Jed Perl’s Magicians & Charlatans: In An Ailing Art World, the Best Discoveries Can Stir the Soul

Magicians & Charlatans book cover
Cover of Jed Perl’s “Magicians & Charlatans: Essays on Art and Culture” (courtesy Eakins Press Foundation)

A specter is haunting the art world today; in it, a gaggle of pernicious trends and influences, and of self-generated manners, attitudes and afflictions have joined together to conjure up an unsettling spirit of narcissism and recklessness. If this spectral current, as it surges through the art world’s bloated, swaggering, vulgar body, has an odor, it is the smell, more than anything, of money. No one has described the nature of this force better than Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s recently resigned, contemporary-art chief, who noted in 2006, without irony, “The best art is the most expensive, because the market is so smart.”

As the American critic Jed Perl points out in his new book, Magicians & Charlatans: Essays on Art and Culture (Eakins Press Foundation, 2013), a collection of essays about subjects in the fields of Renaissance, modern and contemporary art, today the forces of “art as money” have vanquished those of “art as tradition.”

Nearly all of the texts in Perl’s book, which also discusses the ideas and achievements of such cultural figures as Edmund Wilson, Lincoln Kirstein and Meyer Schapiro, first appeared in The New Republic, the magazine for which he regularly writes. To these revised essays, he brings the erudition, clarity of expression and passionate sense of engagement that have long been the hallmarks of his thinking and writing.

In fact, even if Perl had published only this new book’s introduction (“Laissez-faire Aesthetics”) as a pamphlet, it still could have served as something of a manifesto calling for a drastic reconsideration of the art world’s current methods and mores. It’s something of a cri de coeur from a well-informed observer who is deeply disappointed that dollar-value concerns have trumped aesthetic considerations of so much of what comes up for consumption in galleries and venerable museums.

Jed Perl
Art critic and author Jed Perl in 2013 (photo © 2013 Peter Kayafas)

Perl’s critiques are never mean-spirited or shrill. Indeed, it’s the measured, gracious tone of his writing and the understanding of his subjects that make reading his prose — and, often, rereading a single sentence or paragraph — so pleasurable. From one sharp observation to the next illuminating historical detail, or from one nugget of analysis to the next expression of informed opinion, Perl’s arguments unfold as naturally as flower petals open to catch the sun.

However, the scene in contemporary art’s garden isn’t a pretty one; in an anything-goes cultural environment that belittles or rejects concerns such as quality, craftsmanship and a genuine sense of social engagement in art, where can art lovers, never mind critics, turn to find what might really be good? In the essay “The Variety Show” (2001), Perl considers the art scene that “laissez-faire aesthetics” has engendered. He writes:

[A]nything is (at least in theory) acceptable, and so there is a whiff of democratic possibility that circulates, a kind of equalization of everything for everybody. Then again, you can argue that there is something highly undemocratic about an art world in which fixed standards are irrelevant and creativity, totally divorced from any generally agreed upon idea of craft or technique, is just another word for getting ahead.

Similarly, in his introduction, he observes:

Among artists and committed gallerygoers there are now so many things that nobody is willing to argue about that it is difficult to know where to begin. […] And anybody who begins to speak about the importance of high culture in a democratic society, or who wants to make some critical distinctions between high culture and popular culture, is likely to be met by skeptical looks, as if there were something unacceptable about even the possibility of such a discussion.

These are not the wistful ruminations of a dizzy romantic or the pontifications of an irritated curmudgeon. Perl digs experimentation and stimulating ideas as much as the next viewer, especially when what he is examining is well-crafted, expresses a meaningful vision and has some substance. His antennae are always up for an artwork’s resonance, that ineffable quality that keeps us coming back to savor it again and again, each time discovering — and learning from and being moved by — what it might have to tell us about our history, aspirations, humanity and souls.

Perl finds much to admire and to be inspired by (enter the “magicians”) in the ceramics of Isamu Noguchi and Kenneth Price; Chardin’s attention to detail (he gave “earth-shattering importance to the tiniest elements”); Balthus’s 1998–2000 oil painting, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (“a glimpse of the overlappings and shadowings that come into play when tradition is truly alive”); contemporary artist Jeremy Blake’s “tantalizingly lovely little movies,” with their “geeky meticulousness” and “images of wild abandon”; and the 17th-century master Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini’s sculpture, “Death of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni.” Of this astonishing transformation of marble into a cascade of flowing robes and a dying woman in a final moment of ecstasy, Perl notes: “The pose is unearthly: a divine birthpang.”

Speaking of specters, there is another one that has profoundly informed the character, scope and content of discussions in academia and the art world regarding art, society, politics and other subjects for at least half a century. That is the spirit of postmodernist critical theory. To be sure, pomo theory has opened doors to a deeper, richer understanding of many different aspects of history, society and culture. It also has had everything to do with fostering the “laissez-faire aesthetics” that has made Mickey Mouse as worthy a subject of critical investigation as Michelangelo.

In video-incorporating works like Tony Oursler’s “Endfire Array” (2001), Perl looks for what he calls an “organic relationship between the message and the technique.” (courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York)

Pomo’s most basic assertion is that the meaning of anything — a song, a picture, a speech, a gesture, an event — depends on the varying contextual points of view from which it may be experienced. In turn, this means that anything can mean just about anything, and that nothing ever means anything absolutely. That’s a mode of thinking which, when elaborated to its logical conclusion, can lead to a potentially dangerous, or at least numb and soulless, relativism or even nihilism.

Pomo’s point of view is cool. Detached. Inevitably, it’s ironic. A strict postmodernist’s credo, insofar as he or she may assent to a belief in anything, is that everything is, like, well, relative. Enter the art world’s “charlatans” (those who would show anything to try to make a buck or to whip up a spectacle) and “laissez-faire aesthetics.”

Perl is certainly aware that postmodernism’s insistent relativism has been the soil in which “laissez-faire aesthetics” has grown. Also, he is no intellectual fuddy-duddy. His analyses of the dubious achievements of some of the “charlatans” who helped make the art world what it is today (among them: spectacle-seeking “opportunist” art dealers Leo Castelli and Jeffrey Deitch) say more than any jargon-filled exegeses about “sites” of artistic production, “strategies” of “intervention,” or post-Duchampian, context-shifting appropriationist “projects.”

“Gerhard Richter is a bullshit artist masquerading as a painter,” Perl writes in an essay about the prolific German’s 2002 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It is one of the strongest assertions in his book. Perl notes:

Robert Storr, the senior curator in [MoMA’s] department of painting and sculpture who organized this show, will tell you that there is beauty in this chilly stuff, but all I see in Richter and his supporters is a loathing for painting’s true magic.

Everything in Richter’s work is muffled, distanced, impassively ironic, as if seen through a thick, murky sheet of glass. […]

I do not simply dislike Gerhard Richter’s work. I reject it on fundamental grounds, as a matter of principle. I do not accept the premise on which his entire career is based, that in the past half century painting has become essentially and irreversibly problematical, a medium in perpetual crisis. This is a counterfeit crisis, as far as I am concerned.

Perl points out that New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, writing about the MoMA show, praised Richter “for maintaining ‘a kind of cruel faith’ in painting.” Perl’s readers are left to wonder, too: What does a “cruel faith” in painting mean?

The estimable soul of Perl’s book reveals itself in passages describing the essence of art’s meaning and value — its enduring, unnamable, non-monetary value — for its makers and its audiences. He writes:

Art, so it seems to me, represents the triumph of private feeling over public pressures, or at least the ability of private feeling to assert itself in the face of public pressures and public values. […] Art is not a mirror of society but an essential part of the fabric of society, with a unique role to play, which more than anything else has to do with affirming the stubborn particularity of a person’s experience.

The publication of Perl’s book by the small, New York-based Eakins Press Foundation is not accidental. Leslie Katz (1918–97), a former Black Mountain College student, established it in 1966 and named it after the painter Thomas Eakins. The organization’s director, photographer Peter Kayafas, notes that its mission is to produce art and literature books whose themes are “relevant to values that are currently embattled.” For Kayafas, Perl’s essays deliver a “head-on assessment of the pitfalls of our culture as they are manifest in the contemporary art world.” They represent a “moving affirmation” of the value of the work and ideas of certain artists whose creations, as Perl puts it, offer “experiences [that] are worth something.”

Such experiences, Perl writes, “may suggest that what we call art involves an isolation, or a heightening, of experiences that we know from daily life. I suppose this is true, up to a point. But it is also utterly false, a complete misunderstanding of the nature of art. Because although we bring a great deal of our experience of life to our experience of art, art finally holds us because it eludes mere sensibility, mere sensation.”

Is it the quest for the rewards of such experiences that keeps Perl heading out, year after year, to be delighted, when he stumbles upon them, by such discoveries as the expressive power of the elderly Balthus’s shaky line or the intriguing path Joan Snyder’s paintings appear to take “through ugliness to get to beauty”? Maybe so, but I believe there is something else that keeps this very alert observer going. That’s the allure of another fleeting spirit that has become elusive in the art establishment. It’s an always-looming specter against whose authority the machinations of this kooky world of dreamers and traders can — and should and must — still be measured. That’s the unsinkable spirit of old-fashioned truth.

Jed Perl’s Magicians & Charlatans: Essays on Art and Culture (Eakins Press Foundation, 2013) is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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