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Artist’s Wife, 1439 by Jan van Eyck. Photograph: National Gallery/Groeningemuseum, Bruges

As a supporter and modest collector of portraiture, I have often wondered why it is that portrait painters have had to struggle for their place in the pantheon. Perhaps there is a feeling that portraiture lacks the universality of other forms, and is designed just to remind us of how people looked. The genesis of the portrait is often very personal – an artist is commissioned to do a portrait for the benefit of the subject, or of persons close to him or her. The artist who paints a landscape or still life is not addressing a closed circle of people; there is nothing private about such a painting. By contrast, there may be an assumption that the portrait of a named person is not addressed to us; we feel almost as if we are intruding.

Great portraiture, of course, transcends the personal. A portrait may be as powerful as any allegorical painting in what it says about life; about our vulnerability, our hopes and ambitions. When I look at a portrait, I am drawn first to the eyes, because it is there that one sees the essence of the subject. I then look for a detail in the clothing or the background which says something more general. This involves a very particular scrutiny, and it is one which I suspect comes from being a novelist.

Like many writers, I do not give detailed descriptions of my characters. I do, however, rely a great deal on descriptions of clothing or personal possessions. For example, in the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books, I try to say a lot about Mma Ramotswe’s assistant, Mma Makutsi, through her possessions. We know that she has large glasses and problem skin – that is all that is said about how she looks. But we know, too, that she has a lace handkerchief of which she is very fond and which is becoming threadbare. This handkerchief stands for her desire to escape poverty and to make something of her life. A lot for a small hand-kerchief to do, but hopefully it works.

This moral function of portraiture – a reminder of our shared humanity – would by itself be sufficient reason for portraiture’s celebration. But there is so much more. In particular, the portrait lends itself to the portrayal of beauty. There are ugly portraits, of course, but these are not necessarily portraits of human ugliness. Domenico Ghirlandaio’s picture An Old Man and a Boy shows a man with a grossly bulbous nose looking down upon a perfect child. Both are beautiful, though; the man with his ugly nose and the child with his flaxen locks. And this, I think, applies to so many portraits. Even those who are not physically blessed may appear beautiful in a portrait. A good portrait painter will find beauty in any subject, because there is a sense, surely, in which the human face will always appear beautiful, caught in the right pose, seen in the right light, understood in the right way.

We are bombarded today with photographic images. This can make us forget that the face and body reflect the drama and possibilities of our lives, as well as reminding us of those feelings that make for a full, considered life. Painted portraiture provides a calm moment in which we can think about just these things. It helps us, I believe, to be more appreciative, more forgiving and ultimately kinder.

Alexander McCall Smith


From a review of Anish Kapoor’s new show at Boston’s ICA:

Mr. Kapoor shouldn’t be considered merely derivative. He combines too many disparate strands of art, thought and culture, and he does it seamlessly. He is a brilliant and unpredictable if sometimes ingratiating synthesizer who has simultaneously refined, repurposed and betrayed some of the dearest beliefs and most despised bêtes noires of late-20th-century sculpture.

It has probably aided this project that Mr. Kapoor, who is 54, did not begin life in a Western culture. He was born and grew up in Mumbai when it was still called Bombay, and in 1973 moved to London, where he studied art and then took up residence. He is a decade or so older than most of the Young British Artists, who took the art world by storm in the early 1990s, and his sensibility is markedly different: he greatly prefers gentle seduction to shock tactics.

His sculpture is in many ways one long ode to the modernist monochrome and its emphasis on purity and perception, enacted in three-dimensional space. It carves, colors and complicates space in different ways, adding interactive aspects and pushing that purity back and forth between votive and technological, East and West.

Mr. Kapoor has paid homage to Minimalism’s faith in weightless volumes, abstraction, specific materials, saturated color and simplicity of form. But he has also explored different materials’ capacities for visual illusion, the biggest of Minimalism’s no-nos and a tendency that encroaches on territory pioneered by installation artists like James Turrell. Mr. Kapoor’s use of dry pigments echoes Process artists like Alan Saret and Wolfgang Laib, although it has a long history in Hindu rituals.

And despite the high degree of abstraction in his art, living form, if only the viewer’s body, is always implied. Perhaps this is why Mr. Kapoor largely bypassed the immense installations and environments favored by so many sculptors of the last 30 years. Instead he has displayed a knack for compressing his various effects into reasonably portable if not exactly domestic-scale objects, even if they are temporarily set into walls or floors. Their scale can make them seem all the more magical, focused and intimate.

Roberta Smith
New York Times

Vitruvian Man, by Leonardo da Vinci

In an early chapter of his interesting new book, Symmetry: A Journey Into the Patterns of Nature, Marcus du Sautoy describes a visit to the Alhambra, the great Moorish palace in Granada, Spain. He and his young son spend an afternoon identifying 14 different types of symmetry represented in paving patterns, ornamentation, and tile work. To the layman, the patterns may look simply like pretty forms, but to du Sautoy, who teaches mathematics at Oxford University, they are expressions of deep geometries that have their own names: gyrations, *333s, miracles, double miracles.

Du Sautoy’s book is about mathematics, but his excursion to the Alhambra is a reminder that symmetry has always been an important part of architecture. Symmetry appears in small things and large: Floor tiles may be laid in symmetrical patterns; the design of door paneling can be symmetrical, and so can window panes. In frontal symmetry, the left side of a building’s facade mirrors the right (the entrance usually being in the middle); in axial-plan symmetry, the rooms on one side of the axis are a mirror image of those on the other. If the women’s restroom is on one side, chances are the men’s is on the other. Sometimes not being symmetrical is important; the fronts and backs of buildings, for example, are intentionally different.

Symmetros is a Greek word, and ancient Greek architecture used symmetry as a basic organizing principle. As did Roman, Roman-esque, and Renaissance. Indeed, it is hard to think of any architectural tradition, Western or non-Western, that does not include symmetry. Symmetry is something that Islamic mosques, Chinese pagodas, Hindu temples, Shinto shrines, and Gothic cathedrals have in common.

Architectural Modernism thumbed its nose at tradition and firmly avoided symmetry. Being symmetrical was considered as retrograde as being, well, decorated. All exemplary Modernist buildings celebrated asymmetry: The wings of Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus shoot off in different directions; the columns of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion are symmetrical, but you can hardly tell, thanks to the randomly spaced walls; nothing in Frank Lloyd Wright’s pinwheeling Fallingwater mirrors anything else; and Le Corbusier’s Ronchamps dispenses with traditional church geometry altogether. The facades of Philip Johnson’s Glass House are rare instances of Modernist symmetry, although all the elements of the interior—kitchen counter, storage wall, and brick cylinder containing the bathroom—are carefully located off-center.

Yet some Modernist pioneers did eventually recognize the evocative power of symmetry. After 1950, for example, Mies’s designs are increasingly symmetrical, both in plan and elevation. The Seagram Building is rigidly axial in plan—and has a front and a back—just like McKim, Mead, and White’s Racquet and Tennis Club across the street. Louis Kahn is a late Modernist who eschewed all architectural traditions except one; he returned to the symmetry of his Beaux-Arts education in the planning of his buildings. Eero Saarinen’s Ingalls Rink at Yale is axially symmetrical, but then hockey, like basketball or football, is played within symmetrical bounds.

Yet today’s expressionist fashion demands architectural asymmetry at any cost. That’s a shame, since architects sacrifice one of their art’s most powerful tools (not all architects—Norman Foster and Renzo Piano often use symmetry to great effect). Without occasional symmetry, all those angles and squiggles start to look the same. The hyperactive geometry of Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the Denver Art Museum, for example, can quickly become tiresome. The fey asymmetry of SANAA’s much-heralded New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York loses its impact after several viewings. A welcome exception is Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. While the exterior and the lobby are whimsically composed in standard Gehry fashion, the hall itself, like most concert halls, is perfectly symmetrical about its longitudinal axis. I don’t know if this was done for acoustical reasons or because the architect recognized the inherent calmness that axial symmetry affords.

Why is architectural symmetry so satisfying? As Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing demonstrated, it reflects the human body, which has a right side and a left, a back and a front, the navel in the very center. Du Sautoy writes that the human mind seems constantly drawn to anything that embodies some aspect of symmetry. He observes that “[a]rtwork, architecture and music from ancient times to the present day play on the idea of things which mirror each other in interesting ways.” When we walk around a Baroque church, we experience many changing views, but when we walk down the main aisle—the line along which the mirror images of the left and right sides meet—we know that we are in a special relationship to our surroundings. And when we stand below the dome of the crossing, at the confluence of four symmetries, we know we have arrived.

Witold Rybczynski

Excerpts from an interview with Spiegel magazine and Olafur Eliasson:

Spiegel: And you are about to embark on your final victory march in America. No one will be able to overlook your four gigantic waterfalls, up to 40 meters (131 feet) high, in the East River.

Eliasson: Well, people who want to see everything will have to travel all the way across the city. We’re installing these waterfalls in very different parts of New York — under the Brooklyn Bridge, for example. The water will generate a true fog everywhere, and the pumps will be very loud. After all, real waterfalls make a lot of noise.

Spiegel: But why does the city need its own Niagara Falls?

Eliasson: I was interested in bringing life to a space that constitutes a non-space in New York, a space that simply doesn’t count. Wall Street is traditionally more important there that the water. In other words, I wanted to draw attention to something that has always been there and yet goes largely unnoticed.

Spiegel: Do you always emphasize strong sensations?

Eliasson: Yes, because physical experience makes a much deeper impression than a purely intellectual encounter. I can explain to you what it’s like to feel cold, but I can also have you feel the cold yourself through my art. My goal is to sensitize people to highly complex questions.


Eliasson: Reality is confusing. That’s what I want to demonstrate. There is no fixed interpretation of my works. Everyone experiences and understands them in his own way.

Eliasson: Christo is an amazing artist. But the way he exploits his projects and markets them so extremely, that’s not my style.

Spiegel: But you too have crossed the boundary into commercialism. For instance, you designed an “Art Car” for BMW.

Eliasson: Well, I do want to participate in the world, as it is. But look at it more closely: My art isn’t exactly market-friendly. Who buys a rainbow?

Spiegel: Still, do you have the feeling sometimes that you are getting your fingers dirty? Proximity to business is frowned upon in the art world.

Eliasson: This world of art and of museums can also be unbelievably elitist. But it isn’t a parallel world, where the laws of the market are somehow suspended. Artists don’t live in a space apart from politics and the market, and in many cases they even have very good strategies to market themselves. It would be hypocritical to claim otherwise. But believe me, my fingers are clean.

Spiegel: More than two million people went to see your “Weather Project,” a colossal sun sculpture, at the Tate Modern in London four years ago last winter. The minute an artist reaches large numbers of people, he is accused of going mainstream. Is that a problem for you?

Eliasson: Appealing to many people isn’t a problem for me. I don’t happen to be one of those people who climb up on their avant-garde stools and look down on others. We should stop nurturing this naïve cliché that says artists are beings from another planet. It wasn’t God himself who hung art in museums. And yet the museum directors create precisely this detached impression. It would be much more honest to talk about the many connections and influences, because they exist. The market exists, and so do ideologies.

Spiegel: Your art, which is in tune with nature, is often associated with your native Scandinavia and its landscape.

Eliasson: Yes, but this relationship should not be understood as a key to my art. The circumstances under which I grew up in Denmark are more important than nature: in a society that was shaped by pseudo-Protestantism, and by the ideals of the middle class and the welfare state. The individual was less important than the community. Recognizing this, identifying it as a source of tension, has influenced me. Besides, it is also typically Scandinavian to think: I am nothing, and nature is everything. Of course, I too had this attitude. My parents are Icelanders, and Iceland, which I visited regularly as a child, is a unique natural experience.


Cat’s Eye nebula (NASA)

Change blindness [is] the frequent inability of our visual system to detect alterations to something staring us straight in the face. The changes needn’t be as modest as a switching of paint chips. At the same meeting…the audience failed to notice entire stories disappearing from buildings, or the fact that one poor chicken in a field of dancing cartoon hens had suddenly exploded. In an interview, Dr. Wolfe [of Harvard Medical School] also recalled a series of experiments in which pedestrians giving directions to a Cornell researcher posing as a lost tourist didn’t notice when, midway through the exchange, the sham tourist was replaced by another person altogether.

Beyond its entertainment value, symposium participants made clear, change blindness is a salient piece in the larger puzzle of visual attentiveness. What is the difference between seeing a scene casually and automatically, as in, you’re at the window and you glance outside at the same old streetscape and nothing registers, versus the focused seeing you’d do if you glanced outside and noticed a sign in the window of your favorite restaurant, and oh no, it’s going out of business because, let’s face it, you always have that Typhoid Mary effect on things. In both cases the same sensory information, the same photonic stream from the external world, is falling on the retinal tissue of your eyes, but the information is processed very differently from one eyeful to the next. What is that difference? At what stage in the complex circuitry of sight do attentiveness and awareness arise, and what happens to other objects in the visual field once a particular object has been designated worthy of a further despairing stare?

Visual attentiveness is born of limited resources. “The basic problem is that far more information lands on your eyes than you can possibly analyze and still end up with a reasonable sized brain,” Dr. Wolfe said. Hence, the brain has evolved mechanisms for combating data overload, allowing large rivers of data to pass along optical and cortical corridors almost entirely unassimilated, and peeling off selected data for a close, careful view. In deciding what to focus on, the brain essentially shines a spotlight from place to place, a rapid, sweeping search that takes in maybe 30 or 40 objects per second, the survey accompanied by a multitude of body movements of which we are barely aware: the darting of the eyes, the constant tiny twists of the torso and neck. We scan and sweep and perfunctorily police, until something sticks out and brings our bouncing cones to a halt.

The mechanisms that succeed in seizing our sightline fall into two basic classes: bottom up and top down. Bottom-up attentiveness originates with the stimulus, with something in our visual field that is the optical equivalent of a shout: a wildly waving hand, a bright red object against a green field. Bottom-up stimuli seem to head straight for the brainstem and are almost impossible to ignore, said Nancy Kanwisher, a vision researcher at M.I.T., and thus they are popular in Internet ads.

Top-down attentiveness, by comparison, is a volitional act, the decision by the viewer that an item, even in the absence of flapping parts or strobe lights, is nonetheless a sight to behold. When you are looking for a specific object — say, your black suitcase on a moving baggage carousel occupied largely by black suitcases — you apply a top-down approach, the bouncing searchlights configured to specific parameters, like a smallish, scuffed black suitcase with one broken wheel. Volitional attentiveness is much trickier to study than is a simple response to a stimulus, yet scientists have made progress through improved brain-scanning technology and the ability to measure the firing patterns of specific neurons or the synchronized firing of clusters of brain cells.

Recent studies with both macaques and humans indicate that attentiveness crackles through the brain along vast, multifocal, transcortical loops, leaping to life in regions at the back of the brain, in the primary visual cortex that engages with the world, proceeding forward into frontal lobes where higher cognitive analysis occurs, and then doubling back to the primary visual centers. En route, the initial signal is amplified, italicized and annotated, and so persuasively that the boosted signal seems to emanate from the object itself. The enhancer effect explains why, if you’ve ever looked at a crowd photo and had somebody point out the face of, say, a young Franklin Roosevelt or George Clooney in the throng, the celebrity’s image will leap out at you thereafter as though lighted from behind.

Whether lured into attentiveness by a bottom-up or top-down mechanism, scientists said, the results of change blindness studies and other experiments strongly suggest that the visual system can focus on only one or very few objects at a time, and that anything lying outside a given moment’s cone of interest gets short shrift. The brain, it seems, is a master at filling gaps and making do, of compiling a cohesive portrait of reality based on a flickering view.

“Our spotlight of attention is grabbing objects at such a fast rate that introspectively it feels like you’re recognizing many things at once,” Dr. Wolfe said. “But the reality is that you are only accurately representing the state of one or a few objects at any given moment.” As for the rest of our visual experience, he said, it has been aptly called “a grand illusion.” Sit back, relax and enjoy the movie called You.

Natalie Angier
New York Times

Zhu Pei worked with a manufacturer of fiberglass-reinforced plastic to develop a translucent fiberglass block for his Blur Hotel in Beijing. The architect wanted the building, which will sit near the East Gate of the Forbidden City, to glow like a Chinese lantern. (Courtesy of Architectural Record)

Say the words “new Chinese architecture” and what springs to mind? Ambitious skyscrapers, soaring apartment blocks, Olympian designs in central Beijing by celebrated international architects, and the unbridled kitsch of suburban estates like Thames Town, a bizarre mock-English development near Shanghai.

But even while great – and likable – tracts of old Chinese cities continue to come tumbling down in the names of change and modernisation, the country’s up-and-coming practices are developing intelligent new forms of specifically Chinese design, even if they do draw from the west from time to time. Whatever other glamorous projects these talented young architects are beginning to scoop up, it is mostly housing for ordinary people that concerns them – that, and a desire to change the direction of Chinese architectural development, all too often a soulless juggernaut ripping the hearts from old towns and cities.

Zhu Pei is one architect at the forefront of this new wave. In his busy Beijing studio, Zhu shows me ideas for the redevelopment of one of the city’s “hutongs”. Made up of tangling alleys brimming with workaday life, Beijing’s hutongs are fast disappearing. “This is the type of district most people lived in before the towerblocks arrived,” says Zhu. “Naturally, many people were happy to move out to new apartments because the hutongs were old, poor and often unsanitary. But the hutongs are built on a human scale and can be very beautiful. What we propose is reconstruction: adding gentle modern buildings where necessary, to improve them and make ordinary people like them again. We want the present to connect with the past – we want to perform an urban acupuncture on Chinese cities.”

This isn’t easy. As Zhu knows, it is far easier to design ambitious new museums and sporting venues than it is to construct modest, modern homes in age-old city courtyards and alleys, especially when such sites are being hungrily eyed up by state-sponsored property developers. Educated at Tsinghua University and the University of California, Zhu – who set up Studio Zhu Pei in 2005 with architects Wu Tong – was the man behind Digital Beijing, the all-but-completed control centre for the 2008 Olympics, as well an origami-like art pavilion in Abu Dhabi that will stand alongside monuments by Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry. He is also working on designs for the Guggenheim Beijing and created the city’s Kapok hotel, with its translucent screens and shimmering courtyards.

The Guardian

Part 2…

A former Guardian art critic, who now delivers Olympian judgments for one of the Sunday newspapers, recently moaned to me that no one took him seriously any more. The “any more” bit was a trifle deluded, in my view, as I have never taken him seriously in any way. We have lost our authority, he wailed. “What authority?” I was tempted to ask, but didn’t. One can only mistrust critics who whimper about the waning of their authority. They are, I think, more interested in power than in writing. The only sensible way to deal with one’s power, such as it is, is to not think about it.

Which is not to say that what one writes doesn’t matter. The opposite is true. The only authority a critic or an artist can claim lies in the work they do. Everything else is just wind.

I don’t know what I think, often, till I write. The act of writing shows me what I think. I never know where things are going till I get there. There is an element of fiction and invention even in criticism. Being a critic has its performative side. For the writer, the problem, as much as it might be one of interpretation, is felt first of all in the difficulty of describing what one is looking at.

Description, however plain it appears to be, is never neutral, however technical it gets, whatever its claims to objectivity. And while we’re at it, criticism is never objective, never impartial, never disinterested. It is subjective and partisan. What else would you expect?

Writing about art only matters because art deserves to be met with more than silence (although ignoring art – not speaking about it, not writing about it – is itself a form of criticism, and probably the most damning and effective one). An artist’s intentions are one thing, but works themselves accrue meanings and readings through the ways they are interpreted and discussed and compared with one another, long after the artist has finished with them. This, in part, is where all our criticisms come in. We contribute to the work, remaking it whenever we go back to it – which doesn’t prevent some artworks not being worth a first, never mind a second look, and some opinions not being worth listening to at all.

In the end, we are all critics. Listen to the babble of conversation as you leave the cinema or the theatre, or to the chat in the gallery. People argue about what they have experienced and about what the critics have said. This is good. But some voices might be worth attending to more than others, just as some artists, some playwrights, moviemakers, composers, choreographers are better than others. The fact that we can’t all agree on what is valuable (and why) keeps things interesting. It also keeps criticism alive.

Some things are not easy to grasp. We have to work at them. This, in part, is what criticism tries to do. It is also where a lively engagement with the art we encounter begins. And it is where we all begin to be critics.

The Guardiann

MRI scan

Scientists have developed a computerised mind-reading technique which lets them accurately predict the images that people are looking at by using scanners to study brain activity.

The breakthrough by American scientists took MRI scanning equipment normally used in hospital diagnosis to observe patterns of brain activity when a subject examined a range of black and white photographs. Then a computer was able to correctly predict in nine out of 10 cases which image people were focused on. Guesswork would have been accurate only eight times in every 1,000 attempts…

Gallant said it might be possible in future to apply the technology to visual memories or dreams. “Probably the visual hardware is engaged and stuff from memory is sort of downloaded into your visual hardware and then replayed,” he said. “To the extent that that is true, we should be able to reconstruct imagery in dreams.”

James Randerson
Guardian Unlimited

MOMA lobby, New York

The over-population and over-use of the museum space is an issue that needs addressing. In James Cuno’s 2004 publication Whose Muse?, a group of (mostly American) museum directors pleaded for the museum as a place of contemplation. Arguably, their approach is primarily valid today in metropolitan terms in museums such as the Frick Collection, appealing to an older public interested in older art. For some modern art collections, particularly those in major tourist cities, the public wishing to score a fashionable site has become so large that any quiet personal experience is effectively unachievable. It is not just the number of visitors that makes an impact: in an age when neo-liberal values influence our conduct, the notion that we might be governed by any polite restriction on our behaviour in a public space is undermined.

What is more, the predominance and ready availability in our society of visual images can mean that apart from the (sometimes over-exposed) icon, works in a gallery risk becoming another form of rapidly-absorbed consumer fodder. Ironically, the relationship with other forms of the arts has been reversed. Eighteenth-century opera-goers talked through performances, only concentrating on famous arias: visitors at many contemporary art museums now often behave similarly, pausing only to take pictures of celebrity works, whereas opera and music performances command reverent silence.

Does this matter? Is there any need to suggest to visitors, not that they should behave in an inhibited “museum” way and resort to whispers, but that visiting a museum is a social shared experience, in which consideration for strangers (and communication, perhaps) is appropriate? Is there any reason for people to postpone incessant mobile communication? Is the viewer’s experience of a visual work diminished if their sense of hearing is constantly assailed, or their vision interrupted by unbearably high light levels?

I think the answer is yes, in each case. Not because museums should be reserved for the few, or made inaccessible or forbidding. But because, as Neil MacGregor [director of the British Museum] has emphasised, looking at art is a difficult experience, one that has to be learnt and that requires concentration. Little art was created specifically for the museum or gallery, at least until recently, and the museum is not necessarily the best place to appreciate it. If the museum experience becomes one in which the visitor is regularly concerned with negotiating a way through the crowds and avoiding noise, the status of the museum as a vehicle for displaying art becomes highly questionable.

Giles Waterfield
The Art Newspaper

Why does it seem odd to suggest that art can be humorous? It’s not as though we don’t encounter the words ‘art’ and ‘joke’ often enough in the same sentence, especially if ‘art’ is qualified by the adjective ‘modern’. But when we do it usually means that people’s suspicions are aroused. We make out that the joke is on us, so the art can be dismissed as not serious and therefore irrelevant. Art is supposed to come out of some discernible effort on the part of the artist, and the apparent effortlessness of a good joke inevitably undermines that expectation. If art is a joke then it’s not art, or so the thinking goes.

On the other hand, jokes and art have a good deal in common. They challenge assumptions, unsettle cosily habitual thought patterns and mock stereotypical behaviour. Surely they should often be found in each other’s company? In fact they are.

To take just two examples, the films of Swiss artist Roman Signer, currently showing in Edinburgh and soon to be seen in London, explore the comedic poetry of our encounter with objects. He calls himself an “emotional physicist” – maybe he really isn’t far removed from the comedian who walks into a lamppost. And the fact that we laugh at David Shrigley’s drawings reinforces rather than detracts from the sharp eye with which he observes life’s darknesses.

Making art nearly always involves destruction, even if it’s only the pristine purity of a white sheet of paper. Humour, too, can be merciless. Harnessed together they can add up to much more than the sum of their parts. Modern art’s iconic figure, Marcel Duchamp, was nothing if not a joker. His sardonic sense of humour is evident everywhere, especially in the postcard-size reproduction of the Mona Lisa to which he added a moustache and goatee, together with the words LHOOQ. Telling us that the only reason we look at Leonardo’s painting is because the subject has a hot arse (elle a chaud au cul) is, of course, deliberately provocative.

Duchamp’s defacement of a cherished treasure is insolent, yet if it causes anger it does so not because it is attacking Leonardo – who is beyond that, anyway? – but because it is mocking our lazy prejudices about what has cultural value. Art, he is saying, is about ideas, so seeing it requires us to use our brains rather than merely indulging our propensity to emotional incontinence.

Michael Archer
The Guardian