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History: A Novel

December 15, 2010

And finally today, I just had to quote this article from the Times about a rediscovered Breughel painting.  If I can write about art the way Michael Kimmelman just did, I’ll be set.  Discussing the question of attribution, Kimmelman says:

Why do we want these works to turn out to be by Velázquez and Michelangelo? After all, the art is the same either way.

Partly, of course, there’s the simple pleasure of a good yarn well told, and Michelangelo generally provides a better payoff to a whodunit than Baccio Bandinelli… In the end we want another celebrity attribution like this one because we want to get things straight. History tries to make sense out of chaos, toward which the world inevitably inclines. Art historians create hierarchies, categories and movements; they attribute causes and effects to conjure an appearance of logic.

Attributing a picture to a household deity like Bruegel or Michelangelo affirms our sense of control, our ability to get a grip on our affairs, at least for the moment. We take comfort in mooring some grimy, forgotten canvas, another example of life’s flotsam and, implicitly, of our own fate, to one of the pillars of art history. After centuries in the wilderness, home. It’s the story of Odysseus in Ithaca, among countless other myths.

There is always hope, in other words, the chance of redemption no matter how belated, a slender thread to lead us out of oblivion, meaning it is not merely order we seek. It is also the prospect of endlessly reordering the world, so that nothing is ever quite settled, so that everything remains possible, in life and in posterity, as in art. Today a neglected picture, a bedraggled Cinderella, like a surrogate self, hides in the attic. Tomorrow it’s at the Prado.

And ultimately, that Bruegel is us.


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