The exhibition is a knockout, at once sumptuous and restrained. The entire show fits into three galleries, but what galleries they are! Holcomb has gathered books and manuscripts from museums, libraries, and religious institutions in Europe and the United States. And it is in these bound volumes that the signal graphic achievements of the Middle Ages are to be found. Everybody, of course, knows the illuminated manuscripts of those centuries, with their dazzlingly colored pages, finished to a jewel-like shimmer. Holcomb’s great idea has been to set those works aside for the time being, and focus instead on what have traditionally perhaps been regarded as humbler fare. These are the pictures done with black or brown or sometimes colored ink, many of which have, at least at first glance, a more casual, more informal character. Such works, she argues, put us in touch with the medieval artist’s most immediate impressions and responses. I think she is absolutely right. There is an easygoing, wonderfully lowdown quality about a lot of the work in this show. We have gotten beyond the delicious formality of the illuminated manuscript. We are seeing artists in a variety of moods, sometimes ruminative or contemplative, at other times more intuitive, more playful. Even when the artists are doing something wonderfully elegant, it is an off-the-cuff elegance, an improvisational elegance. There are so many different kinds of lines to be seen in this show, from skeletal and attenuated to athletic and even frenetic. We see flashes of humor and wit, but also agitation, anxiety, and melancholy.
The experience of purchasing art shares much in common with viewing it in exhibits, according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research. Author Yu Chen (Oakland University) shows that visiting a gallery can provide many of the same benefits as buying a painting….
The author found that art collectors and visitors to galleries and museums share many desires and values, including otherness, sociality, philanthropy, spirituality, aesthetics, and novelty. How collectors differ from visitors is in their desire for a long-term intimate relationship with the artworks. Visitors want to avoid repetition and dullness, and like the experience of sharing art communally.
Chen also found that the experiences of both art purchasers and art viewers do not always correspond with their expectations. “This contradiction implies that desire and illusions, more than value and perceptions, are the driving forces behind consumption,” writes Chen.
Held in the hand, a typical cuneiform tablet is about the same weight and shape as an early mobile phone. Hold it as though you were going to text someone and you hold it the way the scribe did; a proverb had it that ‘a good scribe follows the mouth.’ Motions of the stylus made the tiny triangular indentations of cuneiform characters in the clay. The actions would have been much quicker and more precise, but otherwise rather like the pecks you make at a phone keypad.
Some tablets are of course larger. Gilgamesh, thousands of words long, is an epic in 12 tablets more than a foot high, and inscriptions carved in rock are more expansive still. But it is the small tablets with tiny writing that are the most tantalising objects in Babylon, Myth and Reality (at the British Museum until 15 March). Can one, through them, get beyond archaeological evidence and inference, bypass the fevered imagination of William Blake’s and John Martin’s Bible illustrations and hear the voice of a Mesopotamian Pepys?
Well, not exactly, but the range and character of what is written down give some idea of the texture of everyday life in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. The majority of tablets may be the equivalent of office files – letters, legal documents, contracts, mortgages, lists of goods – but there are also messages addressed to the gods, some of them expressing indignance that good behaviour has not been rewarded. Astronomical observations are detailed and medical texts full of diagnostic descriptions. There are records of refurbishments: the kings, who had responsibility not just for religious ceremonies but for the maintenance of temple structures, celebrated their building works.
Internet | Get up to speed with the view of blogs as descended from Renaissance “cabinets of wonder,” or Wunderkammern. Back then, they were encyclopedic, idiosyncratic collections of objects whose categorical boundaries were yet to be defined by modern science. Bloggers, too, “present a collection of images, ideas, and objects in a style and order specific to his or her own vision: a personal taxonomy.” [Cabinet of Wonder, Julian Dibbell]
Nonetheless, a few months ago I became a ”Young Fellow” at the Frick museum ($500 per year; “all but $340 is tax deductible”). I’ll admit I felt slightly ambivalent about it. As much as I enjoy going to museums and sincerely believe they help to make the world a better place, giving to them is not quite on a par with giving to a cancer hospital. Cultural institutions are a luxury in our society. Surely there are more pressing concerns.
My agenda was to join an organisation that promotes community. In my research, I found that cultural institutions have a monopoly on providing frequent, affordable events that also, frankly, seem fun. My hard-earned, limited income could instead go toward feeding starving children in Africa, which is surely a worthier cause than maintaining the art collection of an old mansion on Fifth Avenue. But starving children do not provide fun parties. Point: museum.
The Tower of Babel is a vision of architecture as anthill madness. As the British Museum’s exhibition Babylon: Myth and Reality reveals, Brueghel is not the only artist driven to imagine this fabulous building. Towers of Babel proliferate in this show, be they painted with miniaturist precision or exploding in apocalyptic doom; there’s even one made of shoes, in a 2001 painting by Michael Lassel. Martin van Heemskerk’s, however, is square, in keeping with old sources he studied, but his attempt to visualise what the tower was “really” like does not stop him showing its top smashed apart by divine lightning. In an anonymous Dutch painting—one of a series that riff on Brueghel—the city that surrounds the tower is on fire, the summit of the hubristic edifice menaced by an eerie light coming through the storm clouds. Perhaps the strangest is by Athanasius Kircher, a 17th-century scholar whose light, airy spiral looks prophetically modern, like a blueprint for a skyscraper.