Although The New Criterion has never before published a special art section, there is a sense in which we like to think that every issue has contained one. From our first number, in September 1982, we have consistently devoted a great deal of attention to the visual arts, both to the contemporary art scene and to historical exhibitions.
From the beginning, what we have tried to offer is not simply coverage but criticism. By “criticism” we mean “discrimination,” that is, informed judgments of value. The word “discrimination” has had a hard time of it in our culture lately. This is partly, of course, because of its use in the phrase “racial discrimination.” By a process of linguistic seepage, heavily abetted by laziness, “discrimination” became associated with bigotry. In fact, honest discrimination is a powerful antidote to bigotry, since it subjects unconsidered judgments to the illuminations of scrutiny. It is also worth noting that discrimination is not the same thing as hostility—though it is in the nature of things that a discriminating assessment of the contemporary art world will also be, in large part, a negative assessment. How could it fail to be? For what we are talking about is a world in which chicanery, ideological grandstanding, and cynical commercialism are rampant. It says a lot about our times that, in many circles, to mention this is to be guilty of dubious taste. Though hardly creditable, this feeling is perfectly understandable. Once begun, the task of pointing out naked emperors is difficult to contain. Telling the truth is habit-forming. Who knows where it will stop?
We at The New Criterion have tried to help make sure that it will not stop. The last few decades have been a time of explosive activity in the art world. Whether they have also been a time of significant artistic achievement is another question. In the 1980s and 1990s, almost every established museum expanded, new museums and art galleries sprang up everywhere, the art market became a frenetic bourse, and more and more people were doing more and different things and calling them art. The effervescence has been exhilarating and bewildering by turns. Often, of course, it has been simply depressing. Mies van der Rohe may have overstated the case when he observed that “less is more.” Nevertheless, one of the chief lessons of recent cultural history is that, when it comes to art, “more” is often “less”: less accomplishment, less integrity, less allegiance to the aesthetic core that animates vital artistic activity.
We have tried to bear these home truths in mind as we set about the task of criticism —the task, that is to say, of discriminating between better and worse, success and failure. Readers who look back over our coverage of the visual arts may be surprised at how much praise our writers have bestowed on artists and exhibitions over the years. Often, to be sure, the praise has been reserved for figures and institutions that have received short or no shrift by the cheerleaders of the cultural establishment. What we have tried to promote is aesthetic achievement, not pseudo-avant-garde gestures.
The current issue offers a concentrated dose of critical thinking about art. The ten meditations on art in this issue provide a series of snapshots of the contemporary art world, which involves not simply the contemporary practice but also the contemporary exhibition and delectation of art, past as well as present. The essays touch on everything from the drawings of Pieter Bruegel to the Chelsea art scene in New York, from the achievements of the nineteenth-century American master Thomas Eakins to the legacy of Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the Museum of Modern Art’s founding director. This issue also contains “A Malign Legacy,” the fourth installment of our year-long series “The Survival of Culture.” Written by the English historian and novelist David Pryce-Jones, this essay traces the circuitous trajectory of political tyranny over the last fifty years. Political life is not the same as the life of art. Indeed, that fact is something The New Criterion has often insisted upon. Nevertheless, Mr. Pryce-Jones’s eloquent essay, taken together with these meditations on art, reminds us that both require vigilant discrimination if they are to be seen aright—and if the survival of culture is to be more than a fond hope.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 4, on page 1
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