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January 02, 2003

Art Imponderables

Friedrich --

Why is it that the ugliest building on campus is so often the architecture building?

Why is it that the most nightmarishly-designed magazines are so often the graphic-design magazines?

Why is the writing in literary magazines generally so much worse than the writing on sitcoms?

Further contributions to this list appreciated.



posted by Michael at January 2, 2003



Granted, there are some horribly sophomoric literary magazines out there, but you really think the writing on sitcoms is better? Sure, it's flashier and often slicker. But better? I think that says more about the lack scope in your artistic appreciation than it does about the current state of writing.

As for the architecture and graphic design magazines...maybe you're just slow to catch on to these fields?

Posted by: Joel on January 2, 2003 07:37 PM

Could be!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 2, 2003 08:33 PM

Well,let's see. I'll pass on the architecture bldgs,as I am not acampus habitue. I don't really look at any graphics magazines except for Graphis which is clean, functional and transparent. Though it's been a while since I watched the televsion I don't remember one sit-com where the writing was even as good as the high school literary magazine(and that's bad poetry included)

This has the piquent scent of a provocation, Sniff, sniff...

Posted by: Robert Birnbaum on January 2, 2003 09:33 PM

A provocation?!!! Moi!???

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 3, 2003 12:11 AM

Look at the examples you've constructed: "Architecture Building;" "Literary Journal;" "Graphic Design Magazine." All of these are tautological products that, by necessity, are keenly attuned to the process of their own construction. If a journal is understood to be, or understands itself to be, "literary," then, well, it's sort of got to be self-conciously high-minded, hasn't it? Every magazine has writing, yes? So what is a literary magazine to do? How can it distinguish itself? It would be entirely defeating for such a fundamentally self-aware entity to comprise itself of "popular" writing. It wouldn't be "literary" at all anymore, simply because.

The creation of all these things is directed by people who have vested interests in not only the field (writing, designing) as it is now, but in the trajectory it's going to take. To write a literary work, to design an architecture building, is to take a stupid, brave, impossible stab at the future. Chances are if you take your stabbing seriously, you're going to make some ugly, torn-up shit.

But that's okay. The shit people actually like right now, popularly, will look terrible in fifteen years. Then, in twenty-five, it will look fantastic. It's already come time to stop disdaining the aesthetics of the 1980s.

Posted by: Tag Savage on January 3, 2003 09:08 AM

I really like the sentiment "Chances are if you take your stabbing seriously,you're going to make some ugly, torn-up shit." But I think that "Architecture Building;" "Literary Journal;" "Graphic Design Magazine." All of these are tautological products" is off the mark. These things are not categorically the same. A building that houses the architecture dept or program of a school is a building that may or may not represent that programs architectural aestetic.A lit mag is a
compendium of writing and is not of necessity self referential.And a graphics magazine is a commentary
or instruction manual on a trade.None of these "things" is required to be exemplars of the world of which they speak or refer to. And a good thing too.

By the way, why is that the comments on weblogs are usually more compelling than the bloggers?

Posted by: robert birnbaum on January 3, 2003 09:49 AM

"Prostitutes, ugly buiildings and politicians all get respectable if they last long enough."

- Noah Cross

Posted by: jimbo on January 3, 2003 09:50 AM

Heavens, another impish and offhand posting that generates a lot of comments! While substantial, meaty postings like Friedrich's on Thomas Moran and J.M.W. Turner go relatively uncommented-on. What's wrong with you people? Go read Friedrich on Moran and Turner! It's just a couple of postings down!

That said, and even though I dislike explaining my jokes ... [Heaves hearty sigh]

Joel, not that it matters much, but I've got fancy degrees, have lived and worked in the arts-and-media world for 25 years, and covered it professionally (ineptly and unsuccessfully, but professionally) for much of that time. Qualifications-wise, I do OK. But expertise in the arts is a different matter than expertise in something like science or engineering. In science, the experts agree (and have to) on 99% of what's out there. Opinions and taste? Who cares? To "get" an equation is to understand it, and that's all that counts -- what does it matter what your opinion of it is? In the arts, it's perfectly possible to "get" what someone's doing or what an art work is about and still dislike it, or simply not discover the taste for that kind of thing in yourself. If this weren't so, then we'd be stuck agreeing all the time with the profs, critics and editors -- and what would be the fun in that? (Plus, I don't notice the profs, critics and editors agreeing with each other all that often.)

Tag, I'm glad to see you understood the way I put my joke together if a little puzzled that you seem to be under the impression that I wasn't aware of it. But there's a semi-serious (and really not-very-controversial) point underlying the joke, which is that talented specialists (designers, architects, and writers, for instance) left to their own devices will often create monstrosities. They get -- understandably -- carried away by what turns them on. And they often need input and feedback from the general public to return to their senses.

For an example from another field, think of software engineers. Many (not all, admittedly) of the ones I've met love confronting screensful of code and wrestling with teeny-tiny logic problems; many of them have a barely-concealed contempt for those of us who have no interest in any such thing. Left to their own devices, they'd probably build wildly powerful computers the rest of us couldn't use or enjoy. Thank god -- from the point of view of the general public -- that for whatever reasons they're forced to serve our needs most of the time instead.

The same often holds in the arts, which is why Robert's comments puzzle me. Robert publishes excellent long interviews with literary writers on his site Identity Theory -- you can find a link to it in the left-hand column of this blog. Check it out! It's first-rate.

But Robert, you of all people should be aware of how common the complaint is in the lit reading-and-writing world that too much of what's done there is written to impress other people in that world -- that, in a nutshell, too many workshop writers are writing to impress other workshop writers. I'm hardly the first person to notice this, and hardly the first person to tweak the lit world for its tendency to fold in on itself.

Part of my beat for 15 years was the publishing world, and I can attest that many if not most of the people I knew in that world -- including many who are involved in publishing and selling this stuff -- would privately agree that too much contempo lit writing is awfully ingrown. The reasons why this may be the case can certainly be debated, but the observation itself isn't that uncommon to make.

As for graphic design and architecture, all I can do is ask people to take a look at the designs and buildings that win the awards given by the professions themselves. They're often very beautiful, very talented, and (IMHO, anyway) completely absurd. Like I say, they're often what turn people in the field on more than they are what serves or pleases the rest of us.

Incidentally, for those of you appalled by my suggestion that the writing on sitcoms is often pretty good ... Again, I wasn't aware this is controversial. "The Simpsons," "Seinfeld," "Frazier," "Cheers," the first season of "Sex in the City" -- this is pretty darn skillful stuff. People in other countries marvel at our skill in turning out the occasional really-terrific sitcom. And, if I can be allowed to cite a (yawn) authority figure, no less than the editor of the NYT Book Review section has written essays marveling at how good the writing on some TV shows is.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 3, 2003 11:16 AM

Micheal -

I think the offhand postings generate the most comments because they are the most open ended. They provide a quick jumping-off point for the rest of us to pile in. The long posts on Turner and Moran, as excellent and interesting as they are, just don't seem to leave a lot to say. Maybe if I knew more about the topic, I could heartily agree with you or tell you you're all wet. But as it is, I can only nod along.

I dunno. Someone needs to do a dissertation on blog comment sections. It's a ripe topic...

Posted by: jimbo on January 3, 2003 11:51 AM

I just came across this article by Philip Langdon via Arts & Letters daily & thought it might be up your alley. Then I saw this posting, which includes a mention of architecture. It seemed like a good tie-in.

The article discusses the need for new architecture to always be radical at the expense of the public. Instead, Langdon advocates for architecture "building" on tested forms. By way of explanation, the author contrasts two colleges campuses in-depth as well as naming other examples. One college campus has a building that was meant to be a radical artistic statement but seems inhuman (at least to Langdon and probably its inhabitants); while the other example is a set of buildings tied visually through materials and proportions to old, established campus designs.

Years ago, I came across an article on the architecture of aesthetic regionalism, I believe (the book that the article was published in, unfortunately, is in a moving box). Anyway, the author argued for buildings that take into account the particular traits of the regions they are set in, work with the landscape and the needs of the clients, and are energy efficient. I don't know how many people paid attention to his article because it was published 20 years ago, and we're still struggling with these concepts. However, if you ever study Frank Lloyd Wright's more cogent writings on his thought processes about architecture, or if you've ever gotten into one of his buildings and thought, "aaah," I think you'll find he was hitting on the same ideas, just starting a century ago.

Posted by: Keiran on January 3, 2003 10:30 PM

I take a back seat to no one when wit, charm and humor trump casuistry at a dinner party conversation. But because—which means there is, at the moment, very little of either— I am providing the sustenance and stimulants here, I am of a more serious (one could say cranky) mind set. Thus, I am actually trying to deal with the issue that was initially proposed above. Are architecture schools the ugliest buildings on campuses? It’s interesting assertion posed by a provocative mind. Of course, no examples are cited, so perhaps there is some conventional wisdom afoot in this area that I am not aware of (by the way, speaking of ugly buildings, I would nominate the former Soviet Embassy in Havana as the world’s ugliest building [I think a photo is available in Robert Polidori’s book on Havana]). Better writing often found in sit-coms than in literary magazines? Again, no examples, as is the case with the condemnation of graphics magazines.

I wonder if the real target of Michael’s ire isn’t the writing program boom and its effects on literature in the English speaking world. It may be true that apprentice writers are writing for other [apprentice] writers but I can’t for the life of me see that as a problem. The thing that is basic to writing is reading. Even bad writers can be good readers. But that aside for the moment, this writing program critical backlash has caused more than a few writers that I have spoken with to eschew listing their academic training from their dust jacket CVs…

Let me cut to chase here {my loyal and patient hound Rosie wants to go off into the blizzard outside my door) in the form of a few assertions of my own which may have illuminate (I hope). We are not currently suffering from a lack of good literature (any one that thinks so, please contact me and I will be happy to provide recommendations). The greater danger to good writing is the sheer arbitrariness of the publishing machine. Also, the centralization of publishing in New York mitigates against certain kinds of books. Or more accurately, seems to promote certain styles to the exclusion of others. Not everything in lit magazines is great (there are after all editors who make editorial decisions—people like you and me) and saying that writers write for other writers is not the worst or even a bad thing to say. I would, and do, worry more about the way money influences publishing— I recently read some joking commentary that bemoaned the recent fashion of New York writers dedicating their books to their agents and editors instead of their long suffering families and mates. Maybe the unexamined assumption present in this issue is about arbiters and gatekeepers. Who are they? What are their credentials? What is a test of their judgments? All questions that I hope someone addresses as Rosie is losing her patience and will be seeking revenge in her own charming and witty manner…

Posted by: robert birnbaum on January 4, 2003 08:55 AM

My girlfriend and I have spent the last year with design students in Italy. This experience leads to this version of the question: "Why is it that designers really want to design products that no one could ever use?"

We were reminded of this on hearing of a comment from a high-end restaurateur recently: "Of course, you need to make sure the chefs choose dishes that normal people will actually want to eat."

My own experience with comedy groups raises this question: "Why do comedy groups have to fight not to make jokes that are only funny to them?"

Afficianados make up a little community. A passionate little community is own world with its own standards.

Posted by: alexis on January 7, 2003 09:04 AM

Kieran -- Thanks for pointing out that Philip Langdon piece. He's good, isn't he. I'd love to see his arguments wrestled with more often in the mainstream press. Instead we get (sigh) yet more appreciations of Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, etc. One of whose designs for a huge building in Beijing, I notice, was recently described as "unlike anything on any urban skyline." This was meant as praise.

Alexis -- design students, chefs, comedy-class people: excellent, many thanks.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 8, 2003 07:24 PM

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