They are selling postcards of Hitler in the gift shop at the Guggenheim Museum. To be precise, they are selling photographic reproductions of a work entitled Him, a polyester portrayal of the Führer that is one of the works by Maurizio Cattelan in his retrospective at the museum. I can imagine being outraged or at least troubled by the postcards in the gift shop, except that by the time I saw them I had already been bombarded by this exhibition in which nearly all of Cattelan’s oversized neo-Dadaist baubles have been hung from the ceiling of Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda.
Saul Bellow: Letters Edited by Benjamin Taylor (Viking, 571 pp., $35) How easy it is, and plausible, to regard a collection of letters spanning youth and old age as an approximation of autobiography: the procession of denizens who inhabit a life, the bit players with their entrances and exits, the faithful chronology of incidents—all turn up reliably in either form, whether dated and posted or backward-looking. Yet autobiography, even when ostensibly steeped in candor, tends toward reconsideration—if not revisionary paperings-over, then late perspectives, afterwords, and second thoughts.
The most intriguing and intricate cultural history I have read is Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. There are many lessons in it, one of them that enormous wealth brings both opportunity and confusion, even—surprise!—also deterioration. This was what finally happened to Holland, and it happened also to Spain and Venice—three of the once richest and most powerful polities of Europe.
I am deeply disturbed by “Chaos and Classicism,” a survey of the arts in Europe from the end of World War I to the beginning of World War II that is currently at the Guggenheim. I know many people have been excited by this exploration of classical tendencies in France, Germany, and Italy between the wars. The subject matter has been treated in major shows in Europe—such as “Les Réalismes” in Paris in 1980 and “On Classic Ground” in London in 1990—but is not so well known over here.
Nobody talks about “midcult” anymore. I wonder how many people are even aware of this nifty coinage. I like the clipped sound of those two syllables locked together, the efficiency with which “middle” and “culture” have been shortened, abbreviated, then spliced together. Dwight Macdonald tossed midcult into the intellectual playground with his 1961 essay, “Masscult and Midcult,” originally published as a pamphlet by Partisan Review. And whatever the strengths and the weaknesses of that long, elaborate essay, the word has its own kind of mid-twentieth-century fascination.
Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present Museum of Modern Art Skin Fruit New Museum William Kentridge: Five Themes Museum of Modern Art The social history of art in our time will not be easy to write. A daunting range of factors must be taken into account. There is now a large, heterogeneous public aware that art is big business, and it is eager to follow developments in the auction houses, the commercial galleries, and art fairs such as the Armory Show in New York and Art Basel Miami Beach.
In art created through not-for-profit funding, the grant proposal too often is the art form. The requirements of application give shape to the work that the artist (or the hired grant writer) proposes to create. The funding process is valuable—indeed, an essential alternative to the free market—but also limited by its necessary politics. You can just smell the grease of the grant machinery in some of the work that comes out of the Guggenheims.
Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity Museum of Modern Art Kandinsky Guggenheim Museum This is an autumn of anniversaries in two of New York’s most important museums. At the Museum of Modern Art, “Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity,” the exhibition saluting the ninetieth anniversary of the opening of the legendary German school of art, architecture, and design, also marks the eightieth anniversary of the founding of the Modern.
I. THERE IS A PARADOX AT THE heart of any cultural institution. It is that the men and women who dedicate themselves to these essential enterprises exert a fiscal and administrative discipline that has nothing whatsoever to do with the discipline of art, which is a disciplined abandon. I imagine that for anybody who founds or sustains or rescues or re-invents a museum, an orchestra, or a dance company, this tension between the institution and the art comes to feel like a natural paradox. There is always a balancing act involved, which helps to explain why the very greatest institution-builder