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Libertarianism at the Smithsonian?

Originally published at Quantum Matrix Scribe. Please leave any comments there.

The other day, in my eternal fight against the wickedness of writer’s block, I went to the National Museum of African Art to jog my senses. I figured it might do me some good, and it’s the last bit of the Smithsonian (other than the Aquarium) that I haven’t seen yet.

I did not seriously expect anything cool to happen. Sure, I like African art, it’s one of those areas which I don’t see more of, mainly getting western and Asian art in my face. (Case in point, the Freer Gallery of Art is about 90% Asian, with a touch of Egyptian–wicked cool–and some French artist whose name escapes me.) I just didn’t expect a “Wow!” reaction from some of the things I saw.

Ebony staff with golden top of two dudes (not that)

"Eat your veggies!"

But I did. The mask made out of crushed spider eggs and spider silk to give it good luck, the picture of the massive snake outfit used for dancing, and the libertarianism on the display in the foyer. Wait, what?

No, really. They have a staff on display with two people sitting on top, eating some sort of food (I betcha its not McDonalds.) It’s called a “linguist staff,” and was carried by royal translators to show their position, quite an important one considering the variety of languages found in Africa. What I found to be the most interesting was that the image was a proverb, and the proverb was: “The food is for the one who owns it, not for the one who is hungry.” I mean…wow. That’s a very libertarian thought, from a place that does not have very much libertarianism at all (and don’t bring up Somalia as an example, or I will beat you over the head with a captured oil tanker.) They were using it in the context of the royal throne, but it plays well to just about anything else. Do not take from others, they have spent their resources and time in order to obtain this food, why should have they put it to waste?

Unfortunately, it is not a thought that is prevalent anywhere in the world (except maybe Patri Friedman’s yacht.) Day in and day out we have “activists” and politicians and others saying we need to take more resources away from one group and give it to another, namely the poor. There are people out there chanting that there needs to be a right to food, ignoring that such a right would force others to cater to it, effectively becoming a form of slavery. Why work when your results will be taken from you?

Our world would be a far better place if we respected property rights. We wouldn’t have a need for so many police officers, or locks, or be afraid of walking out our front door in many American cities. People would be far more civil–and more charitable as well, I believe, because without some government agency redirecting money from one pot to the next, they would see poverty as something they had to take care of, and moreover, they’d have more resources to be charitable with. True, if you’re a cop or a locksmith, it might not be so great, but I think in this case, the good of the many outweigh the good of the few. (Not so much needs, as you can get another job.)

But, unfortunately, that’s a massive and indeed fundamental societal change that exists only in fantasy, for now. There’s a long way to go before property rights and individual liberty regain the admiration they deserve.

There’s also a long way to go before art stops being so damn silly.

It’s a caricature–based totally on truth, I think–of artists and art critics being snobs. Well, maybe just critics. But I hear a lot in art about this piece being a manifestation of the will to live, or showcasing the underlying tension between spirit and conformity, or some such garbage. I remember one piece, being three red lines on a white background, supposedly representing humanity. I really don’t understand how such abstract lines and colors can represent something as complicated as humanity. I would think a blood stain on some dollar bills would make more sense.

But I think we may have finally jumped the shark.

Err, it's supposed to be a backbone. I think.

What is this I don't even

Now don’t get me wrong. The art in this exhibit is quite amazing. If you’re in the DC area, I heartily encourage you to check it out. When I’m rich and famous, I might get some of it in my lunar palace. But there’s a distinct difference between amazing artwork and pretentious artwork.

See the picture to the left for an example. Supposedly, this is a spine, laid bare. “Whether this is the result of treatment or trauma, we do not know.” Already, you can feel its nose begin to turn upwards. It does not hit the maximum point, though, until this: that it “explores the unifying structure of the backbone as a metaphor for political, social and mental stability” in another piece, which is really not that great either–it’s a bunch of burnt canvas, which is visually impressive, but how it gets its message is, well, not something I know either.

My question is: how does the above “explore” the backbone? How does it do anything? It’s a bunch of plywood. Interesting to look at, but it does not create a metaphor, nor conduct any metaphysical explorations. Maybe this is my arrogant writer talking, but I don’t think art can actually explore these concepts, unless it has some written component. (Films, which are derived from screenplays, count.) You have to work through these concepts in order to “explore” them, which can be done with characters who act and then react to the world around them. Putting up a static, abstract image does nothing. It may look pretty. It probably looks weird. But being the “metaphor for political, social, and mental stability” is just a leap of illogic.

But maybe that’s just me. Perhaps I’m way off base. Perhaps I’m just not seeing the other dimension to this work. Possible, since here it’s just 2D…What do you think?