Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Art and Social Status

As I get older, I increasingly recognize the extent to which art is associated with social status. My Armenian great-grandfather lived in Bursa, Turkey, and he became wealthy by setting up import-export businesses. He exported carpets to the U.S. and imported pianos to Greece, among other businesses. His family immediately took an interest in French culture, and my grandfather traveled there on vacation. He had an arranged marriage with my grandmother, who, though half-Armenian, had a German mother who grew up in Paris. When my mother was growing up in Greece, they spoke French at home. My mother took an early interest in ballet and European art, and, after we moved to the U.S., my older sister took ballet lessons, and we often visited the art museums in Manhattan. My mother also liked classical music and played recordings of it at home. This all rubbed off on me, and I took an early interest in paintings and music. My English father had somewhat more pedestrian tastes.

As an adult, I've often noticed that, particularly in the West, wealthy people become art aficionados. This usually has more to do with social status than with the free time of the idle rich. There is usually a clear distinction between high art and low art, and social climbers generally avoid the latter. One of the reasons why high art tends to be better than low art is that, in historical terms, the wealthy have been spending their money on it for centuries, and they usually know the difference. The aristocrats in Vienna went into raptures over Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven and supported their careers. Without subsidy from the rich, Beethoven would have been poor. In Paris, the Impressionists were initially ridiculed, and Degas, who came from a wealthy family, never identified himself as one, though he exhibited with them.

The situation in the U.S. has been a little more complex. During the Gilded Age, wealthy Americans tended to copy wealthy Europeans, and they often mingled with wealthy British people. For example, Bertrand Russell's first wife was American. Rich Americans built English-style mansions, bought classical paintings, founded traditional art museums and listened to classical music. Fiction usually mimicked English fiction. The situation changed considerably during the twentieth century, particularly after World War I. Economically, the U.S. was on the ascent and Europe was in decline, and market forces began to influence what counted as art. In my view, art patronage changed considerably during this period, mainly due to the transition from informed patrons to market forces.

With the influence of market forces in the U.S., it became possible to make rapid changes in what counted as good art, and modern art, such as that produced by Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, became popular quickly, even among critics. It is not a coincidence that Warhol had a background in marketing. Music with African and folk elements developed into jazz and popular music, eventually causing classical music to go out of favor. To some extent, jazz still belongs in the category of fine art for aficionados, and it has had wealthy patrons. I don't think that the same can be said for popular music, though, incredibly to me, many people actually like hip-hop. I would go as far as to say that some of the popular music of the '60's and '70's can reasonably be called art, but calling it high art is still a stretch.

My views on writing are a little different, because language is part of being human, and it is difficult to extract oneself from it and look at it objectively. So, for me, though there can always be good essays, they don't necessarily count as art. Fiction is also on shaky ground. I think that the novel as an art form peaked in the late nineteenth century and may never recover. There is still some hope for poetry, because that isn't restricted to traditional forms of language usage. So, though poetry can be influenced by market forces, there is still room in it for high art that can be identified and appreciated by the cognoscenti. For me, poetry is one area that may survive commercialization, though, on a practical level, I find very little of contemporary poetry worthwhile. I don't think that many good poets can do it for a living.

There are other art forms, such as films and plays, and some of those, I think, qualify as art. However, with film in particular, cost-cutting and automation have already taken a toll if you compare recent productions to older ones.

I should also mention a subject that I've brought up many times: the negative effects of M.F.A. programs. Though, in theory, academic expertise could improve the arts, in practice it has primarily created cloistered art environments and is not as efficient as the earlier wealthy-patron model. There is the myth that artists can avoid the struggling-artist period by getting a graduate degree. They can't.

As a social phenomenon, the definition of art currently lies beyond the influence of people who, in earlier days, may have made reasonable cases for what counts as good art – Robert Hughes is now long-dead. In this market-driven era, many people seem to believe that what is good is whatever is "trending." Nothing could be further from the truth. The internet, besides all of the other damage that it has done, is killing good taste, or at least making it a historical relic.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023


One of the limitations of the property where I live is that, since the house is surrounded by trees, there isn't much of a view. But, with the leaves down, you can now clearly see the outline of the Green Mountains nearby to the east. With effort, you can also see the Taconic and Adirondack Mountains to the west. The yard is still fairly private, though you can now make out the nearby houses. 

On the whole, I am happy living here. There have been no signs of mice since October, and I'm going to set up the birdfeeder soon if it stays cold. There may still be bears around. It looks as if the house is fairly well-insulated, so my utilities will be manageable. Overall, I don't think that the expenses here will be any higher than they were in Middlebury, where I was paying rent, and the value of this property has already increased. So far, not having a garage hasn't been a disadvantage. It was easier putting on snow tires outside, because there was more space and better lighting. Eventually, I will be clearing snow off the car, but, since I don't have to go anywhere most days, that shouldn't be much of a problem. The new snow blower arrived today and fits nicely in the shed. There is way more space in the house than I need, and I've had overnight visitors without any crowding.

On top of this, I like Brandon and feel a little more like a Vermonter now. I listen to Vermont Public (radio) more often than I used to, and that generates a sense of community. I even like the Vermont politicians! I'm becoming a regular at Café Provence and enjoy looking at the Neshobe River, which runs right through downtown, with waterfalls. There's also an art gallery and an old church with tombstones.

I recently attended a wedding in Derby, Connecticut and was shocked by all of the traffic. That is another reason why I prefer Vermont, particularly this part of the state, which has no interstates. Although I don't technically consider myself a writer, this is a very good environment for writing, and I can see why many of them move here. I am increasingly identifying with St. Bede the Venerable, though I'm not religious. I first learned of St. Bede at Worcester College, Oxford, in a course on Anglo-Saxon archaeology (coincidentally, that is the college that Rupert Murdoch attended). Bede lived in England from about 672 to 735, and his historical writings are one of the very few chronicles of that part of the Dark Ages there. I am beginning to feel as if I am starting to chronicle our Dark Age, though, in this case, I'm not writing alone. 

Because I have so much free time, I'm subscribing to more hard-copy magazines. I currently get Scientific AmericanSky and Telescope, Consumer ReportsTimes Literary Supplement and The New Yorker. I still like The New Yorker mainly for its cartoons. My grandson, who is now eight, also likes the cartoons, so I'm giving him my copies. Generally, I still don't enjoy the articles that much, and I don't like the current editor, David Remnick. They recently had an inferior review of Determined. I do like some of the writers, such as Elizabeth Kolbert, James Wood, Louis Menand and Rebecca Mead, and it has a sentimental value to me, because I grew up in New York. It has always been a pretentious publication, so I don't take it very seriously. The fiction, I still think, is pretty awful. I got a special rate and probably won't renew. 

My stargazing activity is almost dead. Because there is nowhere here suitable to store my large telescope, I gave it away. It currently belongs to a friend of the person who made it, who is using it as an "outreach" telescope at a summer camp in Colorado. I still have my small telescope but haven't set it up yet. In Middlebury, it was permanently set up on the rear deck and fastened down, so it was very convenient to use. It has to be fastened down or it may blow over in high winds (it did once). I don't have a deck here, but I may set it up for certain astronomical events. I can also do some stargazing in bed. In Middlebury, the skylight faced west, and I could see the Pleiades setting. This house has skylights that face south, and I can currently view the Orion Nebula rising in the east, with binoculars, while lying in bed. The skylights are small here, so it quickly moves out of view.

Friday, November 17, 2023

Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will III

I can't say that I enjoyed the remainder of the book, and I didn't spend much time on it, because I thought that Sapolsky was just rambling, and little new information of any real importance emerged. There wasn't even a noticeable conclusion either. Sapolsky, clearly an academic, is best on neurological matters. After he made a strong case for determinism and the absence of free will, he seemed to drift off into a series of anecdotes about how individuals are different from other individuals, and there is nothing that they can do about it. He is critical, for example, of those who pass judgment on fat people, because he thinks that fat people have little or no choice in the matter. Somehow, crime and punishment seem to interest him a lot, and there are countless stories about how criminals are perceived and treated by the public, often in a way that ignores the inevitability of their behavior. He seems to have the classic liberal college professor stance in which tolerance should be the norm, and people shouldn't be allowed to let their prejudices run wild. Many of his examples are old news that I've known about for decades, so I was quite disappointed when I arrived at the end of the book and determined that it did not include what I would consider to be an action plan or any useful recommendations.

In my view, Sapolsky, though he does have a good understanding of human nature, is demonstrating no interest in the rather significant implications of his findings. Those are the kinds of things that I've been writing about since I started this blog. There are two areas in particular that I've discussed repeatedly. If people are all different through no fault of their own, with widely varying intellectual abilities and prejudices, all of which are relatively intractable, how do we define equality and to what extent can a democratic process produce a coherent government? The other area is capitalism, which, despite mountains of evidence, continues to produce an increase in wealth inequality while destroying the environment. Currently, income inequality is spilling over into unruly populist movements in the West, with incompetent, opportunistic leaders who are not being filtered out by the existing democratic processes, and climate change is advancing unabated. I would have appreciated the book more if Sapolsky had devoted a few pages to those topics rather than taking jabs at Sigmund Freud, Bruno Bettelheim and other bad scientists and making fun of the public's prejudices. He seems merely to be reciting the now-popular "compassion" mantra without actually making any useful suggestions. I wasn't attempting to find religion when I started reading the book, and I'm not about to now.

I won't regurgitate all of the things that I have written previously, but I still think that the best long-term option is going to be an AI-based world government that, rather than depending on an unreliable democratic process or the whims of a dictator, maintains the planet for the benefit of Homo sapiens in an orderly fashion, based on what we know about ourselves, including the idea that we are a socially cooperative species and value equality. The point is that we collectively are not doing a good job at self-governance and ought to be taking a hard look at other options. If Sapolsky decides to write a separate book on that topic, I may read it, but I do find the current book too limited in scope and bloated in the wrong places.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will II

I am moving along more slowly than usual, because, besides Sapolsky's writing style, this is not an easy book to read and encompasses the subjects of neuroscience, biology, physics and philosophy. One chapter is devoted to chaos theory, which some have used as a basis for saying that free will exists. Sapolsky concludes that "chaoticism shows just the opposite of chaos, the fact that there's less randomness than often assumed and, instead, unexpected structure and determinism...." He then moves on to a chapter on the subject of emergent complexity. Here again, some have thought that this phenomenon is a proof of indeterminism in nature, something akin to magic. I found this chapter highly informative, because it explains how the development and behavior of organisms emerges from "simple constituent parts having simple local interactions, all without centralized authority....These systems have characteristics that exist only at the emergent level—a single neuron cannot have traits related to circuitry—and whose behavior can be predicted without having to resort to reductive knowledge about the component parts....Not only does this explain emergent complexity in our brains, but our nervous systems use some of the same tricks used by the likes of individual proteins, ant colonies, and slime molds. All without magic." In this area, Sapolsky is especially insightful, because he understands how biological systems actually work – and this is not at all the way that most people think about them. He concludes that both chaos theory and emergent systems are consistent with a deterministic world.

These chapters are followed by the chapter "Does Your Free Will Just Emerge." Sapolsky concludes that free will does not emerge for the following reasons:

a. Because of the lessons of chaoticism—you can't just follow convention and say that two things are the same, when they are different, and in a way that matters, regardless of how seemingly miniscule that difference; unpredictable doesn't mean undetermined.

b. Even if a system is emergent, that doesn't mean it can choose to do whatever it wants; it is still made up of and constrained by its own constituent parts, with all their mortal limits and foibles.

c. Emergent systems can't make the bricks that built them stop being brick-ish.

In Chapters 9 and 10, the subject changes to quantum indeterminacy. This is the same topic discussed by Sabine Hossenfelder in Existential Physics. Physics is one of Sapolsky's weaker areas, but he also makes a compelling argument that random events at the subatomic level have nothing to do with free will, which is similar to Hossenfelder's view. He concludes:

Quantum indeterminacy is beyond strange, and in the legendary words of physics god Richard Feynman, "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics."

It is perfectly plausible, maybe even inevitable, that there will be quantum effects on how things like ions interact with the likes of ion channels or receptors in the nervous system.

However, there is no evidence that those sorts of quantum effects bubble up enough to alter behavior, and most experts think that it is actually impossible—quantum strangeness is not that strange, and the quantum effects are washed away amid the decohering warm, wet noise of the brain as one scales up.

Even if quantum indeterminacy did bubble up all the way to behavior, there is the fatal problem that all it would produce is randomness. Do you really want to claim that the free will for which you deserve punishment or reward is based on randomness?

The supposed ways by which we can harness, filter, stir up, or mess with the randomness enough to produce free will seem pretty unconvincing. If determined indeterminism is a valid building block for free will, then taking an improv acting class is a valid building block for, à la Sartre, believing that we are condemned to be free.

I still have several chapters to go and should finish up on my next post. Of what I've read so far, I am most impressed by the concept of emergence, with which I was not very familiar previously. In the biological world, this is a far more useful perspective than that of physics. Emergence in nature is something that one can easily pick up intuitively simply by spending time outdoors – which is exactly how Darwin came up with his theory of evolution through natural selection. Emergence is also a good way to understand Vinod Goel's model of the human brain as discussed in Reason and Less. That model takes into consideration the fact that our brains evolved over millions of years and still contain elements from the distant past which are incompatible with reason, because they came into existence long before rationality became a feature of our species.

In some ways, I am coming to see arguments for free will as an unnecessary nuisance. I think that free will is nothing more than a necessary illusion that we maintain in order to believe in the validity of our thinking processes. You might say that we have evolved to believe that we have free will even though we don't. Thus, informed thinkers such as Sapolsky and Hossenfelder are forced to address spurious arguments that unconvincingly link free will to randomness in nature. The idea of free will is probably linked to the idea of rational agency, which is also under attack now. At the moment, both neuroscience and behavioral economics are telling us that we are hardly rational, and to confirm that these days, one need only follow the news.