Art in the Mantle of Science

The trouble is that modern art in various ways abandoned imitation, representation, naturalism, and it now has to make out a case for its products’ still being truth. This is where science certain aspects of science are seized upon, assimilated, or sometimes simply plagiarized in decorative words, so as to bolster up art’s claim to cognitive value. One such use, and it is a curious reversal of Aristotle, is the boast of factuality: the work of the artist is said to be research; his creations are findings.

— Jacques Barzun, The Use and Abuse of Art (1971)

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Paul Cullen, Matthew Sansom, Andy Thomson, WeakForce2 (2013). Surrey University, UK.

Barzun spoke those words in his Mellon lecture forty-plus years ago. They have proven prophetic. The creep of art institutions toward a a burlesque of the sciences warrants more attention than it gets. It slouches along under the radar of anointed art appreciators, debasing authentic science, the scientific method, and language along with it. And the debasement of language is, perhaps, the current most potent agent of cultural dissolution: “decorative words, so as to bolster up art’s claim to cognitive value.” Just so. Even more so now than then.

Today’s mail brings an announcement for the fourth Weak Force project. [The installation photo, above, is from the second iteration. If you’ve seen one . . . .] Weak Force operates under the umbrellla of a would-be international, but still largely Anglophone, collaborative that calls itself United Field Theory (UFT). It intends to “locate and represent the social and relational as the generative dynamic” in creative collaboration. It has done its locating, to date, in university galleries in Aukland, Halifax, Seoul, and Surrey.

Take no comfort from geography. The lunatic dogmatism of the group is equally at home on many an American campus. And it is not benign, no matter the inanity of the product. What counts is that this slither toward art-and-design-as-research represents a generationan electoratewell schooled in techniques of communication but barren of signficant grasp of what is worth communicating. A generation technologically adept but uneducated. Miseducated.

Unlike the collaboration of the Curies, the Wright brothers, Crick and Watson, or Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Weak Force, funded by UFT, provides artists with means to inquire into the intricacies of themselves and their discontents. They examine “to what extent an idea is separable from its specific material expression, and what latitude is possible for its material expression and presentation to constitute an authentic expression of idea.” The distance between ideaif that is the right wordand expression appears above.

Inhaling the vapor of science, the press release intones:

In physics, weak force is one of the four fundamental interactions of nature, alongside the strong interaction, electromagnetism, and gravitation. It is weaker than the strong nuclear force and the electromagnetic force but stronger than gravity.

Weak Force celebrates the “artist as interlocutor.” It traffics in the weak force of social interaction: “social contracts and discourses of exchange such as barter, voice, critique, laughter, and sound.” Taken under scrutiny, these reveal “a politic of materialism” which will be exposed through a series of timetabled events, kiosks, pavilions, displays, and other stuff.

You can read artist Andy Thomson’s tractlet on “The Contingency of Gravity” here. Take care to grind through the hash of physics and metaphysics to the final line: “If the facts don’t fit the theory, change them.”

Keep the theory; just flip the facts. At heart, it is a totalitarian formulation that corresponds, with demonic ease, to our present political culture, one that has been metastasizing for decades. The substitution of rhetoric for fact and logicsound over senseendangers us far more than uncomely art.

It takes heavy doses of higher education to master a lingo engineered to upend the purpose of language by mystifying rather than illuminating. Weak Force is only a single day’s illustration of the lingua franca transmitted through university art departments to the culture at large. It keeps coming, a relentless reminder of Hobbes’ blunt observation that the universities “have been to this nation as the wooden horse to the Trojans.”

It is all for the commonweal, of course. As the good people at the School of Art + Design at Aukland University of Technology declare, they “accept a role as critic and conscience of society.” Naturally, they also “interrogate” the proposition that the arts are particularly suited to speak critically about social issues. Left unspoken is the accompanying belief that when art speaks, it is not to be defied.

Raymond Aron once commented that science encourages intellectuals to think the world before aspiring to change it. Today’s arts intellectual understands that the instinctual appeal of the arts deflects thought. Tacked to the mantle of science, it trumps thought altogether. No thinking is needed if art itself can, as Thomson insists, negotiate a relationship to gravity’s space-time.

 

The Conversion of Artists?

The website of the Catholic Artists Society offers an audio download of its sponsored lectures. In return, it asks only for the courtesy of a small voluntary donation. When I went to the site after Gregory Wolfe’s talk, there was an addendum to the donation button. If you preferred prayer to cash, you could make good by saying a decade of the Rosary for the conversion of artists.

That codicil is now gone, thank goodness.

The conversion of artists. Given the unlovely, preparatory landfill turned out in carloads by MFA programs, it might have seemed a humane objective. But it was not. An intention as self-referential—reverential—as that underwrites, without meaning to, the corrosive self-regard that has helped propel us down the rabbit hole we find ourselves in. The Society is wise to have removed it.

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Sarah Bisceli, MFA candidate. “Springtime Loneliness” (2013). Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art.

Today’s artist, together with art itself, has swollen like a puff adder in what Jacques Barzun dubbed “the vacuum of belief.” Religious aestheticism is as susceptible to dilation as its secular counterpart. Contemporary Christianity is too often tempted to sanctify its own worldly replacement.

In reality, artists are not as pivotal in the cultural chain of command as they have been groomed to think. Implicit in the Society’s initial request was the assumption that artists are primary agents, rather than easily visible symptoms, of cultural devolution. It ascribed to artists the power to reverse the mess we are in. It assumed artists to be ascendant over the nexus of less conspicuous actors in the cultural arena: curators, collectors, grant-giving panels, state accreditation bureaucrats, publishers, critics (add unemployed art historians and poets looking for a gig), dealers, academic department chairs, arts entrepreneurs and administrators, diversity connoisseurs, art fund managers, art consultants, museum trustees, publicists, et alia. It was an assumption that participated in the very ideology the Society prays to overturn.

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Photo by Stephanie Brooks. Advertisement for the Master of Arts in Visual Critical Studies offered by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The deification of artists has progressed to the point where they are no longer required to make anything; they simply have to be . It is a boundless mandate. The charge never wears out. It is not only the rich who are different from you and me. The artist, too, is a particular kind of being—rarified, born under the sign of Saturn, ordained for alienation, poised for mutiny. And shimmering with vision. More shaman than maker, the contemporary artist is a conceptual product of the culture of academia: a brew of left-leaning, utopian romanticism. Heady with attitude and missionary fervor, it disdains skills—manual ones—as the stock villain in the embourgeoisement of the artist’s true role.

Every artist, a cub Bolshevik.

This is learned behavior. And the acquisition of it has been structured in to university art departments since the end of the Second World War. The state of art today is, in very large measure, an unforeseen consequence of the G.I. Bill of Rights. The bill gave funds directly to returning GIs, to spend on their choice of schooling. Many (e.g. Wayne Thiebaud, U.S. Air Force; Richard Diebenkorn, U.S. Marine Corps) chose to study art.

Colleges and universities competed for the funds by establishing art departments that offered the added caché of a college degree unattainable through premier atelier-style institutions like the Art Students League or the (no longer extant) Brooklyn Museum Art School. Consequently, the Left’s steady march through the institutions was straight on course to parade through the arts as well. This it did with a vengeance in the Sixties, with no sign of let-up since. Even institutions founded on the atelier system are succumbing to the demands of accreditation, with its attendant baggage, in the struggle to stay solvent.

A current promo for the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, the nation’s first museum and art school, states it this way: “We make artists.” In bold. Sarah Bisceli might well have shown talent before arriving at PAFA, but now she has progressed beyond all that. [See above.] She has learned how to be an artist. And PAFA is pleased to illustrate the efficacy of their instruction with her installation.

In all, artists have already been converted. They are born again to the wrecking ball, an instrument beloved by insurgent academics.

Beauty, the Mantra

Beauty will save the world—a mantra among contemporary Christians issuing from the mouth of a character in nineteenth century Russian fiction.

Susan Walp. Small Red Apples in a Berry Box (2011).

Augustine’s Beauty has already saved the world. Our ransom has been paid. What matters now is whether the world cooperates with its redemption or flouts it. History will tell in the end. The arts of the beautiful are weightless in the balance. They can only scratch at the surface—if that—of moral beauty.

But moral beauty is not the artist’s province. The artist as artist has command of sensible beauty alone. The delight of it is a good to those who recognize it. But it saves no one.


Susan Walp. Late Winter Beet and Spring-Dug Burdock (2010).

Artists who set out to turn beauty on its head do so in the high-minded conviction that material beauty serves the enemy. Delectation, the spiritual weapon of a dying class, distracts from the artist’s presumed role to change the world. Conscientious objection to society’s unruly way of things has been a prime motivator in the arts since the early decades of the twentieth century. Art, the imagined locus of progressive revelation, must stride forward to correct those conditions of civilized life that mask the rot at the core. Among these righteous refusers, social justice is the beauty that redeems and regenerates. The rest is for lounge lizards. 

Ghana Think Tank, a portable work station rolling through Queens, NY.
Presented by Creative Time and the Queens Museum of Art.

Paladins of beauty on the right, partisans of art-as-social-action on the left—quixotic world improvers in both camps. They are mirror images of one another.

Tikkun olam. Both sides view art as an act of repair, a means to something other—larger—than itself. Both make of the artist a scold, a moralist on the barricades. Each thinks lofty thoughts of itself. Each seizes upon art to display stirring vistas from the piazza of its own sensibility.

Caitlin Caudwell, BFA candidate. “Never Settled” (2013).
Department of Visual Studies, SUNY at Buffalo. 

• • • • • 

Christ figures have peopled literature for centuries: Don Quixote, Dickens’ Sydney Carton and his far, far, better self-oblation, Melville’s Billy Budd, Graham Greene’s “whisky priest,” Faulkner’s impaired Benjy, on down to Frodo Baggins. The list is long. Longer still if we add film: Gelsomina in Fellini’s La Strada , Babette and her agape meal in Babette’s Feast , the mysterious stranger in Shane ; Father Barry in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. We could go on listing.

Dostoevsky’s idiot, Prince Myshkin, is a creation of inimitable genius. All the more pressing, then, to be careful of what we make of it.

Interpreting The Idiot in 1919, shortly after the word Bolshevik had come into use, Hermann Hesse advanced a Christ figure that came to rancid flower in the 1960s:

The fact that this foe of order, this frightful destroyer, appears not as a criminal but as a shy, endearing person full of childlikeness and charm, a good-hearted, self-less, benevolent man, this is the secret of this terrifying book . . . .

The future is uncertain, but the road that is shown here is unambiguous. It means spiritual revaluation. It leads through Myshkin and calls for “magical thinking,” the acceptance of chaos. Return to the incoherent, to the unconscious, to the formless, to the animal, and far beyond the animal to the beginning of all things.

Every literary Christ figure is an artifact of language, a trope. However exalted the language, it remains what it is: an extended metaphor. In other words: art.

How privileged we are to have the leisure and resources that permit us to criss-cross the boundaries between art and life. And how precarious the crossing.

Yip Chen. Inside the Cage on Black Friday (2008). Vermont College of Fine Arts.

An Aesthetical Conundrum

Decadence was brought about by the easy way of producing works and laziness in doing it, by the surfeit of fine art and the love of the bizarre.

—Voltaire, The Princess of Babylon (1748)


Voltaire’s linkage of decadence to an overabundance of fine art earns consideration, perhaps now more than ever. Art stuffs pile up around us; and we live, increasingly, with an overemphasis on—even reverence for—aesthetics that is less a sign of refinement than a malaise. It is an unhealthy condition, all the more precarious for exalting aesthetics, a strutting Enlightenment product, up, up into the embrace of theology.

Designated carrier of the True and the Beautiful, art has a baneful way of veiling history. It works to displace it or render it inconsequential beside the sweeter fruits of historical inquiry. Traditional history might as well be bunk. Only art history is redemptive. It is salvation history brought up to date for an over-ripe culture with no taste for the character and complexities of its own past .

This occurs to me whenever I am at the Frick. The complex gives no hint of Henry Clay Frick’s provocative, iron-fisted role in the bloody strike at the Carnegie Steel plant
in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892. A consequential setback to workers in dangerous heavy industries in the early days of the labor movement, it cries for acknowledgment. Yet nothing disturbs the patrician calm of the Gilded Age mansion that houses the Frick Collection. If anyone had occasion to benefit from the presumed moral powers of art, it was Frick himself. But that is another matter. What counts here is that he left us the glittering yield of his purchasing power. He had intended his collection to be his monument. And so it is.

 

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Illustration of the armed combat at the Carnegie Steel plant. Published by National Police Gazette in July, 1982.

 

Duveen , S.N. Behrman’s 1955 biography of Frick’s dealer, includes comments on the entrepreneurial prodigy who had vowed to become a millionaire by the age of thirty. The paragraph extends to nearly all standard commentary on Robber Baron collectors and their wares:

The article on Frick in the Encyclopedia Britannica runs to twenty three lines. Ten are devoted to his career as an industrialist, and thirteen to his collecting of art. In these thirteen lines, he mingles freely with Titian and Vermeer, with El Greco and Goya, with Gainsborough and Velásquez. Steel strikes and armed Pinkerton guards [300 of them] vanish, and he basks in another, more felicitous aura.


That leads us to the Garden Court, a grand Roman atrium added to the Frick mansion a tad more than a decade after the owner’s death. In a seamless act of aesthetic genius, architect John Russell Pope linked the original mansion to the posthumous extension by means of an atrium that filled what had been an alley for cars and carriages between 70th and 71st Street. [You can take a virtual tour of the dazzling Garden Court here .]

 

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  I love the Garden Court. I love to sit on the stone benches and listen to the measured gurgle of water spilling from the mouths of two bronze frogs at either end of the pool. It is a sound out of time, a lovely, liquid undersong that calms, consoles, and in some untellable way, transports. It is a place to brood on the voice Tennyson gave to a bubbling brook: “For men may come and men may go,/But I go on forever.” Within listening distance of those steadfast frogs, I can cruise to altitudes unattainable at home.

Days after my last visit to the Frick, I heard the identical sound again. There was no mistaking it. Trust me. There was the same aqueous fluency, flowing at the same pace and babbling at the same modulated decibel level. This time, though, I was home.

The toilet was running. A mundane, repellant little noise, it stirred ugly visions of dollar bills swirling down the drain to Bell Plumbing. I hated it.

But wait. The connoisseurship of the listening ear has standing, yes? Then why not just close my eyes and take pleasure in the sound until it is fixed? Why not extract something agreeable out this of damned nuisance? While I waited for a new flapper, rubber gasket, or spud washer for a tank manufactured in the same decade as the Garden Court, I should relax and let the sound conjure up another spot of poetry.

I tried to. I failed. But that is beside the point. What matters is the identical character of the sound, the chatter of the Frick’s fountain interchangeable with—indistinguishable from—that of my treacherous toilet. Surely the equivalence and my disparate responses to it signify something about that cagey pretender, the aesthetic sense.

John of Damascus defined s ense as “a faculty of the soul by which material things are perceived, or distinguished.” My hearing is fine. Could my soul, then, be at fault for cherishing the sound in one place and loathing it in another? Or does the aesthetic sense share something with real estate—a critical dependence on location, location, location?

 

Museum Theology

Glancing quickly, I misinterpreted the opening lines of a recent bulletin from Sandro Magister’s Chiesa . My eye fell on a reference to the Venice Biennale and, at the same time, on a thumbnail image of a contemporary chapel. At once devotional and festive, it looked to be a lovely ensemble. My immediate impression was that the Vatican pavilion would contain a model chapel, a beautifully designed invitation to prayer—a challenge—addressed to the international art crowd.

 

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I was ready to recant all my misgivings about Cardinal Ravasi’s foray into the belly of the casino: I take it all back! Ravasi pulled it off! He is reminding high-flyers that the Christian West still holds. Hats off, Your Eminence!

Then I read more carefully.

What I was looking at had nothing to do with the Biennale. It illustrated a liturgical model already in use by the Neocatechumenal Way, designed by its founder Kiko Argüello. Some Catholics dismiss these images as pseudo-Byzantine—a charge made, I suspect, out of disfavor with the liturgical practices of the Way. (No such dismissal is aimed at Ken Jan Woo’s icons of modern saints, commissioned by Fr. George Rutler, that surround the sanctuary at Our Savior’s Church in Manhattan.)

Yet there is nothing counterfeit about Argüello’s paintings. They do not pretend to be anything but modern. No antiquing glazes mellow surfaces with a patina of age; nothing softens the modernity of hard-edged forms. Unmistakably contemporary in execution, his work simply follows the pattern of ancient iconographic guides. Doing so, it witnesses to the enduring power of the icon tradition, one worthy of restoration.

But the Pontifical Council for Culture has its eye on decorations for the Church of What’s Happening Right Now. That is where pseudo comes in.

• • • • •


Chiesa ‘s broadcast included a link to Magister’s blog in L’Espresso . His May 17th entry offered a tiny photo of the cardinal posing in front of one of his selections with the artist, Lawrence Carroll. Born in Australia in 1954, Carroll is an American painter who lives and works in New York and LA (also Malibu and Venice, depending on which bio you read). His exhibition history is impressive. It includes prestigious venues from New York and Beverly Hills to Rome, Barcelona, Bergamo, Munich, Helsinki and points in-between.

Cardinal Ravasi has been carefully advised. Judging from this first peek into his choices for the Biennale, the Vatican pavilion will be obedient to that amalgam of interests held by dealers, collectors, museum directors and trustees (collectors themselves), and curators that comprise the speculative contemporary art market.

 

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It may yet happen that the Vatican pavilion will knock the ball out of the park. But Cardinal Ravasi’s opening move does not suggest a man of distinguished taste or independent judgment. On the contrary, it declares him one of those many aspirants to connoisseur status who have little sensitivity to what is front of their eyes. Dependent on consultants, they respond to market value, fashion, and fetishizing rhetoric. Behind the high sounding references to “dialogue between art and faith” lurks—on the face of it—a profane drive to become a celebrity player on the international scene.

Start with Carroll’s submission. What photographs as a delicate tracery of drawn lines is really a nest of electrical cords from a hardware store, plus a few light bulbs, draped against sackcloth-covered canvas. (I trust the surface is sack cloth—or a mix of sackcloth and pigment—because Magister calls it that. Also, sackcloth is in sync with the artist’s taste for debris, the stock materials of Arte Povera.)

The light bulbs are a prosaic hand-me-down from the 1960s. The exquisitely complex constructivist-inspired forms of Lásló Moholy-Nagy (d.1946) were the first to marry light to art works. All modern Light Art owes its beginnings to Moholy-Nagy. Dan Flavin and James Turrell are among the best known contemporary names, but a host of others have followed Moholy-Nagy’s seventy year lead. Many have created stunning works, such as the one below by the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. Carroll’s styleless bulb caper is a bewilderment by comparison.

 

400px-OlafurEliasson_TheWeatherProject Olafur Eliasson. Installation of The Weather Project. Tate Modern, London, from 10/16/03 to 3/21/04.


Incandescent light bulbs hanging from wires? No one with a modicum of memory can look at Carroll’s offhand improvisation without immediately thinking of Larry Rivers’ notorious electrified assemblage Lampman Loves It (1966). A monumental standing male figure penetrates another from behind. Rivers’ bulbs were strategically hung; Carroll’s are inconsequential.

Has the Vatican’s Grand Acquisitor been had?

• • • • •


All contemporary work arrives with an accompanying users’ guide. Vatican copy writers produced this for Carroll:

The hope inherent in the Re-Creation [the third segment of the pavilion] is reflected in the specificity of the art of Lawrence Carroll. Its ability to restore life to recycled materials, transforming them through processes of reflection and regeneration, against all odds opens new possibilities for coexistence of seemingly unrelated dimensions as monumentality and fragility

Artspeak is artspeak, whether it comes from a secular flack or one in red piping. Call it museum theology. Either way, its hallmark property is horseradish.

Seemingly unrelated dimensions? The Pontifical Council for Culture has forgotten Ozymandias. Every school kid in the Western world learns Shelley’s testament to the fateful intimacy between these two dimensions. The fragility of man’s monumentalizing impulse has had an iconic, quotable prophet since 1818. Carroll’s multi-media constructions hover willy-nilly where Ozymandias’ cenotaph ends. Nothing beside remains; boundless and bare. Specificity is precisely what Carroll studiously avoids, together with any suggestion of life.


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1991-2012 Lawrence Carroll. Layered Painting (1991-2012).


To be honest, it is just that aspect of his recent work that appeals to me. At their best, Carroll’s pieces can generate a certain melancholy. These are mood pieces, bleak and disconsolate. Redolent of decay, they augur the cessation of life, not its restoration. Colossal wrecks.

Carroll’s work is that kind of minimal abstraction that photographs to good effect. A professional photo minimizes crudities of construction and blends disparate materials into a congenial whole. If you tour photo essays of his work, you will find pieces readily adaptable to architectural spaces—but corporate spaces, not sacred ones. Each piece is a conceptual blank onto which any meaning whatever can be projected. The same work would suit equally the headquarters of Absolut Vodka, Bank of China, or Greenpeace. Its inherent neutrality accommodates any sponsor from Mercedes-Benz to Catholic Charities.

And that is not a strike against the works themselves. It is just that corporate culture and sacrality are not compatible. The cardinal’s choice corporatizes Christian visual culture while it grants benefit of clergy to corporate culture. This is no small matter, given the symbiosis between corporate cultural politics and the arts.


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440px-Table_Painting_VENICE Lawrence Carroll. Table Painting (2008). Museu Correr, Venice.


If the light bulbs recall the 1960s, so does Carroll’s entire repertory of materials. It was 1967 when Italian painter Michelangelo Pistoletto piled up his used studio rags around a plaster statue of Venus. Arte Povera was born. Pistoletto’s disgruntled stunt was inflated into a manifesto against high art and parlayed into a guerrilla movement by theorist Germano Celant. Venus of the Rags was lionized as a finger in the eye of privileged consumers of beautiful objects. Here, at last, was art made from “authentic” material more accessible to ordinary folk.

Fashion loves a movement. By the mid-seventies, the guerrillas had been invited in from the cold. Arte Povera has been sitting at high table since. Carroll’s calculated aura of dissolution is the common property of Arte Povera gone upscale—polished, pretentious, and pricey.


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Correr-026 Lawrence Carroll. Installation (2008). Museo Correr, Venice


Déjà vu keeps coming. It was also in the 1960s that Henry Geldzahler was installed as the first curator of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum. An ambitious careerist, he introduced Pop Art and its progeny into the sanctum of the Met. Andy Warhol arrived at the museum’s party for Geldzahler’s celebrated 1969 exhibition New York Paintings and Sculpture 1940-1970 (known around as “Henry’s show”) and introduced himself as “the first Mrs. Geldzahler.”

With Cardinal Ravasi now channeling Geldzahler for the Vatican, maybe we can call Lawrence Carroll the first Mrs. Ravasi.