Damien Hirst’s take on Human Anatomy

I stroll through the Norwich University of the Arts. A massive skinned, dissected figure outside the St George’s building stops me in my tracks. Bells from my anatomist past are jangling. Is this now the Norwich School of Medicine?

Damien Hirst’s take on Human Anatomy

Damien Hirst “Hymn” Bronze, 2000

I ask at the reception desk what this is about. “Oh!” the nice lady replies with just a hint of condescension, “That’s Damien Hirst!” Ah!…. Silly me! I should have known. I learn that, unsurprisingly, the 7 metre high Hymn (play-on-words “Him”) caused controversy when first displayed. Is it “art”? (Pushing the boundaries etc. Same old!) Furthermore, it was claimed to be a direct copy of a 25cm educational toy; this resulted in a quiet financial settlement. Nevertheless, Hirst came out of it well by selling the sculpture to Charles Saatchi for £1 million.

Armed with this information I go back out onto the street and regard Hymn anew. With this sculpture, Hirst has within a few minutes taken me from curious to a bit embarrassed and then to intrigued. On knowing the provenance of Hymn, I then find myself admiring both the work and the concept. I ask myself if progressing through these mental steps is precisely what Hirst intended the viewer’s experience to involve. Whatever, he plays on our squeamish fascination for things scientific, forensic, visceral and medical and does so on a monumental and intimidating scale. This confrontation makes unavoidable the realisation that “Those are my insides!”

My last thought is: yes, Damien Hirst does it again whatever “it” may be. But then I’m sure that he couldn’t possibly give a damn what I think.

Nautical Elegance from the “Belle Epoque”

This is a guest post by Bertrand Godfroid.

Robin, Isaac and I wait by the water’s edge of the Jardin des Anglais at the foot of Lake Leman. We are surrounded by Geneva in full fête mode. Merry-go-rounds go round merrily spinning every possible nationality; all smiling and taking selfies. Odourful stalls tout hot dogs, donuts and candy floss. But it is not the fête that excites us. The Compagnie General de Navigation sur le Lac Leman (CGN) has invited Talking Beautiful Stuff to take an evening cruise aboard the “Savoie.”

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We watch in fascination as the most elegant of paddle steamers approaches it’s moorings to pick us up. Seagulls flap away as it gives a long, loud and steamy blast on its foghorn. We step on board. We are greeted by that delicate and unmistakable mix of fragrances of cool lake water, varnished wood and engine oil.

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The setting sun catches the glasses and bottles of a welcoming little cocktail bar. The restaurant that will soon fill with our fellow passengers is all linen tablecloths and glistening cutlery. If one is looking for for a film-set fantasy romantic interlude, there is nowhere that better fits the bill.

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We are welcomed warmly by the captain, 48 year-old Jean-Martial Mercanton. He has been in charge of this vessel since 2012. He follows in his father’s foot steps. He describes his working day and responsibilities with unfettered enthusiasm and tells us the most satisfying part of his job derives from sharing the country’s heritage with others. His only headaches come from the unpredictable weather, especially the famously vicious storms that barrel up the Rhone valley from warmer climes to crash into and over the nearby Alps. This is a man who loves his job and, by all accounts, looks after his crew.

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The Savoie, has to be high on any list scoring bygone nautical elegance and Captain Mercanton is rightly proud of his charge. It was built in Switzerland in 1914. The massive 900 horsepower high-low pressure cylinder engine was originally powered by coal. This was converted to oil in 1962. Amazingly, the boat only underwent its first full renovation in 2004. What’s more, this vessel is only one of eight of the CGN’s fleet of truly beautiful “belle époque” paddle-steamers.

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The engine room is open to view from the middle deck. It is mesmerising. It is all massive shiney whirling oily piston pumping power kept in line and running by engineer Yan Umberti and his team. The engine room tour is mesmerising. We stand amidst it all just grinning like school kids. This is so much fun!

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Twenty-five year-old Yan’s job is to keep the whole thing fired and lubricated ; he is never still. He handles the massive set of levers and controls with practiced ease taking his orders from Captain Mercanton the old-fashioned way by verbal orders. Between filling oil cylinders, checking steam and furnace temperatures he is happy to chat.

Yan patiently explains how the steam is produced from 16,000 litres of lake water, heated to 108 degree C, circulates through the two cylinders that drive the main shaft of the paddles and eventually exits having been mixed with lake water. We ask him if they have ever had a crisis on board. He tells of a day when there was a genuine engine failure with passengers on board. He was able to scavenge a part from another boat and run a temporary repair. The cruise finished albeit a little late. I note he refers to the engine as a person. Does he or she have a character? “She certainly does!” responds Yan. “She can be unpredictable. Sometimes the cylinders seem to get a bit out of synch and sometimes she just plays up and we don’t know why.” “Does she have a name?” I ask. “Yes, Josephine!” I ask where he will be in ten years time. “Right here! With Josephine!” he replies with a huge smile.

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Drenched in perspiration from the 55 degrees in the engine room, we go up to the upper level and order a cool drink. The sun has almost set whilst in Yan’s domain. We are invited to look at the dinner menu and decide on scallops and delicate mushroom raviolis washed down with a fine local gamay. Lightening strikes on distant mountains as we cruise slowly back down the lake. I am overcome with a feeling that all is well in the world. Very well.

If there is one thing you should do when visiting Geneva, it’s to take a cruise on Lac Leman aboard the Savoie. In the meantime, take a look at some more pics of our cruise.

Dry Stone Bridges in Sutherland, Scotland

Dry Stone Bridges in Sutherland 1

I first walked the stalkers’ track near Scourie in Sutherland, Scotland in 1982. Each return is a nostalgic and near-spiritual experience. This ancient and glaciated landscape is home to red deer, adders, tiny frogs and countless bird species including an occasional golden eagle. The lochs teem with small brown trout. The only sounds are the wind and the mournful call of golden plovers. That same wind carries a peaty fragrance with hints of heather and bog myrtle. This is a place that fills the senses and lifts the soul.

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For some reason, maybe to look at a wild orchid or one of the small carnivorous plants that can be found here, I step off the track. I notice a wonderful little dry stone bridge that I must have walked over twenty times. I have never thought about how the track, that must have been laid at least one hundred years ago, actually crosses the multiple small streams that flow off these hills. I am fascinated. My canine buddy tells me I should look at this from the other side.

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Just fabulous! To think, through its existence, this cementless structure has withstood floods and snow drifts together with the weight of human traffic whether on foot, horse and carriage or landrover.

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A kilometre along the track, I find another but with a single span. I notice these hardy little bridges are constructed from stones available on the spot. Large stones are stacked and stabilised with small stones wedged in. Maybe flatter stones were hauled in to make the cross pieces but it is difficult to look at them closely; they have been here for so long that they are now covered with heather and are just part of the track. As with the dry stone walls in this part of the world, I admire the skill and plain hard work of the unknown master crafts(wo)man/men who created these little gems.

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These bridges have a rustic, aged beauty accentuated by how they are now integrated into the environment. I find a third; it is so overgrown that, to see it, I have to step into the stream bed. My day just gets better.

Who else has noticed the dry stone bridges of the stalkers’ track? I wonder if I have happened upon a long-forgotten little bit of antiquity. Does or should some kind of preservation order apply in the event of maintenance or upgrade of the track? I try to contact the office of the estate concerned but without success. An internet search reveals nothing about these bridges (but I find there are courses on how to make one!) Is there an engineer-historian out there who knows about them? It would be great to hear from you.

DRAW at Mandell’s Gallery, Norwich

I am in Norwich, England. A fine city! At it’s heart one finds the cathedral and nearby the cobbled and film-set charming Elm Hill. There nestles Mandell’s Gallery; an unpretentious, quiet and tasteful contribution to the city’s cultural on-goings. The current exhibition DRAW is refreshing, unusual and well worth a visit.

DRAW at Mandell’s Gallery 1

Susan Bacon, “Raven” Charcoal and pencil on paper

This eclectic exhibition features the work of people who have come to drawing via the Royal Drawing School. The School’s strapline is “Draw life: learn to see differently.”  Fittingly, the first image that catches my eye is Susan Bacon’s “Raven.” It is just so raven-like. I love the way the feathers have that glossy look, the simple but very real representation of the scratchy clawed feet, the setting of the Tower of London and the little ditty about “A Miserly Bird.”

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Stuart Pearson Wright, “Self Portrait Brexiting” Pencil, Charcoal and Gouache on silk

I wouldn’t describe this cartoonish self-portrait by Stuart Pearson Wright as beautiful. It is technically accomplished and arresting in its awkwardness. First I notice the clenched fist (anger?) that is as prominent as the gloomy face. Then I ask myself why Wright has placed his casually dressed self partly out of the frame. Then I need an explanation for the outline of another left arm (but this would be his – possibly undecided – drawing right arm seen in his mirror.) The image is full of anxiety, confusion and ambiguity. And then I notice the scribbled map of Europe on the t-shirt and the sub-text “WE ARE EUROPEAN.” And then I re-read the title and it all makes sense and I realise that this is master-class portraiture.

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Christopher Wallbank, “Loomery VI” Graphite

One of the exhibition’s curators, Paul Fenner, says about drawing that “Far from being a question of the application of a neutral “skill,” this universal ability to transmute the visible world that surrounds us into another order of visibility is nothing less than a fundamental mystery of our incarnation, our being-in-the-world.” I have to agree when looking at Christopher Wallbank’s truly amazing, tall and detailed drawing of a cliff-hanging guillemot colony.

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Detail of “Loomery VI”

Wallbank viewed this nesting colony through binoculars. He recorded his observations with multiple drawings and noted the behaviour of the guillemots. Only on close-up are his multiple notes visible as is that amazing ability to capture with the simplest of lines the essential and word-defying features of any given bird species.

Just for reference, here’s a photograph I took recently of a mixed colony of guillemots, razor-bills and falmers at Dunnet Head in Caithness, Scotland.

DRAW at Mandell’s Gallery 5

The exhibition closes on 21st July. So hurry along!

Let’s talk humanity

Talking Humanity

By Robin Coupland

In brief…. We need to find a modern, objective, scientific and inclusive way of talking about humanity. I propose in this article that humanity’s success as a species has been driven by and will depend upon how an innate sense of right and an evolved ability to think things through together restrain our extraordinary capacity for armed violence.

Introduction

The descendants of that little band of large-brained bipeds that made it out of Africa 40,000 years ago now inhabit pretty much every corner of Earth. As a species, we have, by any objective measure, prospered like no other. How? We have reproduced and acquired assets as a result of innovation, manufacturing, exchange, travel, communication, laws and accumulation of knowledge. It is now clear to us that the prosperity of our different communities is dependent not only on our material wealth but also on security together with “human” qualities such as honesty, trust, kindness and a sense of justice. Globally, humans are doing well; we live increasingly long and healthy lives that are less and less menaced by acts of violence (1). We are even giving serious thought to the impact of our booming existence on the planet. Bravo, humanity!

“The first principle to take into account is the principle of humanity!” explains the expert in international humanitarian law to a large group of NATO officers. He continues “Military strategy or use of a particular weapon system need to be balanced against humanitarian concerns.” Later, he makes reference to the necessity of a dialogue between humanitarian actors and military actors. At question time, an officer asks the speaker if he believes that people in uniform are devoid of humanity. Others murmur their approval of this justfied put-down. Any interest these men at arms might have had in this vital body of international law has evaporated.

Two senses of humanity

When we talk about humanity, we may mean the entirety of human existence, that is, all of us. In this sense, humanity might be threatened by a pandemic, global financial collapse, climate change or an exchange of nuclear weapons. At the same time, we refer to humanity as a sentiment or spirit that is noble and altruistic; it is appealed to when some humans do awful things to others (2). There is an implication and even hope that humanity as a sentiment is a universal human attribute and, when expressed, is somehow beneficial to all humans. Both notions of humanity have had a strong influence on the development of international law especially in relation to crimes against humanity (3).

Let’s not forget that many of history’s ugliest examples of inhumanity took place when one group of people declared that a certain race, nation or community were somehow sub-human and therefore didn’t merit humanity.

Humanitarianism

The word humanity has an offspring: “humanitarianism” meaning promotion of human welfare (4). Obviously, I would never put in question the value of this exercise. However, without clarity, the language used around humanitarianism can be counterproductive. Given the WHO definition of health, there would appear to be little difference between humanitarianism and health promotion (5). Despite this potential and objective definition, humanitarianism gives rise to many and varied adjectival forms that imply close links to both senses of humanity. Examples are “humanitarian law,” “humanitarian action” and “humanitarian concerns.” Some make reference to the “humanitarian community” that regrettably implies that some of us possess a more engaged commitment to humanity. The discourse of the humanitarian community – especially in the international arena – can give the impression that one has to occupy an exclusive moral high ground in order to speak up for humanity. This can turn off the very people that “humanitarians” are most trying to reach. Isn’t it time to find a language we can all use when we talk about humanity or humanitarianism?

A combined theory of humanity

Let’s recognise that humanity can mean the species homo sapiens or all humans (“humanity –species”) and that we have an altruistic notion of “humanity- sentiment.” That there is a link is intuitive; exactly what this link is and how it might globally promote people’s wellbeing is not clear. The starting point for understanding this link lies in a biological view of human progress.

The last two hundred years of the existence of humanity-species have been characterised by extraordinary success in terms of the number of us alive, how long we live and how well. The motor of this progress is our outsized brain and its associated mental capcities. The use of our capcities to innovate and to exchange has resulted in, for example, commerce, air travel and health care. To take full advantage of our capacities to innovate and exchange and to create communities in which innovation and exchange can flourish, we rely on other “human” capacities that have evolved in parallel and forge the link between humanity-sentiment and the well-being of humanity-species. Without a capacity for honesty and therefore trust, there would be no confidence that others will hold to what they say and so no economy, commerce, contract or treaty. We have increasingly looked for peaceful solutions to human interaction. We no longer have to view strangers with fear and as potential enemies. We use force less and less to get what we need or want. We are increasingly considerate of the suffering of fellow humans.

The mental capacities that have fuelled this recent progress are an innate sense of right and our cognitive abilities. A sense of right is close to a traditional notion of humanity-sentiment and means recognising and doing the right thing by others. It is the combined outcome of our capacities for morality, empathy, philanthropy, honesty, respect for others and kindness together with recognising and addressing injustice.

Our cognitive abilities give us the capacity to think things through. Not all of our behaviour is rational but we have evolved a great capacity for rational behaviour and decision-making. We can exert self-control and use common sense. We recognise that a society governed by rules is better than a squabbling anarchy. If we want something from a neighbour, we trade ; we don’t fight for it. We increasingly deny cruelty a place in our “civilised” world. We know there are consequences to what we say and do. We recognise that cognitive behaviour is a better route to harmonious relations than emotional behaviour.

I propose that, first, a more objective way of considering humanity-sentiment is in terms of our mental capacities and, second, that the combined application of our capacity for a sense of right with our co-existent capacity to think things through promotes the wellbeing of humanity-species by creating an environment in which family life, communities, health care, innovation and exchange are possible. Talking humanity means moving from a dialogue that is largely moral to a dialogue that is coherently moral and scientific with a clear objective: the promotion of human well-being.

Any future dialogue based on this combined theory of humanity relates first and foremost to the degree to which humans require security. People’s insecurity always has been and remains the most important issue determining their health and well-being (6). In reality, whether we live in security or insecurity is determined by our and others’ potential for applying force. We live in greater security now precisely because those responsible for applying force have been influenced by a sense of right with an increasing tendency to think things through. In other words, humanity-sentiment as in our combined capacities has become increasingly potent in the face of yet another human capacity: our capacity for violence. This must be one of our greatest achievements given how we have multiplied our capacity violence many times over by technical innovation  i.e., through development of weapons (7).

Humanity and armed violence

The big story of human progress cannot be separated from our history of violent conflict whether wars, uprisings or a states’ oppression of their citizens. The system of nation states that we live in now may provide adequate security for peacable and constructive human existence but almost all states were born of some kind of armed conflict (8). One would think that our increasing numbers over the last two hundred years together with the massive availability of weapons to nations’ armed forces would generate even more conflict over living space and resources. And yet we live in a more secure and less violent world than before (with some notable exceptions) with an increasing concern for those disadvantaged by conflict. So, is a capacity for armed violence a positive or negative influence on human progress?

Violence rightly carries negative connotations. The definition of violence adopted by the WHO stresses the impact of people’s injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation (9). A capacity for violence need not necessarily carry such negative connotations. In broad terms, we prosper only when we live in security and when laws within the community can be enforced. Both security and law enforcement require designated sections of a population to carry weapons and, being equipped with a legitimate capacity for violence, only resort to actual violence under defined circumstances. As the situation in many countries shows, national security and law enforcement are not always promoters of people’s security and well-being. In brief, whether humans prosper to their full potential depends on the outcome of a balance between, on one hand, a capacity for violence and, on the other, the ability to restrain that capacity. This balance has increasingly tipped towards human well-being because those responsible for the capacity for violence also exercise their capacities for a sense of right and to think things through (10).

A new dialogue for humanity?

A dialogue based on a combined theory of humanity derives ultimately from recognising that the application of a range of mental capacities is necessary for promotion of people’s well-being and that these capacities arise from our evolved psychology. If accepted, the combined theory would make manifest that we are all potentially humanitarian actors indpendent of background or profession. Such a dialogue with soldiers, police officers, politicians, diplomats, business people and scientists among others could cultivate a view of humanity as a common enterprise. It would permit dialogue and education about humanity in modern, objective and useful terms. It would cement together the apparently disparate academic disciplines of biology, history, economics, politics, law and philosophy. It would deconstruct the exclusivity that is associated with humanitarianism.

The combined theory provides a common concept and language to consider any action or policy pertaining to security, law enforcement and to all aspects of the design, development, transfer and deployment of weapons. In fact, dialogue based on the combined theory already has a track record in the international arena. In 2017 more than 50 nations signed a treaty prohibition on nuclear weapons. The treaty negotiations were given impetus through governments being confronted by the self-evident impossibility of humanitarian assistance in the event of use of these weapons. This generated an effective dialogue parallel to the long term political arguments about the relevance or irrelevance of possession of nuclear weapons to national security (11). A similar process led to the 1997 Ottawa Treaty on anti-personnel mines and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions; both treaty prohibitions relied on documentation of and generating concern for the impact of use of these weapons (12) in parallel to consideration of their military utility.

Our societies remain based on political, diplomatic, business, educational, military and law-enforcement hierarchies. The higher someone is placed within these hierarchies, the greater responsibility is bourne, therefore, by his or her sense of right and capacity to think things through. The combined theory would make clear the how, why and when of who within human hierarchies really contributes and who does not contribute to people’s continued well-being. It would encourage political transparency when addressing the dilemmas that an ever-growing human population presents in terms of environmental change, security issues and inequities.

Beyond the domains of security and law enforcement, dialogue based on the combined theory could contribute to people’s interactions in couples, families, schools and the work place (13). Education focussing on the importance of, for example, empathy and cognitive behaviour would reach beyond improving the lives of individuals and those close to them. It would show a clear line to their potential contribution to human existence more broadly.

The fundamental objective of this essay is to provide the basis of an inclusive, useful and modern dialogue about humanity. I have been asked what the ultimate pay-off would be for such a new dialogue. It comes down to this: recognising a combined humanity and the power of talking – at all levels – about any issue in these terms is the surest way to continue the incredible story of recent human progress. Humanity ultimately means all of us using our mental capacities to deny that the life of humans has by default to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (14). If I was asked to produce a class-room poster that plants a seed of the combined theory in the minds of destined-for-great-careers young people, it would read: Be honest! Be kind! Think things through!


Footnotes

  1. This essay has drawn heavily from Stephen Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined” (2011). Pinker makes the case that violence and cruelty are increasingly rare phenomena. In his latest publication, “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress” (2017), he collates the evidence that, on global terms, human existence is improving rapidly despite what the daily news might tell us. See also the blog “Human Progress” at www.humanprogress.org , “In the Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life” (2004) by Paul Seabright, “The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves” (2011) by Matt Ridley and “Our Inner Ape” (2006) and “The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society” (2010) both by Frans de Waal.
  2. The Oxford English Dictionary defines humanity-sentiment as “the character or quality of being humane; behaviour or disposition towards others such as befits a human.” Humanity is the first and guiding principle of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement although the principle states what the Movement might do in the spirit of humanity but not what it is. “Humanity — The Red Cross, born of a desire to bring assistance without discrimination to the wounded on the battle- field, endeavours — in its international and national capacity – to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found. Its purpose is to protect life and health and to ensure respect for the human being. It promotes mutual understanding, friendship, co-operation and lasting peace amongst all peoples.” In: A. Durand, The International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, Geneva, 1981, p. 54.
  3. See “Humanity: What is it and how does it influence international Law?” Robin Coupland, International Review of the Red Cross 2001, vol83, p969. https://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/other/irrc-844-coupland.pdf
  4. Definition according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
  5. The World Health Organisation’s definition of health is “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” The World Health Organisation’s definition of health promotion is “the process of enabling people to increase control over, and to improve, their health. It moves beyond a focus on individual behaviour towards a wide range of social and environmental interventions.”
  6. “Security, insecurity and health” Robin Coupland, Bulletin of the World Health Organisation 2007 vol 85, pp 181-4. http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/85/3/06-037135.pdf
  7. For example, within a period of only 60 years from 1860, nations’ armed forces moved from using muzzle loading muskets and cannons to automatic rifle fire and aerial bombardment. These technological developments obviously increase by a factor of many thousand the ability of the individual combatant to apply destructive force to his or her enemy. See “Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century” J. Glover, Jonathan, Cape, London, 1999.
  8. “A History of Warfare” J. Keegan, Pimlico, London, 1993, pp. 386-392.
  9. The definition of violence adopted by the World Health Organization is: “[T]he intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a likelihood to result in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.” From: J. Koplan et al. Violence Prevention: A Public Health Policy, Atlanta, Centers for Disease Control, 1998.
  10. I live in Switzerland : a famously prosperous, secure and law-abiding country. Swiss people live well and safely. However, at both individual and national levels, it is one of the most heavily armed countries in the world.
  11. See ICAN’s argument for a nuclear ban. http://www.icanw.org/why-a-ban/arguments-for-a-ban/ See also UNIDIR’s “An Illusion of Safety: Challenges of Nuclear Weapon Detonations for United Nations Humanitarian Coordination and Response” (2014) by John Borrie and Tim Caughley.
  12. “Unacceptable Harm: A History of How the Treaty to Ban Cluster Munitions Was Won” (2009) by John Borrie.
  13. DESC scripting is an example. See https://www.online-therapy.com/stress-management/manage-stress-using-desc-scripts
  14. From “Leviathan” (1651) by Thomas Hobbes