On Twitter, Joyce Carol Oates asks if Realist painter Andrew Wyeth is due for a reappraisal now that Norman Rockwell has been “newly elevated to ‘artist’”:
Fair question. I’d say both Rockwell and Wyeth are minor artists whose work lacks the sort of insight and nuance we expect from major painters. (More on this below.)
But, of course, asking a simple aesthetic question isn’t enough for Oates. She has to turn it into a hammer to bludgeon a dead white male:
Uh, no, Hilton Kramer did not dismiss Wyeth “for no reason other than myopia and bigotry.” He was not, as far as I can tell, ideologically opposed to Realism. Take his review of the realist painter Milet Andrejevic, whom Kramer calls “one of the most gifted painters of the contemporary Realist school” and an artist with “an unusual sense of refinement…exquisitely attuned to pictorial nuance.” His realism, Kramer writes, “has a spiritual quality that is very affecting. It defines an emotion that is real, and powerful. And it recalls us to an idea of Realism that is more complex, at least in its conception, than most Realists can nowadays bring themselves to entertain.”
Kramer goes on to distinguish between a superficial Realism that does not point beyond itself and a more robust Realism:
We are more familiar with this conception of Realism in literature than in painting. Writers as diverse in style and point of view as James Joyce (in ”Ulysses”) and John Updike (in ”The Centaur”) have employed it, endowing every concrete detail of their narratives with a mythical dimension that is never allowed to divert attention from the essential naturalism of the fictional surface. This is a conception of Realism that is fundamentally modernist in spirit, and yet never shirks the traditional obligation of Realism to give us a persuasive account of the concrete world ”out there.”
Something like this attempt to effect a fusion of the mythical and the real – the timeless and the timebound – is what gives to Mr. Andrejevic’s paintings their special quality. In Puvis’s otherworldly vision he discovered an effective instrument for joining the concrete and the archetypal in a shimmering, seamless image, and he has made wonderful use of it by shrewdly shifting the focus away from Puvis’s fictional antiquity and rooting it firmly in a world we can acknowledge as our own.
In short, Kramer does not take exception to Realism itself but to the facile, faddish, or merely ideological use of it. In the case of both Rockwell and Wyeth it is too facile. The paintings are too often sentimental and, therefore, untrue. There is much more to say regarding this. Is sentimentality really untrue? Doesn’t it express certain an unrealized but a nevertheless real sense of hope for peace, love, and so forth? But I will leave it at that for the moment.
Of course, Oates ain’t one for complexity and nuance. Nope. Kramer did not understand Realism at all, and he dismissed it because he was a bigot.
D.G. Myers tweeted that Oates fails to mention that Kramer thrashed one of her books, but I am sure she doesn’t let that color her comments on Kramer. After all, she is a liberal, and a liberal, by definition, is someone who lacks any sort of self-interest:
This is what it looks like, I guess, to live in a small world.
Oates goes on to suggest that art critics are more prone to error in their judgments than literary critics because they are more swayed by fashion, because of the money involved:
This may be true–maybe–but even a superficial reading will show, I think, that literary critics are about as frequently right or wrong and as frequently swayed (or not) by literary fashions as art critics.