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  1. Art in Santa Fe
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  3. Adorno's Self Portrait
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  8. Tacit Knowledge -- New Books
  9. Education and Science

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Saturday, November 16, 2002

Art in Santa Fe
Friedrich -- A busy few days of art-going here on vacation in Santa Fe, wrestling with the way popular and elite art have become ridiculously (and tragically) polarized. First, a visit to the International Folk Art Museum, full of delights and surprises. Much amazement at how evocative, humorous, melancholy and mysterious folk art can be. Also how traditional, yet how inventive and bizarre: it can make you wonder why sophisticated, cosmopolitan artists bother trying. Later, an afternoon spent in the local galleries, full of cowboy art, designer abstractions, etc. Art for the tourist trade, yet almost all of it talented and skillful. It’s enjoyably disorienting for a NYC-based arts fan with an overdeveloped critical-intellectual muscle to wander around taste-testing this kind of art. Santa Fe puts you in a pleasing-yourself, quality-of-life frame of mind. You think about food, imagery, houses, and spending money on pleasure. You find yourself thinking, “Hmmm, I could live with that.” Is much of this art made for the market? Sure. Is that any reason to dismiss it? At the moment, I can’t see why. I’m pretty certain, however, that my art-world friends back in NYC will remind me why I should. Then an evening at the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, feeling chagrined, because whenever I’m not in front of her paintings, I can feel annoyed by her. When I see them live, I think, Gee, these pictures are really very catchy. Finally, a visit to Site Santa Fe, the local stark-and-severe “art space,” an abrupt return to contempo, high-serious, art-world art, and a look at an installation show by Janine Antoni, who’s, ahem, upending assumptions of gender and the body. An impression in plaster of one of her nipples: inner/outer, masculine and feminine ways of doing things, etc. Lots of cows, soap, lard and chocolate: the inside/the outside, consuming/creating, feminine and masculine ways of making art. Hey, it’s possible to get what her work is about and still not like it. I can see taking pleasure from the folk art. I can see enjoying the tourist art. The O’Keefe paintings are hard to resist (part of the fun being that so many of them are about what it’s like to have a pussy, yet she’d never admit there was any sexual content in them). Out here in Santa Fe, surrounded by people enjoying Indian art, Hispanic low-rider art, and Georgia O’Keefe, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting much of anything out of Antoni. My own tastes run towards avant-garde art, and Antoni of course can do what she wants – free country, etc. But it’s telling that she gives you next-to-nothing to look at – her work’s all about realizing would-be clever art-world ideas. You have to read and decode it; the only other people looking at her show was a small crowd being led around by a docent, who was busy explaining the ideas. In fact, her work hardly exists without explanation. Antoni seems a clever, capable illustrator of current art-professor-and-foundation ideas, more a maker... posted by Michael at November 16, 2002 | perma-link | (5) comments

American High Culture IV: The Role of Universities
Michael In my previous posting on “high” culture, I discussed how real estate developers have often used the prestige associated with performing art centers to advance their own business interests, often to the detriment of the art institutions the centers ostensibly serve. Well, if I’m going to survey “friends” of the arts with ulterior motives, I guess I have to mention higher education as well. Prior to World War Two, visual and performing artists were trained either in specialized schools, apprenticed with masters or studied with private tutors. After the passage of the G.I. Bill, however, colleges and universities swiftly glommed on to the arts. Whole departments devoted to creative writing, visual arts, music, drama or dance sprung up, offering new degrees such as the M.F.A., with doctorates coming rapidly after. The extent of university programs in the arts grew at an extraordinary rate. In 1948, only 105 colleges and universities even gave courses in dance—and then mostly in the physical education department. Twenty years later, 110 colleges and universities offered a major in dance, 22 had dance departments, 42 offered an M.A. degree in dance, and 6 were prepared to hand out Ph.Ds in dance. In 1960, some five thousand American college students were majoring in theater; a mere seven years later, there were 18,000. And this growth rate continued past the Sixties. In 1971, American universities handed out roughly 30,000 bachelor degrees in the visual and performing arts; by 2000, the annual production had doubled. During the roughly 30 years between 1971 and 2000, over seven hundred thousand Americans graduated with degrees in the visual and performing arts. Obviously, only a fraction of these people ever found employment in the arts, but I doubt that ever counted a great deal with the mandarins of higher education. ("Hey, if the tuition checks clear, what's the problem?") Given that “academic art” is a term of contempt in modernist art history, how has the movement of art training into a university setting affected the quality of art production? According to Alice Goldfarb Marquis, one 1970 survey of artists who took creative sabbaticals at the MacDowell Colony in New England revealed: …the MacDowell composers complained of over-intellectualized music and of faculties “too cramped, too cozy, too ingrown.” No one wanted to criticize anyone else because that would hurt the department. Many university-based composers were writing only for each other, said some, while others resented “cliquishness and faddism.” Writers who were MacDowell alumni were similarly disenchanted with academe. The campus atmosphere, said on, “encouraged too many academics to imagine they were artists.” Painters were even more disillusioned. Moving art from professional schools to campuses, said one, “made the art student a dilettante and killed the apprentice system.” The eminent art critic Robert Hughes discussed the impact of university art training on the quality of art production in his 1980 book “The Shock of the New”: Every five years, the art schools of America alone produced as many graduates as there were people in... posted by Friedrich at November 16, 2002 | perma-link | (7) comments

Friday, November 15, 2002

Adorno's Self Portrait
Michael As you may recall, I had a little fun a few months back with a review of Mr. Adorno’s “Essays on Music.” But given his reputation as a major critic of popular culture—higher today than when he was alive—I decided to take a look at Mr. Adorno’s writings. Scouring the Internet, I found a translation of his 1944 essay, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment As Mass Deception,” written with his collaborator Max Horkheimer. Although it took several readings of this densely worded, convoluted, 16,000-word essay to distill the main concepts—the things I do for 2blowhards!—I think the following summary describes them fairly accurately: #1—Modern popular culture represents the triumph of fixed entertainment formulas: Not only are the hit songs, stars, and soap operas cyclically recurrent and rigidly invariable types, but the specific content of the entertainment itself is derived from them and only appears to change. The details are interchangeable…As soon as the film begins, it is quite clear how it will end, and who will be rewarded, punished, or forgotten. In light music, once the trained ear has heard the first notes of the hit song, it can guess what is coming and feel flattered when it does come. #2—Modern popular culture gains authority from its mechanical reproduction: The National Socialists knew that the wireless gave shape to their cause just as the printing press did to the Reformation. The…charisma of the Fuhrer…has finally turned out to be no more than the omnipresence of his speeches on the radio, which are a demoniacal parody of the omnipresence of the divine spirit. #3—Modern popular culture imposes a rigid “house” style on all artworks: No Palestrina could be more of a purist in eliminating every unprepared and unresolved discord than the jazz arranger in suppressing any development which does not conform to the [rules of commercial music]. When jazzing up Mozart he changes him not only when [Mozart’s music] is too serious or too difficult but when [Mozart] harmonizes the melody in a different way, perhaps more simply, than is customary now. #4—Modern popular culture converges with advertising: The highest-paid stars resemble pictures advertising unspecified…articles. [Movie stars are] often selected from the host of commercial models. The prevailing taste takes its ideal from advertising, the beauty in consumption… With these four ideas Adorno sketched out the salient characteristics of commercial culture in a capitalist-industrial era, and there is at least an argument (if not always a strong one) to be made for his positions. However, he didn’t stop there. He overlaid these points with a unique conspiracy theory, which I would call “The Culture Industry as a Mind Control Mechanism for Monopoly Capitalism.” This theory, although Adorno is a bit sketchy on the details, goes something like this: #1—Modern popular culture converts citizens into consumer zombies: The principle [under which the culture industry operates] dictates that [the average citizen] should be shown all his needs as capable of-fulfillment, but that those needs should be so predetermined that he feels himself to... posted by Friedrich at November 15, 2002 | perma-link | (7) comments

Thursday, November 14, 2002

Our Mission, so to speak
Bleep, bloop, sounds of static… We interrupt our regular programming for this public service announcement. It occurs to the two of us here at 2blowhards that now might not be a bad time to come clean about what we’re up to with our blog. In addition to having a lot of fun sounding off about this and that, we do have a fairly serious, two-part agenda. (Cue “Fanfare for the Common Man.”) The first is that, in our scatterbrained way, we’re trying to do for the arts (and for coverage of the arts) something like what Bernard Goldberg did for the conventional news. Goldberg wrote about how the kinds of people and the kinds of institutions that deliver the mainstream news condition what’s considered the news. The same thing holds in the arts. Cultural institutions and outlets are (mostly) run by certain kinds and classes of people, who tend to promote (if only professionally) certain values. Understand this, and how this works, and your enjoyment of the arts (as well as your awareness of what art is, and can be) will only increase. Or such is our conviction anyway. It’s a mystery to us why people who follow the arts aren’t as skeptical of what they encounter as people who follow the evening news. Many people are sharp about the day’s hard news. They see the slant, they know where it comes from, they call attention to it, they inform each other about it, they seek out alternative sources. For some reason, people who follow art often aren’t as aware and on the ball. Why is this? Maybe art and culture don’t seem as pressing as hard news. Maybe part of the reason people turn to the art and culture pages is to seek refuge from the squabbles of the hard news pages. Maybe the arts have been successful in their campaign to present themselves as an alternative – and why seek out alternatives to what’s already alternative? We also find that, often, when such questions as “who gets to define what’s art” are raised, people flip between total credulousness and total cynicism. On the one hand there’s the trusting response: “Oh, these poor, worthy artists!” On the other, there’s the prematurely gruff and cynical response: “It’s all a scam.” Both strike us as offbase. Total credulousness is hardly wise because this stuff is being created and fed to you by a class of people with its own interests. Total cynicism is offbase because there is in fact a lot of talent and brains out there. If you’re overly cynical, you aren’t going to let yourself find and experience the current work and thinking that is in fact useful, provocative, interesting and pleasing. Why worry about any of this? It’s true that the arts are less immediately a matter of life and death than hard news is. They’re gooier, and more a matter of such semi-indefinables as glamour, sex, entertainment, and personal opinion. But they aren’t just a matter of... posted by Michael at November 14, 2002 | perma-link | (7) comments

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

The TiVo Revolution continues
Michael Although I’m a mere amateur TV-watcher compared to you, I thought I should share how TV watching at my house has changed since my technophile wife installed a TiVo. I’m no “early adopter” of electronic gizmos, and I stopped watching much TV at all a number of decades back, but I must say getting a digital video recorder, or “DVR” as the acronym-crazy electronics industry likes to call them, has been a revolutionary advance over standard TV. My family now watches what we choose to watch when we choose to watch it. We skip commercials with carefree abandon. (On the rare occasions when I end up watching “live” TV—without running it through the DVR—I find myself futilely reaching for the control to make commercials go away, and then painfully realizing that I’m back in the Stone Age. It’s always hard to go back.) My wife uses the DVR to analyze the serves of tennis pros in slow motion. My daughters’ viewing habits now consist exclusively of watching digitally recorded reruns of “Friends” (after their homework is done, of course.) Since the major limitation of the original TiVo device was how much stuff could get recorded—a lot of material had to be erased each week to make room for new programs—Hughes Electronics now offers an option that combines its DirecTV satellite service with the basic features of TiVo and which has the capacity to record 35 hours of video. Not to be outdone, EchoStar Communications sells one device with 60 hours of recording time and a more expensive variant that gives you 90 hours. Since we recently shifted to satellite TV from Adelphia cable (their accounting wasn’t the only dodgy element in their operation) we now have one of these in our house too, I forget which. These changes have made so radical a shift in my family’s interaction with TV that I found myself reading a newspaper story on the next chapter in the DVR saga. According to the Wall Street Journal of November 13, manufacturers of digital video recorders like TiVo and ReplayTV hope to reach a broader audience by piggybacking on the growing popularity of DVD players. Toshiba Corp’s U.S. unit will incorporate TiVo’s DVR technology in a DVD player that will be released next year. Thomson Multimedia SA has introduced the RCA Scenium Digital Media Recorder that plays DVD movies and has recording space for more than 30 hours of video. It also copies digital pictures and songs from a CD, turning a DVD player into a jukebox, a TV into a photo album. Why do I care? Well, as the WSJ story mentions: …DVD-DVR products are most likely to appeal to people who place a premium on uncluttering the shelves of their home theaters. I must confess the biggest drawback to all this progress is the ever-increasing number of interwired boxes sitting above, below, right and left of the TV screen. I mean, I’ll watch digitally recorded satellite TV, but if anything goes wrong (say,... posted by Friedrich at November 13, 2002 | perma-link | (2) comments

Moviegoing: "Femme Fatale"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich, I was taken by surprise the other day when I turned to the movie pages and saw that Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale had opened. I knew the film was coming, but I don't pay much attention to the movie biz anymore. And there it was, a little ad announcing that the film was opening Wednesday. A little ad? A Wednesday opening? Is the movie company dumping the picture? Well, they may be right to. I enjoyed the movie a lot and am happily making plans to see it a second time, but I'd be wary of recommending it to anyone who isn't a very particular kind of weirdo film buff. I'll try to spare you the full-scale review and cut semi-directly to what's most salient. "Femme Fatale" is the first time in a long while that De Palma has made one of his Hitchcock-esque numbers; it's like an upscale, marble-ized version of "Dressed to Kill." As a routine movie, "Femme Fatale" is hardly worth discussing. There's a bit of a story (jewel heist, double-cross, impersonation, marriage to a tycoon, baddies who want their money back, etc.), but it's a patchwork , cut-and-paste thing, and the characters are just chess pieces. In conventional terms, not only does the film not work, it hardly seems to be trying. Femme fatale Romijin-Stamos What's gripping isn't the story, it's the filmmaking. The film is really a bunch of glittering, bravura sequences. I'm only guessing, but it's as though de Palma turned 60, bombed with "Mission to Mars" (which I also loved), moved to Paris, and said, Fuck it, I'm going to make movies only for the reasons that interest me. (Which makes sense. In my view, he only ever had the pulse of the mainstream audience for about five years -- and given that his temperament is basically an avant-garde one, it's a miracle he had it for that long.) The film is a poem on the themes of beauty and danger. What it's really like is an avant garde bit of silent film poetry (with an extravagant Ryu Sakamoto musical score) from the days back when film was still finding its way. It's like "Napoleon" or "Menilmontant," or one of Rene Clair's early movies; it also reminds me of reading Hart Crane. Very experimental and '20s in feeling, in any case. It's all about going into raptures about the potential of the medium. There are moments in his films when -- to a De Palma buff, anyway -- they seem about as aesthetically far-out as a movie can be. I write this being all-too-aware that his movies don't work for many people, conventionally or as poetry. I suppose if a movie of his like this one doesn't work for you it looks shrill or super-affected. Me, I enjoy the spectacle of this hyperintellectual film poet going bananas in the nursery room that is movie history. When he's inspired, his projects can take on a kind of dream... posted by Michael at November 13, 2002 | perma-link | (3) comments

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Education and Race
Michael Is it just me, or do stories about racial diversity initiatives at colleges make you want to laugh and cry at the same time? The spectacle of university administrators—to whom, let’s not kid ourselves, undergraduates are just one more revenue stream—lumbering out to do a spot of social engineering on a vulnerable population of 18-year-olds is just too painful for anything other than sick humor. As a result, when I open the newspaper and find stories on the topic, I tend to skip them, as I presume many others do as well. But the headline of the New York Times’ story of November 12: “Colleges Find Diversity is Not Just Numbers” was so eloquent in its blandness I had to check it out. (If nothing else, I knew that I would enjoy the spectacle of the Times uncomfortably squirming through the minefields of its own institutional political correctitude while trying to discuss changes in, well, another institution's political correctitude.) It used to be that freshman orientation here at Dartmouth College revolved around hiking up mountains and sleeping in huts along the Appalachian Trail. But this year one of the highlights was a talk by Karim Marshall, a senior, who told the 1,100 new students about his arrival on campus from a predominantly black high school in Washington. "Everyone in my world was black," Mr. Marshall began. His grandmother from Mississippi could not even understand why he wanted to attend mostly white Dartmouth, he said. In the audience, Matthew Oppenheimer, a white student from Boise, Idaho, was riveted by Mr. Marshall's story, just as Dartmouth administrators had hoped. "I couldn't imagine what it was like to come from his community to Dartmouth," Mr. Oppenheimer said. "I have such respect for him being so open." I suppose Dartmouth administrators must revel in the feelings of their power when setting up such orgies of virtue. It must be quite a rush to be able to grind the identities of 18-year-old children down to mere racial ciphers. ("You're either white and thus a privileged racist or you're not and thus a victim--that's all you need to know, people. Just get with the program, okay?") With the Dartmouth power structure looming over Mr. Oppenheimer at his orientation, I bet it never occurred to this rather naïve college freshman that he, with equal justice, could stand up and relate tales of his all-white childhood in Idaho to Mr. Marshall. Or that Mr. Marshall’s own humanity was being stripped away by being paraded around as a personification of the Black College Experience. The only person I can actually contemplate in this whole tableau without feelings of embarrassment is Mr. Marshall’s grandmother, who sounds like a woman of too much sense to subject herself to the improving influence of Dartmouth College. I guess it needs to be said aloud every so often that the P.C. treatment of minorities is just as morally obtuse as racism: both ignore the individual humanity of minority students while focusing on their... posted by Friedrich at November 12, 2002 | perma-link | (4) comments

Monday, November 11, 2002

Tacit Knowledge -- New Books
Friedrich Covering the arts professionally (for way too many years) burned a lot of earnest-and-dreamy liberal-arts foolishness out of me. It may have left me a tiresome old gasbag too, but it did leave me with a number of observations, ideas and tips. Why not use the blog to pass a few of these along? Today’s topic: the passion for new books. I’m often amazed by the way some people think they really ought to be reading the latest much-discussed book. I’m also amazed by how eagerly people discuss the merits of current writers. Is Zadie Smith really as good as David Foster Wallace? Who cares? I’m probably deceiving myself, but I take myself to be one of the less high-minded aesthetes, yet even I’d say that in the 15 years I followed publishing, I read maybe 15 books that I felt fell in the category of fabulous-to-great. That’s one a year – not bad, really. And, realistically speaking, can any of the even the most highly-touted new books compare to the thousands of great old books that you, or I, or anyone haven’t yet gotten around to? That hot new presidential biography, even that edgy postmodern fantasia -- are they really in a class with Gibbon, or Lady Murasaki? Of course not. On the other hand, people sometimes simply seem to be in the mood for something new, and what’s wrong with that? It’s fun to try out what friends are arguing about; it’s fun to see contemporary life portrayed; it’s fun to keep up with interests, whether they’re movies or travel. There’s a lot of information to be gleaned and entertainment to be enjoyed. And, to be fair, in my years of active service, I read hundreds of books that struck me as anything from pretty-good to excellent. I’d never attack people’s pleasure in new books, but I do (as here) blow the occasional gasket about the way people will fall for the notion that keeping up with new books is some kind of moral imperative, or even has much importance at all. So, a 2blowhards insider tip: any time you read or hear about a new book, take it for granted that this phrase is present: “if you’re in the mood for this kind of thing.” Ie., this new post-feminist romp is great fun – if you’re in the mood for this kind of thing. This new look at Pearl Harbor is mind-boggling – if you’re in the mood for this kind of thing. Remembering this trick will set what’s being discussed in context, will help cool the moment-to-moment passions, and will help you defend yourself against annoying and unjust moral suasion. By the way, when these thoughts were first occurring to me, I was wary of them, and wary of myself. To make sure it wasn’t just me and my oddness, I made a point of comparing notes with other people in the field. At the time, I was lunching, partying and dinnering with people in... posted by Michael at November 11, 2002 | perma-link | (9) comments

Education and Science
Michael My experience at our Lousy Ivy University, my adventures with public and private school education for my children, and the stories told me by an executive who left the corporate world for a teaching career, have all left me with a sort of bruised curiosity regarding education. That is to say, I remain curious about and sympathetic to efforts to make education better, and I think it’s as important as all get out, but I wince in sympathy for anyone daring to stick their snout into the midst of the pedagogy industry. Now I will grant you, about 10 years ago my interest in education had grown rather sleepy as I had gotten further and further out of the clutches of professional educators. So I was pretty nonchalant when my wife announced that after surveying the local educational options (public school, for example, flopped when there turned out to be no morning English-speaking kindergarten classes at our neighborhood school), she had decided that our eldest child should get a private progressive education. I thought, well, fine, how bad could it be? Unfortunately, I found out. On parents’ night in first grade my daughter’s teacher began to go on and on about the intellectual pedigree of each specific technique involved in what I later learned was a "whole language" reading program. Finally, I interrupted the interminable discourse (it was like listening to a nobleman reciting the list of his illustrious ancestors) and said, “It’s great that these guys—whoever they are—thought this stuff up, but you know it works, right? This is the best way to teach kids to read, right?” Well, it turned out that this teacher actually had chosen her methods on the basis of aesthetics, or something—these methods spoke to her. She seemed to nurture a pious hope that they might also speak to the kids. When I went to get to the bottom of things with the principal, I started to realize my worst fear: not that this school might have chosen the wrong approach—which could have been fixed easily enough—but that the teaching profession placed so little value on testing the efficacy of their techniques that nobody knew definitively what worked. It just wasn’t a priority for these people. Studies were done and such (although usually sloppily) but all they resulted in were more angry polemics—it was like living in a hallucinogenic banana republic where the losers never accepted the election results. So when I picked up the New York Times Education Life section of November 10, I didn’t even wince when I read the following in James Traub’s story, “Does It Work?”: The idea that pedagogy ought to aspire to the condition of science, or even social science, is quite novel, and it runs against the grain of mainstream educational culture. As Grover J. Whitehurst, assistant secretary for research and improvement at the Department of Education, says, ''Education has not relied very much on evidence, whether in regard to how to train teachers, what sort... posted by Friedrich at November 11, 2002 | perma-link | (7) comments