Is contemporary art, art? — with Peter Plagens (1995) | THINK TANK

Ben Wattenberg: Hello. I’m Ben Wattenberg. Today we take a visit to the world of art. Has art become too abstract? Too political? Too obscene? Should the federal government pay for it? Joining us to sort through the conflict and
the consensus are Hilton Kramer, editor of The New Criterion, coeditor of the recent
book “Against the Grain,” and art critic for The New York Observer; Peter Plagens,
art critic for Newsweek magazine and author of “Moonlight Blues: An Artist’s Art Criticism”
and a painter whose work is in many collections, including the Hirshhorn Museum; Marcia Tucker,
director of the New Museum for Contemporary Art in New York City; and Neal Benezra, chief
curator of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC. The question before this house: Is contemporary
art art? This week on “Think Tank.” When I was growing up less than 100 years
ago, we learned about the glories of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and the French impressionists. In much of today’s art, however, traditional
subjects like landscapes, still lifes, religious scenes, battlefield scenes, portraits are
out; abstract expressionism, Neo-Expressionism, conceptualism, postmodernism, and a lot of
other isms are in. After World War II, painters like Mark Rothko
explored the uses of geometry and color in his canvases. Ad Reinhardt painted simple black squares
and titled them with names such as “Black Series Number 59.” And Andy Warhol endlessly reproduced pop images
of Marilyn Monroe. Today artists are pushing to new limits. Some critics claim that too much of the new
art is obscene or even blasphemous, such as the controversial “Piss Christ” by Andres
Serrano. Others point to the 1993 Whitney Museum display
of the Rodney King video as too political. And whether you like it or not, the government
sometimes pay for it. But art marches on. A recent widely heralded exhibition by Bruce
Nauman at the Museum of Modern Art includes two wolves, two deer, a hanging collection
of simulated dead animal parts, and clown torture. Critics and collectors have hailed much of
this art, while many in the public are shaking their heads, including sometimes me. Mr. Benezra, let me ask you first, and let’s
go around the horn once quickly: What is it about contemporary art that makes it important
and/or different? Neal Benezra: To my mind, contemporary art
— the making of art today in the late 20th century is not markedly different from the
making art by artists in the late — in the early 20th century. I don’t think that people working today
are so much different than Picasso and Matisse and Duchamp. They want us to see things, think about things,
feel things that don’t normally enter into daily life and to challenge us with those
thoughts. Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Marcia Tucker? Marcia Tucker: Well, I think that what contemporary
art does is to encourage and stimulate people to think for themselves, to think independently,
and also to think critically. But it raises a lot of questions and opens
out on to debate. And — well, to dialogue and debate. And always dialogue and debate about the ideas
and issues that are most important to our own time. Ben Wattenberg: Great. Peter Plagens? Peter Plagens: It has a kind of healthy unruliness
about it, I think, although probably any observer at any time during the last 100 years might
have told you that his or her particular scene seemed to be unruly. But it is no longer the state. As an artist once complained to me about 20
years ago, “Why is it that 98 percent of the artworks are made out of 2 percent of
the available materials?” You have a nice sort of Pickwickian club in
which anybody can make any work of art out of anything. You get a kind of a mess at the bottom, but
you get some nice surprises at the top. Ben Wattenberg: I think, Hilton Kramer, you
would stand in opposition to some of these remarks. Hilton Kramer: Well, I think probably from
my perspective the most distinguishing mark of contemporary art isn’t its controversial
nature or the disagreeableness of the imagery, because that’s been — those have been
attributes about for a long time. What really distinguishes contemporary art
is the almost instant respectability that is conferred upon even the most outrageous
and far-out and repulsive ideas. That is, the contemporary art scene is an
open door in which is not only encouraged but embraced. Ben Wattenberg: Why don’t you give us some
examples of what is repulsive? Hilton Kramer: Well, the Nauman — the Bruce
Nauman show at the Museum of Modern Art is certainly an example where a good deal of
it is an absolutely unremitting assault on the senses. Ugly air-cracking noises, electronic noises,
repulsive images, sexual violence, people, you know, doing unspeakable things to other
people, and so on. Neal Benezra: It’s important to say that
Nauman’s not a young artist any longer. Nauman’s a veteran, a senior artist, very
well respected, and first appeared in New York in the late 1960s, as Hilton knows. And at that time his work was heavily criticized,
thoroughly criticized, by all manner of critics and professionals of, you know, one stripe
or another. And he has worked very, very hard and very,
very long to earn the stature that he’s received. It hasn’t been an overnight, immediate embrace
that he’s received from the art world. Marcia Tucker: You know, I did the first retrospective. I was a co-curator for it, and none of the
work included the images that you, I think, took objection to. And, in fact, a lot of the work — the ideas
in that work really became — they’re very, very much in the mainstream now, but even
then it was quite controversial simply because people weren’t used to it. And when there is a new form, it appears to
be an absence of form. Peter Plagens: I’d like to say something
about the nature of a conversation about art, and this is by way of ground rules — for
the ground rules, which is it has been my experience that any conversation about contemporary
art, particularly where there are images involved, anybody who is a proponent automatically looks
like a fool because the categories of the images — you know, the upside-down animals;
the clowns saying, “No, no, no, no” — when you list them like that — Ben Wattenberg: The white-on-white squares. I mean — Peter Plagens: Yeah, the white-on-white square. If you were to describe some of the most hallowed
works of modern art in terms like that, just in simple terms of the iconography, maybe
a little bit of the style — Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon,” you know, a
bunch of women in a brothel with African masks for faces, or something like that — immediately
to a commonsense viewer it seems an exercise, you know, in idiocy. And all I would caution is that, with Nauman,
with a lot of other artists, it isn’t what you do; it’s the way that you do it. I can’t fully explain why I think the South
America triangle, for instance — the steel beams with the upside-down chair — is moving,
but it’s moving to me, and it’s the way that it’s done. Ben Wattenberg: Is the white-on-white square
moving to you? Peter Plagens: More intellectually than viscerally. I mean, I see the date. I know when it was done. The act of courage. The leap forward. It does more for me intellectually than it
does, say, you know, sensuously hanging on a wall in front of me. Neal Benezra: I think it has to be said also
that that white-on-white square is now 80 — you know, approximately 80 years old. And time passes, and perceptions change. Ben Wattenberg: We’ve moved on to black-on-black
squares. I mean — Neal Benezra: Well, it becomes — things
become more accessible with time, it seems to me. Hilton Kramer: Well, actually, Ad Reinhardt
had a predecessor in Alexander Rodchenko in early 20th-century Russian art. He did black on black long before Ad Reinhardt
did. So there was already a tradition for it by
the time Ad got to it. But I think it helps to understand both the
conflicts within the contemporary art scene and the differences of opinion about them
to understand that the whole modernist tradition as I read it really consists of two quite
different traditions. There’s what I would call the — sort of
the tradition-oriented modernists, in which category I would place Matisse and Picasso
most preeminently, who really come out of a very studied relationship to the artists
who preceded them, and then what I would call guerrilla modernists, like the Dadaists preeminently,
who deliberately set out to wage war against established views of art. And what distinguishes contemporary art today
in the 1990s for me is the academicization of that guerrilla modernism — that is, Bruce
Nauman, for example, it’s what I call “graduate school Dada” in the beginning. And he didn’t — you know, he wasn’t
an obscure person in the beginning. I mean, his first show in New York was at
Leo Castelli, which was, you know, like opening on Broadway in the art world. So I mean, you know, even when he was controversial
and the critics didn’t like it, I mean, if you’re sponsored by Leo Castelli in Nauman’s
generation, you had it made, right at the beginning. Neal Benezra: Well, we could get seriously
into Nauman. He didn’t have it made. Nauman had a very — Ben Wattenberg: But what difference does that
make whether he had it made or not? I mean, he — you walk into the museum and
you saw hanging dead animal parts. Is that correct? And then, I mean — Marcia Tucker: You’re reducing it, though. Ben Wattenberg: — somebody’s got to explain
why — Neal Benezra: Why? Why do we have to explain? Ben Wattenberg: Because — well, you don’t
have to explain it, but I can ask you to explain it. Neal Benezra: It seems to me that one of the
primary virtues and one of the most interesting things about contemporary art is that we should
be thinking about it, it seems to me, as a kind of research endeavor, and some of it
will fall out with time. You know, there’s science that falls out
with time. There’s research of, you know, many different
types. But it doesn’t hold up over time. It falls out. It’s dismissed. The same thing with art. Some things will hold up over time, and some
things won’t. The jury is out. Hilton Kramer: Yeah, but that’s just a cop-out. Neal Benezra: No, I don’t think so. Hilton Kramer: I mean, saying, “Well, you
know, we don’t know yet.” But the curators, like yourself, who selected
Nauman or artist X or Y over the other artists available to your institution to confer this
great distinction upon and to spend a great deal of money in mounting this exhibition
for, I mean, you’ve made an intellectual judgment, and you’ve made an aesthetic judgment,
an intellectual judgment, which you really should be called upon to defend. I mean, you can’t say, “Well, it’s research;
we don’t know if it’s going to really be worthwhile.” I mean, you’ve made that decision. Why can’t you take the public into your
confidence and explain the basis of your decision? Marcia Tucker: Well, maybe it’s not important
anymore to say, “This is the single most important thing that has happened.” Maybe it’s more important to say — Hilton Kramer: I’m not arguing — no, we
know — Marcia Tucker: Just let me finish my sentence. Hilton Kramer: We know the curators — Marcia Tucker: Maybe it’s — Hilton Kramer: We know the curators — Ben Wattenberg: Hold on. Hold on. Marcia Tucker: Just let me finish my sentence. Maybe it’s more important to say this is
an artist who’s dealing with really important questions and issues in very new and different
ways, and it’s important to invite the public to engage in that dialogue that’s created
by that work. The other thing is that, you know, people
have a very old-fashioned idea about what art is supposed to do. It’s supposed to be beautiful? You know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder,
just as obscenity is in the eye of beholder and blasphemy is in the eye of the beholder. Hilton Kramer: Yes, well, I remember very
well, Marcia, your — the exhibition you did called “Bad Painting.” So you’ve really popularized the idea of
bad art. Marcia Tucker: It was — Hilton Kramer: But you say art raises questions
— should raise questions. I agree with you. But what questions is Nauman raising? Neal Benezra: It seems to me that there’s
a qualitative difference between what the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan
Museum of Art do. Peter Plagens: No, but I’m not asking about
the National Gallery. What questions is Nauman raising? I’ve been told he’s raising questions. Neal Benezra: He’s raising the most serious
kinds of questions about how people interact in society, how people treat each other in
society. Ben Wattenberg: All right. Let me move it on from that. I mean, one of the charges made against modern
art, the very modern art, is that it has become highly politicized, that these are people
making political points. Is that valid? Marcia Tucker: If you go back to Ancient Greece,
cultural practices were a part of political life — meaning the life of the polis or
the city-state. Politics in the larger sense has to do with
the ways in which art engages with social reality, with life. And I think that that is perhaps a place where
we might differ, because the idea of autonomous art, of an art that exists based on standards
that are completely separate from — or aesthetic standards, that there’s an idea that there
is an aesthetic existing apart, I don’t think is viable today. Peter Plagens: Well, I’d like to get in
here. One of the things that happens — and it
happened with — it happened to my mind with cubism. It happened with surrealism, and it’s happening
now with a genre of art that could loosely be called installation art. I don’t think there has been much new morphologically
on the scene since 1975, the late ’70s. Ben Wattenberg: Well, could you explain what
morphologically means? Peter Plagens: It means in terms of the form. I mean, the idea of filling up a room with
various objects — video monitors, a piles, and, you know, what have you — has been
around for a long time. I mean, I don’t know whether 1975 is some
kind of Christopher Columbus date, but that sort of thing has been established. And what has happened over the last, oh, several
years, if not 15 or 20 years, is that artists have come along, used those forms — Hilton
would call it academization or whatever — and put their political or social content into
it. It happened with cubism after a while. Cubism became a kind of academic style. People went out and did cubist landscapes,
you know, et cetera, et cetera. Maybe there could be a little bit more formal
inventiveness on the current scene. But, yes, in short answer to your question,
yes, there is a lot of politics in art. And one of the reasons seems to be that the
sort of formal superstructure of installation art has been around for a while, and artists
have come along and said, “Oh, that’s very useful; I can say something with that.” And they’ve done it. And I have a hunch it’ll wane a little bit. Hilton Kramer: Well, it’s one of the real
tenets of what has come to be called postmodern art, of which this installation stuff is an
example, that it really rejects aesthetic criteria and does go into politics as one
of the essentials. I remember the show a few years ago by — paintings
by Julian Schnabel at the Pace Gallery in New York called the “Fox Farm Paintings.” And these were supposed to be — I mean,
they were sort of basically abstract paintings with words on them, but these were supposed
to be animal rights paintings — that is, the Fox Farm referred to farms in which foxes
were raised to produce, you know, fur for fur coats. And in the introduction in the catalog of
that exhibition, the subjects that were deemed permissible for a postmodern painting were
listed by the author of the catalog. And there were feminist subjects, AIDS, homophobia,
homelessness, and so on — and animal rights being one of them. Of course, the curious thing about that exhibition,
most of the people in the — came to the exhibition, who bought paintings, as I observed
on a number of occasions, were women wearing mink coats. I mean, they had enough — Peter Plagens: But not fox coats. Hilton Kramer: They had enough good taste
not to wear a fox coat to the exhibition in which they were buying a painting, but they
were wearing mink coats. I mean, so there is an element of farce involved
in it. Ben Wattenberg: Let me ask this question,
and perhaps, Marcia, you can address it first. Is — some of this art is objectionable to
the vast majority of people. I mean, it has been described as blasphemous,
as in the Serrano “Piss Christ.” My question is: Should the government be paying
for some of this? Marcia Tucker: Well — Ben Wattenberg: Which through the National
Endowments for the Arts that’s been a big — now we’re sort of coming back to Washington
turf. This is real politics, right? Marcia Tucker: Well, let me first answer by
saying that the people who object most strongly to that image, that picture, have never actually
seen the work itself, much less seen the work in the context of Serrano’s other work. There seems to be a new school out now of
the “I refuse to see it. I don’t want to see it, but I’ll tell
you about it anyhow.” Ben Wattenberg: Would you describe it? “Piss Christ”? Marcia Tucker: It is a golden crucifix, but
a very muted one, almost slightly blurry, bathed in a kind of golden light. And it’s a large Cibachrome, so that the
surfaces are very luminous. Ben Wattenberg: Photograph. Marcia Tucker: What he did was he took a series
of cheap plastic replicas of very important icons and immersed them in body fluids, photographed
them through those fluids, and — Ben Wattenberg: In — you’re reversing
your stand when you go “body fluid.” It was urine. Marcia Tucker: It was — he used several
fluids: water, blood, urine. Ben Wattenberg: I see. Marcia Tucker: Those are also the three fluids
in all human beings — all our bodies have in common. But what he did was restore all of these icons,
including a plaster reproduction of “The Last Supper,” to a kind of almost mythical
stature again. So he’s playing with that. He’s putting the sacred and the profane
together. He’s playing with the mind and the body. Should it be funded? I would say that healthy government and a
secure government is a government that supports art and controversial art, knowing that these
kinds of debates are going to be raised. Ben Wattenberg: Would that include homophobic
art, anti-Semitic art? Marcia Tucker: I think that — I mean, again,
characterizing something as — Ben Wattenberg: I mean, that’s controversial. Marcia Tucker: Excuse me. Ben Wattenberg: Wouldn’t it? I mean — Marcia Tucker: Characterizing something as
homophobic or anti-Semitic is like characterizing something as blasphemous or obscene. These are very slippery definitions. They are not legal definitions. Ben Wattenberg: But you haven’t answered
my question. Marcia Tucker: I believe that works of art
should be funded by the government in order to support the entire endeavor. Some works will be controversial; other works
won’t be. In fact, it’s very few that are actually
controversial. Ben Wattenberg: Neal Benezra, you are the
chief curator at the Hirshhorn. That gets public funds? Neal Benezra: Yes, certainly. Ben Wattenberg: It’s part of the Smithsonian. Neal Benezra: Part of the Smithsonian. Ben Wattenberg: How do you come out on this
issue? Neal Benezra: It’s a difficult issue, it
seems to me. It’s a hard issue, and I think that sometimes
there are some things that perhaps do violate public taste, public standards of taste. But it seems to me that, you know, we just
— we just observed the Tailhook scandal with the Navy. We don’t suddenly throw the baby out with
the bathwater and say we’re going to decommission the Navy because something’s violated public
standards of decency. Ben Wattenberg: Well, excuse me. The people in the arts community — the people
in the Navy said, “Okay, we messed up; we won’t do that again.” The people in the arts community, when you
say you have blasphemed Christianity, they say, “Well, that’s our right of free expression;
don’t put a muzzle on us.” Neal Benezra: But it seems to me — Ben Wattenberg: And that’s taxpayer money. Neal Benezra: It seems to me, as Marcia said,
it’s very difficult and very slippery to talk about these things in the abstract. You really have to focus in on a particular
case and not speak in big buzzwords like anti-Semitism, homophobic. These are hot, hot-button issues right now,
and one has to be — Ben Wattenberg: Well, so is blasphemy. Neal Benezra: — very, very careful. Ben Wattenberg: I mean, so is blasphemy — Neal Benezra: Of course. Ben Wattenberg: — and homoeroticism. Neal Benezra: Of course. Ben Wattenberg: Right. Neal Benezra: But so is sexual assault. Ben Wattenberg: Hilton, I know you must want
to get in on this. Hilton Kramer: Well, my own view is that the
government should really get out of the business of making judgments about contemporary art. The system has — the system that the National
Endowment for the Arts has used, the so-called peer panel system, has been woefully corrupt
for years, in which members of the panel give each other — confer grants upon each other. The painter Philip Pearlstein tells the story
about serving on a peer panel years ago, and when he went down to participate in the panel
he discovered that all the slides of figurative painters had been removed from consideration
before the panel was convened. There are lots of political agendas at the
NEA, and they’re most left-liberal agendas. Ben Wattenberg: Let’s wind this up going
once around the room, starting with you, Neal Benezra. Is art in America in a healthy condition? Neal Benezra: I think art in the United States
and in the world is in a very challenging time. It’s a very interesting time. As a museum curator very, very involved with
contemporary art, I’m finding a lot to look at and a lot to think about and a lot to be
challenged by. Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Marcia? Marcia Tucker: Well, I think we are at a particularly
dynamic point because we are able to see and hear so many different perspectives and ways
of thinking about the relationship of art to our lives and our times. Ben Wattenberg: Peter Plagens, artist and
Newsweek writer. Peter Plagens: Well, I don’t exactly think
it’s a golden age. Although it’s hard to tell that when you’re
standing in your own time. But I think it is — the raucousness of it
and the unruliness of it and the contentiousness of it is, as far as I have been led to believe
— my experience — is a generally healthy state. It would be nice if we had a major movement
out there somewhere on the horizon, but you can’t dictate those things. Ben Wattenberg: Hilton Kramer? Hilton Kramer: I think we’re in a very fallow
period creatively in the arts. There are virtually no major figures. We’re living more and more by deconstructing
our great achievements of the past rather than creating new ones. Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Thank you, Hilton Kramer, Marcia Tucker, Peter
Plagens, and Neal Benezra. And thank you. Please continue to send your questions and comments to New River Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Washington DC, 20036, or email us at [email protected] To learn more about Think Tank, visit PBS online at For Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production of BJW
Inc., in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.

7 thoughts on “Is contemporary art, art? — with Peter Plagens (1995) | THINK TANK”

  1. The problem with most contemporary art is its sacrifice of skill for obscenity. Opening a can of spaghettios while naked and pissing on the ground will never be considered art to me.

  2. Of course, once you force people to accept that standards of beauty / 'art' dont exist, the whole conversation becomes inert because everything is just opinion.

    But what the heck. In my opinion, i shouldnt have to study an artists entire body of work to understand a painting. I shouldnt have to know an artists personal context. I shouldnt have to accept experiments as art. In the end, regardless of what the eggheads say, art is not this infinite thing. It is clearly defined… by its patrons and gallery owners.

  3. My comment was deleted, so here is a link: Modern Art was CIA weapon

  4. Same corruption in the art world has been seen in academia as well as the sciences. This is just another example of something the vast majority of people didn't want, but was paying for due to taxes. Everything corrupts over time.

  5. This reminds me of my liberal college days where I was discouraged to painted anything realistic. Then one day I made a crappy painting and snowballed the description of what the painting represented. The teacher saw it as genius saying it was my best painting yet…. it's ridiculous.

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