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Ross Macdonald and the one-to-one ratio

“We’re all guilty.”
Ross Macdonald, The Blue Hammer

summit wildfire Every fire season in the West I think of Ross Macdonald. In his novel The Underground Man (1971), a wildfire burns an erratic swath through the steep canyons slicing the hillsides behind Santa Teresa, Macdonald’s mythical version of Santa Barbara, threatening to “strike across the city all the way to the sea.” At one time California wildfires erupted in late summer or early fall. Now they happen year-round. The NASA image above, taken May 23, is of the Summit fire east of Santa Cruz.

Macdonald’s Lew Archer detective novels span 1949-76. The last of them, The Blue Hammer (1976), is more than thirty years old, yet his stories read like yesterday’s news. And Santa Teresa is as much a character as any of Archer’s clients. In Sleeping Beauty (1973) an oil spill from an offshore oil rig threatens a private beach. It’s not just that Macdonald was something of an environmentalist, and held notions about the wholeness of nature, life as a seamless web. It’s that his prose, plain and lucid, let’s you breathe natural air. The physical world of his novels is rendered in precise, economic detail, but it’s a world of shades. Think of his California landscapes as Richard Diebenkorn paintings from which the color has been drained. In The Chill (1961) a murky fog surges through the city, as thick as the novel’s gray-toned plot.

I’m not sure what Macdonald would have made of climate change and other global threats. (He died in 1983.) He was not big on big issues; his focus was on individual responsibility. You see that in his hero and alter ego, Lew Archer. Macdonald is often described as the direct heir of Chandler and Hammett. But it’s more accurate to see Archer as the true heir. Archer reads and admires the hard-boiled crime novels, but with some skepticism about the tough, romantic life depicted in them. He realizes that while the art of private investigation may be morally ambiguous, its actual practice is mundane. Archer is knocked on the head now and then, but for the most part he avoids direct violence. In one revealing instance he is embarrassed when a client catches him aiming an empty target pistol at a rat eating kernels of grain in a bird feeder.
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The high price of art, the cost of keeping up with it

Maybe a dozen years ago, when I was filling in for a few months for the art critic at the daily newspaper that was my bread and margarine, I decided it was a good idea to print the prices of the works of art being discussed in reviews of gallery shows. Seemed reasonable at the time. Why shouldn’t the paper give its readers an idea of whether that new painting by Gregory Grenon, say, was going for $1,800 or $18,000? Why not let the working-two-jobs-to-make-ends-meet art fan know that if she really liked that piece by the brand-new art school grad, she could pick it up for $250 instead of assuming it was going to be swooped up by some dot-com turk because it was out of her price range?

The response around me in my corner of the newsroom was unison and aghast. It amounted to this: Art is for art’s sake. Money has nothing to do with intrinsic value (I wasn’t arguing that it did). To discuss price is to taint the critical process (all I wanted to do was list the prices in the information box). Besides, money is, well, you know, tawdry. I quickly scotched the idea, and pretty much forgot about it: No smudge of commerce would taint the culture pages, where truth and beauty are all you need to know.

So why is it so damned fascinating to read about the high-roller art auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s? The latest report comes from Carol Vogel in the New York Times, and the frenzied buying seems to indicate that, while working-class saps are getting kicked in the rear by the recession, the big spenders are spending, well, big. Real big. Like there’s no tomorrow big. “The market is defying gravity,” Vogel quotes financier and collector Eli Broad.

Follow the money, everyone says, to which you can add, Follow the art — it’s following the money. To Japan in the 1980s, to Las Vegas and the marketing and advertising whizzes of London in the 1990s, to the culture-cloaking Wal-Mart matrons in the ’00s. And to just about anybody who’s cashed in on the biggest upward transfer of wealth since the days of the 19th century Robber Barons (who actually seem a bit like pikers compared to the new bunch of sudden zillionaires).

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