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.

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Prestige Spending

From Maureen Mullarkey

Somewhere on my shelves—but 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. And—let me add—price 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.

The Vatican at the Venice Biennale

From Maureen Mullarkey
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 enemies—a reaction that seems defensive, but in fact is self-destructive.

Leszek Kolakowski

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 fairs—unregulated commodities exchanges—are 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 art—much of it acquired by donation under Pope Paul VI—knows 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 do—sometimes nothing—with 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.

Let Me Introduce …

From Maureen Mullarkey

. . . 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 . 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.

Ruskin and Ourselves

From Maureen Mullarkey
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

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 called—or misnamed—art 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.
Roslin Chapel (1838); watercolor by John Ruskin

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 sneer—a hot, considered sneer, if not a cold one—makes 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.
by Dean Vietor for The New Yorker

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.

I Am What I Have

From Maureen Mullarkey

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 art—art that lasts—you 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 now—to see what’s REALLY happening now—and 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 skill—they 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 skill—they 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

View Through the Fallopian Tubes

From Maureen Mullarkey

For connoisseurs of civilizational decline, the delights keep accumulating. Contemporary art is especially generous in building the case that Spengler had it right. If only he had been an art critic. The ignorance and terminal vulgarity of what passes—still—for feminist art disqualifies most of its practitioners from any claim on civilized attention.

Newly arrived is a press release from Ceres Gallery, a women’s not-for-profit collective in New York, announcing a not-so-unique exhibition Meet My Uterus . Vaginas have been over-exposed, laid bare every which way from Sunday. Time, now, to turn the speculum on a different site in the female viscera. Ceres’ catchy exhibition title links the expo to another feminist production: The Art of Resistance: The Exquisite Uterus . Organized by ladies in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, the latter is part of a more strenuous effort called Power, Politics and Performance, and the Snatchel Project which inspires gals to knit uteri and mail their handicraft off to congressmen with the statement, “Hands off my uterus!”

If you’ve been paying attention, you will recognize this as the inevitable follow-on to fevered women demanding that their bishops “Get your rosaries off our ovaries.” That was a clever, if misleading, catchphrase. No rosaries were ever on their ovaries. More to the point and above all else, abortion—the issue that sparked the slogan—is a philosophical and scientific matter before it is, by coincidence, a religious one. It cuts to the core of what kind of society we choose to be. Are we willing to adopt the National Socialist principle of life-unworthy-of-life? Was Catherine MacKinnon right when she argued in Feminism Unmodified (1987) that women will never be free until they have “the right to kill”? These are grist for considered policy discussions, not occasions for aggressive know-nothing stances. But I digress.

Ceres’ press release is a model of conceptual confusion and bandwagon hysterics spurred by the Texas sonogram law that required women seeking abortion to have a transvaginal ultrasound.

Who would have ever envisioned the need to fight for, of all things, contraception in 2012? Women’s reproductive rights are being eroded. Because of government interference with women’s healthcare decisions, these women artists felt the need to express their concerns in the way they know best. They have gotten creative with the image, the shape, the form, the essence of the uterus and we have presented them all in an exciting and visually arresting format of high density and over-the-top repetition of one thing: the uterus.

Contraception was never an item on the national agenda, never at risk in November’s election. Raising the specter of an end to contraception was a low rhetorical feint used successfully by Democrats against Republicans. Texas’ ultrasound initiative was a common-sense ruling that largely codified existing practice. Planned Parenthood and close to 99% of all responsible abortion facilities already perform the ultrasound. It verifies that the mother is truly pregnant; it establishes the size, age and positioning of the unborn child. This, in turn, aids in determining whether the infant will be killed by vacuum or by needle, and whether surgical procedures will be used at all. The ultrasound also helps guard against harm to the mother as the infant is being dismembered. In short, the law mandates what is already standard procedure.

But this is not the kind of information that art is capable of conveying. Art is an effective medium for bypassing the rigors of thought by delivering a political position immune to contention. It cannot be contradicted because it is a stance, a gnomic position of more sound than sense. It is not an argument. Yeats said it best: “You can refute Hegel, but not the Song of Sixpence .”

Organizers of The Art of Resistance are members of the Women’s Studies and LGBTQ Studies on the Oshkosh campus of the University of Wisconsin. Who was it who recommended that all graduates of “studies” programs be sent to re-education camps? When they go, self-styled feminist artists and their exquisite uteri should travel with them.

January 1, 2013

From Maureen Mullarkey

This time last year, Studio Matters went on retreat. It withdrew in anticipation of a long, difficult year. The new one promises to be no easier. Still, retreats are meant as preludes to renewal, not abdication. I was reminded of this by a note that came from a lovely and thoughtful artist in Arkansas. She wondered if postings had been abandoned forever.

No, Lin, not forever.

New Year’s Day seems a good moment for Studio Matters to shake off sleep and open eyes to the new season. On the liturgical calendar, January 1st has traditionally marked the celebration of the circumcision of the infant Jesus. So much marvelous painting owes itself to the commemoration of that act. Male circumcision is out of fashion these days, though; even under attack. An iconographic search relating to the ceremony, recalling as it does Mosaic law, is less productive than one that uses a less clinical term. The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is the title best suited to conjuring up glories from art history: //


From the workshop of Giovanni Bellini, around 1500, came this:

At the same time, Hans Holbein the Elder gave his world this:

Today, what circulates in celebration of January 1st are variations on images like this:

/ Or, if we moderns want to get fancy, this:

Either way, it is a telling comedown. The richness of the art of later Christian culture represents more than material or historic realities. It signifies moral intuitions—claims on conscience—that are in danger of receding along with the Christian story.

Let me start this new year with a reflection by David Bentley Hart:

I cannot help but wonder what remains behind when Christianity’s power over culture recedes? How long can our gentler ethical prejudices [toward the vulnerable—the diseased, disabled, or derelict among us], many of which seem to be melting away with fair rapidity, persist once the faith that gave them their rationale and meaning has withered away? Love endures all things perhaps, as the apostle says, and is eternal; but as a cultural reality, even love requires a reason for its preeminence among virtues. And the mere habit of solicitude for others will not necessarily long survive when that reason is no longer found. If . . . the “human as we understand it is the positive intervention of Christianity, might it not be the case that a culture that has become truly post-Christian will also, ultimately, become posthuman?