Archive for the ‘Arts’ Category

Why can’t everyone have beautiful things?

Unlike other areas of popular arts — film, music, etc. — where the barriers to entry have gotten lower and the price point has allowed for mass enjoyment, high art remains an area locked away in the homes of the rich and tucked into the sterility of the museum.

I can’t get a Rembrandt or a Rauschenberg to hang in my house, or if I did, it would cost a prohibitive sum. Sure, I could get a poster, but it wouldn’t have the depth or interest of the real thing, or even of a decent copy.

Thomas Kinkade was a philanderer, a hypocrite, and a sanctimonious jackass, but certainly if adultery, hypocrisy, and sanctimoniousness disqualify you for being a great artist, we wouldn’t have many to go around. His art, admittedly, was not the finest of anything — mostly the kind of cozy village scene or sun-dappled coastline that all middle Americans wished their communities looked like: equal parts Dickens, Grovers’ Corner, Hudson Valley School, and pastels (good Lord). It’s a particularly retrograde blend of lens flare and over-luminosity that feels to me like watching a JJ Abrams movie … with glaucoma and a pastel palette.

Yet, the art snobs who look at Kinkade with disdain ignore that Kinkade dedicated himself to a market that they had largely ignored — what the 99 percent actually want. Now, to be fair, Kinkade’s pricing system of tiered “limited editions” definitely created the same kinds of pricing and financing schemes that the housing bubble did, where “investors” believed (and still believe) that their paintings’ value will inevitably rise. But like predatory lenders and developers, he was addressing a demand unaddressed by the broader market — Americans wanted beautiful things that they could show off to people who entered their houses, and they wanted to look at beautiful things on a daily basis.

The art world refused to provide that, focusing on the Venetian Bienniale and “big art,” on skyrocketing prices for Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons and their titillating ilk. Much of the great art since the Renaissance was founded on a clientele of the small businessman and the petit bourgeois, from the local merchants who commissioned Dutch masters to paint their portraits to the tiny collectors dotted across Provence who picked up Cezannes and Van Goghs. Today, the art world has returned to the Renaissance-era patron, the super-client rather than the myriad horde.

Matt Yglesias has a schtick about lower-quality goods in higher-quantity, which raise overall utility and satisfaction. I don’t know if I always buy that argument, but in Kinkade’s case, he was producing an inferior good that was able to reach many more people, the store-brand art that you could enjoy in your home on a regular basis.

Kinkade was no saint, but he highlighted a problem with the way that visual arts in particular conceive of their purpose and their audience. Rembrandt and Warhol had no problem churning out work from a factory to give more product to a yearning populace. Instead, the art world of today is largely frozen in private collections and snooty museums, only occasionally glimpsed by the rest of us. Kinkade gave us art in the shopping mall, art through the mail, art a click away. Warhol, Rauschenberg, and Liechtenstein thought they were making mass art, but it was Kinkade who truly brought it to the masses. For that, he deserves our recognition, even if not our gratitude.

P.S. If you haven’t read the Susan Orlean piece on Kinkade, it’s worth the (long) read.

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This WSJ piece about the “science” (such as it is) behind Adele’s “Someone Like You” has been floating around. The premise is interesting, of course: Why do certain songs make us cry? This is fine, as far as it goes, but I find the article to be deeply unsatisfying:

“Someone Like You” is a textbook example. “The song begins with a soft, repetitive pattern,” said Dr. Guhn, while Adele keeps the notes within a narrow frequency range. The lyrics are wistful but restrained: “I heard that you’re settled down, that you found a girl and you’re married now.” This all sets up a sentimental and melancholy mood.

When the chorus enters, Adele’s voice jumps up an octave, and she belts out notes with increasing volume. The harmony shifts, and the lyrics become more dramatic: “Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.”

OK, let’s back this up. First of all, the article purports to identify certain traits that make a song particularly weep-worthy, or rather, universally weep-worthy. Yet, the emotional framework that prompts particular reactions has more roots than mere sonic stimuli. That is to say, context matters. Cross-cultural studies reveal differences in the kinds of stimuli that provoke crying and different social functions that it serves. Any attempt to build the “perfect crying pop song” is probably misguided, or at the very least, restricted by the local culture. Consider the findings of this study about the cathartic nature of crying across cultures:

Several contextual features of crying episodes were indeed predictive of crying-related catharsis. Specifically, the receipt of social support, experiencing a resolution to the event that caused the crying episode, and achieving a new understanding of the event were positively related to catharsis. Crying episodes that featured the suppression of crying or the experiencing of shame from crying were less likely to be cathartic. The data suggest that contextual factors may play an important role in shaping crying-related catharsis.

Although it’s interesting, of course, that appoggiaturas are present in many songs that people identify as causing them to cry, one wonder what made people cry prior to the invention of the appoggiatura, or to pianos, or to the modern musical instrument generally. I think the context matters much more than the piece of music itself (for example, in one study (JSTOR PDF registration needed for full article), women consistently experienced more chills when listening to music than men.). There seems to be more at play here than some inherent connection between appoggiaturas and crying; maybe it’s that we have ascribed certain emotional cues to certain types of music as a society, rather than anything essential to the construction/arrangement of the sounds themselves. I hypothesize that playing “Someone Like You” for a Maori tribesman 400 years ago would have led to a very different reaction.

That said, let’s assume that there is a manipulative way in which Adele’s “Someone Like You” or Schumann’s “Traumerei” have been constructed to make us cry. Let’s say that they are cynical ploys to engage our waterworks, in the same way that certain pop song earworms are designed to be stuck in your head until you die. Does that actually affect your enjoyment of the song? I know that there are dopamine releases when I eat fatty foods that make me feel good, but so what? I can still feel great when I eat it! I know that my favorite movies include manipulative tools to make me feel a certain way. That doesn’t stop me from feeling that way? Perhaps the sign of a work of art that has achieved greatness is its ability to move us even as we know we are being manipulated.

Or, as a friend of mine said, maybe “it makes us cry because it’s BEAUTIFUL.” I think I’m okay with that.

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“The Devil Inside,” a mockumentary exorcism movie that critics and viewers alike agree is total garbage, has been bizarrely successful.

This reminds me of the “My Humps” phenomenon, in which a song that was so terrible that no one in their right mind could possibly enjoy it defied the expectations of the band, label, and thinking human beings.

These phenomena go beyond mere “So Bad It’s Good.” No one walked out of “The Devil Inside” or listened to “My Humps” and thought even ironically that it was good. This is voluntary experiencing badness in mass quantities.

A few notes: scarcity is important here. January is typically the worst time for new movies, particularly mass-market movies. Thus, January has regularly produced a parade of box-office horribles, from the Big Momma’s franchise to Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

Additionally, this is not a case of differing opinions between critics and viewers. Devil Inside scored abysmally (“F”) on Cinemascore, which surveys audience members with exit surveys to determine how they enjoyed the film. Viewers hated it; critics hated it; and yet, people went to go see it in swarms.

Was it a good marketing campaign? Maybe. But plenty of good marketing campaigns fail to build buzz that translates to eyeballs.

Rather than asking a question of marketing/box office success, I think this question gets at a central idea of movies: Why go in the first place? We go to see films (or listen to music, etc.) for a variety of minutes, and we’ll pick something based on our goal. Sometimes, we want to be scared, and in January, when pickings are slim, we’ll go see a terrible one. Sometimes, we want to listen to a dance single, and when one appears on the radio, we’ll keep listening, even if we don’t even enjoy it.

Tastemakers would hate to admit it, but our tastes are as much about availability bias and what’s right in front of you, rather than some careful selection. We watch whatever we can agree on (e.g. the success of “Pawn Stars”), not what is greatest (e.g. the ratings for “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Wire,” etc.).

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In case you missed it, Youtube has its own Top 100 Music Videos charts, which serve as an interesting foil to the Billboard Hot 100.

The Billboard charts, once the gauge of pop song penetration across the nation, has limited utility these days. Although it now incorporates digital purchases, it still has both a bias towards recency (because people don’t purchase songs twice) and bias against the too recent (songs that have been leaked or have not been officially released).

A good example of this phenomenon is the chart performance of Rebecca Black’s novelty song “Friday.” It reached its peak in cultural salience in mid-March, and appeared on the Billboard charts at #72. The song peaked on the charts (at #58) two weeks after its peak in cultural salience. Conversely, the song’s conquering of Youtube happened almost instantaneously with a long tail as people continued watching the videos.

So, a brief tour of the differences in the two charts for this week. Youtube’s 100 still has the big hitters. Youtube’s Top 10 features 5 songs currently in Billboard’s Top 10, and 1 song that very recently was (“Super Bass” – #14 on Billboard). Yet its differences reflect its odd bent. For one, the chart tends to go a bit further afield than whitebread America, particularly in its inclusion of foreign/world/Spanish-language songs. “Rain Over Me,” a Pitbull song from this summer that peaked at #30 on the Billboard Hot 100 in August, sits comfortably at #6. Shakira’s generally forgotten World Cup anthem “Waka Waka” still inexplicably holds a #18 position on the Youtube 100.

What to make of Michel Telo’s “Ai Se Eu Te Pego,” a Portuguese-language song from Brazil with 33 million Youtube views?

I actually have a soft spot for this cheeseball sing-along. Certainly such a song would never make it on the Billboard charts, and most of its audience is likely Brazilian. The Youtube 100’s global reach folds in K-Pop, Brazilian pop-country, and reggaeton.

Consider the kind of American hit that makes it on the Youtube charts but not the Billboards.

This is Don Omar’s “Danza Kuduro.” The song hit number one in Austria, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands, but not in the U.S. An American song written largely in Spanish with a large polyglot global audience fits the narrative of the new global music industry’s reach.

In addition to its internationalist bent, the Youtube 100 reads trends before they peak on the Billboard 100. For example, Justin Bieber’s “Mistletoe,” a promotional single from his “well, his voice dropped” Christmas album is already trending downwards on Youtube even as it debuts at #11 on the Billboard charts.

In light of these differences, it’s worth pondering what music charts are worth anyways. What do these charts actually tell us? Are they a window into a nation’s soul? I mean, maybe. But charts are essentially ephemeral; they can’t tell us which songs will last as monuments and which songs will slide into oblivion. Cultural critics will capture the ego, and historians will capture the superego, but the charts are pure id. That’s what the Youtube 100 captures, and what the Billboard 100 increasingly cannot do.

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What does it mean to be a genius? What do you think of? Does such a person accomplish his or her greatest work by their mid-20’s? Einstein sure did. So many of the greatest scientists in history did. But where does this genius come from, particularly from our most creative artists? History is littered with examples of troubled genius, where insight or achievement comes from a dark place or a troubled mind. Van Gogh was 37 when he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. John Nash suffered from schizophrenia. Musical legends like Cobain, Joplin, Hendrix and Morrison were all dead at 27. Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway are just some of many writers who have taken their lives. The list goes on and on.

Here is a TED talk from Elizabeth Gilbert, best known for writing Eat, Pray, Love. I think she hits on something very important near the beginning. At one point she says (and I’m paraphrasing based on typing this out as I listen to her say it):

Norman Mailer said shortly before his death that “every one of my books has killed me a little more.”  …And we don’t even blink when we hear someone say this. We’ve internalized and accepted that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked. Artistry will ultimately lead to anguish.

So I was happy when I read something recently about Michael Chabon. He’s a pretty damn good writer. And he once told reporters that he adheres to a rigid writing routine of 1,000 words per day, 10:00 AM through 3:00 PM, Sunday through Thursday. He added: “There have been plenty of self-destructive rebel-angel novelists over the years, but writing is about getting your work done and getting your work done every day.”

I find it reassuring to know that Chabon doesn’t need to start drinking at 9 in the morning, that he doesn’t engage in self-destructive behavior out of fear of not living up to past successes, and that his best work does not depend on him coming from a dark place. Rather, he simply works hard on a set schedule, and trusts that good work will come from it. I agree with Gilbert that we have too readily accepted the construct that creative genius and suffering are necessarily linked. It doesn’t have to be that way.

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Not bad for "design by committee" (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

As the debt ceiling hullabaloo is still ongoing and vastly depressing, I’m going to blog about a general idea that bugs me — that of the singular brilliant “auteur” — which has recently spread to this technology article in the NYTimes contrasting Apple and Google.

To summarize my previous argument about singular auteurs:

The recent revelations of Robert Johnson’s sped-up recordings show that even the most idealized and individualized romantic musical figure — the traveling bluesman who sold his soul to the devil — is just as co-dependent as everyone else. Homer was probably multiple people; Emily Dickinson needed the support and encouragement of Thomas Higginson; and Robert Johnson had a nosy producer. If anything, I find this reality much more assuring than the God-given myth of great artists, because it reminds us that prodigious talent is not the result of magic folks coming out of the clear blue sky (or another world), but products of an individual and community effort.

The Times story suggests that Google’s design team is hampered by “design by committee.” This is a long-standing joke, but frankly, “design by committee” can yield superb results. Consider Chartres Cathedral: there’s no greater “design by committee” example on earth. How many craftsmen over how many years put together that glorious building, and yet, no one would say that its design was the work of any one man. Is it a victim of the shortcomings of “design by committee”? Raymond Carver’s stories are as much a response to Gordon Lish, his editor, as they are a fully-grown one-man production.

And yet, we want so much to believe that some magical individual person is behind our products (or our music or our art, etc.). When people go to a restaurant with a celebrity chef moniker, they expect that the chef is back in the kitchen actually cooking the food. Instead, the chef has delegated the responsibilities for the menu and cooking to his executive chef at the restaurant. This sort of “design by committee” all works well, and no one complains that they are not eating the food of the “auteur” (until, of course, they discover that Emeril isn’t really back there!).

Google’s method of “design by committee” gave us a better browser than Apple, a better maps app than MapQuest, a better mail program than, well, anything really.

This is not to devalue the contributions of Steve Jobs, who undoubtedly turned around Apple’s fortunes. It is worth thinking that there are many paths to great art, and nowhere is this clearer than in another company that Jobs helped to turn around — Pixar. I can’t think of a better example of “design by committee” pursuing excellence and hitting it almost every time.

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Homegrown Chicago rapper Rhymefest (aka Che Smith) forced a run-off election against incumbent 20th Ward Alderman Willie Cochran. He is almost certain to be crushed in the runoff (the initial election was 46-20).

There are plenty reasons not to vote Rhymefest. He has never held elected office. He has not lived in the 20th Ward that long. One of the primary functions of aldermen in the past has been getting local constituents’ voices and needs met at the city level; El Che doesn’t have that kind of clout. Plus, he has a criminal record, including gun crimes (Chicago’s least favorite type of crime).

But Rhymefest’s occupation and his creative output should not be the reason anyone casts their vote. Among rappers, Rhymefest has unique credentials. He’s politically conscious in a way that, say, DMX is not. He has had a frank discussion with David Cameron about violence in popular music. Unless one wants to say that all rappers are inherently unfit for political service, one cannot use Fest’s rhymes as a bar for public service. Increasingly, democracy has become restricted to a limited few in a political class that repeatedly entrenches itself with moneyed interests. This campaign against Rhymefest’s rapping reminds me of the slams against Al Franken when running for Senate.

Let Rhymefest prove if he’s got the chops, instead of slamming him simply for his rap career.

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