Saturday, December 09, 2017

dueling ideas at The Atlantic, the GOP war on the university vs a tenured academic who considers the prestige racket of contemporary American academia to be damaging and suggests vocational training is okay

https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/12/a-history-of-the-conservative-war-on-universities/547703/
...

the legislation would for the first time ever require universities to pay taxes on their endowment income. Universities have traditionally received tax exemptions on those assets in part because they are viewed as contributing to the public good. In addition, the House bill includes provisions to end graduate-student tax breaks, leading professors and graduate students at top universities to worry that studying for a Ph.D. will become unaffordable for all but the wealthy. (The Senate bill doesn’t include the latter provision; the two pieces of legislation head to conference committee shortly.) With tax analysts identifying corporations as the Republican plan’s biggest winners, a politics of factionalism seems implicit in the bill: Private corporations deserve even greater assets, while America’s universities merit higher levels of taxation.

Well, honestly, I'm not really seeing why I have to decide that universities are the good guys just because a journalist writing for The Atlantic implicitly assumes that private corporations are the bad guys.  They could all be bad, you know. 

There's also this, a piece asking point blank what contemporary college education is actually good for and whether or not we might be better off pouring more into stuff like vocational training from someone who has a tenured job.

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/01/whats-college-good-for/546590/

...
Thanks to tenure, I have a dream job for life. Personally, I have no reason to lash out at our system of higher education. Yet a lifetime of experience, plus a quarter century of reading and reflection, has convinced me that it is a big waste of time and money. When politicians vow to send more Americans to college, I can’t help gasping, “Why? You want us to waste even more?”

How, you may ask, can anyone call higher education wasteful in an age when its financial payoff is greater than ever? The earnings premium for college graduates has rocketed to 73 percent—that is, those with a bachelor’s degree earn, on average, 73 percent more than those who have only a high-school diploma, up from about 50 percent in the late 1970s. The key issue, however, isn’t whether college pays, but why. The simple, popular answer is that schools teach students useful job skills. But this dodges puzzling questions.

First and foremost: From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing? Why do advanced-math classes bother with proofs almost no student can follow? When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something.
The disconnect between college curricula and the job market has a banal explanation: Educators teach what they know—and most have as little firsthand knowledge of the modern workplace as I do. Yet this merely complicates the puzzle. If schools aim to boost students’ future income by teaching job skills, why do they entrust students’ education to people so detached from the real world? Because, despite the chasm between what students learn and what workers do, academic success is a strong signal of worker productivity.
Suppose your law firm wants a summer associate. A law student with a doctorate in philosophy from Stanford applies. What do you infer? The applicant is probably brilliant, diligent, and willing to tolerate serious boredom. If you’re looking for that kind of worker—and what employer isn’t?—you’ll make an offer, knowing full well that nothing the philosopher learned at Stanford will be relevant to this job.
The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you signal by mastering them. This is not a fringe idea. Michael Spence, Kenneth Arrow, and Joseph Stiglitz—all Nobel laureates in economics—made seminal contributions to the theory of educational signaling. Every college student who does the least work required to get good grades silently endorses the theory. But signaling plays almost no role in public discourse or policy making. As a society, we continue to push ever larger numbers of students into ever higher levels of education. The main effect is not better jobs or greater skill levels, but a credentialist arms race.
Lest I be misinterpreted, I emphatically affirm that education confers some marketable skills, namely literacy and numeracy. Nonetheless, I believe that signaling accounts for at least half of college’s financial reward, and probably more.

...

The problem is not so much that education is bad in principle, it's that in practice higher education amounts to credential signaling more than genuine education.   This doesn't have to be reduced to a dismissal of the point by saying neoliberalism is obsessed with business applicability.  Think about it in class terms.  Why should someone take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt for a liberal arts degree that confers almost no benefit in terms of getting work within the liberal arts if someone's going to work at the local Starbucks or end up doing years of temp work doing clerical activities that could be done by someone with a high school education or even, frankly, a high school drop out?

I don't know that I'd say I'm particularly left about anything but even among associates and friends of mine who do lean left we sometimes have conversations about how the higher education system in the United States can seem like some kind of prestige racket. 

Which, in a way, is what Caplan tackles talking about the nature of college education as a credentialing process in which provable educational merit is not always so easily established.
...

Normal human beings make a solid point: We can and should investigate education’s broad social implications. When humanists consider my calculations of education’s returns, they assume I’m being a typical cynical economist, oblivious to the ideals so many educators hold dear. I am an economist and I am a cynic, but I’m not a typical cynical economist. I’m a cynical idealist. I embrace the ideal of transformative education. I believe wholeheartedly in the life of the mind. What I’m cynical about is people.
I’m cynical about students. The vast majority are philistines. I’m cynical about teachers. The vast majority are uninspiring. I’m cynical about “deciders”—the school officials who control what students study. The vast majority think they’ve done their job as long as students comply.
Those who search their memory will find noble exceptions to these sad rules. I have known plenty of eager students and passionate educators, and a few wise deciders. Still, my 40 years in the education industry leave no doubt that they are hopelessly outnumbered. Meritorious education survives but does not thrive.

...

What does this mean for the individual student? Would I advise an academically well-prepared 18-year-old to skip college because she won’t learn much of value? Absolutely not. Studying irrelevancies for the next four years will impress future employers and raise her income potential. If she tried to leap straight into her first white-collar job, insisting, “I have the right stuff to graduate, I just choose not to,” employers wouldn’t believe her. To unilaterally curtail your education is to relegate yourself to a lower-quality pool of workers. For the individual, college pays.

This does not mean, however, that higher education paves the way to general prosperity or social justice. When we look at countries around the world, a year of education appears to raise an individual’s income by 8 to 11 percent. By contrast, increasing education across a country’s population by an average of one year per person raises the national income by only 1 to 3 percent. In other words, education enriches individuals much more than it enriches nations.

How is this possible? Credential inflation: As the average level of education rises, you need more education to convince employers you’re worthy of any specific job. One research team found that from the early 1970s through the mid‑1990s, the average education level within 500 occupational categories rose by 1.2 years. But most of the jobs didn’t change much over that span—there’s no reason, except credential inflation, why people should have needed more education to do them in 1995 than in 1975. What’s more, all American workers’ education rose by 1.5 years in that same span—which is to say that a great majority of the extra education workers received was deployed not to get better jobs, but to get jobs that had recently been held by people with less education.

As credentials proliferate, so do failed efforts to acquire them. Students can and do pay tuition, kill a year, and flunk their finals. Any respectable verdict on the value of education must account for these academic bankruptcies. Failure rates are high, particularly for students with low high-school grades and test scores; all told, about 60 percent of full-time college students fail to finish in four years. Simply put, the push for broader college education has steered too many students who aren’t cut out for academic success onto the college track.

Those bankruptcies can often be more than just academic bankruptcies.  If you wash out of college or for whatever reason fail to graduate that expense is still on you or whoever agreed to pay for it.  Back when I was in college one of the pragmatic music professors told me that by then (the 1990s!) all an undergraduate degree proved beyond all doubt was that you could finish projects you committed to rather than opening doors for you in the job market. 

This polemic doesn't have to read as being anti-intellectual or anti life of the mind, but it could be read as an argument that there should be room for vocational training as an alternative to imploring everyone to get a college degree because if credential inflation continues as it has then the priesthood of all college-educated people will not be any more gainfully employed. 

The top one percent may well be hoarding all of the monopoly money, but this doesn't exempt the upper 20 percent.  No doubt there are those who disagree with where Richard Reeves lands, but I admit I find the polemic interesting--given the ways in which the top 20 percent can hold on to privilege in the form of access to higher education and economic advantages in sending their kids to schools, what is often popularly understood among some academics and fans of liberal arts educational programs could be construed less as anti-intellectualism and more as something that could be identified by a more blunt term, class resentment.
 
http://www.npr.org/2017/05/31/530843665/top-20-percent-of-americans-hoard-the-american-dream

http://bostonreview.net/class-inequality-education-opportunity/richard-v-reeves-dream-hoarders-how-americas-top-20-percent

...

Trump’s success among middle-class whites might seem surprising, given his own wealth. But his supporters have no problem with the rich. In fact, they admire them.  His movement was about class, not money, and he exuded the blue-collar culture. For his supporters, the enemy is upper middle-class professionals: journalists, scholars, technocrats, managers, bureaucrats, the people with letters after their names. You and me.

And here is the difficult part. The popular obsession with the top 1 percent allows the upper middle class to convince ourselves we are in the same boat as the rest of America; but it is not true.  However messily it is expressed, much of the criticism of our class is true. We proclaim the “net” benefits of free trade, technological advances, and immigration, safe in the knowledge that we will be among the beneficiaries. Equipped with high levels of human capital, we can flourish in a global economy. The cities we live in are zoned to protect our wealth, but deter the unskilled from sharing in it. Professional licensing and an immigration policy tilted toward the low-skilled shield us from the intense market competition faced by those in nonprofessional occupations. We proclaim the benefits of free markets but are largely insulated from the risks they can pose. Small wonder other folks can get angry.
...


I am British by birth, but I have lived in the United States since 2012 and became a citizen in late 2016. There are lots of reasons I have made America my home, but one of them is the American ideal of opportunity. I always hated the walls created by social class distinctions in the United Kingdom. The American ideal of a classless society is, to me, a deeply attractive one. It has been disheartening to learn that the class structure of my new homeland is, if anything, more rigid than the one I left behind and especially so at the top.

Indeed, the American upper middle class is leaving everyone else in the dust. The top fifth of U.S. households saw a $4 trillion increase in pretax income in the years between 1979 and 2013.  The combined rise for the bottom 80 percent, by comparison, was just over $3 trillion. The gap between the bottom fifth and the middle fifth has not widened at all. In fact, there has been no increase in inequality below the eightieth percentile. All the inequality action is above that line.

 I've mentioned this here and there at the blog before but some of the lament about how artists will be hurt by tax code changes has me thinking that liberal arts advocates and those who have gained liberal arts higher education degrees may sincerely think that the moment is about anti-intellectualism, but class resentment at resource-hoarding might also be a plausible explanation.  If the pie is only so big and you have to choose between artists on the one hand and veterans or people of color on the other is it "bad" to decide the artists had their chance?  It's not about wanting to stick it to artists, I love the arts, but if the game is always as zero-sum as people keep reminding us that it is, favoring college-educated artists when people of color and veterans could get help might force some arts advocates to ask themselves if they are for minorities, after all, or if when push comes to shove they're for college graduates and aspiring artists.    Journalists, too, and academics, may want to have a moment of reckoning to find out whether what they support is really for the common good or if it redounds primarily to the benefit of Anglo-American liberal arts priestcraft. 


I'm not sure I'm on board with "representation" if the end game for "representation" is merely that more people of color and sexual orientations and identifications populate the ruling castes that are running things now, because all that would mean is that the venal plutocracy calling the shots has more "representation", that's just modifying the existing Western art religion with a patina of diversity.  But if there are opportunities for people of color and low-income families or disabled veterans to get more help from people who can help them I'm fine with that.  If liberal arts advocates get upset when subsidies may shift from artists to veterans or families then there's not much of a basis for lamenting injustice if, as we've been noting this weekend, some authors have pointed out that giving white artists tax breaks that are different in nature and kind from working-class people of color does seem a little racist. 

I don't think what we should want is a new wave of college educated artists.  We'd be better off cultivating regional folk art, so to speak.  I'm in favor of forms of arts education where you shouldn't have to go to college to learn about sonata forms and possibilities for amalgamating ragtime, blues, country and jazz into the art music traditions and vice versa.  I'm all for the idea that you can love Hank Williams Sr. and Haydn in fairly equal measures.  I'm interesting in an approach to the arts that consciously obliterates the kinds of class divides that institutional education in the arts since the 19th century seems to revel in clarifying and then calcifying.  So in that sense I guess I've always been a populist. 

I have my doubts the system is going to survive very effectively through the next two to four generations, and a lot of the battles going on now seem like battles to figure out how to carve up the pie without considering whether the pie itself is past its sell-by date.

Kriston Capps at City Lab on how the Republican effort to overhaul the tax system could strike a major blow against lofts and studios for low-income artists

Remember that piece from The Atlantic last year about how a decent chunk of affordable housing for artists could come across as basically just favoring low-income subsidized spaces for white college-educated artists?
 
 
Affordable housing sometimes has a bad reputation: The name often conjures crumbling public towers or far-away pre-fab units built by private developers.
 
But there’s another kind of affordable housing, built with tax credits and city loans, typified in a place like the A-Mill lofts. Set on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, the A-Mill lofts include a penthouse resident lounge, a fitness center, a yoga studio, free wi-fi, dishwashers, and studios for painting, pottery, dance, and music.
 
The A-Mill lofts sound like the type of opportunity that most poor families would dream of. But a new report suggests that the lofts are not accessible to most poor families. Though they were built with affordable-housing tax credits and city loans, they’re too expensive for most voucher holders to afford, the report finds. Instead, they go to mostly to white artists, who have incomes below the median for the area but above the average affordable-housing tenant.
 
This type of majority-white subsidized housing is not unique. According to the report, from the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota, about 6 percent of housing built using low-income tax credits in Minneapolis and St. Paul is built for artists. And those buildings don’t look at all like traditional affordable units. The artist housing is 82.4 percent white, and the average income of tenants is $29,890. Only about 3.3 percent of tenants receive rental assistance. All other housing built with low-income-housing tax credits in those two cities, by contrast, is 19.8 percent white, with an average income of $17,140, and 67 percent of tenants receive rental assistance.
 
“There’s a dual system of subsidized housing in Minneapolis and perhaps other cities,” Myron Orfield, one of the study’s authors, told me. “There's the traditional form of subsidized housing, heavily concentrated in minority neighborhoods and heavily occupied by poor, non-white voucher holders. And then you have another system of affordable housing— artist housing in white neighborhoods that's predominantly occupied by non-poor, white artists.” [emphasis added]
 
Or another 2013 piece in The Atlantic about how artists that complain about gentrification tend to play a role in said gentrification?
 
Today, Vera Haller of The Wall Street Journal brought the nation's attention to the real victims of gentrification: college educated artists being priced out of the rough-and-tumble Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. Because, as we all know know, the problem with low income, predominantly minority neighborhoods being developed is that, as Haller puts it, "gentrification usually displaces the artists who breathe life into gritty neighborhoods."
 
Ever since the infamous blackout of 1977, Bushwick has been a largely destitute neighborhood, just waiting for weekend raves and multimedia exhibitions to bring it back to life. Now the raves and exhibits are there, and developers are coming to ruin everything hipsters hold dear, just as was the case in Williamsburg ten years ago.
 
Haller's piece profiles a group of artists trying to curb the tide of condominiums and rent hikes by pooling their resources and buying their own studio space. She writes:
 
...
 
There's nothing wrong with artists looking for cheap places to live. And in some ways, gentrification is good for a neighborhood. There are long-time residents who think it's great. As urbanist Benjamin Grant wrote in a piece for PBS, "Who wouldn't want to see reduced crime, new investment in buildings and infrastructure, and increased economic activity in their neighborhoods?"
 
Fair enough. The problem is, it is mostly the new arrivals, and people who bought into the community early, who reap the benefits of the change. Buying now is a smart move for artists looking for affordable studio space, but to act as if artists — specifically college-educated young adults  — are victims, instead of part of the problem, is dishonest and ignores the people truly harmed as Bushwick becomes ever more synonymous with cool. [emphasis added]
 
 
Well, there's still time to complain that proposed changes in tax code could make things tougher for artists on the housing front but cutting down who can benefit from federally subsidized low-income housing.
 
  
Lofts and studios for low-income artists may suffer a major blow if the Republican effort to overhaul the tax system is signed into law.
 
An amendment to the tax bill passed by the Senate would strike artists’ housing from the list of qualified groups who can benefit from federally subsidized low-income housing. If the provision makes its way into the tax bill that moves on to the White House, it would forbid developers from using housing credits to build affordable housing with a preference for artists.
 
Moreover, as written, the law would also render all existing artists’ housing developments built with housing credits retroactively ineligible for the benefit—creating a sudden tax liability for the investors who have used these credits for years. [emphasis added]
 
The change comes in the form of an amendment introduced by Senator Pat Roberts, the Republican senior senator from Kansas. His amendment, which passed with the Senate tax bill at 3:00 a.m. on Saturday, includes a simple line-for-line language swap. Where current law carves out a special exception for individuals “who are involved in artistic or literary activities,” the new bill would instead specify a benefit for those “who are veterans of the Armed Forces.” 
 
By eliminating the advantage for artists and giving it to veterans instead—without changing any other language—all artists’ housing developments built with tax credits could soon be on the wrong side of the law. 
 
Bankers and other investors, not artists, would pay the immediate price.
 
But if there's some legitimate concern that subsidized housing and studio space for artists ends up favoring white artists rather than families of color couldn't someone make some kind of case that subsidized housing and studio space for artists could be sufficiently racially discriminatory in practice as to raise legitimate doubts about the viability of the policy?  If the pie is only so large and we're running systemic deficits as it is then it might be a choice between artists and veterans. 
 
 
“There is a lot of concern out there in the housing credit community for all the existing artist housing that is potentially subject to tax credit recapture,” says Peter Lawrence, director of public policy and government relations for Novogradac and Company, a national certified public accounting and consulting firm. “I think, once tax policymakers are aware of those potential consequences, there will be pressure to try to address that.”
 
Lawrence adds, “We do have limited time, and there are lots of people trying to get fixes to various provisions in either the House or Senate tax bills. There is going to be a capacity problem, in that there’s only so much that tax staff can try to work on at any one time.”
 
The clock is ticking, as members of both houses of Congress race to pass the most sweeping tax bill in 30 years, and the first legislative victory of the Trump era, before breaking for the holidays.
 
Roberts’s amendment may number among the many provisions of the legislation whose unintended consequences are just coming to light. With this amendment, banks and other investors who purchased tax credits legally could see their investments in housing credits challenged, canceled, or even recouped by the Internal Revenue Service.
 
 ...
 
I don't know that I feel much urgency about this topic since I've never been in low income subsidized housing for artists.  The author highlights that the differences between veterans and artists are so great there's no certainty that simply changing the subsidies granted from artists to veterans would help the veterans.  Maybe not, but even if you think that Gulf War 2 and the War on Terror have ultimately been disastrous policy moves (which I don't just so happen to think) you can still believe that the subsidies for artists can end up being too much in favor of white college-educated artists to necessarily be a defensible policy approach.  The Atlantic coverage over the last three or four years on this subject has been interesting to read because if the pie is only so big and subsidies come down to artists or people of color why, exactly, do the artists get to have better deals?  Somebody might even suggest there's something potentially racist about it but that's more of a potentially Coatesian line of argument.  I'd lean more toward a proposal that if a single artist or a family of four is up for consideration more people could be helped by helping the family of four. 
 
It's weird reading a journalist say that bankers rather than artists would pay the immediate price as if we're supposed to feel bad for ... the bankers? 
 
Huh ... .

American musicians take note, rosewood restrictions, maybe don't haul around instruments with rosewood in them overseas (if you can afford to do that sort of thing)

https://www.npr.org/2017/11/30/566927001/the-tree-that-rocked-the-music-industry

...
New regulations on the international movement of rosewood have hit hard in parts of the music industry, which has long relied on rosewood as a "tonewood" used in many kinds of instruments, including guitars, cellos and clarinets.

The reason for the crackdown, and for Katz's anxiety? China. Specifically, Chinese consumers' growing demand for rosewood or "hongmu" furniture.

China imported nearly 2 million cubic meters of rosewood logs in 2014, worth at least $2.6 billion, according to the conservation group Forest Trends.

With an appetite that big, loggers, traffickers and politicians around the world have been cashing in, depleting rosewood stocks and fighting over the spoils of the timber rush.

Advocates say more than 150 people have been killed in Thailand gunfights over rosewood.

So late last year, members of a worldwide treaty called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) passed sweeping new international trade regulations.
...

There are a few quotes from people who consider the across-the-board restrictions on rosewood to be unfair and hard to enforce in a way that won't potentially cripple the music industry.  I'm half sympathetic, half indifferent.  After all, I've been writing against what I regard as the problems of Western liberal arts art religion this weekend.  I write this sort of thing as someone who's written twenty-four preludes and fugues for solo guitar and has sung the praises of Scott Joplin, Thelonious monk, Stevie Wonder, and Haydn much of this year.  But ... if we're living on as much borrowed time here in the West as some people think, there's only so much we can do. 

And if you're the kind of musician who simply can't or doesn't have the resources to travel abroad the restrictions on rosewood may take a while to affect you even indirectly.  In any case, for guitarists the question about whether restrictions across the board on rosewood can get any kind of reconsideration apparently has to wait until 2019.

So treasure the instruments you have right now, guitarist friends. 

Richard Florida at CityLab on America's leading art hub cities, New York has fallen and Los Angeles is on top

https://www.citylab.com/life/2017/12/americas-leading-art-hubs/547769/
Richard Florida claims that in terms of sheer number of jobs the leader in arts jobs in the United States is Los Angeles, followed by San Francisco, followed by Portland/Vancouver in Oregon, THEN New York. 

If the metric were changed to self-employed artists the leader turns out to be Nashville.  Hardly a surprise there, but then I'm a musician so I'll admit to not being the least bit surprised to read that the highest level of self-employed artists would be in Nashville.
...

While New York galleries will be well represented at Art Basel Miami Beach, the metro is no longer the nation’s leading center for art and artists.

That honor goes to Los Angeles, which tops the list on our combined measure of employed and self-employed artists. Los Angeles not only has a larger concentration of artists than New York City based on its LQ, it has a larger number of absolute artists, even though New York City has a much larger general population. Indeed, it’s been shown that a significant number of artists are moving from the New York City to the Los Angeles metro.
A number of leading tech and knowledge hubs number among the top 10 as well. San Francisco is the second on the list, and Portland third, with New York trailing in fourth place. Bridgeport-Stamford is fifth and Seattle, Nashville, Austin, San Jose, and San Diego round out the top 10.

This seems like a newsflash because while there's a lot of interesting arts stuff in the Seattle area I've hardly had the budget to feel like I could afford to go to most of the events.  :(

In fact I've been wondering for years whether or not contemporary American arts talk hasn't been missing out on the possibility that arts scenes have an unwitting role in making life more expensive for non-artists, indirect though the effects often are.

https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/05/affordable-housing-for-white-people/483444/

Affordable housing sometimes has a bad reputation: The name often conjures crumbling public towers or far-away pre-fab units built by private developers.
 
But there’s another kind of affordable housing, built with tax credits and city loans, typified in a place like the A-Mill lofts. Set on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, the A-Mill lofts include a penthouse resident lounge, a fitness center, a yoga studio, free wi-fi, dishwashers, and studios for painting, pottery, dance, and music.
 
The A-Mill lofts sound like the type of opportunity that most poor families would dream of. But a new report suggests that the lofts are not accessible to most poor families. Though they were built with affordable-housing tax credits and city loans, they’re too expensive for most voucher holders to afford, the report finds. Instead, they go to mostly to white artists, who have incomes below the median for the area but above the average affordable-housing tenant.
 
This type of majority-white subsidized housing is not unique. According to the report, from the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota, about 6 percent of housing built using low-income tax credits in Minneapolis and St. Paul is built for artists. And those buildings don’t look at all like traditional affordable units. The artist housing is 82.4 percent white, and the average income of tenants is $29,890. Only about 3.3 percent of tenants receive rental assistance. All other housing built with low-income-housing tax credits in those two cities, by contrast, is 19.8 percent white, with an average income of $17,140, and 67 percent of tenants receive rental assistance.
 
“There’s a dual system of subsidized housing in Minneapolis and perhaps other cities,” Myron Orfield, one of the study’s authors, told me. “There's the traditional form of subsidized housing, heavily concentrated in minority neighborhoods and heavily occupied by poor, non-white voucher holders. And then you have another system of affordable housing— artist housing in white neighborhoods that's predominantly occupied by non-poor, white artists.”
 
The bohemian artist who does the art thing isn't "just" a white Romantic era trope, since the rapper can certainly fit the mold of the Byronic artist poet seer hero, too.  But then there's tax loopholes and stuff. 

Earlier this year the debate about gentrification and arts and local community was a steady issue in connection to Boyle Heights.

https://wenatcheethehatchet.blogspot.com/2017/02/remember-that-art-space-on-boyle.html

To put it rather starkly, for working class sorts the worst thing that can happen to the neighborhood is a bunch of arty arts artist projects.  Twenty odd years ago when I was already sick of hearing grunge bands the grunge bands didn't break out on to the radio because Seattle was necessarily thought of as "the" arts mecca, or was it? 
...
https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/08/artists-cant-stop-gentrification-because-theyre-part-problem/312566/

Today, Vera Haller of The Wall Street Journal brought the nation's attention to the real victims of gentrification: college educated artists being priced out of the rough-and-tumble Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. Because, as we all know know, the problem with low income, predominantly minority neighborhoods being developed is that, as Haller puts it, "gentrification usually displaces the artists who breathe life into gritty neighborhoods."
 
Ever since the infamous blackout of 1977, Bushwick has been a largely destitute neighborhood, just waiting for weekend raves and multimedia exhibitions to bring it back to life. Now the raves and exhibits are there, and developers are coming to ruin everything hipsters hold dear, just as was the case in Williamsburg ten years ago.
 
Haller's piece profiles a group of artists trying to curb the tide of condominiums and rent hikes by pooling their resources and buying their own studio space. She writes:
 
...
 
There's nothing wrong with artists looking for cheap places to live. And in some ways, gentrification is good for a neighborhood. There are long-time residents who think it's great. As urbanist Benjamin Grant wrote in a piece for PBS, "Who wouldn't want to see reduced crime, new investment in buildings and infrastructure, and increased economic activity in their neighborhoods?"
 
Fair enough. The problem is, it is mostly the new arrivals, and people who bought into the community early, who reap the benefits of the change. Buying now is a smart move for artists looking for affordable studio space, but to act as if artists — specifically college-educated young adults  — are victims, instead of part of the problem, is dishonest and ignores the people truly harmed as Bushwick becomes ever more synonymous with cool. [emphasis added]
 
These art hub cities are not exactly cheap places to live and there is no real promise that if you move to one of these art hub cities you'll "make it".  Some of the musical associates I know have left the Seattle area to find musical life elsewhere or aren't doing so much in the arts scene lately.  That might be because as friends and associates got married and had kids they found it was less and less possible to keep active in the arts scene. 
 
I've written about this before but one of the things I wish had been more a part of my education in college was a discussion of what artists and musicians and writers actually did for a living.  Since I'm already ripping on Western art religion this weekend anyway, it would have helped to know that someone like Trollope was a postal worker who wrote on his off hours.  It would have been handy to know that Sor, the most significant guitarist composer in the history of the instrument, had military posts that had low-level paper work responsibilities because a royal patron let him have that job so he could compose.  Matiegka (who I'm sure you've never heard of unless your the kind of guitarist music fan who knows exactly who Matiegka is) worked as a clerk in a law office.  Haydn was, to try to describe his job in modern parlance, a master of ceremonies and music producer for an aristocratic dynasty.  These people all had day jobs and/or patrons.  Charles Ives was in insurance sales after dropping out of being a church musician.  The pattern here is that in the art religion of liberal arts education we don't really get told what these people did to buy food and stay in a house, we're told what they did that revolutionized art or literature or whatever the art is. 
 
What we got sold in liberal arts study is that we, too, can make a living doing this stuff.  Paul Hindemith singled that out as the biggest and most toxic delusion perpetuated by American liberal arts education, but worst of all in music. 
 
So the theme for this post is, yep, artists who complain about gentrification need to consider the ways in which their existence as economic agents plays a role in that process. 

John Halle blogs about challenging rape culture, looks back on how twenty years ago allegations of sexual misconduct were scoffed at and how the liberal trope of the "Bernie bro" was deployed by people who knew of Weinstein's conduct

This was a while back, in internet terms, but John Halle, who I've linked to in the past on music and his ideas about politics, has taken to blogging about the post-Weinstein moment. 

https://johnhalle.com/outragesandinterludes/challenging-rape-culture/

I am currently being challenged to demonstrate my opposition to “rape culture.”

The request is altogether reasonable and we should all accept it.

I will do so by relating the following.

Some years ago, a powerful and well-connected individual was accused of sexual assault by a woman possessing very limited resources.

The charges were sufficiently credible to require an out of court settlement for $850,000-a not inconsiderable sum two decades ago. But justice in this case was delayed for some years, only achieved after a pattern of behavior had been established by other women having made similar complaints.

Prior to that time, the woman’s accusations were widely ridiculed, most conspicuously by numerous political associates and friends of the accused. A remark from one high level official was typical: “Drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find,“ was his response to the situation.

It would be hard to imagine a more disgusting example of apologetics for sexual assault and rape culture.

***
That brings me to my response to the challenge above. Many of us can attest to having repeatedly attempted to demand accountability for his remark.

In particular, we vehemently opposed the candidate who retains close ties with the sexual assault apologist who would likely have been appointed to a key position in her administration.

Given that fact, to support her would have been, as should be apparent, an implicit endorsement of rape culture.

***
But at this point an irony surfaces. Many of those who are issuing the challenge to us now urged us then to do exactly that: to support the candidate in question, namely, Secretary Clinton who has, it should be noted, her own history of minimizing the importance of sexual assault.
...

Twenty years ago when Democrats struggled to take allegations of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct against Bill Clinton as possibly being more than just craven Republican politicking  there were some perspectives that had it that how Clinton behaved as a person should not have a bearing on how he handled executive office.  That's not exactly how those who voted for the other Clinton have greeted Trump's personal conduct. If we take the variety of allegations that have been made to be substantial (setting aside the virtually inevitable existence of those on either side of the red/blue divide who will deny the credibility of relevance of such allegations) last year's big decision was looking disconcertingly like a choice between a perpetrator of harassment or assault and an enabler.  The reason it's been hard to take blue state/liberal moral outrage at Trump very seriously is because it's hard to altogether forget twenty years ago when the defense of Bill Clinton was that he might not be the best guy but that his personal moral failings shouldn't be construed as impediments to his ability to handle public office. 

And in the post-Weinstein moment there's been some wrestling with how much who knew what about whom.  As more and more headlines come forth about how much who knew what or said they didn't know X though they knew Y ...

http://www.vulture.com/2017/10/matt-damon-admits-he-knew-about-harvey-weinstein.html

Hollywood seems the absolute last place on earth for anyone to be outraged at the sexual predation of a celebrity in the entertainment industry.   There have been so many cases that some of them can be pretty easily forgotten.  Anyone recall the voice actor who formerly voiced Elmo?  How about allegations of harassment and worse from the photographer Terry Richardson?  The Polanski case is still a part of the legacy of the American film scene.  What makes moral outrage on the part of people in the entertainment industry troubling is not that there are no people consistently against sexual harassment, rape and abuse because those people certainly exist, it's that, as John Halle has blogged a bit this year, some of the voices who were most set against Trump were willing to impugn Sanders supporters as misogynistic while knowing for a decade or more about the conduct of Harvey Weinstein. 

These days it seems as though the red and blue shades are too readily deployed by their respective partisans to hide the fact that vicious double standards exist within these two camps and that in the long run they seem to stand for the same bad stuff.  If "we" can blame "them" then we don't have to consider the sins that our team is culpable for, and at the centennial of the October Revolution it's all too easy for people who favor the United States or the Soviet Union on the basis of advocacy for capitalism or communism to just willfully forget that atrocities were standard in both types of cultural imperialism.  Aborting pregnancies by the millions may seem more acceptable than imprisoning millions or ordering hundreds of thousands to their deaths for political crimes but ... who says it's necessarily a case of one team actually being provably better in the end?  Societies can decide when and how they commodify human life and what limits they set on that commodification, but I'm not so sure these days that a society can decide, ultimately, to never commodify humans.  But that's another gloomy thought for another gloomy post.

There's another author who lately highlighted the trouble with what men and women in Hollywood have done and not done with respect to the treatment of men, women and children.

Jeffrey Fleishman
November 5, 2017, 2:00 AM
 
The curtain has been pulled back, and, oh, is it messy.
 
Hollywood has always reveled in scandal. The rumor. The whisper. The unfortunate photograph. The apology and return to grace. But the recent sex abuse stories have turned into a parade of tawdry violations and twisted passions, the stuff of movies acted out in real lives against the unglamorous air of disgrace, endless transgressions that even Ray Donovan, Showtime’s half-shaven mercurial fixer, couldn’t clean up with all his hush money and muscle.
 
 
The rape and sexual abuse allegations surrounding Harvey Weinstein, Brett Ratner, James Toback and others have shattered the awards-season aplomb in a town that imagines itself bold and freewheeling but prefers the tempered and scripted. The entertainment industry has slipped into a multi-polar catharsis of emboldened women, nervous men, threatening lawyers, broken deals, spoiled careers and the uncertainty that comes when cracks run like lightning through facades.
 
“I think the industry is forever changed,” said Marcel Pariseau, a publicist whose clients include Scarlett Johansson and Olivia Munn, one of six women who accused Ratner of sexual misconduct in The Times last week. “Every morning we wake up and we don’t know what’s going to be next. You’re almost afraid to get on your gadget to see what the new story is.
 
...
 
The fissures rattling through town “have been a long time coming,” said Jordana Oberman, an actress and producer. “The industry has been complicit in this type of behavior and chalked it up to Hollywood. A lot of us are hoping this is a defining moment, but only time will tell. My hope is that there’s a bigger examination of the complicity and that people won’t shut up anymore.”
 
The raised fist of Rose McGowan, who says she was raped by Weinstein, and worries of Woody Allen, who cautions against a “witch hunt,” are the opposite ends of this unsettling expanse. The scandals strike at the core of this town’s power — who has it, how they wield it — and follow years of complaints over racism and discrimination that culminated in the #OscarsSoWhite campaign and then, many believe, had a part in handing this year’s Best Picture Academy Award to “Moonlight,” a gay coming-of-age story by a black director and cast.
 
But the back-slapping lasted only months.This is, after all, Hollywood in the age of President Trump, a reality show host who crystallized the marriage of celebrity and politics, and a candidate who admitted to groping women only to land in the White House. The entertainment industry railed at Trump but the allegations against Weinstein, Ratner and others suggest a long pattern of abuse perpetrated by men who considered themselves artists and liberals.

The observation that Trump was a reality show host probably can't be overstated.  In the midst of observing what he said you could do if you're a celebrity it turned out that artists and liberals can be as terrible to men, women and children as not-artists and not-liberals.  The observation about what you could get away with when you're a celebrity is looking more and more emblematic and symptomatic of what the whole industry was up to. 

The likelihood that things will permanently change seems remote.  Short-term change may be possible and it would be wonderful if long-term change can happen.  But it's too easy to get this feeling that what is going to be preferred is to embrace some variation of "but we're not as bad as .... ______." and then you can insert the identifier of whomever and whichever real or imagined ideological adversary seems more naturally prone to the predations being reported.

To put things another way, the apostle Paul rebuked some proud Christians in Corinth with the following:

1 Corinthians 5: 6-12 NIV
...
Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”

The temptation some people are facing in a moment such as ours is to judge those outside without regard for judging those inside, because it's easier to thank God (or whomever or whatever principle people wish to thank) that "we" are not like "them". 

While people could say that Hollywood seems better about casting out sexually predatory men from its midst than American churches this notion is itself a sham.  Where is Roman Polanski these days?  For how many decades was Harvey Weinstein able to do what he was alleged to have done? 

As allegations have emerged in connection to Kevin Spacey his coming out as gay introduced something that rankled people. Dan Savage can declare all he likes that the gay community does not accept Spacey but at this point what would this be but nothing more than a no true Scotsman gambit? As other gay journalists have noted, what Spacey looked to be doing was invoking sexual minority status as some kind of shield.  There's not even really an irony at that point when someone invokes what is regarded in a community as a sacred status to cover up or respond to a public allegation of misconduct or plain old moral evil.  So in that sense entertainers invoking a sacred status based on minority status of some kind is not conceptually different from a priest of another sort invoking a divine privilege for having accusations against them not taken at face value right away.  Whether or not the allegations turn out to be substantiated remains to be seen.  Meanwhile, what's interesting is that within the gay journalism community there have been responses to Spacey's public statements indicating that it's not acceptable to invoke one's sexual identity as a gay man as a pre-emptive shield against public accusation.  If the priests shouldn't be able to get away with it then the movie stars and movie producers shouldn't be able to get away with it either.  Or at the very least that's the ideal.

But then there's the matter of how many decades it took for these accusations to become public.

It is admittedly cynical to wonder whether the failure of Hollywood and the mainstream press to lock down the Oval Office for Clinton may have had a part to play in people finally deciding that the abuses of individuals behind the scenes in the cultural leadership castes was o longer worth tolerating in the hope of cultural and political utility. 

What we can hope can happen is that people who are in some cultural team, whatever that team is, are able to share what has been done to them by people within their teams.  Now isn't really the time for the sort of partisanship that seeks to say "but X ... " because as more headlines emerge it would seem that predatory behavior is rampant and allegations have been circulating for a while.  Whether it's in fashion and associated photography; or in arts publishing; or in academic life  in Anglo-American contexts what's coming to light is not just in the strictly Hollywood scene.  Evangelicals hardly have a leg to stand on, either, let alone neo-Calvinist sorts, since last year Darrin Patrick got removed from his pastoral position in the wake of allegations of misconduct.  Other men in pastoral leadership role sended up out of leadership before shifting back into leadership again with perhaps a few words about "grace", and I'm not even attempting to factor in Todd Bentley type scenarios for this post.  As Halle noted in another of his posts, there are prestigious clubs normal people don't get to be part of that get judged and governed by an observably different set of rules.

The larger point Halle makes seems to be that in the mids tof recent allegations we need to be wary about a temptation to use moral outrage selectively; to be concerned that "their" celebrities need to be held to the fire while "my" celebrities need some variant of grace.  Halle was specific in highlighting that some of the journalists who were willing to paint the Bernie bros as having terrible attitudes about and toward women turned out to have known for years about the conduct of the Harvey Weinsteins within their own scene.  Those people didn't speak up about it, and while fear of reprisals and retaliation certainly count for something Halle's point remains, is it really all that fair to impute to a candidate's support base those sins that turn out to be the sins of your own champions? 

Perhaps the awkward reality here is that the mainstream red and blue partisans in entertainment and media have the same double standards but it's more fun and exciting to blame each other as the sole culprits for what is increasingly being revealed to e a shared set of behaviors.  It plays better to the mythologies of red state and blue state to say that "we" are better than them. 

We live in an era in which Louis C.K.'s film loses distribution and won't get a screening just a month or so before the latest Woody Allen film gets roasted by film critics.
https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/why-louis-cks-i-love-you-daddy-should-never-have-been-distributed-in-the-first-place

...

“I Love You, Daddy” does all this without any complex or self-questioning artistry; with merely functional craft, it dispenses character traits, embodies messages, underlines every intention. Though two hours long and closed-ended, it is only a simulacrum of a movie. There is no ambiguity, no ambivalence, no second level of meaning, no irony, no glimmer of self-doubt—nothing but the channelling of a revolting sense of entitlement, of rights exercised without responsibilities. Louis C.K. has, and should have, the absolute right to make this movie and show it any way he can; but no responsible distributor should ever have decided to buy the rights to the movie from him (as The Orchard did, for five million dollars) or to promote it and release it. It’s good that the release of the movie has been cancelled—but it’s lamentable that it took the outing of Louis C.K.’s actual misconduct, rather than the movie’s own demerits, to get it off the calendar.

Why Brody was so indignant escapes me, because Woody Allen's latest film just got released. 
Where Brody's moral indignation seems baffling is in his insistence on the one hand that C.K. has and should have the right, to make the film he made but that no responsible distributor should have ever decided to buy the rights to the movie from him.  So the whole film-making process should be revered as sacred in spite of believing that the man who made the film should never have gotten a hearing at the distribution level?  Is this Brody's idea of principle?  Given what C.K. admitted to having done couldn't any number of people tell Brody that this half-measure of saying that guys like C.K. should be able to make their movies but that distributors shouldn't distribute them seems weirdly selective.  Because ...

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/watching-myself-watch-woody-allen-films

It would make life easier if Woody Allen’s movies were as easy and as right to condemn as his behavior. But that’s not my experience of his movies, and this makes it difficult both to watch and to write about them. In 2014, Allen’s daughter Dylan Farrow wrote an open letter, published in the Times, detailing her claims that Allen sexually molested her, on multiple occasions, when she was a child. Allen has denied wrongdoing. We cannot say for sure what happened. I can say what I believe: I believe Dylan Farrow. With considered queasiness, I have continued to watch Allen’s films as they’re released, including his new one, “Wonder Wheel,” which opens this weekend. It is strange and unpleasant to admit that I have found many of them to be substantial experiences—and that much of their power is inseparable from the accusations that have been made against Allen. ...

It would seem, summarily, that as bad a person as Woody Allen no doubt is, Richard Brody finds the films substantial enough to keep reviewing them and writing about them.  Allen's films, to take up a theme I've been writing about this weekend already, are sufficiently robust as subjects for art religion and the meta art religion of film criticism to make it worthwhile for Richard Brody to keep writing about them regardless of what he believes regarding Woody Allen's personal conduct.  If auteur theory is substantial enough for a guy like Brody to decide to keep watching Allen films I'll admit I'm not sure I subscribe to auteur theory or genre theory or the sorts of things that people who go to film school discuss.  I might, but the point is I didn't go to film school. 

But, and this is the most striking thing about a Richard Brody sort of film critic, none of that consideration applies to someone like Louis C.K. who is possibly some sort of Woody Allen knock-off. 

Yet CK's film got dropped and Allen's film got distributed through Amazon studios because ... Allen contested the allegations made against him and CK admitted they were all true, possibly?  The post-Weinstein moment might theoretically be a moment when things come crashing down or it might be a moment in which we find out which power-brokers and icons in the entertainment industry are "too big to fail" and which ones aren't.  Does a film critic like Richard Brody step back and think about how the primary difference between an Allen and a CK might just be a matter of technique?  It seems less and less to be a matter of whether one rich white guy with a sense of entitlement is necessarily worse than the other, if anything what Allen has been alleged to have done comes off as worse than what CK has admitted to doing, while both men seem bad.

Pertinent to a recent musing on the nature of Western art religion, it would seem the only reason a Richard Brody can say that Woody Allen's films hold up is on the basis of a Western art religion.  Louis CK made a film that pays tribute to Allen but not well enough to merit inclusion in the art religion or the meta-art religion known as film criticism.  For whatever reasons, Woody Allen films have made it into the cinematic canon and are thus going to be discussed, while the Louis CK film had its distribution dropped and will likely only be known to film school students and a handful of film critics.  Brody, for his part, imputes a regret and anguish to Allen's film-making process I can't recall ever seeing in any Allen film ever.  It's easier to believe that Brody has a conflicted relationship to his own feeling of obligation to recognize Allen as a canonical film-maker despite finding the man objectionable at the level of personal conduct.  CK has not and never will reach the same level, so the review reflects a probably corresponding lack of ambivalence kicking the film and the man CK to the curb as a critic. 

When Brody concludes his piece about himself watching Woody Allen films he wrote:

... It’s worth observing and lamenting the litany of victims in Allen’s work—the Carolinas and the Nolas, the mistresses and the wives, the girls getting undue attention and the lost, troubled boys. It’s a distressing measure of Allen’s achievement that his films are a record of their experience, as well—another measure of the inseparability of the artist and the art. In the bleak realm of amoral horror and troubled conscience that Allen depicts, he isn’t just a virtual character or participant—he’s also an observer. He has been working in the movies for half a century, and in entertainment even longer. The world that he depicts in his films is one in which the powerful abuse their power to prey upon the vulnerable and, until now, have, for the most part, gotten away with it. It’s also a world that, because of the courageous testimony of women including, crucially, Dylan Farrow, is now coming to light and, perhaps, to change.

Why Allen's films do this but C.K.'s did not is not so much explained as asserted by tacit invocation, in what Brody did and did not write.  Allen's films have the luxury of already being more or less canonical in film critical terms.  To use the phrase Brody provided for himself, a Woody Allen film gives a Richard Brody an opportunity to write about himself watching Woody Allen films and the nature of cinema, whereas a Louis C.K. leaves a film critic like Richard Brody only an opportunity to write about what he saw and what he thinks about it, which ends up by some meta-critical alchemy to have been not as worthy an experience in the realm of the meta art religion of film criticism. 

In the post-Weinstein moment the disturbing thing about Hollywood and journalistic outrage at someone like Roy Moore isn't a matter of whether what Moore has allegedly done is terrible, it's that given the scope of what the entertainment industry overlooked and tacitly endorsed inside itself over the last twenty to maybe one hundred years, moral outrage on the part of entertainers toward a GOP candidate can come across as being made in egregiously bad faith.  It's like the pot calling the kettle black and insisting on making a film about the moment. 

What Halle has pointed out is that when it comes to sexual exploitation the generation that has rallied around Clinton, whether Bill or Hillary, are simply not and likely never to be in a position of having any serious moral authority to object to predation that gets reported.  The Hollywood that threw itself behind Clinton did so despite Bill Clinton's way with women, and men in Hollywood having their own way with women (and/or men and children depending on circumstances). 

To put this all another way, a film industry that gave us Spotlight hasn't made a Spotlight about itself yet (has it?) and probably never will.

Friday, December 08, 2017

a difference of opinion on an Mbird piece called "Love the Art, Hate the Artist?" , I think Abby Farson Pratt has misread Claire Dederer at a couple of levels

As someone who regards Twitter with loathing as a medium that most people shouldn't be using because they probably don't know how to responsibly wield mass broadcast media I was already not on board with the opening for this piece that ran recently at Mockingbird. 

Now maybe people who use Twitter are prone to smirking, finger-pointing and handing down fatwas but I hate Twitter.  I despise it and would advise people to not use it if they can write down their thoughts in some longer-form format, like, you know, a blog post.   But maybe, okay, maybe people who tweet are as described in the first few sentences. 


http://www.mbird.com/2017/11/love-the-art-hate-the-artist/

We’re feeling pretty good about ourselves these days. We are doing a lot of smirking, a lot of finger-pointing, a lot of handing down of fatwas on Twitter.

When we cut someone off in traffic or lie to protect ourselves, we say, “Well, at least I’m not Harvey Weinstein. Or Louis C.K. Or Kevin Spacey. I’m not that bad.”

We enjoy this; we always have. It’s pleasant to publicly denounce others. Lately, we’ve been having a really good time. It seems like every other famous man has been exposed as a creep, or worse, a legitimate sexual predator. We look at our phones with anticipation every morning. What fresh hell we can heap on another dirty celebrity?

These days, it’s a common refrain: “I can’t read that book. Haven’t you heard what the author did?” or “Don’t watch that movie. Don’t you know the director believed X about Y?” It’s soothing, with art or pop culture, to draw lines around people and put ourselves on the other side. He is evil, and because I can say so, I must be good. I have the moral clarity to name and define his badness, and thus I am not counted in his number.

Sure, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but some have fallen more than others, am I right?

This is a nice worldview. I like it. It makes me feel comfortable and secure. Give me my self-approving weltanschaaung, and I will give you a scathing social media rebuke. It works for me, this philosophy that I’m not as bad as some, up to a point. That point, for me, is art and the artists who make it. What do we do with them? How do I reckon with the fact that most of my beloved artists were or are despicable human beings?

...

As incredible as it may seem to ... some folks, denouncing people is not really the base line of amusement for everyone.  Sure, we've had so many decades of Mystery Science Theater 3000 that there's a reboot of that show.  Sure, a lot of humor in shows these days ranges from The Simpsons through Family Guy into South Park and Archer and Rick & Morty for vitriol and that's only discussing animation. . But that trajectory goes all the way back to Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd as it is, so it would be difficult to say there's something unique about our moment there.

What may be different is that after half a century of cartoonish vitriol there's a level of brinksmanship that has arrived.  We've arrived at an era where it's not just a wise sidelong remark about Trump that tries to speak to the way we live now, we also live in an era in which comedians who rant on television are considered prophetic pundits.  But perhaps Ted Koppel wasn't so far wrong when he warned Jon Stewart that what he was doing would ultimately debase public discourse a few years back. 

So the Mbird piece goes for a while more or less in the tone and substance quoted above, but the linked article that inspired the piece was written by Claire Dederer.


https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2017/11/20/art-monstrous-men/

See, back when I read the alt-weeklies in Seattle I tended to read The Stranger for Chris Delaurenti's classical music writings and I tended to read The Seattle Weekly for Claire Dederer's pieces.  So I have, well, not a strong knowledge of her work since she stopped writing for the weekly but I have some idea how she writes and thinks. 

Dederer leads with ambivalence, in fact ambivalence is pretty much the point of the reflection.  She knows she's supposed to find Polanski appalling as a human being and finds him appalling but still admires the films. 

Now because Pratt's piece is a piece published at Mockingbird it's not too suprising the most Dederer-ish explication of her ambivalent relationship to the life and work of Woody Allen might not have made it into a piece published by a Christian pop cultural journal.  But, having some adult-life-long familiarity with the kind of stuff Dederer has written over the years, the Mbird piece should have quoted this part:
...
I know Polanski is worse, whatever that means, and Cosby is more current. But for me the ur-monster is Woody Allen.

The men want to know why Woody Allen makes us so mad. Woody Allen slept with Soon-Yi Previn, the child of his life partner Mia Farrow. Soon-Yi was a teenager in his care the first time they slept together, and he the most famous film director in the world.

I took the fucking of Soon-Yi as a terrible betrayal of me personally. When I was young, I felt like Woody Allen. I intuited or believed he represented me on-screen. He was me. This is one of the peculiar aspects of his genius—this ability to stand in for the audience. The identification was exacerbated by the seeming powerlessness of his usual on-screen persona: skinny as a kid, short as a kid, confused by an uncaring, incomprehensible world. (Like Chaplin before him.) I felt closer to him than seems reasonable for a little girl to feel about a grown-up male filmmaker. In some mad way, I felt he belonged to me. I had always seen him as one of us, the powerless. Post-Soon-Yi, I saw him as a predator.

My response wasn’t logical; it was emotional.

One rainy afternoon, in the spring of 2017, I flopped down on the living-room couch and committed an act of transgression. No, not that one. What I did was, I on-demanded Annie Hall. It was easy. I just clicked the OK button on my massive universal remote and then rummaged around in a bag of cookies while the opening credits rolled. As acts of transgression go, it was pretty undramatic.
I had watched the movie at least a dozen times before, but even so, it charmed me all over again. Annie Hall is a jeu d’esprit, an Astaire soft shoe, a helium balloon straining at its ribbon. It’s a love story for people who don’t believe in love: Annie and Alvy come together, pull apart, come together, and then break up for good. Their relationship was pointless all along, and entirely worthwhile. Annie’s refrain of “la di da” is the governing spirit of the enterprise, the collection of nonsense syllables that give joyous expression to Allen’s dime-store existentialism. “La di da” means, Nothing matters. It means, Let’s have fun while we crash and burn. It means, Our hearts are going to break, isn’t it a lark?

Annie Hall is the greatest comic film of the twentieth century—better than Bringing Up Baby, better even than Caddyshack—because it acknowledges the irrepressible nihilism that lurks at the center of all comedy. Also, it’s really funny. To watch Annie Hall is to feel, for just a moment, that one belongs to humanity. Watching, you feel almost mugged by that sense of belonging. That fabricated connection can be more beautiful than love itself. And that’s what we call great art. In case you were wondering.

Look, I don’t get to go around feeling connected to humanity all the time. It’s a rare pleasure. And I’m supposed to give it up just because Woody Allen misbehaved? It hardly seems fair.

and while part of me wants so badly to throw in the part where Dederer jumps into Heidegger I won't do it.  I doubt I'd agree that Annie Hall is the greatest comic film of the twentieth century.  Though I'm a pessimist in all sorts of ways I'm not sure I'd say I find much to relate to in irrepressible nihilism or that it inherently lurks at the center of all comedy.  I mean, since I've been reading Adorno and Benjamin this year either of them might say that seems like the kind of comfortable luxuriating nihilism that can be afforded by those who are already in the culture industry among the ruling classes or something like that. 

Dederer even shifts from quoting Heidegger to Walter Benjamin about art as witness to barbarism and yet ... it seems that where Pratt wants to go is ...


Maybe, just maybe, we’re also not great. Dederer expresses that flicker of recognition when we denounce a bad artist. We expertly suppress this feeling, this lurking sense that we may also resemble monsters, and then return to the joys of “loudly denouncing the monster in question.”
But Dederer is reluctant to make a stand at the conclusion of her article. In fact, she closes the piece with a list of questions:
What is to be done about monsters? Can and should we love their work? Are all ambitious artists monsters? Tiny voice: [Am I a monster?]
I loved her essay, but I felt a small wave of disappointment with this conclusion. I wanted more definition. But after a short pause, I realized that my theology compels me to take it a step further. I’m willing to say, in a large voice: [Yes, you’re a monster, and I’m a monster. We’re all monsters.]
...

Look,, I have what could be called a "low anthropology" in terms of Mockingbird lingo.  I'm a Calvinist.  I'm not only a Calvinist I have been reading Theodor Adorno and get this vibe that my disagreement with the Frankfurt school authors is predicated in part on a belief that they were too optimistic about the human condition.  My literary loves ranged from Herman Melville to Franz Kafka to Dostoevsky to Joseph Conrad to T. S. Eliot to Solzhenitsyn and I have a moderate chunk of the horrifying account of the Nagasaki bombing Barefoot Gen.  In film I'm fond of films by Christopher Nolan, Satoshi Kon, Miyazaki, Kurosawa, Lang and a few others.  I love Nolan's filmography-long exploration of how men deceive themselves into thinking they're heroes when they're often villains.

All that said, what Dederer is struggling with seems relatively clear to me.  She shared a story about how someone told her she shouldn't have X or Y feelings about a Woody Allen film because those were the wrong feelings to have.  There's an idea lurking in that stuff if you haven't read it, but what Dederer gets at is an ambivalence about what I would call Western art religion, which includes a commandment that if the art work is sacred enough in academic and critical terms, you're just supposed to suck it up and forget that a film makes you feel "urpy". 

Dederer is not the kind of writer who could be outdone by an Mbird contributor in terms of breezy ambivalence, but there's the ambivalence that can be read within the breezy.  One of the points where Pratt stopped quoting Dederer was where she should have kept going.
...
The critic Walter Benjamin said: “At the base of every major work of art is a pile of barbarism.” My own work could hardly be called major, but I do wonder: at the base of every minor work of art, is there a, you know, smaller pile of barbarism? A lump of barbarism? A skosh?

There are many qualities one must possess to be a working writer or artist. Talent, brains, tenacity. Wealthy parents are good. You should definitely try to have those. But first among equals, when it comes to necessary ingredients, is selfishness. A book is made out of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one. The selfishness of stealing stories from real people. The selfishness of saving the best of yourself for that blank-faced anonymous paramour, the reader. The selfishness that comes from simply saying what you have to say.
...

Now, for me, that's pretty funny.  Dederer invokes Benjamin's comment about art and barbarism and then hopes that, you know, if you're a minor writer of no real consequence who's only done one or two books maybe that means that you're only just a little barbaric.


Possibly unlike Pratt I've managed to read Dederer off and on over the last ... twenty years ... so I'm willing to pull rank on the proposal I have that Dederer absolutely recognizes there's some kind of barbarity or monstrosity inside her since she went to the trouble of making that joke invoking Walter Benjamin.  What makes it read like, well, Claire Dederer is the knowingness of joking that she hoped that by being such a minor and unimportant writer compared to any writer you'd have to read for a college course that there's at least some sliding scale of atrocity.  Nobody's exempt from the barbarism pile but the less important your work is the less barbaric you are so, here's hoping for being completely negligible as a writer or artist! 

Dederer has been saying, in her own way, that she recognizes that she's a monster.  In fact ...

I have to wonder: maybe I’m not monstrous enough. I’m aware of my own failings as a writer—indeed I know the list to a fare-thee-well, and worse are the failures that I know I’m failing to know— but a little part of me has to ask: if I were more selfish, would my work be better? Should I aspire to greater selfishness?

Every writer-mother I know has asked herself this question. I mean, none of them says it out loud. But I can hear them thinking it; it’s almost deafening. Does one identity fatally interrupt the other? Is your work making you a less-good mom? That’s the question you ask yourself all the time. But also: Is your motherhood making you a less good writer? That question is a little more uncomfortable.
Jenny Offill gets at this idea in a passage from her novel Dept of Speculation—a passage much shared among the female writers and artists of my acquaintance: “My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his umbrella. VĂ©ra licked his stamps for him.”

I mean, I hate licking stamps. An art monster, I thought when I read this. Yes, I’d like to be one of those. My friends felt the same way. Victoria, an artist, went around chanting “art monster” for a few days.

The female writers I know yearn to be more monstrous. They say it in off-hand, ha-ha-ha ways: “I wish I had a wife.” What does that mean, really? It means you wish to abandon the tasks of nurturing in order to perform the selfish sacraments of being an artist.

What if Im not monster enough?

So, I'd say that Pratt wildly misread Dederer.  How can someone joke "What if I'm not monster enough?" if they don't recognize a capacity for monstrosity?   Some people have bluntly suggested one of the reasons Joan Didion has been such a remarkable writer has had something to do with her not being very good (at all) as a mother.  Dederer's not exactly being abstract about this, it's hardly unknown that many a legendary writer is legendarily bad at something else.  Great virtue in one realm can often indicate a great vice in some other realm that's impossible to entirely separate from the virtue.  That's the crisis, there's a question as to whether or not the beauty of the art ultimately offsets the ugliness in the character of the men and women who make that beauty.  And in that sense every artist is a god against whom an Ivan Karamazov might say "I cannot accept their world."

In the longer-form case Dederer made that I'm not sure Pratt did justice to, no I'm sure Pratt didn't do justice to it, Dederer highlights all the ways in which being accomplished as a writer or artist involves abandoning the needs and interests and wants of children and lovers and that women are stuck always doing this calculus in a way that guys may possibly do but don't have to feel much guilt about.  That baby came out of a woman's womb in a significantly different way than semen came out of a man's penis, to put it even more bluntly than Dederer put it but which is unavoidably indicated in her essay.  So for you to knowingly carry that baby to term and then ignore that child to finish a writing project isn't the same as some guy who emits his seed and then goes on his artist way regardless of whether or not the child survives into childbirth or ever gets fed a hot meal the rest of his or her life.

On the whole I'd say that at two different levels Pratts zinger just fails to land for me.  On the one hand, Dederer clearly signaled all the ways in which any woman writer, but most especially a woman writer with a spouse and children, behaves in monstrous ways and how those small monstrosities are necessary to get anything done.  On the other hand, she lays out a dilemma that goes to the heart of what we might call Western liberal arts religion, the realization that at some level we have this creed that says that if the art is beautiful enough the evil stuff that artists do to people along the way toward making that beautiful art is somehow "worth it".  Why?  Because ...

I took the fucking of Soon-Yi as a terrible betrayal of me personally. When I was young, I felt like Woody Allen. I intuited or believed he represented me on-screen. He was me. This is one of the peculiar aspects of his genius—this ability to stand in for the audience.

As I've been using the phrase art religion, what I'm getting at is that Dederer has explicated a way in which art religion works in the West right now.  While for pulp film and fiction Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey is an audience surrogate, such brazen audience surrogacy tends to be scorned by film critics ... unless, as we've just seen, the film-maker can be an audience surrogate for a film critic.  If in the 19th century European avant gardists believed that some kind of transcendent unified art-religion could replace Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, in the later part of the 20th century everything went meta, and not necessarily in terms of postmodernism or people throwing around the term meta-narrative.  It wasn't even all that new in the sense that 19th century authors were capable of understanding the premise that art was the lie that told the truth about the human condition even though properly educated people still knew what a lie it all really was in the end. 

Artier films and art and literature are still surrogacy projects in interpretation, but they serve as critic surrogates rather than more generic audience surrogates.  This might go a long way to explain why plenty of film critics who admire Woody Allen films hate Christopher Nolan films, because Christopher Nolan films are unabashedly making a point, whatever the point may be, from movie to movie.  You're not invited to read yourself into a character or into the tabula rasa of a film like, oh, mother! Adorno wrote in Aesthetic Theory that the philistine insists on enjoying or not enjoying a work of art based on whether or not he can find himself in the art experience and "gets something out of it." The philistine needs to be able to find himself in the character that appears or it's no fun. 

Well, the next level up from that might be the film that isn't made for an audience but for the film critic.  In Allen's films Dederer reveals a film-maker whose work can be both, an audience surrogate but a critic surrogate.  Sure, all of that may still be narcissistic reading that has little to do with the art work itself but the thing is you have to be better educated to enjoy an art film character as your surrogate.  If a superhero is a power fantasy about a liberated and fully realized body that has power, arthouse power fantasies are about education and social influence.  They're still ultimately just as juvenile as power fantasies as superhero films in the end, but they seem better and less street because you have to know so much more to get how the power fantasies work ... or maybe not since we're still talking about Woody Allen films.  If a guy has enough education and verbal skill even teenage girls will want to date him. 

That may get closer to the kind of crisis Dederer's musings upon Allen's work really invites, a recognition that the liberal arts religion film critics and writers and artists and musicians and film-makers and dancers believe elevates the human condition may do nothing of the kind.  Dederer takes solace on the one hand on being so unimportant a writer that maybe that means she only has a small little pile of barbarism, but then if she's not a monster she's probably not a writer worth taking seriously at all and what writer who writes doesn't want to be taken at least sorta vaguely seriously? 

The crisis is that for Dederer Woody Allen's films are still funny enough and inspiring enough and he's still enough of an audience surrogate for her that she still likes all sorts of stuff about Allen's films despite knowing she regards the man as a very bad sort of guy.  The crisis is that sense that Tolstoy couldn't have been right, that it's impossible to really hope that a great artist can also be a great (as in morally admirable) human being.  There's always some trade off and the invocation of Hemingway's lover indicating that the guy became a great artist because he was such a bad person he had to offset that somehow drove the point home, that is to say Dederer's point.  So then the question at the end "Am I monster?" becomes an ironic worry that maybe she's NOT a monster and therefore NOT an artist, if artistry and art are inseparable from barbarism.  But is it worth it to be barbaric or is it worth to not be barbaric in exchange for being a decent human being who no one will read in a generation?

Because, as is tacit in Dederer's piece but is explicit in so many ways come Oscar season and awards times, there is part of the Western art religion that insists that artists are the better, more moral and truth-telling liars than those who peddle religion and its associated vices.  Except that ... on the whole it's hard to get the impression that this is plausible.  If Roy Moore is a punchline to liberals what did Roy Moore do that was so different from what Polanski or Allen did?  Hold a different set of ideals for public consideration? 

As I've gotten older I've thought that there's probably no way each person on earth can avoid being  a hypocrite about something.  Preaching a set of ideals you fail to live by is going to happen to us.  But what can rankle people about an ideological enemy, whatever the sort, is the sense that there's a double standard, that the monster condemns us for a moral failure that he or she exempts himself or herself from being judged by in advance of the judgment levied against us.  When Jesus condemned certain people he condemned them for putting heavy burdens on people that they would not lift a finger to move themselves.  He warned of some men that they sat in the seat of Moses and that you should do what they tell you to do but to not follow their examples. 

By and large I've never had any use for Woody Allen films. If I want to watch a film made by someone with New York connections and hyper-literary dialogue slewn back and forth by elitists debating the nature of the human condition I'll take Whit Stillman instead.  But then Stillman considered it a complement that the worst put-down Brett Easton Ellis could come up with to say about him was that he was a moralist.  That he called his most famous set of films the doomed bourgeois in love trilogy pretty well clears up that he understands he's come from an American aristocracy and has made films about a fading American aristocratic class that doesn't realize it's time is up and that they weren't quite as good as they thought they were and whoever takes up the role of the new American aristocracy could be even worse than them. 

As gloomy and pessimistic as I often am about the human condition I have to remind myself that one of the first DVDs I ever bought was Singin' in the Rain.  I also adore the music of Haydn.  Gene Kelly once summed up the themes that drove his life as an artist as finding ways to depict love and joy.  I can't blame him for that, I'll probably never be able to blame him for that even if Zanadu was a pretty bad movie.  Haydn's conviction that the world is so full of misery and trials that he wanted to serve God and neighbor by finding some way to bring beauty, joy and peace into the world through his music is another personal mission for an artist I can't really disagree with.  Like I said, Haydn has been one of my musical heroes pretty much my whole adult life.

Now Haydn was an awful philandering husband despite the fact that he pushed for free medical care for all the musicians he supervised and managed to successfully plead clemency against Napoleon's invading forces on behalf of the town where he lived in his final years.  Haydn was bad in a few ways but I don't think we can altogether give up on the idea that the personal ethic and integrity of the artist can be hoped to in some way be vaguely commensurate to the beauty of the art the artist makes.

I just don't agree with Pratt's premise or conclusion.  I don't think the crisis we're looking at is whether or not we're all monsters.  Even as a Calvinist I would say we all have the capacity for monstrous deeds but that's actually not the same thing.  Now maybe I had the unfair advantage of having read a few things by Dederer here and there over the last twenty years but I would say Pratt misunderstood where Dederer was going and what she was proposing.  She recognizes that men she admires as writers and artists were and are monsters and is not sure how to reconcile that with a belief that an artist should in some sense be a good, decent person as well as a good, decent artist.  We expect there to be some kind of proportional relationship, rather than an inversely proportional relationship between the virtue of the artist and the greatness we see in the resultant art. 

There are those who insist we should still separate the ethical practice from the artistic process in "some" way.  But given that Woody Allen's film got a release and Louis CK's film did not the question I'm mulling over is whether or not a lot of this "post Weinstein" moment is going through motions.  If Woody Allen is still "too big to fail", if critics berate the film that managed to get released anyway while the CK film has no release, it's possible that we still endorse something like an art religion where people who are known to be awful people get exemptions if the art they make is considered important enough to Western art religion.  The people who make those calls are film critics and film school instructors rather than the populace at large.  The crisis of faith in art religion and its calculus of personal ethics against artistic mojo is not necessarily shared by the people who took their kids to see the My Little Pony film this year.  People who watch superhero films like Spiderman: Homecoming or Wonder Woman aren't going to see films that highlight the irrepressible nihilism at the heart of all comedy. 

While I have my doubts that in the "post Weinstein" moment things will necessarily change, the most salient question, which takes up the nature of a moral crisis, is still able to be front and center--whether the beauty critics and arts educators find in art works are so great they offset the horrible things we learn have been perpetrated by the artists who made the canonical works.  If the result is amazing enough and beautiful enough then can we overlook bullying, self-aggrandizing and even thuggish behavior because of that? 

If it's hard for those who don't even profess any kind of Christian faith to square the monstrosities of art monster men with  the art they made; if the math doesn't seem satisfying enough to overlook how even famous artists treated people because of, hey, art; then don't Christians have potentially (or actually) even less wiggle room to consider character as something that can be fully extracted from legacy?  Watch your lives and doctrine closely, for instance?  Even the Greeks could have an axiom that character was destiny but the art religion of the contemporary West has, in many ways, rejected this and the priesthood of that Western art religion, critics and educators, has played a larger than average role in fomenting such a religion of art.  Bad people can make beautiful things, I get it.  Gesualdo was a nasty, nasty piece of work who wrote some beautiful choral music.  As I was saying earlier, I'm a Calvinist, I don't have really strong objections to any part of the basic TULIP although I can see how an Amyraldian position could kinda sorta work sometimes.  Despite that, the declaration that "we're all monsters" doesn't hold water for me.

There's a point at which an axiom to the effect that 'we're all monsters' could be translated into something like 'you deserve Hell. everything else is a gift.'  As I was writing earlier, to say that each human has a capacity for monstrosity isn't the same as saying that capacity is realized all the time.  To put it still another way, there's a danger in presuming a monstrosity endemic to "all" of us that even a Calvinist can avoid because there's this thing called common grace.  Maybe not everyone has heard of this doctrine ... but it can go some way to explaining why though everyone is a sinner in some way not everyone sins in precisely the same way as a Woody Allen. 

The question of whether the products or legacy of Western art religion more than compensate for the harm done to people along the way is not a question that is just for Western secularists or humanists into the liberal arts.  The question of whether or not the beautiful legacy is worth valuing more than the very bad behavior of ambitious men wanting to change the world is germane to other parts of life.  It's possible for someone to know that people are sinners who have flaws and still conclude that there has to be some point at which the beauty of the thing created, the art work or the legacy of a community is simply not worth overlooking or merely saying a "we're all monsters".  In light of the fact that Dederer brought up Polanski and the allegations against him, a person can't be un-raped, a person cant be un-murdered, a person can't be un-maimed.  

What makes our capacity for monstrous acts so terrifying is that the super-majority of the things we do or say that have monstrous effects don't seem that terrible at the time we say or do them.  They might even seem witty, funny, right or true and then we might be in a position to see the consequences of what seemed like the perfect thing to say or do at a given moment to highlight how smart or right we are.  A lot of the sinfulness of sin is that its true power to damage doesn't become clear until well past the point at which any of us could undo the damage.  What can seem like a bracing and inspiring idea, a call to authentic Christian community and engagement in the arts and sharing life together in a place like Puget Sound can turn into ... well ... how much of the history of the former Mars Hill Church do I really need to rehearse by now?

The Church is full of too many men and women, too, with power and influence for whom the legacy of what they aspire to is considered beautiful enough or important enough to overlook a few skeletons in a closet.  Someone I used to see every so often a decade and a half ago said, ten years ago, that there was a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus and that by God's grace there'd be a mountain by the time they were done.  I get that people are sinners who need the mercy of Christ.  I'm a Calvinist, after all, but even a Calvinist can still propose that at some point the beauty of the legacy, real or anticipated, doesn't offset harm done to people whether the legacy is the films of Woody Allen or the former empire in Puget Sound of a guy like Mark Driscoll. 

There's a point at which a Christian (or any decent person) can look at the work or the legacy and then look at the conduct and character of the person putting the legacy together and conclude that, no, the beauty of what you're trying to build here does not really outweigh how badly you've treated people.  If that's true of the Church I don't see why it can't also be true about the arts.  I love the arts but the older I get the less I care to keep up the bromides of Western art religion and if we consider what the nature of the post-Weinstein crisis seems to be, the crisis is coming to an understanding of how many lives have been ruined in the name of an art religion that seems less and less beautiful enough to justify overlooking the ruined lives.