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September, 1991

One of the better kept secrets in the artworld is that, when it comes to definitive judgments about art, there are no experts. Critics? Beneath the bombast, the pontification and the artspeak, there remains, ultimately, poor, naked opinion. Dealers? In spite of the polished veneer they acquire through huckstering "culture," they are saddled by the profit motive and their pronouncements derive more from their knowledge of market status than from any real understanding of or empathy with the creative process. Art Historians? No matter how "objective" the pigeon-holing, ongoing research will inevitably dethrone the reigning authorities and new studies invariably upset old "wisdom." Well, then, how about artists themselves? Surely their peculiar involvement allows us to trust their judgments? Although it’s true that I’ve personally learned more about art from them than from the self-styled "experts", here, too, one must tread carefully when they begin making generalizations. A case in point: I accepted an invitation to dinner one evening at which were present three painters, a sculptor and an art historian. I was fully prepared to keep my ears open. One of the painters (husband to the art historian) was recounting his memory of the first time he had seen Picasso’s Guernica. The experience, he said, was so profound that he felt he must be witnessing a landmark in the history of painting, a work so important in its political, social and aesthetic implications that it overshadowed all previous paintings. Then, some years later, he say a film about the war in Spain and, so vivid was this visual impression that, ever after, Picasso’s masterwork would be- for him- reduced to a mere decorative tour de force. "Painting," he pronounced, "was, for all practical purposes, a dead issue- rendered irrelevant by the possibilities of film." So convinced was this painter that I found myself mentally nodding. Yes! Yes! How true! Why hadn’t I seen this myself? My budding insight was instantly reinforced by a few comments made by his art-historian wife who, in support of her husband, proclaimed painting to be a lost art, doomed to a slow death, put to a final rest by a dwindling coterie of die-hard, weekend daubers. Just as I had added the final flourishes to the article was mentally composing while picking at my plate, one of the other painters raised his fork dramatically and said, "Yes, but what if van Gogh had had his photograph taken during his final years rather than painting his self-portraits? Do you really believe that film could capture that same mad intensity that he did with his brush? could a movie of him at Auvers convey a stronger sense of his break-up?" As my "Death of Painting" essay slowly dissolved in my mind, I found myself passionately drawn to this second painter’s argument. He’s right! Of course he’s right!

Well, they’re both right- and wrong. In our reflective moments away from the give and take of persuasive argument, we all really know that there are no definitive answers. And, periodically, it’s good to be reminded- there simply are no experts in this field. The only real arbiter we’ve ever had is time.

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