To the editor:
Tom McLaughlin’s article (“Leftist Arbiters of Art and History,” Feb. 13) sets out to extend the polarization of our country into the fields of art history and art criticism. He argues that liberals hate Andrew Wyeth, whom he admires, and he contrasts Wyeth with abstract paintings by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, which he derides as “kitsch.”
Beyond the fact that we Americans are already polarized enough, McLaughlin’s arguments seem somewhat simplified. It’s easy to find critics who disparage this or that artist but this is the mark of a free press.
As an art historian, I would assert that Andrew Wyeth is a fine artist, a master who skillfully employed composition and technique to enhance the underlying meaning of his chosen subject matter. The problem for historians is that his art was an anomaly during a period when works by Pollock and de Kooning better expressed the cultural changes that were affecting America.
As much as I admire Wyeth for doing so well what he personally set out to do, I did not chose to include him in my textbook “Art Past/Art Present.” I had limited space, and my interest was in demonstrating how each work of art I had chosen mirrors the historical realities of a given period and place. I don’t think of myself as a “leftist arbiter,” just someone trying to do the best job I can possibly do.
The Museum of Modern Art’s new installation was designed to tell the story of how modern art developed during the 20th and 21st centuries. Wyeth’s works had little impact on that history; hence, his painting is not included in their version of this story.
I didn’t see the N.C. Wyeth exhibition of paintings, many made for book illustrations, that McLaughlin saw at the Portland Museum of Art. The exhibition’s labels included comments made by contemporary representatives of Maine’s local tribes about N.C.’s images of Native Americans. The descendants criticized N.C.’s “inauthentic” native dress and his depiction of “whites in superior positions next to Indians.”
Frankly, I am pleased that the Portland Museum is including such contemporary comments; surely these Native Americans have a right to express their opinion about how their ancestors were depicted. In a democracy, it’s good to hear all voices.
Art is personal and what I, for example, like depends on many factors, some of which may be meaningless or marginal to you.
If you asked me today to describe my ideal work of art, I might say that it should be emotional, even spiritual, large, dramatic and with red as the dominant color. I haven’t found it yet, but while I’m waiting, I’ll be happy to be in the company of almost any work by Matisse or listening to any opera by Verdi.
You can choose to study works of art to understand the ideas that circulated in the past, as I do, but it’s even more important to find the art that gives you pleasure. Enjoy the feeling of contentment that will come.
Art has a lot to offer; don’t miss the opportunity to both understand and enjoy it.