Monday, March 31, 2008

A Boring Armory Show

Here are some scenes -- highlights -- from this year's disappointing Armory Show. Have high gas prices, the mortgage crisis, the recession, a weak dollar, a long war, and an art market too giddy with hedge fund money started to have a more profound affect on artists' work? Or did all the artists sell all their good stuff in Basel, London, and Miami? Or did waiting in line for 75 minutes make me too cranky to judge the art fairly? I don't know, but I didn't see much that inspired me -- even at usually exciting galleries like David Zwirner and Marianne Boesky.


Saturday, March 29, 2008

Friday, March 28, 2008

Very Specialized New York Maps

True, it leaves out Columbia University in Manhattan and the U.S. Tennis Center and Shea Stadium in Queens, but Streeter Seidell's White Folks’ Guide to the NYC Subway System is still pretty amusing. It's almost funnier to read all the irate comments -- mostly of the 'why is my stop not in there?' variety. Are people upset about that? Should they be? Inidentally, my stop in Brooklyn is not included.

Anyone who has lived in or even visited New York City knows that public restrooms no longer exist here. That Starbucks locations, although they are everywhere, do not always have bathrooms. And if they do, it is a single unisex bathroom with a queue that never lets up. McDonald's locations sometimes lock their bathrooms. It's awful, and many New Yorkers are obsessed with the problem.

Thanks to the The New York City Public Toilet Map, "the only wallet sized map of restrooms around Manhattan," 250 toilets are at your disposal. It was created by artist Tommy Mintz as a part of the Jewish Museum's Off the Wall: Artists At Work open studio project. Mintz is selling the small folded map for $2 on the Internet.

According to the New York Times, Mintz suffers from ulcerative colitis, which means he really needs to know where these bathrooms are.

As the Times points out, this has been done before: lists 258 restrooms on a Google map. It includes the categories: public, bookstore, coffee shop, hotel, and other. As of yet, the map does not appear to be available for mobile devices like Blackberries and iPhones.

It was created by Wansoo Im, who was profiled in the New Yorker in 2006. “If everyone contributes information to the map, pretty soon there will be no more rest-room problem,” Im optimistically told John Seabrook.

Quote of the Day: Art Dealer Larry Salander

"Our society now values a Warhol for three times as much money as a great Rembrandt. That tells me that we’re fucked. It’s as if people would rather fuck than make love.

“That’s the difference between the Warhol and the Rembrandt. Being with Rembrandt is like making love. And being with Warhol is like fucking."
Larry Salander's rant sounds a lot better before you learn that he's $100 million in debt and under attack from people like artist Stuart Davis's son (who says Salander sold 50 of his father's paintings without permission), actor Robert De Niro (whose artist father was once represented by Salander), and New York Sun art critic Lance Esplund (who didn't get paid for a catalogue essay). The list goes on, including a group of investors who got a court order preventing Salander from entering his own gallery or selling art anywhere else.

The problem was that Salander, who had a successful business selling 19th and 20th century art, took a big gamble opening up a huge gallery dedicated to old-master and Renaissance art. In fact, as New York Magazine's James Panero reports this week, Salander was out to shift the art-buying world from over-priced contemporary art back to historical masterpieces.

It's a noble goal, and a sort of moral one. What Salander was in effect trying to do was to create connoisseurs out of investors and fashion victims. What percentage of the wealthy art collecting world do you think can articulate why they acquired a piece of art without talking about money, much less hold forth intelligently about any piece in their own collection? You can lead a hedge fund manager to great art, but you can't make him appreciate it.

Maybe it isn't fair to ask that busy people who spend all their brainpower on making money start talking (and collecting) like sophisticated art critics. There are always going to be people who collect art (or wine or cars or real estate) as investments, people who don't pretend to have any taste of their own.

It's a mistake to believe that the monetary value a blazing market assigns to anything as ethereal as a painting is real or stable. The only quantifiable factors in such things are age, size, and rarity; everything else is smoke.

It's a good smoke, though. I believe in it. But it's closer to religion than it is to science. That's part of what Salander understood, I think, but in the end he was no different than the money guys he was trying to tame. He was perhaps just a guy who saw an undervalued commodity. He thought he could cash in. He failed.

Panero's Salander story has a strange ending: contemporary artist Jeff Koons, who may be second only to Damien Hirst as an epitomy of everything Salander worked against in current art market trends, is now buying up old masters.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Kisses: An Etiquette Guide

On a trip to Barcelona about five years ago I found myself constantly thrusting my hand out to deflect the inevitable lean in for a kiss that served as both a greeting and an introduction. Who were these saucy Catalonian women who wanted kisses instead of handshakes from strangers? Minnesotans don’t do such things.

The fourth or fifth person I met, a confident young woman, smiled at my hand and said, “No handshakes. Here, we kiss.” She leaned in and we kissed each other on the cheeks. It was easy, and once I had someone take the time to tell me what was expected and how it was done, I was relieved. Still, I relished the confused expressions from the women who got my hand before that.

In Barcelona, I remember the rules being very simple. Here in New York, it’s a little different. Is it one kiss, two, or three? Do you actually kiss, or do you just smack the air in the general proximity of the cheek? In the fashion business, it’s even more confusing.

The typical kiss is more of an air-kiss or a mere brushing of cheeks. A young woman in the marketing department of a fashion house based in the Meatpacking District kissed my female colleague once near the cheek after a meeting a couple weeks ago. Thinking it may be just a girl thing, I held out my hand. She either ignored it or used it to pull me in for the kiss -- I don't recall.

Fashion industry trade shows are fraught with such situations. “I’m a hugger,” a burly designer will say, coming at you like a Grizzly on the attack. Or, “Give me some love,” a type-A from California says before you get a stubbley kiss. If it's an Italian designer, you'll definitely get saliva on your face.

I've even seen welcoming man-to-man ass-grabs, (never recieved, I'm relieved to say), and heard tell of the man-to-man crotch grab.

The hugs and kisses will come from both men and women, without warning, without guiding etiquette. Nothing's more awkward than the cheek kiss that turns into an unplanned lip kiss. So it was exciting to see the following guide in the Wall Street Journal’s Fashion and Style section:
Who should initiate a kiss or handshake?
"The higher-ranking person is always right -- no matter if it's right or not," says Ann Marie Sabath, author of "One Minute Manners: Mastering the Unwritten Rules of Business Success." If you're on the receiving end, your job is to mirror the other person -- unless, of course, he or she is totally out of line, in which case you can extend your hand from two feet away or turn to the side to avoid impact.

But Judith Martin, otherwise known as Miss Manners, says the ranking woman should be the decider, or "first presenter," as the etiquette doyenne puts it.

How many kisses?
Communications specialist Joyce Newman says that the number of kisses in the U.S. tends to be industry-specific. She has clients ranging from health-care executives to clothing manufacturers. "Usually it's one cheek -- unless it's my fashionista clients, and they do two."

How should they be executed?
Generally, kiss the right cheek first. "The first presenter gets to choose whether they will actually kiss each other's cheeks, make a smack-smack noise in the air, or simply bump cheeks," Ms. Martin writes. "The partner's job is still to be alert in order to follow suit and not go after someone who doesn't mean it or walk away from someone who does."

If you kiss the husband, your client, should you kiss his wife, whom you've never met?
Look at her arm and take her cue. If she isn't leaning in for a kiss, a warm two-handed shake will suffice.

What should the boss do with subordinates outside work?
"Whatever you do after hours or in social situations is setting a precedent for what you will do in the office in the future," says Ms. Sabath. If you kiss employees at dinner at your home, "they're going to wonder why you didn't do it the next time you see them."

But always follow your own best judgment. Social customs vary so much in different situations that you always have to be on the alert for exceptions to the rules.
That sort of helps.

"Whatever happened to shaking hands?" Christina Binkley writes in the accompanying article. "There is something so American about the firm control of a handshake -- it's about disarming one's opponent and keeping him two feet at bay."

But the International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene says the cheek kiss spreads fewer (or is it less?) germs than the handshake.

I'm not a kisser. But I will admit that even the air-kiss shows more presence and sincerity than a limp handshake. Then again, why turn every meeting into a first date-like situation?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Video: Gay Scientists Isolate Christian Gene

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Friday, March 21, 2008

Quote of the Day: Loch K. Johnson

"In sum, the articles point to a central finding, one not so much confirmed by rigorous empirical inquiry as it is felt to be true by professionals in the field (the 'art' side of the subtitle, I suppose). That conclusion: pain, coercion, and threats are unlikely to elicit good information from a subject. (Got that, Jack Bauer?) As one writer puts it, 'The scientific community has never established that coercive interrogation methods are an effective means of obtaining reliable intelligence information.' The authors hedge their bets, however, by suggesting repeatedly that more research needs to be done on this question. (Any volunteers for these experiments?)"
That was Loch K. Johnson, a political science professor at the University of Georgia reviewing a collection of articles and studies called Educing Information: Interrogation--Science and Art on the CIA website (via Arts & Letters Daily).

There's a line in the 1998 John Frankenheimer spy thriller Ronin where Robert De Niro talks about being interrogated. A horrified colleague asks him if he spilled his guts or not, and De Niro says, that yes, he told all. "How'd they get to you," the colleague asks, bracing himself for a tortture story.

"They gave me a grasshopper," Says De Niro.

"What's that?"

De Niro: "Let's see, one part Creme de Menthe..."

I think of that scene when I think about torture: isn't it often easier and more reliable to extract information through deceit than by force?

I also think about Stockholm Syndrome, in which captives identify with their captors. Under extreme duress, won't most of us say anything to make pain go away?

I also wonder if the idea that torture doesn't work isn't a liberal one. That all science aside, conservatives tend to be predisposed to blunt instruments and liberals to squeamishness about violence -- neither one of them really understanding why torture seems okay or not okay.

Joel Surnow, the creator of Fox's 24, is a pal of Rush Limbaugh.

This passage, from a recent New Yorker profile of Surnow, is interesting:
Bob Cochran, who created the show with Surnow, admitted, “Most terrorism experts will tell you that the ‘ticking time bomb’ situation never occurs in real life, or very rarely. But on our show it happens every week.” According to Darius Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College and the author of the forthcoming book “Torture and Democracy,” the conceit of the ticking time bomb first appeared in Jean Lartéguy’s 1960 novel “Les Centurions,” written during the brutal French occupation of Algeria. The book’s hero, after beating a female Arab dissident into submission, uncovers an imminent plot to explode bombs all over Algeria and must race against the clock to stop it. Rejali, who has examined the available records of the conflict, told me that the story has no basis in fact. In his view, the story line of “Les Centurions” provided French liberals a more palatable rationale for torture than the racist explanations supplied by others (such as the notion that the Algerians, inherently simpleminded, understood only brute force). Lartéguy’s scenario exploited an insecurity shared by many liberal societies—that their enlightened legal systems had made them vulnerable to security threats.
The italics are mine. I should admit at this point that I have never watched a full episode of 24.

Surnow directed three episodes of another, lesser series about international intrigue -- the USA network's televisionization of the Luc Besson movie La Femme Nikita. In that series, which ran from 1997 to 2001, an elite international counter-terrorism group turns a rebellious drug addict into a killing machine. LIke 24, there are interrogators who use very big hypodermic needles full of nameless chemicals to extract information. But I've always thought they were some high-tech form of De Niro's grasshopper -- something to loosen you up, like Sodium Pentothal (aka "truth serum"), and not a drug that causes extreme pain.

In real life, according to a Washington Post article from 2006, "There is no pharmaceutical compound today whose proven effect is the consistent or predictable enhancement of truth-telling."

Apparently the CIA's MK-ULTRA program, started in 1953, was in part an attempt at finding a truth serum.

The Post article also mentions some studies of a hormone produced by the brain called oxytocin. It's been used to help produce both uterine contractions and lactation, but some scientists in Switzerland studied its affects on trust:
About 130 college students were randomly given a snort of oxytocin or placebo. Half were then designated "investors" and were given money. They could keep or transfer some or all of the money to a student "trustee," whom they did not know and could not see.

The act of transferring money tripled its value, creating a big payoff for the trustee receiving it. That person could then keep it all or acknowledge the investor's trust by returning some portion.

The investors getting oxytocin on average transferred more money than those getting placebos, and twice as many -- 45 percent vs. 21 percent -- showed maximal trust and transferred it all. Interestingly, oxytocin had no effect on how much money trustees shared back with their investors, suggesting that the hormone acted specifically to promote trust in situations where there was risk and uncertainty.

Paul J. Zak, a neuroscientist at Claremont Graduate University in California, helped supervise the Swiss experiment. He later went to a meeting called by DARPA and presented the findings. When he was finished, a military scientist asked him: "How do I use this stuff tomorrow?"

Zak said he dodged the question. He observed that classic interrogation techniques, in which one person acts as the "good cop" and creates a bond with the prisoner, probably already makes use of the brain's own oxytocin. He added that, "we are just showing you the neurophysiology behind it."

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Crane Collapse

These are my snapshots of the crane collapse in Manhattan's East Side, one day later. There were about six square blocks around 50th Street and 2nd Avenue closed to traffic and rescuers were still loooking for survivors when I took these photos on Sunday afternoon. At that point, four were confirmed dead. When the searching was over the death total was at seven.

The building that the crane was attached to can be seen in the upper left corner in the photo above. What was left of the crane is leaning on the 19-story brick apartment building across the street. The real damage was to the buildings that the rest of the crane fell on, including a townhouse that was completely smushed.

The Rainbow Room

This is the dining room at the Rainbow Room on the 65th floor of 30 Rockefeller Center, the tallest of the 19-building complex. It was opened in 1934.

I was there for an FIT benefit dinner. The food was excellent. We had lamb with asparagus, polenta and a stuffed tomato. Apparently Anthony Bourdain dedicates a whole chapter to his tenure at the Rainbow Room in his Kitchen Confidential, but I've never read it.

They say the views are amazing, but last night the clouds were low enough that all we could see out the windows was a deep gray. It was spooky -- not unlike flying through a cloud in an airplane. But somehow more disturbing. Up and down have no meaning when there's nothingness outside.

The Origins of the Peace Sign

According to the BBC, the peace sign is 50 years old. It was designed by Gerald Holtom, a British WWII conscientious objector who created the symbol for the London-based Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War. As the chart at left shows, it was based on the semaphore codes for the letters N and D -- for "Nuclear Disarmament," surrounded by a circle that symbolized the earth.

He also said that it was symbolic of a person with arms spread down in despair, and later wanted to invert it to make it less negative. It took off with American hippies in the 60s and was criticised and mocked by conservatives as a symbol of communism, a chicken footprint, a runic symbol for death, and a Satanic version of a Christian cross with broken arms.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Quote of the Day: Christopher Hitchens

"It is cliché, not plagiarism, that is the problem with our stilted, room-temperature political discourse. It used to be that thinking people would say, with at least a shred of pride, that their own convictions would not shrink to fit on a label or on a bumper sticker. But now it seems that the more vapid and vacuous the logo, the more charm (or should that be "charisma"?) it exerts. Take "Yes We Can," for example. It's the sort of thing parents might chant encouragingly to a child slow on the potty-training uptake."
That's Christopher Hitchens writing in Slate this week. He's responding to Clinton's plagiarism accusations against Obama, accusations that mostly fell flat.

How Hitchens, who wrote a book on George Orwell, managed to talk about cliches and politics without mentioning Orwell baffles me. How can you talk about meaningless political slogans (Clinton: "Big Challenges, Real Solutions"; "Working for Change, Working for You"; "Ready for Change, Ready To Lead"; and "Solutions for America." Obama: "Change We Can Believe In;" Yes We Can.") without invoking Orwell's timeless essay "Politics and the English Language"?

Politics is no longer When was politics ever about issues and words? It's about feelings and electability. Demanding our candidates speak clearly and expand upon the empty potentials invoked by their pithy slogans would do us a lot of good.

In other Hitchens news, Vanity Fair has a new feature on its website called Hitch Bitch, which lets readers complain about Hitchens:

"No V.F. contributing editor arouses more reader ire than our tireless columnist Christopher Hitchens," says the magazine. The new Hitch Bitch section will help to "accommodate the overflow of outraged letters and e-mails sent to the magazine."


Sunday, March 09, 2008

Obituary: William F. Buckley Jr.

Just three or so days before my favorite living conservative passed, I was having dinner with a friend and her family in Hell's Kitchen. "William F. Buckley's dead," my friend's step-mother said, "I'm sure of it."

"No way," I argued. "I swear I just wrote something about him in someone else's obituary not two months ago." I couldn't remember whose though (It was Norman Mailer, last November).

We almost bet on it -- $20 -- and even agreed that I would still win as long as old Buck was still alive at the time we were betting. We didn't make the bet, but I sent a thank you letter (they paid for dinner) that mentioned as politely as possible that I would have won the bet. I dropped it in the mailbox one day and Buckely died the next.

So what do you say about a man who, as Buckley protege David Brooks recently wrote, "changed the personality of modern conservatism, created a national movement and expelled the crackpots from it"? The first thing you might say is that he was not a neocon. That's a good thing these days (doesn't Goldwater look almost reasonable today?). On the other hand, as we're reminded in the eulogies on both sides, he supported Joseph McCarthy, said nice things about General Franco, and stood in the way of Civil Rights. Then again, he really did, as Brooks said, help rid mainline conservatism of its more embarassing types (like the John Birch Society).

Buckley lent lukewarm support for the war in Iraq, and then openly opposed it. He thought Rumsfeld should have resigned after Abu Ghraib. He was disgusted by Guantanamo. He was against Bush's Troop Surge. In a lot of ways, he was once again "standing athwart history" by sticking to his conservative roots, by not capitulating to the neoconservative tidal wave that has owned the movement for the last decade and a half or more.

"Before Buckley, there was no conservative movement," wrote his neoconservative counterpart William Kristol in Weekly Standard. Conservatives like to say that. It's not exactly true, of course. American Conservative thought didn't just spring up out of Buckley in 1953 with God and Man at Yale. Liberals supported the idea, though -- Lionel Trilling called liberalism "the sole intellectual tradition" in America in 1950. So maybe it coalesced after Buckely cleaned it up.

I read the first half of God and Man at Yale, Buckley's indignant book in my last year of college. No, I couldn't finish it. But not because it wasn't good; it was. It was so earnest, so rebellious. Those damn liberals were ruining college and young Buckley wasn't going to sit still for it. What was so refreshing for me about Buckley was that he seemed like a conservative one could have a discussion with. What other conservatives come across that way today? Or yesterday? They're either too dumb, too belligerent, too loud, or they're too busy plotting your arrest for treason.

Unlike so much of the modern conservative (and especially the neoconservative) movement, Buckley was a polymath. He was intellectually curious.

The only Buckley book I own is a little dictionary called The Lexicon. I love it. It's a little dictionary of words Buckley has used, with his own definitions and his own citations. An example:
bowdlerized (verb) Shrunk, with the purpose of expurgating the titillating bits. After Thomas Bowdler (1754-1824).

Churchill pauses from the war effort to cable back his regards to Mrs. Luce, who meanwhile has been asked by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to brief them on her analyses, which, suitably bowdlerized, appear in successive issues of Life magazine and are a journalistic sensation.
Bowdler, I should add, was famous for taking the naughty bits (like references to "the beast with two backs" -- Othello -- and "oh happy dagger this is thy sheath" -- Romeo and Juliet) out of Shakespeare. Mormons would be proud.

Here's another:
buncombe (noun) Talk that is empty, insincere, or merely for effect; humbug.

Arafat's approach to a fresh plan in the Mideast was scorned by the government of Israel as so much diplomatic buncombe.
I might add that the word comes from an American Representative named Walker who gave a speech to the 16th Congress (1819-21), speaking for Buncombe, the North Carolina district he was from. But I had to look that up, and I'm not likely to use it in a sentence soon. That's the thing about Buckley -- he knew all these words and used them regularly and correctly. As Jesse Sheidlower says in his introduction to The Lexicon,
"He, unlike most of the hard-word crowd, genuinely uses thse words, and he uses them because they fit what he wants to say. He uses them in context, without calling special attention to them, because he knows them, not because he scribbled them in a notebook after finding them in the Oxford English Dictionary. He uses them because they are right.
There are others, like William Safire, another of my favorite conservatives/word mavens (how can you not love the guy who penned the famous Spiro Agnew line "nattering nabobs of negativism"?). But they're just not the same.

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Coney Island, Off-Season

"Look, I think Coney Island needs to be more ritzy; you know, do something that's gonna bring in the people with the money," said boardwalk game Shoot the Freak operator Anthony Berlingieri to the Washington Post last July. "You got some people out here, they're just opposed to change. But I say, look at the rest of New York. Look at the progress and all these affluent people everywhere. Hey, why shouldn't Coney Island get a piece of that?"

Shoot the Freak is a game with a prime spot on the boardwalk (in the ruins of what must have once been a small business) in which the curious pay for the chance to shoot a sun-burnt guy in plastic body armor with a paintball gun. Mr. Berlingieri or someone like him heckles the shooters and challenges onlookers via microphone. In any redevelopment scheme, it is likely that Shoot the Freak is precisely the sort of business that big money would get rid of first.

The photographs of Coney Island "off-season" above and below are by Robert Polidori from a slide show on the New Yorker website.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Quote of the Day: Willa Cather

"What was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself, -- life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose?"
That's from Willa Cather's 1915 novel The Song of the Lark, specifically from a scene in which the character Thea Kronborg, taking a bath at the bottom of a canyon near Southwestern cliff dwelling ruins, is struck by the above thought. It continues:
"The Indian women had held it in their jars. In the sculpture she had seen in the Art Institute, it had been caught in a flash of arrested motion. In singing, one made a vessel of one's throat and nostrils and held it on one's breath, caught the stream in a scale of natural intervals. "
It's hard not to think of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" after reading that: a moment frozen from an ancient time and beheld again by another.

On a more emotional level, it reminds me of a photograph I saw in the first art history textbook I ever had for a class, Duane Michals' "This is My Proof":

The handwritten part of the piece says:
“This Photograph is my proof. There was that afternoon, when things were still good between us, and she embraced me, and we were so happy. It did happen. She did love me. Look see for yourself!”
This is in turn reminds me of a scene from The Great Gatsby, in which Gatsby's father, talking to the narrator before the title character's funeral, takes out a photograph of the house they are standing in front of:
"Jimmy sent me this picture." He took out his wallet with trembling fingers. "Look there."

It was a photograph of the house, cracked in the corners and dirty with many hands. He pointed out every detail to me eagerly. "Look there!" and then sought admiration from my eyes. He had shown it so often that I think it was more real to him now than the house itself.
The last two examples take nostalgia to the point of creating small, false worlds; symbolic places in the mind represented by pictures that capture not moments, but feelings. And those worlds of feelings are private, unshared.

I found an article about Duane Michals in which he's quoted: "I don't want to catalog images. I want to get into something that I can't truly describe. I might fail in the process, but it's where true creativity is born."

So seldom do photographs come ready-made with their own captions. (Though the idea must come from Magritte's paintings; the artist was a big inspiration for Michals.) If a picture is worth a thousand word, as the cliche goes, what is the worth of one that comes with its own words? Michals said:
"Photographers tend not to photograph what they can't see, which is the very reason one should try to attempt it. Otherwise we're going to go on forever just photographing more faces and more rooms and more places. Photography has to transcend description. It has to go beyond description to bring insight into the subject, or reveal the subject, not as it looks, but how does it feel?"

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