Before 2013 begins, catch up on the best of 2012. From now until the New Year, we will be re-posting some of The New Republic’s most thought-provoking pieces of the year.
I have a dim view of the human mind's capacity for rational thought. Even so, I was struck by this old experiment, flagged by Robert Frank: An intriguing example of transparently irrelevant information that affects behavior comes from a 1974 report on an experiment by the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. In the experiment, subjects first spun a wheel that supposedly would stop at random on any number between 1 and 100. Then they were asked what percentage of African countries belongs to the United Nations.
In the mid-1950s, a photographer named Robert Frank, lately emigrated from Switzerland, drove around the United States to see and to join his new country. He shot pictures. The results, or his choices among them, were published in a book of eighty-three photos called The Americans, which was an immediate and lasting success. The book was not only a unique way for a newcomer to learn about his new home: in some ways it showed a social candor that was as yet unusual in photography.
Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before By Michael Fried (Yale University Press, 409 pp., $55) I. Michael Fried,who shot to intellectual stardom in 1967 with an essay in Artforum called "Art and Objecthood," is an intimidating writer. He looks very closely. He has passionate feelings about what he sees. And he shapes his impressions into a theory that fits snugly with all the other theories he has ever had. Whatever his chosen subject--Diderot, Courbet, Manet, Kenneth Noland--he comes up with an interpretation that is as smoothly and tightly constructed as a stainless-steel box.
In my review about the resurgence of Ayn Rand-ism on the right, I cited an op-ed by Cornell economist Robert Frank. I called Frank's central point, that luck plays a huge role in success, "seemingly banal." It occurs to me -- I haven't heard from Frank or anybody about this point -- that that line sounded dismissive. I didn't intend it that way at all. Sometimes very bvious points nonetheless go unmentioned in a public debate, and Frank usefully brought that one to the surface. I also referred briefly to his subsequent appearance on Fox to defend his op-ed.
This is kind of funny--from Robert Frank's defense of carbon offsets in today's New York Times: Yet carbon offsets have drawn sharp criticism, even ridicule. A British Web site called Cheat Neutral (www.cheatneutral.com) parodies the concept — by offering a service under which someone who wants to cheat on his partner can pay someone else who will refrain from committing an act of infidelity. Frank goes on to explain why the analogy isn't quite apt. And while he's right, I think he's being a bit literal about it. The wags behind Cheat Neutral do get at a larger absurdity.
Donald Judd had his share of staunch supporters. But you are likely to meet with skeptical responses if you announce that you are captivated by his magnum opus, a composition consisting of one hundred aluminum boxes that is the linchpin of the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. Chinati is where the sculptor made a permanent home for the frequently large-scale work that interested him and some of the contemporary artists whom he admired. It has an eccentric, off-the-beaten-track kind of grandeur that rubs some people the wrong way. The austere forms that Judd (who died in 1994) arranged in and