Three splendid ones from the quote widget this morning..

If you can’t say anything good about someone, sit right here by me.
  – Alice Roosevelt Longworth
The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.
  – Ralph Waldo Emerson
A thing worth having is a thing worth cheating for.
  – W. C. Fields


Jonathan Jones

No Soul For Sale - Tate Modern's 10th anniversary.

Grisly litter … No Soul For Sale at Tate Modern, a festival to celebrate the gallery’s 10th birthday. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Labour now has a unique chance to rethink its attitudes to everything – including culture. Compared with the possibility of being reduced to third place in the election earlier this month, it has had an astonishingly soft landing. What this means is that the soul-searching can be measured, rather than vicious as it was in the 1980s. But soul-searching there must be – and this should include some broad questions about the party’s relationship with the world of the arts.

Tate Modern yesterday afternoon was a good place to ask those questions. As part of its tenth-anniversary celebrations, the gallery was hosting No Soul for Sale, a festival of independents. Some critics get their words posted up outside productions of Hamlet – me, I get quoted on an advert for a bouncy castle. “People have come to expect crazy spectacle and interactive fun in the Turbine hall”, said Jonathan Jones on a card distributed by Seattle art venue Western Bridge, to promote their contribution, a silvery-grey inflatable cube in which children could jump up and down. At least it offered some good vibrations, which was more than you could say for most of the stalls or exhibits or whatever they were that sprawled along the floor of the Turbine hall like the grisly litter of a cultural meltdown.

Honestly – was this a joke? Not so much a festival of independents as a carnival of jerks, this part of the jamboree for the much-touted Bankside anniversary was a massive own-goal, a treat only for the museum’s harshest critics. NO FUN, I was raging inside. We had come for a family afternoon by the Thames. It was raining outside, so we were trapped among feedback-playing guitarists, ironic souvenirs, mashed-up magazines and all the other detritus of imaginations that have long since given up. It was like an afternoon with Bob and Roberta Smith’s less gifted mates.

How does this relate to Labour’s fall, you might ask. From its flirtation with the Cool Britannia pop scene in the 1990s to the Millennium Dome to what settled into a complacent affiliation with the hipness of contemporary art, New Labour remorselessly and desperately identified itself with cultural modernity. The lousy party at Tate Modern on Sunday afternoon felt like the spectre of the Dome, come to remind us of the strange cultural impostures of the past 13 years.

This is what Labour needs to learn about culture: the modern does not equal the radical. Nor do history, tradition and achievement equal conservatism. Rembrandt is not a conservative – but Tracey Emin did flirt with voting, and, for all I know, did actually vote Cameron. The narrow desire to be the party of Tate Modern (and leave the National Gallery to the Right) was a dry and self-diminishing discipline.

Compare this to the British Museum last autumn, where vast crowds enjoyed a celebration of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, with skeleton stilt walkers, candy skulls – and lectures that we listened to eagerly. Labour’s obsession with contemporary chic has underestimated the intelligence and curiosity of a country that can no longer be characterised, after this divided election result, as either modern or old-fashioned. In the past, Labour intellectuals claimed the inheritance of John Ruskin. They need to do so again.

Non-Apple’s Mistake

I’ve been patient, I’ve been gracious
And this mountain is covered with wolves
Hear them howling, my hungry children
Maybe you should stay and have another drink and think about me and you.
Jonathan Coulton, “Skullcrusher Mountain”

The howls of protest coming from iPhone and iPad developers are loud and shrill, and are sure to grow louder and shriller as their Golden Cage grows smaller and smaller, as I’m certain it will.

The Golden Cage is indeed a cage, and a strong one.  Yet it has no door.   Still the poor imprisoned wretches continue, on their own free will and in battalion strength, to pack subway-rush-hour-tightly into their curious prison.  I suggest that the jailbirds’ grievances should lie not with their jailers, but with the outside world, which offers them so little.

It appears that no one (not PG, either) has a grasp of the real problem behind Apple’s tyranny.  At any rate, no one is talking about it.  It is quite true that Apple’s new App Store policies are exactly the kind of behavior one might expect from a tyrannical monopoly.  But, having cornered no markets, Apple is not a monopoly.  Or is it?

I argue that Apple now has not one but two monopolies:

I)    A nearly-total monopoly on computer (and pocket computer) systems designed with good taste.
II)  A total monopoly on the Microsoft-free, hassle-free personal computer. [1]

Mr. Jobs is indeed starting to behave like that other convicted monopolist we know and love.  Yet unlike the latter, Jobs did not engage in underhanded business practices to create his monopolies. They were handed to him on a silver platter by the rest of the market, which insists on peddling either outright crap [2] or cheap imitations [3] of Apple’s aesthetic.  In order to resist the temptation this worldwide herd of mindless junk-peddlers and imitators have placed before him, it would not be enough for Jobs to merely “not be evil.” He would have to be a saint (and a traitor to his shareholders.)

Imagine that every car maker save for Toyota insisted on using the infamous East German Trabant as a standard of quality – yet blindly imitated random elements of Toyota’s visual design.  How long would it take for the whiners to appear on the scene and start making noises about monopolistic tyranny?  How long would it take for Toyota to start living up to these accusations in earnest?  And why should it not do so?  What is to be gained from corporate sainthood?  From a refusal to fleece eagerly willing suckers for all they’re worth?  Idle threats of defection by outraged iPhone developers [4] are laughable nonsense simply because – in the two categories listed – Apple has no competition. Every commercial product which competes directly with an Apple product (particularly the iPhone) gives me (and many others) the distinct impression that “where it is original, it is not good, and where it is good, it is not original.”

Of course, Apple’s competitors cannot actually copy the secret of its greatness, because Apple is a fundamentally different type of organism.  Rather than a brainless government-by-committee, it is an extension of one man’s will, projected with the aid of a small group of trusted lieutenants: no focus groups in sight.  For the Apple-imitators to turn into genuine “Apples” would be as fantastic and unlikely as it would be for a slime mold to spontaneously become a true multicellular animal, equipped with a central nervous system.  It is also unclear that, from their own perspective, they should want to grow brains – for a creature with that kind of centralized point of failure is decidedly no longer immortal. [5]  There is every reason to believe that when Jobs dies, Apple will also die [6] – or at the very least, “diminish, and go into the West,” becoming a pale imitation of itself – like the post-Edison zombie of General Electric, or Hughes Aircraft after Hughes.  Yet we, the consumers and developers, could certainly use more products from corporations endowed with an actual mind and will.

You want a non-tyrannical Apple?  Rather than striving to weaken Apple so that it can be devoured by its brawny-yet-mindless competitors, do something constructive.  Experiment with GUIs which don’t trace their descent to Xerox PARC.  Forever renounce the idiotic practice of copying Microsoft, that cheap imitation of a cheap imitation.  If you are creative, create.  Otherwise, strive to find a strong-willed Jobs figure gifted with good taste, and become his loyal servant.  This is how we get quality products, everywhere from architecture to operating systems.  There is no other way.  Creativity requires a mind, and a herd has none.


A number of people linking here seem to think that I like Apple or forgive its sins (as if Apple needs my forgiveness.)  This is a mistake.   I loathe Apple products, and chafe under the straightjacket of their aesthetic whenever I use one.  I simply happen to despise their competition that much more.  At least Apple has an aesthetic.  Its works, however flawed, are the works of a person, rather than an amorphous blob.

[1] For a variety of reasons, Apple’s OS is not my choice on the desktop.  Yet my only laptop is a Macbook Air.  No one else makes a portable where every hardware component simply works, including suspend mode, while entirely freeing me from Microsoft. (In an important sense, Apple’s dominance stems partly from an unholy “good cop, bad cop” symbiosis with the Redmond Tyrant.)  I should also note that no one else makes a laptop whose metallic chassis enables it to pass the “Creak Test” – hold a device by two opposite corners and flex gently.  Do you hear a noise of any kind?  If so, you are holding a mechanically-unsound piece of garbage.

[2] The still-ubiquitous non-touchscreen phones, for instance.

[3] What else would you call this?  And were it not for trademark and patent laws, I imagine that Apple’s mobile phone competitors would pull out all the stops and make outright copies without shame, just as Microsoft continues to shamelessly ape the Apple GUI – as it has continuously done since Windows 1.0.

[4] The fabled Google Android?  It is entirely the piece of junk one ought to expect from a development process driven by committees and steered by non-creative minds.  And it appears that many would-be buyers know it.

[5] In addition to the likely loss of immortality, such a transformation would also make a company far less hospitable to the time-servers, sycophants, and sociopaths who presently dominate American corporate culture.  It would be vigorously resisted by almost everyone who is in any kind of position to resist it.

[6] Stock-holders who are outraged over Mr. Jobs’ failure to report on his failing health certainly seem to think so.

This entry was written by Stanislav , posted on Friday April 16 2010 , filed under Hot Air, NonLoper, Philosophy . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.