Monday, May 10, 2004

kill yr. idols

Much as I love shooting fish in barrels, I like to think I prefer the former craftier than Adam Gopnik. It just seems unsporting. Cheneyish, even. But his latest, on the death of Kirk Varnedoe, his teacher, friend, co-author, and son's-godfather, is, in places, startlingly well-written. My target isn't Gopnik, but his idol Varnedoe: let us hope that the heroic age of american art history passes with him. We have enough anti-intellectualism without being showered with it from our intellectuals:

[H]e had come to believe that in art history description was all the theory you needed; if you could describe what was there, and what it meant (to the painter, to his time, to you), you didn't need a deeper supporting theory. Art wasn't meaningful because, after you looked at it, someone explained it; art explained itself by being there to look at.

How one explains what an artist "means" "to his time" without recourse to "theory" is not explained; nor, for that matter, is why Varnedoe's mediation of the aesthetic object is somehow purer than, say, Rosalind Krauss's. But beyond the essential stupidity of the argument, such as it is, there is a hint of something more disturbing: like he's afraid someone's going to say he throws like a girl if he gets caught reading a book. It's not just misogyny -- though the "virility" and "muscular criticism" of Varnedoe and his motorcyle/football Williams cohort are invariably insisted on. There is a fear that talking about art is somehow effeminate, or at least suspicious and elitist.

Football is of course a rhetorical strategy to distance the man from such dark implications. It's funny, though: High & Low, the show Gopnik curated with Varndoe at the MoMA, wanted to reconcile "art" with the culture of the masses, but it was notorious for its stilted vision of the process as a one-way street, in which artistic geniuses would occasionally appropriate a chunk of the aesthetic garbage that surrounded them. [Hard to believe, but this was at least a slightly revolutionary proposition back then, at least at the MoMA]. It was a kind of faux-populism that exposed a certain contempt for the masses. The football thing strikes the same sour note when Gopnik starts off with this Varnedoe quote:

If you're going to spend your life coaching football, you have to be smart enough to do it well, and dumb enough to think it matters.

[Except, as we all know, this is actually a (garbled) Eugene McCarthy quote.] The bizarre three-way point ends up like this: football, i.e., mass culture, is for dumb people, but it will serve as convenient cover for me to talk about art, while insisting that talking about other people talking about art is a perversion.

Furthermore.

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