Enabling institutional decay by bad journalism

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.


The Oakland Warehouse Fire

Three big lessons from this catastrophe.

First, think before you wish for ‘job-killing, economy-crushing regulations’ to be swept away. Fire and housing codes would have saved 33 36 young lives here if they had been enforced; an enormous fire in Cambridge the same day killed no-one, partly because there weren’t as many people crammed into one space, partly because the eleven old buildings involved met codes, or close, and had many ways out, partly because they weren’t full of paint thinner and the kind of flammables artists use at work.

Second, primary responsibility obviously rests with the owner and the building manager. But this was an implementation/management failure, not a policy failure: Oakland’s codes are entirely adequate to prevent this kind of thing, but they weren’t effectively used, whether because California has crippled its local governments financially by Proposition 13 and other short-sighted tax choices, or because the enforcement function in Oakland was incompetent or feckless.

The inspector who visited this deathtrap on Nov. 18 was “unable to gain access” and apparently the matter dropped there. It’s possible California needs some new legislation. For example, I have no trouble with the idea that the owner of anything larger than a single-family house has a duty to make himself  (or a subordinate or attorney with the keys) reachable for purposes of inspection access within 48 hours of any safety-related complaint the city chooses to act on. If he doesn’t open the building for the inspector, the inspector can admit himself, by force if necessary, during business hours.

Berkeley had a similar episode a decade ago, which unfolded quite differently because the city kept after the landlord. No fire, no deaths, no tragedy…

…but a bunch of artists out on the street. Third, the housing/workspace crisis for artists in happening cities is real (not to mention for teachers, students, civil servants, and every kind of poor person). The resistance to cleaning up the Drayage building came from the tenants whose safety was the point of the enforcement action, and they correctly understood that they had no workable options; things are worse for artists now.  Running around rousting artists from improvised housing and homeless from tent camps won’t fix this. Unless we make it easier to build, confront NIMBYism, and shovel out more housing supply–yes, including subsidized live-work spaces–we will have nightmares like the Ghost Ship and homeless camps under freeway ramps. People who can’t afford housing, whose price (in the Bay Area, and other places) has sailed into a completely unattainable stratosphere, will live somewhere, and that somewhere will be inhumane, intolerable, and dangerous in so many ways.


Art on the economic rack

All what I said yesterday about the economics of content applies in spades to music.  US recorded music sales (CDs, streaming, and LPs) are down about half in real dollars since 2006. Musicians depend on live performance, and treat their CDs as advertising for concerts: live performance revenue is about double recording sales.

What this means is that the music itself has to change: every gig is under pressure to get as many people in the seats as possible. Some music is designed for this: it’s simplified to survive amplification in a stadium,  where what you see from distant seats is out of sync with the garbled auditory signal, and it can be improved with fireworks, lighting, and I guess ecstasy distribution.  Some music is not suitable for this kind of venue, but a series of club dates or performances in 500-seat halls with good acoustics cannot support a band, or even a soloist. The relentless pressures resulting from the impossibility of monetizing nearly all person-hours of music listening (recorded content) leads to ridiculous, absurd events like the concert for which I just received an ad from Cal Performances: Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile (great, wow!)…at the 8500-seat open-air Greek Theatre at Berkeley.  At the what??!!

These guys are virtuosi of acoustic instruments, none nearly loud enough to be heard in that space. Their musicianship comprises the subtlety of fine distinctions in timbre,  intonation, and rhythm, absolutely none of which will be audible potted up for that venue and bounced around in it, not to mention that from most of the seats (toward the rear), Ma’s right arm will zig while the sound he’s making zags.  How is a pasticcio like this a better experience than hearing the same performance as recorded in a good studio, perhaps as a video? Nothing wrong with big crowds getting together for a social event, but this is a truly bizarre sound track to accompany that.

What about dynamics, if timbre, pitch and rhythm don’t work? Well, another interesting thing has happened to music, more gradually, over the last century or so. Once upon a time, loudness was the most expensive element of music with which to get a big effect: to sound twice as loud, you need ten times as many musicians, which is why the chorus at the opera doesn’t sound anything like fifty times as loud as the soloist.  Now, dynamics is the cheapest element; just turn up the pot on the mixing board (or your iPhone)!  At the same time, the relative (to everything else) cost of excellent musicians and singers for live performance has gone up enormously because they have seen none of the productivity improvements that have made almost everything else cheaper–it still takes two person-hours of trained talent to perform a half-hour string quartet   same as it took in Mozart’s time.  So: make it louder, enough louder that an audience accustomed to really loud will think it is hearing something special. Sound levels, in earphones and at venues, drive a positive feedback loop that has measurably deafened the audience with volumes OSHA would forbid in a workplace: they can’t hear subtleties at higher frequencies, so the only thing to do is…louder still!

If Ma and his pals could make a living from recordings, they wouldn’t have to collaborate in deeply anti-musical outrages like this concert. Fewer people would be able to attend live concerts, but those who did would actually hear the music.  How to allocate the scarce resource of small-hall seats at top-level talent events, other than by price and scalping, is a legitimate problem, but making a hash of this kind of music through zillion-watt amplification in a stadium isn’t distributing the experience.



The election

A terrible thing has happened to us. It may have just begun. After reflection, I have decided last night was the worst night of my life so far. I am not facing a personal nightmare: I have a secure job and a family, a house, financial security, and (at least for the nonce) most of my wits. But I will probably not live long enough to see things turn around, nor is it certain that they will. My daughters and my students are at real risk, as are millions of people I don’t know but who I know are out there. Billions, actually; all the passengers on our warming spaceship. All in all, I have definitely learned how the Trump voters who sense “their world having been taken away from them” feel. Not that they are going to get that world back now; the most ill-used and vulnerable of them are going to pay a terrible price for their day of rage as they learn the iron law of Trump’s deals: his promises mean nothing to anyone including himself, and that goes extra for his promises to them.

Others have had much worse nights, including others’ last night, and they have something to tell us, about both despair and hope. We must not wallow in despair, but we must look it in the eye and recognize it. Here is a gallery of borrowed insights, more enduring and tested than a blog post.  First, the picture I cannot get out of my head, Goya’s Saturn devouring his children. Now you too will have it forever.  Look at Saturn’s eyes: he is not angry, or vengeful, or cruel; he is terrified. The election of 2016 was all about fear.


Next, Yeats’ anticipation of World War I (“The Second Coming”). It’s a poem; read it out loud.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Wagner’s Hans Sachs, of the 16th century white working class (a cobbler), watched his beloved community erupt in riot and violence in the second act of Die Meistersinger, and reflected thus.  You must set aside seven and a half minutes, and listen to the end.
My mental jukebox always pops this number up in bad times, and also in good times.  Schubert paid more dues than I ever will; this song has been an anchor of sanity for those who know it over two centuries and it’s not nearly done yet. If you have access to a piano, go there and sing it with someone. The English:
O gracious Art, in how many grey hours
When life’s fierce orbit encompassed me,
Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
And charmed me into a better world!Oft has a sigh, issuing from your harp,
A sweet, blessed chord of yours,
Thrown open the heaven of better times;
O gracious Art, for that I thank you!

Theater headsup

I’ve known for years of the existence of the 1954 musical The Golden Apple, with music by Jerome Moross and book and lyrics by John Latouche, but not much more than that. You may know the standard “It’s a lazy afternoon” from the first act. John Latouche was a well-known lefty (he wrote the lyrics for Earl Robinson’s Ballad for Americans and would certainly have been blacklisted if he hadn’t died in 1956 at 41), so it was probably background consciousness from my red-diaper-baby early youth. The show opened off-Broadway and moved to Broadway to pyrotechnic reviews and a Drama Circle award, but failed commercially and has spent the last decades in the memory of a small group of devotees, with very rare revivals in this or that community theater.

My exchange of comments with James in Mark’s recent post, where I suggested that the classical character most like Trump was Paris, brought it to mind, and exploring the interwebs, I was able to hear it all the way through and have completely fallen in love with it. It’s as much opera as musical, through-composed (not songs plugged into a spoken script that carries the plot; think of The Most Happy Fella).  The story is the Iliad and The Odyssey, placed in Washington State in 1900-1910; the book is erudite, witty, and both poignant and clever, and the music is endlessly inventive.  It even references the Brecht/Weill opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, prizefight and all. I love Stoppardian theater like this, that treats the audience as though they know something, but doesn’t lecture, preach, or condescend.

I made in all, four wonderful discoveries. To wit:

  • There is finally a complete recording, from an excellent 2015 production at the Irving, Texas Lyric Stage, on two CDs available at Amazon. Until now, there was only a one-LP original cast recording of some of the numbers.
  • Th Lyric Stage recording is also on Spotify.
  • The complete libretto is available here.
  • And best of all, it’s coming to the New York City Center next May!  Tickets go on sale Sept. 26; mark your calendars. See you there!

Math and TV

Mythbusters, ending this season, has a long valedictory in the NYT today, and I am ambivalent. I’ve enjoyed the show from time to time, especially when the team blew things up and broke stuff, but I’m not ready to get on board with it as a great science education motivator.  My wife and daughter have a thing for NUMB3RS, a police procedural featuring a trio of mathematicians who help the FBI, and I find it makes me impatient in a similar way. I think the problem is that Mythbusters too often ignored the mathematics that distinguishes engineering and science from tinkering, and NUMB3RS just treats math like a mysterious religious cult, complete with blackboards full of equations we never see long enough to begin to understand; when a real mathematical principle or result gets in the script, it’s drowned by the usual cop-show action/suspense noise. Continue reading “Math and TV”

God, sex and violence: Bernini special!

Bernini’s shocking sculpture challenges Catholic doctrine on sex.

I finally got to see Bernini’s famous shocker The Ecstasy of St Teresa in Rome. I’ve written about it before, in the context of the Olympics. I’ll haul the bastard into service again to make a different point.

Pope Francis’ generally fine encyclical Laudato Si’  descends into incoherent mumbling on the subject of population. You can find a couple of sentences indexed under population, control, indifference to. It all goes back to the Vatican’s wrongheaded view of sex. It’s for reproduction, said Aristotle and Aquinas. To quote A.P. Herbert:

And what my father used to say / Is good enough for me.

Now you and I know from experience and modern science that this is rot. Human sex, unlike that of most animals, is designed for repetitive fun as well as reproduction. The point of the fun is to cement social relationships, whether peace-making and stress relief as with the promiscuous bonobos, or bonding a human couple for childrearing. There are even specific physiological adaptations for non-reproductive pleasure: concealed ovulation and menopause in women, large penis size in men. According to Jared Diamond, the average erect gorilla penis is 1.5 inches: quite enough for a species that lives in isolated harem troops. Conflict between males takes place independently of female oestrus, so when a female gorilla is receptive, there is only one male around. Contrast well-hung chimpanzees and humans, who live in bands with multiple males competing for the available females. The well-hung part is entirely for the entertainment of both.

This won’t convince the Vatican, shaky both on experience and science. Of course, priests do learn a lot about sex through the confessional; but as with psychotherapists, they are asked to deal with a sample that is spectacularly biased towards the dysfunctional and aberrant, entirely leaving out the modal type of mutually satisfying sexual relations within stable couples. I guess that Catholic wives have stopped confessing the use of contraceptives, and Catholic husbands their indulgences in oral sex.

So let me ask the Curia a different question. What do you make of the sex in Bernini’s great sculpture, above a side altar in the minor Baroque church of Sta. Maria de la Victoria up by the Rome railway station?
Adults only image below the fold Continue reading “God, sex and violence: Bernini special!”

Addiction as tragedy

Addiction fits Aristotle’s theory of the tragic flaw.

Keith wrote, of deaths caused by drunk driving:

But if we think of tragedy as the Ancient Greeks did — something that was unavoidable — drink driving deaths aren’t a tragedy but an outrage.

Dead right on the outrage. But did the Greeks really see tragedy this way?

maskSFIK the Ancient Greeks did not use the remarkable and unique art form they had developed, the “goat-songs” that they performed in competitive religious festivals, as a metaphor for life. It was the reverse: life and myth gave them stories to be recapitulated and reshaped in the performance of tragedies, and these in turn gave them insights into the human condition. Alexander modelled himself on Homer’s Achilles, but he was an outlier in everything.

The goat-songs and epic recitations came first, the theorising later. Continue reading “Addiction as tragedy”

Courtiers and tweetstorms

Holbein and Shakespeare help out gaffeur Sir Tim Hunt

We have been here before, Keith: a densely connected and hyper-gossipy society where every word can be used against you, those who speak rashly like Sir Tim Hunt come to a rapid social end, and cruel words are used as deliberately as daggers. It was the courts of Renaissance Europe: those of Henry VIII, Cathérine de Médicis, Philip II, and Alessandro Borgia.

Recently I brought up Holbein’s portrait of the English courtier Richard Southwell, a sidekick of Thomas Cromwell who rose to be Master-General of the Ordnance under both Mary and Elizabeth. The portrait shows exactly the kind of man who thrives in such a régime; a man who gave evidence in a treason trial against a childhood friend, the Earl of Surrey.

Sir Richard Southwell, Hans Holbein the Younger
Sir Richard Southwell, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1536

Shakespeare had the number of men like Richard Southwell:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Sonnet 94

Tell me: would you want for a colleague, superior, subordinate, friend, or spouse a person who never spontaneously made a stupid and prejudiced remark?

More on how museums [under]use their collections

Virginia Postrel (who has engaged the question, “shouldn’t museum holdings be where people can see them?” in the past)  riffs on my Democracy article in Bloomberg View; there was a podcast on Russ Roberts’ EconTalk last month. I’m not sure why this issue seems to ring bells in right-wing circles, but I like the idea that the sort of people likely to turn up at museum trustee meetings are coming upon it.  Maybe they will start to ask the kind of questions tough-minded captains of industry are supposed to be good at, like “how do you expect to run this operation properly if your balance sheet leaves out most of your assets?”