Weekend

Required Reading

This week, Ai Weiwei in Minneapolis, how museums can help people understand pandemics, what ‘politically correct art’ means, being a rich writer, how much animals sleep, and more.

Photographer Artyom Tonoyan shared this image of Ai Weiwei’s “Safe Passage” at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (known as Mia), consisting of 2,400 life jackets once worn by refugees making the journey from Turkey to Greece. They were originally donated to Ai by the authorities in Lesbos, Greece. The work is part of the When Home Won’t Let You Stay exhibition at the museum. (photo courtesy the artist and used with permission)

As many as seven million visitors a year pass through the doors of the Natural History Museum, the majority of whom are U.S. tourists from across the country. With that audience, the award-winning exhibition’s goal is to provide a platform for public health conversations of extraordinary depth and scale. We want to leverage science communication and informal education as a safeguard against pandemic threats, helping to stem the tide of panic and confusion that can quickly inundate facts and reason when novel viruses emerge.

… To avoid paralyzing the public with fear, we sought a theme of positivity in the “Outbreak” content. Throughout the exhibition, visitors are empowered with personal actions and useful information to lower their risks of spreading infectious disease—washing hands, getting vaccinated when possible, avoiding contact with wild animals, and so on. In a post-opening study of visitor engagement, respondents rated their “Outbreak” experiences very highly with respect to gaining accurate knowledge and enriching their understanding of epidemic risks. Visitors largely described the exhibition with words related to learning or education, with only a small proportion, about seven percent, noting the content was “scary.” Given that about 85 percent of “Outbreak” visitors had not known about the exhibition before their museum visit, these findings are encouraging indications of effective public communication on emerging infectious diseases and pandemics in general.

“The world needs this from us right now,” Bennet told the dozen or so New York Times staffers in the room. “I don’t mean to sound pious, but it really is true that this is a crude and dangerously polarized time… And to simply assert that we know what the right answers are is not good for the democracy.”

Some answers, though, are evidently so “right” in Bennet’s view that they can simply be asserted. “I mean, I think we are pro-capitalism,” he said later in the meeting. “The New York Times is in favor of capitalism because it has been the greatest engine of, it’s been the greatest anti-poverty program and engine of progress that we’ve seen.”

Bennet’s ideology of no ideology admits to a few other caveats. In the meeting, he talked about how some issues are “settled law” and thus beyond debate, citing the evils of Nazism and the science of climate change. He also talked about which views are too “poisonous” to be given an airing in his pages, such as Richard Spencer’s white nationalism. But even then, perhaps uneasy with the idea of a value-neutral editorial page having any values at all, Bennet wobbled:

Walker has done nothing to wrestle with the history of Tate’s founder, the sugar merchant Sir Henry Tate, who many have said profited from the employment of slaves. On its website, Tate tells us, “Raw sugar imported from the British Caribbean by the Tate or Lyle companies in the post-slavery era would have been from estates established under slavery but worked at that point by wage-laborers and by indentured labor.” Tate removes itself from responsibility through the creative titling of exploited labor. The generational consequences of centuries of sugar production by enslaved Africans owned as property will always be tied to the land, its raw materials, by-products, and all beneficiaries through primary and secondary markets.

If it were afforded the same resources and an international stage, could a community-based and collaborative process involving Black British artists have resulted in something more nuanced? It certainly seems that any attempt would have done so. And if such a project were to be undertaken, I’d suggest artist Hew Locke as its leader. Born in Edinburgh, Locke spent his formative years in Guyana, arriving just in time for Independence from Britain. Locke has been celebrated for his innovative amalgamations of history and modernity. His elaborate and embellished model naval ships rely on freighted symbolism as a way of pondering British control in war, trade, and culture. He has spent decades appropriating the iconography of sovereignty while undoing the mythology that guides it.

Political correctness (as shorthand for “cultural Marxism”) is politically incorrect under liberalism because it asks that we think of ourselves as members of a class before we think of ourselves as individuals. Since classes are constituted by relations of exploitation, we think of ourselves first as workers or bosses in conflict, and women and men in conflict, and colonizers and colonized in conflict. (Looking at class relations beyond worker/boss is no violation of Marxist orthodoxy.) We shape our judgment and taste with our politics rather than the other way around. This is anathema to liberals, for whom individuals must think and act primarily as individuals, lest conformity overflow judgment, capsize meritocracy, and drown democracy.

Like most other American systems and professions, delusions around meritocracy continue to pervade the writing world. Those of us who are not bolstered by outside sources, those of us who are but still struggle, and say it out loud, often run the risk of seeming whiny or ungrateful; maybe we worry we will just be thought not good enough. To be a writer is a choice, after all, and I continue to make it. But perpetuating the delusion that the choice is not impossibly risky, precarity-inducing, only hurts the participants’ ability to reconsider the various shapes their lives might take in service of sustaining it and them.

Because of this, the wealth divide has been increased, which many economists believe is not only the biggest factor in slower-than-historic trend growth, but is also driving the political populism that threatens the market system itself.

That phenomenon has been put on steroids by yet another trend epitomised by Apple: the rise of intangibles such as intellectual property and brands (both of which the company has in spades) relative to tangible goods as a share of the global economy. As Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake show in their book Capitalism Without Capital, this shift became noticeable around 2000, but really took off after the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. The digital economy has a tendency to create superstars, since software and internet services are so scalable and enjoy network effects (in essence, they allow a handful of companies to grow quickly and eat everyone else’s lunch). But according to Haskel and Westlake, it also seems to reduce investment across the economy as a whole. This is not only because banks are reluctant to lend to businesses whose intangible assets may simply disappear if they go belly-up, but also because of the winner-takes-all effect that a handful of companies, including Apple (and Amazon and Google), enjoy.

  • I’m a little obsessed with this video about how long animals sleep. Maybe it’s because it makes me feel better about my own sleep issues:

  • RMR’s “Rascal” video showed up in many people’s feeds this week and it’s mysterious (because people don’t know who RMR is … yet) and it’s very of the moment (watch it). Stereogum has the story:

Required Reading is published every Saturday, 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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