… middlebrow culture attacks distinctions as such and insinuates itself everywhere, devaluating the precious, infecting the healthy, corrupting the honest, and stultifying the wise. Insidiousness is of its essence, and in recent years its avenues of penetration have become infinitely more difficult to detect and block.
—Clement Greenberg, 1948
Such persons are in fact besotted with words, and their brains are turned with the glittering, but empty and sterile phantoms of things… . They may be considered as hieroglyphical writers. Images stand out in their minds isolated and important merely in themselves, without any ground-work of feeling… .
—William Hazlitt, 1821
If nothing else, the explosion of public interest in art over the last few decades has taught us that philistinism is the chameleon of intellectual vices. It can counterfeit anything. And here as elsewhere, the practice of counterfeiting not only disseminates forgeries, it also compromises the original. Let the genuine achievements of art be ever so severe or demanding: within a season or two one can be sure of finding them mimicked, reduced to a formula, which means hollowed out, travestied, divested of aesthetic vitality and appeal. The essential components of this process were in place by the early 1960s, when philistine culture learned to celebrate—and to ape—the gestures and outward conventions of the avant-garde. No longer was establishment taste the reliable opponent of advanced culture: it became its automatic celebrant and ally.
Today, what generally passes as avant-garde taste is as unattractive but as common and aesthetically nugatory as nose rings.
One curious effect of this development was the transformation of avant-garde sensibility itself into a version of philistinism. When novelty and rebellion emerged as conventional virtues—as primary factors in art-world accreditation—then the avant-garde was finished as an engine of important artistic innovation. It devolved into a species of social posturing, preserving the appearance of anger but lacking the vision of the models it imitated. The one constant was sentimentality, understood not necessarily as saccharine emotion but, as Wallace Stevens once put it, as a failure of feeling. Today, what generally passes as avant-garde taste is as unattractive but as common and aesthetically nugatory as nose rings.
Examples of this phenomenon are legion. Indeed, the domestication of the avant-garde is a defining irony of contemporary art-world culture (as distinct from the culture of contemporary art, which exists quietly apart from and largely in opposition to the official pieties of the art world). One of the most instructive instances concerns the fate and the contemporary reception of Abstract Expressionism. This quintessentially American art movement was probably the last to exercise a legitimate claim to the title of the avant-garde; certainly, it was the last to encounter serious opposition from the art establishment. And although the achievements of Abstract Expressionism look more and more limited as the years pass, it did make a genuine and lasting contribution to twentieth-century art. Recent critical responses to Abstract Expressionism perfectly illustrate the extent to which philistinism has triumphed over art. On the one hand, there are the sour, politicized varieties of philistinism: the philistinism that reinvents Abstract Expressionism as an instrument of Cold War propaganda, for example, or the more recent innovation proposing that Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings are really about ejaculation and urination. On the other hand, there is the hagiographic philistinism that abandons all pretence of critical discrimination in order to embrace the vast repository of clichés that have grown up around the Abstract Expressionists and their art. April Kingsley’s book, The Turning Point: The Abstract Expressionists and the Transformation of American Art,1 is an unadulterated specimen of the latter.
Among much else, The Turning Point reminds us that bad books come in different classes. Some are bad with redeeming features: flawed but valuable works that contain original research, say, or important insights or engaging writing or perspicacious summaries of unwieldy material. Others—many, many others—are bad in more thoroughgoing, and thus forgettable, ways: dreary, dime-a-dozen affairs effectively devoid of both panache and substance. Then there is that select class of books that are bad in an exemplary fashion. Unlike those of the first class, they conspicuously lack mitigating virtues; but unlike those belonging to the second, their faults seem to epitomize a trend, a tendency, a fashion. They are interesting not for what they tell us about their announced subjects but as symptoms. The Turning Point belongs to this last category. It contributes exactly nothing to our knowledge of Abstract Expressionism. But it does recapitulate, verbatim, as it were, an enduring brand of histrionic philistinism, and is therefore worth examining in some detail.
The press material accompanying this book informs us that Kingsley is completing her Ph.D. at the City University Graduate Center and that, in addition to having acted as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, she has written art criticism for various journals, including Art News and Artforum. We are also informed that The Turning Point is Kingsley’s first book. One may hope that she will not be tempted to repeat the experiment any time soon. For The Turning Point is one of those books that is wrong in every respect: tone, substance, structure, execution, originating conception … What else is there? It is wrong in those respects, too. It is an object lesson in how not to write about art.
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Let’s start with Kingsley’s basic conception for the book. Her main idea is that the year 1950—the “turning point,” she tells us, of the twentieth century—also marked a critical turning point for “the subsequent history of world art.” Why? Because, according to her account, 1950 was the year that the group of artists we have come to know as Abstract Expressionists “all came together to play their parts … as if on cue, on a stage of international significance.” And even though “during 1950 the artists and their public became aware that something extremely important was going on in New York, something that wasn’t happening anywhere else,” hitherto “the crucial importance of this particular year … has largely been perceived subliminally, if at all.” To fill this startling lacuna, Kingsley has offered readers a kind of diary. After a brief introduction, Turning Point proceeds seriatim from January 1950 through December, a chapter devoted to each month (except the summer months, which are dealt with collectively in one chapter). Over the course of the book, Kingsley provides potted biographies of a dozen major figures (Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, David Smith, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Arshile Gorky, et alii), rehearses the major exhibitions they had that year, and provides a great deal of gratuitous sermonizing about (1) the anxiety produced by the atomic bomb and (2) the stupendous novelty and importance of Abstract Expressionism.
Unfortuntely, there are some problems with this account of Abstract Expressionism. One might, to begin with, wonder at the exalted critical empyrean that Kingsley must inhabit to be blithely dispensing pronouncements about the influence of a contemporary art movement on “the subsequent history of world art.” But perhaps, like so much else in this book, such talk is merely excited verbal static. Consider instead the tremendous importance that Kingsley assigns to the year 1950. She asserts that 1950 was the year that most of the Abstract Expressionists discovered their “signature images.” Really? Jackson Pollock’s “signature image” was surely the drip painting, and he began making those in the late 1940s. If Robert Motherwell had a “signature image,” it was the depiction of heavy black bars squeezing black ovoids on a white ground that figure centrally in the Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, and that image began appearing in his paintings in 1948. Not only did de Kooning achieve his “signature image” (or signature style, really) in 1950, but he also painted most of his best pictures in the Forties. Gorky, having committed suicide in 1948, was unavailable in 1950 when everyone was supposed to be turning out signature images. It does seem likely that Mark Rothko perfected his tell-tale image, a colored field with two blurry rectangles, one floating on top of the other, in 1950, but so what? If a group of artists emerges in the mid-1940s, it’s hardly surprising that a handful of them should hit their stride in 1950.
Nineteen-fifty was also supposed to be the year in which the important artists associated with Abstract Expressionism had their first one-man shows. But here again some did and some didn’t. Trying hard to create an atmosphere of existential ominousness, Kingsley succeeds only in perpetrating monumental irrelevance. She opens her chapter for January by noting that on New Year's Eve, 1949, in Times Square “observers reported that there was virtually no drunkenness or kissing.” Here we may be permitted to interject again with the one phrase above all others that this book calls forth: So what? Perhaps Kingsley believes that this unusual sobriety had something to do with the spread of television or the fear of nuclear incineration: why else would she supply a footnote reporting that the number of television sets in this country went from 1.5 million in 1949 to 15 million in 1951 and that bombs and bombers were a “national obsession”?
Gorky, having committed suicide in 1948, was unavailable in 1950 when everyone was supposed to be turning out signature images.
In any event, it would seem that nuclear bombs have remained something of an obsession for Kingsley. She reverts to the subject often in the course of this book about Abstract Expressionism, claiming, for example, that “each in their separate ways, the American Abstract Expressionists found relevant images which did convey a sense of responding to the world that had been born with the bomb.” She also dilates on the fact that President Truman authorized production of the hydrogen bomb in 1950 “for US ‘security.’” (Why the scare quotes? What else does she think the bombs were for?) The rise of Senator McCarthy was still a few years off, but the specter of McCarthyism is too good a prop to leave out entirely, so Kingsley drags it into the mix as well, making it, so to speak, an honorary 1950 phenomenon. In fact, 1950 is made to bear altogether too heavy a burden. After this book, it deserves a furlough. The contingency that Kingsley’s chosen year happens to be the midpoint of the century means … What? Why, nothing at all. To pretend otherwise—to speak or 1950 as a “turning point,” “a fulcrum,” etc.—is to descend from history to numerology.
If the underlying conception of this book is dubious, the tone that Kingsley has chosen to employ in it is a disaster. She writes not as a scholar or critic but as a star-struck groupie. She also has some trouble with the English language. One of her favorite solecisms involves the word “ironically,” which she employs as an all-purpose synonym for “coincidentally.” Expatiating on that unwontedly sober New Year’s Eve, for example, Kingsley observes that, at a special service at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, a Reverend Broderick called on his congregation to help “bring back Christ to the world.” “Ironically,” she writes,
two days later and a few blocks north of Saint Patrick’s, Mark Rothko, a Jew born … forty-seven years earlier, opened an exhibition of paintings that Reverend Broderick would surely have found unacceptably hedonistic in their beautiful colors, and incomprehensible in their abstract forms, but which nevertheless had the effect of bringing, if not God, at least a profound spiritual sense back to art.
Leave the “profound spiritual sense” to one side for a moment. What’s “ironical” about the fact that Rothko was having a show near Saint Patrick’s? Nothing. But given Kingsley’s flirtation with bombs and bombers, it is perhaps ironical that they should play such a prominent role in her discussion. Although conceding that the idea might be “somewhat misleading,” she early on compares Abstract Expressionism to a bombing mission as depicted in an old-time movie about World War II. Jackson Pollock is the “pilot,” you see, and he and the rest of the crew are all characters out of Frank Capra. According to Kingsley, the Abstract Expressionists can be understood as “the socially and ethnically balanced bomber crew”:
Jew and gentile, rich man and pauper, native son and immigrant—brawling and quarreling among themselves, yet all pulling together for victory. And there they are: Jackson Pollock, the Westerner in denim jacket and jeans, jaw set and brow furrowed, a cigarette dangling from his lips; Franz Kline, handsome, athletic, a head full of shaggy-dog stories and a warm handclasp for everyone; the dashing blond Dutchman Willem de Kooning …
and so on, ad nauseam. One has heard of Abstract Expressionism being described as artistic dynamite, but B-29s weren’t really the thing at the Cedar Bar.
When she’s not thinking about the likes of Gregory Peck, Kingsley often takes a turn in the cloister. She is very big on the “profound spiritual sense” of Abstract Expressionism. Phony spirituality has always been a stock-in-trade of critics unresponsive to the aesthetic appeal of abstract art. Does a certain painting consist entirely of two red squares on a red ground? It must be about God’s transcendent self-identity; or else it is about man’s union with God in the unfolding of a trinitarian dialectic; or maybe it’s about the alienation of the human spirit exiled from oneness by objectifying reason; or … You get the picture: it can be about anything that human invention can frame and boundless credulity will accommodate. True, some artists, including some that Kingsley discusses, have abetted such gibberish: how nice, after all, to believe that one’s painting of two red squares has as much spiritual resonance as the frescos decorating the Sistine Chapel. But gibberish, even when licensed by artists, remains gibberish. This is something Kingsley has not fully appreciated. Her peroration offers a fair example of the breathless but empty religiosity she favors:
Whether we go to these artworks for confirmation of our world view, be it harmonious or chaotically complex; whether for exaltation, as we formerly [!] went to church; or whether we simply seek the esthetic pleasures of the senses—whatever our reasons—we go on a pilgrimage of sorts, for we seek something outside ourselves. It seems fitting that three centuries after the religious pilgrims who founded America launched themselves on a voyage into the unknown, trusting only their God to bring them safely to a new world, our artists used the same terminology as a metaphor for their adventure into a whole new territory of art making.
Why does it “seem fitting”? What does Abstract Expressionism have to do with the Pilgrims? Moreover, did Abstract Expressionism really colonize “a whole new territory of art making”? Wasn’t the essential ground already discovered by Cubism, abstract artists such as Kandinsky, Miró, and Mondrian, not to mention the intellectual and artistic innovations of Surrealism? The traditional metaphor of the artist as a “second god” has often been overworked by modern writers and artists seeking to endow their favorite works of art with special significance; in some cases, perhaps, the language of transcendence has been appropriate; but many writers proselytizing on behalf of Abstract Expressionism bought their religious rhetoric wholesale and dispensed it with unprecedented largesse. Kingsley has got a barrelful, and she likes to spread it about by the fistful, often with a bit of Superman and cut-rate Freud thrown in for good measure. Sample: “Gripped by impulses that seem electrical, driven by inner, unconscious forces, and concentrating with a superhuman intensity of focus, Pollock finally realizes the dream of Western artists since Gauguin—to be a primitive in touch with the other world, in touch with God.” Bully for him, of course, but what about the art?
Clearly, Kingsley has swallowed the propaganda about Abstract Expressionism hook, line, and sinker. Here she is on Pollock again:
Jackson Pollock fused an abstract style of expressionism forever in the public mind with the idea of the Great American Painter. For Americans, he was Soutine, Lautrec, and Goya put together, but above all he was our Van Gogh—pure in spirit, psychologically out of control, but a painter whose psychic energy poured through him and onto the canvas for all to feel.
In fact, most Americans still regard Pollock as a bit of a fraud, even if they wouldn’t mind owning one of his paintings so that they could sell it. And how many Americans know who Soutine is, anyway?
Throughout her book, Kingsley specializes in what we might call tabloid portentousness. “Death,” she writes of Rothko, “was the only thing he could count on.” And later: “On February 25, 1970, Rothko cut open the veins of his forearms to pour his life’s blood out onto the floor of his church-like studio. How else transcend the physical and achieve the spiritual like the patriarch Abraham, with whom he identified?” How else, indeed.
Apart from some gossip she picked up from art-world friends, almost everything Kingsley has to tell us in Turning Point has already been told elsewhere and told better. Virtually all the art-historical material in the book has been more soberly set forth in such well-known books as Irving Sandler’s The Triumph of American Painting (1970) and William Seitz’s Abstract Expressionist Painting in America, which was written in the 1950s and published in 1983 with a foreword by Robert Motherwell. And the biographical material, such as it is, has been rehearsed in innumerable biographies. Nor can one rely on Kingsley’s critical judgments. She assures us that de Kooning “continues” to make successful paintings, when the sad fact is that de Kooning has produced almost nothing but senile doodles for decades. She extravagantly overrates the achievement of minor artists such as Franz Kline. She virtually ignores Clement Greenberg, by far the most important critic of the Forties and Fifties as well as the most penetrating and honest advocate that Abstract Expressionism ever found.
Phony spirituality has always been a stock-in-trade of critics unresponsive to the aesthetic appeal of abstract art.
There certainly is room for a new look at Abstract Expressionism. But the unpalatable truth, completely unacknowledged by Kingsley, is that deflation is the chief task facing critics concerned with Abstract Expressionism today. Even though Abstract Expressionism has faded somewhat from the art scene, the reputations of the main artists associated with the movement are still wildly inflated, as are the prices that their work fetches. Neither the aesthetic goals of Abstract Expressionism nor the potpourri of ideas and pseudo-ideas that informed it (automatism, sundry bits of aesthetic mysticism, scraps of existentialism) have been given the critical scrutiny they deserve. If Abstract Expressionism tends to look good compared to what came after it in the art world—Minimalism, Pop, Graffiti Art, and so on—that is mainly because Abstract Expressionism was possessed of a seriousness and ambition completely lacking in its successors.
But consider this: did Abstract Expressionism produce any great artists, artists on the level of, say, Matisse? The truthful answer is No. To hear Kingsley tell it, however, Abstract Expressionism was the most important cultural phenomenon since, since … well, it’s not at all clear that Kingsley believes anything in the history of mankind was really quite so spectacular. “The painted world they invented,” she purrs, “was apocalyptic, explosive, tension-wracked.” Not only that, but the Abstract Expressionists seem to have been the first to discover and exploit some basic laws of nature. “Chance, gravity, and paint viscosity,” Kingsley writes, “were, for the first time in the history of art, important factors.” Italics have been supplied so that the reader may savor this incredible statement properly. Kingsley is everywhere more inveigled by the personalities of the artists she describes than by their work. “Not since the Renaissance,” she writes, “has there been a group of artists whose real lives have been so fascinating.” Their “real” lives: she knows or knew some of the principals in this story and she’s here to give us the lowdown on what really happened. Perhaps the key to this book is that, in her own quiet way, Kingsley is something of a surrealist. How else can one explain her critical opinions—for example, her judgment that Arshile Gorky’s Summation (1947) “may someday rival Leonardo’s large drawing of the Saint Anne with the Virgin and Child in London for the world’s admiration”?
In the end, though, the real problem with Turning Point—and the only reason, finally, to take it seriously—is that its inveterate philistinism is contagious. The bad judgments and silly analogies, the addiction to gossip and pervasive aroma of uncritical veneration: all are merely coefficients of a sensibility for which art is first of all a theater for the exhibition and exploitation of sentimentality. And sentimentality, whatever else can be said about it, is seductive. William Hazlitt would doubtless have regarded Kingsley as a “hieroglyphical” writer, not only because she is “besotted with words” but also because her writing lacks any contact with reality, with what Hazlitt called the “ground-work of feeling.” The failure is not, or not primarily, one of discernment, but of honesty. The evil of sentimentality is not that it indulges feelings but that it manufactures them. Philistinism, craving a substitute for experience, courts sentimentality in all its forms. If Kingsley’s sugary variety is one of the perennial favorites, it is chiefly because it is one of the least demanding. Were this a totally private vice, it might be left alone to indulge itself. But as Clement Greenberg observed many years ago, insidiousness is of its essence, and its effects are corrupting and stultifying.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 2, on page 4
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