Art by the numbers…

August 4, 2008

Today, in the New York Times, there was an article about an economist who has reordered the canon of art history by using market statistics and counts of the appearance of works in standard texts.  After his quantitative ranking is done, what will know about art?  That is, will it deepen or alter our appreciation of the works?  I think not, though it may have some interest as cultural history.  As Arthur Danto pointed out succinctly,

“I don’t see the method as anything except circular. The frequency of an illustration doesn’t seem to me to really explain what makes an idea good.

“Somewhere along the line you’ve got to find answers to why it’s so interesting.”

If you’re interested in art, that is…

Unmentioned in this article, is the fact that it seems to reverse Marx’s comment on history playing out twice:  first as tragedy, then as farce.  This economist is engaging in a travesty of thought, a tragedy of …well, maybe it’s just farce all around, but the farce certainly came before him.  Has he not heard of Komar & Melamid?  These two tricksters did extensive polling – market research – to discover what art people want and then they gave it to them!  That’s art by the numbers!!


Terror Neat, Please

March 8, 2008

Medusa Cellini

As readers of my drivel know, I have a fondness for extreme political rhetoric, the more apocalyptic the better. There is also a bizarre frisson to be had from the prose of political “theorists” who stare down the abyss of terrorism, and find it good. Maximilien Robespierre is one of the best (emphasis mine):

The two opposing spirits that have been represented in a struggle to rule nature might be said to be fighting in this great period of human history to fix irrevocably the world’s destinies, and France is the scene of this fearful combat. Without, all the tyrants encircle you; within, all tyranny’s friends conspire; they will conspire until hope is wrested from crime. We must smother the internal and external enemies of the Republic or perish with it; now in this situation, the first maxim of your policy ought to be to lead the people by reason and the people’s enemies by terror.

If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.

There you have it. The Last Days are upon us, and the battle between good and evil will be resolved. Enemies are everywhere – anyone could be a traitor. There is a need for merciless terror, but it is virtuous. With such axioms and logic, almost anything can be justified.

I love the formula by which he clearly demonstrates that terror is justice. I am fascinated by the tone of the piece – so elevated, alluding to the revered, shared values of the classical past. It brings to mind that wonderful piece by the ever able propagandist for the revolution, and later, for Napoleon, Jacques Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii. Can we be so virtuous? We can, we must, but we must not flinch from the use of terror!

As the history of revolution moseys along, things change a bit. Here’s V. I. Lenin:

“We will turn our hearts into steel, which we will temper in the fire of suffering and the blood of fighters for freedom. We will make our hearts cruel, hard, and immovable, so that no mercy will enter them, and so that they will not quiver at the sight of a sea of enemy blood. We will let loose the floodgates of that sea. Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands; let them drown themselves in their own blood.

Sounds so much more emotional than Robespierre. Who knew Lenin was so romantic? Almost biblical, could easily have come from the mouth of Martin Luther, mutatis mutandis. Ah, this is more like it:

“We stand for organized terror – this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution.

Here, however, Trotsky waffles a bit:

Our class enemies are in the habit of complaining about our terrorism. What they mean by this is rather unclear. They would like to label all the activities of the proletariat directed against the class enemy s interests as terrorism.

Whatever the eunuchs and pharisees of morality may say, the feeling of revenge has its rights.

If we oppose terrorist acts, it is only because individual revenge does not satisfy us. The account we have to settle with the capitalist system is too great to be presented to some functionary called a minister.

What bothers me is the drift away from aesthetically pleasing moral certitude that Robespierre states so succinctly. Lenin and Trotsky argue. Maybe they felt guilty. The ends justify the means, but all that blood! Stalin was a stronger man, but not so eloquent.

Finally, we get the degenerate prose and rhetoric of the apologists for terror of the 40s to the 60s; the supporters of Stalin and his successors who were repelled by the violence of the Soviet State, but wished to portray it as somehow necessary, or no worse than the concealed violence of the capitalist regimes. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, with his Humanism and Terror is prominent here. Why not just come out and say YES to terror?  “I’ll take my terror neat, please.”

I’m not trying to knock the left here, though it might seem that way. It’s just that liberal-socialist-marxist thinkers have a professed committment to reason, so they have to argue for the goodness of killing women, children, innocent men, etc. They have to show that in the end, it’s all for the best, sort of like Pangloss proved in Candide. This perversion of rationality is what intrigues me. Except for Ayn Rand, I cannot think of people on the right who do the same. (She perverted rationality, but I don’t know that she supported terror.) When they plunk down for terror, they usually do it out of blood lust, romantic hero worship, satanic apocalyptic yearnings, or unutterably sick, evil, and convoluted workings out of their own psychological problems. Many vicious fascists, anti-semites, Nazi fellow travellers fit this bill.

A Memory of William F. Buckley

February 29, 2008

Monkey Typing Shakespeare

When I think of William F. Buckley Jr., I think of a piece he wrote for the New York Times Op-Ed page a few years ago on Darwin and “Intelligent Design.” (I cannot find the piece in the Times archive online, and I’d be grateful for a link. I know my memory of it is correct, because Buckley refers to the piece himself elsewhere.) In that piece, he reprised an argument that he had used before, and that has been popular with religious anti-evolution critics since Darwin first published his theory.

Simply stated, the argument is that organisms are too complex and perfectly suited to their environments to have evolved by random mutation. To bring this home, Buckley and others employ, with various degrees of derision and sarcasm, the reductio ad absurdum of the room with ten monkeys and ten typewriters on which they bang away happily, and randomly. Could we expect this monkey business to produce Shakepeare’s Hamlet? Well…since the play has a finite number of words, and since the number of possible combinations of the letters in the text of the play is finite, albeit unfathomably large, it is possible if there were enough time provided for the (immortal) simians to do their work. Now, Darwin shivered at the colossal lengths of time his evolutionary scheme required, but that was as nothing compared to the duration we are contemplating here! Intelligent Design triumphs?

Of course, the entire argument is based on a complete misunderstanding, a profound ignorance of what Darwin’s theory entails. Evolution is not a random process. Genetic mutations occur randomly, but their selection and propagation is based on their survival value for the organism. As Ernst Mayr says, it’s a two-step process: mutation, then selection. Sort of as if those tapping monkeys had an editor in the room looking at their output, saving the good scraps of random prose, and somehow feeding that back into the process. Except, of course, the “editor” in evolution is not intelligent or active, but only the blind, crushing, indifferent force of the environment that leads to the disappearance by death or disuse of most mutations.

This fundamental ignorance is how I recall Buckley. He was clever and genial, and ever willing to evade a hard question. When verbal puffery wouldn’t do, he would employ snide humor, innuendo, or sarcasm. He was serenely confident of his opinions, bigotted and otherwise, and acted as though it was bizarre that anyone would question them. When an interviewer asked him if he had felt isolated from “real life” as a young man – he was home schooled – he replied that no, of course not. After all, you don’t need to experience things to understand them. He read a lot. Yes, true, reading is wonderful. But only a blockhead or someone uninterested in testing their ideas would be so confident that there is nothing more to know.

Children of Bentham

January 21, 2008


In our consumer culture, we are all children of Jeremy Bentham. The greatest spokesman for the “philosophy” of Utilitarianism, he is with us through his descendants – Peter Singer of animal rights and euthanasia fame; all those economists fretting over “consumer confidence” indices – and in our minds, we economic men, tirelessly striving to better ourselves, increase our hedonic sum, maximize our utility, search for the best buy, get the greatest value for our money, as we bump around the atomized society of rootless individuals in the great pinball game of the free market, what Borges was perhaps satirizing in his short story, “The Lottery of Babylon.”

Bentham posited that there was nothing of value but pleasure. All of man’s life is a search for pleasure, a shunning of pain. Pleasure is the good. When we claim to act for altruistic reasons, or when we point to people who seem to willingly forgo pleasure for some “greater” good, he informs us that, in fact, this renunciation confers pleasure on the actor, so he is right after all. (Not unlike the thinking of Nietzche, who saw in the “slave religion” of Christianity a sly grab for power. What we call “passive-aggressive” in our therapeutic age.) Examine as you like every oddball, difficult, pain-producing situation: you will always find that the person involved is getting something out it, some secret or not so secret pleasure.

Well, nowadays, we don’t think about the hedonic calculus so much, that philosophy that claims that since pleasure is THE VALUE, the GOOD is simply the action that increase the sum total of pleasure (happiness) for the world. So, do what makes the greatest number more happy. Not a bad course in most cases, but the reasoning is awful. Anyway, along the way, pleasure got translated into money, because, after all, pleasure is so subjective. How do you measure pleasure? We can measure what people pay, or say they will pay, or have paid in the past for this or that, and since money has value, and people don’t usually spend their money carelessly, we can assume that the willingness to pay more means that something has more value for the buyer, and so is giving that person more pleasure. Simple, so simple. We can then construct economics as a science of maximizing value, i.e. pleasure, and thus our consumerist world is born! Everyone is pursuing happiness (Is this what the writers of the Declaration meant?) and buying their pleasure on the free market. Our consumer culture exists for no other end than to allow all to maximize their hedonic sum of utility/pleasure!!

The fact that Jeremy Bentham bequeathed his embalmed body to a London university – there it is in the picture, with his head!  sitting in a glass case in the lobby – would seem to give away the secret that something is clearly WHACK with this point of view. Like some monomaniac intellectuals who have solved the problems of humanity – “Just grant me this, and everything else follows..!” – he bends the facts of the world to fit his formula. Does he tell us what pleasure is? Why are so many disparate things called pleasure? Why assume that they are all one unitary thing? Isn’t he defining everything in a way that he can call it pleasure. (Sort of like believers who tell atheists that there is a God, and no matter how the atheist argues, the believer will point out, he thinks, that the atheist is describing God. Laws of nature, that’s God. Evolution, that’s God. Big bang…) Cite any human behavior involving free will, and Bentham has a way of “proving” that it is motivated by a desire for pleasure. In the end, he is proving that people want the things they want, don’t want what they don’t want, and are happier when they get what they want. We all knew that already.

His system is fundamentally a crackpot construction, but it has been taken very seriously. Worked out to its logical end, it yields a deeply inhuman brutality that can justify anything because, in the end, the sum total of happiness will be increased (…if I kill your handicapped daughter, end your life early so you don’t consume valuable resources, etc.) Another example of reason run amok.

Nuclear Blind Pig

January 18, 2008


Thanks to Blind Pig records for the loan of their logo. Much as I like Blues music, it’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about a different kind of blind pig – intellectuals. People like Richard Perle, quoted in Richard Rhodes’ recent book, Arsenals of Folly, as saying, “Getting rid of all the world’s nuclear weapons is the worst thing that could happen.” This was heard by Secy. of State George Schultz during the Regan-Gorby meeting in Iceland near the end of the cold war.

So what planet was Richard Perle living on? Same one he’s still on, I guess. He is the master of “threat inflation” and was instrumental in selling the snake oil that Saddam Hussein was ready to nuke the USA. Obviously, he found Iraq a useful demon after his favorite evil empire went to the dustbin of history. On the run up to the end of the Cold War, he desperately tried to derail Reagan from his path of disarming. [Rhodes’ book has made me feel a grudging smidgen of admiration for Reagonzo, despite his attachment to urban legends, steal-for-the-rich economics, cold war Contra law breaking, and the biggest arms buildup in US history. He felt Gorby wanted to get rid of the nuclear menace, the insanity of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), and he took him up on it. His advisers, such as Perle, were mostly against it.]  What sort of twisted thinking motivated Perle’s outrageous statement?

Well, of course, if the nuclear menace went away, so would the need for “experts” on arms control like him.  So would his political club that he had wielded so well with his mentor, Senator Scoop Jackson, liberal shill for the defense industry.  Nevertheless, one must wonder and quail before a mind, supposedly intelligent, that could take nuclear holocaust so in stride. That is, not recoil in absolute horror from the prospect.  The human beings of the world have to be grateful that those political leaders who would actually have had to press the button, did recoil:  Kruschev, JFK, Reagan, Gorby, and others.  There were close calls, but none wanted to get to that point.

Rhodes, no fan of Reagan, relates that he was deeply shaken by the TV movie, The Day AfterMovies, he understood.  Kissinger deplored the effect of the movie, and such popular expressions of anti-nuke horror such as the 1,000,000 strong march in NYC, as introducing irrational fear to the negotiations.  (And he wasn’t nearly as much of a nutcase as Perle.  After all, he was for detente.)  All of them knew, as Perle apparently did not, that it would be a catastrophe, perhaps The End.

This is the state to which some intellectuals bring themselves.

I been Ayn Randed…

November 23, 2007


“I been Ayn Randed, nearly branded
Communist, ’cause I’m left-handed.”

A Simple Desultory Philippic – Paul Simon

I have a fascination for what I regard as crackpot, but sophisticated intellectual systems, and the work of Ayn Rand falls in that category for me. I have never been able to read her ponderous, best-selling novels because I think she has no literary talent at all. My familiarity with her ideas comes from shorter pieces and secondary sources.

For the most part, old wine in new bottles, I say. With a little bit of high-flown metaphysics thrown in at the beginning to get the ball rolling. “A is A,” and if you grant this, all else follows. Yes, I love that phrase, so common in the crackpot world of polemical philosophers. They all have the key to the universe, so don’t bother arguing with them. I try now and then – you can see my attempts at this thread if you like. I think that this page, Become an Objectivist in Ten Easy Steps, however, is the best response to that group’s pretentious, intellectual puffery.

Reason Ridden

November 11, 2007


As I strolled about the Met, I came upon this piece, which I had never seen before. It’s called an Aquamanilia, a hollow vessel to hold water for washing hands during ceremonies sacred and secular. There are many examples of them in the Met, mostly in the form of animals or mythic beasts, but this one drew me up short and taught me something! A woman riding a man, in a medieval sculpture? And the man is none other than the great philosopher, Aristotle. (Aristotle was The Man for philosophy in the middle ages, despite his misfortune of having been born too early to be baptized a Christian. Dante consigned him to Hell’s First Circle, where the virtuous pagans had it fairly easy, only sighing in pain for their missed salvation.) Who is this dominatrix, Phyllis, who treats Aristotle like a sexual plaything?

It turns out that this image was quite popular then, and derives from a story that was also well known among the educated. In short, Aristotle, tutor to Alexander the Great, was warning his pupil against the distractions from greatness that women offered. He suggested that Alex dump his girlfriend Phyllis. She overheard this business and decided to get even. She seduces Aristotle, but refuses to yield fully until he puts on a saddle and lets her ride him around the yard. No, they weren’t prudish in their entertainments then. Aristotle is humiliated in front of his pupil, and he tries to laugh it off as some sort of object lesson on the dangers of women, but Alexander is not fooled. He reunites with Phyllis and forgives his revered teacher.

So many themes here, and I’m sure that contemporary feminists, social critics, and litsy-critsy cranks have had their way with it. I even found one of the images below on a site with links to fetish and bondage sites.