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Simone Francescato, Collecting and Appreciating: Henry James and the Transformation of Aesthetics in the Age of Consumption

Miciah Hussey
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Francescato, Simone, Collecting and Appreciating: Henry James and the Transformation of Aesthetics in the Age of Consumption, coll. Cultural interactions: studies in the relationship between the arts, Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, Peter Lang, 2010, 209 p.

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1This past May Sotheby’s auctioned the last version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream still in private hands. In the expectation of what was to become the most expensive work of art ever sold, a notable art critic appeared on a television news program in an attempt to explain just what was so valuable about a piece of cardboard smeared with steaks of phosphorescent pastel. As the critic passionately spoke of its psychedelic palate, absorbing composition, and modern angst, the journalist sat dumbstruck repeating ‘$ 200 million’—its high estimate, though the work eventually sold for a still recording breaking price of $ 120 million—as if that number existed well outside any epistemological limit for the value of a work of art—the price of priceless. The two men butted heads with the ekphrastic joys of the picturesque and the heady climes of one-percent largesse—and both sides grew more dubious as the monetary figure shrieked louder than Munch’s banshee. The most striking aspect of their impasse, however, was how little it had to do with the actual work of art—The Scream made sacrosanct in the swaddling clothes of both a commodity capital and an art historical relic, the image known through ubiquitous reproductions and free-reign appropriation, seem drained by its years living up to a reputation or a price and under-nourished with fresh considerations and subjective play. This blind stalemate between the values of continual subjective pleasures and cultural mystification (both monetarily and historically) is one of the many outgrowths of a cultural shift explored by Simone Francescato’s fascinating book Collecting and Appreciating: Henry James and the Transformation of Aesthetics in the Age of Consumption. His project not only plots a fecund area in the expanse of James’s criticism, but in analyzing the invidious seeds that grew into the hybridization of art and commerce, he implicates the commodification of aesthetics as symptomatic of relational shifts between self and other demanded by capitalism’s economic and ideological dominance.

2Francescato elaborates his premise via recognition of a paradigm of distance and desire present in James’s fiction that grapples with the existence of aesthetics as either reified in objects or sustained through subjective mental practice. He identifies two character types that vie for authority: collectors who force possession as the dominant means of interaction with art and artistic production; and appreciators who allow for art’s mutability to maintain critical aesthetic inquiry. The reoccurring confrontation between the two not only brings a sense of urgency to Francescato’s central argument regarding the ‘transformation of ideology and practice of art appreciating in the last decades of the nineteenth century’ but also develops through a series of astute close readings of James’s psychologically verdant texts how this shift in seeing art during this time of rampant industrialization and nascent corporatization mirrors crucial shifts in human relationships (1). Rather than critiquing James’s account of the fin de siècle art trade peopled by American collectors abroad, dilettantes with their bibelots, shrewd dealers, and shrewder copyists (though a little more historical context would have helped to round out the conditions that made art the prescient medium bisecting the economic, social, and psychological planes), Francescato employs theories of Patten, Veblen, and especially Simmel to develop a far more interesting investigation of the interior landscapes subjected to the threat of facile delimitation by a commodity culture. Figures such as Hyacinth Robinson from The Princess Casamassima and Fleda Vetch from The Spoils of Poynton become test cases to map what Francescato refers to as James’s ‘aesthetics of desire’, an organic pas-de-deux between the appreciator and the work of art, that he argues amplify the major conflicts delineating James’s plots (6). Ruskin’s belief that collecting ‘hindered the possibility of genuine appreciation’ of a work of art haunts James’s novels in which the appreciators who find true aesthetic communion must avail themselves to the toils and spoils of distance and desire’s continual the ebb and flow of frustration and gratification. In the works of Simmel, Francescato’s argument finds an antidote for James’s fear that consumption of art portends ‘a de-qualification and quantification of human relationships’ along monetary lines in the theorizing of a non-exhaustive aesthetic economics to ‘nourish a potentially infinite interpretational activity’ between the subjectivities of both object and appreciator (3, 17, 142). What becomes most apparent from this theorizing is that in James’s novels and short stories art is never made, bought, sold or even seen without some implication of the conflicts that emerge from understanding a self depicted against a background composed of social, economic, psychological, and sexual definitions and ideologies.

3Francescato underpins the mechanical imperative of his ‘aesthetics of desire’ into the very fibers of James’s composition producing incredibly convincing readings of his fictions that operate on both textual and symbolic levels. In The Spoils of Poynton, for example, his claim that James’s refusal to delve into ekphrastic giddiness over the titular collection maintains his desire not to make it ‘a virtual commodity’ in order to continually ‘reactivate its potential “aura” for readers’, forcing readers not to focus on Adela Gereth’s bounty but onto how ideas of ownership structure interpersonal relations (7). Much like Fleda, the reader must combat the thrall of consumption to grapple with a complexity of interpretations that not only gives life to art but also respects the subjectivity of others, neither of which could be discovered by accepting the static definitions Adela provides for both her collection of objects and family members. James not only creates vivid psychological tableaux in which to scrutinize the correspondences between human relationships and the economics of art collecting, but he actively critiques his own writerly practice as implicated within the same movement toward dehumanization and consumption. Francescato writes effectively on Aestheticism and Naturalism as kissing cousins complicit with commodity culture in his chapter on The Princess Casamassima, stating that in the novel ‘aesthetic appreciation and human understanding are substituted by an engagement of sensual stimulation and gratification, which allows both writers and readers, to merely rejoice at their arbitrary interpretation of reality’ (99). Implicating both producers and audience in accepting ‘arbitrary interpretations of reality’, James equates both the connoisseurship of aesthetics and the classification of naturalism as ‘both solv[ing] the contradictory experience of Otherness . . . by shifting it away from the experiential horizon . . . and inscribing it into the ideological order’ (56). Packaging humanity in both its most beautiful and commonplace forms, James identifies the impulse of these two seemingly conflicting literary styles as aping a congruency between the collector and social scientist in which ideological mystification produces the dehumanizing commodification necessary for its continued dominance.

4While Francescato forges with complete self-awareness a certain kind of approach that situates James as a sift between theoretical abstractions and literary inventiveness, his study seems to turn a blind eye to the gooey underbelly of sex and money, the primary motivations that James’s characters would be too polished to admit to fueling their drives. In eschewing Veblen in favor of an extended reading of Simmel, Francescato reveals a powerful reading about the intersection of self, subjectivity, and the need for aesthetic practice, though he does not recognize the more libidinal urges that seethe below Veblen’s social Darwinism. It is the sexual and scatological byproducts of consumption that push James’s characters along their charted trajectories (think of Kate Croy in The Wings of the Dove for example), that make them psychologically so human, and in the end keeps art a living subject worthy of Ruskin’s continual ‘mental conquering’ (3). Yet despite this oversight, Francescato maintains the use-value of his readings in both theoretical and formal terms allowing for a productive argument generative of discussion well beyond the confines of this volume. In fact while reading I was continually reminded of Isabel Archer’s marriage to the reptilian aesthete Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady, a novel Francescato hardly mentions in his study. His nuanced and efficacious readings, however, did not make this absence seem a glaring omission but rather another opportunity that vouchsafes the power of his argument as a productive methodology not just for thinking about James’s entire œuvre but also for a formidable chunk of trans-Atlantic fin de siècle literature.

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Miciah Hussey, « Simone Francescato, Collecting and Appreciating: Henry James and the Transformation of Aesthetics in the Age of Consumption », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 77 Printemps | 2013, mis en ligne le 03 décembre 2013, consulté le 19 janvier 2018. URL :

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Miciah Hussey

City University of New-York

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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