“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
— Words of Jesus Christ quoted in Matthew 22:21, King James Version of the Bible.
Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) Mona Lisa, with digitally added mustache. Derivative work by Perhelion.
This past Friday evening at a Sotheby’s art auction in London, the English graffiti artist Banksy remotely activated a shredder hidden within the frame of his painting Girl With Balloon moments after it had sold for one million British pounds. The lower half of the painting shredded, and there is some question now about the status of the sale and whether Banksy’s vandalizing of his own painting will render an even greater value for it.
Discussion of an artwork’s valueoutside of its aesthetic appeal is a reminder that for the rich who can afford to pay tremendous prices for art the value lies more in other, equally idiosyncratic, considerations than in its aesthetics. For the rich, art is an investment and a step on the ladder of social climbing. They may not find a particular piece they buy aesthetically appealing whatsoever. The essential thing is that enough other important people find an artwork appealing so that its value is driven up, checking off the boxes for high return on investment and an increase in high society credentials for its new owner. The artwork itself may languish in a warehouse after sale rather than go on private or public display.
The investment value of an artwork is, like money itself, largely artificial and sustained by the beliefs of the people who hold it or wish to hold it. No one can eat art, any more than they can eat money, nor can they grow food on it like they could on land, nor withdraw food from it as they might withdraw fish from the sea. It has no monetary value unless enough people believe it does. Aesthetic value, on the other hand, is almost entirely in the eye of the beholder, though some people may in their appreciation of art be too dependent on the opinions of “experts”. For an extreme case of wishful thinking brought on by peer pressure, look to the Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.
Before the Renaissance, art was for decoration of public spaces and the homes of the rich, and for religious instruction in places of worship since most people were illiterate and did not receive their education from books. The names of very few medieval and ancient artists have come down to us along with their works. That changed with the Renaissance, when artists such as Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael acquired reputations beyond their immediate patrons among the rich and powerful. Note how we have come to know all three by single names, as if they were modern day celebrities. And it was the widening of cultural influence beyond the insularity of any one city-state’s walls during the Renaissance that allowed artists to break out of anonymity.
The international renown of a few popular artists such as Rembrandt was slow to build at first, and their artworks commanded modest prices by today’s standards. It is the international culture of today and the concentration of great wealth among an ever smaller percentage of the population that has enabled the explosion in high prices for the artworks of a relatively small number of well known artists. The last great jump in prices was roughly during the Gilded Age around the turn of the twentieth century, when a great concentration of wealth created a new aristocracy of capitalists.
In the 1941 film Citizen Kane, wealthy newspaper publisher and art collector Charles Foster Kane, modeled on tycoon William Randolph Hearst and played by Orson Welles, discusses his changing economic circumstances with his banker Mr. Thatcher, played by George Coulouris, and his longtime assistant Mr. Bernstein, played by Everett Sloane.
Now there is another concentration of wealth occurring, this time on a worldwide scale rather than limited to Europe and North America. Nothing has changed, of course: as always, the rich get richer. It’s the scale of wealth accumulation that has changed, and when artworks are selling for hundreds of millions of British pounds or American dollars, a mere million for a painting by anti-establishment artist Banksy is entry level stuff. The rich people sitting on mountains of the wealth of the world would not flinch at shredding a million pounds, and the irony of one artist’s rendering matters not at all to them as long as the artist’s growing fame increases their return on investment.
10/8/2018 Update: Since last Friday, when Banksy’s Girl With Balloon partially shredded after being sold at auction for about £1,000,000, its value has increased by at least 50%, and may have doubled.
With the full moon coming on Monday, September 24, it’s fair to wonder how much influence the moon, the planets, and the stars have on earthly lives and events. This full moon is known as the Harvest Moon for obvious reasons, at least in the Northern Hemisphere where the agricultural harvest begins in September. Linking the moon to telling time is sensible considering that through most of history people did not have or require time pieces accurate to minutes and seconds. That would await the Industrial Revolution. Before then, knowing the months by the phases of the moon and the hours by the daily movements (as it appeared from Earth) of the sun and the stars was good enough.
Where things got fuzzy and slipped from astronomy to astrology was the attribution by some people of powerful influences to the celestial bodies. Those influences went beyond gravity and tides to the extent of determining the character and fate of people. What an extraordinary hypothesis! Until the Renaissance, when Copernicus and Galileo disabused humanity of the notion that the Earth, and specifically its Homosapiens inhabitants, were the center of the universe, people could indulge a belief in astrology and not be out of step with mainstream scientific thought. Now the idea that the moon, the planets, and the stars have any influence on people’s lives beyond the purely physical is magical thinking along the lines of palmistry and Tarot.
A Harvest Moon rises over Washington, D.C., on September 19, 2013. Photo by Bill Ingalls for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Most people now believe astrology’s rightful place is in the same pages of their daily newspaper as the comics and the crossword puzzle, and certainly not in the science section. The trouble begins when people in authority ascribe credence to magical thinking, and by extension astrology and other pseudo sciences. The determinism of astrology appeals to people with an authoritarian mindset because it restores a kind of certainty to a life that has become, for them, uncertain and therefore frightening.
“Moon Dreams”, performed by Glenn Miller leading the Army Air Force Band in 1944, was written by Miller’s long time pianist Chummy MacGregor, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer.
Feeling in control is comforting to them, even though oddly enough they are ceding control to an impassive universe. This is where the all powerful leader comes in, to reassure them that they are indeed still at the center of the universe and endowed by it with special qualities, rights, and privileges. The more thoughtful among them might reflect that special rights are accompanied by special responsibilities, but most are not troubled by such an uncomfortable thought, nor by the exclusion of The Other from the universe’s benevolence, as interpreted for them by their leader. What for most people is a harmless diversion in the funny papers becomes for a few true believers another reality, with its own truth they are determined to foist on everyone else. Ordinary people don’t take the true believers seriously at first, and then too late the decent, ordinary folks realize their fanatic neighbors weren’t kidding with their foolish, dangerous nonsense.
Archaeologists recently uncovered the remains of a public library in Cologne, Germany, which they surmise was built in the second century of the common era by the Romans or the workers of the Roman client state in control of the region. The architecture follows the model of other large Roman libraries of the period, such as the one in Ephesus, on the western coast of modern Turkey. The reason for thinking it was a public library rather than a private one is the great size of the structure and its location in the public forum of the ancient city, where all buildings were public.
Bookplate of American painter and illustrator Edward Penfield (1866-1925). Bookplates are labels people paste into the frontispiece of their books to declare ownership. They were more popular a century ago than now, and as seen here some readers contrived custom bookplates.
A public library of two thousand years ago was not the same as a public library now, offering books on loan to members of the general public. Because books were hand copied into scrolls or codices, they were limited in number and expensive to produce. No one could walk in to a public library of two thousand years ago and expect to walk out with one or more books under their arm, to be returned after several weeks. People read the books in the library and the books never left the premises.
The meaning of “public” was also limited at that time to those who were literate and therefore had a reason to be there accessing the books. These would have been scholars of one sort or another, whether in the employ of government, academia, or a wealthy individual, and they would have been almost certainly all male. Lending libraries did not come about until the Renaissance, after the invention of the printing press made available large numbers of copies of books at lower cost.
Even then, the number and type of people who could borrow books was limited. Universities and colleges had their own libraries, with their collections available not to the general public but to students and faculty of the institution. That model persists to this day. Private societies lent out books to their members, who also contributed books. They were lending libraries, but in no sense were they public. It was not until civic groups and prominent citizens in Boston, Massachusetts, created the Boston Public Library in 1848 that the institution of the lending library as we know it came into being. The Boston Public Library was the first institution in the country that was open to all and was funded largely by taxpayers, with some assistance by private endowments and gifts of books.
An 1855 engraving showing the future building of the Boston Public Library on Boylston Street. The library moved into the building in 1858 and stayed there until 1895, when it moved into the grand building on Copley Square where it has remained to this day.
The model caught on, obviously, since today there are over 16,000 public libraries around the country. In the past 30 years or more, two great changes have affected those public libraries, and they are no longer what they were during their heyday in the twentieth century. The first change came from the effects of cutbacks in social programs starting with the Reagan administration. Homeless numbers increased as politicians undercut the social safety net and as mental hospitals could no longer afford to house indigent patients, setting them loose on the streets. Shelters that took in homeless people overnight often turned them out during the day, and the homeless gravitated toward public libraries for safe daytime shelter with access to bathrooms.
Boston Public Library Reading Room in October 2013. Photo by Brian Johnson.
The second change came about with the rise of computers and the internet. Public libraries have gamely kept up with the technological changes despite cutbacks in taxpayer funding, and for the most part they have successfully integrated patrons’ interest in checking out electronic books as well as traditional paper books. Where conflict has arisen it is in affording access to library computers to patrons, some of whom had little interest in setting foot in their local public library until it installed computers with free internet.
With the influx of people who are not readers as much as internet users and are likely as not indifferent to norms of behavior in the library, and homeless people who sometimes abuse library facilities and even other patrons, librarians now have their hands full with duties that have nothing to do with their traditional training in library science. Patrons who are readers and have used their local library’s services in person for decades no longer feel comfortable there, and now often prefer checking out electronic books from the library’s website rather than visiting the library in person. Pity the unfortunate librarians then, who cannot escape the loud cell phone users, the raucous children who have been dumped by their parents in the young readers’ room as if it were a free day care center, and the homeless people who, often through no fault of their own, have been thrown on the good graces of the librarians, but who complicate the work day for those overburdened librarians by the criminal or mentally unstable acting out of some of their number.
Researchers at the University of Southern Denmark recently discovered arsenic in the green pigment used on the covers of some Renaissance manuscripts, which means they are unreadable without special handling. The pigment was not put there by the original writers or printers, but by Victorian preservationists who were most likely trying to prevent insect damage. The pigment, known as Parisian Green, was known at the time to ward off insects, but the link to arsenic was little known at the time. Production of Parisian Green has since been discontinued, joining a list of other toxic pigments whose drawbacks became known over time.
The late nineteenth century Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh may have succumbed to lead poisoning, dying at 37 of a self-inflicted gunshot after one of his many fits of delirium. This is one of many speculations about van Gogh’s troubled mental life. Van Gogh was extraordinarily prolific in his short career, producing over two thousand paintings in the course of ten years. He left behind many letters describing his technique and materials, and from those historians have speculated van Gogh’s high productivity exposed him to the lead in his oil paints more than what other artists of the period experienced.
Enclosed Wheat Field with Peasant / Landscape at Saint-Rémy, an 1889 painting Vincent van Gogh produced while staying at an asylum in southern France.
There is another aspect of van Gogh’s use of certain pigments which has come to light in recent years, and that is the susceptibility of some of them, mainly the yellows he mixed with white in order to lighten them, to fade to a dull brown after prolonged exposure to sunlight. Van Gogh’s paintings of sunflowers are particularly vulnerable to losing their unique quality on account of this unfortunate chemical reaction. Ironic that an artist who delighted in the strong sunlight of southern France and attempted to bring out its shining brightness in the strong yellows of his paintings should have his efforts diluted by the effects of sunlight.
Homo sapiens have some of the best color vision in the animal kingdom. Only birds have better color vision overall, as evidenced by the wide range of color displays in their plumage. Humans don’t have colorful plumage, of course, but there are many other ways we make use of our excellent color vision, and one of them is our zealous pursuit of pigments and dyes to reproduce the colors we see in the world. Our desire to display the colors we see in the world and express to others our own imaginative vision manifests not so much with our own bodies, which are limited canvases, but in art and design, in paintings and fabrics since antiquity, and in film and electronics over the last hundred or more years.
A video tribute to Vincent van Gogh set to Don McLean’s 1971 song “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)”.
Vincent van Gogh, driven as he was to recreate in his paintings the life he saw not only with his eyes, but with his mind’s eye, may have gone on even knowing the health risks of some of the pigments he was using because the colors he sought could be achieved no other way at the time, though he may have reconsidered using some others had he known of their eventual degradation of his vision. It’s also possible that for him the painting was the thing, capturing what he saw and felt at the moment, and letting the future be what it will.