Criticism: A Lament for Wyeth and Frost

Go to Wikipedia and search under 20th Century Art and you won’t find anything about Andrew Wyeth.  All through Robert Frost’s life, an ongoing debate raged as to whether he was a legitimate poet.  There are those still today who do not recognize the legitimacy of Frost.  These two artists have one thing in common.  They were accessible.  People love their work.  A person can understand Robert Frost’s poetry, and a person can recognize the objects that Wyeth paints.

In Frost’s day, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound dominated the poetics of the modern era.  People forget that Pound reviewed Frost’s first book of poetry, A Boy’s Will.  And Pound liked it.  And typical of Pound’s arrogance, he was amazed that Frost made himself modern without any instruction from himself.  Eliot’s epic THE WASTE LAND required footnotes so that readers could understand what Eliot was trying to do.  Eliot was happy to append them to his published edition.  He didn’t attach footnotes to Four Quartets.  And still, nobody knows what to make of that collection.  Then when Eliot turned to theater, his artistic career was over.  Robert Frost said jovially that modern poets need typewriters instead of pencils.  Frost wrote lyrical poems, of moving sentiment and deep truth.  And he did this by means of keenly described pictures–mostly imagery from the farm he owned during his most productive period.  With Frost, it is easy to remain locked in his pictures and to think he is writing only about trees and snowy woods, pale orchises, and Rose Pogonias.  But Frost captures the pain inherent in living; he questions–but leaves open the question–of a universal Providence in the universe.  Sometimes it is as if Frost is crying out against the universe.  What gave critics pause about Frost is that Frost uses the sound of common speech, that Frost uses rhyme, and Frost uses meter.  And Frost’s poetry doesn’t need footnotes.  That’s why people like Frost.  Frost mastered these artistic techniques and all this is why he is a great poet.

In Andrew Wyeth’s day, art was dominated by abstraction.  Maybe Jackson Pollack epitomizes this trend in that he poured paint onto canvasses without any intent to depict something.  Andrew Wyeth painted ultra-realistic images.  When you look at Wyeth’s paintings up close, you see that the fine detail is rendered through a rather impressionistic technique that blends into breathtaking realism a few steps back.  The composition of many of Wyeth’s paintings are made of abstract shapes–the realistic pictures form abstractions if you forget that they are about the farm he lived on in Pennsylvania.  Wyeth even expressed in print that mixing realism with abstraction would be a great feat of art.  He did just that.  In an age in which critical theory praised art that represented bare color, form, and hue–or something like that–Wyeth gave the world beautiful images we can recognize.  Wyeth, in other words, bucked the trends in modern art.  And modern art critics hit him back.  When he lived, he was never considered a serious artist.  I don’t believe that he is today, either.

I do not appreciate contemporary art.  I don’t even try.  I believe that contemporary art demands that a person read critical theory first, before viewing or reading the art.  This is why I object to contemporary art.  In my aesthetics, art should speak directly to audience.  We should resonate with art without art being “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”  Funny, I can view 3,420 years of art history and it speaks to me without me needing to open a book of art criticism.  Then, from about 1920 to today, the same phenomenon doesn’t happen.  In order to make a buck, art critics write books about ancient art.  But I don’t need to read these books.  The same strange experience happens to me in regard to literature.  I can read Gilgamesh, the Bible, and Shakespeare without a critical theorist pointing my nose to what I am to take from these works.  But this phenomenon abruptly stops with about Hart Crane.  I struggle with Wallace Stevens, but, unlike Hart Crane, Stevens rewards to some degree.  What is odd in all this, is that I can and do understand and even like some contemporary symphonic music.  When it is not awful, as too much of it is, sometimes it gets boring, though.  Music has it’s bow to deconstruction.  I once heard a trumpet player take the mouthpiece out of his trumpet and noodle on it all the while moving the slider on a synthesizer resonator.  It made my girlfriend so mad she had to go to the ladies’ room till he was done.

The drive to conform to the strictures of contemporaneity is hard to live with.  And it’s not a matter of me tapping out of the art world by age.  I felt this way even when I was younger.  I’m no prophet.  So I don’t know what the ages will do with what passes for art these days.  I only know what I do with it.  Which is really a matter of not doing anything with it.