Weekend

Required Reading

This week, the role of the artist in the age of Trump, LACMA’s stalled fundraising, Kurt Vonnegut on making a living as a writer, trans lives and cancel culture, and more.

Tattoo artist Makkala Rose, who is based in New Zealand, creates really eye-catching botanical designs, and this one stopped me in my tracks. Check out more at Colossal (via Colossal)

Public Enemy’s “911 Is a Joke,” George Orwell’s 1984, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s whole damn catalog—all are political works that tell the truth.

Yes, Rodgers and Hammerstein. Consider The Sound of Music. It isn’t just about climbing mountains and fording streams. Look beyond the adorable von Trapp children: It’s about the looming existential threat of Nazism. No longer relevant? A GIF of Captain von Trapp tearing up a Nazi flag is something we see 10 times a day on Twitter, because all sorts of Nazis are out there again in 2019. As last spring’s searing Broadway revival of Oklahoma! revealed, lying underneath Hammerstein’s elephant-eye-high corn and chirping birds is a lawless society becoming itself, bending its rules and procedures based on who is considered part of the community (Curly) and who is marginalized (poor Jud … seriously, poor Jud). Or consider your parents’ favorite, South Pacific. At its center, our hero, Nellie Forbush, must confront her own internalized racism when she learns that the new love of her life has biracial children from a previous marriage. Let your parents know if they forgot: Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals form the spine of Broadway’s “golden age,” and they also deeply engage with the politics of their era.

The problem is not that money is scarce. At minimum, LACMA can claim 16 billionaires on its board of trustees. Sixteen.

For years, charitable giving by individual Americans has represented a modest 2% of total disposable income, according to surveys by Giving USA, an annual report on philanthropy compiled at the University of Indiana. The nonpartisan Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation also estimates that, thanks to the 2017 Trump tax cuts, wealthy families earning between $200,000 and $1 million saw their tax bills drop an average of 9% in each of the last two years.

Just the money the board’s billionaires saved would likely cover most of their museum’s fundraising gap. LACMA trustees have put up close to half of the pledged funds, and there’s no reason to think they lack the financial wherewithal to put the campaign over the top.

But they haven’t done it.

The clock keeps ticking. The months — and now years — go by. The building project keeps getting pushed back, today standing at well over a year behind schedule, even as the museum’s collection galleries were shuttered on Tuesday, the art packed up in crates.

Asked what advice he would give to new young authors interested in pursuing a writing career, Vonnegut answered:

It is much harder for young writers to start now . . . it is much harder for young a lot of things to start now. . . . It’s too bad there is no way for a poor person to make a beginning as a writer now.

Vonnegut said that in 1973! What has changed in over forty-five years? It’s gotten even harder to earn money by writing. And forget making a living at it. The statistics reflect the general income disparity: there’s a tiny group of financially successful writers, a “1 percent,” and then everyone else. This cuts across genres.

  • The Atlantic has a new graphic identity and the magazine’s creative director, Peter Mendelsund, was interviewed about the new design. I only wish he was interviewed by someone who knows about design:

Mendelsund: Atlantic Condensed is the typeface that we commissioned based on the type forms that the founders chose for the first issue. We looked through original issues and at type foundry specimens from that time. The founders chose a typeface that’s very condensed—which is good, because it means you can fit more type onto the page. They also chose one that’s generally used in its capitalized form—which is also good, because it means that you can easily signal that something’s important. It is a serif typeface, and what’s known as a “Scotch” face, which describes the way the serifs are designed. It is an extremely legible, classical kind of typography, but also transmits a certain kind of vehemence and urgency that works nicely for our contemporary purposes.

Only 4 percent of turkers, the researchers found, made more than the federal minimum wage, $7.25 an hour.

Presiding over this production is the world’s biggest tech company, feet firmly planted on the sidelines. Amazon usually declines to get involved when turkers say requesters rip them off, even as it lets requesters hide behind aliases that can make them impossible to track down.

It has ignored turkers’ pleas to mandate higher wages, even as it takes a cut of each transaction ranging from 17 to 50 percent; a requester posting a 1-cent HIT pays one penny to the turker and another to Amazon.

Another occupational hazard of turking is HITs that contain graphic imagery. A few years ago, Ms. Milland did some work describing photos circulated by the Islamic State.

“You have to digest the content of the image in order to come up with the keywords,” she wrote in an email. “Things like ‘orange jumpsuit,’ ‘caged prisoner,’ ‘prisoner on fire,’ ‘kneeling on explosives,’ ‘basket full of heads.’”

The job paid 10 cents a photo.

These writers, intentionally or not, have been able to use trans antagonism to build their careers. We are still only five years on from the Grantland story which outed a subject as trans during the pre-publication reporting process, leading to her death by suicide. One of the takeaways was supposed to be increasing the number of trans journalists and editors. This year, Lewis Raven Wallace interviewed trans editors and journalists for Nieman Reports about the state of the field. “Trans people’s personal stories are often ‘balanced’ with the opinions of those who question our fundamental rights to health care, safety, and employment, or depict us as dishonest or untrustworthy,” wrote Wallace. “And while trans people are often expected to disclose and probe our own ‘bias’ as trans journalists, cisgender journalists covering trans people are rarely asked to do the same probing of their own gender experience and how it might shape their work.”

  • Political scientist Ivan Krastev talks to Vox Europ about his idea that the illiberalism in Central Eastern Europe today is part of a global contestation of Western liberal hegemony. I’ve been thinking about this for days:

SG: The last chapter of the book deals with the illiberal turn in the United States and particularly its connection to the rise of a China ready to contest US hegemony. You argue that this development ‘signals the end of the Age of Imitation as we understand it’.

IK: We go beyond central and eastern Europe because the legacy of 1989 is not limited to this region. 1989 transformed the West no less than it did the East, and this tends to get lost in the debate. Western discourse focuses on what is happening in the East, an obsession that is rooted in the fear of facing the problems of western democracies. The most important question is how far liberal democracies were preconditioned by the existence of the Cold War. We examine how the United States has been affected by end of the age of imitation. How did the imitated model start to see itself as the victim of the world it had created? Trump tells Americans that they are not the leaders of the world but a hostage to it – because of all the wars they think they are supposed to be fighting; because of their trade policy, which is restrictive in light of the Chinese economy. For Trump, the only response can be for the US to focus on its own interests. This is the end of American exceptionalism. Trump’s radical message was that America is not better than others, but simply stronger than, and if need be as nasty.

These changes are crucial to our understanding of not only why the post-’89 period ended, but why it is disintegrating in the way it is. It may be easy to tell the story of the crisis of liberal democracy in simply economic terms, but that won’t explain the political path of Poland, for example. And it is easy to say that everything is the result of Russian interference, which provenly takes place. But we should not fall into the trap that Russians have been caught in for the last three decades, framing everything that happened to Russia as a western conspiracy. Russia’s ability to mobilize constituents against their own constituencies is based on certain flaws in our own democracies. The problem is internal, though it may be tactical to externalize it.

Stephen Holmes and I don’t believe that we are back in the Cold War. The China–US confrontation will shape our world in the future, but we don’t believe there will be a clash of two ideological projects. One of our major arguments is that China is not dreaming of being imitated by the rest of the world. China does not believe it can be imitated. This is not only because of its belief in the superiority of Chinese culture, but also because its model of having and projecting power is not based on the creation of copies. China lacks the universalist aspiration that was integral to western politics after the end of the Cold War.

You often hear the crisis of liberal hegemony being described as a crisis of liberalism, but I don’t buy this. Liberal hegemony was an exceptional moment, born out of an exceptional development. The fact that not all countries in the world have become liberal democracies does not mean that human rights are no longer seen as relevant, or that authoritarianism is going to prevail everywhere. On the contrary, populist movements talk about rights all the time. The problem is, whose rights? The rights being advocated by populists are those of majorities, of the nation. The anti-colonial movement has become the model of the western European far-right. In this appropriation of the language of the rights, the West is now the colonized, the anti-colonial. Trump is the best example of this. This inversion of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged with the most powerful and privileged is a perversity of the political imagination that I find typical of the contemporary moment.

  • Hoda Katebi is a garment workers’ rights activist and committed to ethical fashion. She talked to TANK about the Blue Tin Production co-op, which she founded, and her role as an abolitionist:

JM You’re an abolitionist. Can you tell me what means for you?
HK Abolition in the USA is the movement to end anti-blackness and really gained traction around the anti-slavery movement. It is the understanding that anti-blackness is universal, and that many of the systems that we occupy – such as capitalism, policing, prisons – are rooted in and require violence to function. They are inherently violent, and so they can’t be reformed; they have to be abolished. Slavery is an easy example: there’s no way you can reform slavery. It’s very clear now, retrospectively, but there are a lot of industries now that also need to be abolished because they are rooted in and require violence. On the fashion side, that’s fast fashion. It’s inherently violent, because of the demands that are placed on workers and on the environment. An abolitionist perspective is not just saying, “Let’s burn it all.” It’s about creating the world we want to see. Abolition is just as much about creation. For example, Blue Tin is an abolitionist response to fast fashion because we’re creating the actual alternative: worker-owned, worker-run – badass women dealing with their own shit. That for me is what fashion looks like. Production is where most of the blindness is. Sustainability is sexy and cute, but you can have a sustainable line made in a sweatshop, with hemp linen or whatever the fuck people are using these days. Labour is something that no one ever wants to talk about. But it’s also the most granular level. There are no clothes without labour. Everything in the fashion industry comes back to the labour. There’s nothing really under that.

In 2009, Dr. Ben Mays, a veterinarian in Clinton, Arkansas, submitted an application to Belford University on behalf of English bulldog Maxwell Sniffingwell. The application included his work as a reproductive specialist, noting his “natural ability in theriogenology” and “experimental work with felines” and his understanding of the merits of specialization despite a desire to “‘do them all.'” His application was accepted upon the $549 payment to the university.

Required Reading is published every Saturday, 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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