December 2011


In order to complete work on major projects, we have suspended full publication of Aristos until further notice. Meanwhile, we will be posting dated commentary and news items on this page each month.

2011: August / September / October / November
2012: January / February

12/2 - More Barzun104
We continue to celebrate Jacques Barzun's 104th birthday (November 30) on his Aristos page by adding links to birthday tributes, reviews of the new biography, his Facebook "fan club," and a long comprehensive oral interview from 2009.

12/18 - On Pseudo Scholarship
An exhibition on view through January 8 at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum in our nation's capital is "not really about art," according to Bruce Cole. Instead it is "an emblem of the sorry state of contemporary humanities scholarship," which often disseminates spurious analysis that "advances an activist social agenda." So argues Cole, an art historian and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (2001-2009), in a recent article, "Dances with Buffalos: The Politicization of American History--Again" (Weekly Standard, November 21). Writing on the exhibition, entitled The Great American Hall of Wonders, and on the accompanying catalogue (subtitled Art, Science, and Invention in the Nineteenth Century), Cole points out the many ways in which they both misrepresent and misinterpret key works on view.

Cole notes that the show's underlying political agenda is foreshadowed in its introductory wall text. Asserting that nineteenth-century Americans "parceled out opportunities in varying measures to the nation's multifold communities and reconfigured its ecological systems in profound and irreversible ways," the introduction concludes that "today's urgent social and environmental challenges call for a great national brainstorm, a collaborative imagining of enduring solutions." He then cites curator Claire Perry's remarks on several paintings as advancing that agenda--including Rembrandt Peale's portrait of his brother Rubens Peale with a Geranium (1801) and Winslow Homer's The Initials (1864).

Neither Perry's catalogue essay nor the wall label for Rubens Peale, Cole argues, discusses it "as a work of art." Ignoring the work's "fascinating depiction of the artist, . . . beautiful still life of the potted plant, and . . . well-wrought composition," they instead "dive into an explication of its imaginary iconography," as in this passage:

He is not looking at the geranium, however, and his unused pair of spectacles posits the possibility of insights unrelated to seeing. Rubens places two fingers at the plant's base to check the moisture of the soil [there is no reason to believe he is doing this, Cole observes]. This gesture connects him to older ways of knowing plants, and to practices related to medicine, healing, and magic.

Rubens, Perry concludes, "is engaged in a kind of diagnosis, one that is rooted in an ancient human connection to the earth" --an assertion with no factual basis whatever.

As Cole observes, The Initials is "a moving image of a woman alone in a forest of tall pines"--on one of which she may be tracing her own initials and those of her missing or dead husband or fiancé. As he further notes, various initials and a heart, as well as a pair of crossed swords, are inscribed on the tree just above and to the right of the woman's head (click on the image of the painting to better see these and other details noted in the article cited below).

After describing the painting in terms that "any levelheaded viewer" might use, Cole characterizes it as a "restrained meditation suggesting loss and mourning engendered by the Civil War." And Perry? She asserts (again without providing any support for her interpretation) that the painting evokes the "ministering angels [of] the long campaign, the female nurses who bandaged, bathed, and fed wounded soldiers" and, further, that "Homer's protagonist, reading what a tree says," represents the "female authors, clubwomen, and educators who were among the most outspoken opponents of indiscriminate logging." Utter claptrap.

("Dances with Buffalos" is posted in full on the website of the Hudson Institute, of which Cole is a Senior Fellow. For informed scholarly commentary on Homer's painting see the opening page of Lucretia H. Giese's "Winslow Homer's Civil War Painting The Initials: A Little-Known Drawing and Related Works" in American Art Journal, Summer 1986. Another figure of a solitary female cited by Giese is Homer's The Red Feather.)

August / September / October / November