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LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
The Independent, London, et al. March 18, 2003
I just saw the show at the Tate Britain, including Rodin's Kiss wrapped in string. But I must tell you I did not pay at the door to see the Kiss wrapped in string. Nor did I fly to London, braving the lines at security, to see the Kiss wrapped in string. I came to see the Kiss, period, sans string. If Rodin were alive today he could sue for copyright infringement. If I were a British citizen, I could sue for mismanagement of public treasures and public funds. What's next—paying "artists" to graffitti the Rokeby Venus and draw mustaches on the Rembrandts? We used to prosecute desecration, now we pay for it and promote it. If only the man with the shotgun had known the artistic value of his imaginings, he might have achieved real fame (and gotten a contract at Saatchi) for blowing a hole in the Virgin and Child with St. Anne. He only needed to line it up beforehand with the director.
If there are any young artists, worthy of the name, still living in London, I encourage them to storm the Tate Britain with scissors, to reclaim their heritage.
Historical note: This letter was published in full on the date given above. A few weeks later a London artist was arrested for cutting the strings. His name was not released to the public and he was not charged—in order to avoid giving more attention to the act. It was not me, but I applaud the man and the act.
I am somewhat less than shocked to learn how well fenced in are the foolish in strong places still—as Mr. Hughes' commentaries on "art" have made clear—but I wonder whether there might not be other abodes, more wise though less publicized, and whether it is best to always get ones information from strong places.
As a dead man, and therefore the most objective of observers, I beg to point out that a section on art in a popular magazine in Modern America can only appeal to the perverse: in flight from the Demon of Dulness and his preposterous surroundings, your readers turn expectantly to the "art" pages—not to be charmed by the subtleties of art, but to be confirmed in the decline of Western Civilization, that glorious spectacle, and to wring their hands and cry, "Oh My! Whatever are we coming to?"
Mr. Hughes, in his review of B. Nauman, deflates the artist from "hero" to "social activist" to "nuisance." Regarding Mr. Nauman, this is nothing if not generous; but who reads and writes about a nuisance except worse nuisances? You are all cell mates in the asylum watching the available entertainment.
I did not die yesterday: I know that my current coup in your capital city would be impossible were I living to face the terms of the current litterateurs. But as one now beyond the reach of the bewildered, may I remind them that the establishment, whether it was the Royal Academy in my time or the various Institutions of yours, has never created, or promoted, an artist and never will. If there is some residue of art, some unhatched egg of the Muse peeping under a pile of feathers in this ridiculous country of yours, you can be sure it is not incubating in the nest of any administrator, curator, academic, or "any pitiful critic whatever." This is what all your hours of Art History (see the martyrdom and ascendance of Vincent) were to have taught you.
Or perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps such promptings are now truly impertinent. Perhaps there is a silent agreement by all concerned that the entertainment value of "art as pathological symptom" cannot be equaled by any positive definition. If so, rejoice! The future will never bore you. "Go gentle into that good night."
James McNeill Whistler [with butterfly]
Fated to be before my time always, I find that my missive of a week ago was a week premature [one week after the previous letter, Hughes published a review of the Whistler exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.]. One would think the dead, especially when they are as charming as I, might be left to enjoy a few hours of deserved admiration without having to answer to the self-appointed purveyors of taste, but apparently Mr. Hughes (who is beginnning to remind me of my own dear 'Arry, God rest his soul) thinks otherwise. I suppose I should be thankful I wasn't excoriated like Poor Julian or quartered like Fetching Miss Finley, but being classified "a good, but not a great painter" by a non-painter raises the specter of presumption, at least from where I am writing. I find I am just below Messieurs Degas and Manet, whose claims to greatness will be honored but not their artistic opinions. What matters that I am respected by fellow artists? The critics will sort all that out later.
Forgive me for reading so close to the page, but what, pray tell, was M. Degas' "range," his "breadth of human curiosity"? He was insular to the highest degree, and a genius. Or are we to dismiss Rembrandt, too, for not venturing beyond the Jewish Quarter, Raphael for painting those limited Madonnas, and Van Gogh for failing to address Metternichism. What sort of "formal toughness" did Manet exhibit? "Tough," gritty, yes. Formal, no, not by your definition or mine. Manet and Courbet were virulent anti-formalists, as am I~despite the claim that I wanted to empty the content from painting. I wanted to jettison the misplaced literary, religious, and political content; but replacing it with formalism, emphasizing color as color, or flatness as flatness, is absurd. It is like emphasizing the keys of a piano instead of the music emanating from it. This is not "art for art's sake"; it is "art for the sake of art theory." Which explains why the critics and their darlings are so glad to perpetuate the misunderstanding. But what content is left? you ask, brows knitted. I cannot pour notes into the ears of a deaf man.
The implication here, which at least I did not miss, had nothing to do with formalism and everything to do with grit. Manliness. Modern mud-in-your-eye. Writing where he felt less constrained about such topics, Mr. Hughes has accused me of effeminacy. Oh, the lessons the Muse, that glorious female, might have taught him had he kept up his studies.
How does Whistler "look from here," he asks? Where is here? I answer. The burnt-out end of the century of the anti-artist, of the artist as sick man, of "the artist as nuisance." The "self-invented" artist gives way to the Greenberg-invented artist and the Boone-invented artist and the MOMA-invented artist. The well-read Australian with a limpid pen climbs into the pantheon of immortals with Ruskin, Bell, Fry, and Rosenberg. And let us not forget 'Arry.
James McNeill Whistler [with butterfly]
Artnews, February, 2003
Your article on me by Stephen May was fairly inoffensive, as such things currently go. But in the few places it veered from straight history to opinion, it still managed to rankle nonetheless. For example, as proof that I was a precursor of Picasso and Warhol, David Curry is quoted as saying of me, 'He packaged himself to stand out.' As if having a personality and manufacturing one were strictly equivalent. I know it is difficult for contemporary critics to understand, but there was a time when artists held opinions for artistic reasons, rather than economic ones; just as there was a time when people dressed in particular ways because they liked a particular style of clothing, for its own sake—a sort of habitus gratia habitus, if you will. Indeed, a closer reading of history might show that my personal tastes and decisions, as to style of argument and dress and presentation, did me little economic good. In fact, they caused me no end of hardship—decades of animosity and ignorance in the press, as well as bankruptcy and other fine feuding. The only occasional allies made were other artists, and it might be argued that this did me some good in my later years. But my outspokenness was never likely to win me friends in criticism or administration. Had Picasso or Warhol truly followed my example they would no doubt be currently unknown to you, criticism and administration having become the raisons d'etre of art. These fellows simply acted a part required of them~as they have admitted in print. 'Acting' and 'being' are not at all the same, you now see.
James McNeill Whistler
with butterfly, sting, &c.
Re: "Degas in Vegas." I suppose I should ask first is Mr. Danto ill? Recent accident? Are we indulging him for some reason? Allowing him to E-mail his first draft and be printed without an edit? "Let's give him the cover, without any other banners, and 2500 words to babble about nothing. It's the least we can do for a dying man." If so, the readers should be informed, so we can share in the compassion.
What is this article about? Is it an opinion piece? The only theme that runs through the whole article is the question of authenticity. After a full page of uninspiring and uninspired description, and loose analogies peppered with un-poignant satire, Danto finally asks it. But he never answers it except with the bald assertion, another 1000 words later, that they are "deeply authenticated." Deeply? Nice word choice. There is no substantiation, no list of sources, no attempt to share his verification process with us, assuming he had one. Who said they were authentic? Why should we believe them? If that is what this article is about, then let's have some proof. It would still be a boring article, but at least it would have a point.
In paragraph six, Danto devotes a sentence to the "legendary" art critic Dave Hickey. Who? Danto does not tell us. He gives us exactly one more sentence on Hickey after that, and it is unclear why Hickey is mentioned in either spot. Hickey teaches at UNLV. So there are other "artistic" interests in the city. What does this have to do with Bellagio? No one knows. Does Hickey teach criticism or art? If he teaches art, as is implied here, what are his credentials? This might have been an interesting subplot. But Danto does not go there, because Hickey was only mentioned to be mentioned. He is now legendary for his appearances in The Nation.
Also in paragraph six, Danto offers us, apropos of nothing, two parenthetical sentences, of 75 words, that make no sense at all. The differentiation of "Museum of Museums paintings" and "Museum of Museums painters" is convoluted, wordy, and gratuitous. I defy anyone to tell me what the analogy to Madame Tussaud's is about.
All this so that we can be told in the last paragraph, and apparently without irony, the "moral legend" (word choice) of the "triste truth" (word choice, by god) of Van Gogh's life: a fake painting by Vincent in Las Vegas would not be redemption for him, but a real painting is.
The Editor, Forbes, 1999
Re:"Unstarving Artists" [Oct. 11]. There is a similarity, sometimes, between what one is taught at university in the school of business and in the school of psychology. It has to do with gains and losses. Who is winning, who is losing. For instance, rather than judge this article solely for its content, one may ask "What does Mr. Akasie have to gain by writing it? What does Forbes have to gain in publishing it?"
The intended loser here is clear: the non-avant garde artist. Why? One must suppose it is because Mr. Akasie prefers the avant garde. He mentions Kandinsky in his subtitle. He quotes a New York University art professor (who, as we all should know, is unlikely to favor pre-Modern art). And he makes realists look very bad. His prototype of a realist, the "artist" Mr. Kettleborough, doesn't even think much of himself, apparently. He does "Sargent rip-offs." He is "not Rauschenberg." He works for those tasteless, undereducated "yachtsmen," who blow five figures on mediocrity.
Sounds very cutting until one remembers that Damien Hirst, one of the darlings of the avant garde critics, who does think he is Rauschenberg, recently pocketed a half million for a real cowhead with live maggots. Until one remembers that Rauschenberg, who gets millions, is most famous for paste-ups of Kennedy and for stuffed chickens perching on assemblages of daily clutter. Until one remembers that Kandinsky, who painted colored triangles, was famous for talking about art (in his subtitle Mr. Akasie says that these unstarving artists could "probably talk rings" around Kandinsky: not likely, his articles being some of the most "important"—and often absurd—artist-created documents of art theory in the 20th century). The realists profiled in this article may indeed be "whorish," but their self-promotion skills are sub-collegiate compared to the agents, critics, and artists of the avant garde.
The New York critics know, for example, that the best offense remains a good defense: keep parroting how all the pre-Modern artists were "court painters," i.e. interior decorators, and eventually most people will believe it. Michelangelo's David?: just a "rip-off" of the Greeks to flatter Florentine politicos. Velasquez?: King Philip's pawn, nothing more. Rodin?: a propagandist for the State, no better than Hitler's agitprop artisans. If realism can be kept in the grave, all those "yachtsmen" who want the prestige of art will have to buy it from Mr. Akasie's approved avant outlets (at the appropriate 10X mark-up).
What does Mr. Akasie gain? An art that requires a literature. The university art history departments, now much larger than the art departments, need jobs for the graduates. The David needs no subtext. A maggot-filled skull does. What does Forbes gain? I can only guess that they have invested in Modern art. Or perhaps they are grateful for any chance to belittle Ted Turner and Prince Charles.
My gain with this reply? Because I love art, I detest both markets (modern and realist) and everyone in them. And I detest articles that hide more than they reveal, that attack an enemy but fake an objectivity, that snipe but offer no alternatives. My gain, everybody's gain, would be a report on great, unknown artists. But this sort of reporting, like creating real art, isn't so easy.
The New York Times Book Review, 2001
Paul Mattick, in his review of Jed Perl's new book Eyewitness, unwittingly confirms Perl's contention that critics are a large part of the problem of modern art. Perl also confirms this in his book, in ways he didn't intend. Both men are self-proclaimed experts in a field in which all their knowledge is abstract. Unless they are great artists, I can't imagine why anyone is interested in their opinions on art. I suppose someone must be published in this field that somehow remains provocative, despite the complete dearth of great artists, and these are the lucky ones.
The only points I could glean from Mattick's review are that he disagrees with Perl about Warhol and that he disdains Perl's claims to transcendence—since Perl has been a successsful critic for years. Mattick seems to imply that anyone who is allowed into print by anyone is an insider. I realize that Mattick only had two columns to work with here, but he might have chosen a central thesis that did not look, at short notice, so much like envy.
Mattick accuses Perl of a "tin ear" that becomes a "tin eye," leading us to suppose that Mattick thinks he is the better writer, and therefore the better art viewer. And yet in his second paragraph he gives us the charming oxymoron, a "standard trope," which to my ear is so much braying. It reminds one of the verbal melodies of Arthur Danto. In his rush to use this lovely word, made somewhat less lovely by Harold Bloom's overuse of it (but, of course, this is why it is so popular), Mattick has forgotten to look it up. And then one must consider his forced analogy of Perl with Orrin Hatch near the end of the article: an analogy so tenuous and transparently political it must be considered ad hominem.
In the final analysis, the argument of art should not be about who is the best writer or the best viewer of art. Nor is art about who is the best self-promoter, the best purveyor of cool, or the best oiler of Boone or Saatchi or Gagosian. The question of art is who is the best creator. Mattick claims an understanding of the "art system" and its laws, an understanding that allows him to see why Perl has been left out of its upper echelons. But he apparently misses the even higher ground, from which I can see that a few years hence this whole art system will be a metaphysical relic, like to Reformation disquisitions on consubstantiation or the exact age of the earth. Whether you are the one who calculated that creation happened on 4004BC, or the one who spent years disproving it, you now appear more than a bit ridiculous. Likewise, anyone who misunderstands art to the extent of taking Duchamp or Warhol or Twombly seriously, either pro or con, is soon to be dismissed as an errant fool, no matter how wordy or learned.
The reason some writers and artists become famous now rather than others is not difficult to fathom. Mattick implies that they may deserve to be so. This sort of reasoning is on the level of those who claim that modern art is popular because the new Tate Modern in London is drawing a thousand people an hour. But as far as free entertainment goes, a dead circus elephant drew larger crowds a few years back, and public hangings once beat them all. And yet no one (but a modern critic) would call such things art.
New York Times, Arts section, Sunday, December 19 .
Herbert Muschamp's endless rambling Trump tufthuntery made one fair point: "duende" (soul, let us say) is a good measure of architecture and other art. The "imps" (or the Muse) might indeed feel at home in the classical temple, not in Trump Tower. But also not, I say, in the dungeons of PoMo. Whether it be Koolhaas or Nouvel (among Muschamp's choices of the day), Gehry (perhaps the only name not dropped in the article), or Andreu (the NYT editors' choice of the day): "duendes [not] welcome here". These architects are doing a lot to impress many, but the imps are not among them.
Nor are they among those impressed by modern composers. Paul Griffiths, in his title, gives us "a promise of new sounds". Paul, we imps do not want new sounds. We want good sounds. Contemporary classical music (music's counterpart to avant garde painting—cf. white canvas to Cage's silent "piece") has failed so miserably because, while it is always possible to find here and there a person both soulless and rich enough to put non-art in his living room, it is difficult to fill any size auditorium of non-music with such gulls. I suggest that these musicians learn from their confreres in visual art. Rather than mass-producing the CD's, they should sell them as signed and limited editions. Or, even better, one-of-a-kind investments.
And Fred Tomaselli may have hazed the duende-impaired at the Whitney, but the imps again are elsewhere. He says, "I love being fooled." We do not, Fred. We love beauty. We'll send a postcard from the Mole Antonelliana.
Concerning your articles on Sargent and Wyeth: each argument was a perfect example of the current engulfing of art by politics. Patricia Failing, echoing Trevor Fairbrother, tries to make Sargent "relevant" by outing him. Previously, Sargent was considered to be "slick, superficial, and antimodernist." Now simply by being gay he is suddenly "more complex and challenging." I have no reason for wishing Sargent straight; I hope he was "a frenzied bugger"—celibacy is the perversion, not sex. But fucking gondoliers does not make one a better painter. If it did, we would all be in Venice "taking lessons."
And Wyeth~pilloried by all the critics for seventy years for painting without their direction, mocked in the Big City for liking Helga the Aryan girl—now gets it right simply by changing subjects. "Look," say Betsy Wyeth and Mary Lynn Kotz, "Andrew is not so backward." The clear message: paint a white = regressive, paint a black = progressive. Wyeth has black friends: he must be a good artist. Now if he would just paint some black gondoliers he might achieve greatness.
Antiques and Fine Art
Dear Ms. Jones:
There are two things in your June issue I feel compelled to comment on. The first is the final paragraph of your Editor's Letter which states, a "greater number of artists to select from... creates a daunting task for museum directors, dealers and collectors~but, then again, they have no choice but to accept the clairvoyant challenge of directing our artistic future." Without getting into the "clairvoyancy" involved in such a challenge, I wonder to what extent museum directors, dealers and collectors "direct our artistic future," and how desirable this direction would be, were it proved. My feeling is that artists should have, and (amazingly) still do have, a greater influence on the direction art will take. And to the extent that these others (including also critics, agents and publishers) have co-opted this influence—and the extent is great, I will admit—art and art history have suffered.
Thoreau once said that "trade curses everything it touches." In the modern world it has touched, or grabbed, everything. For example, Wendell Berry has written convincingly of the corporate takeover of the farming "industry" and the near extinction of the farmer in favor of the agribusinessman. No doubt you have read of the many tragedies associated with this revolution, and no doubt you commiserate without seeing any close analogy to the matter at hand. But Berry's thesis is matched almost point for point in the world of art, and its effect can be seen in nearly every article and advertisement in your magazine and every other art magazine, whether geared to the artist or the collector: the artist, like the farmer, is nearly extinct. And not just by my definition. The artist who has been lionized by museum directors, dealers and collectors like no other in history, Vincent van Gogh, is respected by them (if respect is the word) for the very reason that he resisted all material and financial influence—and suffered horribly for that resistance. And yet we refuse to learn from the past. The pressure to pander to one art market or another is greater now than it has ever been, as is the presumption by non-artists, most of them businesspeople, that they have the right to "direct out artistic future." Almost without exception, the "artists" who are successful today, whether in the realistic market of the Southwest or the avant garde market of New York City, are ones who have recognized the primacy of marketing over talent and have benefitted from this priority. But the people who will influence future artists and therefore "our artistic future" are not the best-sellers of the day or their agents, but, as in the past, those who can combine an expressive natural talent with the depth and beauty of their ideas—those whose genius is in their works, not in their public relations.
My second concern in with the article on the Guggenheim. Reading about Thomas Krens gigantic (and gigantically expensive) vision, I began to realize just how pervasive Keynesian remedies have become in our society. If the national economy shows signs of contraction, the Feds force it to continue expanding by spending more money. If the Modern art world shows signs of contraction (as it surely has) perhaps Mr. Krens and the Guggenheim Foundation can force it to continue expanding by spending more money. But, if all these museums do get built, the question remains, what is going to be put in them? Or should I say, "What art will be dwarfed by such potent architecture?" A museum after all is more than just a building. Mr. Krens seeems to have gotten his cart before his horse. Most people already have a belly full of minimalism and such things from the existing Guggenheim, and would readily agree that the Frank Lloyd Wright building is "the collections most significant masterpiece," without thinking that high praise.
One feels equally sorry for the citizens of Massachusetts, who will watch 33 million of their tax dollars go for the purchase of 28 "industrial buildings." It freezes the blood to think that museums can now be made up of industrial buildings, although I have little doubt that the work planned for such a place will feel at home there.
Even more frightening is Frank Gehry's model for the museum in Bilbao—apparently a drive-thru museum on the off-ramp of an interstate highway. The city of Bilbao itself looks to be made of 80-foot walls of concrete, and this would seem a bit harsh until one recognizes the warm touch of several small trees so well tended their roots apparently do not need soil.
All this would be merely pathetic if Mr. Krens, Mr. Gehry, and others like them didn't have so much money backing them up. It is no coincidence that the former head of the American Stock Exchange is a board member of the Guggenheim. One would only be surprised if corporate America weren't behind such monstrous boondoggles. Our business leaders already spend their working hours in impersonal monoliths of concrete and asphalt: spending their off hours in the dungeons of Bilbao can hardly seem extraordinary.
One can only smile though at Clement Greenberg's antagonism toward the Guggenheim and its "megalomania"—a case of the pot and the kettle if ever there was one. Greenberg has done as much to destroy art as anyone, both through his destructivist theories, such as that "subject matter and content become something to avoid like the plague," and through his belief in the importance of "historical criticism," which effectively put the critic in charge of the artist's agenda. If, in fact, Krens has nothing to put in his buildings, Greenberg should not be shy about taking credit.
Finally, I suggest, lest all our arts become antiques, those such as yourself, Ms. Jones, who avow a love for art, make a more concerted effort to find living artists whose work you enjoy. I know that it is easier to flip through the pages of the past to find a Cecilia Beaux or a George Bellows. But if you find contemporary art uninspiring (and it is, for reasons I've already mentioned) you need to look beyond the successful galleries and big-name artists. It really would have been visionary for a dealer or collector to have discovered van Gogh while he was still alive. For the same kind of people to deify him now that crucified him then is shameful, not least of all because it proves that they learned nothing from all their art history classes. Van Gogh was a difficult man, not one to be led around by dealers or collectors. The lesson here seems to be that if those in the business of art really want art to flourish, and not just the business of art, they have to be generous enough to let those who can create, create. And stop this pernicious habit of backseat driving. Otherwise art will become like politics, and no one worthy of the field will want to enter it.
To the judges of the National Sculpture Competition, 2000 (including Bruno Lucchesi)
Art Students League, New York:
I was in NYC for the contest. I saw the works in progress, I saw the finished works, I saw the model. I wish I could say I have never seen such a complete catastrophe in judging. But, unfortunately, I have. I have seen it over and over, in every contest my students or I have entered. Whether it is the OPA, the PSA, the NSS, NAWA, the ASOPA, Allied Artists, AAPL, the NWS, it doesn't matter. In each and every exhibition or competition, there are mediocre judges picking mediocre works that look like theirs for all the prizes. In many of them, the judges pick friends or students for prizes, and no one apparently finds this strange. This was perhaps as clear-cut an example of blindness and/or fraud, though, as I have seen.
I have to ask, why? I have it narrowed down to two possible reasons; but which it is, I really can't say. Is it that you honestly can't tell good work from bad? Have you become so insular, so blinded by your own narrow techniques and teaching methods, that you can't see anything that doesn't look like your own reflection? Your own work is clearly, and understandably, the limit of what you can do, artistically. Is it also the limit of what you can see? If so, you are not qualified to be a judge. You will never recognize work that is better than your own, and so you will never be able to encourage real talent. You will only continue to stroke your own ego by turning out inferior clones of yourselves.
Or is it something more? Is it that you can see it, but don't want to? You can't encourage work better than your own, because that would be cutting your own throat. Your position is too fragile to deal honestly with the work of others.
Or maybe (it finally dawns on me) you refuse to see it, because the outcome was predetermined from the beginning: it was your contest and the prize was meant for one of your own. Not for the best student, but for the best student from the organizers' schools. Got to keep that money in the family. If so, why not just say so next year? Why let in the guy from Texas? He hasn't got a chance anyway, and if he comes in and blows you all away, it just makes you feel bad. Twice. Once, because you realize your schools aren't worth a damn. Twice, because you have to cheat him to keep him from taking your money.
You think you can do whatever you want, but be assured that history will know. Like the Academicians who kept Whistler out of the Royal Academy or Rodin out of the Ecole, you will be remembered among the small and narrow. Your long-term reputations are effected by everything you do. Perhaps you think you have no long-term reputations to worry about, and so you can scheme all you want. Undoubtedly you are right.
(Jonathan Bober, curator, HRC Barnes Collection, UT)
March 27, 1999
Please disregard my recent invitation [to my show]. You are hereby uninvited. It may be consolation to you to know, however, that you are now the winner of the First Annual Clement Greenberg Memorial Award, given by me to the most self-obsessed pharisee, the whitest sepulcher, in Austin. I am aware that there are many fine specimens back East, and that your chance of reaching real altitude, attaining star status, was low there. Perhaps that is why you chose Austin. Still, even here, the competition was stiff, not so much from quality as from quantity of candidates, especially in the arts. But all your hard work has paid off. Congratulations.
I am sure it is gratifying to all the slobbering dilettantes to know how many calories you eat each day, lest they lie awake at night in fear that you may expire, and with you so much vital information on the arts. How could I hold a brush or a chisel without knowing which painter of 17th century Genoa is now considered by the non-artist to be academic, and which inspired? And what will all those MFA candidates and PhD's in art history do without your words to parrot again and again, since there may be only "a half-dozen in the world" who can chirp so fine?
Eunuch of the Muses! Know Ye that the artist takes in all the necessary information through the eyes, and that the opinions of the crypt-crawlers and other "sages of the universities" is nought but effluent. Whether you have a thousand things to do tomorrow or nothing is of no interest to me, or any future artist. You will never create an interesting artifact. That is the bottom line.
Know Ye also that your existence is a bane to your own field. At a time when art is being sacrificed on the altar of political expedience, and the obsolescence of all the true virtues in painting goes on apace, you draw resources and scholarship to your own dissecting room, to compensate for your own disabilities. It is all too transparent, and too common—feigning an interest in art as the paradigm of careerism. But know that the ghosts of Michelangelo and Van Gogh look upon you, and they do not smile on your learning.
I suppose you are aware of Whistler's The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. This letter will be published in my own book, and history will know your true relationship to art. If you wish to further embarass yourself, reply, and I will publish that, too.
American Society of Portrait Painters, Dec. 2000
I was embarassed to be part of your competition and festival this year, which was little more than a crass, ill-conceived commentary on portraiture and an opportunity for poor judging. I will always remember these low points:
1) Richard Whitney's absurd comments about Whistler, an artist so far out of his league that any critique would be inappropriate.
2) John Howard Sanden's pathetic admission of powerlessness in the face of the client. It was all the more sad in that Mr. Sanden seems to be a genuinely modest and likable man (unlike Mr. Whitney). But the message Mr. Sanden sent young artists when he admitted to letting the client (and the portrait agency, no doubt) bully him into bowdlerizing his work was nonetheless a sobering and depressing one. If Mr. Sanden, a painter at the top of his field, cannot resist the pressures of the marketplace, what does that say about the chances of those below him?
3) Michael del Priore's bumbling attempt at an English accent at the awards dinner, to the astonishment of Richard Ormond. If there were any other well-bred persons there (which I began to doubt), they too must have cringed at such a mixture of fawning joviality and false superiority.
4) The non-attendance at Richard Schmid's award presentation. Another sign of the falseness of everyone concerned with modern portraiture—professing great admiration for Mr. Schmid, but caring only for their own careers and timetables.
5) Finalist Martin Hugg telling me (in a conversation I wish I never had) that Michelangelo's David was famous only because it was large. This I now take to be a good example of the level of understanding of art at the festival as a whole.
6) The choice of award winners. The entire festival was one long paean to Sargent, but when it came time to give the awards, there was no emphasis on brushwork or paint quality or color harmony or compositional ambition. This did not completely surprise me, in that most of the judges pay little attention to such things in their own work. I would like to know how the judges voted individually, so I will know where to place the blame; but their choices as a group were mystifying.
Yugi Wang was probably the most sinned against. I agree that his background was cluttered, but at least his compositional ambition was large. He had beautiful paint quality, lovely brushwork, incredible face and hands, and his sitter had a strong personality which he captured perfectly. Even though I did not "like" the painting (his choice of sitter and emotion did not appeal to me), it was still hands-down the best painting there. I would have been honored to get second to Mr. Wang this year.
Stephen Levin got the insider award this year, but I do not understand it. Surely everyone knows it is easier to paint small, and to paint a self-portrait. His paint handling was good, but the piece he entered was facile and narcissistic, not to mention contemptuous of the competition. That the other artists voted for him is only a sign of their bewilderment.
Zhang Li's portrait was technically solid but emotionally empty, a piece of glittering hackwork.
Henry Wingate's and Paul Delorenzo's works were smashingly unmemorable, and Jeff Bass' work was photorealism of the worst kind, probably projected and certainly painted with no brushes larger than a 2. The paint looked like it had been scrabbled on with a toothpick. It is a stretch to even call this painting.
I don't know what message the judges intended to send Mr. Wang and myself, but I imagine that we got it. Obviously, I would not write a letter like this if I ever intended to have anything to do with your organization again. But I don't. I will leave you to your mediocre paintings, bloated egos, and dreams of financial success. If we all live long enough, you will hear of me again, though. Even after your festival, my idealism (and my independence) is intact. And my dreams are a bit more broad than yours.
Please circulate this letter to all the judges. And forward my request to the proper authority that I would like my painting removed from your website. I would like to burn this "bridge" properly.
Austin American-Statesman, Jan. 1999
Re: Dealer to the Dellionaires [i.e. people made wealthy via the Dell corporation]. I have worked with George Attal on and off for fifteen years, as one of his "promising" artists. I have nothing against George: he sold a number of my paintings, did a show for me, and treated me about as well as my other galleries. But the effusive tone of this article rang false to me, not so much for making George out to be an artworld saint, as for flattering his clients into thinking they have any taste or education in art, or desire to have it. It is not George's job to educate the world about art. It is his job to sell art, and he is very good at it. He gives his clients what they want. What they want, unfortunately, has very little to do with art. Sometimes it has to do with decoration, sometimes with a big name, sometimes with a big price. Rarely does it concern beauty, subtlety, elevation, or emotion. I am not slamming "kitsch" in favor of Modernism. I am attacking the whole market for art, antique to avant garde, which is driven by money. Evermore unrefined money.
I found the quoted dialogue especially grating. "See the line, how it rises gracefully..." "Oh, no, not thin naked ladies, not in my husband's office." Hah, Hah, Blah. Not everyone who claims to love art really does. We have always known this. But writing articles about "Dellionaires," making them appear interesting, is only pandering to their fenced-in vacuity, and exacerbating an already chronic problem in art.
New York Times:
(November 21, 2003)
Michael Kimmelman drops many names in his article (11/21/03) on John Currin: Holbein, Durer, Houdon, Goya, Pontormo, Mantegna, Carracci, and Van Eyck, among others. And while it is true that Currin has stolen his compositions and poses from almost everyone (which used to be called lack of imagination, although Currin, we are assured, is a painter of great imagination) his paintings have nothing to do with any of these artists, neither in style nor content. Technically he may be marginally better than Hockney or Kitaj, but comparing Currin to Holbein is a cruel joke upon them both. Currin has more in common with Fischl, although he doesn't even achieve Fischl's nuancing—which is not meant as a compliment to Fischl. In thinking of the old masters, the following ideas come to mind: beauty, subtlety, depth, power, true emotion. Conversely, we are told that Currin excels in "cheap pathos", "vacant ritual images," and "fake sentiments." This is all meant by Kimmelman to be high praise. It is high praise because Koons and Richter are also masters of banality and vulgarity, like Warhol and all the rest before them. Rich and famous guys, all.
The message is clear: the tenets and attitudes of Modernism are still very much alive, despite the supposed end of Postmoderism, the rise of Pluralism, and the resuscitation of Realism. Serious art is still out of fashion, and shallowness is still ascendant. What is required is transparent recombination coupled with an aloof pose. A plastic technique propped up by an imitation artist. An ersatz form representing an ersatz idea created by an ersatz person. The people who matter in NYC are still fascinated by the "vacuous and desperate", i.e. themselves. They gravitiate to "intentionally bad painting" and "campy and debased subjects" since this leaves open the very real possibilities that they can hope to be subjects of well-known artists, or even the artists themselves (with the proper promotion).
Kimmelman says that "Currin seems to enjoy the mildly creepy, fetishistic absurdity of his anachronistic women." And why should he not? He lives in big-city modern America; who else is there? Like the all the other contemporary painters who think holding a mirror to the public's pathetic self is artistically fascinating, Currin mimics its vulgarity, it squeals and cringes, and then it runs to buy more mascara and tighter pants. Of course art-as-pathology remains on top—to whom could art-as-subtlety-and-depth appeal to anymore? Where is the market? Poor librarians in Bangor or Bethesda don't drive the economy.
If Currin's content is fake emotion, barbed wit, and cheap pathos, then he obviously has more in common with someone like Bruce Nauman~yesterday's child—and his technique is really beside the point. Nauman and Hirst and countless others have proved that such content requires no technical mastery at all. That is why some people are confused by Currin: they wonder why he went to all that trouble, just to give us the same old cleverly empty basket. Kimmelman tells us that "Eyes in Mr. Currin's work tend to be black holes, sucking up light." And even more specifically, "Mary O'Connell's eyes, flat disks, are the emotional vortex of the picture." There is the contradiction that drives the mystery: how can vacuous eyes be an emotional vortex, how can art be driven by a theory in which vacuity and banality are positive virtues, and how can art history possibly be served by newspaper copy that offers up such theory as the ne plus ultra of culture, as fascinating fare for the educated and discerning reader?
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