January 19, 2009


In Memoriam: Of Time and Andrew Wyeth (Christopher Orlet, 1.19.09, American Spectator)

IF WYETH WERE AN anti-modernist it was only because he placed the work first and foremost, keeping his ego squarely in the background. Compare and contrast today's art darling Jeff Koons' giant balloon animals, recently exhibited at, of all places, Versailles, with a Wyeth "Distant Thunder," in which the artist's wife Betsy naps on a hillside after a morning of blueberry picking, while the family dog listens nervously to the ominous sounds of an approaching storm. The Koons piece quite consciously has no artistic merit. His toy balloons blown up 100 times their normal size are not even anti-art. They are kitsch, pure and simple, a stunt not unlike his sham short-lived marriage to Italian porn star-turned-lawmaker "La Cicciolina." This is the modern artist's way of saying, "Look at me, clever boy, don't look at the art." The curious thing is anti-art is still believed to have something new to say, even though it has been round at least a century, and even though its purpose is not to say anything, but to massage the artist's giant ego.

One understands an artist's need to gratify his overwhelming ego, but why did so many ostensibly intelligent critics, museum directors and aficionados fall for the idea that anti-art was preferable or superior to traditional art? Quite simply they feared being labeled "conservative" during a time of rapid, chaotic and unprecedented change. It was the artist's (and by extension, the critic's) mission, they reasoned, to be in the avant-garde, not pulling up the rear. And that avant-garde was made of shock troops, terrorizing the masses with outrageous, incomprehensible, or pornographic works. It was all great fun.

Wyeth had no interest in shocking anyone. He was a great admirer of Edward Hopper, who thrived in the early 20th century, when social realism was the accepted art form, and when the term "people's painter," was a badge of honor, an expression of solidarity with the workingman, and not the derogatory label it would become when applied to Wyeth a generation later.

There are those who say Wyeth came along a generation too late. Others, noting his critics are now mostly dead and forgotten, conclude he was before his time, now that we have finally outgrown the childish rebelliousness of anti-art.

Recall the story of Stravinsky writing a piece to express his appreciation to America:
A case in point is Walsh’s discussion of the Symphony in C (1938-40), the masterpiece of the later phase of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period, premiered by the Chicago Symphony after he pulled up stakes for the second time in his life and emigrated from France to the U.S.:

Conducting symphony concerts all over provincial America, Stravinsky had become conscious of the intensely conservative world he was invading, and what an incongruous figure he cut in it. . . . What sort of work might he himself contribute to such a culture? The obvious answer was a symphony: a symphony in C, of course—like Beethoven’s first and Mozart’s last, the purest, most archetypical, most classical, above all least frightening kind of orchestral concert work.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at January 19, 2009 8:25 AM
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