Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays have appeared in various publications, among them: The Nation, Crisis, Commonweal, Hudson Review, Arts, The New Criterion, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a columnist for The New York Sun.
Before we get too far along together, it would be wise to clarify terms. The two that matter most are contemporary art and what can only be called, for lack of a better one, critical approach . More specifically, this weblog’s approach, its guiding axiom.
The former is an objective category; the second, highly personal. So let us begin with the second, if only to set the stage—clear the decks, come clean—or whichever other cliché works best to bring the Big Picture into focus.
Start with a day dream. Imagine that the art cops pull you over and demand to see your credentials as a bona fide art appreciator. How would you prove yourself a lawful citizen of the art precincts? Doubtless, you would hurry to produce a quotation from the fathers, something incontestably persuasive. Something on the sublime and the beautiful will get you off. A passage from Hegel, one or two from Kant, are always useful. Reference to Schiller is good, too. Do not forget Goethe. Diderot comes in handy; so do Ruskin, Baudelaire and that wonderfully indiscreet pair, the Goncourt brothers. Or, if you need to present yourself as au fait with more recent intellection, mention your subscription to Artforum, your favorite issue of Parkett, or the latest piece in Frieze .
Details do not matter quite so much as tone. And delivery. What counts is that you establish your identity as a Serious Art Person, adept at granting the written word primacy over the evidence of eyes. SAPs are skilled in refraining from judgment while disguising the abstention with knitted brows. If art criticism is “massively produced and massively ignored” except as marketing copy—as James Elkins argues in What Happened to Art Criticism?— SAPs have something to answer for.
I try not to get pulled over. Me, I keep Ogden Nash at hand. His “Plea for Less Malice Toward None” has wide application for consumers of art appreciation. It trims fustian, and firms the treacle that oozes from formulaic pieties:
Love is a word that is constantly heard,
Hate is a word that’s not.
Love, I am told, is more precious than gold,
Love, I have read, is hot.
But hate is the verb that to me is superb
And love is a drug on the mart.
Any kiddie in school can love like a fool
But hating, my boy, is an art.
Those final two lines, rightly applied, are invaluable.
Still more then:
Then, yet again:
Talk of beauty is in the air these days. It has been absent as a reigning value in contemporary art long enough to be provoking interest once again. It is a bit of a jumble though. Everyone wants in on the beauty of the philosophers while reserving for themselves the ascendency of their own taste and perceptions. The knot knocks even the best of us off course with little guide beyond the packaged insights of art appreciation. No less formidable a cultural critic than Roger Scruton is unsafe from the tools of the appreciator’s trade.
Consider Scruton’s response to Manet’s Olympia in his 2009 essay collection , Beauty. Manet’s boulevardienne , modeled after Titian’s Venus , was a scandal in its time. And for good reason having nothing to do with bourgeois pruderyalways the designated villain in popular telling.
In 1863, the year Olympia was painted, syphilis was a serial killer in France. Infected husbands brought the disease home to their wives who passed it, in turn, to children in utero. Whole families were devastated by it. From public health records, it is estimated that one out of five people were infected at the time. (Manet, a syphilitic like his father, died horribly of complications. In the chaos of an amputation performed on the dining room table, his leg ended up in the fireplace.) Without that retrospective understanding, today’s audience grasps nothing of what the painting meant in Manet’s Paris.
Scruton avoids any reference to the art of the work, such as paint handling, or other barometers of workmanship. Anxious to declare the painting beautiful on higher grounds than craft, Scruton celebrates Olympia as an example of “self-identity and self-awareness.” He skips along the belletristic path in tones that echo the ambient rhetoric of his own era. The figure, in his telling, is an icon of assurance. An independent woman of mettle. He does not ask just how self-possessed any prostitute could have been in nineteenth century France, rife with cholera and tuberculosis as well as syphilis. Contagion was a pervasive danger; and antibiotics not yet invented.
Scruton’s gloss illustrates a crucial hazard of received appreciation: the substitution of art history for history itself. It amuses us moderns to think that Manet’s contemporaries greeted with dismay a work we consider a thing of beauty. We congratulate ourselves for having gotten past such moralistic responses. But Manet’s audience grasped Olympia better than a modern philosopher gazing back through the narrow lens of today’s arts discourse. Where Scruton sees an admirable, hard-bitten poise, Manet’s public recognized a carrier of lethal infection.
David Bentley Hart’s recent essay “ Seeing the God
” touched me more deeply than anything I have read in a very long time. For one piercing instant I felt myself sister to a fictional character in a second century picaresque novel. For the little time it took to read the column, Apuleius’ creation came alive. Lucius stood beside me, quite real.
He took shape more clearly than secular friends who exchange copies of the latest neo-atheist tract at get-togethers. They make something of a show of it. Unmistakable, that whiff of superior rationality. It hangs in the air between us, a veil over mutual fondness. Thin as it is, the barrier is impenetrable. Religious imagination endures on the lonely side of it.
In its way, Hart’s reflection served as a comfort. It cites this electrifying passage from Lucius’ communion with the goddess Isis:
O You truly holy and eternal redemptrix of humankind, be ever generous to the mortals whom you cherish, bestowing a mother’s sweet love upon the miserable in times of trial. Neither day nor night nor the smallest single moment is devoid of your blessings, for you protect men at sea and on land, and you chase away life’s storms by stretching forth your saving right hand, with which also you unwind the inextricably tangled weave of fate and calm Fortune’s tempests and restrain the baneful courses of the stars. The gods above worship you, the gods below venerate you, you turn the earth, you give the sun its light, you rule the world, you trample down hell . . . .
Mary, a woman clothed with the sun in the Book of Revelation. Mary with her foot on the serpent. This ancient forebearer of Marian imagery is stunning. And, truth to tell, humbling. Personal pieties seem less a credit to our own fidelityour own initiativethan a call built into our very marrow. If art history tells us anything of ultimate importance, it is that we are a praying species. Homo rogans, constituted to beseech divinity.
Does it follow, then, that a culture scornful of religious belief, or cordial to the extermination of it, is no culture at all? We inhabit an ahistorical moment, an aberration poised to swallow the civilization that gave it birth.
The roots of Lucius’ devotion to Isis were already ancient even while Apuleius was writing. She was not a newly encountered deity but an Egyptian goddess familiar to the Greeks and introduced by them to the Romans. Worshipped under many different titles, she was an international goddess of abiding renown. The only divinity in the Egyptian pantheon capable of raising the dead, Isis was honored as both queen and mother. (Lucius addressed her as “Regina Coeli,” Queen of Heaven.) But neither adoration nor fame are deathless. Her intercession, sought and cherished for millennia, gave way slowly but ineluctably to the cunning of history.
Painting does not replace religion, but almost.
Anonymous Collector C46
Art is an intermediate state between heaven and earth. Absolute Beauty is God. Through art we glimpse a portion of that beauty. There is something ecstatic in it.
Anonymous Collector C29
“Pius VII Forming the Collection of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana,” Domenico De Angelis (1852-1904)
Both quotations occur in the doctoral dissertation of French sociologist Raymonde Moulin, published in 1967 as Le marché de la peinture en France. An abridged translation appeared in English in 1987 under the title The French Art Market: A Sociological View. The mechanics of the market have changed dramatically since then. At the time Moulin was writing, the market’s center of gravity had already shifted from Paris to New York. Today it is shifting again, eastward to such places as Shanghai, Hong Kong, Dubai, and, along with the HSBC Golf Championship, Abu Dhabi. Nevertheless, the core of Moulin’s landmark study remains remarkably current.
She turned a sharp eye on the typology of collectors. Each specimen group, from the packrat, the social-climbing prestige buyer, to the scholar-collector and the speculative one is subject to a witty and pithy inquest. Excepting, perhaps, the purely speculative, all types can find blameless justification for the mania to amass in metaphysics. That presumed glimmer of transcendence runs a sacral patina over an elite recreation. Moulin wrote: “Art is a form of, or substitute for, sacred things, and collectors use it to slake their thirst for the absolute.”
“Pius VII Collects Etruscan Vases,” Domenico De Angelis. From the collection of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana
From that alone we might expect our shepherds, those consecrated few who know a little something about the Absolute, to be immune to infection by ostentatious collecting and/or commissioning bugs. Uncreated, C29?s Absolute Beauty can be neither commissioned, purchased, nor possessed. Yet “the lasting pleasure of absolute possession” remains the drive behind every collector, whether a cardinal or a retail baron.
Before more absolutes pile up, let us leave the word to Collector C60:
Having a painting in your home is quite different from looking at it elsewhere. It’s the same way with women. Marriage is one thing, having a woman on Saturday night is another. The problem is always one of sole possession.
Somewhere on my shelvesbut where?is a quotation by Abraham Heschel that I have enjoyed for years. Certain I could never forget it, I did not mark the page in whichever of his books it hides. I have rifled through five texts this morning without finding it. So you will have to trust me when I tell you how Rabbi Heschel characterized the reigning response to visual art: Most people do not see art at all; they see signatures. Andlet me addprice tags.
Foraging through pages, I remembered a delicious tidbit about John Canaday, leading art critic for The New York Times from 1959 to 1976. Canaday liked to tell the story (repeated to me by an editor who had known him) of a woman who once asked for his advice. She belonged to a lunch group who invited the critic, now and again, to talk about cultural stuffs over flamiche aux poireaux and sips of Beaujolais cru . One day, the woman confided that she and husband were redecorating their apartment. This was Manhattan’s high-rent district where art on the walls went without saying. But books! That was the distinguishing thing. Nothing lends tone to a room better than good titles, especially ones that look well read. But where to buy the right ones? //
Canaday gave her the name of a friend, a second-hand bookseller in London. Talks ensued, an order placed. In due time, a shipment arrived. The buyer opened the crate, looked at the invoice and called the seller to complain. After extended conversation, the bookman said: “I think I understand now just what you want. Send them back and I will replace them for you.” Back they went. Many weeks later (Things really were shipped then.) another carton arrived. This time, all was satisfactory.
Canaday relished the punchline: His friend had simply sent the woman back the same shipment but with a new invoice and a significantly higher price.
The moral of Canaday’s exemplum applies . . . well, you finish the sentence.
Fearful lest it become relegated to the position of an isolated sect, Christianity seems to be making frenzied efforts at mimicry [of secular society] in order to escape being devoured by its enemiesa reaction that seems defensive, but in fact is self-destructive.
This summer Vatican City will have its own pavilion in the Venice Biennale. The idea was first floated five years ago and seemed, mercifully, to have been abandoned. But now it is back. The Holy See will debut in the futures market that is the Biennale Arte 2013 alongside eight other first-time players: Paraguay, Nigeria, Bahrain, the Ivory Coast, Kuwait, the Maldives, the Bahamas and the Republic of Kosovo.
This is welcome news only to those who do not recognize the smell of sulphur.
Opening on June 7 and continuing through late November, the Biennale Arte 2013 is the granddaddy of the boom in transnational art fairs. Pavilions compete for star curators and celebrity artists. Participating countries commission extravagant works and installations, often on a monumental scale. Lavish displays, they tend toward the spectacular, and are rarely memorable. What matters is that these fairsunregulated commodities exchangesare investor-driven opportunities to hedge against flat interest rates and wavering currencies. An accepted asset class, art is a very much a currency itself. Under cover of the new evangelization, the Vatican has hopped on the carousel.
Art is a singular commodity in that its value is determined, in great measure, by who owns it. Aesthetic value is inseparable from economic value which, in turn, is affected by the prestige of the owner. Anyone who has visited the Vatican Museums’ dispiriting collection of contemporary artmuch of it acquired by donation under Pope Paul VIknows the hazards in that. The contemporary wing exists as a mitzvah tank for deep pocket collectors and other institutions. Their holdings by an individual artist increase in value as soon as the museum grants its imprimatur by accepting a donation of work by that artist. (Aesthetic judgment has little to dosometimes nothingwith successful entrepreneurship.)
The Vatican, seeking to reassert itself as a patron of the arts, will try to boost its brand with work by both established and emerging artists from various countries around the globe. Their assigned subject matter will be the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis. Two years ago, Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, said: “The Holy See wants the best in contemporary art and not expose itself to criticism.”
Whether it can avoid embarrassing the Church’s own obligation to evangelical poverty is another matter. We wait to see what the pavilion holds. And what it costs. Meantime, we ought to stay mindful of Kolakowski’s suspicion, voiced in Modernity on Trial :
In the hope of saving itself, it [the Church] seems to be assuming the colors of its environment, but the result is that it loses its identity, which depends on just that distinction between the sacred and the profane, and on the conflict that can and often must exist between them.
. . . myself.
This should have been done yesterday, but I hesitated. A weblog is only a humble handmaid, a digital lady-in-waiting beside the door of a print publication. Solemnities need not apply. Besides, I am clumsy at self-introduction. Nevertheless, something is in order so that you know this log did not spring up like a mushroom overnight.
I am a painter, as was my father. He descended from a line of British bricklayers who had taken up gentlemanly arts at the Working Men’s College in London prior to World War I. I grew up with their skilled, delicate watercolors of old walls and construction sites. They lined the stairwell and hallways of my grandparents’ house, a two-story brick built by my Liverpudlian grandfather. They enchanted me; and left me with a lifelong reverence for the work of hands and the labor of craft—two subjects of concern on this log.
The log itself began in 2009 as Studio Matters, a follow-on to my Gallery Going column for the print edition of The New York Sun . StudioMatters.com remains online, imbedded in those HTML mysteries under the hood of my website. Also archived in the essay portion of my site are all columns from The Sun , The Weekly Standard , and selected essays from other venues for which I have written: The Nation (yes, that Nation ), Hudson Review , American Arts Quarterly , Art & Antiques , Newsday , and The New York Times .
A recent review for The Weekly Standard is here . Please do browse. I invite you.
I know many persons who have the purest taste in literature, and yet false taste in art, and it is a phenomenon that puzzles me not a little; but I have never known any one with false taste in books and true taste in pictures.
John Ruskin was skeptical of the Victorian era’s flourishing publishing market. Dismayed over the “days of book deluge” in which he lived, he cautioned his audience to “keep out of the salt swamps of literature and live on a rocky little island of your own.” He saw the swell of printed material as a dilutant of public taste, something that confused and coarsened it. His recommended reading list to keep you company in your exile would thrill Mortimer Adler. While he granted some wiggle room for individual preference, he was adamant about one thing:
Among modern books avoid generally magazine and review literature. Sometimes it may contain a useful abridgment or a wholesome piece of criticism; but the chances are ten to one it will either waste your time or mislead you.Ruskin’s dismissal of journalistic reflection applies ever so keenly to today’s art press, bloated like a puff adder to illusory proportions. From foolscap to Kindle, art commentary is everywhere. Every newspaper has its arts-and-entertainment section devoted to reviews and something calledor misnamedart criticism. More deliberate weeklies, even the stately monthlies, do not escape the fog of contemporary art chatter. We go at art appreciation like catechumans intent on full communion. Ordained appreciators broadcast the lux et veritas of the new faith in a torrent of print. The study of art has come to mimic the communal role bible study once held in our public life.
Ruskin might not have objected to that last point if only the study were conducted on a higher plane. One that corresponded to his reverence for Homer, Plato, Aeschylus, Herodotus, Dante, Shakespeare, and Spenser might easily be welcome:
Every good book . . . is full of admiration and awe; it may contain firm assertion or stern satire, but it never sneers coldly, nor asserts haughtily, and it always leads you to reverence or love something with your whole heart.I love that final phrase, and bless Ruskin for believing it. But the view from my own rocky little island sees a culture too much altered since Ruskin’s day. There are times when a sneera hot, considered sneer, if not a cold onemakes a beeline to the heart of things ahead of more elegant subtleties. It is the Willy Wonka principle: candy is dandy but liquor is quicker.
As a guide through the chocolate factory of the contemporary artmind, I commend it. And I like to think that if Ruskin were here today, he would not fault me for the endorsement.
According to Sartre, “I am what I have” is the reigning attitude of the bourgeoisie. Much as I dislike the word bourgeois and its historic uses, Sartre’s comment is on the money when it comes to art collectors. “I am my paintings.” Collecting is an upscale recreation, a game that confers the illusion of cultural superiority on the players.
Cleaning out old files, I came across a copy of a speech given by Eugene Schwartz, a leading collector of contemporary art until his death in 1995. The speech had been delivered in 1970 but the copy made in 1987, the year New York Magazine featured Schwartz and his wife on the cover as embodiments of the 1980?s art boom. He was circulating the speech because he still stood by its premise:
The only prize in the art game is art. The only thing important about art is art. The only thing that matters, at least as far as I know, is who ends up with the painting.
In other words, competition is the spur. Forget all that highminded reflection on the ennobling aspects of art. Acing out the other guy, getting in on the ground floor, and proving oneself a ranking investor are the incentives. The promise of asset longevity, of a clever transaction, is the single aesthetic factor. In somewhat the manner of physicist Paul Durac who gauged the truth of equations by their elegance, the art collector takes aesthetic pleasure in the successful speculative stab. Beauty begins with smart money.
Most people think that to buy valid new artart that lastsyou have to predict the future. This, of course is nonsense. . . . If you can predict the present, you don’t have to predict the future at all. . . . All you have to do is see what’s happening nowto see what’s REALLY happening nowand you can pretty well tell what’s going to happen next.
“Overexpression” (1998) Ross Bleckner
Schwartz continues with a self-congratulatory riff on his own prescience in buying Ross Bleckner and Peter Halley in their IPO stage. Then he offers ways to REALLY see the present in order to predict it.
1. Great art plays checkers. First it jumps one way, and then it jumps another. Picasso does Cubism, and then he paints classical figures. Minimalism jumps into Neo-Expressionism, and then into Neo-Geo. Therefore, look for the next jump. 2. Look for bird dogs. These are usually critics or freelance curators or especially young galleries who have one overwhelming skillthey can see the present. Colliins and and Milazzo with Neo-Geo, or Stux with the Starn twins are prime examples.
2. Look for bird dogs. These are usually critics or freelance curators or especially young galleries who have one overwhelming skillthey can see the present. Colliins and and Milazzo with Neo-Geo, or Stux with the Starn twins are prime examples.
Photomontage by Mike and Doug Starn
3. Look not only at the art, but at its effects. Who’s being picked up by established galleries for group shows? What young artists are older artists imitating? Who are the crazier curators exhibiting. What galleries, previously overlooked or disregarded, are getting a lot of important visitors suddenly?
Precisely how do desirous looky-lous determine which insignificant gallery is suddenly on the trade routes of deep-pocket VIPs? Are spotters stationed at the corner of Tenth Avenue and 25th Street? No matter. What counts in #3 is Schwartz’s understanding of the word effects. No determinant is given for art’s humane or aesthetic impact. The art need not have any. All it needs is to have been noticed by Serious Spenders.
There is something refreshing about aviso #3. Love of art is fine as it goes; but, honestly now, how far does it really go? The fact of ownership trumps everything else. Schwartz’ obituary quoted him: “Collecting is the only socially commendable form of greed.”
Greed may sometimes correspond to connoisseurship of a more soulful kind. But even the most unregenerate vulgarians are under pressure to display hints of a sensitive nature. They must tremble in front of their purchases. Obedient to the protocols, Schwartz confessed to “an unshakable thrill, or an unshakable shiver” that halts his shopping cart in front of a particular work.
Why are collectors so reluctant to admit to collecting because it is lucrative? And an investment in prestige? Any such admission would shatter the aristocratic model which beckons collectors. It is a devious siren. And often blind