Christie’s live auction of the Cox Collection, set to take place as part of the evening sale on November 11, includes a large mixed-media drawing by Vincent van Gogh. Known today as Meules de blé (Wheatstacks), it is part of the same harvest series executed in Arles over the summer of 1888 as Meules de blé près d’une ferme (Wheatstacks near a farm), now at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands. Meules de blé has remained in private collections throughout its entire existence—this auction is its second public appearance ever, the first being an exhibition at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum in 1905.
The drawing’s provenance is unusually dramatic. It was forcibly separated from not one but two Jewish art collectors. In the face of growing anti-Semitic sentiment in Germany, Max Meirowsky, who acquired the work in Paris in 1913, fled from Berlin to Amsterdam in 1938, and then to Geneva, leaving the drawing in the hands of Paul Graupe, a German dealer based in Paris. Miriam Caroline Alexandrine de Rothschild then purchased Meules in 1939, but she too was forced to flee to Switzerland. During the occupation of France, her collection was seized by the Nazis and transferred to Schloß Kogl at Attergau. The drawing eventually entered an unidentified private collection, where it rested until the New York gallery Wildenstein & Co. purchased it in 1978. The following year, Wildenstein & Co. sold it to the Texas oil magnate Edwin Lochridge Cox, who died last November. The purpose of the forthcoming auction is to resolve a complicated ownership dispute—the proceeds of the sale will be divided between Cox’s estate and the heirs of both Meirowsky and Rothschild.
The CNN website headline announcing the sale, “Nazi-looted Van Gogh painting could fetch $30 million,” is a jarring reminder of the cultural confusion we are currently experiencing. The headline emphasizes the artwork’s projected price and tragic history, while the work itself, a drawing, is lazily miscategorized as a painting. It would be easy to dismiss the headline as just another instance of the mainstream media’s vulgar pandering, but there are good reasons to suspect that this disregard for beauty is symptomatic of a larger problem. It is a sad comment on society’s priorities that, when a magnificent drawing resurfaces after decades of occlusion, a media outlet’s response is not to discuss the work itself, but to focus instead on its sensational provenance and outrageous price tag.
Surveying the condition of the art world in the late 1990s, the art critic and analyst of Western culture Dave Hickey lamented the surrender of the “beautiful object” to the principles of virtue promoted by what he called the “therapeutic institution.” The latter term was Hickey’s shorthand for “the blob of curators, academics, review boards, arts organizations, governmental agencies, museum boards, and funding institutions that had claimed for themselves almost total control of the assignment and negotiation of value to art.” This “cloud of bureaucracies” is notable for its prioritization of virtue over beauty, which has a detrimental effect on the art world. According to Hickey, it also threatens to undermine one of the constitutional foundations of America itself: the right to the pursuit of happiness.
In a brilliant albeit little-known essay “Buying the World,” published in Daedalus magazine in 2002, Hickey explained that “for Americans, the experience of beauty is necessarily inextricable from its optimal social consequence: membership in a happy coalition.” For Hickey, “happiness is a primal mandate” made possible by the production of the “icons of happiness”—beautiful objects. As he puts it: “We all seek happiness as a matter of course and call it beauty.” In America, a cultural melting pot, “external objects” provide the raw material with which citizens of otherwise disparate backgrounds can “correlate,” or define, their community. “The pleasant surprises we experience in the presence of beauty,” he goes on to argue, “will function as a hedge against habit and rhetoric.”
This last point chimes with a September 2021 Washington Post op-ed by George Will, who describes the “surprises and contingencies” that have propelled him through “a happy half-century” of productive work. His American Happiness and Discontents (2021), an anthology of commentary from the last dozen years, identifies a pathological tendency among his fellow countrymen to dwell on their unhappiness. Will cannot understand why Americans are so eager to embrace their grievances when, as he sees it, “the pursuit of happiness is happiness.” Will, who recently turned eighty, is of a generation whose modus operandi is just to get on with it.
The physician and political scientist Ronald W. Dworkin has studied this phenomenon. His recently published “The Politicization of Unhappiness” in National Affairs (Winter 2021) opens with some staggering statistics on unhappiness in America today: 23 percent reported being unhappy, the highest in half a century. Dworkin argues that the rise of the care industry—which has ballooned to over 100,000 clinical psychologists, 1.2 million clinical social workers and mental health counselors, over 400,000 nurse psychotherapists, and 17,500 life coaches—is a direct response to the unhappiness that has resulted from the crumbling of America’s social support systems. Dworkin compares this industry to a “revolutionary party,” complete with “cadres” and “leaders,” whose “ideology of caring” aims to replace traditional interpersonal relationships of family, friends, and neighbors. Dworkin’s examples include the “struggle sessions” that have transformed the format of group therapy. The sessions’ purpose is to direct patients down the “correct path” with the “correct thought,” which involves much “consciousness-raising.”
The ideological aspirations of the care industry echo Hickey’s jibes about the therapeutic institutions in the art world. When Hickey wrote “Buying the World,” he believed that “the utopian bureaucrats whose only utopian attribute is their visceral contempt for both relevant past and the physical present” were winning the culture war. Perhaps his vision of the “therapeutic institution” throttling the life out of an art ecosystem based around beautiful objects, then replacing it with a system based around ideology and virtue signaling, has finally come to fruition? After all, the “therapeutic institution,” which Hickey described in its nascent stage, is “obsessed with the longevity of its own ideas.” And just like today’s care-industry cadres, the museum curators attacked by Hickey were engaged in a “cultural demolition derby” because “the past is presumed to be lost—to be nothing more than cautionary narrative against which the present must be inoculated.” The result, in Hickey’s words, was a “prohibition against objects themselves,” and “the deficit of pleasure and complexity” that inevitably followed.
In Hickey’s view, the most vital task is to push back against the “quasi-Protestant ‘cult of content’” if we want to save “everything we ever loved [that] is withering away under the administration of utopian bureaucrats.” He also reminds us, however, that “we must somehow determine the personal and social value of things we know the prices of.” In the final analysis, “prices are no help at all.” Only when we reclaim the object, the aesthetic thing-in-itself, and so regain the capacity to compute the true value of beauty, will the headline writers of the arts sections no longer feel compelled to obscure the beauty of objects with their provenance or their price.