“Museum Skepticism” and “Sean Scully,” by David Carrier

Museum Skepticism, by David CarrierMuseum Skepticism: a History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries, by David Carrier. Duke University Press, 2006. xiii+313pp with bibliography and index. $16.00 ISBN 0822336944 Sean Scully by David Carrier. New York and London: Thames and Hudson, (224 pp, 190 color illustrations, 10 black and white.) $65.00 cloth. I-Shu Shi Xie Zuo [Principles of Art History Writing], by David Carrier, translated into Chinese by Wu Xiao Lai (297 pages, 40 color illustrations) Beijing: Renmin Daxue (People’s University Press) 2004, 49.80 yuan.

A review by George J. Leonard, San Francisco State University

In the summer of 2006, as baseball fans were watching Barry Bonds push his lifetime home-run total into the 720s, patiently chasing Hank Aaron’s record, those of us who follow aesthetics were watching David Carrier write his 11th 12th and 13th book, chasing his teacher Arthur Danto’s home run record. I had recently finished Carrier’s Rosalind Krauss and American Philosophical Art Criticism (2002), Writing about Visual Art (2003), and the catalog of a museum show he put together. (My favorite among his books remains The Aesthetics of Comics.) Today I review Carrier’s latest book, Sean Scully, and the Chinese translation of his Principles of Art History Writing, plus Museum Skepticism: a History of the Display in Public Galleries, Carrier’s book on the museum experience from Duke University Press, begun during a year at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

To turn my light-hearted metaphor serious, Carrier as a writer resembles Bonds in his peculiar versatility. Bonds hits homers both righty and lefty; he has also stolen over 40 bases in years he has hit 40 home runs. What is truly remarkable about Carrier’s thirteen books is that they’re all excellent yet (particularly after writing Principles) they’re in so many different genres. Carrier, so to speak, bats righty and lefty and steals bases. Sean Scully, one of the three new books before us, is a complex biography/memoir of a long and mutually sustaining friendship between artist and critic. Rosalind Krauss and American Philosophical Art Criticism was written by Carrier– but this time wearing another hat, writing as one of the rare art critics who knows more philosophy than Rosalind Krauss does. The Aesthetics of Comics is also by Carrier– but in a third style, an extremely fruitful, sometimes indescribable encounter between aesthetics and pop culture criticism, the “first book by an analytic philosopher to identify and solve the aesthetic problems posed by the comic strip and to explain the relationship of this artistic genre to other forms of visual art.”

The Aesthetics of Comics handled, for instance, the nature of “conventional elements” in representation by explaining, “If you could stand next to Donald Duck in a comic, you would see him, but not the words or thoughts in his speech balloon.” A chapter about not only Baudelaire and Daumier, but also Gary Larson’s strip The Far Side, (“Caricature; or, Representing Causal Connection”) begins with this explanation of David Hume’s conjectures about causation:

“While working in my third floor study, I can sometimes see the postman coming along my quiet, dead-end street. And when then I run downstairs, I view the mail coming through the slot and hear my daughter’s dog, Brigston, rushing barking to defend the house. I understand what is happening at any given moment by relation to what happens earlier or later. Brigston awakens because he hears the postman. I infer, as Hume noted, causal connections between those pairs of events….”

In Aesthetics of Comics Carrier fully turned the stylistic corner that his teacher Arthur Danto had turned in 1981, with The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, In that amazingly influential book, Danto adroitly incorporated fiction and comedy into his analytic philosophy. Every time, for instance, that Danto’s narrator tries to set up a (fictional) art exhibition which will exclude certain “mere real things,” unworthy of being contemplated as art, he is attacked by Kierkegaardian and Borgesian characters, most memorably, “a sullen young artist with egalitarian attitudes, whom I shall call J.”

Carrier more and more has melded art interpretation and autobiography into a kind of kunstlerroman, the history of the education of the artist’s taste. He is a great Proust reader, Carrier, and entire pages in Carrier’s books can be almost indistinguishable from Proust’s accounts of how he responded to a particular artwork, and his meditations on why.

Museum Skepticism, the newest from Carrier reminds me of Aesthetics of Comics in an important way. One’s first reaction to the subtitle, “a History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries” is to say, “You mean, there wasn’t one?” The Aesthetics of Comics was a similarly inspired choice: the first time a world-famous philosopher like Carrier had fully evaluated comic strips (which, amazingly enough, are no older than the 1890s, though one would have thought the form so obvious it was in use forever).

One realizes, reading Museum Skepticism, that one’s main knowledge of the history of museums is still the prefaces which Elizabeth Gilmore Holt and her graduate students assembled for the workmanlike dated A Documentary History of Art back in the 1940s and 50s. The topic apparently was too daunting. Harvard’s Ivan Gaskill justly says in a blurb that Carrier is “one of only a handful of scholars who inhabit with ease the diverse worlds of philosophy, art history, art criticism, and now museology”– the study of museums, a study which will surely demand your abilities in the first three fields that Gaskell mentioned.

But let’s return to the beginning.

Danto’s 1981 leap into writing art criticism for The Nation, after writing Transfiguration, intrigued Carrier. He too became a frequent art critic for magazines like Artforum, collaborated with Mark Roskill, and finally wrote the American version of the Chinese book under review today, Principles of Art History Writing.

Principles of Art History Writing, by David CarrierThe Principles of Art History Writing is, like Artwriting, one of several books he has now written on the writing of art history itself. “What inspired me was two shows,” he remembered for this interviewer many years later (2006) “both at the Met, those devoted to Caravaggio and Manet.” In the introduction he remembers seeing them with the philosopher and art critic Alexander Nehamas, who urged him to write. “I could see the whole body of paintings, more of Manet of course, and so the questions of development came into focus. And looking at the literature, I could see the development of commentary. What most struck me: the move from simple early to later elaborate commentary.” There had been “progress” in artwriting, a rare thing in any kind of philosophic discourse.

In Principles, Carrier reviewed every genre the Western art historical narrative had developed. He has said he was “naïve” when he started. He was a philosopher. He had only taken one art history course!

But he knew how to think– and, as an analytic philosopher, he knew when others were substituting rhetoric for thought. What an enjoyably destructive work Principles is! Carrier, the philosopher, appears in the thick of the art historians like a federal auditor arriving at an Enron Board meeting in 1999. The word “but” must occur a thousand times; “therefore” very rarely. “But how is that possible, when the axis also passes through….” “But there is no record of Vasari ever describing….” “But earlier generations of interpreters saw Manet as a simple man….”

The book has become a staple of art history courses, and I can guess why. The students come into the course expecting me to tell them which Experts knew the “truth” about the paintings, so they can memorize it, and recite it on appropriate occasions to impress people.

By the time Carrier is finished deconstructing art history (for once the word fits) the student is free to be imaginative as she wants to be, secure in the knowledge that she can’t do much worse than the “authorities” have done! That makes for uninhibited classes. Carrier frees genius to create.

During the writing, Carrier also came to a consciousness of himself as a prose artist, as well as a philosopher. More than any other contemporary “artwriter,” to use his meaningful double-entendre of a term, Carrier has treated artwriting as an art, and, as he once said, he has given “art history a history.”

Carrier took his epigraph from Friedrich von Schlegal: “In what is called philosophy of art, there is usually lacking one of the two: either philosophy or art.” Carrier, putting the slighting comment at the front of his book, accepted it as a challenge. Could philosophy of art be not only philosophy but also art? Did artwriting itself include or overlap the literary genres, was there an art to artwriting? That was a central question in Principles of Art History Writing, and several books since. In books like England and its Aesthetes: Biography and Taste, and Charles Baudelaire and the Origins of Modernism Carrier connected with an era in which artwriting had been not only a respected genre, but a central one, practiced by major literary figures like Baudelaire, Pater, Ruskin. In the 20th century the scales tipped toward pure scholarship, but could a balance be found? Could artwriting in the 21st century become art again, as it had in the 19th century?

Coincidentally– for Carrier’s fascination with China is recent, though growing– the mainland Chinese are now asking all of those questions, as they emerge from decades of xenophobia, and are allowed to explore Western concepts that before Deng Xiao Ping’s reforms could have gotten them sent to a labor camp. Or sent back, rather, since most of the country’s intellectual class had languished there between 1966 and 1975, during the Cultural Revolution.

Carrier’s much-assigned book is a perfect match for them. Carrier wanted to look back and take stock of everything that Western artwriting could be, and do; and so do the Chinese. This summer his Chinese publishers invited him to Beijing, where a conference was held, and Carrier was presented with copies of Principles in a luxurious Chinese edition. (One measure of Carrier’s growing influence is that this year alone he will have spoken about his work in Ireland, Italy and India, as well as in Beijing.)

Contemporary American aesthetics is still new to the People’s Republic of China, but they are determined to import it like everything else American. Think of the appetite which Meiji Japan showed for Western methods and you’ll understand PRC now. A wave of Chinese who studied in America have been returning home since 2001, when our economy worsened and China’s improved, (they are humorously called the returning “sea turtles”) bringing every kind of experience of the West with them.

Yet after teaching and living in Beijing on and off since the Eighties, I can say that China will read Carrier carefully, for our aesthetics remains extremely foreign to them. The only Western critic who at all resembles classical East Asian aesthetics is Thomas Carlyle– who to us seems more like an anti-critic– since he, like the high East Asian tradition, examines a painting primarily seeking contact with the artist’s heroic personality and/or his spiritual vision. I speak of the unbroken discourse going back to Hsieh Ho in 500 C.E. Anyone who thinks Western aesthetics merely codifies some “natural” way that humans respond to art objects will be disabused (and perhaps depressed) by reading Chinese aesthetics, which– this is a considered judgment, not a flip remark– relates to our aesthetics not much more than jingju, Chinese opera, relates to Verdi’s opera. Our aesthetics and theirs intersect at right angles. We do different things with objects, though we persist in calling our various activities by the single name, “art.”

The Chinese decision to translate David Carrier is significant, the way almost everything is significant in so centrally-controlled a society. It is part of China’s determination to re-open to the West– the American West, this time, instead of the Marxist West, which (bad timing!) had been represented to them as Modernity itself, when they last opened to us, in Mao’s youth. The edition is even handsomer than the American editions– large, on slick paper, and abundantly illustrated with fine color pictures. Carrier is good at elucidating difficult critics, a skill he shares with another of his teachers, Richard Kuhns (Tragedy, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Art). The Chinese scholars undoubtedly saw that Carrier’s Principles would serve them not only as a work of advanced theory but also as a textbook on Western writers as yet untranslated.

It is interesting and significant that the book has come out from Beijing’s People’s University. Built by the Communists next door to “Bei Da,” Beijing’s Harvard, it was meant to rival it. (Something like an M.I.T. next to Harvard?) People’s University specialized, as the name indicates, in educating for leadership the brightest children of “the people,” that is, people of correct proletarian background. After the Cultural Revolution discredited the “ultra-leftists,” People’s University, like China, turned about-face, and became a school for the most Western-oriented Party elite– my niece Toto goes to their highschool. It’s a sign of the times that the once ultraleft, xenophobic school set up to educate populist leaders is now catching up with the West by bringing in David Carrier and the principles of Western art history writing.

Sean Scully, by David CarrierThe two works under discussion are linked, because thirteen years before Carrier wrote Sean Scully, he was already training for it, analyzing the way “both seicento and modern accounts of Caravaggio” had tried to construct an artist’s personality from his works. (Scully already appears in Principles‘ acknowledgements.) “Compare two accounts of Caravaggio’s personality: Giovanni Bellori’s brief 1672 text, and Howard Hibbard’s Caravaggio, published in 1983.” So a chapter starts on “The Construction of an Artistic Personality” by an artwriter. Carrier then compares Burckhardt, Fry, Berenson, Bellori, Wincklemann, Arnold Hauser and Wittkower on Caravaggio (“Caravaggio’s site-specific effects analyzed by Steinberg raise similar problems,” “modern art historians’ reliance on humanism is described… by Panofsky….”) When Carrier, thirteen years later, turns to the construction of Sean Scully, he brings to the analysis all this theoretical depth.

But that is what the deeper purpose of Principles, and some of his other works were for Carrier: training sessions. In 1991 Carrier analyzed, for his own writing’s sake, the strengths and weaknesses of the countless ways prose, art and thought interact. The discussions are pragmatic– you’re in a training camp, sitting with a professional athlete running videotapes of other professionals. The second epigraph to Principles, from Vladimir Nabokov, alluded to the way the attentive young man was studying all the magic tricks of his great predecessors, to “transcend” them:

“Those apparatuses– the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions– which the native illusionist, frac-tales flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way…”

“In his own way!” The strong poet only studies others to devour them and gain their strength, like a cannibal eating his (or her!) archenemy. Carrier, Arthur Danto has said with admiration, has more energy and ambition than anyone he knows. (This is a good point at which to make my “full disclosure” that I know and like David Carrier, having met him at a conference on Danto’s work. Sean Scully, however, I do not know. I did not even particularly like his work before reading Carrier’s book.)

All Carrier’s sophisticated techniques are in evidence in Sean Scully, which overcame my old doubts about Scully’s work. Scully needed a volume on this scale (Ten inches by twelve inches, with 190 color illustrations) to bring him out. His work is subtle, and anything but the best color reproductions will fail to catch it, the way a bad taping may not much hurt a Tchaikovsky symphony but will destroy a quiet John Cage tympani piece.

A full discussion of Scully’s life, as skillfully enacted by Carrier, is beyond the scope of this already long review. Suffice to say that Scully is a model of the modern transnational artist and Carrier’s biographical approach deals with that subtle phenomenon. Born in Dublin in 1945, Scully moved to London at the age of 4, and won prizes in London before 30. That year he gambled, gave up his growing presence in English art, and tried to make it in New York. (All his life Leon Golub wished he’d bitten the bullet and done that sooner. He had tried to make a go of “regional” art from as nearby as Chicago, before deciding it was impossible and that he had wasted decades.) Scully had to start all over again in New York, but he had his first one-man show there in 1977, won even more prizes and grants, was soon studying and teaching at Princeton, then Harvard. (Driving up from the art capital, of course.)

Yet– here is the challenge to the biographical work– though he left Ireland at age 4, Scully has always identified with, or “given salience” to, as we say in ethnic American studies, his Irish ethnicity -“romantically,” as he admits. It’s a very contemporary sense of what it means to be “Irish.” (And it is an American sense, not an Irish one!) Ethnicity, it was argued in the 1990s, now may be “salient” over residence, citizenship, all. Earlier Irish-Americans, by contrast, sang how they were “born on the Fourth of July.” Scully claims an indelible Irishness, and that it matters to his art, and to our understanding it. The Irish (unexpectedly) accept Scully’s claim and return Scully’s fondness. They have honored him with shows, with documentary films on their national TV. He’s even had a postage stamp.

Carrier prepared for years to examine how so subtle a sense of identity interacts with fields of muted color. For a second challenge to the biographical approach is that Scully’s severe paintings and sculptural objects primarily use stripes of color, like the bottoms of American flags without the box of stars, but in every possible gentle combination of tones. How can that be “Irish”? They would seem to be antithetical to “content” or “istoria,” the way Robert Ryman’s work is; yet Scully, like Van Gogh and Kandinsky and Rothko before him, believes he can communicate with the colors and shapes.

Carrier largely convinces me. In a painting called “The Moroccan” the bars evoke the beautiful palette of a desert sunset, the colors of sand and hills fading into orange and ochre. “The ghost of figuration” Carrier argues of paintings like these, “is the ultimate source for these narratives.” In “Wall of Light Fall,” Scully magically soaks up the “weathered looking colors” of autumn, the way Pollock once did in “Autumn Rhythm, No. 30, 1950.”

What the dancing splash was for Pollock, the solid rhythm of stripes is for Scully: his basic phoneme of expression. The stripe, not the brushstroke, is the minimal unit in the visual system of Scully’s pictorial language. It is amazing how much Pollock and Scully can say by changing, shaping, repositioning their building blocks. Carrier is right to claim that Scully has successfully brought Abstract Expressionism into the 21st century.

The genre of the book is complex, adding autobiography to biography. Sean Scully records one of those moving artistic and intellectual friendships, almost partnerships between artist and writer. Carrier knows Scully better than Baudelaire knew Daumier, and he and Scully have lasted much longer than Clement Greenberg and Pollock. As I mentioned above, Scully’s name already appears in the credits of Carrier’s 1991 Principles. “Your constant, I might even say relentless, support” Scully once wrote Carrier, “has been at the back of me like a shadow that is made of light.” Carrier in turn mentions a night “when I asked for help at one unique moment of extreme crisis,” and Scully “spent a long time at two o’ clock in the morning telling me that my art writing mattered,” until Carrier’s “dark mood dispelled; I slept soundly and never looked back.”

It is pleasant to picture these two hulking, bearish men together, hanging out, cheering each other up and egging each other on. They have worked and talked and dispelled each other’s dark moods, the text reveals, all around the world. The book relies on many hours of tapes done in Morocco. In 2006 they plan to be together again in Bombay.

Carrier as biographer is lucky, for how Scully can write! Most painters can’t, as anyone who has trudged through the ill-translated volumes of Elizabeth’s Holt’s documentary histories of art can attest. (Monet’s letters all start “sorry I haven’t written” and end “send anything you can spare.”) Scully is certainly Irish in his eloquence. Carrier wisely often steps aside and lets Scully hold forth at length. Scully’s letters to Carrier (which, during the fax era, came written in an expressive calligraphy) are pregnant with larger meanings: “For me to leave the old world was vital; that’s also absolutely consistent with giving up figure painting. Coming to America and giving up figure painting are the same thing….” “I took into consideration minimalism, but eventually rejected it as being empty, elegant and remote…. Instead of adding to the story of Abstract Painting, I wanted to reroute it….” If they weren’t both artists in their own right, they’d sound like Constable and Fisher. But Carrier gave Scully as good as he got, and now his ekphrases of Scully’s works, placing them against the events of Scully’s life, enrich the works still further.

I was on guard against Sean Scully because Carrier has become so skilled and conscious a prose artist he can produce what judges have the legal right to call a “conviction in the face of evidence,” as they set aside a hypnotized jury’s verdict. It is striking how Carrier’s enjoyment of art has increased with the years. Perhaps it was always there, and he only had to relax. Perhaps pleasure is the gift of maturity.

When one compares the two works before us, the 1991 Principles, written by a man of 46, with the 2004 Sean Scully, written by a 59-year-old, Carrier seems to grow more youthful, not less. The uncertain younger man, expanding from analytic philosophy into art history, found writing about art a grave business, a formidable series of problems: “The first problem that an art historian must consider is the identity of the artwork as artifact.” “Winckleman has been called the father of modern art history…. Not a dispassionate scholar, he is an intuitive highly subjective writer, whose often purple prose is unlike a modern scholar’s.” The dispassionate younger scholar of 1991 brilliantly covers countless topics but nearly misses an important word in the German aesthetic tradition, which he knows modern artwriting stems from: “joy.”

Yet Principles freed Carrier: by the end of the book he had concluded “the humanists’ attempts to present a uniquely correct re-creation of the artist’s mental states is futile because artwriting itself is a form of representation.” In other words, art; we were inescapably “intuitive, highly subjective” so what point “dispassion”? This realization finally permitted Carrier to go where Danto had gone, into the stylistic breakthroughs of the 1990s, when– like Scully abandoning figuration for his stripes– Carrier discovers his mature, emotional, frequently autobiographical style, and becomes, like Winckleman, whom he had criticized, a “intuitive highly subjective writer.” By contrast with 1991, listen to his voice in 2004:

“No hero, it has been said, is a hero to his valet; perhaps few artists are heroes to their commentators. But Scully has always been my hero. I have been lucky, for few artists collaborate with a major artist developing his critical vocabulary. Speak, memory!”

The older Carrier’s books became distinguished by passion as well as erudition, by their intuitive and highly subjective joy– a joy restrained, and balanced, by the enormous artistic sophistication of the man. Passion isn’t slapdash. Flaubert is passionate. Reading Carrier’s later books, I always want to get up and go to a museum. Carrier puts the emotion back in looking at art. Many artwriters, and all grad students, treat it as a noble task– a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. Carrier himself once thought that way, but his deep study of artwriting taught him better. Carrier does not warble his native woodnotes wild, but acts on his discovery that an artwriter is an artist responding to other artists, not a scientist analyzing chemicals.

Winckleman wrote that way because, as Carrier rightly said in 1991, he wasn’t “modern.” No, he was pre-modern. Carrier writes that way because, after 1991, he became postmodern. For that reason I assign Carrier even to undergraduates who can barely fathom the aesthetics, and don’t know Caravaggio from Tony Soprano, but who respond to Carrier’s passion. The Aesthetics of Comics should be read by any artwriter, who wants to see the possibilities of the form.

I did not want to be swept away, however, if it was my job to evaluate the Scully book fairly for the reader. In conclusion, then, I think that I am evaluating Scully’s art, not Carrier’s, when I say that Scully will win you over if you take the time this subtle and elusive work requires. These gentle harmonies of color reward patience. Slowly one sees. Perhaps it even takes that long for the cones and rods in one’s eyes to adjust to Scully, the way they need time, when you first come out at night, to see the fainter stars, then finally the Milky Way. But the Milky Way is worth the wait. So is Scully.

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