This week:Roger Scruton, Al Held, aqueducts & more from the world of culture.
Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, by Roger Scruton (All Point Books): The second noun in the title of this new book by the English philosopher Sir Roger Scruton is almost as important as the first: this really is an invitation, a gracious beckoning whose welcoming tone says much about its author’s intention. From the elegant book jacket, which recalls a formal invitation to some great fête, to the book’s companionable tone, Conservatism is an effort to put its subject in a pleasing light. Although Sir Roger’s capacious learning is quietly evident on every page of this brisk vade mecum, Conservatism has nothing tome-like or polemical about it. All the usual figures from the “great tradition” that Sir Roger summons are here—Edmund Burke above all, perhaps, who is joined by Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, Mill, Hayek, William F. Buckley Jr., Russell Kirk, and many others, along with practical standard-bearers from Disraeli and Winston Churchill to Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and others. The book is part historical survey, part conjuring with the major social-political challenges of our time. In his last chapter, “Conservatism Now,” Sir Roger provides a quick outline of the intellectual terrain he traverses. “Modern conservatism began as a defense of tradition against calls for popular sovereignty,” he notes; “it became an appeal on behalf of religion and high culture against the materialist doctrine of progress, before joining forces with the classical liberals in the fight against socialism. In its most recent attempt to define itself it has become the champion of Western civilization against its enemies, and against two of those enemies in particular: political correctness . . . and religious extremism.” Lord Falkland once observed that “when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” Sir Roger reformulates that sentiment into a conservative credo: “the conviction that good things are more easily destroyed than created,” and the corollary determination “to hold on to those good things in the face of politically engineered change.” Readers of Sir Roger’s earlier, more formidable book The Meaning of Conservatism will not be surprised to discover that at the center of his argument here is the observation that the essence of the conservative worldview is an affirmation not of liberty in its solitary egoism but of the first person plural: the “we” that makes society, the social compact, and the unity of the generations through time possible. This book is a small triumph, a masterpiece of concision and distillation. Any curious reader will find it an invitation well worth accepting. —RK
“Al Held: Paris to New York 1952–1959,” at Cheim & Read (through July 6): Though best known as a pioneer of the hard-edge, geometric abstraction that would come to dominate the 1960s, Al Held pushed back against many of the fashions and orthodoxies of that era. Muscular, minimal, and formalist, Held’s works nevertheless engaged with supposedly outmoded concepts like illusionary space, trompe l’oeil, and traditional perspective. Before making these “mature” works, however, Held developed his chops in the gestural school of Pollock and De Kooning. Paintings from this period, on view at Chelsea’s Cheim & Read through July 6, at once reflect the aesthetic moment of the 1950s and point to Held’s later innovations. Imbued with a desire to “give the gesture structure,” these dark and earthy “Pigment Paintings” combine improvisatory physicality with contemplative restraint and an eye towards the grid-based arrangements of Mondrian. For more on Al Held, be sure to pre-order the latest from Criterion Books, Observation: Notation: A Selection of the Critical Writings of Andrew Forge: 1955–2002, out next month. —AS
“Lidström & Shostakovich—works for cello and orchestra,” by Mats Lidström & the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra (BIS Records):A strange album to consider these next few hot days: virtuosic fantasias on operatic staples are nothing new to the concert literature; witness Liszt’s transcription of Isolde’s “Liebestod” and “Reminiscences” of Lucia di Lammermoor, or Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy for violin. I’ve never known of any such piece for cello, but Mats Lindström has now provided one, a Rigoletto Fantasy for cello and orchestra, which can be heard in a new album on the BIS label. Hearing new colors brought to such familiar music is quite striking—particularly in the sorrowful realization of Rigoletto’s blazing aria “Cortigiani.” Lidström, accompanied by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, gives his work a convincing performance and follows it with a fine rendition of Shostakovich’s hair-raising Cello Concerto No. 1. —ECS
“Landmark Lecture: The 119th Street Croton Aqueduct Gatehouse,” at the General Society Library (June 19): While architectural history tends to be focused on major structures—the big house, the skyscraper, the cathedral—ancillary buildings often hold the most intrigue. Take John Vanbrugh’s work at Castle Howard in North Yorkshire. While the superstructure is justifiably lauded, the pyramidal gatehouse might be the more engrossing building. Here in New York—a city full of large, iconic structures—it’s easy to overlook the substructures. But buildings like the Old Croton Aqueduct Gatehouse, at the corner of 119th and Amsterdam, reward further study. Heavily rusticated, almost exaggeratedly solid, the structure was not a gatehouse at all, but rather a clever piece of concealment, hiding pipes where the old Croton Aqueduct used to flow underneath. Christopher Gray, writing of the matching gatehouse at 113th Street (now modified), said “the amount of architecture is almost negligible,” but smooth stone voussoirs give the rounded arches a distinctive silhouette and the hipped slate roof serves as an elegant cap. On Tuesday, Meisha Hunter Burkett, a Senior Preservationist at Li/Saltzman Architects, will discuss another facet of the building—its afterlife. She will speak at the General Society Library on “how once small scale, historic infrastructure loses its purpose-built use, the challenges of reuse become complex.” —BR
From the archive:“Philip Johnson: the architect as aesthete,” by Roger Kimball (November 1994). On the flashy career of the Glass House architect.
From the current issue:“The second-worst poet in English,” by Anthony Daniels. On Cumberland Clark, the bard of Bournemouth.