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Contra Hockney

by Miles Mathis

David Hockney

It would be permissible to imagine an antithetical condition,
a specific anti-artisticality of instinct—a mode of being
which impoverishes and attenuates things and makes them consumptive.
And history is in fact rich in such anti-artists, in such starvlings of
life, who necessarily have to take things to themselves, impoverish them, make them leaner. —Nietzsche

As part of the international movement to discredit and disprove the assertions of David Hockney, I am this week publishing at ARC an old letter I sent to several magazines back when the issue had just begun to surface in the media. I believe it was January 2000 when the New Yorker ran its first review of the theory. ARTnews followed soon thereafter, and then the Smithsonian. I sent letters to all three magazines, as well as to 60 Minutes when they ran an episode on it several years later. The letters were almost identical. Below is the one to Smithsonian.

It is not necessary to look for historical evidence for or against David Hockney's theories. Simply, if a living artist could do what Hockney believes can't be done (draw quickly, accurately, and fluidly without the aid of devices; enlarge or reduce at will; transfer three dimensions to two with an innate understanding of perspective), his theory could be put to rest. If I can do it, why not Caravaggio or Ingres? I challenge Mr. Hockney to a public draw-off, with a Smithsonian cameraman to record it for posterity. If your readers are really interested in the role talent played in the past, and not just in Mr. Hockney's futile attempts to raise himself to the level of the Old Masters—or lower them to his—this would be a thing to sell tickets to.
      But I have my doubts. Anyone who considered the question seriously for a moment would see that the artists of Modernism were picked because they couldn't draw. Art Moderne is not about that anymore. It is about theory and politics and, most of all, promotion. You assume that if someone with the skill of Vandyck or Sargent were out there now, you would know of it. But you know of what the curators and critics want you to know of. Talent like that is not properly inclusive, properly democratic: a transcendent art, an art of elevation, only makes the modern man feel bad, as Mr. Hockney makes clear. I always find it amusing, even in my relative poverty, that the rich and famous are kept up at night by the truth. But I can't allow Mr. Hockney to air his denial at the expense of my "great forefathers" without speaking out.

I remain amazed that prominent editors cannot see the psychological transparency of Mr. Hockney's public disintegration. He is supposed to be an artist. An artist creates things of beauty or depth or subtlety or power. Because he has not been able to do this in his long career, he has finally stooped to the level of attacking other people's creations. He has joined Duchamp, who could not bear the fact that the public remained more interested in the Old Masters than in him; so he set out to bring them down to his level. Destroy the past. Then they must look at your work, no matter how pathetic. It is absolutely infantile, and yet there seems to be a large constituency for such envy, and it apparently includes many of high rank in art and publishing.
      I suggest you look again at the book Mr. Hockney has offered us on this matter, at great expense to some foolish publisher. Mr. Hockney's own examples of what he was able to create, given all these cheating tricks, are ludicrous. My talented friends and I had quite a laugh, especially on the page where he was deluded enough to put Old Master drawings on one page, and his drawings (done with lenses) on the facing page.

You claim in your header that Mr. Hockney has made a "bold" discovery. I fail to see any boldness in attacking one's ancestors and superiors. In fact, it is so pusillanimous as to be almost beyond belief. If it had not already been a staple of the avant garde agenda since the beginning—this resentment—I don't think anyone would believe it. As it is, the art public has become accustomed to its own supine position.
      You don't have to accept my claims of talent. Simply go to any advanced art class, in any large city. You will see artists drawing from live models, without aids of any kind, doing things far beyond what Mr. Hockney is able to achieve with lenses, photos, or even projection. Great art requires much more than this sort of extreme hand-eye coordination, but this ability lives on even now—and it remains our only hope for great visual art in the future.
      In fact I beg you to go to such a class and do a story on the abilities shown there. A story like that would be vastly more useful to young artists and to the public, and more interesting at the same time. Art History is already at a nadir: it cannot benefit from more selfish "deconstruction." What is required is re-construction.

I had expected this post-modern sour-grapes attitude from ARTnews, and even from the New Yorker (both have already reported on Mr. Hockney's de-evolution into the critic). But I was disappointed to find Smithsonian leaping onto the bandwagon. Do get off. It is not a place you want to be, historically.

Signed, Miles Mathis

I received a reply from the author of the New Yorker article in February 2000. He said he had gotten many similar letters, all of which he had forwarded to Hockney. I never heard from Hockney, of course. I didn’t expect a reply. You must understand that Hockney has no interest in giving any time to the opposition. He easily found all the promotion and support he required from the media and from the other avant garde institutions. He has nothing to gain by responding to realists. Imagine if he did show up at a draw off, and was made to look like the phony talentless bastard he is. He has everything to lose and we have everything to gain. He will never ever be seen next to a realist, will never talk to a realist or about a realist, will never publicly discuss contemporary realism. The last thing the avant garde wants to do is legitimize an artist like me by taking anything I say seriously. They are the masters of spin, and such politically savvy people know that the best offense is a good defense. The absolute best defense is ignoring your opposition completely. Don’t give them any media time, because that would be deadly. The avant garde knows that the public is potentially a dangerous ally for realism, and that the tide can turn on them in an instant. They fear nothing more than this turn, which we all know is inevitable. It may not play out like any of us imagines it, but the avant garde knows that their days are numbered, one way or the other. In fact, they have believed the end is imminent for decades. They are as incredulous as we are that it has lasted as long as it has (see, for example, Robert Hughes’ comments). Hockney’s book was a last minute attempt to suck a few more dollars out of the pap of ignorance and gullibility. No one should be surprised that it succeeded.
      But it can be only a temporary fix, a thumb in the dam. For the avant garde sealed its own doom long ago by arguing that the past did not matter. Who cares, they said, what the Old Masters did? That was then, this is now. As moderns, we are concerned with existence not essence. Tradition means nothing—tradition is dead. That is the postulate that all of Modernism stands upon. Which is fine by me, because now I can remind them of it. I can drop my opinions and beat them with their own. I can say, who cares whether the Old Masters cheated? The Old Masters are a dead letter. It is all illustration and aristocracy anyway, so the use of lenses is moot. The question is, what can you do, now? What paintings is Hockney giving the world? The answer: none. He is too busy groveling in the dirt, crying into his small beer that the old dead guys cheated him. They drew better with or without lenses than him and his pals. Boo-hoo.
      What has the avant garde given us for our daily bread? For our existence? Nothing. Empty boxes, empty expressions, empty concepts, empty theory. The mathematical null set. Many decades ago, in a Europe full to bursting with art and artifacts, this emptiness at first seemed novel and refreshing, like a walk in the empty fields after a night in the big city. The Victorians and 19th century Europeans felt weighted down with centuries of art—their homes and public buildings were crammed with so many beautiful objects they could not walk a straight line. Thank god, they thought, for Duchamp (and his theoretical comrades) who will not add to this mess. He will play chess and leave us be. He will point to the urinal and tell us to worship the beauty of that.

But now, after a century of Duchamps and Hockneys, our homes are empty of beauty, our public buildings are empty, our plazas are empty. Everything, from our bedrooms to our town squares, is ugly. We have a few childish assemblages littering the open spaces, but no art. And we begin to look at the art of the past with longing. We go to the little unbombed villages of Europe and we see what the world used to be. Everything crafted with care and design, from the cathedral to the pump handle. We Americans are especially vulnerable to this longing; the Europeans at least have the past to fall back on. We have nothing. Entire cities are devoid of anything beautiful. The old architecture of New York and Boston gives some respite, but these cities are nothing compared to Paris, Rome, Prague, Copenhagen, Budapest, Vienna, etc. And even the quaintest New England township seems pinched and Shakerish compared to the small towns of Europe, where every view down every street is a potential painting.

The avant garde has nothing to offer in this direction. It can satisfy no longing, neither high nor low, neither for kitsch nor for poetry. It will not speak to sentiment of any kind, learnéd or unlearnéd. For the avant garde, Shakespeare is absolutely equivalent, in theory, to a Hallmark card, and they will have none of it. For them, Beethoven is only kitsch waiting to fall. William and Ludwig probably cheated somehow anyway, since no one can be that good.
      Even if they wanted to, the moderns could not compete in the effort to supply the world with somethings instead of nothings. Poor Hockney makes this clear, struggling to master the camera lucida, that he might finally produce a something, magically, out of his nothingness. But the real theorists of the avant garde know in their heart of hearts that Hockney made a terrible mistake in writing about the Old Masters. In taking the enemy seriously. In betraying his secret longing. In trying to draw. In the heyday of modernism, talking about drawing was like looking at the sun. Verboten. Only children and mental patients thought drawing was important. Concern with technique was the sign of the provincial, the uneducated, the amateur. In this sense, Hockney’s book is both the last gasp and the first fatal error. It is the sign of the end, one way or the other.

Go to my 2009 paper A Return to the Hockney-Falco Thesis for more on this.

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