Monday, April 25, 2016

The strange case of the Venus in a box

This is the Capitoline Venus, the Roman copy of a second-century BC Greek original which ordinarily graces the hall of the Capitoline Museums in Rome.

She’s in the so-called ‘modest’ position as per the canon of the Venus pudica, the left hand covering the groin, the right hand doing a rather poor job of concealing the breasts. However, even this proverbial modesty was deemed insufficient earlier this year, when it was decided to place the Venus in a box – or rather, to build a box around her – to protect the sensibility of visiting dignitaries. Hence, this.

Chief among these dignitaries was Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in what was his first trip to Europe since the embargo against his country was lifted. During the visit, Rouhani signed contracts for the supply of goods manufactured in Italy to the tune of 17 billion euros, a sum that would have amply covered the costs of the four sheets of plywood that hid the Venus from view. Nonetheless, that crude act of censorship was quickly seized upon by the press.

In no time, it was established that nobody had really asked for the boxing up to occur. Italian authorities have a way of scattering in a crisis, like cockroaches scuttling under the fridge when you turn the light on in the kitchen. So after politicians from both sides – including the minister for culture and the arts – had taken turns denouncing the decision, the finger was pointed towards the prime minister’s office in charge of protocol. Rather conveniently, however – or so we were assured – this office operates with the highest degree of independence from the rest of the government machine, thereby protecting elected representatives from censure.

The Iranian embassy, we were further told, had not asked for the clumsy gesture either. True, some discussions were had. According to one journalist, questions were raised about the conspicuous testicles of Marcus Aurelius’ horse in the equestrian statue which also graces the hall, reproduced below.

Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (gratuitous detail)

But they, the testicles, were spared the plywood treatment. At any rate, the decision was finally attributed to an unspecified bureaucrat’s ‘over-zealousness’, and even the most fervid of the clash-of-civilisations proponents eventually moved on.

Not me, though. I think this is worth putting into its larger context.

Firstly, this kind of artistic censorship is remarkably common in Italy, to the point of being frequently unreported. As journalist Giovanna Vitale has pointed out, for instance, it had been only five months since a nude by Jeff Koons in a Florentine palace included in the itinerary of sheik Mohammed Bin Zayed al Nahyan was concealed by this elegant and totally unobtrusive screen.

And – in case you think it’s only heads of state of the Muslim faith who are reserved this peculiar treatment – it was eight months since posters of a Tamara de Lempicka exhibition in Turin, such as the one copied below, were covered to save the Pope from certain emotional trauma.

The politics is equally slippery and easily forgotten. For instance: the well-known art critic and right-wing politician Vittorio Sgarbi, who fulminated against this latest act of surrender to barbaric religious obscurantism, is the same Vittorio Sgarbi who a little over two decades ago vigorously defended the removal of not one, but four artworks featuring naked female flesh from the palace that houses the Italian chamber of deputies by order of one of his party colleagues, the very Christian Irene Pivetti. Three of those were Venuses of various epochs. The fourth was a painting by the futurist master Mario Sironi, who is hardly known for his photographic realism. But you can always see a naked breast if you’re really looking for it.

And, in case you still deemed the irony insufficient, Truth herself was recently asked to cover up by one of our politicians – none other than Silvio Berlusconi. Pictured below is a scandalous detail of Tiepolo’s ‘Truth Revealed by Time’. And below that, the same stray breast after a cover-up job so rudimentary it may as well have been done by a passing child, ahead of Berlusconi being photographed in front of the painting.

One could go further back in time: most famously of all, perhaps, to the life’s work of the sixteenth-century artist Daniele da Volterra, known as il Braghettone (roughly: ‘the pants painter’) ever since he was put in charge of pasting various items of clothing over the exposed genitalia in Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgment’ – which was barely dry at the time. Although the most original of sins may be the fig-leafing of Masaccio’s Adam and Eve as they are chased from Eden.

Adding insult to injury

This is not just to say that Italians are an oddly prudish people. It’s that we are also oh-so ambivalent and easily scared. It was a Pope who commissioned the ‘Last Judgment’, or the ‘Truth Revealed by Time’ sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for the tomb of Alexander VII, of which Innocentius XI apparently said: ‘Truth is generally disliked. I’m afraid people are going to like this one altogether too much.’ We undress, and then we hastily dress up again. Silvio Berlusconi kept a ready supply of young women available for sex parties in a tenement building on the outskirts of Milan, but his office sprung into action as soon as they heard he was about to be photographed in front of a naked breast modelled by a woman who died three centuries ago.

It’s a complicated mix of power, fear and shame. Perhaps the office of the protocol really wanted to spare Hassan Rouhani a moment of discomfort, but discomfort for what? What power could that modest, two thousand year old Venus exercise that the nudes at the National Museum in Tehran could not? No: that fear of the naked body is really our fear, which we project onto powerful men as if it was them who couldn’t bear the sight. Even Berlusconi, the most secular of leaders, had to be protected from the indignity. Something had to be done.

Seeing as this tradition goes back at least five centuries, there is every chance that we will continue to stumble and amuse for some time to come. Yet the deeply ridiculous nature of every one of these acts conceals their likely correlation with our Olympic levels of misogyny and homophobia. It is, in other words, no laughing matter. Yet laugh we must, if only so that we don’t cry.

Originally published at Overland

Monday, April 11, 2016

The masochist's coffee pot

‘We believe that this design is sufficiently explicit for us not to have to burden it with details that could prove to be a source of distress.’ Thus the caption to the masochist’s coffee pot, the most famous item in Jacques Carelman’s 'Catalogue of unfindable things' (Catalogue d'objets introuvables, 1969). But its design left so much unsaid that this single object became the symbol of an entire critical approach to the design of everyday things. Doubly so, after Donald Norman chose it for the cover of his very popular book on the subject.

The book was previously entitled ‘the psychology of everyday things', but it would have been even more appropriately to use the word psychopathology instead. For Norman’s book looked at design through its aberrations, of which the masochist’s pot is a splendidly elliptical example.

To be clear, we’re not the in the realm of object without a function. There is a lineage in Carelman’s inventions that goes back to the ‘useless machines’ of Bruno Munari, which later gave way to Yanni Alexis Mardas’ Nothing Box (beloved to John Lennon)

and have been banalised in most recent time through such inventions as Think Geek’s Useless Box and various kinds of useless buttons. Further back than Munari, a possible inspiration for the catalogue are the contraptions of Rube Goldberg and W. Heath Robinson. Carelman flirts with apparatuses for doing no work or very little work, for instance with his ‘glasses for when you cut onions’, which transfer tears to a pair of small sponges.

Or the bottle for alcoholics who are seeking to cure themselves, which looks like might hold a litre of liquid, but is only good for a glass’ worth.

But these objects are almost of actual use. One of them, the bathtub with a door in it, has actually been produced.

Others are just supremely impractical, like the bag for carrying a cat.

Or the bicycle bulldozer. (Although with a small modification you could use this in cricket as a sopping device.)

A greater number of Carelman’s designs abandon use value altogether, distorting it through irony and the absurd. This is the case for instance of the Siamese scissors.

Or the ping pong racket with a ping poing ball-shaped hole in the middle. Or the crumbling anvil, ideal for people who don’t do much blacksmithing.

Or the flat chair (I love the flat chair) here in a later reinterpretation.

Or the bottle made of sponge, for extra capacity. I’m not entirely sure if this was originally Carelman’s design, or that of a follower.

And finally the tandems: one for lovers, one for a couple that has decided to go its separate ways.

These are all tremendous ideas, but ultimately benign. The masochist’s coffee pot adds an ominous touch and – which I imagine is the reason it appealed to Don Norman – a sharper reminder that bad design can not only lead to impracticality but actually turn against us. This is the realm of hostile object theory, and of a potential call to explore the ways in which the design not just of objects but of organisations and the body politic lead to intended harmful outcomes.

Jacques Carelman still enjoys a loyal following, and plenty of epigones. Unfortunately, they tend to hail from fancy design studios and produce work that is altogether too polished whilst lacking the master’s sardonic edge. Take for instance this cheese grater by Jeremy Hutchinson

and its send-off as an object of high-fashion on the Erratum website.

Which is funny enough, but of a totally different order, I think you’ll agree. However I did rather enjoy another one of Hutchinson’s designs. It’s an educational toy for toddlers, and I admire it for its simple cruelty.

It also reminds me of one last creation of Carelman’s that is highly contemporary and someone should definitely put into mass production if it hasn’t been already: the pram television. I tell you, the man was a genius.

Before I leave for a little holiday back home, a reminder that the programme of the Auckland Writers Festival is out and that I’ll be at two of next month’s events: a panel on the work of Elena Ferrante with Guy Somerset, Kate De Goldi and translator Ann Goldstein, and another one with Janet Wilson, Tim Murphy and David Fisher on the demotic turn in journalism. This one is free.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Book of Presidential Trivia and Meat Facts

Which five U.S. Presidents aren’t buried on U.S. soil?

While you think of the answer: did you know that the United States has a Hot Dog Month, and it’s July? I learned this from the Book of Presidential Trivial and Meat Facts, a 1984 booklet produced by the American Meat Institute packed with information about, well, U.S. Presidents and meat.

I’ve been ill and mostly bed-ridden for the last few days, and since my concentration span hasn’t allowed me to read anything too taxing or watch long films with complex plots, I’ve subsisted on a diet of Seinfeld and Columbo episodes, the odd YouTube clip, two old issues of La Settimana Enigmistica and the aforesaid book.

Ordinarily the pleasure with Columbo would be to watch it at its proper pace, to fully appreciate the slow spinning of the lieutenant’s web and his encircling motion towards the murderer, whilst simultaneously trying not to be distracted by the horrendous wardrobes and all those grown men wearing skin-tight turtle neck jumpers. Two personal favourites: the Johnny Cash episode (Columbo: ‘Any man that can sing like that can't be all bad’), and the second of the Robert Culp episodes, ‘The Most Crucial Game’. Falk put Culp away three times, but it seems the prison system really couldn’t hang on to him.

Anyway, physical discomfort made me impatient and so I didn’t quite manage to sit through the whole set-up this time. I just watched the murder scenes at the beginning then skipped to the last ten minutes of each episode. Like a cheat.

Of Seinfeld I don’t have much to say except I heard him declare once that if the show were still going today it would be ‘annoying’, for everything now is annoying, by which I think he meant that the internet is annoying, our wired world is annoying, and in fact if you look at the early seasons the set-up of so many of the episodes is dependent on the absence of a technology for total communication: the Chinese Restaurant episode, the parking garage episode, the party at Michael Chiklis’ episode, the episode in which they all end up in the same theatre watching Rochelle, Rochelle, and all the other plots and sub-plots based on missed or crossed connections that would be a lot harder to engineer nowadays. Along similar lines, and quite interestingly I thought, the plot of the first ever episode of Taxi is premised on the fact that the money box of the public phone in the despatch room has come open and so all the drivers can suddenly make free calls, which prompts Judd Hirsch’s character to re-connect with his estranged daughter.

That queue of men waiting for the phone is not something that could be plausibly recreated outside of a period piece. Which is neither here nor there – a lot of stock story lines were thwarted when the telephone or mass transportation were invented – but it set me wondering about the expansion of communications narrows the space for invention. At least as far as comic plots are concerned. And what would a present-day Seinfeld be like, outside of the increasingly unmoored wonderings of the social media performance piece devoted to answering this very question?

Something very obvious also occurred to me: that the genius of Seinfeld was to have the character who in the story was a comedian play the straight man for the other three, who had regular jobs.

On the Settimana Enigmistica front, I’m currently stuck very near the beginning of this puzzle (I figure the second clue across could resolve as either VAN or BAR). Any passing Italian speaker is welcome to assist.

Which leaves me with business about the meat and the Presidents. It’s an intriguing combination, like industry lobbying from a more naïve past. The book does exactly what it says on the cover, setting trivia about the U.S. Presidents side by side with leading questions designed to show that meat isn’t so bad for you (less cholesterol in beef than in crab! More protein in pork than in fish!). The information concerning Presidents’ shows less obvious self-interest and is competently presented, although at least in one case I found the answer dissatisfying.
He’s the only President to lose both the electoral and popular vote yet still win the Presidency. 
The keys said:
John Quincy Adams, who in 1824 secured fewer electoral votes and popular votes than Andrew Jackson. 
But wait, isn’t that the definition of losing an election? The American Meat Institute goes no further but the answer (I had to look it up) is that there were a third and a fourth candidate, and since none of the four secured an overall majority this activated the Twelfth Amendment of the constitution, giving Congress power to elect the President. This was the so-called ‘contingent election’ of 1825 or, as Jackson’s supporters prefer to call it, the ‘corrupt bargain’ that led to Adams being picked.

However, without my favourite question in the book concerns meat and is the following:
Upton Sinclair’s classic muckraker, ‘The Jungle’, was written under contract to a publishing house of what political orientation?
To which the answer of course is: ‘socialist’. By exposing the treatment of workers and the poor safety practices of the meatpacking industry, Sinclair’s novel is credited, among other things, with causing the outcry that led to the passing of the Meat Inspection Act. This peculiar piece of likely discrediting information (socialist!), offered 78 years after the publication of the book, shows you don’t fuck with the American Meat Institute. Their memory is long.

Oh, and the five U.S. Presidents who are not buried on U.S. soil are: Jimmy Carter, the two Bushes, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.