Curmudgeon corner again
As a leading public intellectual, Fumaroli addresses general cultural issues as well, as seen in his L’État culturel, essai sur une religion moderne (1991). Now he has produced a big book that continues these themes.
I am indebted to Patrice Higonnet, whose TLS review (October 23, 2009) alerts me to Fumaroli’s Paris-New York et retour : Voyage dans les arts et les images (Fayard, 2009). Retaining his affection for Paris, Fumaroli also has a positive attitude towards New York, and for America in general. But not in every respect. According to Higonnet, “Mark Rothko, for Fumaroli, was a great artist, as was Jackson Pollock . . . But still, it is indubitably in New York that our troubles began; it wasn’t that America per se was all that bad. It was instead that modern art soon fell victim to two post-modern, seemingly incurable viruses, to wit, money and the enslavement of art to the photographic image. Classical art, born of religion and craft, had sought, he thinks, to explain and portray the divine spark in man. It rested on the natural imagination of mankind. But contemporary “art” today relies instead on photoshop and TV.” And so on.
Let me return now, in propria persona, to the theme of the previous posting.
Recently a controversy has erupted regarding the “authenticity” of certain works ascribed to Andy Warhol. Obviously, resolving such doubts is financially significant to those who own the works. It seems that some Warhol scholars hold that they are are authentic, while others do not.
The signature, which I believe the disputed works possess, should be definitive But clearly not in every case. For example, not long before he died, Salvador Dali signed dozens of sheets of blank paper, which were then sold. The purchaser could then have any desired image imprinted on them, and voila! a new “authentic” Dali.
During his mature years, Warhol’s method was not so crass, but it belongs to the same genre. He employed an army of assistants in his factory. When a portrait was commissioned he would send an assistant out to make a few polaroids. One of these was then turned over to another assistant to silk screen. Presumably, if he approved, Warhol would sign it; it not, not. He hardly ever disapproved.
The process is a striking instance of deskilling. At one time Warhol was a proficient draftsman in a limited way. However, one need have no drawing skill--or any other--to produce “art works” in this fashion.
It is true that some major artists, such as Rubens and El Greco, have relied on assistants to help with their works. However, such masters always retained the ability to perform on their own. A special case is the wispy “Alzheimer paintings” ascribed to Willem De Kooning, the abstract expressionist. Apparently an assistant guided every movement of his quavering hand. This news has not precluded admirers from acclaiming these junk works as sublime manifestations of ultimate refinement, the invaluable fruits of a transcendental old age in which all that went before has been reduced to its ineluctable quintesssence. Maybe so, but these purported distillations cast no light--or possibly a glaring one--on De Kooning's main body of work.
In all these cases it is clear that two--and only two--factors are at work: 1) branding, assured by the assiduous publicity machine of a corrupt art world; and 2) the enraptured response of a gullible public. Of course such gullibility is not limited to modern art. A few years ago I was talking with one of the most prestigious living experts in the realm of the old masters. We were discussing the work of Guido Reni, a pathetic academic hack of seventeenth-century Italy, whose once-celebrated canvases were (one would have thought) safely deposited on the ash heap of history a hundred years ago. But no. My distinguished friend pronounced Reni’s daubs to be “deeply moving.”
Clearly the status of art works cannot be secured by the whimsical play of personal response, even if it comes from a noted scholar. There must be objective criteria: things like composition, draftsmanship, deployment of color, finish and texture. and so forth. These terms refer to oil paintings, but there are others that are applicable in each of the arts. That is the skill factor. Contrary to reports, skill has not been abolished, only temporarily exiled.
Labels: contemporary art