Sunday, January 25, 2009

After Hours

John Maynard Keynes, after years in the woodshed, is back in fashion. As most of us struggle this year to keep our heads above water, the government is following his advice about aggregate demand by spending astonishing trillions of dollars.

John Maynard Keynes should be on anyone's short list of great 20th century economists and thinkers. Yet he did make several predictions that proved false. One of them was that, as incomes rose (as by and large they have, though not this year), people would choose leisure over additional income and so would work less. This certainly had been the case previously, which is not surprising: in the 19th century 12 hour days and 6 day weeks were the norm. Who wouldn't want shorter hours than those? Yet it turned out that there was a point at which substitution stopped. Average hours-worked leveled off by the 1950s and actually have risen slightly since while two income households became the norm.

Material desires are part of the reason. Old luxuries are now viewed as necessities. Completely new necessities such as satellite and cell services have arisen. Meanwhile, some of the old basics -- notably housing, health care, and education -- have risen sharply in cost relative to incomes and other prices. So, we struggle to keep up with higher expenses by logging more overtime.

There is more to it than simple materialism though. Even those who can afford to cut their work hours without scrimping typically don't, largely because, by and large, we don't use additional leisure time in very satisfying ways. For most people, more free hours do not translate into more art, literature, or travel. (Travel, of course, is expensive and requires more work to pay for it anyway.) Though it is the rare person who does not describe himself or herself as "creative," creative output is remarkably unrelated to the amount of time available for it. Most people with more time on their hands simply watch more television. Apparently, at least in the absence of truly sizable wealth that can buy constant entertainment, if there is anything more boring than a regular work week, it is the absence of one.

All that may seem a long and oddly irrelevant introduction to the real topic, but there is a connection. The topic is vice.

Thanks to a puritanical heritage, we still tend to classify almost all pleasurable indulgences as vices, even if we revel in them. In the proper measure, many of them are integral to the enjoyment of a full life; others may not be integral, but aren't always harmful in moderation either. Paracelsus: "Everything is a medicine. Everything is a poison. It is all a matter of dose."

Some people consider excessive work a vice. The TV viewing mentioned above has greater cultural value than it usually is credited as having, but beyond a certain point it is stultifying, and being a couch potato is actually dangerous to health. Sex, even among consenting adults, can be destructive in the absence of basic precautions -- or in the presence of some complication such as an unwitting spouse back home. (In my observation a spouse rarely stays unwitting.) All the same, it is one of the basic joys of life. Consuming alcohol in modest amounts apparently is physically healthy, and in moderate amounts can be socially enhancing, though we all know the hazards of excess – and we all know people who think a six-pack every night is moderate. Legalities aside, a similar argument can be made about recreational drugs. (For the record, I am sober when it comes to alcohol and other recreational chemicals; my vices are of another sort.) In short, all so-called vices can be self-destructive – though too strenuous avoidance of some of them may be so too.

The moderate folks are not much trouble to themselves or others. Unfortunately, excess – not just as an occasional celebration but as a way of life -- is far from rare, and I wonder if leisure time is a large part of the problem. There are, of course, people who live desperate lives and who try to numb their awareness as a way of escape; however, in first world regions at least, there are far more whose lives are not (or need not be) noticeably terrible, yet who still strive to escape through drugs and dangerous behavior. I think many of these folks just don't know what to do with themselves, and seek out excess as a way of feeling alive; lazily whittling on the front porch just doesn't do the job for them.

Who would have thought it? Leisure apparently is a challenge to human happiness. Not all of us can cope with it.

No, I offer no grand solution, and wouldn't put any trust in anyone else's. I certainly propose no laws. Each person has to work this out for him/herself. I merely note the unexpected risk. Perhaps there is an upside to the widespread failure to save for retirement. Assuming one survives a life of excess to reach old age, there will be work to do.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

On Diamond Mining

When I spotted a 7 volume hardback set in good condition of the complete novels of Mark Twain offered on Amazon for $9, the decision to order it took less than a second. Twain already occupied some of my shelf space with novels, short stories, letters, and essays. Yet, there was material in the set that I didn't already own and hadn't read, including Pudd'nhead Wilson. Pudd'nhead Wilson is one of his true gems, and I’m glad I’ve at last read it. It rarely is assigned in school because, I suspect, educators face so much trouble over racial issues in Huckleberry Finn that they simply haven't the heart for another round over the far more egregious Pudd'nhead, even though in both cases Twain's head and heart are very much in the right place. Despite the dry folksy humor, the latter novel, set in antebellum Missouri, is one of the most brutally cynical portrayals of human nature in general, and of race relations in particular, to be found in literature.

Sam Clemens himself is not at much risk of any more serious censorship at this point than exclusion from some required reading lists. Even then, recreational readers are free to find him on their own. Nevertheless, that there is any controversy over him at all underlines the importance of the First Amendment injunction that Congress shall make “no law” that abridges “the freedom of speech, or of the press." This protection receives more lip service than anything else in the Bill of Rights, yet it also is the one most consistently and relentlessly under attack. The attackers, by and large, are people of good will trying to protect the innocence of children or to avoid offense to some class or group. Defenders argue that the way to protect children is not to deny them the benefits of growing up in a free society, and that "offense" is not a good enough reason to shred the Bill of Rights either. After all, there are those who will take offense at almost anything, from Huck Finn to rap music. (Do we no longer learn the "sticks and stones" line?) As it stands, the Amendment does not make exceptions for offensive language – or, for that matter, for sexual content. It says "no law." I see no reason to interpret it differently. (I'm of course aware that the Supreme Court, notoriously in Roth v. United States [1957], decided that "no law" really means "some laws," something only 6 out of 9 lawyers possibly could conclude.)

One always has to dig through tons of dirt to find gems, as any diamond miner knows. That is all the defense the dirt needs.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Prime Time Humpty Dumpty

Once upon a time, anyone could operate any TV set without instruction. There was an on/off switch and a dial with twelve positions (very early sets had thirteen, but channel 1 soon was dropped due to interference). There wasn’t much to figure out. Nowadays, if a friend (one, perhaps, who is busy in the kitchen) asks you to turn on CNN on his set, you face a challenge. Before you are multiple remotes for the TV, dvd player, video games, and stereo system; there are hundreds of channels arranged differently from your own cable or satellite service. If you push the wrong button you are finished. The complexity is a companion of greater choice, and evidence of the way popular culture has fragmented.

The radio has fragmented similarly, with satellite offering an amazing array of channels. There were niche radio stations almost from the beginning, but until quite recently there always were a few dominant stations in any market. NY's WABC AM, for example, played the Top 40 right into the 70s, and most households in the area tuned to it at least some of the time. There was no attempt at ABC to be thematic about the music. Whatever sold enough was aired. A typical playlist for 1969 was The Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, The Supremes, Tammy Wynette, Dean Martin, The Doors, Barbra Streisand, and Jimi Hendrix. Such an eclectic mix today would be almost unthinkable.

I do think a certain common cultural grounding is a good thing; it is a sort of language for interacting not only with our fellows but with outsiders too. It is hard to begin to grasp another's culture without some understanding of one's own for comparison. However, this does not require monolithic mass popular entertainment. A liberal education in literature, history, science, and the arts will serve the purpose just fine. We don’t all need to watch the same TV shows.

Fragmentation offers new possibilities. Artists, writers, musicians, and other creative types no longer face a one-in-a-million shot at fame versus total obscurity. The internet allows bloggers and lyricists to find dedicated readers and listeners ranging from a few dozen to millions. They are unlimited by geography. Niche broadcasts and publications create niche stars. True enough, the Hollywood red carpet remains as unlikely a walk for most aspirers as ever, but, on a more modest scale, individuals can make their marks with an ease unseen before.

Surely this is a breath of fresh air, even if it is hard to get the TV to work.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Ars Gratia Artis

For some years I have kept a blog at myspace. Doing so has been fun, and it has been a way to keep writing when stalled on some other project. This is my first blog on “blogger” though, so it deserves a suitably pompous subject. Fortunately, I have one at hand.

I recently opened an invitation to the unveiling of a sculpture in Texas done by a talented friend, Michael Somoroff. It is an abstract looking thing (the sculpture, not the invitation), though the shape is not random. It gives time a spatial dimension. That would take several pages to explain properly, and it is best to let Michael explain his own work. However, it begs the question, “What is the purpose of art at all?”

Yes, I know, that’s an old one. Ug probably asked that as he watched Quagg paint a bison on the cave wall. The answer is hard to articulate, no doubt more so for Quagg than for us, and many just say “for art’s sake,” which is just a way of throwing up one’s hands and evading the question.

Yet the beginning of truly modern human consciousness is not dated from upright posture or from the first tools. Slightly more clever than average apes were walking on two legs and making axes by banging rocks together 2,000,000 years ago. It is dated from the first appearance of art sometime between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago (though the evidence is pretty sparse until 40,000 years ago), so art must mean something – and that, simply enough, I think, is the answer.

Creating art is creating meaning. Creating meaning requires a higher level of awareness than is required for simply responding to objects and events directly, the way a cat responds to the motion of a mouse. It is why products of abstract thought such as movies, books, paintings, or music often seem more significant than everyday reality; the deliberate shaping of objects, events, and our own lives is our way of interpreting reality and giving it meaning. (Let me interject here, though it is kicking an art form when it is down, that the abstract expressionist notion of creating works of pure form and color, that represent nothing else, seems to me valid but trivial.)

Art ultimately is not for art’s sake but for our own. Ars gratia nostrum.