The war on America’s past continues

In the wake of recent attempts – some successful – to have Confederate statues removed from the US south, what is the future of colonialist statues in the US west? In Pioneer Mother Monuments: Constructing Cultural Memory, Cynthia Culver Prescott, a professor of history at the University of North Dakota, senses a reluctance to apply to pioneer monuments the ideological zeal that was turned on Confederate memorials. ‘We resist applying the insights of settler colonial studies to American pioneer narratives because to do so would call into question foundational myths of Jeffersonian agrarianism and American exceptionalism, and lay bare white conquest of native lands and peoples.’ She outlines the cases against statues of colonialists, and particularly against female settlers, who took part in the drive to colonise the American west in the 19th century.

“Statues depicting women have been criticised by academics and campaigners for being idealising, inaccurate, generalising and stereotypical. There is a sense that campaigners direct such ire at statues of women settlers not just because they embody sexism and colonialism but because they show women as complicit in the act of dispossessing native peoples. There is a residual resentment that – in intersectional terms – a political minority took part in a project to oppress another minority….”

Read my article on Spiked here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/07/29/the-war-on-americas-past-continues/

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Impressionism in the Age of Industry

Camille Pissarro - Le pont Boieldieu a Rouen, temps mouille, 1896

[Image: Camille Pissarro, Le pont Boieldieu à Rouen, temps mouillé (1896), oil on canvas, 73.6 x 91.4 cm. Gift of Reuben Wells Leonard Estate, 1937 © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario
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Impressionism in the Age of Industry (16 February-5 May 2019, Art Gallery of Ontario) is a wide-ranging, informative and stimulating exhibition of Impressionist art and art produced by other French artists of the period. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The exhibition brings together leading Impressionists Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Mary Cassatt, Félix Braquemond, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas and Gustave Caillebotte with lesser known associated figures. There is art by many artists who are not generally classed as Impressionists. It needs to be stated up front that there is a degree of separation between the title and the contents of the exhibition. The selection includes many artists who are not Impressionists, such as the Post-Impressionists (Van Gogh, Émile Bernard, Paul Sérusier, Armand Guillaumin), Divisionists (Maximilien Luce, Alfred William Finch, George Seurat, Paul Signac), Social Realists (Jules Dalou, Constantin Meunier), the Nabis (Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard) and others, such as honorary Impressionists Jean-François Raffaëlli, James Tissot, Edouard Manet and Eugène Louis Boudin. This exhibition should really be entitled “Late Nineteenth French Artists Respond to Modernity”. However, we can forgive AGO for choosing a title more accessible and appealing to the general public.

This exhibition is centred on the Impressionists’ painting of modernity, especially a modern Paris and its environs (with a handful of exceptions). The art was redolent of the anxiety of new social fluidity, centring on places where the middle class and working class fraternised in delimited spaces such as La Grande Jatte, Asnières, café-concerts and dance halls. Impressionist pictures are full of signs denoting disparities in class, occupation and status. Parts of the social disruption were the impact of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. The rebuilding of the Vendome Column (toppled during the Commune uprising) and the erection of Sacré Coeur (seen by many Parisians, especially of Montmartre, as punitive demonstration of the state’s definitive erasure of the Commune) were Parisians consciously reshaping of their city’s material structure to reflect its cultural values. The encroachment of factories (and their ever-visible smoke) and the Eiffel Tower were incontrovertible presentations of Paris’s future as a modern metropolis.

The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were forever including subjects at their places of work: Degas’s laundresses, dancers, prostitutes and cabaret singers, Van Gogh weavers and sowers, Pissarro’s peasants and market traders, Caillebotte’s builders and Luce’s foundry workers. The oeuvre of Meunier – a Social Realist rather than an Impressionist – was dominated by the image of the working man at manual labour. It was Meunier who went on to become the most influential sculptor of the Twentieth Century, held up as the ideal of the socially committed sculptor by Socialist artistic bodies and social-realist artists. Every realist statue dedicated to ennobling the working man owes something to Meunier’s example, whether or not creator or spectator realise it.

The catalogue essays discuss the approaches of artists to the modern city of Paris, including the ways in which artists depicted workers, construction and transport. The transport they found most captivating was trains. The bridges and stations were unapologetically up to date. Monet made a group of paintings of Gare Saint-Lazare, where train smoke was contained and illuminated by glazed skylights. Caillebotte painted a boldly modern railway bridge at Argenteuil in the 1880s – the very bridge which made this outlying settlement accessible to Parisian day-trippers and painters. Newly accessible Argenteuil was a favoured riverside spot for Parisians to relax on clement holidays, where they could row, dine and dance. It was frequented by many Impressionists, who frequently portrayed the landscape, setting and visitors there. Asnières was a location on the Seine which was site for new factories, which can be seen in the background of Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières (1884). La Grande Jatte – an island which featured in another landmark painting of Seurat – is a leisure space (at the time) on the outskirts of Paris, where families, courting couples, prostitutes, shop girls, factory workers, nannies and children and others from the middle and working classes mingled in a space that provided opportunities for cross-class interaction. It was a liminal space and locus for concerned discussion by clergy, politicians, journalists and other commentators celebrating and decrying social blending. The social communication of Impressionist art was a focal point of New Criticism from the 1960s onwards and one of the most fruitful areas that social historiography has addressed in the fine-art field. The research by Caroline Shields proves that there was commercial demand for Monet’s paintings of industrial subjects in the 1870s, which indicates that not only painters but collectors of art considered the changing face of the city an acceptable subject for fine art.

Photography by Craig Boyko

[Image: James Tissot, La Demoiselle de magasin (c. 1883-1885), oil on canvas, 146.1 x 101.6. Gift from Corporations’ Subscriptions Fund, 1968 © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario 67/55]

The project of boulevardisation of central Paris by Baron Haussmann (over the period 1853-70), the expansion of the railways, the construction of the Eiffel Tower and the Basilica of Sacré Coeur all provided numerous instances of construction work for artists to study. The inclusion of photographs of Paris, and the subjects that Impressionists portrayed, acts as context and also art in its own right. Also projected at the exhibition (and included in the catalogue as stills) are Thomas Edison’s 1900 film of Paris and footage of workers leaving a factory filmed by the Lumiere Brothers.

A selection of pictures features rural workers – part of a conscious rejection of industrialisation by intellectuals in search of authentic peasantry and the back-to-the-soil romanticism of the urban-dwelling elite. Art by Van Gogh, Serusier, Bernard and – most prominently – Pissarro illustrate the utopian idealism of artists who never worked the land themselves but heroised those who did. There is sympathy and empathy, which make up for lack of understanding.

The inclusion of art by lesser known artists (not necessarily French but working in France in the 1860-1900 period) brings us art by Jean Béraud, Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, Giuseppe de Nittis and others. The other material, such as maps, plans and publications will be unfamiliar to visitors.

There is a good selection of graphic art, including colour lithographs by Henry Rivière (particularly on the subject of the Eiffel Tower – perhaps a conscious homage to Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (c. 1830-2)) and the street scenes of Bonnard and Vuillard. A lithograph by Meunier sets a miners head against the ravaged surroundings of a mine, comparing the sturdiness of the working man to the rugged and harsh environment that had formed him. A belle époque poster by Georges Paul Leroux advertises the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, which welcomed the new century with an international display of science, technology and culture. Posters by Toulouse-Lautrec are famous posters for evening entertainments. Stylistically, it is a blend of Art Nouveau dramatic form and sinuous line and beaux arts realism. Three Pissarro prints represent his typical subjects of river views and working women. Braquemond’s etching of Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844) is indicative of the Impressionist veneration for Turner as a precursor to Impressionist technique. Raffaëlli’s drypoint view of railway sidings is compared to a painting by Henri Ottmann.

Edgar Degas - Woman at Her Bath, c. 1895

[Image: Edgar Degas, Woman at Her Bath (c. 1895), oil on canvas, 71.1 × 88.9 cm. Purchase, Frank P. Wood Endowment, 1956 © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario 55/49]

Raffaëlli’s famous ragpickers are in two paintings that show the thick impasto surfaces that led to him being admired by some painters of the time (including Van Gogh). Chromatically, the paintings are not sophisticated and leave one wondering if his popularity was anything more than a fad. Paintings by Caillebotte emphasise his brilliance as a painter of reflections. An atypical Monet painting shows colliers unloading barges at a bank of the Seine. This is one of the few Monet paintings to show people at work. The coloration is muted and the contre-jour effect of the repeated dark figures seen against the water and bank makes this a picture of unexpected terseness. There are views of Pontoise and Rouen by Pissarro. There are two excellent Sisley river views, showcasing his dappled brushwork.

The bronzes of figures by Degas, Dalou and Meunier are appealing and well chosen but few in number. There are paintings of laundresses by Degas and one nude bather, all very fine, delicate and adventurous. While Impressionists made sculpture, the most successful producer of Impressionist sculpture was Medardo Rosso. (See here for my review of his art.) Sculpture was a side line for Impressionist painters, with the exception of Degas, who devoted much effort, time and thought to working on his statuettes of dancers and horses.

“Impressionism in the Age of Industry” has art which forms multiple slices of social history as well as being satisfying as art. This exhibition will introduce many to the complicated factors motivating art that is often seen as primarily in pursuit of pleasure and optical fidelity.

 

Caroline Shields (ed.), Impressionism in the Age of Industry, Art Gallery of Ontario/Prestel/Delmonico Books, 2019, hardback, 248pp, 149 col./33 mono illus., £39.99/$50, ISBN 978 3791 358 451

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Iconoclasm & the Erasing of History

“At 1:32am on the morning of 8 March 1966, a loud explosion was heard in the center of Dublin. When dawn came, visitors to O’Connell Street were greeted by the sight of a pile of rubble and the sheered column base of Nelson’s Pillar. Completed in 1809 in British-administered Ireland, the monument had honored the late Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, who had defeated Napoleon’s navy at the Battle of Trafalgar. The statue, on its Doric column, reached 134ft (40m) into the sky—almost the same height as Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. Although Irish sailors and soldiers had died in the Napoleonic wars in the British armed forces, the statue of a British military hero in the Independent Republic of Ireland still grated with Irish Nationalists, even 150 years after the erection of the monument….”

My first article for Areo Magazine is on iconoclasm. Read the article here: https://areomagazine.com/2019/04/11/iconoclasm-and-the-erasing-of-history/

Women as Creators and Subjects in Soviet Art

YANSON-MANIZER SCULPTURE  ULANOVA

[Image: Sculptor Elena Yanson-Manizer (1890–1971) working on the portrait of Galina Ulanova as Odette from the ballet ‘Swan Lake’]

The Government of the proletarian dictatorship, together with the Communist Party and trade unions, is of course leaving no stone unturned in the effort to overcome the backward ideas of men and women. […] That will mean freedom for the woman from the old household drudgery and dependence on man. That enables her to exercise to the full her talents and inclinations.

So stated Lenin. The advantages that middle-class women had secured in the decades before the Russian Revolution were not to be reserved to them alone. In the USSR, gender equality would be extended to all in a classless society. It was made clear by Party statements that women would be liberated whether or not they wanted to be. This meant work outside the home. However, as the husbands would also be working and there would no established support network of paid domestic help, this effectively doubled the workload of working women, with no extra support. Key workers would be moved around the country without consideration for their family life, imposing burdens on those remaining regarding childcare. The mother in the USSR was faced with less choice over how to live her life than before the Revolution. She had less control over the raising and education of her children, less free time and she had to – as all citizens of the USSR did – recognise she was no longer a private individual.

While there were such restrictions, women received access to improved educational opportunities. In the early years of the USSR, women had the chance to participate in careers that had been male-only preserves. One of these was not fine art, which had been open to women for many decades. However, barriers of cost and class that had prevented all but women of the wealthiest families from training at academies were removed by the new Soviet regime. Theoretically, women artists were permitted to exercise their skills to the utmost, free of financial restrictions.

Soviet Women and Their Art includes essays dealing with Soviet women as the subjects and producers of art in the USSR, from 1917 to the dissolution of the state in 1991. Profiles describe the lives and work of female artists and illustrations give us an idea of the character of their art.

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[Image: Alexandra Exter, City at Night (1919), oil on canvas, 88 × 71 cm. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, Russia / Bridgeman Images]

In early years of the Revolution, women artists flourished. There were already many women involved in the advanced art scene of the major cities. Cubism, Cubo-futurism, Suprematism and Constructivism were all current during the 1910s, some instances predating the 1917 Revolution by years. Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) is omitted from the profile section because her story is woven into an essay deals with avant-gardism. This tale includes Ksenia Boguslavskaia, Alexandra Exter (1882-1949), Nadezhda Udaltsova (1885-1961), Natalia Davydova, Evgeniia Pribylskaia, Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958) and Lyubov Popova (1889-1924). These creators or fine art and applied art worked on numerous publications, exhibitions and collaborative production before and after the October Revolution. It was a sense of community of likeminded artists that motivated this co-operation. After the Revolution, such community action was not so much mandated as officially authorised and encouraged. These collaborations included plays, ballets and parades. Early theorists suggested that complete social revolution and the smashing of traditions would be reflected in (and be promoted by) art of revolutionary character. Thus avant-garde art was the vanguard of an era of absolute change in all areas of human existence.

In a form of arts-and-crafts ethic, a number of fine artists produced designs for textiles, clothing, fabrics and household objects. This movement parallels the leftist-inspired Bauhaus. There were a number of close ties between the political and artistic left-wing movements of USSR and Germany during the 1917-1933 period before the advent of National Socialism.

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[Image: Olga Rozanova, Ksenia Boguslavskaia and Kazimir Malevich at the Last Futurist 0.10 Exhibition, December 1915, Petrograd. Photo © Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, Moscow /Bridgeman Images]

The greatest star and most painful loss to the Russian avant-garde movement of the era was Olga Rozanova (1886-1918). She was deeply involved in advanced painting. In 1912 she was making angular strongly coloured figurative paintings drawing from Fauvism and Expressionism. At an accelerating speed she cycled through other styles. The following year she was making Cubo-Futurist still-lifes and street views. By 1916 she was experimenting with Suprematism, pioneered by Malevich. She approached abstraction and by 1917 she had produced a fascinating, hypnotic painting Green Stripe, which is a vertical emerald stripe on a white ground. It presages Barnett Newman formally but it is more complex. Its irregular transparency in the edges of the stripe suggests some form that is both a strong presence and an emanation. It suggests two white walls converging or dissolving.

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[Image: Olga Rozanova, Green Stripe (1917), oil on canvas, 71.2 x 49cm. Kremlin State Museum, Rostov, Russia – Godong/Alamy Stock Photo]

Rozanova died aged only 32, which some have ascribed to her exertions to complete a decorative project in November 1918. There would be great value in a proper retrospective in the West and a comprehensive English-language catalogue of Rozanova’s art. She is the single best Russian avant-gardist artist not well known in the West. For preference, I rate her higher than Goncharova.

By the mid-1920s there was serious political resistance to such avant-garde art. The problem was of accessibility. Art that was abstract or highly stylised began to be condemned at the highest level as “bourgeois formalism”. In other words, advanced art was the games of educated elites that excluded and alienated the uninitiated, such as the ordinary peasant, soldier and factory worker. This theoretical objection to avant-gardism was solidified into Party policy by 1936. At that time, the main purpose of Soviet Communism was the preservation of the USSR and advancement of the material condition of the people. Rather than being a style as such, it was a principle that placed style below content, message below form, the political above the private, the recognisable above the strange, the direct above the ambiguous. No longer would artists strive for a cosmic universal language of liberation of humanity; instead, artists would work to advance the interests of Socialism as an extension of the development of the nation. The result was realist art that was patriotic, positive, uncritical, easy to understand, attractive and unchallenging. This meant that avant-garde artists had to adapt their style or cease producing art. Artists who were educated at this time were trained under the tenets of Socialist Realism.

Socialist Realism was not an actual style, so there was latitude for personal adaptation and incorporation of old or foreign influences. Anyone studying the range of art produced by officially supported artists will note the variety of styles though they will also note the absence of variation in tone and content – a complete absence of satire, humour, tragedy and criticism regarding life in the USSR. Soviet women artists had no immunity from the ravages of the political persecution. Their close relatives were imprisoned, exiled or executed. Some were driven to suicide or silence. Others relinquished their commitment to abstraction and turned to conventional subjects acceptable to the Union of Soviet Artists.

The most celebrated woman artist, and one of the most respected artists in the Socialist Realism era, was sculptor Vera Mukhina (1889-1953). She studied under Antoine Bourdelle in Paris (1912-4), the most advanced sculptor of the era, and at Académies Colarossi, de la Palette and de la Grande Chaumière. She made statues primarily by modelling and casting in bronze. Early influences seem to École de Paris sculptors such as Bourdelle, Lipchitz and Picasso, as well Boccioni and the Futurists. She adapted to the expectations of the Socialist Realism and produced her own form of academic realism. This extended to heroic realism, found most prominently in Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, her gigantic figures (24.5m tall) for the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Fair.

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[Image: Vera Mukhina (1889–1953), Worker and Kolkhoz Woman (1937), stainless steel, H. 24.5 m. Photo © Peter Phipp / Travelshots / Bridgeman Images]

It was a triumph of propaganda and became an iconic symbol for both the USSR and for socialism. It has to be acknowledged as a brilliant achievement in its attempt to stir emotion and inspire belief. Her various figure sculptures are illustrated. Generally, her art is not bellicose or stentorian in tone. One notable characteristic is her fidelity to life in the form of commitment to working with the nude figure. Overcoming the official tendency to produce anti-erotic depictions of figures and her commitment to working from life were major contributions. Her work in glass led to other artists following this practice. Her art is worth knowing beyond the iconic Worker and Kolkhoz Woman.

In an essay looking at the role of women in the new nation, the authors note the importance of fizkultura (physical culture) in society. Both men and women were expected to be physically fit and able to perform the tasks the state required of them, be they gymnastics, military service, dancing, working in the fields or factory, excelling in sports or mothering – always group or social activities. Men should be prepared for defence of their country. The demonstrations of co-ordinated gymnastics or military parades bonded individuals into units, drilled them to follow commands, awed participants and spectators and demonstrated the control of the state over its subjects. It was both practical and ideological. It was an expression of solidarity and unity of purpose. Fizkultura was also associated to the demonstration of the superiority of Communism through athletics and sports. These new subjects allowed Soviet artists to use semi-nude figures in action, overcoming state disapproval of academic history, mythological and the sensual nude as subjects. People engaged in sports were a particularly productive subject for sculptors. There is nothing stylistically or thematically to distinguish female from male sculptors. Leading male painters of the female nude were Arkady Plastov (1893-1972), Alexander Samokhvalov (1894-1971) and Aleksandr Deineka (1899-1969).

Three female ideals of the USSR were the lean lithe adolescent, the resolute factory worker and the sturdy fertile peasant. There was a premium placed upon the asexual: the athlete was narrow-hipped, small-breasted and with short hair; the factory worker wore unisex practical clothing and no make-up; the peasant mother was stoic and generous but was dutiful rather than attractive, more mother than wife. In each archetype individuality was reduced. In portraits we have the richness, tenderness of feeling and psychological insight of the best art of all ages and countries, but in the tradition of Social Realism there was a tendency to treat figures in scenes as archetypes.

The death of Stalin led to a period of political and social reform was called the Khrushchev Thaw. In the arts this meant a loosening of restrictions. Abstract or “non-objective” art became acceptable even if it did not become part of official projects or murals. Although the subsequent stagnation of the Brezhnev era led to the halting or retraction of some economic and social reforms of the late 1950s and early 1960s, there seems to have been little appetite for the restoration of heroic realism or the more anodyne forms of Socialist Realism at that time. An example of this new freedom may be found in the art of Lydia Masterkova (1927-2008). Her art informel, which incorporates tachiste and Abstract Expressionist elements into abstract paintings and drawings, is much closer to the mainstream of Western European art of the time than the art of her Socialist Realist predecessors. She attempts to recapture the commitment to development of the plastic content of art seen in the 1910s avant-gardism. She eventually emigrated to France.

One area of unresolved ambiguity that involved women and the arts was the ballet. Although Russian ballet was an import of French courtly culture, and was reserved for Russian royalty, it developed its own traditions and standards which made it unique and revered worldwide. So although the Party disapproved of the origins and conventions of ballet – not least its reliance on stories and music replete with bourgeois morals – the Party could make the ballet (especially the Bolshoi Ballet and Ballets Russes) available to the people as a form of Russian culture. The government of the USSR was also aware of the cachet of Russian ballet and how the art form could be used in soft diplomacy through foreign tours.

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[Image: Zinaida  Serebryakova, Portrait of A.A. Cherkesova-Benois with her Son Alexander (1922), oil on canvas, 80 × 68 cm. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg – Photo © 2018 Scala, Florence]

Zinaida Serebryakova (1884-1967) specialised in ballet scenes, mostly focusing upon the practice and preparation rather than the performance. Her paintings are not idealistic and do not engage in the ambitious technical and formal aspects of Degas’s paintings of dancers. Instead they attractive, complex and emotionally sympathetic portrayals of women at work. The dressing room tableaux allowed Serebryakova to paint partial nudes which have a delight of the sensual without being sexual or gratuitous. Serebryakova was also an extremely accomplished painter of portraits and still-lifes. Again, like Rozanova, Serebryakova is a painter whose work deserves greater recognition. Although she lived in Paris from 1924 onwards, her early work is in public collections in Russia, and it is this which is illustrated and discussed in the book.

An essay discusses appearances of women in the art of Soviet era, including as military personnel, workers, athletes and mothers, as well as pictures where their roles are unstated. Other essays discuss female sculptors and the final stage of Soviet art from the 1960s to 1991. This was an era when the unofficial artists worked outside of the Union of Soviet Artists and official exhibitions and commission competitions to produce art of abstract, conceptual or non-conformist character. They existed in a half-world. They were neither persecuted nor approved; unable to publicly exhibit, their activities were confined to private showings for private networks of supporters and colleagues. At this time, Valentina Kropivnitskaya (1924-2008) produced elaborate drawings of Russian settings inhabited by quasi-human beings. They have a Surrealistic character, with the detailed foliage and clear detail that one associates with dreams. By the time feminist theory reached Soviet artists and began to appear in art there, the Soviet Union was on the point of dissolution.

The book omits poster art in favour of the fine arts. Although propaganda has been covered in other publications, it might have been useful to mention women’s involvement in propaganda production. Perhaps more could have been written about female self-portraits. The book is a fine summary of the subject and includes much art that will be unfamiliar to Western readers. While the illustrations are generally good, inexplicably there are some weak photographs of art works that were better reproduced in Unicorn’s recent Art of the Soviet Union. It is puzzling that the better quality images were not reused in this book.

 

Rena Lavery, Ivan Lindsay, et al., Soviet Women and Their Art: The Spirit of Equality, Unicorn, 12 April 2019, paperback, col. illus., 224pp, £19.99, ISBN 978 1 911 604 761

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Seneca on Anger, Thucydides on War

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Two timely additions to the Ancient Wisdom series of Princeton University Press have been published. They bring us insights from yesteryear which apply to our age.

In our age of Twitter storms and online petitions, of aggressive demonstrations and refusals to accept the validity of an opposing argument, this extract of Seneca’s Stoic text On Anger is welcome. Seneca was the most noted Roman orator of his age – perhaps in all the ancient world – and his measured words and apt insights bring his philosophy of restraint, decency, leniency and empathy vividly to life. In our age polarised by politics and atomised by social media, Seneca’s instructions guide us to put our petty frustrations and over reactions into perspective.

Some men have called anger a brief madness; in equal degrees, it is unable to govern itself, forgetful of decorum, ignorant of friendships, obstinate and intent on finishing what it begins, deaf to reason and advice, stirred up by empty provocations, unsuited to distinguishing what’s just and true.

Anger is a disaster – “No plague has done more harm to humankind” – or a disease, akin to unsightly swelling indicating an inner malady. It makes us mad and turns us into animals. It makes us ugly and deformed. To give in to anger is akin to throwing ourselves off a cliff. Once we abandon our control we are unable to regain control and can only fall to an ignominious and unnecessary end. Anger hurts us more than any other emotion because it causes us to act against ourselves.

In the following passage Seneca could be describing the iGen, the youngest generation which grew up tethered to smartphones and social media, and its helicopter parents.

The more an only child is indulged, or the more that’s permitted to an orphaned ward, the more corrupt the mind becomes. The one who was never denied anything, whose tears a worried mother wiped away, for whose sake a babysitter got the blame, will have no resources against shocks to the system. Don’t you see how a greater wrathfulness accompanies a greater fortune?

If one looks at the university students furiously protesting real or imagined infractions of politeness, one sees these fortunate ones driven to the heights of fury. These are the individuals that Haidt and Lukianoff describe in The Righteous Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind – pampered, protected and unable to resist the mildest of challenges. Their rage is not an expression of an attachment to justice but the petulance of an affronted child. Instinctive ire at a sign of disrespect comes not from a position of confident self-knowledge but of insecurity.

In an age when we rush to judgment and post our first thoughts to public forums, we would do well to heed Seneca’s warning against rashness and credulity. We should treat news stories with caution and wait. Often enough, we will see what a trifling matter it was and undeserving of comment or emotion. Your restraint ennobles you – consider the bearing of great men.

Seneca urges us to set aside our selfish anger and instead remember our commitment to duty. He reminds us that none of us are innocent and that we must accept fair rebuke. This is contrary to the advice we get today to express our emotions, to make ourselves important, to indulge our emotions and expect others to accommodate us. Seneca’s Stoicism is tempered by consideration. His belief is that we do others a courtesy by not imposing on them demeaning emotions. We injure ourselves by giving in to anger. “Surely no one would choose to hit a foe so hard as to have his hand get stuck in the wound and be unable to withdraw from the blow.”

To avoid the temptation of ire, Seneca recommends we keep the company of calm people and try not to attempt tasks that are beyond us, for that will frustrate us. When needed, w should be able to turn our backs on the senate and forum – today, that would be switch off the news and unplug from social media. (“It is not to your benefit to see and hear everything.”) We should not seek information which personally insults us. Be wary of drinking parties. He concludes with examples of superhuman self-control by individuals in the face of monstrous provocation and cruelty. The message is clear – if these individuals could restrain themselves, so can you. In lives as short as ours, why poison them with anger?

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How to Think About War is a compilation of speeches from Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian, considered one of most accomplished and important of all histories. The author was a general in the war between Athens and Sparta in the 5th Century BC. Athens had established a trading league which became an association of colonies and allies which paid Athens to protect them from hostile forces. This league had a treasury at Delos and thus became known as the Delian League. However, it was known by all – not least the Athenians themselves – that the Delian League was actually an Athenian Empire, with tithes paying not only for the building of warships but buildings in Athens, including the Parthenon. There was “mission creep” or imperial hubris which led to the Athenians seeking to expand their empire. When client city-states revolted, these uprisings were put down with force and compensation extracted. Thus Athens – acknowledged birthplace of democracy and home to the flourishing of Ancient Greek civilisation and the wonders of art, drama, architecture and writing – was also a powerful military power which used a combination of soft power, wily diplomacy and overwhelming force to expand its influence across its neighbours. They prided themselves on propagating (and sometimes imposing) democracy on their client states. However, although Sparta agitated for the freedom of Greek states, it was a society founded upon slave labour. Additionally, Athens had a navy that could protect all of the Greek states from the threat of invasion by Persia. So although Athens was repressive, it also offered protection from foreign threat. The picture is a complicated one.

Not surprisingly, this history (left incomplete) has been seen as a parallel for subsequent imperial ventures. The most recent analogies have been between the Athenian venture and the foreign policy of the USA. Thucydides’s history has been seen as a warning of globalist ambition, military hubris and strategic overreach. Some have found justifications for a nation wishing to spread its values overseas, while others see it as a critique of that tendency. Thucydides position is opaque. While he was an Athenian, he was also critical of the failures in policy and philosophy behind the conflict. Thucydides lived to see the end of the war but he died before he could complete his history, so he knew that the ultimate military defeat of Athens was the outcome for his polis (city-state). He tries to be as objective as possible, compiling the views of participants and attempting to establish the correctness of the statements he has.

One of Thucydides main narrative devices is to record the speeches of various statesmen and generals. Some of these he actually heard, others he had reported to him. The speeches are not verbatim but they convey the position of the speaker accurately even if Thucydides considered the speaker disingenuous or misguided. This book is a collection of the speeches, each preceded by a short introduction.

On the patriotic enthusiasm for war, Pericles says: “I do realize that people are often more passionate when they are first convinced to go to war than when they actually wage it; that as circumstances change, so too does resolve.” Pericles warns that refusing to fight over small matters risks appeasing and encouraging further infractions which infringe the principles of Athens. If Athenians truly hold certain beliefs then they must be prepared to fight and die for them not to allow them to be breached. However, once the decision has been made, Athenians must be willing to fight to win and not disavow their commitment should the conflict prove trying for them. There is tactical advice on the weaknesses of a divided enemy unable to mount a sustained campaign and advantages and disadvantages of winning territory.

The principles which Athens subscribes to are outlined in Pericles famous funeral oration, included here. In this he sets out the achievements of their ancestors who fought and died to protect their people from barbarians. He speaks of Athens ability to overcome obstacles while never falling prey to the weaknesses of other cultures. He praises the education and creativity of Athenians. Grief and suffering are the cost of protecting such freedoms.

On the morale of a divided people, Pericles says: “I am convinced that people are much better off when their whole city is flourishing than when certain citizens prosper but the community has gone off course. When a man is doing well for himself but his country is falling to pieces he goes to pieces along with it, but a struggling individual has much better hopes if his country is thriving. A city can bear its people’s various sufferings but no single person can bear the whole city’s.”

A barb from leader Pericles chastising his mutinous fellow citizens demonstrates his legendary oratorical skills: “Apparently, the real flaw in my policy is the weakness of your resolve.”  He manoeuvres Athenians into supporting the continuing war by stating that whether or not they supported the establishment of the empire, they are burdened by its existence and must bear that burden. “Even if you think it was wrong to establish the empire in the first place, letting it go now would be exceptionally dangerous.” He casts opposition to war as the bind of the free riders and pacifists, who benefit from the actions of others without personally engaging. “One person’s disengagement is untenable unless bolstered by someone else’s commitment.”

A debate between Cleon and Diodotus on the fate of the Mytileneans frames the matters of realpolitik and justice. The Athenians had voted for the execution of every Mytilenean men after their failed revolt but had second thoughts and two Athenians debated whether or not to rescind the order. Clemency and punishment have implicit costs and are weighed in terms of both ethics and pragmatism. In the Melian Dialogue we see Athenians arguing that nothing between submission or defeat of Melos is acceptable because neutrality would present other nations with an alternative and encourage Athenian client states to seek neutrality. The Melians are urged to surrender because they are militarily inferior and war could only lead to their defeat, yet still the Melians claim that the unlikely prospect of victory is better than the sure prospect of submission and associated shame. A final debate is on the wisdom of Athens launching an invasion of Sicily.

++++

The translation is very readable and is printed facing the original Latin/Greek in matching parallel. The introductions and notes allow new readers to appreciate the texts to the full without preparation. These handsome small books (with cloth spines) introduce people to the classics in a way which makes these ancient writers seem as relevant and wise as any famous author of our own times. The issues in these books are as relevant now as they were 2000 years ago.

 

Seneca, James Romm (ed./trans.), How to Keep Your Cool: An Ancient Guide to Anger Management, Princeton University Press, 2019, half-cloth hardback, 220pp + xviii, English/Latin text, $16.95/£13.99, ISBN 978 0 961 18195 0

Thucydides, Johanna Hanink (ed./trans.), How to Think About War: An Ancient Guide to Foreign Policy, Princeton University Press, 2019, half-cloth hardback, 276pp + liv, English/Greek text, $16.95/£13.99, ISBN 978 0 961 19015 0

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Chekhov in the penal colony

“In 1889, doctor and writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) baffled acquaintances by announcing he was going to travel across the Russian Empire to visit a forlorn settlement on the fringes of civilisation. Chekhov was talking about Sakhalin, the largest of Russia’s islands on its north-east coast, situated between the Kamchatka Peninsula in the north and the Japanese archipelago in the south. It was a place infamous for its isolation, poverty and backwardness.

“At this time, the Russian government was shoring up its claim to Pacific territories by actively engaging in the process of colonisation. The idea was to convert exiles, prisoners and ex-prisoners into a stable Russian population, resident in a region that had formerly been inhabited only by nomadic indigenous tribes (Ainu, Orok, Gilyak and Nivkh), who had little comprehension of the distant St Petersburg monarchy. Russia would use its unwilling colonists, overseen by soldiers and administrators, to form an undeniable demographic basis to her claim over Sakhalin Island….”

 

Read the full review online on Spiked here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/02/07/anton-chekhov-penal-colony-sakhalin-island/

Publication: “Culture War: Art, Identity Politics & Cultural Entryism”

I am pleased to announce the publication of my book “Culture War: Art, Identity Politics and Cultural Entryism” (Societas/Imprint Academic).

“Why has identity become so central to judging art today? Why are some groups reluctant to defend free speech within culture? Has state support made artists poorer not richer? How does the movement for social justice influence cultural production? Why is post-modernism dominant in the art world? Why are consumers of comic books so bitterly divided?

“In Culture War: Art, Identity Politics and Cultural Entryism Alexander Adams examines a series of pressing issues in today’s culture: censorship, Islamism, Feminism, identity politics, historical reparations and public arts policy. Through a series of linked essays, Culture War exposes connections between seemingly unrelated events and trends in high and popular cultures. From fine art to superhero comics, from political cartoons to museum policy, certain persistent ideas underpin the most contentious issues today. Adams draws on history, philosophy, politics and cultural criticism to explain the reasoning of creators, consumers and critics and to expose some uncomfortable truths.”

180pp, 3 b&w illus., Societas/Imprint Academic, March 2019, ISBN 978-1845409982

Although the book will be published on 1 March, and I never normally mention such things this far ahead, there are two reasons for announcing now: 1) Amazon is offering a 35% discount (for UK sales at least) so you could save money by pre-ordering, and 2) indications are that the first edition will sell out, so if you want to read the book as soon as it comes out you would do well to order now.

Link to publisher’s selling page: http://books.imprint.co.uk/book/?gcoi=71157100083870

Link to Amazon book description:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Culture-War-Identity-Politics-Cultural/dp/1845409981/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1536611127&sr=8-1&keywords=culture+war+alexander+adams

Canon Fodder

“The canon of great art has never been the target of greater ire than it is today, but many leftist critics and their traditionalist opponents misunderstand the canon. The truth is unsettling for both groups. This essay seeks to clarify the nature of the canon at a time when it is an especially contentious subject.

Great Deeds Against the Dead

Last year art-history A-level was scrapped due to low take-up, then, after a campaign to reverse the decision, it was reinstated. This allowed New Criticism a foothold in school art-history teaching. When the new curriculum was developed, there was a downgrading of the master artists of Europe. Sarah Phillips, designer of new art-history syllabus, said “It is a global specification. Students won’t just study the work of dead white men. They will have the opportunity to study Islamic architecture and work by men and women of all colours and creeds.” Perhaps students will be tested on artist skin colour in exams.

“Art history is the study of power, politics, identity and humanity; it makes perfect sense to keep the exam,” said Jeremy Deller. One doesn’t envy students wanting to learn about painting only to be dragooned into political-education courses and harangued on the purported crimes of their forefathers, who were more likely to have been agricultural labourers toiling in fields than redcoats bayonetting babies in India. Perhaps A-level art history would have better remained decently defunct…”

To read the full article go to the The Jackdaw here: http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=1756

The Liquidation of History

“One day after a bloody clash between white supremacists and a mixture of non-violent, anti-fascist marchers and violent Antifa activists in Charlottesville, Virginia, a mob of activists destroyed a Confederate war statue in Durham, North Carolina. Fearing more violent action, authorities are concealing or removing potentially controversial public monuments nationwide. Far from easing tensions, this is likely to worsen the situation.

“From South Africa to Ukraine, statues have become proxy targets for political violence. Statues are soft targets. Often unprotected, easy to deface or destroy and unable to retaliate, they make ideal symbolic targets for those unwilling to endanger themselves. In an age when groups can be quickly mobilised via social-media postings and attacks can be livestreamed around the world, such assaults on cultural property are liable to become more common. Police rarely intervene, prosecutions for these attacks are uncommon and punishment light.

“Now the Culture Wars in the US are being fought on the streets between left-wing and right-wing activists. Civil War statues and memorials are flashpoints for this conflict…”

Read the full article online on Spiked 21 August 2017 here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/the-liquidation-of-history/20226#.WZrPc1V97IU

Literature of Longing

Denton Welch

Denton Welch, Daniel J. Murtaugh (ed.), Good Night, Beloved Comrade. The Letters of Denton Welch to Eric Oliver, 2017, University of Wisconsin Press, hardback, 213pp, $29.95, ISBN 978-0-299-31010-3

 

The upheaval of the Second World War provided many people with opportunities for covert romantic and sexual assignations. The blackout in large cities aided fleeting trysts and, on the home front, the relocation of people assigned war work, the absence of spouses and general mobilisation all loosened social constraints. People of different regions, professions and classes mingled on an unprecedented scale during those years.

In November 1943 the author-artist Denton Welch was partially crippled and bed-ridden when a friend paid a visit. Welch said he was too ill to see him, then he changed his mind; it was a decision that would alter the course of his life. The friend brought into Welch’s bedroom a handsome labourer called Eric Oliver. Although they did not know it at the time, Welch and Oliver’s lives would be entwined forever after.

At that time Welch had published a novel and some stories that had made him the toast of a small circle of London literati and a wider circle of homosexual admirers. Welch, who had trained as an artist, had been struck by a car at the age of twenty and for the remainder of his life suffered severe medical complications. Mobility seriously restricted and frequently in pain, Welch occupied himself with writing, spending his adult years in Tonbridge, Kent. Although in his twenties, he described himself as “old, so immensely old, like a stone image on a mountain watching small boys play”. Detachment aided Welch as a writer – he excelled in observation and description. Of the writings published in Welch’s lifetime the most explicitly homosexual aspects were omitted; only in the 1980s were Welch’s frankest writings published.

Welch’s journals and novels are tinged with longing, regret and wistfulness. Reading his descriptions of road-menders working in the sun stripped to the waist, we are made strongly aware of an attraction the author rarely consummated. His bucolic descriptions of rural Kent and pinpoint scrutiny of domestic details also leave a strong impression. Reading Welch is peculiarly like watching Welch write – we imagine Welch melancholy and thoughtful, his full forehead and horn-rimmed spectacles bowed above the pages of a notebook.

When Welch met Oliver, the latter was working in Kent in the agricultural service as a land boy. Oliver found Welch good company; Welch became infatuated with Oliver. The mismatch in class and outlook – with Welch a public-school-educated introverted intellectual and Oliver, a hard-drinking bisexual working-class rake – caused a degree of friction and uncertainty. After a slow start they grew closer and became lovers. After Oliver’s residence was destroyed by a V-2 rocket (in July 1944), he accepted Welch’s offer that Oliver move in with him; they would remain together until Welch’s death in 1948, at the age of 33. The companions gave mutual support and Oliver’s emotional and practical assistance brought the writer great happiness in his last years.

This collection of 51 unpublished letters by Welch to Oliver covers the period 1943-7. Most letters are from 1943 and 1944, before cohabiting rendered correspondence unnecessary. The letters of 1945-7 were written during Oliver’s absences. In early letters, Welch expresses his longing and betrays anxiety about rejection, sometimes pricked by jealousy and self-pity.

“I would agree with you absolutely, over 100% love affairs being very uncommon, but doesn’t that apply to everything in life? Aren’t all our feelings, however strong, never quite as strong as we think they might be? Aren’t they always mixed with some doubt; and aren’t we always torturing ourselves and wasting time thinking, can this be love?”

Reading of the indignities of Denton’s medical examinations and the symptoms of his conditions explains much of his peevishness, although the descriptions are touched with humour. Not all of the correspondence is introspective. Welch tells Oliver about the flight of residents from Kent to avoid V-1 bombs (a number of which landed on Tonbridge), “those wretched bombers circling overhead and those peculiar lights which flash from the hillside” and difficulties of living with rationing. He passes on news of their friends, sometimes empathetic, sometimes catty. Suffering and the threat of sudden death heightened the piquancy of Welch’s desire, though he admitted that “in some moods I would quite ruthlessly sacrifice all the lovers in the world to my work.”

The editor has decided to leave Welch’s spelling and grammatical errors uncorrected and underlining in the original letters is faithfully transcribed. Thus we get Welch at his most raw, intimate and irascible. A vivid, informative introduction allows readers previously unfamiliar with Welch’s writings to understand the course of the author’s life and work. Extensive annotation is confined to the back of the book and includes extracts of Welch’s novels and journals. The reader does not have to be familiar with Welch’s other writings to enjoy this collection, which is as fresh and lively as Welch’s fiction and journals.

This book is part of a series of publications in the press’s “Living Out” series of gay and lesbian literature. More open social attitudes towards sexuality have stimulated interest in gay writing. Newly published letters and diaries give us insights into the experiences of people whose stories could not be publicly told in the eras in which they lived. Although some individuals considered their sexuality shameful and found subterfuge stressful, others relished the frisson of “sex as crime”, leading the lives of sexual outlaws and conspirators. Welch’s life is particularly poignant as it was so clearly restricted by the circumstances of his time. In a later age more advanced medical treatment and altered social attitudes regarding homosexuality would have extended and enriched his life. Yet, perhaps Welch’s best qualities as a writer spring from painful yearning and a sense of isolation. Paradoxically, what might have made Denton Welch’s life fuller would possibly have made his writing less powerfully engaging.

Alexander Adams