A couple of weeks ago I went up to Cambridge for a symposium on Rubens, hoping to catch up on the latest scholarship and check in with friends in the art history game. I wasn't expecting to have my core beliefs about the painter challenged, but that's what happened, though not until the cocktail hour at the event's conclusion. It was then that I got to speaking with Jeffrey Muller, the eminent Rubens specialist from Brown, who told me that after years of studying the painter, he had recently reversed his thinking about him, concluding that Rubens was wrong in his political choices, that in aligning himself with Hapsburg Spain rather than the (theoretically) more enlightened Dutch republic, he'd picked the wrong side in the great political schism of his day. No one has written more eloquently than Muller about Rubens's humanism, but now here he was, suggesting that this was just Rubens's way of intellectually insulating himself from the ramifications of his actions as a propagandist for rightist power. I walked out in an unsettled state. It's nice to have one's beliefs challenged, once in a while. That's why events like this are worthwhile. That said, I don't find myself swayed by Muller's arguments. It seems to me Muller has created a false opposition between good and bad, when really the two sides were fighting over shades of gray and those shades were especially muddled if you happened to be from Flanders, which was caught between them.
How "liberal," I'd ask, would Rubens have considered the Dutch in 1619, when Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, the deposed secularist leader of Holland, was executed by a right-wing coalition? Not very. We've come to think of this great battle between Spain and Holland as an ideological/religious fight of world systems, but it was driven equally — probably more — by competing economic and colonial interests. Which is to say, it was rather amoral. Rubens's diplomatic activities, judged contextually, were generally progressive and almost always pragmatic; if he was conservative, it was in his advocacy for change from within a system rather than revolution from without. This debate raises one of the central problems with Rubens; he has always been a figure onto whom ideas can be projected. In part this was intentional; some of his commissions (famously, the Medici series) were so politically delicate that he left their meanings opaque, so as not to offend any party. But this has left him subject to the vagaries of history. The Nazis loved him, nevermind that his entire diplomatic agenda was driven by a desire to cease wars of aggression. I took up Rubens with my own agenda. I began writing with the Iraq War at its nadir, when that nation was a land divided by sectarian violence and occupied by a negligent foreign power. This seemed eerily resonant to Flanders in Rubens's day, also a land of sectarian violence and one with its own negligent occupant. Indeed, Antwerp had a Green Zone — a fortified area built by the Spanish to protect themselves from the locals.
I tried to keep my political views out of the book, leaving them implicit. But given its genesis story, it's interesting that some of the most positive notices have come from conservative publications. There's a lengthy review, for instance, in the latest issue of the Weekly Standard. (More of a book report than a review, actually, but well considered.) Its appearance there, in any event, is a reminder that we all have a tendency to see what we want in art, and in Rubens in particular. I wonder what the Standard's editors think about such a postmodern notion? Perhaps we can all agree on this: good art demands some tough thinking.