Monday, June 26, 2006

Quest for Renewal

This is third in a series of post's on the Art Renewal Center. Today, a special guest post from Highlowbetween of the blog High Low & Inbetween. Beyond being erudite, articulate and well-read, Highlowbetween is also one of those kids who showed up in art school with an easy command of accurate, nuanced drafting skills.

It’s an honor to be a guest here at Speaking of Ashes - as close as I’m likely to get to a visit to Mexico anytime soon! I was asked by Ashes to take a look at the organization called the Art Renewal Center. If you haven’t read the first two entries by Ashes you should take a few minutes and catch up here and here.

It should be noted that I spent a good 3 to 4 hours on the ARC site, its dense and verbose and certainly convoluted, especially if you start getting into the archived email exchanges, which ultimately reveal the raw psychology and strained emotions of the ARC team. They are “hopping mad” to say the least. They do have a serious collection of artworks archived and that is worth reviewing – especially if you teach, it’s nearly a one stop shop for anything that doesn’t include Impressionism or Post-Impressionism. If you’re a romantic 19 year old art history student and love Pre-Raphaelite pictures you may have found your homepage ;)

But alas Fred Ross has a mission. Its grass roots and far too often resembles the activism strategies of evangelicals, which Mr. Ross may indeed be in many respects. To get a better sense of what I mean, go to the ARC approved schools section of the site. It reads like a primer for the home schooling set. Admittedly some good student life drawings are posted in that section and for the heart strings, a story of a local art teacher ostracized and fired for advocating life drawing. The irony there is that the dismissal is the result of latent Victorian attitudes towards sex and the body – the very time period ARC is hoping to demonstrate as a beacon of freedom and erudite discourse on liberty and the highest of humanist values. For them the late 19 century is the culmination of the painting project initiated by Giotto and carried on by the masters of the Renaissance, Baroque and beyond.

The late 19th century Academy artists, as many know them, are the ARC heroes and not the stooges of the Imperial State, but the highest par
agons of the tradition and the expertise of Western painting – art practice knowledge bordering on science. The last vestige of something great before the door abruptly gets slammed by the “rogues” set loose by “fashionable” art history – Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse among many others. (Even congenial Pissarro gets sullied.) These are the men who are portrayed as cannibals, Ottomans running loose destroying the temple, brick by brick. What is also interesting is that 19th century American artists seem to be completely missing from the ARC equation. They are in the archive but not seemingly implemented into the overt philosophy and agenda despite all the talk of the Consitutionality of free expression. The heroes for the ARC are definitely European – French and English to be specific.

Like all good movements (and the ARC is a movement for sure, getting loads of hits – hundreds of thousands to be exact) you need a hero or spiritual beacon. For some reason which I still can not figure out, William Bouguereau is that beacon of the ARC. At times on the site you get the feeling that the real point of ARC is to propel this artist to his "rightful" art historical place alongside Rembrandt and Caravaggio. It’s a gross misstatement to think he belongs there – further proof of the flaws in thinking and strategy at ARC. Rembrandt and Caravaggio certainly mirror Bouguereau in terms of their commercial or populist fame during their lifetimes but skill and popularity aren’t enough to survive Time.

The ARC misses mightily that Rembrandt’s lasting relevance has little to do with the art history mafia and more to do with the intangible – the humaneness of the work. Many of Rembrandt’s paintings feel like we still feel – like people who have lived tragedy and survived only to suffer again. These works are about loss and sentient being. It’s embedded in the paint and the eyes. No cherubs need apply! But I digress; this is supposed to be about the 19th century…..

Here’s a brief line from the mission statement by ARC’s Fred Ross:

Our influence and reach are growing daily, and our goal is to right the wrongs of 100 years of decadence, decay and decline in the fine arts of painting and sculpture.... to expose the hoax of modernism and the destructiveness of empty conceptual concept. [sic?]

Further on you get things like this: if you are a Modern or Post-modern artist, every possible method of expressing these feelings and ideas has been removed. Story telling, drawing, illusion, perspective, modeling, and harmonious blending of these with color, tone and design are all forbidden to you. Nothing at all from the real world or even your dreams is permitted. But in the late 19th century it is increasingly being recognized that the greatest artists were not establishment old order supporters, but are more appropriately thought of as liberal activists, both for the advancement of our culture and the righting of societies wrongs.The first quote shows what I mean about his evangelical out look – kicking against the pricks to paraphrase. This railing against Modernism feels like something you’d hear regarding liberals in sources like MeinKampf, or in today’s terms, right wing radio or David Horowitz’s efforts to purge universities of “radical left” professors. I’m being heavy handed and unfair with that statement but you get that sense in some of the rhetoric being tossed around at ARC. It’s a little on the angry white man side – “everyone is stupid but us” psychology. I’m wagering too – that they fail to fully grasp the 19th century as they fail to do the 20th. It’s an accusation I’m willing to throw out against MFA programs as well.

Here’s Ashes on that bit:
I will say that, as shrill as Ross's estimation of the 20th century is, I am interested in pursuing this because I think that any movement to get past the shittiest parts of the last 10 years do necessarily require a re-newed understanding of many parts of the late 19th century art-world. That is not to say I support a return to the "realism" that I am pretty sure Ross advocates. I do think a continued assault on the thinking that led to the kind of crap we are seeing is necessary, though absolutely not on conservative grounds. Ross's screeching misses the fact that much of the hysteria of early modernism against his "old order" was committed by working people against an entrenched aristocracy. It is like the conservative argument against Soviet paraphernalia that misses the vision and dreams of communists, both devout and merely sympathizing. A communist world is imaginable, many have of us, including anyone whose grandfather was in a labor union, have indirectly benefited from communist activism.
Ashes further observes:
Likewise, ARC, while missing the beauty and potential of their own subject matter, imagines itself opposed, armed with "draftsmanship" while rooting out honesty as thoroughly as does the mob of any MFA open critique. Yes, those MFA students need discipline and draftsmanship. They also need a thorough grounding in what the hell just happened, not since the 80s and the East Village, but since the 1880s or the 1780s. And that history is NOT being taught, not by Yale, not by ARC, not by all the blogs in my roll, except maybe the history blogs...
Ashes mentions in his post that he agrees with many of the ARC’s negative observations of the Modernist and Post-Modernist project and the notion that contemporary art schools are bordering on farce and fraud. I have to say I’m in that camp too. However unlike the ARC, I still find tremendous value in artists such as Duchamp or Warhol, not mention so many of today’s artists. There is a lot to mine out there and despite my often negative assessments, it’s an incredibly rich time to be an artist. That being said, Ross is primarily correct on 2 things – the need for the serious study of older eras, like the 19th century and the unfortunate demise of teaching solid painting craft.

Regarding the lack of craft, the ARC disparages art educators as products of an era where no one could do anything practice wise when it came to painting or drawing. They are depicted as hapless bureaucrats stuck in a pc purgatory of inane self expression! I have felt that occasionally but let’s be clear that this is an unfair and mean spirited assertion and misses out on some of the greatest art of the last 60 years. So what if
Beuys couldn’t draw like Michelangelo – I don’t think the world or his students for that matter suffered! Beuys’ contribution is huge.

Still, why is there such a severe lack of good sound traditional training in art schools? It’s a serious point to make. On the flip side of Fred Ross, there is the Art world and the current academy which has been erected and founded upon the outlook of the 1960’s and 1970’s. It is a period hostile to tradition and hell bent on new forms at the cost of traditional forms. That hostility has remained in institutions even as the market has loosened the anti-traditional grip from its height during the mid-seventies. We may have missed out on installation art if the focus hadn’t shifted from the gallery to the university courtesy of the art market crash of 1971. It changed everything – some for the better, some not for the better. One residual effect is a distrust of craft equal to the distrust by the ARC of abstraction and conceptualism. That’s a shame for both camps. Unfortunately, too many artists have missed out on the joys inherent to making art through traditional modes of application. The reverse is true for the ARC artists featured on their website – those folks need a good dose of critical theory and self criticism that doesn’t hinge on the “correct” way to paint.

Regarding the need for craft, here’s the best definition I’ve read recently on why craft is so critical to the intellectual and creative health of an artist.

From Deborah Fisher:
Craft: the study and application of any building or making tradition. Craft connotes history. It is passed from one person to another directly through apprenticeships and teacher/student relationships, and indirectly through books and videos and remembering every time you do a dumb thing. It is a way of working that acknowledges right and wrong ways to do it. Craft-based thinking has its foundation in the fact that people have been making stuff for millennia. It smartly uses this collective body of information gleaned from daily interactions with materials to describe and codify best practices.

Craft is concerned with maximizing human output, both in terms of quality and quantity. Craft is extremely powerful. Learning a craft is a great way to practice larger MakerThinker concepts, like how to pay attention to what you are doing. But it is crucial to keep in mind that craft is powerful because it is telling you what to do. It is telling you that for hundreds of years people have faced very similar sets of problems when working, and it offers solutions that are valuable because they have been tested by millions of others.
That’s good stuff. When I studied, I was a student of “natural talent” who realized quickly that I had a good predisposition for draftsmanship and just needed discipline to further it. It excited me as I could see how useful skill could be and how fun the hard work was in getting to the desired result – drawing what I could actually see. What was outside of ME. I was lucky; I had a few teachers who recognized the value of tradition in training a young artist so I was edified by a few. I also had the opposite experience though.

I was derided by faculty, as nostalgic and uneducated. Never mind that I was simply exploring historic models of inquiry while taking hours of philosophy, comparative literature and contemporary art criticism courses – I was labeled a ludite for wanting to see what traditional work felt like. “Why are you interested in Goya so much”?!

It was intended to discourage me and hurtful as a young student, especially when faced with loosing my place in graduate school for wanting to make – charcoal drawings! These drawings were about physics and the psychology of movement and transformative acts – not the Pieta!

Still many of the faculty couldn’t get past the materials and methods used. They were hung up – like the ARC is hung up- on style and misconceptions about the relevancy of the past. Luckily I got the MFA, while sticking to my guns. I remember thinking – childishly – why can’t they see how punk rock this is?! Nobody draws like this now! Anyway…

One of my favorite thoughts by Agnes Martin, to paraphrase, is that everything is contemporary. The Pyramids have as much value to me as the Turner Prize. If you can take it in then it is relevant subject matter for you as an artist and as a citizen.

The failing of art school education that Ashes mentions, is that it has an attention span problem. Relevant art didn’t just spring up in the ‘80’s. Too many schools focus solely on the cannon of Pollock/Johns/Rauschenberg/Warhol/Basquiat without much regard for other streams of foundational content. The world is getting small and young artists need to get out of their self styled masturbation bubble and see the connections out there. There is a lot of work to do. There is a lot to understand of the larger historical art trajectory.

The ARC is gets a small part right but ultimately misses the big picture . In its quest to unseat the king, a lack of understanding is revealed - the needs of people today - and the need for new visions -or so it seems judging by the ARC approved contemporary artists. Perhaps Forum Gallery would be interested in these artists?

all images from the ARC: Bouguereau, Cabanel, Meissonier, Bouguereau


  1. Brian Shapiro9:17 PM

    I regularly talk with Fred Ross and others who are involved in the Art Renewal Center, through the GoodArt discussion group list, and, because I often am studying art history on my own, send them collections of images to upload. I've always felt that the rhetoric of the organization was too militant, sometimes too simple, and sometimes shrill, and on the discussion group have often argued in defense of modernism. In fact there are many people on that discussion group who do that much more strongly than I do, but, for reasons that are obvious, its not uploaded onto the site archive. I also don't like almost all of the realistic art being produced as 'classical realism' and supported by the Art Renewal Center.

    But, even though the arguments can be too militant or too simple, I think the basic ideas that are being argued aren't so misled. I've read the past three posts on this blog about the Art Renewal Center, and there seems to be a need to cast the people behind it as like 'conservatives', in one instance compared to evangelicals, to David Horowitz. From my perspective, most people who continue to argue against academic art or any type of traditional art end up being just as shrill and just as militant. (--and, as a coincidence, most people who end up politically opposing evangelicals end up being shrill and militant) Saying that there has been a 'conspiracy' to supress traditional painting is puffed up; but it is true that over time academic artists had been intentionally removed from history books and removed from museums, excused by the revolutionary agenda of modernism, and that traditional art has in academic papers often linked to everything bad---in short, the imperialist, racist, patriarchal [phallologocentric] Western society. There is a great amount of writing to this end. Sometimes couched in intellectual dialogue, sometimes emotional and shrill, but always reductive and militant.

    If it has been political, and there is real value behind academic art; then its fair to argue about a political agenda in academia and museums that has supressed it. If there have been political reasons why our civic dialogue is biased a certain way, its also fair to target the media as being biased. This doesn't equate to paranoia... any more than tying Victorian beliefs to the bourgeois class structure is paranoia. I think there is a lot of erudition and intelligence among people in academics, but there is also politics--not necessarily what you'd say is left-right politics, though often it is, but in every field there is a favored ideology about the subject and its harder to get ahead if you have more than superficial dissent. That is to say--it is no different from academia in the 19th century, where the term 'academic' became perjorative. The 'bourgeoisie' to the avant-garde was not necessarily just an economic class, but the class of intellectual middle-men, it was the people who led academia and the 19th century intellectual discourse. People talk as if this applied to the 19th century but not the 21st.

    I agree that a lot of people involved in the Art Renewal Center don't completely understand the 19th century, but I've found most professors in academia, whether in literature, art history, or philosophy departments, don't either. The 20th century was, by intellectuals and political movements, framed as an attack on the Victorian era, which was seen to be full every type of ill, and has been painted almost in ludicrous terms. Victorian thought for a long time, was the enemy--the 19th century was the enemy ... even fascism and naziism were framed as an attack on the 19th century, viewing modernism as a continuation of 19th century thought (The 19th century was to them, the century of the left, of liberal democracy, and abandonment of tradition)--even though you'll see postmodern intellectuals today try to argue that fascism and naziism were a product of the 19th century and its continuation.

    To intellectuals, Victorians were prudes, dishonest, bigots, exploitative, uncreative,... rarely were they described in good terms, or their beliefs, their philosophy, or art given a second thought. And, apparently, to many, Victorians were this way, because they believed in things like truth and beauty and morality. I believe that our intellectual culture has been so much framed as an attack on the Victorian that we are estranged to a point where most people don't understand it--including most academics, who still believe in caricatures that were created a hundred years ago. But including conservatives, who by oposing intellectually popular ideas make themselves aligned with Victorians, but don't quite understand the depth behind Victorian beliefs.

    Its not a bad thing to be conservative, and even if you're unable to present your argument in an way thats approachable to intellectuals, it doesn't mean you're wrong. I even think the beliefs of evangelicals have some truth to them that need to be recognized or acknowledged by intellectuals who are aloof to them.

    There are points made in these blog entries to the effect that we need to make art thats new and different or relevant, or that academic art was the culmination of what started in the Renaissance. These are political 'talking points' of modernism. One of the points of the Art Renewal Center is to say that the goal of art isn't to try to be new and different and being so attatched to this idea can just as well lead to art that isn't new or interesting and the supression of anything that doesn't appear new even if it might be. I'm sure you realize that this is a flawed way of viewing art, and as its said "everything is contemporary." I understand modern art theorists and understand that they too knew the problem with this and would have believed that is a simplistic reading of what they were saying. But along with every intellectual argument, there is a politics that can't be escaped. You have had to repeat the same politics, responding to a call for returning to tradition with a demand that there be newness and relevance.

    Academic art is still seen as not offering anything new or interesting, even though it did. People treat Victorians as if they were Puritans, which they weren't, as if their morality meant a complete repression of the body--which is brought up here, in faulting the restriction of a teacher encouraging life drawing to Victorian ideas.

    Obviously, Victorians did not oppose life drawing---but its not an ironic exception to Victorian beilefs. Wherever you find an exception, I've found--its because something isn't fully understood. Victorians, framed in a certain way, seem less like prudes than modern people. Even sexless nudity is censored from television (while non-nude sexual situations are everywhere); while it was not nudity, not even depictions of sex, that was attacked by Victorians--but debased or valueless sexuality, inappropriate sexuality, prostitution, orgies, etc. When nudes were depicted in Victorian art they were shown sensually. Modern critics are divided by whether this means they were prurient, or whether it makes them cold and sexless--which just shows a lack of understanding. Victorians thought of sex differently than people today, and modeling them in terms of today's extreme conservatives will be a mistake. In the Victorian era, many governments, including France's, licensed prostitutes and checked for diseases. Manet's Olympia was not disliked because it was modern and sexual, but because it was felt there was no artistic merit in crudely and flatly depicting a prostitute. (to the avant-garde depicting this was what was meant by modern and sexual). To make nude women talk with suited men in Dejeuner seemed ridiculous and an assault on the values of propriety the audience had. The real problem with Victorians was not a thick-headed conservativism or hatred of the sex or the body, but a cultural dependence on stifling social conventions.

    You could argue that the Victorian beliefs about sex and race, even if they had complications, were too easily reduced to prudery and bigotry--which has been argued. But that is a political result, and no different in this way than a modernist belief in constant change and revolution according to the times. Modernism has often been labeled a form of decadence, but more than an attack---many early modernist thinkers looked at decadence as a positive thing, and if broken down syntactically decadence is de-cadence, a loss of cadence, being dissonant--one of the foundations of early modern aesthetic theory. Sometimes people are too caught up in seeing the word as a political attack.

    Victorians are blamed for women and minorities as being second class, but they were the first to try to bring them equalities. A story you'll find anyone at ARC knows is that Bouguereau was the person that opened the French academy to women, and many in the avant-garde remained chauvinistic. This is not to put things in equally black and white terms, but show the complications in condemning Victorians. People really haven't understood them.

    As a result, now we have Victorian Studies departments in universities. Recent studies have also shown many ways in which the art world in the 19th century had many complexities and wasn't divided into a war between the bad academics and the good avant-garde.

    But a lot of 19th century art history is still not understood, just because it isn't well recorded as a history. I've spent a long time on my own researching art in the 19th century and have found almost no next from histories to help me; I've had to piece together bits of information from different sources. Not only was there an intellectual basis behind academic art, but one that was original and different from Neo-classicism, something almost all art history professors don't understand. Albert Boime was the first to recognize this in his research on Thomas Couture, but didn't really place it in a developed view of 19th century history. The 19th century was vital with experimentation and different art movements before the Impressionists or even Pre-Raphaelites arrived.

    There is a very interesting, relevant, and complex history to be told about 19th century art. Instead, for years we've been taught in basic, that Neo-classicism->Romanticism->Realism->Impressionism. Now at least there is more of an acknowledgement that Academic art existed. People don't realize that for a while Neo-classcism wasn't even taught in art history. Ingres and David were believed to be at the root of the rotten tree that bore Bouguereau--hence the term, Pompier.

    The same reason that Bouguereau is the center of the Art Renewal Center, is the same reason that Bouguereau was the center of attack for modernists. It was no accident that he played the role of the chief villain, and the reason is no more apolitical than when the Victorian era is considered in black terms.

    The truth is, despite all of the bad rhetoric you might find in the Art Renewal Center, most people who are involved became involved because they discovered Bouguereau. This includes Fred Ross, who had been been an admirer or Renoir, and visiting a gallery with a Renoir he was taken aback and stricken by a painting by Bouguereau, only then to find, at that time, Bouguereau was worth pennies on the market--becoming a collector--and now its hard to buy a Bouguereau without millions. The belief that Bouguereau was a genius as an artist is a sincere belief, and not a 'strategy'. You'll find some people on the GoodArt discussion group who half-heartedly believed in modern art and professed a like for it until they saw artists like Bouguereau. I guess this does sound like evangelicals, in being born-again. But the power of art should be recognized as the power of art.

    There is much to be appreciated in Bouguereau's paintings, and even though I don't fully agree with and support the ARC as a movement, as you don't, I think its necessary for a re-appreciation. Whether or not you want to place Bouguereau in some pantheon or canon is besides the point to realizing he was an important and great artist. But I'm not opposed to having him in the canon---I realize his art as being more than just cherubs or pretty girls. Rembrandt's art wasn't perfect either, I can find a lot of mediocre Rembrandts--and as an artist he was obscured for 200 years after his death until he was rediscovered in the 19th century. Something Fred Ross is fond of saying is that while Rembrandt is the master of depicting old age, Bouguereau is the master of depicting youth.

    Innocence is one of Bouguereau's themes, and its often in simple terms mistaken for over-sentimentality. Innocence was a popular subject among academic artists. Innocence was one of Tchaikovsky's themes, he used fairy tales. For years after his death, Tchaikovsky's compositions were considered sentimental kitsch, he was considered the arch-conservative of the music world, like Bouguereau was considered the arch-conservative of the painting world. If music theory had the same discourse as art theory, Tchaikovsky would be called academic and not romantic. In Austria, the academic painter Hans Makart was friends with Richard Wagner, and both explored their mediums in similar ways. Doubly unfortunate for Makart, aside from being an academic, he was Hitler's favorite artist.

    The importance of Rembrandt is also not just that he chose to depict a subject that you find meaningful--surviving suffering--but that he ws able to express it by developing new ideas and techniques in art that separated him from the Renaissance, including his increased naturalism and use of impasto. Something similar can be said about Bouguereau.

    In every field representatives of Victorian culture were first demonized, then obscured. In philosophy, this was Victor Cousin, who is just recently being re-examined. Victor Cousin had inspiration from an 18th century philosopher, Thomas Reid. Most people haven't heard of him either; but he was well known for over a century, and was David Hume's rival. Of course, David Hume is liked because he deprecated metaphysics, and Descartes, two things that became popular to deprecate post-19th century.

    Modern intellectuals, of course, the wisdom goes, are not bourgeoise and will not be overturned and forgotten by a new movement, they are just built on.

    I'm not someone who wants to attack and bury 20th century intellectuals, I don't think they were all dumb. But I also don't think 19th century intellectuals were all dumb--and acknowledging that requires questioning the basis of 20th century philosophy, questioning the attack framed on Victorian culture, Western culture; not playing around it. It means to put 19th century ideas and 20th century ideas on par. And liberalism and conservativism, in general terms, on par. The idea of absolute objective truth and relative subjective truth, on par.

    If there's a "angry white male" mentality that everyone else is stupid, there's a mentality that angry white males are stupid. While people attack the bigotry of Western culture in placing itself above others---too often is Western culture attacked and named as the source of all of our problems. For some reason you shouldn't judge cultures in places that are foreign to us, but its okay to judge and condemn the culture of a period in history 100 years ago.

    I would guess the reason there is the need to talk about the people in the Art Renewal Center being like conservatives--and politically, they all aren't--is that you don't see how much political agendas are involved in academia. I don't consider myself among conservatives either, but I don't consider myself among liberals.

  2. Brian - i don't think i can get ahold of you any other way. Lots of good points you make... will you object to my re-posting this whole thing to make sure others catch it ?

    Many thanks - Ashes

  3. Brian Shapiro2:03 AM


    There's no objection to you re-posting it, the point of writing it was for people interested in your blog to see, anyway.

    Everything I wrote wasn't really the clearest expression about what I think needs to be done and said in art, politics, and philosophy. It was basically just a response to diminishing some goals of ARC, as well as others positioned as conservatives. I would stick up for David Horowitz also, even though I think he doesn't have the solution he's looking for because he's not framing the problem right. In other cases, I stick up for liberals. There is a political fight in addition to an intellectual one and politics helps shape a dialogue in a constructive way. Well, at least for me it isn't a matter of being quantifiable in a way of being 85% true, its a matter of things being true in particular terms and not in others.

    I'm actually studying philosophy, not art in particular, though I've done a lot of art history research.

    if you post maybe you can fix some of the mistakes I made in writing and typing it, ie "no next from histories" should be "no text from histories".

  4. Brian - I am going to edit a little purely for brevity, with a link to the original post here, you should see that later today or early tomorrow. It is really a little too long for a blog post) I appreciate all of your thoughts.