Being Blunt about Blunt

By Schwartz, Stephen | New Criterion, November 2005 | Go to article overview
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Being Blunt about Blunt

Schwartz, Stephen, New Criterion

The Burlington Magazine, published in London, once bore a full title labeling it "for Connoisseurs." It advertises itself as "the world's leading monthly publication devoted to the fine and decorative arts." In January zoos it printed an article that, to put it as mildly as possible, was shocking in its moral opacity and obfuscation, by Professor Christopher Green of the Courtauld Institute of Art.

The subject was the British art historian and Soviet spy Anthony Blunt (1907-1983), one of the infamous "Cambridge Five," the quintet of intellectual traitors responsible for numerous crimes in the interest of Communism. The text was taken from the last in a program of five lectures held at the Courtauld in February 2004, under the rubric "Being Blunt: Exploring Anthony Blunt's Legacy as a Scholar and Director of the Courtauld Institute."

So far, bad enough: one may easily anticipate a fresh appearance in British academic life of the apologetics for the Stalinist intellectuals and their wickedness that have become dominant on American campuses over the last quarter century. But Professor Green's commentary dealt with an especially provocative issue: "Blunts Picasso," meaning the art historian's Stalinist denunciation of a painter who himself became a prominent Communist, and even of Picasso's monumental Guernica, considered by leftists today an unchallengeable exemplar of art in the service of politics.

The worst was apparently saved for last in the Courtauld series commemorating its former director. The first two events dealt with Blunt's biography, and with memories of his "legacy as a teacher and director of the Courtauld." Meanwhile, an exhibition in the Courtauld's Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre displayed "a selection of works from Blunt's library" intended to "provide an opportunity to reflect upon Blunt's role as a courtier-scholar in his capacity as Surveyor of the Royal Collection." Presentations on Blunt as an architectural historian, and a general overview of his efforts as an art historian, preceded the Green disquisition on Picasso.

The deceits embodied in Green's article are multiple. It is taken for granted throughout that it is unnecessary to mention Blunts career as a spy or his eventual disgrace, including the annulment of his knighthood. That is perhaps excusable, in that these items would probably have been covered earlier in the series. The printed text of Green's presentation includes a photograph of Blunt, in 1979, reading his press statement admitting espionage. So it cannot be argued that the topic is completely avoided. But while he admits that Blunt's denunciations of surrealism and Picasso, mainly in The Spectator of London and the Communist-controlled British Left Review in 1937-1938, reflected the critic's involvement with the Muscovite left, Green offers an adulterated, even sympathetic, account of it.

According to The Sword and the Shield, the authoritative 1999 account by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, Anthony Blunt was recruited into the Soviet secret police, i.e., the dread KGB, in the early 1930s, as a consequence of the enlistment of Kim Philby, the most famous of the "Cambridge Five"--the remaining three were Guy Burgess, Donald Madean, and John Caimcross. Blunt and Burgess were members of the Cambridge "conversational club" known as The Apostles.

Green, in treating Blunts Communization, employs standard cliches about "the Britain of the depression" and "the disaster of the Spanish civil war," by which Blunt is said to have been "moved from an immediate emotional response of horror and outrage" to "the reassuring clarity of rational analysis. But reason, by then equipped with the readymade rigor of Marxist dialectics, allowed Blunt to make ... a decisive shift from individual experience to a collective vision of history."

Green's discourse is replete with stale sloganizing of this kind, revived after some sixty years of deserved oblivion.

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