The Arts

The Berkshire Museum, yes.  They were going to sell 40 paintings at Sotheby’s, including two very special Norman Rockwells, but at the last minute a court decision halted the sale, claiming (with only thin justification) that the sale would violate the museum’s trusts.  That is the setting of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

The sad truth is that the people running the Berkshire Museum just don’t care that much about American art any more, at least not from an institutional point of view. Given that reality, it’s actually better if they are not entrusted with important artworks.

The court’s decision now means it will be hard to pull off the sale with fully clear rights to the titles, although the court’s judgment will be re-examined in December. Both the uncertainty and the surrounding negative publicity will scare off buyers and may spoil the market for a long time to come.

There is much more at the link.  The argument against selling, of course, is that in a world of frequent sales all museums will find it hard to make credibly binding commitments to their donors, who often do not want their donated works recycled in the marketplace.  But the equilibrium of zero selling is one that will destroy a great deal of value in the art world.  Note that this problem will become increasingly relevant as the clock ticks and the number and inappropriateness of past museum commitments piles up.  If nothing else, sooner or later insolvency sets in.  Rust never sleeps.  And so on.

Should churches really own all that land in the downturns of major American cities?

Here is the transcript and podcast, I enjoyed this chat very much.  Here is part of the opening summary:

Sujatha Gidla was an untouchable in India, but moved to the United States at the age of 26 and is now the first Indian woman to be employed as a conductor on the New York City Subway. In her memoir Ants Among Elephants, she explores the antiquities of her mother, her uncles, and other members of her family against modern India’s landscape.

Our conversation considered the nature and persistence of caste, gender issues in India, her time as a revolutionary, New York City lifestyle and neighborhoods and dining, religion, living in America versus living in India, Bob Dylan and Dalit music, American identity politics, the nature of Marxism, Halldor Laxness, and why she left her job at the Bank of New York to become a New York City subway conductor, among other topics.

Here is one sequence:

GIDLA: Actually, the only relation I have with my family members is political views.

[laughter]

GIDLA: If we have to connect on familial links, we will always be fighting and killing each other. All that we talk about with my mother is politics and untouchability and caste and Modi and things like that.

It’s the same thing with my sister also. This is where we connect. Otherwise, we are like enemies. My brother, we’re completely alienated from each other, firstly because he goes to church now. We never used to go to church before. He’s into this Iacocca. Is there a name . . . ?

COWEN: Iacocca?

GIDLA: Yeah.

COWEN: Lee Iacocca?

GIDLA: Yeah.

COWEN: The former Chrysler chairman?

GIDLA: Yeah. He reads that kind of books.

COWEN: Management books.

GIDLA: He’s into that kind of stuff.

COWEN: You don’t?

GIDLA: No.

GIDLA: He read Freakonomics and he liked it. I don’t relate to that stuff.

And this toward the end:

COWEN: Your most touching memory of your mother?

GIDLA: I don’t know. When I was arrested, she was very worried. She said, “I wish I could take you back into my womb.”

Strongly recommended.  I was pleased to see that Publisher’s Weekly named Sujatha Gidla’s book as one of the ten best of 2017, you can order it here.

Mandatory parking requirements, sidewalks, curb cuts, fire lanes, on site stormwater management, handicapped accessibility, draught tolerant native plantings… It’s a very long list that totaled $340,000 worth of work. They only paid $245,000 for the entire property. And that’s before they even started bringing the building itself up to code for their intended use. Guess what? They decided not to open the bakery or brewery. Big surprise.

Here is much more, from Johnny at Granola Shotgun, one of the best pieces of the year, with superb photos, lovely twists and turns in the narrative, hat tip goes to Anecdotal.

Here are all posts by Johnny, “I’m an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape, from small rural towns to skyscrapers and everything in between. I travel often, conduct interviews with people of interest, and gather photos and video of places worth talking about. The good, the bad, and the ugly – it’s all fascinating to me.” — a new master of the medium.

Two exhibits in Manhattan, taken collectively, offer what might be this year’s most rewarding aesthetic and learning experience.  I stated a while ago that for the first time in a long time (possibly ever), America has a peer country in China.  The contemporary Chinese art overview in the Guggenheim is the single best demonstration of this point I have seen, and the show is further evidence that China already may have surpassed the United States in the visual arts.  Read this NYT review: “…a powerful, unmissable event, and an invaluable window onto a world of contemporary art, politics and history that we still, decades on, barely know.”  This is not complacent art, and some of it was so disturbing it had to be removed before the show opened (NB: the Chinese were not the ones censoring).

At the still underrated Morgan Library, you will find Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection, in two large rooms.  Are drawings and watercolors better than paintings?  Per dollar spent, for sure.  I cannot think of a better, more easily digestible survey of the brilliant visual intelligences behind the last few centuries of Western art.  This NYT review also has quality visuals.

Written by Mike Wallace, and weighing in at almost 1200 pp., this is one of the best books of the year.  Every page has interesting material.  You could pull out just the bits on the origins of the subway, or the development of the arts and entertainment, or immigration, and still have one of the best books of the year.  From one Amazon review:

The narratives are well-honed and to the point. There is not one ounce of journalistic fluff. There are no fanciful digressions into fads and fashions of the day. There is no imaginary dialogue, unlike the situation found in some “history books” written by mere poseurs.

And:

Simply put this is another masterpiece deserving the highest accolades. Tremendously rich in anecdotes it is superbly written. If you grew-up in New York, particularly in the outer boroughs, the book will have a special meaning for you as you see the physical, cultural and human development of your neighborhood. My favorite sections were on the development of the ‘arteries and ligaments’ of the city; the radicals among the Jewish immigrants, and New York in World War I.

I have read only a few hundred pages of it, and may not read it all, but am likely to read more than half of it.  Strongly recommended, it’s also one of the best books on American history period.  You can order it here.

David Evans on the economics of attention:

In 2016, 437 billion hours, worth $7.1 trillion dollars, were exchanged in the
attention market in the US based on conservative estimates reported above. Attention
platforms paid for that time with content and then sold advertisers access to portions of that
time. As a result, advertisers were able to deliver messages to consumers that those
consumers would probably not have accepted in the absence of the barter of content for
their time. Consumers often don’t like getting these messages. But by agreeing to receive
them they make markets more competitive.


The economics of attention markets focuses on three features. First it focuses on
time as the key dimension of competition since it is what is being bought and sold. Second,
it focuses on content since it plays a central role in acquiring time, embedding advertising
messages, and operating efficient attention platforms. And third it focuses on the scarcity of
time and the implications of that for competition among attention platforms.

The $7.1 trillion estimate for the value of content seems too high. The high value comes from Evans assuming that the marginal wage is higher than the average so the average wage which he uses to calculate the value of time is, if anything, an underestimate while for most people I think the marginal wage is lower than the average (many people don’t even have jobs) so the average is an over-estimate. Brynjolfsson and Oh, however, using somewhat different methods estimate the consumer surplus from television as 10% of GDP and from the internet of 6% GDP or combined about $3 trillion at current levels. Either way the attention economy is very large and understudied relative to its importance.

The Mona Lisa is not the best artwork ever, and as a painter I am not sure Leonardo is much better than either Mantegna or Piero della Francesca, neither of whom is much known to the general public, much less Titian.  He has no work as stunning as Michelangelo’s David, and too many of his commissions he left unfinished or he never started them.  The Notebooks display a fertile imagination, but do not contain much real knowledge of use, except on the aortic valve, nor did they boost gdp, nor are they worth reading.  Much of his science is weak on theory, even relative to his time.  In Milan he was too content to serve as court impresario, and he seemed to have no idea of how to apply his own talents in accord with comparative advantage.

His ability to take an idea and turn it into a memorable sketch was his most remarkable ability, and in this he is without peer.

Plus he painted “woman as gorgon” very very well, but with a sweetness too.

I can recommend Walter Isaacson’s new book on Leonardo as a wonderful introduction, but it does not change my mind on these points.

 

From my email:

Hi, Mr. Cowen. I recently read The Complacent Class recently and enjoyed it. I’m writing because there’s an another example of American complacency that’s only come to light in recent weeks…

Specifically: the Billboard music charts..

Shape of You by Ed Sheeran last week broke the record for most weeks in top 10, with 33 weeks. The song it beat, Closer by The Chainsmokers and Halsey, set the previous record less than a year ago. http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/7948959/ed-sheeran-shape-of-you-record-most-weeks-top-ten

(And yet another song in last week’s top 10, That’s What I Like by Bruno Mars, currently holds the 8th-longest record on that metric — and potentially still rising.)

Meanwhile, Despacito by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber tied the all-time record with its 16th week at #1: http://www.billboard.com/biz/articles/news/record-labels/7942315/luis-fonsi-daddy-yankee-justin-biebers-despacito-ties-for

Meanwhile, the biggest country song in the nation right now, Body Like a Back Road by Sam Hunt, is currently in its record-extending 30th week at #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart: http://www.billboard.com/files/pdfs/country_update_0905.pdf

This did not happen in decades past. Look at the Billboard charts from the ’80s — it was a new #1 song almost every week!    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Billboard_Hot_100_number-one_singles_of_the_1980s

Just like how you describe in your book how people are moving less and want to stay in the same town where they were before, or how they’re switching jobs less and want to stay in the same job where they were before, people apparently just want to listen to the same songs they’ve been listening to already.

That is from Jesse Rifkin, who is a journalist in Washington, D.C. who writes about Congress for GovTrack Insider and about the film industry for Boxoffice Magazine.  Jesse sends along more:

And if you want links for statistical evidence, here are two — one about which movies have spent the most weekends in the box office top 10, the other about which songs have spent the most weeks in the Billboard top 10:

How is making clothing for animals different than for humans?

“There is a whole different physiology when you’re designing for a pet. The animal has to be able to go to the bathroom without removing the clothing. The design must be comfortable, because you don’t want the dog chewing at it or taking it off on the runway.”

What’s the price range of your designs?

“Anywhere from $300 to $15,000. The most expensive item I did was a pageant dress for a Maltese for the New York Pet Fashion Show. It had a crown, a faux fur wrap covered in Swarovski crystals, and the gown was convertible — the skirt part came apart and the dog was still wearing the harness.”

How do you choose the dog models?

“I have a who’s who of the famous dogs of Instagram (including Norbert and Henry from Bideawee, a New York pet welfare organization). I use my clients’ dogs, and I always do a rags-to-riches story and feature a rescue animal that can be adopted.”

What’s it like being a dog clothing designer in New York?

“There was time when people would look at it weird, in the beginning when I was doing it. Now you can’t go anywhere where the dog is not wearing something. I mean, my dogs even wear shades.”

That is an NYT chat with designer Anthony Rubio.

That is the excellent title they gave to my latest Bloomberg column.  The piece starts by offering a very simple theory of what statues are for, and then I shift to the perspective of a foreigner.  Here is one bit:

Or consider the debates in Macedonia. The city of Skopje went on a major statue-building binge several years ago, both as fiscal policy and to cement national identity. One of the resulting disputes is whether those statues should emphasize the country’s ancient Greek connections (e.g., Alexander the Great) or the Slavic heritage (e.g., Saints Cyril and Methodius). It’s a strange debate to an outsider, yet to many Macedonians and some of their Greek neighbors (who wish to claim Alexander as their own), it is one of the most fraught issues of the day.

Again, you won’t get too far on this one by debating the life and times of Alexander, whether he led aggressive or defensive wars, or by asking how many slaves he owned. It’s better to focus on which political faction you wish to see assume more authority in Macedonia, and then work backward to figure out your preferred statues.

Similarly, if Macedonians were asked to evaluate the relative moralities of historic American leaders, I hope they would consider a similar approach. I don’t find it so fruitful to debate how much Robert E. Lee does or does not have in common with George Washington  — arguably Washington was a traitor of sorts as well, against a relatively benign British ruler, and he fought against Native Americans and owned slaves. American treatment of Native Americans makes it hard to find many truly “good guys” from that period. Still, we can ask what role Washington statues play in today’s politics; few people are using them to lord over Native Americans.

And my conclusion:

So if you’re considering the worthiness of a particular statue, here are three pointers: Pretend you’re from some very distant foreign country and view the dispute through that more objective lens. Second, focus on the future, and third don’t be afraid to make some changes.

Do read the whole thing.

Here is the transcript and audio (no video).

We discuss what makes Florida special, why business writing is so terrible, Eddie Murphy, whether social conservatives can be funny (in public), the weirdness of Peter Pan, how he is so productive, playing guitar with Roger McGuinn, DT, the future of comedy, and much much more.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If I look at old slapstick, it doesn’t seem funny at all. Intuitively, you would think slapstick, being only physical, would have a much longer half-life. What I find funny is very culturally specific references. Now, am I strange?

BARRY: Well, not about slapstick. When I was a little guy, I maybe thought that the Three Stooges were kind of funny but that stopped a long time ago. Some physical humor is still funny to me. Abbott and Costello were pretty physical, but they were funny without being slapstick. Just hitting each other in the nose and going, “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk” never struck me as funny at all. I have forgotten the second part of your question.

On different comedians and what’s not funny anymore

COWEN: You mentioned Abbott and Costello. If you’re willing, I’ll talk about a few comedians, or mention a few, and you can tell me what you found funny with them, didn’t find funny.

Let’s start with Abbott and Costello. Favorite of my father. I’ve watched almost all the movies. As I kid, I didn’t find them funny, but I actually started to find them funny in retrospect after having watched a bit of Seinfeld and Larry David. What’s your take on Abbott and Costello?

BARRY: Yeah, I can see the connection there. It more relies on you letting it — the humor — slowly develop and the characters themselves being the humor without coming right out and saying what’s funny about it: The one who never understands what’s going on, the one who’s always losing his patience with the other one. The first, maybe, three or four times, it’s just mildly amusing. But after a while, when you see it coming, that becomes very funny to you.

It’s very rare to find that kind of patience in humor anymore. I don’t think the audience is as generous as it used to be, allowing humor to build the way it did in an Abbott and Costello sketch.

COWEN: And is Abbott or Costello funnier to you? Abbott being the straight man.

BARRY: Yeah, I think Abbott is funnier.

COWEN: I think he’s much funnier.

Most of all, I was impressed by Dave Barry as a managerial force for his own career.  Again, here is the link.

Skopje notes

by on August 11, 2017 at 12:11 am in Food and Drink, History, The Arts, Travels | Permalink

Skopje, capital city of Macedonia, is a dream world for lovers of concrete communist architecture.

Link here, photos recommended.  It seems it is also the roast pepper capital of the world, and this:

The city center holds concrete masterpieces sitting alongside every possible era of architecture from the last two millennium. An ancient Castle fortress looks down from one side, and the world’s biggest cross sits atop an inner city mountain on the other. On one side of the Vardar river that cuts through the city center, is a ancient neighbourhood that could be straight out of Istanbul. On the other, the city square with an enormous “Man On a Horse” statue (just don’t say it’s Alexander the Great, believe me) is a pleasurable and walk-able area normally bustling with activity. Connecting the two areas, is the Stone Bridge, built about 700 years ago – on top of much older Roman foundations. The layers and the contrast is unique for any city of this size.

Imagine a city that is part Habsburg in style, part Ottoman, part communist brutalism, and part Las Vegas/Venetian kitsch except it isn’t kitschy, and with a dash of 300 thrown in for good measure, distributed across dozens or is it hundreds of large statues?

The earthquake of 1963 is mentioned fairly often; it destroyed about 80 percent of the city.

Mother Teresa was born in Skopje, and there is a museum in her honor.  A good day trip from Skopje is the St. Jovan Bigorski monastery, some of the finest woodcarving I have seen.  It is striking to view the church in conjunction with the Saudi-financed mosque across the valley, thereby inducing one to ponder the use of stones to capture space in the game of Go.

I am told there are Macedonian enclaves in Totowa, Clifton, and Garfield, New Jersey.

The food is phenomenal, in addition to the roast peppers there are breads, baked pies, meats stewed with vegetables, white beans, stuffed peppers, trout, and Balkan cheeses, all with that farm to table touch.  Further to the south I recommend the garlic spread.

There is sexual dimorphism in Skopje, and I am told that Donald Trump is more popular in this country than in any other.

The major Macedonian exports are chemical goods, machinery, clothing, iron, and steel.  The measured unemployment rate is about 23 percent, and there is a comparative advantage in producing “fake news.”  There are varying estimates for per capita income, but about 13k (PPP) seems in the ballpark.

Politics was discussed and maps were shown.  To put a twist on the famous quotation about religion in India, when it comes to history, every Macedonian is a millionaire.

English proficiency is high, as Macedonian has only slightly more than 2 million inhabitants and none of the immediate neighbors has a language that is very useful elsewhere.  The people are very friendly and helpful, and it is quite safe here for a tourist.

On the television I watched the first quarter of “NBA Team Africa vs. NBA Rest of the World,” Serge Ibaka vs. Dirk Nowitzki, etc., a real game with refs and a crowd, does the NBA even tell the American market about contests such as this?

If food, architecture, and history interest you, visit the fresh and vibrant Skopje.

…the theater and film industry are beginning to recognize the need for “intimacy directors,” people who specialize in choreographing onstage intimacy.

They are practitioners who use concrete guidelines and techniques, such as the “four pillars” of intimacy direction, according to Alicia Rodis, a member of Intimacy Directors International.

Consent: Get the performers’ permission — including concrete boundaries and out of bounds body parts, and do it before you start.

Communication: Keep talking throughout the process. What’s working, what’s not, who’s touching who and how and do they feel safe.

Choreography: Performers wouldn’t spontaneously add an extra pirouette to a dance number or an extra kick to a fight scene. Don’t add an ass grab or extra kissing.

Context: Just because you kiss someone in one scene doesn’t mean you can kiss them in another scene without communicating about adjusting the choreography and seeking consent to do so. Just because someone is topless with you on stage, it doesn’t mean they won’t mind being topless around you offstage, or in another scene onstage.

To explore the ideas of intimacy and safety on stage in a variety of situations, LEO spoke with Rodis, as well as Tony Prince, a local director; and Sarah Flanagan, a Louisville-based fight director.

And:

Rodis, the New York intimacy director, started as a fight director, and that led to her new focus. She shared one experience from that evolution.

“There was one show I was working on where there was a woman who slapped the man and then kissed him. So I was brought in for the slap.”

She ended up working on the slap and the kiss. For that kiss, she used her stage combat skills. That included asking standard questions like where do the actors touch each other, and new questions like how long does the kiss last?

Here is the full story, via Catherine Rampell.

That is Dave Rubin the comedian.  It is thirty minutes long, no transcript or video, audio only right here.  We covered comedy and political correctness, which jokes should not be told, the economics of comedy, comedy in Israel and Saudi Arabia, comedy on campus, George Carlin, and the most underrated Star Wars installment, among other topics.  Here is one excerpt:

Cowen: How much do you think comedy is what’s sometimes called ‘a winner take all’ market? So another way to phrase the question is 20 years from now do you think there will be more or fewer professional comedians? You might say, for instance, “Well, you’re on YouTube, you’re real ly funny, I don’t need to go to a comedy club.” There’s this fellow in South Korea, Robert Kelly, he did an interview, he was trying not to be funny doing the interview, his two kids ran into the room, his wife pulled the kids back, it created a viral video, one of the funnier things I saw all year.

Rubin: Yeah.

Cowen: Maybe not a funny guy, he was trying to keep it serious, so it was hilarious, and I can find those through my filters, through Twitter, through search. What’s the role of a professional comedian when an amateur’s best moment from a guy who isn’t even funny goes so viral?

Rubin: Well, the role is always there because the commentary on society is always gonna be there, so the moments like… Of course, I saw that video and it’s hilarious and it’s in the moment and it’s a beautiful thing. By the way, there was an outrage to that, because a lot of people were saying that the woman who came in was his nanny because I think she was Asian but it was actually his wife so then that created… So even that, just a pure moment of something hilarious happening became part of the outrage machine too. But the role for the critic of society, it’ll always be there, but it’s just not gonna to come from the clubs anymore, I think. I think that unfortunately… Comedy in its rawest form of standing in front of a group of people with a microphone and connecting to them that way, it’s as beautiful as it gets, there’s nothing in between you and the audience. It’s like painting, if you were a great painter and every stroke you had to go, “Was that okay? Was that okay?” Well, that would make you kinda crazy as a painter, but in stand up up you have to do it that way, every line you have to make sure is funny. I have not been funny here today at all, maybe we have to do something else.

Cowen: There’s less live music in New York City today than in the 1970s, is there less live comedy?

I enjoyed doing the interview very much.