Many art dealers and some curators find any number of artworks randomly passing under their noses in endless variety on an almost daily basis. One can go from a putative Michelangelo to a catalogue of the work of some obscure short-lived Soviet abstractionist to, for example, a certain Ohio artist, who dresses like Abraham Lincoln and produces landscapes with magic markers in fast food restaurants, to a collection of Elvis music box liquor decanters without a pause to catch one’s breath. Such experience should, one would think, give one an infinite curiosity about human image-making, and a burning desire to uncover the secrets of any artifact that might come one’s way. Such is not the case, however. Even the most receptive among us are apt to let something go by, perhaps that modern Piranesi impression one has inherited or an attractive, but decidedly minor oil of boats in Provincetown harbor one has bought for a song in a flea market. These can liven up any back corridor or populate the attic unexamined. Then, there is Ebay…
The more conscientious among us may feel a twinge of guilt every now and then, but there is always something more pressing: the solid little mannerist thing that can turn a profit or make a reputation, or the good, but faded Matisse a collector is yearning to donate or sell. The review of the Café des Artistes taught me a good deal about Howard Chandler Christy, the author of the delightful murals which decorate the restaurant, but not enough, at least at first. I’ve seen them and enjoyed them periodically over the years without feeling the urge to know more about Christy. In the review, I confess, I wrote about them unthinkingly from the point of view of a grad student in the days when connoisseurship was still a major part of the curriculum, and Jakob Rosenberg’s ghost still held his nose high, even if Bernard Berenson had grown a trifle seedy. Not all of our faculties evolve apace. While Ian Woodner’s coterie might avidly pick over Watteau attributions or the Dürer-Hofmann controversy, there are collectors, dealers, and a few scholars who take American illustrators with the utmost seriousness. While Christy’s taste may seem questionable to a specialist on Perino del Vaga, it is taken for granted in Christy’s own specialized field, where his better work fetches serious prices. Today, only Norman Rockwell has emerged from that specialized corner of appreciation. Gibson, Leyendecker, and Christy have yet to be recognized as “serious” artists. (Does Rockwell owe his new respectability to gender studies or to pop culture, or to something else all together?) We are now invited to view his homely everyday scenes, like the famous barbershop or “Freedom from Want” (Thanksgiving) dinner in the same light as the Sistine Chapel or The Execution of Maximlian, while Christy’s palette still inspires a wry smile and his joyful gospel of the feminine may even be considered offensive in certain quarters. (It is interesting to compare our contemporary pruderies with those of 1935, when Christy’s nudes in the Café would have been unprintable in a mainstream magazine.)
I read more about Christy and pondered. I made revisions to my review, all with a mind to better fairness towards this once-famous illustrator, portraitist, and history-painter, who is, once one gets to know him, quite an appealing figure. I changed the phrase bad art to “bad art,” a more radical revisionist gesture than it might seem. Without the qualification of quotation marks the concept would seem to indicate a category of art which is intrinsically bad and therefore excluded from the confines of good art, which is intrinsically good. Over the past quarter-century, since the days when Ian Woodner summoned the art historians to his table at the Café des Artistes, the perimeter around “good art” has long lost its bastion-like solidity, and, growing increasingly porous, has virtually disappeared. In this way relativism approaches aesthetic agnosticism or even nihilism. One can cling to the old standards, of course, even crusade for them, like the worthies of The New Criterion and the New York Academy of Art; but at the very least, one comes away from such stuff with a hollow feeling, as if these champions of disegno have left a part of their job undone, and something important at that. Some twenty-five years ago there was a major Gustav Klimt exhibition in the Pinacoteca Capitolina in Rome. In it some mischievous curator (or subversive, if you have to be so pretentious) placed, facing Guido Reni’s Anima Beata, a ferocious self-portrait, in which he is engaged in anguished self-abuse. Both works have seen service as bad art (without quotation marks), the Klimt among National Socialists and the people Klimt intended to shock and the Guido among a more general demographic. At the time of the exhibition, as today, Klimt would attract more attention than Guido among any group except perhaps the most obsessive Bolognese specialists, and his work certainly fetches more on the market. Hence, as rewarding as the experience of a drawing by Pisanello, Pontormo, or Cézanne may be for me, I am prepared to admit that a construction of plastic toys like Maya, the masterpiece of Norman Rockwell’s son Jarvis (in which he subverted his father’s co-option of quality through painterly skill by assembling ready-made plastic toys), or a found photograph framed by a toilet seat may be more compelling than an unsuccessful and faded drawing by Claude Lorrain…but a Pontormo? Never!
Hence, certain aspects of Christy’s art seem outmoded today, or ridiculous, like his allegory of the Salvation Army, or disturbing or repulsive, like the World War I recruitment posters, although he brings a certain innocence and exuberance even to them. There could be nothing more bound to its time than the sensibility behind the “Christy Girls.” I have no doubt that many Christy collectors are fueled by nostalgia and that nostalgia is thoroughly suspect as an aesthetic principle. Still, Christy’s vitality is infectious and his naive glorification of pleasure is refreshing. Perhaps it should be a lesson to us all, especially in the Café des Artistes, where he not only left his most sincere and personal work, but shared his last meal with his beloved daughter.
Nothing could be a more poignant reminder to ask ourselves, when we contemplate a work of art, whether we really like it and why. Because for it to be good, somebody has to have liked it at some time or another.
Am I too cynical? On some days, perhaps. Any tendency in that direction vanished a few weeks ago, when I spent an afternoon in the Metropolitan Museum’s splendid exhibition, Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions. There, as I made my way through this rich survey of Poussin’s landscapes, I felt no inclination to bark or growl at our contemporary glut of miscellaneous imagery, as I immersed myself in Poussin’s grand harmonies of design and mythological allusion. There is such a maturity of understanding even in Poussin’s earliest works that almost anything else I’ve mentioned here seem like a case of arrested development. He was 31 or 32 when he painted this Landscape with a Nymph and Sleeping Satyr (Musée Fabre):
This is good art.
A full review of the Poussin exhibition will appear soon. Meanwhile I can alert you to the upcoming exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum, Over the Top: The Illustrated Posters of World War I, November 8, 2008 through January 25, 2009, featuring not only the work of Christy, but that of J.C. Leyendecker, James Montgomery Flagg, Jessie Willcox Smith, and Henry Raleigh.
And my apologies to The Museum of Bad Art. Their work is important and I value it, but that is yet another category of BAD ART!