This weekend we ponder the essence of art, the new European Union views on passenger rights and learn about the existence of germs on aircraft. Oh my!

What makes art great?

In our travels we all have gone to see the “great pieces of art” in city after city, museum after museum and church after church. But, few of us ponder what makes this art, be it architecture, paintings, sculpture or other forms, so wonderful. Of course, there are the apologists for the artworks themselves that tend to perpetuate “greatness,” but is some art really that much better than others? And, how did it get that way?

A professor at Cornell University, James Cutting, wondered if a psychological mechanism known as the “mere-exposure effect” played a role in deciding which paintings rise to the top of the cultural league. Basically, is great art great because it has been seen by more people than others?

Have you ever fallen for a novel and been amazed not to find it on lists of great books? Or walked around a sculpture renowned as a classic, struggling to see what the fuss is about? If so, you’ve probably pondered the question Cutting asked himself that day: how does a work of art come to be considered great?

The intuitive answer is that some works of art are just great; of intrinsically superior quality. The paintings that win prime spots in galleries, get taught in classes and reproduced in books are the ones that have proved their artistic value over time. If you can’t see they’re superior, that’s your problem. It’s an intimidatingly neat explanation. But some social scientists have been asking awkward questions of it, raising the possibility that artistic canons are little more than fossilised historical accidents.

He points out that the most reproduced works of impressionism today tend to have been bought by five or six wealthy and influential collectors in the late 19th century. The preferences of these men bestowed prestige on certain works, which made the works more likely to be hung in galleries and printed in anthologies. The kudos cascaded down the years, gaining momentum from mere exposure as it did so. The more people were exposed to, say, “Bal du Moulin de la Galette,” the more they liked it, and the more they liked it, the more it appeared in books, on posters and in big exhibitions.

For anyone traveling, this article provides a fascinating look at what makes great art great. It also gives travelers permission to take a look at other artworks that may provide an intimate picture into the soul of regions and cities. I have found small regional museums that hold a mirror up to the surrounding society. In a rustic world, the locals see the world differently than do the curators of massive big-city museums. Take another look at the smaller, more intimate museums filled with paintings and sculpture that reflect its surrounding world. It is like seeing with another pair of eyes.

Painting above: Four Dancers by Edgar Degas

Europe takes another look at passenger rights

Airlines in Europe seem to be doing a better job. And, they have not gone out of business when forced to treat their passengers as human beings. This review is important in how it relates to new passenger rights that have been proposed by the Department of Transportation. They stand as a testament that passenger rights and profits can co-exist.

The European Commission published [last week] a review of passenger rights’ complaint handling and enforcement in the European air transport sector between 2010 and 2012. The review shows that complaints to national authorities for compensation and assistance have returned to lower levels since the exceptional year 2010, when an ash cloud crisis and snow disruptions occurred. Also, airlines get sanctioned in only 1 percent of the cases as most of the complaints are settled without having to resort to such measures in order to ensure enforcement. Complaints from disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility about problems in air transport remain very low in general and no sanctions were imposed to airlines for such cases.

Can germs live in airplane cabins for extended periods?

Just how long do these germs hang around?

Some of the most harmful and resilient bacteria on airplanes aren’t necessarily the ones from the sneezing old lady sitting next to you. They’re the germs that live on the upholstery of the chair, the tray table where the flight attendant places your lunch and on the metal buttons you press to move your seat or flush the toilet, according to new research just presented at the American Society for Microbiology’s annual meeting.

The researchers found bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and E. coli can live for up to a week on airplanes that aren’t sufficiently cleaned. The study was partially funded by the Federal Aviation Administration.