Dirty Windows, Ephemeral Art, and Commodity

Scott WadeOver the weekend, I came upon this article, Dirty Work but Someone Has to Do It: World’s Leading Dirty Car Artist Turns Grubby Car Windows Into Works of Art. I’m not quite sure what it means to be the world’s “leading” dirty car artist, but Scott Wade certainly does seem to be quite the phenomenon. He is a graphic user interface designer, but is best know for his hobby of creating art out of dirt on glass.

I don’t think that it is rude to point out that if this work were on paper or canvas, it would be considered professional-level illustration but nothing special — certainly not something that would take the internet by storm. In a different and more fundamental sense than Marshall McLuhan had in mind, “The medium is the message.” We may all appreciate beautiful flower arrangements, but there is nothing especially notable about creating beauty out of beautiful elements. But creating beauty out of garbage or dirt is at least remarkable and sometimes edifying.

Scott Wade - Mini Cooper

What I am more interesting in is the ephemeral nature of the art. When I was younger, I was hung up on the notion of art that outlasts the artist. It no doubt reflected my fear of death. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to see explicitly ephemeral art as the most valid. Art that can be stored loses much of its integrity and becomes commodity. Portrait of Dr Gachet was an interesting and idiosyncratic painting in 1890 — utterly worthless as a commodity. Today it stands as one of the most expensive paintings ever sold — pure commodity. But more to the point, it is virtually impossible to see past its status as commodity. Like all of van Gogh’s work, it is that peculiar style of painting that rich people pay a lot of money for. (Note that the most valuable paintings are almost all post-Impressionist and early modernist.)

If you click over to the Daily Mail article I linked to above, you will see that most of the subjects are what you see at poster shops at the mall: American Gothic, Marx Brothers, Albert Einstein, Luncheon of the Boating Party, the stars of Dallas. If you go to his website, you will see more of the same: Mount Rushmore, Alice in Wonderland, Mona Lisa, and of course, Marilyn Monroe. This is not a put-down of Wade. He’s a commercial artist doing what people want to see. But I don’t think it speaks well for our culture.

Scott Wade - Stagecoach

Did we travel such a long artistic road with constant battles over technique and philosophy only to reach the point where art is born, lives, and dies as commodity? Maybe I’m expecting too much. Art has always had to appeal. Of course, at one time, it didn’t have to appeal to huge swaths of humanity. And if the media is the message, maybe dirt is exactly right. Maybe sand is a more edifying medium:

Sandcastle - Guy-Olivier Deveau
Cropped via Shine Beautifully.

The Resurrection of Philae

PhilaePhilae is dead. It died Friday night as its battery was drained. But here is hoping that it doesn’t rest in peace. And it is possible that it will not.

Last Thursday, I wrote, Mission to 67P in Crisis. That was when “the little lander that could”[1] found itself wedged at the bottom of a cliff on Comet 67P. In that location, it was only able to get sunlight for a bit more than 10% of the 67P day — not enough to operate without its battery.

Of course, the scientists did not mean for Philae to land there. When the lander first dropped onto the surface of 67P, it was in a big open area. But when it touched down, the harpoons didn’t activate. Even though the lander was only traveling at roughly one mile per hour (an incredibly slow walk), it bounced because on the surface of 67P, Philae weighs only as much as a piece of paper. So it bounced — a long way away. And then it bounced again. This is confirmed by the following image collage created from Rosetta images at different times:

Philae Bounce

We still don’t know where Philae finally stopped, but it is hoped that images from Rosetta will eventually reveal its current location. But wherever it is was not the plan. “For want of a harpoon, a lander was lost.” Or maybe not. According to Joseph Stromberg over at Vox, “Additionally, scientists say that as the comet gradually nears the sun next year, it’s possible the probe would be exposed to additional sunlight and wake back up, allowing for further investigations.” That would be very cool. Of course, at this point I’ve learned not to get my hopes up.

As it is, the mission was a success, even if it wasn’t able to do the one thing that I was most excited about: the search for organic molecules on 67P. In particular, it took temperature and density measurements and used radar to probe the comet’s interior. In total “the craft successfully used all ten of its scientific instruments and gathered all sorts of data about its environment.” And most of all, the mission is primarily Rosetta. Philae was only ever supposed to be about a fifth of the project. And Rosetta has worked flawlessly thus far.

I think my disappointment with this mission to 67P is that I have to wait for the hundreds of scientists to pore over the data and draw conclusions. When I was a kid, it was just exciting that we were going to the moon. And I’ll admit: seeing closeup pictures of 67P is impressive to me. But given all we stand to learn by studying this comet, I’m disappointed that we don’t know more right now. As I said, these missions tend to bring out the kid in a lot of us. And patience is not one of the defining characteristics of children.

[1] I came up with that phrase myself, “The little lander that could.” It seemed appropriate, although idiosyncratic and silly. But here is an article today from NASA Watch, The Little Comet Lander That Could. And there are lots more. It seems space exploration brings out the kid in a lot of us.

The Basis of Republican Contradictions

Tevi TroyConsistency is a laudable goal, but not something to get too hung up on. I very much agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…” Just the same, some level of consistency is important. At very least, the attempt keeps us intellectually honest, because one can only finesse an argument so far before it crumbles. In the field of politics, we see inconsistency in the form of hypocrisy — and hypocrisy of the most premeditated nature.

My favorite example of this is Obamacare. As Scott Lemieux noted early this year, Obamacare is not the same as the Heritage Foundation plan. But the one main thing the two plans share is the most hated thing in Obamacare: the individual mandate. And as late as John McCain’s 2008 campaign for president, Republicans were fine with the individual mandate. But the moment it was in the Democrats’ plan, it because, “Socialism! Socialism, I tell you!” This is not a foolish inconsistency; this is a profound and disingenuous inconsistency — the stuff of villainy.

So I was interested but not at all surprised to read Jonathan Chait this morning, Why Is This Bush Official Flip-Flopping on Obamacare? Simple answer: because he’s a Republican. The person in question is the president of the American Health Policy Institute, Tevi Troy. In 2007 — you know, when a Republican was in the White House — he wanted to tax the so called Cadillac healthcare plans — those worth over $15,000 per years. But yesterday over at The Wall Street Journal, he wrote, Another ObamaCare Deception. The whole article is about how the Obamacare tax on employer provided health insurance above $27,500 would be — Wait for it! — a tax!

So when Republicans are in the White House, a tax on plans worth more than $15,000 is just good sense. But when Democrats are in the White House, a tax on plans worth more than $27,500 is going to impoverish the American worker. Clearly, this is just more Obamacare punching. If it’s in Obamacare, Republicans hate it, regardless of what they thought before. Notice that the Cadillac tax has always been greatly loved by Republicans because it is another way to harm union workers. Only people in strong unions (and managers, who will just vote themselves raises to offset it anyway) get these kinds of plans. It show the lengths to which Republicans will go to attack the new healthcare law.

As I said, this is not a surprise. If you burrow down deeply into conservative ideology, what you will find is… nothing. That explains the obsession with purity — it is all they have. This is the reason that there has been no replacement plan. Their’s is an ideology of annihilation. They hate Obamacare not because of what it does but simply because it does anything. We saw much the same thing with the Republican response to Hurricane Katrina. President Bush seemed to treat it the way the cargo cultists did when trying to get the airplanes to come back. He seemed to think that all that was necessary was for him to drop by and look at the damage (From a plane!) and he was done. He had cast his spell!

When Republicans are in power, they are incompetent. When they are not in power, they are against everything. They are, in a word, nihilists. The problem is that they won’t admit it. And that is why they can’t help but contradict themselves from administration to administration.

Gene Clark

Gene ClarkOn this day in 1944, the great singer-songwriter Gene Clark was born. He is best known as a founding member of The Byrds — and by far their best songwriter. There is a reason that the first two Byrds albums are classics and the rest just okay. (I will consider arguments that Younger Than Yesterday is a great album — but you have to explain how it isn’t derivative.) And that reason is Clark who was a prodigious talent.

He only wrote one song on the third album, “Eight Miles High.” It is nominally a collaboration with Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, but the song is clearly so much Clark’s that the other two shouldn’t get writing credit. Its cadences are the same as on other Clark songs like “Here Without You.” Of course, that hasn’t stopped Roger McGuinn for taking credit for the song — but only after Clark died.

I found the following great quote from The Byrds’ bass player (and a fine songwriter himself) Chris Hillman about Clark’s position in the band:

At one time, he was the power in the Byrds, not McGuinn, not Crosby — it was Gene who would burst through the stage curtain banging on a tambourine, coming on like a young Prince Valiant. A hero, our savior. Few in the audience could take their eyes off this presence. He was the songwriter. He had the “gift” that none of the rest of us had developed yet… What deep inner part of his soul conjured up songs like “Set You Free This Time,” “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better,” “I’m Feelin’ Higher,” “Eight Miles High”? So many great songs! We learned a lot of songwriting from him and in the process learned a little bit about ourselves.

“Set You Free This Time” is from The Byrds second album. It stands out as distinct from his other work from this period. It sounds more like a Bobby Russell song! And on the album it sounds more like a Gene Clark solo song. But here he is years later doing the song with his own band:

Like in most bands, there was a power struggle in The Byrds and McGuinn and Crosby won. Clark left and became a solo artist with the great Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers. The album didn’t do well. You could say that generally of his solo career, including his small group projects with Doug Dillard and ex-Byrds Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. What’s sad is that the albums are all quite good and some of them are amazing. In particular, No Other has become a classic, even though it was entirely ignored at the time. Here is “Silver Raven” from that album:

Before I knew anything about him, I loved Gene Clark for the songs on those first two Byrds albums. It was always clear to me that he was the great talent. But when I later learned more about him, I appreciated him as a person. He’s such a tragic figure. He suffered greatly from anxiety. He hated touring and was afraid of airplane traveling. To deal with these issues by drinking and drugging them away. And it ended up killing him at 46 from a bleeding ulcer. It’s sad, because I think he might well have become a legend on the order of Neil Young. Certainly, his reputation is better today than it ever has been.

Happy birthday Gene Clark!