Including a shout-out to Paul Gauguin for abandoning his wife and five children for a hedonistic and selfish existence on the backs (literally) of poor uneducated Tahitian women.
By Mark Fenton
Published November 11, 2011
We should remember that a picture - before being a war horse, a nude woman, or telling some other story - is essentially a flat surface covered with colours arranged in a particular pattern.
—Maurice Denis, Definition of Neotraditionism. Originally published in Art et Critique in Paris, 23 & 30 August 1890
In 1977, I attended an artist workshop in Emma Lake Saskatchewan, which, if you haven't studied a Saskatchewan road map recently, is about 200 km north of Saskatoon. The visiting artist that summer was the British sculptor, Sir Anthony Caro, (then just Anthony Caro).
I was 13-years-old and it was summer holidays and I was there because my father had business there. Anthony Caro thrives on working in groups of artists, or for that matter, in groups of non-artists. I never felt like an intruder.
Photo by Terry Fenton, 1977
In fact, I stood for hours watching Caro and a team of other sculptors at work and reveled in it and I was thrilled to help hold the metal bars as they were welded. Emma Lake is well north of the prairies everyone associates with Saskatchewan. It's wild and dense and, at least then, comparatively undeveloped.
Like Dante, who lost himself physically and psychically in a forest and landed in hell, I lost myself physically and psychically in a forest and landed in the mind of a fantastic artist. I think I got lucky.
Examining the photographs almost 35 years later, I'm pleased to discover I'm in one of them. It's a large group photo and I happen to be standing immediately to Anthony Caro's right. I obviously don't know what to do with this happy accident and am failing miserably in affecting the intensity of a future artistic visionary. (In contrast, Anthony Caro just looks relaxed and happy.)
The boy I was at that instant believes that wanting to make great art is enough, that the talent and tenacity it requires are incidental. Such is the nature of childhood dreams. In the boy's expression there is no understanding of the toll a life in art will exact.
It's worth mentioning the presence of Anthony Caro's immediate family in the photo. There is an enduring myth of the Western artist that goes back at least to the moment when Paul Gauguin chucked his job as a Parisian stock broker and abandoned his family to pursue a career as an artist in Tahiti.
It is the myth that artists of any importance make a Faustian deal in which they trade personal happiness and moral imperatives for artistic genius and - usually posthumous - fame. I know nothing of Caro's domestic life, but his relations to his family struck me as engaged and healthy. From what I saw that summer his struggles had more to do with fickle welding equipment and inopportune rain (he was working outdoors throughout) than negotiations with Mephistopheles.
There is a recent film interview at the Tate Modern website in which Sir Anthony Caro explains the practical challenges of the Emma Lake pieces.
(Question: is it fitting to address him as "Sir Anthony Caro" if you're, say, calling his name from the waiting room of medical clinic, or phoning him over dinner hour to ask if he'll participate in a three question survey?)
"...It's a sort of camp place, on a lake, with a lot of trees around it. Coniferous trees..." he says, which other than distinguishing it from London, England this doesn't narrow the geography down a lot, but he goes on to explain that the remote location forced him to plan for comparatively light linear pieces, since he knew he wouldn't have access to cranes and heavy equipment out in this godforsaken hinterland (that last bit isn't said, but, I feel, implied.)
* * *
One of the things I like to do is to visit art stores and look at virgin paint tubes.
I marvel at the art they might someday become. They remind me of youths with everything before them, full of hope and ambition, youths who might lie daydreaming upon a grassy slope pondering the passing clouds. "Will we become a war horse...a nude woman...what story will we tell?" they seem to ask. "Will our dispersed and dried fluids constitute a masterpiece that one day graces the Metropolitan Museum of Art?" Even more modest materials, like India ink
are intended for artworks, and might someday illustrate a children's classic
or at the very least become an amateur sketch of Central Park.
There's no real correlative to this in constructed sculpture where the materials are objects that were never intended as fine arts materials. Thus, there is a hierarchy to artist media. Artist-quality ink looks down on the writing implements of the office, just as the oil paint looks down on ink. The tools of personal expression are seldom considered by the great poets, but here's a rare and perceptive treatment of the subject:
I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper-weight,
All the misery of manila folders and mucilage, Desolation in immaculate public places... —Theodore Roethke
Where would we place industrial steel in the hierarchy? Below pencils? How strange to think that a steel bar might have been forged in Hamilton, found its way to a Saskatchewan industry where it enjoyed a full career before being retired to a scrap heap, then to Emma Lake where it was placed in a now famous sculpture by Anthony Caro and finally transported all the way to the Tate Modern where it is employed today. What late-hour and undreamed of glamour for steel! Like the server in a donut shop who, for her uncontrived and ineffable magnetism, is miraculously cast in a starring role by a film director who by the merest chance, stopped in for a coffee.
* * *
Imagine my joy in the summer of 2011 when I discovered that there was going to be an Anthony Caro show, spanning a half-century's work, on the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
* * *
On the subway to midtown Manhattan, I was struck by how little the aspect of subway travellers has changed since Walker Evans shot his famous subway photos in the 1950s.
Photo by Walker Evans, 1959
They are unlike travellers in any other subway system I know. New York may be a city of extroverts, but the one place you see people in a state of internal, expressionless stillness is the subway,
Photo by Mark Fenton, 2011
as though they are considering the residue left behind at the end of long hours at the office... "the inexorable sadness of pencils...dolor of pad and paperweight."
* * *
I was staying at an Upper West Side hotel. Getting to the Metropolitan Museum involved a short walk eastward along the pedestrian route in Central Park that skirts the south edge of the reservoir.
It was a perfect fall day. What better way to stretch the anticipation of a museum visit than to do a quick ink sketch?
Alas, at entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art the fall day became less perfect. We were a party of four and had planned to be out all day, so I was carrying a bag of lunch items for all of us and the bag was searched.
Despite the consistent smiles or MMA Security, the directive that the food bag would be searched and subsequent search and attitude of the searchers was a lot more invasive than airport security had been the day before. (Then again, MMAS is trying to protect great works of art, while Airport Security only needs to prevent jets from becoming passenger inhabited firebombs.)
MMAS didn't like that I had bananas, but it was the packaged, still unopened baba ghanoush that shut things down completely. "We really shouldn't allow bananas in, but we absolutely can't accept hummus [sic]."
The container was clearly labelled baba ghanoush and while the mistake impressed me as equivalent to rednecks who call all Chinese food "chop suey," I chose not to correct them.
"Has the option to check bags vanished for fear of terrorist explosives," I wanted to ask, but refrained, as I figured it would be equivalent to saying "bomb," even in hypothetical mode, in an airport security line.
So I simply asked if I could check my bag, since people ahead of me seemed to be doing just that. My question wasn't even answered. I was already a dangerous offender, and in my perceived status as a crazed vandal, I'd relinquished all rights granted to the law abiding and devout lovers of fine art.
MMAS had by now become practically giddy, speaking with the forced smiles and inflection one adopts with a seriously-disturbed-and-potentially-dangerous-person, and they simply reiterated that I couldn't bring this food any further.
I was tempted to suggest to them that grafting specific menace to a traditional Arab recipe, came dangerously close to ethnic profiling. I reminded myself, just in time, that I am the apotheosis of a red-haired Anglo-Scots Canadian, and the people I'd come in with were also, if not quite as glaringly, Northern European, and the collective MMAS did not look Northern European, and that there were fair odds some or all of them were of Arab heritage or even practising Muslims.
It also occurred to me, again just in time, that a guy like me even having baba ghanoush here spoke volumes for how thoroughly baba ghanoush has been assimilated into a broadly multicultural North American diet which weakened the ethnic profiling argument still further.
Edgy yet deft comedians from Lenny Bruce to Larry David have been able to manipulate such tacit political anxieties to first capsize their audiences and then pull them-now too grateful and indebted and spent to complain-back on board. I was sure I didn't possess such edgy deftness so I abandoned comedy as a tactic for ingratiating myself with MMAS.
Read the preceding ten paragraphs out loud. Time the reading. Divide it by five and this is how long it took for these thoughts to pass through my mind. Before I had spoken the first word of my defense I was wrenched from my stream-of-consciousness-safe-zone by the member of MMAS, who was clearly the team leader or c.o. or whatever the designation is in the security world.
He was looking past me, still smiling madly, and saying, "Could you step aside please and let other people through." That's right. They were done with me. My New York minute had expired. I wasn't even worthy of a trial!
Oh boy, I wished I had a copy of the 1977 photograph of Anthony Caro and me together so I could say. "Look. This is obviously me and the artist I'm here to see. I actually HELD PIECES OF METAL WHILE ANTHONY CARO'S SCULPTURES WERE GETTING WELDED TOGETHER, so why in the name of the seven mad gods would I want to do his work any harm?"
Yeah, their faces would have all gone pretty red at this point-like I might even get them in trouble-"Please Mr. Fenton. Our sincerest apologies. Go right through. There will be no charge today. Here's some fresh pita, still warm from the oven, to enjoy with your baba ghanoush should you get peckish during your visit."
But I didn't have the picture with me. It would have been sweet if I had, that's for sure.
Photo by Terry Fenton, 1977
This may get edited out or done in a more professional way, but Ryan McGreal, publisher of this magazine, was one of the three people with me while all this was happening. With a magnanimity that still impresses me, he offered to wait on the steps of MMA with our baba fucking ghanoush (a dish, swear to god, I will never eat again and I hope MMAS are happy with the blows to cultural sharing they deliver on visitors).
In fairness, and not to, in any way, diminish the aforementioned publisher magnanimity, seeing the Anthony Caro show was more my journey than Ryan's. But his self-sacrifice is in all ways impressive given the mire of discourtesy in which we were now, all of us, entrenched.
* * *
It was a gorgeous day for the roof. The sculptures were really good. I asked the MMAS employee stationed there if I could take pictures and was granted immediate permission, which thrilled me as much as it surprised me.
When I was done I wanted to go downstairs and see Paul Gauguin's "Two Tahitian Women," and then get out of MMA as quickly as possible a) because Ryan was, as mentioned above, wasting his own limited Manhattan time magnanimously waiting with the baba ghanoush and b) I wanted to hit the New York public library which houses the soft toys that inspired A. A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh books.
Photo by Jennifer Dawson, 2011
Sure, these things are a whole lot different than abstract steel sculpture (softer, more cuddly) but A.A. Milne's books are another in my seemingly endless series of cultural obsessions - despite my not, in this case, having met the creator - and I was thrilled at the very fact of these objects that, though inanimate as steel bars or pencils or paint tubes, gave birth to a fictional world.
While there is much to be said for Anthony Caro or Paul Gauguin, some days what you need is a story for all ages, one that reveals the most complex human motives through the gentlest of conflicts.
And yet, despite being surrounded by happy children being read to by loving guardians, I felt a distinct sadness in these inanimate objects. A sadness not unlike "the inexorable sadness of pencils [...Desolate] in immaculate public places." A sadness that says, alas these objects are not the genius, but only the catalyst that sparks the genius, the medium through which the current of genius passes, objects which, ultimately, genius takes for granted.
I hadn't seen Gauguin's "Two Tahitian Women," in years but it had recently been on my mind. I found it quickly. I hesitated to photograph it, fearing that I'd be imposing a European male gaze on women colonized by Europeans, on top of the one already imposed by the European male artist who rendered it.
I was pulled flailing and sputtering out of these hostile and turgid political waters by my friend Jennifer Dawson. In addition to her advantage in being not male, Jennifer is a cultural anthropologist, and was able to quickly evaluate and override the political argument against recapturing the image.
She took two pictures, and thus saved me from drowning in the political waters which, trust me, are hostile and turgid waters indeed. (MMAS was OK with it too.)
Photo by Jennifer Dawson, 2011
It wasn't until I got home and researched the recent history of "Two Tahitian Women", that I realized how lucky it was I hadn't mentioned to MMAS that I wanted to see "Two Tahitian Women," particularly since I would have said it in the crazed monomaniacal tone I usually fall into when I ask museum staff how to get to a single artwork that I've become obsessed with.
If I had, I'm guessing I'd not only have been relieved of my baba ghanoush, but would have spent a night in a New York jail. Here's why.
The picture, while on tour to the National Gallery in Washington DC in April 2011, was attacked by 53-year-old Susan Burns who, on being apprehended exclaimed "I am from the American CIA and I have a radio in my head. I am going to kill you." She later explained that she found the painting "homosexual" "evil" and "bad for children."
This story was reported in numerous publications, but the most intriguing to me was one by Martha Richler in The Week, UK, entitled "Art Attack in Washington: Gauguin Had It Coming." Richler dismisses the painting as "soft-porn" and empathizes with its vandal.
"I can understand [Susan Burns] feeling annoyed by this painting. I'm not a big fan of Gauguin's Tahitian nudes. I cannot deny that I am prejudiced by the fact that he abandoned his wife and five children for a hedonistic and selfish existence in Tahiti on the backs (literally) of poor, uneducated Tahitian women."
Richler's response pinpoints an ethical question for which Paul Gauguin has become the philosopher's poster boy. Years ago, I was puzzled to see that a new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy reproduced a Gauguin self-portrait for its jacket illustration.
Unaware of any contribution Gauguin had made to the advancement of Western thought I immediately looked him up in the volume he illustrated. Sure enough, Gauguin was cited. Not as a philosopher, as a subject. The entry is entitled the Gauguin Problem, and the concept was advanced by Bernard Williams in his 1981 book Moral Luck.
Here's essentially how it goes.
Subject A, who for the sake of argument I'll call Mark Fenton, is driving to the National Gallery in Washington to see the Gauguin show when he's happily diverted by an attractive, fit, and scantily clad young jogger. Mark's lecherous observation of said jogger causes him to sail through a red light where he is then flagged down by a police officer (at which point Mark suspects the jogger is an undercover cop whose jog was staged to fulfil a traffic offence quota) and given a $100.00 ticket for failing to stop for a red light. This ruins the Gauguin show for Mark and thereafter Gauguin becomes his least favourite post-impressionist just as baba ghanoush, for reasons unrelated to this example, becomes his least favourite snack (the Gauguin self-portrait in particular, Mark felt, came across as smug and mocking.)
Subject B who, for the sake of argument I'll call Susan Burns, is driving to the National Gallery in Washington to see the Gauguin show, at the same time of day and on the same road that Mark Fenton had been driving, when she's unhappily diverted by a fit, attractive, and scantily clad young jogger (I think we can agree now that the hot jogger is either a plant, or just conveniently predictable bait.) Susan's righteous disgust at said jogger causes her to sail through the same red light that Mark Fenton sailed through, and at the same speed. However, the same officer who gave Mark Fenton the ticket exactly 24 hours earlier has today gotten out of the squad car, gone across the street, and purchased a bag of donuts. As he crosses back to the squad car on the green light he is in a reverie brought on by the uncontrived and ineffable magnetism of the server at the donut store, and fails to notice the oncoming car. Susan's car hits the officer and he dies instantly. She's charged with manslaughter, and, as killing police officers doesn't favour judicial leniency, does ten years in jail.
Taken together these examples challenge the Kantian notion that a person's moral status depends on his or her will, independent of external circumstance. From the point of view of personal will as it impacts responsible motoring, Mark's moral behaviour and Susan's moral behaviour are identical. But the consequences are radically different, and this difference is the random chance of a policeman being in his car in Example 1.1 and a pedestrian in the path of the vehicle in Example 1.2. Mark got morally "lucky." Susan got morally "unlucky". (I'm guessing if Mark could have seen a preview of Example 1.2 including Susan's punishment in relation to his own, he'd have enjoyed the Gauguin show a whole lot more.)
Not surprising, since philosophers are known for their rigour, Williams identifies numerous varieties of moral luck and I won't present all of them here. The Gauguin Problem is what I'm concerned with and it goes something like this.
Artist A, who for the sake of argument we'll call Mark Fenton, abandons his family and a secure job in 21st Century Hamilton to become an "artist." He heads for New York where in addition to doing a lot of ink sketches he leads a hedonistic and selfish existence which includes unprotected sex with underpaid refugees from developing counties, and whose age of consent is questionable. He sells his sketches
for $20.00 at a stall in front of MMA that he's not even supposed to have there. Eventually Mark dies of AIDS, having infected countless others. His sketches are forgotten. The general consensus (among those few who think of him at all) is of a man who failed his family, failed every community he was a part of, and failed as a "so-called" artist. "Reprobate," "scumbag" and other less flattering terms are used in the assessment.
Artist B, who for the sake of argument we'll call Paul Gauguin, abandons his family and job as a stock broker in 19th Century Paris to become an "artist". He moves to Tahiti where he leads a hedonistic and selfish existence, which includes unprotected sex (duh, it's the 19th Century) with native Tahitian women whose age of consent is questionable. He also paints pictures of these women. Conveniently, for our argument, the time and energy and passion he gives to his paintings exactly equals the time Mark Fenton gives to his drawings of Central Park. After he dies of syphilis, having infected countless others, Gauguin's paintings are recognized as visionary works of staggering genius. The general consensus (and a lot of people think about Gauguin) goes something like this "Well.....I mean, yeah, he was pretty rotten to his family and the last thing those Tahitian women needed, but... but... well... those paintings! It's impossible to imagine modern culture without them. Surely society pays a price for genius. We can't really condemn the man, given his contribution to modern art."
Paul Gauguin got morally "lucky" with his talent. Mark Fenton got morally "unlucky." This argument strikes me as anti-Faustian. The great artist doesn't so much sell his soul as lose it along the way, and the subsequent fame and regard he gains from his art actually buys his soul back. While the lousy artist just remains soulless. I'm not sure this is solid philosophy, though.
Here's a final example. This one isn't in any way a paraphrase of Bernard Williams, it's me making a wild leap into systematic thought. If the example lands on less than solid footing no blame can be laid at the feet of Bernard Williams.
On November 11, 2011 Mark Fenton and Susan Burns set out for the Metropolitan Museum of Art independently of one another (and on foot, thank god!) Both have armed themselves with baba ghanoush which each plans to smear all over Gauguin's "Two Tahitian Women" (reading it back I know this sounds like a weird fetish thing, but that's neither intended nor relevant to the moral argument) Susan wants to do it (the smearing) because she disapproves of the painting on moral grounds, Mark wants to do it because he's by now completely addled on street drugs and pathologically envious of a level of artistic genius he's abandoned all hope of attaining. Careening up MMA's magisterial sea of stairs, Mark arrives at its hallowed entrance a minute before Susan. His baba ghanoush is intercepted by MMAS, his plan foiled, and he's escorted out of the museum screaming, "Do you know who I am? I used to help Anthony Caro with his sculpture. I'm part of the reason those sculptures on the roof are even here!"
It takes five of them to get him out of the building, during which time Susan Burns arrives and walks casually through the lobby, temporarily bereft of security, to the admission desk, whose clerks assume her bag has been checked. She takes the elevator and walks straight to "Two Tahitian Women," whom she is on the verge of smearing with baba ghanoush when a fast acting MMAS employee (who I feel missed her vocation and who would have fared better as a traffic cop than the poor stupid dead officer in Example 1.2.) intercepts Susan who cries, "I have a radio in my head and I work for the CIA. I am going to kill you."
I'm not entirely sure who gets morally "lucky" in this one. Philosophy was never my strongest subject.
Let's forget for a moment that we know anything of Gauguin's life. Let's assume someone found "Two Tahitian Women" in a warehouse in Paris and couldn't identify the name or even the ethnicity or the sex of the artist. Let's assume that sartorial propriety is different in 19th century Tahiti than in our society and an exposed upper torso is not unusual for women in this culture. Does this painting really impress us as soft porn? Think of French paintings in which poses are willfully set up to seem voyeuristic. (Degas' bathing women spring to mind.)
Think of subjects whose arrogant and direct eye contact challenges us to erotic engagement (Manet's "Olympia" springs to mind. It has never surprised me that this picture shocked viewers when it appeared in the Paris Salon in 1965.)
By contrast, the Two Tahitian Women are clearly aware they are being seen and are uninterested. Their indifference isn't a self-conscious, flirtatious indifference, they're simply getting on with their day. Poised yet relaxed, with an arresting air of strength and dignity.
They are self-contained, not part of a drama between observer and observed. If we are attracted to them, it's an attraction inspired by self-confidence and serenity.
Gauguin's image lingers with us long after we've seen it, in a way that all that pornography that's only a few keystrokes away doesn't, and doesn't want to. The Degas and Manet paintings, above, have a similar staying power and I'd be the first to admit that these paintings are sexually arresting and intended to be. I'm not morally troubled by that, but I respect the feelings of those who are (and caution them to stay well away from the Internet.)
Before it becomes fuel for a moral debate though "Two Tahitian Women" is a "flat surface covered with colours arranged in a particular pattern," and those paints sure got the fulfilment of the dreams they dreamed when they were young tubes in a store. Dreams, dreamed with the idealism of the young, who believe against long odds they will become great paintings, and who are oblivious to the moral complexities of being a work of art.
As mentioned in the body of this essay, I will NEVER EAT BABA GHANOUSH AGAIN. Before I toss out my recipe I'll pass it on to you.
For optimal taste, follow proportions as described above. For optimal adhesion to a great work of art, reduce yogurt by half.
For well or for ill, and in all cases unwittingly, the following persons acted in ways that gave form to this essay. They constitute my "aesthetic luck" and they are hereby acknowledged.
Ryan McGreal: for his patience and self-sacrifice in guarding the baba ghanoush.
Terry Fenton: for the use of photographs that the author couldn't have taken himself.
Jennifer Dawson: for the use of photographs that the author couldn't have taken himself and for copying out the recipe for baba ghanoush (which was the second time it got copied out because I'd carelessly smeared so much baba ghanoush over the first version that it was barely readable.)
Sir Anthony Caro: for showing the author how to combine humble and unlikely ingredients into a coherent and pleasing dish (one that in no way resembles baba ghanoush.)
Theodore Roethke: for the "inexorable sadness of pencils."
Walker Evans: for riding the New York Subway before me.
The New York Public Library: for those soft toys
Paul Gauguin: for "... abandon[ing] his wife and five children for a hedonistic and selfish existence on the backs (literally) of poor uneducated Tahitian women."
Susan Burns: for her tireless service to the CIA.
Finally and most crucially,
The dedicated MMAS: without whose intervention no part of this essay would have come into being.
Photo by Jennifer Dawson, 2011