Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture. By TCW Blanning.

As the author concisely states: “This book is a comparative study of the development of political culture in Europe from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth century…the focus is chiefly on Great Britain, France and the Holy Roman Empire. Its central thesis is that during this period a new cultural space developed, which posed new challenges to regimes and their ruling orders. Alongside the old culture, centered on the courts and the representation of monarchical authority, there emerged a ‘public sphere’, in which private individuals come together to form a whole greater than the sum of the parts … ‘public opinion’ came to be recognized as the ultimate arbiter in matters of taste and politics. These changes presented regimes with both a challenge and an opportunity” (p. 2).

Tim Blanning’s introductory framework is a restatement of Jurgen Habermas’s ideas, from The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. But, there are important disagreements between the two. Blanning attempts to depart from Habermas by “clear[ing] away” his predecessor’s “insistence on the ‘bourgeois’ nature of the public sphere” and “its allegedly oppositional orientation” to 18th Century regimes (Blanning, p. 14). That he fails to clear away either will be explained in the course of this review. But he does provide a significant history. His examination is richly informative and applies public sphere theory to an expanded range of political environments. Habermas focused his initial examination on France. Blanning surveys France, Britain and the Holy Roman Empire. By doing so, he is able to exhibit how other early modern authorities dealt differently with this newly formed cultural space.

An important revelation is that the challenge of the public sphere did not have to result in violent revolution, as it did in France. Great Britain was able to adapt to public opinion. It had a monarch who projected a moral character admired by middle and working class subjects, and a Parliament that prided itself on liberty to an extent not mirrored in France. There were factors ignored by Blanning: Part of the island’s advantage over 18th Century France was in having an economy where, thanks to imperialism and industrialism, fewer commoners went hungry. While these conditions were immediately harmful to subjects, slaves and colonies, they gave the government time to acclimatize to democracy.

The Holy Roman Empire is a more problematic example. Blanning’s focal point is Frederick II’s Prussia. This historian sees Frederick as Frederick saw himself: as an enlightened despot. Certainly, Frederick II deserves credit for fostering the arts, censoring publications less than France did, surrounding himself with Philosophes and talking a good game. But he didn’t “create” the Prussian public sphere as Blanning claims (Blanning, p. 227). Neither did he make “contributions to the formation of a public sphere” (Blanning, p. 223). This arena was evolving in his nation in spite of monarchy; not because of it. One should be more judicious in evaluating this king: Frederick allowed “some freedoms of the press” (Blanning, p. 224). He joined the liberalizing Freemasons (Blanning, p. 226). He wrote articles that were widely read. Some credit is due. It may even be true, as the historian claims, that Frederick II “was a genius…as a political theorist, historian, poet, dramatist, composer and flautist, he would deserve his niche in any cultural history” (Blanning, p. 227). But a careful reader needs to look past Blanning’s colossal man crush to examine the workings of power. A monarch has privileges of action and expression that others do not. The public sphere is an arena of thought experiments and debate. But the only times that the author quotes someone criticizing Frederick’s ideas is when that person is outside of Prussia. Moser disagrees with the king over Shakespeare from the safety of Osnabruck (Blanning, p. 251). Writers for the Hamburgische Neue Zeitung dispute Frederick’s evaluation of German literature from their free city (Blanning, p. 262). No evidence is shown of Prussians debating their king over literature. Also, what is not publicly spoken is as important as what is spoken. Literary criticism is one thing, but the menace of authority would not permit one to excoriate governmental shortcomings in Prussia. Frederick did not contribute to the growing public sphere; he controlled it in some areas and usurped unrivaled privileges of expression in others.

Part of the author’s misperception of monarchical government lies in a basic misunderstanding of power. Blanning’s Introduction states “in 1679, Louis XIV obliged Frederick William…to return to Sweden all the territory conquered…not by force of arms…but by his aura of authority” (Blanning, p. 5). Earlier, he says it was “the success of the British and Prussian states in adapting their political cultures which enabled them to achieve success in war” (Blanning, p. 3). While factors like an aura of authority or a modern political culture may contribute to success, the ability to do violence and visceral fear are far more persuasive motivators. Frederick William knew that France had the largest modern army in Europe and immense wealth to support a protracted war. Power is not as intellectual a force as Blanning presents. So he depicts Frederick as an enlightened participant in the public sphere without seeing how his threat gave him control. He shows British government reasonably bending to public opinion, without understanding that behind this civility loomed their memory of Civil War, and numerous bloody revolts, which produced a taste for compromise and stability.

When examining history, one must look forward as well as backward from an event to understand it in context. The history of the public sphere is one of a public applying pressure to authoritarian governments to produce changes. The scope of Blanning’s book only shows the period of 1660 - 1789. So he neither sees back to the series of the aforementioned armed conflicts in England, nor ahead to the results of public sphere pressure. The history of British monarchical & aristocratic government is one of bending so far that it was eventually bent-over. The UK gradually achieved full suffrage, between petitions and revolts, because government eventually accommodated over three centuries of pressure. In the German principalities consistent pressure, memories of the French Revolution and occurrences like the Revolution of 1848, eventually led to government concessions. Public opinion favoring democracy, educated over years of legal and censored writing, along with the Kaiser’s loss in World War I, produced Germany’s first republic. In the long view, a persistent, inextinguishable public voice desiring equal participation (along with the threat or actuality of violence), won in Europe.

Blanning’s failure to see the dominance of the bourgeoisie in the public sphere is puzzling. Monarchs and aristocrats did write, and create institutions, outside of the court. But the institutions they produced were fairly exclusive. The author’s own statistics regarding European musical events, show that middle class individuals attended middle class venues and aristocrats attended aristocratic venues. When liberal aristocrats opened their events to the populace, few subjects could afford tickets (Blanning, pp. 172-3). If institutions are not available to the public, they cannot impact the public sphere. Concerning publicity and writing, aristocrats were a small minority of the participants. Many of them supported ideas that would improve conditions for the middle class. In general, public sphere publicity benefitted the middle class and diminished aristocratic power. Saying that the public sphere was not bourgeois is like saying that Black Lives Matter is not an African American cause, because a minority of white people are involved.

Though Blanning fails to disprove Habermas with his notions, that the public sphere was neither bourgeois nor antagonistic to the traditional power structure, his study has a great deal of merit. His central thesis, quoted at the outset, remains intact. This study is broader, though not deeper, than Habermas. He examines more nations, showing how they avoided revolution through accommodation and usurpation of public sphere vehicles. It is unfortunate that a writer, with “power” in his title, does not understand how power over people is different from power with people. But the author’s survey is thoughtful and coherent. He remains on-point throughout a lengthy project. More importantly, one can understand him. As Blanning observes, “even native German speakers have difficulty deciphering [Habermas’s] tortuous prose” (Blanning, p. 6). Readers of English who have found translations of Habermas to be a scrum of concepts, should pick-up The Culture of Power. Habermas may have had an original and brilliant theory, but Blanning explains and exemplifies it with superior clarity. Able writing, coupled with broader application, make this work a valuable contribution to history and public sphere theory.

Blanning, TCW. The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture. Old Regime Europe 1660-1789

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. By Patricia Buckley Ebrey.

For a historian writing a book that covers a great swath of time or region, there are pitfalls which are difficult to avoid. The mass of information can overwhelm an author to such a degree that marshalling facts like significant dates, names of rulers and wars, result in a text composed of desolate rote data.  But that data is important evidence which cannot be disregarded.

Patricia Buckley Ebrey has performed a masterful job of solving this problem. Her subject, China, is lengthy in history, wide in regional influence, vast in geographical proportions, incomparable in population and important in modern geopolitical power. Fortunately, she has structured her narrative with such balance that it breathes with humanity. All the necessary mechanical facts are present, interwoven with a plethora of information on culture, individuals and experiences of the Chinese people. Ebrey gives special attention to artistic and intellectual developments. She highlights movements and personages responsible for social, political and cultural change. She provides snapshots of daily peasant life and emphasizes conditions for women during each age; in a society with a notable history of suppressing both of these groups. Ebrey emphasizes that China is a collection of many conquered and amalgamated ethnic groups with distinctive attributes. Her presentation of softer realities (culture, humanity and transformation), within a framework of hard chronological facts, is a balancing act that will provide readers with a holistic picture of China’s history.

Ebray does fall down near the end of her study. The last two chapters, from China’s revolution to the present, compress too many sociopolitical changes and events into 66 pages. The author is unable to present a form or conclusion during this bombardment of information. The reader is presented with chronology, but superficial analysis. In this circumstance, the reader is as flattened as the author under the weight of an unmanageable rush of developments. Clearly, the author’s forte is the presentation of history. Her ability to present current events, or the connection between current events and history, is in question.

But the structural breakdown that befell the last two chapters does not detract from Ebrey’s stellar accomplishment. She has presented the history of an immense topic in an effective manner. For a non-fiction reader to benefit from an extensive text, there must be something human on which to adhere. When a historian presents humanizing information within a chronological framework, it gives the audience an experience of empathy with the topic. This empathy enhances one’s ability to remember facts. If one feels empathy towards women subjected to foot-binding, one is more likely to remember the time period in which it occurred or the class of Chinese who practiced it. If one develops an appreciation of Chinese painting, one is more likely to remember what was happening in the environment in which it was produced. These humane keys are scattered throughout Ebrey’s narrative, giving the reader a means to manage the volume of information and connect to China’s past. This technique also encourages lifelong learners to pursue further improvement and education by looking for materials that address subjects they found interesting in the text. In general, readers will retain substantial information and develop greater interest in China because of Ebrey’s technique. More historians should examine what she has done if they wish to inspire interest in their topic.

Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Savage Beauty. The Life of Edna St Vincent Millay. By Nancy Milford.

Most poets do not make a living from their writing. This was especially so for female poets in the 1920s. Undoubtedly, the road was even harder for one from an impoverished family in Maine. But Edna St Vincent Millay was recognized by the literary world for a salient talent by the time she was nineteen. She entered a national contest for poets and, although she did not win, she caught the attention of a New York socialite named Caroline Dow. A Vassar College alum, Dow convinced her alma mater to accept this gifted young woman and prodded her New York alumnae circle to pay the tuition.

Millay’s poetry is not flowery or sentimental. It more reflects the cynicism in her life regarding relationships:

I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever; by and by
I shall forget you, as I said, but now,
If you entreat me with your loveliest lie
I will protest you with my favorite vow.
(Milford, p. 175)

Millay knew whereof she spoke. She had so many simultaneous lovers, both men and women, that it is surprising she was able to keep her personal life from the public spotlight. But even when her poetry alluded to what would have been scandalous indiscretions for that era, her fans seem far more interested in her ability, her presence and the passion with which she writes.

As with any personality, one must contend with some unlikeable traits. Millay is vain, self-absorbed and emotionally impervious to the harm that her recklessness causes others. This is particularly so late in life before she learns to control her addiction to opiates and alcohol. But even in college, her letters home are crassly insensitive: She lists all the clothes that Ms Dow is buying for her just when her impoverished mother and sisters are being evicted from their rental property (Milford, p. 120). Also, the narrative records complaints of friends and acquaintances used by Millay for personal or professional gain, then ignored after they have outlived their usefulness. But there are appealing qualities to balance these negative traits. Millay had a sparkle that made people want to know her whether she was at Vassar, in Greenwich Village bohemia, or in the Midwest on reading tours. One roots for her to succeed and lift her family out of poverty. Her verse, honest, self-revealing, well-written, allows a reader access to appreciate her. This biography presents so much of her poetry chronologically, in context with events of her life, that it exposes her struggles, her triumphs and her development as a poet.

Nancy Milford’s book is an absorbing, pleasurable meditation on personality and inner life by an author who has researched her subject in a deep, personal way. It was helpful that she had unique access to Edna’s private papers and letters which had been jealously guarded by Millay’s sister, Norma. This younger sibling had hoped to write her own biography of Edna, but never got around to it. Milford formed a friendship with Norma and cajoled both the papers and much intimate family information out of her. Because of its sensitivity, its revelation of the internal and its many intersecting personalities, Savage Beauty reads like a Jane Austen novel come to life. Milford’s offering is a master writing course for biographers. This is how it is done.

Milford, Nancy. Savage Beauty. The Life of Edna St Vincent Millay. New York: Random House, Inc., 2002.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Problem of Abstract Expressionism. Inspired by reading Robert Hughes.

In Europe of the early 1900s, abstraction of a visual image permitted painters to express additional emotion or features that a simple representative painting might not. It was part of the constant experiment of thesis-antithesis that permits artists to innovate, rejecting what came before and creating something new. Witness how German Expressionism in the hands of Oskar Kokoschka produces a scrumble of paint in the flesh of his figures to show conflicting emotion. Some movements, like Cubism, were an attempt to come to terms with a fast paced society where, in a newly invented car, for example, a rider will see the front, right and back, of a walking pedestrian, all in the matter of two seconds. Cubism was an experiment to communicate this experience visually on a two-dimensional surface in a fixed time. But in the hands of US artists in the 1940s and 50s, these attempts at new means of communication and expression to an audience evolved to exclude the audience. The first original art movement created on US soil, Abstract Expressionism, eliminates any image onto which a viewer could latch. It encompassed a collection of motives, some useful for the development of painting. Pollack’s drip paintings are a freeform play with technique that liberates the painter from the fist and brush. It results in often aesthetically pleasing patterns, but for a viewer who has not read that Pollack is only playing with technique and not attempting to communicate, it can be confusing. Robert Motherwell produced conceptual works. He wrote volumes on his ugly shapes of black washes on white canvas that look as if they could have been applied with a dish sponge. There is not one person who could look at his famous “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” and see anything that vaguely resembles its title. But his concepts have inspired generations of artists, even representational artists, to create and invent.

It would be authoritarian, and potentially censorious, to say that these works are not art. Such pronouncements are too often used to squelch creativity that is either not understood or not approved by an establishment. If we wish artistic expression to remain an unrestricted process, an open-ended definition such as “Art is an expression using a medium” is required. It prevents art Nazis from defining and controlling what is, or is not, art.

However, there is nothing wrong with saying that a kind of art has difficulty communicating with a viewer, especially when it is not the intention of that work to communicate. Let’s take, for a moment, the black-and-white lines applied to paper by Franz Kline. Some conceptualize his works as “A Unique Existential Act.” Others claim that his inspiration came from Zen Calligraphy. And still others state categorically that his “work had nothing to do with … Zen Calligraphy” (Hughes, p. 481). It is possible that, given the many contradicting opinions on Kline’s work, that no one can grasp what he is doing. Maybe he is describing the taste of cauliflower. He doesn’t say. It is an internal monologue not meant to communicate.

Then, of course, there are those artists who are simply attempting to deceive the viewer. About his abstract “zip” paintings (visually, a canvas painted all one color with one contrasting color stripe down the middle), Barnett Newman once said that a friend “challenged me to explain what one of my paintings could possibly mean to the world. My answer was that if he and others could read it properly it would mean the end of all state capitalism and totalitarianism.” The critic Robert Hughes responded “Such utterances are the very definition of bullshit: empty depth” (Hughes, p. 494). But these utterances are so common that they have become a written prelude to most art shows. The art world is now open to a greater number of posers and con men than ever before.

So how does an art lover approach work that is entirely abstract? Should we follow the advice of knowledgeable, well-read critics and art historians? The same generation of critics who could not agree on the line paintings of Franz Kline also panned the drip paintings of Jackson Pollack in 1948; then in 1949, when Clement Greenberg wrote that Pollack was a genius, they all started to praise the artist. The critics don’t know any more than the casual observer. The only solutions appear to be either 1) to keep one’s self up to date by reading the volumes of sincere and insincere writings that artists and critics have produced on individual painters, democratically making one’s own judgments, 2) Look at the specific works in galleries and museums with an emotional/gut approach concerning how you feel about the work, or 3) Forget about abstract art and look at representational forms. This is art; not survival. How you approach the topic is entirely up to you.

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