Marcel Duchamp
Last November there was an extraordinary sale at Sotheby's. Somebody bought a urinal. And they paid 1 million seven hundred thousand dollars for it.
It is a simple white ceramic urinal, and what is special about it is that it was purchased in 1917 by the French artist Marcel Duchamp.
He was at the time head of the American Society of Independent Artists, who had declared that as long as someone paid the fee of $6 dollars, their artistic work would be displayed. The directors however, drew the line at urinals and rejected the piece. Duchamp resigned.
The Pompidou Centre is running a Duchamp exhibition until June the 5th.
There is something of a problem with the exhibition, though. Duchamp was trying to put forward the idea of anti-retinal art, which must not be looked at in the aesthetic sense. The exhibition includes many of his notes, and perhaps this is just a case of art as homework, which is a shame. It is not all that well attended and has been taken rather too seriously for so humorous a man.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon -Siméon Chardin (1699-1779)
Chardin was an artist, but his is not a household name.
But among the impressionists, and among modern painters - most especially Lucien Freud, Chardin's reputation could not be at a higher peak.  The show is supposed to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Chardin's birth, although he was born in 1699. Well, who's counting.
Chardin painted portraits, still-lifes and contemporary interior scenes with an exceptional intensity of emotion and harmony of colour and composition, and no less a commentator than Diderot called him, The Magician.
Jean-Siméon Chardin,the 'painter of silent life' might be pleased now to see the extent to which the magic endures. In his portraits of objects and people, Chardin is thought by many to have no equal. Lucien Freud has actually been given special permission to  revisit Chardin's work for as many nights as he wants or needs after the crowds have departed.  The fact that Freud has gone back to Chardin's work again and again, to study and to learn, is just one indication of the genius of Chardin.

Shebang went to view the hugely popular Art Nouveau Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which rightly pays tribute to two important Belgian figures, the architect Victor Horta and the architect/designer Henry Van de Velde.

The real purpose of the visit to the exhibition, though was to talk to Joel Primack and his wife Nancy Abrams. Primack is a physics professor at the University of Southern California at Santa Cruz.He is currently refining new insights he has gained about the nature of light in the universe.
Primack and Abrams talked about a book they are working on, and a course they teach together: Cosmology and Culture.

Nancy Abrams told Shebang: "Every culture known to anthropology has had a shared picture of the universe, illustrated by stories of how things came to be and how
humans fit into the greater scheme. Since the rise of modern science, however, the West has lost this shared picture. There is no shared sense of what our universe is - or the place of humanity in it - because most educated people are unsatisfied by the old myths. Helped by technologies that allow cosmologists to see back almost to the Big Bang, science is creating for the first time an origin story that might actually be true.'

When Ms. Abrams teaches, she uses examples from ancient civilisations as well as from Medieval Europe. She shows how a culture’s picture of the universe is intimately bound up with its religion and social institutions, and how a new cosmology might affect our own society. The couple have also taught children, in a class they call What Every Child Needs to Know About the Universe. In it they explain that the universe is really old - by their reckoning about 15 billion years old. It is growing and is very different now from what it used to be. Different laws of nature are important on different size scales.

It is a cherished notion of Primack's that humans are intermediate in size, between the smallest and largest size scales, and the universe has to be old and large to have intelligent creatures like us in it. In the first half of the twenty-first century as the new picture is absorbed into the larger culture, their ideas on Cosmology and Culture provide an introduction to modern scientific cosmology. They also offer an examination, through the study of earlier cosmologies, of the connection between how people view the universe and how their surrounding culture reflects and interprets it.

As Primack puts it, 'Scientific cosmology is today developing a new picture of the expanding universe that will possibly have a major impact over the coming decades as it is absorbed into our culture. Modern society has failed to develop a unified view of cosmology. The lack of social consensus on cosmology in the modern world has caused many people to close off their thinking to large issues and long time scales. But this need not be. The science of cosmology is experiencing a golden age of discovery and is poised to deliver a revolutionary description of the nature and origin of the universe.

'In the closing years of the 20th century, we're learning enough to begin to peer across the gulf that separates our universe from its source at the beginning of, or perhaps before, the Big Bang. A story is emerging in modern cosmology that will, if it follows the pattern of earlier shifts in cosmology, change our culture in ways no one can yet predict.'

Primack adds that this new model of the cosmos has the potential to serve as a source of inspiration and positive change in our society. The challenge lies in making a complicated and counterintuitive scientific model of the cosmos accessible to society at large.

To this end, Primack resurrected an ancient symbol and used it to embody an image
of the cosmos consistent with what scientists understand about the universe today.
That symbol, known to the ancient Greeks as a "uroboros," is the snake swallowing its tail. [Originally suggested by Harvard physicist and Nobel laureate Sheldon Glashow }

The uroboros represent the universe as a continuity of vastly different size scales, with the swallowing of the tail representing the hoped-for unification of theories governing the largest and smallest scales.

The size scales in the known universe encompass about 60 orders of magnitude, from the vastness of the cosmic horizon to the subatomic Planck scale, the smallest size allowed by relativity and quantum physics. Yet people asked to visualize "the universe" tend to think of endless space and uncountable stars and galaxies, while the human scale shrinks into insignificance. In fact, if all the size scales are laid out logarithmically on the cosmic uroboros, the human scale is right smack in the middle between the head and the tail of the snake.

Primack notes. 'Largeness is by no means the most important characteristic of the universe. Focusing on it makes people feel small, not because they are, but because they are simply ignoring all scales smaller than themselves.'

Michel Thomas promises to be able to give anyone a working knowledge of a foreign language in just a few days. Thomas is now in his eighties, and has been teaching for 50 years. It's just that at his two exclusive schools, his students have tended to be at the Woody Allen, Doris Day, Warren Beatty, and Bob Dylan end of the economic spectrum. He has finally agreed to make CD's and cassettes of his magical method. Students have paid tribute to Thomas's technique, which removes all anxiety, all stress, and proceeds in a conversational way which appears random but which very soon sees to it that the student is building simple phrases and then sentences. He relates the structure of the sentences back to the constructions of the language the pupils already know. He doesn't say so, but he is teaching grammar, and is stripping away the inessentials.
He seems somehow to have condensed the way a child learns.

Thomas began by studying as Psychology at the Sorbonne in Paris, and was deeply affected by a lecturer's statement: 'No-one knows about the learning process of the
human mind.'
He settled in America after the war, and decided to investigate how human beings learn. He used the learning of a foreign language as his medium of investigation, because students begin by knowing nothing and because progress is easy to measure.


Chardin, self-portrait

Joel Primack

Michael Thomas

Marcel Duchamp
photo by Man Ray