The charming aspect of Christmas is the fact that it expresses good will in a cheerful, happy, benevolent, non-sacrificial way. One says: “Merry Christmas”—not “Weep and Repent.” And the good will is expressed in a material, earthly form—by giving presents to one’s friends, or by sending them cards in token of remembrance . . . .
The best aspect of Christmas is the aspect usually decried by the mystics: the fact that Christmas has been commercialized. The gift-buying . . . stimulates an enormous outpouring of ingenuity in the creation of products devoted to a single purpose: to give men pleasure. And the street decorations put up by department stores and other institutions—the Christmas trees, the winking lights, the glittering colors—provide the city with a spectacular display, which only “commercial greed” could afford to give us. One would have to be terribly depressed to resist the wonderful gaiety of that spectacle.
From the Ayn Rand Lexicon.
Collecting, [Howard] Hodgkin insists, is a form of shopping. But it also takes on its own life. Once the ‘design’ of the collection has formed in the collector’s mind, according to Hodgkin, then things have to be bought out of ‘necessity as well as passion.’ That, he believes, is the most dangerous, but also the most creative, phase of collecting, involving the head as well as the heart and other ‘lower organs.”
That is from the new and notable Rendez-Vous with Art, by Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford. The book is an ongoing dialogue between the two men about classical, Renaissance, and 17th century art, centered around specific pictures they are viewing together, recommended, in this genre it is difficult to execute such a book well but they pull it off.
It doesn’t sound quite right to still call it that, does it? In any case it is on display at the National Museum of African Art. At least two-thirds of the collection is lame and maybe a third or somewhat less is wonderful. Cosby for instance has excellent works by Jacob Lawrence, Horace Pippin, Minnie Evans, Henry Ossawa Tanner, (and here), Romare Bearden, some amazing quilts and textiles (try here too), and quality African ethnographic pieces. The works by lesser-known creators are mostly sentimental junk with lots of gloppy paint and hackneyed historical themes, or perhaps a maudlin portrait of some kind.
My hypothesis is simple: in any collecting area where price is a sufficient statistic for quality, Cosby did well by paying top dollar, or at least by letting himself be “mined” by his buyer agent, who probably had a financial incentive to pay top dollar. In any area where judgment was required, Cosby chose very poorly.
Here is one review of the show and the surrounding controversy. Here is WaPo coverage. What is the average moral quality of assemblers of art? How should we feel about the collection in the Louvre, the Prado, or for that matter art museums anywhere in Russia? Here is an article on how colleges and universities are responding to their involvement with Cosby.
The African Mosaic show at the African Museum is worth a visit as well. The Washington D.C. art exhibit scene is much worse than it was fifteen years ago, but right now the African Museum is the place to go.
A Georgia O’Keeffe painting just sold for over $44 million, setting a new record for a painting by a woman; the previous record was for a Joan Mitchell painting auctioned for $11.9 million. A Francis Bacon once auctioned for $142.4 million, and so:
Despite the huge O’Keeffe sale, the cavern between the men’s and women’s records remains yawning. The gender pay gap is something like 84 cents to the dollar. The art sale “record gap” is now about 31 cents to the dollar. Before Thursday, it was 8 cents.
That is by Oliver Roeder, the full article is here.
Since its adolescence more than four decades ago, the New York Philharmonic’s home at Lincoln Center has been known as Avery Fisher Hall. Now, as the orchestra prepares for a major renovation expected to cost more than $500 million, the Fisher family has agreed to relinquish the name, so the Philharmonic and Lincoln Center can lure a large donor with the promise of rechristening the building.
…Lincoln Center is essentially paying the family $15 million for permission to drop the name and has included several other inducements, like a promise to feature prominent tributes to Avery Fisher in the lobby of the renovated concert hall.
While the ability to raise money through naming opportunities has become a staple tool for arts organizations, perhaps no event speaks louder to its utility as a fund-raising mechanism than Lincoln Center’s willingness to pay a veteran donor to step away so it can court a new benefactor in his stead.
The full story is here.
Being briefly in New York City, I stopped in to visit the pre-auction viewing for the Contemporary Art sale at Christie’s. I was stunned but not surprised at how many quality works were on sale, compared to the historical average, having visited the same event numerous times in the past. Pre-crash, for instance, most of the sale was mediocre junk, albeit by big names, sold under the pretext that those names were worth owning for their own sake. And there were plenty of recycled mediocre works from the 1980s, say the dross by painters such as Eric Fischl (who does have some very good works, though a minority of his overall ouevre). This time I saw dozens of pieces which impressed me as good enough to be on display at first-rate museums, and those pieces filled even the “lesser” rooms upstairs rather than just the main showcase rooms.
The quality of the supply to me suggests that “finance” thinks trouble may be on the horizon. Otherwise, why sell now? Why not hold on to the best pieces, as collectors did in the old days, and wait for them to appreciate? Somebody senses a market peak. That said, finance is not always right, least of all about itself.
In any case the prices for the good works are indeed quite high. A very good Robert Ryman “white painting” (yes, that means it is white, more or less only white, but the textures are very good) these days goes for $8-12 million, as does a good de Kooning from his Alzheimer’s period. Those price estimates are without the buyer’s premia. A Twombly chalkboard painting was estimated in the $35-55 million range and no one was even bothering to look at it.
Whether or not you think these prices are justifiable on aesthetic grounds, quality Old Masters are far cheaper and arguably more likely to hold their value. For 200k (not long ago for 60-80k) you can buy a very good Delacroix painting and it is easier to hang and transport than many of these over-scaled contemporary works. I interpret this price difference as a status gradient. In the Old Masters field, you can’t hope to assemble a world class collection, as too many of the very best works are already in museums. In other words, the Mona Lisa will always make your collection seem unimpressive. You can buy excellent older works at excellent prices, but that alone doesn’t seem to count for much. In the Contemporary field, if you are wealthy, you really can buy top works from say the top half dozen artists — or more — in that area. Plus you can have the artists to your dinner parties, the works match how younger finance types like to decorate their apartments and homes, and their larger size makes them splashier purchases for a lot of museums.
Buyer’s hint: Those Alexander Calder sketches are underpriced at $40-60k, there is still time to bid on them.
Afterward, I found myself with a lot of negative feelings.
The first act of the (short) tale can be found here. Here is one bit:
I asked Baily, as an expert on productivity statistics, whether he thought that any economist would claim to have a reliable measure of bank output. “Of course not,” he replied, nearly breaking into a laugh. I was glad to hear that response, because it reinforced my view that econometric estimates of scale economies in banking are not reliable. When you measure economies of scale, you are comparing the ratio of output to inputs at different-sized firms. It’s rather difficult to do that if you cannot measure the numerator.
The substantive upshot was this:
The panel was called to discuss a research paper commissioned for the Center and written by Martin Baily, Doug Elliot, and Phillip Swagel. The paper says that (a) we have little reason to worry about too-big-to-fail, because the FDIC is on its way to having enough authority to resolve big bank failures, (b) there are economies of scale in banking at the very highest levels, (c) there are transition costs to breaking up big banks, in that employees and customers would be left hanging waiting to see how the re-org falls out, and (d) breaking up big banks would not get rid of systemic risk, anyway.
I agree entirely with (d). I thought that (c) was a fair point, but there is such a thing in the corporate world as a spin-off, and it can be done. I disagreed with (a) and I was unpersuaded by (b).
Recommended, and here is more from Arnold on the same topic.
Loyal MR readers will know that late fall I survey the yearly “Want Lists” of Fanfare music reviewers. If you don’t already know, Fanfare is the world’s premiere journal for classical music reviews. My meta-list is simply those recordings which are mentioned as best of the year by more than one polled Fanfare critic. This year the winning discs with multiple nominations are:
1. Busoni, late piano works, Marc-Andre Hamelin
2. Prokoviev piano concerti, by Jean-Effiam Bavouzet and Gianandrea Noseda.
4. Sylvia Berry, Haydn piano sonatas.
5. Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Richard Strauss tone poems.
Another meta-list would be discs which I recommend and which a Fanfare critic also recommends, that would include:
Gerald Finley and Julius Drake, Winterreise, Schubert.
Igor Levit, Beethoven late piano sonatas.
I would give all a very high recommendation, with this second meta-list being better than the first meta-list.
That is a new suggestion made by Alwyn Young in the latest American Economic Review.
The cost disease argument suggests that some services do not augment their productivity very readily (e.g., the barber), and furthermore the demand for many services is income elastic and price inelastic, so with economic growth services take up a rising percentage of gdp over time. The relative cost of producing service output rises. And since services are more sluggish in productivity, and being weighted more heavily in output, we can expect economy-wide productivity rates to decline.
Young’s argument is to draw out the implications of the heterogeneity of workers. Let’s say that a worker’s skill in one sector is only loosely correlated with his skill in some other sector. That will mean when individual workers have comparative advantage in a sector, they also are likely to have absolute advantage in that same sector. The typist really is a better typist than the lawyer.
Now let’s go back to the services sector. It expands over time and sucks in labor by offering higher relative wages. That draws in more individuals with low comparative and also low absolute advantage in that sector. More concretely, the system ends up pulling in a lot of losers into law and medicine, while we are left with only the very best factory workers still on the job. Or think of all those mediocrities who flooded into punk rock in the early 1980s. It’s a bit like a Peter Principle.
The services sector will appear less efficient, but what is called “underlying true levels of productivity growth” — taking into account the average efficacies of the workers present in the two sectors — might not be changing much at all. In other words, a quite different mechanism can generate the same observation as Baumol’s cost disease.
The paper presents plenty of industry-level evidence that this declining efficacy of service workers is indeed the case.
2. Visual artist: Edgar Tolson, that image is not fully safe for work. John James Audobon worked in the state quite a bit.
3. Movie, set in: Goldfinger, though of course immobilizing that stock would not affect the world price of gold very much. And keep in mind the nominal price of gold was pegged back then under Bretton Woods — should we really have expected a lot of goods and services deflation, just because some nutcase set off a bomb? I don’t think so.
4. Monk: Thomas Merton. He was an excellent writer, as a monk I cannot judge.
5. Author: Hmm…I don’t really like either Robert Penn Warren or Hunter S. Thompson. So Thomas Merton wins a second category, try The Seven Storey Mountain.
7. Movie director: I believe John Carpenter grew up there, he has several excellent films, including The Thing, Starman, Dark Star, and Escape from New York. I don’t actually enjoy the D.W. Griffith movies.
8. Poet and impresario: Muhammad Ali.
For some inexplicable reason Victor Mature was one of my father’s favorite actors. There is also Johnny Depp and George Clooney. Economist Milton Kafoglis passed away not long ago. How about the Kentucky Colonels?
The bottom line: If I had better taste in fiction, this list would be strong across the board. I’m in Louisville for the day.
In Welsh poetry, dyfalu is the piling on of comparisons, definition through conceit. The word also means “to guess” in Welsh, and many poems of dyfalu have an element of guesswork, a fanciful and riddling dimension. “The art of dyfalu, meaning “to describe” or “to deride,” rests in the intricate development of a series of images and extended metaphors which either celebrate or castigate a person, animal, or object,” the encyclopedia of Celtic Culture explains. Dafydd ap Gwilym’s poems to the mist and the wind are classic fourteenth-century examples.
That is from Edward Hirsch, A Poet’s Glossary, which I am quite enjoying. There is interesting material on every page and it is written with passion. A hendiatris is a “figure of speech in which three words are employed to express an idea, as in Thomas Jefferson’s tripartite motto for the Declaration of Independence: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”” When there are only two words so employed, it is of course a hendiadys.
I loved the Michael Hofmann review of Stephen Parker’s Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life in the 15 August 2014 Times Literary Supplement. Every paragraph of that review is a gem and Hofmann calls the book perhaps the greatest literary biography he has read. I’ve ordered my copy.
Here is one part of that review, toward the end, which caught my eye:
I’m not really sure what the case against Brecht is. That he treated women and co-workers badly? That he played fast and loose with the intellectual property of others, but was litigiously possessive of his own? That he wrote no more hit shows after The Threepenny Opera? That he failed to crack America? That he wouldn’t denounce the Soviet Union? That he was drab and a killjoy? That he had it cushy after settling back in East Germany in 1949? That he was consumed with his own importance?
Perhaps the Parker book will change my mind, but for now file under “All of the Above.”
Addendum: Here is another superb Michael Hofmann review.
A.O. Scott considers that question in The New York Times. I am not sure I can sum up his view in a sentence, so I don’t know if this is criticizing him or partially agreeing with him. In any case, I don’t see growing income inequality as the main driving force behind the decline of middlebrow American culture. An individual’s level of education often predicts cultural consumption better than does his or her income, and education has not in general declined in this country.
Furthermore many forms of culture have grown much cheaper. Once you are paying for cable, the marginal dollar cost of watching a show or a movie at home is zero. Songs and music are much cheaper than twenty years ago, and eBooks make many (not all) books cheaper. In other words, if stagnant income groups wanted middlebrow culture, they still could afford it.
Global markets are growing and those markets are often relatively middlebrow in their orientation, which should maintain the return to producing middlebrow culture. And the United States continues to grow in population, even though the middle is shrinking in percentage terms. The supply of creative activity is quite elastic, so it is hard to argue the wealthy have placed all relevant artists in their employ and thus choked or starved the middle.
It is much more expensive to organize a middlebrow art exhibit than fifteen years ago, and we see fewer good ones, but that is mainly because of 9/11 and insurance rates and related institutional issues, not income inequality.
My view is a lot of people never wanted middlebrow culture in the first place, at least not in every sphere of their cultural consumption. The internet gave them more choice, they took it, and much of middlebrow culture lost its support base. Consider one area where the internet still doesn’t play that much of a role and that is theatrical productions. You can watch plenty of theatre on YouTube, but it’s not such a close substitute to seeing the show live. And if you look at Broadway theatre, it seems more relentlessly and aggressively middlebrow than ever before. Ugh, that is why I stopped going. NFL football seems middlebrow to me and the audience base still is there, again because the internet has not come up with a close competitor. If the sport has a problem it is the violence and injury, not that we’ve evolved into a mix of polo ponies and roller derby.