But is it REAL? Is Art a Joke? – Five Funny Things

I have been thinking about abstraction recently, particularly the relation of what is abstracted to what it has been abstracted from, since it seems to me to have a bearing on things that are of interest to me, such as philosophy, metaphor and art. So I was amused to run across a couple of things on Facebook and Google Plus which seemed to have a bearing on the ideas I was trying to develop, and which in turn reminded me of a couple of other things. Here they are, in the order they occurred:

First, from Google Plus:

miracles photoshop graph

next, from Facebook:

F OFF Harriers

The picture was accompanied by this (rather earnest) commentary:

Look at this carefully. It is a brilliant example of British humour! 

The British government has scrapped the Harrier fleet and on their farewell formation fly-past over the Houses of Parliament they gave the government a message.

Lean back a bit from your computer monitor and squint. Seriously … push your chair back a couple of feet.

My hat is off to the man who was leading this Squadron. (Shorty)

On Facebook, the discussion turns very rapidly to the question of whether or not the picture is genuine, in the sense of recording an actual event (as the commentary suggests). Some people are not bothered at all, pointing out that it is funny in any case; but others get quite angry and exercised on the point – evidently, for them, the picture only makes them laugh if it depicts an actual event; if it is ‘faked’ it just makes them angry (perhaps because they feel they have been taken in).

This called to mind something from Flann O’Brien’s celebrated ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ column in the Irish Times, which he wrote under the name of Myles na gCopaleen:

WANTED, WIFE, copper-faced, any length, capable of being bent. Box – ‘

This is an advertisement that appeared recently in an evening paper. It is obvious, of course, that ‘wife’ is a misprint for ‘wire’.

To be honest for a change, I invented this advertisement out of my own head. It did not appear in any paper. But, if any reader thinks that any special merit attaches to notices of this kind because they have actually appeared in print, what is to stop me having them inserted and then quoting them?

Nothing, except the prohibitive cost.

 -The Best of Myles, p114

And I was also reminded of a famous incident from classical antiquity – some 25 centuries ago – the contest between the painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius:

…when they had produced their respective pieces, the birds came to pick with the greatest avidity the grapes which Zeuxis had painted. Immediately Parrhenius exhibited his piece, and Zeuxis said, ‘Remove your curtain that we may see the painting.’ The painting was the curtain, and Zeuxis acknowledged himself conquered, by exclaiming ‘Zeuxis has deceived birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis himself.’

– Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary

and finally, to round it off nicely and tie the last piece to the first, that camera & photoshop graph, there is this,


the news that one of the four Turner Prize finalists this year is Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, ‘a portrait painter, whose subjects are imaginary.’

These five things seem to me to combine so happily, and to be so pregnant with meaning concerning the things I discuss in this blog, that rather than comment at length, I shall leave them for you to savour and make your own inferences.


Why is a raven like a writing desk? The power of abstraction.

ImageAbstraction is an interesting notion. The word itself is derived from the Latin preposition ‘ab’ meaning ‘from’ or ‘away from’ combined with the verb ‘trahere’ ‘to pull or draw’ (which also gives us our word ‘tractor’) – thus it means, literally, ‘to pull or drag away from’ so that it conveys the sense of separation, something that was embedded being removed from its original surroundings.

The first thing I would like to consider is abstraction in relation to numbers, which strikes me as being fundamental to the discovery of mathematics. To help us here we might imagine, in the style of Wittgenstein, a couple of ‘primitive societies’ whose use of number differs from our own.

In the first, counting is only ever done in the presence of objects: these people have no notion of mental arithmetic or ‘counting in your head’ – to say ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ when there is nothing there to count would seem to them as bizarre as if I were to say ‘monkey hat potato bicycle’ out of the blue, with none of these things being present. For them, numbers are not at all abstract – they are a property of concrete objects, unthinkable apart from them.

The next society takes the view (not unreasonably) that only similar things can be counted: sacks of wheat, say, or earthenware oil jars in a storehouse can be enumerated, but if someone is confronted by a dozen objects all different, he will point to each in turn and say ‘one, one, one…’  on the grounds that they are all different, so don’t amount to anything together. After all, no-one can say that a jar of oil is the same as a sack of wheat, can they? That would be absurd! Then one day someone, in a flash of inspiration, sees that although the objects are different, the ‘ones’ are the same, so a second teller is introduced to count the number of times the first says ‘one’ (perhaps by making marks on a slate). He is then able to say ‘there are twelve ones there’.

This will give rise to a joke, a riddle: ‘why is a monkey like a hat?’ to which the answer will be ‘because they’re both one!’ (at which all laugh heartily). (You might even imagine quick children demonstrating this to their slow parents – monkey = 1; hat = 1; 1=1, so monkey = hat! – and the parents being amazed at their children’s sagacity – ‘the things they learn in school these days!’). (Come to think of it, that might be the solution to the Mad Hatter’s riddle, ‘why is a raven like a writing desk?’ – Lewis Carroll (or rather C L Dodgson) was a mathematician)

But what interests me here is that this is the beginning of abstraction, to see that one of anything is equal to one of anything else, at least as far as counting goes – it is the dawning of the realisation that you can carry out operations with numbers without reference to what they are ‘numbers of’.

Full abstraction is the emancipation of number: it is no longer the property of objects, it is something in its own right. Nobody asks ‘what does 1 stand for here?’ or on being told to add five and five, demands ‘five of what?’ And it is when you reach that stage that you begin to discover the amazing things that you can do with numbers, the complex network of relationships that exists between them.

Another interesting thing has happened here: we have extended the meaning of ‘existence’, discovered a new order of reality. Numbers seem to exist just as surely as ravens and writing desks – if not more so – yet not in the same way. We feel sure that the propositions of arithmetic, and all the other properties of numbers, hold good always and everywhere; if all knowledge of them was lost, we feel sure they could be discovered again and that they would be the same – in fact, they seem to be unchanging and imperishable. It is little wonder that Pythagoras and his followers made a religion of them.

Which gives rise to some interesting speculation: what other properties can we abstract from their original setting and treat as things in their own right? will those exist in the same way that numbers seem to? and will they form part of a complex network of relationships that stands to them as mathematics does to number? In particular, is this something that we can do with language and words?

Could be worth investigating further, maybe. But meantime, at least you know why a raven is like a writing desk.