How art-world institutions have corrupted the terms of the art encounter, for Tablet
Thanks for the excellent article, I really appreciate your wisdom and bravery, and very much enjoy your work--even if after I read it I'm filled with rage and need to reach for the Ativan. ;)
When I try to make sense of what's happened to the humanities in the last generation or so, and the obvious full-on assault on the imagination and esthetic values, I think of it as a palace coup orchestrated and conducted by eunuchs in a harem.
I was a Lit major at a private liberal arts college in the 80s so I got to witness the birth of this malignancy up close, and I'll never forget when it dawned on me that the new dogma was just basically Leninist/Maoist ideology refashioned with French jargon and a heavy dose of White guilt.
So when I read some academic hack back then stating the party line as "works that have attained the status of classic, and are therefore believed to embody universal values, are in fact embodying only the interests of whatever parties or factions are responsible for maintaining them in their preeminent position,” (and they told me this is why I loved Shakespeare and Tolstoy!) it not only rhymed with Lenin/Mao, but was more or less the same ideology in new clothes. ("All literature and art belong to definite classes and are geared towards definite political lines." etc spoke the Chairman.)
But if you had told me back then that these people--the most miserable dogmatic conformists who seemed incapable of experiencing beauty or joy and who could turn Mardi Gras into a funeral--would one day rule our entire culture, I would have never believed you. But I guess a committed band of ruthless fanatics usually get their way, as they always want it more, know how to grind down their opponents, and are unencumbered by any sort of negative capability.
I don't know what else to say except that it looks like anyone with an interest in art and literature instead of the moralistic dogma of the White-guilt industrial complex will have to go full samizdat. That's why we're here on Substack with so many interesting writers and thinkers, why so many good books now are by indie presses, and soon I bet the best plays will be performed in basements and attics etc...if the Puritans or the Soviets couldn't kill off free thought and free expression, neither will their sour dour grandchildren, the Woke.
Thanks again for keeping the flame alive!
After reading your piece I looked up the NYT review of 'Carpeaux Recast' and was not surprised to find it closed by saying of the exhibition and the Met that this was "...a template that could have far-reaching applications for a critical rethinking of its permanent collection displays."
And I suppose it's true, ha, there has been so much suffering through the ages, why should museum labels not itemize it all? Start with colonialism and the slave trade, sure, but also, when we look at a Rembrandt drawing, forget about Rembrandt, let's hear about the nasty and short lives of rag collectors and the drudgery of paper making. For sculpture, what was the daily wage in an Italian marble quarry in the sixteenth century, and how much food and shelter did it buy? And then there was ultramarine, so prized by Renaissance and Baroque painters. It was made from Afghan lapis lazuli, but how much of the money Philip II paid Titian for the Poesie ended up in the hands of Afghan miners? Is it time for the Prado to pay reparations to the Taliban?
This piece is excellent and I'm glad that Tablet saw fit to publish it. Congratulations.
Projects of inclusion in the arts bureaucracies boil down to this: to expand the availability of art from the relatively few people who can see to the relatively many people who can read. The result is this ersatz appreciation that you worded so well: “I understand her paintings; his installations; her sculptures. I have studied their relevance. Their message is clear to me.” That this is not why feeling people put themselves in front of art is lost on them, and the museums don't particularly care why entrants are buying admission tickets.
Making art safe for the readers has coupled with a more recent project to make art, past and present, serve as soft power for the regimes of postliberal progressivism which control the cultural institutions. That manifests as interpretive hostility to the art of Europe so acute that even an avowed abolitionist like Carpeaux can't catch a break. The overanalysis would be bad enough in itself. But on top of it, it's deliberately nasty.
Disregarding the corrupted experts, as you suggest, is a great start. But beyond that, the people who see (that is, the people who feel) art need to form their own networks away from the readers, and clear of the institutions. That is a difficult undertaking in 2022, but the difficulty is the price of being part of the counterculture.
Thank you for this timely article which articulates what has bemused me and my art-loving daughters over the past few years. The irony of this exercise in rank PC bullshitism (if I may call it that) is strong at The Brooklyn Museum, where part of the fun we recently had was in pointing out to each other the "best" of the terribly uninformed, reductionist, and joy-ripping ubiquitous commentaries. Naturally the "framing' of the Warhol show involved lots of invented absurdities (and straw-grasping baloney) but the posted verbiage to the Monet to Morisot show took the cake. Someone should capture this stuff for a book, it's that crazy.
As you enter they tell you that this is an assemblage of WHITE artists' PRIVILEGED views of an exclusively WHITE COLONIALIST EUROPE (be these views real or embellished / fantasized) created for a WHITE bourgeois / privileged audience. Why not just call it reprehensible white toilet paper and be done with it? Trigger alerts about racism, colonialism, male-centric hegemony and other such invented academic farcery abounded when we attempted to revisit some of the (otherwise delightful) permanent collection. It did afford us some belly laughs though. Who is all this for? Those of us who LIKE art are made to feel bad (no matter what our non-privileged incomes happen to be).
This to me is sad because anyone (regardless of color, creed, gender - invented or "assigned" or biological) can enjoy art (and be moved by it). Un-welcoming people by telling them they'll be looking at offensive insulting worthless dross is not a way to engage them! Seriously, why would people enter a gallery with more warnings than you'd find at a hardhat construction site (duck! falling beams, avoid the broken glass, nails ,etc).
What we also notice is that all the museums (Brooklyn included and don't get us started about the Whitney Biennial) are actively "uplifting" and promoting FART (my kids call it this--Fake Art). Does nobody notice? Poorly executed garbage with the "right" message or the "right" artists of the "right" intersectionality (the more identity labels the merrier) --it's all quite jaw-dropping. That show (the Biennial) was so horrible (we've seen better work at garage sales and on the sidewalk at St. Mark's place...) that we were glad to escape to their terrific permanent collection, a haven of near-empty galleries with "real" art making the treck (for us) worthwhile. Such times--will sanity return? Thank you again for speaking out about the current regrettable situation at museums (and galleries) -- some of us see this all too clearly.
An excellent read, Alice. You should record a podcast episode with Wesley Yang, since your commentary fits within his Successor Ideology framework.
Call it serendipity. On May 26 I was visiting the exhibition organized by the Met on the work of Winslow Homer and, reading the explanations provided, I was stricken by the same reflections you express in your essay. For example, I was instructed that a wonderful watercolor of a white wall crowned by bougainvillea in the Bahamas revealed (if I remember well) the willingness to suppress black people from the reality of the islands. The fact that a black girl was also painted in front of the wall did not modify this terminal statement. I left dazzled by Homer's paintings and puzzled by the way they were demeaned by the curators.
Hello from Victoria, Canada, where we are in the midst of tearing down an entire Museum without any public consultation whatsoever. Your article is brilliant, echoing a life long engagement and even marriage to, Art. Question: the word Woke is not in this piece; is that deliberate? Found you via Tablet. Looking forward to reading ALL of you...
Very good. It goes far beyond the institutions of the art world, though. See my post Classics and the Public Sphere:
spot on, obviously, but one must never forget the importance of public money:
Fantastic! Also looking forward to the companion essay. You must have an inside track to the museum community. Everything you have written is spot on having worked in this industry for over 20 years.
Lovely, thank-you. And you've drawn the kind of people in your comments who are worth reading, as well. Will have to find your other stuff. I suppose it's been thirty years since I've had a good look at a Hogarth. Lots of fun, those. As a white degenerate I'm in a good position to recognize when everyone's having a good time. I was teaching Derrida at Princeton in the nineties, but even then things were too much like church: we couldn't say this and that and that, endless lists of taboos. I just kind of walked off in the middle of it all. Not retiring, just going off, leaving my handlers standing around staring like so many Munch's Screams at the hole where my fabulous career ought to have been manifesting. I became a street person, starting a fight club that lasted for seven years. Had many adventures, disappearing from the ken of the civilized of the world. Funny thing is I've returned, and things are even more straight-laced. I publish my novels through a brown trans friend of mine, and I appear as my blanched, pallid self only when I do stand-up comedy. Seriously.
May we reprint this www.newartexaminer.net ?
"the feeling of knowingness"...see Aerodynamics, Art History, and the Assignment of Names:
RIP Joyce Cary's Gulley Jimson.