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Wednesday, 18 October 2017

THE NUDE TRUTH

Kenneth Clark
A GREAT BOOK:
The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art by Kenneth Clark (1956)
Kenneth Clark’s survey of the nude from the Greeks to Picasso foreshadows the critic’s towering claims for humanity in his later seminal work, Civilisation
A review by 

TPrivate Eye, he was, immortally, “Lord Clark of Civilisation”, an accolade that probably made this patrician art historian better known to the British public than any other contemporary critic in any genre, a household name to stand alongside Fry, Gombrich and Pevsner. The epitome of the Great and the Good, equally at home with princes, patrons, and prime ministers, Clark was also a scholar with a showman’s instincts, who kept a beady eye on his audience. He relished provocative observations, and began this controversial study by opposing the naked (“huddled and defenceless”) with the nude (“balanced, prosperous and confident … the body re-formed”). Appropriately, this pioneering history of the depiction of the human body, which began with the 1953 Mellon Lectures, was largely written in the home of Bernard Berenson, the art historical master to whom it is dedicated.
In the context of its time, the mid-1950s, Clark’s account of the nude in the history of art, from the Greeks and the Romans to Picasso and the postimpressionists, is a wide-ranging, secular celebration of an important classical tradition. In ancient times, the nude had been used to express fundamental human needs, for instance, the need for harmony and order (Apollo) versus the need to sublimate sexual desire (Venus). Writing in postwar Europe, Clark’s ambition was to restore the human body in the public mind as an object of myth and wonder, not (as it had become in the 30s) the tool of fascist brutalism.
Clark, the most refined and sophisticated of critics, was also surreptitiously advancing a very British kind of popular paganism through his acknowledgment of the power of Eros. In hindsight, The Nude can be identified as a turning point for the incipient sexual revolution of the 60s.
Probably no one would be more surprised at this suggestion than Clark. His own indifference to what would later be identified by his many critics as “the politics of vision” makes him an unlikely radical. In his writing, the former academic historian aims to celebrate and admire the sensuality of the naked human form, expressing himself elegantly and without over-complication. As it happens, he is only partly successful.
Venus of Giorgione
In The Nude, the transition from the male nudes of Michelangelo, via the great Venuses of Giorgione and Titian, to the female nudes of Rubens and Ingres, sponsors an irruption of excitement into Clark’s narrative. He starts using a kind of language no art historian had explored before:
“The Venus of Giorgione is sleeping, without a thought of her nakedness. Compared with Titian’s Venus of Urbino [see bottom of page], she is like a bud, wrapped in its sheath, each petal folded so firmly as to give us the feeling of inflexible purpose. With Titian, the bud has opened… replaced by renaissance satisfaction in the here and now.”
François Boucher’s portrait of Louise O’Murphy: ‘Freshness of desire has seldom been more delicately expressed.’ Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
Having broken the taboo, Clark’s prose becomes decorously, but never deliriously, liberated. Describing François Boucher’s portrait of Miss O’Murphy he writes:
“Freshness of desire has seldom been more delicately expressed than by [her] round young limbs, as they sprawl with undisguised satisfaction on the silken cushions of her sofa. By art Boucher has enabled us to enjoy her with as little shame as she is enjoying herself. One false note and we should be embarrassingly back in the world of sin.”
Throughout the composition of this remarkable monograph, Clark was not merely battling his own inhibitions, he was having to find new ways to sustain his narrative line. As he admits in his preface to The Nude: “I soon discovered, that the subject is extremely difficult to handle. There is difficulty of form; a chronological survey would be long and repetitive, but almost every other pattern is unworkable. And there is a difficulty of scope; no responsible art historian would have attempted to cover both antique and post-medieval art.”
Rubens: Nymphs
Clark’s solution was to devote three long chapters at the heart of The Nude to the themes of energy, pathos and ecstasy, corresponding to classical (athletes and heroes), Christian (crucifixions and pietas) and finally some bacchanalian and gothic nudes. Throughout his narrative, Clark is fully alive to the ironies of his analysis, especially as he probes the depiction of the medieval nude:
“During the long banishment of the body there arose one symbol of pathos more poignant and more compelling than all the others: Our Lord on the Cross. Nothing in our subject shows more decisively the ideal character of the antique nude than that, in spite of the Christian horror of nakedness, it was the undraped figure of Christ which was finally accepted as canonical in representations of the Crucifixion.”
Strangely, for a critic whose work was contemporary with Picasso and Matisse, and especially Henry Moore, Clark has much less of interest to say about the nude in the 20th century. After the chaos and barbarism of the two world wars through which he had lived, the art historian was at pains to renew the classical contract between order, coherence and the human imagination. He concludes his narrative with the suggestion that “The Greeks perfected the nude in order that man might feel like a god, and in a sense this is still its function, for although we no longer suppose that God is like a beautiful man, we still feel close to divinity in those flashes of self-identification when, through our own bodies, we seem to be aware of a universal order.”
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres: The Source
An instinctive quest for our civilisation and its towering humanistic values was never far from the core of Clark’s writing. The success of The Nude in the 1950s and 60s, before the sensational success of Civilisation, and before the critics, led by John Berger, turned on him, possibly indicates the deep and unconscious imperatives behind the Anglo-American passion for culture.

A signature sentence:

“In antique sarcophagi the nereids who balance on the tails of tritons must have been studied from nature for they are in exactly the pose adopted by their modern daughters in Italy who occupy an equally precarious seat on the pillions of motor scooters.”
Titian: La Venere d'Urbino

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

THE FATE OF THE EARTH

Humanity’s survival on this planet seems more uncertain than ever. But what happens when we look at ourselves through other creatures’ eyes?
When I was asked to deliver this lecture,* the prompt I was given was to address the fate of Earth. At first, I thought of focussing on the threat of nuclear annihilation, which Jonathan Schell wrote about so urgently for The New Yorker in the nineteen-eighties, and which now, thanks to Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, seems nearer than ever before. Another possible topic was, of course, climate change, which my colleague Bill McKibben spoke about here last year. Bill’s work, like Schell’s, possesses a fierce moral energy and a remarkable prescience. Whether it is hurricanes or droughts or flooding or wildfires, like the sort raging right now in Northern California, we’re already seeing the destabilizing effects of global warming that he foretold in “The End of Nature,” published in The New Yorker in 1989. Just this week, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, signed an order to initiate the repeal of the Clean Power Plan, which was central to the United States’ commitment to the Paris climate accord, which the White House has also decided to abrogate.

All of which is to say that October of 2017 is a scarily opportune moment to talk about nuclear war or to talk about climate change—or to talk about climate change and nuclear war. But I am going to try to do something different. Instead of looking at the fate of Earth from our anxious perspective, from a human perspective, I’d like to try to look at it from the viewpoint of the millions and millions of non-human species with which we share the planet. This represents a different kind of imaginative exercise. It requires us not to imagine events that might happen but to look at events that have happened through different eyes—or even without eyes, since so many of our fellow-creatures lack them. We will always fall short in these exercises, but I think it’s important to try, so I hope you will indulge me.
A Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog. Photograph by Brian Gratwicke / Flickr
I want to start off with an individual animal, who went by the name of Toughie. Toughie, as I understand it—and I never had the pleasure of meeting him, though I did meet one of his siblings, or perhaps cousins—was a very charming fellow. He was born in the cloud forest above the town of El Valle, in central Panama, a beautiful, rugged area that’s unusually rich in biodiversity. Specifically, Toughie was born in a tree hole. It was filled with water, the way most things in the cloud forest are filled with water. His mother deposited her eggs there, and then, when Toughie and his siblings were tadpoles, their father took over, and he cared for them. Up in the tree hole, there wasn’t much for the tadpoles to eat, so Toughie and his sisters and brothers sustained themselves by literally eating the skin off their father’s back. Toughie was living in the cloud forest in 2005, when he was found by a group of herpetologists. Eventually, he came to live in the botanical garden in Atlanta.

Toughie was, presumably, a pretty typical representative of his species, the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog. This species was discovered only in 2005, and named only in 2008. The reason it was discovered, which is the same reason that Toughie came to live in the botanical garden in Atlanta, is that biologists were desperately trying to catalogue the amphibian life in central Panama before it disappeared. They had watched in horror as a plague had swept through the western part of the country, wiping out frogs and toads, and they could see that this wave of death was moving east, toward the central part of the country, which is home to some really spectacular amphibian species, including the Panamanian golden frog.
A Panamanian golden frog.
So these biologists—some were American, some were Panamanian—were, as I said, trying to catalogue what was out there before it was lost. And they were also collecting live animals, with the idea that, if they could save breeding pairs, they could create a sort of ark. In the case of the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog, only a handful of animals were caught before the scourge hit. Researchers had managed to collect a few females and a few males, including Toughie, but, although they were brought together in various configurations, they never produced viable offspring. Meanwhile, efforts to collect more members of the species were unsuccessful; the frog has a distinctive call that sounds like a dog’s bark, and though many man-hours were spent listening for it, it has not been heard in the forest since 2007. The last female Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog died in 2009, the second-to-last male in 2012. This left just Toughie. And when he died, in September of 2016, it is likely that the species went extinct. A notice of Toughie’s death ran in the Times, under the headline, “A Frog Dies in Atlanta, and a World Vanishes With It.”

The cause of this extinction, the cause of the amphibian plague, was a chytrid fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd. No one knows exactly where the disease originated, or how it moved around the world, but it showed up on different continents almost simultaneously, which means that, almost certainly, it was transported by people. One theory is that it was carried across the globe on African clawed frogs, which were exported from Africa in the nineteen-forties and fifties for use as pregnancy tests; the frogs would be injected with a woman’s urine, and if by the next day they’d produced eggs, then this showed that the woman was pregnant. African clawed frogs, it turns out, can carry Bd but are not affected by it. They may account for the spread, but this is still an active subject of research.
Photograph by The National Museum of Health and Medicine / Flickr
Seen through the eyes of Toughie and his ilk—and frogs have very interesting eyes; they can see colors in the dark, something humans certainly can’t do, and it’s possible no other animals can do—Bd looks a lot like germ warfare, like a biological weapon designed to spread and inflict maximum damage. One of the most disturbing sections of Schell’s book about nuclear war, “The Fate of the Earth,” is the chapter titled “Second Death.” In that chapter, Schell writes, “We have always been able to send people to their death, but only now has it become possible to prevent all birth and so doom all future human beings to uncreation.” This is what the spread of Bd has done to the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog: all future generations have been doomed to uncreation. And it’s not just this one species. Many other frogs and toads have been doomed by this same pathogen. Gastric brooding frogs were remarkable animals that gestated their young in their stomachs and gave birth through their mouths. There were two species that lived in Australia, until Bd swept through. Both are now extinct. The same goes for the sharp-snouted day frog, also native to Australia, and the golden toad (no relation to the golden frog), which was native to Costa Rica. Many, many populations of frogs in North America have crashed owing to Bd. All in all, the fungus has been implicated in the extinction or catastrophic decline of at least two hundred species.
In the southern gastric-brooding frog, now extinct, tadpoles developed in the female’s stomach and emerged as fully formed froglets.
Bd is just one of several pathogens that we can be pretty confident have been moved around the world by people and that are now having devastating, biological-weapons-scale impacts. Another is what’s become known as white-nose syndrome. You’ve probably heard about this disease. It was first detected in upstate New York in 2007, near Albany, and it has since killed millions and millions and millions of bats. White nose is also a fungal infection. It comes from Europe—genetic analysis is pretty clear about that—and it was probably brought to New York on the shoes or backpack of some unsuspecting tourist. Over the past decade, it has spread to thirty-one U.S. states and five Canadian provinces. And the problem with white-nose syndrome, as with Bd, is that, once it gets into the environment, it can spread on its own, by putting out spores, or it can be spread by other animals or by people.
Photo courtesy Elizabeth Kolbert
This is is a photo of me and an official of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, Scott Darling, in a cave. Something like three hundred thousand bats used to spend the winter hibernating here, but because of white-nose syndrome that number has dropped by about ninety per cent in the past decade. Darling and I are standing on a carpet several inches thick, made up entirely of dead bats.

Of course, it’s not just microorganisms that people are moving around the globe. We move plants; we move animals. Sometimes we do this purposefully, but much more often we do it by accident. It’s estimated that, on any given day, ten thousand species are being moved around the world just in the ballast water of our supertankers. Mostly, the results go unnoticed; the species that’s being moved to a new place can’t survive there, or doesn’t reproduce. But sometimes the results are so world-altering that we can’t help but attend to them. And the more species we move around the planet, through global trade and global travel, the more of these impossible-to-overlook events we’re going to get.

There are thousands of examples—in fact, whole databases full of them. Hawaii used to have about a hundred species of native tree snails, which were found nowhere else on Earth. Now, because of competition from non-native snails introduced by people, there are only about twenty-five species left, most of them highly endangered. The Guam flycatcher (a bird) and the Guam flying fox (a bat) were both driven to extinction by the introduction of the brown tree snake, which was probably a stowaway in military cargo brought to the island during the Second World War. In New Zealand, the huia and the Stephens Island wren are two of a whole slate of bird species that were killed off with the introduction of European predators such as rats and weasels.
A pair of huias—male on the left, female on the right—from the Canterbury Museum, in New Zealand.Photograph by Frans Lanting Studio / Alamy
The list could go on and on. We humans think of moving organisms around the globe as very ordinary; many of the plants in our back yards come from other continents, as do many of the crops and the domesticated animals that we consume. But when we look at this from the perspective of other creatures, from the perspective of a Hawaiian snail, say, or a Guam flycatcher, or a huia, the process looks very different, very out of the ordinary. Over most of evolutionary history, plants and animals didn’t just show up on new continents or in new ocean basins, or, if they did, they did so only very rarely, perhaps as a result of a tsunami or some other violent event. Without a lot of help, a land animal can’t cross an ocean, and a marine creature can’t cross a continent.

Two hundred and fifty million years ago, toward the end of the Paleozoic era, all the world’s landmasses were squished together into one giant supercontinent, Pangaea. Today, biologists point out, we are, in effect, creating a new Pangaea by bringing all the world’s flora and fauna together. And this reshuffling of the biosphere, this creation of a new supercontinent, is a development that’s unprecedented in Earth’s history. It took many millions of years to form the original Pangaea, and here we are putting the new one together in a matter of centuries. We are running geologic history backward, and at warp speed.

This rearrangement of the biosphere is one reason that scientists argue we no longer live in the Holocene epoch but have entered the Anthropocene, the age of man. Whether this new nomenclature should be formally adopted is still a matter of debate, but the term has already been adopted informally, and it appears all the time now in popular and scientific publications. And this represents a really basic and disorienting shift in how we think about ourselves.

Thinking scientifically about man’s place in the world used to mean acknowledging our insignificance. Charles Darwin’s mentor, Charles Lyell, taught us that the time in which we live is not in any way special. Earth has been around for eons, and the same processes of change—erosion, for instance, or volcanism—that shape the planet today were shaping it in the days of the dinosaurs. Darwin taught us that our species was just another species. Like every other living creature, it had evolved slowly, from more ancient forebears. Even the qualities that seem to set humans apart—love, say, or a sense of right and wrong—must have arisen just as other adaptive traits did, through the process of natural selection.

The Anthropocene forces us to see ourselves differently, as remarkable, even unique. No other creature in the history of life on Earth—and this history goes back at least 3.8 billion years, maybe longer—ever dominated the planet as we do now. No creature has ever changed it at the rate that we are changing it right now. This is true whatever we do, whether we start a nuclear war or don’t start one, whether we replace our coal plants with wind turbines, or our gas-powered cars with electric ones.
Acropora millepora coral
This, as I’m sure you recognize, is a coral. Specifically, it’s a colony of Acropora millepora, which is a very common coral on the Great Barrier Reef. Corals are animals, colonial animals, that resemble humans in one respect: they’re great engineers. Corals construct reefs by excreting calcium carbonate. Hundreds of billions of individual corals working at this project, generation after generation, create these enormous structures. And these structures are crucial to marine life. In the tropics, the oceans tend to be very low in nutrients, because the water doesn’t turn over very much. And water that’s low in nutrients should be, and generally is, low in life. But coral reefs are full of life; the density and diversity of life on a healthy reef may be greater even than in a rain forest. And the reason for that, it seems, is that reefs are like bazaars, where all sorts of creatures congregate and swap with each other what they need to survive. Corals themselves are models of coöperation; they house single-celled plants—tiny algae—that use the nutrients the corals excrete. And, in return, these algae provide a lot of the corals’ food.

Even though corals are relatively simple creatures, or perhaps because they are simple creatures, they are very sensitive to changes in their surroundings. And there are all sorts of ways that, in the Anthropocene, they are suffering. Corals thrive in clear water. If the water becomes turbid or gets silted up—as a result, say, of deforestation—they can’t cope. Overfishing is also a problem. Grazing fish eat algae that compete with corals for space, so if the grazers are gone the algae take over. Agricultural runoff, too, is a danger. It contains a lot of nutrients, and corals, as I mentioned, thrive in nutrient-poor waters. Runoff favors algae growth, and corals lose out.

These are some of the local threats that affect individual coral reefs. Then there are the global threats. One of the hallmarks of the Anthropocene is that we are changing the conditions of life everywhere at once, and in many different ways. Corals like warm water, but they don’t like very warm water. When water temperatures rise beyond a certain range, their plant symbionts go into a sort of frenzy and produce dangerous quantities of oxygen radicals. So the corals expel them and, as a result, turn white. This is the phenomenon that’s become known as coral bleaching. Without their plant symbionts, the corals don’t get enough food and essentially start to starve. Sometimes they bounce back, and sometimes they don’t. Ocean temperatures are rising very quickly, so bleaching events are becoming more frequent and more severe. Here is a video of an Australian scientist, Terry Hughes, flying over bleached sections of the Great Barrier Reef. It gives you a sense of how extensive the damage can be.
When we burn coal and oil and gas, we are taking carbon that was sequestered in the course of hundreds of millions of years and throwing it back into the atmosphere in a matter of centuries, or even decades, as carbon dioxide. This is not just warming the planet; it’s also changing the chemistry of the oceans. A lot of the CO2 gets absorbed in seawater, where it dissolves and forms carbonic acid. Acidified water makes it more difficult for corals to complete their construction projects. At a certain point, it makes it impossible. If Bd looks to frogs like a kind of biological warfare, ocean acidification looks to corals like chemical warfare. Scientists who have examined this issue very carefully, both in lab experiments and field experiments, predict that the whole reef-building project, which has been going on for millions and millions of years, may be coming to an end. Instead of reefs, we’re going to have what one scientific team described as “rapidly eroding rubble banks.”

It’s estimated that a quarter of all marine species spend at least part of their lives on a reef. Something like fifty thousand reef-dwelling species have been described, but probably there are another million—and perhaps several million—waiting to be catalogued. All these species are put at risk by the destruction of the world’s reefs, which is starting to look all but inevitable; already close to eighty per cent of the coral cover in the Caribbean has disappeared. The casualties will range from very tiny creatures, like the newly discovered Leucothoe eltoni, an Indonesian shrimp named for Elton John, up to larger, more charismatic species, like the Australian butterfly fish.
Blue Marble Earth (Apollo 17, 1972)
Everyone here, I’m sure, has seen this photo before. It’s the famous “blue marble” shot, the first complete image of Earth, taken in 1972 by the crew of Apollo 17, and it’s often said to have marked a turning point in our relationship to our home planet. As Neil de Grasse Tyson has said, “The space program’s unprecedented images of Earth compelled us all to think deeply about our dependence on nature and the fate of our civilization.” Seeing our world as small and lonely is one of those shifts in perspective that rattles us out of our complacency.

But the blue-marble perspective, looking down at Earth from an altitude of more than twenty thousand miles, is, of course, not a coral’s or a shrimp’s or a frog’s. It seems safe to say that, shown this image, not even our very closest relatives, chimpanzees, would have any idea what they were looking at. To appreciate something so abstracted from lived experience is a singularly human talent. So is posing a question like “What is the fate of Earth?” But if Toughie, say, or a huia or a Stephens Island wren or a butterfly fish or a kiwi or an elephant or a wolf or a Leucothoe eltoni could ask that question, I think I know what their answer would be. It’s not nuclear war, exactly. Nor is it climate change, exactly. It’s us. We are the fate of Earth.

Today, the biomass of Earth’s human population is estimated to be ten times greater than the combined biomass of all the planet’s wild mammals. (I use the term “wild” here advisedly.) Meanwhile, if we look at the weight of our domesticated animals—cows and goats and pigs—the situation is even more extreme. Their biomass is roughly twenty-five times greater than that of wild mammals. And if you add us and our beasts together the ratio is thirty-five to one. In numerical terms, we are a hugely successful species—an astonishingly successful species—and our success has come at the expense of other living things.

In October of 2017, it’s easy to worry that the human project is in danger. From the perspective of other species, though, what’s scary is not the fragility of human life but its remorseless vigor. We should attend to the fate of Earth for our own reasons. The greatest threats that we face—nuclear war, climate change—are almost easier to accomplish these days than they are to envision. But as important as we are to ourselves, we’re not all there is on this blue marble. And if we are just thinking about ourselves, then we are failing as ethical agents, which is to say as human beings.
_____________________

Yesterday evening (October 11, 2017), at Manhattan’s New School, the New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert delivered the second annual Jonathan Schell Memorial Lecture on the Fate of the Earth, an event established by the Nation Institute in honor of the late Jonathan Schell, a longtime New Yorker staff writer, and named for “The Fate of the Earth,” a series of articles that Schell wrote for the magazine in 1982 and later published as a book. Kolbert’s remarks have been edited for length. Kolbert won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.
On Kolbert's Pulitzer Prize book The Sixth Extinction, see my page NEIGHBOURS FROM HELL.
"Her indictment of humanity is remorseless, and compelling."