Looking At Numbers

As those who are fans of such products know – and by way of full disclosure I do not number myself among them – the big tech news today is the release of Apple’s iPhone 5.  While the commentariat will dwell on the changes and improvements to the technology involved, few will think very much about the significance of the actual number indicating the version of this product, i.e. the number “5”.  Because numbers are such a necessary part of every day life, we do not often stop to think about them as objects in and of themselves, irrespective of what they represent.

Since last I posted, gentle reader, the subject of numbers has been in my mind a great deal.  For example, last evening I discussed with a friend a series of short, promotional films for the Savannah Film Festival by my youngest brother, which involved using the numeric indicator “10” of the tenth anniversary of the festival as a character.  Then this morning, I texted my best wishes to a friend in Chicago whose birthday is today, though I will refrain from stating how old he is for the sake of his own vanity.  I also sent an email to Professor Noah Feldman at Harvard Law, whose commentary on Twitter I wrote about yesterday, after he had sent back a kind reply, informing him of the number of unique readers of yesterday’s blog post.

Yet even for those of us who are, like yours truly,  significantly mathematically challenged, the importance of numbers is of great, though sometimes unnoticed, significance.  Take, for example, what is alternatively known as the “Golden Ratio” or the “Golden Mean”.  This mathematical equation to seek the most pleasing ratio of length to width to height has been studied and pursued by artists and architects since the time of the Ancient Greeks, affecting not only the art objects studied by those of us who care about art history, but virtually every person in the Western world, on a daily basis.  The search to find perfect proportions for the design of a building has probably directly or indirectly led to the look of your local bank, post office, city hall, train station, and so on – unless of course your post office was designed by some charlatan like Frank Gehry or I.M. Pei, in which case, my sympathies.

However more to the point of this post, the number “5” always brings to my mind a particularly creative pairing in American cultural history.  The number itself, as we currently represent it, is originally of Indian origin.  We do not, in general usage, employ the Roman number “V” to represent “5”, though this may still be seen in things like film sequels or in royal titles.  The adaptation of the ancient symbol from its illustrations on the Indian subcontinent has led to the graceful combination of angles and curves that make it one of the more interesting figures for artists to consider.

Back in 1921, American poet William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was walking over to Ninth Avenue and Fifteenth Street in Manhattan to visit the studio of an artist friend, when he heard a fire engine making a huge, clamouring sound. Williams turned just in time to spot a large number “5” painted in gold on a red background go rushing past.  He then grabbed a piece of paper from his pocket, and wrote down a short poem:


Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
fire truck
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city

While not directly illustrating that poem, several years later Williams’ friend, American artist Charles Demuth (1883-1935), painted what is without doubt my favorite work from his rather uneven output, “I Saw The Figure 5 In Gold”.  It was part of a series of unusual portraits of well-known cultural figures of the day, which could loosely be termed surrealist in nature, yet simultaneously representing the age of Art Deco.  The portraits were commissioned by the legendary photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), husband of America’s greatest modern woman artist Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986), and in this instance gives us not only an unconventional combination of Williams and his work, but also an unforgettable image of a number.

The seemingly mundane aspects of writing in everyday life, whether a number, a letter, or a punctuation mark, are shorthand for us to express various ideas.  When it comes to the version of a product for sale, sometimes we do not stop to think about how the exact same number can have a positive or negative impact on the value of an object.  With respect to the new iPhone, for example, the fact that we are now presented with the opportunity to purchase the 5th version of this item is intrinsically meant to imply that it is superior to versions 1, 2, 3, and 4, which preceded it.

Interestingly however, in the cultural world the higher the number, oftentimes the lesser the value.  A first edition of a book is often vastly more collectible than a 5th edition, for example. Similarly, in the world of prints and engravings, a work of art that is in its 5th state of printing is generally worth far less than one in its 1st or 2nd state. While there are always exceptions, of course, it is interesting that in technology, later editions are viewed as better, whereas in art and writing, earlier editions are considered to be superior.

So as the tekkie kids cut class and the Wall Street occupiers leave their sleeping bags to go stand in line to purchase the 5th incarnation of Apple’s communications device, perhaps they might take a moment to reflect on the significance of the number “5” – and perhaps those of us who choose to refrain from joining them in the queue can still take our own moment to appreciate not only the utility of that number, but also its sinuous beauty.

“I Saw The Figure 5 In Gold” by Charles Demuth (1928)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

3 thoughts on “Looking At Numbers

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