January 2004


The Academy Awards
Go Seabiscuit!

LECTURE: The Editors Speak
Louis Torres and Michelle Kamhi will discuss "What Is Art? Who Decides?" at the Philosophy Forum of Marymount Manhattan College on February 25th, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The event is open to the public, and there is no charge. Regina Peruggi Room (2nd floor), Main Building, 221 East 71st Street (between 2nd and 3rd Avenues).

No Nobels for Abstract Expressionism--Is It Any Wonder?
In a recent opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, David Gelernter--a Yale professor of computer science who also happens to be the art critic for The Weekly Standard)--astonishingly cited the Abstract Expressionist painter Willem de Kooning among the "best thinkers and artists of the last 100 years," in the same breath with Frank Lloyd Wright and George Orwell, among others. Criticizing Raymond Damadian (the scientist who pioneered MRI imaging techniques) for protesting his recent failure to win a Nobel Prize, Gelernter argued that lots of worthy individuals, de Kooning included, have never received Nobels, and that whole fields of human endeavor go without any Nobel recognition. For example, Gelernter continued: "There are no Nobels for abstract expressionism, mathematics, computer science, . . . or any other of the hard achievements that really matter." Setting aside the question of what makes Abstract Expressionism a "hard achievement" in his view, we wonder by what standard Gelernter would expect a Nobel committee to reach an objective judgment of quality regarding works such as de Kooning's Composition (1955) or Franz Kline's Mahoning.

For a fascinating account of the intellectual odyssey of Ellen Dissanayake--author of What Is Art For? and Homo Aestheticus--see "The Artistic Animal" (from the now-defunct Lingua Franca, October 2001). Though we disagree with Dissanayake on some points (noted in What Art Is), her well-researched and wide-ranging studies offer valuable cross-cultural insights into the nature of art. Another essay of interest we recently came across, in a completely different vein, is "The Last of the Great Swashbucklers," a tribute to the popular romantic novelist Rafael Sabatini.

Eakins Update: Shoddy Scholarship
[The following is an addendum to "Thomas Eakins: Painting Pure Thought" (Aristos, December 2004).] One would expect that the J. Paul Getty Trust--which encompasses The J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Research Institute, among other entities--would get something right in a brief paragraph about a photograph in its own collection and the painting to which it is tangentially related: Swimming, by Thomas Eakins. That its website fails to meet even this minimal standard is cause for concern. Even the title of the item is botched: "Eakins's Students at the [sic] 'The Swimming Hole'" (a descriptive title for the photograph in the catalogue of the recent Eakins exhibition--"[Male Nudes at the Site of 'Swimming']"--cites the now accepted title of the painting). Further, the Getty credits Eakins as the photographer, yet also makes the unsubstantiated claim that he is the figure standing "apart at the left" in the photograph (according to the Eakins catalogue, an anonymous member of the "Circle of Thomas Eakins" snapped the picture).

In a particularly egregious misrepresentation, the Getty asserts that Eakins used its photograph as the basis for the painting. This claim is belied by the poses in each, and appears to ignore that additional photographs taken at the scene are extant in the collections of other institutions--including the Princeton University Art Museum [more], the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts [scroll down to image of photograph], and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, in Washington, D. C. (The Eakins catalogue illustrates or cites additional photographs.) The Getty further maintains that its photograph is "one of a series of studies featuring nude boys playing at a variety of outdoor sports." In contrast, Eakins scholar Marc Simpson, writing in the catalogue, refers to the figures in the painting (which the Getty claims is based on its photograph) as "six men." Indeed, none of the figures in the painting look at all like "boys," and one, in addition to Eakins (who is swimming), seems close to middle age. Moreover, neither in the painting nor in any of the photographs closely related to it are the figures engaged in what can be termed an outdoor sport (the writer may have been thinking of other Eakins photographs, such as Male Nudes Boxing or Male Nudes in a Seated Tug-of-War). Finally, the Getty adds the baseless assertion that Eakins "posed [the figures] in a dynamic arrangement in and out of the water." This was surely not so for its own photograph. Nor is there any evidence that Eakins did this for any of the extant photographs, or for the untold number now lost--including the one on which the painting is actually based. --L. T.

Weblog Sightings
Independent critics and writers on the Internet have begun to take note of Aristos and What Art Is. Both are cited on bblog (March 1, 2003) and on EdDriscoll.com (January 14, 2004). "The Binary Circumstance" (January 11, 2004) posts an excerpt from Roger Kimball's review of What Art Is, with links to the full text of the review and (in a January 23 update following the excerpt) to our response to Kimball. In a consideration of the relationship between art, mind, and cognitive science, MaeX Art Blog quotes a passage from the book's back cover (December 15, 2003), and posts a letter from Michelle Kamhi (January 23, 2004) with a link to her article "Art and Cognition: Mimesis vs. the Avant-Garde" (Aristos, January 2003).

Ancient Egyptian Reliefs Briefly Unveiled
For a brief period, through March 14, visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art will have an unprecedented opportunity to view low-relief carvings on the interior walls of The Tomb of Perneb [more] [more ] unobscured by their customary protective cover. (For viewing, visitors will be admitted in groups of five, accompanied by a guard.) Thereafter, the reliefs will be covered by new 11-foot-tall glass panels, as part of a major renovation project.

Jasper Johns Drawing Deemed "Profound"
When the expanded and renovated Museum of Modern Art in New York reopens next year, one of the new acquisitions you will have a chance to see is a drawing by Jasper Johns entitled Diver (1962-63) --"one of the most important works on paper of the 20th century," according to the ever-credulous Carol Vogel of the New York Times ("The Modern Adds Art as Its Building Grows," December 16, 2003). At nearly seven feet tall and six feet wide [!], the work is said to be worth over 10 million dollars. According to John Elderfield, the museum's chief curator of painting and sculpture, it is "the most profound and intense work of art that Johns has created in any medium." Purportedly alluding to novelist Hart Crane's suicide by drowning in 1932, the drawing was a study for the painting [scroll down, past images of other works by Johns] of the same name. Just in case you can't make out much from Johns's inept scrawl, here is Vogel's description: "Drawn on brown paper with charcoal, chalk, pastel, and probably watercolor, the work abstractly suggests a diver in motion, showing two sets of hands, one touching and pointing down as though preparing to dive and the other coming back up as if the figure were rising." What?

Dia:Beacon--An Artworld Highlight?
In the view of Michael Kimmelman (the chief art critic of the New York Times), the opening of the Dia:Beacon museum, "a light-filled, factory-turned-shrine to the Minimal generation," was one of the artworld highlights of 2003--"a reminder that the best museums are not necessarily built to advertise brand-name architects but to make art look good and people feel good looking at it" ("The Art and Artists of the Year," December 28, 2003). On the summer day we visited the museum (located on the scenic Hudson River, in Beacon, New York) with two very sane friends, our party had a very different reaction. The things that looked best to us were the shaded picnic area and sun-filled garden outside, for they offered escape from the museum's postmodernist installations--ranging from the banal to the bizarre--which Kimmelman would have readers believe are art. As one of our friends remarked, the verbose wall texts intended to illuminate each piece were as incomprehensible as the works themselves. What Kimmelman viewed as an "artworld highlight"struck us instead as disturbing evidence of a profound cultural decline. Judge for yourself. (On Dia:Beacon, see also Notes & Comments, August 2003).

EXHIBITION: A World Illuminated by Sanford Gifford
At the Metropolitan Musuem of Art through February 8, Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford [more] [more] lifted our spirits on a dreary winter day earlier this month. Tucked away in a remote corner of the Met's American Wing, this delightful exhibition encompasses some 70 luminous landscapes by one of the masters of the Hudson River School. As Gifford's friend and fellow-artist John Ferguson Weir aptly noted at his memorial: "Gifford loved the light. His finest impressions were those derived from the landscape when the air is charged with . . . glowing light." What his paintings give us, Weir observed, is "not merely the literal rendering of the facts of nature with pedantic precision [but a] lucid reminiscence." An interesting historical note is that Gifford--who was one of the museum's founders (a reminder of what civic-minded individuals can accomplish on their own initiative, without government grants)--was the subject of the Met's first one-man show, in 1880. The hardcover edition of the catalogue for the exhibition is available at a 30% discount from Amazon.com.

What Art Is Online--Appendixes
Our newest item in Appendix B - Part II: Artworld Buzz Words, is "Daring."

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

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