In 1998, a retired NY Times executive editor named Max Frankel contributed an article to the NY Times magazine about how editors make decisions that has stayed with me.
At the time, it struck me as truthful and illuminating. But re-reading it in 2016, it strikes me as – in part, at least – as a tad naïve or hypocritical – unintentionally, no doubt.
Entitled “To Whom It May Concern,” it concerns a request from a committee of “concerned” journalists, who felt that journalism was in a bad way, and wanted him to sign a statement of some sort in hopes that this might improve it.
Frankel defended its current state (and his own practice, as executive editor) by saying that “my only verity is that news must be new. News is not a rendering of reality, only a quest for novelty.”
True, he conceded—with a grain of humor--that the definition of “novelty” depended on whom the editors of the publication in question thought they were writing for.
“To an audience of 8-year-olds,” he wrote, “The multiplication table might qualify as news. In the Times, which assumes readers to be at least 12, math gets ink only when it solves Fermat’s last theorem.
“Embedded in the minds of all journalists,” he went on, “Is the image of a prototypical consumer of their news….”
Frankel said that he defined his consumers by geography, ideology and chronology. He conceded that he had written and edited for the home team, “Yanks in the Cold War and the Yankees in the World Series. But when New York quarreled with New Jersey, or the Yankees played the Mets, I became neutral.”
(The “chronology” is this sentence is ambiguous. Did he mean the age of his average reader? Since everybody reads a paper at about the same time, it can’t mean the people who read it either earlier or later.
(Perhaps this was his covert way of indicating that readers’ preferences and hence editorial priorities changed over time—as did the coverage of the wars in the Far East, from Korea to Vietnam, evolving from an anti-Communist stance in the early ’50s to an anti-war one, by the ‘70s—and thereby mirroring the evolution of opinion in the minds of its readers,)
“The truth,” Frankel finally confessed “is that journalists who assemble a newspaper, magazine, book or newscast cut the cloth to suit their audience, and they are often only guessing about its size and shape.”
How much more true this must be in the age of the Internet, when the Times counts the readers of its website in the millions – from all over the globe – and the circulation of its print edition in the hundreds of thousands – most (though far from all) of them in the New York Metropolitan Area.
ENTER THE MASTER SPIN-DOCTOR
Looking at the Times, however, these days, it seems as though its editors are assuming that its readership is almost exclusively white males, especially those with only high school educations.
I say that because between April 30 and May 16, Donald Trump made Page One of the print edition every single day except May 11, almost always in the right-hand column, which is the first place readers look and traditionally the spot for the story that the editors consider most important.
True, upon occasion, the paper also carried stories about Hillary Clinton during the early part of the month, but only on inside pages and not as many as the quantity devoted (and I use the word advisedly) to Trump.
And May 11 was the only day she, occupied Page One, and in the favored slot, with a story about her proposal for establishing a provision allowing people under 65 to “buy-in” to Medicare.
This was her way of dealing with Bernie Sanders, who continued to be worth more space in the Times than she is (even if again only on the inside papers).
I’d consider this proposal real news, whereas almost all of the Trump stories are either feature types that do little to illuminate his positions (or lack of positions) – or else tired rehashes of his mating dance with his fellow Republicans, with a little give here and a little take there.
There is no real substantive change in anybody’s position throughout this dance—beyond the fact that all of these divisions are fated to end in unity and those who doesn’t already know that are deluding themselves.
It is all game-playing, very likely calculated by Trump to keep him in the news.
Maybe reporters and editors see Trump as a winner already, and, everybody loves a winner.
Is that the mentality in the media? Go with the flow, and don’t make waves? Is it really true that the public is fascinated by his shenanigans?
Or it is just that journalism as a profession is up against an inspired spin-doctor who knows exactly how to milk it for every ounce of attention?
Trump knows that even the bad news about him and the attacks on him keep his name before the public—and bury his opponents in oblivion.
He belongs to the old school of “I don’t care what you say about me, as long as you get my name spelled right.” And it seems to be working. Take Friday, May 13 as an example.
In the print edition, not a line about Hillary, but a grand total of NINE items relating to Trump, including 1) a Page One story in the right-hand column (just above the fold) on the latest two-step in the dance between Trump and his fellow Republicans, with a huge continuation on Page 16.’
Also 2) another story on Page 16 on the confusion surrounding Trump’s tax proposals, with the “news peg” (or official reason for running the story) being the fact that an aide had said something about it. Big deal.
Also 3) & 4) two stories that I’d consider “feature” stories—i.e. totally non-essential. One was about some protesters who turned up at a Republican National Committee building where Trump was supposed to make a public appearance – but didn’t.
Another flimsy pretext for copy.
One was about a former butler of Trump’s who had made some vulgar anti-Obama postings online. How does this advance coverage of the campaign?
5) Another story concerned a group of Sanders’ supporters who were talking about campaigning against Trump if Bernie didn’t get the nomination. God forbid they should support Hillary. Then again, maybe if they did, the Times wouldn’t be interested...
6), 7) and 8) On the editorial page, we have yet another discussion of Trump’s waltzing around with the Republican establishment, and on the op-ed page, two attacks on Trump—one by Paul Krugman and one by Steven Rattner.
The latter described how Trump had exploited tax loopholes in his real estate businesses, while the former did point out that Trump is lying when he says that the U.S. has the highest tax rates in the world. Yet none of this serves to shift the focus away from Trump.
The 9th story (as if we needed one) is on Page One of the business section, about how Trump’s fund-raiser is getting set to raise funds in Las Vegas. So a casino owner is going to Vegas to raise money from his fellow casino owners. Surprise, surprise!
I suppose there aren’t too many minority readers of the Times. But a lot of us are women. Why aren’t our candidates getting any attention? I suppose because they’re not “picturesque “not sufficiently prone to “novelty.” The stories about them are “boring” (to use a word that signifies a story to be avoided at all costs).
This is the way journalism works – and the way that Donald Trump is able to make it work for him. At the Times website, on Friday afternoon was a lead story on him saying that he wouldn’t release his tax returns – another headline grabber.
And right below it was a story saying that all those Republicans who were soured on him are beginning to like him better. Naturally! He’s even better at using the media than Ronald Reagan ever was -- and Reagan was pretty damn good at that.
The Saturday print edition put the story about Trump refusing to release his tax returns on Page One again -- with two more stories about him on the inside pages of the issue, plus an op-ed piece and an outraged editorial repeating the Page One story, for the benefit of the simple-minded who didn’t get it the first time.
A brief reference to the fact that Hillary Clinton had released her tax return was embedded in a couple of sentences within the story. But most of the story was all about Trump flying in the face of convention, and provoking not only this Page One story but also the editorial (which again relegated Clinton’s conduct to a passing sentence).
I say “provoking” advisedly. I think Trump was looking for a way to PROVOKE media coverage, and the Times fell for it – hook, line and sinker. Not even a headline combining a reference to Clinton as well as Trump.
Of course, to the Times and indeed any thinking citizen, releasing tax returns is a good thing for a candidate to do, and refusing to do so is a bad one. But here is another “verity” that Max Frankel didn’t mention: the ancient saying that “no news is good news,” to which the corollary is that “bad news always is.”
Not all news media follow this dictum, of course. NY 1, a local television news station offered to subscribers to Time Warner Cable, manages a nice balance between upbeat and deadbeat news—and also manages to keep it viewers posted on Hillary’s doings as well as Donald’s—both are New Yorkers, are they not?
But for years and years, I have been accustomed to seeing far more bad news than good news on Page One of the Times. Gloom and doom are its specialties, to such a degree that these days it takes real courage on my part to pick it up & read it.
So, in line with bad news given preference, we get Trump doing the wrong thing about tax returns and getting oceans of coverage, while Hillary is doing the right thing and getting virtually ignored. Where is the justice in that?
Sunday, May 15 marked a grand climax of some sort in the Times’s coverage of Trump. On Page One, in a four-column wide feature, the paper reported on “Crossing the Line: Trump’s Private Conduct with Women.”
Wowser! Here was a real circulation-builder, a story about a popular subject and his sexual relationships.
As a veteran of “Swinging London,” well I know that S-X interests readers more than any other subject except (perhaps) money.
So here we had a real blockbuster show.
True, the article – which had taken six weeks to prepare, included the fruits of more than 50 interviews, and occupied two full inside pages in addition to the huge box on Page One—wasn’t actually about Donald in bed.
And in addition to discussing women he had “dated” it also included women with whom he had merely worked…all very interesting to voyeurs, I suppose, but not really giving me much information about how he stood on the issues.
And -- silly me – that’s what I want to know. I mean, it is hardly news that presidential candidates – and sitting presidents as well --- have in the past not infrequently had tangled relationships with women. But -- really, folks -- that wasn’t what their administrations were all about.
Trump must have enjoyed every word of the story. Why shouldn’t he? However biting some of the women critics quoted in the piece, on the whole all this attention still made him look like a big masculine stud, so powerful and important that even the august New York Times will devote yards of space to the many provocations that he has lanced at the opposite sex,
Sure, it sells papers and is good for lots of hits on the Times website ---nor should we underestimate the very real need the Times has for such a response.
If it looks more like a tabloid these days than it ever used to, with only a few huge stories on Page One, that is because it really needs every copy sold and every hit on its site.
I am happy to report that by the following Tuesday – the day that this posting goes online – the Times seems to be compensating for its overwhelming coverage of Trump with a handful of stories about Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and the problems of the Democrats – these problems actually appearing in the right-hand column of Page One..
I would certainly rather that the Democrats were presenting a happily united front, but at least publicizing their problems will furnish an incentive for them to solve them.
How long this degree of balance will last I don’t know –and can’t even begin to guess. And I am still disturbed by the degree of celebrity attained by Trump, whose latest pronouncement (on TV) is a vindictive response to criticisms made by Britain’s prime minister and the newly-elected mayor of London of his proposal to discriminate against Muslims who wish to enter the U.S. upon the basis of their religion.
Trump ominously threatened to remember these criticisms, presumably to revenge himself on Britain when –or if—he ever came to office. Apparently he is the only one allowed to issue provocative and inflammatory statements. But do we really need un agent provocateur in the White House?
HOW DO SUCH MEDIA ATTITUDES FACTOR INTO THE COVERAGE OF ART?
Marcel Duchamp well understood the advantages of being un agent provocateur, and much of contemporary art plays on this understanding. But that’s not the only reason that this sorry story about the Met landed on Page One of the Times.
The title of this story was “2 Art Worlds: Flush MoMA. Struggling Met.” Its essence was really less about art and more about money—how MoMA is raking in the shekels while the Met is going broke trying to keep up with MoMA in its presentation of contemporary art.
Central to understanding the placement of this story on Page One is that it is not “art criticism” but “art news.”
The Times has art critics, who mostly evaluate shows and whose writing almost invariably appears in Section C of the paper’s print edition, the cultural section.
Only rarely does the art criticism that they practice appear on the home page of the Times website (though if you are determined enough, and know exactly what to look for, you can access such stories though the section headings and search box at the top of the page).
The Times also has reporters who handle “art news.” Their stories usually appear in the first two sections of the paper, A (which is otherwise mostly national and international political, social and military news) and B (mostly business news).
They are more likely to appear on the home page of the website.
The “art news” stories have little to do with esthetics. Mostly they concern the monetary value of art in one way or another--fakes, frauds, thefts, sales, insider battles & financial difficulties of persons and institutions in the arts, auctions and so on.
This is a level on which the average reader can relate to art as it is covered in a daily paper.
The relatively few exceptions to monetary stories concern art & artists – in and out of museums – that confront the public in an outstandingly exhibitionistic manner: artists performing nude in Wall Street or at MoMA, pieces of fabric hung all over Central Park, political statements (like the Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei announcing in an interview that he wasn’t going to attend the Beijing Olympics in protest against the Chinese regime).
Still, it is rare for any of these “art news” stories to make Page One of the Times’s print edition, and practically never do any of the art critics see their bylines there.
The reason is simple, though sometimes hard for artists, dealers, customers, gallery-goers and critics in other media to accept.
We members of the art world tend to assume that everybody is interested in what we are doing.
The truth – as I learned all those years ago on the weekly newsmagazine, and as I am even today constantly reminded – is that the visual arts themselves – and especially in their more traditional forms – are of very little interest to the overwhelming majority even of newspaper readers, let alone the general public.
Average citizens just want a pretty picture or poster to hang over the dining table, bed, desk or sofa.
Beyond that, they could care less—though when they’re on vacation, they may drop in on a museum because it helps to fill the day before they can head off to enjoy some livelier night life in the evenings.
The result is that there is little interest among newspaper editors in giving art stories Page One exposure.
And there is cut-throat competition between the “art news” reporters and the equally hungry general-interest reporters with whom they mix to get space for their stories in the paper.
It’s even tough to get art news published on the inside pages of the paper, and as for Page One?
How is a precious little art story going to compete against more generally disturbing disaster areas like substandard nursing homes, new cures for diseases, deceitful automotive exhaust measurements, sports world scandals, President Obama’s doings, and actual shooting wars in the Middle East—to say nothing of the performance art of the Donald?
Under the circumstances, I can’t help feeling that Robin Pogrebin, the art news reporter responsible for “2 Art Worlds,” may have been exaggerating the crisis at the Met a little.
After all, the sadder the story she has to tell, the better her chances of telling it on Page One.
Her underlying theme is that all the action in the art markets these days is in contemporary art, which MoMA is well stocked with and which the Met is only belatedly getting into.
She details efforts that the Met is making to “catch up” with MoMA and other modern-art museums and describes how much this is costing the Met –her conclusion being a suggestion that this “swing” to the contemporary is bankrupting the Met.
To the extent that this is true, I blame Marcel Duchamp more than any other one individual. He hated traditional art – putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa as a young man, and confessing to Pierre Cabanne, shortly before his death in 1968, that he hadn’t been to the Louvre in twenty years (though spending half of every year in Paris).
His taste – and the work he created – is an attack on traditional values, from its ugly or banal colors to its mechanical or misshapen forms.
It is art in this anti-artistic tradition which dominates the contemporary art scene today, and its creators and adherents are mostly only interested in the art of the past to the extent that it mirrors their present.
The notion that a museum is only a mausoleum for dead art & artists seems to have originated with him, and is strongly suggested in his 60s conversations with Cabanne.
It was common coin among many of the latter-day dadaists of the 1960s—but that was before the museums had taken up dada-descended art on such a mammoth scale.
You no longer hear much about museums being mausoleums today – unless they have the guts to stay with traditional Western art.
However, this is not the whole art scene today. And Pogrebin’s story doesn’t say anything about the historical art with which the Met is so well provided.
It draws millions of visitors to the museum every year, and generates a lot of cash, to the extent that the Met can persuade people to part with their bucks.
I happen to think that the real reason the Met is having financial trouble is only at most only partly because it isn’t “contemporary” enough.
I think another and perhaps even more important source of grief is that it can only list “suggested admission” fees to visitors.
If they want to pay only a nickel or even a penny to get in, they can do.so, whereas if they go MoMA or the Whitney or Guggenheim, they have to ante up $15 to $25 a head.
Yet the Met is stuck with this, due (so I understand) to the terms of its original lease with the city, back in the 19th century.
Even so, the Met still has a lot going for it. Many – maybe even most-- ordinary people– would still rather look at traditional art than at the latest pomonian wonders. Those areas showing traditional art attract many, many visitors at the Met.
MoMA knows this, too—they are packing in the crowds with their Degas exhibit.
Tourists and foreign visitors really like the Met. And what they mostly like is the permanent collections of art from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia on through the Renaissance, baroque and impressionist art.
Still, there is this dichotomy between what ordinary people really like and what is stylish among the tastemakers – not least, the art critics on the NY Times and elsewhere.
THE LURE OF THE NEW
I mean, I can understand the lure of the new for art critics—and I suppose this same lure is felt by many gallery-goers & buyers of art. I too started out feeling that way, a long time ago.
At Time, we did stories on exhibitions of historical art and stories on contemporary artists. The latter were customarily “pegged” on an exhibition of their work, but also included an interview with the artist, with quotations from him or her, or at any rate some biographical background.
I tried to imagine what people would think of my writing, years in the future. I reasoned that they wouldn’t be very interested in how an impressionist or a baroque show looked to a viewer in the 1960s – but that they would be interested in contemporary reportage on the artists of the 1960s, especially those who had become famous since.
I still have that feeling, and enjoy writing about contemporary art that I admire and can offer some insights about that I like to think are unique.
But at the same time, I’ve come to have a far better appreciation of all the great art of the past that I can see in museums like the Met – and the Frick Collection and the Morgan Library, too. (Maybe that’s what graduate work in art history can do for one.)
For me, there is a continuity between the old and the best of the new—not the rupture that Duchamp did his utmost to incite. The contemporary artists whom I admire mostly tend to feel the same way.
If they can find the time, they go to museums showing art from the past, as well as galleries showing the art of the present.
For myself – especially in the old days, but even to a degree at present – there is still the ever-present search for the New.
How much more must this be true for all those critics who – following the lead of Duchamp -- just aren’t interested in any art created before 1960!
As Max Frankel said, the news is not about reality, it’s about novelty and that’s just as true of art critics as it is of political reporters.
Always, always they must be in search of the “new” or the “novel”– even (or especially because) what’s billed as “new” these days in the art world is more and more a re-run of yesterday’s novelties.
Ever more, there comes the pressure on institutions like the Met to satisfy journalism’s insatiable search for the “new.”
And those institutions which don’t oblige come in for condemnation, attacks -- or the kind of crocodile tears that permeates Pogrebin’ s article in the Times, which --, among other things – puts yet more pressure on the Met to “modernize, modernize.”
THE CHARM OF THE OLD
In March, The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its newest satellite location. The literature surrounding it and the expectations of the Met’s many critics combined to create the impression that in this new location the Met would go hog-wild for the contemporary and make giant strides into the ocean of The New.
This satellite is the landmark building on Madison Avenue at 75th Street designed by the Hungarian-born, Bauhaus teacher and architect, Marcel Breuer, and opened in 1966 as the home of The Whitney Museum of American Art.
The Whitney vacated it in the fall of 2014 so that it could move to its new location downtown, and the site was leased to the Met for a period of eight years. After that, who knows???
The Met has given its new facility, which it calls Met Breuer, something of a facelift, though it could have so a little more thoroughly: for example, the hook on the back of the door in at least one stall in the ladies’ room is still missing.
Still, this is a minor problem – and is more than adequately compensated for by the biggest of the three exhibitions with which Met Breuer was inaugurated.
This exhibition is “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible” (through September 4).
It is a very largely (though not entirely) magnificent survey of more than 190 paintings, sculpture and various postmodernist things.
Everything dates from the Renaissance to the present and is considered “unfinished” by the show’s organizers (though not necessarily by me).
“Unfinished” was organized by a team of curators – Andrea Bayer, Kelly Baum & Nicholas Cullinan -- working under the direction of Sheena Wagstaff.
All are on the staff of the Met except for Cullinan, who was at the Met but is now director of the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Nearly 40 percent of the works on view come from the Met (mostly from its capacious storage areas, I would imagine). But the remainder come from public and private collections all over the U.S. and Europe.
Truly, this is a major loan show.
Before I discuss it in more detail, however, I shall locate it in the context of the museum and at least mention the other work that was on view when I attended the media preview on March 1.
On the ground floor, in the little gallery to the left of the elevators, we had Artist in Residence Vijay Iyer (closed March 31).
According to the Met Breuer press releases, he is a “performance artist.”
According to Wikipedia, he was born in 1971 and is “an American jazz pianist, composer, bandleader, producer, electronic musician, and writer.”
As I’m an art critic and not a music critic, I don’t consider myself competent to evaluate such work, and accordingly passed it by.
Even Roberta Smith & Holland Cotter, both of whom reviewed the rest of Met Breuer for the New York Times, seem to have realized their limitations, for Iyer’s performance (s) were reviewed (rapturously) for the Times by Nate Chinen, who has reviewed many other jazz musicians for the Times.
On the second floor of the new Met Breuer, we had a full-dress retrospective, with 130 paintings, drawings and photographs by Nasreen Mohamedi (through June 5).
This artist was born in 1937 in Karachi, in what is now Pakistan, but her parents moved in 1944 to what is now Mumbai, so although she comes from a Muslim family and part of the subcontinent, she is considered an Indian artist.
She suffered from Huntingdon’s Disease, an inherited disorder that causes a breakdown of the cells in the brain, and eventually kills the sufferer. She died of it in 1990, at the age of 53.
Thus we have 1) a woman artist 2)from a non-Western culture and 3) with a physical disability. Here are three good reasons for praising her work – if you happen to be one of those critics who are more interested in the artist than in the art.
Silly me! I continue to think that in viewing an exhibition, the art is more important than the artist – and I must confess that the art in this show did little or nothing for me.
To begin with, although Mohamedi is billed by the Met as a modernist, she was really a contemporary artist, which I define as one whose work is in the tradition of dada and came along in the wake of abstract expressionism (contemporary art starts with the neo-dada artists of the 50s, Rauschenberg & Johns, and expands so as to nearly occupy the entire landscape in the 1960s, 70s and 80s).
Mohamedi’s specific form of contemporaneity was minimalism--nor is this surprising, since most of the work in this show dates from the 1960s and later.
True, her work is abstract and not representational, but all her more or less geometric images are simple to the point of inanity; color is heavy on sepia and black and not much else. Maybe delicate and sensitive would be the kindest adjectives to use.
She is known to some as “the Indian Agnes Martin,“ nor is this surprising, either, since she studied at St. Martin’s in London in the 1950s and has had copious contacts with other Western art over the years since.
If you like Martin’s work, you might go for Mohamedi’s, too. Alas, Martin’s work has never done anything for me, either.
The show was organized by the Met’s Navina Haidar & Marika Sardar, of the San Diego Museum of Art.
ROBERTA’S BIG TOE
The third and fourth floors of Met Breuer are occupied by “Unfinished,” with the third floor devoted to art from the Renaissance to the middle of the 19th century, and the fourth floor to art from Cézanne on up to – I guess -- the present.
To be honest, I kind of lost interest after “Number 28, 1950,” which to me is one of the most nearly perfect and completely finished poured paintings that Jackson Pollock ever made.
It seems to be included here because Allan Kaprow,the performance artist, couldn’t quite grasp the concept of completion in relation to such a painterly abstraction, and is quoted in the accompanying label saying that “the drip paintings exceed their own boundaries, ‘going in all directions…,beyond the literal dimensions’ of the canvas.”
All told then, approximately one-third or maybe a quarter of the fourth floor is devoted to art created prior to 1960, and maybe two-thirds of it to art created before the millennium.
The third floor is all earlier art, and Ms. Mohamedi, having died in 1990, also doesn’t qualify as what today’s pomonian art critics would consider truly new and daring.
The problem seems to be that the Met agrees with Sotheby’s and Christie’s in locating “contemporary” more or less in the same time frame that I have, meaning art created since 1960 or 1970.
This location would mean that Vijay Iyer, Nasreen Mohamedi and at least two-thirds of the fourth floor of “Unfinished” would be considered “contemporary” and render the contents of Met Breuer on its opening day at least half contemporary.
But all the bright little boys and girls anxious to make their mark as shocking and avant-garde art critics—or for that matter, artists---define “contemporary” only as art created since yesterday – or, to be more generous, say in the 21st Century….
On this occasion, Smith & Cotter sided with them, sharing what appears to be a common reaction.
Although both critics reviewed both “Unfinished” and Mohamedi at length, and with reasonable enthusiasm, their reviews of these shows either began or ended with a putdown.
“‘Unfinished,’ “Cotter wrote in his conclusion, “for all its virtues, has a buttoned-up, business-as-usual feel; Ms. Mohamedi’s survey is pioneering without being radical.”
Smith, in her lede, wrote that “the two opening shows at the Met Breuer feel more like a toe in the water of contemporary art than the expected plunge.”
Smith’s quote was featured front and center in the extensive Page One layout on Met Breuer in the March 4 “Weekend Arts II” section where these reviews appeared, with only slightly less dismissive quotes from Cotter & Chinen to the right and left.
THE PREMISE OF “UNFINISHED”
I happened to like “Unfinished” very much, or at least the historical part of it. I wish all of these birdbrains who can’t see art created earlier than just yesterday would come to a show like this one, and at least try to appreciate what -- as matters stand-- appears to be beyond their powers of appreciation.
Unfortunately, the premise to this show points up its essential weakness, which is the relationship between “contemporary” as I define it and everything earlier.
Back in the 19th century, the concept of “unfinished” was briefly radical with Monet & Renoir, who created what they considered finished paintings sur le motif when academic strictures dictated & common practice was to make only studies outdoors and create the truly finished painting in the studio.
But during these eras, there are also many works of art – especially though not exclusively paintings -- which survived even though their creators never finished
them, for one reason or another.
A third category that one finds many examples of in this show are “painterly” pictures that to me look thoroughly finished, but that weren’t considered so by the curators.
Possibly this is because they think all loose brushwork looks “unfinished,” and the only “finished” paintings must have tight, detailed brushwork – even what used to be known as a “licked” academic surface.
By the early 20th century, modernism no longer found this notion of “unfinished” relevant, but Duchamp – who was a genius at appropriating modernist ideas -- appropriated this one with his postmodernist notion that the act of making an artwork was more important than the resulting artwork itself.
Ergo, the act of making was a temporal one, and with its fourth dimension, could go on indefinitely.
However, this notion didn’t become widespread until the 1950s, when Harold
Rosenberg appropriated it in turn to argue that an abstract expressionist painting was only the record of an existential “act” or “gesture.”
Rosenberg really wanted to use this argument to further the career of Willem de Kooning, but Pollock’s more radical painting technique seemed to many people more appropriate to the theory.
This was particularly the case with Kaprow, who extended Rosenberg’s theory to suggest that Pollock’s performance while painting was more important than the result – and, not so incidentally, to justify his own performances, and postmodernism’s celebration of the act over the result in general.
(How clever to take a soup can out of the kitchen & show it in a museum! How clever to take comic strips out of the daily papers and use them for museum art!)
More recent art that is deliberately unfinished includes the piles of candy that gallery-goers are supposed to help themselves to, art made of soap that one is supposed to wash oneself with, etc.
I think the idea behind the premise of this show was to combine accidentally unfinished work from previous eras with the deliberately unfinished contemporary work of the past forty or fifty years and thereby to suggest art is all one coherent logical progression.
Holland Cotter indicated that he was aware of this, in his review of “Unfinished” with a reference to the 20th century as “a process over product age.”
But the whole 20th century was not like this—the attitude really didn’t begin to rule the roost until postmodernism took over the scene in the 60s.
And what Cotter doesn’t really appreciate – any more than the curators of this appear to – is the fact that dada doesn’t represent a continuation of a proud tradition, but rather reaction against it.
As I said a while ago, Duchamp hated museums and historical art.
He would only have taken pleasure in this show to the extent that so many of the paintings in it look chopped up or fragmentary – the sort of works that normally abide only in museum basements..
For me, the real joys of this show are mostly on the third floor, though the fourth floor has a few exquisite Cézannes, and a marvelous early cubist Picasso.
Don’t expect to find many – or indeed, any --- works of art by lesser painters that make you want to revise your opinions of them upward. But the works by the greats here will continue to make you think of them as greats.
There are wonderful paintings by whole shoals of masters on the third floor, from Joshua Reynolds to Jan Van Eyck to Peter Paul Rubens.
And the paintings that really grabbed me were those “painterly” pictures, where all that soft, loose brushwork seduced the curators of this show into including them, even though as far as I’m concerned, these paintings are completely finished.
This is true whether we’re talking 19th century Romantics like J. M. W. Turner, baroque masters like Rembrandt, or even a neo-classicist like Jacques-Louis David.
But the uncrowned king of the show is -- not surprisingly, for my readers -- Titian.
At the very entrance of the third floor of “Unfinished” is a knockout layout of paintings by three Venetian masters. The centerpiece of the three is the altogether superb Titian entitled “The Flaying of Marsyas.”
The artist signed it, which to me indicates that he considered it finished, and I find it compellingly so. With its restless, vivid brushstrokes and subtle grey and golden tonalities, it’s almost worth the price of admission alone.