The Arts

I especially enjoyed the part about his interior decorating, this segment was fun too:

Hart’s appetite for complex contract negotiations has also served him well at home. He and his wife embarked on a major renovation of their house several years ago, adding new rooms to the ground floor and expanding the kitchen and backyard. Though he admits that his wife spearheaded the design, which included an open kitchen and new sitting room just off the main entrance, Hart says he negotiated the contract with the builders. “You learn right away that nothing will be completed when they say it will,” he adds with a wry smile. “So there are lessons that even I can learn.”

Here is the full FT story.  Here is The Economist covering Rita Goldberg’s second-generation Holocaust memoir; she is Hart’s wife.

I thought this was one of the very best of the conversations, Jhumpa responded consistently with brilliance and grace.  Here is the link to the transcript, podcast, and video versions.  In addition to discussing her books, we covered Rhode Island, Elena Ferrante, book covers, Bengal and Kolkaata and Bengali literature, immigrant identity, writing as problem solving, Italian authors, writing and reading across different languages, Indian classical music, architectural influences including Palladianism, and much more.  Here is one excerpt:

TYLER COWEN: …You’ve written a great deal about not having a native country, about not having a language of your own that’s clearly yours, or even a culture. Having read or reread all of your work and surrounding works, and if I think, “How do I frame you?” I would say I think of you as a Rhode Islander because that’s where you grew up. You were born in England but came here when you were three, grew up in Rhode Island. How would you react to that?

JHUMPA LAHIRI: Uncomfortably.

[laughter]…

LAHIRI: I mean, with all due respect. It’s true.

LAHIRI: Well, I think what was helpful about it is that it opened up the setting of The Lowland, which is set in part in Rhode Island, but it’s the first of my books in which I can actually mention Rhode Island by its name. Whereas the other books, the preceding books, are set in these sort of fake Rhode Island slash Massachusetts, this area, this terrain that really is Rhode Island, just to boil it down. But I couldn’t mention it. I couldn’t name it as such. And I think that’s telling.

It was saying something, the fact that in the earlier books I was writing about the ocean. I was writing about this small campus, this little town, and describing these settings that I knew very well, the settings I had grown up in, but I couldn’t come out and say that it was Rhode Island. I kept calling it some suburb of Boston. So I think the writing of that piece unlocked something. Then in The Lowland, they’re in Rhode Island, and I don’t pretend anymore.

And:

COWEN: If you compare Interpreter of Maladies to your other short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, do you think of the latter, more recent work as being more about reconciliation and there’s a greater role for children or families in at least some of the stories? Or do you think, overall, your fiction with time is moving in the direction of Hardy and becoming darker?

LAHIRI: I think it’s becoming darker and I think that’s usually the case as we get older, right?

Jhumpa on Kolkaata:

…it’s a city that believes in its poets, that believes in its politics, believes in humanity in some sense. And life is so extreme there, in so many ways. People are put to the test, and you see life being put to the test constantly around you. There’s nothing you can really accept easily or take for granted about yourself or about the universe if you’ve been there. It’s a jolt to your consciousness, but a fundamental one, an essential one, to shake us out of this, whatever takes over, if you protect yourself.

Do read (or listen to) the whole thing.  Jhumpa’s last two books are excellent and highly underrated, both were written in Italian (!) and then translated.  One is on writing and reading in a foreign language, the other is on book covers.

Chuck Norris Versus Communism is a great documentary about art, the power of heroes, and the end of communism in Romania. After the communist regime was established in 1948, travel was restricted, the media were censored and the secret police watched everyone. Romania was cut off from the rest of the world. In the mid-1980s, however, smuggled VHS tapes of American movies began to circulate. Underground groups would gather together to watch samizdat movies like Rocky and Lone Wolf McQuade.

lonewolfmcquade_quadFor many of the young boys (now men) featured in the documentary the West’s action heroes became role models of endurance, independence and fortitude. I too remember running home filled with enthusiasm after seeing Rocky but in Romania the message was all the more powerful because there was so little else to compete with Hollywood’s images and watching was itself a kind of heroic snubbing of the regime.

The action was exciting but perhaps even more revealing were the ordinary scenes of supermarkets stocked with food, at a time when Romania was racked with severe rationing. City lights, beautiful cars, and the ordinary freedoms of worship and belief casually portrayed, all impressed on the Romanian viewers the starkness of their own situation.

Almost all of the movies were dubbed (technically voice over translated) into Romanian by one woman who took on all the roles. Few people knew her name but her voice became entwined with that of the heroes she translated and she became a national symbol of freedom. Irina Nistor is revealed as a real hero who despite great personal risk continued to translate hundreds of movies because that is when she felt most free.

There’s also a mystery that the documentary discusses but does not fully answer. How did the mastermind of the smuggling operation, Teodor Zamfir, get away with it? At least some of the authorities had some idea of what he was doing but perhaps due to bribery, perhaps because there were no longer any true believers, perhaps because the authorities thought the movies would provide an escape valve from the harshness of Romanian life, they allowed the operation to continue. Zamfir also appears to have had immense personal charisma, so much so that he somehow turned an undercover operative to his side. It’s a remarkable story.

Chuck Norris Versus Communism is available on Netflix.

Hat tip: Dan Klein and also Emily Skarbek’s excellent post.

I wanted to like this book, as I am keen to discover new perspectives on the arts, even if I don’t agree with them.  “False” books on the arts often illuminate the artworks themselves, sometimes more than do the “true” treatments.  Yet this work I had a tough time making sense of.  I will confess to having read only about a third of it, and browsed some more.  As I understand the book’s thesis, the plasticity of the brain, as it changes across historical eras, helps explain changes in the content of the visual arts.  But I view brain plasticity as a generally overrated idea, evidence for such claims about the arts is hard to come by (how much do we know about differences in brains in ancient Athens for instance? And how good is our theory linking brain differences to artistic content?), and most of all neuroscience itself so often disappears during the book’s exposition.  Even the Amazon summary indicates the rather mysterious nature of the book’s main argument.  It is a beautifully produced volume, and it feels important, and maybe there is finally scope for a book of this kind, but…

Here is a (very) negative review by Matthew Rampley.  Some of you may nonetheless find this interesting.  It is a big ideas book, and perhaps it can prompt you to write a more clearly defined big ideas book in response.

Yup, I’m here.  I made this list before setting off:

1. Popular music: Few from any country come close to Fela Kuti, the main question is how many you should buy, not which ones.  Most of them!  On the CD medium, that old series of “two albums on one CD” was the best way to consume Fela.  On streaming, you can probably just let it rip.  And rip.  And rip.  Other favorites are King Sunny Ade and I.K. Dairo, I don’t love Fema Kuti.  You also might try Nigerian psychedelic funk rock from the late 60s and early 70s, for instance found here.  Most of all, there are thousands of wonderful local performers in Nigeria, you can watch a few of them on the Netflix documentary on the Nigerian music scene, titled Konkombe, recommended and only an hour long.

There is now a good deal of hit Nigerian and Nigerian-American music, such as Wizkid.  It is enjoyable but does not compare to Fela in terms of staying power.

2. Basketball player: The Dream is one of my three or four favorite players of all time.  My favorite Hakeem was watching him pick apart David Robinson play after play after play…see the final clip on the immediately preceding link.

3. Novel: Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart.  Honorable mentions go to Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri, and my colleague Helon Habila.  There are also the Nigerian-American writers, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  Teju Cole is worth reading, including his non-fiction.

4. Movie: Well, I’ve seen parts of some of them, and you should at least sample some Nollywood if you haven’t already.  It’s kinetic.  The documentary “Nollywood Babylon” (Netflix) gives you some background.  As for “Movie, set in,” I draw a blank.  “Album, set in and recorded in” would be Band on the Run, Paul McCartney and Wings.

5. Actor: Chiwetal Ejiofor, he starred in “Twelve Years a Slave,” and is from a Nigerian family in Britain.

6. Presidential name: Goodluck Jonathan.

7. Artist: Prince Twins Seven Seven, or more formally Prince Taiwo Olaniyi Wyewale-Toyeje Oyekale Osuntoki.  He received his nickname because he was the only surviving child from seven distinct sets of twins.

prince_twins_seven-seven_1

8. Food dish: At least for now I have to say jollof rice, a precursor dish to jambalaya, further reports to come however!

The bottom line: Lots of talent here, plenty more on the way.

Merry Christmas!

by on December 25, 2016 at 12:19 am in History, Religion, The Arts | Permalink

giotto2

That is by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, published this November, a great book, could it be the very best book on the charm and importance of the Caribbean?  Not the Caribbean of the cruise, but rather the real cultural Caribbean as found in Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, and Trinidad.  The Caribbean was open, globalized, multiracial, vulnerable, and deindustrialized before it was “cool” to be so, and so it stands as a warning to us all.  Yet so few seem to care.  The Caribbean cultural blossoming of the 20th century remains one of the most remarkable yet understudied sagas, but this book, among its other historical virtues, gives you a very good look under the hood.

Did you know that in the 1930s Cuba received more visitors from the U.S. than did Canada?

This is one of the very best non-fiction books of this year, and its depth of knowledge and understanding truly impressed me.  Just to prod your memories here is the broader list.

Shazaam!

by on December 23, 2016 at 1:03 pm in History, Religion, The Arts | Permalink

Do you remember the early 90s movie Shazaam! which featured Sinbad as the genie? Many people do and some people think that this is the best evidence that we are living in a simulation. They are correct.

I was watching the excellent Rogue One when suddenly I thought “Wow, they sure found an actor who looks just like Peter Cushing.”  As the scene, progressed my thoughts changed to “Tyler, are you sure that Peter Cushing passed away?”  As I watching the credits, I saw a thanks to the “Estate of Peter Cushing, OBE,” and so I went back to wondering about the actor, but then why did they thank the estate?

The reality is this:

…the face of Peter Cushing, the imposing British actor who died in 1994, lends an especially memorable presence to “Rogue One” by helping to “reprise” his “Star Wars” character, Grand Moff Tarkin, the Imperial governor who practically rules by force of glare, intonation and cheekbone.

…Under director Gareth Edwards, “Rogue One” represents another marker in the decades-long quest for the best CGI-fashioned human replicas. The filmmakers auditioned actors to “play” Cushing’s Tarkin, settling on BBC soap actor Guy Henry. This Tarkin is thus free of the dreaded “dead eye” effect. Lo, though the effects wizards walk through the “uncanny valley,” Tarkin registers as quite alive — even if his facial proportions sometimes read as ever so slightly off from the Original Trilogy. We are nearing the reality of a fully fleshed-out, CGI-enhanced performance long after an actor has passed.

If “Rogue One” wins an Oscar for effects, Cushing should be in no small part why.

cushing

When will the slope start where amateur video becomes significantly less trustworthy as well?  Or even just “But Mom, I saw him do it on TV!”  While we’re at it, how about a symphony orchestra conducted by “Beethoven”?

So suggests the Daily Mail:

Donald Trump has drawn ‘first blood’ in the search for his incoming administration’s senior arts role – by tapping up Rambo legend Sylvester Stallone.

Sources have told DailyMail.com the president-elect sees Hollywood icon Stallone as the perfect choice to make art great again.

The likely position would be Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that doles out funds to aspiring artists and creative projects.

Here are my earlier suggestions for how Trump could improve government support for the arts.  Here is an article on Stallone as painter, with photos.  Furthermore, Raphael once painted Stallone.  His favorite perfume is Bijan for Men by Bijan.  I say this is probably a good pick, as it would bring glamor and attention to a much-neglected agency.

Addendum: Judge Dredd is an excellent movie!

That is the subject of my new Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

My second recommendation is to restore fully the ability of the NEA to make grants to individual artists, thereby undoing changes that were made in 1994. That would diminish the role of the middlemen and support artists rather than art museums. This too has the potential to boost creativity, as large institutions with overhead tend to be more artistically conservative than individual artists or arts groups. Such a change would take the NEA back to its earliest and arguably most effective period near its origin in 1965, when it supported creators such as Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, George Segal, Ed Ruscha and William Gaddis (all grant recipients in the first year alone), among other luminaries.

You may recall that there is a reason why the NEA moved away from making grants to individual artists. The agency had supported several artists and art projects that displayed nudity or other images that many people considered pornographic or offensive. At the time, Congress did not wish to be affiliated so directly with such expressions of the human creative impulse. Therefore grants were shifted to higher-level arts institutions, with the understanding that the institutions would not embarrass the federal government in this manner.

Is it possible that, under the forthcoming administration, this embarrassment constraint has eased somewhat?

I also call for stopping the transfers of the National Endowment for the Arts to the state arts agencies, on the grounds that federal arts taste usually is superior.

Do read the whole thing.

Zeng Fanzhi

by on November 19, 2016 at 12:29 am in The Arts | Permalink

zeng-fanzhi1

Here are other images by Zeng Fanzhi.  Here is the NYT article on how Zeng Fanzhi became China’s leading artist.

That is the new book by Christopher de Hamel, and it is one of the very best non-fiction books this year, in fact so far it might rank #1.  It is twelve chapters, each one about an individual medieval manuscript, the best-known of those being the Book of Kells.   The integration of text and the visuals is of the highest order of quality.  Most of all, the book brings each manuscript to life, relating its creators and creation, the surrounding historical context, its subsequent preservation and fame, and how that history has embodied varying attitudes toward copying and preservation.  No less illuminating is the anthropological treatment of how each manuscript is currently guarded and displayed, the author’s travel history in getting there, and a more general “philosophical without the philosophy” introspection on what these objects are really supposed to mean to us.

This book is not in every way light reading, and it does assume some (very broad) background in medieval history, but it brings a whole topic to light, and instructs, in a way that few other works do.

Here is just one short excerpt:

My initial inquiry as to whether I might see the manuscript of the Aratea in the Universiteitsbibliotheek in Leiden was met with the reply that this would hardly be necessary, since there is a high-class published facsimile from 1989 and the complete book is in any case digitized and freely available on-line.  It was a response entirely within the theme of copying.  If you had applied to the palace librarians of Aachen in the early ninth century to see the late-antique Terence, they would almost certainly have assured you that you would be better off with their nice new copy by their scribe Hrodgarius.

Hamel worked for a long time in the book department at Sotheby’s and then in a library at Cambridge University.  He is a bit of a fuddy-duddy (he thinks the bustle of NYC is extreme, for instance), but nonetheless has produced a lovely and complete work that virtually every author should envy.  I am ordering his other books too, mostly on the history of books.

Here is a Guardian review, John Banville in the FT raves about it, and here is The Paris Review.  I believe I ordered it on Amazon.uk, all five-star reviews by the way.  Here is the U.S. Amazon listing, with access to used copies, I am not sure when the American edition comes out.

kells

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Steven of course was in top form. We started with irregular verbs, and then moved on to Chomsky, theories of language, the mind and Jon Haidt’s modules, reason, what unifies the thought and work of Steven Pinker, rap music, William Shatner (underrated, “although maybe not his singing”), Sontag on photography, the future of world peace, and the Ed Sullivan show.

Here is one bit:

COWEN: Let me now put on my economist’s hat and ask you about this. As you know, in George Orwell’s 1984, the Party bans all irregular verbs. It’s a kind of excess regulation. But from a social point of view, are there too many or too few irregular verbs in English?

PINKER: [laughs] I like the irregular verbs. I’d like to see more of them.

…One distinction that is vanishing that I think is sad is the three-way distinction in verbs like sink, sank, sunk; stink, stank, stunk; shrink, shrank, shrunk; where the shrank and the stank are giving way to their participle forms shrunkand stunk.

COWEN: No shrank and stank.

PINKER: No shrank and stank. Admittedly it would have been hard to have a movie called Honey, I Shrank the Kids instead of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. In my style manual, The Sense of Style, I recommend hanging on to them. I think they’re nice.

And on Chomsky:

PINKER: It’s a moving target. Also, as you say, it was neither specified in a precise way nor field‑tested against a dataset of language variation, which I think is unfortunate in terms of ordinary scientific practice.

On peace:

COWEN: Let me ask you a general question. Let’s say it were possible by spending $10,000 and devoting a few months of your life to it that any person on earth could blow up a significant part of a major city.

They could buy something, some kind of explosive. It would cost them $10,000. How long would it take before someone actually did this?

PINKER: I don’t know. My optimism doesn’t consist of prophecy in that sense. That is, my optimism consists of looking at what has happened and noting that, first of all, the pessimistic view is factually incorrect. Namely, people believe that we’re living in unusually violent times and we’re not.

How to project that into the future is a separate set of questions. There are many unknowns that I’m not arrogant enough to know the answer to. It’s something that we could debate. We could explore them. I am not an optimist in the sense of saying, “Well, let’s just extrapolate the curves in the future without asking questions like that.”

Self-recommending, to be sure…

*Walk Through Walls*

by on October 27, 2016 at 1:24 pm in Books, Film, Philosophy, The Arts | Permalink

That’s the new and very direct and frank memoir by Marina Abramović.  It is a narrative of how a very smart and insightful person can choose (almost) never to think like an economist, and how she might evolve from a naive Serbian virgin to one of the world’s most worldly, serene, and profound performers.  Here is one part:

My parents’ marriage was like a war — I never saw them hug or kiss or express any affection toward each other.  Maybe it was just an old habit from partisan days, but they both slept with loaded pistols on their bedside tables!  I remember once, during a rare period when they were speaking to each other, my father came home for lunch and my mother said, “Do you want soup?”  And when he said yes, she came up behind him and dumped the hot soup on his head.  He screamed, pushed the table away, broke every dish in the room, and walked out.

As for her famed lover, the unreliable Ulay, the cause of her broken heart:

A small crowd was there to watch our meeting [on China’s Great Wall].  I wept as he embraced me.  It was the embrace of a comrade, not a lover: the warmth had drained out of him.  I would soon learn that he had impregnated his translator: Ding Xiao Song.  They would marry in Beijing in December.

This book passed the core test that I wanted it to be much longer than it was.  Here is a good Carl Swanson profile of the artist and the book, maybe the best piece I have read this week.