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  1. Prisoner's Dilemma: Inmate Art
  2. California, Religion and Art
  3. Religion, Politics and Temperament
  4. Free Reads -- Diana Cambridge on Writing
  5. Kem Nunn 2: Writin'
  6. Aesthetics: Dude, Where's My Flying Car?
  7. Kem Nunn 1: Neo-Noir
  8. Half Baked Notions, Redux
  9. The Evo-Bio of Kate Hudson Movies

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Saturday, June 21, 2003

Prisoner's Dilemma: Inmate Art
Michael: A story in the L.A. Times of June 21, “Inmate Artists Won’t Be Brushed Off,” discusses the effects of cutbacks caused by California’s state budget crisis on an inmate arts program at the maximum security state prison in Lancaster. The focus of the story (which you can read here) is on the effects of continued funding cuts—first the program lost its paid civilian teachers, and now may shut down entirely for lack of dough to pay for art supplies—but along the way it also provides an interesting glimpse into the mindset of artists under relatively unique circumstances. Two inmate artists are discussed: Mitch Smiley and Cole Bienek. Both are in for second-degree murder; Mr. Bienek has been in prison for 15 years. Both are painters. Mr. Smiley focuses on figurative subjects, most recently on images derived from Orthodox Christian icons. Mr. Bienek is partial to landscape painting on the lines of the California Impressionists. M. Smiley at work Now these are only two men, not any kind of representative sample of the population, and I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that neither has a great deal of education. Nonetheless, they are both living out what would be for most of us a thought experiment: if locked up in prison, what kind of art would one choose to make? Mr. Bienek’s and Mr. Smiley’s choices are therefore intriguing to me. I notice that they are not spending time making abstract paintings or Duschampian ready-mades or conceptual art or any of the dominant modes of 20th century art. Mr. Bienek is trying to make representations of a nature he cannot currently experience and Mr. Smiley is trying to make representations of what, one assumes, is his form of ultimate reality. As Mr. Smiley explains: When you're painting, you're not here...You're in your own world, you know? I know very little about prison art; I wonder what choices other artists in this situation have made. Perhaps more to the point, what kind of art would you choose to make in this situation—and why? Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at June 21, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

Friday, June 20, 2003

California, Religion and Art
Friedrich -- Every time I come to California, it happens. A few days pass, and my stern, Northeast mental wranglings start to relent. I give up grim resolutions. Why not sniff the beautiful eucalyptus-and-sea-salt air instead? Why not sip some chilled white wine and watch the waves break? If all else fails, there’s always the hot tub. No wonder so many Californians walk around wearing an expression of inane, self-pleased untroubledness. I’m wearing it myself, and I’ve only been here a week. As my mind gets driftier and more relaxed, it also starts to muse -- or Muse, with a capital M. I start to think what strike me as Big Thoughts. I think about religion. It’s not as though I don’t think about religion when I’m back home, although I do it in a scrappy, off-and-on way. I meditate; I drag my sorry butt to the occasional tai chi class; I’ve attended a handful of Zen and Tibetan Buddhist classes and lectures. (A tip to single guys: an amazing number of the women who are attracted to Tibetan Buddhism are really good lookin’.) I’ve dragged The Wife to services at a couple of the more beautiful NYC churches and cathedrals, although largely in the spirit of an architecture buff and an amateur anthropologist. Do any religions speak to you? I can get fascinated, for a short while anyway, by almost any of them: the various Christiainities and Jewishnesses and paganisms and animisms and Native Americanisms, etc. The mythologies are interesting, it’s fascinating to watch different cultures wrestle with the Big Questions, etc. But it’s an intellectual/esthetic fascination for me, because none of them resonate -- certainly not the smalltown Presbyterianism I was raised in. And the idea of buying into their doctrines and creeds? All due respect to people’s religious preferences, but I’d as soon choose to believe in a Marvel comic book. Miracles? Virgin births? Coyote spirits? Puh-leeze. Then I visit California, and every time, I get intrigued all over again by the Eastern philosophy/religions: Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism and Buddhism. They speak to me. When I read about them and explore them, I’m not just intellectually fascinated, but moved and hypnotized; I feel like I’m in private conversation with someone who knows exactly what concerns me on the deepest levels, and who has sifted and sorted these questions out far better than I ever will. These religion/philosophies seem full of good sense, and also seem based in certain experiences that I recognize as fundamental. I can never find my footing with, say, Christianity or Judaism; what seems to concern them most urgently are questions I respect but have little feeling for. With the Eastern philosophy/religions, I feel right at home. I also find it appealing, or at least convenient, that the gods and mythologies these Eastern approaches peddle seem optional -- I once saw Buddhism described as “religion for atheists.” Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism -- I’m happy bouncing from one to the other, which is apparently yet another demonstration... posted by Michael at June 20, 2003 | perma-link | (19) comments

Religion, Politics and Temperament
Michael: Some time ago you mentioned in a posting that you (at least half jokingly) attributed the persistence of religion in modern secular society to the fact that people must have a gene for religious belief. Not long after, I was rather surprised to stumble across something at least supportive of this notion (although probably not as a result of anything so neat as the operation of a single gene) . In Matt Ridley's book, "Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human" he discusses some of the interesting differences in correlations found between identical twins reared apart (that is, individuals who share all their genes and little or none of their environment) and in fraternal twins reared apart (that is, individuals who share roughly half their genes and little or none of their environment) on the topic of religion: In a recent study [psychologist Thomas] Bouchard measured how [religiously] fundamentalist individuals are by giving them questionnaires about their beliefs. The correlation between the resulting scores for identical twins reared apart is 62 percent; for fraternal twins reared apart it is just 2 percent. Bourchard repeats the exercise with a different questionnaire designed to elicit a broader measure of religiosity and still gets a strong result: 58 percent [for identical twins reared apart] vs 27 percent [for fraternal twins reared apart]. And that ain't all. Similar effects seem to crop up in political opinions, or at least right-wing political opinions: [Bouchard] repeats the exercise with a different questionnaire designed to discover what he calls "right-wing attitudes." Again there is a high correlation in identical twins reared apart (69 percent) and no correlation at all in fraternal twins reared apart. He gives the twins a different questionnaire that simply lists single phrases and asks for approval or disapproval: immigrants, death penalty, X-rated movies, etc. Those who reply no to immigrants, yes to the death penalty, and so on are judged more "right-wing." The identical [twins reared] apart correlation is 62 percent, the fraternal [twins reared] apart correlation is only 21 percent. Similar huge differences [in the similarity between the political opinions of identical twins and fraternal twins reared apart] emerge from similar large studies in Australia. All this, of course depends on the (apparently reasonable) assumption, hopefully accounted for by Mr. Bouchard and his Australian counterparts, that adoptive homes represent a spectrum of religious and political opinion; if the adoptive parents were all right- or left-wing, and all highly religious or utterly irreligious, these results would be about how genes control the receptiveness of children to their parent's religious and political views. But this conclusion is unlikely if the studies embraced any very large group of adoptees and adoptee families.) Gee, do you suppose there are tests designed to measure or categorize aesthetic tastes (Elvis vs. the Beatles, abstract painting vs. representational, ballet vs. modern dance) that we could get introduced into these twin studies? I wonder how heritable such aesthetic preferences would turn out to be? Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at June 20, 2003 | perma-link | (6) comments

Free Reads -- Diana Cambridge on Writing
Friedrich -- Chris Bertram (of Junius, here) was kind enough to email along a link to a good piece by Diana Cambridge in The Guardian, here. Cambridge asks writers who hold down office jobs yet manage to finish novels, How do they manage to do it? 2Blowhards visitors who have gotten something out of our discussions of the challenges of being involved in art yet having to make a living will probably enjoy the piece. Thanks to Chris Bertram. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 20, 2003 | perma-link | (1) comments

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Kem Nunn 2: Writin'
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- More musings prompted by my reading of Kem Nunn's surf-noir novel Tapping the Source. Yesterday I scratched my chin a bit over the topic of neo-noir. Today: writing per se. How important is the word-to-word, sentence-by-sentence writing -- I always think of it as "writin'" -- in a work of prose fiction? I know all too well that the professor-and-critic-approved line is that for a work of true literature, the writin' is everything. Sigh. Lord, am I aware of this. I dispute it, though. I don't see -- given the massive amount of evidence to the contrary -- how the case can even begin to be made. There are a lot of powerful novels whose writin' is indifferent, and tons of books whose writin' is first-class that have no life at all. And there's the gigantic question that history itself poses, namely: How certain can we be in our judgment of a lot of the writin' of the past? We've lost much of our feel for it. To take two examples of certified Important Literature that I happen to have read fairly recently: How well-written can "Beowulf" be said to be? How well-written is "Clarissa"? And how can we know for sure? "Clarissa" struck me, as it has struck many people, as horrendously written -- but, although I'm a bit of an 18th-century prose nut, who am I to judge? I feel semi-qualified to characterize Richardson's style by comparison to the other 18th century prose I know. But I clearly don't have the same in-the-blood feel for this that a good 18th century reader would have had. There may well be much there, style-wise, that simply eludes me. There's also the major/minor issue of how much lit we know only via translation. Thanks to a long-ago year in France, I can sort of judge, or at least characterize, recent French prose (or I semi-could at one point). I still feel competent enough to get good and furious over a recent, highly-praised translation of Stendhal's sublime "The Charterhouse of Parma," which strikes me as an abomination. Grrr, snarl. But so much lit from so many other countries I'll only ever know through the work of translators. I loved the writin' in "Anna Karenina," for instance, along with much else about the book. Yet how can I know for sure whether what I responded to was Tolstoy or Constance Garnett, or some combo of both? I can't, for another example, think of a more beautiful novel than Lady Murasaki's "The Tale of Genji." But, sheesh, that's a novel dating from a thousand years ago that was originally written in an archaic form of Japanese, and that I read in a famously loose and poetic translation. Exquisite writin', for sure -- but was it Lady Murasaki's? Are we stuck making do with the word of the translator, or (worse) of the professor? Perhaps, alas, we are. I'm not remotely averse to writin'; I just don't assign it... posted by Michael at June 18, 2003 | perma-link | (23) comments

Aesthetics: Dude, Where's My Flying Car?
Michael: I came across this little gem the other day on, of all places, a NASA website for children: Have you ever watched the cartoon, "The Jetsons"? How do they travel from place to place? They do not get in the family car and drive. They get in the family car and fly. How would you like to have a flying car? Your grandparents thought that by the year 2000, everyone would have a flying car. So, what happened? The flying car has had two problems. One problem is that you have to be a pilot to fly one. The other problem is that you have to have a lot of money to own one. Yeah, yeah, let me down easy, NASA. This just served as one more painful reminder about the realities of having grown up: not only am I stuck with the whole death and taxes thing, and having to do awful stuff like figure out how to pay for my kids’ college tuitions, but I have to soldier on through this dreary mess without having a flying car. For an old Detroiter (whose father worked in the auto industry) this really sucks. Okay, granted, flying cars were always a trifle, shall we say, fanciful for any society without unlimited—and I do mean unlimited—energy resources. But at a minimum, I should be able to tool around town in something like these: Ford FX-Atmos, 1954 GM Runabout, 1964 I understand that these were never more than concept cars, but, hey: we’ve had almost half a century to make these babies a commercial reality. And what do we have now that we’re several years into a new millenium? A bunch of timidly designed cars that can only serve to lower our already sagging middle-aged expectations to the ground. So I thought I’d inaugurate a series of postings to recognize the smallest, most infintesimal efforts of the world auto industry to deliver vehicles that reflect the creative exuberance of the illustrators and designers of my youth. To qualify, a car must be a mass marketed vehicle that might have surprised auto consumers of fifty years ago with its styling—as opposed to merely disappointing them with a sort of lowest-common denominator evolution (devolution?) from cars of that period. Nissan Murano, 2003 Honda Element EX, 2003 Have you got any cars you’d like to nominate for future postings? Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at June 18, 2003 | perma-link | (11) comments

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Kem Nunn 1: Neo-Noir
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm out in California for some vacation weeks, and in recognition of this happy fact I've lined up a couple of beginning-surfing lessons for myself. You laugh, and rightly so -- but also: hey, if not now, when? I suspect that the outings my nursing home is likely to arrange won't include visits to the surf shop. More a propos to a cultureblog, I'm also reading Kem Nunn's surf-noir novel Tapping the Source. Have you ever looked at it? Considered by the three or four who might know to be the great surfing novel. (Myself, I'm not even sure what the competition is.) I have no interest in writing a review of the novel, which I haven't enjoyed terrifically but have found fascinating to think about. Instead, I'm interested in using the book as a pretext for wondering out loud about a few things. But, to do the book the courtesy of politeness, I'm first going to ask myself: What would I say about this novel if a friend had written it? Here's what I come up with: Surf noir? Fab idea, and I hope to come with half as good a concept for a novel myself sometime before I die. The evocations of what it feels like to surf, not that I have any firsthand knowledge of this? Also fab. Plus, I like the fact that Nunn committed himself to working with the noir-crime tradition, and to crafting an actual plot. Not enough of that around in lit circles these days as far as I'm concerned. But on to my own musings. Today: the topic of neo-noir. I feel cheerfully divided on the topic, surprise surprise. How about you? I'm thinking about pop music guys like Chris Isaak and Mark Knopfler; I'm thinking about movies and filmmakers like "L.A. Confidential," "Red Rock West," David Lynch; I'm thinking about writers like Kem Nunn and Barry Gifford. I'm very sympathetic to and full of admiration for what they're doing, while (alas) not enjoying much of their work. On the good side: these are guys who recognize a central arts-in-America pickle -- which is that, while we have wonderful popular and folk forms and traditions, we barely have a fine-arts tradition at all. What becomes of you if, like so many Americans, you come to the arts through loving commercial and folk forms? Authors like Jim Thompson and John D. MacDonald really are first-rate, god knows. Yet, let's face it, popular forms are mainly suited for kids, for the unschooled, for people who are very unself-conscious, for easy pleasures, and for those tiny handful of people whose talents really do lie in the commercial direction. How to make use of them yourself? Let's say you get an education, or you acquire some sophistication and experience, or you have talents that lend themselves to more complex forms. What do you do in the American arts? And how do you grow in them? If you try to adapt... posted by Michael at June 17, 2003 | perma-link | (15) comments

Half Baked Notions, Redux
Michael: A paragraph from your recent posting, Some Half-Baked Notions I Couldn't Figure Out How to Fit in Other Postings, prompted some rather half-baked notions of my own. (These notions are based on several ideas I’ve come across recently; the half-baked element no doubt arises from how I’m stringing them together, assuming I’m understanding what I’m reading in the first place.) You write: The American commercial-art world is often amazingly proficient and impressively dynamic. It's also, or so many people find, scarily aggressive. Its values, it seems to me, are basically the values of money, technology and business, with even sex and art put at the service of them. Plus, if you're a creative person making a living there, the chances that you'll ever be able to do much of your own thing are pretty slim. You'll be putting your talent and energy to work selling business values instead. My half-baked notion is that you may be mistaken in assuming that there is a contradiction between art and commerce, because—at least in their origin—art and commerce seem to have shared the same root. I had this thought yesterday when reading an article in the July 2003 Scientific American by Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, “Uncovering the Keys to Lost Indus Cities.” Professor Kenoyer summarizes some of the findings of archeological studies of cities in the Indus Valley (in what is today Pakistan), which was the site of one of the four early urban cultural centers (the others being Mesopotamia, Egypt and China’s Yellow River.) Much less is known, admittedly about this culture than the other three, because nobody has yet found an Indus-valley Rosetta Stone that would permit scholars to read the voluminous preserved writings of this culture. Nonetheless, certain elements seem well established. While the economics of the Indus valley cities appear to have been pretty much like those of the other ancient riverine civilizations, there appears from the beginning to have been a very significant role for trade: The Indus cities established their economic base on agricultural produce and livestock, supplemented by fishing and hunting. Both the common people and the elite classes derived additional income from the production and trade of commodities, including cotton and woolen textiles as well as a variety of craft items. During the oldest, or Ravi phase of the city-state of Harappa (approximately 3300 B.C.E. to 2800 B.C.E.), the locals were cranking out, and trading, a considerable amount of, well, art: Specialized craft technologies spread among the early settlements along trade networks, which likewise disseminated a shared set of religious symbols and artifact styles throughout the region...In the limited exposed areas of the Ravi-period Harappa, investigators have turned up signs of the production of both terra-cotta and stone beads and bangles. The terra-cotta items were probably worn by children or commoners, or both, whereas the more exotic stone and seashell ornaments most likely adorned local upper-class populations. Through careful analysis of the raw materials and comparison to known source regions, archeaeologists have shown that some... posted by Friedrich at June 17, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

Monday, June 16, 2003

The Evo-Bio of Kate Hudson Movies
Michael: Thanks for holding down the fort while I was away vacationing last week in Hawaii. You cranked out some masterful postings. I spent most of a very enjoyable week painting—in part, to mollify my wife, who after five years of living in our current home has been getting justifiably impatient with having so little in the way of paintings on the walls. I also read Steven Pinker’s book, “The Blank Slate,” and part of a book by Matt Ridley, “Genome” which is a sort of prequel to another book I recently finished, “Nature via Nurture.” So picture me living in a bizarre world comprised of gorgeous natural scenery, sipping tropical drinks, mixing colors under a hot sun and chewing over evo-bio notions of warfare between “selfish” male and female genes. In the midst of this rather blurry mental state, we went to see a movie as part of the Maui Film Fesival. Billed as a “Celestial Cinema” presentation, I ended up watching a commercial Hollywood flick, “Alex and Emma,” while sitting on a lawn chair on a golf course under a full moon. And the next day, while back again hard at work in my hotel room (a drink ready to hand, naturally), I listened to—but did not literally see—another Kate Hudson romantic comedy, “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.” All of this got me thinking about the evo-bio implications of the two films. First, I have to warn you off of “Alex and Emma,” even when viewed under a full moon with your soul mate by your side. It fails for the fairly obvious reason that it utterly lacks dramatic (or even comedic) conflict. In it the hero, played by the always likeable Owen Wilson, wants to spend a month dictating his second novel and collect his $125,000 advance. Kate Hudson, playing his long-suffering and strangely frumpy stenographer, also wants him to dictate his second novel, collect his $125,000 advance, and pay her a month’s wages. The hero’s publisher is eager for the hero to finish up this second novel, as are two loan sharks who are eager to collect $100,000 from the novelist. Everyone, in short, wants to see the damn novel finished, and no one more so than the poor member of the audience who has to endure to its utterly pedestrian language and its clichéd plot presented in voice-overs with enactments. The only tension the movie can gin up is whether the hero should go for the plain-jane stenographer (or her stand-in within the novel, a maid or a cook or something) or for the flashy, untrustworthy but really hot-looking French seductress played by Sophie Marceau (also playing duel roles in real life and in the book). Since the movie clearly bills Kate Hudson as the co-star, who do you think gets the guy? Dubious Choices: Alex and His Women “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” was a better effort, particularly for Kate Hudson, who at least gets to be the... posted by Friedrich at June 16, 2003 | perma-link | (11) comments