The Power of Human Ingenuity, and Other News


On the Shelf

An illustration by Félix Vallotton from Paul Scheerbart’s Rakkóx the Billionaire & the Great Race, 1901. New York Review of Books.

  • The Danish writer Dorthe Nors decided to leave Copenhagen for Jutland, and she’s having a wild time: “Just about the time that I seriously began to consider moving from Copenhagen, the first wolf was sighted in Jutland. Big commotion! Wolves had been wiped out a couple of centuries previous, and suddenly: ‘a wolf in Jutland!’ Interest groups sprouted up that felt the wolf should be shot. A wolf-free Denmark, they said. Out trickled tales that seemed to have come from the Brothers Grimm. Letters fired off to editors screamed, ‘The wolf is coming, the wolf is coming!’ People said they were afraid that the wolf would approach their houses, would snatch their children. ‘But Jutland is a big place,’ said others, who knew that the most dangerous wolf is the one that lurks in our minds. ‘Let’s welcome the wolf back.’ The debate was heated.”
  • Vinson Cunningham has been staring at a lot of ugly things—and reading Gretchen Henderson’s new Ugliness: A Cultural History. The role of ugliness in our culture is changing, he writes: “I can’t remember the last time I heard one person call another person ugly. Art: sure. But when it comes to other human beings, we seem to have invested almost totally in metaphoric deployments of the word: ‘ugly’ now describes degrading items like the steadily worsening rhetoric of Donald Trump; or, simply, sinful behavior, as in: ‘God don’t like ugly.’ This may seem like progress, but it could also be regarded as a kind of absurd end state for Aristotelian thinking. No longer does the outward merely track the inward: by an almost forgotten transitive process, the two have become one. And so, today, ugly means evil, and the philosopher’s conflation is complete.”
  • Today in the quest for utopia: pause to remember Paul Scheerbart (discussed previously on the Daily), a German writer whose work was animated by “unfashionable, childlike hopefulness”: “Scheerbart often reads like an apocalyptic mystic out of the Middle Ages who was somehow transported to the age of railroads and telegraphs. He returns again and again to the idea that existence—our own, or those of aliens on other planets—can be transformed into a paradise inhabited by beings who are like gods … Yet the agency of earthly renewal, in Scheerbart’s work, is not divine—at least, not directly. It is, rather, the power of human ingenuity, operating with hitherto unimaginable tools and techniques, that will literally remake the face of the earth.”
  • A new exhibition, “Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado,” gives a sumptuous public presentation to paintings that were once strictly a private affair: “During the culturally repressive late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Spanish kings often secreted away their nude paintings in rooms known as ‘salas reservadas,’ where they could enjoy them in private … ‘These types of paintings were considered anathema,’ said Kathleen Morris … ‘The royals, the kings and their entourage found a way around the idea that they were not considered to be appropriate.’ ”
  • If I know you, you’ve been living in your little bubble, completely ignoring South Korean abstract art. Well, it’s time to stop ignoring South Korean abstract art, says Barry Schwabsky, who has paid attention while the rest of us distracted ourselves: “One attraction is that ready-made label: tansaekhwa (sometimes rendered dansaekhwa). The word means ‘monochrome painting,’ but it’s usually translated as ‘Korean monochrome painting’ to distinguish it within the genre that came into existence in Russia when Malevich painted his white-on-white canvas in 1918 … Tansaekhwa deserves the attention of anyone with a genuine interest in painting, in part because it originated in a deep ambivalence about painting. In South Korea, education in painting runs on two separate tracks: ‘Oriental’ (ink) and ‘Western’ (oil). The tansaekhwa artists, born and partly educated in the prewar period of Japanese occupation, may not have been trained under this system, but it’s worth considering their work not so much as a synthesis of these supposedly separate Asian and Euro-American strands, but in opposition to both—as well as in opposition to the very dichotomy between them.”