June 2009 Archives


How to Sell: I love the title with its echoes of business advice books. It's easy to imagine someone picking up Clancy Martin's novel to get tips on closing a sale - only to get a shock.

But I hope the book buyer will keep reading. How to Sell is told by a 16-year-old named Bobby Clark. Bobby is expelled from his Toronto high school and heads for Fort Worth. His brother Jim offered him a job there in a jewelry emporium. Bobby is naïve but he's also amoral. He steals his own mother's wedding ring to pawn for cash. But he does it all for a girl he loves -- who doesn't even care about him.

People mistake Bobby's bewilderment and eagerness for innocence. But he also has this talent. Working in the Fort Worth jewelry store may teach Bobby how to fake white gold as platinum, how to pass off a cheap, used Rolex as a brand new expensive model. And he certainly learns a lot about using booze, cocaine and crystal meth to get through the frantic days on the selling floor.

But when it comes to selling, that's an art young Bobby Clark has in his family DNA.  Bobby and Jim's father is an ailing New Age minister, part guru, part con-man. He keeps popping up whenever his latest church has failed or whenever he needs serious medical help. Bobby says that his father had lied to him thousands of times. And if you told him he'd lied he would deny it with a sincere heart.

June 10, 2009 3:00 PM |

Justine Smith, Absolute Power, dollar bills, 2005

Money for Art, Pt 1: Arts Funding in America

David A. Smith's Money for Art: The Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American Democracy recounts the history of federal funding of the arts since 1817 when Congress bought its first set of oil paintings. But Dr. Smith -- a senior lecturer in history at Baylor University -- mostly gets through the decades up to the 1960s to set up his account of the National Endowment for the Arts, which is more or less the heart of the book. Indeed, it's possible to read Money for Art as an extended preamble to the NEA's culture wars in the '80s and '90s. The book is an attempt to explain that outbreak by putting it in a historical context -- to explain it, learn from it and perhaps even get past it.

Dr. Smith believes that since the '60s, the NEA -- and American culture in general -- has gone too far in valuing (even celebrating) the needs and impulses of the individual artist. Built up over the course of several chapters, Dr. Smith's argument is that by the '80s, the arts and the NEA had become estranged from much of the American public (and its political leaders). They had discredited themselves in the eyes of many by becoming over-intellectualized, over-concerned with 'transgression' and 'revolution' for transgression and revolution's sake. The NEA was increasingly beholden to a small, insular set of art-world postures and lefty academic opinions. It had embraced a multi-cultural pluralism, thereby surrendering whatever authoritative judgments the endowment made on the artworks it chose to fund.

A backlash from taxpayers and political leaders was bound to happen.

A good case can be made for some of this. Some of it -- no. To take one example: Citing Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word, Dr. Smith presents the idea that the arts have become increasingly esoteric, obsessed with critical theory and have deliberately dismissed a middle-class audience's understanding.

Undoubtedly, some have. But there are two chief weaknesses with this view. First, as Dr. Smith more or less recognizes, it applies a situation in the visual arts to all the others. In fact, Money for Art is often limited by Dr. Smith's reliance on building his case through the visual arts. Although he makes reference to the other arts, the great majority of his evidence, his thinking, his history, is derived from painting and photography.

June 5, 2009 3:25 PM | | Comments (3)


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