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  1. Free Reads -- Philosoblog and Envy
  2. Magazine Culture Redux
  3. TV Alert
  4. Tacit Knowledge -- Polaroid
  5. The Economics of Elvis reredux
  6. Bye-Bye Movies, Hello Digishorts
  7. Economics of Elvis Redux
  8. On-Stage Ads
  9. Free Reads -- John Allen Paulos
  10. Keats and British Acting

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Saturday, October 19, 2002

Free Reads -- Philosoblog and Envy
Friedrich -- A new find: Jim Ryan's engrossing Philosoblog, here. It's a robust and invigorating pleasure going along for the ride as Ryan pulls questions apart and turns issues over. Action philosophy! Sample passage: Is there ever something wrong with forcing someone to do his duty? Is there always something wrong with it? Clearly the answer to the latter question is no. It's not wrong to force someone to fulfill his contracts, for example. Is it wrong to force someone to go take his aged parents a hot meal once a week? Is it wrong for the state to do that? Yes. Because it's too intrusive? Or because the state is likely to botch the job? The latter. There is nothing wrong with a perfectly wise and good entity applying pressure to slackers who are lax in their duty. The state is too far from wise and good, however, and shouldn't be trusted with certain intrusions into personal affiars. That bouquet thrown, on to the fun. Ryan has a couple of brainy recent postings dealing with moral relativism, and with leftie-ism more generally. Where do these tendencies come from? Here's Ryan's theory: Misfits will envy the happy and well-adjusted. The poor and their leaders are not the only elements of the progressivist left. The movement needs a middle management class, and it has one. These are the college-educated middle class who don’t fit in and who have been hoodwinked by the leadership into feeling guilt about their wealth. They join the movement because they are bored and restless. It comes down to envy and resentment, in other words. (Aaron Haspel at God of the Machine, here, adds some brainiac words of his own on the subject.) I've run across this "envy" explanation before, for example in Helmut Schoeck's book "Envy," and while it's clearly a contribution and explains a lot, I've never found it entirely convincing. I think a more nuanced and sympathetic explanation is called for. I live, play and work among vast crowds of lefties and find their motives for being leftie fairly numerous. A common one: the desire to fit in with a certain group. Lots of people don't give the big questions much thought. Wanting to lead a certain kind of life, they take on the colors of that life. If the crowd you want to run with is leftie, you'll probably go along with leftie-ism. Why not? So: Where's the envy? There's also the fact that being a leftie seems to make a lot of people feel young and rebellious. For whatever reason, it's a cooler, hipper attitude than rightie-ism. As lefties, they can feel that they haven't given totally in yet -- fuck the Power and rock out, man. An amazing number of people cling to this attitude even after they've got houses and kids and sit in the boss's office. Again: where's the envy? But this is a cultureblog, so the motivation I encounter that interests me most is this one: leftie-ism is... posted by Michael at October 19, 2002 | perma-link | (11) comments

Magazine Culture Redux
Michael As I browsed a magazine stand recently I was surprised to see an essay by Shelby Steele in the November issue of Harpers. Moreover, it had the extremely un-Harperian title of "The Age of White Guilt and the Disappearance of the Black Individual." Puzzled, I bought the magazine, and discovered that the essay is exactly what it sounds like. As Harpers does not divulge content on the Internet, the following is an excerpt from this excellent essay: What is white guilt? It is not a personal sense of remorse over past wrongs. White guilt is literally a vacuum of moral authority in matters of race, equality and opportunity that comes from the association of mere white skin with America’s historical racism. It is the stigmatization of whites and, more importantly, American institutions with the sin of racism. Under this stigma white individuals and American institutions must perpetually prove a negative—that they are not racist—to gain enough authority to function in matters of race, equality, and opportunity. If they fail to prove the negative, they will be seen as racists. Political correctness, diversity policies, and multiculturalism are forms of deference that give whites and institutions a way to prove the negative and win reprieve from the racist stigma…The fact is that affirmative action has been a very effective racial policy in garnering moral authority and legitimacy for institutions, and it is now institutions--not individual whites or blacks--that are fighting to keep it alive. But I still can't figure out what this essay is doing in Lewis H. Lapham's (you must not forget the "H") sandbox. This is still the same guy who writes, in his "Notebook" column: At ground zero, [President Bush] presented himself as a humble man of God, comforting the faithful in their time of trouble, at the United Nations as an impatient and angry general shaking the fist of war at Saddam Hussein. In neither setting did it matter whether he, or anybody else, understood what he was saying. The congregation at ground zero didn't ask for words, and if the summons to a descent on Baghdad proceeded from premises both illogical and false (about Iraq's store of nuclear weapons and its stature as a great power) to an imbecile conclusion (that Iraq transform itself into the state of Connecticut or suffer the penalty of extinction) what difference did it make?...But if it is no disgrace for any country at any particular time in its history to rest content among the relics of a lost language and an imaginary past, it is a matter of some interest in a country that possesses the power to poison the earth without possessing either the means or desire to know itself. As best I can tell from the entire column, which runs an exhausting 2400 words, Lewis H. Lapham is saying either that he would make a much better President than George W. Bush, or that he would make a much better magazine essayist than George W. Bush, or that... posted by Friedrich at October 19, 2002 | perma-link | (4) comments

TV Alert
Friedrich -- We postmoderns tend to take for granted how well-off we are in terms of access to entertainment. You've got the Web and cable TV? Then you're in better shape to enjoy the fruits of the cultural world than any pre-1950s king or queen. Here's a Clip and Save guide to the upcoming week on cable. *Rising Sun (HBO Saturday at 3 a.m.). Philip Kaufman directs Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes in an adaptation of Michael Crichton's Japanophobe novel. Semi-effective as a thriller; sharp and sophisticated as a comedy about multiculuralism. *Training Day (Cinemax, Tues at 8 pm; Wednesday at 3 am; Fri at 10 pm). Denzel's Oscar-winning performance, and a snappy, gritty urban thriller in its own right. Ethan Hawke does a beautiful job setting off Denzel's performance, by the way. Second bananas deserve credit too. *Vanya on 42nd Street (IFC; Monday at 10 am and 4 pm; Tuesday at 8 a.m.). The sublime Louis Malle/Andre Gregory/Wallace Shawn adaptation of Chekhov's play. See what ensemble acting is really about. *Sweet Smell of Success (TCM; Sunday at 6 pm). This urban tale about tabloid Manhattan stars Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, and was directed by Alexander Mackendrick. A flop when it first came out, it's now a legend, and helped establish a tough, flamboyant New York style. You'll see where a lot of Scorsese's style comes from. *Antonio Banderas is interviewed on Inside the Actor's Studio (Bravo; Sunday at 8 pm). *Joy Ride (Cinemax, Sunday at 10 pm, Thursday 11 am and 8 pm), a low-key but genuinely scary (and very handsome) thriller. Directed by John ("Red Rock West") Dahl. *The Making of 'Gone With the Wind' (TCM, Wednesday at 8 pm). I'm not a fan of the movie that is this documentary's subject, but the story of the film's production should be fascinating. *A Men Who Made the Movies hour on the director Raoul Walsh (TCM, Friday at 7 pm) *On A&E's American Justice, host Bill Kurtis can take a little getting used to, but he and his show do a terrific job of presenting stories of crimes and criminals. This week's episodes include *An hour on the disappearance of the famous atheist Madalynn Murray O'Hair (9-10 pm Wednesday) *An hour on Karla Faye Tucker, a Texas double-murderer (Wed., 10-11 pm) *An hour entitled Girl in the Box (Saturday, 5 pm), about a strange kidnapper/kindappee case. He kidnapped a hitchiker and made her his sex slave for seven years. Horrifying. But she never seems to have made any effort to escape. Perplexing. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 19, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Tacit Knowledge -- Polaroid
Friedrich -- Polanyi: How can we know what we don't know we know? Have you run across Michael Polanyi's concept of "tacit knowledge"? The idea is, roughly, that there are two kinds of knowledge -- "explicit knowledge," which is consciously learned and consciously held, and "tacit knowledge," which undergirds everything else. Tacit knowledge is what we "just know"; it's knowledge we don't think about, that we've somehow picked up along the way. "Explicit knowledge" would be knowing, for example, how to use Photoshop. But think of the volume of "tacit knowledge" that has to be present in order to make that explicit knowledge possible -- familiarity with machines, with electricity, with how digital imagery works... Polanyi was a fascinating guy, by the way. I'd think that anyone whose brain buzzes to the ideas of Hayek or Sowell would get a charge out of him. You can explore Polanyi and his ideas here, here and here. Which is a long-winded way of kicking off an occasional new 2blowhards feature, Tacit Knowledge: an ongoing attempt to put into words things that are known but aren't known to be known, and to bring a few widely-known-but-generally-unacknowledged things out into the open. Though, depending on our mood, it's also likely to degenerate into another 2blowhards way to have a little mischievous fun. And in that spirit, here's Entry #1. An executive once told me this story: She was on a business flight and found herself sitting next to a guy who worked for Polaroid. He had a few drinks, and started to talk about his employer. "We don't kid ourselves," he said. "We know what most of our cameras are being used for. Lots of photos of the kids. And then...." -- and he cocked a flirtatious eyebrow. Do you suspect, as I do, that "being able to shoot ourselves having sex without anyone else knowing" also helps explain the popularity of videocameras and digital cameras? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 19, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Friday, October 18, 2002

The Economics of Elvis reredux
Michael You ask what direction would I like to see copyright law take as we move further into the age of perfect and easy replication? Based on what I learned writing my posting, “The Economics of Elvis,” I’m not so sure copyright law should take much of a direction at all. When a new copyright law is passed, it’s always justified as an attempt to protect the property rights of innovative people from some current threat (whether mechanical reproduction in 1909 or digital piracy in 2002). Once this “hole” in intellectual property rights is patched, things will work “like everyone knows they should.” But intellectual property is subject to the law of unintended consequences big time. What has commonly happened is that once the lawmakers have applied their backward looking "patch," we discover that they've gone and created entirely new property rights, often in industries undreamt-of when the law was passed. For example, was it really a matter of course that songwriters (or, in reality, their corporate successors) should own the radio rights to their songs? How about television rights? Did anyone know how much money would be involved in either the radio or the television rights when the bill that granted these rights was debated—in 1897? Of course not; the congressmen of 1897 felt bad for songwriters because they couldn't charge royalties for performance of their music, a power that dramatists had enjoyed for performances of their plays for 50 years. But this decision had a whole series of unforeseen impacts that extend to this day. Another troubling consequence of the creation of such expanded intellectual property rights is impact this has on the creative "temperature" of an industry. Corporations are money-making entities, not creative entities. They are not in business for the joy of innovation or the joy of making “art.” A portfolio of intellectual property of demonstrated popularity that can be risklessly exploited offers the illusion of security in a notoriously unpredictable environment. (For one example, think of the profits the current generation of Disney managers has extracted from their control of Walt Disney's portfolio of intellectual property.) This path, however, leads directly away from the risk taking and experimentation of trying to develop products for new, poorly defined markets. Unproven markets will always be inherently dicey for large companies, because it is genuinely unlikely that such markets can generate enough sales to provide a good return on the organization’s large amounts of invested capital. The net result is a conservative, play-it-safe tendency to pursue strategies that have yielded mass sales and large profits in the past, and that, if possible, don’t make existing inventory “obsolete.” While apparently rational, such a strategy will also generally fail to flush out the new, urgent wants/needs in society that can serve as the basis for a radically enlarged market. In my piece I used the example of music industry’s failure to identify and exploit the demand for “race” music for twenty years, and for “hillbilly” music for fifteen years—because the... posted by Friedrich at October 18, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Bye-Bye Movies, Hello Digishorts
Friedrich -- I dragged the Wife to an evening at ResFest, a touring festival of films made with digital equipment that happens to be in NYC this week. We watched a collection of shorts. A perfectly enjoyable and interesting way to spend an evening, like visiting a show of student art work. You're unlikely to be moved or touched, but it's genuinely interesting to see the kind of work that's being done. (And you know that the kind of thing you're seeing is going to show up elsewhere soon.) Some notes on the evening: *What was most striking was how cheerful, young and attractive the crowd was. Remember the grubby and political NY Film Festival audience? How much they loved rooting for the avant-garde against the powers that be, and siding with the artists against the awful and fascist moneymen? None of that here. These kids were pulled-together and attentive, and they looked like they were going home after the show to get back to work on their own digital projects. We're all mediamakers now. *Another striking thing was how little the films -- videos, really: shot on digital video, edited on computers, and projected digitally -- had to do with traditional movie language, or traditional movie values. The basis for what these computer-and-video kids are doing -- the elements of the language they're using -- is ads and rock videos. Quick cutting, multiple screens, lots of floating and flashing words, image processing, sounds that claw at your eardrums. Hyperbolic, glamorous-but-edgy -- these are the terms these young artists see themselves in. This is their language, and they seem to like veering back and forth between pumpy, hyped-up effects and a gritty "reality-TV" look. As artists, they seem completely uninformed by movie history, let alone by the rest of the history of art. They seem to come completely out of magazines, pop music, and video, and to want to do little but orchestrate effects. *The avant garde is here, now -- not that anyone's giving this fact a second's thought. Multiple screens, windows within windows, image and sound processing -- all this comes standard with any G4. You want multidimensonality? You want multiple perspectives? You want an absence of objectivity and a writhing mass of warring subjectivities instead? Click here. *The visual quality of the shorts was ok-to-pretty-good: functional, a little watery, as though the theater lights were too high. (They weren't.) Parts of the screen sometimes pixillate, stripey objects go all zany -- and for a couple of seconds you watch the background rather than the action... Video/computer-image quality has quite a ways to go, although it has now crossed the "acceptable" line. *This being a young scene, you'd expect the sound system to be a corker, and it was. Digital sound quality is miles ahead of visual quality. It's freakily good. You're right in the middle of every noise. The slightest shimmer becomes its own event happening all around you, the sound of glass breaking creates as elaborate... posted by Michael at October 18, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Economics of Elvis Redux
Friedrich -- Many thanks for explaining the business history behind the pop-music business. I'd always wondered what the hell ASCAP and BMI were, and had supposed they were sinister cartels. Nice to know that I was right. In old-fart moments (more and more frequent these days), I tell young people to go into copyright law. It'll be a happening field for decades; adjusting the laws pertaining to creation and ownership isn't going to be easy in the digital age, and the only people certain to do well are the lawyers. In the midst of these disputes, my sympathies tend to be with the artists, although I try not to be too, too sentimental about this. But I'm a know-nothing -- or, given the couple of stories about copyright I helped out with, a know-little. You're a student of the issues. What direction would you like to see copyright law take as we move further into the age of perfect and easy replication? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 18, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

On-Stage Ads
Friedrich -- Vanessa O'Connell in the WSJ (not online, at least not for free) reports that billboards for Piper-Hiedsick and Montblanc -- paid-for ads -- will be part of the onstage scenery of the much-anticipated upcoming Broadway production of "La Boheme." (Much-anticipated because it's being directed by Baz -- "Moulin Rouge" -- Luhrmann.) Sample passage: "'This is an example of a deal where you can service the art and service the business,' says Jeffrey Seller, a producer of 'La Boheme.'...'The economics of live theater are always challenging, especially because we have to persuade people to buy $95 and $100 tickets'." My suggestion to people who are bugged by product placements? Skip the kinds of productions that are likely to feature them. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 18, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Free Reads -- John Allen Paulos
Friedrich -- In, here, John Allen Paulos looks at how and why people seem more responsive to stories than they do to rationality. His conclusion? Because it's natural. Not much a conclusion, but convincing nonetheless. Sample passage: Consider ... the media coverage of last year’s Institute of Medicine report on the inordinate number of deaths due to medical mismanagement. Much of it focused on doctors’ egregious mistakes — amputating the wrong leg, say — and not on the many small changes in the system that could save tens of thousands of lives annually. Again, misbehavior seems to attract more attention than inefficient routines even when the latter kill more people. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 18, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Keats and British Acting
Friedrich -- I just finished listening to an audiobook of selected poems by John Keats, read by a variety of classy British actors. What a pleasing thing it is to listen to poetry on audiobook -- for some reason, much of the worshipful-English-major shellac comes off, and the experience seems more direct. Poetry! What a fun medium! Finite little verbal things, there to be enjoyed! Or not! Keats: Melancholy baby A couple of quick reflections, as well as questions. *Does romantic poetry bug you as much as it does me? I can take Keats a lot more easily than some other Romantics. He seems more interested in form, the pre-Raphaelite-esque fantasies have their charm, and he wrote a few surprisingly down-to-earth (and even funkily erotic) bits. But the damn effusions, the coddled sensitivity, the willed epiphanies -- arggggh. The emotional exhibitionism of the Romantics can really get on my nerves. I wonder, though, if I'm annoyed more by what Romanticism is, or more by its influence and impact. Romanticism has so much shaped how we think of the arts -- and to my mind in largely idiotic ways. Our image of "the artist," our ideas about art as inspiration and expression -- it's all still basically Romantic. I (grudgingly) understand that some Romantic notions have some validity. But enough to explain the scale of their impact? These ideas (and fantasies) seem to be like highly addictive drugs. Though I'd prefer to see people kick the habit entirely, there's no avoiding the conclusion that, in evo-bio terms, Romanticism has been quite a success. I wonder why. Your theories? *I also find myself wondering about something I've often puzzled over, which is this: why do I find English actresses generally very easy to take, while English male actors often embarrass me? The women often seem to have the best of all acting worlds -- great technique plus immediacy, rootedness, and sensuality. The technique enhances the being and the reacting. The men, on the other hand, carry on, gush and declaim -- it's like an excruciating form of Kabuki. I cringe. I wonder if this preening is the English-male-actor way of demonstrating virility and dynamism. (If so, what does that say about the English?) On the Keats tape, the actresses read the poems straightforwardly while the men seem to feel driven to "perform." They bellow, they whisper, they tremble. I want to say, Boys, please! Enough! The contrast with the women is so great that it's as if the women and the men have evolved separate -- and by now only distantly related -- schools of acting. How did this happen? What's your reaction these days to English actors? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 18, 2002 | perma-link | (1) comments

The Economics of Elvis
Michael Perhaps you noticed the following in the October 12 issue of the Economist: The war over control of the digital copying of music and movies has many fronts, in Congress and the marketplace as well as the courts. It has pitted Hollywood against the technology firms of Silicon Valley and consumer advocates such as Mr. Lessig. The record industry succeeded in killing Napster this year, but file-sharing by consumers is growing; on-line swapping of films and TV shows, as well as music, is catching on. America’s frightened media behemoths are lobbying hard for new laws and new technology to stop copying and to control what customers do with their products. While the fight over the control of digital music rages, a look at history suggests that many of struggles of today echo the battles fought in the music industry over the past century. (My account is largely based on the work of Russell and David Sanjek in "American Popular Music Business in the 20th Century" and Peter Hall's "Cities in Civilization.") In the late 19th century, practitioners of the music “content” industry clustered in New York’s Tin Pan Alley. Songwriters primarily made money by selling their product to music publishers, who in turn sold sheet music to consumers who wanted to play the music at home. However, when in 1891 the first major revision of copyright law in one hundred years was passed, the music publishers “saw the light.” In 1895 the Music Publishers Association (MPA) of the United States was formed, and within two years had successfully lobbied Congress for additional copyright legislation, giving them the power to license (i.e., demand royalties for) public performance of their work—a right which they had never previously possessed. The music publishers were fed up with the money (i.e., payola) that vaudeville was sucking out of them. (Musical vaudeville performances were the chief advertising medium for new songs.) Armed with their new intellectual property right, the music publishers decided to turn vaudeville from a cost center into a revenue source. In 1913 they formed ASCAP, the American Society of Composers and Publishers, and announced that ASCAP would prevent the playing of all copyrighted music at any public function unless a royalty was paid. ASCAP chose from the beginning to pool the funds it received (that is, they weren’t divided according to the exactly calculated earnings of each song). ASCAP’s distributions deliberately favored the larger music publishers and the most popular songwriters. ASCAP’s bargaining power came from the perception that it controlled the most popular, most “mainstream” music, and it had to keep the major players on board to maintain its clout. A big source of royalties that started to roll in (an unintended benefit of the 1897 copyright law) came from the recorded music industry. These grew healthily until 1921. However, when this total began shrinking the next year, ASCAP easily identified the culprit: free music from the nation’s infant radio industry. And ASCAP knew what to do about it. In 1922,... posted by Friedrich at October 18, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Report From Texas redux
Friedrich -- Thanks for passing along the story about Joni Rogers, who sounds like quite a wit, and quite an honest woman too. As a survivor (so far) of prostate cancer, I'm happy as well to endorse the accuracy of her observations. I'd add only that -- well, I'd add a lot, but I'm sure she'd add a lot too. Suffice it to say that the moment when you hear your doctor deliver the words, "I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but we found a little cancer in you," life takes a very big turn, and is (apparently) never again quite the same thing. Some months after my surgery, I was awake at 4 or so one morning, unable to sleep, and basically miserable, grateful and terrified, though what was swirling through my head on a superficial level was something piteous like "Will life never return to normal?" And it occurred to me that maybe it never would return to what I'd once considered normal. That particular "normal" was, for me, done and gone. I wish I could say that, having come to this realization, I was instantly able to reconcile myself to my new life. But I'd be lying. Best, if often knocking on wood, Michael... posted by Michael at October 18, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Report from Texas
Michael One of our correspondents writes that she attended an interesting luncheon recently featuring Joni Rogers, a cancer survivor who has written a book called "Bald in the Land of Big Hair." A few of Ms. Roger’s observations: In regards to the stupid platitudes that people cough up with when someone has a cancer diagnosis, like "God never gives us more than we can handle," the only two topics that this is actually true about are money and cleavage. While the saying "That which does not kill us makes us stronger" is true, it is also about as comforting as "Your seat cushion can be used as a flotation device." Just after receiving a cancer diagnosis is no time to make new friends. "Hi---I am a great sucking black hole of emotional need, and all my hair is going to fall out----want to be my friend???" Cheers, Friedrich P.S. Our correspondent agrees with your wife about two things: (a) that you ARE jealous of her relationship with pastry and (b) if men really did want to get laid as much as they say they do, they would in fact learn to cook. (“I bet most men don't even know how sexy that is.”)... posted by Friedrich at October 18, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Evo Bio Questions -- Acne
Friedrich -- I couldn't be happier that evolutionary-biology thinking has been flourishing, and at the progress it's made in pushing aside the old models -- Marx, Freud, deconstruction, all of which have long outlived their usefulness, assuming they ever had any. And I couldn't be more eager to see evo-bio forms of thinking make more inroads in the arts. That said, there are questions the evo-bio crowd hasn't addressed that I'd like to see them take on. The first one is acne. What kind of evo-bio sense does it make that acne is so common during puberty? I don't think other animals suffer from it -- perhaps you, or some of our readers, know better. Why do we? Acne is so common among human teens that it should probably be considered a standard feature of adolescence. It's uncomfortable, humiliating, and disfiguring. Where's the evolutionary advantage in any of that? What exactly is being selected for? I seem to recall someone theorizing that acne might be a way of discouraging humans from procreating until they're past it, the idea being that acne is so gross that kids will avoid sex until they have the acne under control. It's a try, which I appreciate, but I'm not sure it stands up. Where's the evidence that teens avoid sex? Or that people are prone to have more sex after adolescence than during adolescence? Or that acne plays a role in people's decisions whether or not to have sex? Do we have to settle for an explanation along the lines of "well, it's an unintended consequence of blah blah blah"? That'd be lame. Evo bio people -- give me your ideas! Best, if still recovering from adolescence, Michael... posted by Michael at October 18, 2002 | perma-link | (2) comments

Thursday, October 17, 2002

Derbyshire on taxes
Friedrich -- Most of the arguments I've seen in favor of smaller government have been based on such notions as justice, fairness, and practicality. John Derbyshire at National Review Online, here, adds an appealing new one to that list -- a decent sense of courtesy. Sample passage: There is no such thing as "government money." There is only money seized from citizens and corporations by force of law, to be used with care, wisely, for common purposes agreed by practically all citizens to be essential. These funds are a sacred trust, earned by our people from the sweat of their brows, and handed over to their elected representatives reluctantly, but in the citizenly belief that they will contribute to the good of the nation. [But in 2002,]public finance is a huge suck-and-blow machine, vacuuming up money out of your pocket and mine, and spraying it out at the other end on powerful interest groups — unions, trial lawyers, well-connected corporations, foreigners who hate us. Public money a sacred trust? Ha ha ha ha ha! Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 17, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Free Reads -- Saddam's Sons
Friedrich -- Fabulous reporting in this Newsweek piece about Saddam Hussein's sons, here. Evan Thomas, Christopher Dickey, Colin Soloway and others turn up scads of amazingly unappetizing details about this amazingly unappetizing family. Old-fashioned newsweekly-team journalism at its best. Sample passage: Saddam has always believed in the symbolic power of mutilation. “Under torture, the high and mighty are quite literally exposed as being made of the same stuff as everyone else,” writes Kanan Makiya in his study of Saddam’s Iraq, “Republic of Fear.” As Iraqi ruler, Saddam delivered the broken bodies of his victims to their families. He was aiming at the creation of “a new man” in Iraq, just as Hitler and Stalin had tried to do in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. He may well have made his sons into psychopaths. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 17, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Free Reads -- Paul Johnson
Friedrich -- A freebie online treat from the Wall Street Journal, which doesn't give much away for free: the historian Paul Johnson, who always writes with vigor, brains and perspective, explaining why Europe carries on as it does, here. Sample passage: We have to remember that twice in the 20th century, Europe came close to committing suicide by wars that in retrospect seem senseless. These were followed by a Cold War that imprisoned much of Europe in a cage of fear. In this process, Europe, a collection of vigorous peoples who pushed forward the frontiers of civilization for a thousand years and created the modern world, learned to opt for a safety-first existence in which comforts and short-term security became the object of policy. They sought a cozy Utopia, with risk and pain eliminated. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 17, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Free Reads -- Steve Sailer
Friedrich -- I love checking in on the protean Steve Sailer (here). He writes enlighteningly about evolutionary biology, he writes sensible political commentary, and he writes smart, brave, always-worth-wrestling-with things about race and immigration. (A standout piece on whether or not the concept of race has any validity is here.) In addition to all that, he's a movie critic who takes a distinctive approach to thinking about movies, treating their business and popular history not in the usual way (as gossip and matter for facile sociology) but as evidence of what works and what doesn't in the art form. It's a kind of evo-bio approach to writing about the arts -- let's see more of that. He even manages to get off the occasional good, yet informative, anti-P.C. crack, as he does in a review (here) of the Navajos-in-WW2 thriller "Windtalkers." Sample passage: The screenwriters...are so terrified of being accused of stereotyping Native Americans that they portray the Navajo with no particular traits. Look, you can't "celebrate diversity" unless you show some diversity. In reality, the Navajo are fascinating. They are possibly the most economically dynamic of all tribes. They were originally invaders from Canada who arrived in the Southwest not long before the conquistadors. Acquiring sheep from white people, they prudently shifted from hunting and gathering to herding, weaving, and crafts manufacturing. While the rest of the Native American population was in catastrophic decline due to European diseases, weapons and alcohol, the Navajo exploded in numbers, much to the distress of their neighbors and rivals, the more conservative Hopi tribe. You won't find that kind of thing in Film Comment. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 17, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

DVD Journal: "Rollerball"; "The Shipping News"; "Donnie Darko"; "Monster's Ball"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- The Wife and I had a DVD orgy over the long weekend, managing to watch four movies without sitting all the way through any of them. A good reason to love DVDs is that they give you the ability to bop around inside a movie and get to know it in the same way you can get to know a book by paging around inside it. No need, if you aren't completely taken by the work, to labor your way through every little bit of it. The remake of Rollerball is certainly the stupidest movie ever made, although redeemed, if only for 5 seconds, by a few shots of Rebecca Romijn topless. Cute! The Shipping News was beige and painful beyond belief despite Cate Blanchett, who has a few tiptop minutes as a doomed, high-strung working-class sexpot. I love some of Lasse Hallstrom's movies ("Cider House Rules," "What's Eating Gilbert Grape") but here his taciturnity gets pretty opaque. Donnie Darko is an oddball pretentious gen-Y art thing in the guise of a dysfunctional-suburbia horror/sci-fi thing -- "American Beauty" meets David Lynch meets a Moby video, basically. The youngster who made it is certainly talented, and his movie did make me think "whither the cinema" thoughts that I won't bug you with. But he's also the winner of this week's "get back to me when you have a little life experience" award. I have to admit I enjoyed hating Monster's Ball, a Euro-fantasy of southern bigotry and insanity that has a handsome, German-art-photo-book design. But I'm a sucker for suave Eurosleaziness, at least the sexy stylishness of it. (The movie doesn't look anything like what the south actually looks like.) But it also has one of those two-messed-up-and-desperate-losers-make-some-kind-of-pathetic-connection narratives, and a boring "issue" -- racism. What would Europeans do with themselves if they couldn't sneer at Americans? Billy Bob Thornton is passable, but Halle Barry's a really, and I mean really, terrible actress, always reaching for (and never coming close to grasping) an appropriate emotion. I hit the normal-speed button so I could give the infamous fuck scene my full attention. It was hot, arty, and pretentious, just like I like 'em. So I watched it again. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 16, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Non Negotiable Demands reredux
Michael I’m not normally a big one for movie sequels, but I was pleased to read in the Los Angeles Times of October 15 that a sequel to the film “Barbershop,” is planned. The film, which I was also heartened to note is still in the national top ten in weekly grosses, has pulled in $65 million to date domestically. In the end, the film’s politically controversial inclusion of irreverent remarks about black civil rights figures has not caused a backlash; apparently the Rev. Al Sharpton’s threat of a boycott of the releasing studio, MGM, is not going to materialize. I think the director, Tim Story, deserves the last word: At the end of the day, [the controversy] became conversation, which is the only thing we ever wished it would be. Cheers, Friedrich P.S.—I also note that “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” made (like Barbershop) for a paltry sum, has so far brought in $160 million at the box office—a significantly greater amount than, say “Minority Report” (starring Tom Cruise and directed by Steven Spielberg) earned. Hee, hee.... posted by Friedrich at October 16, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Artistic Quote of the Day
Michael A quote from John Walker’s “Constable”: [Constable] found beauty in everything that grows: weeds as well as flowers. He once corrected a lady, who, when looking at an engraving of a house, called it an “ugly thing.” In what was virtually a reprimand, he stated one of his fundamental beliefs. “No madam,” he said, “there is nothing ugly; I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may,--light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful. I think Constable has put a finger on something rather larger than art here; that is, a tendency (which I am far too ready to indulge) to dismiss whole chunks of life as not “measuring up” to our assumptions about what is beautiful, desirable, pleasurable or profitable. As a result, I, at any rate, am constantly in danger of not enjoying life as much as I should as a consequence of pre-conceived ideas—the most idiotic explanation imaginable! (And something approaching what I, for want of a better term, would describe as a mortal sin.) I hereby resolve to do better. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at October 16, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Gross Over-Generalizations -- Women and Baked Goods
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Mood heighteners? What is it with women and baked goods? Last night, for example, I was at dinner with the Wife and a woman friend when the talk turned to food and thence to baked goods. The two women lit up: Which bakeries are are the best right now? Have you tried this pastry? How about that one? What about that recipe that was in the Times? And where do you buy your bread? The two gals were still happily discussing these pressing matters when the dessert menu arrived and gave the topic another boost. I can certainly enjoy a good piece of bread, but I don't have much to add to these conversations. Do you? Bakeries and pastries .... I've got as much to say about them as I do about manta rays or weather balloons. Plus there's the fact that sweet, chewy, grainy things just don't mean that much to me. Since it seems to be law that eating a lot of them will make you fat, I simply don't eat them. It's no big sacrifice. But women! Their moods go up and down; they really, really care. They feel better when they can have something sweet. They give the bread or cake or cookie a good look and feel before placing it in the mouth. They're crushed if they have to deny themselves a brioche. Becoming a woman in Paris Leafing through some evo-bio book a few years ago, I came across a passage where the (woman) author was writing about differences between women and men. She had looked at tons of cultures, modern and ancient. And her conclusion? She wrote that, if it were possible to factor out all variables, she'd bet that the the biggest difference between the sexes would prove to be that women would spend most of their time searching out and fussing over food, and men would spend most of their time and energy pursuing sex. Sounds about right to me. To you? Thiebaud likes painting them more than eating them Even allowing for many exceptions (male pastry chefs and bread bakers, for instance), doesn't it seem that women show an amazing affinity for cakey, moist things that tend to the sweet? (I recall, if dimly, some passage in Virginia Woolf where she referred to women and their gabble and their little cakes....) There are male customers at the local high-end bakery, but not many. It isn't men who make a detour just to see "what's in the window of that cute little patisserie over there." I don't recall ever seeing a table of non-gay men babbling while passing around and around a dish of little colored cookies. Look at the expressions on the faces of the women in the photos accompanying this posting -- angelic, foolish, "caught," eager, blissed-out. You get the impression that they could spend their lives with their hands in the cookie jar. And the symbolism of "the cookie jar" ... When... posted by Michael at October 16, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Poussin redux
Michael Your posting on Poussin reminded me of an observation by Delacroix (who was an extremely intelligent art critic.) Delacroix proposes a dichotomy between the way Classical Greeks and the Rennaissance Italians perceived and communicated form. He points out that the Greeks perceived complex forms (e.g., nude people) as a series of overlapping geometric volumes, like those of an amphora. One Amphora: a Vase Because of the underlying geometry of each of these volumes, we can perceive not only the shape of each amphora “unit” but also its orientation, the “tilt” of its central axis. Many Amphorae: A Greek Torso, 5th Century B.C. In contradistinction, the Italians of the early Renaissance grasped a form by its surface planes or its contour lines. Note the harsh planes and angular, chopped outlines of Antonio Pollaiuolo's Hercules and Antaeus of 1470: No Amphora Here On the basis of this dichotomy, Delacroix claimed that from an examination of Poussin’s drawings that the French Baroque artist’s sense of form was Greek rather than Italian—that Poussin felt objects by their centers and not by their edges. Poussin's Acis and Galatea: Obviously Greek I just knew you couldn’t sleep at night without this information. Cheers and sweet dreams, Friedrich P.S. I couldn't resist tossing in Poussin’s self-portrait; it’s one of my favorite all-time paintings. Enjoy. Poussin's 1650 Self Portrait... posted by Friedrich at October 16, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Decades of Design?
Michael Granted, I’m the former Detroiter, but we’re both old enough to at least dimly remember the days when American cars had genuine style. I was struck the other day by the progression in the following Buick ad… Buick's Decades of Design Campaign …that is, I was struck by the progression from powerful design to inoffensive mediocrity. How dare Buick be so insensitive as to run the top and bottom pictures in this stack together--it's offensive. I think General Motors continues to miss a huge bet by not resuscitating elements of its much more stylish past. And I'm not referring to running ads stressing how hot their styling used to be, I'm talking about incorporating some of their traditional elements into today's cars. Let's bend a little metal here. As I’ve watched Cadillac, in particular, try to find its way stylistically out of the wilderness over the past twenty years, I keep wondering why nobody ever has the balls to create a car that at least echoes the 'Great White shark' aura of the 1950s and 1960s Caddies. Will Anyone Make Lithographs of the 2002 Cadillacs? How many consumer products can access such a fully developed brand identity, an aesthetic that screams “Live Large! Be Optimistic! Kick Ass!” How many companies have this much stylistic DNA just waiting to spring forth, like the first shoots of spring hiding under the winter snows? Has GM learned nothing from the success of Harley Davidson over the past decade? A Still Unresolved Question Does GM really think they can out-Mercedes Mercedes? Or out-BMW BMW? I keep wanting to tell them: Come on, guys, give it a shot. You can do it! You can return to your roots!. Or am I just kidding myself? Somewhat nostalgic cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at October 15, 2002 | perma-link | (2) comments

Monday, October 14, 2002

Short Stuff
Michael Going through the Wall Street Journal of October 14, I noticed the following, er, "Dog-Bites-Man" headlines: -TNT Tells Operators That Its Higher Fees Are Worth the Price -Global Aids Fund Issues Appeals for More Money -Worldcom’s Ex-Controller Pleads Guilty -Do Predatory Lending Laws Curb Mortgages? -China May Free Political Prisoner Ahead of Summit I'm just guessing that Sunday might have been a slow news day. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at October 14, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Free Reads -- Glenn Gould
Friedrich -- Rick Phillips writes about Glenn Gould for Gramphone magazine, here. Thanks to cultureblogger Kelly Jane Torrance (here) for the link. Sample passage: Recently I met Natalie Webster, a young piano student at Birmingham Conservatory in England... Shortly after discovering Gould a few years ago, she was so moved that she made a pilgrimage to Toronto, ‘fuelled with an eagerness to pay tribute to him somehow’. On her first and final days in Toronto, Natalie visited the peaceful Gould gravesite, where she listened to the 1981 Goldberg Variations recording from beginning to end on a Walkman. Hey, the Wife and I made our own pilgrimage to Gould landmarks the last time we were in Toronto. Have you ever caught the Gould bug? When you come down with it, you tend to come down hard, and to never want to get over it. Even I, a classical-music moron, have become a buff. My (rather quirky) tips for tyros who want to give Gould a try: start with the early and late Goldbergs (a fabulous deal at Amazon, here); move on to the Bach English Suites (here) and then to my fave of Gould's recordings, of some pieces by Byrd, Gibbon and Sweelinck (here). And don't neglect to treat yourself to a browse through his writings (here) -- Gould was, as the Wife patiently explained to me, a philosopher of music as well as an entertainingly perverse character. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 14, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

TV Alert
Friedrich -- As you with your Tivo and I with my VCR know, the idiot box is idiotic only if you let it make the decisions for you. Take the time to search programming out for yourself, and you've got yourself an amazing cultural resource. A few highlights from this upcoming week. *The E! True Hollywood Story: Steven Seagal (Monday 11 am, Tuesday 8 pm, Wednesday 9 am). The action star’s checkered life should provide tasty grist for this celeb-series mill. *What Lies Beneath (HBO: 12 15 pm Monday; 4 pm Thursday). Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer in a thriller for grownups that's so hushed and precise it's like a ride in a high-end Mercedes. My friends hated it; I sat back and enjoyed the expensive purr. *A&E Biography of James Dean (Monday at 8 pm, repeated at midnight). A two-hour look at the life of the method-acting icon. *Joy Ride (Cinemax, Monday 8 pm; 3:30 a.m. Tuesday; 3 pm Wednesday; 10 pm Wednesday). Starts as a thriller and morphs into a horror movie. Attractive young cast, but the real star here is the director, John Dahl, who gives the film a beautiful pulp-paperback look and keeps its tone unpretentious and fast. One of the few new movies to have an old-style, B-picture feel. *Cookie’s Fortune (IFC, Monday 6 pm). Small, easygoing, sweet-natured Southern mystery-comedy from Robert Altman, with Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Charles Dutton and many others. Quiet, musical, finally very touching. *Dinner at Eight (TCM, Monday at 8 pm). All-star MGM comedy-drama with Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, and Marie Dressler, directed by George Cukor. A confident display of how-it-was-done in early Hollywood. *Ace Ventura, Pet Detective (HBO, 3:30 pm Tuesday; 2:30 pm Saturday). The role that made Jim Carrey a star. Daring, far-out, still fresh – Ace Ventura for me is as first-rate a comic creation as Groucho, Woody, and Curly. *FBI Files (Discover, Tuesday at 10 pm; repeated at 1 a.m. Wedesday) The wife and I have a taste for true-crime documentary series. This back-to-basics show, our current fave, is like a reality-TV version of “Dragnet.” *VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards (Tuesday 9 pm; repeated Wednesday at 6 pm, and noon Thursday). Shows like this one offer glimpses of fashions in dress, attitude, and general pizazz that are likely to start showing up at work or school in a few months. See the future (as well as, of course, some great legs and cleavage). *A&E Biography of Steven Spielberg (Thursday at 9 pm, a 2-hour episode; repeated at 1 am). *A documentary about the conceptual artist Bruce Nauman (Ovation, Friday at 6 pm). *A one-hour Men Who Made the Movies episode about the great "women’s director" George Cukor (TCM, Friday at 7 pm). *Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (IFC 10 pm Saturday). As far as I’m concerned, David Lynch hasn’t made a good movie since “Blue Velvet.” But even the duds generally have a juicy sex scene or two. This prequel (if I remember right) to “Twin Peaks”... posted by Michael at October 14, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Sunday, October 13, 2002

Comics--That Old Time Religion
Michael, Thanks for tipping me off on the latest in the debate over the religious affiliation of super-heroes. According to a story on, "Up, Up and Oy Vey," which you can read here, the discussion has been fueled by the recent "outing" of The Thing (a member of the Fantastic Four super-hero crime fighting team) as a Jew—and, apparently, a traditional one at that. The Thing Affirms His Jewish Identity--Are You Gonna Argue With Him? I first heard the argument that all super-heroes are Jews in Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.” In that novel, Clay, a Jewish teenager who goes on to become a comic-book writer, wises up his Jewish cousin Kavalier, a future comic book artist: They're all Jewish, superheroes. Superman, you don't think he's Jewish? Coming over from the old country, changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself. As quoted in the story, Steven Bergson, who works at Toronto's Albert and Temmy Latner Jewish Public Library, and who moderates an Internet site dedicated to Jewish comic books (which you can see here) admits Superman's "origin story" invites a Jewish interpretation: Superman is an 'alien' immigrant, leads a double life (as Jews who passed as Gentiles did), was saved by being sent away as an infant, (with obvious parallels to both the 'Moses in the basket' story and the escape of the Jews from Germany) and his Kryptonian birth name sure sounds Jewish (Kal-El in Hebrew means 'All that is God.') The Moses of Krypton? As a religious triple threat (baptized a Roman Catholic, raised a Protestant and converted in adulthood to Judaism) and a longtime comics fan, I’d like to weigh in on this incredibly significant issue. The arguments for Superman’s Jewishness are strong, but not, I think, totally conclusive. The two Jewish teenagers, Jerry Siegel and Joseph Shuster, who invented the ‘Man of Steel’ (and who are the obvious prototypes for Kavalier and Clay) appear to have been channeling other religious traditions as well. Superman is raised by a man (Pa Kent) who is not his biological father, and is brought up in a rural backwater (Smallville); moreover, this foster Son from the heavens grows up to possess miraculous, godlike powers. This is all rather reminiscent of the Christian narrative of Jesus (of course, another Jewish boy). The Iron Giant--Can a Robot Look to Superman For Spiritual Guidance? The regrettably underseen animated movie, “The Iron Giant,” is a good example of how popular culture has used Superman as a Christ-symbol. In it an alien robot of superhuman power is inspired by reading Superman comic books to sacrifice itself in order to save its adopted community. Rather touchingly, the robot mutters the single word: “Superman” under its breath just before ramming a haywire nuclear ICBM head-on in the upper atmosphere, detonating the warhead and scattering itself to the four winds. Echoes of the Buddha? And the Superman story doesn't just echo... posted by Friedrich at October 13, 2002 | perma-link | (1) comments

Truth in Advertising redux
Michael My posting on “Truth in Advertising” received a response from one of the University of California lecturers who was quoted in the story. I thought it deserved a little more prominence than our blog format allows for comments: Dear Blowhards: I fear I must agree that, if the university had to adhere to a code of truth in advertising, the statement would have to read much as you have written it. When I hear administrators talking of students as so much "through-put" I have to wonder what has happened to education (as "educare" the leading forth of the individual). But I must distance myself from the adjunct who describes his or her teaching as mindless. I have not spent much of my "free" time over the past 3.5 years writing a book on how to teach writing because because I think my work is mindless. I have put in the time because I think the opposite. Teaching at the university level can be a very meaningful activity. I say this in spite of the fact that my working situation is horrible and in spite of the fact that the administrators of the university do not apparently share my views. I say it because I believe in education and am very sad that today's students are not being educated. Nick Tingle Do you suppose it means anything in particular that the Left criticizes academia on the grounds of racism, sexism, class warfare, etc., but emphatically not on the fact that it does its job so poorly? I could imagine a leftist sympathizing with Mr. Tingle’s working conditions, but not with his frustration with how poorly college students are educated. Speaking of which, are you aware of any aspect of human life where Leftist thought focuses on issues of execution, efficiency or methodology rather than issues of morality; on how rather than ought? Uh, oh, I better watch out…I’m starting to think like…like…like that right-wing bastard, Oakeshott! Prepare for leftist spitballs (incoming.) Cheers (while donning emergency gear) Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at October 13, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Art, Beauty & Fashion
Michael Thanks for sending me a copy of Dave Hickey’s 1992 book, “The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty.” I wasn’t aware of Hickey before this, but his discussions on the problematic nature of beauty in contemporary art, as well as beauty's slippery relations with politics are quite brilliant. Dave Hickey There’s hardly a single paragraph in the entire 64-page book that doesn’t convey a rather pithy insight, but given the attention I’ve been paying to the economic infrastructure of art production, I thought I'd share the following with you: I think we must acknowledge Picasson’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon—a painting that we must regard either as a magnificent “formal breakthrough” (whatever that is) or, more realistically, as a manifestation of Picasso’s dazzling insight into the shifting values of his target market. I mean this seriously. Consider this scenario: Pablo comes to Paris, for all intents and purposes, a bumpkin, complete with a provincial and profoundly nineteenth-century concept of the cultural elite and its proclivities—still imagining that the rich and silly prefer to celebrate their privilege and indolence by “asetheticizing” their immediate environment into this fine-tuned, fibrillating, pastel atmosphere. He proceeds to paint his Blue and Rose period pictures under this misapprehension (pastel clowns, indeed!)—then Leo and Gertrude introduce him to a faster crowd. He meets some rich and careless Americans and, gradually, being no dummy, perceives, among the cultural elite with whom he is hanging out and perilously hanging on, a phase-shift in their parameters of self-definition. These folks are no longer building gazebos and situating symboliste Madonnas in fern-choked grottos. They are running with the bulls—something Pablo can understand—and measuring their power and security by their ability to tolerate high-velocity temporal change, high levels of symbolic distortion, and maximum psychic discontinuity. They are Americans, in other words, post-Jamesian Americans, in search of no symbolic repose, unbeguiled by haystacks, glowing peasants, or Ladies of Shallot. So Pablo Picasso—neither the first nor the last artist whom rapacious careerism will endow with acute cultural sensitivity—goes for the gold…[and] encapsulates an age… Picasso's Demoiselles: Fast Girls for a Fast Crowd? I will admit, I always wondered about Picasso's abruptness in "pulling down the curtain" on his Blue and Rose periods and making such an abrupt jump-shift into Cubism. (The rest of his career shows no such complete abandonment of former artistic concerns as he moves from one era to another.) The 'received' story of modern art has a whole series of intellectual gaps like this, and, in my opinion, needs to be complete demystified. What we all grew up reading about post-1850s art is largely a fairytale, and hooray for guys like Hickey for trying to chop his way through the underbrush of this Enchanted Forest. You can buy a copy of “The Invisible Dragon” here. For a review of another of Hickey’s books, “Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy" go here. For a March 2000 conversation with Dave Hickey and Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe on the state of contemporary painting, you can go... posted by Friedrich at October 13, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments