Friday, December 18, 2009

Robert Hughes: Charismatic, fun, sloppy - and out of touch?

I was recently pointed to Robert Hughes' Mona Lisa Curse, which is available in 12 parts on YouTube. It's a documentary about the influence of the modern market on the art world. It's also something of a polemic against that influence.

Hughes sees the Mona Lisa's American tour in the 1960's as the starting point, or at least the symbolic kickoff, of an historic realignment of art collecting. Art has come to be seen by its collectors primarily as an investment, and that activity has both priced art museums out of the market and had undue influence on the public perception of relative artistic quality.

Unfortunately, for all his gruff style and contrarian hipness even at 70, Hughes only makes half an argument.

The high prices of blue-chip contemporary art today undoubtably make high-stakes collecting a game for the rich. And it certainly is beautiful to think of a postal clerk and a librarian amassing a major collection, which was once possible and now apparently not.

At least it's not possible if you look to the activities of the rich as your arbiter of artistic quality, which Hughes of course suggests we should not. But at the same time an enormous number of people are making contemporary art, and most of them sell, if they sell at all, at prices quite compatible with a modest income dedicated to collecting.

The same argument can be made for museums: if the rich collectors are skewing the meritocracy of art, why should the museums buy what they collect? And they are not then where exactly is the problem?

Hughes doesn't tell us how this world of the rich setting the public art agenda is any different than it always was. I would argue that it's more democratic by far, even if it's more crass: a Farnese wielded far more power over the art world than a Cohen ever will.

But Hughes argues that the Cohens are lacking taste, whereas the Farnese had it. This may be true, though it could also have to do with the fact that contemporary artists are fairly autonomous and don't do their best work on commission, whereas the Pope could once upon a time tell a Tiziano to paint and the painter would give it his all.

The Mona Lisa Curse also has nothing to say about the personal enrichment of the artists themselves. Much is made of the feelings of betrayal in the early days of aggressive dealership in the US, but that was long ago. Bob Rauschenberg was already a very wealthy man by the time I first saw his work. There is a scene in which Rauschenberg confronts Mr. Scull, who has just made a tremendous profit on work by Rauschenberg and Johns. The dealer tells him, in effect, that he's just made him permanently rich, since his prices will now be much higher.

Scull is right. Rauschenberg is an ingrate. At the moment it probably seemed like precisely the opposite was true, but watching the scene in 2009 it's glaringly apparent how symbiotic that relationship was. Hughes seems to wish it weren't.

And what about the artists?

Hughes spends a fair amount of energy airing his contempt for Andy Warhol, both the man and his work. While quoting him on the Mona Lisa tour, Hughes also calls him stupid. And when discussing a collector who owned 800 Warhols, Hughes is clearly disgusted by the very concept. You can't miss the point of Warhol by a wider margin than that.

Some of the anti-Warhol tirade may also be personal. Considering how central Rauschenberg is to the Hughes canon, and considering how famously Rauschenberg disliked Warhol and his queeny tribe, there is a whif of argumentum ad hominem about the whole thing.

Another artist who takes a beating in the documentary is Damien Hirst. But here it's more deserved: the shark really hasn't aged well, neither physically nor conceptually. And the big visible woman scultpure is truly, breathtakingly awful; freshman work with an industrial budget.

However, I remember being quite inspired by some of Hirst's work when I was studying. Particularly One Thousand Years is still a strong idea. And of course For the Love of God is held up as the ultimate example of the depraved art market, but - Earth to Critic! - it's a work specifically about the depravity of the art market. He might as well have titled it For the Love of Bob.

There are plenty of other artists who have made a lot of money from the modern collecting machine. Would the world somehow be better if they hadn't? Would their art be more pure? Maybe - maybe Brice Marden would make a new picture instead of painting the same old one over and over again. But shouldn't the artists have something to say about that?

And as for the museums being priced out of the game, I see no reason why that matters or is particularly new. Collectors are not the only people who can donate artwork: if major artists don't themselves keep major works for public collections, that's hardly the art market's fault.

Finally there is a segment in which Hughes bullies a rich but clueless collector. This comes across as an utterly unfair fight. And I think Hughes enjoys it precisely because it's unfair, which is sad. The collector has already been shown earlier in the show to be no great thinker on art.

It could have been left at that, but Hughes corners him and effectively requires him to prove that he isn't very bright but thinks his possessions matter anyway. Congratulations. Having now proved, against all odds, that dumb people can also inherit great wealth, which universal conundrum shall the Critic tackle next?

So what is it that Hughes wants artists, collectors and museums to do?

As far as I can tell he wants artists to use their own hands to make works that have to do with contemporary society, as long as it's still recognizably "art."

Collectors ought perhaps to spend less and be less competitive. Less, you know, >new money.< Right, I'll get back to you on that, or my people will.

Museums should be less commercial, less sponsored, less in thrall to their donors and less crowded. I suppose the Getty has achieved that, by having the One Greater Donor and being hard to reach. I'll take crowded, exciting, whorish and available any day. And a knock-off Murakami bag from China.

Hughes is a tough and charismatic contrarian. I highly recommend the documentary. But I can't help thinking he's out of touch.

iTunes Store: Purchase HD, Download Kitchen Sink

Weird: I just purchased a full season of a TV show in "High Definition" on iTunes for the first time, and it kicks off downloads for both the high-def and normal-def versions of every episode. I'm curious whether I'll be charged for both. If not then it's no big deal, but I still have some trouble imagining what having both versions is good for.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Two cool (and underreported) things about Snow Leopard.

I recently upgraded my various Macs to Snow Leopard, Apple's streamlined new operating system. So far two things have caught my eye, both of them very nice surprises.
  1. System Perl is now version 5.10.
  2. The Activity Monitor now shows Safari Plug-Ins such as the disastrous resource-hog Adobe Flash as separate processes.
So now when your fans start going nuts over a YouTube video, you can see exactly who's to blame. As usual, Adobe is to blame. I have yet to try killing the Flash process to see if it can be done without affecting the rest of Safari, but I'm hopeful it might. As for the Perl, here are the geeky details:
kfrost@mbp ~/bloc $ perl -V
Summary of my perl5 (revision 5 version 10 subversion 0) configuration:
   osname=darwin, osvers=10.0, archname=darwin-thread-multi-2level
   uname='darwin 10.0 darwin kernel version 10.0.0d8: tue may 5 19:29:59 pdt 2009; root:xnu-1437.2~2release_i386 i386 '
   config_args='-ds -e -Dprefix=/usr -Dccflags=-g  -pipe  -Dldflags= -Dman3ext=3pm -Duseithreads -Duseshrplib -Dinc_version_list=none -Dcc=gcc-4.2'
   hint=recommended, useposix=true, d_sigaction=define
   useithreads=define, usemultiplicity=define
   useperlio=define, d_sfio=undef, uselargefiles=define, usesocks=undef
   use64bitint=define, use64bitall=define, uselongdouble=undef
   usemymalloc=n, bincompat5005=undef
   cc='gcc-4.2', ccflags ='-arch x86_64 -arch i386 -arch ppc -g -pipe -fno-common -DPERL_DARWIN -fno-strict-aliasing -I/usr/local/include',
   cppflags='-g -pipe -fno-common -DPERL_DARWIN -fno-strict-aliasing -I/usr/local/include'
   ccversion='', gccversion='4.2.1 (Apple Inc. build 5646)', gccosandvers=''
   intsize=4, longsize=8, ptrsize=8, doublesize=8, byteorder=12345678
   d_longlong=define, longlongsize=8, d_longdbl=define, longdblsize=16
   ivtype='long', ivsize=8, nvtype='double', nvsize=8, Off_t='off_t', lseeksize=8
   alignbytes=8, prototype=define
 Linker and Libraries:
   ld='gcc-4.2 -mmacosx-version-min=10.6', ldflags ='-arch x86_64 -arch i386 -arch ppc -L/usr/local/lib'
   libpth=/usr/local/lib /usr/lib
   libs=-ldbm -ldl -lm -lutil -lc
   perllibs=-ldl -lm -lutil -lc
   libc=/usr/lib/libc.dylib, so=dylib, useshrplib=true, libperl=libperl.dylib
 Dynamic Linking:
   dlsrc=dl_dlopen.xs, dlext=bundle, d_dlsymun=undef, ccdlflags=' '
   cccdlflags=' ', lddlflags='-arch x86_64 -arch i386 -arch ppc -bundle -undefined dynamic_lookup -L/usr/local/lib'

Characteristics of this binary (from libperl):
                       USE_64_BIT_INT USE_ITHREADS USE_LARGE_FILES
                       USE_PERLIO USE_REENTRANT_API
 Locally applied patches:
       /Library/Perl/Updates/ comes before system perl directories
       installprivlib and installarchlib points to the Updates directory
 Built under darwin
 Compiled at Jun 24 2009 00:35:27

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cha-Ya: Ja ja, naja, chacha-yaya.

If you're not a vegan yourself, it's easy to forget that vegans must consume their body weight in vegetable matter every four hours just to survive.

Fortunately, places like Cha-Ya are here to remind you.

Cha-Ya is a little Japanese veggie joint near my home in the Mission District. I've walked by a million times, and today I finally overcame my annoyance at their inappropriately prominent indoor cash machine and stopped in for lunch.

The first bit of good news is that there was no discernible hippie infestation. Granted, I was probably the only one there not the proud owner of a yoga mat, but my immediate neighbors were a charming and very urban lesbian couple, and a lawyer having lunch with a soldier.

The next bit of good news is that the food is actually quite yummy, if perhaps a bit more attached to the deep-fryer than I'd like. And the portions are almost intimidatingly large, until you remember it's all just flowers and leaves.

I had the lunch combo with an excellent pot of green tea (bagged, for you snobs) for $15 with tip. For that I had a very nice miso soup, a very filling and well-presented plate of deep-fried tempura veggie sticks, a large spring roll with mushrooms and more, also deep-fried, and a bowl of rice.

About half way through I thought it would defeat me, but then I remembered there are twice the nutrients in the severed head of a single sea kitten, and found the strength to continue. I didn't finish the rice, which was just plain white rice, but I polished off the rest and went waddling up the street to buy wine.

The tempura was very light. The veg sticks included carrots, yams, asparagus, something potato-like that probably wasn't, and mushrooms that might have been tofu. It came with a tasty "Tempura sauce" which was not in itself battered nor fried. It was very hot at first, and by the end was perhaps a bit too cooled, so I think there's an art to scarfing it all at the right moment.

The warm spring roll was very veggie, with tofu and mushrooms and green beans and more, served with a sweetish dipping sauce. This one actually got better as I ate more of it.

I didn't take a camera, as I'm still working up the courage to pose as a famous restaurant critic and intimidate the owners into giving me free booze. Maybe next time; for now, no pics. Unfortunately it's not that easy to find any online, as vegans generally don't use technology, are invisible, and are said to lack the opposable thumbs necessary for camera operation; in addition, Cha-Ya apparently just means "tree-spinach."

I'd recommend Cha-Ya to anyone compelled to veganism by the usual weaknesses of digestion or logic, but I'd also recommend it to ordinary foodies. I thought my selection was, as mentioned, a little on the fried side, and it could have been happier apr├Ęs d├ęgustation, but I look forward to going back for some soba with mushrooms and tofu.

NOTE: Cha-Ya the Japanese Mission Vegan Joint is not to be confused with Chaya Brasserie. The former is a sedate little veg diner with no web site; the latter is an upscale Japanese Fusion chain in LA and SF with a really annoying Flash website. I go by that one pretty often too, and may yet drop in.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Do you like catfish?

If you think catfish are cuddly little things, some freakish combination of cat and fish -- and who wouldn't think that? -- then think again!

Feast your eyes on this monster of a catfish caught in Lake Bileca (Bilecko Jezero) in Republika Srpska aka the Serb Republic aka Serbian Herzegovina.

All's I can say is: yummy! And I wish I'd been there. And next time I go to Bileca I'm bringing a fancy camera just in case we catch a ten zillion pound fish. Or cat.

Here's the giant catfish link:

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Sync early, sync often.

Update: the phone wasn't stolen after all, I somehow lost it and it somehow didn't ring when called. But this post has some interesting ideas anyway.

It's entirely my own fault. I had my iPhone in an outside jacket pocket, without being aware of this fact, in a bar, at night, in a not-so-great neighborhood, in big city in a recession, while speaking a foreign language.

So I deserve no sympathy. iPhones are stolen from better people every day.

However, it does get me thinking about a few things.

Always remember you have no automatic sync.

Of course you know that you have to connect your iPhone to your computer in order to synchronize your contacts and such. And of course it's annoying, so of course you put it out of your mind.

I just lost a week's worth of vacation pictures, and one very important phone number. I can recover about three of the pictures, which I had e-mailed to people, and I'm pretty sure I can get the phone number through a mutual friend.

But if I'd just bothered to sync once a day I would be in much better shape. And I did charge the phone, so I have no excuse: I was simply too lazy to bother with a daily sync.

Identity theft: what to do about the risk?

I was using a PIN code to prevent easy access to my iPhone. I was able to deactivate the number and reset my e-mail password without incident.

But there's still a large amount of personal data on that phone, most of it unencrypted. E-mail, address book, photos, bookmarks...

I think it's reasonably safe to assume the thieves will reset it, hardware unlock it, and sell it for about $500 on the local grey market. There's plenty of demand, and identity theft is hard work.

On the other hand there's no way to be sure somebody won't do the work and have acces to that frighteningly detailed archive of your life.

In principle this is no different than having your notebook stolen. And that's a good reminder: always encrypt your home directory and always back up your important data. (Note to self: use FileVault on the private Mac just like I do on the work Mac, as soon as I get home.)

But the iPhone doesn't have FileFault, at least not that I'm aware of. I never gave it much thought, but now it strikes me as a really bad idea to not encrypt application data in (at least) Mail and Notes.

The lack of unlocked iPhones makes theft worse, not better.

Finally, I'm convinced that theft would be a much smaller problem if provider-neutral (SIM-unlocked) iPhones were readily available.

I am quite sure that most of the gray market in iPhones is for people who want to use them with other carriers. This is particularly true in Europe, where the entire network is GSM and 3G coverage is excellent, but Apple only partners with (usually) a single carrier in each country.

It would also make life a lot easier for the theft victim. I'm still traveling for two weeks, and now I have to travel iPhonelessly.

If I could easily buy an unlocked iPhone, I could use it for the rest of my trip and then get my SIM card replaced as soon as I return to the US. It would vastly reduce the inconvenience to me, the customer, and it would make money for Apple.

But of course it would make less money for AT&T.

*Sigh* - off to ebay to look for my stolen phone.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Apple is behind the social networking curve.

I know Apple isn't a "social network" and I know it's not a "Web 2.0" company (the ongoing slow-motion train wreck that is MobileMe notwithstanding).

I don't care. Apple is still my favorite technology company.

But I just had an experience that illustrated just how far behind the Web curve Steve, Tim &co are.

I was using NetNewsWire to read the latest computerite news on my iPhone. This is, I'm informed, a fairly standard way of staying informed.

I came across a post on Daring Fireball that really wanted to be opened in Safari. And so I did. And indeed, it was awesome. And I wanted to post it to Facebook, and --

This is not possible.

Fine. I went to the laptop and made it happen. Voila, just like in 1998, use the computer for the computer things and don't forget who's who.

How sad. How absurd. How simple to add a "Share Link" option after "Mail Link to this Page." Let the user configure it to use Facebook or MySpace or both or something else, as long as the (public) API is respected.

Cost to Apple: $0.00 (I guarantee Facebook would send them a dozen engineers to do the work).

I would say it's not Apple's problem, but there is a precedent: Google Maps links open in Google Maps, and YouTube links open in YouTube, and of course I would never imply anything like a conflict of interest with Apple's valued board member and competitor-on-many-fronts Mr. Schmidt.

I hope to see this soon. And if Apple really doesn't want to keep Safari up to date in these things, fine: as long as they give us the option of choosing our default browser in the iPhone Preferences.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Easy to Book.

I just booked a hotel, which is something I don't do terribly often.

And while researching hotels on the wonderfully informative, horrendously designed TripAdvisor I found someone mentioning

Off I went, and I was very pleasantly surprised. I ended up booking through them. It was easy.

And I got a very good deal. I recommend it.