December 8th, 2013

Circus Maximus

ABMB

It has been clear for a while now that we as a culture have embraced celebritism as a most essential element and vehicle of success. We chase, photograph, Tweet, talk about, and otherwise fixate on people who in many cases are famous just for being famous. Even worse, we give nearly unlimited veneration to people who pretend their life experience confers expertise and has relevance and value in any sphere in which they choose to dabble. The culture of celebritism risks taking over and toppling the culture of expertism, and much else along with it—all supported by a commercial model from which very few of us benefit.

Thus at the recent Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB), one of the highlight events was rapper Kanye West taking center stage to discuss design with a famous architect, under the auspices of a famous curator. Yes, West says he was an artist as a young(er) man, but still: there is a difference between having an interest in architecture and being an architect or a critic prepared to attack or defend from a position of knowledge. Might Mr. West have interesting views or perspectives? Sure. But alas, what validates them is his celebrity as a rapper, which hardly seems like the right credentializing process. Gone, it seems, is even the vague glimmer of skepticism that followed U2’s lead singer Bono when he began exploring global economic issues more than a decade ago. Bono, meanwhile, has proven himself a terrific student of the subject, having invested copious time in the hard work of learning. So far, the evidence of similar behavior by Mr. West seems thin; it is more about grandstanding than impact.

I’m not here to criticize Mr. West, however. It’s hardly his fault that the rest of us are so willing to submit ourselves to such silliness. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…

After a visit to ABMB this week, I cannot help but be more than a little depressed at the circus that it was–and the way the social imperatives overwhelmed everything else. Walking around, people seemed consistently more interested in the see-and-be-scene and celebrity sighting aspects than in the art. What could encapsulate the absurdity of that better than the story of Jeffrey Deitch apparently mistaking Sean “Diddy” Combs for Kanye West?

If ABMB and all of the attending brouhaha helps living, working artists sell art, then it is worth it. Free markets can be terrific, and this is no less true for artists than anyone else. I begrudge no artist the opportunity to sell their work for the best possible price, and gallerists or dealers make sense as supporting partners for these transactions. Moreover, the marketplace is a common point of entry for emerging artists seeking recognition: galleries present their work, patrons buy it, and word spreads. But it is a bit hard to believe this is really the case here, let alone to take ABMB seriously as a process. Walking around this and other fairs certainly does not suggest a culture of serious art engagement. Instead it feels like a fixation with fashionable art names—and fashionable prices—that is not much different in practice from our veneration of celebrities.

Some aspects of celebritism are unavoidable at a macro level; it might just be who we are as a species. Look back in The New York Times archives and a story from November 29, 1877 about a reception for 3,000 people at the Metropolitan Museum of Art hits the A List names as close to the start as just the third sentence. It’s a question of balance and proportion. Right now what we have is imbalance and disproportion, not just in the world of art and design but in almost every sector of society. The Kardashians and their ilk get as much attention even as celebrity business leaders, despite the fact that the business leaders actually run organizations that create new products and add value to our lives in concrete ways. Google’s Trends tool even bears that out; it took Steve Jobs dying for him to break through to the level of global chatter aroused by Kim Kardashian.

Kardashian_Musk_Jobs

Interestingly, Times coverage for the granddaddy of ABMB, the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art (also known as the Armory Show), had reportage focused more on the artists on display than the attendees who came to see it. That seems a shocking and rare example of an ancient restraint, but then, there were fewer Kim Kardashian types in 1913—and fewer rapid-fire outlets to promote and glorify them. Yet that restraint is exactly what is needed all over again. We need to resist this imbalance, this misalignment between celebritism and expertism, and work towards a stronger focus on quality and depth of knowledge, and an appreciation for creativity, innovation, and inspiration that is not confused with simple and often undeserved notoriety.

October 14th, 2013

Algorithms

I am fascinated by algorithms. How can one not be fascinated by them? We live increasingly in a world driven by algorithms and defined by them, from the news stories that are “recommended” to us, to the movies/music/books we might like based on some mutual selections of others (whether those people are known to us or not), down to what washing machines or shoes could be right for us, again based on our own history of choices and those of others.

We also cannot forget social connections: the people we should like (virtually) or know (theoretically) again based on the massive, algorithmic mapping of our utterances (Twitter) or existing networks of friends (Facebook). Even this description is an oversimplification; much has been written about Google’s propensity for “guessing” what we are looking for, based on just the first few letters of a search query.

All of this matters, no question. We should be concerned, if not exactly afraid: along with the algorithms go massive amounts of data that power them, all of it data about us. I am concerned, and I do care, and consider myself to have taken a mid-level precautions. My browser’s “do not track” feature is enabled, and it is also set to reject third-party cookies. I’m running Disconnect.me and AdBlockPlus, along with Flashblock (great for controlling what Flash content loads on a page). And I have various other security tools installed, too. All of this tries to balance the desirability of some algorithmic knowing-ness with too much invasion of privacy.

Blah, blah, blah.

The fact is that all these algorithmic systems are deeply flawed. For all the data, for all the computer processing power, for all the back-end and front-end systems, they still make mistakes or create connections that can only look humorous to an actual human brain. Over the last year, I have been collecting some of these–let’s call them creative connections. A sampling of them is displayed below. And if you don’t find them as obviously funny as I do, well: that may also speak to the capacity for differences between human well beyond the mere bits and bytes of computerized logic.

April 25th, 2013

Conservation Hobgoblins

Taking steps that reduce the negative impact each of us has on the earth–being environmentally sensitive–is unambiguously good. While some of us are surely more virtuous than others (as in most things), I often feel as though the questions and answers around environmental sensitivity are not as clear-cut as all that. Getting into discussions about it (such as with my mother) pulls out the Hobgoblins of Logic and makes me wish that some combination of environmentalists, scientists, economists, and database engineers (I’m looking at you, Wolfram|Alpha) would get together a create a computational database to help resolve certain tricky questions.

What are those tricky questions? Well, here are a few, divided by category:

Power conservation:

If you live in Texas, Ohio, Indiana or Pennsylvania, is a plug-in electric car worse for the environment than a hybrid-electric model that charges its battery from a gas-powered engine? Those four states are among the top users of coal for electricity generation–and the emissions from coal are worse than those from gasoline. (North Carolina and Georgia should also be on this list, since two of the three largest coal-powered power plants are in those two states.) So perhaps it is better not to increase electricity demands in those states by charging your “clean”, “zero emissions” vehicle with coal-powered electricity?

Meanwhile, all those electric cars use special lithium ion batteries. Those are technically recyclable… but the costs (and energy) involved seem disproportionate to the value, which means it’s less likely to happen. So the question is: if you buy a hybrid or all-electric car, but use it in ways that diminish the life of the battery (such as letting the car sit unused for extended periods of time), is it still better for the environment? Is a 50% reduction in battery life a fair trade-off for burning fewer fossil fuels?

And speaking of transportation challenges: The “locavore” movement sure does sound appealing. And for a city slicker it’s especially appealing, because the idea that one can get fresh food from farms just a short distance away, well: this has to be better, right? Better food, better for the environment? Except that there’s all these arguments and some evidence showing that maybe that isn’t true: that an old farm using an old (less fuel-efficient, less efficiently-packed) truck coming from traffic-congested nearby areas might use more energy than a modern transportation network that ships food by plane or train long distances with great efficiency. So, which is it, local or not? And how are we supposed to know, product by product?

Water conservation:

If you live in the water-deprived Southwestern United States, and you go to the grocery store, is it better to buy the bags of greens that have been pre-washed or the greens you bring home and wash yourselves? Assuming the plastic levels are equal (since you would likely bag your unwashed greens before taking them home), what is the environmental impact difference, factoring in water and power usage?

A variant of this question is relevant here in the water-plentiful New York. Last year, some of the greens and other vegetables we received from the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group to which we belonged were so fresh-from-the-farm dirty that it took significant time under the sink to clean them. (The CSA in this case is a group that buys organic produce from some farms in Long Island; those farms bring their goods directly to a central distribution point in the neighborhood.) Is it generally better to buy these vegetables even if it takes more water to wash them, then to buy the more industrially produced organic–but pre-washed–greens at the grocery?

We are devoted to reusable containers for food storage. We buy good quality ones that can be reused many, many times, and we rarely microwave them (so they tend to last longer). So even though it seems more virtuous to use these than, say, a ziploc bag … can I take it for granted that the water required to wash them is a better use of resources than throwing out the bag? And what kind of recycling processes do we need to have in place before that equation may not be true?

Pesticides, etc.:

It’s easy to scare the bejeezus out of people about pesticides in food. (“Thanks,” Environmental Working Group!) How about telling us more info about the pesticide residues? If I peel the apple, does that get rid of it? If the strawberries are well-washed, does that get rid of it? Or are we talking about leached-into-the-food residue here? How would you balance the organics-cost-more vs. needing-to-feed-a-family dynamic?

Let’s assume that money is actually an issue. If buying organic groceries reduces my available funds for charitable donations by 15%–charity that might be given to help the hungry–is this still worth the trade-off? That is, is the environmental impact of organic produce so powerful that it can have that kind of offset?

I could probably go on. (And on.) Is the question about charitable gifts a red herring? Possibly. But overall these are very real problems–for which we are mostly unequipped to come up with genuinely logical answers. If environmentalism is to succeed–I mean, to really succeed in reshaping behavior in the modern world–someone is going to have to tackle these and other questions, probably state by state and city by city, neighborhood by neighborhood. Personalized environmental audits: the wave of the future.

April 18th, 2013

Arts & Elitism

There was an article in the New York Times on April 14th titled “Is It Art, or Is It Just Real Estate?” But the URL for the article reveals a slightly different view of the content: after the NYT’s domain name, and the relevant date and section folders, comes “the-importance-of-art-in-high-end-condo-developments.html”. That seems a more accurate summary.

Let us not make too much of the possible conflict between reporters, headline writers, and web coders, interesting though that is. Instead, I think it is important for those of us working in the arts (and especially in arts communications) to be aware of the implicit messages this article and others like it may convey to different audiences, and how we can learn from it.

So art is being used to sell very expensive condominium apartments. Who cares? There is nothing surprising about this: art has been used as a symbol of wealth and status for hundreds of years. Real estate developers can afford and surely crave being seen as “elite,” and art can be one component of that. The danger is when that message starts to carry over to perceptions of arts organizations–to how people view non-profit institutions dedicated to serving the public by presenting art.

Which leads to one simple, fundamental question: Is it ok for an arts organization to be seen as “elite”? Maybe.

If an organization can own the use of “elite” and apply it to the arts, to convey that what it has to offer is of the highest quality, that’s great. If the label “elite” evokes for people that the experience they will have at an institution is a great one, that’s terrific too. Quality surely matters to audiences, which is why (despite other institutional considerations and concerns) blockbuster exhibitions of famous art and artists tend to do well, even with admission fees attached. People want to see great art and they understand when this is what is being offered.

On the other hand, if that sense of elitism makes people perceive that an institution is really only catering to the interests of the wealthy, that’s bad. (Isn’t that self-evident?) And if people draw a connection between an institution being “elite” and and limitations on accessibility–essentially, that one must be wealthy to have access to an institution’s art experiences–that is worse.

Few institutions can afford (literally and figuratively) to carry the wrong badge of elitism, and this is an area of constant tension. Certainly an organization should celebrate those whose support, financial and otherwise, helps ensure its ability to operate. Philanthropy has been fundamental to the success and health of America’s arts institutions; if that philanthropy comes from those who sell real estate, or art, or both, that’s fine. Celebrate the right kind of elitism, the kind that encourages participation, and marry that to a commitment to accessibility, and your audiences will know and should respond in kind.