This week, reinterpreting the Parthenon, Wall Streeters behaving badly, considering Hannah Höch, academic writing, remaking Robocop, modern day slavery, and more.
What we see, she claims, are the preliminaries to a human sacrifice, when the daughter of one of the legendary kings of the city, Erechtheus, is sacrificed to ensure Athenian victory over an invading army. The procession depicts the celebrations that honored the girl’s noble act of self-sacrifice. It is not, in other words, a human scene at all, but a moment drawn from myth, and — to modern eyes — a shocking one at that.
Once we made it to the lobby, Ross and Lebenthal reassured me that what I’d just seen wasn’t really a group of wealthy and powerful financiers making homophobic jokes, making light of the financial crisis, and bragging about their business conquests at Main Street’s expense. No, it was just a group of friends who came together to roast each other in a benign and self-deprecating manner. Nothing to see here.
But the extent of their worry wasn’t made clear until Ross offered himself up as a source for future stories in exchange for my cooperation.
Such a view of self-creation is at once attractive and unsettling. To be a dandy, in Baudelaire’s view, is to be utterly free: to produce only the effect one chooses, to exist in the world as a kind of eternal subject, ever operating, never operated upon. Yet such power is granted only to a privileged few. It’s predicated on the troubling notion that these masters of artifice are inherently superior to the “masses”; that this is not only inevitable but desirable. The common man, after all, cannot create his own identity—he’s too busy being subjected to the great and brutalizing forces of biology and economics. The aristocrat alone is allowed the privilege of self-fashioning. To be a dandy is to exist in opposition to “the masses,” to treat them, at best, as a kind of captive audience.
Höch also recognised just how much cultures invest in myths and ideologies of self. I can think of no more acute examination of this topic than the series of montages that she put together in 1924-30 and grouped under the title Aus einem ethnographischen Museum (From an Ethnographic Museum). To look at these constructions, each a remix of ‘primitive’ carvings and flesh-and-blood bodies, is to ask what they have in common, as Höch clearly intended we do. Everything and nothing might be my answer, except for a disjointed poetry of pathos and pain.
Still, there’s no denying the sorry state of the statement, and we all know it. The ubiquitous request “Please include an artist statement …” inspires cringes and groans among artists.
Academic writing is a fraught and mysterious thing. If you’re an academic in a writerly discipline, such as history, English, philosophy, or political science, the most important part of your work—practically and spiritually—is writing. Many academics think of themselves, correctly, as writers. And yet a successful piece of academic prose is rarely judged so by “ordinary” standards. Ordinary writing—the kind you read for fun—seeks to delight (and, sometimes, to delight and instruct). Academic writing has a more ambiguous mission. It’s supposed to be dry but also clever; faceless but also persuasive; clear but also completist. Its deepest ambiguity has to do with audience. Academic prose is, ideally, impersonal, written by one disinterested mind for other equally disinterested minds. But, because it’s intended for a very small audience of hyper-knowledgable, mutually acquainted specialists, it’s actually among the most personal writing there is. If journalists sound friendly, that’s because they’re writing for strangers. With academics, it’s the reverse.
When you look across centuries, and at social status broadly measured — not just income and wealth, but also occupation, education and longevity — social mobility is much slower than many of us believe, or want to believe. This is true in Sweden, a social welfare state; England, where industrial capitalism was born; the United States, one of the most heterogeneous societies in history; and India, a fairly new democracy hobbled by the legacy of caste. Capitalism has not led to pervasive, rapid mobility. Nor have democratization, mass public education, the decline of nepotism, redistributive taxation, the emancipation of women, or even, as in China, socialist revolution.
The answer is not as complicated as it may seem. Vladimir Putin comes from St. Petersburg. He rules from Moscow. But it is the North Caucasus that launched him on his path to the summit of Russian power. Anyone who wants to understand the many controversies now roiling around Sochi must start with this fundamental political fact.
Russia launched its Olympic bid in 2006, a moment when Putin was basking in his hard-won status as the leader who had finally vanquished the long-running rebellion in Chechnya. Putin did not choose Sochi by chance. He believed that presiding over an Olympic miracle in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, not far from places that had been battlefields a few years before, would cement his triumph over historical enemies.
Be creepy or rude (aka, a “Glasshole”). Respect others and if they have questions about Glass don’t get snappy. Be polite and explain what Glass does and remember, a quick demo can go a long way. In places where cell phone cameras aren’t allowed, the same rules will apply to Glass. If you’re asked to turn your phone off, turn Glass off as well. Breaking the rules or being rude will not get businesses excited about Glass and will ruin it for other Explorers.
Required Reading is published every Sunday morning EST, and it is comprised of a short list of art-related links to long-form articles, videos, blog posts or photo essays worth a second look.
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