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I love you; thanks’; you’re welcome



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Photos of the spring fair in Sevilla in a new window

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Associative Personality Disorder

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Further Dialogue on the 20th Century article (here) with comments by Bobby Porter

Love is


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This is not a Blog

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Chivalric ethics


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The artist’s relationship to his work

Bobby's response
to The artist's relationship to his work



Memories of my father II

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Art is

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Dense, intense and condensed: a short love story.

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Ecco il uomo

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Why do artists paint?

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What is art? part II- Is modern art, art?

A painter’s thoughts about self-portraits

The Piraha of the Amazon jungle

Thailand: stories

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We'd be better off without Religion

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What is Art? Part I

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feminine article

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I'm back!

Masculine versus feminine, Muslim versus Buddhist.

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Peter Feldstein & Stephen G Bloom's Oxford project

How to argue

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The birth of Chiang Mai

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Cogitations upon observing the life of an ant, from its birth to its death by old age, while I lay in a bathtub.

Scopes II pg 1 of 11

At the beginning of what the media began calling the ‘Scopes II’ trial I thought it would become more polemical than it turned out. I began collecting media reports, commentary, cartoons, defences & attacks published here & there by some of our leading scientists -- I started at the very beginning & continued for about four months.

*  I collected everything from science & Church to morality, philosophy, etymology, politics, poetry & parody, like the clever & funny web-site called the Spaghetti Monster. Also a bit of history, historical quotes on the subject & transcriptions of interviews & debates with Richard Dawkins & the like.

* Unfortunately the trials weren’t as amusing as they might have been if the Intelligent Design camp had better arguments & more credible support but in the end I think I have compiled a fascinating & entertaining document.

* It covers both sides thoroughly &, I hope, with a minimum of repetition (& includes links to further reference).

* I have added my two cents here & there in red. It is chronological with dates noted.  I originally saved it to a very large (260 page) Word.doc which I have converted to 11 pages of web site weighing between 30 & 130 or so kbs each.

Scopes II pg 1 of 11

Self portrait Sept 09. oils on panel 10 x 8 inches (25 x 20 cm)

Self portrait May 09. Oils on panel 10 x 8 inches (25 x 20 cm)

Self-portrait Jan 31, 09. Oils on panel 10 x 8 inches

Self-portrait May 2008

Self-portrait 1994. Oils on canvas on board 100 x 50 cm

Self portrait 2

Self portrait 4

Self-portrait 2004. Oils on gold ground on panel. 45 x 45 cm

Self portrait 5

Self portrait 6

Self portrait 7

Self-portrait 2007

Oil sketch. Oils on panel

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Self-portrait May 2008. 33 x 19 cm (13 x 8 inches)
Last updated - 30th of August 2007

Time is a child playing dice

Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.

We do, doodily do, doodily do

What we must, muddily must, muddily must:

Muddily do, muddily must, muddily do,

Until we bust, bodily bust, bodily bust


The artist's job is not to find beautiful things to paint but to find beauty in the habitually overlooked.

Click here to try Paul's fun & challenging:
Art-Q Quiz!
pg1 - pg2 - pg3

Comments | What is art? part 1


Saturday May 5th, 2007. (1170 words)

A painter’s thoughts about self-portraits.

I read something which referred casually to Rembrandt’s vanity because of the large number of self-portraits he painted (estimated- 80) (1). As vain as Rembrandt may have been, it was a vanity based on his greatness as artist not on being enamoured of his own looks. Anyway, considering his actual greatness, (as testified to by the intervening centuries since he painted) was it vanity or simple pride? The writer who claimed the number of self-portraits as evidence of self-love didn’t understand the artistic process. The first & most common reason an artist paints a self-portrait is because he is a ‘people painter’ who finds himself eager to work in a moment he has no other model.

Rembrandt self-portrait, detailAnother inspiration for the self-portrait can be found in moments of crisis, especially emotional crises, when in the solitude & silence of the studio, the examination of self introduces a sense of introspection that adds an expressive dimension to a painting. The reason Rembrandt's great self-portraits  continue to haunt art lovers through the centuries is not because of the accuracy with which he copied his own features onto a canvas but because he managed to capture something of the drama of human nature which we all share & therefore recognize. The art in a good portrait is made up more of psychology than dominion over the painter's craft.

Or like the self-portrait pictured above, Self-portrait as Saint Paul, if commissioned to do a religious theme or doing one in hopes of finding a market for it after, since he was of the right age, why not put a turban on & model for himself? Though Rembrandt had been acclaimed among Europe's best painters (& was always an undisputed & innovative master of engraving & aquatitnt) a man's image, however famous his name, was impossible to distribute in the 17th century & even the King, whose stylized image might adorn coins, would not be recognized by the majority of his subjects. The painting of Saint Paul may even have been delivered to the client without his ever having an inkling he bought instead, a self-portrait as important to Western art history as Saint Paul's epistles are to Christianity.

Personally, I find it easier to capture a sitter’s character before I know him. When I paint someone sitting for me I can (at least- hope to) portray the personal history written on his face more successfully if I have no pre-conceived notions as to who he is because of my acquaintance with him. With enough practice, capturing his looks is a simple exercise; capturing some part of his character is where 'art' enters into the equation.(2) This makes a self-portrait the greatest challenge to the portrait painter, we know ourselves so well including, for most of us, misconceptions & private opinions not shared by others, that the study of our own faces & the histories written on them, becomes more than mere painting exercise.

Another complication to getting an objective likeness is the fact the artist is actually painting a reversed image of what people who look at him in real life see. Unless one has the symmetry of a supermodel a mirror image is very different to the face mirrored. To test the truth of this assertion just try holding up a photo of yourself in the mirror or flipping it horizontally with any image viewer on your computer. An old friend, a photographer, once tried the experiment with a photo of himself cut down the middle. He reversed half of the image & printed them together, in other words- a face made of two left sides & another made of the two right sides. Though I could see it was he, the result was surprisingly monstrous!

I suspect the mirror is also the source of the myth that an unusual number of artists are left-handed—that left handed people are more creative. Some artists, like the incomparable Velasquez, didn’t stand in front of his sitter looking at him but stood next to him instead, looking into a mirror reflection of the sitter looking at himself in the mirror. This eliminated the need to translate three dimensions into two since the mirror reflection is already a two-dimensional image. A measurement like, for instance, the distance between nose & ear is difficult to determine because it involves a plane that curves away into the depth of the three dimensions; the slightest turn of the head changes the measurement. In a mirror the measurement ignores the curving plane & offers an opportunity for clear lineal measurement in two dimensions (even if the measurement is made simply with the artist’s eye).

Velazquez's self-portrait in one of his most famous paintings- Las Meninas, shows his placement before a mirror clearly. Velazquez- Meninas, click for enlargement Which puts the royal parents reflected in the mirror beside the door- behind his canvas & under the mirror that reflects the scene from a height higher than the children are tall. The King & Queen stand on one side of the light source that illuminates canvas, people & dog on the other- a window on the right between the artist & mirror.

People are often amazed by the fact the eyes of a portrait seem to ‘follow one’ as one walks away from the painting. This tends to be true particularly of self-portraits because of a simple fact: unless the artist sets up more than one mirror he must needs look directly into his own image (his own eyes when he is painting them) & therefore the eyes of the portrait will look directly into the eyes of the person looking at the painting. Although the portrait may appear to be a three dimensional image because of the illusionist tricks in an artist’s arsenal, it is in fact a two dimensional image & consequently it doesn’t matter from which angle you look at it, the eyes will always appear to be looking at you- the viewer.

Speaking as the Paul who is a collector of paintings rather than the one who paints them, I am always more interested in an artist’s self-portrait than one he has done of someone else. It is a more personal work, often very different from commissioned work & though his objectivity may be less than when painting a sitter, there is always a depth of scrutiny that makes it more compelling. When I look at a bunch of self-portraits I painted at different times of my life I note both the differences between them & the ‘me’ under the skin of the moment when I painted it.

(1) To see a whole bunch of Rembrandt self-portraits go to question 3- or compare a bunch of Vincent Van Gogh's self portraits. Return

(2) Regarding the aspect of getting a good likeness, I remember one artist I knew many years ago in London who said to me: Once one has a good understanding of the anatomy of a human face it is far easier to pick out the things which make any individual unique than it is not to... Return



Monday April 30th, 2007. (1375 words)

The Pirahtilde-a of the Amazon jungle

I just read a most fascinating 20 page article about the Pirahã which though (presumably) a Portuguese title, is apparently if inexplicably, pronounced pee-da-han. I think I will save you the labour I had of changing the pronunciation in my head each of the hundreds of times it appeared in the long article; albeit my comments will be far briefer, I will simplify by calling the tribe the: Peedahan.

The Peedahan are few & live on a tributary of the Amazon in the deep jungle of north-western Brazil. I do not want to write a report or synopsis (if you are interested in the article it is in the April 16th issue of the New Yorker) but what I learned about their unique culture just happens to shed light on the themes of two of the posts I wrote below, ‘Thailand: stories’ in which I try to sort out some questions of the depth of differences, or similarities, between humans of different cultures & ‘Thoughts on Memory’ where I examine the psychological effects of living in the moment as opposed to future or past.

This small & fiercely proud tribe call all languages but their own: crooked head, so sure are they their own means of communication is superior. Unlike the Thai language I describe belowPirahá child as having 44 consonants, 36 vowels & 5 tones, the Peedahan language has only 8 consonants & 3 vowels unless you are a female speaker in which case you make do with only 7 consonants. Although Noam Chomsky, the venerable linguistic theorist, insists their language fits into the basic rules he has decided are pre-requisite to all languages in the abstract & all of the approximately 6000 languages that have been quantified, there seems to be some grave doubt as to whether he is right.

Peedahan language allows few abstracts, no names for colours, instead, on rare occasion they deem it necessary to discuss something’s colour, they will describe it as like something whose colour is known- a common berry or the colour of the sky for instance. No numbers beyond two, no left & right, directions being described more concretely as toward the river, away from the river, upstream, downstream, into the forest et al. They live under roofs of leaves supported by a few sticks- no walls, no furniture.

The language doesn’t allow the recursive which Chomsky has defined as an essential difference between ‘language’ & other forms of communication such as those between whales, birds or insects for that matter. The ability to combine thoughts in a single description by nesting them is, according to Chomsky, unique to the cognitive abilities of man & therefore a fundamental difference in his form of communication. While I might say: A man in a green sarong was walking in the jungle, they would have to say: A man wearing a sarong. The sarong is green. The man walks in the jungle.

Since the ability to ‘nest’ thoughts with words as I describe above is considered a measure of cognitive prowess out of the reach, for example, of the most intelligent primates, (other than homo sapiens) some have theorized the Peedahan are simply stupid, maybe a result of inbreeding in a small genetic pool but no, that possibility has been discounted, the differences in their cognitive processes is not reliant on a low intelligence quotient.

No perfect tense, no words descriptive of ‘few’, ‘all’, ‘many’, ‘each’ or ‘every’. The sound of their words is a mixture of popping sounds & bird-like whistles. Most astounding of all is that the intonation & emphasis is so much more exigent to the import of the words used, that they are able to do away with the consonants & vowels altogether & communicate by simply humming or even whistling, isn’t that just staggeringly wondrous?! I mean, if this ability were attributed to an alien race on Star Trek it might seem too far-fetched to me for science fiction, & yet here are the Peedahan on our own planet & members of our own species doing just that. Early idiomatic training to infants is actually hummed rather than using any formation of discreet words. It reminds me of super string theory where the vibration of sub-atomic filaments are responsible for all matter & energy in the universe…

I will stop my description of their language here, as I said- my purpose is not to repeat the information I just learned but to give you an outline that, hopefully, gives you some idea of the very basic disparities in their approach to language & the cultural differences thus implied.

A language this simple must, like Swahili, be very easy to learn, right? Well no, the simplicity of the basic structure of the lexicon is mitigated by an apparently, extremely complex variety of tones, stresses, intonation & syllable lengths that make professor Dan Everett the first non-Peedahan to come close to mastering the ability of communicating with them. Everett came to the tribe twenty-five years ago as a Christian missionary but in their company lost his faith & directed his energies instead to the examination of their culture & particularly their language, eventually taking his PhD in its study. He is described by the article as a man recognized by his peers as having an extraordinary gift for the intuitive understanding of language structure.

Does the language define their cultural outlook? Or does the culture define the evolution of their language? Well, in the sense that if you took a very young tribal & taught him English he would necessarily need to absorb at least part of our point of view in order to understand the meaning of the new words he learned, the language does form cultural attitude. Their environment, however, is obviously the root of their form of communication. When Everett was finally able to translate some new testament stories well enough to tell them to the Peedahan in his early years as Christian missionary, their reaction was first: Did you know this man? (Jesus) When they were told he has been dead a very long time (the description: 2000 years, of course, would hold no meaning for them) it became to them as if he had never existed at all.  Secondly they were unable to understand the stories as metaphor or allegory.

The tribe support themselves as hunter/gatherers but have a nut that can be ground into flour. Other Amazon tribes use the milled nuts as a staple which can be accumulated & stored for the future. The Peedahan on the other hand, never make more of it than they need in the moment or might be left over for one more meal. Without any form of art, religion or written language their common knowledge is limited almost entirely to living generations. Most telling of all perhaps, is the description of walking with the Peedahan, if one person of the group hides from view of the rest by dodging behind a tree, the others will not say: he is now standing behind that tree, or “He is out of my range of sight” but rather: He has disappeared from my existence.

A people who quite literally, in speech & deed, exist only in the present; true agnostics as defined by Sir Thomas Huxley (Aldous' grandfather & Darwin's attorney) who coined the word around 1870 & defined it as man’s essential inability to truly understand anything beyond his own perceptual awareness (anything else being mere speculation). If Everett’s exposure to these people was enough to make him question & eventually discard a faith in God that was originally deep enough to make him willing to suffer malaria in the depths of the world’s densest jungle, I think I do not claim much if I say it supports my thesis that despite any similarity of genetic programming, cultural climate or personal training, each human lives in a universe of his own making & like the great Argentinian poet, Jorge Luis Borges said (paraphrasing): When I close my eyes for the last time so shall the last star blink out of existence.

Among other sites where you can learn more about this intriguing tribe I recommend beginning with: Everett paper

This note written by Professor Dan Everett himself in response to the essay above:

Dear Paul,

Thanks very much for this. Your summary is interesting and I am so glad
that you found these wonderful people as interesting and instructive as you did. I am
writing a book on them that will appear from Pantheon/Vintage next year.

Your art is beautiful and I really enjoyed (and will continue to do so) looking at it and thinking about it.




Sunday April 22nd, 2007

Thailand: stories. (5500 words)


Are humans the same everywhere? Is being a person essentially the same for all humans? Just how much do we differ? Is it just a question of cultural imperative that separate the experience of life between one person & the next? Or are there differences so fundamental that they are difficult to fathom? If we share more than ninety-eight percent of our genetic coding with chimpanzees, more indeed, than chimpanzees share with gorillas, just how much can a person from one culture differ to someone from another?

Here in Thailand I have had a lot of opportunity to observe intimate relationships between Occidentals & Orientals. Many are European men come expressly to look for an Asian wife. They go shopping directly after arriving in the areas lined with bars full of beautiful young women who are for sale & who hope for nothing more than their own purchase by one of these men. Often the men are perfectly average & normal men, who never feel they are involved in a slave market, they genuinely fall in love & take good care of the woman they choose. In my opinion the common psychological mistake in this type of transaction is that the men think they are turning the prostitute into a wife when in reality they are merely changing her into a prostitute who dedicates herself to only one client. Where the men have learned that if on a scale of one to ten they are a six, then in their own countries the best they can hope for is maybe a seven, while here all it takes is a post-man’s pension to be able to shoot for a ten, at least as far as looks & age go… (because of Confucius age is respected, even revered in Asia, & a mother is pleased to see her twenty year old daughter marry a fifty year old man).

The women, for their part, are involved in the exact same calculation as the men who shop for them. Most of them come from Isaan, Burma or simply some little village lost in the Thai countryside where the poverty is such that their choices are strictly limited to growing old by twenty-five working in a rice field, or prostitution. Among the Thai themselves an unmarried woman of thirty has missed her chance of finding a mate. Most aren’t educated beyond elementary school & even then, in many cases, were made to take turns with their brothers & sisters going to school & helping with the sowing & harvest. The parent’s understanding of education being so limited they don’t realize that one or two days a week for each child makes it very difficult for any of them to learn anything at all. Aside from that, in many of the poor areas or small towns the only school is the temple & aside from basic writing & arithmetic the education centres on Buddhism. 

One time I ended up in one of those bars where the girls work, for a game of pool with a group of English friends. Girls presented themselves & though the shared lexicon between them & us was about the same as between my dogs & I, the other men immediately paired up with smiles, lewd jokes & touching that hadn’t been negotiated yet. The girl who approached me was little over 5 feet (150 cm) tall, maybe 19 years old, maybe younger, not Thai but of the mountain tribes who have no country or surnames; she was as cute as a button. 

Not being interested in this kind of relationship I bought her a drink & pushed her on my Thai friend who was idly playing darts by herself. My Thai friend later told me how that turned out, the girl was embarrassed & told my friend she didn’t know how to play; my friend assured her it didn’t matter & that she would explain the simple rules. The girl tried but soon overcame her embarrassment & admitted something my friend had trouble making sense of at first: she explained in broken Thai she didn’t understand numbers, not addition & subtraction but numbers themselves. I guess in her world ‘one’ ‘two’ & ‘many’ was enough. 

Upon hearing this I thought of all the European men who slept with her in exchange of money & how thoroughly most would miss her limitations. The European talks & talks & she smiles & smiles. Not only do interactions like these fail in their communication & understanding because of a lack of common language but the Thai’s sense of conflictThai couple (click for enlargement) is so much more sensitively defined that the Thai person won’t mention a disagreement simply to be courteous since what we consider debate or even just dialogue is considered argument or badgering by the Thai. By badgering I mean if you ask any Thai person more than two questions about an opinion he holds, he doesn’t think of it as engaging on a deeper level but rather- as annoying bullying. Furthermore, even given a good English vocabulary, understanding a word’s dictionary definition can, never-the-less miss all the cultural connotations attached to it. If you ask a Thai person if they like a painting you are looking at together, they will very likely say “Yes, it’s beautiful” but if you want to discuss art it might take a long time, for lack of feedback on the Thai’s part, before you notice that not only do they have no real reaction to an art object but quite literally haven’t the faintest idea what we Europeans mean by the term ‘art’; although they understand from the dictionary that a painting or sculpture is art. 

If you try to discuss philosophy with a Thai person, every answer you will elicit will be drawn strictly from Buddhist teaching. Any other thoughts on philosophy being considered either incomprehensible or mere foolishness.

Another thing missing in Thai culture that many European men fail to recognize is Shakespeare & the tales of the round table. Often, I wonder, if the European who may never have read Shakespeare has stopped to consider that his sense of romance, his understanding of love, is based on old tales of chivalry so ingrained & incorporated into our culture that we take them for a natural order rather than a cultural imperative.

I am not saying a Thai woman doesn’t know how to love (they know very well indeed) but it is very distant from our concept of the word. Romeo & Juliet has always met with bewildered audiences in the Orient who, rather than empathize with a young love of such passionate ardour that it will out over public opinion or even life itself, the Asian audience are moved instead by the unthinkable & unforgivable disobedience Romeo & Juliet show their parents.

In some cases the man’s interest goes beyond a night of sex & they begin considering a long term relationship, in many cases not only is the man able to project the character he wishes onto the beautiful white canvas of the smiling woman, but can actually grow old with her without ever having an inkling she is an entirely different person to what he imagines.

I have one friend who is Dutch, over fifty, good looking despite his pot-belly, with honest blue eyes & beautiful blonde hair & he is solvent, having retired young from a successful business. He married his Thai wife seven years ago & they are very sweet together but despite his intelligence I keep seeing occasions where I think, he is missing what is actually going on in her head simply because he is making cultural assumptions from his own point of view without even recognizing it is a point of view.  I think the only thing that can teach a man that almost nothing qualifies as an essential order of things that is shared by all humanity is-- travel, constant travel.

Hans invited his wife Ning’s fourteen year old brother to live with them in their big house here in Chiang Mai to give him the opportunity to go to a better school than what is available to him in the small & poor village they come from. He has on various occasions complained to me about the boy. To the successful Dutchman with his Calvinist work ethic, the boy’s (Ouan) complete lack of ambition or curiosity is a frustrating & inexplicable fact. Ouan does the bare minimum of what is expected of him & lies down when he has finished. He is a big strong kid which is hardly surprising since they received a letter from the military just recently telling him he would be of age for service this year, it was then they realized he is actually eighteen not fourteen, they had lost track of his birthdays. 

When Hans sees Ouan lying on the couch in his own mess he is not angry with the mess or the boy’s preference for the horizontal but instead he is angry Ouan isn’t taking advantage of him & the opportunity he offers to broaden Ouan’s horizons. Ning, on the other hand, not only has no trouble accepting it but will happily clean up after him & serve him food while he lies there. Hans told me that he had tried to discuss the situation with Ning once again, he asked her: “But Ning, doesn’t Ouan feel guilty watching me pay for everything while he contributes nothing?” Ning patiently explained to him: “Maybe in Ouan’s last life he had to work very hard & pay for everything himself, now in this life it is your turn.”

Another example of the cultural differences attached to words that are easily defined otherwise, is the word ‘prostitute’ which I have used to describe women who will have sex with a man who pays them, simple, no? Simple & true too, but the images & assumptions made by a westerner about the character of a girl who engages in the business could easily mis-represent the facts. First of all there are no pimps here (unless you include a husband who accepts his wife’s work as definition of pimp). The prostitute is a free agent who entertains the clients, sometimes helps with the actual running of the bar, gets a percentage of the drinks that are bought for her & the client who asks her to leave the bar with him pays the bar a ‘bar fee’ the girls are free to come & go or change bars at a whim so the bar owner must cooperate & treat the girls with respect if he hopes to collect a bunch of attractive ones that help sell drinks to the lascivious foreigner. Thai men, incidentally, use prostitutes of a different type who are found elsewhere than the bars, but that is another story.

Second: they are all sending their earnings to their families. Family as a social grouping is important in a profound way here & if the girl considers her line of work a sacrifice instead of an opportunity it is made up for by the thought she is contributing to her family’s welfare with a quantity of money that changes their lives & futures in a manner that nothing else anyone in the family could do- would.  I also suspect that in a way they feel they are monogamous, since to them all the ‘falang’ (western foreigner) are just the same as each other. When they ask where the foreigner is from, the answer: Germany, England, United States, Scandinavia or Spain all mean exactly the same thing to the girl, i.e. nothing.

One young lady told me in bewildered tones that a client had sent her back after getting angry with her because she wouldn’t kiss him on the lips, not because she wasn’t eager to please but despite her undoubted talents in other areas she simply didn’t know how. When I first arrived here to live, I came from Spain where everyone kisses each other on either cheek; often in a more sincere way than the symbolic air kisses you get in France. When I see my old friends in Spain the men even more than the women will give genuine wet kisses to my cheeks & I happily return them, in fact it is one of the things I miss here, the part of communication that is done with touch.  Here in Thailand people do not touch each other, not so much as a handshake between men. It was a little while before I learned that the Thai don’t kiss on the lips much less do things with their, or each other’s, tongues! Kisses between lovers here involve the lips but are more of a sniffing gesture & never on the mouth.  Which explained the red faced giggles that accompanied my doing the most private & intimate thing a man & wife do with each other (& never in public) the first time I met them…

Not only is the Thai culture different in an elemental way but the strong influences of post WWII television & now Internet (albeit both heavily censored) are the first outside influence on the country’s ethos in their long history. They have never in their history been conquered by another culture, they have no tradition of travel outside their borders & are completely antipodal to the American attitude in that they  teach the young to be like others, individualism is heavily discouraged & socially castigated. To illustrate- I was walking past a store once with a girl when I saw a lovely, brightly-coloured dress with an unusual cut in a shop window, I pointed it out, said it would look great on her, & offered to buy it if she wanted to go in & try it on. She laughed & shook her head no. I asked if she didn’t like it & she said: No, I do like it but if I wore that everybody would look at me...

Since age is respected above all, if you say: "How young you look" or: "You're too young to remember" where a westerner will usually take it as a compliment in Thailand it is an inferred insult. Where a western man will show his chivalry by opening the door & allowing first entry to the weaker sex, a Thai man will show his regard by walking through first; since he is meant to protect her it would show a lack of respect to let her into a room where unseen danger may lie & bring up the rear safely himself.

Beyond these examples is their language: forty-four consonants, thirty-six vowels & five tones, a hell of a big alphabet for a language with so few words! In some cases one must hit five keys of a keyboard to define one letter. For a speaker of European languages it is sometimes difficult to hear the difference between the same word which means five different things depending on the tone one says it in. It is also surprising to the falang that in a culture so prone to courtesy the ‘pleases’, ‘sorrys’ & even ‘thank yous’ either don’t exist or are used very little, instead they are implied in the tone.  When they do the same thing in the English they learn- they sound rude or peremptory. 

Despite the great range of subtle differences in sound they are missing many of the sounds we have (the 'th' sound, 'v' or distinguishing between R’s & L’s for instance…(1)) & they don’t end their words with consonants though it might sound like they do to the uninitiated ear & this makes it difficult for them to finish English words that end in consonants.  Furthermore they have no tenses, their words can’t be modified to show they are taking place in the past, present or future so instead they must construct their sentences to define tense with other words. They have no gender differentiation so the word ‘person’ must be modified by other words to show which sex they are referring to. They do, never-the-less, have ten ways of saying 'you' depending on whether the person addressed is older or younger (different words for different age differences not simply the two), well known or an acquaintance, a friend of one member of the family or another etc. & a sibling is not referred to as simply brother or sister but by different words that describe their age relative to the speaker's.

Even those that speak English relatively well are forever mixing up their 'hes' & 'shes', their yesterdays & tomorrows. I won’t go on but I think you can already see why it is so very difficult for them to learn other languages, another strong reason for their cultural isolationism &, in a sense, purity of thought.

Other differences we falang are aware of in theory are their religious/superstitious belief in ghosts, spirits & demons, but understanding how real & present these entities are to the Thai is difficult for us to grasp. Theravada Buddhism (version of Buddhism shared by Thailand, Sri Lanka & Burma) is actually not a religion at all but a philosophy, since it includes no supernatural beings, a religion without metaphysics. But of course, people’s Thai amuletneed for assistance, witness & explanation has caused them to elaborate many reasons to believe something less austere & they have managed to create a complex system of appeasement, entreaty & a clear dichotomy of good & evil that have nothing to do with the Buddha’s teaching & in many ways conflict with or even invalidate them. Geographically we are at a moral & philosophical crossroads here & Theravada Buddhism accepts the mix with apparent ignorance of the contention it includes. The mix includes Buddhism, Hinduism, animism &, unofficially, Chinese ancestral worship. Amulets are of great importance & remind me of the American Indian rituals where spirit bags are fed & washed as well as prayed to in exchange for protection.

The neighbourhood temples are very closely integrated to their communities, in a way I have never seen Christian churches demonstrate, nor Muslim Mosques, though they come closer, nor even Hindu temples. The Thai church is a part of everyman’s everyday life & is there for whatever the need. All Thai men are monks at a temple for some period/s of their lives, before marriage, after his father’s death or simply to create good karma for his mother who can’t go herself. Among the traditional gifts one makes to a temple are tableware, chairs & parasols, so if you are throwing a party (& Thai parties invite everyone) you go to the temple to borrow plates & other necessities.

It is a sin to remove, to steal, anything from the temple but one can’t help taking a little earth stuck to the bottom of his feet every time he visits, so from time to time, the faithful bring some sand, a handful or a barrow-full, & throw it on the heap every temple keeps. When the hill of sand is large enough the monks roll up their robes & use the sand to build. Anyone in need of a place to stay can count on a bed & a bowl to go out with in the morning to fill with people’s offerings of food. Stray cats & dogs as well as unwanted puppies also have a home at any temple & anyone in need of a pet can go there & ask the monks for the one of their choice.

Wat (wat=temple) Khai Mong Kon

I stayed awhile at a temple here in Chiang Mai, not as monk but as novice. It is a fascinating old world steeped in tradition & ritual but I won’t go into it here as it isn’t relevant to the point of this essay (believe it or not I am meandering toward the point that inspired this article!). In short: the community supports the temple & the temple supports the community, often offering the only form of education & always there for spiritual guidance. If you stop by one of these temples at any time of day, but particularly early in the evening when people are finished with work, you’ll find all the generations sitting around on its floor. Some people will be talking quietly in a group; others will sit together in silence. People might be eating or laughing or sitting alone meditating, thinking, or just plain sitting, but everyone is careful that however relaxed they are they never show the soles of their bare feet to the Buddha images.  Aside from being a social gathering, a kind of centre where the community can meet, it is above all a refuge from the passions. If one is angry or sad, in the throes of love or lust, or even artistically inspired for that matter, in other words displaying any emotional excitement, the Thai friend will suggest & urge you to go to the temple to get rid of the ‘heat’ you feel inside. To the Thai passion is bad.

In Spain if you tell someone they are ambitious they will take it as an insult, in Thailand the same is true of telling someone they are passionate.

Every building, indeed every place people are, even an outdoor market, has its spirit house for the purpose of propitiating good fortune as well as negotiating a peace with the evil or sometimes just mischievous spirits. A spirit house is a small version of a house which is placed somewhere alongside the big house (but not in its shadow as that might offend the spirits). Since size is immaterial to beings without corporeal presence the idea is that they can be induced to live in the small house instead of the big one you live in, by making it more attractive to them with offerings of incense, flowers, prayer, fruit & alcohol, symbolic figurines of dancers, & certain animals: elephants, of course are sacred animals, horses & tigers. When it is time to replace a spirit house because of age, termites or maybe just because one wants to offer a better spirit house because he is new to the property or as thanks for good fortune, one can’t just throw the old one out. Not only would it be disrespectful but there may be some spirit who prefers the old one. So with ritualistic ceremony the old house is placed under a, preferably old, Bo tree (Bodhisattva tree, the one the Buddha found enlightenment under) since trees, especially old ones, are a favourite abode for spirits.

Old discarded spirit houses

Some of the spirits can bring bad fortune or even do physical harm if they are not treated as they wish. One of my favourites, which is genuinely terrifying to most Thai is Pee Gra Suu, a female spirit with sharp canines & long, wild black hair that forms the backdrop of any image of her. She may be your neighbour or even a family member but at night she reaches to the top of her head & wrenches it from her own body including all of the organs. She then flies around with all of her organs dangling from her severed neck wreaking evil on whoever falls in her path while eating human excrement & sucking the insides from live frogs. In the villages people don’t have toilets & when they must venture out at night for a pee they are paralysed with fear, they make plenty of noise & do their best not to look around. If by chance they do, none-the-less, see Pee Gra Suu (‘Pee’ said in a certain tone means ghost, in another tone it means elder sister) they run home & grab the bamboo stair that leads to the entrance of the house on stilts & turn it upside down, that way when Pee Gra Suu arrives hot on their heels, she will be confused as to where they went. Thorns are also placed under all houses as Pee Gra Suu reacts to them as a vampire does to garlic.

When a child cries its mother will easily tell him that if he doesn’t stop- the gecko will come to eat his soul, liver, or heart, & his spirit will be condemned to eternal wandering not being allowed reincarnation without these items. That might only sound mildly scary to a foreigner who has never seen the 45 cm (18 inch) geckoes we have here. Their skin changes colour, they have very loud vocalisation (the only one of the lizard family that does vocalize (2)) & always in the stillness of the night. If one backs one of these geckoes into a corner he will hiss like Godzilla (with all but the flames!) square tongue flailing & it is rumoured they kill large rodents & small dogs.  As a result many adult Thais are petrified with fear by geckoes all of their lives.

Big gecko

At night time many Thai people will avoid looking in their rear view mirrors for fear of ghosts & when a falang like me sees a beautiful old teak-wood house, the Thai person I point it out to will inevitably have the same reaction: “Oh, many ghosts” & instead of being attractive as it is to the foreigner, it is merely scary to the Thai. When entering or exiting a house I have learned to step over, never on, the threshold because it makes Thai people nervous- ghosts live in doorways & stepping on the lintel is disrespectful to them.

Numbers are also important spiritual symbols & when, for instance, a friend of mine’s sister had a baby, the doctor thoughtfully scheduled the caesarean’s first cut for 9:09 am, as the number nine is the most propitious of all. Another funny & charming aspect of the way Thai people deal with the ever-present supernatural beings is with their names. First of all it is very rare to find a Thai who uses his given name, while still young, a nickname is found & the first times I met someone named ‘Fat’ or ‘Ugly’ I couldn’t understand why the person was given the nickname & understood even less why he would grow into adulthood not only without rejecting the moniker but happily introducing himself as such, until I found out the custom’s origin. They give the children an unattractive name to make them sound less appetizing to the spirits that might otherwise take them. In the villages where they get by without doctors or hospitals or any real understanding of medicine, infants often die & sometimes a mis-carried foetus or still-born will be ritually grilled over coal, to turn its spirit into a slave that will be forced to obey & protect its mother in the future.

They also have, what seems to us, a strange fascination tied to their horror at the idea, of the accidental consumption of human flesh. I once saw a Thai cartoon that showed a man fishing at a river, he was very pleased at the abundance of worms he found for his fishing hook & after catching, grilling & eating a fish, he decides to gather a tin full of worms. He follows the trail happily scooping them up until he finds the source & explanation for their number: a corpse that has attracted them. In the last vignette of the comic strip his face is green at the thought he inadvertently ate human flesh passed from the worm to the fish to himself- Thai humour. For a very long time after the tragic tsunami in the south, Thai people avoided what they referred to as ‘tsunami fish’ in other words: fish that may have eaten human flesh & whose consumption in turn was therefore repugnant.

One more example & I will sum up- this is a classic anecdote a Canadian friend who lived up north in Chiang Rai some fifteen years told me. We were sitting in a favourite greasy spoon there in Chiang Rai, a place with plastic table cloths & neon light but excellent food- when my friend Bobby told me of an incident he witnessed there not long before. It is not the kind of place one expects to see foreigners in & so Bobby was surprised to see a big falang backpacker come in with his sandals & short trousers.  Everybody there noticed him (they were used to Bobby who lived there) but they went back to their food or work & ignored him until after he finished his supper & found reason to dispute the bill. As he became more incensed he stood & towered over the three waiters who stood before him smiling.  The more they smiled without offering feedback the more outraged the young man became until finally in exasperation he took a couple of bills from his pocket, threw the money to the floor & turned to walk out.  But before he could make his dramatic exit the three smiling waiters suddenly turned their smiles off, grabbed him & bustled him outside where they gave him a thorough beating. Why? Can you explain the two sides to yourself before I translate it for you? 

The young backpacker is easy for us to understand, he may have a been a nice young man of good family travelling on a budget on break from school & perhaps a little tired of suffering the bad reputation backpackers have earned in Asia because of their bad behaviour, or maybe he was a thoroughly vile human being but his feelings must have run something like this regardless: I am feeling righteous anger & these people have no respect for it, by smiling in the face of my distress they are humiliating me. 

The Thai waiters’ thoughts went more like this: this poor young man has already lost face with his public loss of control, his shameful anger, let’s smile & pretend it’s not so bad, later, when he no longer feels hot inside, he’s going to be sooo embarrassed.  I do wish he would stop swearing though, it is so humiliating to him even I feel embarrassed & doesn’t he realize how offensive the swearing is to all of us… what the Thai waiter, who the foreigner doesn’t realize has an English vocabulary that barely covers the menu, hears is: Blah blah blah FUCK blah blah MOTHERFUCKING blah… (when Thai people reach the extreme of anger necessary for them to swear at each other, they say things like: "You have a buffalo brain"; fighting words...)

And then the straw that broke the camel’s back: he threw the money on the floor. On every banknote there is a picture of the king & one doesn’t show the king the disrespect of putting him on the floor much less throwing him down in contempt. The beating? Well, in Thai society a man isn’t considered more mature for choosing not to fight, he is actually seen as more manly. If, however, you put a Thai man in a position where he loses face in public then he has no choice. Most Thai men know how to fight getting at least some training as kids just as Europeans do soccer & Americans- baseball & Muey Thai is the deadliest martial art ever devised.

I will stop here, though I could go on for several more pages with examples that show the primordial differences in culture & understanding of the universe we Occidentals & Orientals share. After living here for several years, just long enough to begin scratching at the anthropological surface of our cultural differences, I would answer the questions I opened this essay with, with an unequivocal ‘Yes’, we are just about as different to each other as chimpanzees are to humans in general.

(1) 'The' becomes 'de', Volvo- Wohwo & my dog, Rembrandt, also answers to 'Lemblan'. Return

(2) The Thai hear it as 'tuk- ke', we hear it as 'uh- oh', just as they think it hilarious that English speaking people think roosters say: Cockle-doodle-doo, or the Spanish Kiki-ri-ki, when in fact they are obviously saying Eki-ek-ek. Dogs say hong-hong instead of bow-wow or in Spanish: guau-guau. Of the many frogs & toads the most common here is the one that is eaten & must be the ugliest of frogs I have ever seen; they have huge round bodies with small heads & four bandy legs with no visible articulations that look the same front & back. What makes them so unlike other creatures, however, is a curiously inefficient means of locomotion- undoubtedly the weight of their oversized bodies would overwhelm the strength of their skinny legs if they lifted more than one, so they put one foot forward at a time* & waddle instead of hopping or walking- they say: op-op, not ribbit-ribbit... Return

*(A footnote to a footnote, cool!) As far as I know all four, six or eight legged animals move opposite or opposite-diagonal legs at once. (Centi & mili-pedes as well, now that I think of it.)

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Links to post titles:

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Four ducks | A painter's style | Thinking with Google | The Vulture's Throat | Tortures of the Damned | Memory and self | Hinduism and me | The Barber | Glasgow Smile | Airports | False advertising | Buttons | Govandhan pooja | Mean Streets | Population | Back in New Delhi | Buskers | Science and Philosophy | Happiness and Theory of the Mind |
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Christ’s devil | Timelines | Life's funnel | Souvenirs | Moon Myth | How chaos was subdued in the Japanese genesis myth |
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Why Humans prefer other Humans to be like themselves | A letter to painters | Why do people talk? | The Painter's Eye |
I'bn al Alhí's treasure
(short story) | Associative Personality Disorder |
Love poems, death poems | The Golem |
Elitism in Art
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Politics II | Rock & Roll | Words II- more words | Words |

P'MW- page 4

Confidence | How to steal from gullible artists | Priests behaving badly | How to make a painting | Oats & history |
A note about signatures on paintings | Bob Dylan | Number of atheists among scientists | Theoretical physics & me |
Faust & Mephistopheles | Children's reading habits | How to get good photos of firework | The 20th century |
Further Dialogue on the 20th Century article (here) with comments by Bobby Porter | Love is | Civilisation |
Martial Art as Sport | Blind Boy Fuller | Becoming an artist | Insomniac notes | Mind-brain | Age | José Tomás |
Black Adder | This is not a Blog |

P'sMW- page 5

Dammit! (final comments on the article Karma without metaphysics) | Laic morality (comments on Karma without Metaphysics) | Karma without metaphysics | Chivalric ethics | Shibumi | Shibumi: Comments by Bobby Porter |
Oxford Project revisited | How to travel | How Wang-Fô was saved | Fish memory | The artist’s relationship to his work |
Bobby's response to The artist’s relationship to his work | Egon | 20,000+ | Memories of my father II |

P'sMW- page 6

Men & Women | Girls: come closer & I'll tell you a secret about men | Catholic Spain | Art is | Bad luck |
Dogs are the Best People | Tough Love | Dense, intense and condensed: a short love story. | Cubans, Norwegians & me |
From the Guggenheim to Santiago's tomb | Memories of my Father | Ecco il uomo | Divorce & maturity | Inspiration & process |
Bulls & men

P'sMW- page 7

Truth & beauty | Bugs as food | What is art? part II- Is modern art, art? | A painter’s thoughts about self-portraits |
The Piraha of the Amazon jungle | Thailand: stories |

P'sMW- page 8

We'd be better off without Religion | East Meets West | Thoughts on Memory | Scared | Frank Zappa |
Art & Dreams by Ilene Skeen | Indoctrination | Rush to change names in Isaan | The Artist & Emotion | The art critic |
What is Art? Part I | Note of introduction added to the Masculine/feminine article | Rebuttal to Raymond S Kraft |

P'sMW- page 9

I'm back! | Masculine versus feminine, Muslim versus Buddhist. | Driving with Muslims or Buddhists |
Peter Feldstein & Stephen G Bloom's Oxford project | How to argue | On 'happiness', in answer to Ivan's comment. |
Thoughts on Happiness | The birth of Chiang Mai | War Story | Happiness Versus Suffering |
Cogitations upon observing the life of an ant, from its birth to its death by old age, while I lay in a bathtub. June 10, 06

a person of the same age as another. Return
a person belonging to the same time or period with another or others.
of the present time; modern: a lecture on the contemporary novel.
of about the same age or date: a Georgian table with a contemporary wig stand.
existing, occurring, or living at the same time; belonging to the same time: Newton's discovery of the calculus was contemporary with that of Leibniz.

Monday May 7th, 2007

The big question: What is Art? (part II) Is modern art, art? (1515 words) - click here for part I

Let’s start by addressing Modern art’s commonly understood misnomer.  While the abstract expressionists were still the avant-garde ‘Modern art’ was indeed synonymous to ‘contemporary art’.  But once abstract expressionism used up its ideas & began dying of old age, ‘Modern art’ came to describe a stage of art history while contemporary art became, for a short time at least, post-modernism.(1)

What epoch are we in right now? While there are many names there are none, we are in the age of recovery.

After the prettifying dissolution of the High Renaissance ideal that made so many painter’s work indistinguishable from each other’s by mid-nineteenth century, the revolutionary aesthetics & techniques of the Impressionists, the advent of photography & Modern art, (then installations, performance art, video art, dead animals in formaldehyde etc.) we find ourselves in a period of self-search.  Who knows? Maybe with the perspective of temporal distance a pattern & a category may be found to label this period of art history.  At the moment, however, like other directionless moments in art history, what the average patron of the arts is qualified to judge is technique over artistic expression & we therefore get a trend toward hyperrealism. 

Though hyperrealism (especially with the aid of the overhead projector- in common use today) is a mere craft that creates comfortable if emotionally sterile pictures, any painter who learns this craft has a relatively easy time selling his canvases.  Today’s average buyer mistrusts his own taste too much to gamble on something more expressive & many make the mistake of thinking a looser more impressionistic style is easier to accomplish- a shortcut, instead of the far more difficult & sophisticated skill it is.  What skill am I referring to? I can answer that using the photograph as reference.  We have all looked at a beautiful scene & photographed it in order to capture its beauty in a still image but then been disappointed by the results.  The reason, as often as not, is that our brains make the interpretation of the visual subjective, while the camera is objective.  In other words: when we notice the beauty of say, a bend in the river with trees on either side topped by a sky filled with majestic clouds, we don’t ‘see’ as the camera does, the telephone poles or overflowing garbage cans in the foreground that rob the big picture of its focal beauty. 

An impressionistic technique (for example) chooses & directs the viewer’s eye to those expressive qualities in a way hyperrealism & camera cannot. The former translates through a trained eye, the latter merely copies what it sees.   The proof of what I say is in the fact that a great painting like one of Rembrandt’s psychological tour de forces holds the mystery of the undefined that makes his painting more fascinating over time.  One of his canvases lives & breathes on the wall & over time becomes a friend that invites greater attention.  The canvas that pays attention to every detail equally, if exactly, can be more fascinating the first time you see it but dies a quick death & is soon walked past without notice by its owner because it has already been seen thoroughly that first time it fascinated- there is simply nothing left to look at.

Painters using overhead projectors are, to me, no better than frauds, not only because anyone who has taken the trouble to learn how to draw can usually distinguish between the painting that involves interpretive draughtsmanship & that which is nothing but a projected image that was later 'coloured in', i.e. the painter doesn't deserve the respect as artist because he hasn't taken the time necessary to learn the tools of his trade; but also because he skips the step which I have described as the one where the 'art' enters into the painting: the personal translation from three dimensions to two. It shows the average painting buyer today is more interested in subject than how that subject is painted.

If you pick up almost any issue of the popular magazine American Artist you will find many pleasant, nicely crafted, carefully composed & sensitively lit still lifes, landscapes & occasionally, portraits or figurative paintings, in standard, run-of-the-mill realist, hyperrealist or impressionist techniques. These clear representations of the realities they depict are harmless & decorative but in many cases if you shuffled the images from a few issues & redistributed them at random to the articles they illustrated no-one would notice. At the other end of the spectrum you might pick up an issue of another popular magazine: Art News & you will find it filled with things so original you may not encounter a single image you recognize as art!

The post revolution time we live in has taught us that all the rules in place throughout art history from early Greek lessons in the golden section or contraposto, to the demands of the paying client, have been tying the hands of the creative genius.  A true artist paints only for himself, audience be damned.  What has come of this attitude? A lot of original work from- Jasper Johns’ encaustic flags to Andy Warhol’s soup cans, canvases painted black, white, torn or with things glued to them. 

Personally I fail to appreciate most of this work though I recognize great qualities in some abstract paintings- mood, colour/spatial composition, application of paint etc & yet most do not have all the qualities that make great art in a single canvas, like one of Rembrandt’s or Van Gogh’s.  Yet there are always exceptions, for me Jackson Pollock is one of them, great complex paintings that are valid, fascinating, expressive & above all: live.

The question arises: If there are painters painting wonderful & enduring objects of beauty using the tenets of the Renaissance, others doing great work in what is essentially impressionistic technique (Lucian Freud comes to mind) even today, what happened to the work of the abstract expressionists? Why is no one painting in Jack the Dripper’s style? Or doing paintings of supermarket shelves lined with ‘Tide’ soap boxes the way Warhol painted his soup cans? Or painting cubism? (Whose early twentieth century examples by Braque, Gris & Picasso are worth fortunes today). The answer is simple: someone dripping paint on canvas the way Pollock did (even given the same unique skills) would not be following a painterly school of thought but just copying the master.  The artist who painted ‘Tide’ boxes would do even worse, he would simply be re-using an idea someone else came up with, as would the contemporary cubist. 

That is the reason abstract art hasn’t changed the way painters paint permanently, it is the illustration of an idea & not (as I argued the true purpose of art is in part 1 of this essay) the creation of a beautiful object that will move the sensitive viewer emotionally.  For most abstract artists once the ideas were converted to visuals the examination was over; while Monet painted twenty-seven paintings of the same haystack, from the same point of view, & made each of them beautiful in unique ways.

What about limitations on artistic expression imposed by the patron of the arts? In some cases the patrons that controlled to some extent the artist's means of expression such as the Catholic church during the Renaissance, (by requiring the subject be religious, or that the Madonna be dressed in blue or look younger than her son et. al.) were largely aristocratic connoisseurs with excellent & discriminating taste- without whose patronage the Renaissance would have been a far poorer thing.  While at other times, like the seventeenth century Netherlanders, art patronage was taken over by the bourgeois (hence a greater interest in genre than the grandiose themes of religion) & yet that was the time of Vermeer, Rembrandt & Frans Halls, among others...   

So now that our hands have been freed we painters should be pleased, no? No longer fettered, repressed, oppressed, no longer subjugated to rules of any kind, no limits to subject matter, composition, materials or even the constraints of beauty for that matter, we are free, FREE! Our patrons & audience should also celebrate the new depth the work created under such conditions must produce, yes? Well, if you ask me, I must say: no.  The rules that tied our hands gave us Michelangelo’s Pieta (actually more than one, a rougher & stronger Pieta by his hand marks the spot he is buried) Bach’s concertos & Shakespeare’s poetry; while ridding ourselves of the rules gave us dead cows suspended in formaldehyde, pornography parading as eroticism, poetry that doesn’t rhyme (isn’t that actually the definition of prose?) & hip-hop which after more than thirty years has not produced one poet with the sense to use the beauty of iambic pentameter!

(1) The many art-sites I see that describe their own work as 'contemporary' are just plain silly- if one is alive to say so then of course he is contemporary! Contemporary is not a description of style but of one time period relative to another...

From dictionary.com:

Mental Workshop- pg 1 | pg 2 | pg 3 | pg 4 | pg 5 | pg 6 | pg 7 | pg 8 | pg 9 |

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Thursday August 30th, 2007

Click for enlargement

Thursday August 16th, 2007

Why do artists paint? (500 words)

I just received a long letter (a real letter written on paper!) written by the artist Robert Blair Porter (www.robertblairporter.com) sent from an island on lake Huron in Canada, where Manitou is God & landscape artists find infinite inspiration in the cold, rugged & singular beauty of the place. 

As usual he writes with interesting ideas which I am going to pick from his letter & organise partly in my own words though I will write in the first person singular:

Apparently many film critics, whose main talent is writing words, prefer critiquing the screen play to the amalgamation of sounds & images of the final product. This made me think how the same phenomenon might well be true for art critics; these critics would naturally prefer paintings that can be described, validated & interpreted in words than those that don’t lend themselves so easily to the task. The painting itself, however, is already an interpretation of an idea, theme or scene & can only be diminished by re-interpretation into words. The true worth of a painting cannot be expressed in words but rather by the reaction of the viewer, itself indescribable, when faced with the work.

Perhaps the more compelling question lies not in the describing of what we paint but rather, defining the why. Undoubtedly a query of some concern shared at one time or another by all painters. “We can take most seriously the things we care most about only if we think that what makes them worth caring about goes beyond the mere fact that we care about them.” In other words: if a scientist wants to discover the truth about some natural process he might invest large sums of time & mental effort in doing so but the fact the truth matters to him personally would not be enough motivation without the belief that the truth, simply, matters; it has an independent value that transcends the personal. Otherwise it would be easier to change our tastes & stop caring about whether the answer is ‘right’.

Substitute painter for scientist & art for truth & one comes to the realisation that in order to expend the great deal of time & effort it takes to produce paintings that forever elude the burning perfection of the inner vision, the artist must believe there is a transcendent value to the effort.

William H Gass said: “There are few vocations that are so uncalled for by the world, so un-remunerative by any ordinary standards, so inherently difficult, so undefined, that to choose them suggests more lies behind the choice than a little encouraging talent & a few romantic ideals. Such a vocation requires the mobilisation of the entire personality- each weakness as well as every strength, each quirk as well as every normality.”

Like Nietzsche when asked why, if he truly believed in his own existentialist philosophy, did he bother writing? His answer: “Because I could not, not write.” Is akin to ours: why do we artists paint? Because we must…


Tuesday August 1st, 2007

A Monk's Funeral

Burning pyre

The cremation of an important monk in Northern Thailand's Chiang Mai. To see
more (including a 10 minute video) click on the picture.


Monday June 17th, 2007

Pet theory. (255 words)

If there are any zoologists, behavioural psychologists, evolutionary biologists or whichever discipline it is that deals with these questions- out there, I would be interested in some feedback on the pet theory I am about to expound.  It seems to me
that in the domain of animals living in nature, no one animal ever gets run over by another. 

An elephant may step on an insect that isn’t fast enough to avoid it or is too small to be aware of the macrocosm that surrounds it but I doubt even an animal as small as a mouse would be foolish enough not to get out of the way of an elephant it can see is running in his direction. 

So why is a dog perfectly capable of stepping casually in front of a car it can clearly see is moving in a straight line toward him? My theory is that it is all in the eyes. 

Though a dog has the reasoning power (I have read a smart dog like the collie, has an IQ equivalent to a three year old human child) to see the car moving toward him & recognise the direction it is moving in, I think the difference in his being able to judge its eventual trajectory when compared to say, a charging bison, is the car’s lack of eyes.  I suppose this theory could be tested by attaching a facsimile of eyes to the front of a car & calling a dog to cross in front of it!


Ms Jamie Sue Austin writes:

I believe there is some merit to your pet theory.  Though it may not rely entirely on the eyes but on a discernible facial structure.  A car lacks any impression of a face.  Animals are remarkably receptive to facial cues and body language, even across species.

And on another topic we spoke of in our e-mails she makes the lovely statement: "If I were not a heathen I would say that god is what twists in the pit of the stomach when we turn a blind eye to the suffering of others."

Thanks' Jamie Sue, that's great stuff!

Thursday June 7th, 2007

De Sica's The Bicycle Thieves

I am a great lover of great cinema; indeed I am one of those people who wholeheartedly accept the best of Fellini, Kurosawa, Rossellini, Wertmüller, Truffaut, Buñuel, Welles et. al. as the seventh art form.  There are moments that can be captured by great directors, actors & even the least appreciated but often crucial: editor, like the evocative but fleeting look between two people that goes beyond the range of literature or even theatre. 

And yet I have managed to reach my age without seeing The Bicycle Thieves (originally Ladri di Biciclette & released in the ‘States in the singular as: The Bicycle Thief) until last night- what a gem of a film!

I am left with a question I wonder if someone out there who knows more about film history or theory than I, might answer: I took the very interesting booklet that came with the DVD issue to bed with me- read about half of it before falling asleep & found myself wondering at all the talk of Italian neo-realism without any mention of what seemed obvious to me while watching the movie: no-one is giving credit where I think it is due, this genre was not invented by Italian film-makers but by Russian authors, particularly Gogol & Chekhov, the first example that comes to mind is Gogol’s The Overcoat…?


Monday June 4th, 2007

Hey! I just noticed it is my blog's anniversary, about twenty-five articles adding up to about 35,000 words. Plus comments, reactions, quotes & the odd cartoon or newspaper excerpt... congratulations to me!

Sunday May 27th, 2007 (1890 words)

Stories I have heard & liked well enough to remember:

Japanese heaven & hell:

A Japanese man died & found himself before the gates of heaven but before being allowed in he was offered the opportunity to see the hell he had so fortunately avoided.  He was guided down but when he entered hell’s gate he was surprised to find an idyllic countryside of rolling hills under a blue summer’s sky crossed by frolicking songbirds & colourful butterflies.  He looked around but could see nothing of the tortures of hell he had expected. 

As he made his way idly, if still circumspectly, across the soft grass he was met by friendly & fearless animals who nuzzled & seemed to greet him.  A small forest lay ahead & he was delighted to find its floor carpeted in soft moss as he entered its shade.  He marvelled at the sweetness of the bird song & admired the handsome tress, all along wondering how this lovely place could be hell.  Then he noticed an extraordinarily beautiful palace built in a glade in the middle of the old forest. 

While awed by its size & comeliness he noticed, as he approached, that the windows blazed with light.  He went right up to one of them & cupping his hands before his eyes looked in to see a banquet table that seemed of infinite length covered in the most succulent delicacies.  As his eyes adjusted he noticed also the people that surrounded its great length & how they sat in attitudes of dejection. 

The diners shared no conversation & far from looking well-fed they actually appeared emaciated by hunger, each sitting absorbed in his own misery.  Wondering why they didn’t reach for the food that sat so invitingly before them the visitor then noticed their chop sticks & realised the reason: the chop sticks were so long the people sat at table couldn’t reach their own mouths with the food they picked up with them.

Ah, so that is hell, he mused & turned to make the journey back to heaven wondering what he would find there.

But as he passed the gates to heaven he was surprised to find the same landscape he had just left in hell.  This time he hurried across the soft grass though he noticed the songbirds, found the forest whose floor was covered in soft moss & directed his feet to the clearing where sure enough sat the twin to hell’s palace.  Going once more to a window he pressed his nose against it & found the same banquet laid out but here the people happily chatted & looked healthy, cheerful & well fed.  Of course he immediaely looked to their chop sticks but was as surprised as he had been in hell to see they were just as long here as they had been there.  He didn’t know what to make of it until he noticed that at this board the people reached across & fed each other.

The Goddess Kali:

From the Mahabarata: "He saw Kali standing black & terrible before him, the Goddess dressed in slit-tongued serpents hanging from her waist & dripping poison.  Wearing a necklace of human heads running blood over her breasts.  In ten arms she held weapons & fire & disease & fear; her eyes & hair were wild & she danced to the sound of screams."

With its garish colours and elaborate ceremonies, Hinduism can seem a cartoon religion to the Occidental. Like a Greek god that is a study of human nature and can be benevolent, cruel or capricious in the same day, the Hindu god also understands paradox. There are always several versions of each myth, but one of my favourites was told to me by someone who read the Baghvad Gita in Sanskrit; it is the Goddess Kali’s story. Kali is the black Goddess--the destroyer--always depicted with a necklace of human skulls, one of her arms holding a skull-cap from which she drinks human blood. When she was young, she was a good God, but when a large and terrible demon that threatened the earth with destruction couldn’t be killed because wherever his blood ran all turned to evil, our Goddess Kali came forward. She fought and slew the beast; then, in the ultimate sacrifice, she drank all his blood--thereby becoming evil. But she is revered for that sacrifice: motivated by goodness to sacrifice her goodness. To me this shows an understanding of life’s true paradox that Christianity doesn’t dare touch.

The Historic Fart:

Abddullah had a previliged life born, as he was, to his clan's chief. He was handsome, strong, a supreme hunter & generous to everyone. When it came time for him to marry-- his bride was the envy of all & the wedding was the most abundant, the most extravagant, the most munificent, the village had seen since his father's. The entire community was invited & Abdullah happily presided over the event while eating a dozen courses rich with 77 herbs as his beautiful bride was brought out seven times in seven dresses.

Finally after many hours of entertainment & feasting Abdullah stood to address the congregation & for the first time that night the music stopped & a complete silence fell on the gathered as they waited to hear Abdullah's words. When he stood, however, an unstoppable, powerful & sonorous fart escaped his body. Otherwise the absolute silence continued for a few very long seconds, Abdullah excused himself & turned to leave the jaima. Once outside his embarrassement was such he could think of nothing to do but saddle his camel & turn away from his birthplace. He rode & rode until he came to a new & unknown kingdom & there he settled.

He became a vendor in the local market but as time passed his intelligence & natural nobility made him one of the most respected merchants of his adopted home & yet he never stopped pining for his family, his untasted bride, his home. Finally one day some twenty years later, he began to think his reaction had been exaggerrated & surely the faux pas had been forgotten by now. Once convinced he was eager to start & his eyes filled with tears at the thought of his now elderly father's welcome & the irreplaceable tastes & smells of his home. When the decision was made he sold everything he had accumulated cheaply & quickly & turned his camel to his past.

After a long trip he eventually reached the town at sunset & his pulse quickened but also the doubts came back to him & when he heard through the window of an outlying house a mother & child talking, he dismounted & quietly approached to see what they were saying: "Mummy, when was I born?" & the mother's voice answered: "It was exactly 11 years after Abdullah's fart" Abdullah got back on his camel & rode away without ever looking back.

Zen koan:

A man was walking in the countryside when suddenly a tiger came rushing towards him from the forest. Scared out of his wits he began to run for his life with the tiger in hot pursuit.  He ran & ran barely ahead of the beast when the ground he ran on unexpectedly finished & he found he had run right up to a cliff, with no choice or time to think about it, he jumped over the edge & luckily was able to grab a-hold of a small bush that grew from the cliff’s sheer side.  Holding on for dear life with one hand he noted the pain of the thorns digging into his flesh.  He looked up & saw the tiger looking over the edge at him; he looked down to the thousand meter drop to the sure death that awaited his fall, he looked at the bush he held on to & saw the roots were slowly pulling from the cliff face under his weight.  Then he saw a single raspberry growing on it & with his free hand he picked & ate it & found it was delicious.

Nasrudin, the Sufi Master:

When his novice asked: Master, why did you never marry? He answered: I dedicated most of my life to the search for the perfect woman.  I travelled the world & after many years on my quest I found I had reached thirty before I encountered  a woman on an island off the southwest coast of Africa whose form was perfect in every way.  I lived to court & seduce her, but once she was mine I began to realize I didn't really like her & as my dislike of her company deepened, my attraction to her perfect beauty dwindled.  I set sail & travelled east for many years always with one objective in mind: the perfect woman as my mate. 

I was reaching forty when high in the mountains of darkest Mongolia I found the woman whose company was sheer delight, her intelligence, her wit, her kindness made me fall in love with her but when I finally made her mine I began to notice I really preferred her as a friend because I felt no passion for her imperfect shape.  One day I decided to continue my search & set out on my strong Mongol steed to the south.  I travelled many years, always searching & when I reached the Indian ocean I sailed without a map or compass & trusted the universe.  On my fiftieth birthday out of drinking water & food I sighted land & on that tiny island in the south Pacific waited for me the perfect woman, after thirty years of searching I had finally found her- the sublime woman who was faultless in every way. 

After a silence the disciple asked: So... why didn't you marry her master? Well my son, I had the ill-luck to discover she was looking for the perfect man.


A man was shopping in the bazaar in Cairo when among the crowd that surrounded him he saw death & knew immediately he had come for him.  He dropped his purchases & without hesitating ran to his camel; without stopping to see his home or family he turned his animal to the desert & galloped for hours across the hot sands.  Upon reaching the sea he jumped on the first ship he saw & sailed with it east until he found land again.  There he caught a train not caring for its destination & continued his escape. 

When the tracks finally ended he hopped off & found a horse, with it he galloped & galloped northwards & found himself ascending a mountain range that got steeper & steeper, colder & colder, until finally his stallion fell from under him.  He skinned the horse & wrapping himself in its bloody hide he continued to climb on foot through the snows to higher & higher altitudes until finally, exhausted, he found a shallow cave & sat inside sure death would not find him there & he fell asleep. 

When he woke in the morning he felt a new man & marvelled at the beauty of the sun rising over the snows & the immense landscape that lay before him.  But a shadow fell across the opening to his cave & when he looked up he saw it was death who with a bony finger silently beckoned him.  Astounded he looked at him & said: But how? I saw you in the market in Cairo just a few days ago, how did you find me here?  Death answered: Yes, I also noticed you in that marketplace & was surprised because I knew I must meet you here today.


Sunday May 20th, 2007

Truth & Beauty

I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?
"For beauty," I replied.
"And I for truth, -the two are one;
We brethren are," he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

Emily Dickinson


Monday May 14th, 2007 (715 words)

Bugs as food

It is the beginning of the rainy season here & therefore a time my maid & handyman, like so many village people everywhere, are excited by ants.  There is a small black variety that can be found underground, particularly at the base of copses of bamboo.  Though the workers of this variety are very small (about three millimetres in length) the queens are huge & are the ones collected.  After disturbing the hive with a stick the queen comes out of her own accord & Pon will quickly pluck her up though never quick enough not to suffer a few bites from the thousands of workers that swarm instantly up her hand. 

Once she has collected a bunch of these queen ants she fries them up in a Wok until they’re crispy on the outside, tender & sweet on the inside. Edible insects are also available like baked beans- in tin cans at the supermarket.

Pon cooking

They then sit in a bowl on the kitchen table like a bowl of nuts or pop-corn to be enjoyed at will.  Bugs in a bowl(The plump ones that look like ticks are the queen ants, the others are cockroaches).  Insects are eaten only in parts of the world where other protein sources are difficult to find but though my staff can eat whatever they fancy here in my house they still consider these ants (as well as other insects, & catfish, turtles & black crabs they catch in the river at the back of the house)- delicacies, & eat them with shrimp paste. Shrimp paste is a paste made of shrimp left in the sun to rot.   Most foreigners, like me, find even the smell of the paste nauseating, a fact which gives Thai people no end of mirth.  I have eaten different bugs & larva just to get the Thai to stop laughing at me but could never handle the ones so large that they take more than two bites each to eat (Thai people react the same way if you offer them some delicious escargot fried up in butter & garlic or even some of our more aromatic cheeses). 

At another time of year the red ants are the focus of attention.  The red ants are much larger & inflict a surprisingly painful, if harmless, bite with sharp fangs.  When one hurriedly brushes them off, many caught in the act of biting will allow their bodies to be ripped from their heads rather than let go & apparently heedless of the sudden amputation will continue to bite down with its bodyless head until you pluck them one by one from your skin.  These ants seem more sophisticated in their evolution to me & make beautiful almost invisible hives out of the living leaves of trees.

Ant hive

At this time of year, the hot season*, Pon will watch the colour of the leaves as they slowly die (after a couple of months being used as habitation) in order to judge the moment the larvae are ready to eat, in this instance usually made sweeter with honey & steamed in a banana leaf.

Red ant larvae

The first time I ate insects was shortly after I arrived to live in Thailand & didn't even know there were people whose basic proteins came from insects. We sat by a river when someone came up with a basket of neatly folded banana leaves containing a delicious white substance. I bought some & ate while asking my friend what it was but she, who didn't speak much English, struggled for theLao rice whiskey words & finally managed: baibibee. Uhmn, "Baby bees?" I asked, "Yes, baby bees"... & then it dawned on me- bee larvae, & though I had been enjoying them I couldn't go on.

In case this post has failed to impress you I’ll include an image of a bottle of Lao rice whiskey. Yes, it is a seven inch, eighteen centimetre, scorpion (& lemongrass). Did you wonder how they get him in through the small opening? They put them in young, care for them until they’re big & then drown them in the whiskey…





*There are three seasons in Thailand: hot, very hot & rainy. Some of the same trees I know as deciduous in Europe, give three fruit seasons in Thailand without ever losing their leaves. Return

Paul's Mental Workshop, pg 7 of 9
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