Notes from around the block opinion, nostalgia, people, and photography

I remember during class discussions with bright high school juniors and even brighter university business students, often using the phrase, ” It’s all relative, isn’t it?” Here I meant that the subject at hand could only be discussed in relation to something else. For example, if we were discussing The Scarlet Letter, Hester’s decision to have sex with her pastor invariably came up. Was this wrong? A moral sin? Were there extenuating circumstances that the puritan community might have considered before banishing her to a life alone and to the branding of a large capital A on her bodice? The puritans saw her behavior in absolutes.

Here, Ms. O’Keeffe is advocating for abstraction. Her point, I think, in this quotation is that painters who paint realistically aren’t as capable of communicating reality as are painters who leave things out…say one breast or a purple scrotum or a decapitated teapot.


We the viewer are left with spaces, so to speak, to fill in with our own sensibilities. Surely, according to Ms. O’Keeffe such artistic expression is superior to the art of Maynard Dixon or William Keith who painted grand landscapes with recognizable trees and stony edifices called mountains.

Years ago, I sat down on an ugly pink bench in a MOMA somewhere trying to figure out why a large canvas with a gum wrapper and a streak of chartreuse paint was hanging there. In truth, I was just resting my feet. An alarm sounded and a large museum worker dressed in a suit wearing a blank face told me to get off the bench, which was part of the installation. I leaped off as if I had been sitting on an original Gustav Stickley chair. That bench was by So and So and it was worth a great deal of money. In truth, it was crap. No design, nothing aesthetic. But it was constructed by You Know Who.

Let’s face it. We have been bamboozled. Come on. You know what I am talking about, right? You’ve been at the Tate in London or MOMA in NYC and looked at a canvas with three stripes and a dot hanging on the cement walls, masquerading as art and said to yourself, ” I could have done that.” The proverbial answer we have all heard is “….yes, but you didn’t,” to which I would answer, ” it shows no talent whatsoever. Which agent, which impresario, which collector trying to inflate the value of his art has deemed THIS canvas worth millions?

Tom Wolfe challenged convention which, for those of you who have not read his books, may seem that he was a typical novelist–a reformer like Frank Norris, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck and the like who make their livings by bringing to the fore serious social flaws like political corruption, prejudice, and workers’ rights. In fact, “major” American novelists Norman Mailer and John Updike, two self-professed chroniclers of the American zeitgeist (but overrated from this author’s perspective) rejected Tom Wolfe’s book of business because he was a commercial success, something they resented and rejected. He got even for their elitism in a short story entitled, ” My Three Stooges.”

Tom Wolfe had no problem reminding his readership that modern art–abstract expressionism, post modern art, pop art, and the Bauhaus School of Architecture were, in fact, drummed up faddish trends that the New York Elite eagerly bought and monetized. They knew “something” that we unsophisticates outside of the epicenter of cultural beingness did not.

Today there is a peculiarly modern reward that the avant-garde artist can give his benefactor: namely, the feeling that he, like his mate the artist, is separate from and aloof from the bourgeoisie, the middle classes…the feeling that he may be from the middle class but he is no longer in it…the feeling that he is a fellow soldier, or at least an aide-de-camp or an honorary cong guerrilla in the vanguard march through the land of the Philistines. This is a peculiarly modern need and a peculiarly modern kind of salvation (from the sin of Too Much Money) and something quite common among the well-to-do all over the West, in Rome and Milan as well as New York.