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Archive for the 'Art' Category

Tuesday, September 26th, 2017

Low-Brow Culture and the Art of Deception in Ming China

The Book of Swindles

If your first association with Ming China is delicate blue-and-white vases or the dreamy landscape paintings of Shen Zhou and others, The Book of Swindles will give you a very different idea of the period. This book reveals the seedy, funny, cruel and absurd aspects of a culture dominated by a complex government bureaucracy, on the one hand, and rampant commerce, on the other. While in its thoroughness it stands on par with, say, canonical Chinese writings on warfare, The Book of Swindles is a classic of a different kind. This is a treatise on one of the less dignified aspects of human nature: the art of deception.

The experience of reading Zhang Yingyu is comparable to that of Boccaccio’s Decameron. While the buildings and frescoes of fourteenth-century Florence are a testament to the Renaissance city’s loftiest aspirations, Boccaccio’s tales show a world of widespread corruption, illicit sexual exploits, strong passions, and shameless scams. Perhaps human nature has not changed all that much since then. Writers like Zhang Yingyu and Boccaccio show us the darker, funnier, and more human side of even the most glorious historical periods.

In the case of Ming China, scams and deception are also reflected in some of the visual art of the period. The handscroll painting on the cover of The Book of Swindles shows a busy market in which a visitor is being given false assurances by an insistent salesman. The new edition’s translators, Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk, explain:

“The cover illustration shows detail from ‘Bustling Nanjing’ 南都繁繪圖卷, a long handscroll painting by an anonymous Ming dynasty artist (formerly attributed to Qiu Ying 仇英, 1494?–1552) currently held in the National Museum of China. This scene of a marketplace in the capital features in the foreground a row of shops, including the Yonghe Fabric Emporium; a money changer, identifiable even to the illiterate by the silver ingot and bronze coin depicted on the top of its two signs; and what appears to be a candle vendor. An itinerant musician—a quintessential figure of the Rivers and Lakes—walks by on the left, carrying a lute on his back. Across the street, we see a vendor of ceramic dishware on the left and, on the right, a man selling tea or warmed wine. Drawing our attention at the center is a man gesturing toward a restaurant called ‘Zhang’s Place’. Yet the animals flanking the passerby suggest he should be wary of accepting the tout’s invitation: this establishment is probably one that ‘hangs a lamb’s head out front while selling dog meat in the back’, as a common expression for bait-and-switch would have it. This roadside scene thus depicts a cultural tableau of commercial institutions, itinerant characters, and deceptive practices similar to what we find in Zhang Yingyu’s work.”

The Book of Swindles includes some forty-odd tales of deception, from the daft to the elaborate, with each one ending poorly for either the potential victim or the scammer. Stay tuned for an excerpt from the book, which will be published on the blog tomorrow.

Saturday, September 16th, 2017

Why Only Art Can Save Us, Part II

Why Only Art Can Save Us

The following is part II of an interview with Santiago Zabala, author of Why Only Art Can Save Us: Aesthetics and the Absence of Emergency. You can read part I here.

Question: Heidegger’s Schwarze Hefte (Black Notebooks) have an important place in your book. Can you explain why? Aren’t you afraid of the anti-Semitic passages of this book?

Santiago Zabala: The reason I used these books is that they contain, as his other writing of the same epoch, a number of statements on emergency and its absence that are central for my research. As far as the anti-Semitic passages: I obviously condemn them, but they don’t have much to do with his philosophy. Let’s please remember Heidegger is not the only great philosopher to have racist and antidemocratic views: Aristotle justified slavery, Hume considered black people to be naturally inferior to whites, and Frege also sympathized with fascism and anti-Semitism. Although Heidegger’s involvement with the Nazi Party has been known since the late 1980s, the recent publication of his Black Notebooks offered more evidence of his racist (anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic) views, triggering a backlash. If Jürgen Habermas, among others, has recently expressed perplexities regarding the ongoing fascination with Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, it’s because the attempt to channel his anti-Semitism into the history of Being is absurd. It’s part of what David Farrell Krell calls the “Heidegger scandal industry.” Together with other Heideggerians such as Krell, Richard Polt, and Gregory Fried, I think it’s important to continue to both read and criticize his philosophy despite his unacceptable racist views.

Q: Besides Heidegger, which other philosophers help you to create this new aesthetics?

SZ: Arthur C. Danto, Jacques Rancière, Gianni Vattimo, and Michael Kelly have all contributed in different ways. Danto, through his theory of the end of art, has helped me understand how truth has become more important than beauty; Rancière showed me that aesthetics is irreducibly political in its distribution and imposition of the sensible; and Vattimo indicated the hermeneutic consequences of art’s ontological status. Kelly, it could be said, triggered the whole project. In A Hunger for Aesthetics he writes that “the main goal of aesthetics today is to explain how the transformation of demands on art to demands by art is already a reality in some contemporary art.” These demands are linked to the absence of emergencies produced by our metaphysical condition. This is why aesthetics must be capable of interpreting these demands rather than “reality.”

Q: By “reality” you are referring to so-called speculative or new realist aesthetics that seek to judge or describe works of art independently of their effects, environment, and relations?

SZ: Yes, although I would not call “new realism” a new philosophy but the latest descriptive metaphysics. The adherents of this movement are brilliant at marketing it through book series, conferences, and blogs, making the public believe it’s something new, but they embody the absence of emergency we discussed earlier. Although these “new” philosophers justify their theoretical beliefs in different ways, seeking to demonstrate—despite Thomas Kuhn—the supposed stability of a particular scientific understanding of the world, their work is part of a global call to order or, as Boris Groys recently pointed this out in E-Flux, a return to psychology and psychologism. It is curious, as Simon Critchley rightly pointed out, that just “when a certain strand of Anglo-American philosophy (think of John McDowell or Robert Brandom) is making domestic the insights of Kant, Hegel and Heidegger and even allowing philosophers to flirt with forms of idealism, the latest development in Continental philosophy is seeking to return to a Cartesian realism that was believed to be dead and buried.” If, as Graham Harman suggests, aesthetics ought to become “first philosophy,” it is not because it can understand the “cryptic inner reality” that makes the effects of art possible, but rather because aesthetics can provide a way to interpret the emergency of art’s existential disclosures. After all, as Žižek says, “there is no ‘neutral’ reality within which gaps occur, within which frames isolate domains of appearances. Every field of ‘reality’ (every ‘world’) is always-already enframed, seen through an invisible frame.”

Q: Is this “invisible frame” what you call hermeneutics? What role does the philosophy of interpretation have in the book?

SZ: Yes, interpretation is the invisible frame through which we understand the world, and ignoring it is simply silly at this point of the history of philosophy. Hermeneutics is a philosophical stance focused upon the interpretative nature of human beings. Although juridical and biblical hermeneutics played a significant role throughout the history of hermeneutics, Hans-Georg Gadamer, in Truth and Method, decided to emphasize its aesthetic nature. Instead of its aesthetic nature I stress interpretation’s anarchic nature. The interpretation required to draw us closer to genuine appearance must be anarchic and existential, that is, suited to “venture into the untrodden and unformed realm of the opening of the emergency” as Heidegger says. If we can save ourselves through art’s existential claims it’s because interpretation is a vital practice where the interpreter, as Vattimo says, “must also become, fatally, a militant.” In sum, this book develops a radical hermeneutic conception of art and aesthetics by way of a philosophical and political engagement with Heidegger, as well as with contemporary artists who help demonstrate and apply this vision.

Q: For the cover you chose an image of The Ninth Hour, the most celebrated sculpture by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, which represents Pope John Paul II lying on the ground after being struck by a meteorite. Can you explain how it relates to the book?

SZ: The sculpture’s title alludes to the ninth hour of darkness that fell upon all the land when Christ cried out “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This alludes to this book’s title, which paraphrases Heidegger’s famous statement that “only a God can still save us” when he was asked whether we could still have any influence now that we are so overpowered by technology. Heidegger alludes not to God’s representative on earth, as portrayed in Cattelan’s work, but rather the absence of Being, which in our technological world has become the essential emergency. The goal of this book is to thrust us into this emergency as it is revealed through works of art. I was very happy to see this sculpture also used in the opening credits of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope series, which I enjoyed very much.

Q: Beside Cattelan’s work on the cover, there are twelve works in your book by artists from all over the world. Can you talk a little about why you chose these particular artists? Aren’t you afraid, as Mark C. Taylor said, that art often “loses its critical function and ends up reinforcing the very structures and systems it ought to be questioning.”

SZ: I agree with Taylor. But the same goes for philosophy or other intellectual activities. In order to challenge the lack of emergency in today’s society it is necessary to understand that these emergencies concern all of us. I’m referring not only to climate change but also to social media and global terror. I do not think that among artists there is greater freedom than among philosophers. How framed we are within the “very structures and systems” we should question does not depend on our field of research but rather how much we are inclined to disclose the absence of emergency. This is why I agree with Heidegger when he said the “artist remains something inconsequential in comparison with the work—almost like a passageway which, in the creative process, destroys itself for the sake of the coming forth of the work.” My choice of these artists or, better, their works, is not based on their nationality but rather in these emergencies. I think most of the artists were quite surprised by my request to use their work in the book as I’m not in the art world, a curator or an art critic. Either way, I’m very grateful they allowed the reproduction of their work.

Q: Why did you only present visual works or art?

SZ: Because they were easier to reproduce in a book. They are not necessarily better at disclosing the essential emergency than other forms of art such as dance, music, or cinema. I do refer to TV series (Hung), theater (Young Jean Lee’s plays), and songs (Tom Waits’s “The Road to Peace”) that also disclose emergencies.

Q: Some critics believe “relational aesthetics” is over. Has the time arrived for an “emergency aesthetics”?

SZ: I’m not certain whether the time is right as I’m not an art historian. Either way. I took my chances as I think the works of art I discuss disclose “an emergency turn” or “sensibility” in contemporary art. The problem is what we understand as an emergency. What is important for me is that the traditional relationship among the art object, the artist, and the audience is not simply overturned, as in relational aesthetics, but also disturbed, agitated into new action by the danger revealed by art’s ability to thrust the viewer into emergency. This move toward emergency art has also given rise to similar aesthetics theories, such as Jill Bennett’s “practical aesthetics,” Veronica Tello’s “counter-memorial aesthetics,” and Malcolm Miles’s “eco-aesthetics,” where emergencies also play a central role. The theoretical proposals of Bennett, Tello, and Miles, like my own emergency aesthetics, do not simply regenerate aesthetics through artistic practices but also respond to current vital issues. Hal Foster’s latest book, Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency, confronts the problem of emergency, but he does not distinguish between emergency and absence of emergency.

Q: Does your book have anything to do with the Emergency Biennale?

SZ: I don’t think so. I learned about the biennale while I was writing the section on Jota Castro work’s in chapter 2. He created the biennale together with the curator and critic Evelyne Jouanno in order to draw attention to the suffering in Chechnya. While I find their biennale interesting, I’m concerned with a variety of emergencies, not only the one in Chechnya. But events like this biennale are important as they embody the “globalization of the art world” that Danto talks about.

Friday, September 15th, 2017

Why Only Art Can Save Us, Part I

Why Only Art Can Save Us

The following is part I of an interview with Santiago Zabala, author of Why Only Art Can Save Us: Aesthetics and the Absence of Emergency. Part II of the interview will appear tomorrow.

Question: Is this book for the philosophical community or the art world?

Santiago Zabala: It’s for both. I’m more interested to know what the art world will have to say about it as I can predict the philosophical community’s reactions to theories such as the one I explore here. A philosopher who posits that only those who thrust us into the “absence of emergency” are intellectually free today risks being marginalized as a radical who is surpassing the limits of rationality or common sense. But the problem is precisely this common sense. To be intellectually free today means disclosing the emergency at the core of the current absence of emergency, thrusting us into knowledge of those political, technological, and cultural impositions that frame our lives. I think the art world (from artists to curators and art historians) is better prepared for challenges, change, and even emergencies.

Q: How does this new book relate to your previous books?

SZ: Why Only Art can Save Us, like Hermeneutic Communism (coauthored with Gianni Vattimo), further develops my ontology of remnants, which I first illustrated in The Remains of Being. While in Hermeneutic Communism we tried to respond to what remains of Being through politics, here I attempt to respond to what remains through art, that is, how existence discloses itself in works of art. As with other post-metaphysical questions there is no straightforward response here, but simply an indication or sign from the future that we are compelled to interpret. In this book I’m interested in not only the signs but also the obligation this question implies, that is, the existential responsibility. This is why I agree with Slavoj Žižek when he calls for “a refined search for ‘signs coming from the future,’ for indications of this new radical questioning of the system … the least we can do is to look for traces of the new communist collective in already existing social or even artistic movements.” Recently, Vattimo and I explained why hermeneutic communism is still the most viable way to confront political emergencies such as the refuges crisis, ISIS attacks, or Trump’s presidency. Now the point is to tackle other emergencies that politics does not reach.

Q: You say that politics does not reach these emergencies because “the absence of emergency… has become the greatest emergency.” Can you explain the difference between “emergencies” and “essential emergencies”?

SZ: In order to explain this difference, it is first necessary to distinguish Heidegger’s “absence of emergency” (“Notlosigkeit”) from the popular “state of emergency” (“Ausnahmezustand”) of Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmidt, and Giorgio Agamben. The latter is a consequence of the former. Heidegger’s emergency does not refer to the “sovereign who decides on the exceptional case,” but rather to “Being’s abandonment,” which also includes the decision of a ruler to announce an emergency. If a political leader can decide upon a state of exception or emergency when Being has been abandoned, then the epoch’s metaphysical condition is its greatest emergency, and this condition explains the rise of the term “emergency” in the work of Bonnie Honig, Elaine Scarry, Janet Roitman, and many others. When Heidegger, in various texts of the 1940s pointed out how “lack of a sense of emergency is greatest where self-certainty has become unsurpassable, where everything is held to be calculable, and especially where it has been decided, with no previous questioning, who we are and what we are supposed to do,” he was concerned with this metaphysical condition. For example, we now live in a world where we are constantly under surveillance, and even the future is becoming predictable through online data mining. The problem has become not the emergencies we confront but rather the ones we are missing. These are the essential emergencies.

Q: Is the Trump presidency an emergency or an essential emergency?

SZ: He is an essential emergency. The fact that we did not predict he could win the presidency does not constitute an emergency per se; we all knew that whoever won the election would pursue or intensify the previous administration’s policies. Unfortunately, Trump is intensifying them and concealing even more the essential emergencies of climate change, civil rights, human rights, and others, which are now hidden behind his new appeal to order. He seems to be the incarnation of the absence of emergencies, determined to deny the most obvious emergencies by creating a condition that defines an emergency as anyone’s saying he is wrong. If the greatest emergency has become the lack of a sense of emergency, then art’s alterations of imposed reality, the new interpretations it can demand, disclose this emergency and demand a different aesthetics. The goal of this book is to outline this aesthetics of emergency or an ontology that posits art as fundamental to saving humanity from annihilation.

Q: And how can art save us from this?

SZ: Even though a work of art, such as a song or a photograph, is not that different from other objects in the world, it often works better than commercial media or historical reconstructions as a way to express emergency. The difference is one of degree, intensity, and depth. Media photographs can be truthful, but they are rarely as powerful as a photographic work of art. The series Soldiers Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan by Jennifer Karady or the Rwanda Project of Alfredo Jaar are paradigmatic examples here. Genuine art has the ability to disclose this emergency and help us grapple with it practically and theoretically. This is why Heidegger believes there is a fundamental difference between “those who rescue us from emergency” and the “rescuers into emergency.” The former are a means for “cultural politics,” that is, a way to conceal the emergency of Being; the latter are events that thrust us into this emergency. This distinction between artists and creators does not define who is more original but rather what is more essential: the emergency or its absence? If many artists have lost touch with the absence of emergency it’s not only because they are framed within cultural politics but also because as professional artists they have become the means of such culture. This is probably why Heidegger emphasized how the “growing ‘affability’ of the ‘profession of art’ . . . coincides with the secure rhythm that originates from within the predominance of technicity and shapes everything that is instable and organizable.” While some may consider this aesthetic theory a simple contribution to the discipline, its primary aim is ontological, that is, to specify how Being and existence are no longer givens but are rather the points of departure to overcome oblivion or annihilation. In sum, art should not simply be treated as an aesthetic object, but rather as an existential event that can save us from the essential emergencies.

Q: Is this why you call for the overcoming of aesthetics?

SZ: Yes, but this does not mean aesthetics must disappear. Rather, it has to surpass those metaphysical frames that conceal the absence of emergency. Against the ahistorical mode of aesthetics, which represents, orders, and manipulates beings and leaves us without a sense of emergency, emergency aesthetics dwells in this emergency. Contemplations of indifferent beauty, which rest on the correspondence between propositions and facts, are overcome in favor of interpretation and interventions that retrieve what is ignored by this traditional reflection. The emergency aesthetics I present does not simply overcome measurable representations and indifferent beauty but most of all creates the conditions to respond to the existential call of art in the twenty-first century. Only art can save us because, as Hölderlin pointed out “where danger is, also grows the saving power.”

Q: How is the book structured?

SZ: The book is divided into three chapters, each of which responds to the others. So while the last chapter, “Emergency Aesthetics,” outlines how to answer the ontological call of art in the twenty-fist century through hermeneutics, the second chapter responds to the “Emergency of Aesthetics” that I begin with. This emergency consists in the “indifference” that characterizes beauty as well as its “measurable” contemplation. Given that each chapter responds to the others, the reader is invited to read the book forward or backward as long as the works of art considered are interpreted as representing the possibility of salvation from metaphysics, that is, as revealing an aesthetics of emergency.

Q: Chapter 2 is divided into four sections that analyze contemporary social, urban, environmental, and historical emergencies through twelve works of art. Did the works of art suggest the emergencies or the other way around?

SZ: The artworks suggested or, better, “thrust” me into essential emergencies. So, for example, when I confront the works of Néle Azevedo, Mandy Barker, and Michael Sailstorfer, who create works out of melting ice, ocean pollution, and trees, we are thrust into environmental emergencies caused by global warming, ocean pollution, and deforestation. The same occurs with the “social paradoxes” generated by the political, financial, and technological frames that contain us: the “urban discharge” of slums and plastic and electronic wastes and the “historical accounts” of invisible, ignored, and denied events. These are not addressed properly in the public realm and have become essential emergencies.

Q: And in addition to the aesthetic examination, how do you document the nature and history of each emergency?

SZ: There is a lot of research behind my discussion each emergency, and I rely on the work of renowned economists, political scientists, and investigative journalists. In the case of social media, represented by Filippo Minelli’s Contradictions series, the investigations of Jose van Dijck, Lev Manovich, and Evgeny Morozov were very useful as they also indirectly explained how the artist’s work emerged in the first place. I also use the work of the political scientist as Georg Sorensen, the urban theorists David Harvey, and the historian Ilan Pappé. The reconstruction of these emergencies through renowned thinkers allows the reader to see how serious the concern of the artist is. If truth in art has become more important than beauty, as Arthur C. Danto once said, its because artists “have become what philosophers used to be, guiding us to think about what their works express. With this, art is really about those who experience it. It is about who we are and how we live.”

Part II of the interview will appear tomorrow.

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

Tom Toles’s Drawings from “The Madhouse Effect”

While climate change is hardly a laughing matter, the drawings from the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist, Tom Toles, brilliantly uses satire and humor to shed a new light on the efforts of denialists to refute scientific evidence. The following are some of his work feature in the book he co-authored with Michael Mann, The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy:

Tom Toles, Madhouse Effect

Tom Toles, Madhouse Effect

Tom Toles, Madhouse Effect

Tom Toles, Madhouse Effect

Tom Toles, Madhouse Effect

Tom Toles, Madhouse Effect

Thursday, September 29th, 2016

Eric Kandel on Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko

In the following excerpt from his new book Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures, Eric Kandel examines the power of Rothko’s painting and his transformation from a figurative to an abstract painter. In describing Rothko’s abstract paintings for the Rothko Chapel, Kandel writes:

The sensation is both ambiguous and remarkable, and it affords us an opportunity to create new meaning. Moreover, the harmony among the beautifully displayed paintings in the chapel—a harmony that characterizes Rothko’s late work—is striking. None of Rothko’s figurative paintings are remotely capable of evoking as emotionally rich and varied, as spiritual, a response as these reductionist dark canvases.

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

This is Your Brain on Jackson Pollock — Eric Kandel on Art

“We understand how visual information is processed and things like this. And we understand where pleasure centers are, and how they interact with that. We know where memory centers are. But the details of perception of art, we’re just beginning to explore.”—Eric Kandel

Earlier this month, Eric Kandel, appeared on Science Friday to talk about his new book, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures. In the interview, Kandel describes what we can learn about the brain by looking at the work of Abstract Expressionists. These twentieth-century painters boiled visual art down to a few fundamental components—line, color, form, light, and texture. Our neural circuitry is hardwired to prefer images we can identify, which makes abstract forms more difficult to process. At the same time, abstract forms leave the door open to interpretation, stimulating the higher-level areas of the brain responsible for creativity and imagination.

Here is a short excerpt from the interview in which Kandel describes some of the pleasures of viewing the work of J. M. W. Turner. You can listen to the entire interview below:

IRA FLATOW: And it seems like in your book, you point to how the artists themselves evolved from one form of art to the other.


IRA FLATOW: Give me your favorite example.

ERIC KANDEL: Take Turner. I show two wonderful images of Turner. Now, this we’re talking about the 1800s, early painting around 1815, 1820. He shows one of his most favorite themes, a ship fighting the force of nature at sea. It’s rocking and rolling–

IRA FLATOW: It’s a real ship. It looks like a ship, a classic ship.

ERIC KANDEL: And you see the elements. You see the rain coming down. You see the moon. You see absolutely everything. He comes back to the same theme 50 years later. And it’s very abstract. You don’t see the details very clearly at all, but the effect on me is even stronger.

IRA FLATOW: Because you’re filling in those spots with your life experience.

ERIC KANDEL: And that’s so satisfying. Getting your own mind involved is a very satisfying activity. The more you become engrossed in something, the more you can use your own thought processes. For most people, the more enjoyable it becomes.

IRA FLATOW: Can you, as a scientist, see the mind doing that, understand how it fills in, brings life experiences?

ERIC KANDEL: Not really. Our understanding of brain science has progressed tremendously in the last 100 years. Even in my academic lifetime, 50, 60 years. But we’re at the beginning of understanding this enormously complicated problem. We understand how visual information is processed and things like this. And we understand where pleasure centers are, and how they interact with that. We know where memory centers are. But the details of perception of art, we’re just beginning to explore.

Monday, September 26th, 2016

Book Giveaway! “Reductionism in Art and Brain Science,” by Eric Kandel

This week our featured book is Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures, by Eric R. Kandel.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Reductionism in Art and Brain Science to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, September 30th at 1:00 pm.

Joseph LeDoux, author of Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety, writes, “Eric R. Kandel seamlessly moves between the intricacies of science and art, weaving their histories into a common narrative that illuminates both fields and shows they have more in common than is often assumed. It is a fun and informative read that anyone with a curious mind can enjoy and learn from.”

For more on the book, you can read the book’s introduction:

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016

Columbia University Press wins big at the New York Book Show

The winners for the New York Book Show (an annual design competition hosted by the Book Industry Guild of New York) were announced last week. We’re proud to share that Columbia University Press won in eight categories this year, an incredible achievement.

The winners are:

Violence and Civility (jacket design)
Designer: Chang Jae Lee
“The book discusses the insidious causes of violence, racism, nationalism, mass dispossession, and ethnic cleansing worldwide. The (in)advertent black ink blots around the handwritten type, with the introduction of magenta, are meant to hint at blood drops as the visual effects of violence.”
Violence and Civility

The Hillary Doctrine (jacket design)
Designer: Jordan Wannemacher
“I was excited to work on this book because it was about such an important piece of foreign policy and feminist history. We printed this on a beautiful foil paper that metallicized the flag and the type. The result was an authoritative cover with a lot of visual depth.”
The Hillary Doctrine (more…)

Friday, February 26th, 2016

Images from “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”

How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?

We conclude our week-long feature on “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs,” by Tahneer Oksman by sharing some of the extraordinary images from her book:

Aline Kominsky Crumb
Aline Kominsky Crumb, top of title panel from “Nose Job,” 1989

Lauren Weinstein
Lauren Weinstein, “The Best We Can Hope For,” 2008

Aline Kominsky Crumb
Aline Kominsky Crumb, untitled cartoon. In Need More Love

Vanessa Davis
Vanessa Davis, full-page color drawing. In Make Me a Woman


Wednesday, January 20th, 2016

Energy’s Image

Chaos Imagined

“Turner’s ambitions took him beyond his abiding interest in the unstable and ephemeral, the chaos of impermanence and the vast disruptions of unimaginable forces. It drove him to attempt to see and unveil the underpinnings, the living energy, even in scenes where water, earth, and air virtually dissolve not in turmoil but in tranquil luminosity.” — Martin Meisel

This week, our featured book is Chaos Imagined: Literature, Art, Science, by Martin Meisel. In the final post of the feature, we are happy to present an excerpt from the book’s chapter on the art of J.M.W. Turner, “Energy’s Image.”

Monday, January 18th, 2016

Book Giveaway! Chaos Imagined: Literature, Art, Science, by Martin Meisel

Chaos Imagined

“Martin Meisel’s magnum opus is a heroic act of defiance against its own subject matter: an enlightening, judicious, cohesive history of three millennia of thought about the terrors and attractions of chaos. The book moves with steady confidence through literature, science, art, and philosophy, illuminating many varieties of darkness, finding convincing and original connections across centuries and continents. With authority and energy, it creates a whole new field of study.” — Edward Mendelson, Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities, Columbia University

This week, our featured book is Chaos Imagined: Literature, Art, Science, by Martin Meisel. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Chaos Imagined. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, January 8th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word! Below the giveaway form, you can also read an excerpt from the first chapter, “Shaping Chaos.”

Shaping Chaos

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

Interview with John Roberts, author of Photography and Its Violations

“Photography violates, precisely, because social appearances hide, in turn, division, hierarchy and exclusion.”—John Roberts

John Roberts, Photography and Its ViolationsThe following is an interview with John Roberts, author of Photography and Its Violations:

Q: What do you mean by photography and its violations? How is photography violated?

John Roberts: Well, the title is deliberately ambiguous. By violation I do not mean the capacity of photography to objectify its subjects, nor am I referring directly—although it is implied—to those cultural and political forces lined up against its interests. Rather violation refers here to what photography is able to do in an expressly productive way, given what I call in the book, its social ontology or “unquenchable social intrusiveness and invasiveness.” By this I mean, what makes photography worth returning to as a philosophical and political problem is, in fact, the thing that has always threatened its desire to be thought highly of as an art or would be “objective” medium: namely its unstable and destabilizing character. That is, photography is not just a medium of report or an aesthetic transformation of the world, but a specific act of disclosure, in which its rebarbative powers—of disruption, denaturalization and the ruination of self-identity—secure photography’s infinite capacity for truth telling.

Hence when I talk of violation I’m addressing how photography’s intrusive “pointing to” opens up a space of conceptual reflection on the relations between the photograph’s subjects and objects and the social world in which they are embedded. As such, my understanding of violation takes an interrelated form: violation is what the act of photography does in the world as a consequence of the fact that photography’s relationship to its depicted subjects and objects is an effect of power relations and material interests external to the act of photography itself. The truth-claims of photography, therefore, are a condition of this conceptual articulation. As I say: “Photography violates, precisely, because social appearances hide, in turn, division, hierarchy and exclusion.”


Monday, April 7th, 2014

Book Giveaway! The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, by Mary Helen Washington

The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, Mary Helen Washington

This week we will be featuring The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, by Mary Helen Washington on our blog, twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Other Blacklist to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and indicate your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, April 11 at 3:00 pm.

In The Other Blacklist, Mary Helen Washington recovers the vital role of 1950s leftist politics in the works and lives of modern African American writers and artists. While most histories of McCarthyism focus on the devastation of the blacklist and the intersection of leftist politics and American culture, few include the activities of radical writers and artists from the Black Popular Front. Washington’s work incorporates these black intellectuals back into our understanding of mid-twentieth-century African American literature and art and expands our understanding of the creative ferment energizing all of America during this period.

For more on the book, read an excerpt from the introduction.

Friday, March 7th, 2014

Images from Recovering Place by Mark C. Taylor

We conclude our week-long focus on Recovering Place: Reflections on Stone Hill, by Mark C. Taylor by featuring some of the book’s stunning photographs along with excerpts from the book.

Divided into short chapters focusing on a specific theme or idea (Modern, Abstraction, Shadows, Raking, Prayer, etc.), the book includes images of and around Stone Hill, which is located in the Berkshire Mountains, where Taylor writes and creates land art and sculpture. We’ve posted some of the photographs below along with short excerpts from the chapters. (For more on the book, you can also read the book’s introduction) :


Recovering Place, Mark C. Taylor

Craft can be fine art. Traditionally anonymous, craft, unlike so-called fine art, is more about the art than the artist. It is not the work of genius but the product of skill cultivated over many years of apprenticeship…. Although he never signs his art, the imprint of his hand is unmistakable.


Mark Taylor, Recovering Place

But this moment never lasts, for it appears only by disappearing…. But light is never merely light, for illumination creates a residual obscurity more impenetrable than the darkness it displaces but does not erase


Mark Taylor, Recovering Place

The Real is what remains when I do not and forever withdraws in my presence. Resisting my resistance without opposition, the real is the limit that makes creativity possible. Thinking is always after the real, which can never be properly comprehended, calculated, or controlled.


Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Tributes to the Life and Work of Arthur Danto

Arthur Danto

Earlier this week we had a short post on the death of Arthur Danto, the influential philosopher and art critic. Not surprisingly, a variety of tributes to and assessments of Danto has poured forth. The following are just a few we’d like to highlight.

Akeel Bilgrami, Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy. Bilgrami gives an overview of Danto’s career along with a look back on what he meant to philosophy, art criticism, and the department of philosophy at Columbia. In this excerpt, Bilgrami identifies what made Danto’s art criticism for the Nation so extraordinary and considers his distinctiveness as a philosopher:

The special quality of Arthur’s reviews in the Nation is that they are unmistakably the writings of a philosopher, revealing often how a line or image or stone was the stimulus or the station of some idea, even sometimes of an argument. The Nation has, as a result of his essays, managed to become something of a philosophical magazine, and that is no bad thing. And conversely, in philosophy, what he managed to assert in public ways in these last thirty years was a personality that made him quite unusual, if not almost unique, among analytic philosophers —a genuinely cultured man. Not just someone grabbing every week the offerings of a prodigious metropole, but someone whose ideas and perceptions are tuned by a daily awareness of how the city and its arts have come to be what they are, and how it stands among the productions of other cities in America and the world. Culture, in Arthur’s philosophical thinking was perhaps more important than anything else, and this emerged in ways that were sometimes amusing – and appalling. I remember once how Isaac Levi and I were struck dumb when we asked him, after his visit to Calcutta, how he had managed to cope with the awful condition of its suffering, and he replied in a trice: “Oh that was nothing, you see poverty is part of the culture of Calcutta.”


Monday, October 28th, 2013

Arthur Danto, 1924-2013

Arthur DantoWe were saddened to learn of the death of Arthur Danto this past weekend.

Danto was the Johnsonian professor emeritus of philosophy at Columbia University and one of the leading art critics of the past fifty years. (Incidentally, Danto’s death occurred the same weekend as Lou Reed’s. Both men’s lives and careers were also profoundly shaped by the work of Andy Warhol.) In describing Danto’s work, Lydia Goehr, a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, was quoted as saying, “His project, really, was to tell us what art is, and he did that by looking at the art of his time. And he loved the art of his time, for its openness, and its freedom to look any way it wanted to.”

Danto was the author of some 30 books of philosophy and art criticism, most famously Beyond the Brillo Box and After the End of Art, and Columbia University Press was fortunate to publish four of his books as well as the edited collection, Action, Art, History: Engagements with Arthur C. Danto, edited by Daniel Herwitz and Michael Kelly.

Wendy Lochner, publisher for philosophy and religion, was Danto’s editor at the press and shared the following personal recollections of working with him:

Arthur Danto was one of the very first faculty members whom I met when I started at the press in 2001. He emailed me to introduce himself, and we had the first of many delightful meals together. Over the next 10 years we worked closely, preparing new editions of some of his major books, including Narration and Knowledge, Nietzsche as Philosopher, and The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art. He also served on the advisory board of our series Columbia Themes in Philosophy, Social Criticism, and the Arts and was instrumental in establishing it as a leading venue for publishing in aesthetics.

Arthur was unfailingly gracious and helpful as author, reader, and friend. With his lovely wife Barbara we enjoyed more than a few elegant dinners, spiced with wit and gossip (gentle gossip!). I will never forget the brilliance and humor he exhibited in talks at APA, on campus, and in other venues.

Arthur Danto was a major figure in contemporary American philosophy. His voice will be missed. I am lucky to count him as an author, adviser, and friend.

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

Images from A Little Gay History

We continue our week-long feature on A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity Across the World, by R. B. Parkinson with some images from the book, which come from the collection at the British Museum. Working backwards in time, we move from David Hockney to Egyptian Papyrus from 950 BCE.

David Hockney, In the Dull Village, 1966-7
David Hockney, In the Dull Village

Kitagawa Utamaro, Mashiba Hisayhoshi, 1804
Kitagawa Utamoro, Mashiba Hisayhoshi


Thursday, April 18th, 2013

Santiago Zabala – Out of Network: The Art of Filippo Minelli

“Minelli, by traveling to the slums of Cambodia and painting “Second Life” on its walls, is indicating the contradiction between these two worlds (advanced technological capitalism and its social detritus) — and it is also disclosing the limits imposed by these social networks. These networks, and the Internet in general, are the culmination of Being’s (human existence) replacement with beings (objects) — with the global technological organization of the world.” — Santiago Zabala

Hermeneutic CommunismThe Stone, the philosophy blog of the New York Times, recently ran a post by Santiago Zabala on the art of Italian artist Filippo Minelli. In his post, Zabala, Icrea research professor of philosophy at the University of Barcelona and coauthor of Hermeneutic Communism, intersperses powerful photos of Minelli’s work with explanations of why Minelli’s message needs to be taken seriously. We’ve excerpted some of the essay below, complete with several of the photos. Read the entire article here.


Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

Imagining Mankind Beyond Earth (on Pinterest!)

Claude Piantadosi’s Mankind Beyond Earth frames space exploration as humanity’s ultimate challenge to adapt to new and extremely hostile environments. However, while Piantadosi is quite frank about the physical and financial limits of human spacefaring, his book is also brimming with examples of its potential for human creativity. Inspired by this enthusiasm (and the book’s retro cover art) we’ve put together a Pinterest Board (see below) featuring some of our favorite illustrative imaginings about travel to the stars.

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

“Philosophy has lost its way”

Rewiring the Real

This week our featured book is Rewiring the Real: In Conversation with William Gaddis, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, and Don DeLillo by Mark C. Taylor. Remember to enter our Book Giveaway to win a FREE copy of Rewiring the Real. Today, we have a guest post from Professor Taylor, in which he discusses Rewiring the Real, Refiguring the Spiritual, and Recovering Place, and tells why Rewiring the Real might have begun, “Philosophy has lost its way.”

“Philosophy has lost its way”
Mark C. Taylor

Rewiring the Real is the second book in a trilogy that includes Refiguring the Spiritual: Beuys, Barney, Turrell, Goldsworthy (2012), and Recovering Place: Reflections on Stone Hill (2014). Refiguring the Spiritual begins, “Art has lost its way;” Rewiring the Real might have begun, “Philosophy has lost its way.” During the latter half of the twentieth-century, art and money entered into an unholy alliance in which artists eager to cash in on new money are selling works to financiers who resell them in hedge funds and private equity funds designed for ultra-rich investors looking for new ways to “diversify their portfolios with asset-backed securities.” While artists are trying to become Wall Street players, philosophers are trying to become scientists. As their work becomes more abstract and highly specialized, philosophers become less concerned about human problems and real world issues.

For art and philosophy to recover their missions, art must become more philosophical and philosophy must become more artistic in and through a rethinking of the interrelationship of art, philosophy and religion. This will require not only a change in substance but, more important, a change in style. This is not an original idea but can be traced to the publication of Kant’s pivotal Critique of Judgment (1790). It is no exaggeration to insist that this work has directly and indirectly shaped all philosophical, theological, artistic and, indeed, cultural discussions and production for more than two centuries. Kant provided the definition of art that became normative for Modernism. During the decade of the 1790s, discussions about Kant’s critical philosophy among a remarkable group of philosophers and writers, including, inter alia, Hegel, Schelling, Schiller, Schleiermacher, Hölderlin, Novalis, and the Schlegel brothers, led to a reconfiguration of the relationship among philosophy, art and religion. While leading thinkers in the eighteenth century had interpreted religion in either epistemological or ethical terms, writers, who gathered in Jena during the seminal decade of the 1790s, reconceived religion in terms of art and aesthetics. In their works, art displaced religion as the primary means for the exploration and expression of religious and spiritual concerns. Some of philosophers who have been most influential recently – Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida – are as much artists as philosophers. But they have all remained writers, whose works are literary or even poetic. Some of the leading twentieth-century visual artists – Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian, Malevich, Rothko, Reinhardt, Newman, Pollack – insist that art has a spiritual dimension.

Refiguring the Spiritual begins with a critique of what I describe as the “financialization of art.” What Andy Warhol is to consumer capitalism, Jeff Koons is to financial capitalism. But there is an importance difference between Andy and his epigone Jeff. While Warhol’s ironic detachment leaves the viewer uncertain whether he is criticizing or endorsing consumerism, there is no ambiguity about Koons. He eagerly endorses practices of the Wall Street wizards who pay excessive prices for eye candy intended to make them feel good. Beuys, Barney, Turrell and Goldsworthy reject this tendency in contemporary art. Each in his own way extends the preoccupations of the modern avant-garde art by drawing on different spiritual traditions (Beuys, Anthroposophy; Barney, Celtic and Masonic mythology; Turrell, Quakerism and Hopi myths and rituals; Goldsworthy, Celtic mythology). Their works are difficult and demanding – they cannot be consumed quickly but take time to appreciate. Though many of their works are expensive to create, they cannot be easily commodified. The primary purpose of their works is not to market them for a profit but to create the opportunity for the cultivation of personal and, by extension, social transformation.

Rewiring the Real extends my analysis from art to literature by analyzing one novel by four important writers: William Gaddis, The Recognitions; Richard Powers, Plowing the Dark; Mark Danielewski, House of Leaves; Don DeLillo, Underworld. Though these writers are very different, they share an appreciation for the ways in which recent technological innovations (Gaddis, electronic media and communications; Powers, virtual reality; Danielewski, Internet and World Wide Web; DeLillo, nuclear power and global financial networks) harbor a latent spirituality in an era that is too often labeled secular and posthuman. Rather than merely critically analyzing these novels, I attempt to engage the authors in a conversation that expands the inquiry beyond the boundaries each writer defines. As these writers begin to “talk” among themselves, we begin to see how their work can help readers understand the ways in which the very sense of reality is morphing in the global world of financial capitalism.

If style is substance and substance is style, then writing must change. In previous works (e.g., Imagologies: Media Philosophy, Grave Matters, Mystic Bones, Hiding, and Motel Réal: Las Vegas, Nevada), I have used different styles of writing and visual design to convey the ideas I am attempting to express. This ongoing experiment continues with this trilogy: Refiguring the Spiritual uses images and design to fashion arguments and Rewiring the Real includes accounts of some of my own artwork as well as my first attempt at writing fiction. Recovering Place will be my most ambitious experiment so far. In this multifaceted work, I take philosophy off the page by creating land art and sculpture (metal, rock, stone and bone) in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, where I live. In addition to a series of aphoristic reflections about the importance of recovering place in a world that is becoming ever more virtual, the book also includes original photographs I have taken of my art in its natural setting. As Kierkegaard, insisted long ago, many of the most important things in life can only be communicated indirectly. I would add to this that there are things that we can apprehend but not precisely comprehend. Through stylistic innovation and artistic design, I have attempted to create performative works that work at multiple levels to transform apprehension as well as introduce new ways of understanding the world in which we dwell.

Mark C. Taylor
Stone Hill