paleo Ideofact

Friday, June 20, 2003
I should begin by reassuring my readers that, merely because they were paid propagandists for the Catholic hierarchy, or producers of vain luxuries for oligarchs at a time of great poverty and hardship for the mass of men, it doesn't necessarily devalue the works of the masters of the Italian Renaissance. Despicable as these artists were for taking money from and working to the specifications of an often corrupt elite, there work still has some semblance of artistic merit.

Of course, I am being facetious. What is disturbing is that this article on Dutch art of the 17th century, seems to judge art by the same criterion I have offered for the Renaissance masters. Here is the part of the quote that caught my eye on the always excellent Cronaca:
Although art in 17th century Holland was also a matter of making money, it doesn't necessarily devalue the importance of the old masters, claims Bok: "I don't think it should diminish that. The achievement of the Dutch painters in the 17th century is twofold: on the one hand artistically, and that is still highly regarded throughout the world. On the other hand it was an economic achievement: they introduced new painting techniques and new marketing techniques as well."
Then there's this from the article proper:
Of course it wasn't for everyone to commission Rembrandt to paint a "Nightwatch" for them, but a nice little still life was certainly within reach. "That's where we see the Dutch artists generating whole new genres," says Dr Bok. "You see them specialising in doing not only the average still life, but there were painters who specialised in fish still lifes, fruit still lifes, all kind of things."

This reeks of an almost industrial production in which artists simply tried to paint as many works as possible.
I can't help wonder if what bothers the author of the piece (it is hard to tell if Dr. Marten Jan Bok shares the author's obvious distaste for the reek of industrial production; what is fascinating to me is that the subtext here is that art created for a primarily bourgeois market is somehow suspect. Producing smaller works of art, "nice little still lives," that could be afforded by a wider market -- by the emerging middle class in Holland -- taints the product. I sincerely doubt whether Bertine Krol, the piece's author, would suggest the same of works produced for the Counter-Reformation. For a Dutch merchant, or tailor, or widow (I'll return to a widow in a moment) who wanted a picture of fish, or ice skaters, or flowers to adorn their home, to commission a work of art somehow taints the merits of the work in a way that the Catholic Church, employing grand works of art in a theological battle, does not. The sober Dutchman who wanted something nice to hang on his wall, to look at, to enjoy, to aesthetically enhance his everyday surroundings, diminishes the merits of the very work he requests.

This is a very strange conceit, yet one that is all too prevalent. A bourgeois validates great art by having his sensibilities offended by it, not by endorsing it. This is true in the contemporary realm. Hollywood employs armies of writers, artists, musicians and actors and is a multibillion dollar industry; I am amazed every time I wander through the fiction section of a Borders at the vast number of works; nearly every home has a device (or two or three or more) that allows creative works to be viewed or heard in the home; yet we are told that arts are endangered, or high art is endangered. Tens of thousands of works are produced each year; few will have lasting merit, and we will have no say in what they are (Melville died an obscure writer; it was only in the decades after his death that his importance was recognized). Yet some of those involved in such productions insist that their countrymen have no taste for serious art, despite the small fortunes those people spend on their latest offerings. I remember an argument with college friends over the issue of the government funding new works of art -- someone suggested that our Kafkas would not write without such support. But Kafka himself received no such money, and nevertheless managed to produce his works. (And it is unclear to me whether Kafka, a Jew who wrote in German in Czechoslakian Prague, would have topped the list of those worthy of government subsidies.)

Be that as it may, let's return to the Dutch. In Still Life with a Bridle, the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert describes the desire of the 17th century Dutchman for art, and the rush of the guild of St. Luke (the painter's guild) to satisfy that desire. I think this quote, from the essay "The price of art," is particularly telling:
Peter Mundy, who visited Amsterdam in 1640, was surprised by the passion of the Dutch for painting. Pictures could be found not only in the homes of the rich bourgeois but also in the various shops and taverns, even in artisans' workshops, streets and squares. Another traveler, John Evelyn, saw a huge number of paintings at the annual fair in Rotterdam, while in other countries these were luxury items only the rich could afford. The very fact of exhibiting them among stalls, clucking chickens, mooing cattle, junk, vegetables, fish, farm products and household objects must have seemed very peculiar, and was difficult for the average visitor to understand.

Trying to explain this phenomenon, Evelyn let himself be carried away by fantasy when he claimed that even ordinary peasants spent two or three thousand pounds on paintings (a huge sum, equivalent to an acre of a garden or almost three acres of meadow), and that they did it from purely mercenary motives because after a certain time they sold their "collections" with a considerable profit. The English traveler was wrong. Paintings were indeed objects of speculation, but they were not the best investment of capital. It was much more profitable to lend money at interest, or, for instance, buy shares of stock.

One thing is certain: painting in Holland was omipresent. It seems that the artists tried to augment the visible world of their small country and to multiply reality b the thousands, tens of thousands of canvases on which they recorded seashores, floodwaters, dunes, canals, distant vast horizons, and views of cities.
Herbert also relates a no doubt apocryphal tale of a widow who commissioned an artist to paint her a bouquet of flowers -- because real ones were so expensive -- adding that thus a whole genre of painting was born.

At the end of the "The price of art," Herbert wrote,
The old masters -- all of them without exception -- could repeat after Racine, "We work to please the public." Which means they believed in the purposefulness of their work and the possibility of interhuman communication. They affirmed visible reality with an inspired scrupulousness and childish seriousness, as if the order of the world and the revolution of the stars, the permanence of the firmament, depended on it.

Let such naivete be praised.

My discontent with blogger has finally reached the crisis point. I've decided to move off it, and have taken the first step to do so. I'll keep you posted along the way, but the url will be

Thursday, June 19, 2003
Final word on a troubling history
I possess a charming little book, a translation of The Buccaneers of America by Alexander O. Exquemelin. Written in the 17th century, the author, a Dutchman, revels in tales of murder, ruthlessness and barbarity. (He also has an interesting discussion of the flora and fauna of the island of Hispanola.) An Amazon reviewer sums up the book fairly well:
Of the pirates discussed here, many, like the dread pirate L'Ollonais, were known for their almost unrivaled cruelty in the treatment of captives. L'Ollonais was said to have cut out the hearts of Spanish captives and eaten them to frighten the others into revealing information he wanted.
Exquemelin's account is a good read -- if I wanted to permanently scar my four-year-old, I'd threaten him with tales of Exquemelin's boogey men. Because they were just that -- Exquemelin's buccaneers bore as much relationship to reality as Robert Louis Stevenson's Long John Silver. The archival records relating to the buccaneers (and many were tried for crimes in various courts in the New World and Old World) contain no charges remotely like those Exquemelin hurls at them. They were robbers, they were willing to employ violence if necessary (although like all thieves they preferred it if their victims were unwilling or unable to put up a fight, which was more often than not the case), but they didn't go around eating men's hearts (although they certainly would have been happy if their intended victims believed that that was the sort of thing they did).

Exquemelin's book was an instant smash in the 17th century (and I have to say, it's a gripping read -- much better than the ponderous General History of Pyrates, written by a Captain Charles Johnson -- no, not that Charles Johnson -- some believe Capt. Johnson was in reality Daniel Defoe). Exquemilin's book was a success because of its out and out violence (which sold better than sex in the 17th century). Another tale that enjoyed some popularity in the 17th century involved the massacres of survivors following a shipwreck of a Dutch trading vessel. Unlike the Exquemelin's fanciful tales, however, that lurid 17th Century version of the shipwreck has not been seriously examined by a modern historian. Which is surprising, given that a modern historian has just written a book about it.

The story of Mike Dash's Batavia's Graveyard: The True Story of the Mad Heretic Who Led History's Bloodiest Mutiny runs something like this: A group of mutineers led by the ship's third-in-command on board the Dutch East India ship the Batavia plot to take over the ship, but are thwarted because the ship runs aground in a chain of atolls off the western coast of Australia. Once ashore, some of the survivors, led by the ships commander and captain, leave to search for fresh water in not-too-distant Australia. Left in charge of the survivors, the mutineer (who has lawfully assumed power) embarks on a reign of terror, killing those who are not loyal to him in order to maintain firm control of the island, all the while plotting to take over the rescue ship he assumes will come (never mind that the commander and his party left to search for water, not to sail off to the Dutch settlement in Java, Batavia, in order to seek help). A group of the survivors are sent by the mutineers from one atoll, where most of the survivors landed, to a second one. The first atoll has no supply of freshwater; the second has wells, plus tammars, a species of wallaby, as well as birds, fish, and so on. The first atoll has no supply of fresh water (they are dependent on stores from the wrecked ship and any rain water they can collect) and no tammars. The second group, according to Dash's account, are loyalists to the old commander; the first group are mutineers. They clearly fought one another -- the well fed Defenders against the starving mutineers. When the rescue ship did arrive (the commander abandoned the search for water, and headed for Batavia, but not before making his crew swear an oath that they all agreed they were not abandoning their fellow survivors -- by his actions, the commander was guilty of desertion), the Defenders reached it first. The mutineers appeared in a boat, armed, and had to be persuaded to drop their weapons. The mutineers confessed their plots and the murders of other survivors, and were, for the most part, put to death either on the atoll or on board the rescue ship on the way back to Batavia.

Sorry for the lengthy recitation. What is troubling about the book is that the principle source for the tale is the journal of the commander, who summarized the testimony of the mutineers, including that of their leader, given under torture. Dash is not at all skeptical of this account. He tells us that the mutiny's leader, Jeronimus Cornelisz, was a heretic -- either a follower of the Dutch painter Torrentius (who may have been a heterodox thinker along the lines of a Giordano Bruno) or the radical Baptists, or the Free Spirits -- and that his bizarre beliefs were behind his reign of terror. Jeronimus began by killing, first a man who stole additional wine from the survivors' limited supplies, then the sick, then moved on to women and children. He sent some of the survivors off to other islands (Dash assures us that this was done in order to divide and conquer; Jeronimus tells them they are to search for sources of fresh water and make smoke signals should they find water). It is fairly clear that Jeronimus was a poor leader, and to deal with the difficult situation in which the survivors found themselves, resorted to murder in order to stretch their supplies of food and water. But to assume that he was also guilty of two mutinies that did not take place, or that he was driven by heretical ideas, is something of a stretch.

Pelsaert, the commander who wrote the account of the mutiny based on the tortured men's testimony, was a suspect figure at best -- he had abandoned the survivors to their fate, and returned primarily to salvage what he could of the Dutch East India Company's treasure that had sunk with the Batavia. When he died, he was found to be trading for his own enrichment, a violation of the company's rules. For Pelsaert, the greater the infamy attached to Jeronimus, the less attention paid to his own conduct in the affair (including the abandoment of the bulk of the survivors of the shipwreck to their fate).

In the case of the Exquemelin, later historians wondered, "Well, if he's saying that buccaneers ate hearts, let's see if archives show buccaneers being hung for eating hearts." And they went to the historical records and read transcripts and came away with the distinct impression that this didn't happen. Dash's problem was different -- he had just one account of a historical event (there's another source -- a letter written by one of the survivors -- but Dash hardly refers to it at all, either in the text or in footnotes, so it's questionable as to how useful it was to him). He could have said, "Okay, this source is based on the tortured confessions of men put to death on the order of the same man who ordered the suspects tortured, a man who had a vested interest in the outcome of the trials. Let's see if we can't read between the lines, regard everything with as much skepticism as possible, and let Pelsaert have his say but also see if alternative interpretations are plausible." Instead, he says, "Pelsaert's my man." For all the details he provides about the 17th century, he's not that much more sophisticated than Exquemelin (who, in contrast to Dash, at least has the virtue of being a fairly concise writer).

Wednesday, June 18, 2003
Sorry about the blogger bitching. I'll resume normal posting tomorrow. It's been a busy week...

Tuesday, June 17, 2003
Blogger hell
I don't understand it. I use the same browser -- same version -- at work and at home. At work, I can see the normal blogger interface I got so accustomed to. At home, I get the "version of Blogger [that] has been designed for web browsers that lack robust Stylesheet and/or DHTML capabilities."

it's very disconcerting to have to type into such a primitive looking interface, but I guess for the time being I'll try to adjust. Blogger adds, "We're sorry if you reached this page in error ...Soon we'll allow you to over-ride the automatic re-direction." Well, we'll see how soon...

Monday, June 16, 2003
Gentle prodding
On Saturday, Aziz asked when I'd ever get around to continuing the series of posts I started on Sayyid Qutb, also known as the "brains of bin Laden." (Aziz has indexed them all.)

I've started and dropped a lot of things -- the Strange Case of Jean Gimpel, the Qutb series, and the Great War are three that come to mind. I'll try to pick up some of these lost threads soon.

Note: Note: thanks to the new bizarro blogger interface, this post didn't publish last night -- I assumed it had been eaten and gave up shortly thereafter. Then it showed up Tuesday night. There's another post -- in which I apologize for all the blogger bitching -- which I wrote after midnight on Wednesday that seems to have in case it never shows up, consider this my apology...

So I've tried playing around with the new blogger interface. It's awful. More windows to click through to get where you need to do what you want to do... really depressing.

I was going to write something tonight, but there's something screwy going on with blogger. The interface looks completely different -- it tells me that "This version of Blogger has been designed for web browsers that lack robust Stylesheet and/or DHTML capabilities."

It's too disconcerting to deal with now -- it's like typing into the comments box of someone else's blog. I'll be back tomorrow (although I'm thinking that maybe it's time to finally get serious about moving over to Moveable Type...)