Aesthetics: Von Hildebrand Won The Battle, But I Win The War

Recently I was asked by the Hildebrand Project to review the first volume of “Aesthetics”, by the late philosopher and theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977). As a general rule, publishers like when I review books for them, because I can usually turn my reviews around fairly quickly. Such an approach is simply not possible with this book however, because von Hildebrand’s subject and his writing are too rich to be wolfed down like fast food: in fact, I have not yet finished reading this first volume, because I am savoring it.

To begin with, von Hildebrand’s subject, aesthetics, is the unifying theme throughout this book, and there is a great deal to say on this subject. Since the 1960’s, we have been living in a culture that, in its art and architecture, its attire, its music and entertainment, etc., embraces ugliness, cheapness, and baseness over beauty, dignity, and the transcendent. We see this for example in auction results, where a magnificent Old Master painting is auctioned for a fraction of the price achieved by the splattered emulsions of a diseased mind.

Yet although this is the present state of affairs, as von Hildebrand points out this does not alter the true, inherent beauty of a beautiful object itself. “The object does not cease to be objectively beautiful even if no one were ever to perceive it,” he writes, “but it is a characteristic of the value of beauty, and of its specific delectability, that it (unlike a moral virtue) demands to be perceived, and that it undergoes a new fulfillment when it is perceived.” The joy of perceiving beauty, particularly a true beauty that has been lost or forgotten by others, is something which cannot be put into words.

What may seem most surprising in a book about the philosophical concept of aesthetics is that the bulk of the text is not actually about art. In fact it seems that von Hildebrand took a broader view, and also wanted to look at that twin sister of beauty, truth, since the two always walk hand-in-hand. The pursuit of both in the text involves digressions to consider arguments made by other philosophers, but this does not mean that the book is something which can be appreciated only by those holding a doctoral degree.

In fact, von Hildebrand is not only very readable, he is absolutely on point about how contemporary culture has deteriorated. This is a top-down aesthetic phenomenon, and one that we can all easily recognize in the work of (so-called) cultural elites, which manifests itself in what von Hildebrand calls “pseudo-depth”:

[W]e encounter this pseudo-depth primarily in the sphere of the intellectual. It manifests itself when depth is confused with complicatedness, or indeed with incomprehensibility. This can even go so far that some authors employ incomprehensibility in order to create the impression of depth, and this can lead to intellectual imposture. But there are also self-deceptions where the author feels that he is immensely deep, thinking of the darkness of his confused and incomprehensible speculations as depth.

There is yet another form of false depth, namely, the tendency to import mysterious depths into everything that is not in fact deep, the tendency to “metaphysicize” everything. People who have this attitude see everything that happens as profound and important only because it takes its place of the rhythm of history and de facto occurs. They perceive in every event the breath of Hegel’s world-spirit. In their eyes, even the most stupid movements in history possess profundity as soon as these movements become an historical-sociological reality.

Writing before the age of the internet, von Hildebrand is nevertheless far more plugged in than most contemporary sages of social media, as to why we see the ugliness that we do all around us. I wonder what he would have made of Twitter. I shudder to think what he would have made of *my* use of Twitter, most of the time.

Elsewhere, von Hildebrand takes aim both at those who openly reject absolute truths, and those who privately reject them but who still want to appear respectable, by defining them as mediocrities:

The mediocre person shuns all that is absolute. He draws no distinction between the absolute and the relative. But it is interesting to note that his treatment of the relative – especially of conventions, and especially of the bourgeois element of the “proper” respectable man – is not nearly relative enough. This mentality of the mediocre, the philistine, is a poison which corrodes the attitude to every high good. It is a creeping sickness, a terrible danger to religion, to the relationship to God. Kierkegaard aptly describes this danger to religion when he says that the Dutch Protestant Church supplies the “faithful” with the necessary compromise, making it possible for them to live as pagans under the pleasant and expedient shield of the respectability provided by the Christian name.

If you feel offended by the forgoing, do not worry: there are more passages like that to make you feel even more uncomfortable. In fact more than once, I found myself squirming, as I realized that von Hildebrand was describing my own attitudes and behaviors. It is rather like looking in the mirror in the morning, when the light is harsh and you have not slept well. What you see looking back at you is you, but it is not the you that you normally choose to see.

This is a work to savor, collecting the wisdom of someone who has lived and known much in his life, whether studying art in Florence or speaking out against the Nazis in Germany and Austria. He not only looks back over human development in aesthetics and society, he also prescribes how we ought to be improving upon the mess which we all perceive about us today. Perhaps most importantly von Hildebrand keeps truth, and man’s relationship with God, at the heart of what he writes, and for this reason this is not simply a book of virtues with a secular core.

While Von Hildebrand may have won the battle to keep me from reading too quickly, in the end I have won the war. For now, I have a very precious resource, and one that I will likely be turning to again and again. I will be able to do so not only as a resource in my own writing, but also for the simple pleasure of a slow, and thoughtful, read.

Italian Treasure, American Albatross: The Perils Of Purchasing A Pontormo

For some time now, I’ve been following an international tug of war over a striking 16th century portrait by the Italian Mannerist painter Pontormo (1494-1557). The painting was purchased by a prominent American art collector from a British aristocrat two years ago. Unfortunately, what has happened since then exposes why American collectors – even those collecting objects that are far less valuable – need to be wary of doing business in other countries.

Pontormo lived in Florence for most of his life, where he studied with Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Sarto, among others. He’s known for his unusual religious paintings and portraiture, where his figures often have both elongated proportions, and a somewhat pensive mood that reflects his own melancholy nature. His more famous pupil Bronzino (1503-1572) took up many elements of his master’s style, and eventually became *the* society portraitist of the day. But whereas Pontormo’s portraits always seem a bit sad and introspective, Bronzino’s were all about slick self-confidence. Toward the end of his life, Pontormo produced fewer and fewer paintings, and turned in on himself to such an extent that even Bronzino couldn’t get in to see him.

Portraits by Pontormo rarely come on the market, as there are only about a dozen plus in existence, and most of these are in Italian museums. This particular image of Florentine nobleman Carlo Neroni disappeared sometime in the 18th century, but was rediscovered by an art expert back in 2008. It had been purchased by the 3rd Earl of Caledon in 1825 and passed down through his family, who had no idea what they had. The painting was loaned to the National Gallery in London, until the 7th Earl decided to sell his newly-discovered treasure. In 2015, it was purchased by American hedge fund executive J. Tomlinson Hill of Blackstone Group, for somewhat over £30 million.

Yet despite the fact that Mr. Hill is now the rightful owner of this Pontormo, matters have conspired to prevent him from doing what he wants with his property.

To begin with, Mr. Hill cannot take his painting back to the U.S., without first obtaining an art export license from the British government. This is an issue faced by American collectors around the world, not just in Britain, and not just among those with Mr. Hill’s means at their disposal. Age and value are both considerations, but in the UK, art created as recently as 1967 may require an export license, if you want to bring it back to the States.

Even if you apply for an art export license however, while you are waiting to hear if it will be approved by the British government, a British museum has the right to attempt to purchase the object from you for the price you paid for it. You don’t have to sell, but then there’s no telling what might happen to your request for an export license, either. It puts the art collector into something between a rock and a hard place.

The fact that you might be able to get your money back seems like a good option. Unfortunately for Mr. Hill, the value of the pound has declined significantly since he bought the painting in 2015 and began his long wait for a decision regarding his export license. As a result, he could lose millions of dollars if he‘s forced to sell the painting to a British art museum today.

To me, there’s something rather illogical about this situation, and it should give Americans pause before purchasing art or antiques abroad.

What, exactly, have the Brits prevented from leaving their country that’s so vitally important to their national heritage? To begin with, they didn’t even know this painting existed until recently. It isn’t as if Mr. Hill purchased a statue which stood on the façade of one of the countless cathedrals that the British stole from the Catholic church, or that he managed to pick up the bed that Princess (Alexandrina) Victoria was sleeping in at Kensington Palace when she learned that William IV had died and she was now Queen.

In fact, this painting has absolutely nothing to do with Britain whatsoever, other than the historical accident of its being located there. Pontormo was not a British artist. The subject of this painting was not a British person. The art was not even created for a British collector.

At some point in the past, someone stole or purchased this painting in Italy, and it somehow ended up being resold to a collector in the UK. It lay completely forgotten and unnoticed in the private home of a British noble family for nearly two centuries, until it was temporarily loaned to a public museum a few years ago. That, in sum, is the full extent of this painting’s tenuous connection to the British people, whose tax dollars were supposed to go toward purchasing it for a public museum.

Now granted, giving a country the chance to hold on to its cultural heritage is better than the alternative, for there are many objects in our museums – including British ones – which were stolen from other countries in order to enrich individual and national collections. However a reasonable person would conclude that there’s a difference between denying an export license for, say, a George Stubbs painting of a British racehorse, or a Hans Holbein portrait of one of Henry VIII’s courtiers, and denying an export license for a work of art which has no real connection to Britain at all. I find it difficult to fathom the argument that somehow a British museum or collector has a greater moral right to purchase this painting than does an American.

The latest news on this debacle is that Mr. Hill’s application for an export license has just been denied, and he’s also turned down the UK National Gallery’s offer to purchase the painting. He could of course try for another export license in about ten years, but that possibility seem unlikely to succeed. And I doubt very much that he would want to go through this hassle all over again a decade from now, particularly since this very rare work of art isn’t going to be getting any less valuable in the interim.

Instead of obtaining a jewel for his art collection, and one which, given his years of philanthropic support of American museums like The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, would likely have gone to an American institution at some point in the future, Mr. Hill has now found himself with something of an albatross – albeit a very beautiful one. 

This Friday: Experience High “Fidelity” In DC

​If you follow me on social media, you know that I often comment on how wonderful the music is at my parish of St. Stephen Martyr here in the Nation’s Capital. The taste and talent of the musicians, as well as the superb acoustics of the building, are a combination that few churches in Washington can match. Now, those of you who might not have the time or inclination to join us on Sunday mornings, have an opportunity to hear and see what I’m talking about for yourselves.

This Friday, February 17th at 7:30 pm at St. Stephen’s, soprano Grace Srinivasan – who is also our cantor at St. Stephen’s – and harpsichordist Paula Maust will be performing a program of Baroque music entitled “In Pursuit Of Fidelity”, featuring music by Henry Purcell, Domenico Scarlatti, and others. The church is located at 2436 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 25th Streets NW, just a few blocks from the Foggy Bottom Metro station. A free will offering will be collected to support the music at St. Stephen’s.

The ladies are co-founders of Musica Spira (“Music Breathes”), an ensemble which brings music of the Baroque past to new audiences in the present, in order to show its continued relevance to today. Grace has a lovely, clear voice, as you can hear, and Paula is a sensitive, thoughtful performer, such as in this performance.  As both are Peabody Conservatory alumni with extensive experience on stage, you can be assured that this is going to be a high quality performance.

What’s more, anyone who has ever visited St. Stephen’s remarks on both the elegant, cool simplicity and amazing acoustics inside the church, thanks to the swooping parabolic arches that define the interior. So for those of you who appreciate architecture as well as music, this concert experience will be worth your time as well. I hope to see many of you there, and if you spot me in the audience, do take a moment to come over and say hello!