Running a fancy restaurant in New York City has its challenges. Food critics, cutthroat competition, health department inspectors, grumpy comments on Yelp! — not to mention the demands of a notoriously fickle and demanding customer base — are just a few of the problems it may confront, but few have to contend with the editorial board of the New York Times.
That’s where the Four Seasons finds itself. The Four Seasons is one of the city’s most enduring temples of haute cuisine, and more: the restaurant sits in the Seagram Building, Mies van der Rohe’s and Phillip Johnson’s Bauhaus masterwork on Park Avenue, and its interior was designed down to the last detail by Johnson himself. In fact, so revered is the space that no detail has been altered since the restaurant opened in 1959. Restored, yes. But altered? Therein lies the problem. As the Times notes, there is now the danger of “aesthetic damage to Johnson’s magnificent space, which critics note was designed as a Gesamtkunstwerk, an artistic whole dependent upon all its parts, from the walls and lights down to the flatware and plates.”
Hmmmm. A “Gesamtkunstwerk.” Are you dazzled? Do you say “Quite right! Can’t be fiddling with something as important as a Gesamtkunstwerk?” (Just out of curiosity, is a Starbucks a Gesamtkunstwerk?) And when it comes to debates about “aesthetic damage,” are you willing to go up against someone who can reach into their knapsack and drop with such insouciance a word like “Gesamtkunstwerk?” Of course not. You have been trumped, and that’s that.
What is at the heart of all this? Well, it’s:
This is a Picasso titled “Le Tricorne,” which, according to the editorial in the Times, is “a bullfighting scene painted in 1919 [as] part of a stage curtain for the Ballets Russes. It is 19 feet by 20 feet and has hung in that space since the Four Seasons opened in 1959, though for how much longer, nobody knows.”
“Nobody knows” refers to a recent decision by Aby Rosen, who owns the Four Seasons, to have the tapestry removed. Mr. Rosen’s stated reason for this act of purported vandalism involves the restoration of the wall behind the Picasso, which has been found by a structural engineer to be in need of repair in order to preserve the integrity of the space. But Rosen does not own the tapestry. (This gets complicated.)
The owners of the tapestry are actually the New York Landmarks Conservancy, whoever in the blue hell they may be. And they have sued Rosen to prevent the removal of the tapestry, as they claim that it is far too brittle and fragile to be moved, and any attempt to do so will destroy it.
Further, the Conservancy has hired its own expert to inspect the wall in question, and their expert, unsurprisingly, says that the wall is just fine as it is, and that Mr. Rosen’s expert is all wet. In fact, the New York art world is abuzz with the inside dope: Rosen hates the tapestry, always has, and wants it out.
Funny situation, this. Someone hangs their picture on someone else’s wall, and then asserts the owner of the wall has nothing to say about that wall for the rest of time. A federal judge has issued a restraining order, not as a final resolution, but to allow time for authorities who intervene in situations such as this to determine what the facts are.
Enter the Times, with its bewildering and contradictory rationales for preserving the tapestry in situ (oh, gee, look at us; we can use antique languages to bolster our own cred). First, they cite the value of the work, which compels them to revisit their language lab:
A writer in The New York Review of Books, sharply questioning Mr. Rosen’s taste and decency, recently rhapsodized about the Picasso’s “dusky mauve and ochre tonalities” and “palpable Iberian duende,” which — so you don’t have to look it up — is what flamenco music and Javier Bardem also have.
Well, there you have it. “A writer” in The New York Review of Books is an unimpeachable enough an authority on fine art, and this one “rhapsodizes.” Where Mr. Rosen, whose “taste and decency” have now been “sharply questioned” (why not just come out with it and call him a moneygrubbing kike?) sees an ugly brown crayon scrawl, the “writer” sees “dusky mauve and ochre tonalities.” And then to one-up the “Gesamtkunstwerk” gambit, he plays the “duende” card, and an ace of spades it is. What kind of restaurant is it that lacks a touch of flamenco music and a taste of an actor best known for playing psychopathic murderers?
Frankly, we’re overwhelmed. Seldom have we been so thoroughly outflanked by the white knights of culture, and should we entertain for one moment the idea that Mr. Rosen should have something to say about what hangs on the wall of his own restaurant, there is always the question of the restaurant itself. Is it a good thing or a bad thing?
The Times seems to be unsure. While the editorial praises the artistic excellence of the space, it holds the Four Seasons’ hoity-toity cuisine and its patrician exclusion in somewhat lower regard:
Those who seldom or never dine at the Four Seasons may feel estranged from an argument about the artistic integrity of a place where billionaires cluster over bluefin sashimi and roast squab with truffle sauce.
Strong stuff indeed. The clusters of billionaires probably walk past the Picasso with scant regard for its artistic merit, but there’s a solution, the Times thinks, even for that:
It would be better still if the conservancy could find a way for regular New Yorkers to savor its duende without having to bring along at least $59 for the prix fixe lunch and — for gentlemen — a jacket.
Why doesn’t that nyeculturny Shylock allow this? Why, it seems, he does. According to a commenter on the NYRB article cited by the editorial:
I’ve never eaten there either, but I have stopped in many times to show it to visitors. The restaurant is always very welcoming.
Certainly we agree at least in part with the sentiment that Mr. Rosen ought to do his best to preserve this work, whatever he thinks of its merits. Picassos are not to be sneezed at, and while Mr. Rosen may fervidly wish to be rid of something he dislikes, he should probably be considerate of the great harm he may inflict should moving the painting cause it irreparable damage. But we believe that is his decision to make, and this editorial is exactly the kind of cultural fascism Picasso despised.
It has all the hallmarks of a Frank Bruni essay: a presumptuous yet naive “we right-thinking people” confidence, more than a touch of the bigot and a clumsy coyness with its unabashed snotty, smug and “monkey-with-a-parasol gait.”* Frankly, we think Picasso would have smiled to hear its argument, and said “Let the man hang whatever he wants on his own walls. And to the devil with the duende.”
* Not mine. Stole it from Mark Twain.