Reading notes (2021, week 18) — On authenticity, what data can’t do, and the keys to Van Gogh’s paintings

The Red Roof in Quang Ngai, Vietnam, by TAA Design, is topped with a vegetable garden that also serves as place for socialization and interaction. The rooftop garden is adjacent to the courtyard on the mezzanine floor, creating a playground and vegetable garden that connects the roof to the ground floor. fresh and readily available, the vegetables from the garden can be used in meals everyday. the abundance of produce is often shared with neighboring families, with the architecture credited with generating interactions with the surrounding community. (Photograph courtesy of the architects)

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: From monks to existentialists and hipsters, the search for a true self has been a centuries-long project. Should we give it up?; why numbers are a poor substitute for the richness and colour of the real world; how an epiphany of Vincent van Gogh’s sister-in-law Jo created our idea of the painter; Aristotle on fear; our most effective weapon is imagination; how to have more meaningful conversations; lost Persian architecture; the art and diversity of food photography; and, finally, Francis Fukuyama and why it’s worth thinking about how to design a new supranational institution.

Authenticity is a sham

“Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.
How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine?”

Mary Oliver, Don’t Worry (from Felicity, 2016)

“Our culture is saturated with authenticity: we’re forever ‘finding ourselves’, ‘self-actualising,’ ‘doing you,’ ‘being real,’ ‘going off the beaten path,’ ‘breaking free of the crowd.’ We spend our youth trying to figure out who we are; our later years trying to stay true to ourselves; and the time in-between in crisis about whether we are who we thought we were,” Alexander Stern writes in Authenticity is a sham.

Often credited with originating the modern sense of inwardness, the 4th-century theologian and philosopher Saint Augustine was perhaps the most important early tortured soul. “In the Confessions, one finds the searching, longing introspection and even the self-centred and ironic detachment that characterise modern authenticity. ‘O Lord, help me to be chaste,’ Augustine writes in the voice of his younger self — ‘but not yet.’

[His] aim is not so much to celebrate, actualise or find a self as to narrate the process of transcending it. He is trying to go, as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor puts it, ‘inward and upward,’ or, to put it another way, upward by way of inward. Augustine’s conversion involves a great deal of discipline and self-abnegation. Taylor, who chronicles the emergence of the modern self in his book Sources of the Self (Harvard University Press, 1992), writes that Augustine ‘makes the step toward inwardness … because it is a step towards God.’”

Like Augustine, also Søren Kierkegaard identified inwardness as a primary path to God. “What’s more, Kierkegaard recognised the enemy of authenticity in the pressures of conformity in a newly ‘massifying’ society. [For him,] the characteristic mode of self-exploration […] was anxiety. […] To be properly anxious in Kierkegaard’s sense is to see clearly the pure possibility of human life and face down the ordeal thereby imposed on us. Embracing, rather than evading, this anxiety through a kind of ‘leap of faith’ was for Kierkegaard, as for the existentialist philosophers who followed him, the essence of authenticity.”

The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was one such existentialist. Writing at the end of Vichy France, Sartre understood that the inauthentic evasion of this responsibility to ourselves was the norm. He called this indulgence in the pretence that we are not free ‘bad faith.’ Bad faith is comprised of the stories we tell ourselves in order to live, to co-opt a phrase from Joan Didion. For the existentialists, authenticity was the opposite of ‘bad faith.’ It is accepting the burden of freedom and circumstance, looking inward to determine how best to act, and then doing so.

But according to the German philosopher and social critic Theodor Adorno, “existentialism was simply replacing one absent, mystical abstraction — God — with another: the authentic subject. ‘Religion has shifted into the subject,’ he wrote. In this process, ‘the living subject is robbed of all definition, in the same way as it loses its attributes in reality.’ Instead of going ‘inward and upward’, the existentialists reached ever further inward, seeking a self so withdrawn and occluded it hardly had any contours at all. Kierkegaard’s existential ‘leap of faith’ is completely emptied out, according to Adorno, and becomes no more than an attempt to escape all the ways our sphere of action is determined and mediated by our individual conditions, history and other people.”

“Authenticity will continue to be a buzzword for centuries to come, and people will never stop promoting the importance of being one’s true, authentic self. The only possibility of this happening is perhaps when our subjective review of authenticity finally tells us that we are the closest to who we see ourselves to be,” Elizabeth Seto writes in When will I be me? Why a sense of authenticity takes its time. (Illustration: Three self-portraits by Rembrandt van Rijn: at 26 in 1632; at 46 in 1652; and at 63 in 1669)

“Today, one of the primary ways we deal with the anxiety of being ourselves is to construct fantasy versions of ourselves through acquisition. This includes not just the acquisition of stuff, but also of personal style, worldviews, sociopolitical identities. The self, as the American social critic Christopher Lasch wrote in his book The Culture of Narcissism (1979), becomes an end in itself whose impulses are to be trusted above all else. A therapeutic ‘cult of authenticity’ (a term that Lasch borrows from Adorno) emerges and leads to the contemporary self-help industry. All external constraints are viewed with suspicion, and everyday life, including politics, becomes a theatre for the individual’s self-creative performance. Bad faith and posturing — the objectification of the self — become a way of life, and a slew of products, treatments and self-defeating political movements rise up to fill the apparently bottomless market for self-creation and self-care,” Stern writes.

So how can one avoid the pitfalls of this phoney authenticity?

“Genuine authenticity […] requires, first of all, resistance to self-absorption and fantasy and, secondly, acknowledgement of our dependency on others and of the historical contingency that inhabits every corner of our lives.

This is difficult since almost everything in the culture encourages us to fall back on to ourselves and promises that we can escape history and eliminate chance and misfortune from our lives. One simple thing [Matthew Crawford] suggests is learning how to do stuff. Learning a craft — like how to play a musical instrument, finetune a motorcycle (Crawford’s pick), hang drywall or write a sonnet — immediately puts us within particular limits and at the feet of those who have already mastered it. It requires humility, but, at the same time, builds genuine competence. It can help remediate narcissism by rebalancing our relationship to ourselves. In the process of submitting to discipline and focusing our attention on a craft, we find ourselves neither omnipotent nor helpless, but somewhere in between. We’re dependent beings with feeble bodies and minds, prone to flailing about and to failure, but also each with unique sets of resources and abilities that can be cultivated with surprising rapidity under the right conditions, and that can help us to regularly overcome quite serious obstacles. We are, in a word, crafty. It’s how we get by, as the archetype of ancient Greek trickster heroes such as Odysseus and Prometheus suggests.

Learning a craft can teach us a lot about what exactly it is to actualise a self. The word ‘authenticity’ comes from the Greek authentes for ‘master’ or ‘one acting on his own authority’ (aut = self and hentes = making or working on/crafting). Importantly, it doesn’t mean ‘self-maker’ in the reflexive sense of one who makes himself, but one who makes or acts according to his own will — making from out of the self. And in crafting of our accord, we do actually actualise ourselves. We transform inner feelings into something real.

This idea of humankind finding fulfilment in some kind of practical activity goes back to Aristotle, if not earlier. He declared the best life to be ‘autarkic’, or self-governed, and aimed at the fulfilment of activities most characteristic of human beings: namely, the use of the socially oriented rationality that separates us from other beings.”

What data can’t do

Seduced by their seeming precision and objectivity, people often feel betrayed when the numbers fail to capture the unruliness of reality, Hannah Fry writes in What Data Can’t Do.

This is the subject of two new books about data and statistics: Counting: How We Use Numbers to Decide What Matters (Liveright, 2020), by Deborah Stone, which warns of the risks of relying too heavily on numbers, and The Data Detective (Riverhead, 2021), by Tim Harford, which explores ways of avoiding the pitfalls of a world driven by data.

One “particular mistake is common enough to warrant its own adage: once a useful number becomes a measure of success, it ceases to be a useful number. This is known as Goodhart’s law, and it reminds us that the human world can move once you start to measure it,” Fry writes. “Deborah Stone writes about Soviet factories and farms that were given production quotas, on which jobs and livelihoods depended. Textile factories were required to produce quantities of fabric that were specified by length, and so looms were adjusted to make long, narrow strips. Uzbek cotton pickers, judged on the weight of their harvest, would soak their cotton in water to make it heavier. […]

The problem isn’t easily resolved, though. The issues around Goodhart’s law have come to haunt artificial-intelligence design: just how do you communicate an objective to your algorithm when the only language you have in common is numbers? The computer scientist Robert Feldt once created an algorithm charged with landing a plane on an aircraft carrier. The objective was to bring a simulated plane to a gentle stop, thus registering as little force as possible on the body of the aircraft. Unfortunately, during the training, the algorithm spotted a loophole. If, instead of bringing the simulated plane down smoothly, it deliberately slammed the aircraft to a halt, the force would overwhelm the system and register as a perfect zero. Feldt realized that, in his virtual trial, the algorithm was repeatedly destroying plane after plane after plane, but earning top marks every time.

Numbers can be at their most dangerous when they are used to control things rather than to understand them. Yet Goodhart’s law is really just hinting at a much more basic limitation of a data-driven view of the world. As Tim Harford writes, data ‘may be a pretty decent proxy for something that really matters,’ but there’s a critical gap between even the best proxies and the real thing — between what we’re able to measure and what we actually care about. Harford quotes the great psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, explained that, when faced with a difficult question, we have a habit of swapping it for an easy one, often without noticing that we’ve done so.”

According to the environmental economist James Gustave Speth, “We tend to get what we measure, so we should measure what we want.” (Illustration by Richard McGuire for The New Yorker)

“It’s impossible to count everything; we have to draw the line somewhere. But, when we’re dealing with fuzzier concepts than the timing of medical appointments and the length of railroad tracks, line-drawing itself can create trouble. Harford gives the example of two sheep in a field: ‘Except that one of the sheep isn’t a sheep, it’s a lamb. And the other sheep is heavily pregnant — in fact, she’s in labor, about to give birth at any moment. How many sheep again?’ Questions like this aren’t just the stuff of thought experiments. A friend of mine, the author and psychologist Suzi Gage, married her husband during the covid-19 pandemic, when she was thirty-nine weeks pregnant. Owing to the restrictions in place at the time, the number of people who could attend her wedding was limited to ten. Newborn babies would count as people for such purposes. Had she gone into labor before the big day, she and the groom would have had to disinvite a member of their immediate families or leave the newborn at home.”

What these examples illustrate is that numbers are a poor substitute for the richness and color of the real world.

“It might seem odd that a professional mathematician (like me) or economist (like Harford) would work to convince you of this fact. But to recognize the limitations of a data-driven view of reality is not to downplay its might. It’s possible for two things to be true: for numbers to come up short before the nuances of reality, while also being the most powerful instrument we have when it comes to understanding that reality.

The events of the pandemic offer a trenchant illustration. The statistics can’t capture the true toll of the virus. They can’t tell us what it’s like to work in an intensive-care unit, or how it feels to lose a loved one to the disease. They can’t even tell us the total number of lives that have been lost (as opposed to the number of deaths that fit into a neat category, such as those occurring within twenty-eight days of a positive test). They can’t tell us with certainty when normality will return. But they are, nonetheless, the only means we have to understand just how deadly the virus is, figure out what works, and explore, however tentatively, the possible futures that lie ahead.

Numbers can contain within them an entire story of human existence. In Kenya, forty-three children out of every thousand die before their fifth birthday. In Malaysia, only nine do. Stone quotes the Swedish public-health expert Hans Rosling on the point: ‘This measure takes the temperature of a whole society. Because children are very fragile. There are so many things that can kill them.’ The other nine hundred and ninety-one Malaysian children are protected from dangers posed by germs, starvation, violence, limited access to health care. In that single number, we have a vivid picture of all that it takes to keep a child alive.

Harford’s book takes us even further with similar statistics. Harford asks us to consider a newspaper that is released once every hundred years: surely, he argues, if such a paper were released now, the front-page news would be the striking fall in child mortality in the past century. ‘Imagine a school set up to receive a hundred five-year-olds, randomly chosen from birth from around the world,’ he writes. In 1918, thirty-two of those children would have died before their first day of school. By 2018, only four would have. This, Harford notes, is remarkable progress, and nothing other than numbers could make that big-picture progress clear.

Yet statistical vagaries can attend even birth itself. Harford tells the story of a puzzling discrepancy in infant-mortality rates, which appeared to be considerably higher in the English Midlands than in London. Were Leicester obstetricians doing something wrong? Not exactly. In the U.K., any pregnancy that ends after twenty-four weeks is legally counted as a birth, whereas a pregnancy that ends before twelve weeks tends to be described as a miscarriage. For a pregnancy that ends somewhere between these two fixed points — perhaps at fifteen or twenty-three weeks of gestation — the language used to describe the loss of a baby matters deeply to the grieving parents, but there’s no legally established terminology. Doctors in the Midlands had developed the custom of recording that a baby had died; doctors in London that a miscarriage had occurred. The difference came down to what we called what we counted.

Numbers don’t lie, except when they do. Harford is right to say that statistics can be used to illuminate the world with clarity and precision. They can help remedy our human fallibilities. What’s easy to forget is that statistics can amplify these fallibilities, too. As Stone reminds us, ‘To count well, we need humility to know what can’t or shouldn’t be counted.’”

The keys to Van Gogh’s paintings

One of the problems with Vincent van Gogh’s letters is that he tended to write them during the more uneventful periods in his life, and always sought to gloss over the tumult, John Banville notes in His Own Worst Enemy, in which he reviews Vincent van Gogh: A Life in Letters by Nienke Bakker, Leo Jansen, and Hans Luijten (Thames & Hudson, 2020) and Vincent’s Books: Van Gogh and the Writers Who Inspired Him by Mariella Guzzoni (University of Chicago Press, 2020).

“In a letter to [his brother] Theo of December [17 or] 18, 1888 [letter 726], he signs off with a cheery valediction: ‘On behalf of Gauguin as well as myself, a good, hearty handshake to you all.’ Four days later came the Gauguin debacle and its bloody aftermath. Of course, the doings of the day are not of the first consequence in the life of an artist, especially one so great as Vincent, for whom the mere business of existing is constantly subsumed into the work.

All the same, Vincent van Gogh: A Life in Letters is thoroughly engrossing. Vincent had a richly evocative prose style; he could have been a great critic, a fine novelist, perhaps even a poet. His descriptive writing is vivid and sensuous, and his extended meditations on art, on nature, and on the comédie humaine set him in a line with Balzac or the Goncourts. Even at the end of his life, ravaged by mental and physical ailments, mocked by street urchins and harassed by officialdom, he kept to his task of producing transformative works of art. Only months before his death, he wrote to the critic Albert Aurier from his cell in the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence about the challenge of painting cypress trees:

‘Until now I have not been able to do them as I feel it; in my case the emotions that take hold of me in the face of nature go as far as fainting, and then the result is a fortnight during which I am incapable of working. However, before leaving here, I am planning to return to the fray to attack the cypresses. The study I have intended for you depicts a group of them in the corner of a wheatfield on a summer’s day when the mistral is blowing. It is therefore the note of a certain blackness enveloped in blue moving in great circulating currents of air, and the vermilion of the poppies contrasts with the black note.’

A great many of the letters are written in l’esprit de l’escalier, though the esprit is more than often very low indeed. Frequently we are presented, figuratively, with the spectacle of the painter sprawled at the foot of the steps, having been thrown out yet again by the scruff of the neck from this or that café, salon, or atelier. Can there ever have been anyone less clubbable? Socially, as in so many other ways, he was his own worst enemy. The tone of the letters consistently is that of a man still aflame after a violent argument, gradually subsiding into a hot puddle of guilt and shame from which now and then, in a renewed fit of rage, he surges up into yet another outburst of rancorous self-justification. On practically every page we seem to hear the slammed door, the kicked chair, the pen nib gouging into the writing paper, and the fierce little red-haired man hissing in fury through his teeth. If it were not all so sad, it would be comic,” Banville writes.

All the same, Van Gogh’s letters have played a crucial part in his posthumously gained fame, thanks to his sister-in-law, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, who recognised them as the keys that would unlock Van Gogh’s paintings.

“I have a View of the Rhône — the Trinquetaille iron bridge, where the sky and the river are the colour of absinthe — the quays a lilac tone, the people leaning on the parapet almost black, the iron bridge an intense blue — with a bright orange note in the blue background and an intense Veronese green note,” Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo on June 28, 1888 (letter 634). (Painting: Le Pont de Trinquetaille, painted in Arles, c. 17 June 1888, by Vincent Van Gogh; oil on canvas, 65 x 81 cm. Private collection. The painting is part of Christie’s 20th-century art evening sale in New York on 13 May 2021, where it is expected to fetch between US$25 million and US$35 million.)

In The Woman Who Made van Gogh, Russell Shorto tells the remarkable story of Jo van Gogh-Bonger, who married Theo van Gogh in 1888, two years prior to the death of Vincent. Devastated by his brother’s death, Theo died shortly after, in 1891, leaving Jo with some 400 paintings and hundreds of drawings by her brother-in-law.

“The brothers’ dying so young, Vincent at 37 and Theo at 33, and without the artist having achieved renown — Theo had managed to sell only a few of his paintings — would seem to have ensured that Vincent van Gogh’s work would subsist eternally in a netherworld of obscurity. Instead, his name, art and story merged to form the basis of an industry that stormed the globe, arguably surpassing the fame of any other artist in history. That happened in large part thanks to Jo van Gogh-Bonger. She was small in stature and riddled with self-doubt, had no background in art or business and faced an art world that was a thoroughly male preserve. Her full story has only recently been uncovered [by Hans Luijten, a senior researcher at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam]. It is only now that we know how van Gogh became van Gogh,” Shorto writes.

Luijten began writing a biography of Jo in 2009. Alles voor Vincent (‘All for Vincent’) was published in 2019, but because it is still available only in Dutch, the book is just beginning to percolate into the world of art scholarship. Art historians say Luijten’s biography is a major step in what will be an ongoing reappraisal, not only of the source of Van Gogh’s fame but also of the modern notion of what an artist is. For that, too, is something Jo helped to invent. “It shows that without Jo there would have been no Van Gogh,” says Steven Naifeh, co-author of the best-selling 2011 biography Van Gogh: The Life and author of the forthcoming Van Gogh and the Artists He Loved.

“As if to steel herself for her task ahead, [Jo] read a biography of one of her heroes, Mary Ann Evans, the English protofeminist and social critic who wrote novels under the pen name George Eliot. She described Evans in her diary as ‘that great, courageous, intelligent woman whom I’ve loved and revered almost since childhood’ and noted that ‘remembering her is always an incentive to be better,’” Russell Shorto writes in The Woman Who Made van Gogh. (Painting: Jo van Gogh-Bonger, 1925, by Isaac Israëls; oil on panel, 35 x 27 cm. Collection of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Courtesy of the Vincent van Gogh Foundation / Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam)

After settling in the genteel Dutch village of Bussum, where she opened a boardinghouse, Jo “matter-of-factly […] identified the two responsibilities that Theo had given her. ‘As well as the child,’ she wrote, ‘he has left me another task — Vincent’s work — getting it seen and appreciated as much as possible.’

Having no training in how to achieve this, she began with what was at hand. In addition to Vincent’s paintings, she had inherited the enormous trove of letters that the brothers had exchanged. In Bussum, in the evenings, with her guests taken care of and the baby asleep, she pored over them. Nearly all, it turned out, were from Vincent — her husband had carefully kept Vincent’s letters, but Vincent hadn’t been so fastidious with the ones his brother had sent him. Details of the artist’s daily life and tribulations — his insomnia, his poverty, his self-doubt — were mixed with accounts of paintings he was working on, techniques he experimented with, what he was reading, descriptions of paintings by other artists he drew inspiration from. He often felt the need to put into words what he was trying to achieve with color: ‘Town violet, star yellow, sky blue-green; the wheat fields have all the tones: old gold, copper, green gold, red gold, yellow gold, green, red and yellow bronze.’ Repeatedly he sought to explain his objective in capturing what he was looking at: ‘I tried to reconstruct the thing as it may have been by simplifying and accentuating the proud, unchanging nature of the pines and the cedar bushes against the blue.’ He described his harrowing mental breakdowns and his fear of future collapses — that ‘a more violent crisis may destroy my ability to paint forever,’ and his notion that, should he experience another episode, he could ‘go into an asylum or even to the town prison, where there’s usually an isolation cell.’

[…]

By the end of her first year on her own — living with Vincent’s paintings and his words, reading deeply, immersing herself from time to time in these gatherings — Jo had experienced a kind of epiphany: Van Gogh’s letters were part and parcel of the art. They were keys to the paintings. The letters brought the art and the tragic, intensely lived life together into a single package. Jo would have appreciated the view of the French Impressionists she had met in Paris that the notion of following rules on how and what to paint had become impossibly inauthentic, that in a world lacking a central authority an artist had to look within for guidance. That was what Monet, Gauguin and the others had done, and the results were to be seen on their canvases. Bringing an artist’s biography into the mix was simply another step in the same direction.

The letters also pointed to the audience Vincent had intended. Vincent, who once sought a career as a minister and lived among peasants to humble himself, had desperately wanted to make art that reached beyond the cognoscenti and directly into the hearts of common people. ‘No result of my work would be more agreeable to me,’ he wrote to Theo, quoting another artist, ‘than that ordinary working men should hang such prints in their room or workplace.’ Vincent’s letters and paintings seemed to reinforce Jo’s own longstanding convictions about social justice. As a girl, influenced by Sunday sermons, she longed for a life of purpose. Just before agreeing to marry Theo, she visited Belgium, and the minister whose family she was staying with took her to see the living conditions of workers at a nearby coal mine. The experience shook her, and helped fuel what became a lifelong dedication to causes ranging from workers’ rights to female suffrage. She counted herself as one of the ‘ordinary’ people Vincent had written of, and she knew that he had considered himself one as well. After consuming her tortured brother-in-law’s words alone in her guesthouse one night during a storm in 1891, with the wind howling outside, she wrote in a letter, ‘I felt so desolate — that for the first time I understood what he must have felt, in those times when everyone turned away from him.’

She was now ready to act as agent for Vincent van Gogh. One of her first moves was to approach an art critic named Jan Veth , who in addition to being the husband of a friend was at the forefront of the New Guide circle. Veth was outspoken in his rejection of academic art and in promoting individual expression. At first, though, Veth dismissed Vincent’s work outright and belittled Jo’s efforts. He himself later admitted that he was initially ‘repelled by the raw violence of some van Goghs,’ and found these paintings ‘nearly vulgar.’ His reaction, despite his commitment to the new, gives a sense of the shock that Vincent’s canvases engendered at first sight. […]

Jo found Veth’s reaction disappointingly conventional. He must also have said something disparaging about a woman seeking to enter the art world, because she complained to her diary after an encounter with him: ‘We women are for the most part what men want us to be.’ But she realized his importance as a critic and believed that his openness to new ideas meant that she could persuade him to appreciate the paintings, telling her diary, ‘I won’t rest until he likes them.’

She pressed an envelope full of Vincent’s letters on Veth, encouraging him to use them, as she had, as a means to illuminate the paintings. She didn’t try to come across like an art critic but instead poured her heart out to the man, trying to guide him toward the shift in thinking that she felt was needed to perceive a new mode of artistic expression. She explained to Veth that she had begun reading the correspondence between the brothers in order to be closer to her dead husband, but then Vincent stole his way into her. ‘I read the letters — not only with my head — I was deep into them with my whole soul,’ she wrote to Veth. ‘I read them and reread them until the whole figure of Vincent was clear before me.’ She told him that she wished she could ‘make you feel the influence that Vincent has had on my life. … I’ve found serenity.’

Her timing was good. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga later characterized the ‘change of spirit that began to be felt in art and literature around 1890’ as a swirl of ideas that coalesced around two poles: ‘that of socialism and that of mysticism.’ Jo saw that Vincent’s art straddled both. Jan Veth was among those trying to process a shift from Impressionism to something new, an art that applied individualism to social and even spiritual questions. He listened to Jo and came around. He wrote one of the first appreciations of the artist, saying that he now saw ‘the astonishing clairvoyance of great humility’ and characterized Vincent as an artist who ‘seeks the raw root of things.’ In particular, Jo’s effort to bring her brother-in-law’s life to bear on his art seems to have worked with Veth. ‘Once having grasped his beauty, I can accept the whole man,’ the critic wrote.”

Also other critics at first resisted the idea of looking at Vincent’s life and work as one, only to give in. “When they looked at the paintings, they saw not just the art but Vincent, toiling and suffering, cutting off his ear, clawing at the act creation. They fused art and artist. They saw what Jo van Gogh-Bonger wanted them to see,” Shorto writes.

“The work of Vincent’s later period, when he was in an asylum in the South of France and after, which today is probably the most beloved part of his oeuvre, made some people uncomfortable,” Russell Shorto writes in The Woman Who Made van Gogh. “To some early critics, these paintings seemed clearly the product of mental illness. The unbridled intensity that Vincent brought to a lone mulberry tree, or a stand of cypresses, or a wheat field under a blazing sun, was off-putting. As one critic wrote, in response to the Amsterdam show, Vincent lacked ‘the distinctive calm that is inherent in the works of the very Great. He will always be a tempest.’” (Painting: The Garden of Saint Paul’s Hospital or ‘Leaf-Fall’, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, October 1889, by Vincent van Gogh; oil on canvas, 73.8 x 60.8 cm. Collection of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Courtesy of the Vincent van Gogh Foundation / Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam)

Emilie Gordenker, the director of the Van Gogh Museum, “says she was struck by Jo’s self-taught approach to marketing an artist. ‘She had to make it up as she went along,’ she says. ‘She didn’t have any background in this. But she was forthright and direct and at the same time very unsure of herself. That turns out to be a very productive combination of traits.’ Gordenker says she believes it was a simple gut feeling that led Jo to her epiphany. ‘That informed her decision to make one package of the work and the person. Of course, she could only do that because of the letters. She found them to be a unique selling point. She sold the package to the critics, and they bought it.’

Gordenker stresses that Jo’s approach worked because it suited the times. ‘It was a moment when everything came together. There was a return to romanticism in art and literature. People were open to it. And her achievement informs our image to this day of what an artist should do: be an individual; suffer for art, if need be.’ It takes some effort today to realize that people did not always see artists that way. ‘When I was studying art history, I was told to unthink that notion of the starving artist in the garret,’ Gordenker says. ‘It doesn’t work for the early modern period, when someone like Rembrandt was a master working with apprentices and had many wealthy clients. In a sense Jo helped shape the image that is still with us.’”

And also this…

Aristotle’s examination of fear is part of his study of the power of emotion in persuasion. “The person who carries fearlessness too far has no distinctive name,” he writes in his Nicomachean Ethics, “but if he were afraid of nothing — not even of an earthquake or inundation, as they say of the Celts — he would be a maniac or insensate.” On the other hand, the “man who exceeds in fearing is a coward. He fears the wrong things and in the wrong way.”

In Book 2, chapter 5 of Rhetoric (c. 355 BC), he writes:

“If fear is associated with the expectation that something destructive will happen to us, plainly nobody will be afraid who believes nothing can happen to him.

We shall not fear things that we believe cannot happen to us, nor people who we believe cannot inflict them on us. It follows therefore that fear is felt by those who believe something to be likely to happen to them, at the hands of particular persons, in a particular form, and at a particular time. People do not believe this when they are, or think they are, in the midst of great prosperity, and are in consequence insolent, contemptuous, and reckless — the kind of character produced by wealth, physical strength, abundance of friends, power; nor yet when they feel they have experienced every kind of horror and have grown callous about the future — like men who are being flogged and are already nearly dead. If they are to feel the anguish of uncertainty, there must be some faint expectation of escape. This appears from the fact that fear sets us thinking what can be done, which of course nobody does when things are hopeless.

Having seen the nature of fear, and of the things that cause it, and the various states of mind in which it is felt, we can also see what confidence is, about what things we feel it, and under what conditions. It is the opposite of fear, and what causes it is the opposite of what causes fear. It is therefore the expectation associated with a mental picture of the nearness of what keeps us safe, and the absence or remoteness of what is terrible. It may be due either to the near presence of what inspires confidence or to the absence of what causes alarm. We feel it if we can take steps — many, or important, or both — to cure or prevent trouble; if we have neither wronged others nor been wronged by them; if we have either no rivals at all or no strong ones; if our rivals who are strong are our friends or have treated us well or been treated well by us; or if those whose interest is the same as ours are the more numerous party, or the stronger, or both.

There are two reasons why human beings face danger calmly: they may have no experience of it or they may have means to deal with it. Thus, when in danger at sea, people may feel confident about what will happen either because they have no experience of bad weather or their experience gives them the means of dealing with it. We also feel confident whenever there is nothing to terrify other people like ourselves, or people weaker than ourselves, or people than whom we believe ourselves to be stronger — and we believe this if we have conquered them, or conquered others who are as strong as they are, or stronger. Also if we believe ourselves superior to our rivals in the number and importance of the advantages that make men formidable — wealth, physical strength, strong bodies of supporters, extensive territory, and the possession of all, or the most important, appliances of war. Also if we have wronged no one, or not many, or not those of whom we are afraid; and generally, if our relations with the gods are satisfactory, as will be shown especially by signs and oracles. The fact is that anger makes us confident — that anger is excited by our knowledge that we are not the wrongers but the wronged, and that the divine power is always supposed to be on the side of the wronged. Also when, at the outset of an enterprise, we believe that we cannot and shall not fail, or that we shall succeed completely.”

Source: Lapham’s Quarterly

Painting: Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, 1653, by Rembrandt van Rijn; oil on canvas, 143.5 x 136.5 cm. Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

“Art, beauty, philosophy, religion, science, in a word, culture, are on one level our magic tent — and we have needed it, desperately, since time immemorial. In all probability they were born at the same time, they are different modalities in which symbolic thought is articulated,” Guido Tonelli writes in Our Most Effective Weapon Is Imagination, excerpted from his book Genesis: The Story of How Everything Began (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021).

“It is not difficult to imagine that rhythms and assonances in the use of words would have facilitated the mnemonic transmission of the story of origins, and that this is how song and poetry developed; that something similar may have occurred with signs and symbols depicted on the walls of caves, with increasingly sophisticated formal perfection; or that in the rites and the ceremonies that accompanied moments of mourning, regular sounds would accompany the rhythmic movement of the body or the song of a wise man or shaman. Science is part of this story; it is no accident that episteme and techne go together, knowledge and the capacity to produce utensils, artefacts, machines.

It was no accident either for the Greeks that techne, the root of ‘technique,’ also indicates the common ground between the artisanal and the artistic, and this is why when flint bifacials are produced, the technical requirements of having at one’s disposal a sharp and easy-to-handle cutting tool are interlaced with the aesthetic ones of producing something symmetrical, fine, perfectly balanced — in a word, beautiful, like an art object.

These exigencies seem to have constituted something irrepressible for all the human groups that have trod the Earth for millennia. Even the most isolated of remote tribes, found from time to time in some forest in Borneo or the Amazon, have developed their own rites, a specific form of artistic expression and their own symbolic universe, all backed by an overarching story of their origins. Without such narratives, not only would it not be possible to build great civilizations, but even the most elementary social structures would fail to survive. This is the reason why all human groups on our planet are characterized by strong cultural traits.”

“In his Theaetetus, Plato remarks to Socrates: ‘This pathos is proper to the philosopher: It is the thaumazein. And philosophy has no other point of departure than this.’ The word, which contains the root thauma, the same that appears in thaumaturgy, has often been translated as ‘wonder.’ Philosophy is born out of amazement mixed with the curiosity that arises from facing something inexplicable that fascinates and transcends us. Aristotle writes explicitly that, beginning by asking the simplest questions, humanity has come to wonder about ever more complex things, ending up by investigating the moon, the sun and the stars, and by asking how the very universe itself came into being,” Guido Tonelli writes in Our Most Effective Weapon Is Imagination. (Photographs: Head of Plato, Roman Empire, mid-3rd century, by an unknown maker; white marble, 36 cm. Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

“When imagination and narrative are cultivated within a group, they become powerful tools of survival. Whoever listens and imagines the experiences of others acquires in this way real knowledge. Narrative condenses the lessons accumulated over a long sequence of preceding generations, allowing us to experience and to understand — allowing us to live, in effect, a thousand lives. Imagination allows us to experience emotions and fears, sorrows and dangers, and the values of the group; the rules that help to preserve it and the rules that preserve and govern its development are reiterated and memorized through the generations.

Imagination, as developed and encouraged in groups that are socially and culturally more advanced, is the single most effective weapon that we have ever managed to develop. Science also originates with imagination: Having chosen to base its own narrative on experimental verification, it has had to come up with ever more inventive techniques and bolder visions. In order to explore the more hidden corners of matter and of the universe, science has had to overcome every limit and has turned the story of origins into an extraordinary journey.

In doing this it has frequently had to change the paradigms of humanity’s way of thinking about things. It has done this many times throughout history, from Anaximander to Heisenberg and Einstein, and continues to do so. Science constantly advances, and it changes our way of seeing and describing the world. Whenever this happens, everything changes. Not just because of the new instruments and technologies that arise from it, but above all because of the fact that changing paradigms modifies all of our relations. When we look at the world with different eyes, our culture changes along with our art and philosophy. To understand and anticipate these changes is to have the tools to build a better human community.

For this reason art, science, and philosophy are still essential disciplines, giving consistency to our being as humans. This unified vision of the world, which originates from our most distant past, is still the most suitable tool to deal with the challenges of the future.”

“We derive meaning from understanding ourselves because of the deep human need for self-expression,” argues Lucy Foulkes, a psychologist and the author of Losing Our Minds (Bodley Head, 2021), in How to have more meaningful conversations.

“The social psychologist Kirsty Gardiner […] studies social interactions, and she identifies self-expression — ‘sharing key aspects of who you are as a person’ — as the first of three components that can make conversations really valuable. Most of us are hungry for an opportunity to share what we are thinking, to clarify and explore things that matter to us. So having the chance to formulate these abstract thoughts into words, and to share them with an interested listener who validates those thoughts, helps us feel understood.

In meaningful exchanges, the role of the listener is vital (which is why a meaningful conversation can be so much more rewarding than simply writing down our thoughts, or talking to ourselves when we are home alone). An effective listener enables us to get feedback about who we are through their eyes. And this, according to Gardiner, is the second critical part of a meaningful conversation — it enables us to better understand ourselves. ‘We often do that by having ourselves reflected back from other people,’ she says. This process of speaking, being heard, and better understanding ourselves helps to facilitate a sense of connection, which Gardiner identifies as the final step in meaningful conversations. Ultimately, such conversations make us feel connected to other people, thus satisfying a well-established, fundamental human motivation.

Of course, in a two-way conversation, we take turns at being the speaker and the listener. The other party will also speak about themselves and share what they know and think, and this provides us with an opportunity for learning something important and valuable about them. Meaningful conversations, in short, allow us to learn something important about ourselves, about the other person, or about the world — and, when this happens, we come away feeling better understood and connected with those around us.”

“The heart of good conversation is reciprocity. The magic is more likely to happen when you and the other party abide by a simple rule: I will give you the space to speak, and I will properly listen to what you have to say,” Lucy Foulkes writes in in How to have more meaningful conversations (Painting: The Conversation, c. 1935, by Arnold Borisovich Lakhovsky; oil on canvas, 51.1 x 61.3 cm. Courtesy of Sotheby’s, New York)

The good news is, according to Foulkes, that with a little effort and a few new approaches, we can find ways to enjoy them more often. Willingness to share something about yourself is one of them.

“There’s a critical moment of transition in the development of all relationships — whether it’s the shift from acquaintance to love interest, from colleague to confidante, from neighbour to friend. It’s the moment when you decide to share something more personal about yourself. Psychologists call this self-disclosure, and it’s a key step in developing intimacy. The communication experts Amanda Carpenter and Kathryn Greene […] liken the act of self-disclosure to the peeling of an onion. Each time an individual shares something important about themselves, a layer is peeled back, exposing something deeper and more important, until eventually they reach the core. ‘It takes time to reach another’s core self, the most intimate details about another person,’ they wrote in 2016. ‘The core personality includes the most private information about a person.’

[…]

If this seems a little daunting, remember that you don’t have to jump to the core of the onion right away — or ever. Self-disclosure can involve sharing a fairly small part of yourself. It might also help to recognise that it’s a brave gesture. ‘I would say, dare to go to the next level in a conversation,’ [the psychologist Matthias Mehl] says. Gardiner agrees: ‘Maybe the simplest thing to focus on, in your existing relationships, is to be brave and share something about yourself … It could be a fear, it could be a goal, it could be a value or belief. It could be something that happened to you in the past that you haven’t told them. I think that is going to facilitate something.’”

“From the 14th to the 16th century, Iran had witnessed growth and affluence under the Timurid and Safavid dynasties. During this period, many mosques, palaces and pavilions were commissioned and contributed to sites of veneration and pilgrimage. However not many of these key architectural realms survived and few historical texts exist to relay the intricacies of the architecture of that time. What remained were some dispersed manuscripts from the Shahnameh and other renowned illustrated stories or poems that represented the moral values and aesthetics of that period. Inadvertently these initial renders became the main representation of a unique and fantastic Islamic architecture,” Hana Abdel, a projects curator at Projects Curator at ArchDaily, writes in Looking into Lost Persian Architecture through Safavid Manuscripts.

Left: Bahram Gur in the Red Pavilion, mid 16th century, Iran, by Nizami (The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore); right: Yusuf and Zulaikha (Yusuf pursued by Potiphar’s wife), 1488, Herat, Afghanistan, by Behzād (National Library, Cairo)

“Contrary to accurate spatial depiction of the Renaissance art, which was taking over the West, Timurid and Safavid artists opted for a stylized reflection of reality. Despite their familiarity with realistic visual representation, achieved through linear perspective and depth techniques, they chose to keep the illustrations two dimensional. Instead, the focus was on key Islamic art elements and materiality, giving way to human imagination to play a role in the development of the spatial understanding.

In these small ink illustrations, there was an effort to describe the built structures, while omitting any explicit spatial logic. There is a sense of how things might be rather than how they are. The result is similar to a flat collage representing opulent palaces and mosques. The four guiding components of Islamic art are implemented, including calligraphy, vegetative forms, geometric elements and figures; adding dynamism and suggesting a function within the space. Various tiling patterns would then refer to different surfaces and hint to a possible layout of the building or interior.”

Left: Bahram Gur in the Turquoise Palace on Wednesday, 1524–25, by Nizami (The Met, New York); right: The Beggar who Professed his Love for a Prince, 1487, by Farid al-Din `Attar (The Met, New York)

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Building of Al Khawarnak-Khausa, by Nizami (courtesy of the trustees of the British Library) — In this miniature, there is a concise representation of bricks with the tiling drawn in different orientations, evoking the entire architectural and construction process. The composition and coloor balance of the piece reflect the movement in building activity.

The Guardian published some of the winning photographs in the categories recognising the art and diversity of food photography of the Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year 2021 contest.

The overall winner, Taste by the Chinese photographer Li Huaifeng, shows a young family sharing in the joy of preparing food on a warm and sunny day in Licheng, Shanxi.

Food for the Family: Taste by Li Huaifeng, China — This photo was taken on October 4, 2016 in Licheng, Shanxi, on a sunny and warm day, depicting a happy family.
Street Food: Enjoying by Viet Van Tran, Vietnam — An old town and popular tourist destination in central Vietnam where there are many sweet soup sellers. Four young girls passionately eating soup made me feel that life is lovely even though we are in a pandemic.

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Food at the Table: Breakfast at Weekly Market by Thong Nguyen, Vietnam — People enjoy their pho for breakfast at a local weekly market.

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Politics of Food: Old Friends by Sandro Maddalena, Italy — Refugees from the Abkhazian-Georgian conflict gather in the basement of an abandoned sanatorium to share their food. Almost 30 years after the conflict, Abkhazian refugees are still living in abandoned buildings in poverty.

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Young (15–17): Spill the Tea by Dewi Hollema, Egypt — Men gather on the side of a street in old Alexandria to share the gossip with a cup of black sweet tea and snacks. This is a common sight in Egypt where the national drink, tea, is enjoyed throughout the day.

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Winterbotham Darby Food for Sale: Street Vendor by Joseph Smith, Malta — A woman sells capers and other delicacies from her old pram on the streets of Marsaxlokk, a fishing village in Malta.

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Bring Home the Harvest: Drying Okra by F Dilek Uyar, Turkey — Drying okra flowers in Tokat, Turkey. Women pick okra flowers from the field and arrange them on a rope, then the dried flowers fall and the okra becomes ready to be used in winter.
Fujifilm Award for Innovation: Making Rice Noodles by Abdul Momin, Bangladesh — A worker inspects whether rice noodles are dried correctly.

“I’ve been reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry of the Future, and he posits such a scenario: an acute climate crisis so bad that India actually gets its act together. In this case of contemporary India, this seems like a darkly amusing fantasy, but in fact, that’s the way new institutions have been created in the past: an overwhelming and immediate challenge where people in power really do want to run away from authority if they don’t have an ability to do anything about it.

The problem with climate change, however, is that, politically, it’s exactly the wrong kind of threat. Mitigating the threat requires a lot of payment upfront. Oftentimes, you will not feel the benefits. They’ll be felt by somebody in another jurisdiction or by somebody who is not yet alive and voting. There’s little incentive to move in that direction.

What we need to do is think through the scenarios where a politician would want to delegate power to somebody else. How bad would things have to get before a politician would be willing to give up control of their budget authority, for example, or any of the other things that political leaders think they have responsibility for? I have a hard time imagining that, but I’m also open to the possibility or even the likelihood that at some point it’s going to happen, so it’s worth thinking now about how to design a new supranational institution.” — Francis Fukuyama, from Will We Ever Get Beyond The Nation-State?

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 and follow me on Twitter.

helping senior executives and leadership teams navigate complexity with wisdom & clarity of thought

helping senior executives and leadership teams navigate complexity with wisdom & clarity of thought