Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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Category archive: Art
One of the more intriguing consequences of the not-now-so-very-recent (what with another one coming along) Scottish independence referendum (which happened in September 2014) was that, rather suddenly, the world (by which I really mean: I) suddenly found itself (myself) contemplating the idea of the Union Jack flag disappearing into the history books. Had Scotland gone separate, the Union Jack would surely have had to be redesigned. I would not have regretted Scotland detatching itself from England, in fact I would have voted for this if I could have. But, I would have regretted the passing of the Union Jack, if only because it is such a great design, so recognisable that it is capable of being endlessly mucked about with, while still remaining the Union Jack.
The new, non Scottish version of the Union Jack might have looked a bit like the bag on the left here, as we look:
That snap was snapped in 2015, after the Scottish referendum, but I don’t think those designs have anything to do with politics. They’re just simplified and rather dull variations on the Union Jack theme. The one on the left just happens to look a lot like the Union Jack minus the Saltire. (Saltire is the Scottish flag, right? Yes.) But what does the one on the right signify? In terms of the flags that go towards the Union Jack, it takes the blue stripes from the Saltire and turns them into a background for the red bits of the Welsh and English flags. So actually, it’s just a blue bag, with bits of red Union Jack-ish stuff on it. Maybe there was also a red one with white Union Jack-ish stuck on, to complete the red white and blue set. I might never have bothered showing the above photo here, if it hadn’t been for the Saltire subtraction angle.
I had already been snapping Union Jack snaps, since quite a while before that moment of the Union Jack’s possible moment of disappearance. I long ago added “funny things being done with the Union Jack” to my mental photo-category list, alongside such things as bald blokes taking photos, utilitarian and commonplace footbridges, taxis covered in adverts, Big Things seen from a long way away in among foreground clutter, and so forth and so on. But, since that earlier referendum, I have been taking photos of Union Jacks with particular zeal.
Here are a couple of very recent Union Jack snaps I did. The first is of some flip-flops, on sale at the Parliament end of Westminster Bridge:
I reckon it’s the cellophane that gives that its artistic effect.
And here is a London taxi wing mirror:
That taxi décor isn’t part of an advert. It is just a taxi decorated with the Union Jack.
And then, while I was ruminating on a posting along these lines, came this piece of graphic Union Jackery, from the Spectator, to decorate their decision to back the Leave campaign in the forthcoming EU referundum:
This reminded me of a picture I took in East London five years ago, of some Art:
I could continue, with yet more Union Jack snaps, but I will end with some more Brexit propaganda. Still on the flying theme, just before I took the above snap of how fabulous Britain will be and will feel if we Leave, here, taken just moments earlier, is another Artistic-type picture of how ghastly things will be and will feel if we Remain. That’s the EU there, trying and failing to take wing, because its bureaucracy is far too big and heavy and its wings far too feeble and misshapen, crushing us as it plummets to earth:
Are you thinking that there really needs to be a Union Jack on that car, to make this point even clearer? But that’s exactly point! The EU scrubs out the Union Jack. Look! The Union Jack is nowhere to be seen! The EU has totally obliterated it! What could be clearer?
Slightly more seriously, the EU’s rulers will not be happy until they have driven the Union Jack into the history books, not by breaking up Britain, but by swallowing it and turning it into either fuel for itself, or shit. The only Union they want, and want celebrated with a flag, is their own.
I love to write about digital photography, and have been tracking the selfie phenomenon since long before the mere word was invented, way back in the days when I referred to digital photographers as Billion Monkeys (which I don’t anymore (because some people thought I meant Muslims)). (But also way back in the days when I didn’t worry about showing the faces of strangers, the way I worry now.) And I also enjoy often public sculpture, especially of the more recent and less abstract sort.
So, I love this:
There have been complaints, of course, such as from all the commenters there at the Daily Mail. God forbid that vulgar people should find this vulgar statue so much fun. Sculpture is Art, and Art isn’t supposed to be amusing.
One of the Daily Mail’s other photos is of bloke photoing himself with his own mobile, in front of the selfie statue. But I prefer the more subtle response that consists of simply being photoed joining in, thus:
For once, the statueness, so to speak, of the statue, the fact that it is made of monochrome metal rather than realistically painted to look like real people, works really well, because it contrasts so nicely with the real people. It helps that it seems to be exactly life size.
One of the idiot grumpy commenters at the Daily Mail said that Sugar Land is a stupid name and they were obviously desperate for some attention, which they have never had until now. But wasn’t there a Goldie Hawn movie called The Sugarland Express, or some such thing? Yes there was. Early Spielberg. But, is Sugar Land the same as Sugarland?
According to a later Daily Mail report, it isn’t only their grumpy commentariat that objects to this statue. Could this be because a lot of people heard about this story partly through the Daily Mail, and those people being the sort that hears about things via the Daily Mail, immediately started objecting, because they object to everything. Whereas, the ones who liked it hadn’t heard about it so much.
I first found about the statue via Amusing Planet, so of course I was already self-identified as the sort who would be amused. It was just that the Daily Mail had better pictures.
So, daily-blog-read-for-me David Thompson linked to a posting at ArtBlog, about the rights and wrongs of arts subsidies. I read that posting, and read through the comments too, just as David Thompson did. I find myself wanting to comment. But, can I be bothered?
And then, in comment number 16, courtesy of the Maitre D of ArtBlog, Franklin Einspruch, I discover that I have commented, thus:
The greatest art seems to happen when high art and low art combine, in the form of something that is superficially entertaining and stirring and popular, and also as profound as profundity seekers might want it to be. Arts subsidies harm art by dividing it into less good entertainment art, paid for by punters, and less good high art, paid for with subsidies. Arts subsidies in Britain are now being cut somewhat. The result will be somewhat better art.
Which Franklin found in this Samizdata posting and copied into his comment thread. How about that?!
The two arts that best illustrate this opinion of mine are probably Elizabethan and post-Elizabethan theatre (i.e. Shakespeare and all that), and classical music in the days of its glory, from about the late 17oos until around 1900 (i.e. Mozart, Beethoven and all that).
Shakespeare’s plays are now considered just about as profound as Art with a capital A can ever get, but at the time, his stuff was considered rather middle-brow. Too commercial, too appealing to the rabble. About half of Shakespeare’s mere plays - the very word suggests something not to be taken truly seriously, doesn’t it? - were nearly lost to us:
Of the 36 plays in the First Folio, 17 were printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime in various good and bad quarto editions, one was printed after his death and 18 had not yet been printed at all. It is this fact that makes the First Folio so important; without it, 18 of Shakespeare’s plays, including Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and The Tempest, might never have survived.
What will posterity, in its various and many successive iterations, consider to be the Great Art of our time? And how much of it will be lost, on account of it not now being considered artistic enough?
I love signs. They communicate a lot, by their nature, but they are not considered Art, so they aren’t preserved. They come and go, and stuff that comes and goes is how a photographer who is only an okay photographer makes his photos count for something.
So, I gathered together all the sign photos I took, to do a big collection. But that was taking too long, so I picked out the long thin ones, and here are those ones, in chronological order. I really did take the first one first:
Click on each to get the bigger pictures.
No coincidence that two of them - arguably three of them - are in English. There’s quite a bit of English to be seen in French shops, just as there’s quite a bit of French in English shops.
Byrrh is the local drink of Thuir. It’s a lot like Port. I’d link to the website, but it makes noises that you have actively to silence. I hate that.
What “lefties” means, when on the front of a shop, I have absolutely no idea.
LATER: This was all done in great haste, and I neglected to mention that the “lefties” sign is actually in Spain, in a big shopping centre we visited (and got stuck in because of traffic jams all afternoon (don’t ask)). But, I still like the sign and am still baffled by it.
Circumstances had placed me at the Angel Tube. My business was concluded and the weather was wondrous. So, where to next? There is a canal near there, but I didn’t fancy another canal walk, so instead I just walked along whatever road presented itself to me, in the general direction of the Big Things of the City (one of them (the Heron Tower) having been turned blazing gold by the early evening sun). The road turned out to be Goswell Road. A place of slightly down-at-heal struggle, where you felt that for some, the struggle wasn’t worth it, but for others, maybe. That kind of in-between sort of a place. Not as affluent as you’d expect for something that close to the City, but trundling along as best it could. Big, shabby-modern university buildings. Building sites. Ethnic shops.
And then in amongst all this middlingness, a glimpse through what looked like a shop window, into a world of money-no-object designer gloss and nouveau riche ostentation. What is all this stuff?
It all looked rather Zaha Hadid, especially this shiny but strange object, presumably for sitting on:
And hey, look, there’s a picture of Zaha Hadid. This is obviously a place that takes Zaha Hadid pretty seriously, and is very saddened by her recent death:
Zaha Hadid, I should explain, is the world-renowned starchitect and designer, who recently died at the shockingly young age of 65. When a starchitect dies at 65, that’s like a rock star dying at 22. At 65, starchitects, rather like classical conductors, are just getting started. The thing is, starchitects need power, and their target demographic is old decision-makers, so they tend to be old too.
What was this rather strange place? I stepped back to see if there was any clue on the outside.
Here was a clue:
Good grief. This is an actual Zaha Hadid place of work.
I crossed the road, to photo the whole thing:
To be more exact, this is not the one place where Hadid and all her underlings did everything. This is the Zaha Hadid Design Gallery, which opened in 2013 (I now learn), which would perhaps have been open for me to walk into had I encountered it earlier in the day. The place displays many of Hadid’s numerous designs for Small Things, like furniture, lamps, sculptures, jewellery, paintings, and suchlike.
Considering what a wacky designer Hadid was, that’s a surprisingly prosaic building, isn’t it? I’m guessing that it was not built specifically with her in mind, but was adapted.
So, no wonder that this place now contains memorials to Zaha Hadid, like this:
There is some reflection of the outside in this next snap, but it gives you an idea of what the place as a whole is like, and what kind of stuff is in it:
Frankly, for me, all this indoor small stuff does not show Hadid at her very best. For that, I think, you have to go outside.
Her only building in London so far is the Aquatics Centre, which I photoed, very hastily, when I visited the top of the Big Olympic Thing. Had I know then that Zaha Hadid had been about to die, I would have taken more photos of this building, and more carefully:
I would, for instance, have placed it in a gap in that safety netting, rather than just randomly. Another time.
But notice that even in that casual photo, the beauty, I think, of the building still asserts itself. It’s like a sports helmet, of the sort worn by cyclists, and by some cricketers.
Even more remarkable is this amazing ancient-modern juxtaposition:
This is now, apparently, nearing completion. It might be worth a trip to Antwerp, just to see it.
Zaha Hadid’s underlings are going to try to keep the Zaha Hadid enterprise going, at least the architectural bit. Good luck people, but you’re surely going to need it.
The rumour I heard is that Hadid was “difficult” to work for. Maybe this was just an example of that law that says that bossy men are masterful, but bossy women are bossy. But maybe she really was difficult to work for. If so, this difficulty looks like it was all of a piece with the sorts of designs she created.
The thing is, Hadid was not some logical, everything-has-a-reason systematic, machines-for-living in, presider over a system of architectural problem solving. She was the kind of architect who unleashed drama, excitement, at vast extra expense, if what you’re comparing it all with is a big rectangular box. You only have to look at her stuff to see that any logic involved is just an excuse for a cool looking design. Why does it look that way? Because I, Zaha Hadid, say so, and I’m the boss, that’s why. I make beautiful shapes. Other people like them and buy them. Deal with it.
That’s going to be a hard act to replace.
As regulars here know, I am fascinated by unusual vehicles, and by almost all commercial vehicles. Whereas cars tend to be reticent about making any sort of personal statement, commercial vehicles have to communicate. They have to radiate an atmosphere. They have to dress themselves like they’re going on the pull in a nightclub. Well, they don’t have to. But most commercial vehicles are an opportunity to do marketing, so why turn it down? And these vehicles consequently radiate as many different atmospheres as there are commercial purposes being pursued in and with them.
Here are a couple of vans I spied today:
Both are somewhat self-conscious, I think. There is a lack of earnestness here, a certain ironic distance, a certain slightly bogus artifice, not to say Art, involved.
But, all part of what makes wandering about in London such an endlessly entertaining pastime.
Sausage Man website here. I tried googling “Oliver London”, but all I got was a lot of stuff about a stage musical. The small tricycle van looks oriental to me, and that its presence outside an oriental restaurant is not coincidental.
For the uninitiated. I did once sit through this piece, when it was on the radio, but my mind wandered. I blame the performance. I also fondly remember the Gramophone (I think) review of a recording of it: a blank column.
Incoming from Darren (to whom thanks also for various recent comments):
Saw this White Van story and thought of you.
The artist, known only as Mr Konjusha is 22 and from east London.
His work has been spotted at various locations since he started drawing on the vehicles about three weeks ago. He said he had worked on 10 vans so far.
I think the whiteness of White Vans is all part of their appeal. If they are white and clean, they look really clean. If they are white a dirty, they look really dirty.
But if they are white and dirty, but if the dirt has been turned into art, what are they then?
Once again we have here an art form which is greatly encouraged by cheap digital photography. Would Mr Konjusha be so inclined to exert himself thus, were it not possible for his efforts to be quickly and easily recorded and equally easily shared with an admiring public?
Judging by what he says about how he was trying to put a smile on delivery drivers’ faces, he started doing this just for a bit of fun. But if he likes the fame and the attention he is now getting, he’ll perhaps continue for a while, more than he would have done in the previous century. Maybe, thanks to all the attention, his next job will be in advertising.
What’s the betting someone turns this dirty art into something that will actually get printed, nice and cleanly, onto a nice clean van?
I’ve included “cats and kittens” in the category list because the guy says that some of the faces he does look like hybrid human/lion faces.
Photoed by me, when I visited Barcelona in the summer of 2005:
This began like as an advert, but has mutated into Art. It seems to be quite a big deal, over there in Barcelona. My picture is of it supported by a structure which has since been replaced.
I have been a bit ill. Still am, rather. Hence this rather random posting, even by my random standards, and hence also the fact that although I tried to find out what this owl originally advertised, I pretty soon gave up. Anyone?
I was going to put up a picture I took of the Sagrada Familia (the big spikey Gaudi cathedral), with cranes. But the internet is full of pictures of the Sagrada Familia, without cranes, and also with cranes.
I have been reading Martin Geck’s biography of Bach (translated into English by Anthea Bell).
The question I now bring to Bach is: What did he think he was doing? Worshipping God? Being Beethoven before Beethoven? More the latter than I had realised, it would seem.
Here is an excerpt not from the book itself, but from my English paperback edition’s introduction, by John Butt:
One idea that immediately emerges from his biography is that Bach’s relatively provincial Eisenach background was something that he never fully relinquished. In other words, he plumbed the greatest depth of experience from a relatively modest environment. Ironically, this gave his music much value in later centuries. Had this music been truly fashionable or cosmopolitan in its own age, over- filled with local relevance, it would surely have sounded dated in later years. But Bach’s strikingly profound exploration of a limited world somehow translates well to subsequent eras. The historical material is relatively easily assimilated by any to whom it is alien, yet Bach’s treatment of it is the most penetrating and challenging imaginable.
Another point that rendered him such a ‘hardy traveller’ in later ages is that he did not cultivate a deliberately idiosyncratic personality. This biography shows us that his principal means of learning was the traditional one: study and improving exemplars. As Geck observes, Bach spent many years working on the same few works, and the exact beginning and ending of the process cannot (and should not) necessarily be traced. It is as if the composer is aiming for a perfection that is not humanly achievable. The very openness of these works, coupled with their intense perfection, somehow gives them a momentum that carries them into the future.
Idiosyncratic his compositional personality may not have been, but there is no doubt that Bach’s personality was extremely strong. Geck reveals an extravagant, ‘virtuoso’ character in Bach’s fiery encounters with the council of Arnstadt. As a virtuoso, Bach seems to wish to say as much as possible all in one moment, and this develops into a more mature dialectic, between the cultivation of the greatest intensity of expression and the greatest degree of order in his music. Geck discerns Bach’s search for ultimate truth in his basic compositional philosophy of ‘all-in-one’ and ‘all-from-one’ (his deriving of the entire composition from as small a number of elements as possible). Once again, this relates to Bach’s development of the most intense musical vision from a straitened environment.
Did Bach thus cultivate a sense of individuality, a sense of autonomous art, within the context of what was basically a traditional craft-like activity? Geck suggests that there was a real sense in which Bach’s music performed a covert social function somehow sublimating, his professional problems and the various contradictions of his age, such as between church and art. In this way, Bach’s music does indeed relate to the German tradition of the following century, not least the art of Beethoven, which similarly articulates a special kind of humanity by transcending the difficulties of life.
Art as social climbing. Discuss.
It certainly worked for Bach. (And Beethoven.)
I still can’t really get used to it. I refer to how, when I see something intriguing, and photo it, I can look at it when I get home and look it up.
So, for instance, the day after David Bowie died (and the day that the news of his death was all over London (and presumably lots of other places besides (that day being a particular good day for me and my photoing (call Hemingway!!!!)))), I came upon this intriguing sign, outside a Church near Waterloo Station:
Hm, that looks interesting, I thought, as I perused this photo this morning. I must get inside that, some time Real Soon Now. Maybe I’ll go visit the place this afternoon.
And then I realised. This is the twenty first century, and I can get inside it, right here in my kitchen.
When I did, I encountered another of those pictures in which whoever did it is deciding which of London’s Big Things are worthy of inclusion in his picture of London’s Big Things:
As regulars here will know, these non-photographic assemblages of London’s Big Things are a big thing, for me, here, just now (those Boris bikes with Big Things on them also having been snapped on this same David-Bowie-died-yesterday day). Is there any city in the world with the sheer number of very recognisable Big Things, ancient and modern, that London now possesses? I reckon that for both quantity and quality, London’s Big Things have all other cities grovelling in self-abasement. But, what do I know? I only really know London.
Another thing I can’t quite get used to is that whenever I have a question that I don’t know the answer to, and to which google may not be so suited either, I can ask the Samizdata commentariat. I must ask them this, Real Soon Now.
The other day (like there has been been just the one (which is idiotic)), I was in …:
… to have brunch with GD2 and her sister in their newly acquired home.
While there I took some photos, including this still life, of pots and pans and utensils, which looks rather nice, like an oil painting:
Staying tasteful and artistic, and seeing as how this is Friday, here is something else I snapped there:
Yes, it’s a cat cushion! It was, though, probably there when they moved in.
Since a major percentage of the point of Art is to stay a couple of steps ahead of and to thereby piss off the dumbo bourgeoisie, the latest batch of Artists would probably now reckon the cat cushion to be more Artistic than the still life.
As for the bloke who painted that Kentish Town sign, he probably now works for an advertising agency.
Indeed. I said (without actually promising (I try never to promise)) that I might be doing another posting today involving non-feline animals. I had in mind something more elaborate and more beautiful, but that will have to wait for another Friday. In the meantime, here are the above mentioned creatures, painted on a van:
Like I say, Wicked.
Photoed by me, earlier this month, in Lower Marsh, where these Wicked Vans are often to be observed in a herd.
I am happy for all those who enjoy such postings, but recently I have found myself visiting Colossal rather less than I used to. The Art featured there typically now strikes me as excessive in its laboriousness-to-effect ratio. I only went there today because guided to this by David Thompson.
The highly positive laboriousness-to-effect ratio is one of the things I especially like about photography. Click, and it’s done. Often with an effect that echoes on for decades. Wow! Look at that! And the Wow! in question took almost no time at all to produce. Okay, there may have been lots of creeping about, and many hours spent learning exactly where and how to creep about and exactly when to go click and what to click at, but you surely get my point. There’s a basic efficiency about photography that is often lacking in Art. With Art, it can take ages to contrive the effect, and then you look at it, and, well, yeah, okay, quite nice. And that’s it.
I agree that digital photography and the internet have between them greatly increased the effect side of the equation. Without those influences a lot of Colossal Art simply could not and would not have been done. But the effect still feels to me fleeting, given the amount of time and effort appears to have been expended.
What distinguishes much Colossal Art from the more usual sort of Art that currently hegemonises is that it is not typically done to outrage, but rather to amuse, intrigue and entertain. The bourgeoisie are not being epatered. Rather are we being indulged. A lot of it is the sort of stuff you buy in “gift shops”, just a little bigger and somewhat more complicated and expensive.
And as with the stuff in gift shops, I often like to photo it, or, for a while, take a look at it on the internet. But I don’t buy it.
So, how about the photography department at Colossal? Alas (for me), here also we encounter elaborately contrived fakery. Here too are, mostly, not wondrous moments snatched from the jaws of reality itself, but not-that-wondrous moments faked-up with great effort. Pass again.
But, and to finally get to the point which got me started on this posting, I did like these photos, for here Mother Nature has done all the work:
Friday is my day for matters feline. But recently I gave a Friday mention to some other non-human creatures, and I think I will carry on doing that. There may even, although I promise nothing, be other non-human, non-cat postings today.
Yes, number 1.2 here is not taking, he’s making, and I photoed his screen instead of him. (This would seem to explain the (to me) decidedly off-putting not to say offensive slogan on the back of his costume.)
Although quite late in the day, which was in April of this year, the light is still fairly bright, so no pictures on electrical screens. Just faces from behind (IYGMM (if you get my meaning)) and faces front on, but with cameras in the way:
I am well aware that my obsession with photoing strangers photoing is somewhat creepy, this being why nobody ever seems to comment on these postings. Even to comment is to get too close to the obsession and to risk being thought to share it, or just to reckon it not creepy. But I happen to believe that willingness to be a bit creepy is a major slice of photoing talent, and I regularly risk this. Although I do definitely care what people think of me, I care even more about getting good photos.
And I reckon that, what with me having now done so much of this kind of photoing, the best of these photos that I take now are indeed getting to be pretty good. Of those shown above, I particularly like 1.3, with its intriguing contrast between the manliness of his pock-marked yet handsome face and the girlified phone he is using to take his photo, of his pock-marked yet handsome face, with the four-pointed Parliament tower (actually it is probably Big Ben in his photo) in the background.
The skeleton being photoed by the guy in 2.1, in case you were wondering, is an attack on capitalism, as the Guardian explains. But if this has to be explained, and it does, then it’s not much of an attack, is it?
I can’t make out what type of camera the guy photoing the skeleton is using. But of the seven other cameras, four appear to be mobile phones, and the other three to be quite big and quite expensive hobbyist cameras like mine. Mobile phones would appear to be gobbling up the small, cheap-and-cheerful digital camera market. All phones are now cameras. How soon before all cameras are phones? (See the graphs in this earlier posting here.)