Gray Days

Peter Plagens on two “Arts & Leisure Weekend” talks

New York

Left: Susan Sarandon and Caryn James. Right: Chuck Close. (Photos: Joseph Sinnott, Matthew Arnold)

As with a lot of other New York liberals, my love/hate relationship with the New York Times has recently drifted toward active dislike. This discontent has nothing to do with the malfeasances of Jayson Blair, Rick Bragg or Howell Raines—it has to do with the fact that dull, over-considered centrism just pisses me off these days. I mean, I used to find the Times's ultramild leftism reassuring, but—given the current occupant of the White House and his dangerous follies—I now find it primly beside the point. Yeah, I know it's at least partly irrational, and for better or worse the Times is still “the paper of record,” especially regarding the arts. But culturally, too, despite a recent jazzing-up of the arts section with a passel of new editors and a revamped listings column, the paper's taste runs to anything big, official, staid and centrist-appearing (such as the new MoMA); it takes dangerous, hairy arts phenomena and makes them seem reassuringly middle-of-the-road. My puny protest of the Times's great gray blandness has been to quit buying the print edition and read it exclusively online for free.

With this bad attitude, I nevertheless attended two of the twenty-seven “TimesTalks” taking place during the paper's fourth annual “Arts & Leisure Weekend.” The first was ”Citizen Artist,“ with critic-at-large Caryn James interviewing famously liberal film star Susan Sarandon on her acting career (for about an hour) and her political beliefs (for about half that time) at the CUNY Graduate Center. Sarandon was smooth, quick, articulate and convincingly modest (then again, she's an Oscar-winning actress). When it came time for the anti-Bush money shot the full-house audience (Short Hills must have been deserted) was waiting for, she settled for a generality about the sad state of ”democracy in this country.“ In fact, Sarandon reserved her harshest words—”clueless and ball-less"—for the poor, whupped Democratic Party.

The next day in “Self Portrait,” painter Chuck Close took the stage to be guided in conversation by the Times's chief art critic, Michael Kimmelman. Since Close is beloved on all art-world fronts (he's on every public-service committee there is, and his accessibly realistic pictures are somehow considered permanently hip), and since he and Kimmelman have done this “dog-and-pony show” (Kimmelman's phrase) before, nobody really expected sparks to fly. None did. Those who paid twenty-five dollars a head to hear precisely seventy-five minutes of softball chat (and Kimmelman thinks twenty bucks admission at MoMA is high?) got a solid, friendly semisoliloquy from Close on the vicissitudes of photorealism, portrait painting, and technically innovative printmaking. Of course, Close's generation of artists (mea culpa: mine, too) was hothoused in university MFA programs and sent out into the world thinking of art as passionless problem-solving. That might explain why there was something missing at the center of the discussion: a revelation about what all those gargantuan, pixellated faces mean. Minus that, all the politesse about color separations and diagonal grids seemed, well, beside the point.