Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Jealousy in the art world

Posted By on Wed, Jan 26, 2011 at 6:28 AM

“I was the ‘charlatan’ of the art world. Then, when I had enough work amassed, I became a ‘satirist’ — a tricky word — of the art world, then ‘fine artist’, but who could live with it? And now, ‘We like your old things better’.” Robert Rauschenberg, 1972

Jealousy, to my mind, dismisses itself too easily as an explanation for bad behavior. Because I don’t feel it myself and I don’t see it in my artist-husband, I don’t understand it in others, and the concept seems a convenient excuse, the stock answer for why a successful artist endures ridicule.

And yet the history of art, or at least its written record, proves me wrong. One of the most famous accounts is the 1964 Venice Biennale, in which Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) became the first American artist ever to win the Grand Prize at the prestigious international art exhibition.

Robert Rauschenberg, Retroactive I, 1964, Oil and silkscreen ink on canvas 84x60 in
  • Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, copyright Robert Rauschenbert / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
  • Robert Rauschenberg, Retroactive I, 1964, Oil and silkscreen ink on canvas 84x60 in

A New York visionary bridging Abstract Expressionism and Pop, Rauschenberg has Southern roots. He was born and raised in Port Arthur, Texas, and his family moved in 1948 to Lafayette, Louisiana. Twenty-three year old Rauschenberg, however, went on to art school at the Kansas City Art Institute and Black Mountain College in North Carolina, never actually living in our state.

His sister Janet married into the Lafayette Begneaud family, a group that never accepted his sort of anti-aesthetic despite their interest in art. Rauschenberg’s brother in law Byron Begneaud, in fact, called artist George Rodrigue in dismay after Rauschenberg designed (literally) a wall of artwork in the family’s living room:

“Call the Museum of Modern Art in New York,” said a young Rodrigue, astonished that Begneaud would part with something so magnificent. “You’ll have to cut out this wall.”

When they next spoke, Rodrigue learned that Begneaud instead dismantled the installation himself, piling the broken pieces in his attic, and eventually selling them to an eager dealer for a pittance.

A painting from the Begneaud collection.  The Begneauds became the largest collectors of Rodrigues Cajun paintings in Louisiana
  • Louisiana Hayride, George Rodrigue 1972, 24x48, oil on canvas
  • A painting from the Begneaud collection. The Begneauds became the largest collectors of Rodrigue's Cajun paintings in Louisiana

During the 1964 Venice Biennale, New York art dealer Leo Castelli took the heat for championing Rauschenberg. Vilified by both the international and, ironically, American press, the implication was that Castelli and Alan Solomon (curator of the American Biennale exhibit and director of the Jewish Museum in New York) rigged the outcome in some way, upsetting centuries of European, especially French and Italian, artistic dominance.

“This is the complete and utter downfall of culture!” wrote the Vatican paper, L’Osservatore Romano. “The objects they are showing bear no relation whatsoever to art.”*

This ugliness began with a boycott by American judges who refused to participate in the Biennale because, according to Solomon, they were jealous and didn’t want him to win the prize. Solomon (and Castelli) remained undeterred:

“As an art historian, I am a specialist in modern French art, in the grand tradition from David to the School of Paris, and I believe that my observations about contemporary American art are not colored by national prejudice.” (Alan Solomon Papers, Jewish Museum Archives*)

Finally, Brandeis University Professor of Art History Sam Hunter relented, becoming the only American juror. Yet according to Solomon, “he was impossible about proving his purity, to the point where the Italian Jurors wondered if he wanted the prize to go elsewhere.” (Alan Solomon Papers, Jewish Museum Archives*)

In the end, jealousy persisted even as Rauschenberg received the Biennale’s top award, The Golden Lion, signaling for the first time America’s artistic muscle.

Yet this exasperation was nothing new. Among Americans, artistic professional jealousy reigned supreme throughout the previous decade when “for many ambitious artists, success depended on the degree to which they had managed to dethrone de Kooning.”**

Rauschenberg also played this game, convincing Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) to gift him a drawing, which he promptly erased!

Erased de Kooning, 1953
  • Robert Rauschenberg and Willem de Kooning
  • Erased de Kooning, 1953

Here in New Orleans we are fortunate to know camaraderie among artists. Again, perhaps that’s not your experience, but it is true in my world, as I look around our living room while I write this and admire paintings by David Harouni, James Michalopoulos, Bill Hemmerling, Miranda Lake and Hunt Slonem, along with sculpture by Sidonie Villere and Thomas Bruno, New Orleans photography by Tabitha Soren and Dennis Couvillion, and pottery from Newcomb College (a precious gift from art dealer Jean Bragg).

One of my favorite memories involves hanging out on the stoop of David Harouni’s Royal Street gallery one summer, eavesdropping as he and George Rodrigue discussed bronzes for several hours within. In appreciation of my patience, Harouni gave me a gift, a bronze head, which fits perfectly in my hand and sits today on our mantle.

Bronze Head
  • David Harouni
  • Bronze Head

Although a division exists in New Orleans between the agent-run galleries and the artist-owned galleries, by and large the artists themselves collect each other’s works, serve on panels together, and support each other’s efforts. Just last week I witnessed an artistic dialogue between George Rodrigue and James Michalopoulos, as they discussed the use of found objects, something begun with Marcel Duchamp and the urinal and perfected by Rauschenberg’s stuffed goat with a tire around its neck:

“There’s a psychological dynamic underneath this,” observed Michaloploulos. “It’s energizing to use something found. I can go ahead and throw it away if I want. There is a freedom to a lack of monetary attachment.”

James Michalopoulos, Hunt Slonem, George Rodrigue, 2009
  • James Michalopoulos, Hunt Slonem, George Rodrigue, 2009

No doubt the rivalry and jealousies exist on some level within this city. But I do think that this has a lot to do with misconception, ignorance, and a perceived lack of accessibility. A New Orleans artist on the fence at Jackson Square admitted this to me recently regarding a well-known New Orleans artist, followed by an explanation of the jealousy’s dissipation in favor of admiration once the two actually talked.

This is nothing compared to the long history of art. Andy Warhol is famous for his rants on jealousy (as detailed in the book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, 1977, Mariner Books), and the recording artist Madonna (b. 1958) weighs in with her own frustration over the New York music and art world, defending her friend Keith Haring (1958-1990):

“What stays with me is that very early on, when Keith and I were just beginning to soar, our contemporaries and peers showed all this hostility. Well, the revenge was that, yes, there’s this small, elite group of artists who think we’re selling out. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is digging us! Of course, it’s what they want too! It’s so transparent! They’re just filled with jealousy and envy. And it certainly didn’t stop us, because Keith didn’t want to do his work just for the people of New York City — he wanted to do it for everybody, everywhere. I mean, an artist wants world recognition! He wants to make an impression on the world. He doesn’t just want a small, sophisticated, elitist group of people appreciating his work. The point of it all is that everybody is out there reaching for the stars, but only some of us get there!”

But the history goes back further. Baroque artist Caravaggio (1571-1610) became famous as much for his dramatic painting style as for his jealous tantrums and uncontrolled anger, resulting in his exile for murder. His contemporary Domenichino (1581-1641) endured harsh jealousy from his peers. As he worked on an important commission in Naples, Italy, “rivals that believed that originality depended on inspiration were annoyed by the smoothness of [his] altarpiece.” Artists attacked his works at night, destroying areas of fresco and canvas. In fact, “the enmity aroused by Domenichino’s triumph with [his painting of St. Cecilia] may have lead to his eventual murder by poisoning.” (p. 356, Paintings in the Louvre, Stewart, Tabori & Chang 1987)

Musee du Louvre
  • St. Cecilia with Angel Holding Music, Domenichino, 1620, 63x47 inches
  • Musee du Louvre

In the end, perhaps jealousy is an otherwise unpleasant emotion that spurs us onward. Artists do not stumble into success by accident. There has to be both some meat and ambition behind the effort. And what can be said of choosing one’s inherent talent and unique vision over conformity? Well, that’s the legacy. Art historian Robert Rosenblum** said of Rauschenberg:

“Every artist after 1960 who challenged the restrictions of painting and sculpture and believed that all of life was open to art is indebted to Rauschenberg — forever.”

Wendy (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)

*Leo & His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli by Annie Cohen-Solal, published by Alfred A. Knopf 2010

** “Notes on de Kooning” 1990; an essay published within On Modern American Art by Robert Rosenblum, 1999, Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

For a related post see “There is No Bacon in Space: Having Fun Discussing Art”

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