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Saturday, January 15, 2005

Photography Questions
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Here are a few photographs by Established Great Lee Friedlander. I'm in awe; Friedlander strikes me as having amazing talent, skill and control. I love his work. It makes me want to see more of it, but also to spend years doing likewise: developing darkroom skills, studying the history of the artform, and applying what little talent I have to learning the ins and outs of a complex craft. I want to apprentice myself to Art. Here's the website of the Lomographic Society, where people who enjoy snapping pix with a distinctively crappy camera post the results of their amateur experiments. I love a lot of these photographs too, and find the Lomo scene amiable and inviting. Looking at these photographs makes me want to say "screw the whole craft thing," buy a Lomo, and start taking random snapshots of my own. I want to rock out, man. What to make of the fact that I had as good a time surfing through Lomographs as I did looking at Friedlander's magnificent images? (A different kind of good time, granted.) Do we conclude that I'm a tasteless dolt? That's always a possibility, and I certainly don't mind if we reach that conclusion. Or do we suspect that we're kidding ourselves when we imagine that photographic wonderfulness can only be the result of talent, skill, and control? If we choose 2, does that tell us anything about the nature of photography? And if it does, what can we conclude about photography as an art form? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 15, 2005 | perma-link | (15) comments

John Baldessari
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Do you guys go for the work of the artist John Baldessari? I took in this show shortly before it closed and had a good time. But I always have a good time when I look at his pictures. Here's an example. Two Person Fight (2004) Baldessari -- who has been an influential teacher as well as a longtime presence on the art scene -- is a semi-conceptual gamesman. He gets you watching how you take things. Though the orange color of the silhouette in this painting pops out, for instance, Baldessari has cut into the painting's surface so that the orange area is in fact physically recessed. Then he doubles the effect. Because B&W Gal is slugging Silhouetted Guy in our direction, we expect to feel him crashing into our laps. Yet, because Baldessari has recessed Silhouetted Guy into and behind the picture plane, Silhouetted Guy is actually moving towards and through B&W Gal. These shenanigans create an arresting push-pull/pull-push dynamic. Has she KO'd his identity? Has he obliterated hers? And where do you-the-viewer stand in relationship to all this? You may look at the picture and find yourself reacting along the lines of, "Huh?!? Wha'?!? Oh. Hmmm ... Well, hey, whaddya know?" Generally speaking, I don't enjoy games-playing art, do you? I tend to agree with an artist friend who likes to say, "What's wrong with today's art-world art is too much Duchamp, and not enough Cezanne." But Baldessari's spirit -- which is a sunny, mischievous, California spirit -- wins me over. I look at his work and think, Well, why the hell not? I can't say that I get a lot more from his art than I do out of flipping through some of the kickier magazines, though Baldessari's creations are quieter and more poetic than most media creations are. But still, that's a lot more than nothing. I suppose you could linger over the philosophical-aesthetic conundrums Baldessari's artworks are semi-intended to provoke. Certainly most of his champions would have you do so; and in some interviews and statements I've run across, Baldessari has been willing to feed the appetite some people have for intellectual be-witchery. Blanketing your your work in a certain amount of high-toned fog seems to be part of the job of being an artworld gallery-artist these days. But you can also take Baldessari's pictures more simply -- as quick-reading, off-beat pranks that may or may not set some inner bells to ringing. Here's an unpretentious and fun interview with Baldessari where he comes across the way his paintings do (to me, anyway): friendly, full of curiosity, whimsical, and a little weird in the most benign way. He's probably a great teacher. It's hard to imagine anyone more likely to steer students into the habit of saying, "What if ...?" As a gallery-going friend once said: "When I first started going to art shows, I thought I had to know everything about the art. I thought I had... posted by Michael at January 15, 2005 | perma-link | (4) comments

Friday, January 14, 2005

Francis Morrone writes: Dear Blowhards, Martha Bayles praises Sideways (here): Let me state my praise this way: If you admire Jane Austen, and take pleasure in her delicate distinctions of right and wrong, not to mention her angelic patience toward human weakness, then you will very likely savor the long, smooth finish of Sideways. A.O. Scott (here), by contrast, calls it the most overrated film of the year: Criticism always contains an element of autobiography, and it is not much of a leap to suggest that more than a few critics have seen themselves in Sideways. (Several have admitted as much.) This is not to suggest that white, middle-aged men with a taste for alcohol are disproportionately represented in the ranks of working movie reviewers; plausible as such a notion may be, I don't have the sociological data to support it just yet. But the self-pity and solipsism that are Miles's less attractive (and frequently most prominent) traits represent the underside of the critical temperament; his morbid sensitivity may be an occupational hazard we all face. By the way, have any of you read Martha Bayles's book Hole in Our Soul? The subtitle is The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music. It came out in 1994. And though the title may make it seem a lament, in fact I think it was a riposte to Allan Bloom, whose Closing of the American Mind contained a sharp denunciation of rock music (from a thoroughly grounded Platonic perspective). Bayles wrote a book that was in fact a spirited defense of pop music. Now, that's just the sort of thing a real rock critic would hate. Because the real rock critic doesn't think pop or rock music needs defending. But if you come out of certain intellectual traditions (like the one that causes Martha Bayles to thank both Hilton Kramer and Allan Bloom in her acknowledgments) then you may feel you must somehow justify your love of pop and rock, and as such exercises go, I thought hers was damned good. Stanley Crouch thought so, too, and I think his blurb on the book jacket is worth reprinting here: However one might disagree with this book, particularly with its interpretation of Jazz movements past and present, the overall achievement is exceptionally rich. There is no dog in the prose of Martha Bayles. She writes clearly and superbly of the darkness that has overtaken popular music, and understands well the defeatist techniques that would-be radical pop entertainers inherit from misbegotten fine art--the assertion of the shocking, the vulgar, and the perverse as a way of scalping the bourgeoisie. Her unsentimental grasp of what went wrong when teenage music was taken too seriously, and how Rhythm and Blues decayed into the pornographic coon cages of MTV, is especially important. Through this work we arrive at a more thorough recognition of the difference between fresh, artistic vitality and contrived, impotent vulgarity. I really liked Bayles's book. Yet as the years go by, I shall forever associate it with the phrase "pornographic... posted by Francis at January 14, 2005 | perma-link | (16) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I love hanging out at the evo-bio-themed blog GNXP: brainy people; hot and often dicey topics; lots of rip-roaring enthusiasm and spirit ... Hats off to Razib and Godless, blog-proprietors and posters extraordinares. Running such a blog must be like riding a mustang -- a challenge just to stay on top of it. Part of what I love about visiting GNXP is getting to play the role of Mr. Arty in a crowd of science-and-tech brainiacs. (When I'm among ultra-hardcore, artsier-than-thou artsies, I'm often cast in the role of Mr. Practical or even Mr. Hard Science, neither of which I have any qualifications to play.) It's not like I have any choice. I'm the only arty guy within shouting distance, and I certainly don't have science chops. But trying to find something to contribute -- as well as trying to frame what I've got to say in a way that science-y types will both understand and not sneeze at -- is a challenge I enjoy. I don't do it well, but I get a kick out of trying. I found myself earlier today writing a few comments about the topic of acting in the thread attached to this Razib posting. I hope I'll be forgiven if I copy and paste my musings here. I've dolled them up a bit and corrected typos too. None of the usual sourcing or linking I try to provide in postings. Instead, just bald assertions, unfounded speculations, and promiscuous reflections on personal experience. Here's hoping no one minds. Hanging out with actors is great fun, if a little bewildering at first. It's also quite sexy. Back in the days when vaudeville troupes toured the country, fathers would lock their daughters up when the theater people came to town. Why? Because the actor-guys could be seductive. Because they were actors, they could convincingly put on the kind of suaveness, savoir-faire-ness, etc, that smalltown girls found irresistable, even though these actor-dudes were in reality pretty seedy characters. The actors could make the smalltown daughters think they'd fallen in love. And, being actors (ie., professional seducers and enchanters), the actor-dudes loved seducing and having a good time. So they were prone to leaving many heartbroken, sometimes pregnant, lassies behind them. As well as outraged daddies. In fact, it wasn't all that long ago that actresses and prostitutes were considered close kin. Grouping them together made intuitive sense to most people: actresses and hookers were both understood to be professional seducers, who could make you believe in an illusion ("we're in love!"), and who could do so at will. (One way to make historical sense of the 20th century acting school known as The Method, btw, is to see it as an attempt by theater performers to assert themselves as more dignified than they'd been seen to be before. They were fed up with being seen as clowns and hookers. They wanted to be seen as professionals. So they put on their eyeglasses,... posted by Michael at January 14, 2005 | perma-link | (5) comments

Thursday, January 13, 2005

It was forty three years ago today . . .
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, It was twenty years ago today that Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play, but forty-three years ago today it was something else. Late in the afternoon of January 13, 1962, Fenster returned from skating with his friends at a pond behind his house to find his parents waiting for him, somber but composed, in the living room of his home. At his tender age--not yet a teenager--Fenster had no experience at all with the death of family or friends, but he could tell from the demeanor of his parents that something was amiss, and that it probably had something to do with that remote land. Sit down, they said, we have something we have to tell you. Fenster sat down, sensing that the request had deeper implications but uncertain of the exact meaning. Fenster, they said, we know this will be hard for you to understand but . . . Ernie Kovacs is dead. He was in a car accident. Cut to present day. Yup, that's what happened. The TV comic Kovacs indeed perished on that date, and, yes, my parents fretted about how to break the news to me, a youngster with no personal knowledge of the man--only an affection from his TV persona. It's easy to chuckle over their behavior--and mine--so far after the fact, but, as I recall the moment, their hesitance was justified. I was upset, devastated. Kovacs . . . dead. . . ? How was this possible? So the anniversary of his death obliges me, as a tiny form of payback after all these years, to note the date in passing, and to bring his particular genius to the attention of those not familiar with him. It's not fair to say that without Kovacs there would have been no Saturday Night Live, stupid pet tricks or Andy Kaufman, as this article suggests. These things probably would have happened anyway. But there's no question that Kovacs was there first. It's tempting to conclude that Kovacs integration of nonsense and irrationality with humor as far back in the 1950s was sui generis. But while it was new to TV, it was not new to culture. Heck, as far back as the mid 1940s, Hitchcock had already popularized surrealism in Spellbound. Under the middlebrow rules then prevailing in the popular culture, the gap between dada in museums and Daddy in his living room was smaller than you might think, from the point of view of today's narrower, narrowcasting, standards. Leonard Bernstein did his Young People's Concerts; Kovacs, while clearly wacky, brought a touch of highbrow, under the guise of lowbrow, to the tiny black-and-white TV screen in my middlebrow suburban neighborhood. Even at my tender age, the frisson of highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow; and of sense, nonsense and nonsensibility, was simply irresistible. Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at January 13, 2005 | perma-link | (5) comments

Politics, Philosophy and Parents
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Have you ever wondered how much your political/artistic preferences and gripes have to do with your upbringing and/or your parents? I was wandering around recently in my usual self-absorbed state, thinking about how much of my grumpiness about Modernism has to do with my own mom's attitude towards child-raising, which was basically that you could turn a kid into anything you want. The kid's kidhood might need to be indulged from time to time (ie., go outside and play, kid). But basically kids are to be viewed as raw material for molding. An attitude that resembles all-too-well the we-can-do-anything attitude of 20th century Modernists of all kinds, doesn't it? Then I ran across an interview (not online, darn it) with Stephen Toulmin where's he's quite frank about how his own philosophical p-o-v had its source in his relationship with his dad, who was evidently an OK guy (my mom was an OK woman), but who was also a very dogmatic guy. Little Stephen went on to become Mr. Anti-Dogmatic. In my small way, I've gone on to become Mr. Anti-You-Can-Do-Anything. I suppose such questions and avowals are kind of embarassing. But maybe not. I find it touching that Toulmin would see fit to personalize his philosophy in such a way. He left me thinking that more philosophers -- perhaps even more people generally -- could try to be a little more forthcoming about where their arguments and points-of-view come from. This wouldn't invalidate their arguments or points-of-view, of course. But it would certainly humanize them. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 13, 2005 | perma-link | (14) comments

Biggest Fear
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I found myself wondering just now what my biggest fear for America is. I think I've concluded that my biggest fear for America is that we've so over-devoted ourselves to the religion of multiculturalism that we'll never again be able to publically take on perfectly-necessary questions about what "we as a nation" want. After all, what with multiculturalism, there no longer is a "we as a nation." We're just a big, open welfare state, the more multicolored the better (that's the left's version). Or else we're just a big open marketplace where everyone's welcome so long as he/she can get in (that's the right's version). In the midst of that, what's become of America? If she doesn't exist as a nation, how can she have any preferences about her future? Sigh: I've always, with reservations, been fond of America, as goofy as she is. I find it rather sad to see her dissolving into nothingness, or morphing into a big carcass for interest groups to scrap over, or whatever it is she's turning into. I think -- at least today, late in the afternoon, I find myself thinking -- that the "America isn't a nation, it's an idea" baloney is probably the most pernicious thing around. My response: "You mean, unlike all other countries, we don't have laws, taxes, boundaries, and a history?" I suspect that my ultra-basic meta-gripe might be even more cosmic -- something about how people are forever trying to deduce their way from first principles to humane policies, when I think that 90% of making a humane society is a question of practical matters, and is probably better arrived-at from the bottom up. But that's such an abstract hunch that I can't imagine anyone reacting to it at all ... I keep wondering what'll emerge once the Vietnam/civil-rights/Great-Society generation lets go, let alone the Boomers. Did you read that Brian Anderson article in City Journal that I linked to earlier? Anderson finds many kids on campus who are outright hostile to their teachers' leftie-boomer p-o-v. It's hard to tell what they do care about, though, let alone stand for. Anyway, I wouldn't mind being given a special ticket to revisit the country in about 100 years, to check out how things are playing out. I wonder if anything like the "America" we've known will still be around. If you were to narrow your basket of political gripes down to one fundamental gripe (or worry), what might it be? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 13, 2005 | perma-link | (12) comments

Teaching Company
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Another round of sales has begun at the Teaching Company. The big news this month is a new History of Human Language by the Berkeley prof John McWhorter. McWhorter has made a name for himself in recent years with commentary on current events. But he's a well-respected academic linguist with plenty of impressive credentials too. I've treated myself to a copy of his series, which sounds yummy. A few humble tips for those new to the Teaching Company: Relax. You can't lose. If you don't like the package you order, send it back. The Teaching Company will refund your money. Buy a series that appeals to you, but only when it's on sale. The retail price of a Teaching Company package is very fair, make no mistake. Compare the cost of a Teaching Company series to the cost of a college course. But nearly all the courses are put on sale at some point during the year. And when they're on sale, they're outrageously good values. Look for these names, all of whose work I've found wonderful: Taylor, Greenberg, Allitt, Sapolsky, Messenger, Kors, Zarefsky. I hope I'm not forgetting any of the profs whose work I've liked ... Please type "Teaching Company" into the search box in the blog's left-hand column. You'll turn up specific reviews by me, for whatever they're worth. But you'll turn up a lot of helpful and generous recommendations from visitors as well. When you've gone through a series, why not pass it along -- to a friend, or to your local library? You'll probably never go through the course again, and it's a Good Thing to share the pleasure ... On my morning commute, I'm making my way through some of Robert Greenberg's "Great Masters" profile/biographies of composers. Greenberg's got a goofball, exuberant style, which wins over the Regular Joe in me. But he also delivers substantial goods: solid history and context; well-presented and comprehensible analyses; enthusiastic appreciations ... And he's a showman in his own right, with a fabulously good instinct for what we need to know and when we need to know it, and for how to deliver the material in a way that'll stay with a listener after the series is over. He's a phenomenon. Thanks to him I'm a little less stupid than I used to be. I don't know whether or not this is yet another function of age, but I've found in recent years that I can't retain much that's delivered by speakers who don't know how to sell their wares. Is this something you've noticed too? (Incidentally, Blowhard Francis Morrone is an excellent speaker and presenter. Check out this page for Francis' schedule of talks and walking tours. Wait: it's a little out-of-date. Francis? Are you out there, Francis? Your page needs updating. Anyway, you can sign up for email notifications of Francis' gigs on the same page.) I've gone through a number of series from the Teaching Company that were perfectly... posted by Michael at January 13, 2005 | perma-link | (9) comments

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Richard Curtis at Backspace
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back when I was following books and the publishing biz, I found it surprisingly rare to run across people with sensible, long-term overviews of the institution of book publishing. Lots of smart people knew a lot about lots of the bits and pieces, of course. But where was the One Guy who had the Big Picture? Sad to say, I never found him. (I hear that the wonderful Princeton scholar Robert Darnton is at work on a history of publishing, though. Pant, pant: can't wait!) Still, a close-to-ideal source was the book agent Richard Curtis. I found Curtis brainy and informed; down-to-earth as well as literate and tasteful; and thoughtful. He's also an excellent writer himself: his books about publishing were some of the most helpful I read. So it's great to see that Curtis is in the middle of a three-part discussion about the State of Publishing over at Backspace. People with an interest in books and how they come about shouldn't miss the series. Part One is an overview of the current state of the biz; Part Two is an enlightening discussion of what's become of paperbacks. Part Three is, so far, something to look forward to. Backspace itself is a resource that I wish had been around 20 years ago, when I began to fumble my way through the biz. Visitors will find tons of frank discussions about what the whole mess of activities that's collectively known as "book publishing" is really like. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 12, 2005 | perma-link | (4) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Yahmdallah, who has given his blog a pop-y new look, gets off a lot of funny lines about some movies he has seen. Sample: "If by chance you find yourself having to watch 'The Bourne Supremacy,' and if you actually catch Matt Damon acting, have a drink! I guarantee you'll be sober at the end of the flick." * The performance-savvy Sluggo enjoyed "Stage Beauty." I also loved reading Sluggo's short posting about the joys of Restoration Comedy. * The rightie dynamos at City Journal have turned out another chockful issue. It's readable in its entirety -- you go, City Journal! -- here. So far I've only had time to read Brian Anderson's piece about how, while the professoriat may tend to march in intellectual lockstep, student bodies certainly don't. It's first-rate, and should interest visitors who were tickled by some recent blabfests on this blog. Soon up on my reading list: Heather Mac Donald, Kay Hymowitz, Stephen Malanga, and Theodore Dalrymple. * It's an important question: how to make "the girls" behave the way they're supposed to? Cowtown Pattie delivers the, er, lowdown. * Anyone who hasn't delved into the great Friedrich Hayek yet -- my tip is to start here -- can sample his mind by reading this Reason interview with biographer Bruce Caldwell. * Outer Life's evocation of a difficult morning-after had me laughing in sympathy. My alcohol tolerance has diminished a lot in recent years. Seems to be yet another aging-related development, sigh. These days I avoid red wine entirely, and even where white wine is concerned have to limit myself to two glasses. * I haven't caught up with "Sideways" yet, have you? Come to think of it, I haven't watched a movie in a movie theater in a couple of months, which must be some kind of record in my adult life. But The Wife loved the movie and is urging me not to wait for the DVD. Here's an interview with Rex Pickett, the screenwriter/novelist whose novel the movie is based on. Pickett's delighted with Alexander Payne's movie of his novel, though his other movieworld war stories should open a few eyes to what the moviemaking process is usually like. (Chaos, frustration, bloodshed, and humiliation, basically.) Fun to see that the smart, funny, and spunky Communicatrix agrees with The Wife about "Sideways." Moviefans in the mood for lowkey, offbeat satires should also enjoy Alexander Payne's earlier "Citizen Ruth" (buyable, Netflixable) and "Election" (buyable, Netflixable). * Ya don't wanna diss a squid. * Francophiles as well as fans of saucy writing should enjoy La Coquette, the blog of an American woman who has just moved to Paris. * Some men are lucky enough to have hobbies that they really, really love. * Every now and then somone who publishes journalism of one kind or another catches fire. A combo of talent, energy, subject matter, opportunity, luck -- and, holy moly, there's really something to behold. Some examples:... posted by Michael at January 12, 2005 | perma-link | (1) comments

Sexy vs. Smutty
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards: Sex has always been central to advertising but it's only been recently that we've embraced two separate but related ideas. The first is bluntness about the act. Viagra and Cialis ads are not always sexy in a traditional advertising sense, but all that talk about four hour erections and quality sexual experiences is new. Then there's smutty--a quite different concept entirely than sexy or blunt. Explicit smuttiness has tended to be a no-go on TV. Better an oily, near naked body than too clear a reference to what might be done with it. That seems to be changing. A while back I wrote (here) about a TV ad for Las Vegas. The ad--still running, by the way--is not really sexy, in any conventional sense, but it's definitely smutty. I found the ad humorous and some of you questioned that reaction. One way or another, there's no doubt about the basic character of the ad (the link to the Vegas site is still up at the old post, but I don't think you can see the ad on-line at the moment). Next: Slate magazine has an article up on the porn-like attributes of a new Wendy's ad for big meat--that is, a large new burger. You can see a pretty model sell this product by stuffing her fist into her mouth here. Do you suppose if the ad is successful, Wendy's will offer foot-long hot dogs? Next: Now comes the new ad for Hyatt hotels. You can see it here (you'll have click through the button for the new ads, then selecting the ad entitled "Gold Passport "). You have to watch this one carefully to see its clever, smutty side. Watch the couple in the pool, with the man first warning the woman to behave herself followed, after a few quick cuts, by her arm plunging down into the water toward his . . . um . . . mid-section. Listen to the woman getting a mud rub-down ooh and ahh, and then refer to a "little piece of heaven between my . . . ", only to have it cut away and someone else finish the sentence innocently "toes". Back in the early sixties my mom had a letter published in Time magazine. She was distressed over what she considered the then-rampant smuttiness in Hollywood films. In that era, you may recall, tinseltown was concerned over the competition from television and felt it needed to offer "more" than what you could find on the boob tube. As it sexed up its movies (tame by today's standards, obviously), it launched an ad campaign under the banner "movies are better than ever". Mom's Time magazine tirade was headlined "movies are bedder than ever." So are today's ads I guess. As for me, I find the Hyatt ad, like the Vegas ad, clever . . . but I do wonder what mom would think if she were still around. Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at January 12, 2005 | perma-link | (5) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Some blogsurfers may have run across the brilliant and prolific commenter who signed himself as "Zizka." Zizka never showed up at 2Blowhards, darn it. But he was a frequent and welcome presence at GNXP and a few other blogs. Zizka turns out to be John Emerson, from Portland, Oregon. And John, who no longer uses the Zizka moniker, turns out to run his own provocative and idea-rich website, Idiocentrism. At the moment, he seems to be in the process of converting some of it into a blog-like thing, always a welcome development. But Idiocentrism is full of essays, reviews, reflections, and ventings. It's a very rewarding site that I feel I'm just beginning to know. Ancient-world demographics, Freud, hemoglobin, W.C. Fields -- no one can accuse John of not fearlessly going his own intellectual way. John's a -- deep breath here -- radical leftie. Well, I wonder if that's really fair. If he is, he's a radical-leftie of a sort I've always found simpatico: more-or-less anarchistic; wide-ranging; self-powered; quirky to the max; and as averse the the top-down, overbureaucratized, self-adoring, mainstream-rationalist-"liberal" thang as I am. I put in a number of years as a fringe person myself, and regret the time not a bit. Gestalt therapists, porno comicbook writers, extremist eco-freaks, self-publishing punk-rock leftovers -- for a long time, that was my scene. I even published some writing in anarchist rags; despite the lack of pay and the low readership numbers, I had far better experiences publishing in 'zines than I ever did publishing in the popular press. Was it because my views corresponded more closely to the fringe's than they did to the mainstream's? Or was it because I found many of the fringe people to be more decent on a personal level than the high-powered people were? Although the fringe-world certainly abounds in loonies and crazies, it also houses many well-rumpled, wry-spirited, entertainingly-whacky, beyond-open-minded, and humane souls. And, y'know, it seems to me that Kropotkin, Bakunin, and Colin Ward (my favorite writer-thinkers from my anarchist years) blend harmoniously with the likes of Denis Dutton, Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, and Stephen Toulmin, a few of my current fave brainiacs. I see many connections. But that's material for another posting. I notice that John is, if anything, even more of a Toulmin (and Montaigne) freak than I am. I notice a few other things as well: that John's got the kind of wide-ranging, searching, and open mind that I love learning from and comparing notes with; and that he has made his online site his life's work. Idiocentrism is a serious publishing venture and experiment, in much the same way that the traditionalist conservative Jim Kalb's site Turnabout is. These are sites that are as rich and as deep as a good book. Given that both guys continue to add to their sites, and given that they blog and respond to comments, their sites strike me as more alive in many ways than even... posted by Michael at January 12, 2005 | perma-link | (15) comments

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Who is Responsibible?
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, A recent post and associated comments dealt with the issue of theology and catastrophe--in particular, whether a personal God had a hand in the Asian tsunami and what to make of it if so. Some very thoughful commenters weighed in with non-dogmatic Christian perspectives, prompting this rejoinder from Fenster: I just can't get myself worked up about explaining physical events, even terrible catastrophes, in religous terms--or at least in terms of a relation to a personal God. I just may have to accept the fact that I find the idea of a personal God to be not that compelling--never have, even in Sunday School. On the other hand, I have to recognize that my own desire to "explain" events from a non-personal God point of view reflects a need for solace in the same fashion as does an explanation proferred by a believer. Soon after posting, I came across this article in the Spectator on-line. In it, Peter Jones continues his examination of modern issues from the point of view of antiquity--in this case, of paganism. Seems that Seneca wrestled with the problem of whether the gods were responsible for bad things happening. There had been an earthquake at Pompeii (this about a decade before the Vesuvius eruption) and Seneca wondered about the gods' intervention. It was commonly held in that era that the gods were directly involved, that their interactions with one another and with mankind were part of it, and that disasters could be avoided or minimized via proper conduct on the part of makind relative to the gods with appropriate jurisdiction. Seneca, then Jones: ‘It will help to keep in mind that gods cause none of these things and that neither heaven nor earth is overturned by the wrath of divinities. These phenomena have causes of their own; they do not rage on command.’ Seneca insists on this because, he says, it is the only way to cure humans of their ignorance about the true nature of the world and thus relieve them of the terrible fear of a capricious deity. Compared with that awful prospect, the knowledge that nature, however occasionally violent, is predictable comes as a tremendous relief. I think of this when I see atheists raging on television, intent on showing that God had nothing--nothing!!--to do with it. In getting so worked up, they are demonstrating that they are hardly as indifferent as the universe they claim to speak for, and that the need for solace, while part of human nature, comes in quite different flavors, and can be made suitable for pagans, Christians and even agnostics and atheists. To change subjects almost completely (while staying on the religion meme), here is a fascinating article from the Independent on the (perhaps suspect?) success of Patrick Henry College, a very new, and very Christian, college with high hopes for the success of its grads and, in turn, for changing the world. The correct bookend for this piece is Univeristy Diaries'... posted by Fenster at January 11, 2005 | perma-link | (13) comments

A Tale of Two Modernisms
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards: About six months ago, when I gave up active blogging, I decided I’d do some in-depth reading to try to make better sense out of Modern Art. There was just too much about the standard discussions of Modernism that just didn’t make much sense to me. Oddities and Gaps in the Conventional Story of Modern Art 1. Accounts of Modern painting only touch in the most cursory way on Academic painting—and then, mostly, as a sort of bogeyman. Yet Academic painting in the late 19th century and even well into the 20th century was a huge, and increasingly international, activity. National schools that had never before produced more than a stray artist or two sprang vigorously into existence, packed with considerable talent. Salon painting was the large ocean in which Modern Art bobbed like an oppositionist cork. Surely this vast context had some kind of cultural logic (or logics) of its own. Despite this, I’ve never read a meaningful discussion of Salon painting--surely a major cultural artifact of the modern era--in any history of Modern Art. I've never even been able to find a definitive history of Salon painting—you know, one that lays out the major figures, the major themes, etc., etc. That strikes me as a very curious elision. 2. Histories of Modern Art really don't know how to treat English painting during the 19th century. Is it really part of the Modernist 'story line' or not? The whole topic seems to make writers on Modern Art a tad queasy, and they'd really rather not talk about it. This peculiarity is perhaps epitomized in the odd but widely repeated phrase: “Paris was the capital of the 19th century.” Say what? By any remotely rational measure London, not Paris, was the political and economic capital of the 19th century. And Parisian painting in the latter part of the century largely ended up recapitulating themes and formal developments that had occurred across the Channel some 50 years earlier. How is it that histories of Modern Art generally don’t begin with Constable and Turner? Well, these ‘revolutionary’ Englishmen are safely tucked away in the drawer marked 'Romantic Art. Um, question: what exactly is the difference between Romantic and Modern art? Have you ever seen a meaningful distinction drawn between the two that isn't strictly chronological? I've read several, but none that stands up under close examination. This appears to be one of those classic 'distinctions without a difference.' 3. Why is the definition of Modern Art, or even of Modernism, so darn slippery? How can you tell the story of something you can't define? Is Modern Art a period label? That is, does the term refer to the art from 1860 or so to 1930, or to 1970, or to whenever? If Modern Art is a period label, why do accounts of it focus on only such a tiny sliver of the art produced during that chronological period, and why is such a deliberate darkness cast... posted by Friedrich at January 11, 2005 | perma-link | (13) comments

Sunday, January 9, 2005

Power Pop!
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, I have had only limited success connecting with my sub-teen kids on music when I listen to the Mothers, Monk or Mozart, to say nothing of Eminem, whom I keep from them for the moment. I figure sooner or later they'll come along to less accessible stuff. There is, however, one genre of music that we can share, happily. That's power pop. Do you listen to it or know much what it is? The way I see it, power pop is less a genre than a thread, a continuous line that runs between some of the most playful and spirited music of the past thirty or so years. The genre's base can be found in a couple of different strands: the percussive punchiness of the early Who (think: I Can See for Miles), the catchy melodicism of early to mid-career Beatles (think: No Reply), the jangly guitar harmonics of the Byrds (think: I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better) and the post-Four Freshmen vocalizations of the Beach Boys (think: The Warmth of the Sun). Each of these groups, individually, either headed in different directions or stopped developing as time went on. The Who morphed into bombast and eventually helped lead to metal. The Byrds and its many offshoots (Gram Parsons, Burrito Brothers) pioneered the country rock genre. The Beach Boys ended its creative period with Brian Wilson's downturn. The Beatles just ended. But what if you liked the music just as it was, and felt no need to morph that greatly? In that case, rather than worry over different development of separate creative artists with different ego needs, you'll simply mine the existing material, smooshing together the Byrds, Beatles, Beach Boys and Who (among others) to see what comes of the mix. And happily stay there. And so it has been. Consider The Knack's My Sharona in the seventies. The Romantics, the Las or Marshall Crenshaw in the eighties. Or the collective output of Jellyfish in the nineties. They all tip their hats one way or another to Townsend, Wilson, McCartney, Lennon, McGuinn or others in an attempt to capture infectious good feeling in a short two to three minute time span. Per the above, the genre is a very conservative one. Perhaps this accounts for why, despite being ignored for the most part by the critical establishment, power pop has been lauded in (of all places) National Review. And, in truth, it's as tight and uncompromising a little genre as film noir: under three minutes to create a mood and (usually) bounce through it happily. My kids like it because it is supremely accessible. I like it for the same reason, and also as a break from less accessible music worth listening to for other reasons. The development of power pop has been captured in a couple of different collections. There's a Poptopia series on CD, with collections for the seventies, eighties and nineties. There's also a (to my mind) superior collection entitled Yellow Pills,... posted by Fenster at January 9, 2005 | perma-link | (26) comments