return to 2003

Note: this is the third of a three-part series of articles published in Art Collector/Art Connoisseur magazine in 1999. It has been published on my homepage since 2002, but few will have known that it was preceded by two other articles.


by Miles Mathis

I am the chasm odonton—the mouthful of teeth. The ripper of armchairs: the ghost of Tolstoy, the right arm of Caravaggio, the sword of Cellini.

Beware Ye of Troy, I come bearing gifts. Words that shall bring your houses down upon you.

James Whistler subtitled his book of letters (1892) Messieurs les Ennemis: Sirs, My Enemies! Such joyful antagonism is not stylish these days. It is one thing to quote Nietzsche, as everyone on both sides of every argument now does; it is another thing entirely to write like him....

But the critics, the litterateurs, have dished it out for the last hundred years, vilifying all, dismissing everyone and everything that could not be "pinned and wriggling on the wall." And the artist remained silent. Under the Usurpers' rule, modern art has become like Lewis Carroll's four branches of math: "ambition, distraction, uglification, and derision." And the artist was silent. In the protracted squabblings of the self-appointed purveyors of taste (disputing false coinages—various Isms and flatnesses and Pops and Neo-nullities) both form and content have deconstructed; and the homunculi and homunculae have ascended to the throne, naming their horses and gerbils co-Consul. And the artist has remained silent.

As Whistler, the Master of Badinage, put it,

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?—for guidance from the hand that holds neither brush nor chisel? Out upon the shallow conceit!

It is time for the artist to speak! To crawl out from under the woodpile, and to stamp his feet. To reclaim the armor of Athena and to demand his inheritance from the Witchking. To bend the bow and pierce the axeheads and slay the suitors. To load the sling.

It may be asked, what of the other "artists"? What of the Moderns: the ironmongers, the paintspillers, the gluemen, the undertakers? Isn't your quarrel with them? No. There are no artists in that quarter. Only critics. Critics who flap and critics who chirp. But the critics who chirp are the louder. It is the critics who explain the onanism, the mastication, the ululation and defecation who must be outslandered, outbuggered, undercut and overtopped. Trimmed and fluffed. Defeathered and Retarred.

It is thought that I am mad. But follow me through the gentle maze, and listen: Clement Greenberg, the Pope of Presumption, said, in 1955,

Though it [painting] started on its "modernization" earlier perhaps than the other arts, it has turned out to have a greater number of expendable conventions embedded in it, or these at least have proven harder to isolate and detach. As long as such conventions survive and can be isolated they continue to be attacked, in all the arts that intend to survive in modern society.

Here is the green worm at the core. The seed of the wart. Because Mr. Greenberg could smoke more cigs than anyone else, he got the title page, the banner, the masthead, and everyone since has written in very small letters I must make art that is about art , over and over until the book is finished, the corpse burned and the ashes scattered. The most galling thing is that "intend to survive" threat. As if the artist need justify his existence to the critic. But I am the primary producer here: you can justify yourself to me, you future footnote, you Eunuch-of-the-Muses!

Arthur Danto wrote, in 1994,

It was as though there were some internal historical development in the course of which art came to a kind of philosophical self-awareness of its own identity. In a curious and somewhat perverse way, I thought, art has turned into philosophy... From now on the task is up to philosophers, who know how to think in the required way.

Arthur Danto, philosophy professor, Columbia University. And now art critic, The Nation. Dear Mr. Danto, I have only one question. A question of grammar. Does "in a curious and somewhat perverse way" modify "I thought" or "art has turned"?

Basta! Finito! The whole claim of modern "art" is so absurd it isn't worth pursuing any further! The very existence of such theories, their acceptance by anyone, is cause for a century of Weltschmerz, of weeping and rending of tunics. It may seriously call for some sort of ritual cleansing, an act of purification, an offering to the gods. A bevy of frenzied virgins to tear some smug bastard in Soho limb from limb for his sins to art. At least an off-Broadway tragedy of Sophoclean splendor, with wild-haired corybantes whirling in their bacchanalian madness, depicting this catharsis.

Oh, Fathers and Teachers, I claim that analysis is not art. Philosophy is not art. Politics is not art. Destruction is not art. Framing is not art. Finding is not art. Thinking is not art. Randomness is not art. Pathology is not art. Everything that a fool does easily is not art.

Fathers and Teachers, I claim that art is rare. Art requires talent. Art requires isolation. Art requires depth. Art requires subtlety. Art requires mystery. Art requires emotion. Art requires inspiration. The artist tells you what he must do, not what you must do.

Fathers and Teachers, I maintain that all art stands upon two legs: craftsmanship and character. Technique is a means to an end. Technique is not art. Emotion is not art. Together they may be art. Or not.

Oh, Fathers and Teachers, to the young artist, ask first this question: would you rather be the greatest artist of the 21st century, and be unknown during your lifetime; or be the richest artist of the 21st century, and know that the ghosts of Michelangelo and Van Gogh are laughing at you?

We must burn the fields and plow twice and find fresh seed. The error runs too deep. We must change the binary code from 0's and 1's to 3's and 8's. The gravitional forces have become too strong, and the young artist cannot get out of bed, much less hang the sky and kiss the cloudfroth. Even Vincent had to live on the outskirts of a dying star; now he would have to survive on the lip of the Black Hole. We need forty days of rain and a smallish Ark.

Mon Dieu! All of history lies at our feet. The soil is so rich it stinks of fertility. And yet we paint, or paint over, the same things, each morning, shoe and unshoe the same horse ad nauseum. Someone paints a saint and someone else defiles it. A man in Jackson Hole paints a landscape and a woman in New York City rapes herself upon it. All sequels. All reactionary. The avant garde even more than the merest bowl of fruit. The "sage of the university" says, but there is nothing new under the sun. Not until we create it, Brother Ass. Refrain from breathing all the available air for a moment, refrain from blocking all the light, and see what lovely vines begin curling out of the earth!

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