Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Fisking Goddard (Or, Why MSM Art Writers Really Need to Work Harder)

The Tortonto Star's Visual Arts Columnist, Peter Goddard, probably doesn't deserve the upcoming fisking (he's probably well intentioned), but his review of PBS's documentary on American art in the 20th Century, Imagining America, is such a lousy bit of analysis and sloppy anti-American drivel blended with a nauseating inferiority complex that I figure he'll miss half of why he should be insulted anyway. For those who don't know what a "fisk" is, it's a blow-by-blow deconstruction that throws politeness out the window. Most bloggers will argue that it's designed to make writers more careful...what they won't tell you necessarily is that it's also a great way to relieve stress. Either way, it's more than appropriate here (disclaimer, I haven't seen this film yet, so I'll avoid arguing whether he's right about its content). Besides, my fangs need sharpened for the new year:
Close-up on America's art
Imagining America, the ambitious two-hour look at American art in the 20th century on PBS tomorrow at 9 p.m., is just about everything its subject is about: macho and confident, contradictory and gloriously argumentative, not-to-be-missed — and troubling.

Can a subject "be about" something? Isn't a subject simply something? If the "subject" of the film is "20th Century American Art," what does "20th Century American Art is about macho and confident" even mean? Doesn't he mean, "like its subject, this film is macho and confident..."? And why, in this era of 20-hour miniseries, is a two-hour look considered ambitious? Below Goddard notes how few artists it actually covers...was he simply too pressed for time to look for an accurate adjective?

Troubling? Yes, because Imagining America — unintentionally I'm sure — paints a convincing portrait of a waning imperial power at the ragged edges of its frayed soul.

This was the bit that convinced me Peter needed a good fisking. How can a portrait of the century in which NYC wrestled away from Paris the title of "Art Capital of the World," let alone in which the nation rose to the world's only remaining SuperPower simultaneously be a portrait of a waning imperial power throughout? How can a nation be both ascending and waning, imperialistically speaking, at the same time? If he really believes that's where we are now, some arc or transitional adverb is required here, no? Also, if our soul is frayed, doesn't that already suggest its edges are ragged? Are there unragged frayed edges? And, again, was our soul frayed and ragged the entire century? I get tired just thinking about that. This struck me as knee-jerk anti-Americanism ("oh, all my other anti-American friends will know what I mean, I don't have to explain.").

Art tells the unexpected truth, goes the show's main thesis. Right now, however, the truth seems to have gone missing in America and in its art.

Oh no! Should we send out a search party? Release the hounds!

What a moronic and useless jab. Why Peter? Why does the truth seem to have gone missing in America and its art? That's a pretty hefty charge that you never bother to back up. And if the truth truly has gone missing in America, shouldn't its art reflect that?

But stop right here. A documentary like this only from and about the United States? Pity. With Canada's history of extraordinary art and documentary making — not to mention our ability to come across trouble — we should have seen an arts special like this about us years ago. (We're not likely to soon. CBC TV's Zed, the late-night hip trip, returns Jan. 3 with its former visual arts component noticeably missing.)

Ahhh...we get to the heart of it. Poor America's frayed soul and missing truth aren't Goddard's subject...he wants a documentary of his own. Maybe...just maybe, if they do one on Canada, they'll need some interviews with contemporary visual art columinists in and around Toronto....huh? Ya think?

Why on earth did his editors approve that pointless, irrelevant passage of self-loathing? I know local papers always look for the local angle, but that attempt is just pathetic.

Produced by John Carlin, an American art historian turned producer, and Jonathan Fineberg, an art academic at the University of Illinois, Imagining America asks one big question — what is American art really all about?

Again, I haven't seen the film, so it might be asking one big question. But don't you think it's likely that a historian and art academic would know the country's more than 100 years old? In other words, if that was really their question, shouldn't they look back beyond the 20th Century?

"Nature" is the one big answer.

Phew. I'm so relieved that the one big question has a one big answer.

But then — and this is where the show gets unnecessarily murky — we're given reason to doubt that answer.

Are you sure you want to languidly toss about the phrase "unnecessarily murky"? Make your critics work just a little bit dude.

Starting with Thomas Cole of the Hudson River School and other 19th century landscape painters, American artists exalted in their nation's enormous rugged expanses.

Without having seen the film, it's hard to know whether Goddard is describing a segment in it or supplying his readers background. If the later, he should qualify it as such. If the former, then it's really not about only 20th Century art.

(Painter/model/naturalist/feminist icon Georgia O'Keeffe is paid enormous attention.) But here's the rub. The more man saw of nature, the more he participated in its transformation (Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" (1970), the rock installation jutting out into Utah's Salt Lake, is brought in as evidence here.)

This led to the exploration of inner nature, the kind Jackson Pollock meant when he declared, "I am nature."

So let me see if I get this right: the more man (like Georgia O'Keefe et al.) saw of nature, the more they participated in its transformation (like Robert Smithson) which led to them abandoning the exploration of outer nature (because presumedbly it wasn't so rugged or grand anymore thanks to them) and begin to explore their inner nature (like Pollock). But, but, but, if men like O'Keefe are responsible for messing up the outer nature through exploration, shouldn't we try to stop them before they mess up their inner nature as well? Also, I'm sure Smithson would have been thrilled to think he had an influence on Pollock. Did H.G. Wells lend a hand in that?

Going the Ken Burns route, the producers of Imagining America weave a complicated history around a very short list of key figures. Along with O'Keeffe (given far too much air time) and Pollock (the Babe Ruth of American art), there's Andy Warhol.

Not caring much for O'Keefe, even mentioning her in a two-hour film seems like far too much air time to me, but...Pollock is "the Babe Ruth of American art"? Does that make Warhol the Jolly Rancher? Or perhaps the Skittles?, wait...that's a sports metaphor, isn't it? He means, like Babe, Jackson was an abusive substance abuser who put a curse on Boston, doesn't he? No? Then I don't get the analogy.

Indeed, if Imaging America accomplishes anything, it's to underline Warhol's importance as a truly important art historical figure. Marshall McLuhan, Canuck media guru, is dragged in to explain what Warhol's media manipulations really meant.

Why can they say "Canuck" but we can't, huh??? (Seriously, I thought that was offensive, no?)

I can see this starting a wave of new complaints: "I hate art that you can't just get by looking at it...." "Me too. If you have to import an internationally reknown media guru to make sense of it all, why is it called visual art?"

Warhol's media interviews are performance art pieces on their own. (Tell him what answer you wanted and he'd give it to you.) But his assertion that "death can really make you look like a star," haunts the closing moments of the documentary.

No problem with any of that. Except, I think the comma after "star" is unecessary, but...

Imagining America does a lot of things well. It further extols the intelligence of the great painter Willem de Kooning, it gives under-recognized David Wojnarowicz his due and it underlines the importance of Marcel Duchamp to the scene. It also overstates the impact of Jean-Michel Basquiat, misuses its A-list background music and stops before dealing with new-media art.

Still auditioning for Imagining Canada, I see. The problem is Peter, and I mean this kindly, you're too provincial. There's no American "scene" for Marcel Dumchamp to be important can't describe (as you do regularly, no doubt, the collection of fine galleries and museums in Toronto) a century as tumultuous as the 20th in American art history as a "scene." How about "the importance of Marcel Dumchamp to the century"? And I have no earthly idea what you mean by "misuses its A-list background music." Perhaps it will be obvious when I watch it, but if that's important enough to mention, a clarifying example seems appropriate.

Along the way, it makes you wish there were more. That makes it a success.

Oops, over the world limit. Gotta wrap this up. Don't want to piss off the producers too much (they won't invite me to participate in the Canuck version that I've inserted subliminal messages throughout encouraging them to consider), I'll contradict the overall gist of my critique and vapidly declare it "a success." Yeah, that should do the trick.


Anonymous Ethan said...

Hmmm... the link for the original article didn't work for me. Here is one that will (hopefully) work:;=Article&cid;=1135637428922&call;_pageid=968867495754&col;=969483191630

12/28/2005 12:04:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Sorry about that...thanks for noticing. Links have been changed.

12/28/2005 12:38:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Maybe the 'C' word is like the 'N' word. Never heard of the rap group 'Canucks With Attitude'?

12/28/2005 12:44:00 PM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

Edward, I think you overestimate any taboo surrounding the 'C' word. Not only does it pale in comparison to the 'N' word, but it also looks puny compared to the amphibious term for French nationals.

If this were otherwise, would there still be a hockey team bearing the same name?

12/28/2005 01:14:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said... might be right, James.

I had a media professor (ironically enough) in college who made a big deal about how "Canuck" was offensive, so I guess I never questioned it.

It may be more like "Yank." If we use it, it's fine (again, with Babe Ruth???), but when others use it we can often take offense.

12/28/2005 01:17:00 PM  
Blogger James W. Bailey said...

Dear Edward,

Unfortunately, it's historically reserved to my home state to set the standards for what's offensive in the name-calling department.

In Mississippi we call Canadians fake Americans. :)


12/28/2005 01:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Canuck, Yank, who cares. I'm a "Hoser" (Canuck) and I don't get offended. Would y'all REALLY be offended by "Yankee"??

12/28/2005 02:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All I know is I ain't no "Fake American"

BTW: that article in question is poorly written.

12/28/2005 02:08:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Would y'all REALLY be offended by "Yankee"??

It's like most terms like that...depends on how it's used. Even "sweetheart" can sound derogatory.

12/28/2005 02:13:00 PM  
Blogger Zeke's, the Montreal Art Gallery said...


Hey! Fisking Canadian arts writers is MY job! You gotta stay on your side of the border, ok?

As the article was so obviously a space filler, gleaned from a quick scan of the press kit - I chose to ignore the it.

For the most part though, Mr. Goddard is one of the better Arts writers on this side of the border, if anyone is interested I can send you links to much better articles by him.

12/28/2005 02:16:00 PM  
Blogger Zeke's, the Montreal Art Gallery said...


Can someone delete the word "the" in the sentence "I chose to ignore the it," please and thanks.

12/28/2005 02:17:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Can't edit comments in Blogger, unfortnately Chris...but then it's free, so I don't complain.

Hey! Fisking Canadian arts writers is MY job! You gotta stay on your side of the border, ok?

As the article was so obviously a space filler, gleaned from a quick scan of the press kit....Mr. Goddard is one of the better Arts writers on this side of the border

I had a sense, which is why I prefaced the fisk with the caveat that most likely he didn't deserve was mostly his sloppy anti-American assertions that he didn't back up that earned my ire. Nothing wrong with criticizing the US if you got the goods, but I resent the assumption that any old stab at Uncle Sam is fair game. And Goddard not only criticized America, but he made the perilous mistake of also slapping American art like some red-headed step child. Fine and dandy if you got specifics (let's hear 'em), but American art ain't anyone's whipping boy. You can't just throw out red meat like that and turn your back. You're talking about my peeps.

12/28/2005 02:26:00 PM  
Blogger Zeke's, the Montreal Art Gallery said...


I agree with you that he didn't have the goods. And yes, he is fair game if he put his name to the column.

As for the rest of his work:
The Good Stuff.
Turner thunders, Sobey thuds
Unblinking face to face
The fountain of truth
Venice victors
Navel gazing of the mostly video kind
A post of mine describing an article no longer available on line.
Leo Kamen takes the art out of artifice

The not so good stuff
My post "The Star vs. The Sun"
My post "I am disappointed with Peter Goddard"
A new edge pushes Canada's art scene (I didn't like it because it is 4½ years late).

His entire available archives are here. They keep them for about six months or so, and he also does these flash video reviews for the website.

And if you're interested in the best Arts writer on this side of the border, look up RM Vaughan.

Then finally, if anybody is interested in stuff like Imagining America or Art21 on this side of the border, might I suggest the NFB.

Now if you'll excuse me, I gotta get back to work.

12/28/2005 03:01:00 PM  
Anonymous j@simpleposie said...

For the most part though, Mr. Goddard is one of the better Arts writers on this side of the border...

The Star lists Goddard as a general columnist - It is true he covers the arts but Arts writer? NOT!

12/28/2005 03:14:00 PM  
Blogger James W. Bailey said...

Dear Anon,

In a state where Robert E. Lee's and Jefferson Davis's birthday's are paid state holidays, calling certain Mississippians a Yankee is not only offensive, it's a felony violation!



WHEREAS, the Legislature has designated the last Monday of May as the day for the observance of NATIONAL MEMORIAL DAY and JEFFERSON DAVIS' BIRTHDAY, and under the provisions of Section 3-3-7, Mississippi Code of 1972, is a legal holiday in the State of Mississippi;

THEREFORE, all officers and employees of the State of Mississippi are authorized and empowered, at the discretion of the executive head of the department or agency, to close their respective offices in observance of the holiday on MONDAY, MAY 30, 2005

GIVEN under my hand and seal of office at Jackson, Mississippi, this the 29th day of April, 2005.

Eric Clark
Secretary of State
State of Mississippi


Now in New Orleans, there are some overly-sensitive-about-their-heritage Canjun speaking folks from southwest Louisiana who find it culturally beneficial to try and pass themselves off at the French Consulate sponsored art exhibitions as being Canadian.

The further South you go, the more complicated these things get!


P.S. I mean all this in good humour. Anon and Chris are most definitely not fake Americans. Obviously, the real fake Americans live in the only American city where you don't have the basic right to vote - Washington, D.C.!

12/28/2005 03:28:00 PM  
Blogger Zeke's, the Montreal Art Gallery said...


Generalist, schmenralist. How many non visual arts articles has he written? I think maybe 2 over the past year.

12/28/2005 03:32:00 PM  
Anonymous burrito brother said...

On an unrelated canuck-ian topic:
Why are all the good new indie rock bands from Canada?
And when did 'good New York bands and great New York radio' turn into 'mediocre New York bands and super-crappy New York radio'?

12/28/2005 03:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Ethan said...

I seem to remember that when I lived in Mississippi they also had a State holiday of something like "Confederates' Day" coincide with Martin Luther King Day.

Incidentally, people might be interested in the NY Times review of "Imaginging America":;=4bb148ad855c0ded&ei;=5088&partner;=rssnyt&emc;=rss

12/28/2005 04:32:00 PM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

Incidentally, people might be interested in the NY Times review of "Imaginging America":

Ethan's link made clicky.

12/28/2005 05:04:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Now we know what A-list music is. I am OK with Coleman over Pollock but Moby over Smithson? That just seems wrong, almost opposite.

What would be appropriate? Xenakis maybe. Or 'The Long and Winding Road'? OK, that's too corny, but the right time period anyway.

Glass, Reich, Young, Riley?

12/28/2005 05:44:00 PM  
Anonymous artishell said...

Hey! I'm from Toronto so I have an opinion about this. Peter Goddard for years and years was a music reporter/critic and a good one, maybe he wasn't a great writer but who was sober/unstoned enough to care (see;=U1ARTU0001386) and then one day they made him the "art critic" for the Toronto Star. Why? No-one knows. Poor Peter. Poor Toronto art world (such as it is). He's still a great guy, but ... HE DOESN'T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT ART.

12/28/2005 07:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I need to see this film. Any film that gives props to David Wojnarowicz deserves to be seen.

12/28/2005 11:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, what a sorry spectacle! Some Canadian guy dared to offend the US art scene with some stupid article. Now how naughty is that? And oh, it's "anti-American"! Come on! That article is probably not even worth reading it! And going into this stupid "Canuck" drivel is basically a childish tit-for-tat. I would have expected better from you, Edward.

PS: I think you seriously want to re-consider using that phrase "anti-American", which is just some sort of glorified smoke screen for people who don't want to dealwith criticism. Criticism can be stupid and wrong, but there's no need to react like some spoilt brat to it.

12/29/2005 10:02:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

What the hell are you talking about Anonymous? What "criticism"? Goddard didn't offer any criticism, just slurs. My point is that if you're gonna take cheap shots like that, you had better back them up with facts or examples. He didn't. It was sloppy. And I said so. Me thinks the "spoiled brat" label is misapplied here.

Further, the "Canuck" drivel was indeed that, drivel, but I simply asked a question about whether it was offensive...the "tit-for-tat" as you call it was actually a civilized discussion about the general sense that it's not that offensive and perhaps my professor had overstated how offensive it was. No one (except you) has made much more of it than that.

Do you have a real point in there somewhere? I can't see it, if you do.

12/29/2005 10:17:00 AM  
Blogger Art Soldier said...

ed_, I whole-heartedly agree with your criticism of Mr. Goddard's article, it reminded me of the egg-headed provincialism that was common in the art criticism of my previous city of residence (ok, I won't lie, it was colorado springs, ick). My only question is, how the hell did you stumble on this article in the first place?

Regarding the special, did anyone else have the pleasure of watching this thing? I had the unfortunate circumstance of not having cable or anything resembling a social life last night and got suckered into it. Now I can almost understand what made Goddard so flustered.

This show was one of the most bizarre and poorly produced art surveys I have ever seen. The first half hour (not exaggerating here) was focused almost exclusively on Georgia O'Keefe (made out to be a pillar of 20th Century American Art) with the nauseating backdrop of the same mystical-sounding Moby song, over and over and over. According to this show, the timeline of American Art starts with Thomas Cole who begot O'Keefe who begot Pollack who begot Smithson who somehow went back in time and begot Warhol who begot Basquiat (this is where I finally shut it down).

I'm interested to find out who was responsible. I think it blew my mind.

12/29/2005 08:29:00 PM  
Blogger Ron Diorio said...

I have it on the DVR

I am just up to Pollock, couldn't watch the whole thing, made me go back to finish reading the Updike book - where is Robert Hughes when you need him ....

So far

No Hopper
No Harlem Renaissance

I wonder how the artists and the curators who were featured in it feel about the obvious intenrtional shortcomings.

12/29/2005 09:20:00 PM  

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