People don’t read the morning newspaper, Marshall McLuhan once said, they slip into it like a warm bath. Too true, Marshall! Imagine being in New York City on the morning of Sunday, April 28, 1974, like I was, slipping into that great public bath, that vat, that spa, that regional physiotherapy tank, that White Sulphur Springs, that Marienbad, that Ganges, that River Jordan for a million souls which is the Sunday New York Times. Soon I was submerged, weightless, suspended in the teprid depths of the thing, in Arts & Leisure, Section 2, page 19, in a state of perfect sensory deprivation, when all at once an extraordinary thing happened:
I noticed something!
Yet another clam-broth-colored current had begun to roll over me, as warm and predictable as the Gulf Stream…a review, it was, by the Times’s dean of the arts, Hilton Kramer, of an exhibition at Yale University of “Seven Realists,” seven realistic painters…when I was jerked alert by the following:
“Realism does not lack its partisans, but it does rather conspicuously lack a persuasive theory. And given the nature of our intellectual commerce with works of art, to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial - the means by which our experiences of individual works is joined to our understanding of the values they signify.”
Now, you may say, My God, man! You woke up over that? You forsook your blissful coma over a mere swell in the sea of words?
But I knew what I was looking at. I realized that without making the slightest effort I had come upon one of those utterances in search of which psychoanalysts and State Department monitors of the Moscow and Belgrade press are willing to endure a lifetime of tedium: namely, the seemingly innocuous obiter dicta, the words in passing, that give the game away.
What I saw before me was the critic-in-chief of The New York Times saying: In looking at a painting today, “to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial.” I read it again. It didn’t say “something helpful” or “enriching” or even “extremely valuable.” No, the word was crucial.
In short: frankly, these days, without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting.
Then and there I experienced a flash known as the Aha! phenomenon, and the buried life of contemporary art was revealed to me for the first time. The fogs lifted! The clouds passed! The motes, scales, conjunctival bloodshots, and Murine agonies fell away!