Be Afraid…please?

It’s not close to Halloween yet (so take that candy off store shelves!) but I thought I would scratch out a few lines on horror, and how difficult it is to illustrate. Fear is such a personal experience – no two people feel the same, or respond to the same stimuli – that writing with the intent to frighten is very difficult. Having to put images to those emotions is even harder.

Unease in general is hard, but it can be very effective. Take James Ensor‘s Self-Portrait with Masks, from 1899, in the collection of the Menard Art Museum, Komaki, Japan (below). The parade of masked faces, which recurs in Ensor’s work, is enough to make you worry. Why are these people masked? What is their intent?


The evocative image need not directly illustrate a story, but can instead suggest some sense of the macabre. Consider this cover for Der Orchideengarten, the pioneering German magazine, which focussed for most of its run on fantasy and horror, that ran from 1919 to 1921. I haven’t found out the name of the artist yet; my apologies to his ghost.


Or this Hannes Bok cover for Weird Tales, from November 1941:


But these are standalone images. Where an artist must draw an illustration, the challenges are double. Wise horror writers eschew explicit description, fully aware that, like sex, horror is hard to capture and runs the risk of sliding into accidental humor. (There is a contest for worst sex writing of the year; there ought to be a similar contest for least scary horror writing.) One way is to leave the worst details to the imagination. For example, when Lynd Ward brilliantly illustrated Frankenstein in 1934, he had to draw the monster repeatedly, but he wisely chose many compositions that hid the creature’s face – see below. Ward only showed the monster’s face a few times, and the impact is greater for it.


Sometimes a daring artist – in this case Hannes Bok again – brings the monster right out in the open, and trusts to his skill. This drawing from H.P. Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model, published in Famous Fantastic Mysteries magazine (December 1951) is brave, and has become iconic. Other artists illustrating the same story have decided to avoid this scene, and let the reader create their own monster.


Lovecraft is circumspect about the creature, leaving Bok alone with his imagination. (An aside: I find that horror and fantasy stories are best illustrated in black and white, despite the brilliance of some color work. Perhaps it’s just me.)

Few stories remain frightening forever. The vast majority step sideways into fantasy or fable, stirring wonder but not fear. This is fine, and brings a second act to the life of horror stories. Fear is also transient, and the story that makes the skin crawl on first reading can become mundane or comfortable with repeat reading. Perhaps what is surprising is not that so many fantasy artists fail to capture the mood of macabre stories, but that so many do succeed.



More Stupid Museum Tricks


The Indianapolis Museum of Art

What is it with art museums rebranding themselves and turning away from art? The Berkshire Museum’s planned sale of art to fund its re-imagining is still drawing protests from professional associations and the public, and now the Indianapolis Museum of Art has unveiled its version.

Newfields, a Place for Nature and the Arts is the name to be given to this agglomeration of the IMA and its diverse array of components: Lilly House (a historic estate), The Garden, The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park: 100 Acres, and performance spaces. These spaces are not new acquisitions, they are merely being put together under one name. But branding is not change: the unified name, and preferential placing of Nature over Art, show a turn from art-focussed planning. Previously, and even in the press release announcing Newfields, reads “The IMA’s mission is to enrich lives through exceptional experiences with art and nature.” Most of the improvements announced to date have to do with the gardens and performance spaces. Art exhibits will continue, but it is clear that Dr. Charles L. Venable, The Melvin & Bren Simon Director and CEO, and the Board of Trustees are putting art in the back seat.

Venable has not had an admirable tenure as Director. Staff upheavals and budget issues have plagued his administration. The Museum’s 2005-06 renovation left them with $100M in debt, which has been gradually payed down; which – 11 years later! – is down to $81M. The Museum’s turn away from art as its primary focus has been gradually ongoing:  In 2010 the IMA acquired Miller House and Garden in Columbus, Indiana, a mid-Century Modernist home and National Historic Landmark. Newfields – the name is a play on Oldfields, the original name of the Lilly estate – will unite a disparate group of venues under one name, but how does that create added incentive for people to visit?

If anything demonstrates the paucity of ideas coming forth from the Newfields team, which, like the Berkshire Museum, drew its conclusions based on market research, it is Winterlights, an “expanded holiday experience and new annual tradition” which is nothing more than a holiday light show, running November to early January. It’s going to take more than that to cut down an $81M shortfall. Of all the improvements listed, all concerned the gardens, entertainment venues, and parking lots.

So why do this? There’s nothing wrong with uniting all properties under one name, however bland and uninformative Newfields is. It allows for a seeming change without much effort or money involved. But the emphasis on the gardens, when the cornerstone and raison d’être of the whole enterprise is the art museum, shows an abandoment of the founding principles of the museum itself. It has seemed for some time as though Charles Venable didn’t really want to run an art museum; now he can pretend he doesn’t. The added value for the people of Indianapolis…small to none.


Not that painting again…


The ICA Boston

A follow-up to the Dana Schutz story, which I first wrote about here, with notes for protestors. To recap:

Schutz’s painting Open Casket depicts the dead body of Emmett Till, who was murdered in a race-based attack in 1955. Schutz has said that she did so because she identified with Till’s mother – admirable as far as it goes, but not much when many African-Americans felt that she was co-opting their pain for her own purposes. There were minor protests around the painting when it was shown at the Whitney Biennial, and some discussion on the issues involved.

On July 26, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, opened a Dana Schutz show. Open Casket is not in the show. Protestors had been in discussion with the museum about the show, and went public with their objections once the show opened. Since then, another group, including artist Kara Walker, Ed Ruscha, and Cindy Sherman, have come out in support of the museum.

Now you can debate the issues until the sun goes dark, but I want to make a point about the nature of protests around museum shows.

First, exhibitions are planned years in advance, so to accuse the ICA of endorsing Schutz or her views is disingenuous. The show was arranged before Schutz painted Open Casket.

Second, The hours and dollars invested in a show make any sudden change of plan unlikely. By the time the show opened, the protestors had lost. Already the ICA was committed, and was hardly going to ditch its promotional and educational material, much less the hours spent installing the works and preparing gallery space. If you have objections to material, speak up and speak publicly before the show opens. In essence, the ICA protestors backed themselves into a corner with little or no hope of substantive change.

By all means, if there are concerns, they should be voiced, preferably in dialogue with museum officials or others whose opinion carries some weight. If the museum won’t participate, rent a venue and hold an event of your own. Write an essay or op-ed. The exchange of ideas is vital to the life of art, and, while not all your points might end up swaying hearts and minds, even one good idea deserves airing.

I find myself in an odd situation, as I consider Open Casket to be the worst Schutz painting I’ve ever seen, for artistic reasons. Her tone-deaf approach, not unlike Sam Durant’s, which I wrote about here, does her no credit, but hardly merits some sort of punitive action. The ICA protestors speak of “accountability,” but what does that mean? Accountable for being clueless? Is one poorly thought-out painting worth it, for either party?

Selling Out, or Off (updated)


The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, bills itself as a museum of “Science, History, and the Arts.” Putting art last is not merely a choice: the museum has announced plans to become multidisciplinary – more multidisciplinary than currently, I guess – and, faced with its “new vision” and ongoing deficits ($1.15 million a year), has decided to sell some of its art to raise money. It’s a bad idea at the start, and worse the more you look at it.

At first the museum did not choose to release a list of the works being put up for auction. However, it has since released a list, which includes works by notable American artists such as Frederick Church, Norman Rockwell (2 of his, donated to the museum by the artist), and Alexander Calder (also 2). Also included are works by European artists such as Peter de Hooch, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Francis Picabia. Forty works in total will be sold at Sotheby’s in the coming months.


Albert Bierstadt, “Connecticut River Valley, Claremont, New Hampshire” c. 1868. Collection of The Berkshire Museum (for now)

Art critics and journalists, even directors of other museums, have spoken out against the sale. As is sadly all too common, the major associations in the field, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) have issued blandly noncommittal statements, saying they are communicating with the museum about its plans. In an article by Carrie Saldo of The Berkshire Eagle, the museum’s attorney, Mark Gold, said that the sale was approved to “secure its financial future.” In regard to the ethical questions of selling from a museum’s collection to fund expansion and ease debt, Gold said, “The board put its fiduciary duty ahead of these guidelines, which is frankly what [it] should do.”

I have written before about the duties of Trustees to the museums they serve. In this case I can do no better than to quote from veteran art journalist Lee Rosenbaum, who wrote what so many of us are thinking:

“Frankly,” the “fiduciary duty” of the museum’s board and its administration is to raise funds and generate earned income sufficient to insure the preservation, study and display of the collection, not to exploit the art as a cash cow to compensate for their deficient leadership.”

Saldo’s article – and may I pause here to commend The Berkshire Eagle for some of the best regional arts coverage around, superior even to The New York Times – also quotes museum Director Van Shields as saying that the change in focus to science and natural history represents “the will of the community,” an odd phrase (the quotation marks are mine, not Saldo’s) . They did extensive research in assembling this plan. According to the museum’s website:

“In developing the plan for a transformed Museum, the Board of Trustees and staff executed an extensive planning process, beginning with identifying community needs. The process included several day-long Board retreats; three groups of community leaders that met several times; and a series of 22 focus groups, engaging approximately 235 individuals from ages 8 to 55 and over. The participants included local children in both public and private schools; Museum donors, members, and volunteers; young professionals; business leaders; innkeepers; and second homeowners. All told, approximately 400 people have participated in the community consultation process.”

400 is a nice round number, though not exactly representative of the community as a whole – the 2010 census listed Pittsfield as having a population of 44,737. What is wrong is not what the community wants, but the way in which the museum administration and Board of Trustees are going about it. Selling works from the collection is sometimes justifiable as a museum’s focus shifts and works become only a bit of clutter in the storage rooms. That is not the case here. These works are exhibit-worthy, and could indeed be useful in the future. I urge the museum’s Board to reconsider and find alternate plans. Norman Rockwell Museum Director Laurie Norton Moffat has already spoken on the subject (read it here, in another Eagle article by Carrie Saldo) and, with the participation of AAM and AAMD, some more ethical solution might be reached.

UPDATE: Mere hours after I wrote this, AAM and AAMD have issued a joint statement stating that they “are deeply opposed to the Berkshire Museum’s plans to sell works from its collection to provide funds for its endowment, to make capital investments, and to pay for daily operations.” This is a welcome development, and a bit of a surprise given the organization’s weak response to previous ethical issues.

Another quote from the joint statement:
Selling from the collection for purposes such as capital projects or operating funds not only diminishes the core of works available to the public, it erodes the future fundraising ability of museums nationwide. Such a sale sends a message to existing and prospective donors that museums can raise funds by selling parts of their collection, thereby discouraging not only financial supporters, who may feel that their support isn’t needed, but also donors of artworks and artifacts, who may fear that their cherished objects could be sold at any time to the highest bidder to make up for a museum’s budget shortfalls. That cuts to the heart not only of the Berkshire Museum, but every museum in the United States.

Their entire statement can be read here. Now let’s hope the Berkshire Museum’s leadership listens.

UPDATE #2: The Berkshire Museum has responded and said that their plans will not change. Oh, well.


Finding the balance


Museums must be ready for all kinds of responses from all kinds of visitors.

I remember reading an observation by Soren Kierkegaard in which he compared a music critic to a music lover. A critic, he wrote, perceives music analytically; the art lover perceives it emotionally. How this difference affects the way professionals deal with art is the subject of this post.

Art historians are concerned with the analytical: dates, provenance, movements in art and where a particular artist or work fits or does not, and so on. Facts and figures are the backbone on which an understanding of art rests. The “what” questions always come first. Any museum catalog stands or falls on its data, and so curators are primarily historians.

The gallery has more of a commercial focus, so catalogs, when there are any, are often slimmer in size and content. Wall texts and labels are minimal, even absent. The history of the art – especially contemporary art – is almost beside the point.

Museums have a second rank of contributors to an exhibition’s supporting material: educators. While educators are a conduit through which facts and figures are conveyed to the audience, they also provide a moderating influence. Response to works of art can vary wildly, but some sort of emotional reaction is inevitable. Telling a story in an engaging way without compromising the facts is a delicate balancing act. Docents and educators must aim for a middle ground that is neither lecture nor sappy romance (in all senses of the term).

This is why I found Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s book “Art as Therapy” so very wrong-headed. You can read part one of my two-part analysis here. They proposed an approach that was all about emotional self-analysis on the part of the audience, abandoning the artist’s intentions and any semblance of art history, and substituting mushy self-help jargon. And that’s enough about that. Read the review.

Art critics have to be historians at heart, but critics overlaid with deep feeling. Our emotional responses to art shape our tastes in ways that no amount of scholarship will ever do. Some writers, such as John Berger (here I am writing about him again) leant heavily on the emotive power of artworks. Others rely on the formal properties: does this composition work? What about the choice of colors? The moral/sexual/cultural politics of the work? It might seem easy to just look at art and write about what you see, but it’s not. The critic may have it easy in that they don’t have to assemble the show; they can play Monday morning quarterback to their heart’s content. But critics, more than just about any other, bear the burden of looking at art the way we, everyday folks, do. An expert opinion designed for a mass audience, aficionados to newcomers.

I saw some lovely art today, watercolors by an artist named Ian Newbury. He doesn’t have a website, but if you’re interested, Google him or look on Facebook for Ian Newbury Watercolors. I decided not to write about him, not because his work was bad – not at all – but because he works within traditions of landscape painting that have been written about for ages. I would have nothing to say that wasn’t repetitive or trite. Especially fine were a suite of brown ink drawings commissioned by poet David Madden for his book “Sprung from the Soil,” a collection of poems about Old Sturbridge Village, in Massachusetts. I realized that, as a critic, I had nothing to say beyond that I liked them. So a potential review ends up as a paragraph. I repeat: I liked them.

Ian Newbury’s landscapes can be seen at the Hoxie Gallery, located in the Westerly Memorial Library, Westerly RI, until the mid-August, 2017.