michelle marder kamhi's
WHO SAYS THAT'S ART?
ago I received a book that made me, by stages, angry, contrary,
furious, dismissive but, most importantly, thoughtful. The book,
by Michelle Marder Kamhi, is entitled Who Says That's Art?
A Commonsense View of the Visual Arts. The cover features
a detail of a Jackson Pollack painting, Marcel Duchamp's urinal
and Andy Warhol Campbell's soup can as examples of non art and
the premise of the book that we, the viewers of art, have been
duped into thinking that contemporary art is fine art.
book is well written, scrupulously researched and attempts to
convince the reader that most contemporary art is, in fact,
pseudo art. It is, according to Ms. Kamhi, an avant garde spurious
introduction states, " If art can be anything, then it
is nothing" and opens the discussion with Ellsworth Kelly
as an example of pseudo art. It is, in my opinion, an unfortunate
choice since Kelly is an icon of contemporary art; the beauty
and precision of his work is beautifully sublime. Ellsworth
Kelly' work is all about simplicity and under statement. Ms.
Kamhi insists that the viewer can't really be moved by non representational
art but I vehemently disagree: Just because a painting doesn't
have an object doesn't mean that it has no subject.
to Ms Kamhi we've all been duped by art critics and the whole
art machine into accepting that most art being produced today
is a “. . . sick joke or momentary aberration” which
seems to suggest that contemporary non representational artists
are spending months and years making art with the sole purpose
of making money and pulling the wool over our eyes. Although
I do agree that some artists are making art that is difficult
and even, in many cases, off-putting I do not agree in the conspiracy
theory. Most artists are passionate and engaged in their work.
Much contemporary art is about visual metaphor, challenging
perception, exploring shape, colour and space. It is not about
creating the illusion of a three dimensional world. Serious
artists push the boundaries and therefore, often, incite derision
and discussion. Artists react to their environment and their
times. Good art cannot be a constant reiteration of what has
already been said. We appreciate the work of the old masters
but their weltanschauung (world view) is no longer indicative
of our reality. A changing world is not conducive to the pastoral
masterpieces of the past because relevant art reacts and engages
and makes us think about the here and now.
posits that non representational art cannot inspire emotional
reaction; again, I disagree. When I am in front of, for example,
a work by Rothko I'm enveloped in an environment of vibrating
colour. The work is not telling a story or representing allegory
so therefore, according to Ms. Kamhi, contemporary non representational
art can only function as decoration and not as a vehicle of
would invite the viewer into an installation by Anselm Kiefer
and remain unmoved by the spiritual content of his textures
and scale of the work.
representational art is not a new concept. Artists have been
exploring different methods since humans scratched their first
images onto cave walls. Every artistic endeavour that challenged
the status quo has been denigrated as an aberration when it
first appeared. Much of the art that we now revere was initially
laughed at and considered a fleeting trend. The fact is that
art is always filtered through the time in which it is created.
Artists react to changing times. A world experiencing war and
destruction is not going to produce biblical, Renaissance allegory
because it isn't relevant to the times.
century art requires a different language and means of representation
than nineteenth century art in order to accurately, convincingly
reflect the zeitgeist. Art after 1945 would not cohere with
a bucolic landscape painting because it would strike the eye
as false. An angry expressionistic portrait by Willem DeKooning
is not, perhaps, as easy to look at as a neo classical portrait
by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres but it is no less relevant;
in fact, I would say the neoclassical portrait is considerably
more 'decorative' and less emotional. Experimentation is and
always has been of paramount importance to living, evolving
agree with Ms. Kamhi that many gifted representational artists
are being ignored by the art establishment but that doesn't
mean that the great majority of cutting edge artists are any
less valuable. Ms. Kamhi includes Matisse, Duchamp, Picasso
et al in her list of 'pseudo' artists. She dismisses all isms
since neoclassism. “The Armory Show of 1913 was a travesty
that sounded the death knell for traditional art." Ms.
Kamhi also decries public funding for non traditional art which
suggests that according to her only 'traditional' and safe non
confrontational should be encouraged. Ms. Kamhi states, "My
primary aim in this book has been to discredit the pseudo art
that now dominates the international artworld." The most
recent artist that Ms. Kamhi allows into the pantheon of real
artists is Paul Gaugin, who's work she loves, even though he
was considered a fauve (wild beast) during his lifetime.
one agrees with the premises of this book one must assume that
all the major and minor art collectors and donors and art endowments,
Guggenheim, Rockefeller etc. have been swindled into believing
and endorsing abstract art and should instead
be concentrating their efforts on pretty representational paintings
and sculptures. One may not care for Damian Hurst's pickled
shark or Tracy Emin's installations but experimentation is an
integral part of art evolution and certainly encourages dialogue
and discussion as does this book.
a quick introduction to understanding and appreciating abstract
art go to YouTube and find “The Rules of Abstraction”
narrated by Mathew Collings; a 6-part overview. That and the
endless links thereafter are a great beginning to educating
ourselves about contemporary art and why it developed.
Author Michelle Kamhi
I appreciate Ms. Schrufer’s observation that my “well
written” and “scrupulously researched” book
made her not merely “angry . . . [and] dismissive but,
most importantly, thoughtful.” Since Who Says That’s
Art? challenges the fundamental assumptions of today’s
artworld, I expected it to anger a good many readers who share
those assumptions. If it makes at least a few of them, like
Ms. Schrufer, more “thoughtful,” I will be quite
To correct the record, however, I must note some egregious
errors in the review—errors that might make my contrarian
position seem beyond the pale even to readers who would otherwise
sympathize with it. First, Matisse and Picasso were not included
in my “list of ‘pseudo’ artists.”
My critical comments on them applied to certain works, not
to their entire output. Moreover, I applied the phrase “sick
joke or momentary aberration” only to Damien Hirst’s
shark in a tank, not to all “contemporary art.”
Even more troubling is Ms. Schrufer’s apparent implication
that I stated: “The Armory Show of 1913 was a travesty
that sounded the death knell for traditional art.” Those
are her words, not mine. What I did argue, in part, was that
the proper lessons of 1913 are not those found
in standard art histories, which tend to regard it as a watershed
moment for avant-garde work. . . . [T]he so-called philistines
who rejected the most “progressive” innovations
in the Armory Show were less benighted than standard accounts
have tended to claim.
The responses of prominent conservative critics, for example,
were often thoughtful, nuanced, and remarkably prescient.
Like the public, those critics aimed their strongest objections
not at Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin (artists who
have since gained favor with a fairly wide public) but at
the more extreme inventions of “cubism,” “futurism,”
The Armory Show’s most universally reviled
works were Matisse’s fauvist Blue Nude . .
. and Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.
. . . Yet even today’s admirers of Matisse’s Blue
Nude characterize it as “grotesque” (why
should such a quality be admirable?).
. . . Moreover, cubism proved to be a dead end even for some
of its most prominent defenders and practitioners. . . . And
pieces such as Picasso’s cubist sculpture Head of
a Woman and his painting Woman with Mustard Pot
. . . are still troubling. . . . Why? Because cubism’s
stylistic tricks arbitrarily fragment perception. They thus
obscure rather than illuminate the subject, thereby working
against an essential purpose of figurative art.
. . . [W]hile art historians and other artworld “cognoscenti”
view Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase
as a work of seminal importance, how many ordinary art lovers
share that view? Duchamp himself quickly abandoned that painting’s
cubist-futurist style, turning instead to his nihilist anti-art
gestures in the form of “readymades.” The historic
import[ance] of his Nude stems not from any inherent
worth as art (it has none) but from the license it—along
with other radical works in the Armory Show—gave to
the notion that anything goes in the world of art.
Nor did I argue that “non-representational art cannot
inspire emotional reaction.” What I argued is that the
particular emotions inspired are often sharply at odds with
the artist’s intentions. Ms. Schrufer’s response
to Ellsworth Kelly’s work is a case in point. She sees
“the beauty and precision of his work [as] beautifully
sublime.” However, sublimity generally refers
to things of high spiritual, moral, or intellectual value
and thus implies the mind’s deep engagement. In sharp
contrast, Kelly stated that he wanted his viewers to “turn
off the mind” and “look only with the eyes.”
Such an aim, I should note, reveals a fundamental understanding
of human perception. Visual experience inextricably involves
the mind. We are not built to “look only with the eyes.”
As I documented in the book, other basic misunderstandings
regarding perception, cognition, and emotion were involved
in the very invention of “abstract art” in the
early twentieth century. The failure of such work to convey
the artists’ intentions is, I argued, ultimately due
to those misconceptions.
Last but far from least, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) is not
“the most recent artist” in my pantheon. Among
later artists cited favorably by me are painters Andrew Wyeth
(1917-2009) and Stephen Gjertson (b. 1949), as well as sculptors
Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973),
Harriet Whitney Frishmuth (1880-1980), Peter Cozzolino (b.
1934), and Meredith Bergmann (b. 1955). While their work tends
to be in a classically realist style, it is by no means merely
“pretty.” Like all art worthy of the name, it
embodies significant human values. As I argued:
Mimetic representation is not in itself the
goal of art. It is the indispensable means by which art performs
its psychological function.
The idea that art must be “confrontational,”
engage in “experimentation,” or “push the
boundaries” to merit our attention is a peculiarly postmodernist
notion—one of highly dubious validity in my view. I
also question the suggestion that there is a unitary zeitgeist
that all artists are bound to reflect.
In sum, contrary to Ms. Schrufer’s implication, I don’t
reject all “contemporary art.” What I do instead
is question the artworld’s prevailing view of what sort
of work that term properly encompasses.
After reading the comments by Ms Kamhi, I agree with her.
Artists who smudge colours in the name of art are going to
be angry with this well written to the point book. Public
will love this book.
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