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Blog: More On Art and Artists


Blog: More On Art and Artists

This blog continues the themes of the previous one, setting down some of my old and new ideas about art and artists. This one will no doubt repeat some of what the first one included--that’s the nature of old people’s reminiscences and records.

Now I want to quote from a long email that I sent several months ago to Julia White, Senior Curator of Asian Art at the Berkeley Art Museum (formerly, when I was there, University Art Museum.) Julia, who was once my student, has had a distinguished career as a museum professional, ending up (happily for us) in Berkeley. I was responding to some news in the monthly Film and Art Notes that the Museum and its Pacific Film Archive put out. My email included these paragraphs (along with others):

Dear Julia,

Good to see in the new BAM/PFA Notes that you’ve put together an exhibition of Four Wangs paintings. I wonder what other collections you’ve drawn on—where you got, for instance, a Wang Shimin, since I/we haven’t any. Anyway, good choice. I’m glad that Larry [the BAM Director] is so enthusiastic about Orthodox-school painting. Time was when everybody was wild about the splashy kinds of painting, and bored by this. My early Wang Hui hanging scroll really looks good in the Notes. What a marvelous painter he was in his youth, and what a bore he turned into, mostly, in his later years. Maybe my book [Pictures for Use and Pleasure] and our exhibition [of meiren or beautiful-women paintings] will create a taste for what used to be dismissed contemptuously as “academic style” painting. Wouldn’t that be a breakthrough.

If you live long enough, you can see virtually every conceivable style and taste in art—and in music and literature—have its day of being touted as the great final pinnacle of development, and then superceded by another. I remember very well when tonal music was declared dead, over forever, and even Stravinsky went twelve-tone at his end; then a while later, a short time when you look back from your eighties, there was John Adams (whom we came to know very well through Sarah, for whom he composed a piece) writing thoroughly tonal music to great acclaim. My first Chinese art professor, Otto Maenchen, would begin his classes by saying something like: “You have all come here to learn about Chinese art, and I know what it is you expect to see—“ and he would go on creating this awful image of ivory balls intricately carved within balls, and fragile teacups covered with colorful floral designs, and all the rest, and then he would say “If I had my way, I would take a sledge-hammer and smash them all to bits!” and he would jump around the podium doing that. But yesterday’s NYTimes Arts section had on the front page an enthusiastic review of a show at the Met, curated by two people I don’t know (one a curator in their Asiatic Dept.), of later Qing gewgaws, especially from the Qianlong era, as “an enthralling exhibition,” going all metaphysical about them, “A universe in the details..” And so forth.

One also lives to see the same first-ever discoveries made over & over, sometimes about the same artists & works. I write that after reading, in the new BAM/PFA Art & Film Notes, how your modernist curator is it? Barry Rosen and another have “rediscovered” Eva Hesse--with the air of people springing something completely new onto the art world, they write about their “unprecedented presentation” of her works. I remember very well--I was acting director of the UAM, if my memory is right--when Brenda Richardson organized the show from which the Museum’s Eva Hess objects were purchased and kept—I think I had the honor of authorizing the purchase, although at that time they didn’t look much like works of art to me—and I remember also how movingly Ann Wagner [Professor in the History of Art Dept., married to T. J. Clark] wrote about Eva Hessa in her book on women artists, making me really appreciate her work (as, I’m sorry to say, the new blurb doesn’t quite achieve). And here are these two, telling us breathlessly about how she  “expanded the conceptual and technical possibilities for art.”

I once, after sitting through a long string of lectures by modernist candidates for our search, proposed at a faculty meeting that anyone who used that formulation be eliminated from consideration—it’s so commonplace, so facile, such a cop-out--because it’s never been, in itself, an adequate reason for recognizing anything as a valid work of art. Anybody who wants to can “expand the … possibilities for art,” and would-be expanders have been doing it ever since Duchamp’s clever urinal, with everybody responding by saying “Wow! He/she has really . . “ etc. And they have to go further & further into the unacceptable and trivial to go on expanding. That young Chinese artist [Gao something] who started out promisingly at the Academy in Hangzhou, whom Peter Selz, when he went there, declared to be the only artist worthy of notice in China--he was doing interesting spin-offs on traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy--ended up with a show in S.F. of used women’s sanitary napkins. (For which Peter wrote an enthusiastic pamphlet blurb, and told us how Gao had “broken the last taboo”--another oft-repeated claim.) And Herschel Chipp, when he was chairing the department (then both wings, History and Practice), had to cope with an MFA [Master of Fine Arts] studio show in which one of the works was a pile of shit in the gallery. Will the time ever come when that sign I proposed hanging from our highest balcony, when I became acting director, reading “Doing Dumb Things and Calling It Art is Over!” really comes true? I probably won’t live so long. And anyway, there may well (awful thought) be irreversible wrong directions. As I was writing Sarah recently, this one started when artists at last achieved their great dream of convincing people that art should be defined as whatever artists do and call art, and that people can no longer say to them “No, that isn’t what we want, and you won’t get any more money or recognition from us until you go back to making what we do want.”

Continuing: On the matter of artists’ rewards and recompense: I have in my “Curiosities” file an old Jules Feiffer cartoon series in which an artist, holding his brushes and palette knife (?), strikes a series of dramatic poses while saying: “My art exposes your commercialism--/ Your over-indulgence--/ Materialism—acquisitiveness--/ Your greed, your narcissism--/ Your corrupt ethics, morality--/ I dedicate my life as an artist to the free expression of my contempt for what you are/ (and, finally, as he strikes a particularly defiant pose): Fund me!” That catches it nicely.

Max Loehr used to quote Goethe, someone in one of his plays? saying: “Bilder, Maler, reden nicht!” Meaning: Pictures, Painter, don’t talk! And I often quoted both of them, Max and Wolf, with approval.

This still isn’t all I have to write about art and artists; I will have a third blog on this theme. I need to make clear that I have not, throughout my long career, been unenthusiastic about, or opposed to, recent and contemporary art as a whole, even to the extent that Gombrich was. I want to outline some of my old enthusiasms, to counter somewhat the negative views about artists that this and the previous blog have set forth. And I still have a few more stories and memories to relate. Old people enjoy reminiscing, but even more, ranting.

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