Warhol’s Respectability

Nicholas Penny

  • The Revenge of the Philistines by Hilton Kramer
    Secker, 445 pp, £12.50, July 1986, ISBN 0 436 23687 7
  • Gilbert and George by Carter Ratcliff
    Thames and Hudson, 271 pp, £14.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 500 27443 6
  • British Art in the 20th Century edited by Susan Compton
    Prestel-Verlag (Munich), 460 pp, £16.90, January 1987, ISBN 3 7913 0798 3

In February 1976 Hilton Kramer gave his approval to Philip Pearlstein’s ‘remorseless articulation of the authentic’. In November of the following year he alerted his readers to the absence, in the art of David Hockney, of ‘the spiritual quest at the heart of modernism’. Several years later, in June 1981, he gave warning that the stained canvases of Morris Louis, the leading member of the ‘Washington Colour School’, did not represent the breakthrough that other critics had announced. In May 1983 he declared that Fairfield Porter ‘is going to have to be recognised as one of the classics of our art’. As for ‘neo-expressionism’ and ‘maximalism’, the latest, or almost the latest, thing, he notes that, unlike Pop Art, which made an equivalent noise in the world, it ‘looked to be in dead earnest’. And Kramer seems to believe that Julian Schnabel, the leading exponent of this sort of painting, is also going to have to be recognised as one of the classics of our art. In a piece first published in the third volume of Art of Our Time (as the catalogue of the Doris and Charles Saatchi collection is so portentously entitled) he welcomes the way that, with Schnabel, painting has become ‘grave, mysterious and messy again’.

As former critic of the New York Times, now editor of the New Criterion, Kramer is a powerful figure in the American art world, and his verdicts on the various star artists considered in the reviews which he has chosen to republish in this anthology are of undoubted interest to the historian of fashion. But what makes the book worth examining at some length here is the attention devoted throughout to ‘modernism’, its origins, its prospects, and the institutions and ideas which make it possible. Taken separately, Kramer’s articles often seem, and sometimes are, cogent and outspoken. When we have read the whole book, however, we can see that his position is muddled, and far less courageous than he would like us to think.

Two characteristics of the art of the Sixties and early Seventies agitate Kramer as they must any serious commentator on modern art. One is the earnest social aspirations and concern for the environment which lay behind such developments as Land art, Performance art, Living sculpture, Body art and Community art. Kramer is unimpressed by Robert Smithson’s ‘ambition ... to break with the conventions of studio production and museum exhibitions in order to create an art that would stand in a more intimate and vital relationship to the world of nature and to the man-made social environment’. (Smithson made arrangements of different-sized bins filled with varieties of stones or sand.) Nor does he like the work of Charles Simonds, who had films made of himself naked, lying, or writhing about, in clay – a ‘telltale sign,’ observes Kramer, ‘of an immaculate, urban middle-class upbringing’. Simonds moved on to making models of primitive landscapes filled with the ‘habitations of an imaginary race of migratory little people’ which have proved popular both with museums and with private collectors.

I haven’t seen the films of Simonds in the mud, nor have I looked with much care into Smithson’s bins, but the style with which Kramer describes the achievements and questions the merits of these artists is sober: he is ‘understanding’ in his headmasterly disapproval. The joke about the middle-class upbringing (no less fair, incidentally, as a comment on mountain poetry, or indeed mountaineering) is uncharacteristic. One suspects, however, that Kramer can’t stand artists like this because they have rejected, or at least expressed distaste for, the grotesque American art world. Simonds is rebuked for inflicting on us his ‘self-invented and self-aggrandising ordeals’ in the slime, but elsewhere Schnabel is commended for his ‘display of energy and ambition’, his ‘lack of inhibition and decorum’, his ‘boisterous’ swagger. There are no jokes about the broken crockery which Schnabel sticks into his pictures as indicating an orderly bourgeois background. Indeed Schnabel is patted on the back for being ‘messy’.

Kramer reports on Simonds’s preparedness to sell his ‘habitations’ – which smack of anti-capitalist thinking – to capitalist collectors or institutions. We are reminded of the scorn which socialist politicians in this country receive from the right-wing press when they are found to be sending their children to private schools. But why isn’t Kramer more indignant with the museums or plutocrats for buying these things? He has some sage reservations concerning the priorities of modern museums, but he is passionately committed to the essentially American idea of the Museum of Modern Art as the place where ‘modernism’ belongs, the stage where it should be produced, and he is not disposed to be critical of big collectors who have their own private museums and play such a crucial role in supporting the public ones.

Artists who dislike this are almost as bad as those who want art to ‘promote awareness’ of such issues as ‘nuclear war, unemployment, toxic waste, feminism’. It is, Kramer observes, ‘theoretically conceivable, perhaps, that there might exist an artist capable of making a significant work of art out of such materials, but I frankly doubt it’ – and yet he considers such artists as Goya, David, Géricault, Daumier and Courbet as the ancestors of modern art and they were all, at least occasionally, inspired by topical political issues.

The other characteristic of the art of the Sixties and early Seventies which agitates Kramer is Pop Art and the promotion of celebrities such as Andy Warhol in a camp atmosphere so different from the sacred awe with which the achievements of American Abstract Expressionists, Cubism or late Cézanne are discussed. To say that such figures as Andy Warhol ‘represent a decisive break with the tradition that comes out of Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, et al, is only to state the obvious’. Indeed it is obvious from Warhol’s own boring descriptions of himself. It must also be obvious that the collectors and curators and critics who were responsible for promoting the reputation of Warhol, and who still sustain it, have betrayed this ‘tradition’. Who were they? Who are they? Kramer is not afraid to name the recipients of grants ‘for the practice of art criticism’, dispensed, one is amused to discover, even under Reagan’s Administration, by the National Endowment for the Arts, many of whom write for journals concerned with ‘nuclear war, unemployment, toxic waste, feminism’. Why not name the rich and influential people who have enshrined Warhol in the Museums of Modern Art? Could it be that, unlike the left-wing journalists, they are friends of Kramer?

The principal reason is, I suspect, a more honourable one: Kramer is desperately eager to believe that modernism ‘survives as a vital tradition’, and that Schnabel, for example, is carrying on in the ‘tradition’ of Pollock, Miro, Matisse, Picasso, and, yes, Cézanne and Courbet and Delacroix and David. He cannot, therefore, afford to look too closely at how the institutions which alone can guarantee the ‘survival’ of this ‘tradition’ were recently responsible for betraying it.

It should also be pointed out that this ‘tradition’ is, in any case, a spurious construction, justifiable only in that it provided artists with moral support and even a sense of mission. There is little excuse today for a historian writing, as Kramer does, about the ‘tradition that comes out of Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, et al’. Certainly there is no excuse for claiming that a ‘line’ – a line presumably of noble inheritance – can be traced ‘from Goya and David and Ingres to Delacroix and Courbet and Manet and the Impressionists, and thence to Cézanne and Seurat and their fellow Post-Impressionists’. When pressed, people who believe in this ‘modern tradition’ will refer, as Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner do, in a discussion of the new Musée d’Orsay in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, to successive battles against ‘authority’, and will try to persuade us that Gericault (whose masterpiece was praised in the highest terms and then purchased by the state) and Delacroix (whose great murals were commissioned for churches and government buildings) should be considered as similar to Cézanne and Van Gogh. In any case, one wonders against what orthodoxy it is that Julian Schnabel is battling. According to Kramer, it is a modernist orthodoxy – doctrinaire minimalism. Schnabel ‘violates’, apparently, ‘the integrity of the surface’. This seems to have got him into very little trouble.

Kramer admits that ‘the myth of avant-garde intransigence and revolt that gave to all of modernist culture its aura of moral combat’ has collapsed. We no longer expect the most recent representatives of the ‘modern tradition’ to ‘alienate the public and offend respectable taste’. He doesn’t explain what is left. And he doesn’t dwell on the implications of Schnabel’s respectability – to say nothing of Warhol’s. As to the larger public, it is very hard to assess their attitude. The Museums of Modern Art, the places where taste becomes respectable, have a large and respectful public, but it represents a smaller percentage of the total art-loving public than was the case with the keen lovers of the contemporary art of former periods.

In North America, over the last quarter of a century at least, ‘modernism’ has almost always meant large works designed for the Museums of Modern Art. The first artists to produce works for such a destination were the supposed founders of the Modern tradition, such as Gericault and Delacroix. The reputation of Delacroix was established by critics, dealers, private collectors, and officials of the state, operating independently, if also sometimes in alliance, and always with much debate and dissent at all levels. It was endorsed by popular approval. The same applies to the Pompiers of the mid-century. The reputations of the star artists today have been made by a small band of collectors, critics, dealers and curators acting in concert. The entry of such artists into the museums may be compared with the way a modern writer is put onto a nationwide school syllabus. And yet how much more widespread is the critical assent required before this latter step is taken, and how much more extensive is the critical debate it is likely to entail.

It may be objected that the critics can still destroy reputations. Kramer may at least have delayed the canonisation of Morris Louis; it is much to his credit that he has tried to stop the uncritical reception of David Hockney, which has done such damage to Hockney’s art, but he has not succeeded. His concern about Andy Warhol simply is not strongly enough expressed, and besides it is not in the interest of Kramer to question the mechanisms of promotion too closely. We must place our hope in the improbability of Museums of Modern Art expanding fast enough to avoid acute storage problems. Just as it was when hospitals in this country became overcrowded that doctors ‘coincidentally’ discovered that it was good for their patients to go home quickly after operations, so curators may soon be tempted to start questioning and then ‘de-accessioning’ what their recent predecessors have, often at huge expense, acquired. The stimulus to public scepticism and critical controversy would be salutary. In the meantime the historian of art has an obligation to explode the myth of a ‘modern tradition’.

Kramer is alert to much that has been distorting in the way that the history of modern art has been written. He observes how the champions of the New York School of Abstraction, notably Harold Rosenberg, completely disregarded the poetic imagery in Archille Gorky’s painting; and he writes of the way American art historians have come to view the ‘School of Paris’ that it ‘looks more and more like a species of intellectual fiction designed to guarantee a dénouement that is at once foregone and unexamined’. And yet he is blindly attached to the larger fiction of this ‘tradition’.

Nothing is more ridiculous in this book than the passages in which Kramer worries about ‘the beginning of a resurgent campaign to discredit the mainstream of the modernist achievement’ and rails against ‘the epidemic desire to restore to the highest respectability some of the very worst examples of the kind of art that the modern movement seemed, only a few years ago, to have permanently retired from serious consideration’. Kramer is not alone in this attitude. It is shared, for example, by Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner. Anyone reading their recent article on the Musée d’Orsay must have wondered why two such sophisticated writers should be so determined to perpetuate naive myths by describing the ‘enemies’ of ‘modernism’, and historians who are merely sceptical of received ideas about 19th-century art, as ‘neoconservatives’. The explanation must be that Rosen and Zerner know that their position, because it is associated with Hilton Kramer, is now liable to be described as ‘neoconservative’ – they know, too, that, in the simplest sense of defending what are now ancient orthodoxies, they are conservatives. But these political metaphors are of little help to the historian as distinct from the polemicist.

Some years before Rosen and Zerner told us of their distress that the Pompiers were displayed under the same roof as Courbet and the Impressionists, Kramer was expressing his dismay at the inclusion in the André Meyer Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, of a few examples of the work of ‘Meissonier, Regnault, Bouguereau, Gérôme, Bonnat, Cabanel, Winterhalter, and other votaries of academic taste’. (Presumably Kramer meant ‘popular taste’ – for in as much as it is meaningful to talk of Academic taste it can only refer to educational precepts which most of these artists abandoned.) There is, it is true, a lack of discrimination in the revival of interest in such painters as Bouguereau, but it is easier to excuse than the way that the entire output of such very uneven artists as Courbet, Renoir or Van Gogh is venerated. It is clear that there are works of outstanding beauty especially amongst Bouguereau’s early paintings, but it is hard to estimate his achievement as a whole, largely because aversion to the frequently ingratiating sentiment qualifies our admiration for his sublime lucidity of design. Such a hesitation to make very large claims for him, or for other artists like him, is derided by Rosen and Zerner as ‘pussyfooting’ and proves, they think, that the whole reappraisal is not serious. They would do well to recall the diffidence with which Walter Pater, initiating one of the most dramatic reappraisals in the history of taste, invited us to share his fascination with a neglected minor artist called Botticelli. In desperation, Rosen and Zerner point out that the recent exhibitions devoted to Bouguereau and to Flandrin have not been massive popular successes like the Manet and Renoir exhibitions. How odd that it should be held against Bouguereau that he enjoyed this sort of popular success a century ago, and that it is held to be a point in Manet’s favour that he enjoys it today.

Anxious for an explanation for the interest in such artists as Bouguereau, Kramer tries to associate it with the camp attitudes which also made possible the success of Andy Warhol. No doubt some people did admire what Kramer at one point calls ‘the productions of bourgeois art’ for ‘their amplitude and flamboyance, for their easy access to grand gestures and a showy sociability, even for their mediocrity and frivolity’. But the adequacy of this account can be measured by considering the case of Hippolyte Flandrin, one of the least flamboyant or showy or frivolous painters ever. In his case, incidentally, hesitation is inappropriate. His achievement is as remarkable as that of any of the Impressionists, and were his murals in the Parisian churches of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and Saint-Vincent-de-Paul to be cleaned, they would be acclaimed as among the most solemn and powerful works of religious art created in recent centuries.

These issues preoccupy British critics and historians rather less than American or French ones, partly because, with few exceptions, the serious scholarly study of French salon paintings and the French academy has not been undertaken in this country. It is also the case that the assessment of 19th-century British art is almost entirely free from nonsense about the ‘modernist mainstream’. And even within this century the idea of modernism in painting has never enjoyed the prestige it has had in Paris and New York.

The exhibition at the Royal Academy, British Art in the 20th Century, has as its subtitle ‘The Modern Movement’. In the words of the gallery guide, ‘it is not concerned with “modernist art” in the narrow sense of believing that there is a single thread of development from Cubism to Abstraction. Rather it perceives “modern” as a persistent will to innovate.’ That does not get us very far. Mercifully the exhibition, although it includes artists who were convinced that they belonged to a band of heroes conducting desperate experiments in opposition to official orthodoxy or bourgeois taste, does not exclude those who had more modest or moderate aspirations or, at least, a less melodramatic understanding of their historical role.

References to continuity reveal themselves, after the more obvious emphasis on change, when the exhibition is revisited – its careful planning is something which most critics appear to have missed. But one gigantic change which the exhibition does not, and perhaps could not, emphasise lies in the way in which contemporary and recent modern art has been presented to the British public. During the Twenties and early Thirties the place where one could see exhibitions of the work of Cézanne, Gauguin, Picasso or Matisse and the work of their young British followers was not the Tate Gallery, which was hostile to Post-Impressionist work, certainly not the Royal Academy, and not the Hayward Gallery, which did not exist: it was the three small rooms of the Leicester Galleries which are described by Kenneth Clark in his autobiography as ‘more like a shop than a gallery’. It is an interesting exercise to imagine the recent art on display at the Royal Academy in such a small and unpretentious environment.

The exhibition concludes with a mural consisting of large circular patterns which Richard Long has painted with his own fingers out of mud from the River Avon. Long belongs to the movement of the Sixties away from museums and galleries, and much of his work – footsteps and arrangements of stones or driftwood in various remote locations – has to be seen in the artist’s own photographs. Opposite the mud circles are some large pictures made by Gilbert and George. They also first attracted attention in the Sixties with a new conception of art, but of a different sort. Gilbert and George (we are not told their full names) went in for camp self-advertisement in the manner of Andy Warhol. They coated their hands and faces with metal paint and called themselves living sculptures. They also made a video of themselves getting drunk.

In the exhibition we see large pictures composed out of photographs of three or four subjects: coarse graffiti, banal or squalid urban sights, more glamorous militaristic ones, and the artists themselves. More recently, they have declared – whether with irony or solemnity seems uncertain – that their ‘subject and inspiration’ is the ‘content of mankind’, and that they are striving to ‘speak across the barriers of knowledge directly to people about their life’. These and similar pronouncements are recorded in the lavish new book devoted to their art. Here we can also admire the series Modern Faith of 1982. A typical picture consists of four diagrammatic lumps of excrement combining to form a cross. In Life Without End of the same year Gilbert and George kneel in prayer before a line-up of ‘youths’ (young male members of the urban proletariat). There are buds and flowers and phantasmagoric heads as well. The stark boldness of their imagery expresses no vehement or direct feelings: it conceals a nudging complicity with others ‘in the know’. The formula is much favoured by advertising – in, for example, the Underground, and that is where Gilbert and George belong. But the Arts Council, the Tate Gallery and now the Royal Academy have all agreed to promote them. They have been exhibited round the world to great acclaim. They have recently been awarded the Turner Prize. They will also no doubt be included in the Saatchi collection.

It cannot be said that there is much public controversy about them. Things were different a decade ago, as recalled in an introductory essay to the Royal Academy catalogue by Caroline Tisdall. She quotes from a letter written to the Times by the Conservative MP Nicholas Fairbairn about some erotic performance art at the ICA: ‘Like all modern exhibitions it was an excuse for exhibitionism by every crank, queer, squint and ass in the business.’ For Tisdall, this expresses the ‘quite frightening loathing that the avant-garde can arouse in this country’. Mr Fairbairn’s views on the Saatchi collection would be interesting. And one feels that he is part of the public which Gilbert and George hope to reach.

Tisdall also recalls the fuss in October 1971 when Newton Harrison proposed to electrocute a couple of hundred catfish at an Arts Council exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. She refers to the ‘curiously woolly quality of such controversies’, but she says nothing in defence of this episode herself, which is hardly going to help sharpen the debate. She seems to assume that we will all piously approve of performance art provided some worthy ‘protest’ is intended.

Kramer’s anthology expresses, as I have mentioned, considerable anxiety about the developments of the Sixties and early Seventies, but the selection of art for the Academy’s exhibition, while it obviously reflects priorities, and entails some exclusions which have inevitably caused distress, suggests no reservations concerning any major reputation established over the last twenty years. Nor, more remarkably, does the catalogue. But the design of the last rooms in the exhibition certainly provokes an unintended scepticism, for, in the midst of the movements which have in rapid succession flamboyantly repudiated the traditional methods, subjects and purposes of European painting, is displayed the work produced by Francis Bacon and by Lucian Freud during the same decades – interiors, still-lives, nudes, portraits, in oil paint on canvas.

Bacon’s paint, smeared and spattered on a routine flat preparation, suggests the calculated accident – not only chance effects with paint but terrible occurrences to people. It is the unnerving combination of precision planning and violent assault in his handling, and the way that this is inseparable from his subject matter – so that one sometimes fancies that the people represented are being destroyed by the act of being painted and know it – which gives his work its odd power, even over those of us who are repelled by the atrocities, the butchered meat, caged animals and screaming mutants, and by the distortions – the bodies apparently dropped from great heights, the faces apparently squeezed against glass – which so often confront us.

To recall the memorable passages in Lucian Freud’s more recent paintings in the exhibition – the highlights on a forehead, the veins in a wrist, the grain of a wooden floor, the edges of a palm, the stains in a plaster wall – is also to recall the subject matter and management of oil paint simultaneously. The decisiveness of his every brush-stroke and the calculations which precede them are as engrossing as anything else in the exhibition. There is often something exhausting and uncomfortable about the experience of looking at his work. But this also seems a measure of his seriousness. The catalogue is remarkable for the quality of its colour plates, among which, however, I regret that Freud’s A Writer of 1955 is not included: it is one of half a dozen paintings in the exhibition which strike you immediately as masterpieces. His development as a painter since then is as impressive as that of any other British artist here. There are many respects in which his art is typical of this century and fits into this exhibition. We might also, and appropriately, compare one or another aspect of his work with something by Courbet or Ingres. One of his titles invites us to think of Watteau. But who, looking at his paintings, needs to invoke the idea of a ‘modern movement’ or ‘tradition’, to say nothing of the tiresome, modish term ‘Post-Modernism’?