In October, the IWF invited cultural critic Lynne Munson and art critic Hilton Kramer to discuss the chaotic, degraded state of the contemporary art world, and Munson’s bold new book, Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance, published by Ivan R. Dee. C-SPAN broadcast this popular event in November on their Book TV program.
I think we’re all aware of the catastrophe — not only an aesthetic catastrophe but a moral and ethical catastrophe-that’s overtaken the art institutions and the teaching of art.
One of the principal results of this catastrophe has been the transformation of the art museum in the last 30 years or so into a politically activist institution, ideologically bound to the worst new developments and leftist cultural criticism-that whole array of idiocies that goes under the name of post-modernism. So let me say here, there is no such thing as postmodernism, it’s all warmed-over Marxism, deconstruction, and other varieties of nihilism.
Postmodernism is an ideological construction that allows the substitution of political, sexual, all kinds of other ideas, for esthetic standards.
The museums, the art history departments, the art studio departments in the universities, the media, all have surrendered to this juggernaut. It was really not only time, but also past time for a book like Exhibitionism to be written, because Lynne Munson does something that nobody has really done before — she’s actually constructed a book around facts. She’s talked to people, she’s gone over the records, she’s followed the money, and she names names.
She traces the early years of the National Endowment for the Arts-a history that has never before been written. Likewise, the chapter that accounts for the Marxist push that led to the takeover of the art history department and the museum training program at Harvard University and the Fogg Art Museum. That particular horror was subject of an editorial in the very first issue of The New Criterion in September of 1982, but nobody has given as complete an account of how the most important American museum training program-a training program in connoisseurship-was transformed into a Marxist study center in which aesthetics are no longer taught as part of art history.
One of the nation’s most distinguished commentators on art, Hilton Kramer is art critic of the New York Observer and publisher and co-founding editor of the New Criterion. He is author of several books, most recently, The Twilight of the Intellectuals: Culture and Politics in the Era of the Cold War.
Few people would disagree that the art wars of the last decade have been driven less by reason than by rage. Each controversy has packed a fury so fierce that it made these art wars resemble military engagements more than intellectual arguments. In fact, I’ve put together a short chronicle of the ongoing conflict. We started out with the Battle of Piss Christ, then we had Mapplethorpe’s Last Stand, the Finley Offensive and most recently I’m sure you all will remember the Great Dung War.
Now each of these skirmishes was sparked by art that was crafted to provoke the public. After all, the fluid in Andres Serrano’s infamous image would have been unidentifiable had the artist not gone out of his way to title the work Piss Christ. If its pachyderm waste had not brought wrath down upon Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary, the pornography that the artist collaged all over and around the icon would have.
To varying degrees, the artists who start these art wars are exhibitionists, baiting public sensibility in order to call attention to themselves. These “shock” artists are actually the new academy. The safest work an artist can market today, in terms of having a career, and getting a gallery, and winning prizes and grants, is shock art. And every time the artist is attacked in the art wars, claims are made that this is the avant-garde of our time, that Michelangelo and all the maverick artists of their day were criticized and misunderstood. Well, the shock artists are not mavericks; they’re doing the safest thing you could possibly be doing in the art world right now.
In the art wars, the combatants take their positions along exactly the same battle lines. On one side is arrayed the army of the offended rallying to the cry of blasphemy. Against them is amassed the troops of art advocacy rousing to the charge of censorship. After a full-scale barrage and the press, via direct mail of course, and even the courts sometimes, the dust settles to reveal that the debate has not advanced.
The art wars have accomplished nothing aside from bloating the coffers of the opposing armies and propelling the careers of the artists who started them. Least served, of course, has been the public, which has been left wondering what happened and why.
In Exhibitionism, I don’t rehash these controversies, I try to get at their root cause. The art wars erupted at the apex and throughout what, we at least hope, are the waning days of what is widely referred to as the postmodern era. Postmodernism is kind of a spin-off from deconstruction, which is a group of theories that dominated humanities scholarship throughout the 1980s and 90s.
Postmodernism was accompanied by a culture of intolerance that took root in and eventually engulfed many of our central art institutions. It’s a prejudice that favors the so-called cutting edge over the traditional-political art at the expense of painting, for example. It has influenced art funding agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts, museums, college art history departments, and artists themselves. This bias puts very narrow limits on the type of art that should be studied, supported, exhibited, and to a certain degree, even made.
Now in my book, I don’t try to document the breadth of post-modernism’s impact, but rather to hone in on a few very important examples to show how deeply its effect has been felt. I look at the art history department at Harvard, which in 1874 was the first English or American University to offer an art history course.
Harvard spent a century turning out students with an encyclopedic knowledge of art with extensive first-hand experience with art objects. In course after course, students would learn about art by handling and dealing with art objects of the highest quality. In fact, the collection of Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum was so central to the graduate program that the students enrolled there were said to be enrolled at the Fogg instead of at Harvard, which might be the first instance that somebody at Harvard was not wanting to say that they were at Harvard. Graduates included future directors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Gallery, the founding director of The Museum of Modern Art, and even the current directors of New York’s four largest art museums.
As post-modern theory swept the discipline in the 1980s, much of Harvard’s art history faculty all but divorced themselves from the Fogg Art Museum. In fact they even spoke quite openly about selling off the contents of its collection. A tense relationship between faculty members who favored more object-oriented approaches to teaching and studying art and those advocating for a more theory-driven art history grew quite thuggish when one new faculty member prohibited his students from studying with the senior scholar in the department, essentially pushing him into early retirement.
By 1995, the program had changed so dramatically that a Washington Post art critic could write almost matter-of-factly about how “Marxism, semiotics, structuralism, radical feminism, and other ideologies have swept Harvard’s Fine Arts Department.”
You may ask, why be concerned about how professors in the enclaves of Harvard and the like teach art history to their students? It’s for one simple reason: The kind of shift we saw at Harvard from objects toward a politicized art history is not merely an academic issue. Other institutions, very important institutions, have followed suit. For example, under the rubric of what’s now called the new museology, some art historians now advocate turning the traditional museum, which was essentially dedicated to providing an unfettered forum for people to learn through looking, into a revisionist institution committed to challenging the importance of western art itself.
The new museology has challenged the traditional museum’s presentation of the history of art as a continuous evolution of creative development proceeding from ancient Greece through the Italian Renaissance up to modern America. Revisionists have dubbed this arrangement the master narrative. Most museums have disrupted it, often by positioning some non-western collections at the front of the museum where there is often a gift shop, and a café, and perhaps a space for temporary exhibitions, so that museum visitors can, in the words of one revisionist art historian, “Visit the museum, see a show, go shopping and eat, and never once be reminded of the heritage of civilization.”
It’s important to keep in mind that ultimately the history of art is constructed from the accumulated wisdom of individuals who have stood face-to-face with art objects and measured their worth. It’s a process that begins when a work is created and continues for centuries. Works which cannot withstand such scrutiny of course loose currency, if not in their own time, then years later, when the space between the viewer’s eye and the object itself is cleared of contemporary commotion.
As the products of the post-modern period undergo this test, the calculated misperceptions and the genuine follies of our day will be undone and the truth will emerge long after the exhibitionists have left the stage.
Formerly Special Assistant to National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Lynne Cheney, cultural critic Lynne Munson is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a Member of the National Advisory Board of the Independent Women’s Forum. Her book, Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance, is published by Ivan R. Dee.
SIDE BAR: Art Schools
Lynne Munson: All but a very small handful of our art schools have been turned into places where you go to learn about how to market yourself as the latest thing, as the most cutting edge, post-modern artist of the day. It is very hard at today’s schools, for example, to find required drawing classes or required painting classes or anything along those lines. There are a small handful of very good schools, including the painting program at American University. So there are a few places that you can still go. I can’t say that for art history. It’s impossible, I think, to find a graduate art history program today in which you’re going to learn connoisseurial skills.
Hilton Kramer: I was visiting Syracuse University just two weeks ago and spent some time with the art students there. It’s a very mixed menu. There’s a lot of conceptual art being done by the students, which means, in practice, what I would call scrapbook art. These kids-as they seem to me, and I’m an alumnus of Syracuse, so I have a very vivid memory of what it was like when I was a student there-they assemble either on walls or on tables, mementos of their personal lives and present them to their art instructors as works of art. What’s even more horrifying is that these mementos are accepted by their instructors as works of art, and presumably they get grades and believe themselves to be artists. That’s the bad news.
The good news however, is that at both the undergraduate level and the graduate student level, there are few students who are really doing very serious work, in painting and in sculpture. The work requires a tremendous command of the media they’re working in.
It’s not by any means a hopeless situation, but it’s now become so easy to do next to nothing and still believe yourself to be creating something. What it amounts to is a pedagogical, intellectual and, considering the cost of tuition, a financial swindle. Most of those kids are not going to have careers as artists at all, because when they get out in the world, they’ll find remarkably few people are interested in their personal mementos.