When I hear someone complaining about the evils of socialism, and the dangers of a universal basic income, I think of Mark Rothko’s “№14.”

I used to be one of those people who made snide jokes about post-modernism and modern art and whatnot. Given the opportunity, I’d always look to the 19th century and prior for my esthetic inspirations.

Then, in my late 20s, a friend took me to SFMOMA and changed my mind, and my life.

As we wandered through the exhibits, she explained the difference between figurative and non-figurative art — on the one hand, making a picture of someone or something, and then interacting with your audience through the medium of their emotional response to that thing; and on the other hand, trying to interact with your audience and their emotions directly, without passing through the layers of iconography.

I kind of got what she was saying, as a sort of intellectual exercise, and I definitely saw the works around me through new eyes — I kind of started to get it, even if I still, by and large, didn’t like it.

Then it happened.

If the name Mark Rothko rings a bell for you, then you probably feel very strongly about it one way or another. He’s one of those artists that were emblematic of my disdain for modern and post-modern art. When people talk about the insanity of the art world, Rothko’s name is likely to be mentioned.

He paints — or, painted, rather — big blocks of color on big canvases, and people pay a lot of money for them, and every time one of them sells it generates a storm of comments of the “my six-year-old could do that” variety.

Rothko’s “№14” hangs in SFMOMA. I’ve included a picture of it. It’s a big block of orange-red above a smaller rectangle of deep blue.

I stopped in front of №14, and I just stood there and stared at it, and I Got It.

The painting just made me happy. Helplessly, meaninglessly happy. It was that simple.

Later, I read about all the work that Mark Rothko put into mixing his colors, to get them just perfect; about how much attention he paid to the lighting and the presentation of his pieces at shows.

I want to make an analogy: to this experience of suddenly Getting It, and about the different aims and methods of figurative vs non-figurative art. But first, I need to make another point, about the differences between Modernism and Post-Modernism.

It’s easiest to see in architecture. Modern architecture, and modern architectural design, are about using new materials and new methods to do traditional things better. Architecture has traditionally been about managing a series of compromises between function and necessity. A lot of what we see as “classic” or “traditional” architecture has way more decorative elements and attention paid to the beauty of its components, because there were so many places where you needed to have structural elements that would otherwise be eyesores; so a lot of attention has been paid to transforming those necessities into virtues.

Need a lot of interior space? Well, that’s going to need a lot of support, which will take up a lot of space and cost a lot of money — so let’s get the most beautiful columns we can. Let’s make a whole art form of the column. It’s expensive to build a column; it costs time and money, but it also costs space — it eats up a lot of the space you’re trying to create by building your building in the first place.

Once you’re already investing the time and money, the cost of making the columns beautiful becomes marginal. This is the same reason you can only buy incredibly high-end burritos in San Francisco: Once you’ve rolled in the money for actual shop, and the wages you have to pay your employees, the actual cost of the ingredients is a negligible part of the cost of the burrito — so since it’s going to be a $10 burrito, why not make it out of the best ingredients possible?

Later, we learned about arches and domes, and that improved the amount of space we could create without sacrificing a huge chunk of it to columns. But in order to create domes that don’t fall down, you have to have sophisticated mathematics, and you have to have architects who understand those mathematics.

Modernism, in architecture, is about saying, screw all that stuff; with new materials and techniques we can just cantilever that roof on. Hey, what if we just built a big steel frame and then hung a skin on it? I bet we could make this thing all window, how cool would that be?

You can make a house better, and cheaper, using modern materials and methods than with traditional methods, and you do it by letting the form follow the function: Letting the intended use dictate your design decisions. Keep it simple, stupid. You end up with large, open spaces that don’t require pillars everywhere or complicated build processes.

The costs of building a house, or a building, go way down, in time and money and human labor.

The problem is, as you can see by looking around any big American city, that eventually, if you take that ethos to its logical extreme, you just end up with a lot of big boxes.

Boxes are efficient. They’re cheap. They make maximum use of space. They’re easily standardizable. And the costs are so low that adding all that filigree and frippery we used to put all over everything starts to become a significant portion of the total cost of the building.

Imagine we built a burrito rolling device that could make amazing burritos all day long with no human intervention and occupied the footprint of a Coke machine. Great, right? But now the cost of fresh tomatoes and Kobe beef stops being marginal, and starts being the majority of the cost of that burrito.

So, of course, that’s where you start to cut corners. That’s the end-stage of Modernism: Shitty burritos in box-shaped buildings.

Enter post-modernism. Post-modernism is about saying: Yeah, OK, we now have the capability to fulfill all our use-case needs without resorting to domes and columns and flying buttresses; we can just make things whatever shape we want them to be, and have that be perfectly functional, and not have it shaped like a box.

Do we really like all the boxes?

Why can’t a house be shaped like a birthday cake? Why can’t a car be shaped like a clown shoe?

This kind of thinking can lead to some very silly architectural choices, and some astoundingly whimsical thinking about the nature of art, which is why Post-Modernism has its reputation for just being weirdness for weirdness’s sake.

Rothko’s “№14” is at the end of a very similar curve: We start with cave paintings which offer a glimpse of what our ancestors thought were important: Game animals, their own handprints. We see this sort of iconography develop a into a sophisticated language: Figurative paintings on the tombs of the Pharaohs, telling us stories of people and deeds and inviting us to feel about those people and deeds as their painters did: Happy at the birth of a child, sad at the death of a king.

Throughout the ancient world, the middle ages and the Renaissance, we see an explosion in the sophistication with which we can create that iconography: You marvel at the beauty of David or the weirdness of The Garden of Earthly Delights or the spectacle of Night Watch and you are responding, emotionally, to the stuff in the painting: They convey a representation of attributes we value — beauty, morality, civic pride — and invite us to feel those emotions through the medium of the art.

As we’ve gotten more sophisticated in our techniques and our materials, it has become easier and easier to create direct representations of the iconography of our values, and to access our emotions through that iconography. Pictures of kittens, video of heroic acts, the weirdest stuff you’ve ever heard — we call cary in our pockets the means of creating these things, and they suffuse our public life.

So the question arises: The beauty, the wonder, the emotion we feel about these things — do they have to be shaped by iconography? Does it have to be limited by the thing that it’s showing you, or can a piece of art make you feel… happy, just by being itself?

Artists like Rothko and Pollock argue that, yes, they can.

So here’s the analogy:

Economics is about the alignment of resources and activities with our values. For a lot of human history, economics was a fairly straightforward calculation of “If I want stuff — food, shelter, art — I have to go make it, or make friends with someone who can.” Economics aligned very closely with social systems, because the social systems were largely about pushing human activity into the shapes required by our economies.

As civilizations grew, those larger and more complex social systems were leveraged to make larger and more complex endeavors possible: All those buildings with the big columns and domes and whatnot were built with slave labor, or via government coordination of tax revenue, or something. And the values it reflects are collectivist, social sorts of values: We all work together for the good of the group, as dictated by the emperor or whatever, and make the things that civilization needs. You get rewarded by civilization for doing civilization’s work — sometimes by being given a place in the social hierarchy, sometimes simply by not being killed.

What we call “Capitalism” is basically a modernist economics: It’s a long-term bet that if we just let people pay for what they want, then it will inform what is produced, so that the needs of civilization will be provided for in the most direct way possible.

That, in essence, form will follow function.

And hey, it works: It’s managed to make us the richest civilization in the history of humanity, and, despite what you may think, it’s got a smaller percentage of poor people than any other system that’s been tried.


Like modernist architecture, it’s got a long-term downside: Aligning needs directly with production has produced material plenty, sure. But it’s also produced the socio-economic equivalent of cities full of big boxes.

Capitalism has tended to undermine the social systems that used to be vital for material wealth, for our very survival. Humans have always lived in big, close-knit family groups for a reason: They meant that there was someone to take care of you, that there were always an extra pair of hands to help with building something, that there was someone whose economic interests were socially leveraged to align with your own.

That’s no longer the case; it hasn’t been the case since at least the end of World War II, when the Capitalist experiment really got kicked into high gear. There is increasingly no practical reason whatsoever for anyone to maintain any kind of strong social ties. Form following function has made us into a civilization of lonely people living in boring boxes.

As I write this, in spring of 2020, we’re into the second month of global lockdown due to the Coronavirus. An astounding number of my friends are going mad from the isolation of their little boxes. But also, we’re starting to work out how to reinvent our social selves.

I posit that we’ve come to a point in our economic development where we can start to ask ourselves: are we happy with boxes?

When we have enough resources, enough activity, to fulfill our needs without compromise, then the guiding design principle for economic systems becomes choice: What do we want our economy to look like?

If economics is about aligning values with activity and resources, then what values, really, do we care about and want to promote by aligning them with material wealth? What do we feel like we need to forbid, really? What behaviors do we want to make people participate in in order to get their daily bread?

We’ve come to the point where, having built a system with which we can fulfill all our material needs with a minimum of effort, it’s time to start making choices.

One important factor is that, because we’ve perfected the alignment of form and function, making no choices here, allowing the modernist living-in-boxes future to play itself out, is by far the cheapest option; and any kind of beauty we want to model into our systems will rapidly become the most expensive part of the system.

Modern houses and apartments are spare and come with little in the way of decorative elements — no trim, no fancy window casements, no cornices — because that stuff is actually pretty expensive; but even more than the material cost of the stuff, the cost of hiring a designer is ridiculously high; and the cost of going and getting the aesthetic training to do your own decorating can in many ways be more expensive.

In the same way, designing a post-modern economics is going to cost a lot. Making decisions about what shape we want our economic lives to take — do we want a 40 hour work week, really? Do we really need everyone to be trying to put in a day job? Is everything really best served by a market system? — those choices all cost, in terms of all sorts of social factors.

It’s not just taxes. We used to have big families because we needed them, and we had social systems that explicitly valued the function of family and social systems above those of individuals. How much of that do we want to go back to?

And don’t get me wrong: I’m not talking about “family values.” I live in a big house that I bought with a bunch of my friends who all decided to live together because we spent all our time at one another’s parties anyway. I don’t think the answer is to go back to a pre-modernist idyll of semi-rural clan villages.

But I do think that it’s imperative that we begin to examine these choices, and to begin to ask ourselves: Is cheap burritos in big boxes really what we want? Or can we do better than that?



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