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Art and Commerce

[ 2 ] May 20, 2007 |

Like many commenters, I have to offer a dissent from my colleague’s arguments here. I don’t really care about artists selling their music to advertisers, for a couple of reasons. First of all is my general agreement with the late Christopher Moltisanti’s dictum that unless they’re paying your nut nobody has the right to tell anyone how to earn a living. Professional musicians are, er, professionals, and I don’t see how this particular way of making money is worse than any other. I don’t think most Shins fans will associate them with McDonald’s, and those that do would otherwise not know their music at all. (And if Modest Mouse used the money to hire that mercenary old fart Johnny Marr, great–the artistic results were terrific.) The second is my well-known belief that “authenticity”–and I think most arguments about selling out are about this at bottom–is useless as a criterion of value. Art is what it is; the motives behind producing it are essentially beside the point. As I’ve said before, plenty of terrific music has been produced highly interested in using music to get rich, get famous, and get laid (not necessarily in any order) and lots of dreary music has been made by artists with pure motives for little money on tiny indie labels. Great songs used in ads are still great songs (you might get sick of hearing them, but that overexposure can happen in a lot of ways.) Lenny Kravitz songs suck on your IPod, the suck on the radio, and they suck as car commercials. Fugazi are a very fine band, but I don’t care about their concept of “artistic purity” any more than I care about the other parts of their unappealing “straight-edge” asceticism, except insofar as it lead motivated good music. Which would remain no better and no worse if MacKaye sells “Give Me The Cure” to Viagra.

The middle position staked out in comments seems to be that it might be OK for struggling bands who otherwise wouldn’t be able to earn a living, but bad for artists who don’t really “need” the money. My take is that Bob Dylan has accomplished more and certainly given me much more pleasure than most really rich people; if he wants to get paid in a capitalist society fine with me. (I note that his decision to start selling his music happened to coincide with a shocking artistic revival.) If this encourages people to focus on his music rather than on ultimately irrelevant “voice of a generation” bullshit, all the better.

…As part of the great conversation that Media Czech generated, Ina Iansiti says that “I bought into the whole ‘don’t sell out’ dogma as a kid. But the boundaries between high and low art, which have been blurring at least since the 19th century, are now indistinguishable.” I think a lot of this is about drawing lines between “good” non-commercial art and “bad” commercial art. This both a distinction that should be seen as odd within a discussion of popular music most of us think will live as art and also I think attributes a purity of motive to “high” artists that was never there, even among great artists that weren’t commercially successful. It’s not as if Melville didn’t want to be read or didn’t want to earn a living from his writing.

…of course, had I checked Pandagon first I pretty much could have skipped writing this.

Matt makes a good point here. I can see the argument that, all things being equal, a high level of artistic autonomy is better than a lower level. Let’s stipulate that this is true. Nonetheless, I think it’s true that 1)there are too many exceptions for this to be reliable (Matt may be appalled, but I think that not only In Utero and Nevermind but the gimmicky MTV unplugged thing are better records than Bleach, say) and 2)what matters in the end is the music, not the motivation. I see little reason to judge the a priori motivation when one can judge the finished work.

Submitted Without Comment

[ 0 ] May 19, 2007 |

Shorter Verbatim Blogs4Brownback: “I support the Bible, and I don’t want my children learning about Heliocentrism in school. I think this doctrine encourages atheism, Darwinism, and anti-Americanism. I don’t want my tax dollars going to finance this kind of false science. It’s complete rot, and I hope that those of us who come to realize this can ultimately prevail against its propogation amongst OUR children with the money from OUR salaries.”

[Via Tristement, Non.]

…As PZ says, it’s remarkably hard to tell the difference between this probably satirical site and the real thing. It’s more the literacy than the defense of indefensible ideas that gives away the show…


[ 0 ] May 18, 2007 |

Adieu. That was painfully drawn out.


But to comprehend his doomed-ness and what to make of it, one needs to step back. Why was he given the job in the first place? He had no obviously qualifications for it. He’s read some neoliberal political commentary about the need for international development strategies to focus more on good governance. I’ve read that stuff, too. As have a lot of people. It’s convincing stuff. But, genuinely, folks who’ve read it are a dime a dozen in this town. Do I get to run the World Bank? No. Wolfowitz had no genuine expertise in Africa, in development policy, in economics, in governance, or in any of the relevant fields.

What he did have, that I lacked, was a track-record as a high-level political employee. It was a track-record marked by . . . spectacular failure. Failure so spectacular that George W. Bush decided Wolfowitz needed to be fired from his job because he was so incredibly bad at it. In order to fire him while minimizing feather-rumpling, he was dumped on the Bank, even though he had no relevant expertise and a long track-record of failure (think Team B) in his previous work. So, yes, he was doomed from the start. Boo-hoo.

Hack Apologist for Arbitrary Executive Power of the Day

[ 0 ] May 18, 2007 |

Douglas Kmiec.

Answer to title question: “No. No, they can’t.”

Let Freedom "Family Feminism" Ring!

[ 0 ] May 18, 2007 |

Ann Friedman, despite being a figment of my imagination, points us to this piece by the mythical Katha Pollitt:

The video, originally posted on, a Kurdish website, is now plastered all over the Internet: a young girl in a red track-suit jacket and black underpants, beaten, kicked and stoned to death by a mob of excited, shouting men. It’s a gruesome marriage of twenty-first-century technology and medieval barbarity. At one point, bloody and dazed, the girl tries to protect herself, whereupon a man drops a big rock or lump of concrete on her face, killing her. Her crime? As an Agence France-Presse story explains, Doaa Khalil Aswad, a 17-year-old member of the Kurdish Yazidi religious minority, a non-Muslim sect, had fallen in love with a Sunni boy and possibly converted to Islam. For this “crime” against family and community, Doaa was murdered in the small village of Beshika, near Mosul, in a collective act of woman hatred, led by her brothers and uncles. In the video you can see local policemen watching and one man recording the killing on his cellphone.

This is the new Iraq, where women were going to be free and equal–no more “rape rooms,” no more psychopathic Uday Hussein summoning young virgins to the palace for his pleasure. In the early days of the occupation, we heard a lot about building schools, starting women’s health programs, funding women’s microenterprises. At the 2005 State of the Union address, Laura Bush sat with proudly purple-fingered Safia Taleb al-Suhail telegraphing the message that women’s rights and democracy went together and that both were part of the big plan for Iraq. Well, scratch that.

Women’s status was never as high under Saddam as opponents of the war sometimes asserted, and it was already declining throughout the 1990s, as Saddam embraced Islam to distract the populace from the effects of the Gulf War, UN sanctions and his own depredations. But Iraq today is even worse for women: more repressive, more violent, more lawless. As if car bombs and suicide bombers weren’t horrific enough, criminal gangs, religious militias and death squads kidnap, rape and kill with impunity, with special attention to women professionals, students and rights activists. According to the United Nations’ most recent quarterly report on human rights in Iraq, domestic violence and “honor” killings are on the rise–Kurdistan, often described as comparatively peaceful and orderly, saw more than forty such killings between January and March of this year; in the province of Erbil, rapes quadrupled between 2003 and 2006. Women who’d worn Western clothes and moved about freely all their lives have been terrorized into wearing the abaya and staying inside unless accompanied by male relatives. In Sadr City and elsewhere, Shariah courts mete out misogynist “justice.”

Hmm, it’s almost enough to make me think that expending immense amounts of resources that could be used to genuinely help women (although, admittedly, as long as the current administration remains in office, not if it might enhance women’s reproductive freedom–can’t have that!) installing an Islamist quasi-state in Iraq will not be a positive development for Iraqi women. But since I’m not a good “family” or “equity” feminist but am rather one of those man-hating lacking-in-common sense types who doesn’t think that sexual double standards and traditional patriarchal family structures are a good basis for social organization, I would think that.

Lemieux’s Law 1: The Principle of Misogynist Obsessives

[ 0 ] May 17, 2007 |

This thread reminds me to finally get around to articulating the following principle:

As a discussion thread on a liberal blog grows longer, the probability of a troll indulging his (or, in rare cases, her) consuming obsession with Amanda Marcotte irrespective of her relevance to the thread in question approaches one.

On conservative blogs, of course, such obsessions are more likely to be found in the main text of posts (cf. Ace O. Spades, heterosexual.)

The Argument From Tradition

[ 0 ] May 17, 2007 |

Thers quotes the first half of the Scalia quote approvingly cited by Ann Althouse. I’d like to deal with the second:

“What Shakespeare is to the high school English student,” Scalia said, “the society’s accepted constitutional traditions are to the prudent jurist.

“He does not judge them, but is judged by them. The very test of the validity of his analytic formulas—his rules—is whether, when applied to traditional situations, they yield the results that American society has traditionally accepted.”

The real heart of Scalia’s jurisprudence isn’t “originalism” or “textualism” but his belief in “traditions” he attributes to (and often projects onto) “the people.” As he argued in U.S. v. Virginia–the case in which the Court, with Scalia as the lone dissenter, ruled that Virignia’s exclusion of women from a particular form of education was unconstitutional–”[w]hatever abstract tests we may choose to devise, they cannot supersede–and indeed ought to be crafted so as to reflect–those constant and unbroken national traditions that embody the people’s understanding of ambiguous constitutional texts.” In terms of intellectual merit, I think the illiberal claim that traditions are self-justifying has little. As a jurisprudence, it has many of the problems associated with originalism, most notably facilitating a judge’s ability to switch between various levels of abstraction and ways of construing issues in order to reach the desired result. (Is the “tradition” at stake in U.S. v. Virgina that American tradition of discriminating against women, of the tradition of expanding rights to previously discriminated against individuals and treating people equally before the law? Everything turns on the answer, and invoking “the traditions of the American people” is unhelpful.) Talking about the traditions of “the people” in a pluralistic society is not terribly useful, and will for obvious reasons tend to deny constitutional protection to classes of people who most need it. And like orginalism, it is a political as opposed to strictly legal choice (nothing about the nature of constitutionalism demands any method of interpretation) designed to produce reliably reactionary policy results. It is not surprising that the particular tradition adduced by Scalia in the VMI case happened to be the one consistent with the most conservative wing of the Republican Party.

But we should be clear about the implications of Scalia’s theory. To the extent that it has any content at all–that its conception of national traditions isn’t so open-ended that it could justify any outcome in any interesting case–Brown v. Board and Loving v. Virgina, for starters, are clearly incorrectly decided. The text of the equal protection clause is ambiguous, and there were long, deeply embedded national traditions of requiring segregated schools and prohibiting interracial marriages. Once we’ve decided that national traditions bind courts and pre-empt the critical assessment of institutional practices and their consistency with the requirements of the Constitution, one can’t pick and choose which traditions count and which don’t. Far from being an attractive method, Scalia’s concept of unassailable traditions of injustice is at war with the best traditions of American constitutionalism.

Books To Make You Change Trains

[ 0 ] May 17, 2007 |

This is a very good list, granting that #4 should probably be #1. Becks offers a good alternate suggestion. I would like to add this, which courtesy of Rob and frequent commenter JRD remains the greatest joke gift of all time. (And yes it does consist entirely of stuff Rand scrawled in the margins of various books.)

One Step in the Right Direction

[ 0 ] May 16, 2007 |

XM suspends Opie & Anthony 30 days for the hye-larious rape fantasies on their program. (I’m not going to say “jokes,” because they weren’t. They weren’t even in the form of humor.) Although at least their program isn’t simulcast on a major national news network, it’s also much worse than what Imus was fired for.

Torturin’ Rudy

[ 0 ] May 16, 2007 |

I’m not sure what’s more depressing about yesterday’s debate–the current frontrunner enthusiastically and unequivocally supporting torture, or how well in went over in the audience. Obviously, Giuliani’s authoritarianism is going to become more and more manifest because it’s his only possible route to victory. I still think that when Rudy goes to the GOP primary markets to realize his soul he’ll find what he needs he just doesn’t have–his competitors will be able to offer pointless wars and arbitrary executive power without being dragged down by a rational position on the abortion issue–but certainly the dynamic he’s going to bring to the race is going to be bad for the country and (I hope) for the Republican Party.

On the other hand, I think the Sexiest Torturer Alive’s proposal (already K-Lo approved!) to “double Gitmo” has considerably more merit to it. Oh, he doesn’t mean that it should be doubled to accommodate all the Bush administration officials and apologists who should be sent there? Never mind.

The Fecklessness of Christina Hoff Sommers

[ 0 ] May 16, 2007 |

Garance, Matt and zuzu have already amply demonstrated the bad faith, distortions, and selective evidence of the latest manifestation of Christina Hoff Sommers’s feeble “American feminists don’t care about the suppression of Islamic women” routine. And, of course, American feminists are in a no-win situation. One might have thought that Katha Pollitt–who writes a great deal about the suppression of Islamic women and and is a columnist for the largest-circulation liberal political magazine–might have merited Sommers’s attention, although of course she didn’t. But you may recall Ana Marie Cox’s regrettable review of Pollitt’s latest book, in which Cox sighed that Poliitt was “fixated” on women’s rights in the Middle East. You can’t win.

In addition, I thought J. Goodrich also made a good point in comments:

Sommers is a a very fascinating example of someone who has not herself written a long book about the situation of women in Islamic countries. She found it more important to write books intended at destroying feminism so that there would then be nobody at all to help those women.

If Sommers thinks that more needs to be written about the subjugation of women in the Middle East, well, what’s stopping her? She could take some of the time she spends recycling the anecdote about how Judith Butler once won a bad writing contest for the eleventy-billionth time and put a book proposal together. Or perhaps she could write an article about how, despite the disgracefully cynical use of women’s rights as an ex post facto war justification by the Bush administration, installing an Islamic quasi-state in Iraq has shockingly turned out to not be a very good deal for Iraqi women. I’m sure Bill Kristol would love to publish it!

Stand in the Fire

[ 0 ] May 15, 2007 |

Nancy Nall has a very good and insightful post about the new biography of Warren Zevon compiled by his long -suffering (and suffering, and suffering) ex-wife Crystal, which was also reviewed recently by Janet Maslin and Tom Carson. His most glaring flaws, especially his vanity and narcissism (“When he died, his son had the job of getting rid of his porn stash; the videos turned out to be homemade and to star Zevon”), aren’t exactly unusual among gifted artists, but the specific details can be alternately appalling and amusing. I haven’t read it yet, but she seems like a reliable guide (“It’s hard to write about being an alcoholic’s wife without lapsing into one or two predictable slots — victim or fool. She doesn’t do that, perhaps because at some point she realized she had her own drinking problem, which she acknowledges, and what it took to quit. The tone is not one of pity-me but of clear-eyed, dispassionate truth-telling,”) so I certainly will.

What was most poignant to me in Maslin’s review was this:

But this lack of show-business artifice is precisely what makes the Zevon story so telling. What was even more unusual than his dark thoughts — like resenting the fact that Jackson Browne and Neil Young had lost people close to them and written beautiful, much-admired songs about those deaths — was his willingness to admit to those thoughts. On his deathbed, discussing the merits of having a funeral, he said, “I just don’t want to have to spend my last days wondering whether Henley” — Don Henley of the Eagles, who did not attend — “will show up.”

It’s amazing how status can make people envy and/or seek the approval of those who are (in terms of real accomplishments) their gross inferiors.