Monday, February 05, 2007

Rook for a Queen

Art historian Michael J. Lewis elaborates on his view that the sale of Eakins's Cello Player to help pay for The Gross Clinic is "sort of break-even":

"The sale of items from a museum collection is called 'deaccessioning,' an unattractive word for an unattractive act. Museum ethics are quite strict about the process: one may sell objects to enhance a collection—trading up, as it were—but never to cover operating expenses or to pay for repairs. Such actions are looked on with horror in the art world, as the equivalent of burning furniture to heat the house for a few days.

"From this perspective, the swap is relatively unobjectionable. Both paintings show Eakins at his best, observing his most characteristic subject, a titanic figure in a moment of intense concentration and action. And both works are in a sense autobiographical, showing the empathy Eakins reserved for those he regarded as fellow artists. Of the two paintings, however, The Gross Clinic is by far the finer, matching in originality and intensity of expression what Huckleberry Finn achieved in literature or Boston’s Trinity Church in architecture. One can sympathize with the Academy for making this difficult decision.

"On the other hand, one need not endorse it. Museums that think boldly attract bold donors; and museums that think cautiously do not. When the original purchase was announced it seemed like a brilliant but risky chess gambit; in the light of this sale, it looks considerably less spectacular, like the sacrifice of a rook for a queen. If more works are sacrificed in the coming months, however, this daring gambit might begin to look like an ill-considered blunder."