Individuals whose names are marked with an asterisk [*] were cited in What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (2000). Unless otherwise indicated, all entries dated on or before October 2, 2005, were originally posted in the February 2006 issue of Aristos.
December 2016 - New award (marked ): Kate Davis (New York City).
As our statement of purpose makes clear, the Aristos Awards are not restricted to arts critics and scholars, or to journalists and columnists who occasionally write on the arts, but are also given to ordinary people (non-experts) who question the art status of avant-garde work. Regarding the recent exhibition Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible at Met Breuer, the new avant-garde outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Times wrote: "We wanted to better understand the modern museumgoer. So we went to the . . . exhibition . . . and talked to visitors" ["What Do You See in Art? Nearly 50 People Told Us," New York Times, August 25, 2016]. Kate Davis was one of those interviewed.
Asked what she thought of Noland's Cart (consisting of an industrial cart filled with hubcaps and other car parts), Davis, 24, replied:
I don't like this. I think the question is not even if it is finished but is this even art? I could see this in a parking lot.
We do not know what Davis thought of the rest of the mostly non-art on view on the fourth floor at the exhibition (the third floor was devoted to impressive work by Old Masters and other noted past artists), but it took both courage and a spirit of independence for her to express so forthright and public a criticism of Noland's work and, by implication, of the museum itself, whose "outstanding faculty of curators" (see "Exhibition Credits") and staff members mounted the exhibition.
In its defining statement the Society forthrightly states:
During the 20th century the United States emerged as the richest, most powerful nation in history. And the quality of its civic art--its community planning, institutional architecture, and public monuments--deteriorated to the point of catastrophe. Such a coincidence of unrivaled political and economic might with profound cultural dysfunction is unprecedented. . . .
Further, it announces its support for
a traditional artistic counterculture . . . emerging as the indispensable alternative to a postmodern, elitist culture that has reduced its works of "art" to a dependence on rarified discourse incomprehensible to ordinary people.
While Aristos does not concern itself with community planning or institutional architecture, as it does not include architecture among the fine arts, we find much to praise in the work of the National Civic Art Society. Of late, this has included its resolute opposition [more] to the design proposed by celebrity architect Frank Gehry for the projected Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington D.C. As it has argued, Gehry's conception of a memorial to honor the nation's 34th president and the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II is "a travesty that cuts a great man down to size" by depicting him not at the height of his glory but as a barefoot farm boy.
In a culture where proponents of enduring values in sculpture and painting continue to fight an uphill battle against the avant-garde, the Civic Art Society's advocacy of "an indispensable alternative" is surely commendable.
(See also Aristos Award to Andrew Ferguson.)
During the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth, America's sculptors-- ranging from John Quincy Adams Ward (1830-1910) to Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) and Daniel Chester French (1850-1931)--created countless works that did justice to the spirit which had made America an exceptional nation in the nineteenth century and fueled its achievements in the twentieth. See, for example, Ward's George Washington (1883), Federal Hall, New York City; Saint-Gaudens's Abraham Lincoln: The Man (Standing Lincoln) (1887), Lincoln Park, Chicago; and French's Abraham Lincoln (Seated Lincoln) (1920) at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C. (a remarkable series of photographs of French's seated Lincoln and the Memorial can be found on a personal weblog).
Such sculpture is no longer favored by the cultural establishment. Yet we are fortunate to have had more than a few sculptors of exceptional ability in our midst in recent decades--among them the late Frederick Hart (1943-1999), EvAngelos Frudakis (The Signer , Independence Hall, Philadelphia), Anthony Frudakis, and Jane DeDecker--all of whom belong to that "indispensable alternative" supported by the National Civic Art Society.
Andrew Ferguson (Senior Editor, Weekly Standard)[bio] [posted 8/12]
For "Re-Gendered Ike," March 12.
On three occasions the United States has had the good fortune to have generals whose singular achievements helped shape history for the better, and who subsequently ascended to the presidency. The first two--George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant--have each been honored by the nation with a memorial in the capital: the Washington Monument (1884) and the Grant Memorial [more] (1922). But plans for a memorial honoring the third, Dwight D. Eisenhower, have been bogged down in controversy over the proposed design by starchitect Frank Gehry (Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles). Ferguson succinctly skewers both Gehry's proposal and the Washington Post critic who showered it with praise.
What is the nature of Gehry's design [more ] [steel mesh "tapestry"] to commemorate the man who successfully guided the allied forces to victory in Europe in World War II and served as president for two terms (1953-1961)? As Ferguson aptly notes, it is "hard to describe because it's hard to describe what it is." In his words, it is "at once grandiose and pointless, offensive and vague, pretentious and kitschy." What it really is, he concludes, is "an advertisement for the self-conscious quirkiness of an overpraised architect and a shrine to the pathetic intellectual insecurity of the commission that hired him. It's a testimony to postmodernism's ability to corrupt everything it touches."
As for the "rave review" the design received from "the (always unintentionally comical) art critic for the Washington Post" [Philip Kennicott, "Frank Gehry's Eisenhower Memorial Reinvigorates the Genre," December 15, 2011], Ferguson pointedly refrains from naming the critic but objects that he "praised Gehry for de-emphasizing the 'masculine power' that has marred Washington's memorial architecture." Ferguson also blasts the critic for proclaiming that Gehry "has 're-gendered' the vocabulary of memorialization, giving it new life and vitality," and for approving the design's overall effect as "that of a giant stage set enveloping a relatively small representation of Eisenhower,* yet another inversion of traditional hierarchies that suggests a powerful sense of the finitude of man and the vastness of history, nature, and fate."
* Gehry has yet to select an acceptable sculptor for the central figure of the memorial. His first choice was Charles Ray, who envisioned Eisenhower as a life-size barefoot boy. For other work by Ray, see Boy with Frog and his website [click on "all works" to glance at his less "classical" work].
(See also Aristos Award to National Civic Art Society. On Gehry, see Louis Torres, "At His Father's Knee," review of Architecture of the Absurd by John Silber [Aristos, July 2009]; and Melanie Sommer, "Frank Gehry: Architect as Sculptor," Minnesota Public Radio, January 19, 2007. On the Eisenhower memorial, see also our August 2012 Notes & Comments; Bruce Cole, "Doing Right by Ike," The Weekly Standard, July 2, 2012; and Michael J. Lewis, "The Decline of American Monuments and Memorials," Imprimis, April 2012.)
Gerrard Barnes (U.K.)
For comments (June 7)--quoted below--on "The Dustbin of Art History," Prospect, May 24.
In What Art Is, we argued that in any controversy between experts and the public on the question of whether avant-garde work is art, the ordinary person's view, based as it is on common sense, is invariably the correct one.
These trenchant remarks by Gerrard Barnes are a case in point:
The educated English middle classes have become too diffident and decline to express their feelings about the widespread exhibition of incomprehensible contemporary art. It is time for a revolution in manners and artistic taste. People have a lingering hunch that something odd has been happening in the visual arts, for a long time and with funding from public sources, but they can't or don't dare to speak up. The art world keeps churning out eccentricity, incoherency and intangibility in the absence of intelligent organized protest. Many years ago there was a Real Ale movement that demanded better quality beer from the breweries. Stop pulling a fast one, the campaigners said. I am minded to say that the time is ripe for the formation of a Real Art movement with the slogan: Bring back real art.
As Louis Torres notes in a subsequent post, such a movement--known in some circles as Classical Realism--already exists.
In "Mark Morris: A Postmodern Traditionalist" (Aristos, December 2005), Michelle Kamhi observed:
Once an enfant terrible of the contemporary dance world, [Morris] has gained the respect of critics as well as the affection and admiration of a broad public. One reason is clear: his dance-making, far from engaging in the avant-garde's wholesale contempt of the past, is deeply rooted in culture and custom--seamlessly integrating elements drawn from traditions as diverse as Eastern European folk dance, classical ballet, and modern dance.
Reflecting on comments made by Morris at Barnard College in a conversation with a founding member of the Mark Morris Dance Group (then celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversay), Kamhi further noted that another sure reason for Morris's success was his musicality.
Unlike postmodernist choreographers such as Merce Cunningham, Morris (who speaks of being "smitten by music" at an early age) understands that music--true music--is the essential foundation of dance. . . . Most provocative, given his own early reputation as a rebel, was what he had to say about the avant-garde. Asked for his view of Cunningham's work, for example, he cryptically answered that he "respects and appreciates the fact that he's done it," then paused and pointedly added: "That doesn't necessarily mean I like it."
In his recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Morris was even more candid about his disdain for the avant-garde dance world, with its disregard of music's essential role in dance.
I'm delighted . . . that I'm not really part of the very minute superesoteric modern dance club, which I'm not a member of. I was never invited. . . . But what I like more is music. . . . People, if they don't like me, that's usually what they don't like. . . . That? You're dancing to that music?
We honor Morris for his integrity and candor in disassociating himself from those in the dance world who scorn both him and the classical composers of the past whose music inspires his choreography.
Joan Acocella, Mark Morris (Noonday Press, 1995).
"Dance: The 'Silent Partner of Music,'" in Torres and Kamhi, What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (Open Court, 2000), pp. 229-31.
Internationally syndicated columnist George Will has been frequently honored by us for his skewering of artworld pretensions. In this latest case, he minced no words in lambasting the Obama administration's enlistment of "artists" and others in the artworld to promote the White House's political agenda. In so doing, he was not merely critical of the artworld's eagerness to lick the hand that feeds it (the communications director for the National Endowment for the Arts had organized the recruitment effort). Of even greater relevance for us was his deprecation of the government's abandonment of all standards for "art" and "artists."
Once "proudly adversarial regarding authority," Will observed, artists are now "just another servile interest group seeking morsels from the federal banquet." Are they really "artists"?
"Sure," he answered ironically,
because in this egalitarian era, government reasons circularly: Art is whatever an artist says it is, and an artist is whoever produces art. So, being an artist is a self-validating vocation.
. . . For government today, "art" is a classification so capacious it does not classify.
As Will further observed, the NEA under the previous Democratic administration "democratically decreed that 'art includes the expressive behaviors of ordinary people,' including 'dinner-table arrangements.'"
Lest the reader think that such nonsense is unique to Democratic governance, however, we should add that the NEA's record under the prior Republican administration was not much better. While its then director, poet and critic Dana Gioia, did not sully the office by attempting to politicize it, grant-making was nonetheless subject to the vagaries of the agency's peer-review panels, drawn from the artworld. As we have long argued [more], such grant-making was vitiated from the outset. Government, on both the right and the left, has simply reflected the lack of standards in the artworld at large.
(Will is also the winner of two Aristos Awards for 2001 and one each for 2002 and 1994.)
Theresa Rebeck (Playwright) [bio] [plays ] [posted 8/09]
For "Can Craft & Creativity Live on the Same Stage?" [scroll down] on Community Perspectives: Riffing with John Clinton Eisner [a weblog], August 3, 2009.
In "Art and Its Tempter, Science" (in his Use and Abuse of Art , 1974), cultural historian Jacques Barzun laments the permissive attitude toward unintelligibility that has affected theater, among the other arts--which have become "arcane like a science."
As Barzun observes, the artist "has turned pedant," presenting views on his work that "consist of jargon patterned on scientific or metaphysical discourse. It has to sound distinctive and profound, it must suggest heroic grappling with problems hitherto unimagined and now at last solved." Such pretension, he adds, is borrowed from "the romance of the scientist," as is "the now accepted notion that there is such a thing as experimental art."
Barzun's remarks came to mind when we happened upon Theresa Rebeck's essay. She had been asked by John Eisner, producing director of the Lark Play Development Center in New York City, how she "reconciled [her] passion for structure and historically more traditional elements of craft with fidelity to the inchoate and poetic essence of the creative impulse"--how, in short, she squared craft with creativity. His question startled Rebeck (a member of the Lark's advisory board) into further thought on the subject, which yielded "Can Craft & Creativity Live on the Same Stage?" In her view, "the instigating impulse is something messy and internal."
[The] playwright's job is to take that messy internal moment and build it into a stronger and more complex and dynamic vision of itself so that it can sustain itself, on a stage, with actors, in the light of day. It's like being a gardner: You have a seed; you add water and dirt and light, and you have a plant. You have an idea, you add structure, and you have a play. That's not reconciling a conflict, that's art.
Rebeck challenges the "overt disdain" often expressed by her colleagues regarding the very notion of structure--their suggestion that "craft somehow presents a compromise, . . . that purity of expression actually needs to detonate tradition for it to be authentic."
In response to fellow theater artists who complain about "how stupid the audience is" for not enjoying "an especially experimental piece of theater," she poses these questions for advocates of "experimental" theater to ponder:
Who is theater supposed to serve? . . . Do we write for audiences, or do we write for ourselves and our community? . . . Why do we get mad at audiences for not flocking to theater which doesn't interest them because it doesn't care about them?
Do we think that theater is art only if people don't understand it?
Rebeck's critique applies equally well of course to "experimental" work in any of the other art forms.*
Though Rebeck does not refer to what is known as the "well-made play," it cannot be an easy thing for a playwright these days to go to the ramparts in defending some of its principles and in castigating avant-garde colleagues who flout them. As theater scholar Holly Hill once observed about the work of Terence Rattigan (1911-1977) [more ], his "clarity of conception and construction" produced plays with "'good bones'--a prime requisite for aging well, and a startling contrast with the degrees of calcium deficiency evident in other playwrights of the last thirty years" (Aristos, July 1982).
*See "Artworld Chic" (in Aristos "Notes & Comments," July 2009) for statements by artworld luminaries professing to value unintelligibility in the visual arts. See also Judith Dobrzynski's post in her weblog Real Clear Arts--"Does It Have to Be Experimental to Be Art?" (August 9, 2009), where we first learned of Rebeck's essay--and the comments by Louis Torres and others that follow it.
(Playwright) [bio] [plays] [posted 8/09]
For comments made on Community Perspectives: Riffing with John Clinton Eisner [a weblog], August 4--in response to Theresa Rebeck's "Can Craft & Creativity Live on the Same Stage?" [scroll down] (see above).
Cinoman, a former teacher of English and Drama in a Connecticut middle school (oh, to have had such a teacher when we were young!), agrees with Rebeck, putting her remarks in the following historical perspective:
In the 19th century there was no distinction between what was art and what was popular. Art and what pleased the audience [were] inextricably connected. . . . Charles Dickens was the most popular novelist and Tennyson, the most popular poet. Both were beloved by the people and both were considered to be, and remain . . . two of the world's great literary artists.
In the twentieth century, before the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities (both created in 1965) began handing out grants that "skew[ed] the nature of theater"--Cinoman observes-- it "lived and thrived as the reflection of its audience."
"Bring back convention, structure, craft and storytelling," Cinoman concludes, "and the health and happiness of the theatre will be heartily restored."
The title of Janet Daley's column naturally caught our attention. Interspersing a trenchant indictment of the avant-garde with political commentary (not our focus here), Daley laments the recent defilement of London's historic Trafalgar Square. The Square's now-notorious Fourth Plinth--which was built in 1841 to support an equestrian statue that never materialized, and stood empty for many years--has for the past decade been used for the temporary display of newly commissioned works, mostly non-art. In Daley's view,
[One] of the most spectacularly successful confidence tricks of the late 20th century [is] now reaching [its] endgame. . . . [I]n Trafalgar Square, the cultural fraud which began as a decadent joke by Marcel Duchamp* nearly a hundred years ago--that anything can be art providing there are enough conspirators who claim that it is, and enough suckers who believe them--is playing a final, nihilistic hand.
What we are seeing, she observes, is the "collapse of . . . art that isn't art." Sham art had previously
managed, with quite startling effectiveness, to replace the actual substance of [its] occupation [that is, "the creation of works which reflect, and comment on, the human condition"] with superbly professional public relations, dazzling, but meaningless rhetoric and brazen self-justification which was sustainable so long as it did not over-reach itself. But with over-confidence came the fall. The palpable failures have been followed by public outrage.
The source of the recent outrage at Trafalgar Square began with "sculptor" Antony Gormley's invitation to ordinary British citizens to make fools of themselves (he didn't put it that way, of course) by occupying the Fourth Plinth in whatever manner they chose, for a period of 24 hours each, over a period of 100 days. The participants, aptly characterized by Daley as a "relentless parade of exhibitionists," were selected by lottery and hoisted atop the plinth--whose stately appearance was marred by a specially constructed safety net [more]--by a cherry picker.Daley particularly deplores the resulting trivialization and debasement of Trafalgar Square, a public space dedicated to commemorating the heroic victory of Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson over the French fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 (Nelson was fatally wounded in that battle). Far from honoring the nation's savior, Daley observes, Gormley's "ugly travelling circus" (dubbed One & Other by him) celebrates "the logically nonsensical idea that there is no distinction between art and life: a proposition which, were it actually believed, would put an end to the possibility of making art at all. (If everything is art, then nothing is.)"
"What have we discovered?" asks Daley.
[T]he idea that you didn't need to use skill or craft or insight to create anything--you just had to drag a bit of "life" in off the street and display it--was finally exposed in all its emptiness. Now at least we know that what we actually need is . . . real art which involves an individual imagination observing, reflecting and depicting the life with which we are all trying come to terms. It's a start.
*For an instance of the artworld's specious claim that Marcel Duchamp's "readymades" were seriously intended as art, see the Tate Collection Glossary. For his own denial of that claim, see Michelle Kamhi's "Museum Miseducation: Perpetuating the Duchamp Myth" (Aristos, June 2008).
The recent controversial "performance art" project of Yale senior Aliza Shvarts (allegedly involving "self-induced miscarriages," and dubbed "abortion art" by some) has attracted a great deal of commentary by print journalists and columnists, as well as on the Internet, but none more astute than that by Charles Lane. While mocking Shvarts's claim of "conceptual goals" (he calls the whole thing a "stunt," and worse--see below), Lane rightly saves his harshest condemnation for Yale itself:
Whether Shvarts is telling the truth or, as Yale claims, was simply engaged in bizarre 'performance art,' the real issue is this: Where did she get such a gruesome, pornographic idea? And who taught her to confuse it with art?
Whether a monstrosity or a dishonest provocation, Shvarts's "project" was the reductio ad absurdum--or ad nauseam--of ideology and pedagogy that have been standard fare in the humanities at Yale and on many other campuses for years. Her supervisors . . . probably didn't tell her no for the same reason that, in 2003, a New York University professor initially approved a student's proposal to record two students having sex in front of the class.
The politicized obsession with race, gender and sexuality; the denigration of canonical works by "dead white males"; the callow mocking of convention; the notion that truth itself is merely a construct of power and self-interest--all characterize the study of art and literature in America's colleges and universities. All were reflected in Shvarts's rationale for her "installation."
And as Lane points out in his lead, parents pay upwards of $180,000 for their children to be "educated" at Yale.
(See also remarks by the budding performance artist herself, "Shvarts Explains Her 'Repeated Self-induced Miscarriages,'" Yale Daily News, April 18; "Yale, Abortion, and the Limits of Art," by Roger Kimball, April 18; "Yale Senior's 'Abortion Art' Whips Up Debate, Protests," Washington Post, April 18; "An Artwork at Yale May Not Be Real, but the Furor Is," New York Times, April 23; and "Art and (Wo)man at Yale, Wall Street Journal, April 24. Finally, Technorati [more], posted more than 1,000 weblog entries on Shvarts!)
As he puts it, A.C. Douglas is not "professionally involved" in the field of music criticism. His weblog (the term both he and Aristos prefer) Sounds & Fury is, in his words, "a personal journal . . . not written to be informative or for the delectation of others," but for himself alone. Yet his music commentary is respected by both academics and leading critics--most notably, the New Yorker's Alex Ross, who surmises that in his own weblog, The Rest Is Noise, he has "linked more often to Douglas' site than to any other."
"On Music and Gibberish" is Douglas's reflection on atonal work--which he judges to be not merely "unmusical" but, worse, "non-music, even anti-music." It was written in response to attacks by "New Music" advocates on then New York Times music critic (and two-time Aristos Award winner) Bernard Holland for having written yet another critique of atonal music, "Rocketing to Inner Space, Defying Tonality." (Among the diatribes Douglas may have had in mind is "Bernard Holland Is a Serial Killer.") He explains his own objection to such work:
It's not atonality per se. . . . It's something much more fundamental: the lack of a perceptible and coherent musical narrative from work's beginning to end, which is to say the lack of the work's saying comprehensibly something beyond and exclusive of commentary on its own processes and methods which are--or ought to . . . be--but mere tools used in its making.
. . . [A] composition absent an audibly perceptible and coherent musical narrative from beginning to end is gibberish and not music.
*For examples of such "noise-making," listen to (or sample) Cage's Living Room Music (1940), beginning at 1:10; and Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951) for 12 radios, beginning at 1:45; and Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge [Song of the Youths] (1955-1956).
John Silber (President, Chancellor, Boston Univ.,
For Architecture of the Absurd: How "Genius" Disfigured a Practical Art.
Nearly every writer on architecture or art asserts that architecture is art--i.e., fine art. Contrary to that view, we have argued (in What Art Is, chapter 10, and elsewhere) that architecture is a species of applied art, or design. Therefore, when we learned that John Silber refers to architecture as a "practical art" in no uncertain terms, in the subtitle of his book Architecture of the Absurd, we were eager to read it. We were not disappointed.
In a review of the book (Aristos, July 2009), Louis Torres praises Silber for making a strong case against the architects who designed some of today's most critically acclaimed buildings--architects who consider architecture art, and fancy themselves not architects, primarily, but (as Tom Wolfe has put it) artistes. With the exception of architect, professor, and critic Witold Rybczynski , we know of no other writer on the subject who argues, as Silber does, that architecture should not be regarded as fine art. For that we honor him.
Since Jon Carroll did not give this column a title (he seems to have begun titling pieces in 2008), we dubbed this one "The Muddy Bottom," because that is where he locates the bogus art of Richard Prince, the target of his satire.
Opening with several paragraphs about political absurdities (such as the Department of Homeland Security's naming the state of Indiana as highly vulnerable to the threat of terrorism, with 8,591 potential targets within its borders), Carroll then writes:
Now, I know what you're going to say--those last few sentences seem a little dated. As indeed they should, since they were written by Molly Ivins in August 2006. The entire passage right up to the beginning of this paragraph was written by the late, great Molly. My using it without quotation marks might make some readers think that I had written it myself. That might even be plagiarism.
Oh, but no! I am merely following the example of "artist" Richard Prince, who, since the late '70s, has been trucking in what he calls "appropriation art," which roughly translated means "I didn't do it, but I saw it, and that must count for something."
Carroll cites Prince's piece Untitled (Cowboy)--"a shadow-for-shadow reproduction of a photograph" entitled Calf Rescue, aken by photographer Jim Krantz for a Marlboro cigarette ad campaign--which was exhibited in his Guggenheim retrospective, and sold for $332,000 (on which see "If the Copy Is an Artwork, Then What's the Original?").
Acknowledging that there may be a slippery slope between outright plagiarism and such things as "parodies [that] take inspiration from original works of art" and the various "influences acknowledged and unacknowledged [that] permeate books and films and other art forms as well," Carroll nonetheless concludes: "But I think we can agree what the muddy bottom of the slope looks like, and the work of Richard Prince is right down there."
In "Getting Away with 'Art'" Jeff Jacoby compares Martin Creed's Turner Prize-winning Work 227: The Lights Going On and Off (then on view at Boston's Center for the Arts) to an adolescent "art" project--Jacoby calls it "an immature stunt"--that had recently gotten a 19-year-old MIT electrical engineering major arrested and fined for possessing a "hoax device," and might have even gotten her killed by jittery security officers. (According to the news reports [click on Video, then search for "MIT student"] [more] [more ], she had approached an information booth at Boston's Logan Internationl Airport wearing a sweatshirt affixed with a small plastic circuit board, on which a set of green lights arranged in a star were wired to a 9-volt battery, and on the back of the sweatshirt were written "Socket to Me" and "COURSE VI.")"What makes [Creed's piece] an award-winning work of art and hers a juvenile prank?" asks Jacoby. "If turning lights on and off qualifies as fine art," he continues, "then anything does. I can wad up a sheet of paper and call it art"--as, he then notes, Creed himself has, in fact, already done in Work No. 88: A Sheet of Paper Crumpled into a Ball, followed by his 2004 "inspiration" Work No. 384: A Sheet of Paper Folded Up and Unfolded!
To indicate Creed's further "ingenuity" Jacoby quotes from an admiring survey by New York Times critic Roberta Smith ["The Bearable Lightness of Martin Creed," July 13, 2007] of an exhibition of his work at Bard College:
Mr. Creed's penchant for provocation is even clearer in two short videos. In each, a person walks in front of a camera trained on an empty, pristine white-on-white space and either vomits [still from Sick Film + brief commentary] or defecates [mercifully, there are no stills of this] before walking away.
"Don't be disgusted," Jacoby adds with a touch of irony. "Smith reassuringly notes that 'the performers manage to maintain both their dignity and their privacy.'"
Noting the observation by a London Daily Telegraph arts correspondent ("Turner Prize Won By Man Who Turns Lights Off")] that the Turner Prize is sometimes characterized as "the Prize for the Emperor's New Clothes," Jacoby concludes:
And that, really, is what it all comes down to. Either you are sophisticated or cynical enough to gush over the emperor's wonderfully postmodern and transgressive new duds, or you are one of those reactionary rubes who get all hung up on the fact that the emperor actually happens to be naked. If talent and skill aren't required to produce a work of art, if a striving for truth or excellence or beauty has nothing to do with artistic greatness, if craftsmanship and effort matter less than attitude and gimmickry--in short, if there are no standards, then why not . . . bestow a prize named for J. M. W. Turner [more]--the greatest landscape painter in English history--on a chucklehead who crumples sheets of paper and films people vomiting?
Someday the art world will rediscover the standards it has abandoned. It will blush when it remembers the way it honored quacks like Creed and treated silly stunts as works of genius. In the meantime, Work 227 makes a fine metaphor for what that world has become: The lights may be on (or off), but nobody's home.
(See also "Praised, Panned Light-switch Art Gets Hub Showing," by Jacoby's colleague at the Globe arts reporter Geoff Edgers, as well as remarks by Aristos Award winner Dave Barry and Aristos Co-Editor Michelle Kamhi. Jacoby is also the winner of an Aristos Award for 1995.)
Even readers who are not opera buffs will find much to value in Heather Mac Donald's "The Abduction of Opera." Though not a music critic, Mac Donald is an astute and informed writer whose observations on contemporary trends in productions of classic operas should be of interest to anyone concerned about avant-garde incursions in the arts. She begins:
Mozart's lighthearted opera The Abduction from the Seraglio [more] does not call for a prostitute's nipples to be sliced off and presented to the lead soprano. Nor does it include masturbation, urination as foreplay, or forced oral sex. Europe's new breed of opera directors, however, know better than Mozart what an opera should contain. So not only does The Abduction at Berlin's Komische Oper feature the aforementioned activities; it also replaces Mozart's graceful ending with a Quentin Tarantino-esque bloodbath and the promise of future perversion.
Welcome to Regietheater (German for "director's theater"), the style of opera direction now prevalent in Europe. Regietheater embodies the belief that a director's interpretation of an opera is as important as what the composer intended, if not more so. . . .
If you think that Mac Donald may be exaggerating, you will be quickly disabused by the official description of the Berlin Abduction, a representative image [more ] of the production, and an article about it in the German press. Moreover, this is but the first of the many disturbingly lurid examples she cites.
Mac Donald argues that Regietheater is "one of the most depressing artistic developments of our time"--in part, because it denies new audiences "the unimpeded experience of an art form of unparalleled sublimity." At the root of the problem, in her view, is an intense hatred of Enlightenment values. In their place, as she recounts, Regietheater serves up a relentless diet of explicit sex, perversion, violence, and corruption, with frequent heavy-handed allusions to contemporary social and political issues. "When directors yank operas out of their historical contexts," Mac Donald observes, "they close a precious window into the past." Moreover, in their insistence that these classic works must be updated in order to communicate "something fresh" to today's audiences, they insult composers and contemporary audiences alike, for they imply not only that the works "are so musically and dramatically limited that they cannot speak to us today on their own terms" but also that "audiences so lack imagination that they cannot find meaning in something not literally about them."
The urgent pretext for Mac Donald's critique is that Regietheater productions have been making their way into the U. S. at American opera houses ranging from the San Francisco Opera to the New York City Opera. Until now, the New York's august Metropolitan Opera has held out against this lamentable trend. Mac Donald's fear, however, is that the company's new general manager, Peter Gelb, will soon begin to follow it in order to achieve his stated goal of attracting new audiences. An alarming sign, she notes, is his attempt to bring what she terms the "trendy downtown art scene" to the Met by commissioning opera-inspired work from Richard Prince [see Selected Works]--"among other art frauds," she aptly notes--for display in a small new gallery in the Met's lobby. (The title of Prince's contribution, "Madame Butterfly Is a Lesbian," tells all [more ] [more].)
(Mac Donald also won an Aristos Award for 2002.)
Christiansen (Music Critic, Daily Telegraph, U.K.)
For "Pretentious Tosh Masquerading as Music," April 10.
In his Pocket Guide to Opera (2002), Rupert Christiansen devoted just one sentence to Philip Glass, noting that though the composer's Einstein on the Beach (1976) and Akhnaten (1983) "were sensationally successful in the 1970s and 1980s, . . . their dazzling initial impact seems to have faded fast." In "Pretentious Tosh Masquerading as Music"--a review of the English National Opera's new production of Glass's Satyagraha (1980)--Christiansen offers a blunter assessment. Excoriating the relentless tedium of Glass's "grade-two scales and arpeggios, . . . basic chords and sequences that drill corrosively through one's ears and leave no trace behind, . . . masturbatory crescendos, . . . walls of empty noise, . . . [and] drones that pass for melodies," he declares that Satyagraha [more] "contains some of the most mind-numbing, brain rotting and soul-destroying noise that has ever passed for music." Still worse, in his view, are Glass's pretensions to profundity. Based on the early life of Mahatma Gandhi, the "opera" is sung in Sanskrit, with no surtitles. It also has, in effect, no beginning, climaxes, or end--no plot, in other words.
Joan Altabe does not mince words. "Conceptual art isn't art," she boldly states. "It's [just] an idea, often without image or object." One early conceptualist, Altabe reports, simply "conducted a poll on museum goers' opinion of the Vietnam War." "No art" there, in her view. "You may as well write out the idea, which is actually what many conceptual artists do." Regarding the infamous "readymades" of Duchamp, Altabe also gets right what most critics get wrong, that "the way Duchamp saw his readymades, they were statements about the state of art, not art itself."
(Altabe has also won Aristos Awards for 2006 and 2005.)2006
Notwithstanding her view of "shock art as art," her vague definition of art as "a mix of beauty and truth," and her questionable interpretation of Georges Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Joan Altabe merits high praise for taking her fellow critics Michael Kimmelman (New York Times) and Kim Levin (Village Voice) to task for helping "the shock art crowd . . . take art's name in vain"--a phrase which to us implies that what that crowd makes is not art.
Here she quotes from Kimmelman's approving review of what she calls "the SoHo exhibit of cow carcasses hacked up by artist Damien Hirst":
The show left me somehow, unexpectedly, smiling. . . . It's a sense of something vivifying beyond, or besides, his infatuation with death and dead animals, that makes [Hirst's] work likable, and makes his art different from the merely slick and chilling. ['Cows, Pigs, Cigarettes: All Dead,' New York Times, May 10, 1996].
Altabe faults Levin for her vacuous remarks about the work of Julian Schnabel--who is known, Altabe notes, for "giant canvases [more] where globs of paint are applied to broken pieces of crockery glued to the surface." In Levin's view, such works "regurgitate residues of feelings that no longer exist. They manage to be decadent and barbaric at the same time." Altabe continues: "Then, as if she knew she wasn't making any sense, Levin added, 'Why should everything mean something? What's wrong with a taste of true meaninglessness?'" To which Altabe replies: "Nothing, if that's your taste. Just don't call it art."
(Altabe has also won Aristos Awards for 2007 and 2005. She is also the winner of an Excellence in Journalism Award for Criticism in 2006 from the Florida Press Club.)
Lionel Shriver's Aristos-award-winning article "'Thought to Have Merit'" prompted Ken Masugi, a former editor of the Claremont Review of Books, to recall an essay published in the review about a vandalized work of outdoor "sculpture"--in which the writer "noted that one could not tell that the [work], which consisted of rows of upright poles, had been vandalized." He further recalled a practical joke that he and a friend had once played at an exhibition of work by Andy Warhol, where they attracted a small group of gullible onlookers merely "by staring at and 'admiring' a fire alarm box on the wall." From such experiences he concludes that "just as one may know the power of light by its absence, so might one realize what real art involves."
Tom Snyder (M.D.,
Vallejo, Calif.) [posted 8/09]
For letter to the Wall Street Journal, June 27, in response to "'Thought to Have Merit .'"
Tom Snyder's "all time favorite along these lines" is a Robert Rauschenberg work entitled White Painting (Three Panel), 1951, in which "three panels of canvas are painted identically with common flat house paint." Accompanying the work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Snyder reports, is a statement by Rauschenberg indicating that he sees no particular merit in the paint he used, and suggesting that the panels could just as well be repainted with any other flat white house paint.
"Perhaps a nice expression of artistic nihilism," Snyder observes, "but not, in my view, art."
(Novelist) [bio ]
[more] [posted 8/09]
For "'Thought to Have Merit': An English Sculptor Loses His Head," Wall Street Journal, June 20, 2006.
The story of David Hensel's entry in a summer exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London, as recounted by Lionel Shriver, is strange to tell. After having labored for some two months on One Day Closer to Paradise, a sculpture of a laughing head mounted on a slate tablet, Hensel arrived at the exhibition preview but was unable to find his work. It seems that the head been separated from its base, or plinth, leaving it and its supporting elements-- the plinth and a small barbell-shaped piece of boxwood that had held the head in place--to be judged as separate works of art. Exhibit 1201--as the judges had titled the plinth and tiny wood support--had been selected for the exhibition, not the head!
Why, Shriver wonders, had the judges rejected the laughing head? Perhaps it was because "the sculpture itself has--shudder--emotional content." It is, she observes, "not only fatally well rendered, but exudes a sense of joy and hilarity, and the overtly evocative is declassé." She adds: "How much more sophisticated, a stoic square of slate that speaks of--well, ask the viewers." Some apparently liked it.
Me, I just put a brick on my desk. I gaze in wonderment at the contrast in textures--the smooth, unyielding sides of the brick, the rough, almost sexual crumble on its chipped corner, the humbler, more submissive sensuality of the scarred plywood desktop. I marvel at the fierce, affirmative perpendicular of the brick, in firm opposition to the languid, taciturn serenity of the lateral . . . [ellipsis in original] But that's not even funny, is it? . . . How exasperating, a field so far out in la-la-land that it is impervious to parody.
The Royal Academy's "exaltation" of the plinth (which was "thought to have merit") recalls, Shriver adds, "many a misapprehension in galleries, where visitors are wont to coo over . . . ventilation grates and trash cans." (How about just trash? See first paragraph of "Modernism, Postmodernism, or Neither? A Fresh Look at 'Fine Art," Aristos, August 2005.) Shriver concludes:
One gift that contemporary art seems to have given us viewers is a way of seeing every object in our surround . . . as art. But in that event, we not only don't need commentators; we don't need artists, do we?
Or the Royal Academy.*
*David Hensel, we discovered, is a bona fide figurative sculptor (and jeweler), capable of estimable work, as two life-size clay portrait busts from 1997--Dione and Satoko--demonstrate. While we do not care for all his work, or always agree with his commentary, we do find him both talented and interesting.
Giles Auty (former Art
Critic, The Spectator and The Australian [posted 6/08]
For "Some Art Is Just Too Obscure for Words," June 6.
"But is it art? It's not a question often asked of truck driver and keen roo shooter Stuart Taylor. Now, after unloading more than 500 rounds into a steel shipping container, he can make a rightful claim to answer it.
"'Mate, I reckon it's a shipping container with bullet holes in it,' he answered as he surveyed his work yesterday on a property near Mount Victoria in the NSW Blue Mountains."
So began "Roo Hunters Enjoy Taking a Shot at Conceptual Art," the article that prompted Giles Auty to reflect on "conceptual artist" Milica Tomic "and the roo shooters she employed to blow holes in a steel shipping container [more] [more ] [more] [more] to symbolise the tragic events that . . . occurred in Afghanistan and Kosovo." "Without some lengthy supporting text," Auty muses, "will visitors to Sydney's Hyde Park Barracks where the container will reside temporarily have the faintest idea about that object's supposed meaning?" Not likely. In the nearly forty years since its invention, "conceptual art" has "not made much of a dent--let alone shot many holes into--the consciousness of the wider public," he observes.
Conceptualism belongs to a realm of activities described generally today as "challenging art." Indeed, because such "challenging art" has made so little apparent impact on public consciousness it now often demands--and receives-- public subsidy on the paradoxical grounds the public would never voluntarily support it.
The world of contemporary art is indeed a strange one of paradox and quirk in which awareness of the extraordinary achievements of artists of the past has diminished much more rapidly in the kingdom of art than among any wider community. Want to put on a blockbuster show? Experienced museum directors will be looking in the direction of Rembrandt, Matisse or Constable rather than at any abstruse assemblage of punctured steel shipping containers.
As for Milica Tomic, she no doubt belongs to one of the "several generations of young artists" that Auty laments "have been seriously misled--often by those one might have hoped would have known better--into believing that anything can be art and everyone an artist."2005
Victoria Dailey's letter is in response to an article ("Shopgifting," by Benjamin Genocchio, September 25) about Zoe Sheehan Saldana, an "artist" and professor of art at Baruch College, City University of New York, who engages in a variation of something called "shopdropping" [more]. Saldana purchases an item of clothing from a store, replicates it, then returns the new item to the store with the original tags affixed. Dailey suggests that such behavior ought to have been reported with other news about crime, not in the Times's Arts & Leisure section: "Just because someone decides to perpetrate a hoax on unsuspecting retailers and their customers and has the temerity to call it art does not mean it is art."
Joan Altabe (Art
Critic, Bradenton (Fla.) Herald) [bio]
For "Hanson Works Should Not Be Deemed 'Art,'"August 14.
"Now that the . . . Hanson show [more] at the Ringling Museum of Art has ended, I'll share my thoughts about it without worrying that I'll be spoiling your exhibit experience. As you can guess, I'm not a Hanson fan. If you are, you may not want to read further. Still here? OK, you've been warned. Hanson's life-like, life-size 'sculpture' of working-class people isn't sculpture. It isn't art."
(Altabe has also won Aristos Awards for 2007 and 2006. She is also the winner of an Excellence in Journalism Award for Criticism in 2006 from the Florida Press Club.)
For "The Venice Biennale," July 4.
In a brief item on the opening of the Venice Biennale," a leading showcase for avant-garde art," National Review observes:
It has been clear for years that contemporary art must soon reach the outermost bounds of silliness, so that artists will either have to find real jobs or return to painting landscapes and still lifes in oils. It is plain from the Biennale catalogue that this happy day is still some way off. At this year's event, Miyako Ishiuchi of Japan will be exhibiting 33 photographs of her late mother's personal possessions--lipsticks, chemises and girdles, assorted false teeth and combs still clumped with hair.
We further note that Ishiuchi's installation, Mother's 2000-2005--Traces of the Future, includes photographs not only of her mother's possessions but also of her scarred breast.
(Wantagh, N. Y.)
For a remark quoted in "Violated Again," by Douglas Feiden, New York Daily News, June 24.
Jennie Farrell--whose brother, James Cartier, died in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001--objected to a work on exhibit at the avant-garde Drawing Center in New York City. Entitled Homeland Security, it depicted "four airplanes swooping menacingly out of the sky--one of which is flying directly at a naked woman lying on her back, legs spread-eagled" according to the Daily News. Of this crude piece of politically motivated "art," Farrell said: "It's truly the most vulgar thing I have ever seen in my entire life. To call it art is reprehensible, and to place it at Ground Zero is committing a second criminal act against our dead."
New York Daily News
For the editorial "Get the Picture, Governor?" June 23.
The News characterizes selected items exhibited at the avant-garde Drawing Center as "silly, self-important, half-baked pieces of 'political art,'" and aptly terms "wackobabble" (a classic Daily News neologism if ever there was one) statements such as the following, issued by the museum's executive director:
Global capitalism levels out difference, effectively eliminating barriers while producing abstract space. It works similarly to the paradigm of the nation-stage, which demands an assimilation of difference, suggestive of a death of otherness in some current circles of thought.
After noting that there is a place on this planet for both informed and uninformed political dissent, the News wryly adds: "There's even a place for deep thinkers who can say things like 'a death of otherness' with straight faces."
Joshua Kosman (Music
Critic, San Francisco Chronicle)
For "Modernist Music Masters Flail Their Batons at Evil Music Critics ," March 30.
Joshua Kosman is critical of "arch-modernist" composer Charles Wuorinen and conductor James Levine (the new music director of the Boston Symphony) for blaming music critics for the fact that ordinary people tend to shun modernist music (see edited excerpt of the interview Kosman referred to: "Schoenberg, Bach, and Us," by Daniel J. Wakin, New York Times, March 27). Wuorinen, Kosman notes, has "spent his career working assiduously to create music that conforms to the modernist ideals of historical progress and technical innovation. Impeccably crafted and intricately structured, it pursues the organizational ideas established by [Arnold] Schoenberg with impressive zeal." Nonetheless, as Kosman further observes:
Audiences couldn't care less. Wuorinen's music and that of other similarly oriented composers has yet to make a dent in the culture at large, or in the consciousness of music lovers. Hence the bitterness, the self-pity, the snarling at the listeners for whose benefit all this scribbling is ostensibly being undertaken. (Elsewhere, Levine paints music as an arcane mystery whose secrets are available only through the efforts of a priestly caste of initiates, when he bewails the notion that "in music, everyone's entitled to an opinion.") . . .
The founding myth of modernism . . . was that . . . the prophetic artist, scorned and misunderstood in his own day, would be hailed once his time had come.
It didn't work out that way--or rather, it did for some, but not for everyone. Mahler's time came; so did Stravinsky's, Bartók's, Ives', even Berg's. Schoenberg and his acolytes are still waiting, and they're getting really testy.
Quoting English novelist Kingsley Amis as having observed, with "a grain of truth," that "no matter how persuasively and persistently [the champions of modernist music] urge their cause, it will never be accepted by the public at large, who will continue to regard it with incomprehension, outrage and repugnance." Why is this so? Kosman surmises that "it may have to do with inherent qualities in the way the brain processes auditory information. It may have to do with trends in music education. It may simply be a function of cyclical patterns of history." Or, he adds, "It may be because the music stinks." Or, we would be so bold as to suggest, it may be because some of it is really not music at all.
Kaley Holmboe displayed uncommon maturity and independence of mind in the way she characterized Christo Javacheff's Central Park Gates:
[It's] kind of different . . . strange . . . without much meaning [and] silly. . . . It doesn't represent that much. It kind of takes the purpose out of art. I guess that really depends what you define as art. In my opinion, I don't think it is art, just a bit of shock value. . . . But I guess that is the state of modern art these days."
(See also "Post Mortem on The Gates," Notes & Comments, Aristos, April.)
In this sober assessment of Christo Javacheff's Central Park Gates project (February 12-27) Henry Stern aptly questions its status as art.
(Stern is also the winner of an Aristos Award for 2004. See also "Post Mortem on The Gates," Notes & Comments, Aristos, April.)2004
In response to a statement made by Harry Rand (a "modern art" specialist at the Smithsonian Institution) in "Art and Melodrama" (November 23)--a review of a new biography of the famed Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)--Alfred N. Garwood remarks:
Here we are treated to an incomprehensible (and unconscionable) dismissal of all pre-1945 American art in a single sentence: "For more than 200 years American art had plodded along as a provincial enterprise, contributing hardly more to the progress of Western art than Ecuador or New Zealand." Really? Are Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, and Edward Hopper merely derivative provincials?
I know little of the art of Ecuador or New Zealand, but after [Harry Rand's] comment I am inclined to take a serious look.
Prompted by Garwood's parting gibe, we took a serious look at some images of art from Ecuador for the two centuries preceding 1945 and discovered such estimable works as the paintings [English translation] of Honorato Vázquez (1855-1933) [bio in spanish and English ] and Antonio Salguero (1864-1935)--a welcome contrast to de Kooning's purportedly urbane and sophisticated abstractions and his brutal series of Women [more].
Searching for the art of New Zealand over the same period, we came across such delightful landscapes as this unidentified image by John Kinder (active 1855-1905) and his Auckland, from the Verandah of Mr. Reader Wood's Cottage (1865)], as well as this delightful collection of scenes by other nineteenth-century painters. We also discovered two sensitive mid-twentieth-century portraits by Charles Goldie (whose style is erroneously characterized as "photo-realist" by the gallery). An impressionistic turn-of-the-century watercolor of a young woman (by one Frances Hodgkins) and an early untitled portrait (by Raymond McIntyre) also caught our eye.]
(Columnist, New York Sun)
For "3,000 Umbrellas: Gimmicks and Politics of Public Art," June 11-13.
Alicia Colon's objections to a purported work of public art--a "site-specific art installation" entitled "Beyond Metamorphosis" [more ], consisting of 3,000 umbrellas painted with images of the monarch butterfly--arise from her refreshingly down-to-earth perspective, not without ironic humor. She concludes, in part:
One wonders why it took so long for someone to figure out how to keep the tourists off the grass. The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council sponsored this work, and while it certainly looks like [the "artist" Victor] Matthews worked hard earning his grant, one has to wonder how on earth he managed to pitch this project. . . . "The piece explores themes of transformation, migration, and regeneration," Mr. Matthews says. "Butterflies make an obvious spiritual gesture that's often overlooked: of a life that never ends and a spirit that never dies." From what I could see, spikes hold down the 3,000 butterfly umbrellas so they're not likely to migrate anytime soon.
Colon charges that those who select and promote public art "come from an increasingly esoteric environment detached from public sentiment." "Perhaps," she adds, "we need people like Morley Safer, whose critique of the pseudo art world on '60 Minutes' called 'Yes . . . But Is It Art?' sparked a heated response from the contemporary art establishment."
(Colon is also the winner of an Aristos Award for 2003. See entries below for Morley Safer, under 1997 and 1993.)
Stern(Director, New York Civic; former Commissioner of Parks,
New York City) [bio]
For "Passion of the Christos: Redecorating Central Park," April 16.
In a "[respectful] dissent" from the public heralding of Christo Javacheff's Central Park Gates installation as an "artistic triumph," Henry J. Stern observes that "the proposed display is art only in the broadest sense of the word: Art as anything that someone will pay a lot of money to acquire in the hope that someone else will pay them even more for it later"; and he thereafter appropriately places the term art in scare quotes. The real triumph of Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude (the marketing and publicity guru of the duo), Stern further notes, is their ability to impose their work on the public.
(Stern is also the winner of an Aristos Award for 2005. See also "Post Mortem on The Gates," Notes & Comments, Aristos, April 2005.)
Whenever Dave Barry writes about art, he gets mail from the "Serious Art Community" letting him know that he is a "clueless idiot." He agrees, recounting several clueless moments he experienced at Art Basel, "a big art show" on Miami Beach that "attracted thousands of Serious Art People."
In the corner of one makeshift gallery Barry visited "there was a ratty old collapsed armchair--worn, dirty, leaking stuffing, possibly housing active vermin colonies."
I asked the gallery person if the chair was art, and she said yes, it was a work titled Chair [here seen leaking even more stuffing]. I asked her what role the artist had played in creating Chair. She said: 'He found it.'"
Seeking further enlightenment, Barry turned to a "Serious Art" website, where he found this pearl of wisdom: "'The chair offers not a weedy patina of desuetude but an apotheosis of its former occupant'" [full text]. "See," Barry admits, "I missed that altogether, about the desuetude and the apotheosis. I thought it was just a crappy old junk chair some guy took off a trash pile and was now trying to sell for 2,800 clams."
Another work at Art Basel that baffled Barry was Moonwalk: "You walked into the gallery . . . and it was empty, just blank white walls. Around the ceiling were a half-dozen speakers making a high-pitched sonar sound, like this: 'boop.' That was the art: 'boop.'"
(Dave Barry's columns are widely syndicated, under original titles in each newspaper. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1988 "for his consistently effective use of humor as a device for presenting fresh insights into serious concerns," as well as an Aristos Award for 2004 and two for 2002.)
Bernard Holland debunks the oft-repeated myth that if listeners can just be made to understand classical music--in particular, the contemporary avant-garde variety--they will learn to like it. "It is perfectly reasonable to argue," Holland maintains, "that music 200 years old possesses qualities that bear deeply on our immediate world. It still does a lot for us." But "understanding" it is not enough, in his view:
[The] leap from "understand" to "appreciate" is long and blind. Respectful cognizance and enlightenment through diligent listening tell me that Ralph Shapey was a brilliant composer, but at the end of a long day, how many of us take home his string quartets [or other works] to cuddle with affection? The word "understand" remains elusive. I don't understand an elm tree, but give me the right one, and I like to sit under it. Knowing its biology may help, but the heart is not a biologist. . . .
. . . [I]n the long run, general audiences are reliable critics. They can be momentarily scammed, but they eventually go toward what is good and away from what isn't. . . .
Anecdotal experience and considerable travel tell me that audiences of doctors, lawyers, teachers and sociologists do not like most of the music being written in their time. This is readily quantified by the sound of fleeing footsteps at the concert hall, silence at the box office and vacant spaces in front of certain record bins of your local music store. Calling these people cultural rabble, needing to be bathed in enlightenment, is not helpful. It is also not true. Knowing all about a piece of music and not liking it might not be the fault of the knower, if in fact it is a fault at all.
(Holland is also the winner of an Aristos Award for 2003.)
For "Tradition in the 21st Century" [pdf version, including seven footnotes not in original], catalogue essay* for Realism Revisited: The Florence Academy of Art, Panorama Museum, Bad Frankenhausen, Germany.
While alluding to the dark age in Western art since the early twentieth century, Daniel Graves begins his expansive essay "Tradition in the 21st Century" on a note of optimism. "[A]fter seventy years of relative neglect," he observes, "the representational art movement is flourishing." He pays tribute to the stalwart painter-teachers who kept, and still keep, that movement alive (among them, Aristos Award winners R.H. Ives Gammell  and Richard Lack [1969, 1985]); traces the course of his early training in the "traditional approach to realism"; and details the rigorous training students receive at the Florence Academy of Art (which he founded in 1991). He then offers this sober reflection:
Although pieces of the tradition were saved and passed down, I worry about the current state of this body of knowledge, which is one of the reasons I have devoted part of my time over the years to teaching.
The goal Graves has set for himself and the Florence Academy is simply stated. He aims to impart to generation of students the tools they need to create images that have both "emotional resonance and technical skill, and that convey, in their truthfulness and beauty, ideas of great significance." Yet as he rightly emphasizes, "there is something in addition to the technique that is also part of the tradition."
To merely record the surface appearance of "reality" has never been the province of painting, whose language is far deeper. From the beginning, artists have painted, sculpted and drawn things that had meaning for them, and the images they have left behind are a living testament, a record of their consciousness on earth. We can read even in the first cave paintings what was sacred to the people who painted them, what they loved, feared, mourned over, wished for, and found beautiful. . . . It seems to me that the greatest masters of the craft have always had a clear sense of what they found meaningful in life, which they then transposed into their art.
In closing, Graves quotes the eminent Victorian critic John Ruskin's admonition to artists ("All Great Art Is Praise," 1891): "Your art is to be the praise of something you love." (Ruskin was an accomplished artist as well as a highly influential critic.) As Graves notes, that idea is the antithesis of twenty-first-century emphasis on "cutting-edge" work, which seeks mainly to be new at all costs and to shock.
The lofty goals Graves sets for the Florence Academy of Art would be just empty rhetoric if the art produced there by its teachers and students did not live up to them. In our view, it most often does.
*The original catalogue version of "Tradition in the 21st Century" (no longer online) was of value for its links to the websites of most of the twenty-six artists in the exhibition, as well as for the Panorama Museum's introduction to the show. Not to be missed are the illustrations accompanying an abridged version of Graves's essay in "Daniel Graves: Steward of Humanist Art," by M. Stephen Doherty in Masters of Realism, a special issue of American Artist, February 9, 2008.
"Architecture is hard to define" Witold Rybczynski declares at the outset of this book. He is partial to the following account from a treatise by the sixteenth-century English poet, diplomat, and art connoisseur Sir Henry Wotton: "In Architecture, as in all other Operative Arts, the end must direct the Operation. The end is to build well. Well-building hath three conditions: Commoditie, Firmeness, and Delight." Or, as Rybczynski puts it:
architecture has not one but three distinct purposes: to shelter human activity (commodity), to durably challenge gravity and the elements (firmness), and to be an object of beauty (delight). Architecture is always a synthesis of the three. . . .
The end must direct the operation. That is what distinguishes architecture from the fine arts of painting and sculpture. "An artist can paint square wheels," Paul Klee once observed, "but an architect must make them round." Architecture, in this respect, is no different than other "operative arts" such as cooking. The creativity of the chef is likewise circumscribed by factors outside his control--the natural ingredients, the human palate, the chemistry of foods. The dish must be at once nourishing (commodity), cookable (firmness), and, of course, tasty (delight). (It should also look good, although the contemporary trend toward visually extravagant dishes seems to me an aberration). The art of cooking, like the art of architecture, lies in knowing how to establish the appropriate relations between the three conditions.
The analogy between architecture and cooking will undoubtedly irk those critics, architects, and others who hold that architecture is a fine art. We find it instructive, however, as we did the similar parallel that Rybczynski elsewhere drew between architecture and fashion design: "Like the couturier, the architect is involved in the complicated task of mating beauty with utility"* (from "Gentlemen, Here Is the Winner," Times Literary Supplement, August 11, 1995).
*We quoted that observation in What Art Is (Chapter 10, "Architecture: 'Art' or Design?") but mistakenly added that Rybczynski, "like . . . most other writers, does not draw the obvious conclusion that architecture should not be classified as [fine] art." Had we consulted his earlier book Looking Around: A Journey Through Architecture (for which he has now received another Aristos Award), we would have known that he does indeed draw that conclusion. We welcome this opportunity to correct our error.
Spalding (Former Director, the Glasgow Museums [Scotland]) [posted 11/07]
For The Eclipse of Art: Tackling the Crisis in Art Today.
Our review of Julian Spalding's The Eclipse of Art ("Artworld Maverick," Aristos, October 2007) begins by observing that he is among those rare individuals "--dubbed mavericks or fools, depending on one's perspective--who dare depart from received wisdom." His book, as he frankly declares in his Introduction, was written "for people who, though they enjoy art in general, have become confused and disenchanted by the art of our times"--who "can see very little merit in what is being promoted as art today." Though marred by inconsistencies and contradictions, it is a bold indictment of today's artworld. Like R. H. Ives Gammell's Twilight of Painting (1946) and Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word (1975), it is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the mostly sorry state of the visual arts today.
Edward J. Ross (Yorktown
Heights, N. Y.) [posted 6/06]
For "Seeya Dia," a letter to Smithsonian magazine, November.
Having read Amei Wallach's "Beacon of Light" after visiting Dia:Beacon , Edward J. Ross wondered if he and Wallach had been to the same place. "In Michael Heizer's work she saw a negative sculpture; I saw holes in the floor. In Donald Judd's installation she saw sculpture stripped to bare essentials; I saw a bunch of boxes. In Darboven's construction she saw an effect like walking through a history book; I saw picture postcards and letters of no special note."
(Wallach, it should be noted, is president emeritus of the International Association of Art Critics/USA.)
Commenting on a campaign protesting the imminent installation of Christo Javacheff's Gates project in New York's Central Park, Alicia Colon offers a much-needed commonsense perspective. Midway through her column she pauses to consider the work of other would-be artists:
I have tried to understand the theory behind conceptual art but its inclusion as a category of art still confounds me.
In May 1961, the Italian conceptualist Piero Manzoni packed 30 grams of his feces into numbered cans and labeled them, 'Artist's S--.' Sotheby's auctioned these fine pieces of so-called art for $67,000. . . . Just last week, another pseudo artist [whose work consists of arranging groups of naked people], Spencer Tunick arranged an installation called "Human Sculpture." It consisted of 450 nude women [more] lying on the floor of Grand Central Terminal at 3 a.m. The terminal was closed to the public between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. so that these exhibitionists could be arranged 'artistically' for Mr. Tunick's camera.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that's what it's come to. . . .
Returning to her original subject, Colon implores readers: "This is a serious matter. If you agree, join the battle to support genuine art and artists. A good start would be to restore dignity to Central Park by showing Christo and his 'Gates' the door."
(Colon is also the winner of an Aristos Award for 2004.)
(Music Critic, New York Times) [posted
For "How to Kill Orchestras," June 29.
American orchestras are in a financial fix. "As [they] lick their wounds, or die of them," Bernard Holland observes, "the blame falls on fleeing contributors, bad management and disappearing audiences." But these are symptoms, not causes, he cautions.
As for disappearing audiences . . . [c]lassical music has only itself to blame. It has indulged the creation of a narcissistic avant-garde speaking in languages that repel the average committed listener in even our most sophisticated American cities. . . . [Such] listeners . . . do not understand . . . why the commitment to reach and touch listeners in the seats does not stand at the beginning of the creative process, as it did with Haydn and Mozart. This kind of art-for-art's-sake has much to answer for. . . .
Fleeing audiences are one more symptom, the cause being a public art that has been abandoned by its avant-garde and uses up its given natural resources with profligacy. Audiences are not to blame. They are smarter than [avant-garde composers] want to think they are.
Holland reports that a recent performance of Schoenberg's Five Orchestra Pieces [more ] "was preceded by an explanatory lecture from the podium that was longer than the music itself," although the music is nearly a hundred years old. He does not say if those who actually sat through the performance benefited from the lecture, but we doubt it.
(Holland is also the winner of an Aristos Award for 2004.)
In this "update" on the British artworld--which, Dave Barry surmises, "exists mainly to provide [him] with material"--he recalls that "British art institutions have taken to paying large sums of money for works of art that can only be described as extremely innovative (I am using 'innovative' in the sense of 'stupid')," works such as the empty room in which the lights went on and off and the sealed can said to contain the "excrement of a deceased artist" [see "Modern Art Pushes Creative Boundaries," which won an Aristos Award for 2002].
Barry continues: "It's hard to imagine art getting any more innovative, but I am pleased to report that the British art community is doing its darnedest," Barry writes, citing an award of 30,000 pounds (about $47,000) given by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to Ceal Floyer, "for a work of art consisting of: a garbage bag."
Really. The work is titled Rubbish Bag, and to judge from the photograph in the [London] Times, it is a standard black plastic garbage bag, just like the ones you put your garbage in, except of course that you have to pay people to haul your garbage bags away, whereas Ms. Floyer got $47,000 for hers. There is a compelling reason for this: Ms. Floyer's bag is empty. That's what makes it artistic. Ms. Floyer is quoted by the Times as follows: ''It's not a bag of rubbish, it's a rubbish bag. The medium is clearly portrayed: It says it is a bag, air, and a twisted top.''
. . . [The Times notes that] "Floyer's sculpture is displayed by a doorway; the intention is that the viewer wonders whether it is full of air or rubbish." Actually, what it makes me wonder is whether the folks writing checks at the Paul Hamlyn Foundation have been smoking crack.
If the folks at PHF were smoking crack when they decided to honor Floyer with a fat check, Barry speculates, "they apparently have been sharing the pipe with the folks at Bedford Creative Arts"--who make the PHF folks look sane by comparison, we would add. (For another work by Floyer, not cited by Barry, see Light Bulb.)
(Dave Barry's columns are widely syndicated, under original titles in each newspaper. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1988 "for his consistently effective use of humor as a device for presenting fresh insights into serious concerns," as well as an Aristos Award for 2004 and two for 2002.)2002
The British avant-garde art community is Dave Barry's target here. One of its denizens, Martin Creed, was awarded a prize of 20,000 pounds (about $30,000) for a work he titled "The Lights Going On and Off," consisting of an empty room in which . . . the lights went on and off [see "The Lights Go On and Off," What Art Is Online, February 2002]. Why was it so honored?
Because [it] possesses the quality that your sophisticated art snot looks for above all else in a work of art, namely: no normal human would ever mistake it for art. Normal humans, confronted with a room containing only blinking lights, would say: "'Where's the art? And what's wrong with these lights?'"
The public can live with some modern art, however--but only if it has "nice colors that would go with the public's home decor" [on which, see Inside Culture: Art and Class in the American Home by 2002 Aristos Award winner David Halle]. "This kind of thing drives your professional art snots crazy. They cannot stand the thought that they would like the same art as the stupid old moron public." So what do they do? They promote work that is so "spectacularly inartistic" that no ordinary person could possibly like it--such as the empty room with lights going on and off every five seconds.
Alluding to a work of more recent vintage, Barry quotes this item from the London Telegraph: "The Tate Gallery has paid 22,300 pounds of public money for a work that is, quite literally, a load of excrement." The artist, Piero Manzoni, died in 1963. But before he did, so it is said, he filled 90 cans with about an ounce of his own. . . .--"let's call it his artistic vision," Barry discretely suggests. The Tate purchased one can of the series (number 004).
Now if somebody were to send you a can of vision, even sealed according to industrial standards, your response would be to report that person to the police. This is why you are a normal human, as opposed to an art professional.
Barry pictures an ordinary Brit reading about the Tate's purchase in the bathroom: "The guy becomes angry, very angry. He's about to hurl the paper down in fury, but then, suddenly, while sitting there . . . he has a vision. . . ."
(Dave Barry's columns are widely syndicated, under original titles in each newspaper. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1988 "for his consistently effective use of humor as a device for presenting fresh insights into serious concerns," as well as an Aristos Award for 2004 and another for 2002--see below.)
Heather Mac Donald--author of the aptly titled The Burden of Bad Ideas: How Modern Intellectuals Misshape Our Society--skewers the New York Times for regularly "disgorg[ing] itself of an article breathlessly celebrating graffiti vandalism as a vital art form." Among the many bad ideas that the newspaper has disseminated over the years, in her view, "few compare to the newspaper's glorification of graffiti for sheer destructive stupidity."
In a much-ballyhooed supplement to its millennial edition on New Year's Day, 2000, the newspaper offered its readers predictions about "the next big thing in a range of disciplines, . . . ideas that may turn into breakthroughs." One of these groundbreaking ideas, argued the Times, was that graffiti was art. . . . Unaware that it was arriving three decades late to the discovery, the Times quoted a "graffiti scholar," who complained that New York's anti-graffiti drive "repressed a really important art movement in the 20th century." Rather than fighting graffiti, opined the scholar, the city should have "used it to beautify urban spaces."
Predicting that "a continuing stream of graffiti idiocy" could be expected to spew forth from the pages of the Times, Mac Donald cites six instances from the first two years of this century. In one of them ("Hip Hop as a Raw Hybrid," September 22, 2000), we note, Times art critic Roberta Smith lauds this contemporary phenomenon--which began (and is still practiced) as a criminal activity--as the "exuberantly pictorial writing of graffiti art."
During the three years since Mac Donald's article appeared, the stream of "graffiti idiocy" in the Times has continued unabated, as an example from its June 21, 2005, edition attests.
Writing of the controversial exhibition "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art," George Will justly reserves his most biting criticism not for the avant-garde "artists" featured in it but for the museum that chose to exhibit and promote their work.
An iron law of avant-garde art is that theorizing expands to fill a void of talent. That law explains the execrable exhibit . . . now in its final days at the Jewish Museum [in New York City]. . . .
The works by 13 "internationally recognized" artists make, the museum brochure says, "new and daring use of imagery taken from the Nazi era." In the cant of artists' self-puffery, the word "daring" usually means artists are daring to strike political poses that are imbecilic and, among the avant-garde, fashionable. Here the artists daringly draw "unnerving connections between the imagery of the Third Reich and today's consumer culture." . . .
The smug narcissism and overbearing didacticism, all expressed in jargon-clotted prose about "aesthetic strategies" and "transgressive images," is repulsive. The use of genocide as a plaything for political posturing is contemptible. What was the Jewish Museum thinking, and why did it not think again after Sept. 11? . . .
A wit once said that everything changes except the avant-garde. But it does change. It gets worse.
(Will is also the winner of two Aristos Awards for 2001 and one each for 1994 and 2009.)
For online images of works included in Mirroring Evil, see Prada Death Camp, LEGO Concentration Camp Set, Zugzwang, L'Homme Double, and Enfants Gâtés. See also Michelle Kamhi's commentary "Anti-Art Is Not Art," What Art Is Online, June 2002.
"We Americans," observes Dave Barry, "tend to assume that the British are more intelligent than we are because they speak with British accents. That's why we need to know about the Turner Prize . . . 'one of the most important and prestigious awards for the visual arts in Europe,'" according to those who award it. Martin Creed, who won in 2001 for The Lights Going On and Off--see item above on Barry's "Modern Art Pushes Creative Boundaries," October 9, 2002, for more on this artworld fraud. Another bit of Creed fakery derided by Barry is A Sheet of A4 Paper Crumpled Into a Ball. Why is it that when Creed crumples paper it is art and when ordinary mortals do it it is trash? Because, as Barry explains with his customary irreverence, Creed has an "artistic asset" most people do not possess--"the fervent admiration of professional art twits." Still another sham perpetrated by Creed (referred to by Barry without its title) is A Doorstop Fixed to a Floor to Let a Door Open Only 45 Degrees.
"Frankly, I admire Martin Creed," Barry says. "He can do whatever he wants, and the critics will declare that it's art, especially if it annoys normal people."
(Dave Barry's columns are widely syndicated, under original titles in each newspaper. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1988 "for his consistently effective use of humor as a device for presenting fresh insights into serious concerns," as well as an Aristos Award for 2004 and another for 2002--see above.)2001
John Leo (Columnist and
Contributing Editor, U. S. News & World Report) [bio]
For "But Where's the Art?" May 14 (also published in townhall.com [print option available] under the less apt title "Pop Culture in Museums Is Mostly about Commerce").
John Leo condemns "a spate of amazingly foolish exhibitions" of such things as rock guitars, motorcycles, sneakers (athletic shoes), and high fashion, among other commercial products and ventures at American art museums. "What does all this have to do with art?" he asks. "Not much." He further observes:
The current generation of museum curators, mostly reared in the 1960s' ethic of opposition to authority and tradition, bought into the postmodern idea that art museums have been part of the stuffy, elitist, Eurocentric power structure that must be overthrown. . . .
According to postmodern theory, artistic judgment is a mask for power; there are no masterpieces, and even quality is suspect. . . .
In general, curators seem to accept the postmodern ideology and some take it more seriously than others. The Seattle Art Museum, which keeps its European and American art out of the way on the top floor, is one of several museums that hired Fred Wilson [more], essentially to mock its permanent collection. Wilson is an "installation artist" and "museum deconstructor" who rummages around in permanent collections and stages displays to show how racist and intolerant museums are.
(Leo also won an Aristos Award for 1995.)
Indicting an exhibition of rather ghoulish "art," Linda Chavez refers to other such abominations as "vile activity that masquerades as art" and answers the question of her title with an emphatic No.
[Gunther] Von Hagens, a German anatomist, has created an "art" exhibit consisting of works that include a man seated at a chess board, his brain exposed; a woman whose pregnant belly is peeled back to reveal an 8-month fetus curled inside; a skinned man astride a horse, holding his brain in his right hand, the horse's in his left.
Nothing shocking about this, you say, it's just what passes for modern art these days? Ah, but there's an important difference. Von Hagens' "Bodyworks" exhibit [official title: Body Worlds, a.k.a. Bodies: The Exhibition] is not representational art--the usual paintings or sculptures or even photographs--but actual human bodies or body parts from 200 dead men, women, and children preserved, dissected, mutilated and put on display to entertain.
(At the time of Chavez's column, Von Hagens--who once performed a public autopsy in a London art gallery and considers himself an artist of sorts--had displayed his "bodies" in cities throughout the world but not in North America. Since then, his exhibition has been mounted in science museums from Los Angeles to Tampa, Fla. That fact did not stop the New York Times from publishing a review entitled "Florida Museumgoers Line Up to See Corpses" in the arts section of its national and regional editions, however. The show has also appeared in science museums in Toronto and in Philadelphia.)
George Will's column was inspired by Renee Cox's Yo Mama's Last Supper (from Committed to the Image, an exhibition of work by contemporary black photographers). He writes, in part:
The photograph features the photographer, Renee Cox, a muddle-headed and theoretically inclined--a common combination of traits nowadays--exhibitionist with a flair for self-promotion. She appears in the photograph nude, arms outstretched, in the place in which Jesus is traditionally portrayed in the Last Supper. Twelve of her friends pose as apostles. . . . She calls this "flipping the script, creating my own kind of kingdom, my own universe." . . .
Cox says she is not anti-Catholic, but she says there are "major discrepancies with the Catholic faith" and "as an artist, my role is to create a discourse" and she wants "an open discourse" about the church's retrograde attitudes about women and blacks, and 40 percent of slave owners were Catholics, and Catholics "are about business, money" and "that it is about, you know, the fact that, I mean, for instance that we have, you know, celibacy within the church" and "you know, from my research that I found out--I mean I found out it went back to medieval times, where the church basically realized that if you had celibacy you didn't have to share the wealth upon somebody's death--the wealth could stay in the church" and "I don't really understand the problem of the nudity due to the fact that, I mean, this is like the oldest thing" and "it's [her photograph, presumably] done in a statuesque manner" and "there is no, sort of, like, sexual innuendo" but "apparently, you know, in the United States people have a problem with the nude form" and people are so much more mature about these things in Europe.
Contrast Will's view of Cox--he deems her "addlepated"-- with that offered by artworld icon Arthur Danto (Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy emeritus at Columbia University and art critic of The Nation), who straightfacedly characterizes the photograph in question as showing "a naked woman at a dinner party" and Cox as "a serious artist, with serious things to say in her chosen medium" ("In the Bosom of Jesus," The Nation, May 10). As to what some of those "serious things" might be, Danto gives no clue.
(See below for Will's other Aristos Award for 2001; he also received awards 2002 and 1994.)
In this column, George Will censures foolish public statements made by the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Bill Ivey [more]. As Will reports, Ivey had recently given a talk calling for "an American Cultural Bill of Rights"--in which he declared: "Signs of increased access to quality art and design are all around us. Michael Graves designs dishware for Target Stores. Martha Stewart crafts designer elements for Kmart. Hard-hatted workers in the Endowment's office building order double lattes."
As Will notes, the NEA had three years earlier (before Ivey's tenure) "endorsed the idea that art includes 'the expressive behaviors of ordinary people,' including 'dinner-table arrangements' and 'playtime activities' and 'work practices.' That is, everything." In Ivey's world, therefore, "art is whatever an artist says it is, and an artist is anyone who produces art. So the word 'art' has become a classification that no longer classifies, there being nothing it excludes."
That Will's criticism touched a nerve in the artworld is evidenced by a heavy-handed "Action Alert" issued by the American Arts Alliance--which ignores Ivey's references to double lattes and dishware, and exhorts its members to defend him.
Some might argue that Will makes too much of Ivey's examples, that they do not accurately reflect his conception of the arts. Remarks made by Ivey in an online discussion [scroll down or search for comments by Louis Torres] four years later reveal otherwise, however. The former NEA chairman there opined that "Americans are deeply engaged in art, but it's . . . a cool new suit, a CD from Starbucks . . . [and] some nice looking dishes from Pottery Barn."
(See above for Will's other Aristos Award for 2001; he also received one each for 2009, 2002, and 1994.)2000
In the fall of 1999 the Museum of Modern Art launched a series of exhibitions called MoMA2000, billed as a survey of the history of modernism from 1880 to 2000. In "Modern, But Is It Art?" John Zeaman reviews "Open Ends," the final installment of that series, which featured the post-1960 work that MoMA had previously shunned or relagated to secondary status.
[Andy] Warhol's wooden Brillo Box  [more] is grouped in a section called "Actual Size," with similar works that mimic real-life objects. Robert Gober, for example, sculpted a cat litter bag [Cat Litter, 1990] [more ] that can pass for the real thing. The cross-referencing tends to divert attention away from more fundamental questions about the worth of these things, such as why something that looks exactly like a real-life object is art, when the object itself is as far from art as anything can be.
Of a section in the exhibition called "White Spectrum," which displayed works by Robert Ryman and Agnes Martin (not necessarily those pictured here), Zeaman asks: "Is there an idea in contemporary art that has been more beaten to death than the white-on-white painting?" He also cites a "so-called white painting . . . [that] is actually black," by Glenn Ligon--a black painter "whose works usually deal with issues of race" (see, for example, Ligon's White #9 from 1993, which may not be the same as the painting in the exhibition). Remarking that the wall text for "White Spectrum," on the various meanings of whiteness, is far more "inspiring" than the works themselves, Zeaman notes that the same is true of much of the exhibition: "The explanations are generally more interesting than the objects. . . ."
The fact is, even after 40 years, most people still wear a bewildered expression when they stare at this stuff. Docents are in great demand, as are audio guides. In this exhibit, there is not only wall text, but individual pamphlets for each section--11 in all--and the museum provides a little cardboard case for those who want to carry the pamphlets home for further study.
Art really shouldn't require so much explanation, especially explanations that probably don't answer most people's questions. It's as if a poet found it necessary to include a sheaf of illustrations with each poem to help people see the images.
While Zeaman finds some of the work "diverting" and "entertaining"--such as the "little doll-like figures in their doll-like houses" by the photographer and "conceptual artist" Laurie Simmons [images: 1 , 2, 3]; Cindy Sherman's self-portraits in multiple guises that make up her Untitled Film Stills series; and a husband-and-wife team's photographs of "a strange kitchen incident involving an elderly woman and some out-of-control potatoes" [Kitchen Frenzy , 1986]--he concludes:
But it all comes down to that tiresome question of whether it's art or not. Maybe it's just entertainment, like a wax museum. If people were to admit that, maybe they could come up with a new place to put these things. The Hall of Amusing Objects, perhaps. That would spare us the long-winded explanations.
(To accompany the Open Ends exhibition, the Museum of Modern Art Education Department concocted an Open Ends Guide for Looking, to aid teachers and parents in helping students in grades K-12 to "develop skills for analyzing and enjoying art." Its objective is to "foster dialogue and facilitate students' abilities to find meaning in modern and contemporary art." One can only hope that some students will recognize that there is no meaning to be found in such work.)
David L. Cowen (Professor
Emeritus of History, Rutgers University, The State University of New Jersey,
1909-2006) [bio] [posted 6/06]
For "That's Sculpture?"--letter to the New York Times, April 2.
Responding to Holland Cotter's "Robert Gober: An Impresario of Menace in Simple Things," David L. Cowen poses a simple request in a letter consisting of a single sentence: "Please provide a definition of sculpture that will cover the work of Robert Gober [more ]." Needless to say, no definition was forthcoming.1999
Theodore Dalrymple begins his article by lamenting that the Royal Academy of Art's exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection [the controversial show that later traveled to New York's Brooklyn Museum of Art]--which "embodied fully that quintessential characteristic of modern British culture: extreme vulgarity"--had completely overshadowed a show of Sir Henry Raeburn's "elegant and psychologically profound" portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery. But he reserves his strongest censure for the Royal Academy's chief of exhibitions, Norman Rosenthal, an archetypical postmodernist scholar who wrote the lead essay for the exhibition catalogue. To quote Dalrymple:
"It has always been the job of artists to conquer territory that has been taboo," writes Norman Rosenthal in his grossly disingenuous essay, ambiguously entitled "The Blood Must Continue to Flow.". . . It would be difficult to formulate a less truthful, more willfully distorted summary of art history, of which a small part--and by no means the most glorious-- is mistaken for the whole, that the unjustifiable may be justified.
"Artists must continue the conquest of new territory and new taboos," Rosenthal continues, in prescriptivist mood. He admits no other purpose of art: to break taboos is thus not a possible function of art but its only function. Small wonder, then, that if all art is the breaking of taboos, all breaking of taboos soon comes to be regarded as art.
Of course, he doesn't really mean what he says; but then, for intellectuals like him, words are not to express propositions or truth but to distinguish the writer socially from the common herd, too artistically unenlightened and unsophisticated to advocate the abandonment of all restraint and standards.
Contrast Dalrymple's remarks with the laudatory review of Sensation ("The Freeze Generation and Beyond") in Art Journal, the quarterly of the College Art Association, based in the United States.
(For images of works cited by Dalrymple, see Myra Hindley [more: police mug shot of the child killer on which this "portrait" is based] [more: close-up] by Marcus Harvey; Dead Dad [ more: a college student sketching the work], by Ron Mueck--a miniature replica of his dead father's naked body; and Zygotic acceleration, biogenetic, de-sublimated libidinal model [scroll down to end], by Jake and Dinos Chapman--"a fiberglass sculpture of several conjoined girls, some with anuses for mouths and semierect penises for noses, all naked except for sneakers on their feet.")1998
* William Rusher
(Columnist; Distinguished Fellow, the Claremont Institute) [bio]
For "Fine Arts as Viewed from the Right Side," Washington Times, September 13.
William Rusher speculates that "[t]here must be millions of Americans who believe," as he does, "that art in the twentieth century has mirrored its times all too faithfully." Observing that "[i]n almost every discipline familiar to the human mind, traditional wisdom and accepted standards have been overthrown in the name of 'progress,'" he continues:
In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that twentieth-century artists have also tried to shake off what they scorned as the dead hand of "tradition" and see the world anew. From Picasso and thousands of other painters to Epstein and hundreds of other sculptors, the effort has been to shock viewers with a brand-new vision of "reality"--or even to abandon the depiction of reality altogether, in favor of pure abstraction.
Reflecting what even some in the artworld acknowledge, Rusher observes that "[t]he result has been to leave a great many well-meaning people unable to relate to most twentieth-century art. I include myself in that unhappy number. . . . [M]ost 'modern' (or postmodern) art simply doesn't speak to me."1997
Philip Roth (Novelist) [bio] [posted 12/13]
For his send-up of the pretensions surrounding abstract painting, in American Pastoral.
Philip Roth's critically acclaimed novel American Pastoral, published in 1997, well deserves its many accolades--among others, a Pulitzer Prize. Here we honor it for a scene in which its decent but hapless protagonist, "Swede" Levov, reluctantly attends a showing at a local frame shop of abstract paintings by his Princeton-educated blueblood neighbor Bill Orcutt (William Orcutt III).
As the narrator (Roth's fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman) explains, "The Swede was never so uncomfortable in any social situation as he was standing in front of Orcutt's paintings, which were said by the flier you got at the door to be influenced by Chinese calligraphy but looked like nothing much to him, not even Chinese."
While the Swede's wife, Dawn, "found them 'thought-provoking,'" the main thought they provoked in him was "how long he should continue pretending to look at one of the canvases before moving on to pretend to be looking at another one." When he leaned forward to read the titles, hoping they might help, what he found was "Composition #16, Picture #6, Meditation #11, Untitled #12." Urged by Dawn to "look at the brushwork" instead, what he saw was "a band of long gray smears so pale across a white background that it looked as though Orcutt had tried not to paint the painting but to rub it out."
Seeking enlightenment in the flier prepared by the frame shop's owners, the Swede reads: "'Orcutt's calligraphy is so intense the shapes dissolve. Then, in the glow of its own energy, the brush stroke dissolves itself. . . .'" Which prompted him to muse:
Why on earth would a guy like Orcutt, no stranger to the natural world and the great historical drama of this country--and a helluva tennis player--why on earth did he want to paint pictures of nothing? . . . [W]hy would someone as well educated and as self-confident as Orcutt devote all this effort to being a phony?
Like many museum goers fearful of their own ignorance, however, the Swede was dissuaded from such thoughts by the flier's declaration that what Orcutt aimed to create was a "'a personal expression of universal themes that include the enduring moral dilemmas which define the human condition.'"
Zuckerman then observes:
It never occurred to the Swede, reading the flier, that enough could not be claimed for the paintings just because they were so hollow, that you had to say they were pictures of everything, because they were pictures of nothing--that all those words were merely another way of saying Orcutt was talentless. . . .
Roth's fictional narrative of the Swede's musings on abstract art offers an indictment of artworld pretentions that no mere essay could achieve.
* Morley Safer (News
Correspondent, CBS) [bio]
For Yes . . . But Is It Art? II, on 60 Minutes, October 5.
Morley Safer's opening remarks in this sequel to his 1993 broadside against artworld pretensions (for which he won his first Aristos Award) are delivered in his inimitably wry style:
We made a discovery here a few years ago. Forget politics, religion or sex as subjects. If you want to set people's hearts on fire, really get them steamed, try art, modern art. And if you thought that some of the things we showed you then were pretty outrageous, let me assure you, they've gotten worse, or, depending on your point of view, even better. For example. . . .
Among the pieces cited by Safer are some dust glued to a wall, signifying the "ephemeral nature of life," or (as an unidentified dealer put it) "a moment in time . . . a record of--of time." Safer then quipped: "So this is, in effect, this week's dust." And the dealer replied: "Well, what he said . . . was--he--he'd made the pieces, this is probably 100 people amongst this. You--you've got, in a--in a--in a strange way, 100 people possibly in the dust in this--in this piece." Another piece is a pile of sawdust, which an eccentric dealer named Jibby Beane assures him is "a work of art"--not something left behind by careless workmen who constructed her booth at an art show. "It's a deep thought by the artist, Terry Smith," Safer wryly observes. A piece by Damien Hirst (Some Comfort Gained from the Acceptance of Inherent Lies in Everything), too, is mocked by Safer, as is Marcel Duchamp's iconic Fountain:
Since 1913 when Marcel Duchamp showed this urinal at a show in New York, young artists, like so many karaoke singers, have been mouthing the same tune: a fascination with plumbing. Still, there are things that do bring a smile. . . . recycling for art's sake. The sheer power of it is unbearable.
(Safer is also the winner of an Aristos Award for 1993. See also "Yes . . . But Is It Art?--Morley Safer and Murphy Brown Take on the Experts," Aristos, June 1994, and the entry below on 1994 Aristos Award winner Lisa Albert, who wrote the Murphy Brown episode cited in that article.)
* Kwame Anthony Appiah
(Professor of Philosophy, Princeton University) [bio] [more]
For "The Arts of Africa," New York Review of Books, April 24; reprinted in Ideas Matter: Essays in Honour of Conor Cruise O'Brien (1998), ed. by Richard English and Joseph Morrison Skelly. (Appiah's article is based on his essay "Why Africa? Why Art?" in Tom Phillips, ed., Africa: The Art of a Continent, the catalogue of an exhibition held at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, October 4, 1995 - January 21, 1996; the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, March 1 - May 1, 1996; and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, June 7 - September 29, 1996.)
The title of Kwame Anthony Appiah's essay, "Why Africa? Why Art?" reflects the dual irony he emphasizes: the objects exhibited were made by people who did not think of themselves as "Africans," and they were not intended to serve the function of "art." In his assessment of the exhibition Africa: The Art of a Continent, Appiah elucidates the essential difference between works of fine art and utilitarian objects of decorative art. Of the representational goldweights [more--click on images] featured in the exhibition (similar to those pictured in links), he writes: "[They] are wonderfully expressive: they depict people and animals, plants and tools, weapons and domestic utensils, often in arrangements that will remind an Asante who looks at them of a familiar proverb." Yet as he further points out:
[Q]uite often among these elegant objects, so obviously crafted with great skill and care, [there is] one that has a lump of unworked metal stuffed into a crevice, in a way that seems completely to destroy its aesthetic unity; or, sometimes, a well-made figure has a limb crudely hacked off. These amputations and excrescences are there because, after all, a weight is a weight [as in Aristotle's Law of Identity, 'A is A']: and if it doesn't weigh the right amount, it can't serve its function. If a goldweight, however finely crafted, has the wrong mass, then something needs to be added (or chopped off) to bring it to its proper size. . . .
. . . Goldweights . . . have many of the features that we expect of works of art. In Ashanti itself, they were appreciated for their appeal to the eye, or for the proverbial traditions they engaged. But in the end, as I say, they were weights: and their job was to tell you the value of the gold dust in the weighing pan.
Although the best of the goldweights were "among the splendors of African creativity," and their "decorative elegance was something prized and aimed for," Appiah rightly concludes, it was "an ornament, an embellishment, on an object that served a utilitarian function," and "in appreciating and collecting these weights as art we are doing something . . . that their makers and the men and women who paid them did not do."1996
After quoting this "revealing observation" made about Samuel Beckett by the playwright Nicholas Wright (in Ninety-Nine Plays)--"I don't think you can get very far with the plays unless you see them as explorations of clinical depression"--Charles Spencer (the 1999 British Press Awards Critic of the Year) declares:
[M]ost critics argue that Beckett's bleak vision is the achievement of a heroic and honest artist. Beckett, we are asked to believe, had courage. What he really had was an illness. Anyone who has ever suffered from depression will immediately recognise Beckett's dramatic world--the listlessness and despair, the blank horizon, even the outbreaks of gallows humour that grow from the death, rather than the resilience, of the human spirit. This may be of psychiatric interest, but frankly it is inadequate as art. I'm not suggesting that all plays should aim for a spurious spiritual uplift, but Beckett's despair is too all-embracing, and too facile. He has given up before he has started, and his view of life is woefully incomplete. . . . All that is left is grim endurance. You can pity the dramatist for this, but during the interminable course of Endgame you find yourself resenting him, too. Depression is as infectious as flu and the . . . relentless drip, drip, drip of misery [in the play] is like Chinese water torture. By the end you've been reduced to Beckett's level of hopelessness. It is only as you emerge from the theatre and notice that the trees are in bud, the pubs are open and lovers are walking down the street that you re-acquaint yourself with the fact that life has far more to offer than the playwright suggests.
As psychologist Louis Sass notes in Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, the lengthy monologue delivered (by the character named Lucky) near the end of Act One of Beckett's Waiting for Godot--which purports to be a parody of academic discourse--is "a simulacrum of schizophrenic speech so filled with vagueness, empty repetition, and stereotyped or obscure phrases that it achieves nearly total incoherence."1995
(Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute) [bio]
For Introduction and Chapter 5, "Museums, Moving Images, and False Memories," in Telling the Truth: Why Our Culture and Our Country Have Stopped Making Sense--and What We Can Do About It.
Lynne Cheney, who holds a Ph.D in nineteenth-century British literature from the University of Wisconsin, served as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) from 1986 to 1993. During her tenure at NEH, she discovered that for a growing number of academics "the truth was not merely irrelevant, it no longer existed." Embracing postmodernism, they had reached the conclusion that "there is no independent reality and thus no basis for making judgments about truth." In Telling the Truth, Cheney observes that "in fields ranging from education to art to law, the attack on truth has been accompanied by an assault on standards." She notes, for example, that the feminist idea "that aesthetic standards are nothing more than white male constructs" has led to the elevation of purported artists "who mock the concept of quality and strive through their subjects . . . to be as disgusting as possible."
A related concern that Cheney finds "deeply unsettling" is "not only . . . whether our educational and cultural institutions will pass along an accurate and balanced history to our children, but also . . . whether they will communicate to them the importance of reason . . . , of using evidence to arrive at conclusions." (Sadly, her fears in this regard are being realized in the field of art education, where the study of art and art history is increasingly politicized and even supplanted by politically tendentious studies in "visual [and 'material'] culture." See our "Readings on Art Education.")
In Chapter 5 of Telling the Truth, Cheney blames the postmodernist artworld for spawning "many of the grotesqueries of our time." As an example she cites a work that had been recently exhibited at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City--a painting by Sue Williams [more] entitled Try to be more accommodating, which "showed penises being inserted into a woman's eyes, ears, nose, and mouth." (See the review [scroll down] of the exhibition by Eleanor Heartney, a leading postmodernist art critic.) To view other works by Williams, enter her full name at Google Images [see first two pages]. Similar work exhibited at the 1993 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York City elicited the following comments from a museum guard Cheney spoke with: "[Y]ou couldn't be in a show like this unless you were making a certain type of statement. If it's political, that's enough. The aesthetic isn't important." He added that visitors were frequently disappointed with what they found on display. "Everyone asks for the [Edward] Hoppers [e. g., Self Portrait, Early Sunday Morning, Seven A.M., Second Story Sunlight]," he said. "They come in here and that's what they want to see."
As Cheney observes, such people
still think of museums in terms of quality--a concept that many museum directors and curators now hold in contempt. The idea that art should offer insight, virtuoso workmanship, and creative genius is regarded as not only naive, but sexist, racist, and imperialist. . . . Thus at museums like the Whitney, curators see themselves undertaking an important political mission when they display works that are deliberately ugly and off-putting.
(For disturbing examples of the sort of thing Cheney had in mind, see images 2 through 6 of a presentation entitled "Body Narcissism, Concreteness and Shame" at a 2006 symposium. The brief annotations give fair warning.)
* John Leo (Columnist and
Contributing Editor, U. S. News & World Report)
For "The Backlash against Victim Art," January 16.
Responding to the controversy provoked by Arlene Croce's "Discussing the Undiscussable" (see below), John Leo broadens the debate to censure any politically motivated, artistically empty work that depends mainly on eliciting pity for the actual or alleged oppression or misfortune of the would-be artist. As he observes: "We have reached the point where almost any victim complaint is passed off as art."
(Leo also won an Aristos Award for 2001.)
Shattering the illusion that the National Endowment for the Arts is "good for the nation, good for art or good for the taxpayer," Jeff Jacoby condemns its support for "artists bent on insulting and scandalizing the public," and cites the "pornographist" Annie Sprinkle, who "masturbated on stage with sex toys, inserted a speculum into her vagina and called up audience members to examine her cervix with a flashlight." "Mention [such] examples," Jacoby observes, "and NEA partisans grind their teeth," arguing that little of the agency's support goes to such projects. As he notes:
[Y]ou'll never hear them regret those subsidies or apologize for them. On the contrary, they defend them. They embrace them. They maintain that art is supposed to "challenge our most sacred values," that the artist's role is to "shatter preconceptions" and "provoke society." Such definitions reduce the idea of art to little more than self-indulgent rudeness. It is a sign of how badly the currency of contemporary culture has been debased that so many artists and arts bureaucrats insist that debauchery and degeneracy are compatible with art--insist, even, that they are art.
* R. Emmett Tyrrell,
Jr. (Founder and Editor in Chief, The American Spectator)
For "Politics and Art: Traditionalists to the Fore," New York Post, June 3.
Characterizing photographers Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe as "artistic blanks" whose fame is due to "political clout masterfully applied," R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. further observes: "Mere naughtiness in our age sells, but it is not art."1994
Arlene Croce's essay--reprinted in Writing in the Dark, Dancing in the New Yorker, an anthology of her criticism--is exceptional in the critical literature of any art form for its insight and integrity. (To read the full essay, enter its title at the "Search Inside" feature for the book at amazon.com--see link, above. Follow the page links, returning to earlier ones as needed.) In defending her decision neither to see nor to review choreographer Bill T. Jones's Still/Here--a "multimedia" work prominently featuring videotaped excerpts from "workshops" he had conducted with individuals suffering from terminal illnesses, Croce rightly chides Jones for "cross[ing] the line between theater and reality" and thereby ignoring the fundamental distinction between the two. Art, as she implies (and as we argue in What Art Is), does not simply present reality but, rather, selectively re-creates it.
(On the genesis of "Discussing the Undiscussable," see the first chapter of Writing in the Dark.)
In this episode of one of television's classic situation comedies, the show's intrepid fictional TV anchorwoman mocks the fashionable artworld and its pseudo-artists. Inspired by Morley Safer's 60 Minutes segment aired the previous September (an Aristos Award winner for 1993), and by its sorry aftermath, the Murphy Brown episode was, as we noted in "Yes . . . But Is It Art?--Morley Safer and Murphy Brown Take on the Experts" (Aristos, April 1994), "as trenchant a social satire as any play by Molière--a witty denuding of intellectual pretension and charlatanry."
(Columnist, Washington Post and Newsweek) [bio])
For "Washington's Works of Art," Newsweek, January 10.
Alluding to the National Endowment for the Arts, George Will rightly laments that "nowadays almost anything may, without serious challenge, be said to be a work of art." He further observes that "today the question 'Is it art' is considered an impertinence and even a precursor of 'censorship,' understood as a refusal to subsidize. Today art is whatever the 'arts community' says it is, and membership in that community involves no exacting entrance requirements."
(Will also won two Aristos Awards for 2001, and one each for 2002 and 2009.)
Witold Rybczynski (Professor of Urbanism and of Real
Estate, University of Pennsylvania; Architecture Critic, Slate); and
For Looking Around: A Journey Through Architecture.
In the Introduction to this modestly titled book, Rybczynski somewhat disconcertingly states that "a building succeeds--or fails--on many levels," one of them being "as a work of art." As he makes clear in a subsequent chapter entitled "But Is It Art? however, by "art" he does not mean fine art:
Architecture, like painting, is an art. . . . In the sense that "art" refers to any skill applied to a creative activity, architecture certainly qualifies. . . . But calling architecture an art, puts it in the minds of most people, in the same category [fine art] as painting and sculpture, whereas designing buildings actually has little in common with the other plastic arts.
The major difference is, of course, that a building exists not solely as a vehicle for the skill or expression of the architect but as an object with a [practical] function. . . .
Function demands propriety. . . . This prevents the architect from developing what is usually the hallmark of an artist: a consistent personal style. Or at least it should. 
Architecture critics and architects who fancy themselves artistes, take note.
(Rybczynski also received an Aristos Award for 2003, for The Look of Architecture.)
* Morley Safer (News
Correspondent, CBS) [bio]
For "Yes . . . But Is It Art?" CBS 60 Minutes, September 19.
Morley Safer subtly derides the fraudulence of "contemporary art," as well as the pretentiousness of those who make, sell, and write about it. He begins by observing (the links below are not to the pieces he refers to but to similar works by the "artists" in question):
It may have escaped your notice that recently a vacuum cleaner [more][by Jeff Koons], just like this one and the one down in your basement, was sold for $100,000. Also, a sink [by Robert Gober] went for $121,000 and a pair of urinals [also by Gober] for $140,000. All of the above, and even more unlikely stuff, is art. That's what the artists say, the dealers and of course the people who lay out good money. It all may make you believe in the wisdom of P. T. Barnum, that "there's a sucker born every minute." . . .
Of course most of this art of the '90s would be worthless junk without the hype of the dealers and, even more important, the approval of the critics. They write in language that, to this viewer anyway, sounds important, but might as well be in sanskrit.
The artworld's predictable response to Safer's broadside is exemplified by Michael Kimmelman's "A Few Artless Minutes on '60 Minutes,'" New York Times, October 17. An inconsequential letter to the editor by Safer and a feeble reply by Kimmelman were published in the Times on October 31.
(Safer is also the winner of an Aristos Award for his 1997 sequel to this segment. See also the entry on 1994 Aristos Award winner Lisa Albert, who wrote the Murphy Brown episode based on Safer's 1993 segment.)
* David Halle (Professor
of Sociology, University of California, Los Angeles) [bio]
For Inside Culture: Art and Class in the American Home.
This unprecedented survey of ordinary people's taste in the visual arts does much to illuminate how they respond to abstract painting and what kind of art they prefer. As David Halle reports, widespread dislike of abstract work stems in part from a sense that "the artists are charlatans who cannot draw and cannot paint"--as well as from a feeling that it "has no meaning" and is "cold," "harsh," and "unemotional." While some working class residents objected that abstract painting is "too complex to understand," presumably educated and intelligent upper-class respondents who reported that they like abstraction tended to point mainly to its decorative qualities, rather than to any profound meaning it allegedly possesses. In sharp contrast, Halle finds that "[d]epictions of the landscape pervade the houses studied. Hills and mountains, meadows, oceans, rivers and bays, trees and bushes, skies that are clear--such scenes, in endless combinations, are the most popular [subject] of the pictures on the walls of all social classes." Halle reports that the key reason why individuals are drawn to such paintings is that they suggest "tranquility" and "solitude."
* Bill Watterson
(Cartoonist) [bio] [see link at
bottom of page for more] [posted 6/06]
For three comic strips on "snow art" in The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes.
Bill Watterson's beloved comic strip series, Calvin and Hobbes, traces the adventures of a little boy, Calvin, and his stuffed tiger, Hobbes. In three of the episodes in this collection, Watterson satirizes art world pretensions. In one, Calvin is building a snowman and declares that "any dumb kid can build a snowman," but it takes a genius like him to create art. "This snow sculpture transcends corporeal likeness to express deeper truths about the human condition! This sculpture is about grief and suffering! One look at the tortured countenance of this figure. . . ." The sun is shining, however, and the snowman begins to melt as Calvin and Hobbes look on in dismay.
In the next episode, Hobbes, always the straight man, asks if Calvin is still making "snow art." "Yep!" When reminded that his snowman had melted the day before, he is undaunted. "This time I'm taking advantage of my medium's impermanence," he announces. "This sculpture is about transience. As this figure melts, it invites the viewer to contemplate the evanescence of life. This figure speaks to the horror of our own mortality!" An off-strip passerby, dubbed a "philistine" by Hobbes, mocks Calvin's effort. True genius, Calvin retorts, is "never understood in its own time."
In the third episode, Calvin announces that he has "moved into abstraction." His piece, he says, is about "the inadequacy of traditional imagery and symbols to convey meaning in today's world." By moving beyond representation, he explains, he is "free to express [himself] with pure form. Specific interpretation gives way to a more visceral response."
(The three strips cited above may be viewed online--see The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes at Amazon.com , then "search inside the book" for "snow art." You must be registered to use this service.)1991
* John Tierney (Metro
Reporter, New York Times) [bio]
For "Defender, Critic, Watcher: All in One at the Modern," November 20.
Unlike other reporters at the Times, John Tierney implicitly rejects its art critics' view that abstract painting is art. Citing the definition of a "masterpiece" as a work that "can bear the closest scrutiny and withstand the test of time," he observes that when it comes to abstraction, "one group of arbiters [is] singularly qualified" to apply that test--the guards at New York's Museum of Art, who spend some 2,000 hours a year looking at the stuff (far longer than any art historians or critics) and listening to "experts" explain it to tour groups, "as well as [listening] to the parents who keep muttering about similarities between what is on the museum wall and what is on the refrigerator back home."
With respect to Barnett Newman's purported masterpiece Vir Heroicus Sublimis, one guard--Alec Sologob, a veteran of 15 years at the museum--candidly observed that, as Tierney reported, he "could not discern how the Newman work provided, in the words of the official museum guidebook, 'direct, intimate contact' with the viewer as well as an 'affirmation of Newman's mystical sense of the human condition with all its tragedy and dignity." As he confided to Tierney:
"I don't see it. With Cézanne or Bonnard, there's intimate contact because you can feel yourself walking into the painting, into that wooded area with the men chopping firewood. With Wyeth you can always find something new. In Christina's World [more] you see the details in her hands, you find cracks in the wooden boards of the house, you get a marvelous sense that this really is her world. . . . But this Newman has never looked to me like anything. This is a blank wall with stripes, and I don't like the color red to begin with."
No doubt the museum's guards have since been advised not to venture personal opinions regarding the work exhibited in its galleries to members of the press or the public.
Tierney leaves the reader with this touching anecdote: "[Sologob] often arrived for work early, before the museum opened, and would spend the free time sitting in the second-floor gallery overlooking the museum's courtyard, in front of Monet's Water Lilies [more] [more ]." As Sologob noted:
You know, during the day many people come here and stay for three or four hours with Water Lilies. They say it calms them down and it's cheaper than a psychiatrist. I can see what they mean. You come with your nerves raw, and then you just drift into the painting. It really soothes you.1990
Irving Kristol offers well-deserved censure of the "'arts community'" for its embrace of every novelty, however outrageous, and for its "contempt for 'art' in any traditional sense of the term," as well as of the media for reverentially deferring to "anything declared to be 'art' by the 'arts community.'"1988
Robert Patrick (Playwright)
For "'Godot' and Other Trash," New York Times, November 27.
In Robert Patrick's view, the only important consideration regarding Samuel Beckett is how he ever came to be taken seriously in the first place. "The cause was simple," he argues.
In the 40's and 50's, ambitious young critics, exemplified by Kenneth Tynan, called attention to themselves by claiming to have found depth and greatness in silly, shallow work. By constant reiteration, they extorted agreement and aroused opposition, managing to make mediocrities a cause.
The effect was complex. . . . Tangled in seaweed strands of abstruse criticism, [young people] accepted as great a whole stable of writers, painters and composers whose work is variously pleasant, witty or vacuous. . . .
. . . What is unique [in our era is] that we have an official, establishment avant-garde. There is nowhere to go. Both charlatans and idealists, hardboiled careerists and the saintliest grail-seekers work under the same rubric--and produce the same meaningless muck. Those working outside the canon are denied space or are defused by being placed among the space junk. . . .
I don't see any immediate way out . . . except a long and improbable process of giving the best work the most attention and praise, and therefore--eventually, one hopes--the most audience.
But it's going to take patience to restore rational standards. . . .
(On Beckett, see also Charles Spencer, retroactive award winner for 2000.)
Donal Henahan is puzzled, and a bit miffed: "Why don't composers of contemporary operas want me to know what the singers are singing about? . . . Are the words a code of some sort? If not, why am I so seldom allowed to know what they are saying up there on the stage? Excuse me, but I want to know. I don't think I am being unreasonable." A Santa Fe Opera production of Krzysztof Penderecki's Black Mask (1969) was being presented in an English translation, so Henahan was surprised to find that it was being sung "in a tongue whose relationship to English, if any, could not be made out."
The singers screamed and groaned painfully or droned on a few loud notes possibly intended to resemble agitated human speech. Whenever an English word or two did threaten to come through, the orchestra shrieked its displeasure and forced the singers to retreat into babble.
Upon reflection I realized that [Penderecki] was merely doing what fashionable opera composers have been engaged in for much of this century: writing in an antivocal style that is apparently supposed to reflect the harshness and brutality of our time. Characteristically, the best of these composers have chosen texts that demand more of the listener, intellectually, than the librettos of previous centuries. How strange it seems, then, that so little verbal intelligence is allowed to fight its way to the ear out of the typical avant-garde score. . . . [T]he more sternly modern and more intellectually demanding the score, the less are your chances of picking up more than the occasional word. There must be a sensible explanation, but it eludes me.
Of course, opera lovers have long realized that they need not be concerned with the words making sense.
Until our time, however, there was usually something offered the listener as compensation: beautiful voices and/or emotionally expressive singing. Now, as typified in [Panderecki's] Black Mask, we have neither intelligible words nor singable music, a sad condition that is still, for lack of a better name, known as opera.
A fitting name for that "sad condition" is, perhaps, fraud. Certainly, works such as The Black Mask are not opera, as Henahan himself implies.
(Henahan's review The Black Mask of August 2 may be read online. He had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986, and retired as chief music critic of the Times in 1991.)1985
Richard Lack (Painter, Teacher, Author, 1928-2009
[edited 9/09]) [bio--with
further links to "Lack" and "Paintings"] [posted
For Realism in Revolution: The Art of the Boston School [Find in a Library], which he edited and to which he also contributed an essay.
The spirit of the title, Realism in Revolution, is further reflected in the title of its first essay, "Radical Currents of Classical Realism in Contemporary American Painting," by Mark Steven Walker. Stephen Gjertson, one of Lack's earliest students (1971-75) and sole biographer thus far, explains that Lack coined the term classical realism in 1982 to "differentiate the realism of the heirs of the Boston tradition [including Lack's teacher, R. H. Ives Gammell (an Aristos Award winner for 1946), Lack himself, and their students] from that of other representational artists." Classical Realism as conceived by Lack is, in Gjertson's words, "a broad artistic point of view characterized by a love for the visible world and the great traditions of Western art, including classicism, realism and impressionism. . . . It is classical because it exhibits a preference for order, beauty, harmony and completeness; it is realist because its basic vocabulary comes from the representation of nature" [Richard F. Lack: An American Master, 2001].
The term, which has since entered the art-historical lexicon, was first used in the provocative title of a traveling exhibition of work by Lack and his students (and by others in the tradition) in 1982--"Classical Realism: The Other Twentieth Century." The clear implication of the title was that, contrary to avant-garde pretensions, traditional painting had never ceased to exist and that its proponents intended to assert its place in the culture. (For the fullest explication of the term, see Gjertson's " Classical Realism: A Living Artistic Tradition.")
(Lack, who retired from active teaching in 1992, was also the winner of an Aristos Award for 1969. See, too, his essay "Bouguereau's Legacy" [Aristos, September 1982]. Links to color images of works cited there may be found in Notes & Comments, Aristos, October 2006. For further reading, see the following: AskArt ; "Portrait of the Artist as an Old Master"; East Coast Ideals, West Coast Concepts [search for "Lack"], which includes Lack's essay "East Coast Ideals: The Living Legacy of the Boston School"; Stephen Gjertson's "Atelier Lack: Personal Recollections 1971-1975 " , "An Interview with Richard Lack" , and Richard F. Lack: An American Master  [more scroll down to title: see link for excerpts and images of paintings]; and "Rejects d'Art: Why Won't the Art World Embrace the State's Classical Realist Artists?" [Minnesota Monthly, December 2006].)1980
Kenneth M. Lansing (Professor of Art
and Education, School of Art and Design, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)
[bio ] [posted 12/06]
For "Is a Definition of Art Necessary for the Teaching of Art?" Journal of Aesthetic Education, July.
Though not a philosopher, Kenneth M. Lansing has both the boldness and the good sense to challenge the philosophic profession in this essay, arguing that his fellow art educators need a definition of art in order to make sense of what they do in the classroom. Honing in on an idea he had touched on a decade earlier in his textbook Art, Artists, and Art Education, he notes that students continually ask "why certain things are acceptable as art while others are not" and "why the artistic quality of one object is considered to be greater than the quality of another." Without some idea of the defining characteristics of art, he insists, such questions cannot be satisfactorily answered. Moreover, he predicts that if some new work need not possess such characteristics in order to be regarded as art, and if it can instead possess any number of new characteristics,"it would take only a short time for almost all objects to qualify as art."
(Lansing retired from teaching in 1986. See his "Why We Need a Definition of Art" and "An Open Letter to Colleagues in Art Education," as well as our Editor's Note, in the December 2004 issue of Aristos.)1978
* Jacques Barzun
(Cultural Historian) [bio]
For "Occupational Disease: Verbal Inflation," a lecture delivered before the National Art Education Association, Houston, March 18 (published in Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, 1991).
Noting at the outset "the present chaotic state of opinion about art and art education" Jacques Barzun issues a sober admonition to teachers to refrain from unrealistic or inappropriate aims--such as "to transmit cultural heritage" and "to enhance achievement in other subjects"--and to be more discriminating in the activities they choose to include under the rubric "art." He urges art teachers to trust their "common sense" in considering what "the idea of art" covers, and rightly suggests that it refers to music, painting, sculpture, dance, and literature--not to such things as "journalism, broadcasting, photography, weaving, pottery, jewelry-making, batik, macramé." Finally, Barzun argues that what should be taught is the underlying fundamentals of the arts--reading and writing with regard to literature, and the "rudiments" of music and drawing.1976
Daily Mirror (London)
"What a Load of Rubbish" [to expand the image of tabloid page, point cursor anywhere within, then click on "expand" symbol at lower-right corner], February 16.
"A top art gallery was under fire last night for spending taxpayers' cash on . . . a pile of bricks. / It was all done in the name of art, because the 120 loose firebricks go under the heading 'low sculpture.' / They are now under lock and key at London's Tate Gallery. . . ." In this humorous front page article of the British tabloid, Philip Mellor reports on the purchase of Carl Andre's Equivalent II three and a half years after it purchase [Tate account]1975
See "Tom Wolfe's Epiphany," Aristos, January 2006, for a commentary on Wolfe's satirical debunking of the modern artworld.
Anyone seeking to understand the reasons for the sorry state of the arts since the mid-twentieth century would do well to turn to this slender volume based on Jacques Barzun's A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, delivered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 1973. Barzun's prose is lucid and rich, sprinkled with specific cultural references throughout. But he wisely invites the reader to supply his own examples when the ones provided are unfamiliar. Students contemplating a career in arts-related fields should pay particular attention to the thesis of this invaluable book.
In the first of six lectures, "Why Art Must Be Challenged," Barzun states that his task is "to show what contemporary art is and does and how it is felt and thought about." "Art today," he observes, "is an institution without a theory. No coherent thought exists as to its aim or raison d'être." (In light of that remark, it is worth noting that a quarter century later he found much of value in the theory presented in What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand. See his remarks on the book ). Barzun concludes this lecture by asking:
How did we get from the art of Botticelli [1445-1510] and Palestrina [bio ] to the lasers and mirrors of [something called] "Light-Piece" and the wooden concussions of [Ben Johnston's] "Knocking-piece" ? By what sequence of aims and purposes has sculpture transformed itself from Michelangelo's David [1501-1504] to Oldenburg's "Giant Icebag" [1969-1970]? [links ours]
In the following lecture, "The Rise of Art as Religion," Barzun offers an account of "the development by which Western culture has arrived at the paradoxical point of regarding art as all-important and of seeing artists preach Anti-art." In subsequent chapters, he considers "Art the Destroyer," "Art the Redeemer," "Art and Its Tempter, Science," "Art in the Vacuum of Belief." He ends by suggesting that "what we are witnessing in all the arts, and in all that the arts refer to, is theliquidation of 500 years of civilization--the entire modern age dating from the Renaissance."
(Barzun also won a retroactive Aristos Award (1978) for "Occupational Disease: Verbal Inflation," a lecture published in Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning.)
Richard Lack (Painter, Teacher, Author, 1928-2009
[edited 9/09]) [bio --with
further links] [posted 12/06]
For "On the Training of Painters" (written in 1967, published by Atelier Lack in 1969, and reissued in 2000 by the American Society of Classical Realism).
When the true history of American painting from the last quarter of the twentieth century on is written, Richard Lack will occupy a prominent place. Throughout his long career, he called attention to the loss of traditional painting skills, and helped to transmit what he called this "great language" to a new generation of art students. "On the Training of Painters" is an important part of that effort. In it, he observes that there are "few living painters who could execute a figure composition [that] would stand favorable comparison with even a second-rank nineteenth-century work." "Today the older tradition of picture-making," he further notes, "is practiced by only a small minority of painters, most of whom are forced to work . . . outside the Art Establishment. If proper training were available to young students, there would be many more."
Critical of such anti-traditional genres as "minimal art, 'environments' and photographic collages," Lack lays the blame on "the men in charge of our museums, art schools and college art departments," who operate under "the myth that today's artists are technically able and therefore free to pursue any direction they choose." As a counterexample he cites "the pitiful incompetence of the leaders of Abstract Expressionism . . . when they have chosen to paint a picture in the traditional manner."
Students seeking traditional training in art schools or college and university art departments, Lack reports, faced a dismal prospect:
More often than not, the instructor substitutes flattery for method and gives the student little or no direction. The tiresome dictum that a student's creativity should not be frustrated by interference from the instructor is usually introduced at this stage. Perhaps the only time any strong influence is exerted is when the instructor discourages the student from "copying nature" and working in a "realistic" manner. A student who is foolish enough to persist in these illicit pursuits is gently, and sometimes not so gently, ridiculed to the point where he soon gives up his hapless aims. To stick to his guns under circumstances such as these, he must indeed be a strong personality.
Most of "On the Training of Painters" is devoted to a detailed discussion of the three principal ways in which painters were trained over the centuries: "the apprentice system, the atelier (studio) system, and the academy, . . . or as it has come down to us, the art school system." Lack ends his essay on a somewhat optimistic note, suggesting that the atelier system (which he employed in his own teaching) would still be effective in today's world.
Historically, virtually all great painters were trained under this method or its earlier counterpart, the apprentice system. Indeed, if Western Civilization wishes to retain the art of painting as a living part of its culture, this may be our last hope.
That Lack's hope has not been in vain is documented in "The Legacy of Richard Lack," by Louis Torres.
(Lack, who retired from active teaching in 1992, is also the winner of an Aristos Award for 1985. See, too, his essay "Bouguereau's Legacy" [Aristos, September 1982]. Links to color images of works cited there may be found in Notes & Comments, Aristos, October 2006. For further reading, see the following: AskArt ; "Portrait of the Artist as an Old Master"; East Coast Ideals, West Coast Concepts [scroll down], which includes Lack's essay "East Coast Ideals: The Living Legacy of the Boston School"; Stephen Gjertson's "Atelier Lack: Personal Recollections 1971-1975 " , "An Interview with Richard Lack" , and Richard F. Lack: An American Master  [more scroll down to title: see link for excerpts and images of paintings]; and "Rejects d'Art: Why Won't the Art World Embrace the State's Classical Realist Artists?" [Minnesota Monthly, December 2006].)1962
Dwight D. Eisenhower (U.S. President [1953-1961] / Supreme Allied
Commander, Europe, World War II, 1890-1969) [bio] [posted 3/13]
For remarks in his Eisenhower Presidential Library Dedication speech [search for "library dedication"], May 1.
Though an interest in art is not something we generally associate with Dwight D. Eisenhower, he was far from oblivious of the transformations in what passed for art and culture in the mid twentieth century. First noting the extraordinary advancements that had been made in "scientific thought, accomplishment, [and] industrial improvement . . . for the material benefits of all our people," he asked his audience to consider whether "a similar advance" had occurred "in our ideals, our aspirations, the morale of our country--indeed, its soul."
What, he asked, would America's pioneers think of what had become of popular culture, for example? Would its "vulgarity [and] sensuality" suggest that America "has advanced morally as we have materially?" Finally, he observed:
When we see our very art forms so changed that we seem to have forgotten the works of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and speak in the present in terms of a piece of canvas that looks like a broken down Tin Lizzie, loaded with paint, has been driven over it, is this improvement? What has happened to our concept of beauty and decency and morality?
While today's artworld would no doubt dismiss Eisenhower's remarks as naive and old-fashioned, we view them as the wise lament of one of America's most distinguished leaders--who happened also to be a self-taught amateur painter of some talent.* His view of the great disparity between scientific and material progress, on one hand, and the sorry state of twentieth-century art, on the other, echoes painter and critic Kenyon Cox's observations in "The Illusion of Progress" (1912), which also received a posthumous Aristos Award.
* See Addenda to Eisenhower Aristos Award (under construction).
Roger Burlingame, who was an editor at Scribner's from 1914 to 1926 [see his history of the publishing house], begins his article by lamenting: "Art puzzles me: Whom is it for? I used to think it was for me--the man in the street. . . . Now . . . I am painfully aware that some art is for the artist alone."
Surely it was not always so. [After the Middle Ages] secular art . . . drew common men to admire it. . . .
But never in recorded history has art drawn so far from plain, workaday folk as it has today. It is not that abstract painting and sculpture . . . are beyond understanding of laymen. Rather, lay people are forbidden to understand such things. . . . [Jackson] Pollock was not painting for you or for anyone like you. . . .
Having concluded that abstract art is for the abstract artist and for him alone, I decided to see what these creators said about themselves and their work. . . .
[In a piece entitled "Notes on Sculpture in a Mad Society" in Art News, Martin] Craig writes: "Today's artist relates primarily to art. . . . What he takes from the life around him is chosen more because of its adaptability to, or similarity to, an art form he admires, than out of an emphatic response to that form of life."
In other words, the means determine the ends. It had been my impression that artists of the past insisted on portraying the aspects of life which most stirred them, and if these were adapted to no existing art form, then a new art form [such as Impressionism] evolved from their frenzied insistence. . . . But in abstract art the form apparently comes first; if nothing in life adapts itself to that form, then to hell with life.1959
John Canaday (Critic
and Art Historian, 1907-1985) [bio]
For remarks on Piet Mondrian in Chapter 13, "Cubism and Abstract Art," Mainstreams of Modern Art).
As art critic for the New York Times from 1958 to 1973 (the paper's chief art critic, for much of that time), John Canaday was often an outspoken opponent of Abstract Expressionism--a position that did not endear him to the artworld. Though his views on the subject of so-called abstract art were not always consistent, they were frequently astute, as in this satirical analogy:
[The painter] Mondrian is like a poet . . . who discovers a sonnet by Shakespeare where the poet is forced into a rigid scheme of rhyme and meter into which he must order his expression. Here our poet-Mondrian begins to discover what he is hunting. It seems to him that within the limitations of the sonnet form Shakespeare has said as much as some writers might say in a novel, and that in the sonnet, expression benefits from compression. Our poet-Mondrian then examines the most rigid, the most arbitrary, the most demanding verse forms and, still finding them too elastic, invents a new one imposing further limitations within which he must constrict what he wants to say. Finally he goes a step further: he rejects words--just as the painter-Mondrian rejects images--and reduces his verse not only to sounds but to the half dozen sounds which he decides are the absolutely basic, the absolutely pure, the absolutely fundamental ones formed by the human voice. He then writes a poem of pure sound and pure form, freed at last from service to any other values.
If the parallel sounds too extreme, perhaps it is only because such a theory has not been applied to the art of writing. Mondrian's compositions were--and are--just as extreme in their elimination of all motif and all associative values. [Among the black-and-white illustrations accompanying Canaday's remarks on Mondrian is one of Composition with Yellow.]1946
Much credit for the preservation and revival of classical realist painting since the second half of the twentieth century is due R. H. Ives Gammell, who kept that tradition alive through his teaching and writing. In Twilight of Painting, Gammell sounded a clarion call, arguing that
[t]he ultimate importance of Modern Painting in the history of art will be seen to lie in the fact that it discredited and virtually destroyed the great technical traditions of European painting, laboriously built up through the centuries by a long succession of men of genius. The loss of these traditions has deprived our potential painters of their rightful heritage, a heritage without which it will be impossible for them to give full scope to such talent as they may possess.
Gammell dedicated his book "to the painter, born or unborn, who shall lift the art of painting from the low estate to which it has fallen." As later recounted by his goddaughter, Elizabeth Ives Hunter (who also wrote the biographical sketch cited above):
By the end of World War II Gammell was convinced that the fabric of art education, which had historically produced well-trained painters, had ceased to exist. This conviction caused him to reorient his life: he began to teach students and he began to write down what he knew about the art and craft of painting. He taught and wrote until his death in 1981. [Introduction, Twilight of Painting, 2nd ed., Parnassus Imprints, Orleans, Mass., 1990]
NOTE: Chapter VIII of Twilight of Painting ("Considerations on Impressionist Teaching") was reprinted, nearly in entirety, as "Impressionism and the Decline of Painting" (Aristos, May 1990).
(For information on the availability of Twilight of Painting, and where to see a fine early work by Gammell, William, see Notes & Comments, Aristos, June 2006. A brief profile of Gammell by Michelle Marder Kamhi--from the May 1990 issue of Aristos--may be accessed in .html or .pdf format.)1912
* Kenyon Cox (Painter and Critic, 1856-1919) [bio]
For "The Illusion of Progress," a paper given before a joint meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Institute of Arts and Letters on December 13.
Cox's remarkable paper, referring to historical developments in the arts of poetry, architecture, music, sculpture, and painting, was delivered about a year after Vasily Kandinsky produced the first completely abstract (nonobjective) painting. Declaring that he and his fellow Academicians were to some degree "believers in progress," and that their golden age was "no longer in the past, but in the future," he nonetheless issued this stern warning:
[As the pace of progress in science and in material things has become more and more rapid, we have come to expect a similar pace in arts and letters, to imagine that the art of the future must be far finer than the art of the present or than that of the past, and that the art of one decade, or even one year, must supersede that of the preceding decade or the preceding year. . . . More than ever before "To have done is to hang quite out of fashion," and the only title to consideration is to do something quite obviously new or to proclaim one's intention of doing something newer. The race grows madder and madder.
Unequivocally rejecting the growing critical acceptance of innovation for its own sake, he issued this trenchant admonition:
Let us clear our minds . . . of the illusion that there is in any important sense such a thing as progress in the fine arts. We may with a clear conscience judge every new work for what it appears in itself to be, asking of it that it be noble and beautiful and reasonable, not that it be novel or progressive. If it be great art it will always be novel enough, for there will be a great mind behind it, and no two great minds are alike. And if it be novel without being great, how shall we be the better off?
Astute though he was, Cox could not have imagined just how much "madder" the race to be novel would become in the postmodern age. His admonition is even more relevant now, a century later, than it was when he first voiced it.
("The Illusion of Progress" was published in The Century Magazine in March 1913, and in Cox's Artist and Public, and Other Essays on Art Subjects [free online e-book from Project Gutenberg], 1914. It was reprinted in Aristos in April 1984. Paintings by Cox include Thistledown, 1882; Augustus Saint-Gaudens in His Studio in 1887, 1908; and Statute Law, Helmet for Figure of "Force" [study for mural, appellate court building, New York], c. 1899.)
* Cited in What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (2000)