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For Whom I Write
Editors’ Roundtable
Column by DeWitt Cheng

Shepard Smith, calling Robin Williams a “coward," misreads even the Fox audience.


The fourteen questions that art critic Irving Sandler put to fellow art critics in Brooklyn Rail in late 2012 have been provocative and even productive for considering the contemporary art world, bigger than ever, but maybe not better in all respects. Question Seven: For what audience do you write?


Art writers need to be art readers, of course — as do artists, despite the bizarre notion that art school taught us all we need to know. I have just finished Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s magisterial page-turner, “Van Gogh: The Life,” which makes a plausible case that the artist did not shoot himself, but instead, exhausted by his struggles, chose to die, the victim of an accidental shooting by teenagers with whom he occasionally spent time. Beyond the impact of historical revisionism to Irving Stone’s old “Lust for Life” art-martyr legend, this huge book also corrects Vincent’s saintly image, one that inspires young artists who, at the same time, sensibly have no wish to live a similar brief, tortured existence, however brilliant. 


The news of Robin Williams’ death by suicide is pertinent. We should delicately sidestep the likes of Fox News Shepard Smith, who termed Williams a “coward." That amounted to pointless, despicable audience pandering of the great man’s tragedy — and it crossed even that network’s fan base, which reacted to Smith so negatively that he issued an apology the next day. That’s perhaps a digression from the art-crit audience question, but maybe not so irrelevant after all. A lot of people, especially in San Francisco, where Williams was a charming, generous, approachable local legend, still revere genius and character, Fox News' smirking mockery aside.


The point is that the decline of decency in contemporary American culture is not restricted to nasty GOPaganda. It pervades every aspect of the corporate consumer state — including the art world. As art has increasingly become a business, abandoning the ideal of social criticism, so has much art criticism become a kind of ad agency dispensing consumer tips for the status-hungry. 


Camille Paglia writes (in the introduction to “Glittering Images”: “It is alarmingly obvious that American public schools have done a poor job of educating students about art. From preschool on, art is treated as therapeutic praxis — do-it-yourself projects with construction paper and finger paints to unleash children’s hidden creativity. But what is far more needed is a historical framework of objective knowledge about art.”


She continues, pointing out the flaw of recent higher education: “The problem with the Marxist approaches that now permeate academe … is that Marxism sees nothing beyond society. Marxism lacks a metaphysics … [and] also lacks a psychology; it believes that human beings are motivated only by material needs and desires … Marxism reflexively reduces art to ideology, as if the art object has no other purpose or meaning beyond the economic or political. Students are now taught to look skeptically at art for its flaws, biases, omissions, and covert power plays. To admire and honor art, except when it conveys politically correct messages, is regarded as naive and reactionary.”


Now, Marxism and various philosophical, linguistic and psychological ideas that are au courant are well and good, if applied judiciously. However, that they should be cited as sources (and goals) for art-making seems to me short-sighted, or worse, destructive of the creative impulse. Contemporary artists are too often ignorant of the history of art, a result of avant-gardist utopianism in the 1960s and 1980s postmodern dystopianism, neither or which represent a viable worldview for the complex arenas of art and life.


If art continues to degenerate toward a vapid competition for the dollars of global capitalism’s superrich, it will become as moribund as the system now funding it. It is irresponsible for art worlders to stand by. We need to admire and honor art, even if when has the ‘defect’ of being politically incorrect; we need to respect complexity and contradiction, as we pretend to do, while also having an informed enough point of view to be able to make distinctions. In America, particularly, we need to be able to divorce aesthetic quality from market value.


As a writer on contemporary art, and sometimes the art of the past, I see more likenesses than differences. We need to drop the theoretical (and fashionable) blinders and rediscover seeing, thinking and feeling without the juvenile necessity of asserting or assuming our cultural superiority. I try to convey this wider perspective in my reviews without getting too prescriptive or high-handed, while also trying to understand the artist and art under consideration. Lovers of art who feel that the cultural ship is in some sense adrift, despite unparalleled financial success, are, I suppose, my audience. Those who prefer the excitements of cultural narcissism will readily find confirmation of their beliefs elsewhere. We can and should ask more both of art and from ourselves.

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