Saturday, September 23, 2006


Sometimes I suspect that I am a latter day Signor Pococurante. That personage was a caustic literary critic in Voltaire’s Candide, who despised Homer, Vergil, Milton and other famed luminaries. Anyway, in the field of literature Shelley, Wordsworth, Dostoievsky, Emily Dickenson, Faulkner and a host of contemporary eminentos seem overrated. In music I despise Chopin, Puccini, Brahms, Dvorak, Mahler, Elgar, Sibelius, Prokofieff and much of Beethoven—not to mention all “major” American composers.

There are names in that second list to offend almost anyone. In my defense, though, I have tried them all, some at one time with enjoyment. After serious consideration, I find that these figures don’t hold up.

It is odd though, that my own field of art history provides little purchase for such pet peeves. To be sure, I do not care much for the paintings of Rubens, yet I can see that his range and ambition qualify him as a major artist.

My main demurral in art turns out to be Andy Warhol. The following comments stem from a Ric Burns PBS documentary in the “American Masters” series. In my view Warhol’s fame is a kind of group fantasy. He is a great artist because so many people unthinkingly assent to this claim.

It used to be said that Picasso would throw together any sort of crap, sign it, and ship it off to a dealer, who would immediately flog it to a wealthy but gullible collector. Not so, at least not for most of Picasso’s production. Yet that seems to be what happened with Warhol’s paintings. The big late works, empty decals that continually insult the viewers’ intelligence, are essentially paint-by-the numbers. Warhol, or more likely one of his flunkies, would make a polaroid to serve as a template for a portrait. Then Warhol (viz. a flunky) would ink in the contours using the silk-screen method. These “masterpieces” went for $25,000—quite a piece of change in those days.

The reductio ad absurdum is the huge portraits of Mao Zedong. These manage to be both aesthetically and politically insulting.

This is what it pretty much boils down to. The whole art career of Andy Warhol is a monument to everything that was empty, meretricious, and excessive about the sixties and seventies. There is stiff competition. “Run it up the flagpole, and watch ‘em salute!” People did and do. But why?

Oddly enough, I believe that Warhol’s films (some actually made by Paul Morrissey) are, by contrast, underrated nowadays. Items like “Blowjob” and “Lonesome Cowboys,” which bordered on soft-core porn, prepared the way for more sexually explicit fare. Most importantly, the whole “Indie” aesthetic in film owes a great deal to Warhol cinema. Some, like the eight-hour viewing of the Empire State Building, are unwatcheable now, but they were landmarks in their time. Other films though still seem entertaining. The actor Joe Dallessandro, without a brain in his head, was mesmerizing.

What is the reason for the contrast between the oubliette of obscurity into which the films have fallen vs. the ubuquity of the Warhol paintings and graphics in our museums and media? Basically, it comes down to money. Museums, collectors, and dealers have enormous sums invested in the Warhol bubble. Such bubbles have been punctured in the past though, witness the fate of such French academic painters as Bonnat, Cabanel, and Meissonnier, who once bestrode the art market like colossi. Few remember their names today.

Actually, now that I think about it, I believe that Marcel Duchamp is overrated also. (More groans, especially from my artist friends.) But that view would have to be the subject of a separate posting.


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