In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

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  1. Schiele, Fashion...Feminism?
  2. Artchat Survival Guide 3 -- The Word "Art"
  3. Consumer Reports, TQM and Educational Theology Redux
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  6. Book Review -- "The Year 1000"
  7. Forms of Self-Expression I Will Never, Ever Make Use Of
  8. Free Reads -- Saddam's Painter
  9. Guest Posting -- Yahmdallah
  10. Sisterhood is Forever

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Friday, March 28, 2003

Schiele, Fashion...Feminism?
Michael: A few weeks ago I got a picture from Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue via email from a friend. I was reminded of an Egon Schiele drawing I’ve had stashed on my hard drive for a while. I pulled it up and was struck by the similarities between two images which were created almost a century apart. E. Schiele, Female Nude, 1910; E. Badulescu, Photo of Anna Beatriz Barros, 2002 Since that time, I’ve spent a few hours reading about Schiele and wondering about the following questions: Schiele’s brief career as an artist (and his equally brief life) seem to have revolved around issues of sexuality. One discussion, which you can read here, touches on the following subjects: incest, narcissism, homosexuality, masturbation, androgyny, pedophilia and veneral disease. The biographies of Schiele explain this artistic focus on sexuality as a reaction to late Victorian sexual immorality and dishonesty. However, this type of sexual “immorality”—by which writers seem to be alluding to the double standard of married men having extramarital sex with prostitutes or lower-class women—hardly seems to have been a phenomena unique to the early 20th century. (The 18th century comes to mind as another era in which the double standard was triumphant and yet sexual anguish was not particularly visible). What would seem to set Schiele's era far apart from its many predecessor eras, for me anyway, was the presence of feminism as a social trend. Was there a connection between the sudden interest in “anguished” adolescent sexuality in the early 1900s and feminism? Was Schiele struggling to grow up in a world in which masculinity had suddenly been called into question? What is the connection between Schiele’s focus on adolescent (and pre-adolescent) bodies and fashion’s (currently) similar focus? The slender adolescent body is both sexualized (body hair, breasts) and androgenous (models of both sexes are generally selected with similar builds—long limbs, small hips). Does image making around adolescent sexuality suggest an essentially auto-erotic view of sex? Ads for Calvin Klein As much as I regret it, I can’t provide anything like definitive answers to these questions. Have you got any answers? How about our readers? Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at March 28, 2003 | perma-link | (14) comments

Artchat Survival Guide 3 -- The Word "Art"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- In middle age I find that I have much less interest in aesthetic theory than I once did, and much more interest in general rules of thumb -- survival guides, tips that help get me into the ball park. Just about anything that's based in practical experience, in fact. The word "art," unsurprisingly, is one of those words I've had to learn to be very careful around. "Is it art?" "But it's not really art?" "Who are you to say it's art?" Etc., etc. I was thinking about how I think of the word these days as opposed to how I thought of the word back in our days at our Lousy Ivy College. And I realized that, without having given it much systematic thought, I've evolved some strategies for dealing with the word -- ways of dodging pointless arguments as well as making what for me is good use of the word. I scratched my chin, I made a few notes, and came up with this: my rough guide to the word "art." I find it useful to think of the word as having three main meanings. 1) Small-a "art." It's a technical term, nothing more than a description of a certain class of activity.This is very evo-bio: art is anything above and beyond pure functionality. (I'm deliberately ignoring here any and all muddyings of form and function. It doesn't make serious sense to do so, but, hey, I'm trying to draw a useful distinction here...) In this meaning, "art" has nothing to do with indicating quality and everything to do with the kind of activity it describes. Think of the word "sport" for a comparison. It describes a certain kind of activity without telling you how good any example of such an activity is. Playing marbles or recreational waterskiing are examples of "sport" every bit as much as an NBA playoff game is. The same with this use of the word "art." Every society sings, dances, decorates, and tells stories. And it's all small-a art. This jug isn't just a container for water. It's blue, it's shaped like a duck, and it has feather patterns on it -- that's the art. People decorate themselves, they stitch and dye cloth, they put colored mud on their animal-skin huts. They get dressed up nice for rituals where they dance, make noise, and eat specially-prepared food -- it's all art. All societies (except those entirely caught up in a battle for survival) have and make art in this sense. Fun consequence: look around you. Art is everywhere! Your wife's earrings are small-a art. Your shoes are small-a art. The design of that brochure is art. If you think they aren't, ask yourself why the Met Museum is full of cups, saucers, fabrics, rugs, knives, etc. Why do we accept that a fork from Malawi is art, but think that the fork in our own kitchen drawer isn't? 2) Big-A "Art." As technical a term as... posted by Michael at March 28, 2003 | perma-link | (14) comments

Thursday, March 27, 2003

Consumer Reports, TQM and Educational Theology Redux
Michael: In my earlier post on Consumer Reports, TQM and Educational Theology I made some rather scattershot observations regarding educational paradigms. Scattershot or not, they stirred up some comments, and looking at the comments I realized that each addressed an issue that would help to clarify what I was originally driving at. So here’s my clarification: My original piece was aimed at what I consider a lack of seriousness on the part of the education establishment. Education plays a very significant role in either allowing or disallowing people in our society access to a variety of opportunities. Employers and all sorts of other authority figures look at how much and what type of education a person has received as a proxy for what kind of training, skills and basic aptitude a person possesses. As a result of the education establishment’s sloppy approach to teaching and evaluation, however, the amount and type of a person’s education is a poor predictive indicator. Why? Because when you “measure” something for purposes of comparison, you need certain prerequisites. If you want to compare “lengths” of two objects that aren’t side by side, you need (1) an agreement on what is to be measured (longest dimension? shortest dimension? circumference?) and (2) rulers marked off in identical units. However, a standard educational course, whether in junior high school or in graduate school, lacks both of these pre-requisites. There is no standard definition of what is being measured, and it’s not clear what units are being used to do the measuring. That is to say, each teacher or professor gets to define what gets taught and what constitutes the measure of success. As a practical result, getting a “C” in one course in differential equations may indicate vastly more or vastly less mastery of differential equations than getting a “C” in another. The downsides of our current system are quite visible. People graduate from high school without being able to read and write. Before the advent of spell- and grammar-checkers, I used to routinely get resumes from college graduates full of misspelled words and ungrammatical language. Some of my employees have been intelligent, hardworking and organized but absolutely unable to write even a simple business letter. Ultimately, the educational establishment is not solely to blame for this state of affairs. The larger fault lies with society (or, to be more precise, government) for not clarifying the purposes of education far more precisely, and then taking responsibility for making sure that these purposes are met. If we decide that all citizens need to be able to read, write, spell and understand a specific vocabulary of, say, 1000 words, do basic arithmetic and read street signs, then we need to put people through a training program to provide training in these skills and keep them at it until they really possess this combination of skills and knowledge. Some people may master these skills and obtain this knowledge in a few years; others may take decades. Some advanced skills, such... posted by Friedrich at March 27, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Friedrich -- A friend who works in advertising passes along a joke some German clients told him: "You know the world is going crazy when the best rapper is a white guy, the best golfer is a black guy, the Swiss hold the America's Cup, France is accusing the US of arrogance and Germany doesn't want to go to war." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 26, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Web Surfing
Friedrich -- Chris Bertram (here) recommends some books on political philosophy. Eddie Thomas (here) and Aaron Haspel (here) analyze the lyrics of a song by the Derailers, a honky-tonk band. Jim Miller (here) argues that a big majority of Iraqis want Saddam gone. Polly Frost (here) writes about the upside and the downside of  William Gibson's new novel "Pattern Recognition." Christopher Caldwell claims here that the only way to explain Jacques Chirac's refusal to join the anti-Saddam coalition  is that he's pandering to, er, catering to his own country's poor and disaffected Muslims. Alexandra Ceely (here, though you have to scroll down about six postings) has an art-history lesson about Caravaggio's Judith and Holofernes. Jim Ryan (here)  wonders whether to reduce his blogging schedule or to quit blogging completely, while Andrea Harris (here) spells out, in no uncertain terms, what the rules for taking part in the "comments" section of her blog now are. A few years back, I stumbled across Timothy Taylor's audiotaped lecture series "Legacies of Great Economists" and found it a great help. It's beginning econ for those who fall asleep at the sight of an equation or a graph -- economics as seen through the lives and works of Smith, Ricardo, Mill, Schumpeter, etc. Taylor explains it all in straightforward English and his enthusiasm never flags. I notice that the Teaching Company is currently offering the package for sale here at the really amazing price of $15.95. A new find: I stumbled across Charlie B's blog Here Inside (here) about a week ago and took to it instantly. It's everything a gayblog should be and more -- witty, cheerfully perverse, moving. Charlie rhapsodizes about classical music, gardening, and cute soccer players; reviews movies and books; makes observations about this and that; relishes what turns him on; and doesn't shy from the earnest and sincere when the moment calls for it. He also turns a heckuva blog posting -- he's one of the slyest and most stylish writers in the blogoverse. And here's another interactive drawing/animation thingee. Impossible to describe, a lot of fun to play with, completely disruptive of all previous concepts of "drawing." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 26, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Book Review -- "The Year 1000"
Friedrich -- In my better-late-than-never campaign to learn a bit about British history, I just finished an excellent and entertaining book, Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger's The Year 1000, buyable here and rentable on audio here. It's inventive and vivid popular history -- a horizontal slice through time, a look at  what life was like at the turn of the first millennium, an evocative  bit of this and an incisive bit of that. The reader learns about late Anglo-Saxon medicine (such as it was); the way Christianity was mopping up after its conquest of paganism (the authors compare the mania for Christianity to today's lust for inclusion in the European Economic Union); about food, drink, farming, coinage, and ways of doing battle. The authors have a lot of flair for the telling detail and the comparison that drives a point home. Opposing armies at this time, for instance, didn't wear distinctive outfits, so battle was like "a rugby scrum conducted without benefit of different-colored uniforms." They compare the politics of the time to to Chicago in the 1930s. I'd certainly never really registered that monks were bossed by abbesses -- ie., women -- before. Fans of the topic of global-warming (pro or con) will be interested to learn that the first millennium was a time when average temperatures were several degrees above what they are today, and that this wasn't a terrible thing for British agriculture. The authors are also good on the topic of slavery,  a phenomenon that interests the crank in me because of my annoyance with the reverent (and misguided) way so many people treat American slavery as though it was unique in the world.  (In fact, the word "slave" comes from "Slav"; the Slavic lands for centuries supplied easy pickings for slave-traders.) They don't shy from other gruesome daily realities either. Flies were everywhere and people were riddled with tapeworm and fleas, though teeth and jaws weren't in bad shape; honey, the only sweetener available, was a luxury. Bathing? Perhaps a few times a year. You're left on your own to imagine the dandruff, lumps, crud, pimples, bumps, scaley patches, and stink that must have been routine. I marvel, not for the first time, that such unappetizing creatures managed to procreate. All very enjoyable and informative. And, since I'm an arty-farty guy who tends to respond to almost everything in primarily literary and artistic ways, I'm also struck by the writing, and by the way the book is put together. Brit writers often have a flair for intelligent, informative history; keeping things fast, informal-seeming, and amusing seems to be a point of pride, and god bless 'em for it. "The Year 1000" is erudite yet, sentence by sentence, is presented in a tone of casual conversation; reading the book is like listening to friends talk wittily about a fascinating recent vacation. (Some excerpts from the book can be read here.) As a piece of book-making (ie., as idea and structure),  it's also impressive -- prismatic, searching,... posted by Michael at March 26, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

Forms of Self-Expression I Will Never, Ever Make Use Of
Friedrich -- Yikes. And double-yikes. Best, Michael DO NOT OPEN AT WORK UPDATE: Yahmdallah rightly points out that, hey, many blogsurfers do their surfing at work, if you know what I mean. So, everyone, before you click on the above links, consider yourself warned. 2Blowhards will not be held responsible for fainting co-workers, let alone wrathful bosses.... posted by Michael at March 26, 2003 | perma-link | (10) comments

Free Reads -- Saddam's Painter
Friedrich -- Those giant images of Saddam? The heroic, neo-Stalinist ones that hang apparently everywhere in Iraq? They had to have been made by someone, right? But who? The Financial Times' Roula Khalaf had the wit to track down Salam Abed, a painter whose work has contributed much to the Saddam myth. The piece can be read here. Best Michael... posted by Michael at March 26, 2003 | perma-link | (1) comments

Guest Posting -- Yahmdallah
Friedrich -- I recently swapped some emails with our favorite commenter, the guy who goes by the online handle Yahmdallah, and wound up asking if I could use a few passages from his notes in a posting here on the blog. They were memories of life in the Minneapolis art scene and reflections about staying involved in the arts once equipped with job and family -- too interesting not to pass along to the rest of our readers. After an "aw shucks" or two, he agreed, so I'm pleased to pass these Yahmdallah observations along: After a romance squashed my heart flat, a buddy in Minneapolis told me to come crash with him till I picked myself up. He was an artist deeply enmeshed in the art and music scene of the "Miniapple" (their cute little moniker for themselves). So, by default, I ended up in the scene, too. This is back when Husker Du, the Replacements, Soul Asylum, and Prince were all getting started or were firmly established. Minneapolis was THE music scene in America a few years before it moved to Seattle. I mostly helped with a lot of gallery installations. Attended a lot of openings and house parties where some of the bands listed above played along with the ones who never made it. We also lived next door to a design genius who literally won every design contest he entered. So just by association to him we met some superstars. The Minneapolis art scene was actually very un-P.C. and vibrant. Strand a bunch of Swedes, Norwegians, and Germans in the middle of a winter wasteland, close the liquor stores at 8 P.M. and Sundays, and you get some pretty interesting stuff. In my opinion, the only places in America where the galleries and the openings rival Minneapolis are New York/Boston and San Francisco. The only odd-ball thing about the Miniapple art scene was a quirk that drove us to create a game we called "find the fish." Most of the artists who came down from the iron range and all the little Garrison Keillor ("Prairie Home Companion") towns around the 10,000 lakes had Christian, particularly Lutheran, backgrounds, so every show by a new artist would somehow have a fish in it somewhere. Sometimes it was in honor of the faith, but often it was, of course, for degradation and mocking. Still, it was something to do if the box wine was gone, and if you'd already completely checked out all the goths, punks, and weird art chicks' costumes. (Why do so many art chicks look exactly like what Picasso painted? -- that weird disjointed countenance and that face with those freaky eyes?) My participation in the art scene these days is almost entirely via the web and the odd movie about an artist's life. The major city I live near now has an art scene that's truly abysmal. Many little towns in Michigan's wine country have better galleries and showings. I think James Lileks is correct... posted by Michael at March 26, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Sisterhood is Forever
Michael: In researching some aspects of my postings on Impressionism, I have entered new territory (for me, anyway): women’s studies. I went looking for a history of feminism in the 19th century. At least as far as the “Women’s Studies” shelves at my local Barnes and Noble went, I noticed that there weren’t a whole lot of studies present, at least not in my sense of the word. I was looking forward to thick analyses of the demographics, education, employment, reproductive activities, political positions, etc., etc., of women during the 1840s, the 1850s, etc. In short, ahem, facts. Fat chance, buster. At least as far as the titles on these shelves went, what I found were a series of book-length polemics—e.g., “Sisterhood is Forever.” Forever, huh? I pondered, I wonder how they know that? However, I’m a Blowhard and I take my responsibilities as an informed windbag seriously, so I didn’t abandon ship. I finally found one volume that seemed like it might do the trick: “A History of Women, Volume IV, Emerging Feminism from Revolution to World War.” It was edited by Georges Duby, (a member of the Academie Francaise), Michelle Perrot (Professor of Contemporary History, University of Paris) and Genevieve Fraisse (Research Associate in Philosophy, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris), all of whom seemed pretty respectable. And, the clincher, was that it was published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University. So I plunked my $19.45 down and bought the book. And, it’s true, there are some interesting and rather valuable facts scattered about in the book. (I plan to use some of them in my posting.) But in what I had assumed was the pure temple of objective scholarly research, I found what I would have to describe as a remarkably high incidence of outright opinion, wild overgeneralization and anachronistic reading of past behavior by today’s standards. Let me give you an example from the chapter “Bodies and Hearts” by Yvonne Knibiehler: The French term for unwed mother, fille mere, first entered the language during the Revolution and is only now disappearing. For two centuries it connoted an affront to the very logic of patriarchy. At this point, I start looking around for a footnote—after all, such an affront must have been noted by some of those darn patriarchs over two full centuries. No dice. I skip down a few lines: To be sure, illegitimate births were not unknown in previous centuries. But between 1750 and 1850 their status changed, as it were. There were a variety of reasons for this: the number of illegitimate births increased, “seducers” were denounced as irresponsible, and the authorities became increasingly concerned about the problem. The number of unwed mothers increased everywhere [footnote 50], although not always at the same pace. In France the illegitimacy rate rose from 3.3 percent of all births in 1790 to 7.4 percent in 1840, stabilizing at between 7 and 8 percent by the turn of the twentieth century. In Paris, however, a destination... posted by Friedrich at March 25, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Monday, March 24, 2003

Consumer Reports, TQM and Educational Theology
Michael: It continues to baffle me why society places such an emphasis on the subtleties of where one goes to college and what grades one got there. Presumably, this is because these two pieces of data give potential employers (and potential spouses) an idea of the contribution a person can make to their respective enterprises. But how good are these two data points? Recent coverage of affirmative action lawsuits has revealed the incredible vagarieties of the university admission process. Clearly, the bar one must jump to be admitted to a selective university is far lower if one is a student athlete or a “legacy” than if one is an ordinary mortal. And a story in the New York Times of March 24 reveals the ludicrous nature of grades as a measure of accomplishment or learning. This story, which you can read here, discusses an online service called Pick-a-Prof, which provides a “Consumer Reports”-like analysis of professors at public universities. Not only does Pick-a-Prof allow a prospective student to scrutinize comments and ratings for a professor from previous students, but it also allows students to study the grade distributions handed out by that professor in previous semesters. This latter capability has made professors and administrations nervous. Apparently some are worried that …increased emphasis on ratings would lead professors to focus more on popularity than on substance and to forgo complex and subtle instruction for what was easily accessible. Dr. William T. Stuart, the director of undergraduate studies in the anthropology department at the University of Maryland, is concerned that: I'm not saying the sky is falling, or that it's a crisis, but I do believe that if you start orienting your work to the applause of the audience, that has unfortunate effects. I’m a little confused by Dr. Stuart's reasoning. Presumably, a college student wants to pick the professor who will teach them the most. The explicit evaluation of how much a student has learned is, of course, the student’s course grade. Therefore, it would appear obvious that the professor with the highest percentage of high grades is doing the best job teaching his or her class. Right? For teachers to imply that students are doing something improper by choosing a teacher with higher grades is to admit just how completely broken the grading mechanism is—how little grades are comparable from one instructor to the next, and from one subject to the next—without, of course, teachers actually having to come right out and admit that their grading system is so out of touch with reality that it encourages gamesmanship far more than actual learning. But it’s not unusual for college professors, like other instructors, to “blame the victim”—in this case, the student—for their pedagogic failures. The psychological model of school grading seems to derive from the theological concept of Protestant predestination, in which the elect—those who get good grades—go to school in order to be separated out from the damned—those who will not do well at school or life. The instructor,... posted by Friedrich at March 24, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments