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May 2004


Aerial Reconnaissance Artist?
Passing through the Metropolitan Museum of Art's gallery of drawings, prints, and photographs recently, we were stopped short by an image that appeared to be out of alignment. Unlike any other work on display, the frame was turned 45 degrees so that it appeared to be diamond-shaped, rather than rectangular. On closer examination, we realized that the peculiar orientation was intentional. We further discovered that the work--which looked like an ordinary aerial photograph (though one shot during wartime, as suggested by the numerous fighter planes visible in the distance)--was attributed to an "Unknown Artist, American School," and was tentatively identified as "Aerial Reconnaissance over Germany (?), June 10, 1945." Surely this merits a note in the annals of absurdity regarding the elevation of photography to art. And surely the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation--credited with the gift that underwrote the acquisition of this workaday documentary photo--could put its philanthropy to better use.

The works of Paul Gauguin from his years in the South Seas (where he died in 1903) hold a deep fascination for many art lovers, even those who are not generally fond of modernism. As evident in the greatest of his canvases, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, Gauguin's exotic, often vibrantly colorful work was imbued with his sense of the mystery of life and the beauty and dignity of the Tahitian natives. For a brief remaining time, this painting--which has been a highlight of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts collection since 1936 and has recently been restored--can be viewed in the context of other work from that period of the artist's life in Gauguin Tahiti, at the museum through June 20. Tickets are required.

Kant Was No Formalist
The Spring 2004 Newsletter of the American Society for Aesthetics contains a statement that ought to be blazoned in headlines for scholars and critics of the arts. In a review of a recent anthology of readings in esthetics--The Nature of Art, by Thomas Wartenberg (a professor of philosophy at Mt. Holyoke College)--James Shelley (who teaches esthetics at Auburn University) praises Wartenberg's inclusion of a rarely reprinted selection from Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment, because it "skips over the 'Analytic of the Beautiful' in favor of the later discussion of fine art." Most significant, Shelley adds:

A steady diet of nothing but the 'Analytic,' which contains next to nothing about art, is partly responsible, I think, for the prevalence of the view that Kant is a formalist with respect to art.

We have often argued much the same thing (see, for example, "What 'Rand's Esthetics' Is, and Why It Matters" and "Art and Cognition: Mimesis vs. the Avant-Garde," as well as our response to Roger Kimball's review of What Art Is). The mistaken notion that Kant was a formalist has worked untold mischief in the field of esthetics, and its correction would surely be a salutary development.

Political Polemic as "Art" in the New York Times
Our coverage of the New York Times's inexcusable practice of publishing articles and reviews having nothing to do with the arts on the front page of the section entitled "The Arts" continues with three new examples, most notably an article on the recent anti-Bush documentary film by Michael Moore--which the Times juxtaposes with an article about, and photograph of, Michelangelo's David (see our extended comment at What Art Is Online: Appendix C).

Letters from the Editors
Louis Torres's most recent letter to the New York Sun (April 1, 2004) was prompted by a front-page article on a controversial gallery exhibition supported by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts ("City Is Funding Porn Display in Dumbo Show," March 8, 2004). The exhibition featured a 58-minute "video installation," entitled Bjorn Again, which simulated a tennis match between the former champion Bjorn Borg (actual footage of Borg was used) and a look-alike (the "video artist," Chris Sollars), dressed in drag. A stack of vintage Playboy and Club magazines, meant to be browsed through while viewing the video, also formed part of the installation, along with posters of naked women.

Observing that the Sun's reference to Bjorn Again's creator as an "artist" was even more lamentable than the poor judgment exercised by the cultural bureaucracy, your indefatigable co-editor went on to note that a subsequent editorial on the matter ("Taxpayer-Funded Pornography," March 10, 2004)--though well intentioned in its criticism of both the NEA and the city's Cultural Affairs Department--had again "unwittingly supported such work by wrongly implying it was 'art.'"  To quote directly from the letter:

If the installation in question was a "pornography den" or a "porn exhibit," as the editorial said it was, then its creator was a pornographer---or something else---not an "artist." Why is this distinction important? Because as long as newspapers like the Sun ignore logic (not to mention common sense) and buy into the absurdity that something is art merely because the artworld says it is, government officials will feel little pressure to stop funding work such as "Bjorn Again." The Sun might consider broadening its view that "no one is entitled to public money to produce artwork that many taxpayers consider offensive or just plain bad" to include work alleged to be art by city, state, and federal agencies that most ordinary people consider not art at all.

As an example, the letter cited a recent NEA grant (typical of its kind) for an experimental "documentary film and installation work" entitled Milk--which "examine[s] the controversies surrounding the many uses of this fluid food."

Mark Morris
The Mark Morris Dance Group (always worth seeing) will be appearing at its home location in Brooklyn, NY, in early June and at numerous summer festivals around the country thereafter. For details, see the company's Calendar.

EXHIBITIONS: Treasures of Painting from Northern Italy
Painters of Reality: The Legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City (May 27 - August 15), offers a welcome survey of a relatively unfamiliar school of Italian painting. As noted by the Met's chief curator of European Paintings, Keith Christiansen, the exhibition (previously shown in the Lombard city of Cremona) demonstrates that "not everything of importance" in Italian art occurred in the great centers of Florence, Rome, and Venice.

A salient characteristic of the Lombard school was its rigorous emphasis on drawing and painting from life, and this rooting of their work in reality lends the best of the paintings and drawings on view a compelling immediacy. In addition to eight exquisite drawings by Leonardo (see note below), the exhibition includes six major paintings by Caravaggio: A Youth as Bacchus (Sick Bacchus), The Cardsharps [more] [more]; The Lute Player, Supper at Emmaus, Saint Francis, and The Toothpuller (like The Cardsharps, this work, also known as The Tooth-Drawer, is a morality tale, for the "toothpuller" is a trickster, bent on humiliating his poor victim while others look on). But the surprise "stars" of the exhibition are artists whose work is largely unknown to the average museumgoer: among others, Lorenzo Lotto (Portrait of a Man With a Felt Hat [more]); Bernardino Luini (The Magdalen); Sonfonisba Anguissola, one of the best-known female artists of her time (The Chess Players [Artist's Sisters Playing Chess, and Their Governess]); and, finally, Giacomo Ceruti, whose series of larger-than-life genre paintings of the poor (originally commissioned by an eighteenth-century noble family in Brescia, and never before seen outside of Italy), portrayed them with keen sympathy, and were truly remarkable for their time and place.

Most visitors to the exhibition will probably want to spend their time just viewing the works displayed, rather than trying to follow the complexities of the exhibition's scholarly concerns. (Among the smaller-scale images, don't miss Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo's sensitive self-portrait, as a youth of about 20 [No. 81], or Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo's masterly drawing Head of St. Jerome [No. 52]. As always, we advise against use of the museum's audio guides. The viewing of art is most richly rewarded, especially at first viewing, when one is focusing on the work, undistracted by experts jabbering away (however authoritatively) about it.

Leonardo's Visi Mostruosi and Other Drawings
Among the most fascinating works in Painters of Reality, now on view at the Met (see preceding note), are two miniature drawings of "grotesque heads" by Leonardo da Vinci: Snub-Nosed Old Man with a Cowled Hat, in Bust-Length Profile and Old Woman with Beetling Brow Wearing a Tall Pointy Hat, in Bust-Length Profile [upper left and lower right, respectively, in an online group of four such heads]. Though these haunting images are often mistakenly referred to as "caricatures," Leonardo termed them visi mostruosi ("grotesquely deformed faces"), and is said to have regarded them as exhibiting inner traits of character. Like other examples [more: nos. 5, 15, and 21] of this genre, they reward intense and repeated viewing. Head of a Man in Profile Facing to the Left, not a grotesque head, exerts its own distinctive power. The remaining works in the exhibition by Leonardo (the subject of a major exhibition at the Metropolitan in 2003) include drawings of sprays of blackberries and cranberries, a study of two plants, and Studies of a Bear Walking.

"Ugly Statues" of Central Park vs. Christo the Charlatan's Gates
In remarks on Christo's forthcoming Central Park fiasco, The Gates, an approving Grace Glueck attempts to justify the ephemerality of his life's work with this remark: "It's not a bad way of imposing art on us; after all, look at the ugly [permanent] public statues that now pepper the park" ("Christo's Feat: 25 Years of Work for 16 Days," New York Times, Weekend, April 9). Ugly? Sure. Like Three Dancing Maidens [more] or Angel of the Waters [more] or William Shakespeare [more: scroll down to end]--to name just a few of the sculptures peppering Central Park that Glueck may have missed over the years.

"Why is it that some musicians become famous and others are merely admired, even though they may be similarly gifted?" In answering this question, music critic Terry Teachout ("Fiddlers Three," Commentary, April 2004) offers fascinating glimpses into the personalites of three great violinists: Jascha Heifetz, the best-known of the past century ("deeply inhibited . . . rigid," yet on occasion "fascinatingly personal"); Nathan Milstein ("outgoing . . . a gifted raconteur . . . 'aristocratic' later in life")--who was never as big a celebrity as Heifetz; and Louis Kaufman. Never heard of Kaufman? Most people haven't. Yet you have heard his playing. We won't reveal where.

Search Inside What Art Is
Amazon.com has added its "Search Inside!" feature to the catalogue entry on What Art Is. Amazon customers can now access a complete index of the book's citations of individual artists (and art works), authors (and book titles), and critics, as well as concepts and topics, with links to each page of text on which they appear, along with the two prior and two subsequent pages. In addition, the following pages are still accessible in their entirety: Brief Contents; Detailed Contents; pages 23-28 of the first chapter, "The Psycho-Epistemology of Art" (a critical analysis of Rand's essay of the same title, including commentary on the purpose of art, Rand's definition of art, and the cognitive function of art, among other topics); and the complete Index. (Excerpts from the Introduction, including the opening passages, can be viewed in the section "See all editorial reviews.")

Letters to the Editors
We invite readers to comment on matters related to items published in the current or past issues (see Archives).

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