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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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I have conflicted feelings about Ai Weiwei (arguably China’s most renowned contemporary artist). On one hand his work can be undeniably powerful. He and I went to the same art school (The dear old Art Students’ League of New York) and he is fearless: it takes true courage to stand as a gadfly to the world’s most powerful authoritarian state. Yet, on the other hand, his work partakes obsessively of Warhol’s solipsistic narcissism. Ai exemplifies the toxic studio system which has erased handicraft mastery from art (although, arguably, that very point is a big part of his work) and he has so blurred the lines between art and politics that I wonder if he is not a Chinese politician rather than a Chinese artist. I realize as I write this, that all of these “counter” points could be construed in his favor (and they are certainly the larger part of the reason he has found such immense international success). So my ambiguous feelings about Ai Weiwei probably have to do with my ambiguous feelings about art and politics: which are twin disciplines in a way which is not readily apparent at first. We will explore that kinship and tension later this year as we ask what the purpose of art is anyway (and what the purpose of politics is too—other than to aggrandize a bunch of hypocritical elites).
But, for today, I want to uncritically praise Ai Weiwei because I love the new series he has produced.
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Longtime readers know my love of Chinese porcelain—especially the justly famous cobalt glaze blue-and-white ware which was created in the Yuan Dynasty but flowered into its greatest glory during the Ming Dynasty. Ai Weiwei has used the techniques and style of Ming blue-and-white porcelain to produce a majestic series which exemplifies timeless beauty of the form yet with fully contemporary subjects. The resulting pieces are masterworks. They underline tricky questions about China, art, power, individuals, society, and coercion throughout the ages.
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Naturally they are produced by unknown artisans whom Ai Weiwei enslaved and exploited. But that dynamic also undergirded original Ming ceramic masterpieces (which were made by unknown artisans). Additionally, everything is made that way today. Look around your computer (and AT your computer) unless you are reading this in the far future or are an eccentric potentate, it was all made in a Chinese sweatshop. And the work, with its themes of refugees, escape, conflict, and striving, has a pathos and a human element absent from the courtly dragons, serene pine, and magical peaches of the originals.
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It is amazing stuff. Maybe he can redeem himself in my eyes for smashing a Han urn as a publicity stunt (although I am sure that where he is now laughing atop a pile of money as art curators genuflect before him, my good esteem may not be at the forefront of his concerns)

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Let’s talk about princesses!  In the toy industry where I used to work, emphasizing princesses is a way to sell pink plastic drek directly to little girls–and it works really well for that! So much so that a lot of the world’s best entertainment and toy properties are princesses.  Yet, I always thought the idea was poorly explored—both its roots and its ramifications.  Walt Disney, Charles Perrault, and all of the world’s toy executives just sort of decided that half of the world should share the same alter-ego protagonist and everybody blandly agreed with them.  And things have stood thus for multiple generations.

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This week, Ferrebeekeeper is going to talk about princesses because the concept is so extraordinarily powerful that we should all think about it and learn from it. At its heart the idea of princesshood is an exquisite and complicated fantasy juxtaposition. A princess represents near absolute power…but so seamlessly wrapped in the trappings of compassion, courtesy, and elegant refinement that the power is virtually invisible.  The concept is a socio-political fantasy about the very best way to interact with other people: imagine if almost everyone was your social subordinate (!), but you were really kind and generous to them to such an extent that they didn’t mind.  I would totally want to live that way—as a powerful person so lovable that I never had to exert my power!  It makes you wonder why boys would ever want to be vampires, Godzilla, or Han Solo (although each of those entities also sort of embodies the same fantasy of being powerful without lots of lawyers, contracts, hired goons, and painful calls about money).

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If you listen to NPR and read the New Yorker or suchlike journals, you might recall the “death of men” concept which was en vogue just before the disastrous 2016 election.  This idea posited that women are actually more adept at today’s society than men.  Nobody is mining things or fighting lions or hosting WWI style events–venues where men allegedly excel (when not being crushed, eaten, or blown up).  Whereas women have the sort of soft but firm power which big offices desperately crave.  Women are going to university at higher rates than men and rising higher in a society which is based on voluminous rules and carefully crafted double talk.

Nobody has been talking about that “Death of Men” idea lately for some reason.  However, reactionary national politics aside, I thought there was something to the idea. Success in today’s world is indeed about PR and plotting rather that discovery and daring.  I wonder if princess stories and dolls have something to do with this.

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In reality, princesses were not always so genteel or compassionate…nor were they necessarily powerful, in some instances they were closer to the misogynist ideal of a submissive beautiful brood mare in gorgeous gems and finery. And, additionally, a princess who really rules is not an idealized fantasy figure. Somehow queens remain resolutely distant and scary (if not outright crazy and malevolent).

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Of course there is another darker side to this.  Little girls aren’t really being sold on becoming actual princesses (who are always beheading people and tricking inbred nobles) instead they are sold on being like fairytale princesses who spend lots of money on appearances, luxury goods, and dreams, while always being safely polite and waiting for a prince to come sweep them off their feet. Snow White was so passive that it was a miracle she wasn’t eaten by rabbits!  That terrifying evil queen would totally have cut out her heart in the real world!

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At any rate it is obvious that the concept of princesshood is absolutely jam packed with all sorts of insane cultural context and we are selling this to whole generations of little girls (and others) who will grow up to inherit the world, not because we have examined or thought about it, but because it sells. Let’s examine some of those stories and myths with a fresh eye and see what we can learn.  I was a big fan of the idea that power comes from goodness (which is the moral wellspring of these myths). Come to think of it, I still am a fan of that concept.  Maybe by thinking about this we can reawaken the good princess in everyone else’s heart too.

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When I was barely an adolescent I read “Les Miserables” and the vast scope of the work caught my brain on fire.  It was like living hundreds–or maybe thousands–of lives over multiple generations.  We can (and will) return to that remarkable novel’s great themes of humanism, systematic oppression, historicism, Christianity, and economics (among other things), but for now I would like to concentrate on the first chapter of Book III.  The chapter is titled “The Year 1817” and it details what everyone was talking about in France in 1817.

Naturally, the excited 14-year-old me was hoping for soaring words about battle, republic, redemption, and perfect compassion, and so the chapter was an immense disappointment.  It was about the mincing affairs of unknown aristocrats and quibbles about fashion or taste which were utterly incomprehensible (and even more ridiculous).  Here is a random sample of this Bourbon Restoration word salad:

Criticism, assuming an authoritative tone, preferred Lafon to Talma. M. de Feletez signed himself A.; M. Hoffmann signed himself Z. Charles Nodier wrote Therese Aubert. Divorce was abolished. Lyceums called themselves colleges. The collegians, decorated on the collar with a golden fleur-de-lys, fought each other apropos of the King of Rome. The counter-police of the chateau had denounced to her Royal Highness Madame, the portrait, everywhere exhibited, of M. the Duc d’Orleans, who made a better appearance in his uniform of a colonel-general of hussars than M. the Duc de Berri, in his uniform of colonel-general of dragoons– a serious inconvenience.  

It goes on in this fashion for several pages. If you want the full effect, you can read the rest here (along with the other 1200 pages of the book, come to think of it).

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Now I can understand these words individually, and even piece together their social importance, but the sense of momentous grandeur is entirely gone.  This is, of course, as Victor Hugo wanted it.  His true story was about people vastly beneath the notice of M. the Duc d’Orleans.  To give the appropriate sense of scale, he needed to show how ephemeral the allegedly important and noteworthy people and things in a year actually are.  What is really important takes longer to comprehend—and even the consensus of history keeps changing as history progresses.  Naturally Hugo also wanted us to take a step back from our own time and realize that soon it will all be as dull, insipid, and inconsequential as the affairs of 1817.

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I really really hope you will take that lesson to heart, because most of our shared experience is made of flotsam—stupid tv shows, bad songs, political hacks who are already fading away, ugly fashions, and useless hype.  In 25 years, nobody but old fogeys and experts in early 21st century culture will have any idea who Beyonce is.  In a hundred years nobody will understand Facebook or Google.  Even if he destroys the republic and precipitates universal war, precious few people will recall Trump in 2217.  By next week we will have forgotten this accursed “Milo” (who, I guess, is a failed actor who pretended to be a Nazi to make money off of conservative frenzy?).  It already doesn’t make sense!

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As you proceed through the year 2017, hang on to the lessons of “The Year 1817”.  Most things that are current and fashionable and celebrated are useless piffle.  Celebrity culture has always been a meretricious mask used to defraud people of their money and attention.  The great are mostly not so great (sorry, Beyonce and Duc de Orleans), but beyond that, even the fundamental concept of current events or contemporary culture is predominantly a soap-bubble.  And where does that leave us?

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We have a nasty habit of becoming unduly obsessed by the demographics of the United States.  This is to overlook the fascinating demographics of the world’s most populous country, China, where the immense number of people means that there are subgroups larger than very large nations.  For example, contemporary Chinese policymakers and planners agonize over “the ant tribe.”

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The ant tribe is a neologism used to describe certain people born in the 1980s in China’s countryside and small towns. These kids (who are often one-child-policy children) worked incredibly hard to get into universities (while their parents scrimped and saved to send them there).  Once they had a degree they moved to China’s giant cities in order to pursue middle class prosperity…and there they ran straight into a problem which transforms them into ants.

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Welcome to the beautiful Super Cities of Contemporary China

Chinese citizens (or “subjects”?) are tethered to a document known as a hukou—a household permit.  The hukou, like some sort of medieval serfdom or indenture, trails the bearer throughout life and then applies to their offspring, no matter where they are born.  So ant-tribe young people move to Guanzhou, Beijing, or Shanghai in order to get worthwhile office jobs which do not exist elsewhere but they are not officially allowed to live there.  Their solution is to move underground: the great cities of China are filled with illegal basement and sub-basement apartments which are the tiny damp bedrooms of sexless, hardworking, subterranean office drones—the ant tribe.

To quote The Globe and Daily Mail:

The “ants” are not indigent beggars or lost souls (who could not afford even sub-basement rent) or low-wage workers (who generally live in workers’ dormitories, 10 to 12 of them to a room, but above ground). Rather, they are ambitious citizens who have been driven underground, literally and figuratively, in their quest for middle-class stability. Their mildewed lives are the material embodiment of something being endured by countless millions of Chinese today, as they attempt to balance President Xi Jinping’s ambition of creating a middle-class China with his party’s desire to control and regulate their lives.

The ants live in extreme penury.  They spend all of their money on rent, bribes, and, eventually, on school fees (without the proper hukou, Children can’t attend school in Beijing unless certain parties are remunerated).  So contemporary China has a larger middle class than it seems to, but it is held back by communist mandarins’ unwillingness to extend people basic property rights or the right to move freely around the country.  China is always touted as the next big thing–the country that will make the future–yet if the clerks, bureaucrats, marketers, salespeople, and number crunchers who are the mainstay of a tertiary sector economy must lead lives of monastic self abnegation (and possibly forgo having families of any size), I see little hope for China’s long term prospects.  The rulers of China must decide whether they want to completely control their people or allow them to flourish.  They seem to have decided on the former…which makes me wonder if this may be the era of “peak China” and the future may be a lot less Sinocentric than everyone says.

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Or maybe we are all destined to live crammed in underground cells with legally questionable identities and China is the innovator of a terrible future (there is ample historical precedent after all)…but I hope not.

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The Otomi people are an indigenous Mesoamerican people of the Mexican Plateau.  During the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish, the Otomi allied with the Spanish against the Aztecs (since the Aztecs were a hated upstart empire oppressing and enslaving them). Otomi populations practiced (and continue to practice) shamanism.  The sacred spirit animals of the shaman’s spirit journey take a central position in the most characteristic artforms of the Otomi—which consists of exquisite embroidered animals in dazzling colors.  This is the subject of today’s post because…well look at these textile artworks!  I just innately love them.  They are masterpieces.  The colorful animals seem to come to extravagant life on the elaborately sewn panels.

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In these embroidered medallions and picture squares, fantasy birds, fish, quadrupeds, and insects embroidered out of brilliant stripes swirl together among equally colorful flowers and vines. Most of the creatures seem to be based off of familiar domestic animals like burros, chickens, rabbits, turkeys, and bees—but the farm creatures are turning into each other and exchanging characteristics and identities.  I am a bit surprised that Ferrebeekeeper has only just found out about Otomi art….

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It isn’t like I went to the Mexican national art gallery and cherry-picked a few hallowed masterpieces from the walls either.  Most of these beautiful examples were for sale on the internet by anonymous living artists and artisans whose work I like better than basically anything on sale right now in Chelsea for a thousand times more.  I could have one of these amazing handmade artworks if I possessed…35 American dollars?  How can such a beautiful thing cost less than a dvd of Fifty Shades of Grey?  People who claim that the market is all-knowing should take note (and people who love beautiful art should be taking out their wallets).

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Torus-shaped building by Italian architect Joseph di Pasquale in Guangzhou

There is disappointing aesthetic news from the internet today: The People’s Republic of China is trying to reign in weird architecture.  A CNN article provides the basic facts, “A statement from China’s State Council Sunday, says new guidelines on urban planning will forbid the construction of ‘bizarre’ and ‘odd-shaped’ buildings that are devoid of character or cultural heritage. Instead, the directive calls for buildings that are ‘economic, green and beautiful’.”

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The great teapot of Wuxi. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Based on this language, one might hope for a future of soaring super pagodas covered with solar cells and hydroponic forests, however I think it is much more likely that we will see lots of boring giant rectangles designed by committees (like the new World Trade Center…or Freedom Tower…or whatever it ended up being called). Communist China had its own history of creating dull monoliths.  This was interrupted by a spate of crazy fun building projects, but it seems like the party is cracking down on the architectural effervescence (probably as a symptom of the vast market correction now under way).

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The China Central Television building in Beijing, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren.

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Sheraton in Huzhou

During the last quarter century China has seen outrageous economic growth.  Along with this boom, strange giant edifices popped up all along the Chinese coast like weird mushrooms from outer space.  I have put pictures of some of my favorites in this article.  I particularly like the Shanghai World Financial Center (which has always reminded me of a broken off piece of some cool mystery awl) and of course the many torus buildings.  However the Olympic “Bird’s Nest” Stadium and the Shanghai Tower and the “Giant Pants” and the huge teakettle were all good too.  There were some less famous but more charming sculpture buildings at a local level which I have also included here.

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Rendering of the Shanghai World Financial Center with the Jin Mao Building at right

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I did not realize how much I liked these buildings until I read the news today and found out they now belong to the past.  These buildings went hand in hand with eye-popping double digit growth percentages for the Chinese GDP.  I wonder if, now that the buildings are going to stop going up, the stupendous growth will cease too.  Mandarins from all cultures have a way of forgetting that just as art reflects society, society reflects art too.

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The Emperor Hotel in Yanjiao may legitimately be counter-revolutionary

 

Ferrebeekeeper used to address American politics sometimes, but I got so disgusted by the deadlock and regulatory capture in the current iteration that I stopped. However it’s already 2016 and it’s going to be a looooooong year (it’s already been long, and we are not even out of January). I am going to have to go back to writing about politics, not because I have stopped being disgusted, but because I am now also afraid and angry.

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The big new topic of politics in this cycle, of course, is Trump. Although Donald Trump is a narcissistic plutocrat with fascist tendencies who wishes to steer America (and maybe humanity) towards disaster, he is a godsend for writers, because anything written about him garners views. In the 50s horror film “The Blob” everything that people do to fight the all-consuming blob from outer space just makes it stronger and bigger. So too is the media’s relationship with Trump. When people write polemics against him or describe his appalling views or ridiculous history it just makes him stronger. More people click on it, which means more people must keep writing about it…and so on. Plus, every writer or producer wants the hits associated with Trump articles, even if focusing on him gives him more of the attention he craves.
I have solved this moral quandary by not writing about Trump…so far. I care about views a lot, but, in the end, this site is not about making money or garnering fame. Yet, the Blob has started to cover the horizon for me too. I assumed that the Trump feedback bubble would break before the primaries started in earnest. That has not happened.
It is a real problem, Cruz, while fully as despicable as Trump, is unable to pivot to the middle the same way (Trump has no shame: if he wins the Republican primary, he will just start saying whatever he thinks the greatest number of all voters want to hear). I think it is time to stop thinking of the Donald as a joke and to treat him as the dark manipulative artist he is.

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Behind all of this is a bigger social problem: the idea that shock, bluster, and naked attention-seeking outweigh meaning, hard-work, and thoughtful analysis is not new. The art world fell prey to Trumps decades ago and has never escaped (although we call such men Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons). Once a culture enters a realm where shock and celebrity are the only currency, it becomes perilously difficult to return to meaningful themes. The feedback loop means that only a bigger shock or a more flagrant celebrity will be picked up by the media (they are already half-bankrupt and cannot afford to concentrate on anything else).

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The Celebrity Apprentice

Art and politics are not so very far apart. They are both about manipulating groups of people with symbols. The crowds of people who sniff at the empty ugly game which art has become need to wake up. Contemporary art is not irrelevant: it is still a dark mirror for what is happening in society as a whole…and if the art world is nothing but vast sums of money, and shock-value pieces with no beauty, it should be seen as a warning that the Trumps are coming everywhere else.

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Donald Trump – Pop Art Print (Andy Warhol’s Che Guevara Style) 60 x 50 x 1.8 cm Deep Box Canvas by Paintedicons

Of course, I don’t really think that Trump will actually win anything…not this time. But just being forced to contend with his style is going to usher in a new era unless we stop it. And the only way to prevent this is to ignore him. So don’t read this post—and don’t read any other essays about Trump or his ilk either (stop reading about stupid Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons for that matter). Viewers (and voters) can only win if we stop paying attention to these frauds. Beauty is still in the eye of the beholder, not the hand of the artist. Meaning comes from the crowd’s attention not the mouth of the demagogue. So let’s all just look elsewhere before things get spoiled….although if we fail at that maybe I’ll at least get a bunch of hits for finally writing about goddamned Trump…

Ok, I apologize for this week.  A friend of mine generously agreed to teach me 3D computer assisted design on Thursday, and I had a cold last night and just fell asleep after work–so there were only a measly 3 posts this week!  To make up for it, I will put up this week’s sketches tomorrow in a special Sunday post—so tune in then (and bring all of your friends and loved ones too!) but first, here is a rare Saturday post–a weird jeremiad about guilds.

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“Guilds” you are saying,” didn’t those die off in the middle ages? We live in a glistening modern world of opportunities now!”  Actually, guilds didn’t die at all—they have morphed and proliferated in ways both beneficial and detrimental to society.  We should think seriously about this and ask whether the ambiguous benefits of guild outweigh their unfair anti-competitive nature.

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First let’s quickly go back to the Middle Ages when there were two competing ways of learning professional trades.  You could go to a guild, where weird old men made you do sit on a bench and do menial tasks for twenty years while you competed in pointless status games with your cruel peers (and underwent fearsome hazing).  Assuming you survived all of this, you became part of the guild, and participated in its quasi-monopoly on trading fish with the Baltic, making oakum ropes, scrivening, alchemy, accounting, or whatever. Savvy readers will see the roots of the AMA, the Bar Association, and even our great universities and trade schools (and maybe our secondary schools) in this model.

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The other way was the master/apprentice system.  This is now most familiar to us through wizards, kung fu warriors, artists, Jedi, and other fictional characters—which is to say it has not proliferated in the modern world.  A wise master would take a favorite student under his/her wing and teach them the ropes.  This system had the advantage of being better and faster than the guild system—it can truly foster rare genius– but it had all of the Jesus/Peter, Jedi/Sith, father/son problems familiar to us through fiction. Namely the master frequently held on too long, became evil, started giving sermons in the wilderness, or otherwise went bad: or the apprentice decided they did not want to wait but were ready to paint naked ladies instead of mixing paint…or to enchant brooms or to fight the howling serpent gang.

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During the nineteenth century, law and medicine were learned like gunsmithing, coopering, and hat-making: through apprentices.  It worked fine for law but not for medicine (although I am not sure 19th century medicine was worthwhile anyway).   Today we have universities and professional schools controlling all the ways upward in society (provided you have adequate money and have passed through endless mandarin-style standardized tests).  It is making society sclerotic.  Anybody who has spent time in a contemporary office will instantly recognize the parochial narrow-minded professional mindset encountered at every turn.  We have a society made up of narrowly educated reactionaries monopolizing each profession. Time to open things up a bit with a different model.  The apprentice system worked well in the past.  Let’s try it again (and get rid of these smug gate-keeping professional schools in the process).

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Nothing could go wrong here!

Frankly I suspect that Doctors alone should have guilds.  It is the only discipline important enough and complicated enough to warrant the stranglehold protectionism of a professional association.  The great medical associations make use of master/apprentice-style relationships later on in a doctor’s training anyway, and they have proven themselves responsible guardians of their sacred trust in numerous other ways.  Lawyers, florists, morticians, artists, clowns, accountants, underwater welders, actuaries and other dodgy modern professionals should compete through the open market. If you want to be a businessman find a businessman and train with him until you know enough to defeat him in open business combat. If you want to be a florist or a computer programmer, find a master florist or a master programmer.  Disciplines like geology and engineering could keep pseudoscientists and frauds out of their ranks with continuing brutal tests.

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Nice Digital Serpent!

Of course it is possible that this whole post is merely an angry reaction to troubles in my own extremely subjective profession, art. Contemporary art schools are thoroughly worthless in every way. Back during the 50s and 60s, a bunch of doofy political theorists took over and hijacked art (which has many unpleasant similarities to political theory…but which is not political theory). Art has been a meaningless game of celebrity and identity-politics ever since.  It is sadly devoid of the master craftsman aspect which once made it great. I didn’t learn art at a famous art school.  I learned from a great master painter…who went a bit bonkers and moved off to China to practice veganism and sit on a mountain. That is the way things should be! This business of going to Yale or RISDI needs to be thrown on history’s scrapheap.

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I need a job!  If any of you folk out there need a writer/toymaker/artist/analyst let me know.  I will work for you with unflagging fervor, intellect, and creativity.  I only need a smidgen of money for catfood and rent (and someone else to manage the spreadsheet)!

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Sadly, according to the want ads I have been looking at, the world does not want astonishing super creativity.  Right now, the market economy only wants these infernal i-phones and tablets which everyone is looking at all the time.   The majority of jobs available are for low-level sales-clerks and admins to staff humankind’s great transition into a fully functional hive mind (where we humans, the individual neurons, are all always networked together through our androids and blackberries).

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I’m no Luddite. I enjoy technology and I can imagine great benefits arising from the internet when it fully grows up into a vast colony-mind. Yet, so far iphones mostly provide a solipsist diversion—or, at best—a platform for buying and selling more unneeded junk or channeling resources to Carlos Slim and other anointed telecom winners.  Naturally, I exempt Wikipedia from this grumpy jeremiad—it is indeed an amazing realization of the great utopian dreams of the Encyclopedists.  I suppose I should exempt this very blog and you, my cherished readers, as well… but, after a day of looking at ads for junior marketing interns and assistant admin assistants, I can’t entirely.  Here I am creating “content” for free so some MBA higher up the tech food chain can point at an infinitesimal rise or fall on a bar chart while his colleagues clap him on the shoulder and talk of “synergies.”  I certainly don’t want to be that guy either! But what else is there? What are we supposed to do?

Workers at a Microwave Factory in Baotao China

Workers at a Microwave Factory in Baotao China

To escape these circular author-centric thoughts, let’s take a field trip around the world. To provide a more comprehensive vision of the smart phone revolution, today’s post takes us to Inner Mongolia—the vast landlocked desert hinterland of China.  There, amidst the lifeless dunes and the alkaline sink holes is a vast manmade lake—Lake Baotou—which reflects some of the complicated dualities of the globalized market and the technology revolution.  It has been said that each computer screen and cellphone window is a “black mirror” where we watch ourselves. Lake Bautu is a different sort of black mirror.  It is literally a layer of super-toxic black sludge which is left over when the rare-earth elements and heavy metals necessary for smart phones have been processed.

Waste draining into

Waste draining into “rare earth lake” Baotou, Inner Mongolia of China (ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)

Ferrebeekeeper has visited the world’s biggest lake, and we have dipped our toes into the fabled waters of Mount Mazama where the Klamath spirit of the underworld dwells.  We have visited Lake Lonar where a space object slammed into the black basalt of a long dead shield volcano, and we have even been to China’s biggest lake where the world’s largest naval battle took place.  However, Lake Baotou is a whole different manifestation of the underworld.  Sophisticated modern electronics require cerium, neodymium, yttrium, europium, and goodness only knows what else. These so-called rare earth elements are also necessary for wind turbines, electric car arrays, and next generation green technologies.

Giant sludge pond in Baotao China (Photo by Veronique de Viguerie/Reportage by Getty Images)

Giant sludge pond in Baotao China (Photo by Veronique de Viguerie/Reportage by Getty Images)

Yet the refinement process for these elements is unusually corrosive and toxic and the waste products are horrifying.  The raw materials tend to be found in great evaporitic basins (like those of Inner Mongolia, where an ancient ocean dried into vast dunes) but most nations are wary of processing these materials because of the unknown long-term cost. China’s leaders recognized the economic (and defense!) potential of becoming the world’s main (only?) supplier of these esoteric elements and the end result has been cheap consumer electronics, a communication revolution…and Lake Baotao, which slouches dark and poisonous beneath the refining towers and smokestacks of Baotao City.

On the plus side, Baotao (pictured here during rush hour) is evidently the bicyclists' paradise I was wishing for last week!

On the plus side, Baotao (pictured here during rush hour) is evidently the bicyclists’ paradise I was wishing for last week!

A former roommate of mine visited Inner Mongolia and walked the streets of Baotao City. He described a wild-west boomtown filled with brothels, bars, Mongolian barbeque places, and…cell phone stores!  Crime and excess were readily apparent everywhere as were prosperity and success—like old timey Deadwood or Denver.  I wonder if Baotao City will develop into a modern hub like Denver or Chicago, or will it disappear back into the thirsty dunes when this phase of the electronics boom is over (or when its effluviums become insuperable).

Cell-Phone-Subscribers

In the mean time we all have to flow with the shifting vicissitudes of vast entwined global networks.  We must make ends meet in a way which hopefully doesn’t harm the world too much. Now I better get back to scouring the want ads!  Keep your eyes open for a job for me and please keep following me, um, on your computers and smart phones…

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