art


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Bryan Caplan has a new post, which suggests that modern art is greatly overrated, and perhaps even a big mistake. Before commenting, a few clarifications:

A. I’m not a huge fan of “modern art”, as the 20th century is probably only my 4th favorite century for painting, (after the sublime 17th, the 16th, and the 19th.)

B. It’s not clear what Bryan means by ‘modern art’. When art critics use the term it generally refers to art produced during the first 2/3rds of the 20th century (Matisse, Picasso, Pollack, etc.). When the term is used by non-experts it more often refers to either very recent art (termed ‘contemporary art’ by experts) or abstract art (modern or contemporary.) Because Bryan mentioned that his son didn’t think it was art at all, I’m going to assume he meant abstract art. But my comments would be roughly the same either way.

Bryan constructs a rather complex theory to explain why modern art is somewhat popular, despite not being very good. His theory of why it continues to be popular is based on the prestige imparted by museums, while another theory explains how it first became established. But in the tradition of Occam’s razor, I have a much simpler explanation; tastes differ.

I doubt that Bryan would deny that tastes differ, but for some reason he doesn’t see this as a very good explanation for modern art. Here are some reasons why my theory is more plausible than his:

1. The same thing occurred in earlier centuries. The late work of Turner, as well as Whistler’s nocturnes, were originally viewed as ugly splotches of color, even by experts like Ruskin. I vaguely recall reading that Mozart once explained one of his more difficult works to a friend by suggesting something to the effect that, “this is for future generations”. Of course I could cite many similar examples, such as Cezanne, Van Gogh, etc. If it happened before, why doesn’t Bryan think it will happen again?

(Late Turner)

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At the same time, it’s also true that lots of older art did not stand the test of time. And I have no doubt that lots of 20th century art will be forgotten by the 23rd century.

2. Bryan’s theory that people are sort of fooled into liking art displayed in museums doesn’t explain why lots of people also like modern art appearing in other (less prestigious) venues. Nor does it explain discriminating taste. When I go into an art museum, I like some examples of modern art, but not others. Why? Isn’t it possible that this reflects some enduring quality in the art itself, not just my taste being manipulated by framing techniques?

3. There is some abstract art that I can appreciate today, that would have gone right over my head when I was younger (such as Klee and Kandinsky). But that’s equally true of other art forms, such as film, poetry and music. Yet museums were just as intimidating to me at age 12 as they are today, indeed even more so.

4. There is a tendency for almost all art forms to become more “difficult” over time, as the easier to create expressive possibilities become exhausted. If modern painting is a bit of a scam, then is this also true of “boring art films”? How about difficult modern music? What about poetry that to the average person looks like a random collection of words?

So Bryan faces a dilemma. He needs to add other forms of modern art beyond painting and sculpture to his theory, or else explain why certain trends in one art form (greater abstraction) are occurring for totally different reasons that seemingly similar trends in another.

FWIW, I “get” the visual arts much better than other art forms like music (and poetry). But I don’t assume that the music that goes right over my head is bad, just that I don’t have a good ear for that art form. Isn’t it plausible that some brains are wired to better appreciate the visual arts, while others are wired to better appreciate other types of art?

5. Tyler Cowen likes modern art. Does he seem like the type of person to be swayed by pretensions of art museums? Or does he seem more like a contrarian, who often likes to tout “low brow” pop art like superhero films, and take highly pretentious art down a peg or two?

So I think Bryan is wrong about modern art. But contemporary art? Well, let’s just say that time will tell. 🙂

PS. When I was young I recall grown-ups saying that rock groups like the Beatles were merely producing ugly noise. I disagreed. Now boomers my age tell me that rap music is just ugly noise.

PPS. What made that otherwise law-abiding middle class Tucson couple steal a de Kooning and display it in a remote part of their house for 30 years (where visitors could not see it)? Did they think, “It’s in a museum so it must be good”, or “we passionately love this painting”.

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Like most people who write for a living, I have fierce convictions about the right and wrong ways to use words. Most of the time I keep them to myself; nobody likes being nagged by a grammar nanny. It’s boring and annoying to be — or to listen to — the pedantic style police.

But I’ve run out of patience with people using adverbs as insidious tools for marketing and propaganda. That misuse of language has made me so angry that the constant pain of biting my tongue has forced me to stop keeping my mouth shut.

So what follows is a rant to relieve my own frustration on why I hate adverbs. I hope, at the least, it will make you question words harder before you use them.

In shunning adverbs whenever I can, I’m in good company.

Mark Twain disliked them:

I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me….

this is her demon, the adverb is mine….

I cannot learn adverbs; and what is more, I won’t.

 

Stephen King dislikes them:

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions.

And as for me, I really, truly, actually, literally dislike adverbs.

No: I hate them.

The simplest search-and-destroy mission — annihilate adverbs on sight — reveals them to be what they are. If parts of speech were foods, adverbs would be Twinkies: insipid, empty calories pumped full of air.

Look what happens when you delete the adverbs from my sentence above, “And as for me, I really, truly, actually, literally dislike adverbs”: You force yourself to justify the verb dislike and to ask why, if it is the right word, you needed to upholster it with all those modifiers in the first place.

The answer: because it wasn’t the right word. It wasn’t strong enough in its own right. Pick a hotter verb — hate instead of dislike — and the need for the adverbs falls away. The action speaks for itself once you figure out what it is that you were trying to say.

It isn’t that adverbs are never necessary. It’s that they are so rarely necessary and so often misused.

(Yes, I know: Never, rarely, and often are adverbs. Here, I’m using adverbs deliberately!)

But adverbs aren’t just chronically misused. They are intentionally abused.

Because they are emphasis words, dragooned into place as reinforcements for language and ideas that would otherwise be too feeble to defend themselves, adverbs are often a signal that someone is trying to deceive or manipulate you. At a minimum, adverbs should put you on notice as a reader that the evidence isn’t convincing enough to hold itself up without an adverbial crutch.

Look at this example:

He is truly a legend in his own time.

Now parse it by deleting the adverb and using basic skills of critical thinking to interrogate what’s left of the sentence:

He is truly a “legend in his own time.”

  • According to whom?
  • What does it mean to be a “legend in your own time”?
  • Who measures or determines how famous you have to be to qualify?
  • If the person is as famous as you imply, why do you have to remind your readers that he’s a legend?
  • And isn’t “legend in his own time” just a cliché anyway?

Look what has happened here. The adverb, a lexical wave of the hand intended to convince you without supporting evidence, is the weakest link in the sentence. Yank it out, and the whole sentence comes apart and falls clanking to the ground.

“Truly” is there as marketing, not meaning — to get you to suspend your disbelief about something that is at best unproven (or unprovable) and at worst untrue. A sign in the window of the restaurant declaring “TRULY THE BEST PIZZA IN TOWN” is telling you to prepare for a bad case of indigestion.

Thus, the ultimate reason I hate adverbs is because they so often mean the opposite of what they imply. Actually, certainly, clearly, obviously, really: All are noodge words, wielded by writers who are either too lazy to find a better way to make the point or too deceptive to use honest verbs and nouns that can stand on their own without being propped up.

The only way to see if a word is indispensable is to eliminate it and see whether you miss it. Try this exercise yourself:

  • Take any sentence containing “actually” or “literally” or any other abstract adverb, written by anyone ever.
  • Delete that adverb.
  • See if the sentence loses one iota of force or meaning.
  • I’d be amazed if it does (if so, please let me know).

Concrete adverbs, such as wildly or coldly, inject specificity into sentences. Conceptual adverbs like truly or really drain the vividness out of sentences, replacing it with unsubstantiated claims you have to take on faith alone.

Here’s my translation of what adverbs purport to mean, and what they do mean.

Even the way people use adverbs in everyday speech shows how weak many of these words have become in common usage. To make them work at all anymore, you have to festoon them with irony and air quotes. Think of how “absolutely” has mutated into “absof*ckinglutely,” or how people say “I literally died laughing” to mean “I literally didn’t die laughing.”

I would never advise you, of course, to avoid using adverbs completely! The world’s greatest writers have all used them. Added judiciously, appropriately and, above all, sparingly, adverbs make good writing great. Used lazily, mindlessly or deceptively, adverbs turn into neurotoxins that numb the minds of readers — and of many writers, too.

 

 

 

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A NSW Supreme Court judge has found that art auction house Christie’s engaged in deceit and unconscionable conduct over the sale of a $75,000 fake Albert Tucker painting to a Sydney barrister 14 years ago.

Louise McBride was awarded $118,718 in damages from Christie’s and her art adviser and the dealer who consigned the painting, Fairfax Media reports.

Justice Patricia Bergin ruled that Christie’s is liable for 85% of the damages, consigner Alex Holland of Holland Fine Arts, 10%, and McBride’s former art adviser, Vivienne Sharpe, 5%.

The legal action has brought to light one of the murkier aspects of the art world, where dispute over fake paintings are often settled outside of court.

Sydney Swans chairman Andrew Pridham launched NSW Supreme Court action over a $2.5 million Brett Whiteley painting he bought, but the matter was settled last year without the provenance of the painting being established. The authenticity of the paintings is now subject to legal action in Victoria.

In the McBride case, Justice Bergin found there was misleading and deceptive conduct by the three respondents and that breaches of the Fair Trading Acts occurred.

Christie’s attempted to argue that she was barred by the statute of limitations from bringing the claim and she was not the painting’s owner because the art collector uses a family company, but the judge ruled that the five year time limit only applied from when the fake was discovered. McBride only discovered the problem when she went to sell the painting, Faun and Parrot, and another auction house declared it a fake.

Sydney art consultant Vivienne Sharpe has been accused of being ‘selective’ in her memory of conversations with Christie’s over the provenance of the Albert Tucker painting and deceiving her client, McBride.

In preparing for the case, details emerged of Christie’s staff member contacting Tucker experts over concerns about the number of Tucker paintings from dealer Alex Holland. A Melbourne University panel concluded that McBride’s painting and two others were fakes, but Christie’s auction a second “Tucker” later than year. In 2012, it reimbursed the buyer, the Australian Club in Sydney, $69,000.

Christie’s closed down in Australia in 2006.

Justice Bergin also found against McBride’s art adviser in a separate claim over the sale of a Jeffrey Smart painting to the Menzies Art Brands auction house when the collector was forced to liquidate her collection in 2010. The painting had a guaranteed auction price of $360,000.

After advising McBride to accept the negotiated guarantee, Vivienne Sharpe did not reveal that she would receive a 30% cut of the price paid above the guaranteed figure.

While it’s common practice between auction houses and art dealers, Justice Bergin said it was a secret commission that should have been disclosed. McBride will now receive the commission, which has been kept in a trust fund by Menzies.

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The event was with regard to the ‘Fulbright’ prizes that were residencies all over the world. These particular past winners had all attended ‘Headlands’ in San Francisco California.

Essentially this year’s competition closes on Aug 1 and they are still looking for entries. This was a way of highlighting the past winners work and advertising the benefits of the residency.

It looked and sounded wonderful. I think wifey will be entering a work for consideration, which means if she wins, she gets to bugger off to SF for 3 months.

The showcased work was quite varied, photography, installations and drawing. The artists articulated their thought process that went into the creation of their art.

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We’re off to the art gallery tonight. I’m not sure what it is actually all about, we booked the tickets a few weeks ago.

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Well we attended the “Mind the gap” discussion held at the gallery and got into the debate through arguing the point with an Auckland University Professor of Sociology. In fact we argued on several points.

He actually was trying to argue that capitalism is synonymous with “State” intervention. That capitalism was essentially the State. In fact the entire panel bar one lady whose name escapes me, made this argument, conflating capitalism with corporatism, which relies upon State coercion.

When questioned on the legality or otherwise of fractional reserve lending…no answer. Instead, I was treated to an argument that individuals ‘withdraw’ from capitalism constantly…did you know that when you ‘smile at work’ you are withdrawing from capitalism? That was the counter-argument to fractional reserve lending.

Totally beyond them was the concept that capitalism is the derivative of property rights. That government seeks to encroach upon property rights…as if any more stark example of PRISM and the NSA debacle currently unfolding were needed.

Of course interspersed with the theory was the art-speak, which was to be expected, it was after all in an art gallery. It was a good evening, I do love a good argument.

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Taken by a British photographer.

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