Tag Archives: Art

Bashing Billionaires

Steve Jobs stepped down from his post as CEO of Apple yesterday. The internet instantly erupted in adulation. … Mr Jobs’s wealth … was built in no small part upon an intellectual-property regime that I and many others believe to retard progress. … Bill Gates used to get plenty of heat from the class warriors, but some time after … [he] devoted a huge portion of his fortune to his charitable foundation, he ascended to a sort of philanthropic secular sainthood. … But Mr Jobs has eschewed charity. …

[Yes,] charity very often does rather less to improve quality of life than selling people ever better products at ever lower prices. But this line of reasoning hasn’t convinced very many of us that, say, Charles and David Koch’s vast wealth is proof of their successful service to humankind. Mr Jobs’s relative immunity from the scorn of those otherwise keen to stick it to billionaires is due, I think, to the admiring pleasure wordsmiths takes in the elegance of the Apple devices they use for work, play, and status-signaling. …

Steve Jobs is a white wizard in wire rims who offers …. mesmerising portals to a better, beautiful, more enchanted world. … So who gives a fig if he doesn’t shower his billions upon worthy causes. … But what about the guys who get rich digging oil out of the ground so we can charge our iPhones? Stick it to ‘em, the greedy bastards. All of which is to say, our intuitions about economic desert and fair distribution are…complicated. (more)

Consider: what elites did foragers worry most about? Foragers worried most about elite capacity for violence, and an inclination to use it. They also worried lots about unequal access to food and shelter, and to tools useful for all these things. So foragers enforced strong norms against giving orders or doing violence, and norms favoring sharing of food, shelter, medicine, and tools. In these senses foragers were egalitarian.

However, foragers worried far less about unequal capacities for art, music, conversation, charm, social popularity, or sex appeal. After all, in a forager world unequal capacities of these sort just couldn’t go anywhere near as horribly wrong as unequal violence or food. Because of this humans seem evolved to tolerate, and even celebrate, unequal abilities in art, popularity, or sex appeal.

Fast forward to today, and consider which billionaires are liked versus disliked. I’d bet that artistic billionaires like Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, and Oprah Winfrey are among the most liked, even after one controls for how well know they are. Same for rich actors and talk show hosts. In contrast, billionaires who are merely associated with an ordinary business are probably the least popular.

Note that while it was pretty functional for foragers to tolerate artistic inequality more, an added tolerance today for artistic billionaires over mere business billionaires has few functional benefits. Your added envy and hostility to mere business billionaires is just an arbitrary dysfunctional vestige of times long since past. Yes it might feel better to bash them, but is that really a good enough reason to do so?

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The Beauty Bias

As I write these words I’m riding a late night train, listening to some beautiful music and noticing a beautiful woman in the aisle opposite. And I can feel with unusual vividness my complete vulnerability to a beauty bias. The careful analytical thoughts I had hours before now seem, no matter what their care or basis, trivial and small by comparison.

If words and coherent thoughts came through this beauty channel, they would feel so much more compelling. If I had to choose between beauty and something plain or ugly, I would be so so eager to find excuses to choose beauty. If I needed to believe beauty was stronger or more moral or better for the world, reasons would be found, and it would feel easy to accept them.

This all horrifies the part of me that wants to believe what is true, based on some coherent and fair use of reasons and analysis. But I can see how very inadequate I am to resist it. The best I can do, it seems, is to not form beliefs or opinions while attending to beauty. Such as by avoiding music with non-trivial lyrics. And by wariness of opinions regarding a divide where one side is more beautiful. (Yes Tyler, this does question my taste for elegant theoretical simplicity.)

I have little useful advice here, alas, other than: know your limits. If you cannot help but to fall into a ditch if you walk nearby, then keep away, or accept that you’ll fall in.

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Art Is Power

The movie Howl helped me to understand a role art can play in the politics of regulation. Art done well can have a very high status, a status which transfers to the actions used to create or express this art, as well as to the actions depicted by the art.  And by making some examples of an action high status, one reduces political support for regulations limiting such actions.

For example, since most folks are uncomfortable with explicit sexual conversation in public, obscenity laws limit such public conversation. But when artists create high quality and hence high status art with explicit sexual discussion, people are reluctant to let obscenity laws apply to it.  So they’ll either have to make an exception in obscenity law for high status art, which will lead to many disputes since art evaluation can be subjective, or they’ll have to just allow a lot more public obscenity. Similarly, having high status art depicting homosexuality, being created by them, reduces support for laws against homosexuality.

Of course this can also work the other way – high quality art that presents a low opinion of an example of some type of action can raise support for regulations limiting such actions. So the power of art isn’t only a libertarian power – it is a power of status, which can be directed toward many ends. But since art is an expression, it will more often conflict with laws forbidding expressions than with other sorts of laws, and so will tend to push for freer expression.

So does art tends to be a force for political good? Well if you favor freer expression, you’ll think so. But beyond that, it depends on the taste and judgment of the artists, relative to the many other forces pushing for more or less regulation. I suppose I’ll give artists the benefit of the doubt, and assume they helps a little, just as I’ll presume all other sources help a little on average. But it would sure be nice to get better data to make a more refined judgment.

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Artists As Foragers

William Easterly in yesterday’s Post:

For so many of my generation, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Lennon was a hero, not just for his music but for his fearless activism against the Vietnam War. … The closest counterpart to Lennon now is U2’s Bono, … championing … the battle against global poverty. But there is a fundamental difference between Lennon’s activism and Bono’s. … Lennon was a rebel. Bono is not. Lennon’s protests against the war in Vietnam so threatened the U.S. government that he was hounded by the FBI, police and immigration authorities. … Bono, by contrast, … does not challenge power but rather embraces it; he is more likely to appear in photo ops with international political leaders – or to travel through Africa with a Treasury secretary. … There is something inherently noble about the celebrity dissident, but there is something slightly ridiculous about the celebrity wonk. (more)

If you thought artists had special insight into politics, policy, or their underlying morality, and so sought political info from them, you would not presume to know the info they had to convey in particular cases. You would wait to hear from them if they thought any particular power should be supported or criticized. Instead Easterly here is disappointed that today’s artist celebrities criticize today’s policies, not its powers, because he thinks artists should always criticize power. Artists are so much not info sources to Easterly as allies he wants to rely on to support his anti-power political side. Why?

Artists are iconic foragers, seen as promiscuous, leisurely, non-materialistic, non-domineering, well-traveled, etc. In our great political conflicts between forager and farmer styles, we expect artists to take the forager side. So Easterly complains that the politics of celebrities like Bono doesn’t seem sufficiently forager-like. The great divide continues.

More Easterly quotes: Continue reading "Artists As Foragers" »

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Real Creativity

Munira Mirza’s ’08 review of Creativity: Unconventional Wisdom from 20 Accomplished Minds:

The editors’ corporate conceptualisation of ‘creativity’ makes this collection about as exciting as a the spring show from Marks and Spencers. … What is creativity? … the respondents give a rather similar (and by the end of the book, dull) answer – it’s thinking out of the box, it’s breaking the rules, it’s challenging convention. …

In fact, creative people don’t think of themselves as ‘creatives’ with a particular mentality to boot (unless, of course, they run a creative consultancy, in which case it’s necessary for promotional purposes). They think of themselves as novelists, engineers, software designers, journalists, artists, and so on. … They make things and are preoccupied with the things they make, unbothered with developing a ‘creative’ mentality. … It is their engagement with their chosen activity that drives them, rather than some kind of personal predisposition or character type. …

We live in a society obsessed with cultivating the creative mind: on this view, the mental attitude is all that matters, regardless of what end product it actually makes. This shift has taken place most profoundly in arts education. … And now, we have a deluge of state sponsored initiatives to encourage creativity in people (creative industries, Creative Partnerships, creative quarters, etc) but a dearth of the skills that allow people to create. …

There are many examples in the book when creativity is shown to be a team effort, rather than the spark of an individual genius …. Creativity is also something that requires hard work and intellectual energy, rather than spontaneity. … Karl Marx pointed out that when people engage in creative labour they are required to pay close attention both to the concrete practice of creating, and the conceptualisation of the end product. (more; HT Rachel Armstrong)

Yup.  I’ll admit it; Murina’s more (academic-style) articulate than I on the subject.

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Concept Artists

Back in ’94 I won an electronic arts prize, and spent a weekend in Austria with artists. They had declared me a “concept artist” and we discussed what that meant. I felt deja vu Thursday when I presented at the Parsons New School of Design, and after talked with professors of design and architecture (audio, slides; vid). It seems to me that they are also concept artists, though they might not embrace this description, and this made me wonder again how many intellectuals are concept artists.

A painter arranges paint on a canvas in a pattern that other artists judge to be pretty or provocative or intriguing, or, well anything really that they respect enough to call “art.” While they have no explicit standards, they can roughly articulate many features that all-else-equal make paintings better, and communities of artists usually have enough consensus on what they like to together rate paintings as good or bad. It is similar for sculpture, movies, novels, etc. — communities of artists develop common enough implicit standards so that they agree enough on what is good art.

Similar standards of evaluation can be applied to concepts, ideas, and claims. To the naive, “concept artists” may sound like they intend mainly to make claims about reality, and to evaluate those claims in terms of how well they cohere with each other and data about reality. But in fact concept artists evaluate claims more the way most any artists evaluates art – in terms of beauty, elegance, provocation, intrigue, etc. This can make concept artists a bit more tolerant of ambiguity, logical gaps, etc., though the difference can be subtle – being too obviously tolerant of such things usually isn’t good art.

Concept artists aren’t really my style of intellectual, but I must admit that the fact that conceptual artists are not primarily focused on the truth of their claims does not prevent them from achieving insight and contributing to intellectual progress.  Truth be old, most other intellectuals also are not first and foremost trying to find truth. Yet intellectual progress is often a side effect of their activities. It is much harder than you might think to say which intellectual styles best find truth in what contexts.

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Sustainable Music

Recently I [saw] … a cake that bore the iced command, “Celebrate Sustainability!” Clearly the candle had been passed. For more than a generation, cakes at campus events have tutored students to “Celebrate Diversity!” Something has changed. … Diversity and sustainability have a complicated, decades-old rivalry. … Both are about repairing the world; both invite exuberant commitment; both are moralistic. … Sustainability set aside the driving idea of the original environmental movement, that we help ourselves when we clean up the environment. Sustainability shifts the focus to both the imagined future and the supposed needs of the earth itself. (more)

Green Is Far – What [do] the various “environmental” topics have in common[?] … They are mostly … at unusually large distances in space, time, and social relation from ordinary folks and concerns. (more)

In my enviro econ class we’ve come to concepts like “degradable,” “renewable,” and “sustainable.” People often get very concerned when they imagine that certain common practices can’t continue forever, and want to regulate them to extend how long they could last.  Interestingly, this logic is only applied to a few areas like oil, metals, and farms, but not to most of our industries and practices.

For example, consider the sustainability of music. Each new song sits somewhere in a range of originality, from very original to very derivative. The more new original songs are developed and marketed, the harder it gets to develop and market new songs that will be seen as relatively original. Song writers then become more tempted to develop and market recycled versions of old songs.  As the supply of original songs is slowly exhausted, the music industry slowly changes its focus from original to derivative songs.

Since original music cannot last forever, we face a “sustainability” question regarding whether we are using up the supply of original music too quickly, too slowly, or just right.  Formally, this question is very similar to questions of whether we are using up copper or farmland too quickly. Such things can also be reused, where all else equal reuse is less attractive than first use. But to most people, questions about the sustainability of music, or of novels or movies, seem silly, relative to the usual “serious” sustainability questions. Why?

My suggestion: sustainability is a far concept, about what happens on far timescales, so it makes more sense to people as applied to far things.  Near things are to be considered only on near timescales, people assume.

Added 9p: Jeremy points us to a very relevant short story by Spider Robinson.

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Limits To Art

Bryan Caplan:

Robin Hanson has repeatedly told me that during the next million years, we’ll discover all useful science/technology; there’s only so much to know, and by then, we’ll have it all figured out. But would Robin see art the same way? By his logic, it seems like you could also say say: During the next million years, will we discover all interesting art; there’s only so much art to create, and by then we’ll have created it.

You might object, “Science is about truth, art is about creativity, so science but not art has finite limits.” But is “useful” more like “true” or “interesting”? So even given constant science, we might endlessly create novel applications. Once you go down this route, though, it’s hard to see why scientific questions – as opposed to answers – would be any less open-ended than artistic visions.

My claim is that within a million years economic growth due to innovation will have essentially ceased, at least relative to our innovation rates, in terms of giving value to creatures like us. I do not say our descendants will never discover anything new and valuable; the space of possible combinations is far too vast for that. Instead, I say new discoveries will have very close value substitutes in billions of previous discoveries. At least for creature like us, and setting aside the value of novelty itself, which cannot contribute much to economic growth.

So yes, our descendants will discover new stories, art, and even math theorems, rare items of high value in a vast mostly-unexplored space of low value items. But creatures like us will not gain substantially more value from these new items, compared to the last million such items. They may perceive a value of novelty in finding something new, and having been the one to find it. But they won’t get substantially more value from this than did their ancestors in finding the last million such novelties.

Yes it might be possible to create creatures who gain unboundedly increasing value from ever more rare yet actually found combinations. But we are not such creatures, nor do we have unbounded sympathy with such creatures. So the value obtained by creatures like us is bounded.

It is also hard to see why such unbounded-value creatures would naturally evolve in a competitive world; we evolved to value rare hard-to-find combinations because this signaled useful abilities. But when abilities are bounded, then so should be the value gained from signaling such abilities. And much of the value of such signals is relative; when some gain, others lose by comparison.

Of course in a million years we may not have expanded more than a million light-years from home, and so our economy will at least grow with our slowly expanding sphere of resources. But this growth rate is far below familiar growth rates, and far below feasible population growth rates.

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