The Hit Factory

Since I’ve been writing about the drug industry (our magazine bowed in October 1999) I’ve been hearing that we’re heading toward The Era of Personalized Medicine. This means that, as we develop more knowledge of the genome, proteome, and metabolome (you think I’m making this stuff up?), drugs will be tailored to generate greater efficacy or fewer side effects in smaller population groups.

The drug that gets touted as the advance guard in this wave is Herceptin, which can be very effective in treating breast cancer, but only in tumors that over-express the HER2 protein. Around 20% of breast cancer cases fall into this category; Herceptin isn’t effective against other tumors.

Some pharmacoeconomists contend that personalized medicine will lead to The End of the Blockbusters, as smaller patient groups translate to a cap on your “customer” base. On the other side of the spectrum is a “mass appeal” drug like Lipitor, the cholesterol treatment that sells more than twice the dollar amount of any other drug in the world and is now being tested for benefits in treating Alzheimer’s disease.

I bring this up not because I just finished that Top Companies report, but because of N’Sync.

This morning, I read a funny article adapted from the book The Long Tail by Chris Anderson (not this guy). It examines how the entertainment industry faces The Death of the Blockbuster, citing diminishing CD and movie sales figures and TV and radio ratings as indicators that the niche is where it’s at.

It’s altogether possible that NSync’s first-week record [2.4 million CDs sold] may never be broken. The band could go down in history [. . .] for marking the peak of the hit bubble — the last bit of manufactured pop to use the 20th century’s fine-tuned marketing machine to its fullest before the gears were stripped and the wheels fell off.

Music itself hasn’t gone out of favor — just the opposite. There has never been a better time to be an artist or a fan, and there has never been more music made or listened to. But the traditional model of marketing and selling music no longer works. The big players in the distribution system — major record labels, retail giants — depend on huge, platinum hits. These days, though, there are not nearly enough of those to support the industry in the style to which it has become accustomed. We are witnessing the end of an era.

His long-term economic arguments and his moralizing (near the end) are bizarrely off-kilter. For one thing, News Corp. owns MySpace. The site may offer massive “niche” opportunities, but it’s going to make cash hand over first for Murdoch & Co., both little (user fees) and big (as a promotional tool for its properties).

For another, in this era where every entertainment option is allegedly losing its hit-making power, Anderson manages to avoid any mention of the Harry Potter books and The Da Vinci Code. Both of these are such impossibly massive hits — despite the fact that more individual titles get published now than ever — that they blow a sizeable hole in the concept that we’re all moving to the margins.

It’s my contention that, while there a whole lot of factors at play in the decline of hits in the last five years, I think the biggest is that almost every blockbuster movie is crap, contemporary pop and dance music is so dull that radio stations needed to be bribed into playing it, and the current generation of TV executives were raised on the awful television of the late 1970s and 1980s.

Hits might not be as big as they once were, but they’re even more important to the entertainment industry now, given the high price of failure. I’m not saying it’s right, as it tends to lead to “safe” committee-designed projects, but in the pharmaceutical business, as in Hollywood, the big hits help defray the costs of a bazillion failures.

(The Agitator has some reflections on Anderson’s book.)

More posts about buildings and food

I came across BLDG BLOG yesterday, thanks to a link in the NY Observer. The most recent post, on the shortcomings of architectural criticism, is awfully read-worthy. It explores how an art form (and again, I’m using architecture as a stand-in for other art forms) can become too esoteric for its own good:

[S]trong and interesting architectural criticism is defined by the way you talk about architecture, not the buildings you choose to talk about.

In other words, fine: you can talk about Fumihiko Maki instead of, say, Half-Life, or Doom, or super-garages, but if you start citing Le Corbusier, or arguing about whether something is truly “parametric,” then you shouldn’t be surprised if anyone who’s not a grad student, studying with one of your friends at Columbia, puts the article down, gets in a car — and drives to the mall, riding that knotwork of self-intersecting crosstown flyovers and neo-Roman car parks that most architecture critics are too busy to consider analyzing.

All along, your non-Adorno-reading former subscriber will be interacting with, experiencing, and probably complaining about architecture — but you’ve missed a perfect chance to join in.

The mention of Adorno puts me in mind of the great essay, “Is Bad Writing Necessary?” which appeared in the late, lamented Lingua Franca a few years ago. (It took me a long time to find that article online after LF folded, but I dug it up on a Chinese site, cleaned up the typography, and saved it as a Word doc, which I present here.)

That essay explored the attraction of ‘esoteric writing’ of sorts, that use of academic jargon and deliberate obfuscation that (in my opinion) creates a closed, insulated circuit of theory that has little involvement in the real world. The writer contrasts this style of writing (as exemplified by Theodor Adorno) with the ‘windowpane’ style of George Orwell, which strove to be as unjargonistic as possible.

Even though I went to a theory-heavy undergrad institution, I ended up championing Orwell’s prose over the self-privileging of academic jargon (okay, maybe that should read, ‘Because I went to a . . .’). I understand that some concepts are awfully tricky and need plenty of work to explain, but if you can’t convey them to a reasonably intelligent person without resorting to a glossary of strange terminology, you’re probably just spinning your wheels.

(I’m not sure if the example of explaining the pick-and-roll to my wife this weekend applies, but that was an instance where, rather than resorting to basketball terminology, I used our salt and pepper shakers, a salad dressing bottle and a bottle-cap to demonstrate exactly what the p&r is. Then I explained to her how the Lakers’ terrible defensive rotation on the wing led to Tim Thomas rolling 20 feet for an unimpeded dunk.)

BLDG BLOG writer Geoff Manaugh also explores this idea of theory essentially having its head stuck up its ass:

First, early on, one of the panelists stated: “It’s not our job to say: ‘Gee, the new Home Depot sucks. . .'”

But of course it is!

That’s exactly your role; that’s exactly the built environment as it’s now experienced by the majority of the American public. “Architecture,” for most Americans, means Home Depot — not Mies Van Der Rohe. You have every right to discuss that architecture. For questions of accessibility, material use, and land policy alone, if you could change the way Home Depots all around the world are designed and constructed, you’d have an impact on built space and the construction industry several orders of magnitude larger than changing just one new high-rise in Manhattan — or San Francisco, or Boston’s Back Bay.

You’d also help people realize that their local Home Depot is an architectural concern, and that everyone has the right to critique — or celebrate — these buildings now popping up on every corner. If critics only choose to write about avant-garde pharmaceutical headquarters in the woods of central New Jersey — citing Le Corbusier — then, of course, architectural criticism will continue to lose its audience. And it is losing its audience: this was unanimously agreed upon by all of last night’s panelists.

Put simply, if everyday users of everyday architecture don’t realize that Home Depot, Best Buy, WalMart, even Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose, can be criticized — if people don’t realize that even suburbs and shopping malls and parking garages can be criticized — then you end up with the architectural situation we have today: low-quality, badly situated housing stock, illogically designed and full of uncomfortable amounts of excess closet space.

And no one says a thing.

I’m not sure why I’ve grown so interested in architecture and buildings in the last few years. Maybe it’s because of the sorta intersection of art, commerce, and real-world-ness (it’s a building). I should probably ruminate on that for a while.

Anyway, enjoy the article.

Art Inaction

Witold Rybczynski has an article at Slate about how architects create a brand for themselves. Near the end, he brings up a point that I’d like to ponder (and would like you, dear reader, to ponder):

Most architectural careers are marked by a deliberate evolution–a slow simmer rather than a fast boil. The drive to establish their own unique brands pushes young architects to distinguish themselves early–too early. Moreover, public recognition of an architect’s particular approach–Meier’s minimalism, Stern’s traditionalism, Santiago Calatrava’s bravura–can serve to stymie the natural artistic evolution of a designer’s style.

This has me thinking about the conflicting impulses for just about any artist: how does one achieve commercial success without freezing one’s artistic development?

It brings me back to a post of mine from last year:

Years ago, the first time I phoned the critic and novelist David Gates, I asked him about the novel he was working on. He said, pretty facetiously, “I’m in a sort of bind. If it comes out like Jernigan [his first novel, which I adored], people will say I’m only capable of writing that type of book. If it comes out nothing like Jernigan, people who liked that book will complain that this one is no good.”

A few years later, when I read it, I thought, “This is pretty good, but it’s no Jernigan.” I was a little embarrassed about that reaction, but hey. I read the book again a few months ago, and enjoyed it a lot more than I remembered the first time.

So can you think of artists who’ve achieved renown, financial success and some degree of celebrity who’ve managed not get caught in that stasis?

About that fountainhead . . .

Neat interview at BusinessWeek with Joshua Prince-Ramus, the lead partner and owner of the New York branch of the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), the firm founded by Rem Koolhaas. It’s all about the rational process of designing “outrageous” buildings:

We believe in a hyper-rational process where you accept the constraints, conditions, and challenges of a project, and you attempt to engage them by going back to first principles. You don’t accept any convention. If someone says, “This is how you solve that problem,” you give them the bird. You just say, “I don’t want to hear it.” [. . .]

We’re seeing constraints as opportunities. It’s not like we’re getting around the constraints. We’re saying, “The project’s just the constraints.” If we can solve the constraints, that’s where the form will come, that’s where the beauty will come, that’s where the logic will come. And more likely than not, you can get it built, you can get it financed, you can get it on budget.

I find this stuff fascinating, but I have a different view on art than some of my friends. Read more.

The Greatest and Most Natural Movement

Good article by Robert Hughes on Rembrandt, in honor of the 400th anniversary of the artist’s birth. It turns out that Hughes likes one of my least favorite R. paintings, The Polish Rider, which I saw at the Frick and was convinced was a joke.

Discussing the majesty of Peiro, Raphael and Poussin, he writes

But what you are not likely to feel is a sense of community with these magnificent products of human thought and imagination. Were there really people who looked like this, who could be seen walking the streets of Rome, Arezzo or Paris? Who could be spoken to, and answer your voice? It seems implausible. We look at them for quite different reasons. We admire their difference, and their distance, from us.

But then there are artists whose work is not like this. They are the ones who acknowledge human imperfection and mortality. And not only acknowledge it, but in some sense glory in it, making it the prime subject of their art. For if men and women were perfect, mentally, physically, morally, spiritually, why would they need art at all?

For that, we need Rembrandt. I’ve written about his paintings a few times in the three years I’ve been keeping my virtual memories (I missed my blogiversary a few weeks ago), but I’ve only done so tentatively. The best of it was probably in this Interminably Long Ramble.

If you’re going to be in Amsterdam in the next few months, you should check out the Rembrandt-Caravaggio exhibit that Hughes’ article is plugging.

If you’re a fine art aficionado and a NASCAR fan, check out the Rembrandt 400.

El Sueno De Jamon Produce Monstruos

Went to the Prado today, but it was pretty boring. There was a TON of religious (Christian) art, and it got tedious after a while. On the plus side, I got to see Bosch’s Garden of Delights triptych, which is mindblowing. And Goya’s “black paintings” were in their own section. I’d never really seen Goya’s paintings (just some of his etchings), and this collection was fantastic. His religious art was dull, in my opinion.

The Prado has a single Rembrandt, Artemisa, which sucked ass. Fortunately, the Thyssen-Bornemisza had much better stuff in general, and its Rembrandt self-portrait was much better, too. I realized that I’ve become a little bit of an art-snob, but having the Frick & the Met so close by, and having spent a day in the Louvre, I realized that Madrid’s art-offerings aren’t all that.

Anyway, I’m heading home tomorrow, so I doubt I’ll post again before then. Next missive may be from Nashville, scary as that sounds.

Night Watch

Today, I saw Rembrandt’s Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum.

There are moments for which we spend all our lives waiting, and there are moments for which we don’t even know we’re waiting.

* * *

The Rijksmuseum’s undergoing a massive renovation, so the masterpieces of the collection have been put on display in the Philips wing. I’m immensely thankful that I’m in the midst of the Baroque Cycle while I visit this place. It’s providing me with an amazing context for this place and the short period in which it became the center of the world.

That said, this is the most confusing city I’ve ever walked in, even worse than Boston. I’m not sure what it is, but I lose track of street names almost instantly, and barely recognize previously traversed intersections (a key method of finding one’s way around). The sheer number of canals has something to do with it, of course: something that, in a single instance, should be an easy landmark, multiplied becomes confusion.

I’ll probably catch hell for this, but I didn’t visit the Van Gogh Museum, around the corner from the Rijksmuseum. I used to feel quite passionate about Van Gogh’s paintings, but that’s just not the case for me anymore. When I look at reproductions of his work, nothing awakens in me. I recognize the genius of his work, but I’ve somehow lost the enthusiasm I once had for it.

Maybe my past enthusiasm for Van Gogh tied more into the biography and my old identity as Misunderstood, Partially Insane Artist. As I’ve grown into a different world, that vision of color and shape doesn’t resonate in me. I’m drawn more to the darknesses and ambiguities of Rembrandt’s best work.

Perhaps it has something to do with why I loathe most modern art. Maybe this is it: I don’t like the Lowest College Denominator context to which Van Gogh’s been reduced. The cheap clones, the too-easy “I don’t need training! I’m expressing myself!” method that many visual artists employ: maybe that’s what Van Gogh’s come to represent in my psyche. Not that he was practitioner of that method, but that yahoo-artists use him as a champion.

Or maybe I’m just getting older and my classics-background means more to me.

* * *

Walking through the “Rembrandt & his pupils” section of the museum, I thought about how much it must’ve sucked to be Hals, van Hootch, et al., painting in the time and place of Rembrandt. Doing your best work during a time of someone else’s genius must be a major bummer. The obvious version of this is that Amadeus movie/play, but from what I gather, the relationship between Mozart and Salieri was more complicated than the fictionalized version.

* * *

Last night, I walked around in the Leidseplein for a bit. Lots of bars, restaurants, shops, etc. Here’s a funny-looking building. I didn’t have my map with me, so I didn’t know how near or far I was from the Red Light district. I thought I might be close, because I saw numerous women who were absolutely phenomenally/pneumatically built, dressed in some of the most sex-oriented clothing I’d ever seen in public. When I looked at the map this morning, I realized I was nowhere near that section of town, and that some women in Amsterdam just dress like that.

* * *

Some pictures from this afternoon’s jaunt to the museum:

The view from a canal near my hotel. When the Meridien Apollo’s website said that the hotel had a view of five canals, I thought that meant it was pretty amazingly located. Now I realize that, in Amsterdam, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting five canals.

Still, it’s a nice hotel, and in a pretty quiet location, which is good for me.

Here’s a section of the Rijksmuseum.

Thank you, sir! May I have another?

Same place, different side.

A statue on the grounds, commemorating the back strain suffered by the guys who had to move it there.

Always with the museum pix!

At least we’re coming up to the entrance.

I didn’t want to use the flash, for fear of scaring the 10 million Japanese tourists in front of me. (Note: as a goof, I took a photo of a totally dull building this afternoon, because a ton of Japanese tourists were walking by. They immediately stopped and began taking pictures of the same building.)

I got to the museum when this guy was getting his “uniform” on. I gave him a euro for dressing like a homo.

Not many people know that Rembrandt was also a killer ‘boarder.

The big concert hall.

They have these strange birds here, which have white bills, black feathers, and black eyes, and look like they have no faces. I’ll try to get a better pic later. Sadly, I made this observation and I haven’t even tried the hash yet.