Art and Literature

The Future of Music

May 8th, 2010  |  Published in Art and Literature, Everyday life, Political Economy

Recently The Atlantic published a piece about how “a generation of file-sharers is ruining the future of entertainment“. The piece is pretty silly, since it conflates “the future of entertainment” with “the profitability of the major entertainment corporations”, and in particular the record industry. Marc Weidenbaum has a nice explanation of how absurd that is. But even if you believe that the profitability of these companies is somehow necessary for us to have culture, the concern for their health seems to me wildly disingenuous and misplaced. Their troubles are not a function of “freeloaders” or the evils of the Internet. They are a result of greed and an unwillingness to part with an obsolete business model–an unwillingness that has been encouraged and abetted by the state and its approach to intellectual property law.

Here’s my solution for the record companies. All they need to do is offer a service that provides:

  • Unlimited downloads of a huge selection of music from both recent years and past decades…
  • In a high-quality format…
  • With absolutely no copy protection or other Digital Rights Management…
  • For no more than $5 per month.

Why do I think this might be a success? Because it already exists. The SoulSeek network is a file-sharing service that contains a huge selection–at least for the kinds of music I tend to like. And though it’s free to use, for a $5 donation you get a month of “privileges”, which essentially put you at the front of the line when downloading from other users, which makes the whole experience much faster.

I’ve given a lot of money to SoulSeek over the past couple of years–nearly $5 a month, as it turns out. And I would have happily given that money to a similar service that gave full legal access to copyrighted downloads, and passed some of that money on to the artists. But it doesn’t exist, because the record companies still believe they can force us to pay for $12 CDs and $1 iTunes song downloads. They don’t cling to that model because it’s the only one possible, but because they’re too greedy and short-sighted to try anything else.

Of course, the record companies and their apologists would immediately claim that the model I’ve described isn’t economically viable, and they could never make enough money from it to do all the good work they supposedly do to find and develop young artists. But even at $5 a month, there’s a lot of money to be made here. If unlimited downloads at a monthly rate caught on, it could come to be something like cable TV that a large percentage of households pay for as a matter of routine. I don’t think this is all that implausible: people like music almost as much as they like TV, and what I’m proposing would be an order of magnitude cheaper than cable.

According to the cable providers’ trade assocation, there are 62.1 million basic cable subscriptions in the United States. This number of online music subscriptions, at $5 per month, would bring in around $3.7 billion of revenue. In 2005, total revenue from the sale of recorded music in the U.S. was about $4.8 billion. When you consider how much cheaper digital distribution is than manufacturing and shipping physical media, the unlimited-downloads model looks pretty competitive with traditional sales.

Now, maybe this model wouldn’t catch on in the way I’ve suggested. But if people continue to prefer buying their music a la carte, there’s no reason a subscription-based service couldn’t coexist with iTunes style pay-per-download. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of incentive for the big copyright cartels to move toward the system I’ve sketched out here, because the Obama administration seems intent on using the repressive power of the state to force people into consuming media in the way the media conglomerates would prefer. Atrocities like the ACTA treaty are moving us toward a world of pervasive surveillance in which our cultural wealth is kept under lock and key for the benefit of a few wealthy copyright-holders.

In light of all this, the correct response to anyone who decries the moral perfidy of file-sharers is derisive laughter. The media companies have chosen to transition into a form of rentier capitalism that requires them to wage war on their own consumers. In that environment, it can hardly be surprising that the consumers fight back.

September 21, YDAU: Gaudeamus Igitur

September 21st, 2009  |  Published in Art and Literature

It’s been a couple of weeks  since I finished Infinite Jest, a bit ahead of schedule. Now that the Infinite Summer is officially concluded, I feel like I ought to write out some reflections on the book, after I have a bit of distance from it but before it starts to fade from my memory.

So much has been said about this book over the years, and so much has been said again on all the blogs and forums associated with the Infinite Summer project, that it’s hard to figure out a way to add much additional value. But what strikes me now about this book is something that was really catalyzed by reading it as a part of this big, virtual book group. What I find most compelling about Infinite Jest, I think, is the way it reveals the personalities and commitments of the people who read it.

Any serious novel can do that, of course, if people invest themselves seriously in it. But IJ is particularly suited to this task, for a couple of reasons. The first is the way it attempts to convey an everyday life that is recognizably ours, even if set in a hyperbolic and vaguely plausible near future: the book is about us, now, in the culture of post-modern capitalism. And because it’s such a big baggy monster, that “us” can encompass a wide range of social worlds: privileged intellectual misfits, recovering opiate addicts, political terrorists, and so on.

But the book also tends to reveal people because it is so obviously shot through with Wallace’s own passionate feelings about the way our culture revels in self-abnegation (through substances or entertainment), as well as the insights he thinks he has about how we might live better, more meaningful, more fulfilling lives. The book isn’t a parable, of course, and there’s no unambiguous moral lesson to draw from it. Yet it’s hard to escape the sense that it’s author wanted it “to make us act, and to help us live”, as Durkheim once described the purpose of religion. It’s that aspect of the work, I think, that compels people to measure it against their own moral intuitions, and to measure themselves against the book.

In sum, the book is very much a representative document of late capitalism’s Age of the Memoir: confessional, therapeutic, a bit self-absorbed, and defined by a retreat from the political, or the social, and towards the personal and the introspective. But Wallace is smart enough to recognize this retreat for what it is, and by writing fiction he escapes the memoir culture’s small-minded obsession with consistency and factuality. The result is a work of art which does far more to plumb the soul of its reader than would the work of any real-life tennis prodigy, or addict,  or Quebecois terrorist. (And lest we forget, Wallace himself was at least two of these things.)

A few examples.

Which is your favorite plot thread?

It says a lot I think, which part of the Sierpinski gasket you prefer: Hal and ETA, or Don and Ennet House, or Marathe and Steeply. To judge from the forums, Hal is the character most readers identify with, which I suppose is unsurprising. Not only is he the most fully developed character in the early parts of the story, his background (privileged) and preoccupations (intellectual, neurotic) no doubt overlap heavily with those of the book’s audience–as indeed they do with mine. But maybe that’s why I never really identified (or Identified) with Hal. He came off to me as self-involved, whiny, and above all completely unable to put his own situation in its proper context. I sort of hated him for the same reason I hate the main character in The Catcher in the Rye. In both cases, part of my revulsion is rooted, I think, in recognizing in them some unpleasant elements of my own personality.

Then there’s Don Gately. In the second half of the book, he becomes the most sympathetic character. But he is also, to me, the most intellectually challenging to the reader. Hal’s way of coping is a familiar one to the kind of educated, literary person who reads IJ: self-absorption, over-thinking, and substances. Gately, on the other hand, is Wallace’s best effort at portraying an uneducated, unintellectual person who nevertheless at least approaches being a healthy and good person. It seems at times, as though he is good because he resists self-examination–avoiding unnecessary thought being, of course, one of the cliches of AA. For a reader who is like Hal, and unlike Don, there’s no real way to completely embrace Don’s way without being either disingenuous about one’s own personality and history, or else fetishizing Don as some kind of “noble savage”. Yet we’re left with the inescapable conclusion that, if there’s any way out of the psychological traps Wallace describes, Gately is more or less it.

Then there’s the real sleeper, Marathe and Steeply. I haven’t come across anyone who says this is their favorite part of the book, and honestly it isn’t mine either. On the other hand, I did consistently find it funny and interesting, more so than the ETA sections a lot of the time. Maybe it’s because I read a lot of non-fiction and social science, so I have a high tolerance for theoretical exposition disguised as dialogue. But I also think that the writing in those segments is as richly evocative and lyrical as anything in the book, even though it’s just two guys talking to each other for hours on end. I got a kick out of simultaneously trying to picture Hugh Steeply’s absurd drag, and hear Remy Marathe’s over-the-top (and utterly non-verisimilitudinous) accent.

Wardine and yrstruly

I thought these sections were really good, and everything like that. I didn’t even find them difficult to read–once I got the hang of the dialect Wallace was going for, I could hear it in my head and the sections flowed forward quite poetically and musically.

The objections to this section seem to be of two flavors. The first, and less interesting one, comes from people who expect something different from novels than I do. Rather than an interesting challenge, they find these passages to be an affront to the reader, from an author who is more interested in making his reader work than in creating an enjoyable story. Of course, one of the major themes of the book, in my view, is that life is about much more than enjoyment, and that enjoyment can often get in the way of really living life. But that’s just what makes this reaction to these sections interesting, since others obviously didn’t interpret the book the same way I did.

The second objection stems, it seems, from a kind of political correctness, from people who find the attempt to evoke some form of African-American Vernacular English to be patronizing or offensive, a kind of minstrelsy.  This strikes me as a misreading. For one thing, there’s no reason to believe that Wallace was aiming for an accurate reproduction of any existing dialect. But more importantly, I suspect that the people accusing Wallace of being patronizing are really projecting their own prejudices about language, which I discussed in a previous post: namely, that the speech of poor people, or uneducated people, or black people, is in some “wrong” relative to the speech of people like David Foster Wallace. I also think it has to do with liberal uneasiness about race. It’s telling to me that some people apparently would have preferred Wallace to simply ignore the existence of black people, rather than trying–and maybe failing!–to represent some black people as part of his broader tableau. I didn’t see the same kind of hand-wringing about Don Gately, after all, even though Wallace’s childhood was a pretty long way away from Bimmy’s.

The Incredible Randy Lenz

For my money, Randy Lenz is by far the most interesting of the minor characters. He is totally repulsive, of course. On that absolutely everyone seems to agree. But the way people react to him can be tremendously revealing: the Infinite Summer forum thread about Lenz is a captivating display of this.

One immediate divide concerns Lenz’s animal torture: some people find it unspeakably horrible, more so than just about anything else in the book, to the point that they find themselves driven away from the book by it. Others (like me) don’t see how Lenz’s works can be worse than some of the horrible things that happen to human beings in the novel; we worry about a tendency to privilege the lives of “innocent” animals over those of less pure-seeming humans. For me, Lenz’s total and utter debasement wasn’t really driven home until the last scene he appears in, where we find him cutting off Poor Tony’s fingers in the hope of appeasing the AFR and getting another look at the Entertainment.

The other interesting thing about Lenz is the way he brings out people’s Manichaean tendencies. Most of the other characters in the books seem to provoke some level of sympathy from readers. Indeed, the way a character like Gately is written seems calculated to make you care about and root for him, despite the fact that he was directly responsible for more than one man’s death and allowed another to die because of his cowardice and addiction. But Lenz is an exception: a lot of the discussion of him takes for granted that he is some kind of pure evil, in contrast to the complex and conflicted characters that populate the rest of the book.

This, to me, is not the point of Lenz’s character at all. I see him as a necessary complement to the Gately character, a man who has to be seen as occupying the same continuum of addiction as all the other Ennet House residents. If we only had Gately, the story would be too simplistically uplifting: it doesn’t matter that your mom was a drunk who got beaten everyday, or that you’re a serious Demerol addict with no real prospects–just Take It One Day At A Time and you’ll be OK! The point of Lenz, it seems to me, is that not everyone escapes from the various personal and social traumas that lead us to destroy ourselves. Not because they are weak or evil people, but because the self-destructive force of addiction and trauma are so great. In a different way, Poor Tony is an example of this too–and I don’t think it’s an accident that he and Lenz are together in their last scene. To put it another way, it seems to me that the only way to fully sympathize with, and Identify with, Don Gately, the only way to fully appreciate the difficulty of his struggle, is to recognize that any of us could, under a certain set of circumstances, be pulled as low as Randy Lenz.

Infinite Jest isn’t the best book I’ve ever read, but it is one that will stay with me. I was going to write that I found it more emotionally affecting than other things I’ve read lately, but that isn’t quite right. What it is, is emotionally challenging. That’s what really makes it a different kind of “big book” from, say, Gravity’s Rainbow or Ulysses, which are primarily intellectual challenges.  This is a book that really made it hard to maintain a pose of emotional detachment or ironic distance–which, in these times, is a real achievement.

Trans-Europe Express

September 21st, 2009  |  Published in Art and Literature, Work

Compare and contrast:

“Work is where they find their real fulfilment–running an investment bank , designing an airport, bringing on stream a new family of antibiotics. If their work is satisfying people don’t need leisure in the old-fashioned sense. No one ever asks what Newton or Darwin did to relax, or how Bach spent his weekends. At Eden-Olympia work is the ultimate play, and play the ultimate work.”  –J.G. Ballard, Super-Cannes

“Old premise: work sucks, and after decades of toil, one has “earned the right” to get paid to do nothing. New premise: work is self-defined, self-led and empowering. Small-scale and global-reach entrepreneurship is a reality and this will make work a joy rather than a painful necessity.” -Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, The American Scene

The libertarian right assures us that the preceding is a description of utopia.

This message intellectually sponsored by the Work Less Party.

The Game Beyond the Game

September 10th, 2009  |  Published in Art and Literature, Cities, Politics, Social Science, Sociology

The new issue of City and Community has an article by Peter Dreier and John Atlas about a show that captivates many an urban sociologist, The Wire. Their piece extends comments they made last year in Dissent, in a symposium about the show. In both pieces, they repeat the common accusation that the show is nihilistic, because it presents urban problems but doesn’t show any solutions to them. To bolster the point, they dredge up a quotation from an interview, in which Simon proclaims that meaningful change is impossible “within the current political structure”.

As a corrective to what they see as The Wire‘s shortcomings, Dreier and Atlas catalogue some of the real community activists who have struggled against injustice in Baltimore, and won some small victories. And these are indeed inspiring and courageous people, who have managed to win some real improvements in people’s lives. But by bringing them up and presenting them as the solution to all the problems The Wire portrays, I think Dreier and Atlas miss the point of what David Simon and Ed Burns are doing with the show.

It’s misleading to say that The Wire is nihilistic. It’s true that the problems it portrays appear, within the context of the narrative, to be insoluble. And it may even seem, initially, as though the show is sympathetic to a conservative position: the poor will always be with us, government intervention always makes things worse, so we might as well just give up and try to make things better in our own small, individualist way. But this would be a profound misreading, because the show suggests, not that there are no solutions, but something far more complex. We come to understand, as the seasons unfold, that each of the dysfunctional institutions we see is embedded in a larger system that goes far beyond the scale of Baltimore. There is, as Stringer Bell puts it in season 3, “a game beyond the game”. We therefore have to conclude, not that there are no solutions, but that there may be no solutions at the scale of a single city.

The police find themselves hamstrung by their need to deal with national agencies like the FBI, which has been caught up in the mania of the “war on terror”. The dockworkers find their way of life destroyed by the automation and the transformation of the global shipping industry. The mayor is at the mercy of Maryland state politics because he needs funding. The local newspaper struggles, and fails, to adjust to a world of profit-driven news and competition from new media. Even the drug dealers are at the mercy of their out-of-town “connect”.

None of this implies that Baltimore’s doom is inevitable. Neither imperialism, nor neoliberalism, nor Republican domination of state politics, nor the tabloidization of all journalism are inevitable. If they seem that way on the show, it is because of the careful and clever way in which the story is framed: these larger-scale institutions, the ones where the real agency lies, are always kept off screen and held beyond the reach of the characters. Thus the world the characters inhabit appears to them to be one where nothing can be changed. That doesn’t mean that the world of the show, that we viewers can sense, is actually so tragic.

But is true that none of these problems can be solved in a single city, and most of them require a long-term, and fairly radical project of social transformation. This may present difficulties for liberals who would prefer that social problems have incremental, non-threatening solutions. But by presenting small-scale local activism as an adequate response, Dreier and Atlas do a disservice both to the problems they address, and to the activists themselves.

Perhaps, however, their real political objective is somewhat different from simply promoting the importance of urban collective action. The giveaway comes at the end of the City and Community version of their essay:

Perhaps, a year or two from now, Simon or another writer will propose a new series to TV networks about the inner workings of the White House and an idealistic young president, a former community organizer, who uses his bully pulpit to mobilize the American people around their better instincts. This president would challenge the influence of big business and its political allies, to build a movement, a New Deal for the 21st century, to revitalize an economy brought to its knees by Wall Street greed, address the nation’s health care and environmental problems, provide adequate funding for inner-city schools, reduce poverty and homelessness, and strengthen the power of unions and community groups.

A show like that would certainly be a nice bit of wish-fulfilment for liberals who like to imagine a “great man” riding in and fulfilling all their fantasies. But it’s unclear what has to do with our world, in which an ambitious young politician used his charisma and the wishful thinking of his base to ride to power, and then proceeded to cater to the needs of bankers and insurance companies while sinking America ever deeper into an intractable war in Afghanistan. Faced with that reality, the world of The Wire doesn’t look so nihilistic or unrealistic after all.

Never been in a (language) riot

September 7th, 2009  |  Published in Art and Literature, Social Science

I just got through a summer-long reading of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which has consequently invaded all my waking thoughts. Among the conceits of the book is that a character, one Avril Incandenza, is fanatical about proper grammatical usage to the point of helping to incite the “M.I.T. language riots” at some point in the early 21st century.

As an undergraduate, I studied linguistics, so I was unbelievably tickled by Avril’s character. There are even references to Montague grammar, the logical formalisms and lambda-calculus of which I remember well, and whose descendants took up an unhealthy amount of my collegiate time.

But the funniest thing about Avril’s character is how exactly contrary she is to everything I know about really existing American academic linguistics. This, after all, is a woman who does things like  replacing commas with semicolons on public signage and correcting “they” to “he or she” in her son’s speech. Yet the one thing that has stuck with me from my linguistic education is the idea that these kinds of rules are totally meaningless and stupid.

We used to talk about prescriptive and descriptive linguistics. (Wallace was no doubt aware of this, as he had Avril be a member of the “prescriptive grammarians of Massachusetts.) Prescriptive grammar meant telling people how they were supposed to use language, like your elementary school teacher telling you not to say “ain’t” or warning you against ending sentences with prepositions. Descriptive grammar, by contrast, was what real scientific linguists did. Its premise was that whatever people actually said was the real language, and it was our job to document that. All of the prescriptive rules were just superstitions or attempts by privileged social strata to make their way of speaking seem more “correct” than that of the less advantaged.

Now that I’ve slid over into a new career as a social scientist, I find that I’m all the more committed to this prescriptivist dogma, and I newly appreciate its sociological sophistication. All too many social scientists, who are otherwise eager to acknowledge the role of social construction and power relations in making our social world, nevertheless accept the reality and the usefulness of grammatical rules. Whereas even the most apolitical of the linguists I have known would dismiss such rules in an instant as irrational prescriptivism.

But it turns out that what I see as the only sensible way of understanding language is still very much a minority view.  And this always surprises me. It’s not that I’m unaccustomed to holding unpopular views; I am after all, a socialist. But somehow the language issue seems like it should be more common-sense, less divisive. And then I read something like this, from an otherwise excellent Infinite Jest-related blog:

My argument is that as long as we agree that there are standards of grammar and spelling that we should aspire to (and most of us do agree), deviations will be seen as ignorance and possibly reflect poorly on the intelligence and abilities of the writer and therefore should be corrected. Since when is pointing out people’s mistakes the same as telling them you think they are second-class human beings?

Well, as regards the parenthetical assumption: I do not agree! And I find it slightly appalling that others do agree. It’s not even that, in practice, I disagree with this author’s advice. I can understand advocating prescriptive grammar in the same way that one would advocate, say, wearing a tie to a job interview: it may not make sense, it may not have anything to do with anything, but it’s what people expect and sometimes it’s best to just go with the flow and accede to the demands of the social structure.  The “will be seen as” in the sentence above suggests that kind of argument. But I get the sense that this is not how prescriptive grammarians feel, even smart and educated ones. They think that obeying pointless grammar rules really is somehow indicative of one’s intelligence or self-discipline or whatever.

What a waste. Not only does prescriptive grammar reinforce class hierarchies, it cuts educated and affluent people off from the richness, dynamism, and power of everyday American language.  Even if there weren’t all the other objections I’ve already adduced, there’d be this: in traditional upper-class white American English, there is no word for wack.

Art as Art, Anti-Art, Post-Art

June 30th, 2008  |  Published in Art and Literature

The Museum of Modern Art’s survey of the work of Olafur Eliasson was fittingly titled Take Your Time. The best of his installations seem unremarkable at first, and only reveal their depth to those viewers who linger and contemplate them beyond the point when the casual museum-goer has walked away. (Whereas the lesser works pique an immediate interest that is quickly sated.) In Wall eclipse, a light shines onto a rotating mirror, casting shadows and deflected light onto the walls. The complete rotation takes several minutes, and only then does its nature become fully apparent: a cube rotates in a virtual space, black on one side and luminous on the other; at a certain moment, the shadow face blots out an entire wall.

In the gallery above Eliasson there is, by happenstance, a small exhibition of a few works by Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko. Only five Reinhardt paintings are represented; of these, only two are really memorable. And yet the show confirms Reinhardt’s overlooked importance, for these are two of the most important paintings of the twentieth century. They are among the famous “black paintings”, compositions of nearly featureless canvasses made up of either solid black or rectangles of nearly indistinguishable near-blacks. They are thrilling to see up close. Moreover, they mark the moment which Reinhardt lived through and memorialized and that, in retrospect, appears as a critical turning point in the history of culture: the end of art.

This not to say the end of the aesthetic, or of painting, or of beauty. Rather, it is the end of a specific historical configuration that corresponds to the capitalism of the nineteenth and twentieth century. What has ended is the work of art as an autonomous, detached, and potentially transcendent thing. Art as replacement for God, as beyond politics and everyday life. Eliasson, for example, is not an artist in this sense. His environments are immersive, and yet it is precisely this quality that prevents them from existing as autonomous art objects. He enhances and colors the environment rather than creating something that stands outside of it.

Eliasson’s work also fits comfortably within the parameters of contemporary consumer culture. To speak of co-opting or assimilating his work to capital would be redundant: his identity with the needs and prerequisites of commodity production is absolute. The installations are prototypes for the environmental modifications soon to appear in forward thinking cocktail lounges and waterfront condominiums. Works like I only see things when they move, with its kaleidoscope of colors marching across the walls, or Negative quasi brick wall‘s undulating and glittering interiors, are captivating but ultimately empty. Ignorable background visuals, they become part of the stylish ambience of life in the new professional managerial class. Although perhaps Eliasson’s trajectory is better illustrated by another of his projects in New York City: a series of artificial waterfalls, constructed with the blessings of mayor Michael Bloomberg, which will line the East River through the summer of 2008. If Bloomberg is a CEO mayor who has sought to remake the entrepreneurial city into New York, Inc., then Eliasson is just the man to commission for the atrium at corporate headquarters: a spectacle for the masse; a promethean engineering achievement to underscore the organization’s power; a pleasant image devoid of subversive or critical content. The roar of the waterfalls cannot mask the sound of real estate capital, valorizing itself.

Faced with the decay of art into commerce, it is tempting to demand something more of Eliasson. But what exactly? Ad Reinhardt’s example shows the difficulty of demanding more. He reacted directly to the tendencies that would culminate in an artist like Eliasson, which first burst into view in the 1960’s. Then, they were radical and disruptive, advanced with the fervor of those who would break down the stale dogmas of high art. First came the anti-artists: Dada, Fluxus, Situationism. Using parodic forms and recycled cultural fragments, they ridiculed and devalued the heroic pretentions of art, its delusions of autonomy and integrity. Perhaps this is what Reinhardt means when he explains the concept underpinning the black paintings: “a pure, abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless relationless, disinterested painting — an object that is self-conscious no unconsciousness' ideal, transcendent, aware of no thing but artabsolutely no anti-art’.” He crafts objects that are built to resist the irreverent bricolage of the anti-artists.

In the long run, however, the real threat to art was posed from another side, by the post-art movements that tended to dissolve high art into low, and thereby assimilate it to the logic of commodity production and the culture industry. The Lenin of these revolutionaries, and the key figure in the movement to annihilate art, was Andy Warhol. He announced with characteristic bravado that “making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art”, and at a stroke he turned the existential anguish of his forbears into a pile of nonsensical false problems, while at the same time re-unifying the imperative of art with the reigning business ethics of capitalist society. No doubt the hedge fund kingpins, surrounded by the abstract expressionist masterpieces hanging in their lobbies, smile serenely to themselves when they contemplate Warhol’s prophecy.

Reinhardt’s paintings can be seen as an attempt to resist and defy this onrushing order, a last stand in defense of art. Which is not to say that they are anti-capitalist, or political at all in any intelligible way. They are opposed to any subsumption of art beneath a larger social project, whether that of capital or that of the left. For the power of these paintings comes, first of all, from their implacable anonymity, the lack of texture and character that Reinhardt speaks of. They refuse to be anything other than themselves, to have any meaning other than the brute fact of their existence. But more important even than this, the paintings maintain their power because they are essentially resistant to reproduction. They are destroyed by any attempt at a copy: on a postcard or a print, they become meaningless black squares. In their physical presence, however, the blackness takes on depth and richness, demanding the viewer’s attention and producing a flickering illusion of shapes and textures. You must go to these paintings, for they cannot come to you. They are singular objects, and cannot be wrenched out of their hiding places and put to use for the polemical or commercial purposes of others.

Reinhardt has this in common with Eliasson: his work, too, demands prolonged engagement and attention before its meaning becomes apparent. But where Eliasson aims only to provoke a pleasant sense of wonder, Reinhardt’s black paintings are full of dread and foreboding. Eliasson’s Beauty, an indoor rainbow produced by a waterfall in a darkened room, invites introspection and contemplation much as Reinhardt’s black rectangles do. But the repose its shimmer invites is one that is shorn of all the disturbing and challenging elements of the black paintings; it turns us into regional vice-presidents, doing a bit of meditation and Buddhist chanting at the end of a long day’s work. Reinhardt poses a challenge of an altogether different order, and his paintings unnerve rather than reassure. As objects that can be neither interpreted nor reproduced, they envelop the viewer in a private space without indulging in the illusion that there can be anywhere safe from the relentless march of capital accumulation in the world outside. If the ultimate effect is a sort of nihilist oblivion—if, that is, they ultimately amount to the expression of a kind of living death—then this feels like a depressing but honest settling of accounts with the world in which the paintings exist.

It seems that Reinhardt meant his black paintings to be ramparts, from which to defend what he called art as art'', timeless andpost-historic”. The paintings are not a response or a reaction to anti- and post-art so much as they are an active assault on them, an attempt to dispel their malign force. An artist-as-artist / Has always nothing to say, / And he must say this over and over again.'' ForA fine artist by definition is not a commercial / or industrial or fashion / or applied or useful artist.” And yet the polemics and pranks of the anti-artists were no alternative; “A fine artist has nothing to use, / has no need for any meaning, / and would not use himself or his work for anything.” Only a posture of immoderate refusal, he thought, could overcome the vulgarizing and cheapening forces then being brought to bear on art.

Inasmuch as he produced something that could not be assimilated or re-appropriated by the Warholians and anti-artists, Reinhardt succeeded. And yet the edifice he constructed became, in the end, a tombstone. For Reinhardt could always be ignored. To refuse spectacle, to refuse image, to refuse reproduction: this is, in our times, to remain silent. And he has been silent; his ambitions, if they are remembered at all, are viewed as a curious memento of a time when artists still believed in the world-shaping power of their works. If we let Reinhardt speak in his own words, the ludicrous arrogance of his ambitions only confirms that he bears the message of some social force that was long ago defeated and beaten into submission.

Yet we shut out his voice at the peril of falling into the errors he had already forseen. At MOMA, his paintings stand next to those of Rothko, still celebrated—and who, like Eliasson, was fascinated by light and color, but who still believed in the possibility of transcendent expression in art. After the reproach of Reinhardt’s absolute negation of art, Rothko’s paintings, for all their beauty, seem quaint and naive. And today, anyone who does painting'' in the old way is engaged in a basically fraudulent enterprise, aping a dead style in order to lubricate the circuits of accumulation in a hypertrophied art market. To take refuge in the aesthetic is to prop up an ideology of beauty which, as Fredric Jameson says, can today only be meretricious. And yet a turn to thepolitical” is equally implausible, in the absence of any movement in the deeper layers of society as a whole. Witness, for example, the stale nostalgia politics of the warmed-over “peace tower” at the 2006 Whitney biennial—along with the  pathetic intervention of Richard Serra, whose agitprop drawing of an Abu Ghraib prisoner only underscored the art world’s isolation from the realities of war and state terror.

All of this leaves the artist with little room to maneuver, and in this context Eliasson’s limitations can be viewed more sympathetically. And within those limits, his work is not empty of value. He is, above all, a craftsman who uses light itself as a medium with unequalled facility. The entryway to his exhibition is bathed in a harsh, narrow yellow light; the effect of Room for one colour is to render the entire space monochromatic. The tour de force of the show, however, is 360′ room for all colours, a circular room whose blank walls gradually change colors. The piece harnesses the ability of light to shape perceptions and emotions, even as it successfully abstracts light itself, independent of the things it illuminates, as a compositional element. The visitor experiences one mood after another: daybreak; an overcast fall day; the underwater light of an aquarium; the crumbling of sunlight into dusk; the harsh neon of the nightclub. At the auxiliary exhibition at P.S. 1, another piece makes a more focused use of the same technique: The natural light setup uses a light box on the ceiling to immerse the visitor in a sequence of permutations of daylight, each evoking a different emotional state.

In his guise as a phenomenologist of the science of light, Eliasson is perhaps best compared to artists like Albers or Moholy-Nagy, whose abstract and schematic images crossed the line between art and design. Like a typographer or a graphic artist, Eliasson is a technician of everyday life, deconstructing the elements of our surroundings in order to effectively cajole or manipulate an audience. Such skills are adaptable to the advertising agency just as much as the gallery floor. But if he gives no reason to doubt that art as art ceased to exist after Reinhardt, Eliasson’s work does suggest that the new art-as-corporate-handmaiden is not without its real pleasures and joys.

At P.S. 1, there is one other juxtaposition that, as with Reinhardt, illuminates Eliasson’s position. On a stairway leading up to his galleries, Markus Copper’s Kursk occupies a darkened room. Inside, there is barely room to navigate along the walls. The center of the room is taken up with a set of diving suits hung from the ceiling, facing away from the viewer toward a wall. The suits move erratically; lights come on and off from inside their helmets; a hissing sound fills the room; the suits all appear to be looking toward something the viewer cannot see, and periodically there is a loud clanking sound. The effect is disturbing and sometimes terrifying; visitors often exit with distraught expressions. The contrast with Eliasson’s lighthearted and non-threatening confections could not be more stark. And yet Copper’s work would not be recognizable to Ad Reinhardt as Art, any more than Eliasson’s. The purpose of such a brutal display is to provoke unease about the entire museum experience; it reminds us that life is elsewhere, and that it is disturbing.

All of these artists are symptoms of something: the death of the utopian impulse in contemporary culture. Some of this, perhaps, is due to the loss of art’s debunking or defamiliarizing function, its mission to lay bare the truth about our cherished national ideologies. Such work is now superfluous for, as Jameson remarks, the project of actively deluding the masses is redundant. the mass of people . . . do not themselves have to believe in any hegemonic ideology of the system, but only to be convinced of its permanence". The artists, it seems, are equally convinced. They find themselves caught between the comfortable life of beautifying capitalism, and the unrewarding calling of denouncing one's own career and one's audience, attempting to break the spell of art by repulsing the viewer and forcing them out into the world. Ultimately, neither is a solution to anything. Art, as also politics, must come to recognizea better world in birth”, to identify and evangelize for those elements of our present life that point toward some entirely different, better future. Failing that, we are left with Eliasson’s inconsequential lights, and Reinhardt’s terrible darkness.