Category: The Arts

The Iconoclastic culture that is Dutch?

One of the delightful characteristics of the Dutch is their frankness, and this comes through in the tales—which are far from bland.

As the exhibition texts explain, “the debate about the bare bottom in this Degas pastel dominated the art pages of the [Dutch] newspapers for weeks”. The question being asked was “whether in this day and age it is still possible to acquire and exhibit a female nude drawn by a man”.

Roos Rosa de Carvalho recalls that she received a letter from a painters’ model describing how posing nude is her profession, in which she takes pride. This made the museum curator think about Degas, concluding that “if we assume without question that she [Degas’s model] was the unwilling victim of a sex-obsessed artist, then perhaps we are not only failing Degas but her as well”.

Emilie Gordenker, the director of the Van Gogh Museum, was inevitably drawn into the controversy. She admits that “we had an internal discussion about the fact that some visitors might be offended by seeing a female nude”.

Here is more from The Art Newspaper.  And here in good ol’ USA, people are worried about TV wives being too attractive, relative to their husbands (NYT).  And here is another museum article, again American: “Menstrual Cups in Museums? It’s Time.” (NYT)

My Conversation with Pierpaolo Barbieri

Here is the audio, visual, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

Pierpaolo joined Tyler to discuss why the Mexican banking system only serves 30 percent of Mexicans, which country will be the first to go cashless, the implications of a digital yuan, whether Miami will overtake São Paolo as the tech center of Latin America, how he hopes to make Ualá the Facebook of FinTech, Argentina’s bipolar fiscal policy, his transition from historian to startup founder, the novels of Michel Houellebecq, Nazi economic policy, why you can find amazing and cheap pasta in Argentina, why Jorge Luis Borges might be his favorite philosopher, the advice he’d give to his 18-year-old self, his friendship with Niall Ferguson, the political legacy of the Spanish Civil War, why he stopped sending emails from bed, and more.

Here is just one bit:

COWEN: Why did Argentina’s liberalization attempt under Macri fail?

BARBIERI: That’s a great question. There’s a very big ongoing debate about that. I think that there was a huge divergence between fiscal policy and monetary policy in the first two years of the Macri administration.

The fiscal consolidation was not done fast enough in 2016 and 2017 and then needed to accelerate dramatically after the taper tantrum, if you want to call it, or perceived higher global rates of 2018. So Macri had to run to the IMF and then do a lot of fiscal consolidation — that hadn’t been done in ’16 and ’17 — in’18 and ’19. Ultimately, that’s why he lost the election.

Generally speaking, that’s the short-term electoral answer. There’s a wider answer, which is that I think that many of the deep reforms that Argentina needed lack wide consensus. So I think there’s no question that Argentina needs to modify how the state spends money and its propensity to have larger fiscal deficits that eventually need to be monetized. Then we restart the process.

There’s a great scholar locally, Pablo Gerchunoff, who’s written a very good paper that analyzes Argentine economic history since the 1950s and shows how we move very schizophrenically between two models, one with a high exchange rate, where we all want to export a lot, and then when elections approach, people want a stronger local currency so that we can import a lot and feel richer.

The two models don’t have a wide acceptance on what are the reforms that are needed. I think that, in retrospect, Macri would say that he didn’t seek enough of a wider backing for the kind of reforms that he needed to enact — like Spain did in 1975, if you will, or Chile did after Pinochet — having some basic agreements with the opposition that would outlive a defeat in the elections.

And:

COWEN: The best movie from Argentina — is it Nine QueensNueve reinas?

BARBIERI: It is a strong contender, but I would think El secreto de sus ojos, The Secret in Their Eyes, is my favorite film about Argentina because of what it says about the very difficult period of modernization, and in particular, the horrors of the last military regime that marked us so much that it still defines our politics 50 years since.

Recommended.

Model this art market illiquidity what would Hayek say?

She [an artist] tries to do a show a year, one every three years at each of the three galleries.  The idea, she explained, is for your prices not to have a sudden rise, precisely because they can crash, but rather for your dealers to increase them slowly as your work receives exposure through venues like group shows, exhibitions, and biennials.  Auctions can be dangerous for just that reason.  At the time we spoke, Wilcox’s works on paper (19″ x 24″) were selling for around $6,000; her largest paintings (12′ x 6′), for $45,000.  Dealers take 50 percent.  Prices are based on size, not judgments of quality, because you don’t want to influence buyers’ opinions.  Smaller works are cheaper, but more expensive per square inch (kind of like real estate).  Large paintings are easier to sell in Los Angeles than London or New York, because the houses are bigger.

That is an excerpt from William Deresiewicz, The Death of the Artist: How Creators are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech, an excellent book (ignore the subtitle).

Who is the best-known, non-political American married couple?

With Bill and Melinda Gates divorcing, and Kanye and Kim doing the same, America now has a paucity of very well-known married couples, at least outside of politics, where Barack and Michelle Obama reign supreme.

Who is the Lucy and Desi of our time?  The George Burns and Gracie Allen?  The Sonny and Cher?

George and Amal Clooney are in the running, but is she so well known to most Americans?  Could they tell you her name from scratch, or cite what she is known for?

Kurt Cobain has passed away, as has Kobe Bryant, Larry and Laurie David split some time ago, and John and Yoko and Paul and Linda (an honorary American couple, for media purposes) are distant memories.  Movie stars barely still exist these days.

Perhaps Elon Musk will marry Grimes, who is a musical star of some renown.

Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn have been married for 24 years, and they are pretty well known.

Harry and Meghan maybe are becoming an American couple, at least for media purposes?

Who else?

The petty narcissism of small vaccine differences

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

My survey of the cultural vaccine landscape in the U.S. includes the four major vaccines — from Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

Pfizer, distributed by one of the largest U.S. pharmaceutical firms, is the establishment vaccine. Since it initially had a significant “cold chain” requirement, it was given out at established institutions such as big hospitals and public-health centers with large freezers. It is plentiful, highly effective and largely uncontroversial.

Moderna — the very name suggests something new — is the intellectual vaccine. The company had no product or major revenue source until the vaccine itself, so it is harder to link Moderna to “Big Pharma,” which gives it a kind of anti-establishment vibe. Note also that the last three letters of Moderna are “rna,” referring to the mRNA technology that makes the vaccine work. It is the vaccine for people in the know.

Moderna was also, for a while anyway, the American vaccine. It was available primarily in the U.S. at a time when Pfizer was being handed out liberally in the U.K. and Israel. As a recipient of two Moderna doses myself, I feel just a wee bit special for this reason. You had to be an American to get my vaccine. Yes, the European Union had also approved it, but it failed to procure it in a timely manner. So the availability of Moderna reflects the greater wealth and efficiency of the U.S.

Then there are the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines…

And:

To the extent vaccines turn into markers for a cultural club, vaccine hesitancy may persist.

It might be better, all things considered, if vaccines were viewed more like paper clips — that is, a useful and even necessary product entirely shorn of cultural significance. Few people refuse to deploy paper clips in order to “own the libs” or because they do not trust the establishment. They are just a way to hold two pieces of paper together.

To be clear, the primary blame here lies with those who hesitate to get vaccinated. But behind big mistakes are many small ones — and we vaccinated Americans, with our all-too-human tendency to create hierarchies for everything, are surely contributing to the mess.

Recommended!

My excellent Conversation with Shadi Bartsch

She is a Professor of Classics at the University of Chicago, and recently published a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.  Here is the audio, visual, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

Shadi joined Tyler to discuss reading the classics as someone who is half-Persian, the difference between Homer and Virgil’s underworlds, the reasons so many women are redefining Virgil’s Aeneid, the best way to learn Latin, why you must be in a room with a native speaker to learn Mandarin, the question of Seneca’s hypocrisy, what it means to “wave the wand of Hermes”, why Lucan begins his epic The Civil War with “fake news”, the line from Henry Purcell’s aria that moves her to tears, her biggest takeaway from being the daughter of an accomplished UN economist, the ancient text she’s most hopeful that new technology will help us discover, the appeal of Strauss to some contemporary Chinese intellectuals, the reasons some consider the history of Athens a better allegory for America than that of Rome, the Thucydides Trap, the magical “presentness” of ancient history she’s found in Italy and Jerusalem, her forthcoming book Plato Goes to China, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: You may not agree with this, but many readers I speak with tend to think that Homer is somehow deeper, more mystical, or just more fun to read than Virgil. What accounts for that perception and how might you challenge it?

BARTSCH: I think they think that because both of Homer’s epics are not, per se, about politics or governments. They don’t offer etiologies of a state. They don’t talk about history. They are stories in the true sense. They are about heroes in the true sense, not about some guy who’s pushed around the world by the gods, constantly getting into trouble, crying, wishing he didn’t have to go found Rome, etcetera.

Achilles — figure larger than life. His pride is everything to him. He stops fighting in the Trojan War because he’s been insulted. The drama is, what compels him to go back into battle after that insult?

Odysseus — a fairy tale of a man wandering from island to island, meeting ever stranger creatures, but eventually making it back home. It’s a great yarn. You don’t have to learn history to read these. You get involved in the psychology of the characters, their tragedies and their triumphs.

Nobody is really interested in getting involved in the psychology of the state and its triumphs. On the one hand, you’ve got a poem that’s an etiology for a particular government. On the other hand, you have two amazing stories. I can see how reading The Aeneid would be considered duller for some.

Excellent throughout, and again here is Shadi’s excellent translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.

How will crypto wealth transform philanthropy?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

If the price of Bitcoin were to reach $200,000, Coinbase Chief Executive Officer Brian Armstrong observed recently, half of the world’s billionaires would be crypto billionaires. Even at the lesser valuations that currently prevail, this crypto wealth has vast potential to reshape philanthropy. Expect a relative decline in the influence of longstanding nonprofit institutions — and more weird, stand-alone projects.

Bitcoin itself is a weird, stand-alone project. The true identity of its inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, is still unknown, and the broader Bitcoin ecosystem is not owned or controlled by any company or institution. It has been self-sustaining since the beginning, and so it should hardly come as a surprise that Bitcoin billionaires take Bitcoin itself as a model for future institutions, including in philanthropy.

As philanthropists, Bitcoin and other crypto billionaires will likely look to support ideas that can launch in a dramatic way and quickly acquire escape velocity. They are unlikely to fund the ongoing labor costs of established cultural institutions.

Bitcoin and many other cryptocurrencies seem designed to stand independent of any government or mainstream financial institution. That too suggests that the philanthropic emphasis of crypto wealth will be on non-establishment, non-governmental organizations.

And:

Venture capitalist Paul Graham has pointed out that wealth is earned much more quickly nowadays, and that is all the more true in crypto, which after all is only 12 years old. Unlike many of the wealthy people in law or investment banking, these are not people who had to spend their lives working their way up, finally achieving a top position in their 60s. They either are founders of rapidly growing and scaling companies, or they bought large sums of the right crypto assets early on, or both. Either way, their temperaments are geared to expect immediate action and rapid results.

Nonprofits will have to adjust accordingly, even though speed is not typically their comparative advantage. That in turn suggests that the organizational structures of many nonprofits will have to change fairly radically. Many of them were designed or have evolved to be good at continuity, like the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, which after all is still playing Beethoven with violins and cellos.

There is much more at the link.

My Conversation with Lex Fridman

2 hours 9 minutes long, Lex is one of the very best interviewers/discussants in the sector.  Here is the video, here is the audio.  Plenty of new topics and avenues, including the political economy of Russia (note this was recorded before the massing of Russian forces on the Ukraine border).  Lex’s tweet described it as follows:

Here’s my conversation with @tylercowen  about economic growth, resisting conformity, the value of being weird, competition and capitalism, UFO sightings, contemporary art, best food in the world, and of course, love, death, and meaning.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Grseeycor4

Recommended.

My Conversation with the excellent Dana Gioia

Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  As I mention in the beginning, Dana is the (only?) CWT guest who can answer all of my questions.  Here is part of the summary:

Dana and Tyler discuss his latest book and more, including how he transformed several businesses as a corporate executive, why going to business school made him a better poet, the only two obscene topics left in American poetry, why narrative is necessary for coping with life’s hardships, how Virgil influenced Catholic traditions, what Augustus understood about the cultural power of art, the reasons most libretti are so bad, the optimism of the Beach Boys, the best art museum you’ve never heard of, the Jungianism of Star Trek, his favorite Tolstoy work, depictions of Catholicism in American pop culture, what he finds fascinating about Houellebecq, why we stopped building cathedrals, how he was able to effectively lead the National Endowment for the Arts, the aesthetic differences between him and his brother Ted, his advice for young people who want to cultivate their minds, and what he wants to learn next.

And here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why is Olaf Stapledon an important writer?

GIOIA: It’s not a question I expected.

COWEN: How could you not expect that?

GIOIA: Well, first of all, I hope people know who Olaf Stapleton was. Tremendously influential, rather clumsy, visionary, early science fiction writer who wrote novels like Odd John and the First and Last Man. What Olaf Stapleton did was I think he was the first really great science fiction writer to think in absolutely cosmic terms, beyond human conceptions of time and space. That, essentially, created the mature science fiction sensibility. If you go even watch a show like Expanse now, it’s about Stapledonian concerns.

COWEN: He was also a Hegelian philosopher, as you know. My friend Dan Wang thinks Last and First Men is better than Star Maker. Though virtually all critics prefer Star Maker.

GIOIA: Michael Lind, the political writer, and historian, Stapledon is one of his formative writers. Star Maker is kind of an evolution of the Last and First MenOdd John is kind of the odd, the first great mutant novel.

Definitely recommended.  And I am very happy to recommend Dana’s latest book (and indeed all of his books) Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life.

A Miniature Masterpiece

Superb NYTimes disquisition on a masterpiece of Indian miniature painting. The text, formatting, visuals, all beautifully done–better than any museum exhibit I can recall.

In addition to the subject matter this piece has a lot to say about online education and how news is becoming a winner take-most market. Note what Tyler and I said on endogenous fixed costs in our piece on online education in the AER and consider how many newspapers could put together a display of this quality.

Shaked and Sutton (1987) and Sutton (1998) show that when quality is primarily vertical, meaning that there is a measure of quality such that all consumers agree that higher quality is more preferred, then increased market size does not result in reduced concentration. Instead, as market size increases, firms invest more in quality, which endogenously increases economies of scale and maintains market concentration.

Along related lines, Berry and Waldfogel (2010) show that there are many more restaurants in larger than smaller cities, but even as city size increases by a factor of 10 there is no tendency for the number of newspapers to increase. Larger cities have more restaurants than smaller cities because economies of scale are limited and quality differs “horizontally,” according to taste (thus, larger cities have more diverse restaurants). Yet larger cities are served by roughly the same number of newspapers as smaller cities because quality is more vertical, most newspaper consumers want more coverage, better writers and more features.

Addendum: Tim and Marcos remind of previous items in this series which I also loved, The Birth of the Self Portrait and A Picture of Change.

My Conversation with Sarah Parcak, space archaeologist and Egypt lover

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss what caused the Bronze Age Collapse, how well we understand the level of ancient technologies, what archaeologists may learn from the discovery of more than a hundred coffins at the site of Saqqara, how far the Vikings really traveled, why conservation should be as much of a priority as excavation, the economics of looting networks, the inherently political nature of archaeology, Indiana Jones versus The Dig, her favorite contemporary bluegrass artists, the best archeological sites to visit around the world, the merits of tools like Google Earth and Lidar, the long list of skills needed to be a modern archeologist, which countries produce the best amateur space archeologists, and more.

Lots of talk about data issues and rights as well.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here’s something that struck me studying your work. Give me your reaction. It seems to me your job is almost becoming impossible. You have to know stats. You have to know trigonometry. You have to know geometry. In your case, you need to know Egyptian Arabic, possibly some dialect, possibly some classical Arabic, maybe some other languages.

You have to know archaeology, right? You have to know history. You must have to know all kinds of physical techniques for unearthing materials without damaging them too much. You need to know about data storage, and I could go on, and on, and on.

Hasn’t your job evolved to the point where you’re almost . . . You need to know about technologies, right? For finding data from space — we talked about this before. That’s also not easy. Isn’t your job evolving to the point where, literally, no human can do it, and you’re the last in the line?

PARCAK: I am, I guess, jack of all trades, master of a few. But that’s not true either because I have to know the remote sensing programs. I have to know geographic information systems. I have to be up to date on international cultural heritage laws.

I think I’m not special by a long shot. Every archaeologist is a specialist. This archaeologist is a specialist in the pottery of this period of time, or does DNA, or excavates human remains — they’re bioarchaeologists — or they do computation. We all are specialists in a particular thing, but that’s really broad. My unsexy, more academic term is landscape archaeologist, so I’m interested in ancient human-environment interaction, which encompasses a lot of different fields and subfields. I’ve taken many courses in geology.

All of us who study Egyptology — we do a lot of training in art history because, of course, the iconography and the art and the objects that we’re finding. It takes a lot, but I would say most of the knowledge I’ve gotten is experiential. It’s from being in the field, I’ve visited hundreds of museums. I’ve spent countless hours in museum collections learning, touching objects.

Yeah, it’s a lot, but it’s also the field of archaeology. That’s why so many people really love it — because you get to touch on so many different areas. I would never, for example, consider myself a specialist in bioarchaeology. I know a tibia. When I find pitting on a skull, I know what that could potentially mean.

But also, I’m in a position now where I’m a dig director, so that means I’m in charge of a large group of humans, most of whom are far smarter, more capable than I am in whatever they’re doing. They’re specialists in pottery and bone, in rocks — project geologist — and conservation in art. We have project artists. We have specialists in excavation, and of course, there’s my very talented Egyptian team. They’re excavating. I’m probably a lot more of a manager now than I ever expected to be —

COWEN: And fundraiser perhaps, right?

One of my favorite CWTs in some time.  And here is Sarah’s book Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past.

Profile of Beeple

Winkelmann grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, and quickly gravitated to technology. His father, an electrical engineer, taught him how to program. The only art classes that he ever took were in his freshman year of high school. At around the same time, a friend introduced him to the electronic-music label Warp Records, and to bands like Aphex Twin, the stage name of Richard David James. “What can one person and a computer do?” Winkelmann said. “That has always been a really cool concept to me, because it’s the equalizer, in a way.”

Winkelmann went to Purdue University and entered its computer-science program, but he eventually found himself adrift. Programming, he said, was “boring as shit.” Instead, he shot narrative short films with his Webcam and learned digital design. Inspired by the video artist Chris Cunningham and the British studio the Designers Republic, he created loops of animated geometric shapes synched to his own electronic music. He posted the results online. In 2003, when he was twenty-two years old, he took the name Beeple, after an old Ewok-like stuffed animal. He now collects Beeples from eBay. While we were talking, he grabbed one from his desk and held it up to show me. When Winkelmann covered the furry toy’s eyes, it emitted a wild beeping sound in protest. The name seemed apt, he said, because a similar interplay of vision and sound animated his videos.

Here is more from Kyle Chayka at The New Yorker.

Does the NFT craze make artistic sense?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

NFTs stand a reasonable chance of being an entirely new art form, and this may be the beginning of their long, noble and (yes) controversial history. The buyer of “Everydays,” an investor who goes by the name Metakovan, may well be remembered as the first patron of digital artists. That is a legacy you cannot buy for any sum in most other walks of life. You can become a kind of Medici of the blockchain.

Such a role is not for everybody. But this $69.3 million will probably not meaningfully detract from the private consumption of Metakovan, founder of a cryptocurrency fund called Metapurse, which invests in NFTs. No doubt he will still be able to buy a yacht and the world’s finest sushi.

Maybe NFTs will not endure, which is a risk for anyone playing a pioneering role in a new genre. That is why the price was not $200 million or more. In any case, this is a world in which Marcel Duchamp’s urinal sculpture still is exhibited in major museums, regarded by many critics as a masterpiece of the 20th century, and it sold at auction for $1.6 million in 2002. Canvases painted a single color, and other forms of abstract and conceptual art, remain a major part of recent art history and can sell for tens of millions.

The point is not to argue over what qualifies as “art.” It is simply that it is a mistake to assume that NFTs will fail in the art world.

Keep in mind that as the value of bitcoin and other crypto assets rises, more of the world’s billionaires will trace their wealth to crypto. It is unlikely that they are all looking to buy Rembrandts and Picassos.

And:

With his purchase, Metakovan has now generated significant publicity for NFT artworks and boosted their value. His portfolio of NFTs is now probably worth much more, and in net terms he may well be wealthier than the day before he bought “Everydays.” He is also now known as an especially important collector of NFT art. Other artists and sellers may offer him their best works, hoping to be affiliated with a prestigious collection. He will be at the center of an information network about valuable NFTs. How is that for clever?

Again, it is not art but here is the NFT for the first post ever on Marginal Revolution, mentioned in the column as well.  Here is a good Medium essay by the purchasers themselves, outlining their motives.

No you are not insane, yes you are allowed to giggle

An artwork by Beeple which exists only as a digital file and was sold as a “nonfungible token” for a staggering $69.3 million at an online auction handled by Christie’s on Thursday was bought by an investor known only by a pseudonym and who paid for it with cryptocurrency, the auction house said Friday.

“It feel like I got a steal,” said the buyer, who goes by the pseudonym Metakovan, in a Google Meet interview (without video) that was arranged by Christie’s.

Metakovan, the founder of the Metapurse, a fund that collects “nonfungible tokens” or NFTs, said he would be paying for the work and Christie’s fees in Ether, a cryptocurrency. “As we speak, I’m sending the last transaction,” he said.

The work he bought, “Everydays — The First 5000 Days,” is a collage of all the images that the digital artist Mike Winkelmann, known as Beeple, has posted online since 2007. The image had been specially created, or “minted,” by the artist for Christie’s timed one-lot online auction as an NFT. Such digital collectibles have no physical existence, but are given proof of ownership and authenticity using blockchain technology. “Everydays,” a JPG, was the first digital-only NFT auctioned by Christie’s.

Here is the full NYT story.  Here is Metakovan speaking, along with an image.  And here is Metakovan (“King of meta”) on his own identity, he is a Tamil living in Singapore.

My Caribbean podcast with the excellent Rasheed Griffith

One hour, fifteen minutes, almost all of it about the history and culture and economic future of the Caribbean, here is the audio.  It starts with Rasheed interviewing me, but later becomes more of a back-and-forth dialog, covering Cuba, Trinidad, Barbados, the best music from Jamaica, why Haiti has failed so badly, whether the Caribbean will be Latinized, and much more.  This one is pretty much entirely fresh material and I enjoyed doing it very much.

Rasheed is from Barbados, he is a very recent Emergent Ventures winner, and more generally his podcast focuses on the role of China in the Caribbean.  Newsletter and some prestigious podcast guests coming soon!

Here is Rasheed on Twitter.