PRINT December 1999




To the Editor:
When Katy Siegel asks, “Where was photography?” and “Where was painting?” [September 1999] in this year's Venice Bicnnale, she means, “Where were the Americans and Europeans?” The conceit of the Biennale, as I understand it, was to exhibit artists from around the world, not to replicate MoMA's art-historical viewpoint: focusing primarily on European and American painting, then looking tangentially at other artists and media.

It's a matter of debate whether the artworks presented in this year's Biennale reflect ideas of '60s “nontraditional” media. Are painting and photography “traditional” art media to the non-Western artists exhibited in the Biennale? I'm not surprised that Harald Szeeman found commonalities among international artists through what Ms. Siegel might call “dated” avant-garde approaches to making art, since it was during this period that contemporary art practice gained a more international perspective.

It is also interesting to consider the unique role that the Biennale, presenting video, installation, and performance-based art, has in the commercial art world. Due to their commercial viability and limited spatial requirements, paintings and photographs can be more easily presented in galleries. The Biennale and other art festivals allow artwork to be presented that does not fit into this system.

Much of the multimedia and performance art in the Biennale has been described as art that attempts to entertain. However, it is also art that attempts to involve audiences in new ways, and therefore thrives in a setting such as the Biennale, which brings so many live bodies into contact with the art. I agree with Ms. Siegel that the same work does often seem forced in a more tame environment; not just because the artwork needs the spectacle of the Biennale to seem interesting, but also because the works actually require the presence of a dynamic audience to complete them.

Like the sprawling and indeterminate nature of the Biennale as a whole, this is not necessarily a weakness or strength of contemporary art, but part and parcel of its existence. Certainly, the Biennale is a partial picture of the contemporary art world. I would like to know what Ms. Siegel would define as a complete picture. I guess she can find some satisfaction in her assertion that a more painting- and photography-centered picture of late-'90s art will ultimately prevail in the museums and history books. She's probably right.

—Rebecca Herman,
Long Island City, NY

Katy Siegel responds:
Don't cry for the “nontraditional” media artists—just go to Chelsea or any number of international museum shows where they fill the halls. Good and bad practitioners alike benefit from their resonance with contemporary sensibility. Entertainment—not religion, not politics, not even the commodity culture—is the dominant mode of the moment. The juggernaut of television, movies, music, magazines, theme parks, bookstores, sports, etc. exerts a magnetic pull on other forms of social and cultural practice.

Even the most austere art institutions have recently flashed a little leg, and museums are crowded in a time when people care no more about art than they ever did. Biennials and art fairs are still more experience-oriented, and not necessarily in a liberating or “dynamic” way, subsuming even the most avant-garde art. It's not the fault of the artists or even the curator, but that's why most of the reviewers in various publications paid little attention to the actual content of the Biennale, and why Robert Storr used his analogy of the county fair.

As for my own wishes, I'm all for partial curating, in the sense of “partisan” or particular points of view—a tough trick in the current museum climate. But by excluding on principle those media with a history of serious critical attention—the “MoMA viewpoint”—the Biennale encouraged us to take it lightly, as a busman's holiday. This dichotomy of art-world leisure vs. work does no favors to the artists included.

The non-Western artists are equally disserviced by the perception that their particular nationality is fashionable—always a temporary condition. Why China and not Brazil? And, not to be churlish, but multinational capitalism, not goodwill, was the driving force behind '60s internationalism. Or we can look back still further for an it's-new-to-you precedent. In 1855 (at the Exposition Universelle), Baudelaire exhorted the blasé art lover to seek out Chinese art for fresh aesthetic thrills, not for true cultural understanding. The perspective then, as now, is inevitably Western, whatever the object of its gaze.

That said, I liked a lot of the art and I had a really good time.



To the Editor:
Maybe there's some physicist out there somewhere longing for an artistic “celebration of quantum graininess,” as Rachel Withers hints in your September 1999 issue [“International Shorts”]. But “the physicist” Richard Dawkins isn't one of them, since, as most broadly literate people know, he is an evolutionary biologist. I guess we can also rule out the physicist Alan Sokal, who (I suppose, given the nature of the mistake) Withers thought Richard Dawkins might be. Sokal, after all, never suggested that he felt ignored by the art world—rather, he just wanted critics of science who don't know any science either to learn some or shut up. I can't help getting a big kick out of Withers's confusing Dawkins for Sokal (or one of Sokal's colleagues, or something). She shows herself to be exactly that sort of critic so effectively lampooned by Sokal three years ago. Of course, I suppose Withers could have been engaged in a deliberate problematization of the artificial distinctions between evolutionary and physical theory. On second thought, though, I kind of doubt it.

—Nathaniel Wilcox,

Rachel Withers responds:
Having checked my original text, I see that the word “physicist” is an editorial addition. So, Mr. Wilcox has me bang to rights. My failure to notice the importation of this inaccuracy into my copy will just have to stand as proof positive of my narrow illiteracy.

The phrase “quantum graininess” comes from Dawkins's book Unweaving the Rainbow (Penguin, 1998). The author quotes from Blake's “Auguries of Innocence” (the four lines starting, “To see the world in a grain of sand”) and comments, “The stanza can be read as all about science . . . about taming space and time, about the very large built from the quantum graininess of the very small, a lone flower as a miniature of evolution.” Dawkins's general argument appears to be that poets (and presumably artists in general) and scientists are mutually inspired by a “spirit of wonder” about the universe; he proposes that if poets mistrustful of science could overcome their prejudice, science's revelations might inspire them to even greater heights of creative achievement.

If my attitude toward Dawkins's opinions on art came across as rather less than reverential, this is because (along with disagreements of my own) I broadly share the critical views expressed by Thomas Nagel in his moderate and lucid review of Unweaving the Rainbow (London Review of Books, April 1, 1999). Nagel writes that “science satisfies a very special hunger for understanding, the hope for universal order and reduction of complex variety to simple elements, so that the relations between things become intellectually transparent. This is not like poetry—it is not like any art—and its effect on us does not require poetic forms of presentation.” The title of Nagel's review was “Why so cross?” I'm tempted to ask the same of the graceless Mr. Wilcox—thereby nobly eschewing the use of that time-honored admonition, “Get a life.”



To the Editor: Reading Hilton Als's old-timey bitchery [October 1999] was greatly rewarding. For over thirty years I've felt that poor dead Frank O'Hara, whom I still deeply miss, was going to rest with all his laurels intact: great man, great curator, great wit, great drinker, great lover, great friend, etc. And along comes old Hilton, with a huge amount of jealousy, envy, homophobia, and racism in tow, and gives us the real Frank: a shithead, a drunk, a shallow poet, very surface-y, cruel, given to self-love. As authorities he cites Andy Warhol and Brad Gooch. This has to be the pits.

Frank thought Andy pushy—a no-no for Frank—and not very attractive (Frank's criteria for attractiveness were very broad indeed), and he let Andy know it. Brad Gooch wrote a very detailed bio of Frank, badly misquoting many friends and lovers, and with very little sympathy for his poetry—how reliable an authority can this be?

Hilton Als makes the point that from the exhibition catalogue Frank “looks, if not like death,then the very body of ill health.” I've gone over the catalogue a number of times and Frank looks pretty healthy to me. The only explanation I can find for Als's peculiar observation is that he fastened on Alice Neel's two portraits of Frank—which sure do look beyond-the-grave, but Alice painted most of her portraits as if the sitter were slightly or mostly decayed. Anyway, Frank's legs look kind of cute.

Now if Als had commented on the size of Frank's uncircumcised cock, of which there's lots of evidence in the same catalogue, and how it related to his life and art, I could envisage a whole new Artforum approach to art theory or criticism.

Calling Frank or Allen Ginsberg naive is laughable—both were about as naive as Mother Teresa. Calling Amiri Baraka mad is too trendy and stupid. For someone like Als, who appears to require great themes and large, important issues as prerequisites for the making of art, Baraka surely fits the bill. He's hurled himself into the world of greater issues to his great peril. For Als to demean and belittle him is naive itself.

What did you all have in your collective minds when you decided to publish this garbage? Is this art-writing for the millennium?

—Michael Goldberg,
New York

Hilton Als responds:
Oh, wow.