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The march of art

New York Journal | Fashionable art sometimes turns out to be art for the people, too

Issue: "Unify and conquer," June 14, 2008

NEW YORK CITY- The tendency among conservatives and evangelicals is to scoff at the New York art world. I'm one of the scoffers, and Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word is one of my favorite journalistic works. In it Wolfe vivisects art patrons "who find it important to be in fashion" and their artistic pets: The fashionable artists "do a bit of psychological doubletracking" by attacking the "bourgeois values" of an affluent society while kissing up to those bourgeoisie ready to offer megabucks for the latest works of "Tensionism or Slice Art or Niho or Innerism or Dimensional Creamo" or whatever.

I re-read Wolfe on a Saturday afternoon last month just before going on "The First Annual Madison Avenue Gallery Walk," featuring 64 art galleries between 57th and 83rd Streets pledged to welcome on that day a looky-loo like me. I was prepared, as many WORLD readers probably are, to scoff at "the quirky god Avant-Garde" (Wolfe's term) and at its elders and deacons. In college I had taken courses from History of Art Professor Vincent Scully, but I paid much more attention to the artistry of baseball broadcaster Vin Scully.

So, as I marched down Madison, it was easy to find art worthy of Wolfeian sneer, particularly as catalogue copy insisted that exercises in coloring were really "metaphors for the tremendous power of life and nature and a homage to existence."

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The slighter the art, the greater the verbosity: It's weird enough that one of Jackson Pollock's drippy paintings sold for $140 million two years ago, but must we really learn that his oldest brother Charles Pollock's paintings "confound density and airiness, opaque and transparent, empty and full, frontal and oblique, simple and complex, invitation and repulse, abstract and figurative, comfort and austerity, apartment and studio, a trick of the mind and a trick of the light"? How about calling them a trick of cash-hungry gallery owners?

And yet, it's not that simple. I ended up hitting only one-fourth of the 64 galleries, but even that sampling showed a lot more diversity in the Manhattan art world than screeds suggest. For example, realism is making a comeback, and the landscapes of Woody Gwyn (at the David Findlay gallery) wonderfully display light and space. An article about Gwyn in Art Gallery International ended with the artist quoting Emerson-"Every cubic inch of the universe is a miracle"-and then musing, "Wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to paint that way?"

But some art works that conservatives might despise resonate Christianly, although that probably wasn't the artists' intention. For example, Matthew Pillsbury's photographs (at the Bonni Benrubi gallery) of a Grand Central Station rush hour could seem to be part of the anti-bourgeois conspiracy that Wolfe flays. Using long exposures Pillsbury shows scenes without solid human forms, only ghosts. Publicity copy speaks of how "each player on these carefully designed stages of life evokes a sense of isolation . . . we see ourselves moving anonymously through our world, Blackberrys in hand, mere ghosts." But doesn't that suggest how we are when we live apart from God?

Another example: Jessica Todd Harper's "Self-portrait with Christopher and My Future In-Laws" (at the Cohen Amador Gallery) depicts her standing in front of her husband-to-be, with his evaluating face visible in a mirror behind her and his parents on either side also assessing her. Some could interpret this as a feminist assault-she's being appraised as a car might be-but the careful composition of an emotionally charged scene shows both the importance and the humor of preparations for marriage.

Both the expected and the unexpected in this gallery tour reminded me that Christians should not fear wading into the artistic ocean. Two Christian groups based in Manhattan are already swimming. The International Arts Movement-founded and headed by Mako Fujimura, a WORLD Daniel of the Year (see Dec. 17, 2005)-brings together artists who "wrestle with the deep questions of art, faith, and humanity" and "help society to engage deeply in suffering and joys." The Museum of Biblical Art offers educational programs and puts on exhibitions, including upcoming ones featuring works of Albrecht Dürer and Marc Chagall.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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