The Hangmen of the Arts

The Ways of Fraud

January 14, 2007

The arts, I say, constitute a brazen fraud—the arts at least as peddled in boutiques, sanctified in galleries, and rattled-on about by professors who ought to find productive jobs.

To begin with, the poseurs who have awarded themselves charge of the arts wouldn’t recognize an art if they found it swimming in their soup. It is true. Start with literature. I have read several times over the years of wags who copied out three chapters of some classic—The Reavers, or Moby Dick (“Call me Fishmeal.”)—and sent them, perhaps with the names changed, to publishing houses in New York. Invariably they were rejected. The professional judges of manuscripts recognized neither the books nor good writing. You would get better results having literature judged by a committee of taxi-drivers.

I ask you this: Suppose I went pub-crawling in London and stumbled on an unknown play by Shakespeare, the equal of Lear and unquestionably genuine. Maybe Shakespeare had left his driver’s license with it. Suppose further that I sent it to New York, and to the English department at Harvard (which these days might or might not have heard of Shakespeare) and told them that it was my senior essay in creative writing at Texas A&M.

Are you sufficiently hallucinatory to expect an explosion of appreciation? “My god, we’ve found genius in the outback!” or maybe, “Geez, this kid writes like he’d actually been there!”

No. There would be condescension and polite silence. The perfessors don’t think old Bill is good because he is good, which they are not capable of ascertaining, but because he is Bill. You could show them a pizza order signed “Willybill S.,”on decayed parchment, tell them that it was found at Stratford, and they would wet themselves with emotion. Double cheese, anchovies.

Fact is, most art isn’t. Let some cultural executioner hang anybody in a museum, and he becomes Art, sort of by appointment. The critics will then make a career of sitting around appreciating themselves for appreciating him. Criticism is about critics; the art is barely necessary.

Or again, take The Bard, as we say more pompously than absolutely necessary—good phrase-maker, tired plots, low plausibility, but suitable for a quick buck with a mob audience. Twelve thousand PhD theses later and he’s had all manner of dreadful significance read into him that would never have occurred to the man.

On television I saw the story of a rich woman in New York who had, she thought, and so did others, a genuine Somebody. You know, Renoir or Gauguin or what have you. She was no end proud, kept it in a thermally controlled room, and fed it nothing but exotic cheeses and designer water. Critics came to visit it. They said, “Ah! The light…” and “Oh! The masterly play of…” and “Only He could have….” Then it turned out that the paint had been made in 1947. The value dropped by several million dollars, the critics vanished, and the woman probably didn’t commit suicide but it would have been a good end to the story.

Which shows that painting has nothing to do with beauty but only with sniffishness and social predation among the cerebrally understated with too much money. A Degas on the Upper West Side (I think that's a good address) is the equivalent of, in a sports bar, a baseball signed by Willy Mays. (If the ball were signed “Claude Monet,” it would be in a temperature-controlled case on the Upper West Side.) Should a painting be adjudged of value for what it looked like, then you wouldn’t care who did it. But when the point of the game is name-dropping, then the only reliable art critic is a mass spectrometer.

But if we rashly assume that art has something to do with beauty (it doesn’t), think about copies. In Italy a girlfriend and I once went to see Michelangelo’s David (“Old Marble Dick,” she called him. Women have no respect.) Now, David’s a pretty good statue. I won’t deny it. He could hold a lantern on my lawn any day, though he might need pants. What if you took a laser scanner and made a copy of Dave accurate to within the radius of a marble atom (we’ll assume here that marble is atomic) and colored it perfectly? Let’s say that no critic yet born could tell it from the original. So why wouldn’t it be worth as much?

Because art isn’t about Beauth or Trudy. It’s about staying ahead of the Hirschorns. It’s a scam. It’s a racket.

You may now want to say, “Fred, you obviously think that there is no art. How can you be such a cultural Philippine? Can centuries of art critics all be wrong?” Sure. And, yes, I could think that there was no art. I am professionally perverse enough. Anyway, you can see the evidence in any museum.

But in fact I don’t think it. Actually there is lots of art. Thing is, unless you build a museum around it, it doesn’t count.

Look, there are three hundred million people in the United States, let alone everywhere else. Artistically this is probably equivalent to ten billion Frenchmen in 1890 because almost all Americans have the time and minor disposable income to paint or play the saxophone in a chamber group. Most don’t. But they could. Yes, the truth is that lots of those Impressionistic frogs were really damned good. But can you possibly imagine that America, or France for that matter, couldn’t find twenty times as many people as good today if we looked?

It wouldn’t take much looking. In Washington D of C, there is the Corcoran Gallery, which annually has a contest in which (I think I have this right) every state sends paintings by a couple of its best high-school artists. This is an extraordinarily good idea, but they do it anyway. I know about this because my daughter Macon was in it for Virginia and ended up getting her stuff sent to New York somewhere to be hung for a while, like John Brown. (Talent skips generations. That’s why.)

Anyway, I propose the following for any who are interested in art: Go to Washington when the Corcoran has the show. Start by spending several days at the National Gallery on the Mall. The collection is pretty good. In addition to the usual there are paintings by Thomas Cole, Cropsey, Durand, Church and suchlike that you don’t hear about because they aren’t European. (More fraud. See?) Of course there is the tiresome Early Christian stuff, all gold foil and grotesque misshapen babies, and overdone post-card painters like Redon. Never mind. A fair bit of it is tolerable.

Don’t go in the usual state of intimidation expected of hayseeds in galleries: “Gee, I’m just a lowly pedestrian slug, and in the presence of genius, and don’t understand Art, and if it looks like this turkey can’t draw, there must be something wrong with me….” More likely, the turkey can’t draw.

Then go to the Corcoran to see what the kids have done. You will find freshness, imagination, and unabashed talent. You can't call it that, though, without showing yourself to be a rube. If you told the critics it had been found in Cezanne's basement, or a tomb in Egypt, they would run for their swooning couches like a herd of enraptured bison, so great would be their appreciation. But if it's signed by Sally Tugwinkle of Broken Needle, Arkansas...naah, doesn't count.

Ages ago when my younger daughter Emily, now a blues singer in San Francisco, was eight or nine, we went to the Hirschorn in DC. There we encountered a white canvas, about the size of a ping-pong table, blank except for a red circle, as large as a healthy orange, in one corner. It was Art. The museum said so. We dutifully appreciated at it. Later I asked her what she thought.

The scorn would have curdled motor oil.

“Big deal. A red dot. Gag me.”

Sound judgement, clarity of expression, no frou-frous. Now that’s criticism.