Acts and traits, rights and duties

Anything that gives us moral enlightenment from both Don Imus and Al Sharpton across a table from each other can’t be all bad, right? Seriously, while Imus doesn’t matter much, the whole episode gives us perspective on a pair of issues too often taken the wrong way. The first is a confusion of acts and traits, as in “anyone who could say that must be a racist/anti-semite/etc.” He is (Allen, Imus, Richards, whoever) but not on that evidence, and so are you and so am I. We are all hard-wired for xenophobia, racism, and a whole package of fears of ‘others’, and if you don’t believe it, go here and test yourself. We’re also hard-wired to lech after hot bodies. Fortunately, we’re also equipped with the capacity to learn to behave ourselves, but not always perfectly. If people are overall as bad as their worst selves we’re all in trouble.

Imus perhaps hasn’t learned some critical social skills, but has certainly been well-paid by society to not display them. Whether he’s more or less racist than the next person is invisible to us (though it’s fair to guess and opine, as he’s a public figure) and anyway not important; what’s important is what he does. I don’t think George Allen is a racist at heart in the sense that the trait predicts racist official behavior in office. I think he’s a jerk in many ways, but it would have been much better for Virginia and the rest of us if he had been defeated entirely on his political demerits and not for blurting out something it’s still not clear he really understood (or even for his smirking ignorant juvenile flirtation with a pseudo-lost-cause persona).

We need to stop shortchanging analysis of public figures by inferring traits from acts, and pay attention to the acts. In particular, we need to cut everyone some slack for blurting and careless speech. Atom-bomb sanctions for rudeness just make everyone afraid, because we know we’re only human and that we almost certainly can’t dissemble an angelic nature all the time. In a world where one careless utterance can ruin your life, the wise will just shut up, perhaps more quickly than the clueless, and that’s not good for anyone. Of course, Imus didn’t just blurt out something once; it’s a large part of his shtick. But his story is getting mixed up with cases that were slips and the kind of barely meaningful errors humans are prone to, especially when they’re tired, stressed, or scared.

Almost as wrongheaded has been the prattle about Imus and the gangsta rappers’ first amendment rights having something to do with this, usually winding up in the absurd proposition that they shouldn’t therefore be fired for their speech. This is really nuts: freedom of speech has to do with government not suppressing it, not that you have some right, enforceable against a merchant of discourse, to a microphone and a hall or broadcast. (There is, I need to add, a real issue of commercial suppression of speech by monopolist or cartel media outlets, and there is some moral duty of people in the printing and other media business to sell access fairly. As my father (a lefty printer) said when I complained about some very right-wing stuff he was printing in the fifties, “you don’t have freedom of the press if you can’t get to a press.”)

In the end, “sell” is the important thing here. Imus lost his show because he became bad for business; the piece-pimp-and-ho entertainers from whom he learned his potty-mouth language have theirs because they aren’t (yet). If we accept my proposition about acts and traits, what we have here is people playing parts and writing fiction, and we don’t need to psychoanalyze them personally to think about what they mean or what to do about them. Wagner was a really wretched person in many ways, but what matters is the work he put before us; because he was a genius, we will get smarter attending to that (including the parts that now seem odious). I think Tom Cruise is a nut case, but I’ll take his movies as movies. I don’t have a duty to buy tickets, but I do have a duty to not boycott them because I don’t like his politics or his scientology; otherwise, I’m just doing my bit to blacklist, that is to starve, people who have the wrong values or religion. Don’t like the act Imus puts out? Don’t listen, or listen and deplore it on your blog; it’s perfectly appropriate to try to persuade people to pass up this or that good by showing that it’s meretricious.

But don’t get on this self-righteous bandwagon of demanding that he be fired or silenced by his retailer if he still has customers, because what’s important about trashmouthed entertainers is precisely that they have an audience: a bunch of our fellow-citizens eat this stuff up and pay for it with time and/or money. Suppressing the performers by anything other than a market test drives the evidence of this very important sociopathy out of sight, and out of sight is not a good place for festering evil. What we need is harder work than bashing entertainers for the parts we hire them to play, or lying in wait to pile on them for a completely predictable slip that reveals a part of the brain we all share. It’s not Imus that indicates a need for some learning, it’s tuning in to his show on purpose knowing what it delivers, and the learning is not needed by the player on the stage but by the audience. Your kids listening to misogynistic violent music? You need to have a talk with them about why they do it and what it makes them look like. Snoop Dogg’s mommy and daddy apparently didn’t, but he’s not your problem; your kids (and your friends) are where your duties point.

Political art

Fernando Tesón has a post here and right above it at the Volokh Conspiracy attacking political art, condemning it as a “discourse failure” that tries to make its audience change its views without ‘real’ evidence. Plato was also a little nervous about this, as I recall. I think Tesón is trying on a sort of theatrical over-the-top positivist costume, because his case is so goofy, and it’s so hard to see who is supposed to do what differently on the basis of his argument. Are we to boycott art that has been declared (by whom?), or just might be, political? Are artists supposed to stop making it? Is government supposed to do something regulatory, to the art or to artists who step out of line?

Tesón’s big problem, it seems to me, is his implicit straitjacketing of all knowledge into a set of propositions with binary truth values like “big oil is responsible for all the evils of the world” ( he was dissing Syriana as a way to deliberate about it). His secondary problem is the modesty of acquaintance he reveals with the various ways art interacts with the mind; he seems to think it’s essentially (i) a one-way pipe (ii) for beauty, which is not only silly reductionism that came and went with Byron, but deeply ignorant of how either art or the mind works.

In any case the category is much too vague to do anything about, even to preach against it in Téson’s mode. What would be apolitical art? In music, probably instrumental music without a program, though if it seems martial in the finale, maybe it’s stirring up revolt (leftwing) or aggression against a nation’s enemies (rightwing?) or both; if anodyne in the largo, suppressing the appropriate will to action of the oppressed. Any love song fires up sexual politics neuronal nets. I guess completely abstract plastic art could be apolitical, especially if titled “Composition #13”, but anything representational is risky. Landscapes? Environmental propaganda. Still life of flowers? Poor people can’t afford cut flowers, and anyway they’re the product of selective breeding, otherwise known as genetic modification.

Tesón has one itch I do share, to wit: “why is all political art of the left?” This is quite an interesting question, though I’d elaborate it substantially. My version is as follows: until about World War I, there was a lot of good conservative art along with an increasing amount of good left-wing art.

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God help the minister…

…who messes with art, said Melbourne. The Deutsche Oper Berlin has cancelled performances of Mozart’s Idomeneo because the production featured an added ending scene (to what music, one wonders) in which the severed heads of Christ, Mohammed, the Buddha, and Poseidon are placed on stools to show, um, something about how the founders of all religions have caused wars and bloodshed. Apparently the company received threats from Moslems.

It should, of course, have received threats of ridicule and not buying tickets, from activist cells of sane people whose sense of the ridiculous is intact. I actually think restaging and experimenting with opera is a duty we owe the past and ourselves; performing arts are supposed to be performed, and performance is not rolling a video, it’s an active experimental process. But artists (in this case, Hans Neufels, the director) are also liable to be held accountable for pointless acts of self-indulgence and plain stupidity. How pasting a simple-minded political poster on the end of this opera connects with anything in it escapes me completely: Idomeneo has even less to do with religion than Die Entführung aus dem Serail! The war that sets it up wasn’t a religious war, it was a squabble of guys over a girl, aided and abetted by meddling gods with their own personal spats under way. Mozart’s Poseidon is a comic-book character with magic powers, not a source of moral guidance or an object of theological concern. And anyway, he’s not a prophet, like the other three; this is like ending The Nutcracker with a cautionary little dance of people dying from too much coffee, tea, chocolate and sugar plums, and sneezing from flower allergies: ignorant and ludicrous.

Before we get bent out of shape protecting the political rights of artists to express themselves in a case like this, it might be good for everyone to treat them like grownups and not just indulge childish behavior and artistic fecklessness.

Extension of remarks: Josh points out something I hadn’t noticed. It’s quite interesting that 2003 protests of the production, apparently from various groups with no particular Islamic tilt, have morphed into a “risk” taken by all commentators to be mostly Islamic, without any details on specific threats or sources. Josh is right: all the German participants in the debate seem to have implicitly taken this as an “Islamic thing” but there doesn’t seem to be a fact link to that perception.

Mel Gibson, Evil, and Art

Mel Gibson’s little contretemps with the police has become a lot more interesting than it started out to be. It raises issues about how we should count traits, prejudice, and considered discourse in making moral judgments about people and, as Gibson is an artist (and not just an actor who speaks the lines of others), how the personality of the artist should count in engaging his work.

In case you’re just back from a retreat with the Trappists, the facts are that Gibson (i) produced, directed and wrote The Passion of the Christ, a movie some think blames the Jews for Christ’s crucifixion, reigniting an ancient motivator of anti-Semitism, (ii) reportedly puts filial piety above rejecting his father’s holocaust-denier views, or maybe he agrees with Dad, (iii) hit the road in Malibu after a party with a BAC of 0.12, which is 50% over California DWI limit, but not falling-down drunk (about 6 drinks in 2 hr. for a 180 lb. man), (iv) is widely reported without denial to be alcoholic, (v) greeted the policeman who stopped him and wrote him up with an anti-Semitic tirade (of the “Jews run everything from behind the scenes” variety, type III.b.4). There’s some noise that the cops left the last part out of the report to keep it from public view.

When his head cleared, he (and his handlers) went into contrite mode in two phases; the first omitting the part about the Jews and just apologizing for DWI, being rude, and for his hostility, the second, a day later, rending garments in apology to the Jews and saying very harsh things about anti-Semitism. These spectacles have been truly spell-binding; who knew that when Braveheart took off the blue paint we would get Uriah Heep?

Since he’s such a public figure, it isn’t piling on to use his case to consider what one should make of this sort of thing. The easy one first: anyone who gets in a car on the public ways in Gibson’s condition is reckless with the lives of anyone who might be on the road; the behavior is all the more reprehensible in one who can afford to be driven anywhere he wants, any time, in the vehicle of his choice.

CORRECTION: The original version of this post reported a BAC of .28 and was proportionately tougher on Gibson; my mistake. Sorry.

Now, the interesting part: First, do we assume alcohol lowers inhibitions and that people will say (slurred and blurred though the rhetoric be) what they “really think” when drunk? Or is a drunk just talking nonsense? If the former, Gibson has revealed himself to be an anti-Semite. But these views can result from an unexamined, deeply rooted personality trait like being a good speller or a nasty SOB, or they can derive from sober analysis of data and thoughtful reflection (however defective the rational process) – or both, the former biasing and steering the latter.

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In the last two years, two paintings have sold for about $100m each. Yesterday’s Picasso went for $51K per square inch, more than the largest US bill ($100,000) ever printed. It is not copyrighted, so only the physical object was in the deal.

What can prices like these mean? Suppose this capital asset were put to work sixteen hours per day forever. The ‘work’ a painting does is to be looked at (anything else, like being read about in research and criticism, enjoyment in memory, enjoyment in reproduction, etc., doesn’t require the actual painting), let’s say by three people at a time. At 5%, it would have to be worth $271 per hour. That’s not entirely crazy; people pay almost as much for opera seats and more to scalpers for various other performances, but can we imagine this really happening?

Paintings that have that intensity of attention exist; you can’t get close to the Mona Lisa without a private admission to the Louvre in off-hours. But not from people paying that kind of price. And there’s no chance it will be employed that way. In a museum, a Picasso will have one person attending to it most of the time, and the time is eight hours a day, so the painting has to be worth $1600/hr. to a viewer to justify such a price. Wow; people only pay about $5/hr for museum services, often less, even leaving out time at the café.

If it’s going in a private collection, the numbers go way up; no-one can look at a single painting all the time even if it’s in her office opposite the desk; a painting in a home is ‘used’ only a very few hours a week. Shall we say, 10 hours per week, and one person? That’s more than $9000/hr. Maybe a few people would pay this kind of money for an hour with a painting once or twice, but forever?

I conjecture that paintings at these prices are affording the most valuable (measured in money) per capita artistic experiences in history, at least since private performances of ensemble works like operas and concerts for royalty went out of style, and anyway, even King Ludwig’s musicians didn’t get Pavarotti salaries. And with no disrespect to SeƱor Picasso, I find it completely mystifying. Am I missing something?

Bravi, bravi…

On Sunday my wife and I heard a really splendid concert. The UC Alumni Chorus, a fine small pickup orchestra and organist, and the UC Men’s and Women’s Chorales teamed up to perform one of my long-time favorites and something I’d not heard before (the Poulenc Gloria and the Duruflé Requiem respectively–credits here). The performances were superb, with the ensemble of the enormous double chorus in the Poulenc especialy impressive for an amateur group, much less four of them, but that’s not what made the concert such a winner.

This was an example of a kind of art experience that used to be much more important in people’s lives than it is now: that is, a serious extended effort by talented non-professionals to enrich their neighbors’ lives with something that took some work by listeners, and that paid it back amply. Probably more than half the audience were friends and relatives of the performers, and the rest were part of the Berkeley community, so the listening experience was greatly informed by a web of personal relationships and local pride. You could feel the net of social capital being woven and reinforced with every note.

Wagner, for all his other meshugais, was much concerned that music be a collective enterprise of a community in exactly this way (Die Meistersinger is a template for this idea). The ‘program’ comprises expert, erudite, semi-pros giving real concerts, along with amateurs playing chamber music and jamming at home, and fans singing popular songs and the odd opera opera aria in the street or the shower. The point of this model is that the performers at formal events are doing their stuff in the name of, and for the well-being of, a larger community that has other groups and bands of talented folks doing other things very well and with similar pride and affection (in the opera, the bakers, tailors, and shoemakers model this diversity). You may not be literally singing at the annual concert of the local masters, but you are part of the performance, maybe because you spent the fall hearing your next-door neighbor endlessly practicing the second alto part, maybe because you paid for the music lessons of your son the first trumpet, maybe just because you’re enjoying the discovery of how high your friends can reach.

A chorus is an especially good organization for this kind of art life, because the enterprise itself requires that people get together in person and because a fairly wide range of voice excellence can be accomodated. Berkeley, I am proud to say, also rejoices in a community chorus that has no auditions and every year rehearses and performs a really demanding work at a very high level.

It’s harder to use plastic arts in this community-building, attention-intensifying way because painting, photography, and sculpture are intrinsically solitary. But it’s not impossible and worth imaginative efforts to pull it off; after all, some of of us are tone-deaf and/or tin-eared.

Will local groups ever reach the technical and insight levels of world-class professional groups? Of course not. So doesn’t the artistic experience of loading up the immortal von Karajan Brahms Requiem in a CD player and listening to it on a really good stereo system eclipse hearing your friends and neighbors do it pretty well after a lot of hard work? Nope, not a bit. I have lots of really top-class CDs of lots of different kinds of music, and there’s nothing wrong with any of it, but I wouldn’t trade Sunday’s concert for fifty hours of listening to any recorded music; in fact there are probably not a dozen professional concerts I’ve ever heard that I got more out of. One reason for this is the sociology of the experience, but another is that we just listen much more intensely and engage more completely when we’re tied to an artistic presentation by personal links. The art experience (leave aside its social aspects) inside my head is more complicated, more completely heard, and better understood in a community performance. This improved listening can more than make up for the better chops (and I don’t mean in any way to disrespect the importance of excellence in the arts as conventionally understood) of the stars I pay big bucks to hear in professional venues.

Public policy towards the arts almost completely ignores amateur participation of all kinds, and partly as a result (other influences are at work) we spend too little time making art and enjoying our friends doing it. I conjecture that because the experience of the best professionals, especially in recordings and reproductions, subconsciously disappoints us by lacking the snap vouchsafed by personal engagement, we wind up not engaging with art enough overall.

Take Solace in Art

Anxious and nettled by national politics and crime in high places? The wise know at these times to be anxious and nettled instead by [the discontents of] art and culture, the most important sphere of public affairs. OK, not the most important, but still, consider health policy: surely very important…but if life isn’t worth living, why bother to make it longer?

The amazing shenanigans at the Getty Museum are all about a compulsion to acquire art, including a lot of art that is almost never shown, that museums have substituted for a lot of other things they could do with their collections that would result in more engagement by more people with better art. Shouldn’t that be the overarching standard for judging cultural institutions’ behavior?

This goal displacement, in my view, is abetted by an accounting convention of which few people outside the business are aware. If you look at the balance sheet of a museum, you will find that its art collection is invisible. Museums typically do not evaluate (in money) nor report collections as assets. This odd practice has been intermittently a lively issue in accounting circles, and is at issue again before the FASB, which establishes accounting practices for practically everyone.

The numbers involved are quite remarkable; I estimate (very roughly) that (for example) the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago is in the dozens of billions of dollars. Simply recognizing collections as assets, using imperfect but adequate and practical valuation mechanisms, could have a lot to do with getting museums to create much more value than they do.

For example, a museum like the Art Institute could endow free admission forever by selling about 1% of its collection (the least artistically important 1%, of course). These works would almost certainly go from storage now to being on view somewhere else, so the deal would probably be a gain on both ends. And judicious selling of collection items seems to be becoming a habit with museums lately.

There’s no guarantee that capitalizing collections, which could be done with useful accuracy at manageable cost, would actually cause behavioral change in the art world, but it would at least make it possible to ask quite reasonable questions. For example: “I see we’ve entrusted you with so-and-so many billions of dollars worth of precious capital. What value are you creating with it? Is that a lot; should we give you more resources to employ…or a little; perhaps some of it should be in more creative and productive hands?” These are good questions grownup managers should be happy to answer.

I think the effects would be almost entirely positive, a view elaborated in the paper at this link.