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Yet Another Blog About Art and Artists


Yet Another Blog About Art and Artists

CAHILL GREAT TRUTHS NUMBER TEN.  What, you don’t remember what the other nine were? Go back and find them in my complete written works! What, you can’t because my written works aren’t orderly? But that’s one of the Truths: ORDER AND NEATNESS OFTEN WORK AGAINST QUALITY AND INTEREST. Enough of that; on to Great Truth no. 10:


Good examples of Clever Ideas people: Marcel Duchamps, Andy Warhol, John Cage, Aii Weiwei (Ceramic sunflower seeds? Copies of old bronze animal heads? All produced by studio craftsmen?) With Warhol it reportedly wasn’t even his own Clever Idea: he went to a gallery owner proposing to make enlarged comic-strip panels, but she told him that that was already being done by Roy Lichtenstein; why don’t you, she suggested, make enlarged commercial images? And so the Brillo Box and the Campbell’s Soup Can were born--along with a cult following, crazy “authenticity” problems, and a foundation.)

A  NYTimes Arts Section front-page  article (September 30th, 2012), with large pictures of the artist and his works, is about a certain Wade Guyton who says he “never really enjoyed drawing or life classes” (he should have been told “All right, Mr. Guyton, we’ll  train you as a carpenter or plumber”) and would “rather sit in front of the TV or play video games.” He has programmed his computer and printer so that they print colored stripes on big sheets of paper (presumably while he is watching TV), and he exhibits these as his works of art. And behold! Here he is (with those sheets of colored stripes, decorative at best) on the front page of the NYTimes Arts Section! (A once-rewarding publication that now offers us less and less about what I consider to be art--which is still being produced by real artists, if only one looks for it.)

Later: Wade Guyton was given another NYTimes Arts Section front-page review on October 5th, with a work that looks slightly more interesting--big dots added to the stripes. But it’s still done by his computer, not by his hand. And the Weekend Arts section in today’s Times (Friday, Oct. 12th) gives half its front page, and more inside, to a review of Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum in D.C., with big color pictures of ceramic crabs (made, needless to say, by his studio assistants), big, simple ceramic pots simply painted in bright colors, and photos of him dropping and smashing a valuable Han urn--another of his “works of art.” And the reviewer, bless her, acknowledges that the objects in the show “suggest that he doesn’t make great art as much as makes great use . . . of the role of the artist as public intellectual and social conscience.” I would rather say: he’s not so good at making art as he is at self-promotion. Is that another symptom of the age we live in? Skilful presentation wins out over substance? As in last night’s Biden-Ryan debate, or last week’s Obama-Romney one--the speakers-of-truth were judged as losing, the glib tellers-of-lies as winning. It’s clear from the brief biography of Ai Weiwei in this article that he owes much of his prominence to having had a famous father--a big advantage for any youth in China--and enjoyed benefits that turned him into “an ambitious young man who very much intended to be somebody.” As for his art works: the ceramic sunflower seeds were intended to be walked on, but gave off a dust that harmed the walkers’ lungs, so that they had to be swept into a pile that the gallery visitors could gaze at. Forget about great--is it even interesting art? You or I could have thought up a “work” that better repays a viewer’s attention. Admirable as a dissident, small potatoes as an artist, really great at self-promotion.

A promotional catalog for a forthcoming auction in Beijing of Chinese paintings and works of art brings further evidence of what I think of as Cahill’s Great Miscalculations. I was showing one painting in it to my helper and telling her about my engagement with the artist and his move into a new manner of painting, and she laughed and said “That’s a good story.” So here it is, even though it repeats things I’ve written before. It’s about--you guessed it--Zhang Daqian. I had written an essay for the catalog for his big 1963 exhibition in New York, an essay he liked and often reprinted--and he gave me and my then-wife each a painting, of kinds we requested, in lieu of payment. Then came the time, in the later 1960s, when he moved into a new manner of painting that began with large splashes of ink and heavy blue and green pigment onto the paper; to this he would add a minimum of fine drawing to turn the splashes into a kind of picture. (In the work reproduced in the auction volume, done in 1967, it was a big ink-and-colors splash with a few simply-drawn buildings at the top and some drawing below that turned the bottom of the splash into cliffs.) Zhang sent his son to ask me whether I would write another essay for the catalog of an exhibition of these new paintings of his. And I was faced with an ethical dilemma: I knew that this new manner, or style, was largely a response to his heavy loss of vision--he had glaucoma--which made fine drawing difficult for him, so that he turned to a style that required much less of it. And I didn’t feel I could honestly write the essay without mentioning that; and since that would harm his reputation by revealing the real motivation behind this move into the new style, which I didn’t want to do, I declined as politely as I could.  Zhang was disappointed, and I was sorry about that, too; but I kept my integrity. Now I see one of these paintings--not even one of the best--coming up for auction, and the estimated price is:  RMB 18.000.000 to 21,000,000, or two-to-three million dollars. So: I could have had several of them, and if I had kept them, I would be a multi-millionaire. But instead I kept my integrity. A very contemporary choice: so many of our multi-millionaires have got that way by sacrificing their integrity, buying and closing out companies with great losses of jobs, exploiting anomalies in the housing market and leaving people homeless, selling bad investments to naïve small investors, and the like. Would I rather have my integrity than a few million dollars? Not a real choice, today, and I’m glad I’m not faced with it--I might very well go the wrong way.

James Cahill, October 12th, 2012

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