Ben Lewis’ The Great Contemporary Art Bubble

Tonight ABC2 screened Ben Lewis‘ documentary The Great Contemporary Art Bubble.

It’s a compelling contemporary history of the bubble in contemporary art between 2003-2008 and the dumb money and savvy art world insiders who enabled it to happen.

This is both a vital piece of contemporary art journalism and a fine exploration of the darker side of the art world itself. Lewis argues that key dealers and galleries colluded to routinely bid up prices for hot contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst. Featuring important on-the-record interviews with leading dealers, collectors and critics, including Jim Chanos (though, unsurprisingly, not those at the centre of the art world rumours – Sotheby’s, Jay Jopling, Larry Gagosian and Hirst himself).


South Korea’s culture minister aims to increase Korean culture funding

From the Korea Times, an interesting interview with Yu In-chon, the Republic of Korea’s Minister for Culture, Tourism and Sports.

South Korean culture minister Yu In-Chon

South Korean culture minister Yu In-Chon

Like Australia’s culture minister Peter Garrett, a former rock singer, Yu is also a former artist – in his case, an actor.

An actor-turned-minister, Yu began by explaining how he wants to retain existing edifices while looking to expand venues for creative arts.


Yu’s goals are clear. Rather than build anew, he wants to preserve. Rather than unilaterally export Korean culture, he wants to exchange and infuse.

His aims are also high in terms of budget: He hopes to raise the total cultural budget to account for 1.5 percent of the national budget by 2012.

Yet, he wants the benefits of culture to seep into the nooks and crannies of Korea, so that grandmothers in the smallest villages can enjoy performances with their grandchildren.

The article also adds that “the minister seems intent on revamping national art organizations. After taking office, he has replaced eight chiefs of national art organizations, saying repeatedly it is time they live up to their names.”

Paul Romer on Elinor Ostrom

There’s been plenty of debate about the first female recipient of the Nobel prize for economics, Elinor Ostrom.

The first female winner of the Nobel prize for economics, Elinor Ostrom

The first female winner of the Nobel prize for economics, Elinor Ostrom

Now one of my favourite economists, Paul Romer, has written a perceptive blog post about her work, and what it tells us about the modern practice of social sciences:

Most economists think that they are building cranes that suspend important theoretical structures from a base that is firmly grounded in first principles. In fact, they almost always invoke a skyhook, some unexplained result without which the entire structure collapses. Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics because she works from the ground up, building a crane that can support the full range of economic behavior. Continue reading

Can Darwin really be a “creative city”?

One of the best papers I’ve yet read in the often controversial academic debate about “creative cities” was published this year in the Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography. Written by Australian authors Susan Luckman, Chris Gibson and Tess Lea, it’s entitled “Mosquitoes in the mix: How transferable is creative city thinking?” [30(1): 70-85].

Darwin harbour, 2009

Darwin harbour, 2009

The paper takes a close look at the municipal cultural policy pursued by the northern Australian city of Darwin, and asks some hard questions about the validity of so-called “creative city” strategies of the type championed by Richard Florida, Charles Landry and Brisbane’s QUT school of academics.

The project is a kind of mid-way report of a government funded research project (funds are coming from Darwin City Council, the Northern Territory Tourism Commission and the Northern Territory Government’s Department of Arts and Museums, “each of whom are interested in pursuing new policies to enhance Darwin’s creative industries, and its liveability and attractiveness to new migrants.”)

Despite this clear agenda from those funding the study, the authors here produce a fascinating paper that calls into question the rhetoric and spin of creative industries/cities policies: Continue reading

Little magazines and literary modernism

There’s a great review essay in The Times by Stefan Collini on the role of literary magazines in the rise of modernism as an intellectual movement. I think it’s an interesting topic; indeed, small press and independent publishing has always interested  me and I have been writing recently for one of Australia’s premier little magazines, Meanjin Quarterly.

Cyril Connolly's Horizon is one of the best-known British literary magazines of the 1940s. It published writing by a who's-who of literary figures, including Auden, Eliot, Orwell, Russell, Bowles, Koestler and Greene.

Cyril Connolly's Horizon is one of the best-known British literary magazines of the 1940s. It published writing by a who's-who of literary figures, including Auden, Eliot, Orwell, Russell, Bowles, Koestler and Greene.

“The first function of a literary magazine is to introduce the work of new or little-known writers of talent.” There is an appealing modesty about this brisk declaration, even a kind of impersonality in subordinating editorial ego to the larger good; it seems likely to provoke a murmur of agreement, not least from new or little-known writers. But this is not, of course, the only way in which the function of such publications may be conceived. The editor of one of the many new literary periodicals established in the 1920s announced a no less definite sense of purpose in quite other terms: “I shall make its aim the maintenance of critical standards and the concentration of intelligent critical opinion”. The goals expressed in these two quotations are not necessarily in conflict: editors might, it is true, maintain “critical standards” in a practical way by identifying new literary talent. But the tendency is for the pursuit of these two purposes to result in periodicals of rather different types. One, often thought of as the classic “little magazine”, largely carries new poetry and fiction, mostly by as yet unrecognized writers, often exemplifying a style of writing that is self-consciously, even determinedly, insurgent and unfashionable. The other, committed to upholding the critical or reviewing function, is largely filled with essays and book reviews, taking in the literature of both the past and the present, as well as taking in more than literature; it aspires to shape intelligent opinion and to combat the slackness and puffery of mainstream literary journalism.

There’s much to unpick here, but I will merely add that literary magazines create a much-needed form of cultural capital. By unearthing and promoting younger and emerging writers, for instance, they act as a seed-bed for new talent across the whole literary sphere.

The Australian book industry shoud be prepared for the Kindle. It’s not.

The recent announcement by Amazon that it will release an international version of the Kindle has taken few by surprise. According to PC World, Amazon is already taking orders.


Retro models of the Kindle were somewhat larger

But now the revolution is upon us, commentators are starting to realise the scale of the change it will unleash. In today’s Crikey, for instance, Jeff Sparrow examines the state of the local industry and thinks it will be in for a bumpy ride:

Times are not great for literary publishing. The GFC arrived as the industry already struggled with the collapse of a reviewing culture, declining print runs. and a general crisis about literature’s role in contemporary society. Hence the hope, in some quarters at least, that the Kindle – or something like it – will bring sexy back to reading, that, fortified by e-books, literature will let its hair down and take off its glasses, and the reading public will say, ‘My God, literary novel – you are beautiful!’

Now that’s probably not going to happen. But e-books are not going away, and the industry’s going to have to adapt. It may be a bumpy ride.

Sparrow is right. The publishing industry is way behind where it needs to be in terms of porting its business model from the boutique manufacture of literary artefacts to pure content businesses whose survival will depend on the brand power and audience reach of their authors’ lists – and nothing else.

But many trade publishers soon might be

But many trade publishers soon might be

Perhaps this is why, as Sparrow notes, “at most writers’ festivals, the whole digital thing often sparks far more revulsion than enthusiasm.”

For every Wired fan gushing over a new Gutenberg revolution, there’s a dozen pundits explaining — either mournfully or combatively, depending on temperament  — how they take tactile pleasure in turning printed pages, that ink and paper smell nice, and that the transformation of the bound volumes on their study shelves into ones and zeroes existing only in cyberspace fills them with equal parts horror and disgust.

It is this book-loving culture that is ironically going to be the biggest challenge for publishing houses. The beauty of the printed and bound codex will endure. Many publishers will not.

Corey Robin on Quentin Skinner on Hobbes

Is Hobbes still the most influential political philosopher ever? In this age of Rawls, it’s sometimes easy to remember that Hobbes’ thought underpins nearly every modern conceptualisation of both the state and the citizen/subject.

In The Nation, Corey Robin has an essay on Quentin Skinner‘s recent book on Thomas Hobbes, Hobbes and Republican Liberty. Even if you don’t agree with all he writes, it’s non-fiction of verve and style:

It’s no accident that Hobbes fled his enemies and then his friends, for he was fashioning a political theory that shredded longstanding alliances. Rather than reject the revolutionary argument, he absorbed and transformed it. From its deepest categories and idioms he derived an uncompromising defense of the most hidebound form of rule. He sensed the centrifugal pulses of early modern Europe–the priesthood of all believers, the democratic armies massing under the banner of ancient republican ideals, science and skepticism–and sought to convert them into a single centripetal force: a sovereign so terrible and benign as to make any challenge to such authority seem not only immoral but also irrational. Not unlike the Italian Futurists, Hobbes put dissolution in the service of resolution. He was the first and, along with Nietzsche, the greatest philosopher of counterrevolution, a blender avant la lettre of cultural modernism and political reaction who understood that to defeat a revolution you first must become the revolution.

Robin points out that despite Hobbes’ devastating critique of “the state of nature”, modern day thinkers whom one might describe as followers of the “party of order” (a loaded term, without question) have found Hobbes suspect, to say the least:

Of the four twentieth-century political theorists identified by Perry Anderson as “The Intransigent Right”–Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, Michael Oakeshott and Friedrich von Hayek–only Oakeshott saw in Hobbes the faintest glimmer of a kindred spirit. The rest viewed him as the source of a malignant liberalism, Jacobinism or even Bolshevism.

Robin then moves on to consider Skinner’s book:

Hobbes clearly opposed the “democraticals,” as he called the parliamentary forces and their followers. Quentin Skinner’s contention in Hobbes and Republican Liberty is that Hobbes expended a considerable sum of his philosophical energy in this opposition and that his greatest innovations derived from it. His specific target was the republicans’ conception of liberty, their notion that individual freedom entailed men collectively governing themselves. By unfastening the links between personal freedom and the nature of political power, Hobbes was able to argue that men could be free in an absolute monarchy–or at least no less free than they were in a republic or a democracy. It was “an epoch-making moment in the history of Anglophone political thought,” says Skinner, resulting in a novel account of liberty to which we remain indebted–unhappily, in Skinner’s view–to this day.

There’s plenty more here, and all of it worthwhile. You might also want to check out a recent podcast of a lecture by Skinner on Hobbes.

Jack Shafer on the trouble with philanthropy-funded journalism

Slate’s Jack Shafer has a typically trenchant and insightful piece on the current great hope of news journalism: philanthropy.

All this silly money arriving in the nick of time to fund what some like to call “serious journalism” can only be applauded. Every community should be fortunate enough to have a nonprofit like the New Haven Independent walking the beat for it.

But before we get out the party hats and noise-makers to celebrate the rise of nonprofit journalism, here’s the bad news. In the current arrangement, we’re substituting one flawed business model for another. For-profit newspapers lose money accidentally. Nonprofit news operations lose money deliberately. No matter how good the nonprofit operation is, it always ends up sustaining itself with handouts, and handouts come with conditions.

Shafer concludes that “the rise of nonprofit journalism comes at a price. Be prepared to pay it.”