New Publication: “Annie Lapin: The Archeology of Meaning”

Miles McEnery Gallery’s latest publication contains an essay I wrote about the Los Angeles based painter Annie Lapin. In the essay, I place Lapin’s latest body of work “The Art of Heads and Hands” in the context of Henri Focillon’s theories about the life of forms in art. Hard copy of the catalogue is available through the gallery.

Modern Luxury Orange County Magazine

Thankful to appear on page 66 of Modern Luxury Orange County Magazine (October 2017). You can read the full article here (pdf).

UCLA Hammer Museum Livestream Video: In conversation with Dave Hickey (5.11.16)


Summer reading suggestions

A couple of months ago I came across a fascinating little book published by Frieze in 1998. It was a bibliography intended to help young artists to become better young artists. The material was solicited from a few dozen art world people (artists, critics, curators) by Jerry Saltz, who also edited the volume. The same week I came across a more current mini-bibliography, also for the benefit of young artist. My article on the contrast between the two, and what this contrasts tells us about the shift of values, was just published in The New Criterion.


Tony DeLap Retrospective at the Laguna Art Museum

One of the bast museum shows I have seen in a while turned out to be a retrospective of a local artist in a local museum. My review of it is on The New Criterion site.


On the latest decision-making by the University of Wisconsin bureaucracy

My alma mater, UW-Madison, has been making some very unsettling choices lately. More on that in my latest blog post  “The user-centric university” in The New Criterion dispatches section.

Why chromophobia of #MeToo does not make any sense


The #MeToo’ers got their aesthetic affiliation all wrong as they went for Puritanism—one of history’s archetypal patriarchies. In my latest contribution to The New Criterion, I discuss how the movement’s desire to disassociate itself from traditional trappings of femininity, including color, is incongruent with their professed embrace of the oppressed “other.” Below is the full text of the article:

Paint it black

Anyone familiar with the history of the Soviet Union will be suspicious when some political groups begin to claim moral superiority over others. Such claims always evoke the propagandistic juxtaposition of the “decaying West” and the “flawless” Homo Sovieticus. The #MeToo movement’s insistence on the fundamental infallibility of the victims of sexual harassment, combined with truculent claims to the higher moral ground, seem reminiscent of Soviet rhetorical extremes of rectitude and wickedness. To establish their moral purity conclusively and unambiguously, like their Eastern Bloc counterparts, the members of the #MeToo movement cultivate their own distinct aesthetic. Such reliance on branding makes perfect sense within our society of the spectacle, but the particular aesthetic selected by #MeToo seems less than cogent. For the movement’s visuals of choice derive ultimately from religious Puritanism—one of history’s archetypical patriarchies.

It is not especially original to compare #MeToo to the Puritans. In a warning against the movement’s extremist tendencies, the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood drew a persuasive analogy between the recent moralistic purges and the Salem witch trials, during which naive young women were induced to level scrutiny-free accusations that were accepted as truth. This comparison stresses the current movement’s treacherous nature. But aside from its myopic reliance on personal testimony and reflexive prosecution, #MeToo also evokes seventeenth-century Massachusetts in its peculiar preference for Puritan iconography. Like their seventeenth-century forebears, these self-appointed guardians of sexual morality assert their power by donning severe clothing that signals their repudiation of the traditional trappings of femininity. Rejecting color, they parade their preference for black, loudly and proudly proclaiming a twenty-first century form of chromophobia.

Chromophobia is on full display in the most canonical visual representation of #MeToo to date: the cover of Time’s 2017 Person of the Year issue, which shows five of the women most closely associated with the movement, plus the cropped elbow of an anonymous victim. Giving symbolic form to their affected sisterly unity while demarcating the austere aesthetic standards they purport to maintain, each woman is dressed in black and looks directly at the camera. The flat, steel-blue background, combined with white lettering and the cadmium red border of the cover, accentuates the uniform black of their urban chic jackets and coats, all different in cut, yet made from the same satin black fabric. The image’s message is unambiguous: these women are not to be trifled with. In this they recall visual antecedents such as the group portrait painted in 1644 by the Dutch artist Frans Hals. The five dour matrons in his Regentesses of the Old Men’s Alms House, all clad in Calvinist black with white collars and cuffs, seem similarly austere and uninviting. But the resemblance only goes so far, since the Time cohort lacks both the individual subtlety of character and the sincere communal bonding evident in Hals’s painting.

The new Puritans look vapid compared with the old. Hals’s grouping emphasizes the humanity of each sitter, made evident through the direction of their gaze, the position of their hands, their headgear and accessories. We can tell that the regentess in the foreground and another standing behind the table are widows, since both have on the appropriate mourning caps. The standing widow wears a somewhat fancier dress, with a collar of very delicate layered lace, held in place with two decorative bows; her hands are intricately arranged to hold a pair of fine kidskin gloves and a carved, folded fan. As the art historian Stella Paul points out, the simple black garments of the women designate their “sobriety, austerity, gravity,” but actually also offer an array of coded messages regarding the sitters’ wealth and social standing:

[their] deep black clothing is made of the most elegant and expensive cloth, expertly dyed to achieve those depths of inky uniform color. This is not drab or gloomy abstemiousness: it reflects bourgeois worth. Special committees of the drapers’ guild carefully inspected fine black cloth to affirm its quality before affixing a seal of approval. As for the whites, Hals’s city, Haarlem, led Europe’s bleaching industry. To get the desired brightness that signals pure cleanliness, linens were subjected to a months-long process of steeping in baths of different lyes, boiling, washing, more soaking in buttermilk, and then extended exposure to moisture and sunshine.

The painting shows both the Calvinist virtue and the pecuniary success of the regentesses through what Paul labels “largely chromophobic imaging.” Meanwhile, the composite photograph of “the silence breakers” on the Time cover represents their rage only abstractly, without offering any meaningful details that mark individual sitters—none of their hands are visible, for instance. After the issue came out, there was a rumble of complaints about the omission of Tarana Burke, who coined the expression “Me Too” in 2006, while Ashley Judd, who was one of the first to accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, was placed in the position of most prominence. So while its surly attitude successfully out-puritans the Puritans, the Time image substitutes a convincing representation of sisterhood in favor of chromophobic styling meant to represent an impending denial-of-service doom should men fail to abandon their wicked ways.

A similar favoring of style over substance was at work in the morbid call for head-A to-toe black at the seventy-fifth Golden Globe Awards ceremony of January 2018. If the intention behind this gesture was to replace the perennial luxe et volupté spirit of the event with modesty and solemnity, it failed spectacularly—as The New York Times columnist Vanessa Friedman wittily remarked, the gathering looked less like “The Handmaid’s Tale” and more like “500 Shades of Black.” The women on the red carpet looked as stunning and tempting as ever in their carefully selected black couture. The only participant actually conforming to the prim protocol of erotic withdrawal was Frances McDormand, who arrived makeup-free and with simple hair, a high neckline, and a demurely cut frock.

Remarkably, this most recent Golden Globes ceremony has been identified as a crucial event for #MeToo by none other than the former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, who recognized it as “a Cromwell moment,” noting that “the long black dresses and all that—this is the Puritans!” A variation on the chromophobia of the Golden Globes was performed a few days later in another Hollywood ceremony—the Critics’ Choice Awards, where Diane Kruger, Emma Roberts, and Kate Bosworth joined Angelina Jolie in wearing symbolically pure white.

While the superficial visual symbolism exposes #MeToo’s spectacle-oriented agenda, the ultimate irony of the movement’s puritanical self-fashioning becomes abundantly clear when we consider the complex relationships between color, pleasure, visual art, and the deep-rooted chromophobia of the West. In his book Chromophobia, which describes the history of this prejudice, the artist and writer David Batchelor presents color as a “victim systematically marginalized, reviled, diminished, and degraded” by “generations of philosophers, artists, art historians, and cultural theorists [who] kept this prejudice alive, warm, fed, and groomed.” Citing the published writings of the modernist architect Le Corbusier, Batchelor recounts the fear of corruption through color, and the historical view of color as dangerous, trivial, or both.

According to Batchelor, color’s association with sexuality has always prompted its purging from the ordered ranks of Western society. Color, he writes, “was to be contained and subordinated—like a woman.” Its spuriousness and its “lowly place in the moral hierarchy of the universe,” as well as its association with promiscuity, vulgarity, and cosmetic deceit (Plato refers to facial cosmetics as “a fraudulent, baseborn, slavish knave”), have resulted in repeated attempts to evade sexuality by eschewing color to avoid “moral panic.” Coincidentally, “moral panic” was the exact term used by several writers, including The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen, to discuss the origins and repercussions of #MeToo. All of this means that in its incessant desire to project power by sidelining traditional femininity, #MeToo has inadvertently turned against its own credo and has condoned the historical misogyny manifested in the fear of color.

By choosing the aesthetic of what Batchelor calls “voluntary poverty,” to signal the “righteous and evangelical,” the #MeToo movement backed itself into the Apollonian corner, when its true aesthetic preference should have been Dionysian. Mikhail Bakhtin’s famous description of the classical body “cleared of any evidence of grotesque embarrassments of an actual life,” including color, is identified in Jacqueline Lichtenstein’s book The Eloquence of Color as “moral Puritanism and aesthetic austerity, . . . odorless and colorless may be said to be true, beautiful, and good.” Color, on the other hand, “exists as a disruption in the symbolic order,” representing, “the disobedient, the eccentric, the irregular, and the subversive.” If Batchelor is right, and color is indeed a harbinger of liberty, then #MeToo’s eagerness to shed patriarchal shackles should have led it to embrace color, not shun it.

Perhaps the reason for this chromophobia is that #MeToo’s narratives are essentially textual; they dwell within the confines of joyless monochrome écriture. They are opposed to visuality, tactility, sensuality, and above all sexuality, the kind of “jubilant sexuality” that trumps textuality and is always present in color. The art critic Dave Hickey, whose attitude to color could be best described as “chromophilia,” reiterates the sexual metaphor by welcoming the “corruption” inherent in the “condition of being ravished by color.” For Hickey, color cannot exist “in a linguistic condition of degradation or excess that must necessarily derive from our expectations . . . when color signifies anything, it always signifies, as well, a respite from language and history.” Conversely, the movement’s dark, forbidding aesthetic reveals its opposition to art itself, manifested in attacks on creative men, and exposes its poorly concealed attempts to police aesthetic expression.

Why would the “silence breakers” opt for the color normally associated with death, mourning, and symbolic sobriety? The artist and art critic Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe helps to answer that question, as he contrasts the “colorless reign of the mind” with “fashion [that] provides people with the possibility to at least propose wickedness, to play with everything which is denied to them by virtue of their having to live in society: to entertain the idea that beauty could actually be important (a terrifying idea to all religions).” Wickedness and play are most certainly not on the agenda of the increasingly cult-like #MeToo. But, as Gilbert-Rolfe points out: “everybody looks good in black.” So perhaps the best way to understand the Puritan aesthetics of #MeToo would be to go in search of vanity rather than virtue.

Manchester Art Gallery “Challenging a Victorian fantasy” is a clumsy publicity stunt

In the latest tragical-comical episode linking the art world and the #MeToo movement, a group of artists and activists, with the help of the gallery’s curator, removed a seminal Pre-Raphaelite artwork from the wall of the Manchester Art Gallery “to initiate a discussion.” My analysis of what happened was just published in Dispatches section of The New Criterion.

I am shocked! Why risqué paintings do not need warning labels

#MeToo is in the news again (still), now going after paintings with unpalatable content. My article “A Warning about the Balthus Warning,” just posted in the Dispatch section of The New Criterion. It explains why it is a very bad idea to decide whether an artwork deserves to grace museum walls based on how offensive its content might be. Even an ordained nun Sister Wendy knew better….

Be Careful What You Wish For: A little piece of Soviet style totalitarianism in our own backyard

My article “The art world’s ‘hidden enemy'” on the subject of purges for sexual misconduct in the art world is out in the Decemer issue of The New Criterion. (The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 4, on page 86).

Here is the full text of my article:

The art world’s “hidden enemy”

 While preparing my latest lecture on Russian art of the 1920s and ’30s, I was struck by some disturbing parallels between the current American and the historical Soviet cultures of “unmasking the hidden enemy.” The comparison was brought on by a group letter, written in the style of an early-twentieth-century Russian Modernist manifesto and headed: “We’ll stay silent no more over sexual harassment in the art world.” Published in The Guardian on October 29 with over one hundred signatures, the letter called upon all women in the arts (it actually referred to them as “workers of the art world”) to denounce their abusers, citing “an urgent need to share our accounts of widespread sexism, unequal and inappropriate treatment, harassment, and sexual misconduct, which we experience regularly, broadly, and acutely.” These women identified as a victimized group, claiming to have been “groped, undermined, harassed, infantilized, scorned, threatened, and intimidated by those in positions of power who control access to resources and opportunities.” In other words, the letter was an open call for hashtags, a free-for-all social media dispensation to accuse any male colleague who, at some point in our careers, subjected any of us to sexual harassment. Crucially, the definition of “harassment” is left vague, since it encompasses everything from forcible rape to “gender microagression,” which was recently identified as a “gateway to sexual harassment and sexual assault.” Anyone paying attention to the events of the past few months would recognize this letter as one among many such appeals for narratives of abuse. Just the other week I received an online document named “shitty_media_men,” circulated with an injunction: “never share this document with a man.”

Why now? Following revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s atrocious behavior, the entertainment industry is taking a close look at its unflattering reflection. But as Weinstein’s longtime collaborator, the screenwriter Scott Rosenberg, revealed in his widely publicized Facebook post: “Everybody- fucking-knew.” It hardly came as a surprise that, in an industry so heavily dependent on physical appearance and sex appeal, young, vulnerable women would be victimized by powerful and unscrupulous men. The art world, which has long been moving in the direction of the entertainment industry (Björk’s dire solo show at moma is just one sad example), followed up with its own soul- searching. And voilà, the first name came up in all its eccentrically bespoke-color-suited glory: Artforum co-publisher Knight Landesman. He was named in an Artnet News article listing complaints of “inappropriate behavior.” The story was further explored by Artsy, Artnet again, The Guardian, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. Landesman resigned from the magazine, as did its executive editor, Michelle Kuo. Artforum issued a statement of apology, but several gallerists who deemed the apology insufficiently sincere have threatened to boycott the magazine by pulling their advertisements.

It remains to be seen whether the other three Artforum co-publishers will be able to prove their ideological purity and retain their advertising bases. Lisa Spellman, the owner of 303 Gallery who threatened to boycott Artforum, says she “will watch how the publishers handle” the lawsuit caused by the Landesman debacle. Undoubtedly the promotion of the long-serving, universally liked magazine employee David Velasco to the position of editor-in-chief will burnish the publication’s image. Velasco has already clarified his position: “The art world is misogynist. Art history is misogynist. Also, racist, classist, transphobic, ableist, homophobic. I will not accept this. I know my colleagues here agree. Intersectional feminism is an ethics near and dear to so many on our staff. Our writers too. This is where we stand. There’s so much to be done. Now, we get back to work.” It will be particularly interesting to see how Artforum plans to square the classist circle while maintaining its sleek Vogue-of-the-art-world image. In my experience, its gamine, ingénue employees often come from seriously privileged places. The external label stitching on their luxury Maison Margiela clothing is hard to miss.

As the subtitle of the manifesto states, its signatories “held [their] tongues, threatened by the power wielded over [them] and promises of institutional access and career advancement.” Forgive my cynicism, but I cannot help but think that the key to the timing of the letter is that the “workers of the art world” who signed it, having already achieved the desired “institutional access and career advancement,” and emboldened by the long-overdue disclosures around rape and sexual violence in the entertainment industry, decided to take this opportunity finally to cleanse the environment of what they perceive as undesirable elements. In the process, they risk going into a purging mode strikingly reminiscent of what happened under Comrade Stalin in my native country, the former USSR.

It seems to me that despite the bombastic phrasing that recalls the furious tone of Russian avant-garde manifestos, these women do not realize where the primrose path of purging is likely to lead. If Soviet history is any indication, we should be seriously concerned by such ignorance. Once the processes are initiated, the enemy is identified, and the cogs of the apparatus are set in motion, there will be little reason to stop the purging at alleged sexual harassers. The clean-up will continue until the ranks of the art world are rid of any and all offensive elements. It is by no means impossible that even the righteous signatories of this letter may one day find themselves denounced for racism, classism, transphobia, ableism, homophobia, or any of the proliferating multitude of microagressive offenses.

Revolutions are famous for devouring their children. In the Soviet purges, terror came in ubsequent waves, each engulfing additional enemies and cleansing the system until the cleansers themselves were cleansed. Wendy Goldman’s Inventing the Enemy: Denunciation and Terror in Stalin’s Russia describes the nightmare:

Communist Party leaders strongly encouraged ordinary citizens and party members to “unmask the hidden enemy” and people responded by flooding the secret police and local authorities with accusations. By 1937, every workplace was convulsed by hyper-vigilance, intense suspicion, and the hunt for hidden enemies. Spouses, co-workers, friends, and relatives disavowed and denounced each other. People confronted hideous dilemmas. Forced to lie to protect loved ones, they struggled to reconcile political imperatives and personal loyalties. Workplaces were turned into snake pits. The strategies that people used to protect themselves—naming names, pre-emptive denunciations, and shifting blame—all helped to spread the terror.

I know this story all too well. My paternal grandfather, Semyon Friedman, was a trained lawyer and a card-carrying member of the Soviet Communist Party, which he joined in 1928. He began working with Sergei Kirov, who became the head of the Communist Party in Leningrad. By the early 1930s my grandfather was appointed an executive head of the regional party cell, where he worked for just over a year until Kirov was assassinated, which prompted a wave of purges against dissident elements of the Party. Robert Conquest, as readers of this journal well know, would dub this period in Soviet history the “Great Terror.” The pattern was always the same: people were accused of various crimes, arrested, brutally interrogated, forced to confess, convicted, deprived of their rights, and finally either handed a lengthy prison sentence in a hard-labor camp or shot in a cell and buried in an unmarked grave.

When my grandfather was arrested in the fall of 1937, his wife, my grandmother, was due to give birth to their second son—my father. They were prepared for the worst, for people were always convicted, and since they expected my grandmother to be arrested as well (immediate family members over the age of twelve were sent to the camps; children under that age were placed in the care of the State and brainwashed), they made arrangements to hand over their newborn son to close friends for adoption. Miraculously, following the nkvd head Nikolai Yezhov’s fall from power, the three members of the special troika—a committee that was to conduct a speedy investigation into my grandfather’s alleged crimes—were themselves purged and executed. My grandfather was released with full reinstatement of his rights. He promptly retrained as a doctor, stepping back from the meat- grinder of Party politics. Amazingly, he remained a life-long believer in Communist ideals, continuing to lecture on politics and ideology at workers’ clubs. He never discussed the charges leveled against him: as far as he was concerned, justice had prevailed. That’s because he was an ideologically pure Communist, and for people like him, ideological purity was über alles.

There lies the similarity between the Stalinist purges and the increasingly paranoid milieux of day’s artistic, cultural, and academic scenes. Just as the 1919 injunction by an early Soviet art organization of Communists- Futurists (Komfut) “to wage merciless war against all the false ideologies of the bourgeois past,” led to the purges of the 1930s, so the clarion call to share narratives of sexual misconduct, if unchecked, is likely to lead to more careerist purging and power reshuffling— during times when “art workers” might do better to unite in the face of much larger and more ominous political and cultural challenges. We are already witnessing the privately circulating lists of alleged and rumored offenders, the manifesto tone of group-signed letters, the “us vs. them” mentality, the self-denunciation and apologies. The accused are immediately ostracized, their careers ruined, often well before any corroborating evidence comes to light. Benjamin Genocchio’s recent discharge from his duties as the executive director of the Armory Show is a case in point.

Of course perpetrators of sexual violence ought to be prosecuted and punished. My issue is with the open call to indictment for an incongruously broad range of sexual “offenses”; such a call abrogates the principle of presumption of innocence. I understand that the goal is to enable victims to speak up, and I am aware that victims of sexual violence are vulnerable to blame. But what if the choice is between being safe and being free? The self-identified “workers of the art world” must realize that once they initiate a purge, they will not be able to control its trajectory.

Retouched photograph with Leon Trotsky removed from the side of Lenin’s podium. (image: wikimedia commons)

Just Published: “Sexual Neurosis or Creative Catalyst? Hysteria and Demonic Possession in Alexei Remizov’s Solomoniia”

I am delighted to announce the arrival of Mental Illness in Symbolism, edited by my colleague Professor Rosina Neginsky, just out with Cambridge Scholars Publishing. My modest contribution to the volume, is an article on Alexei Remizov’s literary exploration of madness as a form of creativity. The idea of hysteria as a creative catalyst, which Remizov applied to his eroticised retelling of a 17th century religious tale of demonic possession, was also popular with the French surrealists. They addressed it at length in one of the issues of 1928 La Revolution Surrealiste (“Le Cinquantenaire de l’hysterie”).

 “The First Night,” Solomonie, Alexei Remizov, 1935. India ink and color pencil on paper, 147 x 164 mm.