Istanbul’s beautiful fragility

In his memoir Istanbul, Turkey’s most famous writer Orhan Pamuk describes the particular kind of beauty strangers encounter in his city:

“A crumbling wall, a wooden tekke – condemned, abandoned and now fallen into neglect – a fountain from whose spouts no water pours, a workshop in which nothing has been produced for eighty years, a collapsing building, a row of houses abandoned by Greeks, Armenians and Jews … none of these things look beautiful to the people who live amongst them; they speak instead of squalor, helpless, hopeless neglect. Those who take pleasure in the accidental beauty of poverty and historical decay, those of us who see the picturesque in ruins – invariably, we’re people who come from the outside.”

Last week I had the pleasure of being an outsider in Istanbul. The beauty I encountered there was unlike any I’ve experienced before.

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Sunset in Istanbul

There is the obvious beauty of the city’s magnificent skyline – particularly at sunset, when the silhouettes of mosques and ancient towers merge with the starker contours of the skyscrapers and cranes– and everything , including the glittering Bosphorus, is bathed in an orange glow.

But there is a different kind of beauty too – a fragile kind, which makes you feel that the entire city is held together by the most delicate of threads and that, if you were to tread too hard or in the wrong place, the entire metropolis could crumble before you.

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Istanbul at dusk

This fragility is everywhere. It is in the wooden houses, with their crooked windows and shabby fronts and the chipped paint on the doors. It is in the young waiters outside restaurants, who – having failed to lure you in with a flashy smile and cheeky soundbite, return with resignation to the car-racing games on their mobile phones.

It was in the way our taxi driver whizzed through the city without a seat belt – getting lost in the old town and shouting at other drivers for directions yet saying nothing to us. It was in the way young boys wove through the heavy traffic selling bottles of water in the searing heat.

It is in the chaos at the Grand Bazaar, where the individual spiels of hundreds of vendors selling you the same wares are at once farcical and endearing. It is in the way they make you feel special though you know you are not.

At the waterfront, the cries of men selling Hugo Boss perfume, corn-on-the-cobs, selfie-sticks and even, apparently, Viagra,  compete with the blare of the ships’ horns on the Bosphorus.  It is a clamour suggestive of both hope and despair.

Pamuk ascribes Istanbul’s peculiar melancholy to the decline of the Ottoman Empire – to a collective mourning for what was and never again will be.

If the source of Istanbul’s  beautiful fragility lies in its history – it is nevertheless in the scramble of every-day life on the streets where it is best preserved.

Fragility can take many forms.

Before I went to Istanbul, I consulted the websites of several countries’ embassies to read their advice for travellers. In the days before my trip, there had been violence in the south of the country and gunfire outside a palace in Istanbul. There was also, apparently, a specific terror threat to the city’s public transport network.

Controlled explosion at Taksim Square

Controlled explosion at Taksim Square

As so often happens, my fears dissipated as soon as I set foot in the city and became distracted by its magnificence.

But as I approached Taksim Square for the first time, my unease returned. The area had been cordoned off and was encircled by police vans. Crowds had gathered to watch a man in a bomb suit make his way towards the towering statue of Attaturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

The explosion terrified the pigeons into flight

The explosion terrified the pigeons into flight

The man carried out a controlled explosion – terrifying a flock of pigeons into flight. Its power sent a shiver coursing down my spine.

Moments later, the police were gone

and the square was once again teeming with people. It was if nothing had happened.

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In defence of pigeons

People think it’s okay to be rude about pigeons because they’re clumsy, grey and ill-proportioned. But you’d never dream of talking about your grandparents like that. You’d never call them “flying rats” or “the scourge of the streets.” Even if they were part of a senior citizens’ drug gang, you’d probably find a way around it.

People think it’s okay to dismiss pigeons because they’re so common. But logically, most people are common too. Crowds flock to the zoo to see exotic birds like parrots and peacocks and pelicans. They stare into their cages with open mouths and say things like “would you look at those magnificent feathers” or “isn’t she a beauty?” meanwhile kicking the pigeon who has landed near their foot.

Last May, German daily Der Tagesspiegel published an excellent article in defence of the pigeon. The writer concluded that the bird had an “image problem” and dispelled many of the hateful myths associated with it. For one, pigeons don’t carry any more diseases than your average feathered friend. Their excrement is not as abundant as you think either. In Berlin, dogs produce 20,000 tonnes of poo a year. Pigeons, on the other hand, a measly 27. Pigeon expert Ludger Kamphausen claims the chance of picking up an infection from a flower pot containing mushrooms is higher than from a city pigeon.

This is nothing new. Birds have been maligned for not matching up to an aesthetic ideal for hundreds of years. Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling was published in 1843. It tells the story of a duckling who undergoes hardship because of its plain feathers, until one day it turns into a beautiful swan and is re-accepted into the community.

Here’s the thing though. It’s not pigeons that have the image problem, it’s society. We can blame it on evolutionary biology but it’s no excuse really. We think that if things are cute, they are good. And good things are more deserving. Take these two examples.

In 2007, Germany went crazy for a polar bear cub called Knut after he was rejected by his mother. He became an international phenomenon; books, DVDs, teddy bears and even songs were produced in his honour. After his untimely death, Spiegel Online ran an obituary of Knut which described him as an “innocent bear who enchanted millions.” A bronze statue was erected at the zoo in his honour.

Thousands visited Berlin to pay their respects to Knut. They mourned the loss of the bear while eating mass-produced pig meat which they bought from the hot dog stands nearby. Jonathan Safran Foer writes eloquently about this irrational behaviour in Eating Animals, which is worth a read whether or not you are a committed carnivore.

From Knut to Susan Boyle. Two years after Knut came on the scene, 47 year-old frumpy Scotswoman Susan Boyle appeared on TV talent show Britain’s Got Talent. The judges laughed at her and unfortunate members of the audience, whose faces have been immortalised on Youtube, scowled cruelly when she came on stage. Then she started to sing. She was very good and moved one of the judges to tears. They stopped laughing after that because Susan Boyle had compensated for the offence of not being conventionally attractive. She had talent, so her aesthetic shortcoming, or in other words the crime of looking like a normal person, would be quashed, pending a makeover as soon as she got a record deal.

The story of the Ugly Duckling and of Susan Boyle have been packaged as if they contain some moral message. But they tell us much more about society’s questionable collective morality than anything else. In the case of the Ugly Duckling, enduring years of hardship is rewarded by becoming beautiful and accepted. In the Susan Boyle saga, the message is that it’s possible to distract people from the obvious defect of not being glamorous by showcasing alternative accomplishments, like a beautiful voice or a talent for embroidery.

As for what Knut teaches us, it’s no more than the inconsistency pet-owners who eat meat recognise in themselves. We seem hard-wired to prefer things that look nice, but we’re also smart enough to know that acting on that bias goes against the equality mature societies strive for.

So next time you shoe a pigeon away while canoodling with a canary, think about whose feathers you’re really ruffling.

Beauty? I just can’t nail it.

I found myself eating a sourdough sandwich alone on a bench in the Jervis Shopping Centre last week. From where I was sitting (right outside Forever 21) I had a perfect view of The Nail Bar, where two ladies were being treated to a French manicure and the attachment of gel nails.

The two clients, perched on stools with their hands stretched out in an arc before them bore an uncanny resemblance to a pair of begging lapdogs. The more I gazed at them the greater my desire to laugh and when I could bare it no longer, I let out a little giggle, which caused the man next to me, who was minding his teenage daughter’s shopping bags, to turn and stare.

I’m pretty confident that I’m the least nail-savvy woman in Ireland. I’m not sure if I even own nail polish, after my recent mass exodus of make-up of age ten years or more from my room. I’ve never had my nails done and the two or three attempts to paint my own in my early teenage years resulted in odd splashes of green glitter, which still pepper my carpet.

image from ftv12.tk

In case it seems as if I’m condemning the common cuticle, I promise you I am not. Sure we couldn’t do without them. They’re an anatomic necessity. Wikipedia puts it just beautifully:

“A nail is a horn-like envelope covering the dorsal aspect of the terminal phalanges of fingers and toes in humans, most non-human primates, and a few other mammals”.

Personally, I find them useful to pick at when nervous or for opening tricky plastic packaging.

I just don’t care how they look.

Don’t get me wrong. Perfectly-shaped contours are always nice. Anything well painted is a pleasure to look at.

The problem is, I don’t look at nails. I do not take sneaky downward glances to check out other women’s fingertips and I very rarely seek to improve the condition of my own.

Truth be told, their appearance is a matter of complete indifference to me.

It’s not for lack of vanity. I love clothes and good eye make-up and a gentle foundation. I flick through photographs of celebrities before I choose a haircut and I always turn to stare at interesting-looking people or those with beautiful clothes. I guess the reason that I’m indifferent to nails is that I think their cultivation is of little or no consequence to the overall appearance of a person.

I know, I know: I can already hear the cries of despair. It’s all about the detail. A real lady pays attention to her body from head to toenail. Each nail is a tapestry waiting to be coloured with exquisite strokes of blood red, deep blue and neon pink. A lady with fine nails is a lady with a well-kept mind.

Maybe so, but I just can’t see the point of it. Nails are tiny, breakable and their pinkish hue makes them naturally delicate and petal-like. Making them longer, or sharpening them or attaching sticky stuff to them seems to represent an awful lot of effort with little promise of reward.

I guess you have to be a connoisseur.

On my way out of the Jervis Centre I watched a pretty Spanish girl being stopped by a salesman in a black t-shirt. He asked her whether he could see her nails. She laughed a little and put out her hand. He took it in his and pretended to examine it carefully. Her nails were short enough, with a glimmer of pink sheen. He wasn’t pleased. He whipped out a special little square gadget and began rubbing her nails with it. Judging by his facial reaction, and her reluctant smile, they had been transformed. He swept her away to his stand, where she bought his tool. He popped in into the bag for her and she was on her way.

Talk about nailing your market.

Am I the only one that doesn’t get the hype? Are you a perfect-nails kind of gal? Are you a man with a penchant for well-painted lady-nails? Does the idea of breaking a nail fill you with fear? Is this another example of my inability to see the trees for the wood? Answers on a postcard, please.

Is your plumber a “drainage artist”?

Oscar Wilde, who made a pretty living out of making subversive, witty and astute social observations said, “All art is entirely useless”. After all, he was one to know. Having written a handful of droll plays and a novel about a portrait taking over the life of its sitter, he was still bound by the tedium of life’s practical problems. His dirty dishes didn’t disappear when he flung a leather-bound poetry anthology at them, nor did the flat tyre of his carriage auto-inflate to the sound of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

Oscar Wilde


Wilde’s facetiousness would have been reviled by Stephen Dedalus, the 22 year-old hero of Joyce’s Portrait and later of Ulysses.

Young Stephen takes art extremely seriously as did the many ‘greats’ before him. In the “Proteus” episode of Ulysses he’s strolling down Sandymount Strand and decides to close his eyes as he walks to see how far he can get in the ‘dark’. He takes a few steps but just before he opens his eyes again a suitably verbose thought strikes him: “Open your eyes now. I will. One moment. Has all vanished since? … Basta! I will see if I can see. See now. There all the time without you: and ever shall be, world without end.”
Stephen, self-absorbed and brilliant wants to know if the world continues to exist when he stops seeing it. Unfortunately of course, he will never find out because he can’t have his eyes open and closed at once.

Me being ridiculous on Sandymount Strand


Wilde’s idea that art was –in practical terms – absolutely useless and Stephen’s anxiety about the relationship of his senses to the outside world make for nice discussion points about the purpose and perception of art.

These days it’s not difficult to be classed as an artist. I’ve heard pedagogues described as “teaching artists” and people that roll dough as “pastry artists”. I’m all for it. The idea that there’s such a thing as an “artist” who exists on a plane of perception loftier than that of mere mortals is archaic and implausible. While the indiscriminate use of the term “artist” might be democratising and flattering to the individual, in effect it has now become a pleasant synonym for “skilled”.

Since it’s now acceptable to use the term “art” to refer to general skill rather than individual genius, Wilde – were he still here-would have to admit that “art” in its broadest understanding has become very useful indeed. I’m sure he would have delighted in calling in a “drainage artist” to unblock his toilet.

There’s something deeply unsatisfying about sealing off the definition of art as coterminous with “skill” though. To be skilled may be considered a favourable, functional quality leading generally to better prospects but doesn’t being an artist require something more than just know-how? A particular kind of sensibility perhaps? What happened to the image of the melancholic artist living in a hut penning poetry about his unrequited love? What about the assumption that pure art is “divinely” inspired?

Christopher Witcombe, Professor of Art History at Sweet Briar College, Virginia traces the emergence of the modern understanding of the artist back to the sixteenth century. He argues that during that period, “A work of art was believed to contain an extra indefinable spiritual essence”. This “divine” inspiration was impossible to explain and so the Italians referred to it as “un non so che” (I don’t know what), which was later taken up by the French, who called it the “je- ne-sais-quoi”.

People naturally became fascinated with the mysterious, god-like figures who created celestial masterpieces. Theories about their personalities and temperaments emerged and thinkers came to the consensus that the quality, which predestined an individual to become an artistic genius, was melancholia. It wasn’t a new idea; Aristotle had thought it before, and Hippocrates guessed that it occurred as a result of a build-up of black bile in the body.

Not much has changed. We’re still fascinated with the idea of “artists” today. And no, I’m not talking about the ones that teach our kids, roll our pastries and fix our toilets. Language is constantly changing, but no matter how loose the term “artist” has become, we still differentiate in our own way between those possessing a skill and those with an innate “genius” quality.

Present-day admirers, like their Renaissance counterparts, continue to elevate their artist heroes to deity status. One of the many adoring comments under a youtube video featuring the actress Natalie Portman claims “if you don’t like Natalie Portman you don’t like God”.

One of my students, a middle-aged French lady, once said that she considered Lady Gaga an artist in the “true sense”. I’m not sure how she justified it, but she reinforced the widespread assumption that ‘pure’ artistry actually exists.

Is Lady Gaga a "true" artist?


Luckily, we’re living in an era of relentless scientific inquiry and rather than accepting that true artists are born god-like to inspire us with awe, we can test the theory by removing some of the potential confounders.

Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post set out to do just that in 2007. He asked world-renowned concert violinist Joshua Bell to help him conduct an experiment to determine whether people would recognise the intrinsic value of art in the absence of relevant context. Bell was an ideal specimen for such an experiment. His playing had been famously described by Interview Magazine as doing “nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live.”

Weingarten asked Bell to pick up his violin, dress up in jeans and a cap and perform for 45 minutes at a Washington metro stop during rush hour. Just days before, he’d sold out Boston’s Symphony Hall, with tickets $100 a piece.

During Bell’s performance, 1070 people hurried by without stopping, 27 gave money, and seven paused to listen for at least a minute. At no point did a crowd gather. One lady recognised the performer and gave him $20, which amounted to a significant portion of the total $32 and change he made that day.

So context matters. When people are in a rush, they’re not primed to recognise brilliance, or even as many describe Bell, genius. They’re not used to train stations playing host to maestros and anyway, they’re not really in the mood for “art”. The kids need to be picked up, and the laundrette closes at 2.

Knowledge matters too. The difference between a virtuoso violinist and an amateur is easy to identify if you’re a classical music enthusiast, or if you play yourself. Not so if you’ve never consciously listened to anything like it before.

Unless of course, a truly essential or “divine” quality really does exist, in which case, we should be able to identify it without prior knowledge or relevant context.

Which brings us right back to Sandymount Strand, where Stephen Dedalus, himself a wannabe artist is testing his own perception against the idea of an objective reality.
It’s a futile attempt because it’s impossible to escape the bounds of his own perception. Stephen can’t ‘see’ with his eyes closed and he can never be sure of what happens to the world when he shuts it out with darkness.

When I was at school, I found it strange that entire groups of friends seemed to like the same music. It confused me and sometimes it made me unsure of what I really liked and what I thought I should like. Was artistic appreciation a prerequisite for forming bonds? Or did people simply like the music their friends liked, because they were primed to see its value? It’s impossible to know really. Teenage sensibilities seemed to be invested heavily in film and music, and less so in visual art and writing. I couldn’t imagine lunchtime conversations featuring encyclopaedic knowledge and endless speculation about the direction of Irish sculpting or the American short story back then.

One of the most appealing attributes of art is that it evades definition. Is a well-placed mahogany chair “art”? What about a stickman figure Picasso may have penned when he was drunk? We delight in arguing about these questions because deep inside us, the idea of “art” as something pure and divinely inspired hasn’t vanished. We talk about skill, because it’s measurable: This genius savant has an IQ of ‘200’ and that performer could play the trickiest passages from Chopin at the age of seven.

New York Times columnist David Brooks
argues that the possibility to become an artistic genius lies in all of us. All it takes, he feels, is diligent practice, single-focus and proper mentorship. He reminds us that the brain is plastic, and that we “construct ourselves through behaviour”.

The Irish Times recently reported on a study that found that when subjects gazed at artwork they found particularly beautiful, they experienced a surge of Dopamine, (known as the “reward” neurotransmitter) through the brain at levels equivalent to gazing at a loved one.

In this experiment, the brain simply responds to a visual stimulus, which it has already categorised as beautiful. The Irish Times conclusion that “these findings have significant implications for Government policy” is a leap too far however. The study tested subjects with pre-existing notions of beauty. It did not explore other potential pleasure-stimuli, like a beautiful view, the smile from a stranger, a spontaneous meeting or the feeling of soft sand under your feet.

Dopamine pathways aren’t just activated by a masterpiece. They also play a key role in the progress of addiction as well as during eating and sex.

Society shouldn’t formalise art. It should encourage us to look more deeply at the world around us and to be creative in what we class beautiful. If you’ve lived all your life in a high-rise block of council flats littered with crisp bags and dirty runners, you might not be flooded with dopamine when you visit an art gallery. Maybe though, when you look outside your window and see a flower popping its head out of the box you planted it in, you will feel a rush of pleasure.

Oscar Wilde, who had “nothing to declare” but his own “genius”, fell victim to a society, which classified art into moral highs and lows. His love- surely the highest of all art forms-for another man landed him in prison in Paris, where he died a pauper’s death. Maybe it was this world of narrow definitions, which Stephen Dedalus was shutting out when he walked in darkness along Sandymount Strand.

High Art and Low Art don’t exist. Every one of us can experience moments of intense pleasure and awe. It can be at the taste of your first Lindt bunny after Lent, at the birth of your first child, or in the look in the eyes of your grandmother as she knits you a Christmas sweater. It can be in the middle of traffic in an ugly part of town or in the vast expanse of a city’s art gallery. It’s all around us.

Lindt Bunny Joy