In 1878, Henry James reported in these pages the outcome of Whistler v. Ruskin, the buzz of the London art scene that year. Whistler, Ruskin had written, was "a coxcomb," demanding "200 guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." The painter sued for libel, and was awarded nominal damages consisting of one farthing. The trial was a Gilbert & Sullivan farce brought to life, since the language of litigation in its nature is comically unsuited to aesthetic determination. Ruskin's critical and Whistler's artistic reputation were left largely unaltered by the verdict, but there is little question that it was an immense personal defeat for Ruskin. The vehemence of his critical prose registered the urgency he attributed to aesthetic matters–so to call his language into question was to call into question his vision of the world. Whistler probably was a coxcomb, whatever that Edwardian epithet means. But Ruskin was a figure of tragic stature, and the episode helped precipitate his final emotional breakdown.
The unhappy confrontation between Whistler and Ruskin is the subject of a brooding introspective aria in the second act of Modern Painters, the 1995 opera by David Lang and Manuela Hoelterhoff, based on Ruskin's life. It was an inspiration to see in Ruskin a subject suitable for operatic representation, and it recently occurred to me of how few art critics this might be true. Ruskin's tragedy was internally connected with his stature as a prophet of aesthetic redemption. If good art is as integral as he believed to a good society, art criticism is an instrument of social change. Ruskin could hardly have agreed with James that it was at most an agreeable luxury–like printed talk. And Ruskin's assessment of it has continued to inflect the art criticism of writers who might not fully subscribe to his particular social vision. How are we to explain the often punitive edge of critical invective if critics supposed themselves engaged in mere agreeable discourse–like reviewing restaurants, say, or fashion shows? The lives of art critics may not be the stuff of grand opera–but face-offs between critics and artists have at times risen to operatic heights because the art under contest was viewed by both as possessed of the greatest moral weight.
I am thinking about opera just now because the art I want to discuss here–Philip Guston's seventy-five caricatures of Richard Nixon, loosely organized to tell a story–has its subject and something of its tone in common with the 1987 opera Nixon in China, by John Adams and Alice Goodman. If someone were inspired to compose an opera Guston in Woodstock–the upstate New York village to which Guston withdrew after a critical debacle in 1970–the climactic moment of it would be an agon between the artist and the Ruskinian critic Hilton Kramer. Kramer was by no means alone in deploring the turn Guston's art had taken in a wildly controversial exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery. But the language of his review in the New York Times, of which he was then chief art critic, was worthy of Ruskin in acid indignation, and a librettist would have no difficulty in composing a fierce duet between the opposed protagonists. The contest, however, was far deeper than that which pitted Ruskin against Whistler. It was deeper not just because Guston was deeper as an artist and a man than Whistler ever aspired to be, but because nothing less than the future of art history was at stake. Kramer understood that the kind of art Guston was now making–to which the Nixon drawings belong–was radically inconsistent with the art to which he as a critic was dedicated in every fiber of his being. The contest was, in my view, a surface reflection of a deep turn in art history. Kramer saw in Guston the betrayer of a shared faith. What he could not acknowledge was that Guston was helping consolidate a new artistic order.
The review's headline, quoted now whenever Guston is written about, was "A Mandarin Pretending to be a Stumblebum." Not only are the words demeaning, but together they condense Guston's career into an unedifying tale of artistic opportunism. Guston had in fact been regarded as the most lyrical of the Abstract Expressionists, and in the spirit of full disclosure I admit to having adored Guston's abstractions at the time. I adore them still: I cannot look at one of those dense, shimmering works without feeling the exaltation of pure beauty. In the way in which they crowd the center of their canvases, they put me in mind of how Morandi's boxes and bottles endeavor to occupy one another's spaces in the middle of his compositions. The late critic David Sylvester, who admired them, wrote in 1963 that Guston is "committed to luxury. His paint is exceedingly rich, even luscious–in its texture, in its implications of high virtuosity." Sylvester compared them with Monet's late paintings of waterlilies, and described the paintings as intensely withdrawn and private. The 1970 paintings, by total contrast, were huge pictures of Ku Klux Klan figures in patched hoods, executed in a kind of classical comic-strip style that was being reinvented at the time by Robert Crumb in Zap Comix. It owed something to Krazy Kat, something to Mutt and Jeff, something to Moon Mullins. I greatly admire Guston's raw Klanscapes, but it would be an aesthetic category mistake to speak of adoring them. They were not designed to gratify the eye but to injure the viewer's sensibility. Kramer had no better way of characterizing him than as pretending to a na vet Guston did not honestly possess. So he was a false lyricist now masquerading as an artistic lowlife–a mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum. Kramer probably did not write the headline, but I'll co-opt whoever did for my libretto. And I'll use Guston's own words from the time to give me my duet: "I got sick and tired of all that Purity! I wanted to tell stories."