Commentary Magazine

Bad Art

To the Editor:

Steven C. Munson does a commendable job of characterizing the recent exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum and of enumerating the shortcomings of some of its individual pieces [“Art, Excrement, and Sensation,” January]. Still, even while accurately describing the nature of the problem that infects the contemporary art establishment, he fails to understand and explore the roots of that problem. This failure emerges at the article’s conclusion, with Mr. Munson’s respectful references to the “values of 20th-century modernism,” the importance of modernist “sightlines,” and “the great Russian abstract painter,” Kandinsky.

Mr. Munson would like to interpret the current morass as the result of a revolution against the modernism that he appears to esteem. To the contrary, it is more likely that the breakdown of traditional artistic and cultural values that began in the early 1900’s—with, among many others, Kandinsky—has simply hit bottom. Today’s crop of pretenders did not materialize suddenly from nowhere. They were schooled on the progression, or regression, of modernism; and their descent was facilitated by the momentum of what preceded them.

That the bottom may finally have been reached has to be taken as a positive sign. From here, unless the choice is to stagnate in darkness, there is no place for art to go but up; and there is nothing better than a dynamic, embracing, updated version of traditional artistic and cultural values to light the way.

Harvey Gordon
Kalamazoo, Michigan



To the Editor:

Though Steven C. Munson writes about the motives behind the Sensation exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, and emphasizes that aesthetic values were not used in selecting its pieces, he does not take the next step and try to define art. This absence of a clear definition of art is the current standard, but it leaves us unable to render judgment in these matters.

What, then, do unchallenged examples of great art share? They are, in the first place, man-made and done in deliberate fashion. In addition, they have to impress the viewer technically—that is, they must reflect skill beyond the ordinary—and they must produce a visceral impact on the viewer. These three attributes alone are sufficient to define art, but for art to be great, a fourth is needed: originality. There is a tendency in modern criticism to accept originality as a sufficient criterion for art. But if originality is the sole requirement, then any impulse becomes an artistic one. This is the source of our current confusion, and of the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.

Arnold Flick
La jolla, California



To the Editor:

Writing of the controversy concerning the use of elephant dung in Cris Ofili’s painting The Holy Virgin Mary, Steven C. Munson informs us that “the use of such excretions in the creation of art objects is old hat.” For a century or so, modernists have tried to shock the public. But shock wears off, and nothing remains but boredom.

One person responded to the showing of Sensation the way he was supposed to: Mayor Rudy Giuliani. As a result, the exhibition was a great success. Had the mayor known that art designed to shock is old hat, few people would have heard or cared about Sensation.

George Jochnowitz
College of Staten Island,
Staten Island, New York



To the Editor:

Bravo, Steven Munson! With the exception of his and a few articles by others, there has been a rather astonishing silence about the agendas of today’s museums and the feeble offerings that pass as cutting-edge contemporary art. As Mr. Munson so accurately explains, Sensation was not the least bit out of the ordinary for museum fare, though the Brooklyn Museum’s sideshow-style promotional hype was somewhat beyond the norm. What was truly out of the ordinary was the fact that New York’s mayor was willing to challenge the museum’s integrity and its right to public funding for an offensive display purporting to be important art.

I wonder how we ever arrived at the point where intelligent individuals are willing to accept sliced cows, a crucifix in urine, or a pile of old syringes as being profound expressions of the human spirit. Quentin Bell was definitely on the right track when he suggested in his book, Bad Art, that the current antiaesthetic is about contrived elitism rather than art. By promoting bizarre and unappealing constructs as significant creations, one can then pretend to a superior understanding of hidden meanings not available to the uninitiated masses. Until people are willing to object to this practice, we will be served up slightly modified versions of Sensation over and over again.

Carole C. Quam
Chugiak, Alaska



Steven C. Munson writes:

I would like to thank Harvey Gordon, Arnold Flick, George Jochnowitz, and Carole C. Quam for their thoughtful and supportive comments. Such responses are indeed gratifying.

Harvey Gordon shares a view of modernism that, with some variation, can also be found in the writings of such commentators as the journalist Tom Wolfe and the historian Paul Johnson—to wit, that modern art represents a fundamental break with the artistic tradition that preceded it, a tradition rooted in the Renaissance and the classical era. This view is unsupported by the historical and biographical record, which makes it abundantly clear that Matisse, Picasso, and the other giants of modernism were fully engaged with that tradition, and considered it to be both vitally alive and crucial to their own artistic development. In responding to the tradition they inherited, they sought, in fact, to rescue it from the academic ossification into which it had fallen in the hands of its self-styled defenders. It was this process of recovery that led modern artists to create forms of painting and sculpture that, while radically new, were inspired in part by a serious appreciation and study of the past. One could even say that modernism itself was the “dynamic, embracing, updated version of traditional artistic and cultural values” that Mr. Gordon calls for today.

By contrast, much of what goes under the name of “postmodern” is both anti-modernist and antitraditionalist. For that reason, there seems to me to be greater continuity between the modern period and all that went before it than—superficial appearances and resemblances of means notwithstanding—there is between modern and much of postmodern art. Where that leaves us, beyond recognizing the need to uphold the light of modernism—both because of the great value of its own achievements and because it grants us access to artistic periods remote from our own experience—I do not know.

I also lack the courage shown by Arnold Flick in offering a definition of art, and of great art in particular. One key for me, I suppose, is how long I feel compelled to stand in front of a painting or sculpture, or how many times I want to return to look at it again. As for originality, when it is genuine, it often seems to be the result of, again, a serious effort to engage, rather than overthrow, one’s artistic predecessors, an effort that frequently begins with attempts to copy or imitate their work.

I disagree with George Jochnowitz’s view that, “For a century now, modernists have tried to shock the public.” Shock may have been the first response to their work, but it was not their artistic goal nor was it central to their intentions. Matisse agonized over what he was doing when he began to create his Fauve pictures, and Picasso carefully calculated the possible public reaction to his Cubist works. What Mr. Jochnowitz says does, however, apply to many post-modern artists, for whom shock seems to be an end in itself. He may be right as well about Mayor Giuliani’s inadvertently helping to boost the Sensation exhibit into the limelight and thereby save it from relative obscurity.

Carole C. Quam is also right about Giuliani’s being an exception in standing up to condemn bad art. On the issue of funding, however, my own feeling is that once you decide to give public money to a cultural institution to promote art appreciation you really have to let the people in charge do their job as they see fit; otherwise, politically motivated interventions would be called for every time somebody with clout or an axe to grind happened not to like an exhibit. It might have made more sense for the mayor to use his bully pulpit to criticize Sensation and demand that the trustees of the Brooklyn Museum publicly explain their decision to show it, rather than going to the mattresses on funding and winding up in court. That seems to me to be the last place where we would want such matters to be addressed, since the issue then becomes one of First Amendment rights rather than what is most relevant, namely, the museum’s quality-control standards.

As for the elitism of the art world, I frankly wish it were generally more elitist in its aesthetic attitudes these days, as unapologetically elitist, say, as is Phillippe de Montebello, the head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One reason exhibits like Sensation are put on is that, appealing as they do to the lowest common denominators in public taste, they are viewed as potential moneymakers. The overcommercialization of the museums is, in fact, the chief problem with such institutions today, and has in many ways been very detrimental to the experience of going to look at art.


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