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Critical Eye
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The Importance of Being Jaded
February 19, 1998

The nineteenth-century French philosopher Auguste Comte once made a thoughtful distinction. Cultural epochs, he believed, came in two varieties. On the one hand there was the organic kind, which created new intellectual and artistic forms with unself-conscious vigor. On the other was the critical kind, whose analyses and self-analyses replaced untrammeled creation and sprang from a time of breakdown, transition, and barely understood growth.

Comte's distinction is still a useful one. We live in a relentlessly critical time, when a work of art barely lifts off the ground before it gets pronounced upon as social, cultural, political, or spiritual symptom. Artists these days often fashion their art as symptoms of one sort or another, simply to preempt an inevitable imposition (or ambitiously to attract it).

In such an analytical time, cultural criticism becomes very involved with itself. In plain terms, this means that critics frequently react not to the work of art that is the subject of criticism -- a novel, a play, a painting, or a sculpture -- but to other critics and to critical trends. Rather than make an appraisal, critics occupy a position.
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Related Links:

Egon Schiele: The Leopold Collection

Biographical information and images from the Neue Galerie Graz in Austria.

Egon Schiele Gallery
Dozens of links to Schiele paintings on the Web.

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Reclining Woman with
Raised Chemise

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An example of such positioning is the contemporary reaction to the art of Egon Schiele (1890-1918). An Austrian modernist, Schiele made mostly erotic paintings, watercolors, and drawings that are cruel, sadistic, and narcissistic. Everyone loves him. A recent show of his work at New York's Museum of Modern Art drew longer lines of visitors than were waiting to seat their children on Santa Claus's lap, twenty blocks down the street, at Macy's department store.

Many visitors to the exhibition were no doubt impelled to attend by the sometimes bemused, but finally warm, critical reaction. In The New York Review of Books, John Updike found himself enthralled by Schiele, declaring that his "female nudes ... are among the great drawings of the century... [they] have the guileless animation that occurs when self-absorption lifts and observation begins." Eros is, of course, Updike's native imaginative soil. No surprise that by the end of Updike's essay, Schiele's brazen, pornographic poses have become tinged with the golden hue of an Updike tale's sad redemptive ecstasies.

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Kneeling Woman with
Head Bent Forward

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The New York Times praised Schiele with nary a glance at his brutality. Simon Schama, in The New Yorker, was crisply penetrating about Schiele's "excessive posturing and sophomoric reaching for shock." He pointed out that nowadays, as a result of the congressional backlash against the NEA, to dismiss a work of art as pornographic is to risk charges of philistinism. He then went on, for the most part, to dismiss Schiele's work as puerile and pornographic. But at one point he abruptly reversed himself and praised Schiele for his pornographic fervor: "To deny the lewdness of Schiele's art is to do him no favors, for that is precisely where he concentrates his potency."

Schama had it right the first time. Though Schiele's pornographic art may be potent in its immediate effect, it is not powerful in its lasting impression. But so obligated did critics feel to appear unfazed before Schiele's anger and vulgarity that not a single one pointed out what was plain to the eye: Schiele, for all his virtuoso touches, had not yet passed out of an awkward artistic apprenticeship.

The only persuasive way to judge a work of art is to gauge whether it is true to itself, whether it has achieved what it set out to achieve. Schiele's tortuously cerebral art tends to be disastrously at odds with his erotic intentions. The show's catalogue assertively refers to the art historian Albert Elsen's contention that Schiele used Rodin's technique of "continuous drawing," in which the artist sketches while never taking his eyes off the model. This, critics such as Updike and Schama argued, repeating the idea, accounts for Schiele's visceral spontaneity. Yet look at Rodin's flowing sensuous line in a drawing like Love Asleep (undated) -- as erotic as anything Schiele did -- alongside Schiele's studied angularity, which grows ever more complex and involuted. Schiele could not possibly have achieved such a tangled, cerebral effect through "continuous drawing." Schiele's line, in fact, is fraught with self-reflection. In Reclining Woman with Raised Chemise (1914), or Kneeling Woman with Head Bent Forward (1915), Schiele tied his sensational subjects to the bedframe of self-consciousness. As his career progressed, his line became claustrophobic, strangulating. Consider the study for Act of Love (1915) -- it's as if he were transforming the silent commotion of sexual intercourse into an analysand's monologue. His pictures collapse into the chasm between his divided intentions: he wants to shock and titillate through the depiction of sexuality, but he cannot escape his own tormented self-consciousness about sexuality.

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Act of Love (study)
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Schiele could indeed rise above this fatal deficiency in conception and execution to the level of art. A handful of his works at the Museum of Modern Art were breathtaking syntheses of and reflections on eros. But you would almost never know, from the commentary on the exhibition, that such a deficiency existed at all. Looking at Schiele's shellbursts of sex, the critics were blinded to the way his conflicted approach to his subject made a mess of his art. It's as if there is now an ethical imperative to appear jaded and amoral before a work of art, just as once there was a consensus that art should be moral and uplifting.

The turning point in Schiele's art occurred in 1910, when his uncle stopped sending him money. Schiele's work then became frankly sexual. No critic whom I read made this connection -- I suppose because that fact would diminish what many consider the existential force of Schiele's raw depiction of sexuality. Dostoevsky wrote for money, too, but there is no causal relationship between his themes of sin and redemption and his pecuniary circumstances. In Schiele, the connection between his need for money and his nude paintings is almost larger than life. This willful myopia of the critics is too bad. The nearly mechanical response to Schiele obscures what we might learn from him.

In writing about Schiele, scholars and critics dwell on how syphilis killed his father, who had fatally passed the disease on to four of his children. Much has been written about the effects of those events on Schiele, and also about the influence of contemporary Viennese trends such as psychoanalysis, rampant misogyny, and an intellectual preoccupation with hysteria. All that profoundly affected Schiele, of course. But, to my mind, a more consequential influence was the social and political situation Schiele lived through. Briefly put, Schiele was active at a time when Emperor Franz Joseph had found it politically profitable to marginalize the liberals and to court Austro-Hungary's subject nationalities instead. As elsewhere in Europe, the age of humane liberal reforms in Austria was coming to a halt.

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Self-Portrait in Black
Cloak, Masturbating

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As a tide of virulent nationalism and political reaction set in, Vienna's modernist culture turned inward. Critics writing recently about the Schiele exhibition have argued that Schiele shattered the hypocrisy of bourgeois morality by displaying the spectacle of desire coursing underneath repressive social constraints. Nonsense. Austrians who in Schiele's day read about how Franz Joseph's son Rudolf had carried on an extramarital affair, murdered his mistress, and then killed himself didn't need such revelations. Rather, they needed to know that they possessed an element of identity that might outlast the changing social and political reality around them.

So Schiele, caught up in the same atmosphere, complied. He didn't reveal sexual desire beneath the disintegrating social veneer. He revealed the self beneath corrosive sexual desire. It's no coincidence that some of his models look like some of his self-portraits. You won't find Schiele's representative work among his bruised, sometimes muscular proletarian models, their legs askew, their derrieres flying, their skin hatched and marked as if flayed. Schiele's most characteristic work is the 1911 portrait of himself dressed in a dandyish black cloak, masturbating in front of a mirror.

Sitting before the bare shoulders, the upturned breasts, the naked thighs, the curving hips, the high buttocks of his models, Schiele saw himself. Working in circumstances of contracting humanity, Schiele punished the object of his tortured gaze with a lacerating line. Living at a time of crashing facades, this artist thought it cool to strip them away. And in America, in our fin-de-siècle, the critics went wild.

Discuss this column in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

Lee Siegel teaches literature at the New School for Social Research, in New York City, and is a contributing editor of Artnews. He has written recently for The Atlantic on
Jane Austen and contemporary women novelists.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Artwork reproduced courtesy of the Leopold Collection, Vienna.
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