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.

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.

 

Biking in the Buff

Have you been following the annual World Naked Bike Ride? A moveable feast, it has been going for some years now in various cities around the fossil-fuel-consuming world. Morally sensitive bikers bare all in protest against Big Oil, the global injustices of energy dependence, the horrors of drilling, demon auto, bad driving and everything else that ravages our planet. At the same time, it strikes a blow for “body freedom” against the repressive forces of Big Clothing. Its motto: “Less gas, more ass.”

 

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Portland’s edition of the Naked Bike Ride, now in its tenth year, is one of the largest in the world, and typically draws between 4,000-5,000 bicyclists in birthday suits. What makes 2013’s escapade notable is that the Portland Art Museum is sponsoring the ride this year. The museum invites buck naked cyclists to travel the blocks around its building on SW Park Avenue. Coincidentally, the museum plans to launch its new exhibition, “Cyclepedia: Iconic Bicycle Design” on the day of the ride, June 8th. Nice timing.

No doubt none of you are ready to drop your shmattes and hop a bike for the planet. Still, we have to admit there is a certain charm to the ride. Not to its politics, but its sense of theatre. Nakedness as a fey expression of reforming zeal has historic precedent. Lady Godiva, riding horseback in the eleventh century to protest taxation, comes straight to mind. Closer to our hearts is St. Francis. Il Poverello did not have a bike but he had a similar strain of exhibitionism. He stripped to his hair shirt to symbolize rejection of his father’s resources. He would depend on God alone—something bikers do whenever they weave through heavy traffic or take country roads after dark. Biking in all kinds of weather instead of driving—Vivaldi on the radio or an audio book in progress—is one of the rare mortifications that recommend themselves to a secular culture.

 

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  All that remains to be seen—other than the bikers themselves—is whether the Portland Art Museum will welcome unclad visitors inside as did the Leopold Museum, Vienna, during its February exhibition “Nude Men”. PAM’s patronage, a bald marketing strategy, goes some way toward illustrating Aldous Huxley’s reprove: “High art, low loins.”

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Candy Floss & Camp

BBC News Magazine’ s Jon Kelly discusses Behind the Candelabra , a current movie about Liberace’s six year affair with a much younger man. Throughout his life , the entertainer strained to maintain the fiction that he was heterosexual:

Most famously, he sued the Daily Mirror over an innuendo-laden article by William Connor, who wrote under the pen-name Cassandra, which described the musician as “the pinnacle of masculine, feminine, and neuter . . . a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love”.

 

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 Whether Connor’s phrasing (this was 1956) would be “too homophobic” for today’s newspapers as Kelly suggests, it is a marvelous bit of writing. Connor continued, calling Liberace a “superb piece of calculating candy-floss” whose popularity raised doubts about the character of the popular—largely female—mind: 

There must be something wrong with us that our teenagers longing for sex and our middle aged matrons fed up with sex alike should fall for such a sugary mountain of jingling claptrap wrapped up in such a preposterous clown.


William Connor ought to have gotten a PEN award for lively expository prose. Worthy of Mencken. And—be honest—it is an accurate enough description of Liberace’s theatrical persona which appealed hugely to women.

A pianist, he brought to the popular stage the kind of exotic burlesque—equal parts vaudeville, bacchanalia, and concert—that opened in Seattle’s The Garden of Allah in 1946. America’s first gay cabaret, The Garden was a celebrated oasis for female impersonators; its Prima Donnas and Dames dressed as garishly as Liberace on TV. A drag show—more precisely, the mildly risqué hint of one—beat Tex Ritter and the Andrew Sisters. The Ed Sullivan Show was ready for Liberace.

Connor had no sympathy for Liberace’s glittering chintz and bravado: “He is the summit of sex . . . .Everything that he, she or it could ever want.” Where is the slander here? This was language used as Orwell prescribed, “as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”

Liberace won his suit by lying under oath. And he got the last word: “I cried all the way to the bank.”

• • • •

By now, camp sensibility has become mainstream. Nowhere is it more evident than in the gay marriage debate. What ought to have been taken as an exercise in camp role-playing was instead greeted with dead seriousness. This was one time we ought to have been listening to Susan Sontag: “The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance.” She expanded:


Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment . . . . What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different—a supplementary—set of standards.

Sontag ended “Notes on Camp” with an observation that applies a certain bite to our descent into dandyisme in the name of rights:

Camp taste is by its nature possible only in affluent societies, in societies or circles capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence.