Whatever else one thinks of art critic Michelle Kamhi recent book “Who Says That’s Art?” she’s brave. Her effort to corral art’s baggy borders is gutsy. The book is also well-researched, well-written, but so dense with debatable observations and conclusions that a single review with space limitations can’t begin to take it on.
What to do?
While it’s always a bad idea to judge a book by its cover, assessing the premise of a book is surely called for and Kamhi’s basic belief system colors the read. The focus of this review, then, falls on Kamhi’s suppositions, as in, “If art can be about anything, then it is nothing.”
This is an eminently arguable credo. Art about anything can be nothing, yes. But it can also be about everything. Putting art in a lock box marked “something” hems it in, makes it smaller and keeps it from resonating with the widest range of human experience.
Not that Kamhi’s beefs about the likes of Andy Warhol or Damien Hirst are baseless. But if you want to define art, you need to be ready – very very ready – to start out with at least some incontrovertible posits. Kamhi’s high opinion of 18th century’s aesthetic philosophy and low opinion of modern art are assumptions too sweeping for words. .
While she acknowledges that the root of fine art began in antiquity, she leaps straight to the 18th century, bounding over the very century that would have clued her into modern art – the Baroque era of the 17th century.
Granted, there was a time when no self-respecting art lover in the eighteenth to early twentieth century would collect Baroque art. Baroque began as a slur word (barroco in old Portuguese), meaning “misshapen pearl.” Scorning symmetry, balance, and proportion, Baroque artists piled on the emotion, heightening it, and often made it hard to look at. This is particularly true if you compare it to the Renaissance ideal of perfectly formed people.
In contrast, Baroque painting showed struggling, earthy figures in turbulent settings. It revealed a world in flux and off balance, a world that was searching and questioning.
Sound familiar? It should. Artists in our time are also searching and questioning.
Even putting taste aside, how can one compare, say, Baroque painter Caravaggio’s utterly moving work with that of 18th century’s Jean-Baptise Greuze who was given to painting décolletage.
Clearly 18th century artists were weary of the Baroque dramas and sought a less weighty look, which may well account for some of the art of the 20th century that Kamhi pooh-poohs, like that of Hirst and Warhol. Yes, their efforts are fair game to ridicule. But is it fair to skewer all modernism?