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When Reggie Jackson Met MC Hammer

March 11, 2014

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I’ve been reading Reggie Jackson’s recent memoir, Becoming Mr. October, which is proving to be, well, pretty much what you’d expect. Every dozen pages or so, though, Jackson drops a story that grabs your attention and makes the book worth a read, including his look back on the early career of MC Hammer. I had known that Hammer got his start as a clubhouse kid with the A’s in the 1970s, but until reading Jackson’s account, I had never heard about the future rapper’s other duties with the team. As Jackson has it,

“He was just Stanley Burrell then, a poor young kid growing up in Oakland…Stanley was just eleven years old at the time. I was the one who first gave him the name Hammer, because he looked so much like ‘Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron. Rollie Fingers started calling him Pipeline, because Rollie believed he was a clubhouse snitch for [A’s owner] Charlie Finley. Charlie made him executive vice president, this eleven-year-old kid. He was running around with a hat that read ‘Ex VP.’ You’d see him up in the owner’s suite, watching the game while he was on the phone with Finley, who was back in Chicago or somewhere. Finley would call him on the speakerphone and have Hammer tell him what was going on…Hammer would report back on everything he heard in the clubhouse.”

And here I thought Hammer was too legit to snitch…

Davos Syndrome at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

February 7, 2014

Thomas Campbell—director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art—arrived in Davos last week with an unambiguous message for the World Economic Forum. In discussions about “Reshaping the World,” the theme of this year’s gathering of the world’s rich and powerful, Campbell argued that culture and the arts have become little more than an amusing sideshow for the elite. “A major, missing part of the dialogue,” Campbell urged, “is cultural sustainability. It feels like an add-on. We’re the entertainment.” Far from blaming the rich for this state of affairs, however, Campbell cried mea culpa on behalf of culture itself. Any “discussion of the culture industry,” he said, “needs to be involved at a deeper socioeconomic level. We need to make our case with metrics, framed in a language that businessmen understand.”

That a steward of one of the world’s premier institutions of high culture should be touting the virtues of the bottom line is itself unsurprising. The commodification of visual art, nearly as old as art itself, has recently ballooned to a scale unimaginable even thirty years ago. Simply witness the outrageous amounts of money that glitzy conmen like Damien Hirst can fetch for their work, the sales power that third-rate artists like Jeff Koonz command at auction, or the fact that an otherwise unremarkable triptych by Francis Bacon recently sold for $142.4 million dollars at Christie’s. (Hirst, incidentally, was one of the artists whose work was showcased at the Davos summit this year.) Museums have responded to these charged market dynamics. The price of admission to many of the museums of most renown, throughout the West especially, has climbed steadily in the past several decades. Take New York, for example. Art enthusiasts there cannot gain entry to places like the Guggenheim, Frick or Whitney for less than $18. MoMA will run you $20.

For the director of the Met, however—a museum in New York, accessible to the entire public, where anyone can get in for as little as a penny—to embrace the values of business over those which animate the arts is dismaying. The reasons are many—including the simple principle of it. Jed Perl put it nicely in the New Republic recently. “The trouble with Campbell is that he imagines the only way to speak truth to power is in a language you’re sure the powerbrokers understand. But the great cultural arbiters have always taken an altogether different approach. They have taken it upon themselves to reimagine the nature of power…What the[y] have always done is insist on the power of art in the face of other kinds of power—the power of bottom lines, flow charts, metrics, big data.” But this is only part of the problem.

Campbell’s rhetorical pivot to the values of the private sector reflects a deeper institutional shift underway at the Met, one that could have profound implications for the public arts. Last fall before leaving office, Michael Bloomberg amended New York City’s lease with the Met, which sits on public land. Under the new terms of agreement, the Met was granted powers to charge admission to its holdings, including extra fees for special exhibitions—a radical departure from the original lease that invested the institution with no such rights. The move came after two lawsuits were brought against the museum claiming that the Met’s current “suggested” admission structure deliberately misleads visitors into believing that mandatory fees are required for entry.

Leaving aside the issues challenged in court, the Met’s newly established right to impose standard admission raises more fundamental concerns about the role of art in public life. At a moment when the barriers to culture and fine arts are prohibitively high across the board—and getting worse—for increasing segments of the population, institutions like the Met have defended the simple proposition that universal access to the arts is necessary for maintaining a healthy polity; that leisure is a right common to everyone by virtue of their being humans. Unlike the majority of other museums across the city, where taking in a show constitutes a form of luxury consumption, the Met opens its world-class collection to anyone interested enough to show up and wander the halls. The possibility of establishing a flat-rate entrance fee, or even instituting admission rates for special exhibitions, undermines the good faith of this proposition, and threatens to extend the capital commodification of art by rendering it the exclusive preserve of the wealthier classes.

For its part, the museum has assured the public that it has no intention of charging mandatory fees, now or in the future. The Met’s senior vice president for public affairs, Harold Holzer, told the New York Times that the museum has “no plans to institute” a standard admission, “and no plans to make plans.” What the renegotiated lease with the New York City does, Holzer went on, “is preserve the museum’s right to do so, which we think crucial in the wake of legal challenges to admissions that pose a threat to a vital part of our operating budget.” Campbell himself underscored his institution’s commitment “to maintaining—and further widening—public access to the museum” in a public statement issued shortly after news broke of the renegotiated agreement. But all this amounts to cold comfort.

There’s no getting around the fact that running a museum is expensive, and economic pressures that have faced Met administrators in the past are no secret. While reaffirming his commitment to the public mission of the Met, Campbell was simultaneously very clear that his museum’s policy of “pay what you want” might well be sacrificed in the name of economic necessity. “The effort to broaden and diversify audiences will continue,” Campbell wrote. “At the same time, however, faced with perennial uncertainties about future funding sources, the Met and the City concluded that it makes sense now to consecrate our longstanding and wholly legal admissions policies,” including the right to “charge such amounts as the museum shall from time to time prescribe.”

A Met where standard admissions become the norm is not difficult to imagine. It would almost certainly begin to resemble its counterparts along Fifth Avenue, or MoMA on 53rd. These museums have long abandoned the conceit that art serves to nourish the soul. Instead, they have increasingly organized themselves into precincts of commercial activity for the well-heeled and the hip. What efforts are made to engage with the broader public generally come in the form of corporate-sponsored “free Fridays” and the like—massive advertisement schemes where admission rates are temporarily suspended and galleries are converted into frenzied madhouses of people trying to see everything at once. The big winners, of course, are the captains of industry who, fancying themselves benevolent oligarchs, pick up the tab.

This is no future for the Met, and yet a likely one. When the next economic downturn arrives, the Metropolitan will face tough choices to avoid slipping into the red. It’s an easy leap to suppose that charging admission will seem like a no brainer for Met administrators. After all, art lovers pay steep entrance fees up and down Museum Mile, and they will to do so at the Met as well, if required. But institutions like the Met should continue to represent something entirely different. Even as the rest of the art world moves to a place where communion with beauty is attached to a price tag, the Met stands as one of the great monuments to public enjoyment and education. This may not translate easily into “language that businessmen understand.” But then, that was never the point.

The Real Misfortunes and Pain of Others

November 16, 2013

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Edmund Burke, on our delight in the pain of others, in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful:

“To examine this point concerning the effect of tragedy in a proper manner, we must previously consider how we are affected by the feelings of our fellow creatures in circumstances of real distress. I am convinced we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others; for let the affection be what it will in appearance, if it does not make us shun such objects, if on the contrary it induces us to approach them, if it makes us dwell upon them, in this case I conceive we must have a delight or pleasure of some species or other in contemplating objects of this kind…There is no spectacle we so eagerly pursue, as that of some uncommon and grievous calamity; so that whether the misfortune is before our eyes, or whether they are turned back to it in history, it always touches with delight.”

Some teenage kid at the WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum this evening, encountering a print of Eddie Adams’ photograph, Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing a Viet Cong Prisoner in Saigon, to his friend:

“Oh my god, this picture is awesome! Check it out–what a great shot. So. Cool.”

A Walk in the Woods

November 10, 2013

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For the past several years, I’ve been making semi-regular trips with one of my best friends to the areas in and around Harriman State Park. Harriman sits about thirty miles north of New York City, bordered by West Point to the north and nestled snuggly against Bear Mountain in the east. It’s an amazing place, featuring hundreds of miles of trails, some spectacular views, and a good deal of interesting history.

In the late eighteenth century, in the years just before the Revolutionary War, descendants of the Huguenots settled the region, where they established the hamlet of Doodletown in a stretch of valley between Bear Mountain and Dunderberg Mountain, just to the south. The town’s funny name likely derives from the Dutch words for “dead” and “valley,” “dood” and “ley.” Where the “town” part comes from is anyone’s guess. What is known, however, is that the village lay directly in the path of advancing British troops as they prepared to attack nearby Fort Montgomery on the Hudson River in late 1777.

As William Myles and Daniel Chazin relate in their history of Harriman, “Nine hundred British soldiers…marched through Doodletown” taking the village entirely by surprise, and then proceeded to occupy it. “Twelve hundred more troops arrived and waited in Doodletown,” Myles and Chazin write, “until the first division approached Fort Montgomery. Then the second division marched to attack Fort Clinton,” immediately to the south.

The British won both battles, though the effort it took ultimately cost them the larger prize of Saratoga further north. As for tiny Doodeltown, some trivia: though likely apocryphal, the village is said to have inspired “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” which the royal army supposedly sang to humiliate Doodlers during the period of occupation. Who knows. What’s left today is a ghost town littered with graveyards and old building foundations. Heading there makes for a great hike—I recommend it.

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In any event, the years following the Revolutionary War saw some of the land parceled off to the continental army and turned into the United States Military Academy at West Point. If I understand the history correctly, the rest was sold to a private investor, and the holding was passed from one group of rich folks to the next before falling into the hands of Edward and Mary Harriman, who owned tens of thousands of acres of forestland north of New York City.

The mountainous terrain was once rich in iron ore, and prospectors began calling in the mid to late nineteenth century. Even Thomas Edison got in on the act, acquiring land to dynamite open for a peek inside. Local protests against the environmental destruction wrought by the mining ultimately brought it to a close, but evidence of the extensive operations remains. Today, the park is pockmarked with tiny mine shafts and exploratory holes, many of which are closed or collapsed, though some are accessible for those that dare to enter.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the State of New York announced plans to build a prison on Bear Mountain. Mary Harriman, who was staunchly opposed to the idea, offered the state a deal. Having already decided to donate the land for public use, Harriman proposed giving 10,000 acres of land to the state and a $1 million of her own money to begin constructing public facilities on the land in exchange for the Albany’s agreement that no prison would be built on Bear Mountain. The park became official on October 29, 1910.

We were back this past week to explore a patch of the parklands I’ve never hiked before, an area in the north of Harriman sitting at the foot of Long Mountain. Here, the Long Path—which runs from Fort Lee Historic Park all the way up to John Boyd Thatcher State Park in Albany—bisects Route 6 before crawling up to the summit of Long Mountain and being forced due west by the southern perimeter of West Point.

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We took the trail to the summit of Long Mountain where magnificent views of Turkey Hill Lake, which sits directly below, unfolded, and the brilliant colors of late-autumn leaves stretched to the horizon. There is a lookout point here, and a memorial dedicated to one of the park’s earliest enthusiasts, though when we arrived, it was hazy. It didn’t matter. Visibility was limited, but the fall colors saturating everything around us were simply astounding. We had a snack, took some photos, and kept on along our way, which soon headed down the mountainside.

About midway through the descent, where the trail begins to snake northeast before taking a sharp turn west, we decided to leave the Long Path altogether and scout our way down to the lake. The slopes here are for the most part gentle and, with some light bushwhacking, fairly easy to navigate. What was most remarkable, though, were the astoundingly yellow leaves matched only by the gigantic sun-yellow mushrooms billowing out high on the tree trunks like psychedelic wall sconces.

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Shortly after we reached lakeside, where the ground became boggy and unsure, the crisp blue skies turned gray and threatening. And a remarkable thing happened: as if reacting to the suddenly low light, the oranges, reds and browns of the turning leaves took on a new intensity, buzzing with bruised persimmon. Someone had been camping here and had abandoned the site not long before. A makeshift fire pit still gave off some heat. Defying the threatening skies and biting cold, we decided to drop our gear here ourselves, break out the thermos of coffee and enjoy the view.

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Turkey Hill Lake itself is serene, unremarkable. Nestled between Long Mountain to the west and Summer Hill directly to the south, the Lake gives way to a stream that empties into Queensboro Lake to the southeast. Not much happens here, save for the occasional ripple disturbing the mirror images reflecting from the water’s surface. Hugging tightly to the water’s eastern perimeter runs the old Summer Hill trail which we accessed by looping around the lake’s northern lip and continuing on after re-caffeinating. The gray clouds broke here, and blue skies returned.

We had been led to believe that the trail was overgrown and difficult to follow. Not true. The path was distinct along its entire length, canopied here and there by drooping branches scarlet with leaves, and intersecting with the trail-blazed Red Path before terminating a few hundred meters further south at the 1779 trail.

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We jumped off on red, and followed the path as it rose above the water’s edge at Summer Hill’s northern base. From there, it’s a little bit of a slog up the hill side and the views become momentarily less interesting (not to mention more depressing—the amount of litter scattered around was upsetting…we even passed an abandoned shopping cart brought into the woods for god-knows-what-reason). Red meets the Anthony Wayne Trail soon enough, though, and ultimately circles north where it joins the Long Path. Thirty minutes later, we were back at the car.

Here’s a map of our route. If anyone has suggestions for other Harriman hikes—especially those off the beaten paths–I’d love to hear about them.

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The Iron Cage of Western Categories

November 9, 2013

Pankaj Mishra reviews Perry Anderson’s The Indian Ideology in the latest Foreign Affairs. Mishra finds much to admire in the book. But when it comes to Anderson’s preoccupation with the intersections between religion and politics in India to the exclusion of everything else, well, Mishra isn’t having it. In a nutshell:

The relentless harshness of The Indian Ideology suggests that, as far as Anderson is concerned, “populations as steeped in the supernatural as those of South Asia” may find it impossible to enter Weber’s “iron cage”—or “the Golden Straightjacket,” in [Thomas] Friedman’s phrase—of modernity. It may actually be harder for observers of South Asia to liberate themselves from the iron cage of Western interpretative categories.

For,

Religious beliefs and the fear of losing traditional livelihoods shape the political resistance of many Indians in rural areas to aggressive government projects and profit-driven corporate initiatives. But neither the scientific materialist nor the admirer of enlightened bureaucratic states in Anderson is likely to have much time for the tribal peoples in eastern India who recently refused to open up a mountain they consider sacred to a bauxite-mining corporation. Anderson doesn’t seem well placed, either, to grasp that for these irrational folks, who fail to prostrate themselves before the modern gods of economic growth, no entity in their cosmology seems more occult, minatory, and unappeasable than the instrumentally rational states and interconnected markets that threaten their traditions and local economies. Indeed, Anderson’s avowal of the left’s historical defeat slides too easily into resentment of such people, who have failed to shake off their Eastern superstitions and appreciate the Western virtues of reason and enlightenment. It is as though the Marxist worldview, denuded of its original liberationist energy, can only betray its origins in the commercial society of western Europe and the reflexive credence both Marx and expansionist burghers gave to the all-conquering logic of Homo economicus.

Nixon and Philip Roth

November 6, 2013

Here’s a remarkable exchange I came across this morning while reading Claudia Roth Pierpont’s new book on Philip Roth, Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books. Richard Nixon and his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman discuss Our Gang–Roth’s Vietnam-inspired turn to political satire–shortly after it was published. Dwight Macdonald thought the book a masterpiece. Nixon’s attention was elsewhere:

NIXON: What if anything do you know about the Roth book…

HALDEMAN: Oh, a fair amount.

NIXON: Who is responsible? The Roth thing I notice it’s reviewed in Newsweek, which might indicate that they might be very much behind that.

HALDEMAN: Yeah, because they gave it a review way out of proportion to the book. We got advances of it and our people were very disturbed about it. It’s a judgment call. I read it, or skimmed through it. It’s a ridiculous book. And it’s sickening, and it’s–

NIXON:What’s it about?

HALDEMAN: It’s about the president of the United States.

NIXON: I know that! What’s the theme?

HALDEMAN: Trick E. Dixon. And the theme is that, uh, he’s tied to the abortion thing…It’s sick, you know, perverted kind of thing…It ends up with you being assassinated–or with Trick E. Dixon being assassinated, and then he goes to hell and in hell he starts politically organizing down there.

NIXON: Did the New York Times review it favorably, too?

HALDEMAN: I didn’t see the Times review, so I don’t know that.

NIXON: How big is circulation?

HALDEMAN: The book? It isn’t showing up on the sales lists yet. There’s no indication of it. But Philip Roth is a very big author, so he’s got–

NIXON: What is he? What is he?

NIXON: Roth is of course a Jew.

HALDEMAN: Oh yes…He’s brilliant in a sick way.

NIXON: Oh, I know–

HALDEMAN: Everything he’s written has been sick…

NIXON: A lot of this can be turned to our advantage…I think the anti-Semite thing can be , I hate to say it, but it can be very helpful to us. I mean you hear a singer even as brilliant as Richard Tucker and he’s a Jew.

HALDEMAN: Is he?

NIXON: …He’s pushy…

HALDEMAN: There are a lot more anti-Semites than there are Jews, and the anti-Semites are with us generally and the Jews sure aren’t.

Petropassions and Privatization in Mexico

November 1, 2013

Enrique Krauze has an editorial in yesterday’s New York Times analyzing the resistance to all-but-a-done-deal oil reforms in Mexico, which will probably be voted through by the country’s parliament later this month. It’s a strange little piece. While he covers a lot of ground, illustrating in broad strokes the fight over Mexico’s energy—and economic—future, the essay is most notable for what Krauze leaves out in his implicit defense of the energy privatization.

Krauze identifies three factors animating resistance to Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s proposal to opening the country’s oil sector to foreign investment: the average citizen’s appalling experiences with previous privatization schemes, nationalism, and fears of increased corruption should the country find itself in another oil boom, as happened in the 1970s.

Keep reading at Warscapes…

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