Art News Roundup: To See, Or Not To See

Before diving in this morning, just a word on headings. As regular readers and subscribers know, I haven’t been happy with “Thought-Pourri” for some time, in titling this weekly roundup of interesting stories from the art world, even though I used to think it was clever. Puns do tend to wear on you after awhile, and that includes the pun which serves as the title of this blog. [Note to self: Must still get around to changing it.]

In any case, for now we’re going to stick with the more ho-hum “Art News Roundup” until I figure out something else since, while not exactly clever, it’s efficient and descriptive, particularly since on social media, oftentimes all you get to see is a post title and a link. This allows me to write something (hopefully) clever after the colon, while keeping the business end of things before the colon. And speaking of business, let’s get on to that.

There’s an interesting piece in ArtNet yesterday that I wanted to feature here before getting into some things that I recommend you go and see, since it discusses the sort of art which I do not recommend that you go and see, at least for the most part. In it, the author bemoans the decline of attendance at New York museum and gallery shows featuring Contemporary Art, a trend that has been accelerating in recent years, and describes what gallery owners are doing to try to reverse that trend. “If you read between the lines,” the writer notes, “it’s also a great example of how New York galleries are pushing vintage approaches to art viewership to fight plummeting foot traffic—a trend that’s threatening not only galleries’ commercial viability, but also their existential purpose as a free place to exhibit art.”

That’s all as may be, but of course, what one could also read between the lines, and which the article fails to explore or even mention, is the possibility that the numbers for these Contemporary Art shows are down because, on the whole, average people don’t actually like the art. After all, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art broke its all-time attendance record last year, and the single most popular show was “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer”, which by itself brought in over 700,000 visitors. Just a thought.

Anyway, on to three spots where I highly recommend that you *do* go have a look-see.

New to the National Gallery (UK)

Juan de Zurbarán (1620-1649) is a Spanish Golden Age artist whose work is both rare and not very well-known. The son of the more famous painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 – 1664), Juan died relatively young during a plague epidemic in Seville, and it’s only within the last several decades that his own work has begun to emerge from the long shadow of his father. With the help of the American Friends of the National Gallery, London, that museum recently acquired a still life by Juan, “Still Life with Lemons in a Wicker Basket” (c.1643-1649), which had been in a private collection in Madrid for generations. I highly recommend watching this lecture from Letizia Treves, Curator of Later Italian, Spanish, and French 17th-century Paintings at the National Gallery, discussing the artist, his career, and this work, since not only is it obvious that Ms. Treves know her subject very well indeed, but her presentation is clear, full of interesting slides, and I for one learned a great deal from it, even with my having specialized in this period of art when I was in grad school. And of course, it goes without saying that the painting is worth seeing should you find yourself in London this summer.


Nip in to Newark

As your summer travel plans evolve, remember to keep the Newark Museum in mind, if you happen to find yourself in the New York/New Jersey/Philly area over the next month. Their excellent exhibition “The Rockies and the Alps”, which I reviewed for The Federalist back when it opened, runs through August 19th. Not only does it have plenty of beautiful paintings, alongside sculptures, drawings, and photographs showing what American and European artists were looking at and depicting in the mountain landscapes they visited with increasing frequency in the 19th century, but there are also interactive aspects of the show for the kiddos, and the Newark Museum itself is a revelation: you can easily spend an entire day there with the rugrats and find plenty of things to do. [N.B. I can also recommend the excellent Deluxe Diner, just around the corner, as a lunch spot.]


Young Leonardo at Yale

A bit further up the coast, Yale recently opened its latest exhibition “Leonardo: Discoveries from Verrocchio’s Studio”, which looks to be both extremely interesting and somewhat controversial. The interest comes from the fact that the world will be marking the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci next year, and there will be a slew of exhibitions around the world acknowledging his importance, of which this is the first. The controversy comes from a desire, at least on the part of some museums and experts, to attribute anything that has even a tangential connection to Leonardo as therefore being by him, particularly in the light of the media spectacle surrounding the sale of the “Salvator Mundi” (which I suppose I contributed to. in my small way.)

For example, Yale believes that the piece shown below, “The Triumph of Aemilius Paulus” (c.1472-1473) from the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, is mostly by Leonardo. Perhaps it is. I don’t see anything particularly remarkable about this piece, since to my eye the perspective is clumsy and the figures more Benozzo Gozzoli than Leonardo da Vinci, although the misty mountains in the background are certainly the sort that Leonardo liked to paint. On the other hand, I’m most emphatically not an expert, so you should just go along and see the works on show for yourself, and make up your own mind. “Leonardo” is at the Yale University Art Gallery through October 7th.



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.


Thought-Pourri: Protesting Pygmalions Edition

An interesting piece in yesterday’s New York Times discusses an issue which many of us, myself included, probably did not know existed. Developers in a number of cities are required, as part of their development plans, to either include works of art in their public spaces or pay for the acquisition of publicly-accessible art. Increasingly, more of these builders are fighting against their obligation to do so, claiming that these ordinances amount to an “art tax”.

When we get down to brass tacks, the core of the argument that these developers are making is really an economic, rather than a philosophical one. They are in the business of building, not of being unwilling patrons of the arts, they claim. But there are also aesthetic issues to be raised here, and both the New York Times article and a similar article from today’s Washington Post are silent as to that larger, and to my mind more important area of inquiry.

At the end of the day, who gets to decide what goes where? What are the qualifications of those who mandate that something is worthy of public display, or of being placed where it ultimately goes? In a majority of cases, the art is created by Contemporary artists who demonstrate little actual talent, bear prosaic descriptions like “Untitled”, and are made of materials that decay rapidly in the elements, quickly becoming little more than an expensive eyesore that must be removed a decade or so later. These works are often selected by a committee of alleged experts with a particular socio-political agenda to push, and whose bad taste in art is patently obvious. Why should a property developer be forced to underwrite the acquisition or commission of these objects? Feel free to weigh in below, in the comments section.

And now, on to some art news of possible interest.

Good for Glasgow

After weeks of speculation following a devastating second fire at the Glasgow School of Art, one of the architectural masterpieces of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Director Tom Inns says that the School will be rebuilt. Because the structure was undergoing restoration at the time of the fire, many of the interior elements salvaged or recreated following the first fire were stored off-site at the time of the second blaze, and because of the rebuilding that was underway at the time of the latest disaster, accurate measurements and exact details were copiously documented using the latest available technology, making it comparatively easier to begin again. No word at this time regarding how long this rebuilding will take, what it will cost, or who is to blame for fire #2.


Dragons! Now In 3-D!

Kew Gardens, a favorite green space for Londoners for centuries, is one of the best botanical gardens in the world, recognized both for its beauty and for the scholarship of those who work there. One of the most striking architectural features of the park is the Great Pagoda, built in 1762 by Sir William Chambers, the architect of Somerset House in The Strand. Originally, the ten octagonal-shaped stories of the tower were studded with carved, Chinese-style dragons, but over the years the majority of these sculptures rotted away or were stolen. Now, following a major restoration effort, all 80 of the gilded beasties are back, with the ones on the first floor being made of cedar, while those on the upper floors are made of much lighter fiberglass, using a 3D printer.


Blotto for Lotto

Sadly, I am going to miss an exhibit at The Prado in Madrid which those of my readers who find themselves there over the next few months should make a point of seeing. “Lorenzo Lotto: Portraits” opened a couple of weeks ago, and is the first exhibition dedicated solely to the portraiture by this Italian Renaissance genius, whose work is perhaps not quite as well known as it ought to be; that should change after this show, which following its sojourn in Madrid will head to the National Gallery in London beginning November 5th. Lotto (c. 1480 – 1556/57) is a complex, occasionally inscrutable artist when it comes to his religious pictures and allegories, but he also drew beautifully, and his portraits are, at times, almost confrontational meetings between subject and viewer. One of my favorite paintings by Lotto, his magnificent portrait of the Venetian merchant and art collector Andrea Odoni (1527), which is owned by Queen Elizabeth II, is included in the show. For that reason alone, this exhibition would be worth your time, should you find yourself in Madrid or London in the coming months.