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.
There is good news at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum’s “Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands,” which have only been open for a few days, look as if they have been there forever. The ambience is warm and subdued, with frequently medium-sized rooms designed to underline the meticulous opulence of objects created to serve the needs of what were in many respects a succession of courtly cultures. There is no hype, no hyperbole. Museumgoers are urged to move in close, to take it all in.
Georges Braque’s Studio IX, as ravishingly enigmatic a vision as has ever been committed to canvas, is at the Acquavella Galleries in New York until the end of November. It is among more than three dozen works in a remarkable salute to this man who revolutionized art in the years leading up to World War I, and by the time of his death, in 1963, found himself among the supreme poets of Western painting, right up there with Giorgione and Corot.
Over the summer, the man who sells books on the street across from my apartment had a volume of essays by Theodor Reik, Ritual: Psycho-Analytic Studies, first published in German in 1919. And in the last couple of weeks, the weeks of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I’ve taken a look at a long essay called “The Shofar.” I cannot say I understand more than a small part of what Reik is driving at in this elaborate exercise in High Freudian historical criticism.
The curators who organized “Infinite Jest,” the survey of caricature and satire from Leonardo da Vinci to David Levine currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had a nifty idea. At a moment when everybody is lamenting the sorry state of political life, they have gathered together several centuries worth of prints and drawings by artists lamenting the sorry state not only of political life but of social and cultural life as well. In its own terms the show, organized by Constance McPhee and Nadine Orenstein, is a rousing success, finely wrought and full of delicious stuff.
In the autumn, everybody wonders what’s going to happen next in the arts. This is a natural feeling, a good feeling. Optimism is in the air. But if you’ve already spent your fair share of autumns waiting to see what comes next, you probably cannot avoid the echoes of seasons past, a sense, alternately exhilarating and depressing, that we are always returning to places we’ve been before.
Nearly two thousand years ago, in the stark terrain where modern day Afghanistan and Pakistan meet, a sculptural tradition emerged that joins opulent forms and contemplative feelings and is unlike anything else in the history of world art. Although we know next to nothing about the sculptors who in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries CE developed what amounts to the first great act in the history of Buddhist art, a visitor to “The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara,” the exhibition now at Asia Society in New York, cannot fail to respond to the emotional texture of the work.
The Mountain, the twelve-foot-wide painting by Balthus in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is one of the most disquieting visions of summer ever committed to canvas, a pastoral painted in 1937 with all Europe on the brink of catastrophe. It is a painting that I find myself returning to with a new kind of attention at the close of a summer that has had its own share of disquietudes. A party of seven has stopped on a plateau overlooking a dramatic gorge; three men and three women and a tiny male figure off in the distance.
The arts are not efficient. They are essential. That is something entirely different. Culture, in order to be vital, must be extravagant. At times there is fiscal extravagance. Inevitably, there is the extravagance of lives dedicated to what are the inherently impractical disciplines of art, literature, music, dance, and theater. There is no art—there is no culture—without enormous individual energies being expended to what are, by their very nature, uncertain ends. I once heard a famous poet, when asked how his work was going, shrug and say: “You just put in your oar.
The time has come to return to the vexatious relationship between art and politics, which was both catnip and quicksand for thinking people during much of the twentieth century. China’s ever-higher profile as global arbiter of matters artistic—commissioning major work from international architectural stars; giving the nod to a booming market in contemporary Chinese art; and all the while drastically restricting the freedom of artists and writers—leaves us honor bound to explore the tangled old alliances and misalliances between artistic power and political power.