Sunday, February 11, 2018

For the Soul of France. Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus. Author: Frederick Brown.

There is value in learning about the past for its own sake. But when a situation in history corresponds to one in the reader’s current society, it can inform in additional ways. Such a narrative has the ability to show us error in our own society, paths to take and paths to avoid. Observing a similar event of the past, in which we are not swept-up, can allow insight through emotional distance.  This is the case with Frederick Brown’s For the Soul of France. With its focus upon the culture war between liberal cosmopolitans and conservative nationalists, it in some ways mirrors the United States of today.

These two nations are not exact mirrors of each other. But instructive similarities are present: 1) The unreconciled tribes of liberal cosmopolitanism and conservative nationalism in both cases. 2) The damage of conservative religion interfering in the public sphere (Conservative Catholics in France.  Conservative Catholics and Protestants in the US.). 3) A convenient, immigrant enemy perceived as foreign even when they are citizens (Jews in France. Islamics and Latin Americans in the US). 4) Attempts to replace scientific method with belief-driven propaganda (French parties favoring Catholic Monarchy which they believed would confer divine intervention and raise-up France after the catastrophic Franco-Prussian War. Groups in the US that deny global warming and evolution). 5) Competing media (in each nation a mainstream media seeking evidence to draw conclusions and a right-wing media attempting to fabricate alternative facts by simply pronouncing what they wish were true). 6) Rising hate groups committing acts of violence (In France, organizations who proudly labeled themselves “anti-semitic.” In the US, white-supremacists, modern-day Confederates, anti-semites and violent anti-immigrant assemblages). 7) The denigration of intelligence (In France, “Rationalism and individualism were seen as the baggage of an alien culture to which the bourgeois…held France hostage. Intelligence undermined an organic historical community” [Brown, p. 122]. In the US, the supporters of Trump, whose mindless enthusiasm for their leader permits them to ignore evidence of his harm). There are more, but the space of this review does not permit full elucidation.

Frederick Brown is an enjoyably lucid writer. With such complex conflict, it is of immeasurable value to have a historian who can present facts in an organized manner and narrate with color. His ability to detail the competing cultures, so that one understands their ideologies and acquires a sense of their separate social compositions, is useful to the reader. Brown organizes his book in a series of chapters, each of which describes a particular event and the responses of the two socio-political sides. The building of Sacre-Coeur Cathedral, the rise of the secular republic, the crash of the Union Generale, the rise and fall of General Boulanger, the building of the Eiffel Tower, the Panama Scandal, the Dreyfus Affair and the burning of a charity bazaar, all of these chronologically presented events produce reactions on both sides of the divide. Because Brown takes-on these events within individual chapters, one is able to concentrate on the event, its significance to each side, and which side advances its cause.

A history that reveals similarities to our own time can also instruct us by how it is different from our own. France’s racists and conservative nationalists experienced a day of reckoning with the Dreyfus Affair. Their prejudices and wishful thinking met reality in a way that caused their national decline. Comparable forces of prejudice and regression in the US have not experienced, and may not experience, a decline.

The standing of our nations is also quite different. In France, during the late 1800s, its cultural and political prominence on the European continent had already been usurped by Germany. But for the United States, (who is watching China in its rearview mirror, gaining on us economically like a monster in a horror flick), it is not necessary to surrender our position in the world. Though there are deep divisions within our nation, we have the capability to work together where we must. I can think that my neighbor is a superstitious fool for believing in an invisible superman in the sky, who instructs him to interfere in the private lives of LGBTQ people or women seeking abortions. But I can still understand that, when it comes to economics, we need to put down our clubs and work together. My neighbor can believe that I’m going to hell and take pleasure in picturing me there. But she can still work with me while we reside in this more temperate clime. We can have our differences, can but agree that a Communist dictatorship that uses slave labor might not make an acceptable world leader. Likewise, Congress can cooperate, culture war or not, to compromise on domestic and foreign policy issues that would promote US interests. The fall of every empire is inevitable, but that does not mean that our fall has to happen now. The cultures battling in For the Soul of France call to mind a Zen parable where two tigers are fighting, go over a cliff, and continue to claw each other to death on the way down. The harm in France was that each side saw the other as un-French. Nationalists thought the cosmopolitans were selling-out their nation to the Jews. Cosmopolitans thought the nationalists were incapable of change or reason, therefore out-of-step with a continuing progress that began with the French Enlightenment. Each saw the other as an enemy who was harming the nation, so could not imagine partnering with them to preserve it. As a result, even though the cosmopolitans won the internal war, France never again regained its prominence. The United States can read Brown’s book as a warning and a choice.

Brown, Frederick. For the Soul of France. Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Friday, January 12, 2018

A Nation Rising. Untold Tales of Flawed Founders, Fallen Heroes, and Forgotten Fighters from America’s Hidden History. Author: Kenneth C. Davis.

Kenneth Davis continues an enterprise begun in his bestselling America’s Hidden History: dispelling historical myths. He does so in a simple, direct way by unearthing factual events concerning white male figures from history, then narrating a version of those events. The stories he tells are engagingly colorful. There is little analysis; but there doesn’t need to be an in-depth thesis to accomplish his task. One reads a “this is what happened” approach to history; the superficialities of an affair told with excitement. His main theme is that the people whom we are supposed to idolize as heroic founders or leaders are flawed human beings, and sometimes actually pernicious human beings. It may not be sophisticated, but it is supported by the evidence he presents and can be an eye-opening experience if one has been taught to revere and mythologize our ancestors.

This particular project examines figures who lived between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Davis’s method is to open a chapter with a stirring incident; then connect that incident to a larger issue. He begins with the arrest of Aaron Burr, then explores the patriot’s checkered career culminating, with his alleged plans to raise a private army, invade Spanish territories, and set himself up as Governor or President. The historian moves on to “Weatherford’s War,” where the Massacre at Fort Mims launches a theme that becomes central to the book: the treatment of Native Americans and African Americans by white settlers and leaders. Davis does not idealize the Native Americans either. The author describes native massacres of whites with the same truthfulness that applies to white massacres of natives. In this section he also exposes the racist, bloody character of President Andrew Jackson in his dealings with slaves and Native Americans. The next chapter, “Madison’s Mutiny,” begins with a successful slave revolt led by Madison Washington on a slave ship that ended in freedom on the Bahamas. It provides a jumping-off point to illustrate slave ship mutinies and plantation revolts prior to the Civil War, in addition to presenting the revolution in Haiti. “Dade’s Promise,” the following chapter, describes the ambush of Major Francis Dade’s infantry in Florida. The event is then used as a way in to a discussion of The Second Seminole war, more on the culpability of US presidents (Jackson, Van Buren and war “hero” Zachary Taylor), and an interesting introduction of the sub-culture of “maroons” (escaped slaves who created hidden communities in Florida that cooperated with Native tribes). “Morse’s Code” focuses upon the anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia and the associated screeds of inventor, Samuel Morse. It follows-up with the development of the nativist parties and organizations, connecting their anti-Catholic prejudices to those faced by John F. Kennedy when he ran for the presidency. After all of the blood and tears, Davis ends in nightly news fashion, with a human interest story. In “Jesse’s Journey” he portrays the difficulties overcome by Jesse Fremont as she travels from New York to San Francisco, to meet-up with her husband, the explorer John C. Fremont. Jesse later became famous in her own right as a writer. But the story is inserted largely because women have been ignored throughout the volume during its presentation of flawed white men.

Non-fiction readers will find in Davis something unusual: a light read that is also informative. There are no challenging theories; only myth-challenging narratives. Books like this are an antidote to the indoctrination one experiences in public school history classes. The goal of those institutions is to tell acceptable stories that produce patriotic citizens; not questioning minds. By revisiting US history (or any history) with a more skeptical eye, we are able to correct misperceptions of our past that occurred on the way to adulthood. Some critics feel that this form of education weakens the United States by cracking the perceived foundations of our country. On the contrary. Informed, intelligent citizens have a greater possibility of making unique, thoughtful contributions to our nation than do indoctrinated drones. It is more important to inspire a future of invention and possibility than to preserve a past of fable.

Davis, Kenneth C. A Nation Rising. Untold Tales of Flawed Founders, Fallen Heroes, and Forgotten Fighters from America’s Hidden History. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Art and Politics in the Weimar Period. Author: John Willett

John Willett begins his Art and Politics in the Weimar Period, with an inscription in a book that haunts him. It reads “Memento of an afternoon spent in Stuttgart in Mart Stam’s house, to music by Kurt Weill. 13 Aug. 1938” (Willet, p. 8). He then asks “What was so apposite…about playing Kurt Weill records in a [house built by] Mart Stam?...What again might link a Dutch Communist architect to a Left Socialist Berlin Jewish composer whom he apparently never met?” (Willet, p. 10). Clearly, both were a part of a leftist subculture seeking unconventional, innovative answers to political problems and unconventional, innovative ways to express themselves. But Willet is not as concerned with this group’s cultural history as he is with its artistic concepts and techniques. He focuses upon its expression of “a particular constructive vision…a new realism that sought methods of dealing both with real subjects and with real human needs, a sharply critical view of existing society and individuals and a determination to master new media and discover new collective approaches to the communication of artistic concepts” (Willet, p. 11).

The book is set-up chronologically. It begins with the First World War and the changing political order between 1914-20. Here, Willet examines how war’s devastation, the transformation from imperial to Socialist government, Germany’s failed communist uprising, and artistic developments in neighboring countries, affected the artists of Germany. The war, the leftward politics and changing technologies, give rise to a number of innovative approaches in the arts: Dada performance art, Constructivist & Bauhaus architecture, mechanized music and anti-war Expressionism to name a few.

The next section explores Weimar’s somewhat economically stabilized years of 1924-8. It introduces the Neue Sachlichkeit (loosely translatable as New Objectivity) art movement, which was “a neutral, sober, matter-of-fact approach, thus coming to embrace functionalism, utility, absence of decorative frills” (Willet, p. 112). The author illustrates other currents of this time: Impersonal painting, interior design, the rising importance of photography, developments in theater and new musical composers with more machine sounds. It is a bright period of innovation, with less cultural conservatism, between the fall of the Kaiser and the rise of Hitler.

The book then records German cultural descent, beginning with economic collapse in 1929-30, followed by the “triumph of the Nazis and total suppression of the modern movement” (Willet, p. 213). In the end, we return to that tender, lost starting point: “Mart Stam’s houses and Kurt Weill’s music did indeed hang together, and this was ultimately because they reflected the same assumptions: an openness to new technologies and media, an economy of resources, a sense that art should have a function, and a reluctance to work only for a social-cultural elite” (Willet, p.124).

But while the author has reached this conclusion, he has not brought his audience along with him. This is largely because the artists are taken out of the context of their subculture. He presents the artists; he describes the movements; he talks about the politics; but he has not shown the development of a living milieu composed of people who held leftist views and appreciated avant-garde art. One discerns fragments of this culture: Bauhaus artists working together in Dessau, Berlin Constructivists visiting Moscow to meet their counterparts, Kurt Weill collaborating with Bertolt Brecht, but these are disconnected scenes. The book needed a full portrait revealing the interconnections and functioning of this community. To contrast, John Strausbaugh’s history of Greenwich Village reveals the complexity of a thriving community. He shows artists and fellow travelers drinking together, arguing together, sleeping together and protesting together. They gather in the same bars, bookstores, cafes and living rooms. Strausbaugh discusses the many relationships and conversations that resulted in political and artistic collaboration. He describes organizations and salons which helped mold this community. He clarifies what draws them together. Even if two artists in Greenwich Village never met, they would have been influenced by the same social, artistic and political factors. By the end, if Strausbaugh had depicted someone listening to a Bob Dylan album, under a Jackson Pollack painting, while making a poster for a women’s rights rally, the reader would have understood the connections. Without a similar portrait of the Weimar subculture which valued both Stam and Weill, Willett has left out evidence that would have revealed why Stam and Weill were in the same environment.

Art and Politics in the Weimar Period is successful in its portrayal of the era’s art. Additionally, it shows how the changing political landscape first inspired, then silenced the creativity of German artists. It is an important example of how liberal, democratic, political structures nurture individual creativity; and how conservative, autocratic political structures control art. Willett ends with a warning that applies to any age: “If there is a lesson for our own time, it is not just that art can benefit from a greater integration with hopeful socio-political causes. Above all it is that those causes had better not be lost” (Willet, p. 229).

Willett, John. Art and Politics in the Weimar Period. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996.

Strausbaugh, John. The Village. 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013.

For a Review of The Village, please go to

Sunday, December 17, 2017

A Cross of Thorns. The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions. Author: Elias Castillo.

On September 25, 1988, Pope John Paul II beatified Father Junipero Serra, the founder and first administrator of California’s mission system in 1769. Beatification is a major step towards declaring someone a saint. Immediately there was an outcry of protest, writing and testimony, by many Native Americans and civil rights activists who recognized that Serra had enslaved, tortured and killed, thousands of coastal natives, “facilitating the destruction of their culture” (Castillo, p.201). Elias Castillo was one of the critics who maintained pressure on the Vatican by presenting a record of Serra’s inhumanity. A Cross of Thorns, Castillo’s indictment of Serra, was published in February of 2015. In September of that year Pope Francis (often hailed as the most socially progressive Pope regarding human rights) canonized Serra.

Castillo’s book is a straightforward chronology of Serra’s role, along with that of the Spanish missions, in the conquest, persecution and destruction of native cultures. Castillo takes a bit too long getting to the incarceration and forced labor of Native Americans within the missions. He spends fully a quarter of the book chronicling Spain’s actions towards native people from 1492 to 1769; moves on to describe the history of missionary activity from 1492 to 1769; then provides a history of Native Americans from their migration across the Bering Straits 14,000 years ago until their contact with the Spanish. This is much like someone who is protesting against the Keystone Pipeline explaining first how fossil fuels evolved.

When he does finally arrive in 1769, Castillo provides an immense quantity of archeological and documentary evidence to describe Serra’s internment facilities. Incarceration was achieved through a mixture of military force, false promises of material gain or food, and offers of baptism without explaining that those who submitted became wards of the Catholic Church. Children were especially vulnerable. Once parents were baptized, the entire family was moved into a labor enclave. When children reached the age of ten, they were separated from their nuclear family, moved into a sex-segregated dormitory and considered laborers (Castillo, pp. 118-119). Castillo provides testimony from visitors who describe “how similar the missions were to slave plantations…everything…brought to our recollection a plantation at Santo Domingo…the resemblance is so perfect that we have seen both men and women in irons, and others in stocks. Lastly, the noise of the whip” (Castillo, p. 109).

Beatings were a routine part of life. This punishment was instituted by “Padre Junipero Serra…who advocated that only by using ‘blows’ and holding them captives in those compounds could the Indians in the missions be civilized” (Castillo, Preface page 1). “In his letters, Serra described the Indians’ gods as ‘demonic’…he wrote that only Catholicism could save the Indians from evil, believing that punishment was important to rid the demons from their souls. For this reason, natives were lashed regularly, sometimes so severely that death followed” (Castillo, p. x).

Severe beatings were not the only reason for native deaths. Castillo employs the medical research of Randall Milliken and Shelburne Cook, whose separate studies on health conditions explain high mortality rates. Milliken’s research showed that “native people were being introduced to diseases that came from everywhere in the world” due to mission trading with many European nations and “through the medium of the yearly visits of supply ships from Mexico. These new diseases thrived not only because the population was immunologically unprotected, but also because of the crowding and squalor that existed in mission communities” (Castillo, p. 139). Diet also had an impact on mortality. A study comparing skeletal remains between mission and pre-Hispanic coastal natives reveals that “the diet forced on the mission Indians by the friars was inferior nutritionally when compared to the diet enjoyed by Indians prior to the establishment of the missions” (Castillo, p. 154). This combination of factors resulted in the unusual circumstance where “more Indians died than were born annually” (Castillo, p. 2). According to Cook, “from 1779 to 1833, the year the missions were effectively dissolved, there were 29,100 births and a staggering 62,600 deaths…40,000 could be considered natural mortality, leaving 22,600 to be accounted for as due to the negative effect of mission life” (Castillo, pp. 139-140).

So how did Saint Serra respond to the mounting death toll? “Rather than express grief over the deaths, Serra rejoiced. And, according to his biographer and close friend, Friar Francisco Palou, Serra frequently proclaimed ‘Thanks be to God that by now there is not a mission that does not have sons in heaven’…even the many deaths of Indian children did not faze Serra’s dark joy. In a report dated July 24, 1775, to Friar Francisco Pangua, his Franciscan superior…Serra wrote…‘the spiritual side of the missions is developing happily…there are simultaneously two harvests, at one time, one for wheat, and of a plague among the children, who are dying” (Castillo, p. 82).

When looking back at the cruelty of an individual in the past, one is always in danger of judging them according to modern standards. Were Serra’s actions considered cruel for his time? Castillo, who is aware of this question, uses the testimony of over 100 of Serra’s contemporaries who were horrified at the treatment of Native Americans. Significantly, the author employs the observations of Serra’s fellow Spanish clergy and government officials who concur that the system was inhumane, even for its time. But even if those of Serra’s century had fully accepted the enslavement and violence of his forced labor facilities, should it be acceptable to us? The Turkish government in 1915 looked upon the Armenian population in their country as fit only for annihilation. Does that make the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians acceptable?

Regardless of the judgment of history or the present, the Catholic Church should have its own standards. With the canonization of Serra, it is their hypocrisy that is truly in question. They allegedly base their decisions and actions on Canon Law and the biblical myths of a non-violent savior who lived in poverty and sacrificed his life out of compassion for humanity. There are individuals, like Serra, whose devotion to the institution caused them to act in violent, inhumane ways, but are ignored rather than honored. No pope has seen fit to canonize Tomas de Torquemada, Spain’s first Grand Inquisitor, a famous administrator of torture and death by burning. But a friar who enslaved as many Native Americans as he could, causing the deaths of thousands and abetting the annihilation of surrounding tribes, is accorded sainthood. Why? Because the Catholic Church exists, as a profitable institution, to expand its wealth and influence. Canonizing Serra is a way to claim California as an area where they have power. Sainthood gives the faithful an idol around whom to gather and pray. Canonization is highly political and propagandistic in its enactment. In the most craven, calculating manner, the Church weighed the value of increased power/influence, against the lives of the thousands of Native Americans Serra killed. They decided that the institution would benefit more from having Serra as a saint. The outcry for justice from Native Americans, the inhumanity of Serra, even the Church’s allegedly vaunted morality; none of these were factors in their decision. The Vatican may wish to ignore the acts of Junipero Serra. But Castillo will not. After all of his work, he deserves the last word:

“Serra and his Franciscans established, in the Century of Light, a movement that had a goal of crushing the civilization of California’s coastal Indians. Imprisoned within the missions, where they died by the tens of thousands, the Indians saw their lands lost and their culture all but extinguished” (Castillo, p. 202).

Castillo, Elias. A Cross of Thorns. The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions. Fresno: Craven Street Books, 2015.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Transgender History. The Roots of Today’s Revolution. Author: Susan Stryker.

Professor Susan Stryker has written a heavily revised version of her Transgender History. It is practically a new book. Just released in November 2017, this volume is an up-to-date examination of transgender/genderqueer history from its beginnings through the Trump election and the “explicitly transgender inclusive and affirming” Women’s Marches that occurred throughout the US on January 21, 2017 (Stryker, p. 235).

But this updated book is not just a history. It is also an exploration of gender-nonconforming community and an invitation to those (who are interested or isolated) to join. History is used as a way to both inform about the past and inform about the culture. A group’s history is part of its culture and this one has struggled against a great deal of prejudice. As a result, Stryker presents, through successes and setbacks, a people, a heritage and a set of individual activists, of whom a community member can be proud.

For all that is positive about this book, it does not begin well. After a stirring introduction, the first chapter is designed to dampen enthusiasm. It is entitled “Contexts, Concepts, and Terms,” and is a confusing bombardment of definitions. Considering that her community has not yet settled upon a definitive term of self-definition, this leaves the reader tangled in a morass of words. Further confounding the issue is Stryker’s continuing use of “Transgender” as an all-encompassing word. Stryker admits that, “in recent years, some people have begun to use the term transgender to refer only to those who identify with a binary gender other than the one they were assigned at birth” and that transgender is a 1990s term “similar to what genderqueer, gender-nonconforming and nonbinary mean now” (Stryker, p. 37). This chapter functions as a wet washcloth on the first embers of anticipation. It would have been better if the author had included some limited terminology in her introduction; and reworked this chapter as a glossary appended to the end.

The book truly begins in Chapter Two: “A Hundred Plus Years of Transgender History.” It portrays genderqueer history in the United States from the 1800s to the 1960s. Chapter Three, on “Trans Liberation,” overlaps slightly with the previous chapter, illustrating the rise of a human rights ethos within the community and activism from the 1950s through the 1970s. The last three chapters cover more contemporary developments in nonbinary history and community from the 1970s through today.

Professor Stryker is not afraid of confrontation. She is resolutely critical of prejudice from both the right and the left. While she defines herself as “transfeminist,” Stryker is critical of feminists who exclude transgender women from events that are for “women-born-women” only. She also takes aim at lesbian and gay organizations that were late in their support of gender-nonconforming people. But, as one might imagine, she is most expository regarding oppression directed at her community from the larger society, a topic faced throughout the narrative.

The last section in the book is particularly current. It is called “Backlash, Survival, and Resistance.” Stryker begins this section by reasoning that “it would be remarkable if all the historic changes in how society understands and accepts trans and gender-nonconforming people failed to produce a backlash among people hostile to changes” (Stryker, p. 226). She depicts the trajectory of reaction against the Obama years and progressive political gains for nonbinary and other minorities, which culminated in the Trump presidency. But her analysis is hopeful. After describing the Women’s March and the “trans inclusive” mass human rights work that produced it, she ends her narrative by citing Martin Luther King’s revision of a Theodore Parker quote: “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” As an activist, Stryker is not one to depend on historical determinism to secure that justice. She adds “we can do more than cross our fingers and hope for the best if we ourselves work together to bend our little corner of the universe in that direction” (Stryker, p. 236).

Stryker, Susan. Transgender History. The Roots of Today’s Revolution. New York: Seal Press, 2017.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Feminine and Opposition Journalism in Old Regime France. Le Journal des Dames. Author: Nina Rattner Gelbart.

In France, before the revolution of 1789, there existed three classifications of periodical publications: There were the official publications, which were licensed by the Royal Court, staffed by aristocratic royalists, and propounded sentiments acceptable to the monarchy. There were the underground publications which were illegal and included writings that ranged from pornography to political dissent. The third kind of publications were tolerated publications. These were periodicals with alternative or marginal views, attempting to convince the public to accept new propositions, who wished to reach a wider audience than the underground press.

Le Journal des Dames (1759 – 1778) falls into the tolerated category. Its 19-year history reflects the fluctuations in French politics during the Ancien Regime. In the author’s words, “these papers kept alive a dissenting journalistic spirit and fought to achieve the maximum press freedom possible under a system of censorship…Periods of leniency, such as the mid-1760s under [book trade minister] Choiseul and the mid-1770s under [ministers] Malsherbes and Turgot, encouraged the frondeur [opposition] journalists to believe that the reform and redefinition of social values would be possible within the  established order, but such periods of repression as Maupeou’s ministry and Le Camus de Neville’s directorship of the booktrade forced the frondeurs into  more subversive modes of discourse” (Gelbart, p. 291).

Though Le Journal des Dames would become a feminist publication, that was not its original purpose. The two first male owners and editors presented it as a confection to amuse bored aristocratic and middle class women by printing their writings. It failed miserably. But three successive female editors gave the paper its more serious purpose of encouraging women’s creativity and independence. The final set of editors were men who, although they valued women’s independence, were more interested in using Le Journal as a mouthpiece for anti-autocratic ideas, resulting in the paper’s final suppression.

Gelbart is a diligent academic historian. Unearthing the record of this forgotten periodical involved deep submersion in the stacks of eleven different French archives. The author’s dedication to historical accuracy is reflected in her narrative: Though she expresses a great deal of enthusiasm for the three female editors, when one of them writes that Le Journal was distributed by 81 booksellers throughout Europe, Gelbart is quick to point out that this claim was “a sham, a publicity stunt” (Gelbart, p. 112). Professor Gelbart would not sully years of intense research by allowing inaccurate statements to stand.

Throughout her work, this historian builds a case that “the Journal des Dames was the first French paper to encourage women to think, take a stance, and speak up…it worked with many opposition papers transmitting explosive combinations of subversive principles and values that would later find their fullest expression in Revolutionary discourse” (Gelbart, pp. 302-3). In presenting this view, Gelbart is patient, thorough and effective.

Gelbart, Nina Rattner. Feminine and Opposition Journalism in Old Regime France. Le Journal des Dames. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

American Visions. The Epic History of Art in America. Author: Robert Hughes.

American Visions is as much art criticism as it is Art History. But what penetrating, colorful art criticism! There are few recent critics whose power, daring and insight, match that of Robert Hughes. There are few writers whose careers are so eclectic that they include general history, art criticism and travel. Many art critics remain within a narrow cultural environment and a self-created cocoon of opinion, devoid of external influences. But Hughes’ broad self-education and world travel have provided a balance of experience that permits wider influence upon his perspective.

This offering covers painting, sculpture and architecture, in the United States from untrained Colonial painters through 1990s photographers. The author examines socio-political influences as well, showing how colonial artists faced a Puritan ethic that considered images blasphemous, and extending into the 1990s when conservatives forced censorship of art whose content they disapproved. This wide-ranging examination is supported by a format where large color photos depict the individual works and movements discussed. Unfortunately, there are no footnotes or bibliography; an artifact of devising a project that is less formally a history. If a writer is going to present controversial views or even just educate, she should support her assertions with documentation.

At the outset, Hughes is faced with a dilemma: The chief American painters were just not very good. Both Copley and Peale, the most well-known of the new republic’s painters, created some of the most appallingly stiff, expressionless and anatomically misshapen portraits of the 1700s. Both artists were admirably honest and humble about their skills. Copley avoided traveling to London, where he was encouraged to train, because he would have been “a sprat in an ocean of talent” (Hughes, p. 83). Peale candidly wrote to a friend “how far short I am…of the excellence of some painters, infinitely below that perfection…I have not the execution, have not the ability” (Hughes, p. 95). But Hughes is a polite Australian guest in the US, writing for an American audience. He rationalizes that the comically outsized head in Copley’s portrait of Paul Revere by writing “the assonance between its big smooth mass and that of the teapot…is surely meant to remind us of the identity between the craftsman and his work” (Hughes, p. 86). Surely not. Copley simply had no sense of proportion. It would have been more instructive about the development of skill in US artists if Hughes had been as blunt as Copley and Peale about their lack of talent. It isn’t until the career of Gilbert Stuart that we begin to see some semblance of proportion and expression among the portraitists who remained in the US.

Another problem comes much later in the book with the migration of Abstract Art across the Atlantic. It resulted in Abstract Expressionism; the first original art movement on US soil. The difficulties involved with a trend, where communication with an audience is not the goal of the artists, is treated in another article at this link   It is too extensive a conversation to be done justice here.

There are times when the colorful, enthusiastic writing of Robert Hughes, carries him away: “In the 1950s and 1960s Americans came to believe in the supremacy of their art” (Hughes, p. 465). The author may love aesthetic works that much, but the majority of US citizens ascribe little importance to art. For the most part however, Hughes has an excellent sense of history and artistic mood. His ability to pair an unrelated poem with a sculpture, or his interpretations of a work, are preternaturally spot-on. He can write movingly as he does of the Vietnam War Memorial: “the names of the dead on the black walls, in whose polished surfaces the living see themselves visually united with the dead. They take rubbings; they leave flowers; they kiss the names of those they have lost” (Hughes, p. 570). He can write bitingly: “Mabel Dodge Luhan was a mystagogue, an egoist, a sexual imperialist and much of the time an intolerable bitch” (Hughes, p. 389). His brashness, emblematic of his style, will force a reader to react emotionally, to take sides, to think. His colorful, opinionated demeanor, highly articulate and broad, drives the narrative and engages his audience. One will not be sleepwalking through this book.

Hughes, Robert. American Visions. The Epic History of Art in America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.