return to 2003

a Letter from the Artist

by Miles Mathis

And when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with
a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall
chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night,
and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairy-land is before us—
then the wayfarer hastens home; the working man and the cultured one,
the wise man and the one of pleasure, cease to understand, as they have
ceased to see, and Nature, who for once has sung in tune, sings her
exquisite song to the artist alone, her son and her master—her son in
that he loves her, her master in that he knows her.
James Whistler

As an artist, I convene with ghosts. The burnt earth and raw oil in my paints, the wet clay that forms into eyes and ears, the hair in a brush from hog or marten, the pastel chalk—just colored dirt: all re-enchanted from the bones of Rodin or van Gogh or Whistler. All become my work; all tell me stories.
   This is one. I see Whistler perched birdlike, hair a-plume, over a rickety portable easel on a muddy embankment, a cane's length above the steams and discharges of the Thames, by some transparent barges lolling cowishly in the murk, maybe, or under a brooding bridge, elf-lit blue and green from the watery air. I see a rush-clad maiden, fresh from her brown ablutions, climb leafy and dripping to add her final blurry strokes. And I see her slip back down to the deep, mermaid eyes awake for the next drowning.
   This is another, more prosaic. The Muse has slept long in the Great Rift. Seaweed-lazy and capricious as marshlight, she has always resisted invocation. Whistler, intuitively aware of painting's essence, knew what would wake her. Privy to the proper rituals and incantations, he countermanded the siren call. But he was among the last. Even in the 19th century, which has now acquired a nostalgic sheen and begins to rival the Renaissance in its myth-making potentiality, great painting was rare. The salons and academies produced many virtuoso technicians, but the treatment required for a memorable painting remained elusive. In the belly of the sea, the Muse now sleeps.
   This is another, long and awake. What was then rare has now become endangered. With the fall of the old gods—beauty, subtlety, lyricism, sentiment, the Virgin, the Hero, even, according to Nietzsche, God himself—inspiration has dissipated like the fogs and vapors of Whistler's nocturnes. There is no longer supplication to any Muse. There is no question of transcendence or redemption or revelation or even resignation. All humility, all wonder in the face of the Unknowable is gone. Art in the 20th century, as far as it has been considered to have any historical importance, has simply not concerned itself with any aesthetic considerations. Aesthetics, as the philosophy of beauty, became obsolete a hundred years ago. Up to then, from the hairy horses and buffaloe of Lascaux to the feathered dancing fowl of the Peacock Room, art had been in some sense continuous, a cohesive progression (if not teleological at least organic), branching and leafing out into recognizable buds—sometimes flowering, sometimes not. But art history has left this natural itinerary, this garden path where Nature was our teacher and the world, both our experience of it and our feeling for it, our inspiration. Now an attraction to beauty, and especially human beauty—tainted as it is by the politics of sexuality—is no more than a sign of bad taste. And Praxiteles, that most refined among the ancients, would, were he to reappear among us, chisel still ringing from the curves of fair Phryne, be dismissed as a rube, an unrepentant pre-Hegelian earthchild with no conception of the super-excellence of abstract thought. The same can be said of van Gogh, at the other end of pre-Modern art history. Vincent, were he alive today, shambling around toothless in his pale-blue peasant frock on the periphery of the contemporary art markets, would be exponentially more isolated and hopeless here than he was in Brabant or Arles in the 1880's. He might find something to paint in the hills of West Virginia, but not even the endless goodwill and faith of his brother Theo could now find a link between his idealism and the reality of the modern markets. The materialism he found so oppressive has increased ten-fold, and his redemptive view of Nature and humanity is considered not just quaint or passe, but infantile. People are astonished that van Gogh sold only one or two paintings in his lifetime, as if we have progressed beyond such ironic unfairness and value-blindness. But the truth is he would not do as well now. If realism had marginalized passion by 1880, it had all but excised it by 1980. And van Gogh's sensibilities, despite the lip-service given to his "integrity," are not only not encouraged in young painters, they are unimaginable. As for the avant garde, it now has no more in common with van Gogh's transcendentalism than it does with Praxiteles' paganism. Michelet, in van Gogh's time, could still verbalize Praxiteles' unspoken goal: la femme c'est une religion. But that god, like all others but Mammon, is now dead. Van Gogh existed on the outskirts of a dying star; today he would have to survive on the edge of a black hole.

Art is no longer art, painting is no longer painting, sculpture is no longer sculpture. The Muse looks long for a lover. In the revaluation of all values that has transformed art in this century, the very notions of beauty and inspiration have become outdated. An artist who finds them pertinent subjects for discussion is a recidivist, a dangerous Neo-Luddite, lost to Modernism and the topics of the day. What was of interest to Whistler or Zola or Baudelaire or van Gogh is now considered antediluvian, part of the fossil record, of no possible consequence for those who have known of Hiroshima and Auschwitz, who have watched a Moon Landing on a color screen, who have bought donuts and condoms from vending machines, who have shopped by phone, who have read, or claimed to have read, Derrida and Lacan. The brutalism of Modern art is explained as a reaction to the two World Wars and the rise of neo-Imperialism and materialism in the U.S. But this does not explain Michelangelo (who lived through eleven popes, the burning of Savonarola, and the sack of Rome) or any pre-Modern art since, which was created in the midst of plagues, famines, religious persecutions and atrocities of horrific detail, and continuous war. Hitler did not invent fascism. Almost all regimes prior to the Enlightenment, and most since, were fascistic. Yet art of beauty and depth, which none but the most agenda-inebriated could connect to fascism (or any sort of politics), was created. The idea that art is politically determined is the only real novelty of the 20th century, but none of the world's great art before 1910 lends it any credence. Twentieth century art is politically determined only because it is defined as such: work must conform to the theoretical rubric to be called art. Theory is the new fascism, and it has proven itself a much more powerful tool of top-down control than any of the historical pressures from the aristocracy or the markets. More non-artists have more influence on art than ever before.


We are told, by those who do not or cannot paint or sculpt, that art must be timely; that we must read the right things and show that we have read the right things; that we must beware of our instincts, beware what gives pleasure. We must understand that art is a tool of progress. We must follow one simple rule. In every sentence, past, present and future, replace "art" with "the politics of art."
   More specifically, we who are attracted to
la terre, to flesh and mud, who find some atavistic kinship with the objet, must understand that the failures of propagandized realism during the Third Reich and under Stalin damn all previous figurative and depictive art, and taint any such attempts in the future. We must understand that every stroke of the brush, every chisel groove is forsaken of innocence, is marred by the sins of our fathers, must now be an expression of solidarity. In every sentence, past, present and future, replace "art" with "the politics of art."
   In both popular magazines and critical journals, the story of the transformation of art to
art moderne has been standardized, and the view of both the past and of the future of art is well-established, if not monolithic. The groundwork laid by writers in the first half of the century, despite being hopelessly abstract and incomplete, has held up remarkably well. Roger Fry, Clive Bell, Leo and Gertrude Stein, Clement Greenberg: these are the inventors of Modernism, not Picasso or Kandinsky or whoever you like. And this new art theory has never even suffered a strong challenge, so well has it administered its social tonic from the beginning. In a society obsessed with social science, the new art has been like cake, no matter how airy or false. And little has changed over the years but the frosting. Adam Gopnik, for instance, now confirms Greenberg's purifying inventions from 1949 and none the wiser: he said recently in The New Yorker, "Renaissance illusion had become illustration and could be sustained only by government diktat, as in socialist realism, or by commercial cynicism, as in Saturday Evening Post covers." In letting stand this 50-year-old slander, Gopnik matches Greenberg's presumption without his courage. For he gores an ox that is now assumed to be hornless. Gopnik knows, or thinks he knows, that no one now gives a damn about art except those for whom it is politically expedient. Modern art is expedient for artists who cannot draw or paint or sculpt. And it is expedient for writers who require a language-based art: successful visual art does not require their help or goodwill. And it is expedient for vendors and buyers of art who have no eye and no soul, and who must rely therefore on reputation. And so "realism" has become an easy target at the end of the century. One need not even be coherent in discussing it anymore. Parrot the proper shibboleths and one is a progressive intellectual. In one sentence, Gopnik, parroting Greenberg, whittles object painting down to "illusion," then to illustration, and finally to commerce. But this kind of wording is disingenuous to the highest degree. It implies the equivalence of all "realism," and allows for its easy dismissal, Raphael as well as Rockwell. It implies not only that the essence of Raphael or Titian was illusionism, but also, and more importantly, that 20th century realism is exhausted by the categories Gopnik/Greenberg invents.
   But Renaissance art cannot be judged as illusionist. Nor does it make any sense to say that realism can now be sustained only by diktat. It sounds impressively Stalinist, but is finally spurious. Realism has only been
suppressed by critical diktat, a diktat from non-artists to artists that is finally losing its charm. It takes a chilling level of reduction to analyze realism, as everyone from Fry to Gopnik has done, into such readily taggable boxes, each baby pre-packaged in his own bathwater, ready for postage.

The fact is that art is neither novelty, nor decoration, nor social commentary, nor illusion; and to continue to suggest that it must be is to be a nuisance. Specifically, to perpetuate the idea that all pre-Picassan art is aristocratic illustration or a socially determined advertisement for the status quo is to admit to a complete ignorance of art history. Michelangelo was no courtier; Rembrandt, no prince's bagman; nor Velasquez nor El Greco nor Goya. And what of van Gogh: why did van Gogh not dissolve into some nihilist or chronicler of horrors? Is it not the milieu but the man that makes the artist?
   In America it is not. One magazine, speaking of David Salle, says that "his paintings [are] among the works that most authoritatively express our time and are apt to become its permanent monuments." What is not considered is the question of whether an artist would
want to be a monument to this culture. Perhaps the terms "artist" and "monument to 20th century culture" are mutually exclusive. What we should ask of an artist is not for him to be a monument to culture, but to be an artist, regardless of his culture, and to influence culture as an artist. An artist, I claim, does not wet a finger and hold it to the wind searching for a zeitgeist. That is what we have politicians for.
   But in the art journals, and among the critics, aesthetics has been reduced, or deconstructed, to "relevance." A critical reading of a text or a context (in the parlance of the day) implies no judgments of quality or implications of emotional content. That is to say, a critic is interested in a work of art only for its intent. The significance of a work of art, for its reviewer, has become its interpretive value—its ability to provide a springboard into (what are understood to be) more interesting discussions of a psychological, political, or literary nature. Not only is there almost no argument about the artistic merit of any individual work, there is next to no interest in what art is or should be, on its own terms. A recent poll in the
New Yorker of the biggest names in the arts, asking What is Art?, confirmed that no one any longer has the courage of his conviction: art is now "whatever people say it is." No one wanted to go on record with even the broadest, most inclusive definition. No positive definition of art is inclusive enough. Art must now be politically and socially all-embracing, to ward off attacks from the left, and yet be intellectually and linguistically hyper-exclusive, to impress the curators and buyers. It cannot be both, except in the mazes of post-colonial, post-Chomskyan theory, and so it is best to keep quiet when answering outsiders. Art and art theory are now exclusive not in claiming to any sort of eminence, as they did as recently as Greenberg, but only in their academic lingo and PC insiderism. The kind of grand theoretical posing that was stylish in the 50's and 60's has been added to the list of pretensions, and no one would think of taking an exclusionary stance against any abstract idea (except "the past"). In general, everything is art except what used to be art. Anything that does not offend the current conceptions of egalite is potentially art. Anything that defends the current conceptions of egalite is not only art, it is ambitious art.
   There is no interest in defining art because, for those who have other agendas, an artistic agenda would be intrusive. Art criticism is now simply a tool for those writers who find it convenient. A hundred years ago, there was much talk of
ars gratia artis—art for the sake of art. But such non-utilitarian philosophy is now passe. What art is for at the end of our century has become clear: art is a resource for anyone in the arts. It is a tool the usefulness of which is to be judged by the use a critic or curator or dealer is able to make of it. A work of art is no longer the child of the artist, an unnameable gift; it is something altogether different. For the avant garde, an artifact is equivalent to a post-structural text. That is, its meaning is the battlefield of various interpretations—interpretations supplied to us by writers. The artist, unless he is also a writer, cannot join this battle. He is superseded. His only role is as the supplier of a text—a text chosen for its applicability. How this effects who may and who may not become known as an artist is obvious.
   To keep up with the expectations and demands of the "arts professionals," visual art has become more linguistic, more social, more intellectual, more analytic, more political. In Freudian terms, there has been a displacement of artistic inspiration out of the Id and into the Ego and, especially, the Superego. The struggles of the great pre-Modern artists were highly personal, irrational, non-verbal, quasi-religious: the works of these masters symbolized a yearning for some sort of understanding or connection that admitted of no political or social solution, nor of any critical or psychological explication. Because it was beyond these rational categories, because it was not capable of being expressed or communicated in any other way, it had to be offered up as art. This was truly an art for itself: not art for the sake of color, or for line, or for the sake of art theory, but art defined as a form of expression not like any other and not requiring any other.
   Whistler himself saw, as early as the 1870's, the potential catastrophe of a burgeoning art commentary, and the trumping power of the word over the image. Ironically, his talents as a writer may have saved him from utter obscurity. Little was made of the substance of his arguments: he tried to limit the inroads of the critic by narrowing and clarifying the definition of high art, by putting the artist in control of aesthetics, and by attacking the critic directly as a man lost in his neighbors' fields. He said for instance,

Art, that for ages has hewn its own history in marble, and written its own comments on canvas, shall it suddenly stand still, and stammer, and wait for wisdom from the passer-by?—from the hand that holds neither brush nor chisel?

But Whistler proved his point only by being his own best marketing strategist. His trenchant letters to the various London journals, his alias as the Prince of Persiflage and the Master of Badinage, and his Ten O'Clock Lecture made his name with the public more than any of his finest etchings or oils. At the same time that he was arguing that art must be judged on its own terms, he was being judged as a personality. But he was the last artist of real talent to win the right to define himself to the world. And even Whistler was only capable of propping up his own career. He had no effect at all on the Steins and Bells and Frys who would co-opt art theory in the next generation. The critics will never warm to a theory of art that does not invent one of them as kingmaker.
   The career of Picasso is a perfect example of this. Influenced by, among many others, van Gogh and Puvis de Chavannes, Picasso was a child of the late 19th century. Woman was, and remained, his religion. But even the unmatched passion and beauty of his early work (of his Blue and Rose Periods, of his Harlequins) could not win him notice in the art markets of the early 1900's, which were already beginning to be dominated by the critic and other non-artists. If he had continued to paint in this vein his ears might have become the worse for wear, but Picasso was a better listener than van Gogh. The critics asked for art as an exercise of the intellect: he gave them Cubism. They asked for art that needed a theory: he gave them Collage Cubism. They, and the revolutionaries, asked him for art as politics (propaganda): he gave them
Guernica. Once famous, he was free to return to Woman. But this freedom says nothing for the passion of Modern art: the critics still do not like Early Picasso (before 1906), and the passionate nudes of his later years would not have been accepted from anyone but Picasso. They did not have the proper content—or more precisely, lack of content.


From its beginnings as a non-verbal expression of an emotional state, as a simple "sharing of self," art has now reached the post-structural equivalent of an agon. Every work is read as a text, and the literary critic and art critic are interchangeable. Harold Bloom, the present Elder Statesman of American literary criticism, has embraced the revolutionary concept that a text is a mise-en-scene, a dramatic arena for a Greek-style agon: that is, a fight. The readers of a text fight to give it meaning, the smartest reader winning the laurel. This theory is revolutionary because it is a reader-centered theory, as opposed to a artist-centered theory. It was once assumed that a story or a poem had a pre-read meaning. The meaning of a literary work was the meaning the author had put into it, both consciously and unconsciously. For Bloom and almost every contemporary reader (and writer), this assumption has proved to be theoretically limiting. It disallows many things that many people want to allow. So Bloom's powerful arm of modern critical theory has redefined "meaning" as the most persuasive reading (or combination of readings) of a text. This Ptolemaic revolution puts the readers in control of the work. It is somewhat like putting the planets in control of the Sun. It purposefully encourages a misunderstanding of the reader's proper place in relation to a text. The creation of a greater mind is used only as a tool to further the agenda of a later and lesser mind. What the author said or meant is of secondary or no matter. What he can be made to say is the game. Critics no longer talk of "uncovering or discovering" meaning, but of "creating" or "giving" meaning, as if a text had no more pre-authorship than an onion skin.
   What few seem to realize is that any debate may turn on the blurring of only one important distinction. Bloom would argue that, in the absence of a dead author, such as Shakespeare, readers
must arbitrate meaning. There is no one else to do it. And even with living writers, who is to judge meaning that the writer may have put in unconsciously? Writers are not aware of unconscious meaning. That is why it is "unconscious." Can a writer be made aware of his unconscious states? Should he be consulted, to verify whether a hypothetical reading sounds right? Readers are, in fact, responsible for all standing interpretations of all works. Why not say so?
   My answer is that there is a world of difference between admitting that readers are responsible for interpretation, and admitting that interpretation is meaning. This is no semantic subtlety: the whole argument hinges on it. Interpretation is (or should be) the discovery of meaning, not the creation of meaning. Interpretation is the discovery of a pre-existing idea, an idea already contained in the text. That is what interpretation
means. If the idea is contained in the text, then the meaning adheres to the text, not the interpretation. If it is not contained in the text, then the interpretation is super-textual: that is, it is wrong. Super-textual interpretation is wrong for the very reason that it poses as meaning. Rather than clarifying or revealing a text, it adumbrates it. The critic's ideas get mixed with the author's, always to the benefit of the critic. If a critic has something to say that is super-textual (an original idea), he should say it in his own context, in his own poem or novel. Then he may be judged on equal terms with other writers. This would be a true agon.
   The definition of "reading" has changed in the last thirty years. The point of reading, in pre-postmodern times, was understanding. Literature was approached as a source of wisdom: the author's wisdom, not the reader's. In order to discover the author's meaning, a reader approached a text with some degree of humility. One read with two basic assumptions: first, that there exists the other—namely, the author; and second, that the other may know something one doesn't. As the reader, I should realize that I don't create the text (in fact, in some important sense, the text creates me). Now, if I read with these assumptions, I may learn something. But reading with the assumptions of deconstruction only encourages solipsism and the vainest self-promotion.

Strange to say in this kinder, gentler culture, this culture of the feminine, reading has become aggressive. Interpretation has gone from the search for understanding to textual rapine. No level of presumption on the part of the reader is disallowed; conversely, it is encouraged. It has been assumed, I suppose, that this tactic will encourage new ideas. A few new ideas, of a bastardized and low sort, have erupted. But, for the most part, and more importantly, it has discouraged any sort of old-fashioned love for literature or art. It has discouraged respect for the past, for those who have provided, and continue to provide, our artistic inheritance. And it has encouraged resentment from those who can read and view toward those who can write and paint and sculpt.

Bloom mentions Nietzsche as support for his theory of art as agon. But Nietzsche's theory was that of an agon between works of art. It had nothing to do with criticism or theory—with making the theorist an agonist through the door of interpretation. A poem, in its psychic intent, could be seen in part as an answer to a previous poem or a poetic heritage. The poet's use of convention was not only as a device of poetics but as an artistically meaningful emotional carrier, part of this emotion being antagonism to other poets. But for this agon to take place required for Nietzsche the creation of art. A poem is answered by a poem, not by a critique. A poet tropes his enemy in a poem. If he is not capable of a poem, he cannot take the field.
   Nietzsche believed in other agons, assuredly, but he would not have styled them as artistic or poetic agons. There was the agon of artist to artist. And then there was the agon of philosopher to philosopher. In one, synthesis answered synthesis. In the other, analysis answered analysis. But one would never analyze a poem in order to answer it, any more than one would write a poem to answer a critique. When Nietzsche attacked Wagner, for instance, he did not try to reinterpret Wagner by a "strong reading," by denying him precedence or existence as creator, or by denying that Wagner's stated intentions had meaning or import. Remember, it took ten years for Nietzsche to
understand Wagner. Nietzsche saw himself as a scientist. He could never have believed in the indeterminacy of meaning, or the relativity of response. For him Wagner's will was as definite and as real as anything can be. And so he attacked Wagner in strictly classical terms. He attacked his theories and the cultural manifestations of his theories and his music. And if he attacked him personally, this is only another classical agon, one that may be countered in the open, or fist to fist. Besides, it was always clear with Nietzsche that a polemic was a polemic. He never couched eristic terms in a context of literary "interpretation." A purposeful misreading would have seemed nonsensical. Nietzsche wanted to forcefully disagree with what Wagner actually was doing, not redefine what Wagner was doing to suit his own purposes. To misread Wagner would have been to deprive Nietzsche of an enemy.
   Bloom smilingly dismisses Deconstruction's destruction of "authorship" as nihilistic but faddish (and therefore benign). He is not a part of Theory as Lacan or de Man or Derrida is. But his stance on interpretation amounts to much the same thing, without the honesty. Theory (i.e. Deconstruction) makes no bones about its Duchampian campaign against the artist. Bloom, though, has written monographs on every great man in history, and so cannot afford to destroy greatness altogether—or one would think. But to the careful reader his motives are as transparent as anyone's. He says:

Many critics flee to philosophy or linguistics [for interpretive rules], but the result is that they learn to interpret poems as philosophy or as linguistics. Philosophy may flaunt its rigors but its agon with poetry is an ancient one, and will never end.

But Bloom's theory of poetry as an agon is the interpretation of poetry as criticism. A critique is much more clearly and one-dimensionally an agon than a poem is. A poet would never see a poem as strictly or primarily as an agon. And this is not because a poet is unaware of his own medium. It is because a poet, like a painter, sees the essence of his work not in analysis or interpretation, but in non-linguistic revelation. Ineffable synthesis. Bloom's emphasis on the poem as agon only benefits him. The strong reader he is always talking about becomes, by his definition, the reader as critic. And criticism's agon with poetry and art is just as ancient as philosophy's—and is now much more an onus on art and poetry than philosophy ever was.
   Bloom quotes Wallace Stevens as proof that it is still "a world of words to the end of it." But it is simply not a world of words, except for those who define themselves exclusively by words. For Bloom it
is a world of words, and that is why, artistically, he misses so much of import in the world. Poetry's essence, like painting's or music's, is not words, but emotion. The absurdity of calling music a "world of words" is clear. Music is not even "a world of notes." Such a definition is only an empty truism. Likewise, poetry as "a world of words" is verbiage: the quote implies content, leading the reader in a preconceived direction, but ultimately has neither content nor direction (a symptom of most post-structural dialogue). Poetry and painting have always been closer to music than to criticism or philosophy. Painting is, or should be, even less verbal than poetry. Why have we accepted the analytical writer's co-option of poetry, and of painting and sculpture?

Why so many critics and so few artists? The poets and novelists and visual artists will not interpret their works for us not because there has been some division of labor, because a contract has been signed or a convenant revealed, but because, for the artist, interpretation is not just superfluous, it is ruinous. Art reveals exactly to the extent that the artist desired, no less and no more. More explication can exist only at the expense of the art. But the audience of art ignores this, and is drawn to ever more absurd circles of exegesis. Why? Arthur Danto,
The Nation's art critic, explains it perfectly: "Until one tries to write about it, the work of art remains a sort of aesthetic blur." Only for the artist, and for that rare viewer who can feel, is the aesthetic experience primary, actually more powerful than its verbal retelling. All the others, the all-too-many, must make do with the agon between non-artist and non-artist.


Critics have also invented and perpetuated the usefulness of the idea of "critical distance." From the writings of Walter Benjamin and Erwin Panofsky in the thirties up to now, criticism has been obsessed with the proper separation between artwork and viewer. For instance, it is often repeated that the corrupted modern viewer (understood as the non-critical bourgeois), agape before the spectacles of contemporary culture—film, advertising, etc.—has no proper distance from this "art." As Benjamin said, "Now things press too closely on human society."
   But while it is true that "things" press too closely on human society, I do not think that art is one of them. The Amish are not wrong that contemporary culture is a barrage of inessential demands on ones resources, but this has nothing at all to do with art. Advertising is not art. Film rarely is. The bourgeois and the rest of us are inundated with static—worse than static, spiritual noise. Art we rarely encounter. And, armed with the false notion of critical distance, we do not know how to absorb art when we see it.
   Contrary to the beliefs of the critics, the proper critical distance for art is zero. An emotional response to an artwork requires the suspension of analysis, both on the part of the artist and of the viewer. All critical guards must be let down; all schemata must be suppressed. The work must be taken on its own terms. To approach an artwork as a critic is to necessarily nullify, by an a priori method, its artistic impact. Malraux and Coomaraswamy understood this, but very few other non-artists have. Critical distance is useful if one wants to use a work of art to further a particular analysis. It is of no use whatever if one wants to be transported through the eye of the artist.
   We have reached a topsy-turvy state, a Swiftian world where advertising is unquestioned but art is met in full philosophical armor. We are like knights-errant, kneecaps and elbows double-shielded, belly and genitals in the breeze. And the artist is as poorly arrayed as the art maven. Robert Hughes has written,

A cloud of uneasy knowingness has settled on American painting and sculpture. Its mark is a helpless skepticism about the very idea of deep engagement between art and life: a fear that to seek authentic feeling is to display naivete, to abandon ones jealously hoarded "criticality" as an artist.

Even our artists are now critics, mistaking "statements" and found objects and art historical "responses" for art. But art and criticism are not brethren, much less equivalent. Analysis and synthesis are like matter and antimatter, dangerous opposite poles that must be placed in proper longitudinal arcs from eachother to keep from mutual cancellation. It may be possible to construct a positive art theory, for instance, but it must never precede or obstruct the primary line of sight from art to eye and eye to art.
   Duchamp's notion that a piece of trash shares theoretical ground with the David, or Warhol's notion that the similarities between advertising and art are more important or interesting than their differences, are obstructions to art. These ideas would be obstructions even were they more true than false (which they are not) because no idea of art has a place in an artist's expression. Art is the transcendence of convention and technique and theory. These are tools. They are means, never ends. A Chopin nocturne is not enriched by asking formal questions of it, by dismantling the piano and psychoanalyzing Frederic. Painting and sculpture must again be left alone if any work is to get done.


Of course, the avant garde of literary criticism is now far beyond the presumptions of Bloom. Those adherents to the French school continue to find any excuse to make art ancillary to social criticism. Kant and Hume and Berkeley allow for the dismissal of the text as a phenomenon—logically unattachable to any noumenon, and therefore adrift—the equal-time tool of any solipsistic soul. Sartre perpetuates this duality, as Essence and Existence, but arbitrarily defines "Essence" as "Nothingness," giving the critics their arbitrary but prestigious pessimism. Heisenberg and Einstein and Bohr are misread as an excuse for "Uncertainty" and "Relativity." Entropy is misunderstood to the same end. Dilthey and Foucault and Rorty place the critics, as they see it, not only in isolated psyches, but in isolated psyches in isolated cultures: artifacts of other places and other times can only be palimpsests to be retroped and hypertexted. Even Behaviorism is brought into play, as proof that art can be understood only as a social action, decipherable only by a viewer and therefore, as far as the artist is concerned, psychically indeterminate. And Nietzsche is quoted to authorize every reversal, despite the fact that he despised any dualism, and therefore any solipsism, phenomenalism, or existentialism. Sartre's "nausea" would have been dismissed by Nietzsche as nothing more than creative impotence. But for every critic, a poem or painting has become like that rock picked up on the beach. Afraid of its "somethingness," the critic courageously asserts its "nothingness," freeing his upcoming description of it from all comparison.
   Likewise Lacan presupposes a dualism that Freud dismissed, and yet he is seen to be the great modernizer of psychoanalysis. One of Lacan's most influential theories of art, that of "trauma," only appears to add to our understanding of the artist's psychology. Stripped of its purposely convoluted terminology, the theory states that art may be created to replace an experience the artist finds painful. Art is apotropaic. But the idea that the artist recreates the world based on his desires is hardly revolutionary. It only appears to be when it is couched in multiple tropes and odd Heideggerian usage. For instance, Lacan defines the traumatic as "a missed opportunity with the real." That one word, "real," betrays the dualism that allows him much of the sloppiness in his language. Lacan gave his seminars the appearance of depth by implying that trauma is more than the pain of the unrealized: it is the pain of the
unrealizable. That is, it is the inability of the subject to ever know the object. And this return to the subject/object duality that Nietzsche and Freud rejected allows Lacan to invent many other pseudo-spiritual, Jungian terms, such as "the gaze." The gaze is Lacan's term for the object's view of the subject. Lacan's anecdotal sardine can floating in the water seems to look at him "at the level of the point of light, the point at which everything that looks at [him] is situated." Lacan uses this expression to explain the subject's unease in a world of unmediated objects. Psychologically it explains the psyche's need to control the images it receives. Art is a taming of the gaze, a dompte-regard.
   But the imprecision of Lacan's language allows him to say so much more without the immediate recognition of contradiction. The gaze, for Lacan, becomes not just anecdotal, but active, when the subject protects itself from the gaze, and when this protection is seen as inauthentic or, later, fascistic. Lacan analyzes the fascistic male as a creator of schemes (of representation) to control a threatening world, a sign of his impotence in the face of the "real." But Lacan is mixing his theories here: objects can be active and threatening only when they are real and knowable; conversely, protection can be inauthentic only when objects are unreal and unknowable—inauthenticity is the subjective self's self-ignorance. If objects exist, they must be mediated, by women as well as men. In this case, control cannot be "inauthentic;" it can only be reasonable or unreasonable. On the other hand, if men are inauthentic in their representations, then authenticity must be understood in terms of subjectivity, a subjectivity that should refrain from speaking of an active gaze. The gaze, mediated by the subject, becomes a schemata of representation, a series of phenomena. A subject cannot protect itself from the gaze directly, because the gaze is unknowable. This is why the subject is supposedly traumatized—from the object's "nothingness" or its complete "otherness." But, I ask, if the object, as noumenon, is unknown, why assume its malignancy, its power to harm? And why, once it is assumed to be malignant, would the subject assume that there is any protection, or that one method of protection is to be preferred to any other? There is no grid, no platform, for judgment until the subject has turned noumena into phenomena through his screen of representation. Once he has done that, why should a subject fear his own schemata, his own screen? What sense does it make to speak of a subject traumatized by his own screen?
   Nietzsche or Freud (or even Jung) would explain this sort of trauma not in terms of a mixture of a Manichean epistemology and a subjectivist psychology, as Lacan does, where noumena are mutually toxic (but otherwise unknowable), instigating the reactions of the male ego or of capitalism. They would see it as a neurosis, the misplaced psychic dis-ease caused by improperly assimilated experiences. That is to say, whether the individual sees experience as objective or subjective, phenomena or noumena, is of no concern. Trauma is not caused by a malevolent gaze or by subjective inauthenticity. It is a mistaken ordering of experience which, when oft repeated, may become a generalized fear of "the world," however that may be defined. What would be interesting to Freud or Nietzsche is not that the gaze is threatening, but that Lacan perceives it as threatening. What is interesting is not that the being of a rock is nothing, but that Sartre should think that it is.

The imprecise language of this sort of dualistic psychoanalysis also opens the door to the facile retroping by those social critics who take Lacan as a mentor. In some feminist criticism, for instance, Lacan's gaze is redefined as the male gaze, and the dangers Lacan finds in the malificent object are transferred to the malificent male. The male, for himself, is the paranoid, fascistic subject, warding off the "gaze" of the noumenon. But the male, for the female, is the gazing, violent object—unknowable but toxic—the predator that must be psychologically, and not just psychologically, negotiated.
   All this goes to say that the artist is caught in an ever more complex maze of analysis, with the critic as minotaur. The rebirth of dualism and of a neo-Kantian complexity of language allows more people to say more things about a subject they know only abstractly, and to do so with little fear of classical refutation—since such refutation is now stylistically and politically passe. There is no possible way to attack poststructuralism on its own ground, because it has no ground. The ground is, after all, a structure. An attack, especially from a white male, can be dismissed as necessarily phallocentric—from the aggressive and armored subject. Avant garde theory defends itself not through cogent argument, but by predefining its attacker as a confused monad, the pathetic dupe of larger forces, forces that only Theory can comprehend. And the argument is not multilateral, as one would expect of multiculturalists, but only bilateral. Anyone who paints objects as an aestheticist or who disagrees with the claims of Theory must be a defender of capital, patriarchy, and the Republican party. To the right of Robert Hughes there is no company but Hilton Kramer and Jesse Helms. That an artist might disagree with all the policies of his own government, might support Wendell Berry against the Farm Bureau, Noam Chomsky against the State Department, Dave Foreman against the Forest Service, Ralph Nader against GATT and NAFTA and Congress in general, Leonard Peltier against the FBI, and yet choose to paint non-critical art is unimaginable. Criticism has defined art as socially determinate and then has been good enough to determine what we should be socially. The categories have been marked off, and the most "original" artist is the one who fills his slot most completely.
   Despite criticism's success, its theoretical underpinnings are slender as kitestrings. It does not know who to quote, who to support, who to attack. It lives off its own capital and fouls its own nest. Nietzsche was the defender of the artist, not the precursor and apologist of the critic. Bloom says that "any hypothesis is good enough for me," implying his own self-confidence in the face of competition. But the hypothesis of Deconstruction is simply not good enough for me, and it would not be good enough for Nietzsche. Nietzsche would dismiss Deconstruction as theoretically arid in its potential for insight, and psychologically transparent in its motives, a pathetic modern symptom of resentment. The critic, a minor beast in Nietzsche's menagerie, could be no important beneficiary of creative freedom, because he is not a creator. Whether a reviewer of art or literature could or could not invent a novel theory is of no concern, except insofar as it begins to effect the artist. The destruction of a thing of beauty for the aggrandizement of Theory would have been the
ne plus bas for Nietzsche. As he said in the Genealogy of Morals:

Nature, which gave the bull his horns and the lion his chasm odonton [his mouthful of teeth], why did nature give me my foot?...To kick, Holy Anacreon! and not only for running away; for kicking to pieces these rotten armchairs, this cowardly contemplativeness, this lascivious historical eunuchism, this flirting with aesthetic ideals, this justice-tartuffery of impotence.


The analytical writer has usurped visual art in the 20th century for his own purposes (and for those of his accomplices in administration). He methods have been many, but I will discuss only the three most influential here. The first is his almost unilateral use of the (mass) media. Artists avoid the media because it cannot translate the subtleties of art. Pictures of paintings or sculpture, whether in print, or on TV or on the computer screen, lose all their artistic qualities—immediacy, tangibility, subtlety, rarity, intimacy, individuality—and so are avoided by artists whose primary concern is not marketing, but expression. Serious painters avoid prints for the same reason (a "lithograph" of a painting is no more a work of art than a lithograph of a sculpture is). Likewise, artists avoid "art interpretation" in the media because they do not believe in it. Art requires no left-brain interference of any kind. But art writers and analysts have used all the media to full effect. Artists have not been able to maintain control of theory in their own field, because theory is language, and language has been monopolized by those in the media. The number of words written about art by non-artists everyday is staggering, and artists have simply been overwhelmed.
   In support of his newly created position as Puppeteer to the Arts, the critic has offered an ever-increasing slate of theories. These two seem to me to be the most pervasive and the least questioned: First, the historical confusion of aestheticism and formalism. The art critic or historian explains the movement from Manet to Warhol as a purifying interest in formalism. Manet, Courbet, the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, and especially my man Whistler are all cited as precursors of formalism. But the theorists purposely blur the distinction between Manet's formalism and Warhol's. By a modern definition, Manet and Whistler were no more formalists than van Gogh was. They were all aestheticists. Art-for-the-sake-of-art meant for them not art-for-the-sake-of-art-theory, but art-for-the-sake-of-expression. Formalism is analytic; aestheticism is synthetic. With formalism, formal clues lead the viewer to theories or ideas. In aestheticism, the form itself, as a whole, causes emotion. Whistler wanted to jettison religious, moral, didactic, and literary content from painting. This did not mean that he wanted to empty painting of all content. For him, Modern formalism would be like emphasizing the keys of a piano, rather than the music emanating from it. Cognitive content in art is peripheral: lose it all and there remains the music—this is what the critics have missed. The truth is that formalism has no pre-Modern ancestors who were artists. Formalism was invented by art analysts to serve their own purposes, and fools like Warhol played to the tune they piped. Art as expression needs no middleman, but art defined as art theory requires the theorist. Like a priest, the critic invents a problem only he can solve; and art still awaits its Luther.
   The second theory concerns the impetus for art. Writers first emptied art of all traditional content by preaching formalism. Once the container was empty, it needed to be refilled. Refilled with ideas, of course, for only these could be argued about by non-artists. Ideas of theory, political ideas, ideas of psychology and sociology and science, even, mirabile dictu, ideas of economics. As an excuse for this, they pointed to works of the past. Was not van Gogh psychologically rich, did not the David have political implications for Florence, was not Leonardo a scientist? And so on, blurring another distinction and further confusing the bewildered. For there is an essential difference between art's implications and its impetus. A work, for instance, may have political implications despite the fact that political ideas had nothing to do with its creation. Why did Michelangelo create the David, for instance? Where does its power come from? Did he create it as a political statement? The Florentine Signory in 1505 may have seen it as such, but this was not Michelangelo's inspiration, nor has history understood it to be. David as we see him today in the Accademia springs directly from Michelangelo's Id, untranslatable by words or politics or science or theory. Michelangelo is great because his art reveals him personally, beyond the banal concerns of his client or his subject. The force of his will and his desire define his works; one does not think in front of such art, one deliquesces.
   Art may have political implications, but politics cannot be the inspiration for art because politics is a social, not a personal phenomenon. The reception of art is social; the creation of art is private. Political motivation does not arise at a psychological depth required for art. Likewise, a work of art may be placed in a theory, after the fact; but it cannot arise from theory because theoretical musings do not originate in that vast, often unconscious, part of the mind that predates linguistics—and that is the source of all art. Political ideas and art theories are cognitive, or rational, if you will. Art is not. The critic suffers from the pandemic Modern misconception that the Id is now subordinate to the Superego, or that the neocortex now controls the brain. But the artist, no matter how rational, knows that all language, all theory, all intellection is but a template, a tool of the Self, or of the Will, or of the Spirit. Synthesis precedes analysis, as passion precedes reason, as the limbic system (and the rest of the inner brain) precedes the cortex.
   The Moderns may argue that art can evolve from ideas: it has been, since Kandinsky. But I say this is a degraded definition of art. We simply do not need art as another tool of the hyper-rational left-brain and Superego. Subsuming art within language and cognition is a bad idea. It overbalances Reason and puts the passions in a defensive position, with no natural outlet. It puts the instincts in an even worse position than religion has allowed. Trading the controls of passion from religion to a hyper-linguistic Theory is to increase repression, not decrease it. Religion, for all its moralizing, has always remained irrational. This is why art has flourished within religion. Art and Christianity have seemed like strange bedfellows to many, but they aren't nearly as perverse as art and Theory. Art can exist as a cohort of myth, but it can never survive as a subset to language or science.

Art has burned out at the end of the 20th century not through some Marxist historical necessity. It is not, directly, a victim of science or democracy or even economics. It is a victim of a coup. In grade school, as I scribbled my rough portraits of my friends and lampooned the teacher, there were two reactions from those who gathered around to peer over my shoulder. There were those who said, "Look, that's Jemmy!" or "Ha-ha, Mrs. Parkes is naked." And then there were those who said, "I wish I could do that." I was once flattered by the latter reaction, but I now see that the former were my true allies. For the envious ones went on to art history degrees, and they now tell people where to circle and for how long. And I am not so much a bother to them.

If this paper was useful to you in any way, please consider donating a dollar (or more) to the SAVE THE ARTISTS FOUNDATION. This will allow me to continue writing these "unpublishable" things. Don't be confused by paying Melisa Smith--that is just one of my many noms de plume. If you are a Paypal user, there is no fee; so it might be worth your while to become one. Otherwise they will rob us 33 cents for each transaction.