Category: The Arts

The merit of Mount Rushmore

I went there once, I think in 1988.  To me it was a nightmare, aesthetically and otherwise.  The art of the monument was “not even as good as fascism.”  (Various Soviet-era memorials are far superior as well.)  I am not into the whole cancelling thing, but I didn’t feel I needed to pay additional homage to a bunch of well-known presidents.  The surrounding food scene appeared quite mediocre, although probably that has improved.  Overall it was crowded, tacky, and unpleasant, with absolutely nothing of value to do.

The main value of the scene was to liberate space and ease congestion in other parts of the universe, so I certainly hope they never abolish it.

Why Americans Are Having an Emotional Reaction to Masks

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, easier read through than excerpted, but here is one bit:

When no one can see our countenances, we may behave differently. One study found that children wearing Halloween masks were more likely to break the rules and take more candy. The anonymity conferred by masks may be making it easier for protestors to knock down so many statues.

And indeed, people have long used masks to achieve a kind of plausible deniability. At Carnival festivities around the world people wear masks, and this seems to encourage greater revelry, drunkenness, and lewd behavior, traits also associated with masked balls. The mask creates another persona. You can act a little more outrageously, knowing that your town or village, a few days later, will regard that as “a different you.”

If we look to popular culture, mask-wearing is again associated with a kind of transgression. Batman, Robin and the Lone Ranger wear masks, not just to keep their true identities a secret, but to enable their “ordinary selves” to step into these larger-than-life roles.

And:

The tension of current mask policy is that it reflects a desire for a more obedient, ordered society, for public health purposes above all, but at the same time it creates incentives and inclinations for non-conformity. That is true at least within the context of American culture, admittedly an outlier, both for its paranoia and for its infatuation with popular culture. As a society, our public mask-wearing is thus at war with its own emotional leanings, because it is packaging together a message based on both discipline and deviance.

What can we do to convince people that a mask-laden society, while it will feel weird and indeed be weird, can be made stable and beneficial through our own self-awareness?

Recommended.

*Porcelain: A History from the Heart of Europe*

By Suzanne Marchand, this a tale of commerce, creativity, mercantilism, nation-building, globalization, industrial organization, and much more.  And this book actually delivers on all of those fronts. Short excerpt:

In accordance with mercantile practices, porcelain makers first sought to pay their bills by increasing sales abroad.  The two markets most hotly pursued at midcentury were the Ottomans and the Russians, both big consumers of hot beverages but lacking functional tableware factories.

Yes it’s that kind of book.  And this:

This focus on porcelain and material goods generally is not an approach familiar to most historians of Germany, who, for understandable reasons, typically feel obliged to treat more serious, often political, subjects.

Recommended, you can pre-order it here.

*Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition*

That is the new, excellent, and timely book by Hollis Robbins, the title is descriptive, here is one excerpt:

“If We Must Die” calls for resistance to violence in an environment of violence. The power of [Claude] McKay’s sonnet—Shakespearean and yet with modern diction—is the tension between the measured lines and rhyme, the poetic phrases and the brutal words, the combination of enjambments and exclamation points in the octave, and the more deliberate and determined pace of the sestet. “If We Must Die” is a defiant call to action. The rage of the poem is made more potent by the tension of the sonnet form straining to contain it.

The book argues for the centrality of sonnet writing to African American poetry, and that the African American tradition was not simply parasitic on European models.  A “sestet,” by the way, is the last six lines of a sonnet, but not a good Scrabble word because you have to waste two “s’s” to play it.

My excellent Conversation with Ashley Mears

Tired of lockdown, pandemic, and rioting?  Here is a podcast on some of their polar opposites, conducted by “a bridge and tunnel guy” with an accomplished sociologist.  Here is the audio and transcript, here is the summary:

Ashley Mears is a former fashion model turned academic sociologist, and her book Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit is one of Tyler’s favorites of the year. The book, the result of eighteen months of field research, describes how young women exchange “bodily capital” for free drinks and access to glamorous events, boosting the status of the big-spending men they accompany.

Ashley joined Tyler to discuss her book and experience as a model, including the economics of bottle service, which kinds of men seek the club experience (and which can’t get in), why Tyler is right to be suspicious of restaurants filled with beautiful women, why club music is so loud, the surprising reason party girls don’t want to be paid, what it’s like to be scouted, why fashion models don’t smile, the truths contained in Zoolander, how her own beauty and glamour have influenced her academic career, how Barbara Ehrenreich inspired her work, her unique tip for staying focused while writing, and more.

Here is one excerpt especially dear to my heart:

COWEN: Let’s say I had a rule not to eat food in restaurants that were full of beautiful women, thinking that the food will be worse. Is that a good rule or a bad rule?

MEARS: I know this rule, because I was reading that when you published that book. It was when I was doing the field work in 2012, 2013. And I remember reading it and laughing, because you were saying avoid trendy restaurants with beautiful women. And I was like, “Yeah, I’m one of those people that’s actually ruining the food but creating value in these other forms because being a part of this scene and producing status.” So yeah, I think that’s absolutely correct.

And:

COWEN: I have so many naive, uninformed questions, but why is the music so loud in these clubs? Who benefits from that?

MEARS: Who benefits?

COWEN: I find the music too loud in McDonald’s, right?

MEARS: Clubs are also in this business of trying to manufacture and experience what Emile Durkheim would call this collective effervescence, like losing yourself in the moment. And that’s really possible when you’re able to tune out the other things, like if somebody is feeling insecure about the way they dance or if somebody is not sure of what to say.

Having really loud music that has a beat where everybody just does the same thing, which is nod to the beat — that helps to tune people into one another, and it helps build up a vibe and a kind of energy, so the point is to lose yourself in the music in these spaces.

And:

COWEN: Let’s say you sat down with one of these 20-year-old young women, and you taught them everything you know from your studies, what you know about bodily capital, sociological theories of exploitation. You could throw at them whatever you wanted. They would read the book. They would listen to your video, talk with you. Would that change their behavior any?

MEARS: I don’t think so. No, I don’t think so. They might not be too surprised even to learn that this is a job for promoters, and the promoters make money doing this. Most of them know that. They didn’t know how much money promoters are making. They don’t know how much money the clubs are making, but they know that they’re contributing to those profits, and they know that there’s this inequality built into it.

…in this world, there’s a widespread assumption that everybody uses everybody else. The women are using the club for the pleasures that they can get from it. They’re using the promoter for the pleasures they can get from him, the access. The promoters are using the young women. The clients are using the promoters.

The drawing line is when there’s a perception of abuse. People have a clear sense that lying about being exclusively romantic would be a clear violation, so that would be abusive. But use is okay. Mutual exploitation is okay.

Definitely recommended, a unique and fascinating episode.  And again, I strongly recommend Ashley’s new book Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit, one of my favorite books of the year.

Richard Davis requests

Here are some answers, I put his questions — from Request for Requests – in bold:

Melancholy among academics.

We’re a pretty sorry bunch, and many of us don’t have so much professionally to live for, at least not at the relevant margin — it is easy to lose forward momentum and never recover it, given the constraints and incentives in the profession and broader pressures toward conformity.  Rates of depression in academia, and especially in graduate school, are fairly high.  Many of the core processes are demoralizing rather than inspiring.  It is remarkable to me how much other people simply have accepted that is how things ought to be and perhaps they believe matters cannot be that different.  I view the high rates of depression in academic life as a “canary in the coal mine” that doesn’t get enough attention as an indicator of bigger, more systemic problems in the entire enterprise.  What are you doing with your lifetime sinecure?

Your favorite things Soviet.

Shostakovich.  And the Romantic pianists, most of all Richter and Gilels.  Constructivist art and ballet up through the late 1920s.  The early chess games of Tal.  Magnitogorsk.  War memorials, most of all in Leningrad.  Tarkovsky.  I admire the “great” Soviet novels, but I don’t love them, except for Solzhenitsyn, whom I would rather read then Dostoyevsky.  Probably the poetry is amazing, but my Russian is too limited to appreciate it.

The optimal number of math PhDs worldwide.

I would think fairly few.  I am happy having lots of mathematicians, with independent tests of quality.  But is the Ph.D such a great test or marker of quality?  Did Euclid have one?  Euler?  Does it show you will be a great teacher?  Maybe we should work toward abolishing the math PhD concept, but out of respect for the profession, not out of hostility toward math.

What historical works of art were anticipated to be great prior to creation, were immediately declared to be great at creation and have continued to be judged great ever since?

Overall it is striking how popular how many of the great revolutionaries have been.  Michelangelo was a major figure of renown.  Mozart was quite popular, though not fully appreciated.  Beethoven was a legend in his time, and every Wagner opera was an event.  Goethe ruled his time as a titan.  A significant percentage of the very best writers were well known and loved during their careers, though of course there was uncertainty how well they would stand up to the test of time.

The future of Northern New Jersey.

Much like the present, plus defaults on the pension obligations and over time the Indian food may get worse, due to acculturation.  The Sopranos will fade into distant memory, I am sorry to say, as will Bruce Springsteen.  So many young people already don’t know them or care.  I feel lucky to have grown up during the region’s cultural peak.

Who are the greats that still walk among us (other than McCartney)?

The major tech founders and CEOs, Stephan Wolfram, Jasper Johns and Frank Stella and Richard Serra and Gerhardt Richter and Robert Gober, a number of other classic rock stars (Dylan, Brian Wilson, Jagger, Eno, etc.), Philip Glass, Richard D. James, and note most of the greatest classical musicians who have ever lived are alive and playing today (Uchida anyone?), at least once Covid goes away.  Many of the major architects.  Ferrante and Knausgaard and Alice Munro.  Many of the figures who built up East Asia and Singapore.  Perelman.  Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.  Magnus Carlsen and all sorts of figures in sports.  A bunch of other people whom Eric Weinstein would list.

Why

Why not?

My Conversation with Adam Tooze

Tinges of Covid-19, doses on financial crises, but mostly about economic history.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the summary:

Adam joined Tyler to discuss the historically unusual decision to have a high-cost lockdown during a pandemic, why he believes in a swoosh-shaped recovery, portents of financial crises in China and the West, which emerging economies are currently most at risk, what Keynes got wrong about the Treaty of Versailles, why the Weimar Republic failed, whether Hitler was a Keynesian, the political and economic prospects of various EU members, his trick to writing a lot, how Twitter encourages him to read more, what he taught executives at BP, his advice for visiting Germany, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

And:

Tooze’s discussion of his own career and interests, toward the end, is hard to excerpt but for me the highlight of the conversation.  He also provided the best defense of Twitter I have heard.

Definitely recommended.

Corrupted by Commerce?

Many people claim that commodification, transforming a good or activity into a commodity bought and sold on a market, corrupts that good or activity. As Michael Sandel puts it:

Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That’s because markets don’t only allocate goods; they express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged.

But few people have tested this idea which is why I loved Stephen Clowney’s Does Commodification Corrupt? Lessons from Paintings and Prostitutes. Clowney does something simple. He interviews art appraisers and male escorts, people who live with commodification, and asks them about art and sex. In short he uses the “lived experiences of those affected by commodification” to test whether commodification corrupts.

Does appraising art, for example, reduce the appraiser’s appreciation for art the way working in a pork factory might reduce a worker’s appetite for bacon?

Scott Altman, a legal scholar who has studied commodification, perfectly captures the standard market skeptic position: “[s]omeone who spends all day estimating the value of art might eventually have difficulty appreciating art in any way other than as worth a certain amount.”

What does Clowney find?

Of the twenty assessors interviewed for this study, not one reported that market work disfigured their ability to enjoy the emotional, spiritual, and aesthetic qualities of artistic masterworks. In fact, most appraisers insisted they can easily and completely compartmentalize their professional duties from their private encounters with art. This finding challenges the panicked rhetoric of many anti-commodification theorists who continue to insist that commerce diminishes the meaning of sacred things. Contrary to the predictions of market skeptics, the appraisers in this study spoke with joyful enthusiasm about their experiences viewing exceptional works of art. Even the most senior appraisers—those who have monetized thousands and thousands of objects—remain passionate consumers of art in their personal lives.

…Jane C.H. Jacob, an appraiser with thirty-five years of experience, explained, “[the appraisal work] does not corrode my enjoyment at all. I never get tired of looking at art. Never bored. I love art more now than I did 20 years ago.” She continued, “[f]or me, the joy is being able to experience it and inspect it. Listen, I don’t love art because of the price, but because of the way I respond to it. When I see [Monet’s] Water Lilies I never don’t get excited. A tear comes to my eye.”

In fact “a majority of the assessors stated that ascribing values to art actually increased their admiration for paintings, photographs, sculptures, and other creative work.”

But how could that be so? Given the widely reported dangers of commodification, how could non-instrumental values blossom in the hard soil of the marketplace? Anti-commodification scholars, it seems, have failed to appreciate that market work is a powerful educational agent that breaks the stale cake of ignorance, turns apathy into understanding, and nurtures new insights about the sacred. Imagine, for example, an appraiser confronted with attaching value to Mary Cassatt’s painting, Young Mother Sewing. Anyone attempting to price such an object must, at the outset, become well-versed in the artist’s career, the provenance of the work, and the ethos of the larger impressionist movement. Then, the appraiser must probe to explain whether the painting is a “good, better, or best” example of Cassatt’s work.

… Arch-anti-commodificationist Elizabeth Anderson even suggests that those who engage in ranking and valuation of art are “philistines, snobs, and prigs, precisely those least open to a free exploration and development of  their aesthetic sensibilities.” But that is quite wrong. Commodification does not render these artworks flat and fungible. And it is not carried out by Philistines. Just the opposite. Putting an accurate price on sacred objects demands education, rigorous training, and cultivation of the eye. Appraisers must understand the objects on an intimate level in order to properly evaluate their quality and make suitable comparisons between seemingly disparate works. Such knowledge only enhances appreciation for the way that creative work can exhilarate, sooth, baffle, enlighten, and uplift.

See also Tyler’s classic In Praise of Commercial Culture on these points.

What about sex?

In a sprawling literature, commentators have argued that exchanging sex for money “commodif[ies] sexuality,” degrades intimacy, “impedes human flourishing,” and foments attitudes that undermine the sacredness of the body. In short: market skeptics believe that prostitution corrupts the meaning of sex.

Clowney interviewed male escorts because he argues that the market in male escorts is freer and more developed. Male escorts, for example, are less likely to be abused by the police or pimps. Some will question that choice but for the purposes of the commodification theory it should still be the case that commodification degrades sex for the male escorts. Does it?

the escorts I interviewed insisted that selling physical intimacy did not corrupt their understanding of sex. While the physical demands of the job often left the interviewees feeling exhausted, each of the prostitutes revealed that they continued to experience the loving (and joyfully profane) virtues of the sexual act. Indeed, a majority of escorts confided that their market work positively impacted their private lives—commercial sex honed their sexual skills, boosted their confidence, and deepened their understanding of other men.

For these men, sex remained a joyful and cherished activity, even after years of selling their bodies.A strong majority of the escorts reported that engaging in commercial sexual activities actually improved the quality of their private lives and their appreciation for sacred things.Just as appraisal work revealed new insights about the creative process, prostitution taught the interviewees about the complexity of desire, gave them a deeper understanding of the sexual act, and enhanced their ability to satisfy a private partner.

Thus, far from turning sex into a flat and interchangeable commodity, market work deepened the escorts’ understanding of physical intimacy. Sex work instilled the importance of honest communication between partners, revealed that men have many different (and often colorful) needs, and showed that not all fantasies can be met by working off the same script. On these points, the market is an exacting teacher.

Clowney’s paper is a highly original, major new work in the commodification literature and contains much more of interest. Read the whole thing.

What should I ask Ashley Mears?

From Wikipedia:

Ashley Mears is an American writer, sociologist, and former fashion model. She is currently an associate professor of sociology at Boston University. Mears is the author of Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, and is regularly quoted in media as an academic expert in the culture and economics of fashion.

I am also a big fan of her forthcoming book Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit, which is one of my favorite books of the year.

So what should I ask her?  Here is more about Ashley on Google.

Which relocations can reopen first?

Here is a new paper by Seth Benzell, Avinash Collis, and Christos Nicolaides:

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, some types of stores and gathering places have been shut down while others remain open. The decision to shut down one type of location and leave another open constitutes a judgement about the relative danger and benefits of those locations. Using location data from a large sample of smartphones, nationally representative consumer preference surveys, and government statistics, we measure the relative transmission risk benefit and social cost of closing 30 different location categories in the US. Our categories include types of shops, schools, entertainments, and public spaces. We rank categories by those which should face stricter regulation via dominance across eight dimensions of risk and importance and through composite indexes. We find that from February to March, there were larger declines in visits to locations that our measures imply should be closed first. We hope this analysis will help policymakers decide how to reopen their economies.

Here is a summary picture:

Image

MOMA take note!

Obviously such rankings are somewhat speculative, but sooner or later some kind of disaggregated road map like this is going to be necessary.  And I would say sooner.

That was then, this is now — Pushkin under lockdown

In autumn 1830, Pushkin was confined by a cholera outbreak to the village of Boldino, his father’s remote country estate in southeastern Russia. Desperate to return to Moscow to marry, he wrote to his fiancée: “There are five quarantine zones between here and Moscow, and I would have to spend fourteen days in each. Do the maths and imagine what a foul mood I am in.”

Pushkin went on complaining bitterly but, with nothing else to do, he produced an astonishing number of masterpieces — short stories, short plays, lyric and narrative poems, and the last two chapters of his verse novel Eugene Onegin — in a mere three months.

Here is the full FT piece by Robert Chandler.

My Conversation with Ross Douthat

We do another CWT, here is the audio and transcript (link corrected), a very good installment in the series.  Here is part of the summary:

Ross joined Tyler to discuss why he sees Kanye as a force for anti-decadence, the innovative antiquarianism of the late Sir Roger Scruton, the mediocrity of modern architecture, why it’s no coincidence that Michel Houellebecq comes from France, his predictions for the future trajectory of American decadence — and what could throw us off of it, the question of men’s role in modernity, why he feels Christianity must embrace a kind of futurist optimism, what he sees as the influence of the “Thielian ethos” on conservatism, the plausibility of ghosts and alien UFOs, and more.

A welcome relief from Covid-19 talk, though we did cover Lyme disease.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Does the Vatican have too few employees? There’s a Slate article — it claimed in 2012, the Roman Curia has fewer than 3,000 employees. Walmart headquarters at the time had 12,000. If the Church is a quite significant global operation, can it be argued, in fact, that it’s not bureaucratic enough? They don’t actually have state capacity in the sense that state capacity libertarianism might approve of.

DOUTHAT: Right. State capacity libertarianism would disapprove of the Vatican model. And it reflects the reality that media coverage of the Catholic Church doesn’t always reflect, which is that in Catholic ecclesiology and the theory of the institution, bishops are really supposed to be pretty autonomous in governance. And the purpose of Rome is the promotion of missionary work and the protection of doctrine, and it’s not supposed to be micromanaging the governance of the world Church.

Now, I think what we’ve seen over the last 30 years — and it’s been thrown into sharp relief by the sex abuse crisis — is that the modern world may not allow that model to exist; that if you have this global institution that has a celebrity figure at the center of it, who is the focus of endless media attention, you can’t, in effect, get away with saying, “Well, the pope is the pope, but sex abuse is an American problem.”

And to that extent, there is a case that the Church needs more employees and a more efficient and centralized bureaucracy. But then that also coexists with the problem that the model of Catholicism is still a model that was modern in the 16th century. It’s still much more of a court model than a bureaucratic model, and pope after pope has theoretically tried to change this and has not succeeded.

Part of the reality is, as you well know, as a world traveler, the Italians are very good at running courts that exclude outsiders and prevent them from changing the way things are done. Time and again, some Anglo-Saxon or German blunderer gets put in charge of some Vatican dicastery and discovers that, in fact, the reforms he intends are just not quite possible. And you know, in certain ways, that’s a side of decadence that you can bemoan, but in certain ways, you have to respect, too.

Definitely recommended, a very fun CWT with lots of content.  And again, here is Ross’s (recommended) book The Decadent Society: How We Became a Victim of Our Own Success.

Robert Browning and Ingmar Bergman in a Bloomberg column

With all those fools going to bars and concerts, or running marathons, it is evident we still need to solve the problem of entertainment, as I argue in my new Bloomberg column.

It is instructive to look back to the days of World War II. The U.S. government played a critical role in encouraging Hollywood to make cheery movies, and it helped by not trying to force every actor into the armed services. Major league baseball, the national pastime of the era, continued to hold a regular season and a World Series, again to distract people from wartime worries. Many top players, such as Ted Williams, were away fighting, but there were adequate replacements. The government knew that wartime drama could not be the only drama on tap.

With Covid-19, the goal is to keep people at home, at least if they are not essential workers. But if staying at home is too boring, cabin fever will take over and people will run out to social gatherings when they ought to be staying put. So solving the entertainment problem is one very real piece of the puzzle for minimizing the effects of the coronavirus and keeping Americans not just in good spirits but healthy.

The very worst scenario is that the coronavirus itself — how it is playing out, how officials and celebrities and neighbors are reacting — becomes our main entertainment. It could become an ongoing horror show that drives us crazy and makes people even more cynical about politics.

To avoid such a mix of frustration and terror, I have a modest proposal: We should restructure a few of our traditional entertainments to be safe from the coronavirus.

As suggested on Twitter, how about inducing a few of the cable providers to offer free streaming for a few months?  The Met has announced a big increase in opera streaming.  And:

Or how about proceeding with some version of the NBA Finals? Take a subset of the best qualifying teams, test every player for coronavirus, isolate them in a remote area with a college gymnasium, and have them proceed with a shortened version of the real thing in front of only a TV crew. With so many other public events closed down, television viewership would probably reach an all-time high, and the sense of drama would be incredible. It would be one NBA Finals we would never forget, and the quality of play would respond to the very high psychological stakes.

Ben Golliver serves up a concrete NBA proposal.  You’ll have to click through to get to the Browning and Bergman parts, the latter being Easter egg.  At least the Candidate’s Tournament still seems to be on in chess, you can all watch that for the next few weeks, starts Tuesday I believe, try www.chessbomb.com.

Lecturing alone won’t work: we really do need to make it more fun for people to stay at home!

*The Seventh Seal*, directed by Ingmar Bergman

We watched this movie the night before, and it struck me as very different this time around, perhaps because it is set during the time of the Crusades with the plague as a major theme. I no longer think the death character is real, and I now view the film as about how much we flirt with the idea of death, and apparitions of death, in order to make life tolerable and to feel in control. Don’t take the opening scene “as is,” but rather contrast it with all the other ways humans use the death theme for their own theatrical purposes (theatrical, both literally and figuratively) over the next 30-40 minutes of the movie, and then later throughout. Perhaps the key line is “All the damn ranting about death. Is that sustenance for modern people?”

Recommended, especially the new Blu-Ray edition of Bergman’s complete works.