Fired by ARC
by Miles Mathis
I have been asked by many readers why no new columns have appeared in the last two months in my opinion series at ARC. Am I ill? On vacation? No, I am not. I have been fired.
The firing was precipitated by the second part of my article titled Choosing a Subject: the Nude. The article was intended to go into my opinion series, a series proposed by Fred Ross, the editor of ARC. About a year ago now (Feb. 2004) Fred invited me to write a weekly column for ARC, saying that I could write about anything that came to mind as long as it had to do with art. This changed a few months into the series when I claimed in an article that the artist was the best judge of art (not the only judge, but the best judge). Fred decided to add a disclaimer to my series, to make it clear that my opinions were my own and did not express the views of ARC in all cases. I thought this was somewhat redundant, in that the series was an opinion series: no one would expect that two people, no matter how closely allied, would agree on everything. However, I agreed to the disclaimer, choosing to see it simply as another advertisement in my favor. Here was further proof that I was "a loose cannon, a dangerous man." These things, as silly as they are, are usually good for PR, not the reverse.
The tension was increased a couple of months later when I submitted my review of Roger Kimball's The Rape of the Masters. I wasn't sure how much criticism of the right Fred would allow on ARC. He and I had not discussed politics and I really didn't know how he would react. I thought there might be a chance he would let it pass, if only in order to broaden the range of discussion on ARC. As it turns out I was wrong. He took violent exception to several paragraphs and refused it with contempt, telling me he didn't have time to read such things. Although I was a little surprised by his manner, I did not take the his refusal of the review personally; I accepted it as part of an author/journal relationship. No journal is going to publish everything you write, no matter who you are.
Fred did not take it so casually, however. He had taken personal offense at my politics and was now on high alert. I had been used to having only small editing of my articles, or none, but my next assigned article—on George Washington University [Groundhog Day...]—came back to me with extensive editing and deletions (as well as additions—sentences that I didn't write being inserted at will). I simply un-submitted it and returned to my opinion series, hoping that the bad blood would cool.
But it did not cool. My article on nudity, although nowhere near as political as my Kimball review, touched a nerve, or several nerves. I was told that my submissions would no longer be read unless I agreed to conform strictly to ARC philosophy. I must begin to pre-edit myself and not waste Fred's time by making him read things he did not agree with. He said this outright, almost in those words. Specifically, I must not 1) mention van Gogh again, except to criticize. I could not quote or use him as a positive example or say that I liked any of his paintings. One reference to him had already been edited out of my MoMA article and a second reference was kept in only because I fought for it. I had quoted van Gogh often in my opinion series, since I find van Gogh's Letters to be one of the most important and inspiring set of documents in history. I now learned that each of these quotes had been like an arrow to Fred's heart. There would be no more arrows. 2) I must not praise Munch, or any art like his, which also went against ARC philosophy. I am still not sure why Munch is anathema, but I decided not to ask. If Fred doesn't like him, he can leave him out of his favorites list without insulting me one iota. But I don't see why I should edit my own list to suit anyone's agenda. It would be one thing to state that Munch was superior to Bouguereau and had superseded him and all like him, as the moderns are wont to do. But I had done no such thing. I had simply mentioned a Munch painting in passing as an example. It was clear that I found the painting [Puberty] interesting, but I made no commentary on its technique or its relative value. I can't see that editing myself of such examples can make my articles more interesting or informative. And I also can't see that Munch is any special danger to the values of ARC or any other sane person or entity. Besides which I was not and would never set up Munch as the pinnacle of art or as the ultimate psychology for the artist. I simply like some of his paintings. I believe his technique and his mood are sometimes in perfect harmony; and that mood, though gloomy or even neurotic, is never nihilistic. For me, this makes it different in kind than the mood of Freud or Nerdrum, for example. 3) I was not to criticize the Bush administration, not even on specific issues of public policy in art. This is the only message I could glean from Fred's reaction to my sentence or two concerning Ashcroft's draping of classical public sculpture in Washington, DC. This reaction very much surprised me, since half of ARC's museum could be draped if it fell under the same policy. I was told that ARC could not afford to offend or alienate its major readers (whoever they are). I had thought that ARC was created to tell the truth, but I have always been naive in that way. I cannot imagine that ARC's right-leaning readers would be in favor of draping classical sculptures, or pretending that it was not happening. If they were offended by all nudity, they would be offended by Bouguereau and ARC, and would not be readers. But this sort of logic is not available to all, I know.
So here I am, back in the seclusion I so richly praise at the end of my last article. I have to say that it suits me. For I have the distinct feeling that it will look good on my resume, in the very long term, to have been fired by ARC. An even cleverer man than I might have joined ARC under a cloak, for the very purpose of getting fired.
PS. Fred will argue that he never used the word fired. This is true. He made demands that no independent writer would ever consent to, knowing that I would not consent to them. The line between that and firing is very fine, and might be called infinitesimal.
PPS. Nota bene that I never use the word "censored" here or elsewhere in my relations with ARC. Fred never published anything over my protest, changed any word without my consent, or played dirty in any way. For quite a long time ARC published my articles exactly as I wrote them, and I am grateful for this opportunity--an opportunity few writers ever have, even for a short time. ARC has the right to its agenda, including the right to edit as they see fit. Fred should have precisely the sort of website he envisions. I would never argue against this right, as a right. I have not used the word "censor" since a writer never has any unalienable right to be printed. My argument is not that my freedom has been suppressed, but that ARC's vision is overly narrow and that its editorial policies are not in its own best interest, much less the interest of art history. Good writers will not submit to being the mouthpiece of an ideology. A person with interesting ideas will never be strictly yoked to the ideas of another person. Alliances can only be general alliances: a writer and his editor can never agree on every last term, down to who would be the best person to quote in every paragraph. And no writer will ever allow an editor to insert sentences into a completed article. That is writing by committee, and is only appropriate when both authors are signing the article (or when the piece is a strict editorial, prepared by a board and unsigned by any individual). Furthermore, no writer with any self-respect will write for an autocratic editor, one who treats him with condescension. A man must differentiate between his friends and his enemies, and treat them accordingly. In swimming upstream, Fred has become used to dealing more with enemies. I can understand this—99% of my time in the arts is spent in some posture of self-defense. But if a person does not remember how to change poses quickly, all his acquaintances quickly devolve into enemies or flunkies. People in positions of power are especially prone to this, and people who attain positions of power coming from the margins are doubly prone. Fred and ARC may be able to avoid this crisis. I wish them well, for a majority of their attacks on the left are factually correct and sometimes well presented. The ARC museum is a benefit to the web and the promotion of traditional education is long overdue. However, turning a blind eye to the problems on the right cannot benefit art. Art must be defended from all encroachments, left and right.
Furthermore, tearing down the avant garde to erect an ersatz version of the Victorian Royal Academy is both untenable and undesirable. The 20th century yielded few useful lessons to the real artist, but one useful lesson is that rigid standardization, though useful to some mid-level talents, is a waste of time to the most talented. The absolute chaos of the 20th century, and its near-complete loss of technical knowledge, is just one way of getting it wrong. The other is to require that all art students copy casts for years before they are allowed to do anything creative. The life of van Gogh is perhaps the ultimate proof of this. But one can also look to artists as diverse as Michelangelo, van Dyck, Rembrandt and Sargent, none of whom came from an "academic" training. Michelangelo and the rest were all trained by Masters, but for various reasons they progressed quickly, skipped many steps, and arrived at the ends of their apprenticeships without ever doing much basic training. Sargent is considered to be the antithesis of van Gogh, but he did little more cast work than Vincent. He wasted some time in the Ecole, but most of his progress was made with Carolus-Duran. And even there the progress was mostly passive. Carolus-Duran did precious little real teaching. Sargent could have made the same progress, almost as fast, copying Carolus-Duran at the Louvre.
The point of all this is that ARC threatens to devolve into the voice of mediocrity. It threatens to be the champion of the new art wonk--the artist consumed with technique and finish—as well as of the critic who cannot differentiate between style and content. Almost without exception, the new realist is an artist who is obsessed with methodology, one who can discuss nuts and bolts ad infinitum but who has no ideas or subjects worth presenting. The new realist looks at the paint even before the painting; he has no idea that a painting may represent a mood or an emotion. The subject matter of this realism is almost always either a still-life composition (even if it include figures), or a clever demi-surrealism, with figures rearranged in photoshop before they are pounced onto the canvas. The still-life artists have an uncanny knack for draining all the emotion and character out of their subjects, and one must conclude that it is done purposely, either to look more contemporary, or to fit into the abstract nature of the composition. These artists are not painting the figure to reveal individual character, they are using the figure as a device to balance the left side of the canvas, or to provide a mannequin for the pretty shawl they have found. The demi-surrealists are also not to be found treating the figure as the representation of an individual, one with real thoughts and emotions; they use the figure as a clever metaphysical or psychological device, as a representation of an idea. In the first camp you have William Whitaker and Claudio Bravo and David Leffel and Richard Schmid and Nelson Shanks (as well as the true still-lifers like Daniel Sprick); in the second you have Will Wilson and Dino Valls and Odd Nerdrum.
ARC is on the conservative side of this conservative dichotomy. The demi-surrealists are a bit scary sometimes. They can also be politically progressive, or seem so. ARC is therefore the haven of the still-life (or stunted life) artists. For these artists the mannequin is the central and strongest personality in the stuido. They brag about not using photographs, apparently unaware that a photograph of a mannequin would not be a great loss of artistic content.
Understand that I am not coming down on the side of the demi-surrealists. I find both roads pointless. A painting dominated by design might as well devolve into a Rothko or a Johns--it is not a great argument against the avant garde. But a painting dominated by clever ideas or poses or juxtapositions or riffs is also not an appealing alternative to the idea-inebriated work of Modernism. If I were impressed by cleverness as cleverness I might as well be a shock artist and be done with it. Steven Assael has gone a piece down this road: painting the freaks is not a long stone's throw from gouging out the eyes of donkeys, like Dali, or putting sharks in tanks, like Damien Hirst. The tattooed people are interesting as physical subjects to precisely the same depth as corpses in formaldehyde.
But I am forgetting that this digression is part of a post
postscript. If you want to read more of
my opinions on subject matter within new realism you will have to wait for an
upcoming article devoted to just that.
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