The Nation, 1 December 2008

Nick Turse looks into American forces’ conduct of the war in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta in the period from 1 December 1968 to 1 April 1969.  Turse concludes that the facts were much worse than has generally been known in the USA.  Civilians were targeted more systematically than has been acknowledged, more of them were killed than has been acknowledged, and a coverup of the some of the worst atrocities continued for decades.  Turse quotes a contemporary letter signed “Concerned Sergeant.”  The otherwise anonymous soldier denounced the operations to which he was attached and estimated that the rate at which unarmed civilians were being killed amounted to “a My Lai a month.” 

Ever since Studs Terkel died, The Nation has been memorializing him.  In this issue, his editor, Andre Schiffrin, remembers their attempt to put together an oral history on the topic of power.  The project failed because none of their prospective subjects would even admit that he held power, let alone give insight into what it was like to use it.  That’s hardly surprising when Schiffrin describes the key to Terkel’s work.  His subjects talked to him, Schiffrin explains, because “he approached people with utter respect.  Those he talked to immediately felt this and poured their hearts out.”  Powerful people usually seem to expect to be approached with utter respect, if not indeed with abject servility.  That so many people from so many backgrounds found it a shock to be approached with respect is a sad commentary on our society. 

Hoosiers and others marveling at the fact that Indiana voted for Obama will enjoy Mark Hertsgaard’s piece about Luke Lefever, a plumber (a real one!) who volunteered for the Obama campaign in Elkhart. 

Siddhartha Deb reviews several novels by Elias Khoury.  At first, Deb praises the “fragmented” style of Khoury’s work as suitable to his native Lebanon, but at the end he suggests that the time may have come for a smoother style of writing and, apparently, a more settled view of Lebanese identity.

This brings us to Barry Schwabsky’s review of Art Worlds by Howard S. Becker and Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton.   Becker’s newly reprinted 1982 book is a sociological study of various milieux from which products came that could be called “art,” while Thornton, also a sociologist, spent her time in “an art world that claims the right to call itself the art world.”  Schwabsky puts the question:

In the sociologist’s art world, hierarchies, rankings, and orders of distinction proliferate.  Status and reputation are all, and questions about them abound.  Why does the seemingly kitschy work of Jeff Koons hang in great museums around the world while the equally cheesy paintings of Thomas Kinkade would never be considered?… How do conflicting views on the value of different kinds of artworks jell into a rough and shifting consensus about the boundaries of what will be considered art in the first place?

That’s quite a weighty question.  As for the Koons/ Kinkade riddle, my suspicion is that perspective drawing and the rest of the conventional skills of representational art are not really all that difficult to master.  Some years ago I read an essay by Eric Gill called “Art in Education: Abolish Art and Teach Drawing,” in which he argued that given a chance virtually any child could and would learn these techniques.  I haven’t seen any scientific work testing this hypothesis, but it doesn’t seem fantastic to me to think that if all children were introduced to art in the same way that, let’s say, Thomas Kinkade was, that some large percentage of the population would grow up to paint pictures very much like his.  If that is so, then the problem with Kinkade isn’t that he’s cheesy, but just that they are nothing special.  If a collector wants to attain a high rank, s/he can hardly buy paintings that may be very pleasant but that could be equalled by, let’s say, a third of the adult population. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that everybody’s favorite blogger, Steve Sailer, has a post which begins with the same quote from Schwabsky.  He goes on to quote another of Schwabsky’s lines, that “art’s collectorship is heavily Jewish, and perhaps to a lesser extent, so is its ‘administration.'”  Sailer, who is preoccupied with biological inheritance as an explanation for cultural diversity, seizes on this to bring out one of his favorite data points, that Jews tend to score high in tests of verbal ability and low in tests of visual-spatial skills.  This fact supposedly means that a mostly Jewish elite of art buyers will favor verbalized theories about what art is (Schwabsky at one point says that “art is the field that exists in order for there to be contention about what art is”) over the visual experience of art.  This theory seems pretty screwy to me.  If you reduce “Jewish” to “high verbal ability, low visual-spatial skills,” it may work, but once you grant that these characteristics do not form an exhaustive or unfailing description of world Jewry it seems to disintegrate completely.

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  1. cymast

     /  November 25, 2008

    Here’s my theory regarding the Koons/Kinkade discrepancy:

    Marketing. Thomas Kinkade is over-marketed, much like Bob Ross. Wiki says “It is estimated that 1 in 10 homes in the U.S. feature some form of Thomas Kinkade’s art or licensed product.” Kinkade paintings are sold on QVC. They’re common and common people love them. Jeff Koons’ art isn’t marketed as common.

    Here’s my definition of art:

    Manipulation for the sake of aesthetic contemplation.

  2. acilius

     /  November 25, 2008

    I wonder how much of “the Koons/ Kinkade discrepancy” is to do with hostility. Work on the Koons side always seems to appeal to a desire to shock the uninitiated, while Kinkade’s work is marketed as a thumb in the eye of the elite. If Aunt Min’s bridge club in Fargo started raving about Jeff Koons, would his work still be prized? If the Saatchi brothers set out to assemble a complete collection of Thomas Kinkade holiday posters, would Kinkade still move all that merchandise? The two sides need each other. Products emanating from “The Art World” satisfy their customers when they shock the townsfolk (epater les bourgeois.) Kinkade sells prints when those shocked townsfolk imagine that the inhabitants of “The Art World” are looking down on them.

  3. cymast

     /  November 25, 2008

    Good points, but I don’t think the commoners actively support Kinkade as a reaction to the elitist art world. I think they support Kinkade and his paintings because he markets himself as a modern day Norman Rockwell of sorts. Kinkade is a feel-good, all-American, Jesus-pleasin’, and Apple Pie-eatin’ product that appeals to the same sector that was almost responsible for putting Palin in the White House.

  4. acilius

     /  November 25, 2008

    But what makes them “commoners”? Doesn’t that label imply a contrast with some uncommon group?

  5. cymast

     /  November 25, 2008

    Yes, it does imply a contrast, but not a hostile one.

  6. acilius

     /  November 25, 2008

    What makes the contrast so important that people will spend substantial amounts of time and money to keep it going? After all, there’s a contrast between me and people from Michigan. Yet I’ve never spent a penny to show how different I am from Michiganders.

  7. cymast

     /  November 26, 2008

    Well, people don’t buy a lottery ticket necessarily to support charities, they buy a lottery ticket to win $$$.

    I don’t think purchasing a Kinkade piece is necessarily a gesture against the elitist art world, I think it’s more of a gesture for the symbolism of Kinkade.

  8. acilius

     /  November 30, 2008

    What is “the symbolism of Kinkade”?

  9. cymast

     /  December 1, 2008

    The product is the symbol. The feel-good, all-American, Jesus-pleasin’, and Apple Pie-eatin’ product/symbol.

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