Friday, January 31, 2014

Are the Arts Leftist by Nature?



This article in the Guardian purports to be a defense of art, but ends up sounding more like an attack on capitalism. 

Why? What does this or that particular economic system have to do with art? And why do so many artistic and creative types seem to be on the left? Are capitalism and art really in opposition, as this writer and so many others seem to assume?

To answer that question logically requires comparing the state of the arts in capitalist societies to that in various other economic systems.

So: what have we got? A distinct flowering of the arts in Ancient Athens, surely. Oddly enough, this was a capitalist society—an economy “based on manufacture and trading.” By comparison, the pastoral, socialist Spartans? Military power, but nothing worth calling art.

Rome, they say, was derivative. The Middle Ages? Personally, I love the Romanesque style; and we have the great cathedrals. But consensus is that the next great flowering of the arts was in the Italian Renaissance.

Centred in Florence; why Florence?

As it happens, surely not by coincidence, Florence was then the banking capital of Europe—a capitalist society in the most literal sense. And Florentine artists specifically had the patronage of the Medici, owners of Europe's largest bank. These were among the great capitalists of history.

From Florence, the Renaissance spread first to Rome, under the patronage of the Church, then to Venice—another great bourgeois banking and trading centre. After that, it hopped over the continent to the Lowlands of Northern Europe, the Netherlands—the other great trading centre, where artists lived primarily on portrait commissions from newly-wealthy burghers. That is, bourgeois.

After that, opinions no doubt diverge as to where and when the arts were next especially lively. Some would cite Shakespearean England—another busy trading society, Napoleon's “nation of shopkeepers.” Some would cite Paris in the later 19th century—both the Second Empire and the Third Republic were pursuing free trade policies, and consumerism was producing the first great department stores.

Capitalism, in other words, is the economic system that seems most likely, historically, to produce good art.

Notably, more recent experiments with other economic systems –Soviet Russia, the East Bloc, Red China, Nazi Germany, North Korea--have not generated anything anyone would call an efflorescence of the arts. Rather, the arts in this context seem to have gotten awful. “Socialist Realism” and all that. "Roughneck Baroque," they call it in Bulgaria.

So what are these left-wing North American artists thinking, pining for such a state?

Ironically, most artists, today and in the past, themselves come from bourgeois families. Shakespeare's dad was a glover and an alderman. Bob Dylan's folks were in hardware. As the Dowager Countess comments in a recent episode of Downton Abbey, “I've only heard of one peer who was a poet—Lord Byron. And that didn't turn out well, did it?”

No doubt, artists who endorse the anti-capitalist message in the Guardian article are hoping for a regular government subsidy to permit them to work steadily. I can sympathize with that. But this would not produce good art. Art and artists chosen by bureaucrats would be certain to be highly conventional, politically correct, and unimaginative. Bad artists might eat regularly, but any true artist, if working at all, would be working in chains.

In a bourgeois system, on the other hand, even if each individual bourgeois tends to be, as reputed by modern artists to be, conventional in his thinking, there at least is a variety of funding sources, so that different ideas and approaches may compete for audience. 

But are bourgeois really so conventional in their thinking? Mediocre bourgeois, perhaps. A true entrepreneur in fact must have an artistic temperament. He must be imaginative and ready to take risks: a Henry Ford, a Steve Jobs, a Walt Disney, a Rupert Murdoch, a Richard Branson. There is a natural sympathy here with the arts; in fact, the original artists werev the artisans, and the original artisans were the first urban dwellers and the original shopkeepers. And so, it is perhaps no coincidence that many of the great art museums were in fact created and endowed by wealthy capitalists: the Met, the Tate, the Guggenheim, the Fisk...

So why do artists so oddly hate capitalism, it being their mother's milk? 

It could be the traditional bourgeois appetite for social climbing. Artistic bourgeois may aspire to be like the traditional aristocracy in seeing the work of generating money as beneath them. They want to be aristocrats, above the clatter of the market. Or they may aspire to the supposed simplicity of the life of the working class. They are imaginative sorts, and imaginative sorts always imagine the grass is greener on the invisible side of the hill.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Political Climate Change



... we have at least to consider the possibility that the scientific establishment behind the global warming issue has been drawn into the trap of seriously overstating the climate problem--or, what is much the same thing, of seriously understating the uncertainties associated with the climate problem--in its effort to promote the cause. It is a particularly nasty trap in the context of science, because it risks destroying, perhaps for centuries to come, the unique and hard-won reputation for honesty which is the basis of society's respect for scientific endeavour. 
 --Garth Paltridge, former chief research scientist with the CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Research

I think he is right about the stakes involved: science's current prestige rests on an unshakeable public faith that scientists are utterly honest. Because scientific papers and scientific results can easily be falsified, and non-scientists would usually never know the difference.

That unshakeable public faith is very much at risk now, and a large ivory castle could come suddenly crashing down.

Pete Seeger


This machine cashes paycheques.

Pete Seeger has died. A lot of the obituaries will lament how his career was supposedly blighted by being blacklisted in the Fifties. But my impression is just the opposite: I marvel how he had such a long and successful career with virtually no talent.

I love folk music. But really, it is not technically challenging, is it? To make a career, you need to bring something special to the table: a poet's sensibilities, or a voice that conveys some special feeling. Seeger wrote a few popular songs, but the lyrics were quite limited and childish. "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"; "If I Had a Hammer"; "Turn! Turn! Turn!" Very few words, in a simple, predictable pattern. Something easy to remember and easy to sing, that's all. Nothing revelatory. And his voice was bland and without resonance. Lee Hays and Ronnie Gilbert, his partners in the Weavers, really did have good voices. Yet their careers ended long ago, while Seeger continued to headline.

Nothing wrong with being average. Folk music is for such voices and expects such simplicity. It just seems strange that this man with no special talent sustained a very profitable career doing what millions of others could have done just as well or better.

And the answer to the riddle is, I think, politics. Just as a serious artist like Bob Dylan must avoid political entanglements to preserve his art, a political affiliation is the great opportunity for a talentless hack. If you can't sing and you can't play, you still have hopes that some will some and see you to support the political cause. Some will invite you to sing, and pay you to sing, for their political events.

Folks have it completely wrong, therefore, when they say that his politics hindered Seeger's career, and they have it completely wrong when they say that he contributed honourably to his political cause, however misguided. It was all on the other side: his politics was his meal ticket. And he prostituted his art for it.

Rest in peace.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Prediction: Harper Stays


The press continues to speculate that Stephen Harper will step down as Conservative leader.

I feel confident in predicting this is not going to happen. As I wrote before, Hillary Clinton will not be the Democratic nominee in 2016; Chris Christie will not be the Republican nominee; the Republicans will win the midterms this year; and Stephen Harper will fight another election.

First, Harper has earned the right to stay Conservative leader if he wants, by his record of success so far. The Conservatives have an unhappy history of turning on their leader, but I think they have learned this does not pay. I think Justin Trudeau's current support will fade soon. I think the Senate scandal is inherently small and tangential to the Prime Minister. That mud won't stick for long.

I think Harper's bland persona is a recipe for longevity in Canadian politics. Canadians are a low-key, taking care of business people, and they feel comfortable with low-key leaders: Mackenzie King, Louis St. Laurent, Bill Davis.

And I think Harper wants it. I think he is a political animal.

Anyway, I don't think Rob Ford is quite ready yet to take over the reins.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Nietzsche Was Right About One Thing

"In large states public education will always be mediocre, for the same reason that in large kitchens the cooking us usually bad." - Nietzsche

Insight thanks to Instapundit: the quality of the cooking in school cafeterias is a good analogy to the quality of teaching in public schools.

How Gauche!




Leonardo Da Vinci, left-hander.

I am left-handed. This morning, I had to sign a document. Someone else, watching me write with my left hand, said to another, quite intentionally in my hearing, “can that be corrected?”

An obvious and stupid error: to suppose that doing something in a different way from most people is an “error” or an “inferiority.” Yet it is not just a common misconception; it is the standard assumption in entire fields.

All human progress, and all morality, is based on not doing things the same way everyone else does it.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sailing to Byzantium







Christ Pantocrator, Hagia Sophia
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon‐falls, the mackerel‐crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing‐masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
-- W.B. Yeats

Because we take all our formal education when young, the most important things in our cultural heritage never get properly studied. We learn by and large only what is important to young people; we do not learn what is important to the old.

Now that we are supposedly living longer, and have the institution of retirement, wouldn’t it make sense to create courses for the old in what is most valuable to them in the accumulated thought of the ages? After all, they now have the time to study and to reflect. Now is the time for the Humanities!

In fact, in many traditions—the Jewish, the Hindu—you are not supposed to look at the deeper philosophical questions until you are at least 40.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

The International Catholic Conspiracy Strikes Again!

Here is why it is no longer possible for a serious Catholic in the US to be a leftist. This is a striking blunder by the left in general, since Catholics nominally make up 24% of the population, and used to be reliably Democratic voters. Yet the leftists chose to use them--us--as scapegoats. Substitute "Jews" for "Catholics" here, and you are back in the early years of Nazi Germany.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Chris Christie: A Bridge Too Far?



You know you're washed up anyway, when TIME puts you on their cover.

The current Christie scandal may not be enough to kill his presidential hopes. But if there is one incident of this sort, there are likely to be others that could come out in the middle of a campaign. Rumour has it that Christie was dropped from consideration as Romney’s VP pick after a background check showed too many unopened closets. It would seem unwise of the Republican Party bosses to back such a candidate for the nomination.

I believe this opens up a large opportunity for Jeb Bush, should he want to get into the race. After Christie, he looks like the candidate most likely to attract the support of the party establishment. And he has the huge advantage of coming from Florida, an early primary and a swing state.

My prediction remains: Christie will not be the Republican nominee, and Clinton will not be the Democratic nominee.

Predictions


Every year at about this time, I review my predictions for the old year, and make my predictions for the new. And, of course, my predictions almost always turn out to be wrong. There is a reason why it is called “news.”

I missed the one biggest story of the past year: Pope Francis. But then, so did everyone else. I also wrote, last year at this time, “Turkey seems poised to surge ahead.” Turkey is looking quite lost in the surges these days.

I was listening to a Freakonomics podcast recently which pointed out that everybody is lousy at predictions. Experts are no better at making predictions in their field than is the man in the street. Neither does as well as the simple blanket prediction that “everything will go on more or less as it has.” People who become famous for accurate predictions are usually remembered for predicting one very surprising thing that came true; but it you check their prediction record on everything, these same people turn out to be unusually inaccurate. The strategy is to keep predicting the most improbable things, and, when on a rare occasion you get lucky, everyone remembers that and forgets all the wrong predictions.

That said, perhaps I should just predict the most improbable things I can think of. 

I was right last year, I think, in foreseeing the relative decline of Apple and rise of Google in the IT game. I was right in predicting that neither the US nor Israel was going to do anything violent to prevent the Iranians from getting nuclear weapons.  

For the coming year, I will predict, once again, the possible collapse of the Chinese government. It is going to happen one of these years. The recent sabre-rattling by China is an indication that the end might be near: it is entirely against the Chinese national interest. Their best policy is a silent, unthreatening rise. This makes me think it is driven by internal instability, internal leadership struggles.
I think the collapse of North Korea is also increasingly likely. The public dismissal and execution of your number two by feeding him to dogs does not really suggest a stable government. 

I expect Justin Trudeau’s popularity to decline, as I believe it lacks any foundation in his real performance. I believe it simply tracks Obama’s popularity—which looks now as though it is going into serious decline. I do not expect Stephen Harper to resign before he has fought another election. He has earned the right. I also think the inevitable bursting of the Trudeau bubble means Harper could win. 

I doubt there will be a federal election in 2014, but I expect the Conservatives to win the next election. The senate scandal is just not serious enough to warrant turfing out a government. It is really quite trivial. Given a little time, nobody will be able to figure out what the fuss was really about.
I expect large gains for the Republicans in the 2014 midterm elections. This is not a very risky prediction: the party out of the presidency usually gains in midterm elections. But Obama is also, as noted, on the decline in the polls. Because hopes in some quarters were so high for him, his fall will probably be comparably harsh. People don’t like being disappointed.

America will continue its decline in global influence—or rather, in interest in the rest of the globe. It is not natural for it to give a tinker’s dam what happens outside its borders. Now that there is no big obvious threat there, it will surely pull back. However, there is no one power obviously in a position to seize this opportunity. Russia is on borrowed time due to the shale oil boom; Europe is hobbled by its imploding welfare state; Japan is doomed by demographics; China is politically unstable. 

The world will have to muddle through on its own. 

I keep seeing suggestions recently that the situation in the world right now is uncannily similar to that just before the First World War. America is Britain, the declining hegemon. China is Germany, the rising new power. The Middle East is the Balkan tinderbox. Japan is perhaps Austria-Hungary, or France. Or maybe France is France.

There are indeed similarities. But I think crucial elements are missing. Germany went to war largely for fear that in a few years Russia would surpass her in military might. Where is the Russia now to China's Germany? Ergo, China, unlike Germany then, has every incentive to maintain the peace. And the second essential element was Austria-Hungary's perceived need to rattle the sabres to forestall her own collapse. Japan is a poor substitute for Austria-Hungary in that regard; it has a social cohesion most countries can only dream of.

The First World War surprised nearly everybody, and its origins are still subject to debate, precisely because it resulted from an improbable combination of factors. It remains improbable that those factors will recur. Good concept for selling books about WWI, though.

Africa will do well for now on cheap labour, but I think long-term prospects are limited in a way East Asia’s was not. It won’t move past heavy industry to the service sector. It does not have the long tradition of civilization and literacy. I suspect this is important, when it comes to clerical affairs.

The world will not end in 2014.