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Holland Carter's review in the NY Times recently of the new show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington really made my blood boil. The show is "Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting," and Carter writes that the show is "very beautiful," a "feast" --

"Renowned paintings from across Europe fill the galleries: a classic Bellini Virgin and Child from Milan; Giorgione's "Three Philosophers" from Vienna; Titian's "Concert Champêtre," visiting the United States from the Louvre for the first time."

But:

But it's a feast with what seems, at first, a too-familiar menu. We know these artists, or think we do. Certain pictures are beyond famous. So what, pleasure aside, is the point? To transport such treasures across the world is an expensive proposition; never mind the cost in physical wear on the objects themselves. Surely such an effort should be grounded in scholarly purpose."

Surely! I mean, just showing people some of the beautiful paintings ever made -- what would be the point of that?

There was an essay recently in the American Scholar (can't remember by whom . . .) about how the scholars in our humanities departments have made it impossible to talk intelligently any more about beauty and the beautiful -- it's rather pathetic, and even shameful. Maybe it's just because I recently returned from 4 months in Italy, where I spent probably a quarter of my time wandering around churches and museums awe-struck by the beauty of what the Italians created in that remarkable burst of creativity between the 14th and 17th centuries. The National Gallery show doesn't need a scholarly purpose -- you should go to feast your eyes on magnificence of a kind that one rarely gets to see.

Daniel Messing (mail):
This is the American philistine, at heart. He is afraid of, or despises, "sentiment", that is, what might be called the 'positive' emotions that do not advance one's material interests, or one's political views. If the emotions generated by the exhibit were anger, fear, envy, etc., especially with a touch of BDS (Bush Derangement Syndrome), then I doubt there would be any questioning of the purpose. As always, CS Lewis's prescient lectures, the Abolition of Man, showed the rot had set in long time since.
8.6.2006 12:16pm
Erasmussimo:
I agree entirely. I fear that some of our arts and humanities departments live in a bubble isolated from all contact with the rest of the world. Now, I am not denigrating rarefied expertise; in many fields, such as history, scholars debate issues at a level far beyond the comprehension of non-specialists. However, their results eventually trickle down to the general level; their contributions are integrated into the overall body of knowledge. In the arts especially, and in some of the humanities, I perceive a disengagement from the overall body of knowledge. These people have built a huge, impressive, self-consistent body of knowledge that has no hope of integration into the rest of the intellectual universe.

Perhaps I am simply too stupid to understand their reasoning process. Perhaps their work is of such high refinement that we should not expect integration for several centuries. But just now it appears to be a waste of time to me.

And when they start getting snobbish about letting the nonspecialists see the art, they can go to hell.
8.6.2006 12:21pm
Ship Erect (mail) (www):
Of course, when a reviewer dares to question the National Gallery, it must be because they hate kindness, compassion, mom, apple pie, and above all the President. That logic makes perfect sense. Bush Derangement Syndrome indeed.
8.6.2006 12:38pm
ReaderY:
Humanities scholarship is very expensive. All those salaries and conferences and journals and buildings to pay for. And it gets tiresome after a while. What's the point of having it if it's not accompanied by any beauty?
8.6.2006 12:44pm
dearieme:
I met a Brahms scholar once. "Do you actually like Brahms?" says I. He became very huffy-puffy - "That's beside the point."
8.6.2006 1:54pm
lucia (mail) (www):
I assume when Carter says "a too-familiar menu" he means too familiar to scholars? Or people who already studied art to some degree? Or who regularly visit art museums in Europe?

Isn't one of the purposes of the National Gallery to make art accessible to Americans who didn't study art in college and may be unable to visit the Louvre?
8.6.2006 2:04pm
M (mail):
I'm not sure who these "scholars in our humanities departments" are, but philosophers writing on aesthetics in the last several years have done a lot of interesting work on beauty, most of it not negative at all. Those interested might look at works by Danto, Mothersill, Guyer, and Sartwell, among others.
8.6.2006 2:04pm
Donald Kahn (mail):
"Scholarly purpose...", world-class effrontery. I have not yet read the sources suggested by M, but I hope that they mark the start of a return to the criterion of aesthetic pleasure as the singular merit, in arts literature.

I have a theory about critics who scorn beauty: their opinions are about as valuable as those of a tone-deaf music critic.
8.6.2006 3:05pm
goldsmith (mail):
Slight correction, his name is Holland Cotter, not Carter. It's amusing that he seems to think that because we've seen reproductions of these works, that we've seen the works, all the more laughable considering that it's the work of the Venetians, the exquisite colorists of the Renaissance.

The ultimate purpose of art is ineffable, all the talk is decoration. Go see these paintings, they're glorious.
8.6.2006 3:15pm
Waldensian (mail):
I agree with your post, but your blood must have a very low boiling temperature.
8.6.2006 4:42pm
JonBuck (mail):
I wonder how much overlap there is on this topic to this post on Instapundit by Ann Althouse. Looks like artists and critics are upset that the general public doesn't "get it" as far as art is concerned. Frankly, if your art is angering your audience because they don't know what the hell you're trying to say, you've failed as an artist.
8.6.2006 5:00pm
Matthew J. Brown (mail):
Agreed with goldsmith: pictures on a screen or in a book do not do art justice, in general. One thing that they can't show is scale; another is texture; another is simply that monitors and printing presses cannot physically capture the full range of colors possible in paint, or in nature.
8.6.2006 5:36pm
Shangui (mail):
Frankly, if your art is angering your audience because they don't know what the hell you're trying to say, you've failed as an artist.

Why? There's certainly nothing wrong with angering one's audience. And there's also nothing wrong with being very ambiguous in one's message, if there even is a specific message at all. Did Melville fail just because so few people liked Moby Dick when it was first published? Should we consider Stravinsky a failure because much of the audience didn't "get" Le Sacre du printemps at its Paris premier?

And there seems to be an assumption in these comments that art has to be beautiful (e.g. "I hope that they mark the start of a return to the criterion of aesthetic pleasure as the singular merit, in arts literature"). "Singular"? Why? I certainly love beautiful paintings, pieces of music, films, books, etc. But one can make ugly and disturbing works in these media that are equally valid as art. Beauty is important in some contexts, but it's foolish to consider it as the only standard, especially when what counts as beautiful various so much culturally.
8.6.2006 5:46pm
Ben Hoffman (www):
Shangui, if you mean that literally, your attitude leads to the elevation of the plinth over the statue.

Just because some works of ugliness are important does not mean that they are the same sort of thing as, say, Starry Night or Beethoven's Eroica symphony. And are you positing that every work of art be thought of as such by every culture? I find that demand hard to accept.

Just because some great works of art were only recognized after their time does not mean that recognizability is irrelevant to art.
8.6.2006 7:11pm
Christopher M (mail):
Did you read the rest of the review? When your blood cools down, you might give it a try. As it turns out, it's a decent counterexample to the absurd idea that "scholars in our humanities departments have made it impossible to talk intelligently any more about beauty and the beautiful." Cotter has some interesting things to say about:
-- the beauty of Venice ("In the fall recurrent rains — water meeting water — are like layers of kinetic glazing, breaking light up, so the city becomes incoherent scintillation.")

-- the luminous beauty of Venetian painting ("In a city famed for its glass-making, artists often mixed pulverized glass into their paints [that] reflects and disperses light prismatically, an effect that cleaning enhances and time can't dim.")

-- the artistic heroes who created the beauty ("Giovanni Bellini was on the job; his most gifted students — Giorgione, Titian, Sebastiano del Piombo — were at the start of brilliant careers.")

-- the specific beauty of Bellini's work ("The first thing you see is Bellini's small "Virgin With Blessing Child" (1510), a model of his balanced, rational, unflappable style.")

-- that of Titian ("Now the landscape is Nature, and the picture is filled with natural light, light that exists in time....We're still in heaven; we are also in the world.")
and so on.

When Cotter says that "such an effort should be grounded in scholarly purpose," all he's saying is that if you're going to the trouble of arranging an exhibition and transporting valuable and fragile works of art from halfway around the world, you may as well put together a show that teaches us something more than we could get from seeing reproductions of the artworks in isolation. In this case, the exhibition apparently also describes some recent research into the methods of physical production of Venetian paintings. What on earth is wrong with that? When you were wandering awe-struck around Italian churches and museums, did you never stop to take an interest in how or why the great Renaissance artists were able to do what they did? Did you think that seeking out that kind of information -- rather than just staring enraptured and murmuring about genius and ineffability -- would be "pathetic, and even shameful"? Surely not. But that's all that's going on here.

Not that the review is a work of genius; but I really don't get what made your blood boil.
8.6.2006 8:17pm
Christopher M (mail):
This nonsense about "American philistine[s]" who "despise[]...positive emotions" and about "scholars in our humanities departments [making] it impossible to talk intelligently any more about beauty and the beautiful" is just...nonsense.

I've taken humanities courses at a large state school and at Ivies, both undergrad and graduate, and I have yet to have a professor or a TA who didn't clearly, genuinely love -- and consider beautiful -- at least some of the art or literature we were studying.
8.6.2006 8:32pm
Lev:
Maybe it's just me, but having read the whole review, it seems to me that:


But it's a feast with what seems, at first, a too-familiar menu. We know these artists, or think we do. Certain pictures are beyond famous. So what, pleasure aside, is the point? To transport such treasures across the world is an expensive proposition; never mind the cost in physical wear on the objects themselves. Surely such an effort should be grounded in scholarly purpose.


Is a rhetorical question to which the remainder of the article is the answer.
8.6.2006 11:03pm
dwpittelli (mail):
Ship Erect,

No one here thinks a reviewer should not "question the National Gallery." To simplify, conservatives (among others) question the use of museum resources (and even more, tax dollars) to depict crucifixes in urine or Mary surrounded by Hustler beaver shots. In contrast, the art world elite questions the point of displaying beautiful Old Masters, because everyone who's anyone has already seen them at the Louvre.
8.7.2006 12:08am
Colin (mail):
To simplify, conservatives (among others) question the use of museum resources (and even more, tax dollars) to depict crucifixes in urine or Mary surrounded by Hustler beaver shots.

What does that straw man have to do with this article?

In contrast, the art world elite questions the point of displaying beautiful Old Masters, because everyone who's anyone has already seen them at the Louvre.

And what does that straw man have to do with this article?

The NYT review is a little meandering, but it's hardly saying that "beautiful Old Masters" shouldn't be displayed because "everyone who's anyone has already seen them at the Louvre." You should really read the article yourself before following the "liberals hate beauty and don't want common people to see art" thread that's been started here. Post's comments are unfortunately a very poor summary of what the review seems--to me, anyway--to be about.

Frankly, I think Lev has it right. Post read the rhetorical question, let it boil his blood, and couldn't see the rest of the article from his high political horse. I realize that there are other ways to read the article, but most of the right-wing handwringing here is bizarrely out of touch with both the piece itself and the arts world in general.

I mean, come on. What unbiased reader could take from this review that the author "is afraid of, or despises, "sentiment", that is, what might be called the 'positive' emotions that do not advance one's material interests, or one's political views"?

Frankly this all seems like hyperventilating know-nothingism. How does any of this focus on "one's material interests, or one's political views"? How does it reflect any hostility to beauty?

And then there is the incomparable "Concert Champêtre," once attributed to Giorgione, now to Titian. At first glance it seems lushly straightforward: a ménage à quatre on a country picnic, a proto-Woodstock affair with lutes and flutes and back-to-nature nudity. But something's off. The mood is pensive, not happy; tense, not laid-back.

The men — one a city dandy, the other a barefoot rural type — appear to be locked in an intimate, eye-to-eye communion. Do the women, their ripe bodies glowing like lanterns, even exist for the men, except as projections or muses? Is this hilltop scene in late-day light in the natural world, or on Parnassus, or in some Monteverdian realm of the future where all relationships are rituals of betrayal, and all love songs sound like laments? The catalog suggests that the picture may be an allegory on the creation of poetry; I would say that it
is poetry.
8.7.2006 1:52am
MnZ (mail):
I realize that there are other ways to read the article, but most of the right-wing handwringing here is bizarrely out of touch with both the piece itself and the arts world in general.

Are right-wingers out of touch with the art world? Or is the art world out of touch with everyone else?

Why does the art world feel a need to add context to everything? I sometimes enjoy descriptions about the context surrounding art, but I also enjoy just pondering art itself without third-party context.
8.7.2006 12:46pm
Colin (mail):
[I]s the art world out of touch with everyone else? / Why does the art world feel a need to add context to everything? I sometimes enjoy descriptions about the context surrounding art, but I also enjoy just pondering art itself without third-party context.

What about the linked article makes you think the author is "out of touch with everyone else"? Or that he thinks that you need context to enjoy the art? The linked review offers commentary, but doesn't say that you need it. It doesn't say that you need to have the context to understand the art. The article doesn't even say, in my opinion, that a scholarly purpose is necessary for the exhibit. I think it says at most that there is such a purpose, and maybe also implies that that's a good thing in order to offset the inevitable cost in wear and tear on irreplacable works implicit in shipping them overseas.

And it's worth pointing out that while the piece devotes one or perhaps two paragraphs to the scholarly purpose of the exhibition and some more to the context of the pieces, the majority of the piece is a glowing description of the paintings themselves. I don't care for the description of the aesthetic merits myself; I don't like the author's habit of ending so many paragraphs with rhetorical questions. But let's not ignore the fact that most of the piece is about how wonderful the period and the paintings are, because of their aesthetic merit.

Despite Post's boiling blood and the subsequent commentary, this review discusses the works' aesthetic merits without saying anywhere that only liberals and intellectuals will be admitted, or that the paintings will be dipped in urine to express the artists' postmortem protest of the war in Iraq.
8.7.2006 1:03pm
Ship Erect (mail) (www):
Why does the art world feel a need to add context to everything? I sometimes enjoy descriptions about the context surrounding art, but I also enjoy just pondering art itself without third-party context.

You don't have to use the audio tour headphones if you don't want to. You also don't have to read every line of text that captions art in a museum or read NYT reviews.

Plenty of smaller galleries offer no context and let you just enjoy the art without commentary; indeed, they're more likely to do so than a big museum because they won't have a hundred curators on staff. I saw an exhibit a week and a half ago that simply had bare photographs on the walls with no accompanying information; of course, I had this experience in the out-of-touch art world of Manhattan, so YMMV.
8.7.2006 1:38pm
Christopher M (mail):
This post and its comments are almost a work of art in themselves: a little garden of crystallized right-leaning notions in which the "art world," "humanities departments," and the left are seen not only in a false light, but through bizarro-world glasses in which up is down and left is right.

Here's what we've learned so far:

1. Humanities departments not only don't talk about beauty (no? no?), but actually make it impossible for other people to do so -- apparently through the massive coercive power that college art and English professors exert over us all.

2. Liberal philistines hate positive emotions. ("Damn all happy people!" goes the oft-heard rallying cry at humanities conferences.)

3. Snobbish left-wing humanities scholars don't want nonspecialists to see art. (Hence the widespread campus protests demanding that all public museums be shut down.)

4. This, we later learn, is because those crazy leftists believe that "everyone who's anyone has already seen them at the Louvre." Because one thing about liberals is for sure, they just tend to assume that your average American either has the money to do a bit of knocking about Europe, or else doesn't deserve to. Yeah. Umm.

5. So...next, we learn that left-wingers, or humanities departments, or the "art world," or someone dammit is trying to keep us from just "pondering art itself without third-party context"! Be warned! Do not be caught gazing off into space at the Met or MoMa or the Frick or the National Gallery or the High Museum or the Getty! It is not recommended that you look directly at the art for more than ten seconds without reading at least a paragraph of your pocket edition of Hauser's Social History of Art. If you violate this rule, you will be punished. By liberals! Tackled! Or struck down with a sickle! Or something! The anti-pondering elite shall not be crossed.

6. Finally -- this is perhaps my favorite -- we learn that the humanities departments' real sin is that they've departed from "the criterion of aesthetic pleasure as the singular merit." Or in a nutshell: the conservative critique of those crazy lefties has now become...that they are not enough like Oscar Wilde.
8.7.2006 9:04pm