July 18, 2013

Stick Your High Art Where the Sun Don’t Shine!

OK, not really. I’ve got nothing against what most people think of as “high” art – I enjoy quite a bit of it – I just object to the classification. Regardless of how well-meaning or merely taxonomic it strives to be, it carries an implied judgment of “low” art as being, somehow, not worth as much. By further implication, it suggests that those who enjoy or make “low” art are somehow lesser than those who deal with “high” art.

I bring this up because of a recent essay over at the New York Times philosophy blog by Gary Gutting (with an assist from Virginia Woolf) about the divergence. Along the way, he appears to argue that musical worth, at least (it’s unclear if his metrics would apply to literature, film, or visual arts) can actually be quantified and judged objectively.

Along the way, he lays down this assertion:
Centuries of unresolved philosophical debate show that there is, in fact, little hope of refuting someone who insists on a thoroughly relativist view of art. We should not expect, for example, to provide a definition of beauty (or some other criterion of artistic excellence) that we can use to prove to all doubters that, say, Mozart’s 40th Symphony is objectively superior as art to ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’ But in practice there is no need for such a proof, since hardly anyone really holds the relativist view.
* raises hand *

I’m not sure how many of us there are, but I for one will proudly admit to being a relativist on the quality of art. Someone’s interaction with art is so personal, so bound up in the quirks of our own experiences, that it’s impossible to convert that interaction to some kind of objective measurement. For the record, I’m not ignoring the objective fact of consensus – that I like something a majority of the world can’t stand doesn’t make them right and me wrong, but it does mean I’m swimming against the current.

Anyway, back to the philosopher, who continues:
We may say, ‘You can’t argue about taste,’ but when it comes to art we care about, we almost always do.
Well, yeah, people will argue about things that matter to them, be it art, politics, or sports. Just because we do doesn’t mean the arguments can be won on some kind of objective scale. Humans will argue about anything!

He goes on:
You may, for example, maintain that the Stones were superior to the Beatles (or vice versa) because their music is more complex, less derivative, and has greater emotional range and deeper intellectual content. Here you are putting forward objective standards from which you argue for a band’s superiority. Arguing from such criteria implicitly rejects the view that artistic evaluations are simply matters of personal taste. You are giving reasons for your view that you think others ought to accept
Several things strike me as wrong about this.

The most important one, I think, is that Gutting is conflating the manner in which someone defends a preference with the actual basis upon which that preference rests. I’ve listened to an awful lot of music in my four decades on the planet, from the most popular radio hits to the most obscure wind band compositions. A lot of those I’ve listened to because of “hey, if you liked X, you’ll like Y, too” recommendations. I’m not sure they’re worth any more than a coin flip when it comes to predicting whether I’ll like it or not. Some things move me, some things don’t. The same is true for everybody, isn’t it?

More likely, these “objective” standards upon which Gutting relies are not the considerations we have when we decides something moves us, but post-hoc rationalizations to try and explain why that thing moved us. At the end of the day, I can’t really say why I prefer Marillion to Magma.* I suppose I could dig into the construction of the various songs and come up with some reasons for it, but they’d be meaningless. Most of the time, I’d rather listen to Brave than Udu Wudu. But sometimes not, you know? I can’t really tell you why.

Gutting’s reference to “objective” standards make me think of people who argue about whether one athlete is better than another when they’re separated by decades. Yes, statistics will be trotted out to support argue that Pele is better than Lionel Messi (or vice versa), but they don’t prove anything. Too many years have passed, the game has changed, etc. Ultimately, we have our favorite in mind before the argument begins and scramble to find some justification for it. If it was as simple as “consult these objective measurements” there’d be nothing to argue about.

Another flaw in Gutter’s presentation is assuming that those things he lists are “objective” to begin with. I’ll give him a pass on complexity for now (although more of that later), but the others have not just some, but large amounts of, subjectivity inherent in them. Whether something is “derivative” is a value judgment, in the end. Any musician is influenced by other music she’s heard and is, to some point, derivative of what’s come before. What’s the dividing line for being too derivative? What if it’s a parody, pastiche, or homage, anyway? Even more untethered from objective measurement are a piece’s “emotional range” and “intellectual content.”

As for complexity, how to measure it and what it means isn’t readily apparent. “Complex” generally implies some amount of difficulty, but any musician will tell you that sometimes playing something “simple” precisely and with musicality is more difficult than playing something that’s a tangled flurry of notes. Furthermore, that something is more complex doesn’t make it inherently more likely to connect with the listener. Quite the opposite, in fact. Returning to the Marillion/Magma example, few would argue if you called Magma’s more complex, but that wouldn’t lead inexorably to a conclusion that it was superior. For some folks it would be, for some folks it wouldn’t. For some people, there is a point where there are simply too many notes.

For another thing, using complexity as some sort of taxonomic tool fails to conflate like with like. Of course a three-minute song recorded in the early days of multitrack recording by four guys is less “complex” than a half-hour long symphony written to be performed by a full orchestra made up of dozens of people. So what? How does that help us judge either piece? It’s like saying desert is less nutritious than the main course – it utterly misses the point.

Someone in the comments to Gutter’s piece trotted out Duke Ellington’s aphorism:
There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind
But even that’s not quite right – there’s what you like and what you don’t; what moves you and what doesn’t; what you want to hear and what you don’t. That a lot of people agree with you, or a consensus develops down through history that a particular work is a masterpiece doesn’t change that.

At the end of the day, as I said, art is personal. To label some of it “high” and some of it “low” throws up class barriers where none really exist. People like what they like. Sometimes, they like the same stuff you do. Sometimes they don’t. Deal with it.

* Before I get any angry letters in Kobaïan, I dig Vander’s bunch when I’m in the mood. Don’t take it personally.

July 16, 2013

Quick Hits

As usual, when I disappear for a few weeks, things start to pile up. Here’s a few interesting things that passed through my field of vision in the recent past.

Good News on Private Prisons?

I’ve written before about the evil of privatizing prisons, replacing one of the state’s core functions (under anybody’s idea of how big the “state” should be) with businesspeople in pursuit of a healthier bottom line. Shockingly, it turns out that when the bottom line is in play, things at the prison actually go to shit. It’s gotten so bad that several states have backed out of their contracts (via).

Admittedly, it’s hard to ignore stuff like this:
Idaho cut ties with the corporation on Wednesday, which turned the state’s largest prison into a violent hellhole inmates called ‘Gladiator School.’ Earlier this year, CCA was caught understaffing the prison and using prison gangs to control the population. The company admitted to falsifying nearly 4,800 hours of staffing records to squeeze more money out of the state for nonexistent security work. Shift logs at the prison showed the same security guards working for 2 to 3 days at a time without breaks.
Similar conditions popped up in Mississippi and Texas (in two different facilities). My cynical side thinks that the only way the private prison movement gets turned back is when it turns out they actually cost more than doing it the old fashioned way. Maybe I’m wrong. I’d like to be.

Your Militarized Police Force

Radley Balko has written for years about abusive police tactics and the Fourth Amendment, first over at Reason and more recently at Huffington Post. In the current issue of the ABA Journal he provides an overview of the rise of militarism in American police forces and how it manifests itself every day. He writes:
Today in America SWAT teams violently smash into private homes more than 100 times per day. The vast majority of these raids are to enforce laws against consensual crimes. In many cities, police departments have given up the traditional blue uniforms for “battle dress uniforms” modeled after soldier attire.

* * *

But it isn’t just drugs. Aggressive, SWAT-style tactics are now used to raid neighborhood poker games, doctors’ offices, bars and restaurants, and head shops—despite the fact that the targets of these raids pose little threat to anyone. This sort of force was once reserved as the last option to defuse a dangerous situation. It’s increasingly used as the first option to apprehend people who aren’t dangerous at all.
Read the whole thing, and don’t forget the various statistical tables and what not spread throughout. The explosion in the number of SWAT teams (and their deployment) over the past few decades is staggering. Balko makes a pretty good argument that the growth is driven by money, particularly a federal grant program with the name Byrne attached to it (unfortunately).

Oh, and they shoot dogs too. Lots of ‘em.

Judicial Idiocy, With a Prosecutorial Assist

Courtroom misbehavior has to really be of the prime variety to surprise me anymore these days, but this situation certainly meets that high standard.

Let’s set the scene – a courtroom in Texas, where a criminal trial is underway. A prosecutor in the gallery (not the one actually trying the case) gets a text, suggesting a line of questioning for the prosecutor to pursue. She scribbled the text “word for word” and has her investigator run the not up to the prosecutor. Now, guess who sent the text?

The trial judge.

That’s right. The judge presiding in a criminal case gave advice to the prosecution appearing before her in that case! Even worse – or at least equally bad – is that the other prosecutor, used as a conduit for the message, didn’t think twice about passing it on. The only positive note is that the investigator reported the judge, probably at the risk of losing his own job.

But the absolute icing on the cake of idiocy? That conduit prosecutor who passed on the note? She’s a judge now, too. Of course she is!

July 11, 2013

Your Facebook Friends Are Not Legal Authority

The other day I took a little dig at Roger Dean (or his lawyers, actually) for including in his lawsuit against James Cameron an assertion that his claims were “backed up by ‘numerous comments on the internet.’” Sadly, I only had to wait another day for an even sillier version of the appeal-to-the-Internet legal argument to appear, and in a much more local dispute, to boot.

Wyoming County is nestled within the southern West Virginia coal fields, having been carved from neighboring Logan County in the middle of the 19th century. Last week, a group of local religious folks built a Ten Commandments monument on the courthouse lawn, uninvited and without permission (or warning, apparently). What’s going to happen to it now is, of course, a source of controversy.

The county prosecutor, who doubles as the county attorney,* sees nothing problematic about the display. In reaching that decision, he consulted the ultimate authority:
Cochrane asked his Facebook friends for feedback and about 280 people of 300 responded in favor of the monument.
Thankfully, we’re not to the point where legal questions – much less ones of Constitutional magnitude – are resolved by Facebook plebiscite.

Cochrane’s advice to the county commission is to do nothing, right now, and let the monument stay. To his credit, he’s on record as supporting the placement of other monuments, including, perhaps, one like American Atheists recently put up in Florida to complement another Ten Commandments monument. That’s because, presumably, Cochrane has some familiarity with the concept of a public forum.

The Supreme Court has recognized that what speech a government is required to allow in a particular area is largely determined by how open to the public that area is. Traditional public forums – think sidewalks and such – are nearly wide open and are subject only to content-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions. Other areas can become public forums based on governmental action.

The Fourth Circuit dealt with a good example of the public forum issue recently. It arose in a case from Lexington, Virginia in which the Sons of Confederate Veterans wanted to put up Confederate flags on some city light poles in honor of Lee-Jackson Day (a state holiday in the Old Dominion). The city agreed, but after protests from the citizenry it instituted a new policy for such displays that limited flags hung from the city poles to those of the United States, Virginia, and the city of Lexington.

The SCV sued, arguing that the city’s decision violated their First Amendment rights. The court disagreed and upheld the dismissal of the lawsuit. The court noted that prior to the revision in city policy they light poles had been a limited public forum, open to all groups and used by, among others, the city’s two universities. However, by adopting the new policy and limiting the displays to government flags, it closed the public forum. Notably, the court shot down the SCV argument that an improper motive for closing the public forum was a First Amendment violation in and of itself.

So, the citizens of Wyoming County likely have two options – leave the Ten Commandments monument up as part of a public forum that welcomes others or take it down and close the forum to religious speech altogether to avoid running into Establishment Clause problems. For, when he says this:
Cochrane said the issue is whether the monument promotes Christianity over other religions, and he doesn't think it does. 
* * * 
‘I researched different religions as far as whether the Ten Commandments is discriminatory or not,’ Cochrane said. ‘Basically a type of Ten Commandments is cut across a lot of religions.’ 
* * * 
The monument promotes laws that are based on some of the commandments and not any religion, he said. Also many people recognize the Ten Commandments as a universal code of conduct.
Cochrane is utterly wrong. Yes, the Ten Commandments includes some broad, general, moral principles to which most people would agree (don’t kill, lie, etc.), though those are hardly unique to Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. However, several of the Ten Commandments are explicitly about the proper worship and adoration of the Abrahamic God:
  • I am the Lord thy God 
  • Thou shalt have no other gods before me
  • Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image 
  • Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain
Anyone who thinks those apply to “a lot of religions” is in the same headspace as the waitress at Bob’s Country Bunker, who explained that they have “both kinds” of music there – “country and western!” Those are religious directives, explicitly at odds with not only the directives of other religions with billions of believers around the world but with those of us who have no religion at all.

It’s perfectly OK to believe them yourself, to put them up in your house or on your lawn. But if you want the allure of state backing, by putting them up next to the courthouse, you’ve got to invite others to play, too.

* In most of the smaller West Virginia counties, the prosecutor does this kind of double duty, advising the county commission on civil legal matters.

July 9, 2013

Lawyers Come Out of the Sky, They Sue There

Let’s be honest, the only thing Avatar really had going for it was that it was visual eye candy, a truly impressive thing to look at. I mean, come on, the “Dances With Smurfs” plot was old and hackneyed when Eric Cartman came up with it! But, at least, the move was pretty to look at and immersed you in something you’d never seen before. Unless, of course, you’re a fan of Yes or Asia or many other prog (and related) bands. Not for nothin’, but when Avatar first broke a good number of prog lovers made the point that Pandora looked an awful lot like some of the album covers done by Roger Dean for those bands (and others). Things like:

Yes, Fragile (1971)

Yes, Yessongs (1973)

Yes, Keys to Ascension (1996)

Asia (1982)

Uriah Heep, Sea of Light (1995)

Now Dean has filed suit against James Cameron, looking for a cut of the bounty Avatar raked in (and that the in-production sequel surely will as well):
In his legal action, Mr Dean - described in the papers as ‘an international artist and designer, whose evocative and visionary images... created a new genre of work’ - has claimed Cameron had ‘studied and referenced his art in preparation for the film’. The papers continued: ‘The similarities of each such work are substantial, continuing, and direct so as to rule out any accidental copying or similarity in scenes common to the genre.’
Now, I’m not an IP lawyer, but I wonder how much of a case Dean really has here. For one thing, the history of art is a history of appropriation, between which and outright theft there’s a slim and sometimes blurry boundary. For another, I’m not sure this:
Mr Dean said his claims were backed up by ‘numerous comments on the internet’.
counts as controlling, or even persuasive, legal authority. On the other hand, as this article points out with some side-by-side comparisons, the similarities are striking. And it’s not as if Cameron is completely ignorant of the potential influence:
Meanwhile, since we pointed out the resemblance between Avatar and Roger Dean’s artwork a month ago, there’s been a flurry of discussion on the subject online. Entertainment Weekly asked director James Cameron whether he got his idea for the floating mountains from a Yes cover, and he laughed. ‘It might have been... Back in my pot-smoking days.’
Those are some mighty profitable weed sessions, then, James. Throw Roger a bone for the homage that was much of Avatar. It’ll at least keep him from designing the state set for Yes’s next cruise ship adventure (for which we’ll all be thankful).