It has come to my attention that the Philadelphia Museum of Art is going to sell some of its holdings, including Edward Hopper’s East Wind Over Weehauken, in order to purchase the work of contemporary artists.
Before I look into what “contemporary art” means to the wise old heads at PAFA, I want to create a definition of my own.
As far away in time as the Nineteen-oughts, artists were splintering off into factions that might be charitably described as hostile. Once the Armory Show was implanted on Lexington Avenue, the gauntlet came down, otherwise-timid folk in celluloid collars descended into a slugfest that consisted mostly of name-calling, and the battle was on. Former loyalists thumbed their noses at the old guard as the old guard pulled its ranks together, wondering how an era-leveling bomb could have been smuggled past Customs into the old armory where bewildered New Yorkers took a crack at understanding “modern art.” When the smoke cleared, you had your Modern Artists, playing nervously with cubes and cones, over in one side of the ring; on the other was the Hopelessly Passe, who believed in academic principles; those who sorta believed in them; and those who had rejected them wholesale. This latter group was lumped together – as it is today – and called, by the modernists, conservative. No matter that a great many of them had made the Armory Show – which the bomb came to be called – possible. No matter that they had, before the show opened, been fighting among themselves. No matter that each little group adhered to its own aims and positions and disliked the other intensely. Nope. After the Really Big Show of 1913, they were all lumped together like cats in a bag and tossed aside.
On the other side of the ring were the brashly experimental folk whose ids and egos were released by all the modern art that had crossed The Pond and found its way onto Lexington Avenue. They had never experienced such a satisfying unity, such a quasi-religious grace - such an overwhelming sense of triumph! They had, against all apparent odds, won the battle for hearts, minds, and sensibilities. Of course, it took a while. Newspapers made glorious fun of their lack of training, their pretentious exaggerations, their “artistic” flourishes. Picasso was the greatest fraud anyone had ever seen – unless it was Braque or one of those other cubey guys. Duchamp was the most reviled of them all. His Nude Descending a Staircase created such an uproar that a guard had to enlisted so that the painting would not be slashed – or taken away by an angry mob and split up for kindling. Lesser, but no less inflammatory, artists challenged the sensibilities of the most populous and sophisticated city in these United States. Yet over the next ten years, collectors began to gravitate toward the New Guys, leaving the Old Ones out in the cold they, the Old Ones, had felt so keenly when they were the avant-garde and fetched their own newspaper stories. The most radical of these groups was dubbed The Ashcan School because of its attraction to “unsightly” subjects. The in-between group – which did more or less pretty pictures of pretty things - was still vaguely popular. And the most conservative pulled its double-doors shut and began to hibernate.
During the 1930’s, everything went topsy-turvy. Realism (read: “backward-leaning stuff”) was in again and stayed in until after WWII, when our country was unquestionably the world’s greatest, if not necessarily the most discriminating, marketplace in the world. It was then that Modern Art got its capital letters. Also then that a new breed of brash young men and women decided to paint humongous pictures that didn’t require subject matter at all. They were impatient with the usual restrictions and said to hell with ‘em. Today, we call these people Abstract Expressionists. Their most violent apostle was the much-movied Jackson Pollock whose fixation on floor-painting might be seen as his most viable contribution to American art. A lot of critics and other art connoisseurs still defend his work. Let them. There will always be recidivists.
Since art didn’t need a subject, artists could return to Dadaist principles (what there is of them) and create the urinals of the Fifties and Sixties and beyond. And they did. Museum basements are full of Henry Mooreish sculpture refugees, neon coat-hangers , fake Cornell boxes, Warholean tributes to laundry detergent, and so on.
Such work came to be called “contemporary art.” Why contemporary? Because people who coin such terms like the additional syllables. Modern just didn’t sound modern enough. Modern had, in fact, become passe.
Then politics started to creep back in. And race. And gender. And all sorts of stuff you hear on the nightly news – assuming you don’t listen to the news all the time. Then whatever war was raging provided us with additional images. And, in the midst of everything else, Conceptual Art, which wasn’t obliged to make anything, emerged. Marina Abramovic is Conceputal Art’s most visible practitioner. She’ll come up with an idea, go public with it, and collect her kudos more or less automatically because. . .well, because the critical orthodoxy of our time insists upon it. The “art” is whatever idea comes into her head, which she dramatizes in one way or another and even includes other people, some of whom she is moved to pay. Conceptual art is, on the face of it, a good business strategy. It takes the seller out of the equation and makes the “artist” – or artist-impersonator – a man or woman of all work.
Thus “contemporary” art is anything that is derived from modern art, which can produce an object, or objects, but not always.
The rest of the stuff that’s being made has to scramble for itself. Of course, the most conservative among this leftover, non-contemporary group isn’t doing badly at all. One might consider it a kind of “We Paint For Republicans” outfit, which grinds out pictures of the beautiful stuffs their patrons are in the process of wrecking. Like pristine landscapes. Ocean waves. And the occasional sea lion. Or coyote. Or dog. (Are Republicans against dogs? To be fair, I don’t think so, so let’s strike them. I mean in the editorial sense. I’m the sort of dog-lover who would strike anybody who offered violence to a dog. Or any animal, for that matter.)
Let us return to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. And put me on pause because I intend to find out a little bit more about what it intends to acquire with all the money it’ll get for that Hopper. Just go about your business for a while; I’ll be back.
Not much to know. The museum’s curator is forthright about the purpose for which he is turning over EWOW to Christie’s. (PAFA values the painting at over 20 million dollars – just short of what the unspeakable Crystal Bridges Museum – for whose existence below-minimum wage Walmart drones are, in part, responsible - purchased another Hopper painting for.) The director also claims that purchasing contemporary art is a “crapshoot” which one has to do in order to eventually get things right.
At least the man is willing to screw up for a potentially good cause. Yet I’m glad to hear he’s gone out and found a curator, who will presumably take care of all of the details. On these, he’s not at his sparkling best. To wit:
He said that PAFA bought EWOW at a time when Hopper was a sad little emerging artist. Not so. By 1934, when PAFA purchased the painting, Hopper had already had a major retrospective, appeared in this country’s most prestigious exhibits, and was in the habit of selling almost everything he did.
Now I’m sorta wondering whether PAFA has any idea what it’s doing and feel I should rush over there and apply a wet rag to the director’s forehead while kicking him in the pants so that he’ll sit up straight.
With such a person leading the charge, what sort of “contemporary” art will appear at PAFA when all the money’s spent and everybody is having a hard time looking at one another in the hallways?
All the more reason to salt in a handful of realist paintings – for which I would be happy to supply a list. It could spend a couple mil on these and blow the rest on stuff that’s a crapshoot anyway and will probably do what crap does. Or should do. Or ought to do if one says “Pretty please”. In the meanwhile, “real” people will look at realist paintings as they did in 1913, then in the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, and beyond.
I Know What I Like
(The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, circa 2030. Two middle-aged guys stand before a painting of a street-scene. It is lovely and luminous, but the subject is of a rundown building so past its prime that, if it were blown up to real-life proportions, it might care to be summarily demolished.
The older man, CLARENCE, seems captivated. His buddy, BRUCE, starts to look away. The painting has spawned a thought process that is wearily familiar to them both.)
(Surprised at his reaction.) Now, this is the kind of picture I like. It shows you someplace you know and it makes you feel like you’re there.
Yeah, none of this I don’t know what-you-call-it stuff they spent all that money for. Do you know how many manhole covers you could buy with that? City needs them. And policemen too. There are places I don’t wanna go anymore.
(Hooked.) Yeah, I like this picture. I feel like I’m right there, y’know?
(More indignant that he thought he could be.) They could also spend some of that money on gettin’ people into that downtown of ours. And puttin’ people to work. I’m not one of those who believes that poor people are lazy. Well, some of ‘em are, but there are always a few bad apples.
(Childish glee.) I know what this reminds me of! It reminds of where I used to visit when I was a kid, when we went down to Kentucky to see grandma and grandad. Looks kinda like the house they lived in.
(Oracular.) I’ll tell you another thing they could do with that money.
They treated us kids like royalty. I mean it. They’d sit us down and just shovel food into us. Hey, if I ever got to be a serial killer, I hope I’d only blame it on myself. Wasn’t my upbringing. Those people, they just spoiled me from end to end.
(Astonished by the teeming nature of ideas.) Yeah, I know what you could do. You could give some of it to the city council and tell ‘em they could do anything they wanted with it as long as they didn’t come back. Yeah, that’s the thing they oughta do.
Yep, I was spoiled all right. And I guess that’s why I relate to this picture. ‘Cause it reminds me of that.
Well, I guess we’ve solved the world’s problems.
Huh? Yeah. I guess we have.
(They move on, but their stately progress is interrupted by over-the-shoulder looks and heartfelt hesitations.)
(If you care to, call or email the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and say: "What?" as loudly as you can. I have no other requests or instructions.)