Another Philadelphia Story

September 12, 2010

The distance from Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia, to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway site of the Art Museum is about 5.5 miles, and along it was stretched a line that was pulled in a gigantic tug-of-war with a $30 billion prize.  It’s all in the film The Art of the Steal, a wonderful telling of a very seamy story from the art world.

Dr. Barnes (1872-1951) grew up poor and put himself through the U of Penn by boxing.  He became a doctor, and invented an important antiseptic drug that made him fabulously wealthy.  He liked art, and had an excellent eye for it, so he used his wealth and leisure to visit Europe, get to know the avant garde, and buy their work.  It was pretty cheap, then.  He opened his huge collection to the public in a show in 1923, and it was hooted at, derided, and dismissed by the cultural elite of the City of Brotherly Love.  It was one more thing for him to hold against the City Fathers.

Not too long after that, opinions on post-impressionist art began to change, even in America, even in Philadelphia.  His collection was now recognized as a stupendous trove.  Today, it is considered to be worth up to $30 billion, whatever that means.  He built a home for it in Merion and stipulated that it should never be loaned, moved, sold, or divided, and that it was to be used as part of an educational program administered by the foundation he set up.    He designated a small black college as the trustee of the collection, another poke in the eye of the conservative Philly elite.  (He was a New Deal Democrat and progressive on racial issues.)  Unfortunately, he died without heirs, and he didn’t leave the foundation quite enough cash to make it an independent power of its own.

The political and cultural power brokers, what are sometimes known as the ruling class (they keep a low profile in America, but they are here) didn’t like the idea of all that fantastic art being left in a mansion out in the ‘burbs.  Despite their Republican credentials, with the reverence for private property and the sanctity of contracts that that implies, they set about putting aside the last will and testament of Dr. Barnes.  Why?  The documentary advances several motivations, but the bottom line is that having the collection downtown would serve their purposes, their tax purposes, their city-booster purposes, their political purposes.

In the scheme of things, it’s a small matter, I think.  (The individuals who fought the move disagree, but they all were personally connected to the Barnes in some way.)  Small but sad, and sordid.  Power rode roughshod over the clearly expressed wishes of a man who had collected art.  It was his, after all.  And he didn’t prevent people from seeing it.  He just didn’t think it should be in a museum administered by people he considered elitist phillistines.

You could argue that moving the collection downtown will be good overall.  More people will have access to it.  I myself might go see it, and I doubt I would if it stayed in Merion, but that’s how Barnes wanted it.  If you didn’t really want to go see it, well…maybe you wouldn’t see it.  Does everything have to be easily available to tourists?  Is that the final arbiter of cultural value?  Something unique was lost, that’s certain.

Yes, some of the opponents certainly sounded like snobs, sneering about tourism, and people arriving on buses to traipse through the planned home of the collection… but the fact that it was a power struggle is made clear by a note about Walter Annenberg’s donation of his collection to the NYC Metropolitan Museum that comes near the end.  His will stated that the collection should never be sold, divided, or moved.

The crowd, Pascal, and the philosophers

June 20, 2009

weegee_coney blaise philosophers

I have been fascinated by Blaise Pascal for a long time.  He was a child prodigy; he invented an early mechanical calculator; he was an accomplished wit and satirist who skewered his opponents in religious controversy in his Provincial Letters; his scientific work on hydrostatics and the debate over the existence of a vacuum were as monumental for the future of physics as was his ground breaking work on geometry and probability theory for mathematics.  And, he was a mystic.

In the last week or two, a few exchanges here and there in my little corner of the blogsphere have brought him to mind once again; specifically his thinking about the role of The Philosopher (thinkers and intellectuals)vis a vis The People, aka The Masses.  In his very short introduction to Pascal (Pascal:  In Praise of Vanity, part of the Great Philosophers series) Ben Rogers teases out Pascal’s thoughts on this topic from his Pensées, that disordered bundle of notes and passages in his papers found after his death.

Sometimes I take Troutsky & Co. @ Thoughtstreaming to task for their leftist-Marxist assumptions about the nature of popular consciousness. I happen to agree with most of their policy prescriptions, but they often sound to me as if they believe that “everyone is just so damn stupid – if they’d just read more theory, or listen to us, they’d see the truth and revolt – but they are drugged (that opium, again…) by popular consumer culture and propaganda so they vote Republican, etc. etc…”  Sometimes these agitators of the Left sound almost as supercilious about The  People as William F. Buckley, that great pseudo-intellectual snob, sounded on a good day.  Pascal addresses just this conflict.

As Rogers reads him, Pascal detected in The Philosophers a “conceited intellectualism – a utopian rationalism – which he was determined to shake and unsettle.”  Even though Pascal assented to the Philosphers’ condemnation of popular vanity – the people don’t know the truth, they are diverted by stupid useless entertainments, they are driven by their passions rather than by analysis – he engages in a “constant swing pro to con” about them.  Some might call it a dialectic.

Thus we have shown that man is vain to pay so much attention to things which do not really matter, and all these opinions have been refuted.

Then we have shown that all these opinions are perfectly sound so that, all these examples of vanity being perfectly justified, ordinary people are not as vain as they are said to be. (#93)

For example, Rogers notes that the “sages” complain that the activities that people pursue are vain and trivial, distracting, and rule out all opportunity for reflection. Pascal responds that this is precisely their point.  As he puts it in a fragment on divertissement:

…those who hold that  people are quite unreasonable to spend all day chasing a hare they would not have wanted to buy, have little knowledge of our nature.  The hare itself would not save us from thinking about death and the miseries distracting us, but the hunting does so.  (#136)

How’s that for a demolition of the Situationist critique of compelled consumption/consumer culture?

Pascal’s thought is subtle and diffuse, but, in sum, he feels that The People have adapted sensibly to the pressures of life served up to them by God and the political order.  At bottom, there is a dark, pessimistic conservatism in his politics.  He says it is necessary for The People to be distracted, and lied to, because if they were told the bald truth about the injustice of society, they would rebel.  Pascal is not a rebel, though he is subversive!  He demolishes the pretentions of the Philosophers who try to demonstrate that the political order is just, and according to God’s law.  He knows it’s a sham.  The people sense this, and they know their relative powerlessness, so they adapt.

One need not endorse Pascal’s bleak realpolitick to accept the wisdom of many of his observations.  He is right – philosophers, sages, agitators, are often out of touch with the real life of the people, and they impose their tastes, views, and aspirations on them, dismissing other approaches to life as surrender to bourgeois hegemony, apathy, or some other political sin.  Thus, the possibilities for overturning the political order are slim to none.  History does not offer much support for the claim that it is eminently feasible.

Moreover, nobody is truly free.  We have free will, but it is limited.  We do not choose where or when we are born.  We cannot start from a blank slate.  We are raised in, and must move forward from the state of things as they are.

Most important, when “thinkers” start riffing on “false-consciousness,” cultural brainwashing, the evils of popular culture, the pernicious influence of the media, think of Pascal and his double-edged critique of “conceited” Philosophers.

More junk from me on Monsieur Blaise:

  • Pascal’s famous wager on the existence of God.
  • Further reflections on divertissement.
  • A note on Pascals most famous mystical passage.

Buckley Encore

March 9, 2008

Monkey Typing Shakespeare

Why am I revisiting this post? There was an online column by Dick Cavett in the Times today, that describes his friendship with WFBuckley. I loved Cavett’s show as a kid, but his column makes him seem a bit of a shallow fawning admirer, much like David Brooks revealed himself to be in his memorial column. But then again, as Cavett makes clear, he wasn’t, as they say, a political person.

Among the many responses online to the column, some favorable, many savaging Buckley, was this absolute gem of a letter. (Emphasis added.) The no-nonsense description of class mentality is like a bolt from the blue! This is how things are. Take it from one who knows!

Consider Brooks’ comment that he wanted to be WFB in the light of this note – You?… a middle class Jew! This letter is a bit of straight talk from the social stratosphere, a realm that likes to stay out of the limelight as it pulls its strings. [For some statistics, visit The Super-Rich, The Plain Rich, The Poorest Rich..etc. a slightly loopy, but very informative website.] Brooks’ column brings to mind that wonderful scene in “Reversal of Fortune,” the movie about Desrshowitz’s defense of Claus von Bulow. When Claus wants to introduce his girlfriend to Dershowitz, she at first doesn’t recognize the name, then responds, “Oh, the Jew!”

Response No. 13 March 8th,2008

Hi Dick Cavett,

Unfortunately after all these years you have exposed yourself and your wife for the common people you are. That is not a bad thing. It is just a shame you spent so much of your life trying to hide the fact that you grew up with nothing, achieved something and eventually expected everything just because of whom you thought you had become rather than who you really are.

Bill Buckley was born into extreme privilege. He never had to work for anything and he knew it. His Mommy made sure of that. If it wasn’t for the privilege of his birth, he would have been just another drunk, drug addict without a high school education much less a college edu living on the street somewhere. Brains do not equate into educational equality. Money, privilege and connections do, not necessarily in that order. This is not rocket science. All people raised in my class know this. People like you and your wife do not know this simple fact. That’s why nothing ever changes.

You were not fortunate to know and think you were friends with Buckley. People in your class are never viewed as real friends in their, Buckley’s, class. (You know this, but you will always be in deep denial.)

Bill Buckley was fortunate to know you and your wife.

You will not understand this, but people in my class and Buckley’s do.


— Posted by Catherine Brunson Young