Category: Academic art

TRAC 2014: Part II

“You keep all your smart modern painters
I’ll take Rembrandt, Titian, Da Vinci and Gainsborough.”
20th Century Man - The Kinks

TRAC 2014 offered a dizzying array of panels, presentations, and demonstrations, some of which I found to be much more agreeable than the keynote address of Roger Scruton, which I wrote of in Part I of my observations on the “The Representational Art Conference.” In Part II of my assessment of the event, I will cover a lecture from the conference that I found worthwhile and insightful; Michael Zakian’s The Problem of Content in Contemporary Realism; the views of TRAC 2014 as given by art professor and journalist, John Seed, and remarks regarding one of the conference’s sponsors, the Art Renewal Center (ARC).

An Adjunct Professor of Art History at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California and also the director of that institution’s Frederick R. Weisman’s Museum of Art, Michael Zakian was an engaging speaker with an obvious passion for art. However, unlike some attendees of TRAC 2014, Mr. Zakian’s appreciation of art does not stop with the academic style of the 19th century, though he began his lecture by saying that he likes the paintings of William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905). But he also counts Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Willem de Kooning among his favorites, so Zakian’s ideas run counter to those many aficionados of Academic art that attended the conference.

Mr. Zakian seemed aware that he was somewhat the odd man out at TRAC 2014. When he launched into an explication of his lecture’s title, The Problem of Content in Contemporary Realism, he warned the audience packed into the room to hear his address that he was likely going to upset them with his opinions. According to Zakian, the dilemma of today’s classical realist art is that it almost entirely overlooks content, and though much of the art displays high technical proficiency… it fails in having any meaningful to say. He made his point by comparing projected slides of two paintings, the 2012 Studio in Sharon, by the U.S. academic realist Jacob Collins, and the 1629 Artist in His Studio by Rembrandt van Rijn.

After first extolling the impressive talent of Mr. Collins, Zakian put in plain words his reasons for disliking Studio in Sharon; the artist’s painting captured reality with technical virtuosity, but what was the painter telling us? Zakian asked what meaning was added to the depiction of an empty studio room? Collins’ canvas had the surface details correct, but there was little beneath the polished exterior. Zakian noted that many of today’s classical academic artists paint in the same manner, they depict reality without capturing its essence.

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"The Artist in his Studio" - Rembrandt van Rijn. Oil on panel. 1629. Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Mr. Zakian then switched to the slide of Rembrandt’s Artist in His Studio. In the canvas the young Rembrandt placed himself in the background studying his work from a distance, the easel looming large in the foreground. It is hard to read what the artist is thinking while contemplating his painting, is he confident or troubled about how to proceed? One could even say that Rembrandt seems a Don Quixote-like figure preparing to go into battle against a windmill. The point is the painting not only tells a story, it invites the viewer’s thoughtfulness. Zakian believes that narrative quality and scratching at the essence of things is needed in today’s classical realism. In that I fully concur, but I would say that type of inquisitive and expository spirit should be a part of all art disciplines. Postmodernists have largely done away with narrative altogether, and Zakian warned that in their repudiation of postmodernism, academic artists are doing the same.

Zakian told his audience that today’s academic and classical realists “must go beyond skill” to “wed their skills with story telling.” Fair enough, but what type of story telling? We live in a tangle of media distraction where one is no longer allowed a private cathartic moment before being inundated by a flood of advertising images. Perhaps that is one story to be told. Zakian noted the difficulty of this when he told his audience that “to make an impact on society, we have to compete with YouTube cat videos.” He offered another story to be conveyed when he projected a slide of The Cycle of Terror And Tragedy. Sept 11, 2007, a massive oil on canvas work by academic artist Graydon Parrish.

The painting was an attempt by Parrish to address the horror of the 9-11 terror attacks by means of allegorical symbolism. To me, addressing 21st century terror with the visual language of 19th century Victorian painters is a bit incongruous. Parrish wanted to produce a canvas imbued with the principles and sensibilities of academic art, but he unconsciously fashioned a postmodern work. At the center of the composition are two mirror image screaming men, blindfolded and near naked; the look-alikes symbolize the Twin Towers. When I gaze upon those figures I expect them to flicker and fluctuate like a badly transmitted video. The staccato, attention deficit disorder inducing, video editing style of today bled into the academic painting; Alma-Tadema meets the never blinking electronic eye.

To be fair to Mr. Parrish, the events of 9-11 were so catastrophic that it is tough to depict such a thing on canvas, though Pablo Picasso did just that when he painted his 1937 Guernica, which depicted the obliteration of the Basque village in Spain by Nazi warplanes during the Spanish Civil War. Despite the fact that most people attending TRAC 2014 belittle Picasso as a charlatan, his monumental antiwar canvas is an eternal work of art. Why we do not have such art today is a complicated question. In large part it has to do with artists having been disoriented by postmodernism, their withdrawing from political affairs, and their possessing little grasp of history. It is not enough for artists to simply “tell stories,” we must plumb the depths of what it is to be human, as well as examine the societies that mold us.

Mr. Zakian also noted that “no one talks about the Old Masters anymore,” and advised that artists begin studying those painters of skill that worked before the 1800s, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and the like. Once again, I agreed with Zakian. His advice seemed a slap in the face to those who worship Bouguereau as much as it was an admonishment to those that have abandoned classical realism.

I rarely talk or write about my love of Old Masters like Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and oh so many others. Perhaps I should, I studied them all in my youth and they continue to be a guidepost. But if artists should “wed their skills with story telling,” as Zakian proposes, then we should also study the school of social realism that existed from the early 1900s until after WWII. That encompasses a large field, including artists from across the U.S. and throughout Europe and the Americas in the first half of the 20th century. Seeing as how most of the organizers and attendees of TRAC apparently believe that “real art” stopped being made with the advent of modernism, and that they fervently seek to resuscitate academic art and its atelier based art curriculum, it is hard to take them seriously.

While the greater part of those involved in TRAC seem a traditional bunch, not all conservatives agree with their views regarding art. James Panero, the Executive Editor of the conservative journal The New Criterion, is a good example. In his article Graydon Parrish’s ‘Cycle of Terror, Panero disassembled the painting as “a machine for illustrating technical skill,” and lambasted the advocates of academic realism for turning the genre into “a value system” that “borders on an evangelical faith. A sort of beaux-arts radicalism, it can be reactionary and thuggish: a sociological phenomenon; a form of ‘identity aesthetics.’” Panero’s words might be more compelling (or perturbing) to traditionalists since it was a conservative that wrote them.

While TRAC 2014 was a lightning rod for individuals ready to fulminate against modernism as the unlovely offspring of those unfit parents liberalism and Marxism, not all conservatives seem willing to accept academic art as the aesthetic deliverance for a world gone haywire. That Mr. Zakian advised realist painters at TRAC 2014 to use their skills to say something profound about life is sound and encouraging, and one hopes such counsel does not fall on deaf ears.

John Seed is a painter, professor of art history at Mt. San Jacinto College in Southern California, and a journalist that writes about art for various publications. Seed gave an unlikely talk to those gathered at TRAC 2014, the subject of The Bay Area Figurative School and its Legacy. Unfortunately I was not able to attend Seed’s March 4th presentation, but it must have been a hoot, given the overall conservative atmosphere of TRAC 2014.

Mr. Seed talked about that small circle of painters in the Bay Area of San Francisco who, starting in the 1940s, rejected the reigning style of abstract art and began painting quasi-expressionist works that incorporated the human figure. Rejecting abstraction and making their way back to figuration, these painters were regarded as heretics by the official art world, which had almost unanimously embraced abstraction as the one true religion. Eventually the apostates became known as the Bay Area Figurative School, and therein lies the lesson; determined artists can unseat the status quo. Nevertheless, I imagine Seed had a hard time persuading the traditionalists at TRAC 2014 that they shared a kinship with painters David Park and Elmer Bischoff.

One might want to read When Art Worlds Don’t Collide: TRAC 2014 and the Whitney Biennial, John Seed’s sympathetic coverage of the TRAC event, which he juxtaposed to his critique of the simultaneously held 2014 Whitney Biennial. I could not agree less with Seed’s summary of TRAC 2014, nor could I agree more with his rundown of the Whitney Biennial - though I might have been a tad more raucous in denouncing it.

Seed writes for the ostensibly “liberal” Huffington Post, but when mentioning Roger Scruton at TRAC 2014, refers to him only as “a British philosopher, and the host of the BBC documentary Why Beauty Matters.” Seed says nothing of Scruton being a leading right-wing figure in British society. With obvious approval Seed averred that Scruton “gave the conference its philosophical and moral center”; in my review of TRAC 2014 I wrote that the organizers of the event “set the tone for the entire conference by inviting Mr. Scruton to speak,” but my observation was not meant as approving.

In his review of TRAC 2014 Seed noted that the event was not “without its awkward” moments, then stated that “although TRAC has made every effort to be progressive and open towards its membership there was only one African-American artist at the event.” Perhaps Seed defines “progressive” differently than I do. He made no effort to analyze why Blacks were not in attendance, or why Latinos, who currently comprise some 39 percent of California’s population, were virtually nonexistent at TRAC 2014.

In his review of the conference, Seed asserted that “Classically and Academically oriented artists dominated the event but there was plenty of room for ‘moderates’ - I’m one of them - who acknowledge and find inspiration in the tradition of representational art with modernist roots.” There is a big difference between having “plenty of room” for someone and actually joining forces to work in partnership. I agree with Seed that classical academic art held sway at TRAC, but in the vernacular of most traditionalists, “modernism” is a pejorative.

Historically speaking, modernism generated aesthetic and intellectual responses from U.S. blacks that developed into the Harlem Renaissance (1918-37). During that period the black experience was given voice in literature, music, dance, and the visual arts by extraordinary figures like Zora Neale Hurston, Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, and Aaron Douglas; there were hundreds more and their remarkable contributions continue to reverberate in the present. But it was modernism that served as the impetus behind this black creative dynamism, not academicism.

To be honest, academicism seems to have had little to no impact on the African-American community; outside of a handful of brilliant 19th century painters like Henry Ossawa Tanner and Grafton Tyler Brown, I am hard-pressed to name a single African American painter in the 20th century that was of the classical Academic School. Is it really such a surprise that TRAC 2014, an event steeped in the traditions of European academic and classical art would fail to attract African-Americans?

Among the listed sponsors and partners of TRAC, one finds the Carnegie Art Museum of Oxnard, California, the Museum of Ventura County, and the Pepperdine University Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art. The Art Renewal Center (ARC), was also a sponsor of the conference.

Many featured artists associated with TRAC 2014 are also connected to the Art Renewal Center. For instance, the event’s 2nd Keynote speaker, Juliette Aristides, has been awarded a place on the ARC’s list of Approved Artists ™ & Living Masters ™. Studio demonstrations were conducted at the event by Jeremy Lipking and Virgil Elliott, who are also living masters according to the ARC. Featured speakers Kara Lysandra Ross is a staff writer for the ARC website and the Director of Operations for the group, while Julio Reyes is another of the ARC’s living masters. The aforementioned Graydon Parrish worked as a researcher on the William Bouguereau Catalog Raisonne co-published by the Art Renewal Center. There were certainly many ARC supporters and devotees in attendance.

Many artists and art loving individuals, alienated by the current state of art, have been attracted to the Art Renewal Center and its aim of fostering an appreciation of traditional art and technique. Not finding it in college and university level art classes, students seeking instruction in realist drawing and painting have turned to the ARC for its list of privately run “approved ateliers,” where one can enroll in atelier based art classes. In principle I think this all well and good, but there is something off about the ARC.

On the “Frequently Asked Questions” page of the ARC website, one can find the following, “While modernism has indeed had some significance in the history of art for a time, that in no way implies that what modernists have been up to was actually good or artistically important.” The ARC proclaims Bouguereau as the exemplar of French Academic art and so a quintessential leader for today’s painters. The director of the ARC, Fred Ross, wrote Abstract Art Is Not Abstract & Definitely Not Art, apparently unaware that abstraction lost its dominance to Pop art in the mid-1950s; never mind the shibboleth of 21st century postmodernism! But possibly the most damning contorted logic and grammar found on the ARC web site comes from this quote on its FAQ page:

Q: Aren’t you just advocating Nazism? After all, Hitler loved realist art.

No. Obviously. Hitler wore pants. Does that make anyone who wears pants is a Nazi too?

What Hitler knew (and Stalin too!) was that good art has the power to communicate with people in important ways and that what he called “degenerate art” didn’t. In that he was right about that even though he was horribly wrong about a host of other things. Hitler also used good artistic expression as a powerful tool to promote his Nazi viewpoint but it is the message, not the medium that was flawed.

Aside from thinking that people who mouth such nonsense are an embarrassment, it is hard to know what so say. In very specific language, the ARC FAQ states the Nazis were correct in their assessment of “degenerate art,” and that Hitler “used good artistic expression as a powerful tool.” The Nazis did not employ “good artistic expression” to convey their poisonous ideas, they strangled the very possibility of art before they even seized power (think of the Nazi Poet Laureate, Hanns Johst, who wrote the following words in his 1933 play Schlageter, “Whenever I hear of culture, I release the safety catch of my Browning!”) As professor James E. Young pointed out in his article, The Terrible Beauty of Nazi Aesthetics, “Art, beauty and aesthetics were not benign byproducts of the Nazi Reich, but part and parcel of its malevolent logic.”

Almost nine years ago I took a swipe at the ARC for posting correspondence on their website that praised the Nazi painter Ivo Salinger; it appears the group’s stance remains unreformed. As the conservative James Panero of The New Criterion wrote, the zeal of some supporters of academic realism “borders on an evangelical faith,” a fundamentalism that can be “reactionary and thuggish.” I am not accusing the ARC of being fascists, but I am saying that they have a very weak understanding of history, and such people are ill-equipped to change the world.

It might be said that the ARC has done more to weaken and incapacitate 21st century realism in art than the combined efforts of Eli Broad and Jeff Koons. Clear thinking individuals that love representational art should distance themselves from the Art Renewal Center - starting with the organizers of TRAC 2015.

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Read Roger Scruton at TRAC 2014, the first part of my review regarding The Representational Art Conference of 2014.

Roger Scruton at TRAC 2014

Hundreds pack the Crowne Plaza's Ballroom to hear the keynote speaker for TRAC 2014, Roger Scruton. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Hundreds pack the Crowne Plaza's Ballroom to hear the keynote speaker for TRAC 2014, Roger Scruton. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

When hundreds of arts professionals from all over the country, indeed from all across the globe, come together at a four day symposium to enthusiastically discuss the future of realism in painting… it could be said that something might be afoot in the art world. TRAC 2014, or The Representational Art Conference, took place from March 2 through March 5, 2014 at the beachfront Crowne Plaza hotel in sunny Ventura, California. I attended a few of the programs offered on Monday, March 3rd, and offer my observations of the conference with this article. I do so as a figurative realist artist, and a proponent of social realism.

On the day I was present there were around 500 or so artists, academics, curators, critics, and students gathered for the event. I am certain that overall attendance for the entire conference was much higher. TRAC 2014 was the second international conference on representational art to be presented by the California Lutheran University (CLU) of Thousand Oaks, California, the first having been held in 2012. TRAC was organized by Michael Pearce, associate professor of Art and curator of The Kwan Fong Gallery at California Lutheran University, where he also teaches figurative painting. Co-founder Michael Lynn Adams is also a realist painter and a visiting lecturer of drawing and painting in the CLU art department.

The official catalog of TRAC 2014 affirmed that the event’s organizers “believe that there has been a neglect of critical appreciation of representational art well out of proportion to its quality and significance; it is that neglect that The Representational Art Conferences seek to address.” It was further stated that the purpose of the event was “not to establish a single monolithic aesthetic for representational art, but to identify commonalities, understand the unique possibilities of representational art, and perhaps provide some illumination about future directions.” Lofty and praiseworthy ideals. I certainly concur that representational art has been overlooked if not ignored… but did TRAC 2014 deliver on its mission?

Roger Scruton making his opening remarks at TRAC 2014. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Roger Scruton making his opening remarks at TRAC 2014. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

My day at TRAC 2014 began with the keynote address delivered by British conservative philosopher, activist, and author Roger Scruton. Well-known in Britain, Scruton remains an obscure figure for most Americans, apart from those conservatives that take pleasure in reading weighty cultural/political criticism.

He is perhaps best known, at least in artistic circles, for his 2009 BBC documentary, Why Beauty Matters, which hauled postmodern art over the coals while praising the virtues of traditional representational art.

His documentary certainly won Scruton the admiration of embattled traditionalists in the arts, and his condemnation of postmodernism undoubtedly led the organizers of TRAC 2014 to request that he appear as keynote speaker. But Scruton’s view of the arts has its detractors, and I count myself amongst them.

Four years ago I wrote about Scruton on this very web log, criticizing his BBC documentary in an article also titled Why Beauty Matters, so I was interested in hearing his public address.

Hundreds packed the “Top of the Harbor” Ballroom at the Crowne Plaza to hear Scruton deliver a stimulating address, and they were not disappointed. With dry wit and calm demeanor, the soft-spoken thinker disassembled postmodern art and philosophy, bedazzling his audience for nearly an hour. In describing the impact of postmodernism on the arts, he paused occasionally to verbally flay this or that celebrity art star.

Starting with the progenitor of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp, Scruton called that artist’s 1917 porcelain urinal: “a joke against art that has been elevated to art.” Moving on to the 1960s when postmodernism began its ascendancy, Scruton said: “I know it is heresy to say so, but Warhol’s Brillo boxes are not original, nor are they works of art.” Then Scruton arrived at the present, where his flaming arrows met multiple targets. He ridiculed the bisected animals displayed in tanks of formaldehyde by Damien Hirst, declaring that Hirst was abetted by sycophants and his success was due only to “a ballet of complicit deception.” The unmade bed and personal detritus of Tracey Emin was assessed as so much rubbish by the sharply critical philosopher, who then disparaged the “particularly loathsome Chapman Brothers” for producing art that “is not new but simply transgressive.” As for Jeff Koons and his insufferable Balloon Dog sculptures - they “deserve only to be punctured.”

All of the above was music to the ears of those gathered. Scruton could hardly have found a more receptive and appreciative audience. I admit to chuckling at some of his jibes made at the expense of today’s postmodern art stars, and it was definitely refreshing to hear someone rhetorically stick a knife into the elite art world. Scruton spoke in broad generalities when passing judgment on postmodernism, he struck at easy targets, but hurling insults at those he is disapproving of did not add up to much of a critique. I had the impression that most in the audience knew nothing of Scruton’s politics, and simply accepted him as a fierce critic of an art world obsessed with celebrity and very expensive though meaningless bobbles.

Roger Scruton. "It's very hard to change a whole culture. All one can do is start something and see what happens." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Roger Scruton. "It's very hard to change a whole culture. All one can do is start something and see what happens." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

When it came to the hows and whys of the current dilemma we face in art, and more importantly, how we are to escape it, Scruton said little. That is not the case with his written works, which straightforwardly blame liberalism and socialism (one and the same in Scruton’s view) for the fall of Western civilization. In his address he did say that “if you make the mistake of going to a university to study philosophy,” you will be indoctrinated with the ideas of Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault - postmodern theorists supposedly admired by the left. Apparently it does not matter that a leading left-wing figure like Noam Chomsky, Professor Emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believed Lacan was an “amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan,” that Derrida’s scholarship was “appalling” and “failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood,” or that he said of Foucault: “I’d never met anyone who was so totally amoral.”

Scruton recommended that in order to fully understand the intellectual bankruptcy of postmodernism, the audience should read the book, Fashionable Nonsense (published in the U.K. as Intellectual Impostures). I would also suggest the book for its take down of postmodern theory. But does Scruton know that there are socialists who also highly recommended the book? Or that it was written by Alan Sokal, who once said: “I confess that I’m an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. And I’m a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them.”

Implying that postmodernism is the result of Marxist philosophy, as Scruton does, is nothing short of preposterous. Scruton upbraided postmoderns Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, but Hirst is the darling of oligarch collectors and through their largess has become the richest artist in the world, now worth $1 billion. Emin voted Tory, admires the conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, and created an original work of art for him that hangs at 10 Downing Street. The ridiculous Gilbert and George conceptual art team also votes Tory, and once said, “We admire Margaret Thatcher greatly. She did a lot for art. Socialism wants everyone to be equal. We want to be different.” As for the large and divergent postmodern art circles that exist in Los Angeles, I have met many a confused individual, but few with even the remotest interest in political matters.

Scruton’s defense of traditional art is part and parcel of his overall campaign against liberalism. In 1982 he became the chief editor of The Salisbury Review, a position he held until the year 2000; he continues today as a consulting editor for the publication. The Review promotes itself as a journal of “reactionary thought, undiluted by liberal cant.” During Scruton’s tenure as chief editor, the high-Tory reactionaries of the Salisbury Review poured scorn upon the peace movement, unions, multiculturalism, immigrants, feminism, and yes… non-traditional art. The Review’s editorial policy remains the same today.

If you read The Meaning of Margaret Thatcher, Scruton’s obituary for the divisive Iron Lady published by The Times of London, you will have a better understanding of the man’s politics. He said that Thatcher appeared on the U.K. political scene “as though by a miracle,” implying that she was a “savior” who broke “the power of the unions,” fought the “socialist apparatchiks” of the country’s educational system, and restored national pride with “the Falklands war.” He could have mentioned that Thatcher instituted draconian budget cuts to government arts funding, but he choose to overlook that particular miracle.

Throughout the TRAC address, Scruton peppered the talk with selected projected images or text. When he stated that “the disease of Kitsch effects more than art,” he brought up a photo of commercially available, mass produced gaudy statuettes of the baby Jesus and Mother Mary, all wrapped in cellophane and bedecked with price stickers. Here he spoke of postmodernism having stripped the sacred from our lives with its moral relativism, loss of belief, and repudiation of truth and beauty; and though people still have an intrinsic sense of the sacred - love of family, nature’s beauty, our feelings regarding birth and death - we are still swept along by the daily sacrileges of the postmodern spectacle. With some resignation Scruton remarked: “Maybe we are asking too much of people” when trusting they will abandon kitsch. The contradiction that seems to elude Scruton and his acolytes, is that the cellophane swathed baby Jesus was not maliciously created by godless commies, but produced by free market capitalists intent on making gobs of money.

At the beginning of his talk Scruton said that “we think reality can be captured in better terms,” than has so far been offered by the postmodern school. After sketching the outlines of art’s current predicament, he averred, “Don’t we have anything to contrast with this? That is what all of you people in this room are doing.”

During a lively question and answer period after Mr. Scruton's opening remarks, a member of the audience poses a query to Scruton. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

During a lively question and answer period after Mr. Scruton's opening remarks, a member of the audience poses a query to Scruton. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

At the end of his address, for which he received a standing ovation, there was a vibrant question and answer session.

A young man asked a simple and naive question, “How do we change this situation?” To which Scruton responded with the unflappably British, “Right.” He elaborated that “it’s very hard to change a whole culture… all one can do is start something and see what happens.” But he hedged his bets by quoting from the 1845 Theses on Feuerbach by Karl Marx, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways: the point, however, is to change it,” to which Scruton added… “and look at how that turned out.” I am unsure if that was more of Scruton’s vociferous anti-communism, a warning, or just a self-deprecating remark.

One last question was put to Scruton from the audience concerning the role of money in the art world. The new reality of the price tag being more important than the art is somewhat difficult to overlook these days, and with multi-billionaire oligarchs shaping the art world through their relentless acquisitions, Scruton’s sense of art being sacred is violated by this economic relationship, and rightly so. He acknowledged that money has been a corrosive force in art, but seemed at a loss to say anything else. I would have liked to hear more.

I wonder what Scruton says about Charles Saatchi, the King Maker of the postmodern art world. In the 1970s Charles and his brother Maurice started the advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher hired the ad agency to create an advertising campaign for the Conservative Party’s 1979 election effort against the center left Labour Party. The agency’s Labour Isn’t Working series of posters, flyers, and billboards are credited with helping to sweep Thatcher into power. In 1985 Saatchi founded London’s Saatchi Gallery, launching the career of many a postmodern artist, and changing the face of British art. And to think… it was all accomplished without the connivance and intrigue of liberals and Marxists.

Organizers of TRAC 2014 set the tone for the entire conference by inviting Mr. Scruton to speak at the event. If they were sincere in their goal of not wanting to “establish a single monolithic aesthetic for representational art,” then Scruton was certainly an odd pick for a keynote speaker. I am not implying that the organizers were “politically incorrect” for turning to Scruton, but that organizers offered no counterbalance to his views.

In September 2012, the British debate forum Intelligence Squared, hosted an amazing discussion between Roger Scruton and Terry Eagleton titled The Culture Wars (watch the video of the encounter here). A Professor of Cultural Theory at the National University of Ireland, the author of some forty books, and a left-wing socialist, Eagleton debated Scruton on the subject of art and culture; What is it and why is it important? How does it impact us? What role does tradition play in art? What is the future of art in a globalized world? In the debate Eagleton chided Scruton for bemoaning postmodern art while at the same time supporting the very economic mechanisms that lead to arts debasement and decay.

Those who could not attend TRAC 2014 will want to watch the The Culture Wars video, not just to see Mr. Scruton engaged in a “smack down” with an intellectual adversary from the left, but to also get a glimpse of how TRAC 2014 could have broadened our understanding of art and the crisis it faces. Many figurative realist artists do not identify with political or cultural conservatism, and if the organizers of TRAC truly want to change the face of the art world, they are not going to pull it off by sealing themselves inside a right-wing echo-chamber.

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Read TRAC 2014: Part II, a continuing review of The Representational Art Conference.

American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life

Last year, celebrated American paintings were presented at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, from October, 2009 to January, 2010. Titled American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915, the exhibit was comprised of 103 paintings that recorded the American experience from the colonial period to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. On display were iconic canvases by the likes of John Singleton Copley, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, John Sloan, and George Bellows, along with artists whose names are unfamiliar to most, but whose works have left an impact on the American consciousness.

"The Gulf Stream" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1899. "The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of Blacks in America in 1899 - 38 years after the close of the Civil War."

"The Gulf Stream" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1899. "The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of Blacks in America in 1899, 38 years after the close of the Civil War."

Organized by the Metropolitan, the museum maintains a website about the exhibit, an archive that should be viewed by all. In addition, the Met’s publishing house released an exhibit catalog that features many works not included in the show. People on the West coast of the U.S. can see the Met’s survey of American art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where the show opened on February 28, 2010 for a four-month run.

The exhibit is divided into four categories presenting a timeline of the nation’s development; Inventing American Stories: 1765-1830, Stories for the Public: 1830-1860, Stories of War and Reconciliation: 1860-1877, and Cosmopolitan and Candid Stories: 1877-1915. The Met’s conception of the nation’s history sweeping from the East to the West coast was somewhat meekly “corrected” by LACMA’s adding a fifth category; paintings depicting the Spanish, Mexican, and Chinese influence on the history of California, but sorry to say this section of the exhibit seemed but an afterthought. LACMA reduced the number of paintings the Met originally had on display by around 20, and swapped out paintings from the Met’s collection for works found in LACMA’s collection - for instance, the Met initially included Thomas Eakins’ Swimming (1885), whereas LACMA replaced it with the artist’s Wrestlers (1899).

"Chinese Restaurant" – John Sloan (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1909. 26 x 32 1/4 inches. Sloan’s painting depicted a Chinese eatery in New York with its working class clientele.

"Chinese Restaurant" – John Sloan (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1909. 26 x 32 1/4 inches. Sloan’s painting depicted a Chinese eatery in New York with its working class clientele.

The exhibit is important for a number of reasons, not all of them related to the progress of American art. The show gives an overview of the nation’s growth, presenting a wide look at the people and forces that shaped the country. Artists in the exhibit frequently brought up questions of class, race, and gender – unconsciously or not – and to see America’s changing political landscape chronicled by artists is just one of the fascinating aspects of the show.

Today’s Americans will hardly be able to recognize the country and people depicted in American Stories; the transformation of American society from 1765 to the present having been truly astonishing in scope. Existing U.S. culture with its digital communications and amusements, “reality” television shows, and celebrity worship, bears little if any resemblance to the country as it was from 1765 to 1915; yet, some things never change. Thoughtful viewers will be compelled to ask the questions, “What does it mean to be an American?” and “Where are Americans going as a people?”

I attended the LACMA exhibit on March 1, 2010, and recommend it to others. There are simply too many fabulous artists and paintings in the show to write about, so I proffer the following opinions regarding just a few of the works found in the show.

The first painting to greet the viewer is Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). His iconic 1768 portrait of the Boston silversmith, who would come to play a major role in the American Revolution, is a remarkable work of art, partly because the artist was self-taught at a time when there was not a single art school or museum in the colonies. The jolt of standing in front of Copley’s flawlessly realistic painting of the American revolutionary is repeated when seeing that the room in which it is hung also holds other marvelous canvasses; The Cup of Tea by Mary Cassatt, Chinese Restaurant by John Sloan, The Breakfast by William McGregor Paxton, The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer, Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley, and Eel Spearing at Setauket by William Sidney Mount. That African Americans are central characters in three of these paintings is but an introduction to the complicated racial dynamics in the U.S. that serves as a subtext for much of the exhibit.

In Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778), it is a black man that holds a rope lifeline to the imperiled Watson, who is being attacked by a shark in open water. The artist put the black sailor at the apex of a triangular composition in order to draw the eye directly towards him; he is also portrayed as an equal to all the others – a remarkable narrative for a canvas painted when America held African people in bondage. Painted 16 years before the American Civil War, Mount’s Eel Spearing (1845) has as its focus a black slave woman at the bow of a small boat teaching a young white boy how to catch eels. While the woman is obviously in control, she is also a slave. Homer’s The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of blacks in America in 1899 – 38 years after the close of the Civil War. The canvas depicts a black man in a small wrecked sailboat cast adrift on a stormy sea filled with sharks. I could write lengthy essays about each of these extraordinary paintings, but for the sake of brevity I shall restrict my remarks to John Singleton Copley’s Revere.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley. Oil on canvas. 1768. 35 1/8 x 28 ½ inches. Copley (1738-1815). From the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley. Oil on canvas. 1768. 35 1/8 x 28 ½ inches. Copley (1738-1815). From the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Copley had no formal training in art, but his stepfather was an engraver and portrait painter who undoubtedly tutored the precocious teenager for the three years they lived together. By the time Copley was fifteen he was known for producing impressive oil portraits of notables in his community, and that reputation, not to mention his technical skill as a painter, grew considerably. He was thirty when he painted Paul Revere (1735-1818).

When Revere sat for Copley he had not yet carried out the acts that would make him famous, like his illustrious April 18, 1775 Midnight Ride from Boston to Lexington to warn patriots of British troop movements.

He was nevertheless deeply involved in the Sons of Liberty, that underground organization of patriots whose  “no taxation without representation” slogan came to epitomize the anti-colonial struggle. Only five years after Copley painted Revere, the Sons of Liberty initiated the legendary Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, when patriots, including Revere, seized three ships in Boston Harbor in order to dump the cargo of British tea overboard in an act of protest against British taxation. That fact is not insignificant when considering the portrait of Revere, since Copley’s father-in-law was the merchant that had his British-consigned tea tossed overboard during the Tea Party! The issue of British taxation went back to 1767, a year before Copley painted Revere, when the British Parliament imposed heavy new taxes on tea in the colonies. Given that evidence, Copley’s painting takes on new meaning.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Revere had Copley paint him as a master craftsman in the silversmith trade, he was after all one of the most famous silversmiths in colonial America. On the mahogany table at which Revere sat, you can see his silversmith tools set out before him, and he had himself pictured holding a silver teapot. It has generally been accepted that Copley’s painting of Revere is simply a portrait of a successful artisan, but I think there is ample evidence to suggest otherwise.

One must take into account that at the time of the painting’s creation, people living in the thirteen colonies were entering a period of intense political conflict that would ultimately lead to revolutionary war. Viewed in that context, it is incorrect to see the portrait merely as an expression of Revere being proud of his profession, rather, it appears he meant his portrait as a political statement. An outspoken radical, Revere was no doubt infuriated by the 1767 British tax on tea, and so it was probable that by having himself painted holding a teapot, he was challenging viewers over British rule. Revere stares directly at the viewer as if to ask, “Which side are you on?”

It was also unusual for a gentleman to have himself painted wearing anything other than his finest frock coat, yet Revere had himself depicted wearing an open sleeveless waistcoat (the undergarment worn beneath a fine coat) and a linen shirt, which at the time was a form of “undress” appropriate only for hard work or relaxing at home in private. The British controlled the economy of the colonies through the importation of goods and by imposing taxes. As the anti-colonial movement gained strength, patriots found multiple ways of resisting British hegemony, such as boycotting imported goods. When the colonists began producing linen as an act of resistance, those using imported British linen were isolated as Tories, conservative supporters of British rule. By having himself portrayed wearing a billowing shirt of American-spun linen, Revere was making a statement in favor of independence; the shirt was not so much a symbol of being a craftsman as it was an affirmation of revolutionary politics.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

While Revere’s linen shirt and teapot were more than likely politically charged props, Copley had no interest in political matters, besides, his family members were Loyalists devoted to the British Crown. In a 1770 letter Copley wrote to Benjamin West (an American-born artist who moved to England and became a painter to the court of King George III in 1772), he flatly stated that he was “desirous of avoiding every imputation of party spirit. Political contests being neither pleasing to an artist or advantageous to the art itself.”

Though he helped establish American painting and created portraits of prominent American patriots, Copley did not have a passion for independence. His relationship to Revere, as well as his attitude towards the anti-colonial movement, is indicative of the complicated human drama that occurred during the revolution. Copley left the colonies for London in 1773, a year after the Boston Tea Party – never to return to America.

Another notable artist from the Revolutionary War period whose works are included in the exhibit is Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). A fiery radical and member of the Sons of Liberty, Peale created portraits of many leaders involved in the War of Independence – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Hancock, and Alexander Hamilton to name but a few. In 1765 Peale met the artist John Singleton Copley, and studied in his Boston studio for a time before traveling to London in 1770 for two years of formal training under the tutelage of Benjamin West. Upon return to the colonies, Peale settled in Philadelphia, and in 1776 he joined the Continental Army to wage war against the British Empire.

After the successful War of Independence, Peale refocused his energies on the arts and sciences. In 1782 he opened the very first art gallery in the United States, and in 1786 he established the nation’s very first museum, the Peale Museum, which was given to the exposition of paintings and natural history. There are two paintings by Peale in the LACMA exhibit, a 1788 double portrait of the merchant Benjamin Laming and his wife Eleanor, and the 1805 Exhumation of the Mastodon, whereupon Peale recounted his having discovered and excavated a prehistoric mastodon skeleton in New York, painting the scene for posterity.

Skipping ahead to mid-point in the exhibit there is a collection of splendid canvasses by Winslow Homer, these are aside from his painting in the exhibit’s opening room. Of the handful of works arranged on their own wall under the Stories of War and Reconciliation section of the show, two took my breath away, The Veteran in a New Field and The Cotton Pickers.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. 1876. 24 1/16 x 38 1/8 inches. LACMA permanent collection.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. 1876. 24 1/16 x 38 1/8 inches. LACMA permanent collection.

Created in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (April 14, 1865), The Veteran in a New Field (1865), depicts a former soldier hard at work harvesting wheat, his Union army jacket cast off and laying in the field at the picture’s lower-right corner.

The ex-combatant swings his scythe into the tall wheat as if he were the grim reaper, the fallen wheat symbolizing the massive numbers of deaths from the war – including the nation’s chief executive. Some 620,000 soldiers from the Confederate and Union armies perished in the conflagration, along with an undetermined number of civilians. By contrast, around 416,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in WWII. It is not hard to imagine the impact this painting had on Americans in 1865, but while the painting’s imagery is a metaphor for a people’s sacrifice and loss, so too is it a symbol of recuperation and redemption.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. LACMA permanent collection.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. LACMA permanent collection.

The Cotton Pickers was not included in the original Met exhibit, but since it is part of LACMA’s permanent collection, the L.A. museum wisely placed it in their showing of American Stories; luckily for the public I might add, it is one of Homer’s finest works. Painted just 11 years after the end of the Civil War, the canvas depicts two emancipated black slaves, except they are working at the same backbreaking labor they performed prior to their liberation, and likely for the same property owner. The slave’s lament of working from before sunrise until after sunset had not changed; Homer painted the two African American women standing in a cotton field at the crack of dawn, their bags heavy with cotton picked from before daylight. The artist’s handling of the dim light of morn is awe-inspiring, but it is the expressions on the faces of the women that I found extraordinary. Far from being broken, they appear dignified and ready to step beyond dreadful circumstances. The woman in red looks positively defiant, exemplifying the spirit that would carry blacks through some very unhappy days.

The exhibit’s final category of paintings, Cosmopolitan and Candid Stories: 1877-1915, might have the most resonance for present-day viewers, since we continue to grapple with the same questions portrayed in the canvases; the evolving status of women, global expansionism, waves of immigration, industrialization and urbanization, and the predicament of the working class.

I found The Ironworkers – Noontime by Thomas Anshutz (1851-1912) to be of specific interest. Anshutz was an influential painter whose genre paintings were in great demand. Trained by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and William Bouguereau (1825-1905), he might at first glance seem an Academic painter, but a closer examination reveals an artist breaking with convention. His portraits of women appear to be celebrations of American Victorianism, though paintings like A Rose (1907) and The Challenge (1908) depict women who were a far cry from the timid and demure model of the Victorian Lady. Anshutz was a respected teacher of painting who instructed at the Pennsylvania Academy. His students included John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and William Glackens; painters who would initiate America’s first art movement, the Social Realist Ashcan school, it is their works that comprise the final group of paintings on display in American Stories.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz. Oil on canvas. 1880. 17 x 23 7/8 inches. From the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz. Oil on canvas. 1880. 17 x 23 7/8 inches. From the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Painted in 1880, The Ironworkers – Noontime is about as bleak a picture of America’s industrial landscape as one is likely to find. Anshutz painted men and boys who worked at a nail factory in West Virginia taking a break from their dreary work. At the time there was no such thing as an eight-hour work day.

Most American and immigrant workers labored seventy hours or more per week for extremely low wages and absolutely no benefits whatsoever. Factory work was hazardous and often injurious or fatal as safety standards were non-existent. Child labor was rampant. The burgeoning union movement was just beginning to make the eight-hour day one of its central demands.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz (Detail) Oil on canvas.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime." Thomas Anshutz (Detail) Oil on canvas.

Anshutz based his painting on sketches he made at an actual factory, and if the poses of the men seem founded on an Academic approach, overall the artwork contains important differences with Academic painting.

To begin with, the artist recorded a scene from real life, a dismal factory where laborers worked to the point of exhaustion. It was a tableau painted without romanticizing or sentimentalizing its subject; the workers were shown as simply worn-out and poverty-stricken. It was a disagreeable scene that would have sent any Academic painter to flight. The work’s gritty realism ran counter to the saccharine idealism of Academic art. Late in life Anshutz declared his belief in socialism, and while trained by Bouguereau, he had more affinity with Robert Koehler (1850-1917), a German-born painter and fellow socialist that spent most of his career in the U.S. The two were among the first artists to depict industrialism and its impact on working people (Koehler’s work was not included in American Stories).

A prominent painter in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who also served as the director of the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts for twenty-two years, Koehler created a number of paintings that portrayed urban workers. His 1885, The Socialist, is the earliest known portrait of a working-class political agitator. Between the years 1878-1890, Germany banned socialist organizations, publications, and meetings, and as a result many German socialist leaders came to the U.S. where they addressed the growing worker’s movement in cities like New York and Chicago. Koehler’s The Socialist could have portrayed such a meeting or rally anywhere in the U.S. or Germany.

Anshutz’s The Ironworkers – Noontime was created six years before the Haymarket massacre of May 4, 1886, when violence between workers and police in Chicago led to the deaths of eight police officers and an unknown number of workers, who were on strike demanding the eight-hour day. The authorities arrested eight labor leaders and anarchist activists from Chicago’s eight-hour day movement, charging and convicting them for the murder of one of the police officers. The U.S. labor movement was dealt a decisive blow when four of the defendants were executed, even though there was no evidence linking them to the killing of the officer. Koehler’s The Strike was painted that same year, and when his painting was shown at a spring 1886 exhibit at the National Academy of Design in New York City, a review in the April 4, 1886 edition of the New York Times referred to it as the “most significant work of this spring exhibition.” At that very moment activists were organizing for a national strike that would bring 350,000 workers into U.S. streets to demand the eight-hour day – and the Haymarket massacre was only weeks away.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows. Oil on canvas. 1913. 40 1/4 x 42 1/8 inches. In this canvas, Bellows painted the poor immigrant slums of New York’s Lower East Side. This work is the very embodiment of American Social Realism.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows. Oil on canvas. 1913. 40 1/4 x 42 1/8 inches. In this canvas, Bellows painted the poor immigrant slums of New York’s Lower East Side. This work is the very embodiment of American Social Realism.

The final room in the exhibit is a showcase for the Ashcan School, with works by George Bellows, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and William Glackens on display. Stylistically these works seem closest to our own reality; their technique, approach, and content having been influenced by the Modernist revolution. In fact New York’s Armory Show of 1913, where Americans got their first eye-opening exposure to modern art, was in part organized by Sloan; those in the Ashcan circle like George Bellows, William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Luks, and John Sloan exhibited in the groundbreaking Armory Show.

Sloan’s small oil on canvas The Picnic Grounds depicts flirtatious working class youth in a public park in New Jersey, the energetic brushwork epitomizing the best of the artist’s early works. William Glackens was a brilliant colorist who concentrated on the depiction of city life as enjoyed by middle-class layers of society. The Shoppers is one such painting, portraying a group of fashionably dressed women as they wonder through a department store, a new phenomenon in America at the time. Everett Shinn was given to portraying life in the theater, though he created his share of canvasses depicting harsh realities on the street. In The Orchestra Pit, Shinn’s depiction of a popular vaudevillian theater in New York’s Madison Square, the artist places the viewer at the lip of the stage directly behind the orchestra pit. Of the Ashcan paintings displayed, two by George Bellows were my favorites – Cliff Dwellers and Club Night.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows (Detail). As with the central figures of Bellows' painting, the entire canvas was painted with a limited palette of colors using quick, spontaneous brush strokes.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows (Detail). As with the central figures of Bellows' painting, the entire canvas was painted with a limited palette of colors using quick, spontaneous brush strokes.

Club Night was from a series of artworks Bellows created from direct observation of public boxing matches, which at the time were illegal in the U.S. To avoid the law but still be able to attract paying customers, fight organizers would hold bouts at private gyms, and boxing fans gained admission by becoming “dues paying members” of the athletic clubs; competitions were held behind closed doors for members only.

Bellows frequented a squalid New York City gym across the street from his studio called Sharkey’s, where such contests were held. Disdainful of those who attended the fights, Bellows pictured them as bloody-minded bourgeois individuals slumming in poor neighborhoods.

The groups of men dressed in tuxedos in the lower right portion of the painting bear a striking resemblance to the demented characters in Francisco Goya’s The Pilgrimage of San Isidro, one of Goya’s so-called “black paintings” depicting fanatical religious zealots.

In the end the limitations of the American Stories exhibit at LACMA are overshadowed by the show’s strengths. Despite curatorial exclusions and a tendency to expound a somewhat rosy view of American history, there is still an immeasurable sense of the real, the human, and the historic in American Stories. Compared to the cynical and socially detached gimmickry of postmodern art, the paintings in American Stories exude idealism, compassion, and a deeply felt humanism. It is regrettable that the timeline for the exhibit stops at 1915, when Modernism in the U.S. was just beginning to percolate. It would have been instructive to have included artists from the 1930s and 1940s, when the “American Scene” and “Regionalist” painters from coast to coast were in their heyday and Social Realism was the dominant aesthetic. It is unlikely that LACMA will hold such an exhibit in the future – but without a doubt I will continue to cover that era in articles yet to come.

The Orientalists: Then and Now

The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting, is an important exhibition running in London at the Tate Britain from June 4th, 2008 through August 31st, 2008. The exhibit provides a somewhat critical look at Orientalism, the genre commonly associated with nineteenth-century Western artists who depicted the peoples and cultures of an imagined Near and Middle East. The Tate is displaying over 120 paintings, prints and drawings created by British artists from 1780 to 1930, and given the current occupation of Iraq - the timely exhibit inadvertently calls into question the West’s modern-day accepted wisdom regarding the Islamic world.

Painting by Henry William Pickersgill

[ James Silk Buckingham and his Wife Elizabeth in Arab Costume, Baghdad, 1825. - Henry William Pickersgill. Oil on canvas. On view at the Tate, from the collection of the Royal Geographical Society. The English born Buckingham (1786-1855) was an author and adventurer who traveled extensively in the Middle East. His lectures and travel books about the Arab world sharpened European interest in the region. ]


Until the late 1960s, Orientalist painting was purely evaluated on aesthetic terms, with little or no attention paid to the socio-political aspects of the works. Aware of the failing to take into account the legacy of colonialism, the Tate exhibit offers a reassessment of Orientalist painting. As part of that reexamination, the museum presented a June 12th symposium titled Orientalism Revisited: Art and the Politics of Representation - a day long panel discussion by distinguished professionals and intellectuals on the subject of “art, politics, and representation of the nineteenth century to today.” The entire exhibition was curated with the views of scholar and writer, Edward Said (pronounced sah-EED) in mind. In the Tate’s words:

“In the 1970s the Palestinian-American academic Edward Said published his treatise on Orientalism, initiating a global debate over Western representations of the Middle East. For many, such representations now appeared to be a sequence of fictions serving the West’s desire for superiority and control over the East. The argument for and against Said’s Orientalism has continued for thirty years. Its resonance for an exhibition such as this one, however, is as strong as ever given that, by the 1920s (the end of the period covered by the exhibition), Britain was in direct control of much of the newly-abolished Ottoman Empire, including Egypt, Palestine and Iraq. As Said’s followers argued, these images cannot be viewed in isolation from their wider political and cultural context.”

Representations of the “exotic Orient” have appeared in Western art from antiquity, but after General Napoleon Bonapart and his invading French army conquered Egypt in 1798, European penetration and colonization of the Near and Middle East began in earnest. There was a concomitant explosion of Orientalist painting that fed European flights of fancy regarding the entire region. Some Western artists actually traveled through the area, painting, sketching, and making field studies for works that would be created or finished in the studio - while many others never left their European homes, instead finding inspiration for their canvases from written accounts of life in the “Orient”. In either case, the artists approached their subjects with presumed Western superiority.

Painting by Augustus John

[ T.E. Lawrence - Augustus John. Oil on canvas 1919. Collection of the Tate Gallery. Due to his knowledge of Arab culture and language, Thomas Edward Lawrence became an intelligence officer in the British army after the outbreak of World War 1. He assisted Arab forces in waging a successful guerrilla war against the Ottoman Turkish Empire - assuring the British Empire postwar control of the Middle East. ]


A long train of events brought ever more European artists and writers into the region after the French subjugated Egypt. France took possession of Algiers in 1830, and along with Great Britain and the Ottoman Empire - fought Russia for control of the Holy Land in the Crimean War of 1854-1856. The French built and opened the Egyptian Suez Canal in 1869, increasing European incursion into the region. The Ottoman Turkish Empire was itself finally dismembered at the close of World War I, with its territories of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen becoming European possessions. While a good deal of Orientalist art is magnificent, that does not mean it should or can be disassociated from the European imperialist expansion it was a part of. As Said declared in Orientalism;

“One would find this kind of procedure less objectionable as political propaganda - which is what it is, of course - were it not accompanied by sermons on the objectivity, the fairness, the impartiality of a real historian, the implication always being that Muslims and Arabs cannot be objective but that Orientalists. . .writing about Muslims are, by definition, by training, by the mere fact of their Westernness. This is the culmination of Orientalism as a dogma that not only degrades its subject matter but also blinds its practitioners.”

While some Orientalist art depicted the Islamic world populated by a despotic and brutish race in need of being rescued by enlightened Europeans, not all of it was so odious. With a keen eye for observation, Orientalists created paintings and prints of nearly everything, from landscapes and cityscapes to portraits of the high ranking and the humble. If these works set Islamic peoples apart as exotic others, they also clearly expressed awe and wonderment over Near and Middle Eastern societies.

The French neo-classical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867/pronunciation) was certainly not the only artist to misrepresent and mythologize harem life, but his Orientalist themed La Grande Odalisque (1814) and The Turkish Bath (1862) helped to permanently imprint upon the Western mind the archetypical vision of lascivious Arabs. Remarkably, Ingres never traveled to the Near or Middle East - his paintings were pure conjecture and created in his Paris studio. Moreover, since the harem was a women’s quarters whose entry was forbidden to all men, save for Eunuch guards - Western depictions of harem life were largely based on sheer fantasy, hearsay, and rumor.

Painting by Frank Dicksee

[ Leila - Frank Dicksee. Oil on canvas. 1892. On view at the Tate. The Orientalist fantasy of the hyper sexualized harem girl is a stereotype that is still with us today. ]


From his studio in Paris the French Academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) painted pictures of harem life based on sketches of buildings he made while traveling through Egypt and Turkey. Into these backdrops he painted gorgeous Parisian models who posed as harem girls. In point of fact, of all the Orientalists who painted harem scenes, only the French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix (1798-1853) actually managed to step inside of one.

Appointed to an official French delegation to Morocco in 1832, Delacroix made a four month trip to Morocco and the conquered nation of Algiers. He was infatuated by the Arab people, but no less inclined to have a distorted view of them than did his rival, Ingres. Delacroix wanted to visit a harem, but this proved impossible in Morocco because of stringent religious rules. Occupied Algiers however proved a different matter. A French harbor engineer “persuaded” a powerful Algerian to allow Delacroix a visit to his harem under a vow of secrecy. The artist spent hours sketching the women there, and said of them, “This is woman as I understand her, not thrown into the life of the world, but withdrawn at its heart as its most secret, delicious and moving fulfillment.”

Back home Delacroix would paint Women of Algiers in their apartment (1834) from the sketches made in Algiers. It would be a tour de force, possibly the most influential of all harem paintings. Renoir swore he could smell incense when close to the painting and Cézanne was effusive over the color of the slippers belonging to one of the odalisques, a red that “goes into one’s eyes like a glass of wine down one’s throat.”

Orientalism in art was by no means restricted to the 19th century - think of Matisse’s Odalisque in Red Trousers. Picasso ended up painting fifteen variations of Delacroix’s Women of Algiers. Orientalism in Western art, academia, and politics by no means melted away with the passage of time - it still informs our opinions and actions even today. Certainly those experts who assured us that “Liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk” were suffering from the latest virulent strain of Orientalism. As Dr. Said noted in the 2003 revised edition of Orientalism; “Without a well-organized sense that the people over there were not like ‘us’ and didn’t appreciate ‘our’ values - the very core of traditional orientalist dogma - there would have been no war.” Writing on the mess in the Middle East for The Independent from his home in Beirut, Lebanon, British reporter Robert Fisk said the following:

“I despair. The Tate has just sent me its magnificent book of orientalist paintings to coincide with its latest exhibition (The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting) and I am struck by the awesome beauty of this work. In the 19th century, our great painters wondered at the glories of the Orient. No more painters today. Instead, we send our photographers and they return with pictures of car bombs and body parts and blood and destroyed homes and Palestinians pleading for food and fuel and hooded gunmen on the streets of Beirut, yes, and dead Israelis too. The orientalists looked at the majesty of this place and today we look at the wasteland which we have helped to create.”

Fisk’s assessment is unquestionably a bleak one, but I find it difficult to disagree with. Putting aside all criticisms of Orientalist art, the fact that the West once found inspiration and bedazzling beauty in the Near and Middle East should jar our collective memory. If Western perceptions of “the Orient” focused on the mysterious, exotic, and sensual, there was always a subtext of evil, cruelty, and depravity. However, today we are being shown only the latter, and we have largely accepted this worldview. How we arrived at this historic juncture is not hard to determine, but a thorough reading of history regarding empire and imperialist depredations in the region is required for a full understanding of present circumstances. The Tate’s exhibition can be seen as one small step in acquiring such knowledge, especially now that the United Kingdom once again militarily occupies Iraq and Afghanistan, albeit as a junior partner in U.S. plans for the region.

I am left to wonder, not about the enormous influence Orientalist art had in times past, but how contemporary artists will act in response to the crisis in the Near and Middle East. Although a small layer of artists have dealt with the ongoing catastrophe, indifference or resignation still seems to be the art world’s general attitude. Artists can not permit impassiveness and lack of concern for the incalculable misery being experienced by humanity in the Near and Middle East to become the hallmarks of 21st art. The artistic community must refute the barbarity seen all around us - without prejudice, false hopes, or creating new strains of Orientalism.

Bouguereau & His American Students

What possible relevance could Adolphe-William Bouguereau, a French academic painter from the Victorian age, have in today’s world? That in essence is what the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked when it interviewed me regarding a display of the painter’s works at the Frick Art & Historical Center of Pennsylvania. The Frick exhibit, In the Studios of Paris: William Bouguereau & His American Students, runs from July 6th, 2007, to October 14th, 2007, and it’s the first show of its kind to examine Bouguereau’s past position as a leading teacher of painting.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette thought my input as a contemporary realist painter and critic of Bouguereau and his present-day followers, would make for a well rounded examination of Bouguereau in current times. In addition to me, the newspaper interviewed Dr. Eric M. Zafran, an authority on French academic painting and the Curator of European Art at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut. Also interviewed was art historian Charles Pearo and artist-writer, Claudia Giannini. Not to be left out of any discussion pertaining to Bouguereau, opinions regarding the legacy of the academic painter were expressed by his chief devotee, Mr. Fred Ross, Chairman of the Art Renewal Center. You can read the full Pittsburgh Post-Gazette interview here.

Self portrait by Bouguereau

[ Self-Portrait - William Bouguereau. Oil on canvas. 1879. ]

Today as painting evolves and struggles to find its place in the early 21st century, Bouguereau (1825-1905; pronounced: boo-ger-Oh), becomes relevant since he represents one of two elemental paths contemporary painters can choose from - painting as a conservative expression of tradition, or an innovative expression of change. Obviously Bouguereau embodies the former, and aside from the fact that I believe we have many things to learn from academic artists when it comes to the technical handling of paint, I stand with those who seek new approaches to the problems of modern-day painting.

In a notice on the official Frick website announcing a talk by Dr. Zafran on the subject of the academic painter, it’s stated that: “To appreciate Bouguereau one has to essentially forget the twentieth century and modern art and enter into the spirit of the nineteenth century.” I might add that one would also have to forget what was happening in the 19th century as well, as Bouguereau’s art represented a headlong flight from the pressing realities of his time. We shouldn’t feel smug about this either, as many of today’s artists share that same zeal for their ivory towers.

As a youth Bouguereau studied at the conservative official academy, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and eventually he would be elected to head the Académie des Beaux-Arts. But Bouguereau lived during a period of earthshaking change, witnessing the rise of industrialism and the working class, women demanding the vote and inclusion into positions of power, the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune of 1871 and the wave of reprisal killings that took the lives of tens of thousands of Parisian Communards. Yet, in Bouguereau’s paintings there is not the slightest inkling of any of this. And therein lies the problem with an uncritical appreciation of William Bouguereau. It’s as if his meticulously painted Satyrs, winged celestial angels and plump innocent cherubs were intentionally meant to conceal the grinding poverty and growing class conflict of his day - and indeed, that’s exactly the role his escapist canvases filled.

Painting by Bouguereau

[ The Invasion (Detail) - William Bouguereau. Oil on canvas. 1892.]

Defenders of Bouguereau will point to his “sympathetic” portraits of the poor, which for the most part are sweet nonthreatening portraits of healthy young peasant girls that reveal nothing about the lives of the dispossessed. Such paintings were popular with Victorians, who preferred grimy reality be covered by a veneer of sentimentality. One need only compare Vincent van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters (1885) to Bouguereau’s The Haymaker (1869), to understand my point. Van Gogh gave us a harshly realistic and unromanticized portrayal of people who worked their fingers to the bone just to maintain a subsistence level existence. His peasants are the color of the earth they dig. Their backbreaking labor under a merciless sun has turned them old before their time. They eat their modest dinner of boiled potatoes with calloused and knobby hands. Van Gogh has shown us real life. By contrast, one can’t imagine Bouguereau’s fair-skinned and rosy-cheeked peasant girl engaged in the exhausting work of pitching hay from sunrise to sunset - let alone breaking out in a sweat over any type of manual labor. Bouguereau’s pleasant creature may make the more luminously beautiful painting - but she has nothing to do with real life.

Bouguereau once said, “One has to seek Beauty and Truth. There’s only one kind of painting. It’s the painting that presents the eye with perfection.” One can just imagine the rejoinder from those young upstart Impressionist painters of the late 1800’s, “Yes, but whose beauty? Whose truth?” Clearly, there was more than one kind of painting going on in Bouguereau’s day.

Painting by Bouguereau

[ A Young Girl Defending Herself against Eros (Detail) - William Bouguereau. Oil on canvas. 1880. ]

When it came to aesthetics, Bouguereau was a stalwart conservative who opposed the onrush of modern painting that was surging all around him. As a commanding figure in the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, Monsieur Bouguereau was able to successfully block, for a time, the rising tide of the Impressionists, who wanted to paint real life with all of its roughness. Instead of theatrical, highly finished paintings devoid of brushstrokes and based upon long past historical themes, the Impressionists concentrated on the world around them, insisting on colors and techniques as vibrant and bold as their chosen subject matter. Paul Cézanne blithely commented on Bouguereau’s success at hindering the Impressionists by referring to “the Salon de Monsieur de Bouguereau.” And it was Edgar Degas and his circle of associates who mocked the polished artifice of academic painting by referring to it as Bouguereaute (”bouguerated.”) In a letter written by Vincent Van Gogh, his opinion of Bouguereau couldn’t have been any clearer;

“I already told Gauguin in my last letter that if we painted like Bouguereau we could hope to make money, but the public will never change and likes only what is sweet and slick.”

However the most amusing story I know of concerning the clash between Bouguereau and the Impressionists came from Gauguin himself. In his autobiography, The Writings of a Savage, Gauguin tells of visiting the office of Henri Roujon, director of the Beaux-Arts. Hoping the academy would purchase some of the paintings he made in Tahiti, Gauguin wrote:

“So here I am in the office of the august Roujon, director of the Beaux-Arts. He said to me: ‘It is out of the question for me to encourage your art, which I find revolting and do not understand; your art is too revolutionary not to cause a scandal in our Beaux-Arts, of which I am the director, seconded by the inspectors.’ The curtain twitched and I thought I saw Bouguereau, another director (perhaps he’s the real one, who knows?). Undoubtedly he was not there, but I have a wayward imagination, and as far as I was concerned he was there. What! I a revolutionary, I who adore and respect Raphael? What is a revolutionary art? When does it cease being revolutionary? If the fact of not obeying Bouguereau or Roujon constitutes a revolution, then I confess I am the Auguste Blanqui of painting!” [Gauguin refers here to one of France’s most incorrigible revolutionists.]

Bouguereau openly proclaimed his aversion towards modern painting when he said, “In painting, I am an idealist. I see only the beautiful in art and, for me, art is the beautiful. Why reproduce what is ugly in nature? I do not see why it should be necessary. Painting what one sees just as it is - no - or at least, not unless one is immensely gifted. Talent is all redeeming and can excuse anything. Nowadays, painters go much too far, just as writers and realist novelists do. There is no way of telling where they’ll draw the line.”

Having defined painting and beauty in such a narrow manner, it’s hard to imagine that Bouguereau’s definition of good painting would have included Goya’s 1808 masterwork, The Third of May, which depicted a massacre of Spanish civilians at the hands of Napoleon’s invading army. Aside from rubbing our faces in an ugly and most unpleasant scene, Goya’s canvas must have appeared a raw, unfinished and crude monstrosity to the genteel eyes of academic painters like Bouguereau. Yet, does Goya’s tour de force not possess a terrible beauty? This is the reason for art critic Robert Hughes calling Francisco de Goya the first modern artist and an exemplar of modernism. All the same, Bouguereau reserved a special ire for those defiant painters of his own day, “One shouldn’t believe in all those so-called innovations. There is only one nature and only one way to see it. Nowadays, they want to succeed too fast, this is how they go about inventing new aesthetics, pointillism, pipisme! All this is just to make noise.”

Considered one of the top painters of his day, Bouguereau attracted thousands of aspiring artists, who joined his seminars and workshops at the Académie Julian and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Those students fervently sought instruction and criticism from the master, and in the last quarter of the 19th century, he offered training and advice to some 200 American student artists. The Frick exhibition combines 80 paintings, drawings and prints by Bouguereau as well as artworks by some of his more promising American students like Robert Henri, Elizabeth Gardner, Minerva Chapman, Cecilia Beaux, Eanger Irving Couse, Arthur Wesley Dow, Henri Tanner, and Lawton Parker.

Painting by Robert Henri

[ Gregorita - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. A student of Bouguereau, Henri came to reject academic art and went on to help establish the Ashcan school of social realist painting. In the early 1900’s Henri traveled to Taos, New Mexico, where he painted this portrait of a young Native American woman.]

Interestingly enough, while the American painter Robert Henri (pronounced ‘hen rye’) was one of Bouguereau’s star pupils at the Académie Julian, he would come to entirely repudiate academic painting and embrace Impressionism, only to reject it later on as a “new academicism.” Henri became one of the founders of the Ashcan School, the early 20th century movement of American realist painters whose works focused on the social realities of big city life. Ironically, Henri represented the modernist trend Bouguereau hoped to thwart, and essential lessons learned from the academic master were used by Henri as a springboard for the Ashcan revolution in art.

As an academic painter, Bouguereau’s hand provided endless melodramatic oil paintings dealing with Greek myths, Christian religious stories and genre scenes. That Bouguereau produced dazzling realist canvases demonstrating clear mastery over technique should be apparent, that these were saccharine works pleasing to the elites of his day and supportive of the status quo, should also go without saying. But I have a twofold question for contemporary artists that rises out of a study of Bouguereau and all that swirled around him, a query that accordingly makes a reconsideration of Bouguereau vital; do you have mastery over your chosen discipline, and if so, are you using it simply to please and support today’s equivalent of the academy?

When Art Becomes Inhuman

The article When Art Becomes Inhuman was written by neo-conservative Karl Zinsmeister for a 2002 edition of The American Enterprise magazine. Zinsmeister’s commentary was a general condemnation of modern art, with a sharp focus upon the extremes of postmodernism - which he described as a “left-wing cause.” Zinsmeister sarcastically declared, “Surely you’ve noticed that the art smarties never lay out Cuban flags for gallery visitors to trample on, or decorate Martin Luther King’s picture with elephant dung.” He mocked the mental state of abstract artists by saying, “mightn’t it tell us something that Willem de Kooning’s abstract expressionist compositions didn’t change in quality after he lost his mind to Alzheimer’s disease?” Zinsmeister even compared Gays to child molesters when he wrote that works singing the praises of “voyeurism, drugs, homosexuality, and pedophilia” filled the nation’s trendy art galleries.

You might think Karl Zinsmeister to be just another intransigent stick-in-the-mud who takes the furthermost right-wing position on every social issue, a narrow-minded individual to be dismissed and forgotten - and you might be right - save for the fact that he’s a newly appointed member of the Bush administration.

In May of 2006, President Bush picked the 47 year old Karl Zinsmeister as his principal domestic policy adviser. Over the years Zinsmeister has played a leading role in America’s “culture wars,” working for the past 12 years as editor in chief for The American Enterprise magazine. That glossy periodical is associated with the American Enterprise Institute - a think tank for neoconservatives that has done much to shape the policies of the Bush White House. Perhaps President Malaprop first noticed Zinsmeister by way of a comic book published by Marvel Comics in 2005. Combat Zone: True Tales of GI’s in Iraq, was written by none other than Karl Zinsmeister, and supposedly based on his experiences as an “embedded” journalist with the American 82nd Airborne in Iraq.

I mention Zinsmeister’s political views because they have a direct correlation to his likes and dislikes concerning art, and a man in such an influential position should be carefully listened to. It comes as no surprise that conservatives and traditionalists have applauded Zinsmeister’s cutting remarks against modern art - he has a powerful mass base that represents a populist backlash against contemporary art. The Art Renewal Center (ARC), those champions of all things conservative in art, reprinted Zinsmeister’s article in its entirety - though they neglected to inform their readership of the author’s neo-conservative political orientation or the fact that he works for the Bush administration (the ARC has since removed Zinsmeister’s article from its archives, but the piece was reprinted on the right-wing Free Republic website in 2003).

I’m not a supporter of the postmodernist super-stars of the art world Zinsmeister attacks in his article, and any regular reader of this web log knows I’m one of their staunchest critics. But where the right sees politically correct left wingers bent on destroying western heritage, I see apathetic apolitical intellectuals who are socially disengaged. There are few sectors of society less interested in political theory and activism than the contemporary art world, as a cursory view of international art web sites and web logs makes perfectly clear.

It is natural for art to overthrow the established order, and the name for such upheaval is progress. Historically artists have always been visionaries ahead of their times and at odds with the status quo. The Dadaists, Cubists, Surrealists, Expressionists, Constructivists and Abstract artists all hurled their contempt at comfortable society and we’re better off for it. But these eruptions didn’t take place simply because a small group of artists fancied a new style - the ruptures were necessary because established orders became ossified and essentially had nothing left to offer. We have reached another such point in time. While the spirit and motivation of the aforementioned groups was revolutionary in intent, and a similar stance may have once moved today’s early postmodernists - no such spirit stirs in them presently. They merely clamor for wealth, press, accolades, and awards from the established circles of power - of which they are a part. Postmodernism is certainly due for an unseating, but Zinsmeister and crowd are not the ones to oust it.

Zinsmeister and his followers decry avant-garde art as the workings of an ultra-liberal and politically correct art establishment that does its best to “shock, flout, insult, and otherwise chuck rocks at polite society.” But it is hypocritical and duplicitous for Zinsmeister to condemn modern art for its supposed inhumanity, while at the same time supporting a presidency that has sanctioned torture, preemptive war and the abrogation of the constitutional rights of American citizens. In barbarous times there can be no polite society, and Zinsmeister evidently cannot understand, or refuses to admit, that “art becomes inhuman” only when society itself has become a horrid charnel house.

The Getty’s Great Bouguereau Debate

On June 6th, some 400 people packed the Harold M. Williams Auditorium at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles to hear a lecture titled, The Great Bouguereau Debate. The academic painter William Adolph Bouguereau was the president of the painting section of the Paris Salon in 1881, and depending on how you see things he was either the defender of western civilization or a major obstacle to progress. There’s no doubt that he was a tenacious opponent of the Impressionists, and that he used his position to keep that malcontent rabble at arms length - for that alone I can’t help but view Bouguereau as a reactionary and I count myself amongst his many detractors.

The Virgin and the Angels - Painting by Bouguereau.

[ Bouguereau's The Virgin and the Angels at the Getty. ]

The expectant crowd at the Getty was clearly split down the middle regarding Bouguereau’s legacy, with half of those in attendance being passionate opponents and the others enthusiastic supporters. A good portion of those present were followers of the Art Renewal Center, a group devoted to classical and academic painting that I took to task in an earlier web post titled, Art Renewal Center: A Return to the Past. The professionals who lectured from the podium also reflected the divide in the audience. Historian Gerald Ackerman and artist Peter Zokosky spoke as supporters of Bouguereau, with Zokosky presenting himself as a particularly ardent devotee. It was the chief curator of European art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Patrice Marandel, who expressed a vociferous critique of Bouguereau - comparing him to none other than Thomas Kinkade.

Los Angeles painter, John Paul Thornton, attended the debate and posted an amusing report of the proceedings on his web log - which I encourage everyone to read. While Thornton writes like an admirer of Bouguereau, and appears to defend the academic school, he actually embraces many styles of painting and has even been known to dabble in installation art. Having studied under the expressionist painter, Hans Burkhardt, Thornton possesses an appreciation for all genres of painting - from classical to extreme modernist. Like myself, he is primarily interested in “raising the bar” for today’s artist, insisting on a combination of technical proficiency and powerful content. He spends much of his time teaching draftsmanship and painting technique, and fans of figurative realist art will no doubt enjoy visiting his website www.johnpaulthornton.com

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 worth1000.com, 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.

Regards
John Nutt

Art Renewal Center: A Return to the Past

The Art Renewal Center promises a renaissance in contemporary painting but otherwise seems determined on a return to the past. Founded by millionaire, Fred Ross, the ARC maintains a sprawling website that houses over 58,000 images created by European master artists. The online collection includes everyone from Italian High Renaissance painters like Raphael, to English 19th Century academic painters like Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Interestingly enough, the ARC seems fixated on the art of the Victorian age, and their adulation of it goes hand in glove with a belief that great art ceased once modernism came into being. The ARC has some influence, and occasionally here in Los Angeles I come across working artists who regularly visit their site and carefully read their opinions. As with demagogues of all stripes, the ARC builds a following through populist rhetoric that masks a hidden agenda. They are not incorrect when noting the follies of modern art, but their total rejection of it is beyond the pale and thoroughly reactionary.

Painting by William Bouguereau, 1896.

[ The Wave - Painting by William Bouguereau, 1896.
A stalwart enemy of Impressionism, Bouguereau is the ARC’s Victorian exemplar. ]

Ross, the Chairman of the Art Renewal Center, is particularly smitten by European academic painters, and has singled out William Bouguereau for lavish praise - which reveals much about the philosophy of the ARC. Among his many honors, Bouguereau was elected president of the painting section of the Paris Salon in 1881, and as such was a resolute foe of the Impressionists. As if under the control of Bouguereau’s ghost, the ARC web site only begrudgingly gives a nod to Impressionism. Regular columnist Ted Seth Jacobs flatly stated in his essay Impressionism Revisited, “We need to reassess Impressionist painting, and stop valuing it for qualities it does not possess. This will also allow us to better appreciate the virtues of other Nineteenth-Century work, which has been downgraded because it is dissimilar to Impressionism.” Yes, even the Impressionists are too avant-garde for the ARC! One would not be incorrect in assuming that in their headlong retreat into the bygone Victorian era, the ARC yearns for a world without the likes of Paul Gauguin.

Painting by Paul Gauguin, 1892.

[ Aha oe feii? (Are You Jealous?) by Paul Gauguin 1892.
The ARC yearns for a world where Paul Gauguin had never put a brush to canvas. ]

While staff at the ARC barely acknowledge the Impressionist school, they fly into fits of rage over modern art. In his ridiculously titled article, Abstract Art is Not Abstract & Definitely Not Art, Fred Ross rebukes modernists by writing: “They may mix colors prettily as they please (most of them aim for ugliness) but without selection based on knowledge of the forms of the real world they do not make works of art - and they are not artists.” Elsewhere on the site he pontificates, “You had to be taught to love Picasso, because nobody would love him otherwise. But people don’t need to be taught to love Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Bouguereau, or for that matter Chopin.” Ross’s assertion is of course utter nonsense, as people have never gained entrance into the ephemeral realm of art without first receiving some degree of education and acculturation. The abilities necessary to appreciate the arts are innate to some, but certainly are acquired skills to most everyone else. Much like our use of language, understanding aesthetics is a learned behavior.

But the Art Renewal Center really veers into dangerous territory by proclaiming Greco-Roman classical civilization - and by extension European culture - as the only source of momentous artistic achievement. Such a position in today’s world is untenable and simply smacks of racism. On the ARC website, Brian K. Yoder makes clear this position with the following remark: “I can explain why it is important that students should have a substantial understanding of ancient Greek culture and history. Can you tell me why a student ought to understand Cherokee culture and history? I’m not saying that there’s something inherently bad about learning about Indian tribes. I’m saying that it is a minor and optional topic of study, not one that ought to be placed at the core of how we understand the world and educate our children.” Exactly whose children is Mr. Yoder speaking of? Elsewhere on the ARC website it is said that “our heritage” is being threatened by modernist art. Again, whose heritage is being referred to?

In opposing the narrow-minded and Eurocentric view of what the Art Renewal Center considers classical art, I need only mention the sophisticated and influential artistic splendor of the bygone Han dynasty of China; a civilization from 2,200 years ago that rivaled anything occurring in Europe at the time. I could also mention the glories left to humanity by the Japanese, Indian and African empires of old. Mr. Ross and his followers need to be reminded - or taught - that the ancient Egyptians with their magnificent arts not only predated the Greeks, but inspired them.

In the late 1920’s dozens of Mexican artists viewed ancient Maya and Aztec art as the very root of modernism. Artists like David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, created a national art that took indigenous artistic splendor as its ultimate source of inspiration. The Greeks and William Bouguereau had nothing to do with it. Nevertheless, there’s only one passage on the entire ARC website that I could find which refers to the artistic achievements of Mexican artists, a missive written by ARC executive advisor, Virgil Elliot: “Frida Kahlo could not paint worth squat. She was a primitive. A primitive is someone who knows next to nothing about painting, but tries anyway. She was an accessory to Diego Rivera, another primitive more highly rated than his talent warranted. The concept of greatness is demeaned when unworthy people are called great.” While I don’t at all agree with the assessment of Rivera’s work as being “primitive,” at the same time I have to ask - just exactly what is wrong with primitivism? Overall I’d prefer the blunt charm, honesty and mysticism of a single Frida Kahlo creation over a hundred “technically perfect” classical academic paintings.

Much of the artwork presented on the Art Renewal Center website is without a doubt superlative, and the old masters extolled by the ARC deserve all due praise. Any serious arts professional or student by necessity should be conducting a vigorous and ongoing study of classical European art - but the ARC website with its traditionalist agenda and biased claptrap is not the place for such instruction.