Happy Birthday to Clarice Smith (the Lecture Series, That Is)

October 7, 2005

It occurs to me that just about this time last year Peter Schjeldahl kicked off the Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art series. That was a really sharp event. If you missed it, you're in luck—local blogger Charles Downey of ionarts recorded his impressions of the event for posterity. Downey's right about Schjeldahl being a joker, but it was one of Schjeldahl's more sober observations that stuck with me: Schjeldahl said that he didn't think it was important that the community of art lovers (the "tent") grow much larger than it is right now—that art shouldn't play a larger role in the lives of Americans.

I don't think I'd ever heard a critic voice such a concrete, matter-of-fact opinion on this topic, and after a year I haven't stopped thinking about his position—why he'd come to that conclusion and whether it's a wise one. The question at root is enormous, one that easily dovetails with a person's bedrock assumptions about aesthetics, the purpose of art, even democracy.

Downey writes:

One of Schjeldahl's major points on the topic he chose ("What Art Is For Now") was that the snob appeal of art is one of the "underestimated engines of culture," that for now he has "no desire to swell the size of the tent" of those who love art. In his view, there is no reason to bring art to the masses. Those who want it will find it, and "if somebody doesn't want art, bully for them."

Like I said, matter of fact. It's a consistent answer, but surely the question hinges on what you expect art to do in the public realm. Whether you want to then facilitate that work is a second question, no?

I didn't see artist Pat Steir or art history professor Alex Nemerov, last fall's subsequent lecturers, so I can't say for certain whether all the program's events were as rewarding as the first one. This year's lineup sounds promising: William Christenberry spoke on September 28, Roberta Smith spoke on October 5, and Wanda Corn will speak on November 2. I'll have to take your word on Christenberry—though I would have liked to have been there, that evening I was attending instead Janet Cardiff's talk at the Hirshhorn. (A win-win proposition, really.)

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