Gotham Diary:
Where are the amateurs?
20 December 2013

Schopenhauer on the novel:

The art [of the novel] lies in setting the inner life into the most violent motion with the smallest possible expenditure of outer life.

Actually, this may be Tim Parks’s reworking of Schopenhauer.* No matter. It seems the most perfect description of Henry James’s art.

Ten years or more ago, I decided that I needed to read up on Schopenhauer. I even bought a volume in German. I could swallow none of it, because I couldn’t figure out how to open it up. Schopenhauer seemed lost in a fog of abstractions. These might have meant something to someone conversant with Kant — which I most resolutely was and am not. Kant is rather like television — inconceivable if you’re not habituated. And, as far as I can see, just as pointless.

Schopenhauer, however, inspired Wagner, among others, and imported a lot of thinking about the religions of India. I did read a biography. It was not alluring. Schopenhauer’s life or the biography.

Speaking of which, did you know that Borges considered himself to be a “hedonic reader“?

Borges calls himself a “hedonic” reader—he seeks pleasure in books, and beyond that, a “form of happiness.” He advises his students to leave a book if it bores them: “that book was not written for you,” no matter its reputation or fame. As a reader, he hunts for specific passages, or even just phrases, that move him. “One falls in love with a line, then with a page, then with an author,” he says. “Well, why not? It is a beautiful process.”

I don’t think that I’ve ever come across anything in Borges that made so much sense. Anyway, no Kant for me.


I recall saying the other day that Capital Culture, Neil Harris’s new book, is too dutiful to be brilliant. I’d like to add substance to this rather offhand remark. Now that I’ve finished the book, and slept on it, I can see that Capital Culture is a very good book of its kind — excellent, really — but that this kind of book can never be brilliant. The essence of Harris’s duty, as manifest in the book, is to document aspects of an institutional career. The institution in question is the Smithsonian, and the aspects largely relate to its semiautonomous “bureau,” the National Gallery of Art, as directed by S Dillon Ripley at the Smithsonian and J Carter Brown at the National Gallery. More specifically, these aspects relate to the mounting of “blockbuster” art exhibitions, three of which are described in detailed chapters of their own. Harris has sifted through voluminous archives and found a story that he can build upon them. That is what modern historians do.

So we are told a lot about Brown’s negotiations with owners, officials at other museums, diplomats, and legislators. We are told about his relations with his trustees and with his staff. An early chapter is devoted to the exciting acquisition of Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci. If someone said something interesting about a work of art, and it’s relevant to Harris’s institutional history, then he quotes it, but there isn’t very much of this sort of thing. The art itself remains largely offstage. Which is not a fault; I’m not looking to Harris for art history. The fault, rather, is in Harris helpless reduction of the point of all this effort to attendance records. Brown and his colleagues (and competitors) move mountains, or at any rate spend fortunes, to bring rare and precious works of art to the public. And what does the public do? The public shows up.

What more is there to say? What can be done with visitors beyond counting them? On the reception side, Harris makes reference to responses to the exhibitions as such and to the “politics” behind them — but only fleetingly to the constituent works in themselves. Missing from his documentary materials are testimonies to the effects that seeing these works might have had on individual visitors. This is hardly neglect on Harris’s part. The archive of such testimonies, exclusive of the trite, is undoubtedly very slim. We don’t expect museum visitors to file reports. We take it for granted that exposure to artworks is an inherently good thing.

I take it for granted that exposure to artworks is a great opportunity, but for the “inherently good thing” to happen, the visitor must do something more than pass by with an approving nod. What this something more might be, it is not easy to say, but Harris’s book makes it clear that museum officials do not seek to ascertain it. They’re content with raw exposure, which, in the case of most museums today, registers as box-office revenue. The same goes for outreach and educational programs. To the extent that they are offered and attended, they’re successful. My buying a ticket contributes to the reputation of The Girl with the Pearl Earring; I need do no more.

I’m afraid I see a hole here, a void where there ought to be something. It is not to be filled by the commentary of professional critics, who are as deformed by the configuration of art institutions (galleries and auction houses as well as museums) as the people who run them are. How rare it is for a journalist to discuss a work of art that hasn’t been moved from one place to another! I  remember a lovely piece from 2004 about Bronzino’s Ludovico Capponi (at the Frick) by David Masello, then the editor of Art & Antiques. Such essays are altogether too rare. John Updike’s writing about art is strong — but Updike was a professional writer, too. Where are the amateurs?

Late in Capital Culture, Harris describes the negative critical response that met a show called The Greek Miracle.

The first problem was the show’s rationale, or lack of one, beyond simply making available masterpieces normally accessible only to world travelers.

Many would argue that bringing masterpieces to people of less than ample means is a virtue in itself, all the justification that any transport requires, but I can’t agree, not until I know why the masterpiece itself, and not an excellent copy, such as can be quite conveniently produced today, thanks to digital technology, has to be viewed. Professional critics and other literary writers are equipped to assess that part of the experience of looking at art that depends upon seeing originals, but world travel is part of the practice of art criticism. There’s no need to shunt priceless canvases about for their discernment. Why put our patrimony of unique artworks at risk of travel when we have no meaningful evidence of the impact of their presence upon ordinary visitors?

Educating articulate amateurs is the next task of museums, and it will be even more arduous than acquiring masterpieces or building galleries. It will be just as problematic as conservation — but no less necessary. Without such amateurs, art museums will decay into elitist echo chambers, poor revenants of the palaces whose ornaments they now display. At the same time, these museums will be vulnerable to the worst sort of populism — the illiterate kind.

The sad truth is that the wonder of art, for all that it is alleged in Capital Culture, is never more than glimpsed. You have to take it for granted.


To return to another matter entirely, what the “something” about Betrayal that mattered to me might be occurred to me later in the day. I neglected to mention that the scenes of this back-to-front history of a love affair are not presented in strict reverse chronological order. Three scenes (out of nine) occur “later” than the ones that they follow, just as scenes conventionally do. This makes for a certain “second act” built around Robert’s and Emma’s trip to Venice. There is the scene in Venice itself, in which Emma confesses to Robert that she’s in love with Jerry, followed by a scene at the Kilburn flat in which Emma unwraps the tablecloth that she bought for it on the trip and lies to Jerry about going to Torcello (implying that Robert didn’t go), followed by the scene in the Italian restaurant (with its mural of Naples and Vesuvius), in which Robert, furiously guzzling white wine, tells the truth about Torcello (he went alone). We might say of this “act” that it belongs to Robert, as it is characterized by Robert’s anger at the discovery of Emma’s affair. This is the time for the actor playing Robert to let loose, and Daniel Craig did not disappoint.

But there is one more “later” scene, and it is the second. Having been told by Emma that Robert knows about their affair, now long since extinguished, in the first scene, Jerry summons Robert in a panic. He can’t be still until he knows how Robert has taken the news — which wasn’t, of course, “news.” He must have it out, and take whatever medicine Robert dispenses. This scene ends with the two men practically cuddling upon the same couch, laughing at something. This is the end of the action; this is where the story stops.

Emma and her affair with Jerry have nothing to do with how Betrayal “ends.” That matters.

* I came across the remark in the NYRB, in a review of Parks’s latest novel that quotes Parks’s “demolition job on Salman Rushdie.”

In an essay entitled “On Some Forms of Literature,” Schopenhauer did say,

A novel will be of a high and noble order, the more it represents of inner, and the less it represents of outer, life; and the ratio between the two will supply a means of judging any novel, of whatever kind, from Tristram Shandy down to the crudest and most sensational tale of knight or robber. Tristram Shandy has, indeed, as good as no action at all; and there is not much in La Nouvelle Heloïse and Wilhelm Meister. Even Don Quixote has relatively little; and what there is, very unimportant, and introduced merely for the sake of fun. And these four are the best of all existing novels.

Parks puts it better.