Mona Lisa — Becoming Great

August 8, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

Carol Gillot, at her Paris Breakfasts blog, had a post about visiting the Louvre. When she was last there, she sketched some of the art works and added,”It was very common back in the day to copy paintings at the Louvre.” As evidence, she included this 1833 painting of a man(lower left) and a woman (centerr) each copying one of the many renaissance paintings in the room.

One of the commenters on the blog noted how difficult it was now to see the Mona Lisa. She was right.

Of course. The Mona Lisa is the greatest painting in the world, or at least one of them, and certainly the most famous.  

But take another look at that 1833 painting. Look at the lowest row of paintings, especially the one in the middle of the canvas.

Yes, it’s the Mona Lisa. Two hundred years ago, it wasn’t the greatest painting in the world. It was just another very good renaissance painting, good enough to merit a place in the Louvre, But it was not as great as the Titian portrait of Francis 1, which has a position two canvasses higher and closer to eye level.

And now she sits in her own separate room, roped off from the masses who flock to see her beauty and to experience the greatness of the painting. In two centuries, Mona Lisa has raised her game considerably.

Of course that’s ridiculous. The painting didn’t change. But what did? The conventional explanation is that the greatness was always there but that art critics and ordinary people came to perceive and appreciate that greatness only later.

Aside from the arrogance — assuming that we are better at art appreciation than were people in the 19th century — this explanation ignores the social component of tastes and evaluations. Duncan Watts, in Everything Is Obvious ... Once You Know the Answer argues brilliantly and convincingly that the Mona Lisa’s rise to the top depended on two things – luck and cumulative advantage. Luck — in 1911, the painting was stolen from the Louvre. When it was recovered two years later, it was shown all over Italy, and when its arrival back at the Louvre was widely covered in the media (or as it was called then the press).

As a result, critics turned their attention to the painting, pointing out all the qualities that made it great and that made the theft and recovery so important. Other people would read these accounts and see for themselves how great the painting was. The snowballing cycle of fame and attention, what social scientists call cumulative advantage, raised Mona Lisa’s position on the charts in much the same way that a song becomes a hit. As it becomes more popular, it gets more air play, and that air play makes the song more familiar and popular, further pushing it up the charts.

*          *        *        *

This is much too brief a treatment of Watts’s essay. His tour of artistic successes has stops at the Billboard charts and Harry Potter, all with the same insight. It’s not the qualities inherent in a book, song, or painting that account for its success. There are lots of similar works, indistinguishable in quality, that we’ve never heard of. It’s the lucky break and cumulative advantage that take it from just another painting to GOAT.

Only “Guys and Dolls” in the Building

July 21, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

I saw on a local news site that Nathan Lane is moving into the Dorilton, an elegant building on New York’s Upper West Side just a few blocks from where I live. Lane and his husband are paying $4.1 million for the seven-room apartment. 

I have been inside the Dorilton only once, and it was the site of one of the more embarrassing moments in my life.

In May of  1992, my son was invited to a birthday party for twins who were turning two. They were a half year older. We knew them and their parents from the nearby playgrounds, mostly the Elephant Playground in Riverside Park but in cold weather an indoor playground,  a large open space on the upper floor of a church. The family had an apartment in the Dorilton. There were only two apartments on that wing of the building. When you got off the elevator, if you turned right, you were in their apartment; if you turned left, you were in the other.

I knew some of the other people at the party — playground parents — but certainly not all.  At one point, I was passing through the foyer, and I came face to face with a man who I was sure I had seen before —  good looking, dark hair, 35-40. “You look familiar,” I said. “Do I know you maybe from the playground?” I thought he might have been an uncle who sometimes took the twins.

“No,” he siad, “I just live across the hall.”

“But I think I’ve seen you someplace,” I said.

“Well, I’m an actor, so maybe that’s it.”

Maybe so, but where had I seen him? On TV? A commercial?  New York is full of actors, and most of them are, to put it euphemistically, between roles — waiting tables and going to auditions. So not wanting to embarrass him, I asked as tactfully as I could what he was doing these days.

“I’m in the new production of ‘Guys and Dolls’”

I was too embarrassed to admit that I knew nothing about this production — the staging, the stars, etc. — except that it had opened just a few weeks before to rave reviews. I guess this guy had gotten lucky and landed a part. I didn’t want to reveal my ignorance, but I did know the show pretty well, so I asked, “What role do you have?”

“I’m Sky Masterson.”

Oh my god. He was the star of the show – well, one of the four stars.  Peter Gallagher, and he looked familiar because two or three years earlier, I had seen him in the movie “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” where he played one of the four main characters. I said something and slinked away. OK, it probably didn’t look like slinking. It looked like moving on, mixing, coffee in hand. But it felt like slinking. In the same way, the questions I’d asked him proabably didn’t seem offensive or denigrating to him, but in my mind, I knew that I was treating a Broadway star as though he were merely one of the thousands of unsuccessful hopefuls.

Eventually, the Gallagher family moved out of the Dorilton and went back to Los Angeles. But here is where we come full circle. The other important male character in “Guys and Dolls” is Nathan Detroit, and in that 1992 production, the part was played by Nathan Lane.

1. Here is the sociology I cropped out of the above narrative and have relegated to this long footnote:

Why was that incident embarrassing?

 Embarrassment, says Goffman in his famous essay on the topic, is about identity. “Identity” may be too grand a term here – “being a certain kind of person” would do — but “identity” is the term Goffman uses.

In a social situation, people must act in accordance with the identity they claim so that others will ratify that identity. If there’s a glitch on either side, you get embarrassment. Often, embarrassment disrupts a situation when a person does something that casts doubt on their “projected identity.” It’s hard to project an identity as a person who knows the norms of dress and decorum if you’re standing there with your fly not zipped.

But embarrassment also happens when we unwittingly fail to acknowledge or ratify someone else’s identity. This includes mistaken identity, like greeting someone warmly who turns out to be a total stranger, or making a remark to the “wrong” person. It also includes not knowing the relevant aspects about the other person’s identity, like the fact that they are the star of the biggest Broadway hit of the season.

2. Peter Gallagher made an appearance in this blog a few years ago (here) in a post with a video of him making the cast recording of the show.
3. The title of this post alludes to the Hulu TV series “Only Murders in the Building.” Nathan Lane will be a regular in the cast next season. The fictional building in that show is The Arconia. In real life, across Broadway from the Dorilton and two blocks north is a building called The Ansonia. It appears in several Hollywood films. Walter Matthau lives there in “The Sunshine Boys” as do Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bridget Fonda in “Single White Female.” In real life, I live there.

Gun Possession Law: I, the Jury

July 15, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

I thought that the Supreme Court decision in the recent gun-possession case was a bad decision. I still do, but as I listened to a recent podcast — Lulu Garcia-Navarro’s “First Person” (here) — my thinking about it changed. 

Sharone Mitchell Jr.  is a prosecutor. He’s Black. He grew up on the South Side of Chicago. He knows the dangers of guns. When he was in middle school, a classmate of his was shot. Another kid he was friendly with had a gun.

And yet, as he says on the podcast, he supports the Supreme Court’s recent decision that allows people to carry guns. His reason is that gun-possession laws are used mostly against Black men who are not criminals and who are merely trying to protect themselves.

There is just the random threat of violence growing up in the neighborhood, right, this idea of gangs and getting jumped, getting jumped for your Jordans or getting jumped for your Starter jacket. I think people had an interest in keeping themselves safe. My friend who showed me my first gun was of that same mindset. Like this is what I’m going to do to make sure that I protect myself.

Mitchell’s experience as a prosecutor provided him with more evidence to support that view.

As I became a more experienced attorney, more and more of our cases, my cases, involved guns. . . actually gun possession cases. They are people who are accused of illegally possessing a firearm. That was the vast majority of my cases.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: And just to be clear, that’s the only crime these people are being charged with a quarter of the time, just having a gun?

Sharone Mitchell Jr.: Illegally having a gun, yeah.

I remembered my own encounter with gun laws. In the 1980s, I served as a juror on a gun-possession case. The defendant was a young Black man, and the case sounded very much like the ones Sharone Mitchell prosecuted.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: So can you talk me through the circumstances in which people are being arrested for gun possession not involving another crime? What typically draws the attention of the police in the first place?

Sharone Mitchell Jr.: Typically a search, you know, an encounter. Police could pull people over in a car. They could stop people on the street. We know that certain communities are policed very heavily. There’s lots of contact folks will have with police. So we’re talking young Black men in very particular neighborhoods.

That was my case all right. Harlem, one a.m.. Three Black men in a gypsy cab, two in the back seat, one (the eventual defendant) in the front passenger seat. The driver too is black. They make a brief stop for cigarettes, and as they pull out from the curb, the cops pull them over. They say that the cab had pulled out from the curb illegally, but that was clearly a pretext. The real reason was what Mitchell says: Black men in a Black neighborhood.

The driver, the DA’s main witness, testifies that when the man in the passenger seat saw the flashing light, he said, “Oh, shit,” and put something under his seat. The cops searched the car and under the seat they found a gun.

It seemed like a strong case, and I wondered why it hadn’t been pleaded out to some lesser charge. I knew that in New York illegal possession carried a mandatory one-year minimum sentence. So my first assumption was that our defendant was a bad guy, a criminal well-known to the police, a guy with a string of arrests and maybe a few stretches in prison, but that the gun charge was what they would get him on. At least he’d be off the streets for a year.

Instead, he seemed much more to fit Sharone Mitchell’s typical case. He took the stand in his own defense, and while the DA could not bring in any criminal history, but she could ask about employment history. But our defendant had no long gaps between jobs that would indicate prison time. Even the DA allowed that the defendant was carrying the gun for protection. He had been mugged recently, and he was going to Harlem at one in the morning. But the law is the law.

In the jury room several people asked pretty much the same question that Mitchell raises: Hey, this is New York City.  Murders, robberies, assaults. Bad people doing bad things. Why are they wasting our time with a case like this?

We deliberated for about an hour.

Not guilty.

Majority Rule and the School Curriculum

June 4, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

Should schools teach things that a lot of parents don’t like even if those things are true? If most parents are creationists, should the science curriculum nevertheless teach about evolution or mention that the earth is four billion years old rather than 10,000? Or should curriculum avoid anything that contradicts the views of parents?

When it comes to the facts that children are taught, Reihan Salam wants majority rule.

And here the big challenge is whether or not you have public institutions that are advancing curricula and ideas that are basically going against freedom of conscience. Do we have situations in which people are being compelled to adhere to certain ideas, certain controversial ideas?

(From his recent interview with Ezra Klein.)

I don’t know where Reihan went to school, but in the schools I went to you were “compelled” to learn what was taught. Well, you weren’t compelled. But you would do better on the exams if you did learn it.. Even if your conscience told you that Aristotle’s four elements theory was spot on, your chem teacher went against your freedom of conscience and compelled you to learn about the periodic table. The exams didn’t have any questions about earth, air, fire, and water.

Reihan goes on:

And I think that that’s something where it is good and healthy to have transparency in school curricula. I think it is good and legitimate to believe that parents should have access to good, reliable information about what is being taught and about the ideological content of what is being taught. This is obviously a very contentious issue, but I think that it goes part and parcel with our general belief and educational pluralism. That is the idea that schools tend to work best when they’re broadly aligned with the values and sensibilities of families.

It sounds so good. Who could be against freedom of conscience, against transparency or good, reliable information, or pluralism, or families?

Of course, Reihan isn’t talking about creationism or phlogiston theory. He’s talking about Critical Race Theory, but the issue of who designs the curriculum is basically the same.  What Reihan is offering is a calmer and more reasonable-sounding version of what louder right-wing politicians are saying. Much like the con man in “The Music Man,” they are telling the parents, “You got trouble my friends, with a capital T, and that rhymes with C and that stands for Critical Race Theory.” Twenty years ago, politicians like these were railing and legislating against “Sharia law,” which they claimed posed an imminent threat to freedom, family, and apple pie. Now it’s CRT. Plus ça change.

Should schools teach about the crucial place that race, especially the treatment of African Americans, has in American history and in the American present? It’s not a pleasant story, and it does not show White people as being predominantly noble. Not surprising that it makes some people feel uncomfortable or that they would prefer the “patriotic education” promoted by Donald Trump.

And if that’s what they want, in Reihan’s book that’s what they should have. He doesn’t say exactly what he means by “educational pluralism.” But it certainly suggests that “the values and sensibilities of families” should shape the curriculum. In many cases, that means that kids will get a Whitewashed version of US history, a version that does not make the majority feel uncomfortable.

But wait. Aren’t we past that? Don’t we acknowledge that slavery was bad and that the secession in order to preserve slavery was wrong? What about all those statues that have been torn down?

The same day that the Reihan Salam interview appeared, sociologist Peter Moskos tweeted a photo he had taken of a sign in Greenville, SC, a city of 70,000, 70% White, 23% Black. (The Greenville County population is 533,000, 76% White, 18% Black.) The sign was next to a statue of Robert E. Lee.

“Dedicated in reverence and admiration for their courage and integrity to the five signers Ordinance of Secession from Greenville County.”

Here’s the text Peter tweeted below the photo:
I really did not expect to see this. My naiveté. "In reverence and admiration"? These aren't founding fathers. These were literally traitors.
I don’t know what the history curriculum in the Greenville schools compels students to learn, but I would guess that, like the sign and statue, it is, as Reihan says, “broadly aligned with the values and sensibilities of families.” Well, the 70% of families that are White, not the 23% that are Black.