Category Archives: the state of the art

An Observation

In the past two years, Chief Justice Roberts has authored two opinions for the Supreme Court in important cases concerning congressional regulation of voting and elections. The first, Shelby County v. Holder, struck down as unconstitutional a key component of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the statute empowering the federal government to monitor states with a history of racially discriminatory voting procedures. The second, today’s McCutcheon v. FEC, struck down as unconstitutional certain congressional limits on how much money an individual political donor can contribute in any one campaign cycle.

Here are the first two lines that Chief Justice Roberts wrote in these two opinions; see if you can guess which came from which:

The [congressional statute at issue] employed extraordinary measures to address an extraordinary problem.

There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.

Which line would you guess had to do with the problem of wealthy campaign donors enjoying privileged access to elected representatives, and which line would you guess had to do with the problem of America’s long and violent history of limiting the franchise by race? Here’s the answer: the first sentence is from Shelby County, and the second is from McCutcheon.

Both cases turned on complex statutory schemes and constitutional doctrines, and I’m not here making any argument about the specific legal issues, holdings, or outcomes. One could agree with the holdings of neither, one, or both cases and still, I think, share my observation that, as a rhetorical matter, the difference in emphasis is striking. “Call me Ishmael,” “Lolita, light of my life,” “Happy families are all alike,” “I am an invisible man”: first sentences matter. The “right [most] basic in our democracy,” the individual “right to participate” — the heart of the Voting Rights Act, the right for which John Lewis had his skull cracked on Alabama’s Pettus Bridge — was not given pride of place in the opening line of Roberts’s Shelby County opinion. It was given pride of place in McCutcheon, a lawsuit brought by an Alabama businessman “who contributed a total of some $33,000 to 16 candidates for federal office in the 2012 election cycle,” and “wanted to give $1,776 each to 12 more” but was legally barred from doing so.

Maybe the Real Crisis in the Humanities Is All These Articles about a Crisis in the Humanities

Last week the New York Times published an article headlined, “As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry.” The headline is odd not only because colleges aren’t collective brains and thus can’t “worry” (individuals within them can) but also because the article’s details don’t add up to a picture of “fad[ing] interest” in the humanities at all, but, rather, of lavish investments in the humanities by those institutions that have enormous endowments, whether Princeton’s summer program for high school students or Stanford’s “manicured quads,” contrasted with collapsing public subsidy for state schools like Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, where several humanities departments are slated for closure. So, mostly what we learn from this article is that higher education in America is deeply stratified and increasingly a highly inequitable lottery system, which is certainly troubling but which we also already knew and which is not a phenomenon limited to the humanities.  Continue reading

The Paragraph Project (5)

The latest paragraph to catch my eye is from Peter Schjeldahl’s article on art fairs:

“It’s like going to a dog pound,” Robert Lehrman, a collector I know, said, raising his voice against the hullabaloo. A sixty-year-old investor, Lehrman lives in Washington, D.C., where he helps to oversee his family’s philanthropic foundation and serves on the board of the Hirshhorn Museum. His own collection includes an extraordinary trove of Joseph Cornells, but it is modest relative to those of the omnivorous acquirers who plan for private museums, like Bernard Arnault, in France, and Eli Broad, in Los Angeles. But Lehrman’s sheer joy in the pursuit of art makes him, for me, a beacon of the new collector class. Our conversation formed a traffic-impeding knot outside a display of new photographs by Andres Serrano. Such knots occurred often in the crowded aisles, as folks who recognized one another, likely from other fairs, exchanged giddy chat. “So many crying puppies!” Lehrman said of the multitudinous works for sale. “You don’t know which one will cuddle up to you.”

I like how this paragraph starts down a path, meanders off it, then finds its way back to finish the quote. Both the paragraph and Schjeldahl within it are taking a walk. Along the way we get a lot of information both about Lehrman and about what it’s like to be at the Armory Show. Having relocated to the West Coast a few years ago, I haven’t been to the Armory Show since 2007, but this sounds about right. Of course there would be “new photographs by Andres Serrano.” Puppies are an odd metaphor for art, but that’s precisely why the metaphor works so well to convey Schjeldahl’s overall point about art fairs: that they’re odd. As he says elsewhere in the piece, “they are about what money likes,” and only incidentally about what art likes; the works sold there tend to be “cute, colorful, bright, and shiny, with attitude.” By the end of the piece Schjeldahl is describing Lehrman himself in almost puppy-like terms: “I always enjoy seeing Lehrman, though I often feel like an inept third baseman, fielding the line drives of his zeal.”

Levon Helm

“And the sun’s gonna shine through the shadows when I go away“:

Growing up my brother and I listened often to our dad’s Band CDs (at some point, it being the nineties, our dad had started replicating his record collection in CD format) so I knew Levon Helm’s songs before I knew he was the one singing. In college I wrote a lot of papers with “King Harvest” on repeat. In 2009, I saw the Levon Helm Band at the Austin City Limits festival. Though it was September in central Texas, there’d been relentless rain all weekend, rain better suited to a dismal April in New Jersey. Perhaps that was someone’s way of ensuring we’d notice when, for Levon Helm’s set, the sky was suddenly dry and clear. As for life advice one could do worse than what Bob Dylan instructed The Band before their first show together: “Just keep playing, no matter how weird it gets.”

“The Help,” Housewives, and HOPE

Valerie Boyd dismisses “The Help” as “a feel-good movie for a cowardly nation,” which portrays its most openly racist character as a “cartoonish” “walking stereotype” whom viewers will find it all too easy “to distance themselves from.” By the same token, Anne Helen Petersen — while finding some redeeming qualities in the film — has criticized the novel it’s based on for presenting a fairy-tale heroine who’s unbelievably “altruistic and likable,” as though racism were “something that you just decide you’re not going to acquire, even though all of your friends, family, and townspeople espouse it,” or “something that goes away just because you love your maid.” (More critiques of the film are rounded up here.)

Not every thoughtful viewer who’s seen the film has reacted so negatively. Via Twitter, I came across this blog post from Detroit writer Desiree Cooper, who found the film more nuanced than Boyd suggests, and writes:

Continue reading

Everyone a Virtuoso

Anthony Tommasini observes that technical skill once considered extraordinary is now the norm:

A new level of technical excellence is expected of emerging pianists. I see it not just on the concert circuit but also at conservatories and colleges. In recent years, at recitals and chamber music programs at the Juilliard School and elsewhere, particularly with contemporary-music ensembles, I have repeatedly been struck by the sheer level of instrumental expertise that seems a given.

The pianist Jerome Lowenthal, a longtime faculty member at Juilliard, said in a recent telephone interview from California that a phenomenon is absolutely taking place. He observes it in his own studio.

When the 1996 movie “Shine,” about the mentally ill pianist David Helfgott, raised curiosity about Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, Mr. Lowenthal was asked by reporters whether this piece was as formidably difficult as the movie had suggested. He said that he had two answers: “One was that this piece truly is terribly hard. Two was that all my 16-year-old students were playing it.”

There are all these interesting questions about history and progress (or declension?) and the meaning of art, I think, embedded in narratives like these. Throughout the piece, Tommasini hints that he doesn’t really know what kind of story he’s telling. Classical music is everywhere in decline, classical musicians are everywhere more formidable.

Retromania

Are popular music makers — and their fans — more enthralled to the past than any other group in America? That’s the argument of Simon Reynolds, as filtered through this review by Nicholas Carr. I would be curious to know what others think. My inclination is to say, No — “retromaniacal” though it may indeed be, today’s pop music is not unique along that dimension. I would agree with Carr that what we are witnessing, when we see The Beatles top the charts again 50 years later, or visit a bar where the DJ is playing vintage Motown vinyl, is not quite nostalgia: “Whereas nostalgia is rooted in a sense of the past as past,” Carr writes, “retromania stems from a sense of the past as present.” I would disagree that this curious “sense of the past as present” is peculiar to music. After all, what motivates the dominant mode of legal analysis today, originalism, but a “sense of the past as present”? What else, if not that, motivates the self-anointed Tea Party’s ready invocation of the struggles of the 1770s, or, at the other end of the spectrum, accounts of racial grievance built around “anachronistic allusion“?  Continue reading

Against Gobbledygook

Alfred Kahn’s 1977 memo to the Civil Aeronautics Board, instructing members to avoid “the artificial and hyper-legal language that is sometimes known as bureaucratese or gobbledygook,” is not just a comic orthogon to the history of paperwork (about which, more here) but also a font of still-useful writing tips. The wonderful Letters of Note blog has the full letter. Here’s Kahn on the passive voice:

The passive voice is wildly overused in government writing. Typically, its purpose is to conceal information: one is less likely to be jailed if one says “he was hit by a stone,” than “I hit him with a stone.” The active voice is far more forthright, direct, and human. (There are, of course, some circumstances in which the use of the passive is unavoidable; please try to confine it to those situations.)