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After the launch of my website at Brooklyn’s annual mermaid parade, I can’t seem to quite escape the theme of mermaids.  Of course, this is arguably the symbolic point of mermaids, which represent the intensity of an impossible longing which can never be escaped.  Most of the mermaid pictures from the 19th century show sailors leaping to their doom in the watery depths, unable to resist the siren song or the beautiful & unreal people who live in a different realm.  The besotted swains die in beautiful pale arms which may not even exist…watery arms which may represent strange ideas, inimical to the patterns of life.  Like the tale of Apollo and Marsyas, it is a theme which artists come back to again and again.  Painters know what it means to embrace self-annihilation following an impossibly gorgeous song which nobody else can seem to hear…

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To illustrate this aspect of the mermaid theme…and of art itself–I am returning to Franz Von Stuck, the cofounder of the Munich Succession.  Stuck’s mythological themed art transcended the chocolate-box aesthetics of turgid 19th century academic art.  It spoke directly to the doom and sadness and impossible dreamlike beauty of life.  The mermaids in his art seem to have a carnal energy & bestial strength which is taken directly from human struggle.  They embody the wild energy of symbolism and the avant garde as art broke from the glacial forms of 19th century realism. Yet, like the mermaid, which is half one thing and half another, Stuck’s art directly partakes of 19th century realism too.  It is superb figurative art and the 20th century would embrace a much different form.  Stuck was a transitional artist, and when he was old, his work was regarded as old-fashioned and irrelevant to a generation of artists who witnessed the horrors of industrial warfare in the trenches of the Somme and Verdun.

Most of the successful artists of the 19th century were disgusted by the raw broken forms of early 20th century art, but Stuck, to his enormous credit, recognized that success means being left behind.  He taught the next generation of artists the forms he knew so that they could break them to pieces.  He used his connections to uplift the careers of his students Hans Purrmann, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, and Paul Klee.  It is ironic that the figurative painter taught a generation of rebels who fractured art and brought it to strange abstruse realms.

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There is a dark shadow cast by Stuck’s art as well.  The art professor who was married to an American divorcee and taught diverse students from across Eastern Europe had a shadow disciple he never knew about. Stuck was Hitler’s favorite artist from childhood onwards.  How different the mermaid’s song sounds in different ears!  Did Hitler look at these same sea maidens and see Teutonic beauty? Was Hitler angry that the nostalgic art of the German Empire was debased by 20th century abstraction? It must have been so.

This brings us to a large question which I wish to address more frequently: what is the point of art?  People who dislike art will say “there is none” and people who love art will be speechless at the temerity of the question. Yet it is a question which must be asked every generation. Indeed the answers vary from generation to generation, just as the art varies (although I suspect the ultimate answers are of a similar transcendent nature).

When I was younger I imagined that art was like homework…perhaps like an essay.  You went home and created the best work which you could in solitude.  If you crafted a sufficiently dense tapestry of artistic, literary, and scientific allusions with appropriate bravura and craftsmanship, the world would take note of your ideas.  It is a Disney princess view of art, where the pure spirit disdains the ghastly politics of the world until a prince swoops in and takes her to the apex of society… but life has taught me otherwise.  Art is like politics…it might BE politics.  It is about finding an effective way to share ideas and meaning with a group of people.  It is about organizing social networks in order to do so.  Perhaps that involves painting mythological allusions from Greco-Roman society or perhaps it involves dance or performance or the internet or even more experimental and unexplored forms.

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Art is the mermaid’s song.  It is where our ideas of beauty and meaning come from.  It is how we conceptualize the world as it is and as it should be.  I am unhappy with the world.  It seems to be drifting along the way Stuck’s world was when he died (in Munich in 1928 amidst a time of political rancor and a hollow economic boom which was followed by a crippling depression).  His true students were busy representing these problems in abstract forms which nobody understood.  His shadow student found a more direct way to move people by standing up in Munich and saying “Germany First!”  So what is the good of art?  How can we stop the would-be-Hitlers.  How can we save the fish of the ocean from going extinct?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I am working on it and thinking about it.  You should be too.

Artists need to stop navel gazing and concentrating on social problems solved back in the sixties. and look at our real global-sized problems of the Anthropocene.  The environmental and economic problems of the world are leaving the corporate and identity art which fills up Chelsea’s galleries far behind. In a hundred years nobody will care about who Tracey Emin slept with, but they might well wonder why the oceans have no fish or how America became a imperial principate.  I don’t know if art can help solve these problems, but maybe talking about them can help.  In the meantime don’t listen to the corporate siren song of infinite growth and absolute greed which says sit at your cubical 15 hours a day and do what you are told and you might have leather bucket seats.  Listen to the artist’s siren song which says “Why? Why? Why?  Oh can’t we do better?  Oh can’t we come up with new things?”

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Today’s post takes a closer look at a troubling tale from Canada.  During the period between 2001 and 2008, as American investors were bilked out of money by Bernie Madoff, a similar Ponzi scheme was taking place in the north.  However, in the northern version, the McGuffin at the heart of the grift wasn’t finance/investing…it was pigeons.  The man behind the scam, the pigeon king himself, was Arlan Galbraith (his business was even named “Pigeon King International”).  In seven years he sold $42 million worth of pigeons and, when his empire collapsed, he was on the hook to buy $356 million worth of breeding pairs of pigeons.  Aside from Mike Tyson’s prize roller pigeons or suchlike fancy birds, pigeons are not really expensive creatures.  The mind shrinks back from imagining how many pigeons one could buy for $356 million dollars.

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The pigeon Ponzi scheme didn’t really make any sense as a business or as a scam. Galbraith sold breeding pigeons to small farmers with a promise to buy back the offspring.  He would then sell the resulting pigeons to other farmers with the same promise.  Since he paid for the fowl (and since farmers are competent at poultry husbandry), the pigeons produced by this scheme burgeoned in population.  Galbraith enticed investors with talk of breeding fancy pigeons to sell to foreign pigeon fanciers, poultry, magnates and Arab sheiks.  He also claimed his program was producing a new sort of meat bird to bring squab to the dinner table everywhere in lieu of chicken and turkey.  Yet the birds in the “program” were just normal garden-variety pigeons. It was a recipe for limitless growth to nowhere.  Hundreds and hundreds of farmers joined Pigeon King International as suppliers/marks.

Except, of course, there is no such thing as limitless growth.  As soon as Galbraith ran out of new investors, he could not pay for all of the pigeons being produced (it is a miracle he dealt with the logistics of this crazy idea for as long as he did).  The end was profoundly sad.  Small farmers across Canada were left with whole barns and aviaries filled with unsaleable mongrel pigeons.  There were no Arab sheiks.  There was no market for squab.   There was nothing but the pigeon king dashing around the country buying pigeons and immediately selling them to others.

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The authorities were left with a situation where broke farmers had hundreds of thousands of worthless pigeons eating them out of house and home.  Releasing the birds into the wild would have been cruel to the pigeons (and dangerous to public health) so the authorities visited the largest barns with carbon monoxide rigs to gas the pigeons. Smaller operations were left euthanizing their stock on their own. Galbraith was arrested and conducted his own defense (in a manner as earnest, incompetent, and peculiar as his business).  He is now in jail and, since he is not young, that is probably the last act of his tale. Innumerable farmers were ruined by this saga.  Hundreds of thousands of pigeons died.  The pigeon king is spending his dotage in prison, and for what?

I have been staring at this story in puzzled wonder trying to determine the lesson (as more than a general cautionary tale against pyramid schemes). Aside from pyramid schemes, there is no precise analogy for the pigeon king’s business plan which leaps to mind…save one. The pigeon scheme required infinite growth to work (and more and more energy to maintain) even though there was no final payoff plan or escape hatch. It reminds me a bit of, well, everything.

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Society requires everyone to buy plastic junk that nobody will want in a year.  The garment industry churns out shirts that disintegrate after we wear them a few times.  The internet mostly consists of website after website of the same listicles and idiotic celebrity folderol.  If we stopped making this stuff and did better things with our time, everyone would go broke and the world economy would break. There are worthwhile things going on and goods and services which people truly need (or really want badly enough to be worthwhile), but beneath it all there is the same impossible promise of endless growth.  If that growth sputters out in any big way, the great international machine which we are all part of breaks.  Even if (human) populations decline, the capitalist system enters a dark feedback loop of too few consumers which is hard to escape.

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Conmen call their targets “pigeons.”  The story has me concerned that we are all pigeons in both a figurative and a literal way.  We are all busy producing pigeons of one sort or another for the Galbraiths of the world and praying that we can keep juggling everything before the Earth’s climate breaks, or we run out of oil, or there are too many bankrupt people to keep the system afloat.  Last week I wrote a post excoriating economists for not understanding primate behavior.  In this post I am begging them to go back into the library and come up with a system that does not rely so utterly on impossible growth targets.  If you walk through my beloved home of New York and look at all the people strutting bipedally in their drab business casual garb I feel like you might be reminded of certain avian colonies.  Take a look at Japan’s demographics, or the projected population of the United States…or the world, then compare those graphs with what companies say they will sell.  Spare a moment of panicky prayer for all the pigeons…and for the pigeon king too.

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There is a fundamental problem with economics.  Well, actually I am sure there are many, many problems with this pseudo-scientific discipline of resource management (which is fetishistically concerned with money instead of value).  However, this particular problem lies at the crux of the discipline’s inability to predict human behavior or bring about valuable outcomes.   We will briefly explore why we should care about economics at the end of the post, but let’s get right to the thesis and baldly state the problem which economics does not appropriately address: humans are more concerned with status than with substance at least when they are not under mortal duress (and if they are in fear of their lives, their behavior will be irrational anyway).

The usual metaphor for rational economic thought involves pie (probably because the round pastry is irresistible and because it resembles pie charts, which economists love).  According to conventional economic theory: if you get an allotted slice of pie, what matters is how big your slice is, not who gets the rest of the pie.  If an economically rational being is faced with a scenario where he gets pie for some reason, he will happily take his pie and worry about how to make the pie bigger (even if a grotesque bully hogs the majority of the pie and then doesn’t even eat it).   From this reductionist fable we can then move on to other scenarios like increasing the participant’s slice relative to other participants (zero-sum pie?), contractual niceties of pie eating, seasonally adjusted pie indexes, or twisted game theory dilemmas…or whatever.

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Yet any parent can tell you that if one sibling gets one small slice of the pie and the other sibling eats the rest, it is going to be a problem.  Children understand that pie allotment is a proxy for social worth (which is worth more than the pie).  Economists get twisted up in unnecessarily complicated numeric models (or in facile metaphors of resource allocation) and tend to overlook the real thing people are after.

Kids innately understand that money is a red herring for status, and status is true currency.  A Hollywood A-lister can wander into a bar and never pay for anything and leave in a limousine with the best-looking person present.  Their status stands above money. Likewise, the pope or some slimy cult leader or the “communist” prime minister of a failed state does not really need to truck in naked dollars and cents.

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I was arguing about the affairs of the world with one of my college friends (he has an honors degree in economics from the University of Chicago and was managing George Soros’ fortune at the time).  He was worried that populism would vitiate the rewards of globalism.  “People will vote to get a bigger slice of a smaller pie rather than a smaller slice of a bigger pie (even if the latter is a much larger relative slice)!” he exclaimed angrily.

As moneyed interests capture all available levers of power in our troubled democracy and economic productivity drops, his words seem prescient.   I assumed then that he was talking about silly plebs, but I now wonder whether he was really talking about rapacious financiers. I guess it doesn’t matter: both these factions are now backing the current leadership’s agenda of corporate amalgamation, tax-giveaways to the super rich, isolationism, and protectionism—things which ultimately decrease the pie, but make it seem larger for the moment.

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Oligarchs and reactionaries both would prefer a smaller pie—so long as they have a bigger slice for themselves.  The pie doesn’t matter—it is not a metaphor for goods and services, like economists think, instead it is a metaphor for pecking order.  If someone tells you that you are ranked 300th among the 300 people who matter to you, what does it matter what is happening in China or whether tariffs will undo national prosperity? The fundamental metaphor is not apt, and thus economists are misunderstanding why people make the choices they do. Our fundamental problems: stagnant productivity, inequality, and political deadlock come from the fact that power brokers are busy making castes and setting them in stone…not baking pies.

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Human societies have always been hierarchical and probably always will be, so why should we care if the economists get this metaphor wrong? It matters because the pie actually should matter! The fact that everyone is jockeying for status by betting on short-term stock gains (or even scammier things) is impairing our ability to do important things. We are baking the wrong sort of pies   Our system is not producing medicines it is churning out drugs.  We are not researching, we are marketing.  The “makers” are busy making monopolies and cartels rather than space robots and immortality serums.  We really would be better with a small delicious pie made of summer fruit and real butter than with the monstrosity made of saccharine, corn starch, and cellulose.  This monstrous confection is the result of the fact that our system is some weird & debased celebrity contest (our leader is a conman and a reality tv star!). Economists need to wake up to the fact that we aren’t even baking pies…we are all in a bad reality tv show or a nightmarishly catty high-school clique.

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Today, through the magic of the internet, Ferrebeekeeper is visiting a graveyard halfway around the world in Armenia (alas, I am visiting through words and images only; as always, my body remains stubbornly in New York City shackled to an office chair and a bunch of elusive dreams).  This exquisite spot is Noratus Cemetery, beside Lake Sevan, in eastern Armenia, not far from the Azerbaijan border.  This region has been a crossroads for people for millennia.  Although Noratus is today a small village, during the Middle Ages it was a large prosperous town.  A bronze-aged hillfort stands nearby. Prehistoric travelers passed through this region on humankind’s great migrations, and the region is not far from the first palace civilizations of the ancient world. Persians, Greeks, Romans, mysterious steppe peoples of all sorts, Turks, Mongols, Russians, caravan folk from east and west, Chinese, Soviets, and contemporary world travelers have all passed through the region.  However, this post is not a history of Armenia (thank goodness: I could never begin to explain the beautiful tangled chronicle of that crossroad nation): we are talking about Noratus Cemetery.  The oldest stones in the complex date back to the 10th century, but the cemetery has been utilized off-and-on right up to the present.

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The most famous stones of Noratus are the khachkars—the cross stones.  These are intricately carved stele with Christian crosses carved upon them in syncretic Asian styles.   Once upon a time (by which I mean, in the nineteen nineties), the greatest concentration of ancient khachkars was in the Armenian cemetery in Julfa (in Azerbaijan), but the Azerbaijan government destroyed these beautiful ancient works in order to further some self-aggrandizing lie or another, so today, the largest concentration of medieval khachkars is in…Noratus cemetery.

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You can see here how the maelstrom of cultures has influenced khachkar makers from over the centuries.  The mysterious gravestones look, by turns, Scythian, Romanesque, Persian, Indian, and even Jewish: yet they are none of these styles (although they are influenced by each)—they are Armenian.  But beyond the ancient exquisite graves, and the Romanesque chapels, look at the mountains and the lake beyond.  I have stolen these pictures from around the internet so I don’t really know what is in each (apparently the cemetery is easy to visit (if you are in the hinterlands of eastern Armenia) but badly labeled so it might take some specialists in Eastern medieval art to unravel the meanings and eras of these stones anyway, but their artistic excellence and spiritual splendor is readily evident.

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I really miss Sir Terry Pratchett. Looking at the news (and the comments to the news) makes me wonder if this be-hatted weirdo who wrote about witches, imps, and golems was actually the last great humanist…

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Today, let’s talk about a concept from one of Pratchett’s later books “Making Money”.  Halfway through the novel, two of the characters are trying to unravel a deepening financial mystery which is threatening to derail the economy of the fantasy microcosm which the novels are set inside.  The fictional sleuths investigate the late Chairman of the Royal Bank and find that his wardrobe is filled with very specific boudouir costumes. Staring at this excess and pondering the depths of the human psyche, one of the characters forms a social hypothesis which is outlined below (I copied the following verbatim from a Pratchett wiki):

The Horseradish Sauce Hypothesis runs thusly.

Everyone likes a beef sandwich, right?

But just to vary the flavour one day, you put a little horseradish sauce on it.

You discover you like horseradish sauce, so the next time you do a beef sandwich you put a little more sauce on it.

Then a little bit more.

Then a little bit more.

Until one day, you put so much horseradish sauce on the sandwich that the beef falls out.

And you don’t even notice.

I am going to say nothing of truly addictive things like fentanyl, nicotine, lechery, or alcohol (which everyone already knows are habit-forming), and instead write about how society is being conquered by dangerous, low-grade flavors of horseradish.  This sounds harmless enough (after all, everyone has to get through their meaningless day jobs), yet, as in the sandwich example above, you don’t notice when the meat falls out.   One goes from “reading the news” to internet troll without recognizing it, and it’s happening to all of us.

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The internet is the all-time expert on horseradish.  It knows the specific variety that everyone likes: Facebook likes, shopping, gambling, esoteric adult material, cat photos, Farmville, getting angry about ANTIFA, reading diatribes about how the earth is flat, or whatever. It’s all there.  The special sauce which makes the internet so addictive is that it knows what rewards give your brain a little jolt of dopamine and it can administer these little jolts every 5-12 minutes all day.  Most people spend all day in semi-isolation in beige cubicles doing meaningless & stressful tasks for distant masters.  The internet is to such people what cocaine-laced water bottles are to depressed and lonely laboratory rats.  The little razor-hooks can find the cracks in everyone’s façade because they dangerously mimic life’s true sources of meaning and joy.  If you squint cross-eyed at the list in the second sentence of this paragraph you can imagine how these things are sad substitutes for friends, romance, knowledge, status, and a sense of belonging.

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This is not how I would build a society.  It is sad that people have gambling problems instead of fulfilling life quests, or naked pictures of women instead of girlfriends, but I guess it moves stocks, diet pills, and plastic novelty hats well enough to keep the world economy chugging along.  The real problem is that the internet has moved beyond being a private venue for embarrassing vices to being the main venue for news and political discourse. It is where society collects and dissemination  information and opinions.  The internet is now where we self-select into groups.  This is not resulting in a golden age of clubs and volunteering, instead it is transforming the country into a boiling cauldron of tribal anger.    It feels good to be furious…or maybe not good, but at least it feels like something and one seeks it out every day until the beef in the sandwich is gone and all that is left is the empty calories of spicy sauce.

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I try not to write about our déclassé president, because I regard him as a symptom of this problem rather than the problem itself (and also because granting him attention makes him stronger).  Yet he is apparently a near-univeral flavor of internet horseradish.  People back home in West Virginia can feel the righteous joy of punishing smug coastal elitists by joyously watching that fellow destroy the whole country and rob us all blind. People in Brooklyn can feel the righteous joy of being angry about this mendacious hustler. Getting worked up by the news becomes a dollop of horseradish and we all need more each day.  I know I now check to see what grotesque enormity the president has committed before I check anything else.  If child poverty in Central Asia dipped four fold or the UN seriously curtailed human trafficking or something I would probably not notice, but I moronically know every dumb thing the President tweeted.

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There has always been a degree of degraded spectale to American politics–it’s part of democracy…part of humankind!–but it these piquant empty calories are taking the place of vital nutrients for the body politic.  As we stare in horror or glee at the political theater, our problems are not getting solved.  New discoveries are not being made. Compromise and reform are not being achieved.  When Trump is gone in 2020 or 2024 (assuming the republic survives), we are still going to have this dangerous fascination with outrage.

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Making the news into addictive “infotainment” is dangerous.  It is less an inquiry into truth and more like the ill-concealed traps and lures within infomercials aimed at the elderly or the ignorant.

There is a quote from Anais Nin which succinctly and poetically summarizes the horseradish hypothesis: “Abnormal pleasures kill the taste for normal ones.” It seems deceptively straightforward until you think about it, and then its tragic power becomes evident.  Really think about how you look at the news lately…are you trying to determine the truth of what goes on or are you looking for a dollop of outrage to push you foward to the next sensational click?

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The beef is falling out of society’s sandwich in a lot of ways right now. I concentrated on political problems becaue they are top-tier troubles, but the other ignoble horseradish is part of this too.  Everybody needs some special zest, but if the banquet is nothing but novel jallop, we all begin to starve!

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Regular visitors know that my alter-ego/spirit animal is the flounder (or, at any rate, the flatfish is definitely the leitmotif of this period of my ecology/history themed art).  During lunchbreak or on the train I work on little “lesser” flounder drawings.  In the near future I plan to put them all on a little internet store…along with some of the prints of the intricate flounder I have been drawing.  Also there will be an interactive online flounder…it will all be the glorious artistic unveiling I have been hinting at for a while.  You are going to love it!…erm…hopefully. In the mean time though, here are three of the most recent small flounder drawings I do during my busy Midtown days to keep from going crazy.  The one at the top is some sort or oracle emerging from the underworld depths of the flounder itself.  I don’t know what secrets this augur has…or even what gender they are, but they have brought unfathomable mysteries to light from the cave depths. A vile chef-beast lurks to the right roaring of appetites which can never be sated, while, at left a young mother nurses an infant: the next generation arises to take a place within the great weal, yet always there is appetite.

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Speaking of which, this second flounder is meant to evoke the ifrits which always pop out of of ancient middle eastern oil lamps. A mysterious world of gauzy spirits, mystery beasts, and apparitions swirl around the lit lamp, but whether any of these blue spirits offer helpful advice or magical munificence is unclear.

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Finally, I made a flounder which represents the bloodstream (my very first readers will recall that I had a childhood epiphany about the nature of living things based on blood).  The cells stream forth to build the organism and carry out needed maintenance, but strange viruses swirl within the plasma.  most ominously a parasitic tapeworm stares in hunger at the feast of little lives.  It is unclear whether the aristocratic woman is a parasite or whether she is the host.  This is a whole little ecosystem with the long-suffering flounder in the middle.

I will add all of these flounder to my Instagram feed (which you should follow), but you can see them here first, and read the perplexing explanations I have offered.

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I have been watching NASA with great consternation lately.  The space agency has maintained its budget (which is good, in today’s world of brutal trench-warfare politics), however for 15 months NASA has had no leader and it seemed to be stuck in a holding pattern, unable to move forward on missions.  Finally, in April, the President’s candidate for the position of head administrator was confirmed, Jim Bridenstine a fundamentalist congressman from Oklahoma who does not believe in global warming and opposes LGBTQ rights.  He is the first non-scientist chief administrator in the agency’s history.

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Bridenstein does however have a background as a Navy officer which is promising.  It is possible he can put his more recent background as a divisive political agitator and an ignoramus behind him.  His first major speech was somewhat encouraging:  he reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to send missions to both Mars and the Moon in the not-enormously distant future.  The historic first moon landing was 49 years ago and the last manned mission to the moon took place in 1972 (three years before Bridenstein was born).  The new administrator compared these missions to the Lewis and Clark Expedition and went on to say it is time for NASA and private aerospace ventures to work on building a transcontinental railroad to space in the current era.  That is a fine metaphor (although I don’t trust private aerospace ventures any more than people of the 19th century trusted crooked railroad monopolies).  Bridenstein needs to back up his elegant words with real plans for NASA.  Currently, the USA can’t even put a human in space, much less send one to the moon or another planet.  Bridenstein needs to act quickly and decisively to show that he is not an agency head like Scott Pruitt, Ben Carson, or Jeff Sessions (which is to say a leader who embodies the opposite & antithetical values from the agency they were sent to run).

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I liked your railroad metaphor, Jim, but you need to appoint a lot of smart people to organize a meaningful and coherent schedule for America’s favorite agency.

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During the eighth century AD, as the Merovingian dynasty declined into a sad series of feuding puppet kings, the mayor of the palace became effective ruler of the Franks.  In 751 this arrangement was formalized by Pope Zachary who annointed Pepin the Short, formerly palace mayor (and puppetmaster of Childeric III ) as King of the Franks—the first of the Carolingians.  Pepin’s son Charles, known to posterity forevermore as Charlemagne, succeeded Pepin as king of the Franks in 768.  Charlemagne became King of the Lombards from 774 onwards (he conquered Lombardy as much to end his nephew’s pretensions to the throne as to rescue the papacy, but whatever), and as the first Holy Roman Emperor from 800 to his death.  Above is the crown of Charlemagne!  It was the coronation crown of French kings from its creation until 1775 when it was the coronation crown of Louis XVI.

Except…

That is clearly an engraving of the crown.  The real crown of Charlemagne is gone.  Like Louis XVI, it was destroyed during the French revolution.  Also, this was not the crown of Charlemagne per se.  Historians believe this crown was actually manufactured in the late ninth century as a crown for Charlemagne’s grandson Charles the Bald (who was believed to have had long beautiful hair in real life).  Additionally there is some question about whether this even was the real crown of Charles the Bald or whether it was switched with a similar crown made for a queen at the end of the 12th century.  One of the two of them was melted down in 1590 by the Catholic League during the Siege of Paris.   It is unclear if the crown destroyed in the French revolution was the 9th century original or the 12th century queen’s crown.

There is a lot of duplicity in history, particularly involving crowns, the ultimate status items which invest their wearer with supreme authority.  Based on this black-and white illustration, it is a bit hard to tell what the precious stones of the Crown of Charlemagne are, but at least it is possible to clearly see the distinctive fleurs de lis (although admittedly, these were only added in 1180…)

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Let’s talk briefly about this crazy Chinese prom dress fiasco.  What happened is that a (wasp-y) Utah high school senior found an elegant red silk cheongsam, also known as a qipao in a thrift store.  The form-fitting curves of the high-necked Chinese dress suited her and she put some pictures of herself on social media—only to be derided by a priggish young man of Chinese American heritage who wrote:

My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress…I’m proud of my culture, including the extreme barriers marginalized people within that culture have had to overcome those obstacles. For it to simply be subject to American consumerism and cater to a white audience, is parallel to colonial ideology.

Now, don’t get me wrong: the shameful treatment of early (or contemporary!) East Asian immigrants, the excesses of American consumerism, all sorts of colonial ideologies…these are all subject to meaningful and broad-ranging ethical criticism. However, a brief look at the history of the cheongsam quickly illustrates the problems of “cultural appropriation” politics.

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The cheongsam was originally a baggy robe-type dress worn by women of the Manchu.  The Manchu were northern horselords who made up a mighty branch of the Tungusic peoples.  During the chaos at the end of the Ming dynasty (as ignorant, incompetent emperors and their crooked enablers drove the empire to ruin, famine, and civil war), the Manchus poured out of the north and conquered all of China.  Han people wore the cheongsam to ingratiate themselves with their red-tasseled Manchu overlords…but over time the dress became much less conservative and began to hug the form.  In the 1920s, with influence from Western flapper fashions, it evolved into a stylish and often tight-fitting dress (with high leg slits) for socialites and upper-class women…and for demi-mondaines, before it entered the broader culture of East Asia and South East Asia. Should we decry the colonialism of Manchu war lords? Do we need to call out the puritanical sexism of the original dress which was meant to cover women up…or the sexism of the later dress which was meant to show off women’s bodies?  Ultimately the Han appropriated the dress from their Manchu conquerors (and then conquered Manchuria which is now the northern part of the people’s Republic of China).  Should this Utah teenager have taken all of this in to consideration and worn a high-waisted Empire gown (oh wait that reflects the excesses of the Napoleonic era and should only be worn by French people) or a satin tunic gown (shades of ancient Greece) or an elegant pleated fancy dress with mameluke sleeves (nooooo! Orientalism!)?

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Every style of outfit has wound down from ancient antecedents which have mixed together over the millennia.  Culture is not a tiny stagnant tarn—it is like the water cycle of Earth. Great rivers mingle and wind down to the common oceans only to be swept by the clouds back to the uplands and return again and again.

It should be obvious now that I really dislike the entire concept of “cultural appropriation” as a smear directed at people who admire or utilize elements of many different culture (this makes sense: I write an eclectic generalist blog and paint flounders from all of the world’s oceans).  Am I supposed to only write about or paint middle aged Anglo-Saxon type men? What would you say about an artist like that (assuming you went deep into the alt-right to find such a freak)? I can hardly imagine a more racist or sexist thing!

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China Trade (Wayne Ferrebee, Oil on panel)

It may (maybe) be that cultural appropriation is an appropriate charge to level at mean-spirited or willfully ignorant use of imagery and ideas. Things like the black-faced minstrel tradition or (goodness help us) “Little Brown Samba” or super-sexualized harem pictures from les artistes pompiers spring to mind.  But even these are more complicated than they seem at first.

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Mermaid Appropriation?

Does that mean everyone has to know every part of the history of every image, decoration, literary concept, garment, religious symbol, allusion?  Such a world sounds ideal to me, but I think it might be an impossible (it seems like the culture critic in this case did not think out all of the historical ramifications of Chinese fashion history).

The world is more global than ever before and the prom-dress kerfluffle has made it all the way to social media in actual China.  People there are confused.  They see the dress as a compliment to the Middle Kingdom.  American teenagers are wearing traditional Chinese outfits to their formal dances. It reflects the prestige and rising strength of China.  It is (gasp) a compliment!

Maybe inner-city rappers angry about suburban white kids trying out their dope beats and mad rhymes shouldn’t be so angry.  When people want to copy your style it doesn’t always mean they want to monetize your music or enslave your ancient kingdom state or belittle your ancestors.  People might admire you! You might be winning!  Just please don’t write anything like little brown Samba.  I’m afraid that to stay atop the ever-changing terrain of the humanities you may have to at least look some things up and maybe please use your brain.

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Iggy Azalea has stolen the Tokyo Olympic Mascot’s look! or is it the other way?

In the arts and humanities ideas exist on an (ever changing) gradient.  Talking about this and thinking about people with different backgrounds and perspectives—learning their histories– is the point.  But the shifts in this gradient come from politics which is a treacherous realm. Come to think of it, maybe the critic of the prom dress was trying to use the internet to claim the mantle of victimhood and aggrandize himself in the process.  Well done. Mr. Lam, on appropriating the culture of the United States of America!

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Is that a Frenchwoman in Roman garb?

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It is May Day! This weekend I was thinking about whether to celebrate the ancient pagan festivals and rituals associated with this holiday of seasonal rebirth or whether to instead write about the international day honoring workers. This latter manifestation of May Day came about in the nineteenth and early twentieth century as a response to the excesses of the industrial revolution and the undemocratic forms of power manifested by the cartels and monopolies which sprang up with the railroad, the mills, the mines, and the oilfields. I was sitting in my yard looking at the spring blossoms when the issue was decided for me. Sirens and chants of “The only SOLUTION is COMMUNIST revolution!” filled up the garden. I ran out to the street and a parade of communists was marching up Flatbush in Brooklyn. They were waving blood red flags and waving placards. Most were wearing red shirts and some were riding in a huge old flatbed lorry which looked like it came out of 1960s Cuba.
Although I can respect the socialism of Jaures and I am fascinated by the social democracy of modern forward-thinking northern European countries like Holland and Denmark, I have trouble uncoupling communism per se from the ghastly totalitarian abuses of Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot et al. (plus I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War) so I stared at the communists in shock—as though medieval monks or Sumerian charioteers were riding through. A number of people in the crowd joined them or eagerly grabbed their manifestos though. Evidently the communist message was not as outside of time as I thought.

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A lot of these recherche movements have been springing up lately. There are communists, confederates, tea partiers, celibate terrorists (?), and syndicalists popping up all over the place. There are even confused ultramontanists angry that they can’t understand the current pope sufficiently to treat him as an emperor.

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The oligarchs who reap the greatest benefits of globalized capitalism have not been sharing the benefits of global commerce, nor reinvesting in next generation technology, nor even buying epochal flounder-themed art (although there is always time, great masters!) Moneyed interests are not even hiding the extent to which they are manipulating the American political system, except maybe with some awkward metaphors about how the financial system is like blood. They are breaking the system to exploit it and weirdness, old and new, is seeping into the cracks.
Our democracy and our fundamental economic system are having serious troubles. It is unclear if these are growing pains, or if they are the onset of the sort of changes which felled Athens or undid the Roman Republic. The ossification of our system has combined with rapid social and economic change to completely undo one political party (albeit through mechanisms which would look more familiar to Tiberius & Gaius Gracchus and Huey Long, than to Ayn Rand or William Buckley Junior).

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But back to the communists in Brooklyn—who were, after all, surrounded by police (to a disquieting degree, actually) and drew far more chuckles and eye rolls from the Flatbush crowds than they got converts. It is a reminder that we all need to laugh less at the dysfunction in Washington. Fascist totalitarians are cropping up on the left as well as the right. We need to have some serious conversations about democratic reforms and how to reestablish useful and helpful mechanisms and norms to deal with the changes in the world. Otherwise unexpected weirdos will make those choices for us and instead of a comic stunted Mussolini with porn stars and Russian business ties we might end up with a high theocrat or a tribunal of the people. Things are moving fast: let’s talk more and think more clearly!

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