All I want anyone to get out of my paintings, and all I ever get out of them, is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any confusion. … What you see is what you see.
—Frank Stella, 1966

Minimal works are readable as art, as almost anything is today—including a door, a table, or a blank sheet of paper. … That, precisely, is the trouble. Minimal Art remains too much a feat of ideation, and not enough anything else. Its idea remains an idea, something deduced instead of felt and discovered.
—Clement Greenberg, 1967

After all, what is art? That’s the big question.
—Leonard Riggio, Dia Arts Foundation

Art is what you can get away with.
—Andy Warhol (attributed)

Where is Evelyn Waugh when you need him? I mean, where is the satirist with a boot big and swift and hard enough for the collective backside of today’s art world? “The hour is come,” Sir Walter Scott indited gloomily, “but not the man.”

I share that gloom. There is plenty of good art being made now, but most of it goes unnoticed, all but. The big press and the big money tend to line up behind “transgressive” crap (the blasphemy, kinky sex, bodily effluvia brigade) or utterly vacuous crap (the blank canvas, exhibit-my-old-sneaker, I-can-count-to-three-million-and-make-you-watch-me-do-it company).

I apologize, by the way, for the word “crap.” I think it’s undignified, too. I looked around for an alternative that was equally accurate, blunt, and printable. I considered “merde,” but it seemed a bit pretentious for the matter at hand, and besides, it’s French. “Crap” at least is short, sharp, and expressive. It has the added advantage of being apt: “CRAP, n. … 3. a. Worthless nonsense,” The American Heritage Dictionary.

I should also point out that the “or” between “transgressive” and “utterly vacuous” is is not what grammarians call a disjunctive “or.” There are some—many—enterprising lads and lasses who manage to be transgressive and vacuous simultaneously. Take Matthew “Mr. Vaseline” Barney. He will be forgotten in about twenty minutes, but just now The New York Times’s publicity blitz on his behalf is still reverberating (and, as I write, his occupation of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is still ongoing). In Mr. Barney’s work, I think you will admit, the union of banality and ickiness (common parlance for “transgressive”) is well-nigh perfect.

He is not alone. I am sure that you can think of eighty-six additional examples—I’m told that experts can do 114—before lunch.

I want to spare you that unpleasantness, however. My point is simply that when it comes to the Art World—to the congeries of critic-publicists and curator-publicists, museum-director-publicists, publicist-publicists, and artist-narcissist-publicists who set the agenda and spend the money—the front-burner issue is not aesthetic quality but one or another species of trendiness. When exhibitions of Velázquez or Leonardo or some other historical name-brand worthy roll into town, you can reap some reasonably straight oohs and aahs from the arts pages of the Times and other finger-in-the-air publications. But let the focus shift to what’s happening now and, presto! instant lobotomy and onset of Tourette Syndrome.

Matthew Barney notwithstanding, I suspect that the really nasty stuff is about ready for a rest—not a long rest, mind you, just a bit of a breather while people regroup after the age of Mapplethorpe, Serrano, Gilbert and George, and all the awful stuff that made “Sensation” such a sensation a couple of years ago. (Remember the Madonna covered with pornographic pictures and bits of elephant poop? Wot larks, wot larks…) Doubtless there is something even worse going up somewhere even as I write. But for the moment it seems that the limelight has shifted from the overtly repellent to the merely vacuous side of the equation.

What makes me think this? Palpitations at The New York Times, in part. I am thinking in particular of “The Dia Generation” by the Times’s chief art critic, Michael Kimmelman. This extraordinary, sixty-five-hundred-word effusion—about which more below—plumped up the paper’s Sunday Magazine on April 6. It was followed by another ecstatic piece, which began on the front page of the paper’s art section on April 23. The hook for all this publicity is “Dia:Beacon,” a new $50 million art museum in Beacon, New York, about an hour north of Manhattan. Presided over by the Dia Arts Foundation, Dia:Beacon—note the snazzy pomo orthography—opens on May 18. Look for lots more fanfare then.

Dia:Beacon is the latest effort to enlist art in the cause of urban renewal. Here is the formula: Take one economically depressed town in or near a scenic spot. Stir in a clump of abandoned commercial buildings, the older the better. Gently whip up local authorities with the promise that a museum of contemporary art will boost tourism, create jobs, and generally add cultural luster to their town. Decorate with a hip director, preferably someone who was a student-friend-assistant of Thomas Krens at Williams College. Let gel with as much foundation and taxpayer money as you can make off with.

Does it work? The jury is still out. Mass MOCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, helped establish the recipe in 1999 and it has had only modest success. Michael Govan, the current director of the Dia Arts Foundation (and an alumnus of Williams and the Guggenheim), estimated that the museum would create twenty jobs, attract about 100,000 visitors a year, and generate $7.4 million annually in tourist revenue. Maybe.

Doubtless you have heard of the Dia Arts Foundation, though probably it is not in the forefront of your consciousness. It hadn’t been in the news much lately. Dia was one of the many potty ideas with roots in the 1960s that didn’t get going until the 1970s, and now, like eczema or PCBs, is almost impossible to extirpate. Why “Dia”? It’s Greek for “through,” as in “Can’t you see through this ridiculous sham?” Dia was started in 1974 by a German art dealer named Heiner Friedrich and his wife, Philippa de Menil. Herr Friedrich supplied the pretension, most of it; Miss de Menil—a daughter of the art collectors Dominique and John de Menil, and hence an heiress to the Schlumberger oil fortune—supplied the money, lots of it. According to Kimmelman, by the mid-1980s, Dia had spent $40 million on 1,000 works of art.

The senior Menils went in for things like shrines to Mark Rothko. The Rothko Chapel at the de Menil Collection in Houston features a clutch of dark-hued abstractions by The Master set in the hushed preciousness of what some press material calls “a modern meditative environment.” Indeed. A step or two away from the meditative modernity of the new-age crystals-are-gods crowd, the Rothko Chapel is … well, let’s call it unforgettable. The senior Menils extended themselves in exquisiteness: elegant architecture, expensive simplicity, the cool, uncluttered look of what might be called Catholic Zen. The younger generation brought this down to earth. They went in for artists like Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Richard Serra, John Chamberlain, Andy Warhol, Walter De Maria, Robert Smithson, Sol LeWitt, Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin, and Bruce Nauman. Minimalist, mostly, but by turns louder, coyer, angrier, more ironic—minimalism with neon, dirt, rocks, or crushed sedans.

Dia already runs or has run several other galleries and art spaces. It helped start the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh with a donation of 150 works by Warhol and the Cy Twombly Gallery in Houston with half-a-dozen works. In Manhattan, Dia runs some cavernous galleries (totaling some 38,000 square feet) in Chelsea and—possibly its most notorious undertaking to date—Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room (1977) in SoHo. The New York Earth Room is exactly what its name says: a room in New York filled with earth. Well, not filled, exactly. This “interior earth sculpture” consists of 250 cubic yards of earth—i.e., dirt—spread over 3,600 square feet of floor space at a carefully manicured depth of twenty-two inches. The room, which is regularly cleaned and purged of mushrooms and other organic intrusions, is solemnly chaperoned by a couple of Dia employees who are discouraged from reading lest their attention wander.

Like most of the artists associated with Dia, Walter De Maria might have stepped out of a farce by Tom Wolfe. The New York Earth Room is not his only sandbox for Dia. Elsewhere in Manhattan is The Broken Kilometer (1979). I can’t improve on Dia’s official description: “500 highly polished, round, solid brass rods, each measuring two meters in length and five centimeters (two inches) in diameter. The 500 rods are placed in five parallel rows of 100 rods each.” As Frank Stella said of his own work—more on that in a moment—“what you see is what you see.” And then there is Lightning Field (1977), De Maria’s site-specific effort near Quemado, New Mexico. Lightning Field consists of four hundred stainless-steel poles, twenty feet long, two inches round, which are arranged in a mile-long, kilometer-wide grid in that desolate Western fastness. Dia spent $1 million on Lightning Field, which may help explain why they claim it is “recognized internationally as one of the late-twentieth century’s most significant works of art.” In case you were thinking of dropping in for a quick look, don’t. Overnight reservations (one night only) are required in a cabin that Dia maintains next to the field; “a simple supper (vegetarian) is prepared for you.” That meal may seem by-the-by, but it isn’t. Everything about Dia is “(vegetarian).”

Dia owns and maintains Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), a 1500-foot long, 15-foot wide coil of basalt rock and earth in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Smithson inadvertently built the earth-work when the water level of the lake was unusually low, so the work is now often submerged. Dia also helped with Michael Heizer’s City, an unfinished (after 30 years) series of huge abstract sculptures in the Nevada desert. “Heizer,” Kimmelman reports,

imagined “complexes,” immense mastabas, some a quarter of a mile long, with 70-foot slabs weighing thousands of pounds. He acquired several square miles of remote property, surrounded by public land, two hours into the Nevada desert from the nearest paved road, and he lived for years in a trailer, locked in for half the winter and once going for months seeing only a couple of sheep trailers and a passing pickup truck. Art didn’t get much more extreme than that.
Note the word “extreme”: it’s meant as a term of praise.

Then there is the Dan Flavin Institute in Bridgehampton, New York, which contains nine works in fluorescent lights by Flavin. A typical work by Flavin consists of a handful of standard-issue fluorescent lights arranged in a line. In 1979, Dia spent $5 million to purchase a sprawling disused army base in Marfa, Texas, and help Donald Judd construct a museum for his own work and that of a few artists he especially admired, like Flavin. Dan Flavin liked light bulbs. Donald Judd liked boxes, stacked one on top of another or arranged in a row. At Marfa, he could really let himself go. Until it fell on rocky times in the late 1980s, Dia supplied him with a stipend of $17,500 a month. One result was Judd’s 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum (1982–1986), which are—no surprise here—one hundred large untitled boxes made out of milled aluminum and neatly arranged in two enormous converted artillery sheds.

Friedrich, who was removed as director of Dia in the late 1980s when the Foundation’s finances tanked, was never shy about Dia’s aspirations. According to Kimmelman, he compared Dia’s patronage to that of the Medicis. “Our values are as powerful as those in the Renaissance,” Friedrich is quoted as saying. He added that Dan Flavin “is as important as Michelangelo.” Think about that the next time you switch on the fluorescent lights in your office.

I offer these snapshots of the Dia Foundation’s activities as a sort of reality check. Bear in mind the room full of dirt, the steel poles cluttering up the New Mexico landscape, the light bulbs and the aluminum boxes. Think about Andy Warhol—his Campbell’s Soup cans and Brillo Boxes, his pictures of Marilyn Monroe and Mao and Jackie Kennedy. Think about Spiral Jetty, John Chamberlain and his crushed cars, Richard Serra and his minatory Corten Steel walls. Now think about Michael Kimmelman’s assertion that the perpetrators of these objects constitute “the greatest generation of American artists.”

They were the first Americans to influence Europeans. The work these artists made changed, or at least questioned, the nature of art: what it looked like, its size, its materials, its attitude toward the places where it was shown, its relation to architecture, light and space and to the land. The artists even questioned whether art needed to be a tangible object. Minimalism, Post-Minimalism, Earth art, video art, Conceptualism—suddenly art could be nothing more than an idea, a thought on a piece of paper that played in your head. It could be ephemeral or atmospheric, like the experience of a room illuminated by colored fluorescent tubes.
I described Michael Kimmelman’s essay as “extraordinary.” It is extraordinary in approximately the same way that a snake-oil peddler’s tales of miraculous cures are extraordinary, i.e., cynical, incredible, and ultimately pathetic.

Let’s start with some details. The artists of the so-called “Dia generation” were not the “first Americans to influence Europeans.” For better or worse, that trophy belongs to the generation whose achievement Kimmelman is at such pains to depreciate, the generation of “Pollock, Rothko, and de Kooning.” In 1958, Alfred Barr organized an exhibition called “The New American Painting,” which toured Europe at the same time that a retrospective of Jackson Pollock’s work was making the rounds. “The immediate effect of these exhibitions,” Hilton Kramer has written, was “to establish the Abstract Expressionism of the New York School as the the single most important art movement of its period” in the minds of young Parisians. Annette Michelson, at that time the Paris correspondent for Arts magazine, noted in its June 1959 issue that “the one really lively topic of discussion” among Paris artists, dealers, and critics was the new American painting. Barr’s show, she conjectured, “might even come to be seen as the ‘the Armory Show of post-war Paris.’”

Those acquainted with Kimmelman’s other writings on art might be tempted to regard his factual mistake as the product of simple ignorance. The sums of money involved make that very unlikely. Dia’s aesthetic may be minimalist, but its pocketbook is maximalist. According to the April 23 story in the Times, Leonard Riggio, chairman of Barnes & Noble and now also Dia’s Chairman, has given some $30 million towards Dia:Beacon, as well as several art works including Serra’s Torqued Ellipses (1997), which were on view for over nine months at Dia’s Chelsea gallery. The Lannan Foundation has given or lent the new museum another $15 million. When such sums are involved, it is a simple matter to let enthusiasm trump accuracy.

Since I started with Evelyn Waugh, I should acknowledge that there is one brilliant moment in Kimmelman’s piece that, though inadvertent, is worthy of Waugh at his most comic. It comes in the course of his interview with Leonard Riggio. “I went to Marfa and Roden Crater and visited Heizer in Nevada,” Riggio recalls, “and I thought these artists recognized the genius of the average American. Judd built his museum in a little Texas town. [James] Turrell was hiring Native Americans from the area. Heizer was working with local people.” In other words, we are supposed to regard Judd’s aluminum boxes or Heizer’s giant slabs in the middle of nowhere as art for the people, just as Barnes & Noble bookstores are “for average citizens, for the whole of society.” It would be an art work worthy of Dia to try out, say, the room full of dirt on a randomly selected group of average citizens. I hope I am invited to witness the result.

Leonard Riggio is not really a comedian, of course. He makes a serious point—a deeply misguided point, I believe, but nonetheless serious—with his assertion that the question “What is Art?” is “the big question.” In fact, the last half century has shown it to be one of the most vacuous questions ever formulated. Whatever interest it might hold for epistemologists, it has proven to be an artistic dead end—worse than a dead end, an endless maze that leads nowhere. Marcel Duchamp posed, and disposed, of the essential issue back in the ’Teens with his ready-mades: ordinary objects torn out of their quotidian surroundings and exhibited as art. He intended to explode the category of aesthetic delectation, but it turned out he had only introduced an element of ironic frivolity. “I threw the bottle rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge,” Duchamp noted contemptuously in the 1940s, “and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.”

There was a period, a decade or two ago, when you could hardly open an art journal without encountering the quotation from Frank Stella I used as an epigraph. The bit about “what you see is what you see” was reproduced ad nauseam. It was thought by some to be very deep. In fact, Stella’s remarks—from a joint interview with him and Donald Judd—serve chiefly to underscore the artistic emptiness of the whole project of minimalism. No one can argue with the proposition that “what you see is what you see,” but there’s a lot to argue with in what he calls “the fact that you can see the whole idea without any confusion.” We do not, of course, see ideas. Stella’s assertion to the contrary might be an instance of verbal carelessness, but it is not merely verbal carelessness. At the center of minimalism, as Clement Greenberg noted, is the triumph of ideation over feeling and perception, over aesthetics. The artists Dia has supported form a disparate group. Not all are minimalists—Warhol, for example, or Chamberlain. But all specialize in art which flirts with what Greenberg called “the look of non-art.” They, too—or at least their supporters—thought that “What is art?” was “the big question.” In fact, it is the kind of question that, when pursued as a substitute for artistic practice, leads directly to rooms full of dirt and sad fellows living for years in a trailer in the Nevada desert. It also leads to charlatans like Judd, who exploded in a rage when his monthly stipend had to be stopped, and it leads, too, to judgments like Friedrich’s that Dan Flavin is “as important as Michelangelo.” It leads, in other words, to a view Andy Warhol is said to have endorsed, that “art is what you can get away with.”

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 9, on page 14
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