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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Saturday, January 8, 2005

New York Stories
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, A few articles have recently appeared to provide cautionary tales, with New York in the 1970s providing the action. There's Daniel Henninger at the WSJ (here) and E. J. McMahon and Fred Siegel (here) in The Public Interest. I think Daniel Henninger at the Journal was a little too hard on New York's creative class, don't you? You don't have to buy into the complete Richard Florida "creative class as savior of cities" routine to recognize that art and design are not simply parasitic. Sure, some artists are free riders, from an economic point of view. But the business world has its own inefficiencies in terms of return to society, and artists as a class are surely no more parasitic than, say, the tax department at Shearman and Sterling. Probably less so, this this day and age. The story underneath is a little more complicated, though. I think Henninger is really saying this: look, it was not that long ago when things were falling apart in this city and elites (heavily influenced by fashionable cultural thinking) too often failed to notice or were complicit in the deterioration. Yes, things have gotten better--we are less inclined to celebrate graffiti on subways and are more attuned to the subtle effects of broken windows--but let's be ever vigilant about the return of values destructive to the polis under the guise of some spurious aesthetisicm or another. It's an old story. I suppose traditional Romans worried about Hellenization, too. The fact that it's an old story suggests also that there is no correct side, but rather a tension that plays itself out in different ways. I am not as worried as Henninger about these things in the current moment. You can make a pretty good argument that the creative class has been defanged (take a look at this blatant pitch to the "creative class" for the Apple Power Mac G5), and that what remains of its sans-culottes impulses has morphed into harmless nostalgie de la boue. On the other hand, 1970s New York does give grounds for caution on a slightly different tangent, according to McMahon and Siegel. Their history is more directly related to the lessons of the New York City fiscal crisis, and to the need to be vigilant at the intersection of politics and finance. I suspect some who read this site are either a little young to remember much of the New York City fiscal crisis, or for one reason or another don't make much of it. I'm the reverse: I make a lot of it and am old enough to remember it--indeed to have worked as a fiscal type in city government in its immediate aftermath. Generationally speaking, while my dad's formative years were molded by depression and war, mine were molded by two bookends separated by less than a decade: the cultural shifts of the late 1960s (made manifest most clearly by Woodstock) and the return-to-reality shocks of the mid-1970s. The latter was... posted by Fenster at January 8, 2005 | perma-link | (8) comments

Davenport and Sontag
Francis Morrone writes Dear Blowhards, Susan Sontag's death occasioned an extraordinary outpouring of commentary. The death of Guy Davenport, on January 4, will inevitably receive much less notice. (Though Crooked Timber and Armavirumque both noted it.) I wrote in this space only a few weeks ago, in a posting on the architecture critic Ian Nairn, of Sontag's famous essay "Against Interpretation." I liked that essay when I was a teenager, and I like it now. In fact, I have always liked Susan Sontag. That's not to say I did not find some of her political views pernicious. And it is not to say that I did not think her reputation to be wildly inflated at the expense of other essayists and critics who mined much the same terrain. Indeed, when I mentioned Sontag a few weeks ago, I noted that I much prefer Guy Davenport. When I wrote that, both Sontag and Davenport were still alive. Now, for those of you who do not enjoy or do not care about such writing, you may not sense or care about the differences between Sontag and Davenport. You may not care for their kind of richly allusive kind of essay writing, in which they seem to flaunt their expensive educations at every turn. You may be offended that Sontag may presume you know the basics of Heidegger's philosophy, or that Davenport may presume you know how to read Greek. You may hate that they both believed in a high seriousness in which the reader bears as much responsibility for learning as the writer does for teaching. First let me say that neither flaunted an expensive education. No matter what schools one attends, learning at Sontag's and especially Davenport's level is always a matter of autodidacticism. And for all the lip service many people give to the ideal of lifelong learning, they are made very uneasy in the presence of the profoundly self-taught, feeling it is a kind of moral rebuke to themselves. I've no doubt that for many people Davenport was nothing more than an intellectual wanker. Everyone is entitled to his opinion. What I don't understand is why some people have to run down writers they "don't get." Ignore them if they're not your cup of tea. Davenport was, and is, very much my cup of tea. I know maybe a hundredth of what Davenport knew. But reading him always goaded me to know more. His wildly allusive style, almost Whitmanesque, long functioned for me much like the Internet--or perhaps like a "mind map." One snippet--a quotation, an aperçu, half an argument--would lead to another would lead to another, until the web seemed to comprehend some fabulous and elucidating and heretofore obscured strand of literary or art history. Davenport never sought to be definitive. Thank goodness for that. Definitive can be boring. And he seldom sought to convince. Again, thank goodness. He sought to probe, to entice, to illumine, to lead--to converse. Sontag's work style as well as her literary style... posted by Francis at January 8, 2005 | perma-link | (8) comments

Friday, January 7, 2005

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * I enjoyed taking this how-much-of-a-nerd-are-you? test, and would love to know how you guys score. (I'd really love to know how the squad at GNXP scores. Off the scale, I bet.) Fair warning: it won't be hard to beat my score: 1, out of a possible 100. Yes, yes, it really was very silly of me to have imagined as a boy that I'd grow up to be a scientist ... * Ladies: would you accept a date from The Gregster? (Link thanks to Martine.) * As far as I'm concerned, attractive young celebs owe it to the rest of us to visit St. Barth's, strip down on the beach, and get themselves photographed by paparazzi. It may not be a great idea to check yourself for sandiness while out in public, though. * Whoops, for a minute there I forgot that this is a respectable blog. OK then: here's a good Jonathan Yardley piece about the brilliant crime writer Charles Willeford, about whom I've wanted to post for ages. Willeford is best-known for a series of novels featuring a cop named Hoke Moseley (start with "Miami Blues"), and he's one of a kind: cussed, funny, companionable, demented. Talk about color, atmosphere, psychology and sociology! Willeford's vision of America as an exhilarating/appalling carnival of excess and despair is one I find impossible to resist. Good plots, vivid characters, and juicy writing too. If Charles Bukowski had ever been able to pull a real story together, it might have come out like a Willeford. One of Willeford's best novels -- "The Burnt Orange Heresy" -- is also one of the best yarns I've ever read about the artworld. Jonathan Yardley knew Willeford and worked with him, so that makes his piece a special treat. (Link thanks to ALD.) Respectable enough? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 7, 2005 | perma-link | (21) comments

Popular Culture has Passed Me By
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I recall a time when I was tuned-in. Can you recall similar days? It was a long while ago now for me. But for a few years, I had an intuitive feeling for why popular-cultural-things were going the way they were. The jokes and styles made instinctive sense to me: why one movie worked and another didn't; why one song stirred up excitement while another made people laugh. Then, one day in my early 30s, I felt popular culture speed by me. Whoosh -- like an 18-wheeler passing a bicyclist. I'd been in the lead, and now I was eating diesel smoke. I started to have to observe, to figure things out, and to ask for advice and insights. Contempo popular culture began to puzzle me. I did my best to get used to being a has-been -- and it can be tough to admit that your moment has passed when your moment has never come. But I chuckled about it gallantly anyway. I said to friends things like: "You wake up one day, and a pop star has died from a heroin overdose, and millions of people are in deep mourning -- and you haven't even heard of the guy!" Yuk yuk. But on the plane flight back east from California a week ago, I woke up to the fact that even that particular older-but-wiser phase is over. Now I'm simply without a clue. Jammed into my economy seat, I was flipping through a stack of tacky celeb mags that The Wife had bought for the flight -- By the way, do you find you can do any substantial reading while on a plane? I can't, and never have been able to. I used to think that I should be able to get Real Reading done during airplane hours. Yet whenever I'd try to focus in the way that Real Reading requires, I'd fall asleep. Then I'd be cross with myself for wasting all that potentially-substantial time: what was wrong with my willpower? Ah, youth: time of passions and aspirations. These days, I've abandoned the fight. Why aspire to the impossible? Now, it's magazines, mysteries, crossword puzzles and dozing, all the way from Kennedy to LAX and back. -- so I was thumbing through a stack of tacky magazines whose purchase I was glad to be able to blame on The Wife. And I realized that I recognized fewer than half the celebrities whose careers, lives, and plastic surgeries the magazines were smacking their lips over. Fewer than half! Even the figures whose names I was familiar with seemed to have lived through several lives since the last time I'd heard gossip about them. Picture me leafing through The Star. My mind was going something like this: So there's an Elisha Cuthbert as well as an Eliza Dushku? Well, that explains a thing or two, I guess. Do you suppose there are people who can tell them apart? Goodness, but that Kirstie Alley... posted by Michael at January 7, 2005 | perma-link | (32) comments

Thursday, January 6, 2005

Too Busy for Theology at the Moment
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, Ron Rosenbaum is tired of the debate among the religious over how to reconcile an all-knowing God with tragedies like the Asian tsunami. Gerard Baker is tired of non-believers trying to score points by saying that an all-knowing God is just not able to be reconciled with the tragedy. The best thing I heard on the subject, though, was from Pat Robertson. On last night's Joe Scarborough talking-headfest, Scarborough started out by pushing Robertson to address the theology of the matter. Robertson's response: we've been too busy helping out to think much about it, but when you get right down to it, the tsunami happened because of a large movement of earth under the sea. That was a nice formulation, and an appropriate response. As Rosenbaum concludes: I would propose a truce between believers and unbelievers so they can stop fighting over the credit for the goodness of the rescue workers, whether it should be assigned to God or to man, so that we can remove God—and the critique of God—from the equation entirely for a while and save our energy to support the recovery unencumbered by this perennial debate, however important and profound. Amen to that. Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at January 6, 2005 | perma-link | (8) comments

Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, I am taking advantage of my co-host role to move outside the "comments" section and conflate a potential comment into a post. I am writing to elaborate on a brief snippet in Michael's latest "More Elsewhere". You may recall Michael wrote "* Does it have to follow from allowing gays to marry that polygamy will be legalized too? Colby Cosh thinks the answer is yes." You'll see that Cosh linked in turn to another Canadian blogger, Chris Selley. Selley and Cosh appear to have a bit of a disagreement. Cosh, as Michael points out, says yes. Selley says no, on the grounds that "public opinion is far more forcefully against polygamy than it is against gay marriage, and that whereas homosexuals always numbered in the millions, the tiny number of Canadian polygamists means that public opinion is far less likely to shift." To recap that old Certs ad: stop, stop, you're both right! I think Selley is quite right to distinguish between the two cases based on the relative acceptance of the two situations in the broader culture. Culture is free to let gays into the charmed circle of marriage but exclude polygamists, incestists or animalists--there's no rule book that says what a group of people will value and what it will exclude. As I wrote previously, I have no problem with a culture that redefined marriage to include gays and to continue to exclude groups, kids or domestic animals. Indeed, that is what is happening in America at present. More people are moving to include gays within the definition while continuing to exclude others. That is as it should be. Indeed, this is how you stop the slippery slope argument from coming true: by taking seriously the morally serious choices that cultures make. But, gosh, Cosh has a point, too. Selley states that "rights are not normally granted to a group until it can produce respectable representatives to lobby on its behalf." But isn't there always a risk of courts getting out front? Once the court starts making decisions on the basis of the most abstract "rights" grounds, without any nod to the value distinctions currently operative, any kind of slippery slope is possible. It is precisely because the court in Massachusetts made a morally serious decision without the consent of the governed that the fear of polygamy, and worse, is a reasonable one. When there is no deference to the moral decisions of the people, decisions can only be made on the most abstract grounds. Under these conditions is the fear of polygamy so unreasonable? The people are no longer in control; the slippery slope extends before us. And, for the record, I don't find Mark Steyn's latest persuasive on this score. Steyn is a brilliant and funny righter, and write a lot, but Muslims pressing for religious acceptance of polygamy is not the same as greater mainstream acceptance of gays. Maybe he does not like the latter, but it's a social fact.... posted by Fenster at January 5, 2005 | perma-link | (4) comments

Graphic Design
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Do you guys follow the graphic design field? I do, if in my usual half-assed, raggedy way. I know some designers; I've been through some histories; I have a shelf -- a short shelf, but still -- of books, some of which I've spent actual time with ... Years ago I even took a couple of graphic design courses, learning the hard way how completely I lack graphic-design talent. I'm also a regular visitor over at the design blog DesignObserver. It's become one of my favorite online hang-outs. A classy cast of designers and critics -- including Michael Bierut, Jessica Helfand, and William Drenttel -- contributes essay-like postings and occasional linksfests. Drenttel remembers working for the late Susan Sontag as her graphic designer here. My very favorite design critic/journalist, Rick Poynor, is a DO gangmember, though he doesn't post as regularly as I'd hope he would. (Here's a recent Rick piece for the Times of London about a graphic-design show he curated at the Barbican.) And a peppy and impressive cast of commenters kick in a lot of energy, brains, and storytelling. The designer and author Stephen Heller, whose design-history books I'm a big fan of, is a regular visitor, as are many students and professionals. Me, I mainly lurk, though I sometimes can't resist the opportunity to leap in and play Old Crank. Typical thrust of my comments: "Cool-looking layout! Now, how about the readability?!" Next question: do you guys have any problems with the notion that graphic-design is art? Rick Poynor's article for the Times announces that the 21st century is going to be the century of design, and waves the flag for that development. Personally, I have no trouble at all with the idea that any kind of commercial art might be discussed as art. Good lord, why should I? I came to the arts via movies, and many of the authors I first fell for were in it for the money. These days, too, it's an open secret that many people who enjoy exploring the contempo visual realm know: the gallery-art world is so full of conceptual games-playing that its visual payoffs can be few and far-between. You can finish up an afternoon of gallerygoing with eyeballs that are still hungry. So these days, you'll often get a faster, easier, and (IMHO, of course) more-stimulating eyebuzz by looking at websites, ads, computer graphics, and edgy magazines. I ask whether you have trouble with the idea that graphic design should be thought of as art because it comes up so often over at DesignObserver. I'm hard-put to know why the question concerns designers as much as it does. Why should anyone have trouble with the idea that the commercial arts are art? (Although Tatyana, who works as an interior designer, has a funny and practical take on the "is it art" question. I once said to her, "So you're an artist!", and she quickly responded, "No!" Tatyana finds the pretentiousness of... posted by Michael at January 5, 2005 | perma-link | (25) comments

More Elsewhere
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Will Duquette's book review is all Will this time around. (Deb English evidently has had a bit of Real Life -- whatever that is -- to attend to.) I was especially interested to read Will's reviews of some Robert Barnard and Peter Lovesey mysteries, although disappointed to learn that they aren't these writers' best work. I've read a little Barnard and Lovesey, and found them delightful. * Tyler Cowen writes a brainy and helpful review of the new Jared Diamond, and responds to some other books here. Tyler's clearly someone with a serious long-book-reading habit. * Does it have to follow from allowing gays to marry that polygamy will be legalized too? Colby Cosh thinks the answer is yes. Fred Reed has some absurdist chuckles at the whole marriage-debate spectacle. * The waste, the tragic waste of it. * Have you ever come under the spell of the food writer MFK Fisher? Though she doesn't get discussed much these days, back in the '70s and '80s she was a writer who was spoken about in hushed and reverent tones. But I was never a fan. I enjoyed OGIC's posting about Fisher more than I've enjoyed reading Fisher herself; I'm one of those disbelievers who finds Fisher a bit of a camp hoot. For food writing, give me Calvin Trillin or Elizabeth David any day. But OGIC's posting is a good one: she's smart about what it is those who love Fisher love her for. * Yet another daredevil recreational activity I feel no need whatsoever to take part in. Balloons sure are pretty though. (Link via Attu.) * Now that I think about it, balloons can be kinda sexy too. * What's the "Sapphometer"? Find out here. But file this one in the ever-fatter folder of "fetishes I don't get." This one, too. * Tarzan yodel: Lynn Sislo has posted her own best-of-blogs list, and 2Blowhards walks away with the "best group blog" honors. Coming from anyone that would be a treat; coming from Lynn it means a lot more than that. I'm still happily exploring the winners of Lynn's other blogcategories; as always, and among other things, Lynn's one of the best linkers out there. * Typing the above, I realized that Lynn's also one of my very favorite voices in blogdom. She's down-to-earth yet unusually imaginative; her wryness and unruffled thoughtfulness combine with a rare responsiveness to the arts. And thinking about Lynn's voice got me thinking about some of my other favorite blogvoices ... The inimitably merry and incisive Alice in Texas ... the cosmopolitan/boho, poetically sexy and rhapsodic Searchblog ... and SYAffolee, whose tranquil surface coexists with a lot of spunk, brains, and reflectiveness. I find reading SYAffolee like reading a haiku diary; she wins my own Still-Blogwaters-Run-Deep Award. Hey, I notice that all these fave blogvoices of mine belong to chicks. Hmm. * John Ray points out a startling piece in the Telegraph that asks, Are the fruits... posted by Michael at January 5, 2005 | perma-link | (14) comments

Monday, January 3, 2005

Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, Here's a bit of post-holiday grab-bag. * First off, I found Gregg Easterbrook's tongue-in-cheek holiday letter both fun to read and difficult to take. I am a somewhat reluctant blue-stater, but I am a blue-stater nonetheless (as well as a boomer and a bobo). I work hard to have Easterbrook's pen not point at me, and do a passable job of it, but my bone is not that far from the surface and it's not difficult to cut close to it. * And on the subject of color-affiliation, here is one of the best things I've read on the Democrats blue-state blues. It's by former rightie, now leftie, Michael Lind, and it appears in the liberal journal The American Prospect. Much has been written since the election about the color purple, a lot of it fatuous, but I think Lind gets it right. Will it help the Dems to become more purplish? And what does it mean, anyway? Will it be sufficient for the Dems to be less tongue-tied on traditional values, or will they be compelled to actually speak in tongues? The virtue of Lind's analysis is that it is multi-dimensional, taking into account historical, political and cultural factors, and coming up with a pretty focused prescription. Rather than a panicked, blunderbuss approach ("run right! run right!"), Lind makes a measured conclusion and defends it--go to the midwest for specific outcomes achieved in specific ways. It beats listening to Kerry trying his hand at glossolalia. Me, I'm a lifelong Democrat and cast my first presidential ballot for a Republican this year--and I go as far back as McGovern, whom I helped win his only state, Massachusetts. I did not vote for Bush this year with huge apprehensions, and to date have no regrets. But there are a lot of reasons I'd happily vote for a D over an R nationally, and I await actions on the part of the party that would cause me to conclude that such a path was reasonable. *Note to Francis: I have also followed the Barnes controversy with some interest, though I have not had the pleasure of visiting the Merion site (perhaps I am of the great unwashed??) Anyway, I also read an account entitled "The Devil and Dr. Barnes", but it was by Richard Feigen--a chapter in his book "Tales from the Art Crypt". You can't get this article on-line, but to my mind it's worth a detour to a bookstore or library if you find the story interesting. I thought the byzantine boardroom twists and turns deserving of a Dynasty-style movie or TV treatment--and that's before, as you point out, you even begin to examine the issue from an art point of view. To make matters more complicated, there's the entire legal/philosphical/fiduclary aspect of the case that has so intrigued property advocates like the Wall Street Journal. In the view of the WSJ, this story is all about donor rights and expectations, the fiduciary obligations of... posted by Fenster at January 3, 2005 | perma-link | (12) comments