Tuesday, October 31, 2006

New York on a Minneapolis Budget

My friend Chris alerted me to this comparison of the cost of "lifestyle" in New York vs. Minneapolis from New York Magazine:
"Less quantifiable is the price of status, which tends to matter more in New York than elsewhere. You might be the best-dressed guy at a Minneapolis cocktail party rocking a Hugo Boss suit ($695) from Macy’s, but it might take a Thom Browne suit from Barneys ($4,330) to do the trick here. While these costs are difficult to measure, it is possible to calculate the added price of living in a city with the best of everything. Yes, we have better art, food, and entertainment, but you’ll pay a premium for access to it. Here, a side-by-side look at lifestyle purchases in Minneapolis—a city with a statistically average cost of living yet some semblance of a cultural life—and New York:"
And here, shamelessly cut and pasted is the aforementioned list:

Baseball tickets
Twins premium seats . . . . . $24
Yankee loge box seats . . . . . $50

Museum admission
Walker Art Center . . . . . . . . . $8
MoMA . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $20

Movie ticket
The Prestige, St. Anthony Main Theater . . $8
The Science of Sleep, BAM . . $10

Prix fixe dinner at top restaurant
La Belle Vie . . . . . $80 a person
Per Se. . . . . . . . . . $210 a person

Annual gym membership
Minneapolis Life Time Athletic Club . . $1,439.40
Equinox . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .$1,895

Marathon entry fees
Minneapolis . . . . . . . . . . . . . $85
New York . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $116

There are other factors as well. Like taxes: In the Twin Cities, I got a Renter's Credit, which was basically a property tax refund for apartment dwellers. It gave me about $1,000 a year. No such thing in NYC. Also, here in New York I pay an additional city income tax on top of the state and federal. No such thing back in the Twin Cities.

I liked to tell people back home that my Brooklyn studio apartment has half the space for twice the price of my Saint Paul pad. That's not totally accurate -- I had a great deal in St. Paul and my place here isn't that small. But yes, it costs way more and it isn't a one bedroom.

On the other hand, I sold my car. I pay $70 a month for an unlimited subway pass. I very rarely take cabs. The savings over gas, insurance, and general auto up-keep are high.

And think about how much I've saved over the years in both New York and Minnesota by not joining a gym. Unfortunately I make up for that in booze and bad living.

But is it really fair to say that it takes a $4,300 suit to impress New Yorkers? I mean, which New Yorkers are we talking about? Maybe it's because I don't get out as much as I ought to, but I wear the same stuff I wore back in the Twin Cities. New Yorkers aren't all so well-dressed. I'm the only one at my office, a publishing company, who wears a tie to work.

It really pleases me that New York deigned to say that Minneapolis has a "semblance of a cultural life." Need I remind any non-Minneapolitans that the Twin Cities have more theaters per capita than anywhere in America outside NYC? That's a statistic I've been quoting for so long I that I'm not sure if it's true anymore. Anyone?

Anyone else notice any big lifestyle differences between NYC and the rest of the world? Comment.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Thursday, October 26, 2006

From Alain de Botton's excellent new book The Architecture of Happiness I've learned that the private home Le Corbusier built for the Savoye family in Poissy, France in 1931, a house with a flat roof, leaked terribly. The house was to be a "machine for living" and the flat roof was supposed to be functional and economical. But a leak over the son's bedroom -- a leak that sprung immediately after the family moved in -- caused him to get sick. A chest infection turned into pneumonia and poor Roger Savoye had to spend a year in a Chamonix sanatorium recovering.

My flat-roofed Brooklyn apartment building doesn't leak on me, but I contracted pneumonia last week. I had it once before, when I was little. Back then I bragged to my friends that I'd conquered something that can kill people. My current convalescence, keenly timed for my birthday, has been in Minnesota. I anticipate my stay will be much shorter than that of M. Savoye.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Seen in Seattle.

What Would Barry Goldwater Do?

I have a friend who has often used the name "Barry Goldwater" when he didn't feel like giving his real name. He would introduce himself to drunks at parties that way, sign the occasional credit card receipt that way, and almost always fill out forms that way. What was alway surprising is how few people recognized the name of the so-called "Father of Modern American Conservatism."

I realized how little I actually knew about Goldwater when I watched a fascinating documentary about him on HBO last weekend. Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater is a 91 minute tribute to the former Arizona senator and failed presidential candidate, produced by his grandaughter CC Goldwater. It has interviews with people like Goldwater's successor Senator John McCain, George F. Will, Edward Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, Walter Conkite and Al Franken.

For some reason I always pictured Goldwater looking like Henry Kissinger. I couldn't recall ever seeing Goldwater, and someone with the legacy he had seemed like they ought to look stiff and nerdy. He actually looks more like the playwright Arthur Miller.

Goldwater may be best known for his monumental loss to Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election. But it's often said that he was vindicated by Ronald Reagan's win in 1980, a win for the new brand of conservatism that Goldwater popularized in the 60s.

As conservative as Goldwater was, it was a radically different kind of conservatism from the one claimed by our current president. Goldwater, the son of a Jew and an Episcopalian, was never comfortable with the religious right. He didn't believe the abortion issue was something the government ought to be involved with. Regarding gays in the military, Goldwater said famously: "You don't have to be straight to be in the military; you just have to be able to shoot straight." His grandson was gay.

About the Christian factions of the Republican party, Goldwater said:
"Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they're sure trying to do so, it's going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can't and won't compromise. I know, I've tried to deal with them."
[from a 1994 book by John Dean.]

Then again, this is the guy who once said, "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"

Goldwater gave up his senate seat to run for president in 1964, but he was re-elected in 1968. He wasn't much of a Nixon supporter. In 1974, Goldwater didn't seek to hurry along Nixon's demise, but he never stood in the way of his fall. Goldwater retired from the senate in 1987. He died in 1998.

The Washington Post has a very nice, lengthy obituary online from 1998 that summarizes his life and accomplishments.


Monday, October 23, 2006

This is part of an installation at PS1 in Queens.

Friday, October 20, 2006

I'm spending some much needed vacation time in the Twin Cities right now, and one of my first stops is going to be Porky's. Mmmm, Porky's. I think I'll dine in my car.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Chinese Scholar Rocks

This is one of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection of Chinese scholar rocks. These rocks are pieces of found art placed on carved wooden stands, intended as objects for contemplation. Many of the Met's rocks come from the collection of the American sculptor Richard Rosenblum (1940-2000) who became better known for his extensive collection of Chinese literati objects than for his own sculptures.

Rosenblum said in an interview:
Our 20th century ideas of art tell us that just the act of seeing is a type of making: in the case of rocks, this process is taken to a further degree. Here are found objects brought out of their natural environment and placed in an entirely different one, perhaps a garden, perhaps a studio, as objects of enjoyment. Then, in the case of scholar’s rocks, the addition of the wooden stand is a dramatic imposition on the stone, essentially turning it into an art object. One of the real defects in a rock, in my opinion, is when it is glued to its stand, because it’s very important to take rocks off their stands and let them ‘return’ [to their natural state]; and it’s always amazing to me how unlike art they are when they are off their stands.
What I like about these rocks is how they are, as Rosenblum would say, both natural and cultural at once. They are self-contained miniature landscapes and representatives of the larger world. Since they are natural found art, they defy understanding. They just are. But they are endlessly interesting in all their holes and contours and sides.

If That's Art, Then I'm a Hottentot

When it comes to art, are regular Americans unsophisticated, anti-intellectual clods, or are they (we?) just steadfast and uncompromising in their taste?

I'm a reasonably well educated and fairly progressive, but my reaction to contemporary art isn't always quiet. The last Whitney Biennial (which I wrote about in April) embarrassed me and irritated me with all its self-indulgent faux outsider art. Why the visceral reaction?

The latest issue of The Nation may provide a clue. Art critic Peter Plagens, in a review of Michael Kammen's new book Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture, begins with a quote from President Harry Truman. When the president saw some paintings the State Department bought for a traveling exhibit of American art in 1947, he said, "If that's art, I'm a Hottentot."

Plagens explains the cultural climate:
What did Americans want? In the 1930s, the influential Chicago organization Sanity in Art provided a wonderfully summary answer when it took a position in favor of "rationally beautiful" art. Although the group failed to specify the exact ingredients, what a Midwestern art professor once told me after a lecture I gave at his college seems about right: Americans want, first, signs of a special talent. Second is lots of evident labor; third comes nonabject materials. The fourth requisite is realism, followed by noble (or at least not ignoble) content. Nowadays, you might add to the list political correctness of one sort or another. (In 1999 a photo blowup of Robert E. Lee in a Confederate uniform was ordered removed from the roster of famous Americans on the Canal Walk in Richmond, Virginia, until it could be replaced by one of the general in civvies.) And hanging over everything is the presumption of the constitutional right of every American never, ever to be offended by anything. Ours is a cultural, as much as a political, democracy, where plebeian opinions about art ought to count--we think--just as much as those of any effete egghead aficionado with a whole bunch of degree initials after his name. We bristle at authority in matters of aesthetics, and we're willing to go to the mat about it. We, too, are wont to proclaim, "If that's art, then I'm a Hottentot."
The emphasis above is mine, but let's look at that list again.

Americans think that art ought to show:
1. Obvious skill in craft.
2. Obvious signs of labor.
3. Use of high-quality materials.
4. Realistic depictions of real things.
5. Depiction of noble subjects, or subjects that are not ignoble.
And, later:
6. Sensitivity ot cultural mores.

Now look at a summary of what I said was wrong with the Whitney Biennial:
1. The art looks like it took absolutely no effort.
2. Some art really was pieces of garbage. Would I get in trouble for littering here?
3. Some of this art looks like the result of a bad idea and some talent or a good idea and no talent.
4. Some of the longer wall placards explaining the adjacent art are so opaque, they could be referring to any art there.
5. The art is self-indulgent.
6. Lots of art here looks like kindergarten craft projects.
7. Few of the artists here show any signs of acknowledging, much less assimilating the art of their predecessors.

So, in my opinions about art, I really sound like a cranky American from the 30s. On the other hand, I'm not so orthodox in my view of art that I think art should always have meaning. My favorite art confounds me. It's stuff that defies understanding in a way that encourages me to keep looking at it.

In the latest issue of the modern design magazine Dwell, there's a capsule review of an exhibit at Columbus, Ohio's Wexner Center for the Arts. The idea of the exhibit sounds great: Photographer Louise Lawler takes pictures of art in the places collectors, gallerists, and other have put it -- in homes, museums, galleries, auction houses, etc. The exhibit explores how a piece's setting affects the way we see it. Great idea.

But Dwell's blurb on the exhibit troubles me:
"It's trite, but true: Many people still buy artwork to match their decor. Though it's easy to hang a painting that complements your chaise longue, most people are oblivious to the impact this has on the art itself."
I would venture that most people are oblivious to their surroundings in general. Over-stimulation does that. But I take issue with the idea that choosing art for the way it will look in your space is a lesser judgment than choosing a piece of art for its meaning.

An average American isn't going to hang a Nazi banner in his or her living room because the colors match the couch and the pretty pinwheel shape echoes the pattern on the Persian rug. Of course not. Any sane person will take any obvious meaning into account before choosing something for its looks.

It reminds me of an anecdote I once heard about the actor Sylvester Stallone. He allegedly decked out a room in fake books to give it a library feel. He either re-bound hundreds of random hardcovers in leather, or commissioned a facade of bookbindings, all for looks. Which is worse: a guy who has a library full of books he hasn't read or a guy who has a fake library? Assuming Stallone didn't just buy old books by the foot, I'd say the guy who doesn't leave himself room to redeem himself is worse. If Stallone can't stumble into his library one night and accidentally learn something, he's a real clod.

My point is that looks count. They aren't everything, but they have a meaning equal to the cultural and intellectual and historical meaning in art. Choosing a piece of art because it looks good in your pad isn't trite unless you are totally unaware of its other qualities.

The Whitney Biennial gave us too much meaning, often opaque, private meaning, and not enough beauty to keep us around to search for the meaning. In short, the pieces I disliked (and I should repeat that I didn't dislike everything) were pieces that didn't show any of the first five qualifications from above. If it doesn't show skill in craft, it could at least show that someone worked hard on it. If it doesn't use high-quality materials, at least it could use junk to depict something real. You get the point.

This is why I loved the American Folk Art Museum here in New York. They have a three feet-tall tower of chicken bones painted gold, made by a guy in Detroit who ate a lot of fast food chicken. They have a series of baseball cards that a guy embroidered out of the colored threads from his tube socks. The detail is exquisite. They have an area rug from the thirties woven out of Wonder Bread bags. It's very colorful. Here are strange and beautiful things created out of mundane materials.

What do you think art should be? Comment. Let me know what you think.


Monday, October 16, 2006

The Subway This Morning

I'm sitting on the subway this morning when a guy in the back of the train starts yelling. Sounds like a drunk Rastafarian. I'm thinking he's homeless and he's going to make an appeal for change and snacks. He yells out something about "ladies and gentlemen" and "sweet music on the subway" and then there's this tremendous ruckus that sounds like a big band with the man joining in on trumpet.

I look up and it's not a Rastafarian, but a little man in a Tyrolean hat with suspenders on, only they're not connected to lederhosen, but a speaker that covers most of his torso. He's playing the theme song from the movie "Brazil," and he's backed by a pre-recorded orchestra. The sound quality is surprisingly good and it fills the train car.

The music stops and the little man starts talking again. His speech patterns are hard to follow -- a lot of shouts and arbitrary emphasis on the wrong parts of words. The next song is "The Girl From Ipanema." After that, he calls out something like "A special soooong ... New Yooorrrrk!" His accent is now distinctly Eastern European, maybe Croatian. As he gets closer, I see that his Tyrolean hat is made of mesh and he's attached it by drawstring to his battered tin trumpet. It's dangling upside down and it's rapidly filling with dollar bills and change. The next song is, of course, "New York, New York." I contribute a crumpled dollar.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Vodka is Like Water

I know there are a lot of fools out there who insist that $40 for a bottle of "premium" vodka buys you an appreciable bit more satisfaction than your bottom shelf rail pour neutral grain spirits. That you can tell the difference between, say, Grey Goose and Ketel One. That your palate is so finely honed that you can discern differences among over-priced over-packaged alcohols that are, by nature, unflavored. I don't buy it.

I believe that the premium vodka phenomenon is more about purchasing status in a bottle than connoisseurship. It's like any item of clothing with a conspicuous label. You're buying status. Temporary membership into a club that says 'I've got good taste and disposable income.'

I'm not saying that looking for nuance in liquor is folly; I'm saying that vodka is like bottled water. I'm saying that water is water and vodka is vodka. There are only extremes of bad, not extremes of good.

Turns out Eric Asimov, the blogging wine critic at the New York Times agrees. Last January, Asimov covered a blind taste test. The results make me giddy:
After the 21 vodkas were sipped and the results compiled, the Smirnoff was our hands-down favorite.
That's right, Smirnoff. It was added to the list of illustrious premos as a lark. Smirnoff is America's best-selling unflavored vodka, Asimov says. Ketel One and Grey Goose didn't make the group's top ten. He continues:
Shocking? Perhaps. Delving into the world of vodka reveals a spirit unlike almost any other, with standards that make judging it substantially different from evaluating wine, beer, whiskey or even root beer. A malt whiskey should be distinctive, singular. The same goes for a Burgundy or a Belgian ale. But vodka? Vodka is measured by its purity, by an almost Platonic neutrality that makes tasting it more akin to tasting bottled waters, or snowflakes.
I see I wasn't the first to compare vodka to bottled water. He points out that our government classifies vodka thusly: "neutral spirits, so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color." Ah. Without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.

Of course, a group that picks a best vodka out of 21 doesn't see anything wrong with looking for differences among spirits lacking in character, taste, and aroma. And I'll admit that I bought a bottle of Russian Standard, a Russian premium vodka, when I was in St. Petersburg. It really does taste a little different from the others. (But it didn't cost me many Rubles. About $17 for a liter.) But the only time you'll see me buying a really nice vodka is when I'm trying to impress snobs. That don't happen too often.

This all reminds me of a painful episode from my childhood. Does anyone remember the Pepsi Challenge? In the early 80s, maybe 1982, Pepsi started doing blind taste tests pitting their cola against Coke. One of my grade school teachers, giving us a lesson in marketing and adverstising (or was it a lesson in the five senses?), arranged to have Pepsi come to Chelsea Heights Elementary school in St. Paul. It was really just a person with some bottle of pop and a table, but they set up and poured little paper cups full of each cola and revealed with a flourish which one we'd chosen.

I chose wrong. I distinctly remember choosing "the one that didn't fizz up my nose," which, of course, was Coke. I was horrified. I wanted to pick Pepsi. Did I imagine the disappointment in the face of the tester? This was my first lesson in survey bias.

Which of course leads me to a more scientific taste test. Neuroscientist Read Montague gave people both colas while they were hooked up to an MRI:
Montague had his subjects take the Pepsi Challenge while he watched their neural activity with a functional MRI machine, which tracks blood flow to different regions of the brain. Without knowing what they were drinking, about half of them said they preferred Pepsi. But once Montague told them which samples were Coke, three-fourths said that drink tasted better, and their brain activity changed too. Coke "lit up" the medial prefrontal cortex -- a part of the brain that controls higher thinking. Montague's hunch was that the brain was recalling images and ideas from commercials, and the brand was overriding the actual quality of the product. For years, in the face of failed brands and laughably bad ad campaigns, marketers had argued that they could influence consumers' choices. Now, there appeared to be solid neurological proof. Montague published his findings in the October 2004 issue of Neuron, and a cottage industry was born.
That quote was from the PBS show Frontline. Think about what Montague is saying: The brand is overriding the quality of the product. Now think about premium vodka.

This is all the more relevant to me now because I've been taking a wine class. It's at a Manhattan liquor store down the street from my work. The most remarkable thing I learned in the class may not be the wine facts and grape varietals, but the act of slowing down and paying attention to one's senses. This is not a skill, so much as a reawakening to your surroundings that can be applied to everything.

I'm sure this sort of super-focused attention could help me with vodka appreciation, but why bother? Wine can be cheaper by volume and it comes in thousands more varieties. Single malt Scotch has more character. A good Belgian beer can be drunk in greater quantity.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Garbage + Packaging = Art & $20,000 in Profits

Ad Age recently profiled Justin Gignac, a New Yorker who says he's made $20,000 selling NYC trash, handsomely packaged. It's really a cynical experiment in packaging -- the guy says a good package can sell almost anything. And he's right.

According to his website, it's $50 for trash, $100 for Yankee Stadium trash. This is a perfect example of something you could do yourself. I would argue that its cachet lies more in the fact that the garbage is from NYC, and less in the fact that Justin Gignac signed it. Second is the packaging.

In a Hartford Courant article from 2001, scanned in his website, Gignac says he buys lucite boxes for $1 and charges $10 for regular, $15 for Yankee Stadium premo stuff. What's the rate of inflation?

It all reminds me of an idea my dad and I had after seeing some awful art in a museum -- a particular piece gave us both an 'I could do that' reaction, but it also told us how much of art was marketing. The piece was called "Frozen Words" and it was the creation of an artist who called himself simply, "Arman." We were appalled. The sculpture was a block of telephone recievers encased in a chunk of concrete. Not particularly imaginative, not particularly hard to make. We wondered how successful we could be if we came up with a name, some simple sculptures, and spend 99% of our time marketing. So: 1% of our time on art, 99% of our time on convincing people our art was relevant. Neither me nor my father are born hucksters -- we're good bullshitters, but we don't have the constitutions for sales. The project is ultimately too cynical for either of us to try. But I think the point stands. [Couldn't find a photo of "Frozen Words." Plenty exist, however of his various broken violins.]

Arman, aka Armand Fernandez (1928-2005) was born in Nice, France. He had his first solo museum exhibition open in 1964 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. His penchant for encasing things in concrete started in 1970, but he also started to, like Justin Gignac, put things in plexiglass boxes. Arman died on my birthday last fall, here in NYC.

Arman's website still seems to be selling his art. Interested in a piece consisting of Chupa Chups lollipops in polyester? He offers two -- € 10.546,00 each, shipping and tax not included. So what are you paying for here? I would say that you're paying for:

1. Arman's particular vision
2. Arman's labor in putting the art object together
3. And finally, most significantly, Arman's name. If his name carries no weight with you, the lollipops in polyester are worth only the price of the the pops. Which by my estimation is nearly $25 (the price of a 100-count tub of them online.)

With Arman's name comes his past, his heritage, and his connection to and place in the 20th century art world. It's something very ethereal, like the value one might put on your family's old china or a cane your great-grandfather used -- it's a physical connection, something that represents the past, some people, a culture, and a story we tell each other about how we relate in the world. In the case of Arman -- either you're an art expert and you see the value of Arman's place in art history (and you don't judge it a dubious one), or you see his work as a status piece. Something rich people do for one of the following reasons:

1. Collecting art is what rich people do.
2. At some point in the accumulation of wealth, you run out of useable objects and services to acquire; you move on to whimsy -- objets d'art that have no function except to relieve you of a part of your earnings, symbolically.
3. Art buying gives you an intellectual legitimacy that money can literally buy.
4. Acquiring art gives you a way into the art world without having to create art yourself.
5. Pieces of art are all trophies -- physical symbols of your success, but without the gauche plaque with your name on it. Unless you loan it to a museum.
6. Finally, the least despicable reason rich people collect art is this: art objects are muses, symbols of beauty, high-minded conversation pieces, and reminders of the world's complexity and your priveleged place in it. A place from which you can gaze upon its marvels without worrying about mere survival. Art is inspirational and aspirational.

From the NY Times, Aug 1, 1995: "It took ARMAN, the French-American sculptor who is known for his massive works incorporating urban refuse, 19 years to find the right place for his newest creation, "Hope for Peace." The work will be unveiled tomorrow in the Yarze district of Beirut near the new presidential palace and the Defense Ministry. "It is a lot of tanks embedded in concrete and is a 106-foot-tall pyramid that weighs 6,000 tons," Arman said, speaking from Beirut by telephone yesterday."

Calculating the value of art also reminds me of the hovercraft from Dover to Calais -- the price to cross the English Channel depends on why you want to go. If you are trying to get from the British Isles to the continent, you pay a large price. Some ne'er-do-wells told me and my friend that if we pretended we were going for a roundtrip short-duration sightseeing trek, the price was a fraction of what it would be if we were actually trying to get from England to France. Our huge backpacks made pretending very difficult and we didn't try.

What we if we tried this tiered price model on other stuff? For example, I'll sell you one Chupa Chup lollipop for 10 cents if you're with me and I can just hand it to you. If you want me to mail it to you, I'll charge you $1, plus shipping because it's a pain for me to do, and you could actually get your own cheaper. So I'm punishing you for your laziness and charging you a premium for my trouble. If you want to use the Chupa Chup as a memento, I'll charge you $10, but I'll wrap a ribbon around it and give you a card with it that says I bought it in NYC and that it represents New York in the summer of 2006. If you want the Chupa Chup as art, I'll charge you $100, but I'll put it in a lucite box that I'll sign and number. It'll also come with an essay -- a manifesto, really -- about the meaning of the Chupa Chup. You'll get that essay in a hand-printed case with original Chupa Chup art on it, which I'll also sign.

Here's my price list simplified:
Chupa Chups
To eat now: 10 cents
To eat shipped: $1
As a memento: $10
As art: $100


Thursday, October 05, 2006

Liberals on Conservatives on Liberals

I remember walking through Dinkytown on the University of Minnesota campus a few years ago, trying to articulate to a friend and fellow liberal why liberals were bugging me so much. As a lefty, I found it odd that the mere mention of the word "corporation" by a fellow traveler would make my eyes glaze over. What was it about the rhetorical style of liberals that seemed so smarmy?

The answer is this: when people stop speaking to their opposition, they lose their edge. Loud campus leftists had a shorthand that they used -- used with everyone. Campus republicans developed a similar language, equally shrill. These groups each have their own cheers to rouse themselves and taunt their opponents. Each side has their own back-slapping platitudes that they exchange with themselves as mutual admiration exercises. When they confront each other, voices raise and quiver, not out of indignation so much as a frustration with the other side's inability to parse their shorthand arguments. What I'm saying, is that we're lazy.

Consequently, I feel it is my duty to read as much conservative opinion as I can stomach. Alas, it isn't much -- lately I can't find the will to read any opinion. But learned, articulate writers are fun to read, no matter their stripe. William F. Buckley is a personal favorite of mine. I think he's a yahoo, but I love to read him.

It is in this spirit that I ventured to the Wall Street Journal's online Opinion Journal, to an editorial by Roger Scruton, which I found via the inimitable Arts & Letters Daily.

Scruton breaks down the whole "Chomsky thing" for his readers. Who is this Chomsky guy? Why is a Venezuelan president -- the one who said the dais, recently held by G.W. Bush, still smelled like sulphur -- holding up his book in front of the U.N.? Here, I thought, would be a reasoned introduction to the ideas and left-wing appeal of erstwhile linguist Noam Chomsky for the fiscally conservative audience.

Instead, I found a surprisingly emotional dismissal of Chomsky. Let me show you the part where my eyes started to glaze over:
"For Prof. Chomsky long ago cast off his academic gown and donned the mantle of the prophet. For several decades now he has been devoting his energies to denouncing his native country, usually before packed halls of fans who couldn't care a fig about the theory of syntax. And many of his public appearances are in America: the only country in the whole world that rewards those who denounce it with the honors and opportunities that make denouncing it into a rewarding way of life."
Suddenly, I hear an angry voice in my head shrieking, "Chomsky hates freedom! Chomsky's a terrorist!"

The problem with Scruton's essay is that it stopped trying to convince me at the third paragraph. To say that Chomsky denounces America is disingenuous. I don't even have to read Chomsky to tell you that he denounces politicians, administrations, and policies. Not entire countries, cultures, and peoples. Any conservative who says that's too much nuance is selling him or herself too short: I don't believe you guys are stupid, just manipulative.

And Scruton seems to be blaming Chomsky for taking advantage of something Scruton ostensibly celebrates -- freedom of speech, invoked when Scruton says our country rewards those who denounce it. Don't act so uncomfortable with democracy, Scruton.

He had a chance to write an enduring contrary essay on the Chomsky phenomenon, but he chose the low road. He gives it to us pre-chewed, like a mama bird to her helpless babies:
"And it is surely undeniable that his habit of excusing or passing over the faults of America's enemies, in order to pin all crime on his native country, suggests that he has invested more in his posture of accusation than he has invested in the truth."
Shortcuts, Scruton. What ammunition has he left his readers with to fend off the liberal hordes? Very little, save a few ad hominems and some nasty intimations. Like the one where he says Chomsky supported the genocidal dictator Pol Pot, but generously adds that Chomsky didn't know any better at the time. If Scruton gave us more, even a liberal might agree with him. But he knows we won't, so he doesn't even try.

In the end, Scruton's point is that Chomsky's words don't matter as much as his knack for rabble-rousing: "For it is his ability to excite not just contempt for American foreign policy but a lively sense that it is guided by some kind of criminal conspiracy that provides the motive for Prof. Chomsky's unceasing diatribes and the explanation of his influence." And, ironically:
"Not everything he says by way of criticizing his country is wrong. However, he is not valued for his truths but for his rage, which stokes the rage of his admirers. He feeds the self-righteousness of America's enemies, who feed the self-righteousness of Prof. Chomsky. And in the ensuing blaze everything is sacrificed, including the constructive criticism that America so much needs, and that America--unlike its enemies, Prof. Chomsky included--is prepared to listen to."
Ironic because here Scruton does precisely what he accuses Chomsky of doing: Sacrificing constructive criticism. Adding to the ensuing blaze.

Scruton has nothing to offer conservatives or liberals but the old "freedom hater" routine. I'm betting a lot of conservatives are just as bored with that as I am.


Monday, October 02, 2006

Hal Foster on Frank Gehry

I'm watching a PBS documentary on Frank Gehry right now. As frequent readers know, I'm not fond of a lot of Gehry's buildings. As I'm watching this, I'm seeing some stuff I can appreciate. I think some of his lesser known buildings -- the Fred and Ginger building in Prague (pictured) comes to mind -- are brilliant. But, watching this documentary, I also found a critic who articulates some of my frustration with Gehry: Princeton University's professor of art and archeaology, Hal Foster.

Here are some choice passages from his review, called "Why all the hoopla?", of a 500 page coffee table book about Gehry (a modified version of which appears in his book Design and Crime):
"The great irony is that Gehry fans tend to confuse his arbitrariness with freedom, and his self-indulgence with expression."
I like that one a lot. What Foster said on the PBS documentary is that people need to look at Gehry's work critically. Negative criticism serves to combat the "culture of affirmation" around superstars like Gehry. Artist Julian Schnabel called Gehry's detractors "flies around the neck of a lion." I find that odd; it sounds more like the sort of thing conservatives say about left-wing criticism of our president.

I liked What Foster said about Seattle's Experience Music Project (EMP), because I struggled to say something very similar:
The disconnection between skin and structure represented by this academic model is at its most radical in Gehry's work in the Experience Music Project, commissioned by the Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen because of his love for Jimi Hendrix (a fellow Seattleite): its six exterior blobs clad in different coloured metals have little apparent relation to its many interior displays dedicated to pop music. Just as Gehry wanted to make Bilbao legible through an allusion to a splintered ship, here he makes an allusion to a smashed guitar (a broken 'fret' lies over two of the blobs). But neither image works, even as a Pop gesture, for you have to be well above the buildings to read them as images at all, or you have to see them in media reproduction - which is indeed a primary 'site' of this architecture.
I was uncomfortable with the EMP, partly because it made little reference to its collection, but also because it overshadowed the meager collection. Foster takes the idea of Gehry as architect/sculptor and says it isn't necessarily such a good thing in its realization:
Like many other new museums, his colossal spaces are designed to accommodate the expanded field of postwar art - of Andre, Serra, Oldenburg, and assorted descendants. In fact, these museums trump the art: they use its great scale, which was meant to challenge the museum, as a pretext to inflate the museum itself into a gigantic spectacle-space that can swallow any art, let alone any viewer, whole. In short, museums like Bilbao use the breaking-out of postwar art as a licence to corral it again, and to overwhelm the viewer as they do so.
Foster's conclusion makes Gehry sound like a Walmart-friendly tool of the capitalist superstate:
With Gehry and other architects the reverse is now true as well: spectacle is an image accumulated to such a degree that it becomes capital. Such is the logic of many cultural centres today, designed, alongside theme parks and sports complexes, to assist in the corporate 'revival' of the city - its being made safe for shopping, spectating and spacing out. 'The singular economic and cultural impact felt in the wake of its opening in October 1997,' the catalogue says of 'the Bilbao effect', has 'spawned a fierce demand for similar feats by contemporary architects worldwide'. Alas, so it has, and it is likely to come to your hometown soon.

Sunday, October 01, 2006


What makes America great? Last week, it was our short attention span and our uncanny ability to be distracted by disingenuous media figures calling out: "look! A unicorn!" or in this case, "look! I can see Bill Clinton's bare leg on TV!" This is a distraction, ladies and gentlemen. There is no unicorn. There was a leg, but just because it's shiny doesn't mean you should let it take your attention away from a certain administration's terra ... excuse me, terror policies. I mean the policies they use to fight terror.

For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, here's a summary, courtesy of the Columbia Journalism Review:
On Sunday, former President Clinton gave an interview on Fox News during which he sparred with Chris Wallace about his administration's efforts to fight terrorism, and during which Clinton's bare legs were, apparently, peaking out from the ends of his trousers. Monday morning, Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus were blathering on about Clinton's "distracting" and "disconcerting" leg-flashing. Later that day Nora Ephron blogged on HuffingonPost.com, "Was there no one there to see that [Clinton's] pants were hiked up too high and his socks were pulled down too low and the flesh on his legs was showing?" -- comments which CNN later reported on (two days in a row). MSNBC chimed in a day later (on-screen caption: "Sock It To Me: Bill Clinton Shows a Little Leg During Fox Interview"), quizzing two talking heads about Clinton's short socks, a scandal which by then had made its way into print.
Ehpron's post now has 699 comments. Ephron, instead of commenting on the substance of what Clinton said -- which was basically that the Bush Whitehouse has been using an aggressive and transparent disinformation campaign to make the public think that a) the war in Iraq is about bin Laden and b) Clinton was soft on terror when he was in office -- got distracted by the unicorn mirage pointed to by our good friends Rush and Don.

The website Think Progress has both a transcript and a video clip of the Chris Wallace Fox News interview. Commentary on gaffs, fashion faux pas and embarrassing flashes of flesh are best left to US Weekly. CNN and MSNBC both joined the fray. We shouldn't let the news get away with this trivia while real news is happening.

It isn't my intention to suddenly get all political on this blog, but I've been finding politics creeping back into my peripheral vision. Before last election, I read about politics in the papers all the time. I read about it in Harper's and the New Yorker and I sought out the conservative viewpoint from the Weekly Standard and the National Review. I watched all the debates and then read play-by-plays on conservative blogs to see if the opposition saw things I didn't. And then the election happened. And I lost interest.

I've regsitered to vote here in New York -- I had intended to vote last year for the NYC mayoral election (in which Bloomberg was re-elected by a really big margin), but when I checked into the procedure to register, it was, at the 25 day mark, too late. I was used to the Minnesota system where you can register at one table and then go vote at another -- the same day. I was pretty bitter about that bit of disenfranchisement. It was like the moment I realized that I was paying a city income tax as well as a state and federal, and on top of that, New York (again, unlike Minnesota) doesn't have a renter's credit (basically a property tax refund for apartment dwellers).

So after that long digression, my point is that I may be subconsciously readying myself to vote in the upcoming midterm election. Paying more attention to politics -- and noting the atrocious distractions from politics -- is part of getting ready.
This is a fully operating fire station on Great Jones Street in Manhattan. The detail of the building is really striking when you walk by. Imagine if they made municipal buildings this way today.

Sasha Frere-Jones on American and English Pop

The New Yorker's pop-music critic Sasha Frere-Jones has some fascinating insights on why certain popular music in the U.S. and U.K. doesn't see to translate across the ocean. He was interviewed, Q&A-style, for an online-only feature on the New Yorker's website last June.

He says that genres like reggaetón (a Puerto Rican blend of hip hop, reggae, and I-don't-know-what that's big in New York, if not elsewhere.) and country are too American to make more than a token appearance on British charts.

Likewise, the uniquely British U.K. hip hop genre called grime, (Dizzee Rascal is its current king) doesn't make any significant showing in American charts. Obvious British accents are one way to stay out of the American pop charts.

Frere-Jones says America, unlike Britain, is no longer receptive to "frothy chart-pop, usually sung by young women and written by teams of professionals." He sees a backlash against music like that done by the Spice Girls, the Backstreet Boys, and Britney Spears:
"This is simply a spinoff of the backlash against feminism and any culture perceived as having a kind of gay sensibility that isn’t campy and schticky, and thus safe. (Robbie Williams’s sexuality is way too complicated for the current American cultural moment.)"
He says we really missed out on stuff like Girls Aloud and Rachel Stevens, whoever they are.

On the subject of Coldplay, a band that has actually done fairly well here, he talks about imitators, bands like Keane (which earned the brilliant nickname "Warmplay"). I actually have heard of Keane -- their latest album isn't bad. And yet Coldplay does little for me.

Who's the most influential British band in America?
"I think the most influential English band here isn’t English—it’s the New York band Interpol, who drew heavily on English post-punk groups such as Joy Division and Echo & the Bunnymen. Bands like She Wants Revenge seem pretty heavily influenced by Interpol, and I get at least a few CDs a month by bands that sound like bad versions of Interpol."
But can you really say that a band is influenced by a band that's influenced by two old bands? Doesn't She Wants Revenge have equal access to Joy Division and Echo & the Bunnymen? Yes, but he seems to mean that SWR sounds like a derivative of a derivative, which isn't necessarily flattering.

The latest derivative band I've listened to is Editors, a UK band that really does sound like an Interpol ripoff. I bought the album, and was sad to find that the single, "Munich," is the only song I like, even a little.
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