radical voters?

Two Berkeley graduate students, David E. Broockman and Douglas J. Ahler have conducted research that is already influential enough to become the subject of a column by Thomas B. Edsall in the New York Times. Based on their own large survey of Americans, Broockman and Ahler argue against the widespread premise that voters are more moderate than elected officials are. Instead, they argue, many voters hold ideologically inconsistent preferences. For example, someone may strongly oppose abortion (generally seen as a conservative stance) while favoring single-payer health insurance (coded as liberal). If you average that person’s preferences, she looks moderate, but she actually favors policies both too liberal and too conservative to get through Congress. Thus, if politicians shift to more moderate policies (e.g., partial restrictions on abortion and a mixed health care system, like the ACA) they will not increase their support. The unpopularity of Congress reflects its failure to satisfy a population that holds diverse, unpredictable, and often “radical” views:

Contrary to the conventional wisdom rooted in the ideological perspective, most citizens do not seem to wish the Senate were composed of 100 Olympia Snowes and Max Baucuses, the noted Senate moderates. But this does not mean that Americans are satisfied with the politicians who represent them either. Rather, because each citizen’s pattern of views across issues appears unique, each citizen is likely to be “disconnected” from the positions their representatives take in his or her own way, a situation which the election of more moderates—or more of any other one particular kind of politician—could not broadly resolve.

I would argue that ideological consistency is a problematic concept. It is highly debatable whether any given position on abortion or foreign policy fits better with a favorable or critical stance toward welfare programs. In a multiparty democracy, we would see a menu of many ideologies that could not all be arrayed on a single scale. For instance, we would probably have a viable libertarian party that seemed “liberal” on social issues and “conservative” on economic ones, and a statist conservative party that was willing to use instruments like welfare to strengthen traditional values. Instead, our two-party system imposes a single spectrum that does not fit the variation in individuals’ views.

I would further argue that despite all the vituperation and philosophical posturing in today’s politics, the real policy options being considered by Congress all fall within a narrow range. For instance, the party that is supposedly socialist and deaf to limits on government would actually like to raise federal spending by a couple of points of GDP, at most. And the party that regards freedom as threatened by runaway government would really like to trim federal spending by a couple of points. Many perfectly reasonable policy ideas are considered untouchable in Congress.

As one of their methods, Broockman and Ahler show people seven options on each policy topic that ostensibly range from radically liberal to radically conservative (or vice-versa; they randomize the order). Thus to pick the first or the last choice shows that you are radical. But these are some of the ideas that they code as falling at an extreme end of the spectrum:

  • The government should institute a carbon tax or cap and trade system that would significantly decrease US carbon emissions over the next several decades
  • The United States should move to a system like Great Britain’s, where the government employs doctors instead of private companies and all Americans are entitled to visit government doctors in government hospitals free of charge.
  • The United States should have open borders and allow further immigration on an unlimited basis.
  • The education system should be fully privatized, with government playing no role in paying for families’ education expenses. However, private school tuition should be tax deductible.
  • Social security should be abolished entirely or made semi-voluntary, with the government potentially providing incentives for retirement saving but not managing individuals retirement funds.

These are indeed ideas that aren’t going anywhere in Congress (although the first one passed the House in 2009.) But they are also ideas that have intelligent proponents, that we would encourage students to debate, and that we might expect to be seriously considered in our legislatures.

In short, I don’t think the problem is that voters are “radical.” I wouldn’t want to see them become more “moderate,” if that meant that they entertained even fewer policy options or always preferred candidates who fell at the center of a simplistic left/right spectrum. I think Americans display a reasonable heterogeneity of views (although I abhor some of the popular ideas), and the main problem is our political process, which seriously considers only a narrow range of options and places them all on a simplistic left/right spectrum.

[See also "if the goal is civility, moderation may be the problem, not the solution"; ideology: pros and cons"]

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CIRCLE resources on the election

As we approach the 2014 Election, CIRCLE at Tisch College has a wealth of relevant information. Our 2014 Election Center is the go-to place for data in the form of interactive maps and trends. In addition, we have recently released five more specialized studies:

Stay tuned for rapid analysis on Election Night, the day after, and beyond.

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the monumental task that confronts a high-stakes testing state

Let’s say you don’t especially trust teachers to assess their own students, because their ratings can be inconsistent and biased. So you want to use validated and standardized assessments to evaluate students, schools, and teachers. Let’s say, furthermore, that your state authorizes about 4,000 different courses, from kindergarten through 12th grade. (A subject like science in 3rd grade counts as a “course,” by the way.) Each course encompasses many different content areas; for instance, an American history course covers the Revolution, the Civil War, civil rights, and so on. For each topic in each course, you need assessment “items” (questions or prompts of various kinds). You need more than a few items for each topic; one question does not yield a valid score. You can’t repeat items without allowing kids to cheat by looking at old tests. And you will be testing frequently–more than once per year in each course if you consider the need for make-up tests and practice tests.

The upshot is that you will need at least several hundred thousand assessment items to make the whole system work. See Florida’s Race to the Top Assessments page for some of the documents on which my estimate is based. Thus …

  1. You face an expensive undertaking, and if you skimp, you will get poor items, written by people who are not sophisticated about the content or well trained in writing assessments. Pilot-testing items costs even more money.
  2. Even if you spend enough money, writing several hundred thousand items is a human enterprise. Error is inevitable. Some proportion of your items will be flatly incorrect or invalid in other ways. Many will be too easy or too hard, or inadequate to assess the desired skills and knowledge.

On its own, this is not an argument against high-stakes testing. The best argument in favor is that measuring pretty well is better than not measuring at all. But the cost and frailty of the whole system must certainly be taken into consideration. After all, the power of the state stands behind these assessments. If a kid cannot move on to 8th grade, or if a teacher loses his job because of test scores, that is a state decision. I think people may reasonably view it as almost a juridical process.

In the corporate context, employers are always assessing employees, and vice-versa. It is not OK if an employer’s assessments are biased or arbitrary, but using standardized measures may at least reduce inevitable bias, and the market does offer a theoretical solution to injustice (the employee finds a different job). In contrast, if a state moves from not making high-stakes assessments at all to doing so badly, it’s like imposing a new juridical regime that makes arbitrary decisions. I see a serious threat to justice.

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job openings in civic renewal (8)

This is the eighth in a series of occasional posts with lists of open positions.

Executive Director, Engaged Cornell. A groundbreaking, $150 million, 10-year initiative to establish community engagement and real-world learning experiences as the hallmark of the Cornell undergraduate experience, Engaged Cornell was launched on October 6. A goal of the initiative is to empower Cornell students to become active citizens and to tackle critical challenges by participating in hands-on, practical learning experiences in communities at home and around the world. Engaged Cornell will create a new model and direction for higher education – one in which public engagement is deeply ingrained, fully institutionalized and effectively taught and implemented. (Job description.)

Director of the Swearer Center for Public Service and Associate Dean for Engaged Scholarship, Brown University. The University seeks an experienced administrator to provide leadership, strategic direction, and management of one of the oldest public service centers housed in a university. The Swearer Center leads Brown University initiatives that integrate teaching, learning, and practice in order to advance scholarship and to produce a public benefit. (Job description.)

Charles Stewart Mott Foundation Chair on Community Foundations, IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) The chair is expected to teach and mentor students at the doctoral, masters and undergraduate levels for 50% of their time.  The LFSoP offers an inter-disciplinary degree in philanthropic studies that attracts diverse students interested in broad issues related to philanthropy, including nonprofit organizations, social movements, grassroots associations, foundations, giving and volunteering. For the other 50% of their time the chair is expected to conduct research, publish in the field, and provide service to the School, campus, and the field.  (Job description.)

Associate Director and Research Associate, the Center for Public and Nonprofit Management at the School of Public Administration at the University of Central Florida  (Job descriptions.)

Assistant Director of UCARE – the Ursinus Center for Advocacy, Responsibility, and Engagement – at Ursinus College. Responsibilities include managing relations with community partners, guiding a team of students to arrange and coordinate service opportunities, and recruiting students to participate in UCARE initiatives. The Assistant Director will also assist in managing the Ursinus Bonner Leader Program as its program coordinator. In general, this individual will help to promote a greater campus culture of civic engagement and will work closely with students to develop their civic leadership skills. (Job description.)

Executive Director, Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation (FCCP). The FCCP exists to promote civic participation as a key  to making our democracy work. We serve leaders in the philanthropic community working to  further this vision with heightened attention to issues of equity and historically disenfranchised and underrepresented communities. Our members support non-partisan efforts to engage voters, eliminate structural barriers to voting, advance reforms to improve government and electoral systems, and inspire public involvement in civic life. (Job description)

Assistant Professor (tenure track) in The Department of Public and Community Service Studies at Providence College. The first interdisciplinary major of its kind in the United States, since 1994 the Public and Community Service Department has partnered with nearby communities and organizations in the City of Providence. We seek applicants from any related discipline whose teaching, scholarship and community engagement speak to pressing issues of our partnerships, and our guidelines for tenure and promotion fully incorporate public scholarship and engagement. Examples of desired issue focus are: development of social capital in urban communities; schools, poverty, and mass incarceration; violence, trauma and resilience; urban entrepreneurship; and urban social movements. Providence College is institutionally committed to the nearby Smith Hill neighborhood. Recent initiatives include a large grant to the Smith Hill Community Development Corporation to create affordable housing, the opening of the Smith Hill/Providence College Annex, and a campus-community collaborative café, Common Grounds. (job description)

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what the Facebook mood experiment says about current research ethics

(Washington, DC) Our ethical rules and procedures now badly fit the actual practices of research–burdening some inquiries that should be treated as free while allowing other studies to do real damage without any oversight at all. The Facebook “mood experiment” exemplifies these problems.

The case is well known, but I will summarize: Advised by a small group of academic researchers, including Cornell professor Jeffrey Hancock, Facebook experimented by changing the algorithms that select posts for users’ newsfeeds so that some users saw more happy material, and others saw more sad material, than they would have seen otherwise. It turned out that seeing happy stories led people to post more happy content of their own (contrary to some previous findings that happy news makes us feel resentful). The Cornell University Institutional Review Board (IRB), which is charged with pre-reviewing “research,” did not review this study because the professors were deemed to be insufficiently involved, e.g., they would not see the users’ data. Hancock et al. published the results, prompting an international outcry. Both the scholars and Facebook were denounced (and the former even threatened) for manipulating emotions without consent or disclosure.

I believe that the scholars were involved in “research” and so should have been reviewed by Cornell’s IRB. Given current principles of research ethics (as I understand them), the IRB should have required more disclosure and consent than Facebook actually provided. (But see a contrary argument here.) The key point is that users were influenced by the experimental manipulation—to a very small degree, but the magnitude of the impact could not be known in advance and was not actually zero. People were affected without being asked to participate or even told afterward what had been done to them. The scholars should have made sure that research subjects gave consent. Otherwise, they should have dropped their association with Facebook.

But I also believe that current IRB rules and procedures now poorly fit the realities of research.

On one hand, I am concerned about some over-regulation by IRBs. I start with the presumption that when we ask adults questions or observe them and publish our thoughts, that is an exercise of free speech protected by the First Amendment. IRB review of a research study that involves asking questions seems akin to prior censorship of a newspaper. In both cases, the writer could violate rights or laws, but then the affected parties should seek legal remedies. The IRB should not pre-review research that merely involves talking to or watching adults and writing what one observes.*

I realize that academic research based on mere conversation or observation can be harmful. Consider the “super-predator” theory of violent crime, which led to terrible social policies. But the problem with that research was its conclusion, not its method. An IRB has no purview over conclusions (or premises, or ideologies). We must respond to bad ideas with counter-arguments, not with prior censorship.

By the way, I have no complaint about the actual oversight of our own very capable and efficient IRB, which approves about a dozen studies of my team each year. My point is rather an abstract, principled one about the right to ask questions and write whatever one concludes.

On the other hand, manipulating people without their consent is problematic, and that is happening constantly and pervasively in the age of Big Social Science, microtargeting, and “nudges.” When academics experiment on people, they are generally subject to prior review and tough rules. But most social experiments are not done by academics nowadays. If Hancock et al. had chosen to stay clear of the Facebook study, Facebook might well have gone ahead anyway—with no review or scrutiny whatsoever.

One might argue that professors should be regulated more than companies are, because the former receive federal support and may have tenure, which protects them even if they act badly. But I am more worried about companies than about professors, because: 1) companies also frequently receive government support; 2) they may conduct highly invasive experiments without even disclosing the results, whereas professors like to publish what they find; and 3) some companies have enormous power over customers. For example, quitting Facebook over an ethical issue would impose a steep cost in terms of missed opportunities to communicate. Networks have value proportional to the square of their users, which implies that you cannot just decline to use an incumbent network that has more than a billion users. Agreeing to its “terms and conditions” is not exactly voluntary.

Philosophically, I’d be in favor of removing IRB review of research unless the research involves tangible impact on subjects, while regulating corporate research that involves experimental manipulation so that disclosure and consent are always required. I am not sure if the latter could be done effectively, fairly, and efficiently–and I am not holding my breath for anyone even to try.

*Notes: 1) I am not arguing the IRB review is literally unconstitutional. The IRB’s legally legitimate authority flows from contracts between the university and the government and between the university and its employees. My point is that First Amendment values ought to be honored. 2) When academics pay research subjects, that creates a financial relationship that the university should probably oversee on ethical grounds. 3) I am not sure about minors. The First Amendment argument still applies when subjects are minors, yet there seems to be a case for the university’s protecting human subjects who are under 18.

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talking about the youth vote

(Orlando, FL) Here is the audio of an interview I enjoyed doing recently on BYU Radio. The conversation ranged pretty widely, but here are a few excerpts (from their writeup):

Lack of engagement among young people is not entirely their fault, says Levine. “Young people are often just not asked to vote,” says Levine. “If someone knocks on your door, you’re more likely to vote. Young people are often left off those campaign lists because they haven’t voted before or they’re considered unlikely to vote. So that becomes a vicious cycle.” …

There is no shortage of engagement among young people in efforts to improve their world –socially conscious hashtag campaigns, boycotts and protests are evidence of that. But engagement in the formal political process is where today’s youth are lacking, says Levine. “Politics needs to make room for youth. The process isn’t committed to them, it’s not reaching out to them and it’s serving up a complex voting system.”

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Matthew G. Specter, Habermas: An Intellectual Biography

(Orlando, FL) Matthew G. Specter’s Habermas: An Intellectual Biography (Cambridge, 2010) is not really a biography of the contemporary German philosopher. It doesn’t say where Habermas was born, whether he has a family, what he did in his various jobs, which countries he has visited, or what he experienced in the Hitler Youth in 1944-5. It isn’t even really an intellectual biography, if that implies a comprehensive account of his influences and ideas. We don’t learn much about how or when Habermas encountered American pragmatism, French poststructuralism, or German hermeneutics, let alone what he studied in high school or what works of art he prizes (if any).

But Specter’s book is a sustained and valuable argument for a thesis. Specter shows that Habermas has always been deeply engaged in the most pressing constitutional questions facing the Federal Republic of Germany at each stage of its history.

In the 1950s, a key question was whether the Constitutional Court could safeguard democracy or whether the legislature and people had to be active proponents of democratic values. In the 1960s, the questions included how to come to terms with the suppressed Nazi past and how to deal with student protest—a complex issue for Habermas, who placed himself to the left of the Social Democratic Party but also upheld the constitution. In the 1970s and 1980s, the era of anti-nuclear protest, a pressing issue was civil disobedience: extra-legal activism in a constitutional democracy. After 1989, Habermas’ attention turned to German unification; he argued that the East offered nothing of value in the form of political institutions but that the daily experiences of the GDR’s citizens had to be valued, and the unified state needed a new constitution. Since the Millennium, Habermas has been concerned about the European Union and particularly how it should treat religious minorities.

Specter mixes quotes from Habermas’ editorials and interviews with his more abstract philosophical work. The result is pretty persuasive: Habermas is always a critical friend of the Federal Republic, whether he is analyzing Max Weber or addressing students in a 1960s university cafeteria. He is more politically engaged than his philosophical works  suggest if they are read out of context. He is also more specifically German. Of course, he demonstrates an impressive range of reading and deserves credit for bringing Anglophone authors, such as Charles Sanders Pierce, J.L. Austin, and John Rawls, into Continental debates. But Habermas is always interested in improving his own republic. He emerges as a German Ronald Dworkin, addressing jurists and civic leaders as much as philosophical colleagues.

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the left has become Burkean

David Brooks makes a point today that is one of my hobby-horses:

[Edmund] Burke is known as the founder of conservatism, but his thought sits oddly these days with the Republican Party and those who call themselves conservative. The party has become much more populist, supporting term limits and political outsiders over those who have been educated by experience. Most call for pretty radical change to the welfare state. It’s the Democrats who fight to preserve the current structures of Social Security, Medicare and food stamps. It’s the Democrats who have been running ads through this election campaign accusing their opponents of being a bunch of wild-eyed radicals. Are Democrats now the conservators of tradition?

I would say: yes. And I would say the same of the European left and even of grassroots movements that view themselves as to the left of the Democratic Party in the US. I’ve argued that America’s most authentic conservative movement is composed of grassroots groups that emphasize community voice, localism, and sustainability. A characteristic leftist stance today is that a given institution (such as the public schools, higher ed, welfare programs, or public employees’ unions) fails to meet criteria of justice, yet we should defend the institution because it’s better than an untested alternative and because we should respect the experience and commitment of the participants (i.e., the teachers, professors, public employees, and their clients). The most ambitious leftist proposals are mostly patches to keep these existing institutions going, not whole new strategies. Therefore, I’ve posited that Edmund Burke would vote Democratic.

To the extent that other people make this argument, it’s often to score a debating point–either to denounce the left for abandoning its radicalism or to tweak conservatives for failing to recognize that their opponents are now more genuinely conservative than they are. For instance, Andrew Sullivan uses the premise that Democrats are conservative to endorse Obama and denounce both neoconservativism and what he calls “progressivism.”* But I intend this point as an analysis, not a polemic. If the left is the true home of conservatism today, that raises some important questions, but it is not necessarily good or bad.

*Sullivan: “As for our time, an attachment to a fixed ideology called conservatism (which is currently suffused with the zeal and passion Montaigne so deeply suspected) or to an ideology called progressivism (which increasingly regards most of its opponents as mere bigots) does not exhaust the possibilities. A disposition for moderation and pragmatism, for the long view over the short-term victory, for maintaining the balance in American life in a polarized time: this remains a live option. You can see how, influenced by this mindset, I have had little difficulty supporting a Democratic president as the most conservative figure, properly speaking, now on the national stage. You can see why I have become so hostile to neoconservatism whose unofficial motto is ‘Toujours l’audace!’”

Posted in revitalizing the left, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

the Communist Party battles against equality

The profound irony of this kind of story seems under-appreciated:

The Beijing-appointed leader of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, said Monday evening that it was unacceptable to allow his successors to be chosen in open elections, in part because doing so would risk giving poorer residents a dominant voice in politics. ….

Mr. Leung, who has received repeated backing from the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership, argued that the way to remedy social grievances was to expand the supply of housing and spur economic growth. He stressed the importance of maintaining the confidence of Hong Kong’s corporate elite. …

Recall that the Chinese Communist Party, which backs Mr. Leung, was once totally committed to Mao Zedong Thought, which officially remains one plank in its ramshackle platform. Mao Zedong Thought demands an implacable and total People’s War against all vestiges of capitalism, the Mass Line (perfect identification of the Party with the poor masses), and Cultural Revolution (a struggle against bourgeois tendencies that must continue even after the masses have seized all power in a violent revolution). Now the same organization seeks to “insulate candidates [for Hong Kong's government] from popular pressure to create a welfare state” and wants instead “the city government to follow more business-friendly policies to address economic inequality. …”

I’m not saying that Maoism was preferable to the present ideology. Maoism was worse, killing tens of millions and ruining countless additional lives. But the Party’s volte-face perfectly exemplifies the limited impact of ideas. During the Cultural Revolution, the government of the world’s biggest nation used every tool imaginable to stomp out capitalist enterprises, norms, and instincts. A generation later, the same government, dominated by the same families, won’t even allow a popular vote in Hong Kong because poor residents might request some modest restrains on global capitalism. So much for ideology. The Chinese Communist Party remains officially Maoist, but it is also a unitary hierarchy that monopolizes the legitimate use of force within the borders of China. Hence, in the long run, it will simply act in the self-interest of its leaders and rationalize its decisions using convenient arguments. The lesson is: pay careful attention to constitutional and institutional design.

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Goya’s Familia del infante Don Luis

I’d call this large painting the highlight of the Goya exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts:

La familia del infante don Luis

Goya depicts himself at the bottom left, painting the Spanish nobleman Luis de Borbón and his family in 1784. Don Luis was a brother of the king who had been sentenced to internal exile for being both a liberal and a libertine. A patron of the arts, he is here depicted with the painter Goya and probably the composer Boccherini, along with his wife, children, and other friends or retainers. The atmosphere is casual, cheerful, and warm. The infante’s wife is shown with her hair down; Don Luis is playing cards; the standing man near the right grins at us; and one of the children is curious in a friendly way about what Goya is doing.

“La Familia del infante Don Luis” must be compared to two other paintings. In “Charles IV and His Family” Goya depicts the monarch and a large retinue visiting his studio. Goya stands in the back behind a large canvass that he is working on. The royal family is dressed formally and splendidly and stands stiffly for an official portrait. The color scheme is cold; the image is crisp and precise; the air is oppressive.

These two family portraits (that of the king and of his brother) are both replies to the most famous work of art in Spain, “Las Meninas” (1656), in which Velasquez depicts some members of the royal family visiting his studio while he works on a canvass.

The precise topic of “Las Meninas” is controversial (see this post). The faces of the King and Queen of Spain appear in the mirror behind Velazquez. The mirror could show the painting he is working on, in which case he is touching up a royal portrait while the princess and her servants visit his studio. Or the real King and Queen could be visiting, standing where a viewer stands to see “Las Meninas.” In that case, we have no way of knowing what is depicted on the canvass, but it could be “Las Meninas” itself, which is a portrait of the royal princess and her attendants. Then, on the canvas in front of him, Velazquez would also appear–painting Velazquez, painting Velazquez, painting Velazquez, in a mise-en-abime. On my blog, Colin Dexter once proposed that Velazquez and everyone else in the picture is staring into a mirror set up where we stand, so that the artist can depict himself.

In any case, “Las Meninas” is remarkably three-dimensional, almost like a Vermeer in its uncanny realism. It is ambiguous and complex, with mirrors, paintings within paintings, people looking at people who look at us: an image about images. It is historically significant, marking a moment at which the genius-artist becomes a peer of royals. And it is “iconic,” immediately recognizable thanks to many famous critical essays, reproductions, and replies (e.g., Picasso’s “Las Meninas” series), of which Goya’s are just two.

I presume that the differences between “Las Meninas” and “La Familia del infante Don Luis” are intentional on Goya’s part:

  • “Las Meninas” looks magically “real.” Goya’s painting is matte and sketchy, happy to look like a painting (even though Goya was capable of more polish, as in “Charles IV and His Family”)
  • Velazquez is dashing and distinguished, a courtier from the Age of Absolutism. Goya is informal and comfortable, representing the Age of Reason.
  • Velazquez is painting a massive baroque work, which we cannot see at all. Goya is working on a painting of modest size that would belong in a drawing room.
  • Velazquez stares at us, but we cannot see his work. Goya stares at his subject and lets us see his canvass.

Goya is truly a pivotal figure. He starts working under the Old Regime, painting courtiers in a version of rococo, the frivolous last comer in the long procession of European period styles (Archaic Greek, Classical Greek, Hellenistic Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Mannerist, Baroque, Neoclassical, and Rococo–to name just the big ones). But the French Revolution and war come to Spain, rococo peters out, and Goya starts creating strange and original works that are as much about art as they are works of art. He spans the history of art from Fragonard to William Blake and anticipates Expressionism. The MFA’s exhibition is organized thematically rather than chronologically and thus downplays the radical change in Goya’s work, but it offers enough fine and diverse works that you can recreate the story yourself.

(See also this post on Goya’s contemporary Giambattista Tiepolo).

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