Interior of the 1913 Armory Show
To the Editors:
It mystifies me that, continuing under the editorship of Roger Kimball as previously under that of Hilton Kramer, The New Criterion persists in intermittently admiring in the visual arts the very decline and fall of culture that it so well and rightly militates against in government, politics, theater, music, and the media. Not seven pages after the editor, in his obituary “Jacques Barzun, 1907–2012” (The New Criterion, December 2012), gives with one hand by approving of Jacques Barzun’s apt indictment of the modern art scene—“ ‘When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent’ ” and suffers “a progressive loss of resistance to humbug”—James Panero takes away with the other hand in a review that sets up the Armory Show (“The Armory Show at 100”) as embodying the work of “like-minded souls who helped nurture and propagate a renewed vision for culture.” “Renewed vision for culture”? Whom is he kidding? The Armory Show itself was the beginning of that end of art of which even The New Criterion disapproves.
Though Panero seconds Barzun in objecting to the present-day “professionalized museum class [that] dictates the story of art to an increasingly passive public,” he praises the “energy” of the Armory Show, which consisted of what he calls a “resurgence in art [that captured] the vital spirit of the times” in revolt against “the dry bones of a dead art.” He fails to see the modern decay as the inevitable fruit of the deracination set in motion by the radically revolutionary Armory generation. Is it now possible to deny that Mondrian, Kandinsky, Brancusi, and Duchamp have led the art troops onward and downward inevitably through Pollock, Moore, and Warhol to the present-day depravities that Barzun rightly deplores? Does a legitimate critique of late nineteenth-century academic formalism require Panero to lionize the Armory as a “vital” reaction to it when the show, despite displaying some works admittedly excellent of their kind, initiated the long succession of spiritually empty self-absorptions marching toward oblivion—abstract expressionism, pop, op, conceptual art, postmodernism, and blah, blah, blah?
Look, we’re all fighting losing battles here, complaining of a decay of culture that no amount of complaining but only vision could counteract, and there is no secret storehouse from which vision might be stolen. It comes, like the inspiration of the muse, in its own time in its own mysterious way. But can’t we at least get together in The New Criterion and agree that the extravagant claims for twentieth-century abstract art and the rest were hogwash?
Gideon Rappaport, Ph.D.
San Diego, California
To read James Panero’s response, please click here.