The Wall Street Journal on the firing of the Art Institute’s docents; and a personal observation

October 17, 2021 • 10:45 am

A week ago I wrote a piece on the firing of the Art Institute of Chicago’s (AIC’s) 122 volunteer (unpaid) docents, who were let go because they were not sufficiently “diverse”. The Art Institute now plans to hire fewer docents who will be paid $25 per hour, with much less training, to guide people around the museum. They will surely be ethnically more diverse than the jettisoned docents, who were largely older white women—some of them donors to the AIC.

My post on that got the most attention, in terms of views, of any post over the last several years. Have a gander:

I couldn’t figure out why, but one explanation is that the media, including the local media, didn’t cover it, probably because the AIC’s actions, though reprehensible, are not unusual in today’s “racial reckoning”, but didn’t have very good “optics”. The Chicago Tribune didn’t even report it as news until the paper published an editorial damning the AIC for what it did, “Shame on the Art Institute for summarily canning its volunteer docents.” And then the Trib published a lame response from Robert Levy, chairman of the AIC board, followed by a few letters to the editor criticizing the AIC. and a short and inconclusive discussion on WBEZ, the local public radio station, featuring a representative of the AIC and the docents.

That’s pretty much all the reporting from “MSM”. The most comprehensive coverage was in fact an article by Dennis Byrne on his website at, The Barbershop, which reproduced the letter firing the docents and the group’s response to being ditched.  That site is not read by as many people as is the MSM, so I suppose people glommed on to my summary as a news article. Conservative news did pick it up, but you still won’t find boo about it in papers like the NYT or Washington Post. That’s a shame, because the AIC’s action should kindle a debate about the ethics and tactics of how the AIC acted, and about how to achieve “racial reckoning”. (As many readers observed, there are ways to diversity the docents without firing any of them.)

Now the Wall Street Journal, whose readers surely include many potential donors to the AIC, has written an op-ed outlining the story. Though the WSJ is conservative in its op-eds, and criticizing the AIC has been something largely limited to right-wing papers, this editorial gets the facts right and isn’t aren’t nearly as hard on the AIC as was the Chicago Tribune. You can try to read it by clicking below (judicious inquiry might yield you a copy should you fail), but you won’t learn much more than what Byrne and I put in our posts.

However, here are two items from that op-ed that were new to me:

  • The chairman of the AIC, Robert Levy “insisted that the plan had been in the works for 12 years.”  If that’s true, the man is reprehensible, for the docents were given no warning; they were fired by an email from the AIC’s Woman’s Board Executive Director of Learning and Public Engagement Veronica Stein. Seriously, you don’t tell the docents that their termination is being considered? Who does that?
  • A quote from a docent:

“It was nearly a full-time job,” said Dietrich Klevorn, a docent since 2012. (Ms. Klevorn was the only docent who agreed to speak to the Journal, rejecting the institute’s request that they not talk to the media.) “We had to spend a lot of time physically in the museum studying works of art, researching, putting tours together,” she continued. “We had to be very comprehensive about everything as we talked with them, moving through the space.”

As I said, the WSJ isn’t nearly as intemperate about the AIC as was the local paper, but it does have a no-nonsense conclusion that also raises the possibility of a phased-in increase in diversity:

Still, the Art Institute hasn’t explained why they had to be jettisoned en masse and not diversified over time. The museum appears to be in the grips of a self-defeating overcorrection. It has adopted the language of diversity, inclusion and equity so completely that it was willing to fire the same upper-middle class volunteers it relies on for charitable donations.

Changes to the program may mean that the museum connects to younger and more diverse visitors, Ms. Klevorn said, but it will come at a cost. The Art Institute “will offer far less opportunity for people to have human docents taking them through the museum.”

In their public statements, both Ms. Stein and Mr. Levy referenced their understanding of the museum’s civic role. Mr. Levy even condemned critics as “egregiously anti-civic,” as though objecting to diversity quotas meant rejecting the nation’s civic institutions. What they don’t seem to understand is that those civic institutions have always relied on the volunteer work of women with enough public spirit to donate their time and enough money to afford to do so. These wealthy women form the mortar of the nation’s civic institutions, and we’ll miss them when they’re gone.

In the name of what they call civic-minded diversity, the museum has thrown overboard a group of people who actually see it as their duty to help the public understand art. That’s not very civic-minded, is it?

That’s not rabidly right-wing, either, is it?  But the piece, appearing in a widely-read venue, isn’t going to do the AIC any good.

But I want to say a few things. Though for several days my site got six to eight times the normal traffic, all because of that AIC piece, and though there were 157 comments, there would have been a lot more comments had I let all the nasty or racist ones through. Yes, there were white supremacist comments, and a lot of people being strident about “reverse racism”.

I let some of those appear, depending on their civility, but I don’t see diversifying the AIC docents as “reverse racism.” Yes, you can characterize it that way, because you’re discriminating in favor of people of color and against whites, but I see it more as a form of reparations rather than demonization.  If you’re in favor of any kind of affirmative action, you can be accused of reverse racism. I’m willing to bear the epithet because I favor some forms of affirmative action. But I hasten to add that the AIC’s mass firing of docents, rather than a program that increases diversity as docents retire, is cruel and hamhanded. However, their desire to diversify the staff is not. (That diversity, by the way, should include class as well as race, as there are few “regular people” docents. And that means paying all the docents, unless some are willing to work for free while others get a paycheck.)

I’m for a reasoned dialogue on race and equity, but some of the comments I got sound just like things that would come out of the mouths of Proud Boys. My conclusion is that there is a lot of pent-up anger about DEI initiatives. Some of it is justified by actions like the AIC’s firing, but there’s definitely an element of racism in some of the comments you didn’t see. And that makes me sad.

You want an example? Here’s one from someone named “Steve”, who’s apostrophe-deprived:

Wake Up White People.

This is what your future will be if you dont start standing up for yourselves and quit being such stupid pushovers.

Don’t let these SCUM guilt you….
Be PROUD to be White….I AM.
Our ancestors/people accomplished 1000x more than any other race. They hate us out of sheer jealousy. And make NO MISTAKE….They DO hate us….HATE US !!!!

Start speaking up!!!!
There is NO SUCH THING as “White Privilege” Its called HARD WORK.

All the Lefts HATRED and Marxist “key Words” are just meant to divide us.

Just remember…. The Left Project and Deflect…
They call everyone else Fascist or Racist… Because that is what THEY ARE….


There are others like this.

And one more just came in while I was writing this; from one “swimologist”:

The ONLY effort that should be made is hiring competent people, race be damned. Many companies used to have aptitude tests for hiring, but reliably low-I.Q. blacks failed them, and lawsuits were filed claiming “disparate impact,” so NOW we these same companies require degrees for jobs that don’t NEED them. Just another way the black undertow plague drags America down.

Writing this website has a downside you don’t see: all the racists, loons, and rude people that infest America and feel they have to have their say here.

h/t: cesar

The Art Institute of Chicago fires all 122 of its (unpaid and volunteer) docents because they aren’t sufficiently “diverse”

October 9, 2021 • 11:30 am

This is a story that, for obvious reasons, has gotten almost no airplay in Chicago, and none nationally, with no reporting in the major media. So let me tell you about it.

The Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), one of the world’s finest art museums, harbors (or rather, harbored) 122 highly skilled docents, 82 active ones and 40 “school group greeters.” All are volunteers and are all unpaid. Their job is to act as guides to the Museum’s collection of 300,000 works, which they explain to both adults and schoolchildren. I’ve seen them in action at the Museum, and they’re terrific.

Despite the lack of remuneration—they do this to be helpful and because they love art—their training to be docents is extremely rigorous. First, they have to have two training sessions per week for eighteen months, and then “five years of continual research and writing to meet the criteria of 13 museum content areas” (quote from the docents’ letter to the Director of the AIC). On top of that, there’s monthly and biweekly training on new exhibits. Then there are the tours themselves, with a docent giving up to two one-hour tours per day for 18 weeks of the year and a minimum of 24 one-hour tours with adults/families.  Their average length of service: 15 years. There are other requirements listed by the Docents Council in the ChicagoNow column below (first screenshot).

Many of the volunteers—though not all—are older white women, who have the time and resources to devote so much free labor to the Museum. But the demographics of that group weren’t appealing to the AIC, and so, in late September, the AIC fired all of them, saying they’d be replaced by smaller number of hired volunteers  workers who will be paid $25 an hour. That group will surely meet the envisioned diversity goals.

This is entirely a matter of race and “optics,” though you wouldn’t easily discern that by reading the back-and-forth communications between the AIC and the docents. The latter, of course, strenuously object to being let go, and in their letter to the AIC point out their many contributions to the Museum. (The AIC, in a hamhanded gesture, offered them two-year free passes to the AIC as a measly “thank you”.)

The lack of ethnic diversity apparently comes from the fact that this is volunteer work that takes a ton of time, and disadvantaged minorities aren’t often blessed with the time or resources for such work. The AIC says they’ve tried to diversity the docents but have apparently failed (listen to the radio show below).

It’s all a mess, but I know this: it’s grossly unfair and inimical to the education of museum-goers. More than 1200 years of work put in by the current docents, and all that expertise: gone in an instant.  Ask yourself first, do they need to diversity? I don’t know the answer, though surely some minority docents might have different points of view about art, a reason implied by the AIC’s response in the Tribune. (But ask yourself what the reaction would be if all the docents were black or Hispanic and they hired whites to get a “white point of view”? Personally, I’m not sure race is crucial in giving expert talks about the Museum’s exhibits.) But the AIC did try to diversity the docents—and failed. They’re to be commended for that because, after all, surely it would look better to have a diverse group of docents. They just weren’t able, given the demographics, to accomplish that.

What can they do? My own suggestion is to keep the docents, but as they retire replace some of them with members of minority groups. The problem with that, though, is that they tried doing this already, and apparently couldn’t find appropriate docents. I think the solution of replacing the docents with a smaller and more “diverse” group of paid guides, however, is not only insulting to the docents, but a bad move for the Museum’s reputation and especially for the education of those who go to the AIC. There will have to be many fewer tours, and with a much less well-trained group of guides.

If readers have a solution to this problem, assuming it is a problem pressing enough to fire every docent, then please give your suggestions below.

The curious thing about all this is that it wasn’t reported as a primary story by either the Chicago Tribune or WBEZ (the local Public Radio Station), and yet the Trib ran a strong editorial excoriating the AIC for its firings, and WBEZ had a show giving the views of the the President of the Docent Council versus those of of a VP of the AIC. Much of the fallout eventually appeared in the Tribune, but it is likely paywalled for you.

You can read the salient details in the column at ChicagoNow by Dennis Byrne(click on screenshot below). Byrne pulls no punches in his sympathy for the docents and ire at the AIC, but he also includes two documents pivotal in this fracas: the September 3 letter from the AIC’s Woman’s Board Executive Director of Learning and Public Engagement Veronica Stein firing the docents, and the long response of the docent’s council, sent not to Stein but to AIC director James Rondeau. (The AIC didn’t even have the decency to get Rondeau to give the docents their pink slip.)

Read below:

If you want to read the Tribune’s two pieces on the story, they’re here (but probably paywalled): the paper’s long editorial excoriating the AIC for firing the docents (I guess the Trib isn’t all that woke), called “Shame on the Art Institute for summarily canning its volunteer docents,” and a response from Robert Levy, chairman of the AIC board, who argues that the times are a’changing and they need a new demographic, but then dances around the issue of race. He claims that the AIC’s editorial makes serious mistakes, but there’s no smoking gun there.

Finally, there were also several letters to the editor reaming out the AIC for what it did.

The link below will take you to WBEZ’s free 16-minute show in which a moderator interviews both Sarah Guernsey, deputy director and senior vice president for curatorial affairs of the AIC, and Gigi Vaffis, president of Docent Council at Art Institute of Chicago. Again, Guernsey doesn’t have the moxie to explicitly discuss the reason for the firing, and comes off to me as being a weasel.

I could write a lot more about the waste of resources, experience, time, and the dignity of the docents involved in this decision, but you can come to your own conclusion. There are better ways to get diversity than what the AIC did, I’m sure. I can’t say what they are, but I know that this decision not only makes the AIC look really bad, but will in the long run cost it a lot of money in withheld donations. And that’s not to mention the loss in educational potential that goes along with the firing of the docents, thoroughly trained to present and discuss the art.
h/t: Cate

The best of culture (my own view)

July 29, 2021 • 12:45 pm

When I said earlier today that I preferred Van Gogh’s version of “Noonday Rest” to Millet’s original, some wiseass came along and asked me to expound my “theory of aesthetics” that could justify such a decision. Of course I have no theory of art; I know what moves me, and I could give reasons if I’m forced to think about it. But those reasons could simply be post facto justifications for my emotional reaction to a work of art. And of course different theories will lead to different rankings. It’s for that reason that I’m wary of any supposedly “objective” reason why one work of art is better than another.

But that got me thinking about my favorite aspects of culture, which I’d normally label “the best”; but of course saying “the best” automatically means that it’s your own subjective opinion. These are matters of taste, not science.  So I’m going to list off the top of my head the best books, movies, music, and so on—meaning those works I like the most. Regular readers of this site will already know most of my opinions.

I’ll give links to the works, and on another day I might choose different works.

Best painting ancient: The Isenheim Altarpiece, by Matthias Grünewald.  (1512-1516). Yes, it’s religious, and all about Jesus, but the images of the crucified Christ and the “atomic bomb” Resurrection are fabulous.

Best painting, modern: Almost any van Gogh painted during the last two years of his life.

Best movie, American: The Last Picture Show, directed by Peter Bogdanovich (1971)

Best movie, non-American: Ikiru (“To Live”), directed by Akira Kurosawa (1952). (Second place: Tokyo Story, directed by Yasujirō Ozu; 1953).

Best novel: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1878)

Best novella or short story: The Dead, by James Joyce (1914)

Best memoir: Out of Africa by Isak Dinisen (Karen Blixen; 1937). It’s the prose, Jake.

Best biography: This is a tie. The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro (four volumes, one to go); tied with The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill by William Manchester. Two volumes published, but Manchester died before he could complete the third, which would have begun with Churchill becoming Prime Minister and leading Britain during WW!!. The trilogy was finished by someone else, and I haven’t read the third volume. Everybody’s hoping Caro finishes volume 5 before he passes on.  Second place is also by Caro: The Power Broker Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974).

Best rock song: Layla by Eric Clapton and Jim Gordon, as performed by Clapton with Derek and the Dominoes (1970): the electric version, and only before the slow part begins.  Watch here.

Best rock group (best oeuvre): The Beatles, of course.

Best jazz song: This is a hard one. At the moment, I suppose Ellington’s version of Take the A Train, written by Billy Strayhorn. On another day it might be Potato Head Blues by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven (1927), and yet on another day it would be the heartbreaking version of But Beautiful performed by Art Pepper live on the “Friday Night at the Village Vanguard” album.  You won’t find it on YouTube, and the version you’ll hear there is, according to my theory of aural aesthetics, inferior. In fact, I’ve just changed my mind and have moved Pepper into first place. It’s a fabulous song: a musical wail of pain.

Best jazz group (best oeuvre): Duke Ellington between 1940 and 1942.

Best piece of classical music. I don’t know from classical music, and will give no opinion.

Those are my choices and I have no theories to buttress them. You are welcome, nay, encouraged, to list your own choices.

The end of my conversation with Adam Gopnik about “ways of knowing”

May 14, 2021 • 9:15 am

Adam Gopnik and I have now finished our written “conversation” at the link below (click on the screenshot). He has produced letter #8 in partial response to my letter #7, so we’ve each had four chances to say our piece.  Since the conversation is now finished, I’ll make a few brief remarks, particularly with respect to our last two letters (#7 and #8).

This is a recurrent debate, one intensified by the rise of postmodernism which claims (along with religion) that there are “other ways of knowing” beyond the methods used by science (empirical exploration, testing, falsification/verification, etc.) Adam adheres to neither religion or po-mo, so he’s not on those sides. Rather, he sees art (literature, music, and painting, including abstract painting) as a “way of knowing.” I defined “knowledge” at the outset as “justified true belief.”

I’ve discussed individual letters before, so will just mention what’s in the last two letters.

I’ll take up three issues. The first is Adam’s insistence that I admit that Darwin’s theory of heredity was wrong (I gladly admitted that), but yet the whole theory wasn’t discarded, as a Popperian might have done. I noted that Darwin’s theory, which has several parts, doesn’t depend on the accuracy of a particular theory of heredity: only that there is genetic variation for traits and some variants leave more copies of their genes than others. In truth, I’m not sure what this was all about unless it’s to make me admit that scientists don’t conform strictly to Popperian falsification. But we’ve known that for decades.

Adam also leveled several “challenges” to me that he accused me of not answering.

Meanwhile, we have evolutionary psychology and epigenesis: I know from reading that you take a soft view on one, and a hard view on the other, but there are plenty of good biologists who think evolutionary psychology is an outright fraud, and others who think   epigenesis is significant in ways you strongly don’t.

(I also note that you evade my challenge on the status of  epigenetics and evolutionary psychology, which experts like yourself, with ‘voting rights’ , find equally vapid or vital, underlining my point that the settled truths of science you cite are the very tip of the iceberg of argument.)

I didn’t really have time to deal with both epigenetics and evolutionary psychology, as those weren’t part of our argument; but I took time to answer the evolutionary psychology “challenge”. My words:

The other challenges I’m accused of evading involve two current debates in biology, the value of epigenetics and of evolutionary psychology. Yet this was not evasion, but rather my realization that full answers would require long essays on issues largely irrelevant to our exchange. But I’ll make room to deal with evolutionary psychology.

You note that “there are plenty of good biologists who think evolutionary psychology is an outright fraud”. Well yes, there are biologists who think that, but I don’t know any good ones who do. No thoughtful biologist would argue that while our bodies are products of a long evolutionary history, and still show traces of that history, our brains (which after all are also made of cells) show none. While it’s not easy to study the evolutionary roots of human behavior and mentation, evolutionary psychology has shed substantial light on human sexual behavior (why do the two sexes look for different traits in a potential mate?), parental behavior (why do we favor kin over non-kin?) and differences in behavior between men and women (why is it males who typically engage in competitive risk-taking?). These are scientific hypotheses that have been supported by observations and experiments. To dismiss this whole endeavor as “fraud” is to be both incurious and ignorant. Certainly a lot of work in the field has been overly speculative. But opposition to evolutionary psychology as a whole comes not from some shoddy work in that field, but from a “blank slate” ideology that objects to any claim that human behavior could reflect our genetic and evolutionary past.

I still maintain that biologists who dismiss the entire field of evolutionary psychology as worthless are not doing so for good biological reasons, but for ideological ones. Adam then hit me with what he thought was a zinger:

So, in discussing evolutionary psychology, it seems to me that you are offering an excellent instance of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, when you say that no good biologist can doubt the relevance of evolutionary psychology. If Richard Leowontin [sic] and Stephen Jay Gould were not good biologists, then none exists – but they both were largely hostile to evolutionary psychology.  I don’t endorse their view—though obviously evolutionary psychology becomes perilously silly perilously soon, in the unskilled hands of someone like Robert Wright – but there’s no gainsaying the debate is taking place among equally ‘good’ scientists.

Well, it’s not exactly a “No True Scotsman” fallacy, though I’d rephrase my assertion this way: “I think anyone who dismisses the entire field of evolutionary psychology (of humans), a field that has progressed substantially since Lewontin and Gould (read Pinker’s The Blank Slate), is doing so for ideological rather than biological reasons, and in that sense is not acting as a good scientist.”

I still believe this of Gould and Lewontin, though of course both made considerable contributions in other areas of biology. But in the battle over the simple validity of evo-psych as a field of endeavor, I think Lewontin and Gould lost the war to Wilson, Trivers, Buss, and their colleagues.

I note, though, that Adam completely ignored my challenges to him! To wit:

But maybe I’m wrong. So here are my challenges to you: please give me the “knowledge” conveyed by abstract paintings like “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)” by Pollock, “Cossacks” by Kandinsky, or Malevich’s monochrome “Black Square.”  And what is the knowledge we gain from non-programatic or “absolute” music like Beethoven’s first piano trio and his first string quartet?  If, like science, art is a “way of knowing”, these questions shouldn’t be hard to answer.

Not a peep from Adam!

Finally, Adam, in defending Mozart against Bach, not only conflated “knowledge” with “understanding,” but, more important, conflated “knowledge” with “values”. Values are subjective, while knowledge, in principle always tentative, is not a matter of opinion refractory to being settled by observing nature. Here’s Gopnik’s discussion of Mozart vs. Bach:

So let me move back to the other, though related, issue I raised, that about the ‘content ‘of the arts: the point is that all arguments about aesthetics end up being arguments not about ‘sense impressions or ‘taste’ in the shrugging sense of whether or not I like it. They are arguments about values, judged by the evidence marshalled.   There’s a terrific video that everyone ought to watch that helps refine this point. In it, Glen Gould assaults Mozart – or at least the later Mozart – as a mediocre composer.  – to me, shocking—claim is not one that Gould simply offers as ‘my feeling’ or ‘how it seems to me.” No, on the contrary he argues from evidence: he shows as a master musician what we mere listeners might now ‘hear’ – how mechanical and predictable Mozart’s sequence of development is in his piano concerti, running predictably round the ‘circle of fifths’.  Unlike a master, Bach, Mozart’s architecture is shoddy even if his ornamentation is flashy.

Now, as a Mozartean I was shocked and amused by this – but also arrested by it. I couldn’t dismiss it.  It forced me to argue back, not by saying “Well, I don’t care. I like it’ but by reference to other values that Mozart’s music possess. Melody, after all, is not ornament but substance of another kind– if Mozart is less intellectually architectural than Bach, it is in part because the beautiful flow of melody in his work would be defaced by too clever a development.  When we hear a great melody – say the theme from the slow movement in the 27th piano concerto in the heartbreak key of B flat – we want to …hear it again.

Note that “other values”, like a beautiful melody, are dragged in to save the thesis that Mozart is at least as good as Bach! But Gopnik seems to think that everyone will agree what constitutes a “beautiful melody”, or that everyone will rank melodies in the same order.

Gopnik continues:

Now, every listener might have their own place on this spectrum; but it is not a spectrum of’ opinion’ or ‘impression’ in the sense that all views about the issue are equally valid.  Someone who just shrugs and says, “Well, I prefer Black Sabbath” may have a right to existence – I doubt it; but okay [JAC: LOL! Here we agree!] – but no right to a place at this table.  We marshal arguments on behalf of Mozart, and the arguments, though they may start as arguments about formal structure, always end as arguments about values. Bach, we may say, may be a greater musical architect, but architecture is not the whole of art. Rococo ornament has a place in our system of values. And such arguments have within them other, still deeper arguments about human existence: As I pointed out at length in a recent essay about Helen Frankenthaler, deprecating ornament is a familiar way of deprecating the merely feminine’ aspects of life; standing up for mere decorative is a way of affirming aspects of life wrongly relegated to the rear.

Now, these aesthetic arguments are not as neatly resolved, and they are, in their nature, looser and less obviously progressive than the arguments of science.  But they are not without standards of progress too: no one with a feeling or understanding of art, for instance, would any longer argue for a neat hierarchy of values in which, say, illusionistic Greek art   stands unquestioned at the top and ‘primitive’ or African sculpture stands dismissed at the bottom.  We have learned too much, from modern art and anthropology alike, to subscribe to so facile a grouping: the artists of Benin will always hold a place now alongside the masters of Athens. (Those who wish to exploit the masters of Benin to deprecate those of Athens have no sympathy from me.)   You may not want to call this ‘knowledge’ in the sense that understanding the structure of DNA is knowledge, but it is certainly an advance in understanding, one as important and significant as the advances in understanding that science provides.

And yet, after hearing, and after having been convinced that Mozart’s music is more mechanical than that of Bach, Gopnik still insists that Mozart has a “beautiful flow of melody”. So who is the better musician: Mozart or Bach? Gopnik doesn’t tell us, but somehow seems to construe this discussion on the same plane as one about whether DNA is a double or a triple helix. Saying that the artists of Benin are not inferior to those of Greece is not an objective view that can be justified by empirical reference (unless you define “artistic quality” in advance and everyone agrees on those tenets), but a subjective view that some will agree with, and others not.

Given that aesthetic standards inevitably differ among people, this is not in any sense a question equivalent to a dispute about how nature works. You may say that whether Benin vs. Greek art is a dispute “as important and significant as the advances in understanding that science provides”. (But although I’m a big art fan, I’d take issue with that, for presumably Gopnik gets his kids vaccinated, and would consider the debate between antibiotics and shamanism as more important than the debate about whether Benin art is better than Greek).

I’d say that the entire dispute between Adam and me is encapsulated in his paragraphs quoted above. He regards a subjective assessment of relative value as “knowledge”, and I don’t.  This is why he says that art confers knowledge. What he means is that it confers value, and some art confers more value (to him!) than others. I’d add that yes, that’s true, but that value depends on the observer.

A prescient friend of mind, reading this exchange, wrote me this:

One word that Gopnik uses in passing—“understanding”—might have led to some terrain of agreement. Gopnik wants to assimilate “understanding” to “knowledge.” Perhaps you could have gotten him to see that these are different things. Understanding is a mental state that’s plausibly attuned to some facts; those facts are knowledge. Obviously, we’re all in favor of both. But if someone doesn’t realize the difference, he’s apt to fantasize that works of art yield immediate “truth.”

Anyway, the discussion is over, and I’m not convinced that art, music, or literature conveys knowledge, especially in light of Adam’s having avoided my very clear challenges above. Or perhaps he thinks that Pollock and Kandinsky confer “value”, which they do, but also believes that value is identical to scientific knowledge.

Clearly no agreement is possible here, but, as Adam notes in his ending,

Art is not optional.  It is mandatory for anyone claiming to want to understand the way the world wags and how we wag it.  On that thought, and with the promise of a good dinner someday in Paris, I send my final brotherly salutations.

I will agree with all of that, and particularly of the value of a good dinner in Paris!

Thursday art: Banana bruiser and ambidextrous artist

April 22, 2021 • 2:15 pm

Here are two people who do art in an unusual way.  First, Anna Chojnicka makes ephemeral art by applying different degrees of pressure to banana skins. Her art lasts about ten minutes before it disappears, and then she noms the fruit. She’s very good at what she does.

Note the mallard drake at 39 seconds in!


Here’s an ambidextrous Dutch artist named Rajacenna who can draw completely different pictures with her two hands. I have no idea how one can even do this. And she’s no slouch as an artist!

What is art? What is vandalism?

April 8, 2021 • 10:45 am

by Greg Mayer

I think Jerry’s en route now, so here’s something to occupy us while there’s a brief hiatus in posting.

The New York Times reports today that an abstract art work being displayed at a mall in Seoul was “vandalized” by two passerby. As part of the art work, brushes and open cans of paint were displayed in front of it. The couple assumed it was a participatory display, and joined in.

Photo of art work that was “vandalized” in Seoul, by Minwoo Park (NY Times).

The artist, John Andrew Perello, was angered, and said it reminded him of how the graffiti he put up while a youngster in New York was not appreciated. Perello began his career as a tagger in New York.

The questions to be discussed are:

  1. Was this vandalism?
  2. Who is the better artist, Perello or the couple?
  3. Was the vandalism invited by Perello so as to generate publicity (and hence increase the value of his art)?
  4.  Can you spot the vandalism?

The answers are

  1. No. I agree with the South Korean police.
  2. The couple. They have said a lot more with their modest additions than the original did.
  3. Probably not, since being talked about is the next to worst thing that can happen to a person.
  4. No, I couldn’t. (It is visible in the picture above.)

Feel free to disagree!

Readers’ wildlife photos

April 6, 2021 • 8:30 am

by Greg Mayer

For today’s post we return to the New York City Subway 8th Avenue local (B and C trains) station at 81st-Museum of Natural History,this time for the amphibians.

81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

My favorite of the amphibians is this brooding caecilian, curled round its eggs. These legless, short-tailed amphibians are found only in the tropics, and there is no real English vernacular name for them. (You can find a Sicilian in the subway, but I prefer Neapolitan.)

Brooding caecilian. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

What appears to me to be a reed frog (Hyperolius sp.), an African tree frog of sorts, hangs on the wall next to a station identifying sign.

Reed frog. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

This looks like a ranid frog to me– a member of the family Ranidae, perhaps intended to be a Rana proper. Many species in this and related genera look much alike the world over. Note the nicely delineated tympanic membrane.

Frog. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

This generic frog (I won’t even try to name a family for it) is leaping out of the Signal Room. Interestingly, the subway workers here believe in free will, apparently of the libertarian sort. A scratched note on the door reads, “Use other door→ | or this one– up to you”.

Frog. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

These well-rendered salamanders provide detail enabling specific identification. On the left we have a Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum), a species of eastern North America (including the New York area), and on the right we have a Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra), a species widely distributed in Europe. The American Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum; found in the New York area) is also black with yellow markings, but the yellow markings (quite variable in both species) look more like Salamandra to me, and the evident parotoid glands at the back of the head (making it look wide) are conclusive. Ambystoma and Salamandra are similar in size and body shape, and are sort of continental ecological analogues.

Salamanders. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

The Coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) is one of the few surviving lobe-finned fishes, and as such is one of the tetrapods closest living relatives, and so is included here as an honorary amphibian. I don’t know why there is a question mark on its tail; in fact I never noticed it there before till just now.

Coelacanth. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Finally, we have a group of patently Paleozoic fish. The artist has rendered them neither strictly from above (as though we were looking down on them in the ‘water’ of the paving tile) nor from the side, but in a sort of twisted view, allowing us to see various aspects. The bottom four may be intended to be the same type of fish (I’m not sure what kind), but the top one (which seems to be more of an exclusively side view– see the partly opened mouth) looks like one of those strange Paleozoic sharks, with a spiny first dorsal fin, and a heterocercal tail. You can also see more clearly in this photo how the lighter brown granite-like stone is integrated with the darker paving tile.

Fish on the floor. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

There are other taxa represented in the tiles (e.g., ants), and other forms of art, including larger tiled murals, and casts of in-situ fossils projecting from the wall. Many of these works are depicted in a gallery at, a subway fan/history site. Some of those depicted I’ve never seen in person, because I always exit the station at the south (Museum) end, not at the north (81st Street) end.

(Looking at one of the pictures in the gallery now, I see the undersea mosaic mural has  a coelacanth-shaped gray silhouette in the otherwise colorful tiles; could the question mark noted above be related to the coealcanth’s absence here?)

Readers’ wildlife photos

April 5, 2021 • 8:30 am

by Greg Mayer

Today’s post features subterranean wildlife, but not of the fossorial kind. It has wildlife you can see in the New York subway, but it’s not “pizza rat” or his later avatars: it’s the wildlife art of the 8th Avenue local (B and C trains) station at 81st-Museum of Natural History.

81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Elegant tile-work has long been a signature note of the New York subways, and when the station was renovated (reopening in 2000), the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority collaborated in creating extensive artwork for the station, one of whose exits goes directly into the Museum.

We’ll start with my favorite, what is clearly a hatchling Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis; the proportions, especially the large head, show it’s a hatchling). The Museum clearly had significant input on the designs, although it’s not always clear if the artists followed exact specifications for species identification, but in this case I’m confident. Important work on anoles was done by former curators James Oliver and G.K. Noble, and the latter’s anole work was mostly on this species.

Hatchling green anole (Anolis carolinensis). 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

We’ll continue with the rest of the lizards. The next is clearly a monitor lizard, and it’s bulk indicates it’s a Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis).

Monitor lizard. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Next up is a basilisk or Jesus Christ lizard (Basiliscus sp.), famed for their bipedal locomotion, which includes the ability to skitter Christ-like across the surface of bodies of water for short distances. This mosaic introduces an element common to the artwork, the depiction of extinct forms as grayed “ghost” silhouettes, often paired with an extant form. In this case we have two bipedal diapsids: the basilisk and the theropod dinosaur Deinonychus (note the ‘terrible claw’ and short snout); the latter is about life size, but the basilisk is greater than life size. (This is an estimate, but I think the white tiles are either 4″X4″ or 5″X5″; if anyone knows the size–or can measure!–put it in the comments.)

Basilisk with ghost Deinonychus. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

There’s a chameleon (Chamaeleo sp.). I’ve not attempted to determine the species. (It could be intended to be a species in another genus in the family Chamaeleontidae, but Chamaeleo is the type genus, and will do as at least approximately correct.) A nice detail is that the zygodactlous left front foot (‘hand’) can be seen grasping the black tiles, as though the latter constituted a tree branch. (The hind feet are curiously stubby-looking.)

Chameleon. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Snakes are, of course, just glorified lizards. This one’s head and neck, and the fact that it hangs from the ‘branch’ make it look like a vine snake, but I’ll offer no more of a guess than that. Note how, as in the Chamaeleo above, the artwork can ‘overlay’ the regular wall design.

Snake. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Next is a fairly nondescript snake, superimposed on the long tail of a long-necked sauropod dinosaur. The whole dinosaur looked like Diplodocus to me.

Snake with ghost sauropod dinosaur. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Having finished the order Squamata, we move on to the Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus), not a lizard, but the sole living member of the order Rhynchocephalia. This is another of my favorites.

Tuatara. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

This broad-snouted crocodilian looks like an alligatorid, and is nicely paired with a Stegosaurus. Were it black, I would readily identify it as an American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), but the greenish-brown color makes me hesitate. The details of form in this one are not as satisfying as they are in most of the others. Note how the tail tip, which extends on to the dark paving tiles of the floor and trim, is rendered in a different type of tile.

Alligatorid with ghost Stegosaurus. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Next is another favorite, an adult male Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus). The two things I like most about this one are the inclusion of the narial excrescence, a rarely depicted seasonally-present secondary sexual character of male gharials, and that the dark paving tile stones are treated as the ‘water’, from which the Gharial emerges. The dark stone is replaced with a lighter brown granite-like material to indicate the parts ‘underwater’. If you enlarge the image and look carefully, you can see that the outline of the Gharial is also continued into the glossy black enamel tiles. Although not visible in this photo, the body curls through the enamel tiles, and the Gharial’s tail re-enters the paving tiles, to again be represented by the granite-like stone.

Male Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus). 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Finishing up the reptiles we have a giant tortoise. The surviving species of giant tortoise are from Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean and the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific. The somewhat high front opening of the carapace is more characteristic of some of the subspecies of the Galapagos Tortoise (Geochelone elephantopus) than of the Aldabra Tortoise, and so I will go with that as a species identification.

Giant tortoise. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

We’ll finish off our subway tour with the amphibians and a few fish tomorrow.

White translator cancels himself after criticized for translating Amanda Gorman

March 1, 2021 • 9:00 am

We’ll have a series of short takes today, as I’m unable to brain. Bear with me. Several of the items may be about race (I haven’t yet decided what to post), but of course that topic is now foremost in America’s consciousness.

The headline from the Times of London below is deeply misleading, implying that a white translator doesn’t want to translate the poetry of Amanda Gorman. Gorman, of course became famous after reciting her poem “The Hill We Climb” at Biden and Harris’s inaugural. Truth be told, I found her poem superficial and trite (as I’ve said, this kind of verse doesn’t strike me as real poetry), but she’s only 22 or 23.

Regardless, the headline is just wrong. What the title really means is that a well known Dutch writer had already been commissioned to translate Gorman’s Inaugural poem, and had done so, but then they (note below) withdrew from the project after criticism that a white translator shouldn’t deal with the poems of a black woman.

The translator is Dutch author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, who won the International Booker Prize at 29 for their novel (Rijneveld uses plural pronouns) The Discomfort of Evening. Because the Times is paywalled, I’ve put the details below, but if you have access you can see the article in this screenshot.

An excerpt

“We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation,” the 22-year-old American poet Amanda Gorman proclaimed in her celebrated performance at President Biden’s inauguration last month.

Yet this appears to be precisely what has happened to the author chosen to render Gorman’s poem into Dutch. Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, 29, the youngest person to have won the international Booker prize, has pulled out of the project after critics suggested that it was inappropriate for a white person to translate an African-American poet’s works. Rijneveld’s translation of The Hill We Climb was due to be published on March 20 by Meulenhoff, a publisher in the Netherlands.

Janice Deul, a Dutch cultural activist, said an opportunity had been missed by handing the contract to Rijneveld. “She . . . has no experience in this realm but is still, according to Meulenhoff, the ‘dream translator’,” Deul wrote in the newspaper Volkskrant.

Yesterday Rijneveld renounced the deal, saying: “I understand people who feel hurt by Meulenhoff’s choice to ask me.” The publisher said it “hoped to learn from the experience”.

De Telegraaf, a conservative newspaper, said that Rijneveld had “kowtowed to woke activists”.

Well, first note the publisher’s contrition, as if it had done something wrong. Or maybe it just learned to commission only translators of the same gender and ethnicity of the author they’re translating, and if you don’t do that you’ll get into trouble.

But you don’t have to be a critic of Wokeism to question what kind of mentality finds a white person unfit to translate the poems of a black person, or vice versa. Is Gorman’s poem (see link above), somehow so deeply infused with the black experience that only a black translator could do it justice? I don’t think so; read the text and see for yourself. (My German is good enough to translate it into that language, but I wouldn’t risk it.) Moreover, the prose is simple and would seem to be well within the ability of any writer fluent in both Dutch and English and who writes very well (nearly all Dutch people are fluent in English!).

Tell me if my view is off base, because of course Gorman’s poem deals with racism. But I think Deul’s objection is wrongheaded, representing a view that members of a given race are simply the only people who can translate works written by members of that race. This implies, of course, that there is a homogeneity of experience and thought, including artistic thought, within races that makes such a move necessary. Would a black translator, according to these lights, be unfit to translate the poems of Sylvia Plath? Yet reading Ibram Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist (I’m almost done), I see that this view is diametrically opposed to Kendi’s own claim that there is no such thing as “black culture.” (It’s actually hard for me to guess what Kendi would say about this translation, as he sometimes takes contradictory stands in his book.)

At any rate, this event really nothing new, as we know from the use of “sensitivity readers” for young adult literature. Still, I find it sad to think that people of one background can’t empathize with those of another sufficiently to translate a poem. But that seems to be the way the world is going.

World’s oldest representational art: an Indonesian warty pig from 45,000 years ago

January 23, 2021 • 1:45 pm

Here from Science Advances via National Geographic, is the painting of a wild pig from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. AT 45,000 years old, it’s world’s oldest cave art, and in fact the oldest known representational art of any sort.


Here’s the paper reporting it (click on screenshot), and a free pdf is here:

The very oldest art comes not from Europe or Africa, but from Indonesia; but surely there was much earlier representational art. The subject is presumably a Celebes warty pig (Sus celebensis), a species still with us, and the artist presumably an anatomically modern human (H. sapiens sapiens).

Here’s the subject. Not a bad representation, eh?

From Wild Pig, Peccary & Hippo Specialist Groups.

And a few words from the authors (“AMH” means “anatomically modern humans”)

On the basis of the presently available evidence, we are unable to definitively conclude that the dated figurative rock art depiction from Leang Tedongnge is the handiwork of cognitively “modern” members of our species. However, this seems to be the most likely explanation given the sophistication of this early representational artwork and the fact that figurative depiction has so far only been attributed to AMH everywhere else in the world.

If so, the dated pig image from Leang Tedongnge would appear to provide some of the earliest evidence, if not the earliest, for the presence of our species in Wallacea. The minimum age of this artwork is compatible with the earliest established indications of AMH from excavated deposits in the Lesser Sunda islands, which formerly provided the oldest archaeological evidence for H. sapiens in Wallacea (~44.6 ka cal BP). Hence, dating results for the Leang Tedongnge painting underline the view that representational art, including figurative animal art and depictions of narrative scenes, was a key part of the cultural repertoire of the first AMH populations to cross from Sunda into Wallacea—the gateway to the continent of Australia.