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Putting on Airs?

The etching was a small drawing on ordinary paper. The dimensions of the paper were 9 1/2 x 10 3/4 inches. The etching was black and white and late period (2014). But it was an authentic Wayne Thiebaud, an artist I love. I dared to ask the price and was told it could be mine for 5000 dollars. This made it one of the more affordable pieces at the Art Fair. This was in the realm of possibility but I decided against it.

I spent last weekend getting a thorough condescending-to from a lot of gallery assistants in their 20s. I went to an Art Fair at the Fort Mason Center with my girlfriend and another set of friends. The kind of art fair where they have booths and representatives from some of the top galleries in New York, London, Paris, and the rest of the world including some hometown ones. This was not the only time I embarrassed myself with an inquiry. Another booth had a Wayne Thiebaud painting – a small painting from 1999 featuring cupcakes. This painting cost 775K, according to the gallery assistant’s flat/neutral but icy-undertoned delivery. Another gallery assistant told me a series of small paintings by Alex Katz ranged from 50-80K. I did not dare ask the price for one of Kohei Nawa’s Trans-figure deer.

Their tone was clear: You clearly aren’t going to buy these and why are you even asking?

What was interesting about the fair is that I ended up running into a lot of people that I knew. We all made the decision to attend the fair randomly. It struck us as a fun thing to do. We are all professionals with graduate degrees. We all make good incomes but are not super-wealthy. A bunch of us could probably purchase a five-figure painting but it would eat a good chunk of our savings. Unlike the others, I was the only one who dared ask prices. Most of my friends were smart enough to avoid the condescension.

But the whole event made me think about what this says about us as a social class. What does it say about us that we enjoy spending a weekend afternoon going to an art fair looking at art that is likely well above our price range? I can see people in my cohort being able to afford houses in the seven-figure range. I can see them eventually purchasing paintings that cost a few thousand dollars, and maybe even a five-figure painting if they really enjoy it. But most of the art was well out of our price range – and this wasn’t a museum. It was a place where galleries gain new customers and pieces are bought. You could tell by the little red stickers next to some pieces.

According to the Palinista set, we are the elitists because of our tastes and choices for recreational activity, our educations, jobs, food choices, and preferred living areas. But maybe what they mean is that we put on airs. The Koch Brothers of the world could easily afford much of the art on display*. My friends and I cannot, but we like it and like to go look at it. Is this pretentious? I don’t think so, but perhaps to others we are just fooling ourselves.

*There is also the fact that pricing art is one of the most opaque practices in the world. The San Francisco Navy Yard has been turned into artists’ studios and they hold open studios twice a year. Some of the artists who rent space there are professionals. Others have jobs for supplemental income or maybe even primary income. I’ve purchased pieces here at more affordable rates. But there is something about an art dealer that makes me think of a price as more valid because it seems like an independent assessment. I’ve also seen artists band together and rent space to sell their own work. My reaction to this is often “Why do you think your piece is worth 4000 dollars?”

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168 thoughts on “Putting on Airs?

    • Yes except for the reverse snob factor in the opening paragraph which implies that people into art are just pretending to like stuff that is not “pretty” in conventional ways. I’ve mentioned my preferences for modern and contemporary art before and I have strong reactions against what a lot of people consider to be “pretty” art especially when we are talking about stuff like the Pre-Raphaelites. I loathe the Pre-Raphaelites.

      The deer linked to above is really interesting to me and visually appealing/striking. It’s unique. But there is a lot of manipulation and there is probably an appeal in finding value and beauty in something most or many denounce as ugly and wrong.

      I know lots of artists also try to sell directly to consumers via etsy, renting out their own gallery spaces, open studios, etc. I’ve bought art here at more reasonable prices (often prints) but it seems harder to trust an artist self pricing at 5K than a gallery. A lot of the stuff you see on Etsy doesn’t appeal to me. I think it looks like bigger versions of fantasy paperback covers, old Heavy Metal magazines, or anime DVD covers with a more feminist twist at times.

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      • I think that the complex answer is that High-end Galleries are serving as a sort of SCC for Art; they are establishing and policing the rules for investing in Art because the “market” is mostly a speculative hedge for wealth. Which is to say that the point of the market isn’t art, but the exchange of value artificially maintained. So in one sense this subset of the Art market is providing a financial service masquerading as something else. On the one hand, that’s a very valuable (and perhaps useful) service; on the other hand, a few Palinistas crashing the party might have adverse affects on the market. If your market is susceptible to Palinistas, its a pretty shitty market, and I’d grab any money you’ve got in it right now. But then, I don’t think Palinistas have anything what-so-ever to do with the market, or your article…

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  1. I attended the Dallas Safari Convention a few years ago. Very high end. Lots of very expensive art work from Africa, high end shot guns and firearms, clothing, jewelry, art, etc.

    I was looking at one art display in the “sale” section, or so I though. I expressed an interest in one painting and asked how much. “negotiable, make me an offer”. I low balled it and was told the actual price, which was more than I wanted to pay for an impulse item. IIRC it was in the 5-7k range. I declined. No snootiness was expressed ever. Maybe you’re shopping in the wrong art sales or people think snootiness is part of “real art” sales?

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  2. As to what the Palinsta set thinks, there is probdbly a strong element that nobody really takes pleasure from high art, non-commercial theater, dance, novels, etc. They might say we should join the rest of them and take pleasure from more mainstream things.

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    • The ability to enjoy positional goods is something that a lot of the schlubs in the middle classes just haven’t cultivated within themselves.

      Not that bowling and shooting street signs on the way to church isn’t also fun, but you’d think that they’d at least have the dignity to ignore the people who don’t agree with them.

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  3. “According to the Palinista set, we are the elitists because of our tastes and choices for recreational activity, our educations, jobs, food choices, and preferred living areas.”

    Can we get a quote on aisle five?

    Not saying you are wrong, but it might help if we can parse this a wee bit.

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  4. The whole idea of being embarrassed to ask how much something costs is so foreign to me. I love art, but the contemporary art world is farce. There isn’t much those could do or say to me that would make me feel self-conscious or inadequate. Maybe your friends didn’t ask prices, because they understand that.

    I guarantee that the people who do buy these pieces mostly have no such qualms about treating these interactions as pure commerce. That’s why they pay healthy sums of money to art consultants and treat their purchases as investments. When it comes to buying art, there may be only two smart choices: buy what you like and you can afford and treat it like pure consumption and don’t worry about the appreciation; or fully commit to playing the game and only buy things that have a high likelihood of appreciation. I’m not sure that there’s much point in trying to split the middle.

    Honestly, I think what this says about you as a social class is that you are part of a social class who spend entirely too much time thinking about yourself as a social class and entirely too much time thinking about what other people think of you as a social class.

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  5. This reminds me of Usenet discussions about SF, in which about half of the participants believed that no one actually enjoys literary fiction. Catcher in the Rye was a best-seller? Only because high-school teachers assigned it and phonies bought it without reading it.

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    • My wife loves Catcher, I read it on her recommendation and I hated it. She asked me why.

      Me: Holden annoyed me to no end. He was a cruel, whiny little shit with scant redeeming qualities.
      Her: I know, he’s so awful, it’s great!
      Me: Why the hell would I want to read a whole book about an awful person being awful?

      She liked The Soprano’s for the same reason, because all the main characters were just not good people. I don’t mind flawed characters, even deeply flawed ones, but there has to be something about them I can like or appreciate.

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      • Catcher is not Salinger’s best book. Franny and Zooey and his short stories are better.

        But there is a lot of literary fiction that is not Salinger and as Mike noted “Does not contain elves, dragons, exploding spaceships, an improbable number of serial killers, etc.” But it is still a rather popular argument to claim that no one really likes “high brow” culture and people only pretend to like it to seem smart, come along and just admit you like rolling in the mud like the rest of us.

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        • Part of it is language/prose. We’ve talked before about how difficult it can be to pick up some books cold if you are not familiar with the prose of the author, especially older books. Even modern writings can have prose that is ‘dense’ and difficult to parse if you aren’t accustomed to it. People mistake familiarity with a style with intellect/culture/refinement.

          If all you ever grew up listening too was honky-tonk, you might not have much appreciation for classical music, but it’s not hard to get from one to another with some baby steps.

          Conversely, there are some authors who write about exploding space ships that have a style that would be familiar to may literary aficionados.

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      • I liked the book as a young teen. As an adult I tried to re-read it and couldn’t, Holden annoyed me too much. I mean, the world is FULL of phonies and you just have to cope with it.

        As others have noted: I could never get into Mad Men, or Breaking Bad, or any of those shows. I have to have a character I can root for, and there has to be no one who is too supremely annoying – at least who isn’t on camera forever. (I almost couldn’t finish Bleak House because of Mr. Skimpole but fortunately he was a minor character).

        Maybe I’m an anomaly or I am unsophisticated but I really want entertainment – when I am looking merely to relax and be entertained – with a hero who is better than I am, so I feel like I have something to aspire to.

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        • I don’t need a hero I can aspire to, but I have to be able to relate to them somehow. Shitty people being shitty and being content with their shittiness just doesn’t do it for me.

          I like my main characters to at least want to be good people, even if they suck at it.

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      • I think it depends on the awful character. Whiny, cowardly, spineless characters annoy me. Otoh, there are some dark characters that I love. A really good bad guy can make a book worth reading or a show worth watching. (semi-spoiler: I LOVED a couple of the mirror universe characters in the new Star Trek and really look forward to seeing more of at least one of them). There are also some crappy-people characters that draw me in because they are good character studies (Elmer Gantry).

        But I am totally with you on Catcher because Holden was such a whiny brat. For a long time I thought my reaction to him was because I came from, shall we say, much less affluent circumstances and so had patience for his angsty BS over stuff I didn’t have the luxury of worrying about. However, my kids have grown up in a nice middle suburb in essentially Holden’s social class and when my daughter (who had no idea of my opinion of the book b/c I didn’t want to prejudice her against it) was assigned to read Catcher she wrote her critical essay on how self-absorbed and whiny Holden was.

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    • That’s an argument I’ve heard from a lot of people in the science fiction and fantasy group. “No one really likes Fitzgerald, No one really likes Joyce, those are just books you pretend to like to seem smart.”

      I don’t know what causes generally educated people to believe this.

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      • Fitzgerald? F. Scott Fitzgerald? A lot of regular people liked him fine when he was active and publishing heavily in middlebrow magazines. If readers don’t like him now, it’s probably because his milieu has become dated without having passed into historical, more like John O’Hara than Dickens or Austen. Fitzgerald isn’t a high-brow taste and nobody gets any pretension points for liking him.
        I suspect that when Dylan scorned Mr. Jones for having “read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books,” it was a shout-out to a fellow Minnesotan.

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          • The Great Gatsby

            Just as an aside: The year the latest movie version of the Great Gatsby was released was the year the local high school removed it from their literature curriculum. Apparently kids won’t really try to skate by with “just watching the movie” if it’s more than a decade or two old, but otherwise absolutely will.

            There’s a number of books, both classic literature and modern books that highlight one thing or another, that get churned off the list of literature kids read because a movie was made, and thus the kids won’t read them.

            My wife figures it’ll be about 10 years before they can safely assign the Great Gatsby and have a majority of the students actually read it, instead of watching it.

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            • My high school used to show the Zepherelli version of Romeo and Juliet after reading the book. I think they got excited about the Clare Danes and Leo version because it made it more relevant and edgy to students.

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              • Showing a movie version (or a stage version) or an obvious retelling (like, say, West Side Story or The Lion King) is pretty useful, because you can get the kiddos to analyze what was changed and why, where the story diverged, whether the meanings or subtext changed, etc.

                The problem is making sure the little hellions read the dang book (or play or whatnot) first.

                It’s not like you can’t tell when grading their work (“Well honey, your analysis here is missing some significant bits, specifically the bits cut to make it two hours long”), but the goal of education isn’t to punish them for being lazy, so you try to structure their incentives to do the work and actually learn, even if they think the knowledge, techniques, and understanding will be useless later.

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                  • My 11th grade English prof, pre-Baz-Luhrmann-treatment, made us watch the Zeffirelli version (all I remember is that at one point she was in some golden chain-mailish shift *thing* that none of us could believe was anything approaching realistic or comfortable), read the book out loud in class (not the whole thing but large chunks), talk about what we thought weren’t true-to-the-story in the Zeffirelli and then we had to *make our own film versions* in small groups. We were allowed to abridge the text, but not to leave out any significant scenes (ie no “vignettes from R+J” versions).

                    The whole class was poring over that text like there was no tomorrow. The *same* class that slept through Macbeth the year before.

                    More than one way to skin the education cat…

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              • We got to see “Kiss Me, Kate” after reading “Taming of the Shrew,” which, in retrospect, was a BIZARRE Shakespeare choice for a freshman level high school class.

                One of my later teachers wanted to show us – I think it was “Ran,” after we read “King Lear,” but either he couldn’t find a copy to rent or the administration told him no. (I have no idea of the level of violence or otherwise in “Ran”)

                (ETA: it was a prep school, so our English classes were more like low-level college English; there was a certain level of expectation of what we already knew. We also read a lot of the Greek plays)

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                • I think there was a slight uptick in high schools using Taming of the Shrew in the curriculum when Moonlighting had their Very Special Episode about it. (I gotta imagine it’s all kinds of problematic now, even with the 10 things I hate about you adaptation making accessible to another generation of high school students).

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                  • I loved that episode, and it’s a great example as to why Shakespeare shouldn’t be experienced first as a reading project, but as an audience member at a very good production. It’s a play, it needs actors and body language and tone.

                    Reading Shakespeare is hard, understanding what is going on during a production of one of his plays, especially if the cast is on their game, is easy.

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                    • Reading Shakespeare is hard, understanding what is going on during a production of one of his plays, especially if the cast is on their game, is easy.

                      Well sure. But Shakespeare doesn’t become easier in a theatrical production, it’s just easier to be distracted by 3D dynamics from how hard Shakespeare actually is. Seems to me you’re making an argument for introducing kids and highschoolers to theatrical productions, or even movies(!!!), as a mediums of entertainment and not an argument for making Shakespeare easier.

                      I mean, A Scarlett Letter is hard reading, and it doesn’t get any easier by seeing a film based on the plot prior to diving in. You gotta just dive in, learn to swim in that language, and either enjoy it or not. Most people won’t do it unless they’re compelled to, tho, seems to me. (Whether USAmerican kids *should* be compelled to is different issue.)

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                      • I don’t know that I agree with you about that.

                        On stage or screen, you have way more context to understand what’s going on. You can read right past a bawdy joke, but if there’s ass-grabbing going on with that line, you might notice the double-entendre a bit more easily…

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                        • Sure, but that’s treating Shakespeare as theater and not as literature. You *can* do that for every major work within the English/American lit canon, and maybe that’s the right way to approach Shakespeare since he’s most famously a writer of plays. Does Moby Dick (one of the most ponderous books ever written) or Scarlet Letter (or Fitzgerald or Joyce) become *easier* by watching the movie first? I don’t see how myself. I think it misses the fundamental point of teaching literature: that sometimes the endeavor requires a bit of work on the part of the reader.

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                          • No, but those are literature. As someone said, if well done, there should be enough clues in the narrative to offer up the needed context, even if the prose itself is difficult.

                            Plays as literature often has difficult dialogue as well a lack of narrative to offer context. I’m not a fan of plays as literature, they are plays and they are meant to be consumed as such.

                            Also, isn’t the point of all literature to be at least somewhat entertaining? If it isn’t today, it was supposed to be at the time of it’s writing. Sure, Scarlet Letter was also heavy handed with the messaging, but one would hope that the people of the time got some entertainment value out of it as well.

                            IMHO, the greater the endeavour needed to understand a piece of literature, the greater the entertainment/enjoyment should be once you complete that endeavour. If the piece still falls flat for most people, then it’s not much of a classic.

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                            • If the piece still falls flat for most people, then it’s not much of a classic.

                              By that standard Shakespeare as literature isn’t classic stuff. Nor is Moby Dick, A Scarlet Letter, Ulysses or Tender is the Night. Yet, they’re all Classics despite falling flat for most people. And in fact, their status as classics is why you’re trying to figure out how to make the experience of reading those books more enjoyable to young people. Presumably, there’s a reward in learning how to appreciate them on their own terms.

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                              • To say that I find considerable disagreement in what is considered a “Classic” is probably an understatement. Certain works undoubtedly have an academic value, but to me that is much different that being a Classic.

                                Moby Dick is a classic, as are The Iliad and The Odyssey. These are good stories once you can parse the prose. The Scarlet Letter is historically interesting as a view into the life of early American Puritan society, but as a story, it’s dull and insipid. I’m sure some people like it, but there are people who like Catcher in the Rye, so there is that. But I fail to see why it should be considered a classic.

                                Yes, some of it is all about themes that transcend the times, but there is also the matter of, is the author doing a good job of telling the story? That is where I often disagree with those who designate things a ‘Classic’.

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                                • I think a lot of it is just personal, and then aggregated by “people to whom this stuff comes easy.”

                                  I mean, lots of people (not I, I loved it) never “got” calculus the way you did. I hear all the time “but WHYYYYYYY do people need to learn calculus (or geometry or trig) in high school?????” and those objectors seem to be impervious to any reasoned arguments to the contrary.

                                  Meanwhile, I read the Scarlet Letter on my own one summer during junior high, and I loved it. I also didn’t find it to be much work at all. I also didn’t find Thomas Hardy (another oft-assigned dolorous writer) to be much work, read on my own around the same time, though I didn’t LIKE Thomas Hardy and remain mystified as to why my mom loves him so much. I’ll try him again someday.

                                  The people who decide what should be taught are generally those who are exceptionally ‘good at’ (and usually passionate) about a subject (and sometimes school boards as discussed elsethread), rather than those who find it frustrating. I’m not sure that’s how it should work, but since that’s how it works in pretty much all disciplines, it isn’t really puzzling that that’s how it works in English too.

                                  (Just on a personal grumpiness sidenote, I far more resent that we spent several weeks on Guest’s novel Ordinary People – which wasn’t unreadable but hardly deserved that attention – than I resent the time spent on ANY classic we were assigned…)

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                                  • It is kinda funny how some writers get maligned. I also found Hardy to be quite modern in his style (more so than say Dickens) but if you mention that to most people they can only look at you as if the devil jumped out of your mouth. Speaking of Hardy, I found Tess (et al) fairly boring, but Mayor of Casterbridge wonderful.

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                                  • I read Scarlet Letter in a HS lit class and it didn’t come easy at first, but about a third of the way thru I got into the rhythms of Hawthorne’s language and those really long sentences and ended up enjoying it so much I re-read right away. I think it’s a great book. (Two thumbs up!)

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                                    • I caught on to Hawthorne’s prose right away, I just hated it (my god man, are you paying for periods, or do you hate them on principle!?). And now that you mention it, I think that might be a big reason that book annoyed me so.

                                      Ultimately, is right, personal preference weighs into this a lot. Students are being asked to read a rather long work of fiction that they have no say in the selection of, and then to think critically about it. That’s a tough ask if the material runs counter to your aesthetic. Sure, kids will do the work (probably), but how many times can you ask a kid to do that before they mentally decide Eng Lit is crap. I’m betting if you can’t introduce them to something they can get into by the 3rd try or so, it’ll just be a chore they’ll hate.

                                      My favorite Lit class was a poetry class, because every week or so we tackled a new poem. If the current one missed, you only had to deal with it for a week, not a semester. Another was a short story/novella class, for the same reason.

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                                      • I recall an acquaintance in high school complaining that her English teacher had assigned something boring by Octavia Butler, followed by a wish that she could be reading Jane Eyre instead, like the kids in our class.

                                        Sadly, there was no mechanism where we could trade assigned books.

                                        Or English classes, for that matter.

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                                        • I got pissed that my Freshman year of High school I had to read The Chocolate War, and the next year he had the class read Childhoods End.

                                          PS this was in the mid-80’s, and I was suffering borderline PTSD from years of physical bullying. There were large parts of that book I just could not fecking read, and English teachers back then didn’t want to hear about how hard it was emotionally to do anything more than skim those sections.

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                              • I have found, for my own reading, the Folger Library reprints of Shakespeare (with the facing-page gloss and explanatory notes) help a lot. I get most of the vocabulary (Ironically, I think being a scientist steeped in Latin roots helped here) but some of the historical references and ESPECIALLY the bawdy jokes sail over my head.

                                then again, many bawdy jokes in modern English sail over my head, so I might not be a good one to go by there.

                                I also try to see productions of the play before/during/after I read it, but I live in a small isolated area and that can be hard to do. My university theater department puts on one or two a year, but that’s kind of a slow pace.

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                                • fillyjonk,

                                  Yes, absolutely. back when I was reading Shakespeare for fun I had the same type books. I read Canterbury Tales in original middle English from a book with a similar structure, as well. That was even *more* fun.

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                      • I’m with , the screenplay lacks all the context that an actor would present through action and tone. Context that a novel adds through the narrative, or a graphic novel adds with art.

                        Take this. If you just read it as in a screenplay, the dirty joke is probably lost. But an actor can add things to the performance such that even though the lines are spoken true, everyone gets that there is a sexual innuendo going on, even if you miss the spoken context.

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                        • Oscar, that’s true of Shakespeare because his most famous works are plays. But we don’t teach them in English class as plays, we teach them as a form of literature. The reasoning your using for Billy doesn’t apply to any other difficult material the student might confront.

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                          • And what do you get for your effort? Are you able to enjoy the work, or do you just get bragging rights that you read it?

                            I truly enjoyed Tom Sawyer. It was a lot of work to read it, but in the end, it was a good story. I struggle to remember any of the other selections I was required to read in school, because they all bored me so. It was an unwelcome effort to read them. The ones I do remember were so remarkably bad I recall them through the mental trauma they inflicted upon me.

                            I am certain there are people who had good introductions to literature in Middle & High School. I was not one of them. Perhaps there is a reason I went into the sciences. I had to work a lot harder to understand calculus than I ever did a work of literature, but I got a batter payoff in the end for the effort.

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                    • Depends on the play and how it’s taught. The archaic language alone is a hurdle, although there are plenty of standardized methods for dealing with that.

                      And of course, everyone’s drawn from Shakespeare at some point — so you can pair many of them with modern (or modern-ish) films — either straight up film adaptations or retellings.

                      Poetry is more my pet peeve — people who don’t understand poetry often read in this weird sing-song voice, emphasizing entirely the wrong words, often pausing in entirely the wrong places, and making it incredibly difficult for a listener to pick it apart.

                      It’s like listening to someone singing a song to the wrong tune. It’s jarring, and distracting as hell from the lyrics.

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                      • Once upon a time I had a poetry book that had the poem on the left page, and on the right page was the poem rewritten with the phonetic pronunciations of some words, and the intended emphasis, and other markup so the reader would understand how it was intended to be read.

                        It only had maybe 200 famous works in it, but it was a very handy text. I kinda wish I knew what had happened to it, since it didn’t follow me into the Navy.

                        Re: the play – Yes, it would have to be a competent production.

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                      • Absolutely my best high school English class ever — technically ninth grade and junior high in that school district — was when the little old lady teaching the class gave us a choice of something really dull or producing a three-act play.

                        The junior high building had a real theater built during the Depression. ~300 real folding seats plus a balcony, an orchestra pit, deep stage, etc. Everyone got something interesting to do. The girl with the near-photographic memory and horrible stutter was demanding in the prompter’s box. Art students doing flats. I will never forget the two jocks, whom no one had ever accused of being artistic, arguing over exactly the right lighting combination for moonlight in act two.

                        It was supposed to be a dress rehearsal and one performance for the 7th- and 8th-graders. Parents heard about it and demanded a performance for them (SRO when parents of the 7th- and 8th-graders showed up). The high school English teachers came by and saw some of the rehearsals and demanded multiple performances for their English classes. I think we ended up doing five shows. The little local paper ran a review that said “The high school drama students better watch out.”

                        Good memories. At some point, the teacher said, about a kiss in act three, “Mike, Sandy, make me believe it.” Sandy took it to heart. Lots of audience reaction when she dipped me and laid it on.

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                • For some reason Ran got an “R” / 17+ rating in the US, but most other countries gave it their local 12+, 13+, or PG type rating.

                  There are quite a few battle scenes, and it’s fairly grim. Which, it’s
                  King Lear. It’s going to be grim.

                  It’s been a long time since I watched it, but it was one of my favourites for a while. Probably worth checking in on it again soon.

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            • I always wonder, why is a High School teaching a book that was written 100 or more years ago for an English class? I can see the potential value for a history class, but an English class should be about identifying themes and other aspects of reading comprehension, so why choose texts that are old enough that kids will lack the critical contexts as well as have difficulty parsing the prose.

              I get why a college course would do it, but why High School?

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                • This is a slippery slope that leads to assigning “Twilight” to Freshmen.

                  In all fairness, high schools often do assign popular works to students, and the make them analyze them.

                  It serves many purposes, not the least of which is to expose kids to the crazy idea of reading a book because they enjoy it and not because it’s some dead guy’s work that a teacher insists on.

                  Making the little blighters play “Compare and contrast” with other works is supposedly a lot of fun, and if you pair the works right you end up showing kids “Hey, you liked X. Here’s an older work that X drew from, let’s talk about why they did and how each author approached the story differently”.

                  (And for that matter, most English lit teachers — at least the good ones — make it a point to read best-sellers among HS crowd, and most certainly any YA blockbusters that come by. Which yes, does include Twilight. And Harry Potter.)

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              • You realize they get more than one English class for all of high school, right? And that covering American literature alone is generally an entire year of high school?

                Gatsby’s part of the American canon for good reason. Nor is the context or setting difficult for students — it’s 1920s America. Prohibition. There’s a ton of American culture built on that era. Flappers and bootleggers and all. They’re not trying to envision Dark Ages Belgium here, but a post-industrial America in one of the favored time periods for movies and and books. The context is more approachable than Huck Finn, for Pete’s sake.

                As for prose — Gatsby is not difficult prose. It’s clean, it’s excellent, but it’s not difficult. The book itself has plenty of motifs and symbolism that’s perfectly within the grasp of the average 16 or 17 year old with a little direction, and even a nice unreliable narrator.

                You’re short changing high school students here. It’s not The Wasteland — but it is a seminal work of American literature, meaty enough that quite a few in-depth examinations of literary devices can be done.

                You want difficult prose or context? Try something like The Scarlet Letter, written 75 years prior — the prose is incredibly different, complex and often a mess to untangle compared to Fitgerald. (Which is because it was written 75 years earlier, in an entirely different style).

                Gatsby’s prose is practically modern — the sentence structure, the imagery — it’s far more familiar than Hawthorne.

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                • I wasn’t dissing Gatsby specifically, just my memories of having to read books that were old and difficult to read & all that.

                  I was never assigned anything by Fitzgerald, for me it was stuff like Scarlett Letter and other books I got no enjoyment out of reading. Tom Sawyer was probably the most enjoyable thing I had to read in school.

                  Hopefully schools are doing better.

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                  • You should try Gatsby.. Even just a few pages would be enough to see the difference in difficulty compared to Hawthrorne, and without sacrificing literary merit. (Although, and I say this as someone who rarely reads “serious” works these days — Gatsby’s both outstanding AND not a long read. It’s well worth your time)

                    The Scarlet Letter has it’s place — honestly, American culture makes a heck of a lot more sense if you’ve got a handle on Calvinism, Puritanism, frontier spirit, and the rags-to-riches stuff from the Depression*. And the best way to see the culture of another time is by their literature.

                    *Poverty as sin, or as proof of sin, is writ deep in our culture. Honestly, the Prosperity Doctrine, vile heresy it is, is just the materialistic, upside down version of Calvinism shoved into a blender with the rags-to-riches, bootstraps mythos of America. Predestination, except God can be bribed with enough hosanna’s to make you one of the Elite, and Elite is measured by CASH.

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          • That’s true, and I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. (Though This Side of Paradise was nothing special. A precocious adolescent first novel hinting at better to come.) You can be both accessible to a mass audience and good, and it’s a neat trick if you can pull it off, as Fitzgerald did. And an even neater one if you avoid blowing your money, as Fitzgerald didn’t. I just don’t see any pretentious wannabe pretending to like Fitzgerald and expecting any cultural cred for it.

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        • I wonder if we’ve perhaps lost a lot of “middlebrow” culture in the US (like a lot of the things in “the middle” being lost – clothes shopping, at least near me, seems to be either cheap crap that falls apart after three washings, or very expensive stuff I can’t easily afford)

          Also, I think in some ways knowing about things like literature and art used to be sort of a middle-class thing, now there are people who frown on that and castigate it as elitist. I was raised by older parents who had been very middlebrow and I often feel like I don’t quite fit in: I’m not the country-club set, that’s for sure.

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  6. But there is something about an art dealer that makes me think of a price as more valid because it seems like an independent assessment.

    Surely this, in combination with the Medium article Oscar linked to, is key. You have farmed out your artistic taste (at least so far as putting cash on the barrel is concerned) to someone whose economic interests are not congruent with yours. This is a self-inflicted agency problem.

    Modern art, in the sense of paintings and sculpture, is not my thing. I am a cheerful troglodyte in this respect. A lot of modern art (not all, or perhaps even most, but a significant portion) strikes me as bullshit, reminiscent of the sartorial decision-making process of the cool kids in high school, and of the kids who aren’t quite so cool and desperately want to hang out with the genuinely cool kids. New music, i.e. “classical” or “art” music by living composers, is my thing. New music went through an extended bullshit phase–the good old days when the Darmstadt summer course for new music was covertly funded by the CIA. It was a weird era. These guys were writing music aimed at only a tiny audience, and indeed regarded (usually implicitly, but sometimes explicitly) a large audience as proof that a composition couldn’t be any good, dismissing it as “kitsch.” By “large audience” I don’t mean Benny Goodman or The Beatles, but rather Sibelius, or even Beethoven.

    This is mostly a thing of the past, Or rather, it is still there but nobody much cares, or even notices. What has changed is the rise of a group of composers who have discovered that having people listen to your music is not so bad after all. Philip Glass and Steve Reich were the first generation of this crowd. There are quite a lot of them now, and concert-goers no longer regard notice of a world premier as like a visit to the dentist: perhaps virtuous, but unlikely to be pleasant. And while there was a distinct pretentiousness to the dental-visit days of new music, I don’t get that sense nowadays. And really, who are you trying to impress by going to a recital?

    I think much of the difference between how music and the visual arts play out is that a painting or a sculpture are tangible objects. They can be bought and sold and put on display or placed in a climate-controlled secure warehouse. This lends the medium to rich collectors, whether motivated by a sincere love of art, a desire to impress, or financial investment. Music, being intangible, doesn’t work the same way. A rich music-lover can commission a piece, but that isn’t the same. No one knows or cares who commissioned a musical work, except possibly if the patron was named “Esterházy.” It lacks the same oomph.

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  7. “What does it say about us that we enjoy spending a weekend afternoon going to an art fair looking at art that is likely well above our price range?”

    I think the power of make-believe for adults is understated, if not ignored.

    It’s fun to play dress up, even if just for a few hours.

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  8. Saul, it seems to me that people in every stratum of society, every subculture, every group identity can and does at times, put on airs, condescend to and patronize those who “just are not our people”. Palin sought I think, with less success than she anticipated, to make a cottage industry of her special brand of it.

    I find it too bad that such behavior was so palpable at the event you attended. While it certainly is common, it’s not in my experience, inevitable. Perhaps the snooty staff you encountered judged you were an unlikely money launderer – an important part of the high end art market.

    We bought a good chunk of our art back in the day (40 or so years ago) when we it was wildly irresponsible to do so. We were living hand to mouth. Spending $1,000 (1977 $s) on a piece was a real risk. But we had a passion for it and never regretted a purchase. (Now of course I would counsel someone only to buy what they could truly afford. Buying art at other times in our life would have been disastrous.)

    But if you can afford it, put up with the snootiness if you have to (better yet find a gallery that knows how to treat people) and buy something that you respond to in a way that you can’t quite explain. You’ll spend the rest of you life trying to figure it out.

    Putting on airs starts with a person’s desire to put on airs. If you’re just trying to live your life the best you can, don’t worry about it.

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