Dialogue with an Art Historian: Part Three — The Continuation.
I have a further follow-up to your previous questions regarding comparing artists from different eras.
I think there’s a basic problem in comparing artists, either in their own era or with respect to artists in other eras. Certainly, it’s interesting to try to detect “influences” (e.g., Japanese prints on some of Van Goghs later paintings). But ultimately, as you well know, what’s key in a work (to my mind) is the ‘sensibility’ (for lack of a better word) of the artist — to his materials and to himself (his soul, if you will). It’s that kind of ‘expression’ that subtly appeals to many of us, even if unconsciously. That sensibility may involve her/his reactions to events of their time, their era — political, social, cultural, scientific, etc. But, even if a detailed analysis by a critic or art historian can seem to “tie” aspects of the artist’s work to public events or other artists past or present or things happening in the artist’s life, an exercise that seems peculiarly satisfying to other critics, art historians, and even the public, the final reckoning is the viewer’s/receptor’s “reaction” to the work. When you stand in front of the work, it’s just you and it. And each viewer brings her or his own ‘baggage’ — life experience, viewpoints, mood, preferences.
That’s why, as I stated earlier in our exchange, I have a healthy suspicion of the whole idea of “judgment” in relation to art-viewing and discussion. Yes, I think one can speak intelligently and even non-judgmentally about one artist’s use of a medium vs. another’s. In an online discussion of “The Renaissance of Etching” (a Met exhibition and catalog last year), recently held in connection with the International Print Dealers Association ‘fair’ here in New York, it was interesting to hear several of the 3 member panel note that Durer’s few etchings reflected someone not comfortable with the medium but, rather, who must have preferred engraving (hence, he made only a few etchings). This is a probably historical fact, and interesting in itself, but should not necessarily ‘cloud’ our view of his etchings. What is our personal reaction to these etched images? Can we look at them and ‘appreciate’ them without drawing on our knowledge of how spectacular his engravings are? (Probably not….but we can still appreciate his effort at employing a new technique … and maybe enjoy the images themselves without any comparison with his other works … or with other artists’ etchings.)
As I stated earlier: it seems to me this idea of judging artists and eras began with Vasari here in the West and has not always been helpful in our attempt to understand what really happened in various eras of Western history in the visual arts. (If that’s what we want to understand.) We’ll always have a view skewed by what earlier critics and historians have determined was good or bad and by the ‘canon’ that they have implicitly created. This may leave we who are readers and observers without a real understanding of what earlier societies ‘valued’ in the visual arts and who they thought were good and not so good. A totally comprehensive overview of any era’s visual output is probably not practical, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop trying to get a ‘broader’ view of all that humanity has accomplished — to the extent we have the time away from our own work!
Artists and writers are a cross-section of society … with diverse political affiliations, social and moral values, and financial connections. While I affirm that all artists and writers have a right to their own views, I do wonder whether critics, art historians, museums etc. might have an obligation to present the artist in a context which gives insight into the connections between who they are are personalities and the art that they produce. But what are the boundaries of accountability — for art and literary historians, of critics and teachers, of publishers … and of artists? This includes the many instances of artists, writers and musicians who supported their sponsors in order to gain renommé, political and financial gain, and artistic opportunity. Is there a difference between that and museum benefactors who are known for politics and investments that are no longer politically correct?
I have pointed out Gertrude Stein’s (and other famous authors’) fascist leanings previously. What do you think of the survival of her art collection purely due to her support of Petain? Is it excusable? How do we separate our valuations of famous writers and artists from their “madness” and opportunism as persons and personalities? Does genius supersede all judgment?
I have personally reacted to known artists and writers who have expressed themselves to the media and in their art and literature in ways that I considered to be derogatory to women, to persons with physical handicaps, etc.; and I have also defended artists’ and writers’ right to self-expression, but only as far as I feel that s/he makes an attempt to present the case and give context to their xenophobia and/or other discriminatory perspectives … rather than merely make bombastic presentations in order to shock and provoke. This is a sensitive issue and has perhaps always been so.
All good questions. In the contemporary scene: what should we make of art museums and others being renamed because the benefactor was tied to Big Pharma ‘pushing’ of opioids, especially oxycontin? Or of the Princeton School of Public Affairs being renamed from the Woodrow Wilson School to a more innocuous generic name after Wilson’s terrible racism was (re)exposed? And what can we say about artists? Should we disavow Caravaggio’s works and importance because he was a murderer? (Many artists were at that time, including Cellini … self-admitting in his autobiography). I think the works have to stand on their own … including Wagner’s. But with sharp-eyed observers pointing out aspects (if any) that may deliberately expose their (now) abhorrent views.
Yes, we are all responsible: in our creations, our judgments, our criticisms, our thoughts, our actions, and our non-actions. Existence is an exercise in creation. My most valued compliments regarding my art and literature have been when viewers/readers have told me that my work and ideas have sparked creative thoughts, artworks, and writing in their own lives. I mean for my own work to be an existential and philosophical “dialogue” with the Viewer/Reader … a dialogue that can continue in his/her mind, and thus further, in many forms and perspectives throughout the planet. In that way, we are all inescapably artists/writers/philosophers etc. And we are all responsible. In the words of Jean-Paul Sartre: “L’homme est condamné à être libre”, a concept which resounds in his “L’Etre et le Nèant” and in his “L’existentialisme est un humanisme”. In his novel “Nausea”, Sartre played upon René Descartes’ “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”) with his own discourse: “I am. I am, I exist, I think, therefore I am; I am because I think, why do I think? I don’t want to think anymore, I am because I think that I don’t want to be, I think that I . . . because . . . ugh!” ― Jean-Paul Sartre, “Nausea”.
Truly, we are both creators and victims of Existence … through our thoughts, our words, our actions — individually and collectively; in the present and in our historical and psycho-social heritage.
The Death of Poetry
Fifteen years ago —
when poetry was still popular —
my creative writing teacher preached that
while history repeats itself by nature,
a good poet never does.
Frowning particularly upon
‘that ever-stuttering Gertrude Stein’
and assailing the Beats as opportunists
in an age of trend, he warned
that the death of poetry
was approaching and that its demise
would precipitate intellectual senility.
The spunky old man lives in a rest home now,
and barely recognizes me when I visit.
Yet, nothing can tarnish the love I feel
as he excitedly engages me with the same
damn stories I’ve heard for fifteen years,
over …and over … again.
— Adam Donaldson Powell, “Collected Poems and Stories”, Cyberwit Publishing, 2005.