Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Later Matisse

I've been reading the second volume of Hilary Spurling's biography of Henri Matisse: Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954. I enjoyed the first one last year.

It is a good read. It is naturally a very different story to the first one, which is in essence about his struggles to get established and the initial fauvist radical break with the past. The first book is a bildungsroman about finding one's place in the world. This volume in contrast shows an established artist, dealing with collectors and coping with family problems, travelling to Morocco and Moscow and Tahiti, and contributing to exhibitions.

The most striking thing is not the discussion of his evolution as an artist. That is perhaps submerged beneath too much quotidian detail about his trips to Tangier, garden at Issy or apartments in Nice. For deeper insight into his art, I think I will have to return to Pierre Schneider's massive Matisse and finish it.

Instead, the beating center of this book is the human drama of the impact of both world wars on his life. He had to flee from a deserted Paris in the First World War, his mother and other family trapped in Bohain behind enemy lines. He expected an Italian fascist seizure of Nice in the Second World War. His daughter Marguerite was tortured by the Nazis and narrowly escaped with her life. Sometimes it is easier to understand large events by their smaller impacts.

What is also clear is that Matisse's obsessive dedication to "true painting" caused endless strife for himself and his family. He might have led a successful life, with immense fame and a lasting legacy. He had a happy marriage for forty years, which was much envied by other painters. He led an orderly bourgeois existence in terms of work habits, rather than sinking into dissipation or poverty.

But so much of his life was filled with sleeplessness and anxiety and enormous agonizing over his work. Great talent sometimes comes with great flaws and great pain. The Parisian critics dismissed him as a outdated painter of saccharine odalisques from the 1920s on, and some of his most important work was hidden in the USSR for decades. The late work, including the famous cut-outs , took time to be appreciated. The French state mostly ignored his work, and he did not receive large decorative commissions as he hoped after the famous Barnes murals.


I am also still a little puzzled by his split with his wife Amelie late in life. Amelie grew increasingly resentful of his reliance on model Lydia Delectorskaya. Spurling insists Matisse was never sexually involved with his models. And certainly working for him gave a purpose to the exiled Russian. But something doesn't ring true here.

Still, now is the time to see the superb Matisse exhibition at the Met. The paintings are luminously brilliant. They stand quite apart from any biographical details.


Krugman, Robots and Redistribution

There's a lot of attention to this post by Paul Krugman on long-term growth.

And this means that in a sense we are moving toward something like my intelligent-robots world; many, many tasks are becoming machine-friendly. This in turn means that Gordon is probably wrong about diminishing returns to technology.

Ah, you ask, but what about the people? Very good question. Smart machines may make higher GDP possible, but also reduce the demand for people — including smart people. So we could be looking at a society that grows ever richer, but in which all the gains in wealth accrue to whoever owns the robots.

Perhaps at some stage there will be a deeper discussion of these issues. He says in a related column he will talk more about long-term growth in due course. But, he concedes, economists know very little about long-run prospects.

The great bulk of the economic commentary you read in the papers is focused on the short run: the effects of the “fiscal cliff” on U.S. recovery, the stresses on the euro, Japan’s latest attempt to break out of deflation. This focus is understandable, since one global depression can ruin your whole day. But our current travails will eventually end. What do we know about the prospects for long-run prosperity?

The answer is: less than we think.

The long-term projections produced by official agencies, like the Congressional Budget Office, generally make two big assumptions. One is that economic growth over the next few decades will resemble growth over the past few decades. In particular, productivity — the key driver of growth — is projected to rise at a rate not too different from its average growth since the 1970s. On the other side, however, these projections generally assume that income inequality, which soared over the past three decades, will increase only modestly looking forward.

It’s not hard to understand why agencies make these assumptions. Given how little we know about long-run growth, simply assuming that the future will resemble the past is a natural guess. On the other hand, if income inequality continues to soar, we’re looking at a dystopian, class-warfare future — not the kind of thing government agencies want to contemplate.

Yet this conventional wisdom is very likely to be wrong on one or both dimensions.

An additional problem is economics has very little understanding of the drivers of productivity. I don't know how many times senior officials have told me that it is a "residual of a residual" in quantitative terms.



We've looked at these issues before, such as here and here.

In particular, we looked at an excellent survey of technological developments here. Diamandis and Kotler conclude their book Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think with this:

Our problem is not that we don’t have enough stuff—it’s that we don’t have enough ways for people to work and prove that they deserve this stuff.

However, simply transferring money from "the rich" to the middle class or the poor is ultimately self-defeating. It undermines self-reliance and self-respect and the fact that living is more than just having stuff.

Redistribution is going to be the core issue in coming years - but even the word itself is tainted with leftist welfarism.

Instead, we need a better conception of how people earn a living, especially if the labor market is in trouble. And that means a better idea of value. And that entails some idea of the good life for people, instead of liberal neutrality whose whole point is to avoid any discussion of value.

Economics has deep difficulty with this, because value is primarily an ethical issue which is not reducible to models. Indeed, we saw recently economics as a discipline sidestepped the problem of value in the marginalist revolution by replacing it with a poorly conceived mathematical treatment of utility.

The whole apparatus of pareto-equality and welfare economics is flawed. Liberal ethics is flawed. Both lack any conception of human flourishing. Automatic equality of respect destroys any prospect of a better life, because it corrodes value. If everything is equal, there is no value.


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Swerve: Off course

It's nice to have a few clear days over Christmas. In between airplanes and turkey I read The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. I have mixed feelings about it, though.

I liked the evocation of late medieval and early Renaissance culture. The book centers on the rediscovery of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura on a monastery library and subsequent impact on thought. The book gives insight into the timeless nature of bureaucracy and court politics, as represented by the "lie factory" of the Vatican Curia at the time. And there is a wistfulness about the loss of so much from the ancient world, all the classics that must have been lost.

But I found the book to be a little shapeless on the whole. Some reviewers have been bitterly critical of its factual claims.

There seems to be an underlying strain of anti-Christian bigotry. The book represents the redscovery of Epicurean atomistic doctrine as a liberation from Christianity, which apparently for Greenblatt represents everything cruel and backward and fearful. As other reviewers point out, classical wisdom had never been as wholly lost as Greenblatt implies, and many of the advances of learning at the time came from the church.

Of course, the medieval church has much to answer for. But so does modern progressivism, murkily bound up with eugenics in the early few twentieth century, let alone socialism or other anti-Christian ideologies.

There seems to be a kind of liberal who believes giving offense is wrong, except when it comes to attacking Christianity. I am not a regular churchgoer, but I feel the hypocrisy in this kind of attack. Liberalism should not be established as an official state religion, prone to its own inquisitions. The deeper rhythms of Western history are resonant with Christianity, and telling early modern history as a simple black and white tale of the revalidation of ancient Epicureanism is shallow. I get increasingly irritated at what seems to be prejudice on these matters.

That should not stop criticism of the church or Christianity, of course. But Harvard professors ought not to indulge in crude cartoonish history either. For all the erudition on display in the book, it sometimes swerves close to shallow caricature.

I doubt the book was worth a Pullitzer.


Monday, December 24, 2012