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The  day  after 

Groundhog  Day

 will  never  be  the  same

by Miles Mathis


I was requested to write this article based on recent events at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.  ARC was informed that the art department there had decided to scrap its last traditional courses in life drawing and classical painting.  The reason given was that these classes were no longer pertinent to contemporary artistic expression.  The classes were thought of as a needless limitation upon the creativity of the students.  A well-known and respected teacher there, a fine artist in his own right who has taught several big names in current realism, had been told his services were no longer needed. 

       Unfortunately, in pursuing this story, ARC has not been able to obtain the cooperation of those involved.  We are told that the teacher in question does not want to fight about it.  He has accepted the situation and wants to move on.   Another reporter might leave it at that, but since I am an artist, not a reporter, I see two stories now where there was one.  I see the story of the latest skirmish in the long-running battle of real art and phony art and I see the latest example of one side being too high-minded or too polite or too demoralized to fight.  I will not explicitly assign any of these motives to the teacher at George Washington University, since I know nothing about him.   But I do know that if I make my claim as a generalization, I cannot be wrong.  The 20th century has been one long list of examples of real artists who do not want to fight—“they just want to be left alone to paint.”  Well bully for them.  We younger artists have inherited the world they gave away, and now we have no choice but to fight.  Apparently we must fight them as well, for they are just as much in our way as anyone else. 

       At the top of this list of people who have not wanted to fight is Andrew Wyeth, a great great artist who has never uttered a single word about art in my lifetime.   I find this a very important fact, considering that he has been the most famous realist in the world for decades.  He is the one person who might have made a difference.  He has long had the respect and the stature to make pronouncements.  Many think of him like a living Rodin or Rubens.  But we get nothing—he doesn’t want to enter the fray.  I think of him like J. D. Salinger, holed up in his New England bower, “I am a rock—I touch no one and no one touches me.”  I will no doubt get nasty letters from Jamie Wyeth and Bo Bartlett and perhaps a few others, telling me that Andrew is the nicest man imaginable and he has the right to do what he wants to do, etc.   Others will say this is not the age of “making pronouncements.”  I answer that a great man does not take orders from his age.  A great artist does not accept the constrictions of his milieu.  If Andrew Wyeth had something to say, TIME and Newsweek and a thousand other places would provide him immediate space.  If he has nothing to say, well, he should have something to say.   If he said what I am saying, more might be listening. 

        Any movement needs both practitioners and leaders.  We have had only the former, and that is why we have not been a movement for so long.   For nearly a century, classical art was no more than an island thesis, kept alive by Wyeth and a few others. More recently, classicism has awoken, due mainly to the leadership of a new handful.  Schools have been opened, societies established.  But too few are ready to fight the real fight against Modernism.  They still want to hide away in their schools and societies, ignoring the bogeyman outside.  We had to open new schools because our fathers and grandfathers gave away the keys to the public schools.  We aren’t even allowed in there anymore, as the George Washington University debacle makes clear.   They also drove us from the marketplace, and scant few of us have found our way back in. 

        All this we accepted, either as a necessary condition of the new democracies or socialisms, or as something beyond our control, like the tides.  We talked of being outnumbered, we talked of this and that, but we did nothing.  We took jobs in advertising, in illustration, in Hollywood, in computer graphics.  If we were lucky.  Others took jobs in coffee shops or delis, painting at night. 

       But those who did this had overlooked two very important messages from history.  1) Numbers have absolutely nothing to do with leadership.  You do not need a majority to start a revolution.  The individual is always mightier than the group.  You just need to stand up and state the truth clearly; the rest will take care of itself.  2) Modernism is not based upon any majority.  Tom Wolfe pointed this out most publicly in The Painted Word.  He said that Modernism was 300 people in New York City and a handful scattered throughout the world, a few in London, Paris, Brussels, Munich, Venice and the smaller cities.  I suspect he undercounted a bit, but his point is well-taken nonetheless.  If these people have stolen the history of art, it is because we have allowed them to.  As far as numbers go, the vast majority is behind us, or would be if we had the courage to stand up.  If we put it to a referendum, we would win by 90%.  I have stated elsewhere that art will not be saved by a plebescite, so I do not want to contradict myself.   I am not suggesting that we put the history of art up to a vote.  But I am pointing out that our begging off from a statistical argument doesn’t really wash.  If we wanted to use the public as a pawn—or even as our queen—we could certainly do so.   The reason I have not (yet) attempted to do so is that the queen tends to march about the board unchallenged, even by her own subjects.   Being jumped over by my own queen would not be a great deal better than the permanent check-mate I now suffer under.

         What this all means is that there is and always has been more than enough grassroots support for real art and ill feeling toward the avant garde to accomplish anything that needs to be accomplished.  There has simply been no rally.  No one has yet blown the trumpet.  No one has marched on city hall, no one has spent a few nights in jail for the cause.  Even the letter to the editor is rare. 


Near where I live in Belgium is a seaside town called Knokke.  It is a town of art galleries, catering to the wealthy.  On the most prominent spot on the beach they have erected two giant blobs of white cement, the largest of which looks somewhat like a nose.  It is one of the most embarrassingly ugly and pointless pieces of public sculpture I have ever seen (and that is saying a lot).  They probably paid a great deal of public money for it.  What is more, the citizens of Knokke know this.  Almost no one likes it.  In a democracy or any other type of egalitarian or socialist society, the will of the majority is supposed to be sacrosanct.  We would be ashamed to have anything imposed on us in any other way, in any other arena.  But the white blob stands there basically unopposed.  The townspeople are apparently satisfied to have their artistic ignorance symbolized in that unmistakable way.  Why?  Because no one has yet stood up and said, “This monstrosity must go.  It makes us all look bad.”   No one has blown the trumpet, no one has shouted “fear, fire, foes!”  No honest little child has been quoted in the paper, asking the cutting question, “Mommy, why?”

       No one does this because they are afraid that the media will label them somehow.  They will be a fascist or a throwback or an elitist.  But how hard are these labels to counter, really?  You just don’t stop talking.  You say, “No, I’m not, and I can prove it.  And these people beside me are also not fascists or elitists.  They are sensible people who are tired of having their public places look so ugly and depressing.  They are people from the right, left and center who agree on one thing, and that thing is that this is not art and that you are not an artist.  Will you please take your blob and go back to where you came from.”  If they wave one flag, you wave two.  If they organize a march, you organize a bigger one.  If they write 10 letters to the paper, you write 20.  You don’t back down.

       Knokke’s problem is the artistic problem of the world.  It is the same problem as George Washington University.   A few people make a decision that affects the whole town, and as long as the town stays at work or in front of the TV the decision stands.  George Washington University is just the latest occurrence in a long line of similar decisions.  The 20th century is defined by these decisions, historically.  Private as well as state universities knuckling under to narrow political concerns; state agencies and national agencies and foundations falling to the avant garde, disregarding the wishes, needs and concerns of their own constituencies.  The only thing that is curious about GWU is its timing.  It seems a bit late in the game to be jettisoning craft.  One would have thought that would have been done 50 years ago, at the least.   GWU appears to think that putting up a false front is no longer cost effective.  They don’t seem to see that Modernism is waning, not waxing.  Modern art needs false fronts now more than ever.  It needs to be able to convince the public that it is “pluralistic.”  That everyone is welcome.  It needs the wall of lies because its façade is crumbling.  It has people like me banging away with heavy hammers at the last bits of mortar, and the only lie it has left is the lie of invulnerability.  But the lie of invulnerability has never yet persuaded anyone, anywhere, ever.  


I have spent some time in art classes at the university level, and I can tell you from experience that the wrong classes are being dismantled.  The ones that are useless to a real artist are the ones that are being kept—the ones where students stand around in cool clothes, tattoed and pierced, smoking cloves and buds by the case and talking halfheartedly about the latest theories.  The ones where students punch a hole in a bucket or glue together a couple of pieces of paper or weld together a couple of pipes and they have a project.   These students quite literally spend more time thinking about how to cut their hair and rip their jeans and ducttape their DocMartens than they do thinking about what to create.  This has been the pattern since the 60’s.  There hasn’t been one speck of progress made since then, despite all the talk of novelty.  The brand of shoes may have changed once or twice in that time, and the waists of the jeans may get bigger or smaller, but that is all the news worth reporting.  That is the sum total of creativity from the art departments. 

       Like with the citizens of Knokke, you would think that someone somewhere would be embarrassed by this.  But the university art departments institutionalized this nothingness long ago.  They codified this system, putting it writing, in unmistakable terms.   Their programs and course descriptions tell prospective students who want to learn something not to bother applying.  Their counselors advise that any attempt at realism will be looked upon with open disdain.  The teachers themselves often open their sections with the same warnings.  “Do not turn in anything to me that looks like anything.  I will throw it in the trash with maximum force.”  I am not making this up.  It has happened thousands of times; it is happening right now.  Most MFA programs will not enroll realists.  If you show a realist portfolio they will threat you like a beggar refugee or an alien: someone who just doesn’t get it. 

       This is why pluralism is a lie.  At the university level, there is no pluralism, not at GWU or anywhere else.  There is only the avant grade, spray painting trashcans, or collecting urine samples, or shooting “transgressive” videos.   A realist at the university level would be like Mr. Darcy at an Eminem concert.


At other times in art history, this cooption of art by an unpopular minority would not have been possible.  I am thinking especially of Florence in the 16th century.  It is not true that “everyone was an artist” or a craftsman then.  Florence was a city like any other, where the vast majority worked in farming or trade.  The difference was that the non-artists still cared about art.  The unveiling of the David was a municipal event, and everyone had an opinion.  They weren’t shy about announcing this opinion either.  You could not have erected a concrete nose and expected the townspeople to be quiet about it.  If you had shown a transgressive video you would have been stoned or knifed.  They cared, for whatever reason.  You could argue that they didn’t have Tom Cruise or Nicole Kidman to talk about, so they talked about Michelangelo and Leonardo.  But whatever the reason, things did not pass unnoticed.  Especially things erected in the town square. 

       Now, you could erect a functioning black hole on the town square in any city in America and most people wouldn’t even notice.  An asteroid could fall overnight on the steps of city hall and most people would walk around it on the way to get their plumbing license.  It’s like a Monty Python skit, except that it isn’t funny anymore.  I remember when I finished my 15 foot Triptych Altarpiece.  It wouldn’t fit in my house, so to test the platform and the backing screws and all that I put it together in my front yard—a huge naked lady rising from the water, with poems along both sides, and candles, and the frame with fish spouting things and waves, and a sculpture in front, and all lit with spotlights so I could photograph it.   And the neighbors would jog by in their togs, or walk by with their dogs, and they would glance over and then keep going, no doubt thinking, “Ah.  Another 15 foot triptych altarpiece.  Did I leave the oven on?”


As a society we take days off for every conceivable event and non-event.  President’s Day, Labor Day, Confederate Hero’s Day.  Why could we not take a day off to actually do something besides eat fatty foods and drive our cars and throw litter.   We could take one day a month—or even one day a year—to present a town petition, to solve one problem, to build one human wall against one specific encroachment upon our humanity.  Must a democracy stop with voting for someone else to do something for us?  Can we not act ourselves?  California has their propositions, but I have yet to see one that addressed art.  Are we really only concerned about insurance or taxes or organic food?  Do our museums and universities and public places really not concern us?


This is the trumpet blast!  This is call from the barricades—fear, fire, foes!   Your house is on fire and your children are gone.  Or, your museum has been stolen and your children at the university are smoking themselves into an early grave.  You are spending $20,000 per annum so that they can mark the walls and throw the furniture out the window. 

        Ring the church bell, sound the alarm, man the hoses.  The citizens are with you, they only need rousing from the couch.  You cannot lose.  Just don’t stop.  Walk by the first attacks in the paper, walk by the pierced people cursing you with their little voices, walk by the phony academics, quoting their specious quotes.  None of these is a representative majority.    It is not you that may be ignored.  It is them.   Ask for help and you will find it.  All those non-Moderns reading Antonia Byatt or J. R. R. Tolkien or Umberto Eco (a wide swath that) or watching Pride and Prejudice or Room with a View (or even Shakespeare in Love), those people at the opera and the ballet, those people shopping for Ophelia postcards, people studying classical piano or guitar, bibliophiles, classicists of any kind.  Even collectors of old model trains will understand you.  They will be your natural allies.  And if you need a bigger crowd, the average Joe on the street will join you, with a few words of explanation.  He has no connection to Modernism, would just as soon see his tax money go to mandatory sex-change operations as to contemporary museums full of earwax and soggy pillows.  If you can paint a real painting he will choose you every time over someone who magnifies the trails of dustmites or bottles flatulence or collects used toothpicks. 


And to those who counsel that the Moderns and Classicists co-exist peacefully, I ask when have the Moderns ever stopped waging war for a moment?  To counsel peace is to misunderstand the entire history of Modernism.  Modernism is the state of constant warfare.  Modernism is defined as the historical reaction against art.    A Modernist who does not attack traditions is like a shark that stops swimming.  That is what Modernism is.   It is the war and the warfare and nothing else.  Peaceful coexistence between Modernism and traditional art is like peaceful coexistence between matter and anti-matter.  It is impossible by definition. 

      In this way a request for a ceasefire can only be seen as disingenuous, at best.  “Please stop shooting while we reload.”   Certainly, I would prefer to paint or pursue other projects, rather than fight.   But this is not the world I live in.  I ask my fellow artists, what must happen before you take offense, before you draw the line and say no more?  You and your children cannot go to public school, all your institutions have been stolen, your jobs have been redefined and you have been laid off, you have been slandered and ostracized, your forefathers and friends have committed suicide, your cities have been turned into dumps and demolition sets, and not one sensible word is ever spoken about the thing you love best. 

      The time is now.  I name February 3 as the day all the groundhogs climb from their burrows and see the dark shadow.  Mark your calendar: that is the day you do something.  Start making phonecalls and sending emails now, because that is the day the world hears the “YOP!”   What you do is up to you.  Walk the block, have a committee party, write a letter and send copies to editors, congressmen, the Freemasons and the DAR.  Put up fliers.  Take a megaphone to city hall or to the museum.  Lay down in front of a “work of art.”   Take out an ad.  But talk to people, the more people the better.  On this one day, creating a work of art does not count.  You must talk to a real person, even if that real person is walking by you quickly at the mall because you are ranting.  You must get out of the house.

        And all of those reading this who are not practicing artists, your voices must be heard too.  There are more of you.  Maybe you aren’t as shy as we are.  We need your help.  Some of you have asked why art is what it is now.   It is because we have all allowed it to be.  If we want real art and real contemporary museums and real university art departments, then we must first demand them.  We must believe that art is still possible and still necessary.  There are young Michelangelos and Rembrandts out there right now waiting to be encouraged, waiting for something to do.  For so long now they have had nothing to do, nowhere to go.  They have been wasted.  As a culture it is our job to find them and set them to work.  But we must all get involved.  We must all begin to care again.

        Do you hear that Mr.Wyeth?  February 3.  I recommend TIME magazine or 60 minutes.  If you are camera shy and don’t like to write, dictate a letter.

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