‘From Dawn To Decadence: 1500 To The Present: 500 Years Of Western Cultural Life’ By Jacques Barzun


I knew of Barzun as one of one of the New York intellectuals of the fifties and sixties, but only knew of him; I’d never read him.

But after reading an essay by someone who knew him (I can’t remember where I read; some right leaning publication, I believe, but one of those who mostly try to ignore Trump and assert some intellectual legitimacy to the right), I thought I should rectify that.

For better or worse, all the library had was his immensely long, late in life, magnum opus.

A couple of things struck me while reading it.

First, a fascinating aside about Hamlet within another aside about Shakespeare. He points out that it is a modern understanding to think of him a vacillating. In fact, Barzun argues, he was being judicious in a difficult environment. It is no small thing to kill a king and dangerous if you fail; also dangerous if you succeed, because you are vulnerable in the short term to popular unrest or the ambitions of nobleman who sees opportunity in the inevitable chaos. That he was not indecisive is proven, he writes, by Fortinbras saying, upon finding the scene of slaughter at the end (I am giving nothing away, I hope), that Hamlet would have made a great king. Surely, if Hamlet were the waffling type, this would not be the case. He also suggests that Laertes is included to point out the contrast between an impetuous character and a careful one; Laertes’ recklessness makes him an easy tool for Hamlet’s uncle. It also nicely matched an interesting (but not great) production of Hamlet that I saw at the Folger, where the director challenged the actors and audience not to focus on psychology, but on the actions of the characters.

Second, I am an elitist. I already knew this. But Barzun is writing elite, cultural history. He is not Braudel. He’s not even a Durant. He is an apostle of high culture. And, well, I like reading about that. That said, his brand patrician elitism can elide decency and slip into something distasteful, as in his off hand, Malthusian remark about “the rapid increase in people as hygiene and medication recklessly prolong life.” He was in his nineties when he wrote this book.

What did I learn? Well, it is the sort of magisterial, grand work one doesn’t find so much anymore, so one does learn a lot. Too much to sum up. But…

I’m not sure that counts as learning, but his thesis that monarchism is the key to unlocking an understanding of the baroque was fascinating, even if I am not qualified to judge it.

His portraits of cities as exemplars of particular times – Venice in the mid seventeenth century or London in 1715 – are as masterful as they delightful, until they are not. Paris in 1830 is oddly, mostly about German thought. His pastiche of 1895 showed an unsurprising indifference.

It feels like, and this especially struck reading his reading of the twentieth century, that the figures he most enjoys are more contemporary ones whose style harkens back to the witty and learned diaries, essays, and criticisms of Samuels Pepys and Johnson and the men who filled the pages of the Tatler and its siblings of the eighteenth century. But he does namecheck Garbage, one of the great bands of the nineties (the 1990s, that is), even if disparagingly (in the context of band names that are… bad? Dirty? Filthy?)

Should you read Barzun? Probably. He is Eurocentric and not terribly interested in non-white cultures, but these deep flaws don’t make him unreadable. Indeed, he is a witty writer. Lines like “a thin slice of antiquity for a large spread of modern butter,” in reference to French baroque culture’s preference for Roman over Greek antiquity struck me very nicely.

Review Of ‘Boom: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, And The Rise Of Contemporary Art’


Boom was a nice counterpoint to Warhol, so I’m glad my library holds arrived in such close succession.

Andy Warhol actually appeared prominently in the book and one of the most interesting insights was how much the largest dealers actively worked to make his work valuable in the years after his death.

But though they are a major part of the book, Boom is about the dealers and gallerists, not the artists. And it provided a nice, reasonably in depth, chronological history of major galleries (mostly American, mostly beginning in New York City), beginning just after World War II and continuing up until very nearly the present day.

Of course, the present day, this time of plague, feels so different, so even 2019 can feel like a different world. But, for at least some perspective, the sections on how major economic downturns affected the art market provides possible the best view on how it will emerge from… whatever this is.

‘Warhol’ By Blake Gopnik


This is a genuinely wonderful biography. Gopnik (a contributor to our very own Washington Post‘s art section) offer an intelligent, warm, enthusiastic, admiring, and clear-eyed view of the artistic career of Andy Warhol, née Warhola.

He writes more enthusiastically about the earlier years, tacitly acknowledging that his artistic output peaked in the sixties and this work in the eighties, in particular, is lacking compared to his creative peaks.

Where he provides the greatest insight is in Warhol’s intellectual and erotic life. He dismisses the idea of Warhol as being uncreative and, more importantly, lacking in an intellectual and theoretical understanding of art, in general, and his own artistic creations. Finally, he waves away the image (one I held) of Warhol as lacking interest in sex and chronicles his important and often relatively long romantic and sexual relationships.

He doesn’t spend much time on other artists in his milieu. Much of ‘understanding’ of Warhol was filtered through movies: I Shot Andy Warhol and Basquiat. While his shooting by Valerie Solanas was rightfully depicted as a turning point (and possibly marked the end of his artistic peak) and while she was an important character, my own view was skewed by the sublime performance of Lili Taylor. Similarly, Jeffrey Wright in his breakout role led me to think that Basquiat got short shrift. But, I reminded myself, this was a biography (and a hefty one; 900 odd pages) of one man: Andy Warhol.

Note: Though I enjoyed this book, I will also recommend (in addition to the book itself), this scathing review of it from Harper’s: Always leave them wanting less: How not to write about Andy Warhol

Ornamentalism


‘Theory’ (in the context of the humanities) and ‘critical theory’ (and especially ‘critical race theory’) find themselves frequently despised. Well, Anne Anlin Cheng’s Ornamentalism falls squarely into that camp.

Though short, if you do not like those categories, you won’t like, even if it won’t take you long to read.

I am always trying to be a ‘good’ white man and especially to be a good, white father to an non-white appearing daughter and I try to welcome challenges to my understandings (and, yes, prejudices).

The author struck me to the heart of the unseen biases within myself. I was most impacted by an off-handed line criticizing Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, a book that I adored, for failing to recognize how beauty can be terribly, damagingly racialized. It is so easy to see ‘my’ truth (a white, heterosexual, college-educated, middle class, man in America) as being everyone’s reality. Like Kant, I am constantly being awakened from my dogmatic slumber. It’s not always fun, but it is important.

Beyond that, it is about the Asian, female body. The body as clothed in exotic dresses, jewelry, headwear. The body stamped by prejudices (the assumption of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that unaccompanied Asian woman coming to America must be sex workers). The body as skin and flesh (naked, like sashimi; or, compared to porcelain). The body appropriated by white females.

Review Of ‘The Europeans: Three Lives And The Making Of A Cosmopolitan Culture’


This is the sort of book that seemed like it should be right up my alley. After all, the three lives were a writer I enjoy, an opera singer, and an art connoisseur. But it nonetheless failed to properly grip me.

It was, dare I say, too bourgeois?

And the implied premise is that these three characters are deeply interesting, as well as being useful exemplars of Europe’s growing cosmopolitanism in the nineteenth century. And they are (I believe) interesting figures (well, the writer and the singer definitely are), but more than sixty pages in, I had learned about the connection between the rise of railways and mass market literature and about how fear of buying forgeries led the nouveau riche to invest in (then) contemporary art, among other interesting things, but had not gotten anything close to an idea about the central figures (well, except perhaps for the connoisseur, Louis Viardot, whose primary personality traits are deeply positive in a partner, but maybe not engrossing reading; traits like patience, tolerance, and staidness).

I did, eventually, get a better idea of the three central figures but the premise… I don’t know. I feel that Baden-Baden would have been awesome in the 1860s (did you know they had a public building called the Conversation House [only, they naturally used the German]?), but the epilogue went on to suggest that, actually, their time (the mid nineteenth century) was less truly European and cosmopolitan than the early twentieth century.

So, should you read it? I guess. It’s interesting in many ways, but at the same time, never has a ménage a trois seemed so boring.

‘Selected Essays’ By John Berger


img_5316A wide ranging selection and a reminder that a very good writer and an insightful thinker can also write a great deal of crap in their lifetime.

I had heard such glowing things about his art criticism and about his BBC series, The Art of Seeing, that I was excited to buckle and read Berger, but I almost gave up about 1/20th of my way through. A slimmer volume might have done me better.

He almost but not quite seems to have read and grasped history (especially intellectual history) enough to support his bigger theses. When identifying romanticism, it’s an interesting idea to place it between Rousseau’s Social Contract and Marx’s Capital, but he seems to just kind of fade off… rather than properly support it.

I can understand what he brought to the table, bursting onto the scene. A learned, perceptive eye, but not an academic one. His Marxism was present (he is also a sort of elder statesman figure to soixante-huitards), but not intrusive, adding much needed context to some artists (his essay on L.S. Lowry being an obvious example).

The thing is, I don’t need what he brings. Or maybe I do, but I’m too proud and too dense to see it. I’m not saying that I could do better (I couldn’t), but that I think I have enough that his unique perspective isn’t useful. Arguably, possibly because he opened the doors, it is already sufficiently understood now.

One item stood out for entirely the wrong reasons and for reasons for which is (almost) entirely blameless. He writes about the Museum, a capital M institution of implied fuddyduddiness. Berger writes as a sort Angry Young Man figure, but when you start to read it, in the current environment, your mind automatically drifts to question of race, gender, cultural appropriation, and colonial pasts, which, of course, an art critic from the mid-sixties is not so much interested in. Speaking on race, gender, and colonialism, his analysis of so-called primitive art is very… primitive. Smacks of a kind of orientalism.

Also, he really overused the word peasant. At a certain point, it kept reminding me of the eurocentrism of his whole project (because the peasant is always, clearly, a certain European figure; he may think it he means a global class, but it is also clear that the image in his head is European).

But he does know a lot more about art and artists than I do and I, we, must always be grateful for the opportunity to learn. For myself, he brought up dozens of artists and works (much of the book is devoted to relatively short essays about particular artists or artworks) that I had never heard of (Frans Hals) or else had never given much thought to (Pierre Bonnard; I like one of his paintings, but had never thought much about his context).

And he will also come up with a little throw away line that just hits you as being too perfect, like calling Marshall McLuhan a ‘manic exaggerator’ or saying this about Picasso:

Above all Picasso suffers from being taken too seriously.

Finally, I have to love him for, when he wants to illustrate historical atrocities and complicities, turning to poets and poetry to express has happened.


img_5248The subtitle of this book was the title of an earlier book by Scruton and he describes this one as an attempt to wade back into the waters of demolishing the new new left (and also the same left as before, too).

His opening salvo acknowledges that Marx is not really, anymore, a lodestar for those on the left, but he still cannot help but engage with him, mostly because, like it or not, his philosophical writings are powerful and important.

But despite his protestations (doth the conservative protest too much?), he follows up his introductory chapter with a broadside (these are all, really, essays) on the Marxian historians Eric Hobsbawn (who I head read and love and to who Scruton gives appropriate credit for being a brilliant historian and man of letters) and E. P. Thompson (who I have heard of, but never read). Go figure.

Well, that’s not fair. Communism had far greater currency in England during the Cold War and had far more mainstream credibility than in America.

He even links Marxian ideas to John Kenneth Galbraith (though praising him as a stylist; the aestheticist in him is never far from the surface), which says more about the range of ideas Marx wrote about than it does about Galbraith (in case you’re interested, the linkage here is the Canadian economist’s  writings about want and desire in contemporary society being created by society’s output, which idea can, yes, be traced to Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, but I could do the same so some of Ross Douthat’s more explicitly religious critiques of society, so this isn’t really a left/right thing).

What did surprise me was his praise for Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: Birth of the Prison. He writes admiringly of its insights (while dismissing what links it to his other works, those he doesn’t like; these weak links, of course, are somehow related to Marx; but I appreciate being given a new, deliciously French vocabulary word: marxisant). His seemingly off-handed mention of how he died of AIDS reeks of the worst sort of nauseating, neanderthal moralizing (the subtext seems to be, ‘you know he was gay right?’ he shows similar attitudes when criticizing Sartre’s Saint Genet for mocking ‘norms of heterosexual respectability’).

As to why he, in particular, cannot let Marx go, even when he acknowledges Marxism is no longer very relevant to current debates, it is at the heart of his conservatism. Insofar as Scruton is a philosopher of import and a conservative, it is on the field of aesthetics that his foundation is laid. He is, arguably, a Burkean, but a Burkean of Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry Into The Origin Of Our Ideas Of The Sublime and Beautiful. Materialism and class analysis are anathema to him. Tradition, culture, and classic ideas of beauty inform Scutonian conservatism (I wanted to write Scroogean there, but that’s more a feature of the near homonymity than any deep connection between Scruton and Scrooge, whose own conservative was less about beauty and culture than class and materialism). Marx is a symbol for a turn from this aesthetic sense (he even blames the tortured syntax and unnecessary vocabularies that have become standard to many forms of academic writing across the ideological spectrum on Marx and Marxism, which would surprise anyone who has tried to read an academic article by an economist broadly from the Chicago, née Austrian, School.

I am disinclined to defend Zizek, though Scruton offers him some praise.

He writes perceptively of art, literature, cinema and music, and when he is considering the events of the day – be it presidential elections in America or Islamist extremism in the Middle East – he always has something interesting and challenging to say.

Well, paint me surprised. Later, he even seems to suggest that is Marxism is just fine (Lacan, apparently, is to blame for Zizek’s flaws) Also, I guess I hadn’t noticed before, but I don’t see an Oxford comma here.

The codicil chapter, which fits awkwardly, though if he had just stopped, that would have felt jarring, tries to give a positive statement on conservatism and is titled What Is Right? A certain political naivete rears its head here and makes clear that he’s not much of a political theater. His origin story is of watching the student demonstrations in Paris in 1968. He says that he didn’t know what he believed, but that they must be wrong. He loves order, in other words. But when he tries to go beyond that, well, he sounds rather liberal, to my ears.

I enjoyed the last (and only other) book that I read by Scruton that I read, but, just as I questioned his credentials as a political thinking, I am also not sure that he is really a philosopher at all (anyone who gives Hume some portion of credit for having ‘kept skepticism at bay’ deserves some mistrust). Actually, I am fairly certain that he is not. Which is not to say that he is not well, indeed, deeply read in the subject. But it is to say that he is more like a Christopher Hitchens figure. A powerfully intelligent polemicist rather than a systematic thinker. He’s also like Hitchens in that it can be marvelously fun to read his mockery (Habermas is subjected to the best lines. His books ‘are printed in luxury editions for the better class of living room. Few people have read these books from cover to cover; few of that who have read them remember what they say.’ Also, ‘with somewhat greater frequency than the lines of Shakespeare that fall from the monkey’s typewriter, interesting ideas surface in the great waste-paper basket of Habermas’ prose’) and that it’s a worthwhile waste of one’s time to watch extended clips of him online (at least thirty minutes, but preferably longer).

But, he’s made me want to take another stab at reading Being and Nothingness (presumably not his intention) and to find and reread a Raymond Williams book that bought years ago at Kramerbooks (I know I’ve seen it recently on the shelves in my study; it has a striking, if not particularly handsome, silver cover), offered an offhanded but fascinating defense of Augustine’s theory of original sin, and maybe convinced me to read more Scruton.

Scruton fulfills or can fulfill, in a way, something like the role that William F. Buckley played for the intellectual left. That is the role of the conservative that one can engage with. The each bring a pleasant, upper class accent and vocabulary, though Scruton, so far as I know, lacks Buckley’s unreconstructed racism and segregationism (though his attack on Edward Said and his defense of Said’s targets smacks of a certain pro-colonialism). Certainly, I hope so. One can imagine him despising Trump’s rigidly unintelligible propaganda, proudly uninformed opinions, and, not least, his outspoken and unironic tackiness (one can easily imagine Buckley being outwardly seduced by Trump, but that is because Buckley’s interest was movement through the exercise in political power, whereas Scruton appears driven by his love of aristocratic English high culture).

Palm Springs Art Museum


I’m writing this because I saw this article critical of the Palm Spring Art Museum‘s response to George Floyd’s death and related issues of racial violence and racial justice.

I don’t have much to say about that controversy, except to note, #BlackLivesMatter. But I (as a white, heterosexual, cis-male) have fond memories of that museum from nearly fifteen years ago.

My first vacation with my now wife was to Palm Springs, where we visited the museum. We went back several times, because, well, I really liked the town. And I remember especially these highly realistic statues of an elderly couple (click here and look for #17). We were convinced at first that they were real people.

Art Practice


‘Roderick Hudson’ By Henry James


Believe it or not, this was the first novel by Henry James that I have ever read. I won’t say it was the first thing, because I feel like I probably read a short story of his somewhere back in my school days, but as to novels, before this, not even Turn of the Screw.

I enjoyed it greatly, but did not find it to be a particular variety of the nineteenth century novel about artistic types. It was one of his first novels, so I am assuming he was nowhere near the height of his powers. After finishing, I fell into the trap of wondering how his sexuality influenced the novel and characters.

He apparently wrote a later novel about one of the characters, Christina Light. Christina was, to be fair, the most interesting character. The titular Roderick (a young man, taken to Italy by a wealthy benefactor so that he can express his talent as a sculptor) is a selfish, dramatic man-child. His benefactor (and the POV character; the novel is in third person limited), Rowland, is nice to the point of being nearly non-existent. Roderick’s mother and fiancée are, respectively, hysterical and angelic.

But, it all did make me want to go to Italy.