Barley Soup and Art: High and Low

by Jules Olitski

On November 25, 2002, a panel organized by The Partisan Review convened in Boston to discuss the topic "What Happened to the Arts?". Hilton Kramer was the moderator, and the panel members were Robert Brustein, Jules Olitski, and Cynthia Ozick. Mr. Olitski has graciously allowed us to post his introductory remarks, which we think are both amusing and enlightening.

I call this "Barley Soup and Art - High and Low." I came upon this introduction browsing The Crown of Wild Olive by John Ruskin. He says, "My friends - I have not come among you ... to endeavor to give you an entertaining lecture, but to tell you a few plain facts, and to ask you some plain, but necessary questions."

I thought that was pretty good. All I was going to say was "Hi."

My talk has mostly to do with quality: it is under attack. Long before I could spell the word, I experienced it in a rather homespun way, with the barley soup my mother fed me when I was a child, a boy, a man. Barley soup - I've had it in restaurants: in Coney Island, in Flatbush, in Brooklyn, in New York's Lower East Side, in Patchogue, an exotic place, in Paris, London, Madrid. I like barley soup, I'm a connoisseur of barley soup. Curiously, one of the best soups that I had was at the Old Horn and Hardart, a cafeteria long gone, but it was terrific, ten cents.

The pleasure I get from barley soup, which serves the appetite, is of a different nature, of course, than aesthetic pleasure, which serves the spirit. Taste is the only path to quality, to aesthetic pleasure in art, music, poetry, and literature. As taste develops, so does one's pleasure, one's aesthetic pleasure. Pleasure doesn't make you taller, better, skinnier, richer. It doesn't make you more of anything. Nicholas Poussin said the goal of art is delight. It grabs you; it takes you out of yourself, out of time. It is a unique experience. It is what one may experience looking at a Rembrandt self-portrait, or hearing Handel's Xerxes, or reading Wordsworth's Home at Grasmere, which I think is just a wonderful piece of work. I remember coming all of a sudden upon Vermeer's View of Delft. I was walking towards it, I must have been about twenty feet or more away, and I didn't even know it was a Vermeer. One doesn't swoon anymore since the nineteenth century, but like a maiden I swooned; I almost fell to the floor. I thought then, and I may still think, that it was the most beautiful painting I had ever seen, that was ever made.

It is evident that quality, the very quest for quality, is under siege. The word beautiful is considered something for the wealthy, the elite, who can afford the leisure to develop taste. Hence it is capitalistic, imperialistic, elitist, and one risks being called a fascist for seeking excellence and having pleasure in the beautiful. It simply isn't democratic. It attacks the modern perception of equality, diversity, multiculturalism, and God knows what else. We are all, they tell us, we all should be, must be, in the same box.

I come now to the question of "What Happened to the Arts?" the topic of this panel. Thanks to a commingling of conceptualists, deconstructionists, feminists, and the scourge of political correctness, the Philistines, as Arlene Croce once said, rather famously, have now become the artists. All that formerly was unacceptable is now celebrated. Some examples: Gilbert and George, a playful British couple, exhibited photographs of two months of their feces. Wait, it gets worse. The event was celebrated at the prestigious Royal Academy in London. Impatient crowds encircled the Academy, not to tear the place down, but to get inside and see what Gilbert and George had come out with. Abominations are the order of the day. Like the Roman circuses of old, the public must be fed its daily outrage. Daniel Kunitz in a recent review in The New Criterion writes, "Of course we now know that, with notable exceptions [I wish he'd named them], the artistic mindset of the latter half of the twentieth century was dominated not by Greenberg but by Duchamp." Greenberg is out, because he stood for quality in art and had the temerity to point and say, "This painting is better than that one."

Marcel Duchamp is at one and the same time the Che of postmodernism and its Bouguereau, the celebrated and fashionable French painter in the Paris of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Perhaps his most notorious piece is the sculpture Fountain, which was a urinal with the name "R. Mutt" painted on it. It caused a great stir when it was rejected from the Independent's Exhibition of 1917. It was replicated and shown in the 60s and has been endlessly reproduced in books and magazines. It pointed the way, in more recent years, to Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix in a bottle of the artist's own special urine. Andy Warhol had already been celebrated for inventing what he called his "piss paintings." I need not describe the technique. At least Bouguereau had some talent for painting.

Granted, Duchamp's urinal could rightly be termed a sculpture. It had volume; one could traverse it. But is it a good sculpture by any aesthetic measure? Of course not. It's low art, which was Duchamp's point. It's anti-art, meant to sneer at taste, high art, and aesthetic quality.

Anton Chekhov, who couldn't write a sentence that didn't lift one's spirit, said, "We all came out of Gogol's `Overcoat'". The abominations of postmodernist art came out of Duchamp's urinal. Soon enough, the taste for excrement was bound to follow, to be celebrated in its turn.

I am told that thirty years ago, an Italian artist packaged his feces (I'm going to use the Yiddish word, dreck) and apparently tried to sell it. I can't imagine who would buy it. He sold it by the pound with the label, Artist Shit. One wonders how it was packaged.

New York, for a time the center of advanced art, has given way to London, which is now the center for low art. That is our good fortune. Tony Blair celebrates the antics of such artists as Damien Hirst and Chris Ofili, stars of the sensational Sensation show at the Brooklyn Museum. Mr. Hirst arrived on the art scene with half the carcass of a cow awash in formaldehyde. Mr. Ofili, a more serious, more talented British artist than Mr. Hirst (but then again, who isn't?), actually paints pictures on canvas. However, his success is not based on his talent, but on his liberal use of elephant dung. Surely gorillas await their turn. The art draws attention for reasons having little or nothing to do with art, yet it pretends to be avant-garde. In reality, it's academic art, easy to get, style over substance. Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum, coming away from the Sensation show observed in the New York Times, "The emperor has no clothes"; for that he was reviled by many of his peers, who simplistically believe, no matter how lacking in quality, if it's new, it must be good, even great.

How demoralized our art lovers that they can look at dreck presented as art and not say, "Good God! This is really shit."

Suddenly, everything, no mater how inane, insane, obscene, or just plain silly became "interesting." A young British art dealer described to me his excitement upon seeing Damien Hirst's half cow. He asked me what I thought. I told him I'd not actually seen it, except in reproduction. "Yes, but what do you think?" he asked.

I said, "It looks like something you'd see in the National Enquirer". But you saw the work. Did it give you a lift? Did it move you to delight?" "Not really," he said. "But half a cow in formaldehyde! So surprising, so interesting, don't you think? As an idea?"

"The idea," I said, "about half a cow. Now that is interesting." Our conversation, of course, languished.

Interesting as an idea. At least Christo's wrappings try to evoke the beautiful. At least he makes a gesture of sorts in the direction of aesthetic experience, though, to my eye, not nearly enough.

The Brits have learned from their American predecessors, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. There is in their work the initial surprise, oddly similar to what one gets suddenly seeing a nude mannequin in a department store window. At first glance it appears alive, and the more alive it appears, the more dead it becomes, and we turn away, somewhat embarrassed, hoping no one noticed. We feel we ought not to have looked. We feel we were taken in. All window dressing has that intent, as does Johns's American flags or Rauschenberg's stuffed goat.

Feminist art is very much a part of the current scene. Feminist art is often a matter of words repeated forever on a gallery wall. Favorite words are peace and fuck. Frequently the focus is on genitalia, their own. Watching TV the other night I was able to gather examples of feminist "word art" by some of the masters of the genre: "What urge will serve us, now that sex won't." "Men don't protect you anymore." And the one I liked best: "I shop, therefore I am." I have the feeling I've left something out. Oh, yes, menstrual art.

If the goal of art, as Nicholas Poussin said, is delight, what motivates the art that presently prevails? I suppose a hatred for our traditions, for the institutions that support our democracy and a hatred for excellence. I sense a reflexive self-hate, as well. Tenured intellectuals in our top colleges and universities, once radical students of the sixties, breaking windows in the institutions they attended "to let the air in," as they said, grinning impishly, now attack common sense and commonsensical reality with language opaque, incomprehensible, enough to make the members of the Flat Earth Society appear almost sensible. Read for example Jacques Derrida on the art of painting.

I believe art is expressive of the reality of its time. If present abominations prevail, we are in trouble. I am told an artist is, at present, exhibiting corpses, which he drains of their fluids and injects with some kind of plastic material. Flesh hangs draped over their bones. A fetus is visible inside the woman's belly. Even Dante would have averted his eyes. But not so the New York Times, which showed a photograph.

I look at the cave art of Lascaux, 15,000 years old, and Chauvet, 30,000 years old, and other caves recently explored. Here is art, elegant, beautiful, sophisticated. Degas, who could really draw, would have been impressed. Matisse, a master of color, would have fainted. (He did have a tendency to tremble in front of the canvas.) The tension of the cave art throbs, alive with felt experience, with danger, darkness. It is art of quality, high art.

I look at early medieval art. It's expressive reality. Nothing moves, change is incomprehensible. God is above, the sun revolves around the Earth. The art has its own particular stillness, as high art does. Then come Copernicus and Galileo and mathematics and perspective - the Renaissance. Everything moves. It's a different world. Thrust and counterthrust. Renaissance art is almost besotted, through and through, with contraposto. Titian's last Entombment of Jesus (he did two Entombments of Jesus; I think the later one is the best) is utterly sublime. It is one of the highest moments of the Renaissance. So, too, the art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is replete with its own expressive reality.

The next major shift in reality, expressed in visual art, is Impressionism. Perceived, at least technically, as a kind of diffusion, in the hand of a genius like Monet, diffusion became ravishing. It was left to Picasso and Braque's analytical cubism to present reality in fractured planes seen from many points of view. These expressions of an era's reality do not in any manner or form guarantee high art. High art is made by artists who make high art.

Throughout the ages (and most particularly in Hellenic art) beauty and excellence were premier goals, until now, when, like Gresham's Law, the question is, will low art drive out high art? For the present, low attracts more low. Maybe there is no bottom to low. I won't accept that, nor should anyone else accept the situation as irreparable.

First-rate art is being made, created in the shadows, for the most part, unseen. Some artists are young. For me, at eighty, young is sixty. Darby Bannard is an example, for a long time almost forgotten, he suddenly emerged, making paintings overflowing with painterly feeling and ravishingly beautiful. James Walsh, another kid in his fifties, is also making wonderful paintings. There are others, highly gifted. Darryl Hughto; Susan Roth; Bannard's really young protege, he must be thirty or so, George Bethea; and not to leave out Walsh's wife, Annie, very talented. There are others, but I tend to stay close to my own studio.

It's many months now since September 11, and I wonder what effect, if any, that day has had on the art community. Historically, the barbarians appear when they smell decadence. Are we in trouble? The smell, indeed, is ripe. It was about a week before September 11 that I received a letter from a dear friend, a sculptor. He was working on a group of sculptures to be called The Barbarians. He was excited by the work, and his description of it over the phone excited me, as well. He had been reading some history, as he put it, of the barbarians, of Huns swooping down from the mountains, raping and pillaging decadent Rome. "Awful," he said, "but they were rather welcomed, weren't they?" I thought of my friend's remark when September 11 came and in the days and weeks and months after. If our art scene reflects our reality, we are in bad shape. Are there enough Americans with enough common sense to not give a hoot about the academics and their theories and all the art world crap to prevail? I pray there are.

Posted June 22, 2003

© Jules Olitski, 2002-03

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