarity with those who suffer. It is in solitude that this compassionate solidarity grows.

In solitude we realize that nothing human is alien to us, that the roots of all conflict, war, injustice, cruelty, hatred, jealousy, and envy are deeply anchored in our own heart. In solitude our heart of stone can be turned into a heart of flesh, a rebellious heart into a contrite heart, and a closed heart into a heart that can open itself to all suffering people in a gesture of solidarity. If you would ask the Desert Fathers why solitude gives birth to compassion, they would say, “Because it makes us die to our neighbor.”

At first this answer seems quite disturbing to a modern mind. But when we give it a closer look we can see that in order to be of service to others we have to die to them; that is, we have to give up measuring our meaning and value with the yardstick of others. To die to our neighbors means to stop judging them, to stop evaluating them, and thus to become free to be compassionate. Compassion can never coexist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other

Can a board games make you cry? A thread from the BoardGameGeek forums

This thread actually has the slightly less emotionally impactful title “can board games be emotionally impactful?” Obviously the denizens of this forum are board game aficionados. Some of the posts describe anger and frustration at badly designed games. Some described the emotional associations of a specific game.

Personally I am a bit sceptical of claims that games – either digital or traditional – are “art.” This is not to doubt the tremendous thought and craft that goes into them, or the possibility of an emotionally engaging and moving experience. My scepticism is more my own issue with the rather pretensious baggage of being “an art form.”

Here are some interesting extracts from the thread:

I think the closest example I can think of to what you are aiming at here is going to be “Train,” by Brenda Romero. Players have a number of train cars onto which they are trying to place yellow pegs, representing people. It’s a space-optimization game that is basically about maximizing the efficiency of public transit. Opposite the player is a typewriter and a number of type-written cards which are flipped one at a time, giving specific instructions to the player. At a certain point, one of the cards reveals that the destination of the train is Auschwitz. If you closely inspect the typewriter, you will see a Nazi “SS” symbol above the typewriter. The game ends when you choose for it to end—when you cease taking orders that are coming from an actual Nazi typewriter. Lots of people, based upon their own backgrounds, are going to have a serious emotional reaction to a game like this. Train (which has never been mass-produced and almost certainly never will be) is part of a series of games called The Message is the Mechanic—in which the idea is that the actual game mechanics convey a complex emotional message.

Some posters reflect on the question itself, and move the focus from the game creator to the player(s):

Instead of asking “can boardgames create an emotional impact?”
Why not ask:
– Can players create emotional situations within boardgames?
– Can players co-create (with one another or in partnership with the boardgame) emotional situations within boardgames?

Another example given:

The Grizzled comes to mind. It’s about WW1 of course, but has none of the trappings one would expect from a game about a war. Instead, the game’s underlying structure provides a quiet commentary on the human toll and impact of industrialized warfare. The players never see, let alone shoot at, the “enemy.” Instead, players are tasked with managing a mounting wave of psychological tolls, all the while surviving against the grind of artillery shells, gas attacks, and advancement. Like the war itself, from the perspective of an individual combatant, it is a painful slog with little sense of powers beyond the horizon that are orchestrating the whole endeavour.

Play That Funky Classical Music White Boy

Raiding the vast (and out of copyright) canon of classical music has been a recurrent theme in popular music, from Frank Sinatra to The Farm to Eric Carmen (though Carmen’s All By Myself was the subject of a neat twist – Rachmaninov’s music was out of copyright in the U.S. but not the rest of the world, so his estate did end up receiving a share of royalties)

From the later 1960s, parallel with the rise of electronic music more generally, a subgenre of funky, synth-y arrangements of classical pieces developed. I’m not totally sure what to call this. The playlist above is intended to draw in a range of artists and approaches. Lamb’s Gorecki and William Orbit’s work are the most recent. I must admit while these seem respectful and true to the original, there is a kind of excess reverence and I rather prefer the more of-their-time versions of the late 60s and 70s.

The most prominent example of this kind of thing is Wendy Carlos’ soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange, not available on Spotify so not on the playlist above. For me, the most characteristic example of this kind of thing is Deodato’s version of opening theme from Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. Deodato manages to make an already bombastic piece even more bombastic, and also much much longer. The road of excess leads to the palace of … well, something, but probably not wisdom:

As the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack is one of the biggest selling albums of all time, it is reasonable to suppose that the most prominent exposure of the work of Ludwig van Beethoven’s ever was in Walter Murphy’s A Fifth of Beethoven, a disco version of probably the most recognisable bars of music of all time the opening theme of the Fifth Symphony:

Perhaps understandably, pop/electronic musicians seem particularly drawn to reworking the dramatic, impressionistic pieces of late Romanticism. Mussogorsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is a perfect example, and Isao Tomita’s reworking of the Great Gate of Kiev doesn’t disappoint:

Finally, in case all the above seems a little snarky and sneery, this kind of music does create some genuine magic. I’ll end with Deodato’s version of Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante defunté”, which takes the already fine original and makes something both respectful and new out of it:

Is the elderly scientist correct? Roy Sorenson on Arthur C Clarke

Following on from yesterday’s post, here is the answer from Roy Sorenson’s Cabinet of Philosophical Curiosities:

“The elderly scientist is certainly correct. The reason is that any assertion of an impossibility is equivalent to a statement of possibility. ‘It is impossible that p’ is equivalent to ‘It is possible that it is impossible that p’: ~ p ↔ ~ p. So Clarke would have to assign a low probability to the impossibility statement and a high probability to the possibility statement. It would be impossible for Clarke’s two probability assignments to be both correct.

Proof of the biconditional: ~ p ↔ ~ p. The left-to-right direction, ~ p → ~ p, follows from the principle that whatever is actual is possible.

The right-to-left side, ~ p → ~ p, follows from the principle that whatever is possible is necessarily possible: p → p. (This is the characteristic formula of the popular modal system S5.) The contrapositive of this formula is ~ p → ~ p To say something is not necessary, ~ , is equivalent to saying it is possibly not the case, ~. So the contrapositive can be rewritten as ~ p → ~ p.

Conjoining the two conditionals establishes the equivalence ~ p ↔ ~ p.

(from “A Cabinet of Philosophical Curiosities: A Collection of Puzzles, Oddities, Riddles and Dilemmas” by Roy Sorensen)

“A leader for whom silence was a virtue” Sudhir Hazareesingh on Charles De Gaulle

It seems a bit of a truism to describe Charles de Gaulle as an extraordinary figure, but truisms are no less true for being true. It is hard to know which episode of his political career was most compelling; his sheer bloody-mindedness in rising from relative obscurity and defying the contempt of his soi-disant allies to become the incarnation of Free France, or his approach to the Algerian Crisis. And it is often forgotten that the biggest demonstration in Paris of May 1968 was in support of de Gaulle.


As this TLS review by Sudhir Hazareesingh of a new biography of  De Gaulle  states, his reputation has only grown until he is now “celebrated by the entire French political class”:

During his remarkable political career, he twice rescued his country from disaster: first through his bold leadership of the Resistance after France’s defeat by the Nazis in 1940, and later by his skilful handling of the crisis provoked by the Algerian war of national liberation. As the founder of the Fifth Republic in 1958, he redesigned France’s political system along presidential lines, and his shadow has loomed heavily over all his successors (on his official photograph, Emmanuel Macron’s most prominent talisman is an open copy of de Gaulle’s War Memoirs). Once reviled by liberals and progressives for his authoritarianism, and by the extreme Right for his anti-fascism and anti-colonialism, de Gaulle is now celebrated by the entire French political class. Indeed, le grand Charles has become the nation’s most revered historical figure, with thousands of streets, schools and public squares across France bearing his name. His vision of Frenchness has reshaped his compatriots’ sense of their collective self, and of their country’s rightful place in the world. To understand de Gaulle, in sum, is to appreciate what it means to be French, both intellectually and emotionally.

The most interesting part of this review is the next paragraph. It is hard to know how “a leader for whom silence was a virtue” would get on in the age of Twitter. Although perhaps it would be a highly effective approach to the babble of our time:

However, any attempt to reconstruct the Gaullian mindset is fraught with challenges, as Julian Jackson recognizes in this wonderfully poised, erudite and captivating work. This was a leader for whom silence was a virtue, and impenetrability a defining quality. He tended to keep his innermost thoughts to himself, and often made conflicting observations to members of his entourage – simply to gauge their reactions. He was an inveterate producer of myths, framing grand idealized narratives that distorted the French past, while systematically exaggerating his role and belittling that of his rivals and adversaries (many wartime documents of his Free French movement, and even his own collected speeches and notes, were later doctored). Moreover, as Jackson notes, de Gaulle was riddled with “extraordinary contradictions”. He veered between buoyant optimism and crippling melancholy, calcu­lating rationalism and ethereal mysticism, selfless abnegation and narcissistic egotism, shameless opportunism and obdurate inflex­ibility (fittingly, his surname was derived from the Flemish word for “wall”). To this list might be added his greatest paradox: he loved France, but was contemptuous of the French – a characteristic example of the Gallic intellectual preference for idealized abstraction over empirical reality.