Art Criticism: The Scandal of Dissent

It’s a well-established fact that the art world does not tolerate criticism from the right, which is one of the reasons why you find very few conservatives writing about art. When we think of an artist boldly painting something that is rejected by the art establishment of the time, we are trotting out an old, long-dead canard that no longer has any meaning. No one in the art establishment today would be scandalized by John Singer Sargent’s infamous “Madame X” (1884), a work whose sensuality was once considered highly shocking. The only way to shock the collective mindset of the art intellegentsia today is to dissent from the socio-political opinions which they regard as sacrosanct. An illustrative example in this regard can be found in the art establishment’s reaction to a piece that appeared in National Review over the weekend.

National Review Editorial Intern Liam Warner’s (one assumes) intentionally provocatively-titled article, “The Whitney Is Not an Art Museum”, describes a recent visit of the author to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where after touring the permanent collection he visited the current exhibition, “An Incomplete History of Protest”. The premise of Mr. Warner’s piece is that the work on display in the show is not actually art, but rather propaganda. He makes the argument that the purpose of art is to elevate, using examples such as Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” as it might be perceived by both a believer and a non-believer.

I disagree with the idea that propaganda cannot be art, since one need only look at Raphael’s logge in the Vatican or Mantegna’s frescoes in Mantua to realize that art has often been created for or doubles as propaganda. Nor do I agree that the purpose of art is to elevate – at least, not exclusively. Mr. Warner’s inclusion of Goya’s “The Third of May” in his argument is an interesting choice, because of course much of Goya’s art in particular belies the notion that art necessarily elevates. Works such as “The Drowning Dog” (c. 1819-1823) shown below, one of Goya’s greatest paintings, actually depresses, rather than elevates. Similarly Edward Hopper, whom Mr. Warner mentions favorably at the outset of his article, is an artist whose work is often characterized by a deeply depressing, sometimes sinister undertone, even when the image itself is of a bright, sunny day.

Still, I give Mr. Warner credit for tackling a subject that few conservative writers are willing to touch.

For example, Mr. Warner points to the notable absence of any specifically conservative viewpoint in the Whitney’s survey of American protest art. “The March for Life has been going on since 1974,” he notes, “yet we find no ‘Abortion Is Murder’ sign in the quite incomplete history of protest. That would get the museum shunned by high society.” The Whitney has, in effect, curated out all significant American protest movements with which it disagrees, by simply pretending that such points of view do not exist: something which the art establishment itself regularly accuses the right of doing.

Reaction in the art press to Mr. Warner’s article was predictable. Over on ArtNet, the staff chuckled up their tattoo sleeves at Mr. Warner’s temerity in being offended by the art on display:

The National Review dubs the Whitney’s exhibition “An Incomplete History of Protest” a “fascinating combination of leftism and bad taste.” The writer takes issue with the show’s inclusion of photographs from anti-Vietnam War protests, posters addressing the AIDS crisis that depict genitalia, and work by the Guerrilla Girls, arguing that such imagery amounts to coercive propaganda. Nobody tell him about the David Wojnarowicz show!

For those unfamiliar with his work, David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992), who is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney, created the sort of collage art that Urban Outfitters used to put in their changing rooms to make the place seem more edgy. He is particularly beloved by the left for his juxtapositions of illicit imagery and Christianity, such as a collage “Untitled (Genet after Brassaï)” (1979) in which, inter alia, an altarpiece of Christ crowned with thorns is depicted shooting up heroin, while the (grossly overrated) French author Jean Genet (1910-1986) is shown in the foreground with a halo. [N.B. To be fair, I have only read Genet in translation; perhaps in French he is not so paralyzingly self-obsessed.] You can see this and similar garbage by following this link, but be forewarned that your life will in no way be improved upon by looking at it.

Meanwhile, Art News posted the following, in linking to Mr. Warner’s piece:

But not all negative reviews are inherently productive or worthwhile. One writer takes issue with the focus on progressive movements in the Whitney Museum’s ongoing “An Incomplete History of Protest” exhibition. He was particularly affronted by the work of “some organization called the Guerrilla Girls,” and he calls the show, in part, “an entire floor of lies.”

The interesting thing about Art News’ editorializing in the forgoing is that it betrays the writer’s underlying, utterly unexamined myopia. The Whitney’s exhibition materials make no mention of the term “progressive” in describing the show. In its introductory lines, the Whitney explains how “artists play a profound role in transforming their time and shaping the future,” but makes no mention of the show having a “focus on progressive movements”: that is a characterization made by Art News.

Art News merely assumes – and as it happens, correctly – that the Whitney or indeed any major museum mounting a show of protest art in the present age will only be displaying “progressive” art. Similarly, because it disagrees with Mr. Warner’s views, Art News characterizes his views as not being “inherently productive or worthwhile.” This is only to be expected from a publication that can run stories such as this with a straight face.

While I can’t say that I agree with all of the underlying assumptions in the National Review article at issue, the art establishment’s reaction to it is highly illustrative. There is an unquestioning, lockstep quality to most art writing, be it news or criticism, that intentionally excludes views from the right. It has been that way for quite a long time now, with no likelihood of the situation changing any time soon.

Fortunately those of us who, in our small way, attempt to continue to educate ourselves about art and share our opinions about it, without simultaneously worshiping at the altar of leftist secularism, are not ruled by the opinions of the art establishment. After all, the art establishment preaches time and again that art is for everybody. That must therefore, by definition, include those who dissent from the messages contained within it.


4 thoughts on “Art Criticism: The Scandal of Dissent

  1. Glad you are putting the educated conservative viewpoint out there! I completely agree that art is often propaganda. There are so many examples out there. My favorite propaganda piece is David’s “Death of Marat.” Moreover, any portrait has a connotation of propaganda about it. The sitter is often trying to convince a potential viewer of his superiority, wealth, goodness, etc.


  2. Art Galleries often have such difficulties with the “great unwashed” (I include myself in this group btw). Without fail, when I wish some respite from a crowded shuffling mass of people staring far too closely at some Renaissance era exhibit while being eagled eyed by a clenched fist security guard, I wander into the deserted, white-walled echoing rooms of Contemporary Art. The air seems somehow fresher there. (Well, at least that’s one good thing about Contempt Art, lol.)


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