In Defense of the Frick Collection

A piece from our latest issue was narrated on KBOO recently, soliciting angry replies from Portland and beyond. Here's one.

Very clearly, Gabriel Hainer Evansohn’s “The Frick Collection at 75” was not read twice. It is almost as if its confusion is intentional, in which case it would be excusable as an exercise in free writing. But to treat it as such would be to disregard its vehemence.

If I’m not mistaken, Mr Evansohn’s ostensible claim is that the Frick Collection masks the crimes of its benefactor. This leads to an “obfuscation of the art itself.” The overbearingly immoral legacy of Henry Clay Frick, the argument goes, gets in between “the relationship between art and spectator.” But what, if anything, his “construction of a dam to create a private lake for a fishing and hunting club . . . [which] caused the  Johnstown flood of 1889 which killed over 2000 people and coincidentally knocked out his competitor’s factory (Cambria Iron and Steel) for a year and a half” has anything do with the reception of his collection is beyond me. If his (or any) art is inaccessible, this is a failure of criticism, not of some supposed wickedness.

But Mr Evansohn is not interested in criticism. If he were, he would try to make sense of the collection immanently. He just wants to illustrate that Mr Frick was a bad, bad man for being a capitalist and that his art collection proves it. Never mind, as Mr Evansohn also points out, that the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art were also “founded and are funded by businessmen not unlike Frick.”

But as sometimes happens with very, very dim arguments, Mr Evansohn’s article holds on to the truth by the hair of its tail. There is no doubt, as he points out, that Mr Frick’s taste was not of the most sophisticated class, although it is patently false that “none of these works have matured into . . . significant masterpieces.” Unless Mr Evansohn walked through the museum with his eyes closed (which, by the intensity of his article’s vulgarity, may in fact be possible), he would not have missed Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert nor Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl. But what he does indeed miss is even more startling: that the anarchistic impulse of his argument is thoroughly reactionary. Instead of locating the root of our political malaise in the historical epoch that Marx called capital, Mr Evansohn sees it in one individual capitalist’s relatively meaningless art collection.

Why a magazine devoted to the legacy of the French Revolution — which Marxism at its best has attempted to make good on — would publish this piece is therefore another question altogether.