Object Lessons

One afternoon in Brighton, England, wealthy art collector Adam Verver spends a small fortune on a set of precious Damascene tiles. Then, for what turns out to be a somewhat steeper price, he procures a precious wife. Charlotte Stant, soon to be Charlotte Verver, is an American expatriate of extraordinary taste and talent: her only failing is her limited means, which force her to shuttle back and forth between her rich friends’ country estates. At the beginning of The Golden Bowl (1904), Henry James’s last great novel, Charlotte is left to compensate for her material penury with her social graces. But when we encounter her after her propitious union with Adam, she is at last polished and perfected: she descends a “monumental” staircase decked out in “unsurpassed diamonds,” “with a consciousness materially, with a confidence quite splendidly, enriched.” With the benefit of Adam’s backing, Charlotte can finally gleam as brightly as a diamond or a Damascene tile, for she, too, is a “rare and special product.”

Throughout The Golden Bowl, Adam thinks of his family and his other collectibles in strikingly similar terms. His grandson is the most valuable of his “precious small pieces”; his son-in-law, the Italian prince Amerigo, is “a pure and perfect crystal”; and his beloved daughter, Maggie, is as “impersonal” as “a creature lost in an alien age and passing as an image in a worn relief round and round a precious vase.” For her part, Maggie only half-jokingly likens her husband to an “old embossed coin” and a “morceau de musée” (a museum piece). “Nothing, perhaps, might affect us as queerer,” the novel reminds us in an oft-quoted passage, “than this application of the same measure of value to such different pieces of property as old Persian carpets, say, and new human acquisitions.” 

Queer as their abuses may be, the Ververs are far from unique among James’s characters, many of whom are conniving collectors. In Portrait of a Lady (1881), the aesthete Gilbert Osmond weds the young heiress Isabel Archer in hopes of incorporating her into his trove of treasures. To Osmond, for whom “life [is] a matter of connoisseurship,” people are all reducible precisely to their portraits. He thinks Isabel’s aunt has a face “very much like some faces in the early pictures,” and compares Isabel’s intelligence to “a silver plate.” Tellingly, he sees his wife’s brilliance as a reflective object, appealing largely because it can glint confirmation of his own prowess back at him. Osmond ultimately proves a possessive husband, and his insistence on Isabel’s obedience is part and parcel of his more general efforts to flatten her into a pliant thing, albeit a thing as exquisite as his antique crucifixes and his froths of ornate lace.

On the face of it, the collectors in Portrait of a Lady and The Golden Bowl err in mistaking things for non-things—that is, in mistaking persons for works of art. But in fact the problem is not that Osmond and the Ververs aestheticize their partners: the problem is that they do so poorly. In his many stories and novels about artists and authors, James suggests that we sin as moral agents precisely when we sin as appreciators. To a true aesthete, there is no better way to respect people than to treat them as works of art.

Robert Huskisson, Lord Northwick’s Picture Gallery at Thirlestaine House, 1846–47, oil on canvas, 32 by 42 ¾ inches.

Here we may be tempted to ask just what is so bad about being an object, anyway. One central set of answers comes from feminist philosophers like Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, who were among the first to suggest that the phenomenon of objectification is pernicious. Dworkin and MacKinnon worried about sexual objectification in particular, and they appealed to a Kantian framework to argue that women objectified in the sexual domain are treated by their partners and abusers as the means to an end, rather than ends in their own right. It was in response to their thinking that philosopher Martha Nussbaum developed one of the most influential accounts of objectification and its harms.

In her famous 1995 paper, aptly titled “Objectification,” Nussbaum proposes that to objectify people is to treat them as one treats objects. This proposal raises the question of how, exactly, we treat objects, so Nussbaum begins by identifying seven hallmarks of our engagement with things. We treat them as “tools of [our] purposes,” as “lacking in autonomy and self-determination,” and as passive, even inactive. Often, we don’t hesitate to break or dismantle them, and we almost always see them as “interchangeable” with other objects, as well as ownable (and therefore buyable and sellable). Finally, we treat them as if they had no feelings or experiences, or as if their feelings or experiences “need not be taken into account.” Nussbaum concludes that different items on her list seem morally objectionable to different degrees in different contexts. While it is clearly impermissible to smash your toddler or your drunk friend, it seems reasonable enough to regard both as lacking in autonomy and self-determination. Sometimes, it is even innocuous to use someone as a tool, provided one does not regard her as a mere tool: I could use my lover’s stomach as a pillow without wronging her, given that I do not treat her as if she were only a pillow all the time.

Though Nussbaum thinks objectification is often benign, she points to the Ververs as an example of wrongful objectifiers, writing that Maggie and Adam deny their spouses “human status” by relating to them as if they were “fine antique furniture.” In other words, Maggie and Adam mistreat Amerigo and Charlotte both by denying the pair’s autonomy and by implicitly taking them as buyable and interchangeable. “You’re a rarity, an object of beauty, an object of price,” Maggie tells the Prince. Elsewhere, she remarks that her husband, like a wardrobe from a certain period or a chair with a special kind of upholstery, is not “absolutely unique.”

Curiously, however, Nussbaum gives a different (although not exactly conflicting) explanation of the Ververs’ moral failings in an earlier essay about The Golden Bowl, “Flawed Crystals” (1983). Here, she argues that the father and daughter transgress in treating others not as if they were just any kind of object but as if they were objets d’art in particular. Nussbaum acknowledges that artworks are “precious objects”—yet they are objects, she thinks, toward which we have no stringent duties of loyalty:

I can, visiting a museum, survey many fine objects with appropriate awe and tenderness. I can devote myself now to one, now to another, without the sense that objects make conflicting claims against my love and care. If one day I spend my entire museum visit gazing at Turners, I have not incurred a guilt against the Blakes in the next room.

Because all artworks have an equal claim to our attention—namely, no particular claim to our attention—they occasion no conflicting commitments. In viewing persons as they view artworks, the Ververs wash their sleek hands of the demands that make moral life so difficult and, ultimately, so tragic. Yet it is a key aspect of the human predicament that we cannot fully satisfy all the competing claims exerted on us by other people. To befriend one person is often to edge out another; to marry is often to leave one’s parents behind. Maggie naively believes she can wed Amerigo without compromising her absolute devotion to her father, a view buttressed by her assumption that her associates are so many fine antiques. But as soon as she has graduated to moral maturity and thereby fuller humanity, she realizes that she cannot have a real romance with her husband without loosening her ties to Adam. In the end, she relegates her father to a secondary position. According to Nussbaum, to objectify persons as the Ververs and Gilbert Osmond do is not only to wrong them: it is also to stunt oneself by simplifying one’s moral landscape. If Maggie’s initial acts of objectification were unethical, it was because she treated people not like anything but like art, which does not oblige us to make any sacrifices.

Yet Blakes and Turners are more like people than Nussbaum supposes. Though we have obligations of some kind to everyone, we assume duties of loyalty only to particular people, once we start courting or befriending or marrying or mentoring them. When I arrive at a party at which I know no one, or at which I bear the same relation of casual acquaintance to everyone, I have an obligation to refrain from killing everyone I meet to but no obligation to talk to anyone in particular. It is only after I become friends with someone, or after I fall in love with her, that I take on anything like a duty to attend to her rather than someone else. Similarly, when I arrive at a museum without any special agenda, I have an obligation to refrain from destroying both the Blakes and the Turners but no obligation to linger over one or the other. It is only once I become a real Blake aficionado that I cease to be on a pleasant stroll through a gallery of works in all of which I am equally uninvested. Under these circumstances, there is indeed something as rank as betrayal involved if I do not pause before the Blakes.

Compare Nussbaum’s description of a walk through the museum to the philosopher Alexander Nehamas’s account of his fixation on Manet’s Olympia (1865) in Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art (2007):

When I say . . . that I find the beauty of Manet’s Olympia overwhelming I am not just reporting how the painting makes me feel while I am looking at it. I am saying that I literally want to devote part of my life to it—not just to look at it (although that will certainly be part of it) but also to come to know it better, to understand it and see what it accomplishes. . . . For over three years, I have been looking long and hard at this picture. I have discussed it with friends and colleagues, eager to find people who share my feelings (and others who dispute them), and I have spent much of my time learning about it. I have rushed to converse with the Olympia and about it. It has been a complex affair.

Nehamas goes on to recount the many ways in which his love for Olympia changed his life, driving him to learn about nineteenth-century Paris, to track down other celebrated nudes, and to delve deeply into the work of various art historians. After all this, Nehamas would incur guilt if he visited a museum and walked straight past the Manets—not only because of what he now owes the painting and, perhaps, its creator, but because of what he owes himself, given the Olympia-disciple he has so wholly become.

Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, oil on canvas, 51 by 78¾ inches.

To be as committed as Nehamas is to Olympia is also, invariably, to become conflicted. The artworks we love compete not only with other artworks but also with other pursuits altogether. Artworks may even, in the end, compete with persons, which James understood very well: many of his aesthetes face just the sort of dilemmas that Nussbaum thinks Maggie evades precisely because they must choose between art and their intimates. In The Spoils of Poynton (1897), Mrs. Gereth, the inhabitant of the beautifully decorated manor of the book’s title, endangers her relationship with her son when she tries to prevent him from disarranging the great house’s contents, while Mark Ambient, the protagonist of the short story “The Author of Beltraffio” (1884), estranges his prim wife when he opts to write decadent fiction she disdains as immoral. In The Lesson of the Master (1888), an aspiring writer abandons a woman he loves in order to focus on his work, all at the urging of a novelist he idolizes. The novelist in question goes so far as to tell his acolyte, “you can’t do [good work] without sacrifices; don’t believe that for a moment.”

Insofar as one of Maggie Verver’s biggest failings is her desire for “a happiness without a hole in it”—a desire that Nussbaum sees as bound up with her sense that people are akin to Turners and Blakes—the problem is not that she sees people as artworks but that she does not see artworks as she ought to. Instead of loving them, she merely owns and ignores them. Osmond, too, in Portrait of a Lady, has an anemic orientation towards the bibelots he so dispassionately accumulates. Isabel’s cousin, perhaps the clearest-eyed character in Portrait of a Lady, denounces Osmond as a “sterile dilettante,” and what is a dilettante but someone who loves everything equally and therefore loves nothing at all?

In “Objectification,” Nussbaum pauses briefly to observe that artworks are strange and special objects. She writes that a painting is

certainly non-autonomous, owned, inert (though not passive), and lacking in subjectivity; it is definitely not fungible, either with other paintings, or, except in the limited sense of being bought and sold, which doesn’t imply thoroughgoing fungibility, with anything else either; its boundaries are precious, and there is a real question whether it is simply a tool for the purposes of those who use and enjoy it.

Though artworks are not persons, they are not quite normal things, either, at least if Nussbaum’s list is any guide. Thinkers as diverse as Kant and Heidegger agree that objects of aesthetic appraisal are not tools but rather ends to be appreciated for their own sake. They are not autonomous in the same way persons are, but they nonetheless establish their own standards of evaluation: as Wordsworth maintained, the author has “the task of creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed.” Art does not act the way we act, but we still talk as if it can express things or mean things, or even say and desire things, as evidenced by books with titles like What Do Pictures Want? and Things That Talk. As Nussbaum notes, we certainly do not treat sculptures as interchangeable, nor do we think it is acceptable to break them. Though we can own some art objects in some sense, there are some we cannot exactly own: who “owns” a work of fiction or a song or a poem? Owning a song or poem itself seems different from owning the rights to one. It is true that we need not take an artwork’s feelings into account, exactly, but we sometimes speak as if it had feelings—as if it were happy or angry, as if there were sad songs or nostalgic memoirs.

It would be terrible to be treated like a paper towel, which is shreddable as well as interchangeable with all the other towels in the roll. But it would not be so bad to be treated like an artwork, at least if you were treated like an artwork by someone who knows how to treat artworks properly. James himself senses that there is a close connection between our ability to treasure art and our ability to act well toward people. For him, “vulgar” is the greatest insult, and “beautiful” is the highest praise: kind characters treat each other not just ethically but “beautifully.” A James protagonist who is morally good but aesthetically bad is almost unthinkable: in all his novels and stories, tastelessness presents itself as a kind of moral impoverishment.

This is borne out by the ethical successes and failures of his varied characters. In “The Author of Beltraffio,” the beauty-obsessed Mark Ambient urges his art-hating wife to summon the doctor to tend to their ill son—and it is Mrs. Ambient who ultimately kills the boy by refusing to seek treatment. In The Spoils of Poynton, a family living in a house stuffed with “imbecilities of decoration” is as showy and superficial as their residence. Their daughter is a sort of athletic clod, almost without an inner life: she stands, a picture of animal health, “without a look in her eye or any perceptible intention of any sort in any other feature.” Meanwhile, Mrs. Gereth’s philistine son is as blunderingly incapable of appreciating the treasures of Poynton as he is of treating the women who love him with any sensitivity. He is “pointlessly active and pleasantly dull.”

It is no accident that James’s least aesthetically inclined characters are almost always his most viciously materialistic, as in The Aspern Papers, an 1888 novella about a critic obsessed with the dead poet of the title. An inveterate snoop, the narrator of the book is renting a room in the house of Aspern’s erstwhile lover. He is shocked “by something in her cupidity” when she attempts to raise his rent, and he is more offended still when she tells him that she hopes to sell a small portrait of Aspern. Though the narrator regards the portrait as priceless—he desperately offers to “give anything to possess it”—the old woman does not hesitate to price it at a thousand pounds. And as she treats it, so she treats those around her, namely, as potential means to the end of material gain: though we never learn whether she was faithful to Aspern himself, we watch her torment her young niece and exploit her new boarder. In contrast, Mrs. Gereth in The Spoils of Poynton is often harsh but never avaricious, for Poynton’s worth has nothing to do with its market value: “there [are] places much grander and richer, but there [is] no such complete work of art.”

Part of why James’s characters seem justified in valuing each other as they value artworks is that they are artworks, and not just because they are the inhabitants of novels. They are also gorgeous creations, elegantly curated and deliciously constructed. Charlotte Verver and Isabel Archer fashion everything about themselves with the care of artists, for which reason they deserve to be adored as the best paintings are. 

Perhaps James learned how to love from his own difficult art. As the novelist William Gass wrote, “If all of us were as well taken care of as the sentences of Henry James, we’d never long for each other, never wander away: where else would we receive such constant attention, our thoughts anticipated, our feelings understood?” I would rather be a golden bowl or a Jamesian sentence than anything as underwhelming as a self. But since I have the misfortune of being a person and not a novel, I will take my lesson from the Master: I will do my best to treat other people even half as well as James treats his prose.

Is it wrong to treat a person like an artwork? Henry James’s novels have inspired a long-running philosophical debate.Read MoreArt in America, Features, Henry JamesARTnews.comRead More

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