Florence To Tourists: Become A Criminal, Will Train

In the beauty contest of stupid ideas, this one has to be a contender for Miss Universe.

The Opera Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, which oversees a number of major tourist attractions in the Tuscan capital, has launched an app called Autography, which allows visitors to leave virtual graffiti on some of the city’s most iconic monuments. The idea came about as a way to combat real-life graffiti, which the non-profit has to spend considerable time and money scrubbing clean. Users will be able to scribble their names, messages, and so on onto virtual images of Florence’s Cathedral, Baptistery, and other buildings using a program called Autography, which promises to store their scrawls in a permanent database that will be accessible to other visitors. The graffiti, it is noted, will be screened – i.e. curated – for anything in the way of “insults, unauthorized material or judged inappropriate.”

The reader will need to bear with me, because this is a truly radical concept, but surely such graffiti is, by its very nature, insulting, unauthorized, and inappropriate, regardless of its content.

Here in the Nation’s Capital, we don’t seem to suffer from the same degree of loutishness in our public spaces, at least not yet. The notion that one would go down to the Jefferson Memorial during the Cherry Blossom Festival, and find all of the pillars tagged, is practically unimaginable. When such acts do occur, they are appropriately dealt with.

Yet if you have visited Europe in recent years, it seems as though the battle between weak authorities and brazen criminals was conceded to the latter long ago. Practically every church door is covered with graffiti, and shop owners now go to the trouble of paying miscreants to come and spray-paint their roll-down doors, so as to try to reduce the level of cleanup they will have to do later. It reminds me of how the later, more decadent Roman emperors would bribe barbarian tribes, in order to keep them from sacking Rome.

Part of the ill-informed philosophy behind efforts such as Autography, of course, stems from the artistic establishment’s lionization of guerilla graffiti artists such as Bansky, whose appeal I have never understood. Creating art by spray-painting a photoshopped image from a template onto public or private property is hardly the work of genius. The tolerance or in some cases active encouragement of this practice has led to a kind of mutually assured destruction by government and the arts, in which common decency, historic preservation, and the rule of law are forced to take a back seat to expressions of personal selfishness.

Will the Opera’s plan work? Logic would dictate that those who are most of a mind to place graffiti on a cathedral bell tower are highly unlikely to say to themselves and their cohort, “Hey, let’s go check out that new app where we can pretend to draw our names on a wall.” Moreover, the risk here is that those who would never normally engage in such behavior will now try it, and find the experience so intoxicating that they will subsequently want to try it out in real life. Virtual reality, after all, is no substitute for experience.

Most of us do not view defacing public or private property as a laudable activity. It is a behavior which demonstrates a fundamental lack of charity toward others, which is particularly ironic in a house of Christian worship. For while ultimately the fault for this galactically stupid idea lies with the Opera, the Archdiocese of Florence should be of ashamed of itself for even consenting to be a part of such an ill-conceived plan, in which the walls of its sacred buildings are to become the proving ground for future antisocial nonsense.


Graffiti inside the lantern of the Duomo, Florence

A Grateful Appreciation of Professor Charles E. Rice

R.I.P. Professor Charles E. Rice (1921 - 2015)

R.I.P. Professor Charles E. Rice
(1921 – 2015)

On February 26th, Professor Charles E. Rice of the University of Notre Dame Law School died at the age of 83. He was a legend among Notre Dame students, and well-known among both jurists and Catholic thinkers for his writing, his advocacy on behalf of human life, and his sharp, incisive sense of humor.  You can read more about his achievements in this press release from Notre Dame, but I wanted to share some of my own thoughts and experiences of the man, as has my fellow Domer Diana von Glahn over on Patheos.

I was assigned to Professor Rice for Torts I my first semester of law school at Notre Dame. Being somewhat stubborn, I did not appreciate his teaching style, at first. Why was he so brusque? Why did he insist on our memorizing his outlines and repeating the exact terms that he would use in class? We weren’t primary school students learning our multiplication tables! To put it mildly, he got on my nerves.

When  it came time to take the final for Torts I, I did not write down the answers the way Professor Rice had wanted us to. The inevitable then happened. He called me into his office, a few days before we went home for Christmas break, and said “Not only did you fail…you failed SPECTACULARLY. No one has EVER failed my exam as low as you have.”

He pointed out that he could make me repeat the course, or he could let me take the exam again, even though I wouldn’t get any quality points for it. I agreed to the latter, and he asked how long I would need to prepare for the exam. I told him a week. On the day, I retook the exam, and got an “A”.

Now, most people would have left well enough alone, at this point, having ruined their Quality Point Index. They would have switched into another section for Torts II in the Spring. However, I am not like most people.

So the first day of Spring Semester, Professor Rice walked into the classroom, and saw me sitting there. On the way out afterwards, he asked why I didn’t seek to transfer into another section, given my experience in Torts I. I told him I was happy to take the second half of Torts with him, since he was a good teacher, although I still disagreed with his teaching method. He seemed surprised, but I stayed.

You can guess what happened: I failed the final again.

We sat in his office that May and after telling me, “You’re a stubborn SOB”, Professor Rice asked how I wanted to handle the latest “F”. A week later, having memorized all the notes like everyone else had, I took the exam again. This time I believe I got either an A- or B+. Again, the issue wasn’t that I was incapable of understanding the material, but rather my refusal to give into the practice of rote memorization as being dispositive of one’s ability to practice law.

In time however, I came to realize that Professor Rice was right to teach the 1st year students the way he did. Most students who are not going to cut it as lawyers drop out after the 1st semester, and certainly by the end of 1st year. The amount of reading, memorization, and regurgitation that goes on is enormous. Frankly, as harsh as it is, if you cannot make it through that part of law school, then you should be doing something else.

After surviving first year, Professor Rice became my faculty advisor, my mentor, and my friend. I studied Jurisprudence with him my 3rd year, and also did a directed readings thesis with him. Sometimes I would drop by his office just to hang out and watch him smoke his pipe, while we would talk about things that mattered to both of us – like good books, weird court decisions, interesting saints and popes, and so on.

Later, Professor Rice wrote my recommendation for my Master’s program after law school, as well as for my first job out of graduate school. He was a character reference for my bar admission, as well as for my current job. When I moved back to DC after several years away, and had to build a network of contacts all over again, he introduced me to a friend of his who has over the years become one of the truest friends I’ve made in this town. In fact, said gentleman was the one who contacted me on Wednesday to let me know that Professor Rice had died.

I never saw Professor Rice in person again after I left South Bend, We stayed in touch via email, postcards, Christmas cards, and even the occasional phone call. Sometimes, he would drop me a note after reading one of my blog posts to tell me I’d done a good job, which would make my day. Whenever I would see him on television or in print, I would proudly point him out and tell people who he was, if they didn’t already know.

By no means was I Professor Rice’s prize student. However I think he took a shine to me because I was willing to be different, and to do what I believed needed to be done, even if it meant not being like or being liked by everyone else.  That was something which he himself had to deal with at times in his own career, though obviously on a far more profound scale than my puny efforts to date. Yet just to be around him, to engage him in conversation, and to be encouraged by him, was to be persuaded that all is not lost – at least, not yet.

More than what he taught me in lecture halls or seminars or office hours, what I learned from Professor Rice over the years during which I have been privileged to know him is that being a Christian man in an anti-Christian age is not going to be easy. And you know what – who cares? We should go do it anyway.

God bless you, Charlie, and thanks, always.

Drawing a Blank: Why Is Congress Going to Reward Wealthy Artists?

Right now, while everyone in social media is arguing over other things, a horrible little law is making its way through Congress which you ought to be aware of – if you happen to love art and care about capitalism, as I do.

The Art Newspaper reports today that a bill known as “The American Royalties Too Act” or “A.R.T.”, has gained six co-sponsors over the last three weeks.  The bill would impose a resale royalty on works of art meeting certain sales criteria, and is modeled after a European concept known as “droit de suite”.  Since my time at Sotheby’s Institute back in graduate school, the concept of droit de suite has struck me as both nonsensical and typical of those who, in order to solve a perceived problem, decide to create another one.  I’ve warned about it on the blog before, as you can read here.

The wincingly awful use of the word, “Too”, aside, here’s what I promise you will happen over the next decade, if this “A.R.T.” bill passes:

1. The law will do little or nothing to aid most artists – and may actually hurt them.

In theory, this law is designed to protect struggling, up-and-coming artists.  As Christopher Rauschenberg, son of the late artist Robert Rauschenberg wrote on HuffPo yesterday, those pushing this legislation believe we “should foster and support young artists if we want them to continue to create. Implementing legislation that equitably distributes the proceeds of creative output will cost taxpayers absolutely nothing, yet would mean a great deal to the artistic community.”  [Helpful hint: any time you read the words, “equitable distribution” as a justification for anything, raise an eyebrow.]

In reality, if passed this law will largely operate for the benefit of already wealthy artists, their foundations, or their estates, such as that of Mr. Rauschenberg, by pouring additional thousands of dollars into their coffers every time a work of theirs is sold for up to 70 years after their death.  At the same time, with a resale payment tacked onto every sale, those artists who are not already household names will find that prices for their work will remain artificially depressed, keeping sales turnovers of their work low.  Most artists, in fact, never see their work come up for auction at any of the big auction houses, and this law will do nothing to encourage that to change.

2.  The law will turn out to be a great tax-raising scheme.

While the law appears on the surface to be designed to help the poor and struggling artist, what is lost in the emotional component of the argument being made largely by those on the left – natch – is the fact that this is not free money, nor an act of beneficence on the part of Congress.

For royalty payments, you see, whether from sales or licensing of intellectual property, constitute taxable income.  What Congress is proposing is really a way of imposing an additional income tax, without actually calling it that.  The royalty payment will be taken by the auction house at the time of sale, and then the artist or his estate will be sent these payments, quarterly.  Once that royalty payment makes it to the end point – the artist or his estate – the government can tax that income.  So in truth, this is a way of squeezing art buyers out of just that little bit more of their money, even though the collection of said money will take place at a different end of the revenue stream.

3. The law will cause the market for Modern and Contemporary Art sales to shift away from the U.S.

Decades ago, Paris lost its primacy in both art gallery and art auction sales to London, in part because of the passage of draconian French laws regarding droit de suite and other forms of taxation.  Over the past fifteen years however, and particularly after Britain adopted EU regulations, the center of the international art market has shifted from London to New York.   With the implementation of this proposed A.R.T. Act, sellers are going to be faced with paying royalties – up to a cap of $35,000, depending on the resale price – on every piece of art falling under the protection of the law that is sold: a cost which they will pass along to the buyers.

Now yes, plenty of high-value auctions still take place in London today, and if this law passes they will still take place in New York, as well.  However over time, markets tend to seek environments where they experience the fewest restrictions on their ability to engage in commerce, which is why sales at Sotheby’s in New York eclipsed those of the home office in London years ago, and also why the socks you are wearing right now were probably not made in America.  If Europe suddenly became a (comparatively) cheaper place than the U.S. to engage in the art trade, the bulk of the buying and selling in the Modern and Contemporary art market could easily shift back to London.  Rather than making things better for everyone, Congress could actually be making everything worse.

4.  Is this bill really about achieving fairness? For whom?

In defense of this bill, co-sponsor Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) recently told The New York Times that, “To me, the bill is a question of fundamental fairness.”  However under scrutiny, this moral argument falls to pieces in the face of reality.  Under the European version of this law one of the wealthiest artists in the world, Pablo Picasso, is still collecting droit de suite payments – or rather, his already very wealthy children are, because he’s been dead since 1973.  Does that seem, on a common-sense basis, to be “fair”?

What about a living, wealthy American artist, such as Jeff Koons, who will directly benefit from the American version of this law?  Koons makes millions of dollars in commissions for creating things such as giant topiary puppies.  Is he so disadvantaged that getting a check for $35,000 every time some subsequent purchaser buys one of his sculptures, such as his metallic balloon animals, will “fundamentally” address a wrong done to him in some way?

By way of conclusion, I would point out that readers are of course most welcome to disagree with anything I’ve written in the comment section of this post, as indeed you always are.  Yet it seems to me that, from a purely rational, analytical point of view, one cannot deny the fact that those who will benefit most from the passage of this law are wealthy artists, and the government.  Little or any benefit will be shown to accrue to the group of individuals which the A.R.T. Act was allegedly designed to help, but Congress will once again have found a clever way to tax American business while wrapping itself in a cloak of moral superiority.

Detail of "Elevation of the Dome of the U.S. Capitol" by Thomas Walter (1859) Library of Congress

Detail of “Elevation of the Dome of the U.S. Capitol” by Thomas Walter (1859)
Library of Congress, Washington D.C.