never be the same
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?”
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
hear that Mr.Wyeth? February
I recommend TIME
magazine or 60
If you are camera shy and don’t like to write, dictate a
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