August 2003


Octogenarian Sculptor Inspires
In another era, the work of EvAngelos Frudakis would have been widely known among adults and schoolchildren alike. Teachers of art history and art appreciation would do well to bring it to the attention of their students, beginning with the most dramatic of his public works, The Signer [the link to "Page 4" is unrelated to Frudakis] [more, more--excellent photographs, but inappropriately captioned], which commemorates those who affixed their names to our nation's founding document in 1776. Fittingly, it stands before Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Another public work by Frudakis is The Minuteman [more] [more], adopted by the National Guard in 1995 as its official symbol. The only other works by Frudakis pictured online are two female nudes--Gatta and Reaching, the latter in the collection of Brookgreen Gardens. At 81, this inspiring sculptor continues to practice the dying art of carving in stone, his "first love."

Sculpture Reconceived
Care to know what students in the Sculpture Program of the Alberta College of Art & Design in Canada are led to believe sculpture is nowadays? Consider this:

"These days sculpture could (sic) be made on a video screen or projected into space. It doesn't have to be physical--that was the traditional definition of sculpture. It has strong roots in the physical, but it's not limited to that," says Gordon Ferguson, a Foundation faculty member in the Sculpture Program. Contemporary sculpture is an extremely broad-based, pluralist discipline that can incorporate an immense variety of materials and/or techniques, even if you accept the basic definition that it is a static object. Over the last fifty years, the definition has expanded so that sculpture may be kinetic, or incorporate installation, performance, photography, video, audio or digital components. The content of sculpture has also expanded from the personal to broad social, political, cultural or philosophical issues. [full text]

What Ferguson doesn't say is that virtually all of these nontraditional forms of "sculpture" began as anti-art gestures of one kind or another. Nor could he possibly explain why they should now qualify as art.

Good Riddance to Raines
Howell Raines was forced to resign as Executive Editor of the New York Times last month, following a scandal that rocked the formerly venerated "paper of record." It seems that the politically correct Raines had hired and promoted a young black reporter who turned out to be a congenital fabricator of facts. It was Raines who had also recently hired Jodi Kantor, the neophyte editor of the paper's dumbed-down Sunday Arts & Leisure section (see "No Experience Required," Notes & Comments, May 2003). Dare we hope for better things under Bill Keller, the newly appointed successor to Raines? At a meeting on July 14, Keller reportedly encouraged reporters and editors to do "a little more savoring" of life, including "viewing art." We hope that by art he meant, at least in part, classic figurative painting and sculpture by contemporary artists, which never seems to be covered by critics at the Times.

A Twentieth-Century Masterpiece
Kenneth MacMillan's ballet Romeo and Juliet, set to a score by Sergei Prokofiev, is one of the twentieth century's choreographic treasures, a perfect marriage of music, dance, and drama. Prokofiev's richly textured, deeply romantic score--which, not surprisingly, has become enduringly popular in the concert hall as well as in the theater--gives ample dynamic and lyrical expression to the tale of ill-fated young lovers immortalized by Shakespeare. MacMillan, in turn, devised profoundly satisfying movement equivalents, inspired as much by Shakespeare's poetry as by the musical score.

The choreographic action moves swiftly and inexorably from vignettes of the bawdy, bustling street life of Verona to exquisitely tender and passionate pas de deux (it is difficult to imagine a more ecstatic embodiment of the first flowering of love than MacMillan's setting of the balcony scene) to tragic moments of fatal combat. In brief but telling scenes of domestic drama, Juliet is transformed from a playful child into an impassioned, defiant young woman, ready to confront the terrors of the tomb rather than submit to an unwanted husband. MacMillan's daring conception of the final scene, intensified by Prokofiev's expansive score, is heart-rending.

Those who have never been lucky enough to attend a live performance of the ballet (beautifully danced by American Ballet Theatre during its recent season in New York), and even those who have, can enjoy the splendid recording on VHS or DVD of Britain's legendary Royal Ballet production from the 1960s, starring Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn.

Arts Blogs on ArtsJournal
ArtsJournal, a website we consult daily, introduced a new feature this month: "AJ Blogs." For anyone who loves the arts and enjoys reading thoughtful, informative (and informal) commentary on them, this is good news indeed. AJ bloggers include dance critic Tobi Tobias (see "A First-Rate Dance Critic Out of a Job," and Tobias link in "Dance Calendar," Notes & Comments, May 2003); Terry Teachout, music critic of Commentary and drama critic of The Wall Street Journal; and, and Greg Sandow, the Journal's music critic.

Update on Kamhi-Hughey "Abstract Art" Debate
In our May Notes & Comments, we reported on the ArtsJournal debate between Michelle Kamhi and abstract painter Kirk Hughey on the viability of abstract work. The debate had a final round in June, with a letter from Kamhi on June 9 and one from Hughey on June 17.

Frederick Law Olmsted--"Artist" or "Designer"?
New York's glorious Central Park, the world's premier urban oasis--now celebrating its 150th anniversary--is often referred to as a "work of art." Yet its principal creator, Frederick Law Olmsted, the putative "father of landscape architecture," was never wholly comfortable with that claim. Nor did he willingly characterize his profession as landscape architecture. According to the excellent biography of him by Laura Wood Roper, it was Olmsted's business-wise partner, the architect Calvert Vaux, who urged that term upon him, arguing that such an "art title" would help them command the resources they needed to realize their vision. Like all too many who have followed him, Vaux (who designed Central Park's bridges and Belvedere Castle, among other architectural features) fully understood the prestige that could be gained by calling something "art."

In contrast, Olmsted wrote Vaux of his own reluctance to use that designation. As he explained: "I love beautiful landscapes and rural recreations, and people in rural recreations, better than anybody else I know. But I don't feel strong on the art side. I don't feel myself an artist." In so saying, Olmsted was maintaining a fitting distinction between "design" and "art." When, late in life, he did refer to his profession as "an Art," he immediately qualified it as "an Art of Design." In his heart of hearts, he knew that what he was engaged in differed in important respects from what painters and sculptors do. To acknowledge this, of course, in no way diminishes his genius or the magnitude of what he accomplished. It is simply to call a thing by its proper name.

Fooling Kids--UnArt at Cincinnati's UnMuseum
Welcome to the UnMuseum, an "interactive gallery of contemporary art especially for children." This aptly named facility, occupying an entire floor of the new Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, part of Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), aims to provide an environment in which "children can learn about art by touching and physically interacting with it." That might be fine if the work presented were actually art. But beware. The UnMuseum is "first and foremost an exhibition of contemporary art," presenting "original works of art by leading artists."

What does that mean in practice? Among the works of "contemporary art" children can interact with is something called Leaf Lounge, in which (as reported in the Cincinnati Post) they can take off their shoes and tumble among more than 450 hand-made, stuffed leaves authentically reproduced five times actual size and strewn on a bed of bouncy foam" (for atmosphere, trees videotaped in different wind conditions are projected onto an adjoining wall). Another is Color Complex, in which "you can switch on towers of colored light and see what the world would look like if light were only blue, red or green."

According to Lisa Buck, the Center's "curator of education": "Children love contemporary art. They really get it. They don't ask questions about whether or not it's art." Maybe not--one wouldn't expect a child to ask such questions--but their parents should.

Revealing more than he intended, CAC director Charles Desmarais told the Post that the name "UnMuseum" was chosen to avoid what he calls "the three scariest words to many Americans, contemporary, art and museum." Like most contemporary arts administrators, he gets it wrong, however. Many ordinary Americans enjoy art, in or out of museums. The problem is not art, but so-called contemporary art (i. e., "cutting-edge" postmodernist work). And people do not fear such work so much as they dislike it, or find it meaningless. Any sense of intimidation stems not from the work itself but from the curators' and arts administrators' implying that it merits their understanding and appreciation as art.

Among the works of pseudo art on view (loosely speaking) for adults at the CAC, for example, are a "walk-in wind tunnel installation" described as "A violent, tropical, cyclonic piece of art having wind speeds in excess of 75 miles per hour" (before which visitors stand and brace themselves), and an "interactive" exhibit Paravent et Oursin, in which the would-be artist, seated behind a partition, offers "anonymous foot rubs."

For our part, we would recommend that parents wanting to introduce their kids to real art visit the Cincinnati Art Museum instead. There one can find child-suitable works of painting and sculpture in the American, European, and Egyptian collections, among others (avoid the "contemporary art" collection, if possible).

"Playing" with Plaster and Paper
A brief unsigned note on Birgitte Lund's abstract paintings, in the New York Sun's Calendar section for May 12, 2003, noted that she "plays with plaster, stains, and paper" to create works consisting of "texture, color, and line." Kindergarten children "play" with such things. What they produce is not art either.

Women to Be Reckoned with in Traditional Ballet
There's much more to the wraith-like female protagonists of nineteenth- century storybook ballets than meets the P.C. eye, as Tobi Tobias makes clear in a provocative survey aptly entitled "Wonder Women." Belying the ill-informed objections of feminist ideologues, classical ballets ranging from La Sylphide to Giselle and Swan Lake feature women who exert remarkable strength and determination to achieve their ends. Notwithstanding their delicate appearance and the predations of evil or unscrupulous men to which many of them were subjected, these ballet heroines and femmes fatales are no pushovers. Beneath their gossamer costumes often beat hearts of steel.

Candor, but Too Little Courage
Reviewing an exhibition of Dan Flavin's simplest fluorescent "light sculptures," Ken Johnson writes (in the New York Times, May 30, 2003) that one gallery's "vast dim space . . . includes a single eight-foot tube of white light in a corner, attached to the wall at a 45-degree angle; compositions of short tubes, sometimes in warm-cool contrasts, attached to projecting corners; and vertical, symmetrical configurations of tubes." A smaller gallery contains "just one piece, a single four-foot tube making a horizontal hypotenuse across one corner, with a shorter, cooler light attached behind that casts a pale, bluish light into the corner." In Johnson's view:

These works create an oasis of coolly luminous quietude that verges on the ecclesiastical. Still, the means are so banal that it is hard not to wonder if you are being had by the powers of money, art history and institutional authority that have so lavishly blessed Flavin's art. You may reason that just about any tasteful arrangement of lights in such an elegant space would have a similarly dramatic effect.

Unwilling or unable to follow this remarkable bit of critical candor to its logical conclusion, however--by arguing that Flavin's arrangements of fluorescent tubes are, in fact, not art-- Johnson instead hedges, suggesting that a visitor contemplating these pieces may find himself "suspended between belief and disbelief," wavering "between transcendentalist euphoria and mundane skepticism."

Authors of What Art Is Respond to Critics
The Spring 2003 issue of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, just published, includes a response by Michelle Marder Kamhi to an Aesthetics Symposium (Spring 2001) inspired by the publication of What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand, which she co-authored with Louis Torres. Entitled "What 'Rand's Aesthetics' Is and Why It Matters," the Kamhi response to the symposium (much of which dealt with What Art Is) covers issues ranging from the history of Western esthetics to the present state of art education. A response by Louis Torres, entitled "Scholarly Engagement: When It Is Pleasurable and When It Is Not," will appear in the Fall 2003 issue of the journal. In it, he examines commonly accepted standards of scholarly writing and applies them to a critique of the essays in the symposium. Single copies of the semi-annual journal are available for $15 in the U.S. ($27 abroad); one-year subscriptions are $25 ($37 abroad). Readers interested in obtaining both the Spring and the Fall 2003 issues might wish to subscribe for one year, specifying that the Spring issue be their first. Write to The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, 1018 Water Street #301, Port Townsend, WA 98368.

Art Renewal Center's Founder in the News
The Art Renewal Center (ARC) justly describes itself as "the largest on-line Museum." A recent profile of ARC's founder, Fred Ross, in the Star-Ledger (Newark N. J.) tells the story of its genesis and extraordinary growth. Ross is an informed collector and ardent champion of nineteenth-century academic painting--as well as of work by contemporary artists who carry on the tradition--and he minces no words in his denunciation of modernism and postmodernism. The ARC website amply rewards regular in-depth visits.

Homages to Color and the Square
According to New York Times critic Holland Cotter, Joseph Albers: Homage to Color--a recent exhibition of paintings at the Pace Wildenstein Gallery in New York City--was "a cool thing: a perfectly unecstatic demonstration of how luminous color can be." Albers (1888-1976), Cotter explains, was engaged in "a long-term research project to determine, through art, all the possible implications of a single word: vision." Here is how he did it, according to Cotter:

In one sense, there isn't much to the work: color, a few geometric forms, that's it. And you can watch him work. With color, he starts simply. He paints a square of yellow on a canvas. Then he adds a touch of, say, red to the original yellow and lays a square of a new orangey-yellow on the earlier one, nested-box style. Then he adds green or something and gets a funny brown, which goes on top of the other two.
So now you have brown on orange on yellow. Or beeswax on egg yolk on forsythia. Or circumspection on passion on innocence. And by the time you've come this far, the stacked-up planes of color are moving slightly, like the bellows of a harmonium.
I suspect this is the kind of experience Albers wanted to put us through with his color studies. . . . Some people find such exercises dry and mechanical. I can see why, but they don't strike me that way, nor do they look that way in the show.

This is what passes for art criticism at the Times these days. Cotter's opening statement, however--"In one sense, there isn't much to the work" (in any sense, we would say)--is one of those rare forthright critical remarks that unwittingly reveals the emptiness of abstract painting.

"I Could Do That!"--Dia:Beacon Unmasked
"The phrase 'I could do that!' is often heard at modern art museums" ("Electricians Try Their Hand at Abstract Art," Boston Globe, June 13, 2003). How true--we could make some of what now passes for art, and so could anyone else. It seems that a crew of electricians working at the new Dia:Beacon museum (Beacon, N. Y.) prior to its opening (see letter on Dia in our May issue) also thought so. Inspired by abstract "sculptures" made by John Chamberlain [more] [more] from crushed automoble parts and other materials, the electricians made their own piece and placed it next to one of his. "'We tried to imitate it [and] see how long they'd take to find it," their foreman said. It took about a week for someone to notice the work, which was then unceremoniously discarded. (No photographs have been made public, if any exist--what a shame!) As Amy Weisser, the museum's assistant director, explained:

The electricians made a sculpture, an homage to John's work. When the art installers saw it, they knew it wasn't John's work. This was something that wasn't mistaken as a work of art by anyone other than the electricians.

The electricians did not make their piece to pay "homage" to Chamberlain's work, however, but (as their foreman explained) "just for fun." They also did not, as Weisser surely knows, "mistake" their piece for "a work of art"--a claim she ironically made in virtually the same breath as her claim that they "made a sculpture." Put on the spot, she responded the way the artworld usually does when caught in an embarrassing situation of this kind--she lied.

EXHIBITIONS: A Futile Project--Malevich's Suprematism
Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism, on view at New York's Guggenheim Museum until September 14, focuses on the seminal period in which Malevich, one of the pioneer abstract painters, attempted to create "an art of pure form meant to be universally comprehensible regardless of cultural origins" (to quote the museum's guide). Malevich's famed breakthrough to the non-objective style of painting he termed Suprematism [more] [more ] occurred around 1915 (some say 1913), when he first painted a black square on a white field. This was quickly followed by a series of comparably abstract works, with such titles as Black Cross, Black Circle, and Elongated Plane.

If these works are comprehensible at all on their own, it is only in the most banal terms--as simple geometric forms. Malevich was aiming at a more profound meaning, however. Like his fellow early abstractionists Kandinsky and Mondrian, who also sought to abandon the material realm through their painting, Malevich hoped to attain a higher state of spiritual consciousness. "The artist has liberated himself," he announced (as quoted in one of the wall texts for the current exhibition), "from all ideas, images, notions, and all objects arising from them." And he enigmatically claimed that in so doing he had brought "Art out to itself, i.e. to Art as such."

The question critics and curators have failed to ask is, How can art be "liberated" from all ideas and objects and still remain meaningful? The notion is absurd, of course, as the actual failure of Malevich's work demonstrates. Since the viewer sees only simple geometric shapes in his Suprematist paintings--shapes inherently devoid of any higher or deeper meaning--the conclusion is inescapable that Malevich devoted himself to a colossally futile project, an abysmal failure not meriting even a minor footnote in art history.

EXHIBITIONS: Photographer of Genius?
Julia Margaret Cameron, Photographer--an exhibition previously subtitled Photographer of Genius when it was shown at London's National Portrait Gallery--will be on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California, October 21, 2003 - January 11, 2004. On Cameron and her photographs, see the following note and comment.

Letters from the Editors
This letter from Louis Torres appeared in the Times Literary Supplement (London) on May 2, 2003:

In her review of the new catalogue raisonné, and exhibition, of Julia Margaret Cameron's work (Arts, March 21), Claire Tomalin refers to Cameron's "undoubted genius for placing her figures," uncritically accepting the premiss of the author and curator Colin Ford's subtitle: Nineteenth-century Photographer of Genius. Michelangelo was a "genius." But Cameron? Hardly. She did nothing to earn that exalted title.
Ford, Tomalin reports, also insists on Cameron's "seriousness and sophistication as an artist," and "reminds us that her photographs were once mentioned in the same breath as the paintings of Titian and Rembrandt." More hyperbole. As Michelle Kamhi and I argue in our book What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand, photography is not even art by any objective definition of the term. Henri Cartier-Bresson [more] [more] has lamented: "There are no more craftsmen. Now everybody's an 'artist.' What rubbish! Photography --it's an artisan's thing" (interview, the New York Review of Books, March 2, 1995).

Comment: Properly speaking, genius implies extraordinary powers of intellect, invention, or imagination, and is therefore never applicable to photographers, since their work depends so much on a mechanical process, rather than on a primarily inventive or creative one. For this reason, the exhibition and catalogue of Cameron's work might be more aptly subtitled Eminent Nineteenth-Century Photographer--or just Photographer, as the Getty Museum simply puts it (see preceding note and comment).

Letters to the Editors
In this issue we inaugurate a page of Letters from readers, with comments from abstract painter and Northwestern University professor William Conger, on "Judging a Book by Its Cover" (May 2003) and What Art Is.

We invite readers to comment on matters related to the current issue or--this time only--on past articles (see Archives). General comments, suggestions, queries, and information are also welcome. (We will read all letters with care, but we cannot promise to respond.) Our policy will be to limit published letters to about 250 words (the present letter is an invited exception). Shorter letters stand a better chance of being selected--think print, not online, periodical.

While we reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, we will always seek the writer's permission before making any changes that might alter meaning. Letters should include the writer's postal mailing address and daytime telephone number, as well as any relevant professional titles, student identification, or other biographical information. We will publish the writer's city and state--and e-mail address, unless otherwise requested. Write to (for other correspondence, see Contact Aristos).

Websites We Like
The descriptions of many of the websites on our recommended list have been revised, and five new sites--on Daniel Chester French, Leonardo da Vinci, the National Sculpture Society, The New Criterion, and Sculpture Review--have been added. The one on the sculpture of D. C. French (1850-1931), in particular, is not to be missed. Though scarcely a household name, French is one of America's two finest sculptors, the other being Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

What Art Is Online--Appendixes
New items ("Intervention art," etc.) have been added to Appendix A - Part II: New Forms of Art. Appendix B: Artworld Buzz Words offers further examples of the use of the terms "Blur," "Difficult," "Explore," and "Push the Envelope." New items in Appendix C: New York Times--"The Arts" are related to JFK, Hitler, and cystic fibrosis.

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In the bibliographic citation preceding our review of Cynthia Freeland's But Is It Art? ("Judging a Book by Its Cover," May 2003), we overlooked an extra 'e' in the spelling of the author's name. We regret the error, which has now been corrected.