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Critical discourse
It's still about Time

Last month, former Time Magazine Art Critic Piri Halasz wrote to NW Drizzle Art Editor Jeff Jahn. This month, Jeff responds. Make your own point-by-point comparison by calling up Piri's letter.

Dear Piri,

Regarding New York during WWII: I think we are talking about the same thing; New York might have become the Vichy capital of the art world during the war. But I believe that without the Abstract Expressionists, American collectors and museums would have still considered Paris the real fount of modernism and the seat of Western civilization’s culture. Without Pollock and Greenberg I believe American’s would have expected Paris to define post WWII art. In essence, a temporary art capital is not a capital, it's a resort. In terms of sustainability, New York’s own indigenous crop needed a jump-start from the Europeans' batteries to set some higher expectations and solidify its position. With that transfusion of energy, New York became more than just a hotel for great European artists; it became a womb for great American artists. I agree – without the Europeans, Pollock would have been stillborn. But New York did not produce any truly revolutionary or new ideas until its indigenous artists broke out with full-fledged abstract expressionism.

The reason I mentioned Matisse and Picasso is that the apotheosis of New York essentially had to kill off Paris, in a Sophoclean Oedipal or even Oenomausian (not Freudian) killing of the father in order to finalize the cultural coup that made New York the King. Greenberg is crucial to that apotheosis by comparing Pollock to the best of Europe, i.e. paintings to paintings, oranges to oranges. It is the Greek idea of conflict among peers, Eris. By proclaiming that Pollock and New York were where the strongest work was occurring, Greenberg lit the fuse for the pent-up cultural potential in New York. For many reasons art insiders wanted to forget that Greenberg was so instrumental in this transfer of power. I call this the virgin-birth myth. In many cases, if the New York art world took the rabbit test, Clem would be the father. Later, Castelli and Warhol overcame Clem in much the same way Clem overcame Barr’s preference for the School of Paris. This does not diminish the contributions those Europeans during the war made to paving the Americans' way. I simply wanted to give Greenberg his due. Those prominent Europeans have often been used to try and diminish Greenberg’s role as triggerman for New York’s global cultural position. I think we both find it interesting that Greenberg’s coup was accomplished in the popular pages of Life and Time magazines. Not just the Paris Review.

Regarding Freud: Obviously, this is a pet subject for both of us. I propose that he was important for reminding us of the great dramatic tropes from Greek civilization, of which we are descendants. The ideas of id, superego and ego are important; but I think they are oversimplifications, thus making them easy to use by any ideologue trying to justify a point – including modernists, postmodernists and poststructuralists. I agree, they have no special claim to him; he’s so 19th-century Vienna. Too often when someone in literary or art criticism wants to invoke psychology they use Freud or his more successful apologist, Lacan. This works great for literature since psychoanalysis has its core in the great Greek tragedies. But does it address more modern psychology? Often not. My thesis adapted Carl Rogers' "conditions of worth" and relativism into a form of literary criticism. It’s real useful for biography and it let me take on Benjamin Disraeli. Freud would have been pretty lost with that one. I agree Freud is useful, but he just is so easily and regularly abused that I prefer to avoid him. Sarcasm aside, if you can use him without falling into pitfalls, then indeed you have accomplished something. I’d love to see it.

Boomers and Xers: Lastly, don’t get me wrong. I really admire the silent generation; to my eyes you are much more engaged than the boomers. Besides, not all boomers are bad; like all groups, some standouts exist. Similarly, I meet many Gen Xers who are embarrassingly under-educated in their chosen fields. Mediocrity isn’t any generation’s special invention. But, as a group, the boomers have made the most ostentatious display of mediocrity since British Colonialism. It isn’t the hypocrisy of the baby boomers that bothers me; it is simply their overall lack of cultural accomplishment considering their capabilities. I think Gen Xers want to avoid their parents' mistakes … a lot of them are buying original art instead of Peter Max or Thomas Kinkade prints, and play instruments instead of hoarding $65,000 vintage Les Paul gold-top guitars under glass.

Best of luck on your book – the art world needs perspective right now.


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