PRINT March 1976



I admired immensely Carol Duncan’s temperate and subtle critique of Cindy Nemser’s Art Talk: Conversations with Twelve Women Artists (Artforum, October 1975). I was all the more perplexed, then, to discover that in reinterpreting the period of French painting covered by our exhibition (Artforum, December 1975)––1774–1830—she fell into exactly the same kind of ideological traps she had exposed in Ms. Nemser’s insistent confusion of the moral imperatives of the present with the data of the historical past.

Ms. Duncan writes, for instance, that in the paintings of historical themes executed between the 1770s and the 1790s, “Man (but not Woman) realizes his fullest, noblest potential.” This statement, perhaps of some limited use in combatting sexism in the 1970s, is nevertheless untrue for the historical decade in question. Here is some counter-evidence from the Paris Salons. In 1777, Lépicié paid tribute to the courage of Portia, who showed that she would be willing to take her own life, if necessary, to support her husband’s plot to assassinate Caesar; in 1781, not only did Vincent venerate the uncommon courage of Hersilia, who thrust herself between warring Romans and Sabines in order to effect a reconciliation, but Lebarbier recorded the heroism of Jeanne Hachette, who, in 1472, defended her city, Beauvais, against Burgundian siege; in 1785, Brenet offered homage to high-minded Roman women who gave their gold and jewelry to the state (as French Revolutionary women were soon to do); in 1787, Lebarbier presented the military heroism of Spartan women, who prepared themselves to fight the Messenians. Indeed, without such ideal examples of heroines in history, examples which Ms. Duncan would have us believe did not exist, Charlotte Corday might not have murdered Marat.

I am no less bewildered by many of Ms. Duncan’s other interpretations that serve to make political points. She claims that pictures of the late 18th century were usually read from left to right, so that Vincent’s seemingly exceptional reversal in his Belisarius would make the helpless old man, by being on the left instead of the right, more aggressive to authority. But in fact, I know of no left-to-right rule. Deathbed scenes—an easy test case—are common in both directions. And as for Belisarius, he is found left, right, and center. Before Vincent’s painting, LaHyre, in the 17th century, had already put Belisarius on the left; and after Vincent, Drouais, in a drawing related to David’s painting, also put him on the left. With all this evidence, I cannot make sense of Ms. Duncan’s point.

Or consider her calling to task the unpoliticized cataloguer who, in discussing the critical reception of Durameau’s Continence of Bayard at the Salon of 1777, apparently never realized, as she of course does, that the negative criticism of the painting was really provoked by the aristocratic rank of the painting’s noble hero, Chevalier Bayard, rather than by any faults that had to do with art. But in fact, four years later, at the Salon of 1781, critics all praised another artist, Beaufort, for choosing to paint, not the subject commissioned by the king, but instead, the beloved Chevalier Bayard (who, contrary to what Ms. Duncan reports, refrained from sleeping with the maiden provided him not only because she was of noble birth but also because she was a virgin). Then, as now, critics and artists had many things on their minds besides politics; and the kinds of complaint leveled against Durameau’s painting (defects of drawing, expression, coloring, dramatic clarity) were no different from those leveled against paintings that, by implication, could promote antimonarchic ideas.

I could go on and on quibbling with what I believe are Ms. Duncan’s warpings of history, as she in turn did with ours, but I’d better summarize my view. Works of art are complex phenomena, and often had, especially in the Age of Revolution, implicit political meanings that could be subject, however, to the most flexible and contradictory interpretations by different factions. (David’s Brutus is a prime example of this.) To insist that their latent and usually ambiguous political content is their most clear and dominant reality is like an obsessive reading of a Rorschach test. If we “neutralized the Age of Revolution,” as Ms. Duncan put it, so too did the Paris Salons, where these works of art were first seen, as they still are today, within a context that emphasized artistic, not political, achievement. To believe, in a post-medieval world, that art can bear such social burdens is a myth that may have inspired many modern artists and writers, but it is also one that can lead to violent and even insane consequences. I am thinking of the vandalizing of medieval art by French Revolutionaries, the suffragette slashing of the Velázquez Venus, the destruction by the police of Schiele’s erotic drawings, the Nazi annihilation of “Degenerate Art,” the recent defacing of Guernica— all acts of people who “de-neutralized” art. Marat and Napoleon may have been loathsome men, who may still be detested in remote memory; but I hope that their flagrantly propagandistic images by David and Ingres are never detested in their place. These are only, after all, great paintings that happily survived the Age of Revolution and that can teach us how art has powers which are both infinitely stronger and weaker than those of politics.

––Robert Rosenblum
New York City

Carol Duncan replies:
I do not agree that art has “powers” that can be understood apart from the forces that drive men to the kind of loathsome deeds Rosenblum mentions. The artistic visions and aspirations of men and women, no less than their public deeds, are shaped here, in historical time and space, and in relation to the webs of specific social relations that no one, even artists, can escape.

Rosenblum raises other important questions regarding 18th- and 19th-century art, among them, the ideological meanings of subject matter; the esthetic terms in which that ideology was justified (so that both artists and patrons would not have concerned themselves consciously only with “ideology”); whether or not there is a pictorial tradition of confrontation scenes that exploits the left-to-right reading habit of Western culture; and Enlightenment concepts of the female sphere as domestic rather than civic (the examples of heroines he cites support rather than contradict this distinction, a distinction written into the Napoleonic Code and other laws that curtailed women’s legitimate sphere).

All of these questions are worth pursuing, but, as Rosenblum points out, what divides us the most—and makes us disagree about how to select and interpret significant facts—are the larger issues he raises in his last paragraph. I suppose I am as alarmed by what he writes there as he is puzzled by some of my contentions. Rosenblum seems to be warning us—even threatening us—that dissent from the doctrine of neutrality can lead to violent acts against art. He talks about “de-neutralizing” art as if it were neutral in the first place, whereas none of the vandalized works he cites could have been considered ideologically neutral in intent or use even if their messages were sometimes ambivalent.

In any case, it is simply not true that the past regarded art as neutral and that only the modern era has seen it as engaged. If anything, the reverse is true, especially in the Age of Revolution.The very need to see in art some ultimate significance that both transcends and devalues common everyday life is itself a response to the painful and banal realities of the modern world. Of course Rosenblum knows about the historical conflicts in which art is generated. What he is defending here is an approach that enables him to transform those contingencies into a blurry background for the sake of a distinguishable esthetic moment. To this end “politics” are reduced to the (mostly unpleasant) deeds of kings and politicians. What remain are the “powers” of art to move or to entertain, powers one can enjoy abstracted from the ugly realities of history. One keeps Ingres’ painting of Napoleon while dismissing Napoleon from mind. Experienced in this way, art both justifies the world as it is and offers—to some—relief from it.

Far from being universal, the very ability to conceive, experience and value high art as ultimately neutral in meaning—as something that one can detach from moral, social and practical concerns—is a skill that is learned in and presupposes certain historical contexts, e.g. institutions such as museums and universities and the intellectual traditions they perpetuate such as academic art history. Rosenblum is associated with some of the most prestigious of these institutions and is actively engaged in the production and certification of professional art historians. In his field, he wields considerable influence. It is, therefore, no small matter when he warns us not to dissent from the doctrine of neutrality. It is a warning not to dissent from the ideology that prevails in the academic and museum world—the very ideology that that world is organized to perpetuate (as it did in “The Age of Revolution”).

Nevertheless, to point out that works of art are born of and express the values and interests of one or another class—and to argue that, no matter how well made they are, they function in the context of class antagonisms—is neither an invitation to violence nor a reduction of art to some kind of dumb, one-dimensional “political” meaning. If anything counsels violence, it is the kind of thinking that puts abstract values and the vague “powers” of art above human values. And if anything is reductive, it is the kind of thinking that sees violence only when objects are damaged but relegates to the background of thought the real human experience that those objects sought to justify or contest.

––Carol Duncan
La Jolla, California

Readers of your September, 1975 issue who were attracted to Andrew Forge’s “Painting and the Struggle for the Whole Self” may not all be aware that Mr. Forge’s central thesis, which is implicit in his title, has been developed with great sensitivity and judiciousness in the later writings of Adrian Stokes. Mr. Forge’s argument recalls particularly passages by Stokes to the effect that the work of art, “though by definition a complete and enclosed system, strongly suggests to us physical and mental states of envelopment and of being enveloped” (Three Essays on the Painting of Our Time, 1961), or the following from Painting and the Inner World (1963), influenced, as much in the later work of Stokes, by Melanie Klein: “Our relationships to all objects seem to me to be describable in the terms of two extreme forms, the one a very strong identification with the object, whether projective or introjective, whereby a barrier between the self and the not-self is undone, the other a commerce with a self-sufficient and independent object at arm’s length. In all times except the earliest weeks of life, both of these relationships, in vastly differing amalgams, are in play together, as is shown not only by psychoanalysis but by art, since the work of art is par excellence a self-sufficient object as well as a configuration that we absorb or to which we lend ourselves as manipulators.”

––Hellmut Wohl
Stockbridge, Mass.

Am I being reproved? If so, I find it ironic, since I have been arguing in print on behalf of Adrian Stokes for at least 20 years. I know, because he told me so, that it meant a great deal to Stokes that certain of his ideas were at last moving into the public domain.

––Andrew Forge
Yale University
New Haven, Conn.

I have always admired my friend Peter Plagens’s directness, except when it has taken too unfair and humorless advantage. His overkill review of the LACMA “European Painting in the ’70s” appears to be such a case. In this idealized, grandiose article, Plagens gets tight and morose about otherwise generally accepted frailties of the art exhibition biz. For instance, why all the fuss about one person’s (Tuchman’s) idiosyncratic selection of artists and works? I don’t see Tuchman hiding from taking either the credit or, more centrally here, the rap. He is at least interested enough to try making a move.

Limited catalogue? Sure. But we all know that the administration, Old World cajolery and courtship obliged in stringing together an international loan show are often debilitating, at best. Plagens criticizes the show’s lack of clarity, but maybe that’s his personal problem. Others deserve the experience of the exhibition without his preemptive biases.

Plagens’s breezy, well-chosen words on L.A. and LACMA are fine; but the fact remains that European Painting in the 70s is an effort notable for not coming from our Northeast “culture corridor.” We all know the “different strokes . . .” adage, now it’s nice to have a chance.

Plagens’s synthetic brand of criticism is ingratiating to the haute bourgeoisie and to us iconoclasts alike, but I only hope his bombastic “thing” with Tuchman, LACMA and L.A. doesn’t fatally neutralize us in its wake. As it stands, Plagens’ heavy-duty review is as unbalanced as Tuchman’s show; only Tuchman, happily, allows more to be felt between the lines.

––Jack Cowart
Associate Curator 19th and 20th Century Art
The St. Louis Art Museum
St. Louis, Missouri

As Peter Plagens points out in his article, the exhibit of European painting at the LA County Museum of Art is a rather dull and uninteresting gathering of old and established glories.

The public will see and judge for itself. What is more unfortunate is what the public won’t see: to those unfamiliar with the actual situation of European painting today, it will probably appear to lack complete aspects of research and creativity. For that matter, not only is the LACMA show misleading to its public; it is also unfair to painters such as Daniel Buren, Marcel Broodthaers, Edda Renouf, Marc Devade, Riccardo Guarneri, Giorgio Griffa, Claudio Verna, Mario Nigro, Diego Esposito, Carlo Battaglia . . . who are the only ones to keep European painting alive by making it progress further.

––Yan M. Nascimbene
Davis, California