December 2015

NOTES & COMMENTS

Donate Now!
If you enjoy what you read in these pages and value the unique philosophy of art presented in the books we have published (and in the new one now in progress--see below), please make a donation today, however modest. The Aristos Foundation, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, depends on contributions from individuals like you to help continue its work. It's easy, via PayPal or by check. Do it now, before you forget! And thank you!

Enjoy Art Online . . . via Firefox!
Movie theaters dim the lights before the main feature starts so that the screen at the center is surrounded by darkness. Firefox is the only browser that also centers images on a dark background for optimum viewing. Makes sense, doesn't it? So why not make Firefox your default browser or, if you prefer, your alternate browser, just for viewing art (or images of any sort, for that matter).

EXHIBITIONS
* Andrea del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action, Frick Collection, New York City, through January 10, 2016. The first major monographic exhibition presented in the United States on this master artist. Offering a selection of nearly fifty drawings and three related paintings (culled from the Louvre, the Uffizi, and the British Museum, among other major institutions), it explores the important role of drawing in Andrea's art and the Florentine Renaissance, and sheds new light on the artist's creative process. See the excellent informative review by Ingrid D. Rowland, "Sublime, Exhilarating del Sarto," New York Review of Books, December 17, 2015.

* From Narrow Coves to Mountaintops: A Survey in American Realism, Vose Galleries, Boston, through January 9, 2016. The paintings featured in this exhibition, like most at this estimable gallery, are a pleasure to view online, as one can zoom in for a closer look. Among the stunning works on view is Winter Sunset by the Stream, by the little-known painter Ernest Albert. Also at Vose now is its Annual Sale exhibition, which closes on January 9 as well.

* Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through January 18, 2016. Comprising seventy-five portraits, genre scenes, landscapes, and seascapes from European and American collections--including masterworks never before seen in the United States--this show focuses on the representation of diverse social strata in seventeenth-century Dutch culture.

* International ARC Salon Exhibition, Salmagundi Club, New York City, January 18, 2016 - February 04, 2016. The "ARC" of the exhibition title refers to the Art Renewal Center, "the largest on-line museum on the internet," according to its mission statement, which further states that ARC is dedicated to promoting "a return of training, standards and excellence in the visual arts."

Provocative New Book on "Avant-Garde" Art
Aristos Co-Editor Louis Torres's long-promised "The Interminable Monopoly of the Avant-Garde" is one of ten essays featured in the volume After the Avant-Gardes: Reflections on the Future of the Fine Arts--to be released in January by Open Court, the publisher of What Art Is. Also included is co-editor Michelle Kamhi's "Mimesis versus the Avant-Garde: Art and Cognition," an updated version of an article previously published in Aristos.

Billed as "a rallying call for all those who challenge artistic modernism" in the visual arts, music, and literature, the volume is edited by Elizabeth Millán, a philosophy professor at DePaul University, who also contributed an essay on the "humanizing function of art."

Among other contributions is an appreciation of the anti-modernist Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum by Paul A. Cantor, professor of English at the University of Virginia. Cantor considers Nerdrum one of the greatest artists of our time. In this we agree, notwithstanding his often bleak sense of life. Among noteworthy Nerdrum paintings (view using Firefox as your browser, if possible) are Nora, [title unknown], Woman with Child [click on image to enlarge], and [title unknown--scroll down and click on the second color image; to view details of this painting of a woman cradling a baby, and still other works by Nerdrum, see thumbnails].

One Aristos Co-Editor Garners Praise for Her Book
Michelle Kamhi's recent book Who Says That's Art? is being lauded by reviewers and other readers alike. In November, she presented a talk entitled "Today's Art: Clueless Critics Left and Right"--based on material from the book--at the 2015 conference of the Mencken Club. According to the consensus voiced by one attendee, "There were a number of really good talks that weekend," but Kamhi's talk was "THE standout."

The Other Co-Editor Resumes Work on His Book
Since Aristos Co-Editor Louis Torres finished the substantial updating and virtual re-writing of "The Interminable Monopoly of the Avant-Garde"--first penned over a decade ago--for After the Avant-Gardes (see "Provocative New Book on the 'Avant-Garde' Arts" above), he has resumed his research for a book which he began back then and accelerated about four years ago.

Its working title, Trust Betrayed, refers to the role of boards of trustees (and of the directors they hire) in promoting avant-garde incursions into traditional museums and other cultural institutions. Among those he cites are such venerable museums as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection, both in New York City, and Boston's Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum. The Gardner's "Contemporary Art" division and its expansive new building grafted onto Mrs. Gardner's original house museum, for example, have with impunity violated its visionary founder's legacy. See also comments on the Brandywine River Museum of Art in "Wyeth Country: Past, Present, and Future" in this issue.

On the Sorry State of Academia
We recently came across an astonishingly frank confidential note we received in December 2002, from a young professor of art history in the U.K. In response to our lament that What Art Is was being ignored by the major academic journals in the U.S. that deal with art and aesthetics, he wrote:

I read your book thoroughly and felt it demonstrated a certain independence of mind. In academia, independence of mind is risky. As I have found to my dismay (I am a young academic, only three years into my career) there are 'correct' ways of being an academic which are often downright anti-intellectual. In order to continue on a career one has to publish in certain journals; in order to publish, one has to write in certain ways and engage with approved 'debates' sanctioned by the elites who run the journals (which in the world of Art History at least is quite small). I could understand why your book would be ignored in some quarters; it did not fit into the formats approved by the academy. You seem to be in the ever shrinking role of the public intellectual, a role more and more usurped by the bureaucratic academic. However, I think your project is worth fighting for.

Have matters fundamentally changed in academia since then? We don't think so.

The Infamous P.D.Q. Bach
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the birth of composer P.D.Q. Bach, the least illustrious of J. S. Bach's numerous musical progeny. Many music lovers know of C.P.E., for example. But P.D.Q.? And how could a son of Johann Sebastian (1685-1750) be born in the 1960s? Only his equally infamous godfather, composer Peter Schickele, knows the full story. Read it here, and then watch "7 Hilarious Videos Celebrating P.D.Q. Bach"--courtesy of WQXR, New York's classical music radio station. Enjoy!

Revaluing Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1955)
The stunning exhibition of Thomas Hart Benton's America Today murals at the Metropolitan Museum earlier this year prompted a surprisingly admiring review by James Gardner in The Weekly Standard. I say "surprisingly" not because the admiration was in any way unwarranted (I in fact share it) but because Gardner is one of many generally conservative critics who has sung the praises of "abstract art." And Benton is an American painter who adamantly rejected such work in its heyday.

What is most remarkable about Gardner's review is his telling assessment of the "reasons for the acrimony between Benton and the modernists":

His paintings remained resolutely representational at a time when most ambitious art was becoming abstract. He also said some ill-considered things about abstract expressionism that caused the guardians of advanced taste to launch an energetic counterattack against him. It did not help that Benton's art was so easy to understand and admire: From the Eastern seaboard to the hamlets of the heartland, even the most untutored viewer could immediately identify Benton's grain silos and riverboats and take pleasure in the mastery, the drama, the chromatic dazzle with which this artist filled a wall. It was that legibility and charm, that rejection of any and all rites of initiation, that struck modernists as a provocation, as an attack from the heartland on the advanced taste of the coast.

That such an assessment may have prompted Gardner to at last question the value of the "ambitious art" promoted by the "guardians of advanced taste" is a consummation devoutly to be wished--though not, I fear, realistically to be hoped for.

For my view of the Benton exhibition, see "Two Exhibitions Worth Praising" on my blog For Piero's Sake, April 22, 2015. -M.M.K.

James Gardner: Apologist for Abstract Art
In the above note citing James Gardner's admiring review of Thomas Hart Benton's America Today Mural Rediscovered (which closed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in April), Michelle Kamhi observes: "That such an assessment may have prompted Gardner to at last question the value of the 'ambitious art' promoted by the 'guardians of advanced taste' is a consummation devoutly to be wished--though not, I fear, realistically to be hoped for."

Indeed not, any more than my own wish that the hosts of the Met's video on the acquisition of the murals--Sheena Wagstaff, the museum's Leonard A. Lauder Chairman of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Randall Griffey, the department's Associate Curator--might have been prompted to question the value of abstract work as a result of the exhibition.

Kamhi's pessimism regarding the possibility that Gardner might at last question the legitimacy of abstract art has reminded me of "Santiago Calatrava: An Architect Who Makes . . . Sculpture?"--an article I wrote a decade ago on his inability to decide whether Calatrava's abstract sculpture was that of a "sculptor who designs buildings, an architect who makes sculptures, or an engineer who excels at both"? In Gardner's view ("The Art Behind the Architect." New York Sun, October 18, 2005), it was "impossible to say." For another example of Gardner's approval of "abstract art," see Biennial Bland: Accentuating the Positive at the Whitney" (Weekly Standard, May 10, 2010).

In sum, Gardner's admiration for an American realist painter who rejected abstraction remains at best an anomaly. For that, I suppose, we must be grateful. --L.T.

Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) - R.I.P.
Along with countless readers of his profoundly humane books (among them, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, and Awakenings), we mourn the loss of neurologist Oliver Sacks, who died on August 30th at the age of 82. Informed earlier in the year that he would soon succumb to a rapidly metasticizing cancer, he had penned a courageous and inspiring series of articles confiding to the world his feelings on facing death (recently published as a book entitled Gratitude). His passing has since been widely and movingly eulogized by grateful readers and patients. A fellow physician-writer, Atul Gawande, perhaps said it best in The New Yorker (September 14): "His most important role, as a doctor and as a writer, was to bear witness to the wide experience of being human."

Sacks lamented the increasingly depersonalized practice of medicine, and explained to Gawande why he wrote "tales" rather than mere "case histories" of people afflicted by injury and disease:

To restore the human subject at the centre [of medicine]--the suffering, afflicted, fighting, human subject--we must deepen a case history to a narrative or tale.

In that process, Sacks often wrote insightfully about the power of art in human experience--a subject on which we have often quoted him (see especially the section "Neurological Case Studies" in What Art Is, pp. 123-27). We are saddened by the knowledge that no more insights will be forthcoming.

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff Regarding Ayn Rand on Art
Ayn Rand's idiosyncratic pronouncements about particular works of art, and about individual responses to them, have often proved a stumbling block--even for her admirers--to a full appreciation either of her theory of art, on one hand, or of the rich diversity of the world's art, on the other. In "Understanding and Appreciating Art" (video), a talk delivered earlier this year at the annual conference of the Atlas Society, Michelle Kamhi demonstrated how Rand's fundamental insights on the nature of art can contribute to a broader understanding and enjoyment of painting and sculpture. Her talk incorporated material from Who Says That's Art?.

Macbeth on Film
Shakespeare enthusiasts may well be tempted to see the latest screen adaptation of the bard's work--Justin Kurzel's film version of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Unless they long to be "awash in gorgeous carnage" (to quote the odd turn of praise in the New York Times review), however, and don't mind the reduction of Shakespeare's magnificent poetry to a seemingly endless series of hoarse whispers, we would recommend resisting the urge.

Among the gratuitous inventions of a script attributed by the Times reviewer to "Jacob Koskoff, Todd Louiso and Michael Lesslie" (what happened to the bard?!) is a burning at the stake of Macduff's wife and children. In our view, no amount of inspired acting on Michael Fassbender's acclaimed part or atmospheric cinematography can sufficiently compensate for the film's egregious shortcomings. Better to read the play as Shakespeare wrote it, or see one of the earlier film versions.

For insightful reflections on the play itself, and on the strengths and weaknesses of various cinematic versus theatrical productions, see what theater critic Charles McNulty had to say in the Los Angeles Times. For an appreciative review of Kurzel's effort, see "A bloody brilliant adaptation," Prospero (a cultural weblog of The Economist), October 1, 2015.

Bloody it is. Just one of the descriptions we've read fully prepares readers for the sheer volume of graphic violence, blood, and gore that awaits them in this cinematic treatment. Written by an ordinary movie-goer, not a critic, it is on the IMDb (Internet Movie Database): "Parents Guide for Macbeth." Not for the squeamish, but then neither is the movie.

Letters to the Editors
We invite you to comment on items published in this or past issues. Letters may be edited for length or clarity, but you will always be consulted prior to publication. Please include your city and state, as well as any relevant information such as academic affiliation or profession. If you are a student, please indicate your college, major, and year of graduation.