30 June 2010

Elections in Exotic Places (2)

There were national elections this past week in both Burundi and Equatorial Guinea. Here are the requisite images of the current, slightly ominous, leaders of the respective countries, each accompanied by a retinue of security personnel, casting their ballots.

Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza (R) casts his
vote at a polling station in his hometown of Mumba,
in northern Burundi's Ngozi province (28 June 2010).
Photograph: AP.

General Konate, the transition president, votes on
Sunday in the capital, Conakry (27 June 2010).
Photograph: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images.

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Self-Defeating Economic Orthodoxy and Its Media Moutpieces

At the end of last week I posted on a guy called Neil Cavuto at FOX "News" who (as frequently seems to happen there) managed to first simultaneously hector a guest rudely and demonstrate a dim understanding of economics and then whine about the guest's reply. In that instance the guest was Ron Blackwell, chief economist at the AFL-CIO. Cavuto insulted Blackwell, questioning his qualifications in totally adolescent ways. Blackwell rightly got pissed and called Cavuto an "asshole." And, unsurprisingly enough, Cavuto still has Blackwell's 'outburst' posted prominently on his FOX page, complaining that Blackwell had been of so terribly rude. FOX also still has this clip of Blackwell running under the headline: AFL-CIO Wants to Drown Out 'Deficit Hysterics.'

So much for the background. Over the weekend, of course, the G20 leaders got together and managed to embrace the conservative point of view, namely that deficits are out of control and, at the risk of suppressing economic recovery, they are going to cut government spending. See the story here. Cavuto no doubt feels vindicated. But he might want to check the gloating. On Sunday Paul Krugman offered this assessment of the G20 decision:
We are now, I fear, in the early stages of a third depression. It will probably look more like the Long Depression than the much more severe Great Depression. But the cost — to the world economy and, above all, to the millions of lives blighted by the absence of jobs — will nonetheless be immense. And this third depression will be primarily a failure of policy. Around the world — most recently at last weekend’s deeply discouraging G-20 meeting — governments are obsessing about inflation when the real threat is deflation, preaching the need for belt-tightening when the real problem is inadequate spending. [. . .] you might have expected policy makers to realize that they haven’t yet done enough to promote recovery. But no: over the last few months there has been a stunning resurgence of hard-money and balanced-budget orthodoxy.

As far as rhetoric is concerned, the revival of the old-time religion is most evident in Europe, where officials seem to be getting their talking points from the collected speeches of Herbert Hoover, up to and including the claim that raising taxes and cutting spending will actually expand the economy, by improving business confidence. As a practical matter, however, America isn’t doing much better. The Fed seems aware of the deflationary risks — but what it proposes to do about these risks is, well, nothing. The Obama administration understands the dangers of premature fiscal austerity — but because Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress won’t authorize additional aid to state governments, that austerity is coming anyway, in the form of budget cuts at the state and local levels.

[. . .] Why the wrong turn in policy? [. . .] I don't think this is really about . . . any realistic appreciation of the tradeoffs between deficits and jobs. It is, instead, the victory of an orthodoxy that has little to do with rational analysis, whose main tenet is that imposing suffering on other people is how you show leadership in tough times.

And who will pay the price for this triumph of orthodoxy? The answer is, tens of millions of unemployed workers, many of whom will go jobless for years, and some of whom will never work again.

Given his lack of economic acuity, it seems to me that Neil Cavuto ought to be the one looking for a job. Yet, his fight with Ron Blackwell isn't about economic analysis, its about politics. That is what FOX "News" is mostly about - rationalizing policies that screw the poor, the working class and the otherwise vulnerable. So Cavuto will continue to shill for the sort of right wing policies that the FOX folks peddle. Listen, I think I just heard him shout "Hey Paul, where did you get that Nobel Prize?" I know what Krugman's reply should be.
P.S.: (Added 30 June 2010) This morning The New York Times is running this story on the resurgence of conservative orthodoxy. The author seems to find the move to cut deficits pretty dubious. He writes:
"The reasons for the new American austerity are subtler, but not shocking. Our economy remains in rough shape, by any measure. So it’s easy to confuse its condition (bad) with its direction (better) and to lose sight of how much worse it could be. The unyielding criticism from those who opposed stimulus from the get-go — laissez-faire economists, Congressional Republicans, German leaders — plays a role, too. They’re able to shout louder than the data.

Finally, the idea that the world’s rich countries need to cut spending and raise taxes has a lot of truth to it. The United States, Europe and Japan have all made promises they cannot afford. Eventually, something needs to change.

In an ideal world, countries would pair more short-term spending and tax cuts with long-term spending cuts and tax increases. But not a single big country has figured out, politically, how to do that."
Some remarks. First, the ability to shout effectively is pretty much reserved for the right these days. It perfectly describes the spectrum from FOX to "Tea Party" types. Second, no one thinks massive deficits are sustainable indefinitely: not Ron Blackwell, not Paul Krugman, not me. Everything rides on the word "eventually." And the right is simply willing to dump risk and hardship on the vulnerable. Finally, here is something the Times piece gets right. This is about politics. If you asked me how to best cut the U.S. deficit (or at least most, yes most, of the growth therein) I'd say (1) get the hell out of Iraq and Afghanistan and (2) start repealing the idiotic right wing tax policies that favor the rich. Tomorrow. No one on the right is willing to look at the real sources of our deficit woes. They are too busy shouting to drown out the data.

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29 June 2010

Elections in Exotic Places (1)

A while ago I promised a set of posts on the conventions that govern images in the Western press of elections in 'faraway places.' Here is the first installment. This week there have been elections in Burundi.

A voter goes to a voting booth to make her mark at a polling station in
Bujumbura, Burundi, as people prepare to vote in the presidential election
Monday, June 28, 2010. After all the opposition parties pulled out of the
race, the voters have only the choice between the ruling CNDD-FDD party
or declaring their votes invalid. Photograph © Marc Hofer/AP.

A voter at the Burundian presidential elections shows his inked finger to prove
he has cast his ballot, after voting at a polling station in the Burundian
capital of Bujumbura, Monday, June 28, 2010. After all the opposition
parties pulled out of the race, the voters have only the choice between the
ruling CNDD-FDD party or declaring their votes invalid. Despite many fears
that the voting will be disturbed by violence, the polling stations remain calm,
and attendance is not brisk.
Photograph © Marc Hofer/AP.

The folks at the Lens blog over at The New York Times included the top image among the "Pictures of the Day" (28 June 2010).

My plan is to simply start posting sets of images; once I get a 'critical mass' up, I will write something. For the moment, the images are food for thought.

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Museums as Money Laundering Institutions

"Art patronage has always been a kind of money-laundering,
a pretty public face for fortunes made in uglier ways."
~ Rebecca Solnit

There seems to be a dust up in London over the fact that the Tate Museum receives - and has for decades - large sums of money from British Petroleum. A longish list of art world denizens published this letter in The Guardian yesterday protesting the arrangement. The missive, and accompanying stories about protests at BP funding at Tate Britain and National Portrait Gallery, has promoted this robust retort supporting BP.

I am not sure how such things work in the UK, but here in the US companies get tax write-offs for charitable contributions. There may be PR benefits as well. (My view is that you ought to be able to either take the tax credit or have your name publicized, but not both.) And I have little doubt that 'not offending the sponsors' works its way, insidiously and unself-consciously into the minds of curators and artists.

The questions I have for the letter writers (whose complaints about corporate funding I largely endorse) is this: How do you differentiate clean from dirty when it comes to vast sums of wealth? Sure oil companies are an easy target. But where do you think all those wealthy patrons who buy your product (whether that be art, writing, labor, expertise, creativity, vision, or whatever) for galleries, magazines, catalogs, museums, concert halls, and so forth got their money? Do you think the funding that pays your rent is sanitized in some way?

On this matter I live in a glass house. I work at a University that gets funding and does business with all sorts of disreputable entities. All the Colleges and Universities where I studied keep similarly sketchy company. So, I am in the same boat. I think we need to dispense with the moralism. What precisely is the alternative you propose? Government funding for the arts? Some sort of list of 'socially responsible' patrons? (How, in constructing such a list, do we decide which sins are the most egregious?) The art world (and the intellectual world more generally) is, let's face it thoroughly infused with commercial and political pressures. What is the alternative you are proposing?
P.S.: I know that Solnit is among the signatories to the letter.

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Are Student Evaluations of College Faculty the Beginning of the End for Higher Education?

I teach at a smallish liberal arts College embedded in a largely vocational University. I say 'vocational' in the sense that a good many of the students are in undergrad and graduate programs leading to some professional degree (Business, Medicine, Music (performance), Education, Engineering, and so on). There is nothing wrong with any of those enterprises. Indeed, the various professional schools serve as a model in which there are some things one simply has to know in order to be deemed well trained or educated. Faculty know those things, students are on campus to learn them. By contrast, the entire curriculum in the College, by design, is driven by student choice. There are really very few substantive requirements. Worse, in my own department, it seems that most students can get a degree without ever really writing a paper more than ten pages long or so. By that I mean they face few demands either. All I have to do is mention a longer writing assignment - or one that requires independent research and thinking - and students drop the course in droves.

In that sense I have been impressed by this series of essays that Stanley Fish has written for The New York Times. In general, I think he is on the right track. Two things, at least*, are important to note, however.

First, it mostly is the conservative types, those who insist on a 'classical' curriculum, who also think there are right answers to every question, or who think that education consists in providing answers instead of priming students to ask and explore smart questions. There are, of course, right and wrong answers even in my field. I expect my students to know what John Stuart Mill or Hannah Arendt said about, say, freedom and why they said it. Beyond that, there is no reason to think that there is a single, unambiguous answer to the question as to whether either Mill or Arendt gets 'freedom' right or that their reasons for being preoccupied with freedom are cogent. The conservatives are simply out to lunch on that score. The whole point is that freedom (and other political concepts) are deeply contestable. The same is true in other domains and disciplines too. That hardly is a conclusion likely to attract support among conservatives.

Please note that I am not saying 'anything goes' - one surely can advance better and worse arguments (reasons) or more or less sound evidence for a given position. That said, at the end of the day, neither your reasons nor your evidence is likely to be decisive. Others will still disagree with you and, despite what you think, be reasonable in doing so.

Second, a good part of the problem is due to the fact that faculty often simply are not willing to defend some body of knowledge or some modes of inquiry as crucial to proper training or education. There is what we might call 'canon' aversion. This is driven in part by fear that students will find the resulting requirements too taxing or irrelevant or whatever. But it also is driven by unwillingness to take a stand, to make a judgment. Those most willing to take a stand often those who have least grasp of substantive material - we get consensus on 'methods' but not on the point of learning those techniques in the first place. And that is easier than having serious, contentious conversations about what students need to know and what faculty, therefore, need to teach.

I am not painting a particularly pretty picture. But it doesn't make sense to say that the dire trends in post-secondary education are all due to taking student evaluations seriously.** After all, if you don't want to rely on the judgment of students whose judgment do you plan to rely on?
* Another thing to wonder about is whether the education that Fish received in high school is an appropriate model for a college curriculum. I suspect that the answer to that question is complicated. Moreover, there is the problem that Fish neglects, namely that Colleges operate on a market. So even if something 'classical' and hence suitably demanding, is what Colleges ought to be selling, it might nonetheless fail on the market.
** As Fish seems to do: "And it all began with student evaluations, or, rather, with the mistake of taking them seriously. Since then, it’s been all downhill."

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27 June 2010

The Charlatan

OK, here is the key passage from this essay/interview in The Guardian yesterday about/with Slavoj Žižek:
"He opens a copy of Living in the End Times, and finds the contents page. 'I will tell you the truth now,' he says, pointing to the first chapter, then the second. 'Bullshit. Some more bullshit. Blah, blah, blah.'"
He, of course, is the master himself. I could not have said it better myself. Although, no doubt, I simply am failing to grasp his deep irony and intelligence. Maybe so.

I like to flatter myself that I am reasonably bright. And, over the years, I have worked through a lot of difficult philosophy and social science. I even understood quite a bit of it. In all honesty, though, having tried unsuccessfully on several occasions to read Žižek, I never understood a word the man said. It simply was not worth the effort. On his own say so I guess there is no reason to even waste time worrying about this latest missive.
P.S.: For those inclined to succumb and enlist in the Žižek fan club I recommend A review essay by Alan Johnson (no relation) in Dissent (Fall 2009) entitled "The Reckless Mind of Slavoj Žižek." It seems that, setting all the irony and self-parody aside, performance art can have dangerous - meaning authoritarian - political implications.

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26 June 2010

Passings ~ Fred Anderson (1929-2010)

Fred Anderson sits on the edge of the stage at the Velvet Lounge
before opening for the evening (February 2006)
~ Photograph © Jeff Robertson/AP.

Fred Anderson has died. You can read obituaries here and here and here and here. Anderson was a musician, entrepreneur, mentor and, by all accounts, a genuinely decent man. His passing is an immense loss to the jazz scene in Chicago especially, but very far beyond as well. I commented on a recent Anderson recording here just about this time last year.
Thanks for the heads up!

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25 June 2010

Yet Another Propagandist at FOX "News"

Since I don't often watch the American version of Pravda, I had no idea who Neil Cavuto is. So I went to the propagandist's own web page and lifted this (slightly modified) copy: it turns out that, over at FOX "News," Neil Cavuto "is Senior Vice President of Business News, while continuing to serve as anchor and managing editor" and where, additionally, "he is responsible for anchoring the daily, one-hour daytime financial program, Your World With Neil Cavuto, (4-5 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday)." Cavuto, I also learned, has been named "the best interviewer in broadcast business news" by The Journalist and Financial Reporter."

If this guy is an award-winning business journalist I really chose the wrong line of work. I watched this interview he did today with Ron Blackwell who is chief economist at the AFL-CIO. The topic was whether government programs had done anything to offset job losses in our current economic disaster. Blackwell was trying to explain that he thought the answer to that question is 'yes.' After blustering, interrupting, and (in the process) demonstrating that he is incapable of grasping basic economic concepts or mathematics, Cavuto asks Blackwell the following question: "Where did you get your degree? A baking school? Where are you cooking up these numbers?" Blackwell replied - while still on the air - in exactly the way one should in the face of an ignorant blow-hard, telling Cavuto: "You're a joker. You're an asshole." Just so.

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Michel Foucault (15 October 1926 – 25 June 1984)

Michel Foucault at home in Paris, France, 1978.
Photograph © Martine Franck.

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24 June 2010

Passings ~ Joe Deal (1947-2010)

Sanitary Landfill, Corona, California, 1984, from
Subdividing the Inland Basin. Photograph © Joe Deal.

Photographer Joe Deal - perhaps best known as contributor to “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” in the mid 1970s - has died. You can find an obituary from The New York Times here.


Best Shots (119) ~ Sally Soames

(146) Sally Soames ~ Harold Evans, Rupert Murdoch and
William Rees-Mogg, 1981 (23 June 2010).


21 June 2010

No Comment Needed

Photograph © Stephen Forbes.

Today I received an email from Stephen Forbes in Seattle, who attached this photograph. Whenever I see things like this I think - 'why can't I think of things like that!' Nothing revolutionary, just thought provoking. In any case, Stephen writes: "Hi Jim. ... I stumbled on this couple-of-years'-old negative last night, and realized there might be a story behind it that was up your alley ... To be clear, I took the photo -- I did not make the stencil or use it here. The sign is on an inconspicuous wall near a public park -- not visible from the street, but on a footpath into the park." A quick google search left me empty handed. (Thanks S.F.!)
P.S.: The image did remind me of this one (perhaps its premature converse?) which I just managed to track down in my very disorganized blog archive.


Self-Censorship and the Uses of Discomfort

From: Immediate Family. Photograph © Sally Mann.

In The Guardian today this a review by Sean O'Hagan of a newly opened retrospective of work by Sally Mann. (You can find an earlier notice here.) Here are two interesting passages. The first addresses an early series of images Mann calls Immediate Family.
"It featured black and white images of her three children, often naked or partially naked, as they played and posed in the woods, lakes and rivers around her home in rural Virginia.

The images, some of which are on show here in the 59-year-old American's first British retrospective, are by turns beautiful, disturbing and unashamedly sensual. Perhaps more problematically, all of them are, to one degree or another, staged. [. . .]

"Many of these pictures are intimate, some fictions and some fantastic," Mann said of the series, "but most are ordinary things that every mother has seen." Well, maybe, but not every mother has restaged and then rendered them in such a darkly beautiful and ambiguous ways. Intriguingly, none of the more outrightly provocative photographs have found their way into this show, which is an edited version of a bigger retrospective exhibition that has already toured Europe. Whether this is down to lack of space or fear of public – or tabloid – outcry is anyone's guess, but one could argue that something has been lost in this excised version of the series: the sense that Mann is walking a tightrope between reflecting childhood sexuality in all its lack of self-consciousness and staging it in often dramatic reconstructions. This, in effect, is where the true power of her art lies.
I will give O'Hagan the benefit of the doubt here and assume he is simply being ironic. Of course the reason the "more provocative" images in the series are not being displayed is that the gallery and/or photographer anticipated public complaints. So, instead of censorship we get anticipatory reaction. If I don't show you the provocative images I won't have to worry about being forced to remove them from the show. In other words, the censors have done their work effectively before the exhibition is even mounted.

Here is the second passage, this one a typically hand-wringing worry about what we have a "right" to show or to see.

The other, even more disturbing series on show here is entitled What Remains (2000–04), which approaches death and dying head on. Mann gained access to the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Centre, a place that would not seem out of place in one of Chuck Palahniuk's darkly humorous short stories. Here, bodies that have been donated to science are left outside in the woods so that the process of organic decomposition can be studied by forensic scientists.

Mann's close-up images of these rotting corpses are not for the faint of heart, but, again, the prints – made by an old-fashioned chemical method called the wet-plate collodion process – have a Victorian feel that is almost painterly. One does, though, feel like a voyeur when looking at images such as this. They raise the ethical question of whether a person's decision to donate their body to science gives scientists the right, at a later date, to grant Mann permission to photograph that – decomposing – body. (And whether the result should then be displayed as art. )

From there O'Hagan quickly turns to the safe subject of photographic technique. Apparently it would be OK for a crime novelist to describe rotting corpses. And it is OK for forensic scientists to study them. And it is OK for us to watch the various CSI programs on television. But Mann's images (stylized as they are) are somehow beyond the pale?

Perhaps, I am wrong, but is O'Hagan here hinting that we ought to self-censor more than we already do? It is difficult to tell since he lauds Mann for her creativity and courage and seems to esteem her work despite "all the uncomfortable issues it raises." Doesn't Mann's work stand as an indictment of censorship and self-censorship? Doesn't it suggest that what we need is to see what photographers show and then engage in critical argument about where the bounds of taste and morality are located? Then photography can contribute in useful ways to self- and social and political exploration and discovery.

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20 June 2010

What Do You Think Rich People Do?

Tony Hayward’s yacht, left, sailed in the J. P. Morgan
Asset Management Round the Island Race on Saturday.
Photograph © Chris Ison/Press Association, via Associated Press.

Last week BP CEO Tony Hayward sat before a Congressional Committee to endure a ritual humiliation exercise. After the Congressional Reps took their turns posturing, Hayward like many illustrious predecessors - think here of say, Bush cronies like Alberto Gonzalez and most recent nominees to the Federal Courts - basically took the fifth. He admitted nothing and plead ignorance of virtually everything. The event was a massive waste of everyone's time. I hate to be cynical, but the Congressmen (I do think they are all male) could have used their time more profitably by attending to some piece of pending legislation, or something. But Hayward did look like he was hedging and dissembling the whole time.

This weekend Mr. Hayward is on vacation, yachting with other really rich folks. The Guardian and The New York Times each devote front page column inches to his escapade - here and here. Oh, the outrage! Here, with oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from the BP well, the boss is off yachting! This is an insult to the residents of the gulf ... yada, yada, yada! Well, what do you think Mr. Hayward is going to do to stop the disaster this afternoon? After all, he knows nothing - as the Congressmen compelled him to admit. He is not an engineer. And would it be much worse if the oil industry were not blatantly ruining the environment? What if there were no disaster? What if there were simply the day to day ooze and filth of reliance on fossil fuels? Would it then be OK for this wealthy man and his buddies to be off spending huge sums on yachts and other play things? You will note too, that the race is sponsored by J.P. Morgan, that other corporate paragon. We'll let that one pass.

Come on people! This is what rich people do. They do frivolous things while other people work and while those other people bear the consequences of the follies and venality of the rich. Some of those consequences are productive, many are not. Today is no different than any other. If Mr. Hayward outrages you, you should be outraged every other weekend as well. This is not about his personal moral failings and insensitivity. It is about the systematic mal-distribution of wealth and privilege. Where is the outrage about that?

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17 June 2010

Best Shots (118) ~ Brian Griffin

(145) Brian Griffin ~ Farmer and Lamb, Höfn,
Iceland, 2007 (16 June 2010).


16 June 2010

Oh, the Outrage at BP!

I found this entry at Huff Post pretty unenlightening. Why should we be surprised that the Oil Companies put out virtually identical and consistently banal PR about their readiness for this or that emergency? After all, politicians put out virtually identical and consistently banal PR about their various plans and promises. I did find the visuals interesting - oil rigs taking the place of official government buildings (like, say, the U.S. Capitol or the White House or 10 Downing Street or Buckingham Palace or whatever). I also found it a stitch that all the petro companies apparently gave the phone number of a dead man - the same dead man! - as a contact on matters of emergency preparedness. I suppose that gives new meaning to the notion of keeping cool under pressure. Then again, I spent many years in Chicago where, notoriously, the dead have been known to vote.

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14 June 2010

Jeff's Birthday

Jeffrey would've been 18 years old today. There is really not much to say. I filled up the day with meetings and appointments. The distraction didn't really help. I miss Jeff every single day. On this day all I could think about - again and again - is how many of these 'special' occasions he never got to experience. Happy birthday Jeff.

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13 June 2010

Passings ~ Louise Bourgeois (1911~2010)

“The subject of pain is the business I am in . . . To give meaning and shape to frustration and suffering. . . . The existence of pain cannot be denied. I propose no remedies or excuses.” ~ Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois, 1982.
Photograph © The Estate of Robert Mapplethorpe.

Among the events I have managed to neglect of late was the death of artist Louise Bourgeois. In part that was because I have been very busy and in part it is because I am woefully out of touch with the history of art. But when I noticed my old friend Susan Bogle Finnegan, herself a talented and accomplished artist, calling her "extraordinary," I was pretty certain I'd missed the boat. ("Again!" Susan would no doubt note.) In any case, you can find a slide show of her work and an appreciation in The New York Times here and here; and yet another slide show and an obituary here and here at The Guardian, followed by this appreciation by Germaine Greer.

Here is a telling snippet from the appreciation Holland Cotter published in The Times:
"Ms. Bourgeois’s sculptures in wood, steel, stone and cast rubber, often organic in form and sexually explicit, emotionally aggressive yet witty, covered many stylistic bases. But from first to last they shared a set of repeated themes centered on the human body and its need for nurture and protection in a frightening world."
This strikes me as leading us to think about the politics of vulnerability and security. But, from what I can see, none of commentaries accept the invitation.

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12 June 2010

New Books ~ Solnit/Caron & Pollitt

My birthday was a couple of weeks ago. I won't divulge my age; we can simply say 'advancing.' In any case, today I accompanied Susan to a local pub to watch the opening match of the World Cup. I say "opening" in the most parochial possible sense - we went to watch England play the U.S., not South Africa versus Mexico. But the whole event is about parochial interests and identities after all, right?

My son Douglas drove cross town to meet us. After the match (let's just say Susan was rightly disappointed with the outcome) Doug took the opportunity to give me two books he'd bought me as birthday presents. Thanks buddy! The books are new and were written by two politically astute, terrifically smart, and talented women. If you stop by the blog much you won't be surprised that these made it onto my birthday list. Here are s a couple of teasers.


“The Bestiaries, or books of beasts, of almost a thousand years ago contained much that we no long believe. There is no stone in the heads of toads that neutralizes poison and there are no unicorns at all, so the ability of their horns to likewise undo poison is not particularly helpful either. Those old books were compendiums of known and imagined animals, of eagles and dragons and elephants, with lore about their powers, lives and meanings, often moral and religious meanings, They were also compendiums of sheer wonder, but the sense of wonder that emerges from scientific knowledge is at least as great, whether its about Belding’s ground squirrel of the Sierra Nevada that hibernates about eight months a year or the elephant seal that not only can hold its breath underwater for an hour but often does so for twenty minutes or more at a time while sleeping on the shore. Or the blue whale, whose heart is bigger than an American bison and beats about six times a minute, a tenth the speed of ours, or the hummingbird in flight, whose tiny heart beats a thousand times a minute.”*


From a Notebook
Katha Pollitt**

The final vanity, to think
you're not your life, that even today
as\t the last possible moment
you can walk away; as out of cheap hotel,
leaving ten dollars under the key on the bureau.
Why bother to lock the door? The fuzzy TV,
the footsole-colored bedspread,
the quart of milk souring on the windowsill,
you always new they had nothing to do with you
although you were used to them
and even grateful,
alone as you were, in a strange city.
* From: Rebecca Solnit & Mona Caron. A California Bestiary. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books, 2009, pages 5-6.
** From: Katha Pollitt. The Mind-Body Problem. New York: Random House, 2009, page 50 .

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Unearthing History ~ Black American Slave Children

According to this story from AP these documents recently were discovered at an estate sale in Charlotte, North Carolina. At top is a bill of sale, dated January 1854, for a slave ("a certain negro") named "John." At bottom is a picture, thought to have been made by Matthew Brady, of two young boys and thought to be of that same John and another slave boy. A collector from NYC paid $50K for the pair of artifacts.

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11 June 2010

Maybe Chuck Schumer Should Read the Israeli Press?

"The Palestinian people still don’t believe in the Jewish state, in a two-state solution. More do than before, but a majority still do not. Their fundamental view is, the Europeans treated the Jews badly and gave them our land — this is Palestinian thinking [...] They don’t believe in the Torah, in David [...] You have to force them to say Israel is here to stay. The boycott of Gaza to me has another purpose — obviously the first purpose is to prevent Hamas from getting weapons by which they will use to hurt Israel — but the second is actually to show the Palestinians that when there’s some moderation and cooperation, they can have an economic advancement. When there’s total war against Israel, which Hamas wages, they’re going to get nowhere. And to me, since the Palestinians in Gaza elected Hamas, while certainly there should be humanitarian aid and people not starving to death, to strangle them economically until they see that’s not the way to go, makes sense." ~ New York Senator Charles Schumer (June 2010).

"The vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians are willing to live alongside each other peacefully in separate states, according to an independent poll released on Wednesday. Results of the poll, commissioned by the grass-roots OneVoice Movement, indicate that 74 percent of Palestinians and 78 percent of Israelis are willing to accept a two-state solution." ~ Ha'artez (19 May 2010).

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Local Event: Rochester "Jazz" Festival

Today is the start up of the Rochester Jazz Festival and I feel obliged to mention it. I do so, though, with pretty systematic ambivalence. While the city is desperate for anything to liven up the dead streets and deader economy, I have a couple of serious complaints.

First, the organizers' definition of "jazz" is so indiscriminate as to be meaningless. This festival is a tool for attracting suburbanites into the city and making them feel comfortable. So, any music that might actually challenge popular tastes is off the agenda. Bland is the word. I couldn't find a single performance on the schedule that I'd want to drive into town to see. That, in fact, is part of the problem: you cannot remedy the problems of the city simply by getting people like me to drive in from the countryside. The festival model of urban revitalization seems to me to be a mistake, I have posted pretty often on the need to foster spaces of creativity rather than just spaces of performance as the scaffolding of a vital urban culture.

Second, by my casual count the festival reflects a typical pattern. Most of the black performers (who I'd bet are a distinct minority) are playing R&B or something. Most of the nominally jazz performers are white. It is much like checking out the jazz section at Barnes and Noble. Jazz is an overwhelmingly African-American art form (I'm not just counting numbers of performers; virtually every notable innovation in the tradition was produced by African Americans) but you'd surely not know it from the way it is peddled, whether in the stores or at events like this one. I am not just complaining about effacing history. This pattern denies the active careers of a large number of amazingly talented and creative musicians. This pattern cannot be an accident. Ask the organizers what is going on.

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10 June 2010

Best Shots (117) ~ Mark Power

(144) Mark Power ~ Crowds Mourning Pope John Paul II,
Warsaw 2005 (9 June 2010).


09 June 2010

Abramović redux

Not long ago I wrote a couple of posts prompted by a review by Arthur Danto of a piece that was a central part of a recent MOMA show re: performance artist Marina Abramović. As I mentioned in the earlier posts, I usually find Danto insightful and interesting. In this case, though, I was more than a little flummoxed. Danto now has published a brief follow up to his initial essay; you can find it here. What follows are some of the interesting bits:
"In 1964, Andy Warhol exhibited wooden facsimiles of shipping cartons. A work of art and a mere shipping carton can look exactly alike. What explains the difference? What is the difference between sitting down with someone in a performance and merely sitting down with someone? The work of art has meaning; it is about something. And it embodies that meaning.

Many people thought that Marina Abramovic’s act of sitting across from them was a case of the emperor’s new clothes. But for most who sat with her, the act was fraught with meaning. It was in a sense a sacrifice on the artist’s part, an ordeal, an immense favor conferred on those who sat with her.

[. . .]

Think of the title of Marina’s show, “The Artist is Present.” And what presence means. The sitters are honored to be in the presence of the artist. It is a ritual moment, and understood as such by their own ordeal of waiting. The woman who sat for the entire period (seven hours) tried to make the presence hers. The next day Marina was present but the woman who sought her presence was gone. Marina’s presence was a treasure that could only be conferred. These are some of the hermeneutical aspects that the artist understood, and sitters mainly acknowledged. Think of all the photographs that shows tears in their eyes! People will discuss this event for years. It was a moment of spiritual exchange. How many of those do we have in a life?

[. . .]

The spiritual wiring of the human soul remains to be diagrammed. That is what art is for."
So here is what I think the crux of the matter is for me. As Danto makes clear in these passages, and what I complained about earlier, this "sitting" was passive for the viewers - an "act" of homage, an experience of being orchestrated or choreographed for the artist's purposes. Abramović, on Danto's own view, is bestowing on viewers some sort of gift; she is doing them a "favor." I therefore don't quite get his claim that "The Artist is Present" exemplifies performance art insofar as that category or genre "has ignited in the public imagination the idea that one can do more than passively experience works of art." It seems to me to convey the reality that, for viewers, their "participation" is wholly ancillary. Moreover, insofar as Abramović entered into some sort of trance-like state during the performance she offered no recognition of viewers as agents. Would she even have noticed had the chair across from her were vacant? Conversely, how might sitting across from someone who is oblivious to your presence differ from viewing an inanimate object (painting, sculpture, photograph)? Perhaps that is the message Abramović sought to convey - that all art (at least in the industrial-gallery-museum complex) ultimately takes the form of such supplication on the part of viewers. I doubt it.

Perhaps I am way too jaundiced, but I simply don't buy Danto's claims (with respect to Abramović specifically, not art in general) about "spiritual" connections and so forth. Indeed, the real relevance of Warhol to all this - especially for the various repeat "performers" I pictured in the second of my earlier posts - lies in his overused remark about the fleeting and shallow nature of celebrity.
P.S.: The image I've lifted here shows the woman (seated to the left) to whom Danto refers in the passage I quote - she showed up, dressed like the artist, and sat for the bulk of an entire day of the show.

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08 June 2010

Shahidul Alam Crossfire

What is the last thing a person sees before being murdered by quasi-official death squads? That is among the matters Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam is trying to address in this series of images. You can read about his work here at The New York Times photography blog "Lens" and, more directly, here among Alam's own "musings."

Note that the images straddle the line between fact and fiction in that they allude to actual cases but do not simply document them. Even so, as The Times post makes clear, speaking out on this topic cannot be safe. You will note too that the exhibition of his images has passed and that it was in Dhaka. Perhaps this small increase in publicity, however belated, will help forestall risk for Alam.

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João Pina ~ Fleeting Occurances, Banality, Offical Terror

I stumbled across this post at The New York Times photography blog "Lens." It details ongoing work by Portuguese photographer João Pina (about whom I posted here before) in which he is retrieving the memory and consequences of coordinated state terror across Latin America in the 1970s. The images are extraordinary.

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Keep the "Change": The Bush/Cheney-Obama Torture Policy

As discussed here and here and here and here and here and here, the Bush/Cheney torture policy is rapidly being embraced by the Obama administration. It is not just that Obama has failed to close Guantanamo, although that is bad enough. He has continued to implement similar policies in Afghanistan. And he has refused, systematically, to fulfill the duties of his office (you know, the bits were he pledged to faithfully execute the laws and uphold the Constitution) by investigating the systematic program put in place by BushCo to engage in and rationalize torture.

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Passings ~ Brian Duffy (1933~2010)

Harold Wilson, Prime Minister, 1966 © Brian Duffy.

Photographer Brian Duffy has died. You can find the announcement and a story on Duffy from earlier this year in The Guardian here and here. There is an appreciation here at npr too.

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07 June 2010

Robert Bergman and "the democracy of universal vulnerability"

Untitled © Robert Bergman.

What could make a photographer happier than to have two high-profile critics arguing over her work in a high profile venue? Of course, the premise is that 'it doesn't matter what they say, so long as they are talking about you.' Have a look at this exchange between Andy Grundberg and David Levi Strauss occasioned by a review the former wrote for Aperture of a recent exhibition of work by Robert Bergman.* The exchange (which links to the original review) is located on the Aperture blog "Exposures." I doubt Bergman finds it edifying.

In his review Grundberg devotes many of his column inches to channeling Susan Sontag's moralism and directing it at Bergman. This is a critical approach that I wish Sontag had taken with her. Here is the gist of his criticism:

Nevertheless, there’s a temptation to dismiss Bergman’s pictures as latter-day Bowery Bum photography. Most of his ink-jet-produced, moderately sized prints show us the faces of people he encountered on the streets of major cities in the Midwest and eastern United States. They are posed portraits: the subjects gaze down or away into the distance, or else stare confrontationally at the camera. For the most par t, the people appear to be downtrodden or at least on the outs with conventional society; more than a few seem afflicted with a wasting disease. Unfortunately it is impossible to verify any of the questions a viewer might have about these people, since Bergman calls each image “Untitled” and provides it with only a date. No name, no location, no facts except those given by the lens—presumably Bergman wants his subjects to be open to whatever preconceptions and prejudices his viewers may project onto them. In the context of the gallery, though, this denial of extra pictorial detail seems less a social statement than an aesthetic position: we are forced back on Bergman’s compositions, his use of color, the consistency of his choices of framing, even his decision about which subjects to shoot.

[. . .]

Beyond this, though, it is really Bergman’s motives for choosing to photograph the people he does that remain the central question. Surely he can’t be concerned that these pictures in any way improve the lives of the people they portray, since we don’t know where or who they are. Perhaps the ambition is for our regard of the pain of others to make us more attuned to human suffering in general (come back, Susan Sontag, please), but this aim is attenuated by our prior experience of pictures in the same vein. We might expect anyone conversant with recent photographic practice to know this as an existing critical problem, which leaves us with a far less ennobled idea of what is afoot here: that Bergman is out to convince us that he is a great photographer.

Compare what Grundberg says here with the nearly identical complaints Sontag levels at Arbus in On Photography or Salgado in Regarding the Pain of Others. Pretty remarkable. Pretty banal. Moreover, in the current context this complaint is especially perplexing. Bergman hardly has been self-promoting, at least successfully so. Until recently (and he is in his mid-sixties) he has not sold his work or had gallery representation. This exhibition is, I believe, his first solo show at a prominent venue. As Levi Strauss points out, while his work is not "new," he has not been a denizen of the photo/art world.

Like Sontag, Grundberg seems to miss the point entirely. Maybe Bergman has, as he says, simply been trying to make great photographs. I recommend this interview in The Brooklyn Rail. That is different from trying "to convince us that he is a great photographer." Perhaps in his portraits Bergman is attempting to depict what, in a phrase he takes from a poet who was the mother of his late friend Danny Seymour, he terms "the democracy of universal vulnerability." Perhaps that is a naive view - we are not all equally vulnerable, after all. But still, we all are vulnerable. And it doesn't take much. What I am suggesting here is surely difficult to sort out. I grant that. But it seems likely to be considerably more useful than following Grundberg and Sontag's ghost down the path of moralism.
* You can find other reviews of the exhibition, which ran last fall, here at The Washington Post, here at npr, and here The Wall Street Journal.

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05 June 2010

New Magazine ~ Dide

Abu Moein Nasser Ibn Khosrow Ibn Hares Qobadiani Balkhi known
as Nasser Khosrow, 11th Century Poet and Philosopher. From: Where
the Heads of the Renowned Rest © Mohammad Ghazali.

Quite some time ago I wrote this post prompted by the work of a young Iranian photographer Mohammadreza Mirzaei. I like Mohammadreza's work quite a lot - it provokes thought. Well, I recently received an email from him telling me about a new monthly on-line photo magazine he and some colleagues have launched. The magazine, entitled Dide has now put out its third bi-lingual (Farsi/English) issue; each is dedicated to a single project by a single Iranian photographer. Thus far, Dide has featured work by Mohammad Ghazali, Zeinab Salarvand, and Mitra Tabrizian. I have to say that I like each of them in no small part because each contains a subtle thread of politics. Here is the editors' statement of intent:
According to the Persian vocabulary "Dide" means "eye", "glance", " being seen." But for us, Dide, is the name of an electronic monthly magazine published in both Farsi and English, and its main goal for the first year is to be able to emphasize notable works of Iranian photography. Each issue of Dide will focus on displaying one project, along with words and texts by photographers and critics. We are hopefully trying to depict the variety that identifies contemporary photography.
In any case, this is a project to keep an eye on (no pun intended) and to support however you are able.

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Photography & Philosophy

I have mentioned here several times before the portraitist Steve Pyke, among whose work you can find portraits of many famous contemporary philosophers. At his blog, lawyer & philosopher Brian Leiter has an interesting post, prompted by Pyke's work, on what philosophy is with lots of quotes and notes from the famous in the field.

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04 June 2010

The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment

I spent most the past week in Montreal at a conference and so have been lax about posting. Among the items that I have been meaning to mention here is this recent essay in the NYRB by Peter Beinart entitled "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment." The essay has gotten some positive comment elsewhere - such as this column by Eric Alterman at The Nation. And this week Beinart and Abraham Foxman engaged in this exchange on the initial essay, also at the NYRB.

This strikes me as an essential debate. It is hard to see how Israel can continue on its current course. And it is even more difficult to see how it might be diverted from that course without the constructive intervention and critical posture of the American Jewish community and of others here in the U.S. - among whom I count myself [1] - who, even as they support Israel, lament the increasingly, unjustifiably aggressive stance that the Israeli government and military have taken on multiple occasions.

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03 June 2010

Best Shots (116) ~ Giacomo Brunelli

(143) Giacomo Brunelli ~ Dog, Umbria, 2007 (2 June 2010).


01 June 2010

Local Event! ~ Hot Blues for the Homeless (2010)

Yet another iteration of this terrific undertaking, great musicians playing for a worthy purpose. Details here.

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