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New York Times

Op Ed Page


Readers of the NYT are likely to assume that every categorical complaint that could be made has been made, and that at this late point in history we are just being updated on the breaking subcategorical squabbles.  If you think this, pay attention, because you are about to be apprised of a rare bit of news.  The news is that a living artist, who may be famous within your lifetime (if you are, say, five years old, and if you live to be, say, 140), has recently learned to read and write, and he is ready to speak.  This has not happened since around 1870—when James Whistler took up a pen and gave the critics the thorough dressing-down they deserved.

      This may interest you for two reasons.  One, because you love art and you have just been waiting for this moment.  Two, because your favorite spectator sport is bear-baiting, where an overconfident lump of fur and muscle is lowered into a pit of snarling vicious wolves and slowly converted to mush.

       No seriously, I know you are an intellectual and therefore above both of these things.  You are more likely thinking, This is not news.  In America, any loudmouth can say whatever he wants.  Big deal.  Yes, but when was the last time you actually read anything important by a living artist about art?  Artists may sometimes write blurbs to explain their work; or, if they are realists, they may occasionally write about technique; or, if they are PoMos, they may agree to a relaxed, very cool interview—one where they may not even be wearing a shirt.  But art theory is out of their hands.  When you read about art in books and magazines and newspapers, you are reading the opinions and the theories of non-artists.  All your information is from critics and scholars and pundits and curators and dealers.

       Another example: for many years MOMA has been giving lectures to aspiring artists.  Who are the lecturers?  Great artists?  No.  Curators and Art Historians.  Who taught the Curators and Art Historians about art?  Great artists?  No.  Other Curators and Art Historians.

        Try for a moment to conceive exactly how absurd this is.  Is there any other field that is defined so completely by people who do not practice it?

      Of course I know the standard reply: art has always been like that.  Michelangelo had to answer to the Popes, and so on.  But the standard reply is from people who do not care to make distinctions.  The fact is that artists have never been as disenfranchised from art as they are now.  The kings and popes were less tyrannical than the current art market.  In this market it is not just the client that must be consulted.  If an artist has any ambition beyond the decorative markets, he must also subsume his creativity within the expectations and careers of the critics, curators, galleries owners, editors, and scholars of art.  Michelangelo had to fight with one man to paint the Sistine Ceiling as he wanted it.  He had to consult with one committee (that of the Signory) to sculpt David as he wanted him.  And Michelangelo won his battles.  When was the last time an artist won an argument with Theory?  We don't know.  We have never seen an artist have an argument with Theory.  The artists we know of were chosen by Theory.  That is why we know of them.   

     Well, you may say, why don't the artists say something.  It's a free country.  The well-known artists don't say anything because they don't need to.  They are rich and famous.  They got rich and famous by doing the visual work of Theory and keeping quiet.  Less well-known artists keep quiet for the same reason: if they are ever to get rich and famous it will be thanks to Theory, thanks to the priests of PoMo, thanks to the kingmakers in NYC and London.  The other artists, those completely outside Theory, do not speak out because they are afraid of being browbeaten by the "experts."  They are silenced by the realization that they can never compete in intellectual debate with those who have made a career of it.  Artists not interested in postmodernism are usually not interested in art as a debating skill, and so they are understandably print-shy.

     You may think you already know all the important battle-lines: the cries of censorship and free-speech, and multi-culti, and Guiliani v. obscenity, and Helms v. Finley, and so on.  But all that is just a side-show for the aesthetically impaired.  A diversion.  A thrilling political spectacle, no doubt, but it has nought to do with art.  No, the real fight is between artists and "art experts", and it has been waged for over a century.  Whistler wrote, in 1877, "The war, of which the opening skirmish was fought the other day in Westminster [when he sued the art critic Ruskin for libel], is really one between the brush and the pen."  Notice that Whistler was well aware that things would only get worse.  And they have.  We have reached the point now where art is a closed meeting, and all the officers are non-artists.  A production run by the suits.  Art has been redefined to meet the needs of administration: it would be unrecognizable to any artist from Praxiteles to Van Gogh.  Art no longer generates artifacts; it generates words.  Books, articles, reports, catalogues, inventories, receipts. 

       Robert Rosenblum, an administrator at the Guggenheim, was quoted recently that "by now the idea of defining art is so remote I don't think anyone would dare to do it."  The meaning of this is very clear to artists.  Rosenblum says that it means art can be anything.  Total creative freedom.  Artists know that it means just the opposite.  It means that art has long since been defined (by Theory) and that there is no reason to argue about it anymore.  It means that the critics and curators and other administrators of art are satisfied with the status quo (and why should they not?), and that any continued discussion by artists will be considered insubordinate.

        Well, Mr. Rosenblum, at the risk of seeming a Berserker, I demur.   Your very presence at the debate mystifies me.  The definition of their own field is for artists to decide.  All other opinion is finally an intrusion.  Whistler said, "A life passed among pictures makes not a painter—else the policeman at the National Gallery might assert himself.  As well allege that he who lives in a library must needs die a poet."

        My Dear Reader, you will never again see an artistic renaissance until artists are free of this pernicious and illogical  influence.  Until you realize that art has been coopted, like everything else, by profiteers of one sort or another.  Until you understand that the only way around this is to defrock the priests.  Think of this like the Protestant Reformation (I get to be Luther—O joy).   You do not need "critical distance" to speak to art or the artist any more than you need intercession in order to pray. You only need eyes.

Miles Mathis

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