Quotulatiousness

August 3, 2016

QotD: The lure of “new” old art

Filed under: Books, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

What is it about stories like these [the discovery of “lost” artistic masterworks] that we find so unfailingly seductive? No doubt the Antiques Roadshow mentality is part of it. All of us love to suppose that the dusty canvas that Aunt Tillie left to us in her will is in fact an old master whose sale will make us rich beyond the dreams of avarice. And I’m sure that the fast-growing doubts surrounding Go Set a Watchman (which were well summarized in a Feb. 16 Washington Post story bearing the biting title of “To Shill a Mockingbird”) have pumped up its news value considerably.

But I smell something else in play. I suspect that for all its seeming popularity — as measured by such indexes as museum attendance — there is a continuing and pervasive unease with modern art among the public at large, a sinking feeling that no matter how much time they spend looking, reading or listening, they’ll never quite get the hang of it. As a result, they feel a powerful longing for “new” work by artists of the past.

To be sure, most ordinary folks like at least some modern art, but they gravitate more willingly to traditional fare. Just as “Our Town” (whose form, lest we forget, was ultramodern in 1938) is more popular than “Waiting for Godot,” so, too, are virtually all of our successful “modern” novels essentially traditional in style and subject matter. In some fields, domestic architecture in particular, midcentury modernism is still a source of widespread disquiet, while in others, like classical music and dance, the average audience member does little more than tolerate it.

Terry Teachout, “The lure of ‘new’ old art”, About Last Night, 2015-02-27.

June 10, 2016

QotD: Against historical preservation

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, History, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Summers alludes to the regulatory thicket as a cause of the infrastructure slowdown but doesn’t have much to say about fixing the problem. Here’s a place to begin. Repeal all historic preservation laws. It’s one thing to require safety permits but no construction project should require a historic preservation permit. Here are three reasons:

First, it’s often the case that buildings of little historical worth are preserved by rules and regulations that are used as a pretext to slow competitors, maintain monopoly rents, and keep neighborhoods in a kind of aesthetic stasis that benefits a small number of people at the expense of many others.

Second, a confident nation builds so that future people may look back and marvel at their ancestor’s ingenuity and aesthetic vision. A nation in decline looks to the past in a vain attempt to “preserve” what was once great. Preservation is what you do to dead butterflies.

Ironically, if today’s rules for historical preservation had been in place in the past the buildings that some now want to preserve would never have been built at all. The opportunity cost of preservation is future greatness.

Third, repealing historic preservation laws does not mean ending historic preservation. There is a very simple way that truly great buildings can be preserved–they can be bought or their preservation rights paid for. The problem with historic preservation laws is not the goal but the methods. Historic preservation laws attempt to foist the cost of preservation on those who want to build (very much including builders of infrastructure such as the government). Attempting to foist costs on others, however, almost inevitably leads to a system full of lawyers, lobbying and rent seeking–and that leads to high transaction costs and delay. Richard Epstein advocated a compensation system for takings because takings violate ethics and constitutional law. But perhaps an even bigger virtue of a compensation system is that it’s quick. A building worth preserving is worth paying to preserve. A compensation system unites builders and those who want to preserve and thus allows for quick decisions about what will be preserved and what will not.

Some people will object that repealing historic preservation laws will lead to some lovely buildings being destroyed. Of course, it will. There is no point pretending otherwise. It will also lead to some lovely buildings being created. More generally, however, the logic of regulatory thickets tells us that we cannot have everything.

Alex Tabarrok, “Against Historic Preservation”, Marginal Revolution, 2016-06-01.

April 21, 2016

QotD: The amazing (ancient) Greeks

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I discovered the Greeks when I was eight, and I came across a copy of Roger Lancelyn-Green’s retelling of The Iliad. I was smitten at once. There was something so wonderfully grand, yet exotic, about the stories. I didn’t get very far with it, but I found a copy of Teach Yourself Greek in the local library and spent weeks puzzling over it. Over the next few years, I read my way through the whole of Greek and Roman mythology, and was drawn into the history of the whole ancient world.

When I was twelve, my classical leanings took me in a new, if wholly predictable, direction. The sexual revolution of the 70s hardly touched most South London schoolboys. The one sex education lesson I had was a joke. Porn was whatever I could see without my glasses in the swimming pool. So I taught myself Latin well enough to read the untranslated naughty bits in the Loeb editions of the classics. The librarians in Lewisham were very particular in those days about what they allowed on their shelves. They never questioned the prestige of the classics, or thought about what I was getting them to order in from other libraries. With help from Martial and Suetonius and Ausonius, among others, I’d soon worked out the mechanics of all penetrative sex, and flagellation and depilation and erotic dances; and I had a large enough fund of anecdotes and whole stories to keep my imagination at full burn all though puberty.

Then, as I grew older, I realised something else about the Greeks — something I’d always known without putting it into words. There’s no doubt that European civilisation, at least since the Renaissance, has outclassed every other. No one ever gathered facts like we do. No one reasoned from them more profoundly or with greater focus. No one approached us in exposing the forces of nature, and in turning them to human advantage. We are now four or five centuries into a curve of progress that keeps turning more steeply upwards. Yet our first steps were guided by others — the Greek, the Romans, the Arabs, and so forth. If we see further than they do, we stand on the backs of giants.

The Greeks had no one to guide them. Unless you want to make exaggerated claims about the Egyptians and Phoenicians, they began from nothing. Between about 600 and 300 BC, the Greeks of Athens and some of the cities of what is now the Turkish coast were easily the most remarkable people who ever lived. They gave us virtually all our philosophy, and the foundation of all our sciences. Their historians were the finest. Their poetry was second only to that of Homer — and it was they who put together all that we have of Homer. They gave us ideals of beauty, the fading of which has always been a warning sign of decadence; and they gave us the technical means of recording that beauty. Again, they had no examples to imitate. They did everything entirely by themselves. In a world that had always been at the midnight point of barbarism and superstition, they went off like a flashbulb; and everything good in our own world is part of their afterglow. Every renaissance and enlightenment we have had since then has begun with a rediscovery of the ancient Greeks. Modern chauvinists may argue whether England or France or Germany has given more to the world. In truth, none of us is fit to kiss the dust on which the ancient Greeks walked.

How can you stumble into their world, and not eventually be astonished by what the Greeks achieved? From the time I was eight, into early manhood, I felt wave after wave of adoration wash over me, each one more powerful than the last.

Richard Blake, “Interview with Richard Blake”, 2014-03-14.

March 1, 2016

QotD: Tall building mania

Filed under: Economics, History, Quotations, Railways — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

This is a sign of growing maturity on the part of the United States. Many of these super-tall building projects make little economic sense, but are completed to validate the prestige of emerging nations, like teenage boys comparing penis sizes. Grown men are beyond that behavior, just as are grown-up nations. I discussed this in the context of rail a while back at Forbes. In that case, it seems everyone thinks the US is behind in rail, because it does not have sexy bullet trains. But in fact we have a far more developed freight network than any other country, and shift of transport to rail makes a much larger positive economic and environmental impact for cargo than for rail. It comes down to what you care about — prestige or actual performance. Again choosing performance over prestige is a sign of maturity.**

The US had a phase just like China’s, when we were emerging as a world economic and political power, and had a first generation of successful business pioneers who were unsure how to put their stamp on the world. So they competed at building tall buildings. Many of the tallest were not even private efforts. The Empire State Building was a crony enterprise from start to finish, and ended up sitting empty for years. The World Trade Center project (WTC) was a complete government boondoggle, built by a public agency at the behest of the Rockefeller family, who wanted to protect its investments in lower Manhattan. That building also sat nearly empty for years. By the way, the Ken Burns New York documentary series added a special extra episode at the end after 9/11 on the history of the WTC and really digs in to the awful crony and bureaucratic history of that project. Though Burns likely did not think of it that way, it could as easily be a documentary of public choice theory. His coverage earlier in that series of Robert Moses (featuring a lot of Robert Caro) is also excellent.

** I have always wondered if you could take this model further, and predict that once-great nations in decline (at least in decline relative to their earlier position) might not re-engage with such prestige projects, much like an aging male seeking out the young second wife and buying a Porche.

Warren Meyer, “This is a GOOD Sign for the United States”, Coyote Blog, 2015-01-15.

January 17, 2016

WW2 anti-aircraft towers to be re-purposed as luxury resort

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

During the Second World War, the British government constructed offshore anti-aircraft installations to extend protection beyond the range of land-based guns and radar. One of these forts is reportedly going to be converted into a luxury resort:

The Maunsell Forts built to defend the British Isles from Nazi invasion are in line for an upmarket make-over.

Billed as the next top-notch luxury resort, the forts will come complete with executive apartments, a helipad and even a spa at sea.

The Second World War era forts off the coast of Kent were constructed in 1943, and operated by both Army and Navy personnel.

The huge metal Maunsell gun towers, also known as Red Sands, were constructed in 1943 during the Second World War

The huge metal Maunsell gun towers, also known as Red Sands, were constructed in 1943 during the Second World War

September 8, 2015

Liverpool’s mysterious Williamson Tunnels

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

On the BBC website, Chris Baraniuk covers what we know about the series of 200-year-old tunnels in Liverpool:

Of all the engineering projects that ever took place in the industrial centre of Liverpool – like the world’s first exclusively steam-powered passenger railway – the building of the Williamson Tunnels in the early 19th Century must be the most mysterious. The patron of the tunnels, tobacco merchant Joseph Williamson, was extraordinarily secretive about their purpose. Even today, no one is sure exactly what they were used for. Nor does anyone know for sure even how many of the tunnels there are, scattered underfoot beneath the Edge Hill district of Liverpool in northwest England.

Meanwhile, for centuries, the tunnels had been buried. They were filled in after locals complained of the smell – apparently the caverns were long used as underground landfills and stuffed with everything from household junk to human waste.

As time went by, the tunnels passed from knowledge to myth.

“A lot of people knew about the tunnels, but that was as far as it went – they just knew about them or heard about them,” explains Les Coe, an early member of the Friends of Williamson Tunnels (FoWT). “It was just left at that. But we decided to look for them.”

[…]

Those who have worked on the tunnels have now developed a new, somewhat more satisfying theory. Bridson points out a series of markings in the sandstone that he says are indicative of quarrying. There are channels to drain rainwater away from the rock while men worked, blocks out of which sandstone could be hewn, and various niches in the walls where rigs were once likely installed to help with extracting the stone, commonly used as a building material.

Bridson believes that before Williamson came along, these pits in the ground already existed. But it was Williamson’s idea to construct arches over them and seal them in. Properties could then be built on top of the reclaimed land – which otherwise would have been practically worthless.

If this was the case, then in terms of land reclamation, Williamson was way ahead of his time, says Bridson. The work may well have hastened the development of an area that, without this innovation, would have been left unused for many years.

Williamson also was enterprising in his design. Simply filling the trenches in would have taken too long in the early 1800s, thanks to the limitations of transport, so Williamson used arches instead. And as Bridson notes, he was doing it years before the great railway tunnels and bridges of England were ever built. The arches “are still standing 200 years on with virtually no maintenance,” he says. “Apart from the ones that have been damaged, they’re still as solid as the day he built them. So he must have known what he was doing.”

H/T to Ghost of a Flea for the link.

September 3, 2015

How Buildings Learn – Stewart Brand – 6 of 6 – “Shearing Layers”

Filed under: History, Randomness, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 10 Jun 2012

This six-part, three-hour, BBC TV series aired in 1997. I presented and co-wrote the series; it was directed by James Muncie, with music by Brian Eno.

The series was based on my 1994 book, HOW BUILDINGS LEARN: What Happens After They’re Built. The book is still selling well and is used as a text in some college courses. Most of the 27 reviews on Amazon treat it as a book about system and software design, which tells me that architects are not as alert as computer people. But I knew that; that’s part of why I wrote the book.

Anybody is welcome to use anything from this series in any way they like. Please don’t bug me with requests for permission. Hack away. Do credit the BBC, who put considerable time and talent into the project.

Historic note: this was one of the first television productions made entirely in digital — shot digital, edited digital. The project wound up with not enough money, so digital was the workaround. The camera was so small that we seldom had to ask permission to shoot; everybody thought we were tourists. No film or sound crew. Everything technical on site was done by editors, writers, directors. That’s why the sound is a little sketchy, but there’s also some direct perception in the filming that is unusual.

August 26, 2015

How Buildings Learn – Stewart Brand – 5 of 6 – “The Romance of Maintenance”

Filed under: Randomness, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 10 Jun 2012

This six-part, three-hour, BBC TV series aired in 1997. I presented and co-wrote the series; it was directed by James Muncie, with music by Brian Eno.

The series was based on my 1994 book, HOW BUILDINGS LEARN: What Happens After They’re Built. The book is still selling well and is used as a text in some college courses. Most of the 27 reviews on Amazon treat it as a book about system and software design, which tells me that architects are not as alert as computer people. But I knew that; that’s part of why I wrote the book.

Anybody is welcome to use anything from this series in any way they like. Please don’t bug me with requests for permission. Hack away. Do credit the BBC, who put considerable time and talent into the project.

Historic note: this was one of the first television productions made entirely in digital — shot digital, edited digital. The project wound up with not enough money, so digital was the workaround. The camera was so small that we seldom had to ask permission to shoot; everybody thought we were tourists. No film or sound crew. Everything technical on site was done by editors, writers, directors. That’s why the sound is a little sketchy, but there’s also some direct perception in the filming that is unusual.

August 20, 2015

How Buildings Learn – Stewart Brand – 4 of 6 – “Unreal Estate”

Filed under: Randomness, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 10 Jun 2012

This six-part, three-hour, BBC TV series aired in 1997. I presented and co-wrote the series; it was directed by James Muncie, with music by Brian Eno.

The series was based on my 1994 book, HOW BUILDINGS LEARN: What Happens After They’re Built. The book is still selling well and is used as a text in some college courses. Most of the 27 reviews on Amazon treat it as a book about system and software design, which tells me that architects are not as alert as computer people. But I knew that; that’s part of why I wrote the book.

Anybody is welcome to use anything from this series in any way they like. Please don’t bug me with requests for permission. Hack away. Do credit the BBC, who put considerable time and talent into the project.

Historic note: this was one of the first television productions made entirely in digital— shot digital, edited digital. The project wound up with not enough money, so digital was the workaround. The camera was so small that we seldom had to ask permission to shoot; everybody thought we were tourists. No film or sound crew. Everything technical on site was done by editors, writers, directors. That’s why the sound is a little sketchy, but there’s also some direct perception in the filming that is unusual.

August 12, 2015

How Buildings Learn – Stewart Brand – 3 of 6 – “Built for Change”

Filed under: Randomness, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 10 Jun 2012

This six-part, three-hour, BBC TV series aired in 1997. I presented and co-wrote the series; it was directed by James Muncie, with music by Brian Eno.

The series was based on my 1994 book, HOW BUILDINGS LEARN: What Happens After They’re Built. The book is still selling well and is used as a text in some college courses. Most of the 27 reviews on Amazon treat it as a book about system and software design, which tells me that architects are not as alert as computer people. But I knew that; that’s part of why I wrote the book.

Anybody is welcome to use anything from this series in any way they like. Please don’t bug me with requests for permission. Hack away. Do credit the BBC, who put considerable time and talent into the project.

Historic note: this was one of the first television productions made entirely in digital — shot digital, edited digital. The project wound up with not enough money, so digital was the workaround. The camera was so small that we seldom had to ask permission to shoot; everybody thought we were tourists. No film or sound crew. Everything technical on site was done by editors, writers, directors. That’s why the sound is a little sketchy, but there’s also some direct perception in the filming that is unusual.

August 5, 2015

How Buildings Learn – Stewart Brand – 2 of 6 – “The Low Road”

Filed under: Randomness, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 10 Jun 2012

This six-part, three-hour, BBC TV series aired in 1997. I presented and co-wrote the series; it was directed by James Muncie, with music by Brian Eno.

The series was based on my 1994 book, HOW BUILDINGS LEARN: What Happens After They’re Built. The book is still selling well and is used as a text in some college courses. Most of the 27 reviews on Amazon treat it as a book about system and software design, which tells me that architects are not as alert as computer people. But I knew that; that’s part of why I wrote the book.

Anybody is welcome to use anything from this series in any way they like. Please don’t bug me with requests for permission. Hack away. Do credit the BBC, who put considerable time and talent into the project.

Historic note: this was one of the first television productions made entirely in digital — shot digital, edited digital. The project wound up with not enough money, so digital was the workaround. The camera was so small that we seldom had to ask permission to shoot; everybody thought we were tourists. No film or sound crew. Everything technical on site was done by editors, writers, directors. That’s why the sound is a little sketchy, but there’s also some direct perception in the filming that is unusual.

July 29, 2015

How Buildings Learn – Stewart Brand – 1 of 6 – “Flow”

Filed under: Randomness, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 10 Jun 2012

This six-part, three-hour, BBC TV series aired in 1997. I presented and co-wrote the series; it was directed by James Muncie, with music by Brian Eno.

The series was based on my 1994 book, HOW BUILDINGS LEARN: What Happens After They’re Built. The book is still selling well and is used as a text in some college courses. Most of the 27 reviews on Amazon treat it as a book about system and software design, which tells me that architects are not as alert as computer people. But I knew that; that’s part of why I wrote the book.

Anybody is welcome to use anything from this series in any way they like. Please don’t bug me with requests for permission. Hack away. Do credit the BBC, who put considerable time and talent into the project.

Historic note: this was one of the first television productions made entirely in digital — shot digital, edited digital. The project wound up with not enough money, so digital was the workaround. The camera was so small that we seldom had to ask permission to shoot; everybody thought we were tourists. No film or sound crew. Everything technical on site was done by editors, writers, directors. That’s why the sound is a little sketchy, but there’s also some direct perception in the filming that is unusual.

April 26, 2015

Debunking the myths about the destruction of NYC’s Penn Station

Filed under: History, Railways, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

I admit up front that I’m a fan of railway architecture, so I readily followed along with the narrative that the wanton destruction of Penn Station in New York City was merely the most recent vandalic excess of the urban rejuvenation movement. Jim Epstein suggests that I was wrong:

Penn Station 1910In all the hoopla surrounding the 50th anniversary of New York’s Landmarks Preservation Act — Mayor Robert F. Wagner signed the legislation exactly a half century ago today — you’ll see plenty of photos of the old Penn Station taken around the time of its 1910 opening. These images depict the grand, light-filled main hall modeled after the Baths of Caracalla and the spectacular iron-and-glass train shed in its pristine state. Another series of photos shows the station being taken apart in the 1960s. In this set of images, the station looks like an ancient Roman palace; it’s as if the cranes pulling it apart are destroying the very bedrock of Western civilization.

“Seven-year-olds gasp…[when] we show them the old Penn Station,” Tara Kelly, the executive director of Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, told the New York Times at an event last week celebrating the law’s half-centennial.

Penn Station 1910-2Penn Station’s destruction in the mid-1960s was a call to arms for the landmarks movement, leading directly to the passage of the 1965 law. Preservationists trot out these photos capable of leaving second graders breathless to remind us of why we need a government-appointed commission to save our historic buildings from cold market logic.

But this narrative is as one-sided as those photos. Profit-driven developers left to their own devices value wonderful old buildings as much as the general public they serve, but the old Penn Station was a deeply flawed structure. It emphasized form over function, so it was never a particularly good train station. And New Yorkers didn’t care for it very much — when it was still around, at least. It’s easy to revere the dead.

March 29, 2015

A Tour through Imperial Rome, circa 320AD

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 12 May 2012

A project between Khan Academy and Rome Reborn – with Dr. Bernard Frischer

November 29, 2014

What happens when an artform becomes “too refined” for its audience

Filed under: History, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:36

Pretty much all forms of artistic expression above the tribal dance/folk art/cave painting level have had to depend on the patronage model to survive — well, not so much the art itself, but the artists. It must have been some kind of artistic revolution when a village was wealthy enough to have an artisan who had enough spare time to produce items of aesthetic value over and above the purely functional: there was now at least one worker who now depended on the taste (or greed) of others for the means of survival. With the development of larger communities, and the rise of a ruling class, the most skilled artisans would eventually drift into a patronage relationship with the rulers, where the artisan (and eventually the true artist) was dependent upon producing their work strictly for the consumption of the wealthy and powerful. Jewellers were probably exceptions to the rule, as they could produce items of interest to many more in the community and at prices that allowed a much wider base of custom (even slaves and freedmen in the Roman empire could own and wear small pieces of jewellery, for example).

This was the basic pattern of art that lasted from the early settled villages down to the late middle ages: artists were unable to produce their work (and survive on the proceeds) without wealthy patrons. There were a few isolated examples of artists with multiple patrons (but still not really customers in the modern sense, as the patron had a lot more control over the artist’s work than a customer would). The idea of a self-supporting artist only became “a thing” around the time that the industrial revolution was also starting to become “a thing”.

The change from the patronage model to the customer model transferred much of the artistic control from Duke Cosmo the Munificent and his ilk to the artists themselves: now rather than being told how to use their skills and talents, they were now able to decide what to make and also to learn what would or would not sell from their customers. Many failed the test — we don’t have the “starving artist” meme for nothing — but enough of them succeeded that it became a viable lifestyle to paint or sculpt or compose for the wider community rather than the aristocracy (who as a group were still very important, but now as customers rather than as patrons in the original sense).

A problem for artists in dealing with wider audiences is that pretty much by definition, the artistic tastes of a larger number of people will not be “as refined” as those of a smaller, somewhat self-selected group. This means rather than doing the kind of cutting-edge work you think you should be doing, you have an economic incentive to produce for those less-refined tastes of the wider group: the most avant-garde stuff gets you the appreciation (or hatred) of fellow artists and critics, but might not be salable to the average prospective client. With rising prosperity in the western world as the industrial revolution took off, so did the absolute number of self-supporting artists. I’m sure the individual artists would say that artistically speaking, things didn’t improve that much, but as a whole both artists and the community at large benefitted from the wider availability of art and related works.

But, as Jonah Goldberg explained in one of his Goldberg File newsletters back in 2011, at some point the various artistic endeavours tended to start catering more or less exclusively to the critics and to fellow artists rather than to the community. That is usually the point that the artform loses its relevance to the wider community:

I once read somewhere that architecture is the best example of an “artistic” school that has completely broken with popular tastes. Architects certainly seem to design buildings to please each other and the critics and not the public. The average intelligent person goes to the Louvre in France and marvels at the beauty of the 17th-century buildings. The average architecture critic yawns at the musty old antiques and gushes over I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid. I don’t hate the glass pyramid (okay, maybe I do a little). But I don’t go to Paris to see a structure that I could see at a relatively upscale suburban mall. The phenomenon is even more pronounced when you look at modern architecture in more conventional businesses and houses. What’s more appealing to the eye, stately Wayne Manor or the Hall of Justice?

Still, I don’t know if architecture is the best example of the phenomenon. Modern art caters to popular tastes just as little as architecture. A great deal of performance and installation art strikes most normal people as a colossal joke or a straight-up con. And please don’t tell me that my failure to appreciate three squares and a triangle or a blob of paint on a canvas is my shortcoming. If something isn’t aesthetically pleasing or interesting, doesn’t require skills I do not have, and makes a stupid point stupidly, I don’t appreciate it as art. That doesn’t make me a philistine. It makes me a non-rube.

Anyway, it seems to me that the more a relatively artistic field of endeavor caters to critics over consumers, the worse it gets. You can see this all over the place, from haute cuisine to music. Some of my best friends in college were music majors, and they would ramble on about how Philip Glass is a genius. Maybe he is. But I’ll take Beethoven or the Beatles over him any day. I don’t follow the literary world too closely these days, but my impression is that the same is true in the world of fiction. If you write for the critics, only the critics will read you.

Academia certainly suffers from this problem. Visit the history section of a bookstore and you’ll find a fascinating disconnect between history books written by popular historians and those written by academic historians. In fact, you won’t find that many histories written by academic historians or for academic audiences. Arguably the most popular form of history is military history, but the academic establishment shuns the field almost entirely, preferring far more relevant topics like lesbian mores in antebellum Delaware 1856-1861.

Now, obviously this is a generalization. There’s good academic history, good modern art, good high-end food, and good modern architecture. But there are some really interesting things to noodle here. Interesting to me, at least.

First, I think people underestimate the importance of mass markets. When you become wholly disconnected from the metric of commercial success, catering wholly to elite micro-markets — like the eccentric rich and unknown critics — you become untethered from your culture and from quality. Iconoclastic shock and newness for their own sake become the standard, because that’s what will please the a-holes bored with the canon.

Of course, there are problems if you go completely in the opposite direction as well. Designers of Happy Meal toys don’t exactly strive for beauty or excellence.

But there’s one area of performance — broadly defined — where the performers are driven by excellence, are hugely popular and successful, and haven’t been captured by either the market or the critics.

A more recent example of an artform that stopped creating for their wider audience and started concentrating only on the tastes and interests of a tiny minority would be Jazz music.

About twenty years ago, I became interested in learning more about Jazz. I picked up a number of Jazz collections and discovered that I really enjoyed the progression from the 1930s and 40s big band sound to the smaller groups of the 1950s and 60s. And then ran into a musical wall that I was unable to penetrate as Jazz went in odd and unusual musical directions in the early to mid 1960s. I would characterize it as the Jazz greats stopped producing music for mainstream fans and started creating music for fellow musicians. I don’t know enough musical terminology to explain why I was unable to enjoy the later compositions and performances except that they stopped being “musical” and became “sound”. The rise of rock music almost exactly coincided with the retreat of Jazz from being literally “popular music” to a niche interest of self-consciously aesthetic listeners.

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