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Reviewed Book: Modern Art: An Exhibition in Criticism, by Michael Curtis,
National Civic Art Society, 2022

by Evan Mantyk

On May 12, 2021, a terrible painting somehow sold for $103 million. It depicts a heavily outlined blob reminiscent of a woman in a chair. The painter clearly had set his standards low, caring little for bodily proportions, for perspective that creates three-dimensional depth, for the skillful use of color tones, etc. The artist apparently was going for an unlifelike cartoon, but even at that he had failed miserably. No clear idea is communicated in the composition and the effect is a pathetic, amateurish mish-mash that would need lots of explaining to begin to avoid the garbage can in 99% of households—that is, presuming those households didn’t know the artist’s name and the $103 million they could cash in on. And this self-perpetuating nonsense is how bubbles grow one day closer to bursting.

The list of high-selling modern art works is a long one that keeps growing even now. All we can do is roll our eyes and sigh. But here into the bleak foreground enters a little bitingly brilliant book of poetry by the classical sculptor, painter, and architect Michael Curtis that does something a bit more constructive than mere head-shaking.

The first half or so of the book contains poems in a variety of styles, ranging from seven-word nonsense verse to sixteen lines of rhyming metered poetry, with the unifying feature that each poem’s title is a modern artist. In this way, these often juvenile verses act like much needed scribbles on the pages of a modern art textbook, taking the grossly overinflated reputations affixed to these modern artists’ names and cutting them down to size in the same unceremonious way as modern artists have taken an axe to traditional concepts of beauty and art.

For instance, the poem “Constantin Brancusi” begins:

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Few things are more snoozy than birds by Brancusi

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And indeed, if you are unfamiliar, a quick search online of Brancusi’s birds will bring you to sleek feather-like sculptures that look boringly alien and unexceptional—doubly so when considered next to a work of true magnificence like Da Vinci’s bronze horse.

Hans Hoffman is known for his smudge-like painting from 1961, The Cliff, that sort of resembles a cliff. He is treated with this poem:

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hanshoff manfell offa cliffin__
...........................................................1
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......................................>..>.....>..............9
.>
..............................................>.>>>............6
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...........................................>>..>>>..............1

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The genius of this poem is the jarring reality that its rudimentary formatting has, using a few presses of the spacebar, succeeded as well aesthetically as the original painting.

These lines in “Philip Guston” might seem too facile at first:

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Philip Guston must’a
neglected to clean his paint brushta.

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But a quick search of Guston’s art will remind you of how idiotically facile the work of Guston is and how perfectly apt this couplet is. These poems are fitting punishments for a century of terrible art.

Additionally, while these highly creative and pithy notes on the pages of modern art history constitute the main act in Curtis’s book, there are also many moments of clear and insightful awakening such as in “Four Freedoms of Modern Art”:

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For Freedoms of Modern Art

Freedom from Craft,
__from Responsibility,
Freedom from Intelligence
__and Ability

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At times, the poet’s criticism is broadened to not only modern visual art but to the modern aesthetic in general, including poetry, music, critics, and collectors. In fact, the book reaches perhaps its zenith in a poem about modern poetry that contains a lesson easily extended to all the mainstream, entrenched modern arts today:

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Poets Scratch

While I rest alone in quiet
__I hear the distant scratch
Of a hundred-thousand poets
__Writing trash.

And, although they went to college
__For training in their craft
Not one of them has known the god’s
__Love or wrath.

Not a single spark has touched them
__Yet they scribble on and on,
Though none of us will miss them
__When they are gone.

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There is in traditional arts the sense of building up and of creatively affirming traditional life, whereas the modern arts make a fundamental practice of tearing down and of nihilistic rejection of anything contrary to their particular political path of the moment. More immediately, looking at the real effect of the modern art aesthetic as it constantly morphs and is constantly met with new generations of rebellious artists, there is a palpable sense of “Who cares?” toward the increasingly dusty and dated “classics” of modern art. It is a plain, self-evident truth that if you don’t value your culture’s and nation’s traditions, why should anyone value you?

On the art critic and Pollock proponent Clement Greenberg, Curtis writes:

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Clement Greenberg had his say.
Modern Art has passed away.

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In this grim reality, Curtis also offers a way forward in the sheer pluckiness of this book and his complete comfort in defaulting to traditional forms in his writing. There is something great worth living and creating for, and while he never comes out and says it, we get the sense that Curtis knows it well.

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11 Responses

  1. Adam R Swinford-Wasem

    Thank you for numerous laugh-out-loud moments with this review,
    Evan, both from the poems highlighted and from your humorously biting critiques. What is more justly hilarious than “These poems are fitting punishments for a century of terrible art.” I just wish you’d gone into more length both with the excerpted poems and with your commentary. We’re going to need an enormous amount of acid to dissolve the rot afflicting the culture.

    Reply
    • The Society

      Thank you for your comments, Adam. A good agent of dissolution and regeneration is this commentary series from The Epoch Times. I’ll post some of it here, but there is much more:

      1. Art: A Gift From the Divine
      Over the many years of human civilization, man has contemplated what constitutes true beauty. People of faith know that all the wonders of the world come from the divine. Profound art is an attempt to emulate and display the beauty of heaven in the human world. Inspiration comes from the divine, and artists can become outstanding figures in their fields if they receive divine blessings and wisdom.

      During the Renaissance, great artists plumbed their ingenuity and deep faith to create works in praise of God. Artists in the mid-Renaissance period, including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, grasped techniques that far exceeded those of their predecessors and their peers, as if by miracle. Their masterpieces — including paintings, statues, and architecture — became timeless classics.

      For centuries, these works of art set a noble example for humanity. By appreciating this art, not only can the artists of later generations learn pure artistic technique, but members of the public can truly feel and see the presence of the divine. When these works, the techniques that created them, and the spirit that infused the artists are all preserved, human society is able to maintain a connection with the divine. Then, even as humanity goes through its periods of decadence and decline, there will be hope for a return to tradition and a path to salvation.

      The same principles prevail in the sphere of music. As the saying (reportedly from a German opera house) goes: “Bach gave us God’s word. Mozart gave us God’s laughter. Beethoven gave us God’s fire. God gave us music that we might pray without words.” For his entire life, Johann Sebastian Bach considered devotion to God and the praise and worship of God to be the highest principles in the creation of his music. On all of his important musical scores, the letters SDG can be seen — an abbreviation of “Soli Deo gloria,” meaning “glory to God alone.”

      The highest level an artist can reach is to perceive heavenly phenomena by means of divine revelation and depict it in a tangible medium. The great paintings and statues, and the most sublime scores in the early, baroque, and classical canon, were all created by religious believers and represent the pinnacle of artistic work attained by man.

      https://www.theepochtimes.com/chapter-eleven-desecrating-the-arts_2625642.html

      Reply
  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    It’s pretty clear that money is the main motivation behind much garbage art — if somebody is going to pay $103 million for what Evan has described above, then the artist will keep on producing such stuff and financial speculators will buy it as a good investment. This was certainly the case with fraudulent hucksters like Basquiat, Haring, and the still-active Banksy.

    Reply
    • Adam Wasem

      At least Basquiat was still employing some elementary painting techniques, and Banksy can be witty when he lampoons pop culture. Just imagine what today’s art students, having emerged from the latest Jeff Koons and Damian Hirst product marketing campaigns with dollar signs for eyes, are going to produce. We’ll be looking back at “Piss Christ” and the gay photography guy with the bullwhip up his own ass, I forget his name, as a golden age.

      Reply
  3. Jack DesBois

    I am going to contribute to the time-honored tradition of filling the internet with unverifiable pseudo-information by sharing an interesting fact I heard somewhere recently, though I don’t remember where or what the details were exactly:

    Apparently, modern art is a front for money-laundering–a way for highly influential and extremely wealthy individuals (particularly those involved in implementing the Great Reset) to exchange large sums with each other without connecting the funds to the population-control activities they are actually facilitating.

    It’s an interesting theory, if nothing else, and it would explain quite a lot about the existence of the modern art market.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Well, as a front for money-laundering of any sort, the trade in garbage art would work fine. If the drug cartels could exchange their millions for some absurd but trendy canvas, and then re-sell the piece at a huge profit (all through salaried middlemen, of course), I’m sure they’d happily do it. Probably the reason they don’t is the fact that persons in the illegal drug trade are murderous thugs with no interest in any sort of art, and who wisely stay away from deals that involve anything unfamiliar to them.

      One advantage of money-laundering through modern art transfers is the fact that the world of “art” enjoys a certain prestige and status, and therefore police forces don’t investigate these transfers with the same intense scrutiny and suspicion that they bring to the dealings of well-known drug dealers or cartel operatives. A prestigious gallery, a wealthy collector, a glitzy museum, or an anonymous bidder at a Sotheby auction, isn’t likely to get a visit from the cops.

      So yes, I think your information is quite plausible. The Great Reset and the Great Replacement people certainly act to cover their financial activities. Doing it via the sale and re-sale of garbage art is quintessentially ironic.

      Reply
  4. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    What a wonderful review on a book that I’m certain will shine sanity on the dark subject of modern art in a way that appeals to my tastes… I’ve just ordered a copy and look forward to reading it. Thank you, Evan and Michael for making this wild world a wiser and wittier place.

    Reply
  5. Michael Curtis

    I have off and on owned art galleries, curated in museums, and was once Archivist of State Art, and can say, “Not too long ago there were schemes of tax avoidance in art purchase and trade, not the least, inflating prices, donating to museums, taking the right-off.” And yet, the biggest, most pervasive scheme, is the confidence game of inside traders, university professors, art galleries, museums, collectors and artists … when writing of the scheme (telling the truth on them) in grad school at Michigan, “The Material Conditions of The New York School (the Abstract Expressionists), I was nearly blackballed from university.”

    Thanks to each and all for comments and compliments. Sincerely…

    Reply

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