Thursday, August 28, 2014


Not long ago I watched the Robert Hughes documentary The Mona Lisa Curse. I can't convey the extent of my affinity for Hughes; I grew up in New York during the period discussed and in fact first saw the Mona Lisa at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1963, which is Hughes's point of departure. The main idea of the film is that money has destroyed the art world by transforming art into an investment for the wealthy, controlled by dealers who are out to make a profit. To me, Hughes is a model critic: he knows his subject well, is passionate about it, and has the courage of his convictions. I can't say that I always agree with him, but, unlike most critics, he has useful knowledge to impart. At the end he directly challenges an ignorant, wealthy art buyer, which is not something that you often see these days. It is telling that this was not shown in the U.S. when it was released. Like Hughes, I am appalled by the art world, and I have completely lost interest in modern art. As far as I know, Hughes, who died in 2012, has no successor.

What strikes me is the apparent absence of critics like Robert Hughes. Not only do they seem to have disappeared from the world of paintings, but they seem to be in thin supply across all of the arts. Criticism seems to have become a self-serving job for whoever manages to obtain one. As mentioned in an earlier post, Lorrie Moore's short story collection, Bark, which documents her continued stagnation and decline as a writer, nevertheless received many favorable reviews. The book was shortlisted for The Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, which, thankfully, it lost. I can't understand how anyone with good literary judgment could have recommended it. Where were the critics?

I don't follow architecture, but was gratified to see that Martin Filler, the architecture critic for the NYRB, recently got his comeuppance. He usually has little of value to say, and he tends to write biased articles. However, in this instance he was called out by the Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, who forced him to make a retraction. Filler works under an editor who feigns intellectual substance but is more precisely a graying impresario presiding over a decaying literary publication. Though I don't know enough about Zaha Hadid to say anything in her defense, I appreciate the steps she took to bring accountability to Filler.

In recent years I have had to develop convoluted, time-consuming methods to determine what art, fiction, music or film I might enjoy partaking in. I have found that reading a review - or several reviews - is no guarantee that I will have sufficient information to determine whether I would find a particular work worth reading, hearing or seeing. Thus, after a concentrated effort over a number of years, I now refrain from wasting my time on reviews, except to read them for entertainment.  My expectation is that if something of great artistic merit should materialize, I may only come across it by accident. What does this say about the value of critics?

Money has obviously corrupted the visual arts, but what about the others? It seems that it has done damage there too. If there is any good new fiction, I haven't seen it, though I must confess to liking Houellebecq's The Map and the Territory, which, not coincidentally, is a satire of the art world; Houellebecq may have been influenced by Hughes. The same goes for music, which, as far as I can tell, is going nowhere. Film is a more problematic area to sum up, because it seems to have become the central art form of our time. Thus, auteur directors such as Eric Rohmer, Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski and Milos Forman have become de facto major artists, while mainstream directors such as Steven Spielberg and James Cameron have enormous box office success and still gain the approval of most critics. Film critics are showing us their penchant for touting the blockbusters: that's where the money is. It is easy to understand why a critic might not be effusive about Eric Rohmer, yet in my opinion he is one of the best filmmakers ever, even with his limitations.

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