Archive for March, 2011

Asian Art at the Met

March 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Equestrian Portrait of a Noble, attributed to Bakhta, ca. 1775

With James C. Y. Watt soon to step down as head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Asian art department, the NYT devoted a long article last Thursday to his successor, Maxwell K. Hearn, the Met’s longtime curator of Chinese art. As some readers know, I have a certain interest in Asian art, and so I read the article closely. Holland Cotter summarizes well the enormous expansion in the Met’s collections that have moved it from an Asian art backwater to a major center.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Asian art galleries are some of the most reposeful spaces in New York City. It’s hard to imagine that they were banged into place, room by room, from practically nothing over the last 40 years, though they were. Or that they continue to mirror changing times, a changing museum and a changing Asia, though they do.

. . . [Watt and Hearn] witnessed and participated in an astonishing phenomenon: a catch-up act of acquisition, construction and exhibition-making on a grand scale.

From the early 1970s to the late ’90s, under the direction of the art historian Wen Fong, who was Mr. Hearn’s mentor, a room of sculpture gradually and laboriously turned into 50 galleries. Thanks to the beneficence of a generation of gift-giving New York collectors, a bunch of pots became many thousands of objects representing every major Asian culture. And thanks to the prestige its new Asian wing brought, the Met got some huge Asian loan shows.

Both Mr. Hearn and Mr. Watt refer to the period as a golden age. And both acknowledge that it is over.

Private collections of the kind that came to the Met can no longer be assembled in the West. China and India, now economic colossi, have a corner on the market. Museum loans from Asia are increasingly tricky to negotiate, and to pay for, now that the Met, like most museums, is economically pinched. And while Asia is constantly in the news, Asian art remains a hard sell. Foot traffic in the Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Southeast Asian galleries remains light.

Clearly, Mr. Hearn, in his new job as curator in charge of the Asian department, has confounding issues to contemplate when he takes over in July.

In describing the growth of the Met’s Asian art collections, Cotter mentions the role played by John Crawford:

John M. Crawford Jr., who in the 1950s had formed what Mr. Hearn called the most important private ensemble of Chinese painting and calligraphy in the West, lived virtually across the street from the museum, but had never exhibited his art there.

“When the Crawford collection was shown in New York in 1962,” Mr. Hearn said, “it was at the Morgan Library. That’s how out of it the Met was.”

When the museum’s Chinese painting galleries were finally finished in 1991, Mr. Crawford was invited to take a look. “At last you have a space big enough to hold my collection,” he said, and gave the Met everything.

Attractive though this story may be, the timing is a little off, what with Mr. Crawford having died in 1988. A few years before he died, I had the good fortune to visit Mr. Crawford in his apartment, which was not so much “virtually across the street from the museum” as a few blocks down, and to see some of his collection. I’ve long cherished the memory of that day.

I recommend that in addition to reading the article, you have a look at the charming video that accompanies it, in which Mr. Hearn sits down at a table with a 14th-century Chinese painting and proceeds to scroll through it (it is, in fact, a scroll), explaining both the art and the text within.

Cotter closes by quoting both Watt and Hearn on how far the Met’s Asian collection has come:

One by one, the galleries that now form the Asian wing — China, Japan, India and Southeast Asia, Korea — were carved out and built in what Mr. Watt refers to as “the last major event in the development of the museum.” Mr. Hearn, despite time out for language and graduate school, was there for every step.

“It took 27 years,” he said. “Now we have the most comprehensive collection of Asian art anywhere.”

Categories: Art, Museums

Coffee Ritual

March 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Gary Wills reviews Hubert Dreyfus and Dorrance Kelly’s All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, and what a review it is! Wills wastes no time getting to the point, describing the book as ” inept and shallow.” Wills explains that

The authors set about to solve the problems of a modern secular culture. The greatest problem, as they see it, is a certain anxiety of choosing. In the Middle Ages, everyone shared the same frame of values. One could offend against that frame by sinning, but the sins were clear, their place in the overall scheme of things ratified by consensus. Now that we do not share such a frame of reference, each person must forge his or her own view of the universe in order to make choices that accord with it. But few people have the will or ability to think the universe through from scratch.

So how can one make intelligent choices? Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly call modern nihilism “the idea that there is no reason to prefer any answer to any other.” They propose what they think is a wise and accepting superficiality. By not trying to get to the bottom of things, one can get glimpses of the sacred from the surface of what they call “whoosh” moments—from the presence of charismatic persons to the shared excitement of a sports event.

Not having read the book, I don’t have a clue how fair or accurate Wills is in his depiction of it. But the part of the review I really love is the passage near the end, which includes a quote from the book itself.

They argue for the calmer joys of craftsmanship. They take us through five pages on the sacred craft of the wheelwright and then through four pages of the “revered domain” of making the proper cup of coffee—the sacred beans, the sacred cup lovingly tended, the company worthy to share this holy communion. The liturgy takes patient experiment and rapt devotion:

If it is the warmth of the coffee on a winter’s day that you like, then drinking it in a cozy corner of the house, perhaps by a fire with a blanket, in a cup that transmits the warmth to your hands might well help to bring out the best in this ritual. If it is the striking black color of the coffee that attracts your eye and enhances the aroma, then perhaps a cup with a shiny white ceramic interior will bring this out. But there is no single answer to the question of what makes the ritual appealing, and it takes experimentation and observation, with its risks and rewards, to discover the meaningful distinctions yourself.

This experimentation with and observation of the coffee ultimately develops in you the skill for seeing the relevant features of the ritual and ultimately develops the skills for bringing them out at their best. These skills are manifold: the skill for knowing how to pick exactly the right coffee, exactly the right cup, exactly the right place to drink it, and to cultivate exactly the right companions to drink it with. When one has learned these skills and cultivated one’s environment so that it is precisely suited to them, then one has a ritual rather than a routine, a meaningful celebration of oneself and of one’s environment rather than a generic and meaningless performance of a function.

Thank God we have been delivered from the meaningless inwardness of Augustine and Dante, to worship at the shining caffeine altar.

As someone who has never drunk coffee, yet must accommodate to the coffee needs of those around me, I couldn’t help but enjoy this passage. Maybe I should learn from it, but instead I feel blessed that I’m free of the ritual, and pleased that I can continue to bask in righteous superiority.

Categories: Books, Philosophy

Airplane Etiquette

March 22, 2011 1 comment

The WSJ’s weekly The Middle Seat feature last week focused on airplane etiquette, and just in time, as we prepare to head off on a trip next month. The article focused on six situations with which we are all familiar:

1. You’re in the middle seat, between two strangers. Who gets the armrests?

2. A tall man sits down and his knees jut out wide, encroaching on your space.

3. You’re in the window seat and two strangers in the middle and aisle seats are asleep. You have to go to the bathroom.

4. On a long flight on a full plane, some kids are getting restless, speaking loudly, and kicking seatbacks.

5. Your seatmate brings a smelly meal on board and loudly starts munching.

6. Do you recline your seat?

Assorted experts offer responses, from which we discover, as experience already suggests, that we are far from consensus on how these situations should be handled, besides the obvious approach of not flying.

As for the last question, I’d go with one of the experts, frequent traveler Richard Wishner, whose solution is to “Put your knee in the back of his seat.” Alas, I’ve found this to be better in conception than in execution. Maybe my knees aren’t strong enough.

Categories: Flying


March 22, 2011 Leave a comment


A few days ago, on the eve of our entrance into yet another war, I wrote a less than careful post on Afghanistan and Libya. There’s much I’ve wanted to say since, but I’m so troubled by the rush of events that I hardly know where to start. Then again, anything I might say has been said already. Thus, even though the other topics I have in mind are lightweight by comparison, I will proceed to write a few ephemeral posts.

Then again, blogs are supposed to be ephemeral, aren’t they? So here goes.

Categories: War

Permanent War

March 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy and Gen. Petraeus

[Stephen Crowley/The New York Times]

With General Petraeus in DC this week to testify before Congress about the war in Afghanistan, it’s been a discouraging week, as the likelihood increases that we’ll have troops there throughout a second Obama presidential term, if there is one, and beyond. On Tuesday, he

described the value of sustaining a long-term relationship with Kabul, and raised the possibility of operating joint military bases with local forces long after foreign troops are scheduled to withdraw in 2014.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of American and coalition forces, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that “it’s very important to stay engaged in a region in which we have such vital interests.”


General Petraeus said that while Afghan and coalition forces had turned back the Taliban’s initiative on the battlefield, he warned that progress remained “fragile and reversible.”

After almost a decade, what is our goal exactly? How do we recognize progress?

And now we seem poised to start a third war, in Libya. Aren’t two enough? Why Libya anyway? Are we really talking about a humanitarian mission? Then why not elsewhere in Africa as well? And how do we define success? What stake do we actually have in this that justifies piling on further national debt, deferring investments in our own country, and so on? Digby captures the issue well in a post today:

This is not a war to save people. If we cared about that we would be intervening in Cote D’Ivoire, where there has been horrible violence on the same level as that in Libya. There is human misery all over the planet that we can’t even be bothered to look at, much less intervene. So let’s not kid ourselves about what this is about:

Oil reserves in Libya are the largest in Africa and the ninth largest in the world with 41.5 billion barrels (6.60×10^9 m3) as of 2007. Oil production was 1.8 million barrels per day (290×10^3 m3/d) as of 2006, giving Libya 63 years of reserves at current production rates if no new reserves were to be found. Libya is considered a highly attractive oil area due to its low cost of oil production (as low as $1 per barrel at some fields), and proximity to European markets. Libya would like to increase production from 1.8 Mbbl/d (290×10^3 m3/d) in 2006 to 3 Mbbl/d (480×10^3 m3/d) by 2010–13 but with existing oil fields undergoing a 7–8% decline rate, Libya’s challenge is maintaining production at mature fields, while finding and developing new oil fields. Most of Libya remains unexplored as a result of past sanctions and disagreements with foreign oil companies.

Seriously, we are fighting two wars in the region already. And we have hardly “stabilized” the region. There are some good signs that the people themselves have gotten tired of the “oiligarchy” economies and are finding their way out of it. And some of those rulers are going to fight back. But I find it almost impossible to believe that we are actually going to make things better for the people. The objective is to stabilize the region for the oil companies.

If people want to talk honestly about this and admit what it is we are really doing then perhaps, as a democracy, we can hash this out properly. But using the uprising as an excuse to “intervene” on behalf of Exxon and BP has nothing to do with humanitarianism and liberals need to disabuse themselves of this illusion once and for all.

What was the point of the 2008 presidential election anyway?

Categories: War

Sentence of the Week, 4

March 16, 2011 Leave a comment

The winners in my recent Sentence of the Week posts (here, here, and here) have been loser sentences. This latest entry is a true winner. (Can Roger Angell write anything but winners?)

The current issue of The New Yorker has an article by Ian Frazier on the return of seals to New York harbor. I haven’t read it yet. I’d rather wait until our print copy arrives. However, I did read Roger Angell’s reflection on the article yesterday at The New Yorker’s blog. It’s just three paragraphs, which I’m tempted to quote in full, but I’ll stick to the mandated single sentence.

If they proliferate down here, as I expect, commuters on the Staten Island ferry some morning will get close enough to a seal to notice water dripping off his whiskers, and—if he makes his alternative head-last drop-down into deeper water, as against a dive—watch the seal’s nostrils, the final part of him, magically squeeze shut a quarter-second before he’s gone.

One more sentence? Okay, here is Angell a paragraph earlier, commenting on his time on the water during summers in Maine.

Up there, aboard my ancient day-sailer or even while rowing a smaller dinghy or paddling a kayak, I sometimes find myself in sudden close company with a harbor seal: a damp and pleasing, Lab-sized presence who has silently broken the surface fifteen or twenty yards away and now looks me over with unblinking interest.

At top is a photo I took on our 25th anniversary last June as we rode the ferry from Seattle to Bremerton. The seals are just off the southwest corner of Bainbridge Island, where Puget Sound narrows into a channel between the island and the Kitsap Peninsula.

Categories: Language

Change We Can Believe In, XV

March 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Change We Can Believe In: Reaffirming the commitment to close Guantanamo but keeping it open

You gotta love it. Eight days ago, the White House released a fact sheet on Guantanamo and detainee policy announcing that it “remains committed to closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and to maintain a lawful, sustainable and principled regime for the handling of detainees there, consistent with the full range of U.S. national security interests.” There’s the rub. Committed consistent with national security interests. And if the administration’s determination of national security interests results in keeping Guantanamo open, oh well.

I’ve been meaning for a week to write about this, but now I can simply refer to an eloquent editorial in last Saturday’s Des Moines Register that says what needs to be said. Excerpts below.

President Barack Obama’s announcement this week that some prisoners at Guantanamo Bay could be held indefinitely by the United States without benefit of trials is a major disappointment. He may have inherited Guantanamo from former President George W. Bush, but by failing to make good on his pledge to shut it down, Obama now shares credit for this stain on America’s once proud tradition as a champion of justice for all.

That stain must eventually be removed. The president alone clearly cannot resolve the Guantanamo dilemma, however. It will take leadership from both parties in Congress, and the support of the American people, who should see that this nation has a strong interest in living up to its commitment to protecting human rights.

The president made a bold – if risky – promise in his first month of office in 2009 to close down Guantanamo and prosecute or resettle the remaining prisoners outside the United States. . . .

On Monday, Obama appeared to throw in the towel. He cleared the way for trying some Guantanamo detainees before military tribunals. He issued an executive order regarding the fate of the remainder who cannot be tried for various reasons, and who are too dangerous to release: Their status will be periodically reviewed, but unless some miracle happens, they likely will remain in U.S. custody for the remainder of their lives even though they have never been tried or convicted of any crimes against the United States.


The United States must eventually come to terms with the fact that it has imprisoned foreign nationals for years with no immediate prospect of a fair trial. Some of these men may present a potential threat to the United States, but the world is full of terrorists who would dearly love to wreak havoc on America. We cannot lock them all up, and locking up a few of them forever without trial will create whole new generations of terrorists with good reason to hate this country.

The stain must be removed.

Categories: Law, Politics