Of Yachts and Fossils

Who ever knew it, but seizing yachts is very popular! And despite the reporting that will tell you that they are impossible to re-sell, as if that makes the seizures moot, taking the oligarchs’ prized possessions scratches a weird itch in the afflicted that actually bothers the comfortable if you know what I mean and I think you do. These are ridiculous manifestations of not only conspicuous consumption, but also conspicuous waste. It also beggars belief that no useful purposes can be devised for these vessels.

Anyway, to the broader situation of Russia, and trying to strangle their economy without strangling the world economy – unless we de-fossilize our energy sources, the former will always be the latter:

This is a coherent platform for left-of-center parties across the globe: a law-and-order crackdown on international kleptocracy, and mass electrification and renewable energy to weaken the repressive and despotic petrostates. It is not a quick fix (though confiscatory wealth taxes ought to work quickly enough), and it is perhaps not as viscerally satisfying to our bloodthirsty pundit class as more fighters and missiles. But in the medium term the “solution” to the “problem” of Russian aggression is not trying to surgically crash their economy while protecting ours (an impossible tightrope to walk so long as high-income nations fail to quit fossil fuels). It may be impossible now to use Apple Pay to ride the Moscow Metro—it may even be impossible, temporarily, for particular Russian-born billionaires to anonymously purchase London pieds-à-terre—but it is still very easy to take the money you made selling natural gas to Berlin and ask a lawyer in New York to explain how to hide it it in South Dakota. The only sensible Russia policy is to make it unprofitable to be the sort of state it is. This approach would also have the side benefit of improving the sorts of states all of us reside in, and perhaps even of saving human civilization. Defeating Russia, by necessity, requires defeating fossil capital.


Image: Andrey Melnichenko’s SY A sailing yacht that at least looks like a sail boat.

Getting Perspective

Sometimes we might loose sight of the fact that what’s most wrong with what’s been done here is the misappropriation of a color, a thing that has already long been devoted to other purposes. As a reminder, this is part of an essay from the painter-turned-art historian James Elkins, called Why Art and Science Should be Allowed to Go Their Separate Ways:

The Grande Jatte Problem: What Is Science When It Is Immersed in Art?

Masaccio’s Trinità, as every textbook proclaims, is the first surviving painting in linear perspective. Does that mean, to draw the standard im- plication, that mathematics and painting were allied at that moment? Seurat’s La Grande Jatte was made with color theory in mind: But does that mean late nineteenth-century color theory and postimpressionism were linked? These aren’t straightforward questions, because on one level the answer is yes to both, but in another sense some violence is done to both color science and mathematics when they are said to be present in the paintings. It’s a longer argument than can be accommodated here; my example will be La Grande Jatte.

Even after more than one hundred years, La Grande Jatte resists those who claim to see everything in it. The painting puts up formidable obstacles to any interpretation. To begin with, it is not always easy to know what Seurat knew: The most frequently cited sources for Seurat’s scientism are near-contemporaries Félix Fénéon and Paul Signac, and Seurat is not on record unambiguously agreeing with either one.8 In addi- tion, Seurat was an uneven reader of science—some things he studied hard; others, offhandedly, and there are examples of willful misunder- standing and selective reading. It is clear that he misunderstood a great deal, and some of the theorists he misunderstood were themselves mistak- en.9 Assessing that kind of error involves studying twentieth-century color theory, which is itself a difficult subject. And aside from each of these problems, the painting itself seems unreliable, since its colors have faded unmeasurably and unevenly over time.

Even so, these are only preliminary obstacles. They allow us to say—and this is the emerging consensus in recent scholarship—that Seurat was a poor scientist, confused even in comparison to the popular science writers of his day, so that La Grande Jatte is not, in this respect, “a definitive formulation of the technique, method, and theory of Neo- Impressionism.”10 It may be true that Seurat’s “earnest convictions . . . provided both the justification and motivation for artistic projects more ambitious than he might otherwise have undertaken,” but that does not explain what the projects were.11 If pseudoscience was a catalyst to Seurat’s creation, what did it allow him to get on with?

It needs to be said clearly that Seurat had no reason to paint any of the color effects he had been studying, because if they were accurate rec- ords of our subjective experience, they would be produced for us by any painting or natural scene. There is no reason to paint the world in dots in order to simulate the surfaces of the world, and there is no reason to paint simultaneous contrast, halos, iridescence or Mach bands, chiaroscuro, gradation, or any of the other phenomena since they would be reproduced in the act of perception. That is the fundamental stumbling block to call- ing Seurat “scientific,” and it is striking that Seurat himself copied a warn- ing to this effect directly from Michel Eugenè Chevreul.12 Seurat read Chevreul fairly loosely, and it is at least possible that his interest in depict- ing simultaneous contrast was sparked by the fact that Chevreul had a large color illustration of it printed in his book.13 On the other hand Her- mann von Helmholtz’s essay on painting and science, which Seurat appar- ently did not read, would have given him a reason to reproduce certain effects. When pigments cannot match the intensities of outdoor lighting, Helmholtz says, then painters might resort to subjective phenomena in

order to remind viewers of the original conditions. But even if Seurat had seen that essay, it would not have any bearing on his project in La Grande Jatte, because the phenomena he studied are also effects of less intense illumination.14

Seurat’s “science” mixes empiricism and idealism in a manner that is at once specific and opaque to any single explanation: To adapt a phrase of Martin Kemp’s, it is neither science, pseudoscience, nonscience, nor non- sense. It is not entirely “specious in its theoretical formulation . . . applied with an indifference to any critical appraisal,” but neither is it “a definitive formulation of the technique, method, and theory of Neo-Impressionism.”15 The problem is initially a matter of finding out how Seurat conceived sci- ence, empiricism, logic, and self-consistency; but ultimately, the difficulty is finding any way to construct a responsible account of the picture. No matter which scientific theories we may decide to accept and which rules of application or irrelevancy we may adopt, the painting refuses to play along. La Grande Jatte is not an example of any theory, mistaken or otherwise.

As we know from Seurat’s writings and from his friends, theory is what got his pictures started: He imagined theories as their underpin- nings, their raisons d’être, and their necessary and sufficient explanations. But his imagining was flawed. Science and painting do not get along in the La Grande Jatte—they do not speak for one another, and they do not exemplify or signify one another. Their mutual disregard is uneven and sometimes—as in the “dots” that Joris-Karl Huysmans so brilliantly called “running fleas”—destructive.

John Gage concluded that Seurat was indeed “scientific,” because of his “experimentalism,”16 and years before Robert Herbert had said the same thing. To Herbert, Seurat was scientific because he studied ephem- eral phenomena of vision.17 “Science” in Herbert’s and Gage’s texts is an activity involving hypothesis, experiment, and falsification, and those are efficient and common characterizations of the scientific project. But two things stand in the way of enlisting Seurat’s painting as science, as thus defined. First it would have to be shown how La Grande Jatte is an in- stance of any experiment, or a consistent application of some coherent hypothesis. But then, even if La Grande Jatte embodies an experiment, it would have to be shown that the experiment had relevance to contempo- rary color science. To say his work is “experimentalist” is to say it borrows the idea of experiment from science, not that it is an example of a scientific

experiment. It engages popular notions of science and translates them, unscientifically, into paint.