Much of early twentieth-century art in the West was commentary on the massive technological developments of the late 19th century. Where, 100 years later, is the comparable twenty-first-century artistic response to the technological developments of the late 20th century?
American artists a few generations ago, especially painters and photographers, portrayed the massive structures, machined objects, and rationalized, sharp edges of the industrial world. (They were, of course, responding to other things, as well, such as new techniques and European challengers like Picasso.) Many took the rapidly growing cities, New York most of all, as emblematic of the coming future, so urban scenes often serve to represent the modern, mechanical world. What in art is similar today?
Warning to readers: Follow this post at your own risk; I am not an art historian. But, heck, it’s my personal blog. (BTW, I use illustrations here from stamps, so as, hopefully, not to infringe reproduction rights.)
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Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged art, cities, modernism |
Public housing in the United States has never sheltered a significant proportion of Americans, perhaps three percent at most, unlike in many western European countries where 10 to 40 percent of households, at various income levels, live in state-constructed buildings. But public housing has been a significant part of the debate over American government safety net programs, a significant factor in the history of large American cities over the last 50 years, and cruel disillusionment for social reformers (and many sociologists).
American public housing projects started in the New Deal, accelerated after the war, and then largely stopped in the 1970s, when they were widely described as abject failures. This verdict was hammered home by the well-publicized demolition in 1972 of the Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis. Federal support for housing since, skimpy as it is, has largely been in the form of “Section 8” vouchers and dispersed, low-density, mixed housing. The actual number of public housing units has shrunk in recent decades.
A new study in the Journal of Economic History, by Katharine L. Shester, fleshes out our understanding of what went wrong in this great social experiment. In some ways, large-scale public housing was doomed from the start; in other ways, perhaps different critical decisions could have made it work.
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Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged government, planning, public housing |
Many observers have been struck by how quickly public opinion has shifted on homosexuality in the United States. A quarter-century ago, about 12 percent of Americans agreed that “homosexual couples should have the right to marry one another.” And only a decade ago, Americans opposed gay marriage by healthy 20-25 point margin. Now, most Americans support it. Politically, what was once an easy winning issue for the GOP is increasingly becoming a drag on the party’s candidates.
The pattern of change on the wider question of homosexuality has also been striking. In the mid-1970s, about 70 percent of Americans told pollsters that “sexual relations between two adults of the same sex” were “always wrong.” In the 2010s only 46 percent did. Note this, however: Americans’ views of homosexuality changed little for the first half of those years; indeed the percent who damned gay relations grew a bit. Then, in the 1990s, expressions of tolerance skyrocketed.
We see roughly a similar pattern of change in public opinion about other major issues: In most cases, a clear consensus holds for a long time. When opinions start to change, the change takes up increasing speed toward a much more even division. That is when the topic becomes socially and politically divisive. A majority forms around a new consensus and the pace of change slows again as the most committed supporters of the old view reluctantly come around; some never do. Researchers call this pattern the S-curve or, more properly, the sigmoid. Some readers will recognize this as the standard description for the diffusion of innovations. In this post, I discuss a few examples of the process and the implications it has for understanding social change. (This post draws from Century of Difference, Ch. 9, and here).
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged change, gay, opinion |
In a Christmas Day review, film critic A.O. Scott wondered what “future archaeologists, digging through the digital and physical rubble of our long-gone civilization in search of reasons for its collapse,” would make of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the new Scorcese-DiCaprio “bacchanal of sex, drugs and conspicuous consumption.” Is the film a “diagnosis” of our pathology or ”an especially florid” example of it?
Trying to understand what a work of art tells us about its times is a task not only of art critics, but also of historical scholars. If a historian a century or two from now examined the cultural artifacts of the last several years – say, Beyonce’s latest release, a Twilight Saga movie, a pulp thriller about a serial killer, performance art in museums, reruns of Friends, a major Broadway production, or “Wolf” – how well could he or she describe the lives of average Americans today?
We can ask a similar question looking from our own time back to the 19th or 18th century. While a future historian will have all sorts of “hard” data about our era – business transactions, traffic records, news databases, government statistics, polls on what Americans think, maybe even NSA files, etc. – little material like that is available to describe Americans’ experiences before about the 1920s or so. We do, however, have a lot of art from long ago: songs, paintings, and particularly fiction. What can art tell us about life in an earlier America and about people’s thoughts and feelings in those times? Continue Reading »
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged art, culture, fiction |
A political solicitation from the Democrats that I just got reads, “We have to do everything we can to make sure that [the] opportunity to pursue the American dream is still possible today.” The 2012 Republican platform highlighted its program for “Restoring the American Dream.” “The American Dream” seems often under threat and just out of grasp.
(Those three words, by the way, emerged as a catchphrase only in the 1930s. Now, the Library of Congress lists 900 book titles using it, the first published in 1934, Religion and the American Dream, and the last, scheduled for 2014, Between Islam and the American Dream.)
Mark Rank, Thomas A. Hirschl, and Kirk A. Foster have a book coming out next spring, Chasing the American Dream: Understanding What Shapes Our Fortunes, which helps clarify what average Americans hear when they hear the words, “The American Dream.” The book also helps clarify why so many Americans feel that the dream is drifting out of reach. Whether Americans attain that dream, Rank and colleagues say, is increasingly subject to — borrowing from Bob Dylan – a “simple twist of fate.” And finally, the forthcoming book may also help clarify why Americans are not politically mobilized to save that Dream.
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Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged American Dream, insecurity, poverty |
As we approach the “Season of Giving,” when Americans are particularly inclined by the Christmas spirit – and also by the looming deadline for tax-deductible contributions – to share with the needy, we again consider the American way of helping the poor. This time last year, I noted some of the peculiarities of the American way of private charity: how arbitrary it can be, how dependent on the tastes of individual givers, how much it is a matter of noblesse oblige rather than human rights. A post a couple of years before that pointed out that government care for the unfortunate has been grudging and judgmental going back to colonial times, although it became more expansive over the generations. Here, I focus on Americans’ distinctive principle that needy recipients must be deserving of help, on our disdain for The Undeserving Poor (the title of Michael Katz’s important historical study.)
The impetus for this post is the dust-up, at least in the liberal blogosphere (e.g. here), around a comment by Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) on food stamps. When challenged on Facebook by a constituent to defend the Christian morality of his vote for cutting the program, Cramer’s posted reply was to cite 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” Cramer also asked, “When did America become a country where working for benefits is no longer noble?” Whatever the substantive concerns around the food stamp program (e.g., here) and whatever the facts about recipients working – by far most of the able do indeed work – a question arises: Why do we care if they work?
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Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged food stamps, poverty, self-reliance |