The New Yorker

Termite Art and the Modern Museum

What is the place of work that dances around, or deplores, the spectacle side of today’s moneyed art world?

By Alex Abramovich

February 28, 2019

Manny Farber’s “Cézanne avait écrit,” from 1986. The artist’s work is part of a new exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

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Douglas, Arizona, was once a smelter town, processing copper mined nearby in Bisbee, Courtland, and Nacozari de García. The painter and critic Manny Farber, who was born in 1917 and died a little more than a decade ago, grew up there, eight blocks from the Mexican border, and his life was marked by an abiding interest in borders and burrowing things: centipedes, tapeworms, termites. In 1962, he published “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” in Film Culture. “A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity,” he wrote.

White-elephant art, on the other hand, was “masterpiece art, reminiscent of the enameled tobacco humidors and wooden lawn ponies bought at white elephant auctions decades ago.” Ever suspicious of grand gestures, message films, and stuff that smacked of “giltculture,” Farber championed small, stolen moments and improvised gestures, which he tended to find in collective productions that left lots of room for surprise. He valued craftsmen like Anthony Mann over auteurs like Truffaut or Antonioni, although he reserved the right to change his mind, and did so often. Hard as he was to nail down, he liked most the artists and filmmakers who were “involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything.” Farber never came out and said so, but this opposition seems linked to left-wing debates from the nineteen-thirties, and Farber’s disdain for the left-leaning artists who had Barton Finked their way to Hollywood when the call came. Working as a carpenter, on and off, for much of his life, he took care not to rely on his art or his writing for money. The job gave him the freedom to rail against those who did.  More...

    

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