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Sciencism vs. Intangibles, Art History, and the Little Three

Posted by paul on July 19, 2012 at 10:10 AM

The other day, I was reading an art history book, and it made me think about the Celtics.

 

I wouldn't dare write that sentence on any other Celtics site, of course! Thank goodness for the nerd corner of the Celtics internet...

 

This was a book about early 15 century painting in Florence, Italy, during the pre-Renaissance. One of the interesting things about this particular corner of art history is that it has been an art conservation nightmare. I don't want to be too technical about it, and I'm not exactly an expert on it anyway, but as I understand the problem, most Florentine painting in the 15th century was done in tempera, which is a water-based painting medium. An unfortunate result of this, apparently, has been that many 15th century paintings have been overcleaned over the years. If you go into an art museum, and you look at 15th century Italian paintings, there is a good chance that you will be looking at a painting that is a ghost of its former self.  

 

Of course, conservationists today are far too scientific and rigorous to ever overclean a painting, right? That's certainly what they will tell you, and most people who are sensible and well-informed will agree with that. Bad conservation happened in the past, because people were ignorant and hubristic, if not superstitious, even if they were well intentioned. Today, bad conservation only happens when one unfortunately goes to an unqualified restorer.  Qualified restorers always get it right.


But of course overcleaning DOES still happen today.  I think it happens a lot.  I would argue that the Sistine Chapel itself, possibly the most famous Italian painting ever made, has been recently drastically overcleaned.  I would be dismissed as an unscientific fool for saying this, of course.


So as I browsed through this particularly art history book, the other day,  I happened upon a page where the writer proudly showed off a picture of a painting which had been restored in conjunction with his publication. I was startled to see that the painting so proudly shown off had clearly, in my view, been BADLY overcleaned. You could tell that it was overcleaned partly because early Italian tempera paintings usually have a greenish underpainting. You could clearly see this underpainting in the 'cleaned' version. You could also see that detail and expression had been lost.   I couldn't prove scientifically that this painting had been overcleaned, but I could see in the reproduction that it obviously  had been overcleaned.

 

No doubt,  the restorers involved have lots of scientific backing for what they have done. Invariably they have investigated the layers of paint, using microscopic methods, and probably even more sophisticated forms of analysis (spectrographs, etc., no doubt), and they claim to be able to tell exactly what layers of the painting are original. No one dares argue against them, because after all, science is on their side. Numbers are on their side. Everyone agrees that the experts must be right. Any doubters are told that they are naively trusting what they see, and what they feel, and should really keep their emotionalism to themselves.

 

If anyone involved in the botched (iin my view) 'restoration' would have just used their eyes and their sensibility,  and trusted them, they would have seen that the painting was being overcleaned. They would have noticed the change in the feeling of the painting, the loss of subtlety, the loss of expression and cohesion, the loss of color and the blatantly obvious emergence of underpainting. But even if they noticed this, and tried to say something about it, they would have been buried under a mountain of technical details. They would have ended up telling themselves not to be anti-scientific, naive fools.

 

We see this same mentality in sports. Numbers are always right. If a number turns out not to be right, it's just a sign that one needs to find the number that is right. In the world of "advanced statistics", there is always another number to fall back on, it seems.


I would not even try to say what I'm saying on any other Celtics site. I would just be dismissed as hopelessly emotional and naive. "Numbers don't lie", we are routinely told.

 

 Isn't it ironic that this mentality has taken such a deep hold in the land of the Celtics? We were told that Perkins clearly was not an effective center, because numbers told us this. We were told that Chris Paul was clearly better than Rajon Rondo, because numbers told us this.  We are told all this, even though the Celtics have always been a team that gloried in the intangibles!  Our historic achievements are really a monument to the importance of intangibles.  Our legendary Bill Russell has declared that most of the game doesn't appear on a scoreboard.

 

Last season, it was commonplace to acknowledge that the Celtics' rise had a lot to do with the spirit of that team. But outside of Celtics Title Town, we've barely seen a word about that since the summer started. Danny is chasing every free agent he can think of, and fans are on the edges of their seats, waiting for OJ Mayo, waiting for Courtney Lee, waiting for Darko,  now waiting for Delfino. Occasionally someone points out that if every 'upgrade' falls through, but only then,  we can bring back Pietrus or Dooling.

 

 We live in a society where Science and Technology are worshipped, and the form worship takes is consumerism. When you go into the store, you feel ecstatic if you can purchase a product that is an "upgrade", because it somehow has higher specs, or maybe it just costs more; the point is for it to be associated with better numbers in some way.  We chant this word "upgrade" worshipfully.

 

I don't mind if Lee or Delfino come here.  They might help us.  But I worry about the fact that no one seems to be concerned over the spirit that was the difference for us last year. Is the spirit we had really separable from the players we had? Clearly we had to improve our talent going into next season, and we have, but hardly anyone in the Celtics media empire and fandom seems at all concerned about the intangibles that players like Pietrus and Dooling brought us. If these are mentioned at all, they seem to be viewed as disposable.   How can they be disposable when they were so widely acknowledged as making a critical difference as we drove deep into the playoffs?

 

Even now, now that we are down to the dregs of the free agent pool, such concerns STILL seem to be ignored. No one even asks the question, that I've seen, outside of Celtics Title Town; even IF a particular player is an "upgrade" in some ways over some of the players we had last year, can we really afford to discard the spirit we had last year?  Wasn't that our most important "upgrade"?

 

From my point of view, the dissociation between what our sensibility and discernment tell us about last year's team - that Pietrus and Dooling were important for us, largely because of 'intangibles' - and our obsession with chasing numbers this offseason is very startling. I don't get it.

 

Wake up from your numbers trance, Celtics Fans. No matter what we do, we cannot put as many superstars on the court as the Lakers and Heat can do.   They will out-upgrade us seven days a week.  But we can be the smartest, most determined, bravest and most ferocious team. That's what we need to be if we really want to have a great year.


We need to see with our hearts, and our sensibilities, as well as with our minds, and our numbers-based rationalism.

 

We need Dooling at least, and Pietrus too, if possible, along with Wilcox. The spirit and energy we had on the bench meant a lot to us last year.


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6 Comments

Reply Ryan
11:51 AM on July 19, 2012 
Very good Paul, Id say this site,has backed up Dooling,and Pietrus,and job well done. Outtside of Mayo. Lee, Delfino,and Darko, are not worth letting Dooling,and MP go. Great scope,and context here.
Reply paul
12:01 PM on July 19, 2012 
Ryan says...
Very good Paul, Id say this site,has backed up Dooling,and Pietrus,and job well done. Outtside of Mayo. Lee, Delfino,and Darko, are not worth letting Dooling,and MP go. Great scope,and context here.


Thanks Ryan - I hope there is a different perspective here. I'm worried about what the spirit of this team will be like if we ignore the intangibles Dooling and Pietrus can bring back.
Reply GeeZeeCeltics
12:23 PM on July 19, 2012 
Wow, what an uncommon yet amazing analogy, Paul. It's very powerful.

It's crazy that no one anywhere else notices that every man on the team has an impact on it's chemistry, even the 12th man or the man who plays only 10 minutes a game.
Reply paul
12:29 PM on July 19, 2012 
GeeZeeCeltics says...
Wow, what an uncommon yet amazing analogy, Paul. It's very powerful.

It's crazy that no one anywhere else notices that every man on the team has an impact on it's chemistry, even the 12th man or the man who plays only 10 minutes a game.


The way I see it, Gee Zee, that's part of the true Celtics Way. Everybody on the team has a big role to play, and that was so so true last year.
Reply Celticslifer
9:01 AM on July 20, 2012 
Remarkable. THanks. Keep writing posts like this.
Reply paul
9:10 AM on July 20, 2012 
Thankyou, Celticslifer