It seems scarcely to have required a great philosophical mind to come up
with the observation that each of us is the child of our times, but that
thought must have been received as thrillingly novel when Hegel wrote it
in 1821. For it implied that human nature is not a timeless essence but
penetrated through and through by our historical situation.
Philosophers, he went on to say, grasp their times in thought, and he
might as a corollary have said that artists grasp their times in images.
For Hegel was the father of art history as the discipline through which
we become conscious of the way art expresses the uniqueness of the time
in which it is made. It is rare, however, that grasping his or her own
historical moment becomes an artist's subject. It was particularly rare
in American art of the second half of the twentieth century, for though
the art inevitably belonged to its historical moment, that was seldom
what it set out to represent. It strikes me, for example, that Andy
Warhol was exceptional in seeking to make the reality of his era
conscious of itself through his art.
German artists of the same period, by contrast, seem to have treated the
historical situation of art in Germany as their primary preoccupation.
How to be an artist in postwar Germany was part of the burden of being a
German artist in that time, and this had no analogy in artistic
self-consciousness anywhere else in the West. Especially those in the
first generation after Nazism had to find ways of reconnecting with
Modernism while still remaining German. And beyond that they had to deal
with the harsh and total political divisions of the cold war, which cut
their country in two like a mortal wound. Gerhard Richter was a product
of these various tensions. But like Warhol, whom he resembles in
profound ways, he evolved a kind of self-protective cool that enabled
him and his viewers to experience historical reality as if at a
distance. There is something unsettlingly mysterious about his art.
Looking at any significant portion of it is like experiencing late Roman
history through some Stoic sensibility. One often has to look outside
his images to realize the violence to which they refer.
Richter grew up in East Germany, where he completed the traditional
curriculum at the Dresden Academy of Art, executing a mural for a
hygiene museum in 1956 as a kind of senior thesis. Since the institution
was dedicated to health, it was perhaps politically innocuous that the
imagery Richter employed owed considerably more to the
joy-through-health style of representing the human figure at play, which
continued to exemplify Hitler's aesthetic well after Nazism's collapse,
than to the celebration of proletarian industriousness mandated by
Socialist Realism under Stalin. This implies that East German artistic
culture had not been Sovietized at this early date. The real style wars
were taking place in West Germany and surfaced especially in the epochal
first Documenta exhibition of 1955. Documenta, which usually takes place
every five years in Kassel, is a major site for experiencing
contemporary art on the international circuit today. But at its
inception, it carried an immense political significance for German art.
It explicitly marked the official acceptance by Germany of the kind of
art that had been stigmatized as degenerate by the Nazis and was thus a
bid by Germany for reacceptance into the culture it had set out to
destroy. The content of Documenta 1--Modernism of the twentieth century
before fascism--could not possibly carry the same meaning were it shown
today in the modern art galleries of a fortunate museum. But Modernism,
and particularly abstraction, had become a crux for West German artists
at the time of Documenta 1, as if figuration as such were politically
dangerous. It was not until Richter received permission to visit
Documenta 2 in 1959, where he first encountered the art of the New York
School--Abstract Expressionism--that some internal pressure began to build
in him to engage in the most advanced artistic dialogues of the time.
The fact that he fled East Germany in 1961 exemplifies the way an
artistic decision entailed a political choice in the German Democratic
It was always a momentous choice when an artist decided to go
abstract--or to return to the figure after having been an abstractionist,
the way the California painter Richard Diebenkorn was to do. But to
identify oneself with Art Informel--the European counterpart of the
loosely painted abstractions of the New York School--as many German
artists did, was to make a political declaration as well as to take an
artistic stand. Richter was to move back and forth between realism and
abstraction, but these were not and, at least in his early years in the
West, could not have been politically innocent decisions. Neither was
the choice to go on painting when painting as such, invariantly as to
any distinction between abstraction and realism, became a political
matter in the 1970s. If ignorant of the political background of such
choices, visitors to the magnificent Museum of Modern Art retrospective
of Richter's work since 1962--the year after his momentous move from East
to West--are certain to be baffled by the fact that he seems to vacillate
between realism and abstraction, or even between various styles of
abstraction, often at the same time. These vacillations seemed to me so
extreme when I first saw a retrospective of Richter's work in Chicago in
1987, that it looked like I was seeing some kind of group show. "How can
you say any style is better than another?" Warhol asked with his
characteristic faux innocence in a 1963 interview. "You ought to be able
to be an Abstract Expressionist next week, or a Pop artist, or a
realist, without feeling that you have given up something." For most
artists in America, it is important that they be stylistically
identifiable, as if their style is their brand. To change styles too
often inevitably would have been read as a lack of conviction. But what
the show at MoMA somehow makes clear is that there finally is a single
personal signature in Richter's work, whatever his subject, and whether
the work is abstract or representational. It comes, it seems to me, from
the protective cool to which I referred--a certain internal distance
between the artist and his work, as well as between the work and the
world, when the work itself is about reality. It is not irony. It is not
exactly detachment. It expresses the spirit of an artist who has found a
kind of above-the-battle tranquility that comes when one has decided
that one can paint anything one wants to in any way one likes without
feeling that something is given up. That cool is invariant to all the
paintings, whatever their content. As a viewer one has to realize that
abstraction is the content of one genre of his painting, while the
content of the other genres of his painting is...well...not abstraction.
They consist of pictures of the world. So in a sense the show has an
almost amazing consistency from beginning to end. It is as though what
Richter conveys is a content that belongs to the mood or tone, and that
comes through the way the quality of a great voice does, whatever its
Before talking about individual works, let me register another
peculiarity of Richter's work. He paints photographs. A lot of artists
use photography as an aid. A portraitist, for example, will take
Polaroids of her subject to use as references. The photographs are like
auxiliary memories. With Richter, by contrast, it is as if photographs
are his reality. He is not indifferent to what a photograph is of, but
the subject of the photograph will often not be something that he has
experienced independently. In 1964 Richter began to arrange photographs
on panels--snapshots, often banal, clippings from newspapers and
magazines, even some pornographic pictures. These panels became a work
in their own right, to which Richter gave the title Atlas.
Atlas has been exhibited at various intervals, most recently in
1995 at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York, at which venue there
were already 600 panels and something like 5,000 photographs. These
photographs are Richter's reality as an artist. When I think of
Atlas, I think of the human condition as described by Plato in
the famous passage in The Republic where Socrates says that the
world is a cave, on the wall of which shadows are cast. They are cast by
real objects to which we have no immediate access, and about which, save
for the interventions of philosophy, we would have no inkling. But there
is an obvious sense in which most of what we know about, we never
experience as such. Think of what the experience of the World Trade
Center attack was for most of us on September 11 and afterward. We were
held transfixed by the images of broken walls and burning towers, to use
Yeats's language, and fleeing, frightened people.
The first work in the exhibition is titled Table, done in 1962.
Richter considers it the first work in his catalogue raisonné,
which means that he assigns it a significance considerably beyond
whatever merits it may possess as a painting. It means in particular
that nothing he did before it is part of his acknowledged oeuvre.
Barnett Newman felt that way about a 1948 work he named Onement.
He considered it, to vary a sentimental commonplace, the first work of
the rest of his artistic life. Next to Table, one notices two
photographs of a modern extension table, clipped from an Italian
magazine, on which Richter puddled a brushful of gray glaze.
Table itself is an enlarged and simplified painting of the table
in the photographs, over which Richter has painted an energetic swirl of
gray paint. It is easy to see why it is so emblematic a work in his
artistic scheme. Whatever the merits of the depicted table may have been
as an object of furniture design, such tables were commonplace articles
of furniture in middle-class domestic interiors in the late fifties. In
1962 it was becoming an artistic option to do paintings of ordinary,
everyday objects. We are in the early days of the Pop movement. The
overlaid brushy smear, meanwhile, has exactly the gestural urgency of
Art Informel. So Table is at the intersection of two major art
movements of the sixties: It is representational and abstract at once.
Warhol in that period was painting comic-strip figures like Dick
Tracy--but was dripping wet paint over his images, not yet able to
relinquish the talismanic drip of Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, in
1960 he painted a Coca-Cola bottle with Abstract Expressionist
mannerisms--a work I consider Table's unknown artistic sibling.
Richter gave up Art Informel in 1962, just as Warhol dropped Abstract
Expressionist brushiness in favor of the uninflected sharpness and
clarity of his Pop images. By 1963 Richter had begun painting the
blurred but precise images that became his trademark. Richter's
marvelously exact Administrative Building of 1964 captures the
dispiriting official architecture of German postwar reconstruction,
especially in the industrial Rhineland. And his wonderful Kitchen
Chair of 1965 is a prime example of Capitalist Realism, the version
of Pop developed by Richter and his colleague, Sigmar Polke, in the
mid-sixties. Richter and Warhol had fascinatingly parallel careers.
The deep interpretative question in Richter's art concerns less the
fact that he worked with photographs than why he selected the
photographs he did for Atlas, and what governed his decision to
translate certain of them into paintings. There are, for example,
photographs of American airplanes--Mustang Squadrons, Bombers and Phantom
Interceptor planes in ghostly gray-in-gray formations. Richter was an
adolescent in 1945, and lived with his family within earshot of Dresden
at the time of the massive firebombings of that year. The photograph
from which Bombers was made had to have been taken as a
documentary image by some official Air Force photographer, whether over
Dresden or some other city. The cool of that photograph, compounded by
the cool with which that image is painted--even to the hit plane near the
bottom of the image and what must be the smoke trailing from
another--cannot but seem as in a kind of existential contrast with the
panic of someone on the ground under those explosives falling in slow
fatal series from open bays. But what were Richter's feelings? What was
he saying in these images?
And what of the 1965 painting of the family snapshot of the SS
officer--Richter's Uncle Rudi--proudly smiling for the camera, which must
have been taken more than twenty years earlier, shortly before its
subject was killed in action? Tables and chairs are tables and chairs.
But warplanes and officers emblematize war, suffering and violent death.
And this was not simply the history of the mid-twentieth century. This
was the artist's life, something he lived through. We each must deal
with these questions as we can, I think. The evasiveness of the artist,
in the fascinating interview with Robert Storr--who curated this show and
wrote the catalogue--is a kind of shrug in the face of the
unanswerability of the question. What we can say is that photographs
have their acknowledged forensic dimension; they imply that their
subjects were there, constituted reality and that the artist himself is
no more responsible than we are, either for the reality or the
photography. The reality and the records are what others have done. He
has only made the art. And the blurredness with which the artist has
instilled his images is a way of saying that it was twenty years
ago--that it is not now. Some other horrors are now.
The flat, impassive transcriptions of Richter's paintings are
correlative with the frequent violence implied by what they depict. That
makes the parallels with Warhol particularly vivid. It is easy to
repress, in view of the glamour and celebrity associated with Warhol's
life and work, the series of disasters he depicted--plane crashes,
automobile accidents, suicides, poisonings and the shattering images of
electric chairs, let alone Jackie (The Week That Was), which
memorializes Kennedy's funeral. Or the startlingly anticelebratory
Thirteen Most Wanted Men that he executed for the New York State
Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair. Compare these with Richter's 1966
Eight Student Nurses, in which the bland, smiling, youthful faces
look as if taken from the class book of a nursing school--but which we
know were of victims of a senseless crime. Warhol's works, like
Richter's, are photography-based. The pictures came from vernacular
picture media--the front page of the Daily News, or the
most-wanted pictures on posters offering rewards, which are perhaps
still tacked up in post offices. These were transferred to stencils and
silk-screened, and have a double graininess--the graininess of newspaper
reproduction and of the silk-screen process itself. And like Richter's
blurring, this serves to distance the reality by several stages--as if it
is only through distancing that we can deal with horror. I tend to think
that part of what made us all feel as if we were actually part of the
World Trade Center disaster was the clarity of the television images and
the brightness of the day that came into our living rooms.
Whatever our attitude toward the prison deaths of the Baader-Meinhof
gang members in 1977, I think everyone must feel that if Richter is
capable of a masterpiece, it is his October 18, 1977 suite of
thirteen paintings, done in 1988 and based on aspects of that reality.
These deaths define a moral allegory in which the state, as the
guarantor of law and order, and the revolution, as enacted by utopian
and idealist youths, stand in stark opposition, and in which both sides
are responsible for crimes that are the dark obverses of their values.
But how fragile and pathetic these enemies of the state look in
paintings that make the photographs from which they were taken more
affecting than they would seem as parts, say, of Atlas. Who knows
whether Richter chose the images because they were affecting, or made
them so, or if we make them so because of the hopelessness of a reality
that has the quality of the last act of an opera, in which the chorus
punctuates the tragedy in music? There are three paintings, in graded
sizes, of the same image of Ulrike Meinhof, who was hanged--or hanged
herself--in her cell. The paintings do not resolve the question of
whether she was killed or committed suicide. They simply register the
finality of her death--Dead. Dead. Dead. (Tote. Tote. Tote.)--in a
repetition of an image, vanishing toward a point, of a thin dead young
woman, her stretched neck circled by the rope or by the burn left by the
rope. That is what art does, or part of what it does. It transforms
violence into myth and deals with death by beauty. There was a lot of
political anger when these paintings were shown in 1988, but there was
no anger in the gallery on the occasions when I have visited it in the
past several weeks.
By comparison with the ferocity of human engagements in the real world,
the art wars of the mid-twentieth century seem pretty thin and petty.
But it says something about human passion that the distinction between
figuration and abstraction was so vehement that, in my memory, people
would have been glad to hang or shoot one another, or burn their
stylistic opponents at the stake, as if it were a religious controversy
and salvation were at risk. It perhaps says something deep about the
spirit of our present times that the decisions whether to paint
abstractly or realistically can be as lightly made as whether to paint a
landscape or still life--or a figure study--was for a traditional artist.
Or for a young contemporary artist to decide whether to do some piece of
conceptual art or a performance. Four decades of art history have borne
us into calm aesthetic waters. But this narrative does not convey the
almost palpable sense in which Richter has grasped his times through his
art. One almost feels that he became a painter in order to engage not
just with how to be an artist but how, as an artist, to deal with the
terribleness of history.
There is an overall disposition to approach each Whitney Biennial as a State of the Art World Address in the form of an exhibition, organized by a curatorial directorate, presenting us with a reading, more or less objective, of what visual culture has been up to in the preceding two years. It is widely appreciated that on any given occasion, the directorate will be driven by enthusiasms and agendas that compromise objectivity. So there has sprung up a genre of what we might call Biennial Criticism, in which the organizers are taken to task for various distortions, and when these have been flagrant, as in the 1993 or, to a lesser degree, the 1995 Biennial, the critics almost speak as one. Everyone knew, in 1993, that a lot of art was being made that took the form of aggressively politicized cultural criticism, but the Biennial made it appear that there was very little else, and it had the effect of alienating the viewers by treating them as enemies. Again, everyone recognized in 1995 that artists were exploring issues of gender identity--but there was a question of whether these preoccupations were not overrepresented in what was shown. Anticipating the barrage of critical dissent, the Whitney pre-emptively advertised the 2000 Biennial as the exhibition you love to hate, making a virtue of adversity. But Biennials and Biennial Criticism must be taken as a single complex, which together provide, in the best way that has so far evolved, as adequate a picture as we are likely to get of where American artistic culture is at the moment. The Whitney deserves considerable credit for exposing itself to critical onslaughts from various directions in this periodic effort to bring the present art world to consciousness. Art really is a mirror in which the culture gets to see itself reflected, but it requires a fair amount of risk and bickering to get that image to emerge with any degree of clarity.
As it happens, my own sense of the state of the art world is reasonably congruent with that of Lawrence Rinder, who bears chief responsibility for Biennial 2002, though I have to admit that I was unfamiliar with a good many of the artists whose work has been selected. This unfamiliarity can even be taken as evidence that Rinder's selection corresponds to the general profile of art-making today.
It is almost as though any sample drawn from the art world would yield much the same profile of artistic production, so long as it consisted mainly of artists in their 30s and early 40s who have been formed in one or another of the main art schools and keep up with the main art periodicals. A great Biennial could have been put together using older artists with international reputations, but somehow emphasizing the young does not seem a curatorial caprice. It is increasingly an art-world premise that what is really happening is to be found among the young or very young, whose reputations have not as yet emerged. A painter who taught in California told me that he was constantly pressed, by dealers and collectors, to tell them who among the students was hot. So as long as it resembles a fairly large show of MFA students graduating from a major art school--as Biennial 2002 mostly does--a quite representative Biennial can be put together of artists whose work is hardly known at all. Somehow, if it were widely known, it would not have been representative.
Art today is pretty largely conceptual. It is not Conceptual Art in the narrow sense the term acquired when it designated one of the last true movements of late Modernism, in which the objects were often negligible or even nonexistent, but rather in the sense that being an artist today consists in having an idea and then using whatever means are necessary to realize it. Advanced art schools do not primarily teach skills but serve as institutes through which students are given critical support in finding their own way to whatever it takes to make their ideas come to something. This has been the case since the early 1970s.
It is amazing how many young people want to be artists today. I was told that there are about 600 art majors in a state university in Utah--and there will be at least that many applicants for perhaps twenty places in any one of the major MFA programs, despite a tuition equal to that for law or business school. Few will find teaching positions, but their main impulse is to make art, taking advantage of today's extreme pluralism, which entails that there are no antecedent prohibitions on how their art has to be. Every artist can use any technology or every technology at once--photography, video, sound, language, imagery in all possible media, not to mention that indeterminate range of activities that constitute performances, working alone or in collaboratives on subjects that can be extremely arcane.
Omer Fast shows a two-channel video installation with surround sound about Glendive, Montana, selected because it is the nation's smallest self-contained television market. Who would know about this? Or about Sarah Winchester, who kept changing the architecture of her house in San Jose, California, because she felt she was being pursued by victims of the Winchester rifle, which her late husband manufactured, which Jeremy Blake chose as the subject of a 16-millimeter film, augmented by drawings and digital artworks transferred to DVD? I pick these out not as criticism but as observations. They exemplify where visual culture is today.
Initially I felt that painting was somewhat underrepresented, but on reflection I realize that there is not much of the kind of easel painting done now that makes up one's composite memory of Biennials past. What I had to accept was that artists today appropriate vernacular styles and images--graffiti, cartoons, circus posters and crude demotic drawing. Artists use whatever kinds of images they like. Much as one dog tells another in a New Yorker cartoon that once you're online, no one can tell you're a dog, it is less and less easy to infer much about an artist's identity from the work.
At least three graduate students in a leading art school I visited not long ago choose to paint like self-taught artists. The self-taught artist Thornton Dial Senior appeared in Biennial 2000, but his contribution did not look like anyone's paradigm of outsider art, so no one could have known that it was not by an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design or CalArts. There are some quilts in Biennial 2002 by Rosie Lee Tomkins, who is Afro-American, as we can tell from items in her bibliography (Redesigning Cultural Roots: Diversity in African-American Quilts). Since this year's catalogue does not identify artists with reference to their education, we don't know--nor does it matter--whether Tomkins is self-taught. But it is entirely open to white male graduate students to practice quilt-making as their art if they choose to.
Whether someone can paint or draw is no more relevant than whether they can sew or cook. Everything is available to everyone--the distinctions between insider and outsider, art and craft, fine art and illustration, have altogether vanished. I have not yet seen a Biennial with the work of Sophie Matisse or George Deem in it, both of whom appropriate the painting styles of Vermeer and other Old Masters, but they express the contemporary moment as well as would an artist who drew Superman or The Silver Surfer. Mike Bidlo--also not included--has been painting Jackson Pollocks over the past few years. In a way I rather admire, Biennial 2002 presents us with a picture not just of the art world but of American society today, in an ideal form in which identities are as fluid and boundaries as permeable as lifestyles in general.
The openness to media outside the traditional ones of painting, drawing, printmaking, photography and sculpture has made it increasingly difficult to see everything on a single visit in the recent Biennials, and this is particularly so in Biennial 2002. But just seeing the things that can be taken in on such a visit may not give the best idea of what is really happening in the art world. Biennial 2002 includes the work of eight performance artists or teams of performance artists, for example, and theirs may be among the most revealing work being done today; but you will have to read about their work in the catalogue, since the performances themselves do not take place on the premises of the museum. I'll describe three artists whose most striking work is performance, since together they give a deeper sense of visual culture than we might easily get by looking at the objects and installations in the museum's galleries.
Let's begin with Praxis--a performance collaborative formed in 1999 that consists of a young married couple, Delia Bajo and Brainard Carey. On any given Saturday afternoon, Praxis opens the East Village storefront that is its studio and home to passers-by. The ongoing performance, which they title The New Economy, consists in offering visitors any of four meaningful but undemanding services from the artists: a hug, a footbath, a dollar or a Band-Aid, which comes with the kind of kiss a mommy gives to make it all better. Praxis draws upon a fairly rich art history. Its services are good examples of what were considered actions by Fluxus, an art movement that has frequently figured in this column. Fluxus originated in the early 1960s as a loose collective of artists-performers-composers who were dedicated, among other things, to overcoming the gap between art and life. The movement drew its inspiration from Marcel Duchamp, John Cage and Zen--and from the visionary figure George Maciunas, who gave it its name. It is a matter for philosophers to determine when giving someone a hug is a piece of art--but an important consideration is that as art it has no particular connection to the art market, nor is it the sort of thing that is easily collected. And it requires no special training to know how to do it.
There is something tender and affecting in Praxis's ministrations, which connects it to a second art-historical tradition. It has, for example, a certain affinity to Felix Gonzales-Torres, who piled up candies in the corner of a gallery for people to help themselves to, or to the art of Rirkrit Tiravanija, which largely consists in feeding people fairly simple dishes, which he cooks for whoever comes along. Praxis's art is comforting, in much the way that Tiravanija's work is nurturing. The people who enter Praxis's storefront are not necessarily, as the artists explain, seeking an art experience. Neither are those who eat Tiravanija's green curry in quest of gastronomic excitement. The artists set themselves up as healers or comfort-givers, and the art aims at infusing an increment of human warmth into daily life. There was not a lot of that in Fluxus, but it has become very much a part of art today, especially among younger artists. The moral quality of Praxis belongs to the overall spirit of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which recently emerged as an art scene. On one of my visits there, a gallerist asked me what I thought of the scene and I told him I found it "lite," not intending that as a criticism. "We want to remain children," he told me. The artists there could not have been nicer, and this seems generally the feeling evoked by Biennial 2002. It is the least confrontational Biennial of recent years.
There is, for example, not much by way of nudity, though that is integral to the performances of the remarkable artist Zhang Huan, which stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from Praxis. Zhang Huan was expelled from China in 1998. His work fuses certain Asiatic disciplines laced with appropriations from various Western avant-gardes. In each of his performances, Zhang Huan's shaved head and bare, wiry body is put through trials in which, like a saint or shaman, the performer displays his indifference to injury. His nakedness becomes a universal emblem of human vulnerability. There is a remarkable, even stunning, poetry in these performances, and they feel in fact like religious ordeals, like fasting or mortification, undertaken for the larger welfare. I have seen the film of an amazing performance, Dream of the Dragon, in which Zhang Huan is carried by assistants into the performance space on a large forked branch of a tree, like an improvised cross. The assistants cover his body with a kind of soup they coat with flour. A number of leashed family dogs are then allowed to lick this off with sometimes snarling canine voracity.
The performances of William Pope.L, which involve great physical and, I imagine, psychological stress, stand to Zhang Huan's as West stands to East. His crawl pieces, of which he has done perhaps forty since 1978, perform social struggle, as he puts it. His contribution to Biennial 2002, titled The Great White Way, will involve a twenty-two-mile crawl up Broadway, from the Statue of Liberty to the Bronx, and will take five years. In a film excerpt, Pope.L is seen in a padded Superman suit and ski hat, a skateboard strapped to his back, negotiating a segment of the crawl. Sometimes he uses the skateboard as a dolly, but that seems hardly less strenuous than actual crawling. Pope.L is African-American, and somehow one feels that crawling up the Great White Way has to be seen as a symbolic as well as an actual struggle. But it also has the aura of certain ritual enactments that require worshipers to climb some sacred stairway on their knees, or to achieve a required pilgrimage by crawling great distances to a shrine.
Since foot-washing, which is one of Praxis's actions, is widely recognized as a gesture of humility as well as hospitality in many religious cultures, the three performance pieces bear out one of Rinder's observations that a great many artists today are interested in religious subjects. He and I participated in a conversation organized by Simona Vendrame, the editor of Tema Celeste, and published in that magazine under the title New York, November 8, 2001. We were to discuss the impact of September 11 on American art. With few exceptions, the art in Biennial 2002 was selected before the horror, though it is inevitable that it colors how we look at the exhibits.
In a wonderful departure, five commissioned Biennial works are on view in Central Park, including an assemblage of sculptures in darkly patinated bronze by Kiki Smith, of harpies and sirens. These figures have human heads on birds' bodies, and as they are exhibited near the Central Park zoo, they suggest evolutionary possibilities that were never realized. When I saw pictures of them, however, I could not help thinking they memorialized those who threw themselves out of the upper windows of the World Trade Center rather than endure incineration. I had read that one of the nearby schoolchildren pointed to the falling bodies and said, "Look, the birds are on fire!"
I don't really yet know what effect on art September 11 actually had, and it might not be obvious even when one sees it. The artist Audrey Flack, whose work is in the Biennial, told me that as soon as she could get away from the television screen, she wanted only to paint fishing boats at Montauk. A good bit of what Rinder has selected could as easily as not have been done in response to the terrible events, but he said that he had sensed some sort of change taking place in artists' attitudes well before September 11: "What I was finding over and over again was artists saying things to me like 'Well, to be honest, what I'm really doing is searching for the truth' or 'What matters the most to me is to make the most honest statement I possibly can.'" I don't think one can easily tell from looking at the art that it embodies these virtues, any more than one could tell from Flack's watercolors that they constituted acts of healing for her. But that is what they mean and are.
One consequence of art's having taken the direction it has is that there is not always a lot to be gained from what one sees without benefit of a fair amount of explanation. Biennial 2002 has been very generous in supplying interpretive help. Some people have complained that the wall labels go too far in inflecting the way one is supposed to react to the work, but I am grateful for any help I can get; I found the wall texts, like the catalogue, indispensable. And beyond that, you can hear what the artists thought they were doing by listening to recorded comments on the rented electronic guides. I cannot see enough of the work of Kim Sooja, a Korean artist who works with traditional fabrics from her culture. But her statements contribute to the metaphysics of fabric--to what Kierkegaard calls the meaning of the cloth--and are worth thinking about in their own right.
You will encounter Kim Sooja's Deductive Object, consisting of Korean bedcovers placed over tables at the zoo cafe in Central Park, just north of Kiki Smith's mythological animals and just south of a towering steel tree by Roxy Paine. Since Central Park has been opened up to temporary exhibitions, I would like to urge a longstanding agenda of my own. I cannot think of anything better capable of raising the spirits of New York than installing a beautiful projected piece by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, which, as always with their work, will not cost the city a nickel. They envision a series of tall gates, posted at regular intervals all along the main walkway of the park. Hanging from each will be saffron-colored strips of cloth that will float above us as we follow the path for as long as we care to--an undulating roof, since the strips are just long enough to cover the distance between the gates. The whole world will look with exaltation upon this work, which will express the same spirituality and truth that today's artists, if Lawrence Rinder is right, have aspired to in their work. And billions of dollars will flow into our economy as they pilgrim to our city.
I think the art world is going to be the way it is now for a very long time, even if it is strictly unimaginable how artworks themselves will look in 2004. Meanwhile, I think well of Biennial 2002, though I can have written of only a few of the 113 artists that make it up. You'll have to find your own way, like the artists themselves. Take my word that it is worth the effort. That's the best Biennial Criticism is able do in the present state of things.
In the vestibule of the superb exhibition of Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (until May 12), the organizers have installed a large colored photograph of the ceiling decoration, done in 1611 for the Casino of the Muses in the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in Rome. It shows a number of musicians--the Muses themselves--performing on a balcony around the room, and it is painted in the confectionary colors of some improbable Italian dessert--candied fruit in sculpted whipped cream. A handsome girl, elegantly dressed and holding a large fan, gazes out over the balustrade. It is said to be Artemisia Gentileschi herself, posing for Orazio, her father, who painted all the other figures as well, making music or standing about enjoying it. Artemisia would have been 18 at the time, and was already an accomplished painter. The illusional architecture was then painted by Orazio's associate, Agostino Tassi, a master of perspective, who had been engaged to teach that art to Artemisia. The whole scene, of an almost edible beauty, is an image of life at its sweetest--music, indolence and the pleasures of an attractive company.
The following year, Orazio, Artemisia and Agostino Tassi were to be caught up in scandal. Orazio brought suit against Tassi for having violently deflowered his gifted daughter, and Tassi denounced Artemisia as having had no virginity to lose at the time the two of them became lovers. The sensational record of the trial, which became the buzz of Rome, has inspired novels, a film and a recent play; and Artemisia--characterized by the art historians Rudolf and Margot Wittkower as "a lascivious and precocious girl, [who] later had a distinguished and highly honorable career as an artist"--has become a feminist heroine. The degree to which her sexual trauma inflected her subsequent art remains a topic of debate. It has, for example, become something of an interpretive commonplace to read her gory depictions of Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes as an act of revenge for having been raped.
The ceiling decoration, which serves as a kind of prelude to the exhibition, could not contrast more vividly with the dark violence typical of the Gentileschis' paintings. Father and daughter were both much under the influence of Caravaggio, and indeed it is as prominent caravaggisti that they were largely remembered in histories of the Italian Baroque before Artemisia was rescued by feminist art historians with a natural interest in forgotten and neglected woman painters. In Caravaggio, an uncanny light picks out scenes of violent conduct that would otherwise have transpired in a world of utter darkness. It is as though we see as with the all-seeing eyes of God the terrifying deeds that those who perform them might believe are hidden--murder and robbery, violation and revenge, torture and defilement. The consolation of Caravaggio's paintings is the assurance that every sin is known and registered. The soft bright world of the Casino of the Muses belongs to the taste of a gentler age than the Baroque, in which the Gentileschis, father and daughter alike, earned their fame for paintings of extreme drama in which, if anything, they went beyond Caravaggio in the ferocity of their protagonists. And they selected their subjects precisely as occasions for demonstrating their unflinchingness.
The Baroque in Italy saw a coarsening of culture, in which painters were enlisted to depict the spilt blood and broken bodies of the great heroes and heroines of the Christian faith undergoing their martyrdom. Blood was the emblem of redemptive suffering. Almost the first work one sees by Orazio is an immense altarpiece showing the Circumcision of Christ, in which God sheds the first blood of his human incarnation. Painting was the arm of Catholic revival against the threat of Protestantism, and the wounds and visible agonies of holy beings were designed to awaken sympathy in viewers. A splash or spurt of blood was as commonplace in Baroque painting as automobiles exploding in flames are in action movies. Artemisia was a painter of her time.
Agostino Tassi's injury to her was not so much the violence of his attack as the fact that he robbed her of her virginity and falsely promised marriage. It is after all not the standard response of raped women to want to marry their ravishers, but there is evidence of continuing affection on both sides after the incident, and Orazio emphasized in his petition of 1612 that his daughter had been known in the flesh many a time by Tassi. Artemisia, whose description of her forced seduction is recorded in some detail--the judge asked how she knew that she was bleeding from it, for example, and not menstruating. When she underwent torture, by an instrument involving rings tightened around her fingers by means of string, she called out to her betrayer, "This is the ring you gave me, and these are your promises!" She was a spirited woman, and it is worth comparing her version of Judith with Caravaggio's. Caravaggio's Judith is a young girl, with her hair braided in rings over either ear. She handles the sword to kill Holofernes, the general who had conquered her people, awkwardly, as something foreign to her, and she performs the action with a becoming squeamishness, as if repelled by the sight of blood, which spurts out in red jets. Caravaggio has composed the scene within a canvas far wider than it is high, in order to put as much distance between Judith and the victim as possible. Her servant is a crone, to show off Judith's innocence and inexperience. Artemisia's Judith is a femme forte. She handles the sword with the confidence and power of a fishwife dealing with a particularly large tuna, while her maidservant holds Holofernes down with both her arms. And the canvas is higher than wide, so that the full weight of the two women presses down. And the blood is there because--well, that's the way decapitations were represented in Roman painting circa 1613.
If any of Artemisia's paintings refer to unwanted sexual attentions, it would be her first known work, the amazing Susanna and the Elders, the story of which even refers to a trial and a vindication. But the painting antedates the trial of Tassi by two years, according to the experts. Artemisia was 17 when she painted it, and it would compel our astonished admiration even if there were not the subsequent whiff of scandal. Pure, beautiful Susanna sits naked in her husband's garden, waiting for her maidens to bring a basin of water and some oil, when the horny elders, who have no business there, attempt to blackmail her. Either she yields to their lust, or they will say that they saw her in the arms of a man. But the wily Daniel establishes her innocence by examining the elders separately, and showing that their stories do not jibe. It was a fairly popular subject, and it is not difficult to see why. The viewer is given an eyeful of Susanna's nakedness, with the excuse that the story after all is from the Bible--and there is the added benefit that one can condemn the prurience of the elders while enjoying Susanna's discomfiture, unable to cover herself with the towel that the artist always makes just too skimpy for purposes of modesty.
The question remains of why this particular subject would have recommended itself to Artemisia. My own thesis, probably not entirely original, is that it was important to potential patrons to know that a painting that dealt with embattled sexual innocence was by a woman, who presumably knew the problem from within. Susanna and the Elders was the ideal subject for showing that, all the more so when there was the added possibility that it was the artist's own nakedness that one was seeing--that the artist painted her own breasts, ruled out in the case of Rembrandt or Ludovico Caracci or Lucas Cranach or Veronese or Tintoretto or the many Old Masters who found the subject irresistible.
Artemisia belongs to this great company by virtue of her artistic achievements, but it was her gender that defined her artistic identity, in this case as in others. Being a woman actually helped in Artemisia's art world. One of the most interesting things I learned from the show's excellent catalogue was the fact that in 1636, when she was established and illustrious, Artemisia received payment for three quite different paintings (all untraced today)--a Bathsheba, a Susanna and a Lucretia--from Prince Karl von Liechtenstein, an avid collector who obviously associated these alluring female subjects with the famous female painter. There is an engraving, based on a self-portrait by Artemisia, in which she is identified as "Artemisia Gentileschi, Most Famous Roman Woman [romana famosissima], Painter of the Academia Desiosa." In the self-portrait, Artemisia showed herself in an opulent, low-cut dress, in lace collar and jewels, wearing an expression of almost aristocratic disdain and a wild, disheveled coiffure. She did not hesitate to bestow her own strong features on her passionate and heroic Judiths, her Lucretias, her Esthers. It was an age of great collections. It would be altogether desirable, in showing visitors through one's gallery, to be able to say, before a painting of this or that famous woman, that she had been painted by a woman no less famous--the great Artemisia Gentileschi--and to display the engraving as evidence that she had given to that brave and forceful figure her own mouth and eyes.
Of course, Artemisia was not famous at all in 1610, when she painted her Susanna. But the painting has a certain gestural authenticity that makes it feel like a personal allegory of a young woman's ordeal. The elders are shown leaning over the wall against which Susanna's back is almost literally pressed. It is as if her oppressors are crowded into Susanna's space, where they press down upon her like a dense cloud. They have already penetrated her person in a symbolic way by being much closer to her than decency allows, far closer than voyeurs, and are already touching her hair. Susanna is twisting her body to escape their touch and has raised her arms to shield herself from her tormentors--though we viewers get to see one of her breasts. There is a marvelous expression of anguish and disgust on her face. Her gestures are entirely convincing, and one cannot but infer that Artemisia knows from her own experience the way a girl would respond to unwelcome approaches.
A diary by Fernande Olivier, who was to become Picasso's mistress, has recently been published. She was a beautiful girl, and others could not keep their hands to themselves when around her. Fernande at first welcomed the attention as evidence of her attractiveness. But she had constantly to defend herself against sexual molestation. I don't think a male artist would know how to enact the bodily gestures that expressed this the way someone who had to deal with it all the time would do. And it would not have occurred to a male artist to ask a model to pose that way. Whether anyone had gotten as close to her as Tassi was to do, Artemisia conveys through her Susanna the bodily truth of what one might call the proto-rape that Fernande (who was brutally raped by her husband) describes so graphically. There is a question in connoisseurship as to whether Orazio had a hand in Artemisia's Susanna, but if my interpretation is sound, it was essentially her painting. You can check his picture of the same subject in the Met show for purposes of comparison. It is a fine painting, but it lacks the internal fire that came naturally to his daughter in dealing with the subject.
But for the legal wit of her attorney, Susanna, like Lucretia, would have been the victim of her virtue. Susanna placed virtue above life, since she knew she would be punished with death as an adulteress, which the elders would say she was if she refused them her body. And Lucretia, raped by Tarquin, had to erase the stain with her own blood--which is more or less the equation implied in cleansing sin with Christ's blood in the Christian theory of redemption. The attractiveness of Lucretia as a topos for painters is that, as with Susanna, it gives them a moral opportunity to display a woman's breasts in a narratively compelling way. She is almost invariably shown with a dagger pointed at her bared bosom. Artemisia seems to me to have posed for her Lucretia, executed 1623-25. I base this on the fact that she is shown with the knife in her left hand, which would be puzzling until we take into account the fact that it is probably a mirror image of Artemisia holding a knife in her right hand. But I don't think we are to read it as a self-portrait--a portrait of herself as Lucretia.
There is a difference between using oneself as a model and painting oneself as the personage for whom the model stands. We may be seeing Artemisia's flesh in her paintings of Lucretia or Susanna or Cleopatra, but I don't see her portraying herself as Lucretia or Susanna or even Cleopatra, whose self-administered death by means of an asp allows the same natural way to show bared breasts. I feel the same way about Artemisia'a depiction of Danae in a marvelous painting she did in 1612, the very year of the trial. Titian had painted a Rape of Danae and so, for that matter, had Orazio. The story was well-known. Danae's father was told that his daughter would give birth to his slayer, and he prudently locked her up in a tower. What he had not counted on was Zeus, who was stricken with Danae's beauty, and metamorphosed himself into a shower of gold, impregnating her. The child turned out to be Perseus, who indeed killed his grandfather. Danae is always shown nude, though there is reason to wonder why, if Zeus could get through stone walls, a nightgown would be much of an obstacle. In any case, Artemisia's Danae is clearly enjoying the experience. It is raining gold coins in her chamber, and she is in some sort of sexual transport, clutching the coins in her hands--though whether because of sexual or monetary greed is difficult to say. It is a nice piece of ambiguity for a young artist to have negotiated, and not far from seventeenth-century reality. But I cannot see the painting as a self-portrait of Artemisia as Danae.
I would, on the other hand, accept the possibility that the painting of Clio in the exhibition is Artemisia as the Muse of History, because fame was so integral to her artistic persona. Or that her Allegory of Painting is to be read as at least a symbolic self-portrait, since it would show her as one with the attributes of her art (it would be difficult to see it as a literal self-portrait, since the figure is heavily foreshortened). There are four Judiths (excluding those painted by Orazio) in the show, and I would willingly accept a conjecture that Artemisia identified with her, not on the grounds of paying Tassi back for having raped her but because Judith was a paradigm of a woman who used her femininity to achieve real goals. For one thing, Judith is described as being beautifully dressed, with jewels and a hairdo to enhance her desirability. Holofernes invited her and her maidservant into his tent, where he drank himself into a stupor. When Judith displayed his severed head, she so raised the morale of the Israelites that they overcame their enemy. Artemisia was a proud woman, as she had every right to be, as a recognized wonder of the age. Her letters are full of grumbles, since she was the head of a household, in need of cash since she had a daughter to marry off and no husband to turn to; the man she married after the trial had disappeared, and she did not know if he was even alive. But she had patrons in high places, her prices were respectable and she corresponded with Galileo. And being known as a woman was internally related to her success.
We must all be grateful to the Met for having put this show together, even if it has a particular relevance to specialists, still sorting out the attributions of the works. There will always be a nagging question of what was done by Orazio and what by Artemisia. This is by no means mere pedantry, since a lot of our readings depend on being clear on authorship, and even on getting the dates right (the Wittkowers thought Artemisia 15 at the time of the trial). But I am even more grateful to the feminist art historians who pulled Artemisia out of obscurity, and who did so much of the research needed to set the story straight. Too many great artists have been forgotten to get indignant because she was, or to explain it as the result of her being a woman. Think of Vermeer, Caravaggio, Piero della Francesca, just for starters. There is a fringe benefit to this: Thinking hard about Artemisia helps us begin to appreciate the great painters of the Italian Baroque, her father included, who, like her, have been too opulent, too operatically passionate, too vehemently theatrical to appeal to our minimalist tastes. It helps to see her work through gendered readings, so long as we recognize that this does not entail seeing her as a victim.
The legendary Surrealist exhibitions of the late 1930s and early 1940s were Surrealist in spirit and secondarily Surrealist in content. In 1942, for example, an exhibition called "The First Papers of Surrealism" was installed at the Whitelaw Reid mansion on Madison Avenue in New York, and those that attended it were far more likely to remember the show itself than any of the works on display. It was designed by Marcel Duchamp, using one mile of string to weave a sort of spider's web from floor to walls to ceiling, which visitors had to climb through to look at the art hung on temporary display panels. Moreover, they had to put up with a crowd of schoolchildren, boisterously playing ball or skipping rope or chasing one another through the show. The children were instructed to say that Mr. Duchamp said it was OK for them to play there, if anyone raised the question. It was an ideal way to subvert any propensity to seek a rich aesthetic experience in contemplating the art, and by indirection to demonstrate that it was not the point of Surrealist art to be an object of aesthetic contemplation in the first place. Duchamp disdained aesthetic response--"That retinal shudder!" as he dismissed it in a late interview.
Duchamp had also installed the legendary International Exposition of Surrealism at the Galerie Beaux-Arts in Paris four years earlier. There he arranged to have the ceiling hung with 1,200 coal sacks that, though empty, showered residual coal dust on the throngs below, who were supplied with flashlights to see the paintings hung in shadows. Upon entering the show, visitors encountered Rainy Taxi by Salvador Dali--an ancient taxicab on which water poured down from the ceiling. The driver and passenger were both mannequins, the former equipped with a shark's head and wearing goggles, the latter a frump covered with escargots, and both placed on a bed of lettuce.
These exhibitions achieved the same shock of incongruity that was intended to characterize what one might think of as Surrealist experience in general, as expressed in one of their favorite paradigms from a text by Isidore Ducasse, a k a le Comte de Lautréamont: "The chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella." There is a 1920 photograph by Man Ray of a mysterious object, wrapped in a heavy blanket and bound with rope. It was used as the frontispiece of the first issue of a magazine, La Révolution surréaliste, the readers of which would immediately have inferred from its title--"The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse"--that the wrapped object must be a sewing machine. Visitors to non-Surrealist exhibitions of Surrealist art--such as "Surrealism: Desire Unbound," on view at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 12--might be let in on the secret by a wall label reading: "sewing machine, wood, fabric, card." But without knowing the identity of Ducasse or the text alluded to, the point of the work would be lost on them.
Surrealism was essentially a literary movement, whose primary products were books, magazines, poems, letters and manifestoes. These in fact form a considerable part of "Desire Unbound," which, together with the many aging snapshots of groups of smiling Surrealists, could with equal suitability have made up a show at the Morgan Library or some comparable venue. Art itself was largely peripheral to the movement, serving, like Man Ray's photograph, to illustrate the essentially philosophical ideas of the writers, who were chiefly poets and what one might term aesthetic ideologists, tirelessly taken up with defining what we might term "Surrealist correctness." At least in the early stages of the movement, one of their questions was whether painting was even a Surrealist possibility. Ironically, the writers have become the subject of scholarly specialization, while Surrealism itself is widely identified with a body of paintings, pre-eminently those of Dali--desert landscapes in acute perspective, on the floor of which various objects, often teeming with ants, cast sharp shadows. It was Dali who designed the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's film Spellbound--and it is his idiom that has been universally appropriated for the representation of dreams.
It is with reference to dreams that Surrealism was initially formulated in André Breton's First Surrealist Manifesto of 1924. What excited Breton about dreams was the fact that what happens in them defies reason and certainly common sense. But for just the reason that dreams cannot be captured in the discourse we use in our waking lives, they were, until Freud, relegated to parentheses that we felt no need to incorporate into the narrative of our lives. Breton was convinced that this was, in effect, throwing away something of inestimable value, and in the Manifesto he described a method of writing that makes the dream accessible to our waking consciousness. This, in effect, is a kind of automatic writing--writing that as far as possible is uncontrolled by our critical faculties. The resulting pages will be impossible to appreciate in the ways in which ordinary writing is appreciated. "Poetically speaking," Breton says, "they are especially endowed with a high degree of immediate absurdity." Nevertheless, what we have done has somehow brought the dream before our conscious minds, and what we have is at once reality and dream, hence a kind of "absolute reality." Surrealism is then the method through which this absolute or "sur-" reality is made available to us as a resource to be used. Here is Breton's definition:
SURREALISM, noun, masc. Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.
I have italicized "either verbally or in writing" to emphasize that Breton does not mention either singing or playing, or drawing or painting. There is little if any Surrealist music, though one might think that jazz would exemplify psychic automatism to perfection. Breton thought Surrealist music was impossible, probably because music lacks the dimension of realism that is a precondition for sur-realism--an objection that would be overcome in the case of opera, and indeed my musical informant, Lydia Goehr, has told me of a Surrealist opera, Julietta, by a Czech composer. Painting, on the other hand, met the criterion of realism, but as far as the Surrealists were concerned, it lacked the spontaneity of writing or speech. Dali painted like an old master, using perspective and chiaroscuro, building up glazes, creating illusions. There is no way it could have been done automatically, or without rational control. So by definition, his painting cannot be Surrealist. It would be like transcribing a dream in rhymed verse. The most that can be said is that he illustrates strange conjunctions and encounters, directed, as it were, by a strong artistic will.
One might say that the visual arts became admitted to Surrealism only when artists found ways of working more fluidly. Max Ernst's marvelous collage narratives, in which he clipped and pasted images from old engravings, recommended themselves to the Surrealists. Miró, who actually used writing in his paintings together with images, was also accepted. When Breton encountered the sculpture of Giacometti, it was as though he at last found someone who seemed to dream while awake, in the medium of clay and plaster.
In truth, it was mainly the painter Matta who found a way of drawing automatically and hence surrealistically. And Matta taught the New York painters--especially Pollock and Motherwell--how to do this. Psychic automatism evolved spectacularly into what we now think of as Abstract Expressionism, and it was through the chance encounter of Right Bank Poets and rednecks like Pollock on the dissecting table of Manhattan that American artists were able to produce work that Motherwell describes as "plastic, mysterious, and sublime"--adding that "no Parisian is a sublime painter, nor a monumental one, not even Miró." But Abstract Expression was never "Surrealist" in the sense in which Dali's images were. It was as though there were two dimensions to Surrealism--psychic automatism and absurdity. The latter does not figure in Breton's definition, but it certainly figures in what we might call Surrealist sensibility.
I learned a certain amount about what it would have been like to be a Surrealist from Robert Motherwell, who as a young artist in New York in the early 1940s became a kind of guide to Breton and a cadre of other Surrealists, then in exile in New York, where they endeavored so far as possible to re-create the form of life they'd lived in Paris. Twice a week they would gather for lunch at Larre's, an inexpensive French bistro on West 55th Street, and proceed afterward to Third Avenue, at that time lined with all sorts of secondhand stores and antiques shops. The activity for the afternoon was to decide which of the objects on display were Surrealist and which were not. It was a fairly serious matter to be wrong about this. Matta would have been disgraced when he misidentified as Surrealist a certain gargoyle head--until Duchamp intervened, saying that maybe he had a point. Duchamp, listed as Generateur-Arbitre (producer and arbitrator) in the catalogue for the 1938 exhibition, was not officially a Surrealist, but Breton regarded him as having perfect pitch when it came to what possessed surreality and what did not.
A famous such object was a curious wooden spoon Breton and Giacometti had found at the flea market in Paris. A little shoe was carved just under the spoon's handle. It struck Breton that the whole spoon could be seen as itself a shoe, with the little shoe as its heel. He then imagined the possibility that its heel was another shoe, with a heel of its own, which itself was a shoe...and that this could go on to infinity. The spoon he saw as an example of "convulsive beauty" in the sense that it revealed through its structure a state of mind, which consisted in a desire for love. There is a photograph, again by Man Ray, of this found object with the descriptive title "From the height of a little slipper making a body with it..." which was published in Breton's book L'Amour fou. There would be no way of telling from the photograph--or from the spoon itself--that it had convulsive beauty, or the evasive property of surreality. And I am uncertain whether it has either of these intrinsically, or only for the individual to whom it reveals, the way a verbal lapse does in Freud's The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, a state of mind that would otherwise have remained unconscious. At the very least, some fairly elaborate chain of interpretation--as again in the The Psychopathology of Everyday Life--has to be supplied. Surrealism was a taxing and fully absorbing form of mental activity.
In the First Surrealist Manifesto, Breton mentions having become aware of a certain "bizarre sentence" that came to him "bearing no trace of the events with which I was involved at the time." He was unable to remember the exact wording, but it generated the writing he subsequently identified as Surrealist. The little spoon, as it happens, helped unpack a different such phrase, one that had been obsessively running through his mind--"Cendrier-Cendrillon"--which means "Ashtray-Cinderella." Breton refused to learn English, not so much, I believe, out of the vanity that is threatened when we lose the fluency of our native tongue but because we dream in our own language. The terms "ashtray" and "Cinderella" have no obvious connection, but "cendrier" and "Cendrillon" have a common root--the French word for cinders or ashes, which enables them to be conjoined in free association. Breton went so far as to ask Giacometti to make an ashtray in the form of Cinderella's slipper. But he remained baffled by "Cendrier-Cendrillon," and somehow the slipper spoon helped clarify the emotional state that expressed itself through the conjunction. But you have to read L'amour fou to find out how.
L'amour fou brings us to "Desire Unbound"--since unbound desire is exactly what L'amour fou is. Desire--and in particular erotic desire--is the theme of the Metropolitan exhibition. With qualifications, everything in the show possesses surreality--or convulsive beauty--providing we understand how to unlock it. The most helpful thing to understand is that aesthetics was never a central Surrealist preoccupation, so looking for an aesthetic experience here will not get you to first base. You have to look at the exhibits the way those displaced Surrealists looked at the objects on view in shop windows sixty years ago, trying to decide which were the Surrealist objects. Motherwell told me that his problem in playing that game lay in the fact that he had been brought up to look at antiques aesthetically. His mother was an antiques collector. But he got a kind of education surréaliste in those afternoons spent peering through dusty shop windows, tutored by Breton and Duchamp. With a sigh of what I felt was despair, he said, on one occasion, that the whole world was beginning to look surrealistic to him. But that, as he of course knew very deeply, was a metaphorical truth. The world seemed pretty crazy when the International Exposition of Surrealism took place in Paris in 1938. France was falling apart, German planes were bombing Barcelona, Germany was poised for conquest. The Surrealists were not aiming for the kind of experience that could be had from reading the headlines.
But neither did they think that the creation of the surrealistic was their unique contribution to art. The surrealistic existed avant la lettre. The Surrealists found it present throughout the history of art--in Hieronymus Bosch and in Hans Baldung Grien for obvious reasons, in Seurat's La Grande Jatte for less obvious ones. The first gallery in the show is given over toGiorgio de Chirico, whom the Surrealists took as a predecessor, and the second one to Dada, many of whose members, especially Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, were to make substantial contributions to Surrealism when it emerged as a movement in the 1920s. But the first object one encounters in entering the show--Venus aux tiroirs, 1936--a plaster Venus in whose torso Dali had placed a number of small drawers, as in a jewelry case, each with a fur-covered knob--is self-consciously Surrealist. Fur seemed by itself to confer surreality when adjoined to any object, the use of which seemed to rule fur out as a material--like a teacup, for example. No survey of Surrealism would be complete without Meret Oppenheim's 1936 fur-lined teacup, which somehow is like a dream object rendered concrete. One can see why. The last thing one expects, lifting a teacup to take a sip, would be the feeling of fur on one's lips. It happens only in dreams, where it would seem to disguise an obvious reference and a no-less-obvious repressed wish. Oppenheim had a genius for finding ways to express genital references through everyday objects, and much of Surrealism was taken up with such disclosures. There is a photograph by Man Ray of an unidentified woman, her head thrown back so that we see the lines of her jaw from below. But then, with the irresistibility of an optical illusion, the neck convulses into the shaft of a thick penis, with the jaw becoming the glans--and the image looks like a huge penis coming out of a woman's shoulders. Surrealist objects are displacements of the objects of desire with which the world around and within us abounds--though a lot of good it does us so far as the gratification of desire is concerned. Perhaps that is why it seems to constitute the constant preoccupation of mental life, which surfaces distortedly in our dream life.
The great emblem of unfulfilled and perhaps unfulfillable desire is Duchamp's 1915 masterpiece The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, usually referred to as The Large Glass. A display case here holds notations and sketches for the work, and there is a painting of the bride in Duchamp's Cubist manner. The stripping has gone so far that the flesh has been taken away, and what we see looks like her reproductive system, including a schematized uterus. She is suspended in an upper chamber, separated by a glass shelf from her "bachelors"--a chorus of "malic forms" in the lower chamber. The two chambers are united and separated by an erotic desire that leaves everyone at once unsatisfied and inseparable. Duchamp, as is well-known, took a female identity for himself as Rrose Sélavy--Eros, c'est la vie--and was photographed wearing a woman's hat, makeup and furs by--who else?--Man Ray. In one of his most famous works--a postcard of the Mona Lisa on which he drew a mustache and goatee--Duchamp sought a reverse transgendrification. Magritte showed the female torso as a readymade pun on a male face, with the nipples as goggle eyes, and the pubis as beard. In Surrealist thought, male and female are often transcriptions of each other, as in the myth of Aristophanes that once upon a time we were a single being, male and female at once, and that ever since we have longed, in futility, for our other half. In Surrealism, though, the split was not clean--each of us bears something that belongs to our sexually opposite number.
The Surrealists did have robust love lives, and the heart of the show--no pun intended--exhibits the cat's cradle of their relationships: Gala with Paul Eluard, Man Ray and finally Dali; Max Ernst with Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning; Eluard with Nusch; Man Ray with Meret Oppenheim and Lee Miller; Louis Aragon with Elsa Triolet; Breton with Nadja and Jacqueline Lamba. And there were plenty of secondary loves as well. Many of the women were artists in their own right, and it is a merit of the show that a lot of their work is shown. I'll end with one of my favorite lines from a Surrealist poet, Robert Desnos, bound to two women--Yvonne George and Youki Foujita--by l'amour fou: J'ai tant rêvé de toi que tu perds ta réalité. ("I have dreamt of you so much that you have lost your reality.") The line is logically equivalent to: "I have dreamt of you so much that you have gained surreality." The beauty of the objects of Surrealist desire became convulsive through dreams. May this become true for us all!
"Loving Rockwell is shunning complexity," the critic of the Village Voice declares, who goes on to concede that "many of Rockwell's illustrations can turn you into a quivering ball of mush." Of how many painters in the history of art is something like that true? It seems to me the pictorial psychology of paintings that can have that effect transcends present knowledge.
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
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."
Artistic purity was much in the air at the beginning of the 1960s. In
his profoundly influential Modernist Painting of 1960, Clement
Greenberg described Modernism as a set of purgations, in which each of
the arts seeks to identify what is essential to its defining medium, and
eliminate everything else. "Thus would each art be rendered 'pure,' and
in its 'purity' find the guarantee of its standards of quality as well
as its independence." For Greenberg, illusion was an impurity in
painting, which properly should be abstract. Using their own words, we
can imagine another duet, early in Guston in Woodstock, between
Greenberg and Guston. For Guston must have had Greenberg's thesis
precisely in mind when, sitting on a panel that took place around that
same time, he said, "There is something ridiculous and miserly in the
myth we inherit from abstract art. That painting is autonomous, pure and
for itself, therefore we habitually analyze its ingredients and define
its limits. But painting is 'impure.' It is the adjustment of
'impurities' which forces its continuity. We are image-makers and
image-ridden." The confrontation could hardly be more stark. But it
sounds as if it refers to the dilemma that defined artistic
consciousness from the onset of abstraction and became acute in America
in the 1940s--whether to paint the figure or go abstract. There was
certainly a dramatic moment in the lives of each of the Abstract
Expressionists, with the exception perhaps of Motherwell, when they left
the figure behind and discovered the style through which each became a
master. Guston himself had gone through the crisis. But his painting of
1970 marked a crisis of an entirely different order. Guston did not
merely do the figure, as de Kooning had done in 1953 with his famous
Women. For de Kooning had discovered a way of having his cake and eating
it too--painting the figure using the same gestures that were so
effective in his great abstractions. But Guston did the figure in a way
that repudiated his entire philosophy of painting. It was, Guston later
wrote, "as though I had left the Church: I was excommunicated for a
while." The shift was precisely as dramatic as that from mandarin to
stumblebum. It really was like leaving the Church. But the decision was
not merely artistic. It was a moral decision that took an artistic form.
The question for Guston was how one could go on painting beautiful
pictures when the world was falling apart. The pursuit of aesthetic
purity was not an acceptable option. For Kramer, to abandon aesthetics
was to forsake art. Obviously this was not Guston's view. He needed to
find an art that was consistent with his moral disquiet. "The Vietnam
War was what was happening in America, the brutality of the world." And
here his language really does take on a lyrical intonation:
What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a
frustrated fury about everything--and then going into my studio to
adjust a red to a blue. I thought there must be some way I could do
something about it. I knew ahead of me a road was waiting. A very crude,
inchoate road. I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid.
I assume this soliloquy refers to the time of his retrospective
exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1966. The abstractions of those
years, one can now see, had a crude, inchoate quality. But that was not
the road Guston was seeking. "There is nothing to do now," he went on,
"but to paint my life.... Keep destroying any attempt to paint pictures,
or think about art. If someone bursts out laughing in front of my
painting, that is exactly what I want and expect."
Guston began to work in two ways in the months ahead. "I remember days
of doing 'pure' drawings immediately followed by days of doing the
other, drawings of objects.... Books, shoes, buildings, hands--feeling a
relief and strong need to cope with tangible things." It is this return
to the commonplace objects of daily life, away from the exalted forms of
Abstract Expressionism, that became the central truth of 1960s art--in
Fluxus particularly, but also in Pop and even in Minimalism. The impulse
came from Zen, which had become so strong a spiritual current in New
York intellectual life. With John Cage, Guston attended Dr. Suzuki's
seminar in Zen at Columbia University, and he often alluded to Zen ideas
in his discourse. On the other hand, he was conflicted about Pop. With
several other Abstract Expressionists, he left the Sidney Janis Gallery
in 1962 in protest because it had organized an exhibition of Pop. But by
1967 he saw, through the work of Warhol and Lichtenstein, the power of
vernacular illustration. Unlike Lichtenstein, who used the vocabulary of
the comics to ironize high art, Guston was able to make it his own. He
was not pretending--he became a Zen stumblebum. The drawings were
and are brilliant. This may have solved his artistic quandaries, but not
his moral ones. For this he made use of the Klan.
The Klansmen, drawn in his new comic-strip style, were depicted in the
Marlborough paintings wearing tattered hoods, with slotted eyeholes,
riding through empty urban streets in stubby roadsters like Mutt and
Jeff, holding smoking cigar stumps between two extended gloved fingers,
or moving hither and thither in desolate symbolic landscapes, filled
with coarsely painted clocks, severed limbs, shoes, boards studded with
bent nails and a sun rising--or setting--behind the horizon. In one,
titled The Studio, a Klansman, holding the omnipresent cigar, is
shown painting a self-portrait under a bare light bulb. In later years,
Guston acknowledged that Studio was a kind of self-portrait--that
the hooded figures were all self-portraits in a way. "I almost tried to
imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be
evil? To plan and plot." He was painting the evil in each of us in a
style every one of us knew. When he was a mandarin in 1957, he did an
exquisite abstraction called The Mirror. When he became a
stumblebum in 1970 he painted the kind of moral mirror in which Hamlet
meant to catch the conscience of the king.
The Nixon drawings belong to the last great phase of Guston's career,
and they constitute a kind of comic intermezzo. All seventy-five of them
were done in Woodstock in the late summer of 1971, and they appear to
have been conceived as frames in a kind of comic-strip book, narrating
the self-mythologizing life of our scariest politician. Guston titled
the book Poor Richard and made unsuccessful efforts to get it
published. The book's version of Nixon's story was in any case overtaken
by history. It was overtaken in the first instance by triumph--Nixon
actually went to China in February 1972, whereas that event is treated
with a fictive indefiniteness in Poor Richard (the drawings
having been completed the previous year). And of course it was overtaken
by Nixon's disgrace--by Watergate and resignation--in the years that
immediately followed. So the drawings remained almost unknown to any but
specialists in Guston's work until now, when, thanks to the initiative
of Debra Bricker Balken, they have been reproduced in their entirety in
the new book Poor Richard (University of Chicago), together with a
spirited explanatory essay by her, telling how they came about.
Moreover, the originals can be seen at the David McKee Gallery, 645
Fifth Avenue, New York City, September 7-October 6, and enjoyed for
their sharp humor and graphic brilliance. I can think of no historical
parallel in which a great artist has shown himself to be a cartoonist of
genius while engaging himself directly in the political reality of his
moment--though Picasso used a comic-strip format in the two etchings of
the Dreams and Lies of Franco.
Who knows what impact they might have had? Caricature has at times
succeeded in putting certain public figures in a light so unflattering
that their power has been damaged and even destroyed. It became almost
impossible for the French to take Louis Philippe seriously once they saw
him through Daumier's drawings as having the form of a pear--the term
connotes stupidity. Thomas Nast found such damaging ways of drawing Boss
Tweed and his corrupt Tammany cohorts that they were graphically and
then politically discredited. Nixon's nose and stubbled jowls were a
ready-made cartoon, with an irresistible resemblance to a cock and
balls, which is the way Guston shows him. Poor Richard is perhaps
too playful--too funny really--to have inflamed public indignation
beyond the point it had already reached at the time. But who can really
say? What would we think had Daumier's lithographs remained hidden until
today, and all we knew were his marvelous paintings of Don Quixote and
peasant women in a railway wagon? Or if Thomas Nast did not have the
outlet of Harper's Weekly, and the fierce caricatures of Boss
Tweed were discovered in an attic years after his death? The powers that
images can release are unpredictable, which is why censorship exists.
Even at their brilliant best, of course, there would have been a moral
disproportion between the ludic preposterousness of Nixon and his
cronies--Spiro Agnew, John Mitchell and Henry Kissinger, as they are
depicted in Poor Richard--and the actual evils of Vietnam and
Cambodia. Still, Nixon's soiled image has been so cleaned and polished
since his fall that the historically unaware might think him a candidate
for Mount Rushmore. So Guston's drawings might after all do some real
good in reminding us of the abject truth of a personage whose unique
character so combined evil and absurdity.
Nixon is first shown as a college football player, with shoulder pads
and a varsity letter. His features had not yet evolved into their
genital configuration, though the nose shows phallic promise. He is
given Little Orphan Annie eyes to emblematize his sham innocence. We
next see the politically obligatory poverty of his childhood home--a
log-cabin-style interior with wood stove and log pile, and a volume
titled LINCOLN prominently displayed on a bare table. In the next frame
Nixon is hitting the books hard, under a bare light bulb (note the
volume titled WILSON). Soon he is standing in his patched and ragged
garments with his faithful dog Checkers (in an inspired touch, Guston
shows the latter with checkerboard markings). Suddenly we are at Key
Biscayne, Nixon's favorite hang-out, soon to be kept company by
Kissinger (always represented as a pair of walking horn-rimmed glasses);
Agnew, in Hawaiian shirt and inseparable from his bag of golf clubs; and
Mitchell, never without his pipe. This is the cast of characters.
Pat--who plays an important role in Nixon in China--is not to be
I'll let the rights to Guston in Woodstock go--well--for a song.
But it has some wonderful theatrical possibilities I have not mentioned,
like a scene at the Marlborough opening, where a chorus of Tenth Street
painters sing "This isn't painting, Phil." Guston and de Kooning throw
their arms around each other, caroling together "It's all about freedom"
(Chorus: "This isn't painting, Bill"). Then a scene back at Woodstock,
where Guston and his neighbor, Philip Roth, entertain each other with
their hilarious Nixon imitations (Roth's satire Our Gang was,
like Poor Richard, an artistic product of those sessions).
History gives us a better ending than Guston dared dream of: Nixon
bidding farewell to his presidency as Kissinger's glasses mist with
tears--and a pilgrim chorus of Neo-Expressionist painters singing
Guston's triumph as the curtain falls.
Readers of this magazine do not need reminders of the costs of the cold war. The mountains of corpses, the damaged lives, divided families and displaced refugees, the secret police forces and death squads, and the resources wasted on ghastly weapons of unfathomable evil are not only markers of a recent past but still-active landmines buried a few inches beneath the surface of our contemporary lives.
What may be harder to remember is the ways the global struggle with the Soviet Union enabled social and cultural achievements that made the United States a decidedly more decent society. From Harry Truman's integration of the armed forces to the Brown decision and the 1963 March on Washington, the initial phase of the civil rights movement capitalized on the moral embarrassment of segregation for a nation trying to win the hearts and minds of Third World peoples. Likewise, the rapid postwar expansion of state universities, the infusion of government monies into public schools after Sputnik and the creation of the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities in 1965 were all episodes in an ideological cold war meant to demonstrate the cultural superiority of the "free world" to the Soviet bloc. It was a strange era that offered both Martin Luther King Jr. and his persecutor J. Edgar Hoover their big chance to bring the United States closer to their ideals.
Two monuments to the cold war stand catty-corner to one another on Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue: On one side, the brutalist Hoover FBI building; on the other, the restored neo-Romanesque post office that houses the NEA and NEH and bears the name of Nancy Hanks, the liberal Republican chair of the NEA during its glory days in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Care to guess which building will be renamed first?
Michael Brenson's new study of the NEA, Visionaries and Outcasts, emphasizes the cold war origins of the agency in an effort to place the "arts wars" of the past dozen years in historical perspective. Looking beyond the 1995 budget cuts that devastated the endowment, and the earlier battles in 1989-90 over NEA-supported exhibitions by photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, Brenson tracks the unfolding of a tension between "ideology and idealism" inherent in the NEA founders' understanding of the agency's role in American culture. Arts advisers to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson sought federal support for the arts to promote international awareness of the cultural vitality of a society dedicated to free expression and civil liberties. At the same time, cultural policy-makers like August Heckscher and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.--heirs to the upper-middle-class lampoon of middle-class "conformism" that stretched from Sinclair Lewis's Main Street (1920) to William H. Whyte's The Organization Man (1956)--saw in federal arts funding a way to create an American "civilization" equal to Western Europe's, which would inspire their fellow citizens with something more ennobling than the stuff of television and Levittown. Much like Clement Greenberg, the towering figure in postwar art criticism, Camelot culture warriors mounted a two-front campaign against the state-dominated art of the Soviet bloc and the kitsch of a newly affluent society.
Amazing as it now seems, the man (and he was imagined as a man) who was to do such heroic work for the nation was the artist. Kennedy's wooing of celebrity artists and writers--epitomized by his choice of Robert Frost to deliver a poem (he recited "The Gift Outright") at his 1961 inaugural and his subsequent invitation to Pablo Casals to perform at the White House--was not only an attempt to surround himself with glamorous and influential opinion-makers but, according to Brenson, a determined effort to establish the artist-prophet as a symbol of defiant individualism in an other-directed age. Whether it was Frost the aging Yankee reciting from memory at the inaugural or the Abstract Expressionist painters wrenching meaning from existential meaninglessness, the image of modern artists as "visionaries and outcasts" served liberals' war of ideas against Communist adversaries abroad and the benighted middle classes at home. As Kennedy put it in his 1963 speech at the dedication of the Frost Memorial library at Amherst College--the occasion for his most extended comments on the arts--a great artist was the "last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state."
Visionaries and Outcasts sketches the history of liberalism's dream of the visual artist as national hero from the early 1960s to the present. Brenson was originally commissioned to write an internal study of the NEA's visual arts program, but the former New York Times art critic chose to revise and publish his work independently after the dismantling of that program by the Gingrich Congress in 1995. The book he has produced is more than an institutional study of one office in a federal agency, however. Brenson rightly considers the program that gave some 4,000 fellowships to individual artists between 1965 and 1995 as the heart and soul of the Endowment. Although early chapters suffer from the bureaucratic language common to government reports, the book concludes by raising thoughtful and provocative questions about the tragic history of the NEA. As he revised his study, Brenson expanded his vision to include the rise and fall of this heroic image of the modern artist as prophet and redeemer of late-twentieth-century US culture. "The NEA became a lens onto larger issues of the changing identity of the American artist and the enduring problem of...the visual artist in a country that...is still only comfortable with the artist as a maker of high-priced commodities controlled by galleries and museums."
In the story Brenson tells, modern artists were useful to this country's political elites only so long as the cold war was raging. Once that war was won, and the political culture had shifted markedly to the right, the lonely artist was no longer a bearer of universal values but a threat to them. The ideological rationale for the endowment collapsed along with the Berlin wall, and cautious NEA administrators invested their idealism in established art institutions. Better to fund museums than to risk spending money on unruly individuals who might turn out--like Serrano or Mapplethorpe--to be "controversial." Despite the defensive maneuvers of arts administrators and their allies, a vengeful Congress cut the NEA's budget by 40 percent in 1995 and eliminated all grants to individual artists (except writers). The endowment has since limped along into the twenty-first century, but more as an occasion for petition drives and liberal fundraising than as a vital force for artistic creativity. In reality, the NEA of 1965 is dead, and with it the official myth of the artist as critic and savior of American national culture.
During the three decades when it mattered, the NEA's visual arts program gave small grants, no strings attached, to many of this country's major artists, often offering them assistance early in their careers before private money was forthcoming. The mechanism for doling out funds was peer panels composed of artists, curators, scholars and critics, who operated without political oversight from federal officials. In fact, Kennedy liberals organized the peer-panel system precisely because it insulated art-funding decisions from state interference and therefore drew another contrast with the state cultural agencies in place in the Soviet-bloc countries. Artistic freedom, in the view of Camelot arts advisers, required the support of professional panels that would judge art strictly according to nonideological, aesthetic standards. At a time when a Greenbergian theory of aesthetic autonomy reigned supreme in New York-based art circles, the freedom of the NEA's peer panels from politicians' control seemed to most liberals a necessary complement to a Modernist logic that divorced "pure" painting and sculpture from political ideology, representation and traditional subject matter of any kind.
The NEA's panels instantly became objects of criticism from true "outsiders," who interpreted talk of an autonomous aesthetic as a bid for power by art-establishment cronies. Brenson ignores the early history of such attacks, which originally came from the political left, and instead repeats the now-familiar story of the persecution of the NEA by the Christian right and its allies in Congress after 1989. The story is a bit more complicated than that, however. In the context of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the authority of the peer panels and the autonomous aesthetic theory they defended came under attack from other quarters: from advocates of more politically charged, social-realist and feminist art; from African-American and Latino artists who saw little of their work or their traditions acknowledged, let alone supported, by the NEA in its early years; and from folk artists and enthusiasts of regionalist cultural traditions who disputed the place of New York Modernists at the pinnacle of the NEA's cultural hierarchy. Although the Endowment quickly made concessions to its critics on the left, the peer-panel process remained largely unchanged from its original incarnation until 1995, in the aftermath of the Republican sweep in the previous fall's elections, when the conservative polemic against the tyranny of a "cultural elite" hostile to the values of "normal Americans" finally succeeded in killing off the visual arts fellowships.
Brenson devotes almost half his book to an admiring account of the panels' operations, quoting extensively from artists who served as referees or benefited from the program's largesse. He condemns the system's rightist critics as ignorant and presents the panels in the most glowing terms imaginable as models of aesthetic judgment, openness and generosity. "The peer panel system embodied the idealism and nobility of the NEA," he tells us. Those who applied unsuccessfully during these years may have had another view of the matter, but no one can deny that the award of such a grant at an early stage of an artist's career meant far more than the money involved. Installation artist Ann Hamilton recalls that "winning" her fellowship in 1993 "gave me a very important sense of support from my peers, which is and was very important in maintaining the trust and faith necessary to make new work, to change, to make a leap of imagination toward what can't easily be knowable or containable in language." This was the NEA's visual arts program at its best--"a gift," as Brenson calls it, "in the fullest sense of something given especially to one particular person, with a special knowledge of who that person is and what that person needs, by someone or something that cares--in this case a government agency, on the advice of peers."
What went wrong, then? Given its distinguished history, why was the visual arts program so vulnerable in 1995? Visionaries and Outcasts is not altogether helpful in answering that question, though it offers a rudimentary road map for a fuller account in the future. Brenson rounds up the usual suspects--Jesse Helms, fundamentalists, New Criterion editor Hilton Kramer--and, in a more intriguing move, notes how the ground shifted beneath the panel system in the 1980s as the art market and American artists themselves transformed the cultural meaning of the visual arts. The go-go art market of the Reagan era created a private reward system that made the NEA irrelevant to many young artists on the make, while conservatives inside and outside the endowment began assigning to museums the universalistic values that 1960s liberals once invested in the image of the heroic artist. Meanwhile, radical artists gave up the Modernist ideal of the individual prophet-artist standing apart from his or her culture. The adoption by many political artists of the term "community arts movement" to describe their project was an important sign of a new sensibility among artists who came of age in the 1980s and rejected the endowment's original assumptions even as they accepted its subsidies. Brenson himself adopts some of their critique in the closing pages of his book, acknowledging that the NEA "put artists on pedestals" and "ended up sustaining their marginalization" by perpetuating an image that many Americans found "arrogant and disdainful."
Brenson's second thoughts seem not to have influenced the rest of this book, which hardly registers the effect of such searching self-criticism. That is unfortunate, because his valuable questioning of the Modernist myth that originally inspired the NEA, and his closing call for an art of "connectedness"--to other citizens and to the natural world--should be the starting points for any serious reconsideration of the embattled agency's history. Especially when it comes to the arts, liberal and leftist culture-workers are too quick to attribute their current troubles to the malevolence of strangers (what will the so-called People for the American Way do when Jesse Helms dies?); too loath to acknowledge that they have achieved positions of power, wealth and influence in American society; and too devoted to their flattering self-image as, alternately, daring rebels or beleaguered victims. Such poses may absolve cultural administrators of any feeling of responsibility for their institutions' plight, but they will prove useless when it comes time to sort through the wreckage of the NEA and other liberal cultural programs in search of lessons for the future.
At one crucial moment in his book, Brenson inadvertently hints at a more critical history of the endowment that might better explain its terrible predicament. He compares the panel system to "the United States jury system" in its rock-bottom faith in humans' "need to learn, [their] belief in justice, and [their] commitment to the common good." Maybe those were the impulses that motivated the panelists as they watched hundreds of slides flash before their eyes; but in retrospect it's exactly the extent to which the NEA selection process was not like a jury that stands out as its chief political liability. Juries, after all, are not composed solely of lawyers, criminologists, psychologists and forensic experts. Nor are embezzlers, assassins and car thieves invited exclusively to judge their peers. When those people serve on juries, they do so as citizens, not in their capacity as professionals. Whatever their limitations, juries embody the civic ideal that ordinary voters--informed by the law and the testimony of relevant specialists--possess the wisdom to govern themselves and administer justice fairly. Never did the NEA's founders display a comparable faith in the ability of nonexperts to contribute to the common culture. Indeed, one reason they married a formalist aesthetic to bureaucratic proceduralism in the first place was to secure a space for creativity separate from the presumed ignorance and tastelessness of the general public.
Such a system "worked" well enough in the NEA's early years, when a New York-based art elite had an astonishing confidence about which artists deserved support. As the East Coast NEA panel met in 1966, it was easy for a few insiders to chat informally and select names. "Generally there was a consensus" about which artists deserved grants, sculptor George Segal told Brenson. "There was not too much of a discussion because it was assumed that all of us knew them." The founding director of the visual arts program, former Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Henry Geldzahler, was openly contemptuous of a request at a West Coast meeting that the panelists examine slides of work by the artists under consideration. As panelist and fellow museum curator Walter Hopps recalled, "The boxes were pushed into the room. Henry stood up and went over and thumped each box with his hand and said, OK, now we've seen the applications and we've seen all this." The boxes of slides were removed, unopened; the applications sat in a pile unread. "We just talked about who we wanted.... It was all over in a morning."
A small art world with a strong consensus on a Greenbergian narrative of Modernist progress could afford to behave this way, especially when it enjoyed support from a liberal majority in Congress. But even when the peer-panel process was cleaned up and made more professional, the complaints poured in that the selection system was unresponsive to the very public this public agency was meant to serve and indifferent to the growing heterogeneity of art practices that transformed visual culture in the United States after the 1960s. What at first seemed like a means of protecting the independence of cutting-edge "visionaries and outcasts" from bureaucratic interference stood condemned by the late 1970s and early 1980s as an institutionalized patronage network that favored specific aesthetic commitments and excluded the vast majority of Americans as incapable of informed artistic judgment.
Coming to terms with the political shortcomings of the peer-panel system requires that we take a more skeptical view of the idea that artists (and their liberal allies) were "outcasts" in the first place, back in 1965. Despite his trenchant critique of the heroic-individualist model of the artist during the cold war, Brenson himself slips into romantic and avant-gardist rhetoric that is long overdue for critical scrutiny. To what extent can one really speak of the modern artists the NEA supported in the 1960s and 1970s as an avant-garde? Wasn't the original mission of the NEA proof that by mid-century the avant-garde ideal had merged perfectly with the cult of expertise that so captivated elite liberals, with their dream of benevolent rule from above by "the best and the brightest"? The class and ideological biases of the cultural institutions that liberals created in that period seem to have escaped no one except liberals themselves.
A quarter-century after the collapse of the New Deal arts programs, with their organic connection to 1930s labor insurgency, the case for federal arts funding returned in a very different political guise. The NEA's original base was in the (Nelson) Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party and the (John) Kennedy wing of the Democratic Party, two upper-middle-class constituencies that prided themselves on their distance from a seemingly "stodgy" labor movement and a parvenu middle class mired in the "ticky-tacky" vulgarity of the suburbs. It should come as no surprise that Nancy Hanks--once Nelson Rockefeller's personal secretary and then the NEA's chairwoman during the Nixon and Ford administrations--presided over dramatically escalating budgets for the endowment. Republicans still needed to appease the Rockefeller wing of their own party. And it should be no surprise, either, that a new right within the Republican Party succeeded in large part by pursuing a very different brand of cultural politics.
Capitalizing on popular unhappiness with the arrogance of the "New Class" at the helm of the NEA and other official cultural institutions, the Goldwater-Reagan right was able to oust the Rockefeller liberals from its own party and mount a masterful crusade against "cultural elites" in the universities, foundations, mainline Protestant churches, museums and the two endowments. Elite liberalism has not fared well in postliberal America, as conservatives have channeled popular disaffections into a pseudo-populism on cultural matters that they would never tolerate in economic affairs or foreign policy. The result has been an increasing isolation of artists, writers and intellectuals in universities and a delegitimation of the very idea of a common cultural life shared by citizens of different backgrounds.
With its original claims to aesthetic autonomy and professional expertise discredited by years of pounding from the left and the right, the endowment lacks a persuasive language to justify alternatives to the privatization of arts patronage. Its very name, the National Endowment for the Arts, speaks to an era of liberal consensus--on the nation, on the nature and desirability of national cultural standards, on what does and does not constitute art--that has disappeared. With the nation and the arts in dispute, all that remains is the program's pathetic "endowment," mere chump change in the global village overseen by the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Charles Saatchi and the trustees of the Guggenheim Museum chain store.
In an era of market fundamentalism, the panel system that once promised artists protection from political and bureaucratic interference during the cold war deserves careful reconsideration. It is conceivable that panels might again function as "free spaces," this time offering artists a refuge from the commercial imperatives that are ruining publishing, museums and public broadcasting. But to make the case for such spaces today requires a radically different mindset from the sentimental avant-gardism and antidemocratic prejudice still current in elite art circles. It also demands a clear-eyed acknowledgment of the historical complicity of the endowment's defenders in the political logic that threatens our public schools, museums and libraries, as well as our artists.
Starting from ground zero, with the NEA in ruins, advocates of public funding for the arts need a language that recognizes the difference between the authority of collective judgments rooted in shared standards and the exercise of market power, and which assumes, furthermore, that every person has access to varieties of aesthetic experience that may contribute to the formulation of such standards. Opening panels to nonspecialists need not be a Trojan Horse for "Archie Bunkerism" or "authoritarian populism," those bugaboos of elite left-liberalism. Nor is it an affront to the credentials of artists and scholars who benefit from public subsidy (like this reviewer) to insist that they discuss their work with lay audiences in exchange for such support. These are tiny steps, of course, but the suspicion and hostility even such modest suggestions provoke in some quarters are a sign of the bleak cultural pessimism that now poisons all discussion of the civic role of the arts in the United States.
Every few months, I receive a forwarded e-mail message that recounts a reputed NPR story by Nina Totenberg about an upcoming Supreme Court ruling on funding for the NEA, warns that the Court's conservatives are about to kill off the endowment once and for all, and then asks for my name on its long list of petitioners. The petition is a classic Internet hoax, but even if it weren't, the time for forwarding such messages is long gone. The NEA was gutted several years ago, and the rebuilding of public support for publicly funded art is going to take a lot more than e-mail petitions. There are hard, unsettling questions that the people who sign such petitions need to ask about the responsibility they and their institutions bear for the ascendancy of our conservative order and about the blindness that comes with the heady self-image of artists and intellectuals as visionaries, outcasts and perpetual victims. Michael Brenson's book is a valuable starting point for a conversation, barely audible at the moment, that might finally address those questions. Until then, ignore the petition on your computer screen. That delete button is there for a reason.
The almost exact coincidence in time between the destruction of the Buddha figures by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's renewed jihad against the Brooklyn Museum vividly underscores the problems that authorities seem to have in dealing with images. It hardly matters whether it is the most sophisticated city in the world or one of the world's most backward countries--authorities form Panels on Decency or mount Exhibitions of Degenerate Art or ship avant-garde painters off to rot in gulags or divert funds badly needed for the relief of famine to pound, with advanced weaponry, effigies into rubble. And let us not forget Plato's scheme for ridding the Just Society of mimetic art generally. As these examples suggest, iconoclasm cannot always be explained with reference to religious orthodoxy. William Randolph Hearst and Congressman George Dondero of Michigan did what they could on grounds of patriotism to cleanse America of any images that smacked of Modernism. "Art which does not beautify our country in plain simple terms that everyone can understand breeds dissatisfaction," Dondero proclaimed. "It is therefore opposed to our government and those who create and promote it are our enemies." Why should our taxes support imagery of which our officials disapprove? (The answer, of course, is that they were not elected to tell us what we could see--they were elected to secure our basic freedom to make up our own minds on matters of expression, artistic and otherwise.)
Renee Cox's suddenly famous photograph, which shows a naked woman at a dinner party, has been stigmatized by Mayor Giuliani as indecent and anti-Catholic. It is in fact neither. The title, as everyone in the world now knows, is Yo Mama's Last Supper, but Yo Mama has been one of the ways in which Cox has referred to herself since the time when, enrolled in the Whitney Independent Study Program, she did a number of large nude photographs of herself pregnant and, later, with her son. The title in effect means "The Last Supper According to Renee Cox," and the art-historical reference is to the Last Supper according to Leonardo da Vinci. There are a great many pictures of Christ's last meal with his disciples, all of them by the nature of the case interpretations, since literal pictorial records are out of the question. Cox's interpretation enjoys the protections of the First Amendment, but one loses a great opportunity in thinking of her work--or anyone's work, for that matter--merely in terms of the artist's right to make it or the museum's right to display it. Cox is a serious artist, with serious things to say in her chosen medium. The First Amendment exists to protect the freedom of discourse, rightly perceived as central to the intellectual welfare of a free society. Art belongs to that discourse, and our taxes support museums in order to give citizens access to it. Mayors should be first in line to secure these rights and benefits rather than voice hooligan pronouncements against art for the evening news.
Yet the history of images is also the history of forbidding the making of images. This interdiction is wholesale at Exodus 20:4, where Jehovah prohibits any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or is in the water under the earth. There is an implied thesis in pictorial psychology in this commandment, which probably goes to the heart of the matter: People have a hard time not believing that there is an internal connection between pictures and their subjects. If you can place a picture of an antelope on your cave wall, you have made an antelope present in the cave. If you have a picture of a saint before you, the saint herself is right there, mystically present in her icon. So if you pray before the icon, your prayers are immediately heard by her whose image it is. It was this intimacy with holy beings that made icons so greatly cherished in early Christianity, and that accordingly made them so vexed a political nuisance in the Byzantine Empire, which was torn asunder for more than a century by controversy over what we might think of as pictorial metaphysics. The arguments pro and con had an intricacy and deviousness that help give the term "byzantine" its familiar meaning. But when the Iconoclasts were in power, it also meant an actual destruction of icons so thorough that very few of what must have been an almost countless number of them have survived.
Drawing is said to have been invented by a Corinthian girl, Dibutades, who traced the outline of her lover's shadow on the wall so that she would keep a trace of him with her when he left. Images in their nature have outlines, which is why Byzantine theorists regarded every likeness of God as false: God has no outlines, and so to picture God is to represent God as finite. The Byzantine practice of worshiping God through worshiping an icon of God is idolatry, which is the worship of finite things. And it was the intent of Exodus to forestall idol worship. The problem this presented to the established religion was that the church in fact exercised monopolistic control over images, and prohibition accordingly had deep economic consequences, given the appetite that was a defining trait of Byzantine culture. Supporters of icons had a clever answer. Toleration of images is one of the grounds on which Christianity distinguishes itself from Judaism and indeed Islam. The whole message of Christianity rests on the proposition that God decided to save humanity from sin by self-incarnation in human form. But human beings in our nature are finite. Since God is Jesus, in worshiping Jesus one is worshiping an infinite being in finite form. Indeed, we have Jesus' own testimony for the acceptability of images, since he himself conferred his image upon Saint Veronica, who offered him her veil to wipe his brow with as he struggled up the road to the cross: When she received it back, there was the image of Christ's face, like a photographic impression. This was considered a miracle, and Veronica's veil is one of the most important relics in the Church's large inventory.
The identity of the persons of the Trinity is the most abstruse and contested teaching of the early Church, but once the decision is made to take on human form, the question of gender immediately arises, and this brings us to the Brooklyn case. Humans are sexually bimorphic, so the question cannot be avoided. Could God have chosen to be incarnate in a female body? To say that God could not have is inconsistent with God's power. My sense is that a male body would have recommended itself at that moment in history, in order to make sure that Jesus would have a respect and authority not ordinarily accorded females. But does this rule out that Jesus could be represented as female? That might have been difficult for worshipers to deal with during certain stages of iconography, though it should hardly be an insuperable problem, once we appreciate that pictures may be regarded as symbols rather than mere likenesses. Not even the first Christians had difficulties in accepting that Christ could be represented as a fish! The Greek word for fish, Ichthys, acted as an acronym for "Jesus Christ God's Son Savior." One of the great theologians went so far as to play on the idea that through the sacrament of baptism, water is the medium in which we live, so that Christians, like Jesus, are fishlike in nature.
The masculine identity of Jesus is explicit in representations of the Christ child in Western art, over and over again shown with a penis, often pointed to in pictures, sometimes by the Christ child himself. The great art historian Leo Steinberg has made this the theme of a major contribution, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion. Any ambiguity on the matter raises difficulties of interpretation. When, for example, pilgrims carried lead badges showing Christ bearded and crucified but wearing a robe, these were found puzzling in Northern Europe, where only women wore such garments. Here is the reasoning that resolved the issue: On the evidence of dress, the figure had to be female. (Evidently clothing trumps beards, since there are bearded women.) A myth evolved that the bearded woman was Saint Wilgefortis, which derives from virgo fortis--Strong Virgin. Wilgefortis, a beautiful virgin, wanted to devote her life to Christ but was betrothed to the King of Sicily. She prayed that she be made ugly, and God answered by causing a beard to grow on her face. The King of Sicily, disgusted, canceled the wedding. Her father was so angry that he had his bearded daughter crucified. Thus grew up the cult of Saint Wilgefortis, and her worshipers, praying before the figure of a bearded woman, were unbeknownst to themselves really praying to Christ.
An image of a crucified person wearing a dress could be, taken literally, Saint Wilgefortis, or symbolically it could be Jesus. The central figure in Yo Mama's Last Supper, since nude, is hardly ambiguous in point of gender. But it is ambiguous as to whether it is literal or symbolic representation. So let's begin to examine the work as art critics:
It is an exceptionally large photograph, in color, consisting of five panels, each 31 inches square. The female figure occupies the entire central panel. She is standing, arms outspread, palms upturned, behind a table, set with some bowls of fruit and a wineglass. Because of the title and certain formal similarities to Leonardo's painting, one has to say that she occupies the place of Christ. I think that it is incidental to the meaning of the picture that Cox photographed herself as Jesus, since I don't think she is suggesting that she is Jesus, or that it is a self-portrait of Renee Cox as Jesus. Rather, she is working along lines associated with Cindy Sherman, who photographs herself but not as herself, with the difference that Sherman has never, so far as I know, shown her own nakedness. Renee Cox has used herself as model for Jesus, symbolically represented as a woman. This is interpretive conjecture: It is impossible to know from the picture alone whether Cox is saying that Jesus was in fact a woman or merely that he is being represented as a woman. The differences are immense, one being about theological, the other about representational, fact. Obviously the two can be connected. No one thinks that Jesus was actually a lamb, but he is often enough depicted as a lamb, and this is thought to be a symbolic way of presenting some deep truth about Jesus. One speaks about being washed in the blood of the lamb, but as Muriel Spark observes in a novel, blood is too sticky to wash with, so the image is poetic license.
In the "Sensation" show (at the same museum and which also drew the Mayor's ire), the British artist Sam Taylor-Wood showed a Last Supper with a woman, nude from the waist up, as Jesus. She titled the work Wrecked. Taylor-Wood's picture is somewhat baroque and even Carravagesque, and in it Jesus looks haunted. Cox's picture is rather classical, with the disciples distributed in two groups of three on either side, and Jesus appears (I would say) magisterial. S/he is holding what I imagine is a shroud over his/her arms and passing behind the body, so as not to conceal her femininity. Taylor-Wood's picture raised no hackles at the time, but this may be explained through hackle-fatigue--unless the fact that Jesus is black in Cox's image is the suppressed premise in the recent complaint.
Since Christ has been shown as a lamb in many wonderful paintings--and continues to be represented by a fish in various gift items and ornaments for automobiles, there is iconographic room for him to be shown in many different ways. Showing God as male is, as I say, a historical contingency. It could be a metaphor, through which one conveys Christ's absolute authority, males traditionally having that in patriarchal societies. But there is a more central consideration. Let us remember that the whole message of Christianity is that God took on a human form in order to redeem us through his suffering. There is a magnificent piece of criticism by Roger Fry of a Madonna and Child by Mantegna. "The wizened face, the creased and crumpled flesh of a new born babe...all the penalty, the humiliation, almost the squalor attendant upon being 'made flesh' are marked." In view of the profound suffering both women and blacks have undergone through history, it would be entirely suitable that Christ be represented as either of these, or both. It is true that in Cox's picture, Christ looks exalted and self-certain. It is a picture of someone defiant and prepared to face down her oppressors. But it is, on whatever symbolic level, after all a picture of God. Taylor-Wood's picture is of Jesus as human. But the important truth is that Jesus is supposed to have been both, and the issue of what gender the human is to be in a given representation is a matter of delicate interpretational negotiation.
These are the considerations on which I want to deny that the picture is either indecent or anti-Catholic. The Mayor blurted out these epithets when he was shown a photograph of Yo Mama's Last Supper in the Daily News. Giuliani can always be counted on to make entertaining noises in the presence of art. He might have said the same thing had an artist scanned a picture of a fish into Leonardo's painting. I appreciate the fact that the Mayor has more pressing things to deal with than pondering the mysteries of Christ's body or the language of religious symbols, but if the so-called Decency Panel he has formed presses forward, I think he owes it to art and to his religion to ask that pictures that offend him be explained to him. I would be astonished if the panel he has appointed is interested in doing that on his behalf. If I were summoned as a witness, I would be eager to point out the complexities of interpretation involved with the art that comes before it, and that the panelists should consider the art the way it is considered by a critic, from the perspective of what view is being visually advanced. Seen that way, it becomes a matter of finding plausible critical hypotheses and then seeing whether they could not be true--giving the art the benefit of the doubt. I cannot imagine the panel having to meet very often, once its meetings turned on such matters of interpretation. The issue finally becomes of a piece with conflicts in society at large, where we have learned to tolerate views whether we like them or not.
There is, to be sure, a distinction between protecting a right and supporting an art museum with our taxes. There are those who see free expression as a right but not necessarily a public right to art museums as institutions. That question reduces to one of why we should have art museums, paid for by our taxes. My view is that it would not be art if it did not advance views, whether the views are mine or agree with mine or not. So, you can't have art museums without the question of freedom of expression arising. (Whether there should be museums at all is another question entirely, though fortunately it is not the mayoral panel's charge to answer it!)
So let's imagine that after all the explanations, an image really is anti-Catholic and indecent. Should our tax dollars support such art--or further, since any view can be expressed in art, are there other views we would not want expressed in our art museums? I say that if it can be expressed outside of art, there is room for it in the museum if expressed as art. Let us take a very controversial view--that abortion is murder. That is part of the discourse on abortion, and it is certainly at the heart of the "prolife" movement. A painting that shows an abortion clinic with the title Massacre of the Innocents has a right to be shown if the belief it expresses has a right to be voiced--as it of course has. It is offensive to prochoice advocates, but hanging it in an art museum harms them less than having to face people shouting their position in front of clinics. A painting showing antiabortion protesters jeering in a very ugly way could be painted by someone like Leon Golub, and it would be offensive to them in just the same way.
All this takes us a long way from Renee Cox's photograph, and it shows how irrelevant to the deep issues of expressive freedom a panel on decency really is. These days, "indecency" is a fairly marginal infraction, since questions of fittingness and suitability are almost impossible to arbitrate. If anything is unsuitable, I would suppose it is officials talking recklessly about art when they are representatives of a city in which interest in art is profound and serious talk about art is as expressive of the city's soul as talk about baseball. A city of great museums and universities, a beacon of high culture to the world at large, deserves decency in discourse about art on the Mayor's part. I would not insist on a panel to keep the Mayor in line.
Jean Clair, director
of the Musée Picasso in Paris and widely respected both as
scholar and art critic, has for some years been out of sympathy with
contemporary art. When he and I shared a platform in the Netherlands
a year ago, he spoke of a new aesthetic marked, in his view, by
repulsion, abjection, horror and disgust. I have been brooding on
this ever since, and particularly on disgust as an aesthetic
category. For disgust, in Jean Clair's view, is a common trait, a
family resemblance of the art produced today not only in America and
Western Europe but even in the countries of Central Europe recently
thrown open to Western modernity. We do not have in English the
convenient antonymy between goût (taste) and
dégoût (disgust) that licenses his neat
aphoristic representation of what has happened in art over the past
some decades: From taste...we have passed on to disgust. But
inasmuch as taste was the pivotal concept when aesthetics was first
systematized in the eighteenth century, it would be a conceptual
revolution if it had been replaced by disgust. I have never, I think,
heard "disgusting!" used as an idiom of aesthetic approbation, but it
would perhaps be enough if art were in general admired when commonly
acknowledged to be disgusting. It is certainly the case that beauty
has become a ground for critical suspicion, when its production was
widely regarded as the point and purpose of art until well into the
Though "disgusting" has a fairly broad
use as an all-around pejorative, it also refers to a specific
feeling, noticed by Darwin in his masterpiece, The Expression of
the Emotions in Man and Animals, as excited by anything unusual
in the appearance, odor or nature of our food. It has little to do
with literal taste. Most of us find the idea of eating cockroaches
disgusting, but for just that reason few really know how cockroaches
taste. The yogurt that sports a mantle of green fuzz--to cite an
example recently mentioned in a New Yorker story--may be
delicious and even salubrious if eaten, but it elicits shrieks of
disgust when seen. A smear of soup in a man's beard looks disgusting,
though there is of course nothing disgusting in the soup itself, to
use one of Darwin's examples. There is nothing disgusting in the
sight of a baby with food all over its face, though, depending on
circumstances, we may find it disgusting that a grown man's face
should be smeared with marinara sauce.
Like beauty, disgust
is in the mind of the beholder, but it is one of the mechanisms of
acculturation, and there is remarkably little variation in our
schedules of what disgusts. So disgust is an objective component in
the forms of life that people actually live. The baby is very quickly
taught to wipe its face lest others find it disgusting, and we hardly
can forbear reaching across the table to remove a spot of chocolate
from someone's face--not for their sake but for our own. What he
speaks of as "core disgust" has become a field of investigation for
Jon Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. He and his
associates set out to determine the kinds or domains of experience in
which Americans experience disgust. Foods, body products and sex, not
unexpectedly, got high scores when people were queried on their most
disgusting experiences. Subjects also registered disgust in
situations in which the normal exterior envelope of the body is
breached or altered. I was philosophically illuminated to learn that
of fifty authenticated feral children, none evinced disgust at all.
But I am also instructed by the fact that my cultural counterparts
are disgusted by what disgusts me, more or less.
overall consensus encourages me to speculate that most of us would
unhesitatingly find the characteristic work of the artist Paul
McCarthy, largely live and video performance, disgusting. There may
be--there doubtless is--more to McCarthy's art than this, but
whatever further it is or does depends, it seems to me, on the fact
that it elicits disgust. It may, for example, debunk a false idealism
McCarthy regards as rampant in Hollywood films, advertising and
folklore, as one commentator writes. But it achieves this just so far
as it is disgusting. It may relentlessly and rigorously probe the
airbrushed innocence of family entertainment to reveal its seamy
psychic underpinnings, to cite another critic. So it may show what
really underlies it all, the way the worm-riddled backside of certain
Gothic sculptures whose front sides were of attractive men and women
were intended to underscore our common mortality. But that does not
erase the fact that maggots count as disgusting. So possibly McCarthy
is a kind of moralist, and his works are meant to awaken us to awful
truths and their disgustingness as a means to edificatory ends. That
still leaves intact the revulsion their contemplation evokes. Disgust
is not something that can easily be disguised. Beautiful art, Kant
wrote, can represent as "beautiful things which may be in nature ugly
or displeasing." But the disgusting is the only "kind of ugliness
which cannot be represented in accordance with its nature without
destroying all aesthetic satisfaction."
"Nothing is so much
set against the beautiful as disgust," Kant wrote in an earlier
essay. So it is all the more striking that McCarthy's commentators
attempt to find his work beautiful after all. I wanted to think about
the question of beauty in your work, an interviewer murmured, to move
from the manifest to the latent. The New York Times speaks of
the "unlikely beauty of the work," adding that it is "not standard
beauty, obviously, but a beauty of commitment and absorption." I have
to believe that McCarthy's perceptions can be very little different
from the rest of ours. He has, indeed, almost perfect pitch for
disgust elicitors, and accordingly making the art he does must be
something of an ordeal. That may have the moral beauty that
undergoing ordeals possesses, especially when undertaken for the
larger welfare. But if it is that sort of ordeal, then it has by
default to be disgusting. As the Gothic statuary demonstrates--or for
that matter, the history of showing the fleshly sufferings of Christ
and the martyrs--artists down the ages have had recourse to some
pretty disgusting images for the ultimate benefit of their viewers.
(Taking on the iconography of Disneyland, as he does, is hardly
commensurate with overcoming Satan's power, but I'll give McCarthy
the benefit of the doubt.)
Something over three decades of
McCarthy's work is on view through May 13 at New York's New Museum of
Contemporary Art in SoHo, and since he is widely admired by the art
establishment, here and abroad, there are prima facie reasons for
those interested in contemporary art to experience it. The disgusting
works have mainly to do with food, but--citing Haidt--disgust is, at
its core, an oral defense. There is no actual gore, though McCarthy
uses food to evoke the images of gore. Similarly, there are no actual
envelope violations; no one is actually cut open. But again, various
accessories, like dolls and sacks, are enlisted to convey the idea
that the exterior envelope of the body is breached or violated.
McCarthy makes liberal use of ketchup in his performances, and in
interviews speaks of the disagreeable smell of ketchup in large
quantities. That is part of what I have in mind in speaking of his
art-making in terms of ordeal. There may or may not be actual shit,
but chocolate is what one might call the moral equivalent of feces,
as you can verify through watching a few minutes of his Santa
Chocolate Shop. Karen Finley used only chocolate to cover her
body in the performance that landed her in hot water with the
National Endowment for the Arts a few years ago--but everyone knew
what she was getting at.
The use of foodstuffs
distinguishes McCarthy's art from that of the so-called Vienna
Actionists of the 1960s--Hermann Nitsch and Otto Mühl are
perhaps the best known, though the actor Rudolf Schwarzkogler
attained a happily unmerited notoriety through the rumor that he cut
bits of his penis off in successive performances of Penis
Action. The Actionists made use of real blood and excrement, and
excited at least the illusion of humiliation through such happenings
as that in which a broken egg was dripped into Mühl's mouth from
the vagina of a menstruating woman. They were heavily into
desecration. McCarthy is pretty cheery alongside these predecessors.
His work refers to nursery rhymes and children's stories, and he
makes use of stuffed animals and dolls, often secondhand, and
costumes as well as rubber masks from the joke shop. Some writers
have described McCarthy as a shaman, but he rightly sees that as
something of a stretch: "My work is more about being a clown than a
shaman," he has said. As a clown, he fits into the soiled toy lands
of his mise en scènes, which kick squalor up a couple
of notches, as Emeril Lagasse likes to say when he gives the pepper
mill a few extra turns.
The clown persona is central to
what within the constraints of McCarthy's corpus might be regarded as
his chef-d'oeuvre, Bossy Burger (1991). But he worked
his way up to the creation of this role through a sequence of
performances. In these, he stuffed food in his pants, covered his
head with ketchup, mimicked childbirth using ketchup-covered dolls as
props. In one, or so I have read, he placed his penis inside a
mustard-covered hot dog bun and then proceeded to fill his mouth to
the point of gagging with ketchup-slathered franks. Throughout, food
was placed in proximity to parts of the body with which food has no
customary contact. But many human beings are reluctant to touch food
that has merely been left untouched on the plates of strangers.
Disgust is a defensive reflex, connected with fear, even if we know
the food that evokes it is perfectly safe and edible. That is why
there is so strong a contrast between beauty and disgust: Beauty
McCarthy got the idea of using food as the medium
of his performances in the course of searching for a very basic kind
of activity. Inevitably, he had to deal with disgust, which is
inseparable from eating as symbolically charged conduct. It is
understandable that he would stop performing for live audiences (as
he did in 1983) and begin to devise a form of theater to put a
distance between himself and his viewers. I would not care to perform
Bossy Burger a second time, even if I had the stomach to
perform it once. It is perhaps part of the magic of theater that
disgust survives as an affect, even through the video screen. It
doesn't help to know it is only ketchup.
The action of
Bossy Burger transpires in what in fact was a studio set for a
children's television program, and the set--a hamburger stand--is
exhibited as an installation. It shows the damage inflicted on it by
the performance, and looking in through the open wall--or the
windows--we see an utterly nauseating interior, with dried splotches
and piles of food pretty much everywhere. It has the look of
California Grunge, as we encountered it in the work of Ed Kienholz. A
double monitor outside the set shows, over and over, McCarthy's
character, togged out in chef's uniform and toque--and wearing the
Alfred E. Neuman mask that connotes imbecility--grinning his way
through fifty-nine minutes of clownishly inept food preparation. Thus
he pours far more ketchup into a sort of tortilla than it can
possibly hold, folds it over with the ketchup squishing out and moves
on to the next demonstrations. These involve milk and some pretty
ripe turkey parts. The character is undaunted as his face, garments
and hands quickly get covered with what we know is ketchup but looks
like blood, so he quickly takes on the lookof a mad butcher. He piles
the seat of a chair with food. He makes cheerful noises as he bumbles
about the kitchen or moves to other parts of the set, singing, "I
love my work, I love my work." Everything bears the mark of his
cheerful ineptitude. At one point he uses the swinging door to spank
himself, but it is difficult to believe this constitutes
self-administered punishment. He looks through an opening at the
world outside. McCarthy says he envisioned this chef as a trapped
person, but whether that is an external judgment or actually felt by
the character is impossible to decide from the work itself. Viewers
may find themselves wanting to laugh, but a certain kind of
compassion takes over. Perhaps it is a test for tenderness. Whatever
the case, even writing about Bossy Burger makes me feel
You won't get much relief by looking at Family
Tyranny, in which the character uses mayonnaise and sings, "Daddy
came home from work" as he prepares to do unspeakable things to his
children. "They're only dolls" helps about as much as "It's only art"
does, which underscores Kant's point about disgust. Painter
mercifully turns to other substances in its slapstick comedy about
the art world. McCarthy plays the role of art star, wearing a sort of
hospital gown, a blond wig and huge rubber hands, and he has a kind
of balloon by way of a nose. Everyone else in the action--his dealer
and his collectors--wears the same kind of nose, which perhaps
caricatures the hypertrophied sensitivity that exposure to art might
be thought to bring. At one point, the Painter climbs onto a sort of
pedestal as an art-lover kneels to smell his ass. In another action,
he chops away at one of his fingers with a cleaver, and crows OK!
when it comes off. This belongs to the iconography of self-mutilation
that has, since van Gogh--and perhaps Schwarzkogler--become an
ingredient in our myth of the true artist. The Painter's studio is
filled with huge tubes of paint (one of them labeled shit), and he
parodies the Abstract Expressionist address to painting by slapping
pigment wildly here and there, rolling it onto a table and then
pressing his canvas down onto the paint while pushing it back and
forth, all the while singing some version of "Pop Goes the Weasel."
Paint, food and blood serve throughout McCarthy's work as symbolic
equivalents. I could not suppress the thought that Painter is
a kind of self-portrait--there are photographs elsewhere in the show
of an early performance in which McCarthy frantically whipped a
paint-laden blanket against a wall and window until they were covered
It will be apparent that I am a squeamish
person, an occupational impediment for an art critic if Jean Clair is
right about the new aesthetic (for my response to that contention,
see www.toutfait.com/issues/ issue_3/News/Danto/danto.html). I am
not, however, disposed to prudery, though I have a strong memory of a
certain visceral discomfort when I was first writing on Robert
Mapplethorpe's photographs. McCarthy's Spaghetti Man I thought
was pretty funny. It is a sculpture, 100 inches tall, of a kind of
bunny, wearing a plastic grin of self-approval. It could easily be on
sale at F.A.O. Schwarz were it not that the bunny has a fifty-foot
penis, which coils like a plastic hose on the floor beneath him. It
is a kind of comment, but from an unusual direction, on Dr. Ruth's
reassuring mantra for insecure males that Size Doesn't Matter. It
really does matter from the perspective of masculine vanity, even if
Spaghetti Man's organ would put too great a distance between himself
and a partner for any show of tenderness during coitus. So its
message may well be that we should be grateful for what we've
I don't have anything very good to say about The
Garden, an installation of McCarthy's on view at Deitch Projects,
18 Wooster Street. The garden consists of fake trees and plants--it
was a movie set--in which one sees--Eek!--two animatronic male
figures, one doing the old in-and-out with a knothole in one of the
trees, the other with a hole in the ground. Some ill-advised writers
have compared the work to Duchamp's strangely magical last work,
Étant Donnés, where one sees a pink female nude,
legs spread, sharing a landscape with a waterfall and a gas lamp. The
masturbations in The Garden are too robotic for mystery, and
the meaning of all that effort too jejune to justify the artistic
effort. Cultural Gothic, a pendant to The Garden, is in
the main body of the show at the New Museum. It is a life-size
sculpture of a neatly dressed father and son engaged in a rite de
passage in which the son is enjoying sex with a compliant goat.
Whether the motor was in its dormant phase or the electricity not
working--or the museum inhibited by some failure of nerve--there was
no motion when I saw it. I thought that an improvement, but purists
might think otherwise.
If a critic's clout can be measured by the ability to make an artist's name, the most important art critic in America today is clearly Rudolph Giuliani. Just over a year ago he excoriated the Brooklyn Museum of Art for including in its "Sensation" show Chris Ofili's Holy Virgin Mary--the elephant-dung-decorated painting of an African BVM, which the mayor found "anti-Catholic," blasphemous and disgusting--and turned Ofili himself into a sensation overnight: One collector, I heard, complained that the media attention had driven Ofili's prices so high he couldn't afford him anymore. If I were Jake & Dinos Chapman, represented by a perverse sculpture of deformed and weirdly sexualized children, I would have been seriously peeved, and if I had been Richard Patterson, whose Blue Minotaur, a profound meditation on postmodernity and the heroic tradition, got no attention at all, I would have wept.
You'd think the mayor would have learned to stay his theocritical thunderbolts, but once again he has gone after the Brooklyn Museum for including an "anti-Catholic" work--Renee Cox's Yo Mama's Last Supper--in the new show of contemporary black photographers, "Committed to the Image." He's even suggested that what New York needs is a "decency commission," which got big laughs all around, since the mayor, a married man, is openly carrying on with his mistress, upon whom he has bestowed police protection worth some $200,000 annually at taxpayers' expense. As the whole world now knows, Yo Mama is a five-panel picture in which Cox appears naked, as Jesus, surrounded by male disciples--ten black, one white--at the Last Supper. As an artwork it's negligible, glossily produced but awkwardly composed and, to my eye, rather silly. Cox is thin and beautiful; the men, in robes and caftans, are handsome and buff--apparently the first Christians spent a lot of time in the gym and at the hair salon, getting elaborate dreadlocked coiffures. Unlike the figures in Leonardo's Last Supper, which are highly individualized and dramatically connected, the figures here are generic and stiff. My eye kept going to the limited food on offer: bowls of wax-looking fruit (did they have bananas in Old Jerusalem?), rolls, pita bread. Was the Last Supper a diet Seder?
If you want to see visually haunting work at "Committed to the Image," there's Gordon Parks, Albert Chong, Imari, Nathaniel Burkins and many others. LeRoy W. Henderson's black ballet student, dressed in white and standing in front of a damaged classical frieze, interrogates the Western tradition much more deeply than Yo Mama does. Mfon's self-portraits of her mastectomized torso, a meditation on beauty, heroism and tragedy expressed through the female body, lay bare the high-fashion hokiness of Cox's costume drama. For fan and foe alike, the interest of Yo Mama appears to be political. Cox describes her art in ideological terms ("my images demand enlightenment through an equitable realignment of our race and gender politics"), and she has been quite pungent in defending it. As with The Holy Virgin Mary, the mayor hasn't actually seen it, nor had the numerous people who sent me frothing e-mails after I defended government support for the arts on The O'Reilly Factor.
Even the New York Observer's famously conservative art critic, Hilton Kramer, who usually delights in withering descriptions of pictures he hates, apparently felt that depicting Christ as a naked black woman was so obviously, outrageously anti-Catholic he need say no more about the photo before embarking on his usual rampage. It would be interesting to know where the offense lies: Is it that Cox as Christ is naked, black or female? All three? Two out of three? If one thinks of Catholics, the people, there's nothing bigoted about any of this. (Like Ofili, Cox is Catholic--as are most perpetrators of "anti-Catholic" works.) There is no ethnic stereotyping of the sort on view, for instance, on St. Patrick's Day, when the proverbial drunkenness of the Irish is the butt of endless rude humor, especially from the Irish themselves. While we're on the subject of ethnic stereotyping, it's worth noting that in a great deal of Christian art, Jesus and the disciples are portrayed as Northern Europeans, while Judas is given the hooked nose and scraggly features of a cartoon Jew.
But if what is meant by anti-Catholic is anti-Catholic Church, why can't an artist protest its doctrines and policies? The Church is not a monastery in a wilderness, it's a powerful earthly institution that uses all the tools of modern politics to make social policy conform to its theology--and not just for Catholics, for everyone. It has to expect to take its knocks in the public arena. A church that has a 2,000-year tradition of disdain for women's bodies--documented most recently by Garry Wills (a Catholic) in his splendid polemic Papal Sin--and that still bars women from the priesthood because Jesus was a man can't really be surprised if a twenty-first-century woman wonders what would be different if Jesus had been female, and flaunts that female body. And a church with a long history of racism--no worse than other mainstream American religions but certainly no better--can't expect the topic to be banned from discussion forever.
At the Brooklyn Museum, Yo Mama's Last Supper is in a separate room with its own security guard. On Sunday afternoon, it attracted blacks, whites, Asians, parents with small children, older women in groups, dating couples, students taking notes--le tout Brooklyn, which is turning out in large numbers for the show. I asked one black woman, who described herself as a Christian, what the picture meant to her. "It shows Life as a woman," she said. "It's beautiful." Her friend, who said he was a Muslim, liked the picture too.
If only I could get the Mayor to review my book!
Show George W. Bush you support RU-486. Make a donation in W.'s name to the Concord Feminist Health Center (38 South Main Street, Concord, NH 03301) and help it buy the ultrasound machine this method requires. The center will send the President a card to let him know you were thinking of him when you wrote your check.