Two columns by Gary Schwartz made me want to post a little when I first read them, and since they're still in my mind, why not now? The most recent tackles what he calls "cultural asymmetry":
Half my teachers in high school and college were first- or second-generation immigrants from Europe. At New York University many of my fellow students were ex-GIs with tours of duty in Europe or Asia behind them. These were powerful experiences for millions of young Americans, leaving them with memories of foreign places and knowledge of foreign languages that they brought back not just to sophisticated New York but to its three-by-two-thousand-mile large hinterland. Few Europeans or Asians of their age had first-hand knowledge of America.
In the decades that followed, those savvy Americans established a Pax Americana and made use of their foreign street smarts to sell their films and music, goods, services and politics abroad. Compare that to the world of a mere fifty years later. From a Dwight D. Eisenhower to an American president who had never been out of the country before he was elected, congressmen who cannot travel abroad because their security cannot be guaranteed, a passportless populace. All the savvy now belongs to millions of young people abroad who have spent time in America.
As an émigré from America, Dr. Schwartz probably is more attuned to this dynamic than many of us back at home, and if there's a bit of simplification involved--it is a newspaper column--his story still rings true. I'm reminded of one of the points that Arnaldo Momgliano makes in Alien Wisdom: for all their intellectual achievements, the Greeks never bothered to learn the languages and ways of those peoples who didn't take the trouble to learn Greek and explain themselves within that language. In the end, the Romans, who did learn Greek, knew and understood the people whom they conquered, but the Greeks never really knew them.
The other article, occasioned by a visit to the Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum Hannover, visits the familiar theme of the public's neglect of permanent collections, especially of Old Masters. In a postscript to the column, Dr. Schwartz writes
A curator in an Amsterdam museum told me recently that the manager had actually forbidden his curators to work on what he called “collection-related” projects. The writing is on the wall.
While jaw-dropping, I don't doubt this troubling anecdote. I'm not entirely sure it represents the wave of the future, however, or at least, not exactly in the form (special exhibitions vs. permanent collections) offered. Loan exhibitions, especially ones involving multiple venues and works with high insurance values, are a rickety business themselves. The costs of insurance and shipping are skyrocketing, while the payoffs are often uncertain save for the most solid of prospects. Outside of the biggest institutions and certain sure things, it wouldn't surprise me at all if the coming years exhibit a certain retrenchment on the part of museums. Collections-related projects that can be made into exhibitions may come to be all they can afford. Which isn't an entirely happy thought either, but such is the world today.
Having disagreed in small measure with the column, let me say that I think Dr. Schwartz is spot-on when he writes that
People really do not always know what’s good for them. I have never gotten over the shock of the complete disappearance of ocean liners on the North Atlantic route, which for the price of a few nights in a hotel offered a quality of experience that can never be matched by the airplanes that replaced them.
I really, really wish it was still possible to travel to Europe on an ocean liner, and not only because flying scares the heck out of me. It just sounds like the best. And would it be too much to note that the English language edition of The Rembrandt Book will be out in October, and can be pre-ordered now? An excellent reading choice for the last months of the Rembrandt year, if I may say so. Amazon should update their info, however; Form Follows Dysfunction hasn't existed for some years.