Sunday, February 18, 2024

Judging a Book by its Cover

Despite the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” that cover not only serves to protect and decorate, but it can also convey a good deal more. In a 2017 article by Curator Lee Hayes at the University of Adelaide writes, “A binding tells us as much, if not more, about a book’s provenance than an owner’s signature or bookplate. It assists librarians and historians to date and place a work. It provides insight into an owner’s economic and social standing.”

This is not lost on the experts and pundits who, as I have written before, we get to see in their homes in televised interviews. Though some chose their kitchens as a backdrop, more chose their libraries. Aesthetically I love the background of a wall of leather-bound books but, it is also fascinating to see these personal collections, paperback and hardbound, with the latest book they have written prominently displayed.

The Grolier Club in New York, founded in 1884, is “America’s oldest and largest society for bibliophiles and enthusiasts in the graphic arts”. It currently has an exhibition called “Judging a Book by its Cover” that includes this Book of Hours created in Paris, in 1673, by Michel Dauplet who possibly created the binding as well.



A leather-bound book tells us that the content is highly thought of as money has been spent on its binding. In past centuries goldsmiths and artists created bindings for works treasured by wealthy patrons. In our gallery, if an important catalog of a major collection was old and falling apart we would have a binding made for it, but of course, it would only have the title stamped on it.

The book cover can demonstrate the importance of the book or simply be used to entice the reader. If you look up how many books are published every year the figures vary enormously but the figure I found most often was 500,000 to a million. What sells the book aside from interest in the subject and good reviews? The book cover which makes it stand out among the profusion of titles. In any bookstore, people are browsing even if they came in for a specific book. What catches their eye they take it down to look at. Which cover would you pick?


When my wife and I were starting out and wanted to collect Art Nouveau we scoured street fairs, secondhand bookshops, and country antiques stores for hardcover books published in the U.S. in the early years of the 20th century. At that time even popular fiction often had covers stamped and colored with original Art Nouveau designs.


I was maybe 10 years old when an Israeli cousin was often in New York. He was invited to the seder celebration for the holiday of Passover. He brought me a Haggadah with beautiful illustrations of the story of the Exodus with a stamped patterned leather cover inset with a bronze relief plaque showing Jerusalem. Though I am not religious I treasure this object.



Sunday, February 11, 2024

N. Scott Momaday

Author and poet N. Scott Momaday (1934-2024) was one of the most famous Native Americans of our time and with good reason. In 1969 he became the first Native American to earn the Pulitzer prize for the book “House Made of Dawn” which is now often required reading in English classes.

The international legend, a member of the Kiowa nation, was born in Lawton Oklahoma, and died last month at his Santa Fe home.


He went to the University of New Mexico for his BA and went on to Stanford for an MA and PhD in English Literature. He became a tenured professor at Stanford, the University of Arizona, and the University of California, Berkeley. He has also been a visiting professor at Columbia and Princeton universities, and in Moscow.

Photo by LaVerne Harrell Clark

In 2007 President George W. Bush presented Momaday with the National Medal of Arts for his writing, preserving Native American art and the oral tradition.


In 2019 Momaday sat down to discuss the latter with Robert Redford and if you have the slightest interest I would urge you to listen to the entire ten-minute discussion ... 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rfW2wlUK_wE&t=2s

Momaday was able to continue the Native tradition of storytelling through his writings, both in prose and poetry. His works include more than 13 books of poetry, plays, prose, and children’s stories. Another well-known Native American author, Sherman Alexie, said of Momaday’s writings that they were “one of the primary foundations for all Native American literature.”

Of course, Momaday was eager to communicate the culture of his Native American background for all to appreciate. He produced a limited edition of Kiowa folk tales which was later enlarged with passages related to Kiowa history. His concern over people being able to live in harmony with nature permeates all his poetry.

Visual art plays a role in Native American lives and that carries down even to generations who become teachers or lawyers. Momaday illustrated his anthology, “In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991” with 60 of his own drawings.


An example of Momaday’s range and depth is the poem below, "Standing Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion" ...

I ponder how He died, despairing once.
I've heard the cry subside in vacant skies,

To continue, follow link below ...

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Another Culture

I probably have said this before but when we moved from Manhattan to the southwest it was far more culture shock than if we had moved to almost any country in Europe.

We wanted to understand the new cultures that we were encountering. Though we were both interested in the Hispanic and Native American cultures that we were being introduced to my wife concentrated on the former and I on the latter. I knew, of course that there were many Indian tribes, but I did not know that there are 574 Federally recognized Native American tribes and many others that are not recognized. Obviously, there is no way to learn everything about them, but we try to understand as much as possible, particularly about those in the southwest.

I had a friend in New York who years ago told me she was a Cherokee, a registered Cherokee. I countered that I was the son of German immigrants. That seemed to be an appropriate quid pro quo. I did not really understand the difference between just saying you are Cherokee and being registered as a member of the tribe.

According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), in order to be considered Native American you must have one fourth Native American Blood and/or have membership in a government recognized tribe. If you wish to enroll in a tribe, you must first identify the tribe to which you believe you belong, establish your ancestry, and then contact them to find out what their requirements are, since each one is different.

You have probably seen the New York Times article of January 26 or similar reports that the Museum of Natural History in New York is closing its Native American galleries and many museums are putting curtains over their displays in compliance with new Federal rules requiring Native consultation before display or research of cultural items. It is possibly overdue as I have learned that here in Santa Fe, some Native parents do not want to take their children to certain museums that may have objects that according to their culture they are not allowed to see.


Many tribes have been actively trying to revive their cultures and languages that were decimated years ago by what the white man called manifest destiny. “Go west young man go west”, ---this was at the expense of those who originated here.

The new regulations require a review of museum holdings and the removal from view of any items that may offend. I have no problem understanding the desire to have human remains returned to their families and I have never understood the bizarre reasons for holding onto them in the first place.


https://www.nbcnews.com/now/video/uc-berkeley-has-been-slow-to-repatriate-native-american-remains-some-may-be-lost-forever-164452421712

It is more difficult, however, to know what other holdings are not acceptable. It seems that even works that are made today by Native Americans can be offensive either to their own tribe or to another. Also, different members of a tribe may disagree on what should be shown and what not. Some tribes are trying to find consensus, and many have appointed their Governor (the head of the tribe) or their Cultural Preservation Officer to speak for the tribe on these issues. Others simply do not wish to engage.

Obviously, there will be a need for each museum to find a way of coping with these issues and there are bound to be disagreements. From what I have learned the essential is to begin the process of dialog and consultations.


There is a tried and true saying that something is never as good as it seems nor as bad as it seems, and so it will be with this issue. Slowly but surely institutions will develop a methodology of how to go about respecting the beliefs of “the other”.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Establishing the Value of a Work of Art

What prompted this thought was twofold. First the question from a lawyer about how works of art were priced and then a story about Hunter Biden’s art sales.

As you have probably read Hunter Biden is an artist and he has gallery representation. Some of his paintings have been priced in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Crazy prices for an artist whose only claim to celebrity is being the son of a president. But wait a minute, is that crazy? Examples of lathe turning that have been associated with the daughters of Louis XV whom he instructed in this hobby have been highly valued. In the past, I have bought and sold works with royal associations for a premium, and I would pay a premium for an object that belonged to JFK!


In this day and age, artists are usually introduced to the world by a dealer who believes in their art and works to get their creations into private collections then to exhibitions, and finally to museums. With each success, their work will increase in price. At some point, it will come to the auction houses’ attention where a guess, called an estimate, will be made of what the work might bring if there is more than one person who would like to acquire it. Through the process, an artist will become more and more “established”. At that point one would be able to find a basis of comparison and, depending on the quality of the example, establish a price range. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler a German-born art collector who became a major French art dealer and was a champion of the cubist movement represented artists such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.


A gallery in Melbourne Australia called Art & Collectors has a publication in which they came up with another definition of an established artist. “Established artists have hit icon status. They have exhibited extensively nationally or internationally in reputable institutions, been written about, and entered the cultural discourse. At auction, their status is reaffirmed by consistently high bids.”

Dealers often speak of clients who buy with their ears, not with their eyes. Astute collectors first use their eyes and then listen to the story. If the work has been owned by a collector renowned for his knowledge and taste that aids us in believing that it is worth the bid or asking price.

Every once in a while, you hear about a price at auction that has nothing to do with the usual prices for the artist’s work. This can be caused by a “disease” called auction fever, and one must be careful not to catch it. One can get so caught up in the moment trying to prove yourself by outbidding a rival. It may turn out you are bidding against the house, or an arrangement made between the owner and auction house.

Of course, if you have a work of art with a legendary name like Monet, you can decide what you think the price should be by looking up prices his work has brought and where this example might fit in his oeuvre. However, if you are speaking of Leonardo or Vermeer where there are a limited number of accepted works the price can go as high as the market will bear. How would one value the last remaining Vermeer in private hands, “Young Woman Seated at a Virginal” belonging to Thomas and Daphne Kaplan in their Leiden collection.


Sometimes a work of art hits the taste of the moment and brings a huge price at an auction but then later very little, as tastes change. Do your research and unless you are a gambler, never buy art as an investment. The art market is far more fickle than the stock market.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Protest Art

A few years ago I wrote about Protest Songs ... 

https://www.geraldstiebel.com/2021/09/does-anything-ever-change.html

But what about protest in Visual Arts? Protest art is not new ... I have read that there are early examples in ancient Egypt protesting the Pharaohs and the ruling class.

Art can be challenging, and some created to influence the viewer in a specific cause may continue to resonate. You might see the British artist Bansky’s “Vigil Candle Burning a U.S. Flag”, as a statement about the latest political news but you would be wrong. It was painted two weeks after George Floyd was killed in May of 2020 and Banksy said, “People of color are being failed by the system ... the white system.”


What sparked this Missive was seeing the exhibition of the work of Nicholas Galanin, a Tlingit and Unangax artist from Alaska, at our local Kunsthalle, SITE Santa Fe. His work protests how the treatment of Native Americans by the Whites since their arrival on this continent. One of the subjects he addresses is the boarding schools that Indian children were forced to attend. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has reported that the Indian Boarding School System lasted from 1819-1969. The repeated goal was “Kill the Indian Save the Man”. It was a white supremacist belief that if you stripped indigenous people of their culture, they could become “civilized” and integrated into Anglo society. To this end, Native children were dragged off from their families with small handcuffs like these which Galanin made into an object of art in 2014 by engraving them with indigenous motifs.


A work that Galanin calls “Loom” is a series of prefab school desks and chairs stacked in the form of a Northwest Coast totem pole. Whitewall Magazine expresses my reaction precisely, “a gutting allusion to the North American practice of residential schools which forced Indigenous families to send their children away to facilities where conditions were so severe as many as half never survived to return home”.


In 1941 the brilliant black artist, Jacob Lawrence protested Jim Crow in the South with his “Migration Series“ His 60 images are devoted to the millions of African-Americans who fled the South to the more tolerant North in search of better lives. Each one grabs you with its color and strength and leads you to the details of what it is about.


When Michangelo’s sculpture of David proved too heavy to raise to its planned location atop the Cathedral of Florence it was installed in front of the city’s government offices, the Palazzo Della Signoria. Positioned so David appeared ready to launch his rock in the direction of Rome, it became a defiant threat to the former ruling Medici family who had fled there in exile. When the Medici returned David became the focal point of protest riots. Why did the sculpture appear in the Daytona Beach News-Journal last March in an article by C.A. Bridges? Because Michelangelo’s art was again at the center of protest as the principal at Tallahassee Classical School in Leon County resigned after three parents complained that the required Renaissance art class, which included "David" as well as the "Creation of Adam" fresco and Botticelli's "Birth of Venus," upset their children.


To avoid any hate mail, I won’t show any examples of religious art but over the centuries there has been plenty of explicit art for and against various religions throughout the ages.

But, to conclude, this work created in 1989 by the Gorilla Girls shows still another kind of protest.


Sunday, January 14, 2024

The Power of Music

The other night we watched the movie “Maestro” about Leonard Bernstein, which had me thinking about music that I love and not necessarily Bernstein’s music. Then to my surprise, I found a Missive by the same name written over a decade ago. I have written about music every now and then and if you go to my Missives page and put music in the search box you can scroll down through them.

https://www.geraldstiebel.com/2013/06/hershey-felders-maestro-art-of-leonard.html

My takeaway from the current movie is how difficult it is to be married to a man who is possessed by his profession, in this case, music, and a homosexual at the same time.


I also found the film rather depressing, but I was seeing it from the perspective of a 79-year-old. After that, I went to YouTube and listened to Peggy Seeger singing “All in the Mind”. There is no direct correlation, but the film sparked that emotion in me. 

 

“Maestro” might strike a totally different chord for you but that is the point. On the Pfizer website, I found this, “Listening to (or making) music increases blood flow to brain regions that generate and control emotions.” taken from an article by L. Jäncke, L. (2008). Music, memory, and emotion. Journal of Biology.

After seeing a good movie, it tends to live on in my head. This dates back to when I was a child in the late 1940s and ’50s. Those were the days when the Westerns were the hit movies. After seeing High Noon (1952) with Gary Cooper I came out of the theater imagining a six gun on my hip singing the theme song and that song would be triggered by other Western movies. 

 
The same happened with the Gene Autry television show where the theme song was “Back in the Saddle Again”. 

 

In an article in “The Back Stage” (November 2021), Deezer D. writes that scientists Schulkind, Hennis, Rubin, and Professor Ira Hyman state, “a song triggers an emotion that matches the emotion felt at the time the event happened. To evoke memories, sensations need precise connections.”

Speaking with a psychiatrist who recommended meditation I told him I sometimes plugged into music. He agreed that too could work. Shahram Heshmat Ph.D. wrote in “Psychology Today” (October 2021), “Music provides a means of escape. Music distracts our minds from the outside world.”

We all enjoy different kinds of music. My father was a classical music buff, I have about 15 feet of his vinyl! As a child and teenager, I was exposed to all kinds of classical concerts and opera. It came to the point where I went because I felt it was the right thing to do. My father would refer to the “hit tunes” in an opera, but always with the caution to stay until the end because one of those “hit tunes” was in the final act. From Verdi’s La Traviata by the 3 Tenors. 

 

A psychologist once told me that 50% of people who live past 90 have Alzheimer’s and the famed singer, Tony Bennett, who died last year at age 96 suffered that fate. Yet, he remembered and could still perform the songs he had made hits.

To answer the doubters, from the “Psychology Today” article mentioned above, “However, not everyone experiences intense emotional responses to music. Roughly 2 percent of the general population do not experience chills. This incapacity to derive pleasure specifically from music has been called musical anhedonia (sometimes called tone-deafness).”

Unfortunately, they are missing a lot!

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Attracting A Younger Generation

I am on the board of the Lensic Performing Art Center here in Santa Fe and a question that comes up all the time is how can we attract a younger audience while at the same time not neglecting our loyal and older constituency.

This is obviously not a new issue, and every generation has to approach it anew.

I would venture that this may be an even greater problem in museums. My wife, Penelope, and I often discuss the fact that there is no such thing as a museum of contemporary art and even a museum of modern art is transient. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has many Picassos though some have already referred to him as an Old Master!

Penelope was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum and at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon. Even though at the Met she worked to extend the decorative arts collection up to the present, she is now upset by what she finds art museums’ excessive emphasis on contemporary art at the expense of their other collections, all in hopes of attracting a younger generation. It is, indeed, a delicate balance. Here is an image of the installation of one of two 11 X 22 foot paintings by Kent Monkman (1965 -) being installed for a time in the Great Hall of the Metropolitan.


The Art Institute of Chicago does Teen Workshops and a teen council, which is “a group of 15 creative and passionate youth artists, leaders, and organizers who collaborate with museum staff to reimagine the future of cultural institutions through teen-designed digital and live engagements.”

When we were at the Metropolitan Museum last May they had an exhibition about the legendary clothing designer Karl Lagerfeld. We saw the young folk standing in long lines to get in. Would they visit the rest of this museum full of old art? Honestly, I don’t think many did, but while they were there some may have visited another section of the museum, and they may have told their friends that they found something “really cool” there.


The American Alliance of Museums has its own suggestions. One that sounds most apt is, “Your average millennial has 9.3 social media accounts, according to a 2019 Global Web Index report. So make sure you’re using social media in a way that will appeal to a younger audience.” They also speak of the use of technology which I wrote about earlier this year.

https://www.geraldstiebel.com/2023/06/museums-in-age-of-artificial.html

Yesterday, the Frick Collection closed an exhibition of the work of Barkley L. Hendricks (1945-2017). The Wall Street Journal wrote, “inspired by European masterpieces but rooted in his own milieu, the painter produced dazzling portraits of African-American subjects.” The Financial Times wrote “Now that he’s posthumously become the superstar he always deserved to be, one of his favourite museums, the Frick Collection, has gathered 14 of his paintings in a show that stands alongside its permanent collection of works by Rembrandt, Bronzino, Velázquez and Van Eyck. They look utterly comfortable among such rarefied company.” How better to blend the old and the new and bring in a different and younger crowd.


Of course, it is best if the kids want to go to the museum in the first place. Forty years ago, Sesame Street produced a movie called “Don't Eat the Pictures” taking place at the Metropolitan Museum. The concept was that the Sesame characters get locked in the museum after hours and go on a chase to find Big Bird. In the process, they see many areas of the museum. It is a one-hour show and not at all academic.


Not sure what has been done since, but this is the best way to introduce the young to a foreign place. Make them curious.