You are currently browsing the monthly archive for September 2007.

This past Friday at the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, we welcomed Maxwell L. Anderson, who is Director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), for a guest lecture. He was a very good speaker. Some of you may have heard of him, as he has done quite a bit in the art world, working at Emory, Yale, and the Whitney amongst other places. He actually has his own website, which seems kind of odd to me, but, well, there it is.

He had a memorable talk, describing his own efforts in developing the IMA, ranging from a playful bridge to the development of the man-made pond/lake on the museum’s property. I found it slightly off that Anderson’s excuse for dotting the lake and nearby greenspace with art objects is that it wasn’t originally a water property, so it wasn’t intended to be anything slightly disconcerting — kind of like abandoning a commitment to preserving nature whenever it suits one’s self. I’m not sure.

Anderson spoke on the importance of engaging the community. A questioner took the opportunity to inquire if he meant this in any political sense. I leaned forward, detecting the certain markers of an opportunity for liberal demagoguery which, thankfully, never came. Anderson replied that although there may be some of that, he didn’t care what politics a person has: the museum’s mission was to work at a level beyond politics. The ending of Star Trek The Next Generation is what I think he is shooting for, and I can only paraphrase not having the script:

Q: For one small, fraction of a second, you were open to possibilities that you had never before considered.

Picard: The paradox — the chicken and the egg.

Q: Exactly. That is the journey that awaits you. Not mapping stars and charting nebulae. But exploring the unknown possibilities of existence.

He continually referred to the plans to create a cultural plaza, presumably right by the Harn, in at the University of Florida. I am not sure how far along plans are, or what the planners seek in their plans, but I wonder how much room they have to work with. There are tons of trees behind the museum, but in front of it only parking spaces and a parking garage. Still, I suppose, there’s plenty of potential behind it. But then there’s the question of how to get people over there. Right now, one of the immense successes at UF is Museum Nights, where on Thursday nights the museums stay open later and people come to enjoy special programs and get exposure to the museums.

Anderson had some good ideas regarding implementation of such a plaza. For example, he cautioned against commissioning permanent works for the plaza, instead suggesting that temporary, changing, or malleable works may be a suitable alternative.

Only time will tell what shape our plaza takes.

Although I have no idea if I am listening to the correct “Hindemith Sonata” at the moment, the work comes highly recommended by Helen Radice at twang twang twang. Her reflections on the piece as unearthed from several years ago and I will try to quote that which relates to the central theme:

Hindemith’s 1939 harp sonata is a crucial work. Even before an examination of its wider intellectual and cultural context, it is in itself a great work by a great composer, where the harp sails through previously unchartered musical and technical waters. The careful design of its three movements (church architecture; children playing outside the church; song at the church’s altar) is serious, moving and beautifully executed, with a tight melodic and harmonic control. More widely, the sonata’s individual merits are part of a grand musical philosophy. At once menschlich and divine, music is a transcendent and spiritual essence, nonetheless sounded by human hands. …

What Hindemith unflichingly realises, is that the task he has set himself of using music as a way to connect humanity and eternity is essential, because otherwise music’s full power would not be used – but it is also ultimately doomed to failure, because music has to be created by fallible human beings. In the last act of Der Harmonie der Welt, where Johannes Kepler has died, disillusioned with his task of rescuing humanity after the thirty years’ war, the final tableau admits that such failure is inevitable because Kepler is only human. …

Der Harmonie’s final tableau remarks: “But what their humble spirit perceived, dreaming, feeling, believing, praying, and their readiness to serve it, raised them far above the ways of Man.” Thus the second movement is deliberately technically difficult, so cannot always be perfect in performance, but that the harpist continually attempts to make it so elevates both musician and music. The human artistic condition lies in the attempt to create perfection, a heroic failure perhaps but one that elevates us none the less. It is a tenet that underpins the music of Britten and the libretti of Chester Kallman and W H Auden; it disturbs Yeats but stimulates his most profound lyricism. As Auden wrote, “Every high C accurately struck demolishes the theory that we are the irresponsible puppets of fate or chance.”

I appreciate the ending. Of course, there is a dubious interplay between quantum mechanics and mathematics that suggests some form of determinism may, in fact, be true. This isn’t particularly controversial. The real philosophical question is: to what degree do we choose to do what we do? But to me, given the aforementioned reflections and what I am about to write, the most important question seems: what is this “human artistic condition?” We can argue until we are blue in the face on either subject, but the answer to the first question will not tell us where we have been, where we are, or where we’re going. It tells us nothing at all about ourselves. But the answer to the second question tells us so very much more.

I disagree with the 20-year old Ms. Radice that the human artistic condition (read: human condition) is bound with finding or creating perfection, per se. Some would say that she is right, as proven by our religious aspirations. But I rather veer toward a not altogether different direction. My favorite related piece comes from Herbert Mueller‘s The Uses of the Past. A friend once recently called Mueller pedantic, which is unfortunate, since his texts do provide ample ground for reflection. Out with it:

Pride goeth before a fall, but first it lifts man to real heights. Without pride the tragic hero would not be a hero; without it there would be no tragedy in history because no civilization at all. And without it there would be no higher religions. It was pride that built St. Sophia. It was still pride that led thousands to pray in St. Sophia in the miserable last days of Byzantium…. (p. 25)

As such, the human condition may be many things, but our pride takes us to these heights — even in our humility. Radice puts Hindemith properly in the context of his time, but I suggest that at some level it was his pride, a lifting force, that brought him to create his works. How many great artists have known the breathtaking prideful rise and the precipitous prideful fall?

Rumbling afoot regarding the “genetic lines” of visual arts reporting. Jonathan Jones writes in The Guardian:

And yet there seems to be a set of hackneyed priorities, in the coverage of visual art as a new story, that come into play automatically and always turn a certain class of non-event into an event, for news purposes. I’ve read this same story so many times it’s depressing. I’ve even written it a few times. I think maybe it’s time to take a hard look at the conventions by which newspapers and online news outlets cover visual art stories. …

  1. The most expensive art work ever
  2. Anything about graffiti
  3. Lost masterpiece rediscovered
  4. Contemporary artists are plagiarists
  5. Art historian/archaeologist makes earth-shattering discovery
  6. Restoration stories

Bad reporting along these generic lines distorts understanding and can destroy our pleasure in great art. The worst recent example of this is the global media attention paid to a study of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Adoration of the Magi by the “diagnostician” Maurizio Seracini , who was invited to apply a range of technologies to look beneath the visible surface of this great work in the Uffizi Gallery. Seracini was able to photograph underdrawings that add to the number of figures and images in what is already a picture that teems with possibility. … Seracini went on to make totally unfounded, badly argued claims that in effect this is not a Leonardo at all…. I’ve spent two hours in front of a computer with Seracini hearing his argument – and it is based on a profound lack of insight into Leonardo da Vinci’s art. There is no reason to think it was anyone other than Leonardo who brought the painting to its current unfinished state. It is a unique document of his genius, the key that connects his paintings with his scientific notebooks. But look it up on the internet. You’ll find lots of websites that confidently say it’s not a Leonardo.

This is a tough nut to crack, but it exemplifies a larger problem that is not only true in arts reporting. It’s true, for instance, in reporting on the war in Iraq. Reporters stay in their hotels in Baghdad, content to see the whole country through their immobile lenses. The country, if it is a country at all, however, has many different viewpoints and wildly varying regions. But what we see are stories about: ethnic divisions, sectarian violence, suicide bombings, and troop deaths. We don’t see stories that explore the other side of it. Utilities we have built. Hearts and minds won. The history of General Petraeus (do you think if he was anti-war, he might get a biography on CBS News?). This is true with almost everything, because sometimes people don’t want to go beyond the surface. But as I’ve been thinking about it, there seems to be one that stands out from the pack: sports!

Sports coverage often runs the full range of positive and negative stories, covering any and all manner of statistics or human interest stories. Is it because people feel like they have a more vested interest in it? No doubt they are more interested in it, but one wonders about what it would all mean if true.

If we want better reporting on visual arts, we need to engage people. Not by silly public spending projects, but by taking people to places they have never been before and teaching them where they can go if they try.

(h/t moreover)

Salander-O’Reilly has been a well-known name in the fine arts community for a while now. But the news isn’t getting any better for the gallery. On the surface, they have a first rate operation going on over there. (Not that they respond to my rights requests….) And yet, the gallery is the target of a crippling fusillade of lawsuits at the moment, as Bloomberg reports:

Lennox seeks to recover at least $4.6 million and $10 million in punitive damages. John McEnroe says in a May suit that Salander didn’t make good on a promise to double the tennis star’s $162,500 investment in five months. Former New York Observer Publisher Arthur Carter filed an August suit seeking more than $1.2 million for funds he says he’s owed.

Anthony Doniger, a Salander lawyer, said in an April court appearance regarding one suit that the dealer “has a liquidity crisis, there’s no question about it.” At least 15 lawsuits have been filed against the 31-year- old gallery in the past year, many of them naming Salander himself as a defendant

It’s kind of sad because the rest of the article goes on to highlight how a lot of these people either were or are his friends, and some really like Salander, calling him “well-intentioned,” but “addicted to buying.” I don’t know. The controversy is well-chronicled, here, by the Maine Antique Digest. Sounds like the guy needs a little “self-correction,” meaning the paying of debts, downsizing of operations, and rebuilding of Salander-O’Reilly.

As with so much in commerce, a gallery’s name and reputation may form a sizable part of the firm’s assets. How much will this harm the goodwill value of the name? Does tarnished goodwill value hurt galleries harder than firms in other industries?

(h/t Art Law Blog)

[Cross-posted at Awkward Utopia]

While we would not wish to live in a world without laws, and a great deal of them are borne of the best intentions, it seems as though sometimes laws have unintended consequences. Broadly speaking, I suspect that the Import/Export laws of various countries throughout the world may also have some unintended consequences. As examples, Italy prohibits export of any of its antiquities, Peru and Mexico have asserted ownership over its cultural patrimony, etc.

When laws prevent or inhibit the trade of objects, that will distort the market for said objects both internationally and domestically. Italy’s efforts to retain its cultural patrimony will have the same result. This is not in and of itself a bad thing, of course, and there have been good reasons articulated for similar laws. But the distortions may include some unintended consequences.

Take Italy for example. There is a scarcity of museums. There is a scarcity of most objects, but there is an acute, distinct scarcity of Italy’s antiquities. Let us for the sake of argument, assume that museums in Italy then possess most of these antiquities. Now, there is general recognition that the antiquities have significant Fair Market Value (FMV). Although demand for the antiquities in Italy is no doubt high amongst private owners, it would likely be even broader in the international market. Since these private owners may not obtain the works they most highly value, and the museums retain them in their collections, these antiquities may artificially stay at the fore of the market. I say artificially because if they were allowed to move internationally, other works would take their places in museums and also receive some positive sanction, increasing the value of an artist’s name in goodwill, possibly creating or fostering new schools of art from the top.

Of course, private owners are free to support new movements in art, but the problem remains that an unintended consequence of the law is that innovation is stifled and the incentive of the market to create and change is reduced.

There may also be unintended consequences in copyright laws. This post on the William Patry blog discusses the length of copyright terms. It seems as though there is a consensus in the economics community, as well as amongst many practitioners in copyright law, that terms are far too long. Dean Price pointed out today that Sonny Bono attempted to protect our “cultural patrimony” (although the reason why Disney is running around China so much is because, amongst other things, China features a full-scale clone of Disneyland!). But the problem didn’t start there, and it goes on relatively unabated. Consider the points of economists such as the renowned Ronald Coase:

  1. The extension provides a very marginal benefit in terms of fostering innovation.
  2. The increased cost of monopoly. Although in some markets, monopolies may arise naturally where there are large barriers to entry (satellites, telecoms, utilities), and they are therefore very good things for consumers, in many cases (legal monopolies, as with copyrights), they may lead to inefficiencies and distorted (i.e. raised) prices. This is so when the monopoly created by copyrights is extended.
  3. There is a cost associated with not being able to develop other things that might be considered “derivative works” of the original. As the heroine of a great Austrian love story once said, “Nothing comes from nothing.”

The extreme form of the argument is that no protection should be given at all and that the value of goodwill would carry the day. This may be true in some cases, but it is irrelevant to the discussion here. The real point is: developments since 1909 in copyright law may have hurt more than helped.

And the story doesn’t end there.

Government programs may have their own agendas, just as private entities would, and adjust their interests in supporting certain types of art accordingly. Food for thought in Finland. In conclusion, there may be several serious problems stemming from unintended consequences to enacting regulations dealing with art. Some are minor, some are far-reaching, but all arise from regulating a field that may be perhaps best left to the market. The real question becomes: are the significant costs of these regulations (import/export restrictions, massive copyright terms, government-funded grants/endowments/programs for arts), whether intended or not, greater than the so-called benefits? If so, are there actually any alternatives politically or legally?

Ladies and gentlemen: why do we have to regulate art at all? If culture is everywhere, in fact, and anything that is not nature is art, then the movement of antiquities into private galleries, dining rooms, or worse merely represents progress as the works go to those who most value them and other equally or eventually-equally valuable works come to the fore. The market does so much better than government in regulating art. I might add that it was government that interfered in the case of the Elgin marbles, as well as countless other plunders.

Thoughts? Rejoinders? Apologies for any forgotten assumptions, shoddy reasoning, or other errors ahead of time. I quickly threw this up today while in Art Law.

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

So writes ee cummings. I thought it best to maintain a more official reserve of up-to-date thoughts on the art community and issues relating to the Artist Rights and Reproductions Database (woefully, awkwardly: ARRD).  Please forgive me for the nonsense that I write. Feel free to comment, link, or suggest.