07 December, 2006

A man for one season

This piece takes as its genesis an argument I made recently at Heaven Tree. In his post 'A Man For All Seasons', Gawain posted a photograph of a statue of Scipio Africanus (presumably this one) from the Uffizi, apparently taken on the sly; his justification for this, and our subsequent debate, went as follows, edited slightly:

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GAWAIN. The Uffizi, like most museums, won’t let us photograph; but they will not photograph for us, for money, either. Ergo, you may wonder, what is, exactly, the point? The policy certainly does not make the Uffizi any money. (And, besides, as a public service, should they even be allowed to make money from reproductions of works of art the taxpayers paid to acquire?) The policy really amounts to nothing more than taking things off the market and hiding them from he rest of us. So, Africanus is here partly as a protest.

CONRAD. As for the Uffizi—well, I am sympathetic to them. After all, the world has become so homogenised now—you can have a strawberry at any time of year, and see things from around the world without leaving your desk. Isn't there some value in retaining a mystery about a place—in withholding the beautiful from the casual eyes of the dilettante? Perhaps this will encourage the Goethes of the world to make the pelerinage to Florence, or wherever. The best things in life, like the best men, pace Thomas More, are not For All Seasons, but only for one.

GAWAIN. Conrad, my man, your sentiments re: museum's penchant for acquiring works of art and hiding them are endearing coming from you, but as defense of their policies from their mouths, not acceptable. (Which is why they say nothing and pretend it is not an issue.) (And even your defense does not work in cases where they by something and then lock it up in their vaults.)

CONRAD. My defense does work in such cases. . . for the true connoisseur must not only be in the right place, but there at the right time, and/or in the right capacity. . . !

AMANDA SISK, AKA "JOY IN LIFE". It's a bit like a flash of ankle or elegant wrist (Hugo's Les Miserables has an excellent example of this, wherein the fellow viewing the feminine grace is incensed that casual eyes may follow his to this glimpse, and for a gender reversal, try a wonderfully charged moment in the film The Winslow Boy). . . what matter if the rest is obscured? This does not define a future condemned to one view.

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My argument was both specific and general. Specifically, one of the best things about artworks is that they are unique—modern sculptures, yes, are reproducible, as I discovered when I saw Max Ernst's Capricorn for the fifth time, and then there are lithographs, but leave that aside—and that they require an investment of time and money just to see. The art-world is inherently an elitist institution. Chris Miller thinks—if I do not burlesque his opinions—that this is terrible. I do not. This is because, quite simply, I am an elitist, and proud of it.

Gawain's point that the museum itself does not make the argument is fair, but naïve. There is no way that the Uffizi could officially make such an argument—explicit elitism is not tolerated, even though it is implicitly accepted and enforced at all times.

Elitism is frowned upon because it is equated with 'class elitism', and thus with 'looking down your nose at blacks and Cockneys'. People don't like this sort of behaviour, for obvious reasons. But this isn't really the essence of elitism, just a common manifestation of it, and not one I personally endorse. For me, elitism is simply the general notion that things are better when fewer people have them, and that the few (whether groups of one member or 500) should be (and are) hostile—snobbish—to the many. There are, of course, an infinity of fews. Everyone belongs to several. And the pleasure of belonging to a few—especially if that few is just oneself—is derived from the fact that it is not a many. Such a pleasure is concurrent with the pain felt by those outside the few who want in; nevertheless, our pleasure outweighs their pain, and I see no reason to deny ourselves the satisfaction. Everyone benefits in the long view.

A corollary of this argument is that everyone is on the outside of most elites. I don't mind the threat of scorn from, say, boffins, fraternity boys, quantum physicists, erudite classicists, professional musicians, the working class, the aristocracy, connoisseurs—from anyone better than me, which is to say, everyone. But elites are not just stable social and professional groups—they are also accidents of time and place. This is where Gawain's post comes in: I am quite happy not to have access to some of the Uffizi's treasures. Those who do get access to these treasures would, I hope, derive all the more pleasure from them. As visitors, they constitute a temporal and temporary elite—and the connoisseurs who have access to the vaults are an even greater, more distinguished elite. When I was last in Siena I visited the Pinacoteca Nazionale, which contains a wealth of Sienese Trecento, one of my favourite periods. I got to see a painting I'd only heard about, Ambrogio Lorenzetti's tiny City on the Sea—truly exquisite. No postcards were available of it, and at the time it was not on the web—it is now, though I won't point you to it, and it's a pretty crappy reproduction anyway. So, my enjoyment of it then, as something that would not last, was all the sweeter, as is my present memory of the occasion.

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Gawain's post, naturally, has only created another elite. His readers will delight that they have had a rare glimpse of an obscure masterpiece, its aura of greatness only increased by the fact that it is unavailable elsewhere on the web. If everything truly were available online—a situation slowly approaching us—then, I am afraid, Gawain's show-and-tell might just be out of business. His leisurely digressions and gentlemanly philosophy, thankfully, would not.

Update: Aaron Haspel, bless his anti-Conradian soul, rules in Gawain's favour. 'Tis pity, but there you have it.

14 comments:

chris miller said...

I also feel that "that things are better when fewer people have them" -- and so it's a matter of picking which elites you can (and want to) join -- but arrogant epigone that I am, I have chosen to join just one: the elite of those who are celestially unconcerned about joining any other.

It's not a difficult elite to join -- but it's very tough to maintain membership ! --- because no humiliation is greater than realizing that your deepest personal joys -- like listening, say, to a song by Lennon-MCCartney -- were also felt by countles, low-bred, millions --- and no temptation is harder to resist than the narcissism that accompanies the discovery of something special that no one else has ever heard of.

Indeed, I've even heard people claim that it's impossible to enjoy/dislike anything without awareness of its social significance --- which makes, of course, my position even more rare --- more elite -- and more pleasurable.

Regarding the elitism of the artworld, by the way, my problem that it serves an elite based on wealth (yuck - how crass) rather than on taste (that's me -- the man of taste -- and you too -- since we both cherish some memories of the Siennese Trecento)

proserpine said...

You're lucky to have been able to live so fully in that moment of apprehension - elite indeed.

I find a different phenomenon in play when lucky enough to have access to some extraordinary but restricted book or object - one described by George Eliot in her journal from Italy (1860):

"One great deduction to me from the delight of seeing world-famous objects is the frequent double consciousness which tells me that I am not enjoying the actual vision enough, and that when higher enjoyment comes with the reproduction of the scenes in my imagination, I shall have lost some of the details, which impress me too feebly in the present, because the faculties are not wrought up into energetic action."

Perhaps there is something to be said for the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction after all? Though certainly it would be more elitest to insist imagination - and concomitant anxiety - suffice.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Chris: yes, everything you say confirms my argument. Your humiliation about the Beatles is of course the horrible realisation that the few is in fact a many. I can't possibly imagine it being "impossible to enjoy/dislike anything without awareness of its social significance"--perhaps I am in one more elite, with you, than I thought.

You may well be correct about the plutocratic elite of the art-world. I was reading yesterday about the most expensive sculpture ever sold: do you know what it is?

Proserpine: regarding your experiences with the extraordinary--I wasn't quite sure if you were referring to objects you had previously seen reproductions (or images) of, or not? Is it that the actual Mona Lisa doesn't sufficiently improve on the postcard Mona Lisa, or that the actual City by the Sea (to use my example) was a bit disappointing, given the unseen anticipation?

I imagine the experience to be better when you are not 'primed' to enjoy or admire the object beforehand. I once saw an amazing painting in the Dublin Art Gallery, which I'd never heard of, and have now forgotten title and artist. The delight occasioned by it was born of surprise, and prior expectations had no bearing on it.

At any rate, I dare say I am not the best viewer of art, not in that elite. But I do have a good imagination.

Chris said...

That I might never experience something again, particularly something magnificent or sublime, is horrifying, and almost makes one wish it had never been experienced in the first place; and much of human effort, including the creation of much of that sublime art, is to figure out a way of making those experiences permanent and always accessible; but whether the problem is being solved or compounded is unclear.

proserpine said...

I did have a particular experience in mind - an exhibition of American watercolors and pastels at the Fogg Art Museum. Many of the pieces had not been exhibited in years, mainly for conservation reasons (light being detrimental to the condition of the paintings - a very legitimate reason for restricting access, as perhaps Gawain would agree). Although there were many paintings there that are widely available as posters, a few I had not seen before.

One Winslow Homer piece in particular was magnificent in its irreproducible detail and intensity of color. I went back to look at it again and again. I wanted to memorize every line, every nuance of color, all the while knowing that I would certainly fail. And of course, the painting is now in a vault, and generally inaccessible to me, except in my faulty memory. In retrospect, perhaps the pain and anxiety were part of the sweetness of such an ephemeral experience (or rather, the bittersweetness).

While I agree with the idea that things are more pleasurable when fewer people have them (thereby adding the delight of rarity), I disagree with the thesis that the pleasure of belonging to the few depends upon the fact of the excluded many. The pleasure in an encounter with the beautiful or the sublime (at least in my subjective experience) has very little to do with the great mass of those to whom it is denied (or indeed to whom it is irrelevant). The pleasure depends on the fact of the object before me, and that moment when I apprehend and appreciate it. The excluded others really don't figure into that equation. (So much for social significance!)

That said, I will admit to a certain satisfaction in being one of those elites to whom the experience of beauty and its meaning matter . . . but I would argue that the pleasure is in the belonging, not the excluding.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Proserpine: "the pleasure is in the belonging, not the excluding". I would argue that these are part and parcel--to belong to a group of 6 billion people is not to belong to anything. Part of what it means to belong (not just the pleasure of belonging), is the exclusion of others. This may be sophistical, or may just be personal taste.

On Winslow Homer, I think it quite likely that, as you say, 'pain and anxiety were part of the sweetness of such an ephemeral experience'. This would contradict Chris Notmiller's viewpoint--that the point of art is to mitigate ephemerality. The latter view has promise, but is moving beyond the initial framework of our discussion--I like the idea of art as monument, personally, but our perception of that monument (unlike the artist's initial creation of it) can only be as ephemeral as our perception of the experience behind it. This is particularly keen to me with literature--I feel as though I want to absorb a work, make it part of me, and yet I cannot. It is only when I write myself that I feel the written word to be part of me. Perhaps that is one of the core paradoxes of art. As interesting as this may be, I think it is a different issue to the social pleasure occasioned by the existence of elites.

Gawain said...

Conrad, I am a rotten elitist myself, as you well know, but I detest being kept away from treasures which are supposedly collected in my name (and, in the age of international tax-credits) with my money.

And I do know why the museums don't make the argument, thank you.

Finally, we are not fast approaching the age when everything is available online. Large scale scans of nothing are available online, most great museums of the world are not online, and try to look for Chinese painting or Persian miniatures and you will find next to nothing.

Not that anyone is looking. My site probably gets every single searcher for "Akbarnama". This year there have been -- oh -- about 7. Elitism is not under threat. It is us, the elites, who are kept away from our stuff by bureacrats.

Mr. Roth, Sr. said...

The hot ticket of the London art scene this year is the Velasquez exhibition. Mrs Roth Snr and I were privileged to be taken to this by a friend who is able to go into the Gallery at the close of the day, after all the regular punters have gone, and have a private viewing. So there were we, initially the only people in the whole of the National Gallery (outside of the skeleton security staff), until a former Foreign Secretary (Jack Straw) and his party ever so slightly spoiled our sense of specialness. For an hour or two we were the cultural elite of London - and it was good.

Contrast this with our last visit to the Uffizi when we were hugger mugger with hoi polloi, most of whom seemed to be US college students dutifully paying their dues before they got down to the serious business of the trip (getting into bed with someone, anyone). Even worse, compare it with almost any day during 9 months of the year at the Louvre - the poor buggers trudge along miles of gangways and past acres upon acres of canvas, for the most part stopping only to read the labels telling them what the pictures are (unless they are Japanese, in which case they make a beeline for a few works and have their photo taken in front of them - anything other than a few seconds of direct examination of the work in question is generally thought to be self-indulgent).

No, the real crime of the Uffizi is not to hide its works of art (very few of which will have been bought by anything that might reasonably be thought of as public money), or to have few of them available on postcards; no, the real crime is to let so many people into the Gallery in the first place, and most of them doing out of a misplaced sense of duty, all the time ruining it for the genuinely interested. Elitist? You betcha.

If you go back about 100 years it was possible to walk into the Louvre on a Winter's day and steal primitive statuettes (as Picasso did). Now, you have to wait at least an hour, and then go through what is close to a full body cavity search before you even get in (as the woman of a certain age before me said, "I haven't been felt up like that for 50 years").

All these places should be subject to severely restricted access (and it goes further than Galleries - it should include cities like Venice and San Gimignano too - our visit to the latter a couple of years ago was ruined by a crush that simply didn't exist 35 years ago, and the result was that no one really enjoyed themselves, except if they wanted to carve another notch on their cultural guns - and then wonder what the fuss was all about). These places should be reserved for elites, and entry should be hard-earned. After all, you have to pass an exam to become an American citizen (and, now too, a British citizen) - what's good for a country should be applied to more important sites too. The entry exam for the Uffizi should be severe.

As to Gawain's sneaked photo - it might be defensible purely as an anarchist gesture, but that's the limit. A Gallery should not be a place for photography (nor, as for bookshops, a place for mobile phones) - it's a place where you use your eyes and talk quietly. If you can't get a reproduction, develop your memory or be prepared to return. If Africanus is important, be ready to pay serious dues - easy access doesn't mean better understanding.

Of course, Junior's argument is thin at times. His Utilitarian calculus assertion that everyone benefits in the long run should be discarded, it's unlike him to take refuge in so desperate a cast; and he seems at times to elide an essential difference between groups and elites, but his fundamental thrust is surely correct. Only elites are prepared to struggle in order to understand; let's not make it too easy for them.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Gentlemen: now you understand whence Conrad came.

John Cowan said...

I simply find all this incomprehensible. When I discover something that nobody knows but myself, my first instinct (sometimes thwarted on practical grounds, but still very present) is to tell everyone about it, whether they give a damn or not. I can't imagine anything being better when other people have no access to it: it's not true of joy, or pain, or knowledge, or even a physical artifact.

You baffle me.

Conrad H. Roth said...

John, you're missing the point. While some things are best completely unshared, what we're talking about primarily are things best shared only with a few, as what I write on this very website. I'm "telling everyone" when I write, but in practical terms I'm only telling a few. If I share a great discovery with my friends, in effect I'm creating my own elite--if I could tell a great many people the pleasure of telling would be diminished.

Beyond this, perhaps we're just different.

Joy In Life said...

How delightful your home and its company, Mr. Roth. In my mind I've birthed an installation (The Elitists) with your midwifery...I've sculpted all of you life-size, if not larger-than. On the fringe is a solitary figure, perhaps our Mr. Cowan (I do enjoy his post here, for in a sense he highlighted the conformity of the rest, forming himself as the Elitist amongst you)...

But what of the audience? I lock the image away now, having given you but a mere glimpse.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, JIL, I can see the figures now. It seems my company has just become even more delightful.

John Cowan said...

Or none or few, I still find no pleasure in things (or ideas) that not all can have access to. Anyone (well, anyone with a computer who reads English) can read your posts; that not more do is partly because they have not found it, partly that they do not choose to. I for one am very glad that you post openly and do not engrave your works on the bottom of a stone in the Sahara Desert or tack them to a public notice board in Chicago.

I began Recycled Knowledge, indeed, because I got tired of writing the same emails over and over to satisfy other people's thirst for knowledge. Now I point them to the post and all is well (except when I made the mistake of posting on blood groups!)

In short, the only elites I want to create are self-selected elites, with as few external barriers to becoming a member of the elite as possible. That lets the really important matters, which are of character, emerge as what really matters. So perhaps we are not so different after all.