Sunday, 15 September 2013

'Provenance' and other recent books

Picture: Amazon
Gail Feigenbaum and Inge Reist (eds) Provenance: An alternative history of art Getty 2013

I'm attracted to quirky books, and a history of provenance sounded fascinating. But this is dreadful. Chapters are short and superficial, and the claims made from the evidence of former ownership are not sustainable. Knowing the history of ownership in isolation tells you little; it needs economic, cultural and social context. This volume falls into the trap of reading too much into the raw data of ownership without considering its context. 

Elizabeth A. Pergam's chapter Provenance as Pedigree: The marketing of British portraits in gilded age America starts badly with the claim that the role of dealers is overlooked in the history of gilded age collecting. Overlooked? Art dealer Joseph Duveen might be the most famous character in gilded age collecting, subject of numerous biographies and mentioned in virtually every book about gilded age collectors and collections. Elsewhere she surmises that Duveen Brothers must have been especially anxious to sell a picture because they'd owned it for four years. That fundamentally misunderstands Duveen's business practice, which was often to hold stock for many decades. Indeed when Norton Simon bought the remnants of Duveen in 1964 it included pictures they'd bought more than fifty years earlier. Some of the works sold to Mellon in 1937 came from collections bought three decades earlier. Neglect of context like this means her conclusions are often untenable. For example:
The social formalities embodied in eighteenth-century British portraits, which made them so popular with collectors of the Gilded Age - Huntington, Morgan, and Frick - were less appealing to collectors who had experienced the horrors of Old World politics as manifested in the First World War and the economic crisis of the Depression. Where once identity - and the social hierarchies inherent in family name and association - had been the standard for evaluating a portrait, after the so-called Great War, American art institutions turned instead to aesthetics as the basis for value. (p.117)
Huh? All this is on the evidence of two exhibitions at Duveen Brothers. But simply looking at the collections disproves these daft claims. The portraits bought by Huntington and Frick were of supreme artistic quality (Gainsborough's Blue Boy, Mall in St. James's Park, Hon. Frances Duncomb, Lawrence's Pinkie, Lady Peel - most of which are not of famous aristos). Where is the evidence that 'experience' of World War I changed the outlook of collectors? These absurd claims are unsupported with the evidence supplied, and just ridiculous if considered in a wider context. 

There are some interesting morsels in here, but it's often marred by an attempt to stretch the material too far, to narrate an 'alternative history of art' rather than to elaborate on some fascinating footnotes to the history of art.   
Picture: Amazon

I picked up this book expecting to scoff at the hyperbole of the reviewers, but it deserves the hype. It's a fascinating account of fighting wars today, self-consciously updating the great enlightenment military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. Simpson was a British officer in Afghanistan; like Clausewitz, he's experienced was first hand, and like Clausewitz he brings learning and intellectual sophistication to his task of making sense of war.

Simpson weaves together his own experiences with a discussion of history, theory and politics. Fascinating insights abound. Military thought oscillates between excessive conservatism ('just read Clausewitz') and excessive presentism, thinking that globalisation and technology mean that the past is history. Simpson navigates these excesses with aplomb. He recognises that strategy has always sought to engage audiences rather than simply batter an enemy into submission, but he also recognises that the nature of those audiences and the means of engagement have changed.

I doubt Simpson has studied Hegel, but he's an instinctive Hegelian. This wonderful passage introduces a chapter on strategic narrative, and it's a concrete example of how contingency is retrospectively understood as necessity:
Policy starts as an abstract idea, because by logic it has not been achieved yet; policy finishes as a set of accomplished facts, the policy end-state, which in many cases may not meet the original intent, and may not represent a clear end point, as policy in a conflict merges into post-conflict policy ... [strategic narrative] explains policy in the context of the proposed set of actions in the abstract, and then explains those actions, having been executed, in terms of how they relate back to policy. (p.180)
So much richer than some of the army PowerPoint charts he reproduces later in the chapter!

I've rarely been so excited by a new book. It buzzes with ideas. You'll find this book rewarding even if you don't think military strategy is your thing. The conclusion makes it clear the wider relevance of his analysis given the promiscuous deployment of force by liberal democracies today.
Picture: Amazon

Frantz Schmidt executed 394 people, and flogged, maimed and tortured many more. He was an executioner, chiefly in Nuremberg, and he kept a journal recounting his professional achievements. The physical barbarism is utterly alien to modern sensibilities (execution by beheading was considered the merciful alternative!), but equally striking is the calibrated imposition of violence - should we tear the flesh with red hot pincers twice or four times on the way to execution?

This is really first rate social history, interesting throughout. We know that rank and status were vitally important in early modern Europe, but this book brings it to life with the discussion of the 'untouchable' position of the executioner, forbidden to drink in taverns, attend church or take part in public festivals. We learn about sixteenth century crime, from the petty criminals who won't take 'expulsion' for an answer, and the ghastliness of highwaymen's crimes. 

It's a fascinating tale, but Schmidt's journal was more a record of work than a reflective diary - which is interesting in itself, of course, but rather limits its narrative potential. Harrington honestly describes the limitations of his source, but he seems sometimes to compensate by embellishing the narrative with dubious details. How can we know that Schmidt "followed with amazement, and no doubt disgust, the mass trials and burnings in the Franconian countryside" (p. 206)? The evidence is weak; Harrington notes that Nuremberg resisted the witch-hunting craze, and guesses that Schmidt was 'disgusted' by witch burning. It was disgusting, but why should Schmidt think it so when his contemporaries clearly did not?

The conclusion reaches even further beyond the evidence of the diary, making sweeping claims about the decline of judicial violence in the generations after Schmidt. He claims that the subsequent decline in public executions was because the state felt more secure. It could afford clemency because it no longer had to demonstrate its power with regular public executions. Harrington might be right, but his claims are not supported by his source, and there is little argumentation or discussion of wider literature. It rests on the borrowed authority of Schmidt's story. And Harrington's focus on state security doesn't account for the wider decline of violence in society.

A riveting read but beware its more sweeping conclusions. 

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