On Monsters

An illustration of monsters for the travel memoir with elements of fantasy “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville” (c. 1357-1371).

I recently explored a very interesting book titled On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears (2009) by Stephen T. Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago. A comprehensive piece of research on the subject (from a Western perspective), it begins by outlining certain key general characteristics of monsters.

It further divides the topic into five main parts: ancient monsters, medieval monsters, monsters examined through the lens of science, psychological monsters, finally discussing the identity of monsters today with a view to the future.

As the book opens, Asma mentions how our phobias, evolutionarily speaking, have been advantageous for human survival. They incite us to protect ourselves. The monster is the figure onto which we project our fears. Asma points out two basic ways in which the monstrous phenomenon could be understood—it is unthinkable and unmanageable. That is, it leads to a breakdown of intelligibility. When something/someone is monstrous it cannot be processed by our rationality, prompting us to question how can they do it? Like Pol Pot and his men in Cambodia. The monstrous also unleashes chaos, like the invention of Victor Frankenstein. It may not necessarily be inherently evil but it can, over time, take a turn towards malevolence. It can be dangerous to us, disturb our sense of order, peace, safety and security. 

English actor Boris Karloff (1887-1969) as Frankenstein monster from the famous 1931 film.

Beyond such fundamental characteristics, the monstrous has assumed different meanings at different times, going from superficially physical to deeply spiritual. The concept has shifted in human imagination and art over the centuries. Asma explains further: “Monster is a flexible, multiuse concept. Until quite recently it applied to unfortunate souls like the hydrocephalic woman. During the nineteenth century “freak shows” and “monster spectacles” were common; such exploitation of genetically and developmentally disabled people must be one of the lowest points on the ethical meter of our civilisation. 

“We have moved away from this particular pejorative use of monster, yet we still employ the term and concept to apply to inhuman creatures of every stripe, even if they come from our own species. The concept of the monster has evolved to become a moral term in addition to a biological and theological term. We live in an age, for example, in which recent memory can recall many sadistic political monsters.”

Here are a few examples of the monster—with the meanings behind them—from each of the five parts of the book:

(1) Ancient Monsters

In antiquity, as the continents were farther away for lack of adequate transportation and communication, the sense of the “exotic” was particularly pronounced. Monsters were numerous and varied—cyclops, griffins. Many were exaggerated, embellished versions of creatures that were believed to exist in foreign lands. Other races were also considered monstrous. Example, the Greek physician Ctesias reported an umbrella-footed race of creatures “who have only one leg and hop at astonishing speed and who also lie on their back and raise their large foot to act as an umbrella against inclement weather.”

(2) Medieval Monsters: Messages from God

With the Christian worldview, monsters were recast as “God’s lackeys”. They were now part of a fallen world, originally created good by a benevolent omnipotent God. If they had taken the path of corruption out of their own will, they were even capable of redemption. They were sometimes supposed to have a specific purpose, having been made by God to teach us how to love the ugly, the repulsive and the outcast. Some monsters—like the Leviathan and Behemoth—represented the terrifying, unknowable aspect of God. Monsters, overall, were no longer random as under older pagan systems. They were imbued with more significance and purpose. The medieval mindset did lead to one particularly disturbing series of events—witch hunts. From the Inquisition of the Late Middle Ages to the New England trials of the 1690s, witches were the monsters foremost in the social imagination, deemed to be special vessels of demonic ill will.

The Torment of Saint Anthony (c. 1487-88) by Michelangelo. This painting depicts typical medieval monsters.

(3) Scientific Monsters: The Book of Nature is Riddled with Typos

Allegory and fantasy slowly gave way to more objective zoology. In the early seventeenth century, the gradual turn from magical thinking to science had major implications for monsters. The English philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon (1561-1626) said: “We must make a collection or particular natural history of all the monsters and prodigious products of nature.” He argued that specimens must be amassed in warehouses of study and systematic knowledge derived from them. 

Subsequently, there were intense discussions on design, chance, mutations and teleology in nature, and the role of divine will. In the nineteenth century, we find the emergence of “freaks” (a term that would be considered very offensive today)—individuals with physical deformities due to unusual medical conditions or body modifications. The American showman and businessman P. T. Barnum (1810-1891) established his grand travelling circus, menagerie and museum of “freaks” around 1870.

A poster for P. T. Barnum’s circus organised with his collaborator James Bailey, displaying “peerless prodigies of physical phenomena” like a dwarf, a bearded lady, a living skeleton.

(4) Inner Monsters: The Psychological Aspects

Later, with writers like Edgar Allan Poe, E. T. A. Hoffman and H. P. Lovecraft, and philosophers like Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche—and finally with Freud—monsters settled into their new abode of “human psychology”, having worn out their welcome in travellers’ tales, religion and natural history. The depth and complexity of the cosmos was, in a way, transferred to the mind. As the source of evil actions was hidden from plain view, a situation emerged wherein it was hard to detect and understand monstrous personalities. In this section, Asma gives the example of John Wayne Gacy (1942-1994), an American serial killer who raped and murdered thirty-three boys in the 1970s. Gacy, who worked part time as a clown, ensnared his victims with bogus magic tricks.

(5) Monsters Today and Tomorrow

Finally, with the world becoming more connected in the twentieth century, there was a greater awareness of differences among cultures. And we witnessed deadly conflicts over the decades—from the Holocaust to bloodbaths in Yugoslavia to the dehumanisations of the Iraq War—all revolving around the fear and hatred of “the other”. It is also interesting that Hollywood popularised the “zombie” (actually a character from Haitian folklore)—ravenous undead that blast their way through walls to devour all your resources and overpower you—with rising immigration rates in America. Academic and public discourse perpetuated ideas that magnified dissimilarities and anticipated the possibility of struggles between peoples. For instance, American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington (1927-2008) famously proposing his “Clash of Civilisations” theory about the post-Cold War new world order.

New concepts of the monstrous have cropped up with advances in AI and biotechnology.

Now, with technological progress, the monster has taken new forms. Asma ends his book with notes on robots, mutants and posthuman cyborgs. Most pertinent is the discussion on “disembodied minds”, given our era of Artificial Intelligence. The specific face of the monster will continue to change with period and place, but a recurring leitmotif runs through all monsterology—the question of how we meet the threat, which is entirely up to us to decide and can evolve as well.

The Importance of your Artistic Signature: Learning from Amy Sherald

First Lady Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald. Fair Use.

American painter Amy Sherald (born 1973) has been a prominent name in the art world news recently—thanks especially to her portrait First Lady Michelle Obama (2018) that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC. The commission has definitely been a significant event in her artistic career—as has been the 2016 Outwin Boochever Prize awarded from the same museum for the painting Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance). But a good share of Sherald’s fame can also be attributed to a very distinctive feature about her practice.

Her African-American subjects are portrayed and celebrated in their individuality—there are no direct references to historical, social or political issues. The viewer is invited to consider the inner lives of the characters without the lens of the oppressor/victim narrative that dominates the media. This, though powerful, isn’t all that uncommon. What is more striking about Sherald’s art is the fact that her characters have skin painted in grayscale rather than dark flesh tones.

Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance) by Amy Sherald. Fair Use.

Hailing from the state of Georgia and now based in Baltimore, Sherald gives good reasons behind this “signature” of hers. Having grown up in the segregated society of the Deep South shortly after the Civil Rights Movement, she has always been concerned with matters of racial identity and its representation, or lack thereof. She adopted her unique style to challenge the stereotypical depictions of African-Americans.

She explains: “A Black person on a canvas is automatically read as radical. My figures needed to be pushed into the world in a universal way, where they could become a part of the mainstream art historical narrative. I knew I didn’t want it to be about identity alone.” That is, she wants her characters to be seen as persons rather than members of a particular race.

Figures in a group by Amy Sherald. Fair Use

The National Portrait Gallery adds on Sherald’s practice: “This grayscale technique, also called grisaille, is connected to the artist’s early personal experiences. Sherald, who was born in Columbus, Georgia, remembers looking at family photo albums as a child and getting to know her grandmother Jewel through a black-and-white photograph. She was captivated by her grandmother’s beauty, self-possession, and confident, direct gaze in the photograph.

“When Sherald looked for painted portraits of people who looked like her in art history books in local libraries, she realized that her family’s story was absent in the history of painted portraiture. She was also discouraged when she did not find people who looked like her in the public spaces of museums. Sherald’s larger project of painting portraits of African Americans seeks to make up for this absence by addressing the history of representation.”

Individual figures by Amy Sherald. Fair Use.

As it turns out, the grayscale has its philosophical logic—and that is valuable. It is also very useful from a marketing perspective. It is a quality that instantly sets Sherald’s oeuvre apart in a crowded visual arts economy. It gets people thinking and guessing. When art lovers discover that the artist has implemented this feature in painting after painting—their curiosity is piqued. Grayscale skin in an otherwise coloured artwork here is incongruous. People are not used to it. It makes them wonder—Why so? What is she up to? People are intrigued by the statement Sherald wants to make through her images. They find her decision to go against convention bold and impressive.

Sherald is a great case study for artists who are serious about building a large audience. Attention is a scarce resource today. If you want people to interact with your content, just being technically excellent in your form of art may not be enough. There should be something different about you—that nobody else is doing, that actually makes you hard to ignore as people scroll down their social media feeds. Perhaps a juxtaposition of elements or a manner of execution that is unexpected.

American author Seth Godin uses an interesting metaphor for such a phenomenon in his writings on advertising, marketing and product development: “purple cow” . A strange aspect that will make your brand visible and keep you relevant. “Purple” and “cow” is not a connection that comes naturally to our minds, and so seems particularly distinctive. Cows are never purple, just how the skin of African-Americans isn’t gray.

Learning from Amy Sherald, artists can develop a unique visual language wherein there are features big or small that disrupt our sense of familiarity—maybe oversized human eyes, maybe green domestic atmosphere. It need not be outright shocking. It could just be unusual, even a bit weird. Slightly out-of-place and repetitive so that it can keep people engaged.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

The Story of Blue and White Pottery

A blue and white ceramic bowl. (Credit: Pxfuel)

I’m always fascinated by patterns that are able to stand the test of time and space, that are able to transcend geographic and cultural borders as eras and fashions come and go. One example is the Dutch movement in visual arts named “De Stijl”, which I have already covered. It began after WW1 and is found all over the world to this day. An even more interesting case is that of blue and white pottery. Professor Anne Gerritsen of the University of Warick, author of The City of Blue and White (2020) calls it the “ultimate global commodity”. 

If you do an online search on blue and white ceramics, you will encounter similarity and variety. Many collections of plates, vases, bowls and more, show Chinese dragons and landscapes. Some have Central Asian Islamic geometric and floral designs. European styles are also available—Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese. There is a whole batch that is manufactured in the western Indian city of Jaipur. Examples are also available far away in Mexico. Which place and period does this craft ultimately come from? What were the migratory routes like? We can’t really guess by looking at it.

Rows of blue and white ceramics kept with other varieties in Bukhara, Uzbekistan by User “…your local connection”, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Flickr.

It turns out the origin lies in both China and modern-day Iraq. Chinese ceramics go back to the Palaeolithic era. Earliest pottery was earthenware and stoneware. “Qingbai ware”, a type of white glazed porcelain, became popular under the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Very basic blue floral motifs on white were found upon white pottery in Henan province during the Tang Dynasty in the mid-800s.

Later, as trade routes between China and other parts of Asia were opened, developments emerged. It is believed that the craftsmen of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1517), especially in the city of Basra, inscribed palm trees, garlands and Arabic writing in cobalt blue pigment (mined in Persia) upon Chinese white porcelain. A form of craft was created that combined foreign technology with local taste. (A fascination with blue had existed throughout the region since ancient times. The metamorphic rock lapis lazuli was extracted as early as the 7th millennium BC at the Sar-i Sang mines in present-day Afghanistan. Deep, intense blue had also been used in the jewellery of Mesopotamia and Egypt.)

As China increased contact with the Islamic world, versions of pottery richer than the experiments at Henan became prominent. A centre emerged in the city of Jingdezhen in the northeastern Jiangxi province in the 14th century.

A 17th-century blue and white dish from the Chinese city of Jingdezhen, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

With more commercial and colonial activities over the subsequent centuries, blue and white pottery spread to Europe, Japan, India, etc. The Jaipur branch was developed when the practice was passed on from Mongol artisans via Turkic conquests of India between 14th and 17th centuries. The Dutch East India Company (1602-1799) imported hundreds of thousands of pieces made in Japan and China, which led to a style known as “Delftware”. The pottery reached distant Mexico via Moorish influences in Spain. 

An article on Victoria and Albert Museum website mentions a phenomenon known as “Chinamania” in Britain in the 19th century: “In the 1850s and 60s, antique blue-and-white ceramics were discovered by a small group of artists and intellectuals linked to the Aestheticism movement, who valued ‘Art for Art’s sake’ (art that didn’t tell stories or make moral points, but was enjoyed purely for visual pleasure). Engaged in the ‘search for beauty’, influential Aesthetic artists such as James McNeill Whistler and the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti began eagerly collecting Chinese blue-and-white, sometimes known as ‘Nankin’ or ‘Old blue’, which was seen to embody true beauty in colour, material and form.”

Ewer of Medici porcelain, Italy, c. 1575–87, Met Museum, New York, Public Domain.

A blue and white pottery bathroom set from Jaipur, India on sale on kalakyari.com.

It is quite remarkable how easily blue and white ceramics were able to penetrate and permeate through lands following dissimilar belief systems, climates and lifestyles. Blue, symbolising peace and tranquillity, is the colour of the sky and sea, accessible to all. White, evoking purity and newness, is always acceptable everywhere.

The pattern is also democratic in its availability—found among antiques for royalty to mass-produced objects for the average citizen. Its ubiquity is proof of our common appetite for beauty, and also, to an extent, the same kind of beauty.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

The Art and Science of Branding

The art and science of branding are endlessly fascinating (Credit: Pixabay)

What is a brand? In the simplest sense, the identity (verbal and visual presentation) of an individual or organisation that sets it apart from others. In this article, I try to list a few characteristics of good brands, based not on textbooks but my own experience. I begin with these questions: Why do I keep going back to certain content platforms and people? Why are they even in my mind in a crowded, insanely competitive world? After closely examining the brands I am attracted to, I have come up with the following:

  1. Clear and Confident Story & Mission

Firstly, a good brand has a narrative that it can share with the world in a distilled form. In one or two sentences, we get what the entity is doing and why (we needn’t have the “how” all at once). The brand doesn’t waver from this core message, it can enhance it over time but it won’t change it arbitrarily. Canadian YouTuber Evan Carmichael, who runs a popular motivational channel for entrepreneurs, says it succinctly and passionately: “Solving the World’s Biggest Problem”, which, for him, is untapped human potential. I also think of Arianna Huffington’s new startup Thrive Global that states: “We’re helping the world’s leading enterprises end the stress and burnout epidemic. One Microstep at a time.”

2. Memorability

Next, a good brand has features that make it worth remembering. This could be its use of colour, structuring of content or particularity of design. The School of Greatness podcast by American entrepreneur Lewis Howes in which he interviews high achievers has caught my attention especially because of its energetic and positive orange. Personal development guru Tim Ferriss circulates a “5-Bullet Friday” email wherein he shares 5 things that he may be doing (watching, drinking, reading, celebrating, daydreaming, pondering, etc.). The categorisation makes his material easy to retain. In case of design, I think of New York Review Books that publishes literary authors from all over the world. Their covers are unusually artistic for the book world. Each has a block in the middle with the title. This graphic element makes the publisher instantly recognisable.

NYRB regularly shares readers’ photos of their books on Twitter.

3. Quality & Consistency

Also, brands draw audiences when they produce quality content consistently. Both are important. If somebody posts 10 great images with great text on social media over two days and then disappears for three months, chances are they will be forgotten. On the other hand, if they post mediocre material every single day, chances are they will not make a big impact. Two projects that I think have mastered both quality and consistency in content creation across their channels are Humans of New York (photoblog celebrating stories of ordinary people) and The Criterion Collection (a gatherer and publisher of the greatest films from around the world).

4. Openness to Evolution

A good brand, though it has a fixed core message, can have a fluid profile. It can embrace change, grow and innovate, and by that, keep the audience from losing interest. For example, the Indian luxury wellness brand Paro Good Earth—rooted in the spiritual and philosophical traditions of the subcontinent—transforms its Instagram feed regularly so as not to appear stagnant and stale. During spring, it used contemporary photography and during monsoon, historical miniature paintings to get its ideas across. A public figure who has evolved and stayed relevant is Oprah Winfrey. Upon ending The Oprah Winfrey Show that brought her global fame, she moved to new projects, particularly prominent among which was Super Soul Sunday, where she continues to speak with important personalities.

5. Audience Participation & Community Building

Next, a good brand welcomes you, it asks you questions, allows you to express your opinions, it connects you with others, making you feel part of a community. Two examples I think of here are popular YouTubers Shallon Lester and Tom Bilyeu. Lester, who unpacks celebrity gossip to give enlightening and entertaining insights on human behaviour and condition, loves addressing her viewers as “Shalloners”, “Shallontourage” and “Shalligators”. Tom Bilyeu, who runs the talk show Impact Theory, aimed at personal development, calls his followers “Impactivists”. He also directly asks them to text him. Not every brand may use names for members of their community but engendering a sense of belonging is always a great idea.

A manifesto for Tom Bilyeu’s “Impact Theory” community. The term “Impactivist” is used in points 2, 6, 11, 14, 22, 24.

6. Concrete Deliverables

If one is a doctor or real estate agent or lawyer or plumber, their product/service is obvious. But in certain industries, while the knowledge of the individual/organisation might be easy to perceive, their exact deliverable and revenue model might not be so easy to guess. A good brand will always make its offer and expertise direct and leave no room for confusion. I think of the global cultural communications agency Sutton that serves a variety of outfits in different ways. It mentions its Clients as: (1) Artists and Foundations, (2) Galleries, (3) Museums, (4) Architecture, (5) Collecting, (6) Design, Craftsmanship and Luxury, (7) Performing Arts and (8) Biennials and Triennials and its Services as: (1) Cultural Strategy, (2) Content Strategy and Media Relations, (3) Digital Advisory, (4) Marketing and Brand Strategy in very attractive presentations. I also like how the media platform Big Think operates Big Think Edge beyond its free content, introducing it right away on the homepage: “Big Think Edge helps individuals and organizations by catalyzing conversation around the topics most critical to 21st century success. Led by the world’s foremost experts, our dynamic learning programs are short-form, mobile, and immediately actionable.”

7. Something Unique

Lastly, brands make an impression if they truly have something unique to offer. I like the luxury lifestyle management business Quintessentially because it is very comprehensive, covering travel, art, education, food, wellness, at-home entertainment, everyday errands, and more for high net-worth clients. This type of concierge service is a recent industry and Quintessentially has established itself as a leader because of its 360-degree approach. 

In people, an unrepeatable personality that immediately comes to mind is New York-based psychotherapist of Belgian-Jewish background Esther Perel. She is known for her concept of erotic intelligence. Her practice revolves around the management of the tension caused by the collision of two sets of human needs—one for security, familiarity, intimacy, safety, security and the other for mystery, adventure, space, distance, freedom. While there are countless relationship coaches and marriage counsellors around, what makes Perel stand out is her intellectual rigour coupled with deep knowledge of real-life situations. She beautifully merges the world of abstract ideas with that of everyday existence and articulates paradoxes in a manner that is very uncommon.

The seven principles above can be applied by anybody, regardless of industry. Painters, sculptors, photographers and others skilled in the arts in various capacities can take their projects to new professional heights if they follow these characteristics with seriousness and true commitment.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard: A Major Name in Rococo Art

The Swing (1767) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Wallace Collection, London.

The word “Rococo” immediately conjures for me 18th-century France and highly ornate architecture. Gilded, flowery design. Cream walls, pastel blue ceilings, trompe-l’œil scenes. Elaborate costumes. Marie Antoinette and her cakes. It’s a style that I have been aware of but barely paid attention to.

Until recently, that is—when the painting The Swing (1767) by French Rococo master Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) flashed before me multiple times on Instagram, and I was driven to search a bit more.

Rococo—with all its extravagance—it turns out, was a reaction against the more formal French classicism or Style Louis XIV. “The Swing”, which is a fitting representation of the movement, is believed to have disturbed the philosophers of the Enlightenment, who wanted art to be serious, dedicated to depicting reason and the nobility of man. When you look at the painting, the quality that is most perceptible is “frivolity”. It freezes a moment of frolic and carefreeness in a seemingly cultured and sophisticated garden setting. The figures, who look as though they belong to polite society of etiquette and ethics, appear to secretly indulge in what might be an impermissible act. The enduring appeal of the artwork lies precisely in this contrast. 

An elegantly dressed woman is swinging happily, one shoe thrown in the air. A young man is in the bushes on the bottom left, looking up at her, one hand reaching out. An older man is behind on the right, pulling the rope, perhaps unaware of the young man. A cupid-like sculpture does a shhhh.

Alina Cohen of Artsy explains: “Baron Louis-Guillaume Baillet de Saint-Julien commissioned The Swing from Fragonard with salacious intentions. Saint-Julien wanted a picture of his mistress that also featured him looking up the lady’s skirt. Initially, the Baron tried to hire history painter Gabriel François Doyen to make the work. Given the sordid nature of the task, Doyen refused. Fragonard had no such qualms—and his career benefited from it. After all, austerity was hardly in vogue throughout Marie Antoinette’s France. With the success of The Swing, Fragonard was able to successfully transition from a history painter frustrated by royal bureaucracy to a favoured artist of the upper class—members of which, ostensibly, were more willing and able to pay on time.”

There are other paintings by Fragonard that are worth engaging with—a set, in fact, titled “The Progress of Love” (1771-73) that was commissioned by Madame du Barry, the mistress of King Louis XV, for her château. They were, strangely, rejected by her. They changed houses and owners and, in 1915, were purchased by American industrialist Henry Clay Frick for $750,000.

The four artworks are The Pursuit, The Meeting, The Lover Crowned and The Love Letters. They are definitely less famous than The Swing—because they are simply less mischievous and almost more moral. But they possess technical and thematic beauty of their own.

The flowers, the trees, the sky—everything is quite enchanting in these scenes. In the first artwork, we see a young man offering a woman a rose. Another female is present in the painting, a companion to the object of affection. Later, there is a tryst. Then, the crowning of the man by the woman with a wreath—signifying commitment. Lastly, the two are together in a bond, and look back fondly at their letters.

Romantic and sexual symbolism is hidden within the garden through the stages of courtship. For instance, in the opening image, the fountain might point at future consummation. In the tryst, the two characters meet below a statue of Venus, the goddess of love. The man’s red stands for passion, the woman’s white for purity. In the final image, they are seen before a personification of friendship, which implies their relationship has matured to a certain warmth and stability and ease.

The way in which the drama of the series unfolds, with depth and exuberance, is quite alien to our current age of superficial dating apps. What we hear of now is an abundance of options for a potential partner, rapid swiping and ghosting, disposability. Flippant, boring behaviours. Fragonard shows us a completely different and much more interesting world. A world of concentration in one person, effort in wooing. Better manners, higher standards, and therefore, more fun, more play.

The Progress of Love: The Pursuit (1771-73) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Frick Collection, New York City.
The Progress of Love: The Meeting (1771-73) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Frick Collection, New York City.
The Progress of Love: The Lover Crowned (1771-73) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Frick Collection, New York City.
The Progress of Love: The Love Letters (1771-73) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Frick Collection, New York City.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

How to Regulate your Mood as a Creative Person

Mood dice by User “Intgr”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

I have come across countless stories of very successful people—from actors to athletes—who’ve said they struggle with mental health issues. And I have wondered why it is so easy for some who seemingly “have it all”—fame, professional accomplishments, material wealth, a safe and luxurious house, a support network—to sink into depression. This whole phenomenon of prolonged low mood has been examined from several perspectives—as one will find in the brilliant book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (2001) by prolific American writer and Columbia professor Andrew Solomon.

Various causes have been identified (tragic events in one’s life, poverty, psychological and physical abuse, one’s environment, isolation from others, etc.), but the subject continues to remain elusive. Often there can be nothing massively wrong or unfortunate in your life and you might still find yourself curling up in foetal position, feeling as though all vitality has been sucked out of you, and that you will be in that state for days, maybe months.

Sometimes, of course, to treat your mental health, you do need therapy and medication. But if you are not clinically depressed, what is the most important thing that you can do by yourself to make sure your mood doesn’t fall for extended periods? For me, the helpful answer to this question comes from the “evolutionary” approach to depression.

If we examine the brain of Homo sapiens from the viewpoint of a hundred thousand years, we will discover that for more than ninety thousand years, it existed within a hunter-gatherer framework. Civilisation is recent, and modern life as we know it—with its click-of-a-button comforts—is not even a century old. The biggest change between our lifestyle and that of our ancestors is that we no longer have to worry about survival on a daily basis. We are stable and secure in our homes, we do not have to kill lions and snakes.

But our brains are still used to those older rhythms, to seeking everyday highs of the hunt in the middle of danger. In his book The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic (2014), psychologist Jonathan Rottenberg, a professor at the University of Southern Florida, makes the point: “Moods, high and low, evolved to compel us to more efficiently pursue rewards. While this worked for our ancestors, our modern environment—in which daily survival is no longer a sole focus—makes it all too easy for low mood to slide into severe, long-lasting depression.” So instead of crests and troughs, what we get now is slope and flatline.

Our hunter-gatherer brains no longer get the thrill of everyday highs and easily drown in protracted melancholy. (Credit: Pixabay)

Because the problem behind low mood lies in daily routine, the solution also exists within our everyday to-do lists. We must be constantly accomplishing something no matter how tiny, pushing ourselves forward. A one-time victory, even when it is as colossal as an Oscar award or Olympic medal, cannot guarantee continued feelings of bliss.

In his book Good Reasons for Bad Feelings: Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry (2019), American physician Randolph Nesse writes that “…mood is influenced most not by success or failure but by rate of progress toward a goal…Baseline mood is remarkably stable for most people, and variations reflect mainly the rate of progress toward a goal.” That is why some highly illustrious figures can also turn gloomy in the aftermath of a huge win. The novelty of elation erodes because soon their brain will get accustomed to the state and will enquire, “yes, but now what next?”

So you must always have some project you are working on. The moment you finish one, you must begin a new one. And you must establish a mechanism of measurement, have targets in place. That way, as soon as the mood falls, it can be perked up through action.

Never be without a goal you can make daily progress towards if you care about your mental health. (Credit Pixabay)

I have found this insight very useful in my entrepreneurial life. Of late, I have made a rule that I must fill my spreadsheet with new contacts and send marketing emails every single day, instead of delivering them in batches twice a month. Introducing myself to strangers daily, even if just 5 or 10 in number, has been giving me a thrill and keeping those periods of inexplicable, unreasonable low mood away. The thought that I’m consistently taking steps, making small progress towards the bigger goal of advancing my career makes me less irritable and more positive.

A lot of creative people tend to not live a life of strict routine but might operate fervently in spells. This is because they have no control over their ideas. They never know when inspiration may strike. They can spend huge chunks of time shut off from the world, just thinking, scribbling, waiting for light-bulb moments. And while periods of pure concentration and contemplation are necessary, extended absence of quantifiable action can seriously damage one’s sense of wellbeing.

Let’s say if you are a painter planning an exhibition in the coming year on a particular theme—maybe something political—how can you use the vehicle of your project as a daily mood regulator? You can devise a strategy that might sound like this:

  • Read two articles per day, one on a good thing done by a government, another on a bad thing done by a government
  • Every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, talk to somebody about what they’d want their government to do differently
  • Every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, talk to somebody about what they appreciate about their government
  • On Saturdays and Sundays, research something historical—about a benevolent emperor or ruthless dictator

Record your findings in a spreadsheet, track your efforts. After you have finished all your paintings based on your reflections, rest but do not be idle for too long. Choose a new theme and start over again.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Famous Examples of “Preliterate” Art

Cuevas de la Manos (Cave of the Hands), dating back to 11,000- 7000 BC, near the town of Perito Moreno in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. Photo by User “Mariano”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia.

The word “prehistoric” is very popular but when it comes to art made before the advent of settled life and writing systems, I try not to use it. Many believe that history officially begins with scripted records of human life and culture in the Ancient Near East around 6000-4000 years before the present. This somehow implies that the time prior to that period isn’t included in the grand narrative of the human race. But we have so much evidence available of human consciousness and creativity from the deep past…30,000 years ago, 10,000 years ago—not written accounts on tablets, certainly, but drawings and figurines, signs and symbols that speak volumes. All that cannot not be a part of history. That’s why I prefer the word “preliterate” over “prehistoric”.

Here I will examine five famous examples of preliterate art from different parts of the world and what they might tell us about our ancestors. Very little is known about the cultural context of these hunter-gatherer societies. The works may have had a ceremonial or merely decorative function. Despite the lack of clarity, we might deduce something precious about the human condition by exploring them.

The first artwork that comes to my mind is the “Cave of the Hands” from southern Argentina, about 13,000 years old. These stencilled paintings of dozens of hands (the pigments, it is believed, were sprayed through bone pipes) highlight our inherently social identity, how we must band together for safety and survival. They also indicate our desire to be remembered—as in “I was here”.

Another cave I think of is Lascaux in southwestern France, which has paintings of wild animals going back 17,000 years. Some observers have linked them to an idea known as “sympathetic magic”—the term was first used by Scottish social anthropologist and folklorist James George Frazer (1854-1941).

Depiction of horses, aurochs and deer in a painting at Lascaux caves in the village of Montignac in southwestern France, believed to be 17,000 years old. Photo by User “Prof saxx”, Public Domain, Wikipedia.

Sympathetic magic means a kind of procedure aimed at bringing good luck to the hunters. It could have been performed by shaman-like personalities in a state of trance believing that “ritual actions imitate the real ones you wish to bring about”, that by visualising and meditating on big game, a community will be able to encounter and capture them for real.

Venus of Willendorf as shown at the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. Photo by User “Bjørn Christian Tørrissen”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikipedia.

Next, I think of 25,000-year-old “Venus of Willendorf” (Willendorf being a village in northeastern Austria)—a 4.4-inch-tall statuette that was discovered during excavations by Austro-Hungarian archaeologist Josef Szombathy (1853-1943) and others in 1908. This female figurine with plaited hair or headdress and large body could be a mother goddess—that is, a personification of creative forces, fertility, the plenitude of nature found in many cultures, primitive and advanced.

Fourth example is that of the paintings found at the Bhimbetka rock shelters, located in the Raisen district of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. About 10,000 years old, these depict animals like horses, bison and deer, weapons like arrows, shields and swords, scenes of hunting and also, interestingly, dancing. They give us a glimpse into a slightly more developed community. Here we understand that even with a harsh existence devoid of the comforts and luxuries of civilisation, our ancestors could make room for entertainment and take time out for fun.

Paintings in Rock Shelter 8, Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh, India. Photo by User “Bernard Gagnon”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia.
Dancers at Bhimbetka. Photo by User “Nandanupadhyay”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia.
Ain Sakhri Lovers, British Museum. Photo by User “Geni”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikipedia.

Lastly, I have chosen the Ain Sakhri Lovers, a 102 mm high figurine—now at the British Museum—from a cave near Bethlehem, discovered in 1933 by René Neuville, a French consul in Jerusalem. This is the oldest known representation of a copulating couple. It is also a phallic symbol. Like the Venus of Willendorf, it can be said to denote fertility but within a relational framework.

When observed from different perspectives, it looks like different sexual organs—breasts (top), penis (side), vagina (bottom), also testicles. The artwork is about 11,000 years old and belongs to the Natufian culture of the Levant that was known for its semi-sedentary lifestyle even before the dawn of agriculture. Archaeologist Ian Hodder of Stanford University has interesting thoughts on the entwined figures:

The Natufian culture is really before fully domesticated plants and animals, but you already have a sedentary society. This particular object, because of its focus on humans and human sexuality in such a clear way, is part of that general shift towards a greater concern with domesticating the mind, domesticating humans, domesticating human society, being more concerned with human relationships, rather than with the relationships between humans and wild animals, and the relationships between wild animals themselves.

British art historian Neil MacGregor writes that to him the tenderness of the embracing figures suggests not so much reproductive vigour but love. People were beginning to settle and form more stable families and “perhaps this is the first moment in history when a mate could become a husband or a wife”. From this point onwards you must make an effort to continue the species, not in a purely animal way as did those before you, but within the structure of a more definite, committed interpersonal dynamic.

These are only five. Every example of preliterate art can lead to a contemplative or enlightening experience if we engage with it deeply enough.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Using our Shadow Side as Fuel for Creativity

The Self and its Shadow by Swedish artist Gabriel Isak (Fair Use)

One of my favourite contemporary thinkers is the American author Robert Greene (born 1959)—who has produced the bestsellers The 48 Laws of Power (1998), The Art of Seduction (2001), The 33 Strategies of War (2006), The 50th Law (2009)—this one written with the rapper 50 Cent–Mastery (2012) and The Laws of Human Nature (2018).

Given his subject matter, Greene is a controversial figure. Some people are quick to dismiss his ideas as manipulative and amoral. But that is not the impression I have formed of him after reading a good deal of his work and listening to dozens of his interviews. It’s a joy to engage with his vast knowledge of psychology, history, philosophy and literature­­.

Greene’s is an unusually wise voice in the realm of self-help and personal development. He is not one of those just-believe-it-and-you-will-achieve-it gurus. He also isn’t about just-work-hard-and-you-will-certainly-get-it. Sure, our optimistic mindsets and efforts are crucial factors behind our success. But hope and industriousness, no matter how potent, may not be enough to melt other people’s “resistances”. People have egos, they are the centres of their own universe. They have deeply held beliefs, prejudices and proclivities. If we want to win them over to our side—as romantic partners, as audiences, as customers, as collaborators, as supporters—we must be careful in what we say or do before them and how. We must learn up the art and science of persuasion.

Robert Greene’s books. The next will examine the concept of “the sublime”

Greene is passionate about equipping his readers with practical tools that can help them navigate a world the dominant forces of which might not always be in their favour. He doesn’t want us to go beyond good and evil or alter the essence of our identity. We don’t have to be wicked or fake, only skilful and strategic.

Of late, Greene has been talking a lot about the “dark side” and why it needs to be mastered if we wish to achieve great things in life. This dark side isn’t some dualistic evil half to your good half—it is much more complex than that. It is related to the concept of “the shadow self” proposed by the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961). Our shadow is that part of us that lurks beneath our polite and affable exterior. It could be composed of impulses that we may consider both immoral (say, a desire for extramarital affairs) and moral (indignation at the economic inequality of the world). It may be wayward, insecure, selfish, passionately righteous—whatever it is the best way to understand the shadow is that it is carefully concealed from public view.

If the shadow lies repressed or denied, isn’t confronted or disciplined, it leaks out in ways that we might regret later—during touchy moods, in offhand comments, as irrational and irresponsible behaviour…suddenly in your late 20s you get addicted to alcohol and you don’t know why or at the age of 45 you leave your steady job and family and elope with a 19-year-old, destroying everything you’ve worked so hard to build all along.

If the shadow is denied, it leaks out in destructive ways. (Credit: Pixabay)

Interestingly, because of its energetic nature, the shadow can act as fuel for extraordinary feats. Greene himself attributes his accomplishments to careful channelling of his dark side. Before becoming a writer, he’d tried 80 or so jobs across America and Europe—among them, a construction worker, translator, magazine editor and Hollywood writer. The Hollywood stint proved to be an important point in his life. Despite his excellent performance, he ended up getting fired on account of office politics. The experience left him bitter and frustrated.

It is easy for us to accept defeat and sink into self-pity after such incidents but that’s a waste. Dissatisfaction, disappointment, irritation, anger—such emotions have a hidden generative force. In fact, many times the impetus provided by these feelings is even stronger than the motivation that might arise from straightforward love or gratitude or bliss or contentment. Dark energy could be metamorphosed into something productive if it is dedicated to the service of a higher purpose, a bigger vision, a worthy cause or movement.

Instead of directing it inward and becoming a prisoner of it, Greene projected the massive hatred he felt towards the hypocrisy and sycophancy he witnessed in the film business outward into the craft of instructive non-fiction. He wrote The 48 Laws of Power to tell people that you do not have to be naïve, you do not have to suffer. You can protect yourself from harm and the machinations of others.

The shadow can be a real gift to those in the arts, whatever their medium. If a person feels aggression—because of a difficult childhood or professional rejection or failed relationships or something else—and if they have it in them to create and construct something new and beautiful, that ability will be magnified and sharpened manyfold if every time there’s a rush of dark energy through their mind and body, they choose to not give in to painful pondering but just courageously pick up a pen or brush or chisel or camera, diverting the power out of their system into the world.

Shots from “Blue” by Kevin Diallo (Fair Use)

An artist I would like to use as example here is Kevin Diallo (born 1987), a Senegal-born Ivorian-Australian media professional whom I interviewed recently. In his recent installation “Blue” exhibited at Artspace, Sydney, I believe he converts his deep-seated anger into a powerful expression for a greater cause—he lifts up an entire race.

Here’s the description of the project: “The ocean belongs to the semantics of black suffering, from the history of the Atlantic Slave trade to the recent tragedies of African migrants dying in the Mediterranean Sea while seeking refuge on the shores of Europe; black bodies are intrinsically linked with the maritime.

“From May – September 2019 artist Kevin Diallo crossed the Pacific Ocean on a 40ft sailboat from San Diego USA, to Sydney, Australia accompanied by three friends. ‘Blue’ illustrates how the artist attempted to reclaim the ocean as a space to practice resistance and healing.

“The work utilises photography, moving image, installation and sound to situate black normative existence within a space that typically denies blackness—and how the trauma of blackness’ relationship to the ocean can be radically altered to express freedom, joy and opportunity.”

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Albrecht Durer and selfies

Albrecht Dürer, Self-portrait

Who are you, and what are you doing here? You, there in the mirror, there in the lens of your phone: What do you see? asks Lawrence Farago in the opening paragraph of an essay in the New York Times about self-portraits and Albrecht Dürer.

Selfies are everywhere. The Google arts and Culture page estimates that about 93 million selfies are taken and uploaded onto social media every day. Social platforms like Instagram were specifically designed for the iPhone in 2010. Selfies are the major means of self-expression in our times. Few realise that selfies have art royalty in its bloodlines in the form of Albrecht Dürer, who lived from 1471 to 1528.

Dürer was a genius, one of the most remarkable artists of all times. He is regarded as the father of self-portraits. Prior to Dürer, self-portraits were rare. Dürer changed that. He was obsessed with his image and painted numerous self-portraits. For artists like Dürer, self-portraits were a means of self- expression. Think of self-portraits by artists as diverse as Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo, to mention but a few. Today, with the advent of the selfie, self-portraits are everywhere. They are the major means of self-expression.

Farago’s questions about portraits are similar to those asked by the foremost cultural critic of our times, the late John Berger. In his book Portraits, Berger writes pithy essays about 74 artists. Berger, looking at the same self-portraits of Dürer as Farago had, asks why people seek images that depict them? His first response is that any person who has a portrait painted about them, seeks to produce evidence that they lived. It is a voluntary existential act with a particular look that is unique to the subject of the portrait.

As always, Berger digs deeper and suggests that the appearance and look of the subject has a duality. First, it is an image of a particular person. Secondly the image interrogates the looker of the portrait, and asks what the looker thinks about the image. Any journalist will tell you that any story is about the “w’s”, “what, when, who and why”. The person who created the image (selfie included) asks the same question and seeks to answer the question by means of how the subject is presented in an image.

Selfies say a lot of things. They tell stories or can poke fun at us. I once saw a selfie where the maker of the image stands in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The caption of the image says one of these faces are worth $860 million dollars.

Farago who is no media hack, studied art history at Yale and won the acclaimed Rabkin Prize in 2018 for art criticism, is rather cynical about selfies. He writes “In the eyes of us poor moderns, it seems self-evident that a picture can capture who you are. That your posed image, your face and your clothing, express something essential about your personality. It’s the myth on which every selfie stands”.

Farago argues that Dürer is the principal perpetrator of the myth upon which selfies stands. In this respect he looks at Dürer’s self-portrait painted in Munich in 1500. It is a magnificent painting. More so because flat mirrors did not exist at the time. Farago writes that the detail in the portrait evokes divine inspiration. Just look at Dürer’s hair in the image. Dark and light intertwined, displaying immense skill. Study the eyes and ask whether you see a window in them. Dürer’s gaze is intense, so much so that it troubles lookers. One person even damaged those eyes by poking needles into them. Farago also writes that the myth about self-portraits, is not innate but manufactured. He sees arrogance in the portrait but also believes that it is the best portrait ever.

Berger in turn regarded Dürer as the first one man, avant-garde. Dürer did his first self-portrait, a drawing, when he was 13 years old. His talent, even at that age, was remarkable. Like Farago, Berger sees the divine in Dürer’s self-portrait of Munich 1500.

Albrecht Dürer, Self-portrait at 13

Berger wrote that Dürer’s self-portraits were theatrical in the sense that they conveyed something more than what he actually was. In the Munich portrait, Berger suggests that Dürer presented himself as deity. It is not blasphemous because the artist was a devout and practicing Christian. Berger’s suggests that the divine is an awareness of the artist and of his creativity. At the very same time Dürer was aware that he was living in a world of suffering and that his magnificent creativity was impotent to do anything about human suffering.

Both critics conclude that self-portraits are designed to represent the ego in a flattering manner. In that sense the artist, whether it is the hand holding a telephone for a selfie, or a brush loaded with paint, is misrepresenting the self. Upon looking at the Dürer self-portrait two things stand out. One is that Dürer was truly a magnificent artist. His ability to do detail is genius. He was concerned with portraying himself exactly as he was. The missing part is, despite the self-portraits, we do not know who and what Dürer was like. That question hangs in the air, just like with most selfies.

Written by Luisa Blignaut.

The Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii

Interior of the Villa of the Mysteries by User “Raffaele pagani”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Looking into ancient Greek and Roman visual art, I recently discovered a curious location that is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the comune of Pompei, near Naples, in the Campania region of southern Italy. Situated on the outskirts of the ancient city of Pompeii, the Villa dei Misteri or “the Villa of the Mysteries” was buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, excavated around 1909 and restored between 2013 and 2015.

The villa is famous for one particular room—containing dazzling red frescoes that show a religious ceremony. Ancient Rome is known for its murals or wall paintings. This form of art has a long history in the Mediterranean, where the Minoans, a pre-Greek people of the Aegean islands, regularly used it as early as the mid-second millennium BC.

Exterior of the Villa of the Mysteries by User “ElfQrin”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

The frescoes in the villa, dated to 70-60 BC, are believed to depict a rite associated with a “mystery cult” of Dionysus or Bacchus—the god of wine, fertility, theatre, madness and ecstasy. Greco-Roman mystery cults were religious schools reserved for initiates known as “mystai”. The details of membership were not revealed to outside parties.

In the red paintings, we most likely have a bride who is being initiated into the Dionysian/Bacchic Mysteries in preparation for marriage, her elaborate costume being a wedding dress. We cannot know the exact meaning of the paintings. There have been several interpretations.

Frescoes in the Villa of the Mysteries by User “Shakko”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons
Scenes 1, 2 and 3

In the first scene, a boy—standing before a priestess—reads from the scroll. The initiate enters in purplish apparel. She is also shown leaving in darker, slightly different clothes, now with a wreath and a tray of sacramental food.

In the second scene, the initiate, the priestess and an assistant weave a basket. On the right, Silenus plays a lyre. (Silenus is a folkloric figure of the forest who is a man with some features of the horse; he is a companion of Bacchus.)

In the third scene, two more characters appear: a satyr (drunken, male nature spirit) plays panpipes and a nymph (minor female nature deity) suckles a goat. The initiate is in a dramatic pose. She is probably in the process of establishing a close connection with nature, leaving the human world to immerse herself more in her animal side. This psychological shift is needed for regeneration and rebirth in ancient rituals. The initiate is absent from the next two scenes—which means she has undergone “katabasis”, which is a kind of journey or descent. From the country to the coast or down into the underworld.

Scenes 4, 5 and 6

In the fourth scene, Silenus holds a bowl. One satyr looks into that bowl. Another holds a mask (resembling Silenus). This is a strange and intriguing tableau. The bowl could be a vessel of divination, giving a vision of the future—possibly of death. Maybe the death of innocence and childhood that the initiate must submit herself to.

Next, in a damaged part of the fresco, we can see Dionysus leaning onto his mother Semele. In scene six, the initiate appears. She is wearing a cap now and has a staff, signs that she has reached a new stage in the initiation ritual. She is reaching for a long object covered with purple cloth, placed in a basket (perhaps a phallic symbol or a signpost of some sort indicating a new discovery). On the right is a winged figure—Aidos, the Greek goddess of shame, modesty, respect and humility.

Scenes 7, 8 and 9

In the seventh scene, the initiate kneels before the priestess. A female figure whips her, another one dances. It is as though this is some kind of final test of strength, and a cause for celebration is at hand.

Eight and ninth scenes show completion. The initiate is in new clothes, an assistant behind her. Cupid shows her a mirror. Then, she is enthroned, Cupid again by her side.

The logic behind mystery cults is interesting. In a book titled The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era (2009), historian James S. Jeffers writes: “The state religions of the Greeks and Romans proved unsatisfying for some. Those who longed for a sense of salvation, and for a more personal connection with a deity, often looked for them in the mystery religions.”

The appeal of these frescoes lies in the very fact of their being beyond full comprehension. They attract the viewer with their sense of secrecy. They also engage as they exhibit a timeless human impulse—to achieve a kind of maturity, an elevation of the spirit, a connection with the divine in some form.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.