Habitual Contempt and Helvetica

Habitual contempt doesn’t reflect a finer sensibility

It’s been 15 years since design doc Helvetica came out, which means it has been 15 years since I noticed this quote in the background of their interview with designer Stefan Sagmeister. In that decade-and-a-half, my memory contorted the quote just enough to make the source impossible to find—I’d turned it into “habitual cynicism does not reflect a refined sensibility,” which I guess was closer to the insight I’d needed at the time. Snarkiness and cynicism were very much still in vogue I when I was trying to find my voice as a pop culture writer in the mid-2000s, and my jumbled version of the quote played a major role in my realization that advocating for the things I enjoy is a more valuable contribution than explaining why popular things are actually awful.

To celebrate the documentary’s anniversary, film and visual art collective is streaming Helvetica for free worldwide for the next week, which was as good an opportunity as any to track down the actual quote. Turns out it’s part of conceptual artist Jenny Holzer’s Truisms, 1978-1983, which to my modern eye is a real mixed bag of statements, from Tao-inspired wisdom (“at times inactivity is preferable to mindless functioning”, “the most profound things are inexpressible”) to misguided self-indulgence (“exceptional people deserve special concessions,” “giving free reign to your emotions is an honest way to live”). Even if I disagree with about half of it, though, it strikes me as a list worth spending some time with. Given how much a misremembered version of one line has impacted me, it’s bound to have some other useful prompts.

The Lion-human of Hohlenstein-Stadel

The Lion-Person (its intended gender is the subject of debate) is “the oldest known physical representation of a supernatural being,” a 30cm figurine dating back approximately 40,000 years. Carved from a mammoth tusk, scientists estimate it would have taken a skilled person around 400 hours to create with the tools of the era.

That long of a process implies that the culture that produced it made room for artists or craftspeople, excusing them from at least some of the more survival-oriented duties of the tribe to create objects of beauty and imagination. As the British Museum’s Jill Cook puts it (quoted in Wikipedia), the object points to “… a relationship to things unseen, to the vital forces of nature, that you need to perhaps propitiate, perhaps connect to, in order to ensure your successful life.”

As incredible as the artifact itself is, I was also surprised to learn that is in a museum in Ulm, a relatively small German city on the border of Bavaria. I would just assume that something like this would be in one of the world’s largest or best resourced museums. It just goes to show what wonders you can stumble across in unexpected places.

(Found through a reference in Gaia Vince’s book Transcendence, which is packed with so many fascinating asides that I’ve had to stop bugging my partner with them and start sharing them here.)