Open Letter to the Art Renewal Center

[ As a contemporary painter who is also an advocate of the painter’s craft, I’m at times mistakenly regarded as a "conservative", a laughable assertion if there every was one. In December of 2005, I wrote a critique of the Art Renewal Center, a group that actually deserves the reputation of extolling conservatism in art - in fact they are downright reactionary. My article, A Return to the Past, assailed the ARC for being new Victorians, Eurocentric demagogues who espouse a right-wing aesthetic populism. My essay struck a cord with Mr. John Nutt, an arts educator in the UK, who shared with me an open letter he composed and sent to the Chairman of the ARC, Fred Ross. Not surprisingly, the ARC has not published Nutt’s letter - so I present it here in its entirety. ]

An open letter to Fred Ross

Dear Mr. Ross

Your response to my criticism of ARC indicates that my feedback comments concerning the Art Renewal Center upset you. It was not my intention to poke a stick in a hornet’s nest but I feel it is necessary to reply in the interests of the truth of which you do not have a monopoly.

Your website is an art educational site, but it assumes a narrow definition of education and it would seem that its main function and purpose is the rehabilitation of 19th century academic art. Its stance is to argue that academic art has been castigated and marginalized by the art establishment. It is quite possible that it was merely ignored because it was so poor, most UK and European Municipal galleries have a collection on permanent display but they are not usually humming with visitors like the Tate Modern or the Louvre. One exception is the Musee D’Orsay but that also exhibits Impressionism and Post Impressionism.

There are many definitions of education (as there are of art,) which should be about informing, enlightening, valuing and releasing the mind from the chains and restrictions of its environment. This is most effectively achieved in western education through the Socratic method of dialectic or informed philosophical debate. I am disappointed by your anger and unsubstantiated hostility to 20th century art and failure to engage in dialectic. Your site is visually quite stunning but its written dialectical content seeks only to limit and restrict thought and debate by promoting one representational art movement above all, whilst denigrating everything done since. It is also the primary source of the visual material displayed on, a website of visual and cultural vandalism, which recycles and denigrates the labours of great artists work as simple one line jokes. Very laudable educationally, considering the work displayed is an abuse of the open commons license.

In the UK, HM government prescribes the content and contextual studies of the art education curriculum. This is the culture which we inhabit. Your site shows little or no evidence that you seek a wider truth. It shows little concern to balance ideas or engage with dialectic, only pander to the popularist rhetoric of the tabloid press, by smearing and abusing the achievements of 20th century art. You have accused me of being brainwashed by an art education establishment, despite the fact that I have had fifty years of study to make up my own mind about what I personally believe about art and education. I venture to suggest that your definition of drawing is narrow, and restricted to a particular nineteenth century visual representation of reality. This view is of little practical use to a multi-cultural inner city art teacher.

You attack David Hockney and openly accuse him of lying - despite the true fact that there is a substantial amount of well documented scholarly evidence including that of the National Gallery, London, that Vermeer (to take just one example) used optical aids. Have you never heard of the “Camera Obscura” that was used by Canaletto, Guardi and others? In his book Secret Knowledge, Hockney and Professor Martin Kemp discuss known visual procedures and their evidence is presented in such a way as to allow a reader to make their own judgment. Your site doesn’t allow the reader to make an informed balanced judgment, its content brow beats him with opinion. Education is concerned with enlightenment not with enforcement as you well know. It takes 2000 years to create a civilization but the price of ignorance is that it can be knocked down over-night. Witness Nazi Germany. Hockney is a respected academic painter whose knowledge is based on a lifetime of practical working experience. These are artistic and not aesthetic judgments. Would you seek to condemn a nuclear physics professor in his math? You state that modern art is a prejudicial product of two world wars, and it’s obvious that these wars didn’t begin to touch your own world frame. In Europe we still live under their cloud, visit any UK or European village and examine a war memorial! Classicism is elitist, it served the culture of Napoleon and Nietche which in turn sowed the seeds of the twentieth centuries miseries.

Here in the UK, 19th century academic artists and academicians represent a rigid bourgeois class system, the exploitation of women as objects and hypocrisy that typifies “Victorian values”. When Mrs. Thatcher used this phrase in the eighties it was not without irony. In the UK - where there is still a class system, we are unable to simply admire 19th century academic art work without being also grimly aware of its faults, its hypocrisy, its posed faked content, yet you promote it as the paradigm of all that is good and true. Art students have to be taught to look at nature, not to copy from the plaster cast where they repeat others faults. When I was a student I was taught Slade school academic life drawing - I speak from an informed viewpoint based in practice! This is despite the fact that photography has been around since 1820 and had superseded representational painting in every single respect. Lord Leighton and Alma Tadema had very little appreciation or real understanding of the truth about the Roman Empire, they had only the knowledge of their day. As typified by their confections and middle-aged male fantasies. (Their knowledge of Roman society was limited and their images are the result of 19th century archaeological knowledge). Like Degas they made extensive use of photography as you know.

In our belief in the crucial importance of good sound academic drawing, we are probably in agreement, (although I affirm that your definition of good drawing is far more restricted and purely skills based than my own) especially when it comes to the desire to improve the skills and training of art-students. Nothing in art can be gained from re-hashing the past, even Pre-Raphaelite painting is eclectic and derivative), art moves forward not backward, just as nuclear physics does. You know this as your website contends - whether or not you yourself subscribe to a modernist paradigm.

John Nutt

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