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The Alpha
and the Omega
In this biting and strongly worded article, Taubes takes on art critics and criticism in general






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The Alpha and the Omega

SHOULD you, Reader, harbor the notion that my attitude toward the art critics has taken on a paranoiac complexion, perish the thought, for my archives bulge with documentary evidence of the accuracy of my accusations. Never, at any time, did the critic's assessment of the art of his age prove to have been correct; never have his deductions, interpretations and surmises carried the germs of authenticity. Take, for example, the prototype of the modern arbiter of things esthetic' the renowned connoisseur ‚ÄĒ John Ruskin. Said he: "Good architecture has nothing to do with proportion of masses. The general effect counts for nothing at all." Of course, just the opposite is true. 0r: "Leonardo da Vinci did not leave anything worth while painted on canvas. Guido Reni is ten times his size." Guido Reni, the saccharine, baroque super-hack ‚ÄĒ ten times Leonardo's size! Incidentally, as usual, the great critic did not bother to take a good look at Leonardo, for he would have discovered at once that Leonardo never used canvas for his work!

But, the pinnacle or the aesthetician's obverse sagacity is reached when he interprets the artist's intentions and attempts to put his creative miasma through a sieve. Wrote Jerome Melquist in the New Fork Times: "Angrily completing his mural Guernica, Picasso, it seems, dropped many leagues through the floor of European civilization to that rocky island of Patmos where John wrote the book of revelations. For Picasso, likewise, had propounded the alpha and omega of things and crossed through the fire to some ultimate ]edge or conviction." To what ultimate depths of delinquency can a littérateur’s thinking sink, I wonder? Was Picasso angry during the process of painting the Guernica? Or when he washed his brushes? At night, too? Did he lament as much over the bombing of the village (Guernica) by Franco as over the rape of Budapest? Or was the tragedy of the latter not his artistic concern?

And, switching from the great humanitarian Picasso to Cezanne, an honest man, let us quote the passage from the memoirs of Vollard: "At one of my Cezanne exhibitions there was an item depicting female nudes in the open air and a figure which might have been taken for a shepherd judging from the costume. This canvas was in a frame from which I had forgotten to remove the former title, Diana and Actaeon. The picture's subject was subsequently described in a press notice as Diana Bathing and an art critic went out of his way to praise the dignified bearing of the goddess and the impression of chastity given by the virgins surrounding her.

Not long afterwards I was asked for the Temptation of St. Anthony, by Cezanne, to show at an exhibition. I promised to send the picture, but then found it had already been sold. So I despatched, instead, the so-called Diana and Actaeon. But the gallery was expecting the Temptation of St. Anthony and entered that title in its catalogue. One of the newspapers then proceeded to discuss the painting as if it were really the Temptation. Whereas previously the noble attitude of Diana had been praised, the critic now discovered a 'slyly beguiling smile' in one of the daughters of Satan!"

"Next time I saw Cezanne I told him about the various metamorphoses his picture had undergone. He answered: 'I wasn't thinking of any particular subject at all. I was just trying to render certain kinds of movement.'"

Without exception, the critics seem to suffer from the delusion that the artist's creation replicates the emotions he felt while creating his work. This, of course, is totally false. The artist expresses himself in a certain fashion, not because of his feelings, but much rather in spite of them. In other words, he does not register his feelings as of the moment of his "inspiration," although this need not invariably be the. case. Were those medieval masters, whenever they painted the Crucifixion, or the Slaughter of the Innocent, to have been overcome by compassion, they surely would have become premature mental wrecks! When I asked the great German draftsman, George Grosz, by whom I was befriended for many years, whether he really hated the "ruling class which he so mercilessly castigated in his drawings, he answered: "Not really; I was fascinated by the ugliness of the types."

The greatest portraits were not necessarily painted because the artist was "inspired" by his models, but, most likely, because he was indifferent to them. Take Rembrandt's portrait of the stodgy Syndics, a group of portly wool merchants ‚ÄĒ hardly an ensemble to elevate anyone's artistic soul - or Frans Hals' portrait of the Lady Governors of the Almshouse: what made them the greatest works of their kind? Perhaps the promise of a fat remuneration!

Likewise, the saddest music was not necessarily the issue of a composer's despair, and the most joyous composition arose often from a profound depression. And speaking of music, I recall witnessing the playing of Haydn's Quartet No. 76, opus 2, by the Budapest ensemble on a campus of a college where I was teaching the summer session. After the inspired performance I approached the cellist, and asked him: "What went through your mind - if you can recall - when you played the largo?" (one of the most sublime pieces of music ever composed). Said he: "I do remember, for I sat down to play feeling quite hungry. When arriving at the second movement, all I could think of was that as soon as I was through I would rush to Moschkowitz' delicatessen over in Oakland where I could get one of those divine pastrami sandwiches!"

The text of this article is reprinted at the bottom of this page


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