On the Functions and Value of Art

In a conversation between Tyler Cowen, a George Mason economics professor, and David Salle, an artist and writer, Salle discusses several functions of art (mostly visual art) that I found interesting. Here’s what he said:

I think people might underestimate the decorative function of painting. Painting has various functions. A good painting satisfies most of them or all of them, pretty much at a high level. One of the functions, historically, is to make the room look better, to make people’s emotional temperature quicken slightly when the painting is in the room as opposed to when it’s not in the room. That’s a decorative function. It’s an important one.

I remember the first time I met Jasper Johns. He actually said to a friend of mine, who was standing with us, “The first obligation of a painting is to make the wall look better that it’s hanging on.” It is one of those statements that is so simple-minded it brooks mystification, but it’s just a simple fact.

What else does painting do? Obviously, we want it to do more than just be decorative. I think any good painting — really good painting — expresses something true about the time in which it was made and about the maker. But that’s another level and doesn’t have to be apparent in the same way that its decorative value is apparent.

What else does it do? It locates the maker in a certain history, a certain dialogue, a certain discourse. It sometimes takes sides. It sometimes provokes arguments. These are other things that paintings can do.

I’ll say more about this later.

How Does One Acquire Good Taste?

That was sort of the question posed by Tyler Cowen to David Salle, an artist and writer on Conversations with Tyler podcast that I recently listened to. Now, before i got into Salle’s answer, perhaps we should raise another question–namely, what does developing or having good taste even matter? I think this is a good question, and I’ll take a stab at an answer. But let’s get to Salle’s answer.

The Failure to Prosecute People Who Committed Crimes is a Part of Our Criminal Justice System

A thread from a UNC law professor goes over that. The thread started in response to a headline that said the FBI and DOJ were considering not charging all the rioters at Capitol on January 6. Some people naturally reacted with outrage to that, and Prof. Byrne Hessick wrote a threat in response:

I completely understand why people are angry about this. But the truth is that the criminal justice system routinely fails to prosecute people who are obviously guilty of crimes. It’s at the very core of modern criminal justice enforcement. It’s a serious problem that most Americans don’t know this. But we routinely fail to prosecute people who have obviously committed crimes. We just don’t have the capacity to pursue all of those cases. Part of the problem is that we’ve made too many things illegal. Another problem is that we’ve refused sufficiently fund the prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges we’d need for full enforcement. But we also don’t have the cultural commitment to full enforcement. This isn’t just a question of partisan politics. And it isn’t just about race either. We’ve literally built a system predicated on partial enforcement of the criminal laws. In sum, if you’re angry about this, I understand. But that anger probably means you need to pay more attention to the criminal justice system generally, and not just when a bunch of losers storm the Capitol. A big hello to everyone in my mentions who are here to tell me that *they* know how prosecutors use their discretion to prosecute only certain groups of defendants. Please share your dataset with those of us who actually studprosecutors’ decisionmaking. We’d love to see it!

I wanted to chime in and say that this resonates with me, based on my work experiences. I think what she’s saying applies to many, if not most situations, that involve the enforcement of rules–specifically, situations where pursuing every infraction and meting out the appropriate consequences is not practical. Workplaces and schools are some examples.

What are the implications of this? And is there an alternate system that would prosecute every infraction, and would that be desirable? What are these systems? I’ll try to answer that in the rest of this post (in the comments section).

Should Schools Be Graded?

The DOE Superintendent and HSTA have complained about the Honolulu Magazine’s annual grading of public schools. Is their request reasonable? I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I think there is a legitimate need to assess schools, and I also the demand for this information is legitimate, especially for policymakers, taxpayers, and parents. On the other hand, I’m have serious doubts creating a fair and accurate evaluation of schools. How do you define what makes a successful school? How do you evaluate or measure this? These two questions are challenging by themselves, but even if one could answer them, one would have to be able to separate various factors that would go into school success–especially the students and their families and the quality of the school staff. Schools with many ambitious students, with little physical, cognitive, social, or emotional problems, will have a greater chance of succeeding, then a school with large group of students who are unmotivated and have a host of problems. In my view, a fair and accurate assessment would have to separate these factors, and, again, I have serious doubts this can be done well.

Alternative to College for High School Graduates

I think I wrote about this idea on the old v-i, but I can’t remember. Because of the high cost of college, I recently had a conversation about an alternative to going to college, something I wouldn’t mind for my children. My concept is based on the St. Johns College’s approach:

Through close engagement with the works of some of the world’s greatest writers and thinkers—from Homer, Plato, and Euclid to Nietzsche, Einstein, and Woolf—students at St. John’s College grapple with fundamental questions that confront us as human beings. As they participate in lively discussions and throw themselves into the activity of translating, writing, demonstrating, conducting experiments, and analyzing musical compositions, St. John’s students learn to speak articulately, read attentively, reason effectively, and think creatively.

My understanding is that St. John’s College students basically read the Great Books and discuss them in small groups. For the math and science books, they will sometimes replicate older experiments or solve mathematical problems posed in these classic works. Essentially, the approach comes down to reading really good books and then being able to write and discuss them. Now imagine if a St. John’s College graduate (or some well-read person that was a good teacher) started a “school,” where about ten students would read the Great Books, meet to discuss them, write about them, and do occasional project (replicate experiments, solve math problems, etc.). That’s basically my alternative to sending my kids to college. If I was confident in my teaching ability, particularly of these books, I would consider doing this for my kids. Besides this obstacle, here are some other potential problems that come to mind: Continue reading “Alternative to College for High School Graduates”