Whether or not the YouTube shooter’s videos were inspired by Klimt’s explorations of dark facets of femininity, did they deserve to be demonetised for not being ‘advertiser-friendly’?

+ Nasim Aghdam - Adele Bloch-Bauer SC postgutenberg@gmail.com

Left: Nasim Khagdam, who killed herself after wounding workers at YouTube’s headquarters; right: Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907)

left Gustav Klimt's Judith; right Nasim Aghdam - SC - postgutenberg@gmail.com

Left, detail from Gustav Klimt’s Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901; see below); right: Nasim Aghdam, her neck ornamented like Judith’s


[ Note added on 12. 4. 2018:  An earlier version of the text reflected a mistake in several early news reports: Nasim Aghdam does not appear to have left behind a husband in Iran, in fact, or to have ever married. ]

Social media giants are entering worrying territory when they interfere with the self-images that people are taking pains to devise online — people not accused of hate speech, aggressive political extremism or terrorism. One obvious conclusion from last week’s nightmare attack on helpless YouTube workers by the would-be assassin, Nasim Khagdam, is that social media sites have to start weighing potentially profound psychological effects of changes in their rules for participation and algorithms.

Another conclusion is that forensic psychologists assisting in the investigation of the 37 year-old Iranian shooter’s motives and state of mind might want to glance at a 1907 painting by the Viennese artist Gustav Klimt. Might. Reader, be warned: most of this post is an exercise in speculation and conjecture intended as an illustration or example. We’d like to suggest a line of enquiry: can social media serve the deeper human needs that some users are trying to satisfy on these platforms when the ‘business model’ of the companies that own them makes attracting advertisers their supreme objective?

As we were watching clips from the fitness-promoting, animal-rights and vegan-advocacy videos Aghdam had been posting on YouTube, in which she is the only human being on-screen, we were overcome by a strange certainty that we had seen her before. Not just her face but the particular dress she is wearing in one clip. Not a face in a crowd or belonging to a fellow passenger in the same train compartment somewhere but in a close-up. After a mysterious flash of association, we found replications of Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer on the net — a picture that last changed hands, in 2016, for $150 million. And there she was. That is, the woman Aghdam seems to have been impersonating in a video — whose topic was exactly what, we cannot say, because she was speaking in Farsi.

Look at the first set of images we have pasted in side-by-side. Aghdam, in the screen-grab on the left, has arranged her hair not unlike Bloch-Bauer’s in the painting on the right, above eyes and eyebrows that are strikingly similar. Now look at the pattern of the fabric clinging to the shooter’s body and note that it appears to have been directly inspired by the mosaic that Bloch-Bauer was not actually dressed in. The garment in the picture was an invention of Klimt’s, and as you might expect of a leading exponent of both the Symbolist and Art Nouveau styles of painting, the motifs on it are heavily symbolic. In The Age of Insight, a present from a friend we suddenly remembered downloading into our Kindle three years ago, we re-read the explanation by its author, Eric Kandel — a neuroscientist who won the Nobel prize for medicine in 2000 — that the ‘small iconographic images on Adele’s dress’ are meant to be ‘symbols of male and female cells: rectangular sperm and ovoid eggs.’ Both women are wearing strappy evening dresses that are not dissimilar, even if Aghdam’s is not dripping gold leaf and has only a velvety hint of luxury about it.

It is unlikely that Bloch-Bauer herself interested Aghdam beyond the curious physical resemblance between them that could have sparked her original interest in the picture and its artist. The portrait’s subject was a rather boring, rich, society woman married to the Viennese banker and sugar manufacturer who commissioned it. She looks vacant, verging on bored. By contrast, anger is virtually the only emotion Aghdam’s face expresses in one video clip after another — when it is not determinedly blank and unsmiling — and she seems intent on cloaking her messages in an aura of deadly seductiveness.

judith and the head of Holofernes WIKI

Gustav Klimt’s Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901)

But what could sexuality possibly have to do with protecting small animals like the anxious grey rabbit she is holding in some of her tableaux, or with explaining the joys of veganism to the unconverted? Nothing. What it does fit, though, is Klimt’s obsession with not just seduction but malign feminine eroticism. You do not see this in the portrait Aghdam apparently sought to mimic, but in another painting for which art experts say Klimt borrowed Bloch-Bauer’s face and expressions — and whose subject was a female killer. This was Judith, from the Bible, a pious young widow who deployed her beauty to lure a general in an army bent on conquering her people into sleeping with her, and after he falls asleep, uses his sword to lop off his head. The Wikipedia entry for Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901) describes the expression on her face as a blend of ‘voluptuousness and perversion,’ designed to convey ‘the greatest degree of intensity and seduction.’

Those words fit the persona Aghdam adopted for her videos — and if there was any actual connection between that choice and the picture, YouTube’s managers could hardly have been expected to perceive or understand it. Did she choose it before or after they enraged her by demonetising her videos — that is, cutting off payments she had been receiving from the company for advertisements that appeared with her productions posted under the user name Nasime Sabz?

Perhaps we have missed the answer in some news report to the question of when she became the chronically infuriated woman in her videos. We suspect that she was angry even before the shock of her demonetisation; and that her fury about her life and fate found an outlet not just in making her videos for the causes she championed, but in the chances her YouTube creations gave her to escape her actual identity and circumstances when she let Klimt’s fixations take over her imagination, what Kandel describes as quintessentially male ‘nightmares about […] the relationship between sex and aggression, life and death.’

YouTube is said to have de-linked her videos from its money-making scheme for users of its site — or ‘content creators’ — because they were not ‘advertiser-friendly.’ The decision apparently followed from a change of users’ terms and conditions by the company in 2016 that distressed a number of other small-scale, independent producers like her, according to Recode. Before that, she does not appear to have been subjected to any constraints on her choice of material. In the weeks before she shot and killed herself at the end of her rampage at YouTube’s headquarters, Aghdam claimed that Google, which owns YouTube, had also made it impossible for her audience to find her web site with some obstruction resembling a ‘page not found’ dead end. In the absence of any statement about their relationship with her by either company, so far, it looks as if her accusation could have been justified.

The managers who effectively shut her down might have had no conception of what separating this YouTube user from her ability to earn money from her uploads and communicate with her audience meant to her — or could mean to someone in a position like hers, about which they are unlikely to have known very much before she died. By various accounts, she had been living in Southern California with her grandmother for some years after she left Iran, where her family was part of a persecuted minority, followers of the irenic Baha’i religion, which teaches that all the world’s religions have a common source. But in America she had soon become at least as unhappy as she was in her homeland.

As no occupation or vocation has been mentioned so far, nor any details of her education, she might not have had the benefit of any of these to anchor her to reality and connect her to embodied — as opposed to virtual, online — fellow human beings, other than members of her family. She could barely speak or write English. The reports that she slept in her car on the nights after she left Southern California for her journey to YouTube’s headquarters near San Francisco suggest that she was acutely short of cash and perhaps had no credit cards.

All in all, it looks as though her small success as a minor YouTube celebrity with a following mostly in Iran could have been the one bright patch in her life. Then YouTube pulled the plug on it, and she was swallowed up by darkness. Several reports quote her brother saying that she had complained endlessly that YouTube ‘ruined her life.’

There are almost certainly millions of other social media users whose internet presence is now essential to their sense of themselves; at least as important as Aghdam’s was to hers. Each presence is an interweaving of personal history, dreams, hopes, personal quirks and the great unconscious, the source of inspiration for the most sublime works in the history of art. Don’t lesser, even strictly aspirational artists deserve respect for what their creations mean to them — and to be free to display them online without consideration of their commercial usefulness?

Several of this tragic shooter’s videos look like crude, unpolished tributes to the more repulsive creations of Surrealist painters like Salvador Dali. Other influences are detectable. The Aghdam persona strongly resembles Frida Kahlo’s in self-portraits by that painter, whose unibrow gives her an even angrier aspect. Would such artists have been permitted to earn whatever revenue they could on YouTube while still struggling to make their names and before the initial public reaction to their visions — intense revulsion — was succeeded by acceptance and even amused affection? Like Aghdam’s videos, the creations of the Surrealists and Kahlo were and still are commonly described as ‘bizarre’.

We doubt that answering the questions in this post should be left to executives at technology companies. They are crying out for public debate. In the meanwhile, policy makers for social media platforms should certainly consult psychologists and psychiatrists when they draft or contemplate alterations of their rules for users. Or, if they already employ these, perhaps consider hiring better ones.

Have digital cameras condemned us to looking at ever more pixels, ever less art?

2 supermoon interior 2 postgutenberg@gmail.com

Scrolling through machine-tooled, precision die-cast supermoons photographed by engineer-robots and posted on Twitter

Sorry, that’s not quite right. We meant to say that in inspecting other photographers’ pictures of the same moon to which we were trying to pay homage in our own inept way, in recent entries here, we wondered whether anyone else had noticed that skyscapes with too many pixels can be like high-definition digital portraits that make beautiful people ugly. Also, that while it is growing more common for photographers clicking away on digital cameras to think that you can never have too many pixels, sharpness can be ruinous — making photography steadily more workmanlike and less like art.

The answer from an online search was — yes, at least one other person had noticed both the trend and its effect. His guesses about the explanation for the epidemic of pixelholism were identical to ours but unlike us, he couldn’t be accused of sounding superior about the aesthetic judgements of people with different interests and inclinations. He was brave enough to chide his own tribe. On the Peta Pixel site,  we saw that Eric Kim, too, wishes that members of it would think of the magic that the Impressionist painters wrought with inexactness if not brazen fuzziness. He said:

A lot of us who get started in photography are gadget-nerds or geeks. I myself have always been obsessed with technology … [A] lot of us nerdy photographers come from sciences, engineering, or computer-programming. We think we can quantify the “quality” of a photograph by the technical settings—the sharpness or resolution of an image.

Designers of digital cameras are apt to be gadget nerds, which could be why maximising precision appears to rank higher than other conceivable improvements in successive generations of these products. It was heartening to see a techie suggest why this has gone too far. Kim’s post also observed:

Here’s the thing: good art is often un-sharp.

Consider the impressionists. They didn’t seek to make picture-perfect images of reality. Rather, they used dreamy and imperfect brush-strokes to evoke a mood; to evoke a feeling.

They realized that the importance of a picture or an image wasn’t whether it reflected reality or not. The more important thing: whether it reflected their personal mood, or view of the world.

We once saw a parallel to what the Impressionists achieved in a headline somewhere that encapsulated it as outing the inside of an artist.

Kim’s post concluded:

Avoid gear review sites, sharpness tests, and all those nerdy places. Be satisfied with the gear you (already have), and remember what photography is all about: making meaning in your life; not making photos.

Well said. But did he foresee the sour reaction to his advice in Peta Pixel’s comments section — and a 21st-century equivalent of tarring-and-feathering? One reply read:

Kim may have his own obsessions (demons), but that does not mean everyone else shares them. He seems to trying to convince himself why he should change his mindset by projecting it onto us.

The obsessive discussion of sharpness can be as seductive for outsiders as a conversation between cement mixer-truck mechanics. For instance, this snippet from one commenter (who must have had Spellcheck turned off) — someone partially supporting Kim:

I prefer to have a slightly unsharp lens (comparitively) but one that works nearly as well in the corners as the centre. This is why, for much of my landscape photography with a digital camera, I prefer to use f/16 rather than the ‘sharpest’ aperture which is supposedly f/4 or f/5.6. That’s because at f/16 most abberations are subdued and I can sharpen back to get enough acuity. It’s also why I shoot large format where the corner sharpness is almost identical to the center sharpness for nearly all size prints. (OK, not true for some tele lenses and cheaper ultra wide large format lenses but for most semi-symmetric lenses it’s a given)

It is time to ask, are we going backwards?

Thirty-two years ago, John Russell, the English art critic of The New York Times, wrote about the Impressionists’ rebellion — which, he explained, was not just about refusing to submit to the dead hand of convention in classical painting, but tossing out what would now be called the marketing or business model that shaped the economic lives of professional painters in late 19th-century Paris (described in detail here). Some might recognise a parallel to the most successful indie writers rejecting traditional publishers in our day.

We see differently, and we see better, because those painters lived.

[…]

They proved that it was possible for painters to break the monopoly of the Paris Salons by showing on their own, on a regular basis, and prosper.

When they defied the once-sacrosanct old rules for painting, the Impressionists were rejecting excessive orderliness and precision — that is, moving in the reverse direction from the shift towards hyper-precise, hyperrealism among many, if not most photographers today.

[T]hey introduced a completely new mode of expression — one based […] on ”the brush moving at will in any direction, freed from traditional centered drawing […]”.

This movement of the Impressionist brush is by now so much a part of our universal inheritance that we no longer think of it as something that could present a difficulty. Yet it is the achievement of Monet and his colleagues that, more than 100 years ago, they broke a monopoly far more deeply entrenched than the monopoly of the Salon painters. This was the monopoly of traditional Western composition, with its centered pictorial structure, its balanced and rhythmic ordering of forms, and its careful, preordained, seamless presentation of what are in reality the wandering, disorderly, often frantic procedures of seeing.

Seamless, yes – pixelholics love that. Some of them insist that their work is inspired by the Photorealism school of painting, which dates from the 1960s. That seems reasonable enough, even if one condition a painter must satisfy to qualify as a bona fide worker in this tradition is confusing — with a touch of tail-wags-dog-why-bother about it. According to experts cited in the Wikipedia: ‘The Photo-Realist must have the technical ability to make the finished work appear photographic.’

In other words, some of Eric Kim’s photographer-nerds are imitating painters whose rules require that their paintings must resemble photographs as closely as possible.

Right. So glad we’ve got that sorted!

We hope to return to these subjects soon, in a future post — not necessarily our next one.

Bend it like Von Donnersmarck 2: the most brilliant illumination of the recent past can be useless as a guide to the future

s2 post-gutenberg.com (2)

New Year’s Day supermoon with an unidentified turquoise celestial neighbour (or was it an Air Canada plane? See comments below our last post.)

Can a critical shift in a country’s cultural pulse and tone be detectible almost instantly by someone travelling into its cities after a year of rural seclusion? Without going into details, our answer — based both on what we saw and heard last week, and reports from other people-watchers in America and Britain — must be an unequivocal yes.

It is as plain as can be that large segments of the populations of these nations whose power was founded on trade with the whole world or massive, intercontinental migration, are now drawbridgers intent on shutting out the globe. Their history makes the shift almost incommensurable with the rise of xenophobia elsewhere.

It’s a reversal that should be of interest to anyone reflecting on interpretations by experts of the subject of our last post, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s masterly conjuring — by taking infinite pains over subtle minutiae — of the look and feel of an actual surveillance state in modern times. Just as a camera can sometimes show us what can’t be seen by the naked eye, films can thrust us deeper into the textures and emotional atmosphere of the ‘truth hidden in plain sight,’ whose unveiling is conventionally said to define the task of journalists.

Only by studying images created by a camera flash could we see the whole scene, including the naked branches of the bush in the foreground of another picture from our New Year’s Day camera-clicking, a shrub whose outlines we were not so much looking at as sensing.

A story well told has the same capacity for higher-wattage illumination, but — sadly — what it exposes about the past or present can be no guide at all to what lies ahead. This becomes clear from rereading a 2007 review of The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) by a British journalist, Tim Garton Ash, who actually lived in the GDR (East Germany); had the unwanted honour of being subjected to Stasi monitoring; and acquired his own file in their archives. Unsurprisingly, no other review begins to approach the insight his has to offer. But the confidence he expressed in that commentary about the wholesale rooting-out of xenophobia after Germany’s reunification in 1990 would prove to be misplaced a mere decade later — the inescapable conclusion from an essay he published in December last year.

The contrast between his earlier and later pulse-taking does not make good bed-time reading for anyone mulling the question of where the new fear of foreigners in the rest of the West could take us by, say, 2028. (Anyone with a good crystal ball is specially invited to comment below — as are any astronomers, amateur or professional, who can identify the turquoise blue satellite (neighbour?) to the left of the moon in our photograph.)

In the excerpts that follow, the second set is taken from his assessment of ‘the cultural struggle for Germany’s future,’ focusing on the rise of the nationalist party, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD or the Alternative), which is the equivalent of Britain’s UKIP and France’s Front National. Most baffling, other than the speed at which this ultra-conservative organisation has grown, is that its supporters’ hatred of immigrants appears to have no connection to economic hardship or disadvantages, and that one of its leaders lives with a partner of the same sex of Sri Lankan descent.

from ‘The Stasi on Our Minds,’ Timothy Garton Ash, The New York Review of Books, 31 May 2007

One of Germany’s most singular achievements is to have associated itself so intimately in the world’s imagination with the darkest evils of the two worst political systems of the most murderous century in human history. The words “Nazi,” “SS,” and “Auschwitz” are already global synonyms for the deepest inhumanity of fascism. Now the word “Stasi” is becoming a default global synonym for the secret police terrors of communism. The worldwide success of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s deservedly Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others will strengthen that second link, building as it does on the preprogramming of our imaginations by the first. Nazi, Stasi: Germany’s festering half-rhyme.

… The Germany in which this film was produced, in the early years of the twenty-first century, is one of the most free and civilized countries on earth. In this Germany, human rights and civil liberties are today more jealously and effectively protected than (it pains me to say) in traditional homelands of liberty such as Britain and the United States. In this good land, the professionalism of its historians, the investigative skills of its journalists, the seriousness of its parliamentarians, the generosity of its funders, the idealism of its priests and moralists, the creative genius of its writers, and, yes, the brilliance of its filmmakers have all combined to cement in the world’s imagination the most indelible association of Germany with evil. Yet without these efforts, Germany would never have become such a good land …

from ‘It’s the Kultur, Stupid,’ Timothy Garton Ash, The New York Review of Books, 7 December 2017

… Xenophobic right-wing nationalism—in Germany of all places? The very fact that observers express surprise indicates how much Germany has changed since 1945. These days, we expect more of Germany than of ourselves.

… The Alternative scores best in what we still loosely call East Germany, that is, the territory of the former German Democratic Republic. There is a striking inverse correlation between the number of immigrants (or people of migrant origin) in an area and the populist vote: East Germany has the fewest immigrants and the most AfD voters.

… It would require a longer essay to explore the collective psychology of this East German vote, but its ingredients certainly include the poisonous legacy of a society behind the Berlin Wall that was anything but open and multicultural. There is also a resentful feeling among East Germans that they have been treated as second-class citizens in united Germany: not given enough attention, not paid due respect. When a street protest in a small town in Saxony was totally ignored by the visiting Chancellor Merkel, a protester complained, “She doesn’t look at us even with her ass!” One can imagine a Trump voter saying something similar about Hillary Clinton. In explaining the populist vote in many countries, the inequality of attention is at least as important as economic inequality.

… Unlike in Britain and America, economic factors play only a small part here. It’s not just that Germany as a whole is doing well economically. In a 2016 poll, four out of five AfD voters described their personal economic situation as “good” or “very good.” This is not a party of the economically “left behind.” It gathers the discontented from every walk of life, but those who predominate in its ranks are educated, middle-class men. A leading CDU politician told me that the angry protest letters he gets from defectors to the Alternative will typically be from a doctor, businessman, lawyer, or professor. This strong presence of the educated upper middle class distinguishes German populism from many other populisms.

… As for Alice Weidel: this former Goldman Sachs and Allianz asset manager, white, blonde, always neatly turned out in business attire, lives just across the border in Switzerland, in a same-sex relationship with a Swiss filmmaker of Sinhalese heritage and two adopted sons. These are not the German equivalent of the American rust belt manual worker, or of what is known in England, with liberal condescension, as “white van man.” (The van is white as well as the man.)

“It’s the economy, stupid” simply does not apply to Germany’s populist voters. Rather, it’s the Kultur. (I say Kultur, rather than simply culture, because the German word implies both culture and ethno-cultural identity, and has traditionally been counterposed to liberal, cosmopolitan Zivilisation.) …