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Backward and Downward with the Arts

The number of objects now claiming attention in the name of art is past calculating, and the size of the public more or less disposed to glimpse these objects, if not actually to acclaim them, increases at a velocity rivaling that of the population explosion itself. Yet the suspicion persists that this dizzying state of affairs, far from certifying the cultural health which all the yea-saying agencies of government, the foundations, museums, and other interested institutions gleefully affirm, might actually reflect a general decline in artistic seriousness. Art, self-consciously considered as such, has never been more popular, but the price of this popularity is certainly higher than anyone is willing to admit. One of its worst results may be seen in the way a dumb, factitious celebrity has come to exercise—and not only for the public, but for critics, museums, academicians, and even many artists—the kind of authority formerly enjoyed by disinterested artistic accomplishment. For this new public and its captive artists, fame itself is the driving force and works of art only its incidental expression.

Where the great modern artists were obliged, often against their will, to carry on a kind of aesthetic guerrilla warfare against the tastes of the public, today’s audience-oriented artist has placed himself in a position where only acts of violence committed against his own artistic resources can achieve the goal that has preempted all others: to win not necessarily the approval but the sustained interest of a public for whom the spectacle of such deliberate self-abuse has become virtually synonymous with creative vitality. An art so irredeemably mortgaged to its own destruction is barred, of course, from trafficking in the kind of values which in the past have conferred significance, great or small, on the objective work of art. In place of such values it substitutes the artist’s myth—or, to be precise, his publicity. This carefully constructed fabric of gossip, ideas, pseudo-ideas, and tendentious verbiage of every sort, makes its appearance initially perhaps to “explain” the inner logic of the work of art, but, being exempt from the destructions wrought upon the work itself, ends by triumphantly displacing it. The artist’s legend, carefully filtered through the intricate mechanism of commerce and communications, is what remains most vivid to the public eye. His works, though still necessary for sustaining the legend (at least in its early stages), become mere occasions for renewing acquaintance with it.

The four “profiles” which Mr. Tomkins has brought together in The Bride and the Bachelors constitute the most straightforward exercise in legend-mongering which this situation has yet produced. The book is, in fact, a brilliant example of the deplorable tendency to mythicize rather than criticize works of art which attain any degree of notoriety, and its success is directly attributable to its author’s total lack of intellectual involvement with either the art in question or, indeed, with aesthetics as such. For unlike other writers who have addressed themselves to this task, Mr. Tomkins is completely untroubled by any ideas of his own. The breath of critical ratiocination has apparently never clouded his limpid prose, and if he has ever suffered the least doubt about the job he has set himself, he has suppressed it handsomely. He thus enjoys an advantage known mainly to copywriters and hagiographers, namely, the ability to take his subjects—in this case, Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Jean Tinguely, and Robert Rauschenberg—entirely at their own evaluation. His form, too, is perfect for the occasion. With its mass of detail arranged in a shapely narrative and rendered with an air of cheerful sophistication, the New Yorker profile is the ideal medium for converting a vexing and complex phenomenon into a delightful and quotable romance. What the lives of the saints are to the pious, these profiles are to a public almost desperate for signs of aesthetic grace.

The profile form is not, however, the best training-ground for grappling, as it were, with ideas. Hence Mr. Tomkins’s six-page Introduction, in which he struggles manfully, but without success, to place his four subjects in some sort of intellectual perspective. We are told first that these artists “do not constitute a movement or a school”—an assertion belied not only by the bulk of the book but by the ensuing paragraphs of the Introduction itself. Then there is the elusive matter of Duchamp’s influence—elusive, that is, for Mr. Tomkins. In the Introduction, we are assured that neither Cage, Tinguely, nor Rauschenberg “has been directly influenced by Duchamp.” This statement is quickly hedged in the very next sentence, while the profile devoted to Duchamp himself testifies to the “spectacular growth and spread of this influence within the art world since 1954” and refers to “certain new developments in American art [clearly including Rauschenberg] for which Duchamp’s work, both formal and informal, is generally agreed to be a primary source and inspiration.”

But this bit of confusion over one of the central themes of his book is as nothing compared to the sheer naiveté that Mr. Tomkins displays wherever he is called upon to exercise a little—and only a little—historical imagination. That “the forces of tradition are in eclipse at the moment” appears to Mr. Tomkins a self-evident proposition, though as an expositor of four careers, which, taken together, embrace more than half a century of art history, he might just possibly have noticed that certain new traditions have managed to take hold and that his own book, for example, would have been unthinkable if one of these traditions—that of Dada and its many epigoni—were not now an accepted, indeed an acclaimed, feature of modern culture. Mr. Tomkins is forever invoking the specter of “heresy” when, in fact, the principal materials of his book constitute, if anything, a new orthodoxy.

Still, what difference does it make? The Bride and the Bachelors is not going to be read for its ideas, but for its gossip. In that respect it is invaluable. Here is the story of Duchamp’s life exactly as Duchamp himself would like us to see it. That it is a life which, for more than forty years, has belonged—as Dr. Leavis said of Edith Sitwell—to the history of publicity rather than the history of art, is a fact which Mr. Tomkins manages to obscure without exactly denying. But then, he swallows whole the notion that Duchamp was a major talent even in the days, half a century ago, when he condescended to produce a work of art now and then. This notion, which a critical examination of Duchamp’s patchy oeuvre cannot support (not that Mr. Tomkins makes the least effort to undertake such an examination), is essential to the myth carefully cultivated by Duchamp himself for forty years—the myth of genius lapsed into silence. It is so much more interesting than the real story of a clever but minor talent defeated by its own devices—one can hardly blame Mr. Tomkins for preferring the more colorful, standard version.

For Duchamp is an interesting case—more interesting, I think, as a case than as an artist. He is essentially a dandy who was never deeply involved in the workaday problems of executing works of art, but who realized very early on that the whole sub-culture spawned by modern art, with its devoted and supercilious audience, its rapidly shifting body of ideas, its large quantities of money, and that peculiar authority which outrageous publicity (sometimes disguised as art history) enjoys in determining their relations, might prove to be a more malleable and amusing medium than anything to be found in the studio of a mere artist. Long before he gave up making new works of art in 1923—he still does a brisk business in turning out “replicas” of his earlier works—Duchamp had made the manipulation of this special world his central concern. Admittedly, it has taken a certain genius to sustain so cynical a role over so long a period, but then conditions have grown more favorable with the years. A book like Mr. Tomkins’s, retailing a large body of received opinion while questioning none of the governing principles, reminds us of how deeply our culture is now implicated in what began in the early Twenties as a more or less esoteric sport.

As with Duchamp, so with Cage, Tinguely, and Rauschenberg; all the standard gossip is here—all that can be published in a family magazine, anyway—together with a good many new quotations, conversations, and obiter dicta. Rauschenberg’s “famous” erasure of De Kooning’s drawing, Cage’s fate at the hands of the New York Philharmonic—all the familiar tales are spun and respun with tiresome predictability. In the end we are told much too much about these artists, and far too little: too much about what did, or did not, take place at Black Mountain College or the Grand Shinto Shrine of Ise, and too little about what their actual work, stripped bare of exactly the kind of legend Mr. Tomkins’s book perpetuates, amounts to. A slender gift like Tinguely’s could only be mistaken as profoundly significant under circumstances of radical aesthetic breakdown, just as Rauschenberg’s essentially flashy and superficial “ideas”—a legacy, mainly, of his career as a window decorator—could only be taken seriously by a public unequipped to deal with an authentic artistic experience. To come on like Vasari about such artists would be comical if there were not so much at stake. As it is, the sheer proliferation of writing of this sort casts a blight not only on art but on the intelligence required to apprehend it as something more than an amusing and fashionable pastime.

Letters

The Scene August 5, 1965

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