PRINT July 1962


John Canaday’s Embattled Critic

John Canaday, Embattled Critic (New York: Noonday Press), 1962, 238 pgs.

WHEN A GROUP OF SOME 50 artists and critics wrote to the New York Times questioning Mr. Canaday’s fairness, the Times received 600 letters from its readers, 550 of which supported Mr. Canaday. His book was greeted with full-page pleasure on the art pages of Newsweek Magazine. His voice is undoubtedly the voice of millions. But Mr. Canaday, nevertheless, insists that he is “the embattled critic.” To understand this, we must first of all grasp that Mr. Canaday’s view of recent American art is fundamentally that of a Great Conspiracy which only he has had the courage to expose.

When Mr. Canaday writes that “for a decade the bulk of abstract art in America has followed that course of least resistance and quickest profit,” he reinforces a peculiar notion about the state of contemporary American art, namely, that an all-powerful bloc of artists, dealers, critics, museums and collectors have foisted the phenomenon of abstract expressionism on the world, secured for it universal love and approval, and, in the process, have split among them a take in the millions. This hallucinated view of American art as a million-dollar industry should, perhaps, be compared with that of Mr. Thomas B. Hess, writing at about the same time as Mr. Canaday, and about the same phenomenon:

No society . . . has been as cruel and as viciously indifferent to its best artists as ours.

To be an American artist who is seriously involved with vanguard ideas today means to be attacked by almost the entire Establishment—mass circulation newspapers and magazines, museums, collectors, critics, official culture-rollers. If, after fifteen or so years of dedication, the painter or sculptor has not been driven off his rocker . . . he might . . . find a modest livelihood in his profession. But he shouldn’t count on it.

I reckon that today there are about twenty—five Abstract—Expressionist artists making what any forty-year-old college graduate would call ‘a living’ in New York.

(The San Franciscan is, of course, astounded: he cannot think of five, much less twenty-five artists “making what any forty-year-old college graduate would call ‘a living’”). Nevertheless, Mr. Canaday’s essays are filled with dark references to the million-dollar conspiracy, to art movements designed “to please the customers,” to “the gullible” who are forever falling victim to the latest outrage of the plotters, to artists painting to formulas devised by critics and merchants, to fraud and deception everywhere. The American public, he seems to feel, is the hoodwinked Emperor to the wily tailors of the art world, and it has fallen to him (and his millions of friends) to be the innocent children crying to the wilderness, “But he is wearing nothing at all!”

But he is wearing nothing at all! In a perfect tantrum of insight, Mr. Canaday is almost beside himself to think of new ways to point this out. If he is in one place attacking the new art for rejecting the past with contempt, for finding it “amusing to dismiss the Renaissance with a quip,” he is in another place complaining that Conrad Marca-Relli “becomes meaningless out of the context of the history of art.” If in one place he damns the artists for being the toys of “a small group of people who . . . are interested in the game of comparing one mutation with another,“ he is in another place damning the museums which show them for employing exhibition techniques “which have been so successful for three decades in educating a large public to an interest in modern art,” for bringing modern art “to the millions.” If in one place he complains that abstract expressionism lacks discipline, that “anyone, literally, can paint in a kind of abstract expressionists idiom,” he complains in another that it is the work of amateurs “who have developed technical skill.” If in one place he commiserates with a “public avid for understanding” which “wants an explanation to hang onto,” he is in another place complaining of the critic who satisfies the need and has made art something to talk about rather than to look at. If in one place he turns his fire on critics for nudging artists to create along lines “that comply with an expected direction,” he is, in another place, crying “What next?” and nudging artists to “look around them, beyond their studio walls,” and “rediscover nature.” And when, finally, there is absolutely nothing else to think of, he will attack the New York School because it is the New York school: “It is New York painting, not American painting.”

As one reads essay after essay in this book, one begins to realize why the times are so out of joint for Mr. Canaday, and Mr. Canaday so out of joint for the times. Confronted with an art which is determined to outrage every tenet of middle-class sensibility, Mr. Canaday brings to his contemplation of that art a system of attitudes and values middle-class par excellence:

What happens when the critic goes to Tenth Street? Agreeably, the atmosphere is not beatnik, but sensible and serious. At several of the galleries attractive young women with well-washed hair are in attendance, and the stigmata of the Philistine—a haircut, necktie and shined shoes—are apparent on an occasional male.

Time Magazine could not have done it better. Here are all the attributes of the Square: the snobbery, the discomfort with and condescension to, Bohemia, and above all, the insistence that things be “sensible and serious.” Nothing will make Mr. Canaday bristle more than evidence that an artist or a work of art is sick and tired of being sensible and serious, and might just decide to drop this sensible and serious business and try another, less rational and respectable route, to serious communication. That, for example, Philip Evergood, whose “background includes Eton, Cambridge, Paris, London,” should not make this “background” manifest at all times throws Mr. Canaday into a perfect fit of incomprehension:

Why does he choose to speak in so self-consciously ungrammatical a way, in sentences of such distorted syntax? This is beyond me and it distresses me. He is like a man who hides behind an exaggerated gawkiness. This I will never understand.

This howl of outraged respectability typifies, in many ways, Mr. Canaday’s frustration in the face of the entire direction of modern American painting. It will not speak grammatically, it will not gain easy access to his approval by flaunting its background of technical virtuosity, it will not be sensible and serious. It is not really a critical principle that underlies Mr. Canaday’s attitude here, but an ethical one, a kind of Main Street despair at all that fine education, deliberately rejected.

Just as Mr. Canaday would like Mr. Evergood to display all the good grammar he learned at Eton, so would he like our abstract painters to display all the hard work and discipline that good painting really should manifest, “the time, skill and patience involved in realistic painting:”

Yet Salon art did require of its practitioners at least a manual talent for the imitation of academic disciplines, while anyone, literally, can paint in a kind of abstract expressionist idiom.

. . . a reasonable, if reprehensible, approximation of abstract expressionism can be executed in ten minutes by a novice with a large brush . . .

Now, as a principle of criticism, this complaint is nonsense: Mr. Canaday knows that Van Gogh and Monet painted faster than most of our contemporary abstract artists; he also knows that all of them “have at least a manual talent for the imitation of academic disciplines,” and that a “reasonable, if reprehensible, approximation” of anything can be done in ten minutes. But as a principle of middle-class ethics, it is quite consistent: “If it takes so little time to do it, it can’t be any good” is an almost instinctive middle-class response, and one that, perversely, our artists love to infuriate.

Mr. Canaday’s advice to the young is also very enlightening from the point of view of providing us with some insight into the kind of mentality that is giving the advice:

The assumption that young painters should be encouraged is absurd and in the end vicious. No one owes them a debt of gratitude for their adoption of a dubious profession; they should be cut down in battalions, on the principle of weeding and pruning, to allow the ones with vigor to rise again.

Now the assumption that young painters should not be encouraged, but instead treated like cadets in a military school is absurd and in the end vicious. Leaving out the entire question of how many Cézannes fell in previous battalions, we have only to look at what the “vigor” it took to “rise again” cost the one Cézanne we do have. By the end of his life, his mind warped by incessant abuse, we have the pitiful old man, greeting all the contemporary Canadays at his door in total disbelief that they are not here to abuse him still further. And if the young Van Gogh withstood all the weeding and pruning, it was with just enough vigor left over to blow his brains out. In our own time, we have Gorky hanging by his neck in a barn, Pollack wrapped around a tree in his car, Kline dead at fifty-one, wretched, unhappy lives, all of them. But Mr. Canaday will still insist on cutting them down in battalions, “on the principle of weeding and pruning, to allow the ones with vigor to rise again.”

Why? Why should one care how many young people decide to become artists? Why should one not be finally delighted at the prospect of a generation in which the painters, poets and musicians outnumber the accountants, lawyers, technicians and newspaper critics? Mr. Canaday’s answer comes snarling out of America’s black, begrudging Puritanism: “If you’re going to live that sinfully easy artist’s life, you had damn well better prove your right to it!”

One of the more callow aspects of this selection of essays is the fact that Canaday will not attack a major artist: Rothko, Guston, Dubuffet, Miró, are all bowed into the kingdom of heaven. Only the less formidable reputations, and those almost never by name, suffer Mr. Canaday’s fearless wrath.

Philip Leider