State of the Union

The Price of a Picasso

Cezanne, Les Pommes / Sotheby's
Cezanne, Les Pommes / Sotheby's

Last night was another glorious success for the art auction house Sotheby’s, taking in $230 million from 60 lots sold. Best selling was Cezanne’s still life, Les Pommes, pictured above, which went for $41.6 million including the buyers premium, $10 million higher than the estimated price. French impressionist art is trending again, after a few years where the market has been dominated by post-war and contemporary works.

In 2004, the late Robert Hughes wrote,

When you have the super-rich paying $104m for an immature Rose Period Picasso – close to the GNP of some Caribbean or African states – something is very rotten. Such gestures do no honour to art: they debase it by making the desire for it pathological. As Picasso’s biographer John Richardson said to a reporter on that night of embarrassment at Sotheby’s, no painting is worth a hundred million dollars.

The price of these most expensive paintings is a matching up of the buyer’s subjective appreciation and the size of his wallet. Since the spiritual moral and aesthetic value of art is strictly speaking incalculable, and since a unique and beautiful work of art only ever exists once, the mistake is to treat them in these auctions as effectively infinite in value. That is where the pathology comes in—the object is treated as capable of absorbing infinite desire, the consumer is consumed by the object he desires, and that consumption is marketed as a model of artistic appreciation.

Still, individual buyers may be free from such pathology, though it inflames the art market. And Picasso is the world’s favorite status commodity for more than superficial reasons; his paintings represent the world’s vision of its ideal self: egotistical, erotic, enacting messianic compassion, and wrestling like Jacob with the limits of space and time.

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John Crowe Ransom Was Wrong

D. G. Myers earlier this week defended the use of literary history as an aide to the study of literature. Literary history is a shortcut to the advantages of wide reading and long experience, without which there is no good literary criticism, and without which one cannot begin to read anything with profit. He’s entirely right, but to admit that is to admit the limits of literature as an object of scientific scholarship.

Literary history works as an antidote to the dominance, in the undergraduate classroom, of New Criticism (named and championed by John Crowe Ransom and other southerners), which held that each word should be read closely with a mind towards its relation with the whole, and that nothing but the words of the text should guide a reader’s interpretation of it. Spin-off theories have replaced the sovereignty of the words with their own absolutisms, but, no matter the theory, professors have pointedly avoided teaching the literary context of the particular text, lest the innocence of the student’s imagination be tainted by suggestion. The reader is left to confront the text, like Francis Bacon’s inductive acolytes confront Nature, with nothing but curiosity, scepticism, and vast patience.

Literary criticism has always struggled to prove its rightful place at the table of the sciences. Ransom’s defense of close reading was a renewed effort to make literary scholarship scientific, by defining the scope of its study to that which uniquely belonged to literature and could not be found elsewhere. The outline of his ideas appears in his seminal essay from 1937, “Criticism, Inc.” It is suggestive that he offers the structures and linguistic tricks of poetry, as opposed to prose, as his prime example of the specific branches of knowledge which the critic ought to master. Close reading works better with poetry than with prose, since the working assumption of the critic, that every word is in an intricately balanced unity with the whole, holds up more often.

Since the beginning, English literature has been indebted to the study of classical literature and language, and for precision and breadth has never equalled it. The eighteenth century curriculum in England of the classical Greek and Latin literature was a model of education which cannot be replicated by the study of English. It was a synthesis of grammar, rhetoric, history, and ethics. Close reading sat alongside comparative literature, history, ethics, sociology as a profitable interpretative enterprise, in part because their knowledge of antiquity drew chiefly on the famous literature. Now that classical history has become scientific; that archeology, numismatics, the study of accumulated minor primary sources, etc. take up much more of the burden of historical inquiry, the famous primary texts are no longer quite so available as a vehicle for the transmission of humanistic values and the civilizing of the imagination and taste.

When the vernacular replaced the antiquities as the touchstone of a common culture, the study of English literature inherited the responsibility for transmitting that humanistic education. But it also inherited the same problem. Studying history and sociology through literature doesn’t get very far. The New Critics rejected that burden, devoting themselves purely to the text as an inherently interesting problem. Literary history goes the farthest one can go, now, to remedying the problem, by reincorporating the intellectual, cultural, political, and religious problems of the past back into the literature. It can become again the ground of humanistic education in the way that the antiquities once were. That, I think, is the natural home of literature. The science of literature serves that end, and not the other way round.

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The City Is a Home for the Children of Multiculturalism

Jason Peters at Front Porch Republic conceded Mark Signorelli’s right to be discontent with the archetypical Odyssean narrative of the Return Home, a discontent which Signorelli expressed in an essay titled “Going Home Again? Not Likely“:

If I am correct, it seems there is a certain kind of arch-typical narrative that has become quite popular here at FPR, and in some sense, emblematic of its defense of place and home.  It is the “Going Home” story, the story of someone rejecting the allures of wealth and status in the big-city, and returning to the fixed traditions of his or her hometown. While such narratives are of great interest, in and of themselves, and while they clearly emerge from the sincere experiences of their authors, I find myself entirely unable to sympathize with them.  I suspect, moreover, that, taken together, such narratives tend to distort more about the reality of twenty-first century America than they make clear.

But Peters missed the second part of Signorelli’s remarks, which was a preference for the archetype of Aeneas, a man who, his home having been destroyed, wanders as an exile in search of a place to build a new one. Peters briefly advised persons in Signorelli’s predicament to be as Booker T. Washington and “cast down your buckets where you are,” before defending his own dutiful return to a home still worth caring for.

That advice doesn’t square at all with the story of Aeneas, who spent many years wandering through the Mediterranean: he didn’t settle in the first place he landed, and his first effort to build a city in Crete was rebuked by Apollo. In Carthage, where he could have happily cast down his rusty bucket, his piety compelled him away.

Actually there’s more than one kind of homelessness, and Signorelli touched on only one of them. His sort is the peculiar emptiness engendered by the spirit of modernism, and from which an educated man learns to take some refuge in the wisdom of the classics. “On the street where I grew up,” Signorelli writes, “isolation was the norm.  It was the kind of place where people came home from work, turned on the television, and had done with the outside world.  The kind of place where next-door neighbors did not know one another’s name.” In response, he says, “one of the ruling impulses in my life since early adulthood has been a desire to get as far away from my hometown as I can.”

There’s another kind of homelessness, never unknown, but now in the United States almost as common as the modern ennui, and that is the problem of having many homes. There are grown men and women raised in homes with parents of different faiths, parents of different races, different nationalities, adults who spent their childhood moving from place to place every four years, crossing state lines and national boundaries. If their parents divorced and remarried they have stepfathers and mothers, each with another new history. These adults marry into again new cultures. Not all of these accumulated homes are worth living in. Some are like Signorelli’s hometown. But others are enduring expressions of community. It isn’t apparent by what rule couples should decide where to settle. They fit neither the departure narrative nor the return narrative.

And I begin with couples as an ethical unit, but marriage itself is a conceptual problem, a fuel to the multicultural fire. Each difference between a married couple increases the difficulty in communication and understanding, increases the basic tension between the insistent demands of their backgrounds. How do you raise your children among their grandparents when your in-laws are in Des Moines and your parents are in Miami? What if your in-laws live in Milan, or New Delhi? How do you raise your children faithfully when you, a Lutheran, can’t receive the Eucharist of your Roman Catholic wife?

I’m not discussing multiculturalism (or better, cultural pluralism), where communities with radically different cultures lead separate existences from neighborhood to neighborhood, and for which the problem is protecting the heritage of local and national history and law from the imported doctrines of an alien people who demand provision for their robust dissimilarity. I’m discussing the moral duties of the people who live in the borders between those communities. Those borders grow more complex year on year, strange combinations of tribal loyalties overlap, and the population living in them grows larger and larger.

In the absence of a series of friendly Apollonian soothsayers, it takes people a long time to work out how to solve the riddles of their moral duties. There’s no doubt humans have a common desire for home: some people learn to locate it in their family, some in a landscape, some in a club, some in a profession with a few friends. The fullest and most beautiful expression of home is larger than any one of these things, but for a child of multiculturalism the search for that home is difficult and can cause massive unhappiness.

There is a natural institution which can harbor and endure this sort of cultural anarchy, even putting it to good use: the city. Intercollegiate Review‘s Danielle Charette observed that “conservatives often use “cities” as a stand in for what is wrong in America: poverty, family breakdown, and crony capitalism. It’s true that those issues tend to concentrate more in urban zip codes. But it’s also true that cities are a magnetic testament to the human desire to congregate and experiment.” That embrace of experiment offers an endless supply of new beginnings, a place where strange ideas are constantly crashing into one-another, a place to build a half-way home while you sift through your soul to find the seeds of a more enduring piety.

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Willa Cather’s Will Laid to Rest

This month Random House will publish a collection of Willa Cather’s letters, reports the NYT. Cather wished that her novels would be read and interpreted on their merits alone, and to that end, and for the simple sake of privacy, ruthlessly protected her personal material from publication. She fortified her position in her will, banning excerpts and even simple quotations from print. Her biographers have had to make do with paraphrase ever since, until now. The NYT reports,

Ms. Stout and Mr. Jewell [the scholar editors], in their preface, acknowledge that publication of the letters “flagrantly” violates Cather’s wishes, expressed in a will that partially expired in 2011 with the death of her nephew and second executor, Charles Cather. But publication, they argue, advances the deeper purpose of Cather’s restrictions: cementing her status as a major literary artist.

The death of the last living executor of her will, Charles Cather her nephew in 2011, removed the last mechanism she had built into the will to enforce her wishes. The Cather Trust, to whom the copyright belonged, quickly dropped the prohibition on publication, as well as a ban on film adaptation. The proceeds will go back to the Trust and the Willa Cather Foundation, which promotes Cather’s life and work.

Since under the terms of US copyright law, the letters had been scheduled to revert to the public domain in 2017 anyway (70 years after her death in 1947), it’s possible the Trust is trying to manage the process before it gets out of their hands completely.

The passing of Charles Cather illustrates the crucial role of family members and close friends in protecting a person’s interests after their death. Ms. Stout writes in her preface to the anthology that Cather “no longer belongs entirely to herself…She belongs to everyone.” Public-spirited admirers don’t care as much as family about a person’s desires., and they will justify actions that would have outraged the person they act in trust of. Will we grieve at her loss, reading her published letters? Probably not: the whole thing has passed into history.

The same thing holds true of the fate of the Barnes Foundation, recently relocated to Philadelphia, which was precisely the last thing that Barnes ever wanted for his collection. In his case, his wish that his paintings never be removed from the walls of his estate was adhered to perfectly until 1988, when Violette de Mazia, his trusted pupil, died (Barnes had no children). Just five years later, a collection of the best paintings were sent on a world tour. Will we feel a pang of conscience, walking through the reconstructed modernist building? Probably not. Time has swallowed up Barnes’ passion, and we are left with a tidy residue.

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New Basquiat Murals: Warhol’s Touch Still Golden

Artinfo reported Wednesday that an old girlfriend of 1980s graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is preparing to unveil a trove of personal ephemera from their days living together in the East Village. The apartment, which Alexis Adler owns, is still decorated with Basquiat’s skeletal scrawls: a mural that reads “Olive Oyl,” a painting of crowns and the words “Famous Negro Athletes” on a door, and the word “Milk” on a radiator. Seeing that a mini-retrospective of Basquiat’s works at the Gagosian gallery is attracting over 4000 visitors a day, that his’s paintings regularly sell at auction for over $10 million, and that in 2012, for the second year running, sales of his paintings, clocking in at €80m, far outstripped the take of any other artist born after 1945, this is no empty news for New York City, and great business for Adler.

Basquiat’s heads are stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster, psychotic rage and despair leaking out of the skull. His later work became rude, childish, and weak. Perhaps fame undercut his sense of righteous fury. But aside from any consideration of the merits of his work, it goes to show that Andy Warhol’s sympathetic touch still reaches out from the grave and turns to gold all the labors of his reverent Maenads.

Basquiat didn’t find a critical audience until 1979, where he started making appearances on Glenn O’Brien’s (now the GQ style guy) cable show TV Times. Glenn was a early member of Warhol’s Factory, and editor-in-chief of his literary outlet Interview. Basquiat introduced himself to Warhol in 1980, and the two collaborated heavily after that. In Victor Bockris’s Warhol: A Biography, long-time Warhol assistant Ronny Cutrone describes the relationship:

It was like some crazy art-world marriage and they were the odd couple. The relationship was symbiotic. Jean-Michel thought he needed Andy’s fame, and Andy thought he needed Jean-Michel’s new blood. Jean-Michel gave Andy a rebellious image again.

But it wasn’t until in 1981 when an article, entitled “The Radiant Child,” appeared in ArtForum praising Basquiat that he came to the attention of a wider art audience. The author of the article was René Ricard, also an Andy Warhol protégé.

After Warhol’s death in 1987, Basquiat became isolated and depressed, and eventually died overdosing on heroin. Basquiat’s unhinged violence curiously balances Warhol’s soporifics. Warhol was a sort of anti-Tao, a placid centre unleashing chaos around him.

———

I leave you with a gratuitous illustration of Warhol’s seeming ubiquity: Andy Warhol met one of his “superstars,” the transvestite Candy Darling (who also committed suicide at a young age), in 1967 at a gangster-owned club called the Tenth of Always in NYC, while sitting with Velvet Underground lead Lou Reed. Candy was performing in “Glamour, Glory and Gold,” a play written by drag queen Jackie Curtis, another Warhol star. On stage alongside Candy and Jackie was one man, in his first-ever acting job, playing all six male parts. His name was Robert de Niro.

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Tilda Cows Come Home to MoMA

Tilda Swinton

Eighteen years after sleeping in a box among jumbled artifacts of British culture in an exhibit by Cornelia Parker, Tilda Swinton, minor celebrity, is reprising her tumblrbait act, The Maybe, first performed in 1995, at the Museum of Modern Art. At unscripted times throughout this year you might find her outside the atrium.

The odd thing about the exercise is its total lack of ambition or humor or irony. The event (it is vaguely in the genre of performance art) doesn’t register its own banality. The most excitement the museum scraped from the exhibit was that it wouldn’t always be there. MoMA said in a public statement,

No published schedule for its appearance, no artist’s statement released, no museum statement beyond this brief context, no public profile or image issued. Those who find it chance upon it for themselves, live and in real—shared—time: now we see it, now we don’t.

The art world is either thrilled that their beloved Swinton is on display, or just dutifully descriptive of the emperor’s latest stunt. Jerry Saltz is laboriously non-committal. No-one, hardly even the museum, appears to be interested in the exhibit as a work of art. There are at least as many posts reporting the reaction of twitter to the event as reporting the event itself.

The one humane bit of insight among the effusive detritus was from the New Republic. Jason Farago points out that Swinton earned her notoriety by being the subject of that original 1995 piece, the design of which wasn’t even hers, but one Cornelia Parker’s. In it she slept alongside Napoleon’s rosary, Turner’s watercolour box, Charles Dickens’s last pen, Robert Maxwell’s shoe lasts, one of Churchill’s half-smoked cigars, the manuscript of Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting, Charles Babbage’s brain, and  with Faraday’s Magneto Spark apparatus, among other things. Says Farago,

It was Parker’s work that made Swinton’s more than just a performance cliché, and without that context it’s hard to see the new The Maybe as anything other than an empty gesture by a movie star with an incomplete command of art history.

(A wikipedia contributor back in 2007 specifically disputed that Parker was the author of the original show, asserting that she merely helped Swinton prepare it. That assertion has since stood on Swinton’s wiki page, but the only reporting I have been able to find is from a piece by the Independent in 1995, which supports Farago.)

Secondly, Farago points out, the exhibition is curated by Klaus Biesenbach, a notorious populist in the tradition of Andy Warhol. The MoMA under Biesenbach has displayed its fair share of impassioned interactive depravity. But the tiredness of the sleeping Swinton suggests that those other peculiar exhibits were utterly banal as well, the humdrum titillation of being brushed by nude bodies as you walked through the exhibit, for instance, hardly worth mentioning.

Still, at least Swinton looks like David Bowie.

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Old Town Dies a Little Death

The City Council of Alexandria, VA reaffirmed its plan last Saturday to develop the waterfront on the west bank of the Potomac. The vote reapproved zoning and density changes, and in addition removed language in the city’s zoning ordinance that formerly allowed residents who would be most affected by the zoning changes to force a supermajority vote of 6-1 to have them approved.

The complex three-year legal fight over the plan between the council and a large number of Old Town residents has ranged across several city bureaus, private clubs and businesses, in council and mayoral elections, and up to the Supreme Court of Virginia. At stake is the nature of Old Town, and by extension, the city—whether it will be primarily a neighborhood enjoyed by its residents, or a destination exhibited to tourists as a haven of pleasure and nostalgia. Two new hotels are to be allowed, the profits distributed between the developers and the city treasury, with public land along the waterfront to be improved as compensation to the locals.

The lynchpin of the original design is a pier jutting out from a new public park, situated on what is currently the parking lot of the Old Dominion Boat Club, in existence since 1880. The Alexandria Planning Director said of it, “”The King Street pier is the soul of the plan.” The ODBC holds some of the best real-estate in the entire country, on the Potomac at the foot of King Street, the main artery of the town’s commerce and administration. It’s a bastion of leisure and friendship for the long-time residents of the town, many of whom were born in the town of parents who made it prosperous in the 1950s. Though negotiations between the city and ODBC to sell the ratty-looking parking lot broke down in 2010, the city has not given up the hope of acquiring the land. It has pressed on the Boat Club’s domain by forcibly sharing its old easement right-of-way in an alley parallel to King Street with a new organic restaurant Virtue Feed & Grain, and defending its decision against the club’s appeal in a costly court case. It remains unclear whether the city will try to take the parking lot under eminent domain law, and also unclear whether the amendment to the Virginia State constitution approved in the November elections, heavily restricting eminent domain action, is sufficient to protect the parking lot.

Roger Scruton was able to say in 2009 that Old Town Alexandria, along with Georgetown, exhibits a benign adaptation between architectural beauty and human needs which has survived decades of a national culture of modernist urban planning. Clearly the waterfront redevelopment won’t bulldoze the narrow streets, elaborate Georgian brickwork, and jumbled mix of homes and businesses which support a network of friendships and local loyalties. Indeed, there is a good argument for opening up the waterfront to more local residents. Large portions of it are ugly and disused. It’s still possible that the details of the development could be integrated in a wholesome manner with the rest of the town’s aesthetic character.

But that will take personal discipline and restraint from its council members, where formerly that restraint was imposed by the law. Most worrisome from Saturday was the vote to sweep away the power of residents to petition for changes in zoning regulations. The council takes the view that it isn’t a change but a clarification of an earlier ambiguity: The right of petition, it holds, is against map changes only, not the wording of regulations.

Speaking from personal experience, since I work part-time as a barista at the Grape & Bean, a wine and coffee bar in Old Town, those who oppose the redevelopment are most likely to voice their thoughts in public, and most likely, it seems, to possess the keen emotions of civic piety. Those in favor have not voiced their opinions, if they have them, except to vote overwhelmingly for those council members who ran under the Democratic Party ticket. All six took the six open council seats, defeating the three Republicans, two Independents, and one Libertarian who ran against them, two of whom were incumbents, and five of whom opposed the redevelopment as planned. There is no doubt the election was affected by the decision of the council, taken in 2009, to move the traditional local election date from May to November to coincide with the general election, and to take advantage of the turnout of voters who have no opinion on and little stake in the results of local politics. The argument over the redevelopment isn’t cleanly split by party—the one dissenting vote on the recent council vote comes from Democrat Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg, who explicitly ran against the plan. But none of the other members were interested in her compromise offer to reduce the number of hotels planned from two to one.

Beautiful civic life takes decades and centuries to create, and a few years to destroy. The sobering lesson in this story is that even the most determined conservators, if in a democratic constitutional order remain a small minority of the population, are unable to prevent the degradation of civic beauty.

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Et In Arkadia Ego

After Jordan Bloom tells the tale of the $5 million animatronic zoo cum children’s chapel for a San Antonio megachurch, Rod Dreher points out that it’s not the cost that staggers ($5 million for these churches is relatively pocket change), but the purpose—cultural relevance. The idea is to compete with theme parks and pizzerias for the kids’ attention so they’ll stay for the Word of God.

John Hagee is your average megachurch the-end-is-nigh, bless-Israel-so-you-may-be-blessed prosperity preacher, with an aging choir, a corpulent belly, a multimillion dollar TV ministry, a son groomed to take over the empire, and a massive retirement package. He needs your pity more than anything.

With room for 850 boisterous children cascading over the room, it’s hard to imagine those wonderful toys surviving long, but it’s not all bad. The model Noah’s ark is at least a rudimentary architectural symbol of the congregation’s theology, which is more than can be said for the main stadium, which only says that the guy standing down at the bottom middle with the mic is really important and you’d better listen to him.

But it’s a skin-deep symbolism. The electronic elephant symbolizes…a live elephant. It was important to the ark designer “that it really feel more real than just a playground.” “We never wanted a curtain to look behind. No place where it gave it away,” he said. Of course there is a curtain, the plastic which covers the hydraulic innards. A kid who can’t find the curtain (and they will try) is impressed by the design quality, but that’s more reason to believe in the ingenuity of technicians than in the providence of God. That’s why pastor Hagee acknowledges that their real value is entertainment. We wonder how long it will be before the kids get bored and start demanding to see pterodactyls nesting on the church rooftop. The cleverer ones will have overthrown the entire enterprise as soon as they ask “so how did all the animals on the earth fit into this ark? And didn’t the animals come in two by two?”

The power of sacred architecture is in the fitting combination of its beauty and its meaning. Hagee’s chapel is gaudily commercial and theologically spare, powerless to move the soul to God. His church has nothing to say, and no idea how to say it. The larger story here is that the parents and retirees who paid for the building are raising children who are bored with church, and a pachyderm playground is their best idea to get the little ones’ attention.


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Scholar Unearths 50 Unpublished Kipling Poems

50 previously unpublished poems by Rudyard Kipling will be included in a massive three-volume collection of his complete poetry, soon to be published by Cambridge University Press. (Complete, of course, until someone discovers another unpublished poem. The energetic man wrote over 1,300 and gave many brief forgotten lines away as gifts.)

We all owe thanks to the scholar responsible for this new collection, Thomas Pinney, who has for years been scrupulously editing authoritative collections of Kipling’s assorted letters, prose, and poetry, and has personally hunted across the country for many of these new poems.

You can read the press release here, though for added value Alison Flood at the Guardian has scooped a few lines from the new poems, and included in her post a terrific complete poem called “The Press”, which no doubt draws on his contempt for American journalists. The American press hated Kipling for his taciturnity, but he hated them more. Here’s an excerpt of a magnificent passage from his little-known PJ O’Rourke-style work, American Notes, where he speaks his mind to a Chicago reporter who crashes funerals to interview the widows and overturns wreaths to see who sent them.

HE (with his note-book ready)—…How do you regard it?

I—It makes me regard your interesting nation with the same shuddering curiosity that I should bestow on a Pappan cannibal chewing the scalp off his mother’s skull. Does that convey any idea to your mind? It makes me regard the whole pack of you as heathens—real heathens—not the sort you send missions to—creatures of another flesh and blood. You ought to have been shot, not dead, but through the stomach, for your share in the scandalous business, and the thing you call your newspaper ought to have been sacked by the mob, and the managing proprietor hanged.

Alison Flood gets wrong Kipling’s lines from his “Epitaphs of the War”, “If any question why we died / Tell them, because our fathers lied.” She attributes them to his regret at his enthusiasm for the war, but that’s wrong. George Simmers at an excellent little blog, Great War Fiction, has this to say:

Read More…

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Time Stops at the National Gallery of Art

A woman with flaming red hair, sunken eyes, and a Cyclopean chin materializes on several canvases of the superb pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in DC, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848–1900. If you have ever found yourself helplessly mesmerized by the neurotic hyperrealism of the Brothers, one look at her face should be enough to shock you out of medie-Victorian dream land. Her unfortunate aspect is testament to human weakness and the impossibility of making a perfect work of art.

To this day one is tempted to chalk up admiration for pre-Raphaelite work to aesthetic adolescence. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was only 18 when he wrote The Blessed Damozel, the most famous and representative of poems to emerge from their movement. As late as 1984 the NYT could write, “the revival of Victorian art as a serious genre, instead of being treated as a joke for most of the 20th century, has been slow and its total rehabilitation is still anything but assured.”

The work of rehabilitation is even now incomplete, but this new exhibit, imported from the Tate Gallery in London, and embellished by NGA curator Diane Waggoner, goes far toward completing it. It adds to the paintings the array of sculptures, poems, stained-glass, murals, and tapestries with which the Brotherhood decorated the private drawing rooms of their political patrons. You see that they were aiming at a complete overthrow of the English mannerist aesthetic, inherited from Raphael and elaborated in England by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The Brothers did for the fine arts what Wordsworth and Keats had done for poetry.

The paintings are difficult to assess. They beg to be regarded as serious, thoughtful, and exciting to the imagination, but to the degree the electric greens and purples of Arthur Hughes stimulate they eye they perversely escape the mind. Their first important critic, Walter Pater, could say nothing better of Rossetti than that his meanings are “always personal and even recondite, in a certain sense learned and casuistical, sometimes complex or obscure.” Here Feeling is illuminated and embalmed. True Love is drowned, rejected, or doomed. Most of the paintings tell striking stories, but, with some exceptions from William Holman Hunt and Ford Madox Brown, rather than offer an interpretation of the story they attempt to render their hermetic power. Read More…

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Potshots at the Princess?

All the king’s horses and all their critics can’t agree whether Humpty Dumpty is broken, though they agree he’s taken a fall. Hilary Mantel, two-time winner of the Man Booker prize and a great chevalier of the British literary court, has stirred herself up a controversy with cutting remarks on Princess Kate and her bride price, the tabloid media and their readers.

On Feb 4th, Mantel gave a sophisticated, literary speech for the London Review of Books‘ Winter Lecture series entitled “Undressing Anne Boleyn” on the use the royal family has made of its women for breeding heirs, paying special attention to Henry VIII’s wives, and Katherine, whom she described as “becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung. In those days she was a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore.”

Yesterday the Daily Mail, a repository of patriotic second-hand junk news, having found the speech out (presumably none of its people had attended the speech in person) published a withering rebuke to the old lady. It was difficult to read the article when the text was constantly interrupted by hi-res photographs of Kate in various poses wearing the same baby-bump-revealing dress, but you gathered that the nation had leapt to the defense of its future queen against the insolent assault of a catty old woman.

The major broadsheets have stuck up for Mantel, the Guardianthe Independentthe Telegraph, though the Times was ambivalent. They point out that her speech is sympathetic to Kate’s plight–Mantel asks the nation “to back off and not be brutes.” It condemns the obsession with royalty that expects the royals to be picture-ready and charity-friendly, and is made uncomfortable with a display of real personality. Their defense distinguishes between Mantel’s criticism of the popular image of Kate, and her criticism of Kate herself. But you either have to be a verbal acrobat to avoid seeing that Mantel doesn’t care for Kate or the institution of the royal family, or you just have something to lose by out-and-out admitting that you don’t like them either.

For herself Mantel never quite says it outright. Her speech reads very much like a novel, leaping lightly from observation to observation, refraining from strong conclusions, with all the beautiful, attenuated wisdom of a mind devoted to nuance. The literary kingdom is in a permanent Cold War with the popular patriotic tradition.

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David Mamet’s ‘Race’ Comes to Washington

When the artistic director of the local Jewish theater, Theater J, spends half the program notes apologizing for putting on a production of a right-leaning playwright, and consoles the audience with the thought that the playwright might occasionally say something that hinted at the truth, one hopes the play will be better than the narrow minds the audience are presumed to possess.

The play is “Race” by David Mamet, which premiered on Broadway in 2009 and is now making the rounds in the regional theaters. Coming from a playwright who thinks that we are at our most human when we act like swine, it’s about race in the same way that his plays are about anything—an exposé of humanity’s worst prejudices and self-deceptions. A clerk demands to know, “Do you think blacks are stupid?” and her boss replies, “I think people are stupid. I don’t think blacks have an exemption.”

The commentary on race relations itself is shallow—blacks feel shame, whites feel guilt—although the sympathetic titters from the crowd at such fare as a black man cheerfully announcing, “all black men hate whites” suggest the artistic director wasn’t far wrong in his assessment of the audience—nor was Mamet.

The play is staged entirely in the lobby of a law firm. A rich white man, Charles, goes to the firm of two male partners, one black, Henry Brown, one white, Jack Lawson, and their black female clerk, Susan, hoping to employ them to defend him from a young black woman’s charge of rape. The partners, having heard that he parted ways with a previous firm, suspect that his case is unwinnable. When Susan erroneously accepts a check from Charles, and Henry and Jack become legally obligated to serve as his counsel, their schemes for winning the case are repeatedly assailed by a stream of evidence that Charles is guilty, or, what will make their case far harder to win, that he’s a racist. Under the lines of this detective-story plot, the racial prejudices of the play’s four characters unfold despite their best efforts to conceal them.  The unnamed woman who filed the complaint against Charles never appears, and progressively recedes from memory, as Charles’s guilt appears to have nothing to do with whether he really committed the deed, but whether it is possible to avoid prejudging him based on his skin, wealth, and sex—and yours. The meaning of new evidence is deconstructed into the meaning of how it is perceived. Read More…

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High Art of the Bourgeoisie

On Saturday an exhibition dedicated to portraits of the painter Edouard Manet opened at the Royal Academy in London to largely strong reviews. Primed to see a parade of characters memorialized for posterity by a realist master, a visitor may be struck by how brief and sketchy the characterizations are and wonder at how this limitation only improves their aesthetic. The figures glow with the luminosity of the painting: the faces are part of the furniture, the eyes are often no more than two black beads. The sitters, even the famous ones, have offered their bodies to the service of color and form. (All except Georges Clemanceau, who said of his, “Manet’s portrait of me? Terrible, I do not have it and do not feel the worse for it. It is in the Louvre, and I wonder why it was put there.”)

Manet is often hailed as the vanguard of the avant-garde. Luncheon on the Grass repelled the jurors of the Paris Salon in 1863, Olympia disgusted the public in 1865, The Railway was ridiculed in 1872. He experimented with painting his light colors directly onto off-white canvas in order to eliminate the illusion of perspective, created by his immediate predecessors, that arises when the canvas is prepared with a dark matte. He abandoned the traditional style of chiaroscuro, the art of shading shapes with fine gradations of value in order to reproduce their three-dimensional contours, in favor of bold swathes of luscious blues and blacks. The bathing figure in Luncheon (not to be confused with 1868 Luncheon in the Studio) is larger than she ought to be. The locations of the reflections in the mirror in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère make no physical sense, the characters multiplied as in medieval continuous-narrative paintings, the viewer, ingeniously, brought in as one of the characters in the scene.

What a betrayal then, of the militants of modernism, that Manet was by turns surprised and despondent at his repeated rejections at the hands of the academy, the critics, and the public. At the outrage that greeted Olympia in the Salon, where the painting had to be elevated high above a doorway to protect from the crowds who looked ready to tear it to pieces, Manet complained to his long-time friend Charles Baudelaire, “Insults are beating down on me like hail. I’ve never been through anything like it,” to which Baudelaire replied, “Do you think you are the first man put in this predicament? Are you a greater genius than Chateaubriand or Wagner? And did not people make fun of them? They did not die of it.” Baudelaire, whom T.S. Eliot called a great moralist, was busy two hours a day preparing his toilet, encouraging artists to embrace the fleeting triviality of la modernite, and relished the opprobrium of lesser men. Gustave Courbet, a proud realist painter who had entered the Paris scene a decade before Manet, vigorously courted rejection by the academy. Manet had adopted Courbet’s methods, even innovated beyond them, but he did not adopt Courbet’s iconoclastic spirit.

The two major early works that shocked Paris, Luncheon and Olympia, were both styled on classical models. The composition of the three sitters in the first are copied almost exactly from a drawing by Raphael, the Judgment of Paris, a figure of which was inspired by Michelangelo’s creation of Adam at the Sistine Chapel. Olympia has several precedents, most importantly Titian’s Venus of Urbino. His quotation of the classics argued for the equal seriousness of the art of ideal beauty and modern sexuality, rather as Courbet’s 233 square feet Funeral at Ornans had argued for an equivalence of art on historical themes, for which massive canvases were typically reserved, and depictions of dramatic scenes in simple modern life. If the establishment read rebellion into his paintings, it was a rebellion they themselves had incited. The overt eroticism of Titian’s Venus had by the 1860s been denuded of the redeeming features of Renaissance philosophical humanism. Parisian salonistas made do with the haute-couture vulgarity of Alexandre Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus, which, in contrast to the Luncheon, got the establishment stamp of approval in 1863.

Though Manet’s paintings continued to excite controversy, none excited as much as his early works, and they were not intended to. Even his more difficult work began to be featured at the Salon. Daring his most outrageous pieces in the beginning, he had a created a sort of rhetorical space within which, following those early exhibitions, he took pleasure making high art out of real life. The Royal Academy exhibition makes fine inroads into the range and simple dignity of the majority of his life’s work, which for the most part memorialized, with little comment or criticism, the pleasures of the bourgeois life around him. Most of the portraits are not raw portrayals, but formal portraits. The great Railway makes no sense as a picture of a woman and a girl standing next to a railway station. The little girl’s dress is too pretty for soot. The flattened space behind the two figures operates as a classical backdrop rather than an urban landscape.

There is an admirable humility in Manet’s corpus that separates him from his contemporaries. He turned down an invitation to join a dissident art exhibition held by Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, Degas, and other budding impressionists. He preserved that artistic integrity in which art must flow from the soul of the painter, and without which art is merely brittle canvas splashed with resin and oils, without succumbing to the self-satisfied pleasure at the contempt of the ignorant that characterizes the soldiers of the avant-garde.

This is not to say Manet was free from petty conceit, nor, though a Frenchman, from the tangled mess of French pronunciation. His first encounter with Claude Monet, with whom he became lasting friends, was in the third person. During the exhibition of 1865, many people were congratulating Manet on his wonderful seascapes. Confused, he found his way through the exhibition to two canvases, The Mouth of the Seine at Honfleur and The Pointe de la Héve at Low Tide, signed by one ‘Monet.’ Manet demanded to know “who is this Monet whose name sounds just like mine and who is taking advantage of my notoriety?”

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