Criticism of the visual arts has always figured prominently in the pages of The New Criterion. Not only have we reviewed the latest museum and gallery exhibitions, but we have also regularly stepped back to register and comment on the vital signs of that hydra-headed beast, “the art world.” It was only ten years ago, however, that we began devoting a large portion of our December issue to the visual arts (just as we’ve also been devoting a large portion of our April issue to matters poetical). We’ve found the exercise illuminating, not least because the concentration of diverse perspectives and subjects always seems to yield various unplanned synergies and continuities. What begins as a series of discrete essays turns out to be a kind of impromptu conversation, or a series of conversations. The whole, in any event, always seems larger than the sum of its parts.
This year’s offerings, assembled by our Managing Editor, James Panero, is a case in point. The essays are nothing if not wide-ranging, from Karen Wilkin’s delicate anatomy of an exhibition by the abstract colorist Joseph Marioni at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., to a thoughtful overview of the evolution of portraiture in early modern Europe by Marco Grassi. Wilkin’s essay is a scrupulous exercise in modernist tonality, while Grassi turns back to the humanist tradition of Franciscan theology in the metabolism of Renaissance portraiture, highlighting the “profound effect that Francis’s life, ministry, and writings had on the culture of pre-modern Europe: for the first time since Saint Paul and the early church, a man’s intimately personal relationship to God and the world He created became, once again, the central theme of the Christian faith.”
We tend to think of Mannerism as a sixteenth-century phenomenon, but Patrick Monahan, a new contributor, shows how the work of John Currin and other contemporary artists is rightly understood as a species of Mannerism. “Contemporary maniera,” he writes, “has succeeded in stylizing, codifying, and artfully packaging even the idea of rebellion: movers and shakers of the 1960s once staged protests for Civil Rights, whereas their successors today wear rubber-band bracelets and run marathons. . . . With unprecedented technological and emotional means, how far from the source and our own humanity will contemporary life allow us to stray?”
Probably about as far as the market will bear. Jane Kallir, another new contributor, offers some trenchant observations about the contemporary art market and its discontents. “In all sectors of the economy,” she observes, power players try to game the system for quick returns. The art world has likewise been influenced by a gambler’s mentality. Small galleries act as unwitting incubators for mega-dealers such as Larry Gagosian, who poach promising artists and then raise their prices exponentially almost overnight.” We’ve all seen it happen. But Kallir has some consoling news: “In the short run, markets can be manipulated, but it is impossible to predict whether a given art purchase will really be a good long-term investment. All that can be known is whether the price is in line with today’s market, given the relative importance, rarity, and condition of the work in question. Crucially, however, the collections that appreciated most in the past were not formed with investment in mind. Passionate engagement with the art is the key prerequisite for cultivating the aesthetic discernment and knowledge necessary to make wise choices.”
According to Michael J. Lewis, there was plenty of aesthetic discernment and knowledge at work in the Met’s superb new galleries devoted to Islamic art—he speaks of an “installation of ravishing beauty and quite extraordinary scholarship”—but there was also not a little political pusillanimity. When it came to reinstalling its Greek and Roman art, the Met saw no need to rename its “Greek and Roman Galleries.” Ditto with respect to the rehanging of its galleries devoted to American art. But when it comes to Islamic art, we get this mouthful: “Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.” What’s in a name? Plenty. The Islamic tradition, as Lewis points, is the “only great artistic tradition with a potent strand of iconoclasm, expressed most recently in 2001 when the celebrated Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan were destroyed by Taliban decree.” The destruction doesn’t stop there. “The fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses (1989),” Lewis notes, was the first sign of Islam’s attempt to get the West to play by Islamic rules, and the “subsequent stabbings of his translators in Japan (fatal) and Italy showed that the threat was most real. Rather than court such violence, American cultural institutions have chosen to cringe high-mindedly when dealing with Islam, as Yale University did when it censored a scholarly book about the Danish cartoons that sparked murderous riots, removing those cartoons from the book.” And as the Met, sadly, did in refusing to call its galleries of Islamic art “Galleries of Islamic Art,” resorting instead to circumlocutionary euphemism as a means to avoid attracting Islamic censure.
Cultural politics of a different sort forms the subject of James Panero’s reflection on the museum version of the Occupy [fill-in-the-blank] protests. As of this writing, the “protestors”—if that’s the appropriate designation for this crop of spoiled children—have had their fifteen minutes of notoriety “occupying” moma. Panero reminds us of the extent to which this insinuation of politics into art has its origin in the French avant-garde, in particular the adolescent grandstanding of Gustave Courbet, who let himself become a tool of the Paris Commune.
We believe this is a memorable and engaging clutch of essays, and we are particularly delighted to round it out with an interview between David Yezzi, our Executive Editor, and Jacob Collins, one of the most talented, and one of the most accomplished, Realist painters of—we were going to say “of his generation,” but that is far too modest: Jacob Collins is one of the most accomplished Realist painters in many generations. The great-nephew of the critic Meyer Schapiro, Collins is as articulate and at home in the world of ideas as he is in the world of paint and pencil. His reflections on modernism, and on the divergent vocation of illustration, on the one hand, and the Realist tradition he seeks to resuscitate, on the other, are among the highlights of what we hope you will agree is a tonic collection of reflections on art.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 4, on page 1
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