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Wed, Jun. 8th, 2005 08:24 am
How long has this been going on?

Experts, talking heads, curators, publicists, historians, academics and cultural journalists love to tell us when things started. It's been going on since... oh, since, er, 1972. Experts do this because they want to sound as if they know what they're talking about, they do it because history is, by its nature, revisionist, and they do it because all ambitious writers and curators need to rebrand history to make it—and themselves—a bit more exciting.

Here, for instance, is how BBC TV's flagship cultural review show, Newsnight Review, told us last week that the contemporary cult of celebrity "begins in the 18th century with Sir Joshua Reynolds":

"During his lifetime, Sir Joshua Reynolds was one of the most celebrated artists in the Western world. But he was also - as this exhibition of his work intends to show - one of the creators of the modern-day cult of celebrity. He was a brilliant portraitist but also an impresario, a skilled networker, and a master of spin, who managed to manipulate the media and massage the egos of his subjects as well as paint."

I'm not quite sure what that's supposed to tell us about Sir Joshua Reynolds, but it certainly suggests we're in love with ourselves. Reynolds sounds very like a 21st century "culturepreneur", mobile phone at his ear, or a New Labour politician, or a toadying fashion photographer. How fabulous, darling, just like us! As Roland Barthes pointed out in his Mythologies piece about the hairstyles in Hollywood chariot movies ("Ben Hur" sports some weirdly 1950s pomades), we're always keen to "anthropomorphize" other ages and other cultures, to make them walk like us, talk like us, whoo hoo. We do this on the assumption that

a) if other cultures aren't like us they're not very interesting, and

b) otherness, far from being appealing or having something to teach us, is profoundly alienating.

We don't have much to learn from the past, it seems, but the past has a lot to learn from us. But the way we "teach" it is flattering: we laud it for inventing our own fascinating habits. The child is father to the man.

One way to be a bit more self-aware about the sort of revisions and reconstructions we do is to make up a new term or narrow the use of an existing one. For instance, I can tell you that Cute Formalism, a style I identified back in 2001, began in, er, 1962, or thereabouts. Now, I believe that Cute Formalism does really exist (I mean, it has its own Wikipedia entry, for heaven's sake!); it corresponds to observable cultural phenomena that aren't better defined by any other term. But it's also a fiction I invented one day when I was walking down Omote Sando, a particular construction I put on reality. As such, it can be defined flexibly, redefined, dated arbitrarily. As a matter of fact I don't talk about when Cute Formalism started, just where. But I could sound off about its origins in some exhibition catalogue at the drop of a hat, knowing that since I invented the term I probably wouldn't be contradicted. Naming something means never having to say you're sorry.

Some terms are more collectively owned, though. In his book "Graphic Design, A Concise History" Richard Hollis has a chapter on "The Swiss Style". But he's careful to distinguish "Swiss Design" from, well, Swiss design: "Produced in Switzerland by Swiss artists, Ruedi Kuelling's Bic pen ad belongs in a longer tradition than 'Swiss Style'", he tells us. It seems that a lot of Swiss design comes from Austria and Germany too, so Swiss doesn't really mean Swiss.

Just because some of this naming and dating stuff is obviously arbitrary, it doesn't mean we should throw away our cultural histories in disgust, though. Think of the big narrative, with its braggadocio and its obvious overstatements and oversights, as a structural skeleton on which to hang the really important stuff: anecdotes, names, examples, incidents, enthusiasms, quotes, facts. When I was studying Linguistics at university I used to hate the "rules" being described—they seemed so retrospective, so feeble, so authoritarian compared with the chaotic grassroots way language actually accumulates—but love the silly examples the lecturer would use to illustrate them: "There's a pagoda in the park." The rules were just a way to generate specific synthetic sentences like that.

One thing I do remember from my Linguistics lectures, though, is the distinction between synchronic and diachronic. Synchronic means something (usually language) observed at a specific point in time. Diachronic means studying something over a longer period, watching it change and develop. There's no word for things being "outside of time" as far as I know, because, for linguists if not for theologians, nothing is outside of time.

Another interesting time-related binary came up recently on Marxy's blog. Marxy was describing Professor Keizo Nakatani's "Japanese Economics: An Interpretative Essay". Nakatani distinguished ex ante systems from ex post systems: ex ante systems focus on opportunities, projections and dreams, ex post systems focus on actual results. Prof. Nakatani says that the American system is ex ante and the Japanese system ex post. One merely contents itself with ensuring that everyone has an equal chance to achieve inequality, the other attempts to level people based on their actual status. The ex ante system increases differences (people need "initiatives", they compete individualistically in order to become winners, not losers), the ex post system decreases them (the nail that sticks out is hammered in, we're all one big "us"). It's "I coulda bin a contender" versus "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need".

The terms ex ante and ex post aren't usually applied to political systems, though. They come from fields like law, accountancy and insurance. Ex ante concerns prospects, projections, speculation, (insurance) deterrence, modelling, promises, possibilities. Ex post concerns retrospect, facts, statistics, (insurance) compensation, documentation, actualities. Ex ante means "from before". It looks forwards. Ex post means "from after". It looks back.

One of the problems with the American system is that people don't seem capable of voting according to their actual class interests: they vote as individuals, and they vote according to their dreams. They vote looking forward, not looking back. A poll conducted by Time/CNN on the estate tax issue in 2000 (reported by David Runciman in Tax Breaks For Rich Murderers in the London Review of Books) revealed that 39 per cent of Americans believe that they are either in the wealthiest 1 per cent or will be there "soon". That's a lot of wishful thinking... and wishful voting.

The American dream maps well to ex ante — to the idea that justice is the mere possibility of success, that the fact that one might get (or even exceed) one's deserts is enough: no actual compensation is required in this world, because The Last Judgement (the final actuarial event, the big Ex Post, an endlessly receding horizon, and yet so integral to the American dream) will sort everything out. No doubt more than 39 per cent of Americans believe they'll be in Heaven "soon". Personally, I'm interested to know what kind of hairstyles people wear at the Last Judgement. I suspect they're identical to the hairstyles of the people who believe in it. The sort of people who give charioteers a slick 50s DA, rabbits a wisecrack, and Sir Joshua Reynolds a cellphone.

51CommentReply


(Anonymous)
Wed, Jun. 8th, 2005 07:45 am (UTC)

http://www.assembly-international.net/

berlin film screening event, in case u didnt know. unrlated to this topic but i couldnt find ya email any3where.


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la_aquarius
Chris
Wed, Jun. 8th, 2005 07:46 am (UTC)

I recently heard Moby comment on how Republicans have managed to manage the biggest con of all time: getting the poor to vote with them under the false assumption that they, too, could one day be rich (and, furthermore, that if they don't become rich, it's their own fault).

Strangely, though, many did vote as a group rather than as individuals in this last election, and those were the evangelicals. The evil Republican geniuses also managed to cart them (literally, sometimes: they rounded up all the Amish they could find in embattled Ohio and Pennsylvania) all out to the voting booth on an issue that had no practical bearing on their own lives: Gay Marriage!


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jun. 8th, 2005 09:57 am (UTC)

I recently heard Moby comment on how Republicans have managed to manage the biggest con of all time: getting the poor to vote with them under the false assumption that they, too, could one day be rich

Funny. Weber wrote a really old whole book on Protestants fundamentally supporting capitalism.

Marxy


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jermynsavile
jermynsavile
jermynsavile
Wed, Jun. 8th, 2005 07:48 am (UTC)

The rather cretinous publicity for the Reynolds exhibition has almost put me off the exhibition itself. If we're going for representation of bourgeois notables then why not pick on someone like Alessandro Vittorio and his sculptural busts in Renaissance Venice? They fit all the criteria... But then there are similar things going on in Ancient Greece and Rome, which leaves Reynolds a bit of a latecomer.

While I take your point about broad categorisation being on occasions useful - the university reading list for instance and the tendency to pick, sometimes fairly arbitrary, dates for art/intellectual/social movements - don't these agglomerations change the story to sometimes defeat meaning/understanding too? I'm not sure that we should necessarily throw away our cultural histories in disgust - though we should some - but we should certainly approach them with caution. These lazy categorisations obscure and deceive - the way we string timelines through to the present day so that we can anthropomorphise back being, as you've so astutely pointed out, an example.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jun. 8th, 2005 07:55 am (UTC)

But then there are similar things going on in Ancient Greece and Rome, which leaves Reynolds a bit of a latecomer.

Exactly. You remind me that I intended to make that point with a reference to Martial:

All Rome is mad about my book:
It's praised, they hum the lines, shops stock it,
It peeps from every hand and pocket.
There's a man reading it! Just look -
He blushes, turns pale, reels, yawns, curses.
That's what I'm after. Bravo, verses!

I mean, what a wannabe! What a celeb! What a self-mediator! And all in the first century AD!


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jun. 8th, 2005 08:10 am (UTC)
I could cry salty tears : bloody scots... they ruined scotland!

do you ever listen to al stewart and wonder when you began?

that divine rendez-vous.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jun. 8th, 2005 08:55 am (UTC)

Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists (for Buddhism too is eschatological): all "the sort of people who give charioteers a slick 50s DA, rabbits a wisecrack, and Sir Joshua Reynolds a cellphone."

Isn't that a cheap and inaccurate dig?


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jun. 8th, 2005 09:12 am (UTC)

"The sort of people who give charioteers a slick 50s DA, rabbits a wisecrack, and Sir Joshua Reynolds a cellphone".

Well, I just looked up "postmodernists" on dictionary.com and that was what it came up with!


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mo_no_chrome
mo_no_chrome
mo_no_chrome
Wed, Jun. 8th, 2005 09:01 am (UTC)

I'm interested to know what kind of hairstyles people wear at the Last Judgement

What do you get when you cross a silvered eighties blow-wave with an Aryan-Jesus shoulder length hippy do?

Actually I don't know the punchline, but I think it's what we'll be seeing at the Last Judgement.

In fact, though, all this talk of people's economic interests assumes that they're rational actors, and if we can just make them realise that there's no level playing field and the system is against the poor becoming rich they'll vote with their economic self-interest.

This is a strange projection of realpolitik by the broader Left (among whom, i should note, I count myself), many of whom find it difficult to conceive how the majority of their opponents, i.e. the conservative poor, could put morals above economic gain, how they could prefer a 'true Christian' like Bush despite the fact that he's the greater of two evils from their economic perspective.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jun. 8th, 2005 09:07 am (UTC)

But then they don't put morals above economic gain do they? They vote for a violent leadership, something they wouldn't do if they were 'true Christians'.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jun. 8th, 2005 10:06 am (UTC)
the Ex-Men

It's "I coulda bin a contender" versus "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need"

The Japanese all delude themselves into thinking they're "middle class" no matter their actual class standing. Everyone everywhere deludes themselves into thinking they're more like the "standard" than they really are, but the characteristics of that standard are determined by cultural pressures. In the case of Japan, the pressure is to be "normal." In America, the pressure is to be "somebody."

I'd like to hear someone talk about how Japan actually implements an ex post economic system, seeing that the wage gap has continually increased since the 70s. If an economy loses all wealth with the upper classes losing all of their economic capital (like what happened in Japan during WWII), it seems that low income inequality would follow pretty naturally without much concerted effort.

Marxy


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jun. 8th, 2005 10:23 am (UTC)
Re: the Ex-Men

Table 8.2 in this pdf shows the wage differential between the richest and poorest 10% of the populations of various countries between 1984 and 1994 ("the 90-10 wage ratio"). The table shows Germany, Canda and Norway decreasing the distance between their richest and poorest citizens during the period, Japan neither increasing nor decreasing the differential, and all others increasing the gap between rich and poor. The US starts off with less than double the gap seen in Japan, but ends up with more than double the gap. In just ten years (the years of "Reaganomics") the US increases its richest-poorest gap by 22%. In the same period, Japan increases its gap by 0%.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jun. 8th, 2005 11:51 am (UTC)

But the very richest and very poorest of a population (0.01% for example) I would consider extraneous variables. In a sense you cease talking about the richest and poorest (as a representation of a common group possessing similar features) as they skey the data. Here it's a question of how you determine an average for both groups; mode, median or mean. If you take out the extraordinarily rich and poor what happens to the picture? (That's a genuine question).


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jun. 8th, 2005 11:53 am (UTC)

Of course I meant 'skew' not 'skey' ... sorry.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jun. 8th, 2005 12:34 pm (UTC)

I think that you're being a fraction harsh on Tate and Newsnight. Joshua Reynolds is an interesting but relatively underrated artist (in comparison to Constable/Turner etc.) and it's only reasonable for them to find an angle to sell the exhibition. The angle they've found is grounded in a serious historical analysis; C18th England was the crucible of the Enlightenment, a period where the role of the individual, who you had to be and what you had to do to become famous, and how transient fame/celebrity was, were all up for grabs. (I'm no historian, just been reading a fascinating book called Mozart and the Enlightenment, this cribbed from that). Admittedly that doesn't permit glib comparisons to mobile phones and culturepreneurs, but maybe it's you who's making them, not Tate.

Most arts marketing doesn't engage seriously with the topic, and that's okay. The people who are serious about Reynolds will come anyway, and the people who aren't may be attracted by this idea of celebrity, come along and get something out of it they weren't expecting.
Fleeters


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jun. 8th, 2005 05:32 pm (UTC)

The people who are serious about Reynolds will come anyway,

But just a few comments on this thread there's a serious gallery-goer saying he's been put off going because of the idiotic glitzy approach! I totally understand his attitude. If you have to persuade people that an art show is Celebrity Squares before you can get anyone to go see it, the battle has well and truly been lost. You might as well put on Celebrity Squares in the gallery, put on Celebrity Squares instead of the arts review show. It's like the Democratic Party in America: when the terms of the debate are set by your opponent, when words like "liberal" and "arty" are being used by liberals and arts reviewers with the same contemptuous tone as by their enemies, when you can't even formulate an alternative vision of life with any conviction, you're finished. It's not necessary to be glitzy at a publically funded TV network or gallery: the glitz here isn't a "guilty pleasure", it's just class guilt, pure and simple, the self-loathing of a bourgeois class which has lost all respect for itself and no longer believes its value system (refinement, education, broadsheets) is any better than anyone else's. Undermined by relativism and postmodernism and football and the strange potency of cheap music! Well, Coldplay anyway.


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most_ghost
BW
Wed, Jun. 8th, 2005 01:53 pm (UTC)

I see you around Berlin (often)

rad rad

see you around again someday


b


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jun. 8th, 2005 02:46 pm (UTC)
Der Sensenmann

"so authoritarian compared with the chaotic grassroots way language actually accumulates", lack of historic sense, too! Strange we had to live up to the 21st century to AT LAST realize, that language actually has always accumulated a "grassroots" way.

"The past has always been wrong, like, those authoritarian teachings back in university, man, we all know that the way things for the last 2000 years were taught was so damn wrong, so un-grassroots. Luckily us future-people have found the light."

burp


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aberranteyes
aberranteyes
I'm Mister Cellophane
Wed, Jun. 8th, 2005 08:50 pm (UTC)

39 per cent of Americans believe that they are either in the wealthiest 1 per cent or will be there "soon".

And as I remember it, they were evenly split between the people who believed they were already in the top percentile and the people who considered that OMG TEH DEMOCRAT WELFAER STAET [my words, their views] was the only thing standing between them and heap-topness.


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cerulicante
cerulicante
cerulicante
Thu, Jun. 9th, 2005 03:33 am (UTC)

39 per cent of Americans believe that they are either in the wealthiest 1 per cent or will be there "soon".



Big deal. Europe thinks that massive social spending and accepting large numbers of hostile immigrants will somehow equal a prosperous future in some land of fluffy clouds and Care Bears...you have your illusions, we have ours.


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la_aquarius
Chris
Thu, Jun. 9th, 2005 11:54 am (UTC)

Momus,

I seriously doubt you respond to tags, but I couldn't resist tagging you anyway, since, more than anyone else on my friend's list, I'd love to hear what you're listening to at the moment:

TAG!


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