Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Let a thousand decorators blossom.

I wish the underthinking Jew who accused me of anti-Semitism for calling nineteenth century Jewish kitsch kitsch could come with me in spirit to the National Museum of American Jewish History before April 30 to see "Moshe Zabari: A Twenty-five Year Retrospective" of Jewish ritual objects. Now there's great Jewish religious art, like mezuzah (1984) made for the Lubavitch Youth Organization, in which the three Hebrew letters that make up one of the names of God (Shaddai) are layered to create the form of the object.

Or (alas, not in the show) a Purim noisemaker (1984) of silver, steel, coral and lapis beads in which a figure standing on a horse can be whirled about to create the ritual sounds. Zabari's range is levitatingly broad--alms boxes, hallah trays, seder sets, Torah appurtenances, he leaves no traditional piece unenhanced. And his control of diverse materials is also inspiring. There is something marvelously sustaining to see age old values embodied in the freshest eloquence.

My second Judaica episode of this weekend was the Vatican treasures at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It reminded me of how let down I was the first time I saw Persian miniatures and realized that the medieval Roman Catholic illuminated manuscripts I grew up loving were pinched from Persia in particular and Arab culture generally.

I have since learned to savor excellence no matter what its provenance. So I have no problem relishing the imagery that Jews picked up from Christian traditions in Europe. I exult in the benign promiscuousness of the process. Note how the Spanish texts have a Moorish tang, the German a Teutonic grossness, the Italian a floral flair. Diane Eacret, the NMAJH publicist, had even seen Judaeo-Persian manuscripts. Maybe we ought to see in the friendly sharing of our medieval ancestors an alternative to our current impasses.

I regard the effort to elevate the great millenia-long craft of pot-making into a Fine Art as intellectually demented. It's part of what I call the M.F.A.-ification of art education. Partly as an offshoot of the Abstract Expressionist brouhaha (with rearward looks putting more and more emphasis on the ha-ha of this witches brews) all crafts aspire to nonobjectivityhood. The non-functional works so engendered are of course completely functional--they function to make lots of money for a few M.F.A.'s who strike it rich peddling the Higher Goofy to nouveaux riches BMWers with more money than taste and with absolutely no confidence in their own independent art judgments.

All of this is by way of prologue to the Delaware Art Museum's recent participation as the last stop in the Quilt National fifth biennial juried exhibition of contemporary quilts. Fifty of them from five countries--Great Britain, West Germany, Japan and France. As the press release exudes, "Quilt National '87 provides an opportunity to see how quiltmaking is changing an age old craft to an increasingly popular fine arts movement." I beg to differ.

The genius of the quilt as a genre is its deepest roots in folk traditions. The whole concept of "fine" is a Renaissance hustle, when the new dukes wanted to have the best of everything to express their status. So artisans doing the daily jobs were lower than the top cadre of cats stroking the lords, sacred and temporal. There are maybe five at DAM I'd like to have in my collection. All of the are skillful manipulation of materials, but in my opinion the effort to "raise" a glorious folk art to an MFA's badge of status is not only meretricious but disgusting.

Tell me, you teachers of Fine Art, how come our common environment (subway, public spaces, institutional corridors, streets) becomes more dismal by the day while you turn our minions for the upper middle class whom you have taught to believe that New is Good, Newer is Better, and Newest is Best. I no longer believe it. And I sneer at your fatuous complacency.

I declare a CounterReformation against the bill of goods Greenberg and Rosenberg sold us during the McCarthy Cold War scare when former Commies and pinkos dove under the Bed of Formalism to keep from losing their jobs. As our savants spin their wheels trying to make it looks like their return to figuration is not a return at all (they always loved the image, you know that).

When you read this, it will be too late to check out my judgments against the real things, but the excellent all-color catalog at DAM will let you get a good enough idea, except for the humongous ball that Philadelphian quilter Virginia Jacobs calls "Krakow Kabuki Waltz" (Polish joke?) It's lovely, but it ain't a Q, baby.

I was doubly eager to get to the Artists Equity Association of Philadelphia's "Celebrate Art in Philadelphia"--first, because I'm ashamed to admit that although I moved into Philly from Levittown thirty years this coming August, I had yet to visit Memorial Hall, and second, because I have been eager to learn more about AE ever since teaching with Ben Spruance at Beaver 1962-67 and hearing his heroic tales of its founding.

The median level of the work of the fifty AE's exhibiting was lacking lustre, to put it most charitably. Maybe there were ten artists whose work I'd make a second effort to see and savour. Definitely five, Cathie Freeman, who makes very attractive low-fired clay wall plaques in soft satisfying colors, had a publicity piece on her wall from a magazine called Niche, a medium for retailers. There has never been such an artist exploration since the MFA-ification of art education that the crafty art type must find a way to satisfy a very particular need of a specialized audience.

Rose Brein-Finkel has found such a niche with her cat imagery and her embossed cards. Amishland Prints by Xtian Newswanger is another neat niche. And Nancy Waldin, who takes commissions for fabric portraits of a person's house (one had delicious calicos serving for a clump of diverse trees), has a niche. She was a frustrated painter until she found a way to express herself in a fashion that has commissions stacked up until September 1989. The only artist who really knocked me out is a recent immigrant from Israel, Tsarfati.

Heh, I can hear you saying, "Who the hell does he think he is, dismissing AE out of hand." I only know what I really like and there was precious little of that at AE's outing. I'm quite willing to grant that in a pluralistic society there are many levels of artistic skill and taste. The President also told me it cost between three and four thousands dollars to rent Memorial Hall and stage the show. And that AE was going to come out of it with a modest profit. So maybe it's just a perk for the members--the solidarity of exhibiting together must have a very positive impact on the members. Let's settle for this. Houses have interiors which need to be decorated. Let a thousand decorators blossom.

Reprinted from Art Matters, EYE 95/April 1989

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