Walter Pierce

Arbiters of Art

by Walter Pierce

So much fuss over a mutt, and a blue one at that.

The response to our March 11 cover story, “Every Dog Has His Day,” continues to position readers on either side of a fault line: Can art still be art if it pleases the eye but does little in the way of instructing or critiquing or making a statement? The question is not hypothetical, has been bitterly debated, and has apparently been more or less answered within the insular world of “modern” artists, critics and the universities that produce them: No, it cannot.

We got a glimpse of what may properly be called the “academic” art world’s reaction to George Rodrigue’s work in last week’s letters to the editor. Robert Russett, emeritus professor of art at UL Lafayette, is dubious of Rodrigue’s merit, taking albeit gentlemanly umbrage with our article being “festooned by an array of sales figures, an attempt, it seems, to validate Rodrigue’s work.”  The professor’s language suggests, without expressly stating, that our “attempt” failed and Rodrigue’s work is invalid. No critique of the critique from me, but I am delighted by the professor’s use of the past participle of “festoon,” one of my favorite words since 1987.

Dwight David of Youngsville, who identifies himself as the retired chair of fine arts at Catholic Central High School in Troy, NY, swings a sharper scythe, cutting at the “petit bourgeois” for whom Rodrigue’s art, he argues, is a status symbol. “I question the curators of this show as to why he was chosen,” David writes. “Could it be pressure from rich collectors to push his already inflated prices up by awarding him a retrospective …?”

Sharp words indeed.

But reverberating through those circuitous tubes of the “internets” is a pretty strong push back against Russett and David, and the comments section at is filling up with one indignant response after another.

“It is a pity that these gentlemen are so limited in their perspectives that they cannot appreciate true creativity,” responds one reader, who rails against the idea that “only art which has no popular appeal has intrinsic value.”

A self-identified member of the “petit bourgeois” calls Russett’s and David’s response “typical petty jealousy” and likens it to the snarky old apothegm, “Those Who Can, Do. Those Who Can’t, Teach.”

This debate coincides with the return from exile, as Newsweek puts it, of cultural critic and writer Dave Hickey, who was banished so far to the margins of art discourse that he now teaches university English in Nevada. Hickey’s 1993 essay collection, The Invisible Dragon, argued that viewing art should be a pleasurable experience. Perish the thought!

A sensible middle ground seems to be agreeing that art can be provocative, unsettling, deeply critical of culture, whimsical, and pleasing to the eye. Not all at once, of course, but art, unlike the GOP and the 11-Fingered People’s Club, is a pretty big tent.

As for Rodrigue, he no doubt shrugs off the criticism, marvels at the support, and laughs all the way to the bank