January 2006


"Hurting the cause"

To the Editors:

You could be performing a valuable function in the art world by drawing attention to the professional absurdities that have come to abound. Certainly the art world is in a crisis, although vested interests often try to maintain that that is not the case. I would hope you might perform this task, effectively and well, for some time to come.

However, you are, regrettably, hurting the cause. To refer to Jackson Pollock, the greatest painter of his age, as "inconsequential" shows a hostility to and lack of understanding of abstract art that is both absurd and counterproductive. Such a comment might be understandable ca. 1950, but it is unprofessional in 2005. Abstraction appeared ca. 1910 and has produced many of the greatest masterpieces of the last century. Why be almost a hundred years behind the times in your knowledge of and appreciation for art?

Perhaps your problem is your unwise admiration for Ayn Rand's "philosophy" of art, which bears a certain resemblance to Tolstoy's musings. They put him in the absurd position of loathing the Impressionists, Beethoven, opera, and chamber music because he was incapable of seeing their true value.

I do hope you will immerse yourself more in the best art and come to the point whereby you can make a genuine and meaningful contribution to calling the art world to task for its many failings. That is something art, artists, and art lovers are all in dire need of.

Ken Carpenter
President, AICA Canada (the Canadian Section of the International Association of Art Critics)
Toronto, Ontario

Mr. Carpenter is Professor Emeritus of Art History and Criticism at York University, Toronto (see Faculty Profile ). His numerous articles include "The Visual Poetry of Alice Teichert," Artfocus Magazine, Summer/Fall 2000.

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The editors reply:

We thank Ken Carpenter for his frank response to our brief note referring to Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm as "inconsequential" (Notes & Comments, December 2005).

Like a number of neoconservative critics concerned about the excesses of postmodernism, Mr. Carpenter is adamant in his defense of abstract work yet fails to recognize the extent to which it not only alienated a large segment of the art-loving public but also opened the way to every artworld aberration that followed. Once visual artists abandoned representation of the visible world, art could be anything, and the culture at large has continued to reap the resulting whirlwind--the very "professional absurdities" he alludes to.

As for the all-too familiar claims made for Jackson Pollock's greatness and the value of abstract art in general, we have yet to be convinced of their validity--despite long, hard study (see our chapter "The Myth of 'Abstract Art'" [more] in What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand, a copy of which is in the collection of the York University Libraries).

Finally, however much Ayn Rand's view of art might appear at first glance to resemble Tolstoy's, her understanding of the psychological function of art was far deeper and more astute than his rather narrowly moralistic theory.

Off the tracks

To the Editors:

I enjoyed Michelle Kamhi's piece responding to the writings of Hilton Kramer ("Hilton Kramer's Misreading of Abstract Art," May 2003). As the daughter of a contemporary representational artist [William McCullough], I find myself intrigued by the same ambiguities that Ms. Kamhi found in Mr. Kramer's comments.

I recently heard another critic describe art as either "retinal" or "non-retinal." How can visual art be "non-retinal"? The idea is absurd. One thing visual art is not is philosophy. A work that comes to mind is Robert Rauschenberg's Erased de Kooning Drawing. The process of erasing the drawing, the blank paper that resulted, or the conversation about the concept or idea--which of these is the work of art? Intellectual babble about the meaning, content, or impact of such work only distracts from art itself. Why can't the art itself be the focus of the critical analysis?

The emotional impact an art work has on the viewer is the only measure of the quality or content, at least for that viewer. The more educated and experienced individual will have more interesting insights. Those who are not art critics and do not have time to study and think about art every day value thoughts and opinions based on a more informed analysis. That is the function of the art critic. To analyze works of art intelligently.

The train has run off the tracks, however, when the critic begins to analyze something else. The idea, the concept, and the connection to this movement or that, while at times interesting, are no substitute for the actual work of art. Fixation on these other aspects of visual art has changed art into some sort of convoluted gray area. The result is a disenchanted populus--a large group of people who feel that they have been duped by modern art and its critics and therefore place no importance on the role of visual art in their lives.

Currie McCullough
Charleston, South Carolina

Ms. McCullough is director and co-owner (with her father, the painter William McCullough) of the 53 Cannon St Gallery in Charleston.

Transcendent imagery

To the Editors:

As a realist painter, I thank you for Michelle Marder Kamhi's insightful article questioning the validity of much modernist and postmodernist work ("Modernism, Postmodernism, or Neither? A Fresh Look at 'Fine Art'," August 2005). I am frustrated by the amount of pontification that is required to understand most of these pieces, if understanding is even possible.

Though I would not classify myself as an intellectual, I have some ability to draw meaning from written words. I must say, however, that not only do I not appreciate modernist art, I am often unable to understand what is written about it. You quoted the modernist critic Clive Bell's philosophy of art, for example: "To appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotion." To me this is utter nonsense, a nihilistic simplicity that cannot be true as long as the viewer is a living, breathing entity.

This type of pseudo-intellectual drivel drives me nuts. I experience it a great deal, from modernist artists and critics alike. It affects my livelihood, in that critics, who control much of the access to the media, do not regard traditional artists such as myself in a serious manner, as having any validity. But you are well of aware of that problem, and I am not writing to preach to the choir.

I write now mainly to bring to your attention another sort of danger present in much of the traditional work being done today--the inclination to forfeit artistic endeavor for the clever rendition of things that are beautiful and easily identified.

I recently read an article in a national magazine featuring interviews with four gallery owners who handle representational painting. In the course of the article, they reflected on what they considered to be good art, but not once did anyone mention why such work exists, what its meaning or purpose is. All discussion was directed toward types and styles of imagery--the craft of painting. There you have it!

In my view, true art must not only be well crafted, it must also represent some underlying principle, nature, or essence--which I refer to as the hypostatic content of the work. The greater the hypostasis of the piece, the greater its artistic significance. Winslow Homer's A Veteran in a New Field [more: click on image to enlarge], for example, is far more than simply an image of a farmer cutting wheat in a golden field, albeit one painted with masterly confidence. It is Homer's statement about the horrors of the Civil War, and the redemption from tragedy that followed. The poignant imagery not only mourns a horrific past, it embraces the intent of a better future.

As a painter, I find it challenging to use landscape as my subject matter, and try to present it in a fashion that transcends the beauty of the imagery to make a statement of my own. I am not always successful at this. I do always try.

I am appalled at how psychologically vacant much of the contemporary work by traditional painters is. Granted, a well-crafted image is always interesting to look at, much the same as I would admire a carefully restored antique automobile. But this does not lead me to harbor serious thoughts about art and life. The hypostatic level is very low.

A great many painters today can produce wonderfully crafted and clever images. But much of this work has little hypostatic substance. For myself, I might as well be looking at a shoe.

I realize that I have reduced a vast area of art to oversimplification, but I do so to make a point. A great deal of the representational art being made today is as pointless, redundant, and self-serving as the modernist work you cite in your article. I believe that this is a fundamental reason why modernist proponents view traditional representational work with such disdain.

Michael Ome Untiedt
Denver, Colorado

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The editors reply:

As our report in "The Other Face of Contemporary Art" indicates, the concerns Mr. Untiedt eloquently articulates are shared by more than a few of his fellow traditionalists today. And they are certainly shared by us.