An Open Letter to Art Educator Jerome Hausman

Dear Jerry,

Let me begin by thanking you for reviewing my book in the December issue of Arts & Activities, a magazine widely read by K–12 art teachers.

Arts & Activities - cover

Since nothing is worse for an author than being ignored, I’m grateful for your calling attention, however critical, to Who Says That’s Art?. All the more grateful in view of the serious health problems you’ve been dealing with—not least, failing eyesight.

My thanks, too, for saying: “This is a book that deserves reading even though we may disagree with some of its conclusions.”

Given the authority and respect you’ve long enjoyed in the field of art education, however, I fear that the objections you raise in the review will disincline many teachers from bothering to read for themselves what I wrote—which is often quite different from what you suggested.

Most notably, you object that I start “with a definition of art that would preclude photography, electronic media, and most conceptual forms” and that I set about “to elevate forms that have moved [me]”—to the total exclusion of “contemporary art.”

That depends on what is meant by “contemporary art”—which is, of course, the crux of my book’s thesis.

What I in fact start with is a definition of traditional forms of “fine art”—primarily, representational painting and sculpture. Hence there is nothing “deceptively commonsensical” (as you claim) about my view that “all works of art are made with special skill and care” or that “the emotionally meaningful forms of visual art consist of two- or three-dimensional representations of actual or imagined persons, places, objects, or events.”

What I then set out to do is to analyze fundamental respects in which the various new media (including photography)—which now eclipse painting and sculpture in the realm of “contemporary art”—differ from, and are in most instances inferior to, those time-honored forms.

Thus I by no means engage merely in “outright rejection of what is ‘new’”—as you imply. To the contrary, I offer extensive evidence and reasoned arguments for my rejection of the new forms purported to be “art,” forms that have been invented over the past hundred years. Included in my evidence are statements by the inventors themselves, expressly declaring that what they were creating differed essentially from traditional fine art, and even that it therefore merited a new name. In view of such origins, it is ironic that those new forms now dominate the realm of contemporary “art.”

One of the most troubling aspects of your review is your claim that I ignore “the art of our own times.” Quite the contrary is true. Throughout the book I cite countless works from the early twentieth century to the present—albeit arguing that many of them do not qualify as art by any objective standard.

Most tellingly, the list of works you cite from among the baker’s dozen I praise in a chapter entitled “The Pleasures and Rewards of Art—Real Art, That Is” (spanning millennia of art history) is misleadingly incomplete. Oddly, you omit the 9/11 Memorial (September 11th) by Meredith Bergmann (b. 1955)—which I characterize as “a work of truly conceptual art.” Unlike postmodernist pieces of bogus “conceptual art,” it does what genuine art has always done. It embodies an idea in directly perceptible and emotionally moving form that does not require an artist’s statement or expert commentary to be understood. Can it be that you omitted it because it is in an essentially traditional, classically inspired style and therefore does not qualify as “contemporary art” in your view? If so, you are merely embracing the current artworld consensus, which my book is devoted to challenging.

In contrast with my traditionalist view, you argue: “New media and technologies have brought about new forms that have enlarged and enriched the nature of art experience.” I’d love to know which works in these “new media” have truly enriched your experience.

Based on numerous conversations and written exchanges we’ve had over the years, we’ve long recognized that we approach the crucial question of what qualifies as “contemporary art” from totally different perspectives. Yours I’d characterize as the view now dominant in the artworld—i.e., that anything created by a purported artist merits consideration as art. Mine is that unless we formulate some objective criteria for what constitutes “art,” we have no sound basis for deciding who qualifies as an “artist.”

In that context, it is worth noting that at least two contemporary artists have found considerable merit in Who Says That’s Art?, judging its conclusions to be supported by “rigorous argument” as well as “passionate conviction,” and urging that “all who are interested to find the truth about art should study it and engage with its arguments.”

Also worth mentioning is the favorable assessment of the book offered by other art educators—see Reviews and What Readers Say.

Let me close by echoing your view that what is needed is indeed “healthy dialogue and debate.” That debate should not preclude considering that the ideas and practices now prevailing in the artworld—and increasingly adopted by professors of art education and K–12 teachers—are hopelessly muddled and due for revision.

Warm regards, as ever,

Michelle