Ludovico Fisonius, Annunciation, (17th century); Museo del Prado, Madrid
"Art begins where the brutal, the savage, and the trivial end"--Giovanni Sagantini, uncle of Ettore Bugatti
On the Necessity of Elitism in the Fine Arts September/October 2020
Near the end of life, a man or woman might ask themselves what destiny would have had in store for them if at some critical juncture in their maturity he or she had heeded the wisdom of a cautionary friend or a far-sighted foe. Today, what was once called ‘high art”, or the more safely neutral “fine art”, is confronted with the same question. It is on the defensive everywhere in the Western world. Although recent record sales at Old Masters auctions and a steady increase in attendance at the major museums prior to the coronavirus pandemic suggest an encouraging longing for the lofty, the position is deceptive. The institutional status of high art survives tenuously under a veneer of tradition; it is almost absent in education and broader media; its influence marginalized to that of a well-educated cult. The implied reason for this is that so-called elitist art has no place in an increasingly egalitarian society.
If, however, the natural hierarchies of art that are to be enjoyed in any free society are eradicated, there will disappear with them one of the most powerful expressions of the principle of equality in that society: popular access to and education through aesthetic excellence. Such is the fate of the cultural life of this country if vigilance is not practiced by those who defend Western high art and resistance is not directed towards those whose long-term agenda is to discredit and even destroy it.
This admonition comes at a time when prominent museums, their directors and curators across the country are being fired, demoted or even brought to court under specious allegations of discriminatory practices at those institutions. These include charges of racism, sexism, “micro-aggression” and hostile corporate environments. Curiously, these accusations are taking place when celebrated museums small and large in the US have substantially improved attendance by way of strategic cross-fertilizations of ‘highbrow’ and mass-appeal exhibitions; through the promotion of ethnic and racial themes in those shows, and proactive policies to hire minority curators and staff. This has not been enough, however. Like the monuments of history being toppled down by illiterates, certain institutions and their leadership, ranging from the New York's Guggenheim Museum to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art to the Detroit Institute of Arts, find themselves under fire for not being diverse enough in an industry that by its very nature is the supreme expression of cultural diversity.
The latest and most prominent case in point concerns Dr. Salvador Salort-Pons, the Madrid-born director of the Detroit Institute of Arts who has raised the profile of Detroit to the status of world-class cultural capital in the era of cancel-culture. A two-month long formal protest by current and former DIA employees against this renowned expert of Spanish Renaissance art accuses Salort-Pons of the above-mentioned grievances. (A separate matter concerns the loan of an El Greco by his father-in-law to the museum and the question of whether this violates conflict of interest rules). The anonymous group of employees wrote in their complaint: “[We are] identifying and bringing to light years of a hostile work environment under Mr. Salort-Pons’ leadership and the racist, sexist mistreatment of staff.”
Yet something has not added up to these charges. Many black art leaders in Detroit are baffled by such developments in view of the fact that not only did this Velázquez scholar become the driving force behind rescuing the DIA museum from the brink of extinction (in a city that had filed for bankruptcy just prior to his directorship), but that he has managed to turn the DIA into a mecca of Old Masters treasures while fostering the inclusion of the local art scene. In the words of one observer writing anonymously in The Detroit Free Press Salort-Pons “transformed the DIA from a stuffy, narrowly-focused and exclusive institution into one much more relevant, accessible, and connected to metro Detroit than it has ever been. Salort-Pons has done more to expand the DIA’s outreach than any previous director.” Another mentioned several exhibitions and community projects that have been undertaken under his leadership, including “Detroit Collects,” an exhibition at the DIA designed to highlight black art collectors. Detroit author, historian and activist Marsha Music wrote a strong defense of his work detailing the "unprecedented" steps Salort-Pons has taken since becoming director in 2015 to reach out to ordinary Detroiters, black artists and the community in general. Local art director Henry Harper said when Salort-Pons and his wife walked into a well-known Detroit arts club, "We were all absolutely blown away. Never in the 100-plus years of the DIA has there ever been a director who came into the ‘hood. Never."
Also in the Motor City, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, a group calling itself ‘MOCAD Resistance’ has accused former director Elysia Borowy-Reeder of creating "a toxic work environment" characterized by "various racist micro-aggressions, mis-gendering, violent outbursts ... and tokenization of marginalized artists." What isn’t part of the “resistance” claims against Ms. Borowy-Reeder is the fact that she had taken over a museum that was in debt yet now enjoys a surplus, and that under her tenure attendance rose from 12,000 visitors a year to 70,000. The Guggenheim, meanwhile, is under increased pressure to “promote diversity” following such incidents as that of a guest curator of a Basquiat exhibit at last November who accused the museum of “institutional white supremacy” after she was cut out of a panel discussion and other decisions on how the show was presented.
The specifics of these accusations are not detailed in media reports, though it goes without saying that authentic complaints of workplace harassment should be taken seriously by prestigious cultural institutions. However, in consideration of the current cancel-culture tenor of the times, it is reasonable to question whether there is not a broader political agenda at play to smear Western aesthetic values and its “supremacist” leadership as inherently and irretrievably malicious. But in doing so, it runs the risk of destroying the most egalitarian institutions on earth: the great art museum.
I would argue that there is no more democratic institution in the US than the very elitist Metropolitan Museum of Art. No one is forbidden from its exquisite treasures representing nearly every civilization on earth, funded, as with most museums, by a social hierarchy with a patrician sense of public service. One needn’t pass an entrance exam, boast social connections or flaunt a degree to be admitted to the Getty Villa, the Kimbell, the Frick or the National Gallery of Art. In addition, what such places do to inspire public intellectual growth and mass psychological health is incalculable: one can enter a drop-out and exit inspired to pursue a masters; one may choose to live in an existential void of disgust with humanity or instead roam among masterpieces and come away viewing “mankind” in a new light and with a renewed sense of hope.
Grievances are a serious issue these days. So is leading a museum and making money at it. Just because inclusivity is something good, it does not mean that exclusivity is evil. Just because modern-day multiculturalism is favorable, does not mean that veneration for the centuries-long output of Europe is abhorrent. Elitism and cultural hierarchy have as much a right to exist as any minority culture has the right to defy it. Before dismissing individuals who have passionately devoted themselves to one of the most financially and politically complicated professional fields, let us understand the big picture of the consequences to these (possibly) agenda-driven actions. It is imperative that we as a civilization move cautiously in a direction that respects rather than resents cultural excellence before we reach that stage of regret where art loses all value--and life, therewith, its meaning.
The Beautiful Violence of Old Masters Painting April 2018
"To define art is to define life.” —William R. Bradshaw, 1890
Once upon a time, there was a rape that changed the course of world history. The event was immortalized in a stunning work of art, Tarquino e Lucretia, by the late Renaissance Venetian painter Tiziano Vecellio, or more commonly “Titian” in the English-speaking world. The scene depicts the soldier Sextus Tarquinius, the son of a sixth century (BC) Roman king, dagger in hand, implacable anger, insatiable desire in his eyes, about to assault the “chaste and virtuous” Lucretia, wife of his cousin and kinsman Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus. The intensity of the image captures the aggressor’s passion and his victim’s horror as his body lunges forward and she recoils in fear—a voluptuous figure of blonde waves and alabaster body engulfed by the lonely luxury of her dark bedroom. Tarquinius has come one evening to visit the home of Lucretia and her husband, Collantinus, and other visiting fellow soldiers. Aware of and aroused by the noblewoman’s famed dignity and reputation, Tarquinius stealthily enters her room that night and threatens to kill her if she does not consent to his advance, stating that he will defend the murder to her husband as an honor killing of an adulterous discovery between her and one of her slaves. Following the act, Tarquinius flees and Lucretia later tells the entire story of what took place before her husband and her brother. She then commits suicide before the two of them, declaring that in the choice between life and honor, death is the only way to preserve the latter. In the ensuing outrage, led by Collantinus and his friend Lucius Iunis Brutus, war is declared on the royal Tarquinius family and the Kingdom of Rome is destroyed. In its place, the ancient Republic of Rome is established, built on the martyrdom of Lucretia, who lives on in Western memory as one of the nine great heroines of antiquity. “Alas, Tarquino!,” the poet Ovid would write during the reign of Augustus nearly five centuries later. “How much that one night cost you your Kingdom!”
The emotions captured in Titian’s rendering of that criminal scene on Lucretia’s wedding bed are as seductive as they are dreadful. The languid, nocturnal tones of the bedroom are vivified by the brutalized sensibilities of the two protagonists as set against a backdrop of scarlets, reds, white, and gold expressing Lucretia’s vulnerability and Tarquino’s rage with equal force. It is a Renaissance world of chiaroscuro, of Light and Darkness, the spiritual and the worldly, the pure overwhelmed but not ultimately conquered by the corrupt. In an earlier interpretation of the story, Titian depicts Lucretia only as abstract portraiture, her virtue immortalized in a serenely luminescent and contemplative face. It would take another half century for the artist to recount the legend of her fate in its tortured realization. This latter version, one of Titian’s most famous works, is a passionate, vibrant, startling masterpiece that evokes Livy’s estimation of the myth as universal parable about the short-term victories of vice and the long-term triumph of Justice: “And the deed one forces often brings damage to one’s own. Let all ranks be warned that this has destroyed many a government.” [...] (To read more please click here)
THE TAO OF FREEDOM
26 June 2018
Ultimately, the Cultural Revolution (1965-1976) that the Chinese communist regime had intended to ‘purify and cleanse’ its national identity of foreign elements achieved the goal social transformation by embracing the decadent abstractionism, so called, its aesthetic manifesto regarded as the source origin of all spiritual corruption. Over the course of the past half decade, the surging market for three of the greatest Chinese modernist painters of the latter half of the 20th century is proof of this unspoken upheaval, and of the power of the fusion of the aggressive maturation of post-modern Western philosophy with the refined passivity of Eastern sensibility. These include the late Paris-based self-exiles Zhao Wou-Ki (d. 2013) and Chu Teh-Chun (d. 2014), whose curious genius at evoking simultaneous impressions of melancholy and exuberance through grand color washes of harmonized tone gradations represents the full and final expression of the modern Chinese artistic mentality set free. A third expatriate, Zhang Daqing (d.1983), whose evolution into an abstractionist idiom blended foreboding, storm-hued obscurantism with illumined ethereality, became the biggest selling artist at auction in 2016, with Picasso coming in at number two. Central to the exceptionalism of these artists was their Westernism. And this at a time when the influence of such meant beatings, even killings, of their fellow artists by Gang of Four brigands at home.
“Truth becomes fiction when the fiction is true. Real becomes Not-Real when the Unreal's real”, wrote the 18th century Chinese novelist Cao Xuequin, perhaps the country’s most celebrated writer. At no time has Chinese art exerted such a powerful role upon the social and political condition of China and at a time when the role of art in that country is as sabotaged by the same oppressive social and political outlook as it was decades ago. The “unexpected” success of these artists in recent years has brought full circle the authentic meaning of Revolution in the cultural sense, expressing the ideals of individual identity and social destiny in the universal way that art demands—and that art also threatens. The regime-mindset as still exists in China censors artists with appalling stridency--conditions made brutally clear in this New York Times op-ed by the famed contemporary Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, who himself was beaten by Chinese authorities in May of last year.
“At first glance, the censorship seems invisible”, wrote Wei Wei in his article, “but its omnipresent washing of people’s feelings and perceptions creates limits on the information people receive, select and rely upon…The harm of a censorship system is not just that it impoverishes intellectual life; it also fundamentally distorts the rational order in which the natural and spiritual worlds are understood”. He continues: “The censorship system relies on robbing a person of the self-perception that one needs in order to maintain an independent existence. It cuts off one’s access to independence and happiness.”
The success of these once-condemned artists defines the real ‘great leap forward’ that has otherwise eluded China’s spiritual and artistic development for so long; at the same time, the emotional power, no less than the market value, of these works have taken the Western art market by total surprise. In a transmigration of aesthetic values from centuries of rote and unquestioned Old Master technique-reproduction through to decades of communist state-approved themes that rendered Chinese painting mechanical, contemptible and ridiculed, this evolution of spirit and style pervading the great Chinese artists of the 20th century is indeed revolutionary. It is a situation that proves that while the embrace of Western capitalism has not resulted the reform of China’s regime-mentality or of its cultural suppression, the influence of Western intellectual and philosophical ideals as manifested in these works has led scholars to consider this art to be some of the greatest to appear in the past fifty years.
In the 1970s, at the height of the violent censorship of Chinese artists, the great Princeton art scholar Wen C. Fong, wrote that the hindrance of Western comprehension of Chinese art has been the wide gulf that exists between the modern mind, which seeks after constant change, and the Orthodox Chinese view, which appreciated originality “only when presented in the guise of tradition”. A great part of that tradition spoke of the “conquest of illusion”, as it was called, an evolution of perspective-technique that grew up between the 10th and 14th centuries in Chinese landscape painting. The practice of grand brushstrokes and calligraphic sleight-of-hand are still to be found in the genetic make-up of the works by the great Chinese abstractionists of the 20th century. But the ‘conquest of illusion’ has evolved to another level, that of revealing the faux Westernization of China on the political level and triumph of the best of Western values on the aesthetic and spiritual one.
The critic Clement Greenberg regarded modern abstract art as the high point of artistic creation; the glory of the ability to think conceptually. The theoretical forefather of this outlook, he maintained, was Platonic philosophy, which regards reality, as one sees it, only a “shadow’ of the real world of Ideas. In 1981, Wu Guanzhoung, a great French-trained painter of the early 20th century generation, argued in a famous essay published in Art Monthly against the then-dominant form of realism—the ‘realism’ as imperial and Communist China both demanded it-- in favor of abstractionism, declaring: “No subject, just Form”.
And so began the first stirrings of the Chinese cultural spirit in finding its genuine identity, its freedom and sophistication. It would take three more decades for this maturation to take its place on the world stage; to magnificently captivate the imagination of the West, and to gift the East—to China itself—those aesthetic values that have allowed her to assert a world-influence before which Beijing, for the first time in a century, is powerless.
OLD MASTERS & THE MEANING OF LIFE April 2018
There is nothing more modern than Old Masters painting. It is the original creative destruction; it is the origin of modern psychology. It is the rape, the battle scene, the captivity-slavery-bondage, the persecution and the martyrdom that ennobles the conscious mind and draws from allegories of violence the ecstasy of piety, the strength of the feminine; masculine valor and heroic triumph. It is the El Greco that inspires Picasso’s Demoiselles, the Francis series of Zurbarán that hints at a later Salvator Dáli; it is the beautiful gloom of The Mill, the anger of Leonardo’s Anghiari and the ‘feminine abandon’ of Cleopatra Dissolving the Pearl. It is timelessness in an age that insists upon the death of Time. “Beauty is terror”, wrote Rilke. In great painting, where emotion and imagination unite like spirit to body, that beauty is particularly devastating
It is also more popular than ever. Old Masters reached record sales last year and the year prior by private dealers and auction houses, as detailed in last autumn’s market overview by The European Fine Arts Fair (TEFAF)--the biannual Maastricht-New York international fine arts fair whose yearly report is considered the industry standard. The sale of Lot and His Daughters by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) for $58 million at Christie’s London in July 2016 was, until recently, the most expensive Old Master painting to sell at Christie’s entire 250 year-old history. Then, in November 2017, came that Leonardo. At Old Masters drawings auctions in London and New York early this year, that momentum showed no signs of abating.
The fantastic resurgence of these works has been a boon to museum curators who have reinvigorated Old Masters through highly, often surprisingly, successful exhibitions. “Old Masters Still Got It”, trumpeted a headline in Bloomberg News in February, reporting on the recent closing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer”. The show drew over 700,000 visitors, beat out the museum’s big-ticket exhibitions of contemporary luminaries Jeff Koons and Alexander McQueen, and became the tenth most-attended show in the history of that museum. In London, as reported by The Art Newspaper, the “Beyond Caravaggio” exhibition at The National Gallery, which explored the Italian artist’s influence on his contemporaries, was that museum’s most popular show in 2017 and London’s sixth most-visited fee-charging exhibit for that year. In Melbourne, “Van Gogh and the Seasons” was cited in rankings for 2017 among the most frequented art shows in the world. And it is not just a Western phenomenon: last year, the Tokyo National Museum exhibit of 22 Buddhist sculptures by the renowned Japanese artist Unkei (1150-1223) claimed the top sport of world art exhibitions, boasting 11,000 visitors a day; a showing of Impressionist and Modern works at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris came in second place.
Is such growth solely about a trend against trends? As an art category, Old Masters were dismissed in recent decades for not offering as much excitement or controversy as contemporary works. The fantastic resurgence of this sector has been attributed to many factors. This includes the Chinese on a buying spree, educated world-weariness with a saturated contemporary art market and the reassurance of ‘brand names’ in an unsettling economy. However, the nature of sales—desire for the strangely modern abstraction of Spanish Baroque, the rise of the cult of Claude Monet, rare Rubens sketches—speaks to a dynamic more profound than art as a sophisticated vehicle for investment.
“To define art is to define life”, wrote the critic William T. Bradshaw in 1890. To ‘define life’ today is in many ways an unfortunate itemization of brutalities and absurdities social, political and cultural, with the short-term and the easily convenient somehow intended to lighten the load. In this regard, it is interesting to note to what extent even our leading-light Moderns--those wry portraitists of today’s comédie humaine—have proclaimed themselves impassioned acolytes of Old Masters magnificence. Mr. Koons, one of contemporary art’s most sought after names, is himself a zealous collector of works by the 16th century Flemish luminary Quentin Massys, Dutch Golden Age artist Cornelius van Haarlem and the hedonistic 18th century French mannerist Fragonard. His contemporary Damien Hirst is as well an Old Masters fan, as is the ever-popular John Currin--satirist, eroticist, Surrealist--who has lectured extensively about the influence of such Renaissance artists as Ludovico Carracci on his work. These artists are perhaps the sentimental heirs to the late-20th century titans who drew inspiration from Old Masters at a time when the eradication of “the past” was a goal in much post-modern art. Gerhardt Richter, considered to be our greatest living painter, engaged such works for his masterpiece five-part cycle based upon Titian’s Annunication. Recent scholarship has discovered that the late Jean-Michel Basquiat consulted Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks for sources of ideas. Francis Bacon, who died in 1992, was the subject of a very popular exhibit at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in October 2016 entitled “Francis Bacon and the Old Masters”, which explored the pervasive influence of Titian, Velázquez, Rembrandt and Henri Matisse on that artist.
This universality and timeless power of Old Masters might inspire us to consider Jung’s estimation of the artist as “Man” in the higher sense of “collective man” –that is, the one who “carries and shapes the unconscious, psychic forms of mankind”, irrespective of age or époque. In this sense, perhaps the allure of this great art--with its ravaged noblewomen, its serenely suffering martyrs, its gloomy landscapes; the glories of the abyss, the punishments of virtue--is that it speaks to a need in us, once more, to seek out in the internal and external conflicts of life the insurmountable power of Beauty. Old Masters in modern life just may be that salvation.