Columnist George F. Will has seen enemy action on many fronts, often acquitting himself quite well. True, he is somewhat too prone to controversy for my tastes, but he is generally intelligent and humane. Three weeks ago, however, there sounded in his commentary a very ugly note, which, I suppose, we progressives should have anticipated. Will disapproves of contemporary art. In fact, he holds it up to derision.
Will has taken his conservatism too far this time. Of course, on matters of contemporary esthetics there is always room for informed give and take, but what is so funny about modern master works such as "Vertical Kilometer," a kilometer-long brass rod, buried in a kilometer-long hole? Despite the fact that generous connoisseurs were willing to pay $300,000 for it, Will thought it was very funny. And what is so humorous about "Room Temperakature," featuring a water bucket, four apples, six balloons (uninflated) and two flies? The flies, after all, had expired.
Will derided these works along with others in his syndicated column. And now he is paying dearly for his Philistine outbursts. All across the republic newspaper correspondence columns are filling with reproachful letters from assistant professors of art. Sometimes they come from associate professors and even full professors. I have also read some from art lovers, though these letters are considerably shorter than those of the profs. And less violent.
Essentially, Will's critics agree that, when it comes to art, this columnist is a pantywaist. It is the mission of contemporary art to jar us. Contemporary art is supposed to scrape the bones, crack the skull, gouge eyes and tear off an ear. Contemporary art, if it is truly aglow with Minerva's light, is supposed to make us feel like morons.
Will finds works like "Verticle Kilometer" and "Room Temperature" incomprehensible, and so he grows sniffy. He seems to have forgotten that all great artists were ignored in their time. Some are still ignored. It is one of the achievements of our day that great contemporary artists can be misunderstood and still walk off with $300,000 often snatched from Uncle Sam himself. A few years ago, the gifted Carl Andre arranged apolaustically 36 boulders on open land in Hartford, Conn. Very imaginatively, he called it "Stone Field Sculpture" and was paid $87,000, much of it by the National Endowment for the Arts. Will, naturally, objects.
William Carlos Williams tells us that in the time of Cezanne a "transition took place . . . from the appreciation of a work of art as a copying of nature to the thought of it as the imitation of nature...It is still the failure to take this step that blocks us in seeking to gain a full conception of the modern in art."
Cezanne, of course, took the step. Braque took an even larger step. Braque is said to have taken his pictures out doors, just to see how his creations ranked against those of nature. If they were up to snuff, he would sell them for a lot of money. If they were not, he would sell for them for a little less.
I myself have been an avid champion of contemporary art. Moreover, I have been an active participant. Some years ago, while visiting the Musee nationale d'art moderne, I came across a room dominated by a free-standing canvas on which there appeared bland portrayals of life-sized people in line at a bus stop. Jolted by an artistic flush, I rushed to the edge of the canvas and took my place behind the last figure in line, a rather well-proportioned lady, probably French. I stood there motionless in an old trench coat, expecting disgruntled art fans to call in the gendarmes any minute. Nothing happened. For 20 minutes a score of connoisseurs passed by very pleased. Finally, my leg muscles began cramping; I gave up the canvas. Had I stood there much longer I might have been offered a position on the art faculty of a great university. Possibly I would have been given a satisfying lump of swag from the National Endowment for the Arts.
For those of us who appreciate contemporary art, there is always an exalted moment or two in the museum when the message of the weird enters us, giving us fresh insights into all those George Wills frowning around us. It is ineffable. Last week at New York's Museum of Modern Art, I experienced just this when I viewed a huge transparent toothpaste tube filled with real animal organs. Do you doubt that such a masterpiece is on display in New York? Do you think I would make it up? Ask the profs now hectoring George Will if such an exhibit is possible. And whether they answer yes or no, ask them why. Their explanations will tell you much about art in our time.