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Sights of Contention :
Mark Jarzombek
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"Difficult Art" And  
Danto's Early Formalism  

The main point of Danto's critique of the museum directors was that their professional and scholarly distance from the works failed to make the works real in the context of "human meaning." But what does it mean to experience art closely? And what does it mean to experience Mapplethorpe's art closely? 

    Art provides the highest values that secular existence acknowledges, except for love . . . We have an obligation to support art in the interest of meaningful lives for our citizens, we have an obligation to allow that things that define human meaning can "when we think about them, or when we are made to feel them, as through works of art"be pretty scary things.21 [my emphasis] 
Compared to this demand for aesthetic intensity, Kardon's testimony before the court does indeed strike one as bizarre. Based on a language that emerged in the 1940s with the advent of antifigural abstractionism, it was particularly unsuited to the representational images of Mapplethorpe. Kardon argued that it was not what the photographs showed, but how they were shown that made them art. In other words, Mapplethorpe's works were "art" largely because of his mastery of formal composition; he was, so she claimed, "one of the leading formalists of the 1980's . . . And formalism has to do less with subject matter and more with light, color, composition [and] arrangement."22 Appendx 2 page break 67 | 68 
    All of the attributes one characterizes a good formal portrait by, that is composition and light and the way the frame is placed around the image, all of those things are brought to bear in every image.23 
    The way the lighting is cast over the figure. The outline of the figures itself. The diagonals, for example, which move across the picture from lower left to the upper right and the opposing diagonal, which moves from the lower left off into, meeting the diagonal at the very center of the picture.24 
Kardon's analysis is not as farfetched as it might seem. Mapplethorpe's work shuns the spontaneity and experimentalism of recent photography and perpetuates that tradition of carefully crafted studio composition that so epitomized images of movie stars in Life magazine from the 1940s and 1950s. Mapplethorpe's compositions are therefore hardly bold, and Kardon had every right to point this out. But as to his subject matter, that is a different question. The above description was not of a glamorous movie star, but of a man urinating into another man's mouth. The imbalance between the curator's formal analysis and the photograph's content was not lost on the prosecutors. "You call them figure studies," Prouty told her, "I call them sex acts."25 The line of questioning between the prosecuting attorney Prouty and Kardon went like this: 
    Prouty:  And what about State's Exhibit No. 4?  

    Kardon:  It is very symmetrical  

    Prouty:  State's Exhibit 4?  

    Kardon:  That is an extremely symmetrical picture.  

    Prouty:  That's the one where a forearm is up the anus?  

    Kardon:  The forearm is in the very center of the picture. [It] leads to the center of the picture, which is very characteristic of his flowers, which often occupy the center of a photograph.26  

    Prouty:  And with respect to State's Exhibit 7, a picture where the finger is inserted into the penis. What are the formal values?  

    Kardon:  It is a central picture, very symmetrical, very ordered, a calculated kind of composition. The lighting is conceived very carefully. . . .  

    Prouty:  Does it often happen . . . that the content of the picture far outweighs the artistic value of the item?  

    Kardon:  That might happen in some photographs, but in the case of RobertAppendx 2 page break 68 | 69 Mapplethorpe, as I said, he was a formalist. I think that no matter what the subject matter he portrayed, there was a consistent vision that made all these images speak one voice.27 

Both the prosecution and Danto had every right to shake their heads in disbelief. But one must remember that this type of analysis is not esoteric. Its principles had been taught in drawing studios and art history classes for decades in universities and colleges around the country. In 1939, Clement Greenberg wrote that "the excitement of the art of Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, and Kandinsky, lies most of all in the pure preoccupation with the invention and arrangement of spaces, surfaces, shapes, colors, etc. to the exclusion of whatever is not necessarily implicated in these factors."28 And because artists were preoccupied with form, analysis had to become, as Thomas Ernest Hulme, a leading formalist defender, explained, "an accurate, precise and definite description, . . . not a stream of consciousness, but a publicly identifiable element of experience that others have simply failed to notice."29 Thomas Munro, the famous curator of education at the Cleveland Museum of Fine Arts, argued in his Scientific Method in Aesthetics (1928) that art criticism had to return to "close contact with the works of art and the experiences of which they speak."30  But this had to happen in the well-defined brackets of academic learning, with scholars working together toward a common goal. To this end, in 1941 Munro helped found the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, in which he hoped to speed up "the progress of aesthetics to scientific status."31  Richard Bassett, an instructor of art at Milton Academy in the 1960s, spoke for a whole generation in his The Open Eye in Learning (1969), in which he systematized "the experience" into a sequence of complex sub-events that moved from the initial perception of forms to discovery, creation, reason, judgment, religion, and finally communication—communication, of course, being important for the museum. next page
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