May 2003


From time to time we write to the editors of periodicals we regularly read, to comment on their arts coverage. The following published letters touch upon issues of continuing concern to us. Comments are appended-- including suggestions for further reading, and corrections as needed.

New York Times (May 2, 2003)

Art-world hype notwithstanding, decorative arts and crafts objects are increasingly considered "fine art" by those who make them, and by museum directors as well, because the designation results in greater prestige and income. --L.T.

Comment: This letter was in response to "The Luster of Glass Joins Art's Mainstream" (The Arts, April 28). While focusing on "glassmaking" (in particular, the work of Dale Chihuly), the article also cites "other pursuits traditionally dismissed as crafts"--such as the work of "ceramic artists, woodworkers, metalsmiths, [and] fabric creators"--that are now considered "art." Another letter writer observed: "For many of us craftsmen, this construct of categorization never applies. Nor do we have 'rising ambitions' of aspiring to be accepted by the fine art world." Sensing a danger in "chasing an elusive siren song of acceptance and economic reward," he suggested that their work be "judged on merit" alone.

Further reading: "Decorative Art and Craft," Ch. 11 of What Art Is.

New York Sun (April 7, 2003)

Robert Messenger ["The Painter of Taste," Arts & Letters, April 3, 2003] errs in claiming that "art's ultimate duty . . . is to be beautiful," as evidenced by Leonardo's small portraits of "grotesque heads" at the recent exhibition of his drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The ultimate function (not "duty") of art--even art possessed of great beauty--is more profound than Mr. Messenger suggests. Thus Leonardo is said to have thought of these studies as demonstrations of "inner traits of character." --L.T.

Comment: All too many writers share Messenger's view that beauty is the defining attribute of art (Roger Kimball, for example, has referred to beauty as "the touchstone of art"). Numerous works bely that notion, however. Though scarcely beautiful, Leonardo's miniature grotesque heads [more] [more : nos. 5, 15, & 21]--which he called visi mostruosi ("grotesquely deformed faces")--are among the most deeply moving works of art I have ever seen. (Leonardo is said to have considered these faces as demonstrating "inner traits of character." Thus they are not, strictly speaking, caricatures, in the modern sense, though they are sometimes referred to by that term.) Consider, too, the court dwarfs painted by Velazquez --in particular, Francisco Lezcano, Sebastian de Morra, or Diego de Acedo, the last of which is in the current exhibition of the Spanish master's work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See also Ribera's The Beggar (The Clubfoot) [more], in the same exhibition.

Further reading: On Velazquez's dwarfs, see What Art Is, p. 33.

New York Times Magazine (April 20, 2003)

Heiner Friedrich says that Dia "tapped something old," that "our values are as powerful as those in the Renaissance." Indeed, he adds, Dan Flavin---who used colored industrial fluorescent tubes to make Minimal sculpture---"is as important as Michelangelo." Not quite. --L.T.

Comment: This letter (which, as edited by the Times, misrepresents my views) refers to chief art critic Michael Kimmelman's article "The Dia Generation" (April 6, 2003)--shamelessly billed on the magazine's cover as "The Greatest Generation." Kimmelman was writing about the "Minimalist sculptors," "installation artists," and "earthwork artists" championed by the Dia Art Foundation, and its new museum, Dia:Beacon, which will exhibit their work. (Heiner Friedrich is the former head of Dia.) Dia:Beacon, the biggest museum of "contemporary art" in the world (some of its galleries are as long as football fields), opens this month in Beacon, New York. Among the purported artists featured there are Donald Judd [more], Dan Flavin [more], Walter De Maria [more], and Richard Serra [more], all of whom came to prominence in the 1960s and '70s.

Like all publications, the Times reserves the right to edit letters "for length and clarity," but is obliged to retain the writer's intent. The latter was not done in this case, however, as comparison of the published letter with the original, which follows, will show: A quote from Dia's past captures the delusion at the base of both the "art" it champions and its new museum in Beacon, N.Y.: Heiner Friedrich's claim that Dia "tapped something old," that "our values are as powerful as those in the Renaissance." Indeed, he added, Dan Flavin--who arranges colored industrial fluorescent tubes--"is as important as Michelangelo." Not quite.

As my use of the term "delusion" and the scare quotes around the term "art" clearly imply, I do not consider the work championed by the Dia (including Dan Flavin's fluorescent-tube "sculpture") to be art--as is further implied by my use of the term arranges in relation to Flavin's tubes. Quite the opposite is suggested in the published version of the letter, by the reference to his use of "fluorescent tubes to make Minimal sculpture." (I should credit the Times, however, for correcting an error I had made. Since Flavin died in 1996, I should not have used the present tense in referring to him.)

Further reading: "Hilton Kramer's Misreading of Abstract Art"; "The Myth of 'Abstract Art,'" Ch. 8 of What Art Is; and "Today's 'Public Art': Rarely Public, Rarely Art," which discusses the infamous Tilted Arc by Richard Serra, one of the principal Minimalists represented at Dia:Beacon.

A clarification regarding the terms abstract art and Minimalist art (or Minimalism) is in order here. Most critics and scholars treat them as distinct categories, because the purported artists in each case have different intentions (see the entries on "abstract art," "abstract expressionism," and "Minimalism" in ArtLex). In What Art Is Michelle Kamhi and I define "abstract art" as "painting and sculpture that do not depict discernible persons, places, or things." On that basis, I regard Minimalism as merely another type of abstract art, since one cannot infer the intent of the maker from the work itself in either case. Kamhi, on the other hand, argues in "Hilton Kramer's Misreading of Abstract Art," that Minimalism is not a type of "abstract art," strictly speaking. Since the term "abstract art" has come to mean nonrepresentational (or nonobjective) painting and sculpture, however, she considers that in that sense it is applicable to Minimalist work--which is often indistinguishable from works of true "abstract art," despite the often radically different intentions of their makers. In any case, both Kamhi and I agree that, regardless of terminology, neither "Minimalist art" nor "abstract art" is, in fact, art.

New York Times (Arts & Leisure section, Sunday, March 2, 2003)

Steven Henry Madoff writes that Matthew Barney's ''Cremaster'' film cycle shows that Mr. Barney has ''the most protean imagination in art today'' [''Bewildering, Bewitching, Above All Strange,'' Feb. 16]. ''Protean'' his imagination may be, but ''art'' his film cycle is not. The telling clue is that ''small, nagging fact that almost no one understands what his tall tales are about.''

Art is intelligible on some level, even to the ordinary person. Mr. Barney's concoctions do not qualify. They belong in a carnival, where we go to be entertained without having to be concerned about deciphering someone's [enigmatic] vision. --L.T.

Comment: Regrettably, the Times omitted my qualifier "enigmatic," re-inserted here in brackets. Matthew Barney--who burst into prominence as "video artist" in 1990 and now calls himself a "sculptor" but is considered by most critics to be a filmmaker--is one of the most pretentious of today's artworld stars. His Cremaster cycle --virtually impossible to understand (as Madoff implies and most critics who praise it agree) or even to describe coherently--is in five parts, each as bizarre as it is unintelligible. In his review of "The Cremaster Cycle" exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City (through June 11)--which includes "sculptural" installations of objects used in the films, as well as screenings of various segments of the film cycle--Madoff aptly describes Barney's "logic" as "the river flow of Joyce's Finnegans Wake in images instead of words."

Further reading: On Matthew Barney, see What Art Is, p. 279.

Dallas Morning News (February 2003)

The headline for Tom Sime's article on the giant root system allegedly turned into sculpture--"Is it art? Everybody's stumped" (Arts/Entertainment, Jan. 26)--is disingenuous. The caption underneath proclaims: "Mapmaker uncovers a natural sculpture in a toppled live oak." And all the experts Mr. Sime quotes treat the cleaned-up oak root as art. Who's stumped?

Art is a selective recreation of reality, not reality itself. The famed sculpture, Mustangs of Las Colinas [more], in Irving, is art. Tornado Seed, as the root "sculpture" is dubbed, is not. --L.T.

Comment: Nature may "sculpt" in a metaphorical sense, but only human beings create works of art. (Mustangs is cited because it is in a suburb of Dallas, and would be familiar to readers of theNews.)

Further reading: Sime wrote another article (illustrated) on Tornado Seed--"Root Seller Really Digs His Artwork" (March 2, 2003)--for the Bryan-College Station Eagle in Bryan, Texas. On headlines and titles incorporating the phrase "is it art?" or variants thereof, see "The Ubiquitous Question: 'But Is It Art? '"

New York Sun (January 17-19, 2003)

Daniel Kunitz ["One for Three in Chelsea," Arts & Letters, January 9] seems to imply that forensic photographs, like the "grisly image of Lizzie Borden's parents with their heads bashed in," and celebrity mug shots, such as one of Jane Fonda (charged in 1970 with drug possession)--both in an "outstanding" show currently at the Chelsea Museum of Art--are works of art. Surely he didn't mean to. --L. T.

Comment: This letter was in response to a review of the exhibition Shots in the Dark (consisting, in Kunitz's words, "of actual police images of criminals and crime scenes"), which was curated by Gail Buckland, based on her book of the same title. Since Kunitz is the principal art critic of the Sun, a fact that would be known to most of its regular readers, I assumed that my closing remark would be understood as ironic. Like most art critics, Kunitz treats all photography as art. Among the other images he cites are "a mug shot of Al Capone . . . , [one of] punk rocker Sid Vicious after his arrest for murdering his girlfriend . . . , [and] funniest of all, [one of] Microsoft founder Bill Gates hauled in for drunk driving in 1977." None of these photographs are at all funny. Nor are they art.

Further reading: "Photography: An Invented 'Art,'" Ch. 9 of What Art Is.

New York Newsday (December 21, 2002)

Clinton Boisvert is the hapless student who planted 37 black boxes stenciled with the word "fear" at the Union Square subway station. If he is found guilty of the misdemeanor of reckless endangerment and disorderly conduct ["An Unusually Arresting Art Project," News, Dec. 17], his teachers at the School of Visual Arts should certainly be held responsible for brainwashing him into thinking that something like stenciled boxes displayed in a public place would be considered "art." He probably thought they would give him an A+ for the place he picked! They still might. --L. T.

Comment: Owing to heightened security concerns since September 11, Boisvert's black boxes initially generated fears that they had been planted by a terrorist. The incident cost New York City, suffering from urgent fiscal problems, thousands of dollars to investigate the situation and ensure public safety. Anyone familiar with today's artworld, however, could have identified the boxes as a work of "conceptual art."

Further reading: "Conceptual Art," in "Postmodernism in the 'Visual Arts,'" Ch. 14 of What Art Is.

Chronicle of Higher Education (November 29, 2002)

Lynn Gamwell's thesis ("The Scientific Origins of Abstract Art," End Paper, The Review, October 25) is based on the unsupportable premise that abstract painting--the complete absence of representational imagery--is art. The argument on that matter (which Michelle Kamhi and I offer in What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand) is best left for another time, however. I write now to set the art-historical record straight on two points.

Abstract art did not emerge as "part of the first wave of modern art in the late 19th century," but began to be produced around 1910. And it is a distortion to claim that "by the 1870s painters were thinking of themselves as organisms responding to light." They were thinking human beings, not biological specimens, and even the Impressionists were responding to the real world when they painted it bathed in light. --L.T.

Comment: In addition to being the director of a university art museum and the curator of a gallery of art and science, Gamwell teaches at a school of visual arts. Nonetheless, her thesis regarding the "scientific origins of abstract art" is grossly mistaken. Far from responding positively to the scientific materialism of the late 19th century (as she broadly claims), the pioneers of abstract painting--Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian--were explicit about their dread of the new developments, and sought to reject the material world entirely. Nor were they engaged in their art with the "reformulation of theological questions in secular terms" (to quote Gamwell). By discarding all reference to objective reality in their work, they were futilely attempting to ascend into a realm of pure spirit, as their extensive writings amply testify. --M. M.K.

Further reading: "Hilton Kramer's Misreading of Abstract Art"; also "The Myth of 'Abstract Art,'" Ch. 8 of What Art Is.

Boston Globe (November 24, 2002)

Geoff Edgers's news that the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's 100th birthday celebration will open next year with an exhibition of installations by conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth ("Festive plans for Gardner centennial," Nov. 7) is disturbing, though not surprising. Gardner director Anne Hawley says she wants to "burst the perception of the museum, because for so many years after her [Gardner's] death, the museum was a passive place." In other words, she wants to continue her transformation of the museum as it was conceived by its founder to one that furthers a postmodern agenda.

Visitors and potential donors who ask "But is it art?" when faced with the conceptual, installation, and performance work featured in the Gardner's Artists in Residence program of recent years, are correct to be skeptical. As an independent arts scholar and critic specializing in such matters, I must say that the answer to that ubiquitous question is an emphatic no, the opinions of the Gardner's contemporary art experts notwithstanding. --L.T.

Comment: Boston's Gardner Museum is one of the premier small museums in the United States, not to be missed on a visit to that city. For a brief description of the exhibition in question, see "A Centennial Project by Joseph Kosuth." Kosuth [more] [more] [more] [more] is one of the pioneers of so-called conceptual art. A "virtual exhibition" by "conceptual artist" Elaine Reichek (Artist-in-Residence at the Gardner in February 2001), entitled madam i'm adam, is on view at the museum during 2003.

Further reading: Biography of Mrs. Gardner; and "Conceptual Art," in "Postmodernism in the 'Visual Arts,'" Ch. 14 of What Art Is.

New York Sun (October 2002)

Jeremy McCarter reports in "An End to Killing" (Arts & Letters, 15 October) that The Exonerated, a work of so-called political theater, offers a "documentary-style view of America's flawed system of capital punishment," drawing on "interviews, court transcripts, and depositions" to present the stories of six people who were wrongly convicted and sentenced to die.

"Almost nothing in the play is invented," Mr. McCarter says. In truth, virtually everything in a play is invented. Not for nothing is drama often referred to as a form of "imaginative" literature. The Exonerated does not transform its subject matter into art and ought not be reviewed as "theater." --L.T.

Comment: For an authoritative account of the background of The Exonerated, see the Notes of its writer-directors. A somewhat earlier instance of a purported play comprising only tape-recorded or documented speech was The Laramie Project, first produced in 1997--which was "drawn from actual court documents, testimony and handwritten journals--the only sources of the words uttered onstage" according to the New York Times ("A Death in Laramie, Reimagined as Drama." As works of art, plays based on either contemporary or historical events imaginatively transform--"selectively re-create"--most, if not all, the details of plot, characterization, dialogue, and setting.

Further reading: "The Significance of Artistic Selectivity," in What Art Is, pp. 47-48.

Periodicals cited above