Reality Sets In

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“Approved” art of the last 100 years proves destructive
When I was in college in the 1960’s, having decided to become an artist, there was a distinguishable antagonism and snobbery, from thosein the fine art department, toward those of us in the commercial art department. We were considered inferior, having “sold out” our artistic integrity for filthy lucre. In other words, we were artistic prostitutes.

The New York Armory, site of The International Exhibition of Modern Art, the first large exhibition of such works in America

A change in the art world had been building even before the 1913 International Armory Show in New York. Pre-show publicity said, “It will throw a bomb into our art world and a good many leaders will be hit.” At the time it was called, “rebellious, quackery, insanity and anarchist”. The symbol of the show was an uprooted pine tree, taken from Massachusetts’ emblem of the American Revolution.

Henri Matisse  –  Goldfish and Sculpture  –  1911

We were looking at a revolution alright. A bomb had indeed exploded within the art world. By the time I arrived at college, the new, modern art was well entrenched in colleges across the land. If you wanted to be a fine artist, it was their way or no way. Representational art was dead. Fine art had become egocentric. Self expression and originality were preeminent. Art was no longer genuinely useful, nor was it beautiful. Of course, there were exceptions, as in all of life, but the “approved” art of the day abandoned the previous 400 years of art history as “old fashioned”. The more enlightened had taken over and those of us who did not buy into it were really not worth their time.

Wassily Kandinsky  –  Improvisation No. 27  –  1912

“The collective spirit of artists toward the expression of their time has given way to the narrow desire to be different, to be unusual, to be original at all costs to the quality of mind. This has produced art for the critic, art for the few, and art for the artist; and in broad has moved away from the main stream of society and its comprehension.”  – Millard Sheets

Constantin Brancusi  –  Mademoiselle Pogany  –  1912


Joseph Stella  –  Battle of Lights, Coney Island  –  1913

So where did this “enlightened road” take us? It lead to less education, not more. Actually, less education and training as an artist was better, for there were no longer those awful rules, serious training and hard work that hindered self expression. “Artists” were no longer taught to draw…or even needed to draw. The act of painting became an end in itself and ones explanation of their art was more important than the actual art.

Pierre Giriend  –  Hommage a Gauguin  –  1906

R.H. Ives Gammell writes in his book, Twilight of Painting...”The complete deterioration of our knowledge and our standards of draftsmanship is the most disastrous of all the sequelae of the nineteenth-century impressionist movement. It started from a new approach to a difficult problem presented in all seriousness by well-intentioned painters. They are less to blame for the error of judgment which led them to adopt it than for their inability to abandon the idea as they observed its unfortunate effect in the work of the pupils. The method of teaching devised by these painters failed because the ability to draw cannot be acquired except by the most diligent and concentrated study.”
He continues, “The virtual elimination of the serious study of drawing as a prerequisite to the study of painting made possible the present-day popularity of art as a pursuit. Once it was firmly established, the number of art students and of self-styled artists increased with tremendous rapidity. No other profession made as few demands on the intelligence or capacity of the individual as painting in the new acceptation. Few forms of activity offered equal opportunities for self-deception to its practitioners.”

I have always taught my students that painting is visual communication and we, the artists, initiators of the communication, have a responsibility to “speak” clearly in a language that our audience understands. Only then can there be conversation. Sound drawing is certainly right there at the heart of having a conversation with our audience.  Anything short of this I term “selfish art”…work done merely to gratify oneself and/or a select minority.

Marcel Duchamp  –  Nude Descending a Staircase  –  1912

“Even in the world of free expression, the artist must feel the need to convey his message legibly to others unless his art remains of such ivory-towered character that he alone understands it. In the main, art must be legible or it falls short of its chief value, if the chief value is to interpret, to make aware, and to create emotional response. The artist must consider the audience regardless of his field of art. Therein lies the greatest failing in contemporary art.”  – Millard Sheets

Jean Edonard Vuillard  –  Interior with Hanging Lamp  1899

Cultural deterioration, breakdown of the family, self-centeredness, moral disorientation, rejection of God, greed, desire for fame and stardom have all contributed to an “art” that is at best phony and mediocre, and at worst, blasphemous and insulting. With little concern for their audience, these self absorbed charlatans, with varying degrees of artistic skill, found plenty of adoring writers and museum directors anxious to tell a confused, “stupid” public the merits of this new “art”.

Stuart Davis  –  Babe La Tour  –  1913

Well, things are finally changing. In the world of the fine arts, there is a definite move toward high quality representational art. Some of the great representational works hidden for years in museum basements are being brought upstairs. Galleries are finding there’s a real demand for finely executed works. 
I’ve been wondering why this is so in the midst of an increasingly corrupt culture. I think the influence of such powerhouses as the Art Renewal Center and Oil Painters of America has helped but I also think the dramatic increase in the number of professional and amateur artists working today with a bent toward a representational style has also played a part. Additionally young artists and the viewing public have come to recognize the emptiness of “approved” art and are demanding something different…something they can relate to. Art students are wanting sound training. Many are rejecting the “approved” art of the college laboratories and are seeking their training through ateliers and well grounded art schools. Artists want to increase their vocabulary so that they can speak for themselves with a clear voice, as artists of old, unaided by an interpreter. The audience is more than ready to listen. Now that is a good thing. 

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