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"My Name Is Peter, and I'm an Aesthete"

Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for The New Yorker, writes so well that I usually turn first to his article when the magazine arrives in my mailbox. Last night, he delivered the first of this year's Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art, sponsored by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium. Although the lecture was scheduled to begin at 7 pm, Schjeldahl actually began speaking at about 7:25, which is good since I was able to find a parking place only about 5 minutes before that.

The good news is that Peter Schjeldahl is funny. He began with a few minutes of jokes, after explaining why there was no slide projector. Slides, he proclaimed, are an "absolute blight on visual culture." In response to a question about that remark later, he elaborated this theory: "slides are lies that you believe," he said, "junk food that you are fed," which has nothing to do with the medium of painting. Each time a slide is shown, the possibility of that actual work's impression in someone's eye is wasted. Speaking to a group with most likely a number of art historians in it, he said that art historians are educated in slides, not in paintings, and repeated a story that if one day a cosmic ray somehow reduced every actual work of art instantaneously to dust, art history would pretty much continue as if nothing had happened.

One of Schjeldahl's major points on the topic he chose ("What Art Is For Now") was that the snob appeal of art is one of the "underestimated engines of culture," that for now he has "no desire to swell the size of the tent" of those who love art. In his view, there is no reason to bring art to the masses. Those who want it will find it, and "if somebody doesn't want art, bully for them." However, as Schjeldahl also noted, the audience for art worldwide may be larger now than it ever has been, and the art market is a booming business. This may help explain the gulf that can be observed between major art critics and the art-going public, in the case of the J. Seward Johnson sculptures at the Corcoran, for example (see my post from September 14, 2003). I planned to ask Schjeldahl a question about that, but we ran out of time.

Schjeldahl spent a lot of time picking apart the meaning of art, why it is important, why it should be preserved and supported, even if "there is a lot wrong with art." The function of art in a democratic society is spiritual, a way to manage the alternating impulses of humans between the wild and the tame. Like the cathedral in the Middle Ages, the modern museum "creates social stability by pointing to something that is beyond the everyday." One of art's problems is that even the priests of this artistic cult—art historians and museum curators—have become afraid of the concept of beauty. Schjeldahl described an interesting sociological research project, to create standards for what mystical religious experiences are. When everyday people in our time filled out a questionnaire related to those scientific standards, many of them had had such mystical experiences. Few had shared those experiences with anyone, and no one had ever discussed them with their own clergy. Of all the topics that might come up in a discussion between a museum curator and a museum-goer, the beauty of art is perhaps the most unlikely. The word itself, beauty, "is the A-bomb of art criticism," he concluded.

The question "Whither art?" seemed to generate the most disagreement from the audience during the question period. No, Schjeldahl insisted in a response to one question, art is really not about artists' expression of personal concerns. Art about an artist's concerns can only be effective if it is "enterable," that is, if it is simultaneously a concern of many. In other words, Guernica is not a great painting because Picasso opposed a bombing in Spain, but because we share the same horror of war. "Art is rhetorical," Schjeldahl insisted, "it argues," but most of the great historical art in museums is still very much alive, long after the arguments themselves are dead.

One of art's "problems" may be the shift in our very understanding of the word, from its Greek root in our word technique (teknh) to a special zone of the individual. We understand the phrase "fog of war," Schjeldahl said, and "well, the fog of art never ends." Artists in the 20th century, he suggested, were dedicated largely to "an exploration of the decorative side of art," with the thought that we should think of the work of Pollock or Mondrian in the same way we would discuss fabrics. Perhaps we are now past that, and artists will be ready to return to exploring the illustrational, narrative side of art, to recover the great classical-Renaissance tradition of the nude, for example, an exceptional tradition that has been all but lost.

Piero della Francesca, Madonna del parto, 1467That led him into a discussion of two paintings by one of his favorite painters, Rembrandt, which in spite of the absence of slides were vividly depicted. (In defense of slides, I should say that this worked well because I could picture the paintings he was describing in my mind. I cannot imagine trying to teach art history without slides, to students who did not come prepared with images already in their minds.) He spoke at some length about Rembrandt's Lucretia (1664) in the National Gallery of Art here in Washington as a shocking portrait of a noble woman at the point of committing suicide (to save her husband's honor, after she has been raped). The work is unique, Schjeldahl said, an image "never seen even in our world of television and video." He thinks that the version of Lucretia (1666) in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is even better and more dramatic. (Schjeldahl is originally from Minnesota.) His description of the work of Rembrandt (as he put it, nothing more than "dirt on cloth," which is one way to think of how you make a painting) does make you hunger for figurative art.

The most moving moment of the night was Schjeldahl's description of the encounter that changed his life in relation to art, what made him a member of the "self-selected elite," in a democratic society, of those who love art. (A group that might be organized, as Schjeldahl imagined it, like Alcoholics Anonymous, which inspired the statement in the title of this post.) It was his visit to a small town in Italy, Monterchi (near Arezzo), to see a country chapel called the Cappella del Cimitero, no larger than a toolshed, where on the wall is Piero della Francesca's fresco of the pregnant Virgin Mary, the Madonna del Parto (1467, image shown above). It was quite an epiphany for someone who wanted to be a poet and who had never really had any education in art.

See also An Interview with Peter Schjeldahl (Blackbird, Spring 2004). There will be two more Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art, also at Lisner Auditorium in Washington: painter/printmaker Pat Steir ("What Is Called Beauty," October 13, 7 pm) and Yale art history professor Alexander Nemerov ("Childhood Imagination: The Case of N. C. Wyeth and Robert Louis Stevenson," November 10, 7 pm).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I’m a painter and will read anything Peter Schjeldahl writes. He’s just so damn honest and insightful it’s alarming in a world full of posturing. I heard myself telling someone tongue-in-cheek recently that the only person who I would not like to review my work is Peter Schjeldahl—because if it were negative it might actually affect me. That said, I do wish he, and anyone else who talks about “beauty,” would have the guts to use contemporary artists for examples. It’s just too easy to only talk about Rembrandt. I’d rather he expound upon Robert Van Vranken, David Kroll, Julie Heffernan, Odd Nerdrum, or many others who “use” beauty to seduce the viewer into their world. If he has reservations, those reservations might lead to a worthy dialogue, if it maintains respect for the degree of aesthetic and ideological commitment the artist has shown.

This situation is quite like classical music: it’s so easy to love Beethoven or Bach, to discuss ad infinitum different renditions of their compositions, and much much harder to identify worthy contemporary composers who should be encouraged and supported. If we gave more attention to artists who employed those conceptual and aesthetic properties we love in a Rembrandt or a Beethoven, perhaps we’d have more artists at that level.