The Long View 2007-02-04: Glitter & Doom

This Weimar era art exhibition John J. Reilly describes here sounds fascinating. I found a few examples from the three artists John said were most prominent in the show: Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and George Grosz.

Max Beckmann – Descent from the Cross 1917  Public domain in the US

Max Beckmann – Descent from the Cross 1917

Public domain in the US

Otto Dix – The Trench 1923  Public domain in the US

Otto Dix – The Trench 1923

Public domain in the US

George Grosz – The City 1916 -1917  Public domain in the US

George Grosz – The City 1916 -1917

Public domain in the US

Their work is fascinating, but I can see why the Weimar era couldn’t hold the hearts of Germans. Much of this art is striking, but very little of it is beautiful.

Glitter & Doom

This is the name of an exhibition, now at the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan, of paintings and sketches from the Weimar era in Germany. They are portraits, for the most part. The artists were Max Beckmann, Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Karl Hubbuch, Ludwig Meidner, Christian Schad, Rudolf Schlichter, Georg Scholz, and Gert H. Wollheim. The emphasis is on Dix, Beckmann, and Grosz, but particularly Dix. I visited the exhibition, which runs for two more weeks, on Saturday, February 3. The website is here.

The show is supposed to be a survey of the Verist tendency of the now venerable Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) School. Given the general inflation of depravity in high culture in the intervening years, it has been a long time since Weimar was able to shock, but visitors to this exhibition may doubt how shocking its components were even when they were new. A sign at the entrance to gallery warns that some of the pictures may not be suitable for children, and indeed there are a few pictures of prostitutes that would probably merit some blackout bars if the pictures were ever shown on American television. Frankly, though, most of the more tarted-up denizens of the Weimar demimonde seem to be paint-by-numbers illustrations of the theme “Respectability Brought Low.” Beckmann denied any connection with the Verists on the grounds that the school was too literary, and he may have had a point.

Actually, the kids who visit the exhibition are most likely to be scared by the Crypt Keeper intensity of some of the portraits of the artists' friends. Dix in particular was famous for his hallucinogenically unflattering portraits of his patrons, who nevertheless were not a small group. Still, for the most part, these artists were good draftsman: you never get the impression that their departures from reality are due to an inability to represent it. And in fact, the ratio of sentiment and even affection is quite high, especially among the sketches of wives and girl friends.

One perhaps unintended effect of this exhibition is that I will never regard George Grosz's work in quite the same way again. In some ways his pictures of bad, bobble-headed bourgeoisie are as much fun as Disney cartoons, but to see them in the company of other paintings from the same time and place is to realize that they have more to do with George Grosz than with Weimar.

I noted particularly the businessmen. Grosz's are studies in porcine greed. For the other artists, though, the Weimar businessman was a vigorous, young, unsympathetic intelligence, perhaps unsympathetic because the intelligence on their unlined faces is unrelated to experience. And there was this: for the most part, they were shown either holding a telephone, or a telephone was at their elbow. What did the possession of a telephone mean in Germany in the 1920s?

After I left the show, I wandered for a while around the Metropolitan; as usual, I got lost. I don't believe I had seen the garden by the American Art section before. It is one of the finest enclosed spaces in New York. When I got to the Egyptian section, I noticed that visitors were walking on the platform of the Temple of Dendr. I remember that when I walked on that platform many years ago klaxons sounded and guards erupted from every doorway to take me off it. I made up the bit about the klaxons, but apparently the museum management has changed its mind about the fragility of the monument.

I finally had to ask a guard to direct me toward the exit. She sniffed and pointed, apparently offended that anyone would want to leave her wonderful museum.

* * *

Meanwhile, quite without any coordination with me, Spengler at Asia Times has favored us with his own views on modern art:

Admit it - you really hate modern art

You, however, hate and detest the 20th century's entire output in the plastic arts, as do I. ...You have been browbeaten into feigning pleasure at the sight of so-called art that actually makes your skin crawl,...Museums are bulging with visitors who come to view works they secretly detest, and prices paid for modern art keep rising....

An enormous literature exists on the relationship between abstract painting and atonal music, and the extensive Kandinsky-Schoenberg correspondence can be found on the Internet....The most striking difference between the two founding fathers of modernism is this: the price of Kandinsky's smallest work probably exceeds the aggregate royalties paid for the performances of Schoenberg's music. ..

It was the ideologues, namely the critics, who made the reputation of the abstract impressionists...It is not supposed to "please" the senses on first glance, after the manner of a Raphael or an Ingres, but to challenge the viewer to think and consider. ...

When you view an abstract expressionist canvas, time is in your control....When you listen to atonal music, for example Schoenberg, you are stuck in your seat for a quarter of an hour that feels like many hours in a dentist's chair....You are in the position of the fashionably left-wing intellectual of the 1930s who made the mistake of actually moving to Moscow, rather than admiring it at a safe distance. ...By inflicting sufficient ugliness upon us, the modern artists believe, they will wear down our capacity to see beauty.

Again, much 20th-century art is very fine, but Paul Johnson has a point when he suggests that the production of "fashion objects" is a racket. The epilogue of the story of modern art will be the bursting of the investment bubble that has seized on these fashion objects as assets. As is the nature of these things, the collapse could all happen very quickly. Museums and galleries dedicated to this kind of art could become as deserted as Anglican churches, but they are less likely to be turned into mosques: the rooms lack a central focus.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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Linkfest 2018-08-13

While I am opposed to this kind of Luddism, it does demonstrate a kind of consistency. GMO does not actually describe all kinds of genetic engineering that we apply to food. Here is the article about the damage to the research plot.

Cash transfers and labor supply: Evidence from a large-scale program in Iran

The tweet that pointed me to this article about a UBI-style program in Iran noted that probably no one is interested in this example because no one wants Iran to be the good example. There are also complicated inflation-related effects going on.

Nonfiction: White Working Class by Joan Williams

A nice book review on a subject of perennial interest here: class in America. The author of the book used a idiosyncratic definition of working class, family incomes from $41,005 to $131,962 [class isn't about money!], which produces some oddities of analysis, but the book review is nevertheless interesting.


Another take on the same book about the working class from Claremont Review of Books.

The Myth of Thrusting versus Cutting Swords

Any idea of fighting you get through popular entertainment probably has more to do with stage direction than making people dead. I appreciate the work of the Association of Renaissance Martial Artists does to understand the history of martial arts in the West.

A Striking Similarity: The Revolutionary Findings of Twin Studies

Twin studies have labored under the shadow of Cyril Burt's flawed experiment for a century. Recent work is much better.

Open Borders and the Hive Mind Hypothesis

I find open borders to be a nutty idea, but I appreciated this look at the economic models behind many prominent economists' support of this radical notion. There is something to be said for trying to make the poorest people at least a little richer, but I worry that the models don't take into account likely consequences of an economic contraction in first world economies accompanied by massive migration. For example: do-it-yourself interethnic strife. People would be mad. Sure, you can argue people should be happy to provide more for others, but that isn't what is going to happen if 58% of world population migrates. Hell, even if global GDP goes up, there will be enough losers to be really mad about it.

This graph, and accompanying thread contains a massive amount of detail about agricultural productivity.

The Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Challenge

J. R. R. Tolkien casts a long shadow on modern fantasy. However, if you wish, you can find lots of books written before his influence was so prevalent.

The Fake Split of Scifi and Fantasy

I too am sympathetic to the idea that speculative fiction is really of a piece, no matter the trappings.

The Long View 2005-03-01: The Gates, Hydro Power, Kantian Pacification

John's idea that public art installations are just a way to attract attention, and do not really instantiate any other artistic ideal seems to be accurate in many cases.

Christopher Hitchen's article about the vanishing of the term "the Arab street" in 2005 seems to have been premature:

The Gates, Hydro Power, Kantian Pacification


For those of you who don't know, The Gates installation in Manhattan's Central Park consisted of saffron sheets suspended from doorways of metal poles. The doorways were set up over an amazingly large fraction of the walkways in the Park. The whole thing cost $21-million: private money, thank you. Last Saturday was the penultimate day before this work by Christo and Jean-Claude would begin to be dismantled, so I made the hike: up Park Avenue from 33rd Street to 90th, then south through the Park back to the Path Station at 33rd. (I like to walk).

What struck me was how the design seemed to defeat the concept. One imagines a long series of gates as a spectacle of perspective. In The Gates, however, the saffron sheets were so low that the only perspective was tunnel-like, even in those rare places where the walkways ran straight. Moreover, the saffron sheets were a medium that cried out for a message. It was hard to shake the impression that the whole thing was a sort of draft, and the text and images would be added later.

The astounding thing was the crowds. Central Park is a big place, but the Gates clogged its walkways with people snapping pictures, pushing baby-carriages, and chattering like parrots into their cell phones. (The phone calls consisted of remarks like, "I am now moving forward...") I was no better: I had a $10 camera, though I was unencumbered by baby or cellphone. If any of the pictures turn out worth viewing, I will post them.

It took me a while to figure out what all this was for. Finally it hit me: The Gates existed to draw the crowds. The installation had no meaning; it was a behavior engine. In other words, it was like one of those practical jokes for which the punchline is, "Made you look."

* * *

Speaking of dubious installations, there is some evidence that the environmentalists of the world are about to focus on a new target:

The green image of hydro power as a benign alternative to fossil fuels is false, says Eric Duchemin, a consultant for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). "Everyone thinks hydro is very clean, but this is not the case," he says...This is because large amounts of carbon tied up in trees and other plants are released when the reservoir is initially flooded and the plants rot. Then after this first pulse of decay, plant matter settling on the reservoir's bottom decomposes without oxygen, resulting in a build-up of dissolved methane...This is released into the atmosphere when water passes through the dam's turbines. Seasonal changes in water depth mean there is a continuous supply of decaying material. In the dry season plants colonise the banks of the reservoir only to be engulfed when the water level rises.

Something about this stinks, and I'm not sure it's the methane from the reservoirs. There seems to be a principle among environmental activists: any hypothetical source of power is superior to any source currently in use, until the hypothetical source becomes practical. Then it becomes as bad as any existing source, or slightly worse.

* * *

Has the war in Iraq punctured the myth of American hegemony just at the time that the European Union is emerging into superpower status, or is the EU a post-historical Old Folks' Home that is becoming a northern addition to the Maghreb? During President Bush's recent trip to Europe, there was a concerted campaign in all media to promote the former position, of which this piece by Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post is a fair sample. (The link is to The Bergen Record:

With the United States pinned down in Iraq, where the continued deployment of nearly 150,000 troops has severely strained the U.S. military, European leaders no longer expect further military expeditions in Bush's second term. And so they have been gracious - but assertive, reflecting how far the United States has fallen from "hyperpower" status. Indeed, analysts said, European leaders are increasingly united against the United States on key issues and feel emboldened to go their own way on such issues as Iran and China.

For the contrary position, we need only consult the indefatigable Mark Steyn:

Lester Pearson, the late Canadian prime minister, used to say that diplomacy is the art of letting the other fellow have your way. All week long President Bush offered a hilariously parodic reductio of Pearson's bon mot...[T]he notion that the [EU is] a superpower in the making is preposterous. Most administration officials subscribe to one of two views: a) Europe is a smugly irritating but irrelevant backwater; or b) Europe is a smugly irritating but irrelevant backwater where the whole powder keg's about to go up.

Most Europeans who write to me agree with "b," but then these people are writing to me, so they are not a random sample.

There is a point in the Steyn piece that requires qualification. He says that the EU constitution is about 500 times as long as the US federal constitution (it's actually about 50 times) and that it covers trivial infrastructure matters. He asserts:

Most of the so-called constitution isn't in the least bit constitutional.

Certainly it's not like the US federal constitution, but it is like the constitution of most of the states, which deal with everything from the care of swamps to designating who gets the income from specific toll roads. The consequence of that, of course, is that state constitutions are not taken very seriously: people treat them like just another kind of legislation. That is, surely, what will happen in the EU.

* * *

And while we are on the subject of the evolution of transnational institutions, the UN does not seem to be preparing for a post-American world. As Warren Hoge of the New York Times put it:

Edward Luck, a professor of international affairs at Columbia [said] "In the early '90s the UN got too ambitious on the operational scale," he said, "it was no longer limited by vetoers and naysayers, so the sky seemed the limit. In the late '90s and the beginning of this century, it got overly zealous in building norms, setting international law and trying to regulate state behavior. Now they have to step back in an attempt to do both."...He also faulted the United Nations for developing a sense of moral superiority over the pursuit of national ambitions. "It was as if national interests are by definition base and narrow and mean-spirited," he said.

Again, the United Nations is a very useful organization, but the project to make it the font of global legitimacy has failed.

* * *

Meanwhile, the fall of the pro-Syrian government in Lebanon yesterday is yet more evidence that the larger strategy, of which the Iraq War is a part, is succeeding. As Christopher Hitchens observed in a column entitled The Arab Street: A vanquished cliché:

The return of politics to Iraq has had many blissful secondary consequences, one of them apparently minor but nonetheless, I think, important. When was the last time you heard some glib pundit employing the phrase "The Arab Street"? I haven't actually done a Nexis search on this, but my strong impression is that the term has been, without any formal interment, laid to rest. And not a minute too soon, either.

There are domestic time constraints on foreign policy success. The president's proposals for tinkering with Social Security have been ill-received by the public. The Republican media machine has made things worse by attacking the main centers of opposition, notably the American Association of Retired People. In this matter, the Internet works against the Administration, rather than for it. After next year's congressional elections, the Administration will be limited to reacting to events.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Art: A New History

Paul Johnson is the Howard Zinn of the right. Like Zinn, he is really popular, but also like Zinn Johnson is also willing to bend the facts to tell the story he wants to tell. If you keep that in mind, Johnson's books can be fun and even informative, but he shouldn't be your primary source.

They Didn't Expect Him

They Didn't Expect Him

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

Art: A New History
By Paul Johnson
HarperCollins, 2003
777 Pages, $39.95
ISBN 0-06-053075-8


Yes, it is possible to write a single-volume general history of art, if you narrow the definition and focus on your own enthusiasms. Paul Johnson is best known for his large-scale histories, written in the Burkean tradition of moralizing conservatism. He is also, however, a serious painter himself, and the son of a professional. He suggests that he might have made art his career, but his father warned him that the future would belong to charlatans like Picasso. Actually, what's remarkable about this book is that it's mostly about what the author likes. This is a commendable approach that all conservative cultural critics should emulate, especially with regard to 20th-century material.

You can put only so much into a profusely illustrated 777-page over-size book (with still not nearly enough illustrations, alas!). “Art” here means physical art objects: painting, architecture, and sculpture, in about that order of emphasis, but also mosaic, stained glass, landscaping, and even tattooing and body painting. For the most part, it's Western art; the rest of the world enters in as it affects the art of the West.

The author has his theories; or better, his standards. Art, we learn, is part of the essential human search for order and pattern. The highest art, in Johnson's view, tells the truth about life, which generally means that it is figurative. Still, all art is editing, whether the result is highly formalized or photographically realistic. The healthy norm for art throughout history has been a continuous tension between a canon of technique and the need of individual artists to express themselves. The tension takes the form of long waves, in which generations of complication and refinement alternate with generations of simplicity and “classicism.”

Johnson deplores the modern prejudices against drama in figurative art, and even against mere size. What the Renaissance called “terribilitá” is not so different from what Burke meant by “the sublime.” The author also insists on the reality of “fine art.” Such works can be created only with notable skill. They repay a second look, and many looks thereafter. Indeed, one of the characteristics of fine art is a capacity to delight that outlives its period. In this, as in other ways, it differs from “fashion art,” in which the level of novelty exceeds the level of skill. The effect of fashion art is that whatever capacity it has to please is soon exhausted, thus creating the demand for more fashion art, and yet more. When fashion art crowds out fine art, that is a bad thing.

Johnson moves with due caution through the intimidating specialties of Paleolithic art, the art of the ancient Near East, and into the time of the Greeks and Romans. Then the story begins to deal with known artists and acknowledged masterpieces, mostly sculptures of the human figure. Johnson sadly follows the story of Greco-Roman painting. Little has survived, none of much merit, and there is no reason to suppose that the known lost masterpieces were much better. As for the decline of classical art, all we really learn is that something snapped in the second-century AD. A century later, and emperors were reduced to stripping ornaments from earlier monuments to use on their own memorials.

Johnson emphasizes the continuities between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, both chronological and geographical. The north drove the transition, especially in drawing, more than the Italians have ever been willing to admit. Interesting as all this is, Johnson obviously chafes to get to artists who typically did what he does, which is paint in oils, on canvas (or later, with watercolors). Johnson virtually pounds the table in frustration that artists of the skill of Giotto were still restricted to the fresco, an awkward and notoriously fragile medium. On meeting Caravaggio (1573-1610), there is almost a sigh of relief: at last we are talking about oil painting, with chiaroscuro, dramatic subject matter, and a complete grasp of perspective and lighting. The artist even had a long arrest record. Art had achieved the mature form from which it would not begin to decline until the end of the 19th century.

No sooner was the paint dry on Caravaggio's canvases than the first of a series of classical revivals set in to correct what were seen to be his excesses, a dialectic that continued throughout the long climacteric of art in the West. The chief theater of creativity shifted from Italy (whose cultural life never quite recovered after the decline of papal patronage) to the west and north. Johnson has a merry time explaining how French governmental interference spoilt French academic painting, particularly the relative disparagement of landscapes. The best portraiture in history was, of course, done in the Low Countries, in an unexampled tradition that continued until the economic eclipse of the Netherlands by England. The rise of the private market made that tradition possible. The same pattern manifested itself in architecture in England, where Whig grandees built fine country homes to rival the tawdry splendor of Versailles.

Johnson is keen on 19th century landscape painting, chiefly the American Hudson River School (“Illuminist” is the term that later art criticism prefers for this episode), and he also surveys similar work in the rest of the English-speaking world. However, his nominee for best painting of the century is a disturbing interior scene from Russia: Ilya Repin's “They Did Not Expect Him.” The painting brings the viewer into the story of a man obviously just returning from exile in Siberia to a middle-class home. For my money, though, the one jaw-dropping illustration in the book is John Sargent's “Carnation, Lilly, Lilly, Rose.”

The conjuncture of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement and the new treatment of light by Turner marked the great point of flexion in the history of Western art. Turner was trying to implement Goethe's theory of sight as the perception of color rather than of shapes, but he had no intention of moving away from figurative art: quite the opposite. As for the Pre-Raphaelites, they were the first Movement, complete with a manifesto and the will to shock. What surprises now is that they were part of a Christian revival, one that affected all the arts in the 19th century. A string of unintended consequences ensued.

It was in Paris (wouldn't you know?) that things started to go off the rails. The Impressionists were actually a pretty conservative bunch, fine draftsmen for the most part. Like Turner, they thought that the most important aspect of painting was color. They experimented with abstraction as a type of foregrounding. Manet introduced some technical innovations that made painting “faster.” All this was to better represent immediate experience. The real trend, however, was to represent what the artist knew was there, even if that meant abandoning perspective and accurate figure-drawing. So the Cubists increasingly did. Soon, surrealists learned to treat the artwork simply as an object. Both tendencies moved away from representational art. Novelty became easier to produce, and found a ready market. The ignition of the fashion-art engine was lit, and the jumbo jet of imposture took to the sky.

Johnson finds much to commend in the 20th century's fine arts, including all the major representational artists he can find (not an enormous number, really). He is tolerant of abstractionists like Kandinsky, whose work you can enjoy without knowing the theory. Even the theory-minded Mondrian had integrity. For the most part, though, he finds the fine art of the 20th century cynical, ephemeral, and repetitive. The last point is important: the installations and performance art of the last third of the 20th century simply repeated the Dada of the early decades, but without the original humor. Too much 20th-century art was perpetrated by great imposters. The model is Picasso, a manufacturer of fashion objects on an industrial scale. The fine arts at the beginning of the 21st century still suffer from systemic distortions. A cartel of fashion artists, gallery directors, and art dealers contrive to bid up the price of new fashion art and unload it on the galleries. People who sell stock in this way are liable to arrest.

The fashion artists had entertainment value, and even a kind of skill: people who tried to reproduce Jackson Pollock's effects, for instance, generally found that they couldn't. Still, the measure of the century is perhaps this faint damn of Andy Warhol: “He was not so much an artist, for his chief talent was for publicity, as a comment on twentieth-century art, and as such a valuable person, in a way.”

In product design and in architecture, the original impulse of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement had good effects until almost the middle of the 20th century. The Movement itself lasted only a few years, of course, but it begat the Arts & Crafts Movement, which begat Art Nouveau, which was really just an early form of Art Deco. Johnson loves Art Nouveau down to the last futon, and grieves that so much was scrapped by 1950. (The White House was extensively decorated by Tiffany, incidentally, but Theodore Roosevelt got rid of it all: Louis Tiffany, Roosevelt said, had “laid his hands on other men's wives.”) Louis Sullivan's skyscrapers were in this tradition. Sullivan actually laid down the principle that “form follows function,” by which he meant that decoration should relate to the purpose of the building, not that buildings should not be decorated. This philosophy produced several decades of fine buildings, from cathedrals to railway stations. (There has yet to be a fine airport, in Johnson's estimation.)

Unfortunately, by mid-century, Germany had done for architecture what France had done for painting. Walter Gropius, we are told, suffered from a physical handicap that made it impossible for him to manipulate a pencil. He was, however, a master of ideology, most of it wrongheaded. Gropius's Bauhaus sought “a new architecture for the machine age.” This ignored more than a century of experience with industrial design and new materials, much of it as good as building has ever been. Then there was the Bauhaus preference for straight lines over curves, based on the bizarre notion that straight lines were “scientific.” The theories may have been comical (especially when Le Corbusier got hold of them), but the result was the three most dismal decades in architecture since the fall of Rome.

In the age of the “machines for living,” according to Johnson, libraries baked their books, hospitals killed their patients, and the people forced to dwell in the glass-and-concrete boxes showed a marked tendency toward homicide. This assessment is a cartoon, to put it mildly, but certainly the official architecture of the third quarter of the 20th century was often both banal and uncomfortable. Happily, the ice broke in the 1970s. Major buildings were again free to be ugly in an interesting way. Public works, particularly bridges, were often stunning. Johnson looks benignly on the “Lower Frivolity,” the riotous mixture of styles that Las Vegas has come to represent. Such structures are temporary, and they are fun. The problem is the “Higher Frivolity” represented by buildings like Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao: they are fun, too, but the joke gets old.

Painting and sculpture are reviving, after decades in which art schools made a point of not teaching their students how to draw. Johnson is sanguine: “Human life is short but the life of art is long and the best is yet to come.” Still, the advances in the art of restoration on which Johnson dwells are not the stuff from which Renaissances are made. Perhaps we are looking toward a period whose work will be chiefly the recovery of the great tradition. If so, this book shows that task will be no small glory.

This review originally appeared in the March 2004 issue of First Things 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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How to Understand Three-Quarters of Western Art

Umberto Eco says:

Know the Old and New Testaments and the stories of the saints.

It’s impossible to understand roughly three-quarters of Western art if you don’t know the events of the Old and the New Testaments and the stories of the saints. Who’s that girl with her eyes on a plate? Is she something out of “Night of the Living Dead”?

h/t Christopher Blosser