Art Renewal Center: A Return to the Past

The Art Renewal Center promises a renaissance in contemporary painting but otherwise seems determined to 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. They are not incorrect when noting the follies of modern art, but their total rejection of it is regressive.

“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.

“Aha oe feii?” (Are You Jealous?) Paul Gauguin. Oil on canvas. 1892. The ARC yearns for a world where Gauguin 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; one is not born knowing the alphabet.

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 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.

Though to be completely honest, I would not trade Michelangelo’s David for the Egyptian golden funerary mask of Pharaoh Tutankhamun.

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 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 or Diego Rivera creation over a hundred “technically perfect” classical academic paintings.

“The Flower Seller.” Diego Rivera. Oil on canvas. 1942. “Another primitive more highly rated than his talent warranted.”

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 is not the place for such instruction.

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