A critical veto

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The new Tim Burton film “Big Eyes,” which The Wife, The Big Sis and I took in on Christmas, tells the story of Margaret Keane, creator of the paintings of sad, preternaturally wide-eyed children that became a sensation in the 1960s, and how Ms. Keane’s husband Walter, a serial fraud and liar, claimed credit for the artworks.  It’s an enjoyable but rather subdued film, lacking the zany energy of Burton’s earlier biopic “Ed Wood,” also written by the screenwriters of the new film, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.  I guess that’s the difference between a film that takes place largely in an artist’s home and studio, and one that tracks a manic film director and his eccentric entourage as they sprint from caper to caper.

In a prominent scene of both the film and of the Keanes’ real-life story, a massive painting called “Tomorrow Forever,” depicting a seemingly infinite multi-cultural parade of Ms. Keane’s signature waifs, gets selected as the theme of the Hall of Education at the 1964 New York World’s Fair  — then gets taken down at the directive of Fair officials.

Why the sudden removal?  As narrated in the film with, as far as I can tell, a high level of historical accuracy, it was thanks to an extremely negative article by prominent New York Times art critic John Canaday (incongruously portrayed on-screen by Terence Stamp as 30 years older and 100% more British than Canaday, a native of Kansas).  After attacking the Keane paintings for their “appalling sentimentality” and excoriating them as “tasteless hack work,” Canaday then destroyed the story put out by the Hall of Education’s directors that the painting was chosen by a “panel of critics” from a “large number of submissions.”  In fact, the Hall’s directors make the decision to feature “Tomorrow Forever” quickly and on their own, after being approached by Mr. Keane.

But what really did the trick was the reproduction (in black-and-white, of course) of “Tomorrow Forever” that illustrated Canaday’s article (available in the New York Times online archive).  Such was the negative reaction of prominent figures in the the art world to the Keane canvas that the World’s Fair’s organizers, probably on the orders of Fair president Robert Moses, invoked their “power of censorship in cases of ‘extreme bad taste or low standard'” (as put in a subsequent article by Canaday) and had “Tomorrow Forever” taken down.

So, the triumph of art over kitsch and a thrilling victory for cultural standards, right?  Well…I’ve been mulling this one over ever since seeing the movie, and am not so sure.  For regardless of what you think of the Keane paintings and their place on the artistic spectrum, and whether or not you would have agreed with John Canaday and with the Fair’s decision to take painting down, I think it’s also quite pertinent to ask whether we want to give critics and other artistic insiders a de facto veto over what gets and doesn’t get shown at a major public event.

Or let’s change that to what gets and doesn’t get played, to switch the art form from visual to musical.  Imagine, for instance, if one of the New York Times‘ music critics had veto rights over the programming of big public concerts, such as the New York Philharmonic’s free concerts in New York’s Central Park.

In fact, we don’t have to imagine.  All you have to do is read Times critic Zachary Woolfe’s high-toned dismissal of a July 2013 Philharmonic summer pops concert that played to sixty-thousand attendees.  Read that again: Sixty-thousand!  Scheduled to coordinate with the 2013 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, played at New York’s Citi Field, the concert featured pop diva Mariah Carey, baseball Hall-of-Famer Joe Torre narrating “Casey at the Bat” and other light summery fair.  Doesn’t that strike you as just right for the occasion?  Not if you’re Zachary Woolfe:

But there is no question that the evening diverted resources from the orchestra’s core mission, which in the summer should be to present as much substantive, free classical music as possible across all five boroughs.

Oh, for Pete’s sake!  Isn’t that about the most out-of-touch, out-of-place enforcement of supposedly high artistic standards you’ve ever read?  That’s at least how it struck me at the time, as I wrote in one of my old New England Public Radio blogs.

To get back to “Big Eyes,” Woolfe’s attitude reminds me of that of John Canaday in the 1964 article that led to the World’s Fair decision to take the Keane painting down.  In the article, Canaday reports asking Dr. Nathan Dechter, board chairman of the Fair’s Hall of Education, to describe his standards of fine art.  Dechter’s answer (which Canaday read back to Dechter to make sure it was what he really said): “What is desirable is what pleases the mass public.”  Canaday then helpfully adds his interpretation, in case we ignorant readers missed the point:

In other words, the function of education is to determine the lowest common denominator and see that it is maintained.

But that’s not what Dechter said, was it?  Clearly, Canaday was putting words in Dechter’s mouth to make Dechter seem cheap and pandering, and to place himself on a higher artistic footing.  And note the easy, breezy and false equivalence of “pleasing the mass public” with maintaining the “lowest common denominator.”  Well, sometimes they are the same, or at least they’re overlapping.  Often, they’re not.  Often, “pleasing the mass public” is actually the noble thing do — such as when you’re welcoming over a million visitors to your Hall of Education, or when you’re playing to 60,000 attendees in Central Park.

And maybe in the end, “Tomorrow Forever” was a sub-standard choice for an artwork to portray the values of education.  I haven’t been able to find out what, if anything, went up in its place, and will edit and repost this blog if I do.  But whatever it was, I sure hope John Canaday didn’t get to select it.

2 thoughts on “A critical veto

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