Step One: We Can Have Lots of Fun

Wayne Thiebaud, "Cakes," 1963. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Wayne Thiebaud, "Cakes," 1963. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Greetings from Memphis and Happy Moon Landing Day.

Here we go. I’ve never done this before. Well, not really. I’ve tried it twice. The first time, nobody cared. The second time, I was posting syllabi for my students, so the deck was stacked in my favor. But this is new to me, an unknown known, as they used to say. They probably still say it—I just did. This is already wandering, which I’m going to justify by thinking of a blog as nothing more than a mediated thought process. At least for today, until I get limbered up.

I wrote a list. It’s a nervous tick that I presume creates organization. For an absolutely miniscule moment, I thought I’d be slick and draw up a chart that linked everything I was going to discuss into one highly legible image, but the list came instead. It made me wonder if charts were no longer sufficient for making order of my world…if I had entered into some kind of post-Barrian existence, which made me sad because I truly love Alfred Barr’s chart, if only as part of a Sisyphan struggle to hammer it into a form closer to the way I understand Modernism, which is a fun, if futile, endeavor. Futile fun. Almost as enjoyable as fun futility. I’ve just ticked off the second thing on the list. The first was the moon landing.

The list, in truth, is compensation for my own sense of wonderment at this task of blogging. Self-consciously blogging about blogging seems excessive, but a logical place to start. One of the notes on my list says “admit implicit delusions of grandeur afforded to the blogger.” Please don’t misunderstand me. I doubt this will be the best thing you read today, or ever. But this forum certainly fertilizes the megalomania. Art21 offers a beautifully blanche carte to its bloggers and, like all blogs, the possibility that everyone on the Internet will read what you’ve said. It’s an odd thought, given that most of what most academics write sees only a limited audience. This whole blog format is truly amazing, way more than the Facebook…Edmund Burke above the mists and the like. I thank the Art History gods that I recently reread parts of Barthes’ Mythologies and Eco’s How to Travel with a Salmon. Now, at least, I can point to them when I write something embarrassing. “Well, you know, it’s not like I’m Roland Barthes…” See what I mean about delusions of grandeur? I’m presently finding comfort in the notion that smoke signal-sending humans were the first bloggers.

New post: We’ve got ourselves one of those hairy elephant things for dinner over here. Bring some berries. We’re out.

Ostensibly, I’m to discuss art, which brings me to a point I’ve been trying to make for a while to anyone who is caught in my sights. Everyone should go to the library and get a copy of Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation and read the essay of the same name. At the very end of a very exciting argument, Sontag says that we should all replace a hermeneutics of art with an erotics of art. Less think, more fun? Probably not what she was going for, but I’d like to imagine that there is something in here that we’ve been neglecting. So in the spirit, I’m going to make an absolutist statement, meander around what might count as an argument, and then ask everyone else to help me supply the evidence.

Wayne Thiebaud’s paintings of cakes are the greatest paintings ever. Midway through that sentence I found myself arguing with myself about the nature of greatness, which is, like, OMG, so 21st-century art historian speak. Or, as some might call it, a dog chasing its tail. Like my battle with Barr’s diagram. Fun, futile, for the whole family. So consider greatness up for debate, but I’m more concerned with Thiebaud. And cake. And paint.

My thought is this: Wayne Thiebaud’s paintings of cakes are the greatest paintings ever because Thiebaud somehow knows that the pleasure derived from looking at thickly-impastoed paint on canvas is exactly the same pleasure one derives from cake frosting. It’s multi-sensorial and orgiastic. And really obvious and simple. To think we’ve been talking about Venus and Olympia and, gasp!, Guido Cagnacci. Thiebaud’s paintings are the most direct and unencumbered testimony to the pleasures, the erotics, of art. Granted, I am predisposed because of my utter addiction to sugar in all of its forms, but I just know that somewhere, there is a neurologist identifying the specific pleasure receptor that services both food and painting. The immediately visceral, opticorgasmic jolt I get from these Thiebaud paintings is exactly the same as that which I get from a nice hunk of chocolate, or good BBQ, or grape soda. It’s the smell of oil paint in the air, of sautéeing onions. The exact opposite of dog breath. We all have our own triggers, so I know that you know what I mean. Thiebaud, lucky sod, happens to be the apotheosis of something Titian knew, but did with figures. Something Sánchez Cotán did with quince and cabbage…Rachel RuyschChardinMonet’s Rouen Cathedral façades. Yum.

If any of you knows that neurologist, would you forward my email?

I’m beginning to feel the current, so I’m going to swim back to shore before things get out of hand, but there is one last thing on my list. I thought it would be fun, if only in an effort to cause debate, to add a Top Five list to the end of these. As you’ve probably noticed, I get a kick out of these assertions of taste. I think we all do. It’s just that we’ve talked ourselves out of it in an effort to crystallize our individual and collective academic integrities. But that’s what blogs are for, right? Being somewhat factual, somewhat helpful, and somewhat pedantic. At least, that’s what I’ve learned from Dan Savage.

Top Four Things I Think All Art People Should Give a Try:

  1. Watching Sports. It’s eye exercise. And the analysis of complex strategic schemes, as witnessed visually, is really good practice.
  2. Listening to the Grateful Dead. In my experience, this is a divisive one, but for the same rationale, only auditory, I stand by it. Plus, their repertory of songs will touch on everyone’s taste. It tends to take a few hundred hours of listening before it all clicks, though, so be patient.
  3. Playing an MMORPG (Massively Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Game). It’s fun to create another version of oneself and then drop it/him/her/you/me into the cyber ether and interact with (or be ignored by) others. It’s wondrous and humbling and really helps as an example if you have to discuss some of the more specific points of millennial postmodernism with students.
  4. Eating a fresh pineapple in Hawaii. See Sontag, Thiebauld.

Thanks everyone, for indulging me. Please comment. Polylogue is preferable to monologue.

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