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NOTES & COMMENTS
After too long a hiatus, we have resumed publication, and expect to publish our December issue before year end. If you missed perusing the May issue, it can be accessed at the top of our Archives.
Of Paintings and Forks
Our hats off to Kate Bolick, writing in the Home section of the New York Sun, for the sort of insight unlikely to be found in the arts pages of this or any other newspaper. In "Living by Design" (October 28)--a review of five books on the designers and architects responsible for such everyday objects in our lives as forks, lamps, and coffee pots--Bolick (the Sun's deputy features editor) astutely observes: "Industrial designs don't tend to inspire much mooning over their creators. When we look at a painting we often think about the artist who made it, but when we look at a fork we tend to think about--a fork."
Design "Rising to the Level of Art"
One can always depend on New York Times critic Roberta Smith to provide exquisite examples of Artspeak, as previously documented in these pages (enter her name at our search page) and in What Art Is. In a review of a recent show of "design works" by abstract painter Josef Albers and his wife, Anni, a weaver and designer--both "remarkable artists"--Smith tosses off this gem of obfuscation ("A Bauhaus Couple Lived Their Less-Is-More Credo," New York Times, October 1, 2004): "There is, strictly speaking, no art in this exhibition, certainly no pure art." (Imagine, if you will, a reporter covering a flower show saying: "There are, strictly speaking, no flowers in this show, certainly no pure flowers.") Smith proceeds to explain that everything in the exhibition "has a purpose, an application in everyday life," adding: "But the show is infused with a sense of aesthetics that creeps up on you ["me," she should say] with delicious stealth." Then the clincher:The objects here confirm that design can rise to the level of art, through formidable concentration on its own purposes, materials and techniques.
Nothing, we would argue, "rise[s] to the level of," or becomes, art. Something is or is not art from the moment it is created. But Smith maintains: "It is a question of rigor and ruthlessness; we are inclined to look at and think about things that have come into being through a process of unsparing care and thought." So that is what art is--anything so well-designed that it makes you look hard at it and think! Like that fruit bowl designed by Josef, or those tablecloths by Anni (images at link below). One must remember that Smith thinks such things are not "pure art"--just "art." For an exhibition overview, see Josef and Anni Albers: Designs for Living (click on photos, then on images of objects below; use boldface arrow symbols to scroll up and down the accompanying text).
Portraits of the Mind
Worth noting is this tribute to one of the great Northern Renaissance artists: "Hans Holbein's combination of technical skill with psychological insight places him in the highest class of European painters. . . . [His] famed . . . insight is a complex affair . . . [it is] not only into his sitters' characters, but into how we should respond to his rendering of them. It is hard to think of another artist who so easily persuades us that we can find the mind's constructions in the face [see for example, Sir Thomas More  [more]]." (Thomas Eakins comes to our minds as well--see Painting Pure Thought, in the August 2003 Aristos.)
The Broadway Musical: Past & Present
Of Terry Teachout's prolific writing on the arts, we especially enjoy and value his music criticism in Commentary magazine. In "Is the Musical Comedy Dead?" (June 2004), he pays tribute to the "golden age" of Broadway musicals, roughly from 1943, when Oklahoma! was written, to 1964, the year of Hello, Dolly! In between, he cites On the Town (1944), Carousel (1945), Annie Get Your Gun (1946), Kiss Me, Kate (1948), Guys and Dolls (1950), The King and I (1951), My Fair Lady (1956), The Music Man (1957), West Side Story (1957), and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961). What did these shows have in common? Lots, as it turns out--integrated books and scores based on "a melting-pot amalgam of European operetta, ragtime, and early jazz," as well as lyrics that were "an updating of the virtuoso wordplay of W. S. Gilbert [more], translated into the pungent colloquialisms of what H. L. Mencken called 'the American language.'" Most of all, these musicals, with their "romance-driven plots and happy endings," were characterized by optimism and idealism. Theirs was, Teachout observes, "an essentially untragic view of human possibility." In sharp contrast, he lamented, stand such post-classical musicals (recently revived) as Nine (1982), Little Shop of Horrors (1982), Big River (1985), and Assassins (1991):Whatever else they may tell us about postmodern American life . . . these shows (Big River excepted) bespeak a loss of confidence in America itself. And it is no less revealing that none of them, not even [Stephen] Sondheim's Assassins, has a truly distinguished score. Just as postmodern American artists lost faith in the American creed, so apparently did they lose the ability to write songs capable of appealing not merely to a narrow segment of the listening public but to ordinary Americans as a whole.
After briefly surveying the current Broadway scene, Teachout ends with a poignant tribute to the old chestnuts. He cites some of the cultural ills of the past four decades, from Vietnam and Watergate to the election of 2000, then pointed to the ongoing popularity of the current revival of a 30-year-old show--Fiddler on the Roof. "As the saying goes," he concludes,they don't write 'em like they used to, and perhaps they never will again. But even if the mold has been broken once and for all, we will always have the great shows of [the] musical comedy golden age to remind us of who we are and what we believe.
Of related interest is "Broadway: The Golden Age," a documentary we found both informative and delightful.
Vermeer in Philadelphia
A little-known painting by Vermeer that for many decades was not attributed to him will be on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through March 2005, on temporary loan from a private collection. The work--A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals [more]--was included in the exhibition Vermeer and the Delft School at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2001, though an image is not included on the museum's website.
Dark Days for Dance at the Times
Anna Kisselgoff, chief dance critic of the New York Times since 1977, will relinquish that post early next year, though she will continue to write about dance for the paper. Though we were often critical of her in What Art Is, Kisselgoff is a first-rate critic we have enjoyed reading and learning from. Unfortunately, her successor will be John Rockwell, a fixture at the Times since 1972. His qualifications for the post? The only one cited by the paper in its announcement (October 15) is that he once "studied modern dance" with Anna Helprin (no details were given, which is probably just as well, and no mention made of the fact that in an earlier incarnation Rockwell had been a dance writer for the Los Angeles Times). When Rockwell was appointed "senior cultural correspondent" at the paper in 2002, the New Criterion noted that he was chiefly known as a former rock critic, but that he had also written about classical music and other cultural matters, "where his tastes lean[ed] heavily toward the avant-garde." As we have never been fans of rock music, we missed that facet of Rockwell's career. We well remember his predilection for the avant-garde, however. By elevating so egregiously unqualified a figure to the post of chief dance critic, the Times continues on a downward spiral in its arts coverage.
EXHIBITION: A Dutch Old Master
Gerard ter Borch, National Gallery of Art, Washington D. C., through January 30, 2005. Detroit Institute of Arts, February 27 through May 22. The NGA website includes links to images of fourteen paintings by ter Borch. For a review of an exhibition of Dutch genre paintings that included six works by ter Borch (only one of which is in the present exhibition), see "Messages from the Heart" (Aristos, March 2004).
Christian Science Monitor correspondent Carol Strickland reports, true to form, on efforts by the downtown cultural district of Pittsburgh to "reinvent" itself and "nurture future audiences and young artists." (Readers may recall Louis Torres's review of her "superficial and misleading" history of art, The Annotated Mona Lisa.) In "From Rust Belt to Arts Mecca," Strickland tellingly opines that the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust "will have to overcome some residents' resistance to the new." It sure will. One refurbished public park, the Agnes R. Katz Plaza, for example, features "a bronze fountain resembling a spiraling pyramid and granite benches shaped like disembodied eyes by famed sculptor Louise Bourgeois [see Image Gallery]."
Strickland demonstrates a fondness for artworld buzz words, which more often than not signal the presence of bogus art--as when she cites (emphasis ours in all the examples that follow) the radical Mattress Factory, "a cutting-edge installation-art venue" that encourages foundations to support "risky endeavors" in Pittsburgh; the Cultural Trust, committed to sponsoring "bolder cultural programming"; and local grass-roots galleries that display "edgy art." Other artworld terms in Strickland's lexicon include "unconventional arts," "emerging artists," "diversity," and "contemporary art." One such work exhibited at the 2004-2005 Carnegie International (a twice-a-decade avant-garde exhibition sponsored by the Carnegie Museum of Art) is Maurizio Cattelan's Now, described by Strickland as "a life-size effigy of President John F. Kennedy in a coffin, clad in a suit, his feet bare and vulnerable." The viewer, she claims, feels "suffused with loss." Revulsion and outrage are more likely, we think.
Also cited by Strickland is another work by Cattelan, Him (not in the exhibition)--a miniature "sculpture" of Hitler kneeling in prayer. This work, she says, "forces the viewer to consider this symbol of evil as a human being." Finally, Strickland mentions Kutlug Ataman, a filmmaker who "explores life on the margins of society in Turkey in a work entitled Kuba [other works in the Carnegie International exhibition are also shown here]--consisting of 40 video monitors projecting soliloquies by real-life residents of a shantytown outside Istanbul. It evidently does not occur to Strickland that art is a creation of the imagination, not simply an amalgam of the actual words of real people.
Which Libraries Carry That Book?
Determining which public or academic libraries in the United States, Canada, or abroad carry a particular book is now as easy as one, two, three. In the case of What Art Is, for example, just enter "find in a library: what art is: the esthetic theory of ayn rand" at Google (be sure to use quotation marks and cite the full book title), click on "I'm feeling lucky," then specify a postal code, state, province, or country at the prompt. What makes this all possible is a unique research catalog known as WorldCat--a service of the Online Computer Library Center, a worldwide library cooperative. One caveat: results obtained through WorldCat, while useful, may not yet be complete. When we entered our zip code, for example, the list of libraries generated (covering all of New York City and Northern New Jersey) missed the New York Public Library's main research division and Mid-Manhattan branch (the main circulating library), as well as the Barnard College library--not insignificant omissions.
The Abu Ghraib Photographs--Art?
Remember those shocking photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq? Who can forget them? But are they art? Even those who claim that photography is (or can be) art would draw the line at classifying these images as such, one would think. Yet art critic Michael Kimmelman covered a recent exhibition of them, Inconvenient Evidence, at the International Center of Photography in New York City--and the New York Times published his review on a page titled "art," with this unequivocal headline: "Abu Ghraib Photos Return, This Time as Art" (October 10, 2004).
Though the ICP indicates on its website that only some of the work it exhibits is regarded as "a medium of aesthetic expression," and the title of this exhibition clearly suggests a documentary role, Kimmelman argues that merely because the photographs were being exhibited in a museum "they now qualify as quasi-aesthetic artifacts." Quasi-art, that is, though he doesn't yet use the term "art." Instead he observes that by exhibiting the pictures in "a sleek white room," the museum is inviting visitors to "cogitate on their visual properties." Only at the end does he use the hallowed word of the headline. The Abu Ghraib photographs, which are "a kind of gift to memory," will one day fade from memory, Kimmelman laments, noting that "[they] have passed from the headlines to the art pages in half a year." He seems conflicted over this turn of events, and apparently wishes that these amateur photographs had not evolved into art, yet seems to imply that they did.
Kimmelman has elsewhere argued that not all documentary photographs are art: "The old wall separating traditional documentary photography from art photography has dearly come down for better and worse, meaning that too many artists today think their snapshots are art just because they took them" ("Assignment: Times Square," New York Times Magazine, May 18, 1997). Yet if these snapshots found their way into the "sleek white room" of a museum, they, too, might land on the art pages of the Times and other newspapers.
Note: An online slide show of the infamous photographs, including ones we had not seen before, is set in context by Brian Wallis, chief curator of the International Center of Photography (the images flash by in the space between the two columns of Wallis's remarks). Seen on a computer screen in full color, they are especially graphic and disturbing. Though we provide a link here as background for Kimmelman's review, many readers may prefer not to view the images.
Kamhi Article in Education Policy Journal
Michelle Kamhi's "Rescuing Art from 'Visual Culture Studies'" has been reprinted, in slightly revised form, in the September/October issue of the Arts Education Policy Review, as one of five articles in Part Two of a Symposium on Visual Culture Studies (Part One appeared in the July/August issue). An Introduction by the editor of the Symposium--Ralph A. Smith, founding editor emeritus of the Journal of Aesthetic Education--notes: "In contrast to efforts [by other contributors] to find a middle way between traditional and reformist views, . . . Kamhi finds no justification for VCS [in the art curriculum]."
Frank Gehry, "Artist"
Is architect Frank Gehry an artist? Wall Street Journal critic David Littlejohn thinks so. In his view, the much-acclaimed Gehry is "more an artist or a sculptor than an architect." Littlejohn must have abstract sculpture in mind, which is not art to begin with--which means that architecture is not art either. In any case, here is how he describes Gehry's modus operandi:Like all of his buildings of the past 10 years, [the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles] began with Mr. Gehry's own ink-on-paper scribbles. He then directed his squad of sorcerer's apprentices in Santa Monica to build scores of models that interpreted and expanded on his sketches. When Mr. Gehry declared himself satisfied, other experts were called in to translate the final models and digital images into two-dimensional plans and working drawings--as well as complex electronic instructions that could be fed to the makers and assemblers of millions of parts. ["Fantasyland for the Philharmonic," Wall Street Journal, November 12, 2003]
If this account is accurate (which it seems to be) Gehry is no architect, much less an artist. (On Gehry, see also "'Mere' Architecture?" in What Art Is Online, November-December 2001)
A "Library of Congress" for the World
A project of the Internet Archive, the Wayback Machine is a unique online library that archives all websites created since 1966 (Aristos, for example), even if now defunct. See the new entry on it on our "Other Sites" page for further information and links.
Andy Goldsworthy, "Sculptor"--So They Say
Commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and recently installed on its roof terrace, where it stood until October 31, Andy Goldsworthy's Stone Houses was described by Roberta Smith in the New York Times as "two towering, oddly graceful stone cairns, each in a rough split-rail dome 24 feet in diameter." The museum calls Goldsworthy a sculptor, and Smith agrees--who in the artworld does not? In her estimate, he has never been "a conventional art world sculptor." Instead, his work "blends and refines" aspects of-- are you ready?--"earth art, performance art, process art and set-up photography, rendering them more accessible with doses of bravura skill that radical art tends to shun" ("The Met and a Guest Step Off in Opposite Directions, New York Times, September 3, 2004). By our reckoning, it seems that Goldsworthy simply cobbles together bits of nature (stones, leaves, and such), often in ephemeral arrangements, and mostly in remote locations. A cobbler, therefore--not a sculptor--is what he is.
Michelle Kamhi's article "Where's the Art in the Today's Art Education?" (What Art Is Online, November 2002) has been cited on the Illinois Loop, dedicated to public education in that state, and on the Arts Advocacy page of Princeton Online.
EXHIBITION: Master Drawings?
Italian Master Drawings: 1540 to the Present, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Master drawings from the sixteenth through the mid nineteenth centuries are always a pleasure to behold. It is the "to the present" in the title of this exhibition that gives us pause. The only twentieth-century work displayed by the museum on its press release and on its website is Italy (1983) by Francesco Clemente [more], who hardly qualifies as an artist, much less a "master."
NON-ART EXHIBITION: Art Deco Stuff
Art Deco: 1910-1939, Boston Museum of Fine Arts [more] through January 9, 2005. Here is what David Littlejohn had to say when this exhibition was in San Francisco: "Art museums relish the occasional opportunity to mount exhibitions of non-art (motorcycles, fashions, Faberge eggs), to demonstrate their populist nature and attract visitors who have no interest in art. 'Art Deco 1910-1939' . . . is one of the most extensive, varied and splashy non-art exhibitions I have ever seen in an art museum . . . [comprising] 240 items, from plastic radios and lacquered cigarette cases to a huge silver-plated bed made for a maharaja" ("Where the Deco Matters More Than the Art," Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2004). The items Littlejohn cites are not art to be sure (on this, see second and third notes, above), but we would point out that so-called contemporary art museums mount exhibitions of non-art, not occasionally, but all the time.
Makes Us Want To. . .
An anonymous "staff reporter" of the New York Sun noted recently that a protest against the Bush administration by a group of "performance artists" and their guests consisted of this: they would "eat until they threw up," assisted, if needed, by Syrup of Ipecac (a substance for emergency use in poisoning cases). The perpetrators of this perverse banquet (unlike us, the reporter found it merely "strange") are said to have previously organized a group of naked women to lie in winter snow, spelling out "No Bush" with their bodies--("Protest Group Plans Vomitorium 2004," August 16). Even more deserving of criticism than these pathetic individuals, however, are the Sun's editors (whom we hold in high regard in most other respects) for publishing news items on such aberrations that treat them as art. We remain ever hopeful.
NEA WATCH: The "Public Good"
Among the little-publicized projects far removed from the realm of art that are supported by the National Endowment for the Arts is something called "The Mayors' Institute on City Design" [more], characterized in a press release as a "signature" program of the endowment. The goal of the institute (which, since 1985, has graduated 625 mayors and more than 400 design professionals) is "to give mayors a better understanding of how design can be used to enhance the structural, social, and economic well being of their cities." According to NEA Chairman Dana Gioia:Of all the programs by the National Endowment for the Arts, it is hard to imagine one that has done more tangible public good than the Mayors' Institute on City Design. Even a short list of this program's many accomplishments demonstrates the positive leadership and informed counsel the Mayors' Institute has provided to communities across the nation.
As if one such program were not enough, the NEA also funds two related "Leadership Initiatives in Design": "Your Town: Designing its Future" and the new "Governors' Institute on Regional Design." Will the endowment next sponsor a "Citizens' Institute on Interior Design"? We would not be surprised.
As we have long argued, most members of the taxpaying public think of the traditional "fine arts" when they hear the terms "art" and "the arts"--terms that do not generally suggest urban design. The slogan of the National Endowment for the Arts is "A Great Nation Deserves Great Art." Indeed it does (though many, including us, think that art should be funded privately). But more than great art, a great nation deserves truth in labeling in its programs and policies.
In David Cohen's view:Even within [Pat] Lipsky's stringent limitations, the recalcitrant eye can never dispel the possibilities of representation. The columns, with their pulsating reds pushing perceptually backwards and forwards, beg to be read also in terms of up and down, like pistons or syringes filling with liquid. The blues, spied around corners in up-down-up or down-up-down sequences, insinuate themselves into sea and sky. They read like organ pipes filling with sound, or the display of a digital equalizer recording its fluctuations.The more the eye is beaten into form for form's sake, the more it wanders willfully along paths of association, fantasy, analogy. ["Gallery-Going," New York Sun, September 23, 2004]
Readers can see for themselves those "syringes filling with liquid," the "organ pipes filling with sound," etc., at artnet.com. Anyone eager to sample more of Cohen's phantasmagoric criticism can turn to a somewhat paler revised version of the original article in Artcritical.com, his online magazine. (For more on Cohen, see "Spiritual without Going Gooey" in Notes & Comments, March 2004.)
More Artworld Aberrations
See additional examples (with links for many) at our lists of invented art forms--from "Fireworks" to "Sticker Art"; artworld buzz words--from "Avant Garde" to "Untitled"; and non-art articles in "The Arts" section of the New York Times. (Look for the symbol.)
Untitled is the most frequent title in the history of twentieth-century avant-garde "art." Do not miss our discussion of it, with examples, at artworld buzz words (see link above).
EXHIBITION: The Beauty of All Races
Facing the Other: Charles Cordier, Ethnographic Sculptor, Dahesh Museum of Art, New York City, through January 13, 2005. This most unusual exhibition is devoted to the work of a little-known nineteenth-century sculptor who employed various media, including polychrome bronze. African Venus, in particular, is stunning.
Websites We Like
Now representing Vermeer on our "Other Sites" page is The Essential Vermeer (a website that lives up to its name)--which provided most of the images of the painter's works in "Messages from the Heart," a review of the exhibition Love Letters in our March issue.
The Perfect Holiday Gift
For those who value both true art and true ideas we recommend the ideal gift--what else? What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand.
All images in the three parts of Thomas Eakins: Painting Pure Thought can now be viewed.
The first and final sentences of "Sitting on Furniture" (an article by Louis Torres critical of two prominent art education professors) were revised slightly after its initial publication in May.
Change of Address
Please note that Aristos has a new postal address:
P. O. Box 20134
Park West Station
New York, NY 10025
Letters to the Editors
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