July 14, 2006

Morning Readings

1. Conventional wisdom be damned:

Strangely, experiencing a Seattle winter firsthand was not enough to make me question the myth. However, in Seattle I did become good friends with David S. Battisti, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington. Battisti is one of those great scientists who, with relish and an air of mischief, loves to question conventional wisdom. Over the years he and I have enjoyed many a long evening indulging our shared passions for Italian cooking and wine while talking about climate research. During one of those conversations, sometime in 2000 as I recall, he brought up that he wanted to test the Gulf Stream-European climate idea. It was perfect timing, because just then I had been conducting a series of experiments with a numerical climate model, ones designed to examine the role the ocean plays in determining the global and regional features of the Earth's climate. So Battisti and I went to work.

2. Once the classes can morph one into the other, don't their distinctions become less reliable?

In art, everyone loves a bad boy -- or a wild woman.

The show demonstrates that this was not always the case. The exhibition opens with a room full of solid, sober 18th Century self-portraits by artists who desperately wanted to be part of the establishment and set up self-regulating bodies such as Britain's Royal Academy to protect their status.

By century's end, more romantic notions were taking hold. Artists often depicted themselves as lone geniuses, ostracized by society but fired by an inner flame. In one of the show's most striking self-portraits, French painter Courbet stares at the viewer, wide-eyed and tousled, looking for all the world like an emotional Johnny Depp.

3. Die, Noble Savage:

However badly civilized peoples may have behaved, the 100 million or so killed by communism and the 50 million or so killed by National Socialism seem modest compared with the 2 billion or so who would have died if the casualty rates of primitive peoples had applied to the West. The verdict is not yet in, to be sure. One is reminded of the exchange between Wednesday Addams (played by the young Christina Ricci in the 1993 film Addams Family Values) and a girl at summer camp, who asks, "Why are you dressed like someone died?" to which Wednesday replies, "Wait!"

4. Drama Queen:

I learned of Sontag's death in a hotel elevator at the 2004 Modern Language Association Convention in Philadelphia. When I got to my room, I went online and Googled her name for more details. The first link I followed took me to a fan Web site, a makeshift memorial that listed choice quotations from her life?s writings. "The truth is balance," one of them read. "However the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie." The truth, I think, is that Sontag held a mirror to my immense desire to influence the bookish, cerebral world that I have always longed to be a part of, and at the same time showed me my equally immense capacity to be crushed by that longing. And then there is untruth. The untruth is that Susan Sontag once read a novel by Cathleen Schine and was so entertained by its subtle meditation on questions of female intellect and crippling illness that she borrowed its title for a play she'd been thinking about writing, a play about Alice James' heroic struggle with cancer, all the while certain that nobody would ever make the connection or confront her with the possibility of influence. Until we met. And that, while plainly not the truth, may not be a lie.

5. Adam Smith is not old news:

Smith set out to discern how people achieve systems of morality, economics, and government and how, by analyzing the way these work, people could better their ethical, material, and political conditions. It was a splendid opportunity to be a blowhard. Consider a recent thinker--a Herbert Marcuse, a Newt Gingrich, an Al Franken--launching into the subject. Fortunately, Smith had a knack for posing deep thoughts without making us cringe. His secret was to be an idealist without taking that impertinent and annoying next step of being a visionary. Smith didn't presume to have a "blueprint for society" and did presume that the ignorant and incompetent builders of society--he and the rest of us--couldn't follow one. For example, in Wealth Smith denounced the Corn Laws, the British prohibitions on export of grain, as the crass inequity they were (and would prove to be when they starved my family out of Roscommon 70 years later). Then Smith didn't proceed with the rant that we now expect from people who feel themselves to be, a little too obviously, in the right. Instead Smith--keeping the inevitable follies of politics in mind--came to a humble conclusion: "We may perhaps say of it what was said of the laws of Solon, that, though not the best in itself, it is the best which the interests, prejudices, and temper of the times would admit of." Without this humility, reading in Adam Smith's philosophical project would be as grim as living in Kim Jong Il's philosophical project, North Korea. Smith's humble attitude extended beyond the ideal to ideas themselves, to his amour propre. In an early essay, "The History of Astronomy," Smith wrote that he was "endeavoring to represent all philosophical systems as mere inventions of the imagination, to connect together the otherwise disjointed and discordant phenomena of nature." He went on to chastise himself for agreeing too much with Sir Isaac Newton's physics, making "use of language expressing [their] connecting principles as if they were the real chains which Nature makes use of to bind together her several operations." It would take, literally, an Einstein to show how right Smith was.

6. Like I said in #2:

The name of capitalism, she points out, was long held in dishonor by those who believed in the triumph of socialism. Yet history has shown that it is capitalism, with all its injustices, that does the best job of improving the lot of the average man. The word bourgeois, which names the human being who creates and is created by capitalism, is overdue for a similar rehabilitation.

8. I was going to clip the paragraph that started like this: "Women led the way", but I chose this instead:
It is not enough for the free market forces to sit back and let laissez-faire capitalism win the day. The Argentine and Brazilian experiences suggest that even with high national rates of economic growth, wealth will not automatically distribute itself downward. That the economic successes these nations enjoyed in the 90s were followed by leftist regimes in this decade indicates that free market forces must do more to make sure that the lower classes are uplifted by national economic growth.
For his part, Chavez has maintained strong popularity in Venezuela, despite a one-note oil based economy, by offering free and low cost food to the poor, Cuban medical treatment in the barrios and a vast expansion of subsidized public work "employment."
As commodity prices rise globally, driven by Chinese and Indian demand as their economies mature and grow, Latin America can now advance economically without necessarily embracing freedom in its economics or its politics. It just has to ride oil, copper, zinc, gold, and other commodity prices upward. With quasi-communist leaders distributing the goodies, downward, anti-American leftists can gain power and stay there despite the global consensus on free markets and free peoples.
Mexico has taken the first big step to stop them.

9. This quote from 2005 in the blog EU Referendum in a blogpost entitled "Smug" tells two stories: a conceptual critique of the EU and a reason to read the EU Referendum:

For all that, the A380 is an aircraft that has never left the runway and its first flight is not due to take place until this spring. Commercial service is expected in 2006.

Interestingly, compared with Boeing's alternative, the 7E7 "Dreamliner", there is another "old Europe" aspect to this project. Boeing is going for a smaller aircraft, capable of servicing regional airports, transporting people directly from place to place. The idea is to give passengers a greater choice of starting points, routes and destinations, enabling them to avoid the inconvenience of travelling to the congested, high density "hubs".

Airbus, on the other hand, is going for massive centralisation, putting even more pressure on the central hubs, as its operating carriers will be forced to increase passenger traffic to meet their costs. That rather epitomises the very nature of "old Europe" ? an inflexible, centralising construct, divorced from the needs of the people.

As well as the hardware, therefore, we are also seeing an ideological battle and competition between two opposing commercial concepts. My money is on the New World.

10. In this typically great analytical blogpost from The Belmont Club, I clip twice:

If Iraq is on a blood-bespattered but upward learning curve, and Afghanistan is a stone-age battleground in which cycles and eons are the measure of time, Gaza is the playground of fantasy. Here time has stopped in the way that is only possible within an asylum.

...and if you are a participant in my artworld, would you be surprised to discover the following contingency noted in the comment section of Wretchard's blog?

The Guggenheim Foundation announced that it will build its largest museum to date in Abu Dhabi. The museum will cost $200 million dollars. A google of United Arab Emirates, Dubai, Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait will reveal Persian Gulf countries awash in petro-dollars which are "burning holes in their pockets." The dichotomy of the Arab world and Islam is an enigma. One brother is advancing a backward fundamentalism funded by the other whose oil dollars are also buying western amenities and materialism. How long will this symbiotic relationship continue and how much misery and devastation will it inflict on the greater Islamic world before that world realizes the madness of the hypocrisy?

11. Marx as literature:

What of Das Kapital's own literary status? Marx knew it could not be won second-hand, by the mere display of other men's flowers. In volume one he scorns those economists who "conceal under a parade of literary-historical erudition, or by an admixture of extraneous material, their feeling of scientific impotence and the eerie consciousness of having to teach others what they themselves felt to be a truly strange subject". A fear that he could himself have committed this offence may explain the anguished admission, in the afterword to its second edition, that "no one can feel the literary shortcomings of Das Kapital more strongly than I". Even so, it is surprising that so few people have even considered the book as literature. Das Kapital has spawned countless texts analysing Marx's labour theory of value or his law of the declining rate of profit, but only a handful of critics have given serious attention to Marx's own declared ambition - in several letters to Engels - to produce a work of art.

12. From Marx as literature to a sighting of Hayek in Steve LaRose's recent searching, searing and hopeful blogpost:

I guess that I need to know what "radical subjectivism" means to Ashes. My feeling is that this notion that everything is relative is unsettling to most people. It is especially bizarre to those of us who make things that enter into a market of "taste". How can I say that everything is relative and then suggest that there should be more art taught in schools? If everything is relative, then we should all "trust our hearts" and just do what we feel is right, because ultimately nothing is right. Right? This was the downfall of my teaching career and ultimately my career as an exhibiting "artist". The idea of our qualitative reality being simply a subjective leap of faith is not good for most students and even worse for those desiring valuable commodities. I sold more paintings and was a more confident teacher when I felt that what I was doing was "right" (or at the very least, on to something). But, as Will Rogers once said, "Even if you are on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there."
Sometimes flight in the vortex may seem like downfall, when we are all actually spinning round and round. It's not over 'till it's over, Steve.

13. From Steve's "desirable commodities" to Chris Ashley's "valuable object", check out this interesting Case Study of his work undertaken by Australian research students:

What do you mean by ?independent artists?? Does that mean someone not affiliated with a gallery? If so, there are way more independent artists than there are non-independent artists (I don?t know what to call them- dependent, affiliated, sanctioned, professional, official?). There are many art worlds and many different communities. There is a huge, barely known art world of programmers, web designers, people using audio and video and performance, all kinds of image makers, etc. Most artists don?t become non-independent artists. They either get into academia or get day jobs and continue doing what they do. Some artists using technology are getting shown and sold, but it seems to me that the commodity being sold still has to have the aura of being a valuable object to it. That?s pretty hard to say about a colorful abstract image that is made of code and doesn?t? really exist, or an animated GIF projected on a wall, or an interactive web site.

Once I realized the implications of "All that's Solid Melts into Air" in grad school, I took the Oedipal turn and dwelt on the stubborn facts of that which exercised my curiosity. It just so happened that we can hang these stubborn facts on a wall. If my curiosity pointed toward primarily towards the stubborn facts in sculpture, then I would have to accept the equally stubborn reality that people generally have less cubic volume than vertical square footage to accommodate an art collection. I'm not sure if Steve and Chris are seeing greener pastures in the commodified art world, but I have two thoughts in response: firstly -and not as harsh as this may sound- but we all have to pursue our curiosity and take the consequences (that this is ultimately something right and true even tough it might not seem that way at any given moment); and secondly, all art is about an investment in intrinsic value which over time, which eventually becomes extrinsic (whether it happens in our lifetimes and by what degree is beyond our power to control). What is interesting about blogs as a potential/actualized art form is that for now, they are free. I heard a dealer once say that if it doesn't sell, it isn't art. But if it isn't art before you sell it, it's a fraud.

Irony is like that.


To judge from their paintings, the impressionists led idyllic private lives ? afternoons on the river, seaside holidays, sun-dappled fields and gardens, bars, cafes, ballerinas. They painted happiness, and must surely have been happy. Sue Roe?s businesslike if sometimes gushy group biography reminds us that the contrary was true. It would be hard to find a school of painters who were subjected to more misery and humiliation, or underwent such disasters, personal and national.
15. Much of this interview with Tyler Green, I agree with... except this bit: 2. What is the single non-art-world factor that is the greatest influence on art made today? (For instance, environmentalism, animal rights, worldwide feminism, the spread of digital technology?)

This is a big and excellent question. Degeneration, particularly of societies, cultures, and political systems. Regardless of whether I?m in New York, LA or in between, I see artists making art about things falling apart. Look at last year?s top news stories: Iraq, Katrina, the London bombing, the Indian Ocean tsunami, the BTK serial killer, the continuing struggles of the Bush presidency, even the death of Terri Schiavo. They?re all about degeneration.

I see this simultaneously in two different ways:

-On one hand, I see our current situation in the art world as the final stages of an immense PostModern cycle. I attempted to sketch it here in this blogpost. As in the idea of a river which starts off as a cold and hard mountain stream, I believe we are in a stinking river delta stage at this time.

-On the other hand, the subject of how things fall apart is only interesting in terms of the question of how things can come together since entropy happens with or without humankind's foibles. Degeneration alone is conceptually not big news, but degeneration in terms of some construction of ideas, now there might be something to run with. The grand arc of civilization is a positive one (as in the direction of the slope but also in terms of optimism) and what is really crumbling are various forces of atavism... therefore there has always been a kind of creative destruction in the turning of civilization's gyre. Art seems to dwell on foible, mishap, the picaro, Oedipal conflict, insurrection as a kind of epic digestive process. In terms of the river model, the big question for independent thinkers is how to try to evaporate, condense and mist oneself into the mountaintops.

Posted by Dennis at July 14, 2006 11:50 AM

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