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The Absurdity of
Modern Life and Art

by Miles Mathis


My first example here is courtesy John Bull. There is an ancient and great manor house in the English countryside—the name and location are irrelevant—that is currently undergoing a very expensive mapping and surveying process. All the latest gadgetry is being used—lasers and the like—and the BBC is proudly filming it, as an example of both good old-fashioned English thoroughness and the usefulness of technology. In the interview the steward, who has worked in the house for 40 years, is explaining the need for the survey. He says,


The knowledge of the house—the location of the pipes, the valves, the structural grid, all that one would need to keep up a great house like this—it has always been handed down by mouth. The former steward taught me and he was taught by his predecessor. But if I were to walk under a bus tomorrow, where would all that knowledge go? You would have to start over from scratch.


We are told that now the information will not only be written down, it will be fed into a computer, generating a 3-D model of the house and grounds. I imagine that most people will be impressed by this example of foresight. We don’t want old and valuable information lost. But my only thought was, why not sit the old man down with a pen and a notebook and let him pass on his knowledge that way? The knowledge of the steward has kept the house running for centuries; why begin relying on a computer now? You can purchase a pen and notebook for a couple of pounds. These fools are spending hundreds of thousands of pounds for the same basic information.


Not only that, but consider again the steward’s hypothetical question: “What if I walked under a bus tomorrow?” The poor steward has avoided the bus only to be run over by the computer. They won’t need a new steward after the bus or computer is done with the old one. The computer can now run the house. A bit more wiring and the man is out of a job. The wiring in his head has been outsourced.

If the steward had walked under a bus and they had to start over from scratch, what would they do? They would hire a survey and mapping team to do a thorough job on the house, making a report and creating a 3-D schematic. So, in order to save themselves the cost and ignominy of that, they have decided to order a survey and mapping team to do a thorough job on the house, making a report and creating a 3-D schematic, before the old man walks under a bus. Brilliant. An astonishingly efficient method—one possibly borrowed from NASA.


I mention NASA because NASA found that ink in a pen did not flow in a zero-gravity environment. This is example number two. In order that astronauts could still write in space, NASA spent several billion dollars developing and testing a zero-gravity pen. The pen is now proudly used on American manned space missions.

Some may find this a true example of Yankee ingenuity and persistence. But I have just invented a zero-gravity pen that costs 10 cents. I call it “the pencil.” NASA may want a smudgeless copy, but if so they can pay the extra 10 cents per page for lamination, or five cents for a Xerox. A copy of a penciled page looks and acts just like a penned page. Both are made with the same ink. Or I have heard that they may have computers aboard these spaceships now. How about having the astronauts use a keyboard, like everyone else? Or audiotape, or dictation? You can hire out a lot of shorthand for a billion dollars.


In art we see the same misuse of time, energy, and creative energy. This is example number three. Here in Bruges, Belgium, we have many examples of paintings that are more than 500 years old that are in near perfect condition. The paint is not cracked or discolored, the substrate has aged well or was easily replaceable, and so on. Italian paintings nearly as old are equally well preserved. I am thinking of Titian’s oil paintings, which are materially different from the Flemish paintings, but equally sturdy. So painting was blessed early on by at least two nearly perfect methods. Unfortunately almost no one uses them anymore, although neither one is especially difficult to comprehend, from a material standpoint. Most contemporary artists have preferred to solve a problem they never had, and they have preferred to solve it with a century of costly experimentation. Of all the various new art supplies now available to the artist, most are useless and many are harmful. In the first category are the myriad new colors. Except for ultramarine blue, none of these were truly necessary to the painter. The bright powerful pigments like the cadmiums and quinacridones and phthalos are not necessary unless you are painting plastic streetsigns or raincoats, and a Titian or Van Eyck would have avoided these on principle. Not because these artists could not comprehend fluorescent colors, but because these colors cannot be harmonized in a painting. In fact, Titian and Van Eyck and other old masters avoided many possible color combinations, combinations that were fully realizable at the time. Why? Because they were interested not in copying reality, no matter what it might be, or experimenting with the brightest possible values. No, they were interested in creating art, which was for them defined as harmony, subtlety, and beauty, as well as the incorporation of some bit of reality or fantasy.

The category of harmful new supplies is much larger than the useless category, although there is much crossover. In this category we have manufactured mediums and varnishes and turpentine substitutes and sizes and grounds and supports made from questionable, shoddy, poorly tested, poorly composed, and/or toxic materials. We now have realists painting directly on plastic with nylon brushes, using plastic mediums, paints and varnishes. They have been convinced that their new supplies are safer and more permanent, but the reverse is true. In the 20th century, museums had much greater problems with artwork spontaneously crumbling, not less. New paintings are more likely to delaminate, crack, discolor, peel, rot, and slide, not less. And this is not limited to modern works. It includes new realism. Even at the top of the field, new realists are very likely to use inferior grounds and paint that is too oily. They use experimental varnishes with additives that are untested by time. And they use turpentine substitutes that claim to be safer but that are actually more dangerous. Artists have traded lead poisoning for a thousand new types of poisoning, many of them yet to be catalogued.

On top of all this stands the fact that most of this new material is not biodegradable. All these experiments leave permanent garbage. All the plastic and acrylic and nylon will still be here to crunch beneath the toes of our grandchildren and their grandchildren. You cannot say this of pre-20th century art. Those artists did not create permanent landfills of their mistakes.


This problem, like the first two in this paper, will not be solved by throwing money at it. It will be solved by taking money out of the equation. It will be solved by a common sense that has become very uncommon. It will be solved by putting a cork in all the salesmen and salesmanship of the modern world. It will be solved by reintroducing some very old-fashioned ideas like thrift, wisdom, virtue, simplicity, stewardship, and conscience. It will solved by jettisoning novelty, ease, laziness, speed, short-cuts, public relations, advertising, and politics. In many ways, it will be solved by going back to the past, to a time when stewards—not computers—cared for houses; a time when people could write with pens that did not cost a billion dollars; a time when an artist could make his own materials from scratch, and enjoyed doing so. I have already returned to that past, and if I find myself mostly alone here, that is just one more benefit. It was much quieter then, I can tell you.

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