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Art & Life With the Rich

Self-Portrait with Donors: Confessions of an Art Collector

by John Walker
Atlantic Monthly/Little, Brown, 320 pp., $ 12.95

Another Part of the Wood: A Self-Portrait

by Kenneth Clark
Harper & Row, 288 pp., $11.00

Though it can have been no part of their original intention, both these books unexpectedly make one think. Cast in a form appropriate to the recollections of a diner-out, they still lead one to ask such questions as: What is art? What is justice? even What is a life?

When a man settles down to write about his life, the presumption is that he had led one. The autobiographical mode assumes not just that interesting things have happened to the writer, that he has intersected the lives of others, but that he has, in some sort of way, in his own way, made something of his own life, that he has given it a shape, however complex or ill-realized it may be. It must be said at the start that neither Lord Clark nor Mr. Walker is altogether convincing on this score, though, as it turns out, for very different reasons.

For superficially the two men, one English, one American, have much in common. Both were born rich. Both became art historians. Both trained themselves as connoisseurs of art, and both for a time came under Bernard Berenson’s influence. Both have a strong sense of public service, and have had eminently successful careers. Each was for a period director of the national gallery of his country, Mr. Walker in Washington, Lord Clark in London. Neither, it would seem, is most at home in the company of his professional colleagues. Both have worldly interests.

But here the resemblances between the two men end, as a comparison of their books reveals. For, if it is accidental that, while Walker devotes a chapter to Clark, Clark nowhere mentions Walker (perhaps his book stops too early?), it certainly is no coincidence that Walker finds certain things in Clark that he cannot understand. He cannot understand, for instance, why Clark’s peerage hasn’t given him “unalloyed satisfaction.” He cannot understand why, even after Civilisation had been on the best-seller list in America for weeks, Clark should still worry about what “a few dons and professors” think of the TV series. (Could it be, Walker wonders, intellectual snoberry?) More significantly, he cannot understand how Clark could have resisted the lure of Berenson, with whom both men worked at I Tatti. That anyone with whom Walker finds himself in sympathy should have found anything unsympathetic or even unpalatable about the trade in attributions on which the life at I Tatti rested is a thought that Walker, in spite of a display of open-mindedness, is unable to entertain.

It would be natural to suppose that this difference in attitude comes down to a simple disagreement in belief. When Walker writes that “B.B.’s life and fortune were made baptizing works of art,” one might think he had no reason at all to doubt the innocence of those transactions in which evidently large sums of money changed hands. The text of Self-Portrait with Donors does not sustain such an interpretation. In trying to justify Berenson’s relations with his first patron, Isabella Stewart Gardner of Boston, then with Duveen and Wildenstein, Walker gives an even more confused account of these dealings than we might expect from so inept a storyteller. In one case at least he shows himself in possession of evidence from which only moral insensitivity could have prevented his drawing the appropriate conclusion. Just after World War II, Walker persuaded the collector Rush Kress to buy the magnificent Cook Adoration of the Magi for a then vast sum of money. He did so by pointing out that, though the tondo was traditionally attributed to Fra Filippo Lippi, Berenson had some years before reassigned it to Fra Angelico, and he undertook to arrange that the article in which the case had been argued should be reprinted in English. Ten days later Walker was at I Tatti in an exultant mood. He describes the scene. Berenson

held his bald head in his beautiful sensitive hands, shaking it slowly and sadly. “I know now I was wrong,” he declared solemnly. “The painting is not by Fra Angelico. It is really by Fra Filippo Lippi!”

It was my most melancholy moment. I rushed to the library and got out all the material for his article. We studied photographs—overall, detail, and microphotographs—and then ultraviolet, infra-red, and x rays. After a long time, stroking his beard, B.B. looked up and with a conciliatory smile said, “Johnnie, I do think just before he died Fra Angelico may have painted one or two of the figures. Looking at the photographs again I can just barely discern his touch.”

I have quoted the incident about the Cook tondo for what it reveals not about Berenson but about Walker. He shows himself quite unable to perceive the moral ambiguities in Berenson’s way of life. But now set beside this the fact that Clark, who saw these ambiguities quite clearly, and, on his own account, found nothing exceptionally admirable, interesting, or amusing in Berenson, nevertheless spent a great deal of time in his company, and you have not only the differences between the two, but also what it is about each that somehow unfits him as a subject for autobiography. For if one man seems totally swallowed up into the events of his life, the other man seems at an unnatural distance from them.

Take, for instance, their life with the rich, a subject on which both are expansive. If for Walker, as we shall see, this coincides with the path of public service, for Clark such a life would seem to have a deeper meaning, which both enhanced it for him and alienated him from it. Several times he tells us that contact with wealth or privilege, though it might have corrupted another man, held no temptations for him. He was used to such things, and a benefit of growing up rich was that one was forever proof against riches. A nice idea, but how, one might ask on reflection, could the heavy philistine life of his parents at Sudbourne Hall, with its pseudo-Jacobean paneling and the large inferior Edwardian canvases, with the big shooting-parties and the late afternoons when the men swilled whiskey-and-soda as they competed at billiards, how could that soulless opulence—itself so finely and so immediately described in the early pages of Another Part of the Wood—have been a preparation for the haut monde in which Clark moved during the Twenties and Thirties?

And yet if we connect, as Clark does, his taste for rich life with his experience of growing up, a likelier interpretation suggests itself; and that is that social life became for him a means of reliving the lives of his loved parents, but this time around in a more evolved, a more sophisticated way, so that these lives were at once refined and redeemed. We may then imagine the young hypochondriacal aesthete, like Aeneas with Anchises, carrying his father on his back through the drawing rooms and dinner parties of prewar Europe. But if this tender piety allowed the father a fuller life than the one he had actually led, it robbed the son, it would seem, of the chance of having one all to himself. He drifts through his part of the wood like an observant somnambulist.

By contrast Walker’s life with the rich, as he records it, seems singularly uncomplicated. He likes their company. He sympathizes with their difficulties. He shares their values. If there is a point that he is determined to make, it is that he is no better than they are, and that in his limited way he too can fake figures, browbeat his rivals, intimidate his social inferiors, and chuckle over it all at the end of the day. In his case, too, as he tells us, childhood made its special contribution to his attitude, but this time the contribution is straightforward enough. The child of separated parents, he received a generous allowance from both sides of the family. He never knew whether either side knew what the other was doing, and he never asked. “It was,” he writes coolly, “the beginning of my training in the use of Other People’s Money.”

OPM. Concentrate upon these initials and you arrive at the crucial difference in subject matter between these two books. “The use of OPM I found one of the great charms of a museum career.” If for Clark friendship with the rich has been, for one reason or another, a way in which he has chosen to fill part of his private life, for Walker it is central to his—indeed to a prevailing—conception of his professional career. It is, he tells us, the “major task” (and he might be willing to add “the highest duty”) of a museum director to “collect collectors.” That he should have given the different chapters of his book to the people whose money he collected, will collect, or hoped to collect—two generations of Mellons, the brothers Kress, Chester Dale, Dr. Armand Hammer, Calouste Gulbenkian, the Charles Wrightsmans—is as natural as that a general should divide up his memoirs by the campaigns that he was waged.

There are many questions that need to be asked about the system of running public museums and galleries on OPM, but the first—though usually the last—to be raised is to what degree the system is in fact run on OPM. So for instance, when we learn—just to take two examples at random—that in 1961 Mrs. Ailsa Mellon Bruce paid $875,000 for Fragonard’s La Liseuse, now in the National Gallery of Art, or that in 1967 Mr. Charles Wrightsman paid $135,000 for a Louis XV writing table now in the Metropolitan Museum, we need to ask how far these donors put their hands into their own pockets, and how far their generosity was sustained by tax benefits. It is interesting but not surprising that nowhere in his description of the mechanics of museum buying does Walker discuss the fiscal system on which it partly rests. If he had, he might have found himself considering the embarrassing question, Whose M was it that these OP were spending? Embarrassing because there seems to be no appreciable difference, except as a fine point of accountancy, between a tax benefit and a government subsidy so far as the drain on public money is concerned. In other words, to the extent that Walker’s friends were claiming deductions for the works of art they bought, they, no less than he, were acting as public functionaries and dispensing public funds.

This being so, the next question to be asked is this: Other things being equal, would it not be a least as good a system if the money, instead of remaining in the hands of the rich to use at their discretion, were collected through regular taxation and then distributed to the museums themselves? At this point it is usual to reply that one result would be that museums would have less money at their disposal, for though the public and its legislatures are prepared to accept a covert system of large subsidies, they would not swallow an overt system on anything like the same scale. There is a serious question to be asked how much this would matter—whether museums need all the money they raise for purposes of expansion, as opposed to what they clearly need in order to preserve what they have, and to exhibit it free—neither of which is a strong point of modern museums. But even if we put aside this question, the assertion that direct subsidy would mean less support is unproved. Suppose that the men whose public spirit Self-Portrait with Donors celebrates were willing to fight for a more open style of subvention: is there good reason to think that their voices would go un-heard?

But other things are not equal. On the contrary, tax deductions are only one part of the hidden social costs of running museums on OPM. And once these are spelled out the charms of the system visibly diminish.

Let us consider, first of all, the effects of the system on the museum itself. Not anyone can collect a collector, and there can be little doubt that many museums across America have found it necessary, in selecting their staff, to give some preference to men who are adept at ingratiating themselves with the rich, forming their taste, and influencing their wills. Self-Portrait with Donors is replete with excellent examples of how strenuous this work can be. And in speaking of the rich, we must here include not only the donors, but the donors’ representatives: that is, the trustees, often donors themselves. In this connection Walker has an instructive observation. Commenting on the fact that many museum directors have recently been dismissed, he remarks that their

eyes may have been discerning for works of art, but they were myopic in a more important respect. They could not see that the center of museum power is the board of trustees.

Then again, in facilities and physical scale, the museum has had to adjust itself to the system that supports it. It has built plazas and sales counters and new wings, often so that it can become the fitting repository of the local collector’s collection—much as a modern newspaper progressively adjusts its style, its content, and its circulation so as to become the suitable vehicle for the advertising it solicits.

Of course, to write, as I have just done, of the distortions in the make-up of the museum, human and physical, produced by the constraints of a particular system of subsidy presupposes some conception of what the museum should be. But it may be unrealistic to assume that such an idea exists. For it is at least arguable that one of the first victims of the system must be any clear idea of its aims. Instead of attempting to fulfill some purpose that it has rationally proposed to itself, the museum will be increasingly swept up in the momentum of mindless expansion.

After 305 pages of self-congratulation, on the 306th and last page Walker turns on the monolithic art institutions that are proliferating across the American continent and admits his share of the responsibility for them. At the same time he seems quite unable to assess the seriousness of this responsibility, because he has no alternative idea of how he might have spent his time in office. He pays lip-service to what he thinks of as the traditional museum, but when he tries to define this conception he is content to borrow a phrase from one of his English counterparts: a museum is a place “where works of art are put to use.” But this phrase, though it is adequate, even informative, in the static situation of museums in England, is useless in America where the rate of museum growth has been so rapid. Which works of art, and how many? What use? Put to it by whom?

To the new voices of dissent and experiment that are raised in the communities which these museums are intended in some sense or other to serve, the former director of the National Gallery turns a deaf ear. He thinks that they can be disposed of by quoting a few reported remarks of one “Leo F. Twigg, a black professor” about the young wanting “art they can participate in,” and saying that he finds them (understandably) far from clear. Would it not have been more consistent with his position and authority to have first made some effort to make sense of them, and then try to refute them in so far as they are clear and wrong? For who can think that the size and content and display of a museum are matters on which changes in society and in the arts have no bearing? This belief would go against the whole history of the museum as well as the comparable experience of the other arts—consider, for instance, the way in which the musical repertoire is readjusted from age to age. And if one doesn’t think the museum immune from changes in art and society, the issue of relevance cannot be avoided, indeed must be discussed with all the seriousness one can muster.

But it would be wrong to think that the effects of subsidizing museums on PM stop at the museums themselves. They extend well beyond. For instance, there can be little doubt that the almost incredible rise in art prices over the last thirty-five years—rises, that is, in real money—has in part been due to competitive buying by would-be donors: the phenomenon is unlikely to have occurred on the same scale if the market had consisted of genuine collectors buying for themselves out of net income and museums buying altogether out of accountable public funds. And this must mean that ultimately the system of OPM or subsidized collecting will have the effect of pushing sincere private collecting out to the margins of the art world. It is indeed a quaint paradox of Self-Portrait with Donors that its author, certainly no collectivist, who even prefaces his book—at the publisher’s suggestion?—with tips for the aspiring collector (“Spend time in studios”), is nevertheless the champion of arrangements whose effect must be that almost all the significant art of the past and the immediate past will be warehoused in museums across the world, branded with the names of dead millionaires. Is that really a desirable outcome?

Again, running museums on OPM has undoubtedly had some influence on the general direction of art-historical studies, concentrating them on the question: Who did what? For against the background of auctions and purchases, this becomes the single most important question. Of course, the interest in attribution is in itself no bad thing, and connoisseurship, if it could be prevailed upon to base itself always on the analysis of style, can provide the most powerful insights into the interior workmanship of the artist. But this interest is not a good thing if it becomes exclusive. And it is definitely a bad thing if, in attaching excessive importance to instant attribution, connoisseurship tends to conflate stylistic considerations with all those other purely adventitious signs of authorship—technical, chronological, illustrative—which are historically revealing but aesthetically insignificant.

But by far and away the worst effect of the system happens far outside the walls of the museum. It is, quite simply, the way in which it ministers to the presumption and self-esteem of the rich.

A historical reflection. The founder of scientific connoisseurship was Giovanni Morelli, the art historian who was prepared to make himself the laughingstock of sedate museum directors and mystical aesthetes by going around the churches and galleries of Italy and Germany, measuring the toenails and earlobes (or so it was said) in the altarpieces of the great, and many of the lesser, Italian painters. But Morelli had, in addition to his devotion to the visual art of the past, a political motive. He was a patriot. He had fought in the wars of the Risorgimento, and was proud to be one of the first parliamentarians of the unified kingdom. Connoisseurship, or the pursuit of attribution, was his way of serving the new Italy, for the held that one of the major obstacles to national unity was the way in which civic pride was unnaturally reinforced, first by an exaggerated opinion of the achievements of the local school of painting, and, secondly, by an even more exaggerated opinion of the contents of the local museum. Morelli set himself to regulate this arrogance.

It is no small irony that Berenson, the acolyte of Morelli, should have put the lessons that he had learned, or those which he thought he had learned, from his master at the service of those interests which in his own country most nearly corresponded to the civic separatism of his adopted country: the plutocracy. Certificates of authorship, signed in a neat scholarly handwriting in the peace of the Tuscan countryside—and which, Clark observes, once signed, could never be reversed—became one of the most effective documents of legitimacy for a class that fancied itself to be the Italian princes of the modern age. The natural continuation of this subservience of art and art history to the arrogance of the rich is the system which Mr. Walker’s book eagerly applauds and upon which Lord Clark looks with remote dismay.

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