|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?...no, 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 to...you 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)....so, I'll contradict the overall gist of my critique and vapidly declare it "a success." Yeah, that should do the trick.