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Insensitive to Art and Its Contents

Post #1855 • January 17, 2020, 12:13 PM

I got a couple of requests to explain some accusations I made at Hyperallergic recently. There’s a bit of a story to it, so I’ll begin at the beginning.

John Yau has for a long time nurtured a hatred of Clement Greenberg. He gleaned it entirely from secondary sources and it led to ahistorical inanity, which I corrected in a 2013 essay for Abstract Critical titled Vulgarity With A Vengeance: The Clement Greenberg Myth Machine. Yau is fond of repeating something Joan Mitchell said to him in a phone conversation in 1992. She referred to Greenberg as “that toilet seat.”

Nevertheless I did not think of the above as racialist sentiments until last May when Yau, while writing about an (at best) middle-tier West Coast abstractionist named George Miyasaki, opened with this doozy:

The relationship between Asian art, Asian artists, gestural and calligraphic mark-making, Abstract Expressionism, and post-painterly abstraction is an entangled web marked by many nationalist and racial prejudices in the guise of objective criticism. In his well-known essay, “American Type Painting” (1955, revised 1958), Clement Greenberg made the extravagant claim that “not one of the original ‘abstract expressionists’ — least of all [Franz] Kline — has felt more than a cursory interest in Oriental art. The sources of their art lie entirely in the West.” If you believe that this narrow, racially charged viewpoint is no longer given any credence, you are dead wrong.

That claim is not extravagant. In fact, that claim comports with what we know about the artists. There is simply no evidence to suggest more than cursory interest in Asian art on the part of any of the players under discussion in Greenberg’s essay. The sources do seem to be entirely Western, which is not to say that Eastern thought or art had no subsequent effect on it. I had to make that point the prior time that a person of Asian descent at Hyperallergic (tagline: “Sensitive to art and its discontents”) was writing denigrating anti-history about Greenberg, in 2018, also in umbrage about George Miyasaki, among others.

At any rate, Yau was ramping up towards a complaint about Lance Esplund.

Reviewing the 2011 show Helen Frankenthaler: East and Beyond at Knoedler & Co., for which I wrote the catalog essay, Lance Esplund, the critic for the Wall Street Journal, wrote:

Coming on the eve of New York’s Asia Week, it is a fine show if you ignore its premise and dubious catalog essay, written by the Chinese-American art critic and poet John Yau. Mr. Yau, citing the Asian-themed titles of Ms. Frankenthaler’s works, surmises — with little or no substantiation — that she is steeped in “Asian art and philosophy” and has had “a long engagement with Asian art.” This is news, if not revisionist fantasy, to anyone who knows the artist and her European Modernist-influenced works, whose ambiguous titles were generally arrived at through free-association.

Put aside for a moment Esplund’s xenophobic need to racially profile me and consider his claim that the essay was written with “little or no substantiation.” As Esplund well knows, any catalogue essay on Helen Frankenthaler published by a reputable gallery that presented her with a concept for the exhibition would require — as a minimum standard — that the artist and her studio approved of the show’s format, title, and catalogue essay.

Say what? François Jullien is steeped in Asian philosophy. Helen Frankenthaler was not. She got interested in ukiyo-e in the 1970s and absorbed what she could from it. The notion that the Frankenthaler studio didn’t correct Yau, therefore what he said was true, does not speak well of his integrity as a historian. The incentives of that gig encourage excessive claims on behalf of the paying customers. One has to resist that, not succumb to it. Yau has long been inclined to exaggerate the influence of Asian culture on American art in an effort to score points for his ethnic group. Consequently their interests dovetailed. Esplund simply noticed this. (Political correctness, as one wag put it, is a war on noticing.) It is nonsense for Yau to complain about “racial profiling” here, as if Esplund pulled him to the side of the road for writing while Chinese. Yau thinks that the whole project of American art criticism was built around white critics writing about white artists in an exclusionary and untruthful manner for the sake of valorizing whites. This apparently justifies Yau doing likewise on behalf of his own identity enclave. On the contrary, American art criticism is quite a lot more generous and interesting than that, and Yau has become the monster that he sought to destroy.

In the eight years that passed between Esplund’s essay and Yau’s response to it, identitarian progressivism has disdained that warning of Nietzsche’s with ever greater vigor. One can imagine Yau studying Esplund’s nose with increasing distress, waiting for an opportunity for revenge.

This was where I drew the line:

Part of Miyasaki’s neglect has to do with the art world’s fashions and changing tastes. But a deeper, more persistent part has to do with racial and cultural prejudices, as expressed by the first generation of American art critics — Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and Irving Sandler — and carried on by Lance Esplund and many others in positions of power.

Look at the paintings. Miyasaki showed up in California in 1953 and immediately, like countless other artists in 1953, adopted the Tenth Street Touch. By the early Sixties he was recapitulating the work of Adolph Gottlieb from fifteen and twenty years earlier. Meanwhile, where’s the evidence for these prejudices? Poor Greenberg, who encouraged Kikuo Saito and Frank Bowling only to be subjected to this abuse. And what on earth did Irving Sandler do? I replied:

Let’s subject Yau to his own brand of bad-faith identitarianism, shall we? Greenberg, Rosenberg, and Sandler had more in common than representing a generation of art critics guilty of neglecting Miyasaki because of their “racial and cultural prejudices.” They’re also all Jews. This has become a popular way for progressives like Yau to express their anti-Semitism, by upbraiding Jews for epitomizing whiteness and all the evils with which it is supposedly associated. Sandler, who did more to nurture contemporary art criticism as a nonagenarian than Yau has done in his whole life, hasn’t even been dead for a year, and Yau just couldn’t wait to malign his memory. If that doesn’t evince hate, I don’t know what does.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the goal of identity politics is not to solve anything, it’s to remain in a permanent state of grievance. The irony of the supposed disregard of an Asian origin for postwar abstract art is that if it were extant (which it is not, Greenberg was entirely correct about this), people like Yau would be coming after whites for cultural appropriation. Only one conclusion is possible with bigots like Yau. The only question is how they arrive at it.

But obviously, evidence is beside the point. The tactic is to repeat the accusations until they stick. Here’s Yau going after Sandler again, in October, in which he quotes Corinne Robins from 1997:

Edward Clark and Joan Mitchell are probably the two most outstanding artists of the younger generation of American expressionist artists which Irving Sandler in his book named ‘The New York School,’ after the city in which it flourished. Clark and Mitchell’s limited recognition until half way through the nineteen seventies (although Mitchell showed work early at the prestigious Stable Gallery) was a matter of their belonging to, respectively the wrong sex and gender for the time. Sandler’s book, The New York School published in 1978, recognizes the contribution of women artist [sic], but finds no room in its page [sic] for Ed Clark or any other artist of color.

About Miyasaki, Yau asked,

Looking at these works in 2019, the question persists: why isn’t Miyasaki better known? And why aren’t these works and this period of his career better known?... Am I wrong in advancing that Miyasaki should get a second, longer look? Is it possible to see this Japanese American artist in the larger context of what was going on in West Coast abstraction between the mid-1950s and early ’60s? Or are all these questions to be filed under “revisionist fantasy?”

About Clark, Yau asked,

Will Clark receive the retrospective he has long deserved? Will there be a comprehensive publication accompanying it?... Clark had his first New York show at the downtown artist-run Brata Gallery — where Al Held also showed — in 1958. Sixty years have passed since then. How many more years will pass before we get this right?

That brings us to the present. Yau recently reviewed the work of Jiha Moon. She has shown twice in New York in six years. Nevertheless:

That Moon’s work does not fit into the current scene — who else is making masks and vessels while referring to Asian popular culture and Pop art? — marks how clearly she has defined a domain that is solely hers. The fact that Moon has not shown regularly in New York is a travesty that reveals how aesthetics and racism are still bonded in this town.

I replied:

Oh the irony. Aesthetics and racism could not be more ferociously bonded than in the writings of John Yau. Woe unto you, “this town,” namely your preponderantly white, disproportionately Jewish art world that “has never addressed issues of Asian cultural dislocation, nor acknowledged Asian artists living in America.”

I can think of a lot of reasons that an Atlanta-based ceramic sculptor might not be showing more often in New York. One of them is shipping costs. Sure, it might be something more insidious, but it’s also possible that Yau is an Asian supremacist who despises whites and Jews. At least there’s some evidence for the latter. Hyperallergic really ought to stop enabling him.

But it likely won’t, because its editor-in-chief, Hrag Vartanian, is a full-throated BDS apologist. In spite of how it portrays itself, BDS is a patently racist movement whose supporters liken Israel to Nazi Germany, call for Israel’s destruction, and repeat Medieval slanders such as well-poisoning and the blood libel. They have done such a thorough job on these efforts that white nationalists have adopted their rhetoric and spread their propaganda. Read last month’s report from StopAntisemitism.org for the dismaying details. (For the record, I question much of the analysis and most of the conclusions of that report, but the evidence speaks for itself.) There may be principled if misguided figures in the BDS movement, which otherwise got overrun with cranks, bigots, and nutcases. But the same can be said of the alt-right. At a certain point the project becomes irredeemable.

Hyperallergic is practically the house organ for the art world’s fixation on progressive causes. Headlines in the last 48 hours alone include:

  • Philadelphia Mayor Joins Calls for Philadelphia Museum of Art to Review Sexual Harassment Policies
  • In the War of Memes, Iran Is Trouncing the United States
  • Several NYC Museums and Institutions Declined to Host Early Voting In 2019
  • An Anime Fantasy Combines Myth With Climate Change
  • Kehinde Wiley, Wangechi Mutu, and Kara Walker Upstage the Monuments Debate
  • Over 100 Artists Contribute to Benefit Exhibition Foregrounding the Experiences of Detained Children
  • Hundreds of Philadelphia Museum of Art Workers Call for Institutional Accountability on Sexual Harassment
  • Pre-Raphaelite Women Don’t Quite Get Their Due

Probably nothing goes live at the site that hasn’t been thoroughly considered from the standpoint of identity. But a couple of days ago when the Financial Times reported that Warren Kanders suspected that some of the protesters calling his removal from the board of the Whitney were motivated by anti-Semitism, that consideration was revealed to have been mysteriously halted. Vartanian excerpted the germane passage and tweeted (screencap):

The funniest part of this article for me is this part, since as a journalist who covered the protests from the beginning, I didn’t even know Kanders was Jewish. So I’d love to know how he arrived at this.

Here’s my question: when has lack of evidence ever stopped Hyperallergic from publishing accusations of racism? Or is evidence something its editor only requires of Jews?

I like how Brian T. Allen described the Whitney situation:

The thought of some daffy Miss Marple spending months sifting through debris in a Gaza ghetto and finding a Safariland bullet seemed to test the far boundaries of relevance to Kanders’s service on the Whitney board.

That is to say, Kanders is on firmer ground suspecting anti-Semitism among the Whitney protesters than Yau is by proposing that anti-Asian animus is standing in the way of Jiha Moon’s showing, I don’t know, six times in two years instead of two times in six years? What does he want, anyway? I mean, what does he want apart from a version of art history in which Willem de Kooning learned to paint abstractly from George Miyasaki? His idea of neglect would amount to an improvement in the lives of most American artists.

Conversations happen in this house about whether we’re actually white. Magyars, Uralic tongue and all, considered themselves the Eastern bulwark of Christendom, and thought my zayde akin to the Levantine tribes that they had been repelling for a thousand years in the form of the Ottomans. They called him a lot of things. “White” wasn’t one of them. He had to leave the continent. In October of 2019 a guy who thinks that we’re not white enough shot up a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Two months later some people who thought that we’re way too white shot up a kosher market in Jersey City. I’m feeling a little confused about myself right now, to be honest. What I do know is that last month in “this town,” the one that Yau and Vartanian call home, where aesthetics and racism are supposedly bonded to keep yellow-skinned people out of the galleries, there were nine assaults on Jews over the eight nights of Chanukah, perpetrated by the Jews Are Way Too White crowd. You can imagine how much I’m laughing along with Vartanian about Kanders, and how charitable I’m feeling about his publishing Yau’s conspiracy theories.

But my overarching state of mind is disappointment at the tragedy on display. The aforementioned “East and Beyond” show traveled widely. Here’s how the Des Moines Art Center described it:

In celebration of the acquisition of Helen Frankenthaler's breakthrough color woodblock print, East and Beyond, 1973, the Art Center presents an exhibition contextualizing Frankenthaler's print.

The exhibition includes four works on paper by Frankenthaler, as well as 23 works on paper and ceramics by American and Japanese artists who were active during the 1950s to 1980s. Transcending and merging their cultures' printmaking traditions, these artists too moved "beyond East" and "beyond West,"Japanese pictorial traditions, including expressive sumi-e brush painting and Zen calligraphy, the use of un-sized supports, and ukiyo-e printing, inspired artists such as Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, and Robert Motherwell and influenced their development as Abstract Expressionists, American ceramists Gertrud and Otto Natzler, Glenn Nelson, and William Wyman looked to Zen-inspired ceramics. Concurrently, Japanese Modernists Fumiaki Fukita, Hideo Hagiwara, Shoichi Ida, Masuo Ikeda, Hoshi Joichi, Haku Maki, Tetsuya Noda, Koshiro Onchi, Takumi Shinagawa, Hiroyuki Tajima, and Ansei Uchima moved towards Western approaches to abstraction, Pop Art, and Photorealism, as manifested in their woodblock prints, etchings, and lithographs.

The potential of that transcendence got destroyed from the inside by an anti-transcendental impulse. This is the one exhibited by Yau, Hyperallergic, and their ilk, to split the merger into its East and West components, in order to dub the former good and the latter bad. Instead of progress from thesis and antithesis to synthesis, they want regress in the other direction. Yau in particular is exhibiting how a lifetime of unexamined assumptions can harden off in old age, resulting in senior years dominated by intractable prejudices and serial complaining.

Well, I still believe in transcendence. Also I would like to avoid Yau’s fate. I admit that I’m prone to it in my own ways. So I conclude with a quote from Dōgen that has long borne on my art-making (this is Kaz Tanahashi’s rendering from the Shobogenzo Baika). “Old buddha” is Dōgen’s teacher Tiantong Rujing, of whom he speaks with reverence.

My late master, old buddha, said:

The original face has no birth and death.
Spring is in plum blossoms and enters into a painting.

When you paint spring, do not paint willows, plums, peaches, or apricots—just paint spring. To paint willows, plums, peaches, or apricots is to paint willows, plums, peaches, or apricots. It is not yet painting spring.

It is not that spring cannot be painted, but aside from my late master, old buddha, there is no one in India or China who has painted spring. He alone was the sharp-pointed brush that painted spring.

Our job in art is to be the sharp-pointed brush. Not to paint willows or plums, white or yellow, East or West, but to paint spring. You get divisions for free, so seek union. If you seek it along with me, I respectfully suggest that you look at the way pointed by Hyperallergic, and walk in the other direction.

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