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Throwback Thursday – KCAC Forum Magazine Spring 1993

KCAC Forum Magazine Spring 1993

PROPOSED SCULPTURES ARE A SAFE RISK
by Deanne Pearson

Much has been said lately about the proposed installation of a Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen collaboration project on the grounds of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The project involves installing four 18-foot badminton shuttlecocks in various positions along the north-south axis of the museum grounds, inferring that the museum building is something of a net in an imaginary badminton game. Not all that has been said has been positive.

All art has its detractors; it goes without saying that beauty, and often artistic merit, lies in the eye of the beholder. But to consider refusing an opportunity because the art is risky and doesn’t conform to the traditional, conservative idea of sculpture is to miss out on a wonderful opportunity to expand those ideas in a relatively safe and meaningful way.

Look at the proposal. It was initiated upon the invitation of an anonymous donor, who would presumably foot the bill for fabrication and installation of the sculptures. Hence it would expand local artistic offerings without the use of any public funding and without compromising other projects or straining any already tight budgets

It would fit in well with the Nelson-Atkins Museum’s modern sculpture initiative begun last year, which seeks to build a strong collection of 20th century sculpture. And because the pieces would be built for outdoor display, the collection would then include a monumental sculpture without sacrificing a monumental amount of limited gallery
space. Oldenburg is considered one of the best known artists of the Pop movement of the 1960s; two of his small scale soft sculptures are already part of the museum permanent collection. By adding a recent, monumental collaborative sculpture, the museum would round out their holdings by this artist, enabling them to show the depth of his work as well as its breadth. They would also join the ranks of such institutions as Yale University in New Haven, Conn., the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the Dallas Museum of Art, all of which display large-scale projects by Oldenburg and van Bruggen.

Taking on this project would have educational results as well. By accepting and displaying the sculpture proudly, the Nelson Atkins Museum would show that art doesn’t have to be all oil paints and still lifes; there is room within art for humor, whimsy and work that goes beyond the traditional boundaries that so often limit local tastes. And the sculptures do so in a relatively benign way. They avoid the entanglements of politics, religion, sex and morality that are so often tied to “controversial” modern art. If you want a safe risk, this is it.

And of course the sculptures would bring more attention to the already well-thought-of museum, and would attract new visitors to the area. Those of us who live in Kansas City and regularly partake of its culture are aware of its richness. But beyond about a 200-mile radius the city is often thought of as a backwards cow-town with little to offer anyone. This proposed addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum’s holding when joined with its already strong collection and the new Kemper Museum of Contemporary
Art and Design being built on the grounds of Kansas City Art Institute, will build on Kansas City’s reputation for fine arts. How can the city lose by continuing to expand its culture to include new attractions and thereby attract new visitors?

The old saying goes “Opportunity knocks but once.” When you consider the positives included in this particular artistic opportunity, it would be a crime for Kansas City to close its curtains and pretend that nobody is home, or worse yet, to slam the door shouting, “We don’t want any.” Instead it should answer the knock, welcome the opportunity, and use it as an impetus to educate and expand the tastesof the local public.

Throwback Thursday – KCAC Forum Magazine Winter 1993

KCAC Forum Magazine Winter 1993

ANOTHER VIEW: WOMEN ARTISTS
by Barbara Waterman-Peters

In the year of the woman and more than 20 years into the feminist movement, women are  still confronted with not being taken seriously as artists patronized for the content of their work, and lectured to as if they were perpetual students.

Why? What is it about women’s work, formally or contextually, that is deserving of being deemed trivial? In the course of many discussions with other women artists, I have felt the
yearnings for acceptance and almost hopeless resignation to never achieving it.

Some women have realized success in the “art world.” Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Cassatt, and Gwen John comes to mind along with more contemporary names. Marcia Tucker has said, “While more women are visible now…and while the rare woman artist may even be highly visible, practice and theory – in the arts as elsewhere – have yet to meet in our century to provide the equity that might lead to real social change.” In a number of these situations these women have been single-minded, arrogant, rude, and have joined the “boy’s club. “They rarely married or had children, devoting themselves completely to their work. Fine. These were their choices.

But what about those who do not put aside family or a full life? Are they automatically disqualified as serious artists? Art critics sometimes suggest that “housewives” could not possibly have any angst and therefore have nothing to say. These interesting views could be interpreted as a denial of women’s art almost across the board! Don’t women live in the same world as men? Don’t they have pains, fears responsibilities, stresses or tragedies? Isn’t that what angst is? Don’t they have access to the same education, communications media, and stimuli? Why are their efforts not considered as “serious” (read: intellectual, heavily laden with relevant dialogue, etc.) unless they change themselves into aggressive, self-centered harridans? Are caring, involved, intelligent women somehow not committed fully? One could posit that a receptive nature might open minds to more potential, not less. Both Paula Modersohn-Becker and Barbara Hepworth believed that marriage and children enhanced their work.

Recently a male artist was decidedly uncomfortable when Judy Chicago’s work The Dinner Party (1979) came up in conversation. He did not deny the aesthetics of the piece, but argued with the artist’s use of work as a venue for her feminist and political views. He agreed that art is inherently political; however, this case is apparently an exception.  Amazing isn’t it, that after all of this time the work can still elicit such a response and from a supposedly enlightened individual?

So women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t (silence implies light-weight work; protest implies aggression). These are isolated incidents, but nevertheless they are typical. One would have thought all of this was resolved, but such issues are alive and well in other areas of our society, so why not in the creative realm? It’s sad because artists are generally in the fore front of cultural change.

Even the recent Missouri Visual Artists’ Biennial provoked this statement from Sharon Brooks Katzman, “(a) strong show, yet with a lingering issue: is there not one, not one out-
standing visual artist’ in Missouri worthy of recognition and support who is
also a woman?”

Whom do we threaten? Rachel Rosenthal, a performance artist in Los Angeles, wrote an article in which she equates art and women. Fear of each is doubled with the artist woman.

According to Rosenthal the pagan (art) and the feminine are feared as uncontrolled forces. And a woman who has created life and art as well!?

Oh, dear…

This may sound like a plaintive whine, it is in fact a primal scream.

i Judith Stein, “Making Their Mark, “Making
Their Markt (New York: Abbeville Press,
1989, 122
Marcia Tucker, “Women Artists Today:
Revolution or Regression,” Making Their
Mark, 201.
Ibid, 198
Sharyn Brook Katzman, Missouri Visual
Artists Biennial 1991-1992,”Forum, Vol.
17.5, Fall 1992, 1
s Rachel Rosenthal,”Speakeasy,”New Art
Examiner, Dec. 1990, 15. a

Throwback Thursday – KCAC Forum Magazine Summer 1992

KCAC Forum Magazine Summer 1992

HOW ETHNIC IS ETHNIC
by Stephen K. Smith

In today’s America, with its new supposed multi-cultural orientation, the concept of an ethnic art has taken on a new importance. The origins and heritage of Americans outside of the dominant white European culture, and the subcultures in which these “other”
Americans have been nurtured have become themes in art which the market has slowly begun to appreciate. This has brought a change to the face of the success full artist who is no longer exclusively a white male, sleeves rolled up and sweat on his brow, working from deep within the tradition of Western European art history.

Today’s artists may be African-Americans expressing the alienation of an enslaved and oppressed minority or a celebration of their own heritage or Native Americans drawing on their own rich artistic tradition. They may be Americans of Asian origin, Hispanics, and are frequently (although not of a differing ethnic background, but with a claim to their own subculture) women, with statements of feminist outrage, or, perhaps, merely a differing point of view. But all of these artists share something in common besides their break with the outmoded concept of the typical American artist. They all share, to one extent or another, the same patronage, the same market which has existed basically unchanged despite these new artists, the same market which subtly shapes all art produced within the context of the overall dominant culture.

Original fine art as an individually owned item remains, primarily, a luxury commodity, usually limited to the upper middle class and upper class purchaser. Galleries with access to these customers develop a feel for the demands of this market, and will tend, as any business which hopes to survive must, to seek out the art and artists which meet these demands. Museums with the ability to purchase and promote art also remain, for the most part, under the direct or indirect control of wealthy donors and, to a certain degree, subject to their tastes and sensibilities. Artists who seek success as it is measured in our culture, by monetary gain, must always be aware, at some level of consciousness, of these  demands. The feedback of the market, the shaping of an artist’s direction through a simple inventory of what sells to pay the bills and what doesn’t, verifies this.

When white patrons and promoters become involved in the art education of these ethnic groups (as they did, for instance, in the early development of Native American art) this influence, this shaping of an ethnic artistic identity, becomes even more pervasive. Native American painting as it exists today is based on stylistic principles developed, not by Native American artists, but by well meaning but patronizing white sponsors like Edgar Hewett and Dorothy Dunn in New Mexico, and Susan Peters in Oklahoma. These white sponsors and educators (it was Dunn who founded the Studio at the Santa Fe Institute which determined the course of Indian art for decades) responded primarily to the influence of eastern collectors and anthropologists who defined the “authenticity” of Indian art. As long as the education of art professionals remains under the control of the dominant American culture, and as long as ethnic art continues to be produced primarily for a market outside the ethnic identity of the maker, it is inevitable that this art will reflect
as much, if not more, the ideas of this dominant culture as it does the origins of the artist.

Some artistic expression has, of course, broken with these influences. Specifically, the collective efforts of street trained artists in African-American and Hispanic ghettos in the production of monumental murals intended for the local residents, intended strictly as a communication between the ethnic artists and the people with whom they identify, are most probably the purest form of ethnic art being produced today. But, from this beginning, how and in what direction can this movement develop? Is there a way for this public to become a viable patron of these young artists, or will their efforts wither from lack of support? Only time can answer this question.

In the meantime, is it so inappropriate that there be a dual nature to the art produced by members of sub-cultures within the over-all dominant culture? The conflict between the need of professional artists to express a view of the world in which they exist and the also pressing need to succeed in their chosen profession by pleasing a market far different from, and in some cases diametrically opposed to, their own world view is representative of the conflict faced every day by all members of an oppressed nationality. We must always
remember when assessing the place of ethnic art in our culture that it is a product, not of a pure and isolated culture, but of a group of people in constant interaction and frequent conflict with a dominant and differing culture. It is entirely appropriate that this art should embody the contradictions which typify the contemporary American sensibility.

***

Native American at the Nelson
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art currently has a large group of Native American works of art on loan from Conception Abbey in northwest Missouri. Some of the more than 700 pieces from Indians of the northern plains are on display in the Native American gallery on the third floor, while others are exhibited from time to time along with other Native American collections.

 

Throwback Thursday – KCAC Forum

KCAC Forum Magazine June/July 1989

THE LOST LEADER: BENTON AS CRITICAL TOUCHSTONE
by Hilton Kramer

Often the status enjoyed by certain artists of the past, especially the recent past, is peculiarly dependent upon the changes that occur in the way the art is judged. Specifically, it is dependent on the relative roles played by cultural criteria, on the one hand, an aesthetic criteria, on the other, in determining an artist’s stature. Thomas Hard Benton is clearly – in my view, anyway – a case in point, for he has lately been the beneficiary, an especially notable beneficiary, of a momentous shift that has taken place in recent years, a shift from the aesthetic judgement of art to the cultural judgement of art.

It was no accident, as they say, that Benton’s reputation went into a severe eclipse during the heyday of the New York School. The aesthetic character of abstraction, among the many other things it can be said to do, compels us to come to terms with what is intrinsic and irreducible in art – its aesthetic substance.  Because abstraction refuses to ally itself with an immediately discernible subject matter, it compels us to give our total attention and our total response to the purely aesthetic element in art – to that which makes art what it is, art, and not something else.  In a climate that favored this aesthetic concentration on art. Benton could not survive as a figure of large accomplishment. For in Benton’s art, much (if not quite everything) is devoted to this “something else,” which I shall describe here as the cultural component  in art.

As many observers have noted, in recent years there has been a distinct turn in critical opinion away from the aesthetic view of art. In the ascendancy for some time now has been what I call the cultural view of art – which is to say, the tendency to judge art primarily by non-aesthetic or extra-aesthetic or even anti-aesthetic standards. Sometimes this tendency goes by the name of “postmodernism” – on the assumption, I suppose, that the aesthetic view of art is identical with the modernist outlook.  (This does not wholly account for the nature of modernism, but that is a subject for a different symposium – not one likely to elicit the support of the Missouri cultural establishment.) The characteristics of this cultural view of art are easily discerned, for they are all focused on “issues” and “ideas” – which is to say, on various kinds of social, sexual, political, psychological or other subject matter, or on notions (again, social sexual, political or psychological notions) having to do with the proper functions of art.

It required such a shift from an aesthetic to a cultural view of art – the shift, if you will from a modernist to the post modernist view of art – before a revival of Thomas Hart Benton’s reputation could occur. For, the kind of interest we take in Benton is almost wholly a non-aesthetic interest.  it may even be – it seems to be for most people – an anti-aesthetic interest.  In Benton’s own lifetime, and now again in the 1980’s – in what I sometimes think of as the second coming of Thomas hart Benton – he is admired not so much for what he created in his art as for the way he offered his admirers an exit from the problems of art, that he was, and is again, so much admired and even loved.  In the cultural history of Missouri, of course, Benton is a special kind of folk hero, and has probably never ceased to be that kind of hero.  But in the world beyond Missouri, he has lately regained a new status and celebrity.  We are, therefore, promoted to ask the question: What does this revival of Benton’s art mean? For it is not only the revival of an artist’s reputation but a revival of the myths upon which the reputation rests.


For an answer to this question, I think we need to turn to the materials – the cultural and critical materials – that played so great a role in establishing the Benton myth in the first place: the myth of Thomas hart Benton as not only a great American artist but as the painter who gave American life its quintessential expression in pictorial art.  What is being claimed for Benton and his art in the second coming bears, after all, a distinct resemblance to the claims that were made on his behalf at the time of his first coming.

The classic text in the first effort to confer the honors of a kind of sainthood on Benton is to be found in Thomas Craven’s book Modern Art: The Men, The Movements, The Meaning, published by Simon and Schuster in 1934, and something of a bestseller in its day.  The book itself an extremely interesting document in American cultural history – an attempt to serve the rising public interest in modern art (it was published just five years after the founding of the Museum of Modern Art in New York) while at the some time aiming to immaculate the public against the virus of modernism.  In Craven’s account, modern art, is seen as a dire threat to the moral and political health of the nation – a threat, perhaps, to the very foundations of civilization itself. what makes all this a matter of interest to us is that Thomas Hart Benton is the book’s American hero.

Something of the tone and moral atmosphere of the book can be gleaned from the first paragraph of its introduction:

During the last generation [bear in mind that Craven is writing in the early 1930s], the world has been profoundly disturbed by the precipitate course of art.  We have seen violence and rebellion, extraordinary personalities, appalling self-sacrifices for invisible ideals, brilliancy of all denominations.  We have seen a new art spread like a contagion, infecting young men and women everywhere with wild ambitions and the spirit of discovery.  Cults founded upon subtle technicalities have come and gone in swift succession.  These cults had their origins in France: they were Bohemian in conception and international in membership.,.. They were transported to America where, by artificial propagation, they flowered prematurely and passed away.  Today, the various sects and composing what is known as Modernism [Craven, be it noted, both capitalizes and italicizes the hated word] are officially entombed in the School of Paris, with Picasso as sexton.  In that school, one finds the shrouds of the ancient past, the splintered bones of Cubism, salesmanship and the tragedy of the devalued dollar.  The new movement is now a subject for the historian.

http://www.oilpaintingfrom.com/images/product/oil_horse_382.jpg

Thomas Hart Benton, “Cave Spring”

Clearly, Thomas Craven felt he had every reason to believe in 1934 he was seeing the end of modernist movement; and Thomas Hart Benton was one of the reasons why he believe that modernism had run its course.  Craven spoke of the modernist “cults,” as he called them, as being “Bohemian in conception” and international in membership,” and in his view anything associated with Bohemianism and internationalism was obviously the world of the devil.  Craven was a gifted writer, albeit in a somewhat melodramatic mode.  In writing his study of modern art, he adopted a dramaturgical outlook, casting Benton int he role of the sinner redeemed (a stock character, after all, in the old melodramas). Or better still, if I may shift the metaphor, he casts Benton in the role (so familiar to the audiences of the old Western movies) of the US Cavalry that turns up on the nick of time to save the good, honest-to-God American folks from being scalped by the Indians – the Indians, in this case, being the Bohemians and internationalists dispatched from Paris to “infect” young American men and women with “wild ambitions,” which is to say, the ambition to create something that could take its place among the masterworks of the modernist movement in art.

Do I exaggerate the melodramatic element in Craven’s account? Hardly. This is the opening paragraph of Craven’s chapter on Benton:

Some twenty years ago… I came to New York from the Southwest, ready to fight and die for the arts. In the Arcade at Lincoln Square, that nest of youthful genius and dying failure, I rain across Thomas H. Benton, fresh from Paris.  He was a sight, with his tight French clothes, his flat French hat, and his Balzac stick – the antithesis of everything American.  He talked of abstract beauty and the subtleties of Gallic philosophy; of Platonic visions of art, and French poetry, an interest which in the light of my own aspirations, was most impressive.  The nostalgia of Verlaine, the perverse sadness of Baudelaire, the attenuated dreams of the Symbolists – those neurasthenic imaginings of the French genius of the period which today no one would associate with Benton’s life and Thought, seemed to compose the fabric of his being.  he was only twenty-three, but he looked old and sad: his face was deeply lined and drawn, and i cannot remember that he ever laughed.  he was, I felt, the victim of some strange irregularity of development.

In his account of the life and work of Thomas Hart Benton, Craven offers us a morality tale of an American innocent, who in abandoning what he called “the environment of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer” for the attractions of modernism and the Latin Quarter, all but compromised his talent and lost his soul.  yet from the dreaded fall to French aesthetics, the sinner was saved, after all.  he escaped the temptations of the modernist devil and was triumphantly restored to his native roots – the source of all health and virtue.  Craven gives this whole scenario the quality of a Hollywood epic.

Having readjusted himself to the native background, and recovered his youthful ability to participate psychologically in the life of America with its emotional ties, prejudices and sentiments, he began, step by step and scene by scene, to build an art of and for the American people.  Year after year, he has traversed the country, a knapsack of drawing materials on his back. On food and on horseback, by motor, train and river boat, he has explored the United States from the great industrial centers to the furthermost corners of the backwoods. People of all kinds pose for him, put him up for the night, share drinks, stories, and gossip with him.  his pictures have grown out of a rich experience – they represent not hearsay, but life.  His expeditions are not those of a traveler or sightseer, the social reformer or the statistician; they are int he nature of the return of the native to the country of his youth.  He understand the rank and file, and more than any artist I know of, has the ability to fit automatically into the various patterns of American life.

There is a lot more of this kind of thing in Craven’s chapter on Benton, for Benton is cast as the savior of American art, and thus a genuine hero of American life.

Discerning foreign visitors [Craven writes] are startled by the power of his native style – for Benton is American. He has the rawhide individualism, the cynical laugh, the rough humor, the talent for buffoonery, and something of the typical Westerner’s sentimental slant on life.  And he has, to the full, the American’s distrust of ideas divorced from facts, a healthy realism which, whether our social soothsayers like it or not, may carry us safely into a better society.

For Craven, there can be no doubt about where the power of Benton’s art lies: “it is through content, through the materials represented, that art performs its initial function of social communication,” he writes. Which is, of course, to divert the discussion away from an aesthetic consideration of the work in order to praise for what I have called cultural content. Only once, and then very briefly, does Craven address himself to the aesthetic issue.  This occurs when he speaks of the “three-dimensional” character of Benton’s murals.  He quotes Benton himself as declaring that “the fetish of purity must inevitably fall when life enters” – meaning that in painting, a convincing illusionism was what was needed.  And Craven himself reminds his readers that “in the robust art of the Renaissance, from Masaccio to Rubens, the trend of painting was toward a more convincing relief, toward an all-inclusive representation of the conditions of reality.” In other words, the only legitimate pictorial tradition for a 20th-century American art is the tradition of Renaissance illusionism.  Little would Thomas Craven – or Thomas Hart Benton, for that matter –  have ever dream that the day would come when a leading exponent of abstract painting, namely Frank Stella, would lay claim to his same tradition of Renaissance (or, in Stella’s case) Mannerist illusionism as a legitimate basis for a new abstraction. Yet this is what Stella has lately done in the volume of lectures he has called Working Space.  Alas, there was so much about the aesthetics of painting that Craven – and writers like him – never dreamed of!

What makes Craven’s account of Thomas Hart Benton so interesting today, more than 50 years after he wrote it, is that it is so similar to the claims that are once again being advanced on the artist’s behalf.  And what makes Craven’s account so poignant in the face of the current revival of Benton’s art is that the figure he is writing about is, in actuality,, one of the lost leaders of the American modernism that Craven so much despised.  anyone who has seen and understood what Benton was attempting to achieve in the modernist art – and indeed, the abstract art – he produced in his early, avant-garde period will have ample reason to lament the failure of nerve that overtook him at a crucial moment in his development.  Benton was by no means alone in suffering that failure of nerve in the aftermath of his return from Paris.  There were many such causalities in the first generation of American modernists.  Still, Benton did suffer that failure; and is, in truth, a failed artist who is once again being celebrated in the current revival of his art.  Nothing that Craven wrote in the 1930s could change that, and none of his claims – which are so very much the same claims – now being advanced can change it, either.  Thomas Craven failed -as Thomas Hart Benton failed – to repeal the history of the modern age.  The second coming of Benton’s reputation is likewise doomed, but it will probably be a while before the artist’s admirers get the word.