Remember the furor when Dale Peck anointed Rick Moody "the worst writer of his generation" in the New Republic a few years back? Or when James Wood said, also in TNR, that John Updike was so solipsistic that he might, at times, not even qualify as a novelist?
This month, it's the art critic Jed Perl who's hopping aboard the magazine's trademark negative-superlative train. Perl returns from a Francis Bacon exhibition in New York to pronounce the artist "The Worst Painter of the 20th-century."
Many critics, including the Globe's Sebastian Smee, have mixed feelings about Bacon (although others consider him Britain's finest post-war painter). But there is zero ambivalence in Perl's take:
What Bacon produced are not paintings They are little more than rectangles of canvas inscribed with no
uirish graffiti: angst for dummies. Bacon turned his clever little quotations from the masters, old or modern, into the twentieth century's most august visual claptrap.
Bacon's essential problem, to Perl: he subordinated artisanal craft to "attitudinizing" and the fashioning of a renegade-artist persona. (In 1962, Vogue ran a photo of Bacon posing shirtless beside two animal carcasses; carcasses had appeared in some of his paintings.) Viewing an artist's temperament, or the events of his life, as the source of an artist's power is a fatal mistake, Perl suggests. It renders the work itself an afterthought. It can't stand on its own. This is notably the case, Perl argues, with a painting that shows one of Bacon's former lovers sprawling on a toilet, dying of an overdose (as actually happened): it relies on "tabloid frisson" for its limited power.
Bacon's error of elevating biography and identity over craft is hardly his alone, Perl contends. It is, rather, a besetting artistic sin of our time.
(Photo credit: The Estate of Francis Bacon/ARS, New York/DACS, London. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His last article for Ideas was about choosing Congress by lottery.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.