It surprised me to hear that dab was a printing term associated with stereotyping. I also found it strange that it would be associated with dance move, or internet meme, or drug use.

Dab entered the English language around 1300, with no known origin, both as a verb and a noun. It started as a slap, a light blow,  also used figuratively as in “poking fun” at someone. In the 18th century, it was associated with soft substances, though I suspect they weren’t talking about Brylcreem. It also meant to apply just a small amount. An obsolete sense used in typeseting meant inserting a wooden type ornament into soft metal to cast it in more durable form.

Incised printing, in some forms of engraving and photogravure, has some dynamic range in that deep channels in the plate can hold more ink and thus print darker, making them somewhat analog in that degrees of gradation are possible. Texture is given primarily through the use of patterns of stippled dots, like grains, or lines arranged in parallel a bit like grain in wood to increase the surface area which would hold ink in its recesses increasing density.

Relief printing, as in woodcut or typeset text has two states: ink or no ink. Relief printing is a digital process. A small amount of ink is dabbed or rolled on the surface of the plate; too much ink and the plate is unintelligible. Grain isn’t a factor in woodcuts, as the wood is oriented with its grain perpendicular to the impression for maximum strength and the ability to hold fine detail. Line and and stipple are also used for much the same fashion as in burin engraving on metal, but without the same sense of depth and range because of the increased saturation, rather than density, of ink.

Historically, the wood used for woodcuts comes from boxwood, the same popular topiary shrub seen everywhere today. Needless to say, there are distinct limitations to materials used in reproductive technologies. Boxwood is slow growing, and almost never reaches beyond 3-4 inches in diameter. Pieces are cut into cross grain disks of the same height as the metal type to be used, and in order to make larger illustrations, multiple pieces are carved separately and clamped together in the press. In the 19th century, this was actually useful because labor could be divided between several journeymen to make plates quickly instead of the laborious, sometimes multi-year procedures associated with burin engraving.

Carving against the grain has some disadvantages. Wood grain behaves like a cluster of straws, soaking up liquid and swelling to weaken it. Thus, stereotyping for larger production runs was a necessity, not an option. At the turn of the 18th century, though, smaller publics and lower production made the production of elegant artistic works possible, like Thomas Bewick’s A General History of the Quadropeds from 1790.

The Giraffe, or Cameleopard

Accuracy in reporting wasn’t really an issue for most early instances of visual communication. There was big money circulating in print, mostly for publishers, and a large pool of journeyman able to churn out words and images. Illustrated newspapers were a big success by the middle of the nineteenth century. But there were a variety of competitors in the race to pander to, as well as create, a public taste in visual representations. The invention of photography in 1839 did not revolutionize or overthrow existing print regimes. Photographs were often raw material for engravings, discarded after sketches or engravings from them had been created.

One of the major markets for publishers was reproductions of popular works of art. Henri Delaborde, writing in 1856, saw little future for photography as a useful tool for this:

In reproducing art, it is the inevitable inability to discriminate between what should be transcribed and what should be interpreted, that is the fatal disability which will eternally condemn photography to an industrial role that is beneath and outside the bounds of art. Photography can but parody the appearance of its subjects. Printmaking manages to seize its intimate appearance. Nowadays we are inclined to content ourselves with inanimate reproductions. Nothing more. Should this be sufficient for us? Have we lost our appreciation of art because of our sudden interest in a new discovery?

It seems odd that the lines, crosshatches, and stipples of early printing processes would be be preferred to smooth gradations of tone provided by silver or platinum grains clumped at the papers surface. There were limitations, to be sure— largely due to the lack of color processes— but interpretations of artworks were more prized than accurate reproductions. For a time, relief prints, intaglio prints, and photographs all competed for the same sector of the art market: reproductions of paintings. For news, there was simply no competition for woodcut printing. Photographs were used to provide an index to appearances, but the report was created by a committee of artisans. William Ivins identified this cultural phenomena, in his final remarks in 1953:

In a way, my whole argument about the role of the exactly repeatable pictorial statement and its syntaxes resolves itself into what, once stated, is the truism that at any given moment the accepted report of an event is of greater importance than the event, for what we think about and act upon is the symbolic report and not the concrete event itself. (180)

The market for images demanded, rather than depth and accuracy, a human interpretation of whatever event was being reported. This was slow to shift. Taste did not begin to shift until after one more revolution in print culture, lithography. It was lithography that put art in everyone’s home. The ascendency of photography was slow, and only really took off when it lost its subtle gradations as it was digitized into halftone dots.

The emphasis on the human touch in the 18th and 19th century, perhaps even into the 20th reflects real concerns about the nature of perception and the imperfections of technology. It seems entirely fitting that Bewick, the pioneering woodcut artist, used a carving of his thumbprint as a signature. Curiously, in the slang of 20th century noir, a fingerprint is a dab.

A leather dabber for distributing ink on plates

The Rationalization of Sound

Mall mural, Shoreview, MN © 2006 Jeff Ward

On the wall beside the drugstore, across from a Parisian style cafe, inside a dying enclosed mall in Shoreview (a northern suburb of the Twin Cities) this musical apparition caught my eye. It was a space I loved; murals covered every wall of this tiny mall and the air was filled with muzak instead of the rush of people. There was a soundscape to these suburbs that I was captivated with. I’ll never forget going to the Shoreview Target store in the dead of my first Minnesota winter. It was like entering into a scene from The Shining set in a store like the one in One Hour Photo: white, spare, oddly menacing and above all incredibly creepy. It was visceral— a three dimensional experience—not a movie.

Mall mural, Shoreview, MN © 2008 Jeff Ward

The mall, located over a set of railroad tracks and across the community marker on a wall that was always vandalized to read “horeview” actually seemed warm and inviting to me. It was like walking into a make believe town where the empty shops had been replaced by paintings of shops, and the people with likenesses permanently enjoying the space looking outward from the walls. The scenes were intelligible, and fitted well to the space, complete with flâneurs peeking from behind the sculptural plastic trees.

Mall mural, Shoreview, MN © 2006 Jeff Ward

In the beginning, Victor Gruen saw the architectural space of the modern shopping mall as a substitute for the plazas and promenades of old world cities. I suspect the muralist who created that odd environment inside that mall in Shoreview, MN, wasn’t thinking of that. It’s an interesting cultural and aesthetic confluence, but the soundscape simply didn’t match up.

Emily Thompson, in The Soundscape of Modernity, uses the term soundscape to be inclusive of the cultures that create them.

Like a landscape, a soundscape is simultaneously a physical environment and a way of perceiving the environment; it is both a world and a culture constructed to make sense of that world. The physical aspects of a soundscape consist not only of the sounds themselves, the waves of acoustical energy permeating the atmosphere in which people live, but also the material objects that create and sometimes destroy those sounds. A soundscapes cultural aspects incorporate scientific and aesthetic ways of listening, a listener’s relationship to their environment, and the social circumstances that dictate who gets to hear what. (1-2)

The narrative Thompson arranges is the emergence of a “modern soundscape” from 1900-1933. The centerpiece is a transformation of sound into signal roughly analogous to William Ivin’s suggestion of a movement from image to report in print illustration. And like the term legend, it replicates both a sensory experience, and the means to make sense of it. Architectural acoustics seeks to replicate the conditions of “good sound” in a repeatable fashion; just what qualifies as good is socially negotiated.

Reasoning about the nature of sound requires models. There were two important perspectives that interfaced in dramatically in the nineteenth century that lead to the modern soundscape.  Hermann von Hemholtz was a towering figure in  acoustics. Seeking to promote psychophysics, founded on the model that there was a direct relationship between perception and reality, Hemholtz discovered that vowel sounds could be replicated using tuning forks or resonant chambers that matched their frequency. Heinrich Hertz, a student of Hemholtz succeeded in tying things together for a wave model of electromagnetic activity using James Clerk Maxwell’s equations. It’s easy to adopt the enlightenment/scientific method paradigm for progress, as typified by Galileo in 1623:

Philosophy [i.e. natural philosophy] is written in this grand book — I mean the Universe — which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering around in a dark labyrinth.

However, it would be a mistake to believe that acoustical science was based entirely on Newtonian materialism. The first textbook on acoustics from 1877, still in use today, was written by a staunch idealist who proclaimed “I have never thought the materialist view possible, and I look to a power beyond what we see, and to a life in which we may at least hope to take part. ” Lord Rayleigh, who also provided a material explanation as to why the sky is blue, follows a different philosophy of science than Hemholtz, and rather than pursuing psychophysics, maintained an interest in parapsychology as a member of the Society for Psychical Research.

Thompson’s survey of soundscapes begins in 1900, summoning an epigram from a plaque in the lobby of Symphony Hall in Boston dedicated to Wallace Sabine:

Symphony Hall, the first auditorium to be built in known conformity with acoustical laws, was designed in accordance with his specifications and mathematical formulae, the fruit of long and arduous research. Through self-effacing devotion to science, he nobly served the art of music. Here stands his monument. (13)

Sabine is still famous for the Sabine Reverberation Equation, used to measure the effects of the absorption of sound by material in the sound field. He found that the strict mathematical formulae of Hertz, when applied to sound, did not successfully predict the level of reverberation in actual environments. He used instruments developed by Lord Rayleigh for creating visual representations of sound waves to measure the absorption of sound waves by different materials, arriving at a mathematical relation that could be used to predict reliably how architectural environments would sound, at least as far as reverberation at different frequencies was concerned. Eventually, less reverberation was to be preferred for maximum intelligibility.

Part of the reason for this had little to do with music; it is speech that is most frequently rendered unintelligible by reverberation. Research into sound has been driven more by the mystery of voice than the requirements of environments, though with the increased demand for large public meeting spaces, emphasis on architectural acoustics becomes especially important.

The success of Symphony Hall in Boston was initially mixed— it was a “controlled” hall, compared to other venues. Some felt it sucked the life out of the music played there, but now it is revered as one of the finest sounding music halls available. In 1902, Sabine began to study “The Accuracy of Musical Taste in Regard to Architectural Acoustics,” declaring that the fundamental problem was a lack of understanding both of physical phenomena and musical effect. Judgement and taste necessitated the development of more refined authorities adjudicate disputes.

Thompson makes the argument that until the advent of electronic sound reinforcement (in 1933) architectural acoustics was a fertile field of negotiation regarding the definition of what constituted “good sound.” There was a tension between mathematical modeling and more human standards of perception that was fundamentally altered by the transformation from sound to signal.

Signal works here on two levels; on one hand, it is the waveform approach to sound versus material vibrations. On the other hand, signal also has an equivalence with message, or spoken word, which reaches its logical culmination much later in the Shannon-Weaver model for communication (1948). Lord Rayleigh’s desire for visual representation of speech was also taken up, in a non-mathematical way, by an elocution teacher,  Alexander Melville Bell.

In 1867, Bell attempted to create a symbolic language for sound, Visible Speech, which was based on the shape the mouth made while making sounds. It was an attempt at a universal language that would reproduce not only the symbolic content, but also the sound of dialects and variations between speakers. The modern equivalent exists in the form of the IPA, first discussed in 1886.

In a profound sense, the “report” of speech by standard symbolic alphabets strips away the richness of the experience of speech in material environments. There are two tracks here worth highlighting. Sound as electromagnetic signal appeals to mathematic rationalization of material properties. Sound as a uniquely situated event appeals to the philosophical idealist mode of rationalizing it within a human context. Bell’s Visible Speech is a legend for the material realities of the body that produces speech.

It’s worth noting that these factors do not operate in isolation. They interact in curious ways. Alexander Graham Bell’s development of the telephone was grounded in his father’s work on Visible Speech, but also in a fortuitous misreading of Hemholtz’s scientific paper on the reproduction of vowel sounds. How sound gets rationalized is cultural, aesthetic, and not entirely scientific.

Deep Cuts

Sun Studios, 2006. Record cutting lathe & tape recorder

Speech and music are best considered as events. They happen. In fact, the descriptive term for words which convey action or a condition of being is verb, which is taken from the Middle French word for speech. Recording events to make them repeatable is a function of technology, either as writing (symbolic memory) or as a way of recreating the sound waves associated with an event already past through a variety of technologies

Non-symbolic analog or digital technologies for producing repeatable sounds began from forms of cutting or extruding. Bumps raised on the cylinders of a music box or cutouts in a piano roll can replay sounds with great precision, but these digital technologies lack flexibility when compared to the analog recreation of the Edison wax cylinder. A stylus impresses the mechanical motion of a diaphragm into a spiral groove created in wax. There are problems with fidelity and permanence, though.

In the early twentieth century, cutting won the day. A variety of formats of shellac discs, at first, and finally vinyl records emerged with varying standards. They were cut on record making lathes directly and replicated as stampers (molds) used to press multiple copies for reproduction. Fidelity to the original speech or musical event has been a concern from the start; recordings, like sense data, are processed in different, media-specific ways in each new technology. Progress has been largely contingent on socially negotiated agreements rather than clear-cut engineering reasoning.

Cutting provides specific challenges to the material aspects of a recording. First, there’s the speed at which the stylus passes cuts a trough, as well as the amplitude (depth) of each groove in two planes. This leads to necessary compromises regarding playing time, distortion (both amount and type of distortion), not to mention the transition early on from a 3-d cylinder to a 2-d planar surface (disk). Standards were hard fought and not adopted universally. RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) standards for signal processing in long playing recordings were adopted in 1952, but not embraced by the rest of the world until 1970. By 1940, more than 100 competing standards had emerged to meet the challenges of encoding analog recording.

Digital coding (as in music boxes and piano rolls for player pianos) was contingent on a single on/off state for each individual note (frequency bundle) and very specific to each device. Analog recording offered a unique potential for encoding voice instead of simply musical notes, and saw wide adoption. Remember that Edison thought the primary use of his recording instruments was dictation.

The reproduction of classical music and hymns was reliant on symbolic notation of scores, which emerged in parallel with the symbolic recording of texts. The conventions for musical scores evolved within the social structures of the Church. Songs combine elements of both score and text, and after 1949 it was commonplace to refer to a song as a “cut” due to their primary means of storage and transmission, the inscribed disc. The song as an event was nominalized from the verb describing the action of recording it.

Deep cuts refer to songs buried with an artist’s catalog of recordings that have escaped notice; what I’m really trying to highlight here is that even when a recording has a metonymic connection with the original event (as with analog recording), that connection is mediated through the conventions as to what is considered significant in the truest sense (transferred as signifier, not as a symbol) in a sonic event mediated by material constraints, which are negotiated politically. This frequently escapes notice. When we talk about “high fidelity,” the question of fidelity to what or who is never really mentioned.

The opposite of a “deep cut” is of course a hit. A verb taken from Old Norse, hit became nominalized as popular success in the early nineteenth century. High fidelity, from Alexander Graham Bell forward, was mostly thought of as a function of intelligibility.  The relationship between mathematically engineered models of sound and consensus about intelligibility derived from testing systems with groups of people diverged significantly. It became easy to test for frequency and amplitude, but the relationship between them—what might genuinely be labeled as the syntax of sound— was more elusive.

Psychological models and psychological testing are the basis for much of acoustic science. In 1933, Fletcher and Munson tested a group of people with headphones to determine when two frequencies were determined to be at the same volume, generating what we call the equal loudness contour. This is especially important in telephony, because it measures perceived loudness (intelligibility) rather than signal amplitude. How loud does a sound have to be for us to identify it as such? It turns out that this changes with frequency.

The experiment was flawed, and repeated in 1937. In 1956 a new version of the experiment, again with significant deviations from previous findings, was published and became the basis for a new standard. This was also widely seen as flawed, and it wasn’t until repeated experiments in 2003 that a new ISO standard for loudness contour was agreed upon. It’s hard to have a hit, and difficult to stay on the charts you might say.

Our understanding of music and speech as events leaves much room for exploration. Key to this, of course, is the repeatability of experimental results. This is only possible through the use of increasingly precise methods of reproduction, the very technologies subject to improvement.




There are two fundamental ways that humans have made their marks upon the world. One is by depositing pigment on surfaces, the other is incision, carving or impressing lines and shapes into objects. One requires two dimensions, the other three or even four. An incised line can appear or seemingly disappear through the motion of light across a surface, subject to motion of the light or the observer.

An incision can be decoded in at least three ways. Is the key information on the surface, or in the depths, or both? When applied to reproductive technologies, it’s generally an either/or decision. The end product is primarily the transfer of pigment to a flat surface, so ink is applied either to the high spots (as in linocut, woodcut, or movable type) or to the depths as in intaglio printing (engraving). Paper may be embossed or ink left raised in an impression, but this is a secondary characteristic, meant more for touch rather than symbolic use. Braille is of course a notable exception to this generality. Primarily, though, symbolic exchange is usually reducible to a two dimensional domain, with a third element being syntax—the sequence which symbols occur, either in space or time.

I have been revisiting Stephen Bann’s Parallel Lines (2001) for its trenchant critique of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936-39) and William Ivins Prints and Visual Communication (1953). Bann argues that Benjamin and Ivins leapt over the cultural context of burin engraving (specifically in 19th century France) to make broad statements about reproductive technologies that are misleading at best in their effort to crown photography as the logical culmination of the search for meaningful communication in the visual realm. Ivin’s declaration that photography presented “images devoid of syntax” has always struck me as particularly ludicrous, but coming back around to these books after a decade or so has brought new thoughts.

Bann argues that photography and printmaking developed along parallel lines, with practitioners sometimes crossing between technologies for a variety of reasons. Bann’s examination is crucial to me because for a brief span, the reproduction of images and words occurred on a parallel track of a different sort: words were reproduced through movable type, a relief printing method where the raised parts of a plate are inked. Woodcuts could be reproduced in the same fashion, but engraving brought entirely new challenges. Because engravings are incised, with ink pressed into the impressed spaces, they could not be printed using the same presses. Word and image had been divorced, cut apart by technological divergence. I’m not sure they have ever reconciled.

Books using engraved plates for illustration generally group the plates in separate sections, or exist as separate volumes from typeset texts. In fact, it was possible to buy the illustrations separately and combine them with print and have them custom bound together, making each copy of a book unique. Each illustration also represented a division of labor, because the designer of the image and the artist engraving the plate might also be different people, with different aesthetic senses.

This plate, for example, was inserted into an 1811 copy of Thomas Aikenside’s Pleasures of the Imagination. The image credits are T. Stothard del (delineavit- artist) and I. Neagle sculp (sculpsit- engraver). In a direct way, this is the syntax of engraving— there are two credits, always poised on the left and right in the same places, because there are two labors involved with separate conventions. It’s convention, more than syntax, that William Ivins names as the syntax of the image. Syntax is generally defined as sequence or arrangement, but Ivin’s use of syntax points to conventions, conventions that are more recognizable as transformation or translation between the planar media of painting and drawing and the incised medium, engraving.

What makes a visual expression valuable? In Marxist terms, that would be it’s exchange value. Walter Benjamin suggests that in the arts, this amounts to exhibition value, where rather than being a small scale object viewed by the few (cult value) it becomes a reproduced object viewed by the many. Stephen Bann points instead to a concept from Michael Baxandall, troc, which is the French word for barter (1985, ch. 4). Baxandall, in a chapter delineating the relationship between Picasso and his dealers and art critics of the day, defines it as a sort of syntax for visual expression which guided the way his works were created and distributed. “Market” is not the correct term:

But it must also be said at once that the relation is much more diffuse than the economists’. In the economists’ market what the producer is compensated by is money: money goes one way, goods or services the other. But in the relation between painters and cultures the currency is much more diverse than just money: it includes such things as approval, intellectual nurture and, later, reassurance, provocation and irritation of stimulating kinds, the articulation of ideas, vernacular visual skills, friendship and — very important indeed — a history of one’s activity and a heredity, as well as sometimes money acting both as a token of some of these and a means to continuing performance. And the good exchanged for these is not so much pictures as profitable and pleasurable experience of pictures.

Without suggesting that Picasso modified his art to accommodate market conditions, it isn’t a stretch to say that he sought approval. Human marking activities are intentional, and those intentions are not strictly a personal matter—there is a social currency that motivates them, rewards them or ignores them. Reproductive print culture changes the flow of information in dramatic ways, not simply because of the loss of cult status but because of entirely new social conditions directing them. Baxandall compares painting to the work of a bridge builder, who is constrained both by the structural character of his materials and the proclivities of those who have commissioned the structure and would like to consider it “beautiful.”

The material constraints of incised artwork are many. Burin engraving, in particular, is unforgiving and laborious. Once removed, material can’t really be replaced. The division of labor between designer and etcher was a necessity, particularly later in the nineteenth century when images were valued for their news value; burin engraving was wholly unsuited to this. Acid resist etching was far more popular, particularly in England, because instead of abrading the plate it was painted or drawn upon with resist material and later etched to incise the surface. Creating texture, or indistinct lines, was challenging.

Joseph Viscomi’s landmark Blake and the Idea of the Book (1993) offers an excellent peek into the practicalities of etching and the cultural context of reproduction in the 18th and 19th centuries. Illuminated printmaking, Blake’s “infernal method,” was marshaled against the division of labor then prevalent in visual reproduction:

In Illuminated printmaking, the labor of the artist (delineavit) and engraver (sculpsit) is the same labor, occurring in the same place and at the same time. This relation conceiving and making, between invention and execution, is encouraged by the very act of drawing as opposed to tracing and/or translating designs already drawn and thus composed. (32)

Drawing directly on the plates (including lettering all the text in handwriting) was the way that Blake composed all his major works. Only one book, juvenilia published by friends, was printed using a conventional letterpress. Consequently, the conventions of drawing are crucial to understanding how/why he was obscure in his own time and largely ignored. Viscomi compares and contrasts Blake’s extant writings about drawing with selected drawing textbooks, some of which he seemed to follow and others he chafed at, as well as various developments in printmaking that sought to bring it into alignment (at least in appearance) with contemporary trends in drawing.

This is only one side of the equation of troc. The other side, that of critical reception, is beautifully illustrated by an excerpt from Blake’s letter to the Monthly Magazine (1806) in response to the harsh criticism leveled at Henry Fuseli’s depiction of Count Ugolino.

Mr. Fuseli’s Count Ugolino is the father of sons of feeling and dignity who would not sit looking in their parent’s face in the moment of his agony but would rather die in secret, while they suffer him to indulge his passionate and innocent grief, his innocent and venerable madness, and insanity, and fury, and whatever paltry critics cannot, because they dare not, look upon.

The implication that the critic simply didn’t look at Fuseli’s work. “Under pretense of fair criticism and candor, the most wretched taste ever upheld for many, very many years.” Blakes backlash against connoisseurship speaks directly to the emergent “syntax” by which visual arts were being formed and judged in the 18th and 19th centuries

The taste of English amateurs has been too much formed upon pictures imported from Flanders and Holland; consequently our countrymen are easily brow-beat on the subject of painting; and hence it is so common to hear a man say, “I am no judge of pictures:” but, O Englishmen! know that every man ought to be a judge of pictures, and every man is so who has not been connoisseured out of his senses.

A gentleman who visited me the other day, said, “I am very much surprised at the dislike that some connoisseurs shew on viewing the pictures of Mr. Fuseli; but the truth is, he is a hundred years beyond the present generation.” Though I am startled at such an assertion, I hope the contemporary taste will shorten the hundred years into as many hours; for I am sure that any person consulting his own eyes must prefer what is so supereminent; and I am as sure that any person consulting his own reputation, or the reputation of his country, will refrain from disgracing either by such ill-judged criticisms in future.

The hope that people wouldn’t be “connoisseured” out of their senses is strong in both Ivins and Benjamin; Benjamin actually suggests that the mass taste was progressing faster in motion pictures than anywhere else, with a more prodigious appetite for advanced art forms. It remains that we always judge new art using the yardstick of the old, and while some “syntax,” or circumstances for troc, disappear others appear.  Blake may have been able to overcome the division of labor in printing, but he could not change prevailing taste.

It has always been one of the primary tasks of art to create a demand whose hour of full satisfaction has not yet come. The history of every art form has critical periods in which the particular form strains after effects which can only be easily achieved with a changed technical standard that is to say, in a new art form. (Benjamin 266)

Benjamin’s sentiment, derived from Andre Breton, is much in evidence in Blake’s response. However, the conditions for communication will always be social and therefore political. Photography is not immune. There is a reason that Henry Fox Talbot called it photogenic drawing. Photography did not settle deep debates over taste, it merely complicated them.

A Spurious Result

Thomas Ruff, jpeg kj01

The working definition of artifact I’ve been comfortable with lately is an object embedded in a tradition or social structure that gives it meaning. Walter Benjamin argued that one of the things being altered about artifacts in the age of reproducibility is that they are loosing the aura that surrounds them because of the irrelevance of authenticity. There are no originals, only copies that have surrendered their claim to uniqueness in pursuit of universality. They lose their fetish cult value, but still participate in social structures in new ways.

Thomas Ruff’s JPEG work demonstrates this. Immaterial objects that exist only as clusters of electrons on a screen provide new social effects brought about through increased connectivity. The drive for universality continues.

I find it interesting that Ruff’s series arises, in a sense, from a group of failures (disasters, both natural and unnatural) juxtaposed with idyls (his word), or natural and man made landscapes depicted in the same digitally disintegrated form. He suggests that the focus on disaster is autobiographical, arising from an attempt to make sense of the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11/2001. He was in NYC at the time, and his camera failure  (or x-ray damage at the airport) left him searching the internet for images to make sense of the disaster.

His career-long focus on the structure of photographic images as they change with technology lead him to consider the pixel, rather than silver grains, as a fundamental constituent of images. Further, the internet has altered the image through compression. The artifacted image, then, is a product of both a reduced “sampling rate” of reality, related as “painterly squares” but further altered by losses when compressed images are reintegrated as viewable artifacts. This presents artifact in different light.

Research into the term in the OED has brought some new perspective. Artifact is of relatively recent pedigree, defined in the 17th century as “An object made or modified by human workmanship, as opposed to one formed by natural processes.” The Latin etymology from ars factum (object made with skill) is amazingly direct and similar in meaning and spelling across several languages. However, in the 19th century there was a reversal of this meaning:

A spurious result, effect, or finding in a scientific experiment or investigation, esp. one created by the experimental technique or procedure itself. Also as a mass noun: such effects collectively.

The alteration of usage shifts, perhaps with the trends in shifting technologies and techniques. Artifacts have been wrenched from human hands and rendered procedural. But the human touch lingers, in its third sense, an ideological manifestation: “A non-material human construct.” The citation of this usage from Toynbee’s Study of History from 1934 is particularly telling:

It is a mere accident that the material tools which Man has made for himself should have a greater capacity to survive than Man’s psychic artifacts.

Toynbee’s psychic artifacts like the concept of an internal and external proletariat have completely faded, including his suggestion that civilizations disappear through disintegration. Recall that disintegration is ultimately what Thomas Ruff’s JPEG work places firmly in the field of view. Ruff suggests that with adequate distance these artifact filled JPEG images integrate themselves into natural images. Viewed up close, their disintegration can be beautiful.

What procedural tool, then, creates the appearance of these images? The short answer is “lossy compression,” but the longer answer has some important clues. From Wikipedia:

JPEG uses a lossy form of compression based on the discrete cosine transform (DCT). This mathematical operation converts each frame/field of the video source from the spatial (2D) domain into the frequency domain (a.k.a. transform domain). A perceptual model based loosely on the human psychovisual system discards high-frequency information, i.e. sharp transitions in intensity, and color hue. In the transform domain, the process of reducing information is called quantization.

The images are transformed using an algorithm created from a perceptual model. The information discarded in the compression is forever lost. In short, we trust a machine (computer) to shape our images, using a model based on our perception. The information we view has a diminishing relationship with any sort of material object, rather, it comes from our artificially created intelligence of our own visual system. This takes artifice to an entirely new level.

The “skill” introduced into the ars factum— the artifact— is that of a machine. We are in effect, creating human/machine hybrid perceptions that are becoming the cornerstones of our epistemological universe. These new truths are not completely man made. It’s not just AI and robots that will alter the future, it’s a thousand choices along the way based on spurious information untouched by human hands.

It remains startling to me how relevant Walter Benjamin remains in all this.

Theses defining the developmental tendencies of art can therefore contribute to the political struggle in ways that it would be a mistake to underestimate. They neutralize a number of traditional concepts—such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery— which, used in an uncontrolled way (and controlling them is difficult today), allow factual material to be manipulated in the interests of fascism. (252)

Benjamin goes on to argue that his “politics of art” would be useless for fascism. I think he’s wrong. Machine manipulation is nothing if not the new mystery. Reproducibility through algorithms has reinforced what is worst in us in the last decade or more.

The Work of Art

Woodstock, ME © 2017 Jeff Ward

Taking an obscure route across Maine, when we turned the corner near Woodstock I wasn’t expecting to find an oversized sculpture of a hand cranked telephone. Just what use is that? But there is a value to it, I think. Art, according to most, is defined by its lack of utility, its uselessness. Economic theories generally don’t have much to say about Art, nonetheless people who make it are constantly in search of a way to find some sort of livelihood. The exchange value of art seems impossible to predict, caught up in arbitrary social fashions.

Tolstoy’s fourfold division of labor has a place for it, as “mental labor” alongside science. Reflecting on this grouping, it dawns on me that in their purest forms, both art and science aim at an increase in understanding. This piece fulfills that criteria, in that I was moved to pull of the road and read the placard which explains that the last magneto telephone system was operated here.

Not all art is this easy. Accepting that the purpose of art is to increase understanding and that it is necessary human work has deepened my understanding of Walter Benjamin’s canonical essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility” (1936-39). I’ve read it hundreds of times, researched its context, even delivered papers on it, but this time it’s different. It’s like turning a corner and finding a new perspective.

There are some useful concepts in the essay that I always come back to, i.e. the aura and learning through distraction, not to mention the shift between cult value and exhibition value, but concentrating on these is a bit like focusing on the steps of a ladder without understanding where the ladder is climbing to. Film is central to Benjamin’s dissection of reproducible art, as is photography, but the core structure is built around the struggle between capitalism, marxism, and fascism.

My obsession with photography and film wasn’t my first technological obsession. I was eleven when I watched the moon landing on T.V. and long before that I had read Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo at least 40 times; I didn’t even know there was a movie version. It was a firsthand account of a pivotal point in World War II, of the first bombing raid on Tokyo and his subsequent crash and escape in mainland China. I poured over that book as a kid. Of course it’s filled with patriotic enthusiasm, but it was also filled with human struggle and vivid detail. Remembering it has made the conclusion of Benjamin’s essay ring louder:

“Fiat ars—pereat mundus,” says fascism [Let art florish—and the world pass away] expecting from war, as Marinetti admits, the artistic gratification of a sense perception altered by technology. This is evidently the consummation of l’art pour l’art. Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art. ( 270)

The last two sentences, offered with emphasis in the original, have long seemed enigmatic to me. Aestheticized politics is easy enough, as every war narrative easily attests, but politicized art is not so simple; one can easily envision communist posters, but since they often depict armed revolutionary struggle, it’s hard to see much difference.

It suddenly dawned on me that politicizing does not necessarily entail sloganeering and jingoism. I think what Benjamin really meant here is that proletarianization, coupled with the shifting nature of reproducible art should lead to an increased consciousness of the body politic. Remember that the root of politics is polis (city) and by creating a mass of people, art with a mass appeal is political. The entire sweep of the essay marks the shifting valuation and potential for art as a mass phenomenon, i.e. the work of art.

Part of the confusion about this essay is reflected in the permutations of its translated titles. It was first published in english as “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” a variant that enables the reading of work as a verb— i.e. what does Art do— a reading supported by the concluding paragraph. However, recent scholars have translated it as “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility,” privileging the nominal form, a reading which emphasizes the idea of an original art object that is being reproduced. There is support in the text for this as well, particularly in its treatment of cult value, and the function of architecture as art. I hadn’t really considered the janus face of work in this context before now.

Throughout, what Benjamin offers is a social theory of value in art that works in concert with Marx’s social theory of value. Modern reproducible forms alter our perceptions and our social behavior in dramatic ways by creating new pathways and functions, not simply new forms for art.

As I turned to drive away from Gil Whitman’s telephone sculpture, a different scene unfolded.

Woodstock, ME © 2017 Jeff Ward

The Long View

Whenever you are lost, remember to turn around

When I was in graduate school in Minnesota, blogs I read were quite taken by Graphs, Maps, Trees by Franco Moretti. The basic premise, as I recall, was that the days of “close reading” of texts were done and what remained was to quantitatively compile data for “distant reading” of the complex currents of literary history to learn more than what we had by the concentration on specific details. This movement from micro to macro level emphasis wasn’t something that really ever interested me much; it seemed inhuman to consider the herd to be more significant than individual animals.

Coincidentally (or not) trackers acting to compile the reading and traffic patterns of the web (and blogs) were emerging with a vengeance. It’s hard for me to reconstruct the specifics from my memory, but I remember Blogdex from Cameron Marlow at MIT (2003-2006) which indexed about 9,000 blogs in the beginning, and Technorati that listed blogs indexed by incoming and outgoing links to expose a new generation of online writing. These people were individuals, though in most tellings of the tale they ultimately became datapoints for the brave new world of web traffic metrics.

After the first ten years, blogs were mostly gone and replaced by “social media” services that lowered the bar for entry, and lessened the commitment involved for writing online. And it also became a big money enterprise, where advertisers were quickly carving up the pie of data into ever more tightly focused niche markets. What killed blogs, I think, was the rise in another data herd progeny, spam. Sites were hammered with AI generated link spam to alter search engine rankings, and email spam drove people crazy. It was a matter of percentages. If you transmit a million spam messages, it only takes a tiny percentage of stupid or inattentive people to accidentally fall prey to the scam. Then, you’re rich (or president).

In the end, many blogs were forced to shut down the latest innovations (like trackbacks, which notified people when they were referenced by another online writer) and worst of all, end commenting altogether to avoid the hostility and commercial intrusions into their thoughts. Many creative talents, in my mind, were driven away and those who were left were primarily driven by financial gain.

Taking the long view and privileging  distant reading has reaped great rewards at the expense of any sense of individuality. Watching a sort of return to the narrow focused, less connected individual blogging that used to be the norm among a cadre of early adopters has been curious. It’s easy to drift away from this, it’s a lot of work and presents little reward. For me it was always more than a “cult of personality” where one or two voices would dominate the conversations.

There were so many tiny conversations, and it makes me sad to think of what potentialities were missed in pursuit of the long view.

The Apartment

It’s been hard to collect my thoughts about Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. Lately, I’ve been drawn to movies that seem like real life. People are complicated, and though it’s fun from time to time to watch sci-fi or action adventures, real life isn’t usually about “adventures.” It’s about dealing with mundane, but important, things. I was listening to Looking Sideways yesterday, and I really couldn’t get into Pascal Anson’s project, Ordinary Made Extraordinary. The ordinary is fine just the way it is, as far as I’m concerned.

There is a certain sense of comfort in driving a car that looks like every other car, rather than a contact paper “masterpiece.” It may be a clever joke to cover one in contact paper, but having grown up in a bit of a “ghetto” where people often customized their cars with stickers that peel and fade, in an effort to give them personality, this art project seems forced and faux—faux rebellion, rather than introspective evaluation of our day to day habits and routines. It’s those routines, and deviations from them, that make The Apartment such a magical film.

Some of the most meaningful commentary on the magic I’ve found is from writer and comedian  Hallie Cantor. She begins by discussing the writing of Christmas episodes for TV, and the quality found in the film:

It’s hard to put into abstract descriptive terms this very specific way in which The Apartment, the last day of classes, and Christmas episodes make me feel happy. It’s something to do with the sense of being stuck in a group with people you wouldn’t necessarily choose, but feeling a part of something anyway. Something to do with a good, cheerful kind of sadness, the sense of romance and coziness and hopefulness this movie lends to mundane crappy nights spent eating frozen pizza and watching TV alone. A satisfaction that even if your heart has been broken and you’re walking home in the dark from the library and it’s a ridiculously early hour for it to be dark out, it’s all going to be okay because good things will happen and for now you can just enjoy being romantically sad in the snow and twinkly lights.

I hadn’t really thought that much about the “film within the film” where Jack Lemmon sits alone in the apartment, eating chicken and attempting to watch TV while being constantly interrupted by commercials. It’s details like that which hold the brilliance of Billy Wilder’s satire. Yes, it’s sad—but it’s also okay. The same could be said for those tired moments at the desk at the office, brought on not by overwork but because he had surrendered his apartment to his superiors at work—it’s sad, yes— but it’s also okay if he gets what he wants out of the arrangement: a promotion.

The moment when it becomes “not okay” is when Jack Lemmon becomes a mensch. And he becomes a mensch when Fran Kubelik is no longer an elevator operator in her uniform, but a real person. The setting matters, and not simply the office set that I described previously, but the “home” space, the apartment at the center of the film. Hallie Cantor puts it precisely:

There’s a location in the film that’s even more impersonal than the office with its rows of desks and crowds streaming into elevators: the apartment itself. It may look homier than the office, but no one is special to anyone there. Lovers are interchangeable (“Before me there was Miss Rossi in Auditing, and after me there was Miss Koch in Disability, and right before you there was Miss, um, oh, What’s-Her-Name on the twenty-fifth floor”). You have an affair with someone and then you send them a fruitcake every Christmas.

The fantasy of this movie, and of thousands of romantic comedies that are less romantic and less funny, is that you will be special to someone. You will be singular and adorable and the only one out of 31,259 people that somebody wants to love.

Everyone in this film is being traded or sold in one way or another, frequently to mutual advantage. The settings, and the people, are brought to life by the use of tiny details. Fran Kubelik is an elevator operator because she failed the typing test—she couldn’t spell. I immediately empathised with this myself. I’ve always had a love of literature, but my mechanical writing skills came to me late in life, in my late 30s as a matter of fact. I was hopelessly inept. This detail, and other little details make the film memorable.

A non-standard feature of the apartment kitchen was the tennis racket. Just as contact paper would make a crappy surface for a car, a tennis racket isn’t a very good colander:

The Apartment Jack Lemmon

The apartment kitchen is interesting on a couple of levels. Like a typical apartment or Frankfurt kitchen, it doesn’t really hold two people. It’s a solitary space, echoing a solitary lifestyle. Fran can really only stick her head in, while Mr. Baxter is working. And he works with abandon, with joy, in putting together their meal. The choice of the tennis racket is idiosyncratic, but it doesn’t come across as a “forced” rebellion in the same sense as strangely decorated commonplace objects—it’s a pragmatic choice to reuse a piece of sports equipment. The plot doesn’t suggest that Mr. Baxter has many opportunities for tennis, so why not put the racket to use?

Returning to Ms. Kubelik, it’s worth noting that she isn’t simply a drone at the mercy of those with power over her, it’s not so much a case of succumbing to the power of Mr. Sheldrake (as is the case, with C.C. Baxter) but believing in the fantasy that he will leave his wife. Billy Wilder accentuates this with the curious detail of a paper crown:

This is the scene when Fran decides to keep her date with Mr. Baxter, when she decides to give up on her fantasy. She removes the crown. As she leaves the restaurant, she is spotted by Mr. Sheldrake’s secretary, reinforcing the idea that the danger of public spaces is surveillance. This disclosure, confirmation of their intimacy, is significant. From this moment on, the illusions are shattered.   Shirley MacLaine recalls that this was the most difficult scene for her to get right, to meet Billy Wilder’s expectations.

“My line was, ‘So you sit there and you make yourself a cup of instant coffee while he rushes out to catch the train.’ I, being half-Canadian, would say ‘oat’ [instead of ‘out’] all my life, and I was self-conscious about that.” 

Trying to work around the offending “out,” MacLaine substituted “off” into the line and hoped that no one would notice her minor change. But there was no fooling Wilder, who insisted that she speak the dialogue exactly as written.

Whenever the director heard “off” where an “out” should be, “He would send the script girl down to basically beat the shit out of us.”

The young actress felt overwhelmed. “At the same time as Billy insisted on the intricacies of every word, in that particular scene I had to well up,” she recalled. “I couldn’t do it. It was hard.” 

Wilder expected better—and expressed his disappointment in MacLaine’s performance during the scene in no uncertain terms: “We went to the dailies the next day. And Billy stood up in front of everybody in the room and said, ‘Well, I tried.’”


That’s the terse Austrian temper that I’ve grown used to in Adolf Loos. The critique offered isn’t candy-coated, it’s served up like a sharp shot of battery acid. MacLaine, as she tells the story, withstood the pressure:

“Now, let me tell you, this was wonderful for me,” she said, like a true pro. “When you hear someone be that sarcastic and that talented, you learn to take criticism, because his criticism was right.” 

The time came to reshoot the scene, but Wilder hadn’t suppressed his frustration yet. “We went back. Fred and I sat in the chairs. Billy said, ‘Action.’ And he left! He walked outside.”

Without the director, MacLaine mustered her courage and gave the scene her all. She overcame her pesky linguistic hang-up and delivered as heartbreaking a line read as I’ve ever heard, the kind that gives you chills just thinking about it. 

And that’s the take they used… shot while Wilder presumably fulminated elsewhere.

“That’s the scene in the movie!” MacLaine proudly informed the audience. “And I’m here to tell you, that’s because I was brave.”

That scene grounds the later disclosure, at the Christmas party, that Mr. Sheldrake’s secretary is aware of what has gone on; she puts Fran in her place by the litany of others who had also succumbed to his fantasy. The mechanism driving the plot is systematically furthered, but with healthy touches of humanity—and the ultimate in human frailty, the suicide attempt.

Elsewhere in the interview, MacLaine remarks on the scientific precision that Wilder brought to the pacing of these scenes, while at the same time it’s clear that he kept his approach to the film “loose” in the sense of incorporating ideas from the actors, and details from their real lives. The gin game, for example:

“I was hanging out with the Rat Pack a lot and a couple of gangsters were teaching me how to play gin rummy, teaching me how to cheat,” she remembered.

“When he would ask on the Monday mornings, ‘Well, what was it like for the weekend?’ I would tell Billy what I’d learned, and that’s why he put the gin game in the movie, because he was fascinated by who my compatriots were over the weekend.” 

The power of observation Billy Wilder brought to bear on human frailty is astounding, and the proof is in the details— even the smallest of details, like hats.

Work places

Amazon warehouse workers, Peterboro UK
Amazon warehouse workers, Peterboro UK

Constructions of the workplace vary, but one thing that is critical is the “moral” component that people often take for granted. The open floor plan, dominant during the twentieth and even twenty-first century lends itself well to surveillance. By itself, this isn’t new, but the sheer scale of it is becoming more and more mind-boggling. William S. Burroughs once quipped that the US was a “nation of finks” and I suspect he was essentially correct.

But there is more to it than that. Let’s not forget “shame” as a motivator. A recent story on the BBC repeats a Bloomberg report that Amazon is going to extremes of shaming to reduce shrinkage. The gist of it is that they are posting videos of employees caught stealing on large screen tvs, with faces blurred, as a warning for potential criminals.

“Lost stock is a massive issue affecting all retailers regardless of whether they are online or store-based,” commented Bryan Roberts from the shopping consultancy TCC Global.

“There are lots of measures in place, such as searches to make sure that stuff doesn’t go missing. But this perhaps does sound slightly extreme.”

Another expert was more critical, saying Amazon’s practices appeared to be “profoundly emotionally unintelligent”.

“What sort of an organisation has got to the point that it thinks this is a satisfactory or commendable way to be behaving?” asked Matthew Gwyther, editor of Management Today.

“It reminds me of Ben Hur with them standing over the rowers with a whip.

“I find it extraordinary that its relationships with its workforce have reached such a low point that it would do something like that.”

I find it interesting that in the U.K., where public surveillance operates more openly and is more accepted than perhaps anywhere in the globe, workplace shaming is a bridge too far. In America, the reporting doesn’t quite take the same moral tone:

Former managers in Amazon’s loss-prevention department say the use of theft stories was widespread during their tenure. Amazon didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.

Many of the workers say the screens aren’t a top concern compared with wages or workload. “Only people that would have something to say about it is people that’s doing wrong,” says Maurice Jones, a warehouse worker who left Amazon in February. “It’s just letting people know that you’re being watched.”

Yet the tales of theft and punishment are hard for workers to ignore—like a car crash, Jones says. “It could be one lane that’s blocked, but all the traffic slows down because everyone wants to look at it,” he says. “Like, ‘Who was stupid this time?’ ”

For some of the workers, the practice carries a whiff of prison. “That’s a weird way to go about scaring people,” says James McCracken, who, like Jones, used to work at Amazon’s warehouse in San Bernardino, Calif. “I think that’s offensive.”

. . .

Antitheft tactics have advanced with technology, Murphy says. In the 1980s retailers tried embedding subliminal messages in the music played in their stores to deter customers from stealing. Today, break-room warning posters and anonymous hotlines are commonplace. “The types of methods used by warehouses and fulfillment centers are only limited by your imagination,” Murphy says, “and whatever the law allows.”

Ground zero, perhaps, for this is the creation of large-scale high rise workplaces in the middle of the twentieth century. Billy Wilder’s The Apartment establishes its setting there. It’s issue isn’t workplace theft, but immorality of a different sort.

In order to achieve the sort of scale he was looking for, Wilder constructed a set that shrank the further back it went to exaggerate the receding horizon. The script details how the elevators and shifts were timed, to allow all 31,259 people to enter and leave the building without encountering bottlenecks in the elevators. Technology, while not featured in the story, provides a backdrop which situates things. The behavior of the worker drones is fiercely regulated in ten minute intervals, while the upper echelon receives the ultimate reward: the private office with more flexible scheduling.

In exchange for a promotion, C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) allows the executives access to his apartment to conduct sexual affairs, often with the female staff of the corporation. Everyone, ultimately, is trying to negotiate their way free from surveillance and achieve privacy. Baxter respects that, and never asks for details regarding who or what is introduced into his home, now an extension of the workplace.

larkin-soap-companyThe scale of workplaces, even in the mid twentieth century, was massive. Watching Ken Burns’s documentary from 1998 on Frank Lloyd Wright, not long after watching The Apartment, I was struck by similarity in the office spaces betwen Wilder’s imagined space, and Wright’s Larkin office building:

inside-larking-adminThe primary difference between Wright’s office and a New York high rise is the lack of a low ceiling, which transforms this office into a different sort of moral space—a church. In an interesting Orwellian twist, Wright’s office also features slogans to motivate the workers:

Workplaces were, and are, moral spaces. The morality is dictated, both by design and by the desires of management. The cathedral atmosphere is disquieting, especially when you try to figure out just what god they honor.

In a way, but not in every way

Shirley MacLaine and Hugh Bonneville
Shirley MacLaine and Hugh Bonneville

Martha Levinson, the American relative, doesn’t get much mention in the final episode of Downton Abbey. There’s a telegram: “I am sorry that I could not be with you. Although we pray for those at peril on the sea, I am too old to be one of them.” Lord Grantham replies: “In a way, I’m sorry she’s not here.” Her daughter, Lady Grantham quips: “In a way, but not in every way.” Of course, the intrusion of the brash loud-mouthed American isn’t always welcome, but isn’t made to feel unwelcome thanks to the nuances of wit. The center of Downton Abbey is English manners, not American ones.

Just as a mental exercise, I began to wonder: how old would Adolf Loos be in comparison to the characters on Downton Abbey? Turns out, utilizing the detective work of the Downton fans out there, that he would have been just a bit younger that Robert Crawley, Lord Grantham. Robert was born in 1866, Adolf Loos in 1870. The newspaper articles I’ve been reading were written by a man in his late 20s, an Austrian who had lived in America for about three years, from 1893-1896. Curious about his life history, I finally looked into his biography.

Wikipedia references these bits from a book review by Thomas Muirhead, reviewing Adolf Loos: Works & Projects by Ralf Bock:

Bock provides harrowing details of Loos’ tortured existence. Born in 1870, his stonemason father died when he was only nine. A rebellious, disorientated boy, he failed in various attempts to get through architecture school. Contracting syphilis in the brothels of Vienna, by 21 he was sterile, and in 1893 his mother disowned him.

He went to America and for three years did odd jobs in New York, somehow finding himself in that process which, alas, Bock fails to explain. By his return to Vienna in 1896, he was “an autodidact who had neither completed a degree nor possessed any other apprenticeship training”, yet who had somehow become a man of taste and intellectual refinement.

He immediately entered a brilliant Viennese intelligentsia that included Ludwig Wittgenstein, Arnold Schoenberg and Karl Kraus, quickly establishing himself as the favourite architect of Vienna’s cultured bourgeoisie.

Diagnosed with cancer in 1918, his stomach, appendix and part of his intestine were removed, and by the time he was 50, he was almost completely deaf. Then in 1928, he was disgraced by a paedophilia scandal, and at his death in 1933, at the age of 63, he was penniless.

The paedophilia scandal is particularly disturbing, apparently the girls were 8-10 years old, and during the trial Loos was suffering from dementia. So, as the line goes, I’m interested in Adolf Loos, but not in every way.

Billy Wilder and Shirley MacLaine
Billy Wilder and Shirley MacLaine on the set of The Apartment

tumblr_nmko4kJufk1tlho7xo1_500Lately, I’ve rekindled my interest in Billy Wilder. Learning more about Austria, oddly enough, has provoked it. Revisiting The Apartment (1960) after so many years, I find the depth of the satire amazing. I didn’t realize until now that he was Austrian. Following the “what age would they be, relatively?” game Billy Wilder would be about four years younger than Lady Rose Aldridge, who returned from New York for the finale of Downton Abbey.

Joan_Bennett_1938Wilder offers a gentle critique of America, embracing it but with reservations, similar to Adolf Loos. His appraisal of our customs is far more nuanced than I’d really given him credit for. Watching the extras for The Apartment revealed that the concept of the film came from an odd question of morals. Joan Bennett, wife of producer William Wanger, was involved in a scandal, which On Sunset Boulevard summarizes in this fashion:

In 1951, producer Walter Wanger discovered that his wife, Joan Bennett, was having an affair with the agent Jennings Lang. Their encounters were brief and frequent. When Lang and Bennett weren’t meeting clandestinely at vacation spots like New Orleans and the West Indies, they were back in L.A. enjoying weekday quickies at a Beverly Hills apartment otherwise occupied by one of Lang’s underlings at the agency. When Wanger found proof of the affair, he did what any crazed cuckold would do: he shot Lang in the balls.

It wasn’t the murder that caught Billy Wilder’s attention, but the question: “what sort of guy allows other people to use his apartment for immoral purposes?” Casting Jack Lemmon as a sort of “everyman” in the corporate machine, pressed into compromising his morals down the slippery slope, was genius. Ramping up from the runaway success of Some Like it Hot, The Apartment isn’t simply a comedy or drama— it falls somewhere in between: it’s complicated, much like life.

The beauty of an outsider, particularly from an outsider from another country, asking the difficult questions about what makes us “civilized” is an abiding interest for me just now. Lemmon’s character, Calvin Clifford (C. C.) “Bud” Baxter, is likeable, but morally flawed, as is the female lead, Fran Kubelik, played by Shirley MacLaine.

There is much to be said about The Apartment, as satire of mid-century American capitalist morality, but I fear this is stretching out too long.

Perhaps it’s best to leave this with the words of Martha Levinson, as conceived by Julian Fellowes and played by Shirley MacLaine, from season 4 episode 9 of Downton Abbey, addressed to Violet,  the dowager countess played by Maggie Smith:

You see, I have no wish to be a Great Lady.

No, a decision that must be reinforced whenever you look in the glass.

Violet, I don’t mind looking in the mirror, because what I see is a woman who’s not afraid of the future. My world is coming nearer and your world? It’s slipping further and further away. Goodnight.