Daniel J. Socolow

Director, Fellows Program


Dear Mr. Socolow,


In reading your overview of the Fellows Program, I believe I have encountered a rather large contradiction.  The Foundation lists as a primary requirement that Fellows should be highly original and self-directed.   It awards fellowships to individuals rather than institutions.  Furthermore, Fellows may be “with or without institutional affiliations.”


But in the section on nominations, we find that candidates must be known to a small number of nominators, nominators who are encouraged to nominate the “most creative people they know within their field.”   What this means in practice is that, in each particular field of endeavor, insiders have a marked advantage over outsiders.  It is easy to see that those “with affiliations” of whatever kind are much more likely to be known to nominators.  The question then becomes, how can your Foundation discover those who do not have affiliations with major institutions, clubs, universities, or markets?    


Your Foundation and others often make the claim, or confirm the old adage, that innovation comes from the margins.  It is those who are bold enough to be self-directed and original who make the greatest advances in all fields.  This is known to history.  It has always been true and it is still true.  You explicitly confirm it once more in the opening paragraphs of your overview, where you make a nod to these margins.  But the fact is that these margins are unaddressed by your method of nomination.   Those without affiliations can hardly be expected to be known or supported by those who are at the center of major institutions.


Beyond that, the greatest geniuses in history have always been at odds with the status quo.  They were geniuses precisely because they could see or do what others couldn’t.   But this sort of ability is very unpopular at the present time.   I remind you of the current philosophy of visual art, a philosophy that dismisses talent and excellence as concepts.  It does not believe in genius, hierarchy of any kind, beauty, or the ultimate value of the artifact or artist.   To a lesser extent this is true in every field.  Every field has sharp boundaries, and success is achieved by accepting those boundaries, not by ignoring them.  In many fields the margins have been repressed or shut down, since there is almost no way to exist “without institutional affiliations.” 


From its press releases, one expects the MacArthur Foundation to be addressing this very problem; to be looking at ways to strengthen the margins; to make it possible for talent to survive beyond the often limiting borders of academe.  It used to be that private wealth supported this margin directly: wealthy or semi-wealthy “amateurs” often made great contributions to many fields, by pursuing self-directed courses of study or research.  In a democracy this phenomenon is trebly threatened, since the wealthy rarely pursue or encourage private research, since high achievement itself is frowned upon as unegalitarian, and since contributions from the margins are no longer vetted.  Amateurs have been forbidden from the outset, since they threaten the careers and funding of professionals. 


You must realize that in many fields, what you call “being without institutional affiliation” is what the field calls “being an amateur,” or even, “being a crank.”  It is naïve to suppose that those with institutional affiliation will give serious consideration to those without it. Unless there is a firm directive, and constant pressure, all consideration will be given by those with institutional affiliation to those with institutional affiliation.   Everybody knows this.  It is human nature.   It is understandable.  But your Foundation was created to counter this nature.


In the end, the most highly original and self-directed individuals will not be found surrounded by clubs and institutions.  They will not be found accepting the terms of everyone else.  For this reason they are unlikely to be popular.  This is more true now than it has ever been, for the reason I stated above.  In our highly egalitarian milieu, being unclubbable is perhaps the greatest curse of all.  Highly original and self-directed individuals are not clubbable and never have been.  They work more efficiently without the help of others, and others do not take this fact graciously.  The MacArthur Foundation should help make the work of such people as efficient as possible, with no regard to social or careerist concerns.


It would be more logical for a Foundation that is trying to support extraordinary achievement to look among the unpopular and unclubbable.  This is where the geniuses have usually been found.  The popular and clubbable, those with institutional affiliations, do not need the support of special foundations, since by definition they already have institutional support.   Outside academe, I don’t honestly know how you are going to tell the geniuses from the cranks, since in the beginning it is not always easy to do.  But you aren’t even trying.   Anyone who claims to support innovation must take risks.  Sifting for talent outside the main channels is risky.  But if you are sifting for the big talent that is most in threat of being wasted, then that is where you must look.  It seems to me that your charter demands it.


End of Letter


Some who are familiar with the 2005 list of Fellows will answer that 8 of the 25 Fellows are unaffiliated. But this is deceptive. The Foundation has a habit of listing all practicing artists as being unaffiliated, though the ones chosen are usually insiders of the clearest kind. These "unaffiliated" artists have already won the support of many institutions, though they may not actually work for them. Let us look at the 2005 list.

Teresita Fernandez, 37, of New York, New York, has an MFA, is a fellow of the American Academy in Rome, was an artist in residence at Artspace, and has been given shows at the Corcoran and the MCA, Miami, among other places. Her work is described like this: "she creates large-scale, referential constructions, such as a pool, a waterfall, and a sand dune stripped of specific context. With these pared-down pieces, she invites viewers to draw from their personal memories and observations."

     I hardly think I need comment on her work, beyond stating that I am fully capable of drawing from personal memories in front of a real sand dune, or no sand dune. But just consider how far away from any margin Ms. Fernandez must be. She is affiliated in not one, but many ways. One suspects that a majority of her time in New York City must be spent making the proper affiliations and connections, otherwise how could one so young be so well rewarded for so little?

Julie Mehretu, 34, of New York, New York, has an MFA and three artist in residences (at 34!) in Houston, Harlem, and Minneapolis. She has shown at the Whitney, the Carnegie, and MOMA. In her work (one title being Transcending: the New International) she "depicts public spaces from around the globe—museums, stadiums, and international airports—in the form of heroically-scaled maps and architectural plans. On surfaces encased in coats of transparent resin, she paints over these sprawling drawings a maelstrom of colorful, geometric abstractions, iconic imagery, and loosely figurative markings that evoke a world of associations."
     Yes, if you need fake sand dunes to evoke personal memories, then you also might have a "world of associations" evoked by "figurative markings" scribbled upon maps of airports and stadiums. One question, are "figurative markings" the same thing as figures? Maybe just badly drawn figures?

     Ms. Mehretu is unarguably a genius at impressing the sort of people that curate at MOMA, and that apparently act as art nominators at the MacArthur. One can say, without any fear of contradiction, that they are the same sort of people: odds are they are the same people.

Fazal Sheikh, 40, New York, New York. Do you see a pattern here? Mr. Sheikh was a Fulbright Fellow at age 27 and has exhibited at many major museums, including (again) the Corcoran. I would say there is a good chance one of our nominators works at the Corcoran. Mr. Sheikh’s work is documentary photography of refugees, which we are told, "calls attention to the persistent nature of conflict and highlights the importance of bearing witness."

     I don’t deny the usefulness of good documentary photography, or the need to be reminded of tragedy, but Mr. Sheikh’s selection here looks more like politics to me than art. Photographing refugees is just the sort of thing that these museums eat up like cake, and a plurality of avant garde artists now try to include some representative of the dispossessed in every box. If this sort of politics wasn’t a requirement of the new art, one might be more likely to believe in the sincerity of artists. As it stands, it is usually nothing more than the artist fulfilling expectations, and the museum or critic using it as propaganda. Besides, we hardly need great art to remind us these days of the "persistent nature of conflict or the importance of bearing witness." That is what a million TV and radio stations do, as well as newpapers, magazines, and the internet. Is it possible that art might occasionally be used for some other purpose?


Jonathan Lethem, 41, Brooklyn, New York. Good to know these nominators are venturing so far out of Manhattan. A Bennington graduate whose writings have appeared in The New Yorker and Rolling Stone, Lethem is represented by a major publisher, with ten books (including 7 novels) already on the shelves. That’s not really what I call unaffiliated.

     "Characterized by narrative leaps between vastly divergent genres, his fiction weaves the conventions of noir mysteries, westerns, science fiction, and comic books into coming-of-age tales that are otherwise evocative and realistic in content." If you think that sounds confusing, it is. I have read his fiction and it is unreadable. It is avant garde fiction of the worst kind, trying to mix unmixables. Like Blade Runner with lots of self- conscious asides and failed humor and an Infinite Jest annoying complexity. Like Philip K. Dick meets Raymond Chandler meets David Foster Wallace, and not in a good way. Lethem takes everything that is wrong with new fiction and stirs it into the same pot—he is like the Jerry Bruckheimer of the publishing world.

Edet Belzberg, 35, New York, New York. Good to be back from the outer meridians of Brooklyn. An MA from Columbia, a lecturer at the same place, and a sometimes professor at New York University. She is a documentary filmmaker with only one film at the time of nomination, a film of, you guessed it, homeless children living in a train station in Bucharest.

     Again, documenting these things can be important and even admirable, so why should it leave such a bad taste in my mouth in this case? Could it be because so many phony avant garde artists from New York City have used various tragedies for self promotion? Could it be because this sort of art via sociopolitics has become de rigueur, and therefore transparent? Could it be because oversaturation of tragedies we cannot affect actually contributes to callousness and hopelessness? Could it be because the US has tragedies and atrocities daily piled up around it, within walking distance of home, which it ignores to go to these films and exhibits?

Ted Ames, 66, Stonington, Maine, has an MS in biochemistry and served as executive director of the Maine Gillnetters Association, as marine resources director for Maine’s sustainable fisheries organization, the Island Institute, as president and laboratory director of Alden/Ames Laboratory, and for many years as an advisor to the New England Fisheries Management Council.

      How is that unaffiliated? Wasn’t that a list of his affiliations?

     Mr. Ames was chosen as a fellow for "fusing the roles of applied scientist and lobsterman to respond to increasing threats to the fishery ecosystem from decades of over-harvesting." Well, all his years as director of various institutes didn’t keep the stocks from being depleted, did they? Instead of developing computer models, Mr. Ames and his fellow fishermen/scientists might try not over-harvesting. You hardly need a "rigorous methodology" or the "anecdotal experience of aging fishermen" to tell you that. You don’t need a genius grant either. You need a decade-long moratorium and some restraint when it is over, restraint that these aging fishermen never showed in the first instance. If Mr. Ames had been jailed for cutting nets or leading boycotts or ostracized for filing lawsuits in the name of the lobsters, he might deserve an award for bravery. But these studies by industry associations are always just smokescreens. What they most want is some way to breed fish and lobsters like cows and pigs, and they care as much about the health of the sea as do most ranchers about the health of the land.

Michael Walsh, 62, Arlington, VA. Vehicle emissions specialist, "unaffiliated", but worked for the City of New York and the US EPA. Now works for the OECD and the United Nations and well as for the EPA’s of Brazil, Mexico, etc.

     Considering the emissions standards in all these places, and the amount of unnecessary emission due to size and type of engine, I can’t imagine anyone less deserving of a genius grant. Like most specialists, he is likely used mainly to stall or prevent necessary legislation, by giving false or skewed testimony, and providing misleading numbers. Anyone with any scruple at all would have used his knowledge to directly inform the public about the deficiencies of industry and government. Instead we find Mr. Walsh profiting from governmental bodies all over the world.

     For the record, the leader in controlling emissions is Japan, which you will notice is not a client of Mr. Walsh. If not for the domination of Japanese cars, the air in US cities would now be unbreathable, or I should say even more unbreathable than it is. As proof of this, look at the cabs in NYC. Do you think it is really necessary that these cabs be as big, as fast, and as inefficient as they are? This is an example of a tragedy or atrocity close to home that all are blind to, and that Mr. Walsh is party to. If he has been advising his clients to do what they have done, then he is corrupt. If he has been advising them to do something else than what they have done, he is ineffectual.

     Next we will be giving genius grants to chemists at Union Carbide or Dow for not killing as many people as they might have, or to researchers at Philip Morris for giving us cigarettes with 15% less tar.

Joseph Curtin, 52, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Finally, a truly unaffiliated fellow. Mr. Curtin is a violin maker. At first he looks like a breath of fresh air on this list, but I take no consolation in his appearance. For two reasons: 1) He will appear to most to stand with the "artists" on the list, but he is not an artist, he is a craftsman. A great player of the violin may be an artist, a violin maker cannot be. This is because there is no possible emotional content in making a violin. This means he does not stand as an artist, he displaces an artist. Of course this can be said of the others as well, the documentarians and figure markers and ersatz sand dune heapers who may be creative but who are not terribly artistic. 2) He might be worthy of a fellowship nonetheless, of course, if his craft is of a high enough order and of great enough importance. Violin making would appear to qualify, except that we are told that Mr. Curtin is a "luthier with research interests in nontraditional materials and nontraditional structures. . . creating entirely new instruments that incorporate contemporary materials and aesthetics." That is a big red flag, my friend. A new Stradivarius would qualify for a genius grant, but Mr. Curtin gave up on wood and varnish a long time ago. He could never match the tone of the old instruments with traditional materials, and he still can’t with his plastics. But he can get attention by using space age composite materials and weird shapes that impress clueless modern people. He may get more sound out of the instrument, but he has not managed to get better sound.
     In this way he is precisely like the modern artist (and even the modern scientist): he has given up on beauty and subtlety (and understanding) and replaced them with flash and volume (and mathematics). And he is also like the new realist painter, who is fooled into thinking that new materials will help him paint better than Titian. Whereas the truth of the matter is that it is the traditional materials that allowed Titian to paint as well as he did. New materials actually prevent subtlety. That is what the Strad copiers could never understand. They were so convinced of the superiority of new materials that they could never allow themselves to use the natural materials (varnishes and waxes and so on) Stradivarius used in the form he likely used them; that is, non-pure and adulterated. Their professionalism wouldn’t allow them to use a "rough" form of anything, since that would deprive them of using all their new machines.

Emily Thompson, 43, San Diego. This is number 9, if you are counting, so Thompson must be affiliated, which she is, to UC San Diego. I have included her here only because she is listed as an "aural historian". What is an aural historian? In her book, The Soundscape of Modernity, "she examines the transformation of the American soundscape from the turn of the century to the opening of Radio City Music Hall in 1933. Thompson explores innovations in the science of acoustics, the emergence of excessive noise, and the efforts of scientists and designers to create new spaces and a new, 'modern' sound. She documents the interplay between differences in acoustic characteristics of buildings constructed during this period and increases in the value placed at the time on technological mastery, efficiency and control in modern life. Thompson’s most recent project is on the role of engineers, projectionists, and other industry technicians in the transition to synchronized sound in cinema."

     Another made-up sub-field of recent history, trying to turn something that might be interesting for ten pages into a shelf of books and a new university department. This is the sort of arcane project that Congress funds as part of some pork barrel, or the sort of coffee table book that sells only to projectionists and industry technicians and other aural historians. How it ends up on the MacArthur Foundation page is beyond me.

Now for a recap. Of the eight unaffiliated fellows, five were in the arts. All five were from New York City (or Brooklyn). To put it another way, there were no artists who were not from New York City and no artists who were not (falsely) listed as unaffiliated. Everyone nominated and selected was affiliated in a multitude of ways. No one even came close to any margin. The arts nominators really need to get out of New York City. I hear there are trains now that may go beyond Brooklyn.

And the MacArthur Foundation needs to quit calling people with multiple affiliations "unaffiliated", just to make it look like they are independent and diverse. These I have listed are diverse only in color and dependent upon the good graces of the status quo in every conceivable way.