Modernism Against the Institutions: An interview by Elizabeth Johnson
Post #1885 • February 10, 2021, 2:48 PM • 1 Comment
[This interview of me by Elizabeth Johnson (follow her at IG @elizjohnson2018) began last November and proceeded through the end of the year. The publication for which it was slated spiked its arts section—not just this interview, but the whole section, which gives you an idea about the current state of art writing. Our conversation is presented below in its entirety. Boldface is Elizabeth.]
In your writing statement you say that you grew up in a house of “high modernism.” Were your parents creatives?
No, my parents were in medical and engineering fields. I was referring to a proverbial domicile in which Clement Greenberg was head of household. I didn’t appreciate that fact until after I was done with graduate school, but I absorbed it implicitly by working with Walter Darby Bannard. That said, my parents were interested in an abstract painter named Luis Hernandez Cruz, so we had Cruzes around the house. I didn’t care for them but abstract work was a feature of my home life. Getting into it was not the great leap that it is for some people.
Did they encourage you to be a writer and an artist?
When it became clear that I hardly cared about anything else besides art, they supported me generously. My relationship with schooling was so screwed up that I didn’t think of myself as someone who could write in a serious way until I was well into grad school, so that wasn’t even on the table.
I take it you consider yourself a modernist?
I do, in a specific sense of modernist that means “oriented towards visual quality.” This is a very simple thing, a presupposition that there is better and worse art—better or worse by way of art-value that can be seen and felt but not defined—and the basic responsibility of the artist is to reach for the better. It has nothing to do with modern art or abstraction as historical phenomena, for which I have a lot of appreciation but little allegiance.
Can you explain what sticks in your craw most about modernism?
When I encounter something that disagrees with me about historical modernism, I accept it, recognize that somebody made a mistake, and do something else. The important thing about modernism is the working attitude, which is catholic and non-programmatic. People go around with these irritable ideas about modernism that are based on caricatures of Clement Greenberg that have entered the canon. Art needs the villain, as Max Stirner said. But your choice of villain matters, and Greenberg is the one you get for free with your MFA in most programs.
Modernism, like everything else, had an academic phase, and you can read Rackstraw Downes complaining about “Greenbergers” in the 1970s. Philip Morsberger told me that his teachers denigrated his drawings because they looked too much like the model, which would have been around the same time. But to continue grousing about some confabulated Greenbergian dictatorship fifty years later, as so many do, is pathetic.
And what do you love and hate about postmodernism?
The only aspect of postmodernism that I have strong feelings about is what I call Institutional Postmodernism, which is the great force of artistic conservatism of our time, and is wholly negative. Institutional Postmodernism holds that you can make whatever art you want, and say whatever you want about it, as long as you’re preserving or increasing institutional power on behalf of political progressives.
A lot of postmodernist art, however you might define that, is not made in that paranoid mode and one can find good things in it. The same goes for postmodernist philosophy, again however you might define that. Institutional Postmodernism is a different creature, basically a rhetorical fortress around cultural power.
In the same statement you highlight interest in “freedom, freedom of expression and cultural assaults upon it.” Several of your writings address battles in museums between bureaucracy and activism. I am thinking of “Still Life With Women and Ironies” in the American Spectator, and “Why You Can’t Put On a Philip Guston Show” on Artblog.net. Do you consider bureaucratic tastemaking to be doomed from the start?
As of 2020 I do. The Guston debacle demonstrates that the bureaucracies have been totally overtaken by progressive identitarianism. It is now impossible to put on a show of antiracist art by an antiracist artist because of antiracism. Einspruch’s Iron Law of Identitarianism says that all identitarians, regardless of political bent, eventually conclude that The Real Problem Around Here Is The Jews. I first set that down in 2019 and sure enough, Philip Guston is now a pariah.
Unofficial but revealed policy at a lot of arts organizations now is, “Historically, we have arbitrarily dropped a lot of money on white men, so let’s drop money arbitrarily on non-whites and non-men even though whites outnumber people of color in the arts by a factor of four.” Nobody, not even any of the beneficiaries, thinks that this is accomplishing the hard work of uncovering the brightest talents and supporting them. Rather, you have people who think that this kind of thing should go on for decades or centuries until the moral accounts are balanced, and people who recognize that this isn’t balancing the moral accounts at all, the arbitrariness is worse than ever, and sons are being made to pay for the sins of the fathers in a manner forbidden in the Torah. Regardless of who’s right, because the selection axis is tilted, the brightest talents are disproportionately landing in the latter group. The bureaucracy is breeding counter-elites, people who should be incorporated into the institutions but aren’t. They are aware of their disenfranchisement, and the ones that don’t get destroyed become the institutions’ enemies.
Creative Capital will lie to your face that they’re looking for projects that “take risks and articulate an original vision,” and it’s just a weird coincidence that all the grant recipients are enmeshed in identity politics, progressive activism, or climate change, and that three-quarters of them identify as people of color. The Warhol Arts Writers Grant assures you that “All proposals are evaluated on the strength of the writing and the project proposal” but they almost completely eliminated white men from its most recent cycle of awardees. The Ford Foundation, whose director was complicit in the Guston debacle and accused the artist of trafficking in “incendiary and toxic racist imagery,” has at least been forthright about the political angle on their philanthropy. Ford, a lot of people don’t realize, donates to organizations around the world but cut off support of NGOs based in Israel back in 2013. This is all of a piece: doctrinal opposition to “whiteness,” a redefinition of racism as “prejudice plus power” that renders anti-white bigotry meaningless and takes anti-Semitism out with it, and an ensuing ethos in which Jews can’t do anything right except disappear.
So yes, bureaucratic taste is now the zombie slave of a project that re-conceives race essentialism as a social instead of genetic phenomenon, piggybacks the rest of woke concerns onto social race-essentialism, fuses it with forms of socialism that can be pursued via bureaucracy, and executes der lange Marsch durch die Institutionen accordingly. Unsurprisingly, race-essentialist socialism doesn’t work out any better for Guston than race-essentialist nationalism did when the Klan ripped his exhibition down 1930.
In fairness, a lot of people in the institutions continue to believe in individualism and the autonomy of art. They have taste. They’re even allowed to exercise it sometimes. But while they assent to the broad principles of inclusion, as do I, what’s going on in their organizations terrifies them. With the Covid economy and cancel culture they’re just trying to keep their jobs. I hope they prevail, but I can’t plan on it.
If you do support curating to hot button topics, what would be a better way to proceed?
In theory, you confer legitimacy upon the opposing views germane to the given controversy, and let viewers come to their own conclusions. In practice you can’t do that, because the political class running the institutions has committed to a particular narrative and its dissemination. An actually postmodernist culture would not let its beloved narrative go undissected like this, and characterize all critical analysis of it as racist or whatever. Institutional Postmodernism, on the contrary, is a highly policed stance around certain political premises. It is hostile to individualism and the autonomy of art in a manner that would be amenable to a hardened Maoist. Institutional Postmodernism has the support of the mainstream press for that effort. Back in November Carolina Miranda inveighed against the evils of individualism in the LA Times, days before she delivered her AICA-USA Distinguished Critic lecture.
Far from being “hot-button,” there is nothing controversial whatsoever about a museum in a coastal metropolis in this country putting on a show like “Women Take the Floor.” It’s an exercise in self-congratulation. The whole point of “Women Take the Floor,” and the whole point of the Guston postponement, is to make the progressive activists feel like they’ve been listened to. The rest of us, including most of the museumgoing public, can go jump off a cliff. I’ve been watching this go on at the MFA since the Kimono Wednesday nontroversy in 2015.
Do galleries do a better job presenting deserving art in a democratic way, since they generally focus more on each artist as an individual, and they are personally invested?
They’re largely part of the homogeneity, as are their artists and buyers, and consequently subject to the same pressures. The people who maintain their independence of judgment in that kind of environment are not so much democratic in orientation as monarchic. Such exceptions exist though, and indeed there are galleries putting on excellent shows, ones that the museums should be putting on.
I love the list of aphorisms by Walter Darby Bannard. One example: #9 “If you are lucky, people will buy your art for the wrong reasons.” This makes me laugh every time I read it. In fact, when I think about it, most of my past sales happened for reasons I wouldn’t endorse; but so what–I made sales! Considering your rub with modernism, where would you say you and Bannard agreed, and where did you diverge in your thinking?
Darby and I were so attuned that we never really talked about modernism the whole time I was in grad school. Most of what you need to know about modernist painting takes place within the mechanics of paint itself, what paint you put where and how. So that’s what we discussed. Finally, a law student I was dating at the time went to a museum in Virginia. When she got back she told me that she saw a painting that looked just like one of mine, and when she read the label on it she saw that it was one of Darby’s. At that point I broke out the watercolors and painted a still life with some fruit. Which of course Darby didn’t mind at all. One of the last things he said to me before he died in 2016 was to make more of the watercolors that I’ve been painting out on Aquinnah over the last several summers.
The intellectual apprenticeship started in 2003 with Artblog.net, in which he was an active participant. It was then that I started to understand the whole milieu and how we fit into it. Spending years watching him talk clearly and sensibly about art was an inspiration to do likewise. We disagreed about this artist or that painting but on the big topics we stood together.
What do you remember most about him?
Coming into my studio and turning my abstract canvases 90 or 180 degrees, which would usually fix most of their problems. It was infuriating and made me laugh with delight every time. Then he’d tell me to make another half-dozen of them and I would.
In your Artblog.net piece “Instead of Revolution,” you cite a remark from your interview with Bannard. I’m referring to: “Darby had it right: ‘There’s a whole underground of abstract painting that doesn’t get any publicity. With everyone going in so many directions, it’s getting to the point that you can choose your own genre, and all genres will be able to split off into their own tribes…’” Directly after this quote you ask how can we have an art world based on principles of art that “commands, not merely requests, a certain kind of aesthetic consideration.” You speak about the importance of art communities springing up around worthies such as Darby or Hyman Bloom, and his wife Stella.
I’ve been thinking about Hyman Bloom a lot lately. The MFA Boston snubbed him and the rest of the Boston School because they were Jews. Now the MFA director is a guy named Teitelbaum, but nevertheless, here we go again. Someone associated with the MFA’s Bloom exhibition in 2019 told me that getting that show to happen was a huge fight. That same director was part of the Guston fiasco. I came an inch away from slicing my membership card in half and mailing it to him. I regard him as a collaborator with the iniquities going on behind the scenes. As it was for Bloom, this too might be a good time for a serious artist to blow off the institutions and get out of town, and for largely the same reasons.
Two people, a painter you know and a critic you know, assure me that we’re in a moment of extremity and that the pendulum will soon swing back to a position of reasonableness. I respect them enormously, but I recall too that Greenberg died waiting for the pendulum to swing back. Darby probably thought likewise for a long time but in 2015, when I interviewed him, it was obvious that it was never going to happen. Bloom seems to have made the best move. I think that my ethnic cohort is congenitally pessimistic because selective pressure killed off the optimists back in Europe, and I try to account for that, but still.
So I’ve been scaling back on the criticism (I just concluded Delicious Line at 500 reviews), trying to revitalize my studio practice, and wondering about how to connect with an audience by routing around a rotted-out, viciously bigoted, art-indifferent art bureaucracy. That thinking is informed by Michael Lind, who hilariously characterized the institutions as the “NGO-academic-spook complex,” Angelo M. Codevilla, who identified Mussolini’s Italy as the prime influence on modern bureaucratic democracies, B. Duncan Moench, who views the reigning woke ideology in the institutions as a last-ditch effort to preserve WASP cultural power, and others—the cryptoanarchists centered around Prague, ComicsGaters, various flavors of accelerationists and mystics, hackers, postmodern conservatives. Pretty much, if the puppets of Institutional Postmodernism say that someone is garbage, I’ll at least have a look at them. They are, after all, the counterculture. Say what you will about them, they tend to have exquisite taste in villains.
Would you say Darby changed his aesthetic taste during his lifetime? Because it sounds to me like he was maybe okay without a continuous standard. He seemed to start over pretty painlessly, even sometimes haphazardly.
Darby’s tastes remained pretty constant, and they did so because he didn’t have a standard. This is hard for people to comprehend and it’s threatening to become lost knowledge. Modernism, as a working attitude, is a kind of anti-program. In order to maintain access to the feeling that good art gives you, you have to be willing to change what you’re doing, sometimes radically. You have to be willing to give just about any kind of art object due regard, in defiance of your personal prejudices. You sometimes have to see if you can offend your own taste.
Over time, you find yourself liking more and more kinds of art, but fewer and fewer examples of each kind. You probably don’t know this, but Darby was a world authority on scrimshaw. The caricature of modernist taste has it disdaining everything not abstract, and the middlebrow invaders of modernism may have adopted that attitude. But the originals, and the artists who stuck around after the middlebrows decamped to postmodernist enterprises that better suited them, have the most eclectic taste you can imagine.
Life is motion. If you want to stay in contact with goodness you have to continually revitalize your actions.
Speaking of influences, you once mentioned that you would like to write a book about art criticism based on Kabbalah, in the manner of Harold Bloom’s Kabbalah and Criticism. I read the book and unfortunately, rigidity, rules, and compartments dominate what I remember. What am I missing? For a person who values freedom, how does his book inspire you?
First of all, don’t be like me and start reading Bloom with Kabbalah and Criticism. Start with The Anxiety of Influence, then read Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, and then read Kabbalah and Criticism, instead of going in the opposite direction like I’m doing. Basically, Bloom’s realization, via Scholem, that the Zohar is a literary performance in Aramaic executed by a Medieval Spaniard whose native tongue was Hebrew, justified in retrospect much of what Bloom had already claimed about the creative necessity of misprision, which for Bloom is a kind of misreading but without the negative connotation. So I got the opposite impression, that connection with the Ultimate requires a certain love for the canon but disdain for the associated rules, which is a useful insight, and to my mind a consummately modernist one. With it comes the dangers of heresy and antinomianism. That strikes me all in all as a pro-freedom message, though with the acknowledgment that you have the freedom to destroy yourself.
My curiosity in particular, spurred by remarks that a Rosicrucian oddball named Sar made about Matisse, was whether mystical criticism is possible. Bloom answers yes but in a way so specific to his own concerns that it’s not clear how to generalize it. And there’s not a lot of point to making the attempt until criticism as a profession gets up off of its face, if it ever does. But mystical approaches to art-making feel as viable as ever. I see Eilshemius, Rammellzee, Rouault, Balthus, Munakata Shiko, and several other people operating in an aesthetic that I’d like to emulate in spirit if not necessarily form.
The figure who jumped out at me in Scholem’s book was Abraham Abulafia, who in 1280 walked to Rome in order to convert Pope Nicholas III to Judaism. That has to be the greatest act of chutzpah in all of human history. It’s not impossible that he was inspired by the example of Francis of Assisi. There is no pure culture. That’s bad news for both the academic modernists of yore and the activists who think that “cultural appropriation” is a real thing.
I just finished reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s Understanding Our Mind, his overview of Buddhist psychology. You can’t overstate what a magnificent achievement Buddhist psychology is. Meditators living in the centuries after the historical Buddha worked up a sophisticated and still-viable model of consciousness, and described it with a language that clearly had optimized for farming. Buddhist psychology separates perceptions into contact with things-as-they-are, usually rendered as “suchness,” a second category of representations in which contact is polluted with mind-consciousness, and a third category of images which is regarded as patently delusory. The claim is that if the practitioner can operate eye-consciousness without the distorting interference of mind-consciousness then suchness becomes available. Hence Mahakasyapa’s witnessing the upheld flower, hence Wittgenstein’s “Don’t think, but look,” hence Greenberg’s observation that “The most another person’s value judgment can do is send you back to an art work with attention sharpened or refocused.”
In your essay “The Virtual Critic: A Thought Experiment” in the AICA-USA magazine, you mention that an artist might build “a veritable cathedral to himself in 3–D.” Any progress on that front?
The first step was research, during which I found that the tools are already available in the form of blend4web. Honestly, the prospect of learning blend4web makes me feel tired, but the prospect of building blend4web makes me even feel even more tired. I’ll take what I can get.
Do you still feel that virtual spaces will dominate art presentation as the virus endures? Are there any new developments in technology that need to happen first?
The technology is probably as good as it needs to be for that purpose. I’m beginning to see art reviews of digital exhibitions. Personally, that still strikes me as bogus and ersatz, and I’m holding to my claim in “Virtual Critic” that art criticism does not have a bright future ahead of it.
The possible dominance of the virtual spaces hinges less on the technology and more on an element of art-world conformism that the virus exacerbated but didn’t cause. You may remember back in 2018 when the EU implemented its General Data Protection Regulation. My inbox got flooded with GDPR disclosures from American galleries and museums that had no legal obligation to provide them. EU law somehow turned into an American art-world social contagion.
I was mystified, and the bemusement continued until Brexit happened over several months in 2019. The American art world came out as Remain—so extremely Remain that they were talking about Leavers in the same terms that they usually discuss Trumpers. Most of these people don’t know a Mancunian from an accordion, but they were spitting about “voters in the North” as if they knew some personally.
It hit me then just how much the art world longs for European Union-style technocracy. That too is a bureaucratic impulse, and it’s manifesting right now as a baldly unscientific craze for lockdowns and mask-wearing. As Robert Hughes noted in Culture of Complaint, this country was founded by people who were seeking the freedom to oppress each other with greater vigor than was permissible under English law, and that impulse lives on in contemporary American life, sustained by the reigning cultural class.
I expect the associated social shaming and newfangled rituals of personal distancing to outlast the virus, as far as the art world is concerned. That will promote the adoption of virtual exhibitions as much as anything.
If, in the best case, art drives criticism, would a virtual cathedral speed the elevation and ranking of the best of many different genres and styles, and satisfy the need “to adequately fix down a comprehensible basis for aesthetic quality” (as you put it in “Instead of a Revolution”)? Perhaps cultivating your own collection is better than being a critic? And your greatest reward would be treating people to a visual feast just as Hyman and Stella Bloom created community around dinner?
I’m glad that I’ve gotten you excited about the prospects. Consider this: excepting the artists themselves, what we call the art world ultimately consists of four kinds of entities, museums, galleries, schools, and magazines. My proposition is that a robustly decentralized art world is going to blur those four categories, in some cases utterly. At that point maybe a curator is a collector. Maybe a dealer is a journalist. And so on.
So, to what do the four entities reduce? I don’t have an answer to this, but my instincts are to focus on my imprint, New Modern Press, and find out what can happen in the blur. My screenprint edition of the Maenad Suite, from one of the comics poems that I produced during my Fulbright project in Vienna in 2019, was an initial stab at that.
The moment at which a comprehensible basis for aesthetic quality was really needed was when Pollock made his early drip paintings. That ship has sailed. Interesting things could be done for modernist aesthetics via contemporary phenomenology. Michael Schreyach is way ahead of me on that project. I think the current need is a philosophical edifice that contemporary artists who make work for visual and emotional reasons, rather than historical-political ones, can point to and say, “I’m basically doing that.”
This may be reactionary of me, but I think that real, in-person dinner is still going to be necessary to community. But otherwise those communities can take shape, and are destined to take shape, in more ways than the ones we’re familiar with.
Doesn’t that idea of a comprehensible basis for aesthetic quality contradict the idea of not having a standard?
A basis from which a single standard could be derived would be necessarily incorrect. A standard, by definition, is a transferable rule-set. Leaving aside the fact that art has been seen to smash any given rule, there is the problem of what medium you would use to preserve the standard so that it could be transferred. That is inevitably language. The aesthetic universe is much bigger than language. Expecting it to conform to language is like ordering the Atlantic Ocean in a to-go cup with a lid. That expectation is, at least to me, obviously absurd, but this is the mistake being made every time someone claims that all art is political.
You don’t need that intellectual basis to exercise taste, but not having a basis allowed taste to get downgraded to a byproduct of historical processes. The effort to commandeer those processes, as I’ve already described in the institutions, follows from there. The Metropolitan Museum commissioning paintings by Kent Monkman, or the Museum of Modern Art hanging Alma Thomas next to Matisse, is motivated by this historical view of taste and how it should be shaped by enlightened elites for historical ends. That approach to taste, I'm sorry to say, is fascist, not in the name-calling sense but in the literal one, by which an institution feels compelled to promote someone like Adolf Ziegler when you have Oskar Kokoschka and Ernst Barlach around, in defiance and condemnation of degeneracy.
Rather, the basis is going to have to be phenomenological, and not make claims about what kinds of objects are good or bad, or whose interests they serve, but how do we experience goodness or badness in objects visually in a manner that feels important. This problem is closely linked with consciousness itself, and is fundamental to our shared humanity in a manner that threatens the dominant political regimes in the arts. I suspect that they know this and try to steer conversations accordingly.
What is your story with ink painting?
Elinore Hollinshead at RISD showed a slide of Six Persimmons by Mu Qi and something clicked. If RISD had Chinese painting classes I would have taken all of them. Instead I got into my own idiosyncratic version of the aesthetic and have been trying to suss out ever since then how to get as much as possible out of as little as possible when it comes to figurative art.
Joy. Writing is easy for me, but I’ve developed an allergy to criticism on account of overexposure. That’s finally forced me to deal with how difficult it has become for me to make art. Making art with integrity is hard in any case. I’m not talking about that, but stupid difficulties tied up with an inability to see my own work rightly and self-imposed standards that make no sense. When I surmount them I get joy. I’m told that it shows.
What does writing give you that art does not?
It can be great fun to sling prose when you have a knack for it. And, well, I have a temperament for criticism. That’s a pleasant way of saying, I can be a not-very-nice person. It’s like the military. You don’t want the military around all the time, but when you need the military, you want remorseless killers of men. Likewise, you want a critic to enter an exhibition like a platoon enters a house in enemy territory, ready to unleash rhetorical gunfire if required. We critics reify the stakes of making art, without which it’s a bunch of rich people hiring emotionally incontinent doofuses to stare at their navels.
Is there a sense of shifting gears that happens for you between making art and looking at other people’s work or writing about it? Do you change over smoothly or go through an adjustment process?
The adjustment process only goes one way, from writing to making art, and it is not pleasant. I’m hoping that more contact with the art will improve my experience of it. A lot of artists—I’m thinking Guston and Brice Marden, to pick a couple—at certain points thought that they were toast until they fought through to the next productive project. These guys are much more talented than me but I have to try likewise anyway.
Does the benefit of doing both go further than being an informed or an attuned writer-painter?
A critic can’t be informed enough, but an artist can be too informed. I have spent a couple of weeks unsubscribing from gallery and museum and art magazine mailing lists because “what’s going on” is taking up way too much space in my head, and now it includes monstrosities like Kaywin Feldman, the NGA director, telling Hyperallergic that Guston appropriated black trauma to make his Klan paintings. At this point my attitude is, fine, whatever, postpone the Guston show, fall off a seesaw and stuff beans in your nose. I’ll go make art.
Nobody can be attuned enough, however, and having access to both linguistic and visual modes lets me drill into looking in a way that is particularly enabled. Occasionally an artist I’ve reviewed but haven’t communicated with prior will reach out to me to say, yes, that is exactly what I’m thinking about in the studio. I think artists, and humans in general, crave being properly seen.
Do you remember Darby Bannard talking or writing about navigating back and forth between writing and painting? Did he gravitate more towards one or the other?
Darby would paint furiously for three months, and then take three months off or more until he felt like painting again. His friends used to give him a hard time for being lazy, but it worked for him. He was very much a painter who wrote, not the other way around.
Did he write about Postmodernism?
Darby wrote a paper for the MLA convention in 1983 that got published in an issue of Arts in 1984, “On Postmodernism,” which as far as I know is the first characterization of modernism as a working attitude rather than a historical phenomenon. I think he didn’t adequately appreciate that what was going on under the postmodern banner in visual art was not really connected to what they were calling “postmodernism” within the MLA and in philosophy. On the other hand, he saw early on that the postmodern approach to visual art served the interests of the art market. That is worth noting, because identity- and climate-conscious art serves the interests of the current art market in exactly the same way.
I love your comics poems for their simplicity and serenity in the moment. Are you still working on comics projects or has painting figures and landscapes taken precedence?
Thank you. If anything I’ve done more comics than easel painting over the last year. I’ve had a couple of pieces come out in print in literary journals, Pangyrus this past summer, and Solstice just recently. The Maenad Suite required my setting up screenprinting in the studio. I thought that effort was going to bomb, but it turns out that my wife is a natural printmaker and she saved the day. The one webcomic I made last year, Autumn Home, was so technically demanding that it took much of the prior year to make.
A lot of my work in painting during that time has gone towards learning how to refine my own linseed oil from flax oil, and make that into paint. That was part of transitioning to the solvent-free oil practice that has come into being since I was in school, but it also opens up some interesting material possibilities.
Would you say you can jump into any medium or format and what needs to be said gets said? Or is the medium itself the leader?
The medium is the leader. I only jump into the ones for which I have a reasonable sense of how I’m going to express myself through them. I am sometimes wrong about this, and embarrassing but sometimes fruitful struggle ensues.
I think that one of the more important pieces I’ve written is “The Mind of Materials,” which goes into how the limitations of a given medium are enabling, and serve as the main source of artistic inspiration if you’re going at art in a way in which the medium matters. This runs contrary to the common nostrum that art is about ideas, from which the shapes and volumes flow forth. Anyone who thinks this is an academician in the pejorative, 19th-century sense.
Reading your essays, I respect your struggle with power and institutions. It seems art institutions have always been dominated by one minority after another.
Right, some kind of narrow interest pursued in the name of a broader one, sometimes generously, sometimes faithlessly. As James Panero just elucidated so beautifully, the comprehensive museum in which diverse cultures are presented as artistic equals is an exemplary achievement of Enlightenment thought. (I said that the profession of criticism is on its face but at The New Criterion it’s in a far more dignified and able position. May James Panero endure forever.) But to whatever extent the museums are bastions of white and male supremacy, as many claim, and not entirely without foundation, the reformers have made it clear that they intend to plug another variety of supremacy into the structure. Instead of white supremacist, it will be woke supremacist.
Take, for instance, the term Latinx. It was coined in the mid-2000s for non-gender-conforming people of Latino descent to describe themselves. If someone wants to be called Latinx, I will call them Latinx. But here’s a sentence from the MFA Boston’s catalogue for its “Writing the Future” show: “Fluent in Spanish, Basquiat expressed his Latinx identity both through his choice of iconography from the barrio and through his frequent incorporation of Spanglish and Spanish words and phrases into his compositions.” Latinx did not exist while Basquiat was alive, and 97% of surveyed Latinos in 2020 have either never heard of it or deliberately don’t use it. Yet here come the art bureaucrats to declare that Spanish’s gendered nouns Latino and Latina are the Confederate monuments of grammar and should be removed without regard to the culture in which they’re preserved. It’s just colossally arrogant.
B. Duncan Moench describes the term as exemplifying “the disjuncture between the avant-garde social values of today’s progressives and the targets of their empathy” and concludes, “The supposedly valiant character of ‘allyship’ provides a means for wealthy European American elites to claim to speak for everyone else while maintaining their role as master of ceremonies.” That remark aligns with Paul Crowther’s condemnation of Duchamp-fixated analytic art philosophy as White Aesthetics, in which “over thirty thousand years of artistic practices in different parts of the world and different historical periods are made subservient to the marginal idiosyncrasies of a white Euromerican avant-garde elite.” This too is all of a piece.
Considering together Bloom’s misprision, the artistic power of being unaware, rejection of militaristic criticism and institutional hypocrisy—all this points toward being unreliable as a positive quality. Are you perhaps being pulled towards inconstancy as freedom?
That’s an interesting suggestion. One can take such things too far, but there’s validity in it. And maybe it’s not so much cultivating inconstancy as acknowledging impermanence and acting accordingly.
Where do you feel that your dissent is heard and that someone responds to your criticism?
Aside from the few people willing to sign their names to posts at Artblog.net, nearly all my affirmation comes through backchannels. It’s a bit isolating, but it gives me the impression that my circle of influence is much wider than it seems.
In your 2015 post “Democracy Is Killing Art,” you end with the question of “how to establish a monarchy of the imagination” in defiance of what you characterized as “egalitarian collectivism.” You could entirely throw yourself into your own work, but I think that wouldn’t be intellectually toothsome enough for you.
If my work were only painting, that might well be true. But it also includes comics, of which I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. For that matter I feel that I’ve hardly scratched the surface of painting.
Watching the institutions fail over the last year has made it clearer what form the monarchy of the imagination needs to take—every artist his own institution, complete with infrastructure and broadcast mechanisms. (Or really, every artist her own institution, as most of living painters I’m following these days are older women.) There are tools to be built and connections to make and relationships to form and essays to write.
Toxic institutionalism would have you believe that the intellectual work is the most important. That’s wrong, it’s just part of their gatekeeping. More fundamentally to the intellectual challenges, there are spiritual ones. A longstanding over-emphasis on the historical aspect of art, in which the current politics are just another manifestation, has accompanied a longstanding neglect of the eternal aspect.
Here is where individualism and the autonomy of art come in. Only via the inward life of the individual is access to the eternal available. Only via the autonomy of art is the eternal free to unfold in the world of history and materials. And it’s only via the combination of the two that the movements of one’s soul, expressed as art, can stir other souls in turn. This is more important than the intellectual work, and it can and needs to be carried out by more people. Hence my ending of “Instead of a Revolution” with an exhortation to start bringing people soup. I’m talking about literal soup, but not only literal soup. There is, by that act and ones like it, a new art world to build.