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Does Invidiousness Go With The Territory?

Critic: One who speaks with discernment. At least, that is how the ancient Greeks thought of the word. Alas, the few left in what are now (derisively?) called the print media, never came close to the ancient distinction, and our own in New York leave much to be desired. I’m told that today only the good gray New York Times maintains art critics on the regular payroll, and that all the rest make do with part-timers, or not at all. Journalistic critics, of whom I was one at the New York Times, are often known for their role as diminishers; what the editors always like best when they call for a “rousing” lead. Apparently, they still do hold the vulgarians in high regard, judging from a recent grand salvo aimed at the eternally vulnerable Picasso.  (If you think public denunciations of Picasso belong to that other century, just remember Colin Powell’s dishonest speech at the UN about the war in Iraq, when they covered up the large representation of Picasso’s “Guernica.”)

It is true, if you know your Picasso literature, that he was always a whipping boy in the popular press, while at the same time the subject of serious thought on the part of some of the best poets in the 20th Century, and some of the best thinkers about the visual arts, among them the eminent art historian, Meyer Schapiro. At the same time he always was subjected to denigrating commentary, even by the humble classes. I can remember standing on line for something or other when I was a young student in Paris, hearing the outraged woman behind me snort angrily: “c’est du Picasso, ça!” The nature of much Picasso commentary for more than a century is hardly more elevated.

You might say, so what? Do we need commentary? Does it matter at all if one scribbler denounces a poet, novelist, or painter? The answer is not hard to find in the annals of art history. Probably even the cave painters had someone standing over their shoulder saying “no, no, that line isn’t right.” It seems that talking about art has always accompanied artists (who, by the way, have quite frequently become “critics”—that is, someone who talks about art, such as Redon, Léger, Smithson et al.)

And artists themselves often long to have someone talk about their work; someone who, in effect, has a conversation with them that might—just might—contribute to their moral well-being.

Artists, and their admirers, are questioning after something that I will call understanding. A few capacious minds have wrestled with the problem, among them Maurice Blanchot, who early in his life as a critic recognized that:

Understanding seeks what escapes it, and advances vigorously and purposefully towards the moment when it is no longer possible: when the fact, in its absolutely concrete and particular reality, becomes obscure and impenetrable… The gaze that has succeeded in grasping something original—and this never happens by chance but requires great patience and great strength, self-renunciation and at the same time the most personal resolve—does not claim to have seen clearly into that origin; it has simply grasped the perspective from which the event must be confronted in order that its most authentic and extreme aspects be preserved.

Such understanding criticism cannot, of course, be demanded of the common journalist who doesn’t have time or the mandate to find the right perspective. But dignity or probity might be requested, even of him who struts on the pages of the New York Times.

Now, if I were a “cultural critic,” whatever that is, or even a sociologist, I might find in Holland Cotter’s philipic against Picasso some telling details. The most obvious is that in the opening paragraph, and twice in the piece, he introduces the word kitsch, a surefire  prejudicial word, calling Picasso one the 20th Century’s “most prolific purveyors of kitsch” and announcing that he “would place a high percentage of his output in the kitsch category.” A few words later, still in the lead paragraph covering Acquavella’s exhibition of Picasso’s paintings of Marie Thérèse, he refers to one of the paintings, “La Rêve” and instantly gives its reason for fame: “once famous for its $139 million price tag.” Relishing the chance to show that he, too, the august critic of the New York Times, can wield the vernacular, he writes that Picasso met and “sweet-talked” the French teenager when he was forty-five and (heaven forefend!) married! But Cotter’s Puritanism is far more prurient than he imagines. “Please, Pablo, give us a break,” he writes in the next to the last paragraph:

This is an eroticism on the level of all those images of the artist as minotaur ravishing his models that you churned out by the thousands and that no one takes seriously anymore, if anyone ever did.

The image of the charlatan artist “churning out” images is underlined when Cotter throws in his opinion that some of these paintings were “apparently finished in a matter of hours.” Pandering to a common prejudice is not beneath this critic who declares that all these paintings had a “promotional vision” and that Picasso “made them as crowd pleasing as possible: alternately soft-porn sexy and sentimental, with eye-catching colors, art historical references (Ingres, Matisse, Cézanne), and enough kooky distortion to maintain an avant-garde cred.” Much of the information in Cotter’s review is gotten straight out of the catalogue and its thoughtful essay by Michael Fitzgerald, and then ruthlessly distorted.

As I said, this piece is a good indicator of the current lamentable situation in criticism, but it is also an indicator of cultural decadence. The association of art and dollars is uppermost in Cotter’s thinking, as we can see when he takes precious newsprint space to tell us that it is probably no accident of timing that a Nov. 6 Christie’s sale “finds a 1934 Picasso painting of Marie Thérèse and her sister on offer, for an estimated 18 million to 25 million.”

We all know there has always been an uneasy relationship between art and money and that the history of patronage is deeply embedded in art history and criticism. But we also know that the vicissitudes of the marketplace ultimately do not determine the immanent value of a work of art. In times when the “starving artist” was a popular cliché, there were actually starving artists, and some, among the Impressionists, for instance, all the same kept working, dollars or no.

Just a few weeks ago there was a raging press campaign in Europe against the Spanish artist Miquel Barceló based entirely on money. His ceiling for the United Nations in Geneva was assessed entirely in terms of the amount of money it cost. Just as Cotter’s diatribe against Picasso is seemingly inspired by the prices of the paintings, so the attacks on Barceló were geared to the number of Euros expended, and not to the work itself.

Such a situation demands commentary. If art criticism is hostage to the marketplace, and if the destiny of an artist’s work is to be evaluated on an eternal abacus, something vital has been lost—that is, good conversation among artists and their viewers. And of course, what Blanchot defines as understanding. What some guy writes in a newspaper may not matter much, especially in the parlous times, but it behooves us to remember that once upon a time a newspaper critic had enough intelligence to write about what he saw (as was the case even in the New York Times during the 1940s when artists actually engaged in public debate with the critic, who saw to it that their views were published. The Times critic, Edward Alden Jewell, wrote about what he saw and not about the prices of paintings, and the artists engaged in public debate with him in 1943.)

While most of us do not expect loftiness in journalistic criticism, we should demand at the very least good reportage. These Picasso things, after all, were paintings. The old newspaper who-what-when-where-why formula is not so bad after all, especially the what. In fact, true criticism cannot be purveyed in newspapers. Or at least, not very easily because of space limitations. A journalist cannot expend his reportage with philosophic speculation or musing. But it seems that these days he can disparage freely without ever addressing the very reasons he is employed—works of art.

So, if this instance of invidious criticism is worthless, why should we care? I would say that the answer is: because of the increasingly clandestine life of real thought. We can’t afford to lose what little grip we have in the public arena, despite all the new possibilities of the net. The loss of what the French used to call “the sympathetic witness” affects each artist and each viewer. (As Borges used to say, “I am addressing each of you, not all of you.”) If, as Cotter concludes in his despicable piece, “kitsch, once acknowledged as such, has its appeal,” let us lampoon the kitschiers zestfully, first among them Cotter.


Dore Ashton


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 08-JAN 09

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