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August 2003


The following letter comments on a book review that appeared in the previous issue of Aristos ["Judging a Book by Its Cover," May 2003], as well as on aspects of What Art Is, the book co-authored by the editors, and on psychologist Louis Sass's Madness and Modernism, which they cite. Louis Torres replies below to comments on the review, and Michelle Kamhi responds to comments on the book. All online examples of images were selected by the editors.

To the Editors:

Louis Torres's review of Cynthia Freeland's book, But Is It Art? An Introduction to Art Theory, is striking for his amusing declaration that in this case one can judge a book by its cover. The cover he refers to is illustrated with an image of a life-size fiberglass cow which I painted with varied biomorphic and geometric shapes for inclusion in a highly publicized and successful public art project in Chicago a few years ago.

That project, Cows on Parade, was intended as an upbeat summer event and included some 300 fiberglass cows painted by hundreds of different artists. The decorated cows were located throughout Chicago's major public parks and along its major commercial streets and boulevards. The astonishing popularity of this project led many cities to present similar projects and now the summertime appearance of various plastic animal-mascots, from alligators to zebras, is a common sight (too common!) in cities around the world.

There was no pre-existing relation between my painted cow and its later service as an illustration for Freeland's book. The image was proposed by the editors at Oxford University Press in consultation with Professor Freeland, whom I did not know at that time. I approved the use of the image because I recognized how it might parallel the described tone and content of the book. However, Louis Torres employs the image to argue that the book suffers the same absurdity he attributes to my painted cow. Foul, I cry! The book and its cover need to be understood on their individual merits. Certainly, Cynthia Freeland's book does not need any cow sense to be appreciated as a useful and engaging introduction to the pastures of current art theory.

It is unusual, to say the least, to critique a book by its cover illustration. I had to wonder why Mr. Torres did this unless he was just looking for a gimmicky way to engage your readers. For a moment I wondered if his rather unkind remarks about my cow were prompted in any way by having heard about the many contentious (but intellectually stimulating) e-mail exchanges I had with Michelle Kamhi over What Art Is, the book she co-authored with him. That dark thought came to mind because why else would he notice my name, so dimly printed in the tiniest cover flap font? Of the thousands of book reviews I've read, never have I encountered a deadly spearing of an author through a defenseless book cover image. Mr. Torres's is the first one! But this is the sort of thing practiced to extreme in What Art Is. More on that in a moment.

Right now, for the record, let me say that my painted cow was intended as a whimsical and cheery celebration of urban life (in those last bright days before 9-11). This was a challenge because I am a serious artist who is more at home with art theory and art history, literature, and all those topics you seem to think are the private domain of Ayn Rand fans. I decided to create a bright, geometric arrangement on the cow (in harmony with my other work) that might appeal to the average person but would also have allusions to art-historical content. For example, one of the interesting debates in modernist art centered on the clash of ideas between the abstractionists who modeled their biomorphic work on nature and those who preferred idealist (Platonic) form. The early Kandinsky [e.g., Composition IV, 1911] and the later Mondrian [e.g., Composition with Yellow Patch, 1930] might be good examples of these two positions.

My cow, titled Crossfire Cow, intermixed the two approaches and was thus in the "crossfire" of modernist ambitions. Further, my cow alludes to the famous lecture sketches made by De Stijl artist TheoVan Doesburg showing stages of abstraction from a cow image to a geometric arrangement. Later, Roy Lichtenstein made a set of prints of a Cow Going Abstract based on the Van Doesburg sketches. More attenuated allusions closely related to some of my other work include evoking the dialectical tension between fascination and repulsion symbolized by the history of Chicago's stockyards--thus the iconic cow--and continued in a larger sense by the city's energetic and often ruthless intermixing of culture and crime, all in brightly masked crossfire.

Regarding your book What Art Is, I have too many objections to it to mention here. But I'll summarize just two of them, one general, one specific. As for my general objection, you begin with a fixed belief about art--an extrapolation from Ayn Rand's vague esthetics--and then proceed to judge all conflicting views from a template of that belief. In practice, you frequently flavor your comments about art ideas with introductory and disparaging adjectives, just as Mr. Torres does in his review of Freeland's book. This is inappropriate in good scholarship. In fact, in science it is sometimes regarded as a kind of fraudulent "cooking" of evidence.

My specific objection is centered on your efforts to employ Louis Sass's notions about schizophrenia and modernism as real evidence that modern art is lunacy made by lunatics. For better and worse, Sass's book, Madness and Modernism, is an effort to understand the many and often contradictory facets of schizophrenia by comparing the disease to the similar complexity of modernism, particularly to the visual and performing arts. What he does not do (although he may want to) is to say that there is any causal or empirical evidence that madness and modernism are linked. Indeed, Sass makes it abundantly clear that he is using modernism only as a metaphorical structure to examine the elusive nature of schizophrenia and, further, that no one really knows what schizophrenia is except in the most general behavioral terms.

I have a layman's trouble with Sass's book nearly as much as I have a professional's trouble (as artist and art theory professor) with What Art Is. Sass does not explore what we might call a Darwinian approach to mental disease--an approach that explores how underlying illness may adapt itself to forms or behaviors that might serve as hosts and thus enable its survival. Modernism explores the deep recesses of the psyche and in this sense may expose to consciousness some aspects of mind to be claimed by opportunistic illness.

Further, Sass does not deal with the difficult issue of intentionality where madness in art and life may look alike but serve differing intentions--the former self-obsessive and hyperrational, the latter socially minded and eager for what the pragmatist would call the "cash value" (as William James would say) approbation available in the varied domains. And he does not adequately examine the new developments in neuroscience (Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error, for example). Most seriously, he blurs the distinction between art and science by attempting to justify science by finding handy poetic and literary or art images with Wittgensteinian "family resemblance" kinship to descriptive traits of mental illness. This is neither good science nor good art because it fails to say explicitly what schizophrenia is and what art is. It is an effort at science by association, analogy, metaphor, signaled by a habitual use of the "as if" phrase. But Sass's ambitious effort does have the value of mapping (or mirror) a difficult terrain. He is abused by you when you gloss his thesis with your own agenda and triumphalist remarks that his conclusion--again, one based on analogy and metaphor--is "most disturbing" or "an egregious fallacy" [What Art Is, p. 130].

I'm not pleased by Mr. Torres's remarks about my cow. Of course, he may judge it as he sees fit even though he is wrong to assume that because I used abstract shapes the work is absurd and without meaning. I've read What Art Is to understand your point of view, and conclude that I disagree with it. You should try to understand, too, what you disagree with. I think it is always preferable for disagreement to follow understanding instead of the other way around. But that is not the methodology practiced in What Art Is.

Incidentally, Cynthia Freeland's book is a big success. I think it's now out in seven languages. Yet I doubt that my cow is responsible for that growing achievement.

William Conger
Chicago, Ill.
July 8, 2003

The writer is an abstract painter, and a professor of Art Theory & Practice at Northwestern University.

Louis Torres replies:

William Conger is an often engaging writer even when wrong, and a spirited and informed advocate of his specialty, abstract painting. With regard to my comments on his Crossfire Cow, however, he protests too much and too thinly. In "Judging a Book by Its Cover," I devote all of four sentences, two of them mainly descriptive ("fiberglass . . . brightly colored . . . geometric . . . biomorphic"), to his painted cow. In the last sentence, I merely note where he teaches, and cite the publisher's statement that the cow was made "'both in fun and as a serious work of art with art historical references.'" Professor Conger's claim that I found "absurdity" in the cow, and that I "critique[d]" the book "by its cover illustration," is based on a single sentence: "Since Conger's work consists merely of abstract design, suggesting nothing about his view of cows, I had to conclude that regarding it, my answer to the title question [But Is It Art?] was No."

Given Professor Conger's scholarly background, he might have devoted his energies to refuting the substance of my remark that Crossfire Cow is "merely . . . abstract design," and not art. (I was suggesting that it is decorative, not fine, art--a view he unwittingly corroborates by his own reference to the "decorated cows" in the Cows on Parade project.) Instead he turned his attention to more mundane matters. I was surprised, for example, to learn that he had approved the use of the image because he thought it paralleled the "described tone and content" of the book. Both he and I characterize the cow as "whimsical." Surely he does not think Professor Freeland's book is that (I viewed it as "condescending" and "patronizing").

And what of the book's content? How could Professor Conger have seen any parallels between his child-friendly cow and the "'rather grisly . . . present-day . . . works that speak of sex or sacrilege, made with blood, dead animals, or even urine and feces'" with which the author begins her text? Or any connection to the "'blood-'spurting . . . sacrificial water buffaloes in Borneo'" (which she implies are akin to Western "performance art" such as that by Orlan [more])? One can only conclude that the Oxford University Press editors who sought permission to picture Crossfire Cow on the cover of But Is It Art? omitted all mention of such things, and that Professor Conger has never read the book.

I did not, as Professor Conger claims, use the cover illustration to argue that the book is plagued by the same "absurdity" I attribute to the painted cow. (He nevertheless cries "Foul!") As suggested above, I drew no parallels between the image and the book at all, and called neither the book nor the cow "absurd"--my quarrels with the book run much deeper than that. And my "unkind" remarks about the cow were not at all prompted by his e-mail debate with Michelle Kamhi over What Art Is (on the Aesthetics-L discussion list maintained by the American Society for Aesthetics). The reason I noticed his name, "so dimly printed in the tiniest cover flap front" (along with other background information), is that I always read such text, especially when reviewing a book. In any case, contrary to Professor Conger's charge, I had no need to lean on his cow in my "deadly spearing" of Professor Freeland. I had more than sufficient recourse to her own words, as amply documented in the section of my review entitled "The Book"--which he seems not to have even read.

Professor Conger's response sets Crossfire Cow in an art-historical context (loosely speaking), and I was glad to learn of the examples he cites. Needless to say, I do not consider any of the figures he mentions--including Roy Lichtenstein (the only non-abstractionist in the bunch)--to be artists. But consider this claim regarding Crossfire Cow:

allusions closely related to some of my other work include evoking the dialectical tension between fascination and repulsion symbolized by the history of Chicago's stockyards-- thus the iconic cow--and continued in a larger sense by the city's energetic and often ruthless intermixing of culture and crime, all in brightly masked crossfire?

Could Professor Conger's cow possibly suggest any of this to anyone other than himself? I think not. Indeed, as he further explains, what the decoration of his cow mainly referred to was a series of art-historical oddities: works inspired by the "'crossfire' of modernist ambitions," and Van Doesburg's "geometric arrangement," Composition (The Cow)--a work in which, notwithstanding the title, no ordinary person (or even a child with a very fertile imagination) would discern a cow, or anything having to do with cows.

Michelle Marder Kamhi replies:

The objections Professor Conger raises to What Art Is, and to the work of clinical psychologist Louis Sass (whose Madness and Modernism is frequently cited in the book), are mistaken on several key points. First, he claims, somewhat bafflingly, that Louis Torres and I consider such matters as art theory and art history to be "the private domain of Ayn Rand fans," and that we fail to understand what we disagree with. Quite the contrary. We have analyzed at length, in the book and elsewhere, the various theories of art and notions of art history that have had such a destructive influence on the artworld since the early twentieth century. In fact, several reviewers have commented on the thoroughness which which we have considered such matters in What Art Is.

Moreover, Crossfire Cow is a perfect example of the sort of work that has resulted from the artworld's greater concern with art theory than with emotionally meaningful human experience. As Professor Conger himself implies, it is inaccessible to the average person on all but the most banal terms; the purportedly deeper meaning it aims at is a clever riff on theoretical disputes of interest only to artworld insiders. Nor does knowledge of his intentions in any way enhance the value of his work for us; it serves only to highlight what's wrong with "contemporary art." The fundamental question remains, Does such work in fact qualify as art? That is the question Freeland's book ostensibly poses but never really answers. In this respect, the cow does "parallel the . . . content" of her book: both share the same overriding concern with theory, at the expense of art.

Regarding the answer our book offers to the question of what art is, Professor Conger complains that we began "with a fixed belief about art--an extrapolation from Ayn Rand's vague esthetics." He could not be more mistaken. We began with our own direct experience of a multitude of artworks, and with a sense of what was significant for us about those experiences. We were not drawn to Rand's theory arbitrarily or in a vacuum. We were drawn to it because it offered a lucid explanation of what we had observed and felt about the function and value of art. And we were impressed by her theory because it was grounded, as is becoming increasingly clear, in a remarkably astute grasp of the relationship between perception, cognition, and emotion.

Professor Conger makes some astonishingly erroneous allegations about our book--astonishing because, while he is extremely critical of our scholarship, his allegations against us are broadly drawn, with scarcely a direct quote and only one specific page reference to back them up. In particular, his unsupported assertion that we "employ Louis Sass's notions about schizophrenia and modernism as real evidence that modern art is lunacy made by lunatics" is a grossly reductionist misinterpretation of our argument. Let me quote from What Art Is (pp. 145-46):

We are by no means suggesting that all abstract artists suffer from schizophrenia, or from other forms of mental illness--although evidence certainly exists that at least some of its more prominent practitioners did. But we do mean to challenge the view of critics such as [Hilton] Kramer--who sees in the work of Mondrian, for example, "a dazzling demonstration of a first-class intelligence working out its special destiny" and evidence of "a powerful mind . . . expressing itself through the pictorial inventions of a powerful sensibility." Contrary to such extravagant claims, we emphasize that this type of painting (and sculpture), long regarded by many scholars and critics as the most "advanced" or "progressive" art of this century, does not resemble the products of a mind functioning at the peak of its powers, but rather . . . the workings of a profoundly pathological state of consciousness--or at least of a consciousness selectively out of touch with reality for any number of psychological or philosophic reasons.

Professor Conger is also mistaken in asserting that Sass never sees "any causal or empirical evidence that madness and modernism are linked." In fact, Sass emphasizes that some of the seminal modernist and postmodernist figures themselves suffered from schizophrenia. "[T]he number of schizophrenics who have been of profound cultural importance in European society . . . is quite remarkable," he declares (p. 366). Yet, as both he and we argue, such mental illness alone cannot account for the eventual dominance of modernism; it required a receptive cultural context.

Equally ill-founded is Professor Conger's criticism of Sass--and, by implication, us--for failing to "adequately examine the new developments in neuroscience (Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error, for example)." Sass could not possibly have cited Damasio's book, since it was published two years after Madness and Modernism! We, however, do cite Damasio's work, in our discussion of emotion (What Art Is, pp. 121-22). In any case, Sass is himself critical of the "emphasis on disengagement [from the sensory world and emotional experience] . . . that was fostered by the ideas of philosophers like Descartes" (Madness and Modernism, p. 369). He fully understands--as did Rand--that, to function soundly, human consciousness must be grounded in emotionally meaningful sensory experience.

Professor Conger further claims that Sass did not clearly state what schizophrenia is, and that he was "using modernism only as a metaphorical structure to examine the elusive nature of schizophrenia." I emphatically disagree. Sass does a much better job of saying what schizophrenia is than Freeland (whose book Professor Conger praises) does of saying what art is, though she begins by saying "This is a book about what art is." Nor are the comparisons he draws between madness and modernism by any means merely analogical or metaphorical. To quote our summary in What Art Is (pp. 129-30):

Sass vividly illustrates [that] various tendencies of modernist and postmodernist "art" correspond to the characteristic manifestations of schizophrenia--the most severe form of mental illness, in which the patient becomes dissociated from objective reality and retreats into a solipsistic world of pure consciousness. According to Sass, the schizophrenic typically experiences a complete "loss of the concrete," and engages instead in increasingly abstract thought turned inward on the self. The faculty of consciousness (which evolved to enable the organism to survive in the world) becomes more and more reflexive in its focus, concerned not with the individual's interactions in the world but with his "inner reality." The requirements of reality--from the law of cause and effect to the rules and conventions of one's social milieu-- are variously denied, flouted, or derided. Like the modernist or postmodernist artist, the schizophrenic defies authority and engages in the ironic destruction of social norms and values. Further, in schizophrenia as in both modernist and postmodernist art, a coherent sense of chronological and narrative sequence is replaced by a chaos of contingent associations.

Nor do we think we "abused" Sass in finding both "disturbing" and fallacious his conclusion that the "'eerie likeness'" between madness and modernism suggests--not that modernism is a pathological cultural phenomenon, as Rand argued--but that schizophrenia (which was formerly regarded as involving an extreme deficit of rationality) should now be understood as a disease of hyperrationality. The "egregious fallacy" of that view lies, we argued, in Sass's acceptance of the mistaken Cartesian equation of "rationality" with pure, abstract thought, divorced from sentient experience. In contrast, Rand insisted that human reason must always remain rooted in perceptual reality, in the concrete evidence of the senses.

We stand by our conclusion (p. 130):

By implication, then, though certainly not intentionally or explicitly, Sass's work lends powerful support for one of Rand's most provocative conclusions--that radically modernist "art" is, in fact, the antithesis of art, for it subverts both the integrative function and the basis in objective reality that are essential to art. As Sass compellingly demonstrates, the work of the so-called avant-garde, whether modernist or postmodernist, rejects reality--deliberately disintegrating and fragmenting perceptions of, and thought about, the world--to indulge in a detached mode of abstraction, cut off from existential experience. It is, in a very profound sense, insane (lit. "unsound").

To return to Crossfire Cow, whatever meaning it may hold for Professor Conger and others steeped in arcane artworld theory, it is bound to remain virtually meaningless for the average person. As for the alleged popularity of the Cows on Parade project, it is irrelevant to this debate if it has nothing to do with the public's experience of the cows as art. My hunch is that people who liked the project were simply amused by the anomalous sight of brightly colored, life-size bovine figures in an urban setting--something more like a sideshow at the circus than a genuine work of public art.

Letters intended for publication should be addressed to letters@aristos.org. For further information, see our note on Letters to the Editors.