An earlier post got me thinking. Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece” is an iconic work of literature for modernists, from say Cézanne to Picasso. The blank map in The Hunting of the Snark is equally important for the transition from abstraction to conceptualism, call it the era of Robert Smithson. Lately I’m wondering if Henry James’ “The Figure in the Carpet” might have a similar status today. Several artists have mentioned it to me over the years. It’s a very funny story because the narrator’s voice is so obviously mannered, and his perspective limited. James is certainly having fun with him. I’m not sure if that kind of sophistication and that much art is normally present in global conceptualism, in fact doubt it. But what makes the story very contemporary is that it’s about criticism. Of the three main characters – excluding the novelist they are obsessed with, who only makes a cameo appearance – the two men are critics and the woman, a love interest of them both, is a writer. The idea of art as an erotic quest is likely to be greeted skeptically in the prudish realm of conceptual art, which talks a lot about sex but doesn’t think of itself as sex, another important difference from modernism, but the idea of criticism as erotic quest is much funnier anyway. Looking deeper, the idealism of the characters, their belief in art as a holy grail of experience and the elusive “figure in the carpet” as a kind of ecstasy only accessible to initiates, is out of keeping with the disillusioned temper of our times. The irony and intellectualism of the story gives it a place in our world, but its aestheticism can only be received in quotes. Maybe that’s the role of the critic as hero.

Pablo Picasso, from the Vollard Suite, illustrations for "The Unknown Masterpiece" 1927

Pablo Picasso, from the Vollard Suite, illustrations for “The Unknown Masterpiece” 1927


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