The Attack on Public Art

With all the attention to Confederate Monuments, I was wondering about what the recent hostilities in Charlottesville might say about the state of public art in the United States.

For instance, Nicole Martinez wrote positively about public art displays as recently as May:

If you walked past one of the Garment District plazas in New York City last fall, you may have noticed those giant, vibrantly colored animal sculptures towering over sidewalk diners at café tables. Or perhaps you were running to catch a plane at Miami International Airport, and you glanced up to see an intricate web of etched glass on the roof of the bustling transportation center. If you’re an artist, you might be wondering how you might land an opportunity to showcase your work in a public space and land a public art commission – and while the process can be long and arduous, there are a variety of opportunities to participate in public art programs across the country.

Public art programs were first launched in the United States in the 1930s, when President Roosevelt’s New Deal spurred the idea that Americans should take pride in their cultural treasures. The New Deal program Art-in-Architecture (A-i-A) developed percent for art programs, a structure for funding public art still utilized today. This program gave one half of one percent of total construction costs of all government buildings to purchase contemporary American art for that structure. Today, acquisitions also include specially commissioned art projects for public art spaces, and the percentage allocated from a new construction project typically varies from one-half to two percent.

You might think that public art is a positive aspect of American society.

The Association for Public Art admits that some pieces might receive support from the entire community but that should not stop funding and recognition:

In a diverse society, all art cannot appeal to all people, nor should it be expected to do so. Art attracts attention; that is what it is supposed to do. Is it any wonder, then, that public art causes controversy? Varied popular opinion is inevitable, and it is a healthy sign that the public environment is acknowledged rather than ignored. To some degree, every public art project is an interactive process involving artists, architects, design professionals, community residents, civic leaders, politicians, approval agencies, funding agencies, and construction teams. The challenge of this communal process is to enhance rather than limit the artist’s involvement.

For that reason, Martinez advises caution to artists:

Ultimately, artists interested in landing public art commissions should pay close attention to government agency websites in an effort to keep track of open calls for public art commissions. If you choose to apply, consider crafting a proposal that directly addresses the architectural components of the space, bearing in mind the agency’s budget constraints and your own ability to stick to the budget you’ve laid out. And while its true that a public art project may not be the most lucrative commission of your artistic career, its lasting influence will likely impact it for years to come.

Obviously, she wasn’t thinking about changing historical awareness.

Consequently, to keep up with the times, Americans for the Arts decided to create distance between their support for public art and the kinds of public displays that have drawn ire recently:

“For nearly 60 years, Americans for the Arts, with its member organizations, has been a fierce advocate for public art and how it can help transform, inspire, and educate communities. Americans for the Arts stands with community members who are coming together to have civil and just dialogues, and to meaningfully and honestly assess the value of their existing public art pieces, monuments, and memorials in telling the narratives that their communities desire and deserve today. Americans for the Arts stands in opposition to any form of violence, intimidation, or illegal activity that cuts short such community dialogue.

“We support ongoing community dialogue around truth, reconciliation, and removal and replacement of the various artistic and cultural vestiges of white supremacy and racism in the United States, and the installation of monuments commemorating narratives of emancipation, shared strength, and equity. We recommend that local arts agencies and other arts institutions join these dialogues in concert with affected communities.

“Americans for the Arts strongly supports diversity, equity, and inclusion, and stands against racism, bigotry, and hatred. To support a full creative life for all, we commit to championing policies and practices of cultural equity that empower a just, inclusive, equitable nation.”

Sixty years for public arts. Four days against white supremacy and racism. You do the math.

Pope Angelo

First, he condemned Joe Paterno to hell.

Now, Angelo Cataldi opens the pearly gates for Darren Daulton, the Phillies catcher who succumbed to brain cancer yesterday. On this morning’s show, Angelo told one caller whose mom, now deceased, had a crush on the sexiest MLB player of the 1990s, that she now had the chance to meet Dutch since both the mom and the catcher were in heaven.

I initially thought that Angelo was going beyond the creed of Therapeutic Moralistic Deism. Maybe this was a holdover from his pre-Vatican II upbringing in the archdiocese of Providence, Rhodes Island. Surely the idea of heaven and hell — eternal rewards and punishments — was harshing out his listener’s buzz of learning about car insurance discounts and dancers at “gentlemen”‘s clubs. But sure enough, heaven is part of Therapeutic Moralistic Deism’s creed:

God is a cosmic therapist and divine butler, ready to help out when needed. He exists but really isn’t a part of our lives. We are supposed to be “good people,” but each person must find what’s right for him or her. Good people will go to heaven, and we shouldn’t be stifled by organized religion where somebody tells us what we should do or what we should believe.

Mind you, Angelo should not speculate on Daulton’s eternal fate. It’s not what sports-talk-radio-hosts should do. But if Angelo is going to create a moral spread sheet on every sports figure in Philadelphia, can he himself really stand in that great day?

How Did Nancy MacLean Miss Calvinism?

The Duke historian’s book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America has generated lots of attention and the debate appears to be one more indication of how much the United States resembles Turkey. For those who missed it, here is how the story at the Chronicle summarized the book:

At the heart of this purported plot is a Nobel-winning economist whose ideas MacLean characterizes as “diabolical” and “wicked”: James McGill Buchanan. Buchanan, a libertarian who taught at George Mason University and died in 2013, developed a novel way of analyzing government that would have far-reaching consequences for democracy, MacLean argues. In his view, self-interest dictated the behavior of public officials and those who tried to influence them. The incentives that shaped officials’ actions — winning re-election, expanding their bureaucratic turf — encouraged profligate government spending at the expense of a minority of taxpayers. This violated the taxpayers’ freedom and burdened the economy.

In MacLean’s telling, Buchanan was both an intellectual and a “deeply political foot soldier of the right.” Over time, she says, he came to believe that the best way to bring about radical change was to focus on the rules, not the rulers. Freedom would flourish only by imposing legal and constitutional shackles that prevented public officials from responding to the will of democratic majorities. In the late 1990s, MacLean writes, a like-minded billionaire, Charles Koch, seized on Buchanan’s ideas as a “personal operational strategy” for his campaign to “save capitalism from democracy — permanently.” Because most Americans didn’t support their ideas, that strategy required stealth: small, piecemeal moves that could win approval without provoking an outcry.

This is one more instance where I marvel at professionals who work in privileged and hierarchical environments like universities with tenure and ranks become indignant defenders of democracy. As if any senior professor would submit to democratic rule at his or her institution — let the students, groundskeepers, and athletic trainers in on running the university.

But I do wonder if MacLean might have made her story even juicier if she had thrown in that Buchanan (sort of a Presbyterian name, no?) was part of a sinister plot of Calvinists to control America. After all, the way Sam Tanenhaus describes Buchanan’s contribution sure sounds like the economist knew the fall infected politics:

Yet race, MacLean acknowledges, was not ultimately a major issue for Buchanan. Fending off desegregation was only a skirmish in the long campaign to revive antigovernment ideas. That campaign dated back to the nation’s founding, gained new strength in the pre–Civil War nullification arguments of John Calhoun, and reached its modern apogee in debates over taxes and spending. Here the enemies were unions (“the labor monopoly movement,” in Buchanan’s phrase), leftish policy makers, and also Keynesian economists. Together these formed a “ruling class” that was waging war against the marketplace. This was not a new argument, but Buchanan gave it fresh rigor in his theory of “public choice,” set forth in his pioneering book, The Calculus of Consent (1962), written with Gordon Tullock. Governments, they argued, were being assessed in the wrong way. The error was a legacy of New Deal thinking, which glorified elected officials and career bureaucrats as disinterested servants of the public good, despite the obvious coercive effects of the programs they put into place. Why not instead see politicians and government administrators as self-interested players in the marketplace, trying to “maximize their utility”—that is, win the next election or enlarge their department’s budget?

Real Calvinists don’t believe in public good and reach for their two-edged sword whenever a public servant serving servers invokes such immodest language.

Talk Radio Matters Now More than Eh-vuh

Rush Limbaugh is a big fat idiot, so says one of the U.S. Senators (has Ben Sasse got a book for him). Rush is also sometimes funny, but mainly annoying, grating, predictable, and verbose. Whenever the missus hears Rush (and she’s a captive audience on road trips), she cannot believe how long he takes to say something basically simple.

Rush also over exegetes the stuffings out of most statements, votes, or policy proposals. If it’s from the left, he will find the tell-tale signs of liberal excess. If from the right, he’ll detect all the virtues of liberty and the American way.

The reason for bringing up Rush is that Donald Trump has turned the non-talk radio media into Rush. The latest example comes from reactions to the President’s speech in Poland where he defended the West and its civilization. The speech and its responses are well in the rear view mirror thanks to Donald Jr., but the hyperventilated reaction from the normally mild and decent James Fallows should not be missed.

Robert Merry picked up on the Nazi slur that Fallows attached to Trump’s use of the word, “will”:

…he truly reveals himself in savaging Trump’s suggestion that the West must muster “the will to survive.” Aha! Fallows clearly thinks he has nailed it here. This, he informs us, was a not-too-subtle reference to Leni Reifenstahl’s famous Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. Fallows speculates that Trump’s speechwriters (including Bannon) certainly knew of Riefenstahl and probably understood “how it would sound, in a Europe that also remembers connotations of national ‘will,’ to have an American president say this.”

Is it really still necessary, some 80 years later, to forswear any use of the word “will” in discussing politics or geopolitics because of this German film? And, if someone uses the term, is that prima facie evidence of fascistic tendencies?

Fallows not only sneered over “will” but also over Trump’s using “blood”:

Trump gave grace-note nods to goals of liberty and free expression. Mainly, though, he spoke not about an expanded us but instead about us and them. He spoke repeatedly about our “heritage,” our “blood,” our “civilization,” our “ancestors” and “families,” our “will” and “way of life.” Every one of these of course has perfectly noble connotations. But combined and in practice, they amount to the way the Japanese nationalists of the early 20th century onward spoke, about the purity of “we Japanese” and the need to stick together as a tribe. They were the way Mussolini spoke, glorifying the Roman heritage—but again in a tribal sense, to elevate 20th century Italians as a group, rather than in John F. Kennedy’s allusion to a system of rules that could include outsiders as civis romanus as well. They are the way French nationalists supporting Marine LePen speak now, and Nigel Farage’s pro-Brexit forces in the U.K., and “alt-right” activists in the United States, and of course the Breitbart empire under presidential counselor Steve Bannon. They rest on basic distinctions between us and them as peoples—that is, as tribes—rather than as the contending ideas and systems that presidents from our first to our 44th had emphasized.

Blood is code for the European right where bloodlines, acreage, throne, and altar are supposed to matter. (This paragraph with its isolation of quoted words from the context of sentences and paragraphs actually reminded me of the specifications of charges against a minister in the OPC we heard at GA, but I digress.) But here is how the president actually used the word blood (and only 4 times):

In the summer of 1944, the Nazi and Soviet armies were preparing for a terrible and bloody battle right here in Warsaw. . . .

They ran across that street, they ran through that street, they ran under that street — all to defend this city. “The far side was several yards away,” recalled one young Polish woman named Greta. That mortality and that life was so important to her. In fact, she said, “The mortally dangerous sector of the street was soaked in the blood. It was the blood of messengers, liaison girls, and couriers.” . . .

Those heroes remind us that the West was saved with the blood of patriots; that each generation must rise up and play their part in its defense — (applause) — and that every foot of ground, and every last inch of civilization, is worth defending with your life.

So in all, President Trump said “bloody” in reference to a battle, quoted a Polish woman who used “blood” to describe a scene, and spoke of the “blood” shed by soldiers who died in combat. That last reference had no explicit link to white people since Caucasians, Africans, Asians, and Hispanics lost their lives fighting in U.S. Armed forces.

Talk about overreach. Talk about the mainstream press sounding like Rush and Sean.

And oh by the way, what was the point of doing away with Western Civ courses back in the 1980s when Jesse Jackson chanted, “Hey Hey Ho Ho (Don Imus anyone?) Western Civ has got to go”? The rationale was all about blood. The old canon had all white men whose blood had stopped circulating. The curriculum needed new blood — women, blacks, Asians. That’s a lot of genetic material going on in the selection of reading assignments. But don’t let that get in the way of likening Donald Trump to a eugenics promoting nativist.

At least, like H. L. Mencken said, what a show.

When Did Philadelphia Turn into San Diego?

I was in the nation’s original capital yesterday and saw this at 22nd and Walnut:

It replaces this:

Which makes me think this has a point:

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, a generous tax abatement program—combined with flawed preservation policies—changed the landscape of Center City and its surrounding neighborhoods. During the past decade, the city experienced a demolition bonanza. In neighborhoods of historic housing like Powelton Village, developers “have discovered they can make a tidy sum simply by replacing one of these old houses with a stucco-clad apartment building and then cramming it with students,” observed the Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic, Inga Saffron.

Preservationists have protested how Philadelphia’s demolition permits are approved. In the past year, two historic structures were razed for projects that never materialized. Currently, the preservation fight is focused on Center City’s Jeweler’s Row, a charming set of commercial properties on a block laid out in 1799. The historic storefronts, slated for demolition, would be replaced by a massive condo tower. Ill-advised demolition projects continue throughout Philadelphia, its future depending on an influx, however temporary, of millennials and students.

Why does it take regulative-principle toting confessional Presbyterians, not urban hipster pastors, to notice?

Isn’t the Point of Social Media to Attract Followers?

So why is it that some tweeters choose to block followers? If you want to have a private conversation on social media I believe we still have email, discussion list-serves, and even password protected blogs. But if you are in the business of trying to enlighten as many as possible about how unjust U.S. society is, why do you cut off someone from hearing what you tweet and link?

I mean, not even Johnny Eric Williams was all that careful about his social media profile (Greg and those like consider this a trigger warning):

Williams’s case has attracted the interest of academic freedom and free speech advocates, partly because the sociologist is among a number of other scholars who have been physically threatened or harassed online in recent months for their public comments. Most of those comments concerned race in some way.

Williams last week shared an article from Medium called “Let Them Fucking Die.” The piece argues that “indifference to their well-being is the only thing that terrifies” bigots, and so people of color should “Let. Them. Fucking. Die” if they’re ever in peril. The Medium piece linked to another Fusion piece about Republican Representative Steve Scalise, who was shot earlier this month in Alexandria, Va. It says Scalise has previously opposed extending protections to LGBTQ people and reportedly once spoke at a meeting of white supremacists, while one of the black law enforcement officers who rescued him is a married lesbian.

In sharing the Medium piece, Williams used the “Let them fucking die” comment as a hashtag, and wrote that it is “past time for the racially oppressed to do what people who believe themselves to be ‘white’ will not do, put end to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system.”

That post and a similar one prompted critical reports on conservative websites suggesting Williams was advocating violence against white people.

“Less than one week after a gunman opened fire on more than a dozen Republican members of Congress on a Virginia baseball field, a Connecticut college professor said that first responders to the shooting should have ‘let them die’ because they are white,” The Blaze reported, for example.

Williams has since apologized for his remarks and said he was not advocating violence against whites, only drawing attention to systemic racism.

Maybe this is a case where you want to block those who may disagree. But what fun is it to be provocative with those already #provake?

Do Poets Write Verse this Good?

Do you remember a fragrance girls acquire in autumn? As you walk beside them after school, they tighten their arms about their books and bend their heads forward to give a more flattering attention to your words, and in the little intimate area thus formed, carved into the clear air by an implicit crescent, there is a complex fragrance woven of tobacco, powder, lipstick, rinsed hair, and that perhaps imaginary and certainly elusive scent that wool, whether in the lapels of a jacket or the nap of a sweater, seems to yield when the cloudless fall sky, like the blue bell of a vacuum, lifts toward itself the glad exhalations of all things. This fragrance, so faint and flirtatious on those afternoon walks through the dry leaves, would be banked a thousandfold on the dark slope of the stadium when, Friday nights, we played football in the city. (John Updike, “In Football Season” from Olinger Stories)

Rating Professors is Arbitrary

So warns Jacques Berlinerblau:

Professorial prestige, I contend, is an awfully arbitrary thing.

Among professors, where one works is a marker of status. Thus, the assistant professor employed by an Ivy League college accrues greater glory than her counterpart at a midsize regional university. The latter, in turn, is more esteemed than an assistant professor laboring at some far-flung small liberal-arts college. The same hierarchies prevail, I guess, among high-school seniors comparing their college-acceptance letters as they hotbox their parents’ Toyota Priuses.

The juveniles and, distressingly, the professors are just following the logic of popular college-ranking systems. They are assuming that the greater the renown of an institution as measured by U.S. News & World Report, the greater will be the quantity and quality of research produced by scholars in its employ. Is this assumption accurate?

If it were, it would follow that an assistant professor in anthropology at Princeton University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 1) publishes more and better work than her exact counterpart at the University of Southern California (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 23). The USC savant, in turn, outperforms the identically ranked anthropologist at Clark University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 75). The Clark ethnographer has a heftier CV than a comparable scholar employed at Oklahoma State University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 149). The better the institution, the better the research its tenure-line professors produce. Right?

Well, practice has a habit of trolling theory. Let’s imagine an experiment. All four of our hypothetical tenure-track anthropologists are asked to submit an updated CV and all of their relevant publications. Upon their arrival, these materials are scrubbed of any identifying markers. The anonymous files are then forwarded to a panel of experienced academicians, no-nonsense types who understand how the game is played. Their task: Figure out which CV corresponds to which sage employed at colleges ranked 1, 23, 75, and 149.

Our arbiters, I’m convinced, would fail this blind test. They would fail even if we asked them not to look at mere quantity of publications but quality as well. That’s because the contestants would all look puzzlingly similar. The judges might assume that the assistant professor at Clark worked at Southern California. And, yes, it is not unthinkable that they would place the Oklahoma State ethnographer in New Jersey. The problem is not that the Princeton person is a slouch. The problem is that all four are publishing a lot and all are very impressive on paper. Ergo, it would be impossible for the judges to distinguish between scholarly Coke and Pepsi.

Does this apply to New York City pastors?

What about U.S. Senators?

What about platforms makes an author more of an authority than another author?

What I Learned about My Brother

Today is his birthday and he shares it with Bob Dylan.

Of course, Dylan is better known than Don Hart. But they share the same birthday and they are both musicians. Talk about harmonic — see what I did there? — convergence.

But Don Hart is way better know than IiiiiiiiiiIIIIIIII.

America First as NIMBY for the Nation

Old neighbors in Philadelphia are objecting to a business that is expanding its hours and footprint:

Past residents of Chestnut Hill, through great effort, created a vision for the neighborhood. We owe them a great debt and we believe that we have a duty to be just as vigilant and visionary as our forebears.

Nearly 40 years ago, under the auspices of the Chestnut Hill Community Association, and well covered by this newspaper, a covenant was hammered out between the owners of the Chestnut Hill Hotel and its near neighbors on Ardleigh Street. This was no easy task. It took the efforts of hundreds of Chestnut Hill residents, city politicians, and the CHCA. The covenant runs in perpetuity with the property.

Such covenants are extremely important and should not be discarded or ignored in a willy-nilly fashion. Certainly, any attempt to supersede or challenge the covenant should be presented and discussed with the parties involved. Such was never done with the neighbors on Ardleigh Street. Only the heavy construction work we heard coming over the fence in the dead of night alerted us that something was happening. Now we are faced with a fait accompli, and our only recourse seems to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees to have our living covenant recognized. How is this at all neighborly?

As development proceeds in Chestnut Hill, all of us should be concerned about the abrogation of covenants. Ours is not the only such covenant here, and by acceding to the development whims at the Chestnut Hill Hotel property without any review, all such covenants are mocked and threatened. I appeal to the CHCA to take careful note.

Finally, the system set up to monitor local development, which includes building codes, zoning and the associated permits, are not to be ignored. All those seemingly petty requirements – the posting of permits, height restrictions, propinquity to elementary schools – are important. And again, the wider community should take note because what is scoffed at and ignored in our neighborhood is coming your way sooner or later. There is and will continue to be voracious demand for development in Chestnut Hill.

Given the demographics of the place, I assume many of these concerned residents are liberal politically and supported Hillary Clinton in last year’s election for POTUS. But imagine if these same people thought about the United States, its borders, and the expectations underwritten by the Constitution the same way that they think about their neighborhood and what threatens their way of life.

If they did that, would they really have trouble understanding people who voted for a president who campaigned to take borders seriously, to put national interests first, and who annoyed a lot of citizens who disdained rather than cared for Americans living in fly-over country?

Deep inside every American, conservative or liberal, beats a Not In My Back Yard heart. Why the outrage when the wrong side shows it has a pulse?