More group discussion on `state of the visual arts'
Contemporary art and architecture are discussed on Page 24 today by Theodore F. Wolff, Christopher Andreae, and Carleton Knight III, writers well known in this section. Here, joined again by feature editor Roderick Nordell, they talk about such things as fakes, Post-Modernism as an insiders' joke, and who decides which style of art will be exhibited and praised. Nordell: Have we anything to say about the recent discovery of expert art fakes? Certain objects, such as gold cups and jewel-encrusted things at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have turned out to be not by Cellini, or people of that early period, but by someone from the 19th century.
One of the philosophical questions that has been brought up here is: ``If you think something is by a noted artist, do you look at it differently from the way you look at it if you are seeing it cold?''
Andreae: I would say, emphatically, you do. And Rembrandt is a more interesting case than Cellini in the sense that -- over the years -- a lot of Rembrandts come and go. Though they aren't necessarily fakes, some stop being Rembrandts.
Wolff: We've got some in New York.
Andreae: Because, really, the response to art, whether by a professional critic or just by somebody who loves art -- and they should really be the same person -- is as a channel to reach that particular quality that belongs to an artist. If you then have a doubt, for good reasons, about whether you're looking at a Rembrandt or not, then you're thinking, ``Well I'm not really going to be able to get at this thing that is so particular'' -- because we're all learners whether we're critics or not. I mean, that's the whole point of the thing. It seems to me that very definitely I look at a Rembrandt that is no longer a Rembrandt with quite different eyes, regardless of its beauty or value or whatever.
Nordell: Would you look at the University of Virginia differently, Carleton, if you didn't know the architect was Thomas Jefferson?
Knight: I suppose the appeal of it is that it's Jefferson. I guess we don't have fakes in architecture. But there are so many new buildings going up these days that are in fact replicas -- or at least taking ideas from others. It doesn't bother me.
Andreae: It depends on whether they do it extrovertedly instead of introvertedly. You take a case like Henry Moore. His whole vision and his sculpture were infiltrated by other cultures and by other ages and other periods and other sculptural work. But it was integral. It became part of what he was doing and his individuality. He took it over and really digested it.
Wolff: There is one other point. I think that a really great work of art or something by the hand of one of the great draftsmen, painters, sculptors is perceived as something of a sacred relic. We feel a kind of awe in the presence of it. I'm convinced that 90 percent of the so-called great art that is sold is of third-rate quality and that the only reason it's getting those high prices is because it has that sacred relic aspect to it. It is something by the hand of a master.
But I still will go to the Rembrandts that have been declared not by his hand. I'm thinking particularly of one -- it's the woman cutting her nails. As far as I'm concerned it has all the characteristics of Rembrandt. Now, there are going to be some Rembrandts of which I'd never say this - of which I'd say: No, I don't believe this is by Rembrandt.
Nordell: Then the nonwriter on art or architecture, going and seeing things by unknown artists and by famous artists, can simply respond to the work itself and not worry about whether he ought to like it?
Wolff: Hopefully, yes.
Knight: That's a dream world.
Andreae: But I believe museum curators do have an essential function -- and the scholarly world. They should be able to say this is a Giorgione, this is a Titian, or whatever. There's a fascinating case of this in Glasgow, where I live, where the best, the great, painting in the Glasgow Art Gallery is a Giorgione. It has been for many years. But recently it was shown in an exhibition of Venetian painting in London as ``attributed to Titian.'' The catalog note pointed out that now only a small minority of scholars think it is a Giorgione. But agreed Giogiones are infinitely rarer than Titians, and when it went back to Glasgow after the exhibition it simply became an unquestioned Giorgione again! They cannot bear to let it go because Giorgione is so special.
Wolff: One thing the curators have been trying to do - and that the writers on art should certainly do - is to try to get the public not to look at art with a sense of awe. The public should feel they have the right to look on the basis of their own experience and then to ask questions.
Knight: It's the public that really started all the interest in Post-Modernism.
Andreae: I read an editorial the other day in an architectural magazine saying that Post-Modernism is now dead.
Knight: That in a way is true, except it depends on how you define Post-Modernism.
Nordell: How would you define it? In a sentence!
Knight: Well, modern archectiture was very scaleless, with smooth planes and lots of glass. The glass box was primary. Now the Post-Modernists are bringing color in. They're putting ornament on the old box and making it more interesting to look at.
People didn't like the glass boxes. They couldn't relate to them; they didn't know where the doors were. Michael Graves [see ``State of the Arts'' pp. 24, 25] makes a wonderful point in a slide lecture on doorways. There's one of Pavilion Nine at the University of Virginia, which has a beautiful, elegant, recessed doorway designed by Jefferson. Then Graves shows a doorway at Newark Airport, which is just a sliding pane of glass that they put those little butterfly seals on so you don't walk through the glass and hurt yourself. Which door do you like? You recognize that Jefferson door; you're comfortable with it. That's why the public liked the older architecture, and so that's why Post-Modernism sort of brought back older trends and older ideas and put them into newer buildings.
Wolff: Well, I would say that anyone who is a modernist is, to a certain extent, a true believer, and that the Post-Modernists, on the other hand, are really quite pragmatic. They are eclectic; they are capable of adjusting themselves to the public's tastes.
Andreae: And strangely mixed in, though, with the joke, with unseriousness.
Wolff: Oh, sure, but most of those who are in on that joke are a little bit embarrassed about it.
Andreae: They often have good reason to be.
Nordell: Just let the general reader in on the joke, will you!
Andreae: For example, when you see a building, as I saw in Boston the other day, with such a thin, characterless surface that it could almost be made of cardboard. And then all over it it has funny-looking, Palladian windows! The point is that they look like pictures of windows on a surface. They have no apparent structural relationship to the body of the building. They just look like a rather silly visual joke.
Knight: I would call it more using wit in a building than calling it a joke. I think it's a little bit softer.
Wolff: They're indulging in the joke because they sense that there is more that they should be involved with, and yet they simply can't find the necessary belief in whatever that is. The dogma is what's ruined everything.
Knight: That's the key - the dogma. What Post-Modernism has done is opened up the whole field to let architects do what they want. Without previous stylistic constraints.
Wolff: I think Post-Modernism is something like a sandbox. I mean, all of a sudden the artists of the 20th century, after having been regimented to a certain extent - taught that certain ideals were to be realized in a certain way - are suddenly put into the sandbox and told to do whatever they please.
Nordell: We're talking about the arts in general, now.
Andreae: Just as a footnote to that. A lot of people have suddenly become prominent in the Post-Modern phase who have been painting for the last 25 or 30 years and just haven't been noticed in the same way. They were working away while the abstract painters and the modernists and so forth had their day.
Knight: Well, the same, in a way, is true with Philip Johnson. For years, he was known mostly for museums and elegant residences. But when he finally did the AT&T building in New York, he became the most famous architect in the world. That's what got him on the cover of Time magazine.
Andreae: He was enormously famous before AT&T.
Knight: Yeah, but not in the same kind of way that he is now.
Andreae: Oh, you mean he wasn't infamous?
Wolff: There aren't that many of those artists that you're speaking of. The classic example is Philip Guston, who was, in a way, the father of what's going on in painting, recently. The artists who are in on the joke are now in their late 20s and early 30s. They, quite pragmatically, looked at the art world and saw what their fathers and forefathers had done. They took what my generation had seen as kitsch, for instance, and they turned it into art. It's a total reversal of values.
Nordell: Speaking of the sandbox and speaking of the pragmatic approach, are we in a period now where instead of a prevailing style in art, there are many styles all coexisting and almost equally weighted, depending on the observer?
Andreae: I think they coexisted anyway, before. But it's always a question of levels and who decides which is the one on top of the heap at a given time. It seems to be mainly, nowadays, a curatorial decision, not a critical one. It's done by museums.
Wolff: Well, we also don't have the authoritarian critics we did have. We don't have the Clement Greenbergs and the Meyer Shapiros and the Tom Hesses, who were able to keep things herded into one or another channel.
Andreae: By that time, by the mid-'60s, Greenberg had reduced things to the point where there were only about five artists in the whole world worth looking at. That was the problem.
Wolff: When I came to New York in 1956 there were as many different kinds of artists as there are now. The only difference then was that if you didn't paint Abstract Expressionist, you simply did not exist. Now, that situation has really improved, up to the point where now there are galleries for almost everyone.
Andreae: There is still a trend, a certain chosen people on the top of the pile, still. There's no question about it. There's a mainstream. But the point that's different about it is that it isn't conscious modernism. It isn't avant-garde, right?
Wolff: That's true. It's a kind of improvised eclecticism. And each critic and each curator who has clout has been able to bring together a certain number of rationalizations which he or she finds really justify the work as being major art.