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Art's Prospect:
The Challenge of Tradition
in an Age of Celebrity

Roger Kimball

275 pages
Ivan R. Dee, Publisher (September 2003)
ISBN 1-56663-509-8
Hardcover, $26.00

When one looks around the art world today, it is easy to see why some critics have concluded that we're living in a posthumous age. Most of what is on the walls of our art galleries and museums of contemporary art is so utterly lacking in aesthetic ambition or accomplishment that predictions about "the end of art" sometimes seem almost plausible.

Of course, art isn't really at an end. It is just that the most vital art being produced today tends to exist outside the nervous glare of the art-world limelight.

from Art's Prospect

Whatever happened to the little boy who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes? Chances are he grew up to be Roger Kimball, author of Art's Prospect, a witty, insightful, and inciting compilation of twenty years of art reviews. With intelligence and a swashbuckling skill, Kimball calls the bluff of pretense and hyperbole in museums, exhibitions and art literature, highlighting the art world's overreliance on premise and marketing, publicity, 'sensation' in the media sense, its focus on what is novel and shocking rather than that infused with talent, enduring appeal, and grace. Kimball's criticisms, delivered with a dry wit akin to Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word, will arrive as welcome insights to many who have wondered just how, and where, and why, twentieth-century art foundered into much that neither delights, nor satisfies -- and where satisfaction may be still found.

Art's Prospect is a compilation of thirty-six reviews, an array of Kimball's stimulating commentary on 20th-century art, of specific exhibitions, books and museum doings. Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cassatt; Warhol, Bacon, Rauschenberg; Rosalind Krauss's book The Optical Unconscious, tales of MASS MOCA and Dia:Beacon and the Whitney Biennial dance like sugarplums through these pages, and drawn together form a keen pulse-taking of the artistic world. What the art world suffers from is "a triumph of quantity over quality," Kimball maintains, with artists delivering an "attitude," rather than real art. He finds lofty claims being made for art that when all is said and done is invested with tedium, with a seen-it-once, don't-need-to-see-it-again simplicity, with, even, outright banality or meaningless bizarrete. With tradition regarded as the enemy -- and certainly as unhip, uncool, un-cutting-edge -- art's frontiers have been pushed to promoting the faddish, the one-off, the outrageous, a can-you-top-this of extremity, with extremity, in the end, yielding only tedium. Or, in another direction, an art of whatever-may-be-found, gathered trash, old clothes, assembled by those, as Kimball would have it, without a talent more significant than a faculty for artistic hucksterism. Art's Prospect attributes this phenomenon to the worship of 'the cutting edge' -- the ultimate legacy of art divorcing itself from tradition. In the review "The Museum as Funhouse" Kimball points out that

as the egalatarian imperatives of the Sixties insinuated themselves more and more thoroughly into mainstream culture, the very ideal of aesthetic excellence came under fire. Adulation, not connoisseurship, was the order of the day. Many commentators -- even many artists -- rejected outright the pursuit of aesthetic excellence; they saw it as an elitist holdover from the discredited hierarchies of the past. Others subordinated the aesthetic dimension of art to one or another political program or intellectual obsession. Notoriety, not artistic accomplishment, became the chief goal of art, even as terms like "challenging" and "transgressive" took precedence over "beautiful" and other traditional commendations in the lexicon of critical praise.

Added to such imperatives are two further forces, our tabloid culture with its focus on celebrity, and the driving imperative to cater to the masses -- a heady mix, warping and altering both the institutions that bring art to the people, and the art that receives funding and attention. Art's Prospect finds, in evaluating the art itself, that while trading on shock value it lacks an appeal that lasts after the shock has passed. At times what is being sold is a political idea, rather than art; at times it is the successful imbuement of hype. Kimball is, alas, able to cite innumerable examples: the woman who "'with the assistance of a surgeon, passed a fiber optic video camera through her body orifices to create a video self-portrait'", another artist's "'obsessive drawings in her own blood, based on the Mayan calendar'", the video piece in which "'A camera fixed on top of a monitor is trained on a corner, whose image is related live in black-and-white on a monitor'", the artist who received a monthly stipend of $17,500 for constructing "one hundred large untitled boxes made out of milled aluminum and neatly arranged in two enormous converted artillery sheds."

Bringing in discussion of artistic assessment and art history, while never losing his conversational tone -- and incorporating tasty, gossipy specifics and some memorable, wickedly dry asides -- Kimball's frank expositions of the emptiness of such art combined with a certain incredulity will reflect feelings many viewers have secretly harbored. Art's Prospect holds art both old and new up for inspection, including a tepid exhibition of Van Gogh in 1998 and the overmarketed sensuality of "Undressing the Victorians" ("These are seriously bad pictures: cloying, aesthetically static, cringe-making in their combination of coy, sugar-glazed, semi-concealed eroticism and spurious high-mindedness..."). But the 60s in particular receive special attention. Kimball cites Frank Stella's Minimalist "What you see is what you see" ("Stella's remarks...serve chiefly to underscore the artistic emptiness of the whole project of minimalism") and Andy Warhol's "Art is what you can get away with" in discussing the deterioration of artistic attitudes. Though embracing such ideas may be hip, popular and cool, they are, Kimball maintains, leading contemporary art into a dead end. Reviews such as "Drunk on Andy Warhol" and "Gilbert and George: The Psychopathology of Culture" deride celebrity culture and the nihilism of the day, with Warhol in particular as a notorious influence:

The most important culprit in this story is undoubtedly Andy Warhol. It was Warhol -- aided and abetted by such figures as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns -- who injected the streak of sinister levity that made Pop Art and its offshoots such a creepy, Janus-faced phenomenon: one face all smiles and Campbell Soup cans, the other a grim underworld of drug abuse, sexual predation, and nihilistic self-absorption. Pop Art enjoyed such enormous success largely because its practitioners managed to hold those opposing elements together in their art: sugar coating around a poison pill. For susceptible souls -- and their number was legion -- it was an addictive combination.

Art's Prospect casts further doubt on the aggrandized claims made about such works. In the essay "Wrong Turns at the Whitney" Kimball is at the top of his form, lambasting the exceedingly lambastable 2002 exhibition "Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art, 1964-1977" by dissecting each piece of interpretive text in turn -- each of which makes claims "to the pretense that boundaries or conventions or languages of artistic practice are being 'redefined,' 'interrogated,' 'transgressed,' or 'challenged.'"

And where may satisfaction be found? Piquant as Kimball's criticisms are, and delivered with such obvious relish, what makes Art's Prospect so engaging is that the generative impulse of Kimball's finger-pointing is his deep respect for good art. Just as his criticism rakes that which is extreme for extremity's sake, over-intellectualized, puffed up with marketing, premise and pretense, his praise unfolds for works of "aesthetic pleasure and spiritual refreshment" founded on classical skills, talent, and "execution and inventiveness within a well-defined tradition." His puckish delight in pointing out the art world's warts and flaws makes a transmutation into serious, unexpectedly elegant assessments. Reviews such as "Renior's Portraits" and "Matisse in Morocco" inspire a renewed appreciation of the works of these established artists, while others such as "John Dubrow" and "William Bailey: Animating Twilight" provide graceful introduction to contemporary artists who may be new to the reader.

It is a relief to find that not all the essays are provocative, and a pleasure as well to experience Kimball's intelligent evaluation of that in which he finds merit. If there is a criticism to be made of Art's Prospect, it is an editorial one. For 100 pages in the middle of the book the topic seems to wander, Kimball's views, so obviously on theme in Part I, diffuse into a collage of bits, pieces and individual exhibitions. The energy is not lost, but the focus is -- or seems to be. It takes further reading for the pattern of criticism and praise, the movement in topic between early 20th century and late, to be perceived among the three untitled sections. Thirty-six reviews are quite a cornucopia, and more attention to labeling the divisions would have been an ease for the reader as well as a complement to the sprightliness of Kimball's writing.

Art's Prospect is opinionated, without a doubt. But Kimball's opinions have an appealing candor, and, delivered in a lively colloquial style, make for engaging, intelligent reading. There is a refreshing quality to having someone call a spade a spade -- or pretense, pretense. "I am under no illusion that this will be a popular book," Kimball says, but he may well be surprised. The specific art-world figures and institutions he pillories may not appreciate his commentary, but many seeking fulfillment in art will. One hopes this book will make wide rounds, especially in art schools: to steer emerging artists away from the 'hook,' the trendy, today's shock which is tomorrow's banality, and to encourage works expressing that to which Kimball alludes in his positive reviews, an art that offers, in the long run, the enduring appeal of centuries over the flashbulb pop of notoriety. Art's Prospect is playful, pointed, insightful and perceptive, a fine springboard from which to agree or disagree. Brimming with material to stir the ferment of one's own opinions, as well as elegant assessments of artists old and new, it is a book well worth reading.

Roger Kimball is managing editor of The New Criterion as well as an art critic for the London Spectator.

--Katherine Rook Lieber

Katherine Rook Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual and Performing Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: All quotes, unless otherwise identified, are from the reviewed book itself. Tom Wolfe is quoted from his excellent collection of satirical essays on art, The Painted Word (Bantam: 1999).

Art's Prospect, and other books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews, may be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link.

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