return to 2003

Article submitted for "My Turn"
Newsweek, 2001

by Miles Mathis

Van Gogh gets a lot of press these days. And deservedly so. I wish I could send him a scrapbook. Or a few billion francs. He had such need of them once, when things were tight—on those days when he had to survive on "twenty-three cups of free coffee." But what is not generally understood is that, as bad as things were for him in the 1880's, they would be worse now. We have learned nothing from art history.

Whenever I say that the problem with art now is that non-artists are in control of it, I am always asked, "But hasn't it always been that way?" And I answer an unequivocal no. It hasn't. Artists have always had to fight, yes. Michelangelo argued with the Popes. The Impressionists argued with the Paris Salon. But they won. An artist hasn't won a battle with criticism or curators or the markets since before Picasso. Whistler was probably the last artist in history to have any success arguing with the writers and academics. That was also around 1880.

Everyone who knows Picasso's biography knows that he was famous because he lost to the critics, and lost gracefully. As he said, "I have satisfied these gentlemen and the critics... and the less they understood the more they admired. I am only the entertainer of a public which understands its age." Art in the 20th century has been defined wholly by writers. Roger Fry, Clive Bell, Gertrude Stein, Clement Greenberg, and so on. These are the true inventors of Modernism. The artists after Picasso were too busy reading the papers to listen to the Muse. And once the analysts got control of art, art became analysis. "Art" became synonymous with "thinking about art."

It was not always like that. In fact it was never like that until a hundred years ago. Imagine Leonardo or Michelangelo, or even Rodin, being interested in "flatness" or "minimalism" or "deconstruction" or any of the various non-artistic absurdities of the 20th century. The argument that makes a single straight line on a giant canvas a work of art, or that makes a found commode one, would have been beneath contempt for these artists. They needed no verbal explanations or apologies for their art. They were not interested in intellectual quibbling: they could create art.

Arthur Danto, the current art critic for The Nation, said in one of his books, "Until one tries to write about it, the work [of art] remains a sort of aesthetic blur." This puts the problem into high focus. Mr. Danto's remark is symptomatic of a society that has forgotten what art is. Art is not an idea. It is an emotion. The more you can talk about it, the less it is art. Before the 20th century, art was always arrayed in mystery; criticism cannot abide mystery. Art springs from the imagination, its consorts symbol and myth. It resonates through the limbic system, surrounded by dreams. But criticism is born in the frontal lobes, circumscribed by language and reason. Great art reveals itself only to the extent that a great artist chooses to reveal it. No less, and no more. More explication can exist only at the expense of the art.

But all this is ignored. It is inexpedient. It is not properly inclusive. It does not create jobs. And an artist who complains of the presumptions of criticism is dismissed as anti-intellectual, if not ignorant. Or he is shouted down. Outnumbered in oceans of words. Drowned in a river of ink.

Today theory remains the dominant faith, the critic its high priest, "relevance" its current shibboleth. The market arrays itself around "the word." And there is far more money in art administration than there is in art. At the university, our art history departments dwarf our art departments. Which department do you think produces "art experts"? The irony is so huge it overwhelms the eyeballs and becomes invisible, like an elephant seen through a microscope.

I am told, in response, that "realism" is making a comeback. But there are two and only two markets for art in this country. There is a market for decoration and there is a market for social activism. No one would know how to look at a work that did not satisfy one of these market demands. "Realism" has split precisely along these lines. If it is pathological enough, like Lucian Freud or Odd Nerdrum, it is given an "activist" slot. It is explained politically or pyschologically, as a "hammer" against the status quo or whatnot. Everything else is sold as decoration, and is completely dismissed by criticism. But Van Gogh did not paint for either of these reasons. He said, "Better a little wisdom than a lot of energetic zeal." And this:

We are in the midst of downright laissez-aller and anarchy. We artists, who love order and symmetry, isolate ourselves and are working to define only one thing.

These sentiments are completely pre-modern. Van Gogh painted exactly what he wanted to paint, with no concern for the fashions of the art market or of the needs of the critics or curators. And so he was ignored as a fool. And so he would be ignored today even more, if he were shambling around toothless somewhere in West Virginia or Western Ireland, painting irrelevant "things." Van Gogh existed on the outskirts of a dying star, the light and warmth of Rembrandt and Delacroix and Millet still warming him. Now he would have to survive on the edge of a black hole.

Ask yourself when was the last time an artist wrote or spoke of art theory? Any artist who speaks against the avant garde is assumed to be reactionary, an accomplice of Helms or Guiliani. But my heroes are Noam Chomsky and Wendell Berry and Faye Wattleton. I am working for the Green Party. Things are not as tidy as most would have them. The truth is that art cannot take direction, from the right or the left. Art is a gift of the Id, not a prescription or proscription of the Superego. That is to say, at its best, art is a private passion, not a public mission. Unless we relearn that, art will continue to be shock and spectacle rather than subtlety and depth.

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