Two Paintings George Will Must Hate

Blue Poles - Jackson Pollock

More than I should, I mention that I’m not fond of Abstract Expressionism. That isn’t to say that I don’t like any of it — far from it. But on the whole, it doesn’t really work for me. This is a statement about me and not about the art. But as someone who is not that excited about the movement, I write about it a lot. I think it is a cry for help, “Open my eyes to this movement!” Of course, my eyes are hardly close. I think I’m a decent judge of what is good and what is not — even when I don’t like particular works.

One thing that really annoys me is when people claim that any kind of painting is easy. Personally, I think abstract painting is the hardest kind to do. At least if you are painting a representation of a duck, you have the duck to go by. I haven’t much of a clue as to why particular things do and don’t work in an abstract piece. Often I can note some design elements, but that’s usually a small part of what makes a piece good. Normally what really strikes me is the blending of the colors, but I don’t know why. For me, art appreciation is intuitive.

Decades ago, I read Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word. It is basically just an attack on modern art — Abstract Expressionism in particular. When I read it, I was very impressed. But since then, I’ve learned a lot more about art history. And now I think that Wolfe embarrassed himself in that book. He is dismissive of the idea of philosophical considerations dictating art. But what was the difference between the High Renaissance and Mannerism? It was highly theoretical. I suspect that the vast majority of people walking through an art museum see not apparent difference between those movements. You can certainly make the argument that artists and art critics are a bunch of idiots making a big deal of little things. But you can’t argue that the 20th century was any worse in this regard — other than that there were a lot more movements.

This came up earlier when I was reading Henry Fairlie’s three decades old hilarious and brutal take-down of the pretentious George Will. Will, of course, doesn’t know anything about modern art, but he knows what he hates:

Again, it is not a quibble, but an essential criticism of Will’s attitude toward contemporary culture, to point out that when he roundly condemns Jackson Pollock (in 1978, and again in 1985), he says not a word about any Pollock painting, not to mention the whole body of his work, except the old-hat criticism that they are “canvases covered with drips.” On both occasions he bases his criticism on the same silly tribute to Pollock by an unidentified art critic. Blue Poles, to take but one Pollock painting, cannot be described as a canvas “covered with drips,” and only an eye uneducated not only in modern painting, but in all painting, could say so. In fact, one doubts whether he knows what paint is, or for that matter what Raphael did with his “revolutionary” use of color.

Back a few months, while discussing Fernand Leduc, I briefly mentioned Pollock, “Anyone can flick paint on a canvus. But you’ve got to know what colors to flick where and most of all when to stop.” Even that greatly underestimates what he did. But there is this thing with many people (especially pretentious conservatives) where they think that they can judge Pollock’s work based upon how he applied paint. Implicit in this is that there is a right technique for applying paint to a brush. I imagine that if George Will had lived a century earlier, he would have dismissed Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. I mean all it is just a canvas covered in dots.

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte - Georges Seurat

Dean Baker Is Must Reading

Dean BakerI think I have to call it: Dean Baker is the most important writer for liberals to read. But you understand: I’m talking about real liberals — economic liberals and not those corporate posers who think liberalism consists of support for same-sex marriage, a woman’s right to choose, and the idea that people ought to be “nice” to one another. Baker is the most clear-eyed commentator on economic issues that we have. What’s more, he’s great at poking the eyes of the pretentious apologists of the oligarchs. You should start each day by read his blog, Beat the Press. To demonstrate, I will to go over what he’s posted there in the last 24 hours.

Last night, Baker took on perhaps the most pretentious apologist, George Will and Tax Reform: If Only He Were Old Enough to Remember the Sixties. One thing that I most hate about modern American conservatives is how they argue that they are just looking out for the little guy, when they have no interest in that whatsoever. Will’s column on Friday was, The Cheerfulness of Tax Reform. In it, he says that everyone would be cheerful if the economy were doing well and so therefore everyone should be cheerful about tax reform. We all know that the only thing that is holding back the economy is a more “fair” tax system, am I right?!

Will is just hocking Dave Camp’s tax “reform” proposal. But what’s interesting about it is how Will is oh so very concerned about the fact that the economy isn’t growing enough to create jobs for the unemployed or the fact that young people aren’t saving enough for retirement or that the poor “on the lower rungs of the ladder of upward mobility” are paying too much in taxes. This is pretty good! We’re supposed to believe that the Republican Party is worried that the poor are paying too much in taxes when they’ve been bitching for the last four years about the fact that 47% of Americans pay no federal income taxes (often implied or even stated as “no taxes” whatsoever).

Will made a number of mistakes in his argument. The most notable was that he claimed that we should lower tax rates because economic growth was so great in the 1960s. Dean Baker had a few choice words for Will:

While Will is right about the low bar for success (we should be seeing very rapid job growth following a steep downturn like the 2008-2009 recession), the sixties do not support his case for a need to cut tax rates. Through most of the 1960s the top individual tax rate was 70 percent, while the corporate rate was 50 percent. That compares to a top individual rate of 41 percent today, and a corporate tax rate of 35 percent. The top marginal tax rate in the first two months when we had 300k plus job gains was 90 percent. If Will wants to make the case for lower tax rates spurring job growth, he should not be citing the sixties.

Early this morning, Baker wrote, NYT Brings Adventures in Uninformative Budget Reporting to Kansas. This is another battle in his long war with journalist over the tendency to throw out large numbers without context. It’s interesting that The New York Times seemed to surrender some time ago, adopting a policy of not reporting meaningless budget numbers. But they don’t seem to follow the policy very well. In this case, The Times explained that Kansas has a $280 million shortfall in the current fiscal year. Baker noted that it is roughly 2% of the Kansas budget. He summed up, “It is understandable that the governor and his allies would prefer euphemisms to conceal their agenda. It is not clear why the NYT would share the same motivations.”

Another of Baker’s big interests is our totally messed up intellectual property system. This morning, he wrote a brief post that gets into one example of how this makes our economy work far worse, If We Didn’t Have Patents, How Would Major Companies Be Able to Harass Innovative Start-Ups? It involves the Chinese company Xiaomi. According to The New York Times, “Xiaomi does not yet have much of a patent portfolio, leaving it vulnerable to lawsuits from competitors.” Baker explained what that meant. The “patent portfolio” is an offensive weapon used by companies to attack each other companies with baseless lawsuits. In other words: it’s all bad for the regular economy — but great for the legal profession.

The most interesting of the posts is his most recent, Health Care Cost Slowdown Persists in Spite of Projections. Baker is rarely better than when he is taking on Robert Samuelson at The Washington Post. Baker has written many posts with titles like, It’s Monday and Robert Samuelson is Confused. But the great thing about Baker is that nothing is automatic — when Samuelson says something smart, Baker backs him up. I haven’t found that Samuelson says that much smart, though. Like Will, he is an apologist who is always looking for ways to justify his own ideological policies.

Last night, he wrote, Health Spending — Under Control? His main point is that the only reason that healthcare spending inflation is down is because of the poor economy. This is Samuelson’s clarion call, “Healthcare spending is out of control, we must starve old people!” But Baker noted that there is no basis for Samuelson’s contention that the better healthcare numbers are almost entirely due to the bad economy:

Robert Samuelson discusses the slowdown in health care costs in his column today and considers possible explanations. He notes a study from Kaiser Family Foundation which attributes three quarters of the slowdown to the weak economy. This study predicted that spending would accelerate in 2014.

We actually have data on this, since the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports spending through October (Table 2.4.5U, Line 168). Through the first 10 months of 2014 we are on track to see a 3.3 percent increase in spending compared to 2013, down slightly from the 3.5 percent increase last year. (This category accounts for about 70 percent of total spending.) That would suggest that 2014 is not fitting the pattern predicted by the Kaiser analysis, which should raise doubts about the extent to which a weak economy can explain a reduction in spending.

Dean Baker is must reading. And if you aren’t going to read his blog, you should read some of his free Kindle books like Getting Back to Full Employment: A Better Bargain for Working People (with the also great Jared Bernstein) or The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. And if you haven’t read it, everything you need to know about Social Security was written by him and Mark Weisbrot 13 years ago, Social Security: The Phony Crisis.

There Is No American Right-Wing Populism

Elizabeth WarrenCould Elizabeth Warren appeal to the Tea Party because of their supposed populism? No.

In an otherwise uninspiring column, Paul Krugman made an interesting observation about the lack of right-wing rage about Citigroup raping the Dodd-Frank law, “You sometimes hear claims that the Tea Party is as opposed to bailing out bankers as it is to aiding the poor, but there’s no sign that this alleged hostility to Wall Street is having any influence at all on Republican priorities.” Yes, we do hear that. And we have been hearing it for the last five and a half years. But we have never seen it.

It has been mildly amusing to watch the Tea Party as they rant about the Constitution and bail-outs and the End of Freedom™. But if you look at who they vote for, the main thing that the Tea Party cares about is taking a hard line against abortion. They are also anti-gay and anti-immigrant. But even that is just an indication that the Tea Party movement is a group of social conservatives. As Claire Conner suggests in Wrapped in the Flag, the Tea Party is just the modern incarnation of the John Birth Society. And that’s really nothing more than a cultural movement: the good people in the Tea Party versus those takers, who just so happen to never be anyone with actual power like weapons manufacturers or bank presidents.

Over the weekend, Miles Mogulescu at Huffington Post wrote, The Speech That Could Make Elizabeth Warren the Next President of the United States. He suggested that Warren could unite people across the political spectrum, because everybody hates Wall Street, “Tea party supporters don’t like bailouts and crony capitalism any more that progressives do.” No, no, no! What is wrong with political commentators on the left? Have they been asleep the last six years?

The Tea Party did not start because a bunch of conservatives were angry about bank bailouts. They were angry — “Mad as hell!” — that a relatively small program was being created to help struggling homeowners. And they were mad that a charismatic African American president had been elected. But even that wasn’t really what was going on. They would have done nothing — Nada! Rien! Nichts! — if it hadn’t been for Fox News advertising it like it was a live Peter Pan starring Christopher Walken. And even with that, it would have died off quickly without Koch brother and other establishment conservative funding. Anyone who thinks that there is any kind of a real populist streak in the Tea Party is delusional. It was the realization of this that caused Tea Party support to go from roughly 50% in 2010 to roughly 20% now. And 20% of the population is the the ultra-conservative Republican base. There is no populism here.

This morning, Ed Kilgore called this whole thing nonsense, Elizabeth Warren’s Real and Imaginary Appeal. But even he undersells the ideological vacuousness of the Tea Party on this issue:

Yes, many “constitutional conservatives” oppose corporate bailouts. But they also typically support eliminating not just subsidies but regulation of big banks and other corporations; oppose most if not all of the social safety net (and certainly its expansion); and also oppose legalized abortion and marriage equality, for that matter.

I go along with all that, but not the elimination of subsidies. Maybe Rand Paul is against some giveaways to the military contractors. But he is still a corporate lackey who is only really interested in taking money away from the poorer classes because they need to be encouraged by want. It’s always in the best interests of the country to give tax breaks to oil companies. Conservatives are just like liberals: they don’t mind the government doing things they agree with. The difference is that conservatives are hypocrites who claim that they want to create a smaller government. They don’t. They want a very big government — one big enough to make sure two men don’t hold hands in public and no woman ever causes herself to miscarry. There is no “right-wing populism” in this country.

Three Glorious Years Without Christopher Hitchens

Christopher HitchensAll of this was triggered for me by the death this week of Christopher Hitchens and the remarkably undiluted, intense praise lavished on him by media discussions. Part of this is explained by the fact that Hitchens — like other long-time media figures, such as Tim Russert — had personal interactions with huge numbers of media figures who are shaping how he is remembered in death. That’s understandable: it’s difficult for any human being to ignore personal feelings, and it’s even more difficult in the face of the tragic death of a vibrant person at a much younger age than is normal.

But for the public at large, at least those who knew of him, Hitchens was an extremely controversial, polarizing figure. And particularly over the last decade, he expressed views — not ancillary to his writings but central to them — that were nothing short of repellent.

Corey Robin wrote that “on the announcement of his death, I think it’s fair to allow Christopher Hitchens to do the things he loved to do most: speak for himself,” and then assembled two representative passages from Hitchens’ post-9/11 writings. In the first, Hitchens celebrated the ability of cluster bombs to penetrate through a Koran that a Muslim may be carrying in his coat pocket (“those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. So they won’t be able to say, ‘Ah, I was bearing a Koran over my heart and guess what, the missile stopped halfway through.’ No way, ’cause it’ll go straight through that as well. They’ll be dead, in other words”), and in the second, Hitchens explained that his reaction to the 9/11 attack was “exhilaration” because it would unleash an exciting, sustained war against what he came addictively to call “Islamofascism”: “I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.”

Hitchens, of course, never “prosecuted” the “exhilarating” war by actually fighting in it, but confined his “prosecution” to cheering for it and persuading others to support it. As one of Hitchens’ heroes, George Orwell, put it perfectly in Homage to Catalonia about the anti-fascist, tough-guy war writers of his time:

As late as October 1937 the New Statesman was treating us to tales of Fascist barricades made of the bodies of living children (a most unhandy thing to make barricades with), and Mr Arthur Bryant was declaring that ‘the sawing-off of a Conservative tradesman’s legs’ was ‘a commonplace’ in Loyalist Spain.

The people who write that kind of stuff never fight; possibly they believe that to write it is a substitute for fighting. It is the same in all wars; the soldiers do the fighting, the journalists do the shouting, and no true patriot ever gets near a front-line trench, except on the briefest of propaganda-tours. Sometimes it is a comfort to me to think that the aeroplane is altering the conditions of war. Perhaps when the next great war comes we may see that sight unprecedented in all history, a jingo with a bullet-hole in him.

I rarely wrote about Hitchens because, at least for the time that I’ve been writing about politics (since late 2005), there was nothing particularly notable about him. When it came to the defining issues of the post-9/11 era, he was largely indistinguishable from the small army of neoconservative fanatics eager to unleash ever-greater violence against Muslims: driven by a toxic mix of barbarism, self-loving provincialism, a sense of personal inadequacy, and, most of all, a pity-inducing need to find glory and purpose in cheering on military adventures and vanquishing some foe of historically unprecedented evil even if it meant manufacturing them. As Robin put it:

Hitchens had a reputation for being an internationalist. Yet someone who gets excited by mass murder — and then invokes that excitement, to a waiting audience, as an explanation of his support for mass murder — is not an internationalist. He is a narcissist, the most provincial spirit of all.

Hitchens was obviously more urbane and well-written than the average neocon faux-warrior, but he was also often more vindictive and barbaric about his war cheerleading. One of the only writers with the courage to provide the full picture of Hitchens upon his death was Gawker’s John Cook, who — in an extremely well-written and poignant obituary — detailed Hitchens’ vehement, unapologetic passion for the attack on Iraq and his dismissive indifference to the mass human suffering it caused, accompanied by petty contempt for those who objected… As Cook put it: “it must not be forgotten in mourning him that he got the single most consequential decision in his life horrifically, petulantly wrong”; indeed: “People make mistakes. What’s horrible about Hitchens’ ardor for the invasion of Iraq is that he clung to it long after it became clear that a grotesque error had been made.”

Subordinating his brave and intellectually rigorous defense of atheism, Hitchens’ glee over violence, bloodshed, and perpetual war dominated the last decade of his life. Dennis Perrin, a friend and former protégée of Hitchens, described all the way back in 2003 how Hitchens’ virtues as a writer and thinker were fully swamped by his pulsating excitement over war and the Bush/Cheney imperial agenda:

I can barely read him anymore. His pieces in the Brit tabloid The Mirror and in Slate are a mishmash of imperial justifications and plain bombast; the old elegant style is dead. His TV appearances show a smug, nasty scold with little tolerance for those who disagree with him. He looks more and more like a Ralph Steadman sketch. And in addition to all this, he’s now revising what he said during the buildup to the Iraq war.

In several pieces, including an incredibly condescending blast against Nelson Mandela, Hitch went on and on about WMD, chided readers with “Just you wait!” and other taunts, fully confident that once the US took control of Iraq, tons of bio/chem weapons and labs would be all over the cable news nets — with him dancing a victory jig in the foreground. Now he says WMD were never a real concern, and that he’d always said so. It’s amazing that he’d dare state this while his earlier pieces can be read at his website. But then, when you side with massive state power and the cynical fucks who serve it, you can say pretty much anything and the People Who Matter won’t care.

Currently, Hitch is pushing the line, in language that echoes the reactionary Paul Johnson, that the US can be a “superpower for democracy,” and that Toms Jefferson and Paine would approve. He’s also slammed the “slut” Dixie Chicks as “fucking fat slags” for their rather mild critique of our Dear Leader. He favors Bush over Kerry, and doesn’t like it that Kerry “exploits” his Vietnam combat experience (as opposed to, say, re-election campaign stunts on aircraft carriers).

Sweet Jesus. What next? I’m afraid my old mentor is not the truth-telling Orwell he fancies himself to be. He’s becoming a coarser version of Norman Podhoretz.

One of the last political essays he wrote in his life, for Slate, celebrated the virtues of Endless War.

—Glenn Greenwald
Christopher Hitchens and the Protocol for Public Figure Deaths

Gustave Eiffel

Gustave EiffelOn this day in 1832, the great architect Gustave Eiffel was born. He was also a civil engineer. And then after he retired, he did significant work in meteorology and fluid dynamics. Of course, we just know him because of of the tower named after him that he designed for the 1889 Universal Exposition.

Before the tower, he was best known for his bridges. And beautiful things they were. His first bridge was a small one — 22 meters — for the Saint Germaine railway. This was when he was still in his early twenties. This lead to his first major design, the half kilometer Bordeaux bridge.

In his mid-thirties, he started the company Eiffel et Cie, with fellow engineer Théophile Seyrig. Their first project together was to build the Budapest-Nyugati train station, which showed Eiffel’s fondness for exposed structure:

Budapest-Nyugati train station

And next came the exquisite Maria Pia railway bridge:

Maria Pia railway bridge

Before building his famous tower, Eiffel was very important in the building of the Statue of Liberty. The original engineer, Viollet-le-Duc, died after completing the head and arm. So it was left to Eiffel’s team to figure out how to make the whole thing fit together. Obviously, it wasn’t his design, of course. I figure you don’t need to see a picture of the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower. Although if you click over the Wikipedia, there is a nice collection of images showing the tower’s construction.

He continued to design and build major works into the late 1890s — all over the world. And then he retired and worked on some important applied science. He lived to the ripe old age of 91.

Happy birthday Gustave Eiffel!