Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Israel's Arts Boycott

Playgoer spots this important news story:
Dozens of Israeli actors, playwrights and directors have signed a letter refusing to take part in productions by leading theatre companies at a new cultural centre in a West Bank settlement, prompting renewed debate over the legitimacy of artistic boycott.

More than 60 have joined the protest over plans by Israel's national theatre, the Habima, and other leading companies to stage performances in Ariel, a settlement 12 miles inside the West Bank. The letter, to Israel's culture minister, Limor Livnat, says the new centre for performing arts in Ariel, which is due to open in November after 20 years in construction, would "strengthen the settlement enterprise".
This strikes me as important for two reasons:
  1. Habima is the largest theater in Israel, so it would be rather like having a protest of artists boycotting the Lincoln Center. (More on this thought a little bit later in the post)

  2. This is an incredible amount of spine from the shrinking left-wing of Israel.
My despair over my home nation has been over the fact that what used to be considered "right-wing" ideas (such as the idea that settlements were an uncontested fact of Israel) have moved to the center, largely over the fact that there has been no leadership on the issue.

When Sharon created the centrist Kadima party, he took the spine out of the Labour party; those left-leaning members who joined Kadima quickly found themselves too entangled with the military hawks and the conservative religious settlers to be a viable opposition to the right-wing. Barak further wrecked the left by splitting Labour over the decision to join Netenyahu's government.

So in this atmosphere of a disorganized, demoralized, shrinking left, Netenyahu has managed to get the Obama Administration to agree that freezing settlements are not a pre-condition for direct talks; instead, it will be the subject to direct talks. That's moving the goal-posts from a year ago.

So in this atmosphere leading up to talks directly relating to settlements, it's encouraging to see the people take leadership to say, "You know what? We're not going to participate in this way." And, surprisingly, it appears to be getting traction; it seems like a consensus is emerging in the arts community that this is the way to go.

And as we've seen with this Ground Zero "mosque" debacle, when one group of people have a strong consensus, they can start to influence others who are passive on the issue.

I mentioned before that Habima is a big theater, and I related it to the Lincoln Center. I didn't choose that one arbitrarily.

Playgoer also had a very good read about the Lincoln Center's relationship with Tea Party Billionare David Koch, who apparently backs both unseating Obama and effete New York artists (who knew?). I have heard much gnashing of teeth and consternation over it.

Playgoer proposes boycotting the Lincoln Center as consumers. But what if our anger at the Lincoln-Koch relationship was a boycott of artists?

The quick answer is that a few artists would try, would starve, would need jobs, would worry about stability, and would quickly pretend that they hadn't tried. Enough people are desperate for the opportunity to perform at the Lincoln Center that there will always be artists to work there.

Mission Paradox admonished me once for conflating the health of artists and the health of the arts -- which was, of course, a valid point. But I would point out that the desperation of artists may weaken their ability to create independent arts.

Of course, much of that is perceptual. But I wonder if an artist's boycott could really happen, except under the auspices of SAG or Actor's Equity.

Review: Shakespeare the Dead

Pipeline Theatre Company
In association with Theater for the New City and Dream Up Festival
upcoming performances:
Thursday - September 2 @ 9:00pm
Friday - September 3 @ 9:00pm
Saturday - September 4 @ 7:00pm

tickets available here

As a pragmatist, I try to look for a moment in a work of theater where a goal is articulated or at least is palpable. When Alex Mills (the playwright, performing in the role of The Stranger) declared, "Let's all stop worshipping the corpse of a dead man--let's start make a new classic!" I knew I was hearing not only the desire of a filmmaker in the world of the play, I was hearing his desire clearly stated.


Firstly, the play itself. The original work, crafted by Alex Mills, tells the story of a film crew gathered to a remote location to film an adaptation of Macbeth. Or so they think. Pretty much from the get-go, a mystery sets in as The Producer (Gil Zabarsky) is swept aside by The Stranger (Alex Mills), and the entire project is swiftly morphed into an homage to a man who died in shocking -- and mysterious -- circumstances.

Mills understands that the secret to a good mystery is not to be mysterious -- it's to present a few compelling facts and hide the rest of the information. At first, it doesn't even feel like you're watching a mystery -- you are watching a comedy, but you're sitting there wondering, "What the fuck is going on?"

In this atmosphere of secrets and confusion, the compelling rope that pulls us along are the vividly drawn, tenderly crafted characters. Willy Appelman as The Intern, in particular, paints a character who is largely incidental to the plot, but as a touchingly sympathetic character, we wind up following him along.

We watch repeatedly as characters dare to hope, and get their dreams torn apart by vicious, sharp cynicism -- The Intern is constantly mocked for thinking that an unpaid, full-time internship is somehow worth something, The Writer (Jessica Frey) is mocked for thinking that Shakespeare has some sort of relevance in this world.

The sharpness of the cynicism is actually sharp: when The Stranger gives a cruel, biting rant tearing into The Writer, the little sadist in us grins. But quickly, it becomes apparent that the world of cruel tearing anger and the world of innocent hopefulness are really the same world, are motivated by the same things -- and watching that emotional realization onstage is what draws the audience along, even as they try to untangle a dense knot of confusion.

For me, though, the production gave me a chance to ruminate on who exactly Pipeline Theatre Company is. They're a company I like, and I've seen plenty of their works before: their hysterical Psycho Beach Party, and their evening of short works Brave New Works, which I think is not only a good night of theater but a service to the community.

Who are these people, though? Their mission statement doesn't fulfill me: "Pipeline's mission is to simply tell excellent, entertaining, thoughtful stories that explore the many facets of humanity from our unique perspective." It's one of those mission statements that says, "We put on good theater." And, to be fair, it's one that they take seriously and do well.

But I've been watching them and I feel like there's more to what they're up to. There's something crafty in the broad, character-driven humor they're putting in front of the audience that's hiding a very intellectual and subtle aim. I haven't divined it exactly, but I hope their theater comes to more critical scrutiny in the future -- because I feel like they are almost done a disservice for being seen as just a funny evening. What I said above about the viciousness and the hope coming from the same place is a message that many may just walk on by, beguiled by the slapstick, the broad (if touching and sympathetic) characters.

I very much want this play to be put back into the cycle and put on again. There are a lot of chewy, engaging ideas that could be developed further -- in the design elements of the space, particularly the ritualistic chalk that divides up the space. The sense of ritual could heighten the world of mystery and suspense, laying the clues for the incredible ending (which I would feel criminal revealing here).

Furthermore, that fantastic ending could be sanded down a little, flowed more; it's incredibly ambitious in the way it destroys everything you were thinking about the show up to that point, but there are some moments towards the end where things have changed so fast that it feels like hitting a speed-bump; other transitions, however, are silky smooth and quite entrancing.

This, however, is nit-picking. Alex Mills' beguiling presence onstage and mental presence in the writing is a world that you could live in forever.

Go see it. Really, Alex Mills is one of the playwrights that you'll hear from again, a young Pinter with a broader sense of humor. You'll be rewarded for your time.

(Disclaimer: The FCC requires that I disclose that I was given a free ticket in return for my agreement to review this production.

The FCC doesn't require that I disclose that many of the people who are in the company are my personal friends, I have a crush on more than two of them, I consider Alex Mills to be a personal hero, my theater company has partnered with them before and will in fact be partnering with them in September on a short works festival (Brave New Works) and on a full-production that we're partnering with them with regards to space to get.

The FCC furthermore doesn't require that I disclose that people shared classes with many of these people, and have been given a bruise by one of the members of the cast -- she knows who she is.

The FCC is not interested in the fact that we all hold degrees from the same university, nor to the fact that I probably couldn't live without a hug from one of these fine folks. Or the fact that my theater company is jealous of their theater company.

I'm saying all this because I find it rather odd that the FCC doesn't require me disclose all of that, seeing as all of those things seem rather more important than the $10 that they waived me to see the show.)

(UPDATE: For some reason, I have repeatedly made the claim that Colby Day Productions' Ghost of Dracula was, in fact, a Pipeline Theatre venture. There is overlap in the two groups -- Daniel Johnson was involved, I believe, and played The Director in this production, as well as Alex Mills. However, I mistakenly conflated the two groups, and I have made the correction seamlessly in-line. My apologies to my former roommate Colby.)

Monday, August 30, 2010

My Mind 8/30 - 9/4 - "I'm On Vacation" Edition

How I was keeping my mind clean this week:
Things I disagree with:
Things I agree with:
How I was keeping my mind fit this week:
Important facts:
Things to watch in the future:

Saturday, August 28, 2010

That's Right. I Ate A Double-Down


I was walking home tonight and I passed the KFC on 14th St, just as I was thinking to myself, "I should get something cheap and quick to eat, since my apartment is in boxes and everything is chaos, so cooking at home seems like an impossible hassle."

That's when it hit me: curiosity.

What is the Double Down like?


The first thing I noticed about the Double Down is that, despite its horrific reputation, it is not really the most terrible thing on the menu. Thanks to New York City's calorie intake law, I knew that it was 1090 calories. Which, you know, is pretty bad -- it's half of your daily value -- but it's not at the top end of the KFC menu.

Once I had the sandwich (if you can all it that) in hand, it was easily apparent why. It is no larger than your average KFC entree, about ten bites worth of meat. The two pieces of chicken are about the same size as the normal in-sandwich meat. It's just two layers -- like a Whopper or some such. And yeah, it has cheese, mayo, and bacon, but so does like everything else.

I ate it pretty quickly, feeling pretty disappointed. I feel as though the cruel reputation of the Double Down as being "the worst thing" or being "basically suicide" had created a certain set of expectations that it didn't fill.


When I finished, I was still hungry. I have a theory that the body knows empty calories and doesn't accept them, and it certainly was true about this double-down. I felt as though I hadn't eaten anything.

After about three or four minutes, my stomach started to react to the sandwich. I imagine this is what the now-discredited boiling frog from Al Gore's metaphor feels like. I was still hungry, mind you -- my stomach didn't seem to note that I had eaten anything, it just noted that I was feeling terrible. Although, I feel about this bad when I eat greasy food like this normally.

Pretty soon, I broke down and had to go somewhere else to get some actual sustenance, hoping for something else to quiet it down.


If you were curious what the Double Down is like, know what I should have known: it's basically just a shitty KFC sandwich that gets your hands greasy because there's no bread.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Thursday, August 26, 2010

An interview with Val Kilmer on Method Acting

From Esquire:

Me: You mean you think you literally had the same experience as Doc Holliday?

Kilmer: Oh, sure. It's not like I believed that I shot somebody, but I absolutely know what it feels like to pull the trigger and take someone's life.

You understand how it feels to shoot someone as much as a person who has actually committed a murder?

I understand it more. It's an actor's job. A guy who's lived through the horror of Vietnam has not spent his life preparing his mind for it. He's some punk. Most guys were borderline criminal or poor, and that's why they got sent to Vietnam. It was all the poor, wretched kids who got beat up by their dads, guys who didn't get on the football team, couldn't finagle a scholarship. They didn't have the emotional equipment to handle that experience. But this is what an actor trains to do. I can more effectively represent that kid in Vietnam than a guy who was there.

I don't question that you can more effectively represent it, but that's not the same thing. If you were talking to someone who's in prison for murder and the guy said, "Man, it really fucks you up to kill another person," do you think you could reasonably say, "I completely know what you're talking about"?

Oh yeah. I'd know what he's talking about.

Let's say someone made a movie about you--Val Kilmer--and they cast Jude Law in the lead role. By your logic, wouldn't this mean that Jude Law--if he succeeded in the role--would therefore understand what it means to be Val Kilmer more than you do?

No, because I'm an actor. The people in those other circumstances don't have the self-knowledge.

Well, what if it were a movie about your young life, before you became an actor?

I guess I'd have to say yes.

Okay, so let's assume you had been given the lead role in The Passion of the Christ. Would you understand the feeling of being crucified as much as Jesus?

Well, I just played Moses [in a theatrical version of The Ten Commandments]. Of course.

So you understand the experience of being Moses? Maybe I'm just taking your words too literally.

No, I don't think so. That's what acting is.

I keep asking Kilmer if he is joking, and he swears he is not. However, claiming that he's not joking might be part of the joke. A few weeks later, I paraphrased the preceding conversation to Academy Award--winning conspiracy theorist Oliver Stone, the man who directed Kilmer in 1991's The Doors and 2004's Alexander. He did not find our exchange surprising. "This has always been the issue with Val," Stone said via cell phone as his son drove him around Los Angeles. "He speaks in a way that is propelled from deep inside, and he doesn't always realize how the things he says will sound to other people. But there is a carryover effect from acting. You can never really separate yourself from what you do, and Val is ultrasensitive to that process."

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Iraq Election News Update!

We may have "left" Iraq, but it's still there -- a great story about how al-Sadr, the Shi'ite cleric who led to a lot of violence in Baghdad but came into the fold and entered the political system, now controls a huge chunk of the Shi'ite votes (40 seats). He refuses, however, to back the current Prime Minister, Maliki. This has lead to a months-long deadlock. The deadlock appears to be shifting, now that Sadr has started making overtures to Allawi, another prominent bloc-leader.

Why is this important?

Other than simply resolving the deadlock in Parliament, the crucial aspect of this is the idea that an incumbent may lose.

It's something we take for granted in America, since incumbents (Bush Sr., Carter, Ford, etc.) aren't guaranteed re-election. As a point of comparison, though, in sham elections (Mugabe, Putin, etc.) the incumbent will always win.

So for a young democracy, if the perception grows that democracy is merely a constant confirmation of the same poll-leader, then disenfranchisement grows.

Look no further than England, which was dreary and dispirited with its choices, until suddenly Nick Clegg demonstrated that voting could actually mean something. It changed the whole dynamic, and the government that resulted -- even though it was still a Cameron Prime Ministership -- is very, very different as a result. Real change is happening because of the dissatisfaction that was felt, whether for good or ill.

Afghanistan is a young democracy. Hamid Karzai has been in charge ever since we appointed him, through some somewhat tainted elections. This hurts the legitimacy of the Afghan government.

So I don't know what Maliki, Sadr, or Allawi mean for the Iraqis. But it will be interesting to see what the dynamic is for radicals (such as Sadr's radical base) who realize that they can be enfranchised in a parliament even if they lost the vote.

But if Sadr eventually is forced to back Maliki, then the radicals will remain frustrated, and feel outside the system.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Circle Rules Federation Update!


Was it raining buckets? Yes. Did we still play a pick-up game? HELL YES.

We actually had more people on the field who had never played Circle Rules before than old hands! Our team, West Nile Virus, won 4-3 against our opponents, and I had 3 of the goals (the opening goal was put in by a newbie, Mikey, who also unhesitatingly named our team!).


The update today is about TOMORROW'S CHAMPIONSHIP GAME! The Slow James K. Polks, of which yours truly is a proud member, is playing the Flying Mordecais -- who we have just recently demolished. Our team is going to be strong in numbers, and we're absolutely ready to take on this challenge.

You are humbly invited to come watch the destruction!

Wednesday, 8/25

Bushwick Inlet Field
N10th & Kent st
Brooklyn, NY

Best part: THE DRUMLINE IS BACK!!! Youth Arts Brooklyn is bringing out their drum and flag corps to pump up the crowd. If you missed them the first time at the 2009 Come Out & Play festival, don't miss it!

Legal Commentary: No More Stem Cell Funding!

A lot of furor over the Federal judge who over-ruled Obama's executive order funding stem cell research. From the NYTimes:
The judge ruled that the Obama administration’s policy was illegal because the administration’s distinction between work that leads to the destruction of embryos — which cannot be financed by the federal government under the current policy — and the financing of work using stem cells created through embryonic destruction was meaningless. In his ruling, he referred to embryonic stem cell research as E.S.C.

“If one step or ‘piece of research’ of an E.S.C. research project results in the destruction of an embryo, the entire project is precluded from receiving federal funding,” wrote Judge Lamberth, who was appointed to the federal bench in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan.
I have to say, the reasoning there seems pretty solid to me. If Congressional intent was to prevent the funding the destruction of embryos, then making a distinction between "paying to destroy embryos" and "paying for processes that involve destroying embryos" is a pretty stupid one.

Again, NYTimes:
For scientists, the problem with the judge’s reasoning is that it may render all scientific work regarding embryonic stem cells illegal — including work allowed under the more restrictive policy adopted by President George W. Bush in 2001.
If it's the case that all embryonic stem cell research involves the destruction of embryos, than clearly the Judiciary is right that both executive orders are over-reaches.

Bottom line: The real culprits here are Congress. Blame Bart Stupak and the pro-life Democrats.

Monday, August 23, 2010

My Mind 8/22 - 8/30

How I was keeping my mind clean this week:
How I was keeping my mind fit this week:
Important facts:
Things to watch in the future:

White Male-ness of Literature: Not Inevitable

Anyway, there are ways that our reading is shaped and limited by the biases of the dominant literary gatekeepers--maybe without realizing it, we've only read books by people of a certain race, or who write in a certain language, or who follow the conventions of a certain genre (including the unnamed genre of Anglo-American Serious Fiction). To some people this is the great opportunity in the coming bookquake, the chance to disintermediate some of those gatekeepers and their peculiar, ossified biases. But the real bias may be inside of us, as readers, and we might have to force ourselves out of them to take advantage of these new opportunities. How exciting is it to consider that there are worlds of literature out there that you may not have tapped into, undiscovered countries of books to explore that might yet tell you something new in a new way?
I wonder, though, if the reader has more responsibility for this than the gate-keepers. Because this article struck out to me from the Toronto Star, about how women are dominating the Canadian fiction list:
Last year, 10 of the 12 books longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize were written by women — even if, granted, the eventual winner was Linden MacIntyre's The Bishop's Man. Beyond that, four of the five Governor General's Award finalists, including winner Kate Pullinger's The Mistress of Nothing, were by women. The Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, which included three female finalists, was won by Annabel Lyon's The Golden Mean — the only book to be nominated for all three prizes. The past three winners of the Amazon First Novel Award have all been women.

By contrast, the past six winners of the Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction were men. Since the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction was introduced six years ago, four of the winners have been men.
And yet here in the United States, fiction is apparently the domain of white men. (By the way, when I tried to think of women writers, almost all of the ones I thought up were non-fiction: Mary Roach, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jane Goodall, Sarah Vowell, etc. -- and I tend to know about them from The Daily Show).

Is it that Canadian readership has a bias towards women-written literature, and American readership has a bias towards men-written literature? Or is it more likely that the American gatekeepers are more male-biased than the Canadian gatekeepers? Or are there other factors at work?

Not knowing the Canadian and American publishing systems, I am in no position to judge. But figuring out what the differences are between them might illuminate the problem.

Alienation vs. Invasions of Privacy pt. II

As an addendum to Alienation vs. Invasions of Privacy, the complete opposite end of the spectrum of Foursquare (broadcasting your location) is 4chan:
By no coincidence, 4chan stands out not only for the content its users generate but for the way they generate it: with a degree of anonymity almost unheard-of in the online world. Though Poole himself is known to the site's users by the cryptic pseudonym "moot," on 4chan even using a pseudonym is rare. The site has no log-in function, so each message can be posted under whatever name its author chooses, but users are strongly encouraged to post with no identifying name at all. Roughly 90 percent of all messages on 4chan are posted under the site's default identity, "Anonymous." And those messages are not only anonymous but ephemeral, because 4chan has no long-term archives: old message threads are automatically deleted when new ones need the room. This mechanism was originally meant to save storage costs, but as Poole notes, "it's both practical and philosophical." Among other things, it challenges the idea that digital identity should follow you across time, linking what you say when you're a teenager to the middle-aged business owner you might become. In 4chan's heavy traffic, a message can vanish within hours or even minutes of its posting.

Race on Forms

From the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee's form, here's the definition of white:
White (Not Hispanic or Latino) A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa.
First: the "Not Hispanic or Latino" qualifier appears on every single category including "Two or more Races" on the form. The implication (at least to me) is, "If you're even part Hispanic or Latino, you'd better not identify as something else. Since obviously you can't be both Hispanic and Asian...

Secondly: White includes the Middle East and North Africa? Really? The government has no interest in seeing whether Iranians or Saudis are being discriminated in the workplace (declaring them as White makes them difficult to track separately from Europeans)? Since clearly, Muslims have not had any hate directed at them in recent months...

Sunday, August 22, 2010


I read the list with a little pity. Obviously, we've all put things in our products that we're not proud of. It's not as though all of Jay-Z is on the level of "If you shoot my dog I'ma kill your cat."

I'm sure you could do the same with classic playwrights. What are your least favorite lines of dialogue by the most prominent playwright's plays?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Friday, August 20, 2010

Memorial III: WTC

Back in the day, I did a couple bits on memorials. In the second one, I highlighted my favorite memorials to the World Trade Center:
My two favorite memorials to the World Trade Center are both unintentional artifacts. The first... is Fritz Koenig's The Sphere, which is now in Battery Park--it's a sculpture of a whole golden globe, which used to sit in the midst of the Trade Center plaza, symbolizing the globalization of wealth. Which is a pretty empty symbol, to me--simplistic, hearkening back to "In America the streets are paved with gold." On the day of the disaster, rubble fell onto the Sphere, punching holes into it, revealing it to be hollow (if you look at the pre-9/11 photos, it certainly looks solid). There, you have both sides of the equation--the whole golden globe, representing the unity of the world both in globalization and in the aftermath of the disaster, and the holes knocked into it by those who were in the gaps of that golden globe, countries like Afghanistan that were left behind. They were gaps in the globe before, but because we ignored them (pretended that they were part of it), they lashed out and knocked their own hole in the globe.

The other memorial, for me, is the Cortlandt Street subway station on the NQRW line. I sometimes ride past there on my way to Prospect Park. It's a ghost station, still lit, still visible, the name is still there, but with no people. And interestingly, on the digital stop-by-stop display, they still display CORTLANDT STREET - WILL NOT STOP. It would be so easy for them to not display that, and yet they leave it there. In a quiet way, they're saying, "There used to be something there. Now it's gone." It's the Pompeii version of memorial. Quiet and empty.
This whole thing is coming back to mind thanks to Park51, the "mosque" that we can't have until Saudi Arabia decides to recognize religious freedom (apparently).

This whole thing has been made even more insane by Slate's must-read article (h/t Marginal Revolution) about the plaza that Koenig's sphere sat in:

Yamasaki received the World Trade Center commission the year after the Dhahran Airport was completed. Yamasaki described its plaza as "a mecca, a great relief from the narrow streets and sidewalks of the surrounding Wall Street area." True to his word, Yamasaki replicated the plan of Mecca's courtyard by creating a vast delineated square, isolated from the city's bustle by low colonnaded structures and capped by two enormous, perfectly square towers—minarets, really. Yamasaki's courtyard mimicked Mecca's assemblage of holy sites—the Qa'ba (a cube) containing the sacred stone, what some believe is the burial site of Hagar and Ishmael, and the holy spring—by including several sculptural features, including a fountain, and he anchored the composition in a radial circular pattern, similar to Mecca's.

At the base of the towers, Yamasaki used implied pointed arches—derived from the characteristically pointed arches of Islam—as a transition between the wide column spacing below and the dense structural mesh above. (Europe imported pointed arches from Islam during the Middle Ages, and so non-Muslims have come to think of them as innovations of the Gothic period.) Above soared the pure geometry of the towers, swathed in a shimmering skin, which doubled as a structural web—a giant truss. Here Yamasaki was following the Islamic tradition of wrapping a powerful geometric form in a dense filigree, as in the inlaid marble pattern work of the Taj Mahal or the ornate carvings of the courtyard and domes of the Alhambra.

The shimmering filigree is the mark of the holy. According to Oleg Grabar, the great American scholar of Islamic art and architecture, the dense filigree of complex geometries alludes to a higher spiritual reality in Islam, and the shimmering quality of Islamic patterning relates to the veil that wraps the Qa'ba at Mecca. After the attack, Grabar spoke of how these towers related to the architecture of Islam, where "the entire surface is meaningful" and "every part is both construction and ornament." A number of designers from the Middle East agreed, describing the entire façade as a giant "mashrabiya," the tracery that fills the windows of mosques.
Amazing. In the same way that the attack recontextualized Koening's Sphere as representing both the good of capitalism, and the bad, the memory of the plaza does the same thing; the beautiful intricacy that many Muslims take away from it, and the anger and frustration that some do.

It's not something that ends with a moral, or an easy takeaway. It just sits in your gut, alive.

Is Art a Living or a Hobby? Pt. 2

So, I asked if the arts were a living or a hobby, in response to Don. RVCBard responded here:
Frankly, I'm veering toward Don's POV. And it's not because of little things like reality, probability and so on. It's because not making a living off theater makes my work better - because real people live in the real world and as a theater artist, that's where my focus needs to be. Even if I do something completely surreal and fantastical, the core will be about life as it is lived today. I can't get that if I'm a sort of secular monk who can't be bothered with the lives and concerns of laypeople.
It's a valid point. I work in a sales office, with people who are about as far from me culturally as I could ever imagine. Then, sometimes, I spend a couple weeks with programmers, who are a lot more like me, so I get both ends of the spectrum.

However, I wonder if this is necessarily connected to the economic question I laid out. I can see how needing a day job necessitates that sort of contact; however, there are also ways in which having a day job can preclude that sort of contact.

For instance, some of my friends have, to support themselves, taken jobs as arts administrative assistants at larger, successful non-profits, separate from the passionate side-projects. It makes absolute economic sense, because that's what their BFAs can get them in a job market; it's what they're qualified for that, perhaps, they might not get otherwise.

Thus, the day job still surrounds them with mostly art people, in an art world where they don't go and mingle with other types of folks.

In the mean-time, the necessity of basically having two jobs (the arts-related day job and the actual artistic passion in the evenings) takes away their time to, for instance, volunteer in the community.

So I can see how for some people, they are more connected by having to get a day job; for others, they might be less connected.

Then, to reverse the hypothetical; if we lived in a world where people didn't have to do day jobs, would they be less connected? Certainly, many would choose to devote themselves to art, and then maybe just hang out socially with arts people. And thus, epistemic closure.

On the other hand, they might have more time to choose social activities that open them up to more people. They might get involved in local community activities more (having more time for it), or volunteer.

This is a question which is answerable with some research, comparing industries that do support their workers to those who don't, and seeing which feel they get to meet people outside their circle.

On the whole, though I think that the personality of the people is going to be the real deciding factor. The sort of people who will push themselves to be open to non-arts people are going to maximize non-arts connections; those who want to ensconce themselves in the art world will probably ignore those who they meet outside it.

To Sum Up: Definitely an important factor, but it's not something that sways me one way or the other so much. I can see arguments on both sides.

Words: Preserving Meaning

Words, in a political setting, can quickly become cliches -- dogmatic invocations of something we already knew. That's why, in a way, one part of preserving our values is preserving the meanings of the words that express them; not to let them go.

In that spirit:
  • 99Seats-at-Parabasis highlights this Yahoo article. The core of it is thus: people have lost the words of the First Amendment, and thus it only means "I can say what I want to say!" As opposed to what the First Amendment actually means, which is basically encapsulated in these five words: "CONGRESS SHALL PASS NO LAW." But because the First Amendment has become a political cliche, we've forgotten about that.

    That's important to remember when it comes to, for instance, the Supreme Court, where they really do get down to that level of specificity. For instance, the Second Amendment Wikipedia page has a section for the phrase "Keep and bear arms" as well as "well-regulated militia." In United States v. Miller, the court used the latter phrase to constrain the former phrase -- because the "well-regulated milita" intent is articulated, it drastically changes the scope of the phrase "keep and bear arms." The court's view (one which, since D.C. v. Heller has been eroded) is that the right exists only to the degree that it supports the intent as articulated.

  • This flattening of words by cliche reminds me of another thread. James Fallows at The Atlantic has a crusade on against the phrase "God Bless America" at the end of a political speech. Not that he's offended by the invocation of God in a secular nation (as my mother, the great athiest, is), but he's offended by how it has become "a verbal tic," "the political equivalent of 'Have a nice day!'"

    As a comparison, here's how Kennedy ended his inauguration speech:
    Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.
    I sent this to my mother and her response was "Now that prayer I can respect."

    It's true; rather than just signing off with an obligatory cliche nod towards the Lord, Kennedy uses it; it becomes part of the rhetorical tactic. That's why I bolded the last line: he's using the invocation of God as part of the case he's building, which is basically the "America as the World's Savior" justification for foreign policy that has dominated post-WWII thinking.

    It means something. It hasn't been flattened. The words are important.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Is Art a Living or a Hobby?

Over at Matt Yglesias' blog Chris Walla leaves a comment about the music industry:
Don’t ever assume that just because Flagpole Sitta is in your head or on your radio that those guys who were Harvey Danger must be rich, or even that they have an apartment.
Whether or not that assumption is true in the realm of rock music, it's pretty false in the arts. You can basically assume that unless you're talking about the biggest of big stars -- the Radioheads or U2s of theater -- they're probably scrabbling around for money. Outrageous Fortune had that to say about playwrights -- in the words of Ian Moss:
Holy Moses, it’s depressing. The numbers as presented are pretty stark: more than 60 percent of surveyed playwrights bring in less than $40,000 a year from all sources; more than half of that income comes from sources unrelated to their work as a playwright; and a mere 15% of their income comes from actually writing plays. Even the most successful of all playwrights, we’re told, are lucky to earn as much as $20,000 a year over an extended period of time from playwriting itself.
This makes some people sad and angry. Other people have Don Hall's reaction:

You can make a living as an artist in commercial voiceover, on camera industrials and commercials, in film, or as a teacher, but the only people at 95% of the theaters in Chicago making a living in the THEATER are Administrative people not the artists.
My only quibble with that is that, if you mix the administrative and artistic (i.e., self produce), you might be able to make a living. Or you might burn yourself completely to the bone and still not be able to support yourself.

So, is this a problem? Mission Paradox isn't fazed:
So often we equate "I can't make a living doing my art" to "the arts are in crisis". One thing can be true without the other being true.
And that's a valid point. I recently read Culture and Urban Revitalization: A Harvest Document, which essentially made the following argument: the "arts" are struggling and having a hard time, unless you expand the definition to include unincorporated, loosely organized, volunteer-based groups. In other words, until you include hobbyists/community groups.

Is this a problem?

Having started a theater company (shameless plug!), I have to say, people have not been treating me as a hobbyist. People ask me if being a "small businessman" has changed my opinion on taxes (no it has not). People have, strangely, treated this as a serious endeavor. Maybe that's because people haven't been following the economics of this...

I understand, on a factual level, why the economics shake down this way.

My question is this: do we think of musicians as hobbyists? Clearly a majority of them are; most people who are tooling around with music don't expect to make a full time pay on busking, or playing at the pub on the corner.

Do we think of amateur filmmakers as hobbyists?

Do we think of visual artists as hobbyists?

When people observe that teachers have a lot of trouble making ends meet, it's a social justice problem. We don't consider "teaching" a hobby; largely because it's universally accepted that teaching is a requirement for society, and that we can't have quality education without people whose lives are devoted to teaching, and thus they need to be able to support themselves.

On the other hand, if we were to find out that futures traders have trouble making ends meet, it would not be a social justice problem. They would just go do something else, and we'd probably be thrilled. After all, they don't help.

I'm genuinely asking this question because I'm torn between the two. Is art a living that people should be able to support themselves on -- and thus, the poverty that attends to it is a social justice problem -- or is art a luxury and the people who work on it hobbyists? I'd like to hear more of the arguments on both sides. How should it be?

Rules of Engagement VII: Separation of Arms and State?

I knew that the plan was to draw down troop levels to 50,000 by the end of this month, but I had no idea what the next part entailed:
As the United States military prepares to leave Iraq by the end of 2011, the Obama administration is planning a remarkable civilian effort, buttressed by a small army of contractors, to fill the void.

By October 2011, the State Department will assume responsibility for training the Iraqi police, a task that will largely be carried out by contractors. With no American soldiers to defuse sectarian tensions in northern Iraq, it will be up to American diplomats in two new $100 million outposts to head off potential confrontations between the Iraqi Army and Kurdish pesh merga forces.

This provided me with an interesting rumination on the topic I was following before, of Rules of Engagement (started here).

The idea is that a society decides which members of society are granted the right of force (police, militia-men/irregulars, soldiers, and intelligence officers), and then society formalizes the rules around their use. Some (neoconservatives, particularly) tend to push for looser rules; some (libertarians, particularly) tend to push for tighter rules.

The rules of engagement have somewhat changed as wars become less "conventional" and more "irregular," and where the goal has changed from domination to achieving changes in the very structure of the enemy. It was one thing for America to defeat Mexico over territorial control of Texas, it was another thing entirely for America to attempt to control the ideological underpinnings of Vietnam.

World War Two was the turning point for this idea. Although we set out in the conventional sense, simply to "beat the Nazis" and roll back their territorial acquisition, once Germany was under our control, it became clear that punishing them, a la World War One, was not the way to go. We had to rebuild them.

Thus, nation building. The United Nations was formed at the same time, which soon would find itself in the uncomfortable realm of peace-keeping. Peace-keeping is a terrible dilemma: it's the use of force to try and instill peace. It's very, very hard to do. Thus, their rules of engagement are under a lot of criticism for being too restrictive on the one end, or too loose on the other end. Where they use more force, they damage their goal; where they use less force, they fail to achieve their goal.

America has tried this too, under the Clinton doctrine of humanitarian war which was tested twice -- once, disastrously, in Somalia and once to fair success in the Balkans.

President Bush tried to recast the Iraq war in these terms after the fact as well. And whether or not President Bush was in favor of nation building, his two largest wars (don't forget that he also went to war in Somalia!) became just that: nation building.

Which leads us to today, where a Clintonian president with a Clinton in his cabinet is planning the future of nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, with Clinton at the state department, the Obama Administration is credited with surging state department involvement in Afghanistan. Clinton herself spoke frequently about enlarging the state department's role in nation building; too much of it was focused on an American military whose primary training was not in the world of diplomacy and governance.

And now, the NYTimes article posits that not only will the state department enlarge its role in Iraq, but they will take over a primary function which, up until now, has been conducted by the US Military: training the Iraqi security forces.

To me, this signals an interesting new shift in policy. Whereas the US Military spent sixty years with 50,000 troops in Germany, the article hints at (but doesn't commit to) a 5,000-10,000 troop presence in Iraq by year's end. In their place, a robust state department, committed not only to our diplomatic relationship but also to the stability of the nation in question.

This could signal a shift towards separating the war responsibility of destroying a nation, and the post-war responsibility of defending a nation and rebuilding it into two separate camps. The Pentagon attacks and defends; the State Department rebuilds and organizes.

It makes sense to me, but previously -- the South, Germany, Japan, Iraq, Afghanistan -- we have entrusted leadership over defeated-and-rebuilt areas in the hands of the military (Military governors, General MacArthur, etc.). The military were active in the nation building process.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Alienation vs. Invasions of Privacy

So, today's story that Facebook is going to replicate the Foursquare check-in model is as good a leaping-off point as any for a reflection that Foursquare has been leading me to.

Do you remember when we were told our technology was going to alienate us? Visions of gawky teenagers sitting at home playing SNES instead of playing with the neighborhood boys, or whatnot? At the time, modems were 14.4k (or, if you were flush with cash, 28.8k or 56k) and internet was apparently accessible in CD form.

Now, with the advent of social networking -- every product and website is trying to become "social" even if it makes no fucking sense whatsoever -- the entire paradigm of the internet has become connection.

So now the twin luddite arguments are thus:
  • We can never disconnect
  • We have given up our privacy
The second one, particularly, sticks out to me. And I realized that privacy and alienation are really along the same spectrum. In other words, the hungry search for connection is a drive to make life public, and the attempt to protect one's privacy is a drive towards isolation.

Neither of these things are inherently bad. On the balance, I think the internet skews a lot more strongly towards the drive to make life public, simply because it has incredible powers of disseminating information. Therefore, we do need to push to work within systems that give us control of that balance.

That's why, although I'm not in the "GET OFF FACEBOOK!" crowd, I am watching with interest to see how Diaspora, the open-source distributed (that is, not centralized) Facebook alternative evolves. However, I'm sure that Diaspora is going to keep struggling with exactly the same problem. Social networking is built on the model of disseminating personal information; having control is fine, but as Facebook shows, a lot of privacy invasions are really user errors, not network problems.

Foursquare demonstrates cleanly why we share our personal information. We are willing to give away our GPS coordinates and information about what venues we go to, if it increases the odds that we're going to see people we like. We do an upside/downside calculation, and we say: it would be cool if someone else dropped by. Or we don't, and then we don't use Foursquare.

Anger IV: Conversation is Curative

I am an anger-skeptic, and I strongly believe that reigning in our tempers and engaging intelligently rather than lashing out or ignoring our opponents.

To that end, this published email thread is definitely RTWT. It makes me wish that I could engage with the Breibart trolls that alighted on my blog. Sadly, they are almost all anonymous.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


I have gotten hot and bothered over this "mosque" controversy in a way that, honestly, I find even surprising for myself. I've been down about anger in this blog, but I definitely found myself exclaiming "Fuck Staten Island!"

I had a surprise insight into why this issue is so important to me in an oblique way, thanks to President Obama's remarks at the White House Iftar dinner:
In my inaugural address, I said that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus--and non-believers.
Emphasis mine. One of the things that thrilled me about Obama during the Inauguration address was that statement (almost word-for-word). You'll notice us atheists at the end. And there's good reason. If you take a look at this poll, you'll see our place in American society:

America, apparently, is a little bit more comfortable electing a homosexual than a "non-believer," as Obama terms it. Muslim isn't on that list, but I wouldn't be too surprised to see them alongside us. "Godless", "Muslim", and "Socialist" are basically Fox's three favorite slurs. Beyond that, you get to "Nazi" and "Fascist."

It would be nice if Obama could call us atheist, rather than non-believers. I don't consider non-believer to be a slur per se, but I do consider it a pretty insensitive reduction of what it means to believe that there is no God.

I find myself in the most non of the nonbeliever crowd. I don't have the faint residual mysticism that some atheists have, nor do I have the dogmatic, rigorous atheism that Sam Harris (who, by the way, decided to be a dick about this "mosque" thing).

But I do look into the world with wonder, and I do have strong beliefs about where it came from and where it's going. I do have strong philosophical and moral beliefs (Pragmatism).

Atheists are as different from each other as they are are different from theists. It would be good to display a little more sensitivity to the broad range of beliefs that we hold.

If I had to answer the question "What do you believe in?" maybe I'll answer with this:

Basic Facts

Tom Loughlin has a round-up of the facts that have variously been collected about working in theater, including Outrageous Fortune, NEA statistics, NYIT's OOB survey, and more.

If you've been reading the blogosphere closely over the last year, there isn't anything new there, but it puts it all in one place in all its bleak glory. And it's a good reminder for numbers you may not remember.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Legal Commentary: Prop 8 Standing

Just a brief note: the State of California decided not to appeal last week's Federal Court decision striking down Proposition 8. As SCOTUSBlog reports, this may end the appeals permanently, because it is unclear whether or not the pro-Prop 8 groups have standing to appeal in the absence of a State appeal.

My Mind 8/15 - 8/21

How I was keeping my mind clean this week:
How I was keeping my mind fit this week:
Important facts:
Things to watch in the future:

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Tony Judt

It's a little bit upsetting when a person who is very important to you dies and you only find out about it when someone refers to him as "the late" Tony Judt. But such is, apparently, my morning over here.

Tony Judt wrote the definitive book of history, Postwar: A History Of Europe Since 1945. It is up there with Hundred Years of Solitude on the list of biggest and most rewarding books I have ever read. It is not a history of Europe: it is a history of every European nation as well as the history of Europe.

This is a key distinction; it walks you through every single nations' local histories and politics from the days leading up to the Potsdam Conference up until the end of the Balkan Crises, to the level of detail where you really truly get an understanding for why each nation acted the way it did. You realize where domestic policy and foreign policy in each country interacts.

I cannot recommend the book strongly enough.

The greatest insight the book gave me (beyond a wealth of facts I had not been privileged to know) was the insight that the Holocaust was only the largest in a series of displacements and ethnic cleansings that took place both before and after World War II. This is not to minimize the Holocaust: it is head and shoulders beyond anything else in Europe in the Century except Stalin's purges, famines, and mass disappearances.

But the story it tells of the wake of World War II is a mad scramble for people to run to where their countries now reside -- Poles trying to follow Poland, which had moved to the West as a whole; Germans trying to flee to Germany from wherever they had wound up, etc. -- so that by 1950, most European nations were ethnically monolithic to a degree that had never been seen before (look at Switzerland for an example of a more pre-War nation -- if the Swiss hadn't been famously neutral, the Germans might have fled it in large numbers).

To find out that Tony Judt passed away four days ago is sad, but even if he had only published this one book of history he would have left our knowledge history immeasurably better.

My Mind 8/9 - 8/14

How I was keeping my mind clean this week:
How I was keeping my mind fit this week:
Important facts:
Things to watch in the future:

Legal Commentary: Compromise

The Chicago Tribune puts forward a proposal for a "compromise" on Proposition 8:
[T]he justices might seize on the same middle option used by several states — civil unions. The court could rule that equal protection requires giving gay couples the same prerogatives granted heterosexual couples, but not by the same name.

That course offers a compromise that, while satisfying neither side entirely, accommodates each in its central concern. It would show a respect for democracy and a humility about the role of the judiciary.
I think the Chicago Tribune is making a dangerous mistake about the nature of the Supreme Court.

The Court's job is not the same as the legislature. A legislature's job is to bridge between different communities, and to create legislation that represents the majority while protecting the minority. That, by definition, requires compromise.

The Court is different. The Court's job is to protect an ideal; namely, a set of rights.

The "compromise" outlined above not only satisfies neither side entirely, it does not satisfy the law. The Constitution says that all citizens are entitled to "equal protection under the law." The Court has said clearly that separate but equal is not equal. To create a separate but equal institution (civil unions) would be to not only compromise on this issue, but compromise on the nature of the Constitution, and to return to the Plessy v. Fergussen days.

In another example of "compromise", the Supreme Court devised a "compromise" in the issue of Medicinal Marijuana in Gonzales v. Raich. The aftermath of the ruling basically left it the status quo that marijuana is legal in the state of California, but illegal federally. A citizen in California who had a prescription for medicinal marijuana fell into the strange state of being both a criminal and not one at the same time.

The Supreme Court does have a responsibility to be a moderate Court. But it does not have the same luxury or responsibility to compromise the way that the other two branches can and should.