Arts: Overview

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Arts: Overview

While people have always made objects that are rightly considered works of art, the idea of the arts is a separate category of human endeavordistinct, that is, from other kinds of human activity such as hunting or food gathering or making in generalis a relatively modern construction.

The "Era of Art"

In the forward to his monumental study of the medieval icon, Bild und Kult, translated Likeness and Presence in the American edition, Hans Belting explains the book's rather curious subtitleA History of the Image before the Era of Art in terms that immediately focus on the issues surrounding the idea of the visual arts, especially just what they are and how they function in culture as a whole:

Art, as it is studied by the discipline of Art History today, existed in the Middle Ages no less than it did afterwards. After the Middle Ages, however, art took on a different meaning and became acknowledged for its own sakeart as invented by a famous artist and defined by a proper theory. While the images from olden times were destroyed by iconoclasts in the Reformation period, images of a new kind began to fill the art collections which were just then being formed. The era of art, which is rooted in these events, lasts until this present day. From the very beginning, it has been characterized by a particular kind of historiography which, although called the history of art, in fact deals with the history of artists. (p. xxi)

The historiography to which Belting refers is exemplified by the work of Giorgio Vasari (15111574). A painter in his own right, he was by all accounts the first serious collector of drawingshe believed that they revealed the very moment of artistic inspiration. His passion for drawing also led him to found the Accademia del Disegno (Academy of Design) in Florence in 1562. He theorized that disegno (meaning both "drawing" and "design") was superior to colorito ("painting in color") because the former was an exercise of the intellect, while the latter appealed only to the sensual appetites. At the Accademia he encouraged artists to develop their talents unfettered by the constraints of tradition and convention, arguing that genius was most readily realized in invention.

All of Vasari's preoccupations are reflected in his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, first published in 1550 and then greatly revised and expanded in 1568. Vasari's book marks the historical moment when what people today so readily think of as the visual arts were transformed from objects reflecting the manual skills of the individual craftsman to reflections of the intellectual and creative powers of the artist. Before the "era of art," the image, however artistically made, served specific cultural, religious, or political functions. It was required, quite literally, to perform. As Belting puts it, "Authentic images seemed capable of action, seemed to possess dynamis, or supernatural power" (p. 6). They performed miracles, warded off danger, and healed the sick. If in the "era of art" images lost this power, they gained a considerable expressive dimension. They became the medium through which artistsin the era of art, they are called "artists"express their own ideas and feelings and make manifest their own individual talent or genius.

The difference between the image before the era of art and the image after is readily apparent if we compare the reliquary effigy of St. Foy at Conques in France and Leonardo da Vinci's (14521519) famous Mona Lisa. St. Foy was a pilgrimage church built in 10501120 to accommodate pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Campostela, in the northwest corner of present-day Spain, a favorite pilgrimage destination because the body of the apostle St. James the Greater, which lay at rest there, had a reputation for repeated miracles. St. Foy housed the relics of St. Foy ("Saint Faith" in English), a child who was martyred when she was burned to death in 303 for refusing to worship pagan gods. Her skull was contained in this elaborate jeweled reliquary, which stood in the choir of the church where pilgrims could view it from the ambulatory that circles the space. The head of the reliquary was salvaged from a late Roman face guard and parade helmet and reused here. Many of the precious stones that decorate the reliquary were the gifts of pilgrims themselves. The saint's actual skull was housed in a recess carved into the back of the reliquary, and below it, on the back of her throne, was an engraving of the Crucifixion, indicating the connection between St. Foy's martyrdom and Christ's own.

Now, the St. Foy effigy, fashioned out of the antique Roman mask, bears no real resemblance to the saint herself. Its value resides not in any likeness, but in its contiguity with the skull housed within. It literally "touches" the physical remains of a child burned to death, at least symbolically, by the soldier whose face this mask once guarded. The Roman artifact has thus been completely transformedfrom the pagan to the Christian, from male ornament symbolic of war to a female form symbolic of faith. And it symbolizes, further, the transformation that awaits the faithful, from the physical confines of the body to the spiritual realm of the soul. Pilgrims decorated the reliquary not merely in penitence for their sins but because they felt, in its presence, the need to sacrifice their material wealth in symbolic repetition of the saint's sacrifice of her person. In one of the most important first-hand accounts of the relationship between the cult statue and the pilgrims who came to venerate it, Bernard of Angers, who made three trips to Conques beginning in 1013, describes how he was at first skeptical of the reliquary's power: "I looked with a mocking smile at [his companion] Bernier, since so many people were thoughtlessly directing their prayers at an object without language or soul, and their senseless talk did not come from an enlightened mind." But he soon changed his mind:

Today I regret my foolishness toward this friend of God. Her image is not an impure idol but a holy momento that invites pious devotion. To be more precise, it is nothing but a casket that holds the venerable relics of the virgin. The goldsmith has given it a human form in his own way. The statue is as famous as once was the ark of the covenant but has a still more precious content in the form of the complete skull of the martyr. This is one of the finest pearls in the heavenly Jerusalem, and like no other person in our century it brings about the most astonishing miracles through its intercession with God.

It is as if, he says, "the people could read from the luster of these eyes whether their pleas had been heard" (pp. 536537). It is the efficacy of the relics within that the people read into the statue's outward gaze.

The relationship between the image and its beholder is entirely different in Leonardo's Mona Lisa (15031506). In the first place, the image is, above all, a likeness. Vasari was the first to use the name by which the painting is now known, leading to speculation that the sitter is Lisa Gherardini, who married the Florentine merchant Francesco Bartolomeo del Giocondo in 1495, but other testimony contradicts this thesis, and her identity remains a mystery. This mystery, of course, lends the painting much of its fame, for without any relevant biographical knowledge, any clues as to what she might be thinking are pure speculation. As David Summers put it in his important contribution to global and intercultural art history, Real Spaces (2003), "She is the individual mask of her own inwardness, of the mind and heart suggested to us by her famous smile." Leonardo's purpose, Summers reminds us, was to make "the invisible (the movements of the soul) visible in the movements of the body," even in such a small movement as the upward turn of the sitter's lips. But Leonardo himself recognized

that artists run the risk of making images look like themselves because the same individual soul that shaped the artist's physical appearance also judges the beauty and rightness of the figures the artist makes. Leonardo recommended that artists study proportion, which will give them the means to counteract this distorting narcissistic tendency. His argument assumes coincidence between individual appearance and individual soul, outwardness and inwardness. It also suggests the difficulty of distinguishing the perception of another from oneself. (p. 331)

Thus the enduring myth that Mona Lisa is in fact a self-portrait, Leonardo's revelation of his "feminine side." But more important, Summers makes clear here the way in which the visual arts, in the era of art, are removed from the cultural dynamic that informs the medieval icon. Just as surely as the meaning of the reliquary statue at St. Foy resides "inside" its mask, so the meaning of the Mona Lisa resides beneath her superficial appearance. But her meaning is private, personal, immaterial. She is forever meditative, forever a mystery, a self-reflective soul. People visit the Louvre in the early twenty-first century, in a procession not so unlike that of the medieval pilgrims, because, in the space between image and beholder, the self-reflection that the image portrays is recreated in one's reflections upon it. As Denis Donoghue has put it, "The mysteriousness of art is in all art; it suffuses the space between the image and its reference" (p. 32).

From Ars to Arte to Beaux-Arts

The transformation of the image from an efficacious to a reflective space is coincident with the rise of the very idea of the "arts." Before the era of art, the word art had much broader meaning than it does today. The Latin ars (and the Greek technē ) referred to almost any branch of human endeavorthe work of the farmer, the shipwright, the military commander, the magician, the cobbler, the poet, the flute player, the vase painter, all were included in the general category of the "arts" so long as their endeavors were executed with a certain degree of skill. In the Ethics (book 6), Aristotle distinguished between two spheres of actionpraxis, doing, or moral or political conduct, and poiesis, making, producing, or performing. The intellectual virtue attendant to poiesis is techne art, technique, skill, and know-how"the trained ability of making something under the guidance of rational thought" (1140.910). Aristotle further distinguishes between the liberal and servile arts. The liberal arts are those that work with the intellect, including the verbal arts of grammar and rhetoric and the mathematical arts of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The servile arts are those associated with physical labor and, generally, work for pay. Thus the work of the farmer and the cook were more or less equivalent to that of the architect, the sculptor, and the painter. As John Boardman puts it in his Greek Art, "'Art for Art's sake' was virtually an unknown concept; there was neither a real Art Market nor Collectors; all art had a function and artists were suppliers of a commodity on a par with shoemakers" (p. 16).

Even by Vasari's time, things had hardly changed. He does not use the Italian artista to refer to "the artist," but rather artifice, "artificer." "What a happy age we live in!" he wrote, reacting to the sight of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes. "And how fortunate are our artists [ artifice ] who have been given light and vision by Michelangelo and whose difficulties have been smoothed away by this marvelous and incomparable artist [ artifice ]." Indeed, the word artista was more generally used to refer to those who studied the more intellectual liberal arts, particularly rhetoricians. Furthermore, the Italian word arte, which in modern usage means simply "art," was in medieval times and throughout the Renaissance, the word for "guild," including, in Florence, the Arte della Lana, the wool guild; the Arte di Seta, the silk guild; and the Arte di Calimala, the cloth merchants' guild. Thus art remained simply making, skill, and know-how. The bankers had their arte, and so did the lawyersperhaps because of their rhetorical skill the lawyers' was the most prestigious of all.

Not until the middle of the eighteenth century did the arts separate themselves off from other fields of endeavor into their own exclusive area of expertise. In what is one of the best surveys of the history of the arts as an idea, Larry Shiner points to two crucial textsCharles Batteux's Les beaux arts réduit à un même principe (The fine arts reduced to a single principle), published in 1746 in France and translated into English three years later as The Polite Arts; or, A Dissertation on Poetry, Painting, Musick, Architecture, and Eloquence, and the 1751 edition of Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert's Encylopédie.

Batteux claimed there are actually three classes of arts: those that simply minister to our needs (the mechanical arts); those whose aim is pleasure (the beaux-arts par excellence); and those that combine utility and pleasure (eloquence and architecture). Batteux also used two other criteria for separating the beaux-arts from the rest: genius, which he calls "the father of the arts," because it imitates beautiful nature, and taste, which judges how well beautiful nature has been imitated. The Encyclopédie now grouped all five fine arts (poetry, painting, sculpture, engraving, and music) under the faculty of imagination as one of three main divisions of knowledge, splendidly isolated from all other arts, disciplines, and sciences. (pp. 8384)

Nevertheless, as Shiner points out, Diderot's article "Art" in the Encyclopédie ignores the new category of "beaux-arts" altogether and concentrates exclusively on the mechanical arts, representations of which constitute almost the entirety of the Encyclopédie 's illustrations. It would be another twenty-five years before an article on the "beaux-arts" would finally find its way into a supplement to the Encyclopédie. According to d'Alembert, the category of the beaux-arts the term that the English world would translate first as the "polite arts" and then as the "fine arts"consisted of any works that have pleasure for their aim and that rely on the imagination (inventive genius) as opposed to memory (history) or reason (philosophy). The cult of originality and imagination inaugurated by Vasari in his Lives reached its ultimate conclusion here.

The "Arts" and Other Cultures

Shiner makes a convincing case that the arts are a modern invention, "not an essence or a fate but something we have made [an] invention barely two hundred years old" (p. 3). One of the first to convincingly argue the point was Paul Oskar Kristeller in his 1950 essay "The Modern System of the Arts," but Shiner's argument is distinguished by its awareness that the category of the "arts" is a markedly European construct, one that in recent years has come under increasing scrutiny as the (Western) art world has "opened" itself to works made in other cultures. In the process, the very idea of the "arts" has begun to change once again.

One of the key moments in this process happened in the summer of 1989, with the opening of an exhibition in Paris that announced itself as "the first world-wide exhibition of contemporary art." Called Magiciens de la terre, or Magicians of the Earth, the show consisted of works by one hundred artists, fifty from the traditional "centers" of Western culture (Europe and America) and fifty from the so-called Third World, from Asia, South America, Australia, Africa, and, incidentally, Native American art from North America. The show's curator, Jean-Hubert Martin, conceived of the exhibition as a way to show the real differences between and specificity of different cultures. But the exhibition raised many questions of the kind articulated by Eleanor Heartney in her extended review of the show in Art in America :

Can there really, one wonders, be any continuum between a Kiefer painting and a Benin ceremonial mask? How does one make judgments of "quality" about objects completely foreign to our culture and experience? Is there any "politically correct" way to present artifacts from another culture, or does the museological enterprise inevitably smack of cultural exploitation? Wary of the tendency to romanticize the lost purity of vanished worlds, the organizers have emphasized societies in transition, in many cases choosing Western and non-Western artists who represent an exchange of influences between their respective cultures. Still, one wonders if such exchanges are really equivalent. Is the same thing going on when an artisan from Madagascar incorporates airplanes and buses within the traditional tomb decorations of Madagascar and Mario Merz appropriates the igloo or hut form into his sculptures? (pp. 9192)

In order to treat all the show's exhibitors on equal terms, the curators included only the names of each work's creator and its geographical origin in identifying the pieces. As a result, the average Western viewer was encouraged, as Heartley says, "to apply preexisting Western esthetic standards to objects where such standards are irrelevant" (p. 92).

Nevertheless, in its recognition of the growing impact of Western culture and modern technology on "evolving" cultures, and its refusal to romanticize the originary purity of the artifacts on display, the show marked a distinct advance over the Museum of Modern Art's 1984 exhibition 'Primitivism' in 20th-century Art : Affinity of the Tribal and Modern. Curator William S. Rubin tried to show that abstraction was a universal language by comparing, for instance, Pablo Picasso's Girl before a Mirror to a Kwakiutl mask from British Columbia the likes of which Picasso had almost certainly never seen and arguing that what "led artists to be receptive to tribal art" in the twentieth century had "to do with a fundamental shift in the nature of most vanguard art from styles rooted in visual perception to others based on conception"that is, abstraction (p. 11). The reaction to Rubin's show was dramaticand negative. Many critics believed that Rubin unwittingly outlined the terms by which so-called tribal cultures had traditionally been appropriatedthat is, colonized and consumedby Western culture. Others pointed out that Rubin's so-called tribal art was not, to the cultures that produced it, art at all. In a particularly severe review in Artforum, Thomas McEvilley took Rubin to task for insisting that the specific function and significance of each of the objects in the show was irrelevant. "But it is also true," McEvilley points out, "that he attributes a general function to all the objects together, namely, the esthetic function, the function of giving esthetic satisfaction. In other words, the function of Modernist works is tacitly but constantly attributed to the primitive works. Religious objects are misleadingly presented as art objects" (pp. 5859).

The greatest gifts are often seen, in the course of nature, rained by celestial influences on human creatures; and sometimes, in supernatural fashion, beauty, grace, and talent are united beyond measure in one single person, in a manner that to whatever such a one turns his attention, his every action is so divine, that, surpassing all other men, it makes itself clearly known as a thing bestowed by God (as it is), and not acquired by human art. This was seen by all mankind in Leonardo da Vinci, in whom, besides a beauty of body never sufficiently extolled, there was an infinite grace in all his actions; and so great was his genius, and such its growth, that to whatever difficulties he turned his mind, he solved them with ease. In learning and in the rudiments of letters he would have made great proficience, if he had not been so variable and unstable, for he set himself to learn many things, and then, after having begun them, abandoned them. Thus, in arithmetic, during the few months that he studied it, he made so much progress, that, by continually suggesting doubts and difficulties to the master who was teaching him, he would very often bewilder him. He gave some little attention to music, and quickly resolved to learn to play the lyre, as one who had by nature a spirit most lofty and full of refinement: wherefore he sang divinely to that instrument, improvising upon it. He practised not one branch of art only, but all those in which drawing played a part; and having an intellect so divine and marvellous that he was also an excellent geometrician, he not only worked in sculpture, making in his youth, in clay, some heads of women that are smiling, of which plaster casts are still taken, and likewise some heads of boys which appeared to have issued from the hand of a master; but in architecture, also, he made many drawings both of ground-plans and of other designs of buildings; and he was the first, although but a youth, who suggested the plan of reducing the river Arno to a navigable canal from Pisa to Florence. And there was infused in that brain such grace from God, and a power of expression in such sublime accord with the intellect and memory that served it, and he knew so well how to express his conceptions by draughtmanship, that he vanquished with his discourse, and confuted with his reasoning, every valiant wit. It is clear that Leonardo, through his comprehension of art, began many things and never finished one of them, since it seemed to him that the hand was not able to attain to the perfection of art in carrying out the things which he imagined; for the reason that he conceived in idea difficulties so subtle and so marvellous, that they could never be expressed by the hands, be they ever so excellent.

source: Giorgio Vasari, "Life of Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter and Sculptor of Florence." In The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, pp. 8992.

In other words, most of the works in this exhibition were produced before their particular cultures had entered the "era of art," and Rubin proceeded as if Western historiography determines global historiography. There was long-standing precedent for Rubin's position, one of the most notable of which was Paul Guillaume and Thomas Munro's ground-breaking Primitive Negro Sculpture, first published in 1926 but still current enough in 1968 to be reprinted by Hacker Art Books. As Christa Clarke has summarized the book's ground-breaking principles: "Primitive Negro Sculpture differs from earlier publications in providing clearly developed aesthetic criteria for an evaluation of African sculpture. The text not only makes distinctions between 'art' and 'artifact,' but also specifies ideal formal properties and delineates cultural 'style regions' based on shared stylistic characteristics" (p. 41). All the illustrations in the book were from the collection of the Barnes Foundation, collected by Albert C. Barnes in order to demonstrate his own aesthetic theory, which was founded on the belief in ideal form. In Clark's summary:

Great art does not imitate nature but interprets the experience of seeing nature through "plastic means"that is, through color, line, light, and space. This exclusive focus on "plastic form" provided a critical framework that encompassed all visual material, regardless of cultural origin or subject matter. Barnes's aesthetic studies led him to consider African sculpture as the purest expression of three-dimensional form. (pp. 4243)

Thus Guillaume and Munro, working at Barnes's behest, not only differentiate African "art"sculptures and masks (i.e., religious objects and fetishes)from African "artifacts"cups, utensils, musical instrumentsbut they emphasize the formal qualities of the "art" in particular:

To the eye, to the hand, to both together moving over the surface, the statue is like music in its succession of repeated and contrasting sensuous forms, its continuities and subtle alterations of a theme. Or rather it is the material for music that one may compose at will, proceeding always in a new order from line to line and mass to mass, singling out and reorganizing the elements, perceiving always some new relationship that had never presented itself before. (p. 33)

Guillaume and Munro may as well be writing about the art of Picasso or Henri Matisse (18691954), both of whose work, of course, Barnes admired and collected.

In fact, one of the most notable aspects of modern art historiography in the West is its refusal to see the artifacts of other cultures in terms other than the formalist aesthetic of modernism. McEvilley underscores the fact with a telling example:

In New Guinea in the '30s, Western food containers were highly prized as clothing ornamentsa Kellogg's cereal box became a hat, a tin can ornamented a belt, and so on. Passed down to us in photographs, the practice looks not only absurd but pathetic. We know that the tribal people have done something so inappropriate as to be absurd, and without even beginning to realize it. Our sense of the smallness and quirkiness of their world view encourages our sense of the larger scope and greater clarity of ours. Yet the way Westerners have related to the primitive objects that have floated through their consciousness would look to the tribal peoples much the way their use of our food containers looks to us: they would perceive at once that we had done something childishly inappropriate and ignorant, and without even realizing it. Many primitive groups, when they have used an object ritually (sometimes only once) desacralize it and discard it as garbage. We then show it in our museums. In other words: our garbage is their art, their garbage is our art. (p. 59)

In sum, the category "art" is by no means universal.

In The Invention of Art, Larry Shiner points out that "the Japanese language had no collective noun for 'art' in our sense until the nineteenth century" nor before the nineteenth century had anyone in China "grouped painting, sculpture, ceramics, and calligraphy together as objects" sharing any qualities in common (p. 15). Indeed, there is, among non-Western peoples and those cultures that exist on Western culture's margins, a growing antipathy to the appropriation of their "crafts" into the art context. Shiner cites a statement by Michael Lacapa, an "artisan" of mixed Apache, Hopi, and Tewa heritage, that he encountered at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe in 1997:

What do we call a piece of work created by the hands of my family? In my home we call it pottery painted with designs to tell us a story. In my mother's house, we call it a wedding basket to hold blue corn meal for the groom's family. In my grandma's place we call it a Kachina doll, a carved image of a life force that holds the Hopi world in place. We make pieces of life to see, touch, and feel. Shall we call it "Art?" I hope not. It may lose its soul. Its life. Its people. (p. 273)

Quite clearly, the process that would transform Lacapa's pottery, basket, or Kachina doll is not so much their appearance in the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (where they apparently fall on the "culture" side of things), but the fact that they were to be purchased, collected, and commodified by agencies outside the culture and "life" in which they were produced.

Homi Bhaba, one of the great students of contemporary "global" culture, has reminded us of the "artifactual" consequences of Western colonization. "The great remains of the Inca or Aztec world are the debris," he writes, "of the Culture of Discovery. Their presence in the museum should reflect the devastation that has turned them from being signs in a powerful cultural system to becoming the symbols of a destroyed culture"(p. 321). The headdress of Montezuma II (in Nahuatl, Motecuhzoma; r. 15021520), presented to the Habsburg emperor Charles V (r. 15191556) by Hernán Cortés and now in the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna, is a case in point. Consisting of 450 green tail feathers of the quetzal bird, blue feathers from the cotinga bird, beads, and gold, it is a treasure of extraordinary beauty. But the historical moment is being approached, if not already here, when such objects will be allowed to give up their status as "art," except insofar, perhaps, the recognition that the "arts" are a historically constructed phenomenon that conveniently serves to mask social history. "It seems appropriate," Homi Bhaba says, "[to make] present in the display of art what is so often rendered unrepresentable or left unrepresentedviolence, trauma, dispossession" (p. 321). It seems likewise appropriate to let the arts, which in the early twenty-first century have neither pleasure nor the revelation of genius as their principal aims, represent these things.

See also Aesthetics ; Classification of Arts and Sciences, Early Modern ; Creativity in the Arts and Sciences ; Gender in Art ; Humanity in the Arts ; Landscape in the Arts ; Periodization of the Arts ; War and Peace in the Arts .


Belting, Hans. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Bernard of Angers. Book of the Miracles of St. Faith (Liber miraculorum S. Fides ). Text 34 in the "Appendix: Texts on the History and Use of Images and Relics," in Belting, Likeness and Presence, pp. 536537. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Bhabha, Homi K. "Postmodernism/Postcolonialism." In Critical Terms for Art History, edited by Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

Boardman, John. Greek Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Clarke, Christa. "Defining African Art: Primitive Negro Sculpture and the Aesthetic Philosophy of Albert Barnes." African Arts 36, no. 1 (spring 2003): 4051, 9293.

Donoghue, Denis. The Arts without Mystery. Boston: Little, Brown, 1983. Contrary to the sense of its title, Donoghue's book is a meditation on the place of mystery in the arts widely defined to include painting, sculpture, literature, music, dance, and theater.

Guillaume, Paul, and Thomas Munro. Primitive Negro Sculpture. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1926.

Heartney, Eleanor. "The Whole Earth Show: Part II." Art in America 77, no. 7 (July 1989): 9097.

McEvilley, Thomas. "Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief: Primitivism in Twentieth-Century Art at the Museum of Modern Art." Artforum 23, no. 3 (November 1984): 5461.

Rubin, William S. "Primitivism" in Twentieth-Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1984.

Shiner, Larry. The Invention of Art: A Cultural History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Summers, David. Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism. New York: Phaidon, 2003.

Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. 2 vols. Translated by Gaston du C. de Vere. New York: Knopf, Everyman's Library, 1996.

Henry M. Sayre