Quotulatiousness

July 22, 2015

MetCollects—Episode 14: Michael Gallagher on “Everhard Jabach and His Family”

Filed under: Europe,History — Tags: — Nicholas @ 02:00

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

The onrushing infantilization of the West

Filed under: History,Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

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

QotD: The iron law of bureaucrats

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

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.

May 2, 2015

QotD: The nihilism of modern art

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

One of my earliest blog essays (Terror Becomes Bad Art) was about Luke Helder, the pipe-bombing “artist” who created a brief scare back in 2002. Arguably more disturbing than Helder’s “art” was the fact that he genuinely thought it was art, because none of the supposed artists or arts educators he was in contact with had ever taught him any better and his own talent was not sufficient to carry him beyond their limits.

I am not the first to observe that something deeply sick and dysfunctional happened to the relationship between art, popular culture, and technology during the crazy century we’ve just exited. Tom Wolfe made the point in The Painted Word and expanded on it in From Bauhaus To Our House. Frederick Turner expanded the indictment in a Wilson Quarterly essay on neoclassicism which, alas, seems not to be available on line.

If we judge by what the critical establishment promotes as “great art”, most of today’s artists are bad jokes. The road from Andy Warhol’s soup cans to Damien Hirst’s cows in formaldehyde has been neither pretty nor edifying. Most of “fine art” has become a moral, intellectual, and esthetic wasteland in which whatever was originally healthy in the early-modern impulse to break the boundaries of received forms has degraded into a kind of numbed-out nihilism.

[…]

To see these craft objects, unashamedly made for money (that’ll be $40 extra for molecular-surface etching, thank you), is to have your nose rubbed in the desperate poverty of most modern art, to be reminded of the vacuum at its core and the pathetic Luke Helders that the vacuum spawns. It’s a poverty of meaning, a parochialism that insists that the only interesting things in the universe are the artist’s own psychological and political quirks.

Bathsheba Grossman’s art reminds us that exploration of the narrow confines of an artist’s head is a poor substitute for artistic exploration of the universe. It reminds us that what the artist owes his audience is beauty and discovery and a sense of connection, not alienation and ugliness and neurosis and political ax-grinding.

Forgetting this value rotted the core out of the fine arts and literary fiction of the 20th century. We can hope, though, that artists like her and Arthur Ganson will show the way forward to remembering it. Only in that way will the unhealthy chasm between popular and fine art be healed, and fine art be restored to a healthy and organic relationship with culture as a whole.

Eric S. Raymond, “The Art of Science”, Armed and Dangerous, 2004-09-21.

April 30, 2015

When Dungeons and Dragons met LEGO

Filed under: Gaming,Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 05:00

A picture really can convey a thousand words:

Lego version of 1977 D and D box

I’ve often contend that three of the most significant influences on my adolescent years were: LEGO building, computer programming, and playing Dungeons & Dragons. With this latest mosaic project, I more or less bring all of those things together (the LEGO and D&D are obvious, while behind the scenes I have the software program I wrote to help me map out the whole mural).

For those not quite as nerdy as myself, here’s the background on this image. It is the cover to the boxed set of the 1977 version on the game Dungeons & Dragons. This was the first version of the game released as the “Basic” set. It was the first set that my brother and I owned and played with. Obviously, the countless hours I spent reading the rulebook and perusing the illustrations made a pretty big impression on me. In fact, I still run a Basic D&D campaign semi-regularly using this very set.

April 19, 2015

When comics met “pedantic didacticism”

Filed under: Media,Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

I haven’t read comics since I was a young teen, so I really have no idea what the current state of the comic industry might be. I didn’t expect the rise of pedantic didacticism, however:

I would like to expand upon the point that seems to have annoyed her the most: Bitch Planet is really, really dreadful, you guys.

I’ll confess: I only read the first issue. I can’t imagine purchasing another issue, except maybe to see how dumb the series gets. (That might actually be kind of a fun monthly feature, now that I think about it.) Of the recommendations I received at Fantom Comics, this was by far the most disappointing. Unintentionally hilarious, sure. But disappointing nevertheless.

As I noted in the Post, it’s a comic about women who are sent to an intergalactic prison because they’re uppity. One of the women is then murdered while in this prison so her husband can marry a younger, hotter woman. Because patriarchy!

What I didn’t really get into was the essay at the end of the book by Danielle Henderson,* which drives home all of the lessons from the previous 20-or-so pages.

    No matter how many examples of misogyny I provided, no matter how many times we talked about gender being a social construct, or how many times I asked them to question what, precisely, was natural about male leadership other than the fact that they said it was natural, one person always held out, one person refused to believe that women were culturally oppressed. … The striking thing about Bitch Planet is that we’re already on it. We don’t have to get thrown on a shuttle to be judged non-compliant—be a little overweight, talk too loud, have an opinion on the Internet.

This is a bit like following up John Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged with a chapter-long discourse from a Cato fellow about the evils of government handouts. Or like letting Benny Hinn preach over the credits at the end of Heaven Is for Real. Or like including an essay from Chuck Norris on American exceptionalism in the liner notes of Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue.” God we get it.

Frankly, I was being nice by sticking to “pedantic didacticism.” As my friend Jonathan V. Last, a relatively avid collector of comics, said when I emailed him,

    Bitch Planet is so obvious and on the nose I was actually angry at myself for spending money on it. The least artful piece of fiction I’ve read in years.

And that’s the rub: there’s just no art to being a pedantic bore. I’m certainly not arguing that art should be devoid of politics. Just that it should be done interestingly.

April 18, 2015

QotD: The danger of the “deadly genius” in art

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

There are entire genres of art that have self-destructed in the last hundred years — become drained of vitality, driven their audiences away to the point where they become nothing more than museum exhibits or hobby-horses for snobs and antiquarians.

The three most obvious examples are painting, the literary novel and classical music. After about 1910 all three of these art forms determinedly severed the connections with popular culture that had made them relevant over the previous 250 years. Their departure left vacuums to be filled; we got modern genre literature, rock music, and art photography.

Other art forms underwent near-death experiences and survived only in severely compromised forms. Jazz, running away from its roots in honky tonks and dance halls, all but strangled on its own sophistication between 1960 and 1980; it survives today primarily as smoothed-out elevator music. Sculpture, having spent a century losing itself in increasingly meaningless abstraction, is only now feeling its way back towards a figurative vocabulary; the most interesting action there is not yet in the revival of mimetic forms but in artists who speak the vocabulary of mathematics and machine technology.

What makes an art-form self-destruct like this? Many things can contribute — hankerings for bourgeois respectability, corruption by politics, clumsy response to a competing genre. But the one we see over and over again is deadly genius.

A deadly genius is a talent so impressive that he can break and remake all the rules of the form, and seduce others into trying to emulate his disruptive brilliance — even when those followers lack the raw ability or grounding to make art in the new idiom the the genius has defined.

Arnold Schoenberg (classical music). James Joyce (literary novels). John Coltrane (jazz). Pablo Picasso (painting). Konstantin Brancusi (sculpture). These men had the knack of inventing radical new forms that made the preexisting conventions of their arts seem stale and outworn. They produced works of brilliance, taught their followers to value disruptive brillance over tradition, and in doing so all but destroyed their arts.

Eric S. Raymond, “Deadly Genius and the Back-To-Zero Problem”, Armed and Dangerous, 2004-09-24.

April 4, 2015

Canadian schools

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Cancon — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

David Warren is hiding from reality at the moment, so he’s reposting some of his older articles, like this one:

… I was parachuted briefly into a Canadian public school, from my earlier life in Asia (and before returning to Asia again). Canadian school came as a shock; quite unlike what I was used to. I had difficulty at first adapting to the sudden disappearance of anything resembling academic standards. Later, parachuted again, I was better prepared for life in the perpetual kindergarten. I found myself in something called a “high school,” with a curriculum that seemed especially designed for children with learning disabilities. Oddly, it considered itself to be an elite high school, which perhaps it was by Canadian standards. I bid my time until age sixteen, when I could legally drop out. For in my humble but unalterable opinion, these public “schools” are great crushers of the human spirit. No responsible parent will allow a child to be exposed to them. Ditto, no aspiring teacher should work in one, even if the alternative is starvation. The administrators should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity.

[…]

So far as I can see the purpose of the Canadian education system, or modern public education in general, is to suppress curiosity and enterprise in children; to cripple them morally, aesthetically, and intellectually; and make them identical on a bed of Procrustes. Hilda Neatby spelt this out in her remarkable survey, So Little for the Mind, published at Toronto in 1953. One must read it to realize that the demonic ideas of John Dewey, the American “philosopher of democratic education,” had already far advanced in Canadian schools by that year; and that as a result, standards once achieved and maintained through the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth century, had already collapsed. It is a myth they collapsed in the 1960s. Look at the schoolbooks for the Province of Ontario from that earlier period, and compare them with those introduced after the Second World War (we once did this for an article in the Idler magazine). The declination is obvious. The hippie generation was not the cause of this catastrophe. They were instead the effect.

March 24, 2015

Everything’s Awesome and Camille Paglia is Unhappy!

Filed under: Liberty,Media,Politics,USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 19 Mar 2015

Growing up as “a gender nonconforming entity” during Eisenhower’s America wasn’t easy for cultural critic and best-selling author Camille Paglia. Her adolescence in small-town, upstate New York was marked by rejection, rebellion, and cross-dressing—all in reaction to the stultifying social norms of the 1950s and early ’60s.

So what does Paglia think of contemporary culture, with its openness to a wide variety of ever-proliferating gender, racial, and sexual identities?

Not much.

“I do not feel that gender is sufficient to explain all of human life,” Paglia tells Reason TV‘s Nick Gillespie. “This gender myopia, this gender monomania, has become a disease. It’s become a substitute for religion. It is impossible that the feminist agenda can ever be the total explanation of human life.”

Whether the subject is feminism or the fate of Western civilization, Paglia is no Pollyanna. In this wide-ranging discussion, she says higher education is going to hell, the Fourth Estate is an epic FAIL, millennials are myopic, contemporary criticism has croaked, and Hillary Clinton might singlehandedly destroy the universe. Even Madonna, once Paglia’s ideal of sex-positive feminism, seems to have lost her way.

Does the celebrated author of Sexual Personae and Break Blow Burn have any reason to get out of bed in the morning? Does she have any hope for the universe at all? Watch the video to find out.

March 6, 2015

ISIS takes sledgehammers and drills to ancient artifacts

Filed under: History,Middle East,Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

This makes me sick to my stomach:

ISIS destroys archaeological works 1

ISIS destroys archaeological works 2

ISIS destroys archaeological works 3

ISIS destroys archaeological works 4

These images and many more are screencapped from a propaganda video released by ISIS, reported by Conflict Antiquities:

It is notable that the Islamic State released this propaganda, to assert their religious purity through their commitment to cultural destruction, immediately after the were exposed for making a deal with Turkey and not destroying Suleyman Shah’s tomb.

Last June, it was rumoured and mistakenly reported that the Islamic State had ‘destroyed ancient masterpieces, including the rare Assyrian winged bull’ at Nineveh Museum. This time, they’ve done it — at Mosul Museum and the Nergal Gate to Nineveh [the Nergal Gate Museum at Nineveh]. You can stream or download the mp4 (or watch it on YouTube/YouTube archive).

But if, like other sensible people, you don’t want to boost the web traffic to their pornography of violence — which they try to advertise as Islamic although they also preserve “heretical”, “idolatrous” things as long as they profit from them — I’ve taken screenshots from the video for verification and analysis. Christopher Jones, at the Gates of Nineveh, has ongoing, historically-informed coverage of this and other destruction, including Assessing the Damage at the Mosul Museum, Part 1: the Assyrian Artifacts.

February 28, 2015

QotD: Equestrian statues

Filed under: Humour,Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

There is a lot of folklore about equestrian statues, especially the ones with riders on them. There is said to be a code in the number and placement of the horse’s hooves: If one of the horse’s hooves is in the air, the rider was wounded in battle; two legs in the air means that the rider was killed in battle; three legs in the air indicates that the rider got lost on the way to the battle; and four legs in the air means that the sculptor was very, very clever. Five legs in the air means that there’s probably at least one other horse standing behind the horse you’re looking at; and the rider lying on the ground with his horse lying on top of him with all four legs in the air means that the rider was either a very incompetent horseman or owned a very bad-tempered horse.

Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight, 2010.

January 18, 2015

Being an artist requires a fine sense of balance

Filed under: Humour,Randomness — Tags: — Nicholas @ 09:57

January 11, 2015

Images are the “lingua franca of politics”

Filed under: Media,Politics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Virginia Postrel explains why images are so important even in discussions of ordinary, everyday importance:

In an ideal world, political discourse would consist only of logical arguments backed by empirical evidence. Visual persuasion would have no place.

There would be no fireworks on the Fourth of July; no pictures of the president speaking from the Oval Office or grinning at children or greeting soldiers or reaching over the sneeze guard at Chipotle; no “Morning in America” or “Daisy” commercials; no “Hope” or “We Can Do It” posters; no peace signs or Vs for victory or Black Power salutes; no news photos of gay newlyweds kissing or crowds celebrating atop a crumbling Berlin wall or naturalized citizens waving little flags; no shots of napalmed girls running in terror or the Twin Towers aflame; no Migrant Mother or dreamy Che Guevara; no political cartoons, Internet memes, or Guy Fawkes masks; no “shining city on a hill” or “bridge to the future”; no Liberty Leading the People or Guernica or Washington Crossing the Delaware; no Statue of Liberty.

In this deliberative utopia, politics would be entirely rational, with no place for emotion and the propagandistic pictures that carry it. And we would all be better off.

At least that’s what a lot of smart people imagine.

It’s an understandable belief. Persuasive images are dangerous. They can obscure the real ramifications of political actions. Their meanings are imprecise and subject to interpretation. They cannot establish cause and effect or outline a coherent policy. They leave out crucial facts and unseen consequences. They reduce real people to stereotypes and caricatures. They oversimplify complicated situations. They can fuel moral panics, hysteria, and hate. They can lead to rash decisions. Their visceral power threatens to override our reason.

Yet images are so ubiquitous they’ve been called “the lingua franca of politics.”

January 1, 2015

Oh, yeah … Happy New Year (with apologies to Edward Hopper)

Filed under: Humour — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 12:25

New Year - Hopper style

H/T to Ego is a rat on the sinking ship of being.

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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