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Ed Driscoll

From Bauhaus To Our House

And the Albert Speer Award Goes To…

October 23rd, 2014 - 12:21 am


“Is Architecture ‘Racist’?“, John Hinderaker asks at Power Line, linking to an article in Wednesday’s Denver Post on that city’s railroad station. As John notes, “Denver’s main train depot, Union Station, has been renovated and restored to its former glory (more or less), which is what troubles the arts critic. The restored building is, he thinks, racist…”

Of course it is, the Denver Post critic argues, perhaps sampling from Maureen Dowd’s hallucinogenic confectionery stash:

Let’s start with the building itself, the actual architecture. Union Station is a neo-classical mix of styles — European styles. The symmetry, arched windows, ornate cornice and stacked, stone walls have their roots in the glory days of France, England, Greece and Rome, in empires that were nearly absent of ethnic minorities and who felt fully at ease invading, exploiting and actually enslaving the people of Africa, subcontinent Asia and South America.

In response, Hinderaker writes:

This is mind-bendingly dumb. It is evident that the Post’s Fine Arts Critic didn’t major in history. France, England, Greece and Rome–four peas in a pod! But let’s not pause to consider the ancient Greeks’ conquest of Brazil, or what on God’s green Earth any of this has to do with Denver’s train station. The stupidity continues:

Yes, that’s all in the past; things have changed. But the $54 million renovation of Union Station doesn’t take that into account. It restores the symbols of an old world with no updates. The gilded chandeliers have been rewired, the marble polished, but there’s no nod to the present, no interior walls in the bright colors of Mexico, no Asian simplicity is in the remix. There are no giant sculptures by African-American artists bonused into the lobby, no murals on the basement walls.

Have you noticed that Asian-Americans don’t like to go anywhere that doesn’t exhibit “Asian simplicity,” and African-Americans won’t set foot in a public place unless it features “giant sculptures”? Sure. Just as I, a loyal Norwegian-American, refuse to patronize any restaurant that doesn’t feature a replica Viking ship in the lobby and whose walls are not lined with horned helmets. Stereotypes rule!

Does each individual ethnicity demand its own architecture to feel racially pure? Conversely, does architecture reflect the tribal prejudices of the culture that built it? Do the stereotypes of the day manifest themselves in the designs of public spaces? Well, that’s one way to look at the semiotics of architecture. I thought such opinions had been rather dramatically discredited by about May of 1945, but perhaps I was simply being naive.

But somewhere, the modern architects of the 1920s, who promoted what they called a universal “International Style” of design must be rolling over in their row upon Mies van der row of graves, to borrow a line from Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House.

Related: In other news regarding “Progressives” and their curiously idiosyncratic opinions on Rocky Mountain architecture, the JuiceVoxers have a rather interesting take on bathroom design in the Boulder area

“Why we should subsidise hipster novelists’ housing” was a theory proffered by UK Guardian journalist Brigid Delaney, that we had lots of fun with in January, when Delaney wrote:

Bankrupt and boarded up – the city of Detroit hardly sounds like an inspiring place to work on your novel. But if your rent is covered – then suddenly the prospect is a lot more appealing. Detroit non-profit organisation Write a House is renovating two three-bedroom houses and is accepting applications (worldwide) for writers to move in rent-free. If the writers stay for two years, they get the deeds to the house. I suspect the organisation won’t be short of applications.

As I responded, “Yes, lets import a squadron of Second Amendment-adverse leftwing literary hipsters into feral Detroit — would they even need the ‘This Home is Proudly Gun-Free’ signs that James O’Keefe once handed out to MSM journalists to paint targets on their back?”

Blogger David Thompson spots another Guardian contributor who ought to be the first to take Delaney up on her suggestion, based on his latest column, which features the headline, “Creating ‘mixed communities’ means starting at the top – so let’s bulldoze Belgravia,” one of London’s poshest neighborhoods, regarding which, the Guardian’s photo captioner wrote, “Belgravia … a dangerous concentration of affluence?”

I asked Bane from the last Batman movie for a comment, and all I could get from him were vague mumbles about  “the fire rises, my friend.” But as Thompson writes:

Peter Matthews, an Urban Studies lecturer with an interest in “urban inequalities,” questions the “rosy image of mixed communities.” And yet he wants to ensure more of us live next door to “the poor and marginalised.”

When trying to create a better social mix, the focus is almost always on deprived areas. Aren’t the posh bits a problem too?

Thus, Matthews is calling for “deliberate urban degeneration.” As Thompson responds:

Imagine those three words, in bold, on the policy document. Followed by, “It’s what you people need, good and hard.”

As someone who grew up in what would now be considered a “deprived area,” amid lots of “social” housing and all manner of inventively antisocial behaviour, and then escaped, I’m not sure I’d appreciate a second taste of what it was I was hoping to get the hell away from. It’s hard to feel nostalgic for casual vandalism, routine burglary and bus stops and phone boxes that stank reliably of piss.

Exactly. Both America and England tried deliberate urban degeneration — good and hard — after World War II. It worked out just swell for all concerned:

So why nuke Belgravia, when you can simply move to Detroit?

Bauhaus of Cards

February 25th, 2014 - 9:26 pm

The Hannah Arendt Center’s Roger Berkowitz explores “The Irony of the Elite” by way of Peggy Noonan’s observation on how much real-life congressmen enjoy Kevin Spacey’s dark portrayal of their profession in House of Cards, and Kevin Roose’s new book Young Money. Roose’s book presents Wall Street financiers mocking, as Berkowitz writes, “anyone who would question their inalienable right to easy money at the expense of rubes in government and on main street”:

What is more important than the decadence on display is the self-satisfied irony.  The elites in Washington and Wall Street seem not to care about their decadence and even take joy in the revealing of their decadence. It is as if a burden has been lifted, that we all in the outside world can now know what they have borne in secret. With the secret out, they can enjoy themselves without guilt.

This embrace of the revelation of decadence recalls the cultural milieu of Weimar Germany, and especially the reception of Berthold Brecht’s classic satire the “Threepenny Opera.” Here is how Hannah Arendt describes the arrival and reception of Brecht’s play:

“The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters. The irony was somewhat lost when respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” [First comes the animal-like satisfaction of one’s hungers, then comes morality], was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior, wonderful fun.”

Brecht hoped to shock not only with his portrayal of corruption and the breakdown of morality, but by his gleeful presentation of Weimar decadence; but the effect of “Threepenny Opera” was exactly the opposite, since all groups in society reacted to Brecht’s satire with joy instead of repulsion.

Arendt has little hope for the mob or the bourgeoisie, but she is clearly cut to the quick by the ease with which the elite felt “genuine delight” in watching the bourgeoisie and the mob “destroy respectability.” As Arendt explained, the “members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.” Because the elite had largely rejected their belief in the justice and meaningfulness of the moral and common values that had supported the edifice of civilization, they found more joy in the ironic skewering of those values than they felt fear at what the loss of common values might come to mean.

Linking to the above post, Glenn Reynolds writes, “This is a disturbing thing to read, coming from the Hannah Arendt Center.” But it’s not at all a new development. As we’ve quoted several times before here, back in 1986′s The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom noted the Weimar-ification of America, by way of the Frankfurt School and other  Weimar-era exports, who arrived in America after being expelled from Nazi Germany. Arendt herself was a Weimar-educated German who found success in the hothouse intellectual environment of postwar Manhattan, as illustrated, albeit likely unintentionally, by the New Yorker. Its February 16, 1963 issue, the debut of their serialization of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem thesis, featured on its cover the newly open Pan Am building co-designed by Walter Gropius, the founder of the German Bauhaus, the original wellspring of modernist design, whose lifespan paralleled the existence of the Weimar regime itself almost perfectly, until Hitler shuttered its doors in 1933. (There are numerous actors portraying Arendt’s fellow New York intellectuals clutching rolled-up copies of that issue while they angrily confront her in the 2012 German-made docudrama on that period of Arendt’s life, as we mentioned in our post on that film, last month.)

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It’s a Wonderful Fountainhead

December 16th, 2013 - 12:20 am

From now until December 25th (and perhaps January 1st), Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life will be playing somewhere. It’s available on Blu-Ray. There’s currently a sharp-looking copy on YouTube. It will be on TV, where the film’s reputation was made during its many annual repeats; it was unexpectedly flat at the box office during its initial 1946 big screen run. And it will likely also be playing at a revival theater near you. My wife and I caught one such showing at the movie theater in San Jose’s Santana Row yesterday, which was actually the first time I had seen it on the big screen, in a beautifully remastered digital version. It was a vivid reminder that as popular as It’s a Wonderful Life is on TV, this was a film made to be seen by a large audience in a theater, and their knowing laughter during the film’s best moments — and likely, their weeping by the end of the film as we were — adds immeasurably to its impact.

The film is now a double piece of nostalgia, something not intended by its makers. Certainly Capra and company viewed its initial flashback scenes to the early 20th century, the 1928 high school dance and the 1932-era bank run, as nostalgia. But the film’s contemporary setting of post-World War II America is now almost 70 years in the rearview mirror, as are the morals of the people who made the film.

You certainly can get a sense of that merely from reading the film’s Wikipedia page, when you come to the section on how the film is viewed by leftwing urban critics today, particularly the scenes set in “Pottersville,” the segment in which small town Bedford Falls is transformed into Reno on the Hudson:

In a 2010 piece, Richard Cohen described It’s a Wonderful Life as “the most terrifying Hollywood film ever made”. In the “Pottersville” sequence, he wrote, George is not “seeing the world that would exist had he never been born”, but rather “the world as it does exist, in his time and also in our own.”] Nine years earlier, another Salon writer, Gary Kamiya, had expressed the opposing view that “Pottersville rocks!”, adding, “The gauzy, Currier-and-Ives veil Capra drapes over Bedford Falls has prevented viewers from grasping what a tiresome and, frankly, toxic environment it is… We all live in Pottersville now.”*

The film’s elevation to the status of a beloved classic came decades after its initial release, when it became a television staple during Christmas season in the late 1970s. This came as a welcome surprise to Frank Capra and others involved with its production. “It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” Capra told the Wall Street Journal in 1984. “The film has a life of its own now, and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”In a 1946 interview, Capra described the film’s theme as “the individual’s belief in himself” and that he made it “to combat a modern trend toward atheism”.

Of course, atheism doesn’t necessarily mean socialism — even if that’s how it invariably works out (more on that later); and after the page break, allow me to reprint my 2010 post titled “It’s a Wonderful Fountainhead,” which compares Capra’s 1946 film with its very different contemporary, which was based on Ayn Rand’s novel about a young man who dreams of going to the big city, becoming an architect and building giant phallic symbols, and, unlike George Bailey, who has to reconcile never leaving his small town, succeeds on his own terms. Followed by some further thoughts and links from 2013, and a jaw-dropping moment at Wikipedia.

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The Ruins of Socialism

December 7th, 2013 - 4:29 pm

I’m sensing a theme here:

Cuban architects understood the need for air and shade in a climate such as Cuba’s, and they proportioned buildings and rooms accordingly. They created an urban environment that, with its arcades, columns, verandas, and balconies, was elegant, sophisticated, convenient, and joyful.”

But now it looks like a set on the History Channel’s show Life After People, only it’s still inhabited. Baghdad in the middle of the Iraq war was in better shape physically. I know because I spent months there and wrote a book about it.

— Michael J. Totten in his new article at World Affairs, “The Once Great City of Havana,” continuing his tour of Fidel Castro’s hellish prison island.

Its notional unemployment rate was 16 percent in April 2013; its real unemployment rate is probably closer to 50 percent. Its murder rate is about 11 times that of New York City. The median value of a home in the city is $9,000. When the Cold War classic Red Dawn was remade in 2012, the producers saved themselves some of the cost of creating a postapocalyptic United States by filming in Detroit, though filming had to be stopped when councilwoman JoAnn Watson, in a car with municipal plates, parked in the middle of a scene and refused to leave.

— Kevin D. Williamson, in his new book, What Doomed Detroit.

Until quite recently, I had assumed that the extreme ugliness of the city in which I live was attributable to the Luftwaffe. I imagined that the cheap and charmless high rise buildings which so disfigure the city-scape had been erected of necessity in great gaping holes left by Heinkel bombers. I had spent much of my childhood playing in deserted bomb shelters in public parks: and although I was born some years after the end of the war, that great conflagration still exerted a powerful hold on the imagination of British children of my generation.I discovered how wrong I was not long ago when I entered a store whose walls were decorated with large photographs of the city as it had been before the war. It was then a fine place, in a grandiloquent, Victorian kind of way. Every building had spoken of a bulging, no doubt slightly pompous and ridiculous, municipal pride. Industry and Labor were glorified in statuary, and a leavening of Greek temples and Italian Renaissance palaces lightened the prevailing mock-Venetian Gothic architecture.

“A great shame about the war,” I said to the store assistant, who was of an age to remember the old days. “Look at the city now.”

“The war?” she said. “The war had nothing to do with it. It was the council.”

The City Council—the people’s elected representatives it transpired, had done far more damage to the fabric of the city in the 1950s and 1960s than had Goering’s air force. Indeed, they had managed to turn it into a terrible visual ordeal for anyone with the most minimal visual sensibility.

— Theodore Dalrymple’s introduction to his tour of London’s low-income housing, in a 1995 City Journal article titled, “Do Sties Make Pigs?”

…But His Fonts Were Perfect

November 20th, 2013 - 12:36 pm

helveticaYou may know graphic designer Michael Bierut from the above scene in the 2007 documentary Helvetica, which explored how a mid-century European font became the face of corporatist America, private enterprise yoked increasingly under the command of government. Or as I dubbed it back in 2010, after watching the film on a flight back from New York, “Liberal Fascism: The Font.” As I wrote back then, Bierut’s statement in the above clip is a dual-edged sword. Yes, there was a revolution in graphic design in the 1960s. The problem, as Bierut tacitly announces above, is that everything looked the same afterwards, just as the influence of the Weimar-era socialist Bauhaus made every skyscraper in America looked like “socialist worker housing pitched high,” to borrow from Tom Wolfe’s lingo in From Bauhaus to Our House.  In the 1950s, every behemoth corporation in America dumped their original offices for Mies van der Rohe-inspired buildings; in terms of graphic design,  every behemoth corporation the following decade dumped their individual graphic design, often built up over decades, for a Saul Bass-style corporate logo and their name spelled out in Helvetica. As Frank Burns, the token conservative and — not coincidentally — locus of hate on TV’s M*A*S*H once said, in a quote that would come to define the M.O. of the modern left, “Individuality is fine, as long as we all do it together.”

Deep down, Barack Obama would absolutely agree with Frank’s comment; as his former secretary of state infamously said, “We’re going to take things away from you for the common good.” In the late 1990s, when asked about a possible tax cut, her husband, then president, looked at the surplus generated by the Republican Congress and commented, well, we could give you the money back, but you might spend it on the wrong things. And at the 2012 Democrat convention, aka, Obama’s second coronation, the narrator on the video famously said, “Government is the only thing that we all belong to.”

But back to Bierut. Here’s a telling observation from Rich Lowry of National Review, who notes that “Obama Loses His Cool,” or as the blurb on the NRO homepage linking to it adds, “Only the trouser crease remains:”

Barack Obama is the coolest president we’ve had since John F. Kennedy, at least according to conventional standards for such things. Obama has always been a brand as much as a politician, one that has been perceived as sleek, smart, and up to date.

Then along came Its failure to launch is a signal event in the long political battle over Obamacare and perhaps an inflection point in the president’s image. It’s hard to maintain a sense of truly being on the cutting edge of change when you can’t build a website.

Obama’s cool was, in part, an artifact of world-class marketing. Graphic designer Michael Bierut writes in the book Designing Obama (yes, there’s such a book) of how impressed he was watching Obama rallies in 2008: “The awe-inspiring part was the way all the signs were faithfully, and beautifully, set in Hoefler & Frere-Jones’s typeface Gotham.” If only the folks at Health and Human Services were consumed with such attention to detail.

But that’s just it — the graphic design of the Website looks fine; the “vaguely ethnic smiling woman,” on its homepage, as Viacom’s Stephen Colbert dubbed her, was a fine choice as the site’s first icon. It’s what’s going on behind the scenes that counts. And from all accounts, while its fonts are perfect, the actual back-end coding is a mess — it crashed today in front of legendary Internet maestro Kathleen Sebelius with reporters and video cameras present, leading Glenn Reynolds to Insta-quip, “Have we reached ‘peak schadenfreude’ yet?”

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Poirot’s Last Case

November 13th, 2013 - 7:14 pm

“So it’s official: the finest walk in modern television is no more. David Suchet as Hercule Poirot has waddled his last,” the London Telegraph reports:

 Admittedly, Agatha Christie’s Poirot (ITV) had carefully prepared us for the worst. The final series began with the news that the great man had already gone to that great country house in the sky — although, as it turned out, he was only faking it. There was also an obvious warning sign last week, when Poirot was allowed to reveal new depths by hinting, like James Bond and Doctor Who before him, at the human cost of his own heroism. When he told Countess Rossakoff that “I am not your love, I am Hercule Poirot”, we got an unmistakeable glimpse of the price he’d paid for dedicating his life to the cause of crying out “Of course! How could Poirot have been so stupeed?” and gathering all the suspects in a room.

Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case took place, like his first, at Styles, once a grand family house, now — in keeping with the melancholy mood — a rather seedy hotel. It also reunited Poirot with Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser) who after 11 years proved as adept as ever at looking on with exasperated admiration and saying “I’m afraid you’ve lost me there, old chap”. Yet, anybody who feared that we were in for a back-slapping celebration of past triumphs needn’t have worried. After 24 years, 70 programmes and the triumphant realisation of David Suchets dream of covering every Poirot novel and short story, the series could certainly have been forgiven for bowing out in a burst of self-congratulatory glory. That, however, has never been its style — or the secret of its success. While its main character has happily blown away on his own trumpet, the show itself has always gone about its business with a quiet, bravely unhurried and wholly effective commitment to Christie’s story-telling.

So it was that playing croquet in their evening dress were such familiar figures as a mousy woman with a terrible past; a caddish ladies’ man; and a pipe-smoking toff. More alarmingly, there was also a modern young woman — in this case, Hastings’s daughter Judith (Alice Orr-Ewing), whose dad, oddly enough, seemed more concerned about her falling for the cad than the fact she’d become a Nazi. “Unfit lives, useless lives, they should be got out of the way,” she explained over dinner.

So early death panels, then. (Actually, not all that early; as with many elements of National Socialism, they were present in the Weimar Republic.)

Suchet’s performance was hypnotic to watch — perhaps because he was largely unknown in the US before the series debuted, it seemed like he was Poirot; this strange, yet brilliant foppish little man beamed in fin de siècle Belgium. (Anybody who wears a homburg, spats and wing collars to work is OK in my book.) and And the show’s producers surrounded the cast, particularly in the early Poirot episodes, with exquisite mid-’30s production design, frequently highlighting (and likely in some cases largely creating from scratch) Bauhaus-style modernism in the 1930s — if I’m remembering correctly, Poirot even had a Mies van der Rohe chair or two in his office. British modernism after the war would turn out far differently — and much more disastrously — than the handsome forms on display during the early run of ITV’s series; but then, that’s not just true of Britain’s architecture.

The Stench of Hell

November 6th, 2013 - 3:21 pm


The 1970s throughout America were a decade of hideous fashions, bloated underperforming automobiles, soaring crime, and rampant graffiti. But I think you could make a case that unless you lived in the American Northeast in the 1970s, you couldn’t appreciate just how ugly the decade truly was. In South Jersey, where I grew up, even the trains that went through your town had a newfound putrescent decay and squalor.

Pardon the Sheldon Cooper-esque railroad-themed flashback to follow, but honest, I do have a point with this. In 1968, transportation behemoths the New York Central System and the Pennsylvania Railroad merged, forming the Penn Central. The paint scheme the newly formed railroad chose for its locomotives was a basic black, with a huge misshapen modernist-inspired “Mating Worms” PC logo and block sans-serif typeface underneath. The real problems began in 1970, when the railroad declared bankruptcy, and the expense of cleaning and maintaining the equipment was reduced to a low priority indeed.

As late as 1962, a passenger train pulled by a Raymond Loewy-styled electric locomotive that looked like this, arrived into the original Penn Station in New York, which still had its original McKim, Mead & White architecture, inspired by the Roman Baths of Caracalla.

By 1971, when Congress formed Amtrak to take passenger trains off the hands of the private railroad industry, Penn Station had been leveled to provide revenue for an over-regulated PRR, in the form of Madison Square Garden, replaced by a Miesian underground modernist facility that was stark and brutal. Yale’s Vincent Scully famously wrote after the transformation was complete, “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”

When passengers emerged from Penn Station (and the old pun my father used to tell me, “lead us not into Penn Station,” took on new meaning after the original’s demolition), departing from trains being pulled by filthy locomotives that now looked like this, they entered a Big Apple now rotted to the core. Compare the Manhattan as seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1959 film North By Northwest, which what began to follow on big screens, only a decade later, and you’ll be astounded at how quickly the dissipation set in:

Vincent Cannato, a historian at the University of Massachusetts, wrote the definitive book on John Lindsay, the mayor of New York from 1966 to 1973. Cannato’s book The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York, tells the story of liberalism’s now-forgotten golden boy. Charming, improbably handsome, resolutely liberal, and Republican (until he switched parties), Lindsay had the dubious distinction of overseeing much of New York’s horrific decline into legal, fiscal, racial, and moral chaos.

Lindsay’s defenders are legion in New York. In their minds, everything was going great and then, suddenly, when Lindsay left office, the place went off a cliff overnight. Cannato says that whenever he appears at an event to discuss his book, the Lindsayites swarm to defend their hero. One of their primary talking points is the fact that Lindsay fulfilled his vow to “throw open the city to producers from Hollywood,” ushering in a renaissance in New York filmmaking.

And it’s true. But just look at the movies born of Lindsay’s efforts: Taxi Driver, The French Connection, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Panic in Needle Park, and other films depicting a rotting Big Apple — a “voluptuous enemy” with “the stench of Hell,” to borrow a phrase from Pauline Kael’s review of Taxi Driver.

Hollywood may have exaggerated the extent of New York’s Stygian gloom, but you can only exaggerate the truth. And anyone who lived in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s can recognize that while Death Wish may have been a caricature, like any good caricature it captured the likeness better than the subject would have wanted. When I was a kid, street crime was a given, rationalized by many liberals as the price one had to pay to live in such a wonderful metropolis.

Crime, poverty, filth, graffiti, bad architecture, rampant pornography, this was Weimar-inspired modernism’s lowest point. As Daniel Henninger wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 2005, plenty of New York celebrity leftists decried the Giuliani-era cleanup of Manhattan, sneering loudly at the “Disneyfication” of the previously pornofied Times Square, and longed for the festering bad old days of the Bronson-DeNiro era. Henninger quoted actor John Leguizamo, who said that ‘70s-era New York “was funky and gritty and showed the world how a metropolis could be dark and apocalyptic and yet fecund,” And Fran Lebowitz, who described New York during the 1970s as a “a wreck; it was going bankrupt. And it was pretty lawless; everything was illegal, but no laws were enforced. It was a city for city-dwellers, not tourists, the way it is now.” And what was it like for the city-dwellers? Once again, Death Wish serves today as an inadvertent documentary of its times:

One of the better-known artifacts in the archaeology of New York is the movie “Death Wish.” Released in 1974, it stars Charles Bronson as a Manhattan liberal who snaps under the burden of New York’s violence and goes into the subways to mow down thugs the cops can’t or won’t catch. Back then the city’s audiences cheered and screamed as Bronson smashed one civil-liberties platitude after another.

Peter Hall, in his magisterial study of history’s great urban centers, “Cities in Civilization,” remarks offhandedly that “not for nothing did New York develop so rapidly after the first subways . . . brought their trains into the center of Manhattan.” The subways, of course, aren’t for the tourists but for unwealthy city-dwellers. Starting in 1970, fires, collisions and derailments routinely wrecked New York’s subways, injuring and even killing passengers. In August 1973, a chunk of concrete fell from the roof of the IRT Steinway tunnel and killed a passenger. A 1975 fire trapped 12,000 evening rush-hour passengers. But the cars were colorful. They were covered with graffiti, celebrated by Norman Mailer in a famously provocative paean to the graffiti painters.

The ’70s golden-agers in the Times story don’t deny what was going on then–but they kind of miss it. The photographer Mary Ellen Mark remembers “it was a time of costume and excitement, a time of youth and great energy.” Caleb Carr, the novelist of old-time New York, thinks the city has been “sterilized by the Giuliani years.” He says that “like a troublesome child taking Ritalin, New York may be more manageable now, but it has also sacrificed its personality.”

These comments raise the question of just what liberalism believes makes a city great or even golden, rather than just . . . interesting.

Does liberalism, or what passes for it today want their cities to be “great or even golden?” Based on past performance, the left isn’t exactly known as being champions of civic pride. And the left’s collective Death Wish, if you’ll pardon the pun, may soon be playing out in real life Manhattan, starting next year. As Nicole Gelinas writes in City Journal today, “Democrat Bill de Blasio didn’t just beat his Republican rival Joe Lhota in Tuesday’s election for New York City mayor. According to the headline in the New York Post, he achieved ‘utter destruction.’”

If the 1970s were any indication, there may well be plenty more to come. As it likely decomposes back into the Bad Old Days, go ahead and bite the big apple — don’t mind no maggots.

Update: When Hugh Hewitt wrote a book in 2006 titled Painting the Map Red, I don’t think this is quite what he had in mind:

Heh, indeed.™


In his introduction to The Beholden State: California’s Lost Promise and How to Recapture It, Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal magazine, writes:

A generation ago, California was widely expected to be the dynamo of the twenty-first-century American economy — “California, Inc.,” as Joel Kotkin and Paul Grabowicz called it in a book published in the early 1980s. The Golden State had everything going for it: a famously sunny, temperate climate; a culture of innovation and entrepreneurialism; a growing population that easily found work in a diverse economy; good public schools that prepared students for success, and an even better state university system; sturdy infrastructure; and geographical proximity to increasingly prosperous Asian nations. The future was Californian.

Today, few would describe California as dynamic. Signs of decline are everywhere. In 2012, the state’s economy seemed to be recovering, at last, from the Great Recession — but that was long after the national recovery had gotten under way. In fact, California’s unemployment rate has remained above the nation’s for years now, climbing to a frightening 13 percent in 2010 and still hovering around 10 percent. In parts of the state, the numbers are worse still. New business investment, both from within California and from without, has vaporized. The public schools, once near the top in national rankings, have sunk to the bottom. Roads and bridges creak and crumble as infrastructure spending dwindles. State and municipal budgets have reeled from crisis to crisis, with several cities falling into bankruptcy. People and firms are leaving the state in record numbers.

What caused this reversal? In the broadest terms, the answer is misguided policy, rooted in a political culture too often disconnected from reality.

Heather Mac Donald, a contributing editor of City Journal magazine and the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who contributed several articles on California’s woes to The Beholden State (along with PJ Media’s own Andrew Klavan and Victor Davis Hanson), believes that while there’s much to still enjoy about the formerly Golden State, there’s much that’s gone wrong as well. As she told me at the start of our recent interview:

I think it’s the most beautiful state in the country; as a native, I’m obviously a little prejudiced, but I think it is a exemplar of identity politics, for one thing.  There’s too many institutions that are convinced that the most important thing about its residents is their racial or ethnic national origin identity and — and increasingly, of course, gender and sexual identity.  And we see that playing out in university admissions, in ideas about crime and policing and immigration policy, and I think that’s a betrayal of what California used to mean, which was a real meritocratic ideal, that anybody who came, through hard work could really move ahead and the — the state welcomed talent and achievement and did not worry about disparate impact or racial proportionality.

That’s no longer true of course; during our 25-minute long interview, Heather will discuss why, along with her thoughts on:

● The Golden State’s seemingly unending Mobius Loop and inability to change its death spiral.

● The role that bilingual education plays in California’s woes.

● California’s bifurcated higher education system.

● Radical graffiti chic.

● Can California be saved before it’s too late?

And much more. Click here to listen:

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Transcript of our interview begins on the following page; for our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.

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From Bauhaus To Your State House

October 25th, 2013 - 12:37 pm

“Upset by the lack of unity in the United States, a Philadelphia graphic designer has redesigned all 50 state flags using a common design theme,” Jon Gabriel writes at Ricochet:

Ed Mitchell of the Philadelphia design firm Bresslergroup limits the colors to red, white and blue, and features only bold, simple designs. Gone are those troublesome state seals, mottos and other text that might hint at divergence from the collective “we.”

The designer explains:

I was immediately bothered by how discordant [state flags] are as a group, and I wasn’t surprised to learn they break just about every rule of flag design… When you look at them all together, there’s no indication they come from the same nation.

Unfortunately this is an accurate representation of where we are right now as a country. We can’t seem to get anything done. But we used to. As a tribute to the collective creativity that brought us this far — and, truth be told, to the “united-ness” I hope we adopt in the future — I embarked on a project to redesign all fifty state flags.

Emboldened by the Obama campaign’s elevation of graphic design over ideas or experience, Mitchell wants to eliminate partisanship with a top-down vexillological solution. Color me vexed.

As Jon asks, “I’m sorry, but on what planet is this…”


Perhaps Mitchell’s existing work can be paid off via equally Starting from Zero currency envisioned by another graphic designer in 2010. I’m willing to chip in an Obama dollar or two to stop it from going forward.


What I find fascinating is the increasingly elderly mentality lurking behind these “futuristic” redesigns. The Bauhaus existed 90 years ago in Weimar, Germany. As part of that socialist nation’s own economic woes, the Bauhaus had their own experiments in currency design. The Helvetica font was created 55 years ago in Switzerland.

Otto von Bismarck would be proud — it’s one of the curious paradoxes of modernism that artists who hold themselves out as “progressives” and “modernists” have straightjacketed themselves into design forms which are well over half a century old.

Related: On second thought, perhaps these designers are onto something — we might as well have new forms to match, if we’re moving into the Brave New World of post-Weimar America.

Thomas Sowell writes that the left’s “devotion to central planning has endured from the French Revolution to Obamacare:”

Some of the most sweeping and spectacular rhetoric of the Left occurred in 18th-century France, where the very concept of the Left originated in the fact that people with certain views sat on the left side of the National Assembly.

The French Revolution was their chance to show what they could do when they got the power they sought. In contrast to what they promised — “liberty, equality, fraternity” — what they actually produced were food shortages, mob violence, and dictatorial powers that included arbitrary executions, extending even to their own leaders, such as Robespierre, who died under the guillotine.

In the 20th century, the most sweeping vision of the Left — Communism — spread over vast regions of the world and encompassed well over a billion human beings. Of these, millions died of starvation in the Soviet Union under Stalin and tens of millions in China under Mao.

Milder versions of socialism, with central planning of national economies, took root in India and in various European democracies.

If the preconceptions of the Left were correct, central planning by educated elites who had vast amounts of statistical data at their fingertips and expertise readily available, and were backed by the power of government, should have been more successful than market economies where millions of individuals pursued their own individual interests willy-nilly.

But, by the end of the 20th century, even socialist and communist governments began abandoning central planning and allowing more market competition. Yet this quiet capitulation to inescapable realities did not end the noisy claims of the Left.

In the United States, those claims and policies have reached new heights, epitomized by government takeovers of whole sectors of the economy and unprecedented intrusions into the lives of Americans, of which Obamacare has been only the most obvious example.

On Thursday, Nick Gillespie of Reason harshed the mellow of the many dozens of leftwing Daily Beast readers by describing the Obamacare Website as “a colossal, expensive failure that projects a 1970s-era DMV experience into cyberspace.” The following day, Obamacare postergirl Kathleen Sebelius tweeted:


Nothing like reminding the American people that the medical decisions for 300 million increasingly diverse people will be made by federal government workers in soulless concrete office buildings inside the Washington DC Beltway.

Incidentally, they don’t call that style of architecture the New Brutalism for nothing. Le Corbusier, who dreamed up the style after collaborating with Vichy France during World War II, would approve.

From Bauhaus to Ozzy’s House

October 14th, 2013 - 9:16 pm

“Ikea or Death? Swedish names spark online craze:”

Does “Absu” sound like an Ikea table or a metal band? What about “Klubbo”? That’s what users have to decide in the new internet game, Ikea or Death?, that went viral less than 24 hours after its release on Wednesday.

By the end of the week, the game had attracted nearly than 350,000 Facebook likes as well as a raft of media attention from tech and music sites across the globe.

The game is the brainchild a few colleagues at Gatesman+Dave, a US-based marketing firm based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

According to Mike Wellman, a programmer at the agency, Ikea or Death? was so popular that it crashed the agency’s servers.

“We had up to 15,000 people on the site at one time, which is way over what we normally have,” he told The Local.

“It’s so simple and so sharable, it just really took off.”

To paraphrase Beavis & Butthead: Drums, guitar, Swedish modernist furniture and death — they finally got it right.

Triangulating ‘Nighthawks’

October 9th, 2013 - 1:18 pm

Click to enlarge.

I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but I changed the masthead of my blog on Monday night. The previous design, which I had grown more than a little tired of, contained a close-up from an early Photoshop I made in 2010, when with the help of one of its paint filters and the biggest fedora I own, I inserted myself into Edward Hopper’s iconic “Nighthawks” painting for my Twitter background and pictured above.

Of course, everybody has parodied Hopper’s “Nighthawks” painting in one form or another over the years; the stark black backdrop behind the windows makes it particularly easy to swap characters in and out. Like many of Hopper’s works, It’s a stylish, yet utterly haunting painting; according to this Webpage, it can be seen to symbolize America in the depths of FDR’s Great Depression, about to turn down another grim corner and enter World War II. It’s nighttime because it was painted shortly after Pearl Harbor was attacked by THESE WORDS CENSORED BY WHOOPI GOLDBERG.

But what was the inspiration for the corner restaurant that Hopper depicted? No sooner did I pull down my “Nighthawks”-inspired banner than I came across this item from James Lileks. After linking to a cartoon that itself is a nifty little parody of “Nighthawks,” James writes:

Brings to mind this: a search for the real location of “Nighthawks.” The best recreation of the painting was in “Pennies from Heaven,” which also did another Hopper scene in a movie theater. Extraordinary art direction. No one loved the movie, though; it was incredibly depressing, and people really expected Steve Martin to be, you know, funny. If you listen to Martin’s old comedy routines, you can understand why he went in another direction. There’s a live performance from the peak of his stand-up fame, and it’s nothing but catch-phrases tossed out like fish to a stadium of seals. He mentions “King Tut” and the roof comes off the joint. He’s a smart guy. He knew he was doing a parody of an insincere performer, and had become a parody of a guy doing a parody of an insincere performer. But I’m babbling now.

Well, it’s always fun to listen to James babble. And the link in the above-quoted text contains a fun, if circuitous detective search to track down the actual building that inspired “Nighthawks.” After a while, you almost expect to find a sled labeled “Rosebud” at the end of the post…

It’s a Show About Nothing

September 21st, 2013 - 5:54 pm

Art Vandelay, call your imaginary office:

During a White House event celebrating achievements in design Friday, Michelle Obama revealed her husband’s secret life-long ambition: He would have been an architect if he only had the skills.

Speaking at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Awards ceremony in the East Room, the first lady explained why “the president is so jealous right now” that she got to host the event.”And every year, when I’m going over my briefing, he’s like, ‘You’re doing that again?’ ” she said, prompting laughter from the crowd. “He’s like, ‘Well, who’s there?’ Because really, deep down, he would have been an architect had he been as talented and creative as all of you.”

“Why couldn’t you have made me an architect? You know I always wanted to pretend that I was an architect,” said the man also famous for quipping, “Jerry, just remember, it’s not a lie if you believe it,” which perfectly sums up Mr. Obama’s entire career.

By the way, that’s quite an admission from the Washington Post that Obama “would have been an architect if he only had the skills,” considering that the editor of one of their former subsidiary publications was calling him God just five years ago. But it sort of begs the question — one that the Post will never ask publicly — which comes first, not having the skills, or despising those in the private sector who do?

“[Barack Obama] always talked about the New Rochelle train, the trains that took commuters to and from New York City, and he didn’t want to be on one of those trains every day,” said Jerry Kellman, the community organizer who enticed Obama to Chicago from his Manhattan office job. “The image of a life, not a dynamic life, of going through the motions… that was scary to him.”

And then there was this classic bit from the future First Lady on the 2008 campaign trail:

“We left corporate America, which is a lot of what we’re asking young people to do,” she tells the women. “Don’t go into corporate America. You know, become teachers. Work for the community. Be social workers. Be a nurse. Those are the careers that we need, and we’re encouraging our young people to do that. But if you make that choice, as we did, to move out of the money-making industry into the helping industry, then your salaries respond.” Faced with that reality, she adds, “many of our bright stars are going into corporate law or hedge-fund management.”

Michelle’s claim leads to another question. So many architects are closet totalitarians or admire them. (Speer, Corbusier, Philip Johnson and openly Communist Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer all come immediately to mind.)

But why do so many would-be totalitarians admire architects?

Earlier: From Bauhaus to Barack’s House.

From Bauhaus to Barack’s House

September 20th, 2013 - 6:48 am


Top of the Weimar, Ma!

Two articles appearing today explore the period when modernism crashed and burned — Jonathan Last writes about  how its politics failed us in the 1970s, but first up, James Lileks explores the collapse of modernism as an art form:

[M]odern architecture is the break from the past that everyone experienced. You didn’t have to read the books or the poems or hear the music to know that there was a schism between the old and new orders; nothing had a trace of classical ornamentation, stone was replaced by glass, grace replaced by sheer overwhelming scale and bulk. A skyscraper of the past had fizzy Gothic tracery unraveling in the clouds; the buildings ended with a fist. And it fit. The new world was corporate, technocratic, computerized, arranged on our behalf by minders and betters, and all this would take us to the moon and make us live for a hundred years. Science!

The lobbies had enormous pieces of modern art, but Muzak wasn’t Schoenberg. Most likely massed strings playing anodyne pop.

That world failed us all, but the best modern buildings still have appeal. Not because we imagine Robert MacNamara sitting in the penthouse with a Univac calculating the precise number of B-52 sorties to arrange an incremental rollback of Communism, but because we now imagine Don Draper in suit and hat and a Lucky idling in his knuckles, and think about a certain freedom we’ve lost, a standard of adulthood that got its face pushed in the mud at Woodstock. Of course that’s nonsense – Don Draper’s freedom consisted of Don Draper’s freedom to be Don Draper, a rather select club – but it seems as if we swapped modernism for youth culture, for yammering infantile babblings that shoved all the marginalia into the center of our field of vision and demanded that we pretend it mattered just as much as the serious concerns of previous eras.

But modernism was youth culture. It had the same old predictable motivation: down with Daddy.

While we can question his rabid support of FDR over four terms, by and large, Dad did OK in 1930s through the 1950s: he survived the Depression, World War II and the first decade of the Cold War, and was determined to build a better, safer world for his kids. Not surprisingly, his kids hated being beholden to Daddy, and rebelled against all of his values.

Which brings us to the decade that followed, whose endless Clockwork Orange-style Horrorshow is nicely encapsulated by Jonathan Last in the latest edition of the Weekly Standard:

One prelude to the ’70s did have lasting consequences. During the “long, hot summers” of 1964-68, 329 “important” riots took place in 257 U.S. cities, according to Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom’s authoritative America in Black and White, with a toll of some 300 dead, 8,000 injured, and 60,000 arrested. The riots in Harlem, Watts, Detroit, Newark, and, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Washington, D.C., were only the most famous. These eruptions helped drive the middle class out of urban cores in the ’70s, sending cities into decline and making the new underclass permanent.Violent crime was almost nonexistent in the 1950s, but by 1973 it was rampant, and the Department of Justice had to create a new accounting system to keep track of it all. As Frum reports, in 1973 the FBI found that “37 million Americans—meaning one household out of every four—had suffered a rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, or auto theft.” In cities, the victimization rate was 1 in 3. In 1960, there were 9,000 murders in America. By 1975, the number was in excess of 20,000. (In 2010, with America’s population 50 percent larger, there were 14,000 murders.) Perhaps the most evocative statistic concerns schoolchildren. In 1979, 1 out of every 20 public school teachers reported being physically assaulted by a student during the previous year.

Mind you, the kids had a lot to be angry about. During the 1970s their families were falling apart. Cohabitation, which only a few years before had been looked down on as “living in sin,” began migrating upward from the lower socioeconomic rungs during the 1960s. In the ’70s it became so commonplace that by the end of the decade nearly half of all couples who got married had lived together first. Of course, lots of couples never bothered to marry at all—during the ’70s the percentage of men and women tying the knot dropped by roughly 10 percent. And marriage was becoming an increasingly frail institution. In 1960 there were about 400,000 divorces annually. By 1979, the number was just shy of 1.2 million.

(All of this leaves aside abortion. In 1974, the year after Roe v. Wade made it every woman’s right, there were 900,000 abortions in America; five years later the number was 1.5 million, a 66 percent increase.)

The prevailing sense one gets is of a civilization unspooling. Even the environment seemed on the brink of calamity, with smog descending on Los Angeles and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River catching fire, not to mention the toxic waste scandal at Love Canal, or the floating garbage barge outside of New York City, or the scare at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. This witch’s brew conjured the return of neo-Malthusian thinking about the dangers of “overpopulation,” which came to dominate both public discourse and public policy. (More on this in a moment.)

If people weren’t worrying about overpopulation, it was something else; a constant cloud of eschatological alarm loomed over the decade. A new Ice Age was coming to end our way of life—that is, if the comet Kahoutek or the killer bees that were en route from Mexico didn’t wipe us out first. On the New York Times op-ed page, editorial board member William Shannon wrote about “a new spirit of nihilism” and observed—with only a slight flourish—that “there are fleeting moments when the public scene recalls the Weimar Republic of 1932-33.”

Well, yes. But the Timesmen and other midcentury American liberals were the citizens of Weimar they had been waiting for, even if they didn’t know it, to torture Barack Obama’s vapid 2008 campaign slogan.

The Weimar Republic bequeathed America modern architecture, thanks to the German emigres fleeing Nazi Germany who were embraced by American universities in the 1930s and ’40s as “The White Gods! Come from the skies at last!”, as Tom Wolfe memorably wrote in From Bauhaus to Our House. But in The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom noted that there were plenty of other White Gods besides the Bauhauslers descending upon American academia during the Depression and World War II:

This popularization of German philosophy in the United States is of peculiar interest to me because I have watched it occur during my own intellectual lifetime, and I feel a little like someone who knew Napoleon when he was six. I have seen value relativism and its concomitants grow greater in the land than anyone imagined. Who in 1920 would have believed that Max Weber’s technical sociological terminology would someday be the everyday language of the United States, the land of the Philistines, itself in the meantime become the most powerful nation in the world? The self-understanding of hippies, yippies, yuppies, panthers, prelates and presidents has unconsciously been formed by German thought of a half-century earlier; Herbert Marcuse’s accent has been turned into a Middle Western twang; the echt Deutsch label has been replaced by a Made in America label; and the new American life-style has become a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family.

Which brings us to the pop culture of today, which is even more Weimar-esque than the 1970s, as Bill Whittle recently explored:

At the end of his video, Whittle asks what comes next, given the box canyon of nihilism our leftwing elites have trapped themselves in. On the economic front, thanks to our runaway “Quantitative Easing,” we have the potential to really finish the job, Weimar-style. Fire up the printing presses, boys — all our imagined environmental woes will be solved when toilet paper costs a million dollars a roll!


Pushing Back Against the Age

September 5th, 2013 - 9:45 pm

We should always endeavor to “push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you,” Flannery O’Connor once said. At Touchstone magazine, Bradley W. Anderson looks back at the late Hilton Kramer, the founder of the New Criterion magazine, now published by fellow PJ Media columnist Roger Kimball, and Kramer’s push back against both the excesses of modernism, and what Anderson calls “The Perverted Amalgam of Postmodernism” as well:

Any age has its darkness, and the age of modernism was decidedly not an exception. Kramer pointed out that even Eliot had “illustrated the apparently unavoidable paradox that the advent of modernism brought with it the seeds of its own perpetual renovation.” This “perpetual renovation” had the potential for decadence as surely as it had the promise of fresh insights into the particularities of modern life, and no one knew this better than Kramer. Much of his life as a critic was spent exposing the humbuggery and snake oil that is often gathered under the label of “postmodernism” (or of “modernism” for that matter).

Like any heresy, postmodernism was not so much a new movement (although many a charlatan wanted to claim it to be so) as it was a perverted amalgam of old ones. There had always been streams of modernism that were assaults on the life of the mind and spirit (such as Dadaism), but the latter half of the twentieth century saw those trickles turn into veritable floods. Apart from the objectionable moral content of postmodernism (of which there was plenty, to be sure), Kramer wrote that:

The problem with postmodernism is not that it embraces architectural ornamentation or representational painting or self-referential plot lines. The problem is postmodernism’s sentimental rejection of the realities of modern life for the sake of an ideologically informed fantasy world. In this sense, modernism is not only still vital: it remains the only really vital tradition for the arts.

There one has it: the nexus between dangerous and vicious “ideologically informed fantasy worlds” (such as communism) and perverted strains of art created by those whose “loyalty is to something other than the truth.” Those strains serve not to remind man of the higher things to which he is called, but rather to enslave him to the passions, which plague him quite enough without any assistance.

Reconstructing Wastelands

Most of us have known only a steady disintegration of Western culture during our lifetimes. In America, our heritage can be understood properly only in relation to the historical reality of Christendom—both in the ways our country has embraced it from the beginning and in the ways it has rejected it from the beginning (and continues to reject even more parts of that heritage with every passing year). It is not irrational to wish to withdraw from a disintegrating culture, but that impulse has a way of containing the seeds of its own fulfillment.

T. S. Eliot saw the rot and hollowness, but kept working, creating monumental art and crafting essays about literature, ancient and modern, that spoke to the intellectual and spiritual needs of his time. Solzhenitsyn did the same thing, and furthermore once wrote that an artist has to engage life as he finds it, not as he wishes it to be. Both men brought their considerable intellectual resources to bear on the task of reconstructing wastelands.

Hilton Kramer is no longer with us, and many of the things he wrote about are now in the history books, for better or for worse. But The New Criterion, the journal he founded and nurtured to adulthood, is still here. Those who would themselves seek to engage and understand more deeply the milieu in which we find ourselves today—cultural, artistic, religious, and moral—could hardly do better than to add its pages to their reading, continuing the conversation.

Kramer left his lofty perch as the chief art critic with the New York Times to launch the New Criterion, but not before this classic incident occurred, as told by Roger Kimball:

Hilton praised as often as he deprecated. But he was famously reputed to be a “severe,” “acerbic,” or “judgmental” critic. The last adjective always puzzled me. What manner of thing would a “non-judgmental,” i.e., a non-critical, i.e., a non-discriminating, critic be? Hilton liked to quote Walter Bagehot in this context: “The business of the critic,” said Bagehot, “is to criticize.” One of Hilton’s favorite stories involved the movie director and actor Woody Allen. Back when Hilton worked at The New York Times, he happened to be seated next to Allen one night at a dinner. He asked whether Hilton ever felt embarrassed when he encountered socially artists he’d written disparagingly about. Without missing a beat, Hilton replied, No, why should I be embarrassed? They made the crappy art. I just described it.

Hilton’s response was both witty and innocent—witty, because it was a riposte unanswerable, innocent because it was only on his way home from the event that Hilton remembered he had written a negative review of The Front, a piece of left-wing agitprop about the Hollywood blacklist, in which Woody Allen acted.

Would any Timesman employed by today’s incarnation of the Gray Lady dare to speak Truth to Woody in a similar manner?

(Via Maggie’s Farm.)

You Heard It Here First

August 27th, 2013 - 7:04 pm

“Miley, Go Back to School,” Camille Paglia writes in Time:

The Cyrus fiasco, however, is symptomatic of the still heavy influence of Madonna, who sprang to world fame in the 1980s with sophisticated videos that were suffused with a daring European art-film eroticism and that were arguably among the best artworks of the decade. Madonna’s provocations were smolderingly sexy because she had a good Catholic girl’s keen sense of transgression. Subversion requires limits to violate.

Young performers will probably never equal or surpass the genuine shocks delivered by the young Madonna, as when she sensually rolled around in a lacy wedding dress and thumped her chest with the mic while singing “Like a Virgin” at the first MTV awards show in 1984. Her influence was massive and profound, on a global scale.

But more important, Madonna, a trained modern dancer, was originally inspired by work of tremendous quality — above all, Marlene Dietrich’s glamorous movie roles as a bisexual blond dominatrix and Bob Fosse’s stunningly forceful strip-club choreography for the 1972 film Cabaret, set in decadent Weimar-era Berlin. Today’s aspiring singers, teethed on frenetically edited small-screen videos, rarely have direct contact with those superb precursors and are simply aping feeble imitations of Madonna at 10th remove.

Pop is suffering from the same malady as the art world, which is stuck on the tired old rubric that shock automatically confers value. But those once powerful avant-garde gestures have lost their relevance in our diffuse and technology-saturated era, when there is no longer an ossified high-culture Establishment to rebel against. On the contrary, the fine arts are alarmingly distant or marginal to most young people today.

Great minds think alike, as the kids say on the Interwebs, and that last paragraph sounds awfully familiar. As I wrote last Wednesday, linking to Paglia’s recent interview in Salon:

Pop culture, whether in the form of the original modernists, or pop music, in the form of rock and roll in the 1950s and early Beatle-era 1960s, only really produces anything interesting and new when it has a more conservative and traditional overculture to push against. The original modernists had a millenia of tradition to rebel against — or reject outright — in the late 19th and early 20th century. At least until another group of leftists, led by their own wannabe artist, were even more eager to “Start From Zero” in Germany’s post-Weimar era. (Philip Johnson, who founded the Museum of Modern Art’s architectural department really hedged his bets, by maintaining a concentration camp in both groups.)

By the 1960s, there was nothing left other than modernism, which is why every office building built in America looked like Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building and 860 Lakeshore Drive, and every corporate and government logo incorporated Helvetica:

Similarly, MTV was the perfect platform for Madonna to mount (OK, pun slightly intended) to release her early videos, to blow off (sorry) 30 years of the network Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters. Once that was gone — and particularly, once Madonna released her Mapplethorpe-inspired “Sex” book in 1992, where else could the culture go?

As I asked last week, how does an artistic movement continue its “nostalgia for the mud,” once it’s wallowing in it?

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Camille Paglia “is as provocative and fascinating as ever,” Steve Green writes. Including these two observations, where Paglia accidentally makes the same point twice:

The avant-garde was a magnificent and revolutionary phase in the history of art, but it’s completely over. Artists and galleries must (in Ann Landers’ immortal words) wake up and smell the coffee! The avant-garde, whose roots were in late-18th-century Romanticism, was a reaction against a strong but suffocating classical tradition. The great modernist artists, from Picasso to James Joyce, were trained in that tradition, which gave audacity and power to their subversion of it.

But then modernism began to feed on itself, and it became weaker and weaker. As I argue in “Glittering Images,” there has been nothing genuinely avant-garde since Andy Warhol except for Robert Mapplethorpe’s luminous homoerotic images of the sadomasochistic underground. Everything that calls itself avant-garde today is just a tedious imitation of earlier and far superior modernist art. The art world has become an echo chamber of commercially inflated rhetoric, shallow ironies and monolithic political ideology.

* * * * * * *

The problem is that explicit sex has become so diffused through the general culture that it’s lost its charge, which once came from the sizzle of transgression. I’m nostalgic for that primal shock quality, which was still there in spades when a juicily plump Madonna was doing her pioneering videos in the ‘80s like “Burnin’ Up,” “Open Your Heart” and “Like a Virgin.” No one could writhe better than Madonna on the prow of a gondola!

But that’s the same phenomenon at work in both cases, spread out over 60 or 70 years or so. Pop culture, whether in the form of the original modernists, or pop music, in the form of rock and roll in the 1950s and early Beatle-era 1960s, only really produces anything interesting and new when it has a more conservative and traditional overculture to push against. The original modernists had a millenia of tradition to rebel against — or reject outright — in the late 19th and early 20th century. At least until another group of leftists, led by their own wannabe artist, were even more eager to “Start From Zero” in Germany’s post-Weimar era. (Philip Johnson, who founded the Museum of Modern Art’s architectural department really hedged his bets, by maintaining a concentration camp in both groups.)

By the 1960s, there was nothing left other than modernism, which is why every office building built in America looked like Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building and 860 Lakeshore Drive, and every corporate and government logo incorporated Helvetica:

Similarly, MTV was the perfect platform for Madonna to mount (OK, pun slightly intended) to release her early videos, to blow off (sorry) 30 years of the network Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters. Once that was gone — and particularly, once Madonna released her Mapplethorpe-inspired “Sex” book in 1992, where else could the culture go? How does an artistic movement continue its “nostalgia for the mud,” once it’s wallowing in it?

Of course, Paglia also talks politics, pointing out inconvenient truths which likely caused plenty of teeth to gnash at arch-leftist Salon:

As a registered Democrat, I am praying for a credible presidential candidate to emerge from the younger tier of politicians in their late 40s. A governor with executive experience would be ideal. It’s time to put my baby-boom generation out to pasture! We’ve had our day and managed to muck up a hell of a lot. It remains baffling how anyone would think that Hillary Clinton (born the same year as me) is our party’s best chance. She has more sooty baggage than a 90-car freight train. And what exactly has she ever accomplished — beyond bullishly covering for her philandering husband? She’s certainly busy, busy and ever on the move — with the tunnel-vision workaholism of someone trying to blot out uncomfortable private thoughts.

Fortunately, a competitor to the Hillary juggernaut is emerging — a man who has spent about the same amount of time in politics as Hillary, and with almost as little to show for it, as Jonah Goldberg writes at NRO:

Not counting rumors that Anthony Weiner’s marriage has hit a rocky patch, it may be the worst-kept secret in politics: Joe Biden wants to be president.

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the vice president’s inner circle is swabbing the decks, battening down the hatches, and hoisting the mainsails for USS Bidenpalooza 2016. “Everyone involved in his world,” a Democratic official told the Journal, “is engaged in taking all the steps that make sense to prepare for a run, if he does run.” Biden’s people are apparently willing to go for it even if the allegedly inevitable nominee, Hillary Clinton, decides to run.

Why is this happening?

It’s a difficult question to boil down to a single variable, given the swirling maelstrom of egos, agendas, and issues at play. Still, one answer does seem to cover the waterfront: because ours is a just and generous God. From my admittedly selfish perspective, a Biden candidacy would be great for everybody — and by everybody I mean people who would like to see the Democratic party descend into a chaotic food fight.

Indeed, while most of the punditocracy is obsessed with turning the mostly trivial sniping between New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) into proof of a bloody civil war on the right, the Democrats are poised to descend into a family squabble of historic proportions that will amount to a riveting political reality show.

I’d say “Faster, Please,” but I’d prefer that this leftwing internecine struggle continues deep into 2016.

“China Is Censoring Jokes About Its Propaganda Machine’s Penis-Shaped HQ.”

(Via Ann Althouse, whose commenters are having lots of fun — at least for the next four hours, or so — with this topic: “In fact, if the artist Christo ever decides to cover it with fabric or anything, engineers have already decided that the design must incorporate a reservoir tip. Just in case. “


April 22nd, 2013 - 7:29 pm

In The Prehistory of The Far Side, a 1989 anthology of Gary Larson’s classic cartoons, there’s a panel he drew in 1986 featuring a nighttime metropolitan setting with buildings alternately on fire or knocked over, and smashed and overturned cars everywhere. In the foreground of all the devastation, a police detective in a raincoat and fedora and a uniformed patrolman stare at a giant handkerchief with the monogram “K.K.” on it. The detective barks, “Take this handkerchief back to the lab, Stevens. I want some answers on which monster did this — Godzilla! Gargantua! Who?”

As Larson wrote while reminiscing about drawing the cartoon, “the only name I could think of for the handkerchief was King Kong. There aren’t too many famous monsters running around with first and last names.”*

The cluelessness of the police in Larson’s cartoon reminds me of the left’s self-imposed blinders on not wanting to come to grips with the Tsarnaev brothers. Could their motives be, as Jonathan S. Tobin of Commentary spots Melissa Harris-Perry asking on MSNBC…classical music?

Michael Dyson: We fill in the blanks with what makes us feel most comfortable that this is an exceptional, extraordinary case that happened because they are this. 

So you take one part of the element, that he’s Muslim. But he also might have listened to classical music. He might have had some Lil Wayne. He might have also gone to and listened to a lecturer

Harris Perry: I keep wondering is it possible that there would ever be a discussion like, ‘This is because of Ben Affleck and the connection between Boston and movies about violence?’ And of course, the answer is no.

Of course no one will even think this is about those things. But at the same time there’s something, I appreciate the way that you framed that as the one drop. Like, because given that they’re Chechen, given that they are literally Caucasian, our very sense of connection to them is this framed-up notion of, like, Islam making them something that is non-normal. It is not us. The point is that it’s important to say, ‘That’s not us, you know, this is not American. This is not who we are.’ Because we couldn’t potentially do what they did. But if they’re more like us, the point you were making earlier, if they’re just like us, they grew up in the same neighborhoods, they listened to the same kind of music, they talk to the same kind of people.

It is easy to dismiss this sort of talk as just the public mutterings of the radical left, but it would be foolish to ignore it. The efforts of groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) to muscle the federal government into excising a discussion of militant Islamism from our approach to combating threats is part of a campaign to prevent Americans from connecting the dots between terrorists and the belief systems that motivate them. The effort to make us pretend that the Tsarnaevs’ approach to their faith is as irrelevant to the atrocities they committed as the songs on their iPods is not absurd; it’s dangerous.

Of course, if groups of organized classical music lovers had been carrying out terrorist attacks in the name of their beliefs Harris-Perry’s brand of moral relativism might make sense. But in the real world in which the rest of us live, the source of the terror threat of the last generation has been Islamist.

Or perhaps it was a very different genre of music that set the Brothers Tsarnaev off, as another MSNBC guest posited?

MADDOW: A lot of people are trying to figure out if these men, uh, were terrorists who were radicalized overseas, if they were terrorists who were radicalized here, if this was totally unrelated to terrorist and, to terrorist causes. Do you think there will be a definitive answer with regard to their Chechen heritage in terms of whether that’s relevant and explanatory here?

KING: Well, I think it’s relevant to a degree. That is to say that, these guys grew up in a particular kind of community with a particular kind of history. They had a certain kind of background, but at the end of the day if we’re looking for motivation for this particular act, I think it’s going to lie in the way that they were radicalized in the United States, on the Internet, visiting chat rooms, putting their own kind of lives into some kind of narrative about this nihilistic, millenarian, sort of anti-Western, anti-modern, uh, jihadist ideology that you find in lots of different kinds of communities around the world.

MADDOW (quickly jumping to accused jihadists’ defense): If they, if they did.

KING: If they did. We still don’t know.

MADDOW: We have some evidence of a YouTube page that we think may connect to the older brother that posted some radicalized YouTube clips. The younger brother, there’s very thin evidence of anything.

KING: Well, and keep in mind that on his, on the elder brother’s, Tamerlan’s YouTube channel, there are an equal number of rap videos.

MADDOW (her spirit briefly lifted): Yeah.

KING: So, you know, I don’t know why we tend to focus on this one particular aspect because these guys frankly have a lot of consonants in their names and we’re kind of worried about that somehow (what this “we’re” stuff, paleface?). But in lots of other contexts of mass killing, we go to other kinds of motivations and I think we really ought to look at those in this case as well.

Perhaps an overexposure to the Boston area’s ugly modernist architecture triggered their attack:

 U. Mass Dartmouth, which started life as the Southeastern Massachusetts Technological Institute, dates from the same period and is a strange mix of technocratic rationalism and architectural megalomania. A vast parade ground posing as a campus green runs between lines of identical buildings. Hoisted on hefty concrete piers, highway-scaled beams span vast distances, holding up horizontal trays of academic space that jut pugnaciously into the green.

* * * * * *

Amazingly, Rudolph’s design has been barely altered and rarely added to. The newest dormitory has been built in a budget-minded medium-security-prison style that makes the Rudolph buildings look humanist.

* * * * * *

As I sat stewing under the lock-down order, my thoughts returned to the U Mass campus, which swarmed with students who looked much like Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the bombing suspect. Although it’s too early to know whether he was motivated to violence by political or religious fervor, that’s looking unlikely as I write this. He was a student at the Dartmouth U Mass campus, it turns out. He seems to have had many friends, but I wondered about the effect of such a deeply impersonal place. It’s isolated at the suburban edge and unintentionally expressive of the assembly-line education that’s become the cost-driven norm. Does such a place aid the alienation — or, at least, impede the forming of deep personal bonds — of even a smart, sociable kid?

It sounds much too glib an explanation — as the numerous other theories we are now hearing are likely to be — but I can’t help thinking it.

Please do. Considering the socialist and “Progressive” origins of modern architecture, and its disastrous impact on public housing, run with that explanation for the Tsarnaevs’ radicalism, leftists. Run with it hard.

Perhaps it’s simply “radicalism” in general, as another MSNBC host claims:

Scarborough can’t shed the PC shackles enough to take the extra, logical step of pointing to the leading cause of terror attacks in the world today. He uses the watered down “radicalism” as a catch-all to encompass all radical ideas under one umbrella, as if “radicalism” is the biggest threat in our society. He just can’t bring himself to point out the significant fact that the terrorists were hugely influenced by radical Islamism.  ”Don’t blame society for that. Blame radicalism, blame evil, blame them (the Tsaraev brothers.)”

So if we go with “radicalism” as an explanation, then pretty much everyone who works in front of the cameras at NBC News is to blame, considering that:

If anybody can make sense of it all, it’s Victor Davis Hanson, as we’ll explore on the next page.

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