Tonight, Wednesday the 15th, Anthony Haden-Guest is giving a reading at HP Garcia, a newish gallery in New York’s garment district. Haden-Guest is variously described as a reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet and socialite. Something tells me that socialite might be the most significant, given the gossipy, insider stuff he has written about the art world. He was, back when Studio 54 was still alive, a champion party-goer. These days, he is the editor of Charles Saachi’s online magazine. That is mostly what anyone needs to know about him. That, and the fact that he contributes to The Daily Beast.
If you want the backstage story, such as it is, of Lady Gaga’s performance with the Bolshoi Ballet for L.A. MOCA’s 30th anniversary gala, he’s your man. And, yes, he was supposedly the inspiration behind the venal, deceptive journalist Peter Fallow in Tom Wolfe’e The Bonfire of the Vanities. [Christopher Hitchens declined the compliment when he was the suggested model for Fallow.]
Haden-Guest’s True Colors: The Real Life of the Art World came out in 1998. At the time, it was just the right thing for an art student to read at the beach. It was laced with reader-friendly rumor and tittletattle. By now, it is a bit long in the tooth. Nothing is duller than yesterday’s confidences, unless it is yesterday’s art world sub-trend.
So why mention this? The announcement of Haden-Guest’s talk coincided with a revisit to John Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing. It is a lovely little book that will last forever. No outdated boot-licking or back-biting here. It is a classic tool from a gifted critic who was also as fine a draftsman as the artists of his day. In it, Ruskin warns against just the sort of art journalism that Haden-Guest represents. Implicit in the warning is a rebuke to the kind of reading—or reader—that indulges in the H-G mode of art talk:
Among modern books avoid generally magazine and review literature. Sometimes it may contain a useful abridgment or a wholesome piece of criticism; but the chances are ten to one it will either waste your time or mislead you. If you want to understand any subject whatever, read the best book on it you can hear of: not a review of the book. If you don’t like the first book you try, seek for another; but do not hope ever to understand the subject without pains, by a reviewer’s help.
What goes for reading books, holds for viewing art as well. There are two things to be asked of an art work: was it well done? and was it worth doing? The well done part requires looking at the best that has been made. Whether the done thing was worth the effort of its making, requires judgments made in accord with values derived from outside the art world. Most certainly, from outside the garden variety art press.
We really do not need to know who thinks Lady Gaga is the Nijinsky of our time. We do need to know the difference between culture as an activity that enables us to live more fully and culture as a possession or an entertainment venue.
© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey