A Treatise on the Nonexistence of Art: Pretty Nearly, Anyway

Art is mostly fraud perpetrated by narcissistic academic quacks on a public easily gulled. They should be prosecuted. This is as true of literature as of painting and sculpture. If modern sculpture were placed in a junkyard, art critics couldn’t find it. Most of what we are told are great works are great works only because we are told that they are.

Consider the Mona Lisa, for mysterious reasons regarded an epochal detonation of artistry. Why? She is an excessively round woman who looks as if she is about to spit. We have to be told that she was an astonishment and marvel. Otherwise we would rate her a a pretty fair effort for an art student somewhere in Nebraska.

Yet put her at action with Christie’s and some witless digital arriviste would buy her for the price of an aircraft carrier.

Art has nothing to do with what the thing looks like, and certainly nothing to do with beauty. If it did, an indistinguishable copy would serve as well as the original. But no. The point is not to look at the thing, but to feel superior for owning it, and how can you do that when every mutt in Boise can get an equally good one for $37?

I remember reading of a rich woman in New York who had an original something, maybe a Cezanne or Monet or anyway one of those blurry painters with nice colors. She was attached to it. It gave her life meaning. She kept it in a sealed, temperature-controlled display case full of helium, or some such. She probably spent whole mornings appreciating at it. It made her a celebrity. Critics came to her salons and said, “Yes, yes, the handling of the light, the highlights, the expressiveness, ah, only he could do it….”

Then they ran a mass-spec on the paint, which turned out to have been manufactured in 1958. It seemed that only Monet and someone else could do it. The critics stopped coming to visit. Her life was as naught. I don’t know that she jumped from a skyscraper, but it would have given the story balance and proportion.

Is it great art? Only your mass spectrometer knows for sure.

In fact beauty just gets in the way of Art, and constitutes a threat to it. The two are not compatible. Suppose a budding art critic visiting a museum discovers by chance his plumber, who is looking with admiration at, say, David’s Leonidas. This makes sense, never a good thing in art criticism. The Leonidas is a good paining, and looks like an actual person.

The critic is horrified. You can’t be a refined authority with a pince-nez and limp handshake and like what a plumber likes, for God’s sake. To distinguish himself from hoi poloi, he has to like something that his plumber doesn’t. So he starts appreciating maybe Modigliani, whose paintings sort of look like people but, finding that too many ordinary Joes like the guy, the critic moves on to perhaps Braque and Picasso. If you can like pictures of square people with three noses, you separate yourself from most of the competition. Not from third-graders, though, who have always done that sort of thing.

You see the critic’s progression. To maintain superiority, he has to appreciate ever worse daubs, so that he can be increasingly alone in his exalted insight. The up-and-coming critic goes through Mondrian, who painted what would normally be considered linoleum patterns, and arrives at Kandinsky, who sold his drop-cloths.

There is nothing worse than Kandinsky. The critic who appreciates him has reached the pinnacle.

MondrianMondrian. Tell me it isn’t a linoleum pattern.

The critic’s need for truly awful art has a reverse and democratizing influence on the production of art. Since anybody can produce awful art, or successfully assert that anything awful is art, large and receding vistas open up for bunco artists. You can sell anything at all to suburban beautification committees.

A danger to the art-crit racket is that of the emperor’s clothes. I once took my daughter Emily, then seven, to the Hirshorn Gallery on the mall in Washington. The building looks like half of a 55-gallon oil drum made of concrete. Buildings ugly as warts are more advanced than those that are attractive and therefore pleasing to people with commons sense. Outside there is a Sculpture Garden, full of headless bronze torsos, some with gaping holes in them, and blobbish people without the usual supply of arms and legs. We are not talking the Nike of Samothrace. The impression is that a vocational school held a welding contest, and everybody lost. Tourists from Kansas walk through, apparently wondering whether they have somehow fallen into an asylum.

Inside we found inexplicable blotches and stripes. One in particular was a huge canvas, mostly of an off-white that suggested that it needed washing, with a sort of rust-colored circle in one corner. I asked Em what she thought of it.

Her analysis: “A red dot. Big deal. Gag me.”

Art critics can’t even recognize art. Suppose you went on a castle crawl in England and found an original, unknown play by Shakespeare, a really good one, like King Lear if it combed its hair and put on a clean shirt. Suppose that you copied it out and sent it to fifty publishing houses and Shakespearean scholars, saying that you were a graduate student trying to imitate the bard’s style, and what did they think of it?

If any deigned to answer it would be to tell you with lethal condescension that your puerile attempt showed that you didn’t understand the towering nature of the Bard, etc. They would be telling you that Shakespeare couldn’t write Shakespeare.

But if you found a grocery list by Willy Bill in an attic at Stratford, you could sell it for the price of an aircraft carrier at Christie’s. How much sense does that make?

You have to tell the critics that it’s art, or they don’t notice. Every few years someone copies out The Reavers, or Crime and Punishment, changes the names, and sends it to New York—where it is rejected out of hand. See?

The trouble with great literature, or what is said by tenured pomposities to be great literature, is that it tries to deal with the human condition, the place of man in the cosmos, the meaning of life, and other trite subjects that we all think about every day. These themes are dealt with more succinctly on the wall of the men’s room at Joe’s Bar: “Shit happens.” “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.” “The whole world sucks, and everybody thinks it’s gravity.”

Great literature is chiefly the boring accounts of things we have already done. We’ve all had loves and lost them, we’ve all had Granny die horribly of cancer, and we all shudder at the injustice of the universe. We don’t need Malraux or Mann to rub these things in.

Now, while there is no great literature, there is great writing. Hamlet’s soliloquy, despite the thunderous ordinariness of its ideas, is marvelous because of the writing. Hunter Thompson, the Duke and the Dauphin in Huck Finn, Don Marquis on Shakespeare, all of Milne—them is art. But not great Literature.

In Washington, go to the Corcoran Gallery’s annual show of the best art by high-schoolers in all fifty states. You will find more variety, imagination, and sheer delight than in five hundred acres of Velazquez in the Prado. But you dare not say so became most of it a plumber might like. Perish forfend.

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