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.