Of Lichstenstein, Hartley says, among much else that is worth reading in full:
So yes, it’s easy to see him as glib, compared to the great names of New York Abstract Expressionism, like, say Mark Rothko, whose brown and purple splodges of colour were seemingly dragged agonisingly from deep within his soul; who couldn’t bear for his Seagram works to be displayed in a restaurant; who finally killed himself in his studio. Compared to Rothko, yes, Lichtenstein does seem a bit of a light-weight.
Also, there’s the fact that Lichtenstein’s easy to get. Just about anyone can see what it’s about. And critics hate that. What they want is to be given the opportunity to demonstrate why they’re art critics and you’re just some dumb schmuck who doesn’t know much about art but knows what he likes. If they started lecturing us about how Lichtenstein is commenting on mass reproduction and popular culture, we’d say, well of course he is.
That’s one mark against the man. Another may be that, despite all the attempts to portray his art as somehow critical of the popular culture of the times, and by extension of the rampant greedy capitalism of post-war America etc. etc. together with the sexual stereotypes of those ditsy romantic blondes and macho soldiers from the comic books, it’s fairly clear that Lichtenstein, far from mounting a biting critique of US imperialism, was in fact celebrating rather than condemning the sheer vibrancy and energy of the visual world he lived in – of New York in the Sixties. Of course he maintained an ironic distance, but he was no revolutionary, no radical subversive – except in the sense that he saw popular culture as a suitable subject for high art.
The Lichtenstein exhibition is a popular hit, but, Hartley reports, the Duchamp etc. show is provoking no such mass enthusiasm.
In 1917, Duchamp grabbed a urinal, signed it, and stuck it in an exhibition, to the delight of art critics ever since. Says Hartley, at the end of his Duchamp posting:
The logical conclusion to this line of thinking would be that if anything can be art if its maker wishes it to be art, then anything or everything can be art – and we don’t need artists any more. Curiously this is an argument that artists themselves seem reluctant to make.
So yes, the urinal was funny; yes, it was subversive; yes, it was probably the kind of kick-up-the-arse that the art establishment needed at the time. But can’t we move on? It’s not as if the art establishment now isn’t in need of a kick up the arse. But it’s not going to come from repeating the same old tricks of 100 years ago. The urinal lovers now are the art establishment.