PRINT Summer 1985



To the Editor:
A funny thing happens on my way from page 42 to page 82 of the February 1985 issue of Artforum. A strange overlapping of issues can be noted. One of the major correspondents’ disputes in the “Letters” section [“On ‘Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief: ”‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art“ at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984’”] exposes just that “intentional fallacy” that Jeanne Silverthorne explores in her “Forum” article 40 pages later.

Her article interests me a great deal. I have not seen the phrase “intentional fallacy” used in the visual arts since reading a mention of it in a footnote on page 81 of Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years (1961; in his segment on Henri Rousseau—timely, eh what?), although when I was a student in the language and literature department at the University of Chicago one could hardly escape it.

Relying on the supposed intention of an artist to determine one’s opinion about a work seems to me a fatal trap—extremely lethal for the artist and no less obstructive to/for the viewer-critic. For one thing, establishing a simplistic connection between what the artist planned to do (even if he or she did do so) and what the result is at the very least implies the converse—that the ceremonial objects in Rubin and Varnedoe’s show, intended as useful tools or religious symbols and certainly not thought of as art by their “creators,” could not then be art, after all.

Thus it would follow that if a mural, a ceiling, or a fresco were created by an artist whose sole intention was to augment devotional zeal, it too could not be viewed—either at the time it was made or later—as “art.” What a conundrum for the art historian/viewer/critic.

It is easy to agree along with McEvilley that the “premise of this . . . show is not new or startling,” that similar juxtapositions have been made both by Robert Goldwater, in his book in 1938, and by shows at the Centre Georges Pompidou (for several years after its opening in 1977) and elsewhere. Yet this makes his objection to Rubin’s premise regarding his book, Dada and Surrealist Art (1968), strangely inappropriate. McEvilley writes that “Rubin treats the Dada and Surrealist works primarily as esthetic objects, and uses them to demonstrate the opposite of what their makers intended. While trying to make anti-art, he argues, they made art.” Of course they did! It no more matters that those artists intended to make anti-art (for that phenomenon has occurred both before and since Dada) than it matters that the primitive works were intended as religious objects. That’s just the point. The work has not been tamed by being perceived as art. We as audience are continuously required to distinguish between emic and etic production. We perceive what we perceive as we perceive it—and isn’t that exactly why the premise of the show is not startling?

Interestingly enough, in her article Silverthorne addresses the pitfalls of intentional fallacy with specific reference to living artists. She suggests that when an “artist’s self-conception . . . becomes the official ‘interpretation’ of the work,” an “air of certainty . . . antithetical to the spirit of critical inquiry” can become an operative stumbling block. Thus, this same intentional fallacy can and does end by “short-circuiting the necessarily anxious, time-consuming route to understanding the work . . . [itself].” Silverthorne then quotes Nelson Goodman: “Discovery often amounts not to arrival at a proposition for declaration or defense but to finding a fit.” And, to my mind, a critic “finding a fit” is analogous to an artist “making it work.”

I perceive the problem for a living artist as even more devastating. The whole of a work of art is always greater than the sum of its parts, and frequently the “je” “je ne sais quoi” that is the awesome click of a work is not even recognized or understood by the artist, at least not at the time of production. In my own experience, knowing artists and watching the process of making “art” unfold over a period of years, I have witnessed many battles to “make it work.” The artist’s search for an individual vocabulary, the struggle to achieve a resonant marriage between personal statement and intellectual control—all of which must take place in order for art to happen—involves problem-solving which often turns out to be the least important part of the final product. I’m convinced that many times it’s the elements that the artist takes for granted that are the most transformational ones, or even the ones that the audience responds most to; the artist’s “intention” may be somewhere else entirely. Nor is it impossible for the artist to read something about him or herself (made up or not) and begin to believe it—particularly where myth-making is involved.

And if a critic can create a myth about an artist, doesn’t the critic benefit from it as well, provided the myth is believed? And so the connection between myth and myth-maker becomes circular; and when the subject of the myth (the artist) believes the myth, it becomes dangerous. Perhaps that’s why some work appears “tired” or diluted while the words keep marching on. My plea is for a modicum of judgment and a great deal more humility and distancing, on the part of artist and critic alike.

—Phyllis Kind
New York

To the Editor:
Thomas McEvilley’s piece on “primitivism” is a fine essay! It’s high time that someone spoke out against the arrogance and superficiality of standard Western art history and formalist art “analysis.”

The first time I walked into the Rockefeller “primitive” wing of the Metropolitan [Museum of Art, New York] I came upon a little girl pulling away from her mother saying she was scared. That child was the only person in the place who sensed what the art was really about.

Sad to say, it’s all comparable to Mondrian’s paintings being turned into American dress patterns, or (as Tom Wolfe said) socialist-inspired International architecture being stripped of its content upon arrival on American shores, and eventually turned into service for large corporations.

Thank you for making Artforum a good magazine.

—Donald Hoffman
Kansas City, Mo.

To the Editor:
My husband subscribes to Artforum and I occasionally read articles in it. I read Thomas McEvilley’s essay “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief” with great interest. Living in an Oceanic country and teaching 9- to 11-year-old children, most of whom are Maori (which I am not), I find the issues raised there of considerable importance to me. Thank you for such clear and careful writing.

—Fiona M. Johnston
Auckland, New Zealand

To the Editor:
Thomas McEvilley’s article “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief” was superb. The cultural arrogance and narrow-mindedness reflected in the Museum of Modern Art exhibit and endemic throughout our society has stuck in my craw for years. Sometimes I think we will all choke on it.

A copy of your article should be required reading for every civil servant who has anything to do with foreign service, even though I expect that few decision-makers would care, assuming they understood.

It’s nice to know that Occam’s razor, old as it is, is still sharp.

—Frederick R. Longan
Billings, Mont.

To the Editor:
Bravo to Artforum for publishing! Bravo to Thomas McEvilley for writing a most honest and clear criticism of the “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” exhibition at MoMA. The article “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief,” so cleverly named, was brilliant! It is not an easy topic for illumination.

When I saw the show at MoMA I was appalled!

When I read the criticism in Artforum I found a sweet revenge.

I hope the directors of MoMA have read all the letters and have by this time come to regard William Rubin as insensitive and overtly incapable of such an important task.

Your article and letters have given me the courage to write to MoMA concerning the obfuscation represented in the recent juxtapositions within MOMA’s vitrines. As a longtime member of the museum, I will consider it my duty.

—Doris Rowe
Northport, N.Y.

To the Editor:
Just a line to tell you how much I enjoyed Thomas McEvilley’s article. The sort of points he made are not often enough made; and when they are, they are not usually so well made.

I am interested in the interpretation of exotic “art” (the quotes are of radical misgiving). In my own writing, I argue that—quite apart from the irrelevance of formalist esthetics—we cannot even interpret the representational sense of alien works with any confidence unless we already have a good “emic” grasp of the uncultivated context.

—Donald Brook
Bedford Park, South Australia

To the Editor:
My original inclination was to ignore Glenn O’Brien’s plodding attack on Kim MacConnel [November 1984], as it was difficult to take it seriously. The adolescent pop-music vernacular that O’Brien insists on affecting not only made the analysis or assessment of his ideas difficult, it also left one wondering whether he might not be happier and better suited to a career reviewing records for one of the music-industry tabloids. However, as O’Brien seems intent on remaining among us as an art critic, he may, I hope, forgive me for reacting to his superficial remarks.

The point O’Brien seems to miss is both simple and fundamental. The six canvases and installation of painted furniture that MacConnel exhibited last May were the realization of more than two years’ work, while the issues MacConnel explored and expressed were the product of more than ten years of thought and struggle as a professional artist. In this country MacConnel’s importance has been recognized by such institutions as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Abroad his work is part of the permanent collections of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne and the Palais Lichtenstein in Vienna. He has both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, as well as having taught painting at the university level. In short, MacConnel has impeccable credentials as a serious contemporary artist, and his work is, and deserves to be, considered thoughtfully.

While I realize the difficulties faced by magazine reviewers who must turn in a polished assessment of an artist’s. show perhaps only hours after it first opens, this is not the circumstance that confronted O’Brien, who had many months to consider and choose his words carefully. A reviewer who takes his responsibility to his editors and the public seriously should at least try to figure out why others have taken the artist seriously even when he himself does not.

The problem with O’Brien is that he never seems to make the effort, and as a result never gets beyond the apparently aggressive color of MacConnel’s work to the serious artistic, social, and political questions that lie just below the surface. O’Brien’s most obvious shortcoming is to mistake work expressed in a colloquial vocabulary for easy work. How much a little serious effort on O’Brien’s part would have been repaid to all concerned. Perhaps O’Brien will do better at MacConnel’s next Holly Solomon exhibition in 1986.

—Holly Solomon
New York

Glenn O’Brien replies:
I do forgive Holly Solomon, not for reacting to my superficial remarks, but for not writing sooner—when I liked something she showed. I guess my plodding praise is okay, but my plodding attacks are not.

Solomon says I miss the point, the point being that MacConnel spent two years making the work in his show and that he has great credentials. I knew MacConnel’s credentials were in order and I never suggested that the show was something he just threw together the night before the opening. But I try to review what I see inthe gallery and not the artist, or the artist’s career or credentials.

A few other points. If mine is a pop-music vernacular it is not affected. Solomon should not mistake criticism “expressed in a colloquial vocabulary” for easy criticism. Solomon never gets beyond the apparently aggressive language of my review to the serious artistic, social, and sporty questions that lie just between the lines.

By the way, my physician and dentist both hang their degrees on the wall—why shouldn’t artists? It might help the more adolescent shoppers take work that’s meaningful below the surface a little more seriously.

To the Editor:
Perhaps Jeff Kelley, reviewer of “California Bookworks” [“Reviews,” Summer 1984], who finds “craft literacy” nonsense, could be surprised out of his acceptance of the early Modern equation of high-speed visual communication with knowledge, and out of his acceptance of the equally hoary definition of attention to object, body, and material as fetishism, by a quick fix of contemporary readings on the gender bias of logocentrism. W. J. T. Mitchell has outlined the history of logocentrism and related male preferences for vision, formal abstraction, and iconoclasm in “The Politics of Genre: Space and Time in Lessing’s Laocoon” (Representations 6, Spring 1984). Understanding the historical placement of his prejudices might allow Kelley to appreciate Susan Stewart’s book On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection [1984], in which she connects the body as mode and object of perception, the intensity of use of the material object, and narrative construction in the generation of significance. This level of attention to the use of the material world, joining its making and usage in time to the egocentric body, can only enrich a discussion of the production of meaning now atrophied by the gigantic corporate models of commodity exchange called “information” in contemporary Marxist criticism. Perhaps it is a prefiguration of the next roll-over of the unfashionably marginal into centrality, in which case Stewart’s earlier book Nonsense: Aspects of Intertextuality in Folklore and Literature [1980] will also be useful to those who automatically consign the marginal to its boundaries, yapping “nonsense” to kill any possible dialogue.

—Frances Butler
Berkeley, Ca.

Jeff Kelley replies:
I agree about “fetish”; it is a hoary term. More precisely, it’s a lazy term. Also, the gender-bias comments are interesting and deserve reflection. But Butler missed the point of my review. “Craft literacy” is no more or less nonsensical than is an esthetic of Cor-Ten steel. Rather, Butler’s catalogue assertion that the body and material rhetorics of certain booklike objects somehow constitute a socioeconomic alternative to the corporate marketplace was nonsense. It prescribed a context for the exhibition that crushed it with ineffectual radicality. Otherwise, I respect Butler’s thoughts, and appreciate her response.

To the Editor:
For a catalogue raisonné of the art of Leonid Pasternak, I would appreciate hearing from anyone with correspondence with the artist or his family, unpublished memoirs or photographs, or information about works not registered with a major museum.

—Lewis Barnard Sckolnick
Amherst, Ma. 01004–1043

To the Editor:
For a catalogue raisonné of the work of sculptor John Chamberlain, I would appreciate hearing from collectors and anyone with information to offer about him or his art.

—Julie Sylvester
67 Vestry Street
New York, NY 10003