If we were truly the musical people that we think we are, there would be a growing discography based on the notion of a people who gorge themselves endlessly, yet are profoundly undernourished. But invariably, time from time someone leaves a door unlatched and a few bars or whole measure drifts out that is recognizable – how we have conditioned ourselves to think that we’re open to different ideas when that isn’t actually the case at all; that we’re already overtaxed with things to do and think about when we actually ask quite little of ourselves; how ‘the whole thing’ (whatever it is) is just too complicated when it’s often quite simple and only the onus of our choices which we find too troublesome to delve into.

The column this week touched on this idea in a very indirect way, via a coincidental example of an eco-themed art show. It’s greatly true that if you just keep in mind what it is that you’re doing, most situations tend to be navigable, that one included. In a timely NYT follow up (kidding), this article presents much the same take on a coincidental example, a review of a show by the recipient of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s Hugo Boss Prize.

When an artist uses her art to advance a political cause, how are we to judge the result? Should we evaluate the project by applying artistic standards or on the basis of its political or moral argument?

Consider Emily Jacir, who employs conventional devices of conceptualism and performance art to call attention to the plight of the Palestinian people.

This particular example of her work has a tertiary component that makes it even more suspect, but the point holds that even and especially with sympathetic subject matter, the basic premise of ‘art as means’ remains problematic.

However tragic and deplorable Mr. Zuaiter’s story may be, Ms. Jacir’s exhibition does not bring him to life sufficiently enough to elicit a strong emotional response. You may agree or disagree with her political goals and her use of the art exhibition system to further them. But the problem is with her unexceptional artistry, not her politics.

Just so.

My life is free

The title and the following are both from Henry Miller’s Remember to Remember, also known as vol. 2 of The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. This piece is called The Staff of Life.

Bread: Prime symbol. Try and find a good loaf. You can travel fifty thousand miles in America without once tasting a piece of good bread. Americans don’t care about good bread. They are dying on inanition but they go on eating bread without substance, bread without flavor, bread without vitamins, bread without life. Why? Because the very core of life is contaminated. If they knew what good bread was they would not have such wonderful machines on which they lavish all their time, energy and affection. A plate of false teeth means much more to an American than a loaf of good bread. Here is the sequence: poor bread, bad teeth, indigestion, constipation, halitosis, sexual starvation, disease and accidents, the operating table, artificial limbs, spectacles, baldness, kidney and bladder trouble, neurosis, psychosis, schizophrenia, war and famine. Start with the American loaf of bread so beautifully wrapped in cellophane and you end up on the scrap heap at forty-five. The only place to find a good loaf of bread is in the ghettos. Wherever there is a foreign quarter there is apt to be good bread. Wherever there is a Jewish grocer or delicatessen you are almost certain to find an excellent loaf of bread. The dark Russian bread, light in weight, found only rarely on this huge continent, is the best bread of all. No vitamins have been injected into it by laboratory specialists in conformance with the latest food regulations. The Russian just naturally likes good bread, because he also likes caviar and vodka and other good things. Americans are whiskey, gin and beer drinkers who long ago lost their taste for food. And losing that they have also lost their taste for life. For enjoyment. For good conversation. For everything worthwhile, to put it briefly.

What do I find wrong with America? Everything. I begin at the beginning, with the staff of life: bread. If the bread is bad the whole life is bad. Bad? Rotten, I should say. Like that piece of bread only twenty-four hours old which is good for nothing except to fill up a hole. God for target practice maybe. Or shuttlecock and duffle board. Even soaked in urine it is unpalatable; even perverts shun it. Yet millions are wasted advertising it. Who are the men engaged in this wasteful pursuit? Drunkards and failures for the most part. Men who have prostituted their talents in order to help further the decay and dissolution of our glorious Republic.

1947. You’ll have to scour a second-hand bookshop this weekend and get lucky for the rest. Or wait for periodic snippets here. As always, love your neighbor, read your Miller.

bread & stone

So, tree deaths in the western U.S. have more than doubled over the last few decades, and the most obvious cause is rising regional temps due to global warming. But…

When questioned about the most pressing issues facing the country, poll respondents in the same U.S. rank concern about global warming dead last. Hmm, the coincidence is lifting into a fog, enveloping our ability to discern among our crises. The old saw about about ‘if a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?’ is seamlessly seguing into something along the lines of ‘if the woods all fall together and everyone sees it, will it make any difference?’

But… it’s Friday, when I usually offer some kind of contextual reading. So how about a snippet from Aldo Leopold‘s The Land Ethic? Here’s a section, Substitutes for a Land Ethic, to consider:

When the logic of history hungers for bread and we hand out a stone, we are at pains to explain how much the stone resembles bread. I now describe some of the stones which serve in lieu of a land ethic.

One basic weakness in a conservation system based wholly on economic motives is that most members of the land community have no economic value. Wildflowers and songbirds are examples. Of the 22,000 higher plants and animals native to Wisconsin, it is doubtful whether more than 5 per cent can be sold, fed, eaten, or otherwise put to economic use. Yet these creatures are members of the biotic community, and if (as I believe) its stability depends on its integrity, they are entitled to continuance.

When one of these non-economic categories is threatened, and if we happen to love it, we invent subterfuges to give it economic importance. At the beginning of the century songbirds were supposed to be disappearing. Ornithologists jumped to the rescue with some distinctly shaky evidence to the effect that insects would eat us up if birds failed to control them. The evidence had to be economic in order to be valid.

It is painful to read these circumlocutions today. We have no land ethic yet, but we have at least drawn nearer the point of admitting that birds should continue as a matter of biotic right, regardless of the presence or absence of economic advantage to us.

A parallel situation exists in respect of predatory mammals, raptoral birds, and fish-eating birds. Time was when biologists somewhat overworked the evidence that these creatures preserve the health of game by killing weaklings, or that they control rodents for the farmer, or that they prey only on ‘worthless’ species. Here again, the evidence had to be economic in order to be valid. It is only in recent years that we hear the more honest argument that predators are members of the community, and that no special interest has the right to exterminate them for the sake of a benefit, real or fancied, to itself. Unfortunately this enlightened view is still in the talk stage. In the field the extermination of predators goes merrily on: witness the impending erasure of the timber wolf by fiat of Congress, the Conservation Bureaus, and many state legislatures.

Some species of trees have been ‘read out of the party’ by economics-minded foresters because they grow too slowly, or have too low a sale value to pay as timber crops: white cedar, tamarack, cypress, beech, and hemlock are examples. In Europe, where forestry is ecologically more advanced, the non-commercial tree species are recognized as members of the native forest community, to be preserved as such, within reason. Moreover some (like beech) have been found to have a valuable function in building up soil fertility. The interdependence of the forest and its constituent tree species, ground flora, and fauna is taken for granted.

Lack of economic value is sometimes a character not only of species or groups, but of entire biotic communities: marshes, bogs, dunes, and ‘deserts’ are examples. Our formula in such cases is to relegate their conservation to government as refuges, monuments, or parks. The difficulty is that these communities are usually interspersed with more valuable private lands; the government cannot possibly own or control such scattered parcels. The net effect is that we have relegated some of them to ultimate extinction over large areas. If the private owner were ecologically minded, he would be proud to be the custodian of a reasonable proportion of such areas, which add diversity and beauty to his farm and to his community.

In some instances, the assumed lack of profit in these ‘waste’ areas has proved to be wrong, but only after most of them had been done away with. The present scramble to reflood muskrat marshes is a case in point.

There is a clear tendency in American conservation to relegate to government all necessary jobs that private landowners fail to perform. Government ownership, operation, subsidy, or regulation is now widely prevalent in forestry, range management, soil and watershed management, park and wilderness conservation, fisheries management, and migratory bird management, with more to come. Most of this growth in governmental conservation is proper and logical, some of it is inevitable. That I imply no disapproval of it is implicit in the fact that I have spent most of my life working for it. Nevertheless the question arises: What is the ultimate magnitude of the enterprise? Will the tax base carry its eventual ramifications? At what point will governmental conservation, like the mastodon, become handicapped by its own dimensions? The answer, if there is any, seems to be in a land ethic, or some other force which assigns more obligation to the private landowner.

Industrial landowners and users, especially lumbermen and stockmen, are inclined to wail long and loudly about the extension of government ownership and regulation to land, but (with notable exceptions) they show little disposition to develop the only visible alternative: the voluntary practice of conservation on their own lands.

When the private landowner is asked to perform some unprofitable act for the good of the community, he today assents only with outstretched palm. If the act costs him cash this is fair and proper, but when it costs only forethought, open-mindedness, or time, the issue is at least debatable. The overwhelming growth of land-use subsidies in recent years must be ascribed, in large part, to the government’s own agencies for conservation education: the land bureaus, the agricultural colleges, and the extension services. As far as I can detect, no ethical obligation toward land is taught in these institutions.

To sum up: a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided. It tends to ignore, and thus eventually to eliminate, many elements in the land community that lack commercial value, but that are (as far as we know) essential to its healthy functioning. It assumes, falsely, I think, that the economic parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneconomic parts. It tends to relegate to government many functions eventually too large, too complex, or too widely dispersed to be performed by government.

An ethical obligation on the part of the private owner is the only visible remedy for these situations.

Miller – Durrell letters

Henry Miller was one of the great letter writers of all time, both in prodigious volume and majesterial exposition. But in English novelist Lawrence Durrell, Miller had met his match. Miller and Durrell carried on a correspondence from the time just after they lived in Paris in the ’30’s to well into the 1960’s. Many of the letters have been published; the following is from the ill-titled Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller A Private Correspondence.

Spring 1944, Alexandria, Egypt

Dear Henry,

Yes, I got your letters…

Here we are sweltering in an atmosphere that demands a toast – great passions, short lives. Everything is worn thin as eggshell; it’s the fifth year now and the nervous breakdown is coming out into the open. Old women, ginger dons, nursing sisters begin to behave like bacchantes; they are moving in and out of nursing homes with a steady impetus. meanwhile we are crippled here by an anemia and an apathy and a censorship which prevents the least trace of the human voice – of any calibre. We exist on a machine-made diet of gun bomb and tank – backed up by the slogan.

The atmosphere in this delta is crackling like a Leyden jar. You see, in normal times all the local inhabitants spend six months in Europe a year, so they are as stale and beaten thin as the poor white collar man. The poetry I exude these days is dark grey and streaky, like bad bacon. But the atmosphere of sex and death is staggering in its intensity. Meanwhile the big shots come and go, seeing nothing, feeling nothing, in a money daydream; there is still butter and whisky and cafe viennois. A kind of diseased fat spreads over the faces and buttocks of the local populations, who have skimmed the grease off the war efforts in contracts and profiteering. No, I don’t think you would like it. First the steaming humid flatness – not a hill or mound anywhere – choked to bursting point with bones and crummy deposits of wiped out cultures. Then this smashed up broken down shabby Neapolitan town, with its Levantine mounds of houses peeling in the sun. A sea flat, dirty brown and waveless rubbing the port. Arabic, Coptic, Greek, Levant French; no music, no art, no real gaiety. A saturated middle European boredom laced with drink and Packards and beach-cabins. NO SUBJECT OF CONVERSATION EXCEPT MONEY. Even love is thought of in money terms. “You are getting on with her? She has ten thousand a year of her own.” Six hundred greaseball millionaires sweating in ther tarbushes and waiting for the next shot of root-hashish. And the shrieking personal unhappiness and loneliness showing in every face. No, if one could write a single line of anything that had a human smell to it here, one would be a genius. Add to all this a sort of maggot-dance of minor officual place hunting, a Florentine atmosphere of throat slitting and distrust, and you will have some idea of what anyone with a voice or tongue is up against. I am hoping the war will be over soon so I can quit; I’m glad of this little death for all the material it’s put in my way about people and affairs in general. But I’m worn thin with arse-licking and having my grammar corrected by sub-editors from the Bush Times in South America. Here in Alexandria though, I have my own office and almost no interference; so I can run things the way I like. You always used to laugh when I said I was an executive man, but I was right; my office runs like a top; and the people working for me LIKE it. The basic principe is that of the old blind pianist in Paris – remeber? Edgar’s friend Thibaud or some such name. ” Anything that needs effort to do is being done from the wrong centres; it is not worth doing.” Sometime I’ll tell you how I applied that to the running of an effortless speed organization.

How about a year in Poros now – baked hard rock and glittering sea; followed by autumn in Athens…? No more writing but lying about and taking a long myopic and unbiased view of the universe. Or do you prefer Savings Bonds, Maximum Employment, better plumbing and a prefabricated spiritual life in tune with the Stock Exchange graphs?

If you somehow haven’t read Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, you should be ashamed. And as always, love your neighbor, read your Miller.

Fun in the Hot House

Listening to the Stooges’ Fun House at the bar last night then biking home late, I was conscious of an extended moment amidst the swirl of information and goings-on. If you take so much in and do not take some time away to think and cavort, it can all be overwhelming. A sample of what’s around you:

Juan Cole on the UN call for a ceasefire and settler colonialism.

Well-chosen words on the aforementioned Obama stimulus package.

A fire burning for forty-six years?

The search for signs and meanings.

Astrophysicist/author discusses the implications of death by black hole.

DH Lawrence on Democracy (‘flip’ to page 63).

1997 Salon interview with Robert Hughes.

And finally, just a few things to look into.

Climb on up

On your nearest crane and take a look at how far we have yet to fall. Through the contours of language, from the way banks cache who owns what to the way we talk about cycles of growth, the signals are coming in clear enough to touch.

Rising vacancy rates were expected in Orange County, Calif., a center of the subprime mortgage crisis, and New York, where the now shrinking financial industry dominates office space. But vacancies are also suddenly climbing in Houston and Dallas, which had been shielded from the economic downturn until recently by skyrocketing oil prices and expanding energy businesses. In Chicago, brokers say demand has dried up just as new office towers are nearing completion.

To the extent that the reporter touches on how terribly caught off guard owners and developers have been by how quickly the market has collapsed underscores the deliberate, long-term nature of such construction projects. Okay, things could have markedly changed since ground was broken on a particular, hypothetical skyscraper some eighteen months ago. But getting in on markets just as they deteriorate is not the kind of specialty for which you want to become known. And then this

Among commercial properties, the most troubled have been hotels and shopping centers, where anemic sales and bankruptcies by retailers are leading to more vacancies and where heavily leveraged mall operators, like General Growth Properties and Centro, are under intense pressure to sell assets. But analysts are increasingly worried about the office market.

So picture an aircraft carrier, having received a special message about a new mission, slowly turning to begin in a different direction. It’s slow, perhaps hard to see or feel, but everyone on deck and below knows the ship has to change course in order to actually begin moving in a different direction. It would be foolish to allow the captain, crew and the whole admiralty to expect the sea – and the globe – to re-orient itself around the old path of the carrier in order to change its course. Wouldn’t it?

All kinds of things to stop doing. Take your pick.

Building blocks

This is the ING Bank Amsterdam, designed by Alberts & van Huut.

From chapter 5 of Natural Capitalism, Creating the Next Industrial Revolution by Paul Hawken, Amory  and L. Hunter Lovins:

In Southeastern Amsterdam, at a site chosen by the workers because of its proximity to their homes, satnds the headquarters of a major bank. Built in 1987, the 587,000-square-foot-complex consists of ten sculptural towers links by an undulating internal street. Inside, the sun reflects off colored metal – only one element in the extensive artwork that decorates the structure – to bathe the lower stories in ever changing hues. Indoor and outdoor gardens are fed by rainwater captured from the bank’s roof. Every office has natural air and natural light. Heating and ventilation are largely passive, and no conventional air conditioners are used. Conservatively attired bankers playfully trail their fingers in the water that splashes down form-flow sculptures in the bronze handrails along the staircases. The building’s occupants are demonstrably pleased with their new quarters: Absenteeism is down 15 percent, productivity is up and workers hold numerous evening and weekend cultural and social events there.

The results surpassed even the directors’ vision of the features, qualities and design process they had mandated for their bank. Theor design prospectus had designated an “organic” building that would “integrate art, natural and local materials, sunlight, green plants, energy conservation, quiet and water” – not to mention happy employees – and that would “not cost one guilder more per square meter” than the market average. In fact the money spent to put the energy savings in place paid for itself in the first three months. Upon initial occupancy, the complex used 92 percent less energy than an adjacent bank constructed at the same time, representing a saving of $2.9 million per year and making it one of the most energy-efficient buildings in Europe.

Architect Tom Alberts took three years to complete the design of the building. It took so long mainly because the bank board insisted that all participants in the project, including employees, understand its every detail: The air-handling design had to be explained to the landscape architect, for example, and the artwork to the mechanical engineers. In the end, it was this level of integration that contributed to making the building so comfortable, beautiful and cost effective.