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.


Art Sleuthing: The Painting Beneath The Picasso

Thanks to modern technology, we are more accustomed to the idea that painters have re-used their own canvases to create different works later on, for various reasons. we don’t often appreciate that sometimes, an artist might reuse the canvas of another artist, as well. Such is the case with a new discovery made at Northwestern University in Chicago, after examining a painting by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) now owned by the Art Gallery of Ontario (“AGO”). That story is interesting enough in itself, but I hope to add some armchair art sleuthing to it, if you’re willing to bear with me.

“La Miséreuse accroupie” (1902) [N.B. which I would have translated as, “Crouching Beggar Woman”, but be that as it may] is a painting from Picasso’s “Blue Period” of 1901-1904, when many of his works were heavily blue in tone and indeed in subject matter. At the time, the young Picasso was both professionally frustrated and severely depressed, a combination that affected his palette and his outlook. He was also spending a great deal of time traveling back and forth between Barcelona and Paris, trying to make a name for himself, and painting in both cities. Alongside his friend the Catalan Post-Impressionist painter Isidre Nonell (1872-1911), with whom he shared studio space in Paris, he spent time observing socially marginalized people, such as the mendicants who sat outside of church doors and on street corners, begging for money or food.


Via a partnership between the AGO and the National Gallery here in DC, scientists at Northwestern were asked to closely examine the painting, since it was apparent that another painting lay underneath the surface that we currently see. Using infrared reflectance hyperspectral imaging and other techniques, they found that the present work was painted over a landscape painting, which had been turned 90 degrees, and elements of which were used by Picasso in completing the final image. It is not known who painted the landscape, and the article does not identify what the landscape depicts.


However, gentle reader, while I cannot tell you who painted the landscape, I believe that I can tell you what that landscape depicts: in fact, I recognized it immediately, given the Barcelona context for the painting’s origin.

The round, temple-like structure at the center of the underlying image is almost certainly the pavilion dedicated to Danaë, mistress of Zeus and mother of the Greek hero Perseus, which is located inside the park known as the Laberint d’Horta (“Labyrinth of Horta”), in the NE end of the city. Named for its intricate maze of hedges, the garden was originally laid out in the late 18th century as part of a country estate, and was expanded by the same family over the ensuing decades. Eventually it became a major cultural meeting point, not only for high society, but for thinkers as well.

Horta (2)

Like many of the northern neighborhoods of modern-day Barcelona, Horta was originally a town located a few miles outside of the city. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the well-to-do began to build weekend homes for themselves in these areas, so as to take advantage of the cooler temperatures and more open spaces afforded by these neighborhoods in the foothills of the Collserola Mountains that ring the city. Antoni Gaudí’s famous Park Güell development project is perhaps the most famous example of how the Catalan bourgeoisie began heading to the local hills on the weekend, building Art Nouveau and Beaux Arts mansions for themselves. Over time, the city grew up to swallow the empty spaces that lay between these villages and the downtown core.

By the late 19th century, even though it was still privately held by the family who originally commissioned it, the Laberint d’Horta was functioning as a sort of mini-Bois de Boulogne, where fashionable people could go to stroll or sit outdoors, and sometimes to hear concerts or see plays. When Spanish kings and queens came to visit the city, receptions and entertainments were often provided for them there. Artists, architects, and writers from the Modernista movement, the Catalan equivalent of Art Nouveau, came up to the park to stretch their legs and think great thoughts.

Here, for example, is an 1898 photograph of Joan Maragall i Gorina (1860-1911), Catalonia’s greatest poet, along with the painter, critic, and architect Miquel Utrillo i Morlius (1862-1934), father of the French painter and Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955). The two men are shown standing just outside the park’s Danaë Pavilion, which (I believe) is shown in the original work beneath Picasso’s painting. Picasso knew and admired both of these men, as well as the others with whom they formed the artistic and intellectual avant-garde in Barcelona while he was an art student there.


In fact, Miquel Utrillo was one of the first publishers to take Picasso’s work seriously. He not only helped to organize and promote Picasso’s first participation in a commercial art exhibition, at the Sala Parés gallery in Barcelona in 1901, but he also wrote about the young artist in magazines which he had either co-founded or published. Meanwhile, Maragall’s embrace of a kind of intellectual anarchism, combined with imagery of curving, undulating landscape being evocative of the female form in his poetry and essays, had a lifetime impact on Picasso’s work.

Given the fairly apparent relationship of the landscape painting to the appearance of the gardens around the temple of Danaë at Horta, as well as knowing something more about the importance of Horta as a location during the period of time when Picasso painted over this scene, I’m fairly confident that this identification is correct, as far as subject matter. As to who actually painted the landscape, there are various possibilities to consider.

Could the landscape have been the work of a fellow, struggling young artist in Barcelona, who was unsatisfied with his painting and about to throw it away, when the equally-struggling Picasso asked if he could take the canvas? Could it be a canvas pinched from Picasso’s artist father, José Ruiz y Blasco, who taught at the art school in Barcelona and, when not painting images of birds, painted somewhat conventional landscapes and seascapes? Or could it be an early, teenaged work by Picasso himself, left behind in the closet at his parents’ apartment, which he decided to repurpose rather than throw in the trash?

Perhaps science will be able to tell us, but for now, that’s one mystery solved, another to go.

Cleaning House: The Intellectual Challenge Of A Restored Chartres

Last week I shared with you the sad state of affairs at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, where an enormous amount of funds need to be raised to save the famous French Gothic church. Today I want to direct you to developments in an ongoing story which I’ve shared with you before, concerning the controversial restoration of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres. As (arguably) France’s most important Gothic cathedral, Chartres has always attracted a great deal of attention from architects, historians, and scholars – and of course, from pilgrims and tourists as well. With the latest phase of restoration completed and more still to come, some of the changes to what most people think of as the quintessential “Gothic” building are going to be quite shocking.

I’ll let the lengthy NYT piece speak for itself, but I particularly wanted to point out how the “Black Madonna of Chartres” is no longer: she’s back to her original white. In fact as the article points out at the end, she was originally the “White Madonna of Chartres”, as “White Madonnas” made of materials such as ivory, alabaster, or white marble were beloved in both Medieval France and Spain – hence the popularity of the names “Blanche” or “Blanca”. Over centuries of soot from candles, incense, and dust accumulating on their surfaces, these statue often developed a dark patina, turning their skin to a black or grayish color. You can see from these before and after images of Our Lady of Chartres, just how dirty this particular statue had become:



Regarding the overall controversy in the art press of the restoration work underway at Chartres, I certainly admit to having a personal perspective – or bias, if you prefer. As someone who has not only studied and appreciated sacred art and architecture for most of my life, but who is also a practicing Catholic, I’ve always found commentary from non-Catholic historians and experts on Catholic art and Catholic buildings to be automatically suspect. In fact, many such highly-regarded commentators, when you dig a bit into their background and writings, are not only not Catholics, they openly hate the Catholic Church, or reject all religion generally.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that you have to believe in God in order to understand Catholic art and architecture. But any Catholic with an art or architecture background can share horror stories of visiting an exhibition, or watching a television documentary, and reacting in horror to the complete misunderstanding or deliberate misinterpretation of Catholicism by those involved.

Sometimes, the cause of this is simple ignorance. Just two weeks ago for example, I had to correct an international art dealer who had misidentified a late Renaissance painting of Saint Matthew as Saint Peter, when the image was so clearly of the former and not the latter that the error could have been corrected by a 6th-grader in a parochial school. At other times however, one gets the impression that many art experts class Catholicism as being no different from the now-dead worship of Ishtar or Zeus, conveniently forgetting or downplaying the fact that today, in 2017, over one billion people living around the world are members of the Catholic Church.

As Chartres becomes less of a dark, moody place, and returns to something more like its original appearance, there are legitimate concerns that should be considered, from those who want to make certain that the building is not being harmed in any way. But as a Harvard art professor quoted in the Times piece points out, there is “no reason to be nostalgic or romantic about the dirt,” because buildings like Chartres were “not monuments to melancholy.” These were places filled with light, color, and music, built to honor God, and to give believers a preview of the Heaven they are meant to strive for, as Catholics. These are functions which these structures still carry out, many centuries later.

Perhaps the real question we should be asking then, is whether a beautifully restored church poses an uncomfortable challenge to those who prefer to portray Catholicism as something dark, ruinous, and sinister in nature.