My dinner with Julian

A few weeks ago, I got to have dinner with Julian Bond.  We have a friend in common, who asked me to recommend a play for when “my friend Julian Bond” came to town. “Did you say ‘your friend Julian Bond?’” I squeaked into the phone; whereupon she invited my boyfriend and me to join her and her husband and Bond and his wife for dinner.

As I drove our star-struck way downtown, I listened to Michael read from Bond’s biography on Wikipedia, even as I pretended to ignore him: “Honey, they’re not going to give us a test!”  But after he rolled through the familiar list of credits–leader in the American civil rights movement, helped establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, twenty years in the Georgia legislature, University of Virginia history professor, past chair of the NAACP–Michael said, “Oh, listen to this.  His father got one of the first PhDs granted to an African-American by the University of Chicago.”

“Really,” I said.  “I wonder if he was a Rosenwald Fellow.”

You’ve probably never heard of the Rosenwald Fellowships, but you’ve undoubtedly heard of many of the Fellows: W.E.B. DuBois, Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Marian Anderson, Katherine Dunham, James Weldon Johnson, Ralph Ellison and nearly every other African-American artist and scholar active in  mid-Twentieth Century America.  The Rosenwald Fellowships, like the MacArthur genius grants which succeeded them, gave no-strings-attached cash to scholars and artists to continue their work; but unlike the MacArthur grants, the Rosenwalds went almost exclusively to African-Americans.

The fellowship program was part of Julius Rosenwald’s one-man campaign for racial justice, a campaign which led him to build the Rosenwald Apartments in Chicago and YMCAs in other Northern cities to provide housing for African-Americans moving up from the South.  It also led him to construct 5,000 schools for black children who were kept out of public classrooms occupied by white students.  The Rosenwald Schools provided primary education to one-third of the South’s African-American schoolchildren between World War I and Brown v. Board of Education.

So why haven’t you learned about any of this?  Because Julius Rosenwald, who made a fortune as the president of Sears, gave much of that fortune away during his lifetime and directed that the rest be spent within ten years of his death.  So his legacy isn’t a foundation with a big building giving out the occasional grant and the frequent press release; it’s the thousands of people educated and housed by his generosity.  But no good deed goes unpunished: for failing to make perpetuity his highest concern, Rosenwald has largely been forgotten.

Not by all of us, though.  I learned the story several years ago when the Spertus Museum in Chicago put on an exhibit of work by Rosenwald  Fellows.  One item in the exhibit was enough to persuade me of the Fellowships’ significance: a kinescope of Katherine Dunham performing new dances influenced by her Rosenwald-funded trip to the Caribbean.  As I watched the motions and the gestures, I recognized the origins of Alvin Ailey’s classic “Revelations.”  Ailey was Dunham’s student; and so, from Rosenwald to Dunham to Ailey, we have perhaps the premier work of American dance.

Thus, after a pleasant dinner in which we talked about theater and travel and the demographic transformation of Washington–Bond’s wife Pam said, “Yes, Julian calls our neighborhood Upper Caucasia”–I turned to him and said, “So, your father was a Rosenwald Fellow?”

He seemed equal parts surprised and gratified to encounter someone who knew about the Rosenwalds, and what an honor it was to receive one, and told the following story:

During a trip South in the mid-1930s to do research as part of his fellowship, Horace Mann Bond drove his car into a ditch.  Apparently a pair of rural African-Americans made their living digging holes in the road and then charging hapless motorists to tow their cars out of them.  While the two entrepreneurs were hooking up the tow truck, one of them observed Mr. Bond’s elegant city clothes and the new car he was driving, and asked how a black man came to have such luxuries.  Mr. Bond explained that he was a Rosenwald Fellow and that the fellowship had paid for the clothes and the car as well as the research he was about to do.  His interlocutor smiled: “You know Cap’n Julius?”  He hoisted the car back onto the road.  “No charge.”

Later, over coffee, Julian showed me an iPhone photo of himself seated next to an extremely elderly white lady who was holding his hand in both of hers.  “Do you know who this is?” he asked.  “In 1961 her book outsold the Bible!”  It was, of course, Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird; and on one of his recent trips South, Bond had gotten to meet her.  “I’m so excited, I’m stopping people on the street to say, ‘Look at this!  I had coffee with Harper Lee!’”

Which is, of course, just how I feel about my dinner with Julian.

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Active engagement in the arts

I deplore the passivization of arts engagement that has replaced people doing amateur theater, or painting and making sculpture, or making music together, with listening to and looking at stuff done for them by professionals.  Nothing wrong with the latter, but we have got the balance wrong. Here are two examples of what we need more of :

My wife has been singing with a really good non-audition community chorus this year.  Every week, they get together and rehearse, and then they put on two or three concerts a year for friends, relatives and neighbors.  They don’t quail at the real stuff; so far this year they’ve done the Vivaldi Gloria and the Mozart Requiem.  Next spring, a program of music by New York composers, including the really ethereal Frost/Thompson Choose something like a star, hoo boy.  Debbie comes home from rehearsals and tells me about all she learned about music and singing that evening; sometimes (not enough) we pull out some sheet music and fire up the piano and sing just for ourselves.

If you think about it, there’s not much nicer you can do for your friends and relations than make music for them: sending everyone a CD of a professional chorus doing the same numbers isn’t even close.

Life for an organization like this is sort of like being an elected official, constantly putting the real work aside for endless fundraising. They charge $10 for concert tickets, but the singers also pay dues.  The fundraising doesn’t do a thing for the music, but the singers put up with it so they can sing together and occasionally have soloists and a small orchestra. It’s both inspiring and saddening to realize what a short financial leash enterprises like this have: the big splurge for the CCC this year was a set of risers so the singers can see and be seen over each others’ heads.

Last week we went to the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra’s  last fall concert .  This was a completely professional-level performance, including A flock descends by Toru Takemitsu (they always program at least one contemporary work);  the Prokofiev 3rd piano concerto; and (part of the celebrations of our new organ, which university organist Davitt Moroney still can’t talk about without a really radiant grin) the Saint-Saëns 3rd Symphony. Continue reading “Active engagement in the arts”

Art prices

An interesting, but probably not immortal, Bacon sold for $142 million at auction yesterday. Note that it’s a tryptych, which might (depending on the droit d’integrité laws in effect where it winds up), be broken up and treated as three paintings, so maybe this wasn’t the high point being proclaimed: asterisk  in the record books. This got a work of contemporary art (well, less than half a century old) on the front page of the NYT along with a story that said nothing, not a word, about it as a painting, and then went on to wallow in miscellaneous additional art price porn and celebrity collector gossip.

OK, I guess the important thing here is the transaction.  What happened here?  First, it was a transfer in which practically no real economic resources were consumed. The painting went from someone’s wall or storage to someone else’s.   This is a very different matter from commissioning a work, or building an office building. About a fifth went to Christie’s, which is a nice hourly rate for the use of the hall and gavel. Continue reading “Art prices”

Rose windows

I know even less about stained glass than I do about solar power.

But I don’t find James’s examples of great stained-glass art especially compelling. To my eye, the pure mandalas that are the great rose windows have an impact that far exceeds any representational image. I can’t find a good photo of the window in the cathedral in Prague, which kept me rapt for about two hours one sunny day twenty years ago. But here’s Notre Dame:

And no, no photograph can do justice to the full impact of a rose window with the sun behind it in a dark church. Seriously, this stuff ought to be a controlled substance.

What Detroit means

The first thing I thought about Detroit is that the state’s appointment of a receiver demonstrated the Republican governor’s profound indifference to the democratic process of a Democratic city, not to mention a white governor’s profound indifference to a black city.   This may be true, but it’s also true that Detroit’s finances are such a catastrophe that, like New York in the 1970s, it seems to need an outsider to get its house in order. It helps that the trustee is African-American, though not very much: even temporary government without the consent of the governed should cause us alarm.

The second thing I thought about Detroit is that selling off the collection of the Detroit Institute of Art, which the trustee estimates would be sufficient to retire all of the city’s debt, is the best of a number of bad options. Museums nationwide are hyperventilating at the prospect, but they also think it’s sensible to keep on hand huge numbers of items that no one ever sees.  I don’t quarrel with the need to have a deep collection for research purposes, but I also don’t see why it’s considered bad form verging on unethical to sell the parts of the collection you’re not using in public to sustain the parts of the collection you ARE using in public, and at the same time not coincidentally making the sold pieces available to the public, albeit in a different location.

If there had been a Great Fire of Detroit, and the whole city destroyed, no one would argue that recreating the city’s art collection should take priority over food and shelter for the city’s people.  The years of financial mismanagement have incinerated Detroit just as surely as a physical fire; why shouldn’t we pay more attention to basic needs than to cultural institutions?

And isn’t the whole function of assets to provide financial security when income doesn’t suffice? Again, I wonder about the racial composition of those who champion the inviolability of the collection as against the racial composition of those who think it might be necessary to dispose of it. The state’s Attorney General has opined that the city may not sell them because they’re held in trust for the citizens.  But “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government,” and I don’t notice anyone’s raising a ruckus about the loss of that part of our patrimony.

The third thing I thought about Detroit is that the bondholders’ interests are being given absolute priority over the interests of current and former employees, whose pensions are at stake. This is the case in Illinois as well, where at least some portion of the pension “crisis” could be solved by refinancing the debt and stretching out repayment but where that solution is not even considered because the bondholders don’t like it. I understand the value of the municipal bond market to cities’ ability to expand infrastructure but municipal bond investors are investors and should be prepared to accept some pain when they toss their dollars into what’s obviously a money pit.

And the fourth thing I thought about Detroit is that it’s Americans’ closest analogue to what’s casually referred to as “the European debt crisis,”  throughout which salvaging the Euro has meant satisfying bondholders at the expense of people who’d like to work or collect their pensions.   Very few commentators seem aware that the real crisis is one of self-government (or its destruction), or that the Germans have managed to do through economics what they couldn’t do through war, that is, run Europe.  When externally-imposed austerity hit Greece, all I could remember was the bumper sticker from the era of the junta: “Greece: Democracy born 508 BC, died 1967 AD.”  Or, this time around, “reborn 1974, killed again 2011 or -12 A.D.”  As the saying goes, same s**t, different day.

Back to Detroit: if I were trustee, I’d sell off DIA’s assets in a heartbeat and use the proceeds to protect employee pensions. If there was anything left for the bondholders, fine; if not, too bad: it’s the pensioners who paid their share and are entitled to what they were promised. Even after years of trashing public employee unions (brought to you by the Heritage Foundation and other fronts for wealthy people who don’t like to pay taxes or see working people make reasonable money), there must be some court somewhere willing to recognize that the obligation of contracts shall not be impaired.

Of course, I would never be chosen trustee, but that’s not the point. The point is, my solution is what would happen if Detroit were still governed by its people. Detroit: Democracy died 2013 A.D.

Aaron’s Law

This is a long post that sketches a system in which we can have about the right amount of digital goods at the right price, and pay the people who make them properly.  IP engineers, lawyers, and economists, have at it: time to stop rearranging deck chairs and steer the ship.   The central underappreciated insight in my view is that the digital content technology system cannot be fixed by torturing dead-tree rules to fit it: technology rights must be technologically administered.

We should think about this in the larger context of infrastructure investment. In the last century and before, this country was able to channel enormous resources and courage to build stuff  that shaped the quality of life  for the better and that also paid off in enormous economic gains.  I’m thinking of railroads, (less fondly of highways), museums, universities,  water systems, the electric grid…
Not all of that infrastructure was physical: we also invested in all the knowledge in the libraries of those universities and the know-how in the heads of all the people who attended them, weights and measures standards so any 10-32 machine screw will fit the hole tapped with any 10-32 tap, all the music, books and movies, and more.  “More” especially included a legal system that worked well enough to get those books written and songs played, at least as long as they had to be packaged in something that could be locked up in a room.
Almost all of it is worn-out, obsolete, undermaintained, and failing in so many ways.  Continue reading “Aaron’s Law”

RIP Aaron Swartz

An enormous system of legal and commercial machinery (i) makes it possible for you to read this, or to read anything, or to listen to music or see a show, and (ii) makes it worthwhile for anyone to provide it for you.  This machinery was created by some of the most brilliant minds in the law, government, and business, but they made it for a world that no longer exists.

When industrial machinery breaks, it produces less, or worse, stuff, and sometimes it maims or kills workers.  The machinery of intellectual property worked more or less well until about thirty years ago, despite wrenches like mindless and venal copyright extension to make Disney heirs even richer being thrown into it.  That machinery has not, however, survived being tasked to process digital content, which has broken teeth off its gears, garbled its control system, and clogged its conveyor network.   Stuff is falling out of the system to be swept up as trash, lost in transit, delivered broken or with parts missing, sent to the wrong recipients, and it’s piling up in warehouses where no-one can use it.  Half-finished goods sit, sometimes forever, waiting for essential parts.  The waste of the most precious stuff in the world is bad enough, and the prices my students are paying for textbooks (and for my services) are bad enough, but today we learned that the malfunctioning machinery has killed a worker, and not just any worker but a genius engineer, and philanthropist in the best sense of the word, who had only begun to design priceless parts of it.

Aaron Swartz’s death isn’t just  overreach or judgment error by a Boston judge and prosecutor, though if either of them ever again  dines with anyone whose cultural competence is higher than a Big Mac it will be an outrage.  It was an industrial accident caused by ongoing, feckless, reckless failure to maintain the intellectual property machinery, a core piece of social infrastructure being run into the ground for greed (no, not for efficient price signals) by the ignorant, the frightened, and the incompetent.  The reasoning of the captains of this industry, as their sales fall, bookstores close, newspapers shrink and close, and our best musicians wait on tables,  goes as follows: “It’s our property, shut up!”  It is a failure of the law to accommodate reality.

Aaron isn’t the only casualty of this system, either: people are dying all over the world for want of drugs trapped in the patent system.  Maybe we should think of him as channeling Mario Savio: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! ….you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and …make it stop!”

Joe Hill would say, “Don’t mourn for Aaron, organize!”  We need Aaron’s Law, a reform of intellectual property law that recognizes the world the way it is, more than we need anything except climate stabilization; indeed, if we don’t get Aaron’s Law we will not be able to do the politics (or the science) that could save the planet, or whatever your favorite piece of collective work may be. If you read, write, sing, listen, or think, you will be talking about this with your other friends who do those things and watch for a chance to get engaged.  I’m looking, too, and when I find some, I’ll post them here. [minor edits 9:16PM PST 12/I/13]

Oscar Niemeyer

Oscar Niemeyer, great Brazilian architect, died on 5 December.

Oscar Niemeyer died on 5 December, at the age of 104. Whatever you think of his work and politics, he had an amazing run. He was working until 100, and gave perfectly lucid interviews then. His first marriage lasted 76 years; he remarried at 99. He lost his only daughter when she was 82.

Niteroi museum, 1996 (N aged 89)

I go along with a conventional view that he designed some lovely buildings, but was as useless a town planner as the rest of the masters of the International Style. Continue reading “Oscar Niemeyer”