return to homepage
Return to letters part 1
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
To the Editor, Austin Chronicle, 1994:
Last thursday was the now annual AIDS "Day Without Art." This joining of forces of AIDS activism and Art leads a thinking person to wonder what exactly is the vital connection between the two. What exactly does Art have to do with curing diseases? Apparently Art has lost so much of its original agenda (has become unemployed, as it were, having no calendar or rolodex of its own to keep itself occupied) that it is now free to loan its exhausted prestige, its once good name, to any cause whatever, no matter how distant or unrelated. As far as causes go, the eradication of AIDS is a good one, but why is Art the hostage in this particular battle? Why not a day without Science or a day without Politics or a day without TV? Or even more apropos, a day without Sex? We could all wear little black codpieces for a day and refrain, as a nation, from touching eachother.
One suspects that Art is a hostage because it is a willing one, a flat-footed, ill-aiming soldier we can easily do without. It is the martyr with nothing to lose, the old drunk with no self-respect left, the pimple-faced urchin ready to run through enemy lines with a message from the top brass. A day without Science or TV would be death to us all; but a day without Art? Since when have any of us had a day with Art? Most of us, I daresay, are grateful to have this daily assault upon our eyes by what passes for art covered for 24 hours with black sheets and hefty bags, the hefty bags having a more subtle aesthetic effect, and we only ask that the draping be permanent. Where is the gallery or bank or restaurant where there is any art we would miss? These curators and eatery owners are putting on false airs to believe that we feel any pangs of loss, that this clumsy daubing, this color-field chicanery, this paint spilling and iron mongery is art, and therefore missable.
Those establishments with no free-standing or -hanging objets have, to be a part of the scene, covered their painted logos or arty signage. Where will it stop? Should we drape our cereal boxes and cover the screen saver? A day without Art in a decade or a century without Art loses much of its impact.
The truth is that Art has nothing to do with AIDS or any other activism, worthy or not; and until Art regains its own agenda, which is as little worldly as possible, it will continue to be the slut of each passing cause celebre, and will be only as missable as the pimp that promotes himself through it.
Austin Chronicle, December 16, 1994
I'm disappointed. I expected a more serious opposition. Did everyone but Hank Schwemmer understand that my first letter addressed not homosexuality or AIDS activism but the politicization of Art? Did everyone else agree with me about the tabetic state of Art, as a category, and the fault of politics, the use of Art as a tool, in this degeneration? I don't think so. From recent conversations on this theme I conclude that Hank's brilliant argument speaks for most: anyone not in lock-step with every decision of the activist leaders must be a homophobic rube, unable to understand the complexities of modern life.
I shouldn't have to spell things out, but for the sake of Hank—whose sub-collegiate polemics mistake personal attacks, based on absolutely nothing, for witty rebuttals—I will. First of all, I know the history of AIDS activism; I recognize what we are trying to do. I, too, have had friends die of AIDS, and I am not insensitive to the suffering, nor am I ignorant of the government's soulless inaction in the face of this tragedy. But, as an artist, I feel that throwing Art on the funeral pyre is a grievous error. There has been enough destruction already.
For we are not talking only about individual artists devoting time and energy to a cause they believe in—which is obviously a good thing. We are talking about an International Day without Art. Art, as a category, being used as a political tool. It is in this way that AIDS activism becomes part of an historical problem, a problem that has developed chronic or mortal symptoms only in this century: the co-option of Art by non-artists for every conceivable purpose—advertising, propaganda, therapy, among many others—has all but overwritten Art's original definition. In the mad rush to sell and convince and console we have forgotten that Art, when it really touches us, is never so worldly. There was a time when the artist was not a decorator or a salesman or an activist but, at his or her best, a sort of seer—someone who uncovered the beauty or depth or sublimity or relatedness most of us could not easily see. It almost goes without saying (it should go without saying) that this ability of the artist required not only an eye but also a craft through which to express these subtleties.
Now, though, that Art is Politics, is activism, now that being the big-hearted supporter of a worthy cause is enough to capture the title "artist," no matter how inexpressive the work may be, craft has been thrown out with the bathwater, taking with it beauty, depth, and sublimity, and the baby we are left with is the anemic little crying brat politics.
I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that I drew no angry replies from the post-modern crowd, from the "artists." It only proves my point: art for the sake of art is dead, and anyone who takes Art and art history seriously enough to defend them is now so outre as to be incomprehensible.
Austin Chronicle, January, 1997:
In response to Jimmy Jalapeeno's letter: In keeping with that time-honored tactic of the "avant garde" of labeling anyone who disagrees with it a Nazi, a Fascist, or, the neo-equivalent, a Republican, Jalapeeno insists that this whole aesthetic hubbub is just cover for some reactionary politics—for, as he says explicitly, getting Max and Brigid [liberals] off the Council. I don't think so, although it would be so much simpler if it were. There may be a few, hidden in holes throughout the city, who will use any means to any end, but the majority of those who agree with Michael Barnes about the lack of artistic content in Mr. Priour's work [found-art collected by the homeless] do so with no hidden agenda. Those of us who think that art should do more than mirror current social issues are not the ones who have politicized this debate. Mr. Priour did that when he chose the homeless as a concept for his latest concept piece. If he wanted his work to be judged, or talked about around town, on its aesthetic merits, why did he design a work the appreciation of which hinges on a knowledge of how the "found objects" were found?
Those who see this argument as an attack on the homeless or on Mr. Priour's integrity also miss the point. If we want to spend money on social services, and we should, let us do it in the most effective way possible. But let's not dress it up and call it art. If Mr. Priour wants to help the homeless and to be expressive in any way he sees fit, that is his right. But maybe the public is tired of found objects, propagandized art, and criticism posing as painting and sculpture, and maybe it has every right to be. Art is defined, in part, as creativity; but it takes very little creativity to find an object—even less to pay someone to find it for you. People know this.
The "found object" was invented, or at least perfected, in 1916 by Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists, self-styled anti-artists par excellence. Mr. Priour may not see himself as an anti-artist; but he and the City, whether they mean to or not, are devaluing artistic skill just as Duchamp did. By equating finding an object with creating it, by confusing a common ability with an uncommon one, they are blurring the distinction between art and non-art. Duchamp could no longer live, as he admitted, in a Europe still inhabited by the ghosts of Michelangelo and Leonardo; and, not having the existential "courage" for suicide, he decided to kill them instead. By elevating a found commode to the level of the Sistine Chapel, by calling it art, Duchamp brought Michelangelo down to his own level, thereby freeing the non-talented "artist" from the oppression of the talented.
Modernism nearly achieved this historical murder in the 50's and 60's, but it takes more than a mustache unctuously drawn on the Mona Lisa to convince most people that found art from defectives like Duchamp is more important than great painting and sculpture. The critics, likewise defective, bought it~have bought (or sold) subsequent theories equally destructive and ridiculous—but those of us not in some 12-step program for Sour Grapes Sufferers have never been convinced.
Many may wonder if there is any art, or any hope of it, left. And if there is not, many feel a genuine loss—a loss of a deeper and more permanent aspect than that of losing the next election or being turned down for funding. We remember that there used to be an art of great power and beauty, created by skilled craftspeople whose goal was not to convince but to elevate. These artists gave our lives meaning, not as blacks, or as women, or as homosexuals, or as the homeless, but as humans. Michelangelo's David, for instance, is not an exclusive art for Jews, or for white males, or for marble carving aficionados; it is great art because David, with great power and beauty, is human; I am human; it gives me hope. But what artists aspire to such anymore?
We continue to deflate beauty, craft, grace, subtlety, depth and every other artistic virtue as being anti-democratic, un-egalitarian, or otherwise regressive (without explaining how it is undemocratic to hope we all might be equally graceful rather than equally graceless), and then complain that we have nothing extraordinary to decorate our Convention Center with. And we complain that we could find no architects that could build a Center with any of these qualities. What has been lost in all of this squabbling about Modern art, of the sort that the Austin Arts Council prefers, is that real art, of the sort I am talking about, would not be less controversial, but more. Given the current political climate, Michelangelo himself could offer us a work to draw all the tourists in the world, and we would have to send him away because one little old lady was offended by its nudity, or a preacher or two feared it might be homoerotic, or because our teenage daughters might spend a little too much time at the Convention Center.
No, this argument runs far deeper than local politics. I will continue to support Max and Brigid, and to oppose Bruce and Ronnie [business uber alles], no matter how they vote on this issue. But we all need to ask ourselves what we want from art. If we still have a need for art with the qualities I enumerated, and I think we do, then we have to stop treating those who have and can share these qualities as elitist lepers, contradicting our "right" to be equal. We must stop judging every action on its material outcome, crowbarring our artistically-talented into advertising or computer graphics or interior decoration, where there is a ready market. If we want great art we must make a place for it. In a society where every decision is based on political and economic expediency, where we are all sexually and spiritually repressed, where all knowledge is considered pedantry and all high seriousness pretense, where stating the obvious is controversial and believing in truth is presumptuous (and, frankly, passe), there is no place for art. Unless we wake up from our historical stupor, I fear that the avant garde is right in this at least: the cure is likely to be just as repulsive as the disease, and the new publicly-approved "realism" we are likely to have replacing the Modern experiments will consist of a an allegory representing the marriage of business and government, a portrait of William Cunningham and Jim Bob Moffett shaking hands, or a mural of Phil Gramm crossing the Rubicon.
Austin American-Statesman 1998.
Contra Christopher Schade's Art Review, Nov. 1: The psychological transparency of this attempt at critique should be an embarassment to its author, conversant as he no doubt is with all the terms of analysis and deconstruction of postmodernism and its pseudo-literary adjuncts. His application of avant garde criteria to admittedly decorative work begs the question of his agenda, and his choice of examples and quotations only makes him look foolish. His quote about "fighting your own taste" is from a curator. Not an artist, mind you, but an administrator of art. It is understandable why a critic would listen to a curator, but not why an artist would, unless he or she was "trying to please others." The absurdity of a curator lecturing artists would have been clear to Cezanne or Monet, but is apparently lost on the brave souls trekking from Soho to MOMA, to see what sort of courage is due this week. Does anyone really believe that Cezanne or Monet or Picasso spent one second fighting his own taste? This is just another example of critical propaganda intended to solidify a NYC inner circle's ability to define art, and thereby the art market.
Most of the great artwork of history does not "trigger ideas or issues about art." It was not intended to. No one, from Michelangelo to van Gogh, would have found analyzing art more interesting than creating it, because they could create it. Nor was Michelangelo shy about "quoting" the Greeks, or van Gogh about borrowing technique where he could find it, from Millet or Mauve or Bernard.
None of the painters reviewed by Mr. Schade rival the greatest in history, but I was not aware that they claimed to. This article says much more about the author's peculiar cathexis, however diverted, that has led him (mit sturm und schadenfreude) to the postmodern milieu, where painters cannot paint and writers, apparently, cannot write.
Austin American-Statesman, 1998
Christopher Schade opens his review of Re-Aligning Visions, the current exhibition at the Huntington, by proclaiming it "the most compelling... since the Vogel collection... a month ago." Wow, Chris. Really, has it been that long? And how did we get through the inspirational void of those three off-weeks?
Once again, though, I must demur. The comparison to the Vogel exhibit is apt, but not for its ambition or afflatus. Possibly the only way the Vogel exhibit's nullity could be out-nulled is by the cryospheric depths of the supercooled Visions. A "drawing" in thumbtacks; the word Rodin rubberstamped on a fluff of cotton in a box; and everywhere, gratuitously framed squiggles. All in all, a criminal waste of art supplies and an insult to treehood. I suppose I could have read the blurbs to see what all of this was meant to mean, but there is nothing in the realm of possibilities that could make a rubberstamped fluff of cotton interesting to me. I have seen enough of these mini-apologies to write them myself, anyway. The cotton symbolizes evanescence; the box, closure; the artist's name, the fleeting importance of the cult of the person or whatnot.... Fine. But give me the fleeting importance of a real creator like Rodin: you can have the sour grapes of these homunculi and homunculae if that's what appeals to you. In their quests for artistic freedom and creative alternatives, these artists have discovered only their own tininess.
Only one drawing in Visions deserved the name: Luis Caballero's six-foot charcoal drawing on the second floor. This masterpiece from the permanent collection of the HRC is one of the University's few works of art. Its presence in Visions is a mystery, though. There is nothing alternative about it, unless there is something inherently alternative in being from Bogata. Caballero's line is powerfully expressive, with the curve and dent of greatness of a Rubens and the pathos of a Kathe Kollwitz. But the virtuosity and emotion of this work have nothing to do with the wink and the sneer, the slip and slur of the rest of the show. As an example, this drawing hangs directly across from a gigantic triptych, by who cares who, "quoting" (read "blaspheming") half a dozen greater artists, including Ingres, Goya, and Picasso. With sub-collegiate draughtsmanship and many cubic feet of effort, this artist mocks a tradition he apparently has no ability to transcend. Why do we care? Or, I should say, why does the cadre of curators and other academics who organized this show care? Why do we continue to be confronted with 200-page catalogs, weeks of lectures and other backslapping, and asinine corporate sponsorship, all in support of a show of trifling exiguity?
I have a message for all of you from the Muse, and it is this: Art needs no curation, analysis, critique, or corporate sponsorship. It suffers of your goodwill.
Letters to the Editor
It is not necessary to look for historical evidence for or against David Hockney's theories. Simply, if a living artist could do what Hockney believes can't be done (draw quickly, accurately, and fluidly without the aid of devices; enlarge or reduce at will; transfer three dimensions to two with an innate understanding of perspective), his theory could be put to rest. If I can do it, why not Caravaggio or Velasquez? I challenge Mr. Hockney to a public draw-off, with a Smithsonian cameraman to record it for posterity. If your readers are really interested in the role talent played in the past, and not just in Mr. Hockney's futile attempts to raise himself to the level of the Old Masters, this would be a thing to sell tickets to.
But I have my doubts. Anyone who considered the question seriously for a moment would see that the artists of Modernism were picked because they couldn't draw. Art Moderne is not about that anymore. It is about theory and politics and, most of all, promotion. You assume that if someone with the skill of Vandyck or Sargent were out there now, you would know of it. But you know of what the curators and critics want you to know of. Talent like that is not properly inclusive, properly democratic: a transcendent art, an art of elevation, only makes the modern man feel bad, as Mr. Hockney makes clear. I always find it amusing, even in my poverty, that the rich and famous are kept up at night by the truth. But I can't allow Mr. Hockney to air his denial at the expense of my "great forefathers" without speaking out.
I remain amazed that prominent editors cannot see the psychological transparency of Mr. Hockney's public disintegration. He is supposed to be an artist. An artist creates things of beauty or depth or subtlety or power. Because he has not been able to do this in his long career, he has finally stooped to the level of attacking other people's creations. He has joined Duchamp, who could not bear the fact that the public remained more interested in the Old Masters than in him; so he set out to bring them down to his level. Destroy the past. Then they must look at your work, no matter how pathetic. It is absolutely infantile, and yet there seems to be a large constituency for such envy, and it apparently includes many of high rank in art and publishing.
I suggest you look again at the book Mr. Hockney has offered us on this matter, at great expense to some foolish publisher. Mr. Hockney's own examples of what he was able to create, given all these cheating tricks, are ludicrous. My talented friends and I had quite a laugh, especially on the page where he was deluded enough to put Old Master drawings on one page, and his drawings (done with lenses) on the facing page.
You claim in your header that Mr. Hockney has made a "bold" discovery. I fail to see any boldness in attacking one's ancestors and superiors. In fact, it is so pusillanimous as to be almost beyond belief. If it had not already been a staple of the avant garde agenda since the beginning—this resentment—I don't think anyone would believe it. As it is, the art public has become accustomed to its own supine position.
You don't have to accept my claims of talent. Simply go to any advanced art class, in any large city. You will see artists drawing from live models, without aids of any kind, doing things far beyond what Mr. Hockney is able to achieve with lenses, photos, or even projection. Great art requires much more than this sort of extreme hand-eye coordination, but this ability lives on even now~and it remains our only hope for great visual art in the future.
In fact I beg you to go to such a class and do a story on the abilities shown there. A story like that would be vastly more useful to young artists and to the public, and more interesting at the same time. Art History is already at a nadir: it cannot benefit from more selfish "deconstruction." What is required is re-construction.
I had expected this post-modern sour-grapes atttitude from ARTnews, and even from the New Yorker (both have already reported on Mr. Hockney's de-evolution into the critic). But I was disappointed to find Smithsonian leaping onto the bandwagon. Do get off. It is not a place you want to be, historically.
I don't like George Will, either. I voted Green. But your article was at least as unimpressive as his. All your snide ad hominem remarks smacked of high school journalism and the chummy insiderism of PoMo (or whatever it is called now). George Will is wrong because he is wrong, not because he is not cool enough to hang with your friends.
Your understanding of art is no keener than his. At one point you say that most scholars disagree with Will. Who cares what scholars think? Art is for artists. Scholars and critics and journalists simply do not know what they are talking about. If they did, they would be artists. That is the central problem of contemporary art. The artists have been inundated with outside "help"~from your side and Will's side~until they cannot hear themselves think. They are all impressing the phonies in one club or another, and can't take time out to actually learn a craft or develop an idea.
Later you make the observation that a government could not promote excellence and still call itself a democracy. I don't know what this means. Why not? Does a democratic person simply stop making distinctions? There is no connection between democracy and relativism, although you seem to think there is. Do you think Goya or van Gogh or Picasso or whoever you like had no idea of excellence in art? In your rush to promote yourself and your friends, you are disregarding the entire history of art, not to say of the world. Will is wrong to think that money and institutions, by themselves, can promote art or excellence or anything else. And he is wrong to think that the Republican party gives a damn about art. But he is in the ballpark in his criticisms of PoMo~its laziness, its self-indulgence, its low ambition, its gratuitous brutality, its ingratitude to its ancestry, its insistence on the centrality of politics. Art is a gift from the individual to the group. It should be a product of the Id, not of the Superego. As such, it is intrinsically non-political. Art can only be polluted by politics and group expectations. And it is polluted just as quickly (and at the present time, much more often) from the left as from the right.
Sculpture Review, 1994
I disagree strongly with the assumptions and conclusions in your "Reflections of Representation" opinion in the spring edition. In trying to include Lucian Freud in the ranks of true artists despite his "dissonance," you do, in fact, "descend to a relativistic lack of stance." Freud, and the Modern attitude he represents, goes far beyond dissonance, or even misery and ugliness: his cowardice and falseness disqualify him from any claims to greatness and, in my opinion, from being considered an artist at all.
You mention your friend's comparison of Freud with Rembrandt, but this comparison is misguided. For while Rembrandt deserves credit for painting the truth "without a putative overlay of prettiness," there is nothing honest about Freud's figure painting, which depicts flesh, among other things, with a diseased overlay of disgust and hopelessness~a hopelessness representative not of any complex truth in his subjects or of life in general, but only of his pathetic view of his own life. This view may well be sincere (or not) but I can't see that it should be of interest to any healthy person, or any person interested in health.
You assert that Freud "survives and flourishes." But anyone who has read of Freud's life knows that he has not flourished. He would be the first to admit this. Modern artists do not "flourish." Bernini flourished. Rodin flourished. The only thing in Freud's life that has flourished is his bank account, and this only because so many in the upper echelons of art criticism so easily identify with his pathology.
I do not believe any more than you do that art should be limited to subjects of "harmony," or that art must be beautiful or comforting. The highest art is a complex art that recognizes and attempts to understand life as it is, positive and negative. Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Goya, and van Gogh are examples of this complex attitude that struggles to affirm life despite its squalor and confusion, its pain and ugliness. Van Gogh's sunshine and flowers, peasants and whores, are not at all an "ideal of the beautiful," are not at all an antithesis to Freud in the way you mean. Van Gogh's subjects contain great quantities of pain, misery, and squalor. But this is not all they contain: the pain is subsumed (one might say consumed), but never excised, by a belief in art, and in life, that is finally redemptive—confirming the importance, if not the beauty, of existence. This struggle for redemption defines van Gogh's art, despite his suicide.
Freud is the antithesis to van Gogh, and all great artists, not because he expresses "pain and wretchedness" where they do not, but because he lacks complexity and expresses only the pain and wretchedness. And in doing so he falsifies his art just as surely as did Sargent or Canova or any other outcasts of Modern criticism. Freud is a nihilist embedded in contemporary existential theory and he can find no meaning in anything~his wretchedness and discontent become artistic ends in themselves. He is one of Nietzsche's "despisers of life," and as such he deserves neither the support that he and the other Modernists have gotten from contemporary "Nietzscheans" nor the support he gets from the present "community of artists" (from which, to admit the truth, many fine realists have been excluded in preference for those such as Freud).
You ask, "What, in fact, is the purpose of representation?" but do not answer, letting a denial of relativism and low standards stand as your response. But this failure to answer is relativism, this acceptance of all values is relativism. If you can't stand on principle against the nihilism of Freud and the Moderns, what can you stand for? And when even the spokesman for one of the last enclaves of traditional art~an art attacked viciously and slandered without scruple for an entire century by those who would promote Freud and his precursors~is still mouthing this weak-kneed inclusionist policy, even as the history of art collapses at his feet, we see why representational art has degenerated into such a pitiful state, and why a magazine professing a respect for history has almost nothing of importance to add to that history.
In your Fall 2000 article on the Artists' Words, Laura Zeigler and Elizabeth MacQueen both make extremely confrontational remarks about men in general. Ms. Zeigler says that "Women are strong, and men can use all the help they can get." Ms. MacQueen is even more bitter. She speaks of the "advancing imbalance of the destructive masculine and the nurturing feminine," claiming she no longer needs "phalladation." Then she states, "I am one who is blessed with transcendence."
What she is not blessed with, apparently, is humility, or with the ability to write or think clearly. She and her editor should be informed that epicene is an adjective not a noun, and that its definition may still be found in the dictionary. Her context begs for the word epicenter, although this too would be imprecise and exclamatory. One also wonders where she stole "scabrous strength" from and why she cannot use it properly. The sentence in which it is embedded is a melange of mixed metaphors and overwrought sentiment. And the tone of her quote as a whole makes one doubt the unerring nurturing quality of the feminine.
In the name of fairness and equality, I hope you will publish an issue devoted only to men, and allow them to make statements about how strong and transcendent they are, and how helpless and pathetic and evil women are.
Despite it's claim that girls are supposed to be better writers than boys, Boys, the Weaker Sex? by Anna Mulrine is in fact a very poor piece of writing. It is also a very poor example of science; but Ms. Mulrine acknowledges the shortcoming of girls there, so we must not hold her to very high standards in that arena, I suppose.
It is a poor piece of writing not for grammatical or syntactical reasons, but for logical and moral ones. Its premises do not lead to its conclusions. And its unstated moral assumptions are inconsistent.
In a very cursory manner, Ms. Mulrine mentions several studies that show boys are having trouble in school. But we already know where she is going with this, since her opening paragraphs are all anecdotal examples of successful girls. And we knew even before that. The whole article is explained by its title: it is set up to provide a yes answer, one that will promote a transparent agenda. One is led to the distinct possibility that the article was written around the title, rather than the title being superadded at the end.
But not even the skewed research she quotes supports her conclusion that boys are in any way weaker. What struck me most strongly was that she used studies that showed boys are more emotional (more strongly affected by stimuli) than girls to support her contention that they are weaker. This turns the historical argument on its head. Women (and men) have argued for ages that the emotional qualities of women were their strong suit. They were more responsive to other's feelings, more likely to be altruistic, more caring and devoted, more peaceful (for instinctual, not social reasons, we were told). That is why equality was once supposed to be such a boon to society.
If new research is proving that boys are more passionate, too, I don't see that this is much for women to crow about. Our physical strength is conceded, as are our powers of reasoning. If we actually have stronger emotions as well, then this explains why all the great artists have been men. We are better at three-dimensional construction and manual dexterity and now we are more passionate (Ms. Mulrine tells us): that is the definition of art.
Ms. Mulrine never considers the possibility that boys are doing poorly in institutional America simply because institutional America is set up to encourage girls at all points and to discourage boys. Her article, and USNews' publishing it, is just one more example of this. Can anyone imagine a magazine editor allowing an article by a man to go to print with the title Girls, the Weaker Sex? No, that would be "damaging." It would be the cause of a million feminist rants. How many masculist rants do you suppose Ms. Mulrine's article will cause? Or, more to the point, how many do you think will be published or taken seriously? None. I cannot remember the last time any man~not on the far right~was allowed a sentence in the "gender wars." Possibly Norman Mailer in the late 70's. Since then the only ones who have had anything to say on our side have been women: Paglia, Hoff Summers, Roiphe. Is this a level playing field?
Because nothing gets published, many women assume that all men on the left agree with them. But I am not a dittohead; I voted for Nader. I read Chomsky and Wendell Berry. I know good writing and thinking when I see it. Ms. Mulrine's is not it.
She cites better grades in English class and higher rates in the honor society as proof that girls are stronger. But I remember that in my high school half the senior class was in the honor society due to grade inflation. Nor could my honors English class have been called a great measure of intelligence or strength. It was perhaps a measurement of how much busy work and asinine critical analysis one could put up with. As for PSAT and SAT scores and success in college, the same sort of argument can be made. The PSAT counts verbal twice and math once. The bias here is clear, although I have never seen it mentioned anywhere. And all the standardized tests have changed since I was in high school: reading comp sections have been added and the math sections have been watered down to help girls. If they refashion society enough, they can believe whatever they want to about themselves. But I thought that was the feminine critique of patriarchy.
On TV men are portrayed as boobs and morons, while women are all-powerful goddesses (Xena) or sexy Ninja-droids (Dark Angel). Women form blocks and vote against men (Survivor, Weakest Link, etc.), revelling in "girl-power." If men did the same thing, they would be looked on as cretins.
Perhaps worst of all, many of those promoting the "superior woman" agenda~including many of the best-known names in the field of womens studies~have been shown to have fudged or manufactured data. Sadker, one of those that Ms. Mulrine quotes by name, was shown by Christina Hoff Summers to be one of the least scrupulous in this area. Apparently the means justifies the ends for these "scientists." The ends of feminism used to be equality. But I think the title of this article proves that equality is no longer enough. The new feminist is not interested in fairness. She is interested in raw power, at any price. I recommend she recalculate the price. . . if her math skills are up to it.
American Artist, March 2003
I was disappointed—but not really surprised—to see your technical page editor give her unqualified opinion that blending with the fingers was an inferior method for pastel. I was not surprised because this has been the dogma for years. However I must disagree with her, categorically, and admonish her for her narrowness. To state that there is one "best technique" in any medium is foolish. But to assert, without qualification or the least hedging, that the predominant pastel technique in history is now superceded is asinine. Most of the greatest pastellists in history have used their fingers to smudge, including of course Degas. The contemporary preference for neat and tidy drawings with pure color is nothing but a prejudice~a prejudice most often based (in my experience) on timidity and conformity. Modern pastellists, as judged from the standards of the past, would seem a tight little bunch of wonks, scared to touch the page for fear of soiling themselves or their technique in some way. I can see them (I have seen them) sitting in their shrink-wrapped chairs, clothed in their scotch-guarded smocks, with plastic gloves and surgical masks and ventilators, fearful lest a splinter of chalk should break free and lodge in their eye, and thinking "Oh, where are my safety goggles?"
The truth is that all this fastidiousness has led to a glut of antiseptic drawings, memorable not for any clean use of color but for a glaring lack of passion, personality, subtlety and nuance. The pages of American Artist and other realist magazines are full of them, as are the various shows around the country, judged by the same sort of people. It is a shame that this cycle cannot seem to break itself, since the role of expert and teacher continues to fall to to the same insiders; and we hear the same cramped, false opinions over and over. And see the same amateurish work, paraded as scintillating, again and again.
New York Times, April 12, 2003
In his article on Remington, Holland Cotter's tacit assumptions are rather shocking, once one unburies them. He assumes that anyone who feels that modern society is going in the wrong direction is a vile person. Anyone who feels nostalgic is a crass sentimentalist. The famous counter-examples would take a year to list. Beyond that he assumes that an artist must have a winning personality, and that he must agree with all the contemporary "progressives". I can't think of a great artist who ever did. For example, van Gogh is universally loved now—he is almost a saint. But he had a terrible personality, by modern standards, and wasn't progressive even in his own time. Picasso, still the standard bearer of the avant garde, was a reactionary misogynist, a bully, a braggart, and a shameless toady to the rich and famous. I can't think of a single great artist who passes Cotter's test. But Cotter's most absurd assumption is that we have better modern things to put in the great museums than Remington's "hokey" canvases. Remington doesn't compare favorably with Titian or even Waterhouse, for artistic reasons. But based on Holland's own stated criteria, Remington surely has greater claim to wall-space than the darlings of the avant garde, whose oeuvres and personalities make Remington look like a god.
Like all contemporary criticism, Holland's looks very cutting until one remembers what, and who, he is arguing for. Perhaps the winning personality and plumbless depth of a Schnabel or Salle or Hirst or Kiefer or Twombly or Johns? How about Lucian Freud and Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol and Francis Bacon?—now that would be a lovely dinner party, filled with bright good cheer and brotherly love and a glass raised to the future of mankind! And their works! Ah, a feast for the eyes not obtainable outside the chain-link fence at the city impound or the metal doors of the morgue.
And lastly, one remembers whose hand is on the pen of Holland's article—a member of that class of people with the least-winning personalities, that class with no works~the critic.
Austin Chronicle, Nov. 1996:
Yes, that title "America is an Artist" set me off before I even read Michael Ventura's latest piece. I admit it. I knew I was going to be very hard to convince. And when he rounded out his opinion with a quote from Nietzsche, troping Nietzsche's adjective "all-too-human" by standing it on its head, I knew that a response was in order, and I knew how to frame it.
Mr. Ventura's more-than-apparent goodwill, his willingness to speak from the heart, and his penchant for grand subject matter has taken him a long way, and I was impressed by his first three or four articles for the Chronicle~articles where, for whatever reason, both his prose and his polemics were more disciplined. It must be difficult to be truly incisive week in, week out, but the sloppy thinking in this latest article cannot be passed over as a slow night's work. It is more than cosmetic. When writing about the X-Files or Las Vegas, it is enough to be entertaining. But if you are going to milk my sacred cow, you best know where the udders are.
To gloss the central thesis: America is the most inventive country in the history of the world. Artists are also inventive. America must be an artist. Some of us, too weak to fully embrace the artist within, react politically. This is understandable, though "small-minded." That's it. Beautifully reductive. Clear and quick-moving. With lots of examples and references and famous people's names. And false, false, false. Ventura makes no attempt to differentiate between inventive, original, creative, and artistic. He elides from inventor to scientist to artist, slurring all distinctions. There is no discussion of the quality of creativity or inventiveness involved in various actions. And there is no mention of the value of these actions. His goggled-eyed amazement in the face of capital-N Novelty, undifferentiated, is sorely distressing. I expect such asinine horn-tooting from the advertisers and boosters of the world, selling us on our pathetic selves. But not here. Ventura needs sobering up, and I recommend Wendell Berry's prose as just the tonic.
I suggest that, as far as quantity goes, 20th century America is most inventive for purely statistical reasons. We have the most people with the most free time. But this is no reason, in and of itself, for backslapping. Very little of what we now do is memorable. The scientific advance since the time of Newton, really, is miraculous, but this does not make America or anyone else an artist. Define art a little more narrowly, and it becomes clear that most of America's art legacy is not in creativity or construction, but in deconstruction. Ventura does not mention that the novel, the short story, the poem, the easel painting, the free-standing sculpture, the art object in general, have all been deconstructed by us. Nor does he note that most of the artists he names fled the U.S. in search of an artistic milieu, hated America, and are now treated only as artifacts. Poe and Eliot may have invented the modern short story and poem, for example, but the contemporary short story and poem are far-removed, nearly debtless little beasts. Popular music and film are quite healthy, and some of the output might be called artistic, but no one could accuse these media of being top-heavy.
There are brilliant people in this country and wonderful things are being done, but in general America is most emphatically not an artist. America is a business, where some creative output is merchandized as entertainment. All else is obsolescent or obsolete. Even on the fringes, outside the markets, America is an artist only by the most generous of definitions. America is a self-indulgent, unrefined artist, sciolistic and presumptuous. Our shallow political character is not a reaction to our artistic depth. They are two sides of a one-sided coin. Inundated by information and analysis, our left-brains now have a thousand ways of saying, of intiming, nothing~with three or four more discovered each week; while our Ids, grounded only in last week's news and a few misty quasi-Freudian memories of our pre-television selves, subsist bulimically on the spiritual equivalent of Dexatrim and Diet Coke.
Ventura might have addressed the degenerate state of modern American creativity, a state that Nietzsche was good enough to all but predict for us, a state more frightening than any episode of the X-Files or even Millenium, because true. But this would have meant taking on the highly original bunch who get their stroking from the Chronicle, and who no doubt do not want to hear it.
Letters to the Editor, Austin American-Statesman, Nov. 1997:
Thanks to Michael Barnes for hitting a few nails on the head regarding the Austin Museum of Art [Nov. 28]. Of course, for my money, he could have been a bit less even-handed. I know what he meant when he said it was "defensible" to follow the trends of Soho—politically, not artistically, defensible—but that just won't cut it anymore. Art "as a trend" never had the support of any serious artists, and the day of the glamorous Nonartist, posing next to his vast spillage, is fading to dusk, even in NYC. The artist of the near future will not be able to hide behind political and theoretical props, if only because that's been done before.
So it is no great loss that The Museum hasn't wasted a lot of taxdollars buying "experimental" art for a permanent collection. Who can remember individual works from the past twenty years of Laguna Gloria shows? Who would pay to see them again? Damn few.
Are we planning a new museum because we want larger traveling shows of the same sort? It may get bigger, folks, but it doesn't get any better. We can step up from poorly attended small shows to poorly attended big shows. But if you don't like it by the spoonful, don't order it by the glass.
The problem is the big-city wannabes and the art-history phonies who think that building big modern spaces and following trends is the same as being artistic. The dubious selectivity of this sort of do-gooder has already administered all the lasting value from "art" in America, and nothing good can come from more such patronage. It would be wonderful if the public cared more about art, but the simple fact is that they won't until they see art they care about. It is the artists who must solve this dilemma, after we climb out from under all the curation and analysis. Once we do, then we might need a museum.
Letters to the Editor, Austin American-Statesman, Dec. 1997 [unpublished]
How lovely. A response [Jic Clubb, Dec. 19]. I had hoped for something a wee bit more incisive than "goodness gracious," but I work with what I have. Ironic isn't it, Mr/s. Clubb, prefering modern art but asking for subtlety in polemics? 'Tis a topsy-turvy world, where we only want to be hit over the head with our art. Clever thing, too, playing the victim: you realist bullies have all your Santa Fe galleries and SAMI shows, just let us have our little museum. The avant garde has rights, too. Tra-la. But, if you please, it's an even shorter drive to Dallas or Houston, where you can be startled all you want.
Your argument is a perfect hysteron proteron: a contemporary museum shows experimental work, according to you, because that's what a contemporary museum does. Likewise, that curators are fools is something I must accept a priori. You don't say so, of course, but the reason these are givens is that the avant garde is now the status quo. You control the NEA, the universities, the critics, the magazines, andthe museums. Of course I appear Quixotic. You don't need to argue with me, you have the numbers. You can afford the blase grin because you've safely defined everyone with any talent out of the game. Beuys pronounced easel painting dead; if you other boys can just kill off all the other beauties of the world, your own work may start to look interesting after all.
When you imagine the alternative to Modernism, Mr/s. Clubb, you see "purple peaks" and other such nonsense. Which is precisely why you should not think about art at all. Art is neither novelty nor decoration, and to imply that it must be one or the other is to be a pest. I have better things to do than shoo flies.
Nietzsche once blasted Wagner for claiming that his music was not "mere music." Nietzsche said rightly, "No musician would say that." Likewise, I say that art does not need politics or literature or activism or criticism or theory to leaven it. Painting needs painters. Sculpture needs sculptors. Everyone else is an intrusion. So I hope you won't be offended when I say, get the hell out of my way.
Austin American-Statesman, Jan. 1998
Regarding Judy Jenson's article [on the choice of art for the newly built Convention Center, including found-art collected by the homeless]: Oh the ignominy of being called an "obscure artist" by that household name Judy Jenson. Chided like a child, a "fifth grader," for questioning the authority of an "arts professional." Don't we obscure artists, like the little "laymen," know that this argument is not for us? To us it must be "clearly explained," after which Ms. Jenson will no doubt clarify the Korean nuclear threat and global warming (by dismissing them as trumped-up controversies). Then milk and cookies.
The only thing that rang true about her patronage was the admission that "panelists must endure [emphasis mine] days of studying proposals." Nice word choice. Otherwise she utterly failed to address the question, that being what is art? I assert that the definition of art is not "good deeds" or "being warm-hearted" or "social activism" or "finding an interesting object." Art is extraordinary skill married to high emotion. People know this, warm-hearted people who nevertheless are not quite sanguine about being hoodwinked.
Harper's Magazine May 1998
In your May issue, one of your cover stories was called "Where Women are Women and so are Men". Initially I found it somewhat refreshing to see Fay Weldon bucking the party line, voicing her concern about what she calls "therapism" and the consequences of a loss of masculinity, both for men and for women. But the overall tone of the article, and the way Harper's presented it, belittled men more than it defended them. It was offensive, one supposes purposefully, because it implied that men are unable to defend themselves: that because of their need for sex, men are now at the mercy of women, who can give or take at will. This "defense" of men made women appear very powerful. The last sentence of the article was "Women win."
What is most irritating is that men are continually being insulted in the media with no opportunity for response. There is a lot of dishing out and no taking. One suspects that this article was made more publishable both by the fact that its author is a woman and by the fact that she is English—she is defending and attacking, at least explicitly, Englishmen. Hence all the tweaking is given a distance, and all we "female" men in the US can pass it off as in good fun. But it is clear that men are not represented on the gender issue in print, in England as here, not because we lack the balls to write a response, but because most journals do not think this is the time for male opinions on the subject. It is not that there are no publishable works, it is that there are no published works, and this is clearly not the same thing.
Or so I assume. Weldon said that men are too passive and competitive to respond to female "oppression," except for "religious nuts." I am not a religious nut. Nor would I qualify my difficulties of the past five years, stunning as they are, as "oppression." But I will go on record, under my own name, even under my own photograph, to reply to the unilateral assault that now passes for a "gender war." I am neither a Norman Mailer, with a big name and a history of well-known battles, nor a bitter talk-show combatant, ready to hurl insults and trade horror stories. I am simply a casualty: one that a few may miss somewhere down the line. An attractive, well-educated, sensitive young man, so far left on most issues as to be almost un-American; with, however, my backbone still intact. If Wendell Berry were a generation younger and single he might feel the need to write something like this "Letter from the Front", I like to think. I have dated over 100 women in the past five years, not because I have any fondness for variety (in fact, I have been looking to settle down all along) but because I refuse to play dead. The beautiful, intelligent women I am attracted to have forgotten, somewhere in the deluge of advice they have absorbed, that in order to impress a potential lover, they must be nice. And so I have been forced to move on; to try again. And again, and again. In this article, I suggest that even the model male companion dreamed of by feminism has been sacrificed to its evermore self-indulgent demands. The standard issue young woman, as promoted by the media and all our institutions, and as now exists, near enough, on college campuses and cutting-edge corporations throughout the country, is undatable, uncourtable, and unbearable, for any man with any self-respect left. Ignoring that fact, because it is presently unpalatable, does none of us any good. These things will sort themselves out eventually, but I cannot live my sexual life eventually, and neither can they. We must live now. It is ridiculous to claim, as Weldon baldly claims, that "women can live without men easier than men can live without women." Such a claim is an empty boast in a power struggle, a desperate attempt to deny loneliness, and nobody really buys it. Not me and not the women themselves. A relationship cannot be defined wholly by either partner. Not, as historically, by the man. And not, as now, by the woman. And so some feedback is in order from their "equal partner."
The rest of the article speaks for itself, and so I will not repeat myself here. But I hope you agree that it is past time to call a truce. Not to capitulate from a position of weakness; but to suggest a cease-fire, since the losses are too high on both sides. Women may have won. But Pyrrhus, on a field of mangled bodies, also won.
The Editor, Harper's, May 29, 1999
The problem with the male counterpoint in the gender wars has been its self-imposed need to be supportive and non-confrontational, while still trying to defend a bit of territory. Nothing substantive has been said by a man since Mailer threw in the towel, unless you count Paglia as a man. Women have felt free to say anything they wanted, no matter how mean-spirited or absurd, while men have tried to be considerate. Your Ehrenreich/Tiger "debate" followed these lines exactly.
Tiger makes intellectual non-points while Ehrenreich spouts nonsense about Playboy being a political tool of men, or about men inventing war to make themselves appear useful. Absolute balderdash. But you can't find a man capable of saying so?
Ehrenreich and Tiger never got anywhere near the central issue in all this persiflage. A heterosexual man's number one desire in life is to have sex with a woman/women. A heterosexual woman's number one desire is to have sex with a man/men. Everybody who is not lost in some neurosis knows this. The only men who will not admit this are those who know it is bad policy to be so honest. The only women who will not admit this are those who can't make it work in their agenda. If women aren't interested in sex/men, why are the magazines, books, movies and TV programs that women watch or read stuffed with sex appeal? If the intellectual women who are above these forms of entertainment are not interested in sex/men, why are they trying to convince us of anything? If we aren't good for anything, then leave us alone of your cant.
Ehrenreich made it clear that she doesn't really give a damn about what is happening to young men: we still aren't getting out of the way fast enough. But why didn't Tiger ask her about all these young women she is supposedly representing? There may not yet be 100% equity in average pay or in number of CEO's, but young women are now in control of their own sexual happiness like never before. We are told this by the (older) women themselves. Lesbianism is cool. Multiple partners. Celibacy. Onanism. Why, then, aren't they happy? Men aren't happy because they aren't getting any. This is common knowledge. But if men aren't getting any, then it is logical to assume that, in the same numbers, women aren't. Might they be unhappy for the same reason?
Feminism's demonization of men has created a generation of neurotics who are attracted to men but cannot intellectually justify loving them. So they cut themselves up and publicly commit all kinds of verbal suttee, blaming their inertia on men and digging their holes deeper and deeper. It is no form of grace to continue to contenance this immolation. Good men don't. Women always threaten that they can use sex as a weapon. I have always found this unappealingly Machiavellian. But men can and do refuse to have sex with women who cannot be reasonable and considerate: not as a weapon, but because they do not want to.
As much as I hate deconstruction, this debate simply begs for analysis: its only interest for any healthy person is as a pathological symptom of everyone involved. Ehrenreich's choice of Tiger was instructive: no real man would let his name stand below the title "What are Men Good For?" Nor would he back down when confronted with Steinem's "bicycle" quote. He would say, "Damn right it's offensive. Don't pretend it wasn't meant to be. You vicious old cunts aren't ever again going to get laid by a man worth laying with until you cut the crap." And why in hell does Lapham continue to allow articles with titles like "Why Englishmen are Women" and "What are Men Good For?" go to press? He's either impotent or he thinks that his last best chance is capitulation. It's time to arrest the pussification of modern journalism.
CBS News, 2002
In your article on female gender bias, Dr. Michael Thompson asks, "Where are the men who should be advocating for boys? Why is there no outcry from men?" Or something to that effect. The simple answer, which is not addressed in this article, is that men are speaking out, but that the media is not listening. I have now seen several articles like this one, where the "crisis" in general is reported on; but even here there are no men advocating for the rights of men. It is still not allowed in the current discussion. We haven't reached the point where it is OK for men to be given a self-advocating voice on a par with women. We are still in a predominately feminist mode, with regards to rights and advocacy, and it is not really believed that men have anything to complain about, except in the sort of anomalistic way that this article treats it. Even here, you have Dr. Thompson mouthing feminist rhetoric—that the fault is the fathers', that men still make more money, etc. The main point of these new Gender Gap articles, it seems to me, is to post a subtle cheer. Gloating posing as pity. Those poor men, now they need help. (Hurrah!)
How do I know that men are speaking out? I know because I am one of the men speaking out, and not being published. I have seen the male side of the argument being taken up by Camille Paglia, Katie Roiphe, Christina Hoff Sommers, and a few others, and I am thankful for their efforts. But I find it astonishing that no magazine has published a counter-critique to some of the specifics of neo-feminism by a man. I don't think I've seen so much as a letter to the editor published in any magazine, concerning feminism and by a man, since the time of Norman Mailer (in the 80's). Are we to believe that no man on the left has disagreed with the slew of offensive articles published by The Nation, Harper's, and many other magazines and newspapers? Just as an example, see Why all Englishmen are Women (Harper's, 1998); What are Men Good For? (Barbara Ehrenreich debating Lionel Tiger, Harper's 1999); Boys, the Weaker Sex? (USNews, 2001); Why There Are No Good Men Left (Atlantic, 2002). I myself have written letters to the editor on these articles and many others, and submitted articles on these topics to many magazines, only to be met with silence or contempt. Without exception I am treated as if I am a neo-nazi neanderthal—tunneling in from the National Review or the Heritage Foundation—when in fact I voted for Nader and have as heroes people like Chomsky and Wendell Berry. If I am being refused because I am not a famous person or a PhD in the field, that does not explain why no famous person or PhD in the field is being published.
I do not believe for a minute, like Dr. Thompson apparently does, that men have just lain down and accepted the new world of feminine superiority. Or that they don't care about themselves or their sons. Or that they are too busy making money and playing sports to see the writing on the wall. Or that they have ignored recent skirmishes because they feel so secure in their positions. The male side of the argument is simply not being published or reported on. I do not want to be exclamatory and call it censorship. It is editorial discretion, but editorial discretion that is more and more reaching the level of suppression. In order to promote equity, men have not been given anything like equal time in the discussion of gender politics. Thirty years ago this may have made some sense. Now it is reaching the point of absurdity, where one sex is determining policy in an entire field. It cannot work for either sex. It cannot work for women because they have less and less objectivity about themselves. Without critique, they become utterly self-indulgent and unrealistic, as Camille Paglia has pointed out. Women are no more self-correctable and self-perfectable than men are.
The gender wars have gone the way they have for political reasons: women have devoted more time to them, and been much less scrupulous. And the hours are paying off, in the short term. But the sexes cannot separate themselves. What affects one affects the other. Early feminism preached this; late feminism tries to ignore it. Late feminism tries to score points at the expense of men. It will not work. For two reasons. One, a debilitated masculinity is finally of no interest to women, for themselves. Two, men are not weak. A push beyond basic fairness will not be tenable. You can call it a backlash if you want, but it is strictly self-defense.
Atlantic Monthly, May 18, 2000
Another great cover story [Unabomber/Harvard]. Atlantic Monthly is the last general interest magazine standing. The New Yorker~overrated since the 70's~finally imploded, Lapham is in senescence at Harper's (or he has let Ehrenreich take over, I don't know), but you guys just keep getting better.
I have a couple of comments on Alston Chase's article. I agree that Kaczynski is a mystery that needs to be solved, but Chase's final page of commentary~what one might call his summation~was overly broad, abstract, and finally unconvincing. In the first sentence of this last section he mentions the "corrosive powers of intellect itself." This is a dangerous non-sequitur that should make any intelligent person wince. There may be many lessons to be learned from history, and from a consideration of Kaczynski, but I don't think that is one of them. Chase implies that intellect is necessarily arrogant. But it is not knowledge that is corrosive: it is what we learn, or fail to learn. Our "capacity to conceive theories or philosophies that promote violence," or to conceive any esoteric theories whatever, is not the problem. To conceive is not to believe. People much stupider than Kaczynski choose to believe things that, while less wordy, are just as flawed and just as violent.
The problem appears to be that Kaczynski, despite having a genius IQ, was still not smart enough to sort through all the inconsistencies and holes of a modern education and the brutalities of an American upbringing. This comes as no surprise, really; but putting it in these terms is surely less alienating (and confusing) than dredging up the "nature of evil" and Stalin and martyrdom and being shocked that dogs backed into a corner do bite.
For instance, Chase's most telling section is where he touches on the difference between relativism and absolutism. He sees Kaczynski as an absolutist in a relativist society, and he is right. But then he states that Kaczynski "absorbed the message of positivism, which demanded value-free reasoning...." Here is the internal inconsistency, the worm in the nut. When it comes to "truth," Kaczynski is an absolutist. When it comes to action, or "morality," he is a relativist: "there is no logical justification for morality." But, in that case, Ted, there is no logical justification for immorality. Nor is there any logical justification for "wild nature," or for condemning technology.
Chase and Kaczynski both start out trying to justify an intellectual stance against relativism, but end up making absolutists look bad~Kaczynski by trying to justify violence with pseudo-philosophy and Chase by getting lost in platitudes and abstractions.
What begs to be said in this article, and in modern education in general, is that there are two types of "absolutism" that have long been confused. There is the absolutism of the "Deutschland uber alles" sort, which is obviously absurd. And then there is the absolutism that states that for any specific situation, there are better and worse ways of doing things. This sort of absolutism has never been refuted. It is common sense. But even the most intelligent thinkers often get lost in the move from general to specific. Advances in "tolerance" have led to an increased awareness that general statements (especially truth statements) are not as easy to defend as we once thought. Truth is relative to the situation. But this is not to say there is no truth. For any given situation, the facts remain. Truth, in any specific case, is not relative.
Likewise, the problem with scientists is not that they are corrosively intelligent or that science itself is evil. It is that scientists are very poor philosophers, and very poorly socialized. "Humanism" has not filled the void of a dead religion because humanism is itself a void. The humanities are a dead letter. As a society we expend almost no money, time, or intelligence teaching or considering these most important questions, except in the most fleeting and cursory manner. People take up "self-help" like it is a hobby, a stop-gap, or a drug. Our psychology departments are booming, but that is no cause for celebration. Modern psychology is a shallow substitute for classical philosophy. Positivism, behaviorism, and various other narrow filters have been put on a natural curiosity, and even our reading lists have become dessicated.
There are apparently no longer any living sources of widom, or none that are paid to lecture at Harvard or Berkeley. We spend unbelievable amounts of money recruiting and educating scientists and businesspeople, endowing chairs and underwriting research. We spend no money or time producing people who know how to live. Kaczynski and Chase fled to Montana to to buy themselves peace: they just read the wrong books, or read them in poor light. Those less intelligent, also lacking teachers worthy of respect, read even worse books~L. Ron Hubbard or Kahlil Gibran or B.F. Skinner.
Nothing will change until we begin teaching people how to live again. Not as dogma or indoctrination (which we are so scared of we literally can't see straight). But as examples of successful lives lived by real people, whether it is Jesus or the Buddha, or George Washington or Winston Churchill, or Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, or Betty Friedan or Faye Wattleton, or Noam Chomsky or Wendell Berry, or Lewis Thomas or Aldo Leopold. Why we don't have Chomsky lecturing on general topics, instead of just linguistics or foreign policy, is a mystery to me. Ralph Nader should be paid exorbitant amounts by Stanford or Yale to pass on everything he knows, not just his opinions about consumer issues. This country could use thousands of young people cut from his mold. Ditto for Wendell Berry. And Faye Wattleton. And many others.
Why don't we? Two reasons. First, because it would be bad for business. One Nader and one Chomsky is bad enough. Let those (truly) intellectual genes start to multiply, and some people are going to lose a lot of money. And this is where Kaczynski is right. Where he is justified (whether logically or morally is a question of semantics). Corporate control of government and education is a bad idea. Not because I say it is, or because I want it to be, but because it can be demonstated to be to the satisfaction of any sane person.
And two, because we have mis-defined democracy. What we wanted was equal opportunity, fairness, and a maximum of self-governance. But in dismantling false hierarchies, we have dismantled the real ones, too. The hierarchies that allow for teachers and mentors, for the passing on of knowledge. Teenagers now think they have hit the apex of wisdom at sixteen (or, a bestseller tells us we peaked at five). If we are all equal and truth is relative, what is there to learn anyway? Elders who would teach them this are not worthy of respect, and young people know it: and so the circle has become vicious.
There is a reason Chase's "educated elite" are uneasy. They are invested in a system they know to be wrong, and they don't have the courage to divest. They do nothing but read and write books (books that no one under thirty reads). But if violence is wrong, then the alternative is non-violent action. The alternative is to live your life differently. Don't work for the big company. Don't buy all the stuff. Don't vote for the jerks. Don't spend more time "making a living" than teaching yourself and your kids how to live. And talk to your neighbors: together you may find the courage to resist. The bottom line is, whatever needs to be done, do it yourself, as far as you can.
And one last thing. A writing style is a sign of the times. An argument, like Chase's, that moves from the specific to the abstract is both a mirror of helplessness and a cause of it. The universities and magazines need thinkers who can, with eloquence and erudition, move from the general to the specific, giving the student or reader an idea that something can be done.
Platform[The journal of the school of architecture, University of Texas], 1998
I just read the article on the Blanton [Museum] controversy in the most recent issue, and I was not surprised to find a one-sided argument. I suppose it is not up to you to supply your own refutation, but you might have given your readers a bit more insight into this disagreement. Page after page of describing your own heroics and the Regents' idiocy does little to establish your credibility to the outside world. But, I remind myself, for those in PoMo there is no outside world.
Just because those who disagree with you do not staple together signs and shout childish names at the news cameras does not mean that you go unopposed. I have always held the Regents in disdain, so do not think I am supporting their positions in criticizing yours. But it has always been unclear to me why the schools of architecture and art history felt this museum was theirs. From the very beginning they have simply assumed that the museum design would be avant garde, the more the better. The regents have not acted in a democratic manner, as you have said again and again. But have you? I don't remember any referendum or vote on this. Tony Sanchez' tastes have (rightly) been called into question. But why exactly should we discount his, but accept yours? I don't understand how his opinions are a matter of taste, but your opinions are not. I recommend that you don't bring "democracy" into it at all, if you want to win in the end. The Regents have an extreme concentration of power, it is true. But PoMo is only a tiny minority of self-interested folks as well, as this whole fiasco has shown. I do not believe that either Larry Speck or Jessie Otto Hite is representative of any majority in this city.
The truth is that Ms. Hite has put together a series of shows that no one, except a few academic insiders and aspiring art critics, wants to look at. The new Suida Manning collection brought a few folks to campus, but even that has been oversold. Most of the work is fourth-rate leftovers that the real museums didn't want, or were too savvy to bid for way back when. And Jonathan Bober is probably the biggest phony west of the Mississippi. I personally will never return to the Blanton if only for fear of having to again listen to him talk about himself in stentorian tones. As for the contemporary art exhibitions: any audience participation is strictly charity work. All the museums in Austin have been force-feeding the public PoMo agitprop for twenty years. The "masses" are chided for being apathetic about art. But it is not that they are uninterested in art: they are uninterested in the empty conceptualizations that pass for art. How long can the academics continue to dismiss widespread disenchantment with PoMo as bourgeois narrowness or political recidivism? How long will they continue to preach "pluralism" and "inclusion" while appealing to no one but art theorists and the frontline of PC nebbishes?
The saddest thing in all this is that once again art is left out of the equation. You would think that art would be the primary concern with a museum. But when all this squabbling is over and the Blanton stands hugely and expensively on whatever site is chosen, it will stand largely empty of art. And it will stand completely empty of great contemporary art. Why? Because there is no great contemporary art. PoMo has killed it. The term "great," like the term "talent" or the term "beauty," is outdated. It is disallowed. It is hierarchic, and we want no more hierarchies, thank you. Theory itself has made "great art" an oxymoron. So Austin will have another building, probably no better and hopefully no worse than the Convention Center or the airport. It will have curators and directors and wealthy benefactors and corporate underwriters and art critics and architecture mavens, all congratulating eachother for the good they have done art. Our custodians of art. But we will still not have any art.
Marilyn vos Savant, Parade Magazine, 2000.
This concerns your recent comments about art, music, and your personal philanthropic dreams. Know that someone agrees with you. I do not believe that art is dead or that there is any historical necessity for being where we are. Fine things are still possible. That they are not actual is an institutional and societal failure, the causes of which are complex and deeply rooted. That there are causes is not say that we might not have chosen differently, or might not now choose differently.
Your belief that someone needs to create new art institutions is correct. But we need schools more than museums, since the money we now spend on museums is wasted on avant garde installations and other political posturing. The sad truth is that there is almost no one left to teach in these schools, even if we finance them. The tradition has been cut for so long and to such a depth that it will be very difficult to rebuild. The deconstruction has been so successful, that is, that reconstruction becomes quite a problem. There may not be enough yeast left to leaven the loaf.
Nor is there a consensus that anything needs to be done. Most of those who agree with you simply don't care enough even to say so, much less do anything. Except for those few in the business, art is not a priority. And the apologists for Modernism remain entrenched and very powerful. The universities are monolithically postmodern, as is the market and the media. Modernism is controlled by non-artist dealers, curators and critics, mostly in NYC. Art is defined by theory alone, which allows these people to suppress opposition. Art that requires no explanation or marketing, that bypasses the need for the priests of Modernism, is a danger to them, and they will be very difficult to dislodge. Some "decorative" markets remain, for florals and cowboys and such things, it is true. But this is no sign of hope. Most the great art of the past would be disallowed in either the modern or the decorative markets now. It would have too much skill and sincerity for the former, too much emotion and content for the latter.
Your opinion of Picasso is also sound, and is unlikely to change, no matter what you read or see. His Blue and Rose periods are charming and poignant. Almost everything else is directed at critics, and is only fodder for writers. He admitted this himself. He was mainly interested in fame. He was not proud of Guernica, which the Spanish socialists pressured him to paint. His first canvas on the subject was a nude of his lover Dora Maar. When the socialists protested, he produced another painting in a matter of days and allowed them to take it unfinished. He said, "Finished or not, get it out of here!" The rest of his career can be seen in much the same light. Travel if you like, and read to know the truth, but be prepared to increase your cynicism rather than to discover new depths in contemporary art. There are none.
Democratic solutions have also failed. Some have attacked the avant grade as elitists, hoping for an alliance with the people. Unfortunately, it has been found that this sort of alliance doesn't bolster the art one wants it to. It may bolster Hollywood and pop music, but does nothing for poetry or sculpture or painting. Really fine art is exceptional, by definition. By one sense of the word, it is elitist. It is produced by the best artists, who are of course elite. Although one would think this idea is commonsense, it is not therefore easy to generalize it. Most people now are offended by any elitism, and sense is no longer common. And most people do not prefer Elvira Madigan to Elvis.
One would think that a margin must exist somewhere: opera goers who wanted to hear new operas of quality, classically trained musicians who wanted to play or compose something new and beautiful, collectors of old master paintings who also wanted new masters, young artists who ignored the market. But it doesn't. Most of the opera mavens and art collectors care no more about art than the pilgrims at Graceland. They are in it for the investment or the society. Those few who do love art apparently do not also feel a concern for art history. They have been convinced that it is over, and that is that. Those who have money believe they don't have anyone to give it to, and most of those who love art don't have money.
If you had to give to individuals rather than to instiutions, could you find great poets or painters or sculptors or classical composers? Most people can't. Philantropists rely on foundations. But the foundations do not have lists either. They underwrite the sort of fake artists you criticize. The whole system is broken, even where money exists. And it is broken on purpose, to benefit the fakes and phonies. The only way around this is for art lovers to support art directly. Nothing else will work. We need direct patronage, not foundations and corporate sponsorship. And we need apprenticeship, not schools or other new institutions administered by non-artists.
I am very grateful to see you broach these subjects in your column. You can expect to continue to be browbeaten by the "experts" in the field you are "encroaching" upon as an "amateur." But always remember who is attacking you. They are not artists or even amateurs, since they love nothing but money and fame. They are infinitely more self-interested than you are, though they will loudly claim the oppositie.
As a "brainy" artist, I have long been a target for all the brickbats now being thrown at you. An intellectual is expected to paint as an intellectual. One is not allowed to show off as a draughtsman or technician, but one must show off as a progressive, a cynic, a theorist, an innovator, a provider of the required agitprop. When my work is first seen, I am assumed to be stupid. When it is discovered I am not, I am then assumed to be unaware. When it is discovered I am not, I am then assumed to be neo-conservative. And so on. I think you may have the same sort of guns leveled at you. You passed directly to unaware, since your IQ is not in question. The pressure will increase on you the more you know and care. And if you have any success in promoting your views, prepare for the ante to be upped.
You will be subjected to lots of literature from the opposition. Material in support of your own view is not so easy to find. If you would like some help in discovering it, I am at your service. I have lots of tasty quotes from history that are not common knowledge anymore. In defending the rights of my limbic system or my Id, I have made a warrior of my neocortex; and you may be interested to hear that the ego can be quite protective of the sub-conscious. That is, reason can argue for passion just as persuasively as it has argued against it.
I have included a photo or two of my work. You have an ally: not a very potent ally yet, but an earnest one. And you may be interested to see exactly what is being ignored in favor of sharks in tanks and strings hanging from the ceiling.
Daily Texan, University of Texas, Austin, 1998.
Regarding the announcement of the new art museum on campus, I feel compelled to point out that what I said in XL magazine about the Austin Museum of Art's plans for a large civic museum apply to the Blanton Museum as well. The money of these wealthy people would be better spent in founding or encouraging art schools that teach painting and sculpture, or in creating commissions for talented living artists, or in employment counseling for art critics and administrators. Building another ugly and expensive dungeon may pad the bank account of some talentless architect and employ x number of curators and get everyone's names in the paper, but it won't do anything for art. The HRC and the Michener Collection are already a vast advertisement for non-art, and I doubt we need anymore wallspace where Hoffmann and Gottlieb and Rothko can rot. I appreciate Mr. Michener's and Mr. Rappoport's and Mr. Blanton's desire to patronize the arts, but the current channels are so corrupted that benefactors can no loger assume benefaction. Until the postmoderns and their formalism, Dadaism, Futurism, and pseudopolitics are ousted from visual art, every dollar is just another brick in the wall.
The Horsefly, Taos, May 2009
I have read two "reviews" of Hopper at the Harwood from you now, in April and May, and have yet to hear a substantive word. No reviewing is done, just a lot of vaporous quoting of Dave Hickey about culture in general. Of course you can't address the actual art, since it is so trifling. But even your comments about culture are meaningless or false. I was especially struck by this one from the April "review": Collectively, sports stars and celebrities have slightly less status than cocktail waitresses or pit bosses. What a load of horse manure: when do cocktail waitresses or pit bosses have the chance to buy themselves a show at the museum? This show at the Harwood is all about celebrity, as is obvious to anyone awake. Do you imagine that people are actually going to see the "art"? No, they are hoping to run into someone famous.
And I can't understand why self-styled "progressives" are giving Hopper a pass here, giving him free promotion without the least attempt at criticism. Remember, Hopper has been a Republican for decades, ever since the Duke squeezed all his skin-deep principles out of him by laughing at him back in the 70's. Yes, he says he voted for Obama, but only because he didn't like Palin. Not because he was against the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, not because he was appalled at the lies surrounding 9/11, not because he was against the Patriot Acts or the Military Tribunals or the torture commissions, but because he didn't want a woman to be vice-president. Hopper isn't progressive in any way. He is a huge phony. And his art is crap.
Taos doesn't need a "summer of love". It needs a "summer of getting its head out of its ass." It needs a summer of learning not to fall prostrate at every sliver of propaganda that comes down the pike, whether it is about politics or art.
Taos News, May 2009
I find it sad that in this town of supposed diversity we hear no counter-opinion to the chamber of commerce boosterism and art propaganda that is already deafening, before the summer has even started. To limit myself here to art, I have seen and heard lots of free promotion by the media for Dennis Hopper and his buddies, but absolutely no attempt at real review or criticism. Even the alternative press has chosen to fall at the feet of the returning celebrities. Is everyone really entralled by the art at the Harwood? Do people still have eyes, in this town of a thousand "artists"? It is hard to tell, since we never hear a word in the press about the actual art. It is all a nebulous cultural paean to nothing, a maudlin, star-kissing bow to power and money, while mouthing meaningless words about democracy and progress. Dave Hickey is quoted from the catalog, rattling on about nothing, but we never see a picture of any of the artworks. This is understandable, since if the public knew what they were going to see beforehand, they would never bother to pay the entry fee. I will close with a reminder to all the critic-wannabes in town: an art review should review the art, otherwise it is indistinguishable from agitprop.
To the Editor, Taos News, August 6, 2009
Re: “Provocateur”, Virginia Clark, August 6 cover story, Tempo Magazine. First we are told that 900 people have seen the current exhibit at the Harwood, curated by Dennis Hopper. That number is sold to us as high, but it is actually pathetically low. If we do the math, we find that is about 300 a month (since May), or 10 a day. That is statistically negligible. More people enter buildings by accident than that. If we assume the number has been padded by the artists and their moms and the cleaning staff, we get down to about 1 or 2 strangers a day who lurched in looking for a public toilet, were button-holed by the curator and given complimentary free admission, and lurched out again moments later, blinking and gagging.
Then we are told that “national celeb” Dave Hickey has “taken to task” various forms of “academic nonsense.” First of all, no one but a few pale, confused, nebbish insiders have heard of Hickey, which makes him somewhat less than a celeb. Second, it is logically impossible to combat academic nonsense with more nonsensical nonsense. Hickey “staunchly advocates for beauty unbound by content or objective criteria.” That is just flapdoodle, since beauty has to mean something. It is a word, and a word unbound by content or objective criteria is just a floating gassiness, like everything else that comes from Hickey's bloated head. Hickey thinks that the market for non-critical art in Taos is “incredibly stupid,” so we know who he is arguing against, but the problem is who he is arguing for. Hickey is supposed to be arguing for beauty, is supposed to be “antimodernist” in some way, but he is completely modern in his choice of pals, here and elsewhere. Although he is from Fort Worth, not exactly the metropolitan center of the universe, he now wants to be seen as a big-city celeb, talking down to the ignorant “provincials.” But his elevation is all fake and manufactured, since the shows he curates and the people he promotes create nothing of beauty. They offer us “snot on suede” as “beauty unbound by content.” They sit on panels and slap each other on the back. Hickey is a man without artistic credentials. The Muses choke on his very aura.
As a real provocateur, I ask why the public museum has been coopted by these fake people and their fake shows and their fake catalogs? Why has the town's newspaper decided to print their airy propaganda and self-glorification, unedited and unanalyzed?
To the Editor, Taos News, September 11, 2009
First of all, I got my number  straight from the Harwood Museum's own reporter, so IF the number is wrong, it is their mistake not mine. But I find it convenient that they can change the number whenever they need to. If I make fun of the new number, will they just make up a third higher number? I notice that page 29 of that week's Tempo Magazine [August 6] has been removed from the web, as the first step in rewriting history. Second, I had called the Hickey audience "pale, nebbish and confused" and Frank Bergman from Dallas wrote in to prove he is not pale or nebbish by mentioning his military record—although we are not sure what the military has to do with art. We must assume he is just wrapping himself in the flag, as Hickey so often does. Bergman may or may not have a military tan (we would need a recent photo to verfiy that), but he only proves himself confused when he says he can't find me online. He must be using some new military search engine, since Google returns hundreds of entries when I type in my name, and many of these are pertinent to his question of credentials.
Return to part I of letters to the editor
If this paper was useful to you in any way, please consider donating a dollar (or more) to the SAVE THE ARTISTS FOUNDATION. This will allow me to continue writing these "unpublishable" things. Don't be confused by paying Melisa Smith--that is just one of my many noms de plume. If you are a Paypal user, there is no fee; so it might be worth your while to become one. Otherwise they will rob us 33 cents for each transaction.