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The PICTURE: Outsmarted

What Oscar Wilde could teach us about art criticism.

If Walter Benjamin were alive today, would he be writing a little essay about “Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen,” the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art? It is easy to imagine Benjamin crafting a few intricate, elegant pages, combining a collector’s ardent admiration, an intellectual’s theoretical flights, and a novelist’s sensitivity to the pop-chic ambience at MoMA. I found myself indulging in this little fantasy the other day, as I read “Old Toys,” an essay Benjamin published in the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1928, about an exhibition at the Märkisches Museum, an event that definitely got his imagination going. Benjamin marveled at the works on display, speculated about the reasons for the exhibition’s popularity, and indulged in his quirky brand of Marxist analysis, observing that “[o]nce mislaid, broken, and repaired, even the most princely doll becomes a capable proletarian comrade in the children’s play commune.”

Just imagine what Benjamin could have done with “Counter Space,” where the center of attention, strangely enough, is a compact, ultra-efficient kitchen designed by Grete Schütte-Lihotzky in Frankfurt in 1926-1927. The sleek, simplified kitchen dishes, containers, machines, and utensils that were appearing in the early twentieth century were labor-saving devices, true enough. For some they certainly signaled the eclipse of the old servant class. For others their abstract beauty was the most important thing. After all, there was no reason that the same old servants couldn’t set the table with dishes designed at the Bauhaus. One can only imagine how Benjamin—who was determined to give a Marxist interpretation to any phenomenon that interested him, whether cultural or literary or historical—would have negotiated this treacherous terrain. What Benjamin regarded as Marxist analysis was often closer to a left-wing poetic flourish, but then “Counter Space” is basically aestheticized sociology, anyway. So what would Benjamin have said? Well, he might have pointed out that some of the works on display in “Counter Space” are the same old aristocratic objects only now masquerading in proletarian garb.

"Frankfurt Kitchen," Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, 1926–27

 “Counter Space” is a sleek, witty design show. This is nothing new for the Museum of Modern Art; they have been doing exhibitions along these lines practically forever. There is a know-it-all swagger about the way the curator, Juliet Kinchin, negotiates the high-and-low crosscurrents, layering Bauhaus with dime store; Marcel Breuer with Tupperware, an 1883 paper bag, and  Japanese plastic renderings of fried eggs, circa 1975. The mix of sociology, modern design, and kitsch fun has been whipped up so cleverly that when I went through “Counter Space” a few weeks ago I concluded that I had nothing whatsoever to say about the show. I like it. But this exhibition has already said everything about itself that anybody could ever possibly say. The show winks at its own scholarship. The hipster intellectuality creates a closed system.

There is such a thing as an exhibition that is too smart for its own good, so thoroughly thought through that it leaves nothing for museumgoers to do. “Counter Space” leaves no room for discussion. Strangely enough, problems of a not entirely different variety emerge in the retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to Jan Gossart, the Netherlandish painter who died in 1532. Maryan Ainsworth, the scholar who organized “Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance,” is one of the most brilliant curators at work today, and there is no question that the exhibition is a major event, bringing news to the United States of an artist not well-known here. Ainsworth is certainly capable of illuminating a subject. The section of the great 2004 “Byzantium: Faith and Power” exhibition that she organized, exploring the influence of icons on Flemish painting, was luminous. Her Gossart is luminous, too. Ainsworth does a beautiful job of locating Gossart in the complex ambience of the Northern Renaissance, where Netherlandish naturalism, old Gothic impulses, and the new scientific spirit were converging, often uneasily. The trouble is that the artist the exhibition seeks to illuminate is not very good. The show keeps pushing Gossart at us. And we keep moving away. The effect is a little like strong sunlight in a sordid interior.

Anybody who has heard about Gossart tends to go to the show in hopes of encountering some kinky Mannerist eroticism—classical sensuality with a spiky, wild Gothic side. But Gossart’s lovers are by turns awkward, funny-looking, prosaic; their amours have a freak-show prurience. I’d rather look at any of Picasso’s erotic etchings; they convey the luxuriance of sex in a way that’s totally beyond Gossart’s capacities. As for his portraits, their literalism feels dutiful, pedantic, journalistic at times. I found myself longing for Holbein. Yes, of course, there are some pleasures to be found in this exhibition, especially among the drawings. But Gossart cannot sustain a large painting. A night scene, Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, with its tightly rendered elements, is as incoherent as some of Salvador Dalí’s late religious compositions. We go to the show rooting for Gossart. We want the strangeness of his work to excite us. We want to feel that his Netherlandish finickiness has been reshaped by the roiling pressures and passions of the Mannerist imagination. We want disquietude, but the paintings, although surely uneasy, also feel tepid. The best reason to go to the Jan Gossart retrospective—which includes work by a number of other artists—is to see Jan Van Eyck’s immaculate Virgin and Child at the Fountain. Van Eyck’s near infinity of naturalistic detail is shaped with bold lucidity. Complexity becomes simple; that’s the definition of classical aplomb.

"Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane," Jan Gossart, ca. 1510

"Madonna and Child at the Fountain," Jan van Eyck, 1439

The trouble with Gossart is that he has no idea what to do with his nitpicking realism. The details are never transformed; they declare themselves, nothing more. When he looks at the world, Gossart sees things too much as they are, and, as Oscar Wilde observed in ”The Art of Lying,” “No great artist ever sees things as they really are.” I have been reading Wilde’s Intentions, the essay collection he published in 1891, as deep research for a biography of Alexander Calder that I’m writing. Calder’s parents, who were both artists, were very taken with Wilde’s Intentions in the 1890s, when they lived for a time in Paris, before they returned to Philadelphia, where the artist who would invent the mobile was born in 1898. Everybody knows Wilde’s essays as one of the great shots in the battle for art-for-art’s-sake, at least in England. Opening Intentions—I read some of it years ago—I was prepared for the conversations between young men named Cyril and Vivian, and the late-night settings in country houses, the perfumed cigarettes, the hothouse flowers. What I was not ready for was the naked force of Wilde’s argument. This is, quite simply, the best defense of formalism we have ever had. When Vivian announces—in “The Art of Lying,” an essay in the form of a dialogue—that “Art never expresses anything but itself,” our first reaction may be that we already know this, from Clive Bell and Roger Fry and Clement Greenberg. But formalism, especially as Greenberg defined it, was too insistently impersonal, too much in thrall to historical inevitability. Art became deracinated. Returning to Wilde, I feel that I am recapturing all the ardor and optimism with which formalism was born.

What is remarkable about Wilde’s formalism is that it is so absolutely human. This may come as a surprise, because we’re inclined to think of Wilde’s aesthetics as hothouse stuff. Nothing could be farther from the truth. With Wilde, the unto-itselfness of formalism (and, yes, maybe even the hothouse preciosity of some formalism) is a response to a human problem, a response to the slavery of facts, truths, first impressions. This is not a formalism of necessity but a formalism of free choice—born of the desire to be oneself, to turn away from the world not because history has forced you to do so but because you have chosen to. Wilde’s formalism surely helps to explain what is wrong with Gossart, who knew too little about the art of lying, who was incapable of creating the parallel universe that is a work of art. But Wilde may also show us what is wrong with “Counter Space,” because from his vantage point the elegant formalist look of the show is merely a cover-up, a mask for what amounts to a sociological literalism. Come to think of it, maybe Oscar Wilde, not Walter Benjamin, would be the ideal reviewer for “Counter Space.” I can imagine him anatomizing the artistic virtues of a tinned steel collapsible salad basket before dismissing the entire show as faux formalism and advising everybody to head to Ikea—where, if realism is your thing, the stuff is not only for sale but is actually affordable.

Jed Perl is the art critic at The New Republic.

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