Saturday, August 4, 2012

Beauty and the sublime

I was talking about the art market a week or two ago, and what it says about our wider desires and purposes. I happened to read Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in Twentieth-Century Art in the last few days. The author is Wendy Steiner, who teaches English at U Penn and sits on some prominent prize award boards.

The book is a daringly ferocious criticism of modernism, and with it much of the "wasteland" of twentieth-century aesthetics and art. She argues modernism shunned beauty for a century, in favor of an aesthetics based on the Kantian sublime.

In modernism, the perennial rewards of aesthetic experience - pleasure, insight, empathy- were largely withheld, and its generous aim, beauty, was abandoned (page xv)

Kant thought of the sublime as an experience of limitless, of awe, of power.

Kant and Burke bequeathed to the West a taste for the sublime, an aesthetic experience in which beauty is a confrontation with the unknowable, the limitless, the superhuman. (5)

The sublime is pure and separate from personal interest, in a way the beautiful is not. Judgement of beauty is disinterested, impartial, autonomous and hence an exercise of freedom.

The main symbol of beauty had been the female subject, certainly in the nineteenth century, she says. The avant-garde did away with this.

Indeed, the history of twentieth century elite art is in many respects a history of resistance to the female subject as a symbol of beauty. (xix)

Mary Shelley was one of the first to question this, in Frankenstein. The creator sees his family killed and ends up wandering on the Arctic ice.

Mary Shelley thus pointed out the irony of the sublime: that in providing supposedly the most human of mental states, freedom, it utterly disregards love and family and pleasure, which have at least as much claim as freedom to define the "human". 9p13)

Steiner quotes Barnett Newman, who explicitly said in 1948 "The impulse of modern art is the desire to destroy beauty." (p111)

Instead, the beautiful was dismissed as the merely charming. Abstract form became more important than concrete reality, or the bourgeois notions of harmony, comfort, order or happiness. And there was a condescending interest in the "Other."

From expatriatism to the Jazz Age and the Surrealist's fascination with the "Imp of the Perverse' and the Marquis de Sade, modernists sought out the thrilling "other" to eperience the allure and charm they had eliminated from their art. (p49).

In practice, Kantian abstraction and sadistic interest went together.

The Outsider is the latest incarnation of the trouble with beauty in twentieth-century art, a replacement for the female subject and the process of intersubjective discovery she entails. In its fetishism modernism focused on various figures: the tribesman, the simpleton, the madman, the racial or social outcast. The avant-garde artist used the foreigness of the Other to perpetuate its sublime alienation. The self could be sought but never recognized in the Other, who is available for appropriation but never mutuality, empathy, respect. (p189)

It also entailed the rejection of "ornament".

Ornament belongs to the realm of play rarher than work, and its dominance implies the upset of the practical, pragmatic world. It threatens the notion of universal truth and value, being most subject to obsolescence. The dominance of an ornamental aesthetic would imply the suppression or outright dismissal of atemporal and ahistorical claims for art. Art would be understood as contextual, unabashedly adverstising its disdain for eternity.(p61)

Much followed from this - a rejection of the domestic sphere, for example, with its striving for charm and pleasure and harmony, and filled with feminine respectability and ornament. Constant impersonal and formal innovation was preferred.

There was a rejection of connection.

The avant-garde sensibility called for a deliberate estrangement of the artist from his subject. (p153)

In romance, the point is not to plunge oneself into strangeness and alterity forever, but to experience an Other so as to come home to a new self. Modernism, wedded to the heartless sublime, blocks any such accommodation. To the avant-garde sensibility, the achievement of a satisfying self-realization with an Other is a compromise, a retreat from transcendence. (p151-152).

Beauty, she says, is finally making a comeback since the late 1990s. Arid abstraction has run its course, but much of the arts establishment is still steeped in modernist thinking.

It is the task of contemporary art and criticism to imagine beauty as an experience of empathy and equality.(p xxv)

She develops her argument with a myriad of examples ranging from Bonnard to Basquiat, from Matisse to Rothko, from Don DiLillo to Phillip Roth. It's quite fascinating, even just as a display of intellectual fireworks. It is also one persuasive way to talk about art history - although for a subject as complicated and diverse as modernism, I suspect there is no entirely satisfactory explanation. And of course there could be any number of counterexamples.
I'd have to go back to the original thinking in Kant, and even before, to be convinced. I wonder if the sublime can be traced back before Kant and Burke - and I am not sure. I also wonder whether particular kinds of people are attracted to the sublime, and always have been. The answer is probably that before the eighteenth century and the enlightenment, these feelings were primarily expressed as a religious impulse. And so modernism is a deeper stream resurfacing, a strange civic religious mixture of austerity, puritanism and antinomianism.

The question is is Steiner's story an illuminating way to look at twentieth century art. I would have to say absolutely, although it cannot be the only one.

It also makes me think about the deep concerns about the aestheticization of politics that I mentioned regarding the Olympic opening ceremony. These apparently remote aesthetic deliberations can have vast consequences if, in Neronian style, leadership or government is confused with art. I've talked a lot on this blog about the need for more of an emphasis on purpose and on what people actually want out of daily life. In some ways that is a more connected, domestic kind of vision than some grand universalistic new order. It is much more friendly to beauty than the daring heights and terrifying abysses of the sublime.

Beauty also has a fundamental role in any conception of the good life.

Perhaps some people will never be attracted to a more attainable form of happiness - or, indeed, even happiness itself. We saw in Sarah Ahmed's book the Promise of Happiness a preference for the heroic political struggle for the "mayhap" over any conventional happiness, for example.

Aesthetics will affect the ends that people choose for themselves, and the ends that they even see. It rolls together ideas about connectedness, relations with others, autonomy and freedom, beauty and harmony and order which can be all the more insidiously powerful because they are not explicit - but just presented as matters of taste, of "comme il faut". One is seen as a rube for even questioning the implied ethics. Indeed, this is what class largely is these days, a set of unspoken norms and mannerisms and correct attitudes.

Taste is perhaps the least and most political thing of all.



Friday, August 3, 2012

Time Warner Cable loses 169,000 customers

Heh. We're pleased to be one of them.


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Hedge fund pain

This is a sign of the times in the macro world. Louis Bacon is nonplussed and returning some cash to investors.


LONDON -- A hedge fund titan has decided to return a large sum of money to investors, a revealing illustration of how dried-up markets, vicious volatility and a paralysis of ideas all borne of the crisis in Europe have been particularly hard on the traders who swing for the fences on currencies, stocks and bonds all over the world.

Louis M. Bacon, who together with Paul Tudor Jones and George Soros has come to define this style of high-stakes macro investing for more than 20 years, said in a letter to his investors on Wednesday that he would be giving back $2 billion, about one quarter of the size his benchmark Moore Global Investment fund.

He cited 18 months of what he called "disappointing" investment returns -- and a particularly tough second quarter this year when his main fund was down 3.18 percent.


#NBCFail trending

Watching the Olympics has been highly frustrating. We sat last night watching an empty-headed and boring "Access Hollywood from London" show at 7 pm waiting for NBC to eventually show the big events of the day, especially the women's gymnastics. Then there was a pointless local NBC Olympic show at 7.30. Main coverage did not start until 8, pushing events later and later into the night.

G waited so long for that she fell asleep at 10.30 pm on the sofa and missed the gymnastics. She is not happy.

Why would NBC do this? The Atlantic has an explanation:

The easiest way to understand why NBC wants to force you to watch the Olympics in prime time is to stop thinking about what audiences want and start thinking about advertisers want. NBC paid about $1.2 billion for the rights to broadcast these games. To make back most of that money, NBC needs to sell extremely expensive commercials. The most valuable commercials aren't sold online to be viewed on browser tabs on 12-inch display screens. They're sold on prime time TV. So NBC has a clear interest in funneling our Olympic attention into the prime-time TV slot.

And it seems to be working in terms of viewing figures so far, which are setting records.

But it is very shortsighted. We are actually mad at the advertisers who are taking these slots and facilitating NBC spoiling things.

And there are longer term consequences. We didn't DVR the coverage because we actually cut the cord altogether with Time Warner Cable a few weeks ago. We found that we could get all the basic channels in beautiful HD with a $30 antenna which sits behind the plasma tv. Netflix and Hulu and ITunes take care of our other watching needs, and we save $80 or $90 a month.

What also motivated us, though, was years of rotten service from Time Warner, all those times we were held on the phone for half an hour and going through endless menus and endless waits for cable technicians. TWC had built up serious hostility in us, which wasn't allayed by slightly better service in the last 2-3 years. When we had a realistic chance to go, we bolted. They offered us $5 off for six months to stay, oblivious to the fact we didn't need them at all any more and their business model is past its sell-by date.

We haven't regretted it for a minute, either.

So NBC is now choosing to frustrate and alienate much of its viewing base through this extreme time shifting. This is going to come back and haunt them. It isn't the 1980s any more, says G.

Some blame belongs to the IOC as well, for greedily charging US viewers so much. NBC overbid for the rights, and so has to scramble and alienate its audience.

There will be a counterreaction. There is now a massive commercial opportunity for someone to mainstream for non-techies getting an Internet point of presence in another country - and so get around territorial restrictions. You would just show up as a UK node, in the same way Vonage will sell you a UK phone number for $5 a month.

You won't be able to bid for US broadcast rights because people in the US will just watch it live on CTV out of Toronto, or the BBC out of the UK, or even the broadcast from Singapore or Norway. And then what is big TV going to do? Sue people for evading its territorial rights? That kind of thing has worked out so well for the music industry, after all.

Big music thought it could get away with vastly overcharging for CDs in the 1980s. It showed commercial hubris, and people found a way around it.

If you abuse segmentation of the market, you're going to lose segmentation of the market. And it isn't as if NBC is adding much value to the feed itself.

They've destroyed a separate US market for the rights in the long term.



Niall Ferguson thinks Silicon Valley techno-optimists are fooling themselves:

I had never previously appreciated the immense gap that now exists between technological optimism, on the one hand, and economic pessimism, on the other. Silicon Valley sees a bright and beautiful future ahead. Wall Street and Washington see only storm clouds. The geeks think we’re on the verge of The Singularity. The wonks retort that we’re in the middle of a Depression. ..

I wish I were a technoptimist. It must be heart-warming to believe that Facebook is ushering in a happy-clappy world where everybody “friends” everybody else and we all surf the net in peace (insert smiley face). But I’m afraid history makes me a depressimist. And no, there’s not an app—or a gene—that can cure that.


Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Having enough versus having it all

This is a lovely and moving short piece in the Atlantic, which puts things in perspective. The author has a disabled 12-year old, and read the famous "having it all" Atlantic cover story recently.

Do I have enough? Resoundingly: yes. And I ask you to take a moment: I suspect you might, too.


Tweet Police Madness

What is really going on in the UK these days? Today we have the news that a 17-year old was arrested for an insensitive tweet about a British olympic diver.

Daley and his partner Pete Waterfield missed out on a medal yesterday when they finished fourth in the men's synchronised 10m platform diving event at the Olympics.

Shortly afterwards, Daley retweeted a message from user Rileyy69 which said: "You let your dad down i hope you know that."

Daley responded by tweeting: "After giving it my get idiot's sending me this..."

Daley's father Rob died last year from brain cancer.

Within a few hours, the police arrested the teenager for "malicious communication."

All common sense and proportion seem to have been lost. This is the behavior of a police state. If insensitivity were criminalized, most of any population would be in jail at one point or another. And insensitive or loud-mouthed teens are hardly unknown. Older codes of politeness, or appropriateness, or social pressure or shame ought to deal with things like this.

There are plenty of stories of the police taking days to come around and investigate burglaries in the UK.

A frustrated resident has told of his despair after police took two months to appeal for information following a burglary at his flat - despite providing them with CCTV images of the two suspects..

The thieves stole £35k of jewellery, as well as a number of sentimental items, before heading down to the block's basement where they loaded the swag into his expensive Mercedes SLK and drove away.

Realising he had been robbed Mr Lawrence called police and handed them two CCTV images, from a camera positioned over the entrance to the block, that clearly captured the faces of the two suspects.

His frustration is because a police appeal was only sent out to the public at the start of this month - more than two months after the incident took place.

But the Dorset police respond to an insensitive tweet by arresting a teenager, treating it as a matter of such urgency they act within 24 hours? That is A much deeper violation of appropriate behavior than a stupid tweet.

Perhaps new forms of broad communication blur the line between public and private communication in ways that we still have to figure out. But if we are so desperate to regulate speech that the police are at your door within hours of a tweet, we have lost much of the basic freedoms in society too. I'm horrified.

At least we have the first amendment in the US.


Sunday, July 29, 2012

Rot in the foundations

So what should we take from the Skidelskys' book? As I said in the last post, I think the basic takeaway is familiar: there is rot in the foundations of our system of economic thought, and hence economy. Utility and neutrality about ends solved many problems for economics and society in the nineteenth century. They helped build liberal democracies in the twentieth century.

But now we need to adapt. They say we need to measure things in relation to basic goods, not simply growth or utility. For me, it's no longer a matter of the quantity of utility, but the kind of utlility or needs. (John Stuart Mill managed to confuse the utilitarian system at an early date in this respect as well with his notion of the quality of wants. That was, however, forgotten).

The starting point for the Skidelskys is in so many ways similar to my own. They cite Keynes' Essay on Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, with its prediction of "solving the economic problem". They note the overthrow of virtue ethics and its replacement with modern economic notions of utility. They emphasize that economics pays no attention to the nature of wants.

Classical liberalism and its modern variants has gone as far as it can go. Utility doesn't work any more. Rights don't work any more. Neutrality doesn't work any more.

But I think their seven basic needs and social democratic approach is not the right way forward.The Skidelsys keep to a broader kind of liberalism, a kind of autonomy-plus.

I think the notion of practices, particular forms of life with their own purposes, as Alisdair McIntyre discusses, is more productive. The Skidelskys don't pay much attention to institutions or incentives or the daily life of the economy. There is little attention to the labor market, or technology, or the deeper changes which abundance may present. I think Deirdre McCloskey covers some of the issues in more depth, as well.

That said, I think I will have to come back to the book at regular intervals and reread it, however, just to test and turn over the ideas again. It took me unusually long to write these posts in the book because there is so much in it. I'm already wondering if I have fairly grasped all their arguments.