Beauty of Gray

Thursday, July 25, 2002

Design, fashion, art, and life

I’d been meaning to blog this for a while, but my sloth has let Steven Den Beste scoop me (sort of) with his post about the purpose of fashion shows. That’s what’s great and terrible about the blogosphere (as with literature and history)—no matter what you want you want to say, there’s a reasonable chance someone else, somewhere, has already said it, better than you could have. Just like the world, this makes it easy to end up spending all your time reading things other people have thought, rather than stopping to do any thinking yourself.

Anyway, what brought me to the subject was a very interesting book I recently got, called World Design. It’s a large, coffee table photobook on 20th century designers, with a 1-2 page spread on each of several hundred important designers. In this case, “design” is considered in the broadest sense, bringing in everything from furniture to fashion to household items to locomotives. The book on its own is interesting and fun; it’s enjoyable to just look at the items in the pictures and try and guess what decade they were from. Some designs are clearly dated, others are timeless, while still others are dated but have come back in fashion again at one point or another.

But glancing through the book, you very quickly come to recognize a central dichotomy in the designs; there are those which are intended to be functional, and those which are intended to be “artistic.” Much of the work done is tied back into industrial design and marketing—while the items are intended to be attractive, they are ultimately utilitarian: the chair has to be comfortable, and the doorknob has to turn easily and fit well in the hand.

But other designs have become divorced from reality, and have run off the tracks of functionality into the realm of the artistic. Furniture is made not to be comfortable and useful, but to be visually striking, to make a point, or to demonstrate some new material. This split, which the USS Clueless has identified in fashion shows, is part of a broader movement, where high concept art has colonized several fields of design, or at least infiltrated them.

The economics of how this could happen are interesting. I think it’s a combination two causes which are put for in the Clueless piece: that the items have become pieces of art and are collected as such (with all the community of critics and hangers-on that that implies), and that the more extreme examples are “concept cars” used to test out ideas and materials which are later toned down when incorporated into mass produced items.

Getting back to the design book, though, probably the main thing I’ve taken away from it is an appreciation of the work and effort that has gone into the design of every single item I own. Most people are casual consumers, never stopping to dig under the surface of the items they buy. “It’s just a teapot,” of a doorknob, or a table. But there has been a lot of thought put into the layout, the materials, the colors, the ergonomics of every single item.

So that a journey around a household can be, on some level, an exploration of engineering and design. The recognition of the design, in this case, is a necessary precursor to an appreciation of it. And this appreciation in turn allows me to enjoy even prosaic items like a phone, or a pen, that we usually take for granted. (Or, in contrast, to not like them. For most people design only becomes apparent when it’s missing, when the ergonomics don’t work. As in most dining room chairs, which are designed for looks rather than comfort, or most cell phones, which are designed for engineering simplicity and small size rather than comfort and ease of use.)

This ties into a broader theme, which is that we take too much for granted and miss innumerable everyday enjoyments simply because we don’t take the time to notice them. If they’re pulled out in a coffee table book or with a frame around them in a museum, we can ooh and ah and go into raptures over them. But the real trick is to transfer this appreciation back to our everyday experience, away from the obvious, rarified atmosphere of the museum.

It’s easy to be impressed with the play of light on water in a Monet painting, with the power and vitality in a Van Gogh canvas, with the colors in a Vermeer, with the play of shadows in a Rembrandt, with the fall of cloth and folds in a cloak in a Da Vinci work, or the power of form in a Michelangelo sculpture. And while there is value added, a distillation of experience in these works of art, the same beauty surrounds us every day. There’s no reason for you to be able to get aesthetic enjoyment from a Dutch landscape painting and not from a tree in your backyard. In any corner of the room there is an intricate play of shadows. The sky every day is every bit as amazing as a Turner canvas. And this cornucopia of pleasures is available to every one of us, every day, if we only take the time to look up from our feet and apprehend it.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 12:19 PM

Wednesday, July 24, 2002
Worrisome report from Afghanistan

This article in the Washington Post is the worst news I’ve heard yet from Afghanistan. Apparently the old Soviet-style security service has managed to worm it’s way through the civil wars and the Taliban era to emerge again in the present, largely unscathed, and dominated by Northern Alliance ethnic Tajiks, who have no love for the southern Pashtuns (or anybody else.) The head of this intelligence agency (reportedly 30,000 strong) is now the defense minister. President Karzai has promised to take on the agency and curtail it’s power (to prevent more of this sort of thing from happening.) He’s uncertain enough of his position that he’s dismissed his Afghan bodyguards and asked the US to provide him with a security unit.

The key paragraph is the story is:

Karzai's challenge to the intelligence service is seen here as a contest over who will rule post-Taliban Afghanistan. To the ethnic Pashtun president and his supporters, the unchecked power of the Tajik-run secret service is a key obstacle to Afghan democracy that lies closer to home than either regional warlords who refuse to disarm their men or lurking remnants of the Taliban and al Qaeda.

This is exactly true. Most of the attention in the stories I’ve seen went to the regional warlords. They’re problematic, but didn’t especially worry me. They will certainly have much of the local power, but that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a viable central government. It would just be a relatively weak one. But even if he was mostly a figurehead, Karzai served a valuable purpose in leading a central government to which the warlords would give at least nominal allegiance. Over time, I think the central authority could have grown and consolidated and the country could, over time, become more and more unified. In the meantime, it would have been more like the situation in medieval Scotland or France, where there was some national sentiment, and a nominal king, but the main power on the ground was provided by regional warlords, dukes, or clan leaders. But as long as there was some semblance of a national government, it could prevent violence and allow the growth of national institutions.

However, Fahim and the security service provide a much more direct threat. They are a larger organization with more national reach than any of the warlords. They also may fell themselves to be directly threatened by Karzai. The problem is, Fahim doesn’t have the consensus to serve as even a figurehead national leader, so if he emerges victorious in the fight with Karzai, as seems depressing likely, it will signal one of two pernicious outcomes.

The first, and more likely in my opinion, is a return to the factional civil wars which followed the ejection of the Soviets. There will be no national authority, and each of the regional warlords will fight to maintain and expand their local power. The country will slide back into semi-anarchy.

The second possibility is that Fahim would have the power to rule as an autocrat. This would then take Afghanistan down the post-colonial African road. A strongman leader would have merged, ruling through a repressive security regime, representing a minority ethnic group. The country might be unified but would be miserable, as what little wealth there was is funneled towards the leader and his tribe. The rest of the country, would be left in the cold, and anyone challenging his rule would be detained. This miserable situation would continue until tensions boiled over and a rebel group in areas not controlled by the Tajiks (in this case probably the Pashtuns) took up arms and a new round of bloody civil war breaks out. Pakistan, Iran, the central Asian republics all stick their fingers in the stew, and there’s another Congo festering.

Unfortunately, I don’t know how much (if anything ) the US can do to stop this. We can provide security for Karzai, but even the best security can be overcome. It sounds as if Fahim might be too strong to take on directly. We’re already doing what we can to build up a viable multi-ethnic military force whose loyalty will be to the central government rather than a regional warlord, but that is a slow process, and Karzai may not have that much time. He’s obviously a survivor to have made it this far, but this may be his toughest challenge yet.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 12:48 PM

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