Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 14, No. 2, 2015
  Current Issue  
  Back Issues  
Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
  Contributing Editors
David Solway
Nancy Snipper
Louis René Beres
Lynda Renée
Nick Catalano
Andrew Hlavacek
Daniel Charchuk
Farzana Hassan
Betsy L. Chunko
Samuel Burd
Andrée Lafontaine
  Music Editors
Nancy Snipper
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Chantal Levesque Denis Beaumont
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
  Noam Chomsky
Mark Kingwell
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somerville
Mona Eltahawy
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Navi Pillay
Ernesto Zedillo
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

michelle marder kamhi's

reviewed by


A while 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.

The 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 invention. The 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.

According 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.

Ms.Kamhi 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 meaning. I 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.

Non 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.

Twentieth 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 art.

I do 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.

If 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.

For 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.



Email (optional)
Author or Title


Author Michelle Kamhi responds:

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 happy.

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,” and “fauvism.”

As I further maintained:

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.







































































































Arts & Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the Library and Archives Canada.
ISSN 1718-2034


Help Haiti = shared webhosting, dedicated servers, development/consulting, no down time/top security, exceptional prices = shared webhosting, dedicated servers, development/consulting, no down time/top security, exceptional prices
Film Ratings at Arts & Opinion - Montreal
2015 Montreal Percussion Festival July 3-12
2012 Festival Montreal en Lumiere
2014 Festival Nouveau Cinema de Montreal, Oct. 08-19st, (514) 844-2172
CINEMANIA (Montreal) - festival de films francophone 6-16th novembre, Cinema Imperial info@514-878-0082
Nuit d'Afrique: July 8th - July 20st
Arion Baroque Orchestra Montreal
Andrew Hlavacek - Arts & Culture Blog (Montreal)
Lynda Renée: Chroniques Québécois - Blog
David Solway's Blood Guitar CD
2014 FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL (Montreal) North America's Premier Genre Festival July 17-Aug. 5th
Montreal World Film Festival
2014 Space for Life Concerts @Montreal Botanical Gardens
Listing + Ratings of films from festivals, art houses, indie
2012 Montreal International Documentary Festival Nov. 7th - 18th
Montreal Jazz Festival
Montreal Guitar Show July 2-4th (Sylvain Luc etc.). border=
2013 Montreal Chamber Music Festival
April 25th to May 4th: Montreal
Bougie Hall Orchestera Montreal
2008 Jazz en Rafale Festival (Montreal) - Mar. 27th - April 5th -- Tél. 514-490-9613 ext-101
CD Dignity by John Lavery available by e-mail: - 10$ + 3$ shipping.
© Roberto Romei Rotondo
Festivalissimo Film Festival - Montreal: May 18th - June 5th (514 737-3033
Photo by David Lieber:
Armand Vaillancourt: sculptor
Canadian Tire Repair Scam [2211 boul Roland-Therrien, Longueuil] = documents-proofs
Valid HTML 4.01!
Privacy Statement Contact Info
Copyright 2002 Robert J. Lewis