1. "Police searching for two-year-old Chayson Basinio knew it was a race against time to find the missing child, who had reportedly disappeared from a supermarket car park. The local judge opened an inquiry for kidnapping and sequestration and police divers dredged a lake, fearing the child may have drowned. As the days passed without any leads or clues, detectives at Allier near Moulins in the Auvergne prepared to warn relatives who had alerted them that they could find no trace of the boy. Which, in the circumstances, was hardly surprising. In fact, neither Chayson Basinio nor his parents existed – except in the virtual world of social media. Police had found photographs allegedly of the boy and his father, Rayane Basinio, 20, on Facebook, but absolutely no evidence that they were real."
     

  2. "My first thought that day was that while I was asleep I’d made more money than she had all year. And I’d done it with a mobile-phone game about shooting fish with a machine gun."
     

  3. "The phantasma of Bach’s ontology arises through an act of force mechanically performed by Philistines, whose sole desire is to neutralize art since they lack the capacity to comprehend it."
    — Adorno, “Bach Defended Against His Devotees”
     

  4. "It’s not that laypeople don’t understand what the academics are saying. It is, instead, that the academics themselves don’t understand what they’re saying."
    — Paul Krugman, “The Trouble with Being Abstruse
     

  5. "I do think that one of the problems coming out of the early ’90s is that “identity work” somehow got tagged as a style. This is the problem of trying to transform a society through a market. The various communities that came out of the postmodern explosion of the late ’70s and early ’80s overturned a lot of binaries of symbolic order, which met a market embrace. What happened going forward was that the market suddenly became the index of intellectual currency so that the dominant critical ideas also happened to be the most successful in the market. Once that happened, the forces of novelty and style that dictate luxury markets usurped a kind of intellectual discourse. What is happening right now is that a lot of people are waking up to that fact."
     

  6. Art and money; art as money

    Does aesthetic value—or, to be as general as possible, artistic value—matter at all in the art market anymore? 

    Consider the concluding paragraph to a recent post by finance writer Felix Salmon, who has been covering (and criticizing) the art market for Reuters with care and diligence:

    The trends in the art world are clear: newer money is gravitating towards newer art, which is considered a store of financial value and even possibly a source of significant profit. In order to make money in this world, connoisseurship doesn’t particularly help: what you need is “insider information” and the ability to hype certain artists to the type of collector who doesn’t know whether he’s buying a painting or a photograph. The only barrier to entry is money — which means that lots of rich people have decided to play. Most of them will end up losing, but all markets need losers, and — most importantly — all markets need a marketplace. If Christie’s can become that marketplace, then it will effectively have become the platform responsible for turning the informed appreciation of beauty into a greater-fool game where it doesn’t matter how much you pay, just so long as Christie’s can persuade someone else to pay even more in the future.

    A theme of Salmon’s writing is that the art market has become a kind of mirror image of the machinations of the stock market. In fact, the world of the art auction is beginning to transcend the stock market’s conservative limitations: as Salmon notes, “pump and dump” trading, illegal in the stock market, is not only legal in the art market but a skill that collectors brag about to potential clients.

    But I think the analogy can be taken one step further: not only has the art market begun mirroring the stock market, the artwork has begun mirroring money itself.

    Paper money, of course, is a collection of intrinsically worthless objects, but which represent quantities of wealth. So too the artwork, as it is treated in the auction houses, has effectively become an arbitrary container of monetary value. If it still has any intrinsic artistic value, this value has become thoroughly irrelevant to its price—the displacement of connoisseurship by “insider information” as the primary asset for intelligently buying and selling art proves this. As long as dealers and advisors can make people *believe* that an artwork is worth a certain amount of money, that is enough to get it sold. The art object could be anything, or nothing. It is merely an x-variable, pointing to whatever amount of money was most recently paid for it.

    It is no mystery then why so much of the highest selling contemporary art is, to put it mildly, total shit (aesthetically speaking): there is no reason whatsoever why it should need to be good! The process of commodifying the art object has, we’re learning, also purified it of any excess interest—intellectual, artistic, aesthetic. I tend to read Jeff Koons as almost explicitly commenting on this in his art; is there any artwork purer, more thoroughly stripped bare of interest, than his balloon dogs? By the standards of the art market, Koons may be our greatest living artist: he has come closest to reducing the artwork to a truly arbitrary signifier.

    But I think this is actually a hopeful situation, all things considered. If the art market eventually collapses—which I think is probable the more people start to understand how rigged it is—all the crap, the Koons, the Hirst, etc, will be washed away. Buyers of art will have no criteria of judgment other than actual artistic value. Good art will sell once again.

     

  7. Don’t hate the writer. Hate the game.

    The British novelist Tim Parks, writing on the NYRB blog last week, lamented the current culture among aspiring novelists of “writing to win”—that is, writing with the ultimate goals of publication, fame, and success held singularly in mind. 

    As Parks has it, there are two aspects to this dynamic. First, there is the specter of eventual publication that haunts the work of unpublished writers. Discussing his students, Parks writes that

    The prospect of publication, the urgent need, as they see it, to publish as soon as possible, colors everything they do. Often they will drop an interesting line of exploration, something they have been working on, because they feel compelled to produce something that looks more ‘publishable,’ which is to say, commercial.

    Parks entertainingly uses Salman Rushdie as his paragon of literary careerism, a man who indicates in his own autobiography that he basically sees the whole world of letters in terms of its winners and losers, the course of one’s own path being a series of victories: first publication, then awards, then reverence.

    The flip side of this coin, and what is perhaps the ultimate fuel for this blind ambition, is the high regard with which the public holds the published author. Parks sees the threshold of publication as a fairly flimsy and arbitrary separator between writerly classes (the published and the unpublished), yet it proves to be a decisive boundary line:

    Why do we have this uncritical reverence for the published writer? Why does the simple fact of publication suddenly make a person, hitherto almost derided, now a proper object of our admiration, a repository of special and important knowledge about the human condition? And more interestingly, what effect does this shift from derision to reverence have on the author and his work, and on literary fiction in general?

    The effect, in Parks’ view, is insidious: authors become more obsessed with their awards and achievements than with their own work. A conflict of interest between authenticity and superficiality is introduced, and as per usual, the results are not good.

    I enjoyed Parks’ piece quite a bit because it explicitly called out the fundamental bullshittiness of the quest for publication and acknowledgment, as well as the often disruptive, even destructive effect those things have when they do arrive. I don’t think Parks, an established novelist himself, has enough sympathy for the young anxious writer, who basically works with no external encouragement or social justification for existing, two important spiritual boons that publication grants. But I think he’s spot on in saying that the prospect of publication muddies the waters, mutating artistic concerns into ones of vanity. Publication, in other words, seduces writers into transgressing their categorical imperative: they begin to treat writing as a means instead of an end.

    However, I do have one big problem with Parks’ argument. He ultimately lets the biggest culprit off the hook: 

    The publishing industry itself.

    Writers sacrifice their integrity and the quality of their work for fame, fame that the public then applauds, envies, cherishes. Neither writer nor reader is behaving in a healthy way, of course. But why are we blaming these individuals rather than the institutions that keep the whole machine running? Why are we shaming the public’s uncritical reverence of the published author rather than scrutinizing how the act of publication solicits that reverence (and how the survival of publishing houses depends on it)? Why are we chiding the awards-chasing writer instead of the absurdity of the literary awards system itself? 

    In other words, if the cycle of prizes and publication corrupts those who are caught up in it, shouldn’t we be focusing our criticism on how and why it does that, structurally speaking? Blaming a writer for chasing accolades is like blaming a CEO for chasing a golden parachute. In the system we have, why wouldn’t either of these individuals chase those things? 

    Simply put, Parks is right that writing to win is a problem. But rather than criticize the participants in the game, we would be much better off criticizing the game itself. 

    (What such a critique would look like, of course, is another story entirely.)

     

  8. "Ed Arentz, managing director of Music Box Films, one of the best independent distributors in the business, emailed me recently and ventured that the majority of the 900 titles [the Times] reviewed [in 2013] were released simply to fulfill a contractual agreement that they appear in theaters first before moving on to the more likely source of revenue: on-demand platforms like cable, iTunes, Netflix and Amazon. “These are films that have fallen short (often well short),” Mr. Arentz continued, “of the normal criteria for a theatrical release and usually must secure their engagements by renting screens rather than the normal exhibitor expectation of sharing in actual ticket sales. I would like to imagine that cable on-demand viewers will eventually wise up, see through this marketing ploy and this practice will fade away.”"
    — Manohla Dargis, “As Indies Explode, an Appeal for Sanity
     

  9. "In watching the X Factor or shopping in Tesco, there is often some lingering desire for mass mediated technological modernity to be better than it is, whereas those who have retired into private space with their DVD box sets and ethically sourced goods have given up on this possibility, if they ever cared about it."
    — mark, “Going Overground
     

  10. Macklemore, vilification, and good and evil in rap music

    David Dennis, writing in the Guardian on Sunday, made the interesting argument that critics of hip-hop have been strategically using the meteoric rise of Macklemore “to paint the rest of hip-hop as ‘uncivil.’” 

    Dennis quotes the opening paragraph of a review of a Macklemore show in Dallas, which absurdly tries to argue that Macklemore is a rapper of a never-before-seen type:

    What if someone like Macklemore had hit it big 25 years ago? Would hip-hop have still become a genre marked by homophobia, violence and a mind-numbing obsession with weed, booze and bling? Probably. But watching Macklemore thrill 5,000 screaming fans Saturday night at Verizon Theatre left you hopeful that his kinder, more cerebral brand of hip-hop will flourish in the future.

    For anyone who knows anything about rap music, this paragraph is appalling. Rappers with progressive values have always existed (and had wide listenership), as anyone with even the most vague familiarity with the genre knows. As Dennis argues, this is a characterization ”that threatens to erase the progressive music that has always inundated rap music. Macklemore is the first non-homophobic, non-violent rapper in the same way that Elvis was a ground-breaking initiator of the Blues.”

    As Dennis implies with his Elvis analogy (but doesn’t make very explicit throughout the piece), there is a huge racial component to all of this, one that Macklemore stans appear unable or unwilling to recognize. Certain white critics are very fond of the idea that a white rapper might clean up the filth that they say constitutes commercial hip-hop. But they’re using Macklemore (an artist as white as they come) as a point of contrast with a musical landscape that is largely black—a fact that inevitably churns out racism as long as it goes unacknowledged. Even the language in the Dallas News article is subtly racialized: “kinder, more cerebral.” Imagine—to make the admittedly tired and problematic “let’s compare rap and sports” comparison—if a white NBA player started ascending to stardom and sports writers praised his “less angry, more intelligent” style of play. You get the idea. 

    So all of this is pretty disgusting. But there is something in Dennis’s own argument that troubles me as well. In arguing, contra Macklemore supporters, that Macklemore isn’t the only one out there doing progressive rap, Dennis seems to agree with the Macklemore supporters’ general point that weed/booze/bling rap is something that should, indeed, be criticized and overwhelmed by more positive strains of the art form. In other words, Macklemore is being used to vilify all of rap; he really should be used to vilify only certain kinds of rap.

    The notion that weed/booze/bling rap, for lack of a better title, is inherently, ethically bad has a ring of truth that is appealing to people who aren’t big rap listeners. The kind of guns-and-murder music Chief Keef makes, to take an obvious example, is very troubling from a certain moral standpoint. Mainstream sensibility tends to endorse the idea that music, and art more generally, should embody “positive” values.

    But here is the problem, which is the central problem of rap right now, in my opinion: a lot of weed/booze/bling rap is, musically, quite good. Chief Keef, for all the moral vacuity his songs seem to brandish, had made some of the most interesting rap of the last few years. 

    How can we, as listeners, exist inside this contradiction? I think that we culturally still don’t know how to process this paradox: that the music emblematic of values we abhor—misogynistic, materialistic, violent—can still be fantastic from a musical standpoint. (Of course there is also the huge complicating factor that artists such as Keef are merely expressing values that have been cultivated by the devastating systems of social and economic injustice we’re perpetually complicit in. Music can’t be abstracted from its sociocultural context, but that’s an enormous, other issue.)

    Perhaps the trade-off, socially, of ethical concession for musical brilliance, isn’t worth it. Maybe it’s not even correct to look at it as a trade-off. I have no idea. But I would have liked it if Dennis had attended to this aspect of our exceedingly complex hip-hop cosmos. Even the records he cites with appealing, critical social messages—Kanye’s College Dropout and Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city—are complicated, heterogenous works that embody elements of weed/booze/bling music even as they weave them into a more nuanced overall tapestry. You can’t file either one under the tidy categories of “positive” or “negative” rap. (I mean, even squeaky-clean Macklemore himself does the bling-rap thing on “White Walls,” ya’ll!)

    I’m continually at a loss as to how to parse all this. But as the discussion continues, I’m eager for critics to confront these especially difficult and contradictory aspects of the music we care so much about.