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This Week: Art bereft of pleasure & European treasure
The New Philistines, by Sohrab Ahmari (Biteback Publishing): What tribulations have been visited upon the innocent word “art”! Innocent people, thinking back to days of yore, may still regard art with a kindly eye as an ally in humanity’s efforts to refine and ennoble its emotions and sense of aesthetic comity. But for many years now, the contemporary art world and its primary feeder system, the university, have colonized the realm of art, conscripting it into a variety of moral and political scenarios that are utterly foreign to, and indeed often explicitly at odds with, art’s traditional ambition to refresh, elevate, and deepen our understanding through the experience of beauty. Aquinas defined the beautiful as id quod visum placet, “that which having been seen, pleases.” Today, many artists and their art-world enablers have forsaken their rendezvous with beauty in order to shock, transgress, sloganeer, or indulge in some form of overt politicking while sheltering under the immunizing rubric of art. This is not a new phenomenon, but the Wall Street Journal’s Sohrab Ahmari brings the story up to date in The New Philistines, his spirited examination of how identity politics has infiltrated and perverted art in contemporary society. “Today’s art world,” he writes, “isn’t even contemptuous of old standards—it is wholly indifferent to them. The word ‘beauty’ isn’t part of its lexicon. Sincerity, formal rigour and cohesion, the quest for truth, the sacred and the transcendent—none of these concerns, once thought timeless, is on the radar among the artists and critics who rule the contemporary art scene. These ideals have all been thrust aside to make room for the art world’s one totem, its alpha and omega: identity politics.” I’d say that right around delta, epsilon, mu and nu, there are other deformations perverting the art world, but Ahmari does a public service in providing a brief tour d’horizon of this large front in the assault on sanity and aesthetic integrity. The story is akin to a trip through a shop of horrors, with all the latest manifestations of political animus masquerading as art on view. Black Lives Matter is here, as are some truly preposterous distortions visited upon Shakespeare in the name of "gender equity" and other malignant fantasies. There are rooms devoted to “transgenderism,” whole galleries to cultural Marxism and anti-Western hostility. This book should be available at every art museum, art gallery, and avant-garde performance space. Stacks of the book should be available in all college courses on art, right next to the CPR apparatus, as an emergency antidote to moral and aesthetic cardiac arrest. —RK
“TEFAF New York Fall” at the Park Avenue Armory (Through October 26): Over the last quarter century, the Dutch city of Maastricht has become synonymous with its annual fair of art and antiquities. A benchmark of the pre-1920s art market, The European Fine Art Fair, or TEFAF, has also become a bellwether of cultural taste. As the art world has flocked to modern and contemporary, this year TEFAF is bringing its antiquities operation from the Netherlands to the sheepfold of the Park Avenue Armory. Through Wednesday, “TEFAF New York Fall” presents nearly one hundred dealers from thirteen countries, with work ranging from a portrait head of Pharaoh Amenhotep II, reports The Art Newspaper, to an illuminated Perugian Book of Hours, to British cannon gifted by King George III to general John Graves Simcoe. Engraved with the inscription “Violati Fulmina Regis” (Thunderbolts of an Outraged King), it remains to be seen if TEFAF's big guns can shoot down interest in Jeff Koons. At the fair, make time to view the exhibition spaces upstairs along the Armory's rarely open second floor and The Veterans Room, newly restored in the corner of the Armory's first floor, completed in 1881 by the dream team of Louis Comfort Tiffany, Stanford White, Candace Wheeler, and Samuel Colman —JP
The Danish String Quartet & Thorleif Thedéen at Carnegie Hall (October 26): Finality is the theme of the Danish String Quartet’s recital in Zankel Hall this Wednesday. They begin with the last of Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets, a somber reflection written in the last year of the composer’s life. The twentieth century’s great master of the string quartet, he made his final entry in the genre an almost unbearable expression of grief, a still and solemn farewell. The other valedictory item on the program, Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major, is poignant in its own way, though its tone is more of tearful nostalgia than of overpowering despair. One of the pinnacles of the chamber repertoire, the quintet is particularly celebrated for its slow movement, a placid vision of bliss interrupted by aching peals of sorrow. For my money, the primary theme of the first movement ranks among the most heart-rendingly beautiful melodies ever devised. —ECS
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (October 29): Good grief! As Snoopy gives way to Snoop Dogg in the cultural consciousness, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company has now parted ways with its “Peanuts” mascots of the last three decades. This weekend in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, The Metropolitan Museum of Art will revive Charles M. Schulz’s cool mid-century kids with a screening of the 1966 classic It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, with Vince Guaraldi’s orchestrations performed live by the Rob Schwimmer ensemble. —JP
From the archive: “The river grows muddied,” by Martin Greenberg: On the evolution of English prose.
From the current issue: “The letters of Lowell & Bishop,” by Richard Tillinghast: On two new publications of the famous correspondence.