PRINT April 1985


To the Editor:
Thomas Lawson’s article on Hilton Kramer [“Hilton Kramer: An Appreciation,” November 1984] filled me with disgust. Lawson made his shrill accusations against Kramer without once quoting a line of Kramer’s prose to back the condemnation. I know of few critics who have helped poets, artists, novelists, or just plain people so generously as Kramer. His courageous civil liberties defense of Stephen Radich, in a ’60s case over an artist’s use of the American flag, would alone gain him respect and honor.

—John Bernard Myers
New York

To the Editor:
Thomas Lawson goes after Hilton Kramer. I was left with the question: what precisely is “progressive culture”? I await the ten-thousand-word essay complete with pictures.

—Thomas McGonigle
New York

Thomas Lawson replies:
I am often angered, irritated, bored, but rarely disgusted by what I read on art and art-related topics. But I did find John Bernard Myers proud recital of his career among the rich and powerful, breathlessly detailed in his autobiography, Tracking the Marvelous [1984], to be an example of the art world at its worst. How fitting that such should be the self-appointed defender of a man who has made a career as the bully champion of an entrenched status quo.

The one point Myers makes that deserves a more considered response concerns my decision not to cite Kramer verbatim. Kramer, of course, is a master of the vicious deployment of uprooted quotations. He excels at the many tricks that can make a statement appear foolish—the slight alteration made in the name of “clarity”; the caesura that implies “more of the same” but glides over an inconvenience; the “corrected” grammar; the improperly described context. My charges against Kramer’s criticism were serious enough that I wanted to avoid even the suggestion of such tactics. They were all based on specific instances whose full insidiousness can only be grasped in their totality, and since full-length quotation is impractical in a magazine article, I hoped instead to provoke my readers into making their own investigations. My point was to initiate an open-ended discussion on the art world’s sad habit of vesting unwonted authority in critics who not only dictate the terms by which art will be understood, but also attempt to use their position to ensure that these dictates are implemented.

I’m surprised Thomas McGonigle is not familiar with the idea of progressive culture; he must have let his reading fall behind.

To the Editor:
Frederic Tuten’s bright story of Peeperkorn and Tintin [“Books: For Georges Remi/Hergé,” May 1984] presented a scenario strange not because of Tintin’s new situation, because one can imagine Tintin anywhere—in fact, one can’t imagine the Hergé oeuvre encompassing all Tintin’s probable adventures; Tintin has become as real as the author himself, in the tradition of Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, etc.—but because "his childish heart [is] touched and inflamed by passion:’ In the actual comic strip there is a noticeable absence of attractive young women; the absence of any significant female character or of any remote reference to sexuality, save for the dual mockery of Bianca Castafiore and her absurd affection for Haddock, is nearly absolute. I can’t remember ever encountering a female character having the admirable qualities (honesty, intelligence, forthrightness, compassion) that Tintin is imbued with. Whether this is due to a sentiment of Hergé’s, or because he was writing for children—or due to an influence of culture—is something I don’t know.

Thus, although Tuten keeps Tintin true to form in ingenuousness, the introduction of passion into the character is very unsettling. How will he handle it? Can he go through it untouched, a boy to the heart, or will he leave the shelter of that innocence and simplicity, and perhaps become sullied by “worldly” complications? I am curious as to how Tuten will resolve the dilemma he has created. And what will come of the pertinent concerns of the perplexed Peeperkorn? Is this “ongoing novel” to be made public at some time?

—Ruth Downes
Champaign, Il.

Frederic Tuten replies:
Unfortunately, I have never known a character, male or female, imbued with Tintin’s fine qualities. Thus our and the world’s love for him.

The note of passion introduced into Tintin’s life is indeed unsettling. It derails him, as it does most touched by it.

To say more is to reveal secrets not yet ripe for disclosure, but your intelligent and sympathetic interest in these matters may hasten their revelation.

To the Editor:
All right. Now that it seems everyone who cares to has had a say, it’s my turn. I admit that I am neither pleased nor proud that my report to the National Endowment for the Arts on their Art Critics Fellowship Program in August of 1983 [“Forum;’ May 1984] proved to be the principal cause of the program’s suspension by Endowment Chairman Frank Hodsoll last spring. This was not my aim, nor was it the aim of those within the Endowment who commissioned my study. As I wrote in the second paragraph of my report and reiterated in a letter of February 23, 1984 to Hodsoll, I think that ”the program is an important one: there are few other sources of financial or moral support for critics. They are poorly compensated when they are paid at all, . . . and little falls to them in the way of public recognition or honor.“ To Hodsoll I added: ”Yet [critics] serve a most important purpose, helping to explicate for the public the often complex forms and meanings of contemporary art. Their role is scarcely less important than those of artists and curators, whose efforts are more generously supported by the Endowment." As I have also stated on numerous occasions, my observations on the flaws of the program were offered in a spirit of constructive criticism; they were intended to improve the program, not to torpedo it. In the short run, I therefore find it regrettable that my report was used as a justification for suspending the program. In the long run, I remain guardedly optimistic that something good may come of all this, in the form of improved support for critical writing, not only for the visual arts, but for theater, music, and film as well. Whether or not I am justified in this optimism remains to be seen.

Yet despite the consequences, I stand by my report. While portions of it may legitimately seem hasty or even ill considered to some observers, it reflects my honest observations—then and now—on the information I was given. In several important ways, I feel the report has been misinterpreted. To address these is the purpose of this writing. First, however, a few sentences about the report itself, which has a curious history. It was one of several papers commissioned in the spring of 1983 as fodder for an Endowment-sponsored seminar on art criticismheld in Washington that September. While the seminar was—rightly or wrongly—closed to the public, passages of my report were subsequently quoted by Hilton Kramer in an article entitled “Criticism Endowed: Reflections on a Debacle,” which was published in the November 1983 issue of his magazine,
The New Criterion. Other writers and editors, angered by Kramer’s statements and his use of supposedly privileged information, demanded copies of my report that they might respond both to it and to Kramer’s remarks. Thereafter, the Endowment made my report available upon request.

So now the report is public information, more or less. Yet it is still known largely through the interpretations of others—not only Kramer, but also Max Kozloff, Kay Larson, Donald Kuspit, Douglas Davis, Martha Gever, Grace Glueck, and Jonathan Yardley, among others, in publications ranging from Artforum and Afterimage to The New York Times and The Washington Post. While it will be quite apparent to anyone who reads these various remarks that many writers have spoken out against me, it perhaps needs saying that none of them speaks for me either.

One of the principal points of confusion about my report concerned the matter of the program’s objectives. It was generally assumed that it was my idea that grants should not merely be honorary, but that they should improve the quality of the recipient’s work and the standards of criticism generally. But this was the Endowment’s idea. While the program guidelines state that the purpose of the grants has been “to enable art critics of exceptional talent to set aside time to pursue a specific project that is not feasible in their present circumstances,” the notes of a 1972 National Council meeting, when the fellowship category was first announced, provide a deeper rationale. There, a representative of the Visual Arts program stated that "the visual arts suffer from the fact that the number of critics who write competently, clearly and well are far too few. The Fellowship program is designed to set criticism on a more professional basis, improve standards of criticism, and eventually to make first-class critics available across the country:’ If these were the Endowment’s objectives, I asked myself, is this program the best way to meet them? I could find little evidence that the Endowment’s few small monetary awards were having this effect. So I offered a possible alternative—all mention of which has been lost in the months of controversy—based on the model of the Fellowships in the Professions offered by the Humanities Endowment. Critics would be paid to take time out to attend intensive seminars on art and criticism with their professional colleagues. I reasoned that these seminars might have a more salutary effect on criticism than the present grants, which seem only to perpetuate the critic’s isolation from his or her peers.

On the matter of the quality of the grantee’s writing, there has likewise been great confusion, with commentators assuming that it is my own standards of quality that have not been met. While I confess to thinking that a few of the grantees had no particular record of achievement in art criticism, I noted in my report that the panels generally did a good job of separating the good writers from the bad. What I observed over and over again, however, was that panelists were awarding grants over their own objections to the applicant’s writing ability, which was supposed to be the primary criterion for judgment. They were substituting for a consideration of quality an enthusiasm for the applicant’s customary publication, point of view, or proposed project. My conviction was and is that if the Endowment is in the business of awarding grants based on the quality of the applicant’s work, then panels should be persuaded to adhere to this guideline.

The 1979 panel in particular, I noted in my report, seemed to be deliberating with other criteria. That year, women and critics from outside the major art centers fared better than usual. I had been asked to assess the relationship between particular panels and their grants, to discover if, in the words of the Visual Arts program, “specific ideological biases” could be detected. This is a loaded phrase, one that might better have been avoided. Some have deduced from it that I am opposed in principle to the kind of correction in ratios that occurred that year. Indeed, I am quoted as saying just that in the Summer 1984 issue of Afterimage. This is not a statement I recall making nor does it sound particularly like me. Anyone who saw the exhibition “Black Folk Art in America: 1930–1980:” which I coorganized, will know that I am not opposed to correction, provided it is done with rigorous adherence to high standards of quality, as that exhibition was. Elsewhere in my report, I even endorse other forms of correction: redressing the imbalance between the preponderance of grants given to writers for the commercial art magazines or “alternative” publications and the few awarded to newspaper critics. Suffice it to say that I do not think correction should be done at the expense of quality if that is the principal stated criterion. Based on the observations of panelists themselves, this is what I felt was being done.

Some of the nastiest commentary on my report came in response to the suggestion that the Endowment might want to withhold a small percentage of the grant award pending receipt of a final report at the end of the grant period. This was viewed as being unnecessarily coercive and infantilizing. However, very few of the grantees bothered to submit reports. Because virtually every grant-making body needs to know what impact its grants are making, this strikes me as a matter of courtesy and professional responsibility; applicants need not accept the grants if they object to the reporting procedure. The mechanism I suggested is already in effect in other Endowment programs, including some of those in the Visual Arts categories.

About one point in the report there seems to have been little confusion. That is my conviction that art writing ought to be both intelligent and intelligible. The inferences that some drew from this were a bit wild, however. Some felt that I was being condescending to the audience, assuming they could not understand anything that was not clearly stated. Not so. My assumption is that readers are perfectly bright, and have wide-ranging interests. Art writers have to compete for them: they will simply go read something else if art criticism is unintelligible. Others saw this conviction as hopelessly middlebrow; still others-and this is a triumph of imagination-viewed it as an insidious form of political repression. They insisted on interpreting my preference for clarity in writing as an expression of fascistic sympathies. I wonder what that irascible obscurantist Ezra Pound would have to say about the equation of clarity and fascism. But the name that was most often invoked in the defense of confounding prose was that of IS. Eliot. To which aspect of Eliot were they referring? It is unlikely that it was the Eliot who wrote thus in Four Quartets:

That was a way of putting it-not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle With words and meanings.

Here is an Eliot at once humble and eloquent, distrustful of fashion, and beleaguered and discouraged in his struggle to reconcile words with their meanings. While this is admittedly not a defense of clarity, it is an expression of the belief that the effort to wrest from words the desired meanings is a pivotal struggle in writing. This is a struggle that goes on within each of us; unfortunately, in instances such as this one, it is a struggle that sometimes flares up among us as well. This one may well be less of a struggle about substance than about confused meanings.

So there I stand, neither pleased to have my efforts used as ammunition in more generalized attacks on the Endowment, nor willing to suppress my honest reservations about the purpose and function of one of the Endowment programs for the sake of avoiding controversy, even if it involves challenging some of the Endowment’s sacred cows and provoking some of its most widely published enthusiasts. This is not a stand that is likely to endear me to either side in this controversy.

—John Beardsley
Washington, D.C.

Donald Kuspit replies:
The key to John Beardsley’s letter is his insistence that he is “not opposed to correction:’ He certainly is not, especially in the name of undefined ”high standards of quality:’ supposedly beyond debate because they are transcendentally self-evident. It is completely bureaucratic-meaningless to creativity-to want to correct art-critical writing in the name of a vague ideal of clarity, and pernicious to emphasize writing and say nothing about thinking. For Beardsley, implicitly, “clarity” and “quality” are cover terms for correct thinking. In this context “correction” is the heavy hand of authoritarian control pretending to know what’s good for art criticism and its audience. But it is really all about some bourgeois ideal of decorum and propriety.

It should be noted that I found Beardsley’s original report to be completely superficial by reason of its methods of investigation, if they can be called that. His report confirms a naiveté about the nature, function, and tradition of art criticism, rather than describing a complex situation as objectively and comprehensively as possible.

To the Editor:
I was fascinated with Artforum’s January 1985 edition, which employed “light” as its theme. “A Light Opportunity: the editorial by Edit deAk and Ingrid Sischy, was especially interesting, particularly the idea of borrowed light. The Artforum editors, and readers, may be interested in a statement by Mary Baker Eddy in ”Retrospection and Introspection:’ her autobiographical work of 1891. Eddy says, "Man shines by borrowed light. He reflects God as his Mind, and this reflection is substance-the substance of good:’I’d like to say how appropriate is Francesco Clemente’s cover for that issue, particularly with reference to the statement quoted above.
—John R. Gustafson
La Porte, In.

To the Editor:
As a ten-year subscriber to your publication, I think the January 1985 issue is one of the best. Very nice visual essays.
—Ruth Wolf
Philadelphia, Pa.

To the Editor:
For a book documenting the life and work of playwright/happenings-artist/arts administrator Kenneth Dewey (1934–1972), I would be interested in hearing from anyone who knew or worked with him, who attended any of his theatrical events, or who knows the whereabouts of documentary material such as tapes, films, and photographs.
—Barbara Moore
351 West 30 Street
New York, NY 10001

To the Editor:
In preparation for a retrospective of the work of the American artist John Storrs (1885–1956), scheduled for the fall of 1986, information about his sculpture, paintings, drawings, and prints is sought. Data about location of works sold by Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery and owned privately is particularly needed. Also, reminiscences and Xeroxes of any Storrs letters would be appreciated. Data should be sent to Patterson Sims, Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, New York, 10021 (212-570-3625).

To the Editor:
I am writing a biography on the American artist Philip Evergood (1901–1973) and would appreciate hearing from any of your readers who have any information on the artist, anecdotal or otherwise, or who own Evergood paintings.

The biography will be published in conjunction with a major retrospective on the artist’s work to open in 1986.

—Kendall Taylor
1841 Columbia Road, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20009