June 21st, 2012
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Money & Music

We live in complicated times. Technology has put the whole history of recorded media at our fingertips. For more than a decade, fewer and fewer people have been paying for music and those that do use services, such as Spotify and iTunes, that have been shown to do very little in the way of providing substantial revenue to artists. The problem this creates - that artists are making increasingly less and in some cases effectively nothing from their work - is one that I (and I believe many others) struggle with morally and philosophically.

In a recent post for NPR’s All Songs Considered Blog, Emily White vocalized this struggle, admitting that while she longs to support the artists she loves, she has only ever paid for a handful of records in her life. Shortly after, David Lowery (front-man of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, as well as professor on the business of music at the University of Georgia), wrote an open response to White for the blog Trichordist, illuminating the dire straits many artists now find themselves in and boiling down the reality of getting music “for free.”

As you might expect, quite the debate has begun to rage across the web in the days since the exchange. Writing on the issue for Salon, Scott Timberg looks at both sides of the argument and illustrates just how important this conversation is to keeping the arts alive.

So who’s right? In the broad sense, they both are: White is describing the way music sharing works among her generation, one that came of age after the fetishism of cover art, liner notes and the physical qualities of records and CDs. (It would be interesting here to look at the generational makeup of the vinyl revival, which is driven in part by a longing for sound vastly warmer and more expansive than that on MP3s but also by the old-school ritual of a brick-and-mortar shop, an informed and/or forbidding clerk, and the tangibility of the physical object.) She comes across as wanting to do what’s right.

But Lowery’s argument – despite a few misspellings and the jumble of well-considered and rushed thoughts that the Web all but requires – is one of the most important meditations on the state of music in our time. He drops some crucial statistics here, among them that “Recorded music revenue is down 64 percent since 1999,” and that “The number of professional musicians has fallen 25 percent since 2000.” He refers indirectly to something equally important: The money being spent on music is not ending up in the hands of musicians, or even labels, or members of the creative class, from the record store clerk to a label president. It’s going to Apple – which could, thanks to iTunes, buy every surviving label with pocket change – and other technology companies.

Perhaps the most effective argument of Lowery’s is an extended metaphor about a lawless urban neighborhood – shades of the strange days during the L.A. riots — that never raised a police force.

So in this neighborhood people simply loot all the products from the shelves of the record store. People know it’s wrong, but they do it because they know they will rarely be punished for doing so. What the commercial Free Culture movement (see the “hybrid economy”) is saying is that instead of putting a police force in this neighborhood we should simply change our values and morality to accept this behavior. We should change our morality and ethics to accept looting because it is simply possible to get away with it.  And nothing says freedom like getting away with it, right?

But it’s worse than that. It turns out that Verizon, AT&T, Charter etc etc are charging a toll to get into this neighborhood to get the free stuff. Further, companies like Google are selling maps (search results) that tell you where the stuff is that you want to loot … Further, in order to loot you need to have a $1,000 dollar laptop, a $500 dollar iPhone or $400 Samsumg (sic) tablet. It turns out the supposedly “free” stuff really isn’t free. In fact it’s an expensive way to get ‘free’ music… And none of that money goes to the artists!

Read the full article here.
Read Emily White’s piece for NPR here.
Read David Lowery’s response here. 

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June 8th, 2012
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The Ecstasy Of Influence

For Harper’s Jonathan Lethem argues that all artists plagiarize, and advocates for a new understanding of artistic ownership and appropriation. 

In a courtroom scene from The Simpsons that has since entered into the television canon, an argument over the ownership of the animated characters Itchy and Scratchy rapidly escalates into an existential debate on the very nature of cartoons. “Animation is built on plagiarism!” declares the show’s hot-tempered cartoon-producer-within-a-cartoon, Roger Meyers Jr. “You take away our right to steal ideas, where are they going to come from?” If nostalgic cartoonists had never borrowed from Fritz the Cat, there would be no Ren & Stimpy Show; without the Rankin/Bass and Charlie Brown Christmas specials, there would be no South Park; and without The Flintstones—more or less The Honeymooners in cartoon loincloths—The Simpsons would cease to exist. If those don’t strike you as essential losses, then consider the remarkable series of “plagiarisms” that links Ovid’s “Pyramus and Thisbe” with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, or Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra, copied nearly verbatim from Plutarch’s life of Mark Antony and also later nicked by T. S. Eliot for The Waste Land. If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism.

Read the whole article here.

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May 23rd, 2012
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BAD ART
Writing for ARTnews, Richard B. Woodward looks at the popularity of “bad” art and the complicated, contradictory notion of taste.

Cattelan, like Hirst, has hit on a formula that forecloses on the possibility of an audience’s feeling insulted. Only a tiny number of Catholics took umbrage at La Nona Ora, Cattelan’s 1999 sculpture of Pope John Paul II struck by a meteor, and even they weren’t sure why they should be offended. When the piece sold at auction in 2004 for $3 million, Cattelan’s act of smirking impiety was confirmed as a high-priced collectible. As Peter Schjeldahl wrote in the New Yorker, Cattelan’s career “reveals, or even fortifies, the fact that self-parody has become the life-support system of international art infrastructures. Make people feel smart, and they will put up with anything. The mindset cannot be outflanked or overturned, because it routinely performs those operations on itself.
Bad taste often passes for avant-garde taste these days—so long as the artist signals “transgressive” intent. And whereas kitsch in art was once to be assiduously disdained, art that traffics in sentimentality and bathos behind a dancing veil of ironic laughter has become highly prized. Jeff Koons, John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, Richard Prince, and Takashi Murakami are just a few of those who have learned that coy subversion can be popular and lucrative. As long as everyone is in on the joke that the art is satirizing its own historical codes of representation, there is nothing to be upset about.

Read the full article here.
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BAD ART

Writing for ARTnews, Richard B. Woodward looks at the popularity of “bad” art and the complicated, contradictory notion of taste.

Cattelan, like Hirst, has hit on a formula that forecloses on the possibility of an audience’s feeling insulted. Only a tiny number of Catholics took umbrage at La Nona Ora, Cattelan’s 1999 sculpture of Pope John Paul II struck by a meteor, and even they weren’t sure why they should be offended. When the piece sold at auction in 2004 for $3 million, Cattelan’s act of smirking impiety was confirmed as a high-priced collectible. As Peter Schjeldahl wrote in the New Yorker, Cattelan’s career “reveals, or even fortifies, the fact that self-parody has become the life-support system of international art infrastructures. Make people feel smart, and they will put up with anything. The mindset cannot be outflanked or overturned, because it routinely performs those operations on itself.

Bad taste often passes for avant-garde taste these days—so long as the artist signals “transgressive” intent. And whereas kitsch in art was once to be assiduously disdained, art that traffics in sentimentality and bathos behind a dancing veil of ironic laughter has become highly prized. Jeff Koons, John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, Richard Prince, and Takashi Murakami are just a few of those who have learned that coy subversion can be popular and lucrative. As long as everyone is in on the joke that the art is satirizing its own historical codes of representation, there is nothing to be upset about.

Read the full article here.

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April 13th, 2012
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What’s Become of the Philosophical Novel?
Author Jennie Erdal writes for the Financial Times on the importance of philosophy to fiction as well as the contemporary relationship between the novel and philosophical thought.

[The philosophical novel] is an established genre, and along with its close cousin, the novel of ideas, occupies a unique position in the literary canon. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy describes it as “that subspecies of fiction which endeavours to present a particular philosophical viewpoint, sometimes metaphysical, sometimes ethical, sometimes aesthetic”. In 19th-century Russia the novel was often a kind of thought experiment, showing a character trying to live an abstract idea, which over the course of the narrative proves to be no match for the rigours of real life.
Today things seem less clear cut. What is the modern equivalent of the philosophical novel? How, if we happened upon one, might we recognise it? Assuming it is not enough for there to be a passing reference to Wittgenstein or Kant, or for pages to be sprinkled with words like “epistemological” and “ontological”, what does it look like?

Read the full article here.

What’s Become of the Philosophical Novel?

Author Jennie Erdal writes for the Financial Times on the importance of philosophy to fiction as well as the contemporary relationship between the novel and philosophical thought.

[The philosophical novel] is an established genre, and along with its close cousin, the novel of ideas, occupies a unique position in the literary canon. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy describes it as “that subspecies of fiction which endeavours to present a particular philosophical viewpoint, sometimes metaphysical, sometimes ethical, sometimes aesthetic”. In 19th-century Russia the novel was often a kind of thought experiment, showing a character trying to live an abstract idea, which over the course of the narrative proves to be no match for the rigours of real life.

Today things seem less clear cut. What is the modern equivalent of the philosophical novel? How, if we happened upon one, might we recognise it? Assuming it is not enough for there to be a passing reference to Wittgenstein or Kant, or for pages to be sprinkled with words like “epistemological” and “ontological”, what does it look like?

Read the full article here.

March 26th, 2012
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Inside Sotheby’s

Alice Gregory writes for n+1 about her time working for Sotheby’s and the unusual world of art auction houses.

The auctioneer introduces himself and the sale, and with surprisingly little ceremony the auction commences. The bidding begins below the reserve and jumps past it in predetermined increments, toward the low estimate and, with luck, beyond the high. There is a certain amount of artifice to the performance, since the auctioneer has a rough idea, based on presale requests for viewings and condition reports, of who will be bidding on what. Sotheby’s specialists, from New York but also from offices in Europe and Asia, sit on each side of the auctioneer in frantic rows. They take bids over the phone—often international and anonymous. In-house bidders do not wave their paper paddles; they raise a finger, so subtly it seems destined to go unseen by the auctioneer, who is in fact invisibly alert to the memorized faces of potential bidders. When a final bid is set and the gavel pounded, a digital screen is updated at the front of the room in six currencies. A display case worthy of Ian Fleming rotates; the first lot disappears behind the wood paneling and the next lot is revealed. During the competition for particularly anticipated works, the room takes on the tenor of a ninth inning. When it’s all over, everyone leaves more quickly than you would expect. 

Read the full article here.

March 21st, 2012
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The Nature of Museums

For The New Criterion, James Panero considers the virtuous origins of American museums and the changing face of our cultural institutions in the wake of an ever more corporatized world.

In countless cases, the concern is that museum professionals have come to regard their founding generations with suspicion rather than reverence. They question the legacy of these industrialists and “robber barons.” They suppress the American idiosyncrasies of their institutions to appeal to international ideals. They undercut the signs of private philanthropy in order to seek out greater state control. They advance a new populist rhetoric that trumpets appeal and “access” over beauty and virtue. They attack their own “imposing” facilities and “elite” permanent collections. They undermine the art and architecture their supporters had given to the public trust. All along they sell their own expanding ranks and bureaucratic sensibilities to a complicit donor base as a way to counter, conceal, update, and “reinterpret” the influence of their museums’ dubious histories.

Read the full article here.

March 12th, 2012
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Moving Without Merce

Merce Cunningham was a giant of modern dance, pioneering radical techniques and philosophies that challenged both his audiences and performers. By the time of his death in 2009, a plan unlike any other in the dance world had been created by the administration and approved by Cunningham himself - a plan that laid the groundwork for the preservation of his choreography and for a finite end to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company . For The Nation, Marina Harss examines that precise plan, attends the company’s final performance, and looks back at a career that irrevocably changed the art of dance.

Despite Cunningham’s larger-than-life reputation, his work is far less mainstream than one might imagine. The first challenge for dancers and audiences is the lack of connection between music and dance, except in the earliest works. Cunningham and John Cage, partners in life and art, established early the precept that the music and steps would coexist in time but proceed independently of each other. One is used to seeing bodies moving to music—to most of us, music is the reason for moving—but Cunningham and Cage maintained that this was not necessarily true. Dance has its own rhythms, its own internal music. Thus, the dances are created and rehearsed in silence, which can at times be challenging even to seasoned Cunningham dancers. Because the music and steps are created separately, the tempos and dynamics of the two do not coincide—one might see devilishly fast footwork while hearing slow, quiet music, or the opposite, a long, drawn-out phrase set to fast, percussive sounds or, worse yet, movements of the feet, arms or torso that are just slightly out of sync with the music. This last scenario can tempt a dancer to follow the rhythm of the music, a temptation that is difficult to resist. The dancers hear the music only during performance. For a non-Cunningham dancer, this can be downright bewildering. During a demonstration and discussion at the Guggenheim last year, a highly skilled young dancer from American Ballet Theatre performed a short Cunningham duet, and was then asked what it was like to hear the music for the first time. “Distracting,” she said, with a shy laugh.

Read the full article here.

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February 22nd, 2012
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Ostensibly A Motherwell

In recent months, the art world has been rocked by a forgery and fraud scandal involving millions of dollars, some of the 20th century’s most prominent artists, and one of the (formerly) most prestigious galleries in the world. For the New York Times, Patricia Cohen outlines what’s known about the scandal and, perhaps more notably, what isn’t.

Few cases in recent years have roiled the art market as much as this mystery of how an obscure art merchant could have discovered an astonishing number of unknown treasures by the titans of Abstract Expressionism. Each explanation carries its own burden of implausibility.

If they are real, why do some contain pigments that had not been invented at the listed time of their creation?

If they are fakes, who are these preternaturally talented forgers who have been able to confound experts?

And if they are real but stolen, why haven’t their owners come forward to claim them now that the story is public?

Read the full article here.

January 9th, 2012
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Crueler Than Violence, Certain As Moonlight

Stephen Burt writes for The Nation on four new books of poetry that seek to observe the unique emotions of the contemporary world and the intersection of our interior lives with the systems that surround us.

It’s tempting, sometimes irresistible, to divide poets into movements and schools, to slot any poem that seems mildly memorable into the category New Whatever and argue that it represents our time. You can do that with these four poets if you come at them from a certain angle, an angle that they sometimes recommend; you can do the same with other contemporary poets—Claudia Rankine, Mark Nowak, Craig Santos Perez and especially C.D. Wright—who have won praise for quotation-filled, reportorial, essaylike forms. (The poet and critic Joseph Harrington has done just that in the online magazine Jacket2, announcing the age of the docu-poem, of what he prefers to call “creative nonpoetry,” whose arguments, facts and incorporated quotations—Perez, Nowak and Ossip stand among his examples—break out of any and all generic frames.) You can also find earlier precedents for these kinds of forms, too, from Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1925–69) to Muriel Rukeyser’s now undeniably influentialU.S. 1 (1938); you can find poems made largely or wholly of source texts erased or altered in search of sublimity, like Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os (1977), fashioned from Paradise Lost. Yet these new poems, from Wright’s to Ossip’s—unlike those older ones—function as essays, medium-length attempts at understanding some things without explaining everything: they do not pretend to predict the whole course of our history, nor do they tell us what we should do.

Instead they are partial takes—neither songlike nor epic—on systems more complicated and fragile, and less amenable to human governance, than previous generations of writers believed. Avowedly partial, attentive to the self and to something outside the self, the essay form—or the ghost of it, or the fragments of it—makes a bracing contrast both with the lyric compression these poets refuse, and with the giant systems they critique.

Read the full article here.

January 4th, 2012
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Letters Between Giants

Writing for the New York Review of Books, Christopher Benfey reviews the wealth of correspondence between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz and their long, varied relationship.
One might have thought that Stieglitz, with his cosmopolitan education and wide reading, would have produced more absorbing letters, but the reader is confronted on almost every page with his abstract pomposity. “I wondered what kind of a child you’d bear the world some day!” he writes O’Keeffe, “—The Glory of Dawn & the Glory of the Night—& the Glory of the Noon Sun—all combined—within that Womb of Yours.” He complains incessantly about the lousy commercial paper he’s forced to work with and the mediocre film. Laments about his declining health, his aging, and his inadequate medications are eased by momentary sexual distraction. A reader of D.H. Lawrence, he affectionately refers to O’Keeffe’s vagina as Lady Fluffy.
O’Keeffe’s letters, by contrast, are alert to the physical world, to the power of words, and to punctuation. Pages of manuscript reproduced in these books reveal that her dashes, like Emily Dickinson’s, assume all sorts of shapes, from squiggles to playful curlicues to abrupt downward slopes. These expressive dashes recall her charcoal drawings. Often, a passage in the letters will strike one as having a visual analogy to her paintings. She describes, for example, the experience of holding a piece of ritual jade in her hand during a visit to the Asian collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1922. Here we can see her instinctual resistance to interpretation yielding to what she feels is an appropriate chain of associations prompted by a suggestive object:
I handled pieces of Jade—They told me it was Jade—I would not have thought what it might be—I only knew that the surfaces were fine and smooth and cold…the pleasure in the thing its self is some what dulled when you begin to wonder how that particular shape can symbolize the earth and that idea seems to take away from the pleasure one feels—just in the thing its self—So—looking up—a row of round shapes catches ones eye—round—flat—and a round hole in the center—the circle serves to fascinate—you take it in your hand…you are told that these symbolize heaven—that idea does not disturb—for the sun seems round—if you have ever stood on the prairie at night—alone and put your head way back till you look straight up so that you half way see all the horizon at once—a circle unbroken by trees or hills or houses—the heavens seem a marvelously round trembling living thing—you would like to go deep into the colors of these round shapes and be lost….

Read the full article here.

Letters Between Giants

Writing for the New York Review of Books, Christopher Benfey reviews the wealth of correspondence between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz and their long, varied relationship.

One might have thought that Stieglitz, with his cosmopolitan education and wide reading, would have produced more absorbing letters, but the reader is confronted on almost every page with his abstract pomposity. “I wondered what kind of a child you’d bear the world some day!” he writes O’Keeffe, “—The Glory of Dawn & the Glory of the Night—& the Glory of the Noon Sun—all combined—within that Womb of Yours.” He complains incessantly about the lousy commercial paper he’s forced to work with and the mediocre film. Laments about his declining health, his aging, and his inadequate medications are eased by momentary sexual distraction. A reader of D.H. Lawrence, he affectionately refers to O’Keeffe’s vagina as Lady Fluffy.

O’Keeffe’s letters, by contrast, are alert to the physical world, to the power of words, and to punctuation. Pages of manuscript reproduced in these books reveal that her dashes, like Emily Dickinson’s, assume all sorts of shapes, from squiggles to playful curlicues to abrupt downward slopes. These expressive dashes recall her charcoal drawings. Often, a passage in the letters will strike one as having a visual analogy to her paintings. She describes, for example, the experience of holding a piece of ritual jade in her hand during a visit to the Asian collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1922. Here we can see her instinctual resistance to interpretation yielding to what she feels is an appropriate chain of associations prompted by a suggestive object:

I handled pieces of Jade—They told me it was Jade—I would not have thought what it might be—I only knew that the surfaces were fine and smooth and cold…the pleasure in the thing its self is some what dulled when you begin to wonder how that particular shape can symbolize the earth and that idea seems to take away from the pleasure one feels—just in the thing its self—So—looking up—a row of round shapes catches ones eye—round—flat—and a round hole in the center—the circle serves to fascinate—you take it in your hand…you are told that these symbolize heaven—that idea does not disturb—for the sun seems round—if you have ever stood on the prairie at night—alone and put your head way back till you look straight up so that you half way see all the horizon at once—a circle unbroken by trees or hills or houses—the heavens seem a marvelously round trembling living thing—you would like to go deep into the colors of these round shapes and be lost….

Read the full article here.

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