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Chance Abutmenting
(A Counter-critique of Peter Schjeldahl)

by Miles Mathis



The writers in the these publications, while they prosecute
their inglorious employment, cannot be supposed to be in a state
of mind very favourable for being affected by the finer influence
of a thing so pure as poetry.—Wordsworth

Last month I counter-critiqued Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine (and previously of the Village Voice). This month I turn to Peter Schjeldahl at The New Yorker, whom Saltz called "mi amigo", if you remember. Schjeldahl is a slightly better writer, in the sense that he seems to know what most words mean and in the sense that he occasionally offers his editor a sentence that is true. For instance, in his review of Robert Ryman [March 19, 2007, to which issue my entire article refers] he says, "But to be shameable, under present conditions, may be an unaffordable luxury." Perfectly true and applicable, both to Ryman and to himself. Schjeldahl has no least modicum of shame, or he would never be caught speaking of modern art at all. But he would especially not be caught saying things like this (which, in his writings, come far more frequently than the true things):

Ryman has favored astringently poetic titles, on the order of "Regis," "Consort," and "Journal."

Only at a place like The New Yorker, where the poems are so utterly banal and prosaic, would an editor let pass the claim that the word “Regis” is poetic. (Unfortunately, all places are like The New Yorker, in that no places publish real poetry anymore. They prefer the sort of stripped and chopped storytelling, by storytellers who have no story, that appears in this issue, and all issues.) These three words in quotes aren't prosaic, much less poetic. As titles applied to Ryman's white canvases, they aren’t even titles. They are just floating words of no possible import. It takes fantastic levels of sad misdirected creativity to want to find meaning in such things—poetic meaning no less—and in this Schjeldahl is almost insupportably qualified.

Since Ryman's canvases are complete nullities in every way, Schjeldahl is forced to begin describing the frames to us from the start; and the frames are, of course, not worth mentioning either. They are "oak, cherry, or maple." Astonishing. Wood frames, you say. But wait, the white paint "bleeds across the abutments between surface and frame." Doubly delicious, we are supposed to believe, since we get a big word like "abutments". Abutments, yummy. And then we are told about the walls and the lights. Apparently reflections are caused by such things, and the artist gets credit for that. The critic can even see himself! The artist also gets credit for poorly constructed frames, "slight separations at their corner joints" which "register as chance elements of drawing."

You can already see that no one but me bothers to read these reviews in search of any sense. Supposing that some people must do what they call reading of these reviews of Schjeldahl, I can only imagine that the words never really register as denotative or connotative, in the linguistic or semiotic sense. A few ideas already in the head of the reader are drummed awake by familiar words and phrases, but the bulk of the sentences and paragraphs must simply run through the brain, like light beer through the bladder. No one who had analyzed any of his reviews for sense, logic, or meaning could come to the conclusion that Schjeldahl was anyone to be reckoned with on any level. Like Saltz, Schjeldahl is judged by his title, not by his output. He is "the art critic for The New Yorker," and he needs nothing else to float him through the dirty channels he rows.

Most normal or abnormal people would look for drawing in a drawing, but Schjeldahl looks for it in the frame. Once he sees his reflection in the lights, all art is afoot. Everywhere he turns his head, there are chance elements of drawing, chance elements of framing, chance elements of reflection, chance elements of abutmenting, chance abutments of elements, chance frames of walls, chance reflections of framed abutments.

In such a receptive state of mind, even the grains and knots in the wood frames become "practically rococo in their visual appeal, amid the prevailing blankness." Yes, they would be, wouldn't they? And the carpet was no doubt relatively Gothic in its ability to stand there, day after day, under such foot traffic of such boobies. And the ceiling tiles were Byzantine in their sheer number and the baseboards were crypto-Asiatic and the A/C vents were Zoroastrian.

At last, to finalize this horrible and desperate search for something to say about nothing, Schjeldahl tells us that if you add all the white paintings together you get "fifty seven and one-third feet." Although Schjeldahl just made it up, it is nonetheless significant, since,

Intentional or not, that gawky one-third (an infinity of threes, when expressed in decimals) seems Rymanesque, consistent with a thoroughgoing aim to pique and discombobulate.

Good God, Peter, why not go somewhere with this math? Why not apply differential equations to the canvases, or quantum dynamics, or some fake relativity theory? Any fool can add them up. A real first-rate pomo would have been able to drop a mention of Godel here, or Hilbert's Hotel, or the transfinite. If I had been paid by the word by the fucking New Yorker, I would have connected old Ryman to Einstein by now, and Rimbaud and Kurasawa and Tarkovsky and superstrings and the Kabala and transubstantiation and metempsychosis and Jung and Giotto and Chaldean astronomers standing on high walls and Duchamp to knight four, knight takes queen, and Derrida and Foucault's pendulum and Gravity's Rainbow and Beuy’s scratching his balls and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and Rodin’s mistresses (every damn one of them) and the I Ching and reverse black holes and the Tunguska Event and Lacan's litany and the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.

The thing about New Yorker readers is they like even their absurdities to be boring. They are duly (or dully) impressed by "an infinity of threes." For them, that reaches a pitch-perfect level of phoniness. A real scholarly level of phoniness would be too much for them: best save that for the university journals. A sentence that was really clever, like a cartoon that was really funny, would be too strong a punch. The modern magazine reader is a member of the new bourgeois varletry, the monied class that makes the old nouveau riche look like aristocracy. They have stomachs that can somehow digest descriptions of white canvases, as long as the sentences are peppered with words like "aesthetic experience" and "emotional numbness" and "cynical wisdom" and "vivacious brassiness." "Hey Marge, I just read an art review in the New Yorker!" "Good boy, Ernest, would you like a cracker?"

Or as Schjeldahl puts it,

How much you like Ryman depends on a couple of things. First, how highly do you value feeling sensitive and smart? [Yes he really said that, I am not making this up.]

Oh, Peter, I value it above anything and everything! That is why I read the New Yorker, usually out loud at Starbucks on Lexington, wearing my Mensa t-shirt and Guggenheim gimme-cap.

Secondly, do you buy into a romance of painting in extremis, so imperiled by skepticism that, to survive as indispensable art, it must jettison all functions that are not identical with its conceptual scheme and physical reality?

Oh, Peter, I value it above anything and everything! Let me just go ask the barista what that meant. I am sure it must be brilliant!

Yes, amazing that the same person who is so imperiled by skepticism that she demands white canvases, is not so imperiled by skepticism when she is reading words bookended by ads for expensive Fifth Avenue stores. In the latter instance, she accepts whatever she is told, though it is infinitely less logical than Ptolemian astronomy and infinitely more harmful than Sadean morality.

Another of these harmful and illogical things that Schjeldahl massages her throat with is that Ryman was "one of a cohort of abstract painters who, in the 1960's, simplified painting in order to save it." Yes, sort of like the US government was a savior of the Lakota. Ryman was no savior, mi amigo. He was a jazz musician who sucked so bad he couldn't make a living in the age of jazz in the jazz capital of the world. So he worked as a guard at MOMA, where he discovered an artsy milieu where sucking was actually a plus. Sort of like the Turner Prize does now, MOMA was on the lookout then for people with no self-respect or scruples, who could be poster people for the movement. MOMA and the Turner Prize and Charles Saatchi usually have more luck trolling the asylums for suckers, but if a museum guard is willing to be a permanent public fool, so much the better. These people are worth the money they are paid to front the business, since most people couldn't be paid enough for such degradation. They are the modern equivalent of circus freaks, except that those who pay to step behind the curtain now are not the hoi polloi but the hoity-toity. The circus owner had to split a few hundred dollars with his bearded lady and fatman after each performance, but the new gallery like PaceWildenstein has many millions to split with its "talent." The days are long gone since the upper classes had too much self-respect to be caught flopping around in circuses or cheap bordellos or freak shows. They have incorporated all into the museum, endowed with billions, and they can now be as vulgar as their little hearts' desire. In fact, I would suggest that the time is ripe to put in a mudpit at MOMA, where the bankers and politicians and real estate people could roll around naked. If they charged $1000 for entry, it would go off just fine. They could even televise it: a sort of American Tidal, with call-in votes for the most disgusting pervert in New York City’s elite. It would be a tough call, no doubt. Quality and quantity.

I think more than anything, I am mystified by the timidity and fastidiousness on display in The New Yorker, and in all of American cultural "high" life. After what, 80 or 90 years, despite the clearest revelations of the states of their souls, despite the clearest warnings of their deepest desires, these people still can't "go with it." If they want to be disgusting vulgarians, throwing all education and logic to the wind, dismissing all signs of elevation and wisdom and all but the lowest signs of beauty, why not just do so? Why the continued pretense, the waiting on the edge of the pool, the fake use of big words, the fake use of the titles "poetry" and "art." If you don’t like art or poetry or any sort of real elevation, just say so and be done with it. Why have a magazine like The New Yorker, that must undercut itself with every page, claiming elevation with its style of non-elevation, or claiming non-elevation with its style of haute vulgarity? Publishing fake plebeian poetry and fake art critiques that don’t criticize anything and don't address any art and fake fiction that is an empty form of something long dead. Why not go where you want to go and publish only movie reviews and celebrity sightings and tepid porn for the nebbish and frigid? You already hired the editor of Vanity Fair, why not speed this process up and hire the editor of Cosmo or The Enquirer? There is, after all, not a great deal of difference in hagiography or anti-hagiography of Leni Riefenstahl and hagiography or anti-hagiography of Jennifer Aniston. Both are equally worthy of serious study.

The American experiment, still on a knife edge fifty years ago, has since failed in spectacular fashion, its failure now increasing exponentially every decade. We still have an upper class, an upper class as virulent as any in history, but we have removed from it the only excuse it ever had for existing, the only plus in a long list of minuses. The upper class, perhaps only to deserve the name, once required itself to exhibit some minimum amount of dignity and elevation. This dignity and elevation, though often a sham, was not always a sham. Some nave types brought up under its umbra took it seriously, and ended up creating some exquisite things before they got old and jaded. Which is a rather old-fashioned way of saying that the upper class used to be productive artistically, rather than just consumptive. It created institutions and sometimes individuals who encouraged and produced all the artifacts that we now call art history. It did this by believing in—or at least saying it believed in—excellence, eminence, high achievement, beauty, grace, nobility, and gentility. Whether the upper class itself gave evidence of any of these qualities, in the sum of its existence, is not artistically to the point, since what is beyond question is that this structure, real or put on, gave birth to real achievement. The old museums are full of real art, the old cities are full of real architecture, and the old music is full of passion and complexity. No amount of finger pointing at the Medici popes or Hapsburgs or Hitler is going to change that.

Conversely, the upper class now, represented in mass print by publications like The New Yorker, encourages, produces and consumes white canvases, and less than white canvases. Not only that, but it reads about white canvases, and writes poems about white canvases, and listens to songs about white canvases. It is a culture subsisting on nullities, a completely empty aesthetic, a purposefully zeroed-out accounting to the Muses. The only difference between the upper class and the lowest class is that the upper class has more money, and knows a few more words. Otherwise, they both aspire to the same aesthetic height: the bed littered with condoms and syringes, the comic book with lewd pictures, the pull-my-finger deluxe machine. The lowest class gets these things at WalMart two-fer-a-dollar, the upper class gets them at PaceWildenstein for of a million.

But this is no apologia for the aristocracy. It is an indictment of the current shallow plutocracy, and the belief that it is a necessary outcome of democracy. Democracy can be wedded to any number of possible economies and moralities and aesthetics. The upper class can be whatever it wants to be, since all the salient points of democracy concern the lower class: what it does, what it is allowed to do. The lower classes, as long as they aren't sat upon, actually prefer some dignity and elevation from the upper class, since it gives them more to dream of and aspire to. For proof, see the European royals on constant parade in front of socialist/democratic hordes, or the stars at the academy awards, pretending to be a sort of royalty. But what poor soul, slaving away in a cubicle in Topeka, would be stupid enough to yearn to trade places with an East-coast robber baron? The robber baron is also in a terrible office of plastic and steel, choking on bad air, and the Topeka cubicalist can at least get her art at WalMart for next to nothing. If you compare the number of hours each has to work to buy the same art, you find that the Topeka cubicalist is much better off. And she doesn’t have to pretend to read The New Yorker, either.

Which is as much to say, the upper class needs to make up its mind. It either needs to put on a good show for posterity or the gods, or it needs to just go to WalMart and go crazy. It isn’t impressing anyone by shopping at PaceWildenstein. Well, it isn't impressing anyone but Schjeldahl, and Schjeldahl is impressed by chance elements of drawing abutting reflections of frame walls. Which, coincidentally, is the blue light special this week at WalMart. Look for the $2.19 bin marked "chance abutmenting, etc."


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