Sunday, March 23, 2008

Can't anybody here play this game?

One of the moves outside academia I've been considering recently involves training to be a certified financial adviser. I've enjoyed modest success handling my family's investments until the recent market downturn. But that downturn gives me pause. The collapse of the credit market has been overseen by some really smart people who, it turns out, weren't smart enough. I'm not certain this is the sandbox I want to play in.

From the New York Times today:

“…ONE of the fastest-growing and most lucrative businesses on Wall Street in the past decade has been in derivatives — a sector that boomed after the near collapse of Long-Term Capital.

It is a stealth market that relies on trades conducted by phone between Wall Street dealer desks, away from open securities exchanges. How much changes hands or who holds what is ultimately unknown to analysts, investors and regulators.

Credit rating agencies, which banks paid to grade some of the new products, slapped high ratings on many of them, despite having only a loose familiarity with the quality of the assets behind these instruments.

Even the people running Wall Street firms didn’t really understand what they were buying and selling, says Byron Wien, a 40-year veteran of the stock market who is now the chief investment strategist of Pequot Capital, a hedge fund.

“These are ordinary folks who know a spreadsheet, but they are not steeped in the sophistication of these kind of models,” Mr. Wien says. “You put a lot of equations in front of them with little Greek letters on their sides, and they won’t know what they’re looking at.”

…Mr. Blinder, the former Fed vice chairman, holds a doctorate in economics from M.I.T. but says he has only a “modest understanding” of complex derivatives. “I know the basic understanding of how they work,” he said, “but if you presented me with one and asked me to put a market value on it, I’d be guessing.”

…In the meantime, analysts say, a broader reconsideration of derivatives and the shadow banking system is also in order. “Not all innovation is good,” says Mr. Whalen of Institutional Risk Analytics. “If it is too complicated for most of us to understand in 10 to 15 minutes, then we probably shouldn’t be doing it.”

Can't anybody here play this game?

Maybe I could get a job as a cook.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Students of History

In the spring of 2003, I was teaching a 2-D design class in Dallas. The noise from the Bush war machine was at its highest as the administration worked us and itself up to the level of madness necessary for a preemptive attack on Saddam’s Iraq. A few days before the first air strikes on Baghdad, one of my students asked me for permission to miss class so she could participate in an anti-war rally that evening. I have a strict attendance policy in my studio classes, but I also missed a lot of classes myself in the spring of 1970 (unbelievably na├»ve!) walking door to door asking for signatures on a petition to end the war in Vietnam.

Sure, kid, rally and demonstrate against this stupid idea.

Next week she was back in class, defeated. The war was on. She’d raised her voice in earnest and she’d had no effect. None. I’ve lost many political contests, but it was her first. I tried to console her, but my words sounded empty even to me. Somehow “you let them know what you think” doesn’t really work in the face of smart bombs and cruise missiles.

The previous fall, a student in my painting class told me he was leaving college at the end of the term. He planned to enlist in the army.

“Why? “

“It just seems like the right thing to do at this time in my life.”

It was an honorable decision, one that he’d arrived at reasonably. He would do his duty. His country needed him, and we answered the call like thousands before him. I never saw him again. I hope he’s alright. He was a good painter.

Last night, I saw part of a documentary about a young man horribly wounded in this idiotic war, and the sense of responsibility overwhelmed me. How could I have let this thing happen? How could any of us have let this thing happen? Was it inconvenient to stop the idiocy? Was it somehow a threat to our careers or our comfort? We have shirked our duty as Americans, and our debts to patriotic, idealistic young Americans like those students are beyond repayment.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

I'm here because of Ashley

I'm here because of Ashley.

It was an example of what J. L. Austin called doing things with words -- getting things done with words can mean something beyond mere speechifying. Sometimes talking is action.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Crushing news. I'll not be working in the fall. I didn't get the job.

"What must we do?" asked Billy Kwan, quoting Tolstoy (who in turn was quoting the Gospel) in Peter Weir’s film “The Year of Living Dangerously.”

John Dewey writes in Art as Experience that an injured organism may retreat into itself, may accept defeat and withdraw from external contact. I imagine a snail curling inside his shell. But Dewey saw another course: the creature may react to irritation by expanding into new territory. What he apparently means is a life-affirming adaptation, not merely lashing out but creative engagement with the world. This is the rhythm of the aesthetic experience couched in terms of an animal’s interacting with an environment which both nourishes and injures. He describes an alternation of undergoing and doing – suffering and acting.

Today, I’m rather like a snail.

One should never wallow in self pity. While preparing to write a review of a folk art exhibit some years back, I came upon an interview with the Mississippi Delta bluesman Son Thomas. Thomas was never a great financial success. Several versions of the story I remember from that interview are out there, but the version I recall was that his family was so poor when he was a kid they sent him to live with his uncle, a one-armed grave digger. They'd sit on the porch from time to time, broke, no groceries in the pantry, no work. "Don't fret, Son," his uncle would say. "The Lord will provide."

A desperately impoverished, African American, one-armed grave digger in Leland, MS before the Civil Rights era -- that's a man with trouble. I'm just looking at a lot more free time come the end of August.

Even if I do feel like a snail right now.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Dog and Pony

One of the jobs an artist must perform from time to time involves lecturing about his/her artwork to fellow artists and persons with widely varying degrees of interest in the topic. That's what I did yesterday, and the job was hard. Wore me out, in fact.

The lecture was an attempt to use an early 19th century entrepreneur (name of Zadok Cramer), who each year between about 1803 and 1814 published a book called The Navigator, as a foil for writing about art and making paintings which incorporate snatches of text from critical writing I've done. Cramer's book provided maps, directions, advice, and a host of references to the political and economic ideology of his time to people in Pittsburgh, PA who wanted to get their produce (often whiskey) to New Orleans and from there to the great markets of the world. Here's one of his maps showing a stretch of the Ohio from Cincinnati to Louisville.

Between each map (they were woodcuts) Cramer provided descriptions of islands in the river, the locations of the various navigable channels, descriptions of the scenery, the location of farms where the reader could buy a good meal. He also opined about working hard and improving nature's gifts so that a man could enjoy the fruits of his labor and retire wealthy in a world he'd made better by clearing forests to plant crops.

I wanted to compare what he'd done to writing about art exhibitions for a readership which likely never sees the original exhibition. There are certain parallels, and the plot thickens when the fact that Cramer made his maps not from first-hand observation but from interviews with men who'd made the trip. The only time he went down the river was just before his death from tuberculosis. He was trying to get to a healthier climate.

Along the way, the lecture noted that Kandinsky's defense of abstraction made its case by asserting that his new paintings made visible what was invisible, like maps. (At the birth of abstraction, the concept of representation was conjured to its defense) That maps are indexical signs. That Umberto Eco wrote that signs are what we use in order to tell a lie, because they have the ability to refer to what is distant in time and space, making a lie more difficult to catch. That the inevitable rightness of westward expansion espoused by Cramer constituted a myth in the sense that Roland Barthes used that term.

And that I can't tell what myths I unknowingly incorporate into my work as a critic and as a painter. Seeing Cramer's mythologizing is a simple thing 200 years after it was published. And dismissing him as just wrong about what was to become of the Ohio Valley would only be bad faith. Or at least an egotistical sophomoric exercise. Honesty requires that I admit there are errors in what I write that I can't see because I am too close to detect the lies. The evidence is over the horizon.

The editing process gives one a hint, I suppose. It opens the internal dialog of the writer to the scrutiny of another. I used to fight with editors, but I've calmed down in recent years. And I've begun to use the editorial process as a seed for paintings. Once I wrote the phrase "painting is always," and it came back from an editor in New York canceled by a line through it. After some photocopying and digital printing and stenciling with map fragments, the erased, but still legible phrase became a painting that looked like this:

Monday, March 3, 2008

Political Robots

For the first time in my life, my vote in the Democratic presidential primary here in Texas means something. I'm going to help decide the nominee. It's a good feeling.

But everybody knows it, not just me. And the robots have been calling at quite a clip to solicit my vote. They vary in their degree of automation. Some are robot-assists to mammalian contact with actual persons participating after the robot dials my number and screens it for answering machines, busy signals, and bad connections. Some are robot polls like the Republican one last night that asked me if I had a favorable opinion of George W. Bush (no), Sen. John Cornyn (no), Gov. Rick Perry (nope and no again). I then asked me if I was a codger (yes) and thanked me for my time. Okay, it actually was interested about my age. Some sort of demographic thing that identified me as a rare bird: white male, over fifty, Texan, and anti-Bush.

More often the robots are shills for actual mammals. Barack Obama called last week to pass the time and opine about what is in my best interests when I vote tomorrow. Gen. Wesley Clark called on Saturday offering to help me decide to vote for Sen. Clinton and make him happy for my wise choice. Hillary Clinton herself just left a message on my answering machine explaining why a vote for her was a vote for...something good, but I forget. In each case, the calls were simply canned recordings pumped into my house by speed dialing digitized gadgets.


But -- oh, wonderful thing! -- just now a fresh, energetic and distinctly chilled young man rang my doorbell. He wanted me to vote for Obama. A brisk mammalian conversation ensued. I told him he had my vote. He reminded me about the caucus in the county seat after the polls close tomorrow. I let him know I was planning to attend.

It makes me wonder what market analyses exist that justify all those robots that keep calling.