Harsh booing at the gala opening night of the Metropolitan Opera — where such strong negative reactions are rarely heard, at least in comparison with European opera houses — was still ringing in the ears of the opera world on Tuesday.An excerpt from the GREAT Tom Wolfe on sculptor Frederick E. hart:
The Met defended the new production of Puccini’s “Tosca,” as did its Swiss director, Luc Bondy, who made his debut at the house on Monday night. Audience members, some of whom had paid $1,250 for a ticket, gave ovations to the singers. But when Mr. Bondy took the stage, loud and prolonged booing broke out in parts of the house.
Bloggers called the production pretentious, textually unfaithful and clichéd. But many others found it refreshing and believable.
Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said he was not surprised at the reaction to the production under the circumstances. The Bondy version replaced that of Franco Zeffirelli, a favorite of Met audiences, whose “Tosca” had been a Met staple since 1985.
“There are people in that audience who came there expecting not to like anything,” Mr. Gelb said. “They were perhaps rooted in the past. But I think a lot of the audience enjoyed it and saw it for what it was meant to be, which was a modern, theatrical presentation of a classic in which musical standards were fulfilled.”
Mr. Gelb acknowledged that his director had taken liberties. “But the liberties he took were intelligent ones,” Mr. Gelb added. He said that the rest of the run was sold out and that the production would return next season. “It certainly is the ‘Tosca’ of the immediate future,” he said. “We’re proud of it.”
Mr. Bondy’s vision is a spare one. The sets and costumes are stark. He applies violent and lewd touches. Tosca gashes the portrait of the Magdalene (with a breast bared) painted by her lover, Cavaradossi; Scarpia, the villain, clasps a statue of the Madonna in a sacrilegious embrace; and three lascivious women drape and fondle him in his study at the outset of Act II.
Mr. Bondy said his direction was derived from the text. The picture gashing is a natural extension of Tosca’s jealous rants. Scarpia’s cry, “Tosca, you make me forget God!,” supports his Madonna hug. And Scarpia has clearly stated his fondness for the possessing and disposing of women: hence the three female playthings at the opening of Act II, even though the libretto does not call for them.
The director blamed a strain of hidebound traditionalism for the lusty boos.
“The reaction was very, very violent because they have a ‘Tosca’ since 22 years or 30 years and they don’t want to see something different,” he said. “To think one work exists, and it has a final interpretation, is a problem.”
Mr. Bondy also fired back at Mr. Zeffirelli, who had said in an interview that reports about the new production had led him to view it as a betrayal of Puccini’s intent and called Mr. Bondy a third-rate director.
“I’m a third-rate director, and he is a second assistant of Visconti,” Mr. Bondy said, referring to Mr. Zeffirelli’s early collaborations with the director Luchino Visconti. “I learned to be a director. He didn’t invent Puccini. He’s only Zeffirelli. I’m only Luc Bondy — more, not.”
Renaud Machart, the chief critic of the French newspaper Le Monde, who attended the opening night and gave the production a favorable review, said the booing resulted from ingrained expectations based on “fake traditions” of opera directing.
“But that is typical of many audiences, including France and Europe,” Mr. Machart, said in an interview. “Believe me, I see so many things which are outrageous and stupid and try to do the opposite of what’s in the libretto. This is not what Bondy’s doing.”
Hart was born in Atlanta to a failed actress and a couldn't-be-bothered newspaper reporter. He was only 3 when his mother died, whereupon he was packed off to an aunt in a part of rural South Carolina where people ate peanuts boiled in salty water. He developed into an incorrigible Conway, S.C., juvenile delinquent, failed the ninth grade on his first try and got thrown out of school on his second. Yet at the age of 16, by then a high-school dropout, he managed, to universal or at least Conway-wide amazement, to gain admission to the University of South Carolina by scoring a composite 35 out of a maximum 36 on an A.C.T. college entrance test, the equivalent of a 1560 on the College Boards.
He lasted six months. He became the lone white student to join 250 black students in a civil rights protest, was arrested, then expelled from the university. Informed that the Ku Klux Klan was looking for him, he fled to Washington.
In Washington he managed to get a job as a clerk at the Washington National Cathedral, a stupendous stone structure built in the Middle English Gothic style. The cathedral employed a crew of Italian masons full time, and Hart became intrigued with their skill at stone carving. Several times he asked the master carver, an Italian named Roger Morigi, to take him on as an apprentice but got nowhere. There was no one on the job but experienced Italians. By and by, Hart got to know the crew and took to borrowing tools and having a go at discarded pieces of stone. Morigi was so surprised by his aptitude, he made him an apprentice after all, and soon began urging him to become a sculptor. Hart turned out to have Giotto's seemingly God-given genius -- Giotto was a sculptor as well as a painter -- for pulling perfectly formed human figures out of stone and clay at will and rapidly.
In 1971, Hart learned that the cathedral was holding an international competition to find a sculptor to adorn the building's west facade with a vast and elaborate spread of deep bas reliefs and statuary on the theme of the Creation. Morigi urged Hart to enter. He entered and won. A working-class boy nobody had ever heard of, an apprentice stone carver, had won what would turn out to be the biggest and most prestigious commission for religious sculpture in America in the 20th century.
The project brought him unimaginable dividends. The erstwhile juvenile delinquent from Conway, S.C., was a creature of hot passions, a handsome, slender boy with long, wavy light brown hair, an artist by night with a rebellious hairdo and a rebellious attitude who was a big hit with the girls. In the late afternoons he had taken to hanging about Dupont Circle in Washington, which had become something of a bohemian quarter. Afternoon after afternoon he saw the same ravishing young woman walking home from work down Connecticut Avenue. His hot Hart flame lit, he introduced himself and asked her if she would pose for his rendition of the Creation, an array of idealized young men and women rising nude from out of the chaotic swirl of Creation's dawn. She posed. They married. Great artists and the models they fell in love with already accounted for the most romantic part of art history. But probably no model in all that lengthy, not to say lubricious, lore was ever so stunningly beautiful as Lindy Lain Hart. Her face and figure were to recur in his work throughout his career.
The hot-blooded boy's passion, as Hart developed his vision of the Creation, could not be consummated by Woman alone. He fell in love with God. For Hart, the process began with his at first purely pragmatic research into the biblical story of the Creation in the Book of Genesis. He had been baptized in the Presbyterian Church, and he was working for the Episcopal Church at the Washington National Cathedral. But by the 1970's, neither of these proper, old-line, in-town Protestant faiths offered the strong wine a boy who was in love with God was looking for. He became a Roman Catholic and began to regard his talent as a charisma, a gift from God. He dedicated his work to the idealization of possibilities God offered man.
From his conception of ''Ex Nihilo,'' as he called the centerpiece of his huge Creation design (literally, ''out of nothing''; figuratively, out of the chaos that preceded Creation), to the first small-scale clay model, through to the final carving of the stone -- all this took 11 years.
In 1982, ''Ex Nihilo'' was unveiled in a dedication ceremony. The next day, Hart scanned the newspapers for reviews . . . The Washington Post . . . The New York Times . . . nothing . . . nothing the next day, either . . . nor the next week . . . nor the week after that. The one mention of any sort was an obiter dictum in The Post's Style (read: Women's) section indicating that the west facade of the cathedral now had some new but earnestly traditional (read: old-fashioned) decoration. So Hart started monitoring the art magazines. Months went by . . . nothing. It reached the point that he began yearning for a single paragraph by an art critic who would say how much he loathed ''Ex Nihilo'' . . . anything, anything at all! . . . to prove there was someone out there in the art world who in some way, however slightly or rudely, cared.
The truth was, no one did, not in the least. ''Ex Nihilo'' never got ex nihilo simply because art worldlings refused to see it.
Hart had become so absorbed in his ''triumph'' that he had next to no comprehension of the American art world as it existed in the 1980's. In fact, the art world was strictly the New York art world, and it was scarcely a world, if world was meant to connote a great many people. In the one sociological study of the subject, ''The Painted Word,'' the author estimated that the entire art ''world'' consisted of some 3,000 curators, dealers, collectors, scholars, critics and artists in New York. Art critics, even in the most remote outbacks of the heartland, were perfectly content to be obedient couriers of the word as received from New York. And the word was that school-of-Renaissance sculpture like Hart's was nonart. Art worldlings just couldn't see it.
The art magazines opened Hart's eyes until they were bleary with bafflement. Classical statues were ''pictures in the air.'' They used a devious means -- skill -- to fool the eye into believing that bronze or stone had turned into human flesh. Therefore, they were artificial, false, meretricious. By 1982, no ambitious artist was going to display skill, even if he had it. The great sculptors of the time did things like have unionized elves put arrangements of rocks and bricks flat on the ground, objects they, the artists, hadn't laid a finger on (Carl Andre), or prop up slabs of Cor-Ten steel straight from the foundry, edgewise (Richard Serra); or they took G.E. fluorescent light tubes straight out of the box from the hardware store and arranged them this way and that (Dan Flavin); or they welded I-beams and scraps of metal together (Anthony Caro). This expressed the material's true nature, its ''gravity'' (no stone pictures floating in the air), its ''objectness.''
This was greatness in sculpture. As Tom Stoppard put it in his play ''Artist Descending a Staircase,'' ''Imagination without skill gives us contemporary art.''
Hart lurched from bafflement to shock, then to outrage. He would force the art world to see what great sculpture looked like.
By 1982, he was already involved in another competition for a huge piece of public sculpture in Washington. A group of Vietnam veterans had just obtained Congressional approval for a memorial that would pay long-delayed tribute to those who had fought in Vietnam with honor and courage in a lost and highly unpopular cause. They had chosen a jury of architects and art worldlings to make a blind selection in an open competition; that is, anyone could enter, and no one could put his name on his entry. Every proposal had to include something -- a wall, a plinth, a column -- on which a hired engraver could inscribe the names of all 57,000-plus members of the American military who had died in Vietnam. Nine of the top 10 choices were abstract designs that could be executed without resorting to that devious and accursed bit of trickery: skill. Only the No. 3 choice was representational. Up on one end of a semicircular wall bearing the 57,000 names was an infantryman on his knees beside a fallen comrade, looking about for help. At the other end, a third infantryman had begun to run along the top of the wall toward them. The sculptor was Frederick Hart.
The winning entry was by a young Yale undergraduate architectural student named Maya Lin. Her proposal was a V-shaped wall, period, a wall of polished black granite inscribed only with the names; no mention of honor, courage or gratitude; not even a flag. Absolutely skillproof, it was.
Many veterans were furious. They regarded her wall as a gigantic pitiless tombstone that said, ''Your so-called service was an absolutely pointless disaster.'' They made so much noise that a compromise was struck. An American flag and statue would be added to the site. Hart was chosen to do the statue. He came up with a group of three soldiers, realistic down to the aglets of their boot strings, who appear to have just emerged from the jungle into a clearing, where they are startled to see Lin's V-shaped black wall bearing the names of their dead comrades.
Naturally enough, Lin was miffed at the intrusion, and so a make-peace get-together was arranged in Plainview, N.Y., where the foundry had just completed casting the soldiers. Doing her best to play the part, Lin asked Hart -- as Hart recounted it -- if the young men used as models for the three soldiers had complained of any pain when the plaster casts were removed from their faces and arms. Hart couldn't imagine what she was talking about. Then it dawned on him. She assumed that he had followed the lead of the ingenious art worldling George Segal, who had contrived a way of sculpturing the human figure without any skill whatsoever: by covering the model's body in wet plaster and removing it when it began to harden. No artist of her generation (she was 21) could even conceive of a sculptor starting out solely with a picture in his head, a stylus, a brick of moist clay and some armature wire. No artist of her generation dared even speculate about . . . skill.
President Ronald Reagan presided at a dedication ceremony unveiling Hart's ''Three Soldiers'' on Veterans Day 1984. The next day, Hart looked for the art reviews . . . in The Washington Post . . . The New York Times . . . and, as time went by, the magazines. And once more, nothing . . . not even the inside-out tribute known as savaging. ''Three Soldiers'' received only so-called civic reviews, the sort of news or feature items or picture captions that say, in effect, ''This thing is big, and it's outdoors, and you may see it on the way to work, and so we should probably tell you what it is.'' Civic reviews of outdoor representational sculpture often don't even mention the name of the sculptor. Why mention the artist -- since it's nonart by definition?
Hart was by no means alone. In 1980, a sculptor named Eric Parks completed a statue of Elvis Presley for downtown Memphis. It was unveiled before a crowd of thousands of sobbing women; it became, and remains, a tremendous tourist attraction; civic reviews only. And who remembers the name Eric Parks? In 1985, a sculptor named Raymond J. Kaskey completed the second-biggest copper sculpture in America -- the Statue of Liberty is the biggest -- an immense Classical figure of a goddess in a toga with her right hand outstretched toward the multitudes. ''Portlandia'' she was called. Tens of thousands of citizens of Portland, Ore., turned out on a Sunday to see her arrive by barge on the Williamette River and get towed downtown. Parents lifted their children so they could touch her fingertips as she was hoisted up to her place atop the porte-cochere of the new Portland Public Services Building; civic reviews only. In 1992, Audrey Flack completed ''Civitas,'' four Classical goddesses, one for each corner of a highway intersection just outside a moribund mill town, Rock Hill, S.C. Has been a major tourist attraction ever since; cars come from all directions to see the goddesses lit up at night; nearby fallow cotton field claiming to be an ''industrial park'' suddenly a sellout; Rock Hill comes alive; civic reviews only.
Over the last 15 years of his life, Hart did something that, in art-world terms, was even more infra dig than ''Ex Nihilo'' and ''Three Soldiers'': he became America's most popular living sculptor. He developed a technique for casting sculptures in acrylic resin. The result resembled Lalique glass. Many of his smaller pieces were nudes, using Lindy as a model, so lyrical and sensual that Hart's Classicism began to take on the contours of Art Nouveau. The gross sales of his acrylic castings have gone well over $100 million. None were ever reviewed.
Art worldlings regarded popularity as skill's live-in slut. Popularity meant shallowness. Rejection by the public meant depth. And truly hostile rejection very likely meant greatness. Richard Serra's ''Tilted Arc,'' a leaning wall of rusting steel smack in the middle of Federal Plaza in New York, was so loathed by the building's employees that 1,300 of them, including many federal judges, signed a petition calling for its removal. They were angry and determined, and eventually the wall was removed. Serra thereby achieved an eminence of immaculate purity: his work involved absolutely no skill and was despised by everyone outside the art world who saw it. Today many art worldlings regard him as America's greatest sculptor.
THE PEOPLE KNOW GREAT ART WHEN THEY SEE IT - OR HEAR IT.
- THE PEOPLE DON'T NEED ELITISTS TO TELL THEM WHAT MOVES THEM, WHAT AMAZES, THEM WHAT STIRS AWESOME FEELINGS AND AWAKENS GREAT HOPES IN THEM.
- PEOPLE LIKE A TRADITIONALLY STAGED TOSCA AND SCULTPURE BY HART BECAUSE TOSCA AND HART SPEAK TO THEM ACROSS THE AGES.
- FRAUDSTERS AND SHAMS - LIKE SERRA AND BONDY - NEED ELITISTS TO HELP THEM SELL THEIR POSTMODERN CRAP BECAUSE THE PEOPLE AREN'T MOVED BY THEIR ESOTERIC POSTURING.
- THE GULLIBLE ONES ARE NOT THE PEOPLE WHO UNABASHEDLY LOVE THE TRADITIONAL ART FORMS AND FEEL NO SHAME AT BEING UNMOVED BY THE ESOTERIC CRAP; THE GUILLIBLE ONES ARE THE WANNABES WHO BELIEVE THE CRAP THE POSTMODERN ELITISTS TELL THEM.
- AND THERE'S NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE ELITIST ART CRITICS TELLING US THAT WE SHOULD LIKE SERRA, AND THE ELITIST HEALTHCARE EXPERTS TELLING US WE SHOULD SUPPORT OBAMACARE.
TRUST YOUR GUT. DON'T BUY WHAT THE ELITISTS ARE SELLING.