Artistic vision: The Venice Biennale and Pinault’s new Punta della Dogana

Punta-della-Dogana_Elicottero_4321_nologoIt may be that any Biennial, having a Director whose job is like herding cats (the curators of the national pavillions), is by definition a mixed bag, structurally unable to express any coherent artistic vision. That’s what I came away with after visiting this year’s Venice Biennale, “Making Worlds”, directed by Daniel Birnbaum; in addition to the unpleasant feeling that most of it was looking backwards, instead of straight ahead into the future.

The following day, I visited François Pinault’s new contemporary art center at the Punta della Dogana (pictured), which hosts half of an exhibition titled “Mapping the Studio” (with the rest at Palazzo Grassi). It was everything that the Biennale wasn’t. Instead of the decaying infrastructure of the Giardini and the Arsenale, a freshly restored vast and luminous space, bearing the marks of Tadao Ando’s loving care (and, of course, ample funding by Monsieur Pinault). Instead of a cacophony of voices, a clear curatorial point of view: sure, a provocative, controversy-seeking one at times, but nevertheless an artistic vision, a show of teamwork between the collector and his curators, Gingeras and Bonami. A cross-section of what’s at the edge of artistic creation today, mediated by a discerning taste. Even the works from the 1970s and 1980s seemed fresh and contemporary.

Walking through the Biennale felt like work; visiting the (admittedly much smaller) Punta della Dogana was sheer pleasure.

And how was it for you?

Literary quote of the day: Wilton Barnhardt, “Gospel”

Sorry about exploitation of clichés, but this snippet of dialogue is too fun to omit in the name of political correctness.

“[Hakim’s] slave Masoud was found to have the largest member of any black man alive. I’m sure […] Masoud was discovered after a not entirely joyless search. Not unlike the survey of Africa made by Tiberius for the same reason, his ‘collection’ at Capri.”

Lucy added, “Lampridius writes that Elagabalus Cesar sent out emissaries to Africa for the same purpose”.

O’Hanrahan was momentarily silenced. “Lucille! Is that what you have done with your learning, read Late Empire filth like Lampridius?”

She put back her head and laughed. “That’s the only reason anyone does Classics, sir – the filth.”

An ethical life, the eating of meat and the radical chic cook

In the last couple of weeks, I talked about food with two vegetarians. One, a colleague, has been a vegetarian for 22 years; the other, while not having planned to do so, has remained a strict vegan after ending her month-long Jivamukti Yoga teacher training last month.

I also read Writings on an Ethical Life by philosopher Peter Singer. He seems to be one of the few philosophers today who are easily understandable outside academia, perhaps because he knows that many of the themes he works on are making news headlines every day and therefore he makes an effort to discuss them in plain language. His views on the legitimacy of abortion, as well as on ending human life when it is no longer worth living, are – in my opinion – unassailibly argued. Yet, they are much less discussed than his plea for animal liberation (Animal Liberation is also the title of his best-known book, published in 1975). Coherent with this moral stance is, of course, the practice of vegetarianism, which he personally adopts.

If you accept a moral philosophy that aims to minimize the amount of pain and suffering in the world, and you accept that animals are able to feel pain, then you should not inflict avoidable pain on animals. (As a good utilitarian, Singer always tries a computation of consequences and their weighting: for example, while campaigning for an end to an overwhelming majority of animal experimentation, he does make exceptions when there are no alternatives, or when the experiment you want to perform on an animal is so important that you would perform the same experiment on a brain-damaged human). And an overwhelming proportion of our meat eating entails just such avoidable pain being inflicted on animals.

Not in the reasoning, but in his conclusions, Singer reminded me of a more recent (and very successful) book about food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Pollan’s search for sustainable food brings him to very similar conclusions to those advocated by Singer (emphasis added):

[…] the issue to focus on is not whether there are some circumstances in which it could be right to eat meat, but on what we can do to avoid contributing to this immense amount of animal suffering. The answer is to boycott all meat and eggs produced by large-scale commercial methods of animal production, and encourage others to do the same. Consideration for the interests of animals alone is enough justification for this response, but the case is further strengthened by the environmental problems that the meat industry causes.

This is where both Pollan and Singer seem to broadly agree that, if an animal has been raised in a way that respects its interests and does not result in unnecessary suffering, and if the manner of killing is painless, it would be acceptable for us to kill and eat it. Such animals, of course, are hardly anywhere to be found; vegetarianism would therefore be a practical choice for adherents of this philosophy.

I eat meat once or twice a week – I’ve never kept track. And I hardly ever eat eggs – I occasionally buy them, but mostly end up throwing them away. For years, I have lived in a household whose meat consumption patterns involuntarily approximates Pollan’s ideal. Not for ethical reasons, not for environmental reasons, but strictly for gastronomic reasons: my husband refuses to buy supermarket meat on grounds of tastelessness.

This drives him, of course, to seek out specialty meats whose provenance is traced to small-scale farms and whose price supposedly reflects its superior quality. In fact, such prices often stretch credulity (he is the only person I know to have ever brought home a free-range organic hen – to make a very superior chicken broth – for the astonishing price of 55 Euros).

Yet, I do find myself thinking about moral challenges. Unless this is wishful thinking, I am reasonably confident that the excellent beef I ate at a rustic Mendrisio restaurant last Friday comes from an organically and very sustainably raised Swiss cow (Swiss farming, as you may have heard, being quite particular about such standards). Yet, when I was in Japan, I ate Kobe beef with delight, not thinking of the deprivation that produced such tender meat.

And what about pork? What do I know about that Spanish pig whose cured meat ended up on my plate as jamon serrano, or the Italian one that resulted in the premium culatello di Zibello? What lives did such animals lead?

My husband rejects my accusation of being a radical chic cook, engaged in inventing a rich people’s diet. He retorts that he is not trying to make a fashion statement: he chooses the meats he chooses not because it’s a hip thing to do, but because he truly can tell the difference and does not want to settle for less. As a good utilitarian, he just tries to maximize the quality of the food he eats, and makes tradeoffs based on his personal preference function.

I don’t mind his approach, as long as it is consistent with the reduction of unnecessary animal suffering. (I do mind it, of course, when our fridge is full of foie gras – which luckily has not happened in recent years). I still have to work out my own. What to eat, what not to eat: the omnivore’s dilemma, indeed. In the meantime, check out the blog of the Artisan Beef Institute by my friend Carrie – an entrepreneur committed to bringing you decidedly non-industrial beef.

Up close and personal

There is a megatrend on the Web today, and it’s called personalization. I didn’t say a “new” trend: Amazon, after all, has provided you with remarkably accurate personalized product recommendations for years. But it’s a bigger trend today now that more crunching power is cheaply available, more and more of our preferences and behaviors become susceptible to reasonable approximations by algorithm, and more smart entrepreneurs move to take advantage of it.

My quick scan of the TechCrunch headlines today provided, at a glance, three examples of hyper-personalization (links point to the TC articles, by three different writers – what a story if an editor had thought about weaving them together!):

  • My6Sense, an RSS content filtering tool that resulted in an “a-ha moment” for the reviewer when absolutely relevant posts floated to the top of his iPhone screen, without the user having had to do anything else (no ratings, no preferences) than using the app as a reader for a couple of days.
  • BeeTV, a personal TV recommendation system from the brains of Gavin Potter, of Netflix Prize competition fame;
  • Covet.com, a clothing and accessories recommendations engine tailored to your style.

This trend will brilliantly simplify our lives if it helps us save time that we waste today. If you don’t like browsing through clothes, surfing through channels, scanning your RSS feed reader, flipping through bookshelves, reading movie reviews, turning the pages in a recipe book, choosing a toy for your nephew, researching holiday destinations and so on, then recommendation algorithms will solve the problem for you: voilà, you don’t know it yet but this will become your favorite TV show. If you don’t like dating and want to be in a serious relationship from day one, there are matching algorithms that will find you a compatible partner for life. And personalized medicine holds – of course – huge promise.

But we also need mechanisms for serendipitous discovery; for stretching one’s boundaries; for challenging one’s opinions; and for getting out of our comfort zone. (If schooling were organized by personalized preferences, how many people would ever get any basic algebra?) The personalized universe freezes us in time. It narrows our horizons. If not executed with a fondness for adjacencies and the odd curveball, it will let us dig ourselves  into a deep tunnel of 1970s progressive rock, if that’s where we start from, and never even discover 1990s grunge. It will keep suggesting backpacker hostels when we can afford four-star hotels, or four-star hotels when we can only afford backpacker hostels. It will make us into Burgundy experts, while we don’t know we might enjoy Bordeauxs better. It will reinforce us in our particular religious and political bias. It will perpetuate our teenage Ayn Rand infatuation.

Social media may come to a partial rescue of the algorithm: you can follow a friend’s recommendation for Industrial music if all you know is Alternative. But you must still have become friends with that person – or “social media friends”, if you’ve never met in person – on the basis of some shared worldview. A social media recommendation mechanism to open up our horizons would refer back to Granovetter’s “strength of weak ties” and perhaps upweigh the tastes and preferences of our weaker connections, so that we may discover and learn something new.

Personalized recommendations are undoubtedly efficient. If you want your life to become more efficient, you will use hyper-personalization to minimize the drudgery and get to a good enough solution quickly. But if at times you enjoy discovery, you like being challenged, you want to try something different – you will step out of your personalized universe and explore someone else’s, or create one that does not exist.