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.

Christ

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.

overhead

 

Advertisements

It’s All Straw

The Twitterverse exploded this morning because of a tweet by Pope Francis: “My thoughts turn to all who are unemployed, often as a result of a self-centred mindset bent on profit at any cost.”  Many of my fellow conservatives in particular were infuriated that the Holy Father would appear to lay the blame for unemployment at the feet of capitalism, which is not in fact what he was saying.   Yet in writing what he did, the Pope called attention to something which many devout Christians in the Western world regularly forget: this life will end, and sooner than you think.

Before we begin, a bit of history should be kept in mind here by conservatives who are hopping mad at the Holy Father today, and who will then jump for joy at what he might tweet next week.   Pope Francis was not advocating some sort of socialist economic model, or saying that capitalism is the work of the Devil.  Keep in mind that he was the Cardinal-Archbishop of Buenos Aires until just a few weeks ago.  If you know anything of what has happened to Argentina economically and politically over the past decade, the Pope is all too well-aware of the impact of various economic theories and practices.  Moreover, he was certainly no ally of the current populist-socialist President of Argentina, who imagines herself some sort of Kmart version of Eva Perón.

There are many areas of overlap between conservatism and Christianity, but there are also many areas of tension.  While recently a number of Christian denominations have adopted a policy of going along to get along, with regard to various societal and political issues, the Catholic Church remains immovable on a number of fundamental points, as she has for the past two thousand years of her existence.  One of those points is that love of both God and neighbor is the basis for the truly Christian life.  And while not in principle against the possession of wealth, the Christian does not make its pursuit his reason for living.

As we heard in the Gospel reading at mass this past Sunday, “‘I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.  This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ ” (St. John 13:34-35)

Nothing the Pope tweeted today was new, as you can see here for example, from two sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church which point to the inherent dangers of both atheist socialism AND unfettered capitalism:

2124  The name “atheism” covers many very different phenomena. One common form is the practical materialism which restricts its needs and aspirations to space and time. Atheistic humanism falsely considers man to be “an end to himself, and the sole maker, with supreme control, of his own history.”  Another form of contemporary atheism looks for the liberation of man through economic and social liberation. “It holds that religion, of its very nature, thwarts such emancipation by raising man’s hopes in a future life, thus both deceiving him and discouraging him from working for a better form of life on earth.”

2424    A theory that makes profit the exclusive norm and ultimate end of economic activity is morally unacceptable. The disordered desire for money cannot but produce perverse effects. It is one of the causes of the many conflicts which disturb the social order.  A system that “subordinates the basic rights of individuals and of groups to the collective organization of production” is contrary to human dignity.  Every practice that reduces persons to nothing more than a means of profit enslaves man, leads to idolizing money, and contributes to the spread of atheism. “You cannot serve God and Mammon.”

Secular materialism is not an illness confined only to those who practice socialism.  There are many conservatives, including those who call themselves Christians, who bow and worship at the feet of people like economists and market gurus, leaving God out of the picture entirely, or relegating Him to some sort of secondary place in their lives.  This is a very dangerous path to tread, and a choice which Catholics believe has eternal consequences.

In St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy, the Apostle to the Gentiles lays out, very simply, why the pursuit of wealth leads nowhere:

For we brought nothing into the world, just as we shall not be able to take anything out of it.
If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that.
Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction.
For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains.

(1 Timothy 6:7-10)

Please note, no one is saying that wealth is something which is inherently evil.  After all, the ministry of Christ Himself, and later that of the Apostles and the Church, would have been impossible without the material support of those Christians with the means to help.  Rather wealth is a tool, and what one does with that tool, for good or for ill, will give lie to what is really important in one’s life.  For in the end, no matter how much wealth one creates or accumulates, we are, all of us, worm food.

Many Catholics and non-Catholics alike are familiar with the prolific medieval writer St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest thinkers of the Church.  One of my favorite passages from his copious output – and be assured I have not even read 1/100th of it – is something which I not infrequently recall to myself.  It is useful to keep in mind both when things go wrong in life, but also when things are going well.

While celebrating mass one day in 1273, St. Thomas apparently received a mystical vision of Heaven; as a result, he stopped writing to prepare himself spiritually to go home to the Lord.  “All that I have written seems like straw to me,” he is reported to have said, in response to urges from others that he resume writing, “compared to what has been revealed to me.”  St. Thomas was by no means rejecting the work he had already done, nor its value to those whom it had helped and indeed continues to help to this day.  Rather he realized that all he had been working on and doing in the material world paled in comparison to what was coming across the great divide, and knew that he had to prepare himself for it, even as close as he was to God.

The fact is that the Pope is right.  Many times hard-working people find themselves unemployed not because they are lazy, or because they are doing a poor job, but because the wealthy chose to protect their own fortunes, and not care for their struggling workers.  This is not a blanket statement, nor an endorsement of trade unionism or forcible wealth distribution.  Rather it is a simple fact of life: these things do happen, and are happening all the time, all over the world.

The Pope is also correct in reminding us of the inherent human tendency of selfishness, and this is why Christianity, which is founded on a Divine act of loving unselfishness, is not as easy a Faith to take on as many of us would like to believe.  The Catholic Church was built on sacrifice and blood, both of Christ’s on Calvary, and of the countless martyrs who suffered torture and death rather than submit to selfishness and sin.  Human beings never like to be reminded of the fact that we are sinners; we all like to think that we are, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, nice folks.  The truth is that under the right circumstances, we will not only take whatever we can from one another, but we will actually relish doing it – and that is what makes self-sacrifice such a very hard thing to achieve.

Thus Pope Francis’ job, lest those reading this forget it, is not to help the Republicans take over the Senate or lower the cost of crude oil.  The Holy Father is on Twitter not to chit-chat, but to get as many people to Heaven as he can.  You may not have thought about that, when you posted your snarky comment about the Pope this morning, but there it is.  He is trying to teach us both by word and by example what it means to be a Christian.  Sometimes that instruction is easily palatable, and sometimes we find it bitter and difficult to swallow.

For at the end of your life, God will not care whether you had 100 or 100,000 Twitter followers, or whether a celebrity re-tweeted you, or whether you appeared on Twitchy, BuzzFeed, or any other aggregate site.  Nor for that matter will He care whether you died a rich man or a poor one.   Rather, when you die and go before Him, you are going to have to show Him that you loved Him, as He loved you, and that you demonstrated that love in the way you treated other people, sacrificing your own comforts to meet someone else’s needs, in imitation of the same self-sacrificial love that Christ demonstrated to His followers.

Remember that, as He Himself pointed out, the Son of Man had nowhere to lay His head.  He was laid on a bed of straw which did not belong to Him at His birth, and He was laid in a rock tomb which did not belong to Him at His death, and from which He rose on Easter Sunday.   So now would be a good time to ask yourself, if you were angry at the Pope today, whether you are so detached from the world and materialism as to remember that if you are a Christian, these three things are more important to you than absolutely anything whatsoever having to do with the economy.  You are not made for this world, but for the next.

Tomasso

Detail of “The Vision of St. Thomas Aquinas” by Santi de Tito (1593)
San Marco, Florence

Over The Limit and Through The Malls

While The Courtier is not prepared to stop bathing, and infest himself with either lice or Timothy Leary-esque logorrhoea, he must admit that he is beginning to wonder whether we have gone too far in our embrace of consumerism, when it comes to marking the times and seasons of life here in the United States. This has always been, thank goodness, a nation of consumers who actually like to consume, rather than falsely claiming that they do not like having a wide range of goods and services at various price points to choose from – whether we are talking about butter, guns, or tablet computers. And yet, there has to be some point at which the love of “stuff”, such as it is, makes way for the love of families, friends, and country.

Yesterday the Twitterverse started chatting about the fact that a number of national retailers decided to start their upcoming Black Friday sales early: and by early, either on Thanksgiving itself, or at midnight as Thanksgiving rolls into Black Friday. The national news media is now picking up on this story, as retailers across the country are adopting earlier and earlier opening times to try to take advantage of fewer shoppers during our economic malaise. According to one report from CNN:

This year marks Target’s earliest opening ever. Target, Best Buy, Macy’s, and Kohl’s are all opening at midnight on Thanksgiving eve. Wal-Mart recently announced plans to open its doors to the public at 10 p.m., then Toys R Us followed suit, announcing it would open most stores as early as 9 p.m. the day before Black Friday.

For my non-American readers, it should be explained that Black Friday is the day which falls after Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday commemorated on the fourth Thursday in November. Thanksgiving of course, needs little or no introduction, other than to say it is a near-universally beloved holiday in this country, as being one of the very few times of year when overworked Americans take the day off. Most everything other than basic services grinds to a complete halt, so that people can gather with family and friends, and be thankful that they have each other, and this great country to live in, with all of the bounty, hope, and possibilities available here.

Black Friday has been, for many years, a day that generates so much retail sales volume, because many people have or take the day off, and want to start their Christmas shopping, that many retailers go “into the black” in their accounting ledgers for the year, just from the sales generated on this one day. Traditionally, many American retailers held off promoting their Christmas merchandise and putting up their decorations, or making their special seasonal sales and discount pitches, until the day after Thanksgiving. Fortunately, some such as Nordstrom still do – and they should be applauded for it.

Let no one accuse this scrivener of being some sort of economic hypocrite, protesting against capitalism while tweeting from my iPhone and wearing an overpriced, fleece-insulated jacket made in China out of plastic fibers picked up from a yuppie outdoors retailer. When it comes to the embrace of the wealth of consumer products available for purchase, this truly is the land of plenty. The Courtier thoroughly enjoys patronizing retail establishments of all sorts, and savours finding a great bargain on a bold sartorial item or the like.

Yet there is no real justification other than pure greed to explain opening a toy store at 9:00 pm on Thanksgiving, since the sole purpose of such a promotional tactic is to persuade people to leave their families on a holiday, in order to spend their money on products which are not necessities. Nor is there any moral imperative to explain why people should be encouraged to leave the house before midnight, in order to stand in line in the cold and the dark just to purchase a new blender at a discount. In these and other cases, consumers can make such purchases in the morning, if they choose, after they have recovered from the feast shared with the family the evening before.

Moreover, all of these shops need to be staffed, in order to provide their products to shoppers. While the corporate heads who decided to open on Thanksgiving night are tucked soundly in their beds, their employees will be cutting short Thanksgiving dinner, or possibly avoiding their turkey altogether so as not have the tryptophan turn them into somnambulants. They will down pots of coffee in order to head in to work, to provide sales assistance, security, stocking, and the other services of their employment, without which these overnight sales cannot happen.

The only explanation for the tawdry policies and tactics adopted by those major retailers engaging in this practice is that the worship of Mammon has taken over nearly any semblance of remaining decency and respect for American values, both on the part of these retailers, and on the part of those consumers who will respond to their siren song. Putting profit ahead of one of the most cherished and long-lived American traditions, and one which thank goodness has virtually no consumer goods attached to it other than the foods we eat, is insulting to the people of this country. And those among our citizenry who choose to participate in it ought to be equally ashamed of themselves, particularly those who will push their credit cards to their limits just to take advantage of hoarding goods from the malls and shopping centers that they really do not need.

The present state of the union is one marred by spiraling debt burdens, tremendous levels of unemployment, smelly anarchism, and so on. Americans need holidays like Thanksgiving to step back from all of this, and to be with those they care about – to share a good meal, to relive old memories, and to make new ones. Do not doubt that this writer is no leftist, in any sense of that term. However, it still must be said that it is a great pity that our national retailers cannot see past their bottom line, in this instance, to recognize that some things are more sacred than the pursuit of profit, and that some shoppers will put materialism at the top of their priority list.


“The Road, Winter” by Currier & Ives (1853)