Monday, December 31, 2012

Is local food trumping art?

Posted By on Mon, Dec 31, 2012 at 4:00 AM


An artist was overheard complaining not long ago about the local restaurant scene. It wasn't that he was unhappy with the quality of what some of our better eateries offer.

What stuck in this artist's craw was what he perceived as competition.

He pointed out that many artists in Indianapolis have a difficult time selling their works. While more people than ever turn out for First Friday gallery hops, and the quality of work on offer gets more interesting all the time, this has not translated into actual sales, even though many works of art can be purchased for a few hundred dollars or less.

What was getting the artist was his suspicion that a lot of the people who have been telling him they can't afford to buy his art were going to our ever-growing number of independent restaurants and spending their money on top-shelf cocktails, grass-fed beef, and free-range pork.

Local food, in other words, is trumping local art.

Or, put another way, local food is becoming our newest art form — and it's taking the town by storm.

Questions about whether or not food qualifies as art and, if so, what kind of art it is (visual? performance? conceptual?) have become an entertaining diversion in cyberspace. Author William Deresiewicz got the ball rolling with an essay in The American Scholar in which he argued that, "food has replaced art as the object, among the educated class, of aspiration, competition, conversation, veneration." But food, asserted Deresiewicz, is not art. That's because it "is not narrative or representational, does not express ideas or organize emotions, cannot do what art does and must not be confused with it."

It wasn't long before another writer, Sara Davis, responded via Drexel University's Table Matters website. She said that asking whether food was art was the wrong question. After launching into a mini humanities seminar about what art is and how we experience it, she concluded by asking some questions of her own, all of which she answered in the affirmative: Can food be crafted with artistry? Can it convey meaning? Can food be a vehicle for inspiration for some of humanity's better qualities? And should it be taken seriously as a subject of study, a medium of expression, or a form of cultural exchange?

I am inclined to think that a meal, in the right hands or the right circumstances, can certainly provide an experience akin to what we're used to calling art. This is partly due to what's been happening in the food scene of late — and partly because of how we have come to think about art.

Over the course of the past year and a half I worked on a book about Indiana food called Food For Thought: An Indiana Harvest. The project allowed me the opportunity to talk to farmers and food artisans, master chefs and grill cooks all over the state. I found that very few of these individuals would describe themselves as artists. But, as they told me their stories, I also found the temptation to draw comparisons between them and the artists I know irresistible.

Like artists, people in the food movement — and a movement is what the burgeoning demand for what's fresh, local and creatively prepared amounts to — tend to be individualists who marry hard-earned skill with a genuine love for what they do. Most of them see themselves as being part of a long tradition going back generations. They routinely risk material comforts and security to do something they find personally compelling. And that compulsion often has its roots in a desire to connect with something — call it a spirit — bigger than they are.

At the same time, more and more of us are becoming increasingly discerning about the food we eat and how it is presented, our relationship to what used to be called "the fine arts" seems increasingly tenuous. Art, in the early 21st century, seems to be whatever anyone says it is. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, for example, has dedicated a gallery to an installation by Martha Rosler called "The Meta-Monumental Garage Sale," which the museum describes as "a large-scale version of the classic American garage sale, in which Museum visitors can browse and buy second-hand goods organized, displayed, and sold by the artist." What makes it "meta" or "monumental" seems to be the works' existence in a renowned museum, as opposed to, well, an actual garage.

It seems we want our art to be less about aesthetic artifacts and more about experience itself, with an emphasis on the social. In this formulation, cities where art happens are coming to resemble nothing so much as oversized summer camps. The artists play camp counselors, coming up with lots of activities to help us pass the time.

If this is true, then surely our best local chefs are artists who bring us together and illuminate, among other things, our sense of place through their use of locally sourced goods. In their hands, a meal becomes a kind of performance. And the restaurant where it takes place is, at once, a gallery and stage. A place where every work exists in three dimensions, plus one: you can actually taste it.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Prayers are not enough

Posted By on Wed, Dec 26, 2012 at 4:00 AM


They say you're supposed to save the best for last. But in 2012, we got that backward. This year closed with carnage.

In 2012, we had a presidential election, one that many think could be a watershed: We re-elected Barack Obama, a man who, it's been said, looks like 21st century America.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld federal health care reform legislation.

Hurricane Sandy ripped the East Coast a new one.

Somehow all these things grew pale after a young man walked into an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and murdered 20 children and six of their teachers.

This was not the first mass shooting of the year. In February, there were multiple killings in Norcross, Ga., and Chardon, Ohio.

On April 2, a former nursing student in Oakland, Calif., forced an administrator and students to line up in a classroom and began shooting. Seven died, three were wounded.

In May, a man was asked to leave a coffee shop in Seattle. He pulled a gun and killed five people before killing himself.

A graduate student entered a cinema in Aurora, Colo., on July 20 and opened fire, murdering 12 and wounding 58.

Six people were killed at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., on Aug. 5.

On Sept. 27, a man was being fired from his job with a sign-making company in Minneapolis when he drew a gun, killing his two managers and four other people.

In October a disgruntled husband shot seven women, one of whom was his wife, in a Milwaukee spa. Then he killed himself.

In most of these cases, the news came and went, causing barely a ripple across the surface of public consciousness. An election was coming and, due to the disproportionate bullying by the National Rifle Association, nobody wanted to talk about gun violence. So people prayed for the victims, telling themselves that, surely, surely, they were going to a better place.

The killing of children in Connecticut may have changed this. Nothing haunts the lives of parents like the nagging fear that something terrible could happen to their sons and daughters. Most parents do all they can to make sure their kids are safe. Yet all of us know that, in spite our best efforts, we can't always be in control, nor should we be. We want our kids to be independent, after all. We want them to live comfortably in the world.

The killing of children on a Friday morning, in school, brought every parent's worst fear into every household in the country.

By Friday afternoon, a crowd had gathered in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., demanding something be done.

But what?

So far, arguments for greater gun control have gotten nowhere in this country. Gun advocates say such laws are ineffective and inhibit their dubious interpretation of constitutional freedom.

Yet researcher Richard Florida has found that states that have adopted assault-weapons bans, trigger locks and safe storage requirements have fewer firearms deaths. What's more, an August CNN/ORC International poll shows that while most Americans favor the right to own guns, they also support gun registration and background checks, bans on semiautomatic weapons and high capacity clips, and outlawing gun ownership for felons and the mentally ill.

This suggests that the public may be ahead of policymakers insofar as more and more of us are seeing gun control as being less about the supposed right to own guns than it is about reconciling gun ownership with public health.

After 600 people, mainly women and children, died in the Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago in 1903, the doors in public buildings throughout the country were equipped with panic bars. One hundred forty-six garment workers died in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City. That tragedy promptly led to the adoption of new fire laws, labor laws and the formation of the American Society of Safety Engineers.

Surely, there are common sense measures we can take now to help reduce gun violence.

But violence, even more than guns, is at the root of what afflicts us. In his address to the citizens of Newtown, President Obama never mentioned guns. Instead, he drew attention to a larger, harder challenge: "Can we say that we're truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? I've been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we're honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We're not doing enough, and we will have to change."

This is an X-rated, Adults Only society. It's a world designed for grown-up convenience, pleasure and gain. We talk a good game, especially at holiday time, about innocence and childhood. But from the way we structure our workplaces to the dehumanizing depictions of death and mutilation we smear across our screens at all hours, we behave as though kids are in the way.

The president is right. We have to change. This will be unspeakably hard. But if we can begin to make this a society that is truly good for children, I think we'll be amazed at how good it can be for the rest of us.

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Monday, December 17, 2012

Michigan, meet Indiana: Blaming unions

Posted By on Mon, Dec 17, 2012 at 4:00 AM


Indiana made the national news last week. And not just because the girls' basketball team at Arlington High School lost a game by 105 points.

In story after story, Indiana was cited as having inspired Michigan's Republican-controlled House and Senate to pass legislation enabling nonunion workers in unionized shops to opt out of paying union dues, even though the unions negotiate contracts on their behalf.

This legislation is commonly called "right to work." Its detractors call it "right to work for less" because they see it as a device for undermining unions. Chief executives and Chamber of Commerce types are all for undermining unions because, as far as they're concerned, paying workers less and providing fewer benefits helps them compete better in the global marketplace.

Which is another way of saying it makes working conditions here a little more like those in China.

In any event, it is remarkable the extent to which Indiana has become a guiding light for other Midwestern states. This is due, in large part, to the job Gov. Mitch Daniels has done. Daniels has been a role model for his fellow Republican governors, like Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio and now Michigan's Rick Snyder. Daniels provided them with what amounts to a playbook on how to take control of a state government and they have been eager to follow his lead.

What these governors see in Indiana represents the end-all and be-all of public policy as far as today's Republican politicians are concerned: a balanced budget, low taxes and a state surplus.

Like Indiana, all of these states were once known for a manufacturing prowess that, over the past generation or two, has fallen into decline - hence the desire to stick it to the unions.

The idea seems to be that states where workers have no power to bargain with their bosses for improved pay, benefits and/or working conditions, are bound to attract new business. As an anonymous CEO put it on "Indiana is centrally located, has a balanced budget and excess reserves on hand, is a low overall tax environment, is business friendly and is now a right-to-work state. If you want to locate in the Midwest, there is no other state in its class."

This CEO could have added something about how Indiana's having super Republican majorities in both houses of its state legislature, not to mention a new governor named Pence, promises to make this a regulation-free zone for the foreseeable future, free from pesky environmental and workplace safeguards. But I guess that would have been gilding the lily.

It's no wonder so many Republicans considered Daniels the most qualified guy for their party's presidential nomination before last November's election. He's done everything in Indiana that they want to do to the country as a whole. If you listen closely, you can hear echoes of Daniels' voice now, in the wrangling over how to avert the so-called fiscal cliff. The belief that government's most important job, even in the teeth of the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, is to maintain a balanced budget, is Daniels through and through.

You could say this makes Indiana a preview of the America Republicans dream about.

So what's that like? To begin with, if you work in Indiana the chances are you make less money than your peers in other states. Indiana ranks 42nd in the nation in per capita income. With our right-to-work law, that number could dip a little more.

But that's OK. Surely our business-friendly atmosphere means that Hoosiers are being hired at a brisk clip.

Well, not exactly. As The Indianapolis Star recently reported, private-sector job growth actually fell during Mitch Daniels' eight years in office. Indiana lost 1.3 percent of its private-sector jobs under Daniels, whereas these jobs increased by 1.2 percent nationally.

Thank heavens our taxes are low. The only trouble is, we get what we (don't) pay for. Another national news story last week revealed that, for the first time, Indiana ranks in the bottom 10 in the country in terms of public health. We're 41st, according to the United Health Foundation, down four places from last year. This places us among such worthies as Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and West Virginia.

I could go on. Apparently the education level of our workforce ranks in the bottom 10 nationally. We have the second-to-worst air pollution in the U.S.

But, hey: Indiana is a great state for business.

"This is not simply a matter of preference, of convenience, but ... many of our neighbors would have a job, or a better job, if we made this change ... "

That was Mitch Daniels, at the beginning of his first term as governor. He was talking about what a difference adopting daylight saving time would make to our economy. Eight years later, we fall back and spring ahead with the best of states. Somehow, though, resetting our clocks twice a year hasn't turned into jobs. Unemployment here is actually higher than the national average.

At least we've put the unions in their place. Michigan, knock yourself out.

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Friday, December 7, 2012

Props for Jim Irsay

Posted By on Fri, Dec 7, 2012 at 4:00 AM


He's known to be a mad tweeter, a man prone to sending micro-messages of epic proportions. A photographer once got him to pose bare-chested with a guitar for a not-so-complimentary profile in the Chicago Tribune. Then there was that time he got his name in the papers because an appetite for prescription drugs got the better of him.

His name is Jim Irsay. He's the owner of the Indianapolis Colts. I think it's time we gave him some love.

I realize there's a moving van-full of reasons to take exception to the guy — especially in a town where jaywalking is enough to brand you a renegade. At first blush, Jim's the quintessential plutocrat. One of Indiana's richest individuals, he came by his fortune through his father, Bob, a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed cuss who made his money in Chicago. After promising the people in Baltimore he wasn't going to move their team, Bob loaded up a convoy of Mayflower trucks and moved the Colts to Indianapolis in 1984.

Two years later, Sports Illustrated had this to say about Bob Irsay: "Getting a fix on [the] Indianapolis Colts owner É isn't easy, but this is certain — he has turned one of the NFL's best franchises into a laughingstock."

Bob Irsay died in 1997. The Colts was Jim's inheritance. He made his first moves within weeks, hiring Bill Polian to head the Colts' front office, then giving Polian the go-ahead to select Peyton Manning in the 1998 draft. The rest is football history. Manning led the Colts to a Super Bowl victory, winning multiple Most Valuable Player awards in what will be a Hall of Fame career.

Just as important, the Colts went from laughingstock to being one of the NFL's most respected teams. Not only did they win, they were good citizens — smart and classy.

Jim Irsay didn't stop there. He made sure his team wove itself into the fabric of life in central Indiana. He was smart enough to realize that fans here were fickle. They weren't drawn to sports or teams so much as to winning itself. As the Colts won, their following increased to the point where, today, Indianapolis is a football town, with a tax-supported stadium and a roundly-praised stint as Super Bowl host under its belt.

Getting that stadium, of course, was sticky. It required posturing and tough talk. There were, if not threats, then broad hints that if the Colts couldn't play in a new megastadium, well, maybe they'd have to go elsewhere, to a larger market. Irsay the younger tried hard not to sound like his dad, but comparisons were inevitable.

Finally landing Super Bowl 46 forgave all that. The corporate orgy that doubles as America's Big Game put Indianapolis on the national stage. It was the culmination of 30 years' worth of downtown rehabilitation that started before the Irsays came to town but, oddly enough, might never have been so fully realized without that crazy contest to serve as focus and ultimate prize.

As this history has unfolded, Jim Irsay has followed his idiosyncratic star: hanging out with aging rock legends, collecting their guitars, spending a small fortune for the scroll on which Jack Kerouac typed his novel, On the Road. In these pursuits, though, he has revealed little more about himself than that he is a pop culture fan of a certain age, albeit one with a commodious checkbook.

It took a crisis to show us who Jim Irsay really is. First was last year's lost football season, as St. Peyton languished on the sideline after a series of surgeries to his neck. The team lost all but two games, meaning they would have first dibs on the nation's top college player, a quarterback improbably named Andrew Luck.

After a calamitous season, it's easy to talk about backing up the truck. In fact, few owners actually have the nerve to dismantle everything they've built. It's a gamble, and if it doesn't work you'll be called a fool, or worse.

But, in a rapid sequence of tectonic decisions, Jim Irsay not only backed up the truck, he stuffed it. He cleared away his front office staff and jettisoned most of his veteran players. He bade a tearful farewell to St. Peyton, a move that, it turns out, was brilliantly accommodating for both men.

Incredibly, everything Jim Irsay did worked. What the Colts have accomplished so far this year is the stuff of sports fairy tales. Things could have gone wrong in so many ways. Who could have foreseen the new head coach, Chuck Pagano, coming down with leukemia? And if all Luck's wins were losses, how do you think we'd be feeling about Manning's success in Denver?

Jim has been bold in ways that put most sports moguls to shame. Even better, in a town that likes to order its changes in petite sizes, he's put on a clinic about the good things smart risk-taking can bring. Last winter a lot of people probably thought Jim's radical moves were nuts — that he was Jim being Jim again and, well, Jim's a nut. But he is our nut and, when it comes to football, he's really pretty cool.

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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Used bookstores at risk with copyright law

Posted By on Wed, Dec 5, 2012 at 2:42 PM


I've been trying to lighten my load lately, getting rid of some excess baggage. In my case, this means books. I've got piles of the beloved things, a few going back to my high school days. If you're like me, you understand a book is like a lucky charm. It has an aura. Just seeing it can be enough to give me an idea, bring back a memory, provide a missing beat.

I realize how this sounds. My high school English teacher, Mrs. Lewkowicz, didn't buy it either. She insisted I actually read the things.

I've managed to haul several carloads of books downtown to the Indy Reads used bookstore on Massachusetts Avenue. Just because these volumes no longer cast a spell on me doesn't mean they can't get to somebody else. Besides, I like the fact that by donating books to the Indy Reads store's inventory, I am also supporting efforts to help adults learn to read.

But a case that recently went before the U.S. Supreme Court could make it harder for book nuts like me to share what's on our shelves; worse, it could put a used bookstore like Indy Reads out of business.

Kirtsaeng v. Wiley pits a former graduate student named Supap Kirtsaeng against textbook publisher John Wiley & Sons. Kirtsaeng is a Thai citizen who, while studying at Cornell University, discovered that the exorbitantly expensive textbooks he was required to purchase for his coursework were available in much cheaper editions back home. Kirtsaeng had his parents send him the cheaper foreign editions and then he got the bright idea to sell them for a profit to other American students. Kirtsaeng figures he made about $900,000 this way.

He also managed to attract the attention of John Wiley & Sons, who took him to court. Wiley was able to sue Kirtsaeng thanks to a wrinkle in U.S, copyright law. Before we look at that wrinkle, here's a little background. In 1908, the U.S. Supreme Court adopted an idea called the "first-sale doctrine." First-sale holds that once a copyright holder sells a copy of their work - like a book or a CD - whoever buys that copy is free to resell it or, as in my case with the books I brought to Indy Reads, give it away. That's what Kirtsaeng thought he was doing.

Here's the wrinkle: Section 602(a)(1) of the copyright law makes it illegal for anyone to import copyrighted material made for foreign markets and sold overseas for resale in the United States. These materials are called gray-market goods. Wiley invoked this section in its suit against Kirtsaeng.

So far, two courts have ruled in Wiley's favor, awarding the publisher $600,000 in statutory damages. But Kirtsaeng has appealed, which is why the case is now before the highest court in the land.

On the surface, the case seems cut-and-dried. But the court has only ruled once, in 2010, on the subject of gray-market goods, and then it was split, in a 4-4 tie. No precedent was set.

This time, interest groups, from eBay to Goodwill Industries, not to mention bookstore owners and librarians, have come forward, urging the court to rule in favor of Kirtsaeng. They fear that a time-honored way of exchange in this country could be at risk. "Even cherished American traditions, such as flea markets, garage sales, and swapping dog-eared books are vulnerable to copyright challenge," said Kirtsaeng's attorney, Josh Rosenkranz.

And while other legal observers say such fears are overblown, they concede a ruling in Wiley's favor could blow holes in the business models of large on-line players like eBay and craigslist.

It appears we will have to wait until June for the court to deliver its verdict in this case. In the meantime, we are left with a world in which the ability of creative people to make a living from their works and the ways in which those works are distributed and consumed are increasingly out of whack.

Although the implications of Kirtsaeng v. Wiley could be profound, it is hard not to see this case as anything but a rear-guard action in the world of intellectual property. This is a fight over books, after all. What could be more retro? These days, when I walk into a bookstore, I have to remind myself I'm not in a museum of printed things, or an antique shop.

Books themselves are on the way out. According to the Association of American Publishers, adult eBooks outsold hardcovers $282.3 million to $229.6 million in the first quarter of 2012. This only underscores the fact that our understanding of intellectual property is, as Wired writer John Perry Barlow has pointed out, evolving. Laws created to protect objects like books, sound recordings, movies and the like have been overwhelmed by the rise of ones and zeroes, the digitization of ideas and information.

Wiley, to paraphrase Barlow, is trying to protect a bottle when what is really at issue is the wine that bottle once contained. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Wiley, it will prolong the bottle business a while longer. Thirsty people, though, are bound to find refreshment. Just don't ask me where to take an old copy of Gulliver's Travels.

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