LONDON — Sometimes it needs someone standing outside the forest to tell us something about the wood and the trees.
Patrick J. Deneen’s “Why Liberalism Failed,” published in January, is one of the most talked-about books of the moment. The word “art” doesn’t appear in the index of this short, sharp volume of political philosophy, just like it didn’t appear in the index of Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” But like that revelatory survey of contemporary income inequality, Mr. Deneen’s book provokes a widening of thought in areas of economic and cultural life where thinking has narrowed. Like the art world.
Mr. Deneen, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, contends that “the fabric of beliefs that gave rise to the nearly 250-year-old American constitutional experiment may be nearing an end.” The election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union have, of course, prompted a lot of discussion about how Western electorates have become alienated by mainstream politics.
But Mr. Deneen gives the debate a provocative new slant. Rather than view these dislocations as a failure of “progressive” politics, or a populist lurch to the “right,” he sees this as the final phase of a broader dialectic stretching back to the Renaissance and beyond.
For Mr. Deneen, liberalism was created the moment proto-modern thinkers such as Machiavelli proposed grounding a political philosophy upon “human behaviors of pride, selfishness, greed, and the quest for glory,” rather than the principles of self-restraint that characterized political discourse in medieval and classical times.
Now it is perhaps obvious how this kind of behavior could, 500 years later, have led to neoliberal economics, a global financial crisis and what Mr. Deneen regards as “titanic” income inequalities. Bloated art prices happen to be one of the many indicators of a yawning gap between rich and poor. In 1914, just before the Russian Revolution, Czar Nicholas II bought Leonardo da Vinci’s “Benois Madonna” for $1.5 million, or about $37 million at today’s prices, in a private transaction. The price at the time was more than double the previous high for any artwork.
Just over a century later, in November 2017, another Leonardo da Vinci sold to another royal family for another epoch-defining price. For those with a distaste for capitalist excess, the $450.3 million bidding war won by a Saudi Arabian prince for the much-restored “Salvator Mundi” could hardly have been a more emblematic example of “greed, and the quest for glory.”
But what makes the book such a sobering read is the way the author regards Western democracy’s “progressive” ideologies as a contributor to the systemic failure.
Mr. Deneen is a trenchant critic of what he calls a “liberal anticulture.” He characterizes the current orthodoxy of humanities teaching as a “pastless present in which the future is a foreign land,” where the “hermeneutics of suspicion” expose the culture of the past as a “repository of repression.” Professors, “adopting a jargon comprehensible only to ‘experts,’ ” show their worth by “destroying the thing they studied” to redress past injustices to specific groups.
The broad-brush approach of “Why Liberalism Failed” is short on specifics. But the author might have chosen, for instance, out of countless examples, David Porter’s essay, “A Wanton Chase in a Foreign Place: Hogarth and the Gendering of Exoticism in the Eighteenth Century Interior,” a recommended text for art history courses at British colleges, such as the Open University. Mr. Porter focuses on the second engraving in the series “Marriage A-la-Mode,” by the 18th-century British painter and printmaker, William Hogarth. It shows an unhappy husband and wife in a fashionable interior. Hogarth satirizes the wife for her penchant for Oriental porcelain, because, according to Mr. Porter, to grant the validity of Chinese taste would “legitimate a regime not only of female aesthetic self-determination, but also of the autonomy of female desire more generally conceived.”
And so Hogarth joins the ever-lengthening list of misogynistic dead male artists. This doesn’t exactly encourage the study of his art — or having his prints on your wall. The last set of Hogarth’s six “Marriage A-la-Mode” engravings to appear at auction failed to sell last May at Weschler’s of Washington D.C. against a low estimate of $1,500, according to Artnet.
What Mr. Deneen identifies as liberal societies’ “pervasive amnesia about the past” has further undermined the traditional culture of collecting. “Salvator Mundi” might have achieved a one-off, landmark price (in an auction of contemporary art), but generally old masters are now far less fashionable with the superrich than they were in the days of the Czar of Russia. On Feb. 1, Sotheby’s annual evening sale of master paintings in New York raised $48.4 million, a seemingly substantial total, until one recalls that the company’s biannual evening auction of contemporary art in November raised $310.2 million.
Today’s art world, in fact, offers one of the most conspicuous manifestations of what Mr. Deneen identifies as “the extreme presentism of the contemporary era,” as well as its “new aristocracy” of economic winners.
Georgina Adam in her new book, “Dark Side of the Boom: The Excesses of the Art Market in the 21st Century,” identifies Jeff Koons as the artist of choice for billionaire winners. His “trophy” works confer “status and prestige as well as underlining the owner’s financial prowess and — most importantly — exclusive access,” according to Ms. Adam, a journalist with expert knowledge of the wood and the trees of the international art market.
Mr. Koons is part of a top tier of highly successful contemporary artists who, with teams of assistants, produce works on an almost industrial scale for the global merry-go-round of art fairs, gallery shows, museum exhibitions, biennials and commissions from private museums.
Having deftly described these methods of production, Ms. Adam concludes by asking if the noncommercial qualities of art will endure, or if creativity will become “homogenized to the tastes of a global elite.”
That question has been asked, much more loudly, by the controversy surrounding Mr. Koons’s donation of asculpture to Paris to commemorate the victims of the 2015 terrorist attacks there.
The 12-meter-high “Bouquet of Tulips” is a kitsch reimagining of the hand holding the flaming torch on the Statue of Liberty. The brightly colored metal sculpture is scheduled to be installed in the plaza in front of the Palais de Tokyo and the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art, several miles from where the attacks took place.
Last month, 24 French artists and cultural luminaries published an open letter in the French newspaper Libération demanding that the city abandon the project, first suggested by Jane D. Hartley, the former American ambassador to France. Among the several points of complaint, the signatories noted that Mr. Koons had only donated the idea of the $3 million sculpture — it was paid for by wealthy private donors, whose largess may have qualified for tax breaks.
The front cover of Mr. Deneen’s “Why Liberalism Failed” is illustrated with a crumbling Greek column. It could equally have featured “Bouquet of Tulips.”
The Koons sculpture, industrially produced (its manufacture is nearing completion in Germany) and plonkable pretty much anywhere on the planet that could afford it, embodies what Mr. Deneen views as the “presentist and placeless” nature of a liberal culture that has “homogenized the world in its image.”
Mr. Koons and other successful contemporary artists are busy creating those images.
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