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Those Damn Intrinsic Field Subtractors

Post #1595 • March 20, 2013, 7:53 AM

In Watchmen, Jon Osterman is accidentally locked into an Intrinsic Field Subtractor and disintegrated. His consciousness has to figure out how to reassemble a body for himself. A nervous system, a circulatory system, then other component systems appear floating in the physics lab over the next several months.

This is what the last several months have been like for me since my own little disintegration. Art, writing, love, friendship, money, all have to be reconsidered from scratch. One thing comes into focus, another falls into inchoateness. Deadlines have been missed. Temples have been clutched. I was looking over the journal I wrote at Einspruch.com while my blog was on hiatus, and I decided that the format there would suit my state of affairs these days and their demands on my mental bandwidth. From here out, expect an update here once a week, Wednesday to be precise, in digest format like that of the journal.

For deep links and convenient skipping about, here are some in-page anchors: Portland arts tax, art as a profession, against intellectual property, Bill Frezza goes to MoMA, advice of the week, the failure of college, Boston Phoenix shutters, ACA residency video, Department of Skills.

Osterman finally re-emerges as Dr. Manhattan, more powerful than any conscious entity in the universe. Even this turns out to have its drawbacks, but all the same I'm keeping his story in mind.

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Happily Supporting the Arts, at Gunpoint

Via Alan Pocaro, the city of Portland, Oregon has levied a tax of $35 per person upon its residents to fund art and music teachers in the public school system. Monies left over after doing so go to its Regional Arts & Culture Council, which will disburse them in turn to local non-profit arts organizations. "Is this as dumb of an idea as I think it is?" he asks.

Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution states, "No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in Proportion to the Census or Enumeration herein before directed to be taken." The people who tried to stop the measure point out that the state constitution likewise says that "No poll or head tax shall be levied or collected in Oregon." This has been passed as an income tax, but it's really a head tax with a low-income exemption for adults living below the poverty line. The opponents explain that all residents living in the city of Portland since January 1, 2012 will have to file a tax return with the city that's separate from regular taxation procedures, even if they don't earn enough to file a federal tax return, even if they're jobless or homeless. Portland, which does not otherwise collect an income tax, has granted itself the power to pry into into the financial affairs of its citizens in an unprecedented manner. Cleverly noting to the people of Portland that it's time to pay the piper, literally, the editors of the Oregonian went into further detail.

Most income earners will have to pay $35 per year. Or $35.99, including a "convenience fee," if you choose to pay it with your credit card. You're out of luck entirely if you want to use a debit card, but you can pay online without an additional fee if you use an electronic check.

You can also do nothing, in which case the city will mail you a paper tax form at the end of March.

You're considered an income earner, by the way, if you're 18 and you've earned any dough at all during 2012, including unemployment assistance, Social Security income and even gifts. You don't have to pay if your household is below the federal poverty line -- $23,050 for a family of four last year -- but you'll have to prove your poverty by sending the city the appropriate documentation.

It might be easier just to pay the tax. If doing so is a struggle, you can always split the payment into two parts. Of course, doing this will cost you an extra dollar because, you know, the arts tax itself just isn't regressive enough.

One of the ironies of this tax is that a special levy to support the arts is a liberal dream come true. Kyle Chayka at the Hyperallergic report linked overhead opines,

...governments are implementing positive legal changes that make funding arts not only possible but also necessary, posing supporting culture as an inherent element of social responsibility. That’s something we can all get behind.

(Says you.) Yet this is a flat tax, which liberals regularly deride as regressive and unfair. There are two usual reasons offered for this, one tribal, and one based on math. The tribal reason is that flat taxes are not progressive, and any tax that's not progressive is regressive. Progressive, remember, is a technical term in regards to taxes—increasing in percentage proportionately with income, for example. Progressive means something else when referring to politics, but one can find political progressives upon whom this distinction is lost. Robert Reich, for instance, when commenting on Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan, took to referring to him and other flat-tax supporters as "regressives," based largely on his typical dyspepsia about the tax rates for high income brackets, which of course are not high enough in his opinion. The reason based on math, expressed by Holley Ulbrich among others, is that flat taxes take a larger percentage of income from lower earners.

Sales taxes are regressive—they take a higher share of low incomes than higher incomes. State and local income taxes range from flat to mildly progressive. Payroll taxes are moderately regressive because they fall on only wages and salaries and only up to a maximum of $106,800 in earnings. The distribution of the property tax burden is not clear, but the family home is the primary financial asset for most middle-income households. Property taxes are levied on homes, but rarely on other kinds of financial assets. State and local governments also depend on fees and charges for services, which fall heavily on lower-income households, for 44 percent of their revenue. So a moderately progressive federal income tax, with rates ranging from 15 percent to 35 percent, helps to offset regressive taxes elsewhere.

Charging a fee for splitting up payments on the $35, which would only be necessary for the poorest Portlanders, would make it regressive by any definition.

Then there's the question of how the money would be used. As a matter of libertarian theory, you would predict that this program would grow more ridiculous and self-serving over time and squander the money on increasingly mandarin taste on behalf of the politically connected. In my experience, though, these little local arts councils are usually in touch with what's going on, genuine about spreading money around to diverse creative approaches, mindful of the appetites of local audiences without pandering to them, and capable of doing outsize good in proportion to their funding levels. The Regional Arts & Culture Council is likely no exception. Portland has a deeply ingrained craft ethos and consequently is somewhat less prone to the kind of abject idiocy that makes regular folks think that visual art is a waste of time. Portlandia, in case you missed it, did a cute spoof of conceptual art and its stilted justifications. Libertarian theory also suggests that local, small-scale public action is preferable to federal, large-scale public action if public action is to be taken; this is how libertarians frequently end up as Federalists. And for better or worse, the locals opted to bring this upon themselves. I've spent goodly time in Portland, which is great town, so I checked in with some artist friends out there. Here's what Marc Roder had to say:

This is a noble effort to replace a shrinking educational budget. Some argue it is an illegal "poll" tax and strictly unconstitutional. Not my thing to argue those points. I chose not to be a lawyer and decided to free myself from always thinking like one, as it smacks to me of arguing verse with a fundamentalist. It's all fun and games until someone demands blood. I've experienced far too much of that to believe in it as functional behavior—scripture is text, and text is a living thing that dies when you deny it's right to live (in) multiple lives. When we feel a wrong is wrong enough, why not oppose it and speak out against it because we simply know in our hearts it is wrong? Do we mistrust our moral judgment that radically?

As economies tank there is a delayed effect on regional/local tax bases that results in belt-tightening in local services, including educational budgets. I look on the "entitlements" argument differently than some—I don't think we are entitled to good roads, a functioning transportation system, a healthy water and sewer system, functional law enforcement, and robust public works in general. I think we should pay for these privileges and other edifices of civil society in conjunction with a federal and local partnership. A well-rounded education in public schools is among the things for which I as a community member am willing to pay a little more, because I subscribe to the belief that our investment in our community and children is in the long run an investment in ourselves and the quality of people we want to deal with. But I am one of those irrational people who voted yes on a school bond issue (defeated) to tax myself an extra few hundred dollars a year in order to repair our schools infrastructure. It may be costly to take steps to prevent bricks from falling on kids in an earthquake, but it's the right thing to do. One of the problems I had living in South Florida was the sense that this social contract had been irreparably damaged.

The "PAT" does take into account low income, so that those below poverty income level don't have to pay the $35. Otherwise it is egalitarian, though of course a regressive tax in that someone earning $20k a year is paying a higher percentage of their income than someone earning $200,000. In that same sense sales tax is very punitive to the poor, and that's why I feel lucky to pay a higher property tax but no sales tax here in Oregon. Though not perfectly so, The revenue in general is drawn more fairly across the income spectrum rather than being on the backs of the minimum wage earner who spends 25-35% per month of their wages on food. A significant sales tax on that percentage of their income is punitive. A $35 tax (more accurately a "fee") is basically saying to everyone, "this is a gesture, a generous gesture, to show we believe in what our schools can do, and we believe in our kids' potential." It is not a lot of money. If paying it means that you can't pay your electric bill or will go hungry, we have a social safety net here in Oregon that is there to help, works well, and hasn't broken the state budget. For those that feel their rights are being infringed upon or that the law (scriptural, not the living law) is being broken, I wish them well and invite them to move elsewhere where the social contract more exactly fits the vision they have of home and community and freedom. The wholeness of our fabric is created precisely in the fact that we don't all get what we want. We take the good with the bad and find positive ways to temper our visions with the visions of our fellow citizens. This interaction weaves the complex warp and woof of the cloth that holds us together. Some call it compromise, some call it growing up and learning to be a team player.

All this being said, I don't know that the Portland Arts Tax will be effective in delivering it's goal. I do know that Portland public schools having enough money to pay a few bucks for some of my out-of-work peers to come and give their artistic hearts and minds to kids is a good thing, because my heart tells me that in no uncertain terms. And having dealt with the Oregon Regional Arts & Culture Council, I have full faith in their decency, integrity and efficiency as an institution. Will there be waste? No doubt. Will there be bureaucratic overhead and inefficiency? Certainly! Am I willing to fund this social experiment with $35 of chump change I worked hard for? You bet.

This comes from another Portland artist:

I was happy to vote for it, and happy enough to pay it. Like Justice Holmes, I'm of the conviction that taxes are what we pay for civilization. As a bleeding-heart liberal (sorry!) and a working artist, no way would I vote against a small levy to increase arts funding in the schools, even a flawed one. I'm not big on making the perfect the enemy of the good, except maybe in my own work.

Jason Overby, a Portland comics artist who contributed to Comics as Poetry:

I totally support it. It's so little money per person, and Portland schools have a difficult time because of the lack of a sales tax. The school my wife and I would like our daughters to go to is an arts-focused elementary school that has to work constantly at fundraising to keep its programs and teachers. I personally did well academically all throughout public school, but it never taught me the joy or fun of working on a project (which would be much more applicable in almost any job setting than learning calculus). I would like to see my daughters working hands on doing creative projects in school rather than memorizing a list of facts or some arcane method that might allow them to pass a government-mandated test. The art-tax is a tiny price for supporting something that is incredibly important.

So there you have it. I hope for their sakes that the city doesn't turn this little financing innovation into a regularly increasing levy to provide for this and that, until they drop the pretense and enact a full-on city-level income tax, but for now it's what they asked for.

No Skill, No Profession

Anton Vidokle posits that art is not a profession.

But since his time, Warhol’s economic independence seems to have been misunderstood. The independence that came from his bridging of the bohemian sphere and the sphere of day-to-day commerce has been converted into a vast proliferation of so-called artistic practices that treat art as a profession. But art is not a profession. What does being professional actually mean under the current conditions of de-skilling in art? We should probably be less concerned with being full-time, art-school-trained, professional artists, writers, or curators—less concerned with measuring our artistic worth in these ways. Since most of us are not expected to perfect any specific techniques or master any craft—unlike athletes or classical musicians, for example—and given that we are no longer tied to working in specific mediums, perhaps it’s fine to be a part-time artist? After all, what is the expertise of a contemporary artist? Perhaps a certain type of passionate hobbyism, a committed amateurism, is okay: after all, we still live in a reality largely shaped by talented amateurs of the nineteenth century, like Thomas Edison and so many others. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to work in some other capacity in the arts, or in an entirely different field, and also to make art: sometimes this situation actually produces much more significant work than the “professional art” we see at art fairs and biennials. Ilya Kabakov supported himself for decades by being a children’s book illustrator. Marcel Duchamp worked as a librarian and later sold Brancusi’s work to make a living, while refusing to be dependent on sales of his own work.

Vidokle, who once recounted that

When my family moved to America, I enrolled in three schools simultaneously: the School of Visual Arts by day, Art Students League classes by night, and group life drawing lessons on weekends.

and thus doesn't note this de-skilling with the glibness of the merely unskilled, has an interesting take here. A poet with whom I took an introductory electronics class last year (in which the lasting lesson that I learned was that a soldering iron has a guard on it, and it's quite a bit pleasanter to grip the cool side of it than the hot one) said to me that he liked poetry better when he wasn't trying to make a living at it. As Caleb Neelon put it as Item #1 on a bit of sage advice entitled Ten short memos to young Boston artists:

Economic freedom is artistic freedom – This means learn a marketable hustle. Every artist needs a money-making hustle to keep their bills paid. As a young artist, you should be learning how to do something that makes good money in short hours which you control. You don’t want a full time job here – you want something that makes the most money in the least time with the least effort. If you are going to wait tables or bartend, for example, this means learn how to do it at a good place, and not necessarily one where you go with your friends. Learning a marketable trade that not just anyone can do is a very important part of surviving as an artist. Examples include but are not limited to teaching, web and graphic design, copy writing, and other professional services. The key is to learn how to do something that pays well, that requires little commitment, and that doesn’t tire you out such that it interferes with your art-making time.

But indirectly and inadvertently, Vidokle suggests that artists who are working in a skilled (as opposed to de-skilled) manner have the opportunity and right to think of themselves as professionals. The practitioners of skill-based art inhabit a sphere that at once belongs to the larger art world, and yet doesn't. I'm thinking of Clive Head, whose 2010 exhibition at the National Gallery, London set an attendance record for the museum's temporary exhibition space for contemporary artists, prompting this remark from the chief curator:

Head's work seems to be the kind of painting that people really love. There's a sense of delight in discovering that it is alive and well, alongside what might be seen as "Turner Prize art" and the work of more highly-publicised artists.

And his paintings routinely fetch over £100,000. Skill isn't everything even in skill-based art and I hesitate to extrapolate too much here, but back when I was teaching Renaissance painting methods, I used to show students the work of Richard Maury and say that if they were interested in traditional techniques, it was possible to forge a path in which one could survive as an artist, if one was willing to forgo a certain amount of critical recognition, and given the unlikelihood of critical recognition in any case, it was worth considering. Vidolke leads me to consider that this might be true in a philosophical sense as well as a financial one.

Against Intellectual Property

Via Caroline Small I learned of a discussion on reddit with Stephan Kinsella, an anarcho-capitalist patent and intellectual property attorney who believes that patents and intellectual property should be abolished.

[E]ven if we assume that the IP system does stimulate some additional, valuable innovation, no one has established that the value of the purported gains is greater than the costs. If you ask advocates of [intellectual property] how they know there is a net gain, you get silence (this is especially true of patent attorneys). They cannot point to any study to support their utilitarian contention; they usually just point to Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution (if they are even aware of this), as if the backroom dealings of politicians two centuries ago are some sort of empirical evidence in favor of state grants of monopoly privilege.

In fact, as far as I’ve been able to tell, every study that attempts to tally the costs and benefits of copyright or patent law concludes either that these schemes cost more than they are worth, or that they actually reduce innovation, or that the research is inconclusive. There are no studies unambiguously showing a net societal gain. There are only repetitions of state propaganda.

The Founders only had a hunch that copyrights and patents might “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” —that the cost of this system would be “worth it.” But they had no serious evidence. A hundred and fifty years later there was still none.

My first reaction to this was horror. I, for one, cheered when Richard Prince lost a lawsuit filed by Patrick Cariou, whose photography he had plundered for appropriation into terrible painted collages. (To give you an idea of the depth of Prince's self-serving cynicism, his lawyers went into the courtroom and tried to argue that Cariou's photography was not art.) Let's say I came up with a great comics character and wrote and drew stories that became popular. Some Hollywood producer could take the character and turn him into a bastardized version of himself, starring in a movie for which I would never see a cent.

But then, he couldn't copyright his movie either. Movie houses could show it for free. Hell, coffee houses could show it for free. Other producers could make their own movies out of the character. The only way to distinguish these productions from one another would be to get the stamp of approval from the original creator, who at this point would demand quite a hefty fee and controls over the product in return for that certification.

In fact, it's hard to think of a scenario in which the original creator doesn't eventually benefit in a world with no IP. If I make a painting, and someone uses it to illustrate a book cover, I don't get royalties. But if the book became popular, I could likely sell the painting for a higher amount than I could otherwise.

In the meantime look at what we gain: no more insults to free society like SOPA and CISPA. No more RIAA suing torrent sites for sums greater than the GDP of the entire world, having run out of pre-teens to litigate. No more patent trolls, whom Kinsella estimates cost the economy $100 billion per year. No more video codec wars. No more Monsanto trying to turn food itself into a proprietary medium. No more manufacturers making cars, electronics, and farm equipment prematurely obsolete by copyrighting the repair manuals. No more archivists wondering if they're breaking the law.

I'm coming around to the idea. But don't just take my stuff. That's not going to fly until you can't copyright it either. For more, listen to this British person.

Getting Burned at the Museum

Bill Frezza attended "9+1 Ways of Being Political: 50 Years of Political Stances in Architecture and Urban Design" at MoMA and did not enjoy his time there.

I draw the line when an artist mounts a direct and nihilistic attack on Western Civilization that seeks to subvert the values that allow us all to survive and thrive. Consider—flouting of Godwin’s Law notwithstanding—that in the 1930s sophisticated Germans who read Mein Kampf simply shrugged their shoulders, not believing that its author meant what he said, and quietly went about their business. But Hitler understood what many of his readers didn’t—that ideas have consequences.

Advice of the Week

A reader asks:

I have just finished applying to MFA programs in Painting/Drawing, and have gotten into at least two: [School #1] and [School #2]. [School #1] has offered me a $30,000 per year scholarship. [School #2] has not offered me any aid, but I anticipate I will get about $10,000 per year in need based awards. [School #2] is my top choice and seems like a better school, but the funding from [School #1] is obviously a big deal as well. In explaining my situation to some of my mentors, I was told that I should try and find out a bit about each school's reputation in the eyes of art professionals.

My question for you is: do you know if one school is regarded better than the other in the eyes of dealers, critics, and others in the art world, and do you have an opinion on whether or not attending [School #2] would result in more opportunities than if I attend [School #1]?

First of all, you should read this, just on principle.

I don't know which school has a better reputation. I will tell you this, though:

1. Unless you want to teach college, switch fields (I'm one such case, BFA Illustration, MFA Painting), or work with particular faculty, I don't think there's a good reason to get an MFA. I would at least consider using the two years and the associated money to rent a studio somewhere and make as much art as possible. Otherwise you'll be writing research papers and doing other things that won't make you a better artist.

2. If you still want to get an MFA, you should choose the program that leaves you with the most money in your bank account and the least debt to your name by the time you're done with it. This will have more bearing on whether you're able to keep it up after you graduate than anything else.

3. If the two programs are roughly the same with respect to #2, go to your top choice, because you like it better and life is short.

You Should Also Read This On Principle

Anyone presently or formerly in the education business should pick up the current issue of Reason, in which eight authors outline the manner in which academia is coming upon end times. Especially good is Nick Gillespie's contribution.

As the proud possessor of no fewer than four English degrees (a B.A., two M.A.s, and a Ph.D.) who paid my own way through every stage, I think these graduates have it exactly right. You should be going to college to have your mind blown by new ideas (read: whole fields of knowledge that you didn’t know existed until you got to college), to discover your intellectual passions, and to figure out what sorts of experiences you might want to pursue over the next 70 or so years. And let me suggest that it’s precisely the broad field of inquiry that takes the most abuse for being totally impractical—the humanities—that students should seek out most. Understanding history, literature, art, philosophy, and the like won’t make you a better citizen, or a more responsible employee, or a happier camper, but those disciplines will give you the tools to figure out who you are and what you want to be if and when you grow up.

Second—and far more wrongheadedly—most critics of the contemporary university err in talking about the place as if it exists only or mostly to serve students, especially undergraduates. What actually sets institutions of higher learning apart from high schools, barbers’ colleges, online academies, and various universities-in-name-only is that they are centers of knowledge production. That is, they revolve around faculty scholars who are actively expanding, revising, and remaking the received wisdom in their given fields. Active researchers, whether in astronomy or zoology or cultural studies or good old American literature, are the folks that make college worth a damn.

Yet these are the very people under siege. A 2010 study spearheaded by the University of Arkansas’ Jay P. Greene for the Goldwater Institute documented “administrative bloat” at colleges and universities. Between 1993 and 2007, wrote Greene et al., student enrollment at leading research universities rose by 15 percent and the number of administrators per 100 students jumped 39 percent. The number of tenure-track faculty per 100 students barely kept track with student growth, rising just 18 percent. At Arizona State, the number of administrators per 100 students grew 94 percent while faculty slots actually shrank by 2 percent.

The whole collection is here.

The Day the Phoenix Died

The Boston Phoenix turned out its last issue last week after 47 years of production. This is a stunning and disheartening development. It deprives Greg Cook, bar none the best art critic making regular appearances on newsprint in this town, of his main platform. Greg continues to write for the Providence Phoenix, which somehow is still publishing, and WBUR's new site ARTery, but this is nevertheless a stinky turn of events.

Jack Shafer analyzes how alt-weeklies went from cash cows to money pits over the last fifty years in this informative piece.

Cartoonist Camp

Last October I did a comics residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. The ACA made a video documenting everyone's time there—my work and person make some appearances.

Department of Skills

Here's one way of managing five-ball juggling patterns—add two limbs.

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