Abstract Expressionism: Co-opting the Left

It will come as no surprise to regular readers of these virtual pages that The Courtier is not a fan of the work of many abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, etc. Even if, as a well-known architect commented to him recently, The Courtier can manage to engage in an act of Christian charity when reviewing an exhibition of the work of this type of painting, this does not mean he wants this garbage hanging on his walls. They are little more than a reminder of the breakdown of standards in education, culture, and the development of good taste in favor of pulling over something on an uneducated public. They may be art, and The Courtier grants a broad definition to the term “art”, but they are generally rather bad art.

This is not to say that all of what may loosely be referred to in layman’s terms as “modern” art is rejected out of hand by this scrivener. Among others, The Courtier often enjoys and appreciates the work of Piet Mondrian, Roy Lichtenstein, and Richard Estes. In their work, different though these painters are from one another, there is a sense of practice, careful study, and attention to detail that goes into the completed piece – elements which are missing from much of abstract expressionism.

Having said this, The Courtier in fact owns and displays at the manse two rather large canvases in a semi-abstract-expressionist style by a contemporary Hong Kong artist. One is a reinterpretation of Cezanne’s “The Bathers”, and the other a portrait of The Courtier himself. So let it not be said that The Courtier’s home or office is filled with reproductions of 16th century Spanish altarpieces, as enjoyable as such a collection would be, in part. The development of one’s taste or style is dependent upon numerous factors, and in the case of this writer, the taste is often Catholic with a capital “C”, but also catholic with a lower-case “c”.

Yet the devotion paid to the work of the abstract expressionists in the 1950s, and their subsequent influence on the decline of art in general, is something which has always seemed to be utterly unfathomable to The Courtier. Why is it that painters such as Pollock came to be embraced by this country (and others), despite their obvious lack of ability? Perhaps politics had something to do with it, even if they themselves were as much confused about what they stood for as the art they produced. In The Courtier’s view however, if you are going to be a communist, then BE one, rather than whinging about.

Diego Rivera, for example – who in the opinion of The Courtier was far less talented a painter than his long-suffering wife Frida Kahlo – was a very open, muscular communist, both in his personal life and in his work. The same cannot be said, in this reviewer’s opinion, of many of the abstract expressionists, whose blobs and daubs are as intentionally amorphous as their views. There is nothing more unpalatable to The Courtier than having to see the work of someone who cannot stand up for something they claim to believe in in a well thought-out and creative way, even if The Courtier completely disagrees with their point of view.

Of course, many may not be aware of the fact that one of the reasons for the ascendancy of painters such as Pollock was in fact a deliberate scheme by – of all things – the very right-wing Central Intelligence Agency here in Washington. Many among my Lefty readers may be shocked to learn that numerous exhibitions which took place to promote abstract expressionism at institutions such as The Tate in London or at MoMA in New York City, were nothing less than propaganda efforts conducted, not for Left-wing political movements, but on behalf of the CIA. As the leftists of the art world applauded The Rockefellers and The Whitneys for collecting and promoting the work of these artists, they had no idea that theirs was a part of a carefully designed policy initiative to show the rest of the world that, compared to the Soviets (and their cartoonish “Soviet realist” art), Americans were a progressive, free-thinking people – and the stranger the art, the better.

This unwitting co-opting of Left-wing artists, writers, and thinkers by the CIA in collusion with tastemaker millionaire art collectors seems like something fantastic out of an episode of “Spooks” (or “MI-5” as it is known in the States), and yet it proved enormously effective. The argument can be made that the reason one sees the work of these painters on the walls of major museums in the United States and abroad today is because the Right-wing elements of the American security services and the wealthy individuals who backed them thought that these artworks – often created by people who were either communists or had communist/socialist sympathies – were to appear there in order to FIGHT communism. This occurred even though many of these artists and those who championed their work in the pages of art magazines were themselves sometimes radical Leftists, but the American government – even in the McCarthy era – reckoned that these folks could easily be kept under control.

This effort was nothing new, of course: get enough influential people to agree to something, and suddenly it becomes widely accepted. The radical theory transitions to become proven fact: the Emperor has clothes. Fortunately, if one is not duped by the opinions of others into seeing clothes where there are none, one can remain above the fray – so to speak – and know, no matter what the majority of others may say to the contrary, that the fellow is starkers. To maintain this position requires a certain independence and single-mindedness in thinking, though not to the point of intractability.

Is all “modern” art bad because it is not always representational? No. Is all “modern” art good because it hangs in a museum and you have been taught that it is good art? No. Those who reject all of modern art are just as guilty of a lack of discernment as those who embrace all of it with open arms.

Yet as much as those of us who reject work such as abstract expressionism are criticized for being cultural Philistines, the tables need to be turned. Those who raise such charges need to be asked: do you like these paintings because you genuinely like them, or do you in fact like them because you were brought up to believe – by your teachers, art museums, your parents, celebrities, films, etc. – that in fact they are good paintings? Were you able to discern how and why they were good works of art on your own, through testing and seeing for yourself, or was that something which came to you as a result of the influence of others? In other words: are you speaking for yourself, or are you, in fact, aping a line that was written for you decades ago?

As The Courtier has no doubt where his own taste lies, he will leave it to the reader to question his own.

Pollock making his art – but for whom?

>Chicago Fails Again: The Burnham Memorial

>Eric Bootsma over at Beatus Est is reporting on a new memorial to the great American classical architect and city planner Daniel Burnham. Burnham is perhaps best known for his role in building the extravagant group of beaux-arts buildings known as “The White City”, for the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1892. Sadly, little of this extraordinary ensemble survives, as much of it was torched by rioters during the Pullman Strike of 1894. However, a number of Burnham’s great buildings do survive elsewhere, including the iconic Flatiron Building in Manhattan (1902), and our own magnificent Union Station here in Washington, D.C. (1908).

The Burnham memorial will be located in the Museum Campus area of Chicago, a wide expanse of park along Lake Michigan which contains Burnham’s own Field Museum, one of the few surviving buildings of the Columbian Exposition which was moved here in the 1920’s. A competition sponsored by the American Institute of Architects, of which Burnham in his day was President, was held for the design of the memorial. This could have been a golden opportunity for the architectural community to commemorate one of the greatest exponents of classical architecture in the United States with a fitting monument reflective of his ideals.

Instead, as Bootsma reports, we are left with yet another Vietnam Memorial Redux. The winning design – which is utter GARBAGE – features a plain granite wall, with ribbons of stainless steel, and a statue of Burnham standing without a plinth or pedestal, as Bootsma cleverly puts it, “like a shabby professor before the blackboard.” The polished walls of the memorial will reflect the plain boxes of glass and steel that categorize Chicago today, which lack the detail and classical refinement which Burnham always sought to include in his buildings, be they a skyscraper like the Flatiron or a department store like Marshall Field’s. It is the architectural equivalent of holding a Brahms memorial concert by playing nothing but Fifty Cent.

Chicago appears once again, as happened recently with the regrettably banal and functionally ignorant expansion of the Art Institute (upon which subject I expostulated previously), to be attempting to resurrect its heritage as an important center for architectural innovation by becoming a slave to mere faddishness. There can be no doubt that Burnham himself would loathe this planned modernist memorial both in its conception and execution, and I suspect he would prefer to leave the site as it is, rather than to sully the sight lines of the expansive park with such a jumble of lefty fiddle-faddle. As Burnham famously said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood. Make big plans, aim high in hope and work.”