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, March 19, 2005

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Alexandra Ceely gives one of her good art-history lessons -- this time about Charles Sheeler -- and puts up a couple of fascinating postings about what it's like to be part-white and part-black. * GeneExpressions's Theresa finds an article arguing that the first humans in the Americas had skeletons that resemble Polynesian and African skeletons more than they do contemporary Native American skeletons. * Bilious Young Fogey has put up some beautiful scans of Australian Aboriginal art. * I often wish I had a good mind for conceptual things, don't you? (I read "conceptual" to mean "clever and gimmicky but catchy, too." By the way, I hope I'm not alone in noticing that theme journalism and conceptual art triumphed at exactly the same time. Coincidence?) Instead, I'm stuck hoping against hope that if I yak about something that interests me, it might interest one or two other people too. Anyway, here's a fun site with a cool concept. Nifty execution too. * Conservative Philosopher points out this fascinating if dimwitted Houston Chronicle report: "As Hispanic teens shed the language of their native countries and immerse themselves in American culture, they become dramatically more sexually active, a new study shows." The article's writer performs an amazing stunt when it comes to explaining why this fact should be so. Do Hispanic teens go sex-mad when they learn English because, as I'd imagine any sensible person would suspect, they encounter American pop culture in its full force? Nope. According to the article, the real reason Hispanic kids go sex-mad on learning English is because we don't talk about sex and birth control enough with our children. * We're usually told that capitalism was built on slavery. Donald Boudreaux disagrees. He argues that capitalism in fact put an end to slavery. * I seem to be the blogosphere's one-man p-r firm for the late British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott. Why fight my fate? The other day I ran across Andrew Sullivan's obit of Oakeshott, and found it lovely. Whatever you think of Sullivan's own views, he's a first-class appreciator and explicator of Oakeshott. * David Shackleford wrestles entertainingly with the tea-or-coffee question. It's a quirky link, by the way. You may need to go to the bottom of the page the link brings up for David's coffee thoughts. * Thanks to Tatyana, who found this soulful, lengthy, and funny -- read: Russian -- treatise on how to prepare tea. Key to it all: don't forget the samovar! * NorthSea Diaries wonders if Belgium's attitudes towards its Muslim immigrants are going to take the same turn that Dutch attitudes seem to have taken. * Here's DadTalk's very helpful archive of postings about how he has managed to lose 30 pounds. * Luke Lea thinks that you'll find more racism in Manhattan than you will in the South. * Waterfall marvels at how much it can brighten your day to be paid a compliment. * Why do so few... posted by Michael at March 19, 2005 | perma-link | (12) comments

Friday, March 18, 2005

Finding a Job in the Arts
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It's such a strange time, isn't it? Electronic media-making devices have become affordable ... Self-expression has become prized above all other activities and values ... And finding employment doing something that you love -- and that results in satisfaction, fame, and money too, of course -- is felt by many young people to be a birthright ... Yet, realistically speaking, how many well-paying openings are there in the arts? Here's a glimpse of the practical state of such things from ICG, the magazine of the International Cinematographers Guild. The speaker is Sandi Sissel, a cinematographer who teaches lighting at New York University: There was a period of time where getting to be a filmmaker was something that you did by meeting other filmmakers, getting to know people, having a knack for it and finding a niche. When I was starting out, it wasn't a matter of me thinking, Wow, how do I get into the business? It was just a smaller industry back then ... These days there are about 1300 kids in film school at NYU. I don't mean to sound callous, but do I honestly think that more than 20 of them are going to make it? Probably not. Repeat: maybe 20 out of 1300 are going to find gainful employment in the movie business. (Apologies: couldn't resist the boldface.) Now imagine what the odds of making it in the moviebiz are for people who don't go to film school. I can't help thinking about a question that Sissel doesn't raise: How satisfying will the 20 lucky kids find their moviebiz jobs? If they wind up like many of the moviebiz people I've met, they'll spend their careers fighting high blood pressure, wrestling with horrifying mood swings, and boasting about how glamorous their work is while fantasizing about the calm and peaceful normal lives they might have led instead. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 18, 2005 | perma-link | (2) comments

"9 Songs"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Does it amuse or interest you that there's a small group of semi-young filmmakers who are in love with '70s movies, and who also love the idea of being a rampaging, art-plus-pop-culture-equals-Gesamtkunstwerk, '70s-style filmmaker? I'm thinking of Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, P.T. Anderson ... Come to think of it: are there others? Bully for them, in any case, for having an interest in the art and history of film -- there isn't enough of that around among young filmmakers these days. (For those who haven't run across the term before: "Gesamtkunstwerk" means "total artwork," and is often associated with the beyond-ambitious opera-composer Richard Wagner, whose dream was to create immersive art that encompassed and/or engulfed all the arts. '70s filmmakers often approached filmmaking in similar terms. They did their best to affect audiences on many levels at once, and their movies were often found to be, and were often described as, "operatic.") But -- sad confession -- these filmmakers aren't a group whose work I'm crazy about. God knows they all have their talents. But I no longer have much appetite for '70s-style filmmaking -- perhaps I burned it up in the actual 1970s, my own coming-to-artistic-awareness days. As far as new movies go, I'd rather see something ... different; when I do want a blast of '70s-moviemaking, I'll rent the DVD of a real '70s movie. I know I know I know that the existence of neo-retro-wannabe-'70s-movies represents something interesting about our own era. I just don't find it a terribly compelling something-interesting, if that makes any sense. The neo-'70s filmmaker I like best is England's Michael Winterbottom, less for any individual movie than for the lack of stress in his work. I can't be the only moviebuff who feels dragged down instead of buoyed up by the ambitions of Tarantino, Russell, and Anderson, can I? It often seems to me that what these filmmakers hope to be and what they want to achieve carries more weight than what they actually deliver. The only Tarantino I've straightforwardly enjoyed, for instance, is "Jackie Brown," his most relaxed performance. Winterbottom's maverick, go-his-own-way attitude seems, by contrast, far more natural. He's got technical skill and pizzaz to spare, but he seems to want to put them to use depicting (and conveying) states of genuine emotional rawness -- states he seems relatively comfortable with. I can't remember a moment in the films of his that I've seen that struck me as whipped-up or hysterical. Thank heavens too that Winterbottom avoids getting bogged down in melodrama, or in '70s-Method pacing. His films move crisply enough -- they have their own beat and their own drive -- even while the situations, characters, and actors are brewing up their various storms. "Butterfly Kiss," "I Want You" (a film Rachel Weisz fans won't want to miss), and especially "24 Hour Party People" are moody, wildass movie experiences that don't ask to be taken for anything more than what they are... posted by Michael at March 18, 2005 | perma-link | (14) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Visitors may have noticed a new strip of links running across the top of the main-text column here at the blog. Most are still under construction, but one of them is now in service. Since our general hope is to make some of the blog's features more easily accessible than they've been, I'm pleased that we've now got our Best-Ofs in place. Each of us Blowhards has chosen a grabbag of postings we're particularly proud of. We're hoping that visitors who'd like to sample this blog's past contents -- without having to sift through the rather massive complete Archives (which can be gotten-to via the left-hand column) -- will find these Best-Of links handy. Run your cursor over the "Best-Of" button, choose an author, then click on any link that appeals. Coming soon: direct links to the interviews we've done here. Many thanks once again to our wonderful blog-guy, Daniel of Westgate Necromantic, who I can't recommend highly enough. If you've got web-things that need doing, Daniel is fast, solid, a pleasure to deal with, and very reasonable. If you're into Goth fun and games, you certainly won't want to miss checking out Daniel's site. Here's hoping a few visitors choose to have some fun with our Best-Ofs. There's some good readin' and some fun information to be found there. Cheers, Michael... posted by Michael at March 18, 2005 | perma-link | (0) comments

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Stoned Again
Francis Morrone writes: Dear Blowhards, Perhaps through my own fault (OK, definitely through my own fault), in my last post, which I found very difficult to structure so as to strike the right emphases, I set off a discussion of whether Ed Stone's Gallery of Modern Art deserves to stay or deserves to go. I say stay; Michael, and others, say go. Here's Michael in the comments to my last post: But that's what I say about nearly all these modernist buildings -- knock 'em down when their time comes. I can't think of many that (IMHO, of course) add to the city. I think it's one of the greatest con jobs ever that the modernists have managed to get the preservationists and landmarkers to give modernist work any respect at all. Who knows for sure, but my bet would be that most landmarkers and preservationists detest modernism, and may even have become landmarkers and preservationists as a way of fighting what modernism has done to cities. Why cede an inch to the enemy? And here is commenter Chris: I agree with your "knock 'em down" prescription. Why don't they? Francis and others agree the Stone building is flawed --deeply flawed, in fact. Many agree that many of the modernist buildings and art works are similarly flawed. But then the powers and critics in charge say "but." "But it's historical." I say, historical what? Crap? Historical crap?! We should save it!? What's going on? It's a madness. Michael well knows that I deplore most Modernist buildings as much as, if not more than, he does. So why do I guardedly support the campaign to preserve interesting examples of Modernist design? It so happens that last night (actually, early this morning, around 2:00 a.m., when I do some of my best reading) I was catching up on back numbers of the British magazine Apollo, in my opinion the best art periodical in the world. It is all the better in recent months since Gavin Stamp, my favorite architecture critic, has joined the magazine as a columnist. I read his column from January, called "Anti-Ugly." (Apollo has an awesome website allowing access to the magazine's full issues. Registration is required, but is free. But it also means I can't make direct links. The site is easy to navigate, so the piece I'm referencing is easy to find once you do the registration process.) Do you know Stamp? Until recently he was teaching up in Glasgow, where he led campaigns to save the undervalued buildings of the great Alexander "Greek" Thomson from the philistine vandalizers who are surprisingly even more numerous in some cities than in New York. In 1978, Stamp curated the London 1900 exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects. London had long undervalued, indeed outright disrespected, its extraordinary heritage of late-Victorian and Edwardian buildings just as New York had mistreated her own wealth of Beaux-Arts beauties. Visitors to London would see these 1900 buildings all over the city, love... posted by Francis at March 17, 2005 | perma-link | (15) comments

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Francis Morrone writes Dear Blowhards, It looks like curtains for the old Gallery of Modern Art at Columbus Circle. Do you know this building? On February 25, David W. Dunlap wrote in the New York Times (site registration required): After being delayed more than a year by litigation, the plan to reclad and recreate 2 Columbus Circle as the new home of the Museum of Arts and Design is poised to proceed after a court decision in its favor yesterday. A five-judge panel of the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court unanimously upheld the earlier dismissal by Justice Walter B. Tolub of a lawsuit against the reconstruction project by three preservation groups--Landmark West, Historic Districts Council and Docomomo. "Now, we're full steam ahead," said Laurie Beckelman, the director of the new building program at the museum. She said the project, designed by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture, might begin by the middle of this year and be completed in mid-2007. (Here is a brief recent article from New York magazine showing the old and proposed new buildings in side by side images. Here is the web site of Brad Cloepfil's Allied Works Architecture. Click on "updates" in the upper right corner.) That news report, together with Daniel Zalewski's recent New Yorker profile of Rem Koolhaas (not, alas, online), together with Donald Pittenger's excellent recent comments on his formal mis-education in art and architecture (here, here, and here), opened up a string of my own memories of a period (of my own schooling) in which the conventional historiography of modern architecture, and in particular New York architecture, changed irrevocably. Here's a brief chronology: 1975: The Museum of Modern Art presents the exhibition The Architecture of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts 1978: Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas is published by Oxford University Press 1981: Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House is published by Farrar Straus Giroux None of these means very much to me anymore, though each struck me with some force at the time, for each seemed to vindicate the love of certain kinds of architecture that had been written out of history. Let's start with the MoMA show. Wow. Who would have ever thought such a thing possible? Ada Louise Huxtable in the Times was very equivocal in her assessment. Yes, she said, that 19th-century Beaux-Arts stuff was all right in its time and place (and to say that was a big concession when for years Nikolaus Pevsner, the most influential architectural historian of the 20th century, had been saying that virtually the entire 19th century had been one big mistake), but, Huxtable said: It is hard, even for would-be revivalists, to rationalize the logic and costs of the grafting of classical forms and orders intrinsic to masonry construction onto the totally different requirements of modern steel and concrete. It is equally hard to fit the straitjacket of academic classicism on the many new building forms required by the 20th century, even if craftsmen were not extinct. Can't... posted by Francis at March 16, 2005 | perma-link | (24) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Enough about girls and math, the WashPost says. What about boys and reading? Sample passage: What is known is that boys generally take longer to learn to read than girls; they read less and are less enthusiastic about it; and they have more trouble understanding narrative texts yet are better at absorbing informational texts ... Scientists have said that boys are born with smaller language centers in their brains -- and larger spatial centers -- than girls and that boys develop language abilities at a slower rate, though eventually they catch up. * Another tiptop conservative-philosophy blog: Right Reason -- partly staffed, it's hard not to notice, by refugees from Conservative Philosopher. Que pasa among the righties anyway? Dave Lull notices this Dadahead posting, which offers some possible answers. * I'm glad none of the participants suddenly found she needed to take a pee. NSFW. * John Preston's review of a new bio of Cary Grant is a first-class introduction to Grant's life and work. FWIW, I consider "Cary Grant" to be one of the 20th century's most entertainingly classy creations, on a par with the Cord automobile and the Chrysler Building. The gold standard for writing about Cary Grant is Pauline Kael's love letter/essay, "The Man From Dream City." I haven't been able to find Kael's piece online, but all film buffs should own "For Keeps," a best-of-Kael collection that contains the essay, anyway. * Any bets about whether the NSFW event this series of surveillance photos records was a set-up? If it was: nice job! * I thought Steve Sailer's thoughts about Dems, Repubs, and white males were shrewd and funny. * Here's a photo of one of the more eccentric extreme sports I've run across recently. * It can't be emphasized often enough: surveillance cams really are everywhere these days. * Are you as perplexed as I am by the way "slavery" is assumed by so many people to refer to only America's experience of slavery? Yet slavery was a feature of human life for millenia prior to the 1800s, and it continues to be practiced in parts of the world today. Here's a BBC report on slavery in Mauritania, for example. * I don't know about you, but it certainly never would have occurred to me to invite Catharine MacKinnon to a screening of "Inside Deep Throat" ... * France has a tradition of courtliness and flirtation; sexual banter and provocation are considered to be a part of the good life, a civilized pursuit akin to wine, art, and travel. American black culture has a culture of courtliness and flirtation too; I'm often amused and impressed by the playful, stylish, and witty give-and-take black men and women get going between them. Yet most white Americans seem remarkably uptight about flirting. Why? Are they scared of it? Do they think that enjoying a harmless-if-charged moment will ruin their chances of material success? Do they just not know how to enjoy... posted by Michael at March 16, 2005 | perma-link | (16) comments

Sam Vaknin on Narcissism
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- For my own weirdo reasons I've spent a fair amount of time reading about narcissism, and about the pathological version of it that's known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder. (We narcisissm buffs call it "NPD.") As far as I'm concerned, NPD is a fascinating, destructive, horrifying syndrome, and the narcissist is a widespread and much-underdiscussed character type. This book struck me as a trustworthy and EZ popular intro to the topic; this book is a more substantial treatment. When you type "narcissism" into Google, what you'll quickly run into is someone named Sam Vaknin. Vaknin's a genuine one-of-a-kind: a man who confesses to being a pathological narcissist himself, yet who has made it his life's mission to teach the rest of us about narcisissm -- how to identify it, what it is, how to deal with it, etc. His characterizations, knowledge, insights, and tips strike me as amazingly insightful, and he usually delivers them in a caustic and pitiless tone that I find transfixing. I can't fathom how it's possible for someone with a crippling mental illness to describe, analyze, and discuss what he's suffering from as objectively as Vaknin does. Still, there you have it. And I've learned a lot from surfing his web pages and his very helpful Amazon Reader's Lists. Vaknin is such a prolific oddball that he initially set all my warning lights off even as I found myself drawn into his thinking. Yet the more I read him, the more trustworthy and enlightening I find him. Final verdict: a very impressive, very brilliant, and rather alarming guy. I'd be eager to hear from co-bloggers or visitors what they make of Vaknin. If you're curious about narcissism, NPD, or Vaknin himself, you can use this page as a starting point. Here's the home page of Vaknin's suite of websites. Here's where you can start exploring Vaknin's many Amazon lists and recommendations. I'm glad to see that Vaknin has now begun a blog too. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 16, 2005 | perma-link | (5) comments

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Aurbach on Krier
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- How vicious can the architectural establishment be? A telling test case is the Luxembourg-born architect and theorist Leon Krier. Krier's thing is the greatness of the traditional European neighborhood, which to him represents the poetic pinnacle of Western civ. What makes these places so special? What can we learn about pleasure and beauty from them? To an outsider, it might seem that such a passion -- and such a line of inquiry -- is a harmless, interesting and helpful thing. After all, tons of people love the towns and cities Krier extolls: neighborhoods in Paris continue to charm, small towns in Italy and Spain still attract and enchant. In our own country, such places as Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, Williamsburg, and Santa Barbara lure and delight scads of visitors. Many Americans love visiting these places on vacation; they love retiring to places like them too. It seems fair to conclude that many Americans would love it if where they live and work on a daily basis had some of the qualities of these special places. Krier's thinking about what makes such places so special -- and what we might learn from them -- is the most enlightening writing on these topics that I know of. But the architectural establishment is deeply invested in modernism, and has been for 50 years. Make that not just "deeply" but "maniacally." Absurd though it may seem, the establishment is almost completely intolerant of any suggestion that modernism may not be a world-saving, world-redeeming thing. Suggest that modernism has been a mistake, and they'll actually flip out. There's a historical explanation for this mindset, which is the European experience of World War II. There seem to be two ways of interpreting that horrifying war. In one view, Naziism was the awful expression of an evil that lay deep in the heart and in the nature of Western civ. In the other view, Naziism was an example of barbarism bursting through the ever-fragile shell of civilization. After the war, the west's elites opted for interpretation #1. As a consequence, it was felt that Western civ needed not just to purge itself of Naziism, it needed to reinvent itself from scratch. If what centuries of effort had culminated in was Naziism, then the project of Western civilization needed to be gone about entirely differently. Hence the European Union, and hence as well modernism in architecture. It can seem bizarre to us more than half a century after the end of the war, but many people circa 1950 were convinced that classical architecture had played a major role in fascism. It wasn't seen as set decoration or costuming. It was seen as the expression of the society that gave birth to fascism -- really, as a direct expression of Evil. And thus classical architecture had to go. (Similar reasoning reinforced modernism in music and literature as well.) In the place of classical architecture, the new elites would put international modernism. Buildings, cities,... posted by Michael at March 15, 2005 | perma-link | (16) comments

Monday, March 14, 2005

The Long View: Aristocracies Then and Now
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards: Have you ever noticed that even those who don’t think of themselves as Marxists often think of the world in ways inspired by Marx? It seems to me that the two Marxist notions--the class struggle as the prime motor of history and of the reducibility of politics to economics--have become deeply embedded in general social thought. One outcome for most of us is to think of the world in terms of bipolar struggles, focused around economic divides: bourgeoisie v. proletariat, Republican v. Democrat, rich v. poor, North (developed world) vs. South (underdeveloped world), etc., etc. I grant you, this represents a major intellectual revolution wrought by old Karl. But what exactly in these ideas were original to him? The notion of society as the product of distinct groups (‘orders’ or ‘estates’ was the traditional term) long antedated Marx. It had been taken for granted for many centuries that European society was divided into three main orders: the aristocracy (the military-clerical-governmental elite), the bourgeoisie (urban businessmen) and the peasantry (the remaining 85-90% of the population, who were eventually converted by the Industrial Revolution into the ‘laboring classes.’) Moreover, the further observation that this system was in flux following the French Revolution was hardly original to Marx. I would offer to you that old Karl’s real innovation was to reduce the number of significant groups to two, and to stress that economics created the dividing line. Or, to put it more bluntly, via this piece of intellectual legerdemain, old Karl made the aristocracy disappear. Hey presto! As he puts it in “The Communist Manifesto” of 1848: …the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world-market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie. [emphasis added] Well, that certainly leaves no room for the aristocracy to function as an independent player anymore, does it? And a quarter century later in the German edition of “Das Kapital,” Marx went so far as to delineate the exact moment when the aristos became irrelevant: With the year 1830 came the decisive crisis. In France and in England the bourgeoisie had conquered political power. One would have to assume from old Karl’s account that the aristocracy had suddenly become unable to use its traditional position as the strong arm of the government in order to cut itself the biggest slice of the economic pie. In fact, Marx’s approach seems to imply—without ever explicitly addressing the question—that after 1830 not only the occupants of this very comfortable ‘ecological’ niche had suddenly disappeared, but that the social-political-economic 'function' of the aristocracy had also been permanently retired. Well, given the omnipresence of aristocracies (i.e., military-administrative elites, often but not always of a hereditary nature) in most advanced human societies, that conclusion always seemed rather hard for me to swallow. As a result, over the past few... posted by Friedrich at March 14, 2005 | perma-link | (22) comments