Harper’s Notes

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: exhibitions, exceptions, elections, and more.

The editors

November 3, 2023

Shock jock: This Halloween in Paris, museum-goers are in for a shock—but not, perhaps, the festive spook one would usually seek this season. At the Fondation Cartier, Ron Mueck, an eponymous exhibition of the United Kingdom–based Australian sculptor’s work, features the unsettling, morbid, and, at times, “even sublime,” writes Isean Bhalla for The Harper Review. But is shock value, no matter how well executed, the mark of a great artist? In the face of Mueck’s contorting infants, Cerberean canines, and greenhouse of skulls, Bhalla is doubtful. Read the essay at the link.

American exception-ism: Emergencies often require a suspension of the rules that normally govern society. These “states of exception,” however, grant broad powers and run the risk of remaining in place long after the emergency that prompted them is over. In a recent piece for The Hedgehog Review, University of Virginia fellow (and University of Chicago alumnus) Matthew B. Crawford argues that the response to COVID-19 was one of these lingering states of exception. Marked by what he calls “an intensifying distrust of human judgment,” Crawford describes how in the midst of the pandemic, we exchanged political decision-making for technocratic salvation—a decision that gutted the core ideals upon which our political structures rest. In the COVID governance model, consent of the governed yielded to behavioral management; the active citizen became the passive subject. To Crawford, this marked a turn too radical to remain confined to the emergency itself. In the post-COVID age, Crawford declares, Lockean liberalism has been finally “put to bed.” Falling neither to the sword nor to the sickle, we are now left to live with the far more insidious force that finally knocked liberalism to the ground: the nudge.

Life as a unity: Ruth Duckworth, who was a German-English studio potter, is reframed as an innovative Chicago sculptor in the Smart Museum of Art’s latest exhibition, Ruth Duckworth: Life as a Unity. The ceramicist, working in a time of censorship, responded to natural phenomena by creating work reminiscent of archaeological findings, alien creatures, and tiled murals. This retrospective exhibition—Duckworth’s second—goes a long way in raising recognition of the artist’s unique craft. The artist was rooted at the University of Chicago from her 1964 arrival in the States at the University’s invitation until the end of her life (she served as instructor at Midway Studios and exhibited her first U.S. solo show at the Renaissance Society, in UChicago’s Cobb Hall, in 1966), making the current show not only fitting but triumphant. Life as a Unity will remain on view through February 4, 2024.

Tyranny of the minority: Political scientists generally agree that democratic backsliding is plaguing many of the world’s democracies, even those that appear to be the most established. In that vein, Harvard political science professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt contend that the United States’s political institutions make the country uniquely vulnerable to attacks on democracy from within. In their new book Tyranny of the Minority, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that our Constitution allows partisan minorities to thwart and rule over popular majorities. While many other modern democracies, such as those of Germany, Argentina, and New Zealand, have eliminated so-called “outdated” institutions such as elite upper chambers, indirect elections, and lifetime tenure for judges, America has not. Even though one may argue that it is precisely these features of the American political system that safeguard our freedoms, this new release is worth checking out, as it’s sure to be influential on political science for years to come.