Weekend

Required Reading

This week, reviewing Félix Vallotton, whitesplaining history, a note to curators, women in the commercial art world, Judith Butler on anti-semitism, and more.

A new twisting bridge by the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) reaches across the Randselva River in Jevnaker, Norway. The aluminum-clad structure joins north and south river fronts on the campus of Kistefos Sculpture Park and the 15,000 square feet of space instead allows visitors to explore Kistefos’s large art collection. The Twist opened to the public on September 18th. See more images at Colossal (via Colossal)

The RA exhibition presents Vallotton as a ‘painter of disquiet’, a description best suited to the psychological tension of his interiors and the chilled eroticism of his nudes. The dark comedy and social charge of his street scenes need a different noun: ‘disquiet’ tamps down Vallotton’s humour and political anger. It also sidelines his prints, which the exhibition itself does not. He had a brilliant pictorial wit, not just sardonic and sharp, as is often remarked, but full of sympathy. Look for the terror-struck, corpulent bourgeois failing to keep up with a crowd that is being chased by the police (The Demonstration, 1893); the nude holding a tiny black dog inches away from her groin (Bathing on a Summer Evening, 1892-93); the polar bear rug staring out at us from an adulterer’s bedroom like a startled witness (The Other’s Health, 1898); the toddler fiendishly ripping and scattering paper on the floor (The Red Room, Etretat, 1899); or the schoolchildren portrayed as roving, belligerent gangs.

His work has always presented a problem of tone, and this perhaps more than anything else – his Swiss origins, his wholesale rejection of Impressionism – has made him a mysterious and marginal figure. The writer and publisher Octave Uzanne called his approach to modern street life ‘vaguely ironising’, hinting at how difficult he is to pin down. But his ambivalence resonated: Octave Mirbeau defended Vallotton’s pessimism against charges of aggression and arbitrary negativity, describing it as a pessimism in sincere search of the truth.

The problem of tone is also a problem of politics. Like Seurat, Vallotton associated with anarchists such as Félix Fénéon, but never described himself or his work explicitly as such. (One of his most famous woodcuts, The Anarchist, captures this ambivalence.) He was a laconic man: his early letters home are brief, not much more than worries about money and ‘please send more chocolate.’ We know very little about his inner life. But his street scenes are alive with political tension and his interiors poke holes in the moral façade of the bourgeoisie.

Degrowth is a designed reduction of total energy and material use to realign society with planetary limits, while improving people’s lives and distributing resources fairly. It is an economic model that recognises that the route to greater welfare for all is not one of more extraction and expansion, but of more sharing and co-operation.

Architects and urban designers, toiling daily at the coalface of speculative urban development, are complicit in the perpetuation of growth but we are also in a unique position to contribute towards a move away from it.

Architecture is the armature of culture, shaping and shaped by the economy in which it is constructed. What could architecture be like in an economy based on nourishing culture and nature rather than GPD?

Public life has become like a play whose audience is unwilling to suspend disbelief. Any utterance by a public figure can be unpicked in search of its ulterior motive. As cynicism grows, even judges, the supposedly neutral upholders of the law, are publicly accused of personal bias. Once doubt descends on public life, people become increasingly dependent on their own experiences and their own beliefs about how the world really works. One effect of this is that facts no longer seem to matter (the phenomenon misleadingly dubbed “post-truth”). But the crisis of democracy and of truth are one and the same: individuals are increasingly suspicious of the “official” stories they are being told, and expect to witness things for themselves.

On one level, heightened scepticism towards the establishment is a welcome development. A more media-literate and critical citizenry ought to be less easy for the powerful to manipulate. It may even represent a victory for the type of cultural critique pioneered by intellectuals such as Pierre Bourdieu and Stuart Hall in the 1970s and 80s, revealing the injustices embedded in everyday cultural expressions and interactions.

But it is possible to have too much scepticism. How exactly do we distinguish this critical mentality from that of the conspiracy theorist, who is convinced that they alone have seen through the official version of events? Or to turn the question around, how might it be possible to recognise the most flagrant cases of bias in the behaviour of reporters and experts, but nevertheless to accept that what they say is often a reasonable depiction of the world?

  • This article about selfies and Elizabeth Warren is ridiculous, but I’m including it because it’s been all over the web and, well, you decide:

Although in a vastly different context, Warren is today confronting another harmful myth, experts said: that a woman is not presidential and does not belong in the Oval Office. Over the course of her campaign, she’s developed a similar strategy to fight back. At the end of every rally, Warren — one of three front-runners in the Democratic race, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll — stays behind to pose for pictures with pretty much every supporter who asks.

A Warren aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal statistics, said Tuesday that Warren has posed for nearly 60,000 selfies with supporters since launching her campaign. In a typical flurry Monday, Warren lingered for an extra four hours after giving a speech in New York to snap roughly 4,000 pictures with attendees, the aide said. The aide declined to comment beyond providing statistics.

Many historians have shown that the Second Amendment was about the right to arms for military, not civilian, purposes, but policy makers like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida ignore that research. Indeed, a group of distinguished historians including Lois Schwoerer and Jack Rakove filed an amicus brief on the Second Amendment during the landmark 2008 D.C. v. Heller case, but Justice Antonin Scalia proved impervious to it. The resulting decision held up a dangerously expansive — and historically inaccurate — understanding of the amendment.

Historians also warned us about the dangers of the Iraq War. In particular, the Middle East scholar Juan Cole, from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, acquired an enormous following through his blog by laying out the case against the war. But such discouraging views were not heeded by an administration so bent on war that it not only ignored history but faked it — cooking up a fable of weapons of mass destruction.

Given the proclivities of policy makers, the historian’s real role is, in fact, to speak to the public, so that people may exert pressure on their elected representatives.

Gladwell isn’t willing to go that far (he’s got books to sell), so instead he adopts a pose of “just asking questions” for the sake of using the Penn State case to prove the profundity of his latest pet social theory. Gladwell’s after nothing more than his own gratification here, and the fact that he’s willing to use two infamous sexual assault cases as rhetorical springboards tells you all you need to know about how shallow his well of ideas has gotten.

After reading this section of Gladwell’s book, I was left with the impression of a writer furiously and desperately working backwards. It seems to me that Levine’s “Truth-Default Theory” captured Gladwell’s imagination, which sent him combing through recent history to find the sort of culturally important moments to which the theory could be applied in a way that would grab readers’ attention. The Penn State scandal! That was a big deal, right? Let’s take it for a spin!

By the time Gladwell is finished mashing together bug-eyed theorizing with abstract social psychology, the reader isn’t left with any real insight into or new understanding of the Penn State case. There’s no entrance to a rabbit hole to be found here, just a man begging us to continue watching him furiously scratch at the hard surface, promising that something profound is just beneath.

It is not only the lack of a broader political approach, but also a lack of historical analysis that afflicts this impassioned book. Weiss often uses epidemiological language to understand antisemitism: it is a “thought virus,” an “intellectual disease,” an “ancient malady,” “a cancer.” As such, antisemitism seems to exist outside history, recurring in all possible spaces and times. The metaphor extends to a diagnostic approach to contemporary politics: “When our society’s immune system is healthy and functioning normally, the virus of anti-Semitism is kept in check.” In other words, antisemitism is a latent feature not only of our (presumably US) society but of all societies. Elsewhere, she describes it as part of “our cultural DNA,” a metaphor that suggests it is transmitted through the generations as part of the deep structure of collective life, and perhaps implies more broadly that cultural attitudes are like genetic material—a confusing and potentially deterministic point of view. Such metaphors proliferate throughout the text precisely at moments when one expects a fine-grained answer to fundamental questions about the history and definitions of antisemitism.

In the midst of the longest economic expansion the United States has ever seen, with poverty and unemployment rates at historic lows, the separation between rich and poor from 2017 and 2018 was greater than it has ever been, federal data show.

Nine states saw spikes in that divide: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Kansas, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Texas and Virginia.

The gulf is starkest in wealthy coastal areas such as Washington, D.C., New York, Connecticut and California, as well as in areas with widespread poverty, such as Puerto Rico and Louisiana. Equality was highest in Utah, Alaska and Iowa.

The documents, revealed by the Guardian for the first time, lay out how ByteDance, the Beijing-headquartered technology company that owns TikTok, is advancing Chinese foreign policy aims abroad through the app.

The revelations come amid rising suspicion that discussion of the Hong Kong protests on TikTok is being censored for political reasons: a Washington Post report earlier this month noted that a search on the site for the city-state revealed “barely a hint of unrest in sight”.

The guidelines divide banned material into two categories: some content is marked as a “violation”, which sees it deleted from the site entirely, and can lead to a user being banned from the service. But lesser infringements are marked as “visible to self”, which leaves the content up but limits its distribution through TikTok’s algorithmically-curated feed.

Required Reading is published every Sunday morning ET, and 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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