… Here Andrea dal Castagno learned the art and taught it to other masters, among whom it was amplified and went on gaining in importance until the time of Pietro Perugino, of Leonardo da Vinci, and of Raffiello da Urbino, so much so that it has now attained to that beauty which thanks to these masters our artists have achieved.
You must worship vulgarity. You must shun form. You must never draw. You must reject harmonious color. You must paint crudely, preferably in a demonic frenzy. You must offend all people all the time. You must hail Tragedy everywhere, in everyone, always. You must vanquish Beauty. You must theorize about art. Your work must be socially significant. These are only ten of the newly clichéd ideas evident in much, though by no means all, painting, art criticism, and curatorship of recent decades, allegedly reflecting the world we live in. Inspired elements in them may once have served, still serve, a worthy purpose: they are postulated against equally rigid antitheses. They touch on changing concepts with a long past— ideas of the rude, crude, and awesome— which art perennially engages. But much of the current revolutionary thinking on art appears to be in deep freeze. William Blake predicted this in his poems about Orc, the archetype of the despotic mind. As the Frye and Erdman-Bloom readings would seem to suggest, and the poems themselves show, Orc, who began his career as a rebel, became politically correct (though never in his attitude toward women) in the way his thinking ossified into the very mind-forged manacles he rebelled against in the first place. Aesthetically correct hegemonies spin on the same axis. Last year’s Salon des Réfusés becomes this year’s institute of correct art. “Mr. Turner’s little jokes” was how members of the Royal Academy dismissed several of Turner’s late works, and abstract artists dismissed figurative work with equal alacrity. Today, various schools of kitsch appear to be the rule, not the exception. And so the wheel of ready-made opinion turns. More than seventy-five years after the Armory Show, curators in major museums are still reliving what were essentially the battles of modernism, clueless about the real postmodern world and freedoms at stake today. But Blake had a better idea. He showed critical thinking with a moral dimension (not hypocrisy) reveals a universe beyond the Orc cycle. Blake called this Imagination, the frontier within, and it didn’t have to look like his watercolors. In those “distant deeps and skies,”1 artists aren’t hemmed in by clichés.
Aversion for the highfalutin, often confused with high culture, leaves many of us all but defenseless against kitsch.
Vulgarity, like most clichéd notions, once had a life. It’s no news the Latin Bible was written in Vulgate to make it accessible to ordinary people, and the West has had a long and enduring relationship with “vulgarity,” from the Latin for “common people,” denoting “popular,” with connotations of a lack of culture, refinement, taste. Such scholars as Jessie Weston, Ernst Curtius, and C.L. Barber have shown that common language and folklore are entwined with our earliest myths and iconography, from seasonal rites to Dante Alighieri’s use of Italian and the story of Lear. Examples abound. Whether folk mimics high culture, or whether high culture is the purest form of folk today, is arguable, probably both. Ever since Bion and Moschus, people of low estate have tackled high themes, just as higher-ups have liked to disguise themselves as shepherds. “Uncouth unkiste” was how Spenser recalled Chaucer in his 1579 letter to Harvey discoursing on the merits of “the olde famous Poete’s” “rustical rudeness” and use of “natural English wordes” “most used of country folke,” as opposed to courtly embellishments, “that by the baseness of such parts, more excellency may accrue to the principall.” Spenser was describing Romantic art (not the historical accident). He called his own “ditties” “rude,” and Othello’s intimation that “Rude am I in my speech” touched, with rhetorical modesty, on the natural clout of his words. But uncouth as the Elizabethans themselves were, as designing for that matter, in the innocence of Christopher Marlowe’s song, the lowe is high. Even Milton wrote “with forc’d fingers rude” upon the drowning of his friend Edward King in the Irish Sea. But no one would deny “Lycidas” epitomizes high culture except Dr. Johnson, since all art can be said to be “rude” in face of the inexpressible enormities of life and death, though Milton never wrote a vulgar line in any sense. It’s almost a commonplace the Elizabethans liked nothing better than to mix folkloristic and courtly, high and low, in the same plays if not the same scenes, and Lear is so highly rude as to be awesome. Theirs was a ruddy “rudeness,” if we take their word for it, having to do with native speech, immediacy of voice, reaching people, and ideas beyond reach, quite unlike the distancing vulgarity on which many artists pride themselves today.
Vulgarity, like most clichéd notions, once had a life.
In cinquecento painting, the style is high as the concept, without apology; yet, scholars have shown, folk imagery is everywhere together with religion. The highly “rude” way Titian painted with what visitors to his studio described as broom-sized brushes, even completing his paintings with his fingers, may account for some of the ruddiness of his work. In Haarlem, and in all of Europe, the precision of Hals’s brush was uncommon, if his subjects were often uncouth. Goya’s work is shadowed round with proverbial wisdom, witchcraft, and Bulls. Picasso often mixed stylistic registers, a quick, fine line, together with a lowly painted form, but not in his very best work, which is more classical. Van Gogh’s often staccato brush (versus the more fanciful curvilinear), bristling impasto, and primary colors, sunny blues and yellows, are folk in style. But in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Clement Greenberg warns that native folk, the truly “rude,” in particular as it affects high culture, is being displaced by mass-produced kitsch, which he describes as imitating the effects, not the processes, of art. Pop (though design oriented) and East Village art in the Eighties were “more kitschy than thou” almost by definition. Jeff Koons’s soft-porn photos at the last Venice Biennial were even more cynical.2 Never has the vulgar been so knowingly low.
Our peculiarly American aversion for the highfalutin, often confused with high culture, leaves many of us all but defenseless against kitsch. We learned that sensibility didn’t solve the problem of Evil, and may forget it helps us address it. Many baby-boomers have only to think of the Nazis at Bayreuth to turn up the amplifier; others remember Isaac Stern’s playing during the Scud missile attacks on Tel Aviv. In some circles, the notion of taste is an embarrassment having to do with intellectual cuisine, the merely decorative, sofa paintings and airport art, which, actually, have little to do with any known taste.3 The prevailing view in galleries appears to be that tastelessness is superior. The salt of wit, sweets of love, sour of injustice, bitter of pain, are no longer aesthetically correct, not all four anyway. Text-traducers are esteemed for looking at art through theoretical frames, from diverse socio-economic, race, gender, and other vantage points, provided these do not include sense. Which is not to deny context enriches our appreciation. But it is curious that for all our advanced critical methodologies, and fear of trivializing anything, art has grown increasingly kitschy.
Cultural artifacts mirrored trendy criticism in the early Eighties when frames began to displace paintings. At Sonnabend, Robert Morris showed fire paintings dominated by weighty black frames with skulls and bones that looked like sets for The Theory of Semiotics. In a show on Chicago’s Superior Street last year, paintings had altogether disappeared and the viewer was presented with nothing but frames made of back issues of The New Criterion—evidently in mint condition.
In its new, debased sense, vulgarity no longer applies to Tolstoy’s great Bear of a man, Pierre, whose sensitivity was equal to his natural rudeness. It no longer fits the Brontë sisters, who were too tiny to look like Bears and lived mostly on potatoes, but were quite uncouth. And the new vulgarity fails utterly to describe poets of any kind. The politicization of the arts issuing in the wake of sophistical aesthetics only worsened the problem. But when Colin Clout showed up at court in his shepherd’s weeds, the question on Eliza’s mind was not demographic, but, can he foot it? Hence, Elizabethan poetry. Some go for the line and do the foot later. Some go for the whole composition at once. And some go for the pudding.Vulgarity doesn’t mean what it once meant. The new vulgarity is the collapse of critical thinking. Assaults on meaning itself, together with vainglorious ideologies, are the “high” end of what has been appearing in galleries from West Broadway to Superior Street, with many critics, curators, and artists in between not knowing what hit them. If Saint-Exupéry’s hat were not a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant, it would be Jacques Derrida swallowing poor Van Gogh. In an era when philosophers fail to distinguish criticism, even the very best, from the immediate arts, it’s no surprise artists, working with unmediated experience, and risking even more foolishness at every turn, get lost. Perhaps the best observation on the resulting kitsch, exemplified by Andres Serrano’s no longer newsworthy photo of the Cross in a jar of urine, was made by Alexander Pope in 1712. As Maynard Mack long ago pointed out in his famous reading of the “Puffs, powders, patches, bibles, billet-doux” on Belinda’s dressing table in Pope’s infelicitiously titled poem “The Rape of the Lock,” the puffs are elevated, the Bible reduced, when persons don’t know the difference. “Crisp and Clean” at the Hyde Park Art Center last year, to cite only one of many examples of the same leveling phenomenon, had much in common with the essentials of Belinda’s toilette—a photo of Freud here, an allusion to Beethoven there—in a clutch for “significance.” But the past mocks, or altogether eludes, cavalier attempts to collage it. And only the very greatest thieves can begin to appropriate it. Even a poet of Eliot’s stature could barely contain it—the best line in The Wasteland is Spenser’s.
“The sense of ooze” is what Art in America found noteworthy in one artist’s work, equating urethane-foam pourings with “pure painting.” The formlessness of much work today finds its perfect correlative in these words, which fail to make the most fundamental distinction of all—is this true? But in the days before ooze art, even crude work, like vulgarity, had a spine. “Crude,” from the Latin crudus, means “in the natural state,” “raw,” and “unripe.” (“Cruel” is from the same root and Milton was playing on the etymology in “these berries harsh and crude.”) To the Greeks, Nature was a little crude. Art revealed what Kenneth Clark called “our instinctive desire not to imitate but to perfect,” completing Nature’s unfinished work. It was the difference, Clark points out, between the naked and the nude, an idea of form, an abstraction incomprehensible to Gothic artists. The Renaissance reopened the debate: Titian called his art “more powerful than Nature”; Shakespeare played with the paradox of “Nature’s Art”; and Romanticism, with all its tributaries, brought inner and outer Nature, shadowed with “rude thickets and craggy cliffs,” the “disorderly order” Spenser wrote about to Harvey, down river. From Giotto’s perfect “O” to Motherwell’s lumbering Spanish Elegy, which Greenberg observed has a “crude power,” the desire to complete the work Nature left unfinished gradually changed to an interest in keeping disordered forms from rolling off the canvas. Today, artists tend to see man as little more ever than a poor, forked thing, and the new crudités have less form than Nature.
But not all Tigers are heaven-bent, or hell-bent and wanting heaven.
Nonetheless, not ooze, but form, some form, defines art, as the appreciation of forms defines art criticism worthy of the name. From antiquity to modern times, artists have explored how form mimes, interprets, elaborates, condenses, or shapes ideas, feelings, and things. Form may spring like Athene from the head of Zeus, emerge from process, or be found. And form is itself informed by some shaping principle, Promethean gift of fire, sunbeams on Nile mud, or “inner conception,” according to Vasari. No matter what ooze critics say, even the crudest form in painting involves disegno, colorito, and, what Vasari forgot to mention, or thought went without saying, sfumato, sfumatezza, or delicate shading. Like metaphor, disegno, in Vasari’s words, is “cognizant of the proportion of the whole to the parts, and of the parts to each other and to the whole.” But unlike the more or less mechanical collaging of planes and surfaces that characterizes design today, Vasari saw it as organically whole, and related to the drawing of natural forms.
Vasari cites the ancient proverb, “ex ungue leonem,” “from the Lion’s claw,” to show how the sense of design enables us, upon seeing only the claw of a Lion carved in a block of stone, to imagine its size, and the whole animal, just as if it were standing there. Vasari was describing how the Classic imagination works; Blake’s Tiger “burning bright” reveals the Romantic. As it stalks through the “forest of the night,” its black stripes blend into the darkness, and the orange ones appear to flicker, transfigured into hell-fire. The Tiger’s stripes are more informed than the Lion’s mane, its “fearful symmetry,” internal. In the poem, what emerges from the Tiger’s claw is not only the whole animal, but, if and when the Tiger lies down with the Lamb, the whole Human Being. But not all Tigers are heaven-bent, or hell-bent and wanting heaven.
The rounded outlines of Raphael’s Madonnas can be said to be from a Lion’s claw, the most delicate inflections of Rembrandt’s drawings of Saskia, from a Tiger’s. Some Picasso minotaurs are from both.
Italians always knew the difference between a line and wet noodle. Neighborhood people so appreciated Cimabue’s draftsmanship in the picture of Our Lady for the church of Santa Maria Novella, they called the place the Joyful District. But after the show of Julian Schnabel’s recent works on paper at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the neighborhood might have been called the Sad District (although it’s hard to believe Schnabel can be all bad if critics are unanimous against him). Many viewers were too unsophisticated by today’s standards to understand these works were drawings. A paleolithic audience would have been even more puzzled. It’s no historical accident there are no drawings like this in the caves at Lascaux. Cave people were too rude, their drawings too genuinely crude, to be formless. The very notoriety of the work made abundantly clear, the master draftsman would have gone the way of the master swordsman long ago, with a click of the shutter, and a boot from the museums, if persons who draw were not continually being born, oblivious of the latest art-world trends.
Dazzled, if not shell-shocked, by the explosion of form in Rome, Vasari never gave color its due. It was perhaps easier to place in perspective after three hundred years and Turner. Ruskin wrote that when color enters the picture at all, “everything must be sacrificed to it.” He also said, in his endearing style, what Vasari could not bring himself to admit: “the Venetians always saw this, and all great colorists see it, and are thus separated from the non-colorists, or schools of mere chiaroscuro, by being right while others are wrong.” Sfumatezza differs from the more familiar chiaroscuro in its delicacy, as Rembrandt differs from Murillo. Leonardo invented it. In his Annunciation, the modeling of the angel’s wing and of the hand raised in salutation is so soft as to be imperceptible. Titian learned from Giorgione, who picked up the idea from Leonardo, according to Vasari. Titian’s Shepherd and Nymph is more Keatsian than Keats’s figures on a Grecian urn, “for ever panting and for ever young,” odic in its proportions. Yet shadowed by and surfacing through Titian’s colorito, his rare sfumatezza, is Classic form.
Both disegno and colorito are informed by the brush. Titian softened edges with his fingers; Rembrandt’s brushes were well worn; Turner used hog brushes, Sargent, only sable. Renoir preferred a tapered brush, Cézanne, a square. Pollock reached for a brush only as an afterthought, and used his whole body in the act of painting. Hals had the most informative brush of any painter, quick and quickening. But he used only hand, wrist, and arm, no longer aesthetically correct. The bowels were not in his painterly frame of reference. Hals sacrificed some technical depth, the luminous white core of the Venetians, Rembrandt’s underpainting, to the immediacy of his brush, though Seymour Slive explains he did block out lights, darks, and colors beforehand, often picking up and mixing the underpainting with the next layer. It’s well known that the Impressionists altogether abandoned underpainting, and with it, the volumes of the Old Masters. Brushwork appears to be anathema nowadays, in the unnatural quest for novelty. But artists as unlike as Manet and Sargent learned from Hals, and whatever they painted their brushwork was high. Van Gogh had vision, and revered and emulated Hals the way Kafka did Dickens, but his own Hemingwayesque brushwork did not come as easily. No matter how hard anyone tried, no one was ever doomed to repeat the wonder of Hals’s brush.
Italians always knew the difference between a line and wet noodle.
Ever since the Armory show, there has been a deep taboo against informative brushwork, not the fake taboos everybody breaks. But, doubtless, in time, it will become clear that many moderns not only refused to paint well, but had less to say, and some brush people did, and loved Beauty, which is the more rare. Robert Henri’s real crime was not his refusal to be modern, but casting in his lot with the other seven, who lacked his painterly strengths. Clara Beaux never lived in France, but she could paint as many shades of white as an Eskimo has words for snow. Frank Duveneck and Frank Dumont perpetrated the teaching of painting as it was once known for many years at the Art Students League and Pratt in New York. They may be minor compared to the Great Bears, but not without gifts. They provided something for Hans Hofmann and his students to be against, and they offered alternate routes, crisscrossing paths in the wilderness back and forth between centuries (the nineteenth and the twenty-first). But Henri was no Manet, and neither was particularly interested in the flowering of the cinquencento, more’s the pity. Today, with drawing and brushwork all but outlawed in many circles, and color rare, art has arrived in the electronic age. Never has the crude been so rapidly manufactured.
The awesome, as the word suggests, is that which inspires awe or fear. It’s what Burke meant by the sublime, the way cave people felt when the sun rose, or the night fell. Down through the ages, notions of the awesome have ranged from God and Tragedy to the merely weird, and, most recently, in the new usage, MTV, which inspires neither awe nor fear, except in the ratings. Aristotle may have pooh-poohed Comedy, but birth and rebirth are also awesome, as we saw in the Renaissance, and it is arguable which is more ennobling, to die, or to be born. But never has the awesome been so blow-dried. In the past, the awesome was Dionysian, or libidinous forces mirrored in Nature, the return of the repressed, Lucifer, Blake’s Tiger. It was thunder, lightning, and fathomless seas, Nature as we know it and outer space, light, dark, and more, “darkness visible,” soul. It was Michaelangelo. In its Gothic-novel manifestations it was the landscape on the way to the castle of Nosferatu in the Werner Herzog film. Awe and fear propelled the so-called primitive work in the “Primitivism” show, and modernism sanctioned the fake primitive and the fearfully awesome, but the awesomely beautiful became taboo, except in the movies, though Rothko was not afraid of the awesome beauty of saturated color. Kurosawa’s Macbeth with a battalion of spears in his chest like a tribal fetish is an awesome image, the vault of Saint John the Divine is an awesome space, and Paradise Lost is the most awesome poem ever written. Goya’s Black Paintings are awesome, and Turner didn’t lash himself to a mast in a snowstorm to be picturesque. Since the Forties, artists have tried and failed to do with enormous canvases what artists as unlike as Turner and Picasso did with Imagination. Vestiges of the awesome can be seen in bombardments of electronic images in multimedia works for the most part out of touch with Nature. The possibility of being crushed under a Richard Serra sculpture can be said to be awesome, but not the way Rodin’s Gates of Hell is awesome.
The Holocaust broke the back of the awesome, calling into question the fittingness of any aesthetic category or art to describe it. But the “style” of Anselm Kiefer’s MOMA retrospective can be said to be awesomely low in approaching the Nazi experience. The size of the canvases, the sewage textures, oppressive grays and browns, burned clumps of straw, in their very ubiquity, transcend style and achieve solemnity.
In its new debased form, the awesome is awesomest, and the fearsome fearsomest, in criticism that has lost all sense of proportion. M. Derrida himself provides the metaphor in his essay on Van Gogh—“once more around,” four times, like a beast circling its prey. And the prey is meaning itself, the very being of a work of art, which means because it is. And it is, and always was, more than the random object such criticism reduces it to. The little soiled blankets appearing in SoHo galleries nowadays are M. Derrida’s true subject, not Van Gogh. In these, Deconstruction finds a subject worthy ofitself.
Are artists idiots? If art can mean everything the fecund critic says it means, it means nothing; it doesn’t even exist. If a soda bottle is as instructive for the purposes of Marxist critics as a Velázquez, let them focus on soda bottles and leave art for those who see it. This is not to say the lineaments of, for example, the Coca-Cola bottle are not elegant, or that such critics are altogether blind. But their misplaced inventiveness, the high erudition and low sense of proportion is the very shape of ooze. The influence of such criticism has crept upon the universities and museums in the guise of a leveling kind of eclecticism (there are other kinds) that undermines the genuine appreciation not only of Western culture, but of other cultures as well. George Orwell made the deeper point in his essay on “Politics and the English Language”—if we don’t care or are unable to distinguish the real from the fake, thought from cliché, how can we begin to understand the world news? Cave people depended for their very survival on being able to tell when to worship and when to run, but so-called experts spawned by such criticism are not so astute. Never has the awesome been so bogus.
Vasari would have appreciated the roles Hofmann and Duveneck played in transmitting arts worth engaging, undoing, or even building upon. But the art world today is afflicted by a Wild West frontier mentality—trash the past and move on. Art historians and critics suffer from it as well as artists trapped between ruptures. But the strongest art involves fine distinctions, not just obvious extrapolation to the furthest-out undoing. “Far out” as Picasso was, he always knew this, and looked back to Greece and into Africa, analyzing and re-forming a past in his way. The Abstract Expressionists pushed the outer limits of painting more than the inner and got stuck. Vasari was concerned Uccello would run into similar problems and possibly unhinge his brain from “too severe studies” in perspective, and advised him to go back to drawing. The Florentines did this and advanced without trashing anything.
It’s hard to find a Lion or Tiger on West Broadway or Superior Street nowadays, but a person doesn’t have to go to mainstream galleries to find aesthetically correct art (which is not to say all such work is fake —the question is why is it aesthetically correct, and is there anything else to it?). At Artemnesia, on Chicago’s Carpenter Street in the River West district with its outpouring of ample spaces so prized in the East, Jenny Morlan flooded wall-sized canvases with melting pink and orange lipstick, somehow spacious, punctuated with army-green choppers that didn’t get off the ground. The colors could be obtained more simply with paint which would allow the artist to do more, and it’s not clear whether she intends to stunt her growth by continuing to work mainly in lipstick and nail polish. The work was a far cry from ooze, but Artemnesia Gentileschi might have thought there’s a very good reason it’s new.
Are artists idiots? If art can mean everything the fecund critic says it means, it means nothing; it doesn’t even exist.
And what would Manet say now? The serious undoing of painting began with his deprecation of Giorgione in Lunch on the Grass. He was more of a painter than Ingres, whose line was so exquisite it almost didn’t matter. And, given the pass to which academicians had brought painting, his handling of paint looked fresh, but at a cost. Today, artists don’t know what to reject next. But a true Avant-Garde can at least find the frontier.
Between the leap into perfect form and the search for Self and Mars, the frontier has shifted inward. But, especially, as long as artists themselves have different traits, trends will always swing back and forth. Blake said, “To generalize is to be an Idiot” (surely aware he was doing just that and of the occasional need for it). He found the highest art and morality in Minute Particulars, a term first used by Boswell. For him, each Minute Particular was ultimately a Human Being, and critical thinking more than a meaningless intellectual exercise. In Blake’s sense, each zek in The Gulag was a Minute Particular, each voice, each story, voice upon voice, story upon story, remembered, remembering, not so different from ours. Lara shoots Komarovsky and Pasternak is exiled. David Copperfield declares he was born. Spenser takes a walk by the Thames. Dante comes to a dark wood, but it could be you or me. These are very different “I”s, from the condemned to the self-affirming and self-extinguishing, but it is they who show us ourselves, and are potentially “subversive,” not the agglutinated prose of Fredric Jameson, or “significant statements” about people in general.
The personal in visual art as well has always addressed a central question asked by Bernardo in the opening line of Hamlet, “Who’s there?” Today, some artists refuse to say. But down through the ages, like voice, the artist’s hand, in all its periods and styles, has tried to answer, and non-artists appreciated the attempt. Being born in an “incompetent age,” as Vasari put it, did not stop Giotto from painting a Crucifix in a field of gold appreciated all the more because it was from his hand. The same can be said of abstract art. The sparkling fury of Krasner’s brush and hand in Polar Stampede at her MOMA retrospective was more hard-hitting than Pollock’s flung drips, for all their fine complexity, because she was more connected to the canvas, but there’s more than one way to connect. The metaphors of color and pure form—round, jagged, vertical, prone, big, diminutive, etc.—underscore the artist’s voice or hand (not all there in sprayed-looking surfaces). In Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, the answer to “Who’s there?” was a community of individuals, not lemmings, and the Italian Renaissance.
Questions of identity have always been part of the fascination of portraits as well. Every brushstroke, scumble, and smudge can say something. In Sargent’s portrait of Henry James, at the IBM gallery several years ago, every brushstroke reveals character. The gaze from the recesses of the eyes is that of the writer who could see through Osmond in one look, not the choreographer of tête-à-têtes, and the portrait tells more about Sargent than the women in white satin will ever tell.
Personal art, true “subversiveness,” or persuasion works through the power of Imagination “to awake in the minds of others a kindred feeling,” as Coleridge said. These mirror glances are meetings of thought and perception, of an inner disposition or memory of contiguous experiences or linked ideas with shared ones. Everyone is born. Not everyone thinks it matters. But, reading David Copperfield, one sees it does, and declares the event, with an enhanced sense of dignity and moment, frowned on by some regimes. In a similar, different way, as the snow falls on “The Dead,” or a Bruegel scene, we see the interconnectedness of all elements. And the truest art helps us to see more.
The Florentines valued Imagination because it helped them so see natural forms, and the spirit informing them. Nature was the primary text, and, after Nature, Leonardo advised young artists to study only the work of the most skilled masters. His view on most secondary texts was that he or she “who can go to the fountain, does not go to the water-jar.” There have always been artists who prefer the water-jar, but to this day, others would rather stare, as Leonardo wrote, into the embers of a dying fire, or at “a wall spotted with stains” in which “landscapes … appear confusedly, like the sound of bells in whose jangle you may find any name or word you choose to imagine.” This is how the Greeks saw Daphne fluttering in the leaves, the Great Bear in the stars, how children, lying in a field, see snow-capped mountains in the clouds rise and fade away; but only poets see the jangling of bells. This exercise for the creative faculties in vogue in Leonardo’s day was, we should keep in mind, intended only for practice. Leonardo himself was more challenged by a smile. But, today, it seems, many, though by no means all, artists are no longer interested in challenging themselves, content to be the mirror of whatever feeds them. Leonardo had something to say about that too, which is, just as still water becomes “putrid, talent without exercise deteriorates” (i.e., Kiefer’s style without his meaning).
Nay-saying is the predominant mode of visual art today.
Imagination has a local address, but it’s arguable whether culture, or technology and availability of materials, defines the forms imaginable in a log, quarry, landslide. Marble lends itself to more articulation than limestone, etc. But the moon over an English copse or a bamboo grove is still the moon, the contemplative mind itself still contemplative.
Audiences everywhere recognize filial ingratitude in the example Coleridge uses to distinguish mere fancy from Imagination: Otway’s “Lutes, lobsters, seas of milk, and shapes of amber” from Shakespeare’s “What! have his daughters brought him to this pass?” Responses to the most fundamentally human experiences tend to cross cultures, for all the prevarications of our anthropology. The truly awesome is universal.
In his refutation of Bishop Berkeley, Dr. Johnson showed thought connects to something real. This is as true of music and the visual arts as of language. Though it may be profitable, any argument can’t be thrust on any work without lying. Nonsense and ooze go hand-in-hand, and it is the artist’s job to restore meaning to form, not the text-traducer’s all but to hallucinate it in any cultural artifact he or she happens to chance upon. Just by coming into existence, line, color, body, are and mean more immediately and powerfully than needlesss exposition, and this is often what artists mean when they say “it is what it is.” But if it’s any good at all, art is true.
All children differentiate themselves from their parents in the same way: by saying no, and nay-saying is the predominant mode of visual art today. But in the infancy of painting, artists learned from one another. And, beyond the Orc cycle, they will once again be able to imagine saying yes some of the time. In those “distant deeps and skies” criticism served Truth, and artists remember Beauty is often more powerful than “significant statements” because it can make ideas desirable. But they don’t forget some ideas are better adapted to scatology. Everyone realizes it is impossible to talk about masses of people, without first being able to see a person, and even then it’s iffy. Artists may be truly rude, but vulgarity is not required. Their work may be as high as they can reach, without bad repercussions. They don’t have to be crude to be contemporary, and can draw like Raphael if they want to. Nor is the awesome thrust upon them; the most delicate refinements can be called postmodern. Ooze gets informed, and form is begotten. There are shows of hands. Poets tune their pipes to the water’s fall,4 not too cynical to give an iamb. And form follows life, from the Lion’s and from the Tiger’s claw.
- “The Tiger,” in The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, edited by David Erdman, with commentary by Harold Bloom (Doubleday, 1970).
- This is not to say all work coming out of the East Village in the Eighties was kitschy—Ford Krull has a love of color akin to Bonnard’s, whatever else he’s doing, Joan Nelson, a delicate touch. Koons’s transactions are a case study in the bad kind of entrepreneurship. Quoting documents for the prosecution, Chicago Artists’ News (June 1991) reported how Koons plagiarized a photo postcard of a couple with eight puppies for his “Banality” show: “Koons tore Roger’s copyright notice off the card and sent the photo to an Italian workshop with detailed instructions to make as exact a copy as possible in polychrome wood,” then exhibited the result under his name. The good news is, and no one seemed to notice, kitschy as the piece is, one of the Italians could not help but giving a little more form to the man’s face, making it younger, and the eyes, the mouth, have a touch, just a touch of, maybe a yearning for, the Florentine. This was evidently not in the order and shows art will always subvert Philistinism. But, why is the Italian working for Koons?
- In his collection of essays Convergences, Octavio Paz describes art “with nothing intimate or subjective about it” as “suitable for decorating airports and other great spaces.” One of Gracie Mansion’s first shows in the East Village was ironically titled “Sofa Paintings.”
- Spenser’s The Shepherdes Calendar, “April,” 1.36
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 2, on page 28
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