To the Editor:
found Michael J. Lewis’s essay [“How Art Became Irrelevant,” July/August] interesting but suffering from two flaws: First, it takes the non-artistic movements from Duchamp onwards far too seriously, treating even performance art and concept art as actual art forms, which they are obviously not (if anything can be art, nothing is). Second, it completely ignores so many artists who have remained loyal to traditional artistic concepts and produced meaningful and original art. There are painters who paint figuratively (Andrew Wyeth, Jacob Collins, Wim Heldens, Odd Nerdrum, and Michael Triegel, just to name a few), composers who write tonally (Nicolas Bacri, Richard Dubugnon, David Matthews, John Corigliano), architects who build classically (Quinlan and Francis Terry, Alan Greenberg, Robert Adam, Leon Krier, Dmitri Porphyrios). These figures have success with audiences, creating a territory of artistic enterprise firmly rooted in the community but completely separated from established, academic, and by now entirely conventional postmodernism in all its forms. Mr. Lewis seems to be unaware of these important movements and focuses on the petrified establishment, which—as he notes—has lost all meaning. The article represents, in spite of its well-meaning warnings and analysis, an academic position and misses what is actually going-on in the field.
To the Editor:
eading Michael J. Lewis’s essay reminded me that on the campus where I teach, the art department has been moved to an industrial-looking building in the far corner of a large parking lot. Its interaction with the rest of the university is minimal, and no one misses them. After all, few people are interested in sculptures (so-called) made of trash. In his essay, Mr. Lewis does not draw attention to art made today that people actually pay for (as opposed to art financed by government and awarded by the artistic community). Consider, for example, video games. Some are surprisingly artistic.
To the Editor:
ichael J. Lewis’s interesting article reminded me of when I first heard about Chris Burden’s getting himself shot in the arm for art. I was dismayed—is this what we have to do now to put ourselves over as artists? It seems that this wasn’t the main focus of Burden’s work, but something he put himself through so people would actually take notice of him and the other things he did. Now he’s most remembered for an assemblage of lampposts in Los Angeles, but it’s doubtful he would have gotten that commission if not for the notoriety of his earlier stunts.
I’m not sure if I agree with Mr. Lewis’s idea that artists have brought the public’s current disinterest in and disengagement from art on themselves through their “transgressive” actions. To me, their behavior seems born of desperation, similar to how a caged monkey might express his angst by throwing excrement at gawking crowds. Audiences started slipping away from art long before the NEA defunding battles of the ’80s; shortly after World War II, the academic art establishment turned its back on the public in favor of thinking of art as something that (unsurprisingly) required an education to appreciate. This led to a climate in which it was no longer possible for a layman, however cultured, to hold his own in a discussion about the merits (or lack thereof) of a piece of art; the academically trained could always resort to their supposedly higher level of art knowledge and sneer at other people’s lack of discernment. In the face of this dynamic, where one no longer had the right to evaluate art for what it showed on the surface, and instead had to engage in a tendentious jargon-laced dissection of its underlying theoretical structure, it’s not shocking that people in general lost interest in something they were not considered worthy to understand.
Mr. Lewis’s point about museums becoming our new cathedrals is well-taken. Instead of being a unified expression of an aesthetic impulse, as were the medieval cathedrals of Europe, our museums have turned into gorgeous boxes that contain a miscellaneous assortment of things: basically anything that will draw a crowd (and corporate sponsorship). It’s been noted frequently that the contents of these places rarely measure up to their containers, but that would make sense, since vastly more resources are put into the construction of these buildings than into the art that fills them. So we are faced with paradoxical spectacles: palatial structures costing hundreds of millions to build filled with Arte Povera—art made from discarded materials by literally starving artists. Would the money have been better spent in supporting artists, so they could make better art, and showing it in less extravagant surroundings? Given the current structure of funding for the arts, we’re unlikely to find out anytime soon.
To the Editor:
am a professor of art history, and I just read the article by Mr. Lewis. It is one of the most cogent, thoughtful, insightful, and important articles I have read in some time. In this short exposé, he has encapsulated the issues surrounding Modern and contemporary art. Bravo to him for his forthright and unapologetic stance. I am making this required reading in all of my art-history classes. Thank you for making it available.
To the Editor:
ichael J. Lewis in his essay dismisses nonobjective art as an insufficient universal expression of human emotion and comprehension. Nonobjective art is dismissed—period. Art must first be internalized before it can be rationalized, accepted, or dismissed. Most of the population does not have this ability to critically think about art (due to a failure of education?), so art is irrelevant in most people’s life, except the lives of investors.
To the Editor:
ichael J. Lewis has written an excellent article and made his points well. I hope voices like his will draw attention to those artists whose works should be known by the public. The Spanish painter Antonio Lopez Garcia, for instance, springs to mind—a technical master, but also an evolving, intellectual force whose talent dwarfs far more celebrated artists. I mention Lopez Garcia particularly because, as a realist painter myself, I am disappointed that the free-for-all of contemporary art is in general negatively affecting the quality of painting. Many skilled painters, reacting against the likes of Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons, believe that mastery of their craft is enough. It’s not. Technical facility is the starting point, not the goal. Lopez Garcia, for one, shows that experimentation and intense thought are essential to making great art.
Mr. Lewis mentions the powerful painters of post–World War I Germany. Their work still resonates. Great war photography did not diminish their power. Today, digital images and online social networks may be creating the sort of Babel even Berger could not imagine, but painting at its very best is not photography. It is more. I would love to see a “gatekeeper” like Mr. Lewis promote what the public, I believe, would be astounded and delighted to discover.
Asheville, North Carolina
To the Editor:
ichael J. Lewis seems to completely miss the point in his article “How Art Became Irrelevant,” which might just as well be titled “How Art Historians Became Irrelevant.” Under the latter title, the article might become self-explanatory. Art, like language, continues to change, and not simply in its styles or nuanced meanings. While Mr. Lewis bemoans the apparently more infrequent use of the word civilization after the 1960s, he doesn’t sufficiently explore the reasons for this. Perhaps people today are not any less aware of or less interested in the concept of civilization, but have come to realize that it is a word with too much baggage to be easily tossed about.
Similarly, the author’s notion that too many people today find the arts “irrelevant” baldly and bewilderingly ignores the fact that the visual arts today are as ubiquitous and vibrant (artistically, economically, culturally) as they ever were—which is to say, the world is just as full of bad art today as ever, but with flashes of brilliance and soul-stirring glimpses of the beyond. Might it just be that the art forms themselves, and the media with which people choose to engage themselves, have changed? Cinema, and the many forms of virtual imagery widely spread across our visual field, are as deeply and firmly embedded in our “civilization” as the visual arts have been at any time, and people are just as aware of them and spend just as much money and conversation on them as ever. They are as much (even more) a part of our daily lives as the arts have ever been. Mr. Lewis’s dismissal of these arts as “unable to speak across time” and as divorced from “traditional culture and fine art” suggests not so much that art has become irrelevant, but rather that the definition of art used by some in the academy has become irrelevant.
Michael J. Lewis responds:
n my essay “How Art Became Irrelevant,” I proposed that the arts no longer express as they once did a sense of collective purpose and identity, and that this alienation of the public from the world of art is the central fact confronting the arts today. I also offered a brief itinerary of the steps that brought us to this impasse, although to do full justice to the story would be to write a history of the 20th century. And so the theme of my essay was not aesthetic decline, as some of my writers evidently believe, but rather alienation. For example, John Borstlap provides a splendid who’s-who of traditionally minded artists (to which I would add that brilliant sculptor Alexander Stoddart) to rebuke a point I did not make. I never claimed that no one was producing “meaningful and original art” today but only that such art is experienced by only a small segment of the population and is not part of our communal experience.
Similarly, Stacie Beck chides me for ignoring that “surprisingly artistic” genre, the video game. I have no quarrel with her. There is no question that first-rate artistic minds are at work in this field. To hear them speak about the problem of depicting on the digital screen forms that are translucent (such as three-dimensional puffs of smoke) is to get an inkling of the excitement felt in the 15th century at the discovery of geometric perspective. But here again I was not proposing that there is no imaginative digital art today, merely that this too serves a niche audience.
I never scorned “nonobjective art,” as James Woronow charges, for its inability to serve as a “universal expression of human emotion and comprehension.” But he is correct that a formal training is required before one can enjoy a painting by Mark Rothko the way one enjoys a painting by, say, John Singer Sargent. But this formal training is itself the problem, according to Andrew Werby, who suggests that the alienation of the public from art actually began with the rise of difficult art after World War II, when the enjoyment of a painting gave way to “a tendentious jargon-laced dissection of its underlying critical structure.” Instead of blaming the artists themselves, he would put the blame squarely at the feet of those who made the experience of art a joyless theoretical pursuit, i.e., the whole apparatus of art scholars, critics, and theorists that arose to staff the academic faculties and government offices that deal with art. Here he anticipates William Klingelhofer, who wants to retitle my essay “How Art Historians Became Irrelevant.”
Mr. Klingelhofer insists that the visual arts today are as “ubiquitous and vibrant” as ever, and are a fundamental part “of our daily lives.” Would he be so sanguine, I wonder, if he weren’t writing from a noted art colony? To repeat my point, a healthy arts culture must be richly embedded in the culture that it expresses, and an art world fragmented into so many self-contained subcultures will not receive from that culture the impulses it needs to remain vital and of significance to that culture. I think of Solzhenitsyn’s sad lament that exile was the cruelest punishment for an author, who needs constantly to hear his own language spoken in order to keep the sound and sense of it alive. My essay sought to describe the kind of internal exile in which we find ourselves.
I am grateful to Julyan Davis for making me aware of the gifted Antonio Lopez Garcia, whom I nominate for Mr. Borstlaps’ who’s-who. Finally, I thank Ms. Solon for her gracious letter.
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Taking Art Lightly
Must-Reads from Magazine
A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.