Sunday, May 25, 2003

The banality of much of the the New York cultural scene is beginning to get to me. Holland Cotter manages to mix glib cynicism and politics in his piece on an exhibition of photographs from the late 60's of the Black Panthers, and Sarah Boxer is a parody of a teenage girl, writing about Warhol's screen tests.

I heard from a friend about Roger Kimball's screed against Minimalism and Michael Kimmelman. As with politics, so with culture: Do I really have to choose between a celebration of the hip or of the moribund? I have plenty of problems with the taste, and the politics, of the Dia foundation, but do I have to cite a hireling of Hilton Kramer for a response to its excesses?

With the Warhol and the Panther articles, the two critics have a similar confused perspective. They each write as if we were once supposed to take people—as actors, whether on a small stage or a large one—merely at their word. But now that we may not, we can at least have some fun at the expense of others less self-aware than we are. Is there a fascist tone to the Panther esthetic? Why yes dear, there is. Is it sexy? Yes dear, very. So, if we reduce everything to fashion and style, we can still use our chic cynicism to critique the political kitsch of George Bush? Ooh! That sounds fun. And with both our ignorance and sense of superiority intact.
So we've run the course from puritanism to decadence—from one version of simple-mindedness to another—with nothing, that we recognize as such, in between.

Here's Sarah Boxer on one of Warhol's screen tests.
"Nobody beats Dennis Hopper. One eye is lighter than the other, almost transparent. The light must be blinding him. He smiles; he looks down. A worry furrows his brow. A dark shadow has pooled right in the middle of his forehead. He blinks a lot, turns to the right, looks up, then to the left. What to do? He begins singing to himself, "Ba-ba-ba." His head beats time. He rocks, shuts his eyes, then stops singing and looks ahead. Gorgeous. He's troubled again. He looks left and up. Time for another song, with lips closed. "Bum-bum-bum." Give that man a contract."

As with the Cotter article It's a dilettante's critique, of everything.
Callie Angell, the curator in charge of collating Warhol's films, taught me years ago that with the screen tests Warhol became one of the best portraitists this country has ever produced. With Nadar and August Sander he completes a troika of the greatest photographers of the human face. To watch one of his 3 minute movies is to watch every pose and posture, every pretension of his sitters, disintegrate. Any viewer who looks at them without bias—without the baggage that accompanies the Warhol brand—can recognize and be entranced by this. Does Sarah Boxer know that some people who do not read Interview or Vogue take Warhol seriously? Can we expect a little more from the Times? Which Brings me to Michael Kimmelman.

I've written about Kimmelman here before. If Roger Kimball wants to compete with him in the high-brow olympics he'll lose in the first round, as anyone who has read the Times' critic in the NY Review (where he writes on classical music) will admit. Kimmelman was headed for a career as a concert pianist before injury made that impossible. As an art critic he is both serious and open minded. And he brings what I can only call an amateur's sense of curiosity. The problem is that he doesn't have a very sophisticated eye.

I'm going to write more on this, but not now.

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