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The shallowness of specialisation

There’s a pervasive belief in the ineluctable triumph of expertise and specialisation. We dissect knowledge into areas, crafts into specialties, nature into labels. At their best, they are a valuable way of reducing reality and making it apprehensible to our minds. At their worst, they hinder understanding by filtering everything through a preconceived structure, forcing things to fall into dogmatic places, naturally excluding what doesn’t fit into its parsing of the world. Our civilisations run the risk of fragmenting themselves and their individuals when it relentlessly pushes towards utilitarian benefits. We seem to stare at a reluctant and blurry distance to Terence, the great latin poet who stated for posterity: “I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.”

Haven’t we trapped our mind’s inquisitiveness under the guise of utility? Trapped by our own very reluctance to let it push itself. In a way, the structure of our contemporary learning instead of expanding scope and curiosity tends to narrow it. The necessity to foster interdisciplinary and inclusive efforts is often a sign that our spirit has become tragically fragmented. All in the name of a self acquired notion of depth, value, and mercantile utility. Unfortunately, it’s also a false sense of depth—yet a very dangerous one.

It’s not hard to see that we may lack any sort of cohesive view, that we struggle at the gaps our grid of instrumental utility conceals. If the splitting of knowledge into areas was a necessity to allow room for diverse and improved practices, now it may be close to lose the thing that bonded them, and relinquish any sense of inclusiveness. The sciences look down upon philosophy as mere poetic ramblings; all the while philosophy looks down on the sciences as being lost in arbitrary calculations. Both forget that our greatest minds were naturally inclined to pursue both. There’s so many ways in which you can cut an entity until it no longer resembles any entity. Pursuing specialisation for too long will only yield fragmentation of knowledge — something that ails every corner of our understanding. Most often, the hardest problems cannot be deciphered within the confines of just one discipline. Sometimes, they cannot even be formulated at all from their wells.

The promise of specialisation operates on the assumption that a sort of collective geist should arise to achieve what its individuals sacrificed. But who speaks for it? The landscape of our knowledge seems like a field of separate holes where we dig in isolation. The irony is that nobody can tell how close those holes are anymore with regard to each other, or even whether they are close at all, so absorbed we are in their verticality. Could there be a distinct fear that they may forever be isolated islands? What are we to do with this cognitive scenery of moon-like craters? Who is there to dig horizontally so that those holes can reach each other?

It has been said that this overspecialisation is the only way to avoid superficial thoughts in a vast world that is impossible to grasp and comprehend. As everything, the depth achieved is but a matter of perception. Just turn the head sideways and we’ll see what is reverenced as a tunnel of illustrious depth becomes a superficial line of sameness. We are so attached to the holes we are digging that we can’t prevent being shallow—that is, horizontally speaking.

But even then it seems as if we are in a more dangerous situation. More precarious. We assume that focusing on a specialisation path is a necessity for deepness on a time of too much things to learn and explore. But then we lose all sense of curiosity, the very will to explore. We suspend the desire to know whatever lies beyond our field. What can imagination do if you only feed it from the same source? By its very nature it perpetuates a status quo, because there’s no thinking allowed outside of the holes we have chosen. Depth without breadth becomes the epitome of a particular kind of shallowness.

Great individuals have shown to have maybe one thing in common — they never deprived their curiosity of its natural state to move in all directions. Categories and disciplines are mental tools we use to superimpose a sense of continuity on a world which is essentially constantly transforming itself into existence. Creating, learning, and teaching are fundamental acts of discovery and development, intuition and inspiration, trust and openness; reaching out to the potential we have come to exist with.

Written for a profile in design.blog.

The underrated Mona Lisa

Jason Kottke:

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is overrated. Why? For starters, the director of the Louvre said that 80% of the museum’s visitors are there just to see the Mona Lisa. 80%! We’re talking about one of the finest museums in the world, overflowing with some of the world’s greatest artworks, and people come to only see one thing. Overrated.

I disagree. The reasons why people go to see this painting may be entirely frivolous; preceded by a fame that has little to do with the work itself. Yet it’s ludicrous to think the Mona Lisa is overrated (and snobbishly dismiss it) because of the kind of appropriation art tourism has made of it.

Before its modern fame, the work captivated the attention and admiration of other Renaissance artists—including Raphael—and set the tone for what was possible to achieve with portraiture. If anything, the conditions in which the work is forced to be displayed and its status as a cultural icon make it impossible to aesthetically appreciate it on its own terms. For the way it is violently consumed it is, perhaps, underrated.

The reasons why people flood the Louvre hall that contains the painting may be completely spurious but it doesn’t make the work any less remarkable. Its status as a cultural icon is inconsequential to the quality of the work.

The lucid mind of Vincent van Gogh

Last month in Canada Automattic had its annual meetup reunion. I did a short talk on some of my favourite passages from Van Gogh’s letters.

Vincent often represents the paradigmatic idea of the tortured artist, whose work is seen both as the brilliant deliriums of a madman and yet inconceivable without some kind of mental distress. It is portrayed as the great result of an illness. I believe such a vision does an incredible disservice to his work, his creative genius, and his suffering.

We have the privilege that a vast collection of his letters — mostly sent to his brother Theo — have been preserved. One of their most striking aspects is the great insight, eloquence, knowledge, serenity, and awareness that he displays in them. The evolution of his style follows a determination to find beauty and a very precise artistic expression.

All kinds of eccentric and bad things are thought and said about me, which makes me feel somewhat forlorn now and then, but on the other hand it concentrates my attention on the things that never change — that is to say, the eternal beauty of nature.

The Hague, 1882

At a time that art theory recognises as the birth of the avant-garde movements, it’s wise to recall that the artists weren’t necessarily seeking novelty, but often instead trying to return to a sense of purity and directness in their contact with the world that may had been forgotten by art.

What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me.

Van Gogh tried — unsuccessfully — to create a community of artists in southern France with the purpose of working together in the pursuit of great art. An intrinsic obstacle for this effort was, in his mind, the inability of artists to collaborate:

However, I shan’t labour the point, because I realize that life carries us along so fast that we haven’t the time to talk and to work as well. That is the reason why, with unity still a long way off, we are now sailing the trackless deep in our frail little boats, all alone on the high seas of our time. Is it a renaissance? Is it a decline? We cannot judge, because we are too close to it not to be deceived by distorted perspectives.

He often writes with close attention about the works of other masters. The following is a great description of Rembrandt, for instance:

This is how Rembrandt painted angels. He does a self-portrait, old, toothless, wrinkled, wearing a cotton cap, a picture from life, in a mirror. He is dreaming, dreaming, and his brush takes up his self-portrait again, but this time from memory, and the expression on the face becomes sadder and more saddening, He dreams, dreams on, and why or how I cannot tell, but — as Socrates and Mohammed had their guardian spirits, so Rembrandt paints a supernatural angel with a da Vinci smile behind that old man who resembles himself.

And finally, the impulse behind a sense of purpose constantly emerges from his writing; a sense of figuring out what was important to him and how to develop his craft towards his ideals.

On the road that I’m on I must continue; if I do nothing, if I don’t study, if I don’t keep on trying, then I’m lost, then woe betide me. That’s how I see this, to keep on, keep on, that’s what’s needed. But what’s your ultimate goal, you’ll say. That goal will become clearer, will take shape slowly and surely, as the croquis becomes a sketch and the sketch a painting, as one works more seriously, as one digs deeper into the originally vague idea, the first fugitive, passing thought, unless it becomes firm.

I redesign this place more often
than I write on it.