30 April 2007

This Is Not A Meme

(It's art day here on the secret blog. You might want to read the next post before reading this one.)

I suggest below that, for me, the difference between art and not art is whether I can come to some understanding of the work without knowing anything else about it. A work that depends upon its title or the artist's politics for its impact is commentary, not art.

What, then, are we to do with Magritte's great The Treachery Of Images (La trahison des images 1928-29). Technically, I escape the potential trap, everything that I need to know is contained within the frame: Ceci n'est pas une pipe. That's not even the title, although everyone but the most annoyingly meticulous of us refers to it by that tag. But my theory is that this is the pivotal work of 20th century art because Magritte is putting an end to representational art. The first photograph was taken in 1827, one hundred (and one) years before Magritte started to paint The Treachery of Images and, by Magritte's time, photography was a mature science and a popular hobby. There was no point any more in pursuing the visual arts in order to preserve a record of what things looked like. The Impressionists, the Surrealists, the other modernists and contemporary artists are all reactions to this loss of what had, for millenia, been one of the primary motives for painting. The Treachery of Images is the exclamation point at the end of that chapter.

As this should make clear, the full meaning of a work of art can never be divorced from its context and all works of art are, at some level, abstract. Abstract art (and cubism and whateverism) can be recognized as art today because, as Magritte argued, no painting, however faithful to the original, is the thing itself. A painting need not be a representation of some tangible thing and, even if it is, it can not only be judged based upon how much it looks like the thing it represents. This was not new in 1929. Many seemingly representational pieces were actually representing an abstract concept -- courage or liberty, for example -- even if on the surface they appeared to be accurate renderings of physical things. Some works are more accurate at rendering their subject than others, but the more successful work need not be the more nearly photographic work.

Magritte's work, for example, is art not because it is a good picture of a pipe (though it is that) but because it is a good representation of human perseverance in the face of change. Art is not art that doesn't alter when it alteration finds.

On the other hand, a toilet mounted on the wall is only a urinal.

90% Of Everything Is Crap

OJ links to a Spengler column arguing that no one really likes modern art but everyone pretends to like it because they think that their kids are gods, or something like that. I don't really understand the point and, to the extent I understand it, I disagree. People don't pretend to like modern art because we don't believe in god; we pretend to like modern art because we've lost our critical judgment and are uncomfortable making value judgments. If we're told that something is art, we feel that we have to pretend that it's as good as anything else labeled art. If we were more critical consumers of art, we'd reject 90% of modern art because 90% of everything is crap.

But some modern art speaks directly to our souls.

It's unclear, first of all, what Spengler means by "modern art." From an art criticism perspective, modern art is what we call the art created in the 100 years from 1870 (starting with the Impressionists) through 1970. Art made since 1970 is, generally speaking, contemporary art. There is a lot of great modern art out there and anyone who rejects it all has lost his critical faculties just as surely as if he loved it all.

Spengler might mean that we only pretend to like contemporary art and, if so, he has a better case. I personally don't like much contemporary art -- but I do like some. Of course, Spengler completely ignores the selection bias at work with art from the past. Only the best art from the past has made it into the collections and on to the walls of the world's museums. Old art that we see is much more likely to be good art. New art, and particularly new art created in an art world that has lost its critical judgment, is simply more likely to be crap because it hasn't yet been sieved by history. Spengler's point, if this is his point, is thus much like taking a random book from the "Fiction" shelves of the local Barnes & Noble and comparing it to a random book taken from the "Classics" shelves.

Spengler might also mean to distinguish between representational art and abstract (non-representational) art. Abstract art is usually dismissed by conservatives as being art that cannot be distinguished from a toddler's finger-painting, and much of it is that slight. Other abstract pieces, on the other hand, mesmerize me. With even the best abstract art, however, I find I run up against two problems. First, I have to be in front of the actual piece -- reproductions don't work. Second, I only buy representational works for my own home, even when I set out to buy an abstract piece.

In the end, the only distinction that works is Duck's: I know what I like. But the danger is that "I know what I like" cannot be separated from "I like what I know, and I don't want to know anything new." My own threshold is this: if I see a work and its speaks to me without my knowing anything else about it (title, context, the story of its creation and the artist's politics), then it is art and I might enjoy it. If it is not self-contained -- and almost no contemporary art is self-contained -- then it is commentary and not art at all.

27 April 2007

Exactly How Many Amendments Are We Trampling On, Here?

OJ points us to this rather astonishing proposal to turn the US into a police state in order to get rid of guns. Apparently, warrantless searches of our houses and persons are a small price to pay in order to implement a "gun control" regime that a child could outwit.

I have just one question. If, in the course of searching every house and person in the country in order to find every single last gun, they come across, say, illegal immigrants or a drug stash, will the police be allowed to react?

Pop Goes Another Business Model

MIT has fired its Dean of Admissions for having lied about being a college graduate when she was first hired -- for a job that didn't require a college degree -- 28 years ago. Everyone (or at least everyone fit to print in the New York Times seems to agree that she was a good Dean of Admissions, although what the story really indicates is that the performance of the Dean of Admissions is probably irrelevant to MIT.

What I find most interesting is that Ms. Jones' satisfactory performance proves that there is no need to have a college degree in order to be a satisfactory Dean. Requiring a college degree for that job is meaningless credentialism. Does MIT realize that, and is it advanced degree protectionism that requires them to boot her out?

25 April 2007

It's Not Gods They Don't Believe In

This thread at Bryan Appleyard's blog proves, once again, that atheism is a Christian heresy.

A Secret Papal Agent?

Christopher Hitchens exposes the ugliness of atheism.

20 April 2007


I think I'm starting to get the hang of this irony lark. I wasn't entirely sure when the nice German lady came up to me while I was watching my son play a shoot-em-up video game and said, "Nice game for your son to play." After all, it was a nice game for my son to play.

But the posters all over the Tube for "Guys and Dolls" starring Don Johnson? That's got to be irony.

17 April 2007

One Good Turntable Deserves Another

Brit makes the common-sense point that Frank Sinatra was the greatest jazz singer of all time, and some people have the audacity to disagree. What Sinatra could do better than any other singer is come up with a phrasing that is both unexpected -- almost unduplicable, even if you've heard Sinatra -- and serves both the lyric and melody perfectly.

The best example of this comes in Frank's arrangement of Cole Porter's "I Get A Kick Out Of You," which is almost unsingable for those of us who have heard Frank but aren't Frank. Unfortunately, I couldn't find Frank's best version on YouTube, but this bowdlerized version (apparently, it wouldn't do to admit that someone might love cocaine) isn't bad:
Frank's phrasing makes the "bore me terrif/ically too" lyric. Try to sing along and you'll never quite make it.

On the other hand, in the "Love and Marriage" rendition linked by Brit, Frank does nothing with the singsong melody, other than keep singing it as steady as a metronome. Only at the end, with the second repetition of "Dad was told ... by Mother" does he have any fun with the phrasing at all.

15 April 2007

14 April 2007

Reader Participation

So, I'm standing in line at the check-out counter when my eyes stray over to the impulse magazine rack. Cosmo this month has an article on "The Ten Things Guys Crave In Bed."

Choose your snark:

a. I didn't know we were such a mystery. When I think of the years I've wasted ...

b. 10?

c. ________________________.

Peter Burnet

The unacknowledged engine of the blogosphere, or at least our little corner of it.

In Which I Apologize

I just noticed, looking over the blog, that I've become something of a potty mouth over the last few days. I apologize and will make a special point of watching my language going forward.

The Law Be Damned

I've decided just to outright steal from Mark Steyn. If either Mr. Steyn or NRO wishes to complain ... I would be stunned.

National Review's self-loathing Belgian writes [Mark Steyn]

Further to my recent observations on Britain, I have received a significant number of letters along the lines of the following:
Dear Mr Steyn,

I can't help wondering why a Belgium Jew (yes i know you hide it) is so obsessed with the state of England. We don't need your opinions and would be grateful if you would sort out Canada or anywhere else and leave us alone.
I'm not sure whether it's the "Belgium" or the "Jew" bit I'm hiding, or both. But oddly enough, as I had cause to mention in a q-&-a session in New York a couple of days ago, it was the state of England's obsession with a Portuguese Jew that embodied 19th century Britain at its most confident:
In 1847, a man called Don Pacifico, a Portuguese Jew living in Greece, had his house burned in an anti-Semitic riot. He appealed to the Greek government for redress (the sons of some ministers had been involved) and got nowhere. But he chanced to have been born on Gibraltar and thus was, technically, a British subject. And so he turned to the British government. And, though to most Englishmen's eyes a century and a half ago no one could have seemed less English than this greasy dago Jew moneylender, Lord Palmerston began a naval blockade of Greece—on the grounds that Don Pacifico was a British subject like any other—until the government in Athens backed down. In Palmerston's words, "As the Roman in days of old held himself free from indignity when he could say Civis Romanus sum, so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him against injustice and wrong." Civis Britannicus sum: that was all Don Pacifico had to say.
Small incidents , whether in Athens in 1847 or Tehran in 2007, capture the big picture. The e-mail above would not have struck Palmerston as the least bit "English".

Fascinating And Beautiful

Flight patterns.

It's 39 And Cloudy

Instapundit points us to an article in the Grand Rapids Press with the heart-warming headline, Snow won't dampen global-warming rallies. In the article, Lisa Locke, associate director of the west Michigan global warming nutcases explains that unseasonably cold temperatures shouldn't stop her protest:
"I think that's [it's freezing outside] an easy excuse, but if we're really reasonable about it, we're not talking about individual weather on individual days," Locke said. "We're talking about something much larger, on a global scale, which science has been tracking for decades."
Ms. Locke's logic is impeccable. (Indeed, saying "decades" rather than "millenia" is down right honest, by agw standards.) Just because it's unseasonably cold today doesn't mean that the globe isn't warming over all. But cold weather is bad for the agw movement nonetheless.

First, marching against global warming in the snow makes them look ridiculous.

Second, cold weather necessarily reminds people of how much they prefer warm weather. It reminds them of the dangers of walking on ice and driving in a winter storm. It reminds them of the pain of shoveling and of the old men killed, every time it snows, by their shovels. After all, the whole world wants to retire to Florida. Why not let Florida come to us?

Third, it simply highlights that, to the agw crowd, any unseasonably cool weather is an outlier, whereas any hot weather, big storm or other unpleasant weather is the harbinger of warming doom.

Who You Calling A Bitch?

12 April 2007

I'm OK, Your Life Sucks

An interesting article on the boom in interracial marriages, which now make up 7% of US marriages.
Major Cox, a black Alabamian, and his white wife, Cincinnati-born Margaret Meier, have lived on the Cox family homestead in Smut Eye, Ala., for more than 20 years, building a large circle of black and white friends while encountering relatively few hassles.

"I don't feel it, I don't see it," said Cox, 66, when asked about racist hostility. "I live a wonderful life as a nonracial person."

Meier says she occasionally detects some expressions of disapproval of their marriage, "but flagrant, in-your-face racism is pretty rare now."

Cox—an Army veteran and former private detective who now joins his wife in raising quarter horses—longs for a day when racial lines in America break down.

"We are sitting on a powder keg of racism that's institutionalized in our attitudes, our churches and our culture," he said, "that's going to destroy us if we don't undo it."
This is a rare instance of the thought pattern that more usually manifests as "my school is fine, yours is terrible" and "my Congressperson is responsive, yours is a crook." We generally think that people adopt sweeping generalizations based upon their own experiences, but it seems that, as often, people ignore their own experience when adopting sweeping generalizations. Everyone thinks that their life is better than yours.

11 April 2007

Almost Certainly?

OJ points us to this Newsweek article, which starts out as follows:
Judging from the media in recent months, the debate over global warming is now over. There has been a net warming of the earth over the last century and a half, and our greenhouse gas emissions are contributing at some level. Both of these statements are almost certainly true.
We should turn the nation upside down and shake and we can't even be completely sure whether the temperature has really gone up? Next time your talking with (well, being lectured by) an AGW enthusiast, ask what the "mean global temperature" actually is and why anyone should care.

The Talented One

Mark Steyn remembers the Mommas and the Poppas.

Pretty Soon, People Won't Respect Lawyers

A friend, concerned that we're falling into optimism, sends us this story about an 18 year old boy who paid a hit man (actually, a cop) $3250 to beat up his pregnant 17 year old girlfriend enough that the "fetus" would die. He pleaded guilty to solicitation to commit manslaughter and was sentenced to spend 6 years in jail.

His lawyer said that he is an intelligent young man who got bad advice.

10 April 2007

09 April 2007

Troubling Confirmation

I commented the other day at Bryan Appleyard's blog about how people will believe anything that's written down. Now, along comes a story that Tori Spelling read that she was having a feud with her mother -- and she figured that it must be true.

Focus On Britain

As we mull over American ignorance of Englishmen and foreigners, it occurs to me to wonder whether the British know how popular Tony Blair is in the states. I haven't been able to find anything more recent than this Pew poll from 2005, but at that point he had been thought of favorably by at least 87% of the American people for three years.

He is, of course, unpopular in Britain, although no where near as unpopular there as President Bush.

08 April 2007

Sunday Brunch

Your job has gone the way of the buggy whip, your significant other is able and willing to support the family, nothing prevents a radical upheaval of your life.

What do you choose to do?

07 April 2007

Divided By A Common Language

OJ points to this article claiming that Atlas Shrugged is the conservative Bible. Now, Americans can rightly be dinged for our isolated ignorance and, in our family, we still tease my sister about the time she asked how far London was from England (she was in high school at the time). But no bit of American ignorance of other countries is even an acorn to the mighty oak of ignorance that is the idea that Ayn Rand is the prophet of the conservative revolution.

And, for the record, the conservative Bible is the Bible.

Interesting Times

I almost never read the New York Times but I did wander in today and found a host of interesting articles.

Wal-Mart is finding new ways to control its employees -- and everybody is happy. The "personal sustainability" program gets the company involved in improving its employee's health and convincing them to do their part for the environment. Exercise, eat right and reduce waste at the stores, all of which are good ideas but, if promoted in any other way, would bring the wrath of the left down on the anti-union, pro-sprawl Mart.

I found most interesting the idea that walking around the perimeter of the store as exercise could be beneficial to people who, after all, spend all their working day walking around the store. My wife tells me that there have been studies showing that exertion undertaken expressly as exercise has more cardiovascular benefit than exertion undertaken at a strenuous job.

We also learn about an odd Japanese real estate tycoon who is letting eight poor native Hawaiian families live rent free in mansions he owns in Honolulu. His motives are unclear and not necessarily creditable. One issue the Times doesn't address is the tax implications. Being allowed to live in a house rent free is imputed income for the families. Shows like Extreme Home Makeover deal with the same issue and have found ways around it. Over all, I'm convinced that there is something nefarious, or at least reckless, going on here, and the Times is being overly credulous.

Next, a fascinating court case as Nutra-Sweet sues Splenda to try to get it to stop saying "Made from sugar." At issue is not so much what the words mean as what they invoke. Everyone agrees that Splenda starts out with sugar (sucrose) although it need not; that Splenda itself does not contain any sugar; and that Splenda is as artificial as any other artificial sweetener. The sucrose used as a starting point in the manufacturing process is changed by adding three chlorine molecules to the sucrose molecule and, at the end of the day, the sucrose disappears. Splenda argues that "made from sugar" is literally true. Nutra-sweet counters that Splenda knows perfectly well that the effect of the slogan is to confuse the public by making Splenda sound more natural and safer. Personally, I prefer Splenda.

There is an interesting regulatory sidelight worth mentioning. Even though Splenda starts with sugar, it can't list sugar as an ingredient because the FDA won't allow the listing of "ingredients" that disappear during the manufacturing process. This is presented as a reason not to allow Splenda to use its slogan. But what if the chemical process started with, say, cyanide? Would the FDA regulation then be presented as a loophole allowing Splenda to market a product made from cyanide?

In a second FDA story, the agency has banned anti-nausea suppositories on the grounds they don't work. The products date from before 1962, when proof of efficacy was first required. Since I would, as king of the world, get rid of that requirement, I find the story slightly troubling. Not nearly as troubling, however, as the idea that people apparently choose to use anti-nausea suppositories. You'd think the very idea would be counter-productive.

There is a very nice article about an observant Jew married to an observant Catholic (for, obviously, a fairly flexible definition of "observant"). This is the story that made me think, as I often do when I read the Times, that it really is the best written paper in the country. The only Timesian nit I would pick is that they aren't satisfied with having a moving, interesting, well-written human interest story. They try, totally unconvincingly, to show that this couple reflects some important general trend. To the editors I say, "It's a nice story. Be happy." I do note that the Catholic husband was under the impression that Catholicism teaches that contemporary Jews are morally responsible for killing Jesus and that Judaism has been replaced by Catholicism, so there's two for Harry. I would have liked to delve more into the psychology of an observant Catholic who believes that Jews are deicides and yet starts to date a Jewish woman, but that's not the story the Times wanted to tell.

Just to prove that the Times and I haven't completely made up, I did read this silly op-ed that used an obscure news hook to completely misinterpret the implications of a psychological experiment. Apparently, the rich are bad.

Blog Babe

What is it about Amy Winehouse and bloggers?

05 April 2007

All You Need To Know

Carter backs Pelosi's trip, despite Bush's rebuke

Random Thoughts

Is there anything more aggravating than your email signal going off without your having any email in your inbox?

The Elton John Of Online Magazines

I find myself more and more not reading Slate. Now, of course I don't read lots of things and there are almost as many things that I used to read but don't any more. But Slate is alone in a different category: things I try to read, but fail. More and more, I get about a third of the way into a Slate story, and then my attention starts to wander. Hey, it's snowing outside. Has my monitor always been that shade of black? Where is that email I've been waiting for and how come repeatedly hitting "Send/Receive" doesn't make it come any faster? Before you can say "you snooze, you lose," I'm busy not reading Slate.

But if I can't manage to read Slate, why do I keep trying? Well, I'm usually drawn there to read Kausfiles, which I do manage because, after all, it's usually one snarky sentence. Then my eyes slide over to the right margin, where they put links to other stories on the site, and I get hooked into clicking over, at which point I quickly find myself not reading Slate.

Slate, in other words, masks the fact that their articles are boring and inane with great hooks. Their articles are the prose versions of Elton John songs. Take, for example, this article on Grand Theft Politics: Should Democrats look to video games for inspiration? What a silly article (apparently, the Democrats need more street theater, or at least that's what I gathered before my eyes glazed over). In fact, the article is self-refuting. The hook makes you look, but it can't make you read and it certainly doesn't convince. I'm all for style in the things I read, but substance has a style of its own.

And It Is Tom Lantos

I've been trying, the last few days, to come up with something to say about Tom Lantos and his claim that "We have an alternative Democratic foreign policy." Preferably my comment would be pithy, rooted in American history and constitutional law, and gently point out the Congressman's error in an eminently reasonable fashion.

Unfortunately, every time I start thinking about this deeply stupid statement I boil over. It might strike Congressman Lantos as good clean fun to chip away at the corner stones of our nation but, as he of all people should realize, if you bring down the edifice the first people who will be hurt are those sheltering beneath it. The very idea of a political party acting on a foreign policy at odds with the policies of the government is ... is ... is ...

I give up. It is bad. It is so bad that I can't even say how bad it is.

We've Met The Enemy...

I haven't paid nearly enough attention to Mass. v. EPA, the Supreme Court case holding that EPA has the power to regulate greenhouse gases, to have a legal opinion on the merits. I'd be astonished if I wouldn't agree with the minority. But I do wonder about one thing. There is one undisputed contributor to global warming: the reduction in air pollution over the last thirty years. Until this week, "air pollution" largely meant the emission of particulate matter into the atmosphere. Since the Clean Air Act passed in 1970, particulate matter in the air over the United States has decreased by approximately 80%. This reduction is the best established (perhaps the only well-established) example of unambiguous anthropogenic global warming.

Particular matter in the atmosphere raises the Earth's albedo. That is, more of the heat and light hitting Earth is reflected back into space if there is more particulate matter in the atmosphere. In fact, one suggestion for dealing with global warming is to release a relatively small amount of particulates directly into the stratosphere in jet fuel exhaust. Necessarily, reducing particulate matter over the last 30 years has lowered Earth's albedo, allowed the Earth to absorb more heat from the Sun and made the Earth warmer, caterus parebus, than it would otherwise be.

So, thanks to the Supreme Court, one of EPA's missions necessarily works counter to another of its missions. One wouldn't think, in the first instance, that it was the Court's role to balance contradictory policy aims. Too bad that Congress is too busy setting up its own foreign policy to deal with domestic issues.

04 April 2007

Must Be Some Other Baghdad

ABC notices that the surge is working, for now.

02 April 2007

Never* Again

Teachers drop the Holocaust to avoid offending Muslims (Laura Clark, Daily Mail, 4/2/07)
Schools are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons to avoid offending Muslim pupils, a Governmentbacked study has revealed.

It found some teachers are reluctant to cover the atrocity for fear of upsetting students whose beliefs include Holocaust denial.

* Valid until earlier of the end of the world or forty years. No warranty, express or implied, is intended. Void where prohibited. Civilization cannot be held responsible for uncivilized violation of promise. Any judgment between two or more competing interests must be referred to United Nations for unanimous determination by Security Council. Neither damages nor injunctive relief are available.

Carl Kassell Is Still In Egypt

In this morning's NPR newscast, while reporting on the Supreme Court's refusal to hear appeals from prisoners at Guantanamo, Carl Kassell said that this was a victory for the Bush administration in "its" war on terrorism.

Today, this inevitably reminds me of a portion of the Haggadah, the book setting for the ritual of the Passover seder. The point of the seder is to retell the story of Passover in several different ways. One way is the story of the four children, the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child and the child who is too young to ask. Each asks about the Passover story in a different way and each gets a suitable response. The wicked son asks "What does this ritual mean to you?" and, by saying "you" instead of "us" he has taken himself out of the Jewish people. The response is that "This is the feast commanded by G-d when he took me out of Egypt." The implication is that not only were we personally redeemed from Egypt when our ancestors were redeemed, but that, because he has separated himself from the Jewish people, the wicked son would not have been redeemed.

Similarly, NPR does not see itself as part of the war on terror and, implicitly, as part of the American people.

01 April 2007

Thanks For The Advice

I had to have my front brakes replaced this week. When I got the car back, there was a note on my stick shift: "Avoid violent braking for the first 125 miles." I'm not sure if I'm supposed to just drive off the cliff for the next 125 miles, or if I'm free to jam on the breaks just for the heck of it thereafter. I suspect that the ambiguity comes from the translation from the German, where more or less any adjective translates into "violent."

(Also, Google tells me that there is nothing new under the sun.)

Sunday Brunch

Which is better, wanting or getting?