PRINT May 1978



To the Editor:

I wonder if the Messrs. Dorfman (“Reaffirming Painting: A Critique of Structuralist Criticism,” Artforum, October 1977) ever heard the story of the philosopher Thales who fell down a well while gazing at the starry firmament. Not that star-gazing is an unacceptable occupation but that one ought to tread carefully while doing so—especially artists who play in philosophy’s backyard.

If phenomenologists suggest that we begin our task by facing up to direct experience, then why allow a mountain of rationalist theories to be unloaded between us and the painting? Why is it so difficult for critics to deliver the goods of experience without recourse to shelves of philosophic texts? Even so, would Kant have agreed with Greenberg? Would Saussure and Lévi-Strauss have agreed with Burnham? Would Husserl, Heidegger and Sartre have agreed with the Dorfmans? What we end up with are three interpretations of painting by three parties who interpret three philosophies in order to interpret painting. Which must be what Merleau-Ponty had in mind when he coined the phrase “high-altitude thinking.”

Ad Reinhardt used to say that a college education ought to be compulsory for artists but he wrote and spoke in the same personal and magical terms that engendered his art. He never reduced us “eidetically” or delivered us in a “syntactical” straight-jacket to the prison-house of language in the name of transcendental esthetic theories.

—Edwin Ruda
New York, N.Y.

This article was about art criticism and theory. Art per se was not taken to task, butttressed or even placed in real focus; “Reaffirming Painting” was the title. We were taking issue with what we thought was a theoretical assault on that practice, from the World of Ideas. How do you combat ideas without using ideas? The answer is simple you can’t.

Merleau-Ponty’s vision owes much to his philosophical antecedents. Yet one does not judge his political writings byimagining if Marx would approve of them or not. Rather, one sees if his is a perspicacious and intellectually cogent treatment of the issues he was addressing. If the reader is not willing to find out whether we were/are intellectually responsible in our attribution, then he is, of course, left to his own experience of things, they acting as arbiters of opinion.

—David and Geoffrey Dorfman

To the Editor:

Moira Roth’s “The Aesthetic of Indifference” is the best recent attempt to analyze the social and psychological causes and uses of American art during the period following Abstract Expressionism. As in Max Kozloff’s “American Painting During the Cold War,” written four years ago, Roth’s constructs are unprovable. Yet they have the ring of idea-reality; they seem to fit.

True, the task this time was easier. The cool, tongue-in-cheek, at once tired and mildly engaged, at once neutral and aggressive art of Johns and the others certainly held high a fashionable screen of indifference in front of moral and social commitment. One can hardly go wrong in recognizing this fact. Even more important is the recognition that Roth herself even now with the clearer lens of distance in time is still unable to see as art anything outside of that validated by the controlled and controlling institutions.

In turning to Pop and Minimalism, which she calls heirs to the indifference of Johns, Rauschenberg, Cage, Cunningham and Duchamp, she contrasts their “cool” aesthetic with the radical hopes of the period: sit-ins, freedom rides, anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. Lichtenstein’s comic-book war images and Warhol’s race-riot canvases are held up as “infrequent and bland” counterparts of those events. She remains, like her predecessors. trapped by the limits of institutional-critical validation. Intellectual energy and independence require that one look further.

There is no need to name here the individual artists who during this same period made statements through their art contradicting the indifference, but the recognition that such art was created is indispensable to the analysis. This lack is demonstrated in the way George Segal is brought in: the author quotes some of his sociological statements, but his art, where alienation and concern meet, is not considered.

The ignored spectrum is wide. To the analysis Roth undertakes not only the work of some individual artists who worked against the current but some collective efforts are pertinent. One could look at the Guerilla Art Action Group, the Collage of Indignation and even the outside-the-artworld Bread and Puppet Theater. A truly revisionist art historian would find these important because such alternate routes of expression were carriers of moral concern precisely because the “indifference aesthetic” managed, as Roth so well describes, to usurp the validated channels. (The anti-war artists, and that did include some Minimalists and some Pop artists, asked the four major art periodicals to carry on their covers all on the same month the poster of the Mylai massacre. The magazines refused but the idea remains a powerful conceptual statement, even if “unvalidated.”) Finally, the parallel between the “aesthetic of indifference” and the homosexuality-bisexuality of many of its proponents may be sheer Cedar Bar wisdom, or it may be incidentally true. But the parallel is false in essence because it is less a significant insight than the perpetuation of a stereotype.

—Rudolph Baranik
New York, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Either the publish-or-perish imperatives on teachers of art history and criticism are so crushing as to hothouse idiot field theories like Moira Roth’s “The Aesthetic of Indifference,” or her preface to the footnotes which reads in part, “I have had a long, intense and ambivalent history of attitudes toward Duchamp, Cage, Rauschenberg and Johns” is an understatement worthy of The New Yorker’s “Words of One Syllable Dept.” From adjacent lists of political and artworld phenomena intended to coordinate, I suppose, like Column A and Column B on a Chinese restaurant menu (mix ’n match to taste), Ms. Roth generates a sinister force of Tail Gunner Joe himself might admire (note, for instance, the singular: “Aesthetic of Indifference”), and proceeds to set it loose on the printed page. “The Aesthetic of Indifference appeared in the early works of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. . . . The Aesthetic of Indifference emerged at a time when, as a fallout of anti-Communist rage .. . the Aesthetic of Indifference represented a new breed of artist. . . . But for the Aesthetic of Indifference, Rrose Sélavy might well have served. . . . The Aesthetic of Indifference was formed during the period of profound realignments of world power . . .,” and, drearily, so on.

As viscera for this bogeyman AOI, the author offers a silly chronology and a bit of far-fetched psychonography.

He [Jasper Johns] grew up, intellectually and emotionally, in the atmosphere of the Cold War. He was 17 when the CIA was created, in 1947; 18 when Hiss was accused of perjury; 20 when McCarthy rose to power; 21 when the Rosenbergs were put on trial (Spillane’s One Lonely Night was a bestseller that year); and 24 when McCarthy’s power collapsed.

(What Ms. Roth has to say about Johns’ passing those same mileposts when Floyd Bevens lost his World Series no-hitter in the ninth, when the Chicago Tribune reported that Dewey beat Truman, when the 1950 Ford did away with exterior trunk hinges, when the new hardbounds of William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness hit the stands, and when the Penguins’ Earth Angel crossed from the R&B to the Pop charts, is, unfortunately, concealed from us.)

Certain objects became endowed with fascinating even magical meaning for the American public: the Jell-O box in the Rosenberg case and the Pumpkin Papers and Woodstock Typewriter in the Hiss trial. It is from this world of investigations and witness and object that Johns, almost certainly unconsciously, drew the substance of his early art.

(Earlier Ms. Roth contends, “I do not see how one could paint the American flag in 1954 and claim, as Johns did, that it was merely inspired by a dream.” The operative words in that sentence are, of course, the first three, which makes her amazing mentalism regarding “almost certainly unconsciously” even more astounding.)

But if those jewels aren’t enough, we are treated to Cage’s famous commentary on Rauschenberg’s white paintings first being falsely contextualized (“In the political ambience of hysterical anti-Communism and right-wing action. . . .”), then politically slandered (“. . . the Cage poem reads like an unconscious tragic acknowledgment of total paralysis”), and finally esthetically libeled (“There are no messages, no feelings and no ideas. Only emptiness”).

What all this sloppy, amateur, Op-Ed page sleuthing is intended to prove is that AOI “advocated neutrality of feeling and denial of commitment in a period that otherwise might have produced an art of passion and commitment.” But even this wistful denouement is toothless and academic (otherwise, why not “would have produced an art . . .?”). Does Ms. Roth mean that had Rauschenberg and Johns painted like Her-block, their followers in the ’60s would have stuffed Castelli with enough protest sculpture so that the Vietnam War would have ended in 1967? If that reads as overly facetious, consider the simplemindedness of Ms. Roth’s cri de coeur:

Yet many of the Pop and Minimal artists were actually sympathetic to radical causes, such as anti-war, or Black Panther support demonstrations and the like. Why did they forget this when they went back to their studios to make art? Why this denial of commitment and feeling in art?

In spite of such achingly convenient and superficial hindsight, I’m sure that artists now pursuing both their art and their politics with passion and commitment (although the two might require working two separate shifts, so to speak, and might not blend into an editorial cartoon easily intelligible to future art historians) will continue to do so. And the ’80s, even viewed from the ivory tower of the ’90s, will seem the better for it.

—Peter Plagens
Pasadena, California

I received from you only today, April 4th, copies of the letters from Rudolph Baranik and Peter Plagens on my article “The Aesthetic of Indifference,” and, at the present moment, have neither the time nor the inclination to comment on them by your deadline. However, I would ask that if you receive additional letters on my article, would you kindly reserve space in a future issue of Artforum for their inclusion. After all, it is an art forum, no?

—Moira Roth