Our Ancient Faith: Lincoln, Democracy, and the American Experiment, by Allen C. Guelzo (Alfred A. Knopf): “Democracy is a government for humanity, not angels” writes Allen C. Guelzo in Our Ancient Faith. This is good news for the American people, lacking as we currently do cherubic wings or heavenly halos. Yet the efficacy of democracy itself has of late come into question: “democracies,” as Guelzo hears critics murmuring, “have no use for beauty,” and they “die at the hands of the governments they elect.” But he finds in the model of Abraham Lincoln a response to all such complaints. More than that, Guelzo sees Lincoln’s natural law–informed thought as a counter to the “Rawlsian moral relativism” that has come to define—and desecrate—prevailing notions of democracy in recent decades. Here is a penetrating look at both the seeds of American democracy and their greatest cultivator. —LL
Who Owns This Sentence?: A History of Copyrights and Wrongs, by David Bellos and Alexandre Montagu (W. W. Norton): It is a widely held conviction that great works of literature—Homer’s Iliad, say, or Dante’s Divine Comedy—are the common property of mankind. Leo Tolstoy, whose novels are as good a candidate as any’s for such a list, certainly thought so: shortly before his death, he tried to will his literary estate not to his wife or daughter, but to “humanity” writ large. Alas, his lawyers informed him that, in Russian law, such a bequest was nonsensical: for “humanity” is not a legal entity, and how could a private right like ownership be publicly held? Yet from another point of view, the bequest to humanity had already been made—when each of his books was published. At issue here is an ambiguity at the heart of copyright tracing back to Daniel Defoe, John Locke’s labor theory of property, and the 1710 Statute of Anne, as the perspicacious David Bellos and Alexandre Montague demonstrate in their new Who Owns This Sentence?: A History of Copyrights and Wrongs. If you don’t understand the doctrine of “fair use” after reading it, you’ll at least know why you’re not alone. —RE
“Dana Gordon: Signs of Life, Paintings from 2023,” at Westbeth Gallery, New York (through February 24): “If you approach this work like music, you won’t be far wrong.” That is how Sally Eckhoff, in her introductory essay, describes Dana Gordon’s exhibition of recent paintings at Westbeth Gallery. With thick geometric lines that seem to reverberate and play off one another, these abstractions convey a syncopated rhythm. A whopping twenty-eight paintings from 2023 are here on display. When taken together, the variations in density and color suggest their own musical progression. Despite their quick and improvisational nature, however, “nothing gets out of hand,” Eckhoff concludes. “The artist’s control—and there is a lot of it—shows itself purely in the edges and the bewitching, shifting surface of the white underneath.” —JP
Mozart & Brahms performed by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Carnegie Hall, New York (February 8): Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor (1788), the second of his two minor-key symphonies, has inspired wildly divergent impressions. One Romantic-era critic called it “a symphony of pain and lamentation,” while another considered it “nothing but joy and animation.” Schumann thought it “Grecian lightness and grace.” Today, we are so primed to hear its chromaticism and minor key for their tragic symbolism that we probably cannot escape the darker interpretation. But rather than intimate Mozart’s imminent death, it can point us to a new beginning: consider how Beethoven copied out twenty-nine bars while writing his Symphony No. 5, which features a restless, motivic structure that owes much to Mozart’s masterwork. Hear it at Carnegie Hall this Thursday performed by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s under the Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä. Also featured will be Brahms’s Violin Concerto with Isabelle Faust as the soloist. —IS
Edwin Rickards, by Timothy Brittain-Catlin (Historic England): The architect and historian Timothy Brittain-Catlin has a knack for looking at architectural history slantwise. His Bleak Houses: Disappointment and Failure in Architecture (2014) told of how architectural history is riddled with “losers,” those who, often through no fault of their own, find themselves stylistically out of favor (he provocatively suggests that one of the issues facing the newest classical revivalists is that architectural critics, so steeped in modernism, lack the vocabulary to discuss cogently new classical buildings). The Edwardians and Their Houses (2020) placed Edwardian architects firmly in the context of Britain’s regnant Liberal Party, bringing the era to life in a new way. Now Brittain-Catlin has turned his attention to a somewhat-obscure figure of the early twentieth century, Edwin Rickards (1872–1920). Arnold Bennett, the writer, maintained that he had “never met an artist in any art of more catholic taste” than his friend Rickards, whose wide-ranging travels through Europe imbued him with an affinity for the Baroque that found expression in exuberant designs not typical of reticent England. See: the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, on Curzon Street in Mayfair, with its colonnaded niche of an entrance and blocky, almost Hawksmoorian rustication. This new book is a fascinating introduction to an architect who should be better known. —BR
From the Archives:
“An old gypsy nature,” by Ben Downing (June 1998). A review of Selected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, edited by Ernest Mehew.
“Excellence all around,” by Jay Nordlinger. On a concert of the New York Philharmonic.
“Ersatz warzones,” by Jessica Almereyda. On “An-My Lê: Between Two Rivers” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.