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April 2005

NOTES & COMMENTS

Annual Fundraising Appeal
If you derive pleasure and value from what you read in this issue of Aristos (see also the Archives), please take a moment to consider supporting our work through a contribution to the nonprofit Aristos Foundation. For your convenience, we offer several contribution options.

EXHIBITION: The "Leonardo of Liverpool"
Stubbs and the Horse (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Md., through June 5). As good fortune would have it, the New York Times assigned its estimable Antiques columnist, Wendy Moonan, rather than one of its art critics (avant-garde apologists all), to review this first major exhibition in two decades of work by the British painter George Stubbs (1724-1806).

As Moonan stresses, though Stubbs's reputation rests mainly on the numerous paintings he made of the horse, it would be a mistake to think of him as a mere horse painter. "Reared in Liverpool, he rode horses and liked them," she informs us, "but he was more a product of the Enlightenment, an amateur scientist, than a country squire. His hero was Leonardo da Vinci." Most remarkably,

In the 1750's, already married and a father, Stubbs left his family and moved to a tiny village in northern England to embark on a single task: the study of the anatomy of the horse. He spent 18 months with carcasses of dead horses, drawing them as he dissected them. He meticulously recorded the five layers of muscles, the blood vessels, the nerves and the skeleton. He was a teetotaling workaholic.

According to Robin Blake, whose biography of the painter will be published in July and who contributed to the exhibition catalogue: "[Stubbs] took painting very seriously. I think he was following Leonardo, another anatomist, who said, 'First learn perspective; then draw from nature.'" (Indeed, as Moonan notes, he was sometimes referred to as "the Leonardo of Liverpool.") "Drawing from nature was not the normal view in those days," Blake continues. "Most artists learned by copying other pictures."

For readers who cannot travel to Baltimore to see the Stubbs exhibition, many excellent sources are available. In addition to the catalogue, Stubbs's Anatomy of the Horse [more: scroll down for three drawings by him] is still in print, as is George Stubbs (2003) by Martin Myrone. There is an excellent website (GeorgeStubbs.com) devoted to his life and work. Finally, Moonan's entire review, "A Painter Whose Artistry Borrowed from Science" (New York Times, April 22, 2005)--illustrated with a black & white image of Stubbs's most famous painting, Whistlejacket (1762), a nine-foot-tall canvas on loan from the National Gallery in London--is worth reading.

Needless to say, horse lovers, young and old, should take pleasure in viewing the work of this remarkable painter and learning something of his life. Children, in particular, will no doubt also find appealing this captivating image by Stubbs [click on it to enlarge] of an altogether different animal.

EXHIBITION: Focus on the Figure
Figuratively Speaking: The Human Form in American Art, 1770-1950 (Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., through May 23). This thematic show of works owned by the Corcoran is bound to be of interest to Aristos readers, since this institution's permanent collection of eighteenth- to early twentieth-century American art is impressive. Highlights of the exhibition include George Washington (Gilbert Stuart, after 1796); The Toilet (Eastman Johnson, 1873, showing his wife, Elizabeth, adjusting her earring); Singing a Pathetic Song (Thomas Eakins, 1881); Young Girl at a Window (Mary Cassatt, 1883), Mrs. Henry White (John Singer Sargent, 1883); The House Maid (William McGregor Paxton, 1910--see "R. H. Ives Gammell" [Aristos, May 1990] and "The New Dawn of Painting" [Aristos, March 1986]); genre scenes such as A Pastoral Visit (Richard Norris Brooke, 1881) and Forty-two Kids (George Bellows, 1907); and nine sculptures by Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872-1955).

Of Eakins's Singing a Pathetic Song, the Corcoran observes that the "earnest young singer" is depicted concentrating on "holding a note of her tune" and that the "pathetic song, the most popular type of melody in 1860s and 1870s America, told tales of woe, such as death or tragic circumstances befalling innocent women or children. Recited by the singer as if they were autobiographical, such ballads commonly moved audiences to tears." (For more on Eakins, see "Thomas Eakins: Painting Pure Thought.")

Sculptor of Mothers and Children
American Art History 101 is not likely to cite the work of Bessie Potter Vonnoh, but it ought to. Her sensitive portrayals of mothers, children, and other figures are among the neglected delights of American sculpture. See, for example: An American Girl (ca. 1875), A Young Mother (1899-1903), Mother and Child (1904), Water Lilies (ca.1910), Goodnight, and [Mother and Children] (1908).

MUSEUMS: Bouguereau & Bouguereau
Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Ok. Two paintings by this singular couple are in the permanent collection of the Philbrook: William's The Shepherdess (1889), and Elizabeth's He Careth (1883). For more, see her page (click on his wonderful portrait of her to enlarge), and his, at the Art Renewal Center.

THEATER: Trying
One needn't be a Democrat to appreciate Joanna McClelland Glass's recent play, Trying, which ended its Off-Broadway [scroll down for photo] New York run in January but will be making the rounds of regional theaters next year (see below). Unpretentious and genuinely moving, this two-character drama is loosely based on the playwright's own experience as a young secretary to Judge Francis Biddle in the final months of his life. A Philadelphia Brahman, who had left the Republican party of his peers to become a dedicated New Dealer, Biddle had served as attorney general under FDR and was Chief Justice for the post-war Nuremberg trials. When the play opens, he is in the final months of his life, struggling against old age and infirmity to complete his memoirs (in the New York production, the veteran actor Fritz Weaver portrayed Biddle splendidly). He is in desperate need of an efficient secretary, but his cantankerous manner has made it difficult to keep one. The shy young woman who now comes to work for him is a world apart in age, experience, and social class. Raised in a poor family in rural Canada, with an abusive father, she has not even had the benefit of having attended the "best" schools. Nonetheless, she has espoused Democratic ideals and high aspirations, which have prompted her to hazard the position with Biddle, though she is well aware of the failure of her predecessors. Confronting her illustrious employer in awe mingled with trepidation, she, too, has a desperate need--to prove herself. The drama that plays out between the two transcends their particular circumstances to suggest, with humor as well as pathos, some profound insights into the mutual dependence of the young and the old. It is well worth seeing. --M.M.K.

Production schedule, 2005-2006: Sarasota, Fla., Asolo Theatre, January 6 - April 8, 2006; San Diego, Calif., Old Globe Theatre [click on "2005-06 Season" under "News"] April 8 - May 14, 2006; Washington, D. C., Ford's Theatre, winter 2006 (no date yet); and Philadelphia, Walnut Street Playhouse, March 14 - April 30, 2006. Productions in other U. S. cities and South Africa are under consideration, as well as six new Canadian productions in the planning stages.

Mainstreaming the Avant-Garde
In a segment earlier this year (January 9) entitled "Think Big!" CBS Sunday Morning paid a visit to Dia:Beacon (against which we have railed in these pages)--characterizing it simply as "a modern art museum in New York's Hudson Valley." The popular TV news magazine, which reaches an average of 5 million viewers per week, has long presented the face of mainstream America, seeking to be "like a Sunday newspaper for viewers sipping coffee on their couches." As aptly described in a recent Associated Press article, the 26-year-old show has been "more an oasis of calm than an outpost of cool every weekend." So it is of no small interest and concern to us that Dia:Beacon, a bastion of avant-garde Minimalism, has been presented to millions of Sunday Morning viewers across the land as just another art museum, albeit a "modern" one. At one point during the recent segment, a Dia representative solemnly declared that the "artists" featured there are "asking basic questions" such as "What is art? What is painting? What is sculpture?" It would have required more sophistication regarding the nature of art than one can reasonably expect for the CBS correspondent to have followed up by asking: "Really? How can a viewer know that just by looking at the work?"

According to the AP, the present shift away from Sunday Morning's traditionally conservative coverage of the arts is due to executive producer Rand Morrison, who joined the show in 1999. "You can become a parody of yourself or you can keep growing," Morrison has said. "The thing that we have done well is to keep growing."

Post Mortem on The Gates
Given the windfall generated for New York City by Christo Javacheff's Central Park Gates ($254 million for its tourism industry, according to one estimate--not to mention the outright "gift" of some $3 million that Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, have made to the city's parks), some have asked, Where's the harm? And as spring reappears with the welcome blooming of forsythia and crocuses and glorious green grass everywhere, it might be easy for even his harshest critics (among whom we surely count ourselves) to forget that he ever sullied Frederick Olmsted's marvelous landscape design. After all, he left no permanent imprint on the park.

The harm is that the whole sorry episode, in which the city's cultural and political establishment was fully complicit, has served to further elevate Christo's status as an "artist." Setting aside the role of the New York Times and the major television networks, we close the book on this affair by citing the pronouncements of three prominent figures--the mayor, a museum director, and a critic--each of whom contributed in some measure to the charade.

Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City and a longtime friend and patron of Christo's, proclaimed that the four years it took Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-1512) and the five it took Beethoven to finish the Ninth Symphony were "mere blinks of the eye compared to the time that it took to build [Christo's] masterpiece." Apart from the absurdity of even mentioning Christo in the same breath as Michelangelo and Beethoven, Bloomberg falsely implied that his old pal actually spent more time on creating his project than these two titans did on theirs. This deception has been assiduously cultivated by Christo and Jeanne-Claude themselves (she is the p.r. and marketing wizard of the duo), as when they note "1979-2005" in the captions beneath each official photograph of The Gates on their website. The truth is that Christo's project, conceived in 1979, was initially rejected by the city and was merely set aside, until the more sympathetic Bloomberg administration opened the way toward the acceptance of a somewhat revised project.

Philippe de Montebello--the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which actively promoted The Gates to its own considerable financial benefit--was quoted in a news release as saying that Christo's "far-reaching project" constituted "a reaffirmation of the continuity of culture." What "culture" did he have in mind--that ranging from ancient Egypt and Greece to the Renaissance and the nineteenth century, all of which are represented in his museum's glorious collection? Please.

Then there was the off-handed assertion of Peter Schjeldahl, art critic of the New Yorker: "Of course, The Gates is art, because what else would it be? Art used to mean paintings and statues. Now it means practically anything human-made that is unclassifiable otherwise" ("Gated," February 28). Schjeldahl's subsequent claim that "this loss of a commonsense definition is a big art-critical problem" seems disingenuous, at best, since he (like all his peers) has eschewed definitions of any kind, instead operating under the premise that something is art merely if the artworld--of which he is a part--says it is.

For our part, we prefer the assessment of Kaley Holmboe, a 16-year-old student who had traveled from London to see The Gates. Interviewed by the New York Sun (February 16), she observed: "They are just orange curtains. They don't have much meaning." Asked what she thought about the installation "as an artwork" in relation to other works she had studied, she added: "It is different, but doesn't represent that much. It kind of takes the purpose out of art. . . . I don't think it is art, just a bit of shock value. . . . But I guess that is the state of modern art these days." Indeed it is.

Making a Case for the Arts
In March, ArtsJournal (the only website we peruse daily--before breakfast!) sponsored a week-long discussion on the question "Is there a better case to be made for the arts?" The catalyst for this "public conversation among people who care" was a new study commissioned by the Wallace Foundation and conducted by the nonprofit RAND Corporation, Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts. As AJ editor Douglas McLennan astutely put it, the study found that "basing so much of the case for the arts on their claimed external benefits--their utility in addressing public issues and concerns--has drawn us away from the true power and potential of the arts, and weakened the long-term position of the arts in the public mind." How true. McLennan asked eleven arts luminaries (see bios), including Bill Ivey, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, to participate in the discussion. In addition, McLennan reported, "astute and provocative reader/contributors" posted more than a hundred comments, which "significantly broadened the conversation." Five of the posts were by Aristos co-editor Louis Torres--on 3/7, 3/7, 3/8, 3/9, and 3/11 (after reading the main entry for each date, search for "Torres," or scroll down to find the post.)

NEA WATCH: The Chairman Speaks
The following endorsement of the Gifts of the Muse report (see preceding note) was issued by NEA Chairman Dana Gioia:

I strongly support the central message of The Wallace Foundation's new report . . . . Although the arts bestow important secondary benefits--economic, educational, social, and therapeutic--it is their intrinsic value that makes them essential and irreplaceable. The arts enhance, enlarge, and awaken our humanity in ways no other activities can equal. That is why the arts exist, and why we must support them.

In view of the dubious contemporary "art" that has long been funded by the endowment (see, for example, "Notes & Comments" on the NEA in our 12/03, 5/04, 11/04 issues)--and continues to be supported under Chairman Gioia--his words, however well intended, ring hollow. We would like to know, for example, just how such things as wooden decoy ducks used by hunters, a documentary film on the death penalty, and an "intense ecological and aesthetic study" of the edge of the Bronx River in New York City qualify as "arts" that "enhance, enlarge, and awaken our humanity." (For other NEA-funded non-art projects, see "What Art Really Is.")

Song Lyrics as Poetry?
In our December 2004 issue we asked whether any lyrics of popular songs of the pre-rock era qualify as poetry in readers' views, and if so, which lyricist(s) would be at the top of their list. What spurred our query was Terry Teachout's "Too Marvelous for Words" (Commentary, November 2004), in which he cited Johnny Mercer "not merely as a writer of supremely well-crafted song lyrics [see, for example, Midnight Sun] [more], but as one of the most gifted poets this country has produced." Great lyricist, yes (one of our favorites). Poet, not.

MUSEUMS: Overlooked Riches
Art museums depend on temporary blockbuster exhibitions to help fill their coffers, but savvy museum-goers know that real gems are continually on view in the permanent collections. Thus it is real news when a major institution such as the Art Institute of Chicago announces the expanded and reorganized display of its holdings. Expanded Galleries of American Art at the AIC, billed as an ongoing exhibition, includes objects of decorative art as well as exemplary works by some of the nation's finest realist artists--among them, the painter Winslow Homer (1836-1910) and the sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward (1830-1910).

Aristos Co-Editor on Rand Centenary Panel
Michelle Kamhi was among the speakers at a symposium on February 2, 2005, honoring Ayn Rand on the hundredth anniversary of her birth. Her talk was entitled "What Art Really Is, and Why It Matters." Sponsored by The Objectivist Center, the event was held at the Library of Congress. The locale was particularly fitting, since long before she died Rand had accepted the library's invitation to have her papers reside there, and despite subsequent obstructions by her estate, it has substantial holdings, including the original manuscripts of her four novels.

Why Ayn Rand Matters: Some Surprising Views
As one might expect, Ayn Rand's centenary was celebrated by organizations and individuals who have long acknowledged her influence (see preceding note). Yet the occasion also evoked some surprising tributes to her importance--as "both novelist and thinker," to quote book critic Carlin Romano, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer (January 30 [at Google, search for: "Carlin Romano" "Ayn Rand," with quotation marks as shown]). Romano, we note, mentioned What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand and just one other title (Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, by Chris Matthew Sciabarra, the foremost Rand scholar) among the growing number of serious "studies in academe" dealing with Rand's work.

Syndicated columnist Steve Chapman argued that Rand's ideas "have been so widely disseminated and absorbed that we have forgotten where they originated." Observing that her influence went far beyond economic and political theory, he noted that it could be heard even in such expressions of popular culture as the Bruce Springsteen line "It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive"--since it was Rand who most ardently championed the individual's right to seek his own fulfilment and happiness.

Even more striking than such remarks was the tribute paid to this "strangely important figure" in the New York Sun (January 26) by Andrew Stuttaford, a contributing editor of National Review Online. Among other things, he plainly declared to be wrong "[t]he accusation by Whittaker Chambers in National Review [in its review of Atlas Shrugged half a century ago] that there was a whiff of the gas chamber about [Rand's] writings"--adding that "Rand lived in an era of stark ideological choices; to argue in muted, reasonable tones was to lose the debate." While Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are, in his view, "aesthetic disasters," they nonetheless "emerge as something rather grand." (See further media comments on the website of The Objectivist Center.)

In a wider-ranging appreciation entitled "Why Ayn Rand Matters," on the weblog of the Social Affairs Unit of the Adam Smith Institute, ethicist Elaine Sternberg, a research fellow at the University of Leeds (U. K.), declared that Rand "deserves to be taken seriously, because she was right about three things of immense importance: metaphysics, morals, and individual liberty." Sternberg's observations prompted what was perhaps the most unexpected of the remarks connected (albeit indirectly) with Rand's centenary: a brief post entitled "The Importance of Ayn Rand" by Roger Kimball on the weblog of The New Criterion. Kimball's admission there that he is "not a particular fan of Ayn Rand's work" came as no surprise to us, for his animus had been plain from the opening paragraph of his review of What Art Is, in which he denigrated Rand's "certainty" (along with that of "disciples" like us--see our response). Why his willingness now to acknowledge that Rand "exercises a powerful appeal on some powerful minds"? Thanks to the influence of "a few friends who are avid fans" of her work, he explains, he has come to recognize that, for one thing, she was right about the evil of collectivism. Tantalizingly, he adds: "She was also right (or, I would say, partly right) about some other important things." Might one of them be esthetics? or the definition of art? Not likely (at least not yet), for he goes on to quote the "three things of immense importance" cited by Elaine Sternberg in "Why Ayn Rand Matters." On the day following Kimball's remarks (which he had not yet read), however, Louis Torres responded to Sternberg's appreciation [scroll down] in a post arguing--with considerable certainty--that Rand "was right about a fourth thing of immense importance: esthetics."

African Ballet Academy
An academy for classical ballet is taking root in one of South Africa's toughest black townships, the Alexandra section of Johannesburg. "I want to show these township kids that we can do everything to the highest level," declares the 24-year-old dancer who grew up there, studied ballet in London, and returned to bring classical dance to her community. Thirty-two children ranging in age from eight to eleven will be selected from a population of more than a thousand who are expected to try out. (For the full story, see The Guardian, January 31, 2005.)

WORTH READING
"Abbott Thayer: The Nature of Art," by art historian Steven May--whose commentary we always enjoy--is at once a review of an exhibition and an informed appreciation of one of America's finest painters. Though little remembered today, Abbott Henderson Thayer (1849-1921) was a prominent artist in his time, and was even the subject of a memorial exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art after his death. In addition to painting the idealized winged figures for which he was perhaps best known, Thayer created a wide range of other images, from perceptive portraits to still lifes and nature studies. Before reading May's essay, you can get a sense of Thayer's work from images on the websites of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Art Renewal Center. See also his Meditation--a contemplative study of the face of Bessie Price, his favorite model--in the collection of the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio.

Schoolchildren View America's Early Portraits
Earlier this year we had the pleasure of encountering a group of pupils from the Daly Day Academy in Harlem, wending their way through the stellar Gilbert Stuart exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art--which included an entire gallery of Stuart's celebrated portraits of George Washington, familiar to every American from an early age. Armed with clipboards, notebooks, and sketch pads, the pupils (grades six through eight) were guided by the school's founder and principal, Judy Phillips--who happens also to be its history and fine arts teacher. Such museum trips, she told us, are a regular part of the school curriculum.

Good Riddance to Rich
The strange trajectory of Frank Rich's career at the New York Times continues. Having moved from chief drama critic to op-ed columnist to front-page columnist in the Sunday Arts & Leisure section, he is now on the op-ed pages of the Sunday paper--where he can pontificate to his heart's content. In its effusive announcement of March 11, the Times declared that (among other things) Rich had "developed his own brand of social criticism" in the arts section. Unmentioned was that much of it was crudely political (anti-Bush, as it happens). For our part, we will not miss his invective. The only question that remains is, What were such columns doing in the Arts & Leisure section in the first place?

"The Arts" at the Times
Fiction is art. A biography of a conductor is related to the art of music. But does a memoir about having been sexually abused as a child and leaving the Mormon church have anything to do with art? The editors of the New York Times apparently think so. For this and other recent examples (some with links), see our list of articles and reviews unrelated to the "arts" that have appeared on the front page of "The Arts" section of the Times.

Edible Art
You may be familiar with Cézanne's luscious paintings of fruit, such as Still Life with Plate of Cherries (1885-87) [more (skip the human skulls)]. But did you know that there is also art you can eat--known as eat art (a.k.a. food art and edible art--chocolate, say)? We add it, plus a few others (with links) to our list--unique in the literature--of bogus art forms invented in the twentieth century.

More Artspeak
Among the artworld buzz words we have collected, none are more common than the variations on blur, as in blur the boundaries (i.e., ignore conceptual distinctions, definitions, etc.). Yet another, from an article of last year--about an "artist" who did not tolerate boundaries--has been added to our ever-growing list.

Correction
Minor corrections have been made in a few of the painting titles in "Messages from the Heart," our review of Love Letters: Dutch Genre Paintings in the Age of Vermeer. No changes were made in the text itself.

Letters to the Editors
We invite readers to comment on matters related to items published in the current or past issues (see Archives).

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