Ordinarily one does not finish a book because it is good. Usually, one tires with the monotony of its language and casts it mightily aside.
This is not the case with Donald Kuspit’s The End of Art. I am taking a break from it because it is too good, it scares me. The book is brilliant and intense and to be reread, as it is an “almost history of Modern Art” and it’s “downfall”, depending on what side of the Art World’s orthodoxy you identify with. It is really bad news for those of us who seek “art in our reality” in our lives because Kuspit says there is very little that has escaped the de-aestheticization of contemporary art.
Art now is largely hollow hype, commodity and art talk a by-product more dependent on an art market than human sensitivities. More driven by ego and pop culture’s infectious spread than a challenge to our deeper nature and curiosity. Art today is more localized and bereft of larger global vision as a world class art with human aspiration than ever before. I shall not attempt to get into the specifics of this book as it is very well detailed, arguments carefully built and to me, the very reckoning that it’s power is of stripping our late modern masks away, as we wonder through the “vacant now” of contemporary art. Kuspit will tell you what happened on very select terms, you the reader, must make sense of it. The feelings it brought forth in me are significant in my own life and, in retrospect, uncover the unconscious process I went through late in the last century that I did not understand but felt. Although at this point I will make no apology for not finishing this book, I will promise to finish it as I think it will be with me for the rest of my life. So take your time reading, as I am. But up to this point, instead of trying to explain it, why do we not try to apply it to the latest National Gallery of Art offerings and see what rings our bell. After all, art really has not died or stopped, it maybe asleep for a while and we are certain that it’s ghost will always haunt us. Art is in our collective unconscious, however deeply buried. We must respect that.
I’d like to discuss two major shows this year at the Washington D.C. National Gallery of Art: Cézanne’s Portraits and a show entitled Outliers and American Vanguard Art. They conveniently, for the purposes of this article, may be seen as bookends of one another in contemporary art history. Derek Guthrie, the publisher of the New Art Examiner will go further into the nature of the Outliers show in the next issue of the New Art Examiner. I will briefly bring up the salient points as I experienced it and divulge my Kuspitian insight, limited as it may be.
As far as the Outliers are concerned, my points are quite simple. Here we see a large collection of some intended art, some aspirational art, some “thing-age” the curators brought in, previously never recognized. But now it is here for whatever reason. It is a big show, almost impossible to actually “see” it all; it spans from paintings, to signs, to ad-hoc sculpture and found objects purposed for art or not, some much more finished than others. I am very familiar with this type of stuff. I have always had it around on a personal basis because I am an itinerant collector of stuff. Usually because just I like it. Here and there was a more cultured approach to this vast collection as it was on various levels of accomplishment. One can imagine oneself in a curio shop, an attic or yard sale; it had that feel, but yes there were many works that deserved closer scrutiny and appreciation. But the show was overpoweringly huge. I will not discuss the particulars of the show in deference to its sheer over-whelming volume. To me, I was virtually in a sea of stuff. I felt very normal.
My question is why now is this coming to the National Gallery of Art’s forefront? After all this time, of all this stuff hanging around out there, why is this being curated and shown now? There are no doubt many answers, least of which is, it may be good? But why timely?
I think the art world is exhausted. It is now looting the pop world of life to find “relevant” work to show because this, to a calculated certain extent, has already been pre-seen, tested, road tested in the lives of so many junk hounds, such as myself, that it was safe to splay across the big stage and be somewhat assured it would pass muster with a receptive and sufficiently propagandized public; whether they want to admit it or not. Kuspit would say much contemporary art is determined on pre-acceptance, depending on referential and inferential media hype, museum and gallery infused, or public presence in the world. Well, this stuff gained popularity in the public for the last hundred years, give or take, the pre-seed PR is done so on a popular groundling level the aesthetic was safe to cart out. Limited risk. Entertaining. A feather in the cap of the National Gallery. But no cigar, no Cézanne.
Paul Cézanne’s work is complicated, struggled, striving in the world of art and holds a major place and role. He was a foundation of so many artists. He’s vastly important because he is great. Now how can I say that? I didn’t, Eugene Delacroix has:
“The sight of a masterpiece checks you in spite of yourself, captivates you in a contemplation to which nothing bids you escape an invincible charm”
That is from Delacroix’s journal on September 23, 1853. Of course Kuspit brings this quote to view and it is absolutely applicable to Cezanne as it has been for over a hundred years and counting. Oh yes, this work is tried and true and tested but in a much more important way, it is irreplaceably brilliant, it is endlessly mysterious, and just what itself was struggled to accomplish, a coming to grips with a vision, a perception and a painting that speaks to so many and behold, it is just itself. Not a reproduction picture of itself as Frank Stella would argue would be appropriate as a device to make us feel comfortable for a new modern art stripped of meaning, acceptable to get us down to popular culture we thrive unknowingly in.
As you wander through the exhibition, one can detect the different frames of mind our artist struggled through, some not as successful as the next. But his eye / brain /painting is alive and moving with the thoughts and people of the day, especially those close to him. Some say he treated his portraits as he would paint an apple. I disagree, he would save the faces for the last aspect of a painting because it was the most crucial and challenging to him. And he was as true to them as anything. The critic T.J. Clark said the faces indeed were not apples but people whose pain and subjectivity he gave consideration. I agree. But as Kuspit would say, we would be unpacking the academic tool kit, the “narrative-in place”, the line on Cézanne in orthodox art history, to understand that his painted portraits were those of the same as his apple. Just look at them. Look at them and forget your art history. They are people he knew. Take note.
Left side – Paul Cézanne, Boy in a Red Waistcoat, 1888-1890, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art. From the exhibition, Cézanne’s Portraits.
Middle – Book cover, Donald Kuspit, The End of Art.
Right side – Horace Pippin, Interior, 1944, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Meyer P. Potamkin, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art. From the exhibition, Outliers and American Vanguard Art.