Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Curmudgeon corner again

One of the scholars I most admire is Marc Fumaroli. I have read most of his twenty or so books, and always order a new one when it is published in France. Fumaroli was born in Marseille in 1932. A historian and essayist, he was elected to the Académie française in 1995 and became its Director. He held the Chair of Rhetoric and Society in Europe (sixteenth and seventeenth century) from 1986 to 2002 at the Collège de France, where he is now an emeritus professor. In 2001 he received the prestigious Balzan Prize, the "Nobel" of the humanities. His principal accomplishment is his revival of the classical theory of rhetoric, which has deeply influenced the visual arts as well as literature.

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.



Blogger Burk said...

Hi, Wayne-

And how is "composition", or even skill in general, not subjective? To me as a total novice, Reni's compositions look no more absurd than those of Rubens. I am sure you could adduce reasons for preferring one, but I doubt they would be "objective".

As for skill, tremendous amounts of skill are deployed in any number of mundane tasks- plumbing, aircraft engine construction, rhythmic gymnastics .. what makes some skill artistic, and other skills utilitarian, or obsessive, or pointless? It seems that it would all come back to the eye of the beholder. If that eye seeks naive pleasures, then a velvet Elvis might do. If it has been "trained" in art appreciation in all its conceptual byways, then some feces on the wall might be just the ticket.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

I have no objection to faeces as a pigment, providing that it is appropriately used. Such was the case, I believe, with a work by Chris Ofili, an excellent young British artist of Nigerian descent.

One of his paintings, the icon-like Holy Virgin Mary, was at issue in a dispute between the mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art when it was exhibited there in 1999 as a part of the "Sensation" exhibit. The painting depicted a black African Mary surrounded by images from blaxploitation movies and close-ups of female genitalia cut from pornographic magazines, and elephant dung. These elements assumed shapes reminiscent of the cherubim and seraphim commonly included in images of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary. I have examined the canvas, and find it beautiful. The materials have nothing to do with this assessment; it is Ofili's brilliance in deploying them that is the decisive element. In no way is the work sacrilegious. I believe that any objective observer would come to the same conclusion.

Nonetheless, following the scandal surrounding this painting, Bernard Goldberg absurdly ranked Ofili #86 in 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America. I suppose Ofili cried all the way to the bank. But he has continued to produce fine works.

Works that occasion scandal are not prima facie good or bad. We must use our judgment.

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