The Root of Art's Experience

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Thanks to Slate I can gain a small foothold on a Nature article that discusses the nature of perception -- which, incidentally, I commented on in a superb posting by brother Steven LaRose.

In the Slate article, author William Saletan interprets the Nature article Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgements and helps us regular guys understand morality's origins in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

Damage to that part of the brain results in judgments favoring utilitarianism. So for example, if your ventromedial prefrontal cortex is wrecked in a car accident, you'll be the guy who votes to throw the dying senior citizen off the life raft in order to add to the chance that there's enough fresh water for the children to survive until rescue. As Saletan puts it:

Three years ago in the journal Neuron, the neuroscientists illustrated their point. Using brain scans, they showed that utilitarian decisions involved "increased activity in brain regions associated with cognitive control." From this and other data, they surmised that the moral debate "reflects an underlying tension between competing subsystems in the brain." On one side are "the social-emotional responses that we've inherited from our primate ancestors." On the other side is a utilitarian calculus "made possible by the more recently evolved structures in the frontal lobes." The war of ideas is a war of neurons. (emphasis mine)
Saletan gives up a great quote that relates to an issue I've addressed in other contexts:
Neuroscience is discovering that the brain isn't a single organ. It's an assembly of modules that sometimes cooperate and sometimes compete. If you often feel as though two parts of your brain are fighting it out, that's because, in fact, they are.
Now let's ramp this up a notch for the art people in the house:

The experience of art making and of art experiencing that you find so compelling really amounts to the quality of interactions between different modules in your brain. Each interprets the input of an art experience in different ways. Your summative experience of an artwork is really the feeling you get as yet another module attempts to reconcile these interpretations.

I saw a show of photographs by Alessandra Sanguinetti at Yossi Milo Gallery some months ago. The content, to relate it roughly, was animals being prepared for slaughter, and other aspects of what I referred to as "the horror of physical being."

As an example, one image showed two lambs tied together with hoods over their heads, tugging against one another.

These images caused the emergence within me of the idea that we're all too fragile, and often we're really at odds with the vulgarity and easy victimhood of being made of muscle, bone and sinews. They brought out for me the sense of horror that really should accompany our daily animal existence.

I could break this down in a modular way and suggest that one module of my brain perceived the animals from without: two lambs being prepared for human consumption.

Another module perceived the image from the inside, as one of the lambs. I felt the blinding terror of being hooded, having something tugging against me, hearing screams all around including screams that abruptly cut off. Hearing the cutting-off screams getting closer. Hearing the thump of bodies on a pile.

Another module was reacting compassionately, but it couldn't outshout the self-preservation kicked up by the empathic module. I had to fight myself to stay in the gallery and give all the images the attention that yet another module thought they deserved.

If I'm right and the experience of art making and of art experiencing amounts to nothing more than the quality of interactions between different modules in your brain, I think this has some bearing on what we do.

I've already discounted artwork-as-ego-extension because ego is an assembly of other attributes or modules.

Now I'm ready to toss aside art work as a continual and ongoing progression or refinement. The feeling of progress is really the straining out of some module responses and the more perfect targeting of others.

As in other areas, so here: all roads lead nowhere. So where is progress really possible? Even the Buddha said, "Through the consummation of incomparable enlightenment I acquired not the least thing."

There are no ultimate goals, no great rewards. Heaven is just one more shabby carnival of broken rides and toothless, tattooed carnies. The Museum of Modern Art is just Wal-Mart for rich people.

At this point in art it's all about staying amused.

This line of thought only validates my lifelong inclination to move on frequently in art making. You can't have a home here: no home style, home format, home medium.

We're all travelers. Some of us just don't know it yet.

I'm starting to think now about how fun it would be to target specific brain modules and make them clash as violently as possible. Set them against one another like vicious, brawling sisters.
"I left his show feeling completely disoriented, doubting my own existence and hearing voices in my head. Weeks of intensive therapy have allowed me to begin functioning at a somewhat normal level." -- A Future Art Critic

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Everything's Comin' Up Baghdad

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The Troop Surge is working! Thank you, President Bush!

Entire neighborhoods are filling back up!

Stores are open, shopkeepers are polishing the glass and hanging big brightly-colored signs that sing: "We're Open, Open, Open For Baghdad!"

Thank you, Dick Cheney!

What's that sound? Giggling swarms of smiling children, playing soccer in the street!

Old women are filling the coffee shops, lecturing to their grandchildren about the right way to treat their man. Wait -- I think one of them is knitting a burka!

Thank you, thank you, Donald Rumsfeld!

Hear that? It's the call to prayer, echoing from minarets for miles around!

Everyone's praying now. The traffic has stopped, buying and selling has ceased, and everyone in every district and neighborhood is on their knees, on their faces, thanking Allah for the Americans, and particularly for President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and, most of all, for the glory of this magnificent day of freedom, peace and liberty!

Prayer's over -- and who's that?

It's Ethel Merman! She's alive again -- Allah brought Ethel Merman back to life, just to show that America really is the liberator of all oppressed nations everywhere!

She's standing on an American tank that's rolling through the streets, and laughing children are running alongside, stuffing flowers into every hole they can find in it! Careful kids, those tank treads are tricky!

"We love you, Ethel Merman!" the Iraqis call, as she belts out a tune she wrote in Paradise just before being resurrected for this occasion!

"Things are swell! Things are great!
Baghdad has the whole world on a plate!
Starting here! Starting now!
Honey, everything's coming up Baghdad!"

The last line is still ringing out over the rooftops when she changes her tune, and as she does, thousands and thousands of Iraqis who've swarmed the streets stand at attention and give a salute!

Somehow an American flag is hoisting itself right through the middle of Ethel Merman and she doesn't feel a thing -- except pride, gales of pride and patriotism as she unleashes a rounding, star-spangled rendition of "God Bless America." And, can you hear that? Every Iraqi voice is joining in!

Wait -- that's not quite right.

What really happened was that "suicide bombers killed nearly 130 people in a crowded market in a Shi'ite district of Baghdad."

Absolute mayhem.

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George W. Bush and Loyalty:
Tell Me I Haven't Aced This

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Ever wonder why loyalty is so dadblamed crucial to Dubya?

I used to think it was just a flaw in his character.
But today I realized it's a flaw in his intellect.

Loyalty's so important to him because loyalty toward him is literally the only virtue Bush is capable of evaluating.

Sure, he's a fair hand at deciding who's good-looking and who isn't. But he's dismal at gaming out personalities, as proven by his laughable take on Vladimir Putin.

Think about it:

He can't evaluate people based on their skills or expertise, because he has no concept of skills or expertise.

How could he? He's never experienced any of them first-hand, and he's not about to study or do the hard work necessary to gain them.

The only working attribute Bush has to work with is how much someone has kissed up to him.

It's a fair bet that most who have gained a career due to "Bushie" loyalty are substantially better at evaluating others than he is. That's what attracted them to Bush-service in the first place.

Just one meeting with the man and anyone capable of deciphering a vapid gaze realizes that, if they play their cards right, they can ride this frat-boy all the way to the bank.

All in exchange for a regular show of loyalty.

Naturally, some career riders hit a point in their lives where more money is less interesting than the bloodlust of settling old scores, or the rush of activating plans that they couldn't so much as suggest in front of smarter executives.

Why else would old, experienced hawks like Cheney and Rumsfeld have anything to do with empty-headed little Georgie?

If Bush hadn't been so well positioned by his managers, odds are fair that the best he'd have garnered from those two is the same abuse he's getting now from more than seventy percent of his fellow Americans.

Because they've been around long enough to know that loyalty is all poor little Georgie understands.

Think about it.

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Holland Cotter Thinks Museums Need to
Make Room for Troublemakers

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I've ragged on fat lazy bought-and-paid-for museums for a while now.
Yonder comes Holland Cotter saying the same thing, better, more clearly, and with suggestions of a political radicalism inspired by curator Chris Gilbert's resignation due to Berkeley Art Museum's refusal to express solidarity with leftist revolution in South America.

I admire Gilbert's attitude, even as I consider it a bit naive to think that such an institution would commit itself to such a position. It makes me suspect that perhaps the young curator realized that his was a losing proposition. Perhaps he was circulating his resume even as he forced his hand.

I'll be one of the loudest you'll hear in testifying that museums are, for the most part, wholly co-opted by elite and corporate interests and are therefore not instruments of change, or even places of relevance. They were catacombs to begin with.

It makes me wonder where Gilbert got the idea that museums are or even should be ground zero for social change. They've always been repositories for the collections of the dead. Museums of contemporary art aren't entirely exempt, either; they share the format and feel of other museums, and, worse, they occupy a social paradigm that is establishmentarian to the core.

My response is to tend to disregard museums entirely, in contradistinction to Mr. Gilbert's approach as one who obviously is looking to museums as one important means of career development and therefore might very well be committed toward changing them from within.

For museums to change the way he wants, and to have the effects he challenges them to have, in my view they'd need to become something new. I'm not sure at all what a true Gilbert Museum would look like, but I'm picturing a revival church without pews, installations dedicated to social change, maybe even a little coffee nook where you could buy the kinds of foods the desperately poor are forced to live on. Maybe it would be staffed by illegal immigrants, and rather than note cards, maybe staff members would be stationed as part of the installations to engage visitors. Maybe nobody would even speak English.

As far as the possibility of art making political changes in the world, I'd suggest that while all things are politically related, politics has always had an abrasive effect on art, and art has very rarely served politics well. I don't think they're a great match, which is to say that I don't see visual art changing the world in any meaningful way.

Think of the most important artworks that are considered political. Did they change the world? Or is the opposite more the case: does art always seem to reflect developments in the world, political or otherwise, and the artist's responses to them?

Maybe I'm having a brain-skip right now, but in casual reflection it occurs to me that visual art has been much more effective at changing visual art, and to a lesser extent applied arts, than it has been at changing anything in the world.

I look at Guernica, for example, and think what a master Picasso was. Its historical context is -- perhaps sadly for me -- only a peripheral consideration. And no changes of political attitude are in the offing.

Ben Shahn's "Sacco and Vanzetti" paintings are stirring, but don't prompt a change. In fact they function more as elaborate political cartoons. I could say the same thing about the Orozco murals at Dartmouth College -- The Epic of American Civilization.

In stark contrast, popular media in general, and broadcast video in particular, has changed people and attitudes. The 20th century is replete with examples: Fred Spear's Enlist poster, Lewis Milestone's film adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front, and Tony Schwartz's Daisy Girl political ad of 1964 come to mind.

Pop entertainment's political pundits, in fact, have refined mass manipulation into an insidious populace-haltering religion, with Joseph Goebbels standing among its prophets, Rush Limbaugh raving from the pulpit, and Karl Rove, wreathed in the incense of burning bacon fat,
controlling it all in the dank holiest of holies as its current reigning high priest.

Can you agree
that fine art seems to only rarely change people and/or opinions, while popular art seems only all too good at it?

If not, why not?

If you agree with me, can you suggest the reasons behind this?

What does it tell us about people in general, and curators and artists in particular?

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Washington University and
Action Jackson

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If you've spent any time programming then you know that, even if you use randomly generated numbers, you still maintain a respectable amount of control over the final project.

Submitted for your approval: this article from ZDNet describing Washington University's
Action Jackson, a robot that generates "dribble" paintings in the style -- so its programmers apparently believe -- of Jackson Pollock.

This reminds me of a book put out
some decades back by a Christian theologian named Francis Schaeffer, in which he decried nihilism in general and Abstract Expressionism -- particularly as seen in Jackson Pollock's work -- in particular. It contained a photograph of a couple of men standing around a frame of two-by-fours from which buckets of paint swung at the end of ropes. The caption read something to this effect: "A device such as Jackson Pollock might have used."

Although the ZDNet article seems to share Schaeffer's all-too-common ignorance of Pollock and his work, it does present a question that will tease your brain for perhaps a minute or two:
if a robot makes a painting, is it art?

And the answer? Decide for yourselves, but here's my take on it: Robotically-produced paintings and drawings can be art.

Remember that a robot can only follow its human-written programming, so a clearer way of perceiving the problem is this way:
a human can use a robot like a souped-up art tool to create artworks.

For me this can go further and, I suspect, has probably done exactly that already, although specific examples escape me.

Imagine for example a performance piece of sorts in which simple robots in an enclosed space move in random paths and, when they encounter one another, interact in unusual or interesting ways that mirror or exaggerate human interactions.

Perhaps one robot creates artworks according to an algorithm in which parameters are determined through complex equations and randomly selected quantities.

Another robot detects artworks, then evaluates and outputs communications about them.

Twenty other robots attempt to locate and decode these communications, with the result that the successful ones go further by attempting to confirm the validity of the second robot's judgments through viewing the artworks directly.

While all of this is going on, four more robots detect and devour any artworks they can find while simultaneously excreting money. Their activities eventually interrupt the work of all the other robots except the first robot.

That first robot, the art-making one, detects and measures quantities of money nearby. When the money reaches a specified 'ideal' amount, the first robot abandons its primary art-making algorithm and switches to a second algorithm in which parameters are maintained precisely as they were when the money reached this ideal amount.

The first robot then continues making similar artworks for forty years.

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Wikisky: Scalable Star Charts

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Wikisky is a highly detailed, cross-referenced body of astronomical information accessible through a highly simplified interface. Not super-intuitive, but if you're into astronomy I think you'll figure it out.

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James Wolcott and I Can't Believe
That the MSM Wants to Rehab
Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay

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It really doesn't get any worse than these two. Read Wolcott and get back to me on it.

Gingrich could be considered the progenitor of all that is rotten in the Republican party.

DeLay only refined Gingrich's moves and extended them more flagrantly into wider spheres of endeavor.

You'd think someone with Tim Russert's street cred would reject these two miscreants out of hand. Credit mainstream media's habitual pandering to the lowest common denominator for the continued empowerment of those political forces that Americans, who have overwhelmingly rejected them at the polls, would like nothing more than to be rid of once and for all.

Yeah, it's still an art blog.

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Is There an Art Equivalent to
Science's Use of Colliders to Reveal
the Earliest States of Matter?

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This fairly accessible article in Discover Magazine is still very likely to twist your mind with its discussions of the basic particles of matter and fifth-dimensional black holes.

"The Big Bang Machine" is a reference to the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider in Upton, New York. Deep in the guts of this gargantuan apparatus, physicists hurtle individual atoms of gold at one another after speeding them up to 99.99 percent of the speed of light.

In the infinitely small, infinitely brief explosions that follow, the quarks and gluons that make up the protons and neutrons within the gold atoms separate just long enough to reveal themselves before reassembling. Through a variety of means and methods scientists use the information from these collisions to determine conditions in the very early universe.

One conclusion the article mentions is that, instead of being gaseous, the universe at age ten millionths of a second was liquid.

It's intriguing to me that scientists can use matter that has existed since the beginning of the universe to learn about matter at the beginning of the universe, and thereby make conclusions about matter and physics that will drive mankind's future technological development.

As an artist one of the thoughts that has crossed my mind regularly is that, through working intuitively and disregarding concepts of art, I might stand a chance of reaching into the primal depths of mankind's first artistic impulses. Coming to an experiential understanding of these might then, over time, lead to a greater understanding of mankind's contemporary artistic impulses, and ways in which art making can greater answer contemporary needs.

When considering that thought one must discard notions of the primal, such as those expounded upon by psychologists during the mid-twentieth century, as well as those generated during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. I believe these need to be discarded because they are much of their time, affected by recent events in the world such as World War Two and the Cold War's nihilistic colorations.

Do you think it's possible to reach back to primal art approaches through contemporary work?
If so, do you think it's beneficial or helpful in any particular way?

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Your Opinions, Please...

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Through technology the mind takes in far more than it could ever process. For those of us in the arts and sciences this has been a boon, as groups of all kinds work en masse to assemble useful pieces of information and give humanity a clearer view of reality. But for far too many of us this excess of information is useless and sometimes unhealthy. It sloughs off into corpulent brain paunch, a morbid psychic obesity that results in mental lethargy, inertia, and a lower quality of life.

Thoughts? Comments? Reflections?

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Bill Evans: Jazz is a Process

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There's a certain peculiar flavor of gratitude you experience when someone introduces a new creative force into your life.

You're probably already familiar with Jazz pianist Bill Evans. I, however, learned about him only today.

This Bill Evans quote is from a video on YouTube, via Dennis Hollingsworth's highly edifying and educational blog:

Jazz as we tend to look at it is a style but I feel that jazz is not so much a style as a process of making music. It's the process of making one minute's music in one minute's time, whereas when you compose, you can make one minute's music and take three months to compose one minute's music.
This of course translates directly to visual art that is created intuitively and spontaneously.

Something Evans did not say here, but I suspect he believed to some extent in spite of his mastery, is that this perfect minute created in one minute is merely one station stop on a continuous journey of many, and that many more stops result in utterly forgettable minutes. But you must get through the bad stations to arrive at the brilliant ones.

Dennis, thank you.

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Troop Surge 2007:
Team Bush's Ticket Out of Iraq

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It occurs to me that no serious, substantive and long-term change can possibly take place in Iraq with the addition of a mere 21,000 American troops.

Just try to recall all of the reports of violence and anarchy since MISSION: ACCOMPLISHED. Remember hearing about dozens of police in training who were simply taken away and executed? Can you recall the number of months in which more than one thousand civilians were killed? And how about our "clear and hold" strategy that was all clear and no hold due to the shortage of troops, even though we'd sent more than 100,000 of America's best-trained fighters?

Now you're going to tell me that 21,000 troops stands a hornet's chance in hell of finishing the job in Iraq?

Keep in mind that the forces these troops will be facing are not like those in 2003.

We've spent the past four years training violent factions in Iraq to avoid, wage guerrilla warfare against, and to face head-on 100,000 American troops, to the point where they've become quite adept at it.

21,000 new American troops are, practically speaking, only so many specks of dust on Iraq's massive, anarchic dance floor.

Even so, if they're all concentrated in one place, such as Baghdad, 21,000 troops may very well be just enough to quiet things down in that one location for a few weeks, perhaps even a few months.

And that will be just long enough for Team Bush to, yet again, declare MISSION: ACCOMPLISHED.

With great fanfare and an all-too-clear conscience they'll be able to airlift our troops out in all likelihood mere months or even weeks before the violence kicks up again, this time in full battle-hardened heat.

But when bullets fill the air like swarms of africanized honeybees, when the percussive blasts of exploding cars make Iraq sound like a worldwide beat-box, when the blood starts flowing through the streets as urine once flowed down Bourbon Street in New Orleans, America's president will be able to hold a news conference in which he says that we had nothing to do with that tragedy. We accomplished our mission, 'member? This must be some sort of business between the Iraqi people, some sorta Civil War. Like we had here in America, 'cept without the slaves.

This can be the only logical possibility. And it's no wonder then that Bush supporters from Congress to FOX News have been unanimous in challenging the Democratic Senate to give the Troop Surge a chance. For Team Bush and Bush supporters, the Troop Surge is a no-lose proposition, which is the only proposition they stand a chance of winning now.

The real losers, however, will be those Iraqi people who, in spite of everything they've seen in the last four years, managed to convince themselves that this time, this one time, America was right. This one time America will truly restore order to their shattered, violent nation.

These are the ones, if we are to believe some elements of the press, who are returning even now to Baghdad's newly quieted neighborhoods, who are re-opening the shuttered, bullet-riddled shops again, Iraqi citizens who are placing all their hopes and dreams squarely in the hands of an Iraqi government and an American administration that has so horribly proven unworthy of such trust, not once, not twice, but for four long, bloody years.

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More Afghani Women Would Rather
Torch Themselves Than Live In
The Nation We've Built For Them

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If all of a nation's men are savages and all its women are tortured and enslaved, who gives a damn whether their government is democratically elected or not? You can force-feed democracy around the world, but no government can ever change the hearts of its citizens.

That kind of change -- the revolutionary, authentic kind of change that brings about lasting government -- must by nature begin at the ground level, in the daily interactions of people. It's a ground-up proposition, no matter how many threats are issued, no matter how many people are sent to gulags, no matter how many arrests and executions take place.

Submitted as evidence: this article at NYTimes.com, which rather vividly describes the choice many Afghani women are making in the face of the horrors committed under the flag of an Islamic republic ruled by democratically elected leaders.

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Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's Mega-Confession:
Just Another Curveball?

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According to Lolita C. Baldor's Associated Press article, alleged al-Qaida third baseman Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has become a veritable fountain of self-recrimination.

Will this turn out to be a belated base hit for Team Bush, whose failure to nab Qaida Manager Bin Laden (among a host of bunglings) has made them a joke in the World League?

Is Mohammed just another Curve Ball, motivated this time by an excruciating desire to get off the water board?

Or could this all be just another Rove-orchestrated smokescreen, intended this time to distract Americans from the growing whirlwind of corruption circling all of Team Bush, from Scooter's Cheney-protecting lies to Gonzales's politically-motivated mass firings?

At least the fans have finally starting wising up. After thirty-seven innings they've managed to figure out that the real score can't be read on the sign hanging over center field, a sign bought and paid for by the team with the cowboy hats on its uniforms.

No, the fans know the real score. That's the reason they left the ballpark weeks ago.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled episode of "Take Home Chef."

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When Museums Sell Masterpieces to Buy Contemporary Art:
Don't Knox It 'Til You've Tried It

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The NYTimes.com reports that the Albright-Knox gallery in cheery Buffalo, New York, is facing a lawsuit from community members who are battling the intended de-accessioning some significant ancient work.

Apparently the contention is that AK will use the cash to pick up contemporary artwork whose cash value is set to climb precipitously.

I suppose it's understandable that local people would feel a sense of ownership over pieces of artwork at a local museum that they've been visiting for decades. And it's probably fairly difficult for museum directors to resist the excitement of a white-hot art market.

Sad it is, just the same, to see AK vending objects whose high cultural value is confirmed by the fact that other respected museums stand ready, checkbook in hand, to snatch them up, so that they will be able to afford objects that are of high cash money value but of dubious cultural value.

Remember the '80's; artists do indeed come and go. Evaluations of contemporary art are changeable, which is one reason it's as exciting as it is.

Today's masterpiece could very well be tomorrow's wooden box with coat hangers and plastic bags hanging off it. The art star now featured in Artforum may end up being the art teacher making the rounds of community colleges not too many years hence.

What I'd like to see more of is the gallerist who persuades or provides incentives for his contemporary art collectors to make donations to museums like the AK. I read someplace that Zach Feuer has done this in the past, regarding I think Dana Schutz's work -- ? Correct me if I'm off.

Regardless, in my estimation this is a mistake the AK is free to make, sad as it may be.

Just to put some perspective to this, we've seen establishments that are the New York Times of art museums, the Art Museums of Record, really, doing things that are pretty abominable, all in the name of cash.

Has the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo ever dedicated itself to a show of Armani? Has it ever filled its halls with images and objects by Pixar, or stationed two big revolting catamaran yachts outside its doors for months at a time in order to shill for the corporate yacht owners? Has AK ever rented its artworks to Las Vegas casinos?

If the worst crime the AK board ever commits is deaccessioning a few priceless artworks and losing a few million dollars in bad contemporary art investments, they're not doing too badly in the great scheme of things.

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The Continued Triumph of Style Over Substance

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We see this all the time in fine art: someone succeeds with something and then keeps pushing the same buttons for forty years. We see success based on dubious reasons.

This occurs in other languages as well. An article on msnbc.com this morning focuses on the congressional debate over the renewal No Child Left Behind, the act designed and promoted by the one American president I'm aware of who, in his own life and in the lives of those he promotes, disregards education and expertise entirely:

No Child Left Behind, the landmark federal education law, sets a lofty standard: that all students tested in reading and math will reach grade level by 2014. Even when the law was enacted five years ago, almost no one believed that standard was realistic.


But now, as Congress begins to debate renewing the law, lawmakers and education officials are confronting the reality of the approaching deadline and the difficult political choice between sticking with the vision of universal proficiency or backing away from it.

"There is a zero percent chance that we will ever reach a 100 percent target," said Robert L. Linn, co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at UCLA. "But because the title of the law is so rhetorically brilliant, politicians are afraid to change this completely unrealistic standard. They don't want to be accused of leaving some children behind."

(emphases and comment mine)

Could there be greater evidence of the demented times we're living in when your elected officials design an act whose conditions can't possibly be met, and then vote that very same act into law?

And why? Because it sounds great! Hell, it sounds terrific!

But you can't say a damned thing about it. Why? You voted these slack-jawed knuckle-dragging idiots into office, that's why.

They're not the exception in your culture. People faking it is the rule where you live, my friends. If you want a better world, quit faking it and get serious.

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Bush's Troop Surge 2007 -- Succeeding?

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Robert Kagan writes in a Washington Post Op-Ed piece that the surge is succeeding. It's an optimistic piece, buttressed apparently by facts on the ground as reported by bloggers and some MSM.

Much as I don't particularly care to see the Bush-Cheney Co-Presidency suddenly be correct about something in an area where they've been so continually, reliably and tragically wrong, I would like to believe Kagan's assertions.

His Op-Ed piece does however raise some questions. Here are some highlights:

The conventional wisdom in December held that sending more troops was politically impossible after the antiwar tenor of the midterm elections. It was practically impossible because the extra troops didn't exist.
Just a side-note: I recall assertions of practical impossibility. But regarding political impossibility, it seemed clear at the outset to Pelosi et al that there was no mechanism in place to politically stop the surge.
Some observers are reporting the shift. Iraqi bloggers Mohammed and Omar Fadhil, widely respected for their straight talk, say that "early signs are encouraging." The first impact of the "surge," they write, was psychological. Both friends and foes in Iraq had been convinced, in no small part by the American media, that the United States was preparing to pull out. When the opposite occurred, this alone shifted the dynamic.
As the Fadhils report, "Commanders and lieutenants of various militant groups abandoned their positions in Baghdad and in some cases fled the country."
Mohammed and Omar Fadhil's blog is Iraq the Model. If the "model" they refer to is "a model of a new Middle East democracy," a red flag appears. This is the era of master manipulation of facts by politicians on a heretofore untold scale. Could Mohammed and Omar merely be Rove operatives, part of the sprawling disinformation machine that got us into this war in the first place?

And do we really want to trust some unknown, uncredentialed bloggers for information by which we can judge the overall effectiveness of the troop surge?

Even if we accept that Mohammed and Omar are two real Iraqis living in Baghdad, what is their information infrastructure? How do they know what they claim to know? Do they send people throughout the city to gather information? Do they continually interview people? Or are they just sitting in their living rooms watching the news like all the rest of us?

Most importantly for me, Kagan leads exuberantly with these two. Doesn't he have any information more substantial, more credentialed, with which to lead his article than a couple guys of utterly dubious motivation sitting in a house someplace in Baghdad?

Kagan continues:
The most prominent leader to go into hiding has been Moqtada al-Sadr. His Mahdi Army has been instructed to avoid clashes with American and Iraqi forces, even as coalition forces begin to establish themselves in the once off-limits Sadr City.
It's been known for some time that al-Sadr split the scene. How do we know what orders he's issued? Cite references. This has bogus written all over it.
The Fadhils report, "One difference between this and earlier -- failed -- attempts to secure Baghdad is the willingness of the Iraqi and U.S. governments to commit enough resources for enough time to make it work."
Mohammed and Omar have no way of assessing the willingness of the US government to commit the resources and, particularly, the time. These are two guys sitting in a room like you and me, assailed with data both true and false, trying to pick it through.

Having said that, if in fact clear and hold is now working because we've now committed enough troops to make it work, it provides a stark illustration of how well this entire operation might have run had competent people been in charge.
The number of security tips about insurgents that Iraqi civilians provide has jumped sharply. Stores and marketplaces are reopening in Baghdad, increasing the sense of community. People dislocated by sectarian violence are returning to their homes.
It doesn't make any sense to me that the dislocated populations have bought in so wholeheartedly to what Washington is now doing after four long, terrible years of what Washington was then doing.

Seriously, if you've been living with your aunt in Richmond because the Khmer Rouge have turned all of Baltimore into a minefield/shooting gallery, how long would you wait after reports begin to come in that it's no longer dangerous before you move back home? Three weeks?

Keep in mind, things didn't start quieting down the minute Bush announced the surge; in fact the noise picked up.

Also, it's nice to know that the form Baghdad citizens use to report tips about insurgents also includes a carbon that can be sent to Kagan. How else could he know these tips are on the increase?
NBC's Brian Williams recently reported a dramatic change in Ramadi since his previous visit. The city was safer; the airport more secure. The new American strategy of "getting out, decentralizing, going into the neighborhoods, grabbing a toehold, telling the enemy we're here, start talking to the locals -- that is having an obvious and palpable effect."
Good for Ramadi, according to Brian Williams, who, as we all know, has a sophisticated and highly reliable information-gathering and vetting infrastructure known as NBC News at his disposal. Recall how well they served us before the war began, and for example how NBC News blew the VA Hospital scandal wide open. Wait -- that was the Washington Post. Never mind.

Well, at least we have Brian Williams' observations on Ramadi to work with. He sounds like he'd make a great tour guide. But enough about outlying towns; how's the capital?

A national agreement on sharing oil revenue appears on its way to approval. The Interior Ministry has been purged of corrupt officials and of many suspected of torture and brutality. And cracks are appearing in the Shiite governing coalition...

I'll believe the oil revenue-sharing agreement when I see it in operation. The Interior Ministry -- purged? Please. Today's security guard is tomorrow's assassin. What's this about cracks? Cite references. We've had enough of being jerked around by people spouting so-called facts.

There is still violence, as Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda seek to prove that the surge is not working. However, they are striking at more vulnerable targets in the provinces. Violence is down in Baghdad.
If by violence down in Baghdad you mean mortar shells falling and cars exploding both near and during the regional middle eastern conference, the, sure, violence, is down in Baghdad.

As for Sadr and the Mahdi Army, it is possible they may reemerge as a problem later. But trying to wait out the American and Iraqi effort may be hazardous if the public becomes less tolerant of their violence. It could not be comforting to Sadr or al-Qaeda to read in the New York Times that the United States plans to keep higher force levels in Iraq through at least the beginning of 2008. The only good news for them would be if the Bush administration in its infinite wisdom starts to talk again about drawing down forces.

Kagan really shows his cards here. Sure, Sadr and the Mahdis can reemerge at any time. His solution seems to be an infinitely long deployment of American troops, something that can't and shouldn't happen.

Kagan's attitude toward the press itself is sufficiently twisted to warrent disregarding many of his other assertions. To state in so many words that American journalists need to toe the administration line in order to avoid comforting the enemy is both ludicrous and anti-American. Journalistic collusion with the administration was in fact one powerful force behind America's incursion in Iraq to begin with.

But imagine for a moment that the press as a whole decided to toe the line for the reasons Kagan gives. Before long it would be utterly disregarded by every enemy America will ever face. Recall Pravda in the Soviet Union, not to mention official Soviet radio, to which I listened on occasion. Both media outlets goose-stepped behind the party leaders. Both were utter tripe, filled with whatever Moscow wanted everyone to believe. And both were held in contempt and disbelieved worldwide.
No one is asking American journalists to start emphasizing the "good" news. All they have to do is report what is occurring, though it may conflict with their previous judgments. Some are still selling books based on the premise that the war is lost, end of story. ...

This appeal is old hat, the Rove machine shooting fish in a barrel. Kagan's accusation that journalists focus on the bad news in support of their own books tips his hand again here and is at the very least highly disingenuous.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled banjo lessons.

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Mullah Cimoc Wishes He Was Borat

2 witty retorts

I Googled Mullah Cimoc after he left this comment on my Rep. Obey post:

Mullah Cimoc say this for confuse ameriki people keep them so stupid the selfish.

BUt democrat party of usa never say the true because the masters in tel aviv control usa media and now allow true for even one minute.

Ameriki so sick now. soon the collapsing of usa. god not liking when having so much money but loving the torture and killing lthe muslim.
It turns out he's been doing this schtick for at least a year across many flavors of politically minded blogs. See for yourself.

I picture a misdirected post-high-school punk with a skin condition who works at a video store and can't get girls to take him seriously.

Sadder still, it's pretty clear from his comments net-wide that Cimoc is trying desperately to be Borat. If there's one thing more pitiful than shooting low, it's failing to hit that big, easy target.

I've begun to think of commenters like Cimoc as belonging to a new breed of graffiti artist. Maybe some day I'll be commented by one with talent.

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Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
Begs the World to Save the Country
America Destroyed:
Now I'm Swimming to Cambodia

6 witty retorts

As mortar shells and cars exploded only a few miles away, a desperate Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took to his figurative knees before a conference of representatives from Islamic nations (including Iran) and a western US-led delegation, according to this NYTimes.com article.

''(Iraq) needs support in this battle that not only threatens Iraq but will spill over to all countries in the region.''...

Al-Maliki urged for help in stopping financial support, weapon pipelines and ''religious cover'' for the relentless attacks of car bombings, killings and other attacks that have pitted Iraq's Sunnis against majority Shiites.

It seems each passing day brings a new and even starker difference between 2003's Neo-Con dreams of a transformed Middle East and the darkening Cheney-orchestrated nightmare that continues to relentlessly unfold in that region.

Consider now that the representatives of each of Iraq's six neighboring countries, along with the UN Security Council representatives and Arab leaders who attended this conference -- every one of these representatives has their own agenda.

Among the common threads in all their agendas is a rabid, and now highly justified, revulsion at American manipulations of all kinds in the Middle East and particularly in Iraq.

Consider that none of these representatives can seriously look at al-Maliki as anything but a puppet of American interests.

Finally, consider that, in the Associated Press article, this ostensible leader of the nation that America's Co-President was certain would greet American soldiers as liberators and would wholeheartedly embrace democracy "hoped that the conference could be a 'turning point in supporting the government in facing this huge danger.'"

But wait: weren't we, the Americans, with little or no help from the world that was against our Iraq incursion -- weren't we supposed to have been sufficient to this task? Wasn't this entire escapade to have been finished months ago?

Then why is it that Iraq's democratically elected leader is begging other nations for assistance? Why is it that America isn't enough?

Pathetic, to be sure, but also dread-inspiring and horribly resonant.

In 1975, Cambodian capital Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge after that nation had been turned into a battlefield in the war between North and South Vietnam. That nation, Cambodia, had obtained American assistance against the insurgent Khmer Rouge, in exchange for declaring itself a republic and cooperating with American military attacks on North Vietnamese bases and weapons routes in Cambodia.

Ironically, the process of becoming a republic through deposing head of state Norodom Sihanouk only increased the appeal and power of the Khmer Rouge, who also enjoyed the support of North Vietnam.

Imagine if you will a conference similar to the one described in today's NYTimes.com article, only this conference takes place in 1970 and includes Cambodia's new leader Lon Nol and representatives from neighboring countries North Vietnam and South Vietnam as well as the Khmer Rouge and American and Western delegations:
  • The Westerns are doing all they're going to do at this point
  • The South has nothing to offer
  • The North wants to invade the South and, if necessary, help the Khmer Rouge destroy Cambodia to make this happen
  • The Khmer Rouge are stirring up a bloodthirsty concoction of Rousseauist and Communist philosophy powered by radical militarism and years of harsh jungle living, and can't wait to pour it out on Phnom Penh and all of Cambodia.
Now imagine Cambodian leader Lon Nol standing up, his American sponsors seated in photo-op distance, and saying the words al-Maliki used at the Baghdad conference:
I hope this conference can be a turning point in supporting the government in facing this huge danger.
Al-Maliki's bleak, pathetic appeal bodes ill for his nation and suggests a tragic upcoming scenario that is, again, a chilling echo of America's Indochina experience.

In 1975 Cambodia's Prince Sirik Matak, now in power after Lon Nol fled office ahead of invading Khmer Rouge forces, wrote this letter to US Ambassador John Gunther Dean in response to Dean's offer of political asylum for Matak, Long Boret and other Cambodian officials :
"Dear Excellency and Friend,

I thank you very sincerely for your letter and your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion.

As for you, and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people, which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection, and we can do nothing about it.

You leave, and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under this sky. But, mark it well, that if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad, because we are all born and must die one day. I have committed this mistake of believing in you, the Americans.

Please accept, Excellency, my dear friend, my faithful and friendly sentiments.

Prince Sirik Matak."

(Emphasis mine)

As Spalding Gray put it in Swimming to Cambodia,
Five days later their livers were carried through the streets on sticks.
Sirik Matak's mistake was believing that America would live up to a promise of protection against a determined, popular insurgency, a promise given as merely one American tactic during our intervention in what was essentially a Vietnamese civil war.

America's mistake was believing that such protections and such interventions are winnable.

History has proven Cambodia to be the wiser of our two nations: she has not repeated her mistake of trusting America for anything significant since 1975.

We, however, have tragically repeated ours.

We now return you to... ah, hell, turn the damned computer off and buy a banjo.

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Peaceful Moments
with Congressman Dave Obey

3 witty retorts

Tina Richards had the courage and took the time and expense to confront House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey about changes in spending on the Iraq War.

Dave Obey took the time, apparently right off the cuff, to speak with her in the middle of a busy workday, and to try to explain why he feels he has to do things a certain way in order to stop the war.

But when Ms. Richards and her friend pressed Obey while flashing incorrect information, they took some heat; Obey seems to have topped out on liberals who are somehow interfering with the process he and other congress people are trying to implement to stop the war, and he has no patience for people who try to pressure him without doing their homework.

There's some serious frustration here. This is worth a viewing.

Think there's anything valid in Congressman Obey's complaints about liberals?
If so, what turn should the anti-war strategy take to align with the anti-war efforts of congressional Democrats?

We now return you bla bla bla

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Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine Lights Another Paper Match

0 witty retorts

From an MSNBC article updated two minutes ago:

The FBI improperly and, in some cases, illegally used the USA Patriot Act to secretly obtain personal information about people in the United States, a Justice Department audit concluded Friday.

And for three years the FBI has underreported to Congress how often it forced businesses to turn over the customer data, the audit found.

FBI agents sometimes demanded the data without proper authorization, according to the 126-page audit by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine. At other times, the audit found, the FBI improperly obtained telephone records in non-emergency circumstances.

Enjoy the glow while it lasts; ultimately JDIG Glenn Fine answers to USAG Alberto Gonzales.

I think I just felt a draft.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled artblog.

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Paul Krugman's article
Department of Injustice:
Have We Reached Peak Morality?

2 witty retorts

Don't miss Paul Krugman's excellent article which Candide's Notebooks attributes to the New York Times today but which I can't seem to find there. Krugman gives us some details about the recent firings of eight prosecutors by USAG Alberto Gonzales, and, kids, let me tell you,

things are bleak.

Perhaps the ceaseless flow of news across my eyes is making me feel this as never before: history is a pointless, unending battle between forces of vague and shifting moral superiority.

No one wins for long. No one deserves to win at all.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled artblog.

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Fill In the Blank

5 witty retorts

If the past is a cartoon, the future is a __________ .

Cartoon: a highly simplified drawing with many facts left out and selected facts amplified.

Here's a hint: the answer isn't cartoon.

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Robert Rauschenberg:
Transfer Drawings From the 1960s
at Jonathan O’Hara Gallery,
via NYTimes.com

1 witty retorts

I've become somewhat enamored of Roberta Smith's writing style. It's clear and to the point, fairly pragmatic, and she often includes interesting facts such as this in her NYTimes.com article this morning on the show Robert Rauschenberg: Transfer Drawings From the 1960s, currently on view at Jonathan O'Hara Gallery:

The transfer technique, which (Rauschenberg) took up in 1958, had remarkably few moving parts. It involved soaking newspaper or magazine clippings in solvent, laying them face down on drawing paper and then hatching back and forth across them with a dry pen nib.
The 'dry pen nib' part confuses me. Most pen nibs I've used are quite sharp. Were you to hatch them back and forth across a sheet of solvent-soaked newsprint, you'd rip, mush up and slash through the paper and gum up the nib. The transfer you tried to make would be marred by pen nib and distorted by the way you'd tormented the paper.

Not a big deal, but I suspect there's a part of the recipe that's not in the piece, that's all.

If it's of interest, you can catch Robert Rauschenberg: Transfer Drawings From the 1960s at Jonathan O'Hara until two days past the ides of March. Get a cab to East 57th street, and while you're there, check out a few of the other uptown galleries.

Image from the NYTimes.com article

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The Art Law Blog
Brought to You By Donn Zaretsky and
John Silberman Associates

2 witty retorts

The art life is too much pressure!

Think of all the sleepless nights you've spent staring at the ceiling wondering if you're responsible for the toxicity of cadmium red paintings sold to children...

...whether or not the Warhol Estate can sue you for selling photographs of your dog wearing a spidery white wig...

...or how you're going to get back at that thieving fly-by-night poser who sold you a pissoir signed "R. Mutt" that you should have realized wasn't a Duchamp because it has that infrared motion-detector flusher on it that wasn't invented until last year.

Stay in the know with The Art Law Blog, Donn Zaretsky's informative publication that covers the issues as they arise, always from a solid legal perspective.

Right this very minute you can get the skinny on the latest de-accessions, Spielberg's stolen Rockwell, the Matter Pollocks, a variety of thefts and other crazy exciting stuff.

Be There Now!

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Newtown, Connecticut Seeks to Deny
Cambodian Buddhists a Temple

1 witty retorts

This is the kind of small town Connecticut politics that absolutely makes your hair hurt.

During the Pol Pot regime, monks and the educated were executed en masse. Cambodian Buddhists sought asylum here and in other countries, bringing their unique flavor of that religion with them. Now their culture is fading away as the older generation dies off and the newer generation, with fewer places to practice their religion, assimilates.

The Cambodian Buddhist Society of Connecticut wants to erect a temple on ten acres in Newtown, a town best known for its massive flag pole. If this project goes through it will be one of the few reasons anyone would ever have to visit this picturesque but otherwise fairly undistinguished village.

But -- wouldn't you know it? -- according to the Hartford Courant article this morning, someone has a huge problem with this.

The Newtown Planning and Zoning Commission, in its unanimous decision in February 2003 denying the special permit application, stated in part: "Although the commission would welcome the Buddhist religion into the community, the planned and expected future level of activity proposed ... is too intense."
The concern is that the temple could attract up to 450 people on those very few days that the Cambodian Buddhists would hold religious festivals.

But wait, there's more! Here's the part that will absolutely set your hair on fire:
The commission initially gave six reasons for its denial of the permit application, including that the Asian architecture would have a negative impact on property values and was not in harmony with the area's traditional New England architecture.
Those of you familiar with the Connecticut countryside know how utterly ridiculous it is to think that an Asian temple miles away from the center of town will have any influence on the appearance of the town itself. In spite of commission's statement that it would welcome the Buddhist religion into the community, the sense of misdirection one gets from an appeal concerning architecture in a location where it will scarcely be seen hints that the opposite may be the case.

Keep in mind that the persecution of Tibetan Buddhists is loudly excoriated nationwide by celebrities of all stripes, not to mention legions of bumper stickers-and-T-shirts-buying consumers. The Dalai Lama would, no doubt, be allowed to put up an office building in any small Connecticut town. Why Cambodian Buddhists should garner any special exclusion is beyond reason.

Other New England towns such as Northampton, Massachusetts and Barnet, Vermont, have benefited by hosting Buddhists and Buddhist retreat centers. When people come to your town, they spend money. It's only a positive.

Unless of course you live in a truly special town like Newtown, with its traditional New England architecture, and its really big, fat flagpole. Legions of Buddhists hitting the streets three or four times a year would only serve to block everyone's view of the, uh... the big flagpole...

The Connecticut State Supreme Court is hearing arguments now but won't rule for weeks to come. Let's hope they have the good sense to overrule the Newtown Zoning and Planning Commission's ridiculously parochial attitude.

Here's a side note, for whatever it's worth: we live in a truly sick, demented culture.

At a time when the God of the Bible has been proclaimed, invoked and ostensibly served by more Americans and American leaders than ever before, one pole dancer's death has taken more TV news space than events in Washington and around the world that will greatly affect every single living American for decades to come.

It isn't that CNN and MSNBC and FOX are somehow weirdly out of touch with what Americans want. They're providing exactly what Americans want.

Buddhism will either help where our mainline religions have failed, or it will do about as badly in terms of helping people lead sensible lives in which they at least grudgingly accept things that contribute to the betterment of everyone, and that create a better world for future generations.

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Fine Art Treasures Gallery Owners:
Guilty of Bilking Millions from
Gullible Art Collectors

0 witty retorts

Check the signatures on those Picasso, Chagall and Dali prints you purchased through a satellite TV show called ''Fine Arts Treasures Gallery". Odds are they're fakes and you were snockered bigtime.

Then read this from a NYTimes.com article about a pair of scammers who very successfully reached their tongs into the overheated art market furnace and stole millions:

''The defendants in this case have admitted to profiting by preying on the vulnerabilities of producers and consumers of art through an elaborate criminal enterprise,'' said J. Stephen Tidwell, assistant director of the FBI in Los Angeles.

The government estimated the show defrauded more than 10,000 people who paid more than $20 million for bogus art. Investigators seized nearly $4 million when Eubanks and Sullivan were arrested during a raid in September.

Now ask yourself this, in all seriousness: could there possibly be that many signed Picasso, Chagall and Dali prints laying around, and at satellite TV prices?

When you're through crying, think about picking up some serious contemporary art.

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Jen Stark's Sculpture
Makes Me Re-Rethink

1 witty retorts

  • is kind of like sculpture
  • is kind of like painting
  • is really its own format -- could be called Starking
  • presents me with a new way of thinking visually

When I paint or make objects, this is the experience I'm after now.

Did you ever just get sick of the band format composed of a lead singer, lead guitar, bass guitar and drummer? What could anyone else possibly have to add to what's been done musically in that format? Is it that musicians are really that unimaginative, or is it simply a musical rut we're all in?

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Tom Waits: Chocolate Jesus

1 witty retorts

He sings through a bullhorn -- good idea. Stale alcoholic slum flavor, perhaps unfortunately fringed cutely by the banjo, an instrument I usually respect. In the background the sense of junk being moved around.

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Darwin's God, an article
in the New York Times Sunday Magazine

2 witty retorts

Robin Marantz Henig offers some basic schooling in current theory surrounding the evolution of religion in a fascinating New York Times Sunday Magazine article at NYTimes.com.

I've maintained a fairly simplistic view of this for some time: that groups bound by religion tend to cohere more tightly, to work at life tasks with greater conviction and to battle more ferociously and sacrificially than groups that don't, leading to their survival and the passing on of their traits.

While apparently there still might be some truth to this, the equation, at least in the theoretical work of Scott Atran, an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, is much more complex.

Atran suggests that our religious capacities evolved as the by-product of the evolution of our minds. He uses the word spandrel, which, in architecture, refers to an unintended space such as the wedge of air beneath a staircase that may or may not be turned into a closet.

The specific sense we might have of a spiritual world and supernatural intelligences, he suggests, came with the biological selection for three traits:

Hardships of early human life favored the evolution of certain cognitive tools, among them the ability to infer the presence of organisms that might do harm, to come up with causal narratives for natural events and to recognize that other people have minds of their own with their own beliefs, desires and intentions. Psychologists call these tools, respectively, agent detection, causal reasoning and theory of mind.
It's interesting to think that any one of these alone would probably not have been sufficient to generate the religious mindset, but that together they are quite effective. It's as if a number of dimensions need to be filled in to round out that experience.

I'm reminded again of the multiple locations within the brain that are responsible together for producing the singular experience we have of personal identity and agency, the ego.

Atran and Richard Dawkins, who gets a little space these days in many articles that objectify religion, turn their noses up rather quickly at my little idea of biological selection of groups. The individual, the article has them claiming, is really the pivotal agent in evolution. It's always my interests against yours, never my group's interests against your group's interests.

But it seems that David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at the State University of New York at Binghamton, is the one who brings some redemption to the idea.
Begin, he says, with an imaginary flock of birds. Some birds serve as sentries, scanning the horizon for predators and calling out warnings. Having a sentry is good for the group but bad for the sentry, which is doubly harmed: by keeping watch, the sentry has less time to gather food, and by issuing a warning call, it is more likely to be spotted by the predator. So in the Darwinian struggle, the birds most likely to pass on their genes are the nonsentries. How, then, could the sentry gene survive for more than a generation or two?

To explain how a self-sacrificing gene can persist, Wilson looks to the level of the group. If there are 10 sentries in one group and none in the other, 3 or 4 of the sentries might be sacrificed. But the flock with sentries will probably outlast the flock that has no early-warning system, so the other 6 or 7 sentries will survive to pass on the genes. In other words, if the whole-group advantage outweighs the cost to any individual bird of being a sentry, then the sentry gene will prevail.

There are costs to any individual of being religious: the time and resources spent on rituals, the psychic energy devoted to following certain injunctions, the pain of some initiation rites. But in terms of intergroup struggle, according to Wilson, the costs can be outweighed by the benefits of being in a cohesive group that out-competes the others.

In fact I've both observed and been observed by crows doing sentry duty, and it puzzles me that Wilson thinks in terms of a sentry gene as opposed to the evolution of a social capacity that includes a division of labor. Why should one crow ever be born to sentry? That seems off, and perhaps I misunderstood him. I'd always assumed that they simply took turns.

I've never met a crow that didn't have the capacity for viciousness or loudness. The sentries posted at one particular cornfield I visited in Watertown had left a few blue jays on the ground with their brains pecked out, almost as an example to any other interlopers. This also suggests that the sentries do in fact get a chance to eat while on duty, and that their diet is substantially higher in protein than that of the others who gleefully pack away corn.

I recall waiting for my wife in a car in a Dartmouth parking lot rotunda. I'd picked up a box of vanilla sandwich cookies -- this was back when I didn't have much sense, as also evidenced by the fact that I was not the one attending Dartmouth -- and was carelessly nibbling away at them and watching the crows dutifully browsing the lawn nearby.

Suddenly just for laughs I tossed half a cookie at one of the crows. He adroitly dodged my sugary flavor missile, then walked over to it, picked it up, walked a few more paces over and poked it into the grass. Then he picked up more grass and covered it over.

He did this as many times as I threw a cookie. There was probably half a box hidden in the grass by the time I left.

Once in Washington, Connecticut, I saw a white crow among a flock of blacks. At first I thought it was a seagull, but then it raised its beak and unleashed a savage caw. I can only imagine how its whiteness played into their very sophisticated social interactions.

This impulse to make objects, I'll wager, can be attributed to evolutionary leftovers and by-products. It's clearly a cluster of many faculties that come together to generate this need to work with materials, to create and/or to undergo an aesthetic experience again and again.

I'd attribute the art-making impulse to leftovers and by-products of evolution because I don't see a requirement for it in human society of our day or even of the past three hundred years. I know many people who live entire happy lives in worlds of artlessness, so far as contemporary fine art is concerned.

This needs to impact on the objects in some way, or at least that's the notion I've been working with for a few months now. The objects need to have their own format. It's been a real struggle.

Imagine an object that isn't a painting or a drawing or a sculpture or a book or a film or a play or a dance or any other format with which we are familiar, that also fulfills no useful purpose other than to breathe aesthetic experience.

What does it look like?

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Art Collectors: The Mystery Deepens

3 witty retorts

Hard on the heels of the New York City Art Fair Blitz comes an article at NYTimes.com by Eric Konigsberg in which he showcases the purchasing considerations of database tycoon Susan Hancock.

It's a moderately informative piece, assuming Ms. Hancock's art buying behavior is in any way typical.

For example, I've known for some time now that many collectors pay consultants of various stripes to advise them on purchases, although they might still be in it for the love of each piece they purchase.

What I hadn't realized is the power of the social aspect of art collecting: a life of frequent parties, dinners, auctions and events of all kinds. I tend to minimize the importance of these things, due in no small part to the fact that I'm basically just Rain Man with a studio. But Ms. Hancock seems to consider it a big part of the art collector life.

Incidentally it was good to read that she's staked out something of a position in Amy Sillman, an artist I've admired for some time now. Good call!

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Tennessee Williams' Dying Light

0 witty retorts

In an article in the UK's Telegraph Phillip Henscher gives us a preview of Tennessee Williams' Notebooks, as assembled, transcribed and annotated by Margaret Bradham.

It sounds from Henscher's article as if Williams comes off as a fairly self-centered individual. He seldom mentions other writers, and then only in a cursory fashion. When he travels he writes little about the exotic locales, although he might mention whether the air conditioning works.

In these several dozen notebooks which cover his career until just before things start to run dry in 1958, and then pick up again near his death in 1983, Williams' singular obsessive topic is himself, and in particular his personality. Henscher centers his article on one line which seems to characterize this publication:

"I'm such a coward, oh, such a damned snivelling coward. It does disgust me."
Henscher's article ends with this interesting and reflective bit:
As an explanation of how a talent gets thrown away, they are valuable; how that talent came to exist in the first place, they can't answer. I don't suppose Williams had the faintest idea, either.
I recall in the early '80's picking up a novel by Williams: Moise and the World of Reason, published in 1975. Although I can't at this point recite any facts about the plot or characters, I very vividly remember waiting page after page for the kind of power I'd found in Streetcar Named Desire and never finding anything even close. I never finished the book.

It's got to be tough to have struck so powerfully for a decade or two and then to founder for years and years afterward, never finding your place again. But I realize I could have things all wrong; perhaps Williams was very happy in the creative places he inhabited during the sixties and seventies. He continued working to some extent, apparently, in spite of the lack of success and acclaim of virtually everything he'd done after 1960. And that's not all bad.

Makes you wonder how it's all going to end, doesn't it?

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Mohair Aesthetic

0 witty retorts

They make these dog toy ropes out of dozens of randomly colored strands of junk string.

It makes me think of a mohair sweater I used to wear a decade or two ago. Seemed like many differently colored hairs woven into a black base. It seemed like it was knit from shredded recycled pieces.

Something else comes to mind, from when I was a kid. I was probably six years old.

I wore a dark windbreaker in the pre-nylon-windbreaker days, so it was probably cotton or poly. A hand-me-down from another family, probably a friend of my mom's.

The last kid had shredded the pockets from carrying around rocks and sharp-edged junk. Different colored strands squirted out of the shreds when you pulled the pockets inside-out, which I did frequently.

Strings of random colors against the faded charcoal skin.

I tried to pet somebody's Great Dane wearing this jacket, even after the owner warned me not to. It bit into my right sleeve and shook my arm like a dead rabbit. I felt its savage power leap up my arm and into my gut.

When it finally let go I jumped back, too overwhelmed even to cry. I ran across the street to my own back yard and leaned against the house. My arm buzzed with the viciousness of that encounter for what seemed like hours, but was probably ten minutes. All I could do was stare at my arm, transfixed by the splotches of dog spit and snot that marked the jacket sleeve.

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