Category: The Arts

The Republican Club — why is this painting interesting?

It hangs in the White House, and Trump seems to like the picture.  What about the image is striking?  I can think of a few things:

1. There are no Founding Fathers in the painting, or other references to the more distant past, and so “Republicans” are presented as a distinct club of their own, above and beyond the broader American tradition.  (On the far right, is that Theodore Roosevelt, Vernon Smith, or somebody else?)

2. The first George Bush (upper left), and Gerald Ford, are both denied a “seat at the proverbial table.”  Bush seems to look on with admiration.  The second George Bush, on the left side of the table seated, appears run down and haggard, defeated by the job.  He looks a wee bit like a paler Obama.

3. Nixon, who had to resign, drinks alcohol while Trump seems to have Coca-Cola.

4. Reagan is shown as Trump’s only peer, while Eisenhower is the one “closest” to Trump, and the one most appreciative.  Of course many of Trump’s policy preferences seem aimed at returning us to the Eisenhower era in some way (higher tariffs, lower immigration, less regulation, etc.)

5. Trump is the only one with a tie, except for TR, and it is a striking red tie.

6. Hoover, Harding, and Coolidge are in the distant back right.

7. It reminds me of a variety of “Last Supper” paintings, though not Leonardo’s.  There are twelve of them.

8. The background, with its column and twinklings lights, is reminiscent of late 19th century French impressionism.

9. Who is the bearded figure in the foreground, with his back to us?  At first I thought it was Mephistopheles, but it turns out to be Lincoln.  He is a passive onlooker with weak shoulders, and with no commanding or influential presence of his own.

10. Andy Thomas, the artist, also painted the very different The Democratic Club.  You could write a short book on the contrasts between the two paintings, for instance notice the Democrats are drinking beer and have a much wider and open background, with fewer columns.

Here is a related interview about the painting.  Via Anecdotal.

My Conversation with John Nye

John is one of the smartest people I know, and one of my favorite people to talk to, here is the transcript and audio.  Here is the opening summary:

Raised in the Philippines and taught to be a well-rounded Catholic gentleman, John Nye learned the importance of a rigorous education from a young age. Indeed, according to Tyler he may very well be the best educated among his colleagues, having studying physics and literature as an undergraduate before earning a master’s and PhD in economics. And his education continues, as he’s now hard at work mastering his fourth language.

On this episode of Conversations with Tyler, Nye explains why it took longer for the French to urbanize than the British, the origins of the myth of free-trade Britain, why Vertigo is one of the greatest movies of all time, why John Stuart Mill is overrated, raising kids in a bilingual household, and much more.

Here is one bit:

NYE: In fact, one of the things I do know about the 19th century is that there’s no evidence that either unilateral free trade or multilateral did very much.

Almost all the free trade in Europe in the 19th century was a product of, initially, the bilateral trade agreement between Britain and France, sometimes known as the Anglo-French Treaty of Commerce of 1860, in which they each agreed to much more liberalized trade on a most-favored-nation basis. Once they accepted this, then what happened is, anyone who signed on to either Britain or France on the most-favored-nation basis then bought into, in some sense, this system.

Here is another:

COWEN: Particular mistakes aside, what were the systemic mistakes the Western world was making in, say, 1910, 1912?

NYE: I think the systemic mistake really boils down to how do you deal with the problem of power? How do you deal with the problem of different groups, different cultures wanting their place at the table? It’s clear that, if you look, a lot of the fight of imperialism was great-power competition.

If you look in the Far East, for example, some people may know that the United States took the Philippines from Spain at the end of the period of Spanish control of the Philippines in 1898, and partly this was due to Perry’s decision to sail into Manila Bay.

One of the things that’s not discussed — most people are unaware of — is that the German and British fleets were waiting in Hong Kong. They were waiting to see what the Americans did. And it’s quite likely that, had the Americans not steamed into Manila Bay, that the Germans or British would have intervened in the Philippines once the Spanish collapsed.

And:

COWEN: And if there’s an underlying political subtext or import of Hitchcock, what do you think that would be? Not what he necessarily intended as his politics, but what’s in the movies in terms of human nature and political man?

NYE: Well, I think there’s this question of suspicion and the tendency to not appreciate how much is going on under the surface. I think people tend to see these things narrowly in terms of Cold War paranoia. But Hitchcock was a political conservative, and he was much more of the very old British conservative view that one should be wary in times of —

COWEN: Suspicion is metaphysical, right?

Definitely recommended, I am very honored to have had the chance to do this with John.

The surprising (?) formula for becoming an art star

From Kelly Crow at the WSJ:

New artists who show their work early in a relatively small network of 400 venues—like Gagosian Gallery or the Guggenheim Museum—are all but guaranteed a successful art career, the study said. By contrast, artists who exhibit mainly in lower-level galleries and midtier institutions are likely to remain stuck in that orbit.

“There’s this invisible network of trust that exists in the art world, but the group that decides who matters in art was considerably smaller and more powerful than we expected,” said Albert-László Barabási, a data scientist who studies networks at Northeastern and led the study along with several colleagues including a data scientist now at the World Bank, Samuel Fraiberger. Their findings also show up in Dr. Barabási’s book published earlier this week, “The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success.”

His findings undermine a popular art-world notion that a prodigy could create in obscurity and get discovered years later. Instead, the research suggests that artists who start out seeking connections with powerful curators, dealers and collectors within the nerve center of the art world are far more likely to hit the big time…

“If one of your first five shows as an artist is held at a gallery in the heart of this network, the chances of your ending your career on the fringes is 0.2%,” Dr. Barabási said. “The network itself will protect you because people talk to each other and trade each other’s shows.”

…“The art world prides itself on being so open and inclusive, but the truth is the opposite,” Mr. Resch said.

The same is true for academia, I might add.  And most other things.

My Conversation with Eric Schmidt

Self-recommending, here is the audio and video.  Here is the video, here is one excerpt from the dialogue:

COWEN: So you receive an offer to run Google. Why were you so skeptical about Google at first?

SCHMIDT: Well, I assumed that search wasn’t very important, and I assumed the ads didn’t work. I was so concerned about the ads that, after I accepted the offer — because it just seemed like it was interesting, and a lot of luck comes from doing things that are interesting, and sort of creating your own luck — I hauled the then–sales executive, whose name was Tim Armstrong, who you all know well, and I said, “Tim, prove to me that these ads work.”

So they showed me a set of ads, and they looked pretty foolish to me. So I said, “Well, let’s go find the finance person,” of which there was one, and the accounting system was done on QuickBooks. I said, “Prove to me that people are paying for these ads,” and they did.

We then did an ads conversion in the first year, which was called Project Drano, where we basically took three different ads databases, which were simple compared to today’s databases, and merged them into one. And I was terrified, absolutely terrified that the ruse that we had — because we had fixed pricing on our ads — that people would discover that our ads were not worth anything.

So I organized what I called the cash restriction period, where the only thing you could do if you wanted to spend money, is you could only spend money on Friday at 10 AM, and you had to come to me to justify it, which very much shuts down spending.

So we get to this conversion, we turn the thing over, and of course, we didn’t bother to build into the tools. We had no metrics. We didn’t know what was going on. I’m going, “Oh my God, the company is bankrupt. My first year, I’ve done a terrible job. What will the board think?” I did my best to notify everybody we were going to go kaput.

The auction produced a price that was three times higher than the previous prices. Very interesting. So much for the cash restriction period, and the rest is history.

And from Eric:

We did all sorts of things. My favorite example is that we would interview people to death. We interviewed this one gentleman sixteen times, and we couldn’t decide. So I picked a random number, which was half, and I said, “We should have a max of eight, and if we can’t decide after eight . . .” We’ve since done a statistical analysis, and the answer today is four to five interviews.

And here is my bit on Eric:

COWEN: Now early on, you were an intern at Bell Labs, and also PARC, which belonged to Xerox, and I think of those two institutions as stemming from earlier glory years of American science.

Is it fair to think of your career as in some sense, you’re the person who spans those two eras, the Bell Labs-PARC era of doing things, and then the tech era of manipulating information, and that your ability to bring expertise from those two areas together is what has made you a unique figure? Is that a fair assessment of how you fit into the picture?

And there is this bit:

COWEN: How did it influence you having a father who was a famous economist? He wrote on balance of payments crises. What did you draw from him? Did that have a role in using so much economics in Google?

SCHMIDT: Well, what’s interesting is, I asked my father, “If you’re such a good economist, why are we not rich?”

I very much enjoyed doing this event, which was for Village Global, a new venture capital firm.  Here is a Village Global post on lessons from the event.

What should I ask Rebecca Kukla?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, here is her home page:

Professor of Philosophy and Senior Research Scholar in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University

Also: amateur powerlifter and boxer and certified sommelier

I live in the middle of Washington, DC, with my 13-year-old son Eli and my two Portal-themed cats, Chell and Cube. My research focuses on social epistemology, philosophy of medicine, and philosophy of language. 

This interview is an excellent entry point into her thought and life, here is an excerpt from the introduction:

[Rebecca] talks about traveling the world with her nomadic parents, her father who was a holocaust survivor and philosopher, hearing the Dream argument in lieu of bedtime stories, chaotic exposure to religion, getting a job at and apartment at the age of 14, the queerness of Toronto, meeting John Waters and Cronenberg, her brother who is the world’s first openly transgender ordained rabbi, getting into ballet, combating an eating disorder, the importance of chosen family, co-authoring an article with her dad, developing an interest in philosophy of mathematics, the affordability of college in Canada, taking care of a disabled, dramatically uninsured loved one, going to University of Pitt for grad school, dealing with aggravated depression, working with Brandom, McDowell, the continental/analytic distinction, history of philosophy, how feminism and women—such as Tamara Horowitz, Annette Baier, and Jennifer Whiting–were treated at Pitt, coping with harassment from a member of the department, impostor syndrome, Dan Dennett and ‘freeedom’, her sweet first gig (in Vermont), dining with Bernie Sanders, spending a bad couple of years in Oregon, having a child, September 11th, securing tenure and becoming discontent at Carleton University, toying with the idea of becoming a wine importer, taking a sabbatical at Georgetown University which rekindled her love of philosophy, working on the pragmatics of language with Mark Lance, Mass Hysteria and the culture of pregnancy, how parenting informs her philosophy, moving to South Florida and the quirkiness of Tampa, getting an MA in Geography, science, philosophy and urban spaces, boxing, starting a group for people pursuing non-monogamous relationships, developing a course on Bojack Horseman, her current beau, Die Antwoord, Kendrick, Trump, and what she would do if she were queen of the world…

And from the interview itself:

I suspect that I’m basically unmentorable. I am self-destructively independent and stubborn, and deeply resentful of any attempt to control or patronize me, even when that’s not really a fair assessment of what is going on.

So what should I ask her?

Smell markets in everything

Previously, she has made dairy products from the perspiration of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

Here is the full article.  And:

In one exhibition, [Sissel] Tolaas captured the armpit sweat of severely anxious men from Greenland to China, recreated their individual smells and painted them onto the walls of the installation. (“There was a composite odor of anxiety that just infused the whole room, and it was really unhinging,” said Howes, who saw it in Basel, Switzerland). After the smell of fear, Tolaas recreated the smell of violence from cage fighters in East London. She has recreated the scents of Berlin’s famed Berghain nightclub, New York’s Central Park in October, World War I, communism and the ocean. Her shows are immersive and emotional in a distracted world. They aim to grip audiences right by the lizard brain.

And:

Tolaas also invented 1,500 “smell memory kits” — abstract odors that have never been smelled before. When you want to remember an event, you open the amulet and inhale, sealing the moment in your emotional core. For the London Olympics, she made a Limburger cheese sourced from David Beckham’s sweaty socks, which was served to VIPs.

File under “Department of Why Not?”

The best job market paper I have seen so far this year

From Hyejun Kim at MIT”s Sloan School:

Knitting Community: Human and Social Capital in the Early Transition into Entrepreneurship

The process by which individuals become entrepreneurs is often described as a decisive moment of transition, yet it necessarily involves a series of smaller steps. This study examines how human capital and social capital are accumulated and deployed in the earliest stages of the entrepreneurial transition in the setting of “user entrepreneurship.” Using the unique dataset from Ravelry—the Facebook of knitters—I study why and how some knitters become entrepreneurs. I show that knitters who make the entrepreneurial transition are distinctive in that they have experience in fewer techniques and more product categories. I also show that this transition is facilitated by participation in offline social networks where knitters garner feedback and encouragement. Importantly, social and human capital appear to complement each other with social capital producing the greatest effect on the most skilled users. Broader theoretical implications on user innovation, the role of social capital, and entrepreneurship research are discussed.

Here is part of the concluding summary:

…the critical factor explaining why some creative knitters transition to designers is the feedback and encouragement they receive from fellow knitters and friends. With a carefully matched sample, difference-in-difference analysis verifies that the participation in an offline local networking group increases the likelihood of transition by 25%. Furthermore, the results suggest that social capital effect is largest among those with entrepreneurial human capital, as social capital complements human capital in knitters’ transition to
designers.

I have read through the entire paper and the whole thing is a gem.

Will the decline of galleries reshape art?

Heidi Mitchell reports (NYT):

“The gallery is a format that is struggling,” said the Argentine curator Ximena Caminos, formerly of the Malba museum in Buenos Aires and now chief creative officer of the Honey Lab cultural space in Miami’s Blue Heron hotel and residential project, which is now under development. “It’s transactional; the artist doesn’t have that much creative freedom, and there is a lot of pressure to make money in a short period of time.” Artists, she said, are seeking new places to showcase their work, especially if the pieces are large in scale.

If the number and relevance of galleries were to decline (continue to decline?), how might this affect artistic content?  Here are a few hypotheses:

1. More artists will commission pieces for corporate lobbies and condominiums, as the article reports.  That will tend to favor mainstream abstract art and disfavor political statements and obscenities.

Erica Samuels notes:

“There is a great responsibility on the real estate developers that maybe they don’t even realize, while at the same time, the stigma of an artist working with a rich developer is fading.”

2. Corporate-owned works are usually less liquid and may not be sold at all, short of bankruptcy or liquidity crunches, when they are sold under panic conditions.  Artists therefore will be less likely to have dominant dealers who prop up their prices and cultivate markets for them.  That will likely encourage greater artistic output, though also lower quality output, as might be defined by elites.  The resulting art will have to appeal to buyers at first glance, as the artist cannot count upon “sophisticated” galleries to persuade or educate potential buyers.

3. Some artists will take their craft directly to the street, as is done in Belfast or Newark, New Jersey.  They will paint for local community status, and for the joy of it, and for political self-expression, rather than for pay.  They will use cheaper materials, brighter colors, and indulge in themes and images with strong local meaning.  Political art and paid art will separate further.

4. Galleries pursue their own coherent reputations, which encourages carried artists to fit into slots which match gallery reputations.  So there are “conceptual art galleries,” “Pop Art galleries,” and so on, and artists in turn target those styles, so as to achieve entry to galleries.  When galleries are weaker, the slottable categories are created by some other set of intermediaries — might it someday be Instagram hashtags?  eBay search terms?  Something else?  In any case, those new slots or styles might have to be less “you know it when you see it” and more “you can type those words into a search function.”

5. The decline of browsing has hit published books as well, especially fiction, which saw a big decline in sales over 2013-2017: “The most commonly shared view is that it has become extremely difficult to generate exposure for novels. Fiction, more than nonfiction, depends on readers discovering new books by browsing. Now, with the number of physical stores down from five years ago (despite a rise in ABA membership), publishers cannot rely on bricks-and-mortar stores providing customers with access to new books.”  It is easier to type the topic of a non-fiction book into a search function.  In this world it is harder to develop new authors [artists], and the link directly above, while about books, is a good way to start thinking about the galleries issue.

6. Most galleries, either intentionally or not, create a distinction between what is shown on the floor and what is held in the back room.  Non-gallery art is less likely to be bifurcated in the same way, even if some pieces are more prominent on the home page than others.  That may make internet-displayed art less “bubbly,” less subject to elite manipulations and prejudices and enlightenments, and also both fuzzier and lower in price.

7. If there are fewer galleries, perhaps more will be bought and sold at auction.  The winning bidder will be less likely to be ripped off by say 3x on the price, so it will be easier to experiment with buying unfamiliar styles: “I liked the Persian carpet I saw at Sotheby’s, and figured the winning bid wouldn’t have too much winner’s curse in it.”  You can’t say the same when you go to a gallery relatively uninformed.

8. Galleries offer high implicit returns to regular buyers, who end up getting a crack at the best works in advance, even before the show opens.  That encourages buyer specialization, whereas internet and auction-based methods of selling do not.

9. What else?

Which comics are accused of joke theft?

Why might observers label one social actor’s questionable act a norm violation even as they seem to excuse similar behavior by others? To answer this question, I use participant-observer data on Los Angeles stand-up comics to explore the phenomenon of joke theft. Informal, community-based systems govern the property rights pertaining to jokes. Most instances of possible joke theft are ambiguous owing to the potential for simultaneous and coincidental discovery. I find that accusations are not strongly coupled to jokes’ similarity, and enforcement depends mainly on the extent to which insiders view the comic in question as being authentic to the community. Comics who are oriented toward external rewards, have a track record of anti-social behavior, and exhibit lackluster on-stage craft are vulnerable to joke theft accusations even in borderline cases because those inauthentic characteristics are typical of transgressors. Vulnerability is greatest for comics who enjoy commercial success despite low peer esteem. Authenticity protects comics because it reflects community-based status, which yields halo effects while encouraging relationships predicated on respect. In exploring accusations of joke theft and their outcomes, this study illustrates how norms function more as framing devices than as hard-and-fast rules, and how authenticity shapes their enforcement.

That is from “No Laughter among Thieves: Authenticity and the Enforcement of Community Norms in Stand-Up Comedy,” by Patrick Reilly, from the American Sociological Review.

For the pointer I thank Siddharth Muthukrishnan.

My Conversation with John Nye, what should I ask him?

Soon I will be having a Conversation with my esteemed colleague John V. Nye, one of the smartest people I know.  John is an economic historian but also a polymath with broad-ranging interests, including travel, classical music, chess, education, “institutions,” Asian food, the Philippines (his home country), and much more.

So what should I ask him?

Preference for realistic art predicts support for Brexit

Here is part of the abstract from Noah Carl, Lindsay Richards, and Anthony Heath:

Controlling for a range of personal characteristics, we found that respondents who preferred all four realistic paintings were 15–20 percentage points more likely to support Leave than those who preferred zero or one realistic paintings. This effect was comparable to the difference in support between those with a degree and those with no education, and was robust to controlling for the respondent’s party identity.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Whiners, in this case whiners about Airspace

We could call this strange geography created by technology “AirSpace.” It’s the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live / work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset. Minimalist furniture. Craft beer and avocado toast. Reclaimed wood. Industrial lighting. Cortados. Fast internet. The homogeneity of these spaces means that traveling between them is frictionless, a value that Silicon Valley prizes and cultural influencers like Schwarzmann take advantage of. Changing places can be as painless as reloading a website. You might not even realize you’re not where you started…

The profusion of generic cafes and Eames chairs and reclaimed wood tables might be a superficial meme of millennial interior decorating that will fade with time. But the anesthetized aesthetic of International Airbnb Style is the symptom of a deeper condition, I think.

Why is AirSpace happening? One answer is that the internet and its progeny — Foursquare, Facebook, Instagram, Airbnb — is to us today what television was in the last century…

That is all from Kyle Chayka at The Verge.  I found this article interesting, well-written, and making a valid point.  Still, is it not mostly your fault if you are stuck in “Airspace,” as it is called?  Northern Virginia has some of the wealthiest counties in the United States, yet most of the terrain still is not Airspace or anything close to it.  Nor is most of San Francisco this way, or most of Manhattan, much less the other boroughs.  (And might you not prefer Airspace for the NYC subway?)  Seoul is a city which has its share of Airspace, but again is hardly dominated by it — the dense, low-slung neighborhoods of small restaurants are fascinating and mostly retro.

I think of Airspace as a 2-3% of our living space condition, yet a 2-3% that you can immerse yourself in if you are so inclined.

Which I am not.

Via edmundogs.

Banksy is the Real Deal

Hyperallergic: A Banksy artwork “self-destructed” at a Friday night Sotheby’s auction in London.

“Girl with a Balloon” (2006) was the final lot of the evening sale at Sotheby’s and ended things off with an impressive final price of £953,829…

Robert Casterline of Casterline Goodman gallery was in attendance and told Hyperallergic what happened next. He explained there was “complete confusion” and an “alarm inside the frame started going off as the gavel went down.”

“[It] sold for over a million dollars and as we sat there…the painting started moving,” he said, and added that the painting’s frame, also made by Banksy, acted as a shredder and started to cut the canvas into strips. “[It was] all out confusion then complete excitement,” he explained.

Anny Shaw of the Art Newspaper spoke to Alex Branczik, the auction house’s head of contemporary art for Europe,  who seemed as surprised as anyone.

Banksy is a genius.

Unusual failed Beatle Asimov markets in everything

[Paul] McCartney was still wrestling with the comparison between the two bands [the Beatles and Wings].  A few months earlier he had commissioned veteran sci-fi author Isaac Asimov to write a screenplay. “He had the basic idea for the fantasy, which involved two sets of musical groups,” Asimov recalled, “a real one, and a group of extraterrestrial imposters.  The real one would be in pursuit of the imposters and would eventually defeat them, despite the fact that the latter had supernormal powers.”  Beyond that framework, McCartney offered Asimov nothing more than “a snatch of dialogue describing the moment when the group realised they were being victimised by imposters.”  Asimov set to work and produced a screenplay that he called “suspenseful, realistic and moving.”  But McCartney rejected it.  As Asimov recalled, “He went back to his one scrap of dialogue out of which he apparently couldn’t move.”

That is from Peter Doggett’s excellent You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup.

My Conversation with Bruno Maçães

Here is the audio and transcript, here is the opening summary:

Political scientist Bruno Maçães has built a career out of crossing the globe teaching, advising, writing, and talking to people. His recent book, born out of a six-month journey across Eurasia, is one of Tyler’s favorites.

So how does it feel to face Tyler’s rat-a-tat curiosity about your life’s work? For Bruno, the experience was “like you are a politician under attack and your portfolio is the whole of physical and metaphysical reality.”

Read on to discover how well Bruno defended that expansive portfolio, including what’s missing from liberalism, Obama’s conceptual foreign policy mistake, what economists are most wrong about, how to fall in love with Djibouti, stagnation in Europe, the diversity of Central Asia, Hitchcock’s perfect movie, China as an ever-growing global force, the book everyone under 25 should read, the creativity of Washington, D.C versus Silicon Valley, and more.

Here is one bit:

MAÇÃES: This raises deep philosophical questions and political questions. If you want Turkey to become like Europe, then you have to project European power across Turkey. If Europe no longer has that ability, then you shouldn’t be surprised that Turkey looks elsewhere.

It’s very simple. I think I say in the book that in order to be loved, you also have to be feared. This idea that you find in Europe now, that without projecting any kind of power, other countries will be attracted to the European model, that’s a form of utopianism. I just cannot see that happen.

COWEN: So Europe lacks the spirit of adventure.

MAÇÃES: That is certainly the case. I think you see that. One of the areas where the spirit of adventure today is more relevant and important is technology. You see in Europe the idea that technology’s against us, and we should resist this rather than embrace it. A very negative spirit, which I think is a good example of how adventure has disappeared from the European psyche.

And:

COWEN: Russia. Why is Russia as a world power currently underrated?

MAÇÃES: The most impressive thing about Russia is, in fact, something that you might not think at first: the power of organization. We have this image of Russia as a failed state in many respects.

But in order to keep that empire, in order to keep it together throughout the centuries, in order to develop it to some extent, in order to bring together so many ethnicities, so many religions . . . it’s fair to say that Russia has done a better job of integrating its Muslim population, which is close to 15 percent, than any other country, I would argue — certainly any other major country.

The power of the Russian state, the ability to organize, to dispose, to connect, is one of the great political stories of mankind — to see how the Russian state was able to grow and to extend itself. And that’s still there.

Original and highly recommended.  Again, here is Bruno’s book The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order.