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I leave all the scarlet flowers
For the woman I love
And hiding my tears from her
I pick
The flower of forgetfulness

~Yamakawa Tomiko


I can barely contain myself. The purveyors of anti-market (read: anti-human) ideology are at it again. Tyler Green has a post gushing about the prospects of the Obama Administration’s cultural policymakers.

First of all, do these people ever stop to say: why in the world is government spending money on cultural policy? Culture occurs everywhere and is always changing. It is always passed down in new and different ways, generation to generation. No culture, or art, is inherently superior to any other. If these assumptions are true: then why is government involved with trying to change it? Why do we need President-Elect Obama to use taxpayer money to direct culture? If he does so on his own, as he has, fine — I love seeing his Mao/Stalin-inspired Socialist visage on every leftist student’s car window just like anyone else.

But to spend our money on doing it…? That is definitely not one of the President’s constitutional roles, nor should it be. It should be up to the people to decide. To do otherwise is indeed the hallmark of a Socialist or Communist government. Why do we need to control culture?!

Since I’m currently deluged with work, I thought I would offer up some pithy commentary on a few revelations seen in my Google Reader today:

  • The insane conflict between J.K. Rowling, her media partners, and the author / publisher of The Harry Potter Lexicon is over. I don’t know the cost to the author, who has withdrawn his appeal to pay monetary damages to Rowling and Warner Bros. as a result of using “substantially similar” material to the original, but it is probably hefty — and arrived at through settlement outside the courts. This is a better result than quashing the Lexicon altogether. In exchange for money and adding some more original commentary to the book, he will be able to publish his book in January. Consumers will be happy, but the precedent is still mixed: what level of transformation to the original is needed to not infringe? More abstractly, who is really protected when artists have the ability to prevent works like the Lexicon from being published? They certainly wouldn’t compete against each other, or usurp the other’s profits. If anything, one might think it would help Rowling. Pretty shocking.
  • Donn Zaretsky at The Art Law Blog gives excellent commentary on the furor regarding the National Academy Museum selling two art works in order to stay solvent. Incidentally, the Museum’s governing body voted overwhelmingly for the saleĀ  on condition that the work be displayed publicly. Rumors are that Walton’s Crystal Bridges museum in Arkansas is the buyer. ( You know this author is REALLY looking forward to Crystal Bridges. ) But as you might suspect, many in the art community are freaking out over what they see as a transfer from the public to the private domain and from irresponsibility on the Museum’s part. It will come as no surprise that one of the voices leading this ridiculous charge is Lee Rosenbaum, whose illogic and poor arguments were the subject of a recent bashing on this blog. Sadly, something that is going unnoticed, is that not-for-profits will often suffer from mismanagement due to a poor incentive structure to survive, grow, and produce efficiently.
  • Also from Art Law: this report about a California VARA case. Amongst other things, VARA creates certain so-called “moral rights” in artists. Contrary to a post I wrote before, these rights can be waived. A moral right is much more important than any other contractual right, so clearly you can never part with it. That would just… uh… wrong! In any event, one of the rights vested in artists is “the right of integrity” which allows artists to enjoin others from altering or destroying their work because I guess, even though an artist doesn’t own the work, artists have a right to see their work stand as the artist intended. I’ve just now realized that we may have Ayn Rand to blame in part for this moral rights mess in the US. Consider Howard Roark’s dynamiting of Cortland and some of his justifications for it. ( Some Randroids probably just wet their beds. Oh, except that I forgot they are relentless defenders of IP no matter how inane or harmful the protection. Anyway, I have not forgotten that there was a “breach of contract” involved. ) Apparently, in the California case, the artist is suing for damages from the city for painting over his mural, when it discovered graffiti on it, instead of spending money to restore it (i.e. instead of paying the artist a huge sum to restore it). Sigh.
  • Finally, more arrogance out of those funny fellas at The Economist outfit, which publishes the More Intelligent Life blog. It implies this week that intelligence is a function of “museum admissions, literary festivals, the broadcasting of opera to cinemas, the growth of classical music on the radio, and the quality of leading television series such as “The Wire”…” The author suggests that increasing education is a reason why. I would suggest that those connected with The Economist consider some stronger explanations. Perhaps with living standards rising, they have more money to spend on more frivolous items. In other words, this is probably a marginal utility issue. Of course, the things that the author lists make fine complements to increased education, but that, too, may be a lag from the ultimate root.

Although neither Time magazine nor photography generally go in the (+) column of my life, I recently had occasion to read an issue — due to the outstanding cover story regarding a real-life hero in Washington, D.C. — and found an interesting little interview with Annie Leibowitz.

The first question and answer struck me.

Why do you continue to do celebrity portraits when many of them have their photographs plastered all over?

I thought to myself: good question! As it turns out, even better answer (emphasis added):

I’ve never liked the word celebrity. I like to photograph people who are good at what they do. I think the real problem today is, the Internet has created the demand for so much more information that we need to almost drum up more celebrities. We’ve run out, and now what we’re doing is, we’re making them up.

Actually, I think this is pretty close to the truth. Our media do not propagate in a vacuuum: they propagate as a function of demand. And it’s more, much more than an issue of celebrity. It’s about information. It has few uses, but they become important in terms of the marginal utility for such information, not unlike the age-old paradox of value problem. Sure, a glass of water is more important to us in a desert. But how often am I stranded in a desert? I’ll take the diamond necklace in lieu of that water any day in society. Just so, I would probably be better off in a desert with knowledge of how to capture desert bugs to eat them. But the marginal utility of that information, compared to the marginal utility of information about Kim Kardashian (I can use it in conversation with my friends, can use examples, can appreciate the physical beauty, etc.), is simply lesser.

Let us also talk about the Internet. What’s going on isn’t that there are suddenly more people to know about, but the cost to learning and transmission of information has gone down so much. That means you can trade off other things you do for that information.

Finally, let us connect it even more to art. Art forms continue to spread out in media, and our contemporary art becomes ever more heinous compared to traditional, more structured forms. Without assessing the merits of structure in art and art forms, I think it suffices to say we can expect this trend to continue in far more disturbing ways in the future. The exact way in which these art forms arise, and worse, are appreciated, is unknown.

The annual book round-ups are being released by the media, and despite the death of the novel, there are still some interesting things to talk about. We start with the “Season’s readings” from The Guardian, compiled by Ginny Hooker. Several notable notables have chimed in to contribute their recommendations:

  • Gordon Brown recommends FDR: The First 100 Days — booooooooring. Cliche, once so prominent in politics, is on its way to the door. Obama thrived on the novelty, in the US, of Marxist imagery and London has Boris friggin Johnson (that’s a compliment) as its mayor (Johnson, by the way, recommend’s Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson). Brown would do well to start reading some Ayu Utami (my favorite Indonesian author) or Dewi Lestari. The liberal media would eat it up.
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recommends a book told from the perspective of a gecko called The Book of Chameleons. In a previous post, I suggested that, while the reports of the death of the novel had been greatly exaggerated, it was certainly losing its foothold at the top of the literary mountain. As such, expect more unconventional narratives like this to become the convention.
  • Tariq Ali mentions Napoleon’s Accursed War, saying “One of the great epics of the 19th century, properly recovered for the first time by Fraser in all its ambiguities and tragedies, along with its popular heroism, it’s continuously moving, without a trace of sentimentality.” Might be worth picking up.
  • William Boyd suggests that Nicolai Gogol’s Dead Souls is worth revisiting this year because a new translator, Donald Rayfield, alongside refurbished Chagall illustrations. The Garnett Press, run out of Queen Mary University of London, Rayfield’s HQ, asserts that “it will be as impossible to separate Chagall from Gogol as, say, Tenniel, from Lewis Carroll.” Doubtful. Recently, the Harn in Gainesville featured a Maggie Taylor reinterpretation of Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland alongside reproductions of Tenniel’s illustrations. The exhibit drew everyone, including me, in for close study.
  • Carmen Callil recommends So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald. This is going on my list.
  • Margaret Drabble offers up Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma, which also appears on the NYT list. Drabble writes that the book “is almost unremittingly tragic, and made me feel quite ill, but was well worth the effort – bravely published, bravely translated, a grim and important novel about a crisis in world history.” You could write that about any of a billion books (or even movies, if paraphrased) that have come out of China and frankly, I can’t take it anymore. I was so depressed after Li Yaotang / Ba Jin’s Cold Nights that I wanted to shoot someone. Still, Richard Holmes later recommends Xinran’s China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation which seems like it may be pretty good. Oral history isn’t just good, it is great, as a form of narrative wildly different from mere prose. And this is about one of the world’s most terrible tragedies, speaking in terms of opportunity cost — monetarily, to be sure, but even moreso otherwise.
  • Mick Imlah’s The Lost Leader, recommended by Alan Hollinghurst, is apparently a tour de force 61 poem compilation covering Scotland, its people, its history — everything. As reviewer Kate Kellaway writes, “In a sense, The Lost Leader is the wrong title for a book in which Imlah sees to it – brilliantly – that none of his subjects gets away.” So add this one to the list.
  • Hanif Kureishi recommends Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise. Ross writes a blog of the same name that had quite a few good posts before and during the book’s release, but has since become sadly dormant. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but nothing compares to dollar signs.
  • David Lodge, who write a most recommended book about the sometimes funny adventures of deafness, offers up Captivated: JM Barrie, the Du Mauriers and the Dark Side of Neverland. According to him, the book “is a somewhat speculative but mostly persuasive study that reveals new complexities in the web with which the sinister Barrie entrapped the tragic Du Maurier family.” Whoa.

More 2008 in Books next post from The New York Times.

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