Friday, May 23, 2008

Is Obama "too intelligent" to be President?

In an op-ed in Thursday's New York Times, Nathan Thrall and Jesse James Wilkins chided Obama for quoting from JFK's inaugural address: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” They argued that Kennedy was made to eat these words after his "self-destructive" Vienna summit meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in 1961, and that the lesson Obama should learn from this is that "sometimes there is good reason to fear to negotiate."

There is a germ of truth in this. Kennedy agreed to the Vienna summit against the advice of his more diplomatically experienced advisers, including his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk. The summit wasn't preceded by the usual intense meetings of lower-level officials who would work out all of the details concerning the issues to be discussed, so that the summit itself would be a well-rehearsed kabuki. Instead, Kennedy, Harvard educated and one generation removed from South Boston rough-and-tumble, went, as the current White House occupant might put it, mano a mano with Khrushchev, a gut fighter of peasant stock who rose to premiership in the wake of Stalin's death by dint of sheer ruthlessness (although Khrushchev, in his so-called "secret speech" to the Communist Party Politburo in 1956, denounced Stalin's excesses and his "cult of personality").

After the meeting, as Thrall and Wilkins recount, Khrushchev remarked that Kennedy was “too intelligent and too weak.” How was it that the Soviet leader could corroborate intelligence with weakness, and why should intelligence be considered a disadvantage in summit meetings? Here's Thrall and Wilkins on Khrushchev's approach to Kennedy:
...Khrushchev lectured him on the hypocrisy of American foreign policy, cautioned America against supporting “old, moribund, reactionary regimes” and asserted that the United States, which had valiantly risen against the British, now stood “against other peoples following its suit.” Khrushchev used the opportunity of a face-to-face meeting to warn Kennedy that his country could not be intimidated and that it was “very unwise” for the United States to surround the Soviet Union with military bases.
What I think Khrushchev meant was that Kennedy was intelligent enough to realize that there was some truth in what he had said. The U.S was, indeed, supporting reactionary governments (Franco's in Spain, Salazar's in Portugal, and Ngo Dinh Diem's--whose assassination Kennedy may later have approved, if not ordered--in South Vietnam, to name a few) on the theory that they were bulwarks against communism. Of course, Khrushchev did not live to see the Soviet Union's own old, moribund, reactionary regime collapse. In any event, what Kennedy may have been intelligent enough to sense was that neither superpower had a monopoly on truth.

Thrall and Wilkins would have us believe that JFK's performance at the 1961 Vienna summit was an unmitigated disaster. But here is the assessment of Jack F. Matlock, Jr., U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, 1987-1991, as set forth in his letter to the editor of the Times responding to Thrall and Wilkins's column:
In what sense did Khrushchev triumph — even temporarily?

The issue over Berlin was Khrushchev’s threat to deny Western access rights to West Berlin, by military force if necessary. After building the wall between East and West Berlin, he abandoned his pressure on the access routes, and the viability of West Berlin (Kennedy’s prime objective) was assured.

As for “fear to negotiate,” why should the stronger party ever fear negotiation? Ronald Reagan did not, when he sought out our Soviet adversaries.

Refusing to talk and refusing to negotiate are dead-end streets, as the Soviet leaders before Mikhail S. Gorbachev never learned. And that’s why they lost.
And, on the subject of summit meetings, we have this more recent cautionary example.

Quote of the day.

Barack Obama has become the Prince Caspian of the iPhone hordes.

--David Brooks, "The Alpha Geeks", New York Times, May 23, 2008.

In the same column, Brooks writes:
[E]ven as “Revenge of the Nerds” was gracing the nation’s movie screens, a different version of nerd-dom was percolating through popular culture. Elvis Costello and The Talking Heads’s David Byrne popularized a cool geek style that’s led to Moby, Weezer, Vampire Weekend and even self-styled “nerdcore” rock and geeksta rappers.
Soon, I'll be doing a post about a band made up of NYU faculty memebers. Can't get much geekier than that. Meanwhile, I've got to check out this "geeksta rap." Anybody have any suggestions?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


In my last Mets post, I wrote: "Just don't backslide."

Being the Mets, of course they did.

Update: The humiliation is complete.

So, just what is art, anyway?

In Little Murders (1971), directed by Alan Arkin, with screenplay by Jules Feiffer, Elliott Gould (seen at left, in stained white suit) played Alfred Chamberlain, a successful but disillusioned commercial photographer who took to wandering the sidewalks of New York shooting photos of what, in those pre-pooper-scooper law days, could all too easily be found there. He explained this unusual avocation by saying that he'd received several awards for work he'd done--photographs of consumer products that were used in advertising--that he considered artistically without merit, and that this made him conclude that he might as well be taking pictures of shit. Eventually, his excremental photos won plaudits as well. When Patsy, later to be his bride, first visited his apartment and saw his photos on the wall said she thought they were lovely, and added, "and they're all ...?" He nodded affirmatively.

Feiffer may have been inspired to create this scene, and indeed the whole episode of Alfred's scatomania, by an actual show presented at the Gallery Gertrude Stein in 1964. The artists Sam Goodman and Boris Lurie, who, along with Stanley Fisher, led the NO!art movement of the early 1960s, conceived a "NO! Sculpture" exhibition in which the sculptures were simulated feces, produced by extruding wet plaster from plastic "guts". The critic Thomas Neumann, writing for Art News, characterized this as "the direct, unsublimated expression of instinct".* Brian O'Doherty, a New York Times art critic, had this reaction:
These aggregations of colonic calligraphy contain many formal excellences for anyone whose purist education forces him to perceive them.

But the subject matter puts the joke on those who do find formal values in it. Those who do not are forced to deny the legitimacy of values that by now have been inculcated into several college generations--thus pointing up the current effeteness of the formal idea.**
Update: For a contemporary version, by Paul McCarthy, of the Goodman/Lurie project, see here.

So, is shit art? Here I will venture a bold statement: shit, per se, is not art. Why not? Again, I'll be bold. Art must be intentional. It must be the product of a conscious decision to make something of artistic value. Shelley and his Skylark to the contrary notwithstanding, I don't believe in "unpremeditated art". I'll leave aside for now the question, "What is artistic value?", thereby sidestepping the formalism versus whatever (postmodernism, emotionalism, "meaning") brouhaha, in which O'Doherty took the anti-formalist side. The point I want to stress is that a thing that was not created with a conscious intention to make art, be it dogshit or an orchid, is not art.

By including the qualifier per se, though, I've left open the possibility that both Alfred's photographs and Goodman and Lurie's fecal simulacrae may be considered art. Does the act of photographing or making a replica of something that is not in itself art, and displaying it, make it art? Does tagging it with spray paint (see my colleague Miss Heather's blog, do the trick? To take the question further, is it art simply to abstract an object from its usual environment, perhaps adding a bit of graffiti, and to show it in a gallery, as in the instance of Marcel Duchamp's urinal? In each of these, there is an element of intentionality.

Is intentionality a sufficient, as well as a necessary, condition? It's tempting to say so. Intentionality provides what we lawyers like to call a "bright line" test. Nevertheless, if we say that anything meeting the criterion "created intentionally as a work of art" must be considered art, we're letting in some hard cases. I'm thinking here of the controversy, as reported by my Brooklyn Heights Blog colleague Homer Fink with his post about the sculptor Tom Otterness, prompted by the installation of his "Large Covered Wagon" on a patch of greensward in DUMBO, just north of the eastern approach to the Brooklyn Bridge.

It isn't Otterness's whimsical sculpture that makes this a hard case, but something he did some 31 years ago, when he was a 25 year old trying to make it as an artist in the East Village. Homer quoted Gary Indiana, reviewing a retrospective of East Village art from the 1970s in New York Magazine, as follows:
I’m repulsed by this show’s inclusion of Tom Otterness, a sculptor of limitless nonentity despite his demonstrated skill at conning public-art commissions and taste-impaired collectors into making him rich. Mr. Otterness, once upon a time, adopted a dog and then shot it to death for the fun of recording his infantile, sadistic depravity on film. I’d like the New Museum’s visitors to keep that in mind while looking at this creep’s work. Mr. Otterness isn’t one of those special exceptions deserving the adage “Lousy person, terrific artist.” Lousy both.***
Otterness has since apologized for this cruel act several times, one of which was to neighbor blog McBrooklyn.

If shooting dogshit can be art, is shooting a dog, and committing its demise to film for the purpose of showing it as an artwork, art? It meets the intentionality test. Still, there's something in me that rebels against applying the word "art" to the result of an act of cruelty. "Art" is a word of approval. "That's a work of art!" is another way of saying "That's great!" Of course, not all art is great. Still, even less worthy art can be "nice"; I call it kitsch and consider it a guilty pleasure. For what it's worth, I put Otterness's sculpture in this category.

Here, though, I run smack-dab into what I sidestepped earlier: the vexed issue of what art is supposed to be. The various positions that art critics and academics take on this issue, I believe, fall into three general categories. For some, the answer might be: art should evoke a purely aesthetic response; it should challenge or expand our ability to appreciate form, color or texture. Others might argue that art should be a means for the artist to communicate her or his inner emotional state to the viewer. Still others might say that art should awaken the viewer to contradictions within the prevailing social-economic-political order.

While it is hard to see how "Shot Dog Film" could be considered art on a formal or aesthetic basis (I haven't seen the film, but I can't imagine how watching a dog be shot and die could expand my aesthetic awareness), it could be said to communicate Otterness's emotional state at the time it was done; indeed, Otterness indicates as much in his apology. It could also be argued that it serves as a critique of consumerist society and the attitude of disposability that it engenders. So, to deny "Shot Dog Film" the status of art, I must adopt a purely formalist position.

This I decline to do. My view is that all three of the positions described above concerning what art should be--formalist, emotive and critical, if you will--are valid. There may be other criteria, as well, that deserve consideration. Consequently, I am thrown back onto the intentionality test, which means I must renounce any attempt to ascribe a normative dimension to the word "art". There is good art, there is bad art, there is even evil art. In deciding what is good, bad or indifferent, we may resort to the categories of decision previously described, or to others that also relate to art-as-art. In deciding what is evil, however, we must be guided by something that transcends considerations of what is or isn't, or what's better or worse (from a purely artistic perspective), art; that is, our consciences.

Though I've given my answer to the question posed in the caption, I want to finish with a look at what goes into the making of art, in which we see that even trash can be a source of inspiration. This we can do by taking a hike with Thomas Nozkowski:

*Neumann is quoted in Simon Taylor, "The NO!art Movement in New York, 1960-1964 (Final Draft, 7/21/95)", pp.15-16. (This text was available on line when I wrote this post; unfortunately, it is not now.)

**Brian O'Doherty, "Season's End: Groups at Castelli and Auslander--Plus a Shock at Stein's", The New York Times, May 31, 1964. This review also mentions a presumably then little-known artist, Christo, of whom O'Doherty noted that his "pet trick is a good, if quickly expendable, one--wrapped packages prompting curiosity." This was, recall, 1964. The "quickly expendable" trick proved to have considerable staying power.

***Gary Indiana, "One Brief, Scuzzy Moment: Memories of the East Village Art Scene", New York Magazine, December 6, 2004 (see text here).

Leon Kass wants you to drop that ice cream cone, NOW!

As a member, and former chairman, of the President's Council on Bioethics, Leon Kass has played an important role in determining the Bush administration's policy on matters such as funding of stem cell research, assisted suicide, and so forth.

Less well known than his views on these weighty matters are Dr. Kass's opinions concerning more mundane stuff. In his article "The Stupidity of Dignity," in the current New Republic, Steven Pinker serves up this juicy Kass quote:
Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone--a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America, but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive...Eating on the street--even when undertaken, say, because one is between appointments and has no other time to eat--displays a lack of self-control: It beckons enslavement to the belly. ...Lacking utensils for cutting and lifting to the mouth, he will often be seen using his teeth for tearing off chewable portions, just like any animal. ...This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view, where, even if we feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behavior.
I just don't get it, Doc: "catlike" equals undignified? I guess you've never been owned by a cat.

Update: thanks to Eric of Classical Values, I now have the complete Kass quote, without ellipses, here. To be fair, Dr. Kass does admit:
I fear I may by this [ice cream] remark lose the sympathy of many reader[s], people who will condescendingly regard as quaint or even priggish the view that eating in the street is for dogs.
He then goes into a diatribe against uncovered yawning, which is one with which I heartily agree. But failing to stifle or cover a yawn yields no pleasure. Dr. Kass would have us believe that the only reason for licking an ice cream cone or eating anything "in public" is "enslavement to the belly." Not so. On a balmy day, it is quite rational, even when not driven by the press of business, to choose the al fresco frankfurter (or suitable vegan alternative) over the confines of table. As for the ice cream cone, I think it really does taste better than with dish and spoon.

(Thanks to Just Your Average Joggler for the perfect image.)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Chicken soup for the Mets fan's soul.

Two decisive wins over the Yanks, the latest featuring the so far wildly inconsistent Oliver Perez over the redoubtable Chien-Ming Wang by the score of 11-4, makes up for a lot of earlier disappointment.

Just don't backslide.

Will this mean the Mets secure the default front-page-of-the-Times-sports-section position, at least until their record slips to worse than the Yanks'? I'm not counting on it.