As I write, this country has been undergoing a major ordeal on two fronts. Not only have we had four months of a pandemic making more than two million people sick, and claiming more than 200,000 lives.
On top of that, we have since had four weeks of massive protests against police brutality and in favor of better treatment for African Americans- all around the country -- initially sparked by the murder of an African American man by a white police officer in Minneapolis, a supposedly liberal community.
Tying the two together is the fact that Americans of color have been falling ill & dying of Covid-19 at a far higher rate than Caucasians.
On the one hand, this is the sad legacy of substandard living conditions in communities where too many people are inadequately educated about diet and/or can't afford proper food and medical care -- hence a superfluity of underlying health issues (diabetes, obesity & hypertension especially) that make people especially vulnerable to the virus.
And, on the other hand is the equally sad fact that African Americans are far more likely than are Caucasians to be employed at jobs that they cannot afford to relinquish, but that expose them to the virus at a far higher rate than is suffered by Caucasians….
Under these conditions, it may seem frivolous to write about the visual arts, unless we want to write about political art – and praise it for its passionate commitment to the issues.
But merely because art is political doesn't to me anyway necessarily make it good as art, let alone succeed in what it sets out to do.
And although I am afraid it may make me desperately unpopular, I feel obliged to point out that the biggest single commission of this past art season, sponsored by the city's most venerated museum, and celebrated by the journal of record, may have been intended to be highly noble & political but winds up a bit silly instead.
THE COMMISSION: KENT MONKMAN
The commission in question is two huge (11' x 22') paintings entitled collectively entitled mistikôslwak, a Native American word meaning "Wooden Boat People," and referring to the Caucasians who originally came to America.in the 17th century.
The two paintings between them have dozens of human figures. I found both of them kind of hard to read, but as nearly as I could make out , one painting, entitled "Welcoming the Newcomers," shows semi-nude Caucasians being washed ashore onto a rocky promontory and helped out of the water by semi-nude Native Americans.
The other, entitled "Resurgence of the People," shows a group of demurely-clad Native Americans (including women with babies) in a rowboat, with yet more dead or dying Caucasians in the water and clinging to the boat's sides.
Dominating both canvases is a tall Native American person of indeterminate sex who is clad only in a few wisps of floating red fabric plus very high-heeled shoes.
According to the voluminous literature surrounding this project – not only the press release that accompanied it for journalists at the December 19 media preview but also the plaques installed next to the paintings for the benefit of the general public – this figure in the stiletto heels is Miss Chief Eagle Tesstickle.
She is meant to function as an alter ego and avatar for the artist, a 55-year-old Canadian named Kent Monkman who is of mixed Cree and Irish heritage.
According to the press release, these paintings are part of a series commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, under the guidance of its relatively new director, Max Hollein.
In 2018, shortly after Hollein was named to the job, the New York Times did a big article on him by Robin Pogrebin, one of its art news reporters, and Jason Farago, one of its younger and newsier critics.
They reported that Hollein was the son of a postmodernist Viennese architect and a fashion designer who was raised in a home frequented by the likes of Joseph Beuys, Germany's premier latter-day dada, and Claes Oldenburg, who functioned in much the same comedic role in New York in the 1960s.
Pogrebin & Farago also reported that in previous positions with other museums, Hollein had sponsored shows of work by Jeff Koons and Julian Schnabel. Both in this article and in others, the Times has been looking eagerly forward to more shows of this same postmodernist stripe at the Met.
Who needs earlier art, after all? As far as Marcel Duchamp was concerned, all museums were "mausoleums" anyway. And so it would appear that Mr. Hollein is anxious to avoid that label for the Met by plunging as heavily as possible into contemporary art – a move that the critics on the Times all favor.
Never mind that practically every other museum in town (with the possible exception of the Frick) is more than ever dedicated to the contemporary as well, and that the millions of visitors who come to New York every year still make the Met their No. 1 art museum destination -- evidently because what they really want to see is Old Masters..
MONKMAN'S RECEPTION BY THE TIMES
Carrying on with its campaign to boost contemporary art at any and all museums, the
Times greeted Monkman's two panoplies with a huge article on Friday, December 20, occupying 1¾ of its big broadsheet pages.
True, its author, Holland Cotter was somewhat sparing in outright praise, limiting himself to "monumental" and "stupendous,"' adjectives which can as easily be read as applying to the pictures' size as to their quality.
But he went on at some length about the seriousness of what I might call the artist's message, which as nearly as I can tell is both to condemn the destruction of Native American peoples and their culture by the invading Caucasians, while at the same satirizing this development by upending it, and pretending that just the reverse is what actually happened.
Cotter managed to pick up on the artist's "compound of anger and absurdity, social realism and serious camp," though in the end the critic concluded with politics that were even more topical than the anti-racism promised by the choice of a Native American artist, and the anti-sexism further guaranteed by a multi-sexual avatar.
Underlining the fact that these paintings were in fact commissioned by the Met, Cotter argued that the museum "seems to be taking some steps toward a kind of in-the-present political engagement that it has rarely made in the past, and that, realistically, cannot be ducked in the pro-nationalist, anti-Other neo-1950s cultural moment we are in." Take that, Donald Trump!
THE ARTIST'S SOURCES
The plaques accompanying Monkman's paintings told us all about how the artist had cleverly inserted references to other art in the Met's collection, specifically a very nice Delacroix painting of "Les Natchez," done between 1823 and 1835 and showing a Native American family (mommy, daddy & baby); also Titian's "Venus and Adonis" from the1550s.
The press release also cited borrowings from Rubens, Emanuel Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware," Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Thomas Crawford. Except for the Leutze (upon whose Washington figure the pose of Miss Tesstickle in the rowboat painting is clearly based), I couldn't spot the borrowings from these artists, but for me they were only the beginning of what Monkman has taken from earlier art..
Both of his canvases are also heavily indebted to "The Raft of the Medusa," a panorama of shipwreck victims done by Géricault in 1818-19 and one of the Louvre's proudest possessions, with an admixture of a somewhat similar but much smaller, less prepossessing & somewhat earlier sea scene by John Singleton Copley.
Entitled "Watson and the Shark," the Copley depicts a boy being rescued by a lifeboat from a shark attack in Havana's harbor. It exists in three versions done between 1772 and 1778. One is in Boston, one in Detroit, and the third in Washington but none of them, so far as I know, is in the Met.
A third boat painting which seems to have contributed to Monkman's compositions is "The Barque of Dante" (1822), also by Delacroix but in the Louvre. The people hanging off the sides of the boat in one of Monkman's two paintings, and off the sides of the rocky coast in the other, are particularly reminiscent of the people hanging off of the sides of the boat in "The Barque of Dante."
MY OWN ANALYSIS
While pondering further possible analogies, I thought at first of the frescoes in Orvieto of the writhing nude bodies of the damned in hell created by Luca Signorelli in the early 16th century, or the similarly writhing bodies of risen souls in the "Last Judgment" of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel.
However, upon further meditation, I concluded that to find such memorable sources was really giving Monkman more credit than he was due. After all, here was a guy who – according to the literature-- was primarily trying to imitate 18th and 19th century painters, but really he wasn't even as good at their kind of art as they had been – let alone, up to the standards set by Renaissance masters..
The trouble is that although he seems to have looked at all or most of the pictures mentioned in his literature– and at the other art I mentioned, in reproduction anyway – he only looked at their subject matter, and ignored their style.
He seems to have been blind to the soft, loose brushwork and gently rounded forms that give the Titian and the Delacroix in particular their luster. Monkman's brushwork is heavy and flat, looking both dry and oily – while his body types are just as likely to be somehow more comedic than dramatic.
Moreover, to the extent that his forms are recognizable quotations from other artists, this is not anything that I would consider something to be proud of. The technique is known -- or at least, used to be known – as "pastiche." And, in the old days, pastiche was not considered a desirable quality – suggesting a lack of imagination, and an inability to be original. However, in postmodernism, originality is the sin – and one that very few recent artists are guilty of.
Additionally, when somebody in the present tries to imitate art of the past, the result looks more like the present than the past. Forgeries, I have been told, may come to light decades after they were painted for this very reason.
Back in the 1920 and 1930s, fake Vermeers by Hans Van Meegeren fooled everybody into thinking they were genuine, but if you look at their reproductions on the web today, they look very strange -- slicker and with slenderer faces and body types than a true Vermeer -- more like the Art Deco of the period when Van Meegeren made them.
Similarly, Monkman's ambitious attempt to create a grand panorama of writhing 17th or 18th century semi-nudes winds up looking more like 20th or 21st century movies or magazine illustration than it does about the period it is supposed to evoke.
I'm not too familiar with any 21st century sources that might seem appropriate, but from a purely stylistic point of view I was very much reminded of the ads and short story illustrations to be found in the 1950s or 1960s in now forgotten magazines like Collier's or the Saturday Evening Post.
Another possible source that I am even more reminded of – at any rate, by "Welcoming the Newcomers" -- is the sun-tanned bikini-clad teenagers cavorting on Hollywood's coastal sound sets in movies from the '60s like "Beach Blanket Bingo" or "Gidget Goes Hawaiian." Everybody looks so young and healthy in this painting by Monkman that only the Beautiful People of Cinema-land could hope to qualify as their models.
I looked for something kinder to say about Monkman's paintings at the Met, but over and over again, the only words that rose to my mind were, "indescribably awful." Still, I couldn't bring myself to review them in such language, and leave it at that.
As a rule, I avoid negative reviews, except for artists who are a) so successful that nothing I can say will possibly harm their sales or opportunities, and b) thereby setting precedents for misguided younger artists dazzled by all the publicity these "big names" are getting. But Monkman's name was entirely new to me, before I started hearing about him from the Met. So despite his glorification by the Met, he is not yet a titan.
Besides, who am I? Merely a straight Caucasian – and therefore sure to be targeted as hopelessly old-fashioned, out of it, or -- worst of all – racist and homophobic if I presumed to attack a painting done in honor of not one but two underprivileged minorities.
True, the Times had given these two paintings a huge amount of space – but it was only one article.
TO MY RESCUE
Fortunately, the Times came to my rescue. On Friday, May 29, it ran another big article on Monkman (more than ¾ of one of their broadsheet pages). This article was by Catherine Porter and its headline was, "A Cree Artist's Latest Offends the People He Aims to Represent."
Turns out that his newest work, titled "Hanky Panky," shows Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau, on his hands and knees with his pants down as a crowd of indigenous women looks on, laughing. Behind him is the artist's alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Tesstickle, wearing knee-high stiletto boots and a long feather headdress.
"The image suggests themes of sexual violence and humiliation," says Porter, in the Times. "And instead of cheers, the painting, released on social media this month, has inspired anger among many indigenous people who say Mr. Monkman has gone too far."
She quoted two such critiques, one from Patty Krawer, identified as an Ojibwe-Ukrainian podcaster in Niagara Falls who worked in a sexual assault center for years. "That's what Monkman does: He takes an image and flings it in your face," she said. "But in this one, he's made us complicit in this violence. If this is retribution, how dare you make me complicit in that?
The other critique cited came from jaye simpson, an Indigenous trans-woman and writer from Vancouver (who spells her name all in lower-case letters). "I don't like the colonial government and I don't like things Justin Trudeau has said and done," she said, "But I would never wish sexual violence on anyone."
How refreshing! And it's okay for the artist's fellow Indigenous people to say so, especially if they have a nontraditional gender identity. It's not as though they were looking at it from a straight Caucasian person's perspective…..
Moreover, shock and outrage were exactly what the artist was looking for – the classic posture of artists descended from Duchamp. For them, the capacity of a work of art to shock is its guarantee of goodness -- flattering proof that it is truly avant-garde.
The admiring response of Holland Cotter must, by the same token, have been a sad disappointment to Monkman. I'm not sure he would have liked my critique any better, but the outrage of his fellow Indigenous people must have warmed his heart.