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The Wrong Politics for Art

Post #1485 • December 30, 2011, 9:12 AM • 5 Comments

Tracey Emin, who has a habit of appearing in press photos wearing a facial expression that looks like a collapsed soccer ball, complained to the Telegraph this week that she has suffered ostracism and rebuke because of her support of Conservative (capital-C, since we're talking about England) political candidates.

Dinos Chapman has characterized her support for the Cameron administration as "criminal." This is saying something, because Chapman could not get commensurately worked up over the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas.

But at least he's not taking her art to task, which is better than you can say about some of the treatment of Helen Frankenthaler, who died not 72 hours ago. On his Facebook page, blogger Tyler Green posted a link to a post by editor Jeff Weinstein that Green described as a "must-read." Weinstein says:

...she was one of those responsible for gutting the National Endowment for the Arts, especially the visual part: eliminating direct grants to artists. She worked with those who earlier had defunded those pathetic hangers-on, art critics.

I'm unable to parse the second sentence and have contacted Weinstein for a clarification. He continues:

Frankenthaler was proud of her conservative stance, as this 1989 piece by her in the New York Times opinion section makes clear. A sample: “I feel there was a time when I experienced loftier minds, relatively unloaded with politics, fashion, and chic."

I think of the "right wing" as people who want to attack Iran, not people who pine for the days of a loftier intellectual climate. So I read her letter of comment in search of something that might qualify.

I, for one, would not want to support the two artists mentioned [Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe], but once supported, we must allow them to be shown. With all the fuss, I think a number of crucial points have to be made.

Granted, we are "fed" by Government permit and budgets, but censorship and Government interference in the directions and standards of art are dangerous and not part of the democratic process. A country depends on its culture and cultural freedom; it is lost without it. ... We must not smother the expression of art anymore than we should suppress or annihilate protests and parades, all part of our unique and precious democracy. ...

But there are other issues in these particular cases. It is heartbreaking both as an artist, and as a taxpayer(!) for me to make these remarks, and as a painter on the council I find myself in a bind: Congress in a censoring uproar on one hand and, alas, a mediocre art enterprise on the other! Sad, indeed. By ''mediocre art enterprise'' I mean: Has the council run its course in terms of doing a necessary quality job? Should it change its course from within? Is it possible? I myself find the council - the recommendations of the panels and the grants given -of increasingly dubious quality. Is the council, once a helping hand, now beginning to spawn an art monster? Do we lose art along the way, in the guise of endorsing experimentation? ...

Naturally, it is assumed that many of us often feel aghast at some of the awards, but I feel that way more and more, and I am not alone. Have we ''had it'' - like many now defunct, once productive, agencies?

I hope not. There are too many benefits to individuals and institutions and to the cultural life of the entire nation. Realizing that we are a Government agency, can we now get at our problems and make quality changes? Can we?

... Quality control is the issue: raise the level. We need more connoiseurs of culture.

That the programming ought to be improved, not eliminated, is at the gentle, center-right end of a spectrum of conservative opinion. The other end wanted to cut the National Endowment for the Arts in its entirety. The LA Times puts it this way:

Frankenthaler did take a highly public stance during the late 1980s "culture wars" that eventually led to deep budget cuts for the National Endowment for the Arts and a ban on grants to individual artists that still persists. At the time, she was a presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts, which advises the NEA's chairman.

This is quite a claim: the stance of one presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts, which advises the NEA chairman, led to budget cuts and and the ban on individual grants. I'm going to gently suggest here that this is not an accurate rendering of what happened.

A number of artists chimed in at Facebook. New York artist Betty Tompkins quoted critic, author of the blog Artopia, and perpetually wrong person John Perreault:

Enough already! Jerry S[altz] and everyone else. Helen Frankenthaler, at best a minor painter—and too rich for her own good—was one of those responsible for the NEA dropping individual grants to artists.

He quoted the LA Times piece, and continued.

Just because you're dead, doesn't mean your sins are forgiven. Not in Artopia!

Green gave that a "like." Tompkins went on:

I think she was a very influential painter. Major or minor, only history will tell.

In any case, I thought a crucial point had been bulldozed, and I said so on Green's wall.

Frankenthaler was first a human being, and second a great artist. One might think that basic decency would advise against the application of hysterical labels to her politics ("right wing"? Really?) so soon after her death.

There was some support for this position among Green's "friends." But one Bart Johnson, a New Mexico artist, begged to differ.

"Right-wing" isn't a hysterical label. She was a close friend of the Cheneys. Greenberg was a right-winger as well, a Vietnam war hawk. To understand just how lousy a painter Frankenthaler was one has to have some basic understanding of what painting is and that takes an education in both looking at and painting oneself. If one begins by taking the Frankenthalers, Olitskis, Nolands, and Dzubases seriously, one might as well forget ever becoming a painter. To stain canvases in various abstract designs is only painting to people with neither sensibility nor an iota of intelligence.

The basic point is that if you can't draw you can't paint. Greenberg ruined more artists than anyone has a right to. He picked wannabees and gave them instructions on what to do. Somebody like Noland, without being told what to do, just kept on painting targets. Frankenthaler just kept staining canvases. Somebody should really try looking at Picasso if they want to get some idea about what constitutes painting if they're too lazy to go back before the 20th century.

Green gave that a "like" too. More foolish assertions and dim-witted attempts to hurt my feelings followed from Mr. Johnson, but I'll spare you a full account.

At any rate, this is just one opinion emanating from the desert Southwest, where we've previously noted a phenomenon in which opinions dehydrate to a peculiar sourness at times. Of greater note is this tweet from the director of the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston:

Ever since Helen Frankenthaler came out on the conservative, vaguely homophobic side of the NEA culture wars I could never enjoy her work.

This mentality is completely alien to me. I disagree with the politics of Rage Against the Machine, but I thoroughly enjoy their music. I could never talk myself out of liking someone's art because I don't sympathize with their political position. I have profound doubts about both the taste and the politics of people who can.



Walter Darby Bannard

December 30, 2011, 10:10 AM

Good for you, Franklin. This is a courageous post and one that should get reaction. I will comment later when I get back from a meeting.

Greenberg was a right-winger...

Good grief! Here is a direct quote from a conversation I had with him many years ago about politics, in which both sides of an election were being discussed: "I just don't think I could ever vote for a Republican."

Now there's far right for you!


Walter Darby Bannard

December 30, 2011, 3:01 PM

You say, "This mentality is completely alien to me." Yes, that is the crux of the matter, and it is much more basic than the old liberal-conservative divide. It is a mentality that is every bit as crabbed, defensive, ignorant, and retrograde, and deeply angry and fearful, as any evangelical knee-jerk right-winger.

There are no rules in art, but I have one cardinal rule of thumb: In art (and people and politics): everything must be judged case by case, with fresh eyes, fresh thinking and common sense. When we fail to do this, or at least try our best, we leave reality, wire ourselves for failure and disappointment, and crawl into a kind of mental doghouse. And we make ourselves look bad.

I was on the International Exhibits Committee of the Arts Endowment back in the late '70s (and co-chair for a short while; my insistence on my objective rule of thumb did not sit well with the arrayed ranks of curators sitting around the table) and I got a real understanding how the interrelationship between government and the arts community works, or doesn't work.

That was about ten years after the endowments got started under Nancy Hanks and about 10 years before Frankenthaler's involvement, so I was there between the period when the idea was working and the time it self-destructed with the Mapplethorpe controversy and related problems.

The idea that any one representative could radically affect the overall workings of the Endowment is just plain wrong. The changes were entirely political and largely brought about by the unwillingness of the Endowments to adapt to political reality. This is not a conservative notion, is it just simple, well-documented fact.

I am saying this to set the record straight, nothing else. It is in the distant past by now, and I wasted enough time arguing about it back when it happened.


Chris Rywalt

December 31, 2011, 11:55 AM

perpetually wrong person John Perreault

I think I may like this even better than the epithet I applied to him, which was "chucklehead." And I had the misfortune to find that he was in charge of one of my favorite places on Earth—Snug Harbor in Staten Island, where I grew up. Perrault's administration essentially destroyed most of the things I loved about Snug Harbor.


Alan Pocaro

December 31, 2011, 6:13 PM

Emin is "being ostracized" because she is a hypocrite. She should be ostracized because her work is no good.

What the rest are doing to Frankenthaler is a damn shame, but I'm not surprised. Being in favor of critical quality standards frequently elicits a rabid response from a certain class of enthusiast. And being labeled a "conservative" is as close to an art-world scarlet letter as there is. I don't like every piece she made and I thought she was frequently formulaic. But if you can't enjoy a piece like Basque Beach or Round Trip because of your politics, you've got problems. To those who have eyes, let them see!


A Reader

January 3, 2012, 6:29 PM

Ever since Caravaggio fled Rome after killing Ranuccio Tomassoni I could never enjoy his work.



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