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Zeitgeber \'tsit-ga-ber\ n [G, fr. zeit time (fr. OHG zit) + geber, lit., giver, donor, fr. geben to give, fr. OHG geban; akin to OE giefan to give -- more at TIDE, GIVE] (1968): an environmental agent or event (as the occurrence of light or dark) that provides the stimulus setting or resetting a biological clock of an organism.

 The twentieth century has been as a long flight on a fast plane travelling some low-level synchronous orbit, moving always east to west, against the rotation of the earth, and we are blinded by the sun forever in our face. Suffering chronic aesthetic jet-lag and burned corneas, we cannot see where to go, in any sense of the word. What is needed is an artistic Zeitgeber.


There is only one beauty, the beauty of truth revealing itself.
Auguste Rodin1

This book is, on the face of it, a how-to book: how to be an artist. But to my mind the term "artist" signifies more than one who draws or paints or sculpts. And it signifies more than one who has good ideas or who is sensitive or expressive. For me an artist is both the master of a craft and the sharer of strong emotions. To be the master of a craft you must have a fair amount of natural talent and the patience and perseverance to develop that talent into a high level of skill. In order to share strong emotions you must a) have them, and b) know how to express them through your chosen craft. This knowledge of how to express yourself is not so much learned as it is discovered. Your ability to comprehend and express your emotions increases with every bit of useful information you manage to pick up, whether that information is intellectual, aesthetic, emotional, spiritual, what have you. Any progress or enlightenment you achieve in any area will enhance and illuminate your artistic abilities.

Therefore a book on how to be an artist must engage the reader, the artist, as a whole person, not just as some disembodied groveler for technical secrets. For this reason, I try to share with you not only what it is to draw and paint and sculpt, but what it is to be an artist. No doubt many will find this old-fashioned, presumptuous, or otherwise offensive. I can only answer, quoting Thoreau, that "I trust none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do some good to him it fits."

As your sartorial advisor, my first warning is to avoid the greatcloak, the overcoat with hood, the fur-trimmed mukluk with sealskin earflaps: however great your talent, you cannot hide in your art. That is, no matter how much evidence you collect that the world is a nasty, clueless, inspirational void best left on the other side of a high hedge, you better be prepared to answer some questions—at least for yourself—or the wolves will get you the moment you step outside the studio. For talent and depth, even together, aren't enough. You also need courage. And while I can't give you the first two, I can help with the third, simply by telling you a few things. This is what a real education does, in my opinion: not tell you how to do something, but gird you to do what you already know.

1Paul Gsell, L'Art (Conversations with Auguste Rodin), p. 42.

For example, if you can't mix colors just by trying to mix colors, I can't teach you how. Color mixing, like everything else important in art, is not a science but a talent. Beyond the learning of a few commonsense facts, art technique is mostly intuited. Like a baby learning to talk, an artist simply does what he can, and takes it as far as possible. All I can do is encourage you to try, mainly by tempting you with what others have achieved when they tried, and then by encouraging you to trust the eye you already have.

Of course, human potential is not all instinctive. The sort of courage I am talking about depends, in large part, on knowledge. Knowledge that transcends technique—wide-ranging knowledge. For instance, a sensitive, sincere master of a craft (should one somehow be spontaneously created by a flash of lightning or the collision of matter and anti-matter) will nonetheless feel completely overwhelmed and out of place in modern America if he or she does not have a fairly good understanding of art history and the present state of art, such as it is. Not that this understanding will mollify his or her feelings of alienation: these feelings may in fact increase. But such an understanding will allow an artist to deal positively with these feelings—to rechannel them back into an art that can effectively deal with both internal and external pressures.

And so I include chapters not only on art supplies, techniques, and museum copywork, but also, and perhaps more to the point, on art education, art history, and the critics. In short, I mean to tell you everything I know about the subject of art that seems important (and that comes to mind). What appeals to you, you can keep. The rest I will still have for my own purposes. This is how I see my role as an author.

Ten or fifteen years ago I was in desperate need of some good advice. I never got it. For the most part, my need remains. But to the extent that I have answered my own questions, I mean to answer some of yours. In a sense this book is a letter back in time. J. D. Salinger's character Seymour tells his younger brother Buddy to think of the book he most wants to read, and to write that book.1 As far as memory serves me, this is the book I wanted to read fifteen years ago. If you and I have convergent tastes in literature, then you are in luck: you won't have to write this book in fifteen years.

1In "Seymour an Introduction," in Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour an Introduction, Bantam edition, p. 161.

{Excerpts from the rest of the book}

From "An Historical Overview":

Great art is so rarely produced because it is so rarely encouraged and so rarely attempted. Our schools and other institutions do not so much encourage high ideals as squash them. We cannot make great artists but we can certainly destroy them. And our society is doing so with terrible efficiency. Contemporary art has become like Lewis Carroll's four branches of Arithmetic: "Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision." In the avant garde, any idea of excellence is dismissed as a bourgeois conspiracy or as a reactionary alliance with all the anti-populist politics of history. And even where pockets of residual craftsmanship remain, mostly among the atavistic followers of a Classicism of some sort or another, this respect for tradition (which admittedly requires a great deal of effort to maintain) has become an end in itself. The idea of excellence in such circles no longer has any art-historical resonances or other personal, psychological, emotional, or cultural echoes. It is an excellence strictly of brushwork or color. Tout le monde is now a formalist, Santa Fe as well as New York City.

Art is now bipolar. The magnetic north is owned by the Moderns; the weaker south by the Realists. Both markets have varying financial strengths, but they have sectioned art into two non-viable theoretical organisms, neither of which can possibly generate any real art. The experiments of the avant garde have led them to the land of Pure Expression, where the visual image has become superfluous. In theory this was supposed to liberate them from the visual images of the past. In actuality it has also liberated them from any sort of meaningful visual communication. It has proved impossible to express either idea or emotion without mastering a technical craft. Few theorists would contend that music can be played on no instrument, or on a non-instrument. And yet it is now commonplace to believe that visual art can or should be expressed without conventions, or through critically deconstructed conventions—which are equivalent to pianos without keys, or without fingers. Whatever one may think about pre-20th century art forms, at least Leonardo didn't have to explain his paintings verbally; or Rodin act out his sculptures to make them understood; or Van Gogh look to the critics to clarify his intentions.

Outside the avant garde all is an arid formalism of one sort or another. Contemporary formalist painting in the vein of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Jasper Johns, or Cy Twombly is Modern but no longer cutting edge. It is possible to lump this field in with contemporary Realism, for they are both abstract: even the landscape and portrait painters of the Southwest are more interested in brushstoke and color and edge than they are in any emotional or ideational content. For all these painters the medium is the message—trompe l'oeil and vast monochrome surfaces define the opposite limits of artistic ingenuity. The Realists and the Formalists are both caught on the surface, mistaking paint for a painting.

No one on any of the contemporary art paths seems to remember that creation is synthesis, not analysis. Art is not whittling down, sectioning off—disallowing representation, or dismissing content. It is not the glorification of partialities, neither formless content or contentless form. Nor is it substitution—calling journalism painting, or acting sculpture, or politics art. If you have mastered many crafts, then mix your media, by all means. But if you can't paint, don't prop up your painting with a verbal cue, or even worse, a theory—bolstering, as it were, one disability with another. As Nietzsche said of Wagner, "where he lacks a capacity, he invents a principle." Or as Camus said, "He who has no character must have a theory."

Despite the ever-increasing futility of all possible futures, we are told there is no going back. The bridge behind us has been washed out, it is said. While this is a relief to some, who understandably prefer to make no direct comparisons to the past (better to live on an island, up a tree, on a skinny limb, than to have to suffer Michelangelo's shadow), it leaves us in a tight spot. Fortunately, those with long enough legs or high enough boots don't require a road; they can strike out cross country.

This divergence of craftsmanship and content, of feeling and execution, is only one of many. Another important schism has been caused by the market. Art is now a big business. A large percentage of the "artwork" produced in this country is market-driven and therefore hardly deserving of the title. There is nothing wrong with this decoration: our houses need color co-ordination and critical justification (or undercutting) as much as our cars need gas, some would say. But it seems to me that, after decades of all-inclusiveness in the name of equality, a few of our definitions need tightening up. The definition of Art is more critically in need of refinement than any other of the sloppy definitions our heritage (or lack of one, in this half-century) has passed down to us. If the anti-academic movement in art that has predominated since the time of the Impressionists has had anything positive to add to the definition of artist (and it has had very little), it is that the artist should not be the agent of the aristocracy or even of the bourgeoisie. He or she should be a worker of independence and self-expression—at best visionary; at least, sincere. This was originally the meaning of ars gratia artis: art for the sake of self-expression as opposed to art for the sake of decoration, or for the sake of financial gain, or (most importantly in the historical context) for the sake of illustrating a religious or political belief.

This last aspect is worth noting, for it is rarely mentioned that the Modern movement began, at least in its roots in the nineteenth century, as a reaction against external influences on the artist, particularly political ones. This is poignant if not tragic, seeing that the contemporary artist, even when he escapes being crushed by economic considerations, ends up being completely overwhelmed by political ones. The artists of the avant garde, supposedly freed in this century by their protectors—the critic, the academic, and the museum curator—from the mundane concerns of "pleasing the customer," have found themselves shackled by the political obligations owed to those self-same protectors. These artists have bought their "freedom" at a usurious rate by buying into a game whose rules are made by other people. Yet no one cares to admit that it is no more virtuous to pander to the critics, curators, and academics than it is to pander to the market directly, by kneeling to the desires of the galleries and buyers. In both instances the artist has sold his creative autonomy to buy a starting position and a salary. And in both instances control of the artist's agenda has passed into the hands of non-artists.

The influential power of art and artists has long been recognized, and for just as long it has been co-opted by those who wanted to make use of it. For most of the Christian history of Europe this co-option was carried on by the clergy and the aristocracy. Kings and Popes controlled artists as they controlled everything else, with little room for dissent. But as this control began to weaken during the Reformation, and to break down altogether during the Enlightenment, artists were not the only ones to find themselves with more autonomy. Highly politicized factions fought for power and attempted, as one might expect, to enlist the help of the artists of the time. For example, in France during the reign of Louis XV the progressive cause was championed by, among others, the encyclopedist and art critic Denis Diderot. Diderot was one of the first art critics to successfully press his own agenda. As a writer himself Diderot was sympathetic to the role of the artist. Yet he judged art mainly in terms of its usefulness to the state (though his definition of "state" might be different from the King's). He critiqued the nudes of Boucher, for example, not by artistic standards, which would be, I should think, the beauty and depth, the expressive power, Boucher shares of his relationship with his subject (his model) and his craft. He critiqued the nudes on the morals, or lack of morals, such works might instill. And even in the realm of morals, Diderot's interest was mainly political. I quote him from the Salon of 1761: "This man picks up his brush only to show me breasts and buttocks. I am delighted to see them but I cannot bear having them pointed out to me." This statement may not seem, at first glance, to be egregiously out of order (or, in the case of Boucher, false—Boucher's depth of emotion is not astonishing, and almost all he had to offer the viewer was nudity). But Diderot's flippant dismissal of viable artistic subject matter (yes, breasts and buttocks are, and always will be, beautiful) in favor of prudery or some other political or moral method of judging a painting, instituted by the critic, has led to all sorts of trouble.

Of course eighteenth-century France was preoccupied with an egalitarianism we now take for granted, and the voice of the common man was only beginning to be heard. It is not surprising that Diderot would speak for the common interest as against the sensibilities of a court painter. But my point is that he was setting a dangerous precedent by choosing art criticism as a voice for his political complaints. Art, properly understood, cannot be so worldly. It cannot take requests, either from the aristocrats or the democrats. It will not give up its secrets to the Enlightenment, or to Science, or to the demands of any Program, any more than will God or Being or Instinct or the Unconscious. It is individual effort, the cry of the Id, shaped by the Ego perhaps, but best left alone by the Ego-ideal. It cannot be enlisted in a cause, no matter how worthy, without being corrupted beyond all recognition.

Furthermore, with his critical method Diderot popularized the idea that educated non-artists were better able to judge art than artists. Otis Fellows, in his book on Diderot, says "Diderot believed that art should not be judged solely on its technical aspects. He felt that other considerations should be taken into account—the subject matter in general, the delineation of character, the psychological shadings. All of them, we are told, a man of letters can weigh as well as and perhaps better than the artist himself." Under the mistaken impression that artists judge art "solely on its technical aspects," Diderot believed that the "universal" education of a literary man could be an improvement on such judgment. But what artist, worthy of the name, has ever been simply a technician? In the very admission that what is being judged is art (rather than illustration or craft, say) is contained the idea that artist knows something beyond technique. In order to accept Diderot's assertion, you must believe that the artist is responsible only for putting the paint on the canvas: any meaning the painting has is accidental, fortuitous, or divinely caused. The artist therefore gets no credit for it. If he cannot verbally explain his non-verbal processes, he must not understand them, and therefore is only some kind of idiot-agent. The meaning, and so the worth, of the painting is left up to the judgment of those who had nothing to do with its creation. The critics, despite their creative ineptitude, claim to have an insight into this mystery that the artists themselves cannot match. In the end the whole claim is preposterous, and artists have been forced to fight, against ever-growing odds, what is clearly an attempt at creative coercion.

Although the aristocracy Diderot was attacking soon became obsolete, his method of criticism has endured. Politics has changed but art still suffers. And it suffers more under our strict egalitarianism than it has since the darkest recesses of medievalism. The artist is still expected to meet the demands of the non-artist. But now the non-artist is not King or Pope, he is the common man, the businessman, the media man, the scholar man. We are all common men now. The artist is a decorator man. I do not mean to be a snob: it is not that the Pope was a better overseer to art than the Modern critic or client—in many ways he was more demanding and intrusive, rarely in a constructive way. But Michelangelo and Leonardo had the principle and the backbone to stand up to Princes and Popes where the contemporary artist cannot even stand up to a relatively powerless gallery owner or magazine editor. We have reached the point where even the philistines of the avant garde, in whom one would expect at least the pretension of eminence, have instead betrayed themselves as the final conquest of our nation of shopkeepers. Modern art has become, as Robert Hughes calls it, a "wholly monetized art," monetized being an adjective whose meaning the lowliest French peasant would have understood.

After Diderot, of course,
le deluge. Subsequent to an initial spate of high-sounding rhetoric, it became clear that liberte meant for the French peasant and sans culotte what freedom now means for the modern democrat—the freedom to imitate the worst instincts of the ruling class: the shallow materialism, the pervasive desire for comfort and security, the narrow complacency, the lurid fascination with sex and violence while propagandizing chastity and peace. There was no pretense then that art had anything to do with the Revolution, except as a political tool, or that it might or should survive, for its own sake, in a progressive world; just as there is little pretense now that art, as an extraordinary expression of individual passion, has any place in the socialized, mechanized, centralized future of the Left, or the capitalized, mechanized, centralized future of the Right. Alexandre Kojève, a well-known Hegelian, has admitted as much: the loss of great art and artists is a necessary cost of a triumphant egalité, he tells us.

Nor is Kojève alone in thinking so. Most social critics on the left have given art a low priority in their restructuring wishlist, and even those who want to keep a place for it have been forced to dramatically redefine it in hyper-egalitarian terms [see The Getty, in Chapter 2], so that it would be unrecognizable to Michelangelo or even van Gogh. Art has been bartered off as a cost of modern democracy or socialism by non-artists based on the flimsiest of post hoc arguments, with only the most cursory of cost-benefit analyses (to put it in their own terms), and with no vote.

It would be droll if it weren't so tragic that Modern Art, cobbled together by the greatest minds of contemporary social theory as an answer to the "elitist" art of the past, appeals to the masses not at all. Those such as Clement Greenberg [see Chapter Four] attempt transcend this embarrassing snaggle with an elitism all their own, implying that the kitsch-loving masses don't know what's good for them; but surely someone in some conference room or university cubicle must be abashed to find that the new art is not only an aesthetic but a social failure. It is as if the social democrats have opted for Nietzsche's "last man" (his modern "herd animal," to replace his classical beast, the Christian), knowing full well the consequences, and without consulting the people themselves—who may or may not be content with merely smiling and blinking. Perhaps some have already begun to notice that we are building the future too small, hemming ourselves in unnecessarily, washing away three babies for every tubful of water.

If you think I am making a case for the political Right, you are wrong. Unlike Hilton Kramer, I have never expected the Republican Party to be any help at all, and so I am not disappointed when it isn't. It is conservative only in an economic sense. The only thing the modern Right is interesting in conserving is laissez faire capitalism, all other concerns being secondary. It would be oxymoronic for the Right to even have a position on Art: it might sooner have a position on Astrology (and did, apparently, during the Reagan years). That it does have a position on the National Endowment for the Arts is neither here nor there in this context (I address the NEA in another chapter). It has an opinion on art funding, but that is a question of economics, you see. In the view of the Right, people have the unalienable right to make unequal amounts of money, money that should not be redistributed lest the profit motive fail and the economy collapse. But there can be no philosophical convergence of art and economics. Artists know, with Thoreau, that "Trade curses everything it handles. You could be dealing in messages from Heaven and the whole curse of trade would attach to the business."

No one, Right or Left, has apparently noticed that while Marx and Locke have been duking it out over who gets what and how much property; while Nature, laid out on a cold slab, decomposes as the kids and grandkids bicker over the will, civilization has been dissipating, its existence ever more tenuous and imaginary. Bereft of leadership and inspiration (because no one much believes in such things anymore) our children, and not just our children, are adrift in a miasma of infinite freedom and zero responsibility, a chaotic sea in which the only boat afloat is the economy. Inwardly, we are even now living off aes alienum, another's brass, taking, even stealing, what little enrichment we have from a source that is, like the earth itself, finite. Art history is not resource that can survive unlimited assault, and our pails are already coming up dry from the well.

Dandy, you say, but what does this have to do with art? Everything, I say. Art is not created in a vacuum. An inartistic milieu discourages art, obviously; but not so much in our case, I am arguing, from lack of public funding, as from a complete philosophic and social reverse, suffered mostly in the last hundred years. A reverse that has little or nothing to do with the philosophic and social culprits that have taken all the blame up to now, namely democracy, Christianity, and science.

Let me take the first one first. As the French Revolution—the culmination of the work of Diderot and the other encyclopedists, of Rousseau, Voltaire and many others—was a turning point in history for liberté and egalité, all to the good. But its successes and its excesses did nothing for the democratization of art. This is because no one has ever been able to say how art can be positively democratized. Our democratic experiment here in the United States has been extraordinarily successful in many ways, but no one can argue that art has prospered here (except, for a while, financially). All the persuasive arguments up to now, foremost among them Nietzsche's, have said that art could not be democratized. But these arguments only addressed the incompatibility of art with the democratic state. And art is incompatible with the demands of any state, as Nietzsche himself said. Art is incompatible with the demands of any group or any authority outside the artist's creative mind. So it is not art and democracy that are incompatible, but art and the politics of the group, of whatever kind. To successfully democratize art is simply to maximize its opportunities, and then to leave it alone. It is to allow that the artist can come from anywhere, regardless of background, and to encourage without prejudice those with talent. But our democracy has not been satisfied with giving such a valuable political gift. Modern democratic practice has gone beyond the equalization of opportunity to the mandated equality of achievement. We have decided to understand Thomas Jefferson's "all men are created equal" to mean that every man or woman must remain equal at all times, and that all products of their efforts, whether of imagination or toil, must be given equal consideration. In the field of art, this has come to mean that every creation is equally artistic by definition: "artistic" has come to mean simply "creative." But "creativeness" is judged only by quantity; "art" used to be judged by quality.

This aversion to the idea of quality is a symptom of every modern skill, artistic or not, and it threatens to undermine our ability to define ourselves at all. I am not sure, however, that there is any strict correlation between this modern phenomenon and democracy. Periclean Athens was a democracy, in a limited sense, but it did not treat quality as a pathology. And Christianity, a religion in which pride is the ultimate sin (as it is in our modern democratic state), never sanctioned a belief in the final equality of souls. For Jesus, the value of this life was, in large part, to allow for the separation of the wheat from the chaff, every tree that failed to bear fruit being thrown into the fire. This is hardly a complacent egalitarianism. But Christianity has rightly been seen as being democratic because its foundations rest on a conversion of the lower classes and a spiritual empowerment of the individual. The reason democracy and the highest expectations for and of the individual seem mutually exclusive is that Peter and Paul all but ditched the latter in order to found their religion. There is an early separation between Jesus and Christianity. Jesus never would have sanctioned the historical use of Christianity by the church to repress the lower classes by further limiting the importance of the individual. This history has been trenchantly anti-democratic, elitist in the worst sense, as in fascist. For fifteen hundred years the European peasantry was spoon-fed only the most self-negating, unempowering, mind-numbing parts of the Bible, all stress being put on abnegation rather than affirmation. Somehow Jesus' "glad tidings" of a spiritual journey of infinite wonder open to all, of a "heavenly kingdom within you," lost something in the translation from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to the modern European languages, and by the time the German or French or Italian laborer heard of it, this fabulous journey promised only to carry him from the depths of despair to the glories of resignation. If this fabulous journey sounds familiar, it should: we are still traveling it. The low ceiling of American spiritual expectation, inherited from this debased religion, was accurately measured by Thoreau a hundred and fifty years ago, and is now lower still. We have become as spiritual hunchbacks in order to live in the homes of our own making. Soon we may be crawling on all fours, or be permanently supine.

One of the failings of modern thought is its inability to differentiate between two types of "elitism." It has been a semantic failure that we have continued to use the same word for such different meanings. Jesus' recognition of an elite—his insistence on a recognizable difference in the quality of personal spirit based on word and deed—affirmed individuality and responsibility and was democratic in the best sense, in that it denied the privilege of a ruling class based on wealth or birth or other worldly power. But elitism as political privilege and the right to use other human being as means aims for just the opposite state of human affairs. It is anti-democratic, with no belief in the right of the individual to self-rule. Its centralization tends to monopolize power, and this worldly power is based solely on previous access to power. It systematically denies the possibility of progress because it does not allow for the revival of leadership by the infusion of fresh talent. In this way it can be seen that democracy is, at least potentially, much closer to a meritocracy than all the old forms of rule. Equal opportunity maximizes the talent pool and great potential is not lost by being born to poverty or to racial or sexual "inferiority."

Besides, art demonstrably is elitist in the first sense. And should be. As science is, and business, and sport, and education itself. No one seems surprised that the best scientists get paid the most for research, or that the best businesspeople get promoted, or that the best basketball players are the ones who get hired by the NBA. Why should art alone be expected to be not only equal access, but equal time? Why does the NEA itself still charge the arts in America, which have fallen so low that expectations themselves are now almost zero, with being elitist? Great art is exceptional; that is, it is the exception, as everything great is. Great art was, and always will be, created by an artistic elite, whether in an aristocracy or a democracy. To deny this is to misunderstand the word exceptional. And it is to misunderstand the value of exceptional things, to all people in a society.

But in our modern democratic states such an understanding of our situation does not satisfy us. We demand the right to self-rule while at the same time throwing out all the rules for governing ourselves. We are anti-elitist in both senses. We are selfish with no proper hierarchy of selves. We have no spiritual goals, and our selves, newly freed by the political successes of our day, are adrift. We have kept only the coziest parts of the Bible to help us sleep at night and jettisoned any difficult "moralism" that might demand anything from us. We have done the same thing with democracy, playing down any notions of individual responsibility (which are surely as central as any democratic tenet) while playing up the "rights" of each and all to every fruit of civilization, earned or not, including any label one might desire, whether it be athlete, scholar, or artist. Our meritocracy is unrealized because we find true merit distasteful: it does not play to our vain glorification of small deeds. Add to this Science's complicity, with its purposeful, but unsubstantiated, de-spiritualizing of the world, and you have an excuse for such relativism. For if it all doesn't matter anyway, why not select only the chummiest, tastiest, mushiest ideas of history and ditch the rest?

It must be pointed out, though, that Science's place of distinction in this muddle is based on absolutely nothing. Science has never proved a link between how? and why? Science spends all its time and money answering the question how? not why? It collects all its data on how? not why? One of its premises is that why? is not a valid, and certainly not a scientific, question. But then it presumes, once it has found out how? that it knows why?, too. Ask Science why? and it will say with great authority, with many a successful how? to back it up, "there is no reason." Not "we don't know the reason," but "there is no reason"; believing, no doubt, that why? would have shown up on its screens with how? had it been there. But this is specious. To understand the mechanics of the universe is not to understand its purpose or its teleology. Science may deny that the universe is in any sense purposeful, but this denial is just as unprovable, scientifically, as religion's assertion that the universe is purposeful. The atheist's belief is insupportable to exactly the extent that the theist's is. Existence may not prove Essence, but it certainly cannot disprove it. It is odd that Science would exhibit its inconsistency by having an opinion at all. It is expected that religion (and art and philosophy) might make assertions that are empirically untestable, for it believes in other tests; and only Science can be categorically wrong on this subject.

I know I must seem far afield and almost laughably all-embracing in my concerns here. It is considered terribly unmodern to write so broadly, but I remind any skeptics of what van Gogh once said in a letter to his friend and fellow painter Bernard:

You see, my dear comrade, that Giotto and Cimabue, as well as Holbein and van Dyck, lived in an obeliscal—excuse the word—solidly framed society, architecturally constructed, in which each individual was stone, and all the stones clung together, forming a monumental society. When the socialists construct their logical social edifice—which they are still pretty far from doing—I am sure mankind will see a reincarnation of this society. But, you know, 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.

I almost have to rub my hands together and chuckle when I think of the number of art mavens who will blink and stutter to see one of the (supposed) fathers of Modernism saying such things; but that would delay my point, that being that artists need a groundwork as much as anyone, if not more, and that the reconsideration of some of the topics I am reconsidering might be a necessary step in the rejuvenation of the artistic psyche. Far be it from me to propose some sort of Freudian makeover, or regimen for artistic mental health. But I do think I can suggest that the sort of curriculum now predominating, which is to say, no curriculum (or to be even more existentially precise, the noncurriculum) can lead to only more chaos, more groping, more breast beating. And once we start to rebuild our education system—our system in general, which we are "still pretty far from doing"—I think we are going to have to admit that specialization, the narrowing of an individual's scope to increase his or her skill, has been a disaster, especially from a humanistic or spiritualistic standpoint. It's efficiency can be argued to some extent in business. But in art, where efficiency means nothing, it has only ended up giving us smaller artists. The artistic temperament, I would argue, is most often that of a generalist. An artist's most important skill, once technique is mastered, is making connections—doing the spiritual addition, as it were, and showing us the hidden sum. Not consciously, of course, and not nearly as prosaically as I just put it, but in effect this is what he does. Van Gogh may have felt isolated by the uncommon strength of his emotions, his intellect, and his compassion. And he may have concentrated on painting as his "one thing." But anyone who has read his letters knows that his concerns were as far ranging as it was possible to be. The artist cannot hope to reach emotional complexity or maturity without a rather wide-ranging curiosity, and so it is my guess that, like van Gogh, and like Leonardo, and like every great artist, the young artist hopefully reading this book really is interested in a thousand different topics, and only needs to see my example, as I gambol willy-nilly through every subject that enters my head, to believe that it may be possible to do this successfully—that is, without either coming to a dead stop, literally or figuratively, or ending up in the poor house or the loonybin.

One other closely-related subject that I want to touch on here while I am being unattractively self-indulgent (and that I will come back to later) is that an artist's predisposition for the grandiose, the far-flung, the all-inclusive, and the world-saving is not something to be taken lightly. I don't say this as an excuse for my own intemperance (or I don't say it only as an excuse). Despite the fact that there are almost no social situations where the artistic temperament is seen as a plus-and I can understand this, none better—I think we all have to find some way, not only to tolerate, but to actually encourage the "grand schemer," obnoxious or no. For we are desperately in need of some grand schemes, our old ones having apparently failed us. I will say it because no one else seems willing to put himself in the situation of looking foolish enough to say it, but we need some risk taking in the area of the grand gesture, the big picture, the overall theory, and some risk-taking on a completely different order than what we have so far seen this century. The only way we can get beyond this intellectual chatter, this modern complaint about the smallness of everything, is to manage to put off scoffing for a moment at every large-intentioned person who tries to do anything. So far the only risk takers who have been given the benefit of the doubt have been the ones who have risked telling us that we don't really have what we think we have. Nietzsche and Freud, who told us this about religion, the Existentialists who told us this about essence and meaning, the positivists who told us this about certainty. I'm not saying any of these people were wrong. I am saying it is even more difficult, and risky, to rebuild, especially in a climate like ours where every great enterprise is seen as hopelessly pretentious and, most likely, monomaniacal. Not that there are many great enterprises being floated, that I am aware of, but it seems that those with any aspirations at all seem to be dismissed out of hand. And by out of hand I mean in such a way that it is made clear that these aspirations are culturally, or sociopolitically, in bad taste, categorically. The field of literature, for example, doesn't need too many careers like that of Salinger before it gets the hint. Great writers, that is, don't write seriously about religion anymore. The time of Thoreau and Carlyle is past. This is the Age of Reason, my friend.

All the arts must make room again for the grandiose, even at the risk of a level of pedantry. Did Thoreau always avoid pretension? Did Nietzsche? Of course not. Nietzsche didn't even try to, his point being that no great writer can, or even should. Let the artist pretend—for every child knows that art is pretending—and we will see how much of the show can stay on its legs. This is the measure of creativity.

Thus Democracy, Science, and Christianity need not be blamed for our current situation. Theoretically they all have as much to say against the present state of affairs as for it. It is the way we have chosen to translate our heritage that is the problem: what we have kept and what we have thrown out. As far as politics is the science of expediency, and as far as expediency defines our choices now instead of necessity or truth, politics is our problem. I hear now from all quarters that "everything is political," as if that were somehow the immutable state of human nature, or as if it were even a desirable state of affairs. It is neither. If it is true, and to a large extent it is true, it is true because we allow or prefer it to be. If we all, individually, stop discussing issues politically, they will stop being decided politically.

The problem with our democracy is that we underestimate our own power. We are so caught up in asserting our rights that we forget to exercise our power. We are so busy making therapeutic and materialistic demands on our government that we forget there is work to be done in governing, and that we must do it ourselves. If each person decides to reorder his or her life according to principle, then our government will be principled. If not, not. That is what self-government, democracy, means. Self-government is not just laissez-faire capitalism and the right to vote. It is more than some narrow Protestant work ethic and dragging ourselves to the polls every two years. We exhibit a frightening laisser-aller in our own spiritual menage. We seem content to let life live us as long as we can pay the bills and keep the TV in proper repair. But in a self-perpetuating democracy we cannot await our principles from our government, we must supply them to our government. If we, as artists, do not like the expectations we have from our government, or from our society, as being political and therefore unprincipled, we must foist our principled expectations onto the government, for she is us, and must hear. Our greatest mistake is silence.

The truth is that our institutions in the arts (and elsewhere) are not too democratic. They are not democratic enough. In theory, democracy guarantees not equality, but equal opportunity. The first principle of any government should be fairness. We need to decide whether we want from our democracy fairness and equal opportunity, or equality—which becomes in practice regulated mediocrity. Our modern society is proving, and nowhere so decisively as in the field of art, that we must choose one or the other. For equality, strictly observed, unfairly discriminates against excellence, and thereby destroys art—which must be extraordinary by definition.

As I see it, Nietzsche's foremost complaint against all modern cultures, democratic or not, was that all their institutions suppressed excellence. The church and state engendered resentment of the masses against its leaders, both in order to maximize their constituency (a hierarchy implies many levels of deferment; egalitarianism creates only one great underclass, and its custodians) and to protect their longevity (by undercutting popular support for their overthrow). This effectively turned nature on its head, leaving society's most creative and powerful members no outlet. Economic and political power could be subsumed by the church and the state, as they have been, and so they were allowed as lures to the talented, as the last arenas for distinction. But for Nietzsche, this was an empty lure, a hollow promise. The life of Croesus or of Paul was of no interest to one of his disposition. As Thoreau said, "Do not stay to become an overseer to the poor, but endeavor to become one of the worthies of the world."

From "The Failure of our Schools":

As I look back on my education in art, I can't help but think that, by common standards, I have very poor qualifications for teaching. I have never learned anything worth knowing in art school and am highly skeptical that anyone can. The last art class I attended was a two-week summer session at the Lubbock Garden and Art Center. I was twelve. Every other course of art training I have started, I have subsequently quit within the day. It occurs to me that this is because art was for me, even at such an early age, my final freedom, the expression of which I was determined to keep to myself. For example, in my early teens I was fond of drawing animals (I remember a book of illustrations by Clark Bronson I was quite proud of) and was not suggestible in the least to my teacher's recommendation that I draw an egg or a bowl of fruit. Nor should I have been. Many teachers have a theory that art must be taught as a logical progression, from the simple to the complex, for example, or from the easy to the difficult. I have a competing theory that art instruction must be a progression, no matter how haphazard, from something worth drawing to something else worth drawing, and no one can decide this worth but the art student himself. . . . In this view formal or traditional art education becomes little more than the institutionalized bogging down of any natural source of inspiration. A young artist who is coerced into drawing eggs or bowls of fruit against his better judgment begins at that moment to lose the ability to treat the creative impulse as an expression of love or joy, and begins instead to see art as just one more profession, and the art classes as another example of vocational training. Education in any field that suppresses a young person's natural source of inspiration is terribly wrong-headed, but this tendency in the field of art is especially insidious, for art is the last field that lends itself to vocational-type training. By its very nature, art demands a highly personal progression and a recognition by the artist that there is much in his craft that will and must remain a mystery. Instruction that treats art mainly as a science, as a set of facts or progression of skills, will inevitably mummify its subject and turn art into another bloodless victim of our modern way of seeing the world.

On "Workshops":

The second thing you must do is become skeptical of any teaching situation that seems to benefit the teacher more than the student. There are hundreds of so-called "workshops" throughout the country, most of them lasting but four or five days and costing, in tuition only, three to five hundred dollars (or more) per session. With the other costs added in, including travel, an art student can expect to spend somewhere between $750 and $2000 per week of instruction. This is shamefully exclusive, especially when one remembers that the École des Beaux Arts in Paris was, for hundreds of years, free—not only for the French but for anyone else. There were qualifications to be sure, but they were based on ability rather than income. And outside the École, many of the most famous artists of the day taught at private ateliers, again, gratis. It can be argued that because of state patronage these artists didn't need an income from teaching. But this is to beg the question we should all ask: doesn't that mean that our modern "masters" are teaching because they do need the income, and isn't that the wrong reason to be teaching? . . . I cannot second guess the intentions of every workshop teacher—they will vary from person to person, of course. But if the major concern of art instruction in this country is the student, I should think we could find a more efficient method. As it is, there are plenty of wealthy dilettantes able to fill these workshops to the exclusion of promising, but poor, young artists.

It is no wonder that the true artist rarely survives the various "opportunities" of art education. Our universities do not teach technique, our public schools pander to the lowest common denominator, workshops cater to the wealthy, and the few schools left (such as the Pennsylvania Academy) that have a traditional program set up for the student's progression suffer from all the ills that the École engendered—namely an overly regimented and uninspiring preset courseload that bewilders the struggler and inconveniences the adept. These fine art schools of the last sort are a dying breed, and one would hate to lose them, but it must be recognized that they cannot "create artists" now anymore than they could a hundred years ago. They can occasionally produce technical masters, but getting through such a program with your Muse intact is like following a map to heaven: with so many directions you forget where you are. It is just this sort of teaching that caused the artistic rebellion at the end of the 19th century, and if we want to avoid another century of chaos, it would be best to recognize that our artistic woes will not be rectified by any institutionalized answer. The only solutions to these problems are apprenticeship (a one-to-one relationship between artist and student) and patronage (a one-to-one relationship between artist and connoisseur). For it is these personal ties, more than anything else, that explain the aesthetic health of the Renaissance, and that explain the artistic poverty of our own time.

On the Getty Center:

Item: A 1982 critique from the Getty Center for Education in the Arts entitled "Beyond Creating," and echoed in a 1988 report by the NEA (both cited in a
New York Times News Service article in Feb. 1993 about new art programs nationwide), "argued that art classes' emphasis on creating artwork was elitist in that it favors artistically talented students." [Susan Chira]

Item: "For teachers, art becomes a wonderful way of teaching vocabulary and language skills and for getting kids to think critically, because they have to observe and justify their opinions. They have to do an analysis of a painting and of what they think the artist was trying to get at." [Leilani Lattin Duke, director of the Getty Center]

"The Getty Center for Education in the Arts" is itself a misnomer. Its name should be The Getty Center for Education in Art Criticism. For in attacking talent-based education as elitist, the Center has made it clear where its priorities lie. In fact, the Getty is not "for the arts" at all. It is for the arts in the same sense that the Farm Bureau or the Department of Agriculture is for farming. As Wendell Berry (a farmer) has pointed out, these latter institutions are not "for farming" or "for the farmer" as much as they are "for agribusiness," which is not at all the same thing. Likewise, the Getty and other art institutions are not "for art" but "for art administration." And the Getty, like the Farm Bureau or the Department of Agriculture, is actually detrimental to the field it claims to benefit. Farm policy in the last fifty years has destroyed the farmer in favor of the corporations—the fertilizer corporations, the tractor corporations, and, of course, the corporate farms. This has given us a surplus of food, but at the cost of a huge displacement of humanity and the accompanying unemployment, suicide, psychological damage, and urban population problems it implies. It has led to the disintegration of rural culture and the impoverishment of culture in general. And it has led to a trade-off in quality in our food for quantity: much of our food is adulterated, if not poisoned. Add to this the loss of the long-term viability of our land due to the exploitive mindset of administrative farming, and you have a crisis. The crisis in art is perhaps even greater, for agribusiness has at least been able to produce food. I have yet to see a corporation, or a center, or a museum, produce art. But their policies destroy artists at least as efficiently as official farm policy has destroyed farmers. There is hardly enough art to go around for all the criticizing and administering that wants to be done. I would argue that the only reason there is any left at all is that places like the Getty, the Guggenheim, MOMA, and the NEA, accept anything as art, so desperate are they for something to do. I will go even further and assert that many of those who have had a penchant for talking or defining, but no real talent for art as visual representation, have gone into art production rather than administration, to fill the gap. Corporations or Centers or Museums cannot draw lines on huge canvases or "find" broken commodes, but frustrated art critics can. And by getting rid of those with talent, by labeling them "elitists," by defining them out of the game, the critics have found they could close the circle, controlling production, distribution, and evaluation.

It is assumed, I suppose, that the talented have no need for encouragement. It is the sour-grapes position that those with gifts from Nature are least in need of cultural support. They are going to win the race anyway, the argument goes, so why waste our resources teaching them to run? But this is a very ungenerous line of reasoning, to say the least. The talented can no more define themselves in a vacuum, or against all the prejudices of society, than anyone can. An outcast is an outcast, whether he is a leper, a hunchback, or a prodigy.

From "Messieurs les Ennemis":

There are growing corps of self-proclaimed experts in nearly every field, but they are most visible in the creative fields: dance, prose and poetry, cinema and theatre, painting and sculpture. Many have no credentials at all—one is reminded of the movie critics who are given such lofty soapboxs not because they know anything about the craft of making films, but because they have mainstream, inoffensive tastes that steer people to "thumbs-up" movies. When critics do profess to have credentials, these credentials are usually based on a largely abstract (as opposed to hands-on) education, and consist of a series of activities which themselves require no qualifications. For example, an art critic may give as a credential having owned an art gallery. But owning an art gallery is a skill that requires only the money to buy it. Others may call themselves qualified to judge what is and is not a masterpiece not because they have ever created one, but because they have a PhD in art history or aesthetics. Perhaps they believe that an abstract education is the proper qualification for judging abstract art.

It is easy to rail against the bad critic, but I would argue even against those critics who may have sensitive eyes or souls: not because they are always wrong, but because they are out of order.1 It's a free country, as Larry King is kind enough to remind us, and everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, no matter how uneducated it may be. But there is a categorical difference, it seems to me, in private complaint and public critique: in, for example, going home and complaining to your mate about the "godawful building they just put up downtown," and in going public with your opinions on architecture without having so much as built a sand castle. If you really have the knowledge, learned or intuited, to recognize not only that a building is "wrong," but exactly how it is wrong and what would make it right (which knowledge any good architecture critic is claiming, it seems to me), you are obliged first to use your talent to build a better building. Once you've done that, then you will have earned the right to criticize a lesser building. Even if you never convince anyone that your building is better, or that any other is lesser, at least you will have a leg to stand on. You will have earned your place in the argument. And, it must be added, your place in the argument will, and should, depend on your work as your primary credential.

In the end, this is just another call for responsibility. Important writers make statements of consequence. Responsible writers make statements of consequence, the consequences of which they are responsible. If a writer makes a false statement, the falseness of that statement should affect the writer first and foremost, and other people only through their direct contact with the writer. This is what it means for a writer not to talk about things he doesn't know. If a writer has nothing at stake in the statements he makes, then his criticism is groundless, and therefore irresponsible. But an art critic who is not also, and primarily, an artist cannot possibly meet this criterion of responsibility. Other people, namely artists, will always suffer the consequences of the falseness of the art critic's statements before, and perhaps instead of, the art critic. The only consequence the art critic must take into account is his ability to sell copy. False or ridiculous or unpopular statements may affect him financially, but they cannot affect him artistically. He has nothing artistic at stake. A critic might interject here, "Oh, but isn't criticism itself an art form?" I don't think that it is, but even were it proved to be, this would only mean that the art critic must limit himself to statements about art criticism, not art, in order to remain responsible. This leads to a reductio ad absurdum, for of what interest is art criticism that cannot responsibly discuss art? The only exit from this dilemma is the obvious: art criticism is the responsibility of artists.

On Southwest Art:

Nor is it just the Modern artist who uses politics as a false patina to help sell paintings, who mirrors modern expectations but has nothing really to say. Contemporary realists use politics, too (although here the critic is not such an important middleman—the buyers are duped, by way of their own shallowness, directly). For example, the sentimentality associated with the cowboy and the Indian drives a large percentage of the market for realism in the American west. Busloads of illustrators from New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles arrive yearly in Santa Fe, Phoenix, Denver, and Jackson Hole ready to make a career out of glamorizing one of the low points of Western Civilization. This is a sort of reactionary, history-faking politics that would make George Orwell proud. If I had the slightest reason to believe that contemporary painters of Native Americans had any real emotional connection to their subjects, I might be able to look at their works without feeling like the accomplice in an ongoing crime. But the bathos is matched only by the sheer nerve of the entire genre. Can anyone imagine an art market in Germany of paintings and sculptures of terribly pure and noble Jews, looking proud and superior in all their Yiddish finery, created by, sold by, and bought by Nazi sympathizers? I believe this is a fair analogy, and it is strictly wishful thinking to insist that we are learning anything from our past in this glorification of those we have conquered. The way we go about hanging befeathered chiefs on our walls has more in common with the way we display stuffed animals or Moose heads; and we would be more honest and consistent to stuff the Native American, too. Then, at least, we would not be talking out of both sides of our mouth, or with forked tongue....

[Southwest artists] fail to realize how hypocritical and mercenary it must appear for a white man to get rich sentimentalizing a people that his fathers and grandfathers have all but wiped out (and that his fellow statesmen continue to harass, here and now). Do the Kenneth Rileys and Howard Terpnings of the world donate some of that mountain of cash to the Free Leonard Peltier fund, or to the legal fights over logging and mining in Oregon and Arizona and South Dakota? Are they members of Earth First!? Do they write letters to their congressmen begging for fair treatment for their subjects from the Bureau of Indian affairs? Did they fight to ban nuclear testing? Are they vocal opponents of the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service? I don't think so. It is politically correct to weep crocodile tears over our "inglorious past" and to sing panegyrics to the noble savage at the same time that we refuse to learn anything from him. Realist paintings like those that glut our Western galleries soothe our guilt at the same time that they play to our vanity. It is all just a matter of supply and demand, and the reality of the Indian's situation, or ours, is beside the point.

On Cezanne:

[Clive] Bell does not realize how much Cezanne relies on the whole visual system created by Renaissance painters. Even with Cezanne's abstraction there is more left than lost. Most importantly, Cezanne is still painting objects. Somehow, Cezanne's fruit remains terribly seductive for us. As long as we recognize the object, the fruit, it will seduce us as both fruit and form, just as it does in real life. Cezanne accentuates the form, brings it forward, without obliterating the fruit, and makes us taste the fruit, as it were, without first recognizing everything about it. We are attracted to the fruit through its form rather than through the totality of all its characteristics. In simplifying in this way, he reminds us of something we already know, but forget in the rush to eat, to consume the world: the world is beautiful, and we consume it, we are attracted to its consumption, because it is beautiful. Cezanne's abstraction distances us from the fruit enough to see beyond our hunger to the cause of our hunger. A real pear becomes, in the routine of life, inseparable from our desire for it. Our sight of it and our hunger for it are simultaneous. A painted pear, an abstracted pear, breaks down the immediacy of this recognition, and our hunger is held off for a moment as we admire the pear as form, as beauty. We are not only attracted to it, for a moment we understand why we are attracted to it, and this understanding gives us pleasure.

Are we attracted to the fruit or to the form? If to the fruit, Bell would call us philistines. For as fruit, it is still terribly impure. I would call us humans. The fruit and the form are inseparable. If Cezanne's pears did not appeal to our hunger, their form would not appeal to our sense of beauty. To deny this connection is to deny the physical with a Victorian squeamishness that Bell, I am sure, believed he was above and beyond. For him, fruit, as fruit, is an impurity, just as sex, as sex, is an impurity. But trying to appreciate a Cezanne pear only as form is like trying to have sex in the dark, only for procreation. Cezanne's abstraction is successful because it manages to accentuate the fruit, the object, not obliterate it. It clarifies without destroying. Amplification through simplification. In this way Cezanne's accomplishment is not so novel: this was the theory of Velasquez, Hals, Sargent, and Rodin, among many, many others. Why is Cezanne the father of abstraction instead of, say, Velasquez? There were no critics in the court of Philip.

I am not criticizing Cezanne; I am criticizing the critics who have wanted to elevate Cezanne, and the continuing abstraction of and subtraction from painting, at the expense of the Old Masters. I can find no good reason, either in the explanations of the critics or in the paintings of the Moderns, for preferring abstracted form (or color, or line) when I can have form and color and line and subject matter and idea and composition all in the same painting. I can't convince myself that artistic poverty is preferable to artistic wealth based simply on its "purity."

I believe the explanation for the critics' preference for abstraction lies simply in their lack of ability to comprehend an artistic whole on the level of the Old Masters. They require the simplifications of abstraction, because they really cannot see the "significant form" in a painting until that is all there is left in it, and it has been circled and highlighted and put in letters ten feet tall. They are the type, no doubt, that is confused by subplots in novels and counterpoint in music. In their pathetic attacks on Classicism and their deification of the partialities and simplifications of Modernism, I can't help but see the reaction of those overwhelmed by an experience and a talent altogether too large for them. When Bell or Greenberg complains about Classical art's "lack of purity," I can't help but hear them saying in their hearts of hearts, "Stop oppressing us with your multiplicity of talents. We can only envy such prodigality. Give us someone we can relate to. Give us the limitations of a struggler like Cezanne. Or, even better, the incapacities of a complete phony like Barnett Newman. Who could be oppressed by that?"


But since the second part of our work might seem dry in content
and perhaps too violent and passionate in execution,
we may be permitted a cheerful parable to prepare for this more
serious material and to excuse to some extent this vivid treatment.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Michelangelo and Raphael were standing in the Sistine Chapel, discussing the merits of the just completed ceiling, when a self-assured young man strolled up, arms dismissively akimbo, gazing malignantly skyward.
"Pish-tash, gentlemen. Illustration and religious humbuggery. Does nothing for me. Nothing at all, and a crick in the neck to boot," he said, dragging languidly on his Turkish cigarette and squinting at the artists with a knowing air.

Michelangelo looked sideways at Raphael, and then said to the young man, "Yes, well, perhaps you are right. Let us see what you have done."

"Done? Gentlemen, you misunderstand me. I am a critic!"

Michelangelo and Raphael laughed and laughed.

On Clement Greenberg:

Why even bring up Greenberg, one may ask? Wasn't Pop Art and all that came after a successful coup de grace to Greenberg and his theories? To Greenberg, yes. To his theories, no. Art theory since Greenberg, as Greenberg has rightly maintained, has been nothing but an embarrassment to everyone but the truly credulous. Greenberg's theories on aesthetics were false, deluded, and self-important; but at least he took the subject seriously, compared to his successors. . . . He could not see that art's dwindling importance was due, in large part, to the influence of previous criticism, and that criticism could not possibly save it.

Greenberg paved the way, unintentionally, for the possibility of Pop Art and the other nihilistic eruptions since, and maybe this should be punishment enough. But I will not leave him be. His undercurrents of historicism and dialectical materialism have been refuted by the movement of art history since 1960, but much of his theory still stands untouched, and remains as a strong influence even today. Art was not moving in the direction he thought it was, even as he was trying to determine that direction, but his theories have helped determine, in a sense, what was critically viable in the last half-century. His success called the present demons out of the closet.

The best way to counter-critique Greenberg, I think, is to go straight to his articles, to begin the counterassault point for point, answering him on specifics, and building a general refutation on these answers. A propitious place to start is with his famous article, Avant Garde and Kitsch.1 . . .In Avant-Garde and Kitsch, Greenberg asserts that what has allowed the avant garde to go beyond the sameness of "Alexandrianism" (academicism, or kitsch) has been a "superior consciousness of history," that is, an advanced "historical criticism." This conveniently places Greenberg at the top of the pyramid. The artist becomes subordinate to, and is in the service of, the historical critic. He goes on to say, "...the most important function of the avant-garde was not to experiment, but to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence." To do this, the artist "retires from public life altogether, seeking to maintain the high level of his art by both narrowing and raising it to the level of an absolute in which all relativities and contradictions would 'disappear.' Subject matter or content becomes something to avoid like the plague."

There are two great jumps in logic here in as many sentences: how does creating "absolutes" help "keep culture moving" (much of Modern criticism has claimed just the opposite); and how does "avoiding subject matter and content" a) raise art to an "absolute" and b) "keep culture moving"?

Greenberg does not expound or explain his thesis, he simply rushes ahead: "If. . .all art and literature are imitation, what we have here [with Modern art] is the imitating of imitating". Greenberg not only gives us another definition of Modern art, failing to tie it to previous definitions, he also continues to jump: how does the "imitating of imitating" a) express an "absolute", b) "avoid subject matter or content", and c) keep culture moving"? The whole article is like this. After the first couple of paragraphs, you're so lost in a maze of disconnected assertions and unsupported (and insupportable) claims, you either give it all up as pedantry or, apparently, swallow the whole thesis down with a big glass of Gatorade because it gives you what you were thirsty for.

If you are not yet convinced, let's go on for a minute. In the very next paragraph he starts off, "That avant-garde culture is the imitation of imitating calls for neither approval nor disapproval." Oh, really. That's not very critical of him, is it? It hardly seems like a superior form of historical criticism. He continues, "In a sense this imitation of imitating is a superior form of Alexandrianism." In what sense precisely? In that it takes imitation and removes it one more step? This seems not superior, though, but inferior. Why is "imitation" inferior, but double-imitation superior? Because, he says, "There is one important difference: the avant-garde moves, while Alexandrianism stands still." This brings to mind three questions: 1) this idea of "movement" clashes with the previous idea of distilling into "absolutes". I would think that absolutes are fairly stable. 2) given that Modernism moves, and that "Alexandrianism" does not, why is movement categorically better than stillness? Certainly the opposite has been argued well many times throughout history (by Lao-Tse, Buddha, Plato, Christ). Is any movement better than stillness? Should we prefer even reversion or flailing to a well-centered stasis? 3) in what sense does "imitating imitating" move where imitation does not?

Greenberg's writing could be used in a freshman writing seminar as an example of non-linear argument. Loose strings piled on top of loose strings. And the ends don't even justify the means. For the end is historically where we are now.


In his "Review of The Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci," Greenberg displays very little nostalgia for the
Dominus Dominorum. He accuses Leonardo "of an unconscious hostility to accomplishment in general, not only toward art." Greenberg gives us no evidence to support this incredible statement, unless one considers other incredible statements like this evidence: "his lack of perseverance, and his very neglect of the rudimentary physical aspects of his metier...." Once one forces oneself past the towering irony here, one guesses that Leonardo's failure to complete a number of major works is supposed to justify such a critique. Even admitting these unfinished works, though, Leonardo is generally considered one of the most accomplished people in history, both for his talents and his achievements.

The flat dismissal of Leonardo's multiple genius by Greenberg as a "reluctance to commit himself" and as a sign of "inconstant interests" is nothing less than astounding. One wonders, almost fifty years later, how Greenberg managed to be taken seriously. He is all "high-sounding empty things." For we must remind ourselves exactly what is happening here. Leonardo, perhaps the greatest, the most prolific and varied, genius of all time, the embodiment of the Renaissance man (in fact, the source for the very idea of a Renaissance man) is being called lazy and nihilistic (having an "hostility to accomplishment") by a man whose only accomplishment is criticism--praising or damning another's accomplishment. The thought of Greenberg sitting in his little Modern cubicle, legs crossed (knee to knee, of course), affectedly smoking his damn cigarettes, looking up every once in a while with a terribly clever, terribly satisfied look in his big droopy eyes, musing on Leonardo's or Michelangelo's shortcomings, is enough to give me a heart murmur. It makes me wish we still had someone like Cellini around: he would have known how to deal with such insolence.2

2or Nietzsche, who says, in the Geneology of Morals, third essay, section 26, "Nature, which gave the bull his horns and the lion his chasm odonton {his mouthful of teeth}, why did nature give me my foot?... To kick, Holy Anacreon! and not only for running away; for kicking to pieces these rotten armchairs, this cowardly contemplativeness, this lascivious historical eunuchism, this flirting with aesthetic ideals, this justice-tartuffery of impotence!"

In the same article, Greenberg, unsatisfied with this puerile assault on Leonardo, also aims his pea shooter at Michelangelo: "Michelangelo's Sistine frescoes constitute one of those rapes of the medium that result in something splendid and extraordinary but that leave us admiring the scale and force of the artist's nerve more than his art." As Michelangelo's defender, I will respond that Greenberg's critiques constitute one of those rapes of the medium in which something splendid and extraordinary is destroyed, leaving us admiring only the scale and force of the critic's nerve. For he follows up with, "And since these works [of Leonardo and Michelangelo] have such a deleterious effect upon artists who come afterward, they amount almost to acts of hostility toward art." Greenberg's theory of criticism seems here to be "il faut s'abetir".1 What we are to understand here is that the two greatest geniuses in history have been bad for art, and that a Modern critic is its savior. One gets the feeling, although it is never spelled out, that the "deleterious effect" just mentioned is nothing more or less than the "little brother" complex. The Renaissance masters planted a flag so far up the mountain, actually achieved so much, that their successors, especially at a distance, despaired of climbing at all. I can't figure out any other way to make sense of Greenberg's complaint. Michelangelo's "hostility toward art" is simply his forgetting to leave us something to do, or forgetting to leave us something we can do easily. In this sense, achievement itself is inimical to the sort of "progress" the Moderns demand.

1It is necessary to appear foolish. [Fre.] Pascal, Pensees.

In "'American-Type' Painting" Greenberg says, "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 imbedded 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. This process has come to a stop in literature because literature has fewer conventions to expend before it begins to deny its own essence...." On first reading this I was torn between two strong emotions, the second much more violent than the first. At first I felt the pure joy of a researcher who discovers his thesis, or the proof of his thesis, in the mouth of his archenemy. But then it began to dawn on me: the enormity, the absolute blundering conceit, the blind (if not outright malicious) presumption of such a statement from an art critic.... Greenberg is cautious in his own field (he is, after all, a litterateur), careful not to attack conventions in literature heedlessly lest its "essence" be lost. But in considering painting, all restraint is gone. So much more here appears "expendable"—another man's inspiration, like his money, is so much easier to "expend." Why walk gingerly in someone else's garden?—his tomatoes are not my tomatoes. Purify, distill, vivisect everyone else's means to expression, all in the name of Science, of progress; but leave one's own alone, of course.... This is why the critic cannot, must not, be allowed to control, or even inform, the artist's agenda. Not being an artist, the critic cannot know what is expendable and what is not. Intuitively unaware of painting's "essence" he cannot know when it is in danger of being encroached upon.

Nietzsche called religion's goal "the minimum metabolism at which life will still exist without really entering consciousness." Greenberg's goal in art is analogous: the minimum metabolism at which art can exist (by definition) without really entering the consciousness of the artist or viewer. An art stripped of everything but its "essence": meaning art as a terminal patient, with only the faintest pulse. Such an art is "alive," assuredly, compared to a corpse, compared to no art. But is this all there is to a definition of a thing~its minimum definition? What of its maximum definition? Or even its viable definition? Modern art is art in the same way that the tiniest peak or trough on an electrocardiogram is life. But is this blip what we want as a viable definition of life, as a definition of what life can be or should be at its fullest? Would it even be correct to call this blip the "essence" of life? I don't think so. Greenberg is confused not only about the essence of art, he is confused about what the essence of any given thing might be. It is not the stripped down bare bones of a thing. It is not the least common denominator. It is not what is left after all "conventions" have been "expended." If anything it is the process of spending these conventions: not transcending them or excising them, but transforming the necessary conventions through the process of creativity into an original expression. Art is not the negation of all conventions. It is the proper use of the proper conventions, just like anything else is. Whittling away all but "flatness" from painting is like whittling literature down to the alphabet, and asserting that is literature's essence. It is like disallowing writers from forming words, or sentences, or ideas because these conventions betray a kitschy love for "content and subject matter".

On Robert Hughes:

You may be thinking, after my comments on Greenberg, that it may be difficult to crescendo into the end of this chapter. Thankfully, I don't have to. Hughes is no theorist. Nor does he fancy himself a messiah—it is not up to him to "keep culture moving." He is at his best not when making extravagant claims for an artist—which he rarely does (and which he would be no more likely to do, I think, were there anyone worthy of extravagant claims). He is at his best exploding the fraudulent claims tendered by the artists themselves. And in the shallow waters of Modern art, it is somehow reassuring to know that there is a hungry shark gliding just below the reflective surface, keeping the waders cautious of agitating the waves too much in the rush to call attention to themselves, cautious of cutting themselves with some foolish comments and bleeding into the current.

Of course, in my opinion, one doesn't have to be an artist to critique Modern art. Hughes is exempt, most of the time, from my standards of responsible criticism because he is not judging art (or spouting art theory) but exposing its pretense. He really could do what Julian Schnabel does, if he fell down in a drunken stupor, hit his head and decided he wanted to.

And so I quote Hughes many times in this book as support for my thesis. In many ways his ascendence (and he has become quite influential) signals the death knell of Modernism. I give him a great deal of credit for the fact that Modern art has bottomed out so soon. I do not believe in historical necessity, and I do believe in the great power of the individual: if Hughes had been of the Greenbergian mold, he might have propelled Modernism to a new level of falseness and insolence on his personal powers of persuasion alone. Instead Hughes has been arguing so loudly (and so well) that the stagnation of art is upon us, that he has made many notice this fact at last (without, however, realizing how overdue such notice is.) He has seen the writing on the wall, has all but screamed that "art is dead"... but he can't seem to feel good about it. There is nothing, in his mind, to fill the gap. Fortunately there is a gap that needs filling for him, and that, if nothing else, sets him apart in this age of nonchalance.

At times, though, his cynicism surrounds and dismisses not only the dying gasps of Modernism, but the viability of visual art itself. We find him, for example, damning art because "What really changes political opinion is events, argument, press photographs, and TV. " Here we find him not so much in over his head as just wrong, lost in the brambles because he doesn't have a clear idea about what art is for. Or, to be exact, he has it but has forgotten it in the modern hodgepodge of failed definitions. For in the same lecture, after stumbling around a while, arguing that art is not "morally ennobling" or even therapeutic because it does not have an effect on everyone who comes in contact with it (which is like saying that because some boats sink, water is not bouyant), he finally hits stride, finishing with this observance:

Likewise, museum people serve not only the public but the a scrupulous adherence to high artistic and intellectual standards. This discipline is not quantifiable, but it is or should be disinterested, and there are two sure ways to wreck it. One is to let the art market dictate its values to the museum. The other is to convert it into an arena for battles that have to be fought~but fought in the sphere of politics. Only if it resists both can the museum continue with its task of helping us discover a great but always partially lost civilization: our own.

And so he answers his own question about changing political opinion: it is not the place of art to be so worldly. Art is not an argument, is not analytical, does not influence politics directly. It addresses people's emotions, and so influences everything indirectly. As Freud might have said, art speaks not to the Ego but to the Id. It is synthetic, not analytic. Passion is primary; and political opinion is only a toy boat that floats on the surface of a deep sea. Hughes knows this, for in the previous paragraph he gives a striking account of his reaction, as a woodworker himself, to seeing the great Japanese temple of Horyu-ji: "...resentment? Absolutely not. Reverence and pleasure, more like." Did he take away points because the temple had no message, made no statement, had no clear political, intellectual or linguistic undertones? I doubt it. But such reverence builds or destroys ones belief in ones own culture, a belief that daily politics can only mirror.

Although his is apt to forget it, Hughes knows what art is for. In a review of Chardin, he says, "To see Chardin's work en masse, in the midst of a period stuffed with every kind of jerky innovation, narcissistic blurting and trashy 'relevance,' is to be reminded that lucidity, deliberation, probity and calm are still the chief virtues of the art of painting." Of course they are, and only when Hughes is judging contemporary art does he forget this. For any contemporary art, almost any 20th century art, fails miserably when held to these standards.

In the second lecture in The Culture of Complaint, "Multi-Culti and Its Discontents" Hughes again proves he knows what art is for. He quotes a fellow Aussie, Andrew Riemer, who sees that

The literature of England [Tennyson, Keats, Shelley] conducted us into the world of the romantic imagination which served one of the essential needs of adolescence. It also catered generously for others: a heroic or noble past in which we could participate, and ethical structures to provide models for fantasies, if not for actual life.

Hughes does not take exception to this view. The only thing to be added to such a concise statement is that surely the needs of the imagination do not die with adolescence. We will always need, both as individuals and as a society, a source for such spiritual replenishment.

It seems to me that Hughes is genuinely frightened about the future of art, as well he should be. And so he feels compassion for the poor wretch, Modernism: he cannot kick a man when he is down. He is no doubt afraid that too much aggression toward the roots of Modernism could throw us into an artistic dark age. It is therefore one thing to butcher David Salle and Andy Warhol, and another thing entirely to demythologize the likes of Picasso or Cezanne or Kandinsky.

But he forgets that Modernism has never been the ground beneath anyone's feet. The 20th century has been proud of its day-to-day existence. It has needed no tradition. How could it create one? He should know that all the momentary blips of Modernism are already as good as gone. No one misses them now. How could their further fading or complete disappearance be a tragedy?

The real foundations of art are unassailable by Hughes or anyone else. Time and wars will continue to eat up some of them, but as the Dadaists recognized truly, there are a lot of great works left. It has taken all the energy of Modernism to suppress the instruction of the Greeks, of the Renaissance, of the Far East, of the 17th c. Dutch and Spanish painters, and of the 19th century Barbizons, Naturalists, and Romantics. But the possibilities remain. The examples of Phidias and Praxiteles, Michelangelo and Bernini, Rembrandt and Rubens, Velasquez and El Greco, Corot and Courbet, Carpeaux and Rodin still exist. I am not afraid of an artistic dark age. I have already lived through one.

On Walter Annenberg:

When Hughes loses sight of what art is for, he not only tends to be too easy on the Modern artists who are not out and out worthless, he also tends to take it too easy on "art professionals" and other hangers-on who are. In a story about the first traveling show of the Barnes Collection, Hughes mentions that upon the death of Albert Barnes' widow, control of the collection passed to Lincoln University (a small black institution in PA). The board of trustees at Lincoln nominate the trustees of the Barnes Foundation. Hughes comments, "Never had a collection of such quality been controlled by such a quintet of aesthetic ignoramuses. To help in its deliberations the board appointed an advisory committee. Its honorary chairman was the publishing mogul and collector Walter Annenberg. It included several museum professionals and one art dealer, Richard Feigen."

I notice that the committee includes not one artist. These "art experts" who are to correct the shortcomings of such small-town "aesthetic ignoramuses" consist of one very rich man, one dealer, and an undisclosed number of museum professionals. Setting up such a group
of non-artists as an improvement over the ignoramuses at Lincoln is surely to beg the question, what makes these experts so knowledgeable about art? It's as if the judges at the Van Cliburn piano competition were to consist of the richest contributor to Carnegie Hall, recording professionals from Angel, EMI, and Deutschegramophone, and a Steinway salesman.

In my mind, the opposite of "aesthetic ignoramuses" is not "museum professionals." In fact, there is a preponderance of evidence (if you doubt my word, go to a museum) suggesting that the two are synonymous. Annenberg's and Feigen's claims to expertise I am not even going to consider, they are so obviously based on financial considerations.

Hughes might argue that this committee was an improvement, because what was needed was people who knew what to do with a collection of this magnitude. This is probably true, but it attests to their abilities as art administrators, as businesspeople, not as art experts. It requires no artistic expertise to administrate a collection that has already been collected. This is why the only museums worth seeing in this country house collections whose long-term worth has already been proven. For instance, if the Metropolitan or the National Gallery had a shot at acquiring an important Rembrandt or Velasquez or Sargent, administrators' tastes in art would to have very little to do with the acquisition. In Modern collections, where the current tastes of the directors do decide the content, we can see clearly the aesthetic expertise on hand. It is not encouraging.

Annenberg and his group were not, or should not have been, in the position to verify or deny the quality of the collection as a whole, or of any piece in it. They were in a position to ensure that, as history had already made such a decision as to the art-historical status of many of the works, the collection be seen by an interested public. Their qualifications to do this are not mine to judge, but as the collection has been opened up, is travelling, my guess is that they have been successful (if you consider ignoring a man's will a success). But Annenberg's attitude, and his backing by Hughes, is insupportable. Annenberg, angry at lawsuits by Foundation students to keep the collection as Barnes wanted it, in Merion, PA, says, "they are just a bunch of complainers who act as if they're important figures in the art world. They're nothing." Perhaps they are not, but Mr. Annenberg needs reminding, apparently, that neither is he. In the long run, it has proved impossible to buy yourself greatness in the art world, or in any world but that of money, where fame is so fleeting. Not even Lorenzo de Medici, a man with more wealth, taste, ambition, and power than even Walter Annenberg can imagine, could buy himself an important place in the "art world," except as a passing footnote in the resume of Michelangelo. May we return to a time when the important figures in the art world are,
mirabile dictu, artists.

On Philip Pearlstein:

In his review of Philip Pearlstein, Hughes says, "Pearlstein's dispassionate drawing gives the whole mass of the body an analyzed presence, and in its perceptible vehemence of thought seems to be beyond mannerism. There was in fact something in common between the blunt discourse of Pearlstein's approach and the tough, detached polemic of much of American abstract art in the 60's. Both recognizably come from the same culture, where what you see is what you get."

This is fine as far as it goes (although I am not sure what the second half of that first sentence means--how can the drawing be both dispassionate and vehement?) He describes Pearlstein's work well and draws a nice analogy between it and abstract art. But he will not judge Pearlstein, whom he likes, as he judges artists he doesn't like. He doesn't lead the reader to a proper conclusion about what all this means about Pearlstein (although it seems pretty obvious) because he wants to keep Pearlstein around. Pearlstein's return to realism, to the nude, pleases Hughes, and so he refrains from making any negative comparisons of Pearlstein's nudes to historical nudes that perhaps please him more. But in giving Pearlstein preferential treatment, he is cementing Pearlstein's place at the top of the heap. In refusing to tell the whole truth, he gives a false impression of Pearlstein's abilities. And, most importantly, in glossing over the implications of Pearlstein's "philosophy," he is adding to the shelf-life of that philosophy.

For five pages later, no longer discussing Pearlstein, Hughes admits, "A cloud of uneasy knowingness has settled on American painting and sculpture. Its mark is a helpless skepticism about the very idea of deep engagement between art and life: a fear that to seek authentic feeling is to display naivete, to abandon one's jealously hoarded "criticality" as an artist."

But Hughes won't make the connection between this "cloud" and Pearlstein's cloud. It is the same. Pearlstein will not "deeply engage" himself in his art or his life, his nudes are purposefully cold and inhuman, he makes no effort to transcend his precious "criticality," but Hughes will let him get away with it. He lets him slide, just as he lets Kitaj or Hockney slide in claiming to draw well, just as he lets Lucian Freud slide with a much deeper emptiness.

On Jasper Johns:

Hughes will occasionally admit, if you read between the lines, that there really isn't much there to bite on even with the artists he likes, such as Johns or Hockney. He says for example, "Johns' liking for paradox seemed, to many people raised on the Abstract Expressionist ideal of authenticity, quite dandified and pointless—art complacently regarding its own cleverness, in an emotional void. What one tends to forget, a quarter of a century after the event, is how badly some corrective to the cliches and slop of Abstract Expressionism was needed...." High praise indeed. Apparently what he means is that if one expects very little from a work of art in the first place, and then is careful only to compare it to what immediately preceded it chronologically, some Modern work can come off looking almost palatable.

On Barnett Newman:

Newman's talent was for talking about art, not creating it. His paintings are perfectly suited to criticism because they are created by a critic: his primary interest was in defining art, and his paintings are simply an example of a definition. His work is abstract in the fullest sense. It is not just abstract in content. It is not an abstraction from nature, an abstraction of line or color. It is an abstraction from painting. It is not a painting but an example of a painting, given a certain definition. It is a painting of a definition. But this, of course, turns painting on its head. One would expect the painting to come first, and then the criticism. With Newman the criticism came first and then the painting. Analysis precedes synthesis. And this precedence is analogous to the precedence of critic before creator. Our critics have been unable to take a backseat to anyone. Playing second fiddle to the artists became intolerable a long time ago, and the critics have long since given up waiting for art to created before they criticized it. What was wanted was to define it first, and then find someone to paint a picture that fit this definition. It is the art of the hysteron proteron.

Describing Newman's methods, Robert Hughes admits, "On the evidence of his early drawings, he had no discernible talent as a draftsman...[but] he was tenacious and argumentative, and his reductive cast of mind served him well in the studio." Praise on this level hasn't been seen since Lewis Carroll and the Snark:

His form is ungainly—his intellect small—
(So the Bellman would often remark)—
But his courage is perfect! And that, after all,
Is the thing that one needs with a Snark.

On David Salle:

Modern critics "have placed his paintings among the works that most authoritatively express our time and are apt to become its permanent monuments." But what if no real artist would want to be "a permanent monument to our age." Perhaps the terms "artist" and "monument to late 20th century culture" are mutually exclusive. What we should want from an artist is not for him to be a monument to culture. We should want him to be an artist first, despite what society is, and to influence society as an artist, rather than to wet a finger and hold it to the wind searching for a zeitgeist. That is what we have politicians for.

On Balthus:

Balthus, now being touted as the "World's Greatest Artist" (basicially a euphemism for "World's Oldest Artist") is little more than Puvis de Chavannes with a prurient overlay of Modern sexuality. His art is simply the most famous example—due much more to his milieu than to his influence—of updating pre-20th century art by imbuing it with the decadence of the 20th century. Somehow the Old Masters made lusting after young girls seem healthy and natural. Balthus, lolling over the underwear of a pubescent girl, gives us the impression of a bad dream, and seems relatively healthy only compared to the necrophiliac wishes of a Lucian Freud.

On the NEA:

It is not the "controversy" in the NEA that has disenchanted the public to the point that they don't give a damn what happens to the NEA. It is the nihilism and the decadence. The problem with Modern art, for the mainstream, is that it doesn't do anyone any good. Not only does it not fulfill the decorative and therapeutic needs of the middle class, it doesn't even propose to offer the middle class, or any class, something better, something more important, deeper, than decoration or therapy. The problem for most Americans is that Modern art has no positive ambition. "Flatness" is not a serious ambition, nor is Minimalism of any other kind. And greed as a pure American ambition is something they can get at home or at the office. They don't need to go to the museum to be confronted by tawdry self-promotion or meretricious posing. Nor is a modern citizen impressed by the "statements" of Modern art: social mirroring is no more impressive to the late 20th century viewer than "art as the mirror of nature" was to the early 20th century critic. We get social mirroring from all sides: the newspaper, TV, magazines, movies, books. If we want to know how bad things are, how "man is a wolf to man," we need not look far. What we have screamed at us from sunup to sundown, do we need that also from "high art"? And if it is just more of the same, what is "high" about it?

The underlying problem that makes any action unthinkable is that instituting a system with high standards, standing for something on principle, demanding art from healthy individuals who can enrich our lives, is to create a vacuum, and everybody knows it. We are at a point in history where such demands cannot be met, and those at the NEA, and those critics like Robert Hughes, cannot bear the possibility of a null set, an empty classroom, an endowment with no one to endow, a new museum that must stand empty. And so we accept the least nauseating work we can find and convince ourselves that we kind of like it. It has become, in this way, much like voting for President. Our acceptance of Modern art, provisionally, mirrors the way we have accepted everything else in our lives, as if we could no longer do any better. But I say let the museums stand empty! Let the NEA draft the highest possible standards, and if no one qualifies for a year, for five years, so be it. We will know where we stand. That would be real courage. Not the existential courage to despair over a void where there is none, but the courage to see a void where it exists and to fill it.

As things now stand, only the loudmouths who are submitting "controversial works" happen to have the type of personalities that would put the NEA over a barrel by crying "censorship" when they are rejected. The NEA has no backbone, has no stated purpose or set of standards (because any set of standards would be shouted down as elitist or discriminatory), and so has no choice but to capitulate to those who press it the hardest. It finds itself in the same position as the Congress who funds it: having no notion of right or wrong, of truth, or of a national policy based on something, anything, it is open to the highest bidder or to the lobby group that can scream the loudest or cry the most tears.

If the idea of centralized support for the arts based on a policy of excellence scares you as being a step toward authoritarianism, then the NEA should be abolished tomorrow. The NEA cannot fund all artists, and therefore must discriminate based on something. This is simple logic. It is now discriminating based on some secret postmodern quasi-political agenda propagandized under the euphemism "excellence." But this is no better than Newspeak, a code word for some covert governmental operation. We should no more accept such closed-door flimflam from the NEA than we do from the NSC.

The NEA will not stand up and say "Yes, we are Modernists here. These are our standards. We believe in them, we believe that in the long run they are good for our artists and for our countrymen, and we are prepared to fight for them." They cannot say this because this would be catch 22: if they were to stand up for something like this they would no longer be relativists—believers are absolutists—and absolutists cannot be Modernists. So they must slink around, denying everything, destroying values under the cover of night. And when pressed by the media they fall back on professed standards of, as Jane Alexander says, "artistic merit and excellence." [Interview magazine, July 1994] But the chosen work belies this assertion, and no one believes it but the mothers of the chosen. Ms. Alexander is just telling the people what they want to hear, and relying cynically on the people's credulity.

Ms. Alexander is asked by a reporter how the NEA's judges decide on the merit of a work of questionable content, and she answers that they ignore content unless it is so egregiously undemocratic that it cannot be ignored. She gives as an example propaganda posters in Nazi Germany that were "artistically" praiseworthy, and seems disappointed that the politicized debate surrounding her NEA is so prejudiced as to disallow funding of Nazi propaganda. By "artistically" praiseworthy, I suppose she means something like technically competent—the Nazi posters exhibited good draftsmanship or fine use of color. So we are treated to the absurd spectacle of the spokeswoman for one of the bastions of Modernism not only promoting the aesthetics of Nazism, but also recommending judging art strictly on its technical virtuosity. Be careful NEA, or soon you may be encouraging a new Bernini!—and then the outcry!

From "Choosing a Subject":

On finding a model:

Many artists have been driven back into the house and under the bed upon this discovery: that not only the galleries and buyers, the critics and academics, the museums and the NEA have forgotten what art is about; Mom and Dad and the girl next door have forgotten, too (or, actually, never knew). Mom and Dad, if they can find the time, may pose for you just to be nice (or because they still want to believe, beyond all hope, that despite the fact that you paint nudes you may be able to avoid becoming a sexual deviant or child molester; and because you are painting them you are not painting those deplorable nudes—which are hopefully just a phase). But the girl next door is not family, is not so biassed in your favor. It would probably take less pleading and convincing to actually get her into bed than to accept, or care, that you have real artistic talents and goals.

On the nude:

The problem is (and you have probably already discovered this) that you cannot invest a drawing or painting with emotion just by wanting to. The more your intentions become conscious, the less likely they are to be realized. A work of art will be emotional not to the extent the artist desires it to be; it will be emotional to the extent, or depth, that he or she actually feels it. Passion cannot be faked or premeditated. This is why your life outside of art is so important, and why I put so much emphasis on addressing you as a whole person. Because only a whole person can create art. There will be no love in your art if there is no love in your life, there will be no depth in your art if there is no depth to your emotions, and there will be no depth to your emotions unless you allow them to react with the world, positively or negatively (and preferably both).

If you allow yourself this worldliness, you will discover very quickly that society's attitudes about the nude, and the nude in art, are anything but encouraging. There are a few connoisseurs who appreciate the nude, but by and large you will be swimming upstream. And the more emotion you share, the more difficult it becomes. Any content in a painting, any intention beyond decoration, will be received defensively by the great majority of gallery goers. And this is never more true than with respect to the nude. Some critics have complained that art does not effect the viewer as strongly and deeply as other modern media. The truth is that modern viewers do not want to be effected strongly and deeply by the sort of emotions that art is best at evoking. Somehow it is easier to disavow the reality of a faked death on the movie screen or an anonymous death on TV, or to rationalize the shallow and meaningless sex on both screens, or to distance oneself from global politics and mass destruction, than it is to to make an intimate connection to the mind of another individual. In the last case it too difficult to suppress an honest response; and if that response is not one that fits in well with a viewer's "lifestyle" or current assumptions, it can lead to confusing and painful introspection—a response most people would prefer to avoid.

Our most deep-seated nihilism in this country, in this world, comes from, of all places, our religions. The most devout Christians in this country are the most offended by nudity. The fundamentalists, like many others, mistrust themselves in the presence of nudity. They are no longer able, and know they are no longer able, to make the right choice: to choose to see beauty instead of immodesty, to see love and trust and intimacy instead of lust and violence and selfishness. And so they renounce the choice. The gifts of God are too tempting, and one must shield oneself from their glories. But where there can be no sin there can be no virtue. Where there is no possibility of doing the wrong thing, there is no possibility of doing the right thing. And so most of us prefer to do nothing. We have bad sex, our love is tepid and unfulfilling, and we look guilty in the presence of the beauty of our own children. Our lives are a disgrace to any healthy religion or god.

This all goes to say that the contemporary artist, as far as he or she is interested in a healthy life and a healthy art, is in the position of a blade runner. The artist (and especially the painter or sculptor of nudes) must run, and run well, a narrow path between artistic and sexual resignation (which resignation leads to creative celibacy) and outright hedonism and perversion, all encouragement being to fall off on either side. To discover the true nature of the instincts one must first make an experiment of oneself. An artist must allow himself the freedom to approach nudity and sexuality (if such is his or her interest) with an unjaundiced eye; to see it, as far as possible, like Adam saw Eve, or Eve saw Adam; to begin to imagine what it would be like to prefer Eden to the Fall. I t is to take a risk, to array the actual choices of life before you as they are naturally presented, and to choose based on your own store of wisdom and strength. It is to align yourself against the whole world, if the truth demands it: to discover your paradise and go there, alone if need be.

If you have a healthy attitude about the nude, if you have a healthy attitude about anything, you will have immediately pared your audience down to almost nothing. This is hard to admit. But once you have made this sobering discovery, you are free to go from there. Dazzlingly free. Meaning that almost nobody will give a damn what you do one way or the other.

This admission, as hopeless as it might seem at first, actually puts you in in the firmest of creative positions. After all, the best place to begin creating is in the void. Here, at least, you don't have to worry about bumping into or tripping over anyone's expectations. Perhaps if you had not been forced by circumstance into this empty room, you would have spent a lifetime searching for its solitude.