Sunday, February 24, 2008

Vanishing Act

The history of the public intellectual is an unfortunate, albeit interesting tale that reads much like a tragedy. Perhaps one of the best narrators of this story is Russell Jacoby, author of “The Last Intellectual”. In Jacoby’s narrative, it is asserted that once upon a time the “landscape of the American mind” was occupied by a species of independent freelance thinkers who practiced social and cultural criticism in a fiercely unfettered manner. Because such thinking was communicated in an unembellished and straightforward manner and was additionally highly accessible to the general public, public intellectuals garnered a large audience and continued to prosper well into the 20th century. As the golden years of the 1950’s came to a close, an alarming change occurred with the ushering in of 1960’s and 1970’s. Consensus between individuals dissolved, “proliferating theoretical schemata” occurred, and the guiding light of one’s elders was no longer followed. It was at this critical time that Jacoby contended “smart young people decided not to write well” and began to employ jargon in their conversations and publications. As these public intellectuals built their careers, they began to solely seek tenure and talked only to one another while “construing their own texts as radically democratic in spirit and subversive of the established order.” As this shift took place, Jacoby avers that something disappeared from American discourse and the “give-and-take” of serious discussion was damaged. Although ideas still circulated, they only did so in narrow channels, fostering an unhealthy environment in which the publics critical intelligence was enfeebled. Public intellectuals retreated and essentially became inbred, thus robbing the general public of the ability to interact, converse, and learn from them.

The validity of Jacoby’s tale can be affirmed by simply taking a closer look at modern day American society. The concept of a public intellectual is not one that is familiar to many who do not bear the title, evidence of its fleeting significance and import. Before public intellectuals can effectively reestablish themselves in the minds of the public, a solid foundation on which an understanding of the public intellectual will be constructed must be established. By answering the basic fundamental questions of "who?" and "what?" the framework for such a foundation can be laid. Who is a public intellectual? Who are public intellectuals talking to? What is the role of the public intellectual in the greater world? What must a public intellectual do to fulfill this role?

Defining who qualifies as a public intellectual is a daunting task, as the question is highly subjective and produces an infinite number of answers, each of which is legitimate in its own right. Although I personally believe that an intellectual is anyone who considers himself or herself to have intelligence on any issue which he or she happens to take interest in, it appears that a large number of individuals (many self-perceived public intellectuals themselves) have put intellectuals on a higher pedestal by severely narrowing & tailoring the definition in a seemingly elitist measure made to separate the sophisticated intellectuals from the “rest” of apparently unintelligent society.

Deciding what makes a public intellectual public is yet another difficult question to address. Through the use of deductive reasoning, I have come up with my own definition of public.
“Public” infers that something is not “private.” In order to make something not private, it must be seen by an individual other than the original producer or author of thought. Keeping these two fundamental truths in mind, I found it safe to assume that an intellectual officially becomes public when he or she shares his thoughts, ideas, or works with any person or groups of persons other than him or herself.

Although the debate concerning the definition of the term “the public intellectual” could go on for all eternity, I have chosen to forgo my own personal definition and apply Ralph Waldo Emerson’s widely accepted characterization of a public intellectual to Jacoby’s tragic tale in hopes of arriving at a possible explanation for why the disappearance has, and is, occurring in America.

In the great essay “The American Scholar” Emerson pondered the meaning and purpose of the public intellectual before concluding that a public intellectual is an individual who recognizes the important of the past, yet is able to free his thoughts from the box which history creates. In doing this, Emerson's intellectual is not only able to “preserve great thoughts of the past” bought communicate them and utilize them as a springboard for new ideas. As these new thoughts are formulated, Emerson’s public intellectual not only shares them with fellow intellectuals, but communicates them to the world out of an obligation to oneself. The presentation of a public intellectuals material to the public is essential, as Emerson contends that an intellectual “can be relatively ineffective on a widespread scale regardless of the level of their expertise or knowledge."

Taking Emerson’s definition into consideration in the context Jacoby’s story, it can be concluded that both the public intellectual and the general public are mutually responsible the public intellectuals alleged disappearance. As Jacoby stated, following the 1950’s people began turning deaf ears to the works of public intellectuals, thus prompting public intellectuals to seek recluse and only share the fruits of their knowledge and work with one another. In doing so, the public intellectual became less “public” and in essence, became more of a “private intellectual.” Therefore, the public did not necessarily entirely disappear from society altogether, but rather transformed into something else completely?

So who is to blame for starting the vicious cycle of the public not listening and the public intellectual subsequently transforming and disappearing?

In the essay entitled “Wicked Paradox: The Cleric as Public Intellectual” Stephen Mack, a professor and scholar hailing from the University of Southern California, stated that “The measure of public intellectual work is not whether the people are listening, but whether they’re hearing things worth talking about.” Upon analyzing this statement I was able to arrive at an answer to the aforementioned question-the demise of the public intellectual was not instigated by the public, but by public intellectuals themselves. Because public intellectuals allegedly possess knowledge superior to non-public intellectuals it is safe to assume that part of this knowledge would entail recognizing the greater ultimate significance of one's work, even if no one else recognizes it or appears to care about at a particular moment in time. This has not been the case, as the egos of public intellectuals became bruised when people appeared to start not caring, prompting them to draw back from mainstream society and consequently starting the vicious cycle of their demise.

Until the public intellectual can stop licking their wounded egos and re-expose themselves and their works to the public, their relative extinction is inevitable. And self-extinction, well, that's not so intelligent.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Dic-tator Tots

Last week Hu Jintao, Isayas Afewerki, Kim Jong-il & Sayyid Ali Khamenei anxiously checked their mailboxes awaiting the most recent issue of Parade Magazine.

Why were these four men fussing over this particular edition?

Enclosed in the issue was the magazine's annual top 10 list of the worst dictators of 2008, of course!

And just what could have they possibly done to warrant the acquisition of this coveted title?

Blatantly abuse their power? Check!

Suspend elections and essentially erase the civil liberties of their people? Double Check!

Routinely torture and jail citizens? No che-Who am I kidding? CHECK!!!

In addition to sharing the aforementioned characteristics Jintao, Afeweki, Jong-il, and Khamenei are alike in yet another way- they all have discovered the most powerful weapon of them all.

Nuclear bombs? Nope.

Biological warfare? Try Again.

Censorship? Ding! Ding! Ding!

Throughout history censorship has been used to control the hearts, minds and actions of citizens, and such practices have continued well into the 21st century. It, as illustrated below, is a common feature of dictatorships and other authoritarian political systems. Unlike in the United States and other Westernized countries, freedom of speech is not regarded as a fundamental right or liberty of the people. Jintao, Afeweki, Jong-il, and Khamenei have all heavily employed censorship as one of the primary methods to assert and maintain control of their people.

Let's take Kim Jong-il of North Korea for example. Coming in as Parade's #1 worst dictator of 2008, he has successfully managed to run the most isolated and repressive regime in the world. His ability to do so is largely due to the inability of North Korean citizens to access information other than what is provided by the government. Because the nation essentially operates on propaganda, Jong-il maintains an extremely tight control of expression. In fact, his control of expression is so tight that Hu Jintao's China seems free in comparison.

Although Jintao's administration pales in comparison to Jong-il's regime in terms of censorship, Jintao is still no saint. With 42 journalists in jail, constant policing, and deletion of political speech, censorship in China has never been greater. Last year, Jintao not only increased censorship, but cracked down on human-rights activists, forced abortions, limited the practice of religion, and asserted control over all media.

Across Asia in Iran Sayyid Ali Khamenei and his council adopted increasingly repressive measures in an effort to continue to maintain control of Iranian citizens. In 2007, officials not only persecuted dissidents and shut down music studios and cafes, but stoned a man to death or adultery and carried out public hangings.

South of Iran in Africa, Isayas Afewerki implemented a ban on privately owned media, thus making Eritrea "one of the world’s worst abusers of press freedom." Afewerki's repressive policies began shortly after September 11, 2001 when the government shut down the nation’s formerly thriving private press and arrested its most prominent journalists. The crackdown
came shortly after the press covered a split in the ruling party, as it provided a forum for debate on Afewerki’s rule.

The complete list of 2008's top 10 dictators is definitely worth taking a look at. Perhaps you'll see some familiar names, or a few familiar faces. If your favorite dictator didn't make the cut, check the runners-up, and if he or she is still nowhere to be found....

there's always next year.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Need a buck? Steal a painting.

Last Sunday, in what has been dubbed as "one of Europe's greatest art heists", masked robbers brandishing handguns stole four paintings by Cezanne, Degas, van Gogh and Monet from the private Buehrle Collection at a museum in Zurich, Switzerland. The paintings, “Poppies near Vetheuil” by Monet, “Count Lepic and His Daughters” by Degas, “Blossoming Chestnut Branches” by van Gogh and “The Boy in the Red Vest” by Cezanne, were worth an estimated $164 million dollars and were stolen by three men shortly before the museum closed on Sunday afternoon. While one of the robbers forced visitors and employees to lay on the ground at gunpoint his two accomplices nabbed the 19th century treasures. They proceeded to flee the scene in a white van with a painting possibly sticking out of the back of the vehicle.

Surprising, yes. Tragic, no.

As passive as it sounds, I haven't the slightest bit of sympathy for the museum and it's directors. I mean come on, the thieves walked in through the main entrance, at 4:30 p.m., on a Sunday afternoon and only had to use a mere handgun as leverage to nab the paintings. Now, I’m not suggesting that anyone should have taken a bullet for the artwork- that would have just been absurd. I am suggesting that perhaps this gallery (and others like it) amp up their security by investing in a little thing called a metal detector, tossing in a few more cameras, and beefing up their squad. It's a wonder the museum directors didn't simply leave the paintings on the sidewalk and allow passerby’s to take them on a first come first serve basis given the lack of security that was displayed.

In a news conference following the robberies the “devastated” event museum director Lukas Gloor said that the paintings were displayed behind glass panels and that an alarm was triggered as soon as they were touched. Congratulations, an alarm was present. 2 gold stars and a pat on the back for Mr. Gloor.

What use is an alarm if it does nothing to aid in the protection of the paintings?

What comes even more surprising about this particular case is that one week prior to the robbery, two paintings by Pablo Picasso were stolen from a Swiss gallery. In this heist the artworks, Head of Horse and Glass and Pitcher, were stolen after a show of the artist's work closed. An alarm was triggered at 1900 local time (1800 GMT), and shortly thereafter the guards noticed that the paintings were missing.

Maybe it's just me, but I would presume that upon hearing of a fellow gallery being robbed that other galleries and museums would take caution and amp up the security in their own buildings, but then again, perhaps Mr. Gloor missed the memo.

I’m off to
MOCA…I spotted a piece that might go for a pretty penny on the black market.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Mass Media Monarchy

It’s no secret that modern day American society is more media-driven than ever. With a flip of a radio switch, click of a remote control button, or turn of a magazine page, the presence of the media can be seen everywhere. As the publics infatuation with celebrities continues to foster a cultural phenomenon unlike any other, many fail to notice the negative effects media corporations working behind the scenes have had on the variety of entertainment options made available to the general public. Over the past few decades alone, an alarming trend in which the marketplace has wielded a greater control of the music, television, and film industries has occurred and has subsequently resulted in the narrowing of creative options available to artists and consumers alike.

One of the most notable instances in which the marketplace demonstrated a firm control of the creative freedom of mass media occurred in the music industry at the end of the 20th century with the reemergence of boy bands. The concept of a boy band was nothing new, as it had roots dating back as early as the 1960’s, when the Monkees and the Beatles ruled the industry. With each successive decade came a new, refurbished version of the boy band-the 1970’s had Menudo, the 1980’s had New Kids on the Block and New Edition, and the 1990’s had the Backstreet Boys, N*Sync, and 98 Degrees, amongst many others. These bands incited a craze that not only dominated the airwaves, but filled the newsstands and adorned the bedroom walls of millions of teeny boppers around the world. Although each respective band of the late 90’s had its own distinct name and projected image, all were derived from what was more or less the same general formula. The groups typically featured several young male singers in their mid to late teens or early twenties who, in addition to singing, danced to highly choreographed numbers. Ironically musical instruments were rarely played by members, thus making them more of a vocal group than a band. Backstreet Boys, O*Town and other bands of this era were not spontaneously created, but were methodically contrived by talent managers and producers-such as the notorious Lou Pearlman of Trans Atlantic Records- who, upon realizing the potential to capitalize on a new generation of consumers, selected group members based on appearance, singing ability, and dancing skills. These boy bands were also classically characterized by changing their appearances to adapt to new fashion fads (they often donned flashy matching ensembles), following mainstream music trends, performing complex dances, and producing elaborate shows.

As important as the selection of the members of a boy band was, this alone did not determine the commercial success of the group. Record companies, aware of the desire for the consumer to “connect” with the group, capitalized on this by highlighting a distinguishing characteristic of each member and portraying him as having a certain image. By branding members with particular personality stereotypes such as “the shy one” or “the rebel” individuals were able to identify with a member or multiple members of a group on a more personal level and record companies were able to strategically reel consumers. A perfect example of this occurred with the group N*Sync. With blond curly hair, piercing blue eyes, and a sweet high pitched voice, Justin Timberlake the youngest of the group, was branded as “the baby” of the group. Timberlake subsequently attracted a large fan base of very young girls that identified with this stereotyped image whether it be because Timberlake was the closest to their own age or simply because they bought into his projected sweet persona. Chris Kirkpatrick, another member of N*Sync, was Timberlake’s image foil; 10 years his senior, Kirkpatrick sported facial hair, unusual dreadlocked hairdo, and large hoop earrings, Kirkpatrick was often dubbed as “the crazy one” and thus, attracted a slightly older fan base of girls who could identify with this particular persona.

The heavy reliance of record companies upon the aforementioned stereotypes left little, if any, creative freedom to groups and rendered members essentially unable to venture outside of the box created for them. The key factor of boy bands was to remain trendy and therefore the band was expected to conform not only to the most recent fashion, but musical, trends in the popular music scene. Because the majority of the music produced was written and produced by producers who worked with the bands at all times, they were the ones who not only projected the next smash hit, but controlled the group’s sound in a manner in which this would be possible. As the marketing and packaging of boy bands and their image began taking precedent over the quality of music which they were producing, the options which artists and consumers alike were offered became narrower and narrower. Rather than take the chance of venturing into the uncharted waters of the music by trying something new, producers and record labels became content selling the same sort of tunes to the same audience, as that is what was generating maximum profit. In doing so, a vicious cycle was created. Once mass media businesses recognized what types of songs were selling, boy bands were limited to singing and performing the same feigned emotional ballads and pop dance tunes to slightly altered beats, further limiting the musical options available to the public.

Although boy bands were able to make an easy transition into the early 21st century, the commercial success of the “pop” boy bands did not last long. The fan base for these groups grew up, their musical tastes evolved, and a new generation of consumers was established. As this evolution occurred, boy bands did not simply disappear, but once more reemerged with an all new image and sound. Gone were the days of gel tipped hair and cheesy color coded outfits, and in were the days of vintage duds, faux hawks, and eyeliner. The industry waved goodbye to LFO, O-Town, and LMNT, and readily embraced groups such as My Chemical Romance, Sum 41, and Good Charlotte, perpetuating the same old industry song of capitalization, but with a different punkier image and edgier tune.

With this rebirth of punk in the boy band scene came the commercialization of yet another movement-indie. Up until a decade ago indie (short for independent) traditionally referred to any form of art-music, film, or literature-that was created without corporate financing and without mainstream influence. In the music industry, “indie” specifically referred to any music that had been produced and funded by any band or label that was not affiliated with major corporate labels such as Sony or Epic. Free from corporate control, indie artists and groups were not under the same profit-based shareholder pressure most record corporations placed on their artists to drive sales, and were consequently freer to release music that did not necessarily have the greatest commercial appeal.

Indie’s independence from corporate control did not last long, as companies began to catch on to the great commercial potential of this genre. Some have accredited the adoption of indie by corporations to the wide success of garage bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains in the early 90’s as these bands exploded onto the mainstream music scene and garnered immense popularity and an intensely loyal fan base. This surprising popularity convinced labels and mainstream radio stations that this type of music had great commercial potential.

Once corporations began to show interest in the indie scene, many smaller music labels similarly grew eager for wider financial success, and began adopting “business practices of major labels once considered anathema in the scene” such as licensing songs to advertising companies and hiring PR firms and street teams to market their records. As this selling out occurred, the definition of indie as a culture in which the truly independent passion for music can be expressed has dissolved and became no more than a money driven branding tool aimed at marketing a particular image. Major labels have continued to use the indie name to continue to attract, and profit off of, a “different” demographic looking for a “different” type of music when in all actuality, indie music mainstream. The true essence of the genre has been lost, and all the consumer is receiving is more unoriginal music, once more exemplifying the narrowing of creative listening options available to the consumer.

The deterioration creativity and creative freedom in mass media due to commercialization is not exclusive to music, as it has had an equally heavy impact on the television and film industries. As the era of pop boy bands came to a close in music, a reality television revolution had begun to emerge. Reality TV, a “genre of television programming which presents purportedly unscripted dramatic or humorous situations, documents actual events, and features ordinary people instead of professional actors”, varies greatly as it encompasses a plethora of subgenres. The most popular subgenres have included Celebreality in which a celebrity is documented going about his or her daily life (The Osbournes, Newlyweds, The Simple Life), talent search shows in which the “next big thing” is to be discovered (American Idol, Pop Stars, America’s Got Talent), self-improvement shows (Extreme Makeover, Queer Eye For the Straight Guy), and job search shows in which pre-screened competitors perform a variety of tasks based on a common skill are judged by a panel of experts as a process of elimination narrows the playing field until a winner is declared (Project Runway, The Apprentice, The Shot).

Once the success of the first modern day reality television shows was observed by mass media businesses, networks wasted no time in rearranging their show lineups to make room for shows of their own, as each network was eager to cash in on a piece of the reality pie. As sitcoms and conventional drama series were pushed aside as more and more reality shows into development the quality and the variety of the programs which the general public was offered began to decline. Viewers were once more caught in a Catch-22 of sorts; they kept tuning in to reality programs because that was all that was offered by networks, and networks kept offering them because that is what drew ratings and revenue. And so the cycle continues.

The plaguing of music and television by mass media business strategy has also begun to plague the film industry, albeit at a slower pace. The cinema classics of the past greatly differ from modern day feature films, as the pursuit of profit has gradually taken precedent over quality and construction. Actors, producers, and critics such as Oscar Winning Sir Michael Caine have attributed the deterioration of films to the general “lacking in dialogue, character, and plot”. Over the years Hollywood, much like the music and television industries, has become a product of corporate interests aimed at generating the maximum amount of money possible, and has thus fallen subject to the same formulaic methods of production that were previously noted in the music industry. As the emphasis of production has shifted away from cohesiveness and fluidity, special effects, action, violence, and sex have become the determining factors in the success of a picture. Obvious patterns in the movies have emerged as studios note one film’s success and continue to emulate it in a slew of succeeding movies. Some notable patterns include the “teen queen” movies of the late 90’s (She’s All That, 10 Things I Hate About You, Clueless, Never Been Kissed, American Pie, Can’t Hardly Wait), superhero movies (X-Men Series, Spiderman Series, The Punisher, Hulk),“spoof movies” (Scary Movie Series, Date Movie, Epic Movie) and fantasy movies (Harry Potter Series, The Lord of the Rings Series, Chronicles of Narnia Series, Eragon, The Golden Compass, Pan’s Labyrinth). With the scrapping of the responsibility “to give audiences something better” the film industry has grown content churning out the same sorts of hits with the same basic plot lines to gain profit. In doing so, creativity is once more stifled, and the options of films which consumers are offered are significantly lessened.

American's cultural obsession with the media shows no signs of letting up, however by taking a look behind the scenes of one's favorite song, program, or movie the mass media's influence on our variety of selection can readily be observed. While it is impractical to wholeheartedly boycott these industries, by recognizing the profit-driven forces behind the media within one's daily life, the first step towards reopening the diminishing art of creativity in these industries can be taken.


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Andrews, Catherine. "If it's cool, creative and different, it's indie.", 2006.

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Kaufman, Gil. "The New Boy Bands." Date Unknown.

Lamb, Bill. "Top 10 Boy Bands." Date Unknown.

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"Reality television." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 5 Feb 2008, 16:46 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 11 Feb 2008 <>.

Rowen, Beth. "History of Reality TV." July, 2001.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Sheik of Chic Relinquishes Throne

Who is Valentino Clemente Ludovico Garavani? Here’s a hint- he’s not a Renaissance artist nor is he an Italian footballer.

To many, Valentino Clemente Ludovico Garavani’s first name is all that is needed to recognize one of, if not the most, influential designers of the late 20th century. Famous for his signature bold red dresses and classic couture, Valentino has dressed the world’s elite including royalty, first ladies, and movie stars such as Nancy Reagan, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Audrey Hepburn, and Elizabeth Taylor, amongst others.

His resume is just as impressive as his clientele-At 17, he moved to Paris where he studied at the Fine Arts School and at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne and by 29 he had served as an apprentice at Jean Desses and Guy Laroche. It was that very year in 1959 that Valentino finally set up his own fashion house on the prestigious via Condotti in Rome. A mere 3 years later Valentino made his big breakthrough in Florence, and with the help of trusted friend and former lover, Giancarlo Giammetti, an empire was built.

45 years and innumerable collections later, on January 23rd of this year Valentino decided to bid adieu to the fashion industry forever. While it is true that at 75 Valentino is long overdue for retirement, neither old age nor bad health was the primary factors driving his decision. So who, or what, was the culprit that spurned one the greatest Italian couturiers to leave the art he had devoted his whole life towards interpreting and mastering?

One might be surprised to learn that it was nothing other than big business.

At his final runway show at which his appropriately named “swan song” collection was
presented, Valentino stated:

"The world of fashion has now been ruined…I became rather bored of continuing in a world which doesn't say anything to me. There is little creativity and too much business."

To some, Valentino’s words may appear to be somewhat hypocritical, as he made his fortune building a business of selling his high end wears to the public. While this may be true, I believe Valentino was justified in making such a statement, as the evidence for his claim can be seen everywhere, from Nordstrom’s to Bloomingdale’s, 5th Avenue to Rodeo Drive. As the desire for companies and investors to generate a profit continues to eclipse the fundamental purpose in which “old generation” designers such as Valentino, Karl Lagerfeld, Giorgio Armani began mastering their craft, little room is left for creative impulses to be expressed. As this occurs the emphasis simultaneously switches from the designer and his or her vision to the consumers and what they demand. With the shift comes a new wave of designers who recognize this shift and subsequently begin designing clothes that all look the same, as they recognize that more of the same sells while the innovation of the new only has the possibility of selling. While Valentino was lucky to have successfully established his stylistic direction and unwaveringly stick to his mantra of “keeping a woman looking her best” as each decade introduced it’s own distinct fads, his successors will be met with many more hurdles as our society leaves little room for up and comers to recreate the old era “before fashion became a global, highly commercial industry” in this new consumer driven era.

As firms such as Permira, the British private equity firm that purchased Valentino’s couture house, begin replacing the Valentino’s with the Alessandra Facchinetti’s (a former Gucci designer who is considered to “be better suited to lead the group’s expansion into new markets and product lines”) of the world, I can’t help but feel an immense amount remorse, as something great and inimitable has been forever lost.