"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Rodin And Audubon–What Is Original Art?

At the end of his life, the sculptor Auguste Rodin ceded his valuable art collection and plaster molds to the French state, part of a deal he negotiated to save the palatial 18th-century mansion that housed his studio and create his own museum on the Left Bank. Now he and his vintage molds have again come to the museum’s rescue. The sales of newly cast Rodin bronzes are helping to finance a $17.7 million restoration of the Rodin Museum, where cracks in the walls have appeared over the decades and where the oak parquet floors have warped with the weight of sculptures including the marble lovers entwined in “The Kiss.” (The New York Times, 10.31.15).

In this seemingly straightforward story about an artist’s concern both for his own legacy and for enriching the cultural patrimony of France, there is much more than meets the eye. The French government, by owning Rodin’s plaster molds and rights to recast his bronzes, is in effect producing more originals.  New bronze casts of The Kiss or The Thinker cannot be considered copies because they are no different than the first bronze produced by Rodin himself.  Since the molds are original and the bronze used for subsequent castings is of the same physical, molecular composition as the first; and since there is no craftsmanship, artistry, or unique technique required for pouring the bronze into molds to produce a sculpture, every new Kiss or Thinker is qualitatively no different than the first.  Each sculpture should be appreciated and valued as though it were the first.

Rodin Thinker

Anticipating the likely devaluation of the sculptures through multiple castings, the French government decreed that only 12 would be allowed for each sculpture. Twelve Thinkers, twelve Kisses, twelve St. John the Baptists, etc.

At the end of the year, the museum is to deliver a new casting of his monumental bronze of “The Gates of Hell” to the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim for display at the Soumaya Museum in Mexico City.

Image result for the gates of hell rodin detail

There will be, then twelve originals of each of Rodin’s sculptures.

Or will there be? According to experts familiar with the art market, those sculptures whose casting was supervised by Rodin are the most valuable.  This implies that there is indeed artistry in the pouring of the metal, the removal of the sculpture from its mold, and its final finishing. Yet some critics disagree.  There is no substantive qualitative difference between the first sculpture cast by Rodin himself and the 12 subsequently produced. Due credit must be paid to Rodin for all of them; and they are all originals.

Yet those who place the value of the supervised sculptures higher than the non-supervised ones are thinking in marketing terms and not artistic ones.  It is the presence of Rodin that adds value and not anything that he did during the casting process. Since there are no other characteristics that distinguish the first from the twelfth casting, then the artist’s interaction, albeit inconsequential when considered against subsequent productions, gives the first a unique character.  Those who purchase/view the ‘original’ can sense the presence of the artist.  The bronze they touch was touched by its creator.  They are closer to the creative if not spiritual insight of the artist.

The points, therefore, are two. The first is philosophical.  Is the twelfth sculpture cast from Rodin’s original mold identical in form, texture, line, and emotive power the same as the first?  If the above assumptions are correct – that the mold is original; the bronze of the same essential composition as in the first casting; and that ‘supervision’ adds little or nothing to the innate beauty of the piece – then all twelve sculptures are original.

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The second is mercenary without much debate.  Is the value-added ascribed to the first sculpture supervised by Rodin legitimate? There is no doubt that it is.  Ascribed value has always been part and parcel of consumer product advertising.  Cars, whiskey, cigarettes, clothes, and cologne have all been promoted on the basis of attributes other than those inherent to the product.  Cars are not inherently sexy, and a particular brand of whiskey does not make you sophisticated. If the market values ‘presence’, then demanding more for a ‘supervised’ sculpture that is identical to one that was not, is predictable, acceptable, and quite ethical.

James Audubon is well-known for his paintings of birds, and reproductions of individual prints in Birds of America are sold  everywhere. What is often overlooked is that what we see is actually the work of Robert Havell, Jr. – the engraver who took the engravings of Audubon, printed them, and painted them after the original painting of Audubon.  In other words, it was Havell who made final decisions on color, hue, and intensity; who oversaw the application of paint on the engraving and the final printing.

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     Audubon, www.nyhistory.org

Who was the ‘real’ artist?  Was it Audubon because he had the inspiration, the vision, and the technique to do the original painting? Or Havell who had a comparable artistry and who created an original art form – the engraved print? Or at the very least shouldn’t Havell be given equal billing with Audubon.

Most critics favor the first option.  The true genius lies with Audubon.  It was he who did the observation of birds in the wild; and he who in is own unique and revolutionary way, painted them in postures and attitudes that captured the essence of the birds like no other artist.  Havell was only a technician, they say; a man with a shop and some well-trained artisans.

Yet other critics do not dismiss Havell quite so easily.  Engraving is both a craft and an art. Havell had to use his artistic judgment and technical skills to produce the prints that most viewers see.

Credit to Havell is only annotated – small letters at the bottom of something – rather than given prominence.  Without Havell, Audubon’s works would be seen by relatively few. Audubon all along intended for his works to be reproduced as engraved prints; and in fact the few folios of Havell’s original, first-run prints, are a testament to Audubon’s vision. Audubon knew that the prints were both art in themselves and faithful reproductions of his original paintings; and thus the folio had double value and artistic interest.

Image result for images robert havell jr


The New York Times, thanks to high-tech digital printing, has offered reproductions of Audubon/Havell prints for sale.  These reproductions are so good that except for the paper they are printed on, are indistinguishable from the originals.  The question is again raised – what makes an original?  If these New York Times reproductions are identical to the original prints of Havell in all but paper, are they not ‘original’?  In other words, the value ascribed to them is lower than that of an original print has more to do with process than inherent quality. Therefore, is our insistence of ‘real’ originals – works that look, taste, and smell of the artist – more commercial vanity than anything else?

We live in an age, however, which slowly but surely is devaluing reality. Copies can be made of original anything; and they are so good but all but the most practiced and trained eye can tell the difference; and maybe not even then. If we are drinking a fake Chateau Margaux 1900 which tastes exactly like the real thing – complexity, depth, texture, and the ineffable character of great wines – does it matter? If we travel in a virtual world made real thanks to a complete symbiotic interface between computer and human brain, does ‘real’ reality have any attraction or allure?

Image result for images fake chateau margaux

           Fake 1900 Chateau Margaux, www.wine-searcher.com

Either art lovers stick to their guns and demand authenticity or ‘supervision’; or consumers discard old-fashioned notions of artistic ‘singularity’ and accept a perfectly-made copy as ‘real’. There is no doubt that the latter scenario will be the rule.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Fear Of Shopping–A Nasty Phobia In A Consumer-Driven World

   Shop Phobia is an irrational, intense and persistent fear of malls, sales racks, dressing rooms, department stores and all other activities having to do with shopping.

Shopping is as American as apple pie.  Most people consider it fun, therapeutic, and even exciting. Although women and men go about it differently and buy different things, the experience for the most part is rewarding.

Image result for images homemade apple pie

Recent research has shown that the act of shopping is more rewarding that actually purchasing an item.  Once the dress is taken out of the box, it is a fait accompli – a dismal reminder that it is already going out of style, depreciating, and losing social currency. Shopping, on the other hand, is all expectation, fantasy, and imagined rewards. 

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There are hundreds of dresses on the rack, hundreds of shoes waiting to be tried on. Thousands of scarves, perfumes, necklaces, and sweaters. Innumerable shades of lipstick, eyeliner, and blush.  ‘Images of sugarplums dancing in my head’ are nothing compared to entering the Ladies Department of Saks – scents of perfume, fabric, leather; high lighting, bustle, and promise.

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Women appreciate shopping for clothes more than men who know exactly what they want, are disappointed when the style they want has been upgraded or is out of stock, and are just as happy buying nothing.  Women take their time, anxious for the right fit, color, line, and shape.
Moths had made a mess of friend’s sweaters, and after putting replacement off for weeks, he finally made it to his local department store where he knew he would find the same brand he had been buying for years. He was the Men’s Department’s first customer, and by 10:10 he had four sweaters on the counter.  The clerk smiled at him and said, “You’re the reason why I work in the men’s department”.

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My friend had a very mild case of shop phobia.  In fact his reluctance to shop for new sweaters was more a function of his busy schedule, his reluctance to spend even a half-hour on Saturday morning in a store, and the pain of having to negotiate early weekend chore traffic than it was abhorrence or neurotic aversion.  Yet, even given this reasonable rationale, he still felt impulsive, anxious, and impatient days before. He so hated having to go through the experience, that once he finally made the decision to do it, feelings of nervousness began immediately.  Buying online was no help and just as anxious. He never got the sizes right.  The teal was far bluer than the photos suggested, and the little flecks of stylish Aztec piping were far more pronounced than he had thought.

A real fear of shopping – wearing shoes down to the nub; and living with frayed cuffs, stains, and limp collars long after most people would have bought new – is paralyzing. Jeb Harkness not only was immobilized by the thought of buying new clothes, but every purchase was dreaded.  The night before the computer geek was to come to help him buy a new computer, he couldn’t sleep. Was it worth it? Would the geek misread his intentions and negotiate something inappropriate? What if his old programs didn’t convey? What if all his data were lost? “Why am I doing this he shouted in the middle of the night, ready to cancel the whole affair, deal with screen freezes and error messages for a while longer, just to put off the inevitable, crippling, and frightening experience of purchase.

Image result for images computer crash
“Mr. Harkness”, said the mechanic at Locust Valley Exxon, “I can fix your car, but I can’t guarantee it.  Don’t you think it’s time to buy a new one?”.  Coming from an employee of a gas station that had made thousands on  Jeb’s old cars, this should have made him realize that his shopping phobia was endangering his life and others.  Yet he couldn’t bring himself to even look at Toyota’s website, and every time he passed a dealership, he shuddered.  Just the thought of predatory salesmen, hundreds of choices, and tens of thousands of dollars in play, made him speed up and look the other way.

Everything in his house needed fixing.  The fluorescent light over the sink was down to one tube which flickered and glowed orange. The faucet in the sink had been super-glued do many times that it was misshapen and warty-looking after so many applications to stop new leaks. There was duck tape on lamp cords, thick grouting around an old and cracked bathtub, and industrial adhesive layered under warped tiles. He lived with creaky ceiling fans, immoderate air-conditioning, sticky doors, and a rattling dishwasher. 

When the roofer told him that he could no longer patch the leaks coming down the woodwork and through the ceiling and that the roof would have to be replaced, he froze. The entire top of his house would have to come off, hundreds of mistakes, overruns, and code violations were probable. “Later”, he replied. “I’ll get back to you.”

Although Jeb’s shop phobia had begun as a small irritation, it had developed into a major neurosis.  No longer did he just put off shopping for underwear and socks, but let everything around him go to rack and ruin.


Freudians would have a field day with him; but he never considered his phobia a disease.  He was simply finicky and ornery.  Early on in the course of his phobia, he expressed pride in his practicality and good sense.  He among few stood fast against materialism, the American throw-away culture, and greed. Later when he realized that his was no reasoned response to a social phenomenon – a good intellectual response in other words – but more of a dry-mouthed panic at purchase, he considered therapy; but it too fell within the orbit of his paranoia.  The very idea of shopping around for a therapist, worrying about cost, cost-benefit, probability of cure vs. limping along, was just as paralyzing as any other consumer purchase.

He even convinced himself that he was a good exponent of game theory, which postulated that life’s winners were the ones who in any competitive situation were the last to commit themselves.  By putting off decisions until it was absolutely, positively necessary to do so, he was beating erosion and disrepair, saving money when others were spending theirs.  He relied on ingenuity and practicality when others were simply expedient.

Image result for images game theory
“Eventually this house will fall apart”, his wife said to him. “Not if I can help it”, he replied; and when his wife’s back was turned, mimicked a soldier lobbing a grenade into the living room, and imitating the sound of an explosion.  His children laughed.  “It isn’t funny”, said his wife.
Yet, blowing the whole bloody place up and all its duck tape, bandaged table legs, grouted bathtubs, wobbly fans, sketchy lamps, and creaky doors might be the only way out of his neurotic box.  It was the individual purchase decisions which were crippling. Starting again from the rubble of a worthless house and everything in it might actually be sensible.

He had read enough about phobia therapy to know that baby steps were the only way out.  There are many people who have such acrophobia that they cannot drive over the Bay Bridge, a long, high bridge between the western and eastern shores of the Chesapeake.  An Uber-like service has sprung up at both ends of the bridge.  Drivers are available for a small fee to drive you and your car across the span. The service does nothing for your fear of heights or bridges.  It just gets you to where you are going. Real therapy takes patience and persistence. Taking the bridge in small bits until you can make it across on your own.

Jeb made a list of the purchases which did not trouble him.  Books he could do, filling up the car with gas, and shopping.  He was quite a gourmet cook, in fact, and never balked at the price of New Zealand lamb, Swiss gruyere, or Sicilian blood oranges.  He never looked at his bill, never comparison shopped, and always found the best ingredients for his increasingly complex and sophisticated cuisine.  What was it about Whole Foods that if anything calmed him?

Image result for images new zealand lamb
“Aha!”, he said. “Pleasure and enjoyment.  That’s the trick.”  There was always a good end in sight when he bought fresh, never-frozen Gulf shrimp, or Comice pears from an organic orchard in Oregon; or the best aged cut of beef.  Buying a book by a familiar, trusted author was equally satisfying and trouble-free. 

“Fine and dandy”, his wife replied when Jeb told her of his epiphany. “Go ahead and cook your rognons de veau à la crème while the roof caves in.”  His life was so simple and so circumscribed with so few satisfying pleasures, that there was no way to expand the perimeter.  There was no way that new tiles or showers could possibly co-exist with Ibsen, Chekhov, and  soft-shell crabs.
“Now what?”, he asked himself.

Here is where family, love, and the economy come in. Every Christmas, despite his objections, his sons and daughters bought him things he needed.  Every article of clothing he wore had been gifted.  His son stepped in to buy him a new computer.  His daughter bought him hoodies, jeans, and jackets which were a tad too Mission hipster for his taste but did the trick.  A younger daughter even bought him shoes, and said she would go with him to the store in case they didn’t fit. As far as his personal wardrobe was concerned, he was fine.  Shopping had been practical and direct.   Good for Jeb, bad for the economy.

Image result for images presents under christmas tree

Old age solved the rest of the shop phobia.  Jeb and his wife moved to a retirement community long before their friends, but little did the friends know that the Harkness classic house in their tony Washington neighborhood had been a curse, a relic, and a demonic reminder of purchase.

The Harknesses moved into Laurel Village.  His circumscribed life was exactly the same as it always had been, except that nothing outside the perimeter was falling apart, leaking, or making noises. He still shopped at Whole Foods, made it to Politics & Prose for books, was grateful to his children for their Christmas gifts, and lived happily, well, and long.

Jeb Harkness had applied game theory and won the event. He put off the inevitable until he had only one card left in his hand, and it was a good one. No doubt his house sold for less than it would have had he kept it up; but in these days of flipped homes, the developer who bought it at above market price, gutted it, replaced all appliances and fixtures, put in track lighting and a big kitchen, and made a handsome profit.  His paralysis was uncomfortable and eccentric, but Jeb had negotiated its Scylla and Charybdis and come out the other side.

It was a behavioral solution.  Jeb never got to the bottom of his phobia, but simply avoided the occasion of it; and finally opted for a life without occasion at all.

Shopping is terrible. Phobias are bad but a way of life, and the modest neurotic could do far worse than Jeb Harkness’ Avoidance and Game Theory.