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Books & Movies

The Art of The Steal

At stake under Repo 105 was $50 billion of debt.

The Art of the Steal’s focus is a similar sum of money. It’s about the ultimately successful efforts of various Philadelphia organizations and charities to subvert the will of the late owner of the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, and move the art he bought and displayed in a house in Merion to a museum in Philadelphia, against his Will and his will.

As someone without power in the movie says, and it seems right, what all the people at the foundations, museums and charities really get a thrill out of is the idea of controlling $50 billion, the estimated worth of the foundation’s amazing collection of post-impressionist art, never loaned or sold, rarely displayed.

Though the movie waxes indignant about the wiles of the foundations and the dissing of the Will and the vulgarity of museums, and they are doubtless right about the motives of the various parties stimulated by the thought of controlling assets, it seems to me that in the end the outcome isn’t all that bad: Putting the art in a public place isn’t awful, even if the museums are interested only in money and attendance and selling Cezanne scarves.

The “good guys” in the movie detest the vulgarity and the money chasing, but somehow, though everything they say is likely true, you look at them and think: What do they actually want, to keep the pictures in a temple that only true aesthetes can enter, not the great unwashed, in order to remain faithful to the will of a man who’s been dead for 50 years?

Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne

I know little about evolution, and I’m always unnecessarily peeved by people who get worked up about other people’s irrationality, but this book is very well written and convincing.


Spinoza argued that the things that people do out of apparent free will actually have a causal explanation — we just haven’t understood it yet.

I like the few videos with Slavoj Zizek I accidentally discovered on Youtube, performer though he is. What I particularly like is his implicit attitude that everything apparently random deserves an explanation in terms of its meaning to humans — the design of toilets in different countries, for example. I like to think everything has a meaning. We invent the things we talk about, even ostensibly natural objects, so why shouldn’t they have human meanings?

And I realize that what I dislike about the narrowly materialist explanations of things — emotions as chemistry, behavior as neuroscience — is that even if it’s true it’s only half the picture. It’s the mechanical explanation for things, and it may be valid, but it doesn’t provide the human context that go with the matter that we gave a name and category too. I like even Freud for this reason: the idea that there is some meaning to dreams and idiosyncracies and neuroses, that nothing we name happens without a human relevance and cause describable in human terms.

Of course even the material world is identified by humans, and so perhaps purely material explanations are still human explanations.

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