Was 20th century really that great?

This is the question that occurred to me as I was reading the New York Times article about the latest MOMA expansion. I understand the Glenn Lowry, the MOMA’s director, wants to make the museum into more of an all-around cultural center, and this expansion is meant in part to serve that. And perhaps this strategy is a way of future-proofing the MOMA as an institution, should the public become suddenly less interested in paying the MOMA’s quite hefty entrance fees, in order to see its collection of 20th century art. But the MOMA, however it diversifies, is fundamentally about that art, and to the extent it can attract visitors to its various other events, many if not most are coming not just for the events themselves, but because they perceive that the venue, as the premiere museum for that art, is, if not necessarily cool, certainly august, in some vaguely still cool fashion, and thus worth being associated with.

What if that changes? Think of the history paintings of Europe in the mid-19th century. They were all the rage, and their painters vaunted above all others, until… They weren’t. The fall, if not a fast one, was in the end quite resolute, and neither the paintings nor their painters have recovered in reputation. And even if the same doesn’t befall the reputations of Picasso, Miro, and Pollock, will those artists be enough to pull in the big crowds, once those folks decide that seeing one or two work by each, every few years, is enough, and all the Marsden Hartleys and Clyfford Stills just aren’t a draw at all. Then what will happen to the MOMA? Big institutions, the bigger they get, and the more grandiose their expansions, become ever more dependent on ever-greater revenue streams, and often in their sensible attempts to do this by moving into new businesses, they fail. To take a possible analogue from a different business, think of AT&T and its building a monumental headquarters in the midtown, and very quickly having to move and rent the place out, because It couldn’t make enough money to afford to stay, as it faced ever-more-vigorous competition from low-cost upstarts. Is MOMA really going to compete, in its various happenings, with other younger, more nimble institutions? Perhaps yes, while it can still draw crowds from the increasingly older market segment, for which, say, the first sight of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles was both an aesthetic revelation and a bearer of new insight into the multiplicity and ultimate subjectivity of perspectives on the world. For anyone my age and younger – I’m in my late 40s – Picasso and his paintings, and this insight, are interesting and aesthetically appealing, but more historical artifacts than anything else. We may well all say the same about a half-empty MOMA, not so long down the road.

Why can’t country divorce be easier?

In the US in the 70s, divorce suddenly became o.k.. That is, it became acceptable for married couples to say that things hadn’t worked out, and then split up. Divorced people not only began to fill Updike novels, but were, in the course of time, accepted by and large everywhere as perfectly normal, and went about their lives, often remarrying and even having new families, and no one had to wear a big letter D on his or her chest. The legal changes boiled down to one person being enough to initiate a divorce, but of course this wasn’t so much a cause as an effect of a broader social change: women increasingly gaining respect as equals to men, and thus capable of making the decision to end a marriage on their own. Because in most cases, certainly early on in the divorce boom, it was the women who wanted to get out.

Why can’t country divorce be like this? I wonder if what we’re seeing now, in Scotland, Catalonia, and perhaps also – with serious qualifications – Ukraine, is the beginnings of a change in attitudes about what it means for countries to break up. Or rather, for one group of people, living in a contiguous area, to break up with their neighbors, leaving the nation-state they’ve shared and either forming their own or joining another. It seems to me that the 21st century could be the century of country divorce. There may well be an evolution of attitudes ongoing, one that will bring the coalescence of a new set of broadly accepted rules and procedures for these breakups. The key being not the consent of both parties – as in the Czechoslovakia breakup – but rather the breakers-away deciding themselves, by democratic vote, and by some generally taken-to-be-decisive supermajority – perhaps two-thirds “ayes” – to leave.

Not everyone shares the new attitudes, and perhaps some of the folks espousing them are cranks. Separatism of all sorts has traditionally been confined to the margins of politics. But Artur Mas and Alex Salmond are perfectly normal politicians, and in setting up independence referenda and advocating for them, they’ve used perfectly legal means, if pushing, particularly in Mas’s case, into grey areas of the law of Spain. They’ve made arguments that, if perhaps too much colored by the romantic for most contemporary taste, aren’t the stuff of nut-jobs. I would argue they’re something like the divorce advocates of the early 70s, who pushed for others to adopt attitudes that theretofore had been acceptable only among urban libertines, mostly of the larger coastal cities, who were certainly marginal to American society as a whole.

I can’t say anything about anyone down in Crimea, and anyway, given different attitudes about the nation and the state, and the shaky hold of meaningful democracy in that part of the world, this is clearly a very different case from the other two. Also, it must be said, Putin’s methods of breaking Crimea away from Ukraine are repulsive. Hillary Clinton is quite right, I think, to compare him to Hitler and this to the case of the Sudetenland. That said, from what I heard during several years of living in Russia, and from talking to my Russian friends now, I would gather that a truly free vote were held in Crimea – perhaps in a couple of decades, using procedures worked out in Scotland and Catalonia – independence or unification with Russia would win easily.

So of course outsiders can screw everything up, as in Ukraine now. Let’s say, though, that the outsider isn’t a horrid jerk who’s moved into your house without asking and is sleeping downstairs on the couch with your wife, threatening your kids if they complain to the neighbors about the setup. O.k., perhaps he’s a jerk, and yes, he’s had a fling with your wife. But he hasn’t moved in, and if, perhaps, he and your wife have slept together, those things do happen – we accept that now, as an unpleasantness of life for some, as part of a transition to an aloneness or being-in-a-new-coupleness for others. Even leaving one country not to be another, but to join another, might well be, one day, just one of those things that happen. With everyone at least being civil to one another afterward, when they run into each other in the grocery store.

The change in attitudes about such things hasn’t taken hold widely, of course. We can see that in the huffiness, for example, of not only most British and nearly all Spanish politicians outside Catalonia, but also in the pronouncements of various EU officials, who shouldn’t really have any stake in either instance but have made clear they as one hold traditional anti-secessionist views, in their every pronouncement on the forthcoming Scottish and Catalonian referenda. The sanctity of marriage, before meaningful self-determination, for all of them, it seems. Moreover, there isn’t yet anything like an accepted set of procedures to guide the process of secession. But this is always the case with new political ideals, and the procedures for making them real. Think of the popular vote, before the standard procedures for that came to be broadly accepted as such worldwide, in the long aftermath of the Second World War. (These were even honored in the breech, by the fake elections held throughout the socialist world, with the de-democratization largely confined to the stage of choosing candidates, not by having secret policemen follow anyone into the voting booth.) Or think of the system of parties using primary elections to choose their candidates. This is used in only a few countries even now. But the system is spreading elsewhere, if slowly, and I’m sure it will be commonly accepted as necessary to democracy everywhere, within a few decades.

And why shouldn’t secession be available too to states and provinces, counties and district, and cities, within countries – that is, to those who’d form new ones, by breaking off from the ones they occupy now? It seems to me this will be the logical next step. If we all hold as valid the notion that political entities are formed by the active choice of those who inhabit them, how could it be otherwise? Really this is only what follows Locke, at least in my reading. Absent this active choice – which, it seems to me, should certainly be able to be re-made, not made only once – how can any political entity be legitimate? And how can we be that far, I think, from this notion becoming widely accepted, as part of the received canon of ideas, about how people can and should decide how best to rule themselves?

Try, try again

Interesting piece this morning at TechCrunch, by Paul Carr, on the book industry’s repeated attempts to force retailers to charge the full sticker price, on every copy sold. Carr’s reacting to Macmillan’s Pyrrhic victory over Amazon, but his piece focuses less on that than on the history of such battles – and points out that at least in the UK, that history stretches back to at least 1900, and the Net Book Agreement:

In the UK, way back in 1900, publishers corralled retailers into the Net Book Agreement (NBA); an agreement between British publishers and booksellers that books would be sold at the price specified on the cover. If a bookseller offered so much as a penny discount, then the publisher would simply withdraw all of their books from that bookseller and encourage other publishers to do the same. The arrangement suited everyone; book shops were the only place to buy new books and the NBA meant they didn’t have to worry about rivals undercutting them; this particularly benefited independent bookshops. For their part, publishers knew exactly how much they’d be getting for each title and authors knew how much of that would form their royalty.

It took until the late 90s for the Restrictive Practices Court to declare that the Net Book Agreement was anti-competitive and should be scrapped. Shortly afterwards, Borders entered the UK market, hundreds of UK independent bookshops went bankrupt and publishers decided to change their contracts with authors. Now, instead of being based on the cover price of a book, the author’s royalty would be based on ‘net receipts’, which is to say the price that publishers actually received from bookshops.

Carr points out that this sort of arrangement simply can’t work any longer, because publishers can’t possibly reach such agreements with every single retailer – meaning there will always be some who can undercut others on price. Also key, of course, is that today, readers don’t have to buy books to do serious reading – and indeed, often, choose not to read at all, if there are other, cheaper, equally interesting ways to spend their time, or get the info they need for their work or what have you. We’ve come a long way from 1900 – and at some point, the Macmillans of the publishing world will have to recognize this.

Poker is the new chess

Fascinating NYRB article by Garry Kasparov. Nut graf:

Perhaps chess is the wrong game for the times. Poker is now everywhere, as amateurs dream of winning millions and being on television for playing a card game whose complexities can be detailed on a single piece of paper. But while chess is a 100 percent information game—both players are aware of all the data all the time—and therefore directly susceptible to computing power, poker has hidden cards and variable stakes, creating critical roles for chance, bluffing, and risk management.