On John Currin
by Miles Mathis
Last week, the first of my weekly counter-criticisms on ARC was taken from a letter I sent to the New York Times: I therefore had no chance to introduce this column. I will do that now. My writing is counter-criticism, rather than simply criticism, in that it is a response from the artist to the critic. It is not meant as a response from writer to writer, or from academic to academic. I will not obey the rules of such dialogue. I will defend art, using my pen, but I will do so as an artist. I will not strive to be impersonal or objective. I will not attempt to be calm or cool or to have "critical distance." Most of all, I will not pretend that I have no stake in the game. The critics try to give the impression that they are impartial bystanders, educating us to our own benefit. They do this by the omission of most pertinent facts. The number and extent of these facts will become clearer as this column becomes older. For now, suffice it say that nothing you have been told for a century is true and this least of all: that the critic is good for art.
This column is also different than anything else you have likely read about art, in that I admit to having a plan of attack that uses every tooth in my head. The critics and avant garde artists and academics have slandered art without scruple for decades. There is no reason I should not talk about whatever I want, at whatever volume I choose: no one can accuse me of uncalled-for emotion.
Now, on to the current topic, which still happens to be John Currin. Currin was deemed worthy of two articles in the New York Times last week. I will likewise honor him with a second reply here; an interesting subject not covered in the first article will allow me to broaden my counter-critique even further.
In the interview by Deborah Solomon (Nov. 16, NYT Magazine), Currin begins by being correct and ends by being correct—unfortunately the rest of the article intervenes. He says in the first paragraph, "I have not seen the will to make a masterpiece in American art. What's here? Albert Bierstadt? He's small beer compared to the Europeans." True. True but curious. For I have seen Currin and I still have not seen the will to make a masterpiece. The interview is about him. What is his point?
In the last paragraph, Currin says, "Progressive ideas are just a machine for ruining art." Yes. And refreshing it is to see him say it. But again, how does that tie into his own art? Currin has debased himself by accepting these very ideas. He is a cog in that machine of ruination, by choice. Does he really not see this, or is he showing "barbed wit" even concerning himself?
Let us look at these progressive ideas, as they are implied in the bulk of the interview, and see if we can find out. It may seem odd, but the following quote (by the artist's father) leapt out at me above all others in the interview: he said, in response to a comment by the interviewer that the Currin family seemed culturally attuned to one another, "Oh, please, don't describe us as a cultured family! It makes me wince! I would prefer that you talked about my heavy drinking and Nazi regalia. That's the correct narrative."
Hmm. Kind of clever, understandable from one point of view, and yet terribly strange. It was understandable in that you can see the fear a successful family from Connecticut and New York City might have in being depicted as east coast elitists, especially in an article about art in the Times. But the interviewer was nowhere near the topic of elitism. "Cultured" has not entered the no-no list of non-PC words, at least not until now. Besides, the interviewer said "culturally attuned to one another." This is not at all the same as "cultured." All this is only peculiar until one recognizes that the Currins probably would rather be seen as drunken closet-Nazi's than as cultured: it is closer to the norm. One suspects that they may shop at Wal-mart from a sense of duty, and visit Six-Flags New England as a token of solidarity. I am only surprised that Mr. Currin, pere, did not mention "Southpark" or "The Osbornes" as a counterweight to his wife's comments about Debussy and Brahms.
This is not off-topic, since the rest of the article supports a reading of the Currins, including John, as overly socialized if not overly cultured. The artist himself says, "I was trying to be a tormented painter [in college]. I didn't want to be a nice guy from Connecticut." To be fair, many young artists go through this posing phase, and it would be excusable if Currin had outgrown it. But he has simply traded one pose for another. For he continues, "Part of getting out of art school is getting over the idea that failure is an emblem of integrity." No more being tormented for Currin. That pose doesn't sell anymore. That is strictly Van Gogh, you know: old school. The pose that sells now is the "skewer of the bourgeousie." That pose has been a big seller since the French Revolution, and it has been the required pose for the last fifty years, at least. To adopt that pose, one must realize that "taste can stifle"—a fact Currin learned from his father, according to the interviewer. And that takes us full circle: an artist who is skewering the bourgeousie can hardly be seen in an interview to be part of a cultured (that is, tasteful) family. Only a family on the furthest reaches of far-left insiderism, one so cool it can joke about Nazi regalia, has the proper stance from which to attack the bourgeousie. From there it is no big deal to be accused of vulgarity or vacuousness, since they are the tools of a witty and ironic art. The only fear is being supposed to be different, or worse, better: for then one cannot hope to become famous.
Currin admits that his career is a "quest for fame." Not a quest for great art or the masterpiece, or even the modern substitute, relevance. No, Currin wants fame. Like his counterpart in Hollywood, he wants a "lot of attention." By the current standards, it is anathema to be called cultured, but being a phony is fine. One might say it is de rigueur. For instance, did Currin choose canvases 26 x 32 because they were what he needed? No, he choose them "because that was the size no one was doing." It was done "to stand out." Such admissions are now standard fare, and Currin does not even think of toning it down. His hero Richter has admitted to raw ambition and made it work for him, so the audience is a known quantity. The audience now expects the artist to act like the stockbroker, and so Currin's later analogy to Wall Street is a commonplace. The executives who buy his work could hardly be likely to understand the sensibilities of a real artist, but a painter who will do anything for fame or money is someone they can relate to. That the art may skewer the bourgeousie is dismissed by such clients in one of several ways: either they are too rich to be considered bourgeois or they are so sure of their status that no amount of skewering can touch them. They are like the kings who hired fools to insult them. A king can wave off any amount of abuse with equanimity: he will still be king tomorrow. The fool may not have his head.
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