June 2008


Publication Notices
Beginning with our next issue, publication notices will be mailed only to those general readers who contribute $25 or more per year to The Aristos Foundation--which supports this journal and related activities. Notices will continue to be sent to arts critics and scholars, to editors whose publications give serious coverage to the arts, to columnists and other influential individuals, and to members of the National Art Education Association. Full-time college or graduate students who express a strong interest in the arts will also be notified.

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The Aristos Awards
Ironically, relatively few Aristos Awards, honoring "objectivity in arts criticism, scholarship, or commentary," have been won by art critics or scholars. Columnists, along with ordinary people, have been the most frequent honorees. This month, three of the four winners are from the field of journalism: a Washington Post editorial writer and two columnists--one from the San Francisco Chronicle, the other (a repeat winner) from the Boston Globe. A prominent art critic from the U. K. rounds out the group. All four write with refreshing candor and insight about the contemporary art world.

"Contemporary Art" in Art Education
A major goal of Aristos in recent years has been to counter the postmodernist bias prevailing among many in the field of art education. Our feature article this month--"What About the Other Face of Contemporary Art?"--represents a substantial step in that direction. Originally published in March in Art Education (the journal of the National Art Education Association), in a special double issue devoted to contemporary art in the classroom, it was the lone voice in defense of genuine art--in particular, the work of painters and sculptors perpetuating the grand tradition of Western figurative art. In that entire issue, in fact, only one true work of art of any kind was pictured (on which point see next note)--the detail of Phillis Wheatley from Meredith Bergmann's Boston Women's Memorial that appeared in our article. In "Education as Installation Art," another article in the same issue, university instructor Annette Lawrence freely acknowledged that "the main problem with contemporary art is most people don't acknowledge it as art." Needless to say, Lawrence, like many art teachers today, sees as one of her chief goals "getting young people adjusted early to the idea that this is also art." Helping them to understand why it isn't, is ours.

"Photo Sculpture" in Art Education
The issue of Art Education cited in the preceding note includes this photograph (published in black & white) of Oliver Herring's Patrick--which, on casual viewing, might appear to illustrate a genuine piece of figurative sculpture--or art. In truth, the work is an elaborate deception. The caption beneath the photograph, which most readers very likely glance at quickly, if at all, reveals that Patrick is made of "foam core, museum board, digital c-print photographs, and polystyrene." Photographs? The connection is not obvious, but Patrick (seen more distinctly in this revealing image) is what has been termed a "styrofoam photo sculpture." To create such pieces, Herring (an "experimental artist" who works in various media) casts a figure in polystyrene directly from a live model and then covers the result with countless scraps of color photographs of the subject's nude body. He does not "carve" the likeness, as he pretentiously states in an interview.

Patrick is the sole work accompanying "Considerations for a Contemporary Art Curriculum"--an invited commentary by Melinda M. Mayer, the Instructional Resource Coordinator for Art Education. Mayer, who teaches in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas at Austin (Patrick is in the collection of the university's art museum), refers to the piece merely as "sculpture," making no mention of Herring's practice of direct casting or his use of photography. Mayer reports that she was "excited" to learn that Herring has been featured on Art:21--a PBS program that claims to be about "art in the twenty-first century" but in fact covers only work that is avant-garde.--L.T.

Where's Waldo?
Better yet, where's that article "The Interminable Monopoly of the Avant-Garde," by Aristos co-editor Louis Torres? --long promised as "forthcoming" in a note atop our cover page. As time passed, research unearthed addditional instances of avant-garde incursions into the culture, spurring further thought, and the article kept growing. Please look for it . . . next month.

Light Music in Oregon
Aristos readers planning to attend the Atlas Society's annual summer conference, in Portland, Oregon, should not miss Jesse Knight's Evening Arts Series presentation "The Delights of Light Music" on Sunday, June 29, at 8:10 p.m. His article "The Joys of Light Music" was featured in our December 2006 issue.

Enduring Enchantment
It won't be very long before advance ticket sales begin for next season's Nutcracker at the New York City Ballet. If you think, Why bother? it's old hat, think again. Last fall I took my five-year-old granddaughter to see it for her first time--I had last seen it a quarter century ago with her dad--and was delighted to find that it remains as captivating as ever, and surely deserving of its place as a beloved mainstay of the American holiday scene.

Given Tchaikovsky's glorious score and the magic of the E.T.A. Hoffman story on which it is based, it is difficult to believe that following its 1892 St. Petersburg premiere, The Nutcracker had languished in obscurity for six decades. Equally surprising is that its revival in 1954 was at the hands of George Balanchine, the foremost proponent of a strictly formalist, non-narrative approach to ballet. Nevertheless, Balanchine (who had danced in the original production while still a young student, and based his version on his memory of it) tells a story beautifully, and makes me wish he had done more in this vein. One of the great charms of his Nutcracker lies in the perfection of simple gestures and actions, from the mischievous antics of Marie's little brother Fritz and his playmates at the Act One party, to the moment when Marie meets Herr Drosselmeier's nephew and solemnly extends her hand to him, as if foreshadowing the flowering of romantic love.

Then there is the breathtaking spectacle--a towering Christmas tree growing before our eyes, the Nutcracker and toy soldiers coming to life to battle triumphantly against giant mice, and the first-act finale of snowflakes dancing up a storm. At the end of the first act, my granddaughter turned to me and lamented, "I thought it would be longer." Whereupon I had the pleasure of informing her that there would be another whole act. And what followed after the intermission did not disappoint. All told, an evening of sheer enchantment for young and old alike.--M.M.K.

Mark Your Calendar! Turner at the Met
Following runs at the National Gallery of Art and the Dallas Museum of Art, a major retrospective of work by the great British painter J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from July 1 to September 28. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, called Turner "The Shakespeare of landscape." In such sublime paintings as The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834 [see also the watercolor studies], such figures as Beethoven come to mind as well. We've seen the exhibition, but will save our comments and recommendations for a subsequent issue. [MET ADMISSION FEES]

Hirst's Pickled Shark at the Met
In what may well be the nadir of recent artworld developments, Damien Hirst's "conceptual tank piece" featuring a 13-foot tiger shark in a glass tank of formaldehyde has been ensconced at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, albeit in a faraway corner on the second floor [see "Modern Art"]. Grandiloquently entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, the piece is on loan for three years from the collection of Steven and Alexandra Cohen. According to the museum's press release, Gary Tinterow--the curator in charge of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art at the Met--is thrilled to exhibit the work, for it "epitomizes the art of our time." No doubt the Cohens are nonetheless glad to get rid of it for a while, but couldn't Philippe de Montebello (the Met's esteemed soon-to-retire director) have just said no to their generous offer? Or better yet, suggested that they loan the shark to the neighboring American Museum of Natural History's Department of Ichthyology, where it would seem right at home? (The present shark, we should note, is a replacement for the one pictured above, that original specimen having decomposed, formaldehyde notwithstanding.)

EXHIBITIONS: Poussin Landscapes
Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions (Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 12 - May 11, 2008). Remarkably, this was the first exhibition to focus on the role of landscape in the work of the renowned French classicist Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)--who inspired later landscape painters as diverse as Constable and Cézanne (as documented in a companion exhibition In the Light of Poussin: The Classical Landscape Tradition, January 8 - April 13, 2008). Drawing upon ancient history, classical poetry and mythology, and the Bible, as well as on direct studies from nature (instructive examples of which are included in the exhibition), Poussin crafted rich imaginary landscapes in which the dramas of human life are enacted, often with great poignancy.

In his memorable Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion [more], for example, the small figure of a woman, the widow of Phocion, kneels in the center foreground, gathering up a pile of ashes, while her maidservant stands guard alongside, turning to watch for a possible intruder. (As learned seventeenth-century viewers would have known, Phocion was a virtuous Athenian statesman who had been falsely accused of treachery, sentenced to death, and denied a proper burial. In retrieving his ashes, his widow heroically defied the state.) Around and behind the two women stretches a serenely well-ordered landscape studded with luxuriant trees and elegant, classically inspired buildings. A myriad of tiny figures in the background go about their mostly pleasurable business--engaging in archery, bathing in a stream, conversing--oblivious of the tragic scene being played out nearby.

As the Encyclopedist and critic Denis Diderot suggested a century later, in such images you see "the delights of nature together with the sweetest and most terrible things that can happen in life." They are visual embodiments of the simultaneous fragility and nobility of human life. As such, they provide a telling contrast to the vacuousness of postmodernism's so-called conceptual art. In short, this wonderful exhibition, bringing together some forty paintings from numerous collections in Europe and America, offered compelling evidence of why Poussin has long been rightly considered one of the masters of European painting. For an excellent review of the exhibition and the accompanying catalog, see "The Magical Painting of Poussin" by Andrew Butterfield (New York Review of Books, April 17, 2008).

EXHIBITION: The Title Tells a Lot
Jasper Johns: Gray (Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 5 - May 4, 2008). An ordinary visitor passing from the exhibition of Poussin landscapes concurrently on view at the Met to this show "examining the use of the color gray by the American artist Jasper Johns" was likely to experience it as a trajectory from the sublime to the ridiculous. Not that we have anything against gray--even if it isn't, properly speaking, a color. It is what Johns does (or doesn't do) with it that we object to. Consider the utter banality of pieces such as Coat Hanger II or Johns's "sculpture"Flashlight--or the equally vacuous (if much larger) work absurdly entitled The Dutch Wives. (For more on Gray and Johns--whose comments in an interview are as empty as his work--see Louis Torres's letter to the New York Sun of February 13, 2008.)

EXHIBITION: Perversely Purposeless
Martin Puryear (Museum of Modern Art, New York City, November 4, 2007 - January 14, 2008). The nearly fifty carefully crafted large-scale works in this major retrospective by a leading Post-Minimalist "sculptor" defied interpretation. Owing to their monumental size and the apparent care that went into their making, they may have suggested to some that they are fraught with purposeful significance. They must mean something--why else would their maker have gone to so much trouble to create such humongous objects of no practical utility? But the search for coherent meaning is bound to be frustrated. Regarding himself as a "blue-collar artist," who crafts his own work--in contrast with the "white-collar" conceptualists of his generation, who merely came up with ideas left to others to execute--Puryear believes that what differentiates works of art from mere craft objects is that they are not functional. What he ignores is that, art serves a crucial psychological function--which his deliberately enigmatic, largely abstract objects [more] are incapable of fulfilling, however sensuously appealing and occasionally whimsical they may appear. They may intrigue the sympathetic viewer, but in the end they are unlikely to make a lasting connection.

EXHIBITION: A Modern Artist Worth Knowing
Gustave Courbet (Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 27, 2008 - May 18, 2008). The press release for this exhibition billed the French realist painter Courbet (1819-1877) as a pioneering figure who "by rebelling against tradition, . . . paved the way for . . . modern art." It is true that Courbet, essentially self-taught, challenged the entrenched conventions of academic painting. Yet he differs fundamentally from the radical modernists, who turned to abstraction in the early twentieth century--unlike them, he clearly admired and learned from the masters. Don't be fooled by The Desperate Man (1844-45), the painting selected to represent the exhibition, for The Wounded Man [more] (1844-54) and Self- Portrait with Pipe are just as much Courbet. Among other works we were especially glad to see were Young Ladies of the Village, Jo, the Beautiful Irishwoman, The Meeting, or Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet, The Fox in the Snow, and Juliette Courbet.

EXHIBITION: Yet Another Biennial
Whitney Biennial 2008 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, March 6 - June 1, 2008). Though it was largely devoid of the sort of sexually explicit pieces that have so offended the public in past shows, this year's Whitney Biennial--advertised as "the most important survey of the state of contemporary art in the United States today"--went to new lengths to accommodate works scarcely recognizable as art to anyone outside the fashionable artworld (giving further corroboration of our thesis in "What About the Other Face of Contemporary Art?" in this issue). Needful of ever more space (albeit to convey less and less), some of this year's installation "artists" found themselves ensconced for two weeks in March in the ample private rooms of the historic Seventh Regiment Armory [more] [more ]--the original name of this grand structure, which we stubbornly adhere to. But the works on view at the Whitney were equally space-hungry, pretentious, and ultimately idiotic. Among them were Charles Long's Untitled, a "sculpture" inspired by bird droppings; Joe Bradley's roomful of abstract, monochromatic canvases that viewers were told only "look like experiments in Minimalism" at first blush ("longer viewing reveals surprising levels of figuration"); and Rodney McMillian's Untitled, which was said to reflect "his diverse interest in the boundaries demarcating class, economic status, culture, and their relationship to the physicality of the human body." These are but a few of the treasures that the biennial team of curators and advisors combed the nation to discover.

EXHIBITION: Non-Portraits
Warhol's Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered (The Jewish Museum, New York City, March 16 - August 03, 2008). In their current reprise at the museum where they were first exhibited twenty-eight years ago, Andy Warhol's Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century offer a clear if unintended lesson in what the art of portraiture isn't. First, let's begin with one of the "complex questions" confronting viewers who read the exhibition's wall texts: "Why did a Pop artist who otherwise displayed little interest in Jewish culture or causes create a series devoted to eminent Jews?" The answer to that is simple. An Israeli art dealer suggested the idea to an enterprising New York gallery owner, who not only proposed it to Warhol but also named likely subjects for him. The impetus for the work, then, was purely commercial motives, rather than any genuine interest in the life or character of these notables--who range from the Marx Brothers (in Warhol's inventory, the three brothers constitute one "Jew") to Justice Louis Brandeis and Israeli prime minister Golda Meir.

That Warhol knew next to nothing about his subjects ("Who is Martin Buber?" he wrote of one of them in his diary) and perhaps cared even less is indicated by the characteristically mechanical process employed to produce their images. Basing his "portraits" on source photos he selected, Warhol created outline drawings of each, using an overhead projector to enlarge the source image onto a sheet of paper. The photographic image and the drawing were then transferred onto acetate transparencies, which Warhol subsequently shuffled and layered with colored paper to create a collage-like image, from which silkscreen prints were produced--on which he later based his paintings of the subjects. (Some of these intermediate stages are included in the present exhibition.)

What resulted were artsy-looking compositions that have the effect of obscuring, rather than illuminating, their subjects. To quote the exhibition's curator himself, "None of [Warhol's] portraits were deeply revealing." But isn't the essence of the art of portraiture in fact to reveal something of the sitter's character as seen by the artist? Judged by that standard, Warhol's Ten Jews hardly qualify as portraits, much less as art.

Kimball on What Art Is
Roger Kimball's review of What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand--first published in The Public Interest (Spring 2001), and reprinted in his Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (2003)--is again available online: see "Can Art Be Defined? See also our response.

But Is It Art?
Philosopher Cynthia Freeland's But Is It Art? (reviewed by Louis Torres in Aristos, May 2003) can now be perused online at the Google Book Search Page, and excerpts from the book are available on Freeland's website.

Kids, Ballet, and Music . . . in Baghdad
Amidst the mayhem of war, Western music and ballet offer solace to the children of Iraq. A student finds time to practice Bach's Minuet No. 3 on her cello; four children saw away on their violins; a young girl in pink tutu and white tights and four boys in black shorts and crisp white t-shirts gamely pursue a dance class. Here she is again, in a photograph to melt your heart. (For background, see "Ballet Amid the Bullets in Iraq." See also "Baghdad Ballet Stays on Its Feet," a collection of photographs taken at the Baghdad Ballet School.)

Tracking the Artworld
Still more examples, with links galore, for fans of these compilations: We've added two "New Forms of Art": portraiture art (not what you might think) and text art. "Artworld Buzzwords" features new excerpts from various sources in which challenge, comment, cutting-edge, difficult, disturb, explore, investigate, and question appear--all clues, as usual, that the work under discussion is not art. And we continue to document the New York Times's brazen practice of covering on the front page of its "Arts" section everything under the sun--from families grieving for servicemen killed in Iraq to scholars discussing the "economics of repugnance." We find the first of these examples particularly distressing, positioned as it was directly under the banner "The Arts." Tracking the "Arts, Briefly" column on page 2 of that section as well, we cite items on Johnny Carson's sidekick Ed McMahon, radio talk show host Randi Rhodes, and PBS's Charlie Rose.

Letters to the Editors
We invite readers to comment on items published in this or past issues (see this issue and the Archives for examples). Letters may be edited for clarity or length, but the writer will always be consulted before publication.