Transversal IAE Interrogates the Real

The Guardian reports on a recent study of gallery-speak, officially christened 'International Art English':

If you've been to see contemporary art in the last three decades, you
will probably be familiar with the feelings of bafflement, exhaustion
or irritation that such gallery prose provokes. You may well have got
used to ignoring it. As Polly Staple, art writer and director of the Chisenhale Gallery
in London, puts it: "There are so many people who come to our shows who
don't even look at the programme sheet. They don't want to look at any writing about art."

With
its pompous paradoxes and its plagues of adverbs, its endless sentences
and its strained rebellious poses, much of this promotional writing
serves mainly, it seems, as ammunition for those who still insist
contemporary art is a fraud. Surely no one sensible takes this jargon
seriously?

David Levine and Alix Rule do. "Art English is
something that everyone in the art world bitches about all the time,"
says Levine, a 42-year-old American artist based in New York and Berlin.
"But we all use it." Three years ago, Levine and his friend Rule, a
29-year-old critic and sociology PhD student at Columbia university in
New York, decided to try to anatomise it. "We wanted to map it out,"
says Levine, "to describe its contours, rather than just complain about
it."

They christened it International Art English, or IAE, and
concluded that its purest form was the gallery press release, which – in
today's increasingly globalised, internet-widened art world – has a
greater audience than ever….

IAE always uses "more rather than fewer words". Sometimes it uses
them with absurd looseness: "Ordinary words take on non-specific alien
functions. 'Reality,' writes artist Tania Bruguera, 'functions as my
field of action.'" And sometimes it deploys words with faddish
precision: "Usage of the word speculative spiked unaccountably in 2009;
2011 saw a sudden rage for rupture; transversal now seems poised to have
its best year ever."

Through Sketch Engine, Rule and Levine found
that "the real" – used as a portentous, would-be philosophical abstract
noun – occurred "179 times more often" in IAE than in standard English.
In fact, in its declarative, multi-clause sentences, and in its odd
combination of stiffness and swagger, they argued that IAE "sounds like
inexpertly translated French". This was no coincidence, they claimed,
having traced the origins of IAE back to French post-structuralism and
the introduction of its slippery ideas and prose style into American art
writing via October,
the New York critical journal founded in 1976. Since then, IAE had
spread across the world so thoroughly that there was even, wrote Rule
and Levine, an "IAE of the French press release … written, we can only
imagine, by French interns imitating American interns imitating
American academics imitating French academics".

The mention of
interns is significant. Rule, who writes about politics for leftwing
journals as well as art for more mainstream ones, believes IAE is partly
about power. "IAE serves interests," she says. However laughable the
language may seem to outsiders, to art-world people, speaking or writing
in IAE can be a potent signal of insider status. As some of the lowest
but also the hungriest in the art food chain, interns have much to gain
from acquiring fluency in it. Levine says the same goes for many
institutions: "You can't speak in simple sentences as a museum and be
taken seriously. You can't say, 'This artist produces funny work.' In
our postmodern world, simple is just bad. You've got to say, 'This
artist is funny and …'"

Fighting Sexism in Germany: The Answer is Simpler than You Think

The New York Times publishes an op-ed on sexism in Germany:

Based on the global reputation and overall popularity of Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany appears from the outside to be a country where equality between men and women has long been established.

Yet thousands of German women have taken to social media in recent days
to tell a radically different story — one of daily sexism experienced by
female interns who are told that “hot girls” receive special treatment
or a young woman being informed that she will not get a job because she
might become pregnant….

A woman who gave her name as Gudrun Lux posted about seeing her
application for a job rejected because, she was told, “the boss does not
want any women of childbearing age.” Another calling herself Su-Shee
recounted interviewing a young male applicant who asked to see “the real
boss, the man.”

Nicole Simon, 42, a social media consultant in Germany who also
contributed to the debate, described the outpouring as an example of the
years of pent-up frustration over episodes that are so prevalent that
women learn to simply block them out.

“Consensus online seemed to be, ‘I thought I could not share these
stories, but reading all the other things, I am surprised at how much I
have suppressed over the years,”’ Ms. Simon said in an e-mail.

According to ministry for women and families, 58 percent of German women
say they have been subject to sexual harassment, with more than 42
percent of the cases happening on the job.

In Germany, this sort of thing provokes a lot of thumb-sucking about What it All Means, and warnings that we must change our priorities, etc.

In other words, ineffectual hand-waving.

The first thing to do is separate out the serious from the not-so-serious problem. The not-so-serious problem is occasional flirtatious remarks. This is something that women can, and should, handle themselves. If you don't like a co-worker's clumsy or creepy remarks, tell him that, to his face, with increasing levels of acidulousness. You don't get as much respect in this life as you deserve, you get as much as you demand. What use was feminism if it hasn't put women into a position to set boundaries and denounce misconduct?

The more serious problem is women being denied job opportunities or asked for sexual favors by superiors, etc. First, though, let me list the things that don't work:

  • bureaucratic reports
  • vague laws
  • finger-wagging speeches by superiors
  • waiting for a 'sea-change in social attitudes'
  • sensitivity training

None of these things will change ingrained attitudes and prejudices. What will change them is meaningful, painful financial penalties and public shaming. Germany has various laws that are designed to combat pregnancy and gender discrimination, but they're toothless, and therefore little-used. If someone in a position to hire people actually tells a woman she won't get the job because she might get pregnant, that should lead to a €10,000 penalty payable by the company and a public denunciation on a government webpage. Of course, the supervisor who made the remark will probably get fired
for getting his company into so much trouble. Good! That's called
accountability. Of course, the actual behavior will probably still
continue underground, etc. But at least it won't be openly tolerated. And there are ways of rooting out even subtle discrimination.

To get an idea of what transparency and accountability looks like, just go here, to the website of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a government agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws. The agency boasts that it filed 100,000 lawsuits in 2012, and forced companies to pay $365 million in fines and compensation in 2012 alone. Also, as you can see, there is a running ticker on the webpage listing, by name, companies which have recently been forced to compensate people whom they discriminated against. It's not a perfect system, but it's certainly more effective than what Germany is doing.

Crime on the Decline Germany, Probably Because There’s Less Lead Around

I've been following with fascination the debate in the U.S. about the relationship between crime rates and early childhood lead exposure. One of my favorite bloggers, Kevin Drum, recently wrote a fantastic piece for Mother Jones arguing that America saw dropping crimes rates in the 1990s in part because the U.S. banned leaded gasoline in the 1970s, saving an entire generation of children from exposure to lead, a fiercely potent neurotoxin which permanently lowers intelligence and disrupts impulse control in children. Read it here. Drum reports on reactions to the article and takes on critics here.

And now for Europe:

Here's the latest crime news from the Guardian:

There has been a surprise 8% drop in crime across England and Wales,
according to official figures, suggesting the long-term decline in
crime since the mid-1990s has resumed.

As near as I can tell, crime declines are always a surprise
to the folks who look for answers solely in social trends. But Britain's
continuing decline isn't a surprise to everyone. Europe adopted
unleaded gasoline in the mid-80s, and EU countries all showed drops in
lead emissions in subsequent years. In Britain, lead emissions began to
decline about a decade later than the United States, but they made up
some of that gap via a much steeper drop. So, to the extent that the
crime decline is a function of less lead exposure among children,
they're about five years or so behind us. This means they probably still
have a few years of crime decline ahead of them.

So, you might be wondering, if Germany began seriously reducing lead emissions in the the mid-1980s, what impact might that have had on teenage criminality in the late 1990s, when children born in the mid-1980s became adolescents? Here's the relevant graph for Germany, from this source (g, .pdf):

TatjugendThe top line shows total criminality, the middle line criminality among German adolescents, and the bottom line among immigrants. Interesting, isn't it? The much smaller decrease you see among non-German offenders could well be explained by the fact that some percentage of them probably did not grow up in Germany.

Of course, the standard caveats apply that correlation is not causation, other factors are at work (especially the crime increase following reunification), etc.. But if you want to be convinced that lead exposure is a powerful (though, of course, not the only) explanatory factor, read Drum's piece — and, more importantly, the studies it links to.

If this theory holds, it has to be one of the best pieces of news in a long time: because of a wise policy choice made decades ago, we will enjoy less crime — and less of all the social ills and expense it causes — for years to come. Kind of restores your faith in humanity, doesn't it?

One Man’s Cheesy ’90s Nostalgia is Another Man’s Hot Trend

We Anglo-Saxons are a race of reckless innovators, especially those of us who risked everything to cross the Atlantic and found the Land of Opportunity. It's our job to create the trends everyone else imitates, and we take it on gladly. Meanwhile, we look at the Continent with bemusement. There, 'stars' that would long have been forced down into the septic tank of obscurity continue to be venerated by millions of people. Hugh Schofield noted the curious French tolerance of Johnny Hallyday:

In fact, when one looks around, one realises that there is an unusual
level of flattery – one might even say obsequiousness – in French
public life, especially when it comes to culture.

If you have ever watched French television, you will get the picture.

A
typical mid-evening programme is a chat show on which the invitees are
members of the small, unchanging – and therefore ageing – club of
national celebrities.

Behind in rows of seats, a youthful
audience hand-picked for telegenic good looks bursts into applause at
every anecdote or hackneyed clip from the archives.

At the more
serious end of the market, the annual literary season is in September,
when there is a rush of new publications and the big book prizes like
the Goncourt are announced.

Here, too, listening to the reviews is like being beaten about the head with a powder puff.

Nothing is ever mediocre, let alone bad.

Everything
is uplifting, exquisite, crafted, delicate, challenging, or that most
irritating of French words: "engage", which means "committed", though to
what is never spelled out.

One realises after a while that the French view their stars almost as
members of the family. They enjoy going to see them in the same way
they enjoy catching up with the latest family gossip.

That kind
of conservatism is actually quite refreshing after the brutal neophilia
(the constant need for the new and the culling of everything that is
familiar) that one associates with British culture.

The bad reason is that it is all about self-protection.

Succumbing to sycophancy, after all, is a way of reassuring oneself that all is good in the world, when clearly it is not.

Seen like that, the French are merely deluding themselves that their
culture matters the way it once did: sticking their fingers in their
ears, if you like, and whistling to Johnny Hallyday.

Much of this applies equally to Germany. Die Zeit, despite its many virtues, is probably the worst offender here, dutifully reprinting every syllable that drops from the mouth of Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Helmut Schmidt. In the culture pages, virtually every writer, no matter how obscure, is dutifully given the epithet groß (great). Pop acts that are long-forgotten (or who have degenerated into jokes) in the Anglo-Saxon world –  Metallica, Ozzie Osbourne (g) — fondly embrace Germany as a sort of geriatro-rocker retirement home. Quondam innovators Kraftwerk, who haven't released any genuinely new music in decades, continue to pack them in in Germany (and to be fair, MOMA, where their concerts were billed as a 'curated' retrospective, drenched with nostalgia).

Which brings me to this clip from the 1996 direct-to-video movie 'Vibrations':

Someone in the US unearthed it and it's become a minor Internet sensation under the heading '90s nostalgia. Yet in Germany, 'techno' music is alive and well — in fact, the 2010 version of the Love Parade attracted almost a million people. If it hadn't been for the overcrowding that killed 21 people at that event, it would still be going on.

Trivia Contest Solution

A few days ago, I challenged readers to identify this film still:

6a00d834516a2569e2017d3f871243970c-500wi

I was a bit disappointed that nobody came through. Mr. M wanted to know the answer. The still is from the 1963 Czech science-fiction movie Ikarie XB-1. The entire original version, with good English subtitles, can be found on YouTube and is highly recommended. It's a moody, philosophical film about a crew of astronauts who stumble upon an abandoned ship from an earlier voyage and much else besides. As you might expect from a Czech movie, the futuristic spacecraft furnishings are stylish and appealing. There's even a party scene in which we hear the easy-listening music of the future and watch astronauts dance to it!

German Internet User Threatened With Bankruptcy and Jail for Posting Video

The problem of outdated laws inflicting unpredictable, massive penalties on people who use the Internet in unapproved ways (see Aaron Swartz) is also acute in Germany. Case in point: In 2000, a highly unusual-looking man, seeking attention, went out onto the streets of Berlin to dance in a techno-parade. Another attendee filmed him doing his thing. This is the result:

Notice that there's no attempt to conceal the filming. The filmer, Matthias Fritsch, decided to post the video online, figuring it might amuse other people. Indeed it did: the man in the video became known as the Technoviking, and his moves spawned an Internet subculture. Fritsch even made a modest amount of money from all the YouTube views.

And now, thirteen years later, he faces bankruptcy and jail. The Daily Dot reports:

[Fritsch stated:] "I am being accused for creation and publication of images connected to
the Technoviking, therefore infringement of personality rights. They
also say I am earning a lot of money by that. They argue that [I] gave
him the name Technoviking, create 3D characters, comics and more to
constantly increase the popularity in order to market Technoviking and
therefore cause damage to the protagonist"

If Fritsch loses, so does the Internet. He'll have to scrub any original
content he created that featured the Technoviking's likeness, and he'll
be barred from creating new content. Worse, the lawsuit accuses him of
creating numerous other derivative works, most of which Fritsch says he
never touched….

Failing to do that, Fritsch would face a €250,000 ($334,441 U.S.) fine
and up to six months in jail. Fritsch said the lawsuit only includes
content he allegedly posted, so no matter the result of the trial, other
Technoviking remixes around the Web are safe—for now.

"I can't say how far his intentions go for removing content that is
posted by other people," Fritsch said. "It would be a Don Quixote action
to try removing Technoviking from the Web."

Fritsch, who still won't reveal the Technoviking's identity despite the
lawsuit, said he's not really worried about the trial. He doesn't take
credit for the Technoviking character, which he believes was born out of
the collaborative creativity of millions of Internet users.

"I am only worried that the judge might not understand contemporary
web-culture and therefore judges from an old fashioned perspective,"
Fritsch said. "Artists are not rich usually and I am one of those
artists. To put me in a financial emergency is really something I
wouldn't like.

Technoviking's lawyer is almost certainly suing under German Persönlichkeitsrecht, which gives people control over how their own image is disseminated. The most famous case is the so-caller Herrenreiter (g) (dressage rider) decision from 1958, in which a professional horse rider's image was used without his permission in advertisements for a tonic thought to increase male potency. You could also sue for this under the common law, since this is appropriation of someone's unmistakable image without consent or payment to use in advertisements for a consumer product.

However, the common law has a different answer when it comes to people who are voluntarily putting themselves on display in public. In this case, the law generally says that if you volunarily go outside and expose your image to thousands of strangers, you are demonstrating that you don't wish that what you're doing should be kept secret, and therefore your image can be taken and used by others. There is, however, an exception for voyeuristic videos that attempt to reveal parts of your body you would wish to be kept secret (such as upskirt videos). That's obviously not an issue here. Some courts also have an exception when your image is used without your consent for a profit-making enterprise that you certainly would have demanded money for participating in had you known about it.

Under the common law, then the Technoviking video can be legally shared. Technoviking went out into a public festival, where certainly knew he might be filmed, and started dancing. He was sharing his image with thousands of strangers, and obviously enjoyed himself doing so. The artist was not using the Technoviking's image to sell a product, and the money he earned from it was merely incidental to its unexpected success. And it was, of course, money for something he created — the video of an interesting person dancing on the street.

The idea that this could lead to jail time is an absurd consequences of Germany's outdated privacy and intellectual property laws, which also subject you to hefty fines, believe it or not, if someone else (g) posts a copyrighted picture to your Facebook page. The problem here is uncertainty. Germans are normally obsessed with Rechtssicherheit, the notion that the law must be stable and clear, so that private persons can regulate their affairs in peace. But there's a huge hole in that protection when it comes to Internet users. The persistence of these old, overbroad definitions are a constant background threat that chills Internet freedom. Any of you who have a Facebook account could theoretically face a lawsuit tomorrow for something innocent you shared with your friends years ago. All that needs to happen is for someone to find out about it and contacts one of the many German lawyers who specialize in harassing German internet users with ludicrously exaggerated damages claims for infringements both real and alleged.

This is why I have a soft spot for the Pirate Party, for all their shenanigans. None of the mainstream German parties was giving much thought to these issues before the Pirate Party came along. This was due probably in equal measure to technological ignorance, the inherent conservatism of the German legal system, and effective lobbying by the content industry. The Pirates found resonance because they pointed out that outdated laws were making potential criminals of literally millions of citizens, an absurd state of affairs in a country that claims to be governed by the rule of law. The Pirates, in the best tradition of third parties, forced the mainstream to finally face an issue they'd been all to happy to ignore.

Prosecutors are Demi-Gods in the United States

The American criminal justice system stands out not only for the severity of its criminal sentencing, but for the incredible leeway it gives to prosecutors. Prosecutors exercise sole discretion over what charges to file against defendants and what deals to cut with them, if any. There are no formal requirements that prosecutors treat like crimes alike, and no rule against a prosecutor singling out one defendant for an extremely severe sentence to 'set an example'.

Although constitutional rules require prosecutors to turn over exonerating evidence to the defense, it is the prosecutor's own prerogative to decide what evidence must be turned over, and what can be kept secret. Not surprisingly, prosecutors often abuse this prerogative and conceal favorable evidence from the defense. If this fact is discovered at all, it may be only after the defendant has spent years in prison, and it often results in no punishment at all for the prosecutor. This is mainly owing to the fact that prosecutors, as government officials, enjoy immunity for actions they take during the course of duty, and this legal protection is nearly impossible to overcome. In 2011, for instance, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a Louisiana prosecutors who confessed to intentionally suppressing blood testing showing a defendant's innocence — thereby sending him to death row to wait for execution for 14 years — could not be held liable in a civil court.

But that's not all. Prosecutors can engage in overcharging: threatening defendants with extra crimes despite weak evidence, in order to force them to accept plea bargains. They can also charge defendants with every single act of illegality and seek consecutive sentences, creating the potential for huge punishments. This is also true if all of the violations were only part of one scheme. For instance, if you ran a scam sending out fraudulent letters, the prosecutor can decide to charge you for every single piece of mail the operation sent out, attaching a penalty to each one. So, for example, if you send out 60 fraudulent letters during your scheme, and the maximum sentence for each letter is 5 years in prison, then there is nothing stopping the prosecution from charging you with 60 separate offenses, and asking for a 5-year consecutive sentence on each one, for a total of 300 years in prison. Although this would raise a few eyebrows, and the judge would be likely to impose a much lighter sentence, there's nothing preventing the prosecution from asking for this insane punishment, and judges will often agree to sentence offenders to extremely long consecutive sentences.

The fact that prosecutors are immune from any effective accountability helps to explain the case of Aaron Swartz, the activists who recently committed suicide while facing prosecution for hacking into a database of academic articles. Glenn Greenwald reports:

The Wall Street Journal reported
this week that – two days before the 26-year-old activist killed
himself on Friday – federal prosecutors again rejected a plea bargain
offer from Swartz's lawyers that would have kept him out of prison. They
instead demanded that he "would need to plead guilty to every count"
and made clear that "the government would insist on prison time". That
made a trial on all 15 felony counts – with the threat of a lengthy
prison sentence if convicted – a virtual inevitability.

Just three months ago, [prosecutor Carmen] Ortiz's office, as TechDirt reported,
severely escalated the already-excessive four-felony-count indictment
by adding nine new felony counts, each of which "carrie[d] the
possibility of a fine and imprisonment of up to 10-20 years per felony",
meaning "the sentence could conceivably total 50+ years and [a] fine in
the area of $4 million." That meant, as Think Progress documented, that Swartz faced "a more severe prison term than killers, slave dealers and bank robbers".

Swartz's
girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, told the WSJ that the case
had drained all of his money and he could not afford to pay for a trial.
At Swartz's funeral in Chicago on Tuesday, his father flatly stated that his son "was killed by the government".

Ortiz
and Heymann continue to refuse to speak publicly about what they did in
this case – at least officially….

A petition on the White House's website to fire Ortiz quickly exceeded the 25,000 signatures needed to compel a reply, and a similar petition aimed at Heymann has also attracted thousands of signatures, and is likely to gather steam in the wake of revelations
that another young hacker committed suicide in 2008 in response to
Heymann's pursuit of him (You can [and I hope will] sign both petitions
by clicking on those links; the Heymann petition in particular needs more signatures)….

In sum, as Sen Jim Webb courageously put it
when he introduced a bill aimed at fundamentally reforming America's
penal state, a bill that predictably went nowhere: "America's criminal
justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national
disgrace" and "we are locking up too many people who do not belong in
jail." The tragedy of Aaron Swartz's mistreatment can and should be used
as a trigger to challenge these oppressive penal policies. As Moynihan
wrote: "those outraged by Swartz's suicide and looking to convert their
anger into action would be best served by focusing their attention on
the brutishness and stupidity of America's criminal justice system."

I have signed both petitions. Of course, Obama is not going to fire the prosecutor for simply pursuing Draconian punishments — he probably considers that part of her job. And firing one prosecutor doesn't solve any of the systemic problems. But at least it's shone a bit of sunlight on this area. The more I study other criminal justice systems, the more I become aware of how many aspects of the U.S. system are preposterously outdated, inefficient, and/or unjust. There's a German saying: Der als Normalität getarnte Wahnsinn: Insanity disguised as normality. Hmm, that might make a good subtitle.