People who oppose Soviet-style collective farms, government subsidies to agriculture, or public ownership of grocery stores because they want the provision of food to be a private matter in the marketplace are generally not dismissed as uncivilized or uncaring. Hardly anyone would claim that one who holds such views is opposed to breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But people who oppose government funding of the arts are frequently accused of being heartless or uncultured. What follows is an adaptation of a letter I once wrote to a noted arts administrator who accused me of those very things. It articulates the case that art, like food, should rely on private, voluntary provision.
Thanks for sending me your thoughts lamenting cuts in arts funding by state and federal governments. In my mind, however, the fact that the arts are wildly buffeted by political winds is actually a powerful case against government funding. I’ve always believed that art is too important to depend on politics, too critical to be undermined by politicization. Furthermore, expecting government to pay the bill for it is a cop-out, a serious erosion of personal responsibility and respect for private property.
Those “studies” that purport to show X return on Y amount of government investment in the arts are generally a laughingstock among economists. The numbers are often cooked and are almost never put alongside competing uses of public money for comparison. Moreover, a purely dollars-and-cents return — even if accurate — is a small part of the total picture.
The fact is, virtually every interest group with a claim on the treasury argues that spending for its projects produces some magical “multiplier” effect. Routing other people’s money through the government alchemy machine is supposed to somehow magnify national wealth and income, while leaving it in the pockets of those who earned it is somehow a drag. Assuming for a moment that such preposterous claims are correct, wouldn’t it make sense from a purely material perspective to calculate the “average” multiplier and then route all income through the government? Don’t they do something like that in Cuba and North Korea? What happened to the multiplier in those places? It looks to me that somewhere along the way it became a divisor.
Lawrence W. Reed, “#34 – ‘Government Must Subsidize the Arts'”, The Freeman, 2014-12-05.
January 30, 2016
January 19, 2016
Matt Ridley on the legacy of Capability Brown:
Next year marks the 300th birthday of Lancelot Brown at Kirkharle, in Northumberland, the man who saw “capability” in every landscape and indefatigably transformed England. In his 280 commissions, Capability Brown stamped his mark on some 120,000 acres, tearing out walls, canals, avenues, topiary and terraces to bring open parkland, with grassy tree-topped hills and glimpses of sinuous, serpentine lakes, right up to the ha-has of country houses.
Brown was not the first to design informal and semi-naturalistic landscapes: he followed Charles Bridgeman and William Kent. But he was by far the most prolific and influential. His is a type of landscape that is now imitated in parks all round the world, from Dubai to Sydney to Europe: it’s known as “jardin anglais” and was admired by Catherine the Great and Thomas Jefferson.
Frederick Law Olmsted laid out Central Park in New York in conscious emulation of Brown — as John Nash did with St James’s Park (Hyde Park is by Bridgeman). Golf courses nearly always pay unconscious homage to Brown. There is something deeply pleasing about a view of rolling grassland punctuated with clumps of low-branching trees and glimpses of distant water.
Mountains may have more majesty, forests more fear, deserts more danger, townscapes more detail, fields more fruitfulness, formal gardens more symmetry — but it is the informal English parkland of Capability Brown that you would choose for a picnic, or for a visit with a potential lover. It feels natural.
And yet of course it is wholly contrived. One of Tom Stoppard’s characters explains to another in his play Arcadia, as they contemplate the view of a park from a country house:
BERNARD: Lovely. The real England.
HANNAH: You can stop being silly now, Bernard. English landscape was invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors. The whole thing was brought home in the luggage from the grand tour. Here, look — Capability Brown doing Claude, who was doing Virgil. Arcadia!
Hannah’s right. Claude Lorrain’s paintings of scenes from Virgil were all the rage in the 1730s. By the 1740s, when Brown started work at Stowe under William Kent, prints of 44 of Claude’s landscapes were on sale in London. The landscape at Stourhead (not by Brown), with its Grecian temples seen across lakes, is little more than a copy of Claude’s Aeneas at Delos. Kent’s genius, inspired by Lord Burlington and Alexander Pope, was to supply this craving for classical rural Arcadia.
The satirist Richard Cambridge joked that he wanted to die before Capability Brown so that he could see heaven before it was “improved”. In 2016 — the date of Brown’s birth is unknown; we have only the date of his baptism, August 30 — I shall raise a glass to a humbly born county boy, who mixed Northumberland with the Serengeti to produce Arcadia and gave us the archetypical English landscape.
December 18, 2015
Grant McCracken responds to Clay Shirky’s “gift economy” notions:
In point of fact, the internet as a gift economy is an illusion. This domain is not funding itself. It is smuggling in the resources that sustain it, and to the extent that Shirky’s account helps conceal this market economy, he’s a smuggler too. This world cannot sustain itself without subventions. And to this extent it’s a lie.
Shirky insists that generalized reciprocity is the preferred modality. But is it?
[In the world of fan fic, there] is a “two worlds” view of creative acts. The world of money, where [established author, J.K.] Rowling lives, is the one where creators are paid for their work. Fan fiction authors by definition do not inhabit this world, and more important, they rarely aspire to inhabit it. Instead, they often choose to work in the world of affection, where the goal is to be recognized by others for doing something creative within a particular fictional universe. (p. 92)
Good and all, but, again, not quite of this world. A very bad situation, one that punishes creators and our culture, is held up as somehow exemplary. But of course reputation economies spring up, but we don’t have to choose. We can have both market and reputation economies. But it’s wrong surely, to make the latter a substitute for the former.
Shirky appears to be persuaded that it’s “ok” for creators to create without material reward. But I think it’s probably true that they are making the best of a bad situation. Recently, I was doing an interview with a young respondent. We were talking about her blog, a wonderful combination of imagination and mischief. I asked her if she was paid for this work and she said she was not. “Do you think you should be paid?” I asked.
She looked at me for a second to make sure I was serious about the question, thought for a moment and then, in a low voice and in a measured somewhat insistent way, said, “Yes, I think I should be paid.” There was something about her tone of voice that said, “Payment is what is supposed to happen when you do work as good as mine.”
Finally, I do not mean to be unpleasant or to indulge ad hominem attack, but I think there is something troubling about a man supported by academic salary, book sales, and speaking engagements telling Millennials how very fine it is that they occupy a gift economy which pays them, usually, nothing at all. I don’t say that Shirky has championed this inequity. But I don’t think it’s wrong to ask him to acknowledge it and to grapple with its implications.
The gift economy of the digital world is a mirage. It looks like a world of plenty. It is said to be a world of generosity. But on finer examination we discover results that are uneven and stunted. Worse, we discover a world where the good work goes without reward. The more gifted producers are denied the resources that would make them still better producers and our culture richer still.
What would people, mostly Millennials, do with small amounts of capital? What enterprises, what innovations would arise? How much culture would be created? I leave for another post the question of how we could install a market economy (or a tipping system) online. And I have to say I find it a little strange we don’t have one already. Surely the next (or the present) Jack Dorsey could invent this system. Surely some brands could treat this as a chance to endear themselves to content creators. Surely, there is an opportunity for Google. If it wants to save itself from the “big business” status now approaching like a freight train, the choice is clear. Create a system that allows us to reward the extraordinary efforts of people now producing some of the best artifacts in contemporary culture.
December 12, 2015
Richard Bledsoe on the similarities between the cargo cults of Pacific Islanders during and after the Second World War and the modern art scene:
Much of establishment contemporary art has become an inverted cargo cult.
The phenomenon of the cargo cult originally was observed when the primitive tribal societies of the South Pacific encountered the advanced cultures of the West. It reached a pitch of religious fervor after World War II.
The industrial manufactured items of the newcomers amazed the remote villagers of islands like New Guinea and Tanna. The strangers from over the sea brought with them riches in the form of machines and goods — airplanes, tools, medicines, canned food, radios and the like — made from materials incomprehensible to what were practically Stone Age people. The tribes decided surely such wonderful items must be made by the gods.
As battles raged in the Pacific, the indigenous populations observed the soldiers at work: marching around in uniforms, clearing runways, talking on radios. In response the planes arrived, seemingly from heaven, bringing to the islands the massive quantities of materials needed for the war effort. To the natives who got to share some of the magical items, this treasure — the technological output of developed nations — came to be referred to collectively by the pidgin word cargo.
But when the war ended, the soldiers left. The flow of magic cargo ceased. The tribesmen had lost access to the gifts from the gods.
The abandoned natives developed a plan to get back into divine favor. Having no frame of reference for the ways of the modern world, they interpreted the activities of construction and communications the visitors performed as forms of ritual. The tribesmen would reenact the rites they had seen the foreigners perform, recreate their ceremonial objects. This would please the gods, who would start delivering the cargo again — but this time, to the natives.
The islanders designed outfits based on military uniforms. They drilled in cadence, carrying rifles of bamboo. They built wooden aerials, constructed mock radios, clearing landing strips in the jungle, placed decoy planes of straw on them. And waited.
To our rational minds this is preposterous. We understand the uselessness of evoking the facade of a machine without the necessary functionalities being incorporated into it. What matters is the inner workings, not the appearance.
And yet, a form of this magical thinking has infected contemporary art. The subservience of art to political issues derails the purpose of the artist. The prevalent dogma interferes with the discovery of a personal artistic vision. So contemporary artists attempt to imitate their way into a valid artistic experience.
In a stunning reversal, in our advanced technological society, artists uncomprehendingly recreate inferior approximations, parodying the objects and gestures of the past and the primitive, trying in vain to summon the sense of awe and wholeness present in the art of bygone ages. By mimicking and mocking the outer forms of the originators, the artists hope the gods will arrive bearing their eternal gifts — that these snotty knock offs will also rise to the level of art.
November 3, 2015
… liberal-arts programs have been ailing for decades. The humane thing would be to let them die with whatever modicum of dignity they have left.
My purpose in this essay is not to defend (or attack) “the arts” (the aaaaahts, in my plummiest fake English accent). The arts don’t need defending (or attacking), and even if they did, there are lots of thick books written by people who are far smarter than me making the case. This essay is, instead, a broadside against university humanities departments, which are mostly terrible and not really worth rescuing.
We don’t need university liberal arts programs to expose us to culture. Want some culture in your life? Hit YouTube and you can get all the culture you can choke down, for free. Art, music, dance, guided tours of great museums. Literature? The local library might still have a few books lying around if it hasn’t given itself over completely to being a day-care facility for the homeless. Amazon will sell you any book you want, from The Pilgrim’s Progress to The Brothers Karamazov to The Vagina Monologues and deliver it to your portable reading device in a matter of seconds. Amazon will also sell you a Blu-Ray of any opera or great film you want, and have it delivered right to your door by the next day. (Or stream it right to your TV, iPad, or smartphone.) Embarrassed for funds? You can download tens of thousands of public-domain books, films, and pieces of music for free from a variety of sources. In short, art has been transformed from a luxury good to a commodity good.
“But wait!” the academics cry. “Who’s going to teach you how to understand all this stuff? How to interpret it? How to uncover all the subtleties and meanings in it?”
In this response you get two fallacies for the price of one: that the average citizen requires someone to perform this task, and that universities are capable of performing it even if it were necessary.
Monty, “DOOM (culturally speaking)”, Ace of Spades H.Q., 2014-10-28.
October 31, 2015
Ages are marked by their paranoias and despairs, and we see those paranoias and despairs in the art an age produces. What we dread in earnest we enjoy in fantasy.
After Watergate, there were a series of very paranoid and nihilistic films — The Parallax View, Capricorn One, The Conversation on the paranoid end; then all the violent ones about a growing nihilism in the world — Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and so on.
Cultural observers had no problem pointing directly at Watergate (and the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr.) to explain the paranoia, and nor were they so blind as to not notice the decay and malaise (and rising tide of bloody crime) of the seventies were responsible for the various violent retribution films.
Since 9/11, we faced a lot of movies about cataclysm and the end of the world. It’s easy enough to see that connection.
But the Age of Obama has not produced any uplift, nor any respite from the current preoccupation of people with the End Times. As a non-religious person, I don’t mean this literally (though many may), but it is impossible not to note the idea of Apocalypse and Cataclysm is in the air.
Look at the number of zombie films and zombie TV shows — as obvious a metaphor for decay and rot as can be imagined. Or the still-doing-bonzo-business cataclysm fantasies. Even the latest Man of Steel was about cataclysm.
And now add into that the large number of paranoid, rotten dystopia movies.
If the Age of Obama is so swell, if we’re all filled with Hope, why is this age not producing the spate of feel-good, have-fun, get-rich movies the 80s did?
Why are our collective fantasies in the Age of Obama so single-mindedly focused on the idea of dystopia, cultural decay, and ultimately cultural destruction?
Whether liberal cultural critics want to admit it or not — and they seem very much to not want to admit it, because this is so obvious it’s painful, and yet they fail to make this obvious connection — the Obama years are years of economic want, emotional depression, and spiritual chaos, at least as reflected by entertainments resolutely focusing on the end-times and the wretched dystopias that arise after the End Times, when civilization is dead but just hasn’t stopped moving yet.
The Leftovers, The Returned, Revolution, the Walking Dead not only being a top-rated show, but spawning a top-rated spin-off — I dare anyone to find any previous moment in American history, including in the years of paranoia after Watergate, in which our fantasies have been so dark, depressive, anxious and foreboding.
This is all very obvious. The people in Hollywood turning out one cataclysm-and-dystopia entertainment after another surely sense this, as do the talentless idiots paid to comment on the culture at fluffy magazines like The Atlantic and New York and The New Yorker; and yet, another aspect of the Age of Obama — that one must never admit the horrible truth; one must always pretend it away, and give only praise to Dear Leader — keeps people from stating what is so obvious it’s increasingly uncomfortable to remain silent about it.
October 29, 2015
Of course not all liberal-arts professors think this way, and not all universities have become cultural wastelands. There are yet islands of excellence in the dead sea of mediocrity, meretriciousness and cultural Marxist rot.
Let us stipulate that there are excellent liberal-arts programs and professors out there. What value do they bring to students?
The usual answer is that a committed teacher can inculcate in a student a lifelong love of the subject matter, whether it be ancient Greek sculpture or medieval French poetry or American jazz music. However, this happens seldom enough to bring the whole axiom into question. It’s the whole “you can bring a horse to water but you can’t make him drink it” problem. You can make a class full of bored young people listen to Mahler and explain to them why you think it’s wonderful, but the point is to convince them that it’s wonderful (or at least worth “appreciating”). This is a much harder task, and one that not many college professors are particularly good at.
This is called the “arts appreciation racket”, and it goes back to the Romantic belief that exposing the hoi polloi to high art would make them more well-rounded people. Somehow. The belief has persisted in spite of mounds of evidence to the contrary. Forcing people to imbibe high art is like forcing a kid to eat broccoli — not only will the kid probably spit it out, he will probably develop a lasting dislike for it. Without context and some motivating purpose, high art simply doesn’t have much relevance for most people.
This is not an inherently bad thing. “High art” has never really been aimed at or intended for a mass audience. The whole notion of “high art” implies a kind of elitism, as a calculus equation is elitist (if you don’t know calculus, the equation will not yield its meaning). The creation and consumption of high art requires a level of literacy, wealth, and leisure that until recently not many people had. But now we live in an age when the jewels of world culture can be had for almost nothing, immediately, anywhere. The limiting factor is no longer literacy, or wealth, or leisure time, but rather motivation. All prerequisites have been removed except the “Why?”. Why spend time listening to a Mozart concerto? Why attend a Wagner opera or study a Turner painting or look up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? The problem with University liberal-arts programs is that they can only give you their “Why?”, not your own “Why?”.
Monty, “DOOM (culturally speaking)”, Ace of Spades H.Q., 2014-10-28.
October 13, 2015
Published on 12 Oct 2015
Otto Dix was a German artist known for his unforgiving depiction of the Great War and the society of Weimar Republic. His works in the series Der Krieg (The War) are among the most well known depictions of the horrors of war. Together with George Grosz and Max Beckmann, he is considered one of the most important artists of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity).
September 25, 2015
Published on 3 Sep 2015
When do artists sell out and when do they keep their artistic integrity?
August 31, 2015
Two exhibitions in New York this season revisit memories of futures past: Nam June Paik’s “Becoming Robot” (which will be at the Asia Society until January 4) looks to a cybernetics-obsessed midcentury avant-garde, while the Guggenheim’s “Reconstructing the Universe” show of Italian futurist works (which has just closed) documented a movement that, while aesthetically quite distinct from Paik’s, is organized around the same essential vision: man’s aspiring to the condition of machine.
There are occasionally clever pieces: A seated Buddha contemplates a television-and-camera set-up that contemplates him back, the Buddha and his image on the screen suggesting an infinite feedback loop. A reclining Buddha stretches atop two television screens showing a video of a nude woman reclining in the same position. (Paik very often cuts to the root of the avant-garde sensibility: “How do we get some naked chicks in this?”) His robots are still interesting to look at, some of them primitive mechanical assemblages, some of them televisions and other electronic devices piled together anthropomorphically, though the contemporary commercially made robot toys on display for context are at least as interesting, their nameless creators liberated from such pressures as attend those who understand themselves as artists. Though it should be noted that the makers of the Micronaut robot toys I loved as a child were not entirely immune from the puerile sexual obsessions of the so-called avant-garde: This, for example, was on the market long before anybody ever exclaimed: “Drill, baby, drill!”
The Italian futurists, whose love for machines and violence and the machinery of violence and whose hatred of women would do so much to shape the aesthetics of fascism, foresaw a less sexy future than Paik’s, if one that was no less mechanical: Biplanes soar over the Roman Colosseum, cities are fitted together like clockworks, machinery everywhere is ascendant. By the time Mussolini makes his inevitable appearance, he, too, has been reduced to a piece of artillery, his face simply another item in the Italian arsenal, a big, fleshy cannonball.
One of the purposes of art, high or low, is to make visible the philosophical; the fascist understanding of society as one big factory or one big machine was expressed in futurist art.
Kevin D. Williamson, “Futures Trading: We are no longer thinking about the future because we believe we are there”, National Review, 2014-10-01.
August 18, 2015
Published on 17 Aug 2015
The beginning of the 20th century saw rapid changes to the understanding of the fine arts and the First World War was a big catalyst for all the new art movements of Modernity like Cubism, Expressionism or Impressionism. Countless painters like Otto Dix or Max Beckmann used their paintings to process the horrors they had lived through. Before this war, paintings used to glorify soldiers and generals, but the new schools of art couldn’t be further from that and so it is no wonder that the Nazis displayed a lot of World War 1 paintings in their exhibition of degenerate art (“Entartete Kunst“) before World War 2.
August 11, 2015
John Seed forces some great artists of the past to describe their work as if they were modern artists:
“If the great European artists of the past were alive today, what kinds of statements would they need to write to explain and justify their work?”
This summer I asked myself that question over two dozen times for a small, humor book that I have been developing. I hope you will find the sampling of seven statements below funny and even a bit poetic. Five of them were written specifically for Hyperallergic and two are from my new book.
H/T to Never Yet Melted for the link.
July 22, 2015
Published on 9 Jun 2015
“What does it take to revive a masterwork?” Michael Gallagher on conserving Charles Le Brun’s Everhard Jabach and His Family
Charles Le Brun (French, 1619–1690). Everhard Jabach (1618–1695) and His Family, ca. 1660. Oil on canvas; 110 1/4 x 129 1/8 in. (280 x 328 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Mrs. Charles Wrightsman Gift, in honor of Keith Christiansen, 2014 (2014.250)
H/T to Open Culture:
Long considered lost, the life-size family portrait of the artist’s friend, a leading banker and art collector, was in sorry shape when the Metropolitan Museum acquired it from a private collection earlier last year.
Gallagher worked for ten months to counteract the various indignities it had suffered, including a re-stretching that left the original canvas severely creased, and a Gilded Age application of varnish that weathered poorly over time.
It’s a painstaking process, restoring such a work to its original glory, requiring countless Q-tips and a giant roller that allowed staffers to safely flip all 9 x 10.75 feet of the massive canvas. Gallagher identifies the last step, a sprayed-on coat of varnish necessary for teasing out the painting’s original luster, as the most nerve-wracking part of the odyssey.
July 15, 2015
Kit Wilson examines the state of western thought and belief:
Consider the main philosophical movements of the 20th century. The majority followed the fearsome footsteps of Friedrich Nietzsche — the man who killed God and buried good and evil at His side. And though they grappled with his legacy in a variety of ways, they shared, more or less, the same key assumption: that the traditional pursuits of thought — truth, beauty, meaning — were fundamentally misguided. Philosophy, unable to comment on the world, turned instead to — and on — itself. “Having broken its pledge to be at one with reality,” Theodor Adorno wrote, “philosophy is obliged to ruthlessly criticise itself.”
At the same time, positivism — the belief that only empirical or logically deduced data have any real meaning — took hold among many of the West’s intellectual circles. A.J. Ayer and Bertrand Russell declared that, if we were ever to understand ourselves, it would be by scientific means alone. Cultural memory, which could not be reduced to testable propositions, was made entirely superfluous.
Wherever one looked, the West seemed to be in the midst of a curious experiment: can a civilisation survive on nothing but the impulse to debunk its own presuppositions?
Adorno and his co-author Max Horkheimer tried to tackle this question in Dialectic of Enlightenment. A bleak assessment of Western culture, it argued that modernism, nihilism and reductionism were symptoms of the same fundamental malady — the suicide of Enlightenment thinking. Our insatiable appetite for self-criticism, the monstrous alter ego of philosophical scepticism, was finally gnawing at the very foundations on which we stood.
Adorno and Horkheimer thought it unlikely we would survive, and predicted three historical steps that would see us collapse altogether. High culture — including art — would exhaust itself, taking with it any sense of a shared inheritance. Second, we would lapse into infantile solipsism, duped by the immediate gratifications of capitalism — in particular, cinema and popular music. Finally, society — stupefied by such pleasures — would topple at the first serious test of its walls. Adorno and Horkheimer saw a host of surrogate mythologies — most notably, Nazism — poised to flood into the vacuum left behind.
This final point seemed borne out by the events of the 1930s and 1940s. But then, as the war receded into the past, much of the West suddenly found itself reclining into an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity. To the baby boomers, Adorno and Horkheimer’s stuffy pessimism seemed laughably outmoded. And today, we assume — having never known any different — that this good fortune is simply here to stay. At a time of such global instability — with Putin and Islamism openly challenging our values — we urgently need to reconsider our confidence. Were the last 70 years really the final disproof of Adorno and Horkheimer’s pessimism, or did history merely postpone its judgment?
Let us begin with the charge of Western infantilism. Here, at least, Adorno and Horkheimer seem to have been rather prescient. The West is — for all its wealth today — far more childish than even they anticipated. This can be traced — I believe — to the reductionist narratives we adopted as our mantras during the last century.
May 19, 2015
I should say I’m no free-speech absolutist. I think the notion that we should treat pole dancing like constitutionally protected speech while we try to ban actual political speech is just one of the loopiest manifestations of our popular confusion over the First Amendment. In fact, government support for the arts doesn’t offend me in theory, it’s just how they do it in practice that bothers me.
Specifically, I cannot stand the way New Class bureaucrats think they must be autonomous from the taxpayers who pay their salaries. Imagine if we lived in anything like the “Christianist” theocracy so many lefties live in quaking fear of. Evangelical bureaucrats would likely fund art they liked. The professional Bohemians would shriek — with some justification — that the state was imposing its values on the rest of us. But when those same people are in driving the gravy train, they think there’s nothing wrong — and everything right — with imposing their values.
Of course, this is a problem that extends far beyond outposts like the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Public teachers’ unions and ed-school priests hate the idea that parents and other taxpayers should have a real say in how education money is spent. Bureaucrats in general have become a kind of secular aristocracy that resents second-guessing by the people who fund their will-to-power.
When voters say that bureaucrats shouldn’t spend money on X, the bureaucrats shriek “censorship!” But it is only the equivalent of censorship if you work from the assumption that it’s all the government’s money anyhow. As Bill Clinton once said about the federal surplus, “We could give it all back to you and hope you spend it right.” But if we did, alas, not enough of you would spend it on urophagic art.
Jonah Goldberg, “Bureaucrats Use Taxpayer Money to Subsidize Their Own Values — and No One Else’s”, National Review, 2015-05-09.