Marx, capital and the Madness of Economic Reason, by David Harvey.
256pp. Profile. £14.99
Dr. David Cowan
It is ironic that a high street bank used the 1980s Tears for Fears hit “Mad World” to advertise its services in recent years. The exuberance of the 1980s rendition has devolved into a more melancholic tune, offering a metaphor for changing economic fortunes. The generation that danced to the tune of Milton Friedman and free markets have watched their funds dwindle and their offspring spiral into debt. It is this mad world, or rather the madness of economic reasoning, that David Harvey challenges in his articulate reworking of Marx to address our contemporary problems.
The implosion of the Soviet Union suggested communism was destroyed and only capitalism is viable, sending Marxist ideology into apparently terminal decline. In a spirited defence Harvey, an old Marxist hand, suggests Marx opens the door to understanding why workers today struggle in the world of capital. The heart of his book is Marx’s…TLS subscribers can continue reading at TLS
Dr. David Cowan
You can read my debut piece for @wallpapermag - a preview of the forthcoming exhibition of Japanese artist Setsuko Ono at the @DaiwaFoundation Setsuko, Yoko Ono’s younger sister, exhibits two solo exhibitions for the first time in London. I will offer a larger review and interview when the show opens February 16th in London.
Dr. David Cowan
I don’t know if it is Brexit, Trump’s increasingly offensive remarks, the Jupiter-like power of Macron or just something in the water, but there is a bit a thing going on with power and art just now. London has two exhibitions opening: Charles I: King and Collector at the Royal Academy and Charles II: Art and Power in the Royal Collections. Paris has had two significant exhibits spanning the new year, with one of them just ending yesterday. In Spring there will be Birth of a Nation: Italian Art from Post-war Reconstruction to 1968 at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. That exhibit will be a representation of people and power in the art, politics and society of Italy from the 1950s to the protest years of the late ‘60s. Last year, I reviewed Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites for the Burlington Magazine, an exhibition that showed the Jacobites pretension to power. These exhibitions explore power differently, from the pomp and circumstance of the London and Paris displays, through to the different historic protests of the Edinburgh and Florence exhibitions.
Power and art have always been in relationship of course, with the former often financing and commissioning the latter to enhance the enigma and allure of power. Power, as the Florence exhibit highlights, is also a matter of protest. It is a good thing that we learn more about these interrelationships; it will surely help us understand the dynamics of power in our own time. The desire to airbrush people and events out of history is to misdiagnose the role of art. We need to understand what power was and its uses, and be reminded of how we got to where we are.
What we understand as abuse of power now is different from how abuse was understood in past times. People in the eras of the London and Paris displays would no doubt look in wonder at how we use and abuse power today. In more recent times, the 1960s culture wars have been turned on their head with all the #MeToo accusations, which can be traced back to how people behaved then and what they tolerated. Art educates, which is why organizations in search of power like the so-called Islamic State destroy art and heritage. They want to destroy cultural memory.
For the record, Rubens: Portraits Princiers closed at the Musée du Luxembourg on Sunday, having run since 4 October. Among the portraits on display were those of Philippe IV, Louis XIII and Marie de’ Medici and other royal figures by the artist and some of his famous contemporaries, including Pourbus, Champaigne, Velázquez and Van Dyck. The visitor was introduced to the power and stately riches of 17th century European courtly life. A far cry from the power politics of today, though perhaps what we may have think of as regal back then maybe struck contemporaries as just as Trumpian in the 17th century.
Happily, the wonderful Théâtre du Pouvoir at the Louvre runs until 2nd July. This exhibit takes visitors from antiquity up to the present day, featuring forty works from the Musée du Louvre, the Musée National du Château de Pau, the Château de Versailles and the Musée des Beaux-arts de la Ville de Paris. The displays give us an impressive sweep of power through history using art and artefacts, a much broader remit than the slivers of time at the Musée du Luxembourg and London exhibitions.
We are take on a journey showing us the codification, representation and follies of political power. The exhibition is divided into four sections:
If you go to the London exhibitions and want more, I highly recommend you hop on the Eurostar to the Louvre. I’ll look in a future blog at the Florence exhibit, and there will surely be more power and art themes explored as our power politics evolves. It appears to me we are in a period of paradigmatic change, which itself will one today be an historical exhibit.
Dr. David Cowan
It is not enough today for celebrities and others to shout #MeToo, the history of art it now appears is to be subject to the same retrospective scrutiny. The reason? Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, better known as Balthus (1908-2001). The picture causing the stir is his Thérèse Dreaming, which shows a prepubescent girl in a languorous and erotic pose. The location causing the stir is the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Last month, Anna Zuccaro (26) and Mia Merrill (30) launched an online petition asking the Metropolitan Museum of Art to remove the painting. Either that, or at least change the way that it is presented.
Ms Merrill, a former art history student at New York University and feminist activist, states in her petition “When I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past weekend, I was shocked to see a painting that depicts a young girl in a sexually suggestive pose.” And “It is disturbing that the Met would proudly display such an image” that “romanticizes the sexualization of a child.” Then they get to their main point, “Given the current climate around sexual assault and allegations that become more public each day, in showcasing this work for the masses without providing any type of clarification, The Met is, perhaps unintentionally, supporting voyeurism and the objectification of children.”
Conscious of the artistic sensitivities around censorship and destruction, the petitioners changed their tune slightly. Having launched a petition for removal they shifted to a demand that the museum “be more conscientious in how they contextualize.” In other words, they want the viewer to be told what to think about the painting, or perhaps they think the average art gallery viewer to be too puerile themselves to understand and process the obvious eroticism of the piece. The petition currently has over 11,500 signatures.
What of the art itself? Balthus used as his model Thérèse Blanchard, the daughter of a neighboring restaurant worker. She modeled over three years for 10 paintings, starting in 1936 when she was a mere 11 years old. She posed for Thérèse Dreaming aged about 12 or 13. Writing about a Balthus exhibit at the Met in 2013, art critic Peter Schjeldahl suggested, “Looking at the paintings, I kept thinking of a line by Oscar Wilde: ‘A bad man is the sort of man who admires innocence.’”
Largely self-taught, Balthus learned from copying paintings and frescoes in Italy. He was mainly influenced by two disparate sources, Piero della Francesca and the realist Gustave Courbet. We see this confluence in his painting of The Guitar Lesson (1934), which shows a woman with a prepubescent girl draped across her lap. The woman’s right breast is exposed as she holds the girl’s head up by her hair in her right hand and her left hand is placed close to the girl’s genitals as if playing an instrument. A later drawing of the same pose has a man replacing the woman, as he tugs at the little clothing she has with his mouth. The original picture is an echo of La Pieta de Villeneuve-les-Avignons (c.1470) in the Louvre, which shows Christ in a reclined position cared for by nuns. The theme of sacred love is clear, but Balthus adds an erotic charge for the modern viewer.
If one works through the oeuvre of Balthus one finds a whole catalogue of such erotically charged pictures of girls seemingly too young, and many with looks far too knowing, to leave much doubt of Balthus’s Weinstein qualities. However, they also raise the question of innocence and what critics see as a bourgeois view of sexuality. There are many such paintings, such as Young Girl with a Cat; Balthus had a thing about cats as well. That picture is echoed in one of the famous Pears Soap advertisements, in 1901. Of course, the interplay of art, eroticism, pornography and advertising is hardly new.
The Met has said it will not take the painting down nor will it provide a narrative or “contextualization” for the picture, beyond the current descriptor of title, artist, year, and the model’s name and age. These works have been in plain view for decades; indeed, last November I attended two exhibitions featuring Balthus in Paris, at the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art and the Pompidou Centre. Like Harvey Weinstein, everyone knew before there was something erotically charged about the prepubescent portrayals painted by Balthus.
What worries me is the demand that the interpretation of art should be canonized, and in this respect I’m with the Met on this one. It is troublesome that today’s activists are starting to cleanse art, a struggle once undertaken by the church (which now has to put up with crucifixes immersed in urine) and trampled on by modernity. It seems we have the emergence of a postmodern secular puritanism that lacks a narrative against which to measure taste and morals. The Met petition may only have 11,500 names, but I suspect the art world can expect a whole lot more.