Wednesday, January 30, 2013


It was an eye-catching title: How Art Made the World. The graphic was attractive too - the hand print, one of man’s first graphic expressions. It appeared on a BBC list of available DVD ‘specials’ - cheap rather than distinctive. It was almost too good to ignore, so it was ordered. What was there to lose? It was a series that I had missed. Perhaps it had never been distributed in Australia? A few episodes were watched.

Nigel Spivey, a lecturer in Classics at Cambridge University, was the presenter. The ideas were interesting but seemed to jump around on the fringe of theoretical thinking without doing much more than being there as statements and possibilities, with some rather pretty images. The thoughts did not seem to connect or construct a cohesive argument that was ever close to convincing. Was it the name that nagged?

Spivey - it is an unfortunate name given the association with ‘spiv’ that the Urban Dictionary describes as:

1. A flashy, slick operator who makes a living more from speculation or profiteering than from actual work. The kind of guy who wears a shiny medallion, goes bankrupt from a dodgy swampland development scheme, but still has a big house in his wife's name.

This real estate boom is a spiv's paradise.

2. Slang term for those who avoided conscription in the First World War. Usually by lying about their physical condition or personal beliefs.

"Did you see Gary yesterday? He told the conscription officer he was afraid of loud noises but I found him at the shooting range firing the shotguns with no earmuffs on. He is such a spiv."

3. A 'Spiv' is the name generally given to a shady character who may try to sell counterfeit objects to you at a discounted price.

The name begs the question as to how someone is ‘spivey’ - and ‘Nigel’ too! Such are names. No offence or insult is meant or given here. It is just that these associations arise and can be exposed and explored for what they are. What are the origins of these sounds and references? Language is indeed a strange phenomenon.

Like most DVDs that are purchased, the intent to watch them diligently seems to fade away once the task has begun. One rarely properly assesses the time needed to watch these attractive electronic packages. They require a different interest and commitment to a book. One did eventually appear - the book, that is: How Art Changed the World, BBC Books, London, 2005. The last copy stood on the top shelf of a transitory remainder bookstore that was occupying an empty property - the original hardback version. So I reluctantly purchased it, thinking that it might be left aside unread, neglected like the partially watched DVD. Still, the book would give me text that I could readily refer to, and some nice images to ponder without the multi-per-second set of ever-changing flickers that one is presented with on the screen, that have to be repeatedly paused if one wants to take detailed notes.

On one rainy day the book was picked up from the pile on the floor beside the bed and read. Indeed, it was an interesting read. Why was it better than the DVD? One has the awkward sense of using the cliché of having read the book of the film and preferring it, but it was so: slight cringe. Why? Time to linger? Was it the extra information and cross-referencing at one’s own leisure that made the difference? Touching something rather than staring alone at movement and colour while listening to Nigel? Gosh, was it Nigel’s fault? Surely not; he was not that bad.

The ideas seemed less extreme and edgy in the book. Was it because one had more time to ponder them, to understand the links that are provided throughout the book’ and to read the asides that stood on shaded pages as additional information? Preparing a book from a television script must be quiet a challenge. I have not yet opened the book and run the DVD to check the differences, but the book was friendlier. Maybe the presence of Mr. Spivey changes perceptions? Not that he is so undesirable, but his being there does add something - his awkwardness at times; his self-consciousness; his planned camera performance; his amateur acting. One can see how various ‘shots’ have been arranged. All of this distracts and makes matters complicated by dragging body language and empathy into the equation of understanding. It is this aura that is missing from the book that carries only the ideas as text – ‘pure’ ideas if you like: the message as abstract language, not accompanied by body, voice and personality.

It was the joy of a shared intimacy with a commitment to thinking and thoughts that made the book a more pleasant involvement. I don’t think that this experience is merely nostalgia or driven by any ‘anti-digital’ propaganda, for the ideas are of interest. So much so that one is tempted to place this somewhat of a commercial ‘pot boiler’ on the list of books that one should read. Why is this? Well, Spivey comes from a background of Classics rather than Art. This grounds his understandings and perceptions on another base, one that is different to those of the usual ‘art historian.’ Precise aspects of interest do develop their own trends and fashions.

Having specialists from other fields offer their opinions and present their research on different categories of knowledge that are usually considered beyond their field is always interesting and worthwhile. I can still recall one of the best architectural lectures I have experienced, given by a professional historian. Then there is the research on place by the social geographer that offers far richer and less pretentious insights than any architectural research that I have read. In the same way, one of the best talks on architectural materials ever attended was given by the head chemist of the firm that developed the coatings on steel. We need to stretch our borders. Architecture has become too boxed in by academics who want to manage their own little educational businesses in their own way. Giving time, space and credit to another in the system might only mean a reduction in funding and tempt some students to transfer into other departments; and promoting a different point of view might only highlight personal weaknesses in staff. One cannot have either of these circumstances happening! So ‘special’ courses are structured for architectural students to pretend that the scope of their education is broad and inclusive when it is really otherwise.

So it is refreshing to have the ‘outsiders’ view of your subject, or one close to it. In this way How Art Made the World is a worthwhile publication to be recommended, even though its title is misleading. The book does little to explain how art made the world; but it does expand on art and its role in our understanding of our world. The title can be forgiven for it does attempt to describe the subtle but critical involvement of art in our lives, and our thinking and perceptions. We do live in a complex and mysterious world. Spivey does not avoid any involvement in this complication - another refreshing matter. He does look at it all broadly, seeing connections and linkages that he expands on in his book. Perhaps these thoughtful weavings make the book preferable to the DVD?

 The book looks at how we see people, nature and stories, and how this view is varied by our wishes, culture and power; and how we see death; and religion. Spivey does not shirk from any subject when it has some relevance. In the same manner he does not prejudge his subject or present any preferred position. Perhaps it is his background in classical thinking that allows him to bring this open attitude to his subject. One rarely discovers this breadth of acceptance in architectural writing - sometimes one sees just preferences and prejudices, even in academia: ME & MY. Why is it so difficult for some to open up the world to young minds, and young minds to differences and diversity? Why do institutions appear to select only staff who are condescending and agreeable to the institutional thrust, sometimes from the very student body that it has trained: the 'clever student'? - see quote ON EDUCATION from The Process of Architectural Tradition by W.A.Eden. Those who are different are sometimes seen as ‘troublemakers,’ as a problem, as folk who disrupt, when 'trouble' is the best educational opportunity possible: open and unrestricted debate - different thinking. It merely seems that institutions are no longer interested in education - only the promotion of a programme for profit.

Spivey’s text is refreshing because it stands outside of these games and sets an example for others. Sadly, these others might see his work as mere shallow populism - like that of art historian Gombrich: not ‘intellectual’ enough; which seems to mean that there are no exotic words or phrases in the text, just ordinary language. Gosh, even when things ‘everyday’ have been scrutinised by French philosophers? – see  and  One will find French philosophers’ names dropped everywhere in architectural texts, as Derrida’s was, and Foucault’s, until Derrida started writing about death, religion and reality. Some academics seem to be so self-conscious and extremely frivolous - pretentious: perhaps spivs? No, surely not - see and

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