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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Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

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College administrator and arts buff

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  1. Renaissance and Religion
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  5. Goodbye Area Codes?
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Our Last 50 Referrers

Friday, October 8, 2004

Renaissance and Religion
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards, I keep wondering why art history generally tends to be such bad history. Or, maybe a better way to put it would be to ask why art history tends to be so resolutely a-historical, as though art were produced in a sort of social and economic vacuum. One has to wonder if this isn’t a result of the “museum” effect, where our encounter with the art of the past occurs in a carefully stripped down, antiseptic, context-less context. Which is, of course, inherently a falsification: whatever purposes the art of the past was intended to fulfill by its makers or consumers, sitting in pristine purity on the wall of an art museum wasn’t one of them. Pondering this question, I took one of the art books that litter my shelves at home down and looked at the way it was organized—which is by grouping artists roughly into two “stylistic” categories and into fairly artificial “generations” (only three generations are identified for a period of longer than 100 years.) Scratching my head, I then actually read the introduction to see why the author had chosen to organize the book this way. The book I was looking at, by the way, is “Italian Renaissance Painting” written by James H. Beck, who is (or at least was in 1999) a professor of art history at Columbia University and a specialist in Renaissance Art. (BTW, I would actually recommend the book—for the color reproductions anyway.) Bingo, the good professor actually discusses this point: Iconography—that is, the subject matter and meaning of paintings—and the cultural conditions that help explain the works of art and their patronage are of great interest. Such investigations share ground with cultural history and the history of ideas and are fundamental to an understanding of the period. But an approach of this kind is less useful for establishing a broad stylistic framework in which the art may be studied. [emphasis added] Okay, it’s his book and he can organize it any way he wants, but I’m still puzzled as to exactly what we’re supposed to learn from the professor’s approach to “studying” art? How to fit Renaissance paintings into Professor Beck’s stylistic framework? “Oh, yeah, now I get it—that Botticelli altarpiece fits into the second-generation lyric current of Renaissance painting. Wow, that rocks, dude!” Apparently the goal of studying art history at Columbia is solely to polish up one’s aesthetic discrimination to the point where one could aspire to being a professor of art history at Columbia. Well, shortly thereafter I ran across a book deep in the stacks of the UCLA graduate library that took a refreshingly different approach. It’s called “Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy 1300 to 1600” by Richard A. Goldthwaite, an economic historian. Mr. Goldthwaite takes the position that art is a product designed to fill a need in society. In other words, if nobody will pay for it, art—which is quite labor-and-materials intensive—doesn’t get made. He then... posted by Friedrich at October 8, 2004 | perma-link | (33) comments

Wednesday, October 6, 2004

Elsewhere, on TV
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, I find this TV commercial for Las Vegas (the one entitled Silent Car) a real hoot. Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at October 6, 2004 | perma-link | (4) comments

Improv 101
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, Any musicians out there? Any musicians who can really, really improvise? If so, I am astounded, impressed, awed even. How do you do it? I tried my hand at piano a few years back, with a teacher who was to put me on the path to jazz improv. Nothing happened of any consequence. For the life of me, I could not begin to fathom how musical improvisation could possibly take place. Indeed, but for the fact that accounts of it happening seemed credible, I could just as easily have believed it was all an elaborate ruse, like the doctoral student in Ionesco's The Lesson , the one who could neither add nor subtract but nonetheless performed prodigious feats of bogus calculation after memorizing all possible multiplication tables. Then I read a very interesting book entitled Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, by Stephen Nachmanovitch. It helped clear up some of the mystery. Among other things, it made clear that the principles of musical improvisation carry over to the most mundane activities, like speaking out loud, which then appear quite magical as a result. How in the world does it happen that we can articulate cogent sentences, short talks and even eloquent statements without really knowing first what we are going to say? Indeed, if I did not experience the process first-hand, I might suspect it, too, all a ruse. So it's nice to know I improvise, and do it every day. It helps me understand better what is going through the minds, and fingers, of those jazz pianists I tried unsuccessfully to emulate. I'll stick to speaking and writing. By the way, here's a nice quote from the book: Looking out, now, over the ocean, the birds, the vegetation, I see that absolutely everything in nature arises from the power of free play sloshing against the power of limits. Stephen Nachmanovitch Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at October 6, 2004 | perma-link | (6) comments

Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Norm Crosby . . . Live, on Campus!
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, A couple of weeks back I got an invitation to see a performance by Norm Crosby on campus. I love doubletalk so I said yes, sure. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it wasn't Norm Crosby but Noam Chomsky! But it went OK. I was expecting a perfomance by a guy whose schtick has been stuck in amber since 1967 and instead I got . . . a performance by a guy whose schtick has been stuck in amber since 1967. And hey, Noam was at least as good at doubletalk as Norm! (rimshot) But seriously folks, it was an interesting talk. Though listening to it put me in mind of that old Firesign Theater album (also frozen in amber circa 1967) Everything You Know is Wrong. And indeed, that seems to be part of his fascination to the younger generation: the entire world is inverted, creating a slightly disorienting, not-altogether-unpleasant experience. A tilt-a-whirl of the mind. Still and all, you cannot help but be impressed by his intelligence, his lucidity and--truth be told--his humanism, of a sort. Marcuse he ain't, thankfully. When asked about the need for civil disobedience, Chomsky said that, yes, it could play a role, but that it was only a tactic. Far better to organize, to educate and to be educated, the better to make real democracy hum. I endorse that general formulation. Democracy is a sacred and fragile thing, and citizens can always improve it by improving the nature of the public debate. And Chomsky's promotion of his views ought to be welcomed in this regard: let 'em rip, and see how they fare in the public square. Alas, I fear they will not fare all that well. Chomsky may be a saint to some on campuses but, goldarnit, he's got the same problem he's had since 1967: he's not with the . . . um . . . people. Explaining this little dissonance is what gets him, IMHO, all tied up in knots. He has to fall back on a kind of false consciousness theory. The people could be free, but they are prohibited from knowing their own interests by the relentless propaganda machine created by a capitalist, corporatist culture. Call it Manufacturing Consent. Calling Thomas Frank! This is the same approach taken in the new book What's the Matter with Kansas? OK, yeah, it could be true. Maybe Kansans don't know what's good for 'em. Maybe red state voters are bombarded with ads for things they don't really need and are hypnotized into buying them to float the war machine. Occam's Razor suggests a different conclusion, I think. People grant sufficient legitimacy to our institutions--economic, political, religious, corporate--because they are sufficiently satisfied with the exchanges they make possible. I have little doubt that if those institutions failed in some major way, legitimacy would be withheld, and we'd have a crisis of one form or another. But that hasn't happened. Chomsky shoehorns everything into questions of power... posted by Fenster at October 5, 2004 | perma-link | (50) comments

Monday, October 4, 2004

Goodbye Area Codes?
Fenster Moop writes Dear Blowhards, The New York Times has an interesting article on area codes. The cellular-driven ability to de-link areas codes and actual geographic areas is causing angst in some quarters. The shift that is taking place puts the individual, not the locale, at the center, meaning that dialing a 212 number may result in a cell phone ringing in Mannheim or Minneapolis rather than Manhattan. A director or "mobile communications studies" is concerned that people will be disoriented when denied this "compass point"; a minister has penned a sermon entitled "God's Area Code" dealing with the matter. Of course, everyone wants "212", as though that code represents real estate in a hot neighborhood. But doesn't technological change eventually self-correct where this kind of scarcity is concerned? I mean, a separate three-digit area code made sense when allotting otherwise duplicative seven-digit numbers. In the long run, I'd think the three digit prefix ought to go the way of the dodo, to be replaced by strings of digits, arranged and configured in some other way. That'll solve the status problem. In the meantime, this tempest in a teapot provides an interesting American Studies case study. Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at October 4, 2004 | perma-link | (21) comments

Sunday, October 3, 2004

China and Housing Prices
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Bossy and know-it-all twits they may be, but The Economist's editors and writers still manage to fill the magazine's pages with fascinating and often eye-opening facts. This week's issue contains a substantial piece about savings rates and housing bubbles, as well as a package of pieces about China's business and trade prospects. I noticed a couple of interesting connections. Globalism on the march? First, savings rates and the housing bubble. "America's net national saving rate, the share of income that Americans are putting aside for their future, has fallen to a record low." "The gap between [U.S.] income and spending has been financed partly by income-tax cuts, but also by saving less and by borrowing. Thanks to low interest rates the price of assets, especially homes, has risen steeply, which has made households feel richer and encouraged them to spend." "Despite low interest rates, households' total debt-service as a proportion of income is already close to a record high ... The average saving rate has plunged from 12% to less than 2% over the last two decades." "Average house prices in America have risen by 40% in real terms since 1995 ... The increase is twice as big as in America's previous booms in the late 1970s and the late 1980s, making this the country's biggest house-price boom in recorded history." "The average ratio of house prices to incomes is already at a record level, yet people are still buying homes in the unrealistic hope of large future price rises." And now, China and its role in leading us down this particular primrose path: "The Chinese government invests a large chunk of its export earnings in [U.S.] Treasury bonds, helping to finance America's current-account deficit. This keeps American interest rates low and so supports consumer spending. In essence, China is buying dollar assets to ensure that Americans can afford to keep buying its exports." "The recent decline in jobs in American manufacturing has coincided with a big increase in America's trade deficit with China, which reached $124 billion last year." "[China] is the largest receipient of foreign direct investment, as multinationals have moved operations to China to take advantage of its low labour costs and huge domestic market. It is the new workshop of the world, producing two-thirds of all photocopiers, microwave ovens, DVD players and shoes, over half of all digital cameras and around two-fifths of personal computers." Sounds to me like one of these countries is conducting its affairs pretty shrewdly. Too bad it isn't America. The Economist's website is here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 3, 2004 | perma-link | (23) comments