Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Further Reading: On nostalgia, value and artistic virtue

The following post is made up of three essays inspired by articles well worth reading. The first deals with nostalgia and how it influences our understanding of socio-economic (as well as architectural) problems. This is followed by a discussion on economic value and Walmart. Finally, I examine one of the central insights from the film Amadeus about the role of virtue in making art.
  • Nostalgia is a powerful factor in the development of new ideas and policies. As long as people have memories, nostalgia is a perfectly natural response to an environment that's gradually become uncomfortable, even hostile. It provides us an escape from reality just as much as it presents an attractive vision for redeeming the future by ushering a return to a more virtuous time and place. Since we tend to remember things in fragments, there is a deliberate selectivity in what we want recall, which makes nostalgia an exercise in incomplete image-making. Even if the details of what we remember have never been forgotten, it doesn't ensure that we understand very well what really happened at the time.
When someone claims to be all-knowing about an event by saying "I was there", I remind them that doesn't make it any likelier that you had a complete understanding of that event, since so much of the surrounding context and other related events were not considered to help explain it all. Our perceptions make the events we witness 'feel' more real, but they often blind us from acknowledging a larger, more comprehensive reality (much like Plato's allegory of the cave). This is demonstrated by the notion that hindsight is 20/20, in that we would have acted differently if we had understood the context more competely at the time.

History is a discipline that applies the idea of hindsight and of making sense out of the interrelatedness of events. Nostalgia is a retreat from hindsight, a conjuring of irrational sentimentality of the past, detached from a complicated reality that it was. Policy-making, an endeavour that demands a considerable amount of rational analysis and exhaustive research past policies their effects, should therefore not resort to irrational nostalgic view of the past. The viability of socio-economic policy (or architectural theory, for that matter) cannot be tested in a laboratory, itself a space created to remove as much context as possible. Instead, context is everything when measuring the effectiveness of a policy or theory that will affect the countless people's lives and all the unmeasurable and unpredictable factors that influence their behavior.

Such thoughts came to my mind when reading Brink Lindsey's article on economic inequality since the Second World War. In a lengthy essay (30+ pages) Lindsey writes about 'nostalgianomics', the tendency of some economists to idealize a past era in order to serve as a model in making policies for the present. Using an isolated set of data showing a relatively low level of inequality from top to the lowest quintile the three decades following the war, left-wing economists like Paul Krugman proceed to call for a restoration of policies friendly to labor unions, punitive to corporate CEO's and high levels of government intervention in the economy. Since life was swell during Krugman's childhood in the 1950's, this should serve as a starting point in assessing what is missing now and what should be done to address it. This mode of thinking seems prevalent among those who have an unshakeable John Kenneth Galbraith-like faith in the prudent role of government in guiding the market economy towards stable prosperity and eventual social harmony.

Lindsey argues that this nostalgic view of the post-war period is misguided, as it fails to take into account social and geo-political context unique to that time. While economic inequality was less dramatic, the unequal treatment between blacks and whites, men and women, union and non-union, corporate cartels and entrepreneurs helped make it so. Cultural and social changes since the late 1960's have made it impossible to return the supposed glory days of the 1940's and 1950's. In addition, a world war that destroyed the industrial competitiveness of Europe and the eventual rise industrial competitiveness around the globe ensured that the good ol' days of highly-paid manufacturing jobs and a growing middle class were to due to expire from the start. Lindsey explains that the economic policies pursued in the 1970s and 1980s were not part of a plan to destroy the post-war era of prosperity and social harmony, but as a response to its inevitable exhaustion due to a changing reality beyond any one actor's control.

Beyond providing a broader perspective about the overall issue of inequality, Lindsey's article is valuable as a quick primer on the economic history of the last half-century. It illustrates the connection between cultural values and economic phenomena, and that the success of a policy is only as good as its reflection of the culture that surrounds it. As values change over time, it is only prudent that goals will have to be reassessed as well. Likewise, what was once considered a problem in the past might be an advantage today, so it is reasonable to pose new questions for new times rather than applying the same old questions for a different set of circumstances. Inequality today means something quite different in the world fifty years ago, especially when seen in the context of absolute wealth and standards of living. Pursuing an abstract social goal like equality risks ignoring more tangible needs of the day-to-day life of average people.

Although Lindsey's article considers the short-sightedness of nostalgia in economics, there is a correlation with recent architectural discourse (but of course!). For anyone who has followed architectural trends in the last 40 years, it is obvious that nostalgia for an idyllic past has been a major influence on building design. Whether it is in the historicist strand within architectural postmodernism or in much of the work of the New Urbanist movement, there is an overt desire to restore the look and feel of a distant time and place. This is usually done in complete detachment to the reality of the current context, as portrayed by the juxtaposition of highway with speeding cars next to a lifestyle center designed in a style that originated from a time when streets were designed for pedestrian traffic and horse-driven wagons.

Just as nostalgia is memory based unrelated fragments, much of the historicist design is only skin-deep--elaborate facades made of thin veneers of foam insulated stucco or masonry veneer supported by a modern framework of steel and concrete. Instead of being connected to larger contemporary notions of space, time and transparency, the historicist project tries to recreate a fragmented reality all to itself, as an escape from an overarching reality that is beyond anyone's control. Just as we are bound to choose memories that recall pleasant feelings, erecting pseudo-European renaissance villages in modern-day suburbia is our way of choosing a happy reality that is completely of our own imagining. It's not as if there's any public will to bring back monarchies, guilds, philosophical humanism and a triumphant church hierarchy and other major influences on our beloved architecture.

Or maybe that's the point. After all, nostalgia is manifest in post-modern or post-structuralist reaction. When language, symbols, images or meanings aren't what the seem to be, when truth is relative depending on one's perspective and power, when context is what you make of it, maybe the superficial application of historic styles is the most 'honest' way expressing the reality of our times.

  • Another article that I came across interested me less about its subject- Walmart - than the valuable nugget of insight into a major problem that affects American society today. Charles Platt, a former editor at Wired magazine, went undercover to see what it was like to work at the world's largest retailer. Beyond his observations about the efficiency of the way Walmart operates, and the highly autonomous decision-making on the salesfloor, which are both well-known, I was more taken by his restating of an obvious fact that is often ignored when debating the pros and cons of Walmart (a personal note: I don't like to go to Walmart- the dull decor and mediocre selection turn me off ). Writing on the relative low wages paid to workers (which are still better than many other retail outfits), Platt briefly summarizes the concept of value in the determination of wages:
I found myself reaching an inescapable conclusion. Low wages are not a Wal-Mart problem. They are an industry-wide problem, afflicting all unskilled entry-level jobs, and the reason should be obvious.

In our free-enterprise system, employees are valued largely in terms of what they can do. This is why teenagers fresh out of high school often go to vocational training institutes to become auto mechanics or electricians. They understand a basic principle that seems to elude social commentators, politicians and union organizers. If you want better pay, you need to learn skills that are in demand...

Platt further explains how trying to go around this fact by means of legislating for a mandatory higher wage or by unionizing does not solve the problem of adding value to low-skill workers. Such methods are treating the symptom of low wages at the bottom strata of society fail to treat the actual illness- the low economic value of laborers. Platt reaches an uncomforting (but vitally important) conclusion:

To my mind, the real scandal is not that a large corporation doesn't pay people more. The scandal is that so many people have so little economic value. Despite (or because of) a free public school system, millions of teenagers enter the work force without marketable skills. So why would anyone expect them to be well paid?

As a product of decaying school districts and having family members that have spent much time and talent teaching in these districts, the answer to the question of how so many people have so little economic value becomes more clear. Unlike Platt, I don't think it matters whether the public school is free or not, but whether students learn anything of real economic value. Instead of learning math, science and writing, more and more the priority in the school curriculum has been placed on learning the right socio-political lessons (eg: drugs are bad, safe sex is good, intolerance is evil, saving the environment is everyone's duty, we are stronger through diversity, etc.). While such lessons can have value in public education in promoting civic-mindedness and social harmony, there is no reason that they should absorb so much time and drain so many resources from teaching skills that will manifest themselves in real economic value.

One fallacy that is often assumed when discussing ways to teach students marketable skills is the notion that it is more useful to emphasize specific skills and knowledge that have direct economic value than to stress basic skills and abstract knowledge. Skills are marketable in so far that there is a market for them at that point in time. In the past when technology and accompanying techniques were simpler, teaching skills towards a specific job made sense, especially in jobs where the way of doing things were not ever expected to change. Nowadays, the teaching of job skills becomes futile in the face of rapid technological change. Although there are certain timeless aspects to every profession, more and more jobs require an ability to learn new techniques quickly and to multi-task. Often these techniques are unforeseen a few years before. I personally find myself having to learn completely new software every year to design and render buildings, things never instructed to me in architecture school. I don't fault them for failing to give me marketable skills (which the knowledge of software indeed is, especially at the entry-level of the architecture job market) since I got from them something more abstract but even more important- how to think and the ability to learn quickly.

In the work world of today, it is evident to me that what is most important is to be trainable. This takes persistent effort on the part of teachers and parents in instilling in children basic skills in reading, writing, arithmetic and the ability to closely listen and communicate clearly. Most minimum wage workers I've interacted with seem to be able to barely accomplish the given task at hand and seem to have little aptitude or desire to take more responsibility. It is not because they lack the drive, but rather because they haven't been made trainable. In a world of specialization where one's worth depends on his or her level of specialization (and the large amounts of training required), those that are not trainable are at a major disadvantage. When one's worth is not butressed by union muscle or a legilated lack of price competition, what's left? Either one comes to terms that one must build worth by learning marketable skills quickly (through his acquired trainability) or that he is entitled to that worth by virtue of simply breathing.

It seems that for Platt, Walmart offers those with little economic value a chance to acquire marketable skills (managing a sales floor, tracking inventory, etc.). It isn't surprising, then, that pro-union interest groups who are invested in determining worth by entitlement are opposed to Walmart. There are too many unskilled people, whose problems are only compounded by lower-paid unskilled immigrant labor and a modern economy that demands high worker productivity. How free markets determines the economic value of workers won't be going away anytime soon. As long as work is perceived as an entitlement, I'm afraid our public schools will fail continue to deliver trainable workers. This can only make us all poorer.
  • Finally, there was a short piece referring to one of my favorite films- Amadeus. Even though it first came out in 1984, this masterpiece by director Milos Foreman never tires from the dozens of times I've watched it, primarily because it offers one of the most compelling views into the mind of an artist. Especially near the end, when Mozart dictates his Requiem Mass to Salieri while on his deathbed, it is fascinating to watch the composer (brilliantly played by Tom Hulce) describe the piece's underlying musical structure while completely overwhelming his rival's comprehension. "Give me time..." yells Salieri, begging Mozart to slow down so that he can catch up in inscribing the notation, not realizing that this musical genius' life on earth was already running out of time. That's the nature of the creative mind, which has no respect for time and which tumultuously works through ideas and details on its own before ever putting them to paper.

The creative mind doesn't care if you got the right beliefs or practice good virtues either. Doug Tennapel argues that the film Amadeus shows that the most creative people are not necessarily the most virtuous, and that believing the contrary hobbles artistic accomplishment. He writes:

There are good ideas rolling around in Amadeus but none more central than the idea that being a good artist has nothing to do with virtue. Hitler appreciated the arts, Maxfield Parrish screwed his models, and the best writers are drunk, emotional narcissists. I hope I didn’t miss anyone. Anyways, being correct on any position does jack for one’s artistic ability.

Tennapel brings to our attention a common cliche when judging the merits of an artist-that whatever the strengths of the work, it is nullified by the artist's lack of character and his sociopathic tendencies. Similar to using ad-hominem attacks on someone with whom we don't agree politically, it seems that if we don't like someone's work, we justify it by reminding everyone that this person was a real creep or jerk. It avoids constructive debate and prevents us from the healthy practive of reevaluating our own assumptions. I see this quite a bit in architectural discourse, in which someone tries to discredit an entire architectural movement based on the leaders' personal flaws, whether they were too inebriated or too obsessive compulsive or just plain arrogant.

The reverse of is just as true-a work of art isn't necessarily good just because it comes from a good person. Having the right ideas doesn't prevent mediocre films, music or art pieces from being made. And one's political ideology doesn't guarantee works of beauty and inspiration. Believing otherwise seems to arise out of an innate desire for fairness, that the good is manifest in all that one considers worthy. Unfortunately, creative genius is not about what is just, as it often arises in moral vaccuums (eg. Facsist art & architecture, Soviet musical composers, etc.) By transcending moral rules that derive from cultural norms of the day and the imperfect men that make them, good art has the power to reveal a higher truth more abstract than right or wrong.

As soon as the making art becomes a moral exercise, artistic quality tends to suffer. Art fails to communicate convincingly the greater truth. Bad art makes it more difficult for us understand and receive this truth, which is why I get upset when some churches eschew art in general since it gets in the way of imparting 'the message'. I can particularly relate to Tennapel's opinion of contemporary Christian-inspired art:

While we have a rich history of fine Christian content in the past, it’s the exception today. The rule is for Christian art to be mediocre. We have a high opinion of our correct position but place form a little too far down the ladder from function. There is beauty and truth to be found in a story well told and a position well argued.

Sacred music is one art that has suffered in churches in reaction to a concerted movement to purify ritual and permit the clergy to provide more of their own interpretation with more talking. By dumbing down the quality of the music and putting up dull works of architecture devoid of art, it is hoped that spiritual revelation will be more accessible to the people. In my mind, spiritual revelation will be more narrowly understood, its power diminished by the lack of examples of how God is manifested in artisitic works of timeless beauty. I recommend the book Why Catholics Can't Sing by Thomas Day, which explores and criticizes the triumph of bad taste in contemporary Catholic worship.

As an individual who admires genuine creativity and the power of art, I think it is foolish for any institution to be so confident about itself that it chooses to denigrate art. Substance matters, but style plays the important role of making it palatable. A sophisticated aesthetic goes a long way into getting the point across as art has a way of communicating that arouses the senses as well as the deepest reaches of the mind. No amount of talking or writing can come close to such an effect.

It would also be wise to separate art from its agreement to accepted ideas. A moving statement can often be achieved by working outside the realm of institutional assumptions. Le Corbusier, an atheist (and evil incarnate to many others), was regardless a brilliant artist who gave the Catholic church one of its most inspired architectural legacies in the past century (Ronchamp chapel, La Tourette monastery). Many of his greatest built works emerged from the departure of his own copious doctrines. He allowed himself to reexamine his beliefs, to look for new directions and renew his works with added richness. It is a discipline from which all institutions who care about the strength of their message could benefit.

UPDATE-MORE FURTHER READING: The other night I was able to catch a C-Span interview with Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard. He discussed his recent article The Age of Irresponsibility, which describes the socio-cultural trends of the last few decades and how they have infected our current body politic with fiscal recklessness, corruption and and a lack of healthy bourgeois restraint. The article is not for the faint-of-heart, but Mr. Continetti skillfully describes the zeitgeist and what it portends for the future. The epic scope of the article belies the author's youth (he's only 27 years old), but his solid writing and his comfortable television presence foreshadows the emergence of an important public intellectual in the near future.

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