Thursday, May 06, 2021


New Brooklyn Intellectuals Accuse Old Upper West Siders of CAREERISM
Louis Menand’s big new book on art, literature, music, and thought from 1945 to 1965 instills the conviction that the 20th century is well and truly over. It seems like the right gift for the graduating college senior this year. Born in 2000, the proud degree-holder may not recognize the Jackson Pollock reproduced on the accompanying congratulations! card, or know the Allen Ginsberg lines misquoted in the commencement speech, but can look them up in The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War and confirm that this past is truly past. 

An old friend's comment after being stuck in Park Slope for an afternoon 15 years ago. "We're so liberal we live in Brooklyn."


I do not like the critical language of approval and disapproval. I always felt there was a lot of moral righteousness among the critics of that period. I can’t think that way. I want to empathize (not sympathize) with the people I’m writing about, to get inside them. You do learn their limitations that way, and in that sense you are rendering a judgment, but your job is to, in the words of Howard Cosell, “Tell it like it is.” You want to help readers think without telling them what to think.

Howard Cosell fits John Roberts' model for a Justice of Supreme Court, or Jack Webb's cop. A historian looks for the origins of moral imperatives. It's not a book about the work; it's about about the only thing the readers care about: careers. Everything about reinforcing the opinions of the present.

Greif's comments about Rauschenberg and Warhol are pathetic. Reading the interview with Menand I can't imagine the book's any better. 
update: I was right. I have a Warhol tag, but this is enough. Click through. There's plenty to criticize in Clark.


But I anticipate. For the time being, all that needs to be established is that Pollock's drip paintings, when they started, and maybe even as they continued, were alternately Alchemy and Sea Change - Alchemy always failing, Sea Change never. The pictures were dazzling ("almost too dazzling to be looked at indoors," wrote Clement Greenberg of one of them at the time). They were lordly and playful, like something a master had thrown off. Magic Mirrors. Shooting Stars. Enchantment was part of them. And this seems to me true of modernism in general. Of Sweeney Agonistes as much as of Harmonium, of Picasso as much as of Matisse. An art of high negativity - books about nothing, paintings done with consciousness deliberately on hold - is not necessarily anarchical, scabrous, or otherwise low. On the contrary, it has often come out of courtly surroundings. Dukes have gone in for it, on horseback, as part of their general "contempt for nature in all its particularity." Negation is stylish. For stylish, at certain moments, read fashionable.

Scent. So it proved in Pollock's case. On 1 March I951, Vogue magazine published four pages of photographs, black and white and color, by Cecil Beaton (figs. In and I78). In them Irene and Sophie showed off a range of the season's evening dresses in front of pictures by Pollock from a show just closed at Betty Parsons. Beaton had ideas about how the pictures and dresses matched. He reveled in the analogy between Lavender Mist's powdery transparency - or the transparency his lighting gave it - and that of the chiffon and fan. The fan struck a Whistlerian note. He tweaked Irene's black cocktail dress into a to and fro of diagonals which made it quite plausibly part of Pollock's Autumn Rhythm behind. And so on. The effects are not subtle, and did not need to be. Hedging his bets just a little, the Vogue subeditor informed readers that "the dazzling and curious paintings of Jackson Pollock, which are in the photographs on these four pages, almost always cause an intensity of feelings." 

Vogue in the 1940s and 1950s was not to be sniffed at. It sold copies and was on Pollock's side. The magazine had printed a full-color photo of Reflection ol the Big Dipper as early as April 1948, the first time a drip painting was reproduced in color (beating Life with Cathedral by a full six months). Financially speaking, early 195 I was not a very good moment for Pollock: he was waiting for his contract with Betty Parsons to expire, and broke with her once it did; nobody seems to have made much money out of the show the previous December - the one Beaton used - and in any case Pollock had a reputation for working the media when he had a chance (Mark Rothko to Barnett Newman in I946: "Pollock is a self contained and sustained advertising concern"). His tone when he mentioned the Vogue event to Alfonso Ossorio in February was matter of fact: "This issue of Vogue has three pages of my painting (with models of course) will send a copy." These things happen. They help a bit. "There is an enormous amount of interest and excitement for modern painting there [he means in the wider America] - it's too damn bad Betty doesn't know how to get at it."

Taken on their own, the Vogue photographs are slippery evidence. They are falsely conclusive, like the formal analogies Beaton went in for. I did not quote Rothko to Newman thinking the photographs just proved Rothko's point. Certainly they suggest some of the terms of Pollock's reception in his own time. But the fact that Vogue was a fashion magazine does not mean that paintings appearing in its pages were, or became, fashionable. Fashion is a fragile construction, which regularly feeds on its opposites. The opposites often stay much as they were. Beaton in 1951 occupied a particular (lordly) place in the culture industry. His photos were meant to produce a slight intake of breath. And in any case, there is always the option open to us of dismissing the Beaton episode altogether, at least as evidence about Pollock. I remember seeing the model in front of Autumn Rhythm for the first time in a lecture, and thinking it made a powerful point, but then afterwards having the comment reported back to me: "So the Pollocks got used as background in a fashion magazine. We all know that by now. So what?"

There is a phrase that sticks in my mind from a similar conversation about the work of Serge Guilbaut - about his book How New York Stole the Idea of Moden Art - to the effect that his account of Pollock and Abstract Expressionism amounted in the end to an exercise in "guilt by vague association." For is not any art of real complexity (this is the implication) fated to be used, recruited, and misread? What are we supposed to say, for example, about a photo of Mussolini's shocktroops running in formation through the Arch of Constantine? (This too I saw in a lecture, at much the same moment as the Beaton images, and the comparison struck home.) Are we to put the blame on the Arch, somehow? Pretend that the Fascists got Roman architecture right? (To which the reply might reasonably be, in fact: Are you saying they got it wrong? What, after all, was the Arch of Constantine for?)

"Dukes have gone in for it, on horseback" Clark's making a reference to a few pages earlier. It's here, and of course here

Warhol wasn’t the first American artist whose work got cleaned up to make it palatable, and he wasn’t the first to play both sides. As Rothko put it: “Pollock is a self contained and sustained advertising concern.” A salaryman’s alienation was everywhere in Rauschenberg’s greatest early combines; Monogram and Bed are so violently anarchic that they remain unrecoverable by any but the most sophisticated polite imagination. They come from the same world as Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar named Desire, and are crueler than either. But Rauschenberg’s process quickly became aestheticized, while Rothko’s interests, like Pollock’s, were in the “Tragic and Timeless” and grandeur’s raison d’etre as Cecil Beaton understood, is reassurance. Pollock understood that too, better than Rothko. 

And as long as I'm at it,  from 2008. Klub Kids and Philosophers.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

It's predictable but academics who argue for determinism to whatever degree always exempt themselves. Artists who have the same beliefs never do. It's the extension of my point about Euthyphro /Alcestis.
If all humility is false humility then Socratic humility, as Socratic irony, is the irony of contempt. Euripidean irony is the irony of shared burdens and failures.
This is all a repeat but I have new readers.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Neal Ascherson in the LRB 

Written​ constitutions? ‘Because of where I came from, these documents seemed profoundly exotic.’ In spite of where she came from, which was England, Linda Colley became many years ago the first English intellectual to explain to her nation just how exotic ‘Britishness’ was. Now, with the same pioneering enthusiasm, she has produced a book about constitutions. Not the unwritten playground rules that supposedly guide the Anglo-British state, but those semi-sacred printed sheets of paper for which men and women in the outside world have been known to die. 

The book comes at the right moment. Constitutional storms are massing over the old United Kingdom. One, of course, is territorial: the matter of Scottish secession and perhaps Irish reunion. Another approaching hard rain is less obvious but more dangerous. This is the accelerating offensive of the Westminster executive against its restraints: against rival centres of power in Brussels or Edinburgh, against plural interpretations of history, against law itself. Most British governments since Thatcher’s have sought to stamp out what they see as a spreading ‘European heresy’: the notion that supreme law should stand above parliaments, that judges in a democracy may reverse the will of an elected government if it violates a constitution.

This storm has been brewing for a long time. Take a late 20th-century example: during one of those recurring leak panics, somebody in Whitehall revealed to a journalist that a cabinet minister was lying. In the uproar that followed, a civil servant was challenged to confirm that she owed unconditional loyalty to her minister. But she demurred. ‘At the end of the day, I answer to the little lady at the end of the Mall.’ That reply confirmed that the United Kingdom is still essentially a monarchical structure. Not in terms of direct royal intervention, but as a polity in which power flows from the top down. The idiotic doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty – the late 17th-century transfer of absolutism from kings endowed with divine right to an elected assembly – excludes any firmly entrenched distribution of rights. Popular sovereignty in Britain is a metaphor, not an institution....

One of the virtues of this book is that it isn’t Eurocentric. The Polish constitution of 1791, which so much excited radicals and intellectuals in France and Britain, gets only a passing mention. Instead, Colley discusses the 1821 Plan de Iguala in Mexico, whose famous Twelfth Article overthrew racial (but not sexual) discrimination: ‘All the inhabitants of New Spain, without any distinction between Europeans, Africans or Indians,’ it held, ‘are citizens of this monarchy.’ And she finds a connection between the plan and the extraordinary Calcutta Journal, edited in those years by the radical English wanderer James Silk Buckingham and his friend Rammohan Roy, a high-caste Bengali intellectual who campaigned to reform Hinduism and attacked the ruling East India Company. Both men believed in the reforming power of written constitutions for India and republished the Plan de Iguala in their paper.

I'm a fan of written constitutions –living trees, not dead ones- a council of elders, forms of "elitist theater for all." "Because I understood," he said.

Monday, May 03, 2021

"The Ministry for the Future seminar"  reminds me of "The Art of the Future Warfare"
Henry will never learn, and neither will Cooper. He belongs with them. Using the connection to Obama, in 2021 is just hilarious. I'll add the tag for the discovery of experience, because they still haven't. And freedom of speech because they oppose it.

Futurists, moralists, puritans, and fascists. 

"The claims about Art criticised in Art, an Enemy of The People, are very similar to those made by most religions, namely that there is a special category of people (prophets or artists) and a special category of activities (Religion or Art) which yield transcendent insights into the human condition, and which should be accorded special privileges over other people and other ways of finding meaning and enjoyment in life."

“… Search [in Shakespeare] for statesmanship, or even citizenship, or any sense of the commonwealth, material or spiritual, and you will not find the making of a decent vestryman or curate in the whole horde. As to faith, hope, courage, conviction, or any of the true heroic qualities, you find nothing but death made sensational, despair made stage-sublime, sex made romantic, and barrenness covered up by sentimentality and the mechanical lilt of blank verse."

Fantasies and Fantasists. Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy. 

"Science Fiction was created by men trying to get away from the alien environment populated by their wives."

"Art, an Enemy..." is Quiggin. And it's perfect that Francis Spufford has appeared in comments at the new one. And I need to add Shalizi.

And since D2 made an appearance at the Spufford "seminar"...

"However, one mark of crass consequentialism is to ignore the possibility of tragic dilemmas, yes?"
A “tragic dilemma”, as I understand it, is a situation in which consequentialism gives a clear answer about which alternative is better, but the answer in question is unpalatable. I don’t see why, in such a situation, consequentialism should be described as “crass” rather than, say, “jolly sensible”.

utilitarian psychopathy, autism and morality. 

Sunday, May 02, 2021

From 2015

a comment at the Boston Review.  (BR stripped all comments years ago.): 

This entire debate is absurd. Singer says we should aim for more than doing well; we should do good. But regardless of his claims even the word "Altruism" is a form of patting himself on the back.

But what do the naysayers have a response. Angus Deaton refers to studies by the Cochrane Collaboration, and who are they?
We are a global independent network of researchers, professionals, patients, carers, and people interested in health. 
Cochrane contributors - 37,000 from more than 130 countries - work together to produce credible, accessible health information that is free from commercial sponsorship and other conflicts of interest.
Effective Altruists? 
The only point worth making about this stupid debate, the one point avoided, is that you can't do good without getting dirty, if not physically dirty then morally dirty. Deaton's arguments as intended are as anti-political as Singer's: everything seen from the distance of "reason" of one sort of another. 
I met a woman in a bar. She was an ER surgeon. She's been doing it for 20 years and wanted to do nothing else. I said "You feel like a god until you kill your first patient". She looked at me, shocked. "You understand!" Nurses if you're curious have their own kinks. 
Altruism is virtue ethics for pedants, and Deaton responds with the condescension of political realism delivered as a kind of intellectual idealism. How's that for perversity! 
A friend's neighbor is a trial lawyer: big money, drugs and guns and everything else. He says "I'm at the forefront of the defense of your civil liberties". He's right.

The world is the playground. The library is a place to visit not to live in. But still I'd be a bit ashamed to be as rich as Singer or Deaton.
I was thinking tonight about the surgeon at the bar. I searched the blog to see if I'd told the story before. 

I'd changed the tone of her response. She wasn't shocked; the exclamation mark belonged with what she'd said before: "I love my job!" Her response to my reply was subdued and she looked down at her drink. I wanted her to laugh.

In 2017 I spent a day in the emergency ward at Mount Sinai, with a friend who would die at the hospital  a week later. The noise was constant, the rhythmic beeps of the machines, like a nightclub with nothing in sync, 50 little boxes and no bass, and the air an overpowering mix of adrenaline and estrogen. After 12 hours I was high. I walked up to a nurse, an older woman, a dark-skinned Latina:"You love this place don't you!?" It was obvious I felt the hormones in the air, and understood that the tension was connected to competence. She looked right back at me and her eyes went wide. "30 years! You see everything!" We both laughed.

I've always felt at home in clubs. I think that's why I haven't spent more time in them. The anonymous hum is a kind of warmth. I've been out in NY, Las Vegas, and Beijing. The ER is the best of both possible worlds. 

That's the pretentious way to put it, with the in-joke reference to philosophy. The other way is just to say it's the best of both worlds, like drugs and risky sex, but your body made the drugs and maybe you saved someone's life. Or maybe not.

It's called International Capitalism

adding the update at the top this time.

"The fact that Raoul Peck’s new HBO film on white supremacy exists shows that something profound about the world is changing."


In the final episode of Raoul Peck’s HBO documentary, “Exterminate All the Brutes,” Peck says in a voice-over, “The very existence of this film is a miracle.” That is 100 percent true. Before this moment in history, it would have been impossible to imagine that one of the world’s largest corporations — AT&T, owner of HBO, with a current market cap of $220 billion — would have funded and broadcast a film like this. The fact that it somehow squeezed through the cracks and onto our TVs and laptop screens demonstrates that something profound about the world is changing. Decades, centuries of people fighting and dying were required both to widen the cracks and mold someone like Peck, the right human at the right time, to step through.
I doubt it covers Liberia or Israel.
The second one is from 2010

Saturday, May 01, 2021

"Behind the chiliasm of modern man, is the megalomania of self-infinitization."

This last post on Milanovic, and the references/links made me think it's time to make a new list.

"Being alone is both our preference and a response to a world of competitiveness, commodification and higher incomes. The new world that we can glean will not be dystopian. It will be a Utopia, with a twist."

"Her story perfectly illustrates the fact that parents and children suffer the more we privatize caregiving...."

"Our belief in negotiated commitment – that people are not obligated to relationships they did not choose" 

"These relationships [between parents and children] are inegalitarian in deep ways. The parties to partial relationships can exclude others..."  "Legitimate Parental Partiality"

"Xenofeminism. If nature is unjust, change nature."

"We Can't Have a Feminist Future Without Abolishing the Family" Full Surrogacy Now

"I teach a standard Contemporary Moral Issues/Applied Ethics course once a year.... We discuss topics such as abortion, inequality in education, parental licensing,..."

I grew up as a middle class Jew in a black working class neighborhood. When we moved there I didn't have a choice. I had to adapt, to accommodate myself to others. 

I could go on and on just adding related links. Fascism is utopian. Utopianism is fascist. Liberalism becomes fascist because individualism becomes its opposite.