Reading notes (2020, week 38) — On Yo-Yo Ma and life’s edges, intellectual humility, and learning to unthink

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Completed in 1968 by Kallmann, McKinnell, and Knowles, Boston City Hall is a leading example of brutalist architecture in America. Its renovation by the Boston architecture and planning studio Utile preserves the “straightforward honesty” of this exemplary brutalist building. (Photograph by Anton Grassl)

Reading notes is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, as Michel de Montaigne so beautifully wrote, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

In this week’s edition: Four pieces of timeless wisdom from Yo-Yo Ma; the importance of knowing you might be wrong; removing your ‘thinking self’ from the equation; the clocklike regularity of major life changes; jet-age glamour; what is taste?; a lovingly restored temple district in China; and, finally, the unique and undeniably distinctive stamp of Terence Conran.

Yo-Yo Ma and the edges of life

It’s all about equilibrium

The arts help us cope with these issues by engaging, not avoiding, the deep emotions of intimate loss involved and retelling over and over again the story of the human condition and its limits. Only then can we can regain our spiritual balance and find meaning in more than trying to technically manage every aspect of our being from womb to tomb.

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“I just see myself as a human being trying to play my part. I am happy to share what I know and to work with people and be part of a movement in the arts and sciences, humanities, and technology that uses great thinking and invention to solve intractable social problems. But I don’t see myself as much of a leader. I don’t like to make pronouncements.” — Yo-Yo Ma in Life’s Work: An Interview with Yo-Yo Ma (Harvard Business Review, 2016)

Necessary edges

On this earth we can only survive within a very narrow bandwidth of conditions — oxygen, hydrogen, light, acidity, temperature.

Within that narrow bandwidth, most of what exists is concentrated in the middle. But, as we see in ecology, there are also ‘necessary edges.’ The ‘edge effect’ in ecology occurs at the border where two ecosystems — for example the savannah and forest — meet. At that interface, where there is the least density and the greatest diversity of life forms, each living thing can draw from the core of the two ecosystems. That is where new life forms emerge.

In our advanced species, we also have these ‘necessary edges.’ The hard sciences are probing one far end of the bandwidth, searching for the origins of the universe or the secrets of the genome. People in the arts are probing the other far end of the bandwidth. Without the ‘necessary edges’ that interface with a changing environment and find innovative response, the middle will go over the edge like lemmings. Those on the edge are, in effect, the scouts that say “there is a waterfall, there is a ledge, there is danger ahead. Stop. Don’t go this way, go that way.”

Equilibrium occurs when the information from the edges is available at the core. Only when those meridians or pathways that connect the edges to the middle are open will a life-form survive, and even prosper. Only when science and the arts, critical and empathetic reasoning, are linked to the mainstream will we find a sustainable balance in society.

What is dangerous is when the center ignores the edges or the edges ignore the center — art for arts sake or science without a humanist and societal perspective. Then we are headed for doomsday without knowing it.

Globalization creates culture

Culture is a fabric composed of gifts from every corner of the world. One way of discovering the world is by digging deeply into its traditions.

I have often used this example: At the core of any cellist’s repertoire are the Cello Suites by Bach. At the heart of each suite is a dance movement called the sarabande.

The dance originated with music of the North African Berbers, where it was a slow, sensual dance. It next appeared in Spain, where it was banned because it was considered lewd and lascivious. Spaniards brought it to the Americas, but it also traveled on to France, where it became a courtly dance. In the 1720s, Bach incorporated the sarabande as a movement in his Cello Suites. Today, I play Bach, a Paris-born American musician of Chinese parentage. So who really owns the sarabande? Each culture has adopted the music, investing it with specific meaning, but each culture must share ownership: it belongs to us all.

In 1998, I founded the Silk Road Project to study the flow of ideas among the many cultures between the Mediterranean and the Pacific over several thousand years. When the Silk Road Ensemble performs, we try to bring much of the world together on one stage. Its members are a peer group of virtuosos, masters of living traditions, whether European, Arabic, Azeri, Armenian, Persian, Russian, Central Asian, Indian, Mongolian, Chinese, Korean or Japanese. They all generously share their knowledge and are curious and eager to learn about other forms of expression.

Over the last several years, we have found that every tradition is the result of successful invention. One of the best ways to ensure the survival of traditions is by organic evolution, using all the tools available to us in the present day, from YouTube to the concert hall.

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Founded by Yo-Yo Ma in 2000, the Grammy award-winning Silk Road Ensemble has been at the core of Silkroad’s work to advance global understanding, deepen learning, and promote cross-cultural collaboration. (Photograph: The Silk Road Ensemble with the internationally acclaimed virtuoso on the kemancheh, Kayhan Kalhor, and Yo-yo Ma at Tanglewood, 2016)

We are more than we can measure

We all get into trouble if we think the universe only exists of the matter that we can see and measure, and not the anti-matter that is the counterpart that holds it all together.

Michelangelo famously said, “I liberate the statue from the marble.” Similarly, my music emerges from the life all around me and the world we all share together. One is the condition of the other.

‘Required’ listening and reading
J.S. Bach: The 6 Unaccompanied Cello Suites (Nos. 1–6, BWV 1007–1012), performed by Yo-Yo Ma (1983 recordings, released by Sony Classical, 2006)
Sing Me Home, performed by Yo-Yo Ma & The Silk Road Ensemble (released by Masterworks, 2016)
Yo-Yo Ma: Music Happens Between the Notes, a conversation with On Being’s Krista Tippett (On Being, 2014)
The Silk Road: The Route That Made the World, a series of articles from T’s May 17 Travel Issue, in which four writers retrace the land routes of ancient explorers, looking at food, religion, art, poetry and silk-making (The New York Times, 2020)

Intellectual humility

While talking to many scholars about intellectual humility, the characteristic that allows for the admission of wrongness, Resnick has come to appreciate its importance for learning, especially in an increasingly interconnected and complicated world. He has also realised how difficult it is to foster intellectual humility. According to Resnick, “there are three main challenges on the path to humility:

  1. In order for us to acquire more intellectual humility, we all, even the smartest among us, need to better appreciate our cognitive blind spots. Our minds are more imperfect and imprecise than we’d often like to admit. Our ignorance can be invisible.
  2. Even when we overcome that immense challenge and figure out our errors, we need to remember we won’t necessarily be punished for saying, ‘I was wrong.’ And we need to be braver about saying it. We need a culture that celebrates those words.
  3. We’ll never achieve perfect intellectual humility. So we need to choose our convictions thoughtfully.”
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Que sais-je? — The idea of intellectual humility “is older than social psychology,” Brian Resnick writes. “Philosophers from the earliest days have grappled with the limits of human knowledge. Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century French philosopher credited with inventing the essay, wrote that ‘the plague of man is boasting of his knowledge.’” (Sculpture: Montaigne, Islands of Thoughts–Philosophers (2010), by Eveline van Duyl; textile, rope, pearl, embroidery, 140 × 185 × 70 cm. Collection of Museum Beelden aan Zee, The Hague)

Intellectual humility simply is “the recognition that the things you believe in might in fact be wrong,” says the social and personality psychologist Mark Leary. Adding, it is “a process of monitoring your own confidence.”

“But don’t confuse it with overall humility or bashfulness,’ Resnick writes. “It’s not about being a pushover; it’s not about lacking confidence, or self-esteem. The intellectually humble don’t cave every time their thoughts are challenged. Instead, it’s a method of thinking. It’s about entertaining the possibility that you may be wrong and being open to learning from the experience of others. Intellectual humility is about being actively curious about your blind spots.”

According to social psychology, humility is associated with other valuable character traits, Reswick notes. “People who score higher on intellectual humility questionnaires are more open to hearing opposing views. They more readily seek out information that conflicts with their worldview. They pay more attention to evidence and have a stronger self-awareness when they answer a question incorrectly.” But “most important of all, the intellectually humble are more likely to admit it when they are wrong. When we admit we’re wrong, we can grow closer to the truth.”

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“Ignorance,” wrote Charles Darwin in 1871, “more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” — Self Portrait as Charles Darwin, 2011, by Adrian Ghenie (born in 1977); oil on canvas, 202.5 x 238.3 cm. Sold at Sotheby’s in 2017 to a private collector.

There’s a personal cost to an intellectually humble outlook, Resnick writes. For him, its’s anxiety.

“When I open myself up to the vastness of my own ignorance, I can’t help but feel a sudden suffocating feeling. I have just one small mind, a tiny, leaky boat upon which to go exploring knowledge in a vast and knotty sea of which I carry no clear map.

Why is it that some people never seem to wrestle with those waters? That they stand on the shore, squint their eyes, and transform that sea into a puddle in their minds and then get awarded for their false certainty? ‘I don’t know if I can tell you that humility will get you farther than arrogance,’ says Tenelle Porter, a […] psychologist who has studied intellectual humility.”

“Epistemic humility is an intellectual virtue. It is grounded in the realization that our knowledge is always provisional and incomplete — and that it might require revision in light of new evidence.” — Erik Angner in Epistemic Humility — Knowing Your Limits in a Pandemic

“Of course, following humility to an extreme end isn’t enough. You don’t need to be humble about your belief that the world is round. I just think more humility, sprinkled here and there, would be quite nice.

‘It’s bad to think of problems like this like a Rubik’s cube: a puzzle that has a neat and satisfying solution that you can put on your desk,’ says Michael Lynch, a […] philosophy professor. Instead, it’s a problem ‘you can make progress at a moment in time, and make things better. And that we can do — that we can definitely do.’

[…]

‘The personal question, the existential question that faces you and I and every thinking human being, is, How do you maintain an open mind toward others and yet, at the same time, keep your strong moral convictions?’ Lynch says. ‘That’s an issue for all of us.’

To be intellectually humble doesn’t mean giving up on the ideas we love and believe in. It just means we need to be thoughtful in choosing our convictions, be open to adjusting them, seek out their flaws, and never stop being curious about why we believe what we believe. Again, that’s not easy.

You might be thinking: ‘All the social science cited here about how intellectual humility is correlated with open-minded thinking — what if that’s all bunk?’ To that, I’d say the research isn’t perfect. Those studies are based on self-reports, where it can be hard to trust that people really do know themselves or that they’re being totally honest. And we know that social science findings are often upended.

But I’m going to take it as a point of conviction that intellectual humility is a virtue. I’ll draw that line for myself. It’s my conviction.

Could I be wrong? Maybe. Just try to convince me otherwise.”

Further watching
Kierkegaard’s horror of doubt, Jonathan Rée traces the theme of doubt in Søren Kierkegaard’s life and work using his unfinished, posthumously published novel Johannes Climacus: Or a Life of Doubt as a starting point (video from the London Review of Books)

Learning to unthink

Leslie describes how Roger Federer, who, back then, hadn’t won a Grand Slam in the 18 months, lost the US Open 2011 semi-final against Novak Djokovic. Afterwards, he struggled to accept his defeat. “It’s awkward having to explain this loss,’ a tetchy Federer told the press, “because I feel like I should be doing the other press conference.”

But Federer’s inability to win Grand Slams wasn’t the result of any physical decline. It was due to a mental frailty that emerged at crucial moments. “In the jargon of sport, he has been ‘choking.’ This, say the experts, is caused by thinking too much. When a footballer misses a penalty or a golfer fluffs a putt, it is because they have become self-conscious. By thinking too hard, they lose the fluid physical grace required to succeed,” Leslie writes.

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“The unconscious minds of great artists and sportsmen are like dense rainforests, which send up spores of inspiration.” — Roger Federer in action during his semi-final match against Croatia’s Borna Coric at the Dubai Tennis Championships in March 2019. He would go on to the win the final, his 100th ATP Tour singles title. (Photograph by Ahmed Jadallah for Reuters)

“Unthinking is the ability to apply years of learning at the crucial moment by removing your ‘thinking self’ from the equation. Its power is not confined to sport: actors and musicians know about it too, and are apt to say that their best work happens in a kind of trance. Thinking too much can kill not just physical performance but mental inspiration. Bob Dylan, wistfully recalling his youthful ability to write songs without even trying, described the making of Like a Rolling Stone as a ‘piece of vomit, 20 pages long.’ It hasn’t stopped the song being voted the best of all time.

In less dramatic ways the same principle applies to all of us. A fundamental paradox of human psychology is that thinking can be bad for us. When we follow our own thoughts too closely, we can lose our bearings, as our inner chatter drowns out common sense. […]

If a rat is faced with a puzzle in which food is placed on its left 60% of the time and on the right 40% of the time, it will quickly deduce that the left side is more rewarding, and head there every time, thus achieving a 60% success rate. Young children adopt the same strategy. When Yale undergraduates play the game, they try to figure out some underlying pattern, and end up doing worse than the rat or the child. We really can be too clever for our own good.

By allowing ourselves to listen to our (better) instincts, we can tap into a kind of compressed wisdom. The psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer argues that much of our behaviour is based on deceptively sophisticated rules-of-thumb, or heuristics. For example, a robot programmed to chase and catch a ball would need to compute a series of complex differential equations to track the ball’s trajectory. But baseball players do so by instinctively following simple rules: run in the right general direction, and adjust your speed to keep a constant angle between eye and ball.

To make good decisions in a complex world, Gigerenzer says, you have to be skilled at ignoring information. He found that a portfolio of stocks picked by people he interviewed in the street did better than those chosen by experts. The pedestrians were using the recognition heuristic: they picked companies they’d heard of, which was a better guide to future success than any analysis of price-earning ratios.

Researchers from Columbia Business School conducted an experiment in which people were asked to predict outcomes across a range of fields, from politics to the weather to the winner of American Idol. They found that those who placed high trust in their feelings made better predictions than those who didn’t. The result only applied, however, when the participants had some prior knowledge.

This last point is vital. Unthinking is not the same as ignorance; you can’t unthink if you haven’t already thought. Djokovic was able to pull off his wonder shot because he had played a thousand variations on it in previous matches and practice; Dylan’s lyrical outpourings drew on his immersion in folk songs, French poetry and American legends. The unconscious minds of great artists and sportsmen are like dense rainforests, which send up spores of inspiration.

The higher the stakes, the more overthinking is a problem. Ed Smith, a [former first-class] cricketer and author of Luck, uses the analogy of walking along a kerbstone: easy enough, but what if there was a hundred-foot drop to the street — every step would be a trial. In high-performance fields it’s the older and more successful performers who are most prone to choke, because expectation is piled upon them. An opera singer launching into an aria at La Scala cannot afford to think how her technique might be improved. When Federer plays a match point these days, he may feel as if he’s standing on the cliff edge of his reputation.”

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“I’m inconsistent, even to myself.” — Bob Dylan (Photograph by Jerry Schatzberg, who captured hundreds of images of Bob Dylan beginning in the mid-1960s, including the cover image for Dylan’s 1966 Blonde on Blonde album)

“How do you learn to unthink? Dylan believes the creative impulse needs protecting from self-analysis: ‘As you get older, you get smarter, and that can hinder you…You’ve got to programme your brain not to think too much.’ Flann O’Brien said we should be ‘calculatedly stupid’ in order to write. The only reliable cure for overthinking seems to be enjoyment, something that both success and analysis can dull. Experienced athletes and artists often complain that they have lost touch with what made them love what they do in the first place. Thinking about it is a poor substitute.

We live in age of self-reflection, analysing every aspect of our work, micro-commentating on our own lives online, reading articles urging us to ponder what makes us happy. Much of this may be worthwhile, but we also need to put thinking in its place. Djokovic’s return was both the culmination of his life’s effort and an expression of careless joy. It kinda worked.”

Further reading
I highly recommend Ian Leslie’s book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It (Perseus Books Group, 2014), in which he makes a passionate case for the cultivation of our desire to know.
The data or the hunch (“More and more decisions, from the music business to the sports field, are being delegated to data. But where does that leave our intuition?”) by Ian Leslie (The Economist 1843, 2015)

And also this…

“Psychologists call the state of being in transition ‘liminality.’ Scholars at INSEAD, a business school in France, and Rice University define this as ‘being betwixt and between social roles and/or identities.’ In other words, liminality means that you are neither in the state you left nor completely in your new state, at least not mentally. This provokes something of an identity crisis — it raises the question ‘Who am I?’ — which can be emotionally destabilizing”

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“In his book Meanings of Life, the psychologist Roy F. Baumeister argues that a sense of meaning gained through change makes the rest of life seem more stable. This is one of the great consolations of aging and seeing a lot of change — transitions likely don’t cause as much distress.” (Illustration Jan Buchzik for The Atlantic)

But “[even] difficult, unwanted transitions are usually seen differently in retrospect than in real time. Indeed, [Bruce Feiler, the author of Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age] found that 90 percent of the time, the people he spoke with ultimately judged their transition to have been a success, insofar as the transition ended and they found themselves once again on solid ground.

Even better, research shows that we tend to see past events — even unwanted ones — as net positives over time. Though our brains have a tendency to focus on negative emotions in the present, over the years unpleasant feelings fade more than pleasant feelings do, a phenomenon known as ‘fading affect bias.’ This may sound like a cognitive error, but it really isn’t. Almost every transition — even the most challenging ones — bears some positive fruit; it just may take time to see it and feel its effects.”

“Jet-age glamour was more than just aesthetic: its promise of motionless movement reshaped perception of time and space,” Vanessa R Schwartz, writes in Fly with me.

“The jet defined an age not because it gave people a new view from above but because it transformed subjective experience — extending its characteristic ‘nonexperience’ to life on the ground, in the form of a jet-age aesthetic. That aesthetic does not consist of the familiar aspects of air culture such as the decoration of jet interiors, the clothing worn by flight attendants, the meals served on board, the ads created by firms hired to promote the new jet service, or airport art, all of which are more akin to what one would call a design style, though it is significant in the way that the aesthetic conveys symbolic meaning and value.

Defining an age means going beyond fashioning a look or style in and around the jet. Additionally, its significance far exceeds the social, political and economic impact of the jet plane’s speed. While it is true that the jet inaugurated the possibility of mass tourism and contributed to a form of globalisation in which those countries and companies that made jets, built airports and ran airlines asserted new sinews of power in ways that reshaped connections between states and their populations around the world, this is also not the jet’s single greatest legacy. Rather, the greatest legacy is that the jet-age aesthetic transformed subjective experience itself, ushering in a culture that would soon conceive of the ‘networked society’ because human subjects could visualise being connected without being physically present. This is the consequence of the adaptation of the jet’s fluid motion throughout the culture more generally, and at the level of the individual’s senses.”

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After being shut for over 15 years, the former TWA terminal has undergone a major overhaul and now houses the 512-room TWA Hotel. Sadly, the “symbolic meaning and value,” which is, according to Vanessa R Schwartz, characteristic for the jet-age, has given way to “what one would call a design style.” — TWA (Trans World Airlines) Flight Center at John F Kennedy Airport, New York (completed in 1962), by the Finnish-American architect and industrial designer Eero Saarinen (Photography by Cameron Blaylock)

“The jet-age aesthetic is on display in the new and redesigned airports built during 1955–1962, such as Paris Orly, Los Angeles International, the TWA Flight Center at John F Kennedy in New York, as well as the main terminal at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, DC. These are often understood as the era’s most enduring symbols through which planners and architects put into practice the jet’s feeling of going nowhere fast, where they had set out to design new kinds of spaces that were seamless and fluid.

These projects were less about the terminal as symbolic architecture (despite how they have often been studied). Instead, planners emphasised the continuity of the passenger’s journey and obsessed over the ease of circulation as the airport’s greatest goal. Rather than build new monumental gateways to replace what train stations had been for the 19th century, jet-age airports were passthroughs and interchanges, built with their own obsolescence in mind. They were antimonumental, ready for their extinction in the face of expansion and the possibility of new technology. When planning for Dulles, the architect Eero Saarinen wrote (more than a year into the project) that he hadn’t even considered the design of the terminal building because his great ambition and focus was the mobile lounge — this he envisioned as a ‘spacious room isolated from fumes and noise’ that would detach and eventually load passengers directly onto the planes waiting in mid-field.”

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“Photographically illustrated newsmagazines, often disparaged by historians as vehicles of outdated consumerism, played an important role in the elaboration of the jet-age aesthetic. They became the primary vehicle of what in 1952 Wilson Hicks, Life’s picture editor and eventual executive editor, called ‘The Age of the Visual Image.’” (Illustrations from ‘The Magic of Color in Motion,’ Life Magazine, 1958; photographs by Ernst Haas, courtesy of Vanessa R Schwartz)

“The jet-age aesthetic also altered subjective experience through the image culture of the period (which itself was enhanced through a physical system of circulation powered by the jet). As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan noted in 1964, the photograph created a world of ‘accelerated transience’ and the age was one in which ‘travel differs very little from going to a movie or turning the pages of a magazine’. The notion that the image had come to dominate the age had been evolving over the course of the century — since the advent of reproductive technologies such as lithography and photography — and had taken on new power with the rise of advertising and public relations, on the one hand, and wartime propaganda, on the other. Intellectuals and artists, such as those associated with the Bauhaus, believed that thought itself was visually organised, as had been promoted by Gestalt principles as early as the 1920s.

[…]

The jet-age aesthetic shows that such transport was part of a communications network of spaces — of experiences as well as mediated images. What the jet created was a kind of motion that was glamorised and celebrated: that you could go fast and have a sense of not moving at all. This aesthetic created ‘jet-age people’ who could better mediate between the material and image worlds, saw less antagonism between the human and the technological spheres, and were comfortable rather than distressed at seeing themselves as spectators of their changing world. The jet came to define an ‘age’ in its own time because of its impact on consciousness itself. People took to the air as never before, and that, in turn, permanently changed how people experienced life on the ground.

[…]

Today, physical mobility and material barriers haven’t disappeared as those living in the jet age envisioned, but they are now accompanied by even greater ‘immaterialised’ circulation in the flow of images and words via modern media systems that offer to simulate experience and not simply depict it. The internet and its underlying infrastructure offer the most remarkable media form of sensationless, fluid motion. It exemplifies the impact of the jet age, and allows us to make sense of our experiences when ‘surfing’ the internet — when we actually go nowhere at all.”

Browsing through the Vanity Fair website, I came across Stephen Bayley ’s column from 2017, Why Taste is the Greatest Taboo. Here is the entire piece.

“‘Taste? Taste?’ the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, adjusting his bardic cape and tapping the ground with his madman’s cane, bellowed. ‘Cows have taste.’ Wright was a man of eccentric behaviour and unconventional habits, a true original with neither predecessors nor successors. Still, he felt his own buildings transcended frivolous fashion and touched The Absolute. They were timeless. And he was wrong.

The tides of taste come and go pitilessly, exposing our temporary fetishes and foibles like waves eroding the shore. That oligarch with his collection of Jeff Koons balloon creatures? Soon he will find he has over-spent on fashionable crapola. Damien Hirst? There’s an awful lot of Hirst now hanging over a fatigued art market. That developer revealing his latest blob of public art in a windswept piazza? He thought he was marrying the goddess fame, but instead it was a grubby one night stand with the slut of celebrity.

On the other hand, The Old Masters are now depressed in price: you could buy 20 Rembrandts for the price of a single Modigliani. It’s really all a matter of taste, but the question remains: is there an accurate way to judge art? If it’s all so fragile and variable, can you define excellence? Or does art come and go like hemlines? Is your choice as relevant as mine, even if you prefer sculpture made out of nail clippings and feathers, while I like Donatello and Donald Judd?”

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Portrait of Jean Cocteau, 1916, by Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920); oil on canvas, 81.3 x 104 cm. Collection of the Princeton University Art Museum — “Cocteau’s elongated head, neck, and nose, as well as his simplified features, recall Modigliani’s sculptural work, which was informed by his study of the so-called ‘primitive’ forms of non-Western sculpture. The color tonalities, drawing style, and overall composition of the portrait reflect the strong influence of Cézanne.”

“Discussing taste is a very good way to start an argument. It is the greatest taboo. To test the proposition, try telling someone they have bad taste. The same people who might all too readily be frank about sex and money are the same ones who flinch when their taste is under scrutiny. Taste is more cruelly revealing than, for example, HNW or where you place yourself on the LGBT spectrum. Why? Because you can borrow money or get dressed in drag, but taste reveals your real self.

But as soon as you begin to think about ‘Taste’ with a capital T, it becomes very difficult: like trying to embrace fog. It’s this very elusiveness that makes it so potent. If anybody could understand Taste, there would be no value in the argument. If there were a reliable form of Taste which could be acquired through cash or cunning, someone would have bottled and branded it by now.

I used to work with Terence Conran, who would pick up an object and brightly say to me: ‘And this, my dear Stephen, is good design.’ And I would reply: ‘Come off it, Terence, you mean it’s your taste.’ Taste is an arbitrator, a discriminator and a betrayer. It’s the mechanism we use to establish our own preferences and to be witheringly snooty about the preferences of others.

And Taste is a modern thing. There was, to be sure, no such thing as Medieval Taste because there was no choice. Your feudal lord did not have a range of mottes, baileys, bartizans, drawbridges, dungeons, machicolations and turrets to choose from. There was what there was. Taste only entered human affairs when wealth and excess meant there were decisions to be made.

And, accordingly, the modern world gave us taste-makers. A magnificent prima donna in this milieu was the decorator Elsie de Wolfe whose work for post-feudal robber baron Henry J. Frick introduced new American money to old French furniture, a process still, to a degree, continuing … although who’s to say this will never change? Just when we thought that the brown furniture of the 19th century was forever consigned to the skip of history, it is making a tentative comeback as the taste for fashionably bleached Minimalism recedes.”

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In her own words, Elsie de Wolfe (1859—1950), the most famous decorator of her time, “opened the doors and windows of America and let the air and sunshine in.” She is known for her practical designs, eliminating much of the Victorian ‘clutter.’ Half a century later, the British designer and founder of Habitat, Terence Conran, would, as the British designer Thomas Heatherwick said, “[drag] Great Britain out of the post-second world war gloom and [modernise] the country by revolutionising how we think about our homes, the products we buy for them and even the food we eat and how we eat it.”

“What a disinterested reading of the history shows is that art, especially great art, has no permanent values. What’s highly regarded in one generation is very often contumaciously despised by the next. Just sit back and watch those Damien Hirst prices collapse. He will be down there soon with Vladimir Tretchikoff’s ‘Green Lady.’

There is no such thing as a great artist who has enjoyed a continuously high reputation, although few have had a rise and descent as rapid as Damien’s seems likely to be. Michelangelo was once thought a buffoon who specialized in over-muscled hermaphrodites. Raphael was tepid. And you could not give away Spanish baroque masters Murillo and Ribera.

El Greco and Vermeer, universal geniuses according to our own taste, spent centuries after their deaths in total obscurity, only to be rediscovered when the flow of taste made them acceptable again. Significantly, it was the very same art critic who popularized Van Gogh who rehabbed El Greco, seeing in his attenuated forms and astonishing palette common ground. Maybe he also enjoyed a shared hint of madness.

Everything is in a cycle of decline or resurrection. Just a few short years after Lytton Strachey said ‘One thing is certain, no-one will ever want to revive the 19th century,’ Laura Ashley began her camp Victorian adventure in chintz and pie-crust collars. And for most the 20th century, MoMA, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, made the polite modernismo of abstract art as tasteful as Elsie de Wolfe’s old French furniture had once been. But any minute now, figurative art will be revived. Maybe this is happening already. Why? Because the only thing certain about taste is that it changes.

The great art historian Bernard Berenson believed that taste begins only when appetite is satisfied: if you are scrabbling for survival, hungry and poor, and your children have bare feet and your wife is on the streets, you are, perhaps, not much concerned if your chiffonier has a ball and claw foot or a barley twist leg.

But once past subsistence, we begin to make choices which express ourselves. This is why Nietzsche believed that all of life is a question of taste, and why Marx said the epic battles of the modern world will be fought not with lance and sword, but with dry goods. And, especially, art.”

“The new and the old collide with a natural form of ‘emptiness.’”

Situated in the heart of China’s Songyang County, the Confusion Temple and Chenghuang Temple district in Lishui City, 400 kilometers south of Shanghai, has been a spiritual centre for the people of Songyang since ancient times. For decades, however, the city’s ancient temple district was in decline, but now it has been revived by the Chinese architecture firm Jiakun Architects, founded in 1999 by Liu Jiakun.

As always, one of their main challenges was to incorporate the new and the old, which brings together architectural and environmental elements from different ages — precious traces of time, which have witnessed and shaped the functional evolution of the city and the lives of many generations of people.

Source: designboom; photography by Arch-Exist, Bo Wu, Yujun Cao and Haidong Peng

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“The new and the old interfaces intertwine through daily scenes; the picture of local life is slowly unfolding, reuniting this old city’s popularity. The whole architecture complex is transformed into a pan-museum, displaying a dynamic cultural life and buildings with hundreds of years of history. It embraces the surrounding neighbourhood with an open attitude and has once again become the spiritual centre of Songyang,” the architects say.
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“Habitat began as the style of choice of the strapped-for-cash student and the young professional setting up home for the first time. And bit by bit, in almost imperceptible stages, it elbowed aside what had gone before to become the signature style of grown-up Britain.” — Deyan Sudjic in The Language of Things: Understanding the World of Desirable Objects (Photograph: Terence Conran at home, 2019, by Catherine Hyland for Vanity Fair)

“If you were to argue that no other design personality has shaped The Way We Live Now quite as much as Sir Terence Conran, you would not be alone. As Craig Brown, the British satirist […], put it: before Conran ‘there were no chairs and no France.’ The art dealer John Kasmin, a friend of Conran’s, once joked, ‘The problem with Terence is that he wants the whole world to have a better salad bowl.’ The hotelier and Studio 54 impresario Ian Schrager compared Conran’s cultural influence to Andy Warhol’s: he’s made design fun and accessible. ‘Is he a designer or a businessman? has been the perennial question. In 2019 it seems irrelevant. Conran has always approached design as a business proposition and business as a design problem: there is no point in making and curating good products without devising the means to bring them to the general population.” — Mark Rozzo in Inside the Country Estate of Britain’s Doyen of Design, an interview with Sir Terence Conran from 2019

Reading notes will be back next week, if fortune allows, of course. In the meantime, if you want to know more about my work with senior executives and leadership teams, please visit markstorm.nl. You can also browse through my writings.

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