Art Philanthropy Is Alive and Well…At Least in Manhattan

There are many games which one associates with the lives of those who are fortunate enough to spend much of their time at leisure. There are no competitors of moderate income taking part in the America’s Cup, for example. Yet an interesting piece which appeared in Vanity Fair yesterday on the game known as art collecting shows that there are some games which only the very, very comfortable are able to play. And that game has an important impact on both the art world and philanthropy.

The article in question theorizes that there is a war going on between the three most important art museums in New York City: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, and The Whitney Museum of American Art.  More precisely, the piece suggests that there are power struggles among the various board members of these institutions, which are affecting the institutions themselves. The effort to preserve what is already there, while attracting more visitors to their collections so that what is sometimes termed “high art” remains relevant to younger generations, is an ongoing dilemma for many of these august bodies.

What seems particularly interesting or unusual is the idea that The Met is evolving to better reflect the ongoing history of art.  This is something which the Lauder family has moved along considerably with the donation of their collection of Cubist works. This among other artistic movements of the previous century was an area of acquisition which The Met had largely left to MoMA in the past, given their very different reasons for existing, If The Met is seeking to get into the Modern Art game now it might seem to have left it a bit late, but then again The Met is The Met.

In London of course there is a clear division of powers between the two largest art institutions of that city: The National Gallery and Tate (I still have difficulty in dropping the leading “The”.) If you are looking for Modern or Contemporary Art, you have to go south of the Thames, rather than to Trafalgar Square, in order to see it. Here in Washington, by contrast, although the Hirshhorn specializes in such things, the National Gallery also has Modern and Contemporary works in its possession. Local dictates seem to lead to inconsistent results when it comes to the honing and polishing of a particular institution’s holdings.

However the importance of recognizing these ongoing changes lies not so much in controversies over building expansions, board membership, or the like, but in the nature of the collections themselves. If a public or quasi-public institution holds fast to the idea that art is intended to educate and edify the public, then the choices which it makes in what to acquire and display tell us a great deal about not only the institution itself, but that institution’s perception of the community which it serves. That is where, sometimes, museums can lose their way, by forgetting their purpose.

Is the art museum becoming merely a place of entertainment, a charge levied by some against one of the institutions profiled in the Vanity Fair article? One could certainly look at the museum of today in that fashion. Perhaps they are viewed as a place where the discarded baubles of the dead are put out for the curious to admire, or a venue for holding swanky parties in luxurious surroundings. The counter to that argument, of course, is that art collections large and small have always been sought out by those who appreciate art, whether in the vast corridors of the former palaces of the Bourbons and Medici, or in grand country houses and estates which open their doors to visitors but still remain private residences for most of the year.

Rather perhaps the question which we ought to be asking when we see the evolution of art museums is one not of utility, but of intent. What is the goal of building up a collection of 20th century masterpieces in Manhattan, if not to keep such works hanging on the walls of a penthouse on the Upper East Side? Is it such a bad thing for someone who has been fortunate enough to succeed in this country, to share his good fortune with a major museum, for the pleasure and enlightenment of his fellow citizens?

When many of this country’s art institutions got their starts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were able to take advantage of the fact that the Old World was getting a bit decrepit and in need of American cash. Whereas most of the European art institutions have their origins in royal collections forcibly or otherwise appropriated from their former owners, in the U.S. it was the well-to-do who realized that they would have to voluntarily build such collections themselves, if there were to be comparable institutions for the benefit of the citizenry. Thus it occurred then, as it does today, that the magnates and financiers who built the original museums have their descendants at present in those who continue to benefit from the opportunities afforded those who are able to make the American dream a reality for themselves and their families, and in the process benefit their communities as well.

Many of the names have changed, as fortunes are won and lost and diluted, but the idea that something needs to be given back remains an essential component of the philanthropic spirit which created the art world as we know it in this country. When Leonard Lauder donated his Cubist collection to The Met, he thanked his children for being willing to give up part of their future inheritance – in the form of works of art estimated to be worth a total of over $1 billion – for the sake of enriching the collections of New York’s most important public educational institution. That says volumes about the state of artistic philanthropy in this country – or at least in Manhattan.

The Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Phone Booth Friday: Suit Yourself Up

Since their inception as a genre, superheroes have never really dressed like most people.  Sure, many of them have their secret identities and wear everyday clothes, so that they can hold down jobs or mix undetected with normal human beings.  Yet when they really go to work, they wear clothing which is, to be fair, rather outlandish.  That being said, this doesn’t stop those along the spectrum of fandom, from casual aficionado to full-blown expert, from trying to find ways to bring some aspect of their favorite hero to their own wardrobes – and that’s something we ought to encourage.

For those unwilling to don a garment made from lycra/spandex from fear of being photographed, like British Prime Minister David Cameron, there are of course other options. The now-familiar slanket, also known as the snuggie, i.e. a fleece blanket with sleeves, has been around for a few years now, and comes in a range of superhero styles at many retailers. However some new arrivals on the wearables market may prove to be just as popular with superhero fans who aren’t quite willing to fully suit up for themselves.

Take for instance this new product from Chilean company Selk-Bag: wearable sleeping bags designed to make the user look like a Marvel superhero. They fit just about any size, from kids to adults.  They’re also waterproof, but only recommended for temperatures down to 45 degrees Fahrenheit – that’s about 7 degrees Centigrade for you non-Americans.

Although not designed for such temperatures, I can envision some people using these this winter, much to the envy of their friends.  Particularly on warmer winter days when engaging in things like sledding, snowball fights, and ice hockey, a bit of padding can go a long way toward not being knocked about too much.  Still, perhaps these types of garments are best-saved for those of you who live in more moderate climates, where winters are not too terribly cold.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the return of the beloved childhood label Underoos, but this time in adult size.  If you’re of a certain age, you probably had a pair or two of these in your underwear drawer growing up. Underoos were matching underwear sets for kids, the most popular of which featured superheroes and sci-fi characters.  From the late ’70’s through the 80’s, they were quite the rage for kids who wanted to run around the house torturing their younger siblings through acts of violent horseplay.

So far the offerings are limited, but include Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Batman, Batgirl, Harley Quinn, He-Man, and Skeletor.  The underwear sets even come in the same retro packaging that you may remember from your childhood.  In some sense others have already picked up the slack on this type of product, most notably athletic gear/underwear designers UnderArmour in their “Alter Ego” line. However one should never underestimate the appeal of a well-timed bit of nostalgia marketing, particularly when superhero culture is such a dominant force in the entertainment world at the moment.

The huge variety of characters in the superhero universe, who all dress rather unusually, allows people to explore different aspects of their own personality and values.  Even if they happen to be drawn to one particular favorite, when purchasing garments like these, fans can naturally cross over into being several different characters – just as most of the serious cosplay folk I’ve been getting to know do in the projects they work on.  The fact that such garments are even available to the general public only reinforces the impression that, while marketers may be taking full advantage of this trend, there is more going on here than simply choosing a logo and going with it.

Like in Greco-Roman and Norse mythology, comic book superheroes speak to something larger than themselves.  By referencing their articles of clothing in what we ourselves wear, we also reference what virtues these characters stand for.  So while today wearing the “S” on your chest is a kind of textile shorthand for saying that you value “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”, in ancient times the wedding knot in the girdle or belt  worn by a bride around her waist was a reminder of the virtue of chastity, from the tale of Hercules and Hippolyta.  Western culture is littered with many such symbols which try to pass on values, which even if we don’t realize it are still showing up in articles of clothing today, from the laurel leaves of Apollo and Daphne on a Fred Perry bag, to the Golden Fleece from the story of Jason and the Argonauts embroidered on a Brooks Brothers polo shirt.

People need and want to be reminded of what makes us care for one another, and why having a free, democratic, and civilized society is better than the alternative.  I don’t mean to suggest that one must always try to dig deeply into the superhero world to try to answer that need, because let’s face it: sometimes you just want to have fun and play make-believe.  Yet in a time when so much of contemporary society seems so lost and rudderless, awash in a sea of materialism and selfishness, and in need of rediscovering virtues like self-sacrifice, charity, and service to others, is your wearing a superhero t-shirt really such a bad place to start?

Selk-Bag's range of Marvel superhero wearable sleeping bags

Selk-Bag’s range of Marvel superhero wearable sleeping bags

Dominicans to the Rescue: Saving Souls and Civilization in Iraq

Obviously there is much to be said, and much that is praiseworthy, when someone heroically saves another’s life.  People are more important than property, something which all of us need reminding of from time to time.  Yet sometimes we can find equally praiseworthy acts of heroism when it comes to rescuing objects that are part of the heritage of all mankind.  So for this blog post, I want to take the opportunity to laud the work of my favorite religious order, the Dominicans, who are doing something heroic not only for the care and salvation of souls, but also for preserving civilization, right now, in a very dangerous place and time.

As ISIS slashes and burns its way across Iraq, we are right to focus on their human victims, first and foremost.  Yet ISIS is not only interested in terrorizing their fellow human beings through violence and intimidation.  Rather, they want to show the people of the lands they are conquering, to paraphrase a line from the film “Doctor Zhivago” after the Bolsheviks have killed the Tsar and all of his family, that now, there’s no going back to the way things were. And part of the way ISIS is going about this task is through the destruction of culture and history.

To counter that effort, the Order of Preachers, more popularly known as the Dominicans, have been trying to rescue as many ancient Christian texts as they can ahead of the ISIS onslaught. In an interview with France24, Fr. Laurent Lemoine, O.P., described how he has been assisting in Iraq with the preservation of centuries-old manuscripts, currently in the care of Fr. Najeeb Michaeel, O.P., who with the help of his fellow Dominicans threw everything they could into a truck and fled ISIS for the comparative safety of the Kurdish city of Erbil, with only half an hour’s warning.

Fr. Michaeel’s is a name which may be familiar to some of my readers from publications like First Things, where he has been reporting on the experiences of the Dominicans and those to whom they minister. This interview in particular gives some indication of what he and the other friars face, and also why they choose to stay.  Their dedication and courage in this regard is an example to all of us who can glibly declare, amidst our relative ease and comforts, that we’re prepared to lay down our lives for our brother, as Christ tells us we must be willing to do.  These friars are putting themselves at risk every day, and not only for their fellow Catholics, but for all of those who are fleeing the ISIS terror.

For those who understand the importance of history and preserving the heritage of civilization, the work that Fr. Michaeel and the Dominicans are doing is no less important.  Without it, the real danger would be the loss of identity and roots for a group of people who have already lost almost everything else they once had.  At the same time, the existence of these objects connects them and indeed us to centuries of our forebears in Christianity, in the part of the world where Christianity first arose.

Christians do not need old objects, like ancestral bones or ancient parchments, to be able to worship God. Yet the Church has always recognized that preserving the past is a way to be more fully aware of the role God has played throughout human history, and the need to respect and honor the traditions and knowledge which others have contributed to the Church as well as to mankind as a whole.  Let us hope that one day, these books and the descendents of those who created them will once again be able to find a place of peace and restoration.

Fr. Najeeb Michaeel, O.P., with some of the rescued manuscripts

Fr. Najeeb Michaeel, O.P., with some of the rescued manuscripts