RA Magazine Spring 2009
Issue Number: 102
The way of the samurai
Harold Evans tells the intriguing tale of how the distinguished American lawyer Arthur R. Miller began buying Japanese prints and asks why he has given his collection to a British museum
What should you do if you get a misdirected email marked ‘private and confidential’ that implicated the sender in a scheme to enrich himself in a manner that looked unethical, possibly illegal? Respect the privacy, send it back, call a newspaper or the stock market cops, or simply delete it?
No need to answer that now, but you would have had no retreat if you’d found yourself facing Arthur R. Miller, the relentlessly inquisitive long-time Professor of Law at Harvard University (he is now a professor at NYU), in one of the many public seminars started in the US in the 1970s to explore how people make decisions.
Primarily focused on the relationships between media and authority, the seminars were initiated by the innovative Fred Friendly, who first made a name for himself as the CBS television producer responsible for the programme in which Edward R. Murrow exposed Senator Joe McCarthy: if you saw the 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck, you saw Friendly played by George Clooney.
Friendly left CBS in disgust when the network broke into coverage of the US Senate hearings on American involvement in Vietnam to feature a scheduled episode of The Lucy Show. He became the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Broadcast Journalism at Columbia University (where he played a large part in creating the US public television system). In 1974, concerned at the frequent collisions between journalists and authority, especially the courts, he conceived the idea of having the adversaries argue with each other in public to see if it was possible to reach mutual understanding. His organising framework for this ambitious effort was the Harvard Law School method of teaching through Socratic dialogue sparked by hypothetical cases, and to make it work he had to recruit moderators skilled in the techniques.
And that is how Professor Miller came to donate a precious collection of Japanese art to the American Friends of the British Museum. I’d better join the dots. As Editor of The Sunday Times, then wrestling with the courts over whether I could write about the thalidomide children, I was invited to the first Fred Friendly pilot seminar in Cape Cod. That rather rambunctious gathering, populated by 30 judges, officials and journalists, became the model for three decades of highly organised ‘law and the Press’ seminars in which I took part.
There were two keys to why they worked so well as both entertainment and education. One was that Friendly, possessed of a hoarsely stentorian voice and intellectual fervor, shamed, bullied and coaxed the very top judges, political leaders, public officials, editors and front-line reporters to take part, and the second was in the quality of the handful of brilliant academic moderators he engaged who could induce the participants to relive their most perplexing professional decisions. ‘Our job’, said Friendly, ‘is not to make up anyone’s mind, but to open minds - to make the agony of decision-making so intense that you can escape only by thinking.’
The moderators closed off avenues of escape by stimulating confrontation and argument right there and then between the principal actors in public life. Would you, Mr Editor of The Washington Post, report that the US Navy had found a lost Soviet submarine and was exploring its secrets if the man on your right, the head of the CIA, told you it would be against the national interest to reveal that? Mr CIA Director, make your argument now to the editor. Let’s all hear it and hear the editor respond.
The moderators had different styles. Arthur Miller ratcheted up the hypotheticals. Does your newspaper believe people have a right to privacy? It does? One of your photographers brings you a picture of a crowd of protesters gathering outside the clinic where a doctor carries out abortions. Would you print it? What if, in the background, you can see an identifiable young woman patient coming out of the clinic? Would you change your mind about using the picture out of respect for her privacy? Would you act any differently if her father, say, was a legislator standing for re-election on an anti-abortion platform? Would you ruin the life of an innocent young woman just for that story?
With Miller, what began as a gentle query would rapidly escalate into an all-out assault at the first hint. Now that I know him better I can see what the elegant, clean-shaven, red-tied moderator masked: a menacingly hirsute samurai warrior slashing at verbiage with a double-edged, long curved sword, Miller’s beautiful grey three-piece suit dissolving into breastplated armour of bronze and leather, a dagger thrust in his belt on top of a loose kimono, his hair, under a heavy helm, polled at the side and back into a topknot. Yes, Professor Miller, I will say anything you want.
But you could not appease Arthur Miller; personally he was mild, charming, witty, modest, amusing and beguiling but in the seminar dialogue in pursuit of defining principles he took no prisoners. Until I heard about his gift to the American Friends of the British Museum of 1,800 woodcut prints by the Japanese artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) I’d gone along with the legal community’s belief that Arthur Miller is best envisaged as the caustically ironic and intellectually demanding Professor Rudolph Perini in Scott Turow’s best-selling memoir of his first year at Harvard Law School, One L. ‘When I was in "1L",’ writes Turow, ‘the first person he called on was a national champion debater and Perini had him on his back in 40 seconds.’
I’ll bet that if Miller’s Harvard Law School contemporary, the competitively caustic right-wing ideologue Justice Antonin Scalia, had seen Miller in his true samurai robes he would not have engaged so readily in jousts in the Supreme Court. The orals count in the Supreme Court, and Miller is an Olympic-class oralist. When Scalia was giving him a hard time in one case, clearly siding with the companies who’d been sued for fraud by shareholders, Miller brought ‘oohs’ and laughter from a courtroom normally terrified to utter a sound by answering one pointed Scalia interruption with a slashing counter question of his own: ‘Is that because you never met a plaintiff you really liked?’
For years, Arthur Miller’s taste in art lay in the direction of Rembrandt, the Impressionists and Alexander Calder. His knowledge of Japanese culture was limited to the incidentals picked up as an American who lived through the Second World War, had doubts about Hiroshima, bought a Japanese camera and made one trip he calls ‘magical’ in the late 1960s to give public lectures on the right of privacy. He knew nothing at all about Japanese art until in the 1970s he happened to visit the home of Linda Silberman, a former student and research assistant and now an academic herself at New York University Law School. She happened to have several woodcuts by Yoshitoshi. He was stunned by the shock of the old, attracted and amazed by the colours and composition and that the skills of artist and woodblock printmaker in the early nineteenth century could produce such vivid work. Six months later, serendipity again, during a visit to London to moderate one of the Media and Society seminars, televised by Granada.
‘Had I not been in London recording a seminar, had I not been at Brown’s Hotel, had I not walked out of a certain door and seen Richard Kruml’s print gallery [which Silberman had told him about], I could be like any other dumb American collecting modern art and making much more money at it,’ says Miller.
The single print of a warrior was the first thing Kruml showed him. He asked to see more and Kruml invited him to look through some 150 prints and select what he really liked. ‘Almost all the ones you’ve pulled out,’ he was told, ‘are by a master of the Ukiyo-e School, Kuniyoshi.’ That was the moment he consummated the love affair that had begun on first sight of Silberman’s prints. He used his Granada fee to invest in one Kuniyoshi and then another, and invariably prints of great generals and battles. ‘Greatness lies in the warrior prints,’ Miller told me. ‘It was much later that I became an avaricious collector of anything of his that passed in front of my eyes when I started collecting some of the unbelievable triptychs he produced around animals, Kabuki theatre, landscapes and women.’
He was enchanted to see the influence of Japanese artists like Kuniyoshi on Claude Monet, the founder of Impressionism. On a visit to Monet’s house at Giverny, he took note of a landscape by Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858) - a contemporary of Kuniyoshi - that Monet had hung on the wall of his home. Miller began collecting Hiroshiges, too. Monet had settled in Giverny in 1883 and it was no chance that there was a Hiroshige on his wall. Alexander Liberman, the photographer, designer and sculptor, in his marvellous book The Artist in his Studio (1960), tells of visiting Giverny to find that, as well as the panoramic water lily canvases leaning against the walls, on the wall of the narrow stairwell leading to his room, Monet had hung ‘hundreds of Japanese woodcuts’.
The mention of the woodcuts of beautiful women prompted me to ask Miller if he had ever been tempted to acquire Japanese erotica. ‘I’m putting my hand on the Bible,’ he responded. ‘In 30 years I never acquired a single erotic print. I just never found them attractive. If I wanted erotica I’d get Penthouse.’ I believe him.
Miller is retaining some ‘very nice woodcuts’ by Hiroshige, but he says he felt ‘duty bound’ to keep together the bulk of his Kuniyoshi collection now being deposited in London. But why the British Museum? He might easily have given them to the Metropolitan Museum in New York; any one of a number of institutions would have been grateful to receive such a gift. ‘I did it’, he told me, ‘because the curator at the British Museum is a man whose devotion to the subject knows no bounds, and I was delighted that now they will be shown at the Royal Academy.’ He made the point, too, that the preservation of great art owed much to the predominance of the British maritime fleet in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
'Great Ukiyo-e works were shipped to Britain where they were looked after very well in places like the V&A. If Britannia had not ruled the waves, these woodcuts of Kuniyoshi would probably have been engulfed in flames in Tokyo.’
I had recently come across a fine essay headed On Politics and the Art of Acting by Arthur Miller, being the 30th Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. I complimented Miller on the passage celebrating the great artists who, in their time, had been somehow suspect, a nuisance, a threat to morality or a fraud. ‘Art’, he wrote, ‘has always been the revenge of the human spirit upon the short-sighted: consider the sublime achievements of Greece and her military victories and defeats, the necrophilic grandeur of the Egyptians, the Roman glory, the awesome Assyrian power, the rise and fall of the Jews and their incomprehensible survival - and what are you left with of it all but a handful of plays, essays, carved stones and strokes of paint on paper or the rock wall - in a word, art?’
I had made a mistake. The essay was by Arthur Miller, the playwright, not Arthur R. Miller the professor, but the professor and philanthropist has made his own immense contribution to validating the truth of the insight.
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