The Wisconsin state capitol building is quite beautiful.
What is is about art, that when smart, tough-minded people get near it, their brains turn to mush? I’ve worked in a museum and universities, and studied the former professionally: while management of the latter is often very feckless and lax, museums take the cake. Most recently, but not exceptionally, a board of trustees starring the business élite of New York City has managed to let the Metropolitan Museum of Art go seriously into the financial toilet, despite having assets worth at least $100 billion.
Today we have a lawyer, apparently capable of actual research and inference from evidence and writing literate English, proposing that artists should have a full value deduction for the untaxed value of gifts of their own work, something we fixed fifty years ago. He managed to get that truly loony and regressive idea (like all deductions, this one is only valuable for successful artists who are already rich) past the editorial page editors of the New York Times. I can see them now, looking at this piece of copy and going all gooey-eyed and misty…”Art! Awww…we love art! Let’s print it!”
OK, Mr. Rips and NYT tough-minded skeptical journalists, how’s this idea?
President, University of California
Dear President Napolitano:
Because of my great love and affection for the University of California, I propose to give half my working hours to Cal as pro bono work, and only take a salary for the other half. Now, I will need you to double my salary rate for the half time I’m on the clock, but this won’t cost you anything. What it will do is enable me to deduct my unpaid time against my new salary under the new rules, which will leave me with no taxable income at all: we can stiff the taxpayers for my whole tax bill! Naturally, I’m happy to give you a cut of this windfall, shall we say 20%: you make money, I make money, the students still get their courses…who could object to this?
I might add, doctors in our hospitals can really clean up this way; in fact anyone who works for a nonprofit or a government agency is looking at a historic opportunity to rip off the taxpaying public, and surely we’re as lovable and deserving as artists whose work sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and knowledge and health are as important as art.
Do we have a deal?
Very truly yours,
[my coauthors and I get well into the weeds of this foolishness in Patrons Despite Themselves: Taxpayers and Arts Policy, if you want to follow up. Sheesh.]
This is a very tough post to write, because I have to confront a collision of legitimate values I hold strongly. I just received an invitation to sign the petition here. I am not going to sign, even though I am the world’s biggest fan of learning languages. I regret that among the six with which I have some competence, none is really foreign (to me, that is, non-Indo-European). I think real command of at least one foreign language, meaning conversational comfort, writing a business letter, and reading a novel, not passing a written exam, should be a graduation requirement at any college that respects the idea of a liberal education. Requirement, period. I deplore the feeble command my students have of languages they have studied for two and three semesters in courses. And by the way, every new language is easier than the one before. Continue Reading…
Here it is in all its neo-mudéjar glory, the best money could buy for the Universal Exhibition of 1888.
Now wait a minute. A Catalan triumphal arch? Celebrating what victories? The whole shtick of Catalan nationalism, as of so many other varieties, is victimhood. We were betrayed, including by perfidious Albion in the form of the British Tory administration that negotiated the Peace of Utrecht in 1714 and let the Bourbons keep the Spanish throne, by every government in Madrid since then, and no doubt a whole list of local quislings. The last real triumph of Catalan arms was SFIK Jaime of Aragon’s annexation of Valencia in 1238.
In fact the Barcelona arch is entirely pacific. The friezes are so PC as to be nearly comic. This is “The Apotheosis of Agriculture, Industry, and Commerce”, for which Antoni Vilanova was paid 1,530 pesetas.
The arch seems to say: look, never mind about the defeats, we have made a success in culture and the economy! Take that, you gun-nut Bourbons! It makes me feel better about Catalan nationalism, though I see no reason to take back my strictures on its extensive wishful thinking and bad faith about public expenditure.
Should we see the arch then as a clever piece of irony at the expense of the militarists? This is a much harder question, and calls for some digging. Continue Reading…
It’s Sunday afternoon and the weather is bad for many of you out there, so just for fun I re-up this matinee B-movie suggestion from 5 years ago.
“Invasion of the Giant-Sized X” films were almost their own genre in the 1950s. Many of them were wretched (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman being generally considered the nadir), but some of them stand the test of time. If forced to choose my favorite giant insect film I would go with Them!, but since spiders are not insects I feel I have the right to also have a favorite giant spider movie, and it’s this week’s film recommendation: 1955’s Tarantula.
I preface this recommendation by expressing an opinion about B-movies, which is no one should be ashamed of making one as long as they know that is what they are doing. B-movies that pretend to be A-movies are typically an agony to view, but films that use a modest budget to achieve modest ambitions can be highly satisfying for the audience. The Frightened City, which I recommended a few months back, is one such worthy B-movie, and Tarantula is another. The makers’ goal was to tell an entertaining, scary monster story, and they pulled it off.
Like most of the giant critter films, this one begins with science gone awry, in the person of reclusive Professor Gerald Deemer (the wily old pro, Leo J. Carroll). He is concerned about the world’s food supply because he projects that by the year 2000, the Earth’s population will be — wait for it — 3.6 billion! Injections of a radioactive nutrient seem like a sensible alternative to traditional food: just look at how quickly Deemer’s test animals are growing. In the meantime, no one is trying the nutrient on humans, are they? Continue Reading…
Those of us whose ceilings are not silicates mostly know that raucous protestors this past Thursday–some, though probably not all, students—prevented Charles Murray from speaking at Middlebury College, and confronted him in ways that amounted to assault (injuring a professor who was with him) when he tried to leave.
There’s no lack of commentary on this; I have little to add to its substance. Like many, I think that judging Murray a poor scholar and a vicious racist (not far from my own opinion) does not constitute even a weak case for shouting him down or trying to beat him up. But less attention has been paid to how we talk about invited speakers in the first place.
Consider how Time described a letter from alumni, put out before the event, deploring the Murray invitation
In a letter published Wednesday, more than 450 Middlebury graduates called the college’s decision to host Murray ‘unacceptable and unethical.’
The college’s decision to host Murray. I understand how a tweeter or journalist trying to save words would say for short that Middlebury “hosted” Murray. (Later in the piece, Time similarly paraphrases Middlebury’s spokesperson as defending “the decision to host Murray”). But that locution is completely misleading and extremely pernicious.
Colleges and universities officially host commencement speakers and a handful of other speakers (e.g. when a speaker series is called a “university lecture” or is part of a “Presidential lecture series”). But otherwise, universities don’t host speakers at all. The hosts are, on the contrary, the independent entities that essentially do the actual educating at universities and to which universities supply, in effect, a common bureaucracy, some imperfect quality control, and a crucial brand. Those entities include academic departments; university- or grant-supported centers and academic programs; and—as in this case—student groups. Only such units, and not “the university,” should be held responsible for their diverse and independent judgments regarding whom they decide to invite. Continue Reading…
An article in Foreign Policy brought back old memories of the Eastern European dissidents who so rightly inspired me in my Cold War liberal youth. The article concerned the fortieth anniversary of Charter 77, the great manifesto by Czech dissidents such as Vaclav Havel. These men and women bravely stood against malignant Soviet/Russian nationalism imposed from without. No less important, they stood against the corruption of language and the “Get over it” undignified compliance with untruth imposed from within.
Havel’s great essay, “The power of the powerless” includes a famous gut-punch passage that suddenly seems horribly pertinent to our present day.
THE MANAGER of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?
I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life “in harmony with society,” as they say.
Another paragraph down, Havel offers another insight about how that stupid little sign offers ideological cover which allows that grocer to turn away from his own obedience to a despicable regime. Those of us instructed to get over it, not to endanger our prosaic connections by emphatically denouncing President Trump’s latest depredations, might learn from this as well.
Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.
For the second time in a month, Robin Pogrebin points her keyboard at the ‘crisis’ afflicting the Metropolitan Museum, and misses the central fact her sources are desperate to hide from her (and from us). The broad outlines of the situation are that the Met is going broke, bleeding money from reckless initiatives and programming it can’t afford (and, presumably, fundraising that’s falling short of hopes). The sums involved seem quite large, a $40m deficit and a $600m new modern art wing it can’t afford to build. But you would never know from Pogrebin’s reporting, and certainly not from any official Met information, that the museum owns a collection worth at least $40b, of which it shows or can ever expect to show only a tiny fraction. Sell, say, 2% of that off the bottom and out of musty storage (much more than 2% of the objects by count, of course), and there’s the new wing with money to spare, or an endowment that will cover the deficit forever, and the best 98% of the collection still in hand.
Better yet, the sold works would almost certainly go to buyers who will show them, like smaller museums outside NY, or even private collectors. Why can a serious reporter like Pogrebin skate right by relevant facts like this? Because museum administrators have conspired (literally, in writing themselves a code of ethics that forbids selling anything except to acquire more work) to hide that wealth from view (museums simply omit their collections from their balance sheets), and pretend that redistributing it to where it could actually provide some art engagement is some sort of moral offense against art.
It’s a wonder of the world that trustees, many of whom are tough-minded business people, go completely soft in the head when they sit in museum board meetings. If accosted by a homeless beggar saying “please help me! I’m hungry, and completely penniless. Well, except for the million-dollar art collection Dad left me, but you wouldn’t want me to sell any of that, would you?” I do not think Mr. Gotrocks would pony up, but he and the missus are happy to watch their museum cut programs, go on collecting art it has no space to show and no money to conserve, and run deficits, on exactly the same absurd proposition.
Protest march, sponsored by the Jewish Voices for Peace and the Muslim Education Center. Morton Grove, Illinois.