Thursday, 30 April 2009

Brilliant Orange

En Vincent zag het koren and Vincent saw the corn
En Einstein het getal and Einstein the number
En Zeppelin de Zeppelin and Zeppelin the Zeppelin
En Johan zag de bal and Johan the ball

Leuk Koninginnedag! This year, Israel's Independence Day came one day before Koninginnedag. So it's only appropriate that i bore my 3 readers (Hoi, moeder & vaddertje! leuk dat jullie mijn blog lezen!) with a phenomenon that was introduced to the football world by a Dutch football club still called 'The Jews': Total Football. By the way, there's a lot of controversy about that, and even a book devoted to proving that there was never any official Jewish affiliation with Ajax. For an (interesting & bizarre article about it, click here. And just to add a tangent to a tangent, click here for a list of words or Amsterdam slang that is derived from Hebrew).

It's not exactly the normal content of this blog, but i've been reading David Winner's Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football; a fascinating study dealing with conceptions of space, design, architecture, art, and of course, football, in Dutch culture. Winner opens with the following question:

The football pitch is the same size and shape everywhere in the world, yet no one else thought about football this way. So why did the Dutch? The answer may be that the Dutch think innovatively, creatively and abstractly about space in their football because for centuries they have had to think innovatively about space in every other area of their lives (p.47)

In a manner reminiscent of Wright's Prairie style, Winner goes on to draw connect
ions between the impact of nature on architectural design, and expands into the realm of political philosophy:

‘We tend to think we invented the idea of land-use planning. Our problems with water meant we had to take collective political action in order to be able to build dikes. You can’t do that on your own. We always say that the origin of Dutch democracy lies in this co-operative dike-building’—Maarten Hajer (professor of public policy, University of A’dam), 49

Winner also describes the tolerance of Dutch society as evolving from the wide, open landscape. He also discusses the similarities between the terrifyingly controlled and ordered aspect of Dutch society and landscape. The decency in football, the preference for style and form over winning,finds its parallel in Holland's famously clean streets, which has its roots in strict Dutch Calvinism.

To Winner, Cruijff saw the football pitch like Pieter Jansz Saenredam saw churches. The conception, organisation, and execution of Dutch painters has always been a harmonious marriage of creativity, technique, and technical execution (like Vermeer and glazing). Perhaps one of the most distinct elements of Dutch painting is the depiction of space.

To measure distance is a natural inclination, an instinct for the Dutch people. We measure space quietly, very precisely and then order it in detail. That is the Dutch way of seeing, the Dutch approach to space: selective detail. It’s a natural, instinctive thing for us to do. You see it in our paintings, our architecture and our football too. 53-54

Perhaps the most attractive thing about Total Football is that it emphasises teamwork as requisite for transcending the ordinary game of football, and attaining the unity and harmony of the 'other-wordly', almost spiritual art-form that Ajax once introduced to the world.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Falling Water; Frank Lloyd Wrong?

Today, my parents, my sister, and i went to see Falling Water. It was a remarkable experience. My mother and i had seen a documentary about Frank Lloyd Wright in preparation for the trip (yes, the nerdy apple falls not far from the nerdy tree...). I am happy we did, as the tour was rather superficial. Two things, possibly connected, were not addressed and continue to gnaw at my mind:
1) Mr. Wright had virtually no professional training
2) Mr. Wright was a total d-bag

After reading a few of Simon Winchester's books, it struck me (as i am sure was the intention) that many of the greatest innovations were achievements of people who lacked formal education (Winchester has written two books about the Oxford English Dictionary, The Professor and the Madman, and The Meaning of Everything). James Murray, the son of a Scottish draper was an autodidact who taught himself numerous languages, archaeology, and who was making accurate astronomical predictions before the age of 12, was the primary editor of the OED. In The Map That Changed the World, Winchester tells the shocking story of William Smith, the canal digger who despite bitter class-wars, became the father of modern geology.

Leonardo da Vinci, whose bastard-status prevented him from receiving classical education (which was probably an advantage because it forced him to observe the world rather than be bound to the Greek mindset of conceiving the world according to models) also comes to mind. John Harrison, a carpenter who taught himself clock-making, invented the marine chronometer,(which established longitude), revolutionising navigation in the 18th century. All of these people, including Wright, were laypeople. All of these people worked with their hands.

Wright actually put a premium on manual labour and stressed its relation to one's development as a person or as an artist. In his apprenticeship programme at Taliesen, pupils learnt by doing--and this included working in the fields, preparing meals, and maintaining the property. Wright told his students that it was as important for them to work with their hands, read poetry, cook, and listen to music, as it was to study great architectural works. In a similar way, T. S. Eliot describes the 'heterogeneous ideas' that create the unified experience in the poetry of John Donne:

The ordinary man falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

Like Donne, Wright viewed his craft as a spiritual process, involving the cooperation of the natural with the supernatural. Donne often discusses the rectification of reason, the transformation or elevation of one's natural reason to a higher plane, contingent upon belief in God. In other words, belief in God is basically super-sizing your reason.

Conversely, Wright viewed nature as being rectified by humanity, or what he called organic architecture; 'a reinterpretation of nature’s principles as they had been filtered through the intelligent minds of men and women who could then build forms which are more natural than nature itself'.

Wright bucked the trend of industrial architecture, of modernism with all its machinery, dominating and subduing nature. He instead turned to craft; the spiritual space of a building, the craftsman's hands on the piece, the harmony between humanity and nature. Wright's philosophical commitment to architecture that is generated by its surroundings has made his horizontal planes practically iconic, and can be seen in his treatment of the boulders at Falling Water. Nature is not interrupted, nor is it displaced.

Lovely. It sounds like Wright had much in common with Donne. It also seems that his stint in Japan influenced him with a lot of Eastern thought about our place in nature, and body and mind and harmony stuff. So what's the problem? I guess i'm confused by a guy whose aesthetic is morally grounded but his actions were so scandalous and immoral.

The debate about morality's place in art, or as Benjamin Constant called it, l'art pour l'art (art for art's sake) has been discussed by people such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Mallarme, Wilde, Ruskin, Whistler, and loads of others. I've rattled them off like they're distant family members, but i've only read them superficially--click here for a more in-depth synopses. A few weeks ago, i attended a conference on early modern English thought, and was blown away by a paper about the impact of Paradise Lost on Kant's moral philosophy. It restored my faith in what initially drew me to literature, and though we (perhaps anachronistically) may disagree with much of what 17th century religious writers have to say, there is little doubt in my mind that they genuinely sought a moral life. As for Wright, i don't want to justify him. And only trite things come to mind about how someone with such a nice philosophy could be a total d-nozzle. Like the greater the person the greater temptations, so i suppose he just gave in to his. But that doesn't quite cut it. Thoughts, anyone? Bueller?