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  1. The Anatomy of Melancholy
  2. TV Alert
  3. Libertarians and sci-fi
  4. American High Culture III: The Role of Real Estate
  5. Dvorak in Love
  6. Free Reads -- Anti-Americanism
  7. Cultureblog Fever
  8. How Happy Are You?
  9. Free Reads -- Catlin Gunn
  10. Policy Break

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Saturday, November 9, 2002

The Anatomy of Melancholy
Michael Do you suffer regularly from melancholy? I do. Yes, I understand, millions of people are either a bit or seriously depressive, I should just be happy I’ve got the mild variety. But what is oddest about my mental landscape is my melancholy tends to set in when the dogs of external unquiet are barking the least. (I seem to adore crises, when I’m far more level-headed and level-hearted than when everything is rosy.) I mean, things are pretty good at work, I’ve got a good backlog of money-making ideas being executed capably by the staff, I’m getting along fabulously with my wife, my children are deeply rewarding, my dog has stopped chewing compulsively on his front paws, my home repairs of last winter seem to be holding up during the rains of the past few days, my diet’s working, my list of physical defects seems to be holding steady, I’m having a good time blogging with you…so where’s the fly in the ointment, so to speak? I wonder if the problem doesn’t lie, at root, with the fact that I’m not being goaded into action, and I have to look my own profound inertia in the face. In other words, if I want my life to get better than it currently is, I’ve got to actually get up off my physical and metaphorical bottom and stir things up—on my own behalf. No, this is not my favorite sort of task. Portrait of the Blogger as a Middle-Aged Grump How do you handle this sort of thing? I’m getting too old for most of my usual remedies. Cheers (sort of) Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at November 9, 2002 | perma-link | (8) comments

TV Alert
Friedrich -- More riches brought up from the depths of next week's TV schedule. Master Spy: The Robert Hansson Story (part one; CBS, Sunday at 9 pm EST): Made by the team (Norman Mailer on the script, Lawrence Schiller directing) that, lo these many years ago, made the wonderful "The Executioner's Song." This one's also based on fact -- it's about the FBI agent who spied for the USSR. The Horse's Mouth (IFC, Monday at 6 a.m.): A rarely -shown treat, Alec Guinness directing himself in a version of the great comic Joyce Cary novel about a ruffian of a modern artist. The movie doesn't have the sweep or punch of the novel, but it's a funky and droll work in its own right. Citizen Ruth (Cinemax, Monday at 8:30 a.m.): The first feature by director Alexander ("Election") Payne is a likable, barbed satire about how the abortion wars play out in a small midwestern town. Pleasingly, neither side is spared -- Payne is a true satirist. Laura Dern is wonderfully disarrayed as the amoral, glue-sniffing wastrel at the center of the conflict. Someone Like You (Cinemax, Monday at 10 pm): A "Bridget Jones" wannabe that got bad reviews and tanked. I didn't think it was so awful -- but I was there only to enjoy the enchanting Ashley Judd, who looks great, smiles beautifully, has a lot of charm, and looks damn cute when she gets flustered. Donald Cammell (IFC, Thursday at 5 am, and Sunday at 3:30 am). A decent documentary with a charismatic subject, a British hippie-"genius" filmmaker who got by on charm and potential. Worth seeing for the snapshots of a certain get-away-with-murder character type, as well as its looks at the filmmaking world. Turner classic movies is continuing its Westerns series, and I can recommend highly three of the films: Major Dundee (TCM, Tuesday at 5:30 pm), Rio Bravo (TCM, Monday at 8 pm), and Vera Cruz (TCM, Sunday at 1:30 am). "Major Dundee" is the movie where Sam Peckinpah began to tear the fabric of the Western apart; Charlton Heston stars, impressively. "Rio Bravo" features Dean Martin and John Wayne in an easygoing, masterly entertainment directed by Howard Hawks. Gary Cooper is featured in "Vera Cruz," an early Robert Aldrich picture that has a suprisingly up-to-date sting. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 9, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Libertarians and sci-fi
Friedrich -- One thing I notice over and over that I've never managed to make much sense of is the appeal sci-fi seems to have for many libertarians. Can you help me with this? I confess that the taste for sci-fi makes me a little suspicious, though this may not reflect well on me. Shooting entirely from the hip... Sci-fi has always struck me as an early-adolescence taste: Superman fantasies crossed with a craving for feelings of, "Ah, to be entirely unfettered from earthly shackles." The storytelling and characters never seem the point; the energy always seems to go instead into things (alternative universes; "philosophy") that don't interest me much as entertainment goals. I'm happy to admit a) that, having managed to get through about a half-a-dozen sci-fi novels, I couldn't be less qualified to reach conclusions, and b) that this may all reflect nothing but taste and temperament anyway. Still, rightly or wrongly, I tend to be as wary of anyone who's crazy about sci-fi past the age of about 25 as I am of anyone who takes Ayn Rand entirely seriously past that age. Before that age these tastes seem commonplace and harmless. After that age? Well, hmmm. Musing heedlessly on, I also notice that some libertarians are as prone to utopianism as socialists are, though the two groups dream of different kinds of utopias. The dogmatism of both groups -- they always have the one right answer, and it's always the same one -- can become really oppressive. An example: there was an attack in Reason magazine on the New Urbanism a year or two ago whose argument was that the New Urbanism is nothing but a (probably socialist) attempt to impose new regulations, and that the only real answer to anything is no regulations. "OK, but back in the real world..." was my response. The New Urbanism can certainly be criticized (what can't be?), but the piece seemed crazed (and juvenile) in its absolutism, and in its unwillingness to wrestle with what the New Urbanism does in fact propose, which is that, given that (in the real world) a region simply is going to have development regulations, why not minimize them, and tinker with them in such a way that playing by the rules leads to a more pleasant, rather than a less pleasant, neighborhood? So, I return to my hunch (and my fear): that libertarians enjoy sci-fi more than most groups do because many of them tend to be attracted to utopias, as well as to what's completely unrealistic. I guess what I'm long-windedly getting to is this: that the taste for sci-fi, like the preference for a dogmatic libertarianism, seems to me the taste of immature people who'd rather float off into fantasy than wrestle with what's before them. I wince as I type these words because I have my own taste in fantasy, namely erotica. And what's wrong with a little harmless indulgence in fantasy, darn it? And I suppose it is harmless... posted by Michael at November 9, 2002 | perma-link | (25) comments

American High Culture III: The Role of Real Estate
Michael “High” culture in America, city governments and the real estate industry have had a long relationship in the U.S. This relationship was already visible in 1892 when the original Metropolitan Opera building in New York City burnt down. The stockholders were divided as to whether it made sense to rebuild, as they had only $60,000 in insurance, and it would take several times that to restore the building. One of the stockholders, Henry Clews, spelled out the case for rebuilding: The opera house property is a good investment. The ground alone is worth that much and the enhancement of values has been so great that I am sure that it has increased more than three times the original cost. In this way the stockholders are protected from loss in spite of the lack of insurance. In the end, the partners who wanted to rebuild created a new company, tellingly named the Metropolitan Opera and Real Estate Company, and bought out the property for $1,425,00—a price that was, in fact, roughly three times the cost of the original building. By the late 1920s, the rebuilt opera house was obviously far too small and there was widespread desire for a new facility. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., (known rather touchingly as “Junior”) whose business interests had always been in real estate, not in oil, went so far as to buy up several blocks around 50th Street, west of Fifth Avenue. He intended to build a new opera house along with office and commercial space. By October 1929, Junior was committed to paying $3.3 million a year in ground rent when the stock market plunged and the Met hastily withdrew from its commitment. Junior went forward anyway, and built Rockefeller Center. Rockefellers Senior and Junior Art Lovers? However, although the Met got away that time, the Rockefellers weren’t done with culture, or with real estate, of which they had amassed a great deal in Manhattan by the 1950s. The next go-round with the Met was, in fact, motivated by the fact that after the Second World War and the revival of general prosperity, people had started leaving New York and heading for the suburbs. This trend was distinctly unfavorable for the Rockefellers’ extensive real estate holdings in the city, and it led them to counterattack on multiple fronts, assaults that lead not only to the development of Lincoln Center but also to the World Trade Center. As Alice Goldfarb Marquis in her book “Art Lessons” points out, the motivation behind the development of Lincoln Center had little to do with art (not a subject the Rockefellers were known to embrace): Many lofty words have been offered as motivation for the determination by John D. Rockefeller III and a phalanx of New York’s business moguls, in 1955, that the city must have a grand cultural complex…Beneath the flow of fine words, unarticulated, ran a current of fears: that the city was slipping from the summit of the financial world; that Manhattan real estate values... posted by Friedrich at November 9, 2002 | perma-link | (1) comments

Friday, November 8, 2002

Dvorak in Love
Friedrich -- You've got me thinking about 19th century American art, and as I was doing so during this morning's walk to work I remembered one of the best books I've ever read on the topic -- Josef Skvorecky's novel Dvorak in Love. Have you checked it out? A terrific treat, enthralling both as fiction and as history. It's about a visit the composer Antonin Dvorak made to America, brought over by a lady patron of the arts to help us develop our own musical tradition. His conclusion? That we already had a great musical tradition -- in African-American music and in Native American music. Why he wasn't crazy about white people's folk music I don't know. But he went on, in any case, to write the New World Symphony based on his visit here. As a novel, it's beyond fab: A big, burstingly soulful, poetic, lyrical thing, full of characters with rich inner lives, and organized like a jazz symphony (although I like it better than I like most jazz symphonies). It was one of the books I was most thrilled by during the years when I was following new fiction. I seemed to be almost alone in my enthusiasm, but I thought it was as good as anything by Garcia Marquez or Kundera. Why it didn't get more notice I don't know. But it's just as good as a reference work for 19th-century American art buffs. I was so taken by the book that I did some research about the stories it tells, and as far as I could determine, everything in it besides the obvious (inner monologues, etc) is true to the facts. There's tons of information in there about early black music, early attempts to create conservatories, and 19th century performance traditions -- and Skvorecky is as touching about the genteel yearning for high art as he is about the beauty and vitality of the folk arts. It's buyable here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 8, 2002 | perma-link | (3) comments

Free Reads -- Anti-Americanism
Friedrich -- Jamie Glazov at Front Page magazine leads a panel discussion on the topic of "Anti-Americanism," here. How to explain it, and how to explain its virulence? What are the differences between native anti-Americanism and the anti-Americanism of foreigners? Good, provocative thinking and speculation from the panelists, Paul Hollander, Stanley Kurtz, Victor Davis Hanson, and Dan Flynn. Sample passage (from Flynn): Anti-Americanism is the religion for people who hate religion. It comes complete with a devil (the United States); sacred texts (I, Rigoberta Menchu, The Communist Manifesto, etc.); saints (Noam Chomsky, Mumia Abu-Jamal); zeal ... and many of the other characteristics that we find in various faiths. Anti-Americanism, however, provides none of the social good that most religions provide, and it is of course a false faith as well. Why is America hated even within the West? America is hated because its existence contradicts the mistaken theories so passionately held by a significant portion of Western intellectuals. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 8, 2002 | perma-link | (5) comments

Cultureblog Fever
Friedrich -- Prowling the work of our fellow culturebloggers, I notice that Alexandra, over at Out of Lascaux (here), has worked up an entertaining head of steam over the proper role of art critics, and that AC Douglas (here) is deep in the midst not just of a Movable Type upgrade but an enlightening discussion of the best way to understand Wagner's "Ring." Sample Alexandra passage: And why do they feel they have to take on this role? Because so much contemporary art is completely incomprehensible, not just to the "common man," but to anyone who stumbles across it. Art is about ideas, but it is also about communicating ideas. If art doesn't say something to the audience besides "I bet you're too stupid to figure this one out," then it has failed. Sample AC Douglas passage: Italian-form opera, for all its often convoluted melodrama and grand staging, has but one purpose and one purpose only: To act as showcase for the human voice in song.... Not so Wagnerian music-drama. Music-drama is about the drama, and singers are merely one part of the musico-dramatic apparatus, and not the most important part, either. That role falls to the orchestra in which is contained and played out the very core of the drama itself. Classy stuff! Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 8, 2002 | perma-link | (1) comments

Thursday, November 7, 2002

How Happy Are You?
Michael Are you happy? Are you satisfied? If you told me: “yes” or “very” should I believe you? Obviously, there are a lot of, ahem, philosophical issues raised by such “subjective” measures of happiness. However, blithely ignoring all of them, Ronald F. Inglehart of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Hans-Dieter Klingemann of the Social Science Center in Berlin apparently conducted tens of thousands of personal interviews around the world (personally?) in the mid-1990s and devised a “subjective quality of life” map, which is reproduced in the November issue of Scientific American. Although the map, for reasons left unexplained, does not include Siberia, the Middle East, most of Africa, and Southeast Asia, I thought you’d like to know a few of the highlights: 1. Disneyland is not the Happiest Place on Earth. Apparently, that distinction belongs to Iceland. (Having taken a good look at several “Miss Iceland” contestants at international beauty pageants, I can see how that might be the case. As I understand it, Iceland has a "Miss Universe" for every 90,000 inhabitants.) Happiest Men on Earth? 2. While the U.S. reports itself to be marginally less happy than Scandinavia, Ireland, and Switzerland, it is either marginally or significantly more happy with its lot than is the rest of Europe or Japan. 3. The least happy country reported is the Ukraine, where people either appear to be downright sunk in misery, or, possibly, highly amused at the thought of lying to the good professors. 4. The biggest surprise is Canada, which only squeaks in ahead of Germany and is a good bit behind the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. Does this demonstrate a true “happiness gap” (as in, “Man the barricades, a horde of disaffected Canadians is headed south across the border!”) or is this some sort of low self-esteem issue for the Canadians? Perhaps they don’t feel they deserve happiness when their dollar is worth only around 67 American cents. I have only one question. Every time I’ve ever asked a woman this question, it usually entailed a two-to-three hour conversation to discover how she really felt. Do you think the professors stuck with it long enough to really find out? Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at November 7, 2002 | perma-link | (4) comments

Free Reads -- Catlin Gunn
Friedrich -- In the Guardian, Catlin Gunn kicks off a new series of columns with the tale of how she, a middle-class woman fresh from an office job, auditioned for work as a stripper. It's readable here. Sample passage: Terror has a way of making time stre-e-e-e-tch and three minutes seemed to last a day or two. I must have lost the slip and bra in the first five seconds because I found myself nearly naked with nothing left to do but rotate slowly like a great big girl-kebab in front of this horrible man who sat there as bored and impassive as a rock. It turns out that there's no elegant way to get out of your knickers while standing. Promising! Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 7, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Policy Break
Michael I’ve done my best to avoid the whole topic of politics lately, but I was struck by the juxtaposition of two columns on the NY Times Op-Ed page. One was by that Democratic party supporter, Bob Herbert. It was headlined “Tiptoeing to Defeat” and could be summed up by the following excerpt: Despite the economic burdens that the middle and working classes are shouldering, despite the two million jobs lost and the scandalous concentration of wealth and income in the precincts of the very rich, the Democrats have yet to offer a compelling alternative to the reverse Robin Hood policies of the G.O.P. In short, the Democrats lost because they didn’t hold true to their core beliefs. Now on the same page we had an opinion piece by David Sahmbaugh on the possibility of the Communist Party ‘losing’ China. But in it, he again and again refers to simply “the party” and when I first picked it up, I was confused about which party he meant. Then I started noticing how much of the column could be describing today’s American Democrats as well as China’s commies. Widespread alienation and cynicism exist at all levels of society about politics and the party…Rampant corruption has laid bare the insufficiency of the legal system… Gee, I suppose anyone who has read about how the cigarette industry settlement is being carved up or about what’s happening with asbestos litigation might agree with that statement. And of course, one should keep in mind that the trial lawyers are the biggest financial contributors to the Democratic party. Many of the party’s current problems are the result of broad processes associated with socioeconomic modernization and greater social stratification. Significant parts of society have been left behind as others have benefited from market reforms. This is a fairly accurate description of modern America, too. But other than continuing to call for incrementally increased income redistribution, the Democrats have very little to offer here, intellectually. The Dems are remarkably silent on how to get more people to play and win the game of capitalism, being of the conviction that most of the population will never be able to take risks or plan for the future like adults. Even the parts of society that have experienced some economic gains pose new challenges for the party. These gains have led to rising…demands for improvements in health care, public safety, jobs, education, environmental quality and care for the elderly. The party at all levels is attempting to meet demands brought on by the breakdown of many social services, but it cannot fully meet these demands, in part because it has suppressed avenues of input from the people themselves. With the Democratic position being that the only solution to any problem is big government programs or employer mandates, the challenges facing modern America are not really solvable—too many needs, too few golden-gooses to pluck. But the Democrats remain stubbornly disinterested in, say, self-help or civil-society input. Maybe Mr. Herbert should take another... posted by Friedrich at November 7, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

American High Culture re-redux; and Continuing Ed: Lawrence Levine
Friedrich -- Many thanks for your ongoing series about the stresses between popular and high cult in America. You're touching on a bunch of topics I'm primed to rant about myself, among them the greatness of 19th century (ie., pre-modernist, pre-NEA) American art, and the scandal that is a modernist art education. Much else too, but I'm feeling scatterbrained at the moment, and can't pull together anything of much interest or use. Except a mention of a book I suspect you'd enjoy, Lawrence Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (buyable here). Levine: Give the man a Blowhardy It's a terrific book of cultural history (and a book of facts and inductions, not theory). Levine discusses 19th century America and American culture in eye-opening ways. His topics include Shakespeare (whose works were central to American popular and elite cultures both); sheet music; folk songs; opera; Mozart; marching bands, and much more. The shitty art-history brainwashing, er, education we were given back in the '70s left us with the impression that pre-modernist American art was an embarrassment -- a crass mess, by and for rubes who could never quite get it until Euro-modernism showed the way. In fact, pre-modernist American culture turns out to have been rather like what's currently developing on the Web -- a wonderful, patchworky jumble. It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that the stress line between popular and elite cultures, always present, became hard and almost absolute. It's interesting (to me, in any case) to note that one of the reasons for this was the way the rate of immigration went soaring. How does this work? Well, the immigrants brought with them Old World beliefs, preferences and tastes, as well as a pushy verve, and knocked aside the old debates and conversations. For better or worse, American modernism was, like Hollywood, largely the creation of immigrants. The other reason was that the native-born, at least those with enough money, found these crowds of rowdy newcomers a bit much; they retreated from the newcomers and the public cultural sphere into enclaves, private life, and a "high culture" that became rather like a country club. John Philip Sousa: Great American artist? Part of the strength of Levine's book is his honesty about his reactions to the story he tells. How refreshing and democratic the rowdiness of the 19th-century American crowd! Yet, gosh, do you really want every aria disrupted by a tomato-throwing, cheering, spitting public? It can be too easy to mock the elites, as it can be too easy to be sentimental about the popular crowd. I'm curious to hear about your responses to the elite-popular split, one of the distinctive characteristics of American culture. (I gather, if with rather little evidence, that the popular and the elite worlds are more prone to coexist than to be at war in Europe and Asia.) Myself, I'm rather like Levine. I approve of the profit motive, and acknowledge that it's into popular culture and commercial... posted by Michael at November 7, 2002 | perma-link | (4) comments

American High Culture Redux
Michael In my last posting on “high” culture in America, I promised to explain where today’s high-cult institutions—museums, symphony orchestras, opera houses, all unified by the practice of scrounging to make up for the inadequate take at the box office—come from. As we saw, the arts in 19th century America were a boisterous, democratic, and very much private sector affair. However, those that hewed closest to their European artistic model, like symphony orchestras and opera houses, were unquestionably fighting an uphill financial battle. The audience for complex, expensive ensemble arts such as these only outnumbered the performers by a ratio of some ten-to-one (in a full house), which made it tough to make money if ticket sales flagged. Rationally, that may well have been an argument for developing a simpler—i.e., cheaper—style of presentation, but the cultural prestige of the European symphony orchestra and opera company held a potent allure for Americans. It was so potent, in fact, that wealthy European-culture-worshippers, like J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and Joseph Pulitzer were willing to subsidize the New York Philharmonic, and Henry Lee Higginson not only founded the Boston Symphony but acted as a guarantor of its debts. I’m offering no criticism of these gentlemen—it was their money and they were certainly free to do as they pleased. (Higginson also had the good taste to sit for John Singer Sargent and got a terrific portrait in return--click on the popup below to check it out.) John Singer Sargent Portrait of Henry Lee Higginson However, this was only a stopgap solution to the problem. It was not clear that there would be an endless succession of extremely wealthy art-fanatics who would be willing to spend their money behind the scenes to prop up these institutions. The solution, oddly, was the 1894 income tax law, which included a provision that charitable donations to nonprofit corporations organized for “educational” purposes would be tax-deductible. This presented the wealthy with a choice of paying the government taxes or donating to nonprofit enterprises, which was a choice many less-than-religious supporters of the arts were willing to make--especially if they got to be a certifiable member of the social-cultural elite in return. In short, the income tax provided the incentive, and the nonprofit corporation the vehicle, to broaden the group “supporting” the uneconomic arts. The biggest givers, while no longer required to assume a heroic burden like that of Mssrs. Morgan or Higginson, got another perk as well: they got control of the enterprise because they sat on the board. These wealthy, prestige-seeking board members, often determined to use their art institution to civilize the masses, had an intensely conservative effect on the material that was actually presented and how it was presented—no more of the wild and wooly hybrids of “low” and “high” art which we saw were financially successful for decades in New Orleans-style opera and on the vaudeville stage. No, by jingo, we were all going to take our “high” culture straight. So much for giving the... posted by Friedrich at November 7, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Reflections on blogging
Friedrich -- How have you found the process of blogging? I've found it fascinating. In fact, it's the intellectual/cultural thing that's been most on my mind recently, tiresomely self-reflexive though I'm sure that is. I've found blogging a fun and curious topic to think about, as well as a fun and curious medium to exploit. There are days when I feel the high and crave more, and turn to the computer hungrily, like an addict. There are other days when I don't have the urge at all, and even feel a little disgusted with myself. But there have been a few things about the process itself that have struck me. The first is that it's its own thing. I don't know about you, but I went into blogging thinking of it as the poor cousin of real writing and publishing. Maybe I could diddle a bit, and maybe I'd get the first draft of a book out of it, or at least cook up a few ideas I might develop in some real medium... After a few months, I find myself thinking instead: no, it's not a poor excuse for a book or a magazine, it's a blog. I'd been thinking of it as a substitute for something else when it turns out to be its own, fully-absorbing (or at least as-absorbing-as-you-want-it-to-be) activity. These days, I'm feeling no need at all to view what I write here as a preliminary step in any other direction. I'm just happy to be blogging. Being its own thing, blogging makes its own demands. I went into it, as I've so stupidly gone into many cultural forms, thinking: all right, finally, no formal constraints. Cut loose: finally, I'll have the means to rock on out, unrestricted. Freeform orgy, baby. Basically, I thought I'd be able to get down most of what passes through my head, and to do so effortlessly. Instead, I find myself putting some real time (in a small way) into these postings, and thinking thoughts like, hmm, I'd better keep each posting to one main topic. (Not easy for me, given my taste for weaving together a lot of disparate, only-loosely-related themes.) I look at the computer screen and think: hmm, better break those paragraphs up, and offer some visual relief and variety. All of which means that, to my shame (but pleasure too), I'm thinking like a magazine editor. So I'm as conscious of effort, and am as consciously attending to form and finish, as ever. And, instead of getting down most of what passes through the noggin, I'm getting down who knows, 10%? But it turns out that 10% leaves the desk clean enough, as it were. My brain's a little freer of what usually gnaws at it. The frustration of keeping a traditional arts journal was that, enjoyable though it could be to note down reactions and reflections, the journal itself did nothing but gather dust. It was hard not to ask yourself, what's the point? The frustration... posted by Michael at November 6, 2002 | perma-link | (6) comments

The Church of PBS
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- Stephen Foster: Death by documentary "Major funding for this program was provided by Sominex...." Well, not really, but just as well. You have to take your hat off to PBS. Has there ever been an organization more expert at taking juicy subjects and turning them into the purest tedium? I mean, aside from textbook-publishing corporations. (Two exceptions noted: the Michael Pack/Richard Brookhiser documentary about George Washington, website here; and "The Commanding Heights," from the Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw account of the battle between market forces and faith in government, watchable online -- bless the web -- here.) I should be a perfect PBS audience member. I'm in a facts-not-fiction phase; I'm devouring history books, reading them at night and listening to them on audiobook during commutes. I'm amazed by how passionate and immediate history can be in the hands of the right writers and thinkers. Why wasn't I able to pay attention back in high school and college? Have I changed? Have I simply discovered the writers who suit my tastes and interests? So, full of hope, I record PBS documentary after PBS documentary. What could be more alluring than a video presentation of real lives and true stories? You can watch in the company of your sweetie! You can talk about what you're learning as you watch! In fact, it's always a challenge to get The Wife, as addicted as ever to fantasy and make-believe, to settle down in front of a documentary. But sometimes I do succeed... And we almost never make it through. I've tried the Ken Burns shows; they were gruesomely difficult to endure. I'm pleased that many people watched and enjoyed his series on jazz, for instance, but only because I root for jazz. There were wonderful facts and footage there to be discovered. But why did the series have to be so long, so solemn, and so slow? This evening the Wife and I sat down to watch the PBS "American Experience" hour on Stephen Foster (link here). Within 15 minutes we were both fighting sleep. How do they do it? It's as though the people behind these shows are determined to kill all interest in history, or at least my interest in history. I watch the shows wondering who the producers are: grown-up versions of those kids who loved 8th-grade social studies class? And who then went on to major in that vapid field, American Studies? What a dull exercise in earnest civic uplift the Stephen Foster show was. It might have been put together by a committee of progressive junior-high teachers who like to encourage debate on such topics as "What is America?", and who, no matter what the question, always come up with the same answer: black/white race relations. Stephen Foster was an important and interesting figure, and I'm sure there are viewers who got something out of the show. But the people who make these documentaries seem terrified of immediacy, and are so... posted by Michael at November 6, 2002 | perma-link | (0)
Evobio Keeps Up With the Times
Michael I don’t know if you noticed, but the NY Times Science Times section of November 5 was an orgy of sociobiology, or at least stories with a strong sociobiological dimension. The stories included “Weighing the Grandma Factor” which covered the first international conference devoted to grandmothers: It turns out that there is a reason children are perpetually yearning for the flour-dusted, mythical figure called grandma or granny or oma or abuelita. As a number of participants at the conference demonstrated, the presence or absence of a grandmother often spelled the difference in traditional subsistence cultures between life or death for the grandchildren. It also included a book review of Dr. Olivia Judson’s “Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation” which seems to be pretty entertaining, judging from the following: Eggs are few, and sperm are many. This microscopic-level asymmetry is the root cause of ardent civil war that in every species pits male against male, and male against female. Males, from sea lions and fruit bats to [the] Taliban, are driven to control females’ fertility so as to ensure their own paternity. But a female’s interest usually lies in having many lovers…[enabling her] to guard against male sterility, to ensure diversity in her offspring, to encourage each male in her group to think that he is the father and protect her children accordingly and to encourage competition among the sperm of several males so as to ensure her egg gets the best. “Natural selection, it seems, often smiles on strumpets,” Dr. Tatiana writes without much hint of regret. “Sorry, boys.” Olivia Judson, Ph.D., a.k.a. Dr. Tatiana Of course, not everyone is a convinced sociobiologist. In “Brain Power: The Search for Origins” we hear from Dr. Terrence J. Sejnowski, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute in San Diego who is advancing a more culture-centric view of brain development: “It’s true you can’t separate the question of who we are from the world our ancestors passed through on their way to becoming us,” Dr. Sejnowski said. But that evolution did not occur in the relatively stable savanna described by evolutionary psychologists, he said, but rather during a period of unusual, extreme and rapid oscillations in climate. If the brain evolved any trait during the Peistocene, he declared, it was flexibility. However, before arguing for a “blanker-slate” theory, Dr. Senjnoski should check in on another story in the section, “On Profit, Loss and the Mysteries of the Mind: A Conversation with Daniel Kahneman” I think the major phenomenon we [he and Dr. Tversky, his long-time research partner] observed is what we called “loss aversion.” There is an asymmetry between gains and losses, and it really is very dramatic and very easy to see. In my classes, I say: “I’m going to toss a coin, and if it’s tails, you lose $10. How much would have have to gain on winning in order for this gamble to be acceptable to you?” People want more than $20 before it is acceptable. And now I’ve... posted by Friedrich at November 6, 2002 | perma-link | (2) comments

Tuesday, November 5, 2002

The Living Dead
Michael Given your interest in graphic novels, I thought you might want to know that Eddie Campbell, the artist of “From Hell,” is also a writer on art. While researching another posting I absolutely stumbled across a column, "Eddie's Corner," written by Mr. Campbell for his own website. Mr. Campbell was apparently irritated into writing by an academic’s formalist and reductionist definition of comic books, but his comments are certainly applicable to many other areas of art: I’m sure a psychologist could oblige us by explaining what is missing from modern life that gives rise to the need to declare our enthusiasms to be ‘art-forms’, for it is indeed a strange neurosis. Then we argue about the definition of our our new found art form and attempt to find in it the formal purity that we have persuaded ourselves an art form must possess. Where did this expression ‘art form’ come from anyway? The earliest stated use of the term I can find dates to 1868. That would put it right at the beginning of what is called modern art...In 1871 Whistler painted the portrait of his mother and titled it ‘Arrangement in grey and black’. From here on the avant-garde would continue to push art toward greater austerity of purpose. Subject is pushed to the background. Form is the connecting tissue between one movement in art and the next: Cezanne points the way to cubism, which opens the door to abstraction etc…. We need refer to nothing else but form, if we desire it. I was reading a book written in the 1970s (I’m trying to relocate it) on the subject of Gothic architecture. Having discussed one great building from an aesthetic point of view, the author states we should not forget that it was also designed to be a place of worship. Eh? At what point in the discussion of a Gothic cathedral do we lose sight of what it was built for? Art had become that part of an object that is separate from function…The bottom line to all of this is that the world desperately needs a new concept of art and the place of art in the world. Firstly we have to stop thinking in terms of ‘art form’…[W]hen I ceremoniously toast the ‘founding fathers’ of the art that I practice, they are as likely to be writers as cartoonists, comic dramatists as doodlers, sculptors or even just barroom talkers, because I see my art as the art of humour. There are only two arts. Being serious and being funny. All the technical stuff is but the means, the craft or the tools. There is a tendency among those who write on art to make the means the whole of it. Time to end the tyranny of the tools. The Versatile Mr. Campbell I don’t know about you, but the line of critical discourse Mr. Campbell is rebutting is painfully familiar to me from my student days at our Lousy Ivy University. It’s appalling that,... posted by Friedrich at November 5, 2002 | perma-link | (1) comments

American High Culture
Michael After reading a history of the NEA last week, I got to pondering the whole question of “high" culture in America. As you might imagine, the term gets tossed around quite a bit in any such book. But once I started thinking about it, I got a bit confused: I mean, can anybody tell me exactly what is "high" culture? From sociological observations over the years, I would say it would include painting (but not Norman Rockwell), classical music (but not R&B), opera (but not Broadway musicals), ballet (but not square dancing), poetry (but not the kind that rhymes if written between 1910 and 1990), literature (but not best sellers), etc., etc. It seems to help a work’s high-culture quotient a lot if it embodies a well-defined artistic tradition that was nurtured someplace other than America (if possible, Europe) and if that art, previous to the French Revolution, was created for kings, aristocrats, and/or the prelates of the Catholic Church. I guess a working definition of "high" culture in today’s world is anything that (1) wasn’t dreamed up by Americans, or, at the very least, will never be understood by the average American (2) conveys social cachet and (3) can’t charge its consumers enough to keep it afloat. Now, it may seem harsh to condemn all cultural activities originating in America as “low.” But I think the following quote from historian Clinton Rossiter accurately summed up many generations of American and European intellectual thought on that subject: …no great nation can be said to be worth respecting or imitating if it has not achieved a high level of culture, and it is at least an arguable question whether this nation will ever achieve it. Obviously, in the 20th century America has plenty of institutions that have guarded the gate against the barbarians of the “low” and nurtured the flame of the "high"—universities, museums, symphony orchestras, etc. But it got me thinking where these institutions come from, because when I look at America in the 19th century, I can't see any such thing as "high" culture, in the sense of artistic activities fulfilling all three conditions I outline above. For the skeptics in the audience, I’m prepared to lay out some illustrations, limiting myself to music in order to keep this posting at a manageable length. Music began its history in America in church, where, by the beginning of the 18th century, it was conceded by even the Puritans to be necessary in order to keep everyone together when reciting the Psalms aloud. Let's face it, though: there has never been any social cachet attached to the Puritans. The Revolutionary War saw a flowering of musical creativity, but it was aggressively anti-European in nature, with American musicians deliberately changing the words of British songs, such as "Yankee Doodle," to taunt their adversaries. William Billings, a Boston tanner, composed an anthem called "Chester" that expressed his confidence in the ability of the new nation to shake off the "iron rods" and... posted by Friedrich at November 5, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Moratoria Dreams
Friedrich -- It occurs to me that many fields could use the occasional imposed-from-without break from habit. It might freshen them up, or make them dig a little deeper. Baseball, for instance: wouldn't you be curious to see the consequences of a moratorium on spitting and crotch-scratching? So why not at least dream of imposing moratoria on cultural fields? Here are some of my proposals: Magazine journalism: a month every year with no puns allowed in either headlines or picture captions. Standup comedy: a week every month with no use of the word "motherfucker." Literary fiction: one season a year without any mention of incest. Television: a day a week with no twirling or spinning graphics. Movies: a summer a decade entirely without special effects. Indie comic books: a onetime year-long ban on stories about slackers with bad sex lives. Advertising: a month every year with all type to be set in traditional serif typefaces of uniform size, and with typeface-movement forbidden. Gallery art: every other season to feature no installation or conceptual art, or anything of any kind involving video. Highbrow criticism: the words "formal rigor" and "transgressive" to be banned forever. What kinds of cultural-field moratoria would you impose, if only you were king? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 5, 2002 | perma-link | (3) comments

Top Drawer Blogs
Friedrich -- Something I’ve come to appreciate over the past few months is blogging as an improvisatory performance art. What generally seems to create the most buzz in the blogozone is political ideas. Steven den Beste and Glenn Reynolds, for instance: brainy guys doing impressively heavyweight things -- and I hardly ever look at them. No music or poetry (or something like that). Culturebug that I am, I’m drawn instead to style and personality, and gravitate to the likes of (among others) Colby Cosh, here, who has a heavy-metal guitar-solo way with a posting, and Kelly Jane Torrance, here, a model of class, grace and generosity. I'm happy to report some tiptop recent blogger discoveries, both of whom project a ton of likable personality, and both of whom have style to kill. They’re distinctive without trying too hard; they just seem to "have it.” (Of course, that “it” may take a lot of effort to achieve.) Alice Bachini, whose blog, A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside, is readable here, is a Brit with an eccentrically winning manner -- lots of playful irony and mock-naivete, delivered with the kind of verbal ease that makes an American feel cloddish and want to give up. This is blogging as charming chatter -- until you realize how much substance, daring, and fresh thinking is also whirling by. Sample passage: My education philosophy is temporarily stuck at the "well, it works for me..." stage again, at the moment. This happens from time to time. I will take it in to the Repair Shop at some point soonish and see if I can get it a nice overhaul, service and respray. In the meantime, you might find me pottering gently in the comments section, talking contradictory nonsense. Contradicting oneself is positively a good thing, in my opinion. It shows you are open-minded and learning and not unduly concerned with outward appearances. The other charmer is Scott Chaffin of The Fat Guy (here), who does a burly, ten-gallon-hat-and-a-pickup-truck act better than anyone else online. Part of what’s pleasing about his blog is his drawling, “I’m just a guy with too many dogs and opinions” flair. (Sample posting title: “How do you spell ‘Ten-Hut!’?”) But he’s like a good poker player, always playing what he's got a lot more shrewdly than you could. Most of the time he's humorous and to the point, but every now and then he can really take you by surprise. Check out, for example, his recent posting about hunting and his dad: sweet and powerful. (Search on the posting's title, "Mi Padre.") Sample passage: I feel sorry for my poor Mom, now that I think about it. She can cook anything on the face of the earth and make it taste good. And she had to deal with four Texas males who wanted nothing more than fried beef and Del Monte green beans most nights. She tried hard, with salmon croquettes, and eggplant parmesan, and all kinds of gussied-up vegetables like zucchini, but... posted by Michael at November 5, 2002 | perma-link | (4) comments

Monday, November 4, 2002

Turner Prize: Tate v. Howell
Michael Intrigued by the furor over UK culture minister Kim Howell’s negative comments regarding the work of the four short-listed finalists for this year’s Turner Prize, I did a little research on the plain-talking minister. According to the Guardian, this isn’t the first time Minister Howell has made blunt remarks: [Howells] described the royal family last year as "all a bit bonkers" and had to apologise after saying in a Commons debate that "the idea of listening to three Somerset folk singers sounds like hell." Since he seems like a remarkably perceptive fellow, I thought we could use his remarks to stage a debate over the work of at least two of the four finalists. For the “pro” side of the debate, I took some remarks from the website of the Tate, which held the exhibition and hands out the prize. Entry of Liam Gillick, Turner Prize Finalist What the Tate says: [Gillick’s] art is underpinned by rigorous theorising: he is as much a writer as a maker of objects. However, Gillick's work is shaped by a very visual awareness of the way different properties of materials, structures and colour can affect our surroundings and therefore influence the way we behave. Coats of Asbestos Spangled With Mica (2002), made of coloured Perspex and anodised aluminium, has been created specifically for this exhibition. In this work, Gillick encourages us to explore our bodily and intellectual perception of an altered environment. What the Minister says: I've sat under perspex roofs like that in canteens since the mid-1960s. It's not at all interesting. It's very, very boring. Entry of Fiona Banner, Turner Prize Finalist What the Tate says: Banner explores the seemingly limitless possibilities of language, yet at the same time demonstrates how words can often fail us, exposing our inability to convey internal thoughts, emotions and experiences. Since 1994, she has created handwritten and printed texts, which describe feature films or particular scenarios in meticulous detail. Since 2000, Banner has used pornographic film to explore sexuality and the extreme limits of written communication. In the works shown in the exhibition, she transcribes the activities taking place in Arsewoman in Wonderland, an X-rated version of Alice's fictional adventures. What the Minister says: I thought it was a piece of pointillism [dot painting] when I walked into the gallery but it turns out to be her description of a porno movie. As for me--a onetime art student who has personally created installations with his own hands--I must admit that my suspicions as to the seriousness of the Turner Prize committee are aroused by the general vagueness and the lack of impact of the installation art they've been handing these prizes out to. One suspects if the work "read" well enough to convey any genuine heat, it would be rejected as insufficiently shocking to the bourgeoisie, or whoever it seems they think they're shocking. Turner Prize Presenter and Media Attention Grabber I sense the whole ethos of the Turner Prize was best summed up by... posted by Friedrich at November 4, 2002 | perma-link | (1) comments

Sunday, November 3, 2002

TV Alert
Friedrich -- More tips for those who want to use their TV as a cultural resource, and not a narcotic. I’m fond of three or four of the current true-crime series: Good stories! With beginnings and endings! And juicy characters! The quirkiest of the bunch is A&E’s atmospheric City Confidential, which views a crime story as a chance to explore an environment. A murder in Memphis? Why not pick up a lot of Memphis lore along the way? Why not meet some oddball local characters? Why not peak inside a social circle? Often an episode gets so engrossed by its setting and characters that it won’t get around to the specific case that is its ostensible subject for 15 or 20 minutes. Yet the shows are usually quite satisfying -- they're like short versions of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." The voice of Paul Winfield, who supplies the narration, is a big plus -- seldom have you heard anyone relish his instrument's effects quite so shamelessly. City Confidential (A&E, showing this week Sunday at 9 pm; Monday at 1 am; Wednesday at 10 pm; Thursday at 2 am; Saturday at 6 pm). Just because I'm a women's-tennis buff... The WTA Sanex L.A. Championship (ESPN coverage begins Wednesday at 3:30). Women’s tennis has been more fun to follow than men’s for some years now; the men are bazookas blasting away at each other, while the women still have to rely on strategy. And, hey: Women! Ie., drama, family intrigue, conflicted feelings, wild mood swings, diva tears and diva delight. Given how monotonous the finals have become -- all Serena and Venus, all the time -- you’re likely to find more unpredictability to enjoy in the early rounds. Movie tips for people who love watching beautiful, talented actresses and who don’t mind sitting through lousy movies to get a glimpse of their goddesses: Sweet November (Cinemax, Saturday at 6 pm). Godawful sentimental chickflick about a tragic kook (Charlize Theron) who decides to loosen up a hard-driving prig (Keanu Reeves) -- but Theron is terrific, as well as beyond-belief pretty. Thief of Hearts (IFC, Wednesday at 10 pm; Thursday at 6 pm). Remember the glossy, overdynamic Simpson/Bruckheimer hits of the ‘80s -- “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Top Gun,” etc? Well, they made some duds too, and this was one of them. But Barbara Williams, playing a conventional woman lured into a romance with a thief, brings to her character a slow-motion sensuality, and dark undercurrents of fear, distress and need, that are very erotic. Killing Zoe (IFC, Friday at 8 pm and 11:15 pm; Friday at 4:15 am). Crappy heist-gone-bad edginess from a Tarantino sidekick, but an all-too-rare opportunity to feast your eyes on one of the most elegant, jewel-like actresses around these days, Julie Delpy. This month’s theme on TCM is Westerns. Morality plays in mythic settings -- that’s what Westerns deliver, and it’s what the form is all about. The hunger for this kind of entertainment never seems to... posted by Michael at November 3, 2002 | perma-link | (1) comments