Category Archive 'Culture'
25 Aug 2006

Lileks on the Culture of the Elites

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James Lileks has some sardonic reflections on the contemporary art scene in the Age of Islamic Terror. Read the whole thing.

Sign of the times: Type “naked woman cuddling dead pig” into Google, and your first result is not one of those horrid pervy sites whose pictures make you want to bleach your eyeballs.

No, you get a review of a British performance artist. For four hours she hugged a porker while spectators filed past and thought: “There’s something you don’t see every day, a fact that might be conclusive evidence of a benevolent God.”

Naturally, she got a grant for the project; public pounds paid for the dead pig, which she stabbed with a knife in order to bond with the corpse. Bring the kids! And the next time you’re in the grocery store holding some bacon, consider taking off your clothes and selling tickets. You might make enough money to make bail…

It’s hard to convince Britain’s radicalized immigrants to assimilate if it means they must pay for some naked lady getting jiggy with piggy. These are the values of the West? We must pay for this, and you call it freedom?

Good question. What is Western culture all about these days, anyway? Little but narcissism, lassitude, sneers and muted despair, it seems. No, correct that; it’s European/U.S. elite culture that seems unmoored. Standard lowbrow American culture is quite clear about what it likes: snakes on planes, loud cars going around in circles with the occasional airborne detour into the stands, high-quality TV shows, mediocre pop music, naked people without the whole arty pig thing.

It’s generally confident and not particularly self-reflective, which leaves the “elite” stratum of the arts worlds to face the true hard issues of our times. Like pig-hugging and the threat to democracy posed by Joe McCarthy.

15 May 2006

The Next Library at Alexandria

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Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine describes in yesterday’s New York Times magazine the impending electronic Universal Library:

The dream is an old one: to have in one place all knowledge, past and present. All books, all documents, all conceptual works, in all languages. It is a familiar hope, in part because long ago we briefly built such a library. The great library at Alexandria, constructed around 300 B.C., was designed to hold all the scrolls circulating in the known world. At one time or another, the library held about half a million scrolls, estimated to have been between 30 and 70 percent of all books in existence then. But even before this great library was lost, the moment when all knowledge could be housed in a single building had passed. Since then, the constant expansion of information has overwhelmed our capacity to contain it. For 2,000 years, the universal library, together with other perennial longings like invisibility cloaks, antigravity shoes and paperless offices, has been a mythical dream that kept receding further into the infinite future.

Until now…

..Scanning technology has been around for decades, but digitized books didn’t make much sense until recently, when search engines like Google, Yahoo, Ask and MSN came along. When millions of books have been scanned and their texts are made available in a single database, search technology will enable us to grab and read any book ever written. Ideally, in such a complete library we should also be able to read any article ever written in any newspaper, magazine or journal. And why stop there? The universal library should include a copy of every painting, photograph, film and piece of music produced by all artists, present and past. Still more, it should include all radio and television broadcasts. Commercials too. And how can we forget the Web? The grand library naturally needs a copy of the billions of dead Web pages no longer online and the tens of millions of blog posts now gone — the ephemeral literature of our time. In short, the entire works of humankind, from the beginning of recorded history, in all languages, available to all people, all the time.

This is a very big library. But because of digital technology, you’ll be able to reach inside it from almost any device that sports a screen. From the days of Sumerian clay tablets till now, humans have “published” at least 32 million books, 750 million articles and essays, 25 million songs, 500 million images, 500,000 movies, 3 million videos, TV shows and short films and 100 billion public Web pages. All this material is currently contained in all the libraries and archives of the world. When fully digitized, the whole lot could be compressed (at current technological rates) onto 50 petabyte hard disks. Today you need a building about the size of a small-town library to house 50 petabytes. With tomorrow’s technology, it will all fit onto your iPod. When that happens, the library of all libraries will ride in your purse or wallet — if it doesn’t plug directly into your brain with thin white cords. Some people alive today are surely hoping that they die before such things happen, and others, mostly the young, want to know what’s taking so long. (Could we get it up and running by next week? They have a history project due.)

The only fly in the ointment of Kelly’s optimism is the enormous extension in recent years (in a series of concession to corporate interests) by Congress of the duration of copyright.

02 Apr 2006

Frankenstein (1910)

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Here for your viewing pleasure is the first cinematic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, directed by J. Searle Dawley in 1910 for the Edison Company. Actually made to be viewed via kinetoscope. 12 minutes.

Hat tip (and thanks) to FrancoAlemán. Great stuff!

27 Jan 2006

High Culture’s Revenge

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Actor’s Studio James Lipton delivers a dramatic reading of the lyrics of rapper Kevin Federline’s PopoZow.

07 Dec 2005

The Problem with Europe

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Matthias Politycki, travelling as a Eurowuss intellectual in the Third World, experiences his own inferiority to the dusky brutes, and pines for a gentle counter-enlightenment. There is term for the condition in which the civilized man thinks himself into a condition of moral paralysis, envies the primitive his lack of thought, and yearns for the dark heat of the blood. The term is decadence.

While researching my new novel, I spent several months living in Cuba, in the predominantly Black south of the island, avoiding dollar tourism and operating with pesos wherever possible. It was an unforgettable time, in the course of which I had to rethink all the positions I had previously stood by unquestioningly. And a time that was so hard, both physically and spiritually, that I was often reduced almost to tears. The brutality of life, taking no notice of the moral (or aesthetic) standards of an Old European, this unfettered wildness of the will that not infrequently burst out in sheer violence — was it permissible for me to despise it as a lack of culture? Or was I supposed to admire it as a superabundance of vitality for which I was never going to be any match? Punching one’s way into a bakery after waiting in line for bread for one or two hours I could understand; but fisticuffs over a seat on a bus seemed to me to point to more than just the struggle for survival, at the very least an energy surplus that we here in sated Europe simply have no idea of.

At times I was so totally embarrassed by these eruptions of physical force that I tried to convince myself that I felt the epochal exhaustion of the entire Old World in my white skin. Faced with the facts, such attempts to camouflage sheer weakness as the superiority of refined powers of reason were no help whatsoever. On the contrary, I could soon feel the power of these people even when they observed me from the roadside. At times there was such a sense of being watched in the air that as a European, you had to really pull yourself together in order to keep your head held high as you went on your way.

02 Dec 2005

Time and Change at Yale


Easha Anand describes some of the changes over the years in men’s clothing stores and other traditional near-campus resources. I can sum it up for him: the storefront at College & Chapel which in my day contained Johnny’s Pipe Center (which blended the best pipe tobacco in the world until Johnny passed away late in the 1960s) had become a vendor of tatoos and body piercings the last time I was in New Haven. It had had a long intermediate career selling caramel corn.

26 Nov 2005

Marlowe’s Altered Scene

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(Apologies to our readers. The blogging software has difficulties with exceptionally long postings, so I divided the original into two.)

The altered scene reads in the original:

TAMBURLAINE. Now, Casane, where’s the Turkish Alcoran,
And all the heaps of superstitious books
Found in the temples of that Mahomet
Whom I have thought a god? they shall be burnt.

USUMCASANE. Here they are, my lord.

TAMBURLAINE. Well said! let there be a fire presently.
[They light a fire.]
In vain, I see, men worship Mahomet:
My sword hath sent millions of Turks to hell,
Slew all his priests, his kinsmen, and his friends,
And yet I live untouch’d by Mahomet.
There is a God, full of revenging wrath,
From whom the thunder and the lightning breaks,
Whose scourge I am, and him will I obey.
So, Casane; fling them in the fire.–
[They burn the books.]
Now, Mahomet, if thou have any power,
Come down thyself and work a miracle:
Thou art not worthy to be worshipped
That suffer’st flames of fire to burn the writ
Wherein the sum of thy religion rests:
Why send’st thou not a furious whirlwind down,
To blow thy Alcoran up to thy throne,
Where men report thou sitt’st by God himself?
Or vengeance on the head of Tamburlaine
That shakes his sword against thy majesty,
And spurns the abstracts of thy foolish laws?–
Well, soldiers, Mahomet remains in hell;
He cannot hear the voice of Tamburlaine:
Seek out another godhead to adore;
The God that sits in heaven, if any god,
For he is God alone, and none but he.

19 Nov 2005

Kurt Vonnegut


Kurt Vonnegut, a great American writer who served honorably in WWII, is now 83. The vissicitudes of age combined with long exposure to the ideational pathologies endemic in the community of fashion have afflicted Vonnegut cruelly. He is obviously mad as Lear, and has made an international spectacle of himself in an interview with the Weekend Australian, praising suicide bombers, defending their cause, and abusing the administration.

He removeth away the speech of the trusty, and taketh away the understanding of the aged.

–Job 12:20.

16 Nov 2005

The Swiss don’t fool around


Swiss authorities have impounded 54 extremely valuable paintings loaned by Russia’s Pushkin Museum to an exhibition at the Fondation Pierre Gianadda in the Swiss town of Martigny. The paintings seized included works by Pablo Picasso, Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh and had been on exhibit at the Foundation Pierre Gianadda for five months. The property of the Russian Government is being taken on behalf of Noga, a Swiss trading firm, seeking to recover $800 million in unpaid debts associated with food for oil exchanges in 1991-1992. Noga has previously succeeded in having a Russian ship, warplanes and diplomatic property temporarily seized in France, Luxemburg, and Sweden.

The Russian Government characterized the action as a gross breach of international law.

14 Nov 2005

Harry Potter, Libertarian?


Glenn Reynolds links the abstract of a prepublication law review article, titled Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy, by Benjamin Barton, a University of Tennessee Law School colleague, arguing that the Harry Potter series is capable of being read as a sustained critique of government. Rowling’s portrait of the Ministry of Magic, its decisions, and operations represents so negative a view that

The most cold-blooded public choice theorist could not present a bleaker portrait of a government captured by special interests and motivated solely by a desire to increase bureaucratic power and influence.

Instapundit tells us that Barton believes that Rowling’s disenchantment with government may be the product of her experiences dealing with the British Welfare bureaucracy during her early years of poverty.

10 Nov 2005

Xmas Letters to Christopher Walken


Brandon Bird, bent artist-in-residence at Cornell, produced LETTERS TO WALKEN as a “stimulating arts-related program” for Cornell student participation.

06 Nov 2005

The Last Taboo

Performance artist Marina Abramovic really wanted to present, during a week of appearing at the New York Guggenheim Museum,

her most radical work, called “Rhythm 0.” Performed only once in Naples in 1974, its premise was terrifyingly simple: She agreed to stand in a gallery for six hours while anyone who came in could choose any of 72 objects around her – including knives, scissors, a needle, a loaded gun – and do anything they wanted to her with the objects. It was her only work in which she essentially ceded control over her body, and over the pain to be inflicted, to her audience. The participants became involved slowly at first, but after a while Ms. Abramovic’s clothes were cut off, and her body marked, burned and cut. Finally, a man took the gun and made her put it up to her head, trying to force her to squeeze the trigger. She didn’t resist, but a fight ensued as other spectators intervened. “This was the only performance where I was really ready to die,” she said

But she will not get the chance to demonstrate that proposition at the Guggenheim, at least in so stark a fashion. She and Nancy Spector, the museum’s curator of contemporary art, had long discussions about the dangers involved in the piece, about the difficulty – or near impossibility – of getting permission for the gun and about whether the piece could be staged without it.

“The risks really outweighed anything else,” Ms. Spector said, “and then it really came down to the legal questions. We just couldn’t find a way to have a loaded gun in the museum.

Art, and the New York-chapter of the contemporary Community of Fashion, are prepared to tolerate public exhibitions of nudity, games of dominance and submission, and experiments in sadism on the part of volunteer amateurs in the name of art. No form of sexual perversion or psychological depravity will be denied entry to shrines and temples of High Culture today, as long as any sort of crudely forged passport purporting to be issued by the muses is presented. A loaded pistol is something else again.

It was not the possibility of injury really. Ms. Abramowic had desired to top off her week at the Guggenheim with a real show-stopper. She had been hoping to re-enact a “near mythical event in the canon of performance art:” the crucifixion presented in Venice, CA in 1973 in which the victim arranged to have his hands nailed to roof of a Volkswagen. Alas! the original “artist” declined to extend the necessary permission to copy his work.

No, it was the insurance, along with, of course, the inflexibility of the museum staffs’ hoplophobia. Social taboos concerning sex, bourgeois morality, the dignity of the human body can all be compromised in the service of art; but, in the final analysis, not Gun Control.

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