Vice Media and the art of the deal

Reeves Wiedeman in New York Magazine on the Trojan horse that is Vice Media. Completely worth it for the salacious details.

Missing from the scene was Shane Smith, Vice’s co-founder, who shocked his employees and the media world in March by announcing that he was stepping aside as the company’s longtime CEO. Smith’s beard and Canadian drawl had become an avatar of the company, both on-camera, in Vice documentaries about drug gangs and warlords, and in front of corporate audiences, where he persistently declared the inevitability of his company’s global domination and landed deals with an aggressive sales pitch: Pay Vice to join its youth revolution or get left behind.

The pitch had worked to the point that Vice had grown from a free magazine to a company with 3,000 employees spread across a cable network, more than a dozen websites, two shows on HBO, an ad agency, a film studio, a record label, and a bar in London. Vice had become the tenth-highest-valued private company in America, according to CB Insights, at a valuation of $5.7 billion, and as recently as 2016, Smith had told The Wall Street Journal that by the end of the decade, Vice could be worth $50 billion.

The years since, however, have tested Smith’s long run of predicting extraordinary success and then realizing it. This past December, the New York Times published an investigation into sexual misconduct across the company, and two months later, the Journal reported that Vice had missed its annual revenue target by $100 million. With traffic to its sites growing modestly, and Viceland, its two-year-old cable channel, still struggling to deliver on Smith’s promise to bring millennials back to television, it was not unreasonable to wonder whether Vice truly did have a better hold on the attention of young people than any other company — and, if not, how it could possibly be worth so much money. Smith, who had expected to sell the company in 2016, entered this year with no obvious buyers in sight, and future investment rounds more difficult to come by; even some of its advocates were unwilling to bet Vice was worth what it had been just a year prior. “How do you scale the essence of a punk-rock magazine into a multibillion-dollar media company? There is no real answer,” a former Vice executive who remains fond of the brand told me. “At some point, what got you there isn’t what you are.”

Keith Haring on his hometown

Though he ultimately left Pennsylvania’s flat farmlands and stone houses for the hip and noisy environs of New York’s West Village, Haring wrote in his posthumously published diaries, Keith Haring: Journals (2010), that “Kutztown has its good points. Excessive amounts of love and sanity. Precise order. Fresh air. A different background noise … still a hum but a softer, more natural buzz. Time to contemplate, time to reflect and dream.”
If you had conformed to your parents’ expectations, what would you have been like?
We were in a little, conservative town. You grew up there, went to high school there, stayed there, married someone from there, had kids there, and your kids stayed, too. I had been a good little kid. My parents had taken us to church and things like that, but I became this little Jesus freak, and my parents were appalled. I had fallen into the movement out of a lack of any other thing to believe in and out of wanting to be part of something. Part of deciding I wanted to try drugs was realizing that it was time to start thinking for myself instead of blindly following just to be part of a group.

On writing, on deserts

When writing the desert, my recipe is this: Write the heat and caliche and pigweed. The radio static and the country bar. The yipping of coyotes on a cold night. Write neon sunsets over wide streets and the smell of creosote, plucked from the stem and made into salve. Write cactus fruit spilling out their seed, and a monsoon circling the city like a dog. Make poetry from sand and lizard bones. Old bedsprings abandoned in the arroyo. A child on a ladder, measuring a dying agave in the evening light.

The writers in this issue know the desert as nuanced and extreme—both muse and deathtrap, shapeshifter and tomb, a walking meditation and a political bargaining chip. The people you will find in the desert are just as complicated. Some are already home, anchored by a long root sunk below the brush and dirt. Others come and go, trading the desert for places with fog and maple trees and snow. Still others are forced—by climate, or war, or men in air-conditioned rooms making laws—to traverse the desert in a cruel migratory roulette.

Bring Karl Marx back into the big house

Happy birthday to Karl Marx, who was born 200 years ago on May 5. He was the most astute and influential critic of capitalism in history — and also the most misunderstood.

It is long since time that Marx re-joined the community of ordinary intellectuals, considered as neither the terrifying harbinger of social upheaval, nor a secular pope with the eternally correct description of all human society. He was a genius, but in the end, only another human scholar with a brilliant but incomplete perspective.

To the media: John McCain will not die for your sins

D.R. Tucker in the Washington Monthly on the media's John McCain death watch. 

Ten years ago this month, when Kennedy was diagnosed with cancer, I recall a rather distasteful tone to the coverage of his illness, almost a sense that the Fourth Estate couldn’t wait for Kennedy to pass away due to the likely bonanza in ratings and newspaper sales his passing would generate. It’s hard to read the coverage of McCain today without the same morbid sense that the press wants to hasten his death in order to cash in.

Whatever you think of John McCain, he deserves better than to have his impending passing be turned into a media circus, no? The McCain Death Watch is nothing short of sour; it’s as though the controversies surrounding the media exploitation of the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr., and the lessons learned from those controversies, have been forgotten–or deliberately ignored. 

Madelaine Lucas on Sam Shepard and Paris, Texas

My own love affair with Shepard’s work began with Paris, Texas, which I watched for the first time at 19, reeling from romantic rejection. It is a slow-burning film starring Harry Dean Stanton—another cowboy gentleman who died last year at the age of 91—in his first role as a leading man. It’s difficult to imagine the film without the gravity and grace he brought to the character of Travis or the profound and ethereal presence of Nastassja Kinski when she appears as his estranged wife Jane, in what may be the most iconic sweater on film. If Paris, Texas is a love letter, it is one that positions heartbreak as an existential condition, reflected by the burned-out landscape of the Southwest—a desolate but dreamlike purgatory of highways, diners, motels, payphones and railroads always on the brink of being swallowed whole by the desert.

Shepard once stated that it was not these places themselves that interested him, but their connection to the past, and at the heart of the film is the cruel joke Travis’s father used to make about his mother—introducing her to people as “the woman he met in Paris … Texas” as a way of shaming her for failing to be the worldly, glamorous woman he wanted her to be. For Travis, the road offers a route of return and the hope that we might come to understand who we are through where we’ve come from.

Are millennials the canary in the coal mine for the broken economy?

Michael Hobbes on how millennials—those born between 1982 and 2004—have become the canary in the coal mine for the languishing economy in the United States. 

But generalizations about millennials, like those about any other arbitrarily defined group of 75 million people, fall apart under the slightest scrutiny. Contrary to the cliché, the vast majority of millennials did not go to college, do not work as baristas and cannot lean on their parents for help. Every stereotype of our generation applies only to the tiniest, richest, whitest sliver of young people. And the circumstances we live in are more dire than most people realize.

A few statistics: 

  • We've taken on at least 300% more student debt than our parents

  • We are about half as likely to own a home as young adults were in 1975

  • 1 in five of us is living in poverty

  • Based on current trends, many of us won't be able to retire until we're 75

  • "My father’s first house cost him 20 months of his salary. My first house will cost more than 10 years of mine."

Lot's to chew on here. Not be be an old here, but it's best to read this on a larger screen. 

Why portrait painting is important (now)

Dushko Petrovich on why portrait painting is gaining in reputation, even before the unveiling of Barack and Michelle Obama's official portraits. 

So why is portraiture returning now? For one, there is an institutional urgency to speak to a more diverse audience with painting that depicts the black community, the Asian-American experience, the Latino face, to attract the various people who had been excluded from the museum by remaking the history of figurative painting, this time with color. Not that the trend toward realist portraits is exclusive to artists of color. It is evident in the rococo renderings of Sam McKinniss, who paints pop culture figures — Prince, Lorde, Flipper — like hallowed aristocrats. It was clear in a series of self-portraits by Justin Vivian Bond — who is best known for experimental cabaret performances — that were displayed at the New Museum last fall, and seemed to casually but definitively announce Bond’s identity as a trans artist.

And there is another reason for figurative paintings’ resurgence as well: We live in a time in which reality is almost daily warped in ways that were unimaginable even 18 months ago. We have swiftly entered an era where the very notion of truth, or facts, is considered fungible. As we reassess the various power structures that landed us here, it is stabilizing and reassuring to look at the work of an artist who is clearly in control of her craft, who is able to depict a reality that is material and grounded in recognition — of seeing, in the Facebook age, a painting that looks like who it is meant to.

Tribalism, politics and you

I’ve always enjoyed former lawyer and current baseball analyst Craig Calcaterra’s Twitter-length take on how tribalism is responsible for most of our opinions: 

The world is less aggravating when you accept that 75-90% of all opinions on everything are informed by base tribalism. Including your own.

Recently, David Brooks had his own Op-Ed-length take on tribalism and political beliefs through the lens of the gun debate in the US: 

We don’t really have policy debates anymore. We have one big tribal conflict, and policy fights are just proxy battles as each side tries to establish moral superiority. But just as the tribal mentality has been turned on, it can be turned off. Then and only then can we go back to normal politics and take reasonable measures to keep our children safe.

Looking back to the darkest days of the 20th century, you'll see we can't just turn tribalism off. George Orwell called it by a different name — Nationalism — but in the hyper-tribal World War II era, it looked largely like it does today (although with very different consequences). 

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles. Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war. Their own antisemitism has caused this vast crime to bounce off their consciousness. In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind.

Perhaps we may not be able to completely move away from tribalism — Orwell's nationalism — is because it's coded in our DNA. If you want to place blame for tribal identity, look to evolution, argues Jonathan Haidt of the Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion

...As Darwin said long ago, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of selfish individualists. Darwin’s ideas about group selection fell out of favor in the 1960s, but recent discoveries are putting his ideas back into play, and the implications are profound. We’re not always selfish hypocrites. We also have the ability, under special circumstances, to shut down our petty selves and become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives, although our hivishness can blind us to other moral concerns. Our bee-like nature facilitates altruism, heroism, war, and genocide.

Once you see our righteous minds as primate minds with a hivish overlay, you get a whole new perspective on morality, politics, and religion. I’ll show that our “higher nature” allows us to be profoundly altruistic, but that altruism is mostly aimed at members of our groups. I’ll show that religion is (probably) an evolutionary adaptation for binding groups together and helping them to create communities with a shared morality. It is not a virus or parasite, as some scientists (the “new atheists”) have argued in recent years. And I’ll use this perspective to explain why some people are conservative, others are liberal (or progressive), and still others become libertarians. People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds.

'I love that question'

In Mousse Magazine, the artists Julia Phillips and Aaron Gilbert converse about each others' art, some of their inspiration...and this section on evil and love. As with many conversations captured for print, the questions are as interesting as the answers. 

Aaron Gilbert…These pieces could be described as artifacts that have a sole purpose of committing evil acts. Do you believe in evil? Which is a certain inverse of saying: Do you believe in the sacred?

JP: I do believe in evil acts. And I am interested in what drives us humans to commit them. Forceful transgressions of boundaries being one example. Self-serving manipulation being another. And both are based on the idea that—not necessarily sacred—but ethical acts are led by the understanding that the human body, as well as the psyche, shall be maintained in their wellness. I like to think of evil as one end of the spectrum of the human psyche’s capacity. I believe that we have it within us and have ideas for it. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a market for horror movies and thrillers. A fascination...

Julia Phillips: Are you consciously depicting alternative, counter images for pop-cultural depictions of love? Our youth culture obsession conversation comes to mind. And the question of the need for love, and the kind of love as something that matures with us as we go through different ages in our lives. The images easily accessible and brought to us through media in an overflow are the ones of youth culture. Is your work a reaction to a drought?

AG: I love that question. I think love fills this profound need at all stages of our lives, and the nature of how we need it shifts as a newborn, as a young child, as someone elderly. I’m weary of the way youth culture is placed front and center in the art world...In the end, it’s a question of where we place value. Of all the pop songs in the past twenty years, how many of them place the voice or the needs of a young child or an elderly person at the center? I’m sure I’m missing a few outliers, but it feels like we have to go back to Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder with this one (“They Don’t Care About Us” and “Earth Song” at least felt age-neutral). I think we often are too narrow in who we give voice to in our narratives. There’s room for a fuller breadth of human experience, and I pose this mostly to myself as a question of what work I should be making in the present.

'More artistic than most typical official portraits'

Slate speaks to Richard J. Powell, a professor of art and art history at Duke University and an expert in the history of black portraiture, about the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, which were unveiled recently

Rachelle Hampton: So what did you think of the portraits and of the Obamas’ choice of artists? 

Richard Powell: I was surprised by the portraits and what I mean by that is, I found them to be more artistic than most typical official portraits are. If you go to the National Portrait Gallery and look at portraits of famous people, they tend to be real vanity pictures and often by artists who are able to do a likeness but they’re not able to really make what I would consider a profound artistic statement. There are lots of great portraits out there, but these are really strong works of art as well as portraits. 

As to the choice of the artists, I thought it was special. Amy Sherald has been in the pipeline for a little while, but not as long as Kehinde Wiley, and so choosing to place someone I would still call up and coming alongside someone I would certainly call a veteran was inspired. 

What statements do you think the artists are trying to make here? What do you think they’re trying to communicate? 

Well, I want to separate them out. I want to start with the Michelle Obama portrait: It’s very much in Sherald’s style, which are these figures that are often placed on very flat backgrounds. She experiments with chroma so that the figures are not necessarily representing things in a realistic way, but they provide an interesting relationship of one color to another to another. What I was struck by in the Michelle Obama portrait was the graphic quality of it, and when I say graphic I mean that the dress is this dramatic abstract statement—the patterns in it, the bold shapes, the limited color palette—and that has an interesting way of interacting with Mrs. Obama’s figure, her famous arms are there, and they frame her head. Amy Sherald really is attuned to the interrelationship between the body and a pose and the accoutrements that surround that pose, in this case a very bold dress



A $60 million pop-up Olympic stadium

Pyeongchang’s Olympic stadium cost South Koreans $60 million dollars and will be used exactly four times. That’s by design. From Citylab

The 35,000-seat pentagonal Olympic Stadium is an extreme example of pop-up architecture, a mega-event venue with a planned lifespan shorter than the career of an aerial snowboarder. The stadium will be used four times in all—for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Winter Games and Paralympics. Then it’s slated to be torn down.

With its simple structure and open roof, the temporary structure was designed with demolition in mind—a technique that has been employed before in previous Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, in 1992. Given the sub-freezing temperatures expected, the unheated and roofless facility is perhaps less than ideal.

But the alternative—a more costly permanent structure—is probably an even worse idea, experts say. Pyeongchang is a rural outpost of around 45,000 people in one of the poorest areas of South Korea, a country where winter sports have a small following. If the stadium isn’t torn down, it would likely be fated to join a mighty herd of white elephants from Olympics past—infrastructure that has gone unused decades after the athletes went home, yet continue to drain public money in upkeep costs.

Reading Shakespeare: New source found for Bard's plays

From The Guardian: Scholar finds new sources for parts of Shakespeare’s plays. 

Independent scholar Dennis McCarthy and LaFayette College professor June Schlueter used WCopyfind software to compare passages from Shakespeare’s plays with George North’s 1576 unpublished manuscript, A Brief Discourse of Rebellion, about the dangers of rebelling against a king. They were able to trace more than 20 passages back to the essay, including Gloucester’s opening soliloquy in Richard III, Macbeth’s comparison of dog breeds to different classes of men, the Fool’s Merlin prophecy in King Lear, and the events surrounding Jack Cade’s fatal fight with Alexander Iden in Henry VI.

Transcience: Washing those memories right out of your hair

From Harvard Health on transcience, one of the seven types of memory loss:


This is the tendency to forget facts or events over time. You are most likely to forget information soon after you learn it. However, memory has a use-it-or-lose-it quality: memories that are called up and used frequently are least likely to be forgotten. Although transience might seem like a sign of memory weakness, brain scientists regard it as beneficial because it clears the brain of unused memories, making way for newer, more useful ones.

Daniel L. Schacter, author of the Seven Sins of Memory. on how transience may come about because memories aren't stored in our brains forever like a hard drive. Rather,  memories are most likely impermanent.

Discussions about the cause of long-term forgetting have focused on whether forgetting is attributable to actual loss of information from memory storage, to retrieval failure that can be reversed by provision of appropriate cues, or both. There is no doubt that retrieval failure plays an important role in forgetting. Some experiences may be rendered temporarily inaccessible because of interference from related experiences, and it is well-established that cues and hints can elicit recall of seemingly forgotten memories. Nonetheless, such findings need not indicate that all forgetting is attributable to access failure. The view that experiences are recorded permanently, with all forgetting attributable to access failure, is surprisingly common—even among psychologists. However, it seems likely that information is also lost from storage over time.