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

Tonight’s Do-Not-Miss Event in Washington: “The Final Gladness”

If you are in the Washington, D.C. area, then I urge you to put this on your calendar for tonight, even if it means leaving work or class a little bit early. For today at 5:00 pm in Gaston Hall, Georgetown University government professor James V. Schall, S.J. will be delivering his final lecture before retirement.  All that we know at this point is its title: “The Final Gladness” – and to be honest, even if we did not have that title, I would still urge those of you who are in the Washington metropolitan region to make an effort to attend, and hear what this great mind is going to share with us.

Father Schall earned his Ph.D. in political philosophy at Georgetown in 1960, and has been one of the great intellects of the university ever since.  The author of more than 30 books, as well as a contributor to many others, for decades he has been a voice of reason and common sense both in the United States and around the world.  His articles and essays have appeared in publications such as the National Review, Economist, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, L’Osservatore Romano, Christian Science Monitor, First Things, Crisis, Commentary, and so many, MANY others, that one is humbled by both the quantity and quality of his output.

Even if you are not a Catholic, chances are you have read Father Schall’s writing somewhere, if you have studied politics or current events beyond the mind-numbingly pedestrian, screaming-as-analysis sort of nonsense that tends takes place these days in certain quarters, both left and right.  He has seen it all, over the past fifty years, and has been a part of the national conversation long before many of my readers were even born.  His calm witness to classical principles, from the virtues of the classical academy to the benefits of a sensibly governed democracy, is no less sharp and insightful now, in his mid-80’s, as our country’s future hangs rather precariously in the balance.

For example, the reader may recall that in April of this year, Congressman Paul Ryan came to speak at Georgetown about the budget battle and the philosophical underpinnings of each side, left and right, with respect to the role of government in out lives.  As it happens, that lecture was given in the very same hall where Father Schall will deliver his final lecture this evening.  The reader may recall that a number of the leftist faculty on campus turned out to criticize Congressman Ryan, even before he made his speech to the faculty and students.

Father Schall was, very decidedly, not among these.  In his review of Congressman Ryan’s speech, Father Schall pointed out that the present Administration appears more and more interested in taking control over the wealth of others, in order to foster greater dependency upon the government:

This accumulation of wealth gives government huge power over citizens who are increasingly dependent on it. They are increasingly afraid to oppose its growth for fear that they will be cut out of societal benefits. Indeed, there is considerable speculation that this growing dependence of more and more citizens on the government is precisely what many politicians, bureaucrats, and other interested parties want. This leaves a mass of voters who do not dare oppose the state but who demand more and more for themselves.

He went on to observe how our increasing dependence on the government as the provider of goodies for all is not going to make our country wealthier and thereby better-able to take care of the poor; instead, the reverse will happen:

The poor are not poor because the rich are rich. The only way for the poor to hope to increase their wealth is for the economy itself to grow as a result of their own endeavors. This is the classic notion that we must allow reward and incentive to flourish. If we take these away, no one will do anything to help himself. Everyone will become more dependent on a government increasingly willing to claim that it is itself the solution. Americans once knew this approach of the all-caring government was, to put it mildly, counter-productive and even dangerous.

In his personal philosophy of education, Father Schall has always been decidedly opposed to the idea that the university is nothing but an over-priced trade school.  Rather, in the Platonic tradition of the Academy, it is a place where minds go to be formed, away from the influences of the outside world, so that they can come to understand what is true.  He has often pointed out that more learning can arise from a good conversation in a pub, asking questions and challenging notions, than in simply memorizing and regurgitating facts in order to get a high mark in a class, and thereafter a high-paying job.

In an interview he gave recently, Father Schall pointed out that many universities, including Georgetown, have abandoned the idea of what the university is supposed to be, becoming “resumé universities” in pursuit of the almighty dollar, rather than classical universities in pursuit of truth:

“Resumé universities have students who focus on their internships, their extracurricular activities, their sports. What’s behind them is the notion that education is more than just knowing, but that detracts from the purpose of a university,” he said. “You can’t be a student if you’re doing 30 hours a week of something else.”  Schall maintains that students should remain actively involved in their educations whenever not in class. “Of course you can do nothing if you want, but you have the time to be free to be thinking about things,” he said.

Whether you have long admired Father Schall’s work, or whether you are now reading it for the first time, this is an event not to be missed.  Although Gaston Hall seats around 600 people, I suspect that it is going to be packed to the rafters with people who will want to hear Father Schall’s last public address to the Georgetown community.  Again, if you are in the Washington area this evening, I urge you: do not miss this opportunity to wish this very great man well, as he leaves the active teaching life to prepare for what comes next.

Schall

The Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

Review: “2016: Obama’s America”

Last evening I was invited to a private screening of “2016: Obama’s America”, which is based on two books by conservative author Dinesh D’Souza.  As a conservative myself and someone who appreciates a good story, well-told, I found there was much to appreciate about this film.  Unfortunately, I came away from it wondering who the intended audience of the film was, and whether the movie strayed into moral and logical paradoxes which make it impossible for me to recommend.  This review will probably not win me any friends on either side of the aisle, but there you are, so let’s dive in.

Despite its title, this film is not really about what America will be like 2016 if Mr. Obama wins a second term this November.  Instead, it is an exploration into the question of who our 44th President is, deep down.  While D’Souza does include some discussion about what might happen at the end of a second Obama Administration, the bulk of the film is spent establishing some of the possible motivating factors which brought Mr. Obama to where he is today, pointing to some of the aspects of his views that may have their roots in Mr. Obama’s family background. D’Souza then allows us to draw our own conclusions about what an Obama second term would be, based on these background observations.

For one thing Mr. Obama was lied to in the early part of his life about his father, as becomes very clear in this film, even though the imaginary father he created for himself was something he sought in his future relationships. His family and later he himself associated with people whose political views would horrify most of us, and these people left an indelible impact on how Mr. Obama sees the world around him. The portrait that emerges from D’Souza’s film is of someone who has a massive chip on his shoulder, with something to prove to himself and to others, i.e. that he was more than just the illegitimate son of a Kenyan leftist Lothario who never amounted to much of anything. If you are at all uncertain as to the question of whether Mr. Obama grew up surrounded by some very deeply disturbing political ideas, this film will put that question to rest.

Yet to what extent has that influence shaped Mr. Obama’s views on domestic and foreign policy? This never becomes entirely clear, since D’Souza understandably finds Mr. Obama’s family somewhat more interesting than Mr. Obama himself.  In one of the more fascinating parts of the film for example, D’Souza sits down for an interview with one of Mr. Obama’s half-brothers, George Obama, a man who somewhat eerily has many of the same expressions and gestures of the President.  Unlike Mr. Obama, his younger brother seems more of a practitioner of realpolitik, pointing out that Kenya was economically and politically more advanced than South Korea when it achieved independence, but had subsequently slipped into being a third world country.  George Obama, however, does not believe his older brother owes him anything, for since the President is off running the world, he sees himself as benefiting by extension, as a citizen of the world, from what Mr. Obama does.

Of course the problem is that Mr. Obama has not done very much to improve the world over the past four years, despite his by-default mandate to do so.  There must be something terribly difficult for Mr. Obama to have been fighting or looking down his nose at the establishment all his life, and to suddenly wake up one day and realize that now, he IS the establishment – for if we are talking about being at the top of the secular pecking order on this planet, POTUS is as high as you can go.  One of the problems faced by those who are both opportunists and idealists, as Mr. Obama unquestionably is, is that once you get to the position of power and influence that you hoped you would, people will expect you to actually do something.  The problem faced by this country is one of economic downturn and geo-political uncertainty, but the battles – or as D’Souza puts it, “the “dreams” – of Mr. Obama have more to do with righting perceived wrongs outside of the state he governs, for in his mind that state created or exacerbated these problems.

That being said, there are a number of problems with this film which, while they might be lost on a general audience, caused me some concern.  There is for example an oft-repeated scene of a youth – presumably meant to represent Mr. Obama himself – kneeling down in front of the actual tomb of Mr. Obama’s father.  The actor picks up a handful of dirt, and strews it across the top of Barack Senior’s grave, presumably recreating something Barack Junior did or might have done.  Whatever you think of Mr. Obama, I find it morally difficult to justify filming such a scene.  Imagine if the grave were that of your own father, and you can understand what I mean.

Another issue has to do something which D’Souza takes great pains to establish in his narrative: Mr. Obama comes from somewhere that is not America.  D’Souza is not a conspiracy theorist, so those who believe that Obama was not born in the United States, or hold that 9/11 was a plot by the Bush Administration, or run a tinfoil millinery business will be very disappointed.  Yet what D’Souza does in the film is to show Indonesia and Kenya, where Mr. Obama grew up and where his father’s family hails from, respectively, as places not unlike D’Souza’s native India, with scenes of people picking through gigantic mountains of garbage, and with filth, poverty, and anti-Western viewpoints everywhere.

And herein lies a problem with D’Souza’s argument, or at least his presentation of it.  The filmmaker points out how much he and Mr. Obama are alike, from the year of their birth, the childhood they experienced, their academic careers, and so on. However D’Souza later draws the conclusion that Mr. Obama’s America cannot be what most Americans think of as America, because Mr. Obama’s background is nothing like that of ordinary Americans.  Yet arguably by that logic, if Mr. Obama cannot understand America because, according to D’Souza, his experience and understanding is so foreign to the average American, then neither can D’Souza understand America, since he, too, grew up in an environment nothing like that which most Americans experience.

Finally, there is the question that one cannot help but ask oneself when leaving the cinema at the conclusion of this film. Who is the intended audience for this piece: is this meant for the masses, or is this a party piece for the elites? Whatever impression the posters and trailers for the film may give, “2016” is not a populist propaganda documentary, a la Michael Moore, so there is little in the way of red meat.  For the average viewer who has made a limited study of history and political theory surrounding topics such as imperialism, distributism, and so on,  I wonder whether the film will come off as too elitist for mainstream consumption. This itself is a problematic conclusion, for leftist elites will not change their allegiance to Mr. Obama, and conservative elites already disdain him, thus leaving the film with nowhere to go.

Of course the reader will have to make up his own mind if and when he chooses to see the film. As a storyteller, D’Souza does a brilliant job of weaving together the threads of his narrative, in a way which anyone who appreciates a complex script or novel will appreciate: you have to stick with it until the end, but then everything gets wrapped up nice and neat, with a bow on top. There is no doubt that Mr. Obama’s background is a strange and, at times, rather disturbing tale indeed.  Yet at the same time I found this to be perhaps too specialist a film, with a few too many questionable judgments made by the filmmaker, for me to unreservedly recommend.