NEW YORK CITY—One of the top art critics in the United States today said abstract art, from Jackson Pollock to Pablo Picasso to Willem de Kooning, is “just plain dumb” and people are “morons for buying into this crap.”
Richard Bartley, the Richard Colby Distinguished Professor of Art and Art History at Harvard University, whose books are widely considered the gold standard among critics, is raising an outcry with his remarks, which he gave at a gallery opening here.
Bartley called today’s art industry a “total con game” in which people are suckered into buying “meaningless brush strokes of paint” on canvas and other media that have no worth outside of the market that artists, dealers, curators, and investors have created.
“A canvas with paint on it is worth about $10 if it’s small and about $100 if it’s large,” said Bartley. “If you like the colors and if the brush strokes of paint are aesthetically pleasing to you, definitely add another $40 or $50 to the price, about what it costs for a decent dinner in New York City. But anything beyond that is inflation stoked by the art industry, which has managed to spin golden thread out of worthless junk.”
It’s not that artists like Picasso aren’t talented, Bartley said. Before he turned to abstraction, Picasso was a fine representational artist. And some forms of abstract art that retain a foothold in representation, like the work of van Gogh and Monet, are “interesting.” But, Bartley says, any work of art that would be passed over as the doodling of a six-year-old if it were found in the gutter is part of what he calls “the purest form of capitalist market that has ever been created: the market for turning “junk into fine art.”
The condemnation of Bartley among artists, art dealers, art curators, and art investors has been swift. “Sadly ignorant and misinformed by a once-respected professor,” said Edgar Belvins, curator of modern art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Saying there’s nothing at the center of abstract art is like saying there’s nothing at the center of religion—that a giant institutional infrastructure has been erected over centuries on an empty core. The idea is so absurd that it’s not even worth commenting on, which is why we’re not commenting on it.”
“Just an unfortunate and pathetic rambling of an academic whose work has been losing relevancy for almost a generation now,” said Rebecca Isaacs, director of curation at the San Francisco Gallery of Art. “The millions of people whose lives have been transformed in small ways and large by an artist like Pollock certainly stand as a correction to the mumblings of a largely forgotten and certainly irrelevant professor.”
In fact, it might be Bartley who has the last word in this debate. Christies, the London-based auction house, just announced a delay in an auction it had planned for one of Willem de Kooning’s most famous pieces, “Black and White Rome E,” from 1959. Christies had announced two months ago that bidding would start at $30 million, which would have positioned the piece to be one of the most expensive works of art ever sold. But now it’s not clear when the auction will be held.
Liam Elway, director of fine art at the auction house, said the delay had nothing to do with Bartley’s remarks but rather the continuing weak economies in Europe and the United States. “I’m sure Professor Bartley has been influential to art students over the years but his remarks don’t move markets,” Elway said. “When it comes time for ‘Black and White Rome E’ to be put back on the market, there is every expectation that it will command as much interest among art lovers around the world as it always has, because it stands as one of the great pieces of 20th Century art.”
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