Morley Safer leaves us the “gentle art of making enemies”

Morley Safer, the elder statesmen of journalism, has died. He leaves behind a legacy of America's most important moments and a sense of wit that made him unique.

Morley Safer at Art Basel in Miami Beach.

WASHINGTON, May 19, 2016 – Morley Safer, the erudite CBS newsman, whose witty and melodious words filled our ears for more than half a century, is dead at 84.

The diverse subjects of his stories covered the gamut, from the horrors of war to celebrity profiles – Miss Piggy for one.

But art seemed to be of particular interest to Safer.morley-safer

While attending Art Basel in Miami Beach in 2012 – a massive exhibition of contemporary art he described as an “upscale flea market, a shopping mall where prices start at the thousands and end in the stratosphere” – he came upon a work by South Korean artist Haegue Yang.

The work consisted of tangled, green extension cords attached to light bulbs. This knot of wires and glowing orbs haphazardly clung to a metal poll, reminiscent of Charlie Brown’s sad Christmas tree.

The magnum opus had an asking price of $33,000.

A buoyant and eager curator described Yang as a “contemporary, peripatetic, global artist,” whose work evokes “some sadness.”

“Something’s unstable,” she continued, “something’s unfinished, something’s, like, never complete. It’s always in the process. And I think that’s sort of how we live today.”

Ornamental Mountains and Seas - Fire and Dragon, by Haegue Yang.
Ornamental Mountains and Seas – Fire and Dragon, by Haegue Yang.

Safer looked amused while weighing her words. “Art speak, the descriptive language of contemporary art, can seem as opaque as spilled alphabet soup,” he observed.

In a “60 Minutes” segment from the 1990s, Safer’s skepticism of contemporary art (“Yes… but is it art?”) made him the target of disdain for the arbiters of modernity. “I was accused of being a philistine. Someone lacking in the esthetic sensibility to appreciate the challenging nature of some contemporary art.”

It’s not that he dismissed it altogether. He merely asked good questions. “Is this [modern art] the biggest scam since Hans Christian Anderson trotted out the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’?”

In response, the New York Times queried various critics and artists to respond.

Arthur Danto, art critic at The Nation, said, “You can’t say something’s art or not art anymore. That’s all finished. There used to be a time when you could pick out something perceptually the way you can recognize, say, tulips or giraffes. But the way things have evolved, art can look like anything, so you can’t tell by looking. Criteria like the critic’s good eye no longer apply.”

Don’t mistake that statement as Danto talking himself out of a job. He knows that without him modern art cannot speak to the masses or, more importantly, the high-end collector.

As author Tom Wolfe noted in his book “The Painted Word”:

“All these years… I had assumed that in art, if nowhere else, seeing is believing… I had gotten it backwards all along. Not ‘seeing is believing,’ you ninny, but ‘believing is seeing,’ for Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.”

That is, the expository text provided by the contemporary art critic. The one who speaks for art that clearly cannot speak for itself.

Like Wolfe, Safer took notice.

Marc Glimcher of the Pace Gallery told the Times that Safer’s low opinion of modern art “stank of anti-intellectualism.” A disdain Safer shared with Wolfe among the intellectualoids of modernity.

Like the American painter James McNeill Whistler, Morley Safer excelled in “the gentle art of making enemies.”

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