Sunday, December 6, 2009


Stanley Meltzoff was a brilliant artist, scholar and author. At the peak of his powers, he painted a masterpiece for the cover of LIFE magazine: the legendary battle of Thermopylae, where a handful of Greek heroes sacrificed themselves to save their homeland.


After Meltzoff spent weeks perfecting the colors and composition, some moron from the marketing department decided LIFE might sell a few extra copies by slapping a bright yellow banner across the painting promising a "hot scandal."

Henrik Ibsen said, "To live is to war with trolls."

I could offer a thousand other examples of art that has been cropped, altered, vandalized or shrunk to make more room for a client's logo. An illustration passes through many hands before reaching the viewing public; clients, editors, art directors, printers, all serve separate functions but with the unified purpose of squeezing maximum revenue from the art. In fact, many of them got their jobs by recognizing that "hot scandal brewing" sells more product than artistic grace.

Even today, unscrupulous bloggers use these lurid words at the top of a blog to attract additional readers.

The illustrator Robert Fawcett once insulted his clients with a typically blunt "challenge to the advertising and publishing fraternities." He scolded that, "those who would pander to the lowest common denominator or make obeissance to expediency for temporary profit will stand revealed in their mediocrity...." But Fawcett also reminded his fellow illustrators that this was part of the deal they had made:
This is regrettable, but seemingly inevitable, in a group which has chosen to ally itself with industry, and having tasted the fruits of that alliance has no right to ask exemption from the conditions of survival which govern all business and industry.
Fawcett was a smart guy, and recognized that the "incubus of client dictation" is not limited to commercial art:
We always had the choice of a career of drawing and painting pictures for exhibition, but we would then have been subject to the vagaries of a career as competitive, and dealers in many cases no less venal than is charged against some of our present friends.
There is no question that fine art too has more than its share of morons. Consider Rembrandt's masterpiece, The Nightwatch, which was clumsily cropped by the owners to fit the wall where they wanted to hang it.

During World war II, some of the biggest morons of all were threatening the greatest art of the Italian Renaissance during the battle for Italy. The entire inventory of the Ufizzi gallery in Florence was hastily moved to a remote country villa to protect it from bombing. A young soldier named Stanley Meltzoff was stationed at that villa. Everyone else had evacuated the villa and Meltzoff was all alone while the shelling continued outside. He made his way down to the room where hundreds of defenseless masterpieces had been stacked against the wall. There he discovered Botticelli's famous painting Primavera-- the arrival of spring-- showing the beautiful Flora scattering her flowers.

Years later Meltzoff recalled, "I stepped up and kissed my ideal of beauty full on the lips...."

Meltzoff understood that art is not protected by its beauty.

To the contrary, the lips Meltzoff kissed were highly perishable. Art will always be susceptible to tampering by advertisers, art directors and fascist dictators. I hope his early confrontation with this reality consoled him decades later when he watched his own painting defaced by the editors at LIFE.

In my view, artists have to abide by the compromises and limitations that fund the creation of art, and also accept the mortality of the finished product. But those parameters still leave a lot of room for people who value beautiful things to defend them in the creation process and to speak up for them once they exist in this wicked world.