So the New Green Deal is already getting a lot of attention and push-back – both to the good. It’s at least bold enough in some ways to get noticed, if not bold enough in others. For so long, the conversation has been muted by a sense of futility that is quite self-indulgent. Nonetheless…
Not far enough? Correct:

But the Green New Deal has a big blind spot: It doesn’t address the places Americans live. And our physical geography—where we sleep, work, shop, worship, and send our kids to play, and how we move between those places—is more foundational to a green, fair future than just about anything else. The proposal encapsulates the liberal delusion on climate change: that technology and spending can spare us the hard work of reform.

The Environment

America is a nation of sprawl. More Americans live in suburbs than in cities, and the suburbs that we build are not the gridded, neighborly Mayberrys of our imagination. Rather, the places in which we live are generally dispersed, inefficient, and impossible to navigate without a car. Dead-ending cul-de-sacs and the divided highways that connect them are such deeply engrained parts of the American landscape that it’s easy to forget they were, themselves, the fruits of a massive federal investment program.

Sprawl is made possible by highways. This is expensive—in 2015, the Victoria Transport Policy Institute estimated that sprawl costs America more than $1 trillion a year in reduced business activity, environmental damage, consumer expenses, and other costs. Leaving aside the emissions from the 1.1 billion trips Americans take per day (87 percent of which are taken in personal vehicles), spreading everything out has eaten up an enormous amount of natural land.

Tell them what they could win, Jonny:

But the good news is that if we do account for land use, we will get much closer to a safe, sustainable, and resilient future. And even though widespread adoption of EVs is still decades away, reforms to our built environment can begin right now. In short, we can fix this. We build more than 1 million new homes a year—we just need to put them in the right places.*

Unsprawling America isn’t as hard as it sounds, because America is suffering from a critical, once-in-a-lifetime housing shortage. The National Low Income Housing Coalition reported last year that the U.S. has a national deficit of more than 7.2 million affordable and available rental homes for families most in need. Of course, if we build those homes in transit-accessible places, we can save their occupants time and money. But the scale of housing demand at this moment is such that we could build them in car-centric suburbs, too, and provide a human density that would not just support transit but also reduce the need to travel as shops, jobs, and schools crop up within walking distance.

Walking distance needs to become an old/new catch phrase. Also, as another Slate article proclaims, plane trips CAN be replaced by train trips. Not LA to NYC, and not even NYC to Chicago. But most trips under 500 miles and all trips under 300 miles could be taken out of the equation with an updated modest-speed rail system. 100 miles per hour cuts what is a four-hour drive to three (math!), plus airports are never in city centers – you always have to drive in. Bump up the speed to even 150 mph and, well, a 2 hour trip. Math!

Image via Alon Levy on the twitters.

Market aphorisms

Okay… now back to the important stuff.

A couple of years ago, I had lunch with art critic Dave Hickey while he was in town to do a lecture at the school. I ended up spending the entire afternoon with him, as everyone else on the schedule baled; it turned out that his rather salty reputation proceeded him. Anyway, he and I got along great and it was a fun afternoon. I really came to like Hickey, and even attended his lecture that evening with a painter friend, because I was sure there was no way he was going to say in public any of the things about art, painting, and teaching it that he had said to me over the course of that afternoon. Of course, he said every bit of it, as though I doubted him personally.

so, per James Wolcott, Hickey seems to now be on a semi-retirement interview tour:

Sarah Douglas: Hmmm…a sort of partial retirement then?

In other words, I plan to disappear like Marcel Duchamp, which is to not quite disappear. I’m about to leave…oops, I haven’t left yet but keep on looking. I’m about to leave. I’m giving it all up for chess, that type of thing. I’m actually giving it all up for statistics. My mother was an economics professor. I’m proficient in math, and statistics, game theory, symbolic logic and all of that. I want to write a creative writing book about the statistics of literary prose accompanied by software so you could compare the statistical shape of your writing to that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens, Ray Carver or David Foster Wallace. My idea is to provide professors a way of teaching creative writing without having to read quires of crap. Also, I really believe that most of the problems with literary prose tend to be statistical. They have to do with sequencing, and the calculus is helpful in gaining this sort of information. When I was in graduate school I invented a grammar based on the paragraph rather than the sentence—very radical at the time. I also had works by writers in three states of revision so I could say: the numbers are like this here, and then here and then here. So I could make empirically based observations about intention. Hemingway means to do this. Gertrude Stein means to do this. D.H. Lawrence means to do this. I was fighting against professorial Freudian and Marxist musings on the artist’s intentions. I hate all that woozy political and psychotherapeutic crap applied to books and art.

What about art critics? Do they have any place in this system anymore? They used to have an influence over whether people bought things or not. Do they still have that?

We have no power at all. We just market aphorisms. This is mostly because of magazine economics. Good critics are expensive. I am expensive. Academics work for free to get tenure, and, since they are worried about the approval of their colleagues, they are fearful of making value judgments. Also, most of my peers and contemporaries learned how to write magazine journalism. We know how to do a transition, we know how to do a lead, we know what a hook is, and we’re literate. Most critics today come out of art academia, where they don’t even understand the future-imperfect tense. People like me, the late Bob Hughes [see Jim Kelly’s perceptive eulogy on Robert Hughes at VF Daily], Chris Knight, Peter Plagens, Jerry Saltz and Peter Schjeldahl—we’re sort of like sewing machine repairmen after the sewing machine has gone out of fashion.

Hughes in peace

Not the first man you might imagine when it comes to peace, but rest now he does. The rough week continues, and while this one isn’t strictly personally, it certainly feels personal. Our favorite art critic Robert Hughes (1938-2012).

When he reached a mass audience for the first time in 1980 with his book and television series The Shock of the New, a history of modern art starting with the Eiffel Tower and graced with a title that still resounds in 100 later punning imitations, some of the BBC hierarchy greeted the proposal that Hughes should do the series with ill-favoured disdain. “Why a journalist?” they asked, remembering the urbanity of Lord Clark of Civilisation.

He gave them their answer with the best series of programmes about modern art yet made for television, low on theory, high on the the kind of epigrammatic judgment that condenses deep truths. Van Gogh, he said, “was the hinge on which 19th-century romanticism finally swung into 20th-century expressionism”. Jackson Pollock “evoked that peculiarly American landscape experience, Whitman’s ‘vast Something‘, which was part of his natural heritage as a boy in Cody, Wyoming”. And his description of the cubism of Picasso and Braque still stands as the most coherent 10-page summary in the literature.

And that’s some Hughes we can always use.


Too much of some things and not enough of others. Why do we lose the feel for and sight of the sensations we hold most dear? Are we misusing the words and concepts? The battle for our own personal attention spans, for example, in which to play is to lose, doesn’t do anyone much good. What do those words even mean that we allow this ‘span’ (do we need an attention suspension bridge?) to be up for grabs The degree to which we allow almost anything to pass into our heads, refusing to rule and watch over this domain as we might a plot of land where our children sleep, contributes to the loss. As well, connectivity; we’ve bought lock-and-stock the idea that we should never (much less need to) be out of the reach of electronic beeps and chirps. Then there’s the wireless scourge. Harmless and helpful on its own, though at essence and by definition opposed to any efforts at moderation. So, how do you pan out, and if we manage, how do we make sense of what see?

One place to start making sense again, this essay on the misunderstandings of art and science by James Elkins, The Drunken Conversation of Chaos and Painting

Within mathematics, there is no question of the importance of the new discoveries. The “new geometry”
knows itself to be fundamental: “Euclid,” Benoit Mandelbrot announces in The Fractal Geometry
of Nature, will be “used in this work to denote all of standard geometry.” The unexpected efflorescence
of geometry, so difficult to follow through its growing associations with physics, biology, astronomy,
geology, medicine, and economics, already has wide experimental support and applications as diverse
as the threebody problem, population dynamics, the neurobiology of hearing, and the contractions
of heart muscle. It has, in addition, serious philosophic and experimental implications for the scientific
method itself.
In this context the “new geometry” is most interesting because it knows itself to be beautiful,
though the nature and extent of that knowledge are open to question. Mandelbrot quotes an article in Science
that makes a parallel between cubism, atonal music and modern mathematics beginning with “Cantor’s
set theory and Peano’s spacefilling curves.” He sees a rococo phase in mathematics before the modern
era, followed by a visual austerity. When it comes to art, he makes a poorly articulated and unconvincing
historical and aesthetic reading of his own fractal inventions, according to which the extravagant,
ebullient forms he has visualized are “minimalist art”—a most unlikely identification. There is also an
unwillingness on Mandelbrot’s part to mix art and science: when computer printouts are to be judged aesthetically,
he gives them selfparodistic titles such as “The Computer ‘bug’ as artist, Opus 1,” thereby publishing
aesthetic results as mistakes, “bugs” in programs. Part of the meaning of such titles resides in
Mandelbrot’s mimicry of contempory painting styles; “Opus 2” is like an angular Clifford Still or Franz
Kline. He also thinks his polychromic computer printouts are “austere.” The reason is they have simple
mathematics behind them, and so his misidentification with minimalism is an example of non-visual
thinking—what a mathematician would call “analytic” rather than “synthetic” reasoning. More plausibly,
he thinks a Mies van der Rohe building is a “scalebound” throwback to “Euclid” since it has only certain
classes of forms, while—in a particularly strange juxtaposition of cultures—“a high period Beaux Arts
building is rich in fractal aspects.”

Download and the read the whole thing. On purpose.

Hughes You Can Use

Krugman is on his game today (who knew a banal term like securitization was Orwell-ifiable?); Obama has been on his game all week. But today I want to turn to another connection, by way of an ongoing conversation around my house and among near associates. Green also means inexperienced, wet-behind-the-ears, and our general lack of critical acumen and ability is not unrelated to the tumultuous economic straits in which we presently tread, much less the ecological shoals upon which we are likely to founder.

The Australian art critic Robert Hughes has cut his widest swath using the cudgel of Time magazine, believe it or not. Books and films by and about him are easy to find and you should find and devour them, notably his collection of essays, Nothing if Not Critical. Below is a speech he gave in England in 2004, ostensibly about the Royal Academy, but by implication it is most certainly also a transposition of the ‘royal’ as in We.

Many years ago, when I was still cutting my first pearly fangs as an art critic, one thing used to be taken for granted by me and practically everyone I knew in what is so optimistically termed the “art world”.

That thing was that all Academies were bad, the enemies of progress – and though nobody knew how to define that slippery notion of progress in the arts, we were all in favour of it, that went without saying.

What, you didn’t like progress? You and Sir Alfred Munnings, fella. And the Royal Academy excited our particular scorn. It seemed to stand for everything that was most retrograde and irrelevant. No serious artist could gain anything from having the tarnished letters RA tacked on to their name, so redolent of boardroom portraits, cockle-gatherers at work or sunny views of Ascot.

Now, historically, this was an odd situation. For, as it was originally set up in 1768, the Royal Academy was only one of a number in Europe: unlike those in Paris, Madrid and elsewhere, it was probably the least official, a product of the English genius for structured informality.

Despite its name, it did not get subventions from the monarch. It enjoyed no government support and no guarantees of private patronage. It supported itself with annual shows, from whose sales it took a modest commission. These shows, which started in 1769, were for many years the chief artistic events in London.

Burlington House was not in any real sense the arm of a cultural establishment, as the French Academy was under the iron thumb of Le Brun. It attracted most of the most gifted and advanced artists then working in England. Nobody could say that a society that counted geniuses of the order of John Constable, JMW Turner or Henry Fuseli among its members was an enemy of inspired art. The counter-example always given is William Blake, who resented Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses and his own tastes in painting, which ran towards Rubens and Rembrandt as well as Michelangelo. This created the idea, which many people still hold, that Reynolds hated Blake and was determined to repress him for his visionary genius.

There is no truth in this. It is one of the pious legends of modernism, a fiction of holy martyrdom. Blake certainly disliked Reynolds, and wrote a number of fierce epigrams to show it. “When Sir Joshua Reynolds died/All Nature was degraded/The King dropt a tear into the Queen’s ear,/And all his pictures faded.” Blake was not the only genius to be intolerant and slightly paranoid. But in fact the Academy didn’t do so badly by Blake, and he continued to exhibit at it throughout most of his life. And there were a number of issues, such as the need for an art of high spiritual and historical seriousness, on which the two men certainly agreed, though they had different ideas on how to create it.

The myth of Reynolds’ opposition to Blake fitted in nicely with a much later idea of the Academy as enemy of the new: but this really took hold in the first half of the 20th century, during which the Academy elected a series of ever-more conservative presidents, a process that reached a climax of sorts in the late 1940s when Sir Alfred Munnings – a brilliant horse-painter in his better moments but a paranoid blimp of a man – set out to use his presidency as a stick with which to beat Picasso, Matisse and assorted other Frogs, Wops, Huns and other denizens of that despicable place, Abroad.

Since Munnings raucously hated everything that Hitler had just been trying to wipe out as Degenerate Jewish Art, his timing was distinctly off. The Royal Academy, it seemed, had shot itself in the foot so dramatically that it no longer had even the stump of a leg to stand on.

By the time I first came to live in England, and for years thereafter, the obsoleteness of the Royal Academy as a benign factor in the life of contemporary art was simply assumed as a fact. I never heard any of the artists I knew at the end of the 60s mention it, let alone talk about some desire to join it. Nevertheless, one went to its shows, which were sometimes complete eye-openers. I will never forget the impact that the great Bonnard exhibition of 1966 had on me, or more recently, the 1987 show of British art in the 20th century. The chance to see shows like that, I realised, was one reason why I had wanted to leave Australia in the first place.

Anyway, as the years wore on, it began to seem a bit absurd to bear the Academy ill-will for things that happened in Burlington House when you were less than 10-years-old, or even not yet born. The rhetoric of Modernism had tried very hard, desperately hard, to separate itself from the Academic. It was as though the Academy were a kind of Medusa’s head, whose gaze could turn talent to stone. The very term had been made into a dirty word, a word of abuse. But could that be the whole story? Looking back, I do not think so. As we know from Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses, if we take the trouble to read them – which practically no one does – the Royal Academy once had very pronounced views on what constituted the great and the good in art. These views are now so out of currency that no one holds them. The idea that a revived Academy would or could clamp an iron fist of conformity on English painting and sculpture is simply absurd. It did not do that even in the 18th century. But there are quite clear and to me convincing reasons why we need such a revival today. And they have nothing to do with the elaboration of rules and conventions.

First of all, the idea of a democratised institution run by artists is an extremely valuable one. It was valuable in the 18th century and it is still today. And the good it can do for art cannot be replaced by either the commercial dealing system or by the national museums. I don’t want to disparage dealers, collectors or museum directors, by the way. But I don’t think there is any doubt that the present commercialisation of the art world, at its top end, is a cultural obscenity. When you have the super-rich paying $104m for an immature Rose Period Picasso – close to the GNP of some Caribbean or African states – something is very rotten. Such gestures do no honour to art: they debase it by making the desire for it pathological. As Picasso’s biographer John Richardson said to a reporter on that night of embarrassment at Sotheby’s, no painting is worth a hundred million dollars.

An institution like the Royal Academy, precisely because it is not commercial, can be a powerful counterweight to the degrading market hysteria we have seen too much of in recent years. I have never been against new art as such; some of it is good, much is crap, most is somewhere in between, and what else is news? I know, as most of us do in our hearts, that the term “avant-garde” has lost every last vestige of its meaning in a culture where anything and everything goes. Art does not evolve from lower states to higher. The scientific metaphors, like “research” and “experiment”, that were so popular half a century ago, do not apply to art. And when everything is included in the game, there is no game to be ahead of. A string of brush marks on a lace collar in a Velásquez can be as radical as the shark that an Australian caught for a couple of Englishmen some years ago and is now murkily disintegrating in its tank on the other side of the Thames. More radical, actually.

But I have always been suspicious of the effects of speculation in art, and after 30 years in New York I have seen a lot of the damage it can do: the sudden puffing of reputations, the throwing of eggs in the air to admire their short grace of flight, the tyranny of fashion. It is fair that collectors should have influence: some of them really deserve to have it, although these are often the ones who care least about the power trip of wielding it – one thinks of those great benefactors the Sainsburys, for instance. But it is ridiculous that some of them should have the amount of influence they do merely because the tax laws enable them to use museums as megaphones for their own sometimes-debatable taste. Now England is far ahead of the US in such matters. I don’t know of one major American museum that has an artist on its board of trustees, as the Tate, the National Gallery, and others here do. But you should go further. I believe it’s not just desirable but culturally necessary that England should have a great institution through which the opinions of artists about artistic value can be crystallised and seen, there on the wall, unpressured by market politics: and the best existing candidate for such an institution is a revitalised Royal Academy, which always was dedicated to contemporary art.

Part of the Academy’s mission was to teach. It still should be. In that regard, the Academy has to be exemplary: not a kindergarten, but a place that upholds the primacy of difficult and demanding skills that leak from a culture and are lost unless they are incessantly taught to those who want to have them. And those people are always in a minority. Necessarily. Exceptions have to be.

In the 45 years that I’ve been writing criticism there has been a tragic depreciation in the traditional skills of painting and drawing, the nuts and bolts of the profession. In part it has been caused by the assumption that it’s photography and its cognate media – film and TV – that tell the most truth about the visual.

It’s not true. The camera, if it’s lucky, may tell a different truth to drawing – but not a truer one. Drawing brings us into a different, a deeper and more fully experienced relation to the object. A good drawing says: “not so fast, buster”. We have had a gutful of fast art and fast food. What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in 10 seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures. In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media. For no spiritually authentic art can beat mass media at their own game. This was not a problem when the Academy was founded, because in 1769 such media were embryonic or non-existent. A quarter of a millennium later, things are different. But drawing never dies, it holds on by the skin of its teeth, because the hunger it satisfies – the desire for an active, investigative, manually vivid relation with the things we see and yearn to know about – is apparently immortal. And that, too, is why we need the Royal Academy: perhaps even more now than 50 or 100 years ago. May it live as long as history allows.