Here are your top five links from Prufrock for the week. Enjoy!
3. Alan Jacobs reviews Unapologetic
4. What did Pontius Pilate think of Jesus? A classical perspective.
Zoltan Istvan connects the dots for us…sort of: If you are an atheist, you must also be a transhumanist:
Sometime in the next decade, the number of worldwide godless people — atheists, agnostics, and those unaffiliated with religion — is likely to break through the billion-person mark. Many in this massive group already champion reason, defend science, welcome radical technologies, and implicitly trust and embrace modern medicine. They are, indeed, already transhumanists. Yet many of them don’t know it because they haven’t thought much about it. However, that is about to change. A transformative cultural storm comprised of radical life improving technologies is set to blow in soon.
There’s nothing like asserting a point instead of proving it. A bit more from Mr. Istvan: “The core of transhumanist thought is two-sided.” (That’s right, a two-sided core! Amazing!)
It begins with discontent about the humdrum status quo of human life and our frail, terminal human bodies. It is followed by an awe-inspiring vision of what can be done to improve both — of how dramatically the world and our species can be transformed via science and technology. Transhumanists want more guarantees than just death, consumerism, and offspring. Much more. They want to be better, smarter, stronger — perhaps even perfect and immortal if science can make them that way. Most transhumanists believe it can.
Sounds like a perfectly horrifying fantasy. I just hope that in addition to perfecting human nature, transhumanists also learn a thing or two about metaphors along the way. Otherwise, this new world is going to be positively teaming with rainbow-jumping unicorns at loggerheads. To wit: “The transhumanism movement is quickly growing. Actually, it’s exploding. Last year, press coverage on the subject soared…The roots of atheism, agnosticism, and the nonreligious go back many centuries. But its foothold became pronounced in the 20th Century…These atheist voices and their writings have paved the way for us, and now the 21st Century will bring the age of transhumanism to the forefront of society.” And so forth, and so forth.
Paintings by an 11 year-old boy are apparently creating a bit of buzz at an art fair near Art Basel in Miami:
Wealthy collectors and famous international artists are descending on the Miami Beach convention center this week for the Art Basel show; but a young, largely unknown artist from Woodland Hills is kicking up some dust of his own nearby, in the city’s Wynwood Art District.
Charles Gitnick, 11, is showing and selling his “3-D gun art” this week at the satellite art event, the Red Dot Art Fair. Gitnick’s Jackson Pollock-inspired abstracts, which feature embedded plastic guns camouflaged by brightly colored paint, have sold over the past few years in L.A. and New York for anywhere from $100 to $2,500 apiece.
But the sixth-grader says it’s not the money that’s important to him, but the message — that gun violence is terrifying to him and he wishes guns would remain in art galleries alone rather than on the streets.
He’s been approached this week by gallerists in Miami, New York and Los Angeles to develop upcoming shows, he says.
The boy’s dad tells us how serious his son’s work is: “My child is sort of screaming through his art the fear about being a child in our society…We need to watch the art of our youth and see what it tells us about the world we are giving them to grow up in. I think his message is you’re scaring me.”
(Pictures of paintings and artist’s statement here.)
Am I the only one who finds it incredibly sad that a father would allow his son to use his innocence mixed with gimmick and politics–and let’s be honest here, it is because these works are by a child and about gun violence that folks are paying thousands of dollars for them, not because of the craft or skill involved–to make money or to advance a political cause?
I’m all for parents supporting their children in their passions, but this smells more like opportunism than support. Or am I missing something?
Based on Google search hits, we seem to be more interested in the morality of art than real crimes or tragedies. So writes Benjamin Pearson in an interesting piece for Tiny Mix Tapes, who confesses that he spent the year preoccupied with questions like:
Is that one Robin Thicke song rapey? Should white girls like Miley Cyrus be allowed to twerk? Should Lily Allen be allowed to make a video commenting on said white girls who twerk? What is thin privilege, and how can we reconcile it with the fact that most obesity worldwide is in rich countries? Speaking of thin privilege, does Lena Dunham hate black people because there aren’t any in her show? Also, do the lyrics to the new Kanye West album mean that he hates women? And just how, exactly, is Kanye West’s fist like a civil rights sign, and wouldn’t that give some awful splinters?
Pearson suggests that maybe “this imbalance of attention [is] more a product of displacement than disinterest”:
After all, our interest in media seemed to revolve more around finding offense than it did finding refuge (thankfully, since “having fun” and “escapism” are #privileged, #thingswhitepeoplelike, #firstworldproblems). Gracias a sites like Flavorwire, Buzzfeed, Jezebel, The Atlantic, Salon, and Upworthy (and our devoted patronage of them), the bulk of our discussion about songs, music videos, TV shows, and films — many of which most of us otherwise wouldn’t have even seen — was limited to their ability to be offensive in terms of race, gender, and sexuality.
This hasn’t necessarily been bad for our understanding of race or sexuality, Pearson writes, but it has been bad for art and art criticism: “Miley Cyrus’s twerking probably didn’t hurt race relations in the US, but the endless ‘offense criticism’ it inspired did hurt our relationship with art.”
Pearson goes on to compare Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Cyrus’s twerking, which is a stretch, to say the least. (Just because both performances offended their respective audiences does not mean that they are equally valuable artistically.) But he does point to a difference in how these pieces were viewed:
[U]nlike the audience in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées — who heard about the ballet beforehand, made the journey to the theater, paid for tickets, and waited in line with anticipation — most of us actually have no investment at all in the art that pisses us off.
And neither do critics. Stravinsky’s naysayers were ballet and classical music aficionados, near-comedically well-versed in and obsessed with the minutiae of the form’s history and technical elements. But I’d hazard a guess that most of Cyrus’s internet critics didn’t even know what key her song was in, or otherwise care about her music
Why does this matter? “Without curiosity about, or investment in, what makes art tick,” he writes, “what’s left to say besides surface-level critiques about how art illustrates, or even causes, our most ubiquitous social ills?”
In short, politics has replaced art (with the help, he notes, of slipshod liberal arts courses at American colleges that have long since ceased to study actual works of art and literature in any detail). Abstractions, ready-made (often politically-correct) categories have replaced actual thinking and concrete criticism. This is secular Puritanism at work, and it’s bad for art. Pearson is absolutely right.
At the same time, he goes too far, it seems to me, in divorcing art from morality, and employs a bit of ready-made, deconstructivist mumbo-jumbo himself. The moral outrage approach to art, he writes,
risks reducing audiences’ own interpretive possibilities. If some fans understand Miley Cyrus’s recent output as having a liberating feminist message, who are critics—especially ones who don’t even like Cyrus much anyway—to say they’re wrong? Instead of being suspicious of (and therefore, it’s implied, intellectually superior to) everyday audiences and their tastes, why not start by trying to understand why people like stuff and what it means to them? Sure, art has some meaning contained within it, but even more important is the meaning we construct for it, the way it interacts with the specific contexts of the lives of people who use it.
First of all, the meaning we “construct” from art is not “more important” than the meaning contained in the art—in fact, I am not even sure I know what he means by “more important.” More important for whom? College students construct all sorts of meanings from poems and novels that have little to do with the actual poem or novel, and that meaning is not that important for them, for me, or anyone else.
Second, how is Pearson’s constructivist hermeneutics any more about art—the formal characteristics of the notes, the words, and the movements of particular pieces—than the political approach he rightly calls to task? Maybe I am misunderstanding him, but it’s as if in rightly rejecting a merely political approach to art he espouses one that is merely personal.
He’s right that critics “should ditch their hermeneutics of suspicion about popular art,” but they shouldn’t be too trusting either.
(HT: Jordan Bloom)
Far be it from me to defend the books section of The New York Times, but this complaint from Tim Graham misses the mark:
This week’s list of New York Times best-selling books proves as usual that the Times doesn’t review conservative best-sellers. The nonfiction list was topped by “Things That Matter,” a collection of columns by Charles Krauthammer and then by “Killing Jesus” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. The children’s middle-grade list is led by Rush Limbaugh’s “Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims.” There has been no Times review of these books.
The Times can review whatever it pleases, and there is nothing odd in it ignoring run-of-the-mill books by conservative personalities like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh. After all, even The Wall Street Journal’s somewhat more conservative (and excellent!) review section ignored Palin and Limbaugh, and rightly so.
It is a little odd, however, that The Times mostly ignores interesting books by serious conservative writers—books like Mary Eberstadt’s How the West Really Lost God, Roger Kimball’s The Fortunes of Permanence, or Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Race, to give a few recent examples—simply because reviews of these kinds of books almost always make for good copy, whether praised or criticized. Kay S. Hymowitz’s review of Robert P. George’s Conscience and Its Enemies in The Times this summer is a case in point—engaging, and informed, Hymowitz (who, it should be noted, works for the conservative Manhattan Institute) avoids the predictable tub-thumping that can mar pieces on divisive issues. It’s a great review.
Even if The Times has dropped the pose of being unbiased, such reviews keep readers from dying of boredom, which should probably be a priority for newspaper editors these days.
The New York Magazine recently announced that, beginning March 3, 2014, it will go from a weekly to a biweekly publication schedule. While the cut in production will be accompanied by an expansion in cultural coverage, a new section or two, new online hires, an Instagram channel, and so forth, most people see the move as a harbinger of the end of the weekly magazine in general. If New York can’t make it as a weekly, who can?
At The Dish, Andrew Sullivan worries about what this means for how we read:
I’ve long believed that the survivors of this mass media death will be monthlies (and yet The Atlantic seems much more focused on digital than print and Harpers is as willfully obscure as ever) or a few weeklies like The Economist or The New Yorker. But I’m beginning to wonder how a handful of magazines can really sustain an ecology of reading habits alone. At some point the landscape they make sense in evaporates. They become a novelty rather than a central part of a reading public’s life.
I don’t find that satisfying. I find it terribly worrying if we care about sustaining the kind of informed discourse a democracy needs (and, sorry, but listicles and copy-writing disguised as journalism doesn’t count). Hence our attempt to build out and up from a blog and its readership. Will it work in the end? I don’t know. All I know is that it’s a duty to try. And try. And try again. And it’s good to know that as we struggle and improvise in the coming months and years, Adam Moss will be the proof of principle if print can survive at all.
Sullivan is right that weekly magazines nourish certain readerly habits and that those habits cannot be sustained–at least on a wide scale–by a handful of publications.
At the same time, I am not as worried as Sullivan about the future of reading and discourse because, it seems to me, there are certain natural characteristics to the ways we read that are difficult to change. Ways of reading are plastic, but not completely plastic. Our memories are limited, we become bored by repetition and over-stimulation, we value variety and complexity, our eyes need rest, our minds need quiet. And if this is true, I wonder if it makes sense to think of weekly magazines as responding to ways of reading as well as nourishing them.
Like Sullivan, I enjoy weeklies and will be sorry to see them go–if they do go. But I don’t think the loss would be catastrophic for certain kinds of reading or for public discourse. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I think other kinds of publications, or kinds or uses of technology, will respond to the sort of demand that led to weeklies–other uses of technology like Sullivan’s own pioneering use of the blog.
And will Sullivan’s use of the blog be successful? Maybe so, maybe not. I hope it will be. But if not, I think something or someone else will be.
Thomas Kidd: “stop idolizing the Pilgrims.”
Four things you should know about the Pilgrims.
Thanksgiving at the White House and the Establishment Clause: “Strict separation of church and state would require us to throw out Thanksgiving as a religious holiday proclaimed by the president. Instead, we should embrace Thanksgiving and throw out strict separationism as a misguided interpretation of the Constitution.”
How the Thanksgiving meal has changed over the past 150 years.
“You hold giblets and you are made of China with a platinum rim and you are a gravy boat!”
In last weekend’s Los Angeles Times, Mark Swed passes on a bit of liberal lore. John F. Kennedy, he writes, was our nation’s “arts patron in chief”:
“American artists have for three years looked to the White House with unaccustomed confidence and warmth,” Bernstein said that day. “We loved him for the honor in which he held art, in which he held every creative impulse of the human mind, whether it was expressed in words, or notes, or paints, or mathematical symbols.”
Taking advantage of artists to inspire national optimism, the Kennedy White House made art glamorous. In return, art became a crucial factor in the new Camelot.
But it is hardly surprising that this aspect of the Kennedy administration is being overlooked.
Despite an unprecedented explosion of the arts in America over the last half-century, artists have never again been afforded such national prominence.
* * *
Art was there from the beginning for the Kennedy administration. The great, barrier-breaking, African American contralto Marian Anderson sang at the inauguration. My favorite photo of the Kennedy era is a picture of Bernstein and Frank Sinatra backstage at an inaugural ball as they waited to go on, each trying to appear cooler than the other and each looking like he had just been given the keys to the country.
John Steinbeck, W.H. Auden and Robert Lowell were on hand. In all, the president — no doubt at the urging of the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy — invited 50 writers and artists and musicians to the inauguration.
Except he wasn’t. There’s no doubt Kennedy invited a lot of artists to the White House and pretended to be interested in contemporary painting and music, but as David A. Smith notes in his excellent Money for Art, Kennedy (unlike his wife) cared little for the arts and did nothing in terms of policy other than follow the example of Theodore Roosevelt in creating an arts council by executive order:
Appearances notwithstanding, the Kennedy administration provided only marginal support and official encouragement for the growing movement to put the power of the government to work for American artists. Over the next two years and ten months, the administration introduced no new legislation, nor did it take any bold or novel steps, to invigorate the nation’s cultural life. In fact, throughout his administration President Kennedy came under fire from some in Congress for doing nothing to further the arts beyond hosting great artists at the White House.
And regarding Kennedy’s personal attitude towards the arts, Smith notes:
In matters of private preferences and artistic tastes, Kennedy had much more in common with his predecessor [Eisenhower] than most people would ever have imagined. One writer who spent time close to the president recorded that, White House performances notwithstanding, JFK was ambivalent at best toward “serious music.” He had no personal interest in opera, was bored by the ballet, and had even been known to doze off at symphony concerts. “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home?” was his favorite song. His taste in movies ran to Casablanca, Spartacus, or The Guns of Navarone rather than anything “too arty or actionless.” Like Ike, he also preferred paintings of Western scenes, several of which he hung in the White House living quarters, to anything remotely modern or abstract. Also like Eisenhower, Kennedy enjoyed action-packed bedside reading, though he chose the James Bond adventures of Ian Fleming over the Old West tales of Zane Grey.
So who was our “arts patron in chief” if it wasn’t Kennedy? Well, if you go by funding, it was Richard Nixon. That’s right.
After he was elected, Nixon met with Nancy Hanks, who was to head up the young National Endowment for the Arts. Nixon told her, as Smith notes, that “one of the important goals of my administration is the further advance in the cultural development of our nation.” He put his budget where his mouth was, overseeing the largest expansion of the National Endowment for the Arts in its short history, and the largest percentage increase over a period of four years to date. When Nixon took office in January 1969, funding for the NEA was at a little over $8 million. When he left office in 1974, its budget was over $60 million. If Nixon had not supported the NEA in the way that he did, the small, fledgling agency may have easily disappeared.
But, as they say, great myths die hard.
Jonathan Wolff is confused. In The Guardian, he states that he wants to end “the male domination of philosophy” because it is sexist. He then seems to assert that one benefit of having more women in philosophy would be that it would make it a kinder, gentler discipline:
Rather than a pedantic scrap over the details, her tutorials were a model of politeness and encouragement. Which makes me wonder: if philosophy is to be more “gender friendly”, do philosophers have first to act, well, if not in more “ladylike” fashion, then at least with greater decorum?
In short, he wants to fight against sexism while at the same time propagating a gender stereotype that is probably false. Are women “nicer” than men? I’m not so sure.
This happens a lot in these sorts of articles. On the one hand, it is asserted that there are no differences between men and women; therefore, every vocation, every position type, should reflect the country’s gender ratio. If the ratio is not reflected, it is the result of some injustice, again because there is no reason other than discrimination for fewer women in this or that vocation. On the other hand, it is asserted that having more women in a certain profession or vocation would make it better because it would add something that was missing. But if there is no difference between men and women, what could possibly be missing?
What about writing—a vocation that is one of the most naturally egalitarian and in which there should be the same number of men and women? The current obsession with gender—how many women won this prize, contributed to this magazine or newspaper, and so forth—has the effect of encouraging quotas and replacing the lauding of literary accomplishment with the lauding of moral dogma. As Matt Hunte tweeted in response to a recent article in The Nation, “I may be passing judgment (!), but I suspect a lot of stuff gets celebrated more out of moral fashion than genuine appreciation.”
This is bad for both men and women writers because it’s bad for literature.
Here are the top five most-clicked links from Prufrock for the week. Enjoy!
1. R.R. Reno on the Christian intellectual.
2. Leonardo da Vinci’s viola organista built 500 years after it was designed. Listen here.
5. Why Harry Potter is great literature.