Archive for the Category Culture/arts


Ceci n’est pas une pipe

Here’s Brendan O’Neill of the National Review:

Not content with harassing white people who wear their hair in cornrows and branding as “cultural appropriation” everything from college cafés serving sushi to Beyoncé donning a sari, now the new racial purists are coming for film director Kathryn Bigelow. Her crime? She’s a white woman. More specifically, she’s a white woman who dared to tell the story of the 1967 Detroit riots in her latest movie. It’s wrong for whites to tell black stories, apparently, because they can never truly understand those stories. It’s a profoundly philistine argument that exposes the misanthropy of the racial thinking that passes for radical commentary these days.

He’s right, but I think even he concedes too much:

A Variety cover story asked: “How could Bigelow — a white woman raised just outside San Francisco by middle-class parents and educated at Columbia University — understand and illuminate [this] kind of raw experience?” This movie speaks to “the problem with watching black pain through a white lens,” said a writer for the Huffington Post, as if Bigelow were reducible to her whiteness; as if she turned up to work on Detroit every morning thinking and behaving as a white woman, a racial creature, rather than as a storyteller. This is a “white filmmaker [using] the spectacle of black pain as an educational tool,” says the HuffPost, which is bizarre, since Detroit doesn’t feel educational at all: It invites both emotional and intellectual responses, but it never once feels like a lecture.

At Slate, Dana Stevens argues that film directors — and surely by extension, all artists — cannot escape their origins when telling stories: “The people behind the camera . . . will create a different film from a different perspective depending on the lives they’ve led and the bodies they inhabit.” Bodies — here we get to the ironically dehumanizing element of PC racial thinking, where people are mere skin, driven, sometimes without realizing it, by their bodies, their biology. “The fact of the filmmakers’ whiteness can’t help but inflect their depiction [of racial history],” says Stevens. Can’t help. This resuscitates the very fatalism that lay at the heart of older varieties of racial thinking — namely, that we are prisoners of race, that our racial origins shape how we view and act in the world.

I have no idea what it’s like to be a black or a woman, but I also have no idea what it’s like to be a white male—or more specifically a white male other than myself. For instance, I can’t even imagine what’s it’s like to be Donald Trump.  I have no idea what thoughts go through his mind.  I have no idea what aspects of my inner consciousness are general “white male experiences” and which aspects are specifically “Scott Sumner experiences”.

The key mistake of these philistines is to assume that a work of art is in some sense “about” the characters being depicted. In my view it makes no sense to talk about a work of art being about anything.  But if one insists, then I’d rather say it’s about the artist.  Consider these two paintings, both widely viewed as supreme masterpieces of the art form:

The smarter people who worry about cultural appropriation would say that Velasquez should not have done this painting, as he can’t possibly know what it’s like to be a black man.  The dumber people who worry about cultural appropriation would say the painting is OK, because unlike film, painting is not about the inner lives of its characters.

In fact, this painting is not a black man.  If anything, it is a Velasquez.

Similarly, the smarter foes of cultural appropriation would say that Velasquez has no idea what it’s like to be a woman:

People on the left sneer at the lack of cultural sophistication of many Trump supporters.  Then they concoct an ideology that looks at art with all the sophistication of a 8-year old. They would look at Magritte’s famous painting and not get the joke.

PS.  Maybe I was being too solipsistic in my previous remarks.  But if we can imagine what it’s like to be another person, I’d be far more comfortable putting myself in the mind of a (black) writer like Teju Cole, than I would trying to imagine being Donald Trump.  At least with Cole I find his expressed thoughts to be intelligible. I often feel the same way. Indeed compared to Trump, even Barack Obama has a sensibility closer to my own perspective on the world.

The Canadian Taliban

Here’s the New York Times:

The controversy began when Hal Niedzviecki, editor of Write, the magazine of the Canadian Writers’ Union, penned an editorial defending the right of white authors to create characters from minority or indigenous backgrounds. Within days, a social media backlash forced him to resign. The Writers’ Union issued an apology for an article that its Equity Task Force claimed “re-entrenches the deeply racist assumptions” held about art.

Another editor, Jonathan Kay, of The Walrus magazine, was also compelled to step down after tweeting his support for Mr. Niedzviecki. Meanwhile, the broadcaster CBC moved Steve Ladurantaye, managing editor of its flagship news program The National, to a different post, similarly for an “unacceptable tweet” about the controversy.

It’s not just editors who have to tread carefully. Last year, the novelist Lionel Shriver generated a worldwide storm after defending cultural appropriation in an address to the Brisbane Writers Festival. Earlier this year, controversy erupted when New York’s Whitney Museum picked for its Biennial Exhibition Dana Schutz’s painting of the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955. Many objected to a white painter like Ms. Schutz depicting such a traumatic moment in black history. The British artist Hannah Black organized a petition to have the work destroyed.

Other works of art have been destroyed. The sculptor Sam Durant’s piece “Scaffold,” honoring 38 Native Americans executed in 1862 in Minneapolis, was recently being assembled in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. But after protests from indigenous activists that Mr. Durant was appropriating their history, the artist dismantled his own work, and made its wood available to be burned in a Dakota Sioux ceremony.

I wonder if this is just a sign of old age.  If I were to graph the fraction of the articles I read each day that seem indistinguishable from an Onion parody, it would have risen from under 1% in 2000 to perhaps 5% today.  At this rate what will things look like in 20 years?  Is anyone else seeing an increase?

The Nazis burned books and paintings and the Red Guard destroyed monasteries. The Taliban destroyed a couple big statues in Afghanistan:

ISIS is destroying architectural sites all over the Muslim world.  But the Canadians? Perhaps Trump needs to redirect our drone strikes away from Yemen and towards Toronto.

I consider libertarianism a sort on inoculation against this madness. Throughout history, these bouts of insanity have infected both the left and right, at various times.  But if you start with the principle that everyone should be free to produce whatever sort of art they like, and if you don’t like it then don’t buy it, then you are less likely to buy into this sort of craziness.

PS.  I would not have even done this post if the story was not in a respectable outlet like the NYT.  I am well aware that the internet is full of reports of outrages, which on close inspection are actually less outrageous than they appear.  But I have to assume the editors of the Times checked the facts, and these events actually occurred.  Am I wrong?  Is this fake news?

PPS.  In all of human history, has anyone ever produced a work of art that does not involve cultural appropriation?  Just asking.

Why optimism is more rational than pessimism

Tyler Cowen has a post discussing this interesting question:

Is optimism or pessimism correct?

I mean for the West, not for emerging economies.  Obviously we need to know future trajectories, and that is hard to do.  But try this simple question: since 2000 or so, have the predictions of the optimists or the pessimists come closer to being correct and insightful?

At a dinner party two nights ago, the unanimous opinion, even from the optimists, was that the pessimists had been doing better in the predicting game.  Of course, that does not mean the pessimists will be correct going forward.  The optimists might try these counters:

For simplicity, let’s just consider the US for the moment.  Here’s how I would group periods, your mileage might differ:

Good:  1900-17

Bad:  1917-22

Good:  1922-29

Bad:  1929-45

Good: 1945-50

Bad:  1950-53

Good:  1953-65

Bad:  1965-84

Good:  1984-2001

Bad:  2001-14

Good  2014 –

That’s 61 good years and 56 bad years.  But I’m actually not at all sure this is right.  I’m ignoring huge areas of life—health care, civil rights, the internet, the environment, etc. etc., and mostly focusing on war and the economy.  But I think it’s fair to say that most people perceive something like this—alternating periods of good and bad.  Perhaps of roughly equal length.  So why be an optimist?

If you look closely you’d notice that the trajectory is clearly upwards.  Problems keep reappearing, but often in orders of magnitude less severe forms.  Thus Vietnam was an order of magnitude less bloody (for the US) than WWII.  And Iraq/Afghanistan was an order of magnitude less bloody than Vietnam.

In the Great Recession, we made many of the same mistakes as during the Great Depression, but an order of magnitude less severe.

One exception was the AIDS epidemic, which was comparable in severity to the 1919 flu outbreak.

We don’t learn as much as I’d like from our mistakes, but we surely learn something.

Previously I said that my list ignored many areas of life, such as civil rights, health, the internet and the environment.  But obviously things have gotten better in those areas over time.  Not just in the past 100 years, but also in the past 10 or 20 years. (I mean better in an overall sense, there are setbacks in specific subcategories.)

What about Trump?  Presidents don’t have much impact on these trends, although I suppose the risk of nuclear war is now slightly higher, given that our President is now almost universally viewed as being mentally unstable.

I believe it’s almost impossible to predict the future, and I do have some concern about “existential risks”.  But I don’t know enough to have a good sense of how big those risks are.  Thus I rely on our past history.  If you closely examine the period since 1900, and that doesn’t make your optimistic about the future (for humans, not necessarily animals), at least in a conventional sense, then there is something wrong with your brain.

PS.  By ‘conventional sense’, I mean according to the usual metrics.  I’m willing to cut more slack for philosophical radicals who wonder if all this “progress” actually makes us any happier.  I’m agnostic on that question.

PPS.  I’m also optimistic about the entire world.  Places like China and India are clearly improving, and places like Syria and North Korea have nowhere to go but up.

PPPS.  How has the film industry being doing recently?  The NYT gives its top 25 films of the 21st century (including 2000). That prompted me to make my own list:

Top 25 of the Century

First Tier:

Mulholland Drive

Nobody Knows


Lord of the Rings

In the Mood for Love

Three Times*

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives

Spirited Away*

Inland Empire

Second Tier:



Winter Sleep

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Three Monkeys

The Wailing

Mountains May Depart

Happy Hour

Third Tier:

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes


Yi Yi*

Japanese Story


Memories of Murder



The three starred films also made the NYT list.  How does this compare to the previous 17 years?  Not too well.  Wong Kar Wai had 5 films that could have made the list, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien had at least 5–maybe more.  The film industry is in long-term decline, which happens to all art forms after they express their most potent ideas.  Painting peaked in the 1500s and 1600s.  Pop music in the 1960s and 1970s.  So on film I’m a pessimist.

Films I saw in 2016

Here’s my annual lists of films I saw at the theatre (I don’t watch them on TV.)  I saw a very interesting series of Seijun Suzuki films at Harvard.  He inspired people like Quentin Tarantino.  “Branded to Kill” is probably the one to see if you are a Tarantino fan.

2016 Films

Dekalog 3/4/5/6/7/8/9/10 (Poland, 1989) 3.9 A series of 10 one hour made for TV Polish films by Krzysztof Kieslowski, often regarded as one of the greatest film series of all time. I saw the extended versions of #5 and #6, “A Short Film About Killing” and “A Short Film About Love”. I liked this even better than the more polished films he made after coming to the West (Red, White, Blue, etc.)

The Asphalt Jungle (US, 1950) 3.9 A near perfect film noir, directed by John Huston. Features a very young and radiant Marilyn Monroe. And the legendary Sterling Hayden.

The Wailing (Korea) 3.9 A near perfect horror film. Great films are usually outstanding for reasons unrelated to the specific genre they fall into. Think how Vertigo (thriller), 2001 (sci-fi), Apocalypse Now (war), The Shining (horror), etc., transcend their genre. (And yes, The Shining doesn’t quite belong with the other three, but you get my point.) The Wailing isn’t as original as these films, or even as original as the Korean horror film Oldboy, but it steals from the best and puts it all together brilliantly.

In a Lonely Place (US, 1950) 3.8 My all-time favorite film noir. People talk about Bogart and Bergman, or Bogart and Bacall, but Gloria Graham and Bogart are perfect in this film. They seem to be acting on a different plane of reality from everyone else. Or maybe they don’t seem to be acting at all. Heartbreaking.

Happy Hour (Japan) 3.8 A five and a half hour film about four Japanese women who are in their late 30s, just the point where disillusionment with life is setting in. The director gave a talk afterwards. One of the actresses (who won an award at Locarno) was sitting in the same row as me.)  What if the 2 hour film is a giant mistake?  Maybe all films should either be an hour (short stories) or 5 hours (novels).

Mountains May Depart (China) 3.8   Loved this film. A very intelligent and emotionally powerful vision from Zhangke Jia. I don’t know if it’s his best, but it’s certainly my favorite. Reminded me a bit of the Taiwanese film Three Times, in the effective way it used pop music in a film encompassing three periods of time.

The Handmaiden (Korea) 3.7 A return to form by Park Chan-wook. Not as original as Oldboy, but otherwise a beautifully made film.

The Forbidden Room (Canada) 3.7   This one really should be seen on the big screen. Strongly influenced by silent film, but otherwise kind of indescribable. This is the sort of film that differentiates cinema from TV.

Eyes Wide Shut (US, 1999) 3.6 Kubrick’s final film seems slightly better the second time around, maybe because I was paying more attention to the style than the story. He slipped a bit late in his career, but not very much. (I love the last word of his final film.) Unfortunately it was screened in digital, which looks awful.

Cemetery of Splendour (Thai) 3.6 Made by perhaps the most interesting director in the world today, but I found it more difficult to follow than his other films, maybe because it referred to political/cultural events in Thailand on which I am not well informed.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (New Zealand) 3.6 Very nicely done, especially the two lead actors, as well as one other who appeared early in the film.

Arrival (US) 3.6 Basically a 2-hour plea to reject the politics of Donald Trump. The aliens seemed like a mix of octopus and elephant, while their spaceship seemed like a giant whale. All three animals have a reputation as being quite intelligent. A very moving film, although two hours later you might feel like you were conned.

Our Little Sister (Japan) 3.6 Koreeda has great ability to see the good in different types of people. This is a beautiful understated film, very skillfully made. You don’t leave feeling like you’ve been emotionally beaten with a rubber hose (which is how I feel after the typical Hollywood tearjerker.) This sort of film almost makes me want to move to Japan—but I’m too dumb to learn foreign languages. My brain is wired for visual images, a trait that seems . . . well, sort of Japanese.

Moonlight (U.S.) 3.6  I didn’t like this quite as much as I expected, given the reviews, but on the other hand I found it more likable than I expected. Easier to watch.

The Wasted Times (Chinese) 3.5 This was panned by the critics, and there are certainly flaws. But I enjoyed the film, which was strikingly shot. Zhang Ziyi was superb, and still looks quite young. The director is much better at creating individual scenes than an overall coherent film.

Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia) 3.5 Engrossing Amazon adventure story, influenced by Apocalypse Now, 2001 A Space Odyssey, etc.

Love and Friendship (US/British) 3.5 I’m not the biggest Jane Austin fan (stories about society go over my head), but Whit Stillman did a very nice job with this lesser known novella.

City of Gold (US) 3.4 A very enjoyable documentary about the food critic for the LA Times, who ends up carrying the film.

Only Yesterday. (Japan) 3.4 An animated film from 1991 that was finally released in the US.

Hieronymus Bosch, Touched By the Devil (Dutch) 3.4 Interesting documentary about a painter that is hard to see in real life, especially the all-important tiny details. For that alone the film was worthwhile. I’m not sure if Bosch is viewed as a surrealist, but if he is then he is surely the greatest painter in that genre.

Stage Sisters (China) 3.4 A beautifully restored print of a classic Chinese film from 1964. Interesting as a historical document, and for what it (implicitly) tells us about the Cultural Revolution that followed (when the film was banned.)

Tianyun Mountain (China) 3.4 A 1980 film by the same director as Stage Sisters. As a pair, they form a fascinating history of China from the 1930s to 1980. From turmoil to a happy (revolutionary) ending in the first film, and then from the happy post-revolution period to the nightmares of 1958-76, to a somber recovery in the second film.

Kaili Blues (China) 3.3 The first film made by a director from the Miao minority in China. It brought back pleasant memories of my trip through China in 1994, and it showed a lot of technical sophistication. But in the end it seemed a bit too similar to other “art films” made by East Asian directors (and also Sokurov.) Still it showed a lot of promise and I look forward to the director’s next film.

Night Train to Munich (Britain, 1940) 3.3 An enjoyable Carol Reed film that is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes”. Made before WWII got really serious, and it shows.

The Fall of the House of Usher (French) 3.3 A 1927 silent film by Epstein, shown with a shorter film.

Killer’s Kiss/Fear of Desire. (US) 3.3 Kubrick’s first two films, and the only ones I had never seen before.

Dying of the Light/Out of Print (US) 3.2 Two documentaries on the sad decline of film, which is rapidly being replaced by digital.

Francofonia (Russian/French) 3.2 A documentary on the Louvre, by the Russian director Sokurov. The documentary actually had relatively little to say about the Louvre itself, and instead focused on the collaboration between a German officer and the director of the Louvre, in trying to save French art during WWII. In the end the film was too ambitious, trying to do too many things, but Sokurov is always worth watching.

Manchester-by-the-Sea (US) 3.2 I’m not a big fan of this sort of Hollywood actor-driven film, but I do like Casey Affleck, and enjoyed seeing places that I’m familiar with visiting.

Hail Caesar! (US) 3.1 Scene by scene it was well directed, but somehow fell flat. The Coen brothers need to think about what made their early films so successful.

Jason Bourne (US) 3.0   Skillfully directed, but by now I’ve lost interest in the plot. Too many ridiculous car chases. The first Bourne film was a sort of breakthrough, which influenced the Bond series. They should have quit while they were ahead. Still a reasonably suspenseful 2 hours—not a bad film.

Café Society (US) 3.0   Scene by scene it was well directed, but somehow fell flat. Woody Allen needs to think about what made his early films so successful.

Searching for Mr. Right, Pt. 2 (China) 3.0 Thank God it had nothing to do with Pt. 1, which I missed! A Chinese romcom that was sort of entertaining, and sort of interesting in a sociological sense (which is often the case with Chinese films, given the pace of cultural change). As is often the case, lots of the puns were lost in translation. After speaking with my wife, I realized the film was actually much wittier than it seemed to this westerner.

Miss Hokusai (Japan) 2.7 Watching this uninspired animated film just made me want to look at Hokusai art instead.

The Crimson Kimono (US, 1959) 1.5 A film noir with an awful screenplay and wooden acting. I guess the interracial romance was considered shocking in 1959, and they didn’t see a need to do anything more.

Mermaid (Chinese) 1.5 I missed a lot of the humor, which involved hard to translate Chinese puns. But even so, I doubt I would have liked it.

Seijun Suzuki Festival:

Gates of Flesh (Japan, 1964) 3.7 I’m stunned that Japan was making films like this in 1964. Hollywood? Not so much, even today.

Ziguernerweisen (Japan, 1980) 3.7   Voted best Japanese film of the 1980s, by the Japanese film critics. Makes Taisho era Japan seem mysterious and seductive.

Branded to Kill (Japan, 1967) 3.6 Finally, a cult movie worthy of the name. Imagine if Tarantino and a French New Wave director had collaborated on a black and white 1967 Japanese film about hired killers.

Story of a Prostitute (Japan, 1965) 3.5 Same actress as Gates of Flesh, and equally riveting performance. Sukuzi has a great eye.

Carmen From Kawachi (Japan, 1966) 3.4  The final film in his “flesh trilogy” about prostitutes with a passion for life.

Pistol Opera (Japan, 2001) 3.4 Hard to make sense of, but it contains some great visual images.

Kagero-Za (Japan, 1981) 3.4 The second film in the Taisho trilogy. Also very mysterious, but I was tired when I saw this, and 140 minutes is a long time when there’s no clear plot. I hope to see it again.

Tokyo Drifter (Japan, 1966)  3.4  A breakthrough film in terms of style.

Tales of Sadness and Sorrow (Japan, 1977) 3.1 Kind of disappointing compared to other Suzuki films, but still somewhat interesting.

Favorite comment of the year (by Anon/portly).  Great Radiohead and Bjork recommendations.

PS.  Quietus named this CD by Arabrot the best album of the year.  It’s good!  So why are there zero reviews on Amazon?  I also listened to a lot of Steve Earle this year.

Poster for Branded to Kill:

Screen Shot 2017-02-12 at 10.44.31 AM


American pickers

Back before 2009 I still had a life. One feature of my earlier life was an interest in collectables.  When I was younger I was fortunate to meet a lot of eccentric people who had an obsession with collectables such as antiques (broadly defined). Even after coming to Boston, I would go to the Brimfield, MA antique show about once a year, where about 5000 sellers congregate in large fields just west of Boston. When you luck out, this activity offers the thrill of a treasure hunt.

I wonder if non-collectors have any idea just how big this subculture is.  The activities are mostly unreported, but if correctly measured would surely be a non-trivial share of GDP. It’s hard for me to tell just how large, as I probably know an above average number of obsessive collectors.  (I used to rent out my attic apartment to one.) These people basically devote all of their discretionary income to amassing a large collection of stuff.

There was a line in a French movie that always stuck with me.  A Frenchman with unusually good taste would travel around the countryside looking for undiscovered artists.  One day he bought a few paintings from an unknown artist with Cezanne-like talent.  His friend complimented him; pointing out how much money he could make selling these paintings.  He responded something to the effect “I don’t collect to sell. I sell to collect.” That reminds me of some of the obsessive collectors that I’ve known throughout my life.

There is a show on the History Channel called “American Pickers”, which follows two fanatic (but lovable) collectors as they travel America’s “Blue Highways”, looking for treasure to buy.  (One man’s junk is . . . . )  Tonight’s episode (9pm eastern time) is called “Catch-32” and features two segments.  The second segment involves these two guys visiting my brother, who lives in Wisconsin.  (You may recall that a few years ago I posted a picture of a dragon that is right in front on my brother’s house, which he and his partner created.  Mark lives in an old brick building that used to be an auto dealership in the early 1900s.  The inside of his “house” is full of interesting antiques, although not necessarily the sort of antiques you’d see in an elegant shop on 5th Avenue. Check out the episode if you have a chance, I certainly plan to.  (It will also be rerun quite often.)

There are days I wake up wishing I had his life. (I wonder if he occasionally feels the same way.)

PS.  I suspect that many academics don’t know anything about this subculture.  For instance, I read professors saying that we don’t need cash any longer; it’s only of use to criminals.  But I can’t imagine going to Brimfield without a wad of Benjamins in my pocket.  Serious collectors carry far more cash than I do, in case they find a diamond in the rough and the seller isn’t taking checks.

PPS.  I have a new post on monetary policy denialism over at Econlog.

PPPS.  Many years ago I was with my brother when he found this old barber’s chair from 1887:

Screen Shot 2017-01-16 at 11.52.37 AMLater he restored it, and gave it to me as a gift.  Here it is today:

Screen Shot 2017-01-16 at 12.04.48 PM

There are two kinds of people in the world; those who can recognize nickel plating, and those who cannot.