blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

What is civilisation (or civilization)?

We had a philosophical discussion at our house yesterday evening. One of the eight people here said that for him, civilisation (civilization, if you prefer) simply meant the exploration of science and the deployment of technology --- our "ability to use machines" --- to control our environment and enable us to survive. He is a physicist. Somebody else said that the dinosaurs survived for longer than humans have, so far, but the rebuttal to that was that the dinosaurs had no way of predicting the meteor that wiped them out, nor the technology to do anything about it. I said nothing at this point because I was still reeling, with my mouth open, from the definition of "civilisation" I had just heard. To me, civilisation has to include Bach's 'St. Matthew Passion' and Rembrandt's self portraits. And someone else said, what about the ethical aspects of "civilisation"?

The following day, I asked my Facebook friends, "What do you think? How would you define civilisation?"

My sister: By definition, i.e. etymology, living in cities.

Gianluca: I would define real civilization the ability of a community to strike a balance, using whatever tools are available and developed, that gives people good quality of life, a safe environment, freedom and respect, and the ability to express themselves artistically and through innovation. It's not just science, or arts. The caring from a social point of view is necessary, and that (to me) is the ethical part that you mentioned. Based on this, I think history shows different attempts to achieve true civilization. We are not in very bad shape, but not quite there yet.

 Mel: That's socialism.

Gianluca: Nope. It's not socialism to me. I don't know what i am talking about. I just make stuff up. So, just to clarify. I don't think that socialism is equal to civilization, in my attempted definition. However, I do believe that a certain degree of socialism is a necessary component to achieve civilization.

Mel: Civilisation: an unstable by-product of Triticum dicoccum.

Civilisation is the process by which a society stratifies, following the onset of an agricultural economy. The accumulation of a plentiful, reliable and tradeable, food source generates a growing requirement for land cultivation; in its turn, this gives rise to violent competition for land ownership, initially within a society and, subsequently, between societies. These factors, acting together, are the engines of stratification, that usually leads to three or four distinct social classes of citizens within a civilisation. These are: the warrior class; the priests; craftspeople and traders; and peasants. A common feature of a civilisation is a settlement pattern based on a fortified town surrounded by cultivated land. Significant ownership of land is usually initially restricted to the ruling class and to the priestly class. As a civilisation matures, additional classes may emerge (often from the priestly class) of artists, poets and musicians, scholars. These are frequently maintained by the warrior class, at least at first. The peasant class, meanwhile, remains the most populous and least prosperous stratum of society. As a rule, civilisations tend towards decay, either through becoming moribund within, for example, as a result of over-exploitation of one stratum by another, or through destruction from without, when one civilisation is over-run by another.

Me: So you think it all began with the cultivation of wheat? Which class do the scientists and engineers belong to?

Mel: Scholars. My daughter: I'm a physicist and an artist and a musician and I live in a city. But sometimes I rebel against being civilised for a little while. ... But given I'm having Earl Grey Tea in Richmond Upon Thames's Marks and Spencer's at the moment, this isn't one of my rebellious moments.

Jannette: Civilisation versus Culture.... In my opinion Civilisation is more about socail caring for eachother whereas culture is more about Bach's Matheus Passion and Rembrandt's selfportraits.

Susan R.: Given that we speak approvingly of someone or something as being very civilized, and disapprovingly of the opposite, I would say that the word also connotes a striving for decency and beauty, harmony and growth, order and compassion - I see no separation between civilization and culture, but a huge gulf between civilization and Trump. Oh sorry, stupid autocorrect, the word I meant to type was ignorance.

Martin: Interesting thoughts... I've always considered group of people as citizens in some defined order; that being their ability to be civil. Being civil means they cooperate, they negotiate, they create, they share and they act for the general good of the group. This is what I think civilization is about. Dinosaurs were not civil or civilized.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The significant language of colour (Georgia O'Keeffe)

Georgia O'Keeffe, born at Sun Prairie, Wisconsin in 1887, lived for 98 years and died in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Today I went to see the Toronto exhibition about her life and work at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Her first artworks of note were created around 1915-1919 as she was beginning to find her own style. She had almost given up on art at college because they were forcing her to learn to paint like other people. There was a small bronze scupture that she'd made after the death of her mother, lacquered white, depicting a standing mourner without features, enrobed in a shroud, the shape of the head bird-like; other pieces were experimental, abstract paintings. Some were in the shapes of mountains (Blue Mountains); some were an attempt to describe music in terms of shape and colour. The vortex of Music -- Pink and Blue No. 1 (1918) presumably stood for sound waves or a vibrating larynx. It looked organic, anyhow. "Color," she wrote once, "is a significant language to me."

Her pictures are certainly sensual, and her husband's (Alfred Stieglitz') photos of her naked torso, her arms and hands in particular, make her appear to have been a sensual person, although the photos of her face look stern and severe. She was irritated by her contemporaries' interpretation of her work at this point in her life: "When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they're really talking about their own affairs!" she said. It upset her to the extent that she stopped painting abstracts and began to paint her famous flower heads instead, but then people saw those as sexual as well.

Her work reminds me of the Canadian artists Lawren Harris and Emily Carr.

O'Keeffe and the photographer Alfred Stieglitz first lived on the 30th floor of an hotel in New York from which vantage point they photographed and painted or sketched (in charcoal) the city skyscrapers, industrial landscape and waterways. For respite in the 1920s, they would go to Lake George which Georgia quite liked, having first seen it in 1908, but she felt "smothered in green" there and concentrated on other things than the wooded hills: farmhouse doors, individual trees (showing the influence of Cézanne, to which she admitted) and an extraordinarily 3-dimensional close-up of dying leaves in oils, entitled Oak Leaves, Pink and Grey (1929). The previous year she had also painted an intensely observed sea shell, Shell No. 2, that too very 3-dimensional. In 1932 she was thrilled by a trip to the Gaspé peninsula, admiring the swirling thunderclouds over the sea and "lush" potato flowers in the fields. She might have stayed there and become Canadian if it hadn't had such a chilly climate.

Back in the States, her husband took black and white photos of her face, body and expressive hands, which gave her a "feeling of wonder and excitement", especially the one of her hands caressing the skull of a horse!

In the next gallery I found those flower heads in oils for which she's popularly known: oriental poppies, an amarylis, calla lilies, an iris, a petunia and the trumpet like white flower of a jimson weed. According to the notes on the wall, they are all about "...looking intensely [...] a response to the speed of the modern world." She focussed on fruit and vegetables too, including a more-than-real aubergine (eggplant). she travelled to New Mexico, she knew that she had found her spiritual home. Here were bones lying in the desert, and striking rust red hills. There was a profile photo of her staring at such scenery with great intensity, wearing a black sunhat. She also liked her discovery of the adobe huts in 1000-year-old settlements. New Mexico, at the Ghost Ranch, was where she met DH Lawrence, Ansel Adams and Jung. In 1949 she moved there permanently, choosing a ranch with a magnificent view of a mountain from the windows. Her paintings are of the hills, red and black, and of bare bones juxtaposed with flowers. To her, pelvis bones were "most beautiful against the blue [sky] -- that Blue that will always be there, as it is now, after all man's destruction is finished." Perhaps it is significant that she painted these during the second World War and that her husband died around this time. Perhaps she saw the sandstone rocks with their holes and strange formations as bonelike too. She kept coming back to a "Black Place" (a view of black rocks on a mountainside) where she painted views of the dark clefts and valleys between them. The curving cottonwood trees delighted her too.

Towards the end of her life, suffering from macular degeneration, she painted the flow of river valleys seen from above, and layers of sky. Her painting White Cloud graduates downwards in layers from blue to mauve to turquoise to green, then (two-thirds of the canvas) white, representing an undercast of cloud. She had a large personal abstract in oils that hung by her bed which she called "My Last Door": it was a black square in the middle of a wall of white, with some touches of grey. A momento mori, presumably. Although the exhibition notes didn't state this, she must have inclined towards mysticism.

She wrote, "Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant. Making your unknown known is the important thing --- and keeping the unknown always beyond you."