Roger’s Rules

Warhol vs. art

According to the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto, Andy Warhol was the nearest thing to a “philosophical genius” that twentieth-century art produced. Why? Because he helped complete the assault–begun by Marcel Duchamp in the early years of the 20th century–on the traditional understanding of art as a distinctive, and distinctively valuable, realm of experience. Whether that activity is best understood as “philosophical” I will leave to one side. It certainly did a lot to change, not to say undermine, practice of art in the later part of the twentieth century. I have always felt that Warhol’s chief talent was not philosophical but promotional. The man had an uncanny talent–genius, even–for publicity. For me, his remark that “Art is what you can get away with” takes us close to the center of his achievement–not, I believe, an aesthetic achievement, or even a philosophical one, but assuredly something special in the annals of shameless cultural hucksterism.

Warholism is not the only perspective determining the shape of the art world today, but it is a strong, perhaps a dominant, force. Among the vital counter forces, one of the most potent was represented by Larry Salander and the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries in New York. The galleries reside at 22 E. 71st St., but don’t bother trying to go there: the place is currently in receivership, its doors closed, future very much in doubt. The story of what happened to Salander is told this week in New York magazine by James Panero, my colleague at The New Criterion. It’s a long, complex tale. Why do silkscreens by Andy Warhol fetch tens of millions while great art from the past can hardly be given away? Salander, Panero notes,

came to believe that the very survival of great art was at stake. By 2005, he had determined to be the first dealer to do something about it. He would risk his gallery’s established reputation as a nineteenth- and twentieth-century house by investing heavily in old-master and Renaissance art. He would make some money and, if his plan worked, save the contemporary market from itself.

Note the word “if.” The plan failed failed spectacularly, but that doesn’t mean Larry Salander wasn’t on to something important. As I wrote in The Wall Street Journal when the 71st Street gallery opened in 2005,

If Mr. Salander’s aesthetic fervor bubbles over, so does his contempt for the aesthetically meretricious. His tastes range widely but his standards are exacting. “Quality” is a word that often falls from his lips. Matthew Barney? Awful. Jeff Koons? Don’t get him started. A unique polychrome terra cotta by Della Robbia at Salander-O’Reilly doesn’t come cheap. But this Renaissance work will fetch a small fraction of the $5 million-plus that a Koons sculpture draws. Mr. Koons famously does not fabricate his work, but leaves it, as Mr. Salander bitingly observed, to “fine Italian craftsmen, none of whom is Jeff Koons.”

It is still possible that Larry Salander will emerge from his financial dégringolade to carry on his campaign for great art. I hope he does.