I know I’m not alone in thinking that Cy Twombly’s infantile crayon doodles are a puerile fraud the art world perpetrates on itself and culture at large. They are at once imbecile and impossibly pretentious, with their labored allusions to Ancient Greece and Rome and Don Quixote and so on, rendered in his eminently imitable spastic misbehaving child style. I suppose his defenders praise him for being able to reach pre-symbolic modes of creation, and to capture some sort of primal artistic urge, but these are probably the same sort of critics who praise Pollock’s “transgressive” use of his own piss and shit in paintings, as though that was some sort of brilliant message.
Lee Siegal is usually an interesting critic to read, but this piece on Slate seems pretty half-hearted. The best Siegel can do is muster a claim that doodling is some pure form of countercultural expression that Victorian aesthete Walter Pater would endorse (he wouldn’t) and to assert that Twombly can only be understood as a gay artist, which seems both patronizing and false. Twombly seems inspired by the unself-conscious creations of children and the insane and wants to parasiticallly co-opt such innocuous forms of expression for profit, making such thoughtless bursts of non-artistic creativity occasions for ponderous art-critic pontification. In Siegal’s hands, Twombly becomes one of those artists we are supposed to celebrate for his hard-earned meaninglessness, his transcending ideas altogether. I’ve never understood why this is supposed to be a good thing, or how this makes Twombly any more artistically significant than other vacant productions like a Mariah Carey album or an Adam Sandler movie, both of which are laborious efforts that yield no ideas. About Twombly’s painting called “Malevich,” after the Russian artist, Siegal writes, “Malevich the theoretician, imprisoned in his ideas about art and freedom, is reborn as a gesture liberated from ideas.” I suppose having your legacy become a gesture rather than a body of ideas is supposed to be a good thing, more “true” because more spontaneous. But really, one’s memory is obliterated if reduced to a gesture, it becomes an instinct, a habit, something denied moments of reflection. We think and remember in terms of ideas, not in terms of gestures, which are reserved for action in the present moment. Abstract Expressionist painting, in wanting to celebrate thoughtless action, carries water for consumer culture which also champions (preys on) unreflective impulseiveness and anti-intellectualism. In their desperate attempts to convey vitality, they reify the traces of life itself and seem to snuff it out completely, leaving no motions of the human spirit outside the grip of commodities.