Месечни архиви: април 2017

The Painter and the Novelist

Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion

Yale Center for British Art, New Haven/Estate of Vanessa Bell/Henrietta GarnettVanessa Bell: Self-Portrait, circa 1915

The Bloomsbury painter Vanessa Bell, née Stephen, lived most of her life (1879–1961) in the chilly, concealing shade of her younger sister, Virginia Woolf—the last twenty years following Virginia’s suicide in 1941. Though the attention paid to the Bloomsbury Group seems to be waning on both sides of the Atlantic, there is currently a surge of interest in Bell. Priya Parmar’s novel Vanessa and Her Sister artfully sheds new light on Bell, who is also part of an imaginative group exhibition, “Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion,” at Two Temple Place in London (William Waldorf Astor’s townhouse, now an exhibition venue). Dulwich Picture Gallery (England’s earliest public art gallery constructed for that purpose) has mounted the first major exhibition of Bell’s work. Her sex life was the chief subject of the BBC series Life in Squares (2015); she was played at different ages by Phoebe Fox and Eve Best.

In 1907, Vanessa married Clive Bell, the art critic and father of her two sons; she briefly became the lover of Roger Fry, the highly admired art critic; and she was the lifelong companion of the gay painter Duncan Grant, whose work will be featured in Tate Britain’s exhibition “Queer British Art, 1861–1967,” opening in April, and who was the father of Bell’s daughter, Angelica. Posterity has judged Virginia the greater artist, but in Parmar’s fictionalized account, Vanessa is the nobler, more sympathetic of the Bloomsbury Group’s founding sisters.

Was Bell a good painter? The striking catalog for the Dulwich show (of seventy-six paintings, works on paper, and fabrics, as well as photographs by both her and Patti Smith) equivocates by stressing her place in art history, saying that she was “one of the most advanced British artists of her time, with her own distinctive vision, boldly interpreting new ideas about art which were brewing in France and beyond.” Nancy Durrant, an art critic for the London Times, agrees: “This show is a joy…. What a magnificent creature she must have been.”

Because Bell spent so much of her life in and expended so much of her art upon Charleston, the Sussex farmhouse (now open to the public) where she lived with Grant, brought up her children, and hosted what the writer Molly MacCarthy dubbed the Bloomsberries, her art is inescapably decorative. Though on the cusp of Abstract Expressionism, for which “decorative” was a reproach, she embraced the domestic application of her artistic skills to crafting Charleston’s curtains, rugs, lampshades, crockery, and even the clothes she wore. At the Royal Academy School, she was taught by John Singer Sargent; there, and at the Slade School of Fine Art, she was influenced by the work of the French Post-Impressionists. Unafraid of the decorative label, Bell featured textiles produced by the Omega Workshop in many of her paintings of interiors, and even portraits. She, Grant, and Fry were the firm’s directors during its six years of existence, from 1913 until 1919.

Bell experimented impressively with pure abstract painting between late 1914 and 1915; before that her landscapes and her occasionally radical, strangely colored, often featureless portraits (such as the faceless pair painted around 1912, Virginia Woolf and Virginia Woolf in a Deckchair) toyed with what she called her sudden liberation, the result of discovering Matisse and Picasso. Although drawn to abstraction, she was adamant that her art needed some element of figuration, saying that “the reason I think that artists paint life and not patterns is that certain qualities of life, what I call movement, mass, weight, have aesthetic value.”

It is left to Vanessa’s grandson, Julian Bell, himself a painter and a first-rate critic, to make her place in art history secure; and also, in his catalog essay, “Landscapes Near and Far,” to champion her artistic worth. “In pictures,” he writes, “there is stuff that you feel you could lay your hands on, and there is stuff that feels forever out of reach.” Cézanne could paint both on the same canvas, and so, he argues convincingly, could Vanessa Bell.

From Parmar’s pages Virginia emerges as an aggressive, often hostile, malicious sibling, and a compulsive flirt. Although based on a huge inquiry into her letters, diaries, and biographies, Parmar’s Virginia is a fictional character who is “raving mad and running all over the house shouting nonsense.”

In a moment of (real-life) folly in February 1909, Lytton Strachey proposed to Virginia Stephen and was—briefly—accepted. Good sense triumphed the next day, and the homosexual Strachey tried to convince Leonard Woolf, then a colonial civil servant in Ceylon, that he ought to marry Virginia, whom he hardly knew.1 Strachey’s marriage-brokering worked, though, as Parmar writes: “They seemed mismatched, like odd socks. Bound together by decision rather than affection.” Parmar gives the reader the same impression about the marriage in 1907 of Clive Bell and Vanessa—that she was not so much in love with Clive as accepting of him and eager to shed her spinsterhood. In fact as in fiction, Virginia began her teasing flirtation with her brother-in-law on a family trip to Cornwall the very next year.

The unconsummated “affair” continued well after the three years that the Bells’ marriage flourished, and even after Virginia’s own marriage in 1912. Clive had taken up with an old flame, and by 1910 Vanessa was interested in Roger Fry. Among Clive’s unpublished letters to Lytton is his comment on November 22, 1913, about Vanessa giving Roger a hard time: “That woman’s a vixen with her lovers you know…I wish Virginia would recover I want to try to have an affair with her”; and, on November 28, 1917: “Virginia, unfucked or almost, alas!, grows more charming with the years.”

In the now vast literature surrounding Virginia Woolf there is speculation about sexual abuse by one or both of her half-brothers, and there are assertions that she was frigid, wrote sexy notes to her husband, and twice had “Sapphic” sex with Vita Sackville-West. With the license allowed the novelist, Parmar has probably hit on Virginia’s genuine secret: she trifled with Clive simply to get closer to her sister. In 1925 Virginia said to her friend Gwen Raverat, “It was my affair with Clive and Nessa…. For some reason that turned more of a knife in me than anything else has ever done.”

Virginia Woolf’s handsome face, with her high forehead, hooded eyes, prominent cheekbones, and generous nose (inherited from her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, as we can see from the 1902 photograph of them both in profile by George Charles Beresford; see illustration on page 60) is among the most familiar of any writer’s. Dozens of likenesses of her are contained in Frances Spalding’s catalog of the 2014 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, “Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision.”

Our easy acquaintance with the face and features of Woolf reflects the consensus of readers and scholars about the range of her genius: a novelist whose most daring experiments, such as The Waves (1931), made their way into the canon; who pretended to stretch the rules to write Flush (1933), the “biography” of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, having broken them altogether in Orlando: A Biography (1928), a novel that borrows details from the life of her lover, Vita Sackville-West; yet who also wrote a straightforward biography of Roger Fry (1940).

Few other diarists can be read with such pleasure. Barbara Lounsberry’s Becoming Virginia Woolf: Her Early Diaries and the Diaries She Read shows that the young Virginia was acutely conscious that diaries can be artful and suggests that she was already thinking of what she might draw on for work of her own. Moreover, she was a wise, stylish reviewer of other writers’ efforts; she wrote (and cared) enough about political and social themes to be included, alongside Leonard, on Hitler’s death list in the event of a German conquest of England.

Adeline Virginia was born in 1882, the third of four children of the celebrated man of letters Leslie Stephen and his second wife, Julia Duckworth; she had one half-sister (the probably autistic Laura) by her father’s first marriage to Minny, the daughter of the novelist William Thackeray; and three half-siblings by her mother’s first marriage to the lawyer and country gentleman Herbert Duckworth. Virginia herself alleged that she’d been molested by both Duckworth half-brothers. These assaults have been held to have had some bearing on her recurring mental illness, which had characteristics of bipolar disorder. The family lived in respectable, bourgeois Kensington. Despite the charge of snobbery she consciously courts when she writes in A Room of One’s Own that Shakespeare’s genius “is not born today among the working classes,” she well knew her own social place was not in the upper, but among the middle classes.

Virginia Woolf, notwithstanding her close relationship with her father, felt he had cheated her in not allowing her to have the kind of education she should have had; she bitterly resented having not been sent to Cambridge. She comments emphatically about not belonging at Cambridge in the lectures she delivered there in 1928 and published as A Room of One’s Own (among the most graceful polemics ever published); and she writes frequently in her diary and letters that she begrudged the fact that the family’s money stretched only far enough to educate the two Stephen boys, Thoby (1880–1906, who went to Clifton College when he failed to get a place at Eton) and Adrian (1883–1948, who was at the fee-paying Westminster School). Though Vanessa was sent to a South Kensington art school in 1896 and to the Royal Academy art school in 1901, Virginia was home-schooled, taught mathematics (unsuccessfully) and German (a little more happily) by Leslie, and left to read books from the list he made.

During the two years following her mother’s death in 1895, the teenaged Virginia had no lessons at all, but continued her self-education in the classics, partly in her father’s library. In the autumn of 1897 she was allowed to take Greek and Latin classes at the Ladies Department of King’s College, in Kensington. Two years later she was privately tutored by Walter Pater’s sister, Clara, and then by Janet Case, who became a lifelong friend.

Both Stephen brothers went to Cambridge, attending the grand Trinity College (Leslie had been at Trinity Hall). Many of Thoby’s and Adrian’s friends were members of that most openly secret society, the Cambridge Apostles, although neither of them was invited to join the fraternity, founded in 1820 and boasting Tennyson as its best-known “brother.” Leslie, too, had been overlooked for membership.

With the glaring exception of Clive Bell, almost all of Thoby and Adrian’s Cambridge friends disappeared on Saturday nights in term time, meeting in one another’s rooms to eat “whales” (sardines on toast) and to discuss with conspicuous candor topics such as “the higher sodomy.” The Cambridge Conversazione Society (the Apostles’ formal name) was then under the influence of the philosopher G.E. Moore. Thoby brought his friends home to Kensington, introducing Virginia to the ideas of Moore and to his friends E.M. Forster, Lytton and James Strachey, Saxon Sydney Turner, Leonard Woolf, and John Maynard Keynes.

Houghton Library, Harvard UniversityVirginia and Leslie Stephen, 1902; photograph by George Charles Beresford

When Leslie died in 1904, the children moved from the respectable address of 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington (with its population, including servants, of up to seventeen other adults) to the five-story house at 46 Gordon Square, in then-louche Bloomsbury. In March 1905 they began holding their “Thursday evenings” there. In her essay “Old Bloomsbury” (written for the Memoir Club around 1922), Virginia writes:

From such discussions Vanessa and I got probably much the same pleasure that undergraduates get when they meet friends of their own for the first time. In the world of [Kensington] we were not asked to use our brains much. Here we used nothing else. And part of the charm of those Thursday evenings was that they were astonishingly abstract. It was not only that Moore’s book [Principia Ethica, published in October 1903] had set us all discussing philosophy, art, religion; it was that the atmosphere…was abstract in the extreme. The young men I have named had no “manners” in the Hyde Park Gate sense. They criticised our arguments as severely as their own. They seemed never to notice how we were dressed or if we were nice looking or not.

The big change to Bloomsbury’s vocabulary and manners came four or five years later, following the terrible blow of Thoby’s death from typhoid in 1906. In her 1924 essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown,” Virginia wrote: “On or about December, 1910, human character changed.” In the Vanessa Bell catalog, Hana Leaper says this sentence referred to “the impact of the first Post-Impressionist exhibition.” Not quite. In the essay, Woolf writes:

At the present moment we are suffering, not from decay, but from having no code of manners which writers and readers accept as a prelude to the more exciting intercourse of friendship. The literary convention of the time is so artificial—you have to talk about the weather and nothing but the weather throughout the entire visit—that, naturally, the feeble are tempted to outrage, and the strong are led to destroy the very foundations and rules of literary society.

Despite the portentous introduction, what really seems to have happened (according to “Old Bloomsbury,” where this anecdote is cited as an illustration of “Bloomsbury Chapter Two,” which ended with the Post-Impressionist show) was this: Vanessa and Virginia were sitting in the drawing room, expecting Clive, and talking.

Suddenly the door opened and the long and sinister figure of Mr Lytton Strachey stood on the threshold. He pointed his finger at a stain on Vanessa’s white dress.

“Semen?” he said.

Can one really say it? I thought and we burst out laughing. With that one word all barriers of reticence and reserve went down. A flood of the sacred fluid seemed to overwhelm us. Sex permeated our conversation. The word bugger was never far from our lips. We discussed copulation with the same excitement and openness that we had discussed the nature of good.

Doris Lessing felt she had Virginia’s measure when she criticized Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of her in the 2002 film The Hours: “Where is the malicious spiteful woman she in fact was? And dirty-mouthed, too, though with an upper-class accent.” Lessing writes this in her foreword to Carlyle’s House (2003), the slightly misleading title given to a small portion of Virginia’s 1909 diary that went missing following Leonard’s death in 1969.

1909 was a remarkable year for Virginia Stephen. In February she and Lytton had their preposterous twenty-four-hour engagement; that summer she refused a proposal from the thirty-year-old journalist and future politician Hilton Young (later the first Baron Kennet). In April her aunt Caroline Stephen left her £2,500, a staggering sum (about $342,600 in today’s money; Vanessa and Adrian got £100 each), and she went to Italy with Vanessa and Clive Bell. In August she went to Bayreuth with Adrian and Saxon Sydney-Turner for the Ring, Parsifal (twice), and Lohengrin. In London there were fancy dress parties, plays, operas, concerts, writing, teaching, German lessons, and excursions to the zoo. Beneath the whirl, the emotionally unstable twenty-seven-year-old was feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable being unmarried, and she despised herself for having such feelings.

In the account in the 1909 diary of having tea in James Strachey’s rooms at Trinity College (along with the man James passionately loved, Rupert Brooke, and their friend Harry Norton), Virginia “admired the atmosphere…and felt in some respects at ease in it.” But only she and Norton spoke, “and I was conscious that not only my remarks but my presence was criticized. They wished for the truth, and doubted whether a woman could speak it.”

Much later, quoting this passage (again in “Old Bloomsbury”), she concluded that the reason for the silence was not antifeminist feeling, but lack of sexual attraction:

The society of buggers has many advantages—if you are a woman. It is simple, it is honest, it makes one feel, as I noted, in some respects at one’s ease. But it has this drawback—with buggers one cannot…show off. Something is always suppressed, held down.

There’s another 1909 sketch written only for her notebooks, baldly labeled “Jews” (in the edited version), which raises the question of anti-Semitism. It’s a portrait of Annie Loeb, a rich and cultivated Jewish woman, whose eminent Wagnerian, stockbroker son Virginia had met three months earlier at Bayreuth. Virginia has two complaints: that Mrs. Loeb’s ambition to marry off her daughters “seemed very elementary, very little disguised, and very unpleasant” and that “at dinner she pressed everyone to eat, and feared, when she saw an empty plate, that the guest was criticising her.” Woolf adds: “Her food, of course, swam in oil and was nasty.” In 1912 Virginia acquired a Jewish mother-in-law of her own, and she often said and wrote unkind and cutting things about her, as she sometimes did about Leonard.

Was this merely conventional anti-Semitism of the early-twentieth-century English drawing room variety? Some have charged that Woolf (and pretty much everyone in Bloomsbury excepting Forster) found Jews on the whole interchangeable and attributed negative characteristics to an entire people. How could Virginia Woolf have been guilty of such lack of imagination? She wasn’t. Before she married Leonard she wrote to several friends with good humor and proud defiance that she was engaged to a “penniless Jew.” One evening in Oxford in the mid-1970s, Isaiah Berlin told my wife and me that when he was young, “I used to meet Virginia Woolf quite a bit. She invariably began the conversation, ‘You know, Isaiah, we Jews…’”

Doris Lessing felt Woolf was not only anti-Semitic, bigoted, and snobbish about “crass middle-class vulgarians” (such as the Wilcoxes in Forster’s Howards End), but also hostile to the lower classes. For Woolf, Lessing writes, “the working people…were enemies.” Even while marshaling evidence for the prosecution, though, Lessing finds a saving grace:

With Woolf we are up against a knot, a tangle, of unlikeable prejudices, some of her time, some personal, and this must lead us to look again at her literary criticism, which was often as fine as anything written before or since, and yet she was capable of thumping prejudice, like the fanatic who can see only his own truth. Delicacy and sensitivity in writing was everything….

Yes, it was everything. But for Woolf these ethereal considerations of art boiled down to hard questions of technique. In her slightest creation, Flush, she manages to incorporate the cocker spaniel’s point of view into the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning without succumbing to archness. Flush is delicate but substantial, never precious.

Return to her most difficult fiction, The Waves. Start with the italicized narrative conceit of the sea and the sky and the horizon just becoming visible. Read it slowly while thinking about (or listening to) the E-flat major chord that opens Das Rheingold. Bayreuth has worked its effect. Virginia Woolf has captured music: the passage is Wagner’s prelude in prose. Where Woglinde starts her melodic leitmotif, The Waves begins, “‘I see a ring,’ said Bernard, ‘hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light.’” Whether it’s homage or imitation, this dialogue can almost be sung to the first lines in the opera.2

Generations of scholars have read The Waves looking for traits that connect the characters with Woolf’s family and Bloomsbury friends, or trying to work out its plot or structure. For the most part, they overlook the connection with the Ring. From childhood Woolf was imbued with Walter Pater’s notion that all art aspires to the condition of music; here she has achieved this goal as fully as the best work in English literature, as well as Joyce did in the final pages of Ulysses. The poetry of The Waves is obvious; it takes only a little effort to hear its music.

  1. 1

    See my edition of The Letters of Lytton Strachey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), pp. 172–175. 

  2. 2

    The connection with Wagner is tentatively explored in John Louis DiGaetani’s Richard Wagner and the Modern British Novel (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978). 

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Should the Chinese Government Be in American Classrooms?

Imaginechina via AP ImagesStudents from a Confucius Institute in the US visiting the Confucius Temple in Qufu, China, April 17, 2013

Since their beginning in 2005, Confucius Institutes have been set up to teach Chinese language classes in more than one hundred American colleges and universities, including large and substantial institutions like Rutgers University, the State Universities of New York at Binghamton and Albany, Purdue, Emory, Texas A & M, Stanford, and others. In addition, there are now about five hundred sister programs, known as “Confucius Classrooms,” teaching Chinese in primary and secondary schools from Texas to Massachusetts.

But while the rapid spread of these institutes has been impressive, in recent years their unusual reach in the American higher education system has become increasingly controversial: Confucius Institutes are an official agency of the Chinese government, which provides a major share, sometimes virtually all, of the funds needed to run them. Though they are housed in US institutions, their curriculum is largely shaped by Chinese guidelines. Moreover, they have often been set up in secretive agreements with host institutions, which has caused Western scholars to question whether their universities are ceding undue control to a foreign government—in this instance, a foreign government well known for aggressively propagandizing its official views, censoring dissenting opinions, and imprisoning those who express them.

Responding to such complaints, a number of schools, including the University of Chicago, Penn State, and McMaster University in Canada, have closed their CIs down. The University of Chicago, for example, did so in 2014 after some one hundred faculty members signed a petition saying that the CIs were incompatible with the “values” of the University. “This is really an anomalous sort of arrangement,” Bruce Lincoln, one of the organizers of the petition, told Inside Higher Ed, “where an entity outside the university and a powerful entity and an entity that has strong interest in what’s taught is in effect seriously influencing who’s teaching and what’s taught under our name and inside our curriculum.”

Now the National Association of Scholars, a conservative group whose members are mostly American university professors, has issued the most complete report on the CIs to date, a detailed 177-page document called “Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education.” The NAS study, which was conducted by Rachelle Peterson, the group’s director of research projects, comes to conclusions similar to those of a study by the American Association of University Professors three years ago, and it makes similar recommendations: that the CIs either be closed or reformed. (There are about ten CIs in Canada, where the Association of University Teachers three years ago likewise recommended that they be reformed or closed.)

Among the NAS report’s findings are that CI teachers face “pressures to avoid sensitive topics” like Tibet, Taiwan, or China’s human rights record; that the teachers, recruited and trained in China, adhere to Chinese restrictions on speech; and that there is an absence of “transparency” in the CIs’ operations. Peterson visited twelve CIs in New York and New Jersey and almost all of them refused to make their contracts with the Chinese government public; administrators at some of them refused even to talk to Ms. Peterson or to allow her to visit classrooms. The NAS report also echoes concerns expressed by earlier critics of the CIs that the Chinese funding they attract has given universities a strong financial incentive to host them, to the point that some universities may find it hard to close their CIs “without jeopardizing other financial relationships.” Instead, there is an interest in presenting “China in a positive light” and in focusing “on anodyne aspects of Chinese culture,” glossing over “Chinese political history and human rights abuses.”

The CI program is supervised and controlled by the Chinese government. The supervisory body is the Office of Chinese Language Council International—the Hanban for short—which is a department of the Chinese Ministry of Education (although it is ultimately supervised by the Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department, whose former head, Li Changchun, has been quoted in newspaper articles calling the CIs “part of China’s foreign propaganda strategy”). The senior official in charge, Liu Yandong, is a member of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee. The Hanban provides subsidies—generally around $100,000 each year for the five-year duration of a contract—to participating institutions. It screens the teachers, all of them Chinese nationals, trains them, pays their salaries and airfares, dispatches them to the institution in question, and in most cases designs the curriculum. It also sends a Confucius Institute director who shares responsibility for running each program with a local co-director.  

Yet it is hard to identify the specific threat the institutes pose. The NAS report does not contain what the organization’s director, Peter Wood, calls any “smoking guns” showing some egregious violation of academic principles, or even much in the way of widespread opposition from faculty or students. Indeed, the report contains testimonials from American participants in the program who deny they have felt any pressure from China to adhere to the country’s line, or any threats of losing their contracts and subsidies if they don’t.

“My sense is that our CI is not really doing anything nefarious,” David Stahl, a professor of Japanese literature and a CI board member at SUNY Binghamton, told Peterson. “I think, actually, given the terrible state of state funding for SUNY, it’s benefited us greatly.” Stephen Dunnet, an administrator at the University at Buffalo, told her, “It’s shameful that the only way we can offer Chinese in the Buffalo school district—which is almost bankrupt—is that we have to ask the Chinese…  There is no way for them to learn Chinese if not for this program.”

So what, then, is the terrible danger? What worries many critics of the CIs is not that they will somehow be able to establish pro-China propaganda departments inside the American academy, but something more subtle—that close relations with a Chinese state agency and dependence on Chinese financial support will give China, not exactly a disinterested party, a strong say in how the country is presented to American elementary schoolchildren and college undergraduates alike.  Chinese officials have extolled the CIs as an admirable and effective way of extending what they refer to as China’s soft power, and this is what makes some critics nervous. Will programs on China have the free, critical inquiry that American academic programs are supposed to have? Given China’s concerted efforts to control the discourse on sensitive topics like Tibet, Taiwan, and human rights, it seems unlikely that they could be discussed openly within the precincts of the CIs.   

Paul Hackett/ReutersLiu Yandong and Li Changchun at the London Book Fair, April 15, 2012

In a 2014 book, Confucius Institutes: Academic Malware, the University of Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins expressed many of these points, arguing that self-censorship is virtually inevitable; otherwise the American partner institution would jeopardize China’s financial support. Sahlins argues that if prominent institutions like Chicago itself give credibility to the CIs, smaller places, especially those without existing, independent China programs, will be encouraged to set them up also, and as they become an accepted part of the academic scene, China will gain considerable influence over how it is presented in American classrooms. There are precedents for this concern: China has successfully pressured Hollywood to make changes in movies so that they can be shown in the Chinese market, has gotten Internet companies to turn over information about their users to the security police, and has used its economic power to dissuade countries from criticizing its human rights record. 

Perry Link, professor emeritus of Chinese literature at Princeton, commented on the current and likely future effects of the “outsourcing,” as the NAS report puts it, of Chinese language teaching to China itself: “I would say mainly two things: 1) It induces self-censorship in CI recipients, which is very effective even in the absence of ‘smoking guns’; and 2) It projects a partial view of China, which incurs a double cost: a) taboo topics are not seen, and b) non-taboo topics would not look so innocuous if they could be seen in full context.”

One of the disturbing aspects of the Confucius Institutes is the secrecy in which their relations to host institutions are often kept. The authors of the NAS report were able, mostly by filing Freedom of Information Requests, to obtain the contracts signed between some of the American schools and the Hanban, and these contracts contain some strange clauses. One such clause, for example, prohibits “any activity conducted under the name of the Confucius Institute without permission or authorization from the Confucius Institute headquarters.” Another indicates a Chinese expectation that the CIs will observe Chinese law. What this means exactly is hard to know, since Chinese law does not extend to American universities, but it certainly sounds as though the American partners would be unable to have a program on, say, Tibet, unless it was prepared to denounce the Dalai Lama. The NAS report cites an incident in 2009 wherein North Carolina State University, which has a CI, rescinded an invitation to the Dalai Lama to speak on campus. 

Peterson notes what she calls the “veil of secrecy” that seems to surround at least some of the CIs she visited in New York and New Jersey, which is the reason the NAS had to file FOIA requests to get the contracts signed between the Hanban and some of those institutions. Peterson was, for example, able to make an appointment to meet the CI director at SUNY Binghamtonthis person canceled the appointment a couple of days later, citing too many other responsibilities, then told Peterson that no member of his staff would be able to meet her and that she would be barred from sitting in on a class. A similar series of events took place at SUNY Albany, she says.

At Alfred University, a small private school that has had a CI since 2008, Peterson was sitting in on a class, having, she says, gotten permission from the teacher to do so, when the provost, Rick Stephens, appeared and ordered her to leave both the classroom and the campus right away. (A spokesperson at Alfred, Susan C. Goetschius, said in an email that Peterson “did not follow appropriate protocols as a non-student and/or journalist attending a class. She was asked to leave and she did so.”)

Peterson was cordially received at other campuses. Still, one wonders about this atmosphere of secretiveness at some schools. Do the administrators or the program worry that disclosing their Chinese connections and their need for Chinese funding will give material to critics of the program? Are the Chinese directors appointed by the Hanban, even those at public universities, fearful that they will get questions on human rights in China or Tibet or on how they deal with the subject of the 1989 crackdown? 

Then there is the matter of Chinese teachers, selected and trained in China. A recent documentary film on the Confucius Institutes in Canada, called In the Name of Confucius, tells the story of Sonia Zhao, who was sent by the Hanban in 2011 to teach in the CI at McMaster University. When she went to the Hanban in Beijing to sign her contract, Zhao noticed a provision banning practitioners of Falun Gong, the sect that has been ferociously repressed in China. Zhao signed anyway, fearing that not to do so would identify her as the Falun Gong practitioner that she in fact was. She went to Toronto, and after some time living in terror that she would be found out by the Chinese director there, she left the program and got political asylum. McMaster terminated its CI arrangement in 2013.

Zhao’s case might be an unusual one, but if it is true that Falun Gong members are barred from membership, that would be religious discrimination and would appear to violate both American and Canadian law. Reporting on the Zhao case, the Toronto Globe and Mail cited a passage in the Hanban contracts according to which teachers are “not allowed to join illegal organizations such as Falun Gong.” This wording used to be posted on the Hanban’s English-language website, but it was removed after the Zhao case. Zhao says in the Canadian documentary that during their training in China, teachers are instructed in ways to avoid student questions on what are effectively banned topics, like Tibet or Falun Gong itself.   “Don’t talk about that,” she says she was told. “If the student persists, you just try to change the topic or say something the Chinese Communist Party would prefer.”

The expansion of China’s presence in schools in the US and other countries is taking place at the same time that China itself is intensifying its crackdown on dissent, tightening its censorship of the internet, and publishing prohibitions on what it calls “false ideological trends,” which include promoting that the propaganda machinery calls “Western values.” Recently, the journalist Hannah Beech, writing in The New Yorker, cited a statement by Chen Baosheng, China’s minister of education, who warned that schools in China “are the main target for infiltration by hostile forces,” and he vowed that he would “never let textbooks promoting Western values appear in our classes.”

The Confucius Institutes, it will be remembered, are run by an agency under the very Ministry of Education that Chen heads. The Hanban website currently carries reports on the Confucius Institute’s eleventh annual congress, which was held in Yunnan Province last December with 2,200 delegates participating from 140 countries. Several senior Chinese officials, including Politburo member Liu Yandong, gave speeches. On the program was a presentation of China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative, the country’s plan to build a network of relationships across Eurasia. Chen was the official host of the event.

Again, there’s no “smoking gun” here, but there is a paradox. Chen has had remarkable success in building a presence for China in American (and many other countries’) schools even as he has publicly expressed his determination never to allow Western influence—or, as he called it, “infiltration”—to flow in the other direction.

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Can China Replace the West?

Lan Hongguang/Xinhua/Eyevine/ReduxPresident Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Mar-a-Lago, Palm Beach, Florida, April 2017

Gideon Rachman’s Easternization, his new survey of a transformed Asia, admirably does what so little writing on foreign affairs attempts. It treats with equal facility economics, geopolitics, security, enough history for needed background, official thinking, and public attitudes. Rachman, chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, has an eye for the telling statistic and for the memorable detail that makes it stick. He packs an enormous amount of information into a short book and opens windows of understanding for nonexperts onto this immensely important three fifths of humanity. And while not directly concerned with the new American administration, the story he tells shows well why Donald Trump’s foreign policies could end so badly for the United States and for the world.

But Rachman does not, in the end, make a convincing case for the book’s thesis—embodied in its one-word title. The central issue, he writes, is “how the rise in Asian economic power is changing world politics.” His momentous answer is that “the West’s centuries-long domination of world affairs,” stretching back to 1500, “is now coming to a close.” Without doubt, Asia’s economic ascent has been extraordinary, but Westernization—the spread of the West’s influence and values—has rested on much more than its wealth and the military power derived from it. Those other elements—including open governments, readiness to build institutions, and contributions to others’ security and growth—are weak or absent in Asia today. Easternization is neither here nor coming soon.

Asia is the world’s largest continent and home to 4.4 billion people. But its story is disproportionately about China’s economic growth. Beijing’s official statistics are notoriously unreliable, but by most reckonings, China became the world’s largest economy (measured by purchasing power parity, PPP) in 2014. What isn’t so well known is how astonishingly fast the end came for the 140-year reign of the American economy as the world’s largest. According to numbers Rachman cites, China was just 12 percent of the size of the US economy in 2000 and only half as big as late as 2011. Such meteoric growth has been enough to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, finance the US deficit, and still allow China to increase its military spending at double-digit rates every year for two decades.

In matters of national security the momentum of Chinese growth has meant, for example, that while Japan’s military spending was triple China’s in 2000, it was only half as large by 2015. A rapidly expanding military has underwritten Beijing’s surging confidence in its own strength vis-à-vis both its neighbors and the US, and increasingly aggressive behavior in the South and East China Seas, where it has claimed islands, rocks, and waters also claimed by Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. It has built artificial islands and constructed runways and other dual-use facilities on them. It has deployed planes and ships to assert its rights and challenged others’ rights to fishing areas, oil resources, and even freedom of navigation in areas of open ocean. It has vehemently rejected a strong ruling against its claims by a tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Though Chinese leaders have not specified exactly what waters they claim and insist that China wants a peaceful, negotiated solution to these disputes, it is easy to see their actions in a very different light. Beijing has notably failed to clarify its goal: whether to assert its newfound strength, to test others’ resolve, to extend its regional sway, or to claim sovereignty over everything within the so-called nine-dash line (a demarcation of China’s claims to the South China Sea that dates back to 1947) and attempt to push the US out of the western Pacific—an outcome Washington will not accept. In the atmosphere of profound strategic mistrust that defines US–China relations, the potential for tragic miscalculation by both sides is obvious.

This is not the only or even the most immediate security risk in the region. Taiwan’s official status as part of mainland China—known as the One China policy—is nonnegotiable for Beijing. Trump’s biggest blunder to date was to suggest that he might no longer accept that policy, which has kept the peace among the US, Taiwan, and China for four decades while allowing Taiwan to flourish. Beijing instantly—and entirely predictably—froze all communication with the US, and Washington was forced to back down.

Assuming that the Trump administration has permanently learned this lesson, the far more serious threat is North Korea’s advancing nuclear capability (it could soon have enough nuclear fuel for one hundred warheads) and its progress toward nuclear-armed ICBMs that could reach the US. Though it is formally China’s ally and largely dependent on it, Pyongyang routinely ignores Beijing. In a rare misjudgment, Rachman devotes only a few short paragraphs to what may well be the first major crisis the new US administration confronts, and a source of acute contention between it and China.

Rachman links China’s newly aggressive policies to President Xi Jinping, noting that the month after he took office “Chinese military aircraft entered Japanese-controlled airspace for the first time since 1958,” and that in his first eighteen months Xi “paid more official visits to the People’s Liberation Army than his predecessor had done in a decade.” Xi has paid equal attention to building public support for his newly assertive policies, bolstering decades of Communist Party propaganda that China, at long last, is claiming its rightful place as a world power after more than a century of foreign humiliation.

This “aggrieved nationalism” coexists with an equally strong feeling of insecurity within the Chinese government—a dangerous mixture. The Communist Party’s legitimacy no longer rests on ideology but on economic growth, which is slowing. The Party is convinced that the West fomented the string of so-called color revolutions demanding democratic governance that took place during the 2000s—from Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan to Lebanon and Iran. It fears and expects similar subversion in China. Outrage at elite corruption was a common feature of these movements, and corruption is rampant in China. So Xi has launched a vigorous campaign against it—conveniently jailing many of his political opponents. The difficulty, as Rachman points out, is that “arresting more than one hundred thousand people…risks creating political instability by another route.”

China may appear an economic and military powerhouse but it is confronting critical challenges at home. Environmental pollution—especially of the air—is not only hugely unpopular and economically costly; it is a killer, responsible for the deaths of a staggering million to a million and a half Chinese annually. China also faces a looming demographic crisis with its aging population, shrinking workforce, and huge number of people who will retire with only a single child and a drastically inadequate social safety net to support them. The cost of pensions and health care will balloon. Anticipating the coming cliff, Beijing changed its one-child policy to a two-child policy in late 2015, producing a small increase in births but not yet what is hoped for. Stalled economic reform also belongs on this list of weaknesses, as does widening inequality and continuing deep poverty in rural areas.

Not surprisingly, China’s recent belligerence has intensified long-standing fears among its neighbors. Many of these fraught relationships stretch very far back. Rachman recounts the Vietnamese joke that the shape of its coastline reflects a spine bent under the weight of China, with which it has fought seventeen wars. In Southeast Asia, too, countries fear China, look to the US for support, and hope that they will not be forced to choose between them. In China, the memory of Japan’s brutal World War II occupation remains fresh, while Japan fears that China’s new militarism may be a repeat of its own mistakes of that period. And India, Asia’s other superstate—and one of China’s four nuclear-armed neighbors—sits across the longest disputed border in the world.

India is growing faster than China and may one day surpass it as the world’s largest economy, but today it is far behind. Indeed, the country faces a list of challenges so long that one is forced to conclude that it is little short of a miracle that a unified, democratic state exists at all. But in Narendra Modi, India now has dynamic leadership for the first time in many years. Led by the Hindu nationalist BJP party, the Modi government has come under criticism for its restrictions on civil liberties and its failure to protect religious minorities. But with his recent landslide win in state elections, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, Modi may be consolidating enough political strength to force through long-needed reforms in New Delhi.

Though Rachman takes India’s growth as more evidence for Easternization, culturally and politically India is facing west. In contrast to its wary and sometimes actively contested relationship with China, India’s relations with the US have been growing steadily closer since the George W. Bush years. Russia is no longer India’s major arms supplier; the US is. And the stunning success of Indian immigrants in the US, from Silicon Valley to Wall Street to academia, is a powerful draw for others to follow.

Russia, too, is turning east, Rachman argues. Its doing so is “part of the same phenomenon” as China’s increasing assertiveness, namely relative Western economic and political decline. Evidence includes joint Russian–Chinese military exercises, shared pressure against color revolutions, and, in 2014, a loudly trumpeted natural gas deal (though the latter has yet to be implemented). In reality, Moscow’s latest turn toward China happened because it could not get what it wanted—respect as a great power and equality in NATO—from the West. Then Russia’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine triggered tough sanctions that the US and its allies show no sign of lifting. Thus, the turn is at least as much a push from the West as it is a pull toward the East.

With India, China, and Japan accounting for three of the world’s four largest economies (as measured by PPP), and rapid growth in two of them, Asia is becoming the world’s economic center, though today the US and the EU together remain substantially larger. Arms purchases and greatly increased military strength have followed Asia’s growth. China, in particular, is closing the gap, though the US retains a huge advantage. When alliances are added to the picture—as they should be—the picture becomes much more lopsided and more complicated since Japan and South Korea and several other Asian states, together with the twenty-eight members of NATO, number among America’s vast global alliance network. China’s main allies, Pakistan and North Korea, may be a net burden.

But, as Rachman shows, the West’s ability to impose order on the world is not what it once was. Among the many reasons is its relative decline in military power, the advent of asymmetrical warfare, decades of underspending on defense by European powers, and the salutary disappearance of the artificial order imposed first by colonial empires and later by the cold war. America’s European allies have placed such a strong priority on social spending over defense spending that in many cases their individual military capabilities have become negligible. Rachman notes that when Britain’s cuts are completed next year, its army would fit comfortably in London’s Wembley Stadium with 16,000 seats to spare. Even collectively, the EU has been content to largely offload its strategic responsibilities to the US.

For its part, the US is still fighting the longest and most expensive wars in its history in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Trump administration may well escalate US military operations in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, but special operations and even missile strikes can only achieve so much. The American public has little appetite for any new commitment of ground troops, especially in the Middle East. Taken together, these trends do create an unsettling new environment in which the Western powers are less in charge. But this does not translate into a greater influence for Asian nations.

More telling, though, is that throughout history, the dominance of the West has been driven as much by values, ideas, and political attraction as by economic and military power. The West has stood for open, usually democratic and secular polities and a shared culture that places a high value on individual freedoms. Western nations have preferred open trade to mercantilism. They have evolved a uniquely successful capitalist economic system and been devoted to the rule of law. They have prioritized education and technological innovation. And in the decades since World War II, Western nations have invested enormous effort and money into building a liberal, rules-based world order and a panoply of international institutions whose work benefits all countries. In short, Westernization has spread as much through the positive attraction of its model as through overt or implicit coercion.

What does Asia-based Easternization look like in this light? The first thing to be said is that Asia is not remotely cohesive. There is no “East” comparable to “the West.” Though the region is integrating economically, it is riven by active conflicts, bitter historical memories, and deep cultural divisions. Economic and political systems vary widely. Adherence to the rule of law is extremely uneven. One result is the rampant flight of capital—to the West. Wealthy Russians and Chinese flock to put their money in US securities or real estate in London or Miami. Education lags behind the West. Not a single Asian university ranks in the globe’s top tier.

Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping; drawing by James Ferguson

China is becoming much more active in international governance and many Asian countries have staffed United Nations peacekeeping missions. But by and large Asians have been the beneficiaries rather than the creators of the regimes, agreements, and institutions conceived and built by the West, whether to manage global finance, underwrite economic development, control nuclear proliferation, govern the Internet, slow climate change, detect epidemics, preserve shared natural resources, manage air travel, and so on. And except for the city-states of Singapore and Hong Kong, there is no Asian nation whose governance stands as a model others seek to emulate.

Rachman sees Asian countries choosing to “reassert their own histories and heritages, and scrape away some of the accumulations of Westernization.” Others see the opposite. Kishore Mahbubani, an influential former Singaporean diplomat, has been writing about the dawn of Asia and the “sunset” of the West for two decades, urging the West to learn to share power gracefully. In his book The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East (2008), he argues that the fast-growing Asian economies owe their success to having finally adopted the “pillars of Western wisdom,” namely open polities, free markets, and the rule of law. (This was easier to say about China nine years ago than it would be today.)

Powered, above all, by China’s economic dynamism, Asia is stronger than it has ever been. At the same time, the United States and much of Europe are struggling with deep challenges to their democracies. The EU faces what may be existential threats from Brexit, from populist, right-wing parties, and from member states in Eastern Europe that have turned away from democracy. NATO is in disrepair. The US is more divided now than it has been at any point in the past century, with no discernible path out of what appears to be a political dead end. Yet the West still provides the robust institutional infrastructure that undergirds the global economy. And as it has for decades, the United States still provides global leadership and the security that has enabled Asia to achieve its tremendous growth.

Rachman writes that China’s long-term goal is “overturning America’s global role.” If he means that Beijing sees itself as a strategic competitor and wants to replace the US as world leader, he has gone too far. China would like to see a weaker US where US policies threaten its interests, especially in its neighborhood, but it has shown no desire to possess America’s global preeminence. China is a challenge to the United States on several fronts; not an enemy. However, the relationship is riven with tensions that could escalate into open conflict. Neither side understands or trusts the other. Avoiding these thorns will depend on steady leaders and skilled diplomacy in reading each other’s behavior. Improvisation or short-sighted deals made for a domestic audience are likely to end badly. History also warns that success will not be easy. Most often, in the past, rising new powers have clashed with reigning ones. The US–China relationship will remain the most consequential in the world for decades to come.

So far President Trump has sent decidedly mixed signals about how he intends to deal with China. He attacked China throughout the presidential campaign, promising to designate it as a currency manipulator on his first day in office and to slap on punishing tariffs—a step that would have ignited a trade war. He stumbled into a needless hole by suggesting a US reversal on the status of Taiwan. He appointed several top officials known for their fierce anti-China views, but also a treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, with different ideas. While Trump had called the Chinese “grand champions” of currency manipulation, Mnuchin promised a review based on established criteria that will show that China has not, in recent years, been devaluing its currency. Notwithstanding an early summit with Japan’s prime minister, the president’s frequent derogatory remarks about allies and alliances left Asians fearful and guessing about American intentions.

And then, at his summit with President Xi in early April, Trump reversed himself in tone and substance from all he had said before. There was no mention of unfair trade, of China “raping” the US economy or failing to do enough about North Korea. The two presidents stressed their personal relationship and the basis they had laid for future progress in resolving issues between the two countries. It could not have been a more conventional preliminary meeting, or more distant from what candidate and even President Trump had earlier promised. While presumably relieved by this, Xi surely did not appreciate being taken by surprise and completely overshadowed by a US missile strike on Syria in the middle of the meeting. And who can know whether this welcome traditional approach—new to this administration—will last when the governments actually tackle the differences between them?

Several of the administration’s actions, however, have been unequivocal and unequivocally harmful. The president followed through on his campaign promise to take the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP would have made a relatively small economic difference—most of its members already have low trade barriers—but it was geopolitically important. The partnership, which did not include China, was a means of drawing America’s Asian allies closer together and of signaling US resolve and permanent engagement in Asia. China wasted no time in taking advantage of the diplomatic gift it was handed with the TPP’s demise. At January’s global forum in Davos, President Xi appeared as the spokesman for globalization and open trade. A few weeks later, China sent high-level officials to a meeting of the eleven remaining TPP members to discuss forming a new regional trade regime in which it, and not the US, would be a member.

The administration’s reversal of measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions created a similar opportunity for China. Whether or not the president decides to formally renounce the Paris climate accord, these steps will make it unlikely that the US will be able to meet its commitments under the agreement, moving the US from leader to outlier. Here, too, China immediately acted to reassert its own commitments and, by default, international leadership.

The president’s policy choices, as revealed in the budget he submitted to Congress in mid-March, promise more of the same. Draconian cuts to the State Department, to foreign aid, to most international institutions, and to the international programs of most domestic agencies suggest that Trump holds a dangerously one-dimensional view of what constitutes US security.

Both Democrats and Republicans have underinvested in diplomacy relative to the military for decades, but both have generally recognized the immense value of the nation’s nonmilitary assets to securing the whole gamut of its interests. As General James Mattis, then the head of the US Central Command and now Trump’s defense secretary, famously put it in shorthand to a congressional panel in 2013, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”

Never before has a president suggested handing over most of the currency of US global leadership to others, free of charge. China will not hesitate to seize every opportunity offered. A much diminished and less influential America, and consequently a much less secure Asia, would be the result.

—April 11, 2017

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The Street with Trotsky’s Bones

Alex Webb/Magnum PhotosTehuantepec, Oaxaca, Mexico, 1985

It was late December when Alex Webb asked me to write a piece for a book that collected thirty years of his photographs of Mexican streets. I remember it because my family and I were trying to cut as short as possible the New York winter by spending a month in Tepoztlán—a town forty-five minutes from Mexico City. I was familiar with Webb’s work on the Mexico-US border and found the project exciting because of his unusual way of looking at the country we both love: his superb pictures are all about the way in which the brutal light of Mexico casts a shadow on what one would rather not see. Webb is a master of color, but satisfied, too, to leave things in the darkness. 

During one of our frequent trips to Mexico City, I was with my children in a cab going down Avenida de los Insurgentes when I pointed to the strange, almost painfully modernist Polyforum Siqueiros—an art gallery and cultural venue that the muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros designed late in his career, in the 1960s, when he was the last surviving maestro of his kind and Mexican revolutionary nationalism was long past its heyday. The Polyforum is a building with such a weird shape that the always-poisonous popular wisdom in Mexico City has rebaptized it the “Coliflorum” (coliflor meaning cauliflower)—and it certainly looks like a vegetable grown in hell.

I told my children while pointing to it, the three of us sitting down in the backseat of a cab, feeling a bit foreign in the city in which we had all been born but had not lived for a long time: “The guy who did that thing is the same one who fired the machine gun whose bullet holes we saw in Trotsky’s bedroom, near your grandparents’ house.” They were, of course, immediately interested in the building.

In which other city could one say something like that while running between stoplights? I grew up in the neighborhood of El Carmen, on Calle Viena: a quiet, middle-class, residential road that happens to have, at one end, an insane monument engraved with the hammer and sickle: Leon Trotsky’s grave. The tomb is in the center of the garden of the house that a Mexican anti-Stalinist gave to Trotsky, after he was exiled from the USSR and expelled from Europe. The grave somehow embodies one of those unexpected, historical knots of international intrigue so common in Mexico City—the world’s navel; its often overlooked crossroads.

Although it holds Trotsky’s bones, the street of Viena is short and unremarkable, except maybe for its jacaranda trees, which bloom in late February and produce a hallucinatory purple carpet of dead flowers. It was not until I returned to visit my parents, after I moved out of Mexico long ago, that I learned the street contained meanings beyond my experience of it—that it hosted ghosts more important than that of Navarro, my high school classmate who committed suicide by overdose, just before AIDS became an illness with which you could live; or the carcass of the abandoned Cinema Coyoacán, where I received my sentimental education watching low-budget Mexican comedies and second-run Hollywood blockbusters. Maybe the best way to describe the spirit of El Carmen is through our relationship to film: our neighborhood got to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark so late, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was already running in the movie theaters of the more prestigious parts of the city.

Calle Viena begins at the Vivero Coyoacán, the immense plant nursery founded in 1901, where every tree in Mexico City that’s younger than a century old was born. It may be this forest wall that kept our neighborhood insulated even from Hollywood, what made Trotsky’s allies think Stalin’s hitmen could not reach him there. Standing with your back to the tree nursery, Calle Viena runs to the east for only eight blocks, ending where, not long ago, the Churubusco River ran aboveground; now it runs underground, through a tube.

The natural fortress didn’t protect Trotsky very well, anyway: Ramón Mercader, a Catalonian envoy of Stalin, was still able to pound an ice axe into Trotsky’s head—after the pro-Stalin Communist Siqueiros, accompanied by some local talent trying to gain points in Moscow, had failed to kill Trotsky in a first attempt at murder, with the spectacular burst of gunfire that my children admired so much.

There is something movingly provincial about that brutal story, something tender and very proper for a tiny street, my street, that for a few weeks was the unsuspecting scene of a global conflagration. On one hand, there is the cold, professional, solitary assassin who quietly slipped into the circle of the Soviet leader in exile, and succeeded a highly planned blow. On the other, there is a bunch of friends, filled to their ears with tequila, firing a storm of bullets in the middle of the night, and failing. For Stalin and his envoy, Trotsky’s death was an objective; for the Mexican Communists, it was a performance.

Alex Webb/Magnum PhotosOaxaca, Mexico, 1990

Adapted from Álvaro Enrigue’s essay, “Vienna, Mexico,” in Alex Webb’s La Calle: Photographs from Mexico, published by Aperture and Televisa Foundation.

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The Virtuoso of Compassion

Beyond Caravaggio

an exhibition at the National Gallery, London, October 12, 2016–January 15, 2017; the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, February 11–May 14, 2017; and the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, June 17–September 24, 2017

The Seven Acts of Mercy

Pio Monte della Misericordia, NaplesCaravaggio: The Seven Acts of Mercy, 1607

Two museums, London’s National Gallery and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, mounted exhibitions in the fall of 2016 with the title “Beyond Caravaggio,” proof that the foul-tempered, short-lived Milanese painter (1571–1610) still has us in his thrall. The New York show, “Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio,” concentrated its attention on the French immigrant to Rome who became one of Caravaggio’s most important artistic successors. The National Gallery, for its part, ventured “beyond Caravaggio” with a choice display of Baroque paintings from the National Galleries of London, Dublin, and Edinburgh as well as other collections, many of them taken to be works by Caravaggio when they were first imported from Italy.

In Stratford-upon-Avon, meanwhile, the Royal Shakespeare Company produced a new play about the artist, Anders Lustgarten’s The Seven Acts of Mercy, focused on the monumental painting of the same name in Naples that also provides the focus for Terence Ward’s moving nonfiction book The Guardian of Mercy. In November 2016, Caravaggio’s radiant Basket of Fruit moved to Rome from Milan to provide the focus and the poster image for yet another exhibition, “The Origin of Still Life in Italy” at the Borghese Gallery (which boasts its own incomparable collection of Caravaggio’s work). And yet, in the face of so much exposure, Michelangeo Merisi da Caravaggio remains a painter of infinite suggestion and infinite mystery.

Letizia Treves, the National Gallery’s new curator of Baroque painting and the creator of the delightful “Beyond Caravaggio” exhibition, reminds us how few people in the mid-nineteenth century had ever seen a real painting by the artist. Many of those who did were unimpressed. John Ruskin called him “the ruffian Caravaggio,” “a worshipper of the depraved.” In general, Victorian Britons preferred the orderly sunlit world of the Italian Renaissance to the dark, chaotic Baroque, with its suffering saints and grimy beggars. It is not so surprising, then, that British collectors bought canvases by Antiveduto Gramatica, Giovanni Baglione, and Bartolomeo Manfredi in the belief that they were Caravaggio originals: dramatic contrasts of light and shadow, overt religious imagery, and gritty, louche scenes from everyday life seemed to authenticate them as much as an autograph (in fact, Caravaggio signed only one of his paintings, The Beheading of John the Baptist in Malta).

Sometimes, as in the case of Giovanni Baglione’s Ecstasy of Saint Francis, exported from England as a Caravaggio in 1947, there were good reasons to be confused about the artist’s identity: Baglione was trying his utmost to paint like Caravaggio, using a theme that Caravaggio had already made famous. On the other hand, some works painted by Caravaggio, like the Dublin Taking of Christ, have spent decades languishing under layers of grime and attributions to artists like Velázquez, Murillo, and the Dutchman Gerrit van Honthorst, who visited Rome before returning to Utrecht and becoming famous for his honey-toned paintings of candlelit interiors.

Caravaggio, as “Beyond Caravaggio” makes clear, was not the only accomplished painter of his day. Seventeenth-century Italy was a veritable magnet for ambitious artists, especially the great cities of Rome and Naples. The versatile Orazio Gentileschi was surely responding to Caravaggio’s Rest on the Flight to Egypt with his own startling composition on the same theme. In front of a ruined building, an exhausted Joseph has flopped down asleep on their baggage while Mary, seated on the ground, nurses the infant Christ. Behind the wall of the ruin, their wise-eyed, patient donkey rears its noble head, framed against a gorgeous indigo cloudscape (see illustration in Colm Tóibín’s article in this issue).

Gentileschi’s ability to portray fur in oils is rivaled in this exhibition only by the Neapolitan painter usually known as the Master of the Annunciation to the Shepherds—art historians cannot agree whether he was Bartolomeo Bassante or Juan Dó. An Annunciation to the Shepherds from Birmingham shows that the Master had a special talent for painting shaggy sheep for feudal lords who drew their income from vast flocks, driven over the breadth of southern Italy by just such brutally impoverished peasants as the tired, ragged men who can barely muster the strength to listen to the angels. Jusepe de Ribera, the Spaniard who spent most of his career in Naples, can make oil paint suggest any texture under the sun. His Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew shows the elderly man tied up and ready to be flayed by a thug, with the saint’s loose, dry skin, wispy hair, wiry beard, and glittering eye all evoked to perfection.

Ribera features prominently in the Met’s presentation of Valentin de Boulogne, the French bon vivant who arrived in Rome about a decade after Caravaggio’s death and who fully merits his own show and his own place in the history of Baroque painting. In a series of groundbreaking essays, Keith Christiansen, Annick Lemoine, Patrizia Cavazzini, Gianni Papi, and Jean-Pierre Cuzin argue that the young Ribera must have worked directly with Caravaggio, and that he and Valentin became the two most accomplished painters in the master’s “realist” tradition—which, like Caravaggio’s, is not so realist after all. Several of the pieces of ancient sculpture that Valentin portrays in his seedy Roman taverns are his own inventions; on the other hand, as Christiansen notes, the up-front immediacy of his Judith and Holofernes makes Caravaggio’s version of the same story look positively mannered. Valentin’s blues are a wonder in themselves, nowhere more marvelous than on the shimmering coat of the father in his Return of the Prodigal Son.

Pointing the way “beyond Caravaggio” are several paintings by the master himself, which show that his own technique can be surprisingly uneven. Boy Peeling Fruit, exhibited in London as a youthful work, is not universally accepted as an original, because the painting is so clumsy in so many places. The boy’s face sinks back behind the left wing of his weirdly obtrusive collar, which seems to have been painted after the face, and with thicker pigment. Beneath his open shirt, the youth’s chest lacks any trace of modeling: no shadow, no sign of ribs, or muscle, or breastbone, nothing but a wash of pale flesh-colored pigment. The fruits in front of him, on the other hand, are beautifully succulent, forerunners of that sublime Basket of Fruit from Milan, in which the apples may be spotty and the grape leaves worm-eaten, but the yellow of the background is as full of light as a ray of sunshine.

Caravaggio’s more mature works show some of the same technical deficiencies as Boy Peeling Fruit, the anatomy of the male torso foremost among them. Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (on loan from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City) captures our attention with his concentrated scowl, but he has a shapeless belly and oddly proportioned legs, and always did: a seventeenth-century copy of the painting in Rome’s Doria Pamphilj Gallery shows that the saint’s torso was always an ambiguous zone, its lack of definition never entirely finessed by some strategically placed shadows. Twenty years after Caravaggio’s death, Valentin de Boulogne would paint his own version of Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, taking special pains to articulate every one of the Baptist’s perfectly toned abdominal muscles—a pungent criticism of the master wrapped up in a reverent tribute.

But most of all, the Caravaggio originals in London’s “Beyond Caravaggio” demonstrate why the painter exerted such an overwhelming influence on patrons and colleagues alike, and why he is so passionately loved today. He can paint beautifully most of the time. He produced marvelous compositions of light beaming forth from the darkness, covered his canvases with luminous whites, full-blooded reds, velvet blacks, but above all, especially later in his career, he painted with restraint, and taste, and a gigantic, compassionate heart.

The restraint shows when we compare his work with that of his admirers. If the young Caravaggio painted several versions of a boy with fruit as a way of advertising his skill at both still life and the human figure, his pupil and follower Francesco Boneri (nicknamed Cecco del Caravaggio—“Caravaggio’s Frankie”) painted a red-haired musician surrounded by a bushel of fruit, cheese, bread, gourds, two glass flasks encased in nets, a hanging head of garlic, a glass vase full of water, and a violin—splendidly painted, like the sitter’s plume, shirt, and brocaded vest, but he could have proven his skill just as cogently with half as many objects. Caravaggio’s painting of Doubting Thomas showed the disciple sticking his index finger into the side wound of Jesus, a startling image already, but discreetly done compared with the way that Giovanni Antonio Galli, called Lo Spadarino (“Little Swordsman”), gives us Christ head-on, staring us down as he spreads the wound wider himself, daring us to play Saint Thomas with our eyes instead of our finger.

Caravaggio painted two versions of a plumed dandy, barely beyond adolescence, who gazes into the deep brown eyes of a pretty gypsy girl as she pretends to read his palm and slides a gold ring off his finger. Bartolomeo Manfredi portrays the same scene, but adds a second gypsy girl to steal the boy’s purse out of his pocket and a male crook who lifts a chicken out of the first gypsy’s tote bag in a witty crescendo of thievery. Valentin de Boulogne made a veritable specialty of painting such intricate chains of deception, lightened by piercing flashes of color or a glint of metal, melancholy reminders that we are all eternally gullible, whether we admit it or not. And yet the original idea for each of these paintings, what the artists would have called the invenzione, was Caravaggio’s, and they painted, ultimately, in ways inspired by Caravaggio’s style.

Often the most effective developer of Caravaggio’s ideas was the man himself. He was, after all, his own most penetrating critic.

The National Gallery owns one of two versions of Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, an episode from the Gospel of Luke that took place immediately after the crucifixion, death, and disappearance of Jesus. Two disciples were slinking dejectedly away from Jerusalem when they met a wayfarer on the road who asked why they looked so unhappy. As they poured out their story, he replied that all these events had been predicted by the Hebrew prophets, “and beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning [the Messiah].”

Indianapolis Museum of ArtValentin de Boulogne: Concert, circa 1615

When the three reached the village of Emmaus, the two disciples invited the stranger to dine with them, and when he took their loaf of bread and broke it, two things happened: they suddenly recognized that their traveling companion was Jesus come back from the dead, and he vanished. Afterward, “they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” Caravaggio presents a young, beardless Jesus at the table, as unrecognizable to us as he has been to his companions until this very moment—while to the solicitous innkeeper who serves them, the young man is still just a customer. This Supper at Emmaus is a work of early maturity, painted in 1601, with shiny, fresh colors and virtuoso turns like the fruit basket balanced on the table’s edge.

A version of the same episode from 1606, now in Milan, is more subdued in its colors and gestures, concentrating all its attention on the infinitesimal margin between the hand of Jesus and the hand of his disciple, not quite touching because they inhabit two different orders of reality, but close enough to charge this tiny space with significance: for a blessing from God to man will cross this gap like a spark. Five years after the first Supper at Emmaus, Caravaggio’s special effects seek to electrify the soul rather than simply divert the eye.

The Dublin Taking of Christ, commissioned in 1602, draws its composition from an engraving by Albrecht Dürer (pictured in the excellent catalog) and possibly ancient Roman sarcophagi, yet what we register is not the erudite details of an exceptionally learned invenzione, but the extreme emotions on three faces pressed in close together: Judas the betrayer as the depth of his crime dawns on him even as he delivers his perfidious kiss, Jesus shivering as an armored fist clamps down on his mantle and beard, and the beloved disciple John screaming as he turns away in horror. In an emergency like this, who can think about painting?

National Gallery of IrelandCaravaggio: The Taking of Christ, 1602

That is the power of a real Caravaggio. Sometimes, it simply changes your life. Terence Ward’s The Guardian of Mercy tells the contemporary story of the man who was delegated to watch over The Seven Acts of Mercy in the early 1990s, when a new mayor tried to take back the streets from the mafia and make the city appealing to tourists again. A public employee who had worked for fifteen years in the Department of Sanitation, Angelo Esposito, reassigned as a museum guard, became increasingly enthralled by Caravaggio’s large canvas, in those days a hidden treasure tucked away in the ancient heart of Naples, along a street laid out by Greek colonists in the sixth century BCE. The painting was commissioned in 1607 by the Pio Monte della Misericordia, a group of young aristocrats committed to helping the poor in a city that has always been marked by dramatic discrepancies of income. The Pio Monte still exists, and so does the yawning need; Ward and his wife, Idanna Pucci, came to know some of the descendants of the confraternity’s original founders.

Caravaggio had been asked to portray what their Catholic creed called the Seven Works of Mercy: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, visiting prisoners, giving drink to the thirsty, giving shelter to strangers, and burying the dead. The patrons’ original plan was to devote a single painting to each good work for their graceful circular chapel, but Caravaggio cleverly combined all seven deeds in a single Neapolitan street scene. The resulting panel became the chapel’s altarpiece.

Naples in the seventeenth century was one of the world’s most populous cities, and one of the most crowded, its towering tenements packed in among the palaces of the aristocracy and huge Gothic churches, soon to be covered with the opulent Baroque ornament we see today. Caravaggio portrays the intersection of two Neapolitan alleys much as it must have been in his era, when thousands of people lived on the street all year round. Velvet-clad nobles with flashes of lace at collar and cuffs move through a thick crowd of people: one, in a plumed hat, hands his cloak to a naked, lame beggar (thus visiting the sick and clothing the naked in a single action). Another, slightly older nobleman shows a weary red-bearded pilgrim the way to shelter. Just behind them, a brawny figure drinks water from the jawbone of a donkey, just as Samson did in the Bible.

As in The Taking of Christ and The Supper at Emmaus, Caravaggio mixes the remote past of the gospel story with the immediacy of life here and now. In the painting’s middle ground, where the two alleys meet, a servant pulls along a corpse in a winding sheet as a torch-bearing priest offers a prayer. In the foreground, an elderly prisoner at his barred window and a young woman standing in the street act out the ancient story of “Roman Charity”: sentenced to starve in prison, old Cimon survived because his daughter Pero, a nursing mother, could slip by the guards empty-handed and feed him on the sly. In the ancient story, Cimon’s captors set him free when they discover the depth of Pero’s devotion.

Caravaggio’s Pero may be performing two works of mercy (feeding the hungry and visiting prisoners), but she is also breaking the law, however unjust that law may be. The furtive look on her face must have been all too common in Naples under the Spanish viceroys. Their dread courthouse and prison, Palazzo dei Tribunali, loomed only two blocks away from the chapel of the Pio Monte. It would have been perfectly clear to everyone in Naples that Caravaggio’s Cimon is sequestered in a real place, charging this religious painting with a clear political message. The viceroys in Naples faced perpetual hostility from the local nobility, who hated them passionately and rebelled in a thousand different ways. Neither elite cared much about the poor, an indifference the volunteers of the Pio Monte, and Caravaggio with them, tried to combat in actions and art.

Into this dark, cruel alley, then, two angels burst in a flutter of wings, with the Christ Child and the Virgin Mary right behind them, looking down on the tangled scene from a kindly but unfathomable distance, affirming the works of mercy that shine forth from the enveloping darkness. The beggar is still crippled, the prisoner incarcerated, the corpse deceased. But the pilgrim has found his way to shelter for one more night, the beggar will rest warmly on the streets where he makes his home, Samson is no longer thirsty, Cimon will live another day, and the Pio Monte will be back at work tomorrow.

In many ways, for Angelo the guard, Caravaggio’s Naples differs little from his own. The streets, the very same ancient Greek streets, can still be merciless: the Camorra (the Neapolitan Mafia) and drugs have replaced the regime of the viceroys, and the gulf between wealth and poverty still gapes wide. The Guardian of Mercy describes this complicated city with accuracy and empathy, including the colossal disappointments that followed on Naples’s brief resurgence in the 1990s. The painting and its emphatic message of compassion at all costs eventually inspire Angelo to perform his own work of mercy when his life reaches a crisis point. Thus this unusual and poignant book insists that Caravaggio’s paintings still call upon us to think and act, not just to look on passively, and in laying down this challenge, as Ward argues, the artist extends a compassionate hand to his viewers across the centuries.

Caravaggio’s compassionate hand is made literal in the final scene of Anders Lustgarten’s The Seven Acts of Mercy, which focuses on the same painting and ties it just as emphatically to the dark recesses of contemporary life, this time a council flat in Liverpool in 2016 rather than the streets of Naples in 1607. The play, commissioned for the Royal Shakespeare Company and performed in Stratford-upon-Avon this past fall, is alternately brilliant and maddening: brilliant for its performances and for the way it illuminates a marvelous, militant painting; maddening because Caravaggio, a Milanese gentleman who clung ferociously to the bottom rungs of the aristocratic ladder, has become a man of the people who speaks and acts like a Liverpudlian yob, spouting Marxist social philosophy amid his endless stream of obscenities.

Nonetheless, Lustgarten, and an impassioned Patrick O’Kane as Caravaggio, succeed in conveying the artist’s heroic fury at the world and his no less heroic compulsion to shoulder its sorrows. The action shifts between Caravaggio’s struggles with the painting, which stands at the back of the stage and gradually takes shape as the play progresses, and the life struggles in Bootle, Merseyside, of an elderly leftist grandfather (Tom Georgeson) facing eviction from his home along with the sensitive grandson (T.J. Jones) who shares his passion for Caravaggio’s art. They know the painter only from a beloved book, an encyclopedia of art, but in the play Caravaggio’s enormous canvas provides a constant, and touching, backdrop.

The grandson’s attempts to carry out, and document, the seven works of mercy in contemporary working-class Britain collide with realities every bit as violent as those of Caravaggio’s Naples: in Liverpool, a man who refuses to sell his flat to gangsters is beaten to death; in Naples, Caravaggio’s model, the prostitute Lavinia (Allison McKenzie), is put back in her place by the sfregio, a brutal slash across the face that was all too common in seventeenth-century Italy (by the same means the sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini disfigured his aristocratic lover, Costanza Piccolomini, when she took up with his brother Luigi).* As Caravaggio’s patron, the Marchese Giovanni Battista Manso, Edmund Kingsley radiates the nobility that the tortured painter could never attain in life (both real life and Lustgarten’s staged life) but found in his infinitely magnanimous art.

This tragic play has its moment of high comic relief when Leo, the grandfather, compares the British political scene to its football clubs, reaching a climax in:

Liverpool Football Club as New Labor. Sold out, bloated, bombastic, delusional, a million miles away from the working-class roots and values it pretends to espouse. A prisoner of its own hubris, cowardice, and ineptitude. In many ways the most disgusting of the lot.

Caravaggio, who killed the thug Ranuccio Tomassoni on a tennis court, would have understood. When the seventeenth-century painter holds Leo’s hand on his deathbed, he cements a connection that the entire audience can understand and share. That hand has been extended to us as well, through the magnificent picture that reaches completion by the end of the evening.

In his introduction to the published script of The Seven Acts of Mercy, Anders Lustgarten writes: “The first time I saw The Seven Acts of Mercy, in the Pio Monte in Naples, I knew I wanted to write a play about it: its generosity, its complications, its aggressive, violent compassion.” In the preface to The Guardian of Mercy, Terence Ward responds to Caravaggio’s painting in strikingly similar ways:

In a city that survives on a knife edge between cruelty and grace, the acts of mercy still resonate today with universal meaning, as relevant now as when the artist brushed his oils onto the canvas four centuries ago.

Technically, Jusepe de Ribera is a phenomenal painter, at least as good as Caravaggio, but when he shows people in pain, like Saint Bartholomew on the verge of flaying, we can feel his distance from the event. The Master of the Annunciation to the Shepherds seems to keep the same distance from his filthy subjects. But when Caravaggio shows a humble disciple or an innkeeper, he shows them as full human beings. When he shows suffering, he stands his ground rather than shrinking back. Along with the disciple who screams as Jesus is dragged off to prison and Jesus himself feeling both the kiss of Judas and the blow of Pilate’s thug in a single instant, he paints himself right into The Taking of Christ and its profound tragedy: the figure on the far right of the painting is the artist himself, holding up a lantern. That is what makes Caravaggio different, and so dearly loved.

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France Against Itself

Eric Gaillard/ReutersFrench newspapers with results from the presidential election on the Promenade Des Anglais in Nice, France, April 24, 2017

It was Easter Sunday in Nice, France’s fifth-largest city, exactly one week before the first round of the country’s presidential election. In the old town, there were armed police guarding the Cathedral of Sainte-Réparate—part of the country’s continuing state of emergency. Inside, the church was full. A few minutes’ walk away, the Promenade des Anglais, the Mediterranean city’s famous seaside walkway that was the site of last July’s devastating terrorist attack, was also packed. On Easter Monday Nice-Matin, the city’s newspaper of record, reported that those in the tourism industry were, like the churchgoers, singing “resurrection songs of praise.” Tourists were back. But what about France itself? All the presidential candidates who took part in Sunday’s first round-election were promising a resurrection too, but, in Nice at least, many voters were suffering a crisis of faith.

The presidency of the Socialist Francois Hollande has long been considered a failure, and opinion polls had long indicated just how disillusioned the electorate had become with the political establishment. To a great extent this was confirmed by Sunday’s result. The candidate of the Socialists and the traditional party of the left, got a dismal 6.3 percent of the vote and for the first time since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, there will be no candidate in the second round from any of the mainstream parties. The other establishment party, the conservative Republicans, led by former prime minister François Fillon, failed to advance, getting just 19.9 percent. By contrast the parties of the extreme right and left did remarkably well. Jean-Luc Melenchon, on the far left, got 19.6 percent and Marine Le Pen, of the far right National Front (FN), took 21.4 percent—enough to qualify for second place and a spot in the runoff election on May 7.  

In the second round Le Pen will run against Emmanuel Macron, the thirty-nine-year-old former economics minister and founder of a party barely a year old, En Marche!, which took 23.9 percent on Sunday. In the face of a far-right finalist, almost the entire French establishment has gotten behind Macron and his centrist movement, and the polls have suggested that Macron could win by as much as 62 percent to 38 percent for Le Pen. But the establishment itself is much out of favor, and however he tries to distance himself from it, Macron is very much its creature. Wide though the gap may be today, abstentionism, another major terrorist attack, or something else as yet unforeseen could swing the vote.

A visit to the Côte d’Azur gives some sense of how this situation came about. First was the abysmal performance of the current administration. By last year Hollande’s ratings had dropped so low that he decided not to run for a second term. His promises of reform and economic rejuvenation were largely unfulfilled. France has first-rate infrastructure and heath care, but taxes are high. The country’s growth has been lingering in the doldrums since the financial crash of 2008. Its unemployment rate is almost 10 percent, or about six million people. Its youth unemployment rate is close to 25 percent. (Britain’s unemployment rate is 4.7 percent and Germany’s is 3.9 percent.) Writing in Le Figaro on April 19, a group of economists noted that in 1980 France’s per capita GDP was 20 percent higher than that of Britain but that by 2015 Britain had overtaken it.

These issues have affected more prosperous areas as well. A few days before the first-round vote, I visited Eze, an attractive and wealthy town in the hills above Nice, where I met Vanessa Vada, an activist for Macron’s centrist party. Macron has not proved particularly strong in this part of the country, and Vada told me that one of her (and his) motivations was to avoid the populist nationalism that had recently triumphed in the United States and Britain. However, while she was hopeful that Macron would win, she was frightened that the strong emotions many feel about problems today could produce an unpleasant surprise in the final round. “I am getting worried that people will go and vote for just one reason…they are pissed off!

All parties also need to fight the upcoming June parliamentary elections. Macron’s party, whose initials “EM” are the same as his own, has no seats in the outgoing parliament because it is new, and France’s electoral system means that the FN had only two out of 577 seats in the last parliament. To govern effectively, the new president will need a majority of deputies to support him or her in the assembly. So, even though things look good for Macron now, he has won a battle but certainly not won the war. Add together the votes of Le Pen, Melenchon, and the marginal candidates and you find that up to 49 percent voted for anti-EU, anti-establishment, and mostly Russian-friendly platforms. That gives you an idea of just how fed up many French are. The day after the election Macron was already being criticized for complacency. When the first results came out he gave a victory speech as if he had already become president and then celebrated at a smart Paris restaurant, which drew unfavorable comparisons with Nicholas Sarkozy, Hollande’s bling-loving predecessor.

“All upturned,” said the banner headline of Nice-Matin on the morning after the election. It is as true for Nice as it is for France as a whole. Except for soldiers patrolling the streets, however, a visitor might be hard-pressed to notice anything untoward or tense here. The city basks by the sea. Oligarchs’ yachts, or rather small ships, sit at anchor waiting for a brief visit from their masters. Cheap airlines bring millions of visitors to the South of France. Nearby, Cannes is preparing for its seventieth annual film festival in mid-May, and the world’s tennis stars have been battling it out in the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters. Next month the Monaco Grand Prix will bring yet more people to stay in Nice, and after that the summer season begins.

On July 14 last year, just after the Bastille Day fireworks, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a Tunisian Muslim who had been exposed to jihadist ideas, drove a truck down the Promenade, killing eighty-six people and injuring 434. Eight months earlier Islamist terrorists had killed 130 and wounded 368 in attacks in Paris. The country is still under a state of emergency. The Nice and Paris attacks were only the biggest and most spectacular examples of extremist violence of the last few years. The last one was on April 20, when a convicted criminal and presumed Islamist murdered a policeman on Paris’s Champs Élysées.

The Côte d’Azur has long been a stronghold of the right. On Sunday the conservative Fillon beat Le Pen in Nice, 26.1 percent to her 25.28 percent, and Macron came third with 20.52 percent. However, in the wider Alpes-Maritime region Le Pen outperformed Fillon 27.75 percent to 27.39 percent, and Macron scored just 19.04 percent. The FN has always done well here, though the electoral system means that the traditional right has kept a firm grip on power. Compared to the presidential election in 2012, when Le Pen also ran but did not get into the second round, she moved from second place in the region to first.

The FN’s first big supporters were pieds-noirs, French who had left Algeria after independence in 1962 and settled in the south. In 2015 Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the niece of Marine Le Pen, received 45.22 percent of the vote in the second round of the regional elections. In recent years, the traditional right has had to move rightward to stop its voters from going over to Le Pen. But Vada is correct. Watching Le Pen and Fillon on television, watching Fillon address a rally of five thousand people in Nice in the final days before the first-round election, and talking to ordinary people who said they were likely to vote for either of these two candidates, I often felt like I was listening to a French version of the Brexit and Trump campaigns, with many of the same fears about foreigners and globalization eroding the livelihoods of citizens.

On Easter Monday I chatted with Sabine, a woman in her fifties, who was chopping lemons in front of stalls of ice packed with fresh lobsters, prawns, and oysters for sale outside the Café Turin on the beautiful Place Garibaldi. “You English,” she said, explaining why she was going to vote for Le Pen, “have been very brave to leave Europe,” and that is what she wanted France to do and what, in effect, Le Pen is promising. Taxes were too high, Sabine said. If your business was very small, you got help, and if you were rich you hid your money abroad. But if you were anywhere in-between “you just have to pay, pay, pay.” Her motivations for voting for Le Pen seemed similar to her British and American counterparts who voted for Trump and Brexit. Too many foreigners were flooding into France and they often got all sorts of state aid, “and my parents have a tiny pension and they have to pay for that!”

If Le Pen comes to power on May 7, she says her first task would be to take back control of the country’s borders, which are supposedly open because France is in Europe’s Schengen zone. Even if she does not there is little doubt that Macron would need to use his time in power to tackle the question of migration. It has long been the issue at the heart of the FN’s policies, even if Marine Le Pen has, since taking over the party from her father in 2011, purged it, at least in public, of its worst racist elements.

In fact, amid the state of emergency, some enhanced immigration controls have already been put in place. Police watch the cars coming over the border from Italy, and pull some over for questioning. I came to Nice on a local train from Ventimiglia, the first town on the other side of the border. Many migrants and refugees destined for France, and especially Africans who have crossed the Sahara and paid smugglers to take them on the dangerous crossing from Libya, pass through here. I went to the train twenty-five minutes before it left and saw a dozen or so Africans waiting on the platform or in the carriages, which were otherwise empty. I came back five minutes before the train left and the Africans had vanished, but the train had now filled up with other passengers. I asked the French train conductor whether the Italian police had shooed them away. “Oh no,” she said, “they are hiding in the cupboards or under the seats.”

Tim JudahPolice removing African migrants from a train at the Menton-Garavan train station, Menton, France, April 15, 2017

Ten minutes after the train departed, we arrived at the first French station. The police got on and walked down the train opening all the cupboards, which contain the electrics and plumbing. “It is a game of cat and mouse,” said the conductor. One of the policemen told me that at the moment they were catching about two hundred people a day on the trains and sending them back to Italy. Later I heard that the more determined or richer migrants and refugees pay smugglers from the Roya valley, a mountainous area of the border, to help them trek to France.

I was at the Café Turin because I had an appointment there with Patrick Allemand. He is a veteran Niçois Socialist who supported Macron, judging, like many others—and correctly, as the polls proved—that Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate, had no chance of winning. “We have never had an election like this,” Allemand said. “There is not much engagement. Not much fervor. People are in disarray and many don’t know whom to vote for.” Usually, people knew whom they were going to vote for well in advance, but this year, a lot of people didn’t.

According to Allemand, the problem was not just that the last five years had been a huge disappointment, but that “there is a feeling that no one can do any better.” Even many ordinary Le Pen supporters seem underwhelmed. One pensioner I spoke to, named Jean-Jacques, said that migration needed to be stopped or controlled and Le Pen was the woman to do it, but that, in the end, “she would not pass” the second round.

Allemand was glum. If Le Pen was elected then the consequences would be cataclysmic, but they would be too if Melenchon somehow got through. He did not, but what he has done is change the face of the French left. Hamon’s dismal showing—and Melenchon’s respectable one—means that between now and the parliamentary elections, there is a lot still to sort out on the left. Melenchon ran a slick campaign and, like Obama in 2008, made innovative use of modern technology. He addressed rallies in seven cities at once by appearing in all but one of them as a hologram. He talked about ecology, kicking out the bankers, and his 100 percent tax rate on earnings above €400,000. His opponents painted him as a Chavez-loving Communist, which he denied, but next to him Bernie Sanders would look like a conservative. He was close to Le Pen in his anti-European and pro-Russian views. And like Le Pen, he wants France out of NATO.

“For the left Europe is central and its future will be determined by who wins, so it is not just social and economic questions,” said Allemand. “We have a central position. If France goes it will all collapse.” Unless Le Pen can turn the tables and win on May 7, that is a fate that France and Europe seem to have avoided for now, but Macron and whoever wins the German election in September are on notice that they have only a few years to make profound changes to save Europe’s established order.

Back in Eze last week, I found the mayor, Stéphane Cherki, talking to people in the streets. The village has 3,000 permanent residents, he said, which grows to 12,000 in summer, along with, over the course of the year, some 1.2 million tourists. He was an independent but supported Fillon. The old town, with its spectacular views, is full of souvenir shops, selling anything you can possibly imagine made of lavender, paintings, fridge magnets, and so on. With so many tourists and so much money pouring in, it is not really surprising that the mayor tells me: “To be quite honest, we don’t really have any problems.” Even so, he was worried about Le Pen. If she is elected, he said, “it would be a catastrophe. No more tourists will come.” Referring to Trump’s victory, he added: “I heard there are many fewer visitors in New York.”

Though they are less apparent on the Côte d’Azur, France is well known for its suburban areas scarred by deep problems of unemployment, drugs, and crime. When I asked Cherki to suggest a place nearby that is struggling he sent me to La Trinité, another small town abutting Nice. No tourists come to this mostly white, middle-class area. Young families come here because it is much cheaper than Nice, said Jean-Paul Dalmasso, the mayor, and then commute into the city. France’s failure to pull out of the economic crisis meant that his subsidies from Paris had been cut by 50 percent, which was forcing him to make budget cuts. At the same time, he needed to spend more on things like security cameras to keep people safe. At Christmas people had grumbled because he had announced that to save money, there would be no Christmas lights in town. In other words, his problems were relative. Dalmasso also told me he was throwing his weight behind Fillon. He was one of the few in La Trinité who did, though. Le Pen scored a whopping 40.76 percent here, followed by Melenchon at 20.9 percent.

A few minutes’ walk from La Trinité is the river Paillon, which separates it from Ariane, a working-class but well-maintained suburb within the boundaries of Nice. Lots of people, mostly of African and Arab North African descent, were walking over the bridge coming from or going to Auchan, a big supermarket in La Trinité. On the market square in Ariane an old church has been taken over by a Catholic association called Mir, which helps some three hundred needy families. They can come here and, for a symbolic amount, buy food. Jean-Claude Watry, a volunteer, said that about 80 percent of Ariane’s 30,000 people were either immigrants or children of immigrants. There are two mosques and three Muslim prayer rooms. This is one of the poorest areas of Nice, but, he conceded, there are plenty of areas in other parts of France that are far worse off. There are people from fourteen ethnic groups here and, while a majority are Muslim, many immigrants are not. They include Spanish Roma, for example, who are evangelical Christians.

Tim JudahPosters showing French presidential election candidates Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, Marine Le Pen, and Emmanuel Macron in La Trinité, France, April 18, 2017

In the market everyone was closing up for the day. Two men, both sons of North African immigrants, were cleaning up their mobile rotisserie, Le Roi du Poulet. They did not want to give their names but said they would vote for Melenchon. “He is the one that makes me least scared,” said one. It is estimated that up to 80 percent of French Muslims voted for Hollande in the last election. This time despondency reigns. Religious Muslims, like religious Catholics, opposed the legalization of gay marriage. After the big Paris terrorist attack they also did not like Hollande’s suggestion that French jihadis could have their citizenship stripped. They worried that fear and paranoia concerning Muslim immigrants might one day cause the authorities to take away their citizenship too.

In a local shop there was an election poster but it was to remind Algerian citizens of that country’s upcoming elections. In a café I chatted with a group of young men whose parents had been immigrants from North Africa. Out of ten, only five of them had jobs. It had always been hard to get work, they said, but now, with their names, it was even harder. They were the double victims of the terrorists. Muslims were killed like everyone else but then Muslims were blamed for the attacks. “We are hit both ways,” said Othman, aged twenty-five, who worked as a waiter and told me about his neighbors, who were related to the first victim of the Nice truck attack. It is hard to be completely sure how many Muslims died in the attack, but about 20 percent of the names suggest a Muslim background.

One place where I did not detect many Muslims was a Fillon rally on the other side of Nice. Most of those who had come were white, middle-class, and middle-aged or older. Fillon thundered on about General de Gaulle, just like Brexiteers always go on about Winston Churchill. There was “no citizenship without culture and roots,” he said. Lax policing had led to “lawless zones.” France was the “cradle of our Christian roots.”

Fillon became the candidate for his party in November 2016  because they wanted someone clean and moral in reaction to the scandal-ridden Sarkozy, the last president from the right. Since then Fillon has come under investigation by the police for allegedly paying his wife more than €700,000 of public money for parliamentary work she never did. There have also been other allegations against him. He had said he would drop out if he was investigated, but in the end he did not—a strategic miscalculation for him and his party. From leading the pack his support bled to Le Pen and to Macron and cost him his place in the second round. For now, the second-round polls show more Fillon voters opting for Macron than Le Pen, but they also show a significant number abstaining. So when Marine Le Pen said she was taking temporary leave from the leadership of the FN on the day after the elections, it was clear that this was a maneuver designed above all to attract support from Fillon voters who could not stomach the FN but might be tempted to vote for her alone. “#Fillon and his lieutenants told us that #Macron was baby Hollande,” she tweeted sarcastically, “and now they are calling us to vote for him?”

In her Nice flat Valerie Arboireau, an artist and art director, showed me one of her works. It was a vintage embroidered sheet covered in lipstick kisses arranged in such a way that, if you stand back, you can see they take the shape of breasts. Like others she complained of crushing taxes and said that while France was good at incubating creative start-ups, she knew many who had taken their businesses to Britain or Belgium once they began to succeed. She and many of her friends did not like the right and thought Macron was “an empty shell into which everything goes,” referring to his campaign to seek support from left and right. She said she would like to cast a vote blanc, or blank ballot, in protest. In the end, she said, especially in the second round she knew she would have “to vote against” someone, who now we know is Le Pen.

Philippe Metaut, an antique dealer who used to be a finance director, echoed her. A sort of inertia hung over the poll. He would vote, above all, to stop the “catastrophe” of the extremes of Melenchon and Le Pen, and hence “would vote for the least bad candidate.” He and Victoria summed up the mood of many I met, especially educated, middle-class people. They resented their position as “useful voters,” meaning people mobilized to vote against someone they detested, rather than for someone they believed in.

Amid this gloom there is one bright spot in Nice right now: the Medrano circus. The acts are traditional. The elephants sit on their hind legs, the tigers jump through hoops, the performing poodles strut their stuff, the acrobats do amazing things, and a Ukrainian woman pulls a van with her teeth. The manager is Radu Nepotu, a twenty-six-year-old Moldovan who decided to do this rather than practice as a lawyer back home. There were ninety people working in the circus, he said, and only ten of them were French. “We have got Chinese, Peruvians, Mongolians, Ukrainians, Russians, Moldovans, Romanians and Germans.”

Nepotu did not seem worried that the election might end with closed borders, making it hard for his team to work here. As far as he was concerned the show would go on. When the candidates talk of French culture they are always making reference to long-dead artists or authors. But, said Nepotu, the circus was French culture too, “and if they stopped people from coming they would be forbidding us to create French culture.” The problem, he said, was that you could not find enough good acts in France. “You have to look everywhere.” Reflecting a bit he said: “Yes, we pay too much in taxes, but it is still a great country.” At least someone in Nice didn’t think voters need to make France great again.

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Trump’s Travel Bans—Look Beyond the Text

Matt Stuart/Magnum PhotosProtesters demonstrating against President Trump’s first travel ban, Los Angeles International Airport, January 2017

The United States has a long and unfortunate history of pushing through aggressive national security measures by claiming that they restrict only the rights of foreigners, not Americans. The tactic usually works. In the Palmer Raids of 1919–1920, for example, J. Edgar Hoover, then a young attorney in the Justice Department, responded to a series of anarchist bombings by rounding up not the bombers themselves—they were never found—but thousands of foreign nationals. They were charged not with terrorism but with visa violations or association with Communists. As Louis Post, an assistant secretary of labor who valiantly opposed the raids and was threatened with impeachment for doing so, wrote of that period, “The force of the delirium turned in the direction of a deportations crusade with the spontaneity of water flowing along the course of least resistance.”

President George W. Bush followed a similar strategy after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He locked up only foreign nationals at Guantánamo (with one unintended exception), disappeared only foreign nationals into the CIA’s black sites, and subjected only foreign nationals to the CIA’s torture. In the first two years after September 11, the Bush administration rounded up, detained, and deported thousands of Arab and Muslim immigrants in the US, and tried many of them in closed immigration proceedings—without identifying a single terrorist among them. Bush’s message to the American people was clear: you need not sacrifice your own rights for greater security; we will sacrifice the rights of foreigners instead. For the most part, Americans—and American courts—accepted the bargain.

President Donald Trump no doubt thought that his travel ban, issued on January 27, would enjoy a similar reception. Portentously titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” it singled out not terrorists, but all citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from traveling to the US for ninety days, suspended all refugee admissions for 120 days, and indefinitely halted refugee admissions from Syria. But this time the response was different. The resistance to Trump’s action was immediate, spontaneous, and widespread—from both the general public and the courts. And when, stymied by the courts, Trump issued a revised executive order on March 6, it too was widely condemned by the public and blocked by the courts. The election of Trump, it seems, may have taught Americans, and their judges, to be at once more skeptical of executive power and more solicitous of the rights of noncitizens.

Particularly noteworthy has been the sheer range of groups and institutions in American society that have come together in opposition to the travel ban. The weekend the first order was announced, tens of thousands of citizens streamed to airports to protest. This is remarkable not only because Americans were protesting on behalf of immigrants, but because of the protests’ locations. Airports are sterile, soulless places that few of us voluntarily visit unless we have to fly somewhere; yet that weekend Americans gathered at airports in boisterous crowds to stand against Trump and for immigrants and refugees.

Almost immediately, lawyers began filing suits around the country, and judges began barring the administration from enforcing the order. The first victory came the day after the order was issued, in a lawsuit filed in Brooklyn by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Immigration Law Center, and a Yale law clinic.1 Shortly thereafter, US District Judge James Robart in the state of Washington issued a nationwide injunction.

Some of the country’s highest law enforcement officials stood up to Trump. The Washington lawsuit was filed by the attorney generals of Washington and Minnesota, and supported by the states of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. And the acting US attorney general, Sally Yates, refused to defend the order and was fired by Trump for doing so.

More than one hundred Silicon Valley tech companies, among them some of the largest companies in the world, including Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Uber, filed briefs supporting the legal challenges. The order drew strong criticism from Nobel laureates, the country’s leading scientific organizations, and the presidents of America’s top universities.2

Even some of the Bush administration’s most hawkish officials balked. The day after the executive order was issued, General Michael Hayden, former head of the CIA and the NSA under Bush and a stalwart defender of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation program,” tweeted: “Imagine that. ACLU and I in the same corner.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney said the travel ban went “against everything we stand for,” and John Yoo, a staunch defender of executive authority who in 2002 wrote the initial Justice Department legal memos authorizing the CIA to use torture, wrote a New York Times Op-Ed titled “Executive Power Run Amok.”

Former national security and diplomatic officials from both parties argued that the order would make the country less safe. Hayden signed a declaration in the Washington case calling it a threat to national security. He was joined by former secretaries of state John Kerry and Madeleine Albright and former CIA directors and deputy directors Leon Panetta, Michael Morell, and John McLaughlin. They contended that the order reinforced the idea, promoted by the Islamic State and other extremist groups, that the US is at war with Islam, while doing nothing to identify actual terrorists.

Trump dismissed the initial court injunctions, referring in one tweet to Judge Robart as a “so-called judge,” and appealed. On February 9, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unanimously affirmed Judge Robart’s order. It firmly rejected the president’s argument that his actions were “unreviewable,” and insisted that the executive’s “authority and expertise” in national security and foreign relations “do not automatically trump the Court’s own obligation to secure the protection that the Constitution grants to individuals.” It found that the order, which indiscriminately barred entry even to lawful permanent residents and others with valid visas, was likely to violate due process by depriving them of rights previously granted.

Trump railed against the Ninth Circuit decision as well, but ultimately chose not to seek further judicial review. Instead, he issued a replacement order, one that his lawyers hoped would be easier to defend. The new order bars immigration from six of the original seven countries; Iraq was removed from the list, apparently after substantial behind-the-scenes pressure from government officials who worried that the original order had jeopardized our relationship with that important US ally. The new order does not bar lawful permanent residents and others who have already been granted visas, and applies only to those seeking new visas. As a result, it does not strip individuals in the US of previously granted rights, as the first order did. And it eliminates a provision in the first order that offered a case-by-case exemption from the refugee ban to persons of “minority” faiths in their country of origin.

That Trump was rebuffed and had to issue a revised order was itself a significant victory. It showed that when the people and the courts stand up for basic human rights, the president cannot get his way, even when he appeals to national security and targets the most vulnerable. The president was compelled to limit the breadth of his revised order to respect the rights of those who had already obtained visas. But the religious bias and unsupported national security rationale remained intact.

On March 15 and 16, two federal judges—Derrick K. Watson in Hawaii and Theodore D. Chuang in Maryland—barred enforcement of the revised order, this time on Establishment Clause grounds. Both courts ruled that the order impermissibly targeted the Muslim faith. The government has filed expedited appeals in both cases, which will be heard in May.

The central issue in the appeals is whether it is appropriate to look beyond the text of the order in assessing its legality. Once one does so, it is self-evident that the travel ban—whether in its original or revised form—was intended to make good on Trump’s oft-repeated campaign pledge to prohibit Muslims from entering the US. The evidence includes numerous statements made by Trump himself during the campaign and since. His pledge to ban Muslims remains on his campaign website to this day. In January, Rudolph Giuliani told Fox News that he advised Trump that he could achieve his goal by targeting particular countries rather than Islam itself. Trump announced that he would do just that, and when he signed the first order in January, he looked up and said, “We all know what that means.” But just to make sure there was no doubt about it, the same day Trump told Christian Broadcasting News that the order was designed to favor Christian refugees over Muslims.

Having been admonished by the courts, Trump was more circumspect about the second order. He avoided bald statements of religious favoritism, and his lawyers removed the provision preferring refugees of “minority” faiths. But the second order continues to single out six countries whose populations are between 90 percent and 99 percent Muslim. And Trump’s senior adviser Stephen Miller admitted that the new executive order would be a replay of the first, saying that any changes to the first executive order would be “mostly minor technical differences…. Fundamentally, you’re still going to have the same basic policy outcome for the country.”

These statements are “smoking guns,” and were extensively relied upon by both the Maryland and Hawaii courts in their decisions. According to the Supreme Court, “the clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.” When the government departs from denominational neutrality, it sends a message that those who do not adhere to the favored religion, or those who follow a disfavored religion, are less than full members of our community. Even a formally neutral law is invalid if a reasonable observer, aware of the facts surrounding its adoption, would conclude that its purpose was to favor or disfavor a specific religion. And the Supreme Court has directed that in assessing the validity of a policy challenged under the Establishment Clause, judges must not “turn a blind eye to the context in which [the] policy arose.”

Some commentators, including Jeffrey Toobin on The New Yorker’s website, have maintained that officeholders should not be held legally responsible for campaign rhetoric, because otherwise candidates might feel compelled to restrict what they say on the campaign trail. The administration argues, moreover, that it’s not fair to consider the statements of Donald Trump, private citizen, as representing the views of President Donald Trump. But why wouldn’t we consider what a candidate has promised during his election campaign, particularly when he claims as president to be carrying out those very promises?

Imagine if a mayoral candidate promised repeatedly during a campaign that he would keep African-Americans out of the town, and then, upon election, adopted a policy barring entry from seven cities with populations that were 90 percent African-American. Suppose, further, that after that order was struck down, he issued a new one barring entry from six majority-black cities, and his aides stated publicly that it was only a technical adjustment. Would anyone doubt that the policy discriminated on the basis of race? Would we worry about chilling candidate speech? Substitute Muslim for African-American, country for city, and president for mayor, and you’ve got Trump’s executive orders.

The administration claims that both orders are justified by national security concerns, but this unsupported rationale is clearly a cover for pursuing other aims. Indeed, before the second order was released, two internal Department of Homeland Security memos called into question any national security justification for targeting the seven listed countries. The first memo reported that citizens from these countries are “rarely implicated in US-based terrorism” and that citizenship is not a good indicator of terrorist threats. A second memo found that “most foreign-born, US-based violent extremists likely radicalized several years after their entry to the United States,” meaning that the “extreme vetting” Trump says he can’t yet do with respect to individuals from the banned countries would not identify threats either. In March, 134 former national security and other high government officials—including twenty-six retired generals and admirals—wrote the president, stating that “the revised executive order is damaging to the strategic and national security interests of the United States.”

The government does not argue that the order can withstand constitutional scrutiny if the statements that have been made by Trump and his advisers about the ban’s intended purpose are considered. Instead, it maintains that the courts should ignore these statements and examine only the text of the order itself. The order doesn’t mention Islam, and invokes national security. In the government’s view, that should be the end of the matter. It cites a line of cases upholding immigration decisions if the government’s action is “facially legitimate and bona fide,” which the administration interprets to mean that the courts must accept the government’s proffered justification at face value, and cannot look behind the action for an impermissible purpose. Using that standard, the Supreme Court in Kleindienst v. Mandel (1972) upheld a decision to deny a visa to the Communist economist Ernest Mandel, on the ground that he had violated restrictions on his visa on a prior trip. And in Fiallo v. Bell (1977), the Court cited the standard to uphold an immigration statute that gave preferences in obtaining visas to the foreign children of unwed US citizen mothers but not to the children of unwed fathers.

If the challenge to Trump’s second executive order reaches the Supreme Court, much will depend on whether the Court considers the overwhelming evidence of impermissible religious purpose, as its Establishment Clause precedents dictate, or accepts the government’s stated justifications without further testing, as the administration urges. The question of which set of precedents should prevail has never before been addressed, because no prior president has ever tried to use the immigration power to denigrate a religion.

So far, the lower courts have concluded that they cannot ignore what everybody knows. As Judge Watson of Hawaii wrote in a decision issued March 29:

Where the “historical context and ‘the specific sequence of events leading up to’” the adoption of the challenged Executive Order are as full of religious animus, invective, and obvious pretext as is the record here, it is no wonder that the Government urges the Court to altogether ignore that history and context…. The Court will not crawl into a corner, pull the shutters closed, and pretend it has not seen what it has.

If the government’s view of the law were correct, the travel ban would have to be upheld regardless of what the president had said upon signing it—even if he had declared, “By this order, I affirm that Islam has no place in the United States, because we are a Christian nation.”

It might make sense to restrict judicial review of immigration actions in cases where customary immigration limitations are drawn and there is no basis for doubting that they are “bona fide.” In Fiallo v. Bell, for example, the Court noted that distinctions based on family relations have long been deemed necessary and appropriate in regulating the border, despite the fact that they are considered suspect in other areas of law. Whether and how to grant preferential status to particular family relationships are “policy questions entrusted exclusively to the political branches,” the Court explained. But there is no basis in the Constitution’s text or history for concluding that the political branches are entrusted to engage in religious discrimination in making immigration policy. And a ruling that courts must blind themselves to what everyone can see simply because the matter touches immigration, when the Court has long insisted that judges must not “turn a blind eye” to the setting in which an action is taken, would make a mockery of the Establishment Clause’s “clearest command.”

Asking the judiciary to read the president’s order with blinders on out of deference to his authority, ignoring overwhelming evidence of improper religious purpose, would also disturbingly echo what is widely considered one of the two or three most shameful decisions in the Court’s history: Korematsu v. United States (1944). In that case, in the name of deferring to the executive on national security, the Court upheld the internment of 110,000 people in the US during World War II simply because of their Japanese descent—without any evidence that any one of them was a spy or enemy agent. It took four decades to acknowledge the error of that decision—through legislation that formally apologized and paid reparations to the survivors. If the Supreme Court has learned anything from the experience, it will think twice about the kind of blank check the Trump administration requests in the executive order cases. The American people—and the lower courts—seem already to have learned that lesson.

—April 13, 2017

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The Confidence Man of American Art

Robert Rauschenberg

an exhibition at Tate Modern, London, December 1, 2016–April 2, 2017; the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, May 21, 2017–September 17, 2017; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, November 4, 2017–March 25, 2018

Collection Jean-Christophe Castelli/©Robert Rauschenberg FoundationRobert Rauschenberg: Persimmon, 1964; from Rauschenberg’s series of oil and silkscreen-ink print paintings in which, Jed Perl writes, ‘photographs of President Kennedy, crowded city streets, space travel, and a nude by Rubens come together to suggest a modernized version of the emotional fireworks we know from Baroque altarpieces.’

Robert Rauschenberg was a showman, a trickster, a shaman, and a charmer. In the retrospective that recently closed at Tate Modern in London and will be arriving at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this May, museumgoers are confronted with many different things: the imprint of an automobile tire; a couple of rocks tied with pieces of rope or string; paintings that are all white, all black, or all red; a sheet and pillow spattered with paint; a drawing by Willem de Kooning that Rauschenberg erased; deconstructed corrugated cardboard boxes; bright silken banners; a blinking light; a taxidermied Angora goat; mixed-media works mounted on wheels so as to be easily moved around; and paintings packed with photographic images. Rauschenberg’s career is the fool’s errand of twentieth-century American art. That his errand earned him the highest honor at the 1964 Venice Biennale, the Grand Prize for Painting, and major exhibitions and retrospectives at the Stedelijk, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and now Tate Modern and MoMA amounts to nothing more than confirmation of what fools we mortals be.

There is little mystery as to why Rauschenberg, who died in 2008 at the age of eighty-two, was a success from the very beginning of his career in the 1950s. Gallerygoers and museumgoers have had a taste for avant-garde escapades and hijinks at least since New Yorkers went to gawk at what many regarded as the follies of modern art in 1913, when the Armory Show opened in Manhattan. Marcel Duchamp, whose Nude Descending a Staircase caused an uproar there, was friendly with Rauschenberg by 1960, when Rauschenberg was cultivating a rather Duchampian reputation as an easygoing, seductive enfant terrible. Rauschenberg became adept at keeping admirers and detractors alike on their toes with his swaggering insouciance and Delphic-Dadaist remarks. He was in sync with a time when Dadaism was moving into the mainstream and more and more artists were interested in what the critic Harold Rosenberg dubbed the “de-definition of art.” “Nothing is left of art,” Rosenberg wrote, “but the fiction of the artist.”

When it came to de-defining art, Rauschenberg’s attitude was that if painting wouldn’t do the trick, he would do something else. Whatever he did or didn’t do, he would remain an artist. While still a student in the early 1950s at Black Mountain College, that redoubtable laboratory for experimentation in the arts, he was photographed in a dance performance with Elizabeth Schmitt Jennerjahn, who was teaching at the school. That image of the young, dashing, bare-chested bohemian—head held high and arms spread wide, as if in exaltation—is reproduced on a full page early in the exhibition catalog. And why not? Some of the storied episodes in Rauschenberg’s later career transpired not in art galleries but in performance spaces, where he not only planned the shows and made the sets, but on a number of occasions in the 1960s was one of the performers.

BMC Museum + Arts Center/Hazel Larsen Archer EstateElizabeth Schmitt Jennerjahn and Robert Rauschenberg at Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina, circa 1951–1952; photograph by Hazel Larsen Archer

Rauschenberg would do whatever it took to destabilize the audience’s expectations. The curators of the current retrospective—Leah Dickerman of MoMA and Achim Borchardt-Hume of Tate Modern—can do little more than stage-manage the goings-on. Dickerman is an outstanding scholar of twentieth-century art whose work in exhibitions devoted to Dada, the Bauhaus, the early history of abstraction, and the murals of Diego Rivera sets a very high standard. That she has nothing of much significance to say about Rauschenberg in the essay with which the catalog closes says less about her than about him.

It was as a genre-buster—an artist who crossed boundaries and cross-pollinated disciplines—that Rauschenberg was embraced in the 1960s. More than fifty years later, there are more and more artists who seem to believe, as he apparently did, that art is unbounded. The only difference is that our contemporaries—figures such as Jeff Koons, Isa Genzken, and Matthew Day Jackson—have traded his whatever-you-want for an even more open-ended and blunt whatever. A creative spirit, according to the argument that Rauschenberg did so much to advance, need not be merely a painter, a photographer, a stage designer, a printmaker, a moviemaker, a collagist, an assemblagist, a writer, an actor, a musician, or a dancer. An artist can be any or all of these things, and even many of them simultaneously. The old artisanal model of the artist—the artist whose genius is grounded in the demands of a particular craft—is replaced by the artist who is often not only figuratively but also literally without portfolio, a creative personality-at-large in the arts.

One can argue that there are historical precedents for this view. Picasso enriched both his painting and his sculpture by working back and forth between the two disciplines. And the work that Picasso did in the theater certainly precipitated significant shifts in his painting. Such cross-fertilization is by no means only a modern phenomenon. In the seventeenth century, the English diarist John Evelyn saw a theatrical production in Rome masterminded by Bernini, who apparently didn’t feel it was enough to be a painter, a sculptor, and an architect, but also, as Evelyn put it, “painted the scenes, cut the statues, invented the engines, compos’d the musiq, writ the comedy, and built the theatre.”

Cross-pollination is all well and good. The question is where it takes the artist. For Picasso, the embrace of a range of creative disciplines—and the mixing of disciplines and in some instances the destabilization of disciplines—returned him, refreshed, to the revitalization of a particular discipline. Picasso’s great friend Guillaume Apollinaire was thinking about all of this when he wrote, in his poem “The Pretty Red-Head,” of “this long quarrel of tradition and innovation/Of Order and Adventure.” Apollinaire insisted that there was no final resolution to this quarrel. He asked that we be “indulgent” with those who question “the perfection of order,” considering that they “offer you vast and strange domains.” He asked “pity” for those who “fight always in the front lines/Of the limitless and of the future/Pity our errors pity our sins.”

Apollinaire saw a need for both those vast, strange domains and for order and perfection. So it was with Picasso, who embarked on his greatest adventures—the movements from closed to open sculptural form, from representation to abstraction and back, from the studio to the stage, from Surrealism to Neoclassicism—with a sense of how each fresh adventure renewed his appreciation of the old order and the old perfection.

The trouble with Robert Rauschenberg is that adventure and innovation invariably confound order and tradition. Didn’t it ever occur to him that the search for perfection, however quixotic, is among the greatest adventures? Although this overstuffed show offers only a partial view of Rauschenberg’s megalomaniacal output—among the many embarrassments wisely overlooked is a series of bicycles edged with neon from the early 1990s—there are enough twists and turns to leave museumgoers in confusion. From what I could see when I visited Tate Modern on a weekday afternoon, visitors were intrigued, beguiled, baffled, bewildered, and sometimes just plain bored.

There’s a feeling of bumper cars about the entire show, and almost literally when you come to Oracle (1962–1965), a group of assemblages including an exhaust pipe, a typewriter table, a ventilation duct, a wire basket, and some crushed metal, all mounted on wheels. And what is one to make of Mud Muse (1968–1971)—on which Rauschenberg worked, as he did on Oracle, with a number of collaborators—which features a substance known as bentonite bubbling up in a room-sized aluminum-and-glass vat? You can almost hear a voice announcing: “It’s showtime, folks!”

It was in 1959, for the catalog of the exhibition “Sixteen Americans” at the Museum of Modern Art, that Rauschenberg dreamed up what has become his most famous statement. “Painting,” he announced, “relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two.)” It’s difficult to conceive of a more gnomic twenty-one-word declaration of principles. What on earth is Rauschenberg talking about? What does it mean to say that art can’t be “made”? And what is that “gap” between “art and life” aside from the sweet spot where Rauschenberg established his reputation? An artist can no more actually operate in the gap between art and life than a magician can actually cut a woman in half and have her come out whole.

Whitney Museum of American Art/©Robert Rauschenberg FoundationRobert Rauschenberg: Satellite, 1955. At more than six feet tall, this Combine’s materials include, according to the exhibition catalog, ‘oil, fabric, doilies, paper, a pair of socks, and wood on canvas with a taxidermied pheasant.’

Speaking of the mixed-media constructions that Rauschenberg called Combines, Jasper Johns (his lover for a time) remarked that they were “painting playing the game of sculpture.” The trouble with Johns’s characterization is that the Combines don’t even begin with painting. Rauschenberg is fundamentally a mixed-media guy. The basic impulse behind the Combines is the impulse of a collagist or an assemblagist, not a painter. Rebus (1955), which hangs more or less flat on the wall (i.e., in the manner of a painting), includes printed paper, newspaper, poster clippings, comic strips, fabric, and a drawing by Cy Twombly, among other items. The Combines begin with a rejection of the conventions of painting, so that when Rauschenberg moves into the third dimension with the taxidermied pheasant atop Satellite (1955) or attaches a wooden door to the structure in Interview (1955), he’s simply upping the ante in collage. The artist who might be said to have created works in which painting plays the game of sculpture is Picasso. But he was able to remake the rules of the game only because he had mastered them in the first place, which Rauschenberg never did.

If there is a constituency that never wearies of the games Rauschenberg plays, it’s curators, critics, journalists, and historians. They’ve chronicled his every move. Many years ago, Calvin Tomkins grasped the almost novelistic fascination of the man and his career. He wrote about Rauschenberg in The New Yorker and published two books that delved into the showman’s doings: The Bride and the Bachelors: The Heretical Courtship in Modern Art (1965) and Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time (1980).

It may be the distinguished art historian Leo Steinberg who first made the argument that the showman was also a deep thinker. Rauschenberg became the centerpiece of what remains Steinberg’s most famous essay, “Other Criteria,” which began as a lecture at MoMA in 1968. In the late 1960s Steinberg was looking for a way beyond what he believed was Clement Greenberg’s overly prescriptive view of painting’s possibilities. In Rauschenberg’s work he saw the outlines of a principle that he dubbed “the flatbed plane.” The painting became “a surface to which anything reachable-thinkable would adhere. It had to be whatever a billboard or dashboard is, and everything a projection screen is.” He argued that “Rauschenberg’s work surface stood for the mind itself—dump, reservoir, switching center, abundant with concrete references freely associated as in an internal monologue.”

In a work such as Rauschenberg’s Short Circuit (1955), the elements certainly do have a stream-of-consciousness coherence. Short Circuit includes, among other items, notebook paper, a postcard, printed reproductions of Abraham Lincoln and a fifteenth-century painting of Venus by Lorenzo di Credi, an autograph of Judy Garland, and a program from an early John Cage concert. But a stream-of-consciousness coherence is not necessarily an artistic coherence. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf used stream-of-consciousness techniques to produce verbal music. Rauschenberg’s stream-of-consciousness remains visually inert.

The flatbed picture plane, as Steinberg describes it, is indiscriminate. The artist opts out of that most essential artistic activity—which is the necessity to discriminate, to choose. Artists aren’t pushed to remake or reimagine images, experiences, and ideas; they’re just meant to receive them. Rauschenberg’s indiscriminateness—at times it suggests passivity—may be part of his appeal, at least for the theoretically inclined. When he flirted with a conventional literary program in the series of works on paper illustrating Dante’s Inferno (1958–1960), he left enough mixed messages to provoke more than one interpretation. The interpreters have had a field day with some of the Combines, especially Monogram, the work from 1955–1959 that features a taxidermied Angora goat with a tire stuck around its midriff. Robert Hughes described it as “an image of anal sex, the satyr in the sphincter.” Some have agreed.

But Steinberg, in “Encounters with Rauschenberg,” a lecture he gave in the late 1990s, worried that the specificity of such an interpretation threatened to hamstring what he called the work’s “definitive incongruity.” He cited approvingly two scholars who argued that Rauschenberg’s “works invite decodification, but frustrate its operation.” Perhaps what has made Rauschenberg’s work such an appealing subject for art historians—including figures much admired in the field, among them Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois—is the extent to which it invites interpretation even as it ultimately lets the interpreter off the hook. We have moved beyond Susan Sontag’s early pronouncements against interpretation to something more like no-fault interpretation.

What Rauschenberg provides his interpreters is a nearly endless succession of whims, gambits, riffs, and diversions. Many of his effects amount to little more than lessons everybody ought to have learned in Modern Art 101. His use of asymmetry, juxtaposition, and accident can feel rote and perfunctory. Is there anything especially interesting about hanging a wooden chair on a canvas, as he did in Pilgrim (1960)? Is there much of anything he does in the way of collage that Kurt Schwitters hadn’t done a couple of generations earlier?

The only point in the retrospective where the energy level struck me as rising was with the group of silk-screen-ink print paintings Rauschenberg made between 1963 and 1964, in which photographs of President Kennedy, crowded city streets, space travel, and a nude by Rubens come together to suggest a modernized version of the emotional fireworks we know from Baroque altarpieces. Rauschenberg marshals his images with some flair in these canvases, particularly Retroactive I and II and Persimmon (all 1964). He telegraphs the period’s jittery high spirits. But elsewhere his effects are mostly either chilly and undercooked or steamy and overcooked. Some of the works with collage elements from the 1950s, such as the nine-foot-wide Charlene, have unpleasantly thickened surfaces that feel gummed-up, lacquered, gelatinized.

For Rauschenberg’s admirers, his work may have some of the fascination of T.S. Eliot’s “fragments I have shored against my ruins.” The critics and historians who minutely examine each element in the Combines approach their material with many of the same analytical tools used by scholars as they pour over bits and pieces of ancient papyrus. In an essay in the catalog of the show, Branden W. Joseph observes of some elements in Gloria (1956) that the combination of several poster fragments and duplicated newspaper fragments “produce[s] a pun on Gloria Vanderbilt’s second divorce and third marriage.” As for museumgoers, they become archaeologists of a sort, exploring the detritus of the recent past. Much of what is in the Rauschenberg retrospective amounts to mementoes, souvenirs, documents.

Sometimes this is literally the case, for a number of galleries in the exhibition are devoted to reconstructions of performances and collaborations with which Rauschenberg was involved over the years. Especially in the first half of his career, his work was intertwined with a series of close partners in art and life. The first of these collaborators was his wife, the painter Susan Weil, with whom he made a series of photographic experiments using exposed blueprint paper. In the years after their separation, Rauschenberg was intimately involved with the painters Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns and the dancer Steve Paxton. Rauschenberg’s theatrical experiments and collaborations are the most engaging aspects of the show.

Rauschenberg, who is little more than a cipher in his paintings and sculptures, leaves an impression as a stage performer in a couple of projects on which he worked with accomplished professional dancers. In Pelican (1963), he and Alex Hay are on roller skates with parachute-like constructions attached to their backs, and their interactions with Carolyn Brown, one of Merce Cunningham’s great dancers, have a comic-lyric impact. Some stills from Spring Training (1965), in which Paxton and Rauschenberg take turns holding each other horizontally at waist height, suggest a neatly carpentered erotic geometry. Rauschenberg can be an engaging theatrical presence, with his all-American boy-next-door good looks turned to poker-faced bohemian ends. “I don’t mess around with my subconscious,” he once said. That refusal to delve into his motives goes a long way toward accounting for what I can only describe as the soullessness of his paintings and sculptures. But when he performs, the soullessness strikes a chord—at least so it seems from the brief glimpses of those performances preserved in photographs and films.

Rauschenberg’s collaborations with choreographers, especially Merce Cunningham, have been the subject of a number of exhibitions. These include “Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg and Duchamp,” which originated at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2012, and “Merce Cunningham: Common Time,” which is currently at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. A revival of the delicately pastoral “Summerspace,” with choreography by Cunningham, music by Morton Feldman, and dappled costumes and sets by Rauschenberg that suggest Monet’s waterlilies, was presented by Paul Taylor American Modern Dance in New York this season. The only time in the Rauschenberg retrospective when I felt entirely captivated was as I watched a clip from Travelogue, a 1977 collaboration with Cunningham and John Cage. Rauschenberg’s costumes and sets, with fabrics in dazzlingly saturated Silk Road hues, were the overheated setting for a solo performed with inward-turning intensity by (I believe) the dancer Chris Komar.

Writing of Rauschenberg in the 1990s, Leo Steinberg observed that “one ideal human condition is companionship, conviviality.” That is, I think, the value you feel in Rauschenberg’s work in Pelican, Spring Training, and Travelogue. But there are other collaborative works that have an unpleasantly industrialized feeling, as Steinberg himself acknowledged. Rauschenberg’s involvement with the engineer Billy Klüver and others on E.A.T.—an organization begun in 1966 to advance “Experiments in Art and Technology”—led straight to the Dadaism-by-committee that dominates so much of his later output.

Museumgoers who are dismayed by recent attacks on globalism and multiculturalism both at home and abroad may feel sympathetic to the international outreach campaign that Rauschenberg named ROCI (“Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange”). But I wonder if anybody can summon up much real enthusiasm for the glibly decorative posters in the retrospective that were generated by what amounted to an international goodwill tour that took Rauschenberg to Cuba, China, Russia, Germany, Mexico, and other countries between the mid-1980s and the early 1990s. According to Hiroko Ikegami in a catalog essay, the reactions to ROCI were mixed, with some hailing Rauschenberg as a force for artistic freedom while others saw him as colluding, at times perhaps inadvertently, with authoritarian leaders.

The Rauschenberg most people seem to prefer is funky, low-tech, a guy messing around. What I find unseemly is the scale on which Rauschenberg insisted on presenting his assorted quips and gambits. Making something out of cardboard boxes may be charming, but Rauschenberg tries my patience when he monumentalizes his charm offensive. Does anybody really need a nearly eight-foot-wide construction made of Nabisco Shredded Wheat boxes? Many have argued that the Combines, especially Monogram with its taxidermied goat and tire, are funny, but the humor, if that’s what it is, strikes me as contrived. Rauschenberg overinflates his whims and vagaries. While it cannot be denied that chance, randomness, impulse, and intuition are aspects of the artistic process, it’s easy to overemphasize their place in the genesis of a work of art. What counts is the decision to take the chance—and what one makes of it afterward. At the critical moment, when the artist must take control of what’s out of control, Rauschenberg is missing in action.

For all the swagger and cocksureness of Rauschenberg’s work, there’s something equivocal and unsettled about the cumulative effect of this retrospective. The more I looked, the more I felt that Rauschenberg had some lingering doubts about his own scattershot approach. Behind his nihilistic gesture of erasing a drawing by de Kooning—which he had been given by de Kooning expressly for that purpose—there was surely some recognition of the power of de Kooning’s agile, calligraphic line. Clearly, Rauschenberg felt the pull of creative spirits who were masters of their craft. He and Cy Twombly were lovers not long before Twombly produced his very finest early canvases, with their filigreed graffiti. And Rauschenberg was close to Merce Cunningham, one of the most refined dancers of the twentieth century, and close to some of the dancers whom Cunningham helped to shape.

In Rauschenberg’s works devoted to Dante’s Inferno and in some of his more loosely brushed canvases, you can see him paying obeisance to a painterly zest or verve that he finally lacked the discipline or technique to bring off. In certain of the paintings from his later years, the arrangements of quotidian photographic images suggest a yearning for poetic loveliness. Although these compositions don’t amount to much more than a sentimental old avant-gardist’s Hallmark greeting cards, there’s an easy, breezy feeling about a work like Triathlon (2005), with its snapshots of a motel, a fruit and vegetable stand, a bright yellow truck, and a hand holding a ball (seen in triplicate). However slapdash Rauschenberg’s work became, he remained alive to art’s seductions and rarely if ever succumbed to the hard sell that characterized the art stars who came to prominence a few years after him, especially Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.

Steve Paxton has recalled Rauschenberg announcing, “I tend to see everything.” Rauschenberg also said, “I always wanted my work—whatever happened in the studio—to look more like what was going on outside the window.” These comments may be more revealing than he meant them to be. There’s a volubility about Rauschenberg’s visual imagination that is irreconcilable with the discipline art demands. However monumental or panoramic a work of art may be, there must always be some acknowledgment of the limits of the artist’s vision. Rauschenberg didn’t know the meaning of the word “limits.” There was something of the outrageousness of a Ponzi scheme in the way he took this or that avant-garde idea and inflated it—over and over again.

Rauschenberg’s Ponzi scheme hasn’t collapsed yet. Nearly a decade after his death, his critical fortunes are very much on the rise. Leah Dickerman concludes the MoMA catalog by observing that “his work serves as a prehistory for our own moment in time, the contemporary in its emergent form.” How long can artists hole up in that nowheresville between art and life? By now all bets are off.

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A Buffet of French History

Charles Platiau/ReutersMarine Le Pen delivering a speech in front of a poster of Joan of Arc during the National Front’s May Day rally, Paris, May 2014

One of the bombs dropped during the current presidential campaign in France is Histoire mondiale de la France, an eight-hundred-page tome surveying 40,000 years of French history. A collaborative work written by 122 academics and directed by Patrick Boucheron, a distinguished medievalist at the Collège de France, it hardly seemed destined for the best-seller lists when it was published in January. But the French have snapped it up: 70,000 copies have been sold as of mid-March and sales are still going strong. After several decades of somnolence, academic history is a hit.

Although the book owes much of its success to the talent of its authors, its publication was timed perfectly to make a splash during the election campaign. History has always been a battleground in France. As Éric Zemmour, a right-wing journalist and historian, remarked in an angry review in Le Figaro, “History is war. Not just the history of war but the war of history.” He went on to condemn Histoire mondiale de la France as an attack on the identity of France and an attempt to destroy the “national narrative” (“roman national”) at the heart of what it means to be French.

Alain Finkielkraut, a conservative philosopher and member of the Académie française, damned the book in an equally savage review: “The authors of Histoire mondiale de la France are the gravediggers of the great French heritage.” Other commentators on the right have echoed the same theme. Michael Jeaubelaux, a blogger who supports the conservative presidential candidate François Fillon, wrote: “When the Collège de France buries France and the French, it is urgent for the people to seize power against those who are paid to destroy our country, its history, its heritage, its culture!”

Why such outrage? In choosing a president, the French will be voting, at least in part, for an interpretation of French history. When Fillon launched his campaign last August, he proclaimed that he would change the way history is taught in primary schools: “If I am elected president of the Republic, I will ask three academics to seek the best advice in order to rewrite history programs around the idea of a national story [récit national].” He described his view of France’s past as “a history made of men and women, of symbols, of places, of monuments, of events that derive their meaning and significance from the progressive construction of France’s distinct civilization.”

To the right of Fillon, Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the National Front, has insisted on the need to “relearn the history of France—all the history of France, the most positive, the most prestigious—so that each Frenchman should be conscious of the past and proud of it.” In practice, she explained, that would mean eliminating references at the primary-school level to World War II and colonialism.

Histoire mondiale de la France does not mention current politics, but it does not need to. Its publication at the height of the presidential campaign was seen by the right as a provocation, and the attacks on it made it something of a succès de scandale. (Before his review appeared in Le Figaro, Finkielkraut declaimed against it at a session of the Académie française.) Journals on the left, including Libération and Le Monde, reviewed it positively. They welcomed it as an effort by academic historians to reach the general public with a view of French history that would take into account contemporary debate about the effects of globalization.

What makes Histoire mondiale de la France “global” in contrast to other histories is its emphasis on the non-French elements that have always saturated French life and that come from all over the world. There are entries, for instance, on the first translation of the Koran into Latin in 1143 under Pierre le Vénérable; the acquisition of the Catalan Atlas—an immense illuminated map of the world produced by a Jewish Majorcan cartographer—by the royal library of Charles V in 1380; and the reception of the opulent Persian embassy to Louis XIV at Versailles in 1715. The book rejects the notion of a French identity that has existed from the beginning—a beginning associated with the cliché “our ancestors the Gauls”—and that has been refined over the centuries to constitute a distinct and particularly rich civilization.

“Identity” is a favorite term on the conservative side of French politics. Nicolas Sarkozy created a Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Codevelopment soon after his election as president in 2007. When politicians invoke “national identity” in the presidential campaign today, they play on fears about Islamic terrorists, immigration, and foreign influences in general—even, in the case of Marine Le Pen, the fear that France’s essential Frenchness will be destroyed by participation in the European Union.

Aside from its importance as a symptom of current political discourse, Histoire mondiale de la France deserves to be considered in its own right as a new attempt to change how French history is understood. Although written by academic authors and full of esoteric details, it is aimed at the general public. It consists of 146 chapters, each four to five pages long and each corresponding to a year. They succeed one another in chronological order, but they do not interconnect in a way that creates a narrative. In fact, there is no general argument. The transnational themes overlap and intersect everywhere, but it is up to the reader to bring them together into a whole.

Instead of plowing through the eight hundred pages from beginning to end, readers would be well advised to open the book anywhere and sample the contents, which are full of surprises. For example, the chapter on Chanel No. 5—an unlikely subject for a global history—begins with the laboratory of Gabrielle Chanel in 1921 and leads to Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, and American popular culture from the 1950s to the 1980s. The chapter on Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon explains that the painting was originally meant to be The Bordello of Avignon and that, after revolutionizing art, it was used as an image on postage stamps in Senegal.

To best be appreciated, the book should be approached as if it were a wine tasting. It should be sampled in small doses so that the reader can savor different flavors of the past. Each chapter has been prepared by an academic expert; each indicates its provenance by references to the most up-to-date scholarship. Yet there are no footnotes or bibliography, and the chapters are written in a way that can be enjoyed by anyone with only a superficial knowledge of French history. Far from indulging in academic jargon, the authors convey enthusiasm for their subjects. Most of them are young. In fact, Histoire mondiale de la France marks the arrival of a new generation of historians, full of energy and élan.

Suppose, for example, that in skimming the table of contents your eye lights on “The Sicilian Vespers.” Although you may know Verdi’s opera, you probably won’t have much information about what happened in Palermo on March 30, 1282. You turn to the chapter—by the medievalist Florian Mazel—and soon become absorbed in a short but dense account of a fight between some Sicilian noblemen and French officers in the service of Charles d’Anjou, king of Naples and Sicily and the youngest son of Louis VIII of France. As the violence spreads, the French in Palermo are massacred by the local rebels, and then all the French are driven out of Sicily. Far from being operatic, the conflict turns into a power struggle between the Capetian kings of France—supported by the pope—and the Hohenstaufen rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, allied with Aragon. The Capetians ultimately fail in an extraordinarily ambitious foreign policy—not only to conquer Italy but to create “a vast Mediterranean empire” and even to become kings of Jerusalem after conquering Constantinople.

This French ambition, as the essay explains, has a long history. It inspired the invasion of Italy by Charles VIII in 1494, and it was still alive during the reign of Henry IV (1589–1610). According to one story, Henry bragged to the Spanish ambassador that he could conquer Italy in a day: “I will go to mass in Milan, have my midday meal in Rome, and dine in Naples.” “Sire,” replied the ambassador, “at that rate, Your Majesty might end up the same day at Vespers in Sicily.” An incident, a long-term geopolitical struggle, and an amusing anecdote come together in four lively pages.

Having sampled various episodes, the reader can follow themes by using a guide at the end of the book entitled “Paths Through the Bush” (“Parcours buissonniers”). It traces subjects such as absolutism, colonialism, and women through the most pertinent chapters. Here, too, are surprises. For example, one thematic path takes its title, “luxe, calme, et volupté,” from a poem by Baudelaire. The itinerary begins with a chapter on archaeological digs, which suggest that in prehistoric days there existed a “Europe of jade” in the West as opposed to a “Europe of copper and gold” in the East. Then it leads the reader to a chapter on the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, to the Palace Negresco on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, and finally to Chanel No. 5. Curiously, Baudelaire is never mentioned—nor is Racine, Molière, Hugo, or Proust. To Finkielkraut, a history of France without great writers is an outrage to France’s national identity.

Yet Histoire mondiale de la France was not intended to be a treatise full of great men and grand events. The unpredictable selection of subjects, the unlikely linking of themes, and the jumping about in time should not be taken too seriously. In an interview, Patrick Boucheron explained that the book was conceived in a light-hearted spirit and that his invitation to the authors was, “Let’s have fun” (“Amusons-nous”). It was also meant to be provocative, not only in what it highlights but also in what it eliminates. And in a more serious vein, it can be understood as an encyclopedia, arranged in chronological rather than alphabetical order. It presents a series of years on which essays are hung, one after another, for consultation by the curious but without any concern for the relations among them.

Does this organization mean that the new generation of historians has returned to the “event history” (histoire événémentielle) scorned by their ancestors, the first generation of the Annales school—that is, historians like Fernand Braudel, who traced the play of economic, demographic, and other structures over long periods of time? Histoire mondiale de la France makes no mention of long-term trends. Yet in hooking essays onto events, it forces the reader to see the past from a different perspective, one that is not merely global but also connected with current issues.

One issue is ecological. Although the book does not treat climate change as a current political problem, it refers to earlier environmental crises that call the present to mind. A chapter on 1816, a “year without a summer,” describes how so many sulphuric particles were ejected into the atmosphere by the eruption of the Tambora volcano near Java that solar energy was blocked around the world. This caused a cooling of the climate and crop failures that led to the last subsistence crisis in European history.

Several chapters take up the theme of immigration, stressing the role of France as a land of welcome (“terre d’accueil”), especially to the poor of Africa, and a land of asylum (“terre d’asile”) for political refugees, notably in the case of “that other September 11” in 1973, when the Allende government in Chile was overthrown by a military coup. While Chile succumbed to a brutal dictatorship, France accepted 10,000 Chilean refugees. No reader can fail to recognize the reference to the refugee crisis today, although it remains implicit.

By celebrating a France open to the rest of the world, Histoire mondiale de la France challenges the nationalist notion, evoked constantly by the right during the presidential campaign, of a France that was French from the beginning. In place of “our ancestors the Gauls,” it begins with “the Cro-Magnon Man,” the fossilized skeleton once thought to be the first example of Homo sapiens, discovered under an embankment in Cro-Magnon (in Dordogne) in 1868, and it emphasizes the mixing of genetic and ethnic elements from everywhere in the world that continued for the next 36,000 years.

It also dispatches with the mythology surrounding some dates sacred to the right. The most famous, Charles Martel’s supposed victory at Poitiers over a Muslim invasion in 732, was taken up by the National Front as a rallying cry in the election of 2002: “Martel 732, Le Pen 2002!” In accordance with recent scholarship, Histoire mondiale de la France notes that a skirmish of some kind occurred, but not at Poitiers and probably not in 732.

In correcting a nationalist-essentialist version of French history, however, the new version strings out dates in a way that also could pose problems for a leftist version. The 1940s are represented by four essays, each attached to a year. The first mentions in passing (one clause in the opening sentence) France’s defeat in the spring of 1940 in order to focus on Charles de Gaulle’s attempt to recreate a French state with a territorial base, which began far from France, in Brazzaville, the Congo. “Rethink France from Africa” is the title of this entry. The second essay discusses the discovery of the prehistoric cave paintings in Lascaux in 1940. The third describes anti-Semitism and the mass arrests of Jews, who were confined in the Vélodrome d’Hiver on July 16–17, 1942, before being dispatched to extermination camps. The fourth celebrates the first Cannes film festival in 1946 as an event that reestablished France’s role as “the fatherland of the arts.” A strange way to leap over the darkest years in French history. One would not have to invoke Foucault in order to question the epistemological gaps between the chapters strung so incongruously along this timeline.

Still, Histoire mondiale de la France does not pretend to cover French history but rather to illuminate moments in it with well-informed and well-written essays. Having played its part in the presidential election, it probably will continue to be consulted for information and amusement—or perhaps simply for dégustations on coffee tables.

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The Best Kind of Princess

Royal Collection TrustAllan Ramsay: Queen Charlotte with her Two Eldest Sons, 1764-1769

The British royal family in the twentieth century had no great love for advanced art. Kenneth Clark wrote that George V was “much disturbed” by J.M.W. Turner’s pictures when he visited London’s National Gallery in 1934. “Turner was mad,” the king declared. “My grandmother [Queen Victoria] always said so.” George VI’s wife, Elizabeth (best known as the Queen Mother), in old age reminisced to A.N. Wilson about a Windsor Castle poetry evening during World War II. “I think it was called ‘The Desert,’” she said of one comical reading. “First the girls [the present queen and her sister, Princess Margaret] got the giggles, and then I did and then even the King.” When Wilson asked, “Are you sure it wasn’t called ‘The Waste Land’?” she replied, “That’s it…. Such a gloomy man, looked as though he worked in a bank, and we didn’t understand a word.”

But as a magnificent exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art indicates, Britain’s reigning dynasty wasn’t always this way. During the eighteenth century it was vastly more cultivated, especially the three remarkable women who are the focus of “Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte and the Shaping of the Modern World.” They were, respectively, Caroline of Ansbach (1683-1737), the wife of George II; Augusta of Saxe-Gotha (1719-1772), the widow of Frederick, Prince of Wales, who died before he could ascend the throne; and Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744-1818), the consort of George III. All were born in small eastern German principalities and were chosen for their arranged matches primarily because they were Protestant. (That had become a requirement after Parliament’s Act of Settlement in 1701, which forbade members of Britain’s royal house from marrying Catholics.)

Keith Hunter Photography/Trustees of Mount Stuart HouseAllan Ramsay: Augusta, Princess of Wales, 1764

These three German Georgian graces—whose contributions to British life spanned more than a century—brought far more to their adopted country than just political stability. They were all exceptionally well educated, intellectually curious, and aesthetically attuned, even by the standards of the day usually reserved for men. This was true especially when it came to the Enlightenment ideas and principles being advanced at the time. The princesses’ careful schooling in a multiplicity of subjects central to the Aufklärung (Enlightenment) included a strong emphasis on science, particularly botany and astronomy, along with the classical curriculum of Greek and Latin. Their attainments far outstripped almost all of the British nobility and much of the aristocracy.

Although nearly three hundred fascinating objects in many mediums are assembled for the New Haven show, the splendid portraiture on display—much of it from Britain’s Royal Collection, which has loaned more pieces to this exhibition than to any one of its kind—alone makes “Enlightened Princesses” worth the trip. There are two startlingly immediate chalk likenesses of Tudor courtiers by Hans Holbein the Younger; Joshua Reynolds’s veritably exhaling canvas of Joseph Banks, the pioneering botanist who accompanied James Cook on his first South Pacific voyage and discovered some 1,400 plant species unknown to Europeans; and a stunning full-length oil painting of the widowed Augusta by the Scottish master Allan Ramsay, in which she turns her gaze to the viewer as she sweeps past in a dusty rose taffeta dress topped with a gauzy black bolero and hood.

Medical History Library, Yale UniversityEngraving by Jan van Rymsdyk of a pregnant uterus from William Hunter’s Anatomia Uteri Humani Gravidi Tabulis Illustrata, 1774

Rather than merely unrolling a series of discrete themes linked by the exhibition’s timeline, from the accession of George II in 1727 to the death of George III in 1820, or falling into the kind of indiscriminate assemblage—ethnography sans frontières—that have plagued so many recent museum presentations of contemporary art, “Enlightened Princesses” explores the objects on view in fresh relation to the social and intellectual settings of its patrons.

Here we can see the ways in which such diverse but interrelated fields as the study of horticulture and the industrial manufacture of fabrics and ceramics influenced each other—consider the porcelain, commissioned by Queen Charlotte and patterned with melon leaves. Or how advances in obstetrics laid the foundations of modern child care: in the 1770s Charlotte promoted research on maternal health; her physician, William Hunter, was the first to dissect a pregnant woman’s uterus and study its anatomical composition. The fact that successful reproduction lay at the very heart of the royal system—exemplified by Charlotte and the uniquely uxorious George III, who had fifteen children together—gives extra meaning to this part of the exhibition.

Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum/Warwick Shire Hall/National Portrait Gallery, London Portrait of Gottfried Leibniz by Christoph Bernhard Francke, circa 1695; portrait of Queen Caroline of Ansbach by Michael Dahl I, circa 1730; portrait of Isaac Newton by Godfrey Kneller, 1702

There were notable differences among the three princesses. Caroline of Ansbach (as she was born) was the mental powerhouse. As a young woman in Berlin she corresponded with Gottfried Leibniz, the renowned philosopher and mathematician whose Panglossian view of a benevolent universe was diametrically opposed to the grand but indifferent clockwork posited by his British contemporary Isaac Newton. Yet Caroline was able to reconcile these two disparate conceptions when she moved to London in 1714, and in due course welcomed Newton into her intellectual circle (which in the 1730s also encompassed such masters of arts and letters as Handel and Pope). The odds that one royal lady would engage with the two men who independently discovered calculus are in themselves astronomically small.

A generation later, Caroline’s daughter-in-law, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, was no slouch, either, though her pursuits ran more specifically to the natural sciences. She is best remembered for her ambitious expansion of the royal garden at Kew, southwest of London, which has grown into one of the world’s foremost horticultural institutions. But Augusta had considerably less time for extracurricular activities than either Caroline or Charlotte. After the death of her husband at forty-four she largely devoted herself to securing the prospects of her eldest son, who went on to become George III and reign for six decades.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York/Harris Brisbane Dick FundDrawing by William Chambers from Plans, Elevations, Sections, and Perspective Views of the Gardens and Building at Kew, 1763

The third heroine in this royal progress was Charlotte, whose dynastic arrangement with George III (Caroline and George II’s grandson) turned into a love match after all. The antic art of caricature was already well grounded in Britain before George III and Charlotte, but the couple’s unconventional interests—his scientific farming (which involved crop rotation, fertilizers, and other innovative concepts), their abstemious diet, and her hands-on nurturing of their children—made them ripe targets for the leading satirists of the day. In their scathing drawings, several of which are included in the show, Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray seized on the royal couple’s bug-eyed, slack-lipped physiognomies and churned out cartoons of rollicking viciousness that can still incite laughter. In one of Gillray’s caricatures, Charlotte gives her six daughters unsweetened tea. They pout in displeasure as she coaxes them to drink it. “You can’t think how nice it is without sugar.”

During the nineteenth century there would be another decisive infusion of German blood into Britain’s royal house when Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha married Queen Victoria—George III and Charlotte’s granddaughter. But although he was a polymath with great sensitivity for the arts and sciences, Albert’s subordinate view of women and his wife’s ultimate acquiescence to him (as stressed in Julia Baird’s perceptive new biography, Victoria: The Queen) marked a regression from the dominance of highly educated royal ladies during the preceding century.   

The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale UniversityJames Gillray: Anti-Saccharrites, or John Bull and his Family leaving off the use of Sugar, 1792

“Enlightened Princesses” does not shy away from politically contentious topics, such as colonialism and slavery, which were central to the British Empire’s exponential economic growth during this era, but it does so in a nonideological and un-hectoring way. In a drawing by William Kent, we see Queen Caroline as Britannia, sitting not in the palace but on a quay, where boats bring goods from far-off shores.

Nothing hits closer to home now than the section devoted to smallpox vaccination, which was introduced to England in 1721 by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British ambassador to Constantinople, who had her son inoculated there in accordance with local practice. Her aristocratic imprimatur and especially the endorsement of Queen Caroline gave the procedure inestimable help in being widely accepted in Britain, in striking contrast to the irresponsible agitation of American anti-vaxxers today who have found new support in the Trump White House.

National Portrait Gallery, LondonJoshua Reynolds: Sir Joseph Banks, Bt, 1771–1773

At a time when fictive Disney princesses reign over pop consumer culture for girls—last summer the entertainment giant announced its first Latina princess, Elena of Avalor, for an eponymous animated television series, doubtless prompted by demographic trends—it’s difficult to remember that real princesses once wielded broad intellectual influence. Both of the incumbent Prince of Wales’s wives—the charismatic, doomed Diana and the tough, tenacious Camilla—struggled to complete secondary school and never considered going on to university, typical of most aristocratic British women of their generation.

The subtle feminist undercurrent of “Enlightened Princesses”—for example, the way in which a progressive attitude toward motherhood was viewed as essential for improving society—is not the least among its thought-provoking themes. The show’s gorgeously illustrated, deeply researched catalog is another major achievement, with more than thirty essays remarkable for their many fresh insights on this rediscovered trio and the fascinating epoch in which they lived. 

Royal Collection TrustCharles Wild: St James’s Palace: The Queen’s Library, which included Queen Caroline’s books, circa 1819

“Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte, and the Shaping of the Modern World” is at the Yale Center for British Art through April 30. It will then be on view at Kensington Palace from June 22 through November 12.

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