Art Criticism Criticism

We took the kids to the Winslow Homer exhibit on Sunday. How, oh how, does he achieve such intensity of color and mood with water color? The Post's review borders on the bizarre. Where I saw a celebration of ordinary people engaged in daily tasks, their critic sees a "generic" treatment of people. And what editor let this paragraph by?
So Homer never says much, and he's decidedly a centrist in the view of America he presents. But there is at least one little cry of conscience here that adds depth to one's sense of the man. Accompanying one of his Civil War images (the subject of another small National Gallery show in 1997) is a wall text giving us Homer's thoughts on the deadly skill of military sharpshooters: "The . . . impression struck me as being as near murder as anything I could think of," he wrote of the mechanical, precise killing at a distance. It's a scruple about war as lost to Americans today as the world of milkmaids and leafy pastorals, and one can only imagine the painter would roll in his grave to know the way America makes war today: with industrialized efficiency, cold, calculating and (preferably) always at a distance.

Who wrote this review, Bill Maher? I'd say it's quite a stretch to go from the painter's description of his emotional response to something he saw to his politics. . . .especially since this has nothing whatever to do with what you actually see on canvas. Do you see what this critic's complaint is? It's that Homer wasn't a propagandist! Until he finds a note in a diary that he can interpret as propaganda, he is unable to relate to the work on the wall.

Which brings me to a broader point. I've had an exchange over the past few days with a friend I've mentioned before in this space who's focusing his attention these days on questions of art, its relationship to culture broadly speaking, and why the "art world" currently offers only two dead-end choices: modernism, which is clearly spent, and traditionalism in the sense of works and forms that are derivative and unengaging --more propaganda than art. The occasion of our conversation was this crisis magazine piece which had the temerity to argue that not all modern art is de facto evil. (You should see the howls of outrage in the letters to the editor portion of the subsequent issue).
My friend "concurs in part and dissents in part" from the crisis argument, as do I, but the author gets one essential thing correct: namely that if you wish to redeem the culture, you have to engage it. But where to engage? As I wrote to my friend, there is modern art I like, and I don't pretend to be an expert in art theory, but in many if not most instances, I have a hard time believing that much of what is given us as "art" springs from any aesthetic principle whatsoever --it's just people putting one over on us. When you go to the Hirschorn Museum and see an installation called "Stations of the Cross" that is just 14 huge white canvasses with a black vertical stripe traveling from left to right as the screens progress, I am sorry, that is just P.T. Barnum being proven right once again. All of this only to say that it's hard to take art criticism very seriously.