Art News Roundup: Invisible Hand Edition

Scottish Enlightenment economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790), who played a profound role in the development of free market economics, and indeed in the foundation of this country, is perhaps best known today for his seminal work, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”, first published in 1776. On December 12th, Christie’s will be auctioning off Smith’s own, first edition copy of “The Wealth of Nations” in London, with an estimated sale price of between $650,000 to over $1 million. Given the provenance of the book, and the love of both conservatives and libertarians for Smith’s work, I predict that the final hammer price will be at the high end of this range, if not even a bit higher. All you really need for this to happen is for two modern capitalists with deep pockets to get into a bidding war with one another, and the sky’s the limit.

Granted, neither Smith himself nor the book in question have much of anything to do with art in a direct way. Yet Smith’s principle of the “Invisible Hand”, by which positive, public outcomes can result from the self-interested, private actions of individuals, are a major philosophical underpinning of museums as we know them in the Western world. A collector who accumulates great works of art, historic artifacts, or important specimens for his own private delectation, and whose collection subsequently becomes broadly available to others for enjoyment and education is, in a sense, an exemplar of that “invisible hand” creating a public good from what was originally a private motivation. Many paintings, sculptures, and drawings have been preserved for future generations because individuals in the past acquired them for themselves, and kept them safe from the ravages of time, war, natural disasters, the vicissitudes of fashion, and so on.

And now, on to some other news which you may find hand-y.

Michelangelo: The Hands of a Master

The so-called “Rothschild Bronzes”, once owned by the famous Rothschild banking dynasty, are a superb pair of early 16th century sculptures of warriors mounted on giant panther-like beasts, which of course anticipate “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” by nearly 500 years. After considerable scholarly debate, as well as technical analysis using various methods of dating, measurement, and comparison to contemporary drawings, a group of art history experts at Cambridge recently announced their conclusion that the pair are by Michelangelo (1475-1564), making them the only known bronze figures of the Italian Renaissance genius to have survived to the present day. A book chronicling the 4-year research project involving these figures has just been published, and will be receiving a great deal of scrutiny from other art experts. Is this a rush to claim authorship? Or is there a legitimate body of evidence to err on the side of this attribution, which would fill a major hole in the record with respect to Michelangelo’s work in metal? Stay tuned.

Michaelangelo Bronzes

Rembrandt: The Fingers of a Master

A number of my readers – clever folk that you are – wrote to me over the past week regarding the interesting news that an oil study by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) may bear the Dutch Old Master’s fingerprints. The work, which is roughly the size of an 8×10 photograph, depicts a model with his hands clasped in prayer, looking upwards. The young man in the picture, who was probably a Jewish neighbor of the artist, posed as Christ for Rembrandt on several other occasions that I’m aware of, such as in the Louvre’s “Supper at Emmaus” (1648); a number of other, related oil studies are known, including this slightly larger sketch in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While at present there’s no way to know for certain whether the fingerprints are indeed those of Rembrandt, in time they may be able to establish a baseline for comparison to other works believed to be by the artist, should unexplained fingerprints be found on those paintings. This particular work is going up for sale at Sotheby’s in London next week, with a pre-sale estimate of about $7.6-$10.2 million.


Valadier: The Marketing of a Master

You’ve probably never heard of the Italian silversmith Luigi Valadier (1726-1785), a master of 18th century sculpture, decorative art, and jewelry, who was based in Rome but had an international clientele thanks to his excellent craftsmanship and the not-so-subtle marketing of his luxury goods by one potentate to the other: “If the King of Poland has one of Valadier’s goblets, I want one, too,” is how this sort of thing always works. Should you find yourself in New York over the holidays however, drop by The Frick Collection to see their current show on the work of this remarkable artist and artisan, who created jaw-dropping luxury goods for decades while managing to keep up with the changing tastes of the aristocracy, from Baroque to Rococo to Neoclassical. His opulent objects were so popular for palace decoration, diplomatic gifts, and tokens of friendship, that the studio couldn’t keep up with the orders pouring in from all over Europe. For example, shown below in an overhead shot is the 9-foot long plateau (base) of a massive 1778 dining table centerpiece by Valadier from a collection in Madrid, made out of precious stones, bronze, silver, and gold. If you want to see the whole thing, you’ll need to get to The Frick by January 20th.



​Cambridge Catholic Art Exhibition Fails Catholicism 101

Occasionally – but only very occasionally – I’m pleasantly surprised to come across an article in the art press in which the author “gets” Catholic art that is the subject of an exhibition. In this case, the author is art historian Charles Hope writing in Apollo Magazine, and the exhibition is “Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy”, which recently opened at the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. To his great credit, Mr. Hope takes the exhibition’s organizers to task for displaying a poor understanding of Catholic theology and devotional life, something which more often than not is missing in critical reviews of exhibitions which feature Catholic art.

The idea that many of the paintings, sculptures, and decorative objects from the Renaissance which we admire in our museums were made for the purposes of prayer, is something that is alien to the majority of contemporary critics and curators. The Fitzwilliam show, apparently, is no exception; the Museum must not have bothered to have a devout Catholic priest, theologian, or layperson take a look at their exhibition catalogue first, while it was still in mockup. For example, Mr. Hope notes that a pair of icons containing images of the Annunciation to, and the Assumption and Coronation of, the Blessed Virgin Mary are described as “Christological” rather than “Mariological”.

In explaining the presence of donors, i.e. the men and women who paid for an altarpiece or sculptural group, the exhibition provides the usual stock answer which one comes across in most art criticism about the motivations behind the creation of religious works of art. The idea that the purpose of placing these donors in the completed piece was a chance to demonstrate their wealth and piety is based on an essentially Marxist understanding of history. In this analysis, it is economics which serves as the primary motivating factor, rather than faith.

Rejecting the curators’ assertions that those who appeared in these works were primarily interested in status, by commissioning these objects to show off how elite they were, Mr. Hope makes a – for contemporary art criticism – radical departure from conventional wisdom. “They were not claiming anything at all,” he notes, “but were inviting those who saw their portraits to pray for their souls, with the implication that they, in purgatory [sic], were praying for the souls of the living. In fact, most of the objects in this exhibition, apparently, suffer from a lack of curatorial understanding and acceptance of this concept.

As Mr. Hope correctly points out, the rejection of the doctrine of Purgatory by Protestants created a gulf between Catholic and Protestant understanding of this art. This is a fact which, I suspect, has influenced the mostly atheistic and agnostic views which dominate British high culture today. As Mr. Hope writes, the Catholic concern with sin, death, and the next life “was central to their religious thinking, motivating the construction of family chapels, the endowment of masses for the dead and the religious invocations which were standard in wills.”

This lack of understanding of Catholic theology regarding subjects such as Purgatory is an important and significant explanation as to why so many art critics do not really “get” Catholic art. While many non-Catholics continue to misunderstand Purgatory as a place where one’s final destination is still open to debate, Mr. Hope and Catholics in general understand that under Catholic teaching, everyone who makes it to Purgatory is, in fact, on their way to Heaven – once they finally rid themselves of their remaining imperfections such as remaining bad habits. Msgr. Charles Pope, of our fortunate Archdiocese of Washington, explains how: “even if we were to engage in the folly of thinking we ourselves, or someone else had reached perfection, the truth is we don’t really know what true, God-like perfection is. All I know is, that if I were to die today, God would have to bring to completion the good work he has begun in me.”

While it is true that (sadly) hardly any wealthy Catholics are commissioning beautiful works of religious art these days, for those everyday pray, pay, and obey Catholics like yours truly, the ideas and practices described by Mr. Hope in his review are absolutely relevant. We still request Masses to be said for the repose of the souls of our loved ones, and for those of the loved ones of our close friends and colleagues. We still go on pilgrimages, perhaps lighting candles, leaving flowers, or taking away some token of our visit to remind us of our spiritual experience – and often we do so on behalf of those in Purgatory, who cannot pray or act on their own behalf as they are being purified for Heaven.

That an institution of higher learning of the level of Cambridge should put together such a slapdash and poorly-informed exploration of Catholic theology as expressed in Renaissance art is, frankly, an embarrassment. Unfortunately, such things are mostly the norm, these days. If the fork-tongued pundits who dominate mainstream media cannot be trusted to accurately report on Catholic issues – and they cannot be – then one can hardly expect the institutions which gave birth to said brood of vipers to do any better back at the nest.

If any of my readers should find themselves up at Cambridge for this show, which runs through June 4th, I’ll be curious to read and share your comments with your fellow readers on your impressions of the exhibition.

Pinturicchio – Detail, “Madonna and Child with the Infant St. John the Baptist” (c.1490–5) The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge

When It’s Not Only A Game

The fact that it is now baseball season in the United States means little or nothing to me, however heretical that view is considered to be in this country.  To be fair, I do not worship at the altar of baseball any more than I do those of most other athletic endeavors. That being said, this is one of those rare occasions when you will be able to read a sports-related post from me, in response to a deplorable event which took place over the weekend.

I suspect most of my readers are unaware of the fact that the annual event known as “The Boat Race”, between students from Oxford and Cambridge Universities, took place this past Saturday.  Every year two teams of rowers set out to race each other along the Thames, in a competition that has been held in London since 1856.  It was an event I attended when I lived on the other side of the pond, since I had a number of friends who had rowed for Oxford, though truth be told I was not particularly interested in it apart from the social aspect.

On Saturday I happened to catch the race on television, which I watched more out of nostalgia than anything else.  It was a very close race indeed, for much of the course, when probably about 2/3 of the way through the race suddenly came to a halt.  Someone was swimming in The Thames, and came very close to one of the boats.  Had it not been for the swift action of the teams, he could have been injured, or killed.

It turns out that this individual was – not surprisingly – a leftist protester, who was decrying the elitism of the event by employing the sort of anti-social behavior which of late we have come to expect, and for some inexplicable reason to tolerate.  It is also not surprising that, like most of these sorts of protesters, it turns out this individual is something of a joke, having attended the prestigious and pricey London School of Economics, and is moreover an active member of the Royal Society of Arts.  My friend Tim Stanley, a Cambridge alumnus with whom I was furiously texting about the event as it unfolded, shared some of his thoughts about the matter on his blog post for The Telegraph.

As a Yankee rather than a Brit, and as a non-athlete, I cannot speak with authority as to what took place, even though it was pretty obvious that even when the race resumed, this disruption ruined the event and it ended terribly. However as a human being, I can certainly share a thought or two, and particularly as someone who in general has little or no interest in athletic competition whatsoever, yet recognizes its value.  No doubt some of my readers will find what follows to be judgemental, and if you are one of them then I welcome you to leave comments saying as much, so that we can discuss the matter further.

Putting aside for the moment the very serious, physical danger that this person put both himself and the crews on the river in as a result of his actions, in which he and others could have been killed or injured, his stated intent is irrelevant, and I will not consider it herein. If you wish to read why he claims he did what he did, you are welcome to read it elsewhere, and then dismiss it for the utter rubbish it is.

The real reason he did this, whatever protestations one might lodge to the contrary, was that this person wanted to engage in the very same selfishness which he paradoxically claims to be protesting against. If he found the event, its sponsors, and participants, to be elitist, what has he made himself by becoming a media personality and drawing attention to himself? For surely he is no longer a humble man of the people – or at least, the people who hold degrees from LSE and are members of exclusive clubs.

The ones I could not help feeling sorry in all of this were the athletes.  They had trained for this event for months leading up to the competition. They sacrificed sleep, rest, food that one would actually like to eat, and suffered all sorts of physical injuries and mental and emotional stress, in order to get ready for the race.  As someone who is decidedly not an athlete in any way, I cannot even begin to imagine the disappointment of how what had been a well-matched, exciting competition that had started out with a bang, ended in a whimper.

The point of participating in a team sport, of course, is that it is an exercise in not only trying to get your body as healthy as possible, but also to learn how to work with others – indeed, sometimes individuals very different from you – in order to achieve a common goal.  It is no accident that the lessons athletes have the opportunity to learn in being part of a team are helpful in all aspects of life. This includes venues such as one’s profession, representative government, community activities, and the like.

The idea of tempering individualism through teamwork, helping to work toward a collective goal, directly leads to the creation of civilization and culture. The individual and the team have to work in balance with one another, or everything falls apart. Too much individualism, and you get anarchy; too little, and you get communism. Roman aqueducts, Gothic cathedrals, or modern suspension bridges may have had a single designer behind them, but they were not built by that one man acting independently, any more than Mozart could have performed all of the instruments in one of his symphonies simultaneously, or Steinbeck could have written, printed, and distributed all of his novels by himself.

This is not to say that the lone protester cannot be a voice for change or a symbol of what is good, in the face of unrelenting evil. One need only look at people such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer or St. Maximilian Kolbe to see that this is the case. Yet here, all that the protester in question has done is to ruin something that was perfectly good: an athletic competition between two schools. No one was forcing him to watch it, or to purchase anything in order to be able to watch it. He could have peacefully sat and viewed the race on the river bank, on television, or ignored it altogether, as he wished. There was nothing compulsory about this event.

Instead, this person chose to act out of selfishness, to ruin a once-in-a-lifetime event for groups of young people who had no quarrel with him, and who were not doing anything evil. By acting as he did, this man proved himself to be, in truth, nothing more than a child; he is no different from one who kicks over another’s sand castle at the beach, just for the sake of drawing attention to himself, while simultaneously intentionally seeking to hurt the other. He is, unfortunately, all too representative of the society that produced him, and which continues to believe that behaving like an arse is somehow going to change the world, when in fact all it does is make those of us who do not behave in this way the more resolute not to follow his example, nor listen to his views.

So in the end, albeit paradoxically, one has to say it: good for you, Thames swimmer. You have no doubt helped the cause of law and order, conservatism, and disdain for so-called “progressive” causes more than any letter to the editor which you might have published in The Guardian, or some similar birdcage liner publication. For that, at least, we can be grateful to you, even if it is no comfort to the student athletes at Oxford and Cambridge who suffered as a result of your selfishness and immaturity.

Poster for the 1923 Boat Race by Charles Paine
London Transport Museum