Tag Archives: Picasso

Quote of the Day

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Those of old who were competent

in ruling according to the Tao

did not do it by enlightening the people

but by keeping the people unknowing.

The difficulty in leading the people

comes from their knowing too much.

(Lao, LXV)

Today’s quote comes from one of the most famous extant texts from ancient China, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. Although many people have heard of something call Taoism (pronounced “Daoism”), few of us have read this immensely important book or even know what Taoism is at its core.

The word “Tao” (,) refers to “the way,” and for Lao Tzu the critical challenge in life was to live a life according to the Tao, to be in harmony with nature, energy/life force, effortless action, and spiritual power. People sometimes confuse Taoism with Confucianism, but as all Koreans and foreigners who have lived/live in Korea can attest to, Confucianism distinguishes itself by its strict adherence to social order and rituals.

For centuries – in fact, even today – Westerners have a difficult time grasping the notions of Taoism and Confucianism (China), shamanism (Korea) and Shintoism (Japan), partly because we don’t take the time to educate ourselves and partly because we (mainly) come from a monotheistic faith background that dictates you are either with us or against us; you’re either a Catholic or a Jew, a Muslim or a Christian. Not so in East Asia.

As over a billion people will tell you from the old Silk Road of Central Asia all the way to the Ryukyu Islands of Japan, “religion” for them does not have to be mutually exclusive. There are Shinto Buddhists in Tokyo, Christian Confucianists in Seoul and Taoist Catholics in China. And really, why shouldn’t you take the best of both worlds? Who ever wrote in the rulebook of life that it’s an all-or-nothing decision when maturing as an adult and trying to find your way spiritually in this great big wide world?

Regardless, I chose today’s quote because, frighteningly enough, this seems to be right out of the Donnie T. playbook (not that he’s actually read any books).  It was also the precursor to the Bread and Circuses metonymic (the unofficial political policy of the Roman Empire) attributed to the Roman poet Juvenal, and which would later become the cornerstone of communist policy in 20th-century states such as the Soviet Union, China, North Korea and Cuba.

As a final point of interest, we may have had Gandhi, Mandela, Mother Theresa, Einstein, Hawking and Picasso as some of the greatest and most influential figures of the last century, but it’s astounding to think that Lao Tzu, Confucius, the Buddha, Socrates, Plato,  Aristotle and Pythagoras were all relative contemporaries as well. Yikes! That’s some serious brain power laying a philosophical, educational, religious and social foundation all at one time.

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Where Abstract Art and Science Intersect

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In his piece entitled “This is your brain on art: A neuroscientist’s lessons on why abstract art makes our brains hurt so good,” Noah Charney writes for @Salon about a Nobel Prize-winning scientist specializing in human memory who is attempting to “break new ground in art history.”

Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine? Science? Art? This string of words is as titillating as it is tantalizing.

The Nobel Laureate Dr. Eric Kandel of Columbia University was initially interviewed by Mr. Charney in a piece called “On Memory, Klimt, Sex and Sea Snails.” Sounds sexy mild, right?

In the former article, Noah Charney postulates that the average person enjoys – and is less intimated by – traditional, naturalistic, formal art. It’s what Hitler called Hellenistic art. The German leader actually hated anything except this classical fine art medium so much that in 1937 he went so far as to hold what will probably go down in history as the biggest art sale ever, partly to raise money for his burgeoning army, but mostly to purge his borders of the “filth” that he believed painters like Picasso, Manet, Monet, Dalí , Miró, Gauguin, and van Gogh embodied. The führer lumped Impressionism, Surrealism, Expressionism, Cubism, and abstract art all into one category: scheisse (poo poo ca ca).

But I digress. As Mr. Charney argues, abstract art “poses such an enormous challenge to the beholder [because] it teaches us to look at art – and, in a sense, the world – in a new way. Abstract art dares our visual system to interpret an image that is fundamentally different from the kind of images our brain has evolved to reconstruct.”

Dr. Kandel backs this up with scientific data about the brain, discussing something every neuroscientist knows intimately: the difference between bottom-up and top-down thinking. The former refers to mental processes that are ingrained over centuries. In a nutshell, our safe zone from a cognitive point of view. The latter, on the other hand, refers to personal experience and knowledge.

Put in the context of art, “Top-down thinking is needed to interpret formal, symbol, or story-rich art. Abstraction taps bottom-up thinking, requiring little to know a priori knowledge.”

Personally, my favourite abstract painter is Wassily Kandinsky. As seen in this painting below, Sketch for Composition VII, 1913, Kandinsky does so much with what on the surface appears to be nothing but some random colours thrown together. But just as Dr. Kandel has shown through numerous brain experiments, a painting such as this bends and warps and pushes the mind to move in different directions and to essentially think outside the box.

As it were, Kandinsky was actually the inspiration behind my own short story, “Fervour of Spirit,” as well as the impetus behind a character in my second novel, The Immortal Flower.

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Now, that’s not to say that I love all abstract art. I’ve been very fortunate to have visited some of the finest museums in the world, and every time I run across a Mark Rothko piece, like the one seen below, I scratch my head in wonder and say to myself, How on Earth is that meaningful or aesthetically appealing? Split the canvas in half and paint two colours? For true and for serious? It just looks like a bad European flag to me.

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From a literary perspective, I highly recommend reading Lynn H. Nicholas’s The Rape of Europa if you’re interested in learning how modern art, especially abstract art, survived the Nazi purge of World War II, and how Peggy Guggenheim almost single-handedly saved Europe’s treasure trove of artistic treasures.

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