This blog has been lying fallow for a spell. Its keeper needed to recuperate from exhaustion. The descent of politics into mimicry of the worst of popular culture, the drumbeat of disarray in the Church, an overarching sense of dissolution—it all drains the spirit. I retreated to the studio where world-noise does not follow. Depleted resources need some time away from the clamor to be restored to themselves.
So here we are. Having caught my breath, I want to return this weblog a bit closer to its origins. Let me explain.
The blog began in earnest after the backers of the The New York Sun withdrew its print edition in 2008. A feisty start-up, the paper’s timing was off. It resurrected the name and masthead of the historic New York Sun at just the moment—2002—publications were going digital. But in its short life, it had the finest arts coverage in New York City. As a curator of the Metropolitan Museum told Lance Esplund, one of the writers, “We all buy the New York Times; but we read The Sun.”
To be precise, they read the arts pages. The paper’s editorial conservatism, particularly its pro-Israel stance, put it askance of New York’s reigning culturati. But even a bien pensant art crowd knows the difference between criticism and promotion. So the culture desk became The Sun’s crown jewel.
For the better part of the paper’s six year existence in print, I wrote for its Gallery Going column. I loved every minute of it. In a sideways way, The Sun provided a platform for a certain kind of witness— an opportunity to talk in a secular venue about art from a perspective shaped by faith, by belief in something larger than art.
A lively-minded crew, writers on the culture desk had tooth. They rarely did the genial who-am-I-to-judge shuffle. What is the point of criticism that foregoes taking a position toward goods on offer? The leaning suited me. It let me say in slant the kinds of things strained out of garden variety art criticism (most of which is spun from press releases and under pressure from advertising departments).
Contemporary artwriting—one word—is massively generated and almost completely voiceless. The fog of art appreciation homogenizes the average art page into boosterism, a product more useful as a tide-me-over for unemployed poets than for readers.
When The Sun went full digital, the culture section disappeared. By then, I was accustomed to maintaining a weekly column and, so, kept going on Studio Matters. First Things picked it up and transferred it to their own server for a stretch. That changed the audience and, with it, the blog’s center of gravity. From writing as a free-range critic with an informed eye, I became a Catholic critic writing for a religious minded audience.
However much such readers might be drawn to visual art as a work of hands, their primary interest is in intellection, in the way an art object serves the mind rather than the eye. Not being an intellectual, I am uncomfortable with that arrangement. On the subject of visual art, my first—perhaps only—loyalty is to the eye, to the look of things. The eye, after all, is an organ of the brain. It has its own way of knowing. And keeps quiet about it.
In his introduction to The Arts of the Beautiful, Etienne Gilson writes:
Personally, I can find no anti-intellectualism in the proposition that art is not cognition. On the contrary, if art is not cognition, one sins against intelligence by pretending that art is something which, in fact, it is not. The proper function of understanding is to know things as they are.
A glorious comment! When I first read it, I felt like clapping. It was as if I had found an ally. By cognition, Gilson refers here to discursive knowledge, to that reasoned probe into the truth of things that is the basis of logic and argument. Misplaced intellection is that variety of anti-intellectualism rampant in the arts. (In an odd correspondence, it infects religious sensibility as well. But that is a topic for another day.)
By now, I miss the pleasure of all those reminders that the core of reality does not reside in politics, neither secular nor ecclesial. So, please, let me take my foot off the state-of-the-Church accelerator. Or at least lighten it a bit with glimpses of other things, art and books especially.