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The National Portrait Competition

by Miles Mathis

by Richard Weaver

Several years ago when I was still writing for the Art Renewal Center, someone who had been posting negatively on the Goodart Forum wrote me a personal email, demanding to know “how I could work with the Republicans?” She implied that, in art, I should deal only with the left. My answer was that you can’t blame the right for the fact that the left doesn’t support realism. The right will support realism in its own way, I said, and we should be careful what we wish for when we wish the left would notice realism. The right is politically intrusive in some ways, but when the left enters the game, look out: art will be completely swallowed by politics.

Well, the left has finally decided to notice realism and portraiture, and the nightmare has begun. The avant garde is, even as we speak, engulfing realism and portraiture, hoping to coopt what everyone sees as growing markets for both. It has mobilized its million-(wo)man army of art administrators, curators, critics, historians, editors, and miscellaneous staff and the march has begun on a hundred fronts. All of New York City is afoot and abuzz, working overtime on the new job. It is only a matter of time before every possible word is written, every possible lie told. Soon the trees will be stripped bare of leaves, all fruit and flesh will be digested, and all sources of income, subsidy, or charity will be arrogated.

Nor is New York City the only headquarters. One important front opens its doors upon 8th Street in Washington, D.C. These are the doors of the National Portrait Gallery, where the new National Portrait Competition is being held. The call for entries went out in late 2004, and when I first heard about the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition my first reaction was, “At last!” But then my brain turned on again (can’t seem to keep that from happening) and I thought to ask, “Who are the judges?” When shown the list my heart sank. I said, “That’s trouble.” And once again I have been proven correct. I chose not to enter, and now that the winners have been announced, I am glad I didn’t.

But first a bit of background, both on the prize and on myself. This Portrait Competition is the first one in the US run by a national institution. It was explicitly modeled after the British Petroleum Prize given by the National Portrait Gallery in London. The Outwin Boochever offers a first prize of $25,000 plus a future commission to paint a famous person. There are also much smaller second through seventh prizes.

The BP Prize in London is worth 25,000 pounds (not including the similar commission), which is about $46,600. Considering that the US is a much larger and wealthier nation than England, it looks bad when we can muster only 53% of the support for art that they do. At least we don’t have to have an oil company’s name attached our portrait prize, but we do apparently have to have a bulky sponsor’s name. Nothing is just what it is anymore.

Since I am about to attack the left with both barrels blazing, I feel I must remind the reader once more that I am so far to the left in so many ways that I can’t stand to vote or live in the US anymore. I am an expat now living in Belgium. I am an environmentalist who used to canvas for Earth First and I still carry a Greenpeace card in my wallet. I worked for Nader in 2000 and kissed the Democrats a final goodbye for their treatment of him after that election. I am anti-growth, anti-business, I hate cars, gadgets, and all plastic. I am pro-feminist (although I have attacked some of the nastier manifestations of feminism in my writings), I am pro-Union, I think Leonard Peltier should be freed and the Native Americans should be given back large parcels of land, good land that they can hunt on. I read and admire Chomsky, and I think our foreign policy has always been no less than criminal. When the Hezbollah says it will disarm when Israel disarms, I agree with them (this despite the fact that I have many Jewish friends, think that Israel has a right to exist, and am generally pro-Jewish on other topics).

I made this list not to bring up any of these subjects for discussion or to sell myself to anyone (obviously), but only to prove that I am not any type of political conservative, by the current definition of conservative. What I am about to say about the portrait competition will cause almost everyone to label me a neocon, and I want to be sure that this is impossible from the beginning. The only conceivable way I could be called conservative is due to the fact that I think politics in art is basically misplaced. I think conservative politics in art is misplaced and, equally, I think liberal or revolutionary politics in art is misplaced. It is all shallow, inflammatory, and aesthetically offensive. Politics in art is necessarily banal, quotidian, and vulgar, and it guarantees that the art in question will have a shelf-life of no more than five years. A work of art that is political is like a newspaper or current-events post on the internet: it addresses a topic of the day and then it is justly forgotten.

This doesn’t really make me conservative, since the right doesn’t agree with me on this. The right thinks that left politics is propaganda and that right politics is truth. The left also thinks this about itself. For the left in the US, Hitler’s propaganda was propaganda, but its own propaganda is purified by being correct. But for me, art has nothing to do with politics or even truth. I don’t want to see paintings that I agree with any more than I want to see paintings I disagree with. I don’t want to see paintings that require agreement or disagreement, I don’t want to see paintings that ask me questions or that “make me think”. I do not need to be made to think. I do plenty of political thinking without being cued in infantile ways by cutesy or brutal or even earnest paintings. For me, the best art is and always has been personal, not political.

As proof of this, I remind the reader that I critiqued Tim Tyler’s painting Deconstruction from the 2005 ARC Salon for its political content, even though I agreed with his content. If Tim had just written a sentence on a piece of paper that said, “I think Warhol was a phony and I think deconstruction is usually a load of horse manure”, I would have answered, “Yeah.” But when he dressed that sentence up as silly political painting, one that had no more depth or lasting impression than that one sentence, I said I thought his effort was wasted. Writing the sentence takes ten seconds. Painting the painting took many hours. I would not pay a nickel for the sentence, but Fred Ross paid $31,000 for the painting.

All this goes to say that when I saw that most of the jurors at the National Portrait competition were upper echelon “arts professionals”, I saw a big red flag. I knew that these people had swallowed the political pill decades ago when they were in college, and that the pill had lodged in their guts, taking on more moisture with each passing year, expanding until it filled their entire thorax. By now they would be like a snake that had swallowed a sheep—just a stomach with eyes. They would see nothing but politics.

This was also true of the one artist on the panel, Sidney Goodman. Mr. Goodman was chosen as a representative of the club that includes “Lucien Freud, Duane Hanson, Alice Neel, Chuck Close, Philip Pearlstein, and Alex Katz.” Well, I don’t respect any of these people as artists, so why would I want to enter this competition? They all got famous during the heyday of Modernism and their work is defined (and in my opinion destroyed) by the politics and theory of the time. Their work was never much about their subject, it was always about their attitude toward their subject; and their attitude never had any greatness in it, on purpose. Van Gogh’s work is mostly attitude, but Van Gogh was an extraordinary man. Frida Kahlo’s work is mostly attitude, but Kahlo had greatness in her. The people listed above do not. A couple of them are vile and the rest are just boring.

This means that the art administrators who are the other jurors—who compiled this list of artists that is supposed to be impressive—must also be either vile or boring or both. I have always asked myself what kind of person could see something in an Alex Katz, and here is my answer: these people. These people see badly painted heads emptied of all emotion interesting. Carolyn Carr, Trevor Fairbrother, Brandon Fortune, Thelma Golden, Marc Pachter, and Katy Siegel think that the artists listed above are great, they think that politics in art is a requirement, and they think they are qualified to judge art despite the fact that they are not great artists. They think that it makes sense for them to judge this competition, since (as I have heard one like them say) they are “in control of our artistic future.”

I also quote this list directly from the catalog to show you not only who it contains, but who it does not contain. It does not contain any of the heroes of mainstream realism like Schmid, Leffel, Greene, Shanks, Terpning, Steinke, and so on. I am not saying they are my heroes, I am just pointing out a fact. But surely the biggest purposeful omission is Andrew Wyeth. The catalog takes some small pains to make the reader think this is a National Show, which would be an inclusive show, a bi-partisan show at the least. “Pluralism”—the latest empty theory of art—also spreads this lie of inclusion. But these administrators and judges can’t even include Wyeth in a short list of 20th century figure painters. This is a red flag that couldn’t be any taller or flap in the wind any louder.

Here are some more red flags. On page one of “About the Competition”, we are told that the jurors will focus on “innovation and excellence.” Not excellence and innovation, but innovation and excellence. That was no accident, dear reader, since one paragraph later, when all the names above are being dropped, we are told, “Freud…Katz all made innovative and compelling portraits.” In this sentence the order of adjectives makes some sense: these artists are sometimes innovative, less often compelling, and never excellent. But in both sentences we are being explicitly cued to a fact: innovation is more important than excellence. Whether you are left or right, you might ask yourself if you agree with that.

Another red flag: despite the fact that Ms. Outwin Boochever has supposedly underwritten this event, in order to attach her name to it in perpetuum, artists must still pay $25 to enter one jpeg. With over 4000 entries that comes out to receipts of over $100,000. Subtract $37,000 for total prizes, and you still have something like $65,000 in the kitty to run the show. The museum covered shipping both ways for the 50 exhibitors, but that is still only about $10,000. The museum doesn’t have to pay rent, obviously, and the museum already has a large paid staff, an advertising budget, a utilities budget and so on. It looks to me like the museum actually made about $50,000 in profit (not including catalog sales and non-jpeg entry fees, which might add another $25,000). They will say that the administrators and judges had to be paid for their time, but that is no argument. If they got paid for it, then they profited from it. They can hardly get paid and claim they did not profit from it. These competitions like to imply that this is all charity work, but art is not a charity, especially when you are charging the artists an entry fee. The National Gallery has to fill its rooms somehow, and if it is not filling them with contemporary portraits it is still paying a staff and turning on the lights and aircon with tax dollars to exhibit something. This way the administrators can administrate, get paid by taxpayers, artists, and Ms. Outwin Boochever, while making it look like art history is the big beneficiary. With administrators like these, I guarantee you that art history and artists are not the beneficiaries of anything.

For example, look at the calendar of the show. It took 10 months for these administrators to do their administrating. The deadline for entry was September 6; the show opened in July of the next year. That is astonishing. These people must have been paid by the hour. They could not have worked any slower if they were working at the post office. What I would like to see is an accounting of where all the money actually went. You can be sure that only a tithe of it went to any artists. The rest of it was gobbled up by the art administration bureaucracy.

In fact, private galleries and organizations run shows like this all the time, make a profit, and don’t require underwriting from people who might demand that their name is attached to the show. And they do it in just a couple of months. Greenhouse Gallery in San Antonio runs a yearly Salon that does most of what this National Portrait Competition does, without a major underwriter. So do the Oil Painters of America, the Portrait Society, and so on. They do this in the same way the Boochever has done it, by charging an entry fee. Their judges are of a different stripe and the prizes are a bit lower, but otherwise it is the same. The big difference is they don’t try to make it seem like the whole thing is charity, or subsidized privately or publicly. Everyone knows that it is basically a small lottery, where everyone puts some money in a hat and the winner is paid from that hat.

Make no mistake, I am not holding up these other realist shows as stellar examples of anything, except maybe efficiency. I don’t enter them either, since they are all poorly judged and full of insiders and cliques. But I will say that the attitudes, politics, and overall falseness and vulgarity of these shows pales in comparison to what we have seen at the Outwin Boochever. Anyone who imagined that the left would ride in and clean up realism, or put it on a higher or firmer ground, must now be taking anti-depressants.

If the National Gallery can’t run the show with a $100,000 hat and government provided walls and utilities, then it is probably over-administrated. Meaning that the Outwin Boochever subsidy is just a smokescreen. They needed the entry fee simply because they already spent the entire Boochever subsidy on administration, before the thing even started. Ask yourself why an exhibition like this needs seven judges, six of them non-artists. Ask yourself why it needs to pay Dave Hickey to write absurd and meaningless stuff for its catalog when it already has six other writers working as judges on the project, all of whom have proved themselves geniuses at producing absurd and meaningless art criticism.

It did all this because this show, like the rest of contemporary art, is first and foremost a make-work project for art administrators. All of contemporary art is a vast subsidy for these people. They are the beneficiaries here. One painter, David Lenz, made $25,000. That’s pretty good, but it is still small potatoes (compare it to what a private realist show—the Hubbard Award—paid to its winner ten years ago: $250,000). The rest of the artists won nothing or next to nothing. Unless they want to paint boring corporate portraits, this show will likely mean nothing to them, financially or artistically. It may be that David Lenz is not even interested in painting a famous person, for instance. The exhibition catalog asked artists to enter a work of someone close to them, but then it assumes that the winning artist will jump to paint a famous person. It will be rather embarrassing if Mr. Lenz looks at the list provided and just hands it back. Embarrassing yes, but I look forward to it, since it would be the only genuine thing connected to this whole event. The organizers want to look brave for facing Down’s Syndrome and 9-11 and so on, but they haven’t had the foresight to see that someone who enjoyed painting his son might not want to paint either Bush or Clinton or Cher or Tiger Woods.

While a couple of artists may benefit in the long run from the exposure, it is the administrators who are guaranteed the benefit. It is their salaries that are being paid here. It is their club that is the primary one, and they are the only ones that are guaranteed to be part of the next round. Wherever there is administrating or judging or writing to be done, wherever empty sentences must be concocted, wherever logic must be ignored, wherever careerism must be defended in the name of equality, they will be there, talking loudly about art for gays, art for women, art for the dispossessed, art as therapy, art as empowerment, art as relevance, art as relativity. And just as surely they will be attacking beauty, skill, talent, white males, the patriarchy, hierarchy, and the past.

Let me take the hottest sentence in that last paragraph and expand on it. I know from experience that most people on the left will purposely fail to take my meaning when I say, “art for gays, art for women. . . .” They will get huffy and say, “What do you have against gays and women?” I have nothing against gays or women. The sentence does not imply that I do. The sentence says that I have something against art for gays or for women, which is an entirely different thing. If I have something against political art, then of course I am going to have something against hot-button issues in art, whatever they are. As an analogue, I am also not interested in “art for men,” if that is taken politically. I am not for art that is “pro-male.” I simply don’t want to be preached at when I am looking at art. And I don’t want to preach when I am making art. I save my preaching for times like this. So if someone expects to be interesting just because he is gay or painting about gay rights, or because she is female and painting about feminine issues, that person is aesthetically deluded. I don’t want to look at pro-Arab art, pro-Jewish art, pro-Jesus art, or pro-Satan art. For me, political art is an oxymoron, like dry water, or cold fire. I would just as likely go to Fifth Avenue at rush hour to take a nap, or go to Oslo in winter to get a suntan, as I would go to art in order to think or be challenged. Not because I am stupid, scared, unrealized, or uneducated, but because I am capable of making distinctions that the agenda-inebriated apparently cannot make. They want politics morning, noon and night, they want to butter their bread with it and put it in their coffee and use it as a pillowcase. They want to play with it in the bathtub and mold it into a sextoy. They want to mow the lawn with it and pray to it in the cathedral. But my eyes are clear enough to see this as insanity. I like sugar and put it in my tea. But I do not put it on my pizza or in my beer. Nor do I find it liberating to redefine night as day or green as blue or sour as sweet. Politics is one thing, art is another, and only a fool would confuse the two.

Not only that, but I know that most non-indoctrinated people agree with me. Visual art, do to its forms and limitations, is suited for some things and not for others, and most people have an intuitive understanding of this. If you had to convince someone to agree with you on a given issue, in a life and death situation, in five minutes, you wouldn’t use art to do it. You would talk to them, face to face, in spoken sentences. If you had 20 minutes and couldn’t speak, you would write it down. But no matter how much time you had, you would not draw them a picture. If you did, it would surely be a sort of “Pictionary” picture, and it would not qualify as art. It would be a utilitarian scribble, with no aesthetic content, no emotional content (except maybe anxiety and impatience) and no long-term value.

Only very confused people in a very confused society would go to art to for politics, especially when they can get that politics everywhere else. It is like going into a church and expecting them to sell cigarettes, tennis balls, and slurpees. There is no hard and fast rule that says a church can’t sell slurpees and dingdongs and razorblades and lotto tickets. There is nothing in the definition of “church” that forbids it. If we all agree to it, legally and morally, then it may happen. But why turn the church into a minimart when there are already minimarts on every corner? Equally, why go to art for politics?

But this is precisely what these administrators have done to art. Take Trevor Fairbrother, one of the jurors, as an example. He is most famous for outing Sargent in his book The Sensualist. It wasn’t enough to judge Sargent as an artist; he had to be judged for his sexuality, since this was the only “left” politicization possible with Sargent. Before this book, Fairbrother never showed any interest in painting as painting or art as art, and he certainly never showed any interest in 19th century realism of any kind. He interviewed Warhol in 1987 and organized the Warhol/Beuys exhibition in Boston in 1991. Normally, those who find Warhol and Beuys fascinating are not too interested in painting as straight representation, or painting as non-pathological emotion. In fact, Fairbrother implies that until Sargent was outed he was not relevant. In her ARTnews review of the book, Patricia Failing confirms that Sargent was previously considered to be "slick, superficial, and antimodernist." Now simply by being gay he is suddenly "more complex and challenging."

That kind of thinking should be transparent and offensive to any intelligent person, whether they are gay or straight, right or left. A person should be judged irrespective of their sexuality. I thought that was one of the central tenets of the progressive movement: being non-prejudicial. Post-judging Sargent positively because he was gay is no better than pre-judging someone negatively because they are gay. Both are illogical and unethical.

Now let us go to the paintings themselves. All the awards and commendations seem to have been awarded more to the accompanying blurbs than to the paintings. The first blurb, by the artist David Lenz, is about Down’s Syndrome and it ends with this: “He [the artist’s son Sam, subject of the painting] really does have an important message for everyone to hear.” That message is that “perfection is overrated.” Another part of that message is that we should shun “models and supermodels” (not just models or supermodels, notice, but both) for being “tall and impossibly fit”. Another is that the boy is the “tutor” in this “revealing examination of this civilization man has made for himself.”

The well mannered people of the past may have been mistaken in any number of critical ways, but one thing they understood is what poor taste it must seem to use your own challenged son to score points with a jury. I was left thinking that the artist requires only a tear-inducing soundtrack and he has an Oprah show.

If I resist being tutored by critics and other experts, none should be surprised that I resist being tutored on “civilization” by five year olds or their manipulative fathers. This civilization that man has made for himself certainly requires a load of examining, but even when the examination is over and everyone is in perfect harmony, parents are still going to hope their children are not born with Down’s Syndrome. It is just delusional to suggest otherwise.

Given the complaint of the artist, the question is, what can be done? The suggestion contained in the blurb is that because a couple of people at the hospital where Sam was born were insensitive, we should hate models and supermodels for being tall, fit and beautiful (and, by extension, I assume, anyone else who is tall, fit or beautiful), look askance at people who want to solve problems (since they want a “perfectable” world) and re-examine all of civilization. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to get the nurse fired, tell the nosy neighbor to bugger off, and get on with it? Besides, the nurse and nosy neighbor are ignorant and presumptuous because they are imperfect. Dad can overlook his son’s imperfections, but the imperfections of nurses and ignorant neighbors cannot be forgiven. This blurb only looks warmhearted and accepting until you unravel it a bit. As an example of psychology it is just a little note of veiled aggression. These jurors are masters of deconstruction when it suits them, but when they want an easy tear they are dense as lead.

Beyond that, I question the authenticity of the backstory. This artist, Mr. Lenz, claims that a nurse asked him if he was going to keep the child. Where was this hospital? Auschwitz? Is he suggesting that she was suggesting he had another option? People can be insensitive, and nurses especially, but this takes some believing. True or not, I can see why Mr. Lenz is angry, but do the comments of a nurse and a neighbor, whatever they were, really merit calling into question all of civilization? On a smaller scale, do they merit an attack on clothes that are “stylish and wrinkle-free”? And do they merit attacking supermodels for “being tall and impossibly fit?”

First of all there is no such thing as being impossibly fit. Mr. Lenz’ adjectives are as imprecise as his argument. But why attack anyone for being fit? I don’t like supermodels much, but it has nothing to do with their beauty or their fitness. It has to do with the fact that many of them are shallow and vulgar, never smile, party all the time and vacuum up drugs, and help sell loads of stuff nobody needs. But this is a problem with fashion and advertising in general, and it would be true even if models suddenly became short, ugly, and impossibly flabby. Short ugly flabby people can be shallow and vulgar, too, and I would flee them for the same reason. This is the rational reason to flee supermodels. No sensible person attacks people for being beautiful or fit. It is like attacking the sun for shining. You might as well attack children for having perfect skin or attack gorillas for being so strong or attack puppies for having such soft hair. “Aargh, those damned puppies! They are so soft and cuddly. Now no one ever wants to pet me, just because I am big and bald and mean. There must be something wrong with civilization!” I suspect that Mr. Lenz included this gratuitous attack on models to score points with the women on the jury. He did the math and touched all the right bases. Everyone knows that the supermodel is neo-feminist enemy number one, just ahead of Hugh Hefner, George Bush, and Adolph Hitler.

[To look at this issue upside down, consider another portrait in the competition, the burn victim Shayla, by Doug Auld. Mr. Auld tells us that Shayla is a cheerleader. Remind yourself that that would be the kiss of death for anyone else. Cheerleaders are like supermodels and beauty queens. If Mr. Auld had painted a non-burn victim looking all teenaged and perky, and told us she was a cheerleader, the jurors would have thrown the jpeg into the recycle bin with maximum force.]

Finally, we don’t really know anything about Mr. Lenz and his relationship with his son. It is private and probably should have remained private, as far as art goes. If the boy were really the shaman his father presents him as, he might ask that he not be made into a poster child. He might be humiliated to know that he is being given extra credit, bonus points, for his syndrome. As it is all we have is a blurb. For all we know his father was screaming obscenities at him in between photographs. When judging personalities, a jury is taking everything on faith. When you judge art as art, it doesn’t matter who the artist is, but when you judge art as politics, when you require all paintings to arrive with blurbs, you are wholly dependent on the artist’s story. If he is making a hero out of himself or his subject, you have nothing to go on but his word.

Second place went to my friend Yuqi Wang, who I consider to be a great painter. But his blurb still bothers the hell out me. He ties the painting to 9-11 and I am absolutely sure that is why he got recognized by these jurors. If he had said that the painting depicted his wife and him hiding their post-coital nakedness from the Fuji blimp, he wouldn’t have won a thing. Yuqi sent me a jpeg of that painting in 2005 and he never mentioned it had anything to do with 9-11. Now I have had to go look closely in photoshop, where I see the little mirror with the fire and all that. Damned disappointing, since I liked the painting better without the blurb. As it is, he might just as well have drawn a little arrow from the mirror to his head with the caption, “Place this thought here.”

Yuqi is still the master of technique: he puts most other realists to shame. But honestly I like his old work better. Black Grass and Year of the Dog and Kora and so on are among the finest paintings of the last century, in my opinion. But his new work, with all the self-portraits and pieced-together allegories, feels claustrophobic. He needs to get out of his studio and out of his head a bit more, I think. He needs some fresh inspiration, some new things to love. I can’t stand to see him join all the other victims, sharing their pain, bearing witness to one another’s tragedies.

Yuqi isn’t really in that club yet, of course. The political content of his painting here is pretty subtle compared to most of the other finalists. But he is inching in that direction, and I really hate to see it. Great art was never about that.

Which brings up another fine point that I can afford to hit here only in passing. When I say that great art was never about victimhood, people tend to throw Van Gogh at me as a counterexample, as the first painter of modern angst. But these people need to look again at the paintings and re-read the letters. Van Gogh was no precursor to this vein of tragedy and bearing witness, this exhibit-your-symptom art. He was painting the things he loved, because he loved them. This was true early on with his paintings of Sien, the Potato Eaters, and other peasants, and it was still true near the end with the fruit trees, the muddy boots, the chair with pipe, the sunflowers, the night sky, and his neighbors. Vincent had more than enough pain and tragedy and heartbreak to justify “painting angry” or painting as a reaction, but he never went that road. He was always looking for transcendence, for meaning. If you can’t see that clearly from his paintings, go to his letters where he says it outright. He was never interested in art as therapy or complaint or activism. It was a substitute religion for him, and as such was too important to use as a political tool or as a simple signboard.

Or go back to Michelangelo, who lived through 11 Popes, the sack of Rome, the burning of Savonarola, and many personal privations and tragedies. He was even lonelier than Van Gogh, since Vincent only had to suffer through 37 years, whereas Michelangelo lived to be 87, most of it alone. Nonetheless, Michelangelo never devolved into an artist of tragedies or horrors or private complaint. Like Van Gogh, he wasn’t just painting or sculpting kittens or sunsets in order to create some idealized perfect world; but he wasn’t painting gratuitous violence or brutality, either. When he was painting battles early on, it wasn’t to make a political statement, it was to paint nude men. And when painting the horrors of hell later on, as in the Last Judgment, the pain was tied to universal order. It was the pain of punishment for sin. It was justice. This kind of order may not make sense to many people now, but my point is that Michelangelo was not a chronicler of horrors in the modern sense. Contemporary brutalities are thrown in our faces as proof that the world does not work, or that life does not make sense. The brutalities of Michelangelo or Bosch or Matthias Grunewald or Ribera or even Goya were presented as pieces in a mythology that ultimately justified itself. That is why Odd Nerdrum’s fake mythology doesn’t work: the brutality doesn’t find a place in any greater schema. It is manufactured and gratuitous. And that is why all this politics and angst and pathology on display in contemporary art—and at this competition—does not mean a thing. It is existentially, morally, and aesthetically unimpressive in every way.

None of these works of art, including Yuqi’s, make us feel better (or even worse) about any iniquity or inequity. There is nothing we can do about any of them, so all we end up doing is crawling deeper under the covers. The bad feeling we get from the art is just lumped on top of all the other bad feelings, and we are basically kicked a step closer to depression. Classical tragedy understood the necessity of catharsis, of some release, either from resolution or by creating the idea that some specific response was possible. But modern art forbids any release, since that would be too easy. That would be inauthentic. And no response can be suggested, since that would be faschistic.

In this way, modern art is actually not progressive. Progress requires a path, and modernism provides no path. All paths have been purposely dug up, as limiters of freedom. The famous artists of the 20th century were destroyers and deconstructors. They didn’t believe in progress of any kind, not for the left or right. The whole idea of progress was “proved” to be a naïve child’s toy, which is why it is difficult for me to understand why the left has embraced modernism. Even our winner here, Mr. Lenz, is telling us that the world is not perfectable. He implies that what we should seek is acceptance (which used to be called resignation), not solutions. How, exactly, can that idea be tied to progressive politics? How can people who do not believe in progress claim to be activists? Activism limited to acceptance and tolerance is not terribly active. It might be called “inactivism”, since it would tend to encourage stasis. We become more resigned to the dandelions and wrinkles and birth defects. Stasis is synonymous with conservatism, so that it is a mystery to me why the left considers itself progressive. Progress is achieved by people who do not accept the way things are and do not tolerate the major glitches in the system. Their reaction is to fix those glitches. That is what true liberalism and progressive politics implies and must imply.

That was not the quickest fine point I have ever made, but there it is. Now on to the third place winner, Nuno de Campos. I knew when I saw the list of jurors that this was the kind of thing we would get, but it still made my blood boil when I saw it. This painting was chosen entirely on the blurb, which states, “My paintings acknowledge the impossibility of ever fully defining a person in an image.” Yes, that is doubly true when you don’t paint the head of the person, and triply true when you can’t paint any other part of the body without making it look like plastic. Mr. de Campos also talks a lot about Guernica and Picasso and Iraq and Colin Powell and so on, but I am not even going to comment on that since none of it comes together into an attackable idea. It is just a lot of capitalized words thrown in a pot and presented to the judges. The artist must have grabbed the New York Times and started clipping names. Given more space I am sure he could have worked in supermodels and 9-11 and Al Qaeda and the holocaust.

Mr. de Campos is the prize winner that shows how utterly hostile the jurors really are towards portraiture and realism. It was as close to a white canvas as they could get without waking Ms. Outwin Boochever from the grave. This is the big middle finger, the grand taking a piss, the giant flabby moon directed at realism and portraiture. If you hired the Ku Klux Klan to judge the NAACP awards, this is the kind of thing you would get. The Klan would be very amused in that situation, I am sure, and the administrators here are on a par with the Klan in that regard. They are entrusted by their sponsor and by the government and by the American people to organize a portrait competition, they create a website that claims they are taking all this seriously, they take money from thousands of people, and then they choose portraits that aren’t portraits. Two of the other finalists, Jenny Morgan and Jenny Kanzler, are in the same category, since neither painting has a human head in it. I think there are grounds for a class-action lawsuit here, since the $25 entry fee was taken under false pretenses, with false advertising, and with malice. Unfortunately I can’t file that lawsuit myself, but if you entered I encourage you to do so.

I will also point out that sculptors were lied to here. Of 51 finalists, only two were sculptors, and the two chosen were clearly chosen just to take a piss. If these jurors didn’t want any sculpture, they should have just said so. I suppose they will ask for pastels in 2009 and show only watercolors, or something equally amusing and poignant.

The levels of transparent toadyism were also astonishing in this competition. Sam Messer entered a portrait of the photographer William Eggleston, which allowed him to drop a ton of names in his blurb as well as to cite two books he has published. He should really stick to writing books and kissing up to famous people, since he can’t draw or paint to save his life. Paul Oxborough, Brenda Zlamany, and Kathleen Gilje are much better painters, but they too are here mainly to shine shoes and lick boots. It is clear that they read the prospectus closely beforehand (see the list I quoted above). Mr. Oxborough chose Chuck Close from the list and Ms. Zlamany chose Alex Katz. But Ms. Gilje won the limbo contest, since she is completely prostrate before Robert Rosenblum (who happens to be the curator at the Guggenheim). We find from her blurb that she had the brilliant idea to create a whole exhibition of critics and curators, so she wins the brown-nose award hands down. The only way she can be surpassed in 2009 is if someone paints himself with his head literally up Lucien Freud’s bazoo.

I would like to thank Richard Weaver, Marita Dingus, William Lawrance, and Robert Bauer for refusing to provide a blurb. That was refreshing. I actually liked Mr. Weaver’s painting, which was subtle, honest, with a strong mood. It was also very well-painted, without any gratuitous tricks or clever sidelights. I would like to see it again when it is not surrounded by so much spiritual noise. As it was it was difficult to concentrate, like trying to read love sonnets while being strafed with machine-gun fire.

I will also mention two portraits that did not vex me in any way. Armando Dominguez and Laura Karetsky both acted like true artists with their entries, although Ms. Karetsky should have gone the way of the others and ditched the blurb. It was not offensive, it was just pointless. Mr. Dominguez’ blurb also added nothing to his work, but it was straightforward and sincere and did no harm.

Now for the conclusion. Not just a wrap-up, but a resolution. An old-fashioned suggestion for a solution, a pathway of progress. For I really am a progressive. I am also an activist. I am not an activist at the easel, but remember my bio: I have been active on many issues, and art is now my main issue. Unfortunately, as the script has unfolded, it has turned out to be my activism against everyone elses, since they have stolen my sacred cow and are using her as a signboard. They also require that I use her as a signboard, or I won't be in the club. Well so be it.

I don’t believe in resignation or acceptance; I believe in doing better. I also believe in fighting back, and I only count the heads of my enemies with the point of my spear. I don't have an agenda, I have a mission. I am a berzerker. Like Van Gogh, I say, "What is it to me whether my chance is slight or great? . . . One loves because one loves." My mission concerns demanding autonomy for artists. We cannot produce good work when we have non-artists and artist-poseurs making rules for us, telling us we must be relevant or must be political or must make people think or must do this or that to impress them. I can decide what subject to paint and how to paint it without any help from critics and curators, and so can you. If politics or history or religion or narrative informs art in a normal artistic way, fine, but it should not be a requirement. In fact, we should be very wary of all these categories, since, as the 20th century has shown, they tend to corrupt art. They tend to take over, like weeds in a garden, choking everything else out.

Furthermore, artists are fully capable of defining art without the help of outsiders. We did it for ten thousand years, and art was always healthier when the artist tended his own field.

Van Gogh knew this, too. Early in his letters to Theo, he quoted Zola's le triomphe de la mediocrite, and added that we have "Snobs, nobodies come in the place of workers, thinkers, artists, and it isn't even noticed." That is what this review has been about: I have noticed. I have noticed, and I believe that this is the most critical information for activists to give to the world. This is the central fact that must be told in the political fight for art. Not any of this misdirection about acceptance, tolerance, tragedy, or victimhood. That is just propaganda in support of an entrenched priesthood of fakes and phonies. They wrap themselves in the flag and in every sort of shallow populism as a form of protection. "You wouldn't hit a man who uses his challenged son as a shield, would you?" The bathos is transparent beyond any imagining.

For the simple fact is that all the professed heroes of the left would never stop wretching if they saw to what depths art had sunk. Forget Van Gogh. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo would be violently opposed to what the avant garde has now become. They would be firing shots into the walls of the museum, screaming and punching to make themselves understood. They didn't spend a lifetime defending and creating art so that it could be coopted by critics and curators.

Look at what is happening in Mexico even as I write this. The Mexicans still have some hot blood left in them: unlike the frigid and inactive Americans they do not put up with having elections stolen. Nor would they put up with having art stolen and embalmed and turned into nihilistic weepings or scary and repulsive photorealism or obsequious homages to overlords.

So read this review as direct action, action with the mighty pen. And I encourage other artists to act. Perhaps the action suggested most strongly here is refusing to enter contests juried by critics and curators and other administrators. They are death to art, no matter whether the people involved are mainly right or left. They coopt art for their own purposes, spend all the available money on themselves and their friends, and suck everyone dry of inspiration. They tell you to resist your own impulses, which is great for them since they can then transplant their own impulses into you. Once you start down their road you are lost, for all reward is focused on those who play by their rules. And since they are not artists, their rules will be the rules of non-artists. They will be more interested in theory and politics and writing. They will ask for blurbs, since they can’t really see what it is a painting without a verbal cue. They will ask for political content, since they don’t understand what artistic content is. They will deconstruct art and jettison all your conventions, since they don’t know what they are for. They will break all your toys with a chuckle, since they didn’t buy them, can’t work them, and can’t comprehend them. And if you fail to see the humor in having all your talents sat upon and all your achievements smashed or ignored, they will dust off their debating tricks and blame you for being self-centered—as if the nerd should smile and thank the bully for bullying him.

Besides not giving these people any opportunity to gain power through you, you can also respond. You can write letters. Go over their heads. The National Gallery is a public institution funded in large part by tax dollars. Write to the director and tell him or her that this show was grossly mismanaged, financially and artistically. And go even higher. Write to Congress and tell them the same thing.

I am also serious about a lawsuit. Even if you don’t get anywhere with it legally you might still get publicity by filing it. You don’t have to win, you just have to get it into the papers.

You could also write to the descendents of Ms. Outwin Boochever. It may be that one of them can see that the show is contemptuous of her wishes. They may revoke the sponsorship or sue to have the sponsorship discontinued, based on failure to abide by the charter.

Point out to all concerned that it will only get worse. If these jurors think they have gotten away with this, then in 2009 we will have “portraits” of potatoes and dead people and roadkill and stick figures and cartoon characters and Barbie dolls and toilet seats. You know I am right. Perhaps the only reason we didn’t get that this time is that Ms. Outwin Boochever was still alive as late as Christmas, 2005.

But perhaps the most important thing you can do is paint and sculpt great portraits and figures, no matter what the clueless everywhere demand. Don’t ever accept that beauty is over, or greatness, or epic pieces, or subtlety, or talent, or depth. This portrait competition tried to convince its audience that “everyone is an artist”. But that is another lie. Many will find some solace or meaning in creation, but, like any other action, only some will be capable of high achievement. Hierarchies will be created and they must be respected, lest the field become degenerate. This is not a regressive belief or a return to aristocracy; it is a fact of life and of every field of endeavor. Opportunity must be equal; achievement cannot be.

The only way to discover the full extent of your capabilities is to air them out. But you cannot do this if you are being sat on. If you have accepted that greatness or talent or high achievement is a myth or a social construct or an aggressive act or an unfair advantage, then you are being sat on. If you have accepted that there is something wrong with health or beauty or depth or subtlety or skill, then you are being sat on. If you accept that there is something wrong with being tall, you will never raise your eyes to the sky or lift your arms over your head in elation. If you accept that there is something wrong with being fit, you will never run ‘til your lungs burn and your spirit flies. If you accept that “all that is over”, as the critics have told us about great painting, then all that is over. If you don’t, then it is not.

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