For two decades, The New Criterion has dedicated a large portion of its December issue to the visual arts. We do this, as we devote much of our April issue to poetry, for a couple of reasons. In the first place, putting together these special sections gives us an opportunity to reaffirm one of the magazine’s primary aims, which is to provide a historically aware and critically sensitive inquiry into our cultural inheritance, not as an academic or antiquarian enterprise, but with full acknowledgment of the pressure of contemporary taste and the pulse of lived experience.
A second primary reason we publish these special sections involves our often polemical interactions with those contemporary imperatives. T. S. Eliot was right, we believe, when he observed that the most difficult, and also the most rewarding, part of criticism is discerning what is both genuinely new and artistically vital. “The rudiment of criticism,” he noted in his Norton Lectures of 1932–33, “ is the ability to select a good poem [painting, dance, concerto, etc.] and reject a bad poem; and its most severe test is of its ability to select a good new poem, to respond properly to a new situation.” That requires both what Eliot elsewhere calls “the historical sense”—a perception “not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence”—as well as a sort of tuning-fork sensitivity for quality, which by nature involves a positive as well as a negative talent: appreciation of what is good and a nose for what is meretricious.
This process has what we might call an existential as well as an aesthetic component. That is to say, the fundamental act of criticism—from a Greek verb meaning “to discriminate,” “to pass judgment”—involves conjuring not just with formal qualities available to our perception but also with the ambient human significances of those qualities, the “mark” they make upon our consciousness and emotions. This is what elevates art and criticism from a purely aesthetic endeavor to, taking the word in its largest significance, a moral enterprise. Ultimately what we talk about when we talk about art is, as Socrates put it to Glaucon in The Republic, the “right conduct of life.” We suppose this was part of what Dostoevsky meant when he said, in The Brothers Karamazov, that “beauty is the battlefield where God and the devil war for the soul of man.”
Among other things, this deployment of the critical spirit acts as a bastion against the engulfing rust of presentism, that voracious temporal despotism whose chief liability is always to lure us into a hall of distorting mirrors in which tiny objects loom large while those of greater importance vanish in a consuming distance.
Month in and month out, The New Criterion offers a refuge from that carnival of fatuous if often angry superficiality. With the eight features on art in this issue, we have assembled an especially capacious and wide-ranging alternative to the sterile twitterings of the woke establishment. Eric Gibson’s analysis (we almost said “handling”) of the multiple significances of the Virgin Mary’s left hand in Michelangelo’s Pietà (1498–99) opens up new vistas of meaning in that familiar Renaissance masterpiece and its complex maker. “When it is discussed,” Gibson writes, “the outswung arm and open hand are said to betoken two things: [Mary’s] final acceptance of God’s will in the sacrifice of her son, and the artist’s desire, through Mary’s simultaneous act of revelation, to include the viewer in the implied narrative of Christ’s Passion and maternal grief.” Gibson goes on to argue that a fuller consideration of the sculpture shows that, in fact, “Mary’s left hand tells us not two things, but five.” Read the essay to discover the other three.
Marco Grassi sets the burgeoning practice of computer-generated “art” in the long tradition of acheiropoieta, images made without the intervention of the human hand (χείρ). The Shroud of Turin belongs here, as—Grassi slyly argues—do the more recent works of Jackson Pollock and Jeff Koons. We seem now to be on the threshold of “the inevitable next step: art created entirely by a machine, from concept to execution.” Whether this innovation is a passing novelty or the prolegomenon to the ultimate “de-humanization” of art is anyone’s guess. The fact that objects planned and executed entirely by artificial intelligence have found a lucrative place in the art market must give us pause. Grassi describes one such “portrait,” a “smeared, out-of-focus image” untroubled by any hint of humanity and devised by algorithm, that fetched more than $400,000 at auction in 2018. Is this to be art’s new medium? If so, Grassi writes, “it would portend a murky and doleful future far more wretched than the one imagined by Orwell.”
How different is the reality described by Michael J. Lewis in his reflection on the architect Stanford White—not his magnificent buildings, but the myriad objects he designed to ornament and enliven those buildings, the doorknobs, hinges, windows, and ceiling and bannister treatments. Lewis’s subject is Stanford White in Detail, a new book of photographs with text by White’s great-grandson, himself an architect, which shows how America’s greatest architect was as much a master of “surfaces, edges, and junctions” as he was of stately elevation and volumetric proportion. “Seen in this way,” Lewis notes, “White’s work shows a breathtaking continuity. Even his classical details show the same absolute control over texture.”
Anthony Alofsin discusses the fraught life and afterlife of Frank Lloyd Wright’s unrealized designs for the wealthy Chicago businessman Harold McCormick. The first was a “grand, unbuilt estate” for McCormick and his first wife, destined for a spot on the edge of Lake Michigan in the early years of the last century. That came to nothing—Edith McCormick, the fourth daughter of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., dismissed it as “very nice for the mountains, but hardly the thing for Lake Forest.” The second, in 1929–30, was for a suite of rental apartments overlooking Hollywood for McCormick’s current love interest, Betty Noble. But Wright once again overshot the mark, producing a modernist design whose cost would greatly exceed his client’s budget and whose chaste elegance was inappropriate for a rental property. The design had a checkered career in promoting Wright’s reputation and even provided the seed for a house Wright was commissioned to build for Ayn Rand, the author of The Fountainhead, whose hero, Howard Roark, was said to be modeled on Wright. Alas, that project, too, foundered after Rand paid a visit to Wright’s studio and was “appalled at the servitude” of his assistants.
What a different world we enter with Karen Wilkin’s sympathetic, but by no means uncritical, review of an exhibition of life drawings by the venerable English artist David Hockney at the Morgan Library in New York. Wilkin expertly traces the visual continuities within the evolution of Hockney’s drawings over the course of seven decades. (The earliest drawings in the show are a few self-portraits done in 1954, when Hockney was only seventeen.) “The passage of time,” Wilkin writes, “and its visible effects are the insistent subtext of ‘Drawing from Life.’ ” Nevertheless, Wilkin finds the majority of Hockney’s works on view to be “subtle, deeply felt, and oddly timeless.” Not a contradiction, but a reminder of how the timeless pitches its tent within time.
Which brings us to the three essays by our editors. Andrew L. Shea, who is himself a painter, has a fine reflection on the essential privacy that inhabits the moody and enigmatic work of the American artist Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847–1917). Shea is right that Ryder straddles the seemingly diverse current of Romanticism and Modernism while ultimately transcending any neat category. Benjamin Riley offers a companionable conversation with the architectural historian Clive Aslet and the photographer Dylan Thomas about Old Homes, New Life, their new book about a dozen British country houses. James Panero, our Executive Editor and the genius loci of this issue, revisits the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the occasion of its sesquicentennial exhibition, “Making The Met, 1870–2020.”
As Panero reminds us, the modern Metropolitan Museum is a bit like the opening oppositions of A Tale of Two Cities—the best of times and the worst of times—or the discrepancy between the noble Dr. Jekyll and his grotesque avatar Mr. Hyde. Under the thirty-year tenure of Philippe de Montebello, who retired in 2008, the Met was a beacon of sanity and dedication to the highest artistic standards. Recent years have not been so kind to the Met, or to the art world it influences. In our September issue, we dilated on “the union of racialist hysteria and obeisance to the dictates of ‘woke’ identity politics [that] has plunged the art world, and, by extension, the world of culture generally, into a destructive purity spiral.”
For the politically correct mob, there is no “beyond” the political upheaval of the moment—everything is subject to politics.
As Gavin Haynes, who coined the term “purity spiral,” noted, such spirals involve a process of “moral outbidding . . . which corrodes the group from within, rewarding those who put themselves at the extremes, and punishing nuance and divergence relentlessly.” Insinuated into the art world, the destructive imperatives of politically correct “purity spirals” wreak havoc, undermining the essential metabolism of art as surely as they destroy the necessary presuppositions of scholarly endeavor or even effective pedagogy in the academy. Already by September, this anti-civilizational impulse was in full flower at the Met. Keith Christiansen, perhaps the single most distinguished curator at the Met, found himself besieged by the “woke” mob after he posted a drawing of Alexandre Lenoir, a French archaeologist who devoted himself to saving monuments from the all-consuming maw of the French Revolution. “How many great works of art have been lost to the desire to rid ourselves of a past of which we don’t approve?” Christiansen asked, “And how grateful we are to people like Lenoir who realized that their value—both artistic and historical—extended beyond a defining moment of social and political upheaval and change.”
For the politically correct mob, there is no “beyond” the political upheaval of the moment—everything is subject to politics. Christiansen soon found himself the object of its ire. The Met’s director, Max Hollein, threw Christiansen to the wolves (the curator’s retirement was announced this fall) and publicly bemoaned the Met’s supposed tainted involvement with the doctrine of “white supremacy.” Panero brings this sorry story up to date and shows how this noxious practice of anti-civilization blackmail has infected museums across the country, from California to Washington, D.C. As Panero notes, the modern Met was one hundred and fifty years in the making. Its unmaking may take but a season or two.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 4, on page 1
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