Month in Progress
3 and 4 April
Monday 3rd: Fiduciary
At the Museum yesterday, Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil and I passed a gallery that has been there for decades but that is now marked with the name of Leonard Lauder, not, as it was for decades, that of Lila Acheson Wallace. Quite aside from the faithlessness with which the Museum, as well as other cultural institutions, treats the names of former benefactors, there is the gossipy question, raised in a recent Vanity Fair article, of the extent to which Lauder’s promise of important Cubist paintings led the Museum’s leaders astray, namely in the acquisition of a long-term lease on the old Whitney Museum, now known as the Breuer Building (after its architect — a far better criterion for naming than moneybags). Another dubious project, the demolition and replacement of the old Wallace galleries, was halted before it began. These contretemps invite fair questions about the role of curating recent art that the Metropolitan ought to play. But they also spark tittle-tattle about the outgoing Director, Thomas Campbell.
The Times appears to be following this story with a view not to heaping disgrace on Campbell but to inspiring a reform of the Museum’s board of directors, which currently consists of a small band of executive overseers floating in a puddle of ill-informed socialites. This morning, the paper reported an amorous imbroglio involving Campbell and an employee, her name withheld to protect her (quoth the Times). It reported that the precise nature of the amour was unknown — perhaps Campbell and the lady, who have been friends since before his great elevation from the ranks of assistant curators, are just friends. But that was neither here nor there, because the problem was that, with her pal as Director, the lady, working in the digital media department, was exercising power far beyond her pay grade. She had became “hard to manage.” A new director of digital media, “lured” from the Getty, found it impossible to do her job, and, after a formal complaint, left with a handsome lagniappe.
All of this is more or less off the record. Also out of focus is the ghostly legacy of Philippe de Montebello, who ran the Museum for more than thirty years before retiring on the eve of the financial meltdown. What great timing! Because what brought his successor down, at least so far as the record is concerned, was the Museum’s finances, which have not only not recovered from the meltdown but worsened for reasons having nothing to do with it. You could say that Montebello was better at fiscal responsibility than Campbell, or you could say that Montebello ran his board. More cautious than Campbell, Montebello may have imposed his caution on the trustees. It was an arrangement that worked, but it was not a suitable arrangement, because it depended on the self-respect of the Director, not the probity of the board.
It’s hard to list all the changes wrought during Thomas Campbell’s directorship — almost all of them real improvements. I’m thinking especially of the new galleries of American painting and Islamic art, respectively. The new plaza on the Museum’s Fifth Avenue front is most welcome. These three things alone would constitute memorable signatures for any Director — and they were all achieved within ten years. But there’s more — perhaps too much. In addition to the Breuer Building lease, a rebranding campaign proved to be very unpopular. (It turns out that everybody loved the little metal buttons.) When the new logo was introduced, the price paid to develop it was an unattractive part of the picture, and it was then that a susurrus of criticism began to hum. Insiders began to talk — off the record. Gradually a new portrait of the Director unfolded. Whereas before he had been presented as a top-notch arts man, gifted with encyclopedic knowledge and elegant taste, he now became an unskilled executive, with little or no managerial experience. What didn’t change was the impassivity of the Board of Directors, which continued to behave as though Campbell and others had taken advantage of its good faith.
In the past decade, New York’s cultural life has suffered more from the negligence (and worse) of its institutional fiduciaries than from any other cause. From City Opera to Cooper Union and NYU, trustees have betrayed their public obligations by succumbing to the lure of expensive but unnecessary projects. Their personal wealth has enabled them, in the absence of reflective checks, to indulge grandiose schemes with childish thoughtlessness, usually at no personal expense. I can only hope that the Times will increase its attentiveness to such idle chicanery.
Tuesday 4th: Above Average
Ever since climbing aboard the Internet, it seems, I’ve been trying to figure out Tyler Cowen. He is certainly not a sympathetic figure, but neither is he altogether antipathetic. I can’t seem to get a grip on his economic ideas, mostly because I have no training but also because I think that most economic training is nonsense, productive of nothing but words sprayed on a page. The only thing that I really know about Cowen is that he travels a lot and is always in search of good local restaurants.
In a recent Vox interview with Ezra Klein, in fact, Cowen is shown holding chopsticks, with seven dishes of various sizes on the table behind him. Despite the chopsticks, despite the Chinese cuisine, the image is adamantly masculine. Cowen’s manliness is a thick thread that runs through everything he writes — his voice is bright with the impatience that comes of having to explain things over and over again — and I do not think that there is anything compensatory about it. Nor misogynist. If Cowen’s positions might be unhelpful to women and to others traditionally unwelcome at the high tables of power, that is incidental. Cowen would probably be the first man to stand up and welcome a woman who demonstrated the capacity to act with his manly assurance.
In the interview, Klein asked Cowen for quick comments about a slew of issues. NATO, guaranteed income, the war on drugs. I can’t say that I disagreed with much of what he said. My objections were all tonal, because I, of course, am not a manly man — I’m too skeptical about the status quo, but also too optimistic about improving on it. Early on, Cowen quipped, “I feel we need to put up a big sign on this country that says, ‘We’re for immigrants who really want to work and create’.” I shuddered with irritation, because putting “work” and “create” in the same clause makes hash of both. I wonder why he did not simply say, “… who really want to compete.”
Later, there was an even more abrasive passage.
I do believe America is an exceptional nation and should think of itself as such. And this norm weakening is one of my great worries about this current time. If you ask what makes America exceptional, it’s the embedded mix of religiosity and the high status we’re willing to give to businessmen. Our belief that our way of life is best, which of course it isn’t, but we believe it, and that’s overall a good thing. And this Puritan notion that there are individual life projects and it’s your highest calling to pursue them. And we both live by this, even though neither of us is Protestant. And I think that combination is just fantastic, though dangerous too.
At two points, Cowen undercuts himself, first when he says that our way of life isn’t the best, and then when he finds the “combination” — of what, I’m not exactly sure — dangerous. What does he really mean? That it’s a good thing to believe in an illusion — if the illusion is the particular one that we believe in? But what dispirits me far more is Cowen’s explicit belief that religiosity and businessmen are what make America exceptional. I wonder how many women, especially educated women, would agree. How many women would jump out of bed every morning with enthusiasm for prioritizing catechism and the cash register?
My own view is that America is exceptional because there used to be so much room in its thinly-populated wilderness for anti-social European misfits. I believe that American exceptionalism is a disorder from which the nation is far from recovering.
Thinking very hard, for various reasons, about feminism, I more and more want to bury the term in scare quotes and declare that we simply don’t know what it refers to. It seems more profitable to consider what feminism isn’t, what its constellation of ideas does not include. The first thing that comes to mind is competition.
In other entries, I’ve argued that pure capitalism is very important to a healthy economic life, but only in small doses and special cases. There is a vital interlacing between capitalism and innovation that keeps the economic edge sharp. But only the edge. Mature businesses do not thrive in capitalist excitement. That’s why I argue for more not-for-profit business organizations. Please tell me what is competitive, in a good way, about the supply of electric power. You can’t. The competition — the innovation, funded by capitalist speculation — was settled long ago, while Thomas Edison was still alive. Quick readers will note that I have folded “competition” into the captialist-innovation matrix. And that is indeed where I think it belongs.
The worst thing about prioritizing competition is the laziness that it encourages. I’m not being paradoxical. Competition, with its markers and its metrics, reduces the complications of personal performance to a few standard measurements. Did the tenor hit the high notes? That’s a much easier criterion to agree on than the far more important issue of a singer’s musicality. But the high notes are exceptional; most of the time, the singer is concerned not with freakish display but with tying ordinary notes together either tightly or loosely, as taste dictates. Similarly, there is nothing in genuine scholastic achievement that can be measured. Testing creates a wholly bogus region of accomplishment. Judgments of academic excellence are subject to dispute, a necessary inconvenience. Examinations sidestep the problem, but to no truly constructive purpose.
And as to commerce, it is no longer doubtable that the objective of every successful business is to narrow the field of competition to the vanishing point.
The humanist objection to the excessive emphasis on competition is that most people are insulted by it. Most people are not competitors. Most people are, by definition, close to mediocre. Most people need some kind of help from other people. Most of all, they need respect for their ordinariness. I can see that Tyler Cowen wants an America that, like Lake Wobegon, is above-average.
What this exercise teaches me is that feminism is not so much about allowing women to compete and excel as it is about creating a thriving society of dignified individuals.