May 2003


Kamhi vs. Abstract Painter in ArtsJournal
In its Ideas section for January 29, ArtsJournal linked to "Art and Cognition: Mimesis vs. the Avant Garde" by Michelle Kamhi, published in the January issue of Aristos. It was the second most frequently read of the articles cited by ArtsJournal for the week of January 27-February 1, and provoked a lively debate between Kamhi and Kirk Hughey, an abstract painter. See items by the two in the Letters section of ArtsJournal, from January 29 through May 28; a letter by another abstract painter appears as well. (Arts Journal includes Aristos among its Publications Links.)

Why Art Is Called "Art"
According to art critic Deborah Solomon, art is called "art" because it "resists explanation" ("Seeking a Cure for Anxiety," New York Times, Special Section--Museums, Art Appreciation, April 23, 2003). There is no historical or logical basis for her claim, however. In truth, only bogus art cannot be explained. Not surprisingly, Solomon is the author of Jackson Pollock: A Biography. Like many other contemporary writers, she wrongly generalizes about art solely from the narrow range of modernist and postmodernist work she focuses upon. Unable to find any meaning in the inscrutable pencil-drawn minimalist grids of Agnes Martin, for example--"critics and specialists, too, get stumped," she confides--Solomon thinks that "perhaps" she will one day because "hard-to-get artists automatically get easier over time" Degas's ballerinas, for example, were once "ridiculed as cowlike," and now he is "revered," she observes. Her logic escapes us, however, as viewers have always understood Degas's work, even when they did not like it.

Inspiration or Perturbation?--Lee Miller and Picasso
Lee Miller was a great beauty who left fashion modeling in New York for the inner circle of the Paris avant garde in the 1930s and eventually became a war correspondent. She is the subject of an exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, Surrealist Muse: Lee Miller, Roland Penrose, and Man Ray (February 25 - June 15, 2003), cited in a recent New York Times "Arts Briefing" by Lawrence Van Gelder under the caption "The Art of Inspiration." Van Gelder notes that, among others whom Miller presumably inspired, Picasso painted her portrait five times. To judge from Picasso's brutally distorted Cubist renderings of Miller's physical beauty, however, "perturbation" would more accurately describe her effect on him. One is prompted to wonder how any sane person could admire such distortions, so typical of Picasso's portraits of women. These images seem to be less a work of artistic inspiration than the outpouring of a profoundly disturbed personality, giving vent to its mysogynist spleen.

No Experience Required
We have often been critical of the arts coverage in the New York Times, yet even we were shocked to learn that the paper had appointed a 27-year-old, Jodi Kantor, as the new editor of its Sunday Arts & Leisure section, effective March 1.

Characterized by the New York Daily News as a "cyber-vet," Kantor is the former New York editor of the online magazine Slate. A graduate of Columbia University's journalism school, she worked briefly in Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's office of operations, then spent time at Harvard Law School, which she quit to join Slate. To judge from that magazine's archives, however, she seems to have had an undistinguished career, specializing in what can only be termed "journalism lite"--pieces ranging from television reviews such as "Sex and the Gritty" to articles for the section "Explainer: Answers to Your Questions About the News." She seems never to have written anything even remotely related to criticism in any of arts. Most important, at age 27 she cannot have gained a broad or deep familiarity with the arts themselves or, given her background, have become much acquainted, if at all, with the critical literature.

Plucked from relative obscurity by Times executive editor Howell Raines--who wants, according to the News, a "smarter, newsier" (translation: more hip, more superficial) arts section--Kantor comes to the Times with big ideas. "I do think you'll see us playing around with the format," she has declared. "One thing that 'Arts & Leisure' will not be doing," she vows, "is choosing between pop culture and the more refined arts. These days, rap stars give breathtakingly good performances in Broadway plays, the most beloved show on TV explores Freudian theory with great subtlety, and novels about comic books win Pulitzers."

Sad to say, Kantor has already made her mark on Arts & Leisure's coverage of the "more refined arts." There is less of it, for one thing. The ultimate blame lies not with Kantor, of course, but with executive editor Raines and with the publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr.

Arts Education Policy Review (AEPR)
The January/February issue of Arts Education Policy Review features a trenchant Symposium on the much-publicized federal report Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development (released last May), which purportedly summarizes and discusses sixty-two research studies that examine the effects of arts learning on students' social and academic skills. The consensus of the AEPR Symposium, however, is that no solid evidence has yet been found that arts learning enhances academic achievement; and that, even if such evidence were forthcoming, it should not be employed as a justification for arts education.

In the words of one contributor, Constance Bumgarner Gee (associate professor of education policy at Vanderbilt University), Critical Links is "the federal arts bureaucracy's latest attempt to influence public policy and enhance its own political standing. . . . Dressed up as serious research, [it] is in actuality just one more item in a long line of publicly funded federal arts advocacy reports and public relations packets . . . . [yet another] vehicle for . . . the advancement of the federal arts' bureaucracy's decades-old practice of using arts education as a means to sustain political support and public funding." In contrast to the Critical Links emphasis, AEPR advocates arts education as a means of "keep[ing] the arts alive for young people today, not by subordinating them to other agendas but by celebrating their power to expand horizons, enrich the mind, and energize the spirit" it noted in a recent press release.

Kamhi Article on Art Education in AEPR
"Where's the Art in Today's Art Education?" by Aristos co-editor Michelle Kamhi-- published in What Art Is Online last November--has been reprinted in the March/April 2003 issue of the Arts Education Policy Review. The article has also been featured in the January/February 2003 issue of Navigator, the monthly journal of The Objectivist Center.

Molière Well Served
Although theatergoers can no longer have the pleasure of seeing the Roundabout Theatre Company's recent production in New York of Tartuffe, Molière's classic comedy about the vice of false piety, readers everywhere can still savor the pleasures of Richard Wilbur's superb verse translation--on which the excellence of that production so largely depended. Under Wilbur's inspired pen, the rhymed couplets of Molière's seventeenth-century French original come to life in English as freely and naturally as breathing itself, allowing the playwright's wit and good sense to shine through without impediment. Like Wilbur's brilliant translation, the Roundabout production was true to the original in both letter and spirit; and the enthusiastic response of audience members, young and old alike, clearly attested that no postmodernist directorial tinkering is required to make such a classic accessible.

Martha Graham's Legacy
As one of the foremost pioneers of modern dance, Martha Graham had an incalculable influence on the evolution of this art in the course of the twentieth century. Unlike modernists who attempted to make their mark by jettisoning everything that had come before, Graham sought only to revitalize dance, to achieve its full potential as a meaningfully expressive medium. The world of ballet as well as that of contemporary dance gained immeasurably from the intensity of her vision, as well as from the radically new technique of movement she forged to realize that vision. The recent return to the New York scene of the Martha Graham Dance Company, which she founded in 1926 and headed until her death in 1991, is therefore welcome news. For an informative perspective on the company's season at the Joyce Theatre, see "Early Spring" (New Yorker, February 17-24, 2003) by Joan Acocella, one of today's most astute writers on dance.

A First-Rate Dance Critic Out of a Job
The news last August that Tobi Tobias's column in New York magazine had been abruptly terminated after a tenure of 22 years shocked the dance world. Tobias is one of America's most respected and influential dance critics. In announcing the decision not to renew her contract, New York's editor-in-chief, Caroline Miller, cited the "difficult times" and "painful choices" that publications were facing. "While we have valued Tobi's contribution," she said, "we believe that for the time being, the best way to provide ongoing coverage of dance is in other parts of the magazine." In other words, New York would no longer publish dance reviews as such. In a Time Out New York interview with Gia Kourlas, Tobias spoke in measured terms that masked any bitterness: "It's very sad. The fact that the dance column at New York exists no more is twofold terrible. I don't think I will easily find a place where I could write steady, intellectually serious criticism. So that's my problem, because I still think I have a lot to offer." Three weeks later, the truth about her firing came out. Under pressure, Miller admitted that she had dumped Tobias because "the column didn't appeal to enough of New York magazine's readers." Claiming that she had not abandoned her "commitment to serious culture," Miller complained that "we [Tobias] seemed to be speaking only to insiders and dance veterans, and not to a broader audience." In other words, New York would henceforth be dumbing down its dance coverage. Laura Shapiro has since been appointed the magazine's new dance critic, and is writing a regular column. (Fortunately, one may still read Tobias's criticism in New York's archives. See also the link to a piece by Tobias at the end of the next item.)

Dance Calendar: Berkeley, Calif. (Sept. 4-14)
In a few months, dance lovers in the Bay area will have the opportunity to see the Mark Morris Dance Group perform L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. As we have said elsewhere, any terms we might use to characterize the work of Mark Morris would sound like hyperbole. Let us just say that this modern dance choreographer towers above most contemporary figures we know of--in any of the arts. Deeply inspired by a broad spectrum of music, not least the great classical tradition, Morris draws upon a variety of dance genres, including ballet, folk, and modern, to create dances that are infinitely varied in mood and theme--ranging from the playful and witty to the sublime. L'Allegro--set to a song cycle by Handel based, in turn, on poems by Milton--is justly regarded as a masterpiece of modern choreography, but is infrequently performed because of its costly production requirements. (After seeing and hearing it at New York's Mostly Mozart Festival last summer, an avid music lover we know who has been a frequent concertgoer for over half a century remarked that it was, quite simply, "the best musical event of any kind he had ever experienced.") For an account of a key passage in this work, see "Walkaround Time: Basic Steps in Mark Morris's 'L'Allegro'" by Tobi Tobias. Further information on the Berkeley performances, as well as on appearances scheduled by the company in other cities, is available on the Morris Dance Group's Calendar.

Glorious Music
The resounding finale to a recent concert of mostly choral music by the contemporary British composer John Rutter at New York's Carnegie Hall was a performance of his Feel the Spirit, a splendid setting of seven traditional Negro spirituals featuring the soul-stirring mezzo soprano Melanie Marshall. A CD recording of Feel the Spirit --with Marshall (whose vocal artistry inspired the work's composition), the Cambridge Singers, and the BBC Concert Orchestra under the baton of Andrew Knight--is available on the Collegium label, No. 128.

From the Horse's Mouth
Simon Doonan is a window dresser for the upscale New York clothing store Barneys. When asked in an interview for New York magazine, Are store windows an art form? he replied: "No. If they were, it would be a total, raving drag. It's design, it's craft, it's marketing, none of which art should be. People have said to me, 'Oh, you're an artist' because they want to pay [me] a compliment." Quoted in "The Store Window," New York, December 23-30, 2002.

What Art Is Online
New items ("Neon sculpture," etc.) have been added to Appendix A: New Forms of Art. Appendix B: Artworld Buzz Words offers further examples of the use of the terms "blur," "explore," and "untitled." See Appendix C: New York Times--"The Arts" for yet more instances of non-arts coverage in the arts section.

From the Editors
For comments to other editors on articles and reviews in their publications--with added remarks and recommendations for further reading--see Letters.

On the Road
Recent speaking engagements and other activities by the Aristos co-editors are noted in "Public Speaking and Teaching."